There is a book by religious naturalist Chet Raymo titled When God is Gone, Everything is Holy. The main argument of this book is that religion has a tendency to get in the way of our appreciation of the awesomeness of the natural world. That theology, in an attempt to explain life’s mysteries through strict cosmologies and dogma, impede our willingness to seek out, explore, understand, and be amazed by the true fabric of the physical and perceivable universe.
Regardless of what our personal religious beliefs may be, I’m getting a sense that the creators of Game of Thrones may be approaching the concept of magic in the World of Ice and Fire from a similar perspective. We have seen since the beginning that multiple religions, theologies, and gods are at constant odds with one another through their advocates in Westeros and beyond. Some of the many beliefs we most frequently encounter are The Old Gods through the Northerners, The Seven at King’s Landing, The Lord of Light via Melisandre, The Many-Faced God of Braavos, and the Drowned God of the Ironborn.
From time to time we encounter our protagonists struggling with their faith, attempting to understand that which they do not comprehend, and trying to make sense of the cryptic messages they receive from beyond. This has been most prominently displayed through The Red Priestess Melisandre, who had for several seasons been driven by visions from the Lord of Light of Stannis Baratheon conquering the Seven Kingdoms. These visions and Melisandre’s faith were put into question with Stannis’ defeat and the “death” of Jon Snow.
Melisandre, overwhelmed by her failures and going through a major crisis of faith, admits to Ser Davos that he was right all along, that there are no gods and that the visions she saw were mere fantasy. To this, Davos responds by stating that he doesn’t care about what the gods can or cannot do, but that he knows that she, Melisandre, can do magic.
I think this is where the crux of my argument lies. I believe that magic in the World of Ice and Fire is a natural occurrence, a part of the natural world that can be accessed by those who are willing and able to do so. Some of our protagonists may associate the presence of magic as being something divine, something that must come from deities or beings outside of the world. I think that Davos’ realization however is a very profound one: there are no gods in Westeros, but there are people who can access and manipulate this magical force which permeates the World of Ice and Fire in much the same way the Laws of Physics dictate the behavior of our own universe.
Ironically, Melisandre doesn’t make this realization upon Jon’s resurrection. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that the Lord of Light has spared Jon and allowed him to return to life. Just moments before though, Jon had stated that there was nothing after death; no heaven, no “beyond.” Just nothingness and darkness, echoing the words of Ser Berric Dondarion. Though magic in the World of Ice and Fire has nothing to do with gods or religion, believers attempt to attribute explanations to such supernatural acts to help make sense of the world around them, explanations that attribute the existence of magic to superstition, gods, religion, moral codes, and theologies. Yet in doing so they blind themselves to the simple reality that magic just exists as a part of everything, and if they just dedicated themselves to understanding it they could fully unlock its awesome power.
The White Walkers appear to be the one group in the World of Ice and Fire that seems to have the clearest understanding of magic and who don’t appear to attribute its existence to the supernatural. Recall how confident the Night’s King seemed when he resurrected the masses of Wildlings in the Battle of Hardhome. I don’t sense that the White Walkers have any type of theology or religion. They seem to understand that true magical power comes from within nature. They embody the magic of this world and they use it in awesome and powerful ways. The Night’s King use of magic was effortless. Paired with the White Walker’s relentless drive towards ultimate conquest and domination, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
What are the people of the many faiths to do? Just like they should stop focusing on their petty political battles and instead pay attention to the threat coming from the North, should they set aside the old superstitions, religions, and myths and accept magic as a reality of their world? A magic that exists within and around them, but not beyond them? A magic that they can use with its awesome power to defeat their greatest enemy? A magic that exists in a world without gods?
I believe that only by coming to such a realization will the people have a chance of surviving the White Walker threat. In the world of Ice and Fire, when the gods are gone, everything is magical.
What do you think? Share any comments below!
Very nice piece. I think in it’s pure form it’s an eloquent statement in the show and your piece of the many sides to Agnosticism and magic. You cannot either prove or disprove there is a God, supernatural or magic. To me, that means there is no right or wrong way to worship god or tap into the magic within you; all ways or anyway that allows you to tap into the divine or power that is within you is your way. If decide you don’t believe in God or magic then there is nothing.
My take on Ser Davos:
He has never been a believer in the Lord of Light. I think since he is a moral compass in the show that dealing with Mel over the past 6 seasons has made him see that god functions through different mechanisms and I think he feels god is talking to him now through Mel (for the fate of the realm.) Therefore, I am convinced that he believes Mel’s vision of a King conquering over the Boltons at Winterfall lies in Jon Snow and that’s why he’s hanging around Jon.
