Western students can explore the fantasy world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones filled with blood, sex and violence with one of the university’s most prolific and respected English literature scholars this fall.
As soon as John Leonard heard talk of a new Game of Thrones course being suggested in the Department of English and Writing Studies, he quickly emailed the chair to volunteer. Most would question why a renowned Miltonist would want to teach a course about the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The reason: Leonard is a fan.
“My course is about the books – not about the TV show,” Leonard explained. “One word of warning for any prospective students taking the course: You are not going to be able to ‘wing it’ on the TV show. It doesn’t mean the TV show is off-limits – I like the TV show, too – but this is a literary course in which the TV show may come in tangentially. It is not a popular-culture course about the TV show.”
The course, ‘Winter is Coming’: A Game of Thrones, will be a serious study of the first four volumes of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
“My approach is not to ask the question, ‘Why are millions of people watching this show or reading these books?’ My approach is, ‘What is it in these books that makes them of interest to us as students of literature?’” Leonard said. “One of the reasons I initially volunteered for this course is I was thinking of my 19-year-old self. My favourite book was The Lord of the Rings and then I discovered Paradise Lost. I’ve never looked back since.
“I look back on The Lord of the Rings with affection, as a work that brought me to other even more valuable and important things. One of the angles I want to take with this course is to be a gateway (to other works).”
With falling enrolments in the English department, Leonard sees courses like this as an opportunity to introduce non-Arts & Humanities students the discipline and offer exposure to great works of literature.
Martin has been called “the American Tolkien,” and while Leonard will make reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, he will draw on the more obvious connections to William Shakespeare’s history plays and the romantic epic tradition of Boiardo, Ariosto and Spenser.
“Do I see Game of Thrones as inferior to Shakespeare and Milton – like lesser than? Absolutely. Do I see it as valuable? Absolutely. My hope is that not everybody, but some of the people taking the Game of Thrones course will discover there are even greater works out there and will look back on Game of Thrones with affection and gratitude the way I look back on The Lord of the Rings. I also hope to have a good time with the course and I hope the students will, too.”
Martin draws inspiration for the conflict between the houses of the Starks and Lannisters from the English Wars of the Roses (1455-85) for control of the throne of England. News articles, blogs and social media feeds are filled with commentary about Martin’s willingness to kill off main characters, but Leonard notes this is not a new literary technique. Rather, it is right out of Shakespeare’s playbook.
“The killing off of major protagonists is nothing new. It has been there in highbrow literature since Greek tragedy. Tragedy does that – it kills off major people and then there are sequels about the fallout of the next generation,” he explained.
Leonard also argued that due to the similar narrative structure, Game of Thrones has suddenly created an appetite for Edmund Spenser’s epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene.
“All of those things in The Faerie Queene that used to put people off, George R. R. Martin has made a hot seller – the intricate plot narrative where you are in one chapter with one character and then you shift to a different character, and the character you were with doesn’t come back again for about 100 pages. Well, that is straight out of the tradition of the Romantic epic,” he said.
While some academics may be quick to dismiss a course on Game of Thrones, criticizing Martin’s prose as “bad writing,” Leonard feels this is the wrong approach. “Rather than see it as ‘lowbrow’ and as a ‘rival to the things we value,’ see it as a gateway,” he challenged.
“Full disclosure, I’m one of the old guard; I’m a Spenser/Milton guy, so it’s kind of ironic I should be the person teaching this course. But I want to teach it as a literature course, not as a cultural studies course. My interest in it is for the works themselves, which will be valued as works of literature and hopefully, for some students in the class, it might whet their appetite for other, even better, things,” he said.
Leonard, recipient of the 2016 Hellmuth Prize for Achievement in Research for his scholarly contributions to work on John Milton, may be an expert in his own right, but he is not afraid to admit he is “acutely aware that some of the students might know more about the books than I do.”
No stranger to fantasy fiction with its unique fandom quality is Gabrielle Ceraldi, an English professor who teaches a course on The Many Faces of Harry Potter. In its first year, the course filled up within hours and it has continued to show steady enrolments.
“Even teaching children’s literature before the Harry Potter course, I’ve always found value in returning in an academic setting to stories that you may remember encountering in childhood and really bringing to bear all of the literary tools of analysis that we can develop in a university setting in order to yield new understandings of those book,” Ceraldi said. “In spite the apparent simplicity of the stories and the fact they are children’s books, there is still this inexhaustible opportunity for learning and discovery.”
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a cultural phenomenon, not unlike Game of Thrones, which has inspired films, video games, a stage production and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Universal Orlando resort attraction.
“Magic in the Harry Potter world is examining what is your greatest desire and what is your greatest fear. There is so much opportunity for introspection, and yet, it is done through these magical objects in ways that are exciting and plot-based, but all the way along you are being encouraged to constantly ask yourself, ‘who am I in relation to this story? Where do I find myself in this story?’” she explained.
Ceraldi sees parallels between the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones courses, particularly the opportunity to sort students into different ‘houses,’ as she has done with her teaching assistant assignments. She has been able to capitalize on the books’ popularity and finds an inherent ‘buy-in’ amongst her students, particularly among Science students who identify with Hogwarts’ scientific curriculum.
“It’s been a learning curve teaching the course. All of my learning as a teacher has typically been dedicated to stimulating class discussion and thinking of ways to ask questions people will feel comfortable responding to. With Harry Potter, it’s the other way around; it’s been a matter of learning how to rein in the discussion so it doesn’t run away with me,” she said.
There is significant value in teaching and discussing works at a university that are part of the cultural zeitgeist, Ceraldi pointed out. Like Leonard, she sees it as a gateway to English literature for non-English Studies students.
“I feel like this is one of the important things we can be doing, preparing people to engage with a critical alertness and a kind-of depth of psychological insight with things that are around them, and things that are meaningful to them, and that can be an ongoing project and in relation to elements of popular culture that are relevant to our culture right now,” she said. “I would think that someone who is at university now should be prepared 10 years from now to bring those same critical skills to the stories that haven’t even been told yet, but will be pivotal 10-15 years from now.”