When I was driving back from Pittsburgh before I had this interview, I got cut off by a large truck. A three-second miscalculation, and you’d be having this conversation with someone else. And that [feeling], I think, is what Martin does. In terms of disability, it really reminds us of how profoundly vulnerable that we are—that the boundary between the abled and the disabled is so thin.
Kornhaber: And that’s, in the end, a good thing for attitudes toward people with disabilities?
Mayer: One of the things I like about Martin is that he doesn’t fall into these tropes of disability. Hodor is the closest— I’m kind of disappointed that he fell sort of into the sacrificial Christ trope. But think of the rest of the people who are disabled in the show. I think it’s a good thing that Bran is a profoundly complicated individual. He’s abusing Hodor but he’s not an evil character—he’s selfish and lacks empathy on occasion, just like everybody else. [By contrast] imagine what Dickens would have done with him: Tiny Tim.
Tyrion is a dwarf, but he’s not so much confined by dwarfishness as much as he is by his own internalization of ableist discourse. Now, again, this cuts across class and cuts across a whole lot of other issues, but I think that there is a huge step forward in the fact that you’ve got people in here who are disabled, who are complex, sometimes really annoying, sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish, sometimes unselfish. I think Martin is really trying to not put them into types or use them as some symbol for the suffering of humanity or something like that.
Kornhaber: In terms of real medieval history, how would someone like Hodor have been thought about and treated?
Mayer: Well, that’s a difficult, complex question. It would depend on a variety of things. Somebody like Hodor, who is of a serving class, who is immensely strong, who, let’s say, had some sort of tragic accident—he probably wouldn’t be treated too much differently.
He would be considered a useful body, probably tormented by some people, probably helped by others. The medieval church did stress that one was supposed to be Christlike in one’s actions, which meant one was supposed to be empathic and compassionate. There might be the kind of thing that surrounded the figure of the fool as someone who may have other wisdom or greater innocence—we get these narratives from places.
I’m leery about any sort of generalization turning medieval people into a homogenous mass. Class does have a huge influence. Courtly literature will usually show lower classes as being inherently less intelligent, less good looking, less able to do things. There’s the trope of the kid of the royal blood raised as a peasant but of course you know he’s of royal blood because he’s so much smarter or whatever. In a lot of cases, medieval courtly literature was self-serving because it was trying to take a class situation and make it an inherent set of qualities. So somebody who was born into a class to serve would probably have automatically been treated as if they were somewhat less mentally capable, which would have been encouraged by the fact that very few of them could read and write.