Game of Thrones: great or gratuitous? 'The best way for Christians to engage is critically'
Game of Thrones, or A Song of Ice and Fire, as the book series is titled, has exploded from being a small cult phenomenon in the mid-1990s to a mainstream mainstay of popular culture today.
This month the fervor around the story of Westeros and its people has once again reached fever pitch as many stayed up late to watch the opening episode of the television adaptation's fourth season.
But with what many see as harrowing violence and gratuitous nudity in the television version, many people are asking why the series is appealing to so many people, and whether Christians should be following things like this.
Simon Morden shares his thoughts below.
CT: What do you think gives Game Of Thrones its lasting appeal?
SM: The thing that the George R R Martin does very well is creating a simple narrative out of complex events. That's attractive for a reader. There's always lots going on, but you always know the direction of travel.
There is lots of detail, there are lots of characters, there's lots of different points of view. That's good because if you don't get on with one particular character, you know you'll be with someone else in a short while.
People like that richness of detail, the idea of a guide to map them through the events. Even just the plot synopsis can be a page and a half long for each book.
There is a certain amount of vicarious living with the characters also. People identify with them, which I think is particularly powerful. If you just have one main protagonist, you'll appeal to a certain set of people, but if you have a very varied and diverse ensemble of characters, people can pick their favourites, and that does help.
CT: Do you have a personal favourite character?
SM: I do like Tyrion Lannister. For those who may not know the books, Tyrion is the son of Lord Tywin Lannister who is the closest thing that Game of Thrones has to a 'baddie' in all of this, since he is the chief cause of complaints among the other main characters.
Tyrion is also a dwarf, not a separate species like in several other fantasy novels, but just a person with dwarfism, a small person. He's played in the television series by Peter Dinklage.
He is more or less disowned and discounted by his father, but he still wants to try and please him, yet he slowly and painfully comes to the realisation that that's never going to happen.
In all of the stories so far, Tyrion is very much the underdog. He's always pushed out to the margins where he has to carve a place for himself out of sheer force of will, because he can't use force of arms.
CT: What do you say to Christians who would object to reading or watching Game of Thrones because of the nature of its content, the levels of sex and violence present and so on?
SM: Martin is quoted as saying that he has taken inspiration for the books from the Hundred Years War. Now we have to remember that the Hundred Years War is a European war fought between Christian kings. You have the King of England who believed that his position was God-ordained, and the King of France who believed something very similar.
Those beliefs didn't stop them knocking seven bells out of each other for a very long time in history. There were all kinds of atrocities and terrible things going on.
Yes, you could argue that Christians don't want to read this because a lot of the goings on are simply entirely amoral at best, with kingmaking in the oldest sense of the world. But Martin argues that what he's written doesn't have the extremes of what is present in our actual history.
CT: But there are many people asking the question, why would we want to entertain ourselves with a fictionalised version of a period of history that is full of so much blood and gore? Why would we choose to watch and read about something so unpleasant for fun?
SM: This is a difficult question. It does depend a great deal on personal taste. Some things will be beyond the pale for some readers. That's true for me, just like most other people. At the same time, the artistry in keeping all these separate and individual threads together is intense.
Also, it is not a story without redemption, even though there are some people who are hopelessly compromised, and death is commonplace among characters who you might really love and want to see go further.
I think you'd read it for the same reason you'd read any fiction, or watch it in the cinema or on stage, or anything like that. It is because it provides an emotional engagement.
I perfectly understand that people may not want to read that sort of thing, but then again I don't particularly enjoy reading detective stories, like P D James for instance. Some of that stuff is far too close to home for me, yet my Mum loves reading that stuff. I can't do it, I just can't, I baulk at the crime.
CT: How do you think the wider Christian community should be engaging with Game of Thrones, a series that has more 'objectionable' content than most?
SM: I don't think there is, or should be, a single Christian reaction to something like Game of Thrones. That does a disservice to the many different points of view a Christian might have on this issue. I know what some of my Christian writer friends would do, which is to try and write a Christian version of Game of Thrones.
That would be a big mistake in my view, because Martin does what he does so well. You could do Tolkien with a more evangelical message, or Lewis with a more overt message, or a Christian Fahrenheit 451, but that misses the point.
The best way for Christians to engage with Game of Thrones is to read it, read it critically. Engage with the themes and the characters, and then go away and create your own stories.
It would be fascinating to see someone like Rowan Williams, a medieval scholar, and George R R Martin sitting on a stage and talking about Game of Thrones. It wouldn't be too difficult to arrange too, because Martin is so very easy to distract from actually writing the books!
