Is the greatest achievement of ‘Game of Thrones’ its portrayal of religion?

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C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both hold coveted positions in the modern fantasy lexicon. Their friendship is well known, and they were active at the same time, working on the “Narnia” series and “The Hobbit,” respectively. With such a long, meaningful friendship having developed between the two, it may come as a surprise to hear how little Tolkien approved of the classic fantasy novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

In Tolkien’s mind, Lewis played up his religious imagery too much. Heavy-handed references to Christian theology, up to and including an all-knowing, all-loving lion who sacrifices himself only to be resurrected in order to vanquish evil. Tolkien, himself a devout Catholic, endeavored to be far more subtle about weaving religious themes into “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” In the eyes of most, he was successful — the undertone of Tolkien’s faith is palpable, but direct religious references are far less explicit.

More than just being a professional literary feud, this creative difference points to an interesting pattern in the role religion plays in crafting fantastical tales full of miracles, hope and perseverance.

It’s no surprise that the fantasy genre leans so heavily on religious texts — themes of temptation and self-sacrifice pepper heroic tales of the pursuit of good and the conquering of evil. Such inspiration makes for excellent material to draw from in crafting a hero’s journey. Religious stories and themes are also imbued with inherent familiarity for many readers, allowing them to connect in more nuanced ways with newer fantasy characters who may embody the characteristics of such narratives.

What the enormous success of Tolkien and Lewis also reveal to us, however, is the overwhelming presence of Western monotheistic religion in the fantasy genre. But even that might be changing.

“Game of Thrones” is the fantasy juggernaut of the 21st century — but more than that, it also leads the pack among fantasy narratives in its portrayal and use of religion. George R.R. Martin (and, by extension, the showrunners over at HBO) has woven a relationship to a higher power into the fabric of each character. These characters express their sense of faith in different ways. Some offer their faith up as justification for acts of kindness and courage, others for violence and cruelty. Characters struggle when their sense of faith is challenged, and they question their beliefs when tragedy strikes.

In other words, the characters on “Game of Thrones” aren’t so different from any of us.

There’s a number of highly diverse faiths portrayed on “Game of Thrones.” The Faith of the Seven appears polytheistic on its surface, but the seven entities worshipped actually represent a single higher power. In this way, the Faith of the Seven, which also makes use of church-like septs and a hierarchy of clergyman, is the most overtly referential to Christianity.  

The other faiths are less allegorical. In the North, people worship the Old Gods, and there are trees that one prays to for guidance and strength. On the Iron Islands, men are submerged underwater in order to pay tribute to the Drowned God. The worship of R’hllor, also known as the Lord of Light, is practiced by Melisandre, who often makes use of fire and blood in ritualistic practices. And finally, worshippers of the Many-Faced God, including the people of Braavos who Arya finds herself with in seasons five and six of the television series, would argue that each of these higher powers are just different representations of the same deity. The Many-Faced God is a god of death, but for the Faceless Men, death is inevitable and thereby welcomed.

The cultural heterogeneity in Westeros is at least partially grounded in these different faiths. But even within these faiths, there is tremendous variety. Some characters doubt the existence of a higher power, while others are deeply in touch with and reliant on their faith for a sense of purpose. Forms of extremism are also portrayed — such as the Faith Militant, which arrests Cersei and forces her to make a walk of atonement, as well as the sacrifice of the young Shireen Baratheon, who is burned alive by Melisandre in the name of R’hllor.

These arcs are not mere subplots that serve as the backdrop for the primary story — rather, the primary story could not function without these faiths and the differences between them. After all, the much-speculated-about Prince That Was Promised, or Azor Ahai, who many believe to be the future ruler of Westeros, is a product of a Westerosi religious tale. As the television series draws to a close, one can only guess whether the prophesied return of Azor Ahai will prove true. In the meantime, fans will be right along with the people of Westeros — looking for signs from above.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].