A throne fit for a messiah: Daenerys Targaryen as a contemporary Christ

Today’s advent essay comes from Joanna Fountain, one of the students who took our Bible and Popular Culture course (THEOREL 101) earlier this year. Joanna has just completed her third year of studies towards her Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and classical studies. After university she hopes to become a published writer, encouraging future generations to get off their screens and read a book instead. Joanna enroled in Theorel 101 out of interest, and assures me that she  thoroughly enjoyed taking the course – and would highly recommend it!

Joanna’s essay touches on one of our more popular themes in the course – modern messiahs in pop culture. So read on, and enjoy.

game-thrones-daenerys-her-dragons-gifs

Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones

by

Joanna Fountain

“This Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer.

-Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5)

As Bruce David Forbes says, “religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture” (2005, 1). Often appearing in the fantasy genre of literature and visual media, including film and television, is the common trope of a messianic protagonist who is very much the hero of the story. In George R. R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros, there is no one singular protagonist, but in the character of Daenerys Targaryen are numerous indicators of a Christ figure. Such a figure appears in popular culture again and again, subsequently creating the concept of the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). In many ways, Daenerys Targaryen provides an implicit parallel to the biblical Christ as a secular counterpart. The circumstances surrounding multiple events in her life, the messianic symbols attached to her character, and her perceived image by others as a liberator and a powerful contender all bear a close resemblance to the Biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as told in the New Testament Gospels. This essay will seek to explain how Daenerys Targaryen both fulfils and sabotages the notion of the American Monomyth in the way that she is a messiah figure who operates outside the standard black and white paradigm, rather operating within shades of grey in her characterisation. Because this essay will discuss plot details of both Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present) and the HBO television series Game of Thrones (2011-present), spoilers will follow.
game-of-thrones-daenerys-dragonFig 1: Daenerys hatches three dragons in “Fire and Blood” (1.10)

According to the writings of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, the American Monomyth secularises “the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption”, creating a character who embodies a combination of the ‘selfless servant’ who sacrifices their own needs for those of others and the ‘zealous crusader’ who triumphs over evil (2002, 6). The American Monomyth therefore serves the function in which a character in popular culture serves as a secular replacement to the Biblical Christ (ibid). What also is indicative of this supersaviour or the popular messiah is their justification for their use of violence for the greater good (5). These figures operate under a paradigm of black and white; the supersaviour is the light and good hero pitted against the bad villain. In terms of Daenerys’ character, she befits these prerequisites, but she is not wholly ‘good’ in the way she is portrayed. The constant use of warmongering imagery in her use of military might to free the slaves in Essos, and her unapologetic sexual appetites present her more as a character who operates in between the black and white paradigm, as a somewhat ‘anti-messiah’ who uses violence to fulfil and justify her noble task of freeing slaves. Constantly associated with Daenerys are the words ‘fire and blood’; words that do not necessarily match her with the image of the ‘perfect’ biblical Christ. But perhaps this is because Daenerys modernises and humanises the Christ figure of the American Monomyth concept. Therefore, this brutal side to her character is woven into the messiah rhetoric as a way of presenting a Christ figure who is flawed, humanised and relatable, thus shedding new light on the messianic individual of popular culture.

got2Fig 2: The Red Comet, seen in “The North Remembers” (2.01)

Robert Detweiler argues in his article ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’ that often in modern fiction the allegorical Christ figure offers the symbolic potential of Christ without the added implication of commitment to Christian faith (1964, 118). The likening of Daenerys Targaryen as a secular Christ figure is done implicitly in the way that the signs and symbols of the biblical messiah are translated into signs and symbols of Daenerys, the popular messiah. The first, and most obvious, of these is the Red Comet that appears in the sky soon after Daenerys successfully hatches three dragons from stone eggs (a ‘miracle’ in itself as the species were previously extinct). She even says herself in A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2): “[the comet] is the herald of my coming”. Such treatment of a comet signifying her “coming” immediately bears resemblance to the star that proclaimed the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 2.2-10, Luke 21.25). Additionally, both Daenerys and Christ are descended from a line of kings (Matthew 1), and both undergo a “resurrection”. As highlighted in Luke 24.46, there is the emphasis that the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ was foretold in the old teachings long before the coming of the messiah. Such a prophecy of the messiah has a similar treatment in the world of Game of Thrones. Mentioned numerous times in the books and in the television adaptation is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, also known as “the Lord’s chosen” and very much the Game of Thrones’ version of a prophesied messiah. According to Melisandre, a red priestess, in A Dance with Dragons, the coming of the prophesied Azor Ahai will be signified “when the red star bleeds” and this saviour will “be born again … to awake dragons out of stone”. All three of these signs occur in short succession with Daenerys walking into a burning pyre, only to be discovered the next morning sitting amongst the ashes of the fire, alive, and holding three baby dragons (fig 1), while the red comet (fig 2) appears very soon after. Though it has not been confirmed in either the books or the television series if Daenerys is in fact the prophesied Azor Ahai, she has nevertheless fulfilled these three parts to the prophecy. Regardless, the fact alone that the symbols associated with the biblical messiah are translated to symbols of Daenerys therefore provide the implication that she indeed represents a secular Christ within her own narrative.

game-of-thrones-season-3-episode-10-mhysa-daenerys

Fig 3: Daenerys proclaimed ‘mhysa’ (‘mother’) by the freed slaves of Yunkai in “Mhysa” (3.10)

Just as the biblical messiah’s noble task was to be a saviour to humankind, Daenerys Targaryen is again portrayed in a similar light in the way that her task to free all slaves in Slavers Bay makes her a saviour to many as a result. The aforementioned symbols of Daenerys as the popular messiah adds further justification to her role as a saviour. With three dragons in her possession, Daenerys becomes a powerful contender to those she considers her earthly enemies, in this case the slavers, and is able to wage war on them for their slaves’ freedom. In fact, this contempt for slavery is a common ideal in the Christ figure (Gunton 1985, 137, 143). This may be due to slavery often having strong connotations to sin in the Bible, particularly in the way that Jesus says in John 8.34 that mankind is “a slave to sin”. Therefore, it can be argued that Daenerys’ preoccupation with ending slavery takes a rather more literal interpretation of the biblical messiah’s task of liberating humankind from their sins. Daenerys’ resulting reputation as a saviour is best highlighted in the final scene of Game of Thrones’ third season in which she is proclaimed ‘mhysa’ by the freed slaves of Yunkai (fig. 3). The cinematography of the scene arguably bears some similarity to Jesus entering Jerusalem, declared a king (Luke 19.28-40). This image of Daenerys being surrounded by grateful slaves who declare her their “mhysa”, or “mother”, therefore provides the best visual justification as the “Breaker of Chains”, a liberator, and a saviour from “sin”.

got4Fig 4: A slave of Meereen beholds one of the many unlocked collars that Daenerys has catapulted over the city walls to show that all who follow her are freed in “Breaker of Chains” (4.03)

Hebrews 2.14-15 speaks about how Jesus Christ “shared in [mankind’s] humanity” so that “he might break the power of him who hold the power of death … and free those … held in slavery”. Therefore, Daenerys Targaryen is an equally human messiah with added flaws, and exists within the “grey areas” of the good/bad paradigm whose noble task is her attempts to liberate slaves in Essos, thus earning her a reputation as a saviour to those she frees. What further develops Daenerys as a popular messiah figure are the numerous implicit parallels of her character to the Biblical Christ of the New Testament Gospels, including messianic symbols and experiences. As a result, Daenerys Targaryen arguably serves as a secular counterpart to the Biblical Christ. But in the wide world of popular culture, Daenerys Targaryen is only one of many popular messiahs according to the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 3-5). This is perhaps because in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, popular culture is one of the ways that a secular audience may engage in religious themes. As Detweiler argues:

With the shift of interest away from religion and the relocation of values from the divine to the human sphere that have characterised the past one hundred years, the traits and mission have been transferred to man, so that for some writers the nature and intentions of Christ can be observed in any good, moral, or heroic person. (1964, 3-5)

Therefore, the American Monomyth serves to initiate a dialogue between religion and popular culture, so that readers of modern literature may learn about Jesus through a secular counterpart. Daenerys as the (theoretically) prophesied Azor Ahai parallels the Biblical prophesied messiah, just as her noble task to end slavery is a very literal adaptation of the Christ as a liberator of everyone who is a slave to sin. This is why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen makes a great fictional, popular messiah to a secular culture seeking a saviour from the many growing tensions apparent in contemporary society.

