It’s no surprising statement that this season of Game of Thrones is pretty big on gods, with almost every major storyline coming back to some sort of god or another. The fanatical Sparrow threatens the toffs of King’s Landing, Daenerys has literally sent the traditions of the Dosh Khaleen up in smoke, Arya.. sorry, A Girl moves further into the realm of the Many Faced God, while Bran talks to a bird slash tree in vague connection to the old gods of the North. But the most overt and present divine presence of the season is that of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, whose gift of resurrection has been so useful in solving that whole “what’s up with Jon Snow dying?” debate.
Of all the major gods in Martin’s world, the Lord of Light seems to be the most defined. While the Westerosi are fanatically devoted to their seven faces of a single god, the faces exist more as Platonic ideals of what they represent, the Mother, the Maiden, the Candlestick Maker. But R’hllor has a name, he has a bunch of rituals that we’ve seen on camera or page, and we’ve also been privy to firsthand experiences of his divine magic seemingly working. Besides Jon, in the books it is heavily speculated that Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and Balon Greyjoy’s deaths are all a result of a demonstration of Melisandre’s blood magic, and of course we all know about the shadow baby of death.
What we know about the Lord of Light is his name, we know that fire is his most prevalent symbol, that his worship has been popular in Essos for a while, but he’s only recently gotten any foothold in Westeros despite previous attempts to convert the mad king Aerys II. We know that his grand nemesis, a sort of satanic figure within the context of the faith is the Other, whose name shall not be spoken, that represents the ice to R’hllor’s fire, the darkness to his light. We also know that his followers believe in the return of a messiah-like figure, Azor Ahai reborn, who Melisandre believed was Stannis but now thinks is Jon Snow, and Maester Aemon believed was Daenerys.
It’s a risk when writing a fictional story full of various religions that you may unintentionally tip the scales in favor of one religion being the “right” religion. By demonstrating feasibility of R’hllor’s blood magic, has Game of Thrones shown the Lord of Light being the One True God, or is there an argument to be made that the Faceless Men demonstrate an equally legitimate claim to the divinity of the Many Faced God? Battlestar Galactica toed this line quite a bit in later seasons with inferences that the monotheist God of the Cylons was the real god complete with angels and everything, but in a world where some degree of magic is accepted to exist, do a few successful spells actually provide proof that there’s a god behind them or just that some sorcerers use faith to understand their abilities? Do opposing gods of fire and ice seem thematically more important in a series whose alternate title is a Song of Ice and Fire, and whose two most heroic characters are a queen who can’t be burned and a man whose last name is literally Snow?
For sake of argument, if the Lord of Light is a real deity, either one of a pantheon of gods or a single god in search of an Other, what’s his deal anyway? As followers of gods are wont to do, Melisandre seems to have put true faith into him as an ultimately benevolent god who seeks to protect the world from destruction, but for such a Nice Guy, R’hllor seems to want a lot of dead kids and stuff in order to be bothered to help out. It has to cause us some degree of side eye that the same magic that brought us back Jon Snow came from the same source as that heartbreaking sacrifice of Shireen last year, right? …right?
I’ve had a theory rolling around in my head the last couple of years that I never can quite shake, largely because of that title as mentioned above. As far as fan speculation goes, the pretty commonly held belief is that obviously R+L=J, and that as the son of Rhaegar, Jon could be one of the three heads of the dragon, including Dany and possibly Tyrion Lannister who some speculate is actually a bastard son of Aerys as well. That definitely fits thematically, the dragon has three heads was an important prophecy during Daenerys’ time inside the House of the Undying in Qarth. If all of that is the case then the popular argument seems to be that the Night King is the Other. He is an icy monster from the north who controls an army of the dead, after all.
Okay. But if there’s one thing I’ve grown to expect from George R.R. Martin it’s that he loves to predict what the audience thinks is going to happen and subvert it to some degree. The deaths of Ned and Robb Stark were both, he has said, done because he knew the audience was expecting both of them to follow the more traditional fantasy hero roles they seemed to fit perfectly in. So when we’re being handed a perfectly formed trio of heroes, that fit a messianic prophecy and a perfectly cast villain who is the description of their particular devil to a T, I am skeptical.
Stick with me here, but I have this nagging feeling that if this series is going to ultimately have anyone who can fit into the role of “Big Bad,” it’s not going to be the Night King. It’s going to be Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow. I know, I know, but stop rolling your eyes and hear me out. We keep getting villain characters that are blatant dicks, like Joffrey and even more so, Ramsay who the show especially just REALLY wants us to hate. Then we have characters like Cersei who is pretty terrible on the surface but is layered and nuanced as shit. Joffrey got his, and all signs point to Ramsay’s plot being wrapped up this season, which means that next year/book we could see the Night King as the new force to beat (and that Wall is definitely coming down, right?)
But is a nonspeaking ice man who hangs out with zombies all day really the most compelling villain we can imagine coming from the man who brought us the Red Wedding, or is it possible that what he’s really cooking is the idea of having made us spend years of our lives, thousands of pages or dozens of hours of TV watching rooting for a character, watching them grow, watching them gain power, only to learn that this whole time we were simply seeing them step by step become the villain that we never saw coming. Be it a man returning from the darkness of death or a woman who has stood among the flames that actively consume her enemies. That seems exactly the kind of twist we can expect from a god whose motivations may not be as benevolent as we think, whether that god be R’hllor or George R.R. Martin.