A few years ago I began a sermon by referring to the TV show Game of Thrones, which just wrapped up its successful run this week. That Shabbat was an auf-ruf, the marital blessing for a couple before their wedding, and the groom happened to be reading the novels on which the show is based. When he heard me mention the show he got up and walked out, concerned that I would spoil the story for him. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this message.
Rather than analyze plot points and characterization, I want to think about the where Judaism fits into Game of Thrones and similar high fantasy. The show, like any Hollywood production, has many Jewish connections, including the two show runners, but these are only superficial. The show is made by Jews, but is there anything Jewish about it?
The genre of high fantasy includes stories with a mythic, medieval setting infused with magic, heroic characters and an overarching theme of good vs. evil. What is fascinating about George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series on which Game of Thrones is based) and JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is that there are no stand-ins for Jews.
This absence is odd since Jews were an important part of medieval European society. How can one replicate the world of the middle ages without them? Perhaps adding Jews would present thorny challenges for the modern writer. High fantasy is often written from the perspective of the dominant culture, and in medieval Europe, Christians often despised the Jews in their midst. Would a contemporary novelist feel comfortable recreating an ethnic group that is persecuted and driven out?
Martin and the Game of Thrones show runners have indeed been criticized for the lack of diversity in the story and the depiction of people of color. Another possibility is that high fantasy stories present and idealized, or simplified version, of the medieval world and Jews would just complicate matters. Many of the classic fantasy works, including those by Tolkien and CS Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), have a decidedly Christian bent.
Almost 10 years ago Michael Weingrad asked the question “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia”. It’s not just that fantasy stories are missing Jewish characters, they are also missing Jewish themes. For the most part, there is no one writing an epic fantasy from a Jewish perspective.
Weingrad’s premise was that Jews have avoided the genre because “because of fantasy’s medieval ambience and because of the fervent Jewish commitment to modernity.” He also argued that “the theology of normative Judaism—profoundly demythologizing, halakhic, and without a developed tradition of evil as an autonomous force” may not be suited to fantasy.
The key word for me in that last sentence is “normative”. Indeed, mainstream modern Judaism has avoided myth, but there is a deep source of it in the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem argued had reintroduced a mythos long buried by the rabbis. Perhaps the rebirth of Kabbalah study in the last few decades will lead to a fully realized Jewish high fantasy series. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.