The Writing On the Wall: The Fires Of Faith

Beric Jon Beyond the Wall

“The Lord of Light never spoke to me. I don’t know anything about him, I don’t know what he wants from me.”

“He wants you alive.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”


Faith. The singular syllable composing the verbiage belies a misleading sense of simplicity and ease. It is perhaps in part due to that seeming simplicity that the true power of faith can sometimes be forgotten and buried beneath everything else. Power can sometimes be lost to the understandable tendency to tie faith specifically into a religious paradigm. While that may be the most ostensibly obvious connection to make, that is not necessary always the case. Even in conversations that are imbued with a key religious theme, such as the quick one between Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), other forms of faith are just as critical to what the writing is aiming to convey.

In the world of Game Of Thrones, as much as in the real world, characters have faith in a god, multiple gods, or no gods at all. Some believe in the worship of money, a practice Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss) would be especially proud of. Others believe in the worship of their own abilities for the gods have seemingly forsaken them entirely. Others decry in the worship of anything at all for the night is dark and full of nothing. Still others worship for a purpose, without necessarily believing in anything at all.

Sept of Baelor

In the Faith of the Seven, there is a singular deity who has seven faces but to many there are seven different gods, a distinction of class that notably harkens back to ancient pagan religions. Some may worship the Father, who protects his children and is the harbinger of justice. Others worship the Mother, who brings with her mercy and safety for the family. Soldiers marching off to fight in an aristocratic war often pray to the Warrior for strength, victory, and the hope of returning home. People lay blessings at the feet of the Maiden to keep young women safe under her caring eyes. The Crone garners prayers from those who seek to fill their minds with wisdom.

The Stranger is perhaps the most interesting facet of the Seven. They are the outcast, the cripple, the bastard, the broken thing to whom all those who are treated by societies as fitting within those narrow paradigms worship in the hope of finding some solace and companionship. The Stranger is often referred to as the God of Death and fittingly they are a prominent visual member of the House of Black and White. The Stranger behaves like the Ancient Egyptian god Anubis, who would lead souls into the afterlife after weighing their heart against a feather to see if they had led a worthy life.

The Old Gods are the most prevalent in the North, their visages etched into weirwood trees throughout the region. They have no names, but they are the gods who represent elements of the world and nature such as water, wind, and forests. Their origins had been with the Children of the Forest but the religion persisted in spite of the Andal invasion. As the Faith of the Seven itself became more influential in the South, the old gods remained heavily influential in the North and indeed their weirwood trees, for example, continued to be a prime symbol of traditional ceremonies and artifacts.

Black_and_White_Lord_of_Light

The Lord of Light is believed, as his name implies, to be the harbinger of fire, and fire brings warmth, joy, and life. The Lord of Light, also known as R’hllor or the Red God, is locked in an eternal struggle against the Great Other, a god who serves as the power of coldness, despair, and death. That is the eternal struggle that defines the religion so fastidiously followed by Melisandre (Carice van Houten), Kinvara (Ania Bukstein), and the Brotherhood Without Banners. That is the eternal struggle Melisandre often sees in the flame, the struggle that can only be brought to an end by Azor Ahai.

When Jon first gasped for breath after his death, he was terrified, afraid, and simply unable to understand the circumstances he found himself within. As it went, how could he possibly comprehend where he found himself? One minute he was in the courtyard of Castle Black, being stabbed by his own men of the Night’s Watch for allowing the wildlings passage. He had bled out amidst the snow and ice and was consumed by darkness and then nothing at all. The next minute he found himself gasping loudly for breath on a stone slab, with a strategically placed cloth and Melisandre standing right near him.

Melisandre was stunned. She had begun to lose her faith in the Lord of Light after Stannis (Stephen Dillane) had failed to fulfill the prophecy and become Azor Ahai. Seeing Jon come back to life through her prayers to the Lord of Light sparked that faith within her once more but she also had to know. Did the Lord of Light speak to Jon? Did he appear to him, perhaps? What and whom did Jon see in the afterlife? Her smile faltered when Jon noted that he hadn’t seen anything in the afterlife. Nothing. He had been surrounded by nothingness.

