Winter of the Soul: A Spiritual Analysis of the Game of Thrones Pop Culture Phenomena
Game of Thrones, the wildly popular HBO series based off of George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, is a presently unavoidable part of popular culture. Praised for its high production values, including acting, costuming, setting, and cinematography, and dubbed one of the “epic sagas of our times”, the program has sent fantasy-lovers flocking to it in droves, in spite of (or unfortunately, perhaps because of) the fact that is also infamous for its X-rated content and nihilistic themes. As the series continues, the pros and cons of viewing continue to expand, and some have questioned whether aesthetic quality is enough to justify the intake of such high levels of graphic material and to be following plot developments that are spiraling further and further from any sense of moral direction.
Having only read analysis online and watched selected clips from YouTube (trudging through the gauntlet of gory death scenes and soft porn sequences is far from being on my to-do list!), I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on the full run of the series. Indeed, what got me interested in any exploration of the series in the first place was the fandom music of Karliene, which later led me to befriend the romantically-inclined “Sanrion Shippers” over at fanfiction.net, dedicated to salvaging the doomed marriage of Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister from the series. That being said, all this has enabled me to identify some of the main themes which I would like to analyze from a Christian viewer’s worldview and spiritual perspective, particularly in light of Game of Thrones being frequently compared, both positively and negatively, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
The premise of Game of Thrones centers on a handful of noble families battling for control of the Iron Throne of Westeros against the backdrop of a pseudo-medieval setting with spranglings of magical powers and ancient prophecies thrown in for good measure. George R.R. Martin claims to have taken his main inspiration from a hodge-podge of happenings during the Middle Ages (the War of the Roses is the most obvious parallel: e.g., the family names of Lancaster/Lannister and York/Stark), but his synthetic adaptation is meant to be viewed through the lens of modern sentiment as opposed to the proper historical context. Instead of painting a full-bodied picture of the goods and the ills of the period, his world tends to portray everything “medieval” as dark and oppressive as opposed to focusing on the positive elements of its legacy. While brutality was certainly a reality of medieval society, there was also much beauty and virtue to be explored as well, especially involving the nature of the chivalric code and sacramental kingship.
Nevertheless, the plot-line, at least in its early stages, is fairly compelling and stands on its own apart from historical accounts. There is a richness of texture that makes the geographical, cultural, and political backdrop of Westeros believable and engrossing, made more so by the complex characters that are not easily labeled as either heroes or villains. This enables viewers to observe multiple sides of the conflict with a certain degree of sympathy for all parties involved. This is a direct carryover from the books, which literally do change viewpoints frequently, even when those characters are doomed to die down the road. And many are doomed to die. Given the predictability of most other series and their hero survival policy, Martin’s almost gleeful slaying of sympathetic main characters shocked audiences with the reality that, in Westeros, no one was safe…not even the nearest and dearest of fandom central. Depending on your view-point, this could be refreshing or distressing.
Still the personality traits of the main players tend to be varied enough to make their interactions compelling and open up all sorts of possibilities for their personal development. It’s easy to become invested in their struggles and keep hoping against hope that they will have a happy ending. Indeed, it has been proven that personalities in GoT are far from static, and originally, there was reason to hope that more redemption scenarios might play out as a result. However, the opposite has been the rule, with almost all the likable characters either getting killed or morphing into vengeful, blood-thirsty anti-heroes. While there are one-time villains who have become more sympathetic via the experiences they have undergone, there are very few full conversion experiences to be had.
Although George R.R. Martin claimed to have been inspired to delve into fantasy literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, he made a point of setting his own works far apart from fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings, where one side clearly represents goodness and the other clearly represents evil. Martin explained that he was intent upon showing the human cost of the inter-family feuding in a realistic manner, something which he felt was sorely lacking in such stories as LotR, where orc extras die aplenty…and absolutely no one cares. He also stressed that he was not so much inspired by conflicts between “good” vs. “bad” sides going up against each other as he was by human hearts at war with themselves. Hence, he wanted to show that it is not so much dark lords and mystical rings that should fill us with a dread of evil, but rather our own natures (and given his capacity for warping out his characters, he’s obviously given this quite a bit of thought!).
