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The real Game of Thrones: mediaeval mythology

The real Game of Thrones: mediaeval mythology

Higher ed institutions are always looking out for ways to lure students into studying the humanities with courses based on popular culture. It seems like an easy enough recipe: take a wildly popular cultural phenomenon, find an academic angle on it, and watch the student number grow like bacteria in a petri dish. We’ve seen courses on The Walking Dead and The Simpsons, among many others. They are effective in presenting humanities subjects through the attractive lens of popular TV shows. It’s a good hook.

The latest is from Harvard University. It intends to kindle interest in mediaeval studies with a course containing the student-catnip words ‘Game Of Thrones’. As one news source put it, ‘Finally, a way of justifying all those hours spent binge-watching HBO’ [Mashable].

It’s not the first ever course based on GoT. UC Berkeley’s linguistics department runs a Summer course called The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention, which focuses on the made-up language of the Dothraki people in the series and is taught by its creator, David J. Peterson. But the Harvard course is the first to take the GoT world and use it to illuminate the Dark Ages. It’s a Folklore and Mythology course called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models, and will look at how George RR Martin’s book series and its mega-hit HBO show ‘echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the mediaeval world of Eurasia from c.400 to 1500 CE’.

The course will explore archetypal characters at the heart of GoT – the King, the Good Wife, the Second Son, the Adventurer, and others – and match them with character analogues from history, literature, religion and legend. Teaching personnel are Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian and Administrative Director and Lecturer on Medieval Studies, and Racha Kirakosian, an assistant professor of German and the Study of Religion.

At a time when students are less interested in majoring in mediaeval studies and the humanities in general, courses like this are a great recruitment tool. Kirakosian says of the course, ‘“When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones. No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job (as professors) to use that interest and go deeper?”

Season 7 of Game of Thrones debuts on July 16 in the US.