"You Win, or You Die"
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
With the return of Game of Thrones to its seventh and final season, I’d like to reflect on an aspect of the series that has captivated my imagination and my theological reflection. I will say that I have come late to the phenomenon and I ended up binge watching the first six seasons last year over a couple months in the summer. However, there are elements of the story that intrigue me from a theological and faith perspective.
First, I want to say that this show deserves the criticism that it might get for the gratuitous violence and sex with which it is laced. This story would be just as powerful without the parade of naked people that has been its wont. For that reason, I believe that its ability to endure like, say, The Lord of the Rings films (I cannot speak to George Martin’s books). I truly wish this story could have been told without the salacious elements - and it would lose none of its power in doing so. That being said, my point here has nothing to do with this sleazy aspect.
The story tells the tale of the struggle for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros - centered in possession of the “Iron Throne.” From the first episodes, the tensions between rival houses is clear, and these tensions rise to the point of open warfare. In the midst of a struggle between claimants to the throne, several would-be kings and queens emerge. Their plots and intrigues make up the drama of the show; and there are several deliciously clever characters who color this intrigue. Some characters have the highest of aspirations; others simply want to go home in peace. However, the war for the throne soon consumes everyone, whether they like it or not.
In the meantime, we are also introduced to the Night’s Watch - an order of soldiers whose job it is to man “The Wall” - a 700-foot high barrier on the northern edge of Westeros that separates the “civilized” south from the wild, chaotic north. The north is populated by “wildlings” (who call themselves the “free folk”), as well as giants and other legendary creatures. In addition to these, we quickly learn that there is a reason for the Wall and for the Night’s Watch: an army of “White Walkers” - undead people who wish to war on the living. Their strength is in the fact that they continue to grow from the endless supply of dying people. This seventh season has set up an eventual final confrontation between the Army of the Dead and “those who fight for the living.”
Here is the fascination for me. What is the ultimate struggle that Game of Thrones is presenting? While the Night’s Watch has been focused on watching the Wall and those terrible forces beyond, the rest of the world immersed itself in the petty struggle for power. Those who would vie for the Iron Throne are so consumed by the worldliness of their pursuits that they are blind to the much bigger existential threat that awaits them. Only when things fall into total chaos - who’s the king of this place or that? - does the world seem ready to look to the tide of death that is sweeping in from the North.
This struggle between life and death, darkness and light, good and evil, is what our lives are all about. We are made for so much more than the silly disputes that so often define us. We need people who can remind us of this. The Night’s Watch, interestingly, take a vow of celibacy in order to carry out their single-hearted task of defending the Wall against the forces of darkness, evil, and death. They are the ones who are calling the rest of the realm to recognize the real threat we all face. There is more to life than thrones, and blood, and sex, and violence. There is life itself.
For the Christian, this is our task as well. Life is note than just the breathe-in-breathe-out drudgery that we are always so obsessed with. Because of , there is an eternal destiny that we all have - a victory over death that gives new significance to our life. We can get tied up in the petty struggles of the world around us - and to be fair, these things need to be dealt with prudently. However, “what does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?”
The struggle between life and death is a real one and we are involved in it whether we like it or not. Recognizing this is the key to opening ourselves up to the faith that gives meaning to broth life and death. Jesus has done just that for us. He has won the victory over the ancient foe that has sought to annihilate is from the beginning. Now, Jesus sits on the throne. And when we recognize that we learn the meaning of the Game.