By Daniel W. Muth
HBO’s epic sword and sorcery series Game of Thrones returned for its third season March 31, and my local cable provider replayed the first two seasons in celebration of this event. In watching the series over a week’s time — and after making the requisite adjustment to HBO’s “We’re premium cable so we can show naughty body parts to our heart’s content” routine — I noted a significant parallel to a previous film fantasy: I was watching a medieval version of Pottersville, the dystopian hamlet from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
In Capra’s movie, decent, self-sacrificing George Bailey, having wished that he’d never been born, is granted a vision of his world without him. In it, his home town of Bedford Falls, renamed Pottersville (for the film’s miserly bête noir), has been transformed into a harsh, raucous land of bars which men frequent not for conviviality but merely to drink themselves into a stupor, where widows are suspicious and rude, single women are either trollops or spinsters, and relations between the sexes are limited to “Dime a Dance” halls and, well, whatever’s going on upstairs.
Throughout Game of Thrones we are treated to pretty much the same thing. The only marriages on display are purely political matters honored in the breach if at all (one exception is a middle-aged couple who are separated for pretty much the entire first season and permanently thereafter by death). The males are generally of two types: brawling, lecherous brutes or ambitious (generally equally) lecherous schemers. The women are all harlots, with the difference being that the underclass are paid for their services and the high born are technically married to those they lie with (though of course adultery remains a blood sport).
It’s a dark, dank, brutal, depressing but nevertheless engrossing world. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, some of the louts, wastrels, and vixens are fairly well-drawn and come across as appealing characters. Some you root for against your better judgment. Some you hope the scriptwriters will keep around just so you can someday see them get their miserable comeuppances.
But that’s not what I find intriguing about the series. Given the setting and circumstances, Capra’s Pottersville scenes are utterly preposterous. The loss of one man — even if that man is played by Jimmy Stewart — will not result in decent, likeable folks magically turning into the nasty pieces of work Capra serves up. Game of Thrones, despite its setting in a land of dragons, magic, and walking dead (very little of which have shown up in the series thus far), is far more realistic. It presents a world not from which George Bailey has been excised but from which Christ has.
The deeper parallel is HBO’s previous long-ago-and-far-away blockbuster, Rome. Swap out the armor and heraldry for sandals and togas, toss in a few historical characters and a couple of Zelig-like soldiers to rub shoulders with them, and Game of Thrones would be pretty much an exact replica. And that’s significant because the great thing about Rome was its marvelously accurate depiction of a truly pagan world with its grinding fatalism, vacuous decadence, and the cheap, throwaway quality it affixed to human life.
I have not read any of George R.R. Martin’s novels on which Game of Thrones is based and so can offer no assessment of whether it was the author’s point, but cinema has its own integrity, and the value of the HBO series is in its presenting us with a medieval world into which no Christ has entered. Had the still-pagan Roman Empire simply wasted away, its circuses overcome by northern tribes (as pretty much happened) without the transformation wrought by Christianity, the subsequent ages might very well have looked something like Game of Thrones.
In it, honorable men are recognized as such but are little imitated — and of course, not much is to be gained by doing so. Family loyalty occupies a high place but, given the lack of a transcendent moral order into which such things can find their niche, it is fairly randomly chosen. And in any case, ambition, personal hatred, or just plain lust can sever the tie at any time. With only polite convention to maintain it, no form of honor or loyalty can make any supreme claim. Societal inertia carries any virtue only so far.
In Game of Thrones we’re shown a world of medieval technology, accoutrement, and honorifics, but without chivalry (some lame pretense is made here and there, but it plays no part even in the life of the nobility, and the tale is told solely through their eyes) because there is no Christ to inspire it and no Church to encourage it. The denizens of the land claim a belief, of whatever sort, in “the gods,” who are never specified, whose mythology is never told, and of whom worship seems virtually nonexistent. The latter is the one significant breach with real-world paganism, which always involved true belief and often extravagant liturgics. There is also (as there was with Rome) a most implausible dearth of numinous awe for the natural world. One may have to pledge one’s son in marriage to the daughter of the castle-holder controlling a vital river crossing in order to get one’s army across, but of the necessity of offering a she-goat or woodcock to the river god himself in order to be granted safe passage there is nary a trace.
This is a significant oversight and makes the world a more modern one that the filmmakers should be comfortable with. Nevertheless, we are presented a generally accurate (for Hollywood) portrayal of what theologian David Bentley Hart calls the “glorious sadness” of ancient paganism in which life was short, or at least wildly precarious, and relatively meaningless while it lasted, and death both all too common and all too horrid to contemplate. Pleasures were to be grasped in whatever form they may be readily at hand, and whether they involved cruelty or kindness was a matter of relative taste. Joy may flit briefly by, but only in such a manner and measure as to enhance the agony of its loss and the poignancy of its ephemerality.
We in fact, live — and have lived — in a world significantly shorn of such things. Christ has come, hence the actual medieval world was very different from its portrayal in Game of Thrones. We do not fear death — or indeed life — as our pagan forbears did. We in the West have inhabited a world steeped in divine transcendence, with the clear moral order and attendant theological virtues of faith, hope, and love as the concomitant of God’s self-revelation and Christ’s sacrifice. Atheism in our day is seldom if ever properly Nietzschean — it’s more a form of cafeteria Christianity, the selections of which simply do not include God or Christ. The generally pathetic efforts to revive paganism are far too hopeful and, well, Christian, to be of any real account. (Not that the occult is benign: 1 Peter calls Satan a “ravening and roaring lion” against whose attacks we must vigilantly guard.).
Why should Christians watch Game of Thrones? There’s no necessity, and some will find the gratuitous sex and violence dangerous and damaging. It’s not for all. By God’s grace the world remains Christ-haunted; faith, hope, and love, when they are not subsumed into wastes of superstition, optimism, and sentimentality, still signify. And yet we live in another dark and superstitious time in which virtue increasingly lingers as a vestigial effluvium, while transcendence is ignored or positively rejected. Seeing the hopelessness and savagery of what this age threatens to become may serve to shake us from our torpor.
Daniel Muth is secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors.