May 26, 2011

Religion as Divorced from Conflict in “Game of Thrones”

Posted in Interfaith, Pop Culture at 11:55 pm by chavalah

House Stark- an interfaith family from a medieval-based fantasy world

“Game of Thrones,” HBO’s new hit series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels, is quickly speeding towards the climax of season one. I’m hooked, and in the midst of reading the books. It’s easily my favorite television show currently in production.

At first, I was reticent to start watching. Like with my Italian heritage dictating the way I feel about “Boardwalk Empire,” my Jewish heritage reminds me that the medieval ages, which have been taken out of history and placed into this fantasy world, was not a good time for the Jews. Why should I celebrate this cultural worldview where my ancestors were mercilessly persecuted?

But however similar some aspects of Martin’s fictional world of Westeros are to our own Middle Ages (lords ruling over ancestral lands, bannermen bound in service to them, knights in tournaments and a distinct lack of the industrial age,) the role of religion, at least so far, is very different. (Warning—links below contain book spoilers!)

Westeros, the continent where most of the story takes place, has two major religions. The first, a somewhat pagan, individual worship of nature spirits, was the culture of the native Children of the Forest, then adapted by the first batch of conquerors, the First Men. Thousands of years later a second group, the Andals, also invaded, bringing with them the Faith of the Seven, a religion filled with pomp and ceremony, akin to Roman Catholicism. The Andals pushed the First Men to the North of the kingdom, and this is the only realm where worship of the Old Gods is still paramount.

When the story opens, however, there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the two faiths. Unlike in “Caprica,” fiery prophets and clerics aren’t sent from north to south to convert people or spread terror in the name of deities. The main protagonists of the story, the Stark family, are even interfaith!

Lady Catelyn Tully Stark, the matriarch of the northern Stark family, was born in the middle of Westeros. Sometimes uncomfortable near the sacred Weirwood tree where her husband, Lord Eddard Stark, takes time to reflect on life, she still worships her own gods. Her children, my fellow mixies, go back and forth between the two sets of worship depending on their personal tastes. None of them seem to heap the drama over their choices, as I do. 😛 Religion, in essence, is secondary in this world. It’s not what defines ethics, morality, or even pride in one’s heritage.

On the opposite side of the coin, it is also not used as a reason to go to war. And ASOIAF is defined by warfare. But I applaud Martin for inherently pointing to the truth of human conflict—humans themselves. Greed, malice, fear, vengeance. A desire for power. Religion (or family feuds or most anything else) can be used as the vehicle. But what drives it home are inherent, human fallacies.

(Granted, I’ve only finished the first book thus far. 😛 I have yet to meet the more familiarly fundamentalist R’hllor followers, Drowned God or the Faith Militant faction of Westeros’s most popular religion. Real magic will also play more of a part in books to come. There still may be time for me to eat my words in this epic story!)

Religion may not constitute a big part in “Game of Thrones”/ASOIAF, but culture certainly does. A common theme thus far seems to be that if you assimilate to the broader worldview around you, be it defined by scheming politicians of the south or bloodthirsty warriors on the continent of Essos, you have a much better chance at a long and happy life than if you don’t. Ah, there’s the medieval worldview that I remember. 😛 Excuse me as I gather up my Tenach and Talmud, and study my religious texts silently, behind closed doors in the dark.   :-/

But this series ultimately isn’t about one culture vs another—it’s about individuals, and the ways that they clash with each other based on their personal values, strengths and weaknesses. Martin (and television creators David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss) understand better than most that people are complicated; no one has the ultimate say over “good” or “evil.” This, far and away, sets “Game of Thrones”/ASOIAF apart from most other fantasy stories—and medieval groupies—that are out there.

“Game of Thrones” airs on HBO Sundays at 9 pm EST.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] note is that these two characters can be stand-ins for the two religions. As I blogged in April, the Starks are “interfaith,” with Catelyn hailing from the Riverlands where The Seven are worshipped. In contrast, and not to […]


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