Monday, December 5, 2016

St. Nicholas Eve

When I was growing up, we only celebrated St. Nick in one way: as Santa Claus, on Christmas. When I was in college, though, I discovered the celebration of Saint Nicholas Eve.

One of my friends with whom I shared an apartment senior year was a local boy--his father was a professor in the English department and his mother was a locally-famous caterer who, along with her catering partner, held a beloved "Friday Afternoon Luncheon Cafe" at the local Parish House every week. Their family had a tradition, presumably coming from their Czech ancestors, of celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas Eve, and senior year I was invited to the celebration. There were a number of our college friends there as well as adult friends of the family. It was a really nice gathering, and I felt very adult just being there, especially when the Scotch was served. I hated Scotch, but I loved being served Scotch.

At the same time, I suppose it was one of my last chances to be a kid.

The bulk of the meal traditionally is pork chops and Czech dumplings, which--like all the food served at their house, regardless of who is cooking--is absolutely fantastic. For dessert, my friend's mother brings out a cake in the shape of St. Nicholas, at which point, as my friend describes it,
Pa then starts berating her for not making enough dessert for all the guests (some years this has led to female guests attempting to kick my father under the table), then she invites someone to check a silver platter we have. No dessert, but inside the platter is a note, which tells the story of St. Nick, and says maybe he stopped by the house to leave sweets and presents. Ma then suggests that if he did the sweets and presents will be on the front porch.  The kids run to check the front porch, no sweets, of course.  So then the back porch and voila a plate with chocolate apples and marzipan and oranges and nuts, and presents (almost always books).
When I was there, my friend got to do the berating act, which is largely for the benefit of the new guest. There always seems to be at least one new guest each year, and that year it was me, which also meant I got to check the platter.

We did, of course, all run dutifully run to the porch, even though as wise old college seniors, we could smell a set-up a mile away. We could also smell the rewards of playing along, I suppose! I received the book Snow Falling on Cedars, and the marzipan was amazing.

There were just so many wonderful things about that evening, far beyond the gift and the food. It was the good company--not only other students who I liked very well, but adults as well, which is a nice social change at that age. Even more that that, though, there are just so many things to like about the ritual celebration. First, there's the simple fact that most people don't celebrate this holiday; whereas Christmas ends up being almost strictly a family event for most people, this can more easily include friends. I also love the inclusive nature of the celebration, the way that it draws in new people each year, a new group, continually including "fresh blood." The danger in a ritual, of course, is that it can become the same old same old very easily, but the ritual berating act really only works if there's someone new who isn't "in" on the joke. And that yearly re-mixing, I'm sure, brings a new energy each year as well.

I always thought that when I was older, I should like to carry on this tradition myself--my own memory of my singular celebration of the event made such an impression on me that it makes me want to perpetuate it. Isn't that where ritual celebrations really (or really should!) come from? From doing something over and over again because doing so seems meaningful and worthwhile to you? Well, we've got three children now, and I even bought a cake mold shaped like Santa Claus, but so far I haven't made the inadequate cake and we haven't invited people over for the celebration. My wife has at least driven the celebration by having the girls write letters to Santa and having them wake up to a little gift in the morning, so this whole Saint Nicholas celebration is a thing, just not the thing that I'd like it to be.

Maybe next year.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Breakfast with Santa

One thing you can say for paying in advance: it's motivating. Given than Lauren and I were up until 1:00 and then up again quite a few times with our little one, getting up and driving to "Breakfast with Santa" was not high on our priority list when we woke up--late--at 7:00 this morning. But we'd paid for this thing, so we got our butts--and our daughters' little butts--in gear to make the trek up to South Bend's Fiddler's Hearth.

With the tables all full, we "got to" sit at the bar.

You can kind of see it in the picture, but they brought out special pieces of wood to sit on the edge of the bar and give the girls a level eating surface closer to their little gobs. Also, you can play Where's Waldo? with Santa in this photo.

You had two options with breakfast: take it or leave it. They gave everyone some scrambled eggs, a couple sausage links, and some French toast sticks. Kids could choose OJ or milk, adults could and did choose coffee. I guess the kids could have chosen coffee too, but they were comparatively well rested.


If it has "oatmeal" in the name, it's a suitable breakfast food, right?

Fortified with a hearty Irish-ish breakfast, the girls went and sat on Santa's lap.


A little overawed, Y couldn't remember what she wanted to ask for (so she'll get nothing. Nothing, I say!).


Her sister, meanwhile, couldn't stop talking. We actually left her with Santa and I assume she's still talking eight hours later.


We have a tradition of pictures of our children brought to tears by Santa Claus. The tradition is alive and well:


They did reach a milk-mediated truce, however uneasy:


You can tell from the picture, she doesn't trust him one bit. She doesn't trust him as far as she's about to throw that bottle when it's empty.

But we did manage to get all the girls in for one picture.


Someone's still not trusting this dude.

Also, the older girls got balloon animals.




I mean, what would breakfast with Santa be without a ridiculously large candy cane and a poodle on a balloon leash?

Appalling, that's what. Fortunately, Fiddler's Hearth is a good place, run by good people, with sound judgment. Here's your balloon animal. Merry Christmas. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Those kids who were us

I don't know about you, but for the most part, I rather like the habit Facebook has of pushing a bit of nostalgia on me in the form of posts from X years ago. Today, this popped up:


This is our engagement photo, from 9 years ago. I saw it and thought "Who are these kids?" 

I posted it to my timeline and my wife said "So young, so well rested. You were sick during this picture and you look less tired than our normal non-sick state now." 

So. True. 

This is how we look now, nine years later:


Just kidding, that's my aunt and uncle. 

But actually, this is us over the summer:


On vacation. I look tired and old on vacation. And to think, once upon a time I had a baby face. Now, not only do they not card me at bars, they give me the first one free because they're like "Buddy, you look like you need this. Also, you could use a vacation." 

But I've been there, I know it won't help. All I want for Christmas is three weeks of uninterrupted sleep. Is that so much to ask? I mean, bears have children too, and they get to hibernate. Our girls will be fine if the two of us go into hibernation right? The oldest is a very responsible six years old. Or, as we say, she has six years making me old. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Holidailies 2016: Obligatory Introductory Story

Who am I? 

I'm a blogger. Wait, no I'm not. I used to be a blogger. One of those blog-every-day hell-or-high-water types. I went a year or two at a stretch without missing a day. Now, with the exception of Decembers, I can almost go a year at a stretch without blogging any days. It's like the evil twin of my former blogging self.

I'm a writer. Wait, am I? I don't know. I thought I was, but except for NaNoWriMo and Holidailies, I don't really show it. I've done 50k words for NaNo several times, but none of that writing has crystalized into a full first draft, much less a completed novel. I make some decent progress every so often and I go to a writer's group as often as I can, but the proof's in the pudding, as they say, and this pudding hasn't quite achieved the proper consistency yet. 

I'm an educator. I'm not, technically, a teacher any more: after 10 years in the classroom and the rehearsal room, 10 years teaching music and English, I've spent that past seven working in student life at a boarding school. I'm still teaching, though: social skills, academic skills, leadership skills, resilience, and--let's hope--just plain human being skills. I loved the classroom, I miss it sometimes, but I feel like I'm doing good work in this role, too. So I guess I am an educator even if I'm not a classroom teacher. 


I'm a father. No, seriously, I am. It's still a little unbelievable, even though my oldest is almost seven, one of her sisters is solidly four, and our last (definitely, absolutely, unquestionably our last) is 11 months old. But I think the three of them have aged me twenty years, so yes, I'm a father. They've also completely redefined so many things for me. I'm not sure I really knew what love was until I had children. There's a song that says "I'm gonna need a second heart for all this love," and it's not just the quantity, it's the whole experience. I couldn't have understood it until it happened. Maybe I still don't, but I'm working on it. And along with that, I'm a husband (at least, last I checked--she's not home right now, and it's always possible she's chosen tonight to ditch me with the kids). But being married has probably been as profound in its own way as having children, when it comes to growing and changing. She probably doesn't think so, because I still do fifteen-hundred things that drive her nuts, but hey, I've gotten a little better at closing the cabinets in the kitchen. 

