Sunday, April 14, brings the long-awaited premiere of the eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s megahit adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, the best-selling fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s probably best described as Machiavellian realpolitik meets the Wars of the Roses but with dragons.
Since premiering in 2011, it has become one of the most popular shows of the past 20 years, with roughly 31 million average viewers per episode last season, according to Vulture. But it’s also something more than that. For the better part of a decade, “Game of Thrones” has been the most vividly engaging history course millions of Americans have likely ever received, whether they realize it or not.
For instance, if I asked you to describe the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717, could you? Probably not, even if you’d learned it in school. But if you’re a fan of “Game of Thrones,” or, better yet, had read the books, and I told you it was the basis for the second season’s Battle of Blackwater Bay, you’d know, more or less, what took place between the Umayyad Muslims and Byzantine Christians at Constantinople: Forces defending a fortified capital city were able to repel an invading army on both land and sea, thanks in large part to the use of a massive chain boom that blocked naval access to the city and a fiery combustible compound able to burn on water.
Sure, there are dragons and magic, as well as cheap sex and violence (it is HBO, after all), but Martin is telling his fictional narrative using people, places, and events lifted straight from history. “[There are] so many things that you’d be hard-pressed to make up,” Martin explained in 2016. “And then, of course, I don’t make it up, but I take it and I file off the serial numbers, and I turn it up to 11, and I change the color from red to purple, and I have a great incident for the books.”
This has proved quite the formula, and for more than just Martin. Indeed, history entertainment is flourishing.
[Related: History's first resistance insider]
“Game of Thrones” not your thing? Not a problem. Amazon has all seven episodes of BBC’s terrific “The Hollow Crown” available to stream online if you prefer your Wars of the Roses told in iambic pentameter. The miniseries features film adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays, spanning from “Richard II” to “Richard III.” Now you can settle in for a weekend and blow right through eight of Shakespeare’s greatest works and learn the entire story of the English civil wars.
Sick of the British history? Check out the “Hamilton” soundtrack on Spotify — I can’t afford a ticket to the musical either — and hear how we Yanks routed the redcoats at the Battle of Yorktown or how Alexander Hamilton philandered himself out of becoming president. Or, on Netflix, there’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” a Revolutionary War historical drama of patriotism and subterfuge based on the novel by author Alexander Rose. It’s also worth revisiting Paul Giamatti’s turn as America’s second president in the star-studded 2008 HBO miniseries “John Adams,” as well.
Back across the Atlantic, and back in time, there’s HBO’s “Rome,” which is historical TV of the highest order: a sprawling, beautifully filmed, tremendously expensive series that in many ways paved the way for the later success of “Game of Thrones.” Skipping ahead a few centuries on the Italian peninsula, there’s Netflix's “Medici” or two different shows about Rodrigo Borgia. Or you can hop a boat from Venice with “Marco Polo” and follow the famous traveler to the Mongol court of the great Kublai Khan.
All this only scratches the surface. Type “history” into Netflix’s search bar, and you’ll find ever more examples: “The Last Kingdom,” “The Crown,” “Vikings,” “Spartacus,” “Peaky Blinders,” “The Tudors,” “Troy: Fall of a City,” “Frontier,” “Reign,” “Versailles.” Other streaming services carry more bounties: “Boardwalk Empire” and “Band of Brothers” on HBO, the criminally underrated “Wolf Hall” on Amazon Prime, “The White Queen” and “The White Princess” on Starz, and myriad others.
[Also read: In the Spielberg-Netflix beef, the Justice Department picks the right side]
As the inimitable Sonny Bunch recounted last year, scripted programming is exploding: 487 scripted series aired in 2017 across networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services, up from 455 in 2016 and 422 in 2015, with the biggest driver coming from streaming outlets such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. According to Variety, “The total series output on television since 2002 has grown by 168 percent.”
