Christians and Game of Thrones

How should Christians interact, order respond to, pharm or embrace pop culture? It’s a question that I wrestle with regularly, given that my interests include not only theology but also science-fiction.

And let’s face it, there are good ways and bad ways to interact with pop culture. Take Game of Thrones for example. The Song of Ice and Fire series is fantastic (even if I do have squabbles with the quality of A Dance with Dragons), and HBO has translated the novels into a highly successful television series. How do Christians, who appreciate the novels, respond to the television series especially given HBO’s propensity to “sex it up”? Not all of us are comfortable with the graphic sexual content of the show, and yet we still understand that there is something powerful to the narrative of the television series that cannot be ignored.

There are a plethora of examples of Christians responding to Game of Thrones (be it the novels or the television series) well, with thought, reflection and respect for the world that Martin has created. Here are just a few:

A Morally-Complex Game of Thrones

Ben Witherington’s review of Season One

My posts can be found here, here and here.

But then, every once and a while you come across an example of how not to interact with Game of Thrones. Take the article at Christianity Today. Jonathan Ryan attempts to contrast Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, so long as it is recognized that they are two very different worlds and worldviews. The problem comes when Ryan tries to compare Tyrion Lannister to Gollum:

Martin paints this grimness in the portrait of Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a small and deformed figure born to a powerful and noble family in Westeros. Years of poor treatment and outright abuse leads Tyrion to drink more and more deeply from the corruption around him.If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you can’t help but compare Tyrion to Smeagol, the hobbit who becomes Gollum after becoming corrupted by Sauron’s ring The difference comes in Frodo’s attempt to redeem Gollum. That attempt has no parallel in Martin’s world, nor is there anything like Gandalf’s admonition to treat Gollum with kindness. Tyrion has no Frodo, and he never will. No one reaches out to him; no one tries to save or redeem him.

Ryan fundamentally misunderstands and misconstrues the character of Tyrion. In fact, I would argue that Tyrion is in fact one of the most honourable characters in Westeros, with the understanding that the rules of morality in A Song of Ice and Fire are very, very distinct from the rules of morality in something like The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, it is this honour-in- spite-of-all-he’s-been-through that makes Tyrion one of the more beloved characters to readers (and viewers). The same endearment cannot be said of Gollum.

In trying to compare Tyrion to Gollum, the author overlooks all the good things that Tyrion has done. (There is now a note at the bottom of the article that the article removed an important plot point from the article because it would be a “spoiler” to those who are new to the series, but even eliminating discussion of the plot point does not mean that at this point in the TV series Tyrion fits well with Gollum).

CS 65 Friday 22nd October 2010First, a few comparisons. Gollum was consumed by lust for the ring. And it was this lust that transformed him into a hideous monster. Tyrion was broken and starved for affection because he was born deformed. His brokenness did not transform his appearance, but instead, his appearance and neglect actually gave him space to better see the complex politics of the world for what they were. Tyrion’s deformity meant that people left him alone, and underestimated him, and he used that to his advantage to study and to learn and to influence events in the kingdom (even if it was often only behind the scenes). For Tyrion, it’s not about gaining power, which is the drive of the rest of his family. Indeed, Tywin’s and Cersei’s quests for power are so single-minded that they don’t actually understand the bigger picture beyond their own ambitions. Gollum’s solitude, on the other hand, led to a devolution and little understanding of the world around him.

So what are some of the “noble” things that Tyrion does? (while I will try to remain vague, it should be noted that for some people, what follows might constitute spoilers).

Tyrion befriends Jon Snow. He rescues Sansa from a fate worse than death if she were to stay in King’s Landing. He protects the kingdom from Joffrey, by reining him in as best he can.

Does Tyrion do awful things? Yes. But while they are not inexcusable, they are understandable. Yes he kills two people close to him. But his action does not come from some kind of bloodlust, but rather from the raw emotion of being deeply betrayed and emotionally abused.

And as for Ryan’s suggestion that Tyrion has no Frodo, I would suggest that Tyrion does in fact have a Frodo, she just hasn’t been introduced in the television show yet (and I worry that she’ll be one of the characters that HBO drops in their attempt to streamline the novel). By the last novel, Tyrion is definitely on a redemption arc, as much as there can be a redemption arc in Martin’s universe.

If anything, Tyrion is the most human of all the characters in Martin’s universe, and I would suggest that the character of Tyrion could be a reflection and a jumping off point for discussing Christian understandings of the human condition, both in its brokenness and its value despite its brokenness.

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Game of Thrones Season Two


So here we are, order two episodes into season two of Game of Thrones. I reviewed season one last year (here and here), and in many ways the issues that occurred in the first season are again occurring in the second.

The Issue of Sex:
“I couldn’t believe it,” I thought as I watched the first episode of season two. “We’ve made it nearly to the end without gratuitous sex.” Oh wait, until the last five minutes that is. Game of Thrones suffers from the HBO effect, throwing in needless nudity and shocking sexual scenes not for the purpose of advancing the story, but to cater to a largely male audience. Indeed, there was even more sex and nudity in episode two.

Now, I must back up and flesh this out a little bit (no pun intended). There is sex in the books. In the world of Westeros, sex is not so much about intimacy as it is about physicality. It is rarely tender, and often people (particularly women) are used as objects for sexual release. But how it is written, it is not pornographic or titillating. Often times, the act of sex isn’t actually described in detail so much as just plainly stated that it had happened.

In cases like Theon Greyjoy, sex demonstrates a part of his character, namely that he uses women and has no real regard from them (which we saw in episode two). The problem is translating it to the screen. On the screen, it becomes offensive and vulgar. Theon, tired of hearing his mistress on the ship babbling on about wanting to be his salt-wife, turns her away from him so he can continue using her but not have her jabbering at him. It becomes so crass to look at on the screen that it actually distracts from the story telling. Likewise, the scene at the end of episode one: we didn’t need to see prostitutes graphically learning how to “fake it” to know that it was a brothel.

Not only is it needless, the addition of sex scenes actually take away some of the mystery of the story. Episode two ends with The Red Priestess Melisandre seducing Stannis and promising him a son. In the books, twice Meslisandre gives birth to a shadow demon thing that kills on command. The mystery is how and why. It adds to the “this woman is freaky and scary and messing with powers that shouldn’t exist in this world”. No one knows for sure how she does it, but it is suggested that she takes a piece of Stannis to birth the shadow killers. Part of this is because Martin never writes from the King’s perspective. Not from Stannis’, Joffrey’s, Robert or Renly. All we know about them comes from the perspective of other people. In the show, however, they have chosen to not go this route, and have led the viewer into Stannis’ bedroom. (Not to mention the fact that in the books, at the beginning, Stannis is actually not really interested in Melisandre’s religion, she is there at the bequest of Stannis’ wife who is the true worshipper. In my opinion, it’s not until Melisandre unleashes the shadow on Renly that Stannis truly gets on board with the Religion of Light and Fire).

If there was a way that HBO could re-cut the show for DVD release that eliminated or softened the grating and gratuitous sex, I really think the show would gain a larger following. Men are not the only audience to win over, there are women who loved the books and would love to follow the show. While the adage ‘Sex sells’ may be true, in this cases the opposite is true: sex restricts, turns off, and marginalizes potential viewers.

The Flattening of Story:
In some ways this is inevitable. Massive books translated into 10 episodes a season means that some of the plot and character development are going to be truncated. But the way that the show is doing it, half the time I’m not sure which character is which. It took me halfway through the scene to realize that Tyrion was firing Janos Slynt! The introduction of Salladhor Saan was good, but there hasn’t been a good development and introduction of Davos Seaworth who is the one who goes to Saan to petition him to join Stannis’ cause.

The Good Stuff:

I love Sam Tarly and his friendship with Jon Snow. The show has done a good job of capturing the essence of that relationship.
The tearing down of Theon Greyjoy in episode two was fantastic. Here is a boy who has always thought that he was heir to a great land, he returns home to find his father considers him to be an outsider and has placed all of his hopes on his daughter instead, who has spent years proving that she is a strong warrior (in the books her name is Asha, in the show they renamed her Yara because there is already an character named Osha which could cause confusion).
And of course, Tyrion. Peter Dinklage continues to impress and outshine everyone else on the show. He is the reason to watch. (I’m also hoping that when they intro Brienne of Tarth that she too will be one of the main reasons to watch).

Game of Thrones — A Final Review


I had previously posted my initial thoughts on the HBO series Game of Thrones. In particular, clinic I was a little uncomfortable with the “HBO”ing of several scenes, look particularly when it came to nudity and sex.

I ended up watching the entire series, purchase to see if things got better after the pilot episode. What I discovered is that the “HBO”ing of the sex and nudity was really inconsistent. Some episodes there was very little, and other episodes it was even more gratuitous than the pilot episode. Interestingly, the times when the sex and nudity were the most galling were in scenes that were not actually in the book (e.g., the monologue of Petyr Baelish).

What watching the series encouraged me to do was to read the books. By about the third episode, after having to ask Chuck every five seconds what was going on, I caved and started reading the books. Oh. My. Goodness. If you haven’t read the books, but caught the pilot episode of GoT and were turned off, my suggestion is skip the show and read the books. The books are fantastic. I polished off GoT in three days and then read the second book ‘A Clash of Kings’ in less than a week. I have started the third book, ‘A Storm of Swords’ but have had to get Chuck to hide the book so that I can get work done on my papers which are due in 23 days (eek!).

What the show fails to do is explain things. Indeed, it leaves a lot out. It leaves out character development. Heck, half the time, the show doesn’t even identify which character is which. The vastness of the universe created by Martin is lost in the adaptation to the small screen. The show fails to present the nuances of the rules of honour and chivalry of the world, which means that for a modern audience watching the show, the actions of certain characters seem barbaric instead of justifiable or even noble.

On a positive note, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion is fantastic. The fanboys are right, Dinklage deserves an Emmy for his performance (This picture posted to the discussion threads sums it up so well, even if they had to resort to colourful language). If I were to decide to watch season two, I would watch it solely to see Dinklage. Otherwise, I’m sticking with the books.