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Game Of Thrones: How a modern myth captured the hearts of millions

Game Of Thrones: How a modern myth captured the hearts of millions

Sex, violence and big budgets drew us in, but we stayed because of the power of myth, says Madeleine Ward. 21/5/2019

That’s it. The final episode of Game of Thrones has aired – and with it, an era (and the actors’ watch) has ended. Whatever criticisms might be levelled at HBO’s hit TV series, there can be no doubt of its success: it has won more Emmy awards than any other fictional TV series in history, and it is the most watched HBO series of all time, with over one billion people viewing pirated copies of season seven and more than 19.3 million people watching the finale before it was even shown in the UK. Of course, the show had an immense budget (the final season cost $90 million) and an extremely ambitious production team (the same season contained the longest battle sequence in cinematic history). More cynically, its success has also been attributed to its use of graphic sex and violence as a form of entertainment. As one friend reflected on watching it for the first time, “What did I learn from that? That we think it’s OK to watch porn with your dad now.”   

Yet the outpouring of public attention which has followed the show’s conclusion remains unmatched by any other entertainment franchise in recent times, and, as we have learned from the outcry over the creative direction of this final season – over 1.3 million people have signed a petition  to rewrite it  – a big budget does not an art form make.   

This should remind us that the real success of Game of Thrones was always its ability to capture people’s imaginations. It is a striking demonstration that stories work best when they convey something we feel is true, and are seen to be violated when they deviate from what is understood to be their own underlying moral compass.   

In another context, this is what Christian theologians have described as “myth”. As CS Lewis reflected, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction”. Along similar lines, GK Chesterton declared, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” In other words, “myth” is not to be understood in its common sense as a fiction or make–belief. Rather, through the power of imagery woven into narrative (or perhaps the power of a parable) we grasp at something that is very difficult to articulate in any other way.  People of faith should feel “at home”  in the world of metaphor.  

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is perhaps the obvious modern example of this approach to storytelling, and Tolkien himself wrote extensively about the moral value of myth–making as participation in God’s own creative nature.  The sheer scope and brilliance of his own created world goes without saying. However, his narrative was also pertinent insofar as it was an attempt to make sense of the creeping moral evil of two World Wars. Above all, it captured a sense of hope in the face of great evil – and of faith in the face of an impending loss of religious confidence that would ultimately precipitate the steep process of “secularisation” which characterised the mid–twentieth century much more than the Enlightenment. Through the fantastical world of elves, hobbits, orcs, and dwarves, Tolkien captured something of  how things really are, and his work has surely stood the test of time because of it. In every age, there will always be those who seek to control the ring, and those who yearn for life in the Shire.   

In the same sense, Game of Thrones has given its viewers much more than sordid sexual titillation: it  is successful because it captures a certain sense of our own time and translates it into something timeless  (or perhaps, vice versa). This doesn’t have to be a moral truth conveyed. Take George RR Martin’s resplendent characterisation of the North, almost a  character in itself, as a place of both great evil and powerful good – that is, the White Walkers, the Children of the Forest, and the Three–Eyed Raven. This characterisation is powerful because it echoes a long and shared cultural memory from contemporary cries of “It’s grim up North” to the Greek legend of the perfect Hyperborea. And there are religious themes too. Indeed, there is even a resurrection – that most iconic myth of all – to be found in the character arc of Jon Snow. You don’t have to be a theologian to see messianism in the final scene of the resurrected true king continuing his leadership beyond the wall (“My kingdom is not of this world”, anyone?).   

And yet the world of Game of Thrones, like Middle Earth, is distinctly of its time too. We live in an age that is much less certain and much less religious than Tolkien’s (though not so much as we might always think, as our Religious London project is exploring). It is therefore  fitting that, while nobody could have doubted that Frodo would eventually triumph over Sauron in Middle Earth, we could not even always be sure who the “goodies” are in Martin’s world. Beloved characters were unsentimentally killed at every turn, and whole cities of innocent people were destroyed; those we thought would be safe were not, and those we thought we could trust to do good were mercilessly corrupted. Many have compared the existential threat posed by the Dead to the very real climate crisis we face today. And while the supernatural is recognised to hold dangerous power in Martin’s world (after all, we first saw Daenerys walking through an ash–covered throne room a full six seasons earlier, in a prophecy that came true) it is also ultimately destabilising and unpredictable. Magic is something to be feared in Westeros, and Snow’s resurrection came only halfway through the story; hope did not entirely have the last word, and the series ended with only tentative peace.   

Game of Thrones both draws on resonant imagery that is thousands of years old and stands as a testament to the deep moral instability of our time. It has reawakened a generation to the enduring power of myth, and has evoked such a strong sense of indignance at a myth violated that over 1.3 million people have felt it necessary to scrap the final season and start over. Of course, they won’t be let down entirely; in a certain sense, this ending will inevitably be rewritten as Martin has not yet completed the books themselves. In the meantime, its success shows the power of telling the right story. People of faith – those naturally at home in myth–making – should take note. Our “watch” is far from over.  

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Image © Kathy Hutchins via Shutterstock

Madeleine Ward

Madeleine Ward

Madeleine joined Theos in October 2018. She is researching the relationship between social cohesion and the church, in partnership with the Free Churches Group. She holds a doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a conference, research and retreat centre in Philadelphia.

Posted 21 May 2019


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