I know some people are scared of fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy which can involve other gods, magic, things of that sort. I have never worried about that because my own faith is certain. I am convinced of the reality of God. Reading about other people who worship other gods is something I can very easily separate from reality.
When my 14 year old son was showing an interest in the books, I had no problems with that either. He reads a wide variety of things, but he does love his epic fantasy. He goes to church, he goes to his youth group, he knows the reality of the Christian life.
It isn't that he behaves in a Christian fashion despite the fact he's read the books, they are just part of what makes him what he is.
CT: So would you disagree then with the suggestion that there is a kind of disturbing voyeurism about enjoying something like Game of Thrones?
SM: It is true that a lot of people approach Game of Thrones through the television series, and the people who make that have thrown in a considerable amount of nudity.
But in the books, the pictures are different. Someone might be described as naked, but the book doesn't dwell on their nakedness. It might dwell on the reason for their nakedness, maybe mentioning that they are in a position of powerlessness or something like that.
I think the books aren't written voyeuristically, I think they are written to give a vicarious experience.
CT: But do you not think that a desire to vicariously experience a world as violent as the one depicted in Game of Thrones is somewhat concerning? The incident that comes to mind is the notoriously violent 'Red Wedding'.
SM: Ah, the Red Wedding! Yes. I must admit that when I was approaching that part of the book, my son was checking how far I had gotten in the book, and walked away shaking his head and gritting his teeth.
I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that is a particularly shocking and violent moment in the books. But the thing is that it's meant to be shocking, it's meant to be almost too much.
I know that some people walked away at that point, because of how graphic it was. But it wasn't so much the way he described what was happening, it was more the question that the incident provoked. How could these people be so dead set on revenge to commit this kind of horrible atrocity?
It wasn't voyeuristic. Once you've finished reading it your heart is almost torn in two over these characters that are made up of nothing more than letters. It's not for everyone, but the emotional investment many people have in the story, including me, is what pulls you through.
CT: If you were speaking to a Christian who took the view that they didn't want to read a book like this because of the 'objectionable content', how would you defend the books' value?
SM: Again, there is the power of the story. It is the hope of not so much a happy ending, but one with meaning and resolution.
What all the people in the story are fighting over is a throne that is so uncomfortable that you can't sit still on it, because of all the swords it's made out of. That image is worth all the blood and the pain and the terror that you go through when reading the book.
That's perhaps the one thing that people should take away from these books, just to look at what people will do for power, and then to ask is it really worth it. If that's the lesson that people come out with at the end, that's surely worth something. The lesson that temporal power is transitory and terrible. That is very much a lesson that's present in the Bible.
CT: That's one important Christian theme. What would you say are some of the other main ones?
SM: This is always a problem, when you come to a book and you try to answer the question 'what are the themes?' and 'are there any specifically Christian themes?' What you'll find is that the themes are primarily about people.
Because Christianity is involved with people, then there are going to be themes of love, loss, and the pointlessness of revenge. There is the theme of forgiveness, highlighted like an oasis in the dunes because forgiveness is in very short supply in Westeros, the land where most of the story is set.
There are these movements where some measure of justice is achieved, where the slaves are freed, and the battle is not so much won as much as it is fought. Where peace breaks out, those are the moments you often root for.
While I have no idea where Martin is going with the book, as you read it you hope for better things for the people, and if Christianity is about anything it is the hope for redemption, if not in this world then in the next.
There are obviously characters that want to stay long enough to be redeemed, but it's not even the individual characters that you want to see redeemed. You want to see the land redeemed, Westeros at peace, the peoples declaring a truce and putting down their weapons. You want to see people start to do something other than fight and kill.
If Martin finishes on a note of 'We have lain waste to Westeros and gained noting for it' it will be a very downbeat ending, but I am reasonably certain we are still holding out for help.
CT: What lessons do you think Christian writers should take from Game of Thrones in learning from its success?
SM: In some respect Christian writers are still battling against the innate conservatism of Christian publishers. My message would be more to them, and I would tell them to have more faith in their writers and take a chance.
If you want your writers to produce something as successful and engaging as Game of Thrones, if you want your writers to be as widely read as Martin is, then you're going to have to let them go and let them write the stories they want to write. There's an enormous amount of trust involved here.
One of the main reasons I don't write for Christian publishers is that the things I want to write are not milk, they're meat.
I am not writing for a Christian market, I am a Christian who is writing the best possible story I can write at any given time. That's what my publisher expects of me. They don't tell me "we want X" or "we want Y". They say "you are a good author, we trust you to write a good book". The actual writing of the story, that's my job.