theology matters: Review

The Game of Thrones originated in a series of books by George R.R. Martin, and was subsequently made into a popular HBO series, which recently completed its third season. Martin now finds himself in the unusual position of having to keep up with the production of the series, for the series has overtaken what he has already published.

Following my viewing of the first two seasons, I read the five volumes of “Song of Ice and Fire,” the original name of the series. ‌Game of Thrones is the name of the first book. Once I completed the series in text, I viewed the third season. I found the television series to be much better than the books, which were rather a slog to get through. Martin is far too wordy, trying to imitate J.R.R. Tolkien, the author who created an alternate universe in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s universe had its own mythic structure, and different races had their own detailed histories. Martin, far too geeky, employs every technical term for medieval armor and castle construction. It becomes tedious.

Set in a quasi-medieval, mythical world, with warring kingdoms and principalities, the series is truly a game of thrones, particularly surrounding the rivalry for who will rule the seven kingdoms and sit on the Iron Throne, an uncomfortable contraption formed from captured weaponry welded together, blades up. The story follows the various claimants to the throne after the death of the high king. As a professor of Hebrew scripture, I was intrigued by the author’s construction of religion and the way he drew upon perceptions of medieval Europe.‌

There are two key differences between the world of Game of Thrones and that of medieval Europe. First, as one would expect in the fantasy genre, magic exists in the series, with dragons, evil witches, spectres and giants. Second, in Martin’s most original stroke, seasons work differently in this imaginary world. Although the four seasons match the familiar pattern, each season might last for many years, and one never knows in advance how long to prepare. The narrative begins with the dire warning, “winter is coming.” The civilizations in the past had constructed an enormous wall out of ice to keep the winter denizens from invading the summer lands. The seven kingdoms have charged “the Night Watch,” a group of monastic warriors, to protect the wall. Those on the other side of the wall include “Wildlings,” a semi-organized group of misfits and brigands who periodically threaten the communities on the wall’s warmer side. There are also the “White Walkers,” an army of frozen undead, who threaten to overcome the warm living when winter comes.

The Game of Thrones has a strong theological sub-theme (amidst all the swashbuckling, gore and graphic sex), one very original in conception. Manifold religions inhabit this imagined world. In The Lord of the Rings, there is no religion; the characters encounter directly the spirit world without the mediation of ritual or sacrifice. In “The Game of Thrones,” religions proliferate, each with their own belief system, cosmology, temples, and rituals.

These are some of the main religions in the Game of Thrones:

  1. “The Children of the Forest” are an ancient elven race, ultimately eliminated by “The First Men.” They are pre-religious. They embody the physical manifestations of nature.
  2. “The First Men” come from “over the sea,” and conquer and destroy the civilization of the Children of the Forest. Their story re-enacts the ancient mythos, present in both Greek and ancient Near Eastern narratives, where upstart gods overthrow the primal gods—those who represent nature in its most basic configuration.
  3. The descendants of The First Men worship in ancient sacred groves outside of every major settlement. The trees in the grove have otherworldly faces carved into them, left by the Children of the Forest thousands of years earlier. The presence of these ancient tree deities is felt, and they are importuned for help and blessing.
  4. An urban religion worships a seven-fold pantheon. Each deity represents a different human aspect: Mother, Father, Warrior, Maiden, Smith, Crone, and Stranger. The followers of this religion tend to encourage and enforce the status quo. Therefore, the ruling urban families sponsor and support it. Visually, the temples and priests of this religion resemble those of medieval Roman Catholic churches. The design includes familiar priestly vestments as well as many candles.
  5. There is an upstart version of the seven-fold pantheon led by a monastic group known as “the Sparrows.“ By their enthusiasm and by violent coercion, they gain many converts, occupying ancient temples, and imposing their strict moral code even upon the royalty.
  6. A cult exists in which the believers drown their initiates in the sea, and then are revived in submission to “the Drowned God,” a bizarre reflection of the Christian practice of baptism.
  7. Most intriguing, a new cult arises as the action begins, claiming that only one god exists. Adherents to this cult are the monotheists. They refer to their deity as the “Lord of Light,” and their prophet, a red-haired woman, a true believer, has gained the confidence and obedience of one of the kings who is claimant to the Iron Throne. The religion of the Lord of Light is the most bloodthirsty, violent, intolerant religion in the realm. Whereas other religions either co-exist or compete, this religion insists on submission to its beliefs or else consigns heretics to immolation in a sacred fire. Their god feasts on the blood of sacrificial victims offered in a tortuous fire.

It should be obvious that George Martin has taken bits of various historical religions and recombined them in novel ways. One benefit of this (perhaps not his intention) is that it enables the reader (or viewer, as it were) to see religion with fresh eyes. It raises issues such as the relation of religion to violence (and Christians have a long and sordid history of that), the role that coercion plays in religion (ditto), and the relation of religion to civil authorities (you get the idea).

Is Martin attacking the monotheistic religions as the most intolerant and the most violent? Is his depiction of rabid monotheists a reference to the violence inflicted in our world by the hands of monotheists (for instance, in the European colonization of Africa, North and South America, the Hundred Years Wars in Europe, Islamic terrorism, etc.)?  I think rather he works on a deeper, more interesting level. All of the religions in Martin’s depiction are violent. Although each claims a moral high ground, they compete in the “game of thrones.” From the perspective of Martin’s imaginary universe, it really does not matter which religion one choses. All are corrupt in their struggle for power. The author appears to have turned away from “organized religion.” He offers a different quasi-religious alternative ideal, based on the medieval notion of chivalry, the way of the knight. The knight must be noble, honest, and brave. This nobility appears to cut across all religions, and also among those who have no religion. The most positive and sympathetic characters in the narrative are among those whose loyalty is to no religion.

So the question I want to ask is, does Martin, in his depiction of religion in the Game of Thrones, have any theological wisdom to offer? Mostly, I would say no. Most of his religious ideas are two-dimensional and naïve. However, I submit the following:

  1. Martin depicts vividly the dangers of fanaticism. I define fanaticism as (a) complete certainty of the rightness of one’s position, and (b) for the best of intentions, to be willing to break rules and commit atrocities to advance one’s cause. For example, in the Game of Thrones, a king who is a devotee of the Lord of Light, immolates his beloved daughter as a means to beseech the Lord of Light to grant him victory in battle. It is reminiscent of Abraham who intends to offer his son as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), or of Jephthah who kills his beloved daughter as a payment of a debt to the Israelite God to insure his victory against the Ammonites (Judges 9).
  2. There is an inherent nobility that can be found among adherents of many religious expressions and, yes, even a holiness that crosses boundaries of sect and belief.
  3. The only truly “good” movement is the nearly vanished Children of the Forest. There is some value in imagining a sylvan past where the inhabitants were one with nature and at peace with each other. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah (among others) described such a “peaceable kingdom” in Israel’s future. The author whom scholars call the Yahwist wrote of a perfect Garden of Eden where God intended for humans to flourish. This expresses a genuine human yearning. To make this a possible future, one might draw hope from this ancient, resonant narrative of an imagined past.

Martin and the creators of the HBO series have tapped into something important in the current cultural milieu. In the midst of the violence and carnage in the contemporary world, a reality all too often enabled by the complicity of religious institutions, there emerges a nobility, a better way. Sadly, good doctrine, however one understands it, does not produce good behavior.

David Penchansky is professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Thomas. He has been on faculty since 1989.

From “theology matters,” a newsletter of the Department of Theology. Subscribe here.