Eddard Stark, Game of Thrones, Counterfactuals, and Historical Narrative

a screenshot from the video
It's incredibly difficult to find intelligent conversation on YouTube. Sure, you can find a limitless number of videos with elevated discourse—but YouTube's comment community is something else. Profanity, hate speech, trolling, pettiness, and mind-blowing ignorance are all run-of-the-mill fare in pretty much any sample of YouTube comments.

Several weeks ago, though, I found a video with some relatively intelligent comments—a video with a scene from the TV series Game of Thrones. (If you go to the video now and the most recent comments aren't so intelligent, you'll have to take my word for it.)

The scene in the video was the one in which Renly Baratheon asks Eddard Stark to help him seize the throne. Naturally, the honorable and legalistic Eddard refuses. The commenters all had opinions on whether Lord Stark had done the right thing—and how many lives might have been saved had he acted otherwise. All the commenters seemed to state their views with passion, and stated them in a decently articulate way.

This is exactly the sort of conversation that I wish went on in history classrooms. There are so many critical counterfactuals to be asked about our past—"what if" questions that challenge us to think of all the things that could have been different in history.

poster for HBO's John Adams
All this makes me think—why can't we have narratives of history that excite people as much as Game of Thrones? Well, perhaps there are some exciting historical TV programs out there: I mean to watch HBO's John Adams after being riveted by an episode shown in my U.S. history class.

However, historians have a fundamental problem with creating narratives in the same way as novelists and screenwriters: They can't just make stuff up. The methodology and even the ethics of the historical discipline clearly forbids it: If there is no direct or indirect evidence that something occurred, historians cannot state that it did. Nevertheless, historians do create narratives with basically all of the work they do—narratives of causation, importance, and the development (or loss) of everything we have (or don't have) today.

Of course, history's requirements of evidence in the construction of narratives don't prevent historians from using their imaginations; in fact, I think historians need to use their imaginations more often—especially in asking counterfactuals, which highlight causation and significance among historical factors. However, when historians use their imaginations, they must present their imaginings only as possibilities—not realities, as would the novelist or screenwriter. Imaginative history is all about exciting possibilities that are discussed as possibilities, not entertained as reality.

top image result for "counterfactual"
—a diagram on dependence (source)
Just for some examples, take a look at my "Quick Alternate History" posts, one called "A Franco-German Empire," and the other "A Post-Beringia Pre-Columbian Migration." Neither of the posts is very "quick," but my failure to be brief in my writing demonstrates how fun it can be to use one's imagination with history.

So, is it possible that historians and history educators can create narratives as exciting as stories like Game of Thrones? Well, I won't say it's impossible, but I think it's very difficult. Part of the reason is that it's all a two-way street between the author and the audience: When people choose to turn on the television or open a novel, they're already asking to imagine, to believe—and often they're asking to learn. (Just look at sites like Wookieepedia, Memory Alpha, and A Wiki of Ice and Fire to see how people accumulate knowledge about fictional universes.) In the same manner, students coming into a history classroom (or opening a history book) need to have their minds just as open to investigating, learning, and imagining.

Narratives and counterfactuals—stories and ideas of what might have been—have the potential to make learning about history incredibly exciting. Many people may still end up having more passion for analyzing fiction than analyzing the past—and that's ok. Still, I believe igniting that same kind of passion in a high school history classroom or college lecture hall is an invigorating prospect—both for educators and, hopefully, for students.

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