Medieval inspiration: what the fantasy genre owes to the 14th century

From its language and literature to codes of war and chivalry, the 14th century has provided inspiration to fiction writers for centuries. Following the finale of Game of Thrones and the release of a biopic inspired by the life of JRR Tolkien, historian Helen Carr explores the role of medieval history in the fantasy epics that we know and love…

A painting depicts a 14th-century sea battle

Last month saw the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones, drawn from the epic series of books written by George RR Martin and set in the historical fantasy world of Westeros. The leading arc of the story is the enduring brutal war between multiple families, all gunning for the Iron Throne. Many parallels have been drawn between Game of Thrones and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, a bloody civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster (Stark = York, Lannister = Lancaster) and the battles that ensued. However a large part of the award-winning series – as well as other historical fantasies and fiction – have found inspiration in the 14th century and the events of the Hundred Years’ War, which saw the Valois and the Plantagenets fight it out for the French throne.

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In the first season of Game of Thrones we see the once meek and submissive Daenerys Targaryen enjoy the admiration and love of her new people – the Dothraki – to the resentment of her brother Viserys, whose life ambition is to take the Iron Throne. After Viserys threatens the then-pregnant Daenerys, her husband – the warlord Khal Drogo – pours molten metal over his head, instantly killing the would-be king. This grizzly moment in Game of Thrones may have been inspired by Peter IV, king of Aragon and his treatment of the burghers [wealthy citizens] of Valencia in 1348. Allegedly, the burghers rang a large iron bell to signal an uprising against Peter. The uprising was unsuccessful and as a punishment, Peter ordered the bell be melted down and poured down the throats of the rebellious burghers.

The king of Aragon was not the only brutal Spanish monarch. Pedro [Peter] I of Castile, known as ‘Pedro the Cruel’, was even worse; he murdered some of his half siblings and stepmother, and also probably killed his French wife, Blanche of Bourbon. Pedro was so vile that he even offered to pay Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince, the due ransom for Spanish prisoners taken at the battle of Najera in 1367, just so he could enjoy butchering them in revenge for supporting his half-brother and enemy, Enrique Trastamara. Pedro eventually met a sticky endin 1369 after he was captured by the French leader Bertrand du Guesclin and held hostage in a French camp, where he faced his brother Enrique in man-to-man combat. He was stabbed to death in what is perhaps one of the most dramatic scenes in medieval history, which may have inspired the showdown between brothers Sandor and Gregor Clegane in Game of Thrones.

The Middle Ages was a brutal period of history, and its battles and the warriors who fought in them were a large part of that brutality. During the Hundred Years’ War, the English army rode through France conducting chevauchées (brutal, guerrilla-style raids on local landscape). When war was paused, rebel soldiers – rather than go without pay – formed their own mercenary army; the Companies. Like the Golden Company in Game of Thrones and characters like the sellsword Bronn of the Blackwater, these soldiers followed cash and were loyal to nobody. In Game of Thrones, the Golden Company was quickly wiped out; in reality, however, the Companies caused serious problems in France. By raiding, pillaging and raping their way through the country they were reputed to be worse than the plague. Eventually, they were paid off by the King of France (Charles V), and the Pope in Avignon (Urban V) to leave France and they became paid mercenaries for the Aragonese king, Peter IV.

A medieval image showing a battle
By raiding, pillaging and raping their way through the country the Companies were reputed to be worse than the plague, as shown in this depiction of the battle of Brignais from Froissart’s Chronicles. (Image by Alamy)

Much of this drama took place on land, but naval warfare was also a large feature of the war. In Game of Thrones, the inspiration for the battle at sea against the Iron Fleet – and the character of the ruthless king of the Iron Islands, Euron Greyjoy – may well have been inspired by the battle of Sluys in 1340, between the English and the French. The English were led by King Edward III, and the French by a notoriously brutal mercenary soldier and pirate, Pietro Barbavera. Barbavera had previously taken the isle of Cadzandt opposite the Zwin, which he subsequently pillaged and murdered over 300 Flemings. Like the story’s Euron Greyjoy, he became one of the most feared men at sea.

The cornerstone of historical fantasy

War is the cornerstone of much historical fantasy fiction and many iconic fictional characters were born amidst fire and blood. The most famous of these is the legendary King Arthur, who has appeared throughout history as the chivalrous hero of England. From the pagesof Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485, to Guy Ritchie’s 2018 blockbuster movie; Arthur has captured audiences for centuries. During the Hundred Years’ War, Edward III used the legendary king’s popularity to his advantage and Arthur became the inspiration for the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order of knights that still exists today. In mock battles, jousts and tournaments, Edward III popularised and glamourised warfare. Arthur was his poster boy; he even created a Round Table at Windsor Castle. Edward’s use of propaganda was ultimately a huge success. He refashioned himself as a descendant of Arthur and re-invigorated the concept of chivalry. In doing so, he gained the support of his people in the war against the French. The chivalrous image of King Arthur that we are so familiar with today is in part influenced by Edward III.

An engraving of Edward III wearing robes, a crown placed over a hat and the badge of the Order of the Garter
A depiction of Edward III wearing robes, a crown placed over a hat and the badge of the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order of knights that still exists today. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

King Arthur is not the only popular fictional character that found its roots in the Middle Ages. Between 1330–40, the story of Sleeping Beauty emerged from the romantic narrative Perceforest, which describes the fictional origin of Great Britain. The original story is of a princess named Zellandine who falls in love with a knight named Troylus. To prove himself worthy of her, Zellandine’s father sends Troylus on a series of tasks and while he is gone, Zellandine falls into an enchanted sleep. When he returns, she is still asleep, but he impregnates her anyway and she later has a baby. She finds a ring when she wakes and realises that Troylus is the father of her child and they eventually marry. The story has been adapted over hundreds of years but the romance and chivalric undertone endures. The most famous versions are by the Grimm Brothers in 1812 and more recently, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959.

The 14th-century saw the popularising of romantic verse, but also the emergence of the English language in literature. The pioneer of this was Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Knight’s Tale went on to inspire the 2001 fictional feature film of the same name starring Heath Ledger, in which Paul Bettany plays a comic version of Geoffrey Chaucer. The historical comedy introduces figures such as the Black Prince, who is presented as handsome and honourable, able to see the worth in a poor but ambitious young man, William Thatcher (Ledger). The jousts that are a strong feature within the movie were a form of entertainment in the 14th century, often held at Smithfield. Part of central London, Smithfield was once a patch of green land outside of the city walls. In celebration of the marriage of John of Gaunt to Blanche of Lancaster in 1359, Edward III and his sons disguised themselves and fought in a tournament at Smithfield, called the Merchant’s Fair. When they revealed themselves, the crowd went wild. Maybe this moment is echoed in the finale of A Knight’s Tale, when the Black Prince reveals himself to the crowd to knight William Thatcher.

Chaucer’s verse has always been an important source for historians studying the 14th century. However, his narrative tales have not only served as source material for inquisitive historians. New evidence suggests that Chaucer may have inspired perhaps the greatest fantasy fiction ever written – The Lord of the Rings. Professor John Bowers, a specialist in Chaucer and Tolkien at the University of Nevada recently discovered an abandoned project, the Clarendon Chaucer by JRR Tolkien, which possibly influenced the narrative of The Lord of the Rings.

There's evidence to suggests that Chaucer may have inspired JRR Tolkien (pictured), the author of 'The Lord of the Rings'. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images)
There’s evidence to suggests that Chaucer may have inspired JRR Tolkien (pictured), the author of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images)

There are certainly parallels between Chaucer and Tolkien’s work. The Pardoner’s Tale by Chaucer is a moral tale about three men discovering and fighting over treasure. They fight to the death, encapsulating the Pardoner’s ‘theme’: “Greed is the root of [all] evils”.

In The Lord of the Rings, similarly, the Ring draws out the greed in men and finally sends the character Sméagol (Gollum) to his death at Mount Doom, as he follows the Ring’s descent into the fire in which it was forged. Another examples lies at the end of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, when the fairies are driven out of England. This may be mirrored in The Lord of the Rings when the elves leave their home in Rivendell; a mass exodus from the land of men.

The language, literature, war, conquest and chivalry of the 14th century has provided the skeleton of a story for fiction writers for decades, if not centuries. The success of Game of Thrones is just the most recent example of how the 14th century contains some of the most complex, terrifying, devastating and sometimes touching stories in history. As fantasy is often the bare bones of history trussed up, manipulated and maximised to become something powerfully entertaining, the true history of the 14th century reasonably deserves attention. It is time to further explore the way it shaped and influenced the world we live in – not just those in Westeros.

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Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer.