What Were the Women of “Thrones”?

There’s something attractive about watching Game of Thrones’ labyrinthine drama unfold in a world where stone, wood, and steel reign supreme. Amid ...

There’s something attractive about watching Game of Thrones’ labyrinthine drama unfold in a world where stone, wood, and steel reign supreme. Amid all the volatility and madness and death, at least the edifices are built to last (barring wildfire and dragon fire, of course). This medieval aesthetic has received considerable attention throughout the wildly successful life of HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic; along the way, there’s been a corresponding increase in the attention paid to medieval epics and medieval history in general. A lot about Thrones can be read as medieval: the Wars of the Roses–like feuding, the political machinations, the chivalric gesturing, the grim violence, the enthusiasm for wine.

But as viewers have become more invested in the show, such straightforward comparisons have been sidelined in favor of discussing broader—and, many would say, more pressing—issues of contemporary bearing. Game of Thrones’s feminism, or failures therein, has been widely debated, as has its exploration of memory and mortality. And that’s not to mention the show’s representations of trauma, race, and madness. The social and political immediacy of these themes seems in many ways irreconcilable with the tenets of medieval epic storytelling, a genre that generally favors character archetypes, clear-cut heroes and villains, and women in supporting roles.

The recent series finale didn’t help. Subverting the expectations of viewers, relying on a dramatic momentum fueled by contradictions, Thrones not only seemed to drop the ball on bigger issues like race and feminism; it also left countless questions unanswered, while making “winners” out of “losers” and “losers” out of “heroes.” In short, it made trouble for its very genre: why care what literary tradition Thrones reenacts (knowingly or not), when its failures and paradoxes so prominently play into contemporary sociopolitical debate while diverging from the medieval model?

Perhaps part of the problem is that we viewers have been looking at the wrong epic archetype.1 What if we’ve never had the right tools with which to assess the most compelling—and controversial—parts of the show? What if Thrones wasn’t a progressive remake of antiquated medieval forms (with a welcome addition of complex characters and leading women, for example), but rather heir to a very good, unfortunately overlooked genre—a genre that, had we read and studied it earlier, might have clued us in to the show’s strengths and weaknesses sooner?

There is, in fact, just such a kind of epic—both very good and overlooked—that grapples, front and center, with themes like the authority of women in warfare and politics; the nexus of power, madness, and love; and the anxiety of dynastic succession and political legitimacy. Our gaze must only shift slightly, from the Middle Ages (spanning roughly the 5th to 14th centuries) to the Italian Renaissance (roughly the 14th to 17th centuries). During this time, the subgenre of Italian romance epic—in which the passions of romance complicate characters’ attempts at the heroic deeds of epic, and vice versa—found its masterpiece in Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516 Orlando Furioso.2

Reaching a better understanding of the literary heritage of Thrones demonstrates how the “timely” issues we debate today were also debated centuries ago. This can, in turn, help us grapple with how such issues were addressed—or not—before, and can also reveal what a new, progressive path forward might look like.

Whether or not we believe that Thrones represents progress, it’s clear that the show looks backward to earlier times for something (but whether praise, critique, or inspiration remains unclear). As Catherine Bates explains, “it is a quintessential if not defining characteristic of epic to refer back to and revise what went before.”3 She adds that “to understand Renaissance epic texts, for example, it is necessary to see them as speaking to and commenting upon a millennia-long tradition that stretches back as far as Homer if not beyond; while they, in turn, set up new (Christian or romance) agendas that are crucial to understanding the development of epic in texts of later periods.” Following Bates’s definition of epic, looking backward need not be a negative.

Identifying how Thrones’s “fantasy epic” revives and revises innovations by the Furioso’s “romance epic” can clarify much about the show, and, fortunately, much about ourselves: what’s changed and what remains worryingly the same. Reading Thrones and the Furioso together reveals the epic genre’s triumphs—world building, multiplicity of characters, overturned gender expectations—and limitations: most saliently, in the case of the discussion to follow, what exactly it takes for a woman to be an epic hero.

Why care what literary tradition “Thrones” reenacts, when its failures and paradoxes so prominently play into contemporary sociopolitical debate while diverging from the medieval model?

Italian authors had been experimenting with epic long before Ariosto wrote his 1516 Orlando Furioso. But the Furioso is broadly considered the pinnacle of the romance epic genre: it was 16th-century Italy’s equivalent of a blockbuster hit.4 Bolstered by the expansion of the printing press, the work became so popular that the narrative upon which it was based, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s two-decades-old L’Innamoramento di Orlando (1495), was subsequently renamed Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love) by publishers, to mimic Ariosto’s newer title.5

Like Ariosto’s reboot, Boiardo’s tale was a romance epic: the literary heir to an Italian tradition that had been innovating on earlier medieval models already for some time (models that many have seen as the forebears of Game of Thrones). Boiardo’s Innamorato fused the tradition of French heroic poetry—Carolingian historical epic that narrated the heroic martyrdom of the famed paladin Roland (or Orlando, in Italian) in Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens—with that of Arthurian romance adventures, which featured characters like King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Woven into this were elements drawn from the classical epic tradition’s myths of the Trojan War and foundation stories of Rome.6 The result was a very rich, expansive tapestry.

