Today I’ve been trying to write an abstract for a roundtable on Game of Thrones at a conference next year. It’s about the idea of authenticity, something I’ve written about before, but a topic which gets bigger and bigger every time I do. Fantasy is obviously not authentic in some ways – the whole point is that it’s not this world, or its history – and scholars of medievalism often aren’t interested in it for that reason. But consumers are, and producers are. It’s struck me that there are multiple layers of authenticity surrounding the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the TV spin-off and all the other franchise material as well. Most of them are interconnected, and most of them have something to do with ‘the medieval’ if not the Middle Ages.
The writing process is constructed as authentic in contrast – or challenge – to the mass-market habits of a lot of genre fiction. George Martin writes at his own pace, sometimes to the incredible frustration of fans and no doubt his publishers, so the story seems to be told organically, rather than simply being churned out for the sake of best-seller after best-seller, all timed for release just before the Christmas sales rush or the summer-reading lists. Even the massive sales are constructed, at least in their origin story, as non-commercial. I’ve read a few different versions about how Martin struggled to find a publisher, how it the first novel was sold by independent bookshops and gained popularity by word-of-mouth. All of this creates an aura of authenticity in a world where big business drives consumer decisions about what is good, what is read, what is in.
None of this is immediately obviously connected to the Middle Ages, however, I think the fact that the books – and their spin-offs – are so closely linked to the pre-modern era is important. Whatever its origins were, the whole franchise is now a substantial part of popular, mass-produced modern contemporary culture. And in that culture, there is value in appearing to be outside it. Just think of all the ‘artisan bakeries’ and ‘traditional insert foodstuff here’; as a culture we are soaked in the constructed, the mass-produced, so we value things we think - or are told - are real, authentic. We’re prepared to pay more for them, but they also have symbolic meaning to us, and we often use them to create out own identities, whether it’s being the person who buys the artisan sourdough not the packet white bread form the supermarket, or whether it’s being a ‘real’ fan of a ‘real’ TV show. The medieval aura of Game of Thrones adds another dimension to those kinds of tendencies because the Middle Ages were by definition pre-modern, and therefore pre-mass-production.