'Game Of Thrones' And The Fact-Checking Fans: All Men Must Nitpick

 @rpalmerscience
on May 10 2013 3:09 PM
tormund
Burning questions: Could wildlings really climb up 700 feet of ice with axes and crampons? Should you really go into battle without a helmet? How do you pronounce "Khaleesi," anyway? HBO

For most people, the rule is “if you love something, set it free;” if you’re an obsessive “Game of Thrones” fan, the rule is more like “if you love something, dissect it into infinitesimal pieces and scrutinize even the tiniest facet.”

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy book series and its television adaptation are sprawling enough on their own, with intricate family trees, shifting alliances and thorny plots. Add a layer of fans and writers eager to draw connections to real life, and the stories expand to contain multitudes.

This week, Wired has an interview with ice climber Katie Mills, who nitpicked the wildlings’ ascent of the 700-foot-high Wall that forms the northern border of Westeros featured in last week’s episode, “The Climb.” While the ice axes and crampons the wildlings used to scale the icy barrier were feasible in the medieval setting of “Game of Thrones,” some of the other details didn’t ring quite as true to life.

A big cliffhanger (literally) in the episode involves the warg Orell cutting Ygritte and Jon Snow loose after a big chunk of the Wall shears off, causing the pair to lose their grip. Ygritte, climbing above Jon, falls, but Jon’s still hooked into the wall and manages to hold them both up. But in reality, Ygritte probably would've plummeted to her death, Mills said; while modern climbers use ropes with a bit of stretch, the wildlings’ ropes would have likely snapped immediately with the force of Ygritte’s fall.

Well, maybe a little artistic license is expected in ice climbing, but what about the show’s bread and butter – violent swordfighting? Turns out there’s probably some artifice there, too. Much of our modern view of medieval swordfighting is mixed up with moves from fencing, Asian martial arts and stage theatrics.

“[Historical] sources [on swordfighting] specifically tell us not to try to block. You don't attempt to be passive or stay defensive … You don't try to just win the range and timing by sneaking out blows and feints,” medieval swordfighting expert, John Clements, wrote in an article for the science and sci-fi blog io9.

So how does “Game of Thrones” fare in terms of accurate swordfighting, based on the historical record? Let’s look at two examples: the fight between Jaime and Brienne on the bridge, from the second episode in the third season:

And the fiery battle between Beric Dondarrion and the Hound from the fifth episode:

Both fight scenes balance realistic brutality with cinematic finesse. Brienne does seem to have some fancy footwork, moving her weight around, but notice how she constantly parries Jaime’s attacks – realistically, he probably wouldn’t be able to cut through her armor with a body blow. But it’s not exactly a traditional fight, since she’s trying to disarm the Kingslayer without hurting him too badly.

But in the duel between Beric and the Hound, it’s a death match (without helmets). There’s a lot of parrying and twirling that you probably wouldn’t see in a real brawl. But it’s what the cinema’s coached us to expect from swordfighting.

Other aspects of realism have been sacrificed to the gods of cinematography as well. During the Battle of the Blackwater, the explosive clash in the penultimate episode of the second season, several of the main characters – Tyrion, Stannis Baratheon, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane and King Joffrey – don't wear helmets. This allows the viewer to quickly recognize them as they are, respectively, delivering inspiring speeches, leading an assault on King’s Landing, slaughtering invading forces, and running away in fear. But in real life, going helmetless into battle would be an invitation for an arrow to the neck or an axe to the head.

Martin actually grouses about this in the DVD commentary for this episode, muttering “no helmet, no helmet, no helmet …” whenever the camera pans across a group of ill-attired soldiers.

Other crew members have their nitpicks as well. The man who invented the Dothraki language told New York magazine’s Vulture blog that Daenerys’ title of Khaleesi is more properly pronounced “KHAH-lay-see,” rather than “ka-LEE-see.”

Maybe economic nitpicking is more your style. Slate blogger Matt Yglesias has already delved into some of the monetary aspects of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” arguing that, contrary to their conventional wisdom that the Lannisters are the richest house, thanks to their extensive gold mines, the real tycoons of Westeros are the Tyrells, who control the fertile farmlands of the Reach.

“Real resources -- not shiny gold -- are the true test of wealth and the real source of power,” Yglesias wrote.

It’s a pretty solid argument, especially given that in wartime, the Tyrells have quickly risen in public esteem by bringing wagonloads of food to the starving population of King’s Landing.

To date, much of the discussion of power in “Game of Thrones” has been focused on martial matters. Cersei swept aside Littlefinger’s claim that “knowledge is power” by demonstrating that she could have him killed at a whim, thanks to her tautological rule that “power is power”; Varys posed a riddle to Tyrion that questioned whether a king, a rich man, or a priest had more power over a swordsman. But there's an element that's been missing until the Tyrells arrived -- Cersei might be able to pay guards, but what use will coin be if it can't buy food? Where the hypothetical swordsman’s loyalties lie might depend not just on his character, but how hungry he is.

Another burgeoning economic storyline is one familiar in our age: debt. The Lannisters have invested heavily in the Iron Throne, which newly minted Master of Coin Tyrion is starting to suspect might be something of a toxic asset, owing tens of millions to the Iron Bank of Braavos. And the debt collectors from across the Narrow Sea won’t just send threatening ravens asking for their money back; they’re likely to fund the Lannisters’ foes as well.

That’s the great beauty of “Game of Thrones”; a Braavosi banker is just as likely to set the course of the story as a foreordained savior. Overall, it’s a testament to the rich tapestry that Martin’s woven that fans can keep returning to it again and again, hunting for new details.

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