Gambling with Belief: Revealing Character through Religious Advisors, Prophets and Fanatics

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(For more of these Explorations of Faith in Science Fiction and Fantasy, see Wrestling with Gods blog where this was first published)

[SPOILERS if you have not yet seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “Dance of Dragons”]

Sunday’s Game of Thrones shocked many with its depiction of a father who decides to sacrifice his only daughter and heir to his name in order to Win the Throne.  George RR Martin may not have put it in his books yet—but he did tell the showrunners, DB Weiss and Dan Benioff, that this was definitely coming.  I don’t want to address the level of violence in the show.  I think its characters are appropriate to their world.  We have seen beheadings, slayings, burnings, stabbings, as well as rape, mutilation, etc. from good and bad characters.  This is the world Martin has written, so by those rules this is how our characters react to crisis and achieve goals.  It is profound then that level, compassionate heads are in short supply these days (and being mounted on spikes every season).  I count Tyrion, Doran, Jon, Samwell, Varys, Margeary, Olenna, and a handful of others as being the people I would listen to if I lived in Game of Thrones.  The Hound and Dario might have the most practical means of getting through this world alive, but I wouldn’t want to become them, so I wouldn’t want them as advisors.

Who one listens to—having good advisors—is a form of power, no different than a Valyrian sword, I will say.  We all cheered when Dany and Tyrion met because, frankly, Dany could use some good advisors. Her decisions have been erratic–as she seeks to maintain power in a desperately sinking cultural situation.

I want to highlight three “gods” or specifically, three “speakers” for their gods who have become either advisors or powerful people themselves, and ask questions about the ideas that Martin brings out (or the showrunners highlight).  I want to look at how an author might use religion or faith in his or her work to mirror, echo, or highlight something in our own culture.

* * *

The High Sparrow, Melissandre and Jaquen all follow their respective gods–but they also determine what messages of those gods get heard and acted upon.  Being the spokesperson for a “god” comes with advantages.  No one can question you because YOU alone have the red phone to your god–so you can interpret which sins to go after, who to confront, how to judge, and what to do.

Also the Authority for these spokespeople rests not in Kings or Queens but in the god that only you can interpret… and which has no accountability. As bad as Kings and Queens are–there are ways to get them out of power.  There are ways to make them responsible for their crimes.  (As we see in Westeros though, fair courts haven’t been invented yet.)

Gods utilise armies and weapons.  Cersei armed the Faith Militant.  We can all agree that arming the Faith Militant was a stupid move for Cersei: faith-driven people with weapons do not make a reasonable or controllable group.  Jaquen and the Faceless Men have poison–but they are hired by people.  Melissandre has fire and magic (but also Stannis’ army to back her up).  Each group has a weapon and an army to enforce their will–er, um…their god’s will–but they need outside help: High Sparrow needed Cersei to arm them; Jaquen needs to be hired; Melissandre needs Stannis’ army.

I don’t think the High Sparrow, Jaquen nor Melissandre are complex characters—meaning they aren’t that interesting to me.  Who IS interesting: the people who listen to them.  Cersei, Stannis, Arya.  All are listening to these “religious” prophets and receiving advice in the same way that Dany (when or if she comes back from her Dragon ride) will from Tyrion, as Jon receives advice from Samwell.  Those two advisors’ strength is knowledge, not belief.  A key difference.

Note: I’m not saying that belief is inherently good or bad, but it is a gamble.  I will be the first to say that as a Christian, I gamble on God.  Leave that to me; I don’t ask you to make the same gamble unless you want to.  But it is a gamble.  And the gambler—THAT PERSON—is the interesting one.  Not the mouthpiece prophet, but the listener.

Advisors aren’t just strategists–though that’s interesting too—but characters use them to way moral choices, and that’s fascinating. Tyrion and Samwell seem to be some of the few advisors that have a moral centre and they are pitted against those brilliant advisors who have no moral consideration for the people they affect.

