Weird History

What History Books To Read To Scratch That 'Game of Thrones' Itch

It's no secret that HBO's Game of Thrones draws heavily from historical sources, just like the books on which the show is based. George R.R. Martin has been vocal about acknowledging his influences, from the Wars of the Roses to Hadrian's Wall in Scotland. These historical sources lend the show and books authority and authenticity.

But historical sources do more than just provide period detail. The broad canvas of European history provides more shocking clashes, more twists and turns, and more thrilling moments than Martin could hope to fit in a hundred books. For example, the infamous Red Wedding is based on two historical incidents: the Massacre at Glencoe and the Black Dinner. While Martin did an admirable job of situating these moments within his overall narrative and applying them to characters we care about, the dark fascination of the real events is hard to top.

With HBO's show finished, and Martin's next novel coming... sometime, many Thrones fans are looking for something to fill the dragon-shaped hole in their lives. Rather than diving into one of the hundreds of fantasy-literature knock-offs, why not go straight to the source with the real history behind Game of Thrones?

  • George R.R. Martin has repeatedly said that the core of his opus was inspired by the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster (the references are not subtle) known as the Wars of the Roses. It would be insulting to historians to try to describe the dizzying complexity of this conflict in a sentence or two, but broadly speaking, the Lancasters and Yorks often make the Lannisters and Starks look tame.

    For a deeper dive into this period, one of the most highly regarded sources is Alison Weir's The Wars of the Roses. It is a breakdown of the conflict that perfectly balances historical research with compulsive readability. One of the greatest challenges of any historical subject with this level of complexity is making sure that individual characters don't get lost in the shuffle, and Publishers Weekly says the book's "dark, glorious pageant restores the personal dimension to an oft-told tale." It's the perfect book to recapture and better understand how two wealthy, noble families might completely ruin each other in a fight for the crown.

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  • One of the pleasures of a show like Game of Thrones is watching a massive conflict unfold over time. Each battle, each traitorous turn, each alliance, all snowballing and leading into open conflict and invasion. Seeing how minor political decisions by Danaerys Targaryan influence the conflict in Westeros gives us a sense of a cohesive world in which actions have broad-ranging consequences.

    In a similar vein, Shelby Foote's three-volume epic about the American Civil War tracks the political maneuvering that led to the outbreak of the Civil War and all its dire consequences. To understand how we got to such pivotal moments as Fort Sumter, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the surrender at Appomattox, Foote traces the whole of the conflict without sacrificing either historical accuracy or personal details. The full title of the work is The Civil War: A Narrative and, just like Martin, Foote focuses on the flow of the story, keeping his reader engaged through a daunting 2,968 pages.

    A side note: If that page count seems like too much of a commitment, James McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is generally considered the best single-volume treatment of the Civil War, while the ongoing Civil War Podcast treats the topic with a level of detail that even Foote didn't have the space to equal.

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  • Although Game of Thrones is in many ways an unprecedented phenomenon, it does have something in common with prestige TV hits that preceded it like Breaking Bad: It's all about tension. There are thrilling battles, narrow escapes, and dangerous situations, and sometimes that's just in the course of one episode.

    In American history, few months packed as many major turning points into 31 days as April 1865. The fall of Richmond, the surrender Lee's troops, the demise of Lincoln, the beginning of demobilization and reconstruction, and chaos in the capital - all of this unfolded in a few astonishing weeks. However, in terms of pure nail-biting tension, the most gripping event was the flight of John Wilkes Booth from Washington to his last stand in a barn in Virginia. This frantic 12-day chase is the subject of James L. Swanson's Manhunt, which The Boston Globe called "As gripping as any tightly scripted crime drama." Like Jaime Lannister, Booth is a compelling but villainous protagonist who faces the consequences of slaying a king (or president).

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  • There's one respect in which history, generally speaking, cannot match fantasy: the supernatural. Alongside Game of Thrones's medieval-era battles and political intrigues are dragons, magic spells, and zombie hordes that you won't find in your average history text. Go back far enough, though, and history and myth blur together, with historians weaving tales no less fantastic than a giant winged lizard that breathes fire.

    The ancient Greek writer Herodotus, for example, is known as the Father of History, but his methods weren't quite up to the standards of modern scholarship. He wrote of dog-sized ants in India, which dug up gold that the Indians would take home. He also wrote of Babylon's mighty walls in impossibly grandiose terms: "Such is the size of the city of Babylon, and it has a magnificence greater than all other cities of which we have knowledge. In the circuit of the wall there are set a  hundred gates made of bronze."

    Babylon did not have 100 bronze gates, but it does remind one of the mighty cities on the eastern continent of Essos in Game of Thrones. Herodotus's numerous other embellishments include mentions of Cyclopes and Griffins - inventions that would not be out of place in Westeros.

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