How ‘Game of Thrones’ Tought Me About Anthropology

I don’t know about you, but I am beyond excited for more Game of Thrones. As far as I’m concerned, April 24th can’t come fast enough. Are the Seven Kingdoms on the brink of a new war? How much danger is Daenerys in now? Is You-Know-Who really dead? I need answers! The world of Westeros and Essos is superbly enthralling, not just because of the compelling stories that are unfolding within it, but just as much because of its mind-bogglingly robust politics, history, and culture.

Even after only six ten-episode seasons, viewers have been given glimpses of a wide array of religions, customs, histories, and languages. Each locale in the fictional world is fleshed out with incredible detail, visually in the world of the television show, and before that in the expansive text of the book series upon which Game of Thrones is based, A Song of Ice and Fire. There is immense history there, exhaustively designed and beyond rich. ASOIAF  Author George R.R. Martin is nothing short of a savant. What’s more, the Game of Thrones showrunners have overseen some incredible work bringing this intricate history to life onscreen, often in ways that don’t draw attention to themselves.

Whether it is migration patterns as represented through the complexions of the Dornish people, the history and religions of long-past empires preserved in the architecture of the cities of Slavers’ Bay, or the creation for the show of two complete languages, whose speakers can telegraph family history, geography, and social mores- all of which has occurred over generations within this fictional world, mind you- by how they pronounce the greeting “Valar Morghulis,” each element in the show’s world points to its belonging, and owing, to a greater history. The act of parsing out these elements and learning where it is that each of them comes from is valuable not only for the sake of learning cool stuff, but for context, and for a gaining a better sense of the significance of the actions of the movers and shakers of the show’s main plot.

If that practice sounds familiar in the context of this class, it’s because it is. I remember one night not long ago, I forsook a small portion of my anthropology reading so that I could read about the Faith of the Old Gods in the series, and what bearing it had on the culture of the Westerosi Northerners. It felt like skipping work to do play, but after some time, I looked over at my poor neglected anthropology notes, and it dawned on me that what I was doing was still anthropological work. That isn’t just how I rationalized procrastination, in fact I can confidently say that a good half of my interest in anthropology comes from the same place as my interest in Game of Thrones, and from the understanding that anthropology itself is what makes the show compelling.

Every look into the history of the dynasties of the Seven Kingdoms, which is what the show is, is a physical, linguistic, and cultural anthropological analysis of a fictional world, just as the fictional world itself is an enshrinement of the histories and customs of Europe and the Near East on an Anthropological scale. This phenomenon is compelling without end, and I believe it is part of what has kept audiences coming back to the show year after year, as well it should.


One thought on “How ‘Game of Thrones’ Tought Me About Anthropology”

  1. I, like you, love Game of Thrones and all of its historical references and connections. I have also read all the books and deeply admire George R.R. Martin’s depth of research that he put into writing the saga. I learned more history than I had ever thought I would learn by looking up historical events after watching each episode and reading each chapter. However, I had never thought of the anthropological perspective of the saga and I thank you for pointing it out to me. The differences between the Dornish, the Northerners, the Wildlings, the Dothraki, the Braavosi, the Andals, and all the other tribes, races, and ethnicities are deeply intriguing and the way they all interact with each other differently are also very interesting.


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