 

game-of-thrones-wallpaper-daenerys-wallpaper-1

Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

Detweiler, Robert. ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’. The Christian Scholar 47, no. 2 (1964): pp. 111-124.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places’. In Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, pp. 1-20. University of California Press, 2005.

Game of Thrones. Television Series. Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. New York, NY: HBO, 2011-present.

Gunton, Colin. ‘“Christus Victor” Revisited: A Study in the Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning’. The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): pp. 129-145.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Lewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam, 1996-present.

 

 

 

 

Spotlighting student work 1: Rugby as Religion

This semester, I have been involved in teaching our most popular course here at the University of Auckland, Theology 101 The Bible and Popular Culture. As the semester is winding to a close, I thought that it would be a perfect opportunity to share some of the excellent student work that came out of the course. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be showcasing a number of essays that really capture the exciting and engaging research that can be done in this field of biblical studies.

Given the events of the past weekend (for those of you living in places where rugby is not treated as a sacred event, please see here), it seemed apt to begin with an essay that considers the biblical and religious themes found within the glorious game of rugby. This essay was written by Theology 101 student Ben Fulton. Ben is a first year student taking joint degrees in Engineering and Arts here at the University of Auckland. Although he took Theology 101 as part of his General Education requirements, he enjoyed the course so much that he is now considering taking more courses in Theology and Religious Studies as a minor in his Arts degree. Ben chose this topic for his essay because, like so many Kiwis, he admits to having ‘an obligatory interest in rugby’. So sit back, read, and enjoy Ben’s discussion on rugby, religion, and Richie McCaw.

New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final match Australia vs New Zealand at Eden Park Stadium in Auckland on October 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO / GREG WOOD

Rugby, Religion, Richie and Redemption

By Ben Fulton

Imagine a world where Richie McCaw is the Messiah, delivering us from evil. A cosmos where John Kirwan, stone tablet and staff under each arm, is an active visionary who selflessly relives his own dark experiences for the benefit of other sufferers. An environment where we pray to our idols, congregate at the Cloud (1), and worship together in behemothic stadiums. Only this world isn’t so imaginary after all. This is the world we, as New Zealanders, live in. It is often stated that rugby is our nation’s religion. But can this claim be validated, in an academic sense? Can a sport truly be spiritual, all­-encompassing and faith-­invoking enough to function as a religion? Through examining the similitude between rugby and more traditional  religions, investigating the tenets of religion itself and exploring both Richie McCaw and John Kirwan as case studies of modern day Messiahs and prophets respectively in popular culture, this essay aims to answer these core questions and realise the fundamental place that rugby has in our society.

Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland
Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland

The links between rugby and religion are innumerable. The contemporaneously relevant Rugby World Cup is referred to daily as the Holy Grail. ‘Rugby Heaven’ is a website owned by Fairfax Media, “covering every aspect of the game” (2). Eden Park can be viewed as a place of worship (3), where people unify as a community to express exaltation, and the regular Biblical references to the stadium as the “Garden of Eden” (4) cannot be denied. Yet within the Holy Land, people trespass. As Jesus proclaims in Mark 11:17, “My house should be called a house of prayer for all the nations…but you have made it a den of robbers,” whereby the temple of Jerusalem has been tarnished by those sinning within its walls. We could extend this analogy in considering the ticket scalpers outsides the turnstiles at Eden Park, turning what should be a place for exaltation and ardour to a money­laundering, corruption­rife means of making a quick dollar. Yet the similarities between sport and religion do not end here. Just as religion brings nations together the world over, rugby binds people to one another in New Zealand, as evidenced by the title of Martin Snedden’s (CEO of Rugby World Cup 2011) book where New Zealand is described as a “Stadium of Four Million” (5). Mike Grimshaw, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Canterbury describes rugby as “the fervour, the passion, the excitement occupying the space in people’s lives” (6), which is analogous only to religion in the social milieu of New Zealand today. And the esteemed rugby writer Gregor Paul affirms that rugby possesses similar traits to religion when he states that rugby is “a means to show who you are and what you can do…a commitment to play with style, an unshakeable belief that fear and imagination will conquer all. To consider playing any other way is sacrilege” (7). Hence there is remarkable resemblance between rugby and religion, and the innumerable links between the two cannot be understated.

