Repeating history

Famously, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Despite the fame of this statement, in the lists of famous quotations it seems that nobody quite said it – though Edmund Burke was probably the first I could find to express a similar sentiment. 

Based on John Kay’s contributions to a Point of View, even those who do learn from history are still doomed to repeat it.  He always strikes me as a very wise chap, though his pronouncements are rarely cheery for those of us trying to hold on to the last vestiges of hope for the future.  Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that he is right in all the essentials of his argument – belief that human nature will change any time soon is bound to lead to disappointment.  Even from my own more limited reading of history, the problems facing the world today are surprisingly similar in their fundamentals to those of 100, 200, 300 or even 400 years ago.  We have more technological toys and our mastery of the physical world is greater, but the people using them are pretty much the same as their ancestors – despite what we might like to think.  I suppose this may let our current political masters somewhat off-the-hook for their singular ineptitude, but they could at least attempt to learn some lessons from the past.

However, it was listening to Aamer Rachman on the Comedian’s Comedian podcast which led to the the genesis of this post.  He was a very interesting chap and I have been inspired to try and catch him live when next he visits these shores, however, his key observation (at least in relation to the subject in hand) was to note the rather strong racism that pervades Game of Thrones – the current TV and “literary” hit.

I have watched GoT (well, the first three series so far) and do find it quite entertaining (as does Mr Rachman) but cannot deny that he has a very good point.  Before continuing, I should warn readers that there may be ** SPOILERS ** coming which you may wish to avoid if you are even further behind the GoT curve than I.  

I would not want to accuse the author or producers of GoT of being actively racist in their choices, but merely suffering from the lack of imagination that afflicts so much fantasy (and, for that matter, science fiction).  So much speculative fiction (as I described it on my early CVs to conceal its exact nature from potential employers) basically rehashes the recent history of this planet (5000 years or so) in a more magical or technologically advanced realm.

Thus in Star Trek, the klingons seem to be the vikings slightly rebranded – and the citizens of the north of Westeros fit into a similar mould (perhaps with a hint of Angle or Saxon about them).  The Romulans are even named after Rome and borrow many of its conventions, and the southern Westerosi also seem to have many features of Rome or Byzantium about them – even down to the use of a clear analogue of Byzantine Greek fire in the battle of Blackwater Bay.  Westeros also has clear parallels with medieval Europe in its political shenanigans, while fear of ice giants and endless winter is lifted straight from Norse mythology.

If we head over the Shining Sea, we come to a fantasy take on Asia.  The Dothraki are channelling the Mongols and we have Barbary slavers and rich, advanced cities as once lined the Silk Road on the Earth Mk 1.  No sign, yet, of China – nor any indication of a Westerosi equivalent of the myth of Prester John – but I fully expect its equivalent to appear in the fullness of time.  As in the history of Western Europe during the medieval period, GoT shows little sign of any influence from its version of Africa – indeed what lies south of the seven kingdoms remains a complete mystery.

I think I’ve made my point and so will just say that it would be nice to have more fantasy worlds which do not so slavish follow the path-dependencies of our own, where those of Western European descent can still imagine they are in the ascendent.  Some do avoid repeating history, even choosing to have an Africa in the ascendent – far from an unlikely outcome given the tendency of humans to cling to continuity and, as a result, prove unable to leap-frog the legacy of past mistakes – or choose worlds and histories which diverge wildly from our own.  However, I fear these have a greater struggle penetrating the popular consciousness in the West – as a species, we are (perhaps) over-fond of the familiar.

Anyway, while I’m sticking the boot (fairly gently, I hope) into GoT, there is another matter I’d like to remove from its current resting place atop my sternum.  I have the strong feeling that George RR Martin’s writing has something of my way of playing chess about it.  He knows how to start the game and, like me, can probably manage the end game given a couple of rooks – but does rather flail around in the middle hoping that inspiration will strike.  There are times when it strikes me that he has run out of things for a character to do, and so manoeuvres them to their death – much like I might use an exchange of pieces to try and create some direction to my mid-game doldrums. Unlike in chess, he can create whole new pieces as a method to invigorate proceedings, but this just makes the clutter on the “board” worse – hence the need for occasional massacres to clear out some of the dead wood.  I feel that somewhere in the sprawling saga that makes up GoT, there is a trilogy (or perhaps a novel) trying to break free – if only they could find a decent editor.  Then again, history is even less well-structured or focused (especially to those of us living through it) – so perhaps GRRM is repeating history in more ways than I had originally been hypothesising.  And, it is great fun trying to deduce which characters have run out of “plot” and are about to be knocked-off!


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