This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season six, episode nine.
A 12-foot giant, his unhuman features oddly familiar (almost homely, after two screen decades colonised by combat-ready orcs) wheels around a wintry courtyard, wondering at the thicket of arrow shafts now wound around his torso. He stops, sways somewhat, and falls, dead. So Wun Wun the Wilding met his doom in The Battle of the Bastards, the penultimate episode of this season of Game of Thrones.
One casualty which, with countless others in the scenes before and after, might have a claim to a place in history, apparently. “The most fully realised medieval battle we’ve ever seen on the small screen (if not the big one too)”, is the breathless verdict from The Independent.
As a full-time historian of the other Middle Ages – Europe’s, every bit as feuding and physical as the Seven Kingdoms but with better weather – I am struck by the irony that Martin’s mock-medieval world might now be seen to set the bar for authenticity. There’s no doubt that for much of screen’s first century, medieval was the Cinderella era: overlooked, patronised and pressed into service for clumsy stage-adaptations, musical comedy and children. But over the past two decades – almost from the moment that Marsellus fired the line in Pulp Fiction (1994) – we have been “getting medieval” more and more.
Any connection between Braveheart (1995) and recorded history may have been purely coincidental, but its representation of the scale and scramble of combat at the turn of the 13th century set a new standard, pushing even Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Henry V (1989) closer to the Panavison pantomime of Laurence Olivier’s film (1944). Branagh had at least toned down the hues of his happy breed from the bold – indeed, freshly laundered – primary colours of Sir Laurence’s light brigade, but his men-at-arms still jabbed at each other with the circumspection of the stage-fighters while noble knights strutted and preened.
Of course, at times it threatened to be a false dawn: First Knight (1995) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) are undeniable obstacles in making the case for a new realism. But new epics have extended the territory taken in Mel Gibson’s first rebel assault.
Now already a decade old, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) achieved a level of accuracy without reducing the cinematic to the documentary. For the first time, the scene and size of the opposing forces were not compromised by either budget or technological limitations. The audience is led to gates of the Holy City as it would have appeared to the Crusaders. The armies’ subsequent encounter with one another is captured with the same vivid colour and fear that the contemporary chroniclers conjure them, catching especially the crazy spectacle of Christian liturgical performance – crucifixes, chanting priests – on the Middle Eastern plain. And descriptive details were not lost, particularly in the contentious arena of Crusader kit, now a hobbyists’ domain into which only the brave production designer – and braver historian – strays.
Meanwhile, Peter Jackson painted energetically with his medieval palate in the Lords of the Rings trilogy, not, of course, pointing us to a place or time but certainly providing a superior visual vocabulary for the experience of combat in a pre-industrial age.
Back to basics
So, has Game of Thrones bettered this?
There are certainly some satisfyingly authentic twists and turns woven around The Battle of the Bastards. The most significant casualties occur away from the melee of the pitched battle in one of a number of routs (medieval battles always ended with a ragged rout, not a decisive bloodbath). And the principal actors in the drama do not readily present themselves for a tidy dispatch. The mounted forces of Westeros are rarely decisive and even fighters of the highest status do not see out the day in the saddle.
Also accurate are the individual acts of near-bestial violence which occur, are witnessed and go on to define the significance of battle. The deliberate breaking of Ramsey’s face by Jon Snow is a point-of-entry into a central but still under-researched dimension of medieval conflict: ritual violence, such as the systematic, obscene dismemberment of the dead and dying English by their Welsh enemies during the Glyn Dwr wars.
Yet I suspect that these are not the snapshots that have won the superlatives. No doubt it is the standout features of the battle scenes: their scale, the weaponry and the “reality” of wounding in real time that have held most attention. And these threaten to turn us again in the direction of that Ur-Middle Ages which we had every reason to hope we had left for good.
Because medieval armies were always smaller than was claimed, far smaller than we see here. Weaponry was not fixed in time, but – more like the Western Front in 1917 than you might imagine – a fluid domain of fast-developing technology. It is time that directors gave space to firearms, which were the firsthand experience of any fighting man from the final quarter of the 15th century. They must also shed their conviction that “medieval” means hand-to-hand combat. It was sustained arrow-fire that felled armies, not swordplay, nor fisticuffs.
Life on the medieval battle path also meant poor health, rapid ageing and no personal grooming. So we are also overdue sight of a medieval fighting force as it might actually have arrived on the field: neither sporting sexy hairstyles, nor match-fit for action. They of course arrived after months of marching, if they arrived at all: dysentery passed through campaigning forces with fatal routine. They faced their foe in a youth that would have felt more like middle age to you and me.
And in the middle of this Ur-medieval battlefield there is a 12-foot giant, just to confirm that this not medieval Europe, by any means.