All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015
All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015

Sam Kellerman, brother of ESPN boxing commentator Max, described sport as a world where the result is neither life nor death but considered as if it were so, and a spiritual universe where one has to constantly grapple with life and death, yet the latter is inevitable regardless (8). However, perhaps religion and sport are not opposing forces, but instead interlocking circles. Religion as been stipulated by Clifford Geertz to mean “an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views…[from which] people derive ethics or a preferred lifestyle” (9). Rugby, aside from being a sport, is a way of life here in New Zealand from the Saturday morning pilgrimage to play/support the Under 12s, to being the most hotly contested water cooler conversation at work, to the All Blacks as the pillar in which many thousands of New Zealanders invest much of their time and faith. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz argue that sporting rites “arouse in the group [participants and spectators of sport] a feeling of belonging, of communitas” (10), an analysis which is certainly applicable to rugby in New Zealand. Amateur rugby clubs, bars and the stadiums themselves are all communities where people are bounded together by their ‘love of the game.’ And thus we see the resemblance between sport and religion itself, many of which are founded on the key attributes of love, faith and salvation. Jesus himself in John 6:47 proclaims “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life,” which goes to show the power of faith, a central tenet of followers of both rugby and Christianity. If, as Paul Tillich believes, “Religion is the substance of culture and culture the form of religion” (11) and rugby can be considered culture in New Zealand ­ it certainly is ingrained in our popular culture psyche ­ then rugby certainly has cause to be labelled a form of religion in our rugby­mad nation.

Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw
Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw

Central to many religions is the role of a saviour figure who brings redemption to his (or her) people through their extraordinary powers, and rugby is no exception. While other nationals will inevitably wax lyrical about their own Messiahs ­ Jonny WIlkinson for the English, Brian O’Driscoll for the Irish ­ in New Zealand there is one Messiah who stands peerless: captain for a decade, stoic fighter, humble leader: Richie McCaw. The American Monomyth often describes modern day Messiahs in popular culture as having a selfless zeal for justice, unbelievable abilities, their violence purified and the ability to both withstand temptation and remain calm under pressure (12). Richie McCaw undeniably ticks these boxes. Commentator Sandy Abbot describes McCaw as “articulate, polite, responsible…[always full of] great dignity and humility” (13), hence he is clearly a man of unquestionable character. His playing a full match during the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final with a broken foot speaks volumes of his unrivalled ability and perseverance. Despite playing a brutal contact sport, his vengeance on the rugby field is purified and justified (largely due to his irreproachable character and the nature of the game). Furthermore, his autobiography The Open Side describes his uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure when he speaks of the ‘blue zone,’ a state of focus and clarity to counteract ‘the red zone’ where things are not going to plan, leaving lesser mortals in distress (14). Finally, he has resisted temptation, keeping his scandal­free private life far removed from the public All Blacks Captain we see in the media, and has no vices or bad habits that would invalidate his claim to be a Messiah figure in New Zealand. As if we need further proof of this, he is often referred to simply by first name (drawing parallels with a certain Biblical character) and radio station The Rock have produced an image with the caption “Richie McCaw died..But he’s alright now” (15).

Richie risen from the dead? Poster created by NZ radio hosts Jono and Ben

Richie McCaw saved us from despair against the French in the 2011 World Cup Final and continues to bring hope and joy to New Zealanders today, hence the claim that he can be labelled as a Messiah figure is well justified.

 Sir John Kirwin
Sir John Kirwin

If Richie McCaw is New Zealand’s saviour, then there is no one better placed to be portrayed as an inspired teacher than Sir John Kirwan. Kirwan has spoken openly about his mental health issues (namely depression and an anxiety disorder) and broken the mould of All Blacks as phlegmatic and hard men, empowering a generation to speak up when in similar circumstances. He certainly meets Marcus J. Borg’s requirements of a modern­day prophet (16). He has disturbed a sense of normalcy in giving a very real, human insight to his struggles, something that no rugby player (or major sports star in New Zealand) has ever done before. His prophetic words, for example “Yesterday is gone from my control, so I don’t worry about it…I can make decisions that will feed my soul and give me the life that I can feel good about” (17) is certainly accompanied by corresponding action, as evidenced by his very prominent role with DepressionNZ and his regular public speaking at schools and functions around the country (18). Kirwan has clearly emerged from a state of (psychological) oppression to a new world, full of hope and the benevolent desire to assist others in transitioning to a happier state. Very powerfully, he has preached “Greatness is the ability to feel good in your own skin. Greatness is the ability to be happy. Greatness is my Dad. Greatness is simpler than we think.” This is testament to his ability to motivate others, fuelling the optimism that those struggling need. His vision, courage and drive to improve both his own quality of life, and later that of others’, has been remarkable. Therefore there are grounds for the parallels drawn between Kirwan and Biblical prophets, and he should hence be recognised as a central member of the New Zealand Diocese of the Church of Rugby, as it were.

Having all of the hallmarks of a religion, one sees that rugby can be considered akin to a religious movement in New Zealand. It fosters a sense of community for the masses, has some definite overlap in terms of language with religion, and contains prominent theological characters such as prophets and Messiahs. The role of rugby as a religion cannot be understated, for it is our national pastime, but also a well of faith and a binding agent for its people. Perhaps rugby should not be laughed off as “only a game.” Perhaps it should not be considered sacrilegious to compare the sport to spirituality. Perhaps both rugby and religion can be “the lights of [our] world” (Matthew 5:14). Because if it takes two to tango, both religion and rugby can together put on a vibrant show.

All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup
All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Endnotes

  1. Mike Valintine, prod. “Close Up.” Rugby as Religion. TV ONE. 30 Sept. 2011..
  2. “Fairfax Media to Launch Rugby Heaven.” Scoop. N.p., 5 June 2007. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  3. Cherie Howie, “Meet the AB’s Loyal Super Fans.” The New Zealand Herald[Auckland] 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  4. Duncan Johnstone, “Ten reasons why the All Blacks don’t lose at Eden Park,” stuff.co.nz, 13 August 2015. Web 24 September 2015.
  5. Martin Snedden, A Stadium of Four Million. Auckland, N.Z.: Hodder Moa, 2012.
  6. Mike Grimshaw, “What If…Rugby Were New Zealand’s Religion?” University of Canterbury, Christchurch. 28 Sept. 2015. Lecture.
  7. Gregor Paul, Black Obsession: The All Black’s Quest for World Cup Success. Auckland: ExislePub., 2009. 164.
  1. William J.Baker, “Introduction.” Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Academic International [ebrary]. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
  2. Clifford Geertz and Michael Banton, Religion as a Cultural System. London: Tavistock, 1966.
  3. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz, “An Assessment of the Dynamic of Religious Ritualism in Sporting Environments.” Springer Science + Business (2013): 1­9. 2 July 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.
  4. Paul Tillich,On the Boundary; an Autobiographical Sketch. New York: Scribner, 1966.
  5. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
  6. Sandy Abbot, “Richie McCaw ­ A Hero.” NZ News UK. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
  7. Richie McCaw and Greg McGee. Richie McCaw: The Open Side. Auckland: Hodder Moa,2012.
  8. “I Heard Richie McCaw Died” Jono and Ben. The Rock Radio Station, 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.
  9. Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but NotLiterally. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
  1. John Kirwan and Margie Thomson. All Blacks Don’t Cry: A Story of Hope. North Shore, N.Z.: Penguin, 2010.
  2. Kelly, Rachael. “Sir John Kirwan Opens up about Depression to Gore Pupils.” The Southland Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV