Game of Faiths

The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is  based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled,  A Song of Ice and Fire.

With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.

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Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.

‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!

To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.

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While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.

One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.

Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.

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History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.

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And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?

Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.

We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.

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It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.

In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of  The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki,  and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.

These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example,  Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.

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Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of  evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.

Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.

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This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate-  to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.

 

Others

 

George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.

Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.

How Fiction Can Change Reality

In another great short clip, TED-Ed provides a summary of how fiction, shapes perception.

The video explores how fiction can spark debate, challenge norms and shape cultural evolution.

 

At Bear Skin, we concur !

For more videos such as these, you can go to www.ed.ted.com

The Ring of Gyges

Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.

Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.

In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.

Gyges protested but the king insisted.

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The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.

Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.

By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.

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Plato, writing in the 5th century,  recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.

Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.

Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.

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In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.

Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.

Glaucon posits:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
— Plato’s Republic, 360b–d. 

Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)

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Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.

Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.

 

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In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.

Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.

What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?

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Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.

It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.

And allow peace and reason to reign again.

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There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.

Recapitulation, narrative and memory

April 25th for us antipodeans is a sacred day.

This year marks the 100th year memorial of the doomed,  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) storming of the Gallipoli peninsula, a rocky stretch of Turkish beach and cliffs during World War I.

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The bloodshed on those battlefields, was greatly increased by mistakes and ineptitude a by British commanders far away. Young Australians served for freedom of King and country however the war forever changed the national identity. It’s the time when the British colonial outpost of Australia, grew up and became a nation in its own right, despite Federation 14 years earlier.

Every year on April 25th, at memorials around the country and at parades through city streets, the battles are remembered. Diggers, or more accurately, their descendants honour the fallen; servicemen and women pay their respects to those who sacrificed their lives in the war.

These small ceremonies are repeated year after year with the same catch-cry,

“Lest we forget.”

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This is what memorials are, the enactment of a story, the recapitulation of a narrative reminder of what was and what should never be again. War memorials are not enough to stop us ever going to war again, but they serve as a solemn reminder of the truth,

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana [1905].

Ceremonies are a kind of sacrament, an embodiment of a kernel of truth. They point the participant back to a truth while pointing them forward to live life with the knowledge of this truth.

Sacred stories have always been important to communities; they shape a people conscious of the past and capable of facing the future.

Sophie’s World and the power of Questions

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

The novel “Sophie’s World” follows the events around Norwegian school girl,  Sophie Amundsen’s 15th birthday. She mysteriously receives letters addressed to a girl called Hilde Moller Knag and typed pages containing a short course in western philosophy.  When Sophie befriends an elderly professor Alberto Knox she learns that it is he who is instructing her in the course on philsophy. Their journey takes stranger turns however, as they both seek to identify the elusive Hilde Moller Knag and the author of the post cards, Albert Knag.

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Alberto delivers to Sophie, a course in  western philosophy spanning from pre-socratic philosophy, to modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. She journeys with Alberto through Hellenistic philsophy, Christian thought, the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, enlightenment and romantic periods of western thinking. The Norwegian author Gaarder, addresses an important lack in modern western education- instruction on thought. Sophie’s journey to learn “wisdom” [sophism] becomes our journey.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

When Sophie has dreams which are fulfilled, she and Alberto begin to suspect some greater mischief is afoot. Gradually they begin to learn that they are part of a story themselves, written by Albert Knag to his daugher Hilde for her 15th birthday. Confused and perplexed at this thought, that the world they inhabit is but the imagining of a superior author, they seek to rebel and run away from he story itself.  Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being and even then, despite the knowledge that they she is imaginary, Sophie and Alberto deterime to find a way to escape.

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“A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.…We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a book within a book. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder’s imaginary characters but for US. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points.  Gaarder presents Philosophy as an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers …………………………

“… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

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Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

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C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

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JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.