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?