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When Jon came back to life, he was crushed. He was crushed by the weight of the betrayal he had suffered by those who had sworn to serve under his leadership, the ones whom he had considered to be his friends. He was crushed by the pain that had engulfed him as he bled out amid the frigid winds. He was crushed by the weight of trying to even remotely understand what had happened to him. Jon felt angry, defeated, but perhaps most importantly, he felt lost.

The Old Gods may have been worshipped in Winterfell and Castle Black, but Jon had always been driven more by his faith in honor. He had been raised by a man for whom honor, justice, and love were the pillars upon which the foundation of a righteous life and society could be built. Jon embraced Eddard’s (Sean Bean) teachings as his core system of belief. He embraced them to the degree that they cost him more than he could ever have anticipated: his family, his love, his life.

When he sentenced his betrayers to death, there was no note of triumph in his tired voice. There was an exhaustion, a weariness that was imbued with grief and regret. Jon had come back to life, but for what purpose? Everything he had held dear had been tied intricately to his faith in honor and that faith had been rewarded with nothing but repeated stabs in the chest. If the path of honor had killed him, what other pathway could there possibly be? For in death, there had been nothing, and after death there had simply been a nothingness of a different sort. No one was truly able to understand what that meant, and Jon was driven into a deeper, darker space of isolation.

Beyond the Wall group

Beric is the first man Jon meets who has an understanding of what he has gone through, an understandable rarity as R’hllor does not bring people back from the dead with a high degree of frequency. Beric notes that his worship of the deity of fire is not a worship of a deity for the sake of it or indeed for any sort of personal gain. He has no idea as to why the Lord of Light wanted Jon alive. He has no idea what the Lord of Light has planned for him. He has no idea what the Lord of Light truly wants.

Jon notes sharply that no had ever been able to tell him what the Lord of Light or indeed any other god wanted. He could thusly never bring himself to believe and serve in a god whose desires he did not even know, let alone understand. He serves the North because he knows what his people want and how he can fulfill the responsibilities he holds towards them.

Beric takes no offense to Jon, noting sordidly that he indeed thought about the same query all the time. He simply had arrived at a conclusion that it ultimately didn’t matter if he understood what the Lord of Light wants from him. He knows that his worship of the Lord of Light is a pathway for him to fight, not in order to put some random person on a throne made of swords, but instead fight for life. Death is going to win as it always does, but life is worth fighting for.

When Jon was almost trampled to death in the Battle of the Bastards, he struggled to push his way towards the sky and breathe. When he was almost dying amid those thousands of boots, he felt the will and the need to breathe again. But breathing is not living. Beric’s desire to fight for the living resonates heavily with Jon, who struggled so much to find a purpose in his new lease on life and found it within fighting against the greatest threat the people he loved and Westeros had ever faced.

George R. R. Martin has repeatedly noted that he lacks an interest in providing a definitive answer of any sort in regards to which god or gods are the “right” ones. The vessel of the faith in the books and the show is arguably the less important factor, if not indeed an outright negligible one. What is more important is how that faith motivates and empowers individuals to make critical decisions and drive their narratives forward. For Beric and Jon, the power of their faith drives both of them to fight on behalf of the living. It just so happens that the vessels of that faith are starkly different and therein lies a simple yet tragic understanding of faith and its equivalent power to bring us together and tear us apart.

Valar Dohaeris,

Akash Of the Andals

19 responses

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    1. A couple of questions:

      (1) The show and books seem to be giving us the impression that there is something genuinely supernatural behind the beliefs of the Red God and the Old Gods, but not the Seven. Do you think that’s intentional?

      (2) How are we to understand the relationship between the supernatural occurrences of the Old Religion as shown through Bran’s story and those of the Red God as seen through the stories of Melissandre and Jon? Are they related? What sort of theology are we looking at here? A polytheistic one with many gods worshipped by different faiths, but in this case, both related to the issue of the White Walkers and Great Other? Or is there a monotheism, with one deity being worshipped by different religions in wildly different ways?

