Flawed Faith: Game of Thrones, Tolkien, and Transcending Nihilism

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28

Many people can’t wait for the imminent premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones. A high budget, high concept fantasy series like George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is something that gets geeks excited. As Christians, the series certainly might invoke hesitation. I’m sure most of us have been in Bible Studies where we wouldn’t want to admit we watch Game of Thrones. Many high ranking people within the church have opined on whether or not we should be encouraging Christians to watch a series like this, and often it’s easier just to say no on principle. I’ve even met people who love the series, but only watch it with their spouse in the room so they can help them avoid watching the nude scenes because they have previous histories of pornography addiction and feel they need to avoid those scenes.

Alas, I don’t intend to wade into those waters. Christians are going to watch it anyway. The Bible calls for us to be leaders among men and to avoid worldly things, but we’re also called to go into the world. Sometimes that means we need to speak the language of culture so we can talk with people outside of the church. That doesn’t mean we should sin in the name of talking with others, of course. It’s up to us individually as Christians to determine if we can tolerate such delves without compromising ourselves.


Even so, there are still arguments for why Christians should watch the show. Beyond the show’s infamously explicit sexuality and violence, Game of Thrones and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire present one of the most interesting longrunning stories in modern times. Between George R.R. Martin’s vision of the world and HBO’s adaption, we have a show that is unflinchingly complex, appealing to mass audiences and morally serious. There’s a clear view of the world being articulated within the eight seasons and five books, and we can learn a lot about ourselves, our impulses, and our beliefs by sorting through it. If the most human thing in the world is “to err,” then Game of Thrones might be the most worldly, human, and honest television show in history.

In order to understand Game of Thrones, however, we need to start with another fantasy series far more implicitly Christian than Martin’s vision of the world. The world of Westeros doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It was, in fact, envisioned by Martin as a direct response to one of his favorite fantasy stories of all time: The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision of fantasy and magic is one of the most beloved books of the 20th century, but it holds a special place in the hearts of Christians. Tolkien was a devout Catholic who famously helped C.S. Lewis convert to Christianity. While an academic who disdained mere allegory, The Lord of the Rings poured the images of a lifetime of research, experience, and heartbreak into a single story. In Tolkien’s life, he experienced the horror of war firsthand as he fought in the Battle of the Somme during some of the bloodiest days of World War I. The book’s primary influence was Tolkien’s love of classical European literature, specifically Beowulf. Lord of the Rings was fundamentally an exploration of his Catholic values through the lens of mythopoetic pagan literature and 20th-century world-weariness.

It’s important to establish much of this because George R.R. Martin has a very mixed relationship with the material his series is satirizing. Part of The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a mythic tale of culture and tradition being handed down through the ages through stories. Martin laments the moral simplicity of Tolkien’s vision of the world. He famously snidely asked, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” As such, part of the idea of Game of Thrones was to rip some of it’s more romantic notions of legend and tradition apart. Martin disagreed with Tolkien’s worldview and wanted to use his story to question the implicit moralism, religiosity, and patriarchal norms Tolkien’s work never commented upon. George R.R. Martin is agnostic. He views the world in materialistic terms, numbers, and bodies. The HBO adaption of his series reflects this with an innate focus on the human body as a tool to give and receive sex and violence. While there is magic in Game of Thrones, it’s heavily implied there isn’t an afterlife and death is mere nothingness.

Given Martin’s radically different worldview than Tolkien’s, A Song of Ice and Fire couldn’t help but become subversive and confrontational. If Lord of the Rings is a fairy story about legends stretching into the modern world and guiding us through a difficult world in the lens of a religious story, then Game of Thrones is a story about questioning the premises of every one of Tolkien’s assumptions. This, more than the series’ gratuitous nudity, speaks more to the secular roots of Game of Thrones. The series distrusts grand narratives, stories, lineages, and power. Every faction from the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryans, Baratheons, Tyrells, Wildlings, and Whitewalkers are fighting for control over their domains. Each has complicated and conflicting desires to take power from another, often driven by lifetimes of tribal ideologies and fierce loyalty. The predominant religion in Westeros, The Faith of the Seven, even takes advantage of the power vacuum created by the conflicting wars of the series and manages to become powerful enough to kidnap and humiliate members of the Lannister family. Whatever value the stories these factions and ideologies tell about themselves, we’re ultimately forced to grapple with the reality these factions are motivated by power and the effect of their conflicts will cost an enormous amount of life while seriously changing the lives of the people of Westeros. 

Part of the brilliance of Martin’s vision has come from his ability to draw on real-life historical events. Part of his strategy for building the world of Westeros was to plant fantastical elements in an otherwise grounded and realistic world. To do that, he borrowed real life Medieval events and transplanted them into the plot of his story. For the most part, the events are founded in the real-life War of the Roses, a series of English Civil Wars that occurred during the 15th century. This gives the story a very cutting-edge power over the more fanciful story of Lord of the Rings. These events aren’t the machinations of a mad writer; they largely happened to real people. By rooting his series both in history, drawing on powerful human emotions like lust and greed and using those tools to question the impulses that drive them, Martin’s story is a comprehensive and powerful statement on the forces that drive human beings. It’s a story about blindness. It’s the story of humanity’s prosperity falling by its own hubris.

Is it any wonder the series is extremely popular at a time when our own societies are buckling under the weight of political tribalism in spite of our society’s incredible prosperity? 

