Highlights of A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion

poster for an earlier season
The fourth season of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones premieres tomorrow, and I decided to write a series of posts on A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's book series the show is based on.

I've written a few times before about Game of Thrones, leveling criticism, mapping a fanciful comparison, and discussing narrative and history. In this series though, I'm being more straightforward: I'm writing about three themes in the books—two enjoyable ones, and one worthy of critique.

There are two thematic highlights that I really enjoy in A Song of Ice and Fire: The first I wrote about was history. Now I'll continue with religion.

Note: There won't be any plot spoilers here. I promise.

A Song of Ice and Fire is filled with religion. It's the fictional religions of Westeros and its neighboring lands—not any Earth religion, such as in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I've listened to George R. R. Martin mention religion in several interviews as a phenomenon he wanted to emphasize in his books, and it makes sense: In the medieval Europe of Earth, religion was an incredibly powerful presence in most people's beliefs and lives. Meanwhile, in many "high fantasy" books, religion is hardly emphasized at all. In the Lord of the Rings—to take the most important example—religion doesn't even seem to exist. (Correct me if you think I'm wrong.) Instead, there are characters who serve what are implied to be (and in the Simarillion explained to be) good and evil deities. These good and evil forces are taken at face value as actual and real, even as most of the characters don't even talk about them.

I don't mean to say I don't enjoy the face-value good-evil paradigm portrayed in books like the Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. The author knows the truth about the moral and metaphysical nature of their fictional universe—which may or may not be related to moral or metaphysical beliefs on Earth—and the readers must take the author at their word. In this way, such books are similar to religious literature like the Bible, Qur'an, Mahabharata and so on, and they can be very enjoyable to read.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with G.R.R.M. that works of high fantasy can be successfully refreshed by changing this treatment of religion. Instead of just taking a moral paradigm as given, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire all have their own beliefs, non-beliefs, and moral justifications, none of which are presented to the reader as truth.

Joffrey in front of the seven-pointed star (source)
The major characters in the books essentially follow three different religions—the Old Gods of the North in Westeros, the Faith of the Seven, and the worship of R'hllor, Lord of Light. (There are many other gods and beliefs besides.) There are ample comparisons to be made between these fictional faiths and ones in the history of Earth: The Old Gods in the weirwood trees of the North recall animism and nature worship. The institutions of the Seven are similar to Christianity in medieval Europe, with a "septality"—my word—substituted for a trinity. At the same time, the would-be conversion of Westeros to the worship of R'hllor (the one god of light) could be compared to the conversion of lands on Earth to the one true god of Christianity or Islam.

A Feast for Crows, (the fourth book in the series), seemed chock-full of religion to me—more than the previous books. The characters discuss their beliefs with others and explain their commitments to religious orders; with all the chaos and disaster in their lives, some become more faithful, and some question their faith entirely. One example is all the "smallfolk" (commoners) who recreate religious orders from the past and flock to the Great Sept in King's Landing.

I think it's unfortunate that so many fantasy stories never question the reality of their characters' religious beliefs. Other stories that don't treat the fantasy religion as true often focus on that theme more than anything else. In A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, however, beliefs are treated more realistically, and they form just one part of the rich setting for the epic.

Next time I'll write about one aspect of the story I don't like—the magic.