Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War by Ken Mondschein
Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War (2017), by Ken Mondschein, is just what he himself labels it: “an entire book on the rather nerdy and troublesome subject of how medieval warfare is reflected in a fantasy book series.” It’s also an extremely informative and often entertaining one, and in addition does the service of “rebut [ting] the pop-culture Middle Ages as a Jurassic World of resurrected straight white male barbarians out of a Frazetta painting.” Whether you’re a fan of the TV series or of medieval-era fantasy, an aspiring writer of said fantasy, or someone interested in delving into the actual history, Mondschein offers up an erudite and well-written book to meet your needs, one that hits a welcome sweet spot on the spectrum from academia to popular writing.
The chapters include ones on knights and chivalry, armor, weapons, fighting styles, fighting in the form of wars, duels, and tournaments, wartime economics, women warriors, the intersection of conquest and culture, and a listing/description of various medieval atrocities. Each of these covers both the presentation of the subject in the series and their actual historical reality, including handling relatively complex topics of culture and economics, and cause and effect. In doing so, Mondschein draws on not only his academic expertise (and lots of primary source materials), but also on his personal experience as a fencer, jouster, and member of the Society of Creative Anachronism.
The knighthood chapter explains the development of knights, the process of becoming one, the impact of Christianity, the knightly “virtues,” military orders, and courtly love, always tying it back to the SONG OF ICE AND FIRE novels, such as in the discussion on whether there really were such things as “hedge knights” or how accurate George R.R. Martin’s grim depiction of knighthood actually is (pretty accurate is the decision).
The armor and weapons follow a similar pattern of exploring the historical developments (making iron, crafting plate mail, etc.) and then discussing them in the context of the show. He points out, for instance, that Martin accurately depicts armor in Game of Thrones as varying due to geography and culture, sticking to decorative armor for special events (ornamentation only made it easier for blows to strike with more force rather than glancing off, which is why, he explains, the common depiction of Viking helmets with horns derives from theater, not history), He also delves into “boob armor,” pointing out how Brienne’s armor actually makes sense. With weapons, we get the difference between two-handed, bastard, long swords and other types as well as the various smithing technologies, such as the prized Damascus steel, which he likens to Valryian swords in Westeros. The Braavosi swords (like Arya’s Needle) and the Dothraki arakh also get some page time in Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, with Mondschein explaining why the arakh is “optimal for the nomadic equestrian culture.” Nor does Mondschein limit his discussion to swords, bringing in for example hammers, axes, and bows as well. Even wildfire (like “medieval napalm” he says) makes an appearance. The topic of weaponry is broadened as well to the question of why Westeros seems somewhat in a rut, connecting its conservatism to several causes, including one I certainly never would have considered — the lack of mills (which equals a lack in “the ability to refine more and better iron.”).
The sword fighting section is equally detailed and, like everything in here, well sourced, pulling from several extant manuals. As for the existence of someone like Brienne of Tarth, Mondschein points to a pair of female gladiators (Barsena Blackhair and Senaera She-Snake) among other historical women warriors. He delves more deeply into this topic in the separate chapter on women warriors, explaining four “types: Shieldmaidens/Spearwives (Ygritte), leaders (Catelyn), transgressors/criminals (Arya), legitimate fighters (Brienne). Again, he offers up well documented historical examples of each type. Later, he’ll do the same in the chapter on culture and conquest in discussing the diversity of the Middle Ages and how their view of “race” is not our own.
When it comes to Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War’s depictions of battles and sieges, Mondschein is willing to accept what he calls the “exigencies of the plot,” which, for instance, require that Ramsey makes a ridiculous decision to exit a well-stocked castle and give battle on the field to an outnumbered force of attackers (Mondschein also, to my great appreciation, notes what is my least favorite part of that whole battle — Rickon’s complete idiocy in running straight down the path while Ramsay is launching arrows at him). Even while conceding that “Ramsay was extraordinarily stupid,” Mondschein accepts that the choices, while not militaristically justifiable, did “make for dramatic viewing,” and were even given some “rationalization” thanks to the earlier characterization of those involved, leaving the whole thing “on the knife edge of the plausible.” Mostly, though, he argues that “Martin handles military strategy in a deeply realistic manner.”
The same evaluation is made with Martin’s portrayal of Westeros’s wartime economy, which Mondschein labels a “consistent [and] rather brilliant … depiction not only of a medieval economy in the extreme conditions of a world where winter can last for ten years, but also premodern high finance.”
In fact, while he has some quibbles here and there, and points out of a few examples where Martin doesn’t nail things down, all in all his view is quite positive as to whether or not Martin presents an accurate, realistic view of the Middle Ages with regard to warfare/fighting. Even with regard to what is often a complaint of Martin’s work — its somewhat unremittent grimness and horror, which Mondschein clearly shows in his last (perhaps difficult to read for some) chapter detailing a host of historical atrocities that make the Red Wedding seem like just a reception that ran out of booze early.
Thoroughly documented, filled with informative and interesting examples, never straying too far or for too long from the Game of Thrones series, clearly written and structured, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War is an excellent example of recent books that straddle the world of academia and pop culture. Highly recommended.