Winter of the Soul: A Spiritual Analysis of the Game of Thrones Pop Culture Phenomena

WINTER OF THE SOUL: A SPIRITUAL ANALYSIS OF THE GAME OF THRONES POP CULTURE PHENOMENA

By Avellina Balestri (alias Rosaria Marie), July 6, 2016

Summary: An analysis of the spiritual ramifications of Game of Thrones as compared to Lord of the Rings

Article Rating: PG (for mention of disturbing imagery and mild sexual references)

Word Count: 5013

Image credit: HBO

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 have 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.” Perhaps 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.

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34 thoughts on “Winter of the Soul: A Spiritual Analysis of the Game of Thrones Pop Culture Phenomena

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  1. This hits on something that has troubled me deeply for some time. As a Marvel and DC fan, I honestly don’t know how many of the upcoming “superhero” movies I can watch anymore. True heroism has been exchanged with anti-heroism. Captain America is the butt of jokes, Iron Man is the “cool kid,” and Black Widow survives by any shady means necessary. But it’s OK to revel in vice, we’re told, as long as the world gets saved in the process. What’s more, fans are demanding it. They celebrate when Deadpool is announced to have R-rated content. They pitch a collective fit if an artist pulls a limited-edition comic book cover depicting sexual assaults before the issue launches. They don’t want heroism. They revel in the villainy.

    On another note, as a historian who spent most of his graduate years buried in Medieval and Renaissance studies, I’m tired if the “realism” argument. What might surprise such jaded people if they actually pick up a book on Medieval history or, better yet, a primary source, is that there was so much light in the supposedly “Dark Ages.”

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  2. We’ve talked about this before, so you know the ambivalence I have over GoT. I think the books and the show should be analyzed distinctly or things get really jumbled–the show definitely has more gratuity than the books and sometimes it really gets to be too much. However, one thing that I find extremely valuable about the gory horrible-ness is that it paints war as utter hell. I think that’s a very important notion to remember, especially with movies and books to promote battle as a glorious venture. The brutality, the violence, the sick destruction that human beings are capable of wreaking upon one another shouldn’t be glossed over–especially in a world where 151 of our planet’s 162(ish) countries are involved in varying degrees of conflict and war. Of course, GoT is not for everyone and I think that, even if it does have some virtues, it definitely has its drawbacks, even if those drawbacks are strictly emotional for some viewers and readers. But, as someone with a degree in literature, I think that Martin has created a masterpiece, however bleak. I just need to make sure I balance my own viewing and reading with plenty of material that testifies to the aspects of beauty and love that are simultaneously present with the darkness in our current world.

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  3. So many great points in that article! And so true about this terrible ‘true feminism’ thing that is currently the rage. Makes me grind my teeth.

    “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.”

    This made me think of a trend I’ve been noticing. So many people don’t even believe that humans can control their urges or their emotions. So any one who takes a moral stand or shows any kind of integrity ‘is too good to be true.’

    Makes me think of Isaiah 5:20.

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  4. Great analysis. Probably another reason I couldnt watch this regularly. (aside from the X-rated content) I like hope in my shows, or at least a good cautionary tale. What I really loved about shows like Lost and Person of Interest is the deep questions they explore and the “meaning of life” themes. But despite how dark both shows get (and sometimes there are hopeless points), there’s an ultimate hope to each show. There’s an ultimate “good inside” theme that I think makes each show truly worth investing in. I remember these scenes because of their power and raw humanity. It’s a lot more real and honest, IMO, than swimming in just the darkness. It’s what has inspired my own writing. You can’t pretend that the darkness doesn’t exist but nor can you the light. They must exist in balance.

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  5. PREACH. What’s so odd is that Martin used to write for “Beauty and the Beast” the 80’s TV show which was famed far and wide for it’s use of chaste romance. He must have been still going to church at that point. Spreading light and beauty were, I thought, the purposes of fantasy. Many fantasy authors today (Martin, Mayer, etc.) would have you believe otherwise. If they are strong in the “dark side”, we must be ready to fight back with the light side of fantasy.

