“All Men Must Die, but We Are Not Men” – Daenerys Targeryen: Thoughts on A Game of Thrones and Religion

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…

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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

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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].

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…

Vote Beth: A Nice Change from Richard Dawkins

There was a really good piece on Inform that appeared in the Daily Telegraph the other day, written by Damien Thompson (@holysmoke).  It mentions their 25th Anniversary conference at which I will be giving a paper: “No Leader, No Followers: The Internet and the End of Charisma?” (plug, plug, plug)

So far it has received around 270 comments…. some of which are along the dismissive lines of ‘new religious movements are silly/dangerous/irrational… but no more silly/dangerous/irrational than established religions’:

“All religions are equally valid” (Fred Scuttle)

“All religions are equally invalid” (Tohellwithit)

“Religion or cults, sorry I do not want to know. Boring!” (applepicker)

“All religions are cults – some are just bigger than others. There are no gods. It there were, they’d be evidence… proof of some sort. Maybe even a sighting. After all, if god loves us he come down and tell us all to stop messing around. But he hasn’t – so much for your loving god!” (King Womble)

“It seems to me that there are very few of these wretched things that won’t bring out the worst from one or more of the others.
Show me one cult/religion that does not attract violence to itself or give violence to at least one other, somewhere on the planet.

Scoundrels the lot of them.” (sosraboc)

I often get asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge when I study NRMs. The first time I was asked this I had a moment of surprise, because I had never actually considered NOT being based in the Faculty of Divinity – that’s where religions are studied isnt it? Well… yes and no.  The undergraduate course we offer is in Theology and Religious Studies but for a very long time it was just in Theology (argh, Wikipedia link!), and before that it was just Theology for those (men) who were going into the ministry/Church. The move to calling our degree TRS is as much about shifts in pedagogical trends and the evolving desires of incoming students as (or perhaps more so) than changes in the facultys’ attitudes towards developing subject areas like mine (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism etc took a while to bed down but are well established now…). An interesting paper here hosted by the Religious Studies Project goes into these naming trends a little further than I can.  

To return me (its all about me, me, me, me…), I am a social anthropologist studying New Religious Movements.  I write about New Agers, Jedi, Scientologists, Wiccans, pagans, and online subcultures online that look like religions and that call themselves religious (whatever anyone else might think about them…). I am asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity because I take these groups seriously but very often the people asking the question just…. don’t.  By keeping myself in the Faculty of Divinity I am, in my very small way, maintaining the presence of NRMs amidst the ‘serious’ academic conversation.  If I was in the Social Anthropology department I’m really not sure my work would have the same impact.

So when people ask me why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity I generally say something like the posters on the Damien Thompson piece, but with a twist. All religions, including NRMs, ARE equally valid (n.b. Fred Scuttle’s other posts are a lot more cynical e.g.: “Hilarious, if a little tragic. Dr Who is as real as Jesus.”, so I’ve included his comment in the dismissive list).  In my view the rational mind we are so pleased with in the ‘West’ that we think was born during the Enlightenment is just as active in the human narratives formation that we might call ‘beliefs’ and has been way back into the beginnings of the established religions and all the way through time till now… and tomorrow.  Some people, especially those with more mainstream beliefs, don’t like that answer. Please don’t be upset, I’m calling you rational…

Which must make a nice change from hearing Richard Dawkins at least 🙂

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Its a Nice Day for a Scientology Wedding

Scientology is in the mainstream news again with the announcement that a woman who wants to marry in a Scientology chapel has won a Supreme Court battle to have it recognized as a ‘place of meeting for religious worship’.  Five judges have over-ruled a 1970 ruling that prioritized veneration of a God in deciding what was genuine religious worship or not.  

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Good news for Miss Louisa Hodkin who gets to go through her choice of ritual in her choice of location.  

But what does this really mean for Scientology? Is it really a religion now?

This is a subject I’ve been considering in a paper that I am hoping to submit in the new year to a journal – it considers Jediism and the question of what is ‘really real’ religion and where we get our ideas about ‘realness’ from.  

In the case of Scientology this Supreme Court ruling means that lots of people are discussing the case online and declaring that the “UK recognizes Scientology as religion” (tweet at 10.33am, 12.12.2013) or that they are “Pleased UK has recognized scientology as a religion. Believing aliens infest us more rational than believing God impregnated a woman …” (tweet at 10.30am, 12.12.2013).  

