In between reading books on Bourdieu, trying out linguistic analysis of Twitter, and coding my fieldwork interviews for my thesis, I have been re-reading The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. This is in preparation for the 4th season of the TV adaptation from HBO, which like Winter, is coming…
I thought I would write down some of the thoughts I have been having lately about Martin’s world and how he understands and uses religion in it. There has been very little written on this subject as yet (that I have been able to find)… there is a book on a Game of Thrones and Philosophy, as a part of a larger series looking at philosophy through the lens of pop culture, published by Blackwell.
So this represents some of my initial (probably under researched) thoughts:
1. The Star Trek School of Nation Characterization
As much as I love the series, Martin strikes me as an author who has been to the Star Trek School of Characterization (founded by G. Roddenbery, c. 1966). This, to my reckoning, was a very popular education facility for sci-fi and fantasy authors. Star Trek holds up a mirror (a rather distorted, stereotype-ing mirror) to our national (and racial) traits, characteristics and tropes, and repackages them as alien ‘Others’. So the Klingons are swept with a broad brush as the summation of the worst of our aggressive actions. The Ferengi are the greediest of us. The Bajorans the most persecuted and religious of us. The Vulcans the most logical of us (of course). George Lucas has received the most condemnation for this distorted mirroring. The alien character Watto in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones is a representation of the stereotypical Jew according to some: his large nose, his beard, his accent, even his hat are all reminiscent of the worst of Jewish caricatures. The Trade Federation officials have also been described as speaking in broken English with Japanese accents – mixing up their r and l sounds like those funny Asian people [sarc].
Now, I’m not suggesting any racist undertones in Martin’s work. But his world does seem to reflect ours. There’s even a wall to keep out those naughty Celtic people, the Wildlings (yes, AND the White Walkers, but I’ll return to them in a bit). The Andals who invaded Westeros 6,000 years ago intermarried with the First Men. But the First Men’s blood remains purer in the North, beyond the Wall, and in the Eastern country of Dorne (which could be Wales, but is more likely Cornwall, given its climate). The Andals, who I am suggesting are the Romans in Martin’s appropriation, brought their seven faced God with them to the Westeros Isles, much as the Romans brought their Pantheon.
2. Has Martin Read His Hume?
The transmigration and succession of religions in Martin’s series is particularly interesting. Bearing in mind that Westeros is roughly equivalent to the British Isles, and that the Andals are the Romans, we see a piece of our history replicated (Martin has cited the War of the Roses as an influence, but I think he’s also looking further back). The Old Ways, represented by the Godswoods where the Old Gods of the Forest are worshiped, are slipping away. These old Pagan ways reemerge occasionally: Cat finds Robb praying at the Godswood in Riverrun with his bannermen, who similarly hold to the old ways (A Game of Thrones, chapter 71). But when Stannis Baratheon converts to the faith of the Lord of Light he burns the Weirwood in Storm’s End AND the idols of the Seven at Dragonstone.
The Lord of Light is a foreign god, and a jealous one. He comes from Essos, and his faith is the dominant one in some of the Free Cities of the East. The hot climates and traditions of these lands echo the near East in our world, so it is not a huge leap to think of the Lord of Light as an analogy for Jesus Christ. The stories involving Melisandre, the Red Priestess, and Thoros, the Red Priest of Myr, show two sides to the missionary and political activities of incoming faiths. Thoros is the slightly less aggressive, but no less influential. He was a prominent member of Robert Baratheon’s court. Melisandre is the voice that whispers into Stannis Baratheon’s ear and pushes on his claim to the crown after Robert’s death. Both are ‘miracle’ workers – but where Thoros brings Beric Dondarrion back from the dead multiple times and has converted the Brotherhood without Banners to the faith, Melisandre births a monstrous shadow creature that kills Renly Baratheon, another contender to the throne.
What does this have to do with Hume? Well, I have argued that Martin’s work works as an analogy for the waves of religion that washed over the British Isles. What we have from Martin is however a very straight line of succession rather than schisms and offshoots. The Old Ways (Animism/Pantheism) are replaced by the Seven (Polytheism) which are being threatened by a foreign, singular Lord of Light (Monotheism/Dualism – there is also a ‘Great Other’, who represents coldness and darkness). To mess up the timeline slightly, followers of the Lord of Light also have a prophecy about the coming of The Prince that was Promised, who might be analogous to Jesus Christ, but is therefore coming AFTER the attempted conversion of ‘Britain’/Westeros, whereas Jesus was born around 597 years before our isles’ conversion. But the key point is that we have a succession of faith structures, moving from an internally diverse model to more rationalized and simplified models.
