Once again, we steel our nerves for the beginning of a new season of Game of Thrones. Death, destruction, and upheaval loom large, as always. But these themes have increasingly felt like a battle between the authors (George R. R. Martin or his HBO adaptors) and the audience, rather than something intrinsic to the world.
This dynamic obscures the relationship that the characters have developed with the horror of their world. The series does show us moments of grief and anger, but it also shows us the religious beliefs that develop in these times of hardship.
Unsurprisingly, apocalyptic beliefs run strong in these conditions. Long-established faiths take on new dimensions, and new religions rise to the fore, promising that the world will be destroyed and rebuilt in their own image. The connection between war-torn lands and fiery prophecy is central to this world.
Before the War of the Five Kings, Westeros was divided largely between the Faith of the Seven, and the northern Old Gods. While many characters were pious, there is little to show that their beliefs added much to the mundanity of their lives. Southern women would pray to the Mother for easy childbirth, girls to the Maiden to get married, elders to the Stranger for a peaceful death, and so on. Their faith may have been sincere, but it did not define or expand their lives. Instead, it only offered a path to make life slightly easier.
This is transformed once the world is shattered by war. Melisandre brings the Red God to Westerosi shores, and serves as the god’s prophet wherever she travels. The Warrior might have given bravery and strength to soldiers, but he would never deign to walk on the land and fight his people’s battles. He offers victory, but not peace.
But the Red God gives believers a messiah, the legendary hero Azor Ahai. “Darkness will flee before him,” Melisandre says. The cycle of violence and war will end: the world’s evil will be concentrated in the Great Other, whose frozen army threatens to obliterate humanity, but Azor Ahai will prevail and usher in a new world of peace. There is power there, as we have seen, to vanquish Death itself.
Five warring kings ask for loyalty, but none can really offer more than a return to the status quo, perhaps with a different face on coins. That fails to inspire a bleeding land, and instead, worship of the Red God takes off, particularly among the disenfranchised. The Brotherhood without Banners worships the Red God, and no longer feels compelled to their vows of fealty to their various lords. That world will end and be reborn in flames.
Perhaps sensing that the established Faith of the Seven cannot compete with the Red God, Cersei allows a revival of the Faith Militant, replacing staid traditions with reborn vigor. It offers its own pseudo-messiah, in the person of the High Sparrow. He is humble where Azor Ahai is bold, but both share a vision of a world reborn. The law of kings is torn down and replaced by something righteous; the material wealth of nobles rendered valueless for the ascetic Sparrows. They offer comfort, healing, and peace to a population decimated by the wars of the elite—and moreover, let people imagine a world without those elites.
Never one to tell a story twice when he could tell it five times, Martin shows us that on the fringes of the world, other faiths are adapting their own visions of a new world rising out of the ashes of the old. The Ironborn turn back to the Drowned God, which offers immortality in a world haunted by death, as worshipers chant, “What is dead may never die!” Further, worship of the Drowned God frees the Ironborn from the mores of the mainland, a final end to generations of subjugation.
In the North, Bran Stark starts taking on messianic characteristics, with prophetic visions and new abilities. He, too, fights against death, able to push his mind into other bodies and speak with his dead father. The Others come from the North, leaving no survivors in their wake, and with the Children of the Forest, Bran seems ready to bring the land itself into battle.
Finally, Daenerys is becoming awfully close to a self-crowned messiah herself. She is anointed as a mother-goddess, both to her dragons and the people she liberated from slavery. With literal fire, she demolished the old cities of Essos and forged an empire of her own where former slaves rule by her side. Though she struggles to rule, she plans future conquests, again seeing herself as the fulfillment of both Targaryen and Dothraki prophecy.
These apocalyptic visions did not create the state of war in Westeros—their religions did not spontaneously generate fanatical armies of believers. Rather, the series shows the arrow of causation going in reverse. A long, awful, state of war discredited the world that created it, and gave rise to movements that promised something altogether new.
Needless to say, this isn’t something unique to Westeros and fantasy fiction. Rather, it reflects both historical and contemporary conflicts that take on a religious tone. This is most urgent in the theology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Its very name connotes an overthrow of the established political order, to be replaced with something new. Its fighters claim to be bringing about the Mahdi, an apocalyptic hero. But ISIS did not create the present conflicts in the Middle East, it arose out of them. The world was burning before someone claimed it as prophecy.
Likewise, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament makes allusions to the Roman Emperor Nero (who is linked in numerology to 666), who brutally attacked Christians and watched the city of Rome burn. The book stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the New Testament and offered Christians both the hope of retribution against their oppressors and the promise that the bloodshed would be meaningful.
In Israel—founded mostly by secular or even atheist Jews—unending violence has empowered apocalyptic beliefs and sincere attempts to summon the messiah: fringe groups planned to sacrifice a lamb at the Temple Mount last week, a predecessor to demolishing Muslim holy sites, rebuilding the Temple, and bringing about the end of days.
But with competing visions and theologies—on Earth or Westeros—war continues. Belief in a new world is not enough for peace. As the series goes into the home stretch, prophecy will be made manifest. Or it will not. The task at hand will be to deal with the consequences of either outcome. After all: not everyone believes that death can be vanquished; some believe that it must be served.