The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Religion in Westeros

April 20, 2012

Given that George R. R. Martin has clearly thought enough about religion in his series to both deal explicitly with these themes in the books and to create an extra feature about it for the TV show, I am supremely puzzled as to why some of the most interesting religious aspects of the book series are being left out on screen.

Consider the “baptism” scene in last week’s episode, in which the Priest of the Drowned God splashes seawater over a man to inculcate him into the tribe of the Iron-born to the words “what is dead may never die.” If you haven’t read the books, you would entirely miss the meaning of those words: Iron-born baptisms actually involve drowning people, then resuscitating them. I can’t imagine why Benioff and Martin didn’t think this would translate well onto screen: it would have been riveting to watch, especially if (as in the books) the audience doesn’t know until later that what they’re watching is a baptism not an execution. Now it’s true that in the books this particular individual doesn’t go through the drowning but experienced the more ‘tame’ form of baptism but a) that isn’t actually very consistent with the context of the story [spoiler below fold] and b) why not fudge that detail in favor of giving us some insight into the Ironborn, considering all the other details that were fudged quite rightly in the same episode, all in the service of on-screen story-telling?

Melisandre’s religion of light is getting more play in these early episodes, with some dialogues between Davos and his son used to essentially set up the relations between the characters and the ideas driving them. However the HBO series is downplaying important details so far (like ritual sacrifice) and rubbing things in our face (like sex magic between Stannis and Melisandre) that were only hinted at in the books and that frankly aren’t very consistent with the fundamentalism of R’Hllor.

It may be that this dampening / obfuscating is part of Martin’s effort to keep religion de-linked from politics and gamesmanship in the series on screen, as he did in the books. As Rachel Mauro writes:

When the story opens there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the two faiths [the old gods and the Seven]. The main protagonists of the story, the Stark family, are even interfaith! Lady Catelyn Tully Stark, the matriarch of the northern Stark family, was born in the middle of Westeros. Sometimes uncomfortable near the sacred Weirwood tree where her husband, Lord Eddard Stark, takes time to reflect on life, she still worships her own gods. Her children go back and forth between the two sets of worship depending on their personal tastes. Religion, in essence, is secondary in this world. It’s not what defines ethics, morality, or even pride in one’s heritage. On the opposite side of the coin, it is also not used as a reason to go to war. And ASOIAF is defined by warfare. Religion (or family feuds or most anything else) can be used as the vehicle. But what drives it home are inherent, human fallacies.

Still, the religious aspects of Westeros and surrounding lands (for what they’re worth) are some of the most interesting pieces of the story. It would be nice if the series were used as a vehicle for clarifying / making sensible these disparate threads rather than robbing them of what coherence and originality they contain already.

[Additional commentary on the Ironborn below. Season 2 Episode 3 spoiler alert.]

*If you’ve already read the books or watched the last few episodes, you know that the Ironborn arc is about Theon being placed in an awful zero-sum relationship between his family of origin and adopted family and being forced to choose. Surrendered by his father Balon Greyjoy to the Starks as part of the peace deal after an earlier rebellion, Theon has grown up as a ward of the north and loves the Starks. However he has always been an outsider, and as a hostage he grew up knowing that he could be killed at any time should his father renege on the agreement. Robb stupidly sends him as an envoy to the Pike seeking ships with which to take King’s Landing, not seeming to realize that this might put Theon in a compromised position emotionally. And it does: though he expects to be welcomed home, instead his father and sister express loathing and mistrust of him, reject Robb’s terms and hatch a plan to take the north in vengeance while Robb is otherwise occupied. Desperate to win their approval, Theon decides not to warn Robb. He accepts a humiliating, auxiliary role in his father’s armada in order to demonstrate fealty to his family of origin. And he is rebaptized into the Ironborn.

Although there is a weaker form of baptism in the books, I have never understood why Theon undergoes that instead of the full drowning given the context. He is under pressure to demonstrate a) that he has changed from the boy he was and is now a man and b) that he is willing to undergo whatever it takes to be accepted among his father’s kind. Moreover, I can’t think of any reason why Balon Greyjoy would want to spare him this, particularly if he doubted his loyalty (which he does). The worse the hazing, the more solidarity with an in-group is cemented. This made no sense in the book and it makes sense on screen only because many viewers are missing out entirely on the cult of the Drowned God.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.