There comes a moment in the fifth season of Game of Thrones (and I believe the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire) when Lord Varys, of all people, possibly reveals what the entire series is all about. In pleading with Tyrion Lannister to hold on to hope at the lowest point of his life, Varys asks him to imagine a world in which the strong do not prey on the weak, and where the neverending political intrigue and blood feuds are left behind. This being the shifty Varys, such lofty words are best taken with a grain of salt. Still, his suggestion makes one wonder: Is A Song of Ice and Fire ultimately the story of a long, bloody transition from a feudal, monarchical system to some kind of proto-democracy, in which all castes have a voice, and the nobles and the various religions must yield to the rule of law? In other words, can the game of thrones finally end, replaced by a civilization that actually works?
This leads to another question, a far simpler one: Why is Westeros so hopelessly f*cked up in the first place? We are told that recorded history goes back over 10,000 years, much longer than our own, and yet we find so little in the way of progress, innovation, new theories, or new philosophies. It’s a wonder Varys even considers an alternative to the status quo. What gives?
To recap, Westeros (and its neighboring countries and islands) remains permanently stuck in a simulacrum of medieval Eurasia. Most of its residents survive within an agrarian economy, with simple farmers segregated from the elites by their poverty, illiteracy, and a total lack of any say in how their government operates. So dire is their plight that the motto of House Stark—“Winter is coming”—is code for “A lot of these poor schlubs are going to starve when it gets cold again.” The political system is a simple hereditary monarchy, with all the peril that entails. To make things worse, the various houses essentially fragment the kingdom—not to mention the intrigue that takes place within each house.
Though the elites have access to education, and the field of history seems valued and well developed, nothing resembling the scientific method is ever applied. As a result, Westeros suffers from a lack of innovation and technology. The First Men—the original settlers of the region—would be impressed by the size of some of the castles, but little else. Few things have improved, from clothing to medicine to the modes of transportation. Most surprising, even the oft-used military technology remains frozen. For all the warfare that takes place, no one has developed poison gas, hot air balloons, submersibles, armored transports, artillery, or even a bicycle. Everyone seems content with hacking each other to pieces as an efficient method for killing.
This slow progress contributes to the backward culture and regressive social customs we find in Westeros. In this world, overtly powerful women are an anomaly—an appalling fact given the number of dangerously incompetent male rulers, bureaucrats, and religious leaders. Meanwhile, foreigners, people with disabilities, eunuchs, bastards, anyone who even hints at having gay tendencies—all of them are marginalized in some way. And despite every indication that the gods have abandoned this place, religion wields an enormous amount of influence, making it a tool of control and a catalyst for bloodshed. Even with all those history books lying around, few people seem to have learned from past mistakes.
Thus, while the civilization of Westeros desperately needs improvement, civilization itself is holding things back. This is not a world in which good kings and brave knights strive to bring order to chaos. Instead, institutions such as the septons, the Wall, and the filial loyalties are in fact the problem. Most of the characters are unaware that such a problem even exists, and instead hold fast to their traditions. Others, such as Petyr Baelish, cynically adopt the mayhem as a fact of life that only the wise and the strong can overcome. In his words (from the show):
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
In this sense, A Song of Ice and Fire presents the same conundrum that we find in the graphic novel Watchmen. Rather than saving the world, the “heroes” of that story contribute to endless war and destruction—some inadvertently, others on purpose.
As the story edges toward its conclusion, with numerous holy wars on the horizon, issues of religion, magic, and superstition have been moving to the forefront of the conflict. We have the Sparrows running amok in King’s Landing; the Lord of Light overtaking the Faith of the Seven at the court of Stannis Baratheon; the Sons of the Harpy staging terrorist attacks against Daenerys in Meereen; the religion of the Drowned God spurring the ironborn to a new destiny; and the old gods of the north playing a role in the war to come with the White Walkers. A recent article by Biblical scholar David G. Garber provides insight into the vital role of omens, oracles, and prophecy in the series. At this point in the saga, the power of belief, the spectacle of magic, and the appeal of superstition drive the action in almost every subplot.
Author George R. R. Martin has discussed on several occasions how his experience as a “lapsed Catholic” has influenced the world-building process for the series. In a 2011 interview with Charlie Jane Anders at San Diego Comic-Con, he went into more detail:
Anders: There are several competing religions in this series now. Should we be wondering if some are more true than others? In a world with magic, is religion just magic with an extra layer of mythos?
