Friday, September 13, 2013

God of Ice, God of Fire (Game of Thrones)

I was thinking, on my way to work, about what Melisandre said about there being only two gods (in Book/Season 3). Instead of the Seven and the heart tree gods and the Drowned God and Tyrion’s god of tits and wine, she says there’s only two: the god of fire and the god of ice. Neither are particularly nice gods, but if you have to back one, you’re going to pick the god that allows people to live over the god whose servants kill and revive everybody to fight in their army, and probably wants to cover the whole world in ice because that’s just how those sorts of gods normally do.

Bolstering Melisandre’s claim, besides the fact that the Others exist and reanimate people, is her magic. We have seen the red priests do things that no other religion in Westeros has even come close to matching. They see the future in the flames (supposedly), they spawn shadow-babies (assuredly) and raise people from the dead (repeatedly). And there’s this interesting idea in this universe that their magic is of a particular kind, that asks the victim—not so much the user—to pay a part of his or her life as price. Melisandre gives up the baby, literally, but she’s otherwise unaffected; Stannis, whose life force she drew on twice, is guttered like a candle. He’s permanently depressed now. And Beric spoke of how it feels to come back each time—he loses a part of himself. We didn’t see him before, so it’s hard to really say, but I’m prepared to take his word for it. R’hllor’s magic is all about drawing from somebody to create these miracles.

And yet those are the key words: magic and miracles. Because if we’re taking these incredible events as substantiation for Melisandre’s claims, then we also have to ask: what about all the other spooky things we’ve seen happening around Westeros and Esteros lately? The lamb people reviving Drogo at the cost of Daenerys’s baby. The warlocks who conjure chains from thin air and live forever. Jaqen H’Gar changing his face. These are clearly magic, and there’s no visible connection to the fire god. So how do we know who to believe? If a red priest and a warlock had a chat, the priest might say “Here’s how it is. Your magic comes from the existence of the dragons. Dragons are creatures of fire, and their emergence into the world at this time when the great war is coming is clearly not a coincidence. They were brought here by R’hllor to fight the cold god. Your power comes from them, even if you got burned by them that time, which makes you servants of the Lord of Light.” And the warlock might say “No, no, you’ve got it all backwards. You couldn’t do any of this shit until the dragons came into the world, could you? They are the true source of all magic, fire and not-fire. Their presence is what allows you to perform your little rituals, and your red god is just another god.”

Who’s to say which is right? There is corroborating evidence for the priest’s point, which is that no other Westerosi religion has yet performed a verifiable miracle. Things like Cat praying for Jon to die and him getting sick and then her reversing course and praying for him to live and Jon subsequently surviving are great stories, but a skeptical nonbeliever would certainly wave them off as coincidence. But whether the red priests’ acts come from R’hllor or from the dragons is to explain them as a miracle or as magic, and that brings to mind some cool historical comparisons.

As best I understand it, in the Christian religion, the miracles of Jesus are not considered magic. Multiplying the loaves and fishes, healing the sick, rising from the dead, etc. are the power of God working through Jesus, not some warlock casting a spell. They’re divinely ordained events that occur because God wants to manifest his power in a way we can understand, and they come directly from Him. Magic, on the other hand, is drawn from other sources; Satan is the most recent, but before he was a thing, Christianity was trying to outshout the pre-Christian gods of pagan Europe by saying that their rituals and whatnot were just idolatry. The things they did weren’t miracles because only God could do those, and since He obviously didn’t give you permission, you’re committing blasphemy by defying him and turning to other powers. Miracles are thus understood to be different from magic, and they’re therefore okay for Christians; they were and are reputed to occur all the time at saints’ shrines, and even a garden-variety priest can perform the miracle of transubstantiation, and produce the body and blood of Christ out of some wine and a wafer. If it’s from God, it’s okay; if it’s from something else, like the lamb men’s death magic, it’s not okay.

This makes me wonder, by the way, what the historical Muslim perspective on miracles and magic has been. I’ve only ever read one biography of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which was written for Christian Westerners by a Westerner and takes a very secular view of things. Things that any Muslim believer would accept as a miracle, it sort of skirts around or explains away in other fashions, the better to not put off a suspicious Westerner. The one thing it can’t really explain away, though, is the miracle of the night journey. That’s when Muhammad is picked up and physically transported from Medina to Jerusalem, hundreds of miles away, and there ascends to heaven to meet with various prophets and finally God Himself.

Obviously this wasn’t a miracle witnessed by anybody except Muhammad, like his original visit from the Lord when he was meditating on his mountain. There are corroborative details, though, in an odd way: he said that while he was flying over the desert, he saw caravans and camels in the desert below, and predicted when he got back that they would arrive in Medina at such-and-such a time. Islamic tradition records that they did, and everyone was amazed and took that as proof of his journey. And you can explain that away any number of ways if you want, like he’d known about them in advance, or one of his friends had helpfully supplied the information, or he’d gotten one right by sheer luck and that sort of outshone the others that he’d missed, whatever whatever. But for a believer, it was more than enough. 

That would very clearly be a feat performed by God for Muhammad, like His decision to speak with Muhammad in the first place. Muhammad was very clear throughout his life that he himself was just a guy, and that God was doing all the hard work. So if miracles are allowed the way they are in the Judeo-Christian portion of the tradition, is magic outlawed in the same way? Djinni were an acknowledged part of the jahiliyyah, pre-Muhammad world, 

On the other hand, 

So are Melisandre’s rituals magical or miraculous? Is it only fire-based magic that works for R’hllor, or are all of the magical events in Westeros somehow connected to the fire god? Did the dragons appear to fight Melisandre’s war, or was that just coincidental? (And if so, where did Dany’s powers come from, anyway?)

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