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    2. Excellent post! I loved moments when the topic comes up in the show; that conversation between Jon and Beric, as well as his earlier one with Davos ‘I failed’ “well go out and fail again’. Or when Sansa says she is going to the godswood, and told by Tyrion that prayer can be helpul she replies ‘I have stopped praying. I go there to be left alone’. Or Arya being told what to say to death – not today. Faith or lack of it, or faith in something else entirely plays as much a part of the story as it does in our own lives.

      I did question what it meatn when Jon saying ‘nothing, there is nothing’. I don’t think that means there is no afterlife. It is possible he was not yet conscious of anything after death or coming back to life had forgotten it. Who knows?

      Once many years ago I was told that the little cleft that is above our lips is where god presses his finger to the baby’s lips before birth and says ‘shhhh’. Always liked that thought for some reason. Perhaps we are just not meant to know.

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    3. Thank you for this post. That scene between Jon and Beric last episode has really resonated with me. About how sometimes we can’t always understand why we are here or why we got a second chance, but we can create our own meaning, our own purpose from it.

      Maybe that’s enough.

      It does intrigue me that there are different competing pantheons in the ASOIAF /Game of Thrones universe. Some seem more ‘real’ than others in terms of involvement/active participation. It’s also interesting to note that at the House of Black and White, they had multiple shrines to the different deities in order to accommodate various faiths. The Many-Faced God, so to speak. But is it Death the FM worship? Is that the one true god?

      Beric says death is the enemy to life. That’s true. He wants to fight this entity, this concept. Jon, too, wants to be a shield, protecting the realms of men.

      Which makes you wonder who the NK, White Walkers and the Army of the Dead have faith in, if anything. What is their true purpose? Has their purpose changed from when the CoTF first created them? Are they simply implacable avatars of Death? Bringing the final long night which is inevitable?

      Perhaps we’ll never know for sure on the show. Maybe that’s the point, it’s enough to oppose them and to champion life, to fight for each other, to the bitter end, while never understanding fully the why of it.

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    4. Fantastic article, Akash! I’ve already gushed about how much I love the conversation between Jon and Beric in “Beyond the Wall” across multiple posts, so I won’t repeat those superlatives here. Suffice it to say that this essay incisively articulates why that scene was so important – for the episode, for the characters involved, and for the series as a whole. Kudos!

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    5. An excellent piece Akash, thank you! 🙂 I am so happy to see such a wonderful and complete post on the matter!

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    6. Lord of Light theory: Lord of Light and the Night King is the same.

      Do we even know the Lord of Light is a good guy? After this latest episode, the Lord of Light could actually have been manipulation the Hound and his other subjects to travel north of the wall, to give the Night King a Dragon.

      Things we know.
      – He grants his followers the power to raise the dead.
      – From the books we know his enemy is the Great Other.
      -From the books it is also hinted towards that the Great Other might be the Three Eyed Raven.
      – He whispers speaks to his followers through the fire.

      I always thought that the Lord of Light would actually be a character, like the three eyed raven is. Some character in the story we would know. Ofcourse it could some powerful Maester, sitting at the Citadel. But it should be someone we have seen. So who is it.

      Well, how about the Night King himself? We think he is Ice, but he might actually be both Fire and Ice.
      – His subjects can also raise the dead. We saw this in the latest episode. It is not only him raising the Zombies.
      – His enemy is also the Three Eyed Raven. With two great entities, both enemies of the Three Eyed Raven / Great Other, it is likely that they would at least be allies, or they might be the same.

      This theory brings a rather sinister turn to the story. Jon Snow is not the hero, he is a subject of the Night King. He has been manipulated to help bring down the wall.

      But who is then Azor Ahai, if Jon Snow is not the hero of this story? Who will stab his/her loved one through the heart to temper the blade?
      Could it be Arya? Daenerys? Jaimie Lanister?
      Does anyone like this theory?

