“Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick... a shadow on the wall.”
- Lord Varys
At first glance, Varys' riddle in last night's standout episode of Game of Thrones, "What is Dead May Never Die," is about the clash of kings that forms the central arc of the series' second season: which man will take the iron throne, and how he'll manage to do it. But as Westeros' kings proclaim their inherent and incontestable right to the throne, Varys' riddle raises a further question: If a king's power is nothing more than a trick, what does it say about the power of the gods he claims are on his side? As Cersei noted in Game of Thrones' second-season premiere, there's a king in every corner (four, by my count, with Balon Greyjoy lurking on the fringes). But "What Is Dead May Never Die" points to the larger, darker implication of Westeros' ongoing clash of kings: There's a god in every corner as well.
Rulers have long recognized the value of asserting divine right to the throne (for a real-world example, look to the long reign of the Tudors in England, among many, many others). There's a reason that Brienne insists Catelyn kneel before King Renly as if in prayer, or that each and every one of Game of Thrones' kings insists on being addressed by his followers as "your grace"—a term which literally means "virtue coming from God." In Westeros, it's not enough for a king to be elevated by his people Westeros; he has to be elevated by the will of God.
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The real trick is deciding which God to pick.
If the clash of kings is also a clash of gods, there are several kings who are already at risk for divine retribution. With all the human drama of Ned Stark's death in Game of Thrones' first season, it's easy to frget the blasphemy of Joffrey's execution order: He refused to grant forgiveness to Ned at the Great Sept of Baelor, the holy seat of Westeros' primary religion, and permanently tainted its steps with Ned's innocent blood. Stannis committed an even greater blasphemy against the Faith of the Seven in Game of Thrones'second-season premiere when he burned his island's religious statues and swore loyalty to Melisandre's "Lord of Light." Even Renly—who says he wants to "pray awhile alone" so he can slip away for a tryst with Ser Loras—treats religion, like war, as a game.
What power do these oft-spoken of gods have in Westeros, if they exist at all? The Seven certainly didn't save the nunnish Septa Mordane, whose head was mounted on a spike next to Ned Stark's after decades of loyal service. And Maester Cressen—the only one brave enough to oppose Stannis denouncing the Seven in favor of Melisandre's "Lord of Light"—paid for his piety with his life. In "What Is Dead May Never Die," Maester Luwin tells Bran that all the magic in the world—dragons, giants, and the children of the forest—all died out long ago. But based on what we've seen, he could just as easily have replaced the word "magic" with "faith." For all intents and purposes, Westeros is godforsaken—in the most literal sense of the word.
But whatever the true nature of Westeros' gods turns out to be, the various men vying for the iron throne have failed to realize what's most important: whether or not any of the gods have actual power, their symbolic power means a great deal. Nothing outwardly changes when Theon Greyjoy agrees to a saltwater baptism in tribute to his father's Drowned God. But he rises from the water with his loyalties set in the "salt and stone and steel" of his homeland. If power is a "trick," as Varys tells Tyrion in the episode's best scene, then religion is the powerful's greatest trick of all.
And as the kings continue to clash, what does religion mean to the commoners? As Jorah Mormont commented last season, they "pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends"—and often without success. In a world of such religious turmoil, self-reliance may prove to be the true answer. At the end of "What Is Dead May Never Die," Yoren teaches Arya Stark the "prayer" that he used to recite: the name of the man who murdered his brother, which he would repeat before bed each night until the day he earned his bloody revenge. Arya's list of names to revenge against is already longer than Yoren's ever was, and Yoren's "prayer" didn't save his life or grant him peace—but unlike most of Westeros' faithful, he lived long enough to see it answered.
Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.
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