In 2010 I got a call from an actor friend asking if I'd heard of a book called A Game of Thrones, as he was auditioning for the upcoming TV show and wanted advice "on the look". I told him that I had indeed read the novel, and that it was basically a reimagining of the Wars of the Roses in a Tolkienesque fantasy world.
"Olden times then?" James asked.
"Yes, olden times," I agreed.
James grew a beard, didn't wash his hair for a week and got the job.
But while it's true that George RR Martin was heavily influenced by the age of chivalry, the Wars of the Roses and JRR Tolkien (that's where the RR in his name comes from), the Song of Ice and Fire series also has a different, more interesting provenance, one that could suggest the Game of Thrones universe is located not in the past at all, but in the future.
Building on the work of George Macdonald, William Morris and Edward Plunkett, what became known as high fantasy was more or less invented by JRR Tolkien. Tolkien's Middle-earth is a reimagined prehistoric Europe with languages based on old Norse, old Welsh and old Irish, but that's about the only similarity to the real old Europe. Tolkien's version of Europe (or Eurasia) exists on a planet in a parallel universe where (according to The Silmarillion) the sun went around the Earth and the world was originally flat. This is not the history of our planet Earth, but an alternative mythological history of a planet with a passing resemblance to our own.
High fantasy as a genre exploded in the United States in the 1960s after the paperback publication of Lord of the Rings, but followers in Tolkien's tradition were not remotely consistent (thank goodness) as to where and when their books were actually taking place. Sometimes the fantasy writers set their novels in an ancient Earth; sometimes a parallel Earth; or quite often they offered no explanation at all as to the temporal and geographic location. A neat trick by Julian May in her Saga of the Pliocene Exiles was to use time travel, setting her series before humans (or even great apes) had evolved. The Conan books of Robert E Howard also took place in a rather less carefully reimagined prehistoric Europe. My favourite device of all is Stephen R Donaldson's in the Thomas Covenant series, where the reader (and protagonist) can't be sure whether the strange magical universe exists only inside the hero's own head.
The vast majority of these novels had swords, horses, kings, blacksmiths and inhabitants speaking "the common tongue", but where was it all happening? Apart from the extraordinary cartography in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, the early maps of these fantasy realms weren't exactly brilliant: West Land cropped up quite often, as did the Great South Forest, the Long Road, the Wide Sea …
But a different approach to fantasy writing had already been developed by the prolific science fiction author Jack Vance. Vance had no time for faux-medievalism and suggested instead that dragons, swords, magic, different races of men and so on would all actually be possible on an Earth millions of years hence, when the continents had changed shape, technology had failed and human and animal evolution had continued along its merry way.
The apocalyptic future has, of course, been a trope in Western literature since biblical times, but it was the vision of a far future in HG Wells's The Time Machine that inspired Vance. Vance set many stories on his forbidding Dying Earth, and a host of other science fiction and fantasy writers followed suit. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, set in an entropic, bleak, run-down, used-up future where the sun itself is about to sputter out, is probably the best exemplar of this genre. On Wolfe's wonderfully grim Earth, a professional torturer walks the land seeking what we're all seeking: meaning, redemption, somewhere to put our oversized broadsword and a bed for the night.
I am an admirer, too, of the almost entirely forgotten Road to Corlay series by Richard Cowper, set in a post-apocalyptic, drowned, pastoral England thousands of years from now. This gentle little series was slammed at the time as boring, but has influenced the likes of Isobelle Carmody and Colin Meloy.
The Dungeons and Dragons universe also largely takes place on a future Dying Earth (my favourite module, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, being the giveaway here). Of course, many of the fantasy novelists who began writing in the 1980s and 90s were childhood D&D players – George RR Martin among them. Martin was also a friend of Gene Wolfe, and such a fan of the late Jack Vance that he edited a tribute volume of stories explicitly set in Vance's world.
It seems to me, then, that it makes more sense to regard Game of Thrones as taking place not in some canned version of our medieval past but in the far future when the continents have shifted and some humans have evolved extraordinary physical and mental abilities which, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, are indistinguishable from magic.
All but the most basic technology has been forgotten (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jnr is the book to read here), so battles are fought between humans with swords and shields. Dragons have evolved or been genetically engineered from lizards and the more useful animals such as cows and horses are still around. As the sun expands, Earth's orbit becomes more eccentric and massive variations in climate are to be expected, resulting in stretched-out summers and long, deadly winters.
Michael Moorcock has famously criticised the Tolkien school of fantasy writing as depoliticised, war-glorifying, silly, illogical "Epic Pooh". While this accusation won't bother the casual reader, who can still happily regard A Song of Ice and Fire as a cod "olden times" fantasy, more thoughtful readers could argue that the books' provenance is a lot richer and deeper than that.