Game of Thrones season 8: The Night King and Lord of Light could both end life on Westeros in finale
In episode 3 of season 2 of Game of Thrones ('What Is Dead May Never Die') — this is immediately after Jon Snow finds out that the wildling Craster has been giving his sons to the Others, and that Commander Jeor Mormont knew about the practice all along — Jeor tells Jon, “The Wildlings serve crueler gods than us”.
It's a figure of speech: the Wildlings don't serve the White Walkers of course, only Craster does. And no doubt, the Others/White Walkers are cruel, but are they any more or less so than the gods those on the other side of the Wall worship?
Game of Thrones has thrown a multitude of gods at us.
The Northerners — among the oldest inhabitants of the land — pray to the Old Gods or nature, through the weirwoods, which were also sacred to the Children of the Forest. In the South, the Faith of the Seven holds sway. In the West, on the Iron Islands, the Drowned God. Beyond the Narrow Sea, the Lord of Light — R'hollor — has red priests and priestesses doing his bidding. The Dothraki worship the Great Stallion. In Braavos, there are nearly as many gods as people, and Arya serves the Many-Faced God at the House of Black and White.
Apart from the Old Gods of the North, can any of these gods’ followers claim not to have spilled blood or perpetrated injustice in a bid to spread their faith?
The Seven are mostly harmless but they rarely, actively do good. In the High Sparrow's version of the religion, his Faith Militant unleashes a reign of terror on King's Landing — harassing wine merchants, castrating homosexuals, beating prostitutes — all in the name of their gods. Their excesses could be rationalised as a reaction to the deep-set corruption and rot in King's Landing, but it is a violent regime nonetheless.
The Drowned God is a harsh deity who perfectly matches the brutal ways of the Ironborn. The Dothraki do not proselytise or carry out their killings in the name of their god, but as a warrior race, they're fairly insular: caring little about other peoples or territories beyond what can be extracted from them and carried back to Vaes Dothrak.
At the House of Black and White, what is venerated, is death. The Many-Faced God is Death himself. Arya learns this when, frustrated at being asked to perform only menial tasks during her days at the temple, she asks Jaqen H'ghar which of the idols inside the House of Black and White is the Many-Faced God.
"...which one is it? I see the Stranger, the Drowned God, the Weirwood..." she asks.
"There is only one God," Jaqen replies. "The girl knows his name. And all men know his gift."
Death as a god is a motif that plays early on in Arya Stark's life; and she learns her first lesson about it from her former 'dancing master' Syrio Forel, who reminds her that there is only one thing to say to the God of Death: Not today.
Who else do we know as a harbinger of Death in Game of Thrones? The Night King.
In direct opposition to the Lord of Death/Darkness, is presented the Lord of Light or R'hollor. But is R'hollor any better a god than the Night King? He routinely demands sacrifices (or at least his followers perform these sacrifices in his name, burning all those who refuse to follow him at the stake). Would a “good” god require a small girl (Shireen Baratheon) to be killed in exchange for his favour? Would a “good” god appear as a shadow wraith to kill a man (Renly Baratheon)?
Of course, if god — or religion — is cruel in Game of Thrones, it is no more so than in the real world.
GODS AND KINGS (OR QUEENS)
The gods (or their followers) work closely with the other centre of power: rulers.
When Aegon the Conqueror annexed the Seven Kingdoms, he allowed a religion that is not his — the Faith of the Seven, with its 'stronghold’ in the Citadel at Oldtown — to be spread throughout the land, as a way of further entrenching his power. (However, while the Faith proliferates in the South, it never takes root on the Iron Islands or in the North.)
Not keeping the gods (or their custodians on earth) happy can have serious consequences even for kings. When Aegon's son Aenys I — king after him — marries his two oldest children, Rhaena to Aegon, to each other, the Faith condemns it as an abomination and rises up against him. (Aegon the Conqueror's marriage to his sisters Visenya and Rhaenys taks place long before the conquest of Westeros.) When Jaehaerys (Aenys’ youngest son, who finally becomes king) marries his sister Alyssane, he announces it only after a well-thought out plan in which chosen priests and septas preach about the sacredness of the union throughout the land. Jaehaerys also ensures the Targaryen practice of incest can continue by introducing the 'Doctrine of Exceptionalism’ into the Faith's moral codes.
