Game of Thrones, Ovid, and You

If you’re anything like me, you’re all caught up on Season 6 of the most infuriatingly intense fantasy series Game of Thrones and your friends are either non-watchers or not quite up to speed and you have no one to vent to. If we’re anywhere near honest, the first half of the season seemed to drag on, making us all but lose hope until the very end. But those who held out to the end – like me – were both punished and rewarded, in true Game of Thrones fashion.

Additionally, if you’re like me – namely, a twenty-something graduate student with a penchant for ancient history – then you’ve been enjoying (ecstatic, really) the nods to ancient events and ancient literature that have been all too clear in the past few episodes.

Spoilers ahead (read on at your own peril).

Episode 9 treated all you ancient warfare buffs with the Battle of the Bastards, namely Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. As this article by Time so accurately spells out, the epic battle scene between the two armies and, eventually, the Knights of the Vale (thanks, Sansa) was inspired by the Battle of Cannae between the Romans and the Carthaginians (led by the infamous Hannibal) in 216 BCE. In both battles, a double envelopment is used by Bolton’s army (and the Carthaginians) to encircle the enemy. However, where the Romans were defeated, Snow’s army prevailed with a little help from his sister.

However, what intrigued me about Episode 10 – and what seriously had me yelling at my computer screen in a mixture of knowledge and joy – was the all-too-familiar scene between Walder Frey and a disguised Arya Stark.

In this scene, Walder, sitting alone in his banquet hall, is served what looks like a pie by a servant girl (who, earlier, had been giving Jamie Lannister the eyes). He harasses her as is his nature, and orders her to send his sons in for a meeting. She tells them that they are already there. In disbelief, as no one but the two of them are present, he orders her again as she serves him a slice of pie. Again, she tells him that his sons are already there. Then she points to the pie, and, lo-and-behold, there’s a bit of toe sticking out of the top.

She’s killed his sons and made them into pie. She then reveals her true identity and slits his throat, letting him bleed out in his chair. Looks like that whole boring eight-episode storyline really had a purpose, after all. You go girl.

Now what makes this scene so awesome to me? In a story by the Roman poet Ovid, as related in his famous Metamorphoses, a similar situation is described:

Then-with no pause-she pounced on Itys, like
A tigress pouncing on a suckling fawn
In the dark jungle where the Ganges glides,
And dragged him to a distant lonely part
Of the great house. He saw his fate and cried
‘Mother! Mother!’ and tried to throw his arms
Around her neck. She struck him with a knife
Below the ribs, and never even looked
Away; one wound sufficed to seal his fate.
And Philomela slit his throat. Alive,
And breathing still, they carved and jointed him,
And cooked the parts; some bubbled in a pan,
Some hissed on spits; the closet swam with blood.
Then to the banquet Procne called her husband,
Unwitting, unsuspecting, and dismissed
The courtiers and servants: on this day,
So she pretended, at her father’s court,
This holy day, the husband dines alone.
So, seated high on his ancestral throne,
King Tereus dines and, dining, swallows down
Flesh of his flesh, and calls, so dark the night
That blinds him, ‘Bring young Itys here to me!’
Oh joy! She cannot hide her cruel joy,
And, bursting to announce her deed of doom,
‘You have him here’, she cries, ‘inside!’ and he
Looks round, asks where he is, and, as he asks
And calls again, in rushes Philomela,
Just as she is, that frantic butchery
Still spattered in her hair, and throws the head
Of Itys, bleeding, in his father’s face.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.422-674

Of course, the stories differ in significant ways. In Ovid’s tale, Procne, the wife of Tereus – who raped and disfigured his sister-in-law and lied to his wife about it – kills her own son and feeds him to her husband to avenge her sister and punish Tereus. In Game of Thrones, Arya is of no relation to Walder Frey, but similarly kills his sons and cooks them up and feeds them to him in retribution for his crime committed against her family (i.e. the murders of her brother and mother at the Red Wedding, and the mutilation of Robb’s body post-mortem).

Even though no official credit has been given to the Ovid story for this less-than-five-minute scene like credit had been given to the Battle of Cannae for the Battle of the Bastards sequence, and despite the fact that there are clear differences (such as the fact that no one turns into a bird in the end), the similarities are still there.

It is interesting to see how influential classics can be on popular culture, and even more – it’s amazing to know that I have retained so many of these ancient stories to an extent where I can recognize them from the smallest of details in other media. I may have to wait a whole year until I can see what happens next in this crazy show, but I’ll know to keep an eye out for other classical influences in the future.

What are your thoughts on the season finale? Any thoughts on the connections between Ovid and the Arya scene? Any predictions for the next season? Comment below!

Thanks for reading!

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