WARNING: This contains spoilers for a two-week-old episode of Game of Thrones. But let’s be honest here, either you’ve already seen it, or you’ve already tweeted about how you must be the only person who’s never seen an episode of Game of Thrones.
There is a moment in “Winterfell,” the season premiere of the current and final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, that has remained in my mind since I first saw it two weeks ago. It was not one of the many encounters between long-separated characters gathering at the eponymous Castle Winterfell to await the final battle with the forces of death that caught my attention (though as a fan of the series, I did find many of those long-expected meetings delightful.) Instead, I have found myself thinking of a much quieter moment, a pause in which the show invited the audience to consider the nature of divinity.
Jon Snow, the bastard orphan of the Stark family, has just arrived at Winterfell again, and has made his way to the grove at the heart of the castle, the Godswood. At the center of the Godswood is a weirwood tree, a sacred tree with milk-white bark and blood-red leaves and a carving of a face in its trunk. These trees are the central points of devotion for those like the Starks who kept to the faith of the old gods, animistic deities whose religion has largely died out in the rest of the setting. One of the first times in the series the audience sees a weirwood tree is when Jon swears an oath before one, pledging his faith before the old gods. Now, all these years later, Jon does not say anything before the weirwood tree; he stands silent before it, wearing the face of ambiguous contemplation that Kit Harrington has perfected over the past decade.
The scene’s silence invites us to consider Jon’s relationship with his gods in a way that, frankly, I had not expected Games of Thrones to touch upon again. A few seasons ago, Jon Snow’s story seemed to be one of learning that faith in gods was ultimately hollow. His experiences indicated that there was nothing awaiting anybody after death, and discussions with other religious characters indicated that he now found deities, if they truly existed at all, untrustworthy at best and outright malevolent at worst.
I have written about similar patterns before in pop culture depictions of polytheistic religion, such as the way Pagan gods often appear in media as simply the biggest, nastiest things around to kill. There is a similar tendency for these religions to show up as objects of scorn and skepticism, even if that skepticism would be misplaced within the setting; in the recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, set in ancient Greece, while the player character is constantly interacting with the Hellenic religion of the day, at every opportunity the player has the option to disavow any connection to that religion. Such a pattern of play allows for a Christian player to interpret the game as reinforcing a Christian theology in a setting that is centuries before that religion’s creation – the player is defying the idolatrous commands of pagan religion, thus enacting a free choice of Abrahamic justice.
Myself, I find these patterns of pagan skepticism are little more than a coward’s way of criticizing modern religions. The twin poles of Western society’s worldview are an increasingly evangelical monotheism on one end and a nearly puritanical atheism on the other; polytheistic religions like Paganism, both in ancient and modern forms, occupy an uneasy place in that schema. Media producers often want the ability to critique Christianity from a place of skepticism. To do so out loud, though, would invite protests and boycotts, and so polytheistic religion is made to slip into Christianity’s place. In the process, polytheism loses much of what makes it worthwhile and different from monotheist religions, pressed as it is into the mold of something it is not. One can criticize the Christian god by criticizing Zeus, but only if one first turns Zeus into the Christian god.
Games of Thrones certainly plays in this territory; the dominant religion in most of the setting is the Faith of the Seven, a closer pastiche of medieval Catholicism than most fantasy ever dares to attempt. Right down to the theology, in which there are seven deities who are all but aspects of one great deity – just like the concept of the trinity in Catholicism – the Faith of the Seven is unmistakably a comment on Christian ideas within a fantastic setting. But Game of Thrones also allows its characters to explore religion in ways that go beyond the simple substitution of an invented faith for a real one, and that is one of the reasons the series’s depiction of faith is far more intriguing than average.
Throughout the series, viewers have encountered many cults of gods which might be described as henotheistic – the Drowned God, the Many-faced God of Death, and the Lord of Light all exist alongside the more dominant faiths. Unlike many other attempts at fantastic polytheism, which often seem to simply divide up job responsibilities for each of the deities as though they were slots on an HR organizational chart, Games of Thrones has created distinctive cult practices for each of these religions, and given them their own theologies and morals as well.
In the way that good science fiction acts as a thought experiment for what future societies might look like, good fantasy can act as a simulator for belief: what might a world with a different set of religions look like? How might a religion arise that deals with concepts like death, memory, or wilderness differently than the religions in our own world? And how then might those religions interact with each other?
All of which brings me back to Jon Snow, standing in the Godswood under the red leaves of the weirwood tree. It would have been easy – and to be honest, it would have been expected – that after all he’s been through, including his vision of the nothing after death, that Jon would see the sacred grove of his peoples’ religion and dismiss it as meaningless, a sham for those who have not seen the things he has seen. The creators of Game of Thrones chose not to do that, however – instead they gave us, the audience, room to consider the question ourselves. By virtue of visiting the Godswood at all, Jon indicates that the gods to whom he once swore oaths still have meaning to him, even after all his hardship. What that meaning is, though, is left for the viewer to ponder.
While Game of Thrones has hardly been a perfect show over its eight seasons, for me, I know that I will miss the depth and the splendid varieties of polytheism it provided has provided – and I know that I am glad that even in these final episodes, the show is willing to pause and reflect on the holiness of trees.