But it seems Martin is missing out on a major piece of philosophy within The Lord of the Rings, which sees mythological allegory for unseen realities to be a powerful means of expressing truth. As a result, the orcs are not so much meant to be individuals as representations of the perverting force of evil itself. Nevertheless, almost all the major characters in Tolkien’s literary universe are very much dealing with “hearts at war with themselves” as they struggle against the temptation of giving into the corrupting power of the One Ring. Frodo Baggins epitomizes this, and almost every major character experiences some internal turmoil the either results in their triumph or demise. Just because the majority of them are shown as succeeding in their internal struggles against evil (not all, mind you; Gollum, Saruman, and to a lesser extent, Denethor epitomize failure on this account), it doesn’t make the former is any less “realistic” than the latter.
Indeed, such a stance would be giving the power of evil over the human soul far too much credit. While we are certainly capable of great evil and perversion, we are also capable of great good and virtue. Also, it is often the smallest acts of kindness that have the power to redeem and restore and bring good out of even the most horrible circumstances. Tolkien was keenly aware of this, while Martin commonly allows his story to be carried away by an undercurrent of cynicism and despair, showing that the only way to win in Westeros is by “playing the game” of corruption, deceit, and violence. In fact, learning how to do so is hailed as crossing over from childhood to adulthood, from naiveté to maturity, and most of the character arcs claim this utter dissolution of the soul for their climax. Sansa Stark, the once innocent daughter of a noble father, stands out as a prime example, as she is slowly transformed by the brutality she experiences into taking pleasure in brutality herself. Many have come to see this as an intended boon towards an extreme form of feminism that decries all traditional feminine virtues, and falsely promotes a penchant for blood-letting and devious political maneuvering to be equivalent to female “liberation.”
Not only does this become dull and repetitive, but it also creates a false dichotomy between being wise and being virtuous. It completely fails to comprehend Christ’s injunction to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” using a well-formed mind, heart, and soul to govern our actions. Furthermore, all these examples misrepresent the true nature of maturity which is meant to build upon those the lessons and morals we learned as children as opposed to disconnecting us from them. As our intellects sharpen and we develop in our understanding of the world around us, we must strive to keep our hearts pure and innocent so that we might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To put it simply, eating from the tree of forbidden fruit of sin under the false promise of becoming like gods through our intellectual prowess is not the way to go.
But the other difference between Tolkien and Martin’s worlds can best be understood as a presence, and an absence, of the power of divine grace interacting with free will. In Middle Earth, most of the characters find the strength needed to triumph over evil, and even when they stumble and fall – as Frodo did many times when carrying the Ring, or Boromir did when trying to wrest the Ring away from him – there is still the ever-present, and very plausible chance of redemption through the sometimes small movements of the heart and the providential unfolding of events. It is the submission to a higher good, and the power of true love held in friendship, that ultimately saves the day. Even Gollum, corrupted by the Ring beyond recall, still has a vital part to play in saving the world because of mercy shown to him by Bilbo and later Frodo, even though he was undeserving of it.
In Westeros, on the other hand, the characters seem trapped in a vicious cycle of evil with little hope, or heart, to free themselves. Acts of kindness are far and few in between, and almost always result in disaster for those daring to perform them, with the implied warning that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The characters find themselves sacrificing decency as being too costly a commodity and simply submitting themselves to “the way things are”, learning the tricks of the terrible trade for survival and dominance. Also, it is interesting to note that Martin, a fallen-away Catholic, takes great pains to develop complex religious belief systems for Westeros (some which have striking similarities with the Catholic Church), but they are shown as largely meaningless exercises, whereas Tolkien, a practicing Catholic, never mentions God directly in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the Divine presence permeates Middle Earth through and through.
This affects the entire structure of the narrative, for while providence is the main guide in Tolkien’s world, making all individual stories subject to a Greater Story with purpose and meaning, individual stories in Martin’s world are randomly generated causations, without a focus on the common good holding together the whole. Although both use the premise of following multiple characters on separate journeys, the former knits these together through a higher power at work, forming the overarching backbone of the tale. The latter bends the rules of traditional storytelling to the point of breaking them, and sacrifices a sense of centralizing focus. Indeed, Westeros is a world of “sound and fury signifying nothing”, from careless sexuality, to character deaths, to spiritual philosophy. While some might make comparisons with Shakespearian tragedies such as Richard III, the tone of these works maintained a much deeper sense of moral order and analytical critique that kept the ship on a straight course.
In the midst of this spiritual abyss, Martin also seems to have a hard time sustaining genuinely intimate relationships between his characters. There seems to be a constant barrier blocking the way to true love, or else assuring that it is brutally cut short and scattered to the wind. If even a spark of hope or chance for real redemption dare be enkindled through such relationships, it is almost certainly doomed to be snuffed out in the name of “realism.” Even according to the rule of percentages, this fails to be fair to the transforming power of love and loyalty found in countless real-life stories. If Martin is so insistent upon historical inspiration, I do wonder why he has not managed to integrate elements from any of these instead of always portraying the glass of life as being altogether empty of the milk of human kindness or, indeed, gratitude of kindnesses performed, which is a sorely lacking element.
If anything, it can be said that Martin has a knack for magnifying the depravity of humanity in all its ugliness…and tragically, some find it to be more than a little entertaining. One must wonder if this has anything to do with the author’s personal experiences of life or simply his adopted pessimistic philosophy which he sought to infuse into the natural law of his fantasy world. Either way, while he has spoken at length about his stories being “sophisticated fantasy”, Game of Thrones is infamous for gratuitous sexuality and violence – which are often combined for full throttle shock factor effect. This can be traced back to Martin’s own determination to make his readers “feel” the effects of the graphic sex sequences in his books, even those which fall into the most twisted categories.
In contrast, The Lord of the Rings champions the beauty of chaste love and life-giving relationships as a very real and substantial alternative to debasing debauchery. Instead of turning sexuality into some type of illusory play-thing of the masses to fulfill perverse sexual fetishes, Tolkien shields it as an act of true intimacy, a decision which to my mind makes him far more “sophisticated” than Martin, and lives up to a much more positive and hopeful Catholic philosophy. Similar to his handling of religion, Tolkien uses the element of romance sparingly and yet with great depth and meaning, demonstrating the power of life-affirming love, whereas Martin splurged on the superficial and perverted and fails to capture the essence of the subject. This all emphasizes the fact that while Tolkien chose the focus more on the triumph over the soul over the world, the flesh, and the devil, Martin chose to focus on just the opposite, in almost all areas of the human experience.
Does this mean that dark themes involving violence and sexuality should not be introduced into any form of fiction? Of course not. Indeed, they are often vital topics of discussion and analysis, and tragically do play a fairly large role in the story of our fallen humanity. But I think that there is always the danger of making darkness seem perversely glamorous if not properly contrasted with the light. In essence, if there is not some good that is being pointed to through the introduction of these themes, and they are meant to stand alone for their own sake, there is something seriously wrong. But it cannot even be said that the majority of these pornographic flings and blood-soaked massacres serve much more of a purpose than to provide a cheap ratings boost.
Even when dark themes are introduced for the right reasons, tasteful portrayals are often hard to come by. In daily life, no one needs to see extended blood-letting and sexual abuse sequences in live time. The themes can be explored in suitably tasteful ways without having to drag everyone through the highly disturbing filth in the name of what HBO decides is suitably “entertaining.” It is mocking the public intelligence to think that we need everything explicitly spelled out in order to get the idea or appreciative the gravity of the subject matter. In the process, it transforms tragedy and horror into a consumer commodity promising the dangerous thrill of a roller-coaster ride, desensitizing our souls and making us callous to human suffering.
All of this has helped set a cynical trend in modern entertainment. Political intrigue replaces emotional depth, world-building complexity replaces lasting truths, and sordid sensationalism replaces committed relationships between characters. Since most people are more likely to be informed by pop fandoms such as GoT than by real history, the world of our ancestors continues to be chronically misrepresented and misunderstood. Instead of a critique of violence, the graphic content morphs into something of an advertisement for it as viewers become emotionally invested in the feuding.
Indeed, I used to think some of the reactions to The Hunger Games were a bit unnerving, with people seemingly just a bit too eager-beaver about the arena scenes. But by and large, that franchise managed to address the darkest issues with commendable taste and nuanced analysis, keeping faith with an underlying regard for human dignity and concluding the series with a deeply life-affirming message. As for Game of Thrones, the viewers are actually starting to take pleasure in pain, even if it was fictional, as the characters die hideously gruesome deaths on screen. One online commenter wrote that observing one of the characters suffocate was “music to my ears.” Needless to say, this is disturbing, because the safety zone of fiction can easily cross over into real life reactions, as the characters are *still* human beings.
But there is a pervading sense that we should somehow be proud of those taking revenge and relish it’s sweetness with them. It is seen as being somehow strong and even noble. But this is not the way of Christianity, and indeed the story is not set in a Christian world. In fact, Westeros could be seen as an alternate vision of medieval Europe had it never converted to Christianity or adopted the moderating code of chivalry. But should there still not be some natural law? And is our culture so eager to rally behind “heroes” who are not heroes at all, and are we still failing to see vengeance for the weak and cowardly thing that it really is? True heroism is forgiving the unforgivable. It is loving those who hate you and praying for those that persecute you and never, ever becoming that which you are fighting against. Perhaps instead of pop-culture anti-heroes, it is time to turn to the lives of saints. For Christians, we must always seek to transform ourselves through the Grace of Christ and become more fully Human, made in the Image of God. Time to raise the bar.
