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How ‘Game of Thrones’ Season Seven Is Bringing Military History Nerds’ Biggest Fantasies To Life

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Game of Thrones

We know that Game of Thrones is a fantasy series because it has dragons and direwolves and ice zombies and fire priestesses who can bring handsome, young warriors back from the dead. We know this. It’s a show firmly placed within the traditional fantasy genre. Still Game of Thrones indulges yet another kind of fantasy for some viewers. For military history buffs (like yours truly), Game of Thrones is also a wonderland of dream match ups.

When author George R.R. Martin first cobbled together the world of Game of Thrones, he looked not only to high fantasy for inspiration, but actual history and historical fiction. That means, yes, you can draw parallels between the ongoing battles over the Iron Throne and the Cousins’ War (or War of the Roses). You can say that the Starks and Yorks and the Lannisters are Lancasters and the eventual winner of the fray is going to be an exiled noble returning to the kingdom with a full army at their back and a dragon-themed banner at their front. Okay? You can do that. You can also look at the various cultures Martin developed and see touchstones of some of the greatest civilizations throughout history. The man lifted and borrowed from all over the world and all over history when he was mapping out the territories of Essos and Westeros (and Valyria and beyond).

GIF: HBO

That’s why when Bronn shuddered to hear the rumble of the Dothraki hoarde rushing towards the “Loot Train,” I just about lost my proverbial shit. “The Loot Train Battle” — I AM STILL NOT OVER THIS AWFUL NAME — wasn’t just a look at the Lannister army versus the Dothraki; It was a battle between what could have been, say, Henry II’s best forces and Ghenghis Khan’s Mongolian hoarde. But if the Mongols also had one B-52, aka a dragon, on their side to boot. It was thrilling. It was a battle I’d always wanted to see — an old school medieval army operating at the height of its power versus the ruthless show-riding warriors of the great steppe. (Oh, and a dragon!)

I feel like we don’t talk enough about how Game of Thrones is essentially giving us the biggest, baddest battle match ups of World History. Like a narratively-driven Deadliest Warrior, Game of Thrones has begun to up its battle scene game not just by employing breath-taking cinematography and sizzling special effects, but by drawing on history’s greatest battle hits.

I first noticed that they were leaning hard into this motif during last year’s bombastic Battle of the Bastards. As I wrote last winter, the extended sequence is “an avalanche of harrowing war games and references to history and film’s most iconic battles.” We get nods to film classics like Braveheart, some classic sword-and-shield tactics, a rowdy giant with the power of a German tank, and gut-wrenching visuals that evoke some of the worst reports of World War I. The battle ends in a rush of pure fantasy. Just went the battle seems lost, a horn sounds, announcing the arrival of the Knights of the Vale. With their gleaming armor and rippling banners, these knights aren’t just the proverbial “calvary,” they’re a nod to medieval legend. They are magical knights here to save the day.

We’re also starting to see the forces of Westeros toggle in between centuries when it comes to military technology. When Euron’s great ship, The Silence, sails into King’s Landing, my heart lurched. The fleet Daenerys thought would take her to victory in Westeros was a good century and a half behind Euron’s ships in terms of military technology. Surprise attack aside, there’s no way Yara’s ships — which would have been at home in Sir Francis Drake’s navy — would overpower the kind of battleship that looked fitted for the Napoleonic wars.

In making these kinds of choices, Game of Thrones is saying that fantasy isn’t just about magical beasts and mystical swords. It’s simply about imagination. Big history nerds will tell you that one of the reasons they love the subject is they like to daydream about what it would have been like to live in the midst of these great moments gone by. Game of Thrones is playing with this in a big way in their battles. They’ve started to go beyond the classic grandeur of medieval battles and they’re starting to give us the dreadful thrill of watching cultures collide in a brutal way. “The Loot Train Battle” is a moment for Westeros akin to when Alexander the Great’s Macedonian troops found themselves battling calvary on elephants in the Indian jungles. It’s a watershed moment that changes the world and births legends henceforth.

GIF: HBO

This also tells us is that we have reached a part of Game of Thrones where anything can truly happen. The relatively-stable medieval fantasy world the series started in is gone. What’s next is going to be a bold new — and terrifying — rebirth by ice and fire. These transformations are equal parts awful and awesome, like the vision of a great dragon burning its way to victory. Our imaginations don’t just hold the power to create beautiful new things, but to envision horrifying ways to destroy. Game of Thrones is pushing all limits now.

Where to Stream Game of Thrones

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