So Many Gods
by James Killough
In the fourth book of the Game of Thrones series, the reluctant tomboy exile Arya Stark of Winterfell arrives in the free city of Braavos, described as a cross between Venice in its heyday as a Republic and ancient Rhodes: a colossus statue-fort called the Titan straddles the entrance to a lagoon city built on a hundred islands. The citizens are distinctly Italianesque in their suave charm and balletic swords skills.
Arya has already spent the past four years, since she was eight, and over three thousand pages, being buffeted about in a series of extraordinary and gruesome circumstances, which no child should ever be subjected to. But hers is an eternally medieval world; even though she is one of the heirs to a powerful feudal kingdom, she has had more bad luck than an urchin born in the slums of Mumbai.
In Arya’s native Westeros, or the land of the Seven Kingdoms, where Game of Thrones takes place, there are two main religions, with a third, a sort of fusion of crypto-Zoroastrian/early Judaic from the eastern regions of this fantasy world, rearing it’s bloodthirsty head by the third book (I am skipping way ahead of the HBO series right now). Arya’s family, the Winterfells, rule the wild north. Her father’s side prays to the old gods with no names, a distinctly animistic, tree-and-nature-worshipping, pre-Hindu brand of religion. Her mother’s side, which comes from the more genteel south, knees to the Seven, a pantheon of deities in a pagan Greco-Roman model.
When the ship carrying Arya on her latest odyssey sails through the legs of the Titan into Braavos—a free city not part of Westeros, and a melting pot for the whole of George R.R. Martin’s sublimely rendered world—she is confronted with a sprawling metropolis in which all known religions congregate without distinction or preference; everything is tolerated here, and everyone is represented.
“So many gods,” she comments, amazed.
At this point in my reading of the Game of Thrones series, I am ready to declare J.R.R. Tolkien vanquished. This is by far the richer, more believable, better written of the two epics, and I am not the first to make the comparison. As richly imagined as Tolkien’s world is, his prose is too rich, his struggles too one-dimensional. As one reviewer pointed out, Martin’s Westeros is as complex as any true political system is; you are drawn into not just Arya’s world, but her the realities of her enemies as well; the game is seen from several disparate points of view at any given time. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is only seen from the perspective of the heroes. Compared with the bleak, muddy Thrones, Lord of the Rings comes off as mawkishly sentimental and naively idealistic.
Martin’s Westeros is not a simple Manichean, black and white, good v evil world, and therein lies its genius and appeal. Someone you loathed during the first book is completely explained and exonerated in the second, and now you loathe his enemies in turn. And you start to see that maybe those you thought were heroes in the beginning might not be so perfect after all.
While it is easy to see Westeros as a fantasy riff on medieval Britain—the feudal knights with their coats of arms are distinctly part of that culture, and the map in the front of the book appears on the surface to be the UK—it is actually in spirit more the greater Anglo-American world. (It would appear from the scale and the time it takes to travel around the Seven Kingdoms that Westeros is actually a continent, at least as large as the eastern United States.)
As we gallop off into our own bleak, muddy game of thrones with the upcoming presidential elections, it pays to keep in mind that it should not be some dualistic, black and white skirmish, but rather a balanced, civilized, healthy debate. And by healthy and multi-faceted I mean there is absolutely no room for lunacy or extreme positions. Sadly, our political and cultural landscape has been hijacked and corrupted by the kinds of lunatics who are on a par with Iranian crackpot Ahmadinejad.
I didn’t agree with Standard & Poors downgrading of our credit rating, not because it was unfair, but because of who they are. This is a company that should have flagged those dodgy financial products, the subprime mortgage scams, and the diseased colossal institutions like AIG way before they blew away the world as we knew it for good. As the putative watchdogs, they carry too much of the blame for the Great Recession to be given as much credence for the downgrade as they have received. Luckily, their actions are mattering very little in the greater scheme of things.
However, there was some meritorious discussion that emerged from S&P defending its actions, specifically from their executive Joydeep Muckerji, who told Politico, “That a country even has such voices [i.e. the Tea Party], albeit a minority, is something notable. This kind of rhetoric isn’t common among AAA sovereigns.” Which is a polite way of saying that we are losing the plot by letting the inmates take over even a small wing of the asylum, to let them have any sort of voice in a rational discussion about the future of the world’s most powerful nation.
