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Posts Tagged ‘Song of Ice and Fire’

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I want to begin by referencing an article by a man with whom I am proud to share a first name: Daniel Stewart.  In “‘Why is that woman naked?’: Sources of Objectification in Game of Thrones,” he argues that the HBO series portrays sex essentially as a tool of power:

In the world of Game of Thrones, power is the only thing that matters. Love is pointless at best. Honor is a joke. Virtue is an illusion.

(…)

In this world where physical strength, monetary wealth, and political influence are the only qualities worth having, it is no wonder the women (especially poor women) are treated so poorly.  (. . .) [The typical female character] is left with two options; [sic] to suffer terribly at the hands of more powerful men or to use her shrewdness or sexual prowess to try to influence the men around her.

Erik_Erikson Upon reading this, I was reminded of Erik Erikson’s observations regarding sexuality’s roots in very early childhood, as well as the differences in how unhealthy approaches to sexuality — which is nothing more than the excitement of “being on the make” at that age (Erikson 255, parentheses included) — manifest themselves in boys and girls.  “In the boy,” says Erikson…

…the emphasis remains on phallic-intrusive modes; in the girl it turns to modes of “catching” (…) or (…) making oneself attractive and endearing.

(255, italics mine)

However people’s views on sexuality and gender relations may differ, this is clearly the way the “game of sex” is played in Game of Thrones.

GoT-Theon-crying-500x333Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is forced to watch as his foster sister, Sansa Stark, is raped

Think of the prolonged portrayal (mostly via sound), in a recent episode, of the rape of eighteen-year-old Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) at the hands of a ruthless husband to whom she has been given in an arranged marriage.  Clearly, we have the peculiarly masculine form of sexual sin (at its worst) on display here.

Sex as a power tool should appall everyone but astonish no one.  If someone wants to dominate another person, what better way to do so than by rape?  After all, to dominate the body is to dominate the person (at least, as nearly as humanly possible).

As many will have no doubt noticed, the aforementioned scene has sparked outrage among the show’s fans.  While people are indeed right to decry the rape of a young woman (and even, perhaps, its insensitive portrayal in a TV show), part of me wants to cry out: “What did you expect?”  Create a world, populate it almost entirely with characters who are obsessed with power, and mix in the careless — not to mention tasteless — treatment and portrayal of sex, and the latter two are bound to “mate” before long.

MelisandreBut, as my reference to Erikson might suggest, there is a more “feminine” version of this as well.  Think of Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), the seductive “Red Priestess,” who uses her sexual desirability to manipulate powerful men for her purposes.  Here we have the peculiarly feminine form of the use of sex as a power tool.

And then of course we also get, as they say, “all sorts of strange animals in between.”

Which of the above examples has sparked more outrage?  That’s right, the first one.  Again, it should spark outrage — don’t misunderstand me.  But the assumption that only when it involves the aggressive violence of rape is pornographic material objectionable can blind us to the fact that human sexuality is very much like fire: Splendid, beautiful, powerful, and necessary…but also very dangerous, and in need of being “contained.”

Readers and viewers who espouse a more traditional morality will pine for what is often seen as Game of Thrones‘ counterpart in the fantasy/adventure world: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which has nothing like the former’s candid material.  But leaving that aside for the moment, let us note another key difference between the two: Tolkien drew his inspiration primarily from myth; George R.R. Martin, author of the novel series on which Game of Thrones is based, draws his inspiration primarily from history.

These two differences may have more to do with one another than one might think.  I’ll pick up with that in the next post.

Erikson photo from Wikipedia — full reference:

“Erik Erikson” by ?Original uploader was Waveformula at en.wikipedia – http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/psychology/Erik_Erikson_2.png.htmlTransferred from en.wikipediaImage comes from WP Clipart[1] which ONLY features public domain images and provides extensive source information on their “Legal” page: [2]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erik_Erikson.png#/media/File:Erik_Erikson.png

Remaining images obtained through a Google image search

Reference

Erikson, E.H.  Childhood and Society  2nd ed.  NY: Norton, 1963

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White WalkerMedia tie-in: http://www.weather.com/storms/winter/news/winter-storm-western-new-york-20140107

Image courtesy of http://www.memegenerator.net

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burning of seven(If you would like to catch up or refresh: Part One, Part Two)

Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is introduced to “Game of Thrones” fans with the burning of the seven.  In the name of the “Lord of Light,” she induces the Lord Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to burn the effigies of the seven gods of Westeros as a symbolic gesture of renunciation.  Again, one is reminded of Christianity; Christian missionaries were known to have orchestrated the destruction of idols.  But given the Gnostic/Manichean character of Melisandre’s religion, could there be something else going on here?

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I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.  First of all, did George R.R. Martin — author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series on which “Game of Thrones” is based — have Gnosticism or Manichaeism in mind when crafting Melisandre’s character and religion?

