Along with approximately one hundred million other people, this past weekend I excitedly welcomed Game of Thrones back onto my TV screen. I even made a themed pie:
While some have chosen to abstain from watching, those of us tracking with the story have found interesting insights into the human condition–even amidst the White Walkers, dragons, and demon-shadow-babies. Like all captivating stories do, GoT finds resonance with viewers as it illuminates our complicated world alongside its own fantastical one. A die-hard fan and a religious scholar teamed up to write a book about the way characters’ religious and theological commitments play a role in the saga. The Root has featured a piece by Michael Harriot about how #DemThrones reflects aspects of the Black American experience to its audience and parallels support for white supremacy in America. On the spiritual side, Andy Walton, writing for Christianity Today, thinks the show gives viewers a good view of a world in which grace is utterly absent:
In the Christian worldview … redemption comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection, something allegorised in the Narnia books, for example. What’s remarkable about the current slew of programmes is how little redemption is on offer. Sin is the cause of great despair and a cycle of violence, but in very few of these shows do we get a story of redemption.
I am not arguing for any Narnia-like allegories within GoT, but my own interaction with the world of the show has led me to think more about power, prejudice, and the role identity and myth play in political landscapes. Whereas Walton sees the world of GoT as lacking any redemption arcs, I would argue that the ways certain characters have wrestled with their baggage and their mistakes have had elements of redemption. We have seen characters chose to break unhealthy patterns and relationships, isolated grumps learn to be part of a team, sisters learn to cooperate instead of compete, and traditional enemies form important friendships. In the hopeful glimmers amidst the grim defeats (and some of them have been very grim…Hodor), one redemptive arc shines brighter than a candle in a Winterfell window: that of fan-favourite Jon Snow.
Here is the key to my hot (or snowy?) take: Jon Snow is an excellent example of a man who comes to acknowledge his privilege, grapples with it, and becomes all the better for engaging the process. He comes to see his own position and skill more clearly over time and chooses to leverage it to protect others, reverse entrenched prejudices, and undermine centuries-old systemic oppressions. Part of what has made Jon a character worth rooting for has been his successful wrestling with his own identity and abilities while avoiding the traps of bitterness or entitlement that someone in his position could very easily slip into.
Jon Snow, the supposed “Bastard of Winterfell” and infamous Knower-of-Nothing, was raised as the illegitimate son of an important, honourable lord: Ned Stark. Jon’s upbringing was less pleasant than that of his legitimate half-siblings. Despite being included in training and education alongside Ned Stark’s true-born sons, he doesn’t carry his family’s name and is frequently pushed to the margins. His step-mother is cruel and dismissive of him, never able to see him as anything other than a reminder of her husband’s assumed betrayal. He can’t inherit anything. With his illegitimacy barring him from finding a good position within Westeros’ political landscape, Jon “Would-you-like-some-shoulder-to-go-with-that-chip” Snow decides to “take the black,” and joins the Night’s Watch (a force of solider-monks) to guard the Wall at the edge of civilization. Here’s a little clip to set the stage.
Finding less acceptance and honour at the Wall than he hoped for, the chip on Jon’s shoulder threatens to grow. His conversation with Tyrion Lannister, a wealthy guest at the Wall, in season one’s “Lord Snow” gives him some much-needed perspective:
Jon: Everybody knew what this place was and no one told me. No one but you. My father knew and he left me to rot at the Wall all the same.
Tyrion: Grenn’s father left him too. Outside a farmhouse, when he was three. Pyp was caught stealing a wheel of cheese. His little sister hadn’t eaten in three days. He was given a choice – his right hand or the Wall. I’ve been asking the Lord Commander about them. Fascinating stories.
Jon: They hate me because I’m better than they are.
Tyrion: It’s a lucky thing none of them were trained by a master-at-arms like your Ser Rodrik. I don’t imagine any of them had ever held a real sword before they came here.
Occupying a lesser position in a powerful family had its hardships. But until this moment, away from his family for the first time, Jon has never been confronted with how much his privilege has insulated him from pains and trials that many others have experienced. He wasn’t left out in the cold; he didn’t go hungry; he didn’t have to navigate the justice system without any resources. At the Wall, through Tyrion’s encouragement, Jon is able to see himself and others more clearly. After this conversation Jon stops building his self-centred narrative of victimhood. He goes from trying to prove himself at the expense of others to helping them develop their skills and confidence. He protects those he meets that can’t protect themselves and, in so doing, forges important friendships that grant him the security he always wanted.
As the seasons progress, Jon goes on to question the systems he has grown up within. Working at the Wall is largely about keeping the “wildlings”–humans that live on the other side of the Wall—in check and under thumb. At first Jon mimics the contempt his peers hold for wildlings. After spending some time among them and being faced with the greater existential threat on the frozen horizon, Jon later comes to see the civilization/wildling division as petty and dangerous to everyone’s survival. He begins working on the assumption that co-humanity is more important than the devaluing, divisive myths that he grew up listening to. Those with a vested interest in maintaining the literal dividing Wall of hostility do not take kindly to his innovations and Jon pays a dear price for his redemptive vision of humanity.
In season six’s “Winds of Winter” Jon is back at Winterfell and gets caught up in some sad reminiscences about his marginal position within his family:
Jon: When we had feasts, our family would sit up here and I’d sit down there.
Melisandre: Could have been worse, Jon Snow. You had a family. You had feasts.
Jon: (chuckles) Aye, you’re right. I was luckier than most.
He is able to take a gentle reminder about his privilege with good humour rather than defensiveness. What is redemptive in his character is that he stops using the hurts of his past as an excuse to treat other people poorly. Other characters who also grew up as misfits in their surroundings (e.g. Theon Greyjoy) went the route of “I was denied this thing, so I will take it for myself by force,” or “I will establish my power by inflicting on others what was inflicted upon me.” In contrast, Jon decides to fill in the chip in his shoulder with empathy rather than letting it deepen and break him further. He doesn’t become embittered. Instead, he remembers the pain of unmerited exclusion and uses it to drive him toward radical inclusivity.
Jon Snow becomes invested in de-escalating traditional conflicts and animosities for the sake of the greater good. Certainly, Jon makes mistakes. Despite some rather on-the-nose parallels, he’s not Jesus. He still struggles with some entitlement when he settles in at the Wall. As he learns to lead others get hurt. But his arc thus far (I’m writing this at the beginning of the final season) has had some significant elements of redemption and growth that extend beyond himself.
His commitment to protecting others and unlearning the harmful and divisive myths of his culture presents us with a case of a person successfully coming to grips with both their wounds and their immense privilege. He doesn’t have to negate or ignore what hardships he has had; he just has to reckon with the knowledge that systems in Westeros—ones that are analogous to class, race, and ability in our own world—have created more and different hardships for others. This reckoning comes by listening to others, being willing to consider new perspectives, and not allowing narratives of domination and exclusion to continue unimpeded. Put another way? Jon Snow is woke. His posture is the opposite of white fragility. Rather than panic and lash out when faced with his privilege, Jon takes insights from others to heart and resolves to do better.
While Walton sees lack of redemption as the main feature of GoT, I see sparks of redemption here and there. In Jon Snow we have the reminder that our own brokenness and pain is not only ours but tied to the cultures and systems into which we are born. When we are able to address our brokenness and our hurts well, we can then begin to heal. We will find ourselves more ready to tackle the forces of exclusion and hurt that prevent us and others from flourishing. Have some privilege and haven’t sorted through it yet? Be like Jon Snow. He knows some things.
The cunning, violence, and graphic sexual content of the show have led some Christians to declare that watching the show is sinful. These same factors have some feminist commentatorsmaking analogous arguments. I respect the boundaries people put on their media consumption as a personal choice, of course. My goal isn’t to argue for the merits of the show, only to share what I have gleaned from it myself.