When people ask why I read George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I first mention the complexity and subtlety of both his imagined world and his ever growing cast of characters. The history of Westeros stretches back thousands of years and involves the clash and mingling of multiple cultures, complicated political machinations, and a dizzying number of multifaceted conflicts. Additionally, the characters sprung from these cultures and conflicts are often nuanced and driven by complex motives and desires. Unfortunately, all of this nuance and complexity falls to nothing when Martin describes religion.
The problem for Martin is not the number of religions. He gives us the Old Gods of the North, the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, the Faith of the Seven, the Red God from the East, Countless others from Essos, and the Faceless God who claims them all. So the problem certainly isn’t the religion count. Rather, the problem is the way religion is portrayed.
For Martin, religion, like everything else, is about power. Religion is either another political power, bludgeoning its enemies or religion is the bludgeon being used by those in power. Practitioners of religion, according to Martin, are either violent fundamentalists or disgusting hypocrites. This is true for R’hllor, the Red God, whose priestess Melisandre burns countless opponents as she works to spread her religion across Westeros. This is true for the Drowned God whose priest, Aeron Greyjoy, trades his wild lifestyle for fundamental devotion that happens to include political maneuvering as well as rampant pillaging. But this hypocrisy/zealot dichotomy is especially true for the Faith of the Seven.
This “Faith” is clearly meant to mirror the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. Martin gives us a thinly veiled Trinity, priests called septons, nun-like septas, monks, and an ecclesial hierarchy. This faith, like Christianity, conquered and replaced a once dominant paganism. However, Martin has such a low view of medieval Catholicism that his parody removes the one positive trait that he apparently thought it held: scholarship. In the Middle Ages, scholarship was synonymous with religious life. Monks recorded and preserved libraries of ancient books. Priests made advances in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and other sciences. The university system was Catholic – not just run by the Church but literally filled with priests and religious who served as doctors, teachers, philosophers, and advisors to Lords. None of this is exactly a secret and anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Middle Ages ought to know that the Church was a pillar of all learning in Europe. But Martin takes all of this away from his medieval “Faith” and hands the duties off the the Maesters, a secular order of celibate men, in order to ensure that faith can never be construed as anything but a tool for the power-hungry.
But it isn’t just scholarship Martin strips from his church but any sort of positive figure whatsoever. All of his ecclesial authorities are depraved hypocrites or drunk fools, except for one who genuinely believes in his faith but practices torture as fervently as his prayers. And no secular ruler seems to have possessed any genuine faith except for Baelor the Blessed who refused to consummate his marriage and starved himself to death in an act of religious devotion.
As a novel, the problem with Martin’s reductionist criticism of religion is not that it’s silly (although it certainly is). The problem is that his characters, taken as a whole, become a bit unrealistic, lacking a facet that was pretty common for many people in the Middle Ages, namely: religious beliefs that were both genuine and not reducible to violent fundamentalism.
Certainly even those with no religious beliefs whatsoever can imagine that there are those who do hold religious beliefs, let those beliefs inform their consciences and choices, and occasionally (or frequently) struggle with doubt and the inability to live up to the ideals demanded by their beliefs. Without guessing at statistics here, we can say this has been incredibly common for much of human history and continues to be common today. Yet, in Martin’s world, incest is much more common than an authentic, peaceful faith.
Of course, it’s his imagined world so he can do what he wants. But Martin has often argued in favor of the disturbing elements in his books by appealing to “realism.” So it’s certainly strange to abandon “realism” by misrepresenting a pretty major element of medieval life and reducing it to a parody.
I imagine Martin might argue here that he’s dealing mostly with people in positions of power who have often used religion for their own purposes, behaved hypocritically, or been outright hostile to religious authorities. And this assessment is certainly true of many rulers in the real world – Henry VIII was all three! Yet, to deny that there have been exceptions or even to suggest that this attitude was the norm seems pessimistic to the point of irrationality.