George R.R. Martin has stated on several occasions that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a fantasy with magic, not science fiction. However, he has also declared that he is doling out the magic in small doses so that it does not overwhelm the plot. For example, “a wizard did it” (from “The Simpsons” Treehouse of Horror X) will not feature at all. Despite these statements and the material in the books so far, there is a considerable contingent of the fandom that assert unequivocally that a) there are gods in the story, b) “the visions are real”, that is, revelations of the future are true. However, there is a view that exists in between the science fiction and theistic interpretations of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. An elaboration of this view will help quite a bit in tracing the trajectory of the story, thus, providing a more productive way of predicting its future course.
Although Martin was born and raised Roman Catholic, he is now a self-described atheist/agnostic. Some combination of these two perspectives appears in all of his work from “Tuf Voyaging”, the rest of the 1000 Worlds stories, to his forays in horror, for example Fevre Dream, to the fantasies including “A Song of Ice and Fire”. From the blood magic to the crucifixion imagery of Theon and Aeron “Damphair”, to the trinity of Jon Snow (the original Jon is the father to the reborn Jon, and his (holy) Ghost), to the threes repeated throughout (the dragon has three heads, three dragons, love triangles, heraldry (sigils), and children such as Cersei’s), to the admitted Faith of the Seven, septons, septas, Faith Militant, Seven Pointed Star, and High Septon’s parallels with the Roman Catholic Church and medieval European history, Roman Catholicism is pervasive.
However, these Roman Catholic elements should not blind us to the other religions Martin has imported from history as well as the fiction writers’ creations he has read and admired. The Iron Born’s cultural beliefs are a combination of Viking and Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos. Viking and Celtic figures appear throughout from the one handed Jaime-Thor connection to the Bloodraven/One-Eyed Crow’s linkage to both Odin and Loki during Ragnarok. R’hllor comes from both Zoroastrianism and Michael Moorcock. The Maiden, Mother, and Crone are drawn from Celtic and other pagan faiths along with the interlocking circles that are their symbol and form the sigil of House Massey. The faith of the Old Gods is drawn from a number of nature-worshipping pagan religions including those of the Celts, Vikings, and Native Americans. The wearing of human skins and human sacrifice to the gods is a part of many religions including the Nahua people of Mexicali, more popularly known as the Aztec. Taking all of these into consideration, one might consider “A Song of Ice and Fire” to be a commentary on religion, the conflict amongst religions, and the nature of human morality.
And yet, Martin has explicitly stated that there is magic – a supernatural power – in the story. It is not telekinesis, telepathy, and/or mind-control. The ability to alter the physical, natural world through spells, incantations, and magic-infused items like glass candles is real. This might lead one to believe that prophecies and visions are also real because they are products of magic, but that would be incorrect. Three things disprove the belief in prophecies and visions in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. First, Martin has declared that his use of prophecy is a kind of game he is playing with his reader – a literary device as it were that keeps interest, stirs speculation, and allows the reader to see links his characters do not.
Second, Martin likes to put in twists. He has done so ever since he began writing stories. They work for various reasons. They create suspense. They generate interest. They also satisfy Martin’s need to explore the contradictions of human existence, specifically, the disjuncture between what society, parents, and educators want us to think and what is actually true. Although it can become somewhat trite, Martin’s world was profoundly altered by the Vietnam War. As per the “Rolling Stone” interview, he arrived at Northwestern for college from Bayonne, New Jersey, a committed patriot who accepted the rightness of the USA fighting the Cold War against the communists, but found to his dismay that Vietnam was questionable at best. Prophecies and religion in “A Song of Ice and Fire” tend to follow this thought pattern.
Third, religious and prophetic material provides a venue for a commentary on belief and motivation. For example, “The Prince That Was Promised” prophecy is about the return of a dragon prince. Interpreting this “prince” to be a member of House Targaryen, Maester Aemon concludes at the end of his life that Daenerys is that prince because dragons can be male or female. As another example, Rhaegar for a time thought that he was the promised prince because his birth followed the destruction of much of his family in the tragedy of Summerhall from a fiery explosion. The Dothraki “stallion who will mount the world” might easily be about the birthing of a dragon rather than a khal (leader of the Dothraki) given that the Dothraki tend to think of things that you ride as horses. The Azor Ahai prophecy may well be the same as “the prince that was promised”, but contains the idea that the savior will be born among smoke and salt. Many have concluded that Daenerys born in a storm on Dragonstone means that she was born amongst smoke (ruins and fire) and salt (a sea storm). Others make Jon Snow the prophesied one because he was born among tears, which are salty, and smoke (the war that surrounded him). However, it is entirely possible that the “salt” of the prophecy is the mistake of the people of Asshai, who might easily confuse snow with salt. If Jon Snow is reborn from a funeral pyre intended to hatch dragons in an attempt to recreate Daenerys’ supposed birthing of her dragons, Jon Snow will be born amidst smoke and the misread snow of the North.
Another curious prophecy is the Maggie the Frog prediction that Cersei will be killed by “the valonqar” – High Valyrian for younger brother. While Cersei firmly believes this means Tyrion, a good portion of the commentators believe that dramatic ironies will be better served if it is Jaime – her lover, twin, but younger twin. Unfortunately for this interpretation, the valonqar is to wrap his “hands” around her neck and choke the life out of her. Jaime has lost one of his hands and would not be able to wrap his hands around her neck whereas Tyrion has shown with Shae that he is perfectly capable of strangling and, now, has every reason to murder his sister. It would also fulfill the irony of prophecy that Martin has mentioned when talking about the phenomenon – the knight who avoids stone walls because of the prophecy he would die beneath one only to die underneath the sign of a tavern named “The Stone Wall”. Last, and certainly not least, it is curious that Maggie used the High Valyrian word when common tongue ones would have done just as well and composed the other parts of the prophecy. However, when one takes into account Tyrion’s likely Aerys the Mad King’s paternity, Tyrion is part Valyrian, thus, Maggie’s prophecy serves two functions: acknowledging Tyrion’s ancestry and fostering the enmity between the two siblings.
It is in that last respect that prophecy and religion intermix to form Martin’s critique, if you will, on humanity’s need to believe. Melisandre is the most obvious case in point as someone who is a religious fanatic for R’hllor only to have serious problems interpreting the flames. Rhaegar starts a civil war and causes the destruction of his family’s dynasty in what was likely an attempt to fulfill prophecy (He names his children with Elia Rhaenys and Aegon and tries for a third with Lyanna when Elia is said to be too weak to have more children.). Daenerys is almost notoriously bad at interpreting her visions whether from the House of the Undying (the threes mostly) or from/of Quaithe. First she thinks Quaithe is being direct and wants her to go to Asshai. Then, she thinks Jorah is the betrayal for gold. Now, she is committed to leading a violent path of conquest under the motto “a dragon plants no trees”. Cersei is largely self-destructing in order to avoid her prophecy and so on. In short, Martin is deploying prophecy in the Oedipus and Greek king way of misinterpretation and over-reliance on prophecy instead of reason. As Tyrion and Marwyn have stated in colorful metaphors, prophecy is not to be trusted.
We see much the same view towards religion in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. While it has the ability to comfort as it did Sansa during the Battle of the Blackwater and provide for a stable social order as it does for the North with the reverence for the Old Gods, religious belief is also the description of magic that Melisandre gives: “a sword without a hilt”. The Sparrows’ fundamentalist movement has resulted in a wave of religious fanaticism including the revival of the Faith Militant, the closing down of free expression, and a commitment to belief that is likely to prove deadly in the face of ancient conflicts. Melisandre has burned people alive. She is shortly to play her role in weakening the Wall by destroying the heartwood grove just north of it where Sam and Jon took their vows. Just as in the 1000 Worlds story, “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, the hive-minded Children of the Forest are probably positioning humanity and the White Walkers for extinction using prophecy and religion as their tools. They are the ones planting many of the visions and prophecies that are leading to annihilative war just as they founded the Faceless Men to serve their cause. (The many faced god is that of the heartwood trees; “All men must die/Valar Morghulis,” is not a statement of truth, but an objective; and the Children used the Faceless Men to cause the Doom of Valyria, but saved the Targaryens for their later purposes.)
We also have the use of psychotropic drugs like Shade of the Evening leading to visions along with lots of fire staring and tree listening. Martin’s fellow baby boomers often tried to expand their minds by ingesting LSD, peyote, and psilocybin. These “head trips” were drug-induced hallucinations, but those who subscribed to the Timothy Leary motto of “tune in, turn on, and drop out” believed that they had entered other realms. There was a reason why the interdimensional realms of Doctor Strange comic books had an appeal to the derided, so-called hippies. Melisandre’s visions have their fascination. They show “Snow” in answer to the question of “Show me the face of R’hllor”. A man becomes a wolf then a man again. The Great Other is a tree-face and a wolf boy. These are not particularly revelatory. They show conceptions and plot twists for those of us who like those games, but are not to be trusted, particularly if they are self-fulfilling (Burning Jon Snow with Ghost and Shireen to wake dragons from stone is tragic, but not proof of veracity, only external influences.). Aeron Damphair’s forced Shade of the Evening draughts in “The Foresaken” chapter of The Winds of Winter lead him to reimagine Euron as a Lovecraftian Cthulhu-raising antichrist.
Then there are Daenerys’ Shade of the Evening induced hallucinations in the House of the Undying. Her head trip gives us the past (Rhaegar, “Burn them all”, etc.), the present (the War of the Five Kings and Red Wedding, her various suitors including Victarion Greyjoy as the corpse smiling and Tyrion as the white lion in the tall grass), and the might have been (her son with Drogo, Rhaego, being a total dick). But what truly concerns us are the threes (betrayals, fires, mounts, lies, and loves). Being a Targaryen and having her head full of threes is not particularly impressive, nor is the concept that the Undying are manipulating her. (For someone seeking autonomy, she is the target of tons of manipulation.) The betrayals are for blood, gold, and love. Quite frankly, what else is there for causing betrayal? The mounts are widely believed to be her marriages (Drogo, Hizdahr, on Drogon). The fires are funeral pyre (Drogo), life (her three dragons), and love (dead suitor, probably Daario/Euron). The three lies are likely Stannis (blue eyes, fake sword, and no shadow), fake Aegon (mummer’s dragon), and Jon Connington (greyscale infected Griffin or stone beast breathing shadow fire from a burning tower). Then there are her three bridegrooms: Drogo, Euron/Daario, and blue flower in a chink of a wall of ice Jon Snow with Hizdahr simply not rating a mention. Note that none of these things are predictions, merely distinct possibilities given various persons’ known intent at the time. Drogo is dead. Euron/Daario wants dragons. And, Jon Snow is her nephew at the Wall. A Targaryen marriage of close kinship is not out of the realm of possibility.
In conclusion, while the prophecies and religion of “A Song of Ice and Fire” add much to the richness of the story, they are not meant to be believed. However, they do raise questions about faith v. reason, fate v. choice, and the nature of our reality. These are debatable questions and would not be available to use if we simply accepted the story without question.
Note: Almost all of the foregoing is from Preston Jacobs, Radio Westeros, Dorian the Historian, and other sources.