If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.
With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.
The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.
Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.
The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]