I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, though I did read the first book on my trip to Denali in 2011. Martin is an excellent writer and has created a dense, believable world. Salacious material aside, I’m not surprised that the show has had so much success, though I would probably never watch it.
Which is strange for me – since I am supposed to be into all that fantasy stuff. I mean, I don’t dress up in costumes or anything like that, but I did once present a paper at an academic conference on Tolkien and his works entitled, “Have Ye Then No Hope? Death, Doom, and Despair in Tolkien.” (There were about 150 of us, and we finished the conference with a Hobbit-themed dinner, eating tasty Hobbit food). A few years ago I taught a class on Fantasy and Spirituality, and had a former student email me yesterday asking for a copy of the notes. So if there were any question of my holding a fantasy/nerd card, there you have it.
But Game of Thrones is different than classic myth-makers. In fact, I read somewhere that Martin set out to be the anti-Tolkien, to deconstruct the fairy tale by creating a world in which the hero never arrives to save the day, where good never triumphs over evil, where hope is repeatedly crushed in the wheel of time that rolls on without consideration for who is being crushed. In the grand scheme of things, why should one person’s life matter? Why care about the fate of families, tribes, or societies? This is just how things go.
And this is why I had to stop reading after the first book, and why I don’t watch the series. I could see where this was going, and I wasn’t interested in taking the ride over and over again. It wasn’t just the salacious content. It was the nihilism: the refusal, denial and rejection of meaning and hope. As I wrote back in 2011: “While this book does supply fantasy and escape, the reality to which it flees is bleak and full of despair. So the reader finds in the world of fantasy no more than a mirror image of the darkness in himself and the world. No hint of recovery or consolation, and certainly not eucatastrophe…”
But today I read this excellent write-up from Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, and found it to be a profound analysis of the links between Martin’s world and our own. The authors argue that embedded deeply in Martin’s world is theodicy: the repeated questioning of why God allows evil (and why so much evil). They write:
“A one-time Catholic, Martin struggles painfully with theodicy in his stories, which are pregnant with a bitter lapse of hope. Every violation pierces the reader. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? What kind of world is it where this happens?
Martin wants us to hear this proclamation: this one. This world. That’s where these things happen.
You think the world of “Game of Thrones” looks ugly? Watch Syria. Read the wires out of Somalia. Read about Nigeria. Read about the Central African Republic or Nepal.”
I’m not saying that people need to go out and watch GoT (I’m aware that many do). But I do hope that Christians, and especially preachers hear the questions that echo with every episode. What kind of a world is this? Why do these things happen? Can anything be done about them? Is there any real hope?
I used to take my students to the Holocaust Museum in Chicago, because I wanted to be sure that they were wrestling with the strongest possible articulation of the problem of evil (and doing it in the context of supportive community). I wanted them to ask the question can the Christian faith stand up to this? Can we proclaim hope in a world where Holocaust happens? Where the weak continue to be crushed?
And here is where we must be both careful and clear. If you ask me why these things happen in our world I will put my hand over my mouth rather than venture the answer of Job’s friends.
But if you ask me if there is any hope, if God can be trusted to vindicate the crushed, to bring salvation and shalom, then I will take my hand off my mouth and gesture like John the Baptist in Grunewald’s painting.
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
What world? This one. This world.
Ours is the world of the great Eucatastrophe.