If I had a dollar for every Catholic I’ve seen or heard who has condemned Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t have any student loan debt left. I’m friends with plenty of people who love the show and love the story; one friend even gave me a small Arya figurine that still sits on my dashboard in my car. But I’ve noticed a strong reaction against the show and story among my Catholic friends - and I get it. It’s a horrific story, with way too many gratuitous sex (or rape) scenes, a whole lot of incest, and it always seems to leave you in a place of despair. For those who haven’t seen the show, here is your spoiler warning.
In the first season of the show, we’re introduced to Lord Eddart Stark and his family. Ned Stark is presented as a man of virtue and honor - though there is the “small” vice of him having fathered a bastard, Jon Snow. Ned leaves his home of Winterfell to go to the south, where his friend Robert Baratheon rules as king of Westeros. Rob needs Ned’s help as Hand of the King, and so Ned goes. Ned ends up finding out that all of Robert’s children are not actually his children, and he plans on telling Rob. So the king’s wife, Cersei, arranges to have Rob poisoned and killed. Her absolutely monstrous brat of a son Joffrey takes the throne. And then Joffrey cuts off Ned’s head in front of his two daughters, Sansa and Arya.
It’s a grisly beginning to the story. What are you supposed to do in a world where honorable men die and monsters rule? Sansa’s answer is to learn to play the game - she brilliantly navigates opponent after opponent, surviving against all odds. Arya’s answer is to leave Westeros and become an assassin, a process that has her confront her identity head on and makes her question whether she’s willing to abandon who she is. In every case, though, neither Sansa nor Arya can trust anyone else to be good. With their father gone (and later losing their brother and mother through murder as well) these two girls are always and everywhere surrounded by people who do evil with ease. Sansa finds a small glimmer of light in Tyrion Lannister, who is kind to her. Arya finds her glimmer in Gendry, who tries to help and protect her. But for the most part, Sansa and Arya are tossed into a dark and ruthless world, and they are alone.
Fast forward to Season 7, the current season. Arya has reunited with Sansa and their brother Bran. Jon Snow, now King in the North, is off trying to recruit dragons and soldiers to fight an undead army in the north. And the lords in the north are badmouthing Jon Snow right to Sansa’s face. Arya wants to take their heads off - literally and figuratively - but Sansa shows restraint, saying that Arya’s response destroys any chance of trying to find a way to get everyone to work together. This initiates a poignant moment where Arya calls her sister out. Arya accuses Sansa of playing a political game where, if Jon never returns, Sansa will turn out on top and will finally be the queen she always wished to be. Sansa says the very thought is a horrible one - but Arya is relentless. She tells Sansa that she knows what Sansa is thinking and she knows that thought just won’t go away. Here Arya finds herself wondering whether her sister has become like everyone else - just as vicious and self-serving, just as easily able to do evil. But Arya is no saint herself, she slaughtered Lord Frey, the man responsible for murdering her mother and brother, but not before feeding his own sons to him in the form of pie. She has a list of people she still wants to kill, and she won’t stop until she’s done. She seems to relish being wild and dangerous and unapologetically deadly. As a viewer there’s an odd kind of satisfaction to it - the monsters who hurt Arya have now made her into a monster that will be their demise.
The whole story asks the question of anyone watching: where are the good guys? Where are the heros? Ned Stark was good but he’s dead. Shireen Baratheon was good, but she’s dead too. The only living person who seems to retain a significant amount of honor and goodness is Jon Snow. He’s admirably trying to save Westeros from dying, or its people from being turned into ice zombies, but at the same time he’s at risk of falling in love with his own aunt (not that he knows she’s his aunt, but still). When you’re dealing with a story like Lord of the Rings, it’s easy to find the good guys, it’s easy to imagine that good will triumph despite all of the suffering and sacrifice. In a story like the Chronicles of Narnia, you know everything is going to be ok because Aslan is there. But in Game of Thrones? If you think the story has a neat little happy ending waiting for you, then you haven’t been paying attention.
To come back around to matters of Catholicism and faith, I think Game of Thrones forces Catholics to ask a couple of important questions: Does storytelling matter? What kinds of stories should we tell? And how should we tell them? I think it’s fairly obvious that stories DO matter - after all, our Scriptures began as an oral tradition, as the Jewish people passing down their stories to one another. Stories form us, they give us a fictional world in which we can work out so many of the problems we will face in the real world and matters of truth are often clearer to us in stories than they are in our own world. So the kinds of stories we tell should be based on the truth we want to tell, the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world we want to build. As Catholics, that means we should want to tell stories that both engender and are about virtue, because virtue is interesting. Plenty of shows glorify vice as “exciting” but you know what’s even more exciting? Watching a character stand face to face with evil and be defiantly good, defiantly loving in the face of that evil and thinking to yourself “I want to do that. I could do that.” When you tell a story like that, you aren’t skimping on the reality of evil. Evil is hard; it causes pain and suffering, it demands sacrifice and courage for it to be defeated. Being good is hard, too; it doesn’t always come naturally, and navigating how to do the right thing can be a pain in the neck at times. But being good seems to always be worth it. There’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton that says, “Fairytales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” J.R.R. Tolkien was of a similar mindset to Chesterton; he thought that readers, especially children, already know that evil is real, so they don’t need stories to teach them that. What they need is for a story to show them that a very real evil can be defeated. This is what the best stories do; they give us a hero, often a team of heros, facing something that seems impossible, and then that hero (or team) wins.
Game of Thrones, however, isn’t that kind of story. It isn’t about virtue or the triumph of goodness over evil, I think in part because stories about good versus evil can end up oversimplified and boring so storytellers shy away from the cliché. Game of Thrones is about the overwhelming reality of evil people and seemingly hopeless situations. And it offers you the understandable and even realistic responses of traumatized people like Sansa and Arya when they have to face those people and situations. And while it’s an intense story, and while it has fascinating things like direwolves and dragons, I have to say that there are many times when I watch Game of Thrones and I’m bored. I’m waiting, impatiently, for something other than evil and hopelessness because I know there are always more powerful things at work both in fictional worlds and in the real world. As a human being I have seen the power of community, of people helping one another. As a Catholic, I know the power of God, whose name is love, and I know the power of hoping in His Resurrection. My faith inspires me to want stories that tell us about the best parts of humanity so that the best parts of humanity can form us, can better us, through that storytelling.
There are other stories I can watch or read, of course, but I worry that Game of Thrones might be the kind of story that teaches people that being good and having hope aren’t worth it. The story hasn’t ended, of course, so it’s not fair to make a judgment quite yet. And at the end of the day, I’m grateful to Game of Thrones, because I don’t know that I ever would have asked these questions or thought any of this through without Game of Thrones to inspire it. But I still find myself craving a story that tells the truth that things like goodness, love, and faith are stronger, and they make us stronger too. I hope that storytellers won’t be afraid of making evil actually be evil, which is something Game of Thrones certainly has a handle on. But I hope those same storytellers will find the courage to be assured of goodness and its power, and in this I think Game of Thrones needs some work. What’s the value of a story filled with real monsters if there are no real heroes who can answer them? The story of Christ conquering death inspired the apostles and countless others to go out into the world and make disciples; stories with real heroes can do the same, inspiring real people to go out into their world and be real heroes themselves.