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  6. Your LOTR//GOT article was STUNNINGLY beautiful and articulate. I reposted it immediately upon reading it. A truly /excellent/ article, especially for authors of fantasy. Thank you for writing it.

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  7. This is yours, Avellina? Very good! Wonderful article. I tell people that I would live in middle Earth or Narnia in a heart beat. Westeros, Not a chance in Hades! I think people watch it for the same reasons thy watch auto racing…they’re waiting for the wrecks.

    ‘Game of Thrones” will fade away, but ‘Lord of the Rings” will endure…because of hope.

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  8. I’m actually a fan of GoT, but it is definitely an interesting exploration in Machiavellian politics. The plot does have some fascinating roots in history and mythology that I find pretty cool.

    Like

  9. I had always thought there was something wrong with the show in particular, but never delved into it to find out. Thanks for writing it!

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  10. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I had not analysed why, but I feel the same instinctively. It’s all angst with no truth or point to it.

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  11. A Song of Ice and Fire is not Christian. It is one modern man’s view of the so-called Middle Ages as seen through the lens of the myths propagated by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment writers. Some of the major events are inspired by actual history, but that is where true similarities end.

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  12. So true. This has been my problem with the series since Season 1 (and especially after reading the books thru AFFC). Other than the supposed “realism,” what is the POINT of this story? What’s the message? There really doesn’t seem to be one, certainly nothing worth waiting for as long as GRRM is making us wait.

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  13. Thank you for writing this critique of Game of Thrones. I have not watched any of it and so I can only reflect on it through your eyes, so to speak but I cannot help but feel that your comparison of Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings expresses the major spiritual fault line of our times. The early Fathers of the Church emphasised that metanoia, the profound “turning around” that begins all true life, begins with a renunciation of despair. In The Lord of the Rings this is beautifully expressed in the story of Théoden, the one who is true to the medieval vision of the True King. Tolkien compares him to Denethor who reverts to paganism and despair. I cannot help but feel that in Martin’s work, as you describe it, it is despair that triumphs. It such a world it is necessary to sieze pleasure when it is available whether it is sex or violence, and the two become very closely related. All there is to look forward to is the dark. I fear that we are entering a time of darkness in our history but I believe in the happy ending, in Tolkien’s eucatastrophe.

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  14. Where do you start on this. When I was at University the two pillars of Geekdom were Star Trek: The Next Generation and LoTR (if you didn’t like either of these then you were not part of the club). Then there were other things that flowed out from these two. You were either into serious sci-fi novels, or serious fantasy novels. Some other themes were obligatory like Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I might add that board gaming would have been part of this culture (old school and European style board gaming e.g. Carcassonne/Caylus etc). Your intro hits the nail on the head. GoT is all about pop culture, and the world of Geekdom is no longer about some higher intellectual aim, but it is really about ‘flogging stuff that people want to buy in the bucket loads’. Once geek went mainstream in was all over, and it just became a marketing circus where the underground, became the mainstream. There is a belief system in Geekdom that goes ‘you don’t have to be intelligent to be into this stuff, but that isn’t how it used to be. It used to be an intellectual past-time of sorts, and if you were not that smart then it gave you something to strive for in your spare time rather than just watching the Simpsons (having said that I love the Simpsons, lol). GoT parted with old school geekdom the moment that Sean Bean/Ned Stark inevitably died.

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  15. Dang that was long. lol. Very interesting though. It gave more points than I really thought about. For me, GoT always seemed similar to LOTR, but different at the same time. I think it’s cool how George RR Martin was inspired by…JRR Tolkien (hmm, I never noticed the R’s before. lol). They do seem pretty different since LOTR seems to focus more on the good and evil and GoT seems to focus more on the both sides sort of thing…although, I’ve only seen one season of GoT so I don’t know how valid my opinion is here.

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  16. I thoroughly enjoyed this analysis, but would like to offer one point that I found in Tolkien (and is completely laking Martin) – that the more you associate with evil, the more difficult it is do overcome on your own. Many people forget why Frodo ended up with only nine fingers. Even though he repeatedly resisted the evil of the ring throughout the journey, he did eventually succumb to it. He was near the point of utter despair when Sam reminded him that here is good in the world and that it is worth fighting for it. However, his repeated use of the ring made him more subject to its power.