This is Game of Throne’s appeal and strength. It’s a brutally honest, if secular, examination on the realities of the world that unflinchingly lets you stare into the void and find some acceptance in it. In some ways, it’s a show that rewards cynicism about the world. It states life is short, brutal, and painful, but lets you relish in the pleasures of it. It’s a nihilist tragedy. It carries a sense of New Atheism’s bleak bravado baked into the show; the sense there’s an inner strength that comes from accepting a Godless world for what it is and living life entirely in the moment. It’s not dishonest that there are consequences to these realities, but it embraces this vision of the world with confidence. There’s just one problem with this vision of the world: It’s incomplete.

Season 8 is just now starting it’s run, and we’re several weeks away from the series’ finale in May. As such, we don’t know what the show’s creators have cooked up for the series’ final statement on human conflict. A large contingent of the fanbase has disliked the direction of the show post-Season 4 given the series has been forced to depart with Martin’s vision for the books since they ran out of his material. As such, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of thematic statement the series is ultimately leading up to. The answer is important because the final statement is ultimately the conceit of the entire premise of Game of Thrones. Without it, the show is a series of futile and violent conflicts without a clear moral or sense of resolution. How do you even end a story about unceasing corruption, betrayal, the lust for power, and the maintenance of legacy?

As conceived of by the YouTuber The Distributist, maybe the most logical ending of a series like this would be for the White Walkers to siege Westeros and take the Iron Throne. The White Walkers are a symbol of the entropy and inevitability of the unceasing conflict threatening to let loose upon the world. Their resurgence coincides with the events that spark the struggle of the characters and the threat they pose to humanity has been left to grow unabated in the background as conflicts persisted. Ending a series about ceaseless conflict and destruction with an ultra-bleak ending where everything good in the world is smitten by inevitable death would serve Martin’s ideas and carry them to their logical extent. 

While this might be the most interesting way to end the series, it’s also unlikely. As much as the series relishes killing off its own characters, it’s likely the writers of the show will ultimately prefer to allow one of the established characters to seize the throne, find some way to steady the conflict, and save Westeros. As such, it’ll be a huge deal thematically who ultimately comes to take the Iron Throne and save Westeros. Will Daenerys Targaryen succeed in implementing her revolution, carrying forth the forces of enlightenment and justice into Westeros? Will Cersei Lannister’s ruthless will and lust for power hold her kingdom in the name of the once mighty Lannister family? Maybe Jon Snow will win, taking the mythopoetic role of a Christ figure by liberating Westeros to become the true king. This would be thematically incongruous with the preceding material, but would be one heck of a statement to make. For all we know, something entirely unexpected could happen, like Varys taking the throne. This question is important because without a satisfying answer, it’s ultimately failing to complete the mission of presenting us a way to transcend the cycles of violence and conflict that birthed the very events of the series in the first place. The show has an opportunity to explore how a secular society can save itself, and the answer it provides is important. 

Mind you, none of this applies to George R.R. Martin’s books, where it seems the story will continue down the logical track to its inevitable thematic endpoint…maybe. Martin has been famously unreliable since the release of the fifth book A Dance with Dragons in 2011. The final two books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, have been perpetually in limbo as the now 70-year-old author struggles to finish the books in a timely faction. He may well pass away before finishing. Maybe this would be thematically appropriate; a long series of books about useless conflict and strife without an ending. The meta-joke would reflect life as he saw it then. It would truly be about sound and fury signifying nothing. 

Without a proper ending, where would that leave us? This is an incomplete way to look at the world. It doesn’t teach us to strive to make life better for ourselves. The moral of this story is effort is useless in the face inevitability. Even success and fame aren’t enough of a motivation to finish two books and offer some way to make life better. I might be painting Martin’s worldview in a far more grim light than the man might actually believe, but this is the unintentional statement his art is currently exploring. The only way to live in this world is through resignation and hedonism. It’s spiritual death. 

Ironically, the strongest advantage The Lord of the Rings has over Game of Thrones is it offers us a method of transcendence over the bleakness of life. Again, J.R.R. Tolkien is Catholic. He was a man who actively experienced the realities of the world unfold over the course of the 20th century through useless wars and totalitarian conquest. Yet his vision of the world doesn’t reflect the bleakness of Martin. In his fantasy, the world can rely on lineage, stories, and even divine intervention in the story of man’s war with ultimate evil. His vision is fanciful, but it isn’t dishonest. The Middle Earth Saga is a fairy story disconnected from reality, but it’s knowingly a fairy story. It’s self-aware of this reality. Tolkien understood profoundly that humanity needed fairy stories to grapple with its existence. When asked whether his own faith in Christianity was a myth, Tolkien once said: “Yes, they are myths that really happened.”

Martin’s vision through his series is humanity is horrific and selfish, but he can’t find a way to transcend the conflicts and paradoxes his series raises about living a brutally secular life. This doesn’t devalue Game of Thrones as a story. If anything, as Christians we should grapple with the success of the show as an indication of the spiritual state of humanity. We should grapple with why we love the show or the books ourselves. If anything, our frustration with how the show will end or how Martin may never finish the books is evidence of the truth of Tolkien’s work. Game of Thrones is fun and revels in its brutally honest depiction of human depravity, but it only serves to turn inward on itself and collapse. In the end, the only way to transcend the violence, selfishness, and cruelty of man is through transcendent faith. We may be blinded, dogmatic creatures serving ideas and forces we often fail to comprehend, but in service to forces more powerful than this world, we become more than the sum of our parts. Absent that, we’re doomed to wait for the Whitewalkers of this world to welcome us to their ranks. 

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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