The religious order becomes somewhat ineffective in later years, and Cersei Lannister makes a very bad decision in attempting to revive it. She recognises in the High Sparrow, a man of singular purpose. Cersei believes she can use him to further her own agenda against the Tyrells — such as getting Loras imprisoned for being homosexual, and Margaery for being unchaste. She arms the High Sparrow's men, but fails to recognise that fanatics cannot be controlled: the Faith Militant turns against her, charging her with adultery. She is stripped of her pride and her status, forced to perform the walk of shame through the streets of King's Landing as an act of contrition.
While Cersei liaises with the High Sparrow for her own ends, the red priests and priestesses are attempting to exert their influence over kings and queens as well. Thoros of Myr is sent to Robert Baratheon's court to spread the word of the Lord of Light; however, Thoros’ own faith is not strong and he spends his time drinking and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. It is only when he unintentionally resurrects Ser Beric Dondarrion from death for the first time that he begins to believe again. Melisandre has a firm hold on Stannis and abandons him for Jon, then Daenerys. Daenerys herself is sought out by the followers of R'hollor; a red priestess comes to Tyrion and Varys in Meereen and offers to spread the word about the Dragon Queen as saviour. (Previously, in Volantis, the duo has already heard a priestess preach to her flock about a saviour who will protect them from darkness.)
In Westeros or Essos, the gods are never far from the power centres.
THE OLD GODS, THE STARKS AT WINTERFELL... AND THE TARGARYENS?
What of the North? The Children of the Forest and the Giants were the original inhabitants of Westeros: Which is a very, very small piece of land when compared to Essos.
It must be remembered that all of the races of men who came to populate Westeros, came from Essos: the First Men, who fought the Children of the Forest to establish their settlements; then the Andals, with their Faith of the Seven, who crossed the Narrow Sea in the hopes of avoiding being enslaved by the Valyrians. They fought the First Men, slaughtered the Children of the Forest and destroyed the weirwoods to set up their own civilisation. The Rhoynar too came to Dorne, fleeing Valyrian persecution. On Essos, the Ghiscari race, which had once reigned supreme, had been subjugated by Valyria. Free cities like Braavos sprung up, made up of slaves who escaped the Valyrian dragonlords in one way or another. Finally, the Valyrian family known as the Targaryens conquered Westeros and made it their home.
The Starks — with the blood of the First Men in their veins — are the true inhabitants of Westeros in a way the other noble families like the Lannisters can never be. Brandon the Builder — he who raised the Wall and was known to speak the language of the Children of the Forest — was the first Stark at Winterfell. As we know, the Children of the Forest also unwittingly created a demon/god in the Night King, when they 'weaponised’ him to fight against the First Men. Unfortunately, the Night King turned on the Children themselves (an ancient instance of what Cersei tried to do with the High Sparrow?).
Tracing the connection between the Starks and the Children of the Forest, it seems unsurprising that Bran becomes the Three-Eyed Raven. There are lines of inquiry to pursue here, about the Starks’ connections to the Targaryens as well — the previous Three-Eyed Raven may have very well been the bastard son of Aegon IV, Lord Brynden Rivers aka Bloodraven (who, according to the smallfolk, has a thousand eyes, and one). Just as Daenerys is receiving her dragon eggs over in Pentos, near Winterfell, each of the Starks gets a direwolf pup. Looking on how the fates of the individual Starks matches those of their direwolves serves as a microcosm of sorts for reflecting on how the Targaryen fortunes rose and fell with those of their dragons. The Targaryens have visited Winterfell at various times: one of their dragons may have even laid a clutch of eggs in the crypts there.