More subtly, GoT has can be used to validate Machiavellian politics and shadowy character traits. Instead of mixed characters simply being portrayed as sympathetic due to the human condition, their warped aspects are made to seem acceptable and even heroic. It becomes more important to be “clever” than to be good, which is seen as nothing short of dull and unrealistic. Indeed, not only unrealistic, but illusory. To quote the character Peter Baelish: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
This monologue summarizes much of the philosophy behind Game of Thrones. Survivors are the ones to root for, even if they get their finger-nails dirty in the process. Indeed, true conversion of life and redemption of heart come to be seen as undesirable and simplistic. This is reflected in other popular series such as Wolf Hall, which features Thomas Cromwell as one such sympathetic survivor anti-hero. In contrast, Thomas More, renowned for his moral integrity, is recast as a priggish, masochistic religious fanatic. Moral orthodoxy is swiftly passing out of style, and moral ambiguity (not just within characters, but within themes) is en vogue.
But secondly, perhaps more profoundly, the celebration of anti-heroes simply reflects a growing ambiguity in society’s moral compass in which “gray is okay.” While fallen human nature is a fact of life worthy of sympathy, it is not worthy of applause. Indeed, we have come to the point when we are unable to sympathize with or applaud true acts of virtue and heroism. In the eyes of many, even the historical reality of Thomas More’s courageous refusal to betray his conscience at the cost of his own life, simply demonstrated foolishness and a lack of political savvy. Even with all his internal struggles, they find him a bore precisely because he actually did conquer his fears and stand firm in his beliefs. They find more appeal in Cromwell, who might have been willing to sell out his own mother for a farthing, but at least seemed to have “street smarts”…until even he overplayed his hand by hooking up Henry VIII with homely wife number 4, an act of critical misjudgment that cost him his head!
Frankly, this obtuse perspective seriously damages my faith in the present generation, which dreads being challenged to rise to something higher than a lazy embrace of their own vices. Also, it is making the horrendous mistake of giving too much credit to evil as being more “realistic” than good. This reminds me of the concept of evil merely being a shadow of good. Indeed, true Goodness is the only Real thing there is. Evil is actually a perversion of the good, a phantom that preys upon our weaknesses. Yet Goodness, by its very nature, can never be destroyed, for it flows forth from God, the eternal essence of reality, and will always win out in the end. Romans 12:21 instructs us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
We must be reminded of that always, and that stories glorying in goodness never grow old. To quote C.S. Lewis: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” This has nothing to do with childish naiveté and everything to do with arming oneself for the fight with the theological virtue of hope. In almost the antithesis of Peter Baelish’s ode to nihilism and claim that climbing the ladder is all that counts, Gandalf encapsulates the philosophy of Tolkien’s universe beautifully in his recognition of what is capable of defeating evil: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
It is also worthy of note that the rare individuals who stand out as having strong moral back-bones in Game of Thrones are almost always doomed to wind up dead, usually on account of some virtue they were unable to part with or some act of mercy that came back to punish them. Again, we see the stark contrast between Tolkien’s Catholic worldview and Martin’s secularist worldview. Firstly, I would say that this portrayal of virtue as being inherently destructive, and indeed containing within it everyone’s “fatal flaw”, is a serious breach of understanding on the part of the author. However, we must concede that it is often true to life that we suffer for doing the right thing. As Thomas More points out in A Man for All Seasons, if virtue was rewarding in this world, everyone would be virtuous.
But virtue is rarely rewarded in the temporal sense, and we must not expect it to be in this world. It is often a thing that causes us to be scorned, and rejected, and sometimes destroyed. But the point Martin seems to be missing in his stories is that it is worth being destroyed over, a reality More embraced when he lay his head down on the block. In doing so, he was following the example of his savior Jesus Christ, who laid down his life so that all of us could be redeemed from the snares of evil and be given the grace to be transformed through Him. It is all a matter of what is real, and what is not. If this world is all there is, noble sacrifices are matters of stupidity. However, if the three transcendents of goodness, truth, and beauty do exist, such sacrifices exercise the pinnacle of wisdom.