I lament the state of the Republican Party. There should be a cogent, measured dialogue in this country, not highhanded reactions from a righteous and indignant left in answer to rants from a demented and rabid right, and vice-versa. But reasonable dialogue has been in decline for years, since Nixon, as far as my limited experience goes.
I like to quip that there is a two-party system in America, good and evil. This doesn’t mean that the Democrats are good and the Republicans are evil. It’s more of a commentary on the Manichean, Middle-earth perception that both sides have of each other.
I come from an “establishment” Republican family. In the case of my father, James Killough III (I don’t use my numeral, ever, but I am the fourth of that name, as George Martin would phrase it), it was more than just the way he voted. When we lived in Italy, he was Chairman of Republicans Abroad. The ad agency he worked for, Compton, which became Saatchi & Saatchi, did Margaret Thatcher’s campaign, which not only swept her into power but established the agency as the largest in the world. When we returned to New York in 1979, he worked on Reagan’s campaign, “Vote Republican For A Change,” ironically but aptly the same theme on which Obama rode to power.
Above, one of Dad’s ads for the 1980 Republican campaign. It was considered pretty withering back then. Certainly effective.
I worked for Dad’s agency in the early 80s, during the Reagan years, and we had a few political accounts, namely Oliver North and Spitz Channell’s PAC, which funded GOP senatorial campaigns with, unbeknownst to us, Iran-Contra money.
I remember when we came back to New York from a rather sleazy pitch meeting in Washington with Spitz and Co. for a series of ads promoting Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. My father’s partner and the Creative Director of the agency, Charlie Blakemore, a hard-drinking Mad Man in the vein of Don Draper, said to him, “Jim, I am a Republican, always have been, always will be. But I have a serious moral issue with what we are doing.” A few weeks later, the Iran-Contra scandal exploded, the agency drew unwanted fire in the press, clients resigned en masse, and the rest is history.
Charlie’s dilemma was the same most establishment Republicans have with what has been corroding their party for decades. They have been subverted from within. They hang on to a dream of what their party once was: level-headed fiscal conservatives with a balanced foreign policy that was far more effective than that of their opposition. Now the Establishmentarians have been taken hostage by demagoguery and hypocrisy, and much as they try they cannot keep their ship from capsizing.
In my opinion, the last time we had a sensible contest in our game of thrones was Bush Sr. v Clinton. Both were worthy candidates. Despite having been a decent leader, and being a reasonably intelligent person himself (far more so than his son), Bush Sr.’s squeaky voice lost to Clinton’s intense charisma, glibness and sexual energy, with a nudge from a gnome named Ross Perot. It was Nixon v Kennedy all over again.
Let’s face it, Michele Bachmann shouldn’t even be in the running, much less the winner in Iowa last week. The woman is completely delusional, the worst brand of demagogue because she’s not just playing dirty, she completely believes the subversive crap she spews. This is evident because not only is her brand of evangelical religiosity warped and dangerous, her political ideology misguided in the extreme, she is living a major lie in a “submissive” relationship with a closeted homosexual.
Now it turns out that both she and Rick Perry espouse Dominionism, which believes that Christians should influence or control government and secular institutions worldwide, particularly in the US. We should all live under Biblical law, essentially. This is no different from Islamists like the Taliban insisting on following the Quran and shariah law. The same ilk of extremists we are borrowing gazillions to fight in the Muslim countries are rising within our own nation, elegantly coiffed, outfitted in power mini-skirt suits, armed with delirious mendacities that have no place in a reasonable discourse in this nation, above all others.
Fortunately, we are fortified against Opus Dei-like groups such as the Dominionists by the very same sacred Constitution that Bachmann, Palin and the other Republican/Trotskyite subversives love to bandy about as justification for their crusades. Article IV-2 states, “… the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; …” Amen to that.
I do hope the Republicans can pull a judicious, knowledgeable candidate out of the hat to go up against Obama. This game of thrones should be “may the best man win,” not “may the sanest.”
There was a time when the GOP was choosy about whom it admitted. This was the GOP that guys like Charlie Blakemore believed they supported. They should cut out the Tea Party, the demagogues and the fanatics and reinvent themselves, even if it means taking a hit in the coming elections. It’s worth rebuilding a strong opposition if only to keep the balance this country needs to stay ahead. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, if the S&P downgrade was indeed based on rhetoric unbecoming of a AAA sovereign nation, they didn’t downgrade us enough.