A Song of Ice and Fire
by george r. r. martin
bantam, 5216 pages, $36.39
No English child will ever again experience, as I did, the joys of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great historical romances The White Company and Sir Nigel, set in the far-off fourteenth century. The remaining copies of these once-popular works now molder, unopened and slowly softening into pulp, in attic rooms in the houses of the elderly. Poor Doyle wanted to be remembered above all for these stories, and ground his teeth to find that the public only cared about the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which he wrote mainly for money. Even in Conan Doyle’s period of utmost fame, his great accounts of chivalry and old England never succeeded enough to please him. Now, their ornate prose and pre-1914 wit are as baffling to a young mind as an Armenian grammar book might be to an Aztec. Winston Churchill was, alas, wrong when he declared that these works “have certainly found a permanent place in English literature.”
The modern world is too noisy and heedless for them. I tried and failed to introduce my own children to these wonders, which had me rapt on long summer evenings and beside winter firesides when I was their age. They were polite and patient, but for them these are just inert volumes filled with dead words that cannot be awakened. Something, the spirit which gilded those pages for me, has departed from the world.
So I was only just in time to know what Conan Doyle meant when he explained something very important about the Middle Ages to his original Edwardian readers. It was this:
In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.
An urban, industrialized society finds this assertion hard to cope with. But even in my English childhood, in country districts, these things were really not so far away from the human mind, and in times of great distress and war they tend to reassert themselves in spasms of superstition, without the Christian understanding and the belief in the nearness of Christ and his saints that civilized them in the past.
For me, Conan Doyle’s description was a vital revelation. The men of that time were not people just like us, who happened to be clad in strange clothes, eating venison pasties and saying “forsooth.” Their individual lives were carried out in the shade of Christ’s reign. Kings genuinely feared God and his justice. And their subjects, in turn, did not dare to touch the Lord’s anointed. There is, as it happens, another rather lovely literary evocation of this lost world in H. F. M. Prescott’s moving account of the Pilgrimage of Grace, The Man on a Donkey. One of the characters concludes—perhaps after stumbling on an unfinished breakfast of broiled fish and honeycomb—that Christ is literally physically present and nearby in her daily life, in the last era when it was possible for anyone in England to think such a thing.
What men and women believe is so important that it is almost a solid fact, like an ocean or a castle. This is why I am often puzzled when I consider the curious absence of any explained common religious belief in J. R. R. Tolkien’s great epic The Lord of the Rings. Men in his Middle Earth are plainly quite sure that they live in a created universe and are subject to powers high above them. They can tell good from evil at a glance. They are unsurprised by the existence of elves, wraiths, orcs and wizards, trolls, incantations, rings of power, and mountains which open at the right password. All kinds of potent magic seem to be taken as a matter of course. But what do they believe about God? If it is explained, I have missed it. Perhaps Tolkien thought it simply didn’t matter, or could be assumed. And yet Tolkien was, probably above all things, an observant, thoughtful, and serious Roman Catholic. By contrast, his Anglican friend C. S. Lewis, with whom he disagreed about religion, left no doubt in his Narnia books that Aslan was worshipped in that country much as Christ is worshipped among us. Aslan’s image, for instance, is displayed aboard the Narnian ship The Dawn Treader. Meanwhile, in neighboring Calormen, they bow down before the terrible monster Tash, who eventually turns out to be real.
Most such fantasy worlds have room for God. The anti-Christian—and anti-Lewis—author Philip Pullman has invented, in his alternative Oxford, a grotesque and vindictive pseudo-church, a monstrous thing formed by a cynical marriage of Calvinism and Rome, its agents and priests by turns sinister, drunken, pedophilic, and horribly repressive. He knows that any imaginative world needs the Almighty and his enemies just as much as the real world does. In Pullman’s increasingly didactic books, the enemies are right and God is wrong, but I tend to think his storm has now blown out. His books are simply not seductive enough, not popular enough, and possibly too complicated to have as much of an effect as I once feared they might.
But there is one important fantasy world now much influencing the Western mind, which makes a far more cunning and dangerous assault on the Christian faith than anything Pullman has done or will ever do. In my experience, Christianity tends to benefit from the hostile interest of people such as Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins. When they attack it, the subject is at least taken seriously again.
