There are times when the reactions of the fan community can be as interesting as the source material itself. In keeping with the theme of villainy and Game of Thrones from last post, it would be remiss of me not to touch on Cersei’s competition in season 6, the High Sparrow, who made me ponder on the matter of religious villains and their perceptions to audiences.
To be blunt, viewers of Game of Thrones hated the High Sparrow. Despite the horror and trauma of the season finale, there seemed to be an undercurrent of vicious triumph in fan’s reactions to the utter decimation of the Sparrows. The High Sparrow and his followers are vaporized by Wildfire, and the remaining member, Septa Unella, is subjected to an implied future of brutal rape and torture. Seeing how terrible the fates of these characters are, one would assume they would have to do something equally reprehensible for people to enjoy this payback.
But the thing is… They don’t.
It’s easy to see the Sparrows as the villains. The self-righteous attitudes and abuse of power to force people to conform to their way of thinking hardly casts them in a sympathetic light. We grimace when we see the conditions Cersei and the Tyrell siblings, Margaery and Loras, are subjected to in the Sept prisons. We cringe as we watch Cersei’s “Walk of Shame” for accusations of regicide and infidelity.
The interesting thing is, however, that Cersei IS guilty of the things for which she is accused. She did plot the king’s murder, and she was unfaithful to him during marriage (the king being a cheating, abusive scumbag notwithstanding). She’s also guilty of a great many other crimes that were not touched on. It’s hard to argue that she shouldn’t be held accountable for her actions. Ironically, her punishments were only possible because she was the one that gave the Sparrows the power to do so in an attempt to subject Margaery and Loras to the exact same mistreatment she received.
So why is it that Cersei, whose laundry list of sins and crimes against humanity is far longer and starker than the Sparrows, who actually work to help the poor, to champion equality for lowborns and nobles under the law, and to rebuild moral integrity in a kingdom of depravity, is the more sympathetic point of view?
I think it comes down to the fact that crimes and sins in fiction are not equivalent to those in real life.
Killing and murder is treated surprisingly lightly. If the victim is someone unlikeable, no one really cares. And if the perpetrator makes an entertaining show of it or seems really cool their sins actually endear them to people. People seemed quite onboard with Arya Stark channeling Hannibal Lecter and feeding the execrable Walder Frey a pie of his own dismembered sons.
May I recommend some fava beans and a nice Chianti?
Cheating and other sins of lust, while almost universally loathed in real life, can be steamy and enticing in fiction. Hardly anyone bats an eyelash at characters who steal or lie.
But religious antagonists tend to be given flaws that doesn’t really have potential for endearment or entertainment, such as hypocrisy, self-righteousness, bigotry, or zealotry. While in real life no one would favor a murderer over a hypocrite, we tend to approve more of characters who can admit that they’re rotten like Cersei over those who mistreat and abuse others under a guise of righteousness like the High Sparrow. Perhaps we also better understand and empathize with crimes of passion and self-interest rather than crimes on behalf of nebulous, esoteric goals like universal consciousness or utopian society.
Can religious antagonists walk the line between sympathy and disapproval? I think so, but it’s a razor-thin line. Religion is already a hot topic, as is the justification of religion for despicable acts, so incorporating these into a character already earns them a heft weight of negative points. It’s important, therefore, to emphasize what good traits the character may have, and also get into the mindset of that character to produce justifications to at least make readers question their initial stance or acknowledge some valid points. Acknowledge that just because an antagonist may be religious, it doesn’t have to be their sole defining trait or motivation. The closer a religious antagonist is to an actual person, rather than a straw man representing the worst aspects of religion, the better they will hold up.
There’s no guarantees, however. Just ask this guy.
Btw, quick shout out to Patrick Sponaugle, whose page I’ve been relentlessly digging through. If you’re looking for more great Game of Thrones content, check him out. Sometimes deep, sometimes, zany, always good!