Spoiler alert: this is a review of last night's episode
Anyone watching Game of Thrones for the first time last night would not have been dissuaded of Peter Hitchens’ argument that the show is cruel and will promote cruelty.
It opened with Lord Bolton’s bastard Ramsay Snow, who in the last series did that thing with Theon Greyjoy we shall not talk about, chasing and torturing some poor woman before showing off his new eunuch – now called Reek – to his sinister father. Then there was the wedding of the appalling Prince Joffrey, which didn’t go entirely according to plan; flanked by his grandfather Tywin, the king at first shows some wisdom and grace towards his guests before he is given a Valyrian sword and reveals himself to be the monster that he is. (Lucky we just get to watch this programme - the North Koreans are actually living it).
Last night’s episode also featured the sinister Melisandre, apostle of the god of light, follower of a new and strange religion that has captivated the claimant Stannis Baratheon. Talking to Stannis’ disfigured daughter Shireen, Melisandre says that the 'Faith of the Seven' is just a tale, and that there are only two gods, ‘a god of light and love and joy, and a god of darkness and evil and fear’. There are no seven hells, she explains: ‘There is only one hell, the one we live in now.’ I remember hearing this exact same line from a friend who was in the National Secular Society, although it did sound rather more rational coming from him as he hadn’t just burned to death three people to appease the god R’hllor.
It’s a cruel, cruel world they live in, which is what alarms Peter Hitchens. He wrote in the Mail: ‘Mr Martin’s imaginary world is frighteningly cruel. The society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages, because its characters are entirely unrestrained by Christian belief. There’s a lifeless, despised religion but nobody takes it seriously. I fear it will make those who watch it worse people than they were before.’
He is totally right in the premise. George R.R. Martin borrowed from various, mostly Middle Eastern religions for his fantasy books; there are elements of Norse mythology in the 'Faith of the Seven' - the father somewhat resembles Woden, the Smith is similar to Weland the Smith and the Warrior to Freya. It also resembles the faith of the Yezidi, Kurds who believe in one god who entrusted the world to seven angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the peacock angel. Melisandre, in contrast, is a dualist; her faith bears some resemblance to Mandaeism, a secretive religion whose followers, like the Yezidi, cling on in Iraq despite persecution by Islamists. (There are elements of Zoroastrianism, too.)
Mandaeism is, I should emphasise, a very peaceful religion and has certainly never featured human sacrifice; indeed Muslims consider them ‘people of the book’. The evidence for ritual murder among pre-Christian pagans is another matter; there is some speculation that the followers of Woden and Thor at some point did kill humans in worship, as did the natives of Britain, but so much of the historical argument is coloured by the fact that the Romans exaggerated the horrors committed by native peoples for their own propaganda purposes.
In real life, just as in Westeros, the new, strange religion from the East really was spread by women, often foreign. When in 597 the first Christian missionary arrived in Kent, one of the seven kingdoms of the Angles, it was the king’s Frankish wife, Bertha, who persuaded Ethelbert to accept baptism. Two of the other kingdoms, Essex and Northumbria, were brought to the religion through their queens, who gave protection to the alien men spreading the faith.
Unlike in Westeros the new religion did not ask for sacrifices, but promised the end of sacrifice, its God having sent his only son to die on our behalf. As numerous historians have attested, Christianity’s rapid spread across the eastern and then western Roman Empire came about because its prohibition on adultery, divorce and infanticide was attractive to women; the old gods emphasised the alpha male qualities of strength and sexual vigour, the new god prized the beta male and his qualities of compassion and love.
And for all their disdain of human sacrifice, the Romans were themselves incredibly cruel people; one of the ironies of the success of Christian ideas in the west is that we’ve forgotten how much of the behaviour that we assume is natural is the product of Christianisation. We forget that without a religion that on a daily basis emphasised the need for compassion, mercy and restraint our world would still be a cruel one, as Rome was. Hitchens is exactly right in that sense.
Not that medieval Christian Europe didn’t have its cruelties, of course. The closest thing to a real life Joffrey was Henry VI’s son Edward of Westminster, who grew up among the turbulence of the War of the Roses into a not-entirely mentally balanced young man. According to one account, after the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461 two Yorkists captives were taken to Queen Margret of Anjou and Prince Edward. He was asked: ‘Fair son, by what manner of means shall these knights die?’ The boy replied: ‘Let their heads be taken off.’ He was seven at the time. By the age of 13 he was, according to the Milanese ambassador, interested in nothing but violence.
As it is, things didn’t end well for him, but in the real-life game of thrones you won or you died.