Chuck Steel

4.400 MAR Keynote

J-Term 2014

Dr. Hess & Dr. Largen

Theodicy and A Song of Ice and Fire


Why do so many bad things happen to the Starks?

        Theodicy is the discipline of religious study that tries to answer the question of why evil exists in the world, in other words, it tries to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people. The questions of theodicy are wrapped up with how one views God and over time different theodicies have preserved one aspect of God while lessening others. For instance, one must balance God’s all loving nature with God’s all powerful nature when constructing a theodicy. In this paper I will lay out some basic understandings and traditional answers to the theodicy question and then try to interface those understandings with the popular series of novels from George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. In particular I will interface with the beliefs of the Stark family from the series. These books are the basis for the HBO series A Game of Thrones, which is the title of the first novel in the series. It is not my intention to develop a full theodicy during this paper but I will lay some groundwork that could be the foundation for future efforts.

In Faith Seeking Understanding Daniel Migliore lays out three prominent answers to the theodicy question. The first argument relies on the incomprehensibility of God, saying that we are not capable of understanding God.[1] This understanding of theodicy relies on a fullness of trust in God and a belief that things will work out in the end for God’s followers, we just cannot fathom why these things are happening now. This understanding strengthens God’s all-powerfulness but it is difficult to see how God can be viewed as all loving in light of the evils that happen for reasons that we cannot understand.

The second traditional answer to the theodicy question presented by Migliore lifts up God’s nature as being supremely just and says that both good and evil persons in the world receive punishment for their sins, although we may not perhaps witness the punishments in this world. Migliore comments that this view takes a rather simplistic view of the relationship between sin and punishment. He also stresses that a theodicy of punishment places a blame on victims that are being punished for sins that they have not committed.[2] This view brings more of God’s love into the equation, although it is still problematic because God’s followers are not protected from all evil.

The third argument from traditional theodicies uses the language of a divine pedagogy. In this understanding sufferings are used as a teaching tool to show Christians a path for spiritual growth.[3] This theodicy lifts up God’s all loving nature in the guise of the parent that while appearing to punish their children is using that punishment as a way to show their child a better path.

In George R. R. Martin’s fantasy narrative there are many gods but the Stark family worships what are commonly referred to as “the old gods.”[4] The old gods are still worshipped primarily in the north where the Stark family dwells and holds dominion. Most of the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms worship “The Seven” which is a god that is believed to have seven faces which people turn to for different needs. The Faith of the Seven, as the church is called, was brought to the land by a the Andals long ago and supplanted the old gods and is now considered the official religion of the Seven Kingdoms.[5] It is a sign of a strong faith that the Stark family has held onto their beliefs over thousands of years and still cling to the old gods of their forefathers. There isn’t an organized church around the old gods, there are no priests or churches dedicated to them, but those families that worship the old gods have a godswood which typically contains what is referred to as a “heart tree”. Heart trees have faces carved in them and it is believed that it is through these faces that the gods see the world. In one scene a northern woman overhears Brandon Stark praying to the old gods to watch over his brother who has gone south. She tells him that the gods can no longer watch over him because the weirwoods have all been cut down in the south, so the gods no longer have the eyes to see him.[6] 

In terms of how the worshippers of the old gods view them this is a critical piece of knowledge. It shows that the old gods rely on aspects of the physical world which they do not have control over and therefore they must not be all powerful. Based on this evidence it would be hard to construct a theodicy that relies on an all powerful nature, which would discard the first argument presented by Migliore. The second argument may have some weight, since it is primarily in the southern lands where the Stark’s meet several rather ill fates.[7]  Based on that evidence it may be plausible to assert that the Starks are being punished for leaving the land of their gods and justice is being served to them in some form.

A theodicy of justice for wrongdoings does assume that the old gods still have agency in the southern lands since they are able to bring about justice there, however. Removing agency from the gods would require constructing a theodicy that grants more agency to human beings and in order to construct such an argument a deeper study of the anthropology of the people in the Seven Kingdoms would need to be developed. This could lead to something like a process theodicy that grants humans the ability to perform evil, even if God intends them to do good.[8]

Based on this limited study of the understanding of the old gods in A Song of Ice and Fire it is difficult to establish a meaningful theodicy surrounding the old gods. One of the struggles is trying to establish that understanding using our Christian rhetoric applied to another religious tradition. In order to come to a fuller understanding we would need to gather much more evidence and knowledge surrounding the old gods and the beliefs of their followers. Perhaps when more books from the series are published we will gain further insights and be able to conduct such studies. As it stands it is difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions as to why so many bad things happen to the Starks.


“Faith of the Seven.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire. Wiki. N. p., 16 Jan. 2014.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. eBook.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991. Print.

[1] Migliore, 123

[2] ibid. 124

[3] ibid. 124-125

[4] Martin, 22

[5] Faith of the Seven

[6] ibid. 564

[7] Eddard Stark, the family patriarch, is beheaded while in the south and his son is also killed before he returns to the north. The death of his son takes place during “The Red Wedding” which is a particularly brutal scene in which his mother is also almost killed as well. It is important to note, however, that Catelyn Stark is not a northerner by birth and is a follower of The Seven. This can either lead us to believe that the old gods bring justice both to their followers or that the evil is coming from another source.

[8] Migliore. 129