I suppose we approach spiritual advisors because we want morality as part of our decisions, sometimes.  Though Melisandre has never offered morality on her resume.  Jaquen and High Sparrow offer justice as their reason.  Melisandre offers power–and the fulfillment of a destiny to Stannis.

* * *

Stannis received advice from Melissandre (who serves the Red God) Sunday to kill his daughter in order to help his troops have victory.  Having a god ask for you to sacrifice your child is not new to Martin’s Game of Thrones.  This brings back allusions to Abraham’s ALMOST slaughter of Isaac on God’s command, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter because of his own promise, and Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia during the war on Troy in obedience to the gods of winds and weather.  But it’s that moment when a character asks him/herself WHO they are listening to interpret the words of their god, or WHICH god they are listening to—when reason and rationality come back and ask if this faith or this god is making a world a better place or if things are getting worse for people around you.  Now, honestly, for Stannis, things were looking great until Ramsay torched some supplies.  But were they looking Shireen-bad—like bad enough to sacrifice your daughter?  Good god, Melissandre is in service to the FIRE GOD—could she not have come up with some freakin warmth for them?

Weiss and Benioff made the suggestion in their behind the scenes look at the episode that they felt like they were asking the question: what if your advisor/ god is wrong?  What if you sacrifice your daughter and your daughter dies for nothing?  What about Blackwater—that wasn’t a success!  Could this be another Blackwater?

Stannis’ advisors amount to one—Melissandre– his own personal Rasputin— and he is a weaker ruler because of it.  But it is revealing him as a character.  It is not revealing Melissandre.  She doesn’t change.  Only Stannis.  We see him waver–we see him choose, regret, get angry.  There’s US—there’s the human who is torn by belief.  Not the true believer but the one who needs advice learning that listening too closely–without reason—can get you lost.

The High Sparrow, for all his Francis of Assisi garb and claiming to be cleansing the realm, has turned into his own hypocrite—taking power to take down the powerful, letting his personal vendetta against the rich control his interpretation of the Seven Gods.  While no one was unhappy that Cersei got thrown into jail–it wasn’t just.  She was caught in a trap (of her own making) and now the worst people are in charge, worse than Cersei, because you can’t negotiate with them.  Their advisor—their god–is out of the room and they speak for him.  You cannot circumvent them to find out what the god is saying yourself.

Cersei arming them, listening to them, says so much about Cersei—and once she is in jail–her development as a character becomes more sympathetic and deeply nuanced.  I don’t care about the High Sparrow—but I care about the character who listened to him.

Jaquen serves Death–in his many faces.  As head of an assassin’s guild, he doesn’t determine who is worthy of justice and death on his own.  He is paid.  A sellsword with poison. He’s not going to change.  But Arya–who is being trained by the Faceless Men to become an assassin has her own agenda.  She doesn’t want to be a hired assassin, I believe.  She wants to learn the trade so that she can go rogue—and THAT’s fascinating.  Watching her waver between trying to get the approval of Jaquen and to accomplish her own deep mission, to avenge her family, is wonderful.

So, religion can be a powerful narrative device—because:

a) those who are its spokespeople influence characters who are looking for good advice.

b) that advice and that influence reveal character

c) that struggle for reason in the midst of the religion reveals character

d) the rejection of that advice can also reveal character

In the end, Mace Tyrell tells the Iron Bank that all usury and lending of money is a gamble—you don’t know what will pay off.  Advice is the same way—but advice tinged with religion reveals deep fears, prejudices, alignments, vulnerabilities in a way that no other advisor/advisee relationship can.  There’s a god on one end of this, we think—and we are desperate to hear that god–believing THAT advice trumps all others and assures us of getting what we need.

Whose advice do you gamble on?  And what’s your way of discovering if you need to change advisors?  Do you ever rely on spiritual advice, or spiritual guidance?

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