I think religion in Mel’s case also functions in giving her the confidence to perform the magic that is within her. So maybe that is also a function of religion in this world? Is it also a catalyst (or a courage pill) for some for tapping into the magic within themselves?
When Mel lost faith in her visions she also seems to lose faith in connecting with the Lord of Light.
At the end of Oath breaker she’s still in shock that she possesses the power of resurrection. When she normally used her power in the past either interacted with other characters or performing religious ceremonies she appeared very confident and exuded an air of power.
Is she slowly coming to realization that she doesn’t need the Lord of Light to use her powers? That she just have to have faith in herself? If so, that points right to what you are saying so eloquently in your piece.
I have been writing for a while about Religion in Game of Thrones at Robin Pierson’s TV Critic website: http://www.thetvcritic.org/forums/other-tv-shows/show/192
Your piece has just inspired me to write a piece called ‘Do the rituals of religion help generate the Magic in Game of Thrones? ‘ You can find that here:
Not to digress from the conversation:
The White Walkers may appear not to have a religion, however I think they do and it is hard to see because they are living deities in that world at the center of their religion. I think they themselves report to a higher authority not of that world. Those that worship them (like Craster) sacrifice their male babies up to them (so the White Walkers won’t kill them) and the king of the white walkers performs a ceremony at their alter to convert the baby into a white walker (S4E4):
I personally think their goal is to be worshipped in this world besides their conquering goals. They need humans to survive as a race as much as they need them for their undead army.
I think ultimately if the goal of the show is to have the people of this world believe in themselves (without the need or a belief in a religion) in order to use magic unto itself then there would need to be characters in the show developing that could do any or all of the magic we have seen, however there isn’t yet. (Mel like I mentioned earlier might be getting there.)
Rather, what it appears to me is that each belief system has its own magic and the rituals associated with each of those beliefs can allow you to conjure that magic.
When the conquistadors arrived in the New World they were perceived as deities because of the way they looked and the technology they had. Though that didn’t make them gods, it definitely gave them an advantage over those willing to believe they were.
I see the White Walkers in a similar vein. They are creatures of this world, who are vulnerable and can be defeated. Yet they also have an advanced knowledge of magic beyond what the humans of the Seven Kingdoms know. That doesn’t make them gods, it just makes them formidable opponents.
I believe the highest manifestations of magic in the world of Game of Thrones are the White Walkers (Ice) and the Dragons (Fire). Their deep connection to the magical laws of this world give them an advantage over all other creatures and may prompt beliefs among those who don’t understand how they are able to use and manifest their powers. Yet they are still of the world, and are not ruled by invisible gods from beyond.
When it comes down to it, for all creatures of this world, what lies beyond death is nothing.
I think I see where you going with this. So are you saying the outcome of nothing beyond death for these characters is possibly a message of Atheism by the writers? And the magic of this world is just a physical manifestation or part of the land and that the magic can be tapped into if you learn to know how to do it right? Gradually various types of creatures or followers of faiths have learned ways to do it?
Yes, I think so. Notice that Kyburn, a man of science, has also figured out how to bring people back from death. His process may not be as polished as Melissandre’s or as swift as the White Walkers. But from his perspective you can learn from the world, tap into its magic, and bend it to your will. Gods and religion don’t have anything to do with it.
Either that, or the gods that do exist in the World of Ice and Fire are some cruel SOBs!
LOL! You are reminding me of Syrio Forel’s words to Arya ‘There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.’’
I agree completely.
I suspect that the planet that is the work of ice and fire is in a system with two suns (one larger & warmer and one cooler & red). The planet’s orbit varies between a long figure 8 orbit around both suns, a shorter summer orbit around the warmer one and a rare continuous winter orbit around the cooler one. The cooler sun has a different composition to the warmer sun, and its solar radiation interacts differently with the planet. The dragons and the White Walkers etc thrive in that different radiation.
That science fiction explanation works fine for me but to shortlived medieval humans it would make no sense. They need control and nice, easy to understand gods provide control of thought – everything’s gone mad, its not an orbit realignment its a fickle god being mean.
In many ways handing everything to ‘the gods’ is avoiding taking responsibility for how one interacts with the universe
P.S. putting on my mischevious hat..,.
Is the religion of the seven perhaps a remnant of a more advanced magical era of human understanding? Perhaps related to knowledge that was in Valeria and was lost with the fall of that city it what appear to have been a gigantic magical backfire?
So that the religion’s main priests are missing the point that they’re preaching an instruction manual for aligning 7 combat mages
I’d love to see an illustration of this!
I have people constantly writing me with science fiction theories about the seasons – “It’s a double star system with a black dwarf and that would explain–” It’s fantasy, man, it’s magic. – George R. R. Martin