Game of Thrones and medieval poetry.
Game of Thrones, of which the season finale is tonight, is the rare show that affords Middle English enthusiasts a chance to geek out: the series makes many nods to medieval literature. Scholars have noted that it draws on the themes and features of such canonical medieval works as the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. But as I watch, I’m reminded of another, more obscure work from the period, the fifteenth-century dream-vision poem “Mum and the Sothsegger,” which bears a number of striking parallels to Game of Thrones.
“Mum” is a strange, alliterative work about gossip and government and bees (yes, bees). No one is sure who wrote it, and its beginning and end are missing, which only adds to the mystery surrounding its composition. The poem essentially investigates whether it’s better to stay mum or to speak the truth; the titular Mum and Sothsegger personify the two sides of the debate. The work is a product of Lancastrian England, a time when—after Henry IV had overthrown and executed Richard II to become king—the royal court used severe censorship to quell dissent. Measures like the Arundel Constitution of 1409 meant you could be burned at the stake for expressing any vaguely defined “heretical” beliefs. In light of its historical moment, “Mum” is most convincingly read as a poem about succession anxiety and managing dissent. The poem is interested in the same questions of political philosophy that drive GoT, trying to work out how a person should be and how the state should comport itself toward its citizens.
Henry IV’s status as a usurper, much like Robert Baratheon’s after the overthrow of the Mad King in Thrones, sets a possible precedent for overthrow, raising the question of whether the old rules of succession still apply. In the face of brute force, lineage and birthright appear to be irrelevant—now if you kill the king, you are the king. In “Mum,” the anonymous poet walks a fine line in bringing the justness of Henry’s rule into question. He couches backhanded compliments in what appear to be lavish bouts of praise for the new king. He lauds Henry for being “witte and wise” and “cunnyng of werre,” but the passage is incendiary by dint of what’s left out—there’s no mention of lineage (the defining kingly quality), because the king has none. Henry is characterized as a “doer in deedes of armes”: seemingly a compliment to his battle skills, but also a way of carefully underscoring the violent means by which he took the throne.
In working within the restriction of expression under Lancastrian rule, the poem reveals a currency of information in which careful calculation is used to determine how much it’s safe to say. In this system, keeping mum is a form of greed, in which secrets become a form of wealth and information is hoarded until the right moment, when it can be cashed in for maximum value. The figure of Mum embodies the idea of ars tacendi, or the art of being quiet, art being the key word here—anyone can be quiet, but it’s an art to overhear the right stuff and keep strategically quiet. Mum is a yes-man, an apparent friend, a seductive confidant, who sits on secrets “forto wynne silver” (and other kinds of purchase).
Several of GoT’s characters have similar ambitions. Think of Margaery Tyrell, the eunuch Lord Varys, and the brothel-owner-gone-rogue Littlefinger, whom designations of gender, ethnicity, monetary wealth, status, et cetera have excluded from other venues of power—they gain purchase in the game through the expert collection and deployment of secrets. So when is it time to speak up? According to Mum, “He spendith no speche but spices hit make,” meaning don’t say a word unless you’re getting paid (in paprika, apparently). In line with this advice, Margaery, Varys, and Littlefinger often employ bribery and blackmail to leverage information as currency.
“Mum and the Sothsegger” presents Mum as the more persuasive option in terms of self-interest and self-preservation—but ultimately the poem redeems telling the truth as the moral high road. Sothsegger, Mum’s counterpoint, is depicted as an exalted gardener-beekeeper who offers the possibility of correction by speaking up. Even Mum admits, in his often contradictory speech:
For who hat knowlache of a cloude by cours abouve,
And wil stande stille til the storme falle
And wende not of the waye, and the wite is his owen.
If you see the storm clouds and you don’t find shelter, it’s your own fault. Still, telling the truth can be a dangerous path in a society that places a high value on discretion. A beekeeper runs the risk of getting stung. There’s no clear earthly reward, and the risk of punishment is high.
Ned Stark can be seen as a kind of Sothsegger figure in GoT. He refuses to keep his mouth shut and pursues the truth for what he perceives to be the good of the realm—this concern for “the realm” in Westeros mirrors the idea of the “common profit” that appears throughout medieval literature. For his commitment to the truth and his refusal to shut up about the illegitimacy of Joffrey’s reign, Ned Stark pays with his head. Likewise, the Sothsegger mentality prevails when Robb Stark insists on having the truth of his relationship with Talisa out in the open, despite her low status and the clear betrayal of the contract with House Frey, and, more recently, when Prince Oberyn commits himself to extracting the truth of his sister’s rape and murder from the Mountain, which proves to be his downfall.
In the dream-vision segment of the poem, the narrator falls asleep and finds himself in a garden with a hive full of busy bees. Here the truth-telling beekeeper gives the poem its own “winter is coming” moment as he explains the bees’ workmanship:
“The bees been so bisi,” cothe he, “aboute comune profit,
And tendeth al to travail while the tyme dureth
Of the somer saison and of the swete floures;
Thayr wittes been in wirching and in no wile elles
Forto waite any waste til winter approche,
That licour thaym lacke thair lyfe to susteyne.”
The bees and the hive serve as metaphors for the ideal citizen and the ideal state, with winter as the catchall term for times of war, famine, and lack. The surplus of honey is viewed in terms of future shortage, squirreled away as a life-sustaining “licour.” Like the Starks of Winterfell, the bees live in a state of constant vigilance, held to the grindstone by the knowledge that “winter approche.”
In its criticism of Henry and the hypocrisies of the nobility, “Mum and the Sothsegger” is pretty radical for the conservative poetry of its time, but its radicalism is tempered by its formal aspects. The poem is an act of dissent in a repressed climate—it’s full of feints and winks and knowing indirection. And so, in its way, is Game of Thrones: it pays homage to the medieval literary tradition by adopting this model of intentional fakeness, couching its tale in the fictional realm of Westeros, not to dodge persecution for heresy but to evoke the universal. In its fabricated familiarity, Westeros comments on the broader philosophical questions of citizen and state, which remain pertinent as ever.
The full text of Mum and the Sothsegger is available through the University of Rochester. Here are its first twenty lines:
Hough the coroune moste be kepte fro covetous peuple
Al hoole in his hande and at his heeste eke,
That every knotte of the coroune close with other,
And not departid for prayer ne profit of grete,
Leste uncunnyng come yn and caste up the halter
And crie on your cunseil for coigne that ye lacke,
For thay shal smaicche of the smoke and smerte thereafter
Whenne collectours comen to caicche what thay habben.
And though your tresorier be trewe and tymbre not to high,
Hit wil be nere the worse atte wyke-is ende,
For two yere a tresorier twenty wyntre aftre
May lyve a lordis life, as leued men tellen.
Now your chanchellier that chief is to chaste the peuple
With conscience of your cunseil that the coroune kepith,
And alle the scribes and clercz that to the court longen,
Bothe justice and juges yjoyned and other,
Sergeantz that serven for soulde atte barre,
And the prentys of court, prisist of alle,
Loke ye reeche not of the riche and rewe on the poure
That for faute of your fees fallen in thaire pleyntes.
Chantal McStay studies English at Columbia University and is an intern at The Paris Review.