The Surprising Morality of 'Game of Thrones'

Peter Dinklage in a scene from Game of Thrones.
Peter Dinklage in a scene from Game of Thrones. | Youtube Screenshot/ file

Christians have been told over and over that they should not watch "Game of Thrones." It is too violent, involves too much sex and nudity, and presents faith in a bad light. John Piper even said Christians who watch this show are "recrucifying Christ." Many of these criticisms ring true, but nonetheless, this show can teach Christians—and others in our postmodern world—one very valuable lesson: morality is indestructible.

HBO's groundbreaking show has oft been criticized for presenting an amoral universe, where heroes die and villains reign triumphant. As postmoderns love to preach, there is no good and evil. The world is run by people, not God. Those people have vastly different goals and values, all fighting in a merciless, ultimately meaningless, but nonetheless bloody, game of thrones.

But as C.S. Lewis cannily observed, even the strength of such an argument poses a problem. If the audience mourns when Ned Stark loses his head, and becomes enraged as the pompous King Joffrey tortures innocents, are we really to believe the universe of this show has no moral values? Is not our very anger at George R. R. Martin for killing our favorite characters itself evidence that we believe (as even he believes) in good and evil, right and wrong?

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"Game of Thrones" is based on the bestselling novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire" by outspoken liberal George R. R. Martin. (Although perhaps "pessimist" fits him better than "liberal.") As the author told The New Republic back in 2013, "The sort of fantasy where all the people get together to fight the dark lord doesn't interest me." Martin's goal was to create a world like ours—where heroes and villains are mixed and characters constantly struggle within themselves.

Martin enjoys presenting conflicted characters, rather than clean heroes or villains. "We don't tend to have wars or political controversies where one side is really ugly and wears dark clothing, where the other side wears white and has glowing magical swords," he explained. "It is never clear who is a bad guy and who is a good guy, who deserves to be supported."

This mix of good and evil, virtue and vice, in most of Martin's characters may make the overall story murkier, but it adds a human touch that, ironically enough, fits perfectly with the Christian understanding of mankind. Created by God and endowed with minds, souls, and moral agency, men and women are nonetheless infected with sin. Even the saved are horribly conflicted, as St. Paul writes, between willing to do good and actually doing evil.

The drama of character decisions which drives Martin's fantasy is also the centerpiece of Christian living—how do I honor the God who saved me from my sins and yet live in this fallen, sinful world? How do I impact the world and others for Christ without compromising the moral code God holds me to?

Characters like Ned Stark are clearly heroic because they value honor and purity over power and influence, but they also die—precisely for that reason. As the king's second in command, Ned seeks to rule justly. When the king dies, Ned reveals a shocking truth and supports the rightful heir. The other faction has more power, however, and Ned loses his head as a result. This hero was certainly "innocent as a dove" but he was never "cunning as a serpent."

Liberators like Danaerys Targaryen fight to end slavery, but find themselves compromised by demands on both sides. Heir to the throne of her homeland and morally opposed to slavery, Danaerys takes power in a foreign land, and uses the opportunity to liberate slaves and kill their former masters. As she tries to rule this foreign people, she becomes mired in disputes from former masters and slaves alike. In this way, a heroic character finds herself stuck in a sticky situation.

Nevertheless, good and evil still make their mark, as they do in all good stories. Martin's purposefully morally ambiguous tale still makes use of moral norms to present an interesting story.

Heroism emerges at several points in the show: when self-described coward Samwell Tarly kills one of the fiercest creatures in the world to save a woman and her infant son; when a blacksmith leads four brothers to their deaths by standing his ground against a Giant; and when Tyrion Lannister leads a nearly hopeless charge against a much larger army.

Even Jaime Lannister, whom the audience first sees as a monster—he cripples children and killed the king he was sworn to protect—is in fact a hero. Jamie later explains that the king he killed was about to burn down an entire city. By sacrificing his honor, and being forever branded "Kingslayer," he saved the lives of thousands—not noble lords and ladies, but peasants, and "small folk." While this act does not erase the evil Jaime commits at the beginning of the story, it showcases his heroism and wins the hearts of the audience.

Some other characters nearly embody evil. One family—the Boltons—gain power by massacring heroes and an entire army while at a feast. Head of the family Roose Bolton, and his torturer son Ramsay, win a high position but may indeed get their comeuppance—they are hated by their subjects, who seem ready to revolt at any second.

Even the sex in the show arguably presents a moral lesson, as The Federalist's Virginia Phillips and Elliot Gaiser explain. The fan-favorite Stark family practices Victorian sexual morality—Ned loves and listens to his wife Catelyn and does not glorify a possible past affair, and Robb refuses to dishonor his wife even to fulfill an oath. But the antagonists frequently use sex to manipulate others.

"Game of Thrones" is certainly not for everyone, and many Christians rightly refuse to watch it. Nevertheless, this record-breaking show proves moral in the most surprising way, by demonstrating how good and evil are inescapably woven into human nature. Virtue and vice may be twisted, complicated, and misunderstood, but they can never be erased, not even by the creative genius of George R. R. Martin.

This colunm was originally published at Values & Capitalism.

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