Old Gods, New Gods and Real World Religion

By Matt Weese on Jul 11, 2012 to Game of Thrones

In the beginning, George RR Martin created A Game of Thrones. It began with a chapter set behind the eyes of Brandon Stark and evolved into more than a story. DB Weiss and David Benioff saw that it was good and, with the help of HBO, they transformed it into a television series that appeared from nowhere and now surrounds us all.

What Mr Martin gave the world of fantasy was a world unlike any other, detailed and deliberate, much like the real world around us now. Many themes recurr throughout Game of Thrones, such as family, trust, government, food, sex, desolation, frustration and, increasingly throughout season 2, religion. Religion is a common phenomenon in the world today, having been socially incorporated into all facets of life. Whether you support a faith or not, there is no denying that religion is all around us. This is a feature of real life that Game of Thrones adopts very well, using religion not as a factor of central focus, but instead using it as a bedrock for cultures throughout the realm.

It would have been very easy to use religion as a crutch in the series. It is tempting to turn to this theme and give it centre stage, as it is a theme that breeds conflicts, debates, confrontations and revelations. In a world in which the faiths are fictional, it would be simple to combine them with characters as a means of developing them. Game of Thrones does not do this; instead it is clear that religion is always there. Rather than being the centre of attention, the religions of the series are all evident as factors of everyday life. There are never philosophical speculations regarding gods and deities, but rather an unspoken understanding that the gods are around and doing what they do.

This is clear when considering Stannis Baratheon. Stannis follows a new faith, and sometimes this is mentioned. Some character might refer to him as having a strange new god, making him strange in turn. However, this criticism of Stannis is never dwelt upon as much as Stannis’ looks, his demeanor, his personality, or his relationships with people is. The character Stannis, a character who operates under the guidance of a priestess that supports a strange new god, is not structured around a faith, but instead that faith is a part of his story, much as faith is a part of the real world’s story.

The religions of Game of Thrones appear to co-exist in the sense that one culture may have one faith though they do not discredit anyone else’s. Bernard Cornwell wrote the fantastic Warlord series that combines hisotry and legend, exploring the life of King Arthur through the eyes of his dear friend, Derfel. Although the happenings of the story are fictional, the historical factors that contribute to its telling are brilliantly in-depth. One such factor is religion. Although the Christians in the story are fighting for the God they claim to be the one and only god, the pagans go about their faiths in much a similar way as the characters in Game of Thrones do. They recognise the new god and never deny him, though instead claim their gods are better. There are strong parallels here with Thrones, in that the Old Gods and the New Gods coexist, though Melissandre’s Red God claims to be the one and only true God.

This is a fascinating approach to religious influence in televised story telling. The religions are never in-your-face or demanding attention as we watch characters develop. The religious elements that contribute, much like religions of the past, are a part of the story and always present, though never of such an importance that we see characters deter from their paths in order to pursue a story diluted with religious undertones. What has been captured in Game of Thrones is religion in history and not religion as we know it today and that compliments the show’s detailed historical setting. The many historical factors that contribute to the story have been gradually developing and progressing as they did in days of old. The themes of politics and power are advancing along a road leading from a medieval depiction of control to the more complex and intriguing Borgias-esque monopoly of twisted and tyrannical power structures. As characters gain power, so does the theme of power itself. This is only increased the deeper the story spirals into the wars and conflicts. With war comes the need for power and so how power is gained and maintained is of a great importance to the characters. We can predict the same to happen with religion in Game of Thrones. With conflict and divided cultures comes a stronger desire to preserve identity, and religion plays a role in a character’s identity, though it is by no means the one key sense of any given character. Religion is wisely used in Game of Thrones to contribute to a characters identity no more than what they eat or how they dress; it is a facet of a character’s everyday life, which brilliantly conveys Thrones’ use of the historical practices of religion.

What we can expect from seasons to come is religion having more of an influence in decisions, actions and fates of characters. This is just another example of the complex and fascinating world of Game of thrones that seems to pay more attention to historical detail than it is given credit for.

Daniel Lafferty studied philosophy and religious studies, pondering his way through life whilst watching too much television. He grew up and currently resides in bonnie Scotland. Follow him on Twitter!

  • Thea Rhyss

    since some parts of this series is not appropriate for my kid…. i’ll watch it.. and then narrate the story making some details “child friendly”…










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