Martin: Well, the readers are certainly free to wonder about the validity of these religions, the truth of these religions, and the teachings of these religions. I’m a little leery of the word “true”—whether any of these religions are more true than others. I mean, look at the analogue of our real world. We have many religions too. Are some of them more true than others? I don’t think any gods are likely to be showing up in Westeros, any more than they already do. We’re not going to have one appearing, deus ex machina, to affect the outcomes of things, no matter how hard anyone prays. So the relation between the religions and the various magics that some people have here is something that the reader can try to puzzle out.
Though Martin cannot let on which, if any, of the religions are “true,” it matters little. The magic appears to be true, more so than any magic we’ve seen in our world. And the religions, under some circumstances, seem to hold real, tangible power. Melisandre really can tell the future, Beric Dondarrion really can rise from the dead, the boogeymen of the north really are coming. And the prevalence of magic, perhaps more than any other factor, holds Westeros back from maturing into a functional society.
Some of the most important moments in the development of our own civilization revolve around old superstitions yielding to facts that are observable in the real world. Thus germ theory replaces humorism, demons, and curses. The earth goes from flat to round, and before long it is no longer the center of the universe. Evolution replaces creation myths. Modern social sciences disprove junk theories supporting racial superiority. In other words, evidence gleaned from the scientific method undermines the self-appointed authorities of the world. The scientist becomes a subversive, like the boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes. But in Martin’s world, that boy would be disemboweled. Westeros goes in the opposite direction, with rational, skeptical people routinely proven wrong by the fickle actions of the gods.
In our world, many beliefs that found purchase in religious traditions have been dismantled not by revelation or exegesis, but by the simple act of uncovering indisputable truths through rational inquiry. The current debate over LGBT rights puts this process on display in real time. Many dogmatic traditions have put forth truth claims regarding this issue, often suggesting that LGBT people contribute to social decline, cannot be trusted as teachers or parents, and cannot have authentic, loving relationships. The evidence against these claims is overwhelming and, at last, widespread, which is why so many people have changed their minds (or, in politician-speak, “evolved”). People who cling to the past tend to blame this sea change on a rotting culture. Kids these days with their iPhones! What happened to traditional values? But no—for many people it’s a simple matter of evidence, the same kind that helps children outgrow their fear of the dark.
In Westeros, this process of rational inquiry remains stunted. And on the rare occasion when reason wins the day, or when the religions fail, the septons and the witches announce that they simply misinterpreted the will of the gods. Or, like the priest in Albert Camus’s The Plague, the leaders accuse the people of being blinded by their sin, cursed by the heavens. Sometimes they even come up with a new form of magic to keep everyone in line.
This is not to say that destroying religion is the answer. Our species has already played that game, with dire consequences. A more realistic path for Westeros might be for the religions to adapt, to undergo a long process of reinterpretation. Given the complex ties between religion, politics, class, and other systems of power, it seems safe to say that the gods (or, I should say, their spokesmen on earth) tend to be more diplomatic and compromising in times of peace and prosperity. In times of war, famine, crisis, or sweeping change they tend to be more judgmental, viewing everything as a zero-sum competition, painting everything in black and white, pointing toward scapegoats and hurling jeremiads in an effort to assign blame and thereby rein in the chaos. So, perhaps an end to the conflict will make everyone lighten up a bit—even the fiery god R’hllor. In a more stable context, the faith systems would have the flexibility to modernize, and maybe even loosen their hold on temporal power. After the corruption of the High Septon and the fanaticism of the Sparrows, a separation of church and state might be an easier sell these days in King’s Landing.
Given all the reforms that are needed, I wonder if an extra book detailing the reconstruction of post-war Westeros is in order. Regardless, Varys’s hopeful words about a new era call to mind the proposed title of the final volume in the series: A Dream of Spring. Maybe, in the long run, this bloody, unsparing story is about the rebirth of hope, the stubborn kind that can rise only from the darkest despair and suffering; the kind that even a millennia-old status quo cannot destroy.
This article was originally published in April 2016.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He is the author of Mort(e) (Soho Press, 2015), Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles, 2015), and D’Arc(Soho Press, forthcoming). He works as an editor for Oxford University Press and has taught for the Gotham Writers Workshop.