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‘Game of Thrones’ gets the Harvard treatment

A scene from the HBO series “Game of Thrones.’’
A scene from the HBO series “Game of Thrones.’’Helen Sloan/HBO via Associated Press

Winter is coming — to Harvard.

In the same way that academics once fell in love with the critically acclaimed series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” they’ve fallen for the endless intricacies of “Game of Thrones.”

George R.R. Martin’s popular novels and the HBO series based upon them has launched a fleet of college courses and served as fodder for theses and dissertations.

This fall, Harvard students can sign up for a class called “The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models.” The folklore and mythology class will be taught by Racha Kirakosian, an assistant professor of German and the study of religion, and Sean Gilsdorf, an administrative director and lecturer on medieval studies.

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Sounds interesting, right? Except that Martin’s series is set in the fictional world of Westeros and beyond — not medieval Eurasia.

“George R.R. Martin has said that he was inspired by ‘real’ medieval history, in particular that of the War of the Roses,” Gilsdorf wrote in an e-mail. “But at a much broader level, the books, and to a more limited extent the TV series, offer a kind of fictional ‘sandbox’ in which some pretty fundamental aspects of medieval culture, society, and mythology can be explored and examined.”

In a course description, the professors pose a question: “If we might describe ‘Game of Thrones’ as a ‘fictional’ or ‘fantastic’ Middle Ages, could we also describe the Middle Ages as a ‘real Game of Thrones’?”

They go on to describe Martin’s creation as a “fictional world that echoes and adapts, as well as distorts, the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from circa 400 to 1500 CE.”

One way the professors plan to explore the history, culture, and ideas of the Middle Ages is by looking at relationships between archetypal characters such as the king, the good wife, the second son, the adventurer.

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Students may peruse texts such as “The Nibelungenlied,” a German epic poem about Siegfried the dragon slayer, that dates to circa 1200 CE; “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” an Irish prose epic from the ninth century CE; “The Life of Mathilda,” a sacred biography of Queen Mathilda of Germany, from circa 985 CE; and “The Travels of Ibn Fadlan,” an account of an Islamic envoy who journeyed from Baghdad to the Caucasus, dating from the 10th century CE.

“I love teaching the texts that we’ll be reading with the students,” Gilsdorf wrote. “They’re endlessly fascinating, and rich with meanings and insights.”

Kirakosian previously used excerpts from “Game of Thrones” in a freshman seminar to discuss “trial by combat,” when two parties in a dispute battled to decide who was right. The bloody practice was officially forbidden by the early Middle Ages.

“I think it’s crucial to pick up students where they are in their life and in the world today,” said Kirakosian, who started watching “Game of Thrones” to keep up with students’ interest. “And then to transcend this and go beyond and do real research.”


Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com.