June 22, 2013

Revenge and Taboo in Game of Thrones

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 12:13 am by chavalah

The Red Wedding, as illustrated by Cerque on DeviantArt

The Red Wedding, as illustrated by Cerque on DeviantArt

Picking up from where last I left off on Game of Thrones and religion, I question some broader themes and cite specific examples instead of looking at George R. R. Martin’s spiritual worldbuilding.

By now, anyone who watches Game of Thrones, or is in the vicinity of anyone who watches Game of Thrones, knows about The Red Wedding. Wherein the war between the Lannisters and Starks is effectively ended when Robb Stark, King in the North, is murdered at a wedding dinner along with his mother, his wife and unborn child, and the majority of his army. Like most Stark enthusiasts I’m still shattered, even though I read the book a few years ago (and many book fans read it over a decade ago when it was first published.)

I was hoping that a particular, vengefully supernatural plot strain borne out of the RW would end season three, but the showrunners decided not to go that route, and may or may not leave it for season four. Be that as it may, this stunning act of horrific betrayal didn’t only leave social media and pop culture buzzing for a week, but it also led to the majority of the characters reeling from it in the final episode of the season.

But reaction didn’t meet religion until we got to Bran Stark. In the book, Robb’s heir feels his brother’s direwolf’s death through his strong connection with his own direwolf. On the show, there are no direct clues about what, if anything, Bran knows about the latest blow to his family. Traveling north to scale the Wall between civilization and darkness, he does relay a particular story to his companions–about the gods cursing a cook because he broke “guest rite” and harmed his guests after offering them the protection of bread and salt.

This hearkens back to the RW where host Walder Frey offers Robb, Catelyn, Talisa et. al said bread and salt, yet slaughters most of them hours later anyway. Is he cursed by the gods? …I tend to not believe in gods in this series; magic and supernatural creatures, yes, but a prime directive from on high, no. But there’s no denying that Walder Frey has committed a huge, cultural taboo, and humans can be pretty suspicious, and pretty unforgiving.

Young Arya, another of the Stark fugitives and survivors, chooses the path of revenge she comes across some Frey men in the woods who gleefully recount how they desecrated the bodies of her mother and brother. She approaches them, sounding as eerily innocent as Isabella Fuhrman in the “Orphan,” movie, and when their guards are down, she viciously stabs one of them in the neck until he’s dead. Luckily her traveling companion, the Hound, kills the rest before they can react.

I’ve been wrestling with this idea ever since I read it in the book–is Arya’s revenge justified? (And it stands to reason that in the text, said killing is a little more murky; she kills a Lannister man who had tortured others at Harrenhal, but hadn’t directly harmed her or her family.) About three weeks after Game of Thrones season three started up, my favorite Jewish podcast, Vox Tablet, featured an interview with law professor Thane Rosenbaum advocating for “revenge as justice” after horrific crimes. I admit, I was a little stunned and discomforted by someone in my own religion taking such a militant stance on this issue. But he challenged me to look at my own perceptions, and question whether the peaceful, forgiving “enlightenment” that I subscribe to is really as enlightened as I feel it is.

I don’t have all the answers, same as characters in Game of Thrones don’t have all the answers. Bad things happen, human beings hurt one another, and the rest of us are looking for meaning or closure in the aftermath. Without a universal “prime directive” from on high, we come to different conclusions (and some religious people, like myself, might argue we aren’t all meant to think exactly the same anyway). I know many people come to television, or even literature, as an escape, and we may wish for Arya to murder all her enemies or the gods to strike down entire families in fiction where we might (hopefully) be a little more cautious in real life.

But I guess I can’t let go of my “enlightenment.” I’ve always looked to stories with fully realized characters as a way to gain understanding and sympathy for disparate people and situations, and a recent study suggests that people who read fiction are more open-minded and less quick to judge than those who don’t (so suck on that! ;D) I can understand and sympathize with orphans and survivors who want revenge, even when I’m not a fan of the concept, or even if I believe that people who propogate mass murder as political policy, like Walder Frey, Roose Bolton and Tywin Lannister, are not worthy of forgiveness. What the gods will do with men like these I cannot say. But we all must find, and abide by, our own moral compasses.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] is the first time I’m writing about Game of Thrones in the middle of a season, and about a non-religious topic. The event that first grabbed my attention this year is the event that first grabbed everyone’s […]


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