I'm a jock. No I'm not. Wait, what does that even mean? I'm 39, and a few years ago a man older than me prefaced some remark or other by saying "Of course, you're a jock, so..." And I'm thinking: are you kidding me? The kid who, in elementary school, collapsed dramatically rather than finish the mile run for the Presidential Fitness Test, since he was 1) the only one still running and 2) not getting a medal with zero pull-ups and laughable numbers on the other events... he's a jock? The kid whose favorite part of junior high track--indeed, the only bright spot--was walking from the junior high to the high school, which took us into a gas station where we loaded up on candy... that little butterball is a jock? The kid whose high school activities revolved around band, drama, choir, quiz bowl (if you don't know what it is, trust me, it's as nerdy as it sounds), writing, and--finally, in my junior and senior years--tennis... he's a jock? And yet, I'm also not that kid any more. In the last fifteen years or so I've taken a more or less strong interest in health and fitness--I lift weights religiously, I educate myself about exercise and fitness, and apparently it's all paid off by adding "jock" to my list of nerd credentials. 

I'm an amateur cook and something of a foodie. The kid who, growing up, was just about the pickiest eater ever--the kid who gagged on peas and broccoli, avoided raisins and bananas, wouldn't eat apple dumplings even though he separately liked both apples and dumplings (and, come one, they're apple dumplings!), that kid grew into an adult who loves all kinds of foods, domestic and exotic, and does virtually all the cooking for his family. I've been through a number of phases, from an avid bread-baker to a "Paleo" eater of mostly meat and veggies, from low fat to low carb to cycling between the two. As much as anything, I lean toward "real foods," even though I have a whole set of sweet teeth that love nothing more than cookies, cakes, and pies. 

I'm a player. A game player, I mean. Growing up, my family played a ton of board and card games. The gifted and talented teacher at my elementary school once told a big group of parents that one of the best things they could do for us was to play games with us, and my mother took that to heart. The big card game in our family was called Five Hundred, which at the end of the day is basically Bridge. But we also played Pinochle, Canasta, Spades, Hearts, and Euchre. We played other card games like Rook, Flinch, Touring (a knock-off of Mille Bornes, which we also played), and Uno. We played all the regular board games you would expect of a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, and probably a few you wouldn't expect. And then, in the 2000s, I discovered real board games, the German and European games and the ones they influenced: games that were more complicated or interesting than mere roll the dice and move around the board types, games with interesting mechanics and deeper strategy. Things like the gateway games Settlers of Catan and Carcassone, Blokus and Rumis, and from there to games like Agricola, Ricochet Robots, Power Grid, Diplomacy... okay, I don't want to turn this into a boring list for those who don't know the games. But if there's a board game and it's awesome, then I've probably at least heard of it. As our family has grown by adding more and younger kids, the time and opportunities for these games has diminished significantly, but I hold out hope that these things are on hold rather than dead to us. 

I'm a smart-phone addict. No, I'm not, I can quit any time. Yeah right, who am I kidding? But it's interesting that I should find myself here, since I was first a late adopter of the cell phone generally (stubbornly clinging to my landline) and then scrupulously avoiding smart phones in favor of dumb ones. Perhaps on some level I knew that I couldn't restrain myself. I mean, think about it: my iPhone 5s is not just a mobile phone, it's a computer with greater capabilities than probably my first three computers combined. All in my pocket. It's crazy how good these things are. I play a few games on it, I check e-mail more often than I really need to, and perhaps my favorite thing to do is listen to podcasts and books. I'm trying to cultivate more "down time" but did I mention that this thing is awesome?!

I'm a Renaissance man. Or maybe it's a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. Somewhere on that continuum. I've never been good at limiting myself or my interests: I was a double major (English and music) in college. I went to graduate school for music and majored in choral conducting and composition, because I couldn't choose just one. Teaching in boarding schools for most of my working life has been good: I've gotten lots of opportunities to learn new things through the years and I was able to teach both English and music. And geometry for a couple weeks once. My blog kind of follows the same clear lack of a clear plan, which is one of the reasons for its name. When I blog at all--which, as we've already established, is pretty much only in December--I blog about all kinds of things. I guess the upside there is that if you don't like what I'm blogging about one day, come back the next day, since it will probably be something completely different tomorrow.