    I think that Frodo was correct when said that the ring would destroy Sam. This was not only a warning and an explanation to Sam, it was a statement of what he saw happening to himself. Frodo understood that his exposure to the ring was corrupting him. Those who refused the ring knew its power and were tempted by it, but they resisted not actually experiencing it. The Lady Galadriel foresaw what would happen to her. She would use it intending to do good but would ultimately become an evil tyrant. Sam was heroic because, having worn the ring in order to rescue Frodo, he gave it up willingly. That little exposure was dangerous, but he didn’t experience enough of it to ultimately corrupt him.

    Frodo was heroic because he didn’t want the burden of the ring. He only took it because he saw that the others who could would not be able to do so. He didn’t think that he was “worthy” of the mission, he simply saw no other choice. However, when the moment came for Frodo to destroy the ring, he finally succumbed to its power and decided to keep it. If it weren’t for Gollum also trying to get the ring for himself, the ring would not have been destroyed and, ultimately, would have returned to Sauron.

    At one point on the journey, Frodo told Sam that he couldn’t succeed without him. The parallel for us is that the more we succumb to evil in our lives, the more difficult it is to leave that evil without the help of good people around us. There is also a parallel that, we are not fully healed from our exposure to evil. Not only did Frodo continue to feel the effect of the ring long after it was gone, Bilbo did as well.

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  17. Thanks for this powerful and thoughtful piece. I could write an essay myself in reply, but for the time being I’ll make a few critical points.

    The TV show Game of Thrones is vastly inferior to the original book series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. I’m sorry for ‘yelling’ the title, but if you are going to compare it to Tolkien’s original Lord of the Rings, you should really differentiate between GOT and ASOIAF. It is tempting to harshly criticise Martin for cashing in by selling the rights and thereby debasing his most famous work, but if like me you don’t believe in paying to watch TV, but love epic stories, it is possible to effectively ignore the show GOT while reading ASOIAF. Christians need to prayerfully and self-critically consider whether they are mature enough to see the most graphic subject matter as a small and relatively unimportant part of the whole wide sweeping saga of ASOIAF.

    I sincerely believe it is unhelpful to compare ASOIAF with LOTR, because each has unique strengths and weaknesses. Reading LOTR is an incomparably uplifting experience for a Christian such as myself, while ASOIAF unashamedly rubs the reader’s nose in the stinking mud and dares you not to enjoy the process in some unwholesome way. On the other hand, my favourite moment in my favourite movie of all time comes when Faramir looks Frodo in the eye at the end of The Two Towers and confesses he now understands him, and is now letting him and Sam go free. Its perfect redemption, yet when the movie was released the Tolkien diehards hated the change to Faramir as originally written! Don’t get me wrong. I love the book of LOTR, but wonder if it’s dangerous to expect an Aragorn or a Faramir to come along in real life, or to become a Middle Earth obsessive in general? In contrast, ASOIAF has characters beautifully painted in shades of grey. The older, ‘almost white’, members of the Stark household in particular are very useful starting points for discussions with non-Christians about why Christians revere martyrs. Virtually every ‘almost or totally black’ member of House Lannister demonstrates the corrosive nature of decisions to embrace morally vile actions. I’m not tempted to become over-addicted to the World of Ice and Fire, but am amazed by Martin’s mastery of plot and character development.

    I feel Martin’s most glaring failing is his obvious misunderstanding of why Christianity is unique, resulting in an inadequate depiction of virtually the only truly righteous cleric in the whole saga of ASOIAF, Septon Meribald. Instead of explaining how God’s redemptive power changed him, Meribald discusses the experiences of former soldiers broken inside by war. His deep and compassionate understanding of these ‘broken men’ leads the noble-hearted Brienne of Tarth to conclude that Meribald was once one himself. The reader is left to assume that Meribald made a subsequent personal decision to devote the rest of his life to acts of service. Really, if Martin was serious about fully rounding out his World of Ice and Fire, he would have researched the power of a conversion experience. Having said that all that, I must hasten to add that just like the older Starks, Meribald is a great topic for discussion with non-Christians.