But there is not so much hostility to Christianity in the world brought into being by George R. R. Martin in the series of books which have come to be known by the collective name Game of Thrones. There is instead a cold indifference. I can discuss only the books here. I have decided not to watch the TV version, as I suspect that it lingers too much on the sort of violent and sexual material which is quite bad enough on the page. In any case, I generally prefer my own imaginings to the ideas of film and television directors. But the message of the books and the TV versions is the same. Martin’s brilliantly inventive alternative world is set in something very like the English Middle Ages. It relies for its power and effect upon a profound cynicism about human goodness, which, I believe, did not exist in such societies. He gives twenty-first-century religious opinions to people who have fifteenth-century lives.
In his imaginary country, virtue and trust are always punished. The most attractive major character, Eddard Stark, dies swiftly, unjustly, and horribly. He dies largely because he is so honorable and dutiful. His horrified family is scattered to the winds to suffer or perish. And from that moment on in the story, almost everyone associated with honesty, selfless courage, and justice is doomed. Almost the only likable figure who survives through all the books is the dwarf, Tyrion, who is occasionally kind, but also consumed with cynicism and despair.
Bravery and charity toward others are rewarded with death or betrayal. The simple poor are raped, robbed, enslaved, and burned out of their homes. Chivalry, a real thing in Conan Doyle’s world, is for Martin a fraud. All kinds of cruelty and greed, typified by the House of Lannister, flourish like the green bay tree. Treachery and the most debauched cynicism are the only salvation, the only route to safety or advantage. Perhaps the most intense moment of the entire saga, the “Red Wedding” is composed entirely of the most bitter betrayals, including a terrible violation of the laws of hospitality. Yet as far as I can see, the betrayers gain advantage by their action. Three major figures, all in the grip of different versions of amoral cynicism, dominate all the thousands of pages that follow, and while others are murdered all around them, they live on.
It is often said that much of the narrative is based on the true and gruesome conflicts of England’s Wars of the Roses. The relentlessly wicked and triumphant Lannisters are based upon the House of Lancaster, and the more civilized (and ultimately beaten) Starks are based upon the House of York. No doubt this is true. But I think Martin fairly quickly liberates himself from that framework. For all the horrors of these wars, England in that era never sank into the utter misery and desolation portrayed here.
The story also leaks at both ends into worlds of supernatural horror or marvel, far outside any conventional history. To the north of the central area of action, Westeros, lies a frozen zone inhabited by zombie-like creatures with powers to move and kill quite outside the normal laws of biology, physics, or chemistry. To the east, in hot and humid lands disputed among slave kingdoms and barbarian hordes, the dispossessed Princess Daenerys manages to hatch actual dragons from ancient eggs. But even in temperate, seagirt Westeros, lethal shadows can kill and spells are cast.
Martin cannot write as well as Tolkien or Lewis, in my view because he cannot draw on Tolkien’s or Lewis’s enormous storehouse of legend, saga, poetry, and literature. He sometimes dwells rather lengthily on the menus at the barbarous banquets he describes. He dwells on slavery and human cruelty in general, and his language can be coarse. Four-letter words occur. Well, and why not? I do not intend to disparage Martin by saying this. Like many scribblers, I would be glad to have Martin’s skill in gaining and keeping the reader’s attention.There is a strong argument for saying that such things as he describes have been true of humanity for most of its existence. And goodness, he has the storyteller’s gift. It seems to me that Martin may, especially in his portrayals of the incestuous, limitlessly unkind Lannister twin siblings Jaime and Cersei, have rediscovered human evil in its purest form.
Until recently, I am not sure anyone would have dared to enter mainstream publishing or entertainment with unpunished wickedness of this kind. We may even have thought until quite recently that humanity, after 1945, had put such things behind it for good. But perhaps they are always there, just waiting for their hour to come round. Almost fifty years ago, at the height of our postwar complacency, a sort of warning to humanity was raised from the sea off Italy—two bronze statues surviving almost intact from the ancient world, five centuries before Christ. We like to think of that world as civilized because of its graceful temples, enthralling literature, and clever philosophers. But these two images, the Riace Bronzes, suggest that this lost society may well have been violent and cruel quite beyond our ability to imagine. As nobody knows who created them, or who they are supposed to represent, they are known baldly as Warrior A and Warrior B, for it is certain that they are portrayals of fighting men. The distinguished art critic Martin Gayford, after viewing them, concluded, “The British sculptor Elisabeth Frink, who was fascinated by the bronzes, got it right. They are, she noted, ‘very beautiful, but also very sinister.’”
