[X-posted at Newapps] As the third season of Game of Thrones has ended, this interesting reflection, written by Adam Brereton, contends that A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R. Martin and the TV series based on it simply don’t work, because they do not obey what Chesterton has termed “elfin ethics”:
according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”‘; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
In GOT, however, this rule doesn’t apply: people who do break oaths (like Robb Stark) get killed in a horrible way, but people who are honorable, try to do the right thing and don’t break oaths (like Eddard Stark) also get killed in a horrible way. In this, Martin differs from other fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien. We can expect something like the massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding to occur on a biweekly basis. So, Brereton concludes
Westeros just doesn’t work. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft and Peake, it is not a consistent creation. Where does the good exist?…In Martin’s broken world, good only resides in individual acts, only as long they don’t get you killed, which more often than not they do.
The intuition that fantasy works should have some moral compass, or indeed, that fantasy universes should ultimately be just worlds, is compelling. Indeed, as Mitch Hodge argues in this draft paper, we even have a strong intuition that the world, au fond, is a morally just place. People intuitively regard the world as a just place: the good prosper, the wicked suffer.
Sometimes this intuitive belief is threatened, for instance, when an apparently good person suffers misfortune. Several cultural solutions cope with these anomalies, for example, there is a cross-culturally attested tendency to blame the victim, who allegedly did something wrong earlier in life, or in a previous life (the concept of karma). Hodge argues that this intuition may be one of the driving forces to explain why cross-culturally, we believe that the afterlife is a place where “you get what’s coming to you”. Those who behave morally right get rewarded, those who do not get punished.
In A Song of Fire and Ice/GOT, this intuition is violated time and again: we have no reason at all to suppose the GOT universe is a just world. Suppose you are a character in the book series or TV series, would you be reasonable in assuming that the creator of that world is omnipotent and all-good? My intuition is that it would be reasonable to assume your universe is created by someone who is omnipotent, or at least so powerful it would be beyond your comprehension. You could apply the usual cosmological, ontological and other arguments for the existence of God. But it seems also to me that you would be unreasonable in assuming that the creator is omnibenevolent. Indeed (I’m not making any claims here about Martin’s character), it would seem more rational to assume that the creator is cruel and bent on seeing his creatures suffer. You could then, Stephen Law wise, make the reasonable assumption that God’s ultimate purpose is to create suffering and evil, and that all good things are merely there to make the suffering more acute and smartly felt. The joyous anticipation that Robb Stark and Talisa felt about their unborn baby was just there so that Robb could watch in horror as his wife was stabbed fatally in the womb on that fatal day, before being killed himself.
The question now is: if GOT characters are unjustified in assuming their creator is all-good, are we not similarly unjustified in assuming our creator is all-good, as our world is arguably more like Westeros than like Middle Earth? There are, of course, classical theodicies that Westeros inhabitants could resort to, such as the free will defense, the argument that original sin is responsible, various forms of soul building, etc. But my intuition is that these responses ultimately fail in Westeros because they cannot adequately salvage our belief that the world is a just place, and without this belief, we have little reason to think there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.
If they fail in Westeros, what makes our world different from Westeros? As Hodge points out, perhaps the reasonable belief in some form of afterlife may salvage our belief that the world is ultimately a just place. But ultimately, we also require the reasonable belief that this world would be ultimately healed, so next to a new heaven we also require a new earth, as described in Revelation 21 (“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”) Ultimately, therefore, a reasonable theism (as a philosophical assumption) will have to make many auxilliary assumptions besides arguing for God’s existence.