It’s the spring semester at Northern Illinois University, but 20 students are learning the most important lesson in all of Westeros: Winter is coming.
The University Honors Program at NIU this semester launched “Game of Thrones, Television and Medieval History,” inspired by the insanely popular HBO show based on the book series by George R. R. Martin.
The seminar can be taken for honors credit. The class is mostly comprised of juniors and seniors, and one freshman, said Valerie Garver, one of the two professors.
“The students are really good,” she said. “They are very smart students that are able to make intelligent connections. Some have a strong interest in medieval history.”
“Game of Thrones” began in 2011 and has been a juggernaut of a pop culture icon ever since. Before the fifth season even debuted on Sunday, pulling in eight million viewers, the show had been renewed through six seasons into 2016. It’s already one of the longest-running and most-watched shows ever for HBO, surpassing hits such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”
The show’s complex storylines feature many, many different characters vying for control in a mythical world where bloodlines are everything and dragons fly. It has inspired shirts, toys and discussion among its rabid fans.
Jennifer Wegmann-Gabb, a post-baccalaureate art history major at NIU and “Game of Thrones” fan, helped create the class by introducing Garver to Jeff Chown, who taught a class Wegmann-Gabb took about the TV show “Mad Men.”
“It’s really nice as a student you can give a suggestion or put two people together and watch them work their magic,” Wegmann-Gabb said. “It makes an impact on your learning experience. For me personally, I’m going into grad school to teach at the college level. Seeing how a class is created from idea to completion gives me ideas for when I’m able to create my own classes and coursework.”
Chown, the seminar’s other professor, said he was a fan of Martin’s universe since he read the books.
“There are a lot of television shows out there, but this show breaks through the clutter,” Chown said. “It unnerves you. In the first season, your main character is killed off. After that, you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s a little unnerving, but it’s also exciting. We’re tense about what’s going to happen.”
The class syllabus includes weekly readings, watching episodes of “Game of Thrones” in order through their first four seasons, and presentations on the show and how it relates to modern cable technology, history and current events.
“There was tremendous demand. I think the class filled up in about an hour,” Chown said. “We’ll be offering it again next spring.”
From an educational standpoint, Chown said, “Game of Thrones” features many key themes that relate to today, despite being set in mythological times, such as sexuality and sexual violence, politics, and the treatment of people with disabilities.
The show also pulls from several pieces of history, including medieval times and the War of the Roses. Despite the fantasy elements, Garver praised the realism of the show.
“It represents aspects of the Middle Ages much more realistically than other media depictions that purport to be more accurate,” she said. “It stands out because it comments on the human condition in a way that seems real to people. It’s a really good example of a piece of modern culture that draws on how the past impacts the present.”
Alex Weier, a junior accounting major, got hooked on “Game of Thrones” before enrolling in the class. He said it’s the “fantasy show for people who don’t like fantasy.” He said he enjoys that the show represents different historical periods and religions.
“It’s a lot more in-depth than you realize,” Weier said. “The themes of the show are reality-based themes, where good doesn’t always beat evil. It keeps you on your toes.”