Gayford himself was powerfully affected by their ancient, enduring malevolence:
My instinctive reaction was alarm. Warrior A’s eyes, of white stone, give you a hard look; he opens his mouth revealing a set of sharp silver teeth. He looks like a killer, which is of course—whatever god or hero he represents—exactly what he was. Much more than calm or nobility, he has the quality, which interested Frink, of thuggishness. The two sculptures are an extraordinary intellectual and artistic accomplishment, but they visibly came from a violent and terrible world—which is what the Mediterranean has so often been.
I thought of the Riace Bronzes often as I read Martin’s extraordinarily believable descriptions of his fictional east, a terrible region quite without mercy, ruled by terror and money. Yes, as I have often conceded to atheist opponents in debates on belief, of course it is possible to have a civilization without Christ. But it is a civilization very different from and inferior to one that acknowledges Christ as King.
Martin’s creation is a society in which man knows how to build and travel, to make himself comfortable, perhaps to cure and treat some diseases, and to fight wars scientifically—but in which there is no trace of Christ. The Good Samaritan is not known of here. Nobody has heard of the Prodigal Son, and the Sermon on the Mount has never been delivered. There are not even rumors of these things. The only appeal is to a very basic common decency, the absurdly overrated Golden Rule, which in a world without Jesus has two great unavoidable flaws. The first is that the weaker and poorer you are, the less other people are inclined to hope for favors from you, or fear your revenge. And so enlightened self-interest will cheerfully leave you wounded, destitute, or alone, or tolerate the fact that you are enslaved, reserving the Golden Rule in practice for others who are more likely to reciprocate. The second is that, having no way to find the mind’s construction in the face, or to see into our neighbors’ secret hearts, we have very little true knowledge of the secret deeds and inward thoughts of others. “Do as you would be done by” rapidly becomes the very different “Appear to do as you would be done by.”
In such a kingdom, power and virtue are entirely separate. The snarling brute rules, unrestrained by reminders that a just God will judge him in turn. He is wealthy, powerful, and clever, like the figures depicted by the Riace Bronzes. He sits at the pinnacle of a civilization of impunity, which delivers many joys to the rich and the strong, and misery to the weak and poor. Imagine that, stretching out in all directions and forever, and you have George Martin’s world.
As far as I can find out, Martin is a lapsed Roman Catholic and has quite banal views about how religion causes wars and God is a “giant invisible guy in the sky.” I do not think he has set out to make an attack on Christianity. I do not think he especially likes it, but I suspect he has discarded it, and so he has written an account of a world in which it simply does not exist. His fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.
Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity. Their clergy are superficially similar to those of the Christian Church, but their nature is quite different. There are male priests called Septons and nun-like female Septas, as well as an order called the Silent Sisters whose chief task is to tend to the dead. There is a High Septon, a sort of pope, but this figure is either a cynic, corrupt and luxury-loving, seeking power, or a fanatic, also seeking power. It seems to me to be assumed that they do not truly believe in the rather lifeless precepts, very faintly explained, of their faith, which has a scripture, of which we learn little. Nor does anyone else. The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.
A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.
And in the midst of this it is those who are most indifferent to justice and truth, and the most carefully concerned for their own selves, who prosper, and also who appear to be the wisest and cleverest. Is this not very much like our own age, as it develops? Our minds are emptied of faith and hope, and we are emptied of charity. God’s visible hand is nowhere. Dead is dead. What is stolen remains stolen. Corruption is becoming normal. No help can be expected, and there is no reason to believe that a divine justice awaits the greedy or the crooked. The rainbow and the comet, the thunder and the wind, have been explained till there is no wonder left in them. We laugh at the very idea of the devil. And now, for the first time, the world of selfism and indifference has its bard, whose stories are lodged firmly in the minds of tens of millions. If we cannot counter the cruel message of Game of Thrones with something better, we have much to fear from the years to come.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.