[Author's Note: Portions of this article were pulled from a recorded podcast experiment]
First of all, SPOILERS for Game of Thrones. If you’re not caught up through all of Game of Thrones, then this is going to ruin your day. In order to talk about how the show utilizes archival records, I have to spoil a pretty big plot point. So, if you haven’t watched through Season 7, then you should turn this off, watch the show, and come back. I’ll wait.
However, if you don’t watch Game of Thrones or don’t care about spoilers, let’s proceed.
Prior to the events of the series, the last major war to have occurred in Westeros was Robert’s Rebellion, named so for Robert Baratheon who rebelled against the then reigning House Targaryen after prince Rhaegar supposedly kidnapped Robert’s betrothed, Lyanna Stark, who also happened to be his best friend Ned Stark’s sister. By the end of the rebellion, Robert was crowned king, the Targaryen line was practically wiped out save for Daenerys and her brother Viserys who escaped to Essos, and Ned returned home to Winterfell and his wife Catelyn with his infant bastard son Jon Snow in tow.
As the series progressed, the mystery of Jon Snow’s parentage became a major story development as it was revealed that Jon was not Ned Stark’s bastard but the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, confirming the longstanding fan theory from the books (R+L=J). With the series no longer bound to the books for story beats - season 6 was the first to surpass George R.R. Martin’s published work - the creators went one further on Jon’s bastard DNA.
In the season seven episode “Eastwatch,” Samwell Tarly, Jon’s best friend from the Night’s Watch, is training to be a Maester at the Citadel. With him is Gilly and her infant son, Sam, wildlings he brought with him after his time beyond the Wall. Tasked with menial and demeaning labor, one of Sam’s duties is copying the text of decaying books and scrolls, which was a common practice during the historical medieval era this fantasy set show is based off of. George R.R. Martin primarily based the world of A Song of Ice and Fire within the context of the War of the Roses where the Dukes of York and Lancaster become the Starks and the Lannisters. History! Always inspiring!
But, back to the episode! During one particularly frustrating night, Gilly - still learning to read - inquires about the word “annulment.” The text is from the journal of High Septon Maynard, a detailed note taker, who writes about issuing an annulment for, as Gilly states, “Prince Ragger” in order to perform a secret wedding ceremony in Dorne - the region Rhaegar supposedly imprisoned Lyanna. Unknowingly, Gilly has discovered a key piece of evidence in the fight for the Iron Throne.
So how does this relate to the archive? Firstly, the Citadel functions as a sort of master library/archives/university for Westeros where books and scrolls are kept in chains and only insiders have access. Something about books and scrolls literally chained up with limited access feels like a metaphor, but maybe we’ll uncover that later. Secondly, the texts contained in the Citadel facilitate legitimacy throughout Westeros and provide contextual evidence in opposition of a prevailing narrative within the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Though it was rumored that Lyanna Stark’s “abduction” wasn’t quite accurate, the Septon’s notes confirm that she was not a damsel in need of rescuing, but a willing participant. Rhaegar didn’t take her away, she left of her own volition because she was in love. Sam then passes the Septon’s written words on to Bran Stark - taking credit for what Gilly had discovered, by the way. That should always be noted. Gilly discovered this information first and then Sam presented it to Bran like he discovered it. At least that’s how it’s depicted in the episode. The show doubles down on erasing Gilly's contribution when Sam finally tells Jon about his parentage in the season eight premiere, "Winterfell," and Jon relays it to Dany in the following episode, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms."
When Sam passes the Septon’s words to Bran Stark, who is now the Three-Eyed Raven, which is background I don’t have time to really get into, he’s able to “see” the ceremony, confirming that Jon isn’t just a bastard, but the legitimate son and heir of House Targaryen, named Aegon by his dying mother, and technically first in line to claim the throne. Also, Daenerys is his aunt who he’s having sex with as this information unfolds on screen. Ew.
One thought that definitely entered my mind as these events occurred was a profound sense of dread that Samwell didn't keep the text when he fled the Citadel. Without those pages he’d have a harder time convincing others of Jon’s possible claim since visions from Bran probably wouldn’t fly in the capitol. But that just proves how important archives are in A Song of Ice and Fire. Without the Septon’s journal, Jon’s lineage can’t be verified or given any credence since visions aren’t a legitimate form of evidence even in a high fantasy setting. It’s helpful to the audience as visual confirmation of Lyanna and Rhaegar’s mutual love, but there’s no evidentiary value within the actual world of the show. The written word, however, goes a long way.
Let’s not forget that in the first season Ned Stark figured out Joffrey Baratheon wasn’t Robert’s son, but the product of incest between Cersei, Robert’s wife, and her twin brother Jamie Lannister after reading through the Baratheon lineage in a book called the History of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms. Seems that noting hair color is the equivalent of signing one’s death warrant - at least in this case.
It’s something to look at in terms of how we’re approaching archives and archivists in pop culture. While these moments might seem small and trivial or just kind of necessary to further the story along, the means by which these people come by their information is through records; through genealogy, which Ned does in his own round about way; and then the discovery of evidence in an archival setting by Sam and Gilly. While the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is vast and has magical elements to it it’s still operating within a historically medieval setting wherein records began to have more sway as evidence.