And that's more or less me. Who the heck are you?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Recipe: Creamy Buffalo Chicken with rice

So, for what it's worth, I'm loosely following an eating protocol that has me cycling between low-carb days and low-fat days. Today was a low-fat day, and this made a nice creamy entree that was as well-liked by my wife as it was by me.

3 chicken breasts
1/2 c. chicken broth
8 oz fat free cream cheese
1/3 c. Red Hot sauce
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
optional: low-fat ranch dressing or ranch seasoning

To keep the fat down, I cook the chicken breasts in a covered pan with the chicken broth. I cook them for a while, turn them over, and then cut them in half and put the raw middle down to finish cooking.

Remove the chicken and allow to cool enough to cut or shred. Meanwhile, to the remaining chicken broth add the cream cheese and red hot and stir until melted. Add the spices and the cut up or shredded chicken. stir to heat through.

Serve over rice.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Old Year, New Year

As December 2015 comes to a close, I'll sneak in this single blog post for the month (the last five months or so, in fact). Once upon a time, I would routinely blog every day in December as part of Holidailies. Even further in the past, I would routinely blog every day of the year. But times change, people change, and here we are, heading into 2016, and ready to take this arbitrary boundary as a time to reflect. I've made resolutions at times in the past, but this year I'm struck by a suggestion I heard, to reflect instead on something from the past year I'm grateful for and something I'm looking forward to in the new year. But I always have trouble narrowing things down, so I've got a handful for each.

2015 Gratitude

In August, I was anxious about education for both of my daughters. Our oldest was going from the most wonderful PreSchool in the world straight into first grade. At first, I was a little concerned about her social transition from a small preschool to a 1st grade class of 22 in which she would be the youngest. Then, as the year went on, I was concerned about the quality of the education she was getting. But overall, I think it's been a good experience for her. At the same time, our younger daughter wasn't able to go to the same wonderful preschool, because it closed. She started at a different preschool which... is okay. It's not amazing like the other one was. But it, too, is good for our child. And we're thinking we'll try to put her in Kindergarten next year, a year early. So I'm thankful that my girls are doing well in their respective schools.

It started in 2014, but through the spring and summer of the past year, I connected with a local writer's group. I'm still working to make writing a routine part of my life, but I'm thankful for a group that has nourished this part of myself and enriched my life.

Just recently, I had some very difficult realizations thrust upon me, about myself and about my relationship to someone important to me. Confronting these realizations wasn't easy, it wasn't comfortable, it wasn't something I wanted to deal with. But I'm grateful to be able to see myself more clearly and perhaps to strengthen a relationship before it's completely broken. Here's hoping.

2016 Looking Forward

My wife's trying to keep an internet secret, so I won't say the most important thing that I'm looking forward to in 2016. But it is #1 on my list. I'm hoping I can talk about it publicly soon.

This spring will be my first season (and hopefully not my last!) as head coach of the girls tennis program at the high school where I work. I've got some very definite ideas about how I want to approach this, and I'm excited for the opportunity to try some new things and help my players reach their potential and, hopefully, win more than a few matches.

Most of the other things that come to mind seem far less certain. They're more like those resolutions that are more hopes and wishes than plans and certainties. I'm excited about the possibility of planting some almond trees in our yard. Could this be the spring we get chickens? Maybe in 2016 I'll finally finish at least a rough draft of the novel I've been putzing around with for the last few years? I did read more than a few books in the past year, which bodes well for reading a fair number in the next, and I'm always excited by what new great wonders I may discover between those pages. I expect I'll grow as a father and a husband, a son and a friend in the next 366 days--anyway, I'm sure those people most important to me hope so.