No single action unites Boiardo’s plot, which rotates among a cast of characters that include the warrior Orlando; his cousin Rinaldo; a Saracen princess, Angelica, who is the object of both Orlando’s and Rinaldo’s love; the Saracen knight Ruggiero; the warrior woman Marfisa, sister to Ruggiero; the Christian warrior woman Bradamante, sister to Rinaldo; and the English knight Astolfo. But Boiardo’s practical objective, like Ariosto’s decades later, was to mythologize the dynastic origins of his patrons: the Este family, ruling dukes of contemporary Ferrara. Among these characters, the knight Ruggiero was destined to convert to Christianity and found the Estense line.

Boiardo’s work on the Innamorato was interrupted by the French king Charles VIII’s 1494 invasion of Italy. So two decades later, Ariosto picked up where Boiardo’s narrative left off: in the Furioso, Orlando and Rinaldo are (still, somehow) chasing Angelica, one of many continuities with Boiardo’s original. But Ariosto takes the Innamorato’s model to the extreme, adding more characters, narrative threads, and digressive stories-within-the-story.

For one thing, Ariosto exaggerates the medieval technique of entrelacement, in which accounts are suspended and reprised mid-episode to heighten suspense. At a certain point, for example, Angelica is kidnapped by pirates, deposited at a seaside colony, and chained to a cliffside as a sacrificial offering to a sea monster. But as her screams fill the air, Ariosto’s narrator interrupts the account, claiming that “I shall not tell you more—it is too painful, and sorrow drives me to turn my rhymes into some other direction, / and find less harrowing verses until my weary spirit recovers.” So Angelica remains chained to the rock while the narrator cycles through seven other episodes until finally returning to free her, at the hands of Ruggiero.

Throughout the text, Ariosto draws upon a vast literary heritage, ranging from natural histories to theater; his title, in fact, juxtaposes Boiardo’s original with that of the ancient Senecan tragedy Hercules furens. Ariosto pushes even further the boundaries of epic world building, expanding the geographic limits of the Furioso as far as, for example, the moon: Astolfo is ferried there by John the Evangelist, because that is “where everything that is lost on earth (be the fault ours or that of time or fate) fetches up miraculously”; they locate Orlando’s lost wits—existing in “the form of a soft, tenuous liquid, apt to vaporize”—sealed in glass jars. We can already see how this new narrative complexity and geographical invention prefigure Thrones’s celebrated invention, intricacy, and cliffhangers, as well as its movements across—and exploration of what lies beyond—the Westerosi world map.

Ariosto introduces his program of epic amplification from the first verses of the Furioso, in which he declares, “Le donne, i cavalier, l’arme, gli amori, / Le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto”: “I sing of knights and ladies, of love and arms, of courtly chivalry, of courageous deeds.” Readers of ancient Virgilian epic will recognize the echo of the Aeneid’s opening verse, “arma virumque cano”: “Arms and the man I sing.”7 It’s not Ariosto alone who augments the notion of what can be “sung” in epic (a genre rooted in popular performance), but he is the first to unite such myriad themes. And whereas Boiardo had incorporated material from the foundational myths of Rome in his Innamorato, Ariosto draws the concerns of classical epic to the fore alongside those of Carolingian epic and Arthurian romance, expanding and diversifying even further Boiardo’s model.

Much like in Thrones, the themes that emerge from this confluence provide a gateway for Ariosto to explore topics of contemporary relevance. Although he was writing in a time today viewed as a golden age—these were, after all, the years of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Niccolò Machiavelli—it was also a period in which Italy, not yet unified as a nation but divided into smaller areas governed by separate courts, was facing a host of dangerous issues. These included conflicts between courtly city-states, challenges to political legitimacy, an expanding world map, invasions by foreign powers, the crisis of chivalric mores, and the querelle des femmes, or “woman question” (an expansive debate on the worth and sociopolitical role of women).

Viewers of Game of Thrones will recognize in the just-cited list a remarkable resonance with many of the show’s primary topics of debate, which have elicited both celebration and controversy. Quite fittingly, Ariosto’s opening lines literally sing first of le donne—the women. One of Thrones’s breakout features was how its women variously cultivated and exercised power in a patriarchal society, from employing military might (Daenerys) to political manipulation (Cersei and Sansa) to gender subversions (Arya and Brienne of Tarth) to religious control (Melisandre). Equally important, Thrones’s women were not unidimensional: we found them admirable, repulsive, ambiguous, sympathetic, challenging, inspiring.

Reading “Thrones” and the “Furioso” together reveals the epic genre’s triumphs—world building, multiplicity of characters, overturned gender expectations—and limitations.

Ariosto’s engagement with women is comparably groundbreaking. Although warrior women already populated medieval epic (dating back to Virgil’s Camilla), Ariosto, in the new Italian hybrid genre, amplifies Marifsa’s and Bradamante’s narrative presence and gender-defying characteristics. Marfisa, for example, unassisted and disguised as a male knight, kills nine men in battle while trapped on the island of the “killer women,” whose tradition it is to capture men lost at sea and demand near-impossible feats of strength and virility. Ariosto also employs a diverse cast of female characters, ranging from the archetypical “damsel in distress” (Olimpia) to a malicious, Circe-like (and in some cases, Cersei-like) sorceress (Alcina) to a bitter, quarrelsome hag (Gabrina).

