‘Celibacy and Game of Thrones’. Now there’s a phrase you probably won’t find anywhere else on the Internet. ‘Game of Thrones’ is the most successful show on television at the moment and, like a lot of HBO programmes, is famous for being scandalously sex-soaked. What on earth could this particular pop-culture phenomenon have to do with celibacy, other than being an obstacle to it?
I recently started (and have nearly finished) reading the mammoth fantasy books – ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ – from which the TV show derives. Their author, G.R.R. Martin, is more Dan Brown than Dostoyevsky, but he does succeed in painting some very memorable characters, and develops some deliciously complicated plots. The series situates itself firmly in the fantasy tradition inaugurated by Tolkien: the imagined world is medievalesque, similar to our own but with added monsters and altered geography.
G.R.R. tells a very different tale from that of J.R.R., though, with a very different ethos. While Tolkien has a clear set of heroes who act honourably, Martin’s characters are all distinctly fallen – even the ‘goodies’ have mixed motives. In Middle-Earth, good wins out, even against huge odds, but in Westeros, it’s not clear whether ‘good’ will be among the winners in the cynical, deadly ‘game of thrones’.
A very interesting difference between the fantasy sagas of Tolkien and Martin is the role of religious belief and practice. Martin himself points this out: ‘That’s what Tolkien left out — there’s no priesthood, there’s no temples; nobody is worshiping anything in the Rings’. In Martin’s books, though, prayers abound. There are multiple faiths: the ‘Old Gods’ in the North, the dominant ‘Faith of the Seven’, the expanding new religion of fire and light, and other local religions. Characters vary in their devotion, but very few are committed sceptics.
Within this religious world, themes of self-sacrifice naturally arise, as a sort of counterpoint to the dominant themes of self-assertion and the search for power. Voluntary celibacy, for example, is a major element in the ‘Faith of the Seven’: the clergy (called ‘septons’ or ‘septas’), the ‘silent sisters’ and the ‘begging brothers’ are all committed to celibacy (incidentally, for those familiar with Catholicism, it’s not difficult to see parallels between it and ‘the Faith’ of Westeros).
It’s not entirely surprising that this asceticism is underemphasised in the HBO series. If ‘sex sells’ then celibacy, presumably, doesn’t. What is surprising is that another group of voluntary celibates is given serious prominence and presented with unusual sympathy: the Night’s Watch. These are the men who guard the huge wall in the North, which keeps the ‘wildlings’ and other dangerous creatures at a safe distance from civilization. The men who make up the Night’s Watch are mostly criminals and exiles from the South, who ‘take the black’ to avoid punishment. Their existence is difficult, unglamorous, thankless, but essential to the society which they protect. Have a look at the oath they swear in order to become ‘Men of the Night’s Watch’ (ideally you should read it out loud in a bad Yorkshire accent):
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honour to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all nights to come.
All this sounds very heroic, and Martin deliberately undercuts this idealism by showing how these men struggle to stay faithful to their vows. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this oath is one of the few ways in which someone soaked in pop culture might gain access to an understanding of voluntary celibacy in the Catholic tradition. The Night’s Watch are celibate with a purpose. So too, the nun, the priest, the brother forego good things for a greater purpose. It is not a form of self-punishment, but a means by which they can witness to the Kingdom of God. It is not meant to make them loveless, but to make them burn with Christ’s unconditional love. Like the Night’s Watch, celibacy in the Catholic tradition is meant to produce ‘swords’ (Ps 149:6), ‘watchers’ (Ps 130:6), ‘fire’ (Ps 39:3), ‘light’ (Matt 5:14), a ‘horn’ (Isaiah 58:1), a ‘shield’ (Ps 18:35).
But if any of this makes celibates proud of their ‘high and lonely destiny’, it’s good to remember that they are, like the Men of the Night’s Watch, runaway sinners. They are not called because they are special, but their calling is special. In this calling they struggle and sometimes fall, but if they stay awake and on guard, their sacrifice can help warm a wintry world.