And so, a happy new year to you all: may it be filled with much to anticipate and much to be grateful for. I'd love to hear in the comments some of your own things in those categories.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Red God, White Walkers, and Green Men: Religion in Game of Thrones



To begin, a joke I heard years ago, that went something like this:


The Pope is awoken one morning by his assistant: “Your Holiness, there are amazing events happening in the world this morning! But [because this is a joke] there’s good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”

The Pope says “I’m an old man, I don’t know if I can handle the bad news, you’d better give me the good news first.”

“Jesus Christ has returned to earth, your Holiness. And he’s calling on the phone and wants to speak with you.”

“My God! That’s amazing! How could any bad news matter when something so wondrous has happened?”

“He’s calling from Salt Lake City.”


Of course, the humor comes from the fact that, in this world, we can’t know which religion—if any—is true. We have our reasons—some might say “rationalizations”—for believing what we do, but it appears to be the case that we won’t know conclusively until after we die (if then).

In fantasy literature, the world often works very differently. Often, we see the gods or God, it’s a given of the world that one or more divine beings exists, has certain characteristics, powers, what have you. Very often in fantasy, this straightforward narrative is one of good and evil: all the good people are on the side of the good God or gods, evil people follow a Satanic figure. It’s baked into the genre’s DNA, where Tolkien has Sauron (the heir to a more direct Satanic parallel, Morgoth) on one side and Gandalf and the wizards standing as the representatives of the gods, who do not interfere directly, with the “good” people.

What I want to examine is religion in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels or—equally—the HBO series Game of Thrones. For my purposes, I think they’re identical, despite some plot differences. Spoiler alert: I'm assuming you've read and watched everything there is to read or watch that's out as of now.

One point of interest from the start is that we have many religions in Martin’s world. We first see the divide between the North of Westeros, which follows “The Old Gods,” and the southern lands, which worship The Seven. Gradually, however, our view expands even further, to include R’hllor, the Red God, the Drowned God of the Iron Men, the Many-Faced God… I think I’m forgetting some, but you get the idea.

Perhaps the most interesting of these, to my view, is the Red God, because R’hllor seems to be the one most clearly throwing around supernatural intervention, an evident sign of power, if not truth. As readers/viewers, we repeatedly see supernatural acts from R’hllor, from the murder of Renly Baratheon to the (repeated) resurrection of Beric Dondarrion and Catelyn Stark (in the books, anyway), and—as many fans hope—perhaps Jon Snow (I just had to throw that in there). The Red God may be able to take credit for killing Joffrey, Balon Greyjoy, and Robb Stark (Melisandre says so), but regardless, we have clear evidence for at least some of the Red God’s, uh, miracles.

That said, these “miracles” are clearly complicated, as we can see by readers’ and viewers’ reactions: Renly’s murder is fairly horrific, but probably nothing compares, in viewers’ minds, to Season 5’s burning-to-death of Shireen. People were, rightfully I think, horrified by Stannis’s willingness and Melisandre’s eagerness to not only kill his daughter, but to do so in such a horrible way.

Here’s the thing that seems often to be overlooked in all this: the religious aspect. I’ve seen, in several instances, that people see Stannis’s decision as one motivated by ambition. Truthfully, I think that misses the point. I think in his mind, this is a righteous—albeit heart-breaking—decision.

Consider, for a moment, the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham has apparently spoken with God, has seen a miracle (his wife giving birth at a very advanced age), and has promises from God. And then, in the midst of all these good times, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his miracle child to God. Human sacrifice: God asks for it, and we’re supposed to believe that Abraham is a good man because he’s willing to do it (of course, God is apparently a good God because he doesn’t make Abraham go through with it, but that’s kind of splitting hairs, isn’t it?). Maybe I’m overstating things, but I think many Christians are willing to uncomplicated this story and see it as a positive, that Abraham has such faith. Shouldn’t we all be more like Abraham? And to me, this seems like a direct parallel with Stannis (particularly in the HBO version).

Yet when we see it on screen, I think our very-human reaction is: no. No, we shouldn’t be like Stannis or Abraham. Any God who would demand the sacrifice of one’s own child—or, really, any innocent (and for some of us, just any) human being—is not a good God and should not be obeyed. But here’s the thing: Stannis has—apparently—seen the truth of the Red God’s existence and power. And how many times have we heard the story of Azor Ahai, who created his magic sword by thrusting it into his beloved wife’s breast? I mean, this is the guy that Stannis is supposed to be the rebirth of, and he’s the religion’s hero. While it’s hard not to blame Stannis here, there’s also a clear logic behind what he’s done. In his mind, he is the rightful king (which, assuming you ignore the Targaryens, is basically true), he’s seen the power of the Red God (i.e. this is a god who apparently exists), and he—and we the readers and viewers—have seen the evil forces north of the wall that appear to exist in direct opposition to the Red God (ice vs. fire).

So what really complicates things is not simply that the Red God seems to be a nasty bastard (even if he might be on the side of good), but that Stannis does not, in fact, win. In the story of Azor Ahai, we can, perhaps, overlook the fact that he killed his wife, both because it’s a legend that happened a long time ago and because, well, he saves the world. Would we look differently at Stannis if sacrificing his daughter to the Red God had led to victory, both over the Boltons and, ultimately, over the White Walkers? I think we would have to, horrific as it was to watch Shireen’s death. We might not like to think that the ends justify the means, but I do suspect that we judge Stannis even more harshly because he failed. He committed an inhuman act, and for what? For nothing, apparently.

So where does that leave the R’hllor? What are we to make of this religion? Is it simply that Melisandre, interpreting the Red God’s wishes, got it wrong?  A side note here: the books play out somewhat differently. Melisandre does not travel south with Stannis, Shireen is not burned to death, and we only see the outcome of the battle between Stannis and the Bolton’s through a note from Ramsay Bolton. But we do have textual reasons to believe that Melisandre, there too, got some things fundamentally wrong.

Either way, the question remains: what should we make of this religion. Is R’hllor—are His followers—basically “good”? Or, despite the religion’s claims, are “good” and “evil” actually far less clear-cut in Martin’s world?

 ***

It’s worth taking some time to look at the other religions in Martin’s world, although the Red God has been my focus here.

Let’s start with The Seven. At the end of the day, the religion of The Seven seems to be pretty vanilla, and pretty much a strictly human phenomenon. We see no direct evidence of supernatural forces at work, only very human ones. The religion itself seems very much centered on humans as they are: The Seven themselves are basically archetypes of kinds or classes of people, so you have a different aspect of God to pray to depending on what you’re going through in life or what you need at the moment. It’s fairly comfortable that way. It’s also very responsive, in its form, to society. When times are good and society is stable, the religion supports the status quo (and is supported by it). The monarch and the Septon seem routinely to be hand in glove. As the war for control of Westeros goes on, however, and the conditions for everyday folk gets worse and worse, the religion mirrors this discontent as well as the accompanying distrust of the nobility. The movement to a simpler, more fundamental religion—and also a harsher religion of retribution against the nobility—comes as conditions become increasingly desperate for the common folk.

However, there’s little evidence that the religion of The Seven is true. No miracles, not even a narrative that acknowledges (the way that R’hllor apparently does) the evil and danger of the White Walkers.

Then there’s the Old Gods of the North. These are, admittedly, a bit sketchy still. We know they’re tied to the Children of the Forest, as well as to the men of the North. The story seems to be that the Children of the Forest fought alongside humans against the Others back in the day, so  this old religion seems at least to be on the right side (but then, it’s the Starks’ religion, so of course it is). Like the Starks themselves, the religion seems to be harsh but perhaps not so harsh as R’hllor’s religion—kin-slaying and slavery, for instance, are both bad, while hospitality and guest rights are good. There seems to be magic and power associated with the Old Gods, but we haven’t seen much definitive. Arguably, the direwolf pups that the Starks find are uncanny, there are the dreams that Bran and Rickon have of their father’s death, there’s Jojen Reed and his greensight, and there’s the apparent destiny that Bran has up north of the Wall with the Children of the Forest. But yeah, there’s a lot we don’t know, but it seems promising, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the Many-Faced God, the death-worshipping cult. Well, okay, I suppose it’s a religion, not a mere cult. “Death-worshipping” pretty much says it all. In their closest followers, they require the death of self: they must give up their old life and identity. They deliver death, to those who ask for it and, apparently, those who deserve it. Sometimes. The criteria aren’t really clear, but what is clear is that it’s awfully authoritarian—obedience appears to be prized above all in the religion’s followers. Their metaphysics actually seem to be pretty laissez-faire: our god is actually worshipped by everyone, just by different names. They’re all pretty much the same, even though people are too dumb to realize it. It’s still pretty murky how this religion works, fundamentally, and whether they’re “good,” “evil,” or, as I suspect, fundamentally indifferent. I mean, sure, the victory of the White Walkers and the undead might be right up their alley: if they win, everybody dies. On the other hand, they might have some kind of qualms about un-death. Who knows?

To me, the religion of the Many-Faced God seems, similarly to the religion of The Seven, to be answering to human concerns more than divine ones. Stay with me here and recall that the religion started in the slave pits of Volantis, as a direct response to those conditions. If I’m remembering correctly, it began as a sort of passive response (death as a gift to the oppressed) and morphed into something more like revolution and retribution. Either way, though, to me it speaks more of answering a human need (and obsession) rather than being divinely ordained in some way. Granted, there does seem to be something magical, something supernatural, about what they do. It’s unclear, of course, whether that’s an act of God or “simply” magic. In the HBO version, it should be noted, the magic seems to be inherent in the faces: once the face is prepared, Arya can just steal one and become someone else, no blessing needed.

***

The point of all this, for me, has been to try to get at the metaphysics of the world George R.R. Martin has created. What is its fundamental nature, what is true about this world? As we try to answer this question, it seems to me that the yardstick to use is, likely as not, how well a religion matches up to “the real war.” That is to say, White Walkers and their Wights against living creatures. Do they speak to that narrative, which seems to be fundamental to the world? Or, like the politics that obsess so much of the plot, are they simply human constructions that ignore this most fundamental of realities?

On this basis, I tend to discount The Seven, The Drowned God, and the Many-Faced God. R’hllor, of course, does answer this fundamental reality. Its narrative, in fact, is all about the Red God and his chosen hero standing against the darkness and the cold. So one possibility is that, in fact, these are basically the good guys. This is troubling on a number of levels, isn’t it? The actions of His followers too often seem to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Burning people alive? Killing your own wife (or daughter)? That whole business (in the books) with Lady Stoneheart / Catelyn Stark and what she does to Brienne in the name of righteous vengeance? Are we supposed to be okay with that, coming from the “good” God? Or are we supposed to write these things off as simply the failings of imperfect human beings to understand the will of R’hllor?

My suspicion is that neither is the case. These are not “merely” human failings, nor is R’hllor “good.” My suspicion is that what we have is an elemental opposition: fire and ice, light and dark, life and death (sort of). They are not, strictly speaking, “good” and “evil.” They are in conflict, eternal conflict, just as the Red God’s religion declares, but I suspect that the Red God is only incidentally on “our” side. Humans, I would bet, are mere pawns, not important to R’hllor except to the extent that they serve His interests. In that context, by the way, it may not even be that Melisandre is “wrong” about Stannis, so much as it served the Red God’s interests at one point to support him… until it didn’t.

My working hypothesis is that the Old Gods, the ways of the Children of the Forest, represent a third way, a life-centered way. There’s a natural alliance of sorts between followers of the Old Gods and R’hllor, in that they share an enemy, but the religion of the Old Gods seems to strike a different balance: it is harsh, as it needs to be to prepare the living to face both the hardships of life in a world where winter can last decades and to face the ultimate evil (from the perspective of the living), the Others; however, it is also a life-affirming religion that centers on guest-rights and hospitality, on kinship, and against slavery (though, you know, feudalism’s okay).

From a metafictional standpoint, it would be no surprise if, in the end, the way of the Starks turns out to be the “right” way, would it? Despite their flaws, they seem to be “the good guys” in the story, the ones (mostly) that we identify with and hope survive. And, in the end, I suspect they are the ones who will turn out to have been most rooted in the “best” and most true religion. 

Your thoughts on any and all of this would be most welcome. What am I missing here?