Well… this is not exactly what has happened.  There is no legislative process in the UK for recognizing a religion as ‘really real’.  Attempts at forming laws around definitions of ‘real religion’ have always floundered. Take, for example, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act which came partially into force in  2007 after several years of drafting and redrafting.  In one round of amendments Scientology, Satanists and Jedi Knights were suggested as groups that should be excluded from the rights and protections of the Bill.  The proposer of this amendment suggested he had written it in just for effect, a tongue in cheek way of drawing attention to the issue of the increasing popularity of NRMs and the issues that they raise. But some of the readers of the Bill took this amendment very seriously:

My hon. Friend is being rather modest when he says that he tabled the amendments in a tongue-in-cheek way. Does he not agree that they go to the heart of the matter? The fact that the Government have not stated what a religion is will cause huge problems with the Bill. Disreputable groups will undoubtedly hide under the protection that comes with being classed as a religion and will potentially not be able to be criticised for their abhorrent views. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the definition of what is and is not a religion goes to the heart of the Bill? (Standing Committee E, 2005)

But even if the definition of what is and what is not a religion does in fact go to the heart of the Bill, this committee and others that followed could not work out a definition that worked. Concensus was not possible. The Supreme Court’s ruling that religion does not necessarily need a Supreme Authority or god to be considered a ‘really real’ religion has likewise received criticism from more monotheistic, or theistically inclined religious groups and scholars, and those who see the more open definition of religion as an open-door to humanist or political groups to claim the same benefits as religious organisations.

Which brings me to the real crux of the matter. When there’s conflict, ask yourself, where is the money? Or, perhaps, who wants the money?

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Scientologist Tom Cruise wants to know where it is!

In the BBC’s reporting of the story there is a quote from Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis, who ‘said he was “very concerned” about the ruling and its implications for business rates.’  Religions, both here in the UK, and notably in the USA, qualify for certain exemptions, but only if they are formally recognized as religions by the Inland Revenue Services.  Scientology was involved in a twenty six year court battle with the USA’s IRS over their legal status and settled in 1993, paying them only $12.5 million, when their actually debt would have been many times higher.  If Scientology is accepted by the legislature as a ‘really real’ religion in the UK  then monies that would normally go to the State would remain with the Church.

Will this happen? Well, I propose that although a functional, but certainly ugly, definition could be drawn up for ultimately determining ‘really real’ religion, one that twists itself into a spaghetti hoop trying to cover all the variations and diversity of NRMs, it is actually already irrelevant.  Instead, what makes a religion ‘really real’ is a snowballing of legitimacy.  Admittedly a proportion of legitimacy IS gained through legal, tax and State procedures such as this recent ruling, but also, and more importantly, the ongoing conversation about the NRM that takes place between people provides legitimacy for Scientology’s place at the discussion table.  This is a conversation that occurs more and more online.  

Even if this ruling had gone against Miss Hodkin, and she did not have the wedding she hoped for, Scientology would be no less ‘real’ for her.  Or for any of the other members of the Church.  It is all too easy to point out L. Ron. Hubbard as the stereotypical charismatic leader and quote him saying things like: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion”.  But the fact of the matter is, once you get past the issue of origins, NRMs have a life of their own, one that inter-plays with contemporary discussions about religion, but a life that also exists outside of that discussion, while also being legitimated by being a part of the discussion. Fears about “Disreputable Groups” using the law to their advantage miss the point that the law is already being influenced by the policy makers who are in turn influenced by this conversation.  The fact that Jedi Knights made it into the amendment (and Scientology etc) means that there is a thing called Jediism that needs to be taken seriously… and they know it exists because of this discussion about what religion is.

Inspired by Social Media Knowledge Exchange

After attending a two day conference held at CRASSH by the Social Media Knowledge Exchange  on issues and themes around the use of social media by institutions and individual academics, I’ve been inspired to use a blog to write up my PhD diary and to plan out some of things I am working on.  Partly backward looking, partly forward looking, this blog will be of interest (hopefully!) to:

  • Anyone doing a humanities PhD and using digital humanities methods
  • Anyone using social-anthropology/religious studies methods in their research project
  • And anyone who is interested in New Religious Movements, especially those online and using social media to form communities.

For the forward looking parts of the blog, I intend to write at least a post a day with my goals for that day, and another once a week covering what I hope to get done that week.  For the backward looking, I want to write up some of my fieldwork and research notes as I go in order to pull together a PhD diary that might help me when it comes to writing up my thesis.  Fingers Crossed!

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