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    7. The show follows the books in the rise of the Faith Militant , the mass of common people are so unhappy almost all the nominal Faith of the Seven go over to the Faith Militant
      This scared the Crown. We have no idea what happens in the books. In the show the Crown has not only wrecked the Faith Militant but also the Faith of the Seven.
      Revolt against the Crown should be blazing….
      The whole plot narrative , for this aspect, now seems a stranger to reason.

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    8. Boojam: the mass of common people are so unhappy almost all the nominal Faith of the Seven go over to the Faith Militant

      Actually, there is zero indication of how popular this “populist” movement really is. Given that the Sparrows rapidly degenerate into Alt-Right thugs, they probably rapidly lost a lot of popularity in general. And given how devastating their destruction was, there would have been little left to unite against Cersei.

      Because the books pander more to fairly extraneous details, it’s possible that we’ll learn what the remnant of the old-guard of the Church does afterwards. It’s actually not 100% obvious what they would do. Cersei both destroyed the revolutionaries that overthrew them (hooray!) but she also destroyed the center of their faith (boo!), and she clearly has been flauting the morals of the church (… uh, oh, right booo!!!). Daenerys, on the other hand, has members of the Red Church in her train, not to mention godless Dothraki, unsullied, etc. Moreover, the heathen Northerners seem to be on her side.

      Add to this that the Church would have taken a huge hit in esteem in the minds of the commoners because, if this religion had any truth to it, then why didn’t the gods save the Sept? Moreover, conspiracy theories would run rampant. Yes, some would blame Cersei. However, some would blame the Sparrows. Some would blame the old guard of the Church. Some would blame Daenerys or the Northerners. Others would think that the gods had decided that the church needed to go. (One only has to look at reactions to recent events in the States to see how “small folk” rationalize!)

      So, most probably the remnants of the Church of the 7 will be a sidenote in the books. We’ll get the information, just like we get the information on all of the meals. But it won’t be relevant.

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    9. Hightower: Lord of Light theory: Lord of Light and the Night King is the same.

      The fact that R’hllor hates the Children and the Old Gods is not evidence that he’s aligned with (or is) the Night King. Just look at Stannis: he was fully aware that the Starks and the Lannisters were enemies, and yet he considered both to be his enemies.

      Instead, the question to ask is: who/what is R’hllor that it hates both the Night King (the “Great Other” in the books) and the Old Gods? The origin of the White Walkers provides us with a possible model. The Walkers were created by the Children to fight another “great evil” (humans), but basically went Cylon and fought against both their creators and their creators’ enemy.

      So, let’s assume that the Children are like humans: if an idea doesn’t work the first time, then you try it again with some modification in order to “get it right” this time. Basically, it’s like introducing one predatory species to protect crops, realizing it is creating an ecological problem, then introducing another predatory species to reduce the first species, only to see the second predatory species be its own ecological nightmare. What do you do? Introduce yet another species, of course! (And, yes: humans have done this.)

      So, don your tinfoil head gear and embark with me upon a bit of arm-waving that could keep Drogon hovering in place without blasting fire! Do we have any indicationt that the Children took further steps against the Walkers? Why, yes we do. There is the Wall. But there is also the Last Hero (Azor Ahai, the Prince that Was, etc.) We know that this hero went through much hardship to stop the Walkers before (although we are quite ignorant on exactly what that entailed). We even hear tell that he sacrificed his lover to get a sword to fight them (probably giving us the recipe for Valyrian steel).

      But what happened to Azor Ahai? One thing on which we can be certain: the different versions of the old tales are mostly false. We’ve never been told what was done to put the Walkers into limbo for thousands of years. Well, what if the Children basically setup Azor Ahai in some bit of magic (possibly tied to the magic of creating the Wall) that basically made his mission a suicide mission. And what if, once again, the plans didn’t fully work out and the magic didn’t just kill AA, but basically left some remnant of him trapped in magic?

      That remnant would be pretty effin’ pissed at the universe, particularly the Walkers and the Old Gods, but probably everyone. Sounds like a certain Red God….

      You may now take off your tinfoil headgear and chuck it into a recycling bin!

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    10. ash: I did question what it meatn when Jon saying ‘nothing, there is nothing’. I don’t think that means there is no afterlife. It is possible he was not yet conscious of anything after death or coming back to life had forgotten it. Who knows?

      GRRM is an agnostic who is openly skeptical about there being any sort of afterlife. That makes it pretty implausible that he’d have one in his books.

      ash: Once many years ago I was told that the little cleft that is above our lips is where god presses his finger to the baby’s lips before birth and says ‘shhhh’. Always liked that thought for some reason. Perhaps we are just not meant to know.

      Actually, we’ve known for years about the general “why” of that feature. For humans in particular, it is because we are primates: and you can see that on most other primates.
      The dimple to which you refer participates in several things, including the extra dexterity of our lips compared to most other mammals: primates (including us) use their lips as fifth hands and we all rely on a wide range of facial expressions to communicate our moods to other members of our troop/tribe/clan.

      This is why you should always take an evolutionary biologist like me with you to parties: a lot of the “we’ll never know…” stuff actually is “we’ve known basically why for ages!”

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    11. Violator,

      I think that what it really reflects is that there are no true gods at all. The Old Gods are just a weird byproduct of the Weirnet, which in itself is driven by some sort of magic. R’hllor and the Night King (who Craster considered to be a god) clearly are some real entities with superhuman magical powers. However, we know that the Night King was created by people. We don’t know the origin of R’hllor, but if we do learn it, then we no doubt will learn that it, too, was an artifact of some group of people messing with powers that they should not have been.

      The other gods probably are imaginary. Because magic is real, it would be possible to create things like Faceless Men who attribute their powers to a god but really are using magic. Still others (like the 7 or the Drowned God) seem to be all story and no substance at all.

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    12. Wimsey,

      sorry I didn’t make myself clear- I know why that dimple exists (and I misnamed it a cleft; knew better than that too…). I used it to explain that perhaps we are not meant to know about the afterlife, that the babies are told to be quiet and not tell. Just an analogy (that being said Id be thrilled to have you accompany me to parties. Let me know when you are in town 🙂

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    13. Her smile faltered when Jon noted that he hadn’t seen anything in the afterlife. Nothing. He had been surrounded by nothingness.

      I was intrigued how Mel’s faith was tested further by Jon’s description of “nothingness” upon his rez. I often wondered about that statement and I hope GRRM does something similar (or expands upon it) in TWoW. I wonder if Thoros ever asked Beric the same question? How about LSH? Theoretically, would all three have the same answer? What about Benjen before the CotF stuck their obsidian pacemaker in his chest?

      I interpreted Jon’s spirit/potential energy (and the rest of the rez bunch) to be stuck in purgatory after their physical body dies, slowly waning, decaying and disseminating into the multiverse. But purgatory isn’t some waystation between heaven or hell…it is a place devoid of senses, where mental energy dissipates. The longer one is there, the more the spirit/energy wanes, until complete nullification/recycling of identity, spirit and energy. Hence, we have Beric, who has spent very little time in purgatory and has maintained his mental energy while LSH is significantly less stable. Is Jon somewhere in between?

      The big question is…does faith have anything to do with it? All of the above rez seem to indicate that magic and R’hllor’s will (which seems to be an energy source that taps into purgatory) are independent of faith…which is somewhat aligned with GRRM’s agnostic motivations. Perhaps, like the age-old secular debate, faith is nothing but a mechanism to motivate the inner-self and has little to do with persuading the imagined whims of the omnipotents.

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    14. Faith. The singular syllable composing the verbiage belies a misleading sense of simplicity and ease.

      Faith is two syllables.

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    15. Succubint,

      I don’t think the White Walkers have faith in anything, they were created to kill humans that’s their sole purpose I don’t expect we’ll get too much more as according to Kim Renfro D&D have confirmed the Nights King will never speak on the show.

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