Some personal perspective for this piece, which may help explain my interpretation of the magic and religion in this show (and the books it’s based on): I am a devout agnostic. I wasn’t raised in a religious household and only one side of my immediate family is religious in the traditional American sense - i.e., church on Sundays, prayer before meals, participating in church-based events on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, etc. I did attend something like Sunday School a few times, mostly on visits to my mother’s parents, and I read through most of my Children’s/Teen’s Bibles when I was younger, simply because I was curious. But from the moment I learned about the Holy Trinity, at around the age of six, and I couldn’t square how one being could be its own father and its own son - without the aid of paradox-inducing time travel - I could never be one of the faithful. But I’m not atheist, because the universe is just too damn big and too damn old to say with 100% certainty that I, or anyone, know what is truly up. Besides the sky.*
The world we live in is filled with religion, and chances are most of you reading this are religious or have a religious background. The shape and depth of your faith, or lack thereof, depends on all sorts of variables, but it’s safe to say that there likely isn’t anyone in any sort of organized society on this planet who doesn’t have some sort of relationship with a god or gods, lapsed or anti- or whatever. If you’re a believer, you believe because you have faith. Some might claim to have proof that at least convinces themselves - an indescribable, personal feeling; a revelation - but no one has any actual, physical evidence of divine reality. And, no, the mere existence of the Bible or of existence itself is not scientific proof of a divine creator. But you can’t prove a negative without a positive, either, so we’re left to spin around on this globe searching for answers that we as individuals, if not we as a species, will probably never find. Whatever your personal truth is, it’s purely internal and may not even match your external actions.
That’s also the world of Westeros at the start of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” (As much as I’d like to make this a book discussion, I’ve not read enough to do that.) There are the Old Gods and the New, the believers of which more or less happily co-exist with each other despite having fundamentally different practices and cultures. It must be the concept of polytheism that keeps the peace, then, just like in our own world histories. If there are seven “new” gods, then why couldn’t there have been older, less powerful gods before them? Or, if there are innumerable “old” gods, then why couldn’t there be newer, less powerful gods that came after them? But outside of the prayers heard in the Godswoods or the faith esteemed by septons and septas, there is no proof that any of these divine beings actually exist, or ever did. Just stories and myths passed down for hundreds of generations. Maybe magic and the power of the gods were ever present once, in the long distant past, but by today’s standard, there is no magic in the world. Just cold, hard, insufferable reality; just like us.
No wonder so many Westerosi believe but do not practice, or practice and do not really believer, save for a faint hope. Of course, there does seem to be magic and belief in Essos, beyond the Narrow Sea, but it seems to be viewed through a lens darkly, a weapon to be wielded, not as the saving grace of a divine hand. Then again, maybe Miri Maz Duur wasn’t a witch or a healer with any power; maybe she just really wanted Khal Drogo dead and had the means to ensure that happened?
But then season two begins almost immediately by introducing a new concept to Westeros, but one very familiar to our modern minds at home: monotheism. R’hllor, the Lord of Light, as worshipped by Melisandre, a Red Priestess from Essos, and practiced by the newly converted family of Stannis Baratheon, is a regular YHWH or Jehovah. Just as soon as we (and Westeros, really) are introduced to this singular deity, a kind of possible evidence that R’hllor might actually exist is presented. Melisandre is poisoned, seemingly, but does not succumb, and meanwhile her attempted murderer, a maester, dies consuming the same potion. All this after Stannis burns in effigy the Seven “new gods,” so who exactly is supposed be punished and doing the punishing here? Thus, Melisandre is powerful, or has some knowledge greater than the grand maesters and high septons. Not long after that, we are treated to the Red Priestess’s magically created shadow baby, and it seems that this Lord of Light, whom Melisandre seems to utterly believe is responsible for her powers, might very well be real after all. Stannis himself says as much in his season three conversation with Davos, the now semi-literate prisoner.
Not counting Dany’s dragons, since so many Westerosi don’t know of them or have witnessed them with their own eyes, Melisandre’s magic is the first time anyone on the continent has seen any magic in thousands of years. (We’re also discounting north of The Wall, where magic is accepted as fact regardless of religion.) But even despite seeing real magic right before his eyes, Davos can’t quite make that leap to faithfulness. He knows he’s seen something, but he can’t make the possibly logical, possibly not, next step to believing in the Lord of Light’s existence or divinity. Davos, who has as much of a scientific brain as anyone in the series, needs a repeat of the experiment or something equally believable. So, like before, with Stannis’ seed helping to birth the smoke monster, Melisandre uses “king’s blood” to work her mojo. Leeches suck out the blood of poor Gendry, the Baratheon bastard, which are then thrown into a burning brazier as Stannis recites the names of the remaining usurper kings: Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, and Joffrey Baratheon (nay, Lannister). Now, according to Melisandre’s belief in R’hllor, it’s only a matter of time before they are as dead as Renly.
From there, very little time passes before (spoiler alert?) Robb Stark does indeed die. But is this really the work of the Lord of Light? Are cock leeches really more powerful than shadow assassins? After all, with betraying Walder Frey, not taking Roose Bolton’s counsel, and (justifiably) beheading Lord Karstark, Robb was slowly marching toward his demise anyway, regardless of the supposed sacrifices Stannis made. Had there not been the previous scene with Melisandre’s “experiment,” there would be absolutely zero reason to believe Robb’s death had any mystical origins. Having seen it played out in “Rains of Castamere,” a plan that was clearly in the works behind the scenes for a while, there’s no legitimate reason to believe Robb’s death did have any mystical origins, despite what we definitely did see on Dragonstone. In essence, it’s going to take more than the Red Wedding to convince me, and I think Davos, to believe in the Lord of Light.