In Humes’ 1757 work, Natural History of Religion, he argued that instinctive principles would lead primitive man to multiple explanations for natural phenomena, which added to the tendency to anthropormophize would result in many gods. However, according to his teleological understanding of man’s evolution of mind we would naturally move to monotheism. It has been argued that Hume had an agenda in his comparison of polytheism and monotheism – that comparison would weaken the latter and point out the logical next step in this teleos would be atheism…
And in the world of Game of Thrones? It’s hard to make predictions about an unfinished series and I don’t have a window into Martin’s mind. But here’s a thing: Daenarys Targaryen is exposed to many religions in the course of the books and yet seems to be unaligned. Vallyria’s religion is lost to time. Her brother explains the Seven as he will one day rule over Westeros where they are dominant, but she is confused by them. The Lord of Light is certainly dominant among many of those she frees in her journeys. She does occasionally pray to the Great Stallion when with Khal Drogo. But in A Storm of Swords she considers the gods and find most of them wanting. Is Martin setting up the most powerful character in Game of Thrones as an atheist?
Most powerful character? I would argue that as mother of dragons Dany has (loving) control over the closest things to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Martin’s fictional world, which certainly puts her high up the list of omega-level characters… Which brings me to my third and final thought.
3. A Disenchanted World
Other fantasy and sci-fi books pop into my head as I read Game of Thrones. In particular, and given the dragons its not surprising, is Anne MacCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. In particular her first book, Dragonflight (1968).
Look familiar? Anne McCaffrey by Linda Eicher
A brief summary of the plot and world:
At regular intervals ‘Thread’ falls from the skies above Pern. It is an organism which eats organic material (crops, animals, people… yikes!). Only the flames of the dragons, ridden by telepathically connected humans, can destroy it. The first book is set at a time when the expected Pass of thread has not happened for many decades and many of the dragons are long dead. Now only a single Queen egg remains. The general populace have grown to resent the dragonriders who live off of their hardwork, seemingly for no return. People have become complacent: grass has been allowed to grow where Thread might fall. And then the Thread starts to fall…
In A Song of Ice and Fire the return of dragons and the White Walkers marks a return of enchantment in a world that has equally become complacent. The courtly intrigues and distracting entertainments of the tourneys seem to have rationalized away magic and replaced it with bureaucracy (ref: Weber). The Night’s Watch up in their towers (like the dragonriders in their mountain, tower-like, weyrs) are more likely to be parodied than supported. The White Walkers have drifted into myth. Word of the dragons is initially dismissed, they are myths, but word of Dany’s pregnancy – and the subsequent threat to Robert’s throne and lineage – is taken very seriously. This is after all a Game of Thrones, and succession – religious or political – seems more important than magic and magical monsters. Melisandre’s shadow magic, Bran’s abilities as a Warg, Beric’s resurrections… these are all bursts of enchantment that have less concern given to them than their outcomes or the political machinations going on in court.
So, if we return to the question of Dany’s atheism (or posited atheism) we need to take into account what the outcome of her magic (the dragons as WMDs) will be. Martin writes this line in Book 3: A Song of Swords:
“Up here in her garden Dany sometimes felt like a god, living atop the highest mountain in the world.”.
I predict that when Dany makes it to Westeros, and the song finishes, then finally Fire will meet Ice and the two WMDs of this world will clash.
And then we may see the emergence of the final god of Martin’s world… The Lord of Light might be reinterpreted as dualism, or even as the image of Old Testament Judaism, and they are still waiting on the Messiah. Dany might actually be the figure that they are waiting on… and she may birth the Monotheism that Martin’s and Hume’s scheme moves towards.
Just a few thoughts, and not really on my usual turf of NRMs… although if anyone has come across a real world manifestation of Game of Thrones religion I would be very interested! I’ll also be writing a post for the Queens Library blog very soon, looking at their Classic Sci-Fi collection and I’ll be considering in particular at the volumes that have inspired religious thought and action, like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, so this is a little bit of trial run…
6 thoughts on ““All Men Must Die, but We Are Not Men” – Daenerys Targeryen: Thoughts on A Game of Thrones and Religion”
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the Drowned God of the Ironborn. I don’t know how to place him in parallel fashion the way the Old Gods and the New Gods relate to an abstract paganism and a polytheistic paganism (which is still kind of abstract, since the new gods have no names, just descriptions.)
The Drowned God seems kind of angry old testament…
Anyway, I really enjoyed your article, thank you!
Hi! This is a really god point and I should have thought of this. I think the Drowned God is counted in with the pre-Andal Old Gods, but he’s only worshipped by the Ironborn. Maybe, being secluded, they’ve managed to hold onto his name, whereas the other Old Gods have had their names wiped out by the incoming worship of the Seven.
But Martin also suggests a dualism in their version of the Old Ways as the Drowned God has a nemesis in the form of the Storm God, and their battles cause the storms at sea.
I think the islands and their gods could be considered as an exception to the rule 😉
I think you’re right to lump the Drowned God in with the pre-Andal time, probably the same with the Storm myths that surround the building of Storm’s End, the seat of the Baratheons.
I suppose the Andals pretty much wiped out or supplanted any of these more anthropomorphized god worship with the Seven (save in the North.)
Again, thanks for this article, it was an enlightening read.