This much is for sure: Martin draws heavily from his studies of medieval Europe in crafting the world of Ice and Fire, and he is very much dedicated to authenticity.  So we should ask whether Gnosticism made an appearance in the Middle Ages.

AlbigensiansWell, in fact, it did.  The Cathars and Albigensians managed to gain quite a foothold in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries.  Like the Red Woman’s religion — and here it is good to remember Davos Seaworth’s (Liam Cunningham) hard words about Melisandre being “a foreigner preaching a foreign religion” — their belief system came from the East, bringing with it the air of something new and exotic.  St. Dominic fought vigorously against this movement during his life; the Dominican Order,* which he founded for just that purpose, thrives to this day.

faith of the sevenThe attitude of the culture to which Albigensianism came toward its native Christianity was, for the most part, very similar to that of the people of Westeros toward their religion (which appears to be a paganized form of medieval Catholicism).  They held to it as a sort of solid cultural possession, but they didn’t believe in it in too profound a manner (that is, in such a way that it would affect their lives).  So if we are surprised at their susceptibility to something novel and exotic…well, we shouldn’t be.

As Gnostics, the Albigensians and Cathars eschewed the material and the idea that God could be present to it, let alone make Hiimself part of it via the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Some of them would publicly burn crucifixes in order to make their point…and here we go back to our first inquiry.  The Cathars were as ready to burn crucifixes as were Melisandre’s followers to burn the effigies of the seven.

*

Innocent VHere’s an interesting historical tidbit: Pope Innocent V (1225-1276) was the first priest from the Dominican Order to become Pope.  When he was elected, he brought the trademark white garments of the Dominicans to the papal office.  This started a whole new tradition…Pope_Francis_in_March_2013…and is why the Pope wears white to this very day.  I just thought it was interesting that such a familiar image came about as an indirect result of the phenomenon on which a key “Game of Thrones” character may be based.

Thanks for reading, and let’s keep an eye on that quirky priestess with the fire-kissed hair.

Images from “Game of Thrones” obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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NOTE: Entire video embedded merely for visual aesthetics; for just the relevant portion, which is about two and one half minutes long, click here.

“The night is dark and full of terrors!”

So speaks Melisandre, the “Red Woman” (Carice Van Houten), priestess of the “Lord of Light.”  Apart from the scoundrels of House Lannister, she is probably the character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that everyone most loves to hate.

Rather than attempt an in-depth character analysis, I want to limit my focus to Melisandre’s religion.  I must admit, when I was first introduced to it, I thought it was a crack at Christianity, given it’s emphasis on there being only one true God and on issues such as sin and righteousness (not to mention the destruction of idols).

MelisandreSo let’s break it down: How is Melisandre’s religion similar to Christianity, and how is it different?

First, the similarities.  Like I said, it insists on the worship of one God.  Names and titles applied to the God of the Bible — such as “Lord of Light” and “Our Lord” — are applied here also.  Like Jesus Christ, Melisandre’s god also performs visible miracles — most notably the raising of the dead.

Okay, now for the differences.  The priests and priestesses of the “Lord of Light” practice blood magic and human sacrifice, which are very much repugnant to the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Furthermore, Melisandre is a seductress and an adulterous woman.  She very quickly persuades the lord Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) to make love to her by promising him an heir (something Stannis’ barren wife can’t give him).

Melisandre_ShireenBut the defining moment thus far happened in the third episode of the current season.  In this episode, Melisandre comes to share her faith with Stannis’ secluded young daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram).  She starts by telling Shireen that there are not seven gods (as her father’s religion taught), but only — get this — two gods: The Lord of Light, and the Lord of Darkness…and they are always locked in battle with one another.

To me, this came as both clarification and relief.  This is not Christianity.  This is Manichaeism.

ManicheansI won’t give you a history lesson, never fear…except to say that Manichaeism was an ancient religion declaring a dualistic universe in which a supreme good divinity and a supreme evil divinity — both equally powerful and equally divine — were engaged in perpetual struggle.  The turmoil in the world and in each human heart could essentially be traced to that. (St. Augustine of Hippo vigorously opposed this philosophy in the fourth century, as is well documented in his “Confessions.”)

But, as C.S. Lewis argued in “Mere Christianity,” this worldview is untenable.  If the two gods in question are both equal in power and opposed to one another, that means they are finite — which, in turn, means that they are contained by and dependent on Someone or Something Else.  Christian philosophers have long held the monotheistic worldview to be more logically consistent: 1) There is one God, Who is infinite, eternal, and all-good; 2) He created everything good, and that includes the material world; and 3) Goodness is therefore absolute, and evil is to good what the cavity is to the tooth.

melisandre-fire-3Would this explain Melisandre’s questionable morality?  Perhaps.  After all, if her dualistic worldview is true, then right and wrong are relative to one another; good is only good because it is not evil, and vice versa.  What is more, there’s really no question of either side being better than the other; which side you are on is a matter of preference.  One can much more easily justify the use of evil in the service of good as a Manichean dualist.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Wait ’till next time.

