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The unredeemed universe of Game of Thrones

Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow: a sort of Thomas Becket character

To those not of a squeamish nature and who don’t mind the occasional beheading or people being eaten by their own dogs, this Sunday sees the start of the eighth and final series of the epic fantasy Game of Thrones. Based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, it has been described as “alt-history”, borrowing from real historical events and telling a story both rather familiar and completely alien.

Game of Thrones is set in the Realm, a union of Seven Kingdoms that encompasses the southern half of a continent called Westeros, guarded on its northern frontier by a giant wall to keep out the barbarian “Wildlings”. It’s clearly modelled on medieval English history, in particular the War of the Roses, and the main warring clans, the Houses Stark and Lannister, evidently owe something to York and Lancaster. It also throws in aspects drawn from the Hundred Years’ War, as well as ancient Greece and Rome, Byzantium, Mongols and Turks, Scottish Highlanders, Venice, Moorish Spain and Knights Templars.

And yet for all the familiarity there is one thing strangely missing in this world – God. There is religion, and Westeros has a sort of state church, the Faith of the Seven, which has structural similarities to the Catholic Church – cathedrals, priest-like figures, even a version of the Holy Spirit – but it’s fundamentally different.

That, and the other various religions of Westeros, exist in the background of people’s lives, whereas in 15th-century Europe Christianity was – like God – everywhere. These faiths lack the practical and institutional role of medieval Christianity, in particular its role in education. But more significantly, the cultural norms in Westeros largely lack Christianity’s central sympathy for the downtrodden, women, the poor and slaves.

Peter Hitchens, who is not a fan, said of Martin’s fantasy series that it “makes a far more cunning and dangerous assault on the Christian faith than anything [Philip] Pullman has done or will ever do”, because rather than hostility there is “a cold indifference”. In Martin’s world, “there is no trace of Christ. The Good Samaritan is not known of here. Nobody has heard of the Prodigal Son, and the Sermon on the Mount has never been delivered. There are not even rumours of these things.”

That is true, but then Westeros is also an appalling place, and that is the fascination. There was great suffering in medieval Europe, and extreme cruelty at times, but there was also comfort and hope in people’s lives; and while there were almost unbridgeable class differences, there was the paradox that the official religion taught people to venerate and love the poor, even if they often failed to observe this injunction.

Today there is a great desire to make history more relevant by trying to emphasise how much we have in common with people in the past. But it’s perhaps more interesting how different people were. Historian Antony Andrewes famously said of Ancient Greece that “this is a world whose air we can breathe”, which is certainly true. But Greek civilisation was also fundamentally different in so many ways, as was Roman. The Christian idea of sympathising with the poor and weak, because of an underlying human dignity, was essentially alien to the Greeks and Romans – but not to medieval Christendom, even at its worst. Compare the words of the Greek poet Hesiod, “Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give [in return]”, with those of St Paul: ‘Let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

Likewise, whereas in Greek religion the rich were favoured by the gods, Christianity taught the opposite.

In Game of Thrones the most prominent religious figure is the High Sparrow, a sort of Thomas Becket character played by Jonathan Pryce. He’s a religious fanatic and fairly appalling, and yet he is the only one who cares for the downtrodden. Ross Douthat of the New York Times called him “a ghost of Christendom in GRR Martin’s otherwise more pagan/stoic vision of medieval Europe … He champions equality before law, redistribution of wealth – ideas far closer to liberal values than anything his antagonists support.”

Modern Western audiences have an aversion to the fanaticism of the High Sparrow, which in real life has brought us not just the Wars of Religion but also the Jacobins, Bolsheviks and most recently ISIS. Yet the Graeco-Roman worldview of his enemies is ultimately appalling. Indeed, in all its glorious horror Game of Thrones shows us a parallel world in which St Paul never took that fateful journey to Damascus – and it is quite clearly a much worse one.

Ed West’s Iron, Fire and Ice: The Real History that Inspired Game of Thrones is published by Skyhorse