Why on earth would someone like me, who makes her career out of historical facts, harbour a guilty fixation on a swords-and-sorcery fantasy like Game of Thrones? Because the central matter is the genuine stuff of history, strange but familiar, with the appalling unpredictability of life. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the Roman empire is doomed, that the Plantagenets will be wiped out, that the lottery of fertility will defeat Katherine of Aragon, her daughter Bloody Mary, and her rival Anne Boleyn, and that Elizabeth I will triumph.
But what if we didn’t know the outcome? Who to bank on? Who to care about? Watching Game of Thrones, I don’t know who will be slaughtered, or who will benefit from ruthlessness and thrive. And that, as they say, is history.
Which is not to say that the dead hand of historical accuracy weighs the show down. Quite the reverse. It’s a glorious pick and mix of place and period. Generally we seem to be in the High Middle Ages, with castles, knights and honour code, amid a War of the Roses-style struggle for the Iron Throne. Yet there’s a hefty dose of Tudor court intrigue, a Dark Ages mood at sea, a dash of Roman Britain to the north and a sexy Genghis Khan to the south. Spotting the parallels is a favourite geek game for history buffs.
Classical historian Tom Holland has written delightedly of the historical pot pourri. “When Robert Baratheon succumbs to a plot hatched by his beautiful queen, Cersei, who then rules the kingdom on behalf of her son, it’s hard not to be reminded of Isabella, the wonderfully nicknamed ‘she-wolf of France’, who similarly dealt with her own husband, Edward II.” For historian of Russia Daniel Beer, the brutal civil war between the dynasties can be likened to the early 17th-century Time of Troubles.