The High Sparrow: How he is Uncelebrated and Still a Great Character
Game of Thrones is famous for its many kings, queens, and political hopefuls playing a life and death chess game to win the Iron Throne of fictional Westeros. It has established each of these characters as having a specific goal or reason that varies from their person to person, though their goal is the same. However one player that was introduced in season five is perhaps my favorite and I wanted to write on him because of all the hate he gets from fans. That character is the High Sparrow. Though he is a player, his motivations differ drastically from the likes of the Lannister and Tyrell families, and even Daeneyrs Targaryen.
A leader of a militant religious organization called the Faith Militant, the High Sparrow is the pope-like figure of one of the traditional Westerose religions of the Seven Gods. In the show, he is brought in by Queen-mother, Cersei Lannister to frame and remove the Tyrell’s from power in the capital of king’s Landing. Cersei’s intention was to use the naive and simple, religious man as a pawn to protect her ruling son, King Tommen and her own position of power as well. She did not regard him as a rivals or a threat and had no reason to. The High Sparrow commanded no armies, dresses like a homeless bum, and spends his day doing menial tasks and quoting religious texts. In her mind, he was going to be easy to manipulate: pay a few words of lip service to his religion, go through a couple of ceremonies now and again, then sit back and wait for the pawn to remove her enemies. Seems like another day in Westeros at first.
To her and later everyone else’ surprise however, the naive, religious bum turned out to be not so naive after all. Rather High Sparrow proved equally as shrewd as the more, decadent contestants vying for the Iron Throne: arguably more so because of his humble appearance that led many of his opponents to underestimate him.
Having arrested Queen Margaery, Cersei’s younger and more beautiful daughter-in-law whom she despised, as well as her brother, Loras on the grounds of breaking religious laws, High Sparrow then does the same to the Queen-mother herself for exactly the same reasons. His motivations were simple and uncomplicated: the faith to the Seven must be honored and respected and those who do not are to be punished.
The Sparrow’s disposition is challenged multiple times by more powerful lords including Cersei’s brother/lover and head of the Kings Guard, Jamie Lannister, and the Tyrell matriarch herself, Queen Olenna Tyrell when she tries to blackmail him into releasing her children. The latter being the most revealing because the grandmother of the queen had a reputation for being strong-willed and possessing perceptive sense of people and little tolerance to play their games. She naturally suspects High Sparrow being yet another player who just happen to make the mistake of crossing her. Yet like Cersei and Jaime before her, High Sparrow doesn't rise to taunts or insults. He doesn't threaten them with acts of violence or use any backroom deals to silence them.
He stands his ground, stating simple yet revealing truths about each of his challengers, seemingly daring them to act on their threats to his person and challenging their public face of integrity. None of them ever do and it is not until a recently-released Cersei finally gets the upper hand on the defacto ruler of King’s Landing by blowing him and all of her political rivals straight to hell in the Sept of Baelor. Even this victory though was less Cersei’s own intelligence but rather the High Sparrow finally falling victim to a trait that King’s Landing was infamous for: deceiving its rulers into thinking they had become untouchable and dropping their guard.
"He was a blend of the two sides of the series that were pitted against each others: ethics and practicality."
High Sparrow represented the physical presence of religion in the Game of Thrones universe. What I liked about him was how he used his interpretation of truth and religion as weapons just as sharp, if not sharper, than tangible ones. He is more akin to Ned Stark than the other power players because like Ned, he lives and dies by his morals and not by the power he can attain.
One would think fans would be rooting for him: a good man who maintained his values and also knew how to play the game. I had noticed in online comment however that this wasn’t the case. While many fans were extremely happy how he finally gave Cersei Lannister the humiliation she deserved for so long, they quickly grew to hate him because of what he represented: the influential presence of religion in society.
While moral characters like the Stark's were celebrated for their ethics, despite being called out out on their lack of common sense, High Sparrow was often demonized for having common sense to enforcement of his values upon King’s Landing. And then even more so when he caught and arrested Loras Tyrell for lying about his Gay relationship with deceased and former claimant for the Iron Throne, Renly Baratheon.
Sometimes the media we enjoy can hit too close to home, step on a nerve that perhaps shouldn't be as sensitive and yet still provokes a reaction out of us. In the tribalistic climate we live in today, the presentation a religious figure wielding so much authority into personal lives, is both frightening and threatening. No matter how rooted its in real history, it brings up memories and stereotypes of an older society where ‘traditional family values’ created a suffocating umbrella over individual freedoms and self-worth. If the first Americans had an intense animosity towards monarchy after the American Revolution, then modern Americans have an equally intense animosity towards religion.
The nice thing about the Stark's was that their beliefs were personal. They followed their own religion, yes, but it was more of a personal code that they lived by rather than an invasive institution demanding our obedience. It allowed us to see them as a moral contrast and beacon to the corruption and cynics m of Kings Landing and even the Game of Thrones universe as a whole.
High Sparrow however was like a twisted version of that. He lived by higher values too, but used it to enforce certain behaviors on those under him. It was overbearing. It didn't just go explore one or two acts of harming other people and deceit, but peoples’ personal lifestyle choices as well. Sparrow’s religion was absolute and allowed no counter-voice or viewpoint. And that was why I liked his character.
He was a blend of the two sides of the series that were pitted against each others: ethics and practicality. Objectively, it wasn't that High Sparrow forced anyone to do anything, at first anyway. Cersei Lannister came to him first and offered him the position. He let the powerful believe that he was foolish and easily deceived until they had given him enough rope to hang them. Like Petyr Baelish, he was patient and bided his time, but unlike Petyr, did so for what he believed to be the right reasons for all instead of personal power grabs. Its that aspect that throws off his would-be executioners, because his simplicity and genuine conviction forces the characters into moments of self-reflection upon themselves and the masks they were.
High Sparrow wasn’t playing chess with people. He meant what he says and does what he meant, and that kind of conviction can be unnerving to people accustomed to hidden motives. Its debatable whether he could have honestly succeeded in turning all Westeros over to his religion, but it proved an effective means of rule for him until he fell.
The Hand That Wields the Sword
One of the interesting thing about Game of Thrones is that it presents how different people handle power when its thrust onto them or when they finally attain it. Some like Jon Snow, hold onto their ideals that got them there, despite their stupid mistakes and others criticizing their integrity. Others like Stannis Baratheon becomes more and more desperate to achieve power as it continued to elude his grasp. High Sparrow’s reaction to power was an insidious kind of warping that was not of his ideals, but his personality.
The man becomes subtlety and slowly more arrogant as the season progresses. The shrewdness he showed in the beginning disappears as he gains more power. He has been threatened by many people more powerful than him, even small armies. Yet none of them back up their threats. High Sparrow seemