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Every successful television series sparks a variety of desperate quests. Fans seek out the books the show is based on. Film locations wrack their brains for ways to capitalise on a new source of tourism. Those who dislike the series try to find something else to watch. Other television companies set out in search of something similar which can get them a slice of that pie.

Each of these responses has been inspired by the smash hit that is Game of Thrones. The efforts of other broadcasters to find a series like it, in order to get in on the game, is particularly interesting because it is proving uniquely difficult.

Here is Paul Goodman’s summary of what the Game entails:

“…as though the director of Pulp Fiction had somehow won the copyright to Mallory’s Morte D’ArthurGame of Thrones has the lot: a child King; scheming barons; brawls, boozing and battles; a dwarf Lord; dragons; a girl killer; direwolves; Greek fire; ravens; pickled embryos; animalistic sex (with a touch of incest thrown in); bad language (every second vowel needs a *); black magic; – and whores everywhere.”  

How can anyone follow that? The fantasy genre’s curse is that for every work of brilliance – like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the series is based, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – there are a thousand claptrap dwarf-fests, overstuffed with low-rent Conans and garnished with an excess of Latin-ish magic spells. Indeed, aside from Martin himself and Joe Abercrombie – the author of the excellent The First Law series, which brings a black humour as well as a grimy reality to proceedings, it’s hard to think of another truly first-rate fantasy writer working today.

All of which goes to explain why the competitors of HBO – and of Sky in the UK – have chosen to respond to Game of Thrones’ runaway success by looking beyond the fantasy genre. Faced with an audience demanding battles, dwarves, magic, dragons, axes and schemes, they’ve plumped for history – Dark Ages history, to be precise.

The History channel commissioned the enjoyable Vikings, the first series of which has just finished, which does exactly what it says on the tin – in the 8th century AD, muscly, tattooed blokes with braided beards row across the North Sea with big axes to chop up monks, combined with a hefty dollop of sex, paganism and political scheming.

In the UK, the BBC has just announced that it will be producing a TV adaption of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories novels. The books are brilliant, as with Sharpe and the rest of Cornwell’s offerings, and should make a good series. I hereby predict it will feature muscly, tattooed blokes travelling across 9th century England to chop up monks and/or pagans, combined with a hefty dollop of sex, magic and political scheming.

For all those similarities to Vikings and other series, The Last Kingdom (as the BBC has titled their Cornwell adaptation) should be pretty good, if done properly – I’m already looking forward to it.

For fans of the Early Medieval period – those of us who spend our time trying to persuade people the Dark Ages weren’t actually all that dark – this flurry of interest is long overdue.

The interesting question is why a fantasy series has sparked such interest in real history. The reasons are threefold.

First, most fantasy fiction has a para-medieval setting – swords, knights, chain mail, castles and flaming torches. The look and feel of what is properly called the Early Medieval period – the ‘Dark Ages’ having been deemed discriminatory to an age which was actually remarkably rich in culture and learning – is an easily digested substitute for an audience used to consuming fantasy work. At heart, we have Tolkien to than (or blame, depending on your view) – in his day job, he was an academic specialising in Old English and Norse literature, and his mind was steeped in the sagas and chronicles of the period.

Second, the Early Medieval was, in the view of those living through it, a time of magic, spirits and mysticism. History’s Vikings manages to bridge the gap between Game of Thrones and real history because, while there are no dragons, the protagonists believe they live in a spirit-festooned world. The hero, Ragnar Lothbrok, believes himself to be a direct descendant of Odin, whom he sees in the frantic moments fighting in the shield wall, in the exhaustion of a body-strewn battlefield and in moments of crucial decisions (note, incidentally, that the Norse image of Odin is remarkably and deliberately similar to Tolkien’s Gandalf).

We may know that there was no magic walking the land of the 8th and 9th centuries, but those who were there heartily believed that there was – any history of the era would be inaccurate and incomplete if it failed to take into account the influence those beliefs had on the people who forged nations around the coasts of the North Sea. Viewers of Game of Thrones enjoy watching characters who can exercise magic – it’s a small leap to watching characters who believe they can do so.

Third, whether academics like it or not, the term ‘Dark Ages’ does have something to do with this new trend. The nickname emerged at a point when academics knew little about the gap between the Romans leaving Britain in 410 AD and the Norman invasion in 1066. Archaeologically, many early excavations dug right through Anglo-Saxon and Viking layers to reach Roman material – sometimes because they were more interested in the Romans, but often because the Early Medieval remains were less obvious and substantial, and so were easy to miss. Historically, the surviving documents from and accounts of the era are often a mixture of myth and fact.

As a result, the Dark Ages fell victim to the god of the gaps – where there is a lack of certain knowledge, speculation, story-telling and mythology will swiftly fill the vacuum. Because the history was inexact, the era still offers us the opportunity to fantasise, be it about Beowulf and the monster Grendel, Arthur and the knights of Camelot, Ragnar Lothbruk and Aslaug or a host of other themes, many of which may well have begun as real events involving real people but which have been embellished over the centuries. If you are in search of a period in which there’s space to get a bit fantastical in your script-writing, the Early Medieval is your best candidate.

So it’s understandable that the new focus for fantasy fans is between the 5th and 11th centuries AD. If viewers want to be truly amazed, though, they should remember that this era – even many of these people and events – were real, not fantasy. The naval, military and cultural achievements of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons were all the more jaw-dropping for the fact that they were performed by ordinary human beings.

We carry much of their history with us, often without realising it (be it in the imagery and language of Tolkien, or in the more mundane fact that the Bluetooth technology on your phone is named after a viking king of Denmark and Norway), but you can also see some of its physical remains. Visit the stunning castle of Bamburgh, once home to the Kings of Northumbria (a place I once had the good fortune to excavate), the beautiful Staffordshire hoard or the Jorvik Viking Museum in York and you get a taste (or, in the case of Jorvik, a smell) of the time when fantasy was almost real.

The people of that era believed the film between them and the fantastical, magic and mythical was so thin that they could sometimes reach through and touch it – because of what they left behind, their world is almost as close to ours.

10 comments for: Mark Wallace: Game of Thrones has revived interest in the ‘Dark Ages’ – a time of fact and fantasy

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