Last week, the New York Times magazine produced a fawning piece about George R.R. Martin, fantasy’s “reigning king” because of his seminal “Game of Thrones” series, now at five (immense) books.
I say “fawning” because the story was only on the series’ amazing success and not on the major problems Martin is having at finishing up his series. More on that in a bit. The goal, eventually, is to discuss whether the Times or any other publication has has shown any interest in the role of religion in this global hit.
These books started coming out in 1996, then continued in a (sort of) steady clip until 2011 with the release of book five. Book six, “The Winds of Winter,” was supposed to be out by 2016 at the latest, but the writer got caught up with helping produce the HBO drama (starting in 2011) Game of Thrones.
I read the first two books some years ago, but, annoyed with non-ending violence, I dropped them. I picked them up again in the fall of 2014 and finished the series while teaching in Fairbanks so as to have something to occupy me during that cold, dark winter. Now I’m making my way through the HBO drama and am nearly finished with the fourth season. As the Times says:
After the HBO show premiered, the world Martin had created became a global phenomenon, and his readership reached heights few authors have ever found — his American peers now include other household names of genre fiction, such as Tom Clancy and Stephen King.
The plot of “ASOIAF,” as fans call it, is concerned largely with events unfolding in and around the continent of Westeros around the year 300 A.C. (“after conquest” of the seven kingdoms in the books). The inciting incident of the series is the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Jon Arryn, who had been serving as hand of the king (chief of staff, basically) to a royal named Robert Baratheon. Arryn’s demise sets in motion a chain of events leading to the murder of King Robert himself, which in turn creates a power vacuum, destabilizing the prevailing political order. After centuries of relative calm, chaos erupts into a full-blown war, involving several of the realm’s great family houses.
Millions of people, of course, knew all of that already.
One reason it’s been taking me so long to get through the HBO series is because I can’t watch the stuff while the kiddo is awake because the violence/gore/explicit sex content is off the charts. Maybe that’s why — of the reams of material written about the book and wildly successful series — comparatively little has been written about the role of religion in the Game of Thrones books.
Not to say there isn’t any. As this Quora entry shows, there are several religions represented throughout the series that have some parallels to what we have on Earth. The major one is the Faith of the Seven, a takeoff on the medieval Catholic Church with its religious orders, bishop-like figures and a pope-like personality. Instead of the Trinity, there is the Seven (Father, Mother, Maid, Warrior, Smith, Crone, Stranger) facets of the one true God.
There is also the Lord of Light, a religion similar to Catharism, a heresy I became acquainted with as an exchange student in southern France. It has one God and an unfortunate emphasis on human sacrifice. There’s also a mix of pagan religions known as the Old Gods that involve the veneration of magical trees.
Various articles such as this one have done a much better job than I have in explaining the theology behind this series. My take away from it is that all religions are made up and oppressive and none of them have much in the way of redeeming qualities.
For you Thrones fans, what religious figure in the series is at all likeable? More was written about religion, including this essay on why it’s the best factor in the series, during the fifth season, when the Faith of the Seven experiences a serious rupture.
Slate tried dissecting the competing religions in this narrative in this post and came up with reasons why faith is a major force in this drama.
It’s easy to brush off the religions of Game of Thrones as nonessential, as something you needn’t give any thought to. But you may want to reconsider. The books, not surprisingly, depict the religions in greater detail than the show goes into, but even those of us who are only watching the HBO version of the saga can comprehend the characters and storylines better by understanding this key aspect of life in its world.
George R.R. Martin has spoken of the religions quite a bit, often noting that while the religions themselves are fictional, they are based on real-world faiths that have been “tweaked or extended.” (Most obviously, the Faith of the Seven has a real-life corollary in the medieval Christian Church.)
Medieval Catholic Church, to be more exact. The story includes a quote from Martin saying that none of the religions have any power in his books; that is, there is no God who affects the outcome of things no matter how hard one prays.
Clearly, Game of Thrones is a phenomenon that’s taken on a life of its own and would be worthy material for sermons, theological essays and the like. Yet, I’ve seen almost nothing on it.
Why? Is it because of the R and X-rated nature of the broadcasts? Life in medieval times was just as corrupt and dangerous as that shown on TV.
Cosmopolitan magazine (of all places) wrote an explainer on religion in the series in that, during season five, the Faith of the Seven goes fundamentalist — which some bad implications for several of the leading characters. The religion of the Old Gods ends up as the only one that has any power.
One facet of religion that does work in the books and the TV series is prophecy. A number of characters have prophecies told about them near the beginning that, as the later books reveal, come true.
There was an essay in The Federalist that celebrates the role of religion in GoT.
The sheer number and variety of religions in the world of “Game of Thrones” make it one of the most realistic religious shows in television history. ... The most interesting aspect of “Game of Thrones” is how the characters appear to struggle with religious belief just as ordinary people do. “Game of Thrones” shows how religious belief can be fluid: Thoros was a drunken unbelieving priest, but his belief was strengthened when he prayed over Beric Dondarrion and resurrected him. Melisandre was as sure of her visions as any priestess of the Oracle at Delphi, but has come to doubt her faith as she realizes she misunderstood what she was seeing. …
Regardless of how you feel about other aspects of “Game of Thrones,” the series stands out for its realistic portrayal of how religion affects the lives of its characters. Some believe because they are predisposed to accept the supernatural. Others believe only after seeing miracles. Some experience tragedy and are driven to belief, while others believe that religion is meaningless after undergoing severe trauma.
Back in 2015, the Washington Post ran this essay by Robert Joustra of Redeemer University of College in Canada and Alissa Wilkinson of King’s College in New York arguing that Thrones unwittingly makes the case for religion.
A one-time Catholic, Martin struggles painfully with theodicy in his stories, which are pregnant with a bitter lapse of hope. Every violation pierces the reader. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? What kind of world is it where this happens? …
You think the world of “Game of Thrones” looks ugly? Watch Syria. Read the wires out of Somalia. Read about Nigeria. Read about the Central African Republic or Nepal. … We all live in Westeros now, and God and the gods are resurrecting rivalries all over the world for hearts and minds to make sense of it. Small wonder our trashy TV has joined suit.
Many writers have compared Martin to Tolkien, as both men are/were Catholics who wrote massive works about good vs. evil on fantasy planets that include dragons and other supernatural forces.
Actually, these writers and worlds are as far apart as night and day.
Tolkien always believed good would defeat evil and main characters such Aragorn, Galadriel, Gandalf and Arwen had no visible character flaws. Martin believes good rarely if ever wins and every character in his world has major flaws (although some are nobler than others). One is clearly a creature of the 20th century; the other is a creature of the 21st.
In the comments section of the Times piece, many of the writers agree that Martin not only is no Tolkien but he is in danger of losing his narrative. As I was reading the fifth book, it was clear the author had included way too many tangents, as it was extremely tough to keep track of the dozens of story lines and hundreds of characters.
“His plots are out of control,” wrote one commenter, “and, as for his character development and their predictably abrupt termination, he evidently enjoys playing sadist to his readers' masochist.”
Another wrote: “Once HBO concludes the series Martin will have lost it. No matter what (if) he writes for the conclusion the HBO version will be what people think of. It won't be his books that define the arc of the story. They should not have given him so many awards and accolades before he actually finished the story. Imagine if Tolkien had left off after the The Two Towers.”
So what about the journalism here?
The bottom line: The comments are better than the article. Read them all and let’s hope the Lord of Light, the Seven and the Old Gods have good stuff in store for us in future books.