Virtue has value in and of itself, regardless of the consequences on this earth. In the end, life itself holds little recommend it if every good attribute is sacrificed in order to sustain it for a longer span of time. Death comes for the good and bad alike – the main thing is what state we are in when the time comes. For Christians, this world is not the end, and we hold out hope that everything will be set right on a higher plane. And from this same eternal perspective, the great moments in history will not be based on power and political one-up-man-ship, but rather on the intentions of the heart and each act of love performed, no matter how seemingly insignificant. In this light, perhaps the most courageous, mature, and proactive thing any of the GoT characters could do would be to willingly lose “the game” and save their own souls that they are gambling away far too cheaply.
Since Game of Thrones is as of yet an unfinished symphony, it is currently impossible to give it a full critique. Of course, there have been some moments of humanity, goodness, and worthwhile epiphany to be had, but considering the length and intensity of the series, they are fleeting and almost always reversed or rendered effectively null in later plot twists. Even many long-time readers/viewers are feeling increasingly disenchanted with the proceedings and decried them as “spiritually bankrupt”. After all, people tend to follow a story for characters they can connect with, and when they’re all dead, or otherwise have become despicable, a chasm begins to widen between the story line and the audience. This risks undermining Martin’s whole rationale for introducing key character deaths to begin with, as people are beginning to detach themselves from them, similar to the way they are detached from orc deaths, and simply accept it as a predictable part of the game.
At this point, many of come to see Game of Thrones as something of a joke, trying desperately to out-do itself in grotesque displays and unusual means of inflicting death on characters, and feeding the fires of ever more bizarre fandom theories about far-fling-flings that result in the conception of interconnected characters X, Y, and Z. In the fanfiction community, the reactions range from the ingenious to the absurd to the obsessive as to how to save the storyline from what everyone can predict will be a typically nihilistic finale. It could accurately be called a form of therapy for the fans who find themselves consistently traumatized by developments and yet, much like the characters, cannot seem to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of emotional abuse! Meanwhile, even the GoT actors seem somewhat desperate to reaffirm their off-screen identities, as they travel the globe proving that they are, in fact, “nice guys” whose hearts bleed for the unprivileged peoples of the planet.
On a comic note, there have been more than a few hilarious side-effects of the series, including a flood of “brace yourself” memes, as well as cut-up jokes indicating that Martin’s marked inability to finish writing the series in a timely manner may have to do with the fact that he has, quite simply, hit a brick wall after turning as his characters into vengeful psychos, and that those characters may just decide to rub him out for the slam-bash finale! Failing that, if he carries out his threat to take umbrance with the fanfiction community over the use of his characters (possibly because he’s scared they might come up with a superior storyline than he has), the fan base might just take up the banner themselves! Also, in the interests of saving Peter Dinklage from having to go back to playing roles set in Narnia and the North Pole, and given how his appearance and psychological state as Tyrion Lannister has proceeded to plummet, some sci-fi fans have mercifully offered him the option of metamorphosizing into…a Star Wars Ewok!
Although Martin has hinted that he might try and give the series a “bitter-sweet” ending (after 2 or 3 more volumes…and his retreating from the public light, aside from giving the odd interview in which he slobbered over the sorrow of having to “part ways” with his beloved, albeit demented, characters at the series’ close), the current state of affairs indicates that it has already plunged into the forest of no return. Indeed, after the last plot twist has twisted, and the last shock factor sprung, and the last act of retribution accomplished, what will people be able to look back and remember as a lasting legacy of the program? Catch-phrases? Contortions? OMG moments? Will anyone really care who winds up sitting on the Iron Throne when the curtain closes, if the Iron Throne still exists at all (which, according to some fandom theories, is far from a certainty)? If there is not some deeper message to be taken away, then Westeros may well become the proverbial house built on sand that will be washed away by the sea of time.
Yet Tolkien’s Middle Earth, often disparaged in the face of the latest hype, will endure. The reason is that, as Sir Peter Jackson pointed out, it is a triumph over the grips of cynicism and an ode to the deepest realities of the human experience. Indeed, to come full circle to the comparison with The Lord of the Rings, I think that Samwise Gamgee’s words are the ultimate worthwhile pay-off: “There’s some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” Maybe this is the most profound element of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works of which George R.R. Martin’s saga seems to have lost sight while getting caught up in exploring the depths of depravity…there is always hope. And goodness. And light. And it is more “real”, in the purity of the word, than evil, and people can embrace it fully and passionately, and it is only through this embrace that they will be able to break the back of hate.
By Avellina Balestri