After all, it is one thing to see Stannis and Melisandre copulate, then to see Melisandre give shadowy birth, then to see that shadow kill Renly - that’s a logical progression of cause and effect. If the death of Robb was actually orchestrated by R’hllor instead of Tywin Lannister, it means that god has far more power than previously imagined. A wise galaxy once said: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Then again, both Keyser Soze and Baudelaire knew that, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Which brings us to Thoros of Myr, his flaming sword, and the undead Beric Dondarrion.
Thoros, like Melisandre, is originally from Essos, where magic and its apparent connection to the divine has not been discarded. She’s a Red Priestess, he’s a Red Priest. Both are serving the Lord of Light as missionaries sent to convert Westeros, if they themselves are to be believed. Yet, they do not seem to share the same faith. They share the same religion, perhaps, but not the same faith. Melisandre is a strong believer and she has no doubts, or very little time for them. Thoros, on the other hand, is only recently a strong believer and he is practically overloaded with doubt. Melisandre worships R’hllor and sees the power she wields as obviously his, and therefore obviously good. But she’s working backward from a result to match her thesis because she was always a believer in both R’hllor’s divinity and his (His?) inherent goodness. Thoros worships because he witnessed an inhuman power wielded through him before he fully believed, in a crisis of faith. So he is coming from a place of deductive reasoning based on the evidence at his disposal, and neither he nor Beric proclaim a divinely restored life as unassailable good.
Another distinction between the powers of the Priestess and those of the Priest is that Melisandre’s magic brings only death, whereas Thoros’ brings life, admittedly lesser than before. The former was shocked to learn of this, as shocked as Thoros likely was when Beric first returned from the brink of oblivion. They may think they’re serving the same god, but the proof at hand indicates that one of them, Melisandre, is misguided or being mislead. Of course, both of them lie about their flaming swords, neither of which is powered by magic but by the medieval science of wildfire. Yet while Melisandre is manipulative and a raving R’hllor thumper — perhaps protesting too much — Thoros merely lets his actions and his powers speak for themselves, allowing Arya and the audience to come to their own conclusions. Perhaps they are simply engaging their religion in different styles, but it seems beyond coincidental when Arya concludes that Melisandre is definitely a force for darkness, not light. If there are indeed gods or deities in Westeros, the Lord of Light must not be alone but have a cracked mirror opposition. This is not uncommon in our own monotheistic religions. God and Satan, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Light and…?
But does any of this magic actually prove the existence of deities? Does any of it even prove the existence of ultra-mega-powerful supernatural creatures, which might be perceived as gods and goddesses? We know there are paranormal beasts in the form of dragons and White Walkers, and it’s easy to infer that if they exist, something greater than them could, or should, also exist. Again, though, that’s working backward from a conclusion and not proceeding forward from a result. Just like in our world: the mere fact of existence proves nothing, other than that “nothingness” is probably not the preferred state of the universe. (Even that’s too concrete for an agnostic, though.) So, the mere fact of magic does not prove R’hllor’s, or any other new or old god’s, existence either, only that the physics in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy is different from ours. So is the physics in Star Wars, and the possibility of the divine is never mentioned there beyond a non-theistic pseudo-Buddhism.
It seems likely that Westeros is ready to undergo a conversion to monotheism before the series is through, whether it sticks or the people really believe or not. The easiest, or most expedient, way for this to happen would be for Stannis to conquer and sit the Iron Throne, claiming that it was his Divine Right as bestowed upon him by the Lord of Light. Basically, he’ll have to Constantine it right into the Westeros constitution. The other path would be for the Brotherhood Without Banners, lead by the revived Beric and his Red Priest, to foment a legitimate revolution from the ground up, which is a much harder road for any message to travel. Melisandre taking the relatively easy path and Thoros the hard one seems to echo the duality of Christianity again there, making me wonder if at some point her faith will indeed prove misguided, while his will be rewarded. If so, that may prove something in the way of R’hllor’s truth, or it just may prove shit happens.
There remains the question of what happens to the remaining pretenders, Balon and Joffrey. When something inevitably does happen to both, will it be obviously mystical in nature? Or will it be more apparently caused by mortal men, like the massacre at Mr. Freys’? Bran’s visions and the three-eyed raven are another matter, though the ability to predict the future is also something found in science fiction without requiring magic or religion. His warging is just like any other magic, then, proof of neither the existence or the non-existence of divine beings. So maybe “Game of Thrones” will never, and can never, truly answer this question. If so, then that means, beyond how the characters in the story react to and interact with magic and their religions, none of it really matters. What matters is how you treat people and how you stay alive.
As Davos said in season two, “I’ve seen men pray to every god there is; pray for wind, pray for rain, pray home. None of it worked.” That’s probably the easiest, if not the wisest, thing to believe in this world depending on your point of view. Meaning Westeros, yet again, is so much like our own. Or, this could all be answered on Sunday, or when season four covers the back third of A Storm of Swords. Or at some point in later seasons. But for right now? I’m remaining agnostic.
* Hat tip to my Mema for that one.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He doesn’t mean to offend anyone’s religious beliefs; so if you’re offended, it’s your own fault.