One of the pressing mysteries of Game of Thrones seems to be what lies in the crypts of Winterfell. The three-eyed raven that comes to Bran in his dreams always flies into the crypts. Jon dreams of the Winterfell crypts too, but that may be more a nod to his mother Lyanna than a literal clue. In the Game of Thrones season 8 trailer, we see Varys and the others taking refuge in the Winterfell crypts while Arya — usually so cool and unflappable — runs through the halls in abject terror. Opinions seem divided on what lies in the crypts: the dead Starks, reanimated by the Night King? Aegon and Lyanna's possessions? A secret portal to another dimension — a la Hot Pie's references to “Winterhell”? Whatever it may be, it is closely tied in with the requirement that “there must always be a Stark at Winterfell”.
In Jon, the Targaryen and Stark bloodlines have come together. Melisandre once tells him:
"There’s power in you. You resist it and that’s a mistake. Embrace it."
What is this power? Is it a supernatural power? Where most of the major players in Westeros attempt to grab power via a symbol — the Iron Throne — what if real power (whatever that may mean or imply) has always resided within Jon (or somewhere in the Winterfell crypts)?
This last would also fit in with the notion that the endgame in this saga will have nothing to do with who sits on the Iron Throne. (If Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying and of Bran's beyond the Wall were to come true, King's Landing, the Red Keep, the Iron Throne: all of it will be destroyed.) George RR Martin named his books collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire while HBO's fantasy epic goes by the title Game of Thrones, and perhaps that explains why we've been content to look at “who will sit on the Iron Throne” as some sort of conclusion for the story.
But the struggles for the Iron Throne will indeed be only a game when compared to the actual power players.
ARE R'HOLLOR AND THE NIGHT KING REALLY ANTAGONISTS?
...AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE ENDGAME?
It is tempting to think of the power players as the Lord of Light (R'hollor) and the Night King, being each other's antagonists. But are they really? What if both are only manifestations of Death?
R'hollor is a god about whom little is known, besides smoke and fire. As Melisandre once tells Selyse Baratheon, indicating all the implements of sorcery in her room:
Most of these powders and potions are lies, deceptions to make men think they witnessed our Lord's power.
R'hollor, as we discussed earlier, is no less crueler than the Night King or any other god. There are no idols of R'hollor, no iconography that depicts him, apart from the symbol of a burning heart. The Night King too was created by “frozen fire” (for that is what dragonglass/obsidian is known as in the Valyrian language) being pressed into his heart. Shadow — darkness — is a part of R'hollor too. They both “reanimate” the dead: although the quality of the “life” offered to those brought back in their name differs. (Aside: The gods of the Lhazareen aka the “lamb people” too offer a version of life to those on the brink of death — as with Khal Drogo.)
We might also make note of the fact that even lands that do not have a winter, have the “Long Night” as a concept — the Dothraki, for instance, believe that the world will end when a “ghost grass”, with milky white stalks, will kill all the other grass. Similarly, other cultures have champions who they believed would help stave off the Long Night: in Yi Ti, they speak of a woman with a monkey's tail who fought the darkness; in Asshai, they have tales of a hero called Azor Ahai, with a red sword. (Fans theorise this hero in Westeros could be Jon, or Daenerys.) So the Long Night needn't be a function of “winter” alone.
If Jon, Daenerys and the others are expecting help from R'hollor, there's reason to believe it will not come. R'hollor may be antagonist to the Night King, with the duo locked in a power struggle to control earth herself (just like the king's and queens scrap over who rules Westeros). Or they might, as we theorised earlier, be the same.
Here's a twist: the Night King may even want to “save” humanity from R'hollor — where there is no life, there can be nothing to control, only an army of the dead. As Tyrion once says, “Death is so final, while life is full of possibility”, or in the words of the Ironborn: "What is dead may never die".
Whether R'hollor and the Night King will fight against each other, or turn out to be the same (Death, the Many-Faced God), or attack the living jointly/separately — Westerosi civilisation will never be the same. Perhaps, just as the First Men, Andals, Rhoynar and Valyrians came to Westeros, they will return to Essos, leaving a devastated land behind, in a bid to start afresh.
Or, it might be that this battle between the living and the dead too is merely a game, and all of the characters of the Game of Thrones universe are living inside the eye of a blue-eyed giant named Macumber.
Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 13:47:40 IST
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