Image of Manicheans from Wikipedia; other images obtained through a Google image search

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I do find “Game of Thrones” enjoyable.  I find the characters, the world, and the story intriguing…if more than a little ambiguous.  Many people compare the show to “The Lord of the Rings,” some with attention to how its underlying worldview differs.  I want to take a look at that in this post.

The interesting thing about medieval fantasy is the time period that inspires the genre — and even more, the setting that inspires its settings: Northwestern Europe — especially Great Britain, which seems to be the prototypical setting.

England has a fascinating literary history.  The stories bound up with its ancestral traditions were, of course, passed on orally at first.  And when they began to be written down, they were given their Christian interpretations in translation.  Not only were the scribes immortalizing the great myths by committing them to the scrolls, they were drawing out what they perceived to be the “seeds of the Word” in these myths.

Tolkien_1916Now we turn to J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.  Between his love for the lore and history of his country, his interest in how language is shaped by and shapes people’s lives and cultures, his tragic experiences as a child and as a young man, and his discovery of hope and solace in the faith given to him by the priests who cared for him as an orphan, he came to find a unique way of presenting Christianity to the modern world…not in a preachy or didactic way, but as something that speaks to the deepest heart, deepest hurts, deepest hopes and desires of mankind.

Hence, we have Middle-Earth and “The Lord of the Rings.”

George_R._R._Martin_signingLet’s admit that Westeros, the setting of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is a little bit different.  On the surface, it does strike one as a “re-paganization” of fantasy.  We find ourselves in a world of many gods; and whenever a “true God” is proposed, this is usually regarded with great suspicion.

But I almost wonder if it is more of a postmodern fantasy.  Not that it necessarily adheres to the tenets of postmodernism, but it gives us a world that is deeply unsure of itself and groping for answers, albeit within a setting that reflects the genre’s pre-Christian roots.

Okay.  All that said, I can delve more deeply into “Game of Thrones.”

robb_stark_02The more I watch the HBO series, the more convinced I am (though I have felt this way from the start) that “Game of Thrones” does not celebrate spectacles of violence, savage lust, scheming, or betrayal.  The show can be difficult to watch at times, because our characters are living in a world rife with the brutality of old Europe and in which loyalty is fragile, people seek their own ends above all else, nearly no one can be trusted (at least not for sure), and there are almost no friends.

The Starks maintain a code of honor and goodness, but their family would seem to be an island amidst a great flood of divided loyalties.  Our friends in Westeros live in a dark and hard world, and no goodhearted person could be unaffected by that.

But there are here and there what I would like to call “moments of light,” shining intermittently and fleetingly like sunlight through passing storm clouds….

Tyrion_Shae

…whether it is Tyrion Lannister’s growing love for the prostitute Shae…

Tywin-and-Arya…Tywin Lannister’s father-daughter-like bonding with Arya Stark…

Cersei…Queen Cersei’s tender love for her children and regret over the grief her son Joffrey is causing everyone…

Tyrion-Lannister…Tyrion’s almost-effort to comfort her (or the “moment they almost have”)…

Stannis Baratheon…or Stannis Baratheon’s regret over killing his younger brother, who had been his opponent in the war for the Iron Throne.

Overall, I would say this: Good fiction, at its best, shows how the goodness of the human spirit can triumph even in the face of great obstacles, while at the same time not glossing over the ambiguity in human nature.  If we’re going to compare Tolkien and Martin, it seems we could say that “The Lord of the Rings” is more concerned with the former, and “Game of Thrones” with the latter.

Where there is life, there is hope, and the good always has a way, at least, of peaking its head in.  And I think we see that in Westeros.  So while it may not exactly resemble Tolkien’s vision of the Light of Faith illuminating the myths of men, it does give us shafts of golden dawn light illuminating the dark forest.

Top three images from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search

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First of all, Happy President’s Day!

Now, to business…

Part 1 was more in-depth than this post is going to be — this time I just want to look at some basic elements of leadership that distinguish good leaders from bad, as exemplified by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Again, please be aware that there are some spoilers here.

JoffreyWe covered bad kingship in our look at Joffrey’s father (though not his biological father, as we soon learn), Robert.  But unlike Robert, whose bad kingship is characterized more by a sort of laziness, Joffrey is a full-on tyrant whose mode of government is cold, deliberate, calculated force.

He, too, is a figure of the entrenched ego, but carried farther in the direction of its extreme.

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Ned Stark stands out as a good leader.  He is not perfect, by any means, but the way he exercises authority is exemplary and praiseworthy.  That he is not dominated by his own ego is suggested to me by the dungeon scene, which occurs after Ned is arrested on a false accusation of treason.

