Game of Thrones’ the High Sparrow: A Review
Following on my previous review of Danerys Targaryen I have today decided to examine another Game of Thrones character, the nameless High Sparrow, High Septon of the Faith. We are first introduced to the High Sparrow in Book Four, A Feast for Crows, when he briefly encounters Brienne of Tarth and everyone’s favorite squire, Podrik Payne. Aside from offering some interesting insights into the theological philosophy of the Seven (the dominant religion of southern Westeros) he comes across as a rather insignificant character. This is quickly proven to be incorrect, as later on he arrives in the capital of Kings’ Landing, coincidentally upon the death of the previous High Septon (arranged by Queen Regent Cersei Lannister), and riding upon an tide of support from the city’s poor and starving population of refugees displaced by the War of Five Kings’ is chosen as the new leader of the Faith.
Cersei initially sees the new High Sparrow (as he is called by both his supporters and detractors alike) as a pawn she can use to further her own schemes, but the High Sparrow quickly proves to be a power in his own right, securing the reinstatement of the Faith Militant (a previous military order of the Faith crushed and disbanded by the Targaryen dynasty centuries ago) and winning great popularity amongst the city’s poor and downtrodden through acts of charity and compassion. At the present point in the Game of Thrones storyline he has arguably become one of the most powerful figures in the capital, having imprisoned both Queen Regent Cersei and also Queen Margery against the might of both House Lannister and House Tyrell, whose combined strength had successfully won the War of Five Kings.
The character of the High Sparrow offers a truly excellent example of the sheer power that an incorruptible figure can wield. He manages to, up to this point, beat at their own game both Cersei (who imagines herself to be a master manipulator) and the matriarch of House Tyrell, Lady Olenna, (who is a master manipulator) by the simple act of refusing to even play it. For the first time ever both the Queen Regent and the Queen of Thorns encounter someone who cannot be bribed, seduced, flattered or simply frightened into bending to their will, and neither know how to deal with him.
In a place such as Kings’ Landing, a nest of vipers where everyone is always deceiving someone towards some ulterior motive, the High Sparrow, who truthfully proclaims that he believes all are equal before the laws of the Gods and acts upon that principle, is unstoppable. How do you control someone who can be swayed by neither greed nor concern for their own survival? The answer, as Cersei and Olenna learn to their ire, is that you simply cannot.
Faith, or rather the strength of will that comes from it, is the most powerful force known to man. The belief in something greater than yourself, whether it is a religion, a creed, or a king, is the one thing that can motivate the masses of people to look beyond their own narrow interest and come together to defy odds that previously seemed insurmountable. The High Sparrow knows this, and is not afraid to use it. As he poignantly points out to Lady Olenna “we are the many, you are the few, and what happens when the few stop fearing the many?”. We can see this in our present day conundrum in the Middle East, where a few thousand black clad fanatics armed with small arms and absolute faith have managed to thwart the unprecedented military might of an America that somehow has become unsure of what it aspires to or even believes in anymore.
Just as our own real world challenges are very much of our own making, so too are those of the world of Game of Thrones. The rise of the High Sparrow was only made possible by the void created from the machinations of Westeros’ ruling elite. As Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, Tyrell and Tully ground one another into dust on the battlefield, they displaced the common people of the Seven Kingdoms and in doing so displaced their faith in the justice of the status quo that had ruled since the Targaryens first came to Westeros and made the seven realms into one with the sheer might of their dragons. Atheism is a luxury of the secure and comfortable, and the cult of empty materialism and hedonistic gratification becomes powerless when people no longer have the promise of continuity that allows them to enjoy it. When that continuity was shattered it opened the peoples’ ears to the promises of the High Sparrow of shelter, comfort and justice promised by the Faith and no longer provided by their previous noble rulers.
It is interesting that in our own times of increasing turmoil and uncertainty we have seen an upsurge in religious belief, particularly among the young; that that desire for belief has led not towards the socially acceptable, moderate “progressive” doctrines such as Anglicanism or Presbyterianism or the United Church (who dwindling, geriatric congregations continue to grow ever smaller) but instead to the liturgy of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, who have been showing increasing signs of revival even in renowned secular havens such as France and the Scandinavian countries. When uncertainty reigns supreme, moral relativism is revealed as the mirage it truly is, and people turn instead to the comfort of that which has proven to be old and enduring.
So what does the future hold for our reinvigorated Faith of the Seven led by its increasingly assertive High Sparrow? Westeros is in ruins, the armies of the great ruling Houses reduced to shadows of their former selves The Iron Throne held by sweet, but utterly witless, boy king guided by his conceiving and utterly idiotic mother and her council of hangers-on and yes-men and supported by allies known only for their tendency for treachery. It would seem that there are few who can challenge the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant as the new power maker in the land. Of course, the whole lot of them will likely be reduced to cinders in the last paragraph of the final book when Queen Daenerys swoops in on her dragon and burns what is left of Westeros to the ground before she miraculously heals the land and raises the dead with a wave of her magic wand (as the showrunners seem to be telegraphing quite heavily with their hints as to the direction the story is now heading in). Nevertheless, there is an important moral to be taken here that intrigue and deception only hold so much power as we allow them to, for power, as Varys once put it in the form of a riddle, truly lies where we perceive it to be.