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Spiritual defence and Game of Thrones

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ  ::  What Game of Thrones teaches us about defending the castle

The recent Game of Thrones series finale, the epic Battle of Winterfell, reportedly the longest battle sequence in TV history, aired recently to a massive audience. The castle, apparently based on the 18th century Castle Ward near Belfast, is the dramatic locus for the epic battle of the army of the dead and the army of the living. The undead forces of the Night King launch a relentless attack against the living who make a number of tactical errors in defending the fortress. The horseback Dothraki charge, the first line of defence was completely doomed and a waste. Similarity, having the main defence force outside the castle undermines its defensive nature. Then, the defensive retreat created a narrow funnel, a ‘choke point’, which left them vulnerable. With the dragons disabled because of a blizzard caused by the Night King, the overthrow seemed inevitable. Though there is an 11th hour plot twist which saves the day (spoiler alert!), the overrunning of the castle is very comprehensive as the defences are out manoeuvred and outwitted.

One of the central concepts of Ignatian spirituality and discernment is that the human person is a ‘battleground’ or struggle between opposing forces. Respecting our free will, this means that as well as a ‘good spirit’, our basic disposition towards God and good, there is an ‘evil spirit’ or enemy of human nature. The bad spirit is actively working against the human person, undermining good and influencing the human heart for evil. Pope Francis, Jesuit trained, is very explicit on this point, that there is a reality to evil and a deliberate “campaign, the opposition of the evil one”. Combating it requires diligence, attentiveness and grace to resist this pressure. The goal is obviously to protect oneself, remain centred in God and make the right decisions. St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises devotes a large section of ‘rules for discernment’ to describing the two movements and their characteristics (for more see my article: ‘Two hints for recognising the two Ignatian movements of consolation and desolation’ »). In terms of capturing the devious nature of the ‘bad spirit’, Ignatius uses three images: a bluffing bully, a false lover and a vulnerable fortress. Each image has a threat and a solution. Courage and craftiness are needed in equal measure to protect oneself and outsmart a wily opponent who tends to exploit weak points. Take the perfectionist person for example, their weakness is the impossible striving for perfection that is only good up to a point. This provides the ‘access point’ for destroying someone’s peace of mind and wreaking havoc with their lives. The answer is to achieve balance, knowing what is ‘good enough’.

This most graphic image is that of the castle or fortress (SpEx no. 327), the human person as a castle protecting oneself against subtle attacks. Worthy of Game of Thrones imagery, it easy to picture oneself as a castle, complete with stone ramparts, the fortifications and the vigilant defenders. Equally, it’s easy to imagine the attackers, the strategies and the attempts to get inside and overrun the fortress. Only the most innocent or naïve could imagine that life is free of pressures, attacks or the need for strategy. Many people have experience of manipulation, having vulnerabilities exploited or the folly of being too trusting in human relationships. Even Jesus cautions us to be paradoxically “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”, an exhortation to be discerning, courageous and committed in making decisions.

Ignatius appears to be cautioning against complacency or ignorance, though he underlines the problem of naivety above all. The greatest error, given that you accept the need for protecting yourself as a ‘castle’ prone to attack, is to underestimate your enemy. This would be to assume, for example, that the enemy will make a full frontal attack and to have all your troops concentrated on the front walls and entrance, the strongest point. Any strategist knows that the wily attacker will go for the weak point and will use every ruse to divert attention. It is the inevitable weaknesses, cracks and hidden entrances that have to be watched. Lord of the Rings fans will remember the epic Siege of Helm’s Deep where the orcs deviously plant an explosive charge in the drainage outlet to blow a hole in the wall to gain entry. This single strategy, complimented with other diversionary ones, is what causes the downfall of the fortress.

Like a good strategist, knowing one’s weak point is crucial to avoid the calamity of having one’s fortress overrun and one’s well-being seriously compromised. For many of us it is tiredness, some vice or other, a tendency to excess, etc., that can bring about our downfall. On the other hand, just simply knowing and acknowledging weakness gives one a way to deal with it (e.g. getting help with it; avoiding certain situations or people) and to prevent the worst excesses. Ignatius would say ‘shore up the defences’ or ‘look to your weak points’. Like a wise commander this means taking preventive or strategic steps that would prove worthwhile in the long run. Practically, these might amount to asking a guide or spiritual director for advice, going to see a counsellor for a psychological issue or even having a trusted friend act as ‘devil’s advocate’ on a decision.

This is obviously classic medieval imagery and one may to tempted to dismiss it as outdated but it does have a grip on the imagination that can help us live better and be more discerning in our approach to decision and well being. The really ‘good news’ is that all human beings are fundamentally good ‘castles’, created by God though with flaws, and even being overrun or attacked shouldn’t surprise or dispirit us. Any fortress can be rebuilt or retaken and often it can take experiences of ‘weakness’ and much human learning to accept that we are in need of God’s power and protection. In this way, mistakes can be valuable lessons for learning new strategies and better ways of living with courage. Losing a battle or two can be useful in terms of winning the war. One of the interesting implications is that one doesn’t have to be vigilant all the time obviously, just strategic and sensible, and carrying out routine checks on particular weak points. Also, it pays to be discerning rather than permanently suspicious, reviewing things that seem to be good while questioning them, and being open to new possibilities and learnings.

In terms of Game of Thrones and defending Winterfell, the key would be working out in advance what would be an effective strategy against the army of the dead. It means taking realistic stock of one’s natural advantages and defending against the weaknesses. Maybe so much of the living’s army would not have been so easily wasted if they had refused to be drawn out into open combat, remained within the walls and even redesigned the castle from the start. The square walls of Castle Ward would have been better built in the classic star shaped fortress which has considerable defensive advantages. It would have been easier to defend but then it wouldn’t have made for such compulsive viewing!