Even more important, he anchors his dynastic narrative not to Ruggiero—the male soldier destined to found Ariosto’s patron’s house—but to the female knight Bradamante. It is she, not her husband-to-be, Ruggiero, who receives the prophecy of their union and dynastic future. So despite Bradamante’s military victories and virtues as a character, her ultimate power is bound not to her chivalry but to what she symbolizes in genealogical terms, as the female progenitor of the Estense line. Therefore, Bradamante stands as a crucial exemplar of what Eleonora Stoppino describes as a “female-based dynastic discourse.”8 Such a phrase could easily be repurposed to describe Thrones’s obsessive focus on, for example, Daenerys’s and Cersei’s bloodlines, as well as their complicated relationships with maternity.

But, as in Thrones, Ariosto’s (relative) foregrounding of women is not without contradictions. In certain cases, for example, Ariosto can’t seem to decide whether female knights are admirable or ridiculous. And once Bradamante weds Ruggiero, she abandons entirely her masculine military lifestyle, subdued into “appropriate” (which is to say, feminine) domesticity. In a certain sense, Ariosto achieves what many have accused Thrones of doing: exalting its women while simultaneously undermining them.

This tension between raising women up and tearing them down can be seen in Thrones’s treatment of Daenerys, who also fits well into Ariosto’s new model for the epic nexus of power, madness, and love. (Spoilers ahead.) Once an emblem of feminism and justice, Daenerys succumbed over the course of two episodes to so-called “Targaryen madness,” leading to her untimely demise. Although her destructiveness may have surpassed that modeled by Ariosto’s women, Daenerys also ended up closely aligned with the male Orlando, whose titular madness, resulting in a rampage from Europe to Africa, is prompted by Angelica’s romantic rejection. It was similarly implied that Daenerys’s madness in Thrones and subsequent torching of King’s Landing were catalyzed by Jon’s romantic rejection.


The Return of Homer’s Women

By Eleanor Johnson

These are not the only parallels between Thrones and the Furioso. But even these few points of alignment demonstrate the romance epic’s strength as a model through which to better understand Thrones: in this case, by revealing the literary underpinnings of how impossible Daenerys’s political claim really is. The “better world” Daenerys sought to build insisted on her blood-given claim to rule; her bloodline, however, was tainted by a history of incest and madness. Moreover, her bloodline would end, since Daenerys herself was barren: the very antithesis of epic’s obsession with dynastic heirs. We may not have liked Daenerys’s fall at the hands of her lover-cum-nephew-cum-dynastic rival (I certainly didn’t), but seen through Ariosto’s lens, she never could have been a Bradamante. Ariosto reminds us just how deep-seated the paradox is for such women who buy into the dynastic system—which necessarily depends on heirs and consequently values women mostly for their maternity—but also seek empowerment through it. And Thrones reminds us, too: in the end, it is Bran “the Broken,” a man removed from dynastic interests and incapable of producing an heir, who gets to accomplish Daenerys’s goal of “breaking the wheel.”

Is this regressive? Yes. But reading Thrones through epic’s historical evolution from medieval to romance can reveal much: in this case, how the convention of women as genealogical vessels above all has been entrenched in our cultural discourse for centuries. In the light of Ariosto, that is, Daenerys never stood a chance.

It’s a lesson that we might have known earlier, if we’d read the correct epic models alongside their contemporary manifestation. More broadly, the parallels that emerge between Thrones and the Furioso remind us that our contemporary debates are not incompatible with the problems posed by historical epic; rather, many of the social, cultural, and political issues we grapple with today featured already in the premodern world. The work continues.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Epic has a long and complicated tradition: over the millennia, countless subgenres have emerged. These include ancient Greek epic, classical Latin epic, Christian epic, medieval epic, Renaissance epic, romance epic, parodic mock-epic, modern epic, fantasy epic (the list goes on). Since these categories conflate chronological and thematic qualifiers, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
  2. The first edition was printed in 1516, but Ariosto continued to work on it and another edition with five added cantos was printed in 1532. For an English translation, see Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman (Oxford University Press, 1983).
  3. See The Cambridge Companion to the Epic, edited by Catherine Bates (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  4. See Daniel Javitch, Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of Orlando Furioso (Princeton University Press, 1991).
  5. Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love), translated from the Italian by Charles Stanley Ross (Parlor Press, 2004).
  6. For more detail on the “prehistory of the romance epic in Italy,” see Jane Everson, The Italian Romance Epic in the Age of Humanism: The Matter of Italy and the World of Rome (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 28–52.
  7. Virgil, The Aeneid, translated from the Latin by Frederick Ahl (Oxford University Press), p. 3.
  8. See Eleonora Stoppino, Genealogies of Fiction: Women Warriors and the Dynastic Imagination in the Orlando Furioso (Fordham University Press, 2012).
Featured image: Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones (2017). IMDb