    My final point is this, that a blanket condemnation of ASOIAF is unhelpful, due to the many opportunities its vast popularity offers for discussions about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is vital to keep in mind that the books, like the TV show GOT, are suitable for adults only. As parents of high school students my wife and I have been firm on this, and the pleadings for us to change our minds have by now diminished, I’m pleased to add.

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  18. Hello there! So I began to read this in spite of knowing absolutely nothing about “Game of Thrones,” and when I got to your paragraphs about the underlying hope and possibility for redemption in Middle-earth, one of my favorite passages came to mind, and as it seemed relevant to your post, I decided to let Tolkien speak for himself:

    “I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered.

    But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects.’ No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.

    [And] there is still some hope that things may be better for us, even on the temporal plain, in the mercy of God. And though we need all our natural human courage and guts (the vast sum of human courage and endurance is stupendous, isn’t it?) and all our religious faith to face the evil that may befall us, still we may pray and hope. I do.”

    – J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Christopher while they were separated due to Christopher being in the Air Force during World War II, Letters, #64, 30 April 1944

    I find this perspective to be inspiring and uplifting, and to reflect largely the attitude of Tolkien’s fiction.

    By the way, I absolutely loved your statement that “True heroism is . . . never, ever becoming that which you are fighting against.” In LotR, I think, that’s where the real battle lies. That is why when Boromir lies dying after confessing to Aragorn, “I tried to take the Ring. I am sorry. […] I have failed,” Aragorn is able to say truthfully, “No! You have conquered! Few have gained such a victory.” Boromir thinks he is a failure because he didn’t save Merry and Pippin or Gondor, but Aragorn sees that he’s won a much harder battle. Well said!

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  19. Greetings, Avellina,

    An intense and lengthy read about the frail bitterness of GoT versus the enduring goodness of LOTR, but it was worth it to get through it. I loved it! I am quite convinced that to watch GoT would likely constitute a mortal sin due the intense sexuality as well as the cynical message it gets across. Books might be a near occasion of sin or venial, not sure. I’ve no doubt the story is compelling; I’ve read some of themes of the world, like how seasons can last for years (seen that before actually haha), so I’ve no doubt there are entertaining/interesting aspects behind it, nor even a depth of emotion to be found there, but I can’t help but wonder that shock value is more valued these days over virtuous natures and struggles against great evils.-shrugs-The article is pretty well put together on that account.

    On the other hand, I firmly believe that Tolkien was inspired by God to write down LOTR. Being of a scientific mindset I notice certain patterns throughout history and other things I’ve observed. Simply put I believe in the Catholic faith because of its indelible, irrefutable history of endurance and the lifting up of Man. Middle-Earth is something that, even though conceived so long ago still maintains a steady hold over so many hearts. I can’t help but laugh myself to tears whenever I see anti-Catholics bash the Faith then turn around and gush over how much they love LOTR and the themes within!

    Again, well written piece, being fair to GoT and all. God has gifted you with an amazing mind, Avellina, it was inspiring to read your article.

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  20. I think the way Martin looks at it, he has eschewed portraying an idealised version of the world typical of popular fiction writers in favour of a more realistic depiction of the world as it is. With magic and dragons thrown in… Have to say I stopped watching when they burned that little girl alive. I can watch most things, but children dying horrible deaths on screen is about my limit. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’m still watching ‘The Walking Dead’ even after Sam got eaten by zombies. He was bloody annoying though…

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    1. I would say that not only only eschewed an idealized version of the world, but took it in the extreme opposite direction, refusing to acknowlege the existence of greater good in the world. He gave the world the see-saw treatment instead of being truly realistic, which would necessarily have had to show the power of goodness as well as evil.

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      1. You might have a point. Ramsay Bolton had no redeeming features whatsoever, he was just pure, distilled evil. There haven’t been any characters that are the flip side of the coin by being totally good though.

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  21. Sorry but I can’t stand game of thrones, and get very frustrated when anyone tries to compare it to Lord of the Rings.

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  22. Thought-provoking, brilliant piece! So many thoughts came to mind while reading that I broke them down below:

    Sacramental kingship was really a beautiful process. I wrote about this in one of my papers in graduate school.There are so many historical untruths out there, which have caused a great deal of misperception about the Middle Ages. Although the church underwent great strain throughout the fifth century leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire and the years that followed, (now referred to as The Middle Ages) the papacy managed to survive the downfall of Rome and was able to provide a unity of faith between the church and the empire. The church became the one thread that was able to run through these many small kingdoms that had resulted from the fall of Rome, and became the unifying force among the kingdoms. As these kingdoms began to embrace the Christian faith, the pope and the king became the axis, or two foci that came together to create what we now know as Europe. With this unity of faith came a unified moral code regarding how they were to treat one another. Monasticism developed and this provided a stable community and a system of law. The Canon law of the Church, papal diplomacy, and general and ecumenical councils, added to this unity. Rulers began to look to the papacy for validation, or blessings, to verify their reign as being blessed by God. A sense of community was shaped through common customs, celebrations, and seasons of the year. A judicial system established a rhythm to daily life from unity of law. Popes were able to exercise their papal authority as supreme pastor and papal legates provided mediation between rival kings. The elite of society, i.e. the pope, ambassadors, kings, clergy, princes, dukes, theologians, university professors, gathered in general councils to share ideas and a common vision. The influence of the papacy of the church brought unity to a divided empire.

    The church was also called upon to play a critical role in the empire or state with regard to the appointment of kings. The king was thought to be a sacred character whose lineage came from a line of nobility or a royal bloodline. Kings needed sacred approval to legitimize their reign and popes provided the sacred element to their legitimacy. This spiritual approval, which the popes bestowed upon leaders, further led to greater church-state relations and also a unification of governance as all leaders looked to the papacy for approval. Their mutual cooperation brought about and stabilized the unity of Europe. A third component or institution was sometimes added, the university. In summation, there were three elements, or a triad, that lead to the unification of Europe, the sacred (priestly), the empire (kingly), and the university (secular and ecclesiastical) and a common faith provided this unified kingdom. Christendom, or a partnership between the church and the state, was officially formed. (Separation of church and state was the church’s idea.)

    “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.”
    I’m very curious about this. The whole thing reminds me of CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. There almost seems like the author has an underlying desire to break the human spirit. It’s like Uncle Screwtape is working overtime by not only putting out a similar, yet counter, theme to Lord of the Rings, but the double “R” in both authors’ names is almost uncanny!

    “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.”
    Satan loves war within the human heart. And who else but him would want us to despise our own natures? He loathes the fact that we are made in the Image and Likeness of God, and that God would actually come into the world as a man – a human being – who takes the form of a slave and a servant. This is the reality that the archangel Lucifer couldn’t accept, and thus caused him to fall away, which resulted in his own banishment and doom.

    “Indeed, such a stance would be giving the power of evil over the human soul far too much credit.”
    Very telling.

    “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.”
    This is so dangerous for young souls to be watching. Especially during a time that their world views and consciences are forming. And then I read that Martin is a fallen away Catholic. It’s the lapsed Catholics that seem to be doing the most damage today, and I find to be the most distressing.

    “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.”
    Yes! St. Augustine spoke about how evil is a parasite that exists on the privation of the good. He said there is only good, without which there is nothing.

    “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.”
    Beautiful, truthful words of wisdom here and all throughout. The idea that martyrdom is foolishness dates back to the first century. In fact, Justin Martyr, just before his death, defended the rationality of a Christian lying down his life for truth. That reason, as opposed to stupidity, is the basis for one’s sacrifice.

    I’ve shared with many friends and family. Thank you for your painstaking work and in-depth analogy, and mostly for your fidelity to truth and promulgating virtue.

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    1. It appears to me that she wrote this article in response against those who give this show undue credit. This article appears to be an analysis of how those who compare “Game of Thrones” to the “Lord of the Rings” are very misled. She is in no way applauding this trashy show, in fact, she is exposing its faults, trash, ingenuousness, and lack of any value. In effect, what I read was, “Don’t believe the hype, this show is all smoke and mirrors and trash and doesn’t have the classic and virtuous elements of the Lord of the Rings.

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