Yet, as the popularity of “Hamilton” evinces, the appetite for history entertainment is not confined to television alone. For example, world history, particularly world conflict, has been a constant backdrop for some of the most popular game franchises, from strategy board games such as Risk, invented in 1957, and Axis and Allies, produced in 1981, to Sid Meier’s groundbreaking video game series “Civilization” in 1991 and the “Call of Duty” franchise launched in 2003.
Perhaps the most commonly known historical fiction property, among those under 40, at least, comes in the form of the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise. Each game follows a central assassin, controlled by the player, placed in a particular historical age. Since the first game in 2007, the franchise has seen players face down Robert de Sablé during the Third Crusade; oppose Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia in Renaissance Italy; aid George Washington and the American Revolutionary forces in 1770s Boston; scale the pyramids in Ptolemaic Egypt; and, in the series’ most recent entry, fight against both Spartans and Athenians during Greece’s Peloponnesian War.
And even in our age of endless superhero movies and franchise reboots, historical dramas and biographical feature films continue to be a mainstay at the megaplex. Five of the Academy Award best picture winners since 2010, for example, have been historical or biographical dramas: “The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” and “Green Book.” Even more have been best picture nominees, including “Lincoln,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Selma,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Revenant,” “Hidden Figures,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Dunkirk,” among others.
Entertainment and popular culture drawing from history is nothing new — Shakespeare’s histories were still plays, after all — but, ironically, our current shining moment of history entertainment comes amid the full-scale collapse of history as an academic discipline. As Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall and Colorado School of Mines history professor Kenneth Osgood wrote in the New York Times, “The public’s love for political stories belies a crisis in the profession.”
Statistically speaking, “Game of Thrones” may be the closest millions of Americans even get to a history course. Since 2008, history has seen a 30% decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded at U.S. colleges and universities, according to a study published last November with the American Historical Association. This precipitous decline, the largest drop of any major, has occurred even as higher education enrollments have grown and has been even steeper at private, elite institutions.
“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” wrote Benjamin M. Schmidt, Northeastern University history professor and the study's author. “In 2008, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 34,642 majors in history; in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 24,266.” The number of history majors fell by more than 1,500 between 2016 and 2017 alone, according to Schmidt’s analysis.
So, what happened? Schmidt points to economic factors. “The drops have been especially heavy since 2011–12, the first years for which students who saw the financial crisis in action could easily change their majors,” he writes. “The timing of the trend strongly suggests that students have changed their expectations of college majors in the aftermath of the economic shifts of 2008.”
However, this conclusion overlooks longer-term realities. “A deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades,” Johns Hopkins historians Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin wrote last December. “In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.”
If it’s not the economy that’s to blame, what then? According to Brands and Gavin, the true culprit is the profession itself. “In recent decades, the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public — and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.” In other words, the field’s decline is self-inflicted, and largely due to how history is taught and which topics are being studied or ignored.
And it is precisely those subjects that so grip viewers when explored on television that are considered the most parochial and “old-fashioned” in academe. “As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained,” write Brands and Gavin, “the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative.” This understanding reflects the data. “According to the American Historical Association’s listing of academic departments, three-quarters of colleges and universities now lack full-time researchers and teachers” in American political history, lament Logevall and Osgood. And diplomatic and military history are faring worse still.
The consequences of this decline are obvious. Less than a third of Americans can even name the three branches of government; a third can’t name a single one. An October 2016 report by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that approximately a fourth of Americans and a third of millennials think more people were killed under President George W. Bush than under Josef Stalin. A January 2016 study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni revealed that roughly 60% of recent college graduates surveyed thought that Thomas Jefferson, not James Madison, was “the Father of the Constitution,” even though Jefferson, as U.S. minister to France, was not even in the country during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
A 2012 Xavier University survey found that 1 in 3 native-born American citizens failed the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test given to foreign-born individuals applying for citizenship, compared with the 97.5% pass rate among foreign-born applicants. If the minimum score required to pass the exam were 70% rather than 60%, then half of native-born Americans would have failed. (Interestingly, nearly half of the minimum 60 correct answers required to pass can be easily gleaned from the “Hamilton” soundtrack.)
When citizens know so little history and so few are bothering to study it all, it’s little wonder that the content of historical entertainment sparks argument. The Dick Cheney biopic “Vice” brought controversy recently, mostly among liberal commentators who thought the laughably inaccurate film did too much to “humanize” America’s greatest living vice president. “Vice,” Kevin Fallon complained in the Daily Beast, “at best marginally humanizes Dick Cheney and at worst lionizes him, assaults you with a relentless retrospective of the administration’s most heinous acts but with no added insight, and seems confused about what kind of point it wants to make.” (Conservatives, for their part, understood the movie for the superhero origin story that it was.) When TV and movies are the history of record, it matters a great deal what they say.
So where does that leave us, a culture with a great deal of popular history on television but no real deeper consideration taking place where it should, within the academy? My own humble advice would be for the latter to take a page from the former.
Most of our history entertainment, particularly that of highest quality, tells of political history, military and diplomatic history, of great men and women facing complex decisions, models of statesmanship and tyranny. In short, they tell the stories of history people want to learn and from which they can learn.
For the past half century, academia has deprecated “great man” history and treated larger-than-life personalities, battles, and arresting events as though they were inevitabilities floating on the tides of social and economic determinism, or else simply demonized them as matters of “cultural imperialism” or oppression. This, in essence the Marxist view of history, has atomized the study of history into an obsession with isolated sub-sub-groups or with theory detached from the realities of the past. That is, away from the things real people find engaging and true.
“Game of Thrones,” for example, is derived from the English Wars of the Roses, the historical struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster waged from 1455-1485, and reflects the passions, complexities, and consequences of a struggle that shaped England and her people for centuries to come. Martin’s Cersei Lannister is largely based on Margaret of Anjou, the proud, vengeful wife of the ill-suited King Henry VI. Margaret plotted against her husband’s adviser, the noble Northman Richard of York, goading him into taking up arms against the crown and ultimately removing him from power in order to ensure her son, the sadistic Edward of Lancaster, upon whom Cersei’s son Joffrey is based, would take the throne. Her motives, as are Cersei’s, are not honorable, but nor are they entirely impure. Similarly, the character Robb Stark is based on Edward IV (pronounced “Eddard”), Earl of March, the teenage son of Richard and heir to the House of York, who claims the throne and declares war on the Lancasters after his father is beheaded. Like Robb, his quest for vengeance was thwarted as much by his own folly in choosing a bride as it was by the swords and spears of his enemies.
Heroism and cowardice, prudence and honor, family and duty — this is heady stuff of high history and politics. Yet, every season the massive fan base grows larger. The seventh season premiere drew 16.1 million viewers the night it aired, per Nielsen data; that season’s finale, 16.5 million. For context, only about 10.3 million watched the finale of “Breaking Bad,” its most viewed episode. And the total adjusted viewership for the seventh season was up 34% from the season before.
This is a good sign. Unlike so much else in our vapid, tweet-length, ephemeral culture, “Game of Thrones” trades in ideas as much as sex and fantasy. When one of the characters, Tywin Lannister, asks his newly crowned nephew, Tommen, in the fourth season, “But what makes a good king?” this is less a peripheral moment in a fictional show about dragons than it is a deep philosophical question presented to its audience. It’s a question with eternal relevance, one we must grapple with at the ballot box, in our churches and communities, and in our homes.
What do we want our leaders to be? How do we know what makes for a good leader over a bad one? With each answer Tommen provides — holiness, justice, strength, wisdom — Tywin presents to him an example of a king from the past, turning to the lessons of history to instruct his nephew on how to understand the path before him.
“A wise man once said the true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms,” Tyrion Lannister, the series’ true Machiavellian and best character, once quipped. He was exaggerating, but only just. And until colleges and universities make their peace with teaching such things again, until they recognize the true substance of what makes history interesting and important, an academic discipline vital for understanding who we are and how we got here will continue to wither.
Until then, thankfully, television is happy to succeed where the academy is failing. But as a wise man once said, “The mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone,” and TV is no substitute for the real thing.
J. Grant Addison is deputy editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine.