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Last Night's 'Game of Thrones' Showed the Downside of Forgiveness

When your whole thing is absolving people when they repent, it's hard to make your enemies go away for good.
May 30, 2016, 4:00pm

Warning: Spoilers from season six, episode six ahead.

Ever since Cersei Lannister empowered Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow to take over the Sept, close the brothels, and scourge the wicked, I've been waiting for two problems to end his reign of terrifying purity. First, once the wicked repent, he more or less has no choice but to forgive them, even if that means setting himself up for a second fight with a better-prepared foe. Second, he has no great lord's army keeping him safe, and the black-robed Faith Militant with their cudgels won't last long against actual armored troops.

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Personally, I was sort of hoping the Lannisters would order the High Sparrow to be hung and burned, or maybe a trial by fire, because that's what happened to the his real-life precursor—the Friar Girolamo Savonarola in 15th-century Florence. Alas, the monk seems to have successfully won over Margaery Tyrell and King Tommen, so instead of being torn apart by a mob or a military force, the lead zealot let the queen off from her walk of atonement, faced down the Tyrell army, and found a partner on the throne. Thus he saves his Faith Militant from righteous martyrdom, but also renders himself permanently political. So now we have #TeamHighSparrow vs #TeamJaime, or as the High Sparrow said, "A new holy alliance between the Crown and the Faith." I'm skeptical it will last beyond contact with the real world.

Last year, I described George R. R. Martin's process of building his world as telescoping history. He, and the show's writers who are now carrying the story forward, don't base the fantasy series on any specific history, but grab from whatever myths and stories seem interesting, so you can have tenth-century Vikings (Ironborn) meet 13th-century Mongols (Dothraki) meet 16th-century Venetians (Braavos). Though Westeros was originally loosely inspired by the English War of the Roses, as Martin has stated, the Lannisters have always seemed to belong to Renaissance Italy and the families that bought, fought, and conspired their way to power. In the High Sparrow, the Lannisters finally have their Savonarola.

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Throughout history, monks like the High Sparrow frequently got tangled up in politics, sometimes on their own, but more often inserted into the process by some other political faction. They rallied the crowd, condemned sin (often on behalf of other sinners), and demanded reforms. With military support from secular lords, they could effect major changes (see: The Reformation). Without it, they often perished in painful ways (see: Pope Gregory VII below).

I spoke to Sarah Bond, assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, who agreed with me that the Lannisters were a combination of the Medici and the Borgias, without, so far as we know, the whole patronizing the arts and supporting the Italian Renaissance aspect. She's been interested in the role of prophecy in Game of Thrones, comparing the High Sparrow and the Red Woman to ancient prophetic traditions.

She told me that "monks going rogue and seizing the city" happened a number of times in the early Christian Mediterranean in the first few centuries CE, which of course was a time of religious and political turmoil. "Draping yourself in the blanket of moral rectitude and asceticism allows you to assert superiority over a monarch," she told me. "But monks are often not given enough credit for being super violent at times." The High Sparrow can smile all he wants, she said, showing off his "monastic calm, [but] I think he is very internally fiery."

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Savonarola was certainly fiery, pun intended. About 518 years ago, give or take a week, the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola was stripped of his black robe, condemned as a heretic, and led to the scaffold erected in the heart of Florence, condemned to be hanged and burned. Just a few years earlier, the great Medici ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent, had brought Savonarola into the city of Florence in order to shore up the ruler's reputation with the Church, but things soured. Lorenzo died, the French invaded, and Savonarola declared himself a prophet. He took over the city, passed laws against all the best kinds of vice, and burned books. But when Pope Alexander VI—the Borgia Pope—excommunicated the friar, Florence turned against him, and he was condemned to death.

As he was led to the scaffold, two of his brothers had been already hung, and the executioner hoped to prolong the preacher's death long enough for him to be burned alive, screaming. Alas, the rope went too tight and choked the life from him too quickly, so the flames only consumed a corpse. Later, the bodies were thrown into the river. Now that's a scene worthy of Game of Thrones.

The High Sparrow didn't only get in trouble for the lack of an army, though, but for a more structural flaw—the inability to refuse forgiveness. When you've accused someone of sin and demanded they repent, it's best if they refuse to repent and you just keep them locked up. Once they agree to your terms, though, a person whose power stems from the moral high ground has to accept. So Cersei had to accept being shamed, but once safely back inside the Red Keep, she and her brother/lover Jaime could safely rebuild their power base, aided by the animated corpse of Gregor "The Undead Mountain" Clegane.

That's got a good history too. In January of 1077, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV arrived in wintry Italy, having been excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII. Henry's nobles had rebelled and the emperor had to humiliate himself in order to get his kingdom back in order. He stripped to a hair shirt and allegedly walked barefoot through the snow on the way to a mountaintop castle where the pope was waiting. Once he was there, however, Gregory had no choice but to forgive him, and Henry went home, punished or co-opted his recalcitrant nobles, then came back to Italy with an army and drove Gregory to Sicily. Gregory died there, allegedly saying, "I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile" (from Psalm 44).

It would have been a lot better for Gregory, or the High Sparrow, to just refuse to allow repentance. Of course, that way lies execution in the name of religion, and we've seen where that goes too, whether historically, in the modern world, or with the savagery of the Red Woman and Stannis. The High Sparrow might have won this round, but Cersei is still biding her time, and in the end the monk will have to surrender his moral supremacy or face defeat—history makes that clear.

Meanwhile, Jaime Lannister has been booted from King's Landing and sent to gather the Lannister army. We're assembling pieces for the Battle of Six Armies, bit by bit, as everyone gathers for a massive showdown in the North.

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