Rather than betray his honor, Ned is ready to die a warrior’s death.  True, he does end up acknowledging Joffrey’s kingship in order to save his family; whether or not this was the right decision can be debated, but his interest is clearly other-oriented, not self-oriented.

In any case, Ned has no interest in betraying his conscience to save his life.  He explains to Varys the eunuch that a soldier “knows how to die.”

Christians are called to die daily to selfishness by imitating this kind of detachment:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it (Luke 17:33).

That’s precisely why Joffrey’s rule is one of terror and force: It’s all about him.  From his perspective, his ascent to the throne is not about service to the Seven Kingdoms, the protection of his subjects, or any transcendent principle.  It’s about his own exaltation, his own glory.

Eddard_1x01

Concern for the greater good on Ned’s part is further evidenced by the quality of mercy.  Ned is just, but he is no stranger to clemency.  In this he shows the depth of his magnanimity.  A true leader will be concerned about the common good, not his own aggrandizement.

And sometimes, the best way to serve the common good and to restore order is to reach out to perpetrators with the opportunity for redemption.

JohannesPaul2-portrait

In his great book “Go in Peace,” Pope John Paul II had this to say about the relationship between mercy and societal well-being:

Forgiveness neither eliminates nor lessens the need for the reparation that justice requires, but seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.

Joffrey

The ego, however, cannot take such chances.  As far as it’s concerned, the only good enemy is a dead enemy.

Meanwhile, the good leader will give his neck to his enemy rather than betray his innate sense of what is right.  So we can say that even in death, Ned Stark triumphs over Joffrey Baratheon.

Image of Pope John Paul II from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search.

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Here is the second in a series of posts on HBO’s fantasy/adventure series “Game of Thrones” (third, if you count the introductory post, which I don’t).  Anyone interested in reading the first post can access it here: https://intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/kingship-and-power-in-game-of-thrones-robert-baratheon/

Please note that there are some spoilers here.

This installment will focus on the contrast in leadership between Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), the main character of Season 1, and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the young usurper of the High King’s throne.

In contrast to Robert Baratheon with his lazy egotism, Ned Stark shows us the qualities of a good king (even though he himself is only a lord).

Ned
In the show’s first episode, it falls to Ned to execute a criminal.  We can see that he does not enjoy this task, but he does it without wavering.

We might be forgiven for wondering, however, why he did not assign the task to an executioner.  Immediately after the execution, he explains to his young son, Bran, that a man must never pass any sentence unless he is willing to carry that sentence out himself.

joffrey-baratheon-1024Contrast him with Joffrey, who orders a minstrel’s tongue to be torn out after he sings a comedic song in which Joffrey’s mother, Queen Cersei, comes across badly.  Does Joffrey do the honors himself?  Nope.  He has his soldiers do it.

Ned's Execution

And then of course there is the scene in which he has Ned executed.  Joffrey gives the order, but the executioner does the honors.

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It’s possible to interpret these instances in terms of regal propriety, but I think any such delusions are dispelled when we see Joffrey with his new queen, 13-year-old Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner).  Sansa makes the mistake of offending him at one point, and he remarks that it would be improper for a king to strike his queen.

So he turns to the guard accompanying them, and the guard promptly strikes Sansa on Joffrey’s behalf.

Obviously, a lot more could be said about both Ned and Joffrey.  But I wanted to start with this detail because it is particularly important when it comes to authority.  What makes the difference between a good leader and a bad leader here is the willingness to assume the greatest burdens of responsibility oneself.

It is, no doubt, hard to give an order of execution, but it is even harder to be the executioner.  I think this is just one instance of how Ned, as a good leader, ensures that the worst burdens of government fall on him rather than on his subordinates.  Joffrey, meanwhile, dispenses sentences of capital punishment very lightly (which I think is another mark of bad kingship — I’ll revisit that in Part 2), but apparently has no courage to take the burden of delivery upon himself.*

Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Ned’s model of kingship reflects the kingship of Christ, who went even further than carrying out the sentence due to mankind’s sins by actually submitting Himself to that sentence.  As the “Lamb of God,” He takes the sins of the world on Himself and becomes the living sacrifice, the offerer and the victim…the Priest of the human race.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile

Joffrey’s brand of authority, on the other hand, more closely resembles Satan’s.  Like Joffrey, Satan uses others to execute his enemies — he uses the authorities in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers to kill Jesus.

“Rulers” such as Joffrey and Satan, for all their pomp and show of muscle, are cowards at heart.  The magnanimity of one like Ned Stark shows us what a true leader looks like.

*To be fair, I must restate that I have only seen the first season.

Images of “Christ Carrying the Cross” by El Greco and “Depiction of Satan” by Gustave Doré from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search.

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