Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy set in the mythical land of Westoros and broadcast on HBO. But since it is mythical and a fantasy, what can it teach us about history?
Dragons and mysterious white-walkers aside, the people look a lot like us, or us in an earlier period. Some people might assume that they are like us, just in a different time and place. But they aren’t. They dress differently. Their language isn’t quite the same. The things they seem to find acceptable in everyday life are almost appalling. Their belief systems are completely different. Their caste system seems very foreign. If you know anything about medieval history, you see that their sense of chivalry and the designs of their armor aren’t quite right.
And that is the point. People who are unfamiliar with history, whose exposure to it has been limited to general survey courses in high school or college, often mistakenly project their views and beliefs onto people of a different age. It does not matter if that age was fifty years ago or fifteen hundred years ago. Society, culture, and even religions change over time. Nothing is constant. Projecting our understanding of the world and how it should operate onto our antecedents is ahistorical and leads us to the wrong conclusions about them and about ourselves.
Passing judgment on a slaveholder in colonial Virginia is as ahistorical as “knowing” what the Founders and Framers would think of modern America. Neither is a subject of consideration for someone with a historical perspective, and both were the products of their own time. There is no slave holding in the United States anymore because we outgrew that mindset, albeit very painfully and we are still dealing with the impact of the institution. Also, there is absolutely no way anyone can know how Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or James Madison would react to our political climate and the state of the government they founded.
None of them were deeply religious men. Jefferson rewrote the Bible to fit a Deist’s vision of a rational world, offering it as a guide for personal behavior without any miracles or message about an afterlife. Washington as President and Commander in Chief led the largest force he ever commanded in the field against tax protestors in Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. Franklin had a brilliant mind and penchant for beautiful women. Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, was a passionate defender of personal liberty while being a captive of his times as one of the many Founders and Framers who was a slaveholder.
We owe a tremendous debt to those who preceded us, wherever they were in the world. All of them contributed to who and what we are today in some small way, and their stories and the analysis of their times can be just as engaging as the best fiction you have ever read. Just remember, they are as least as different from us as those characters you watch on Game of Thrones, and in many ways even more so.