When Fantasy Reveals Truth

Tom Holland praises the way Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin weaves disparate strands of history into a cohesive whole:

Game of Thrones is fantasy’s equivalent of a perfect cocktail. Elements drawn from the hundred years war and the Italian Renaissance, from Chrétien de Troyes and Icelandic epic, fuse to seamless effect. The measure of how credible – on its own terms – people find Martin’s alternative history is precisely the phenomenal scale of its popularity. The appeal of Westeros is less that it is fantastical than that it seems so richly, so vividly, so brutally real. …

The result, paradoxically, is that there are sequences where the invented world of Westeros can seem more realistic than the evocations of the past to be found in many a historical novel.

No fiction set in the 14th century, for instance, has ever rivalled the portrayal in Game of Thrones of what, for a hapless peasantry, the ambitions of rival kings were liable to mean in practice: the depredations of écorcheurs; rape and torture; the long, slow agonies of famine. The pleasures of historical fiction and of authentic, adrenaline-charged suspense, of not knowing who will triumph and who will perish, have never before been so brilliantly combined. Imagine watching a drama set in the wars of the roses, or at the court of Henry VIII, and having absolutely no idea what is due to happen. No wonder Game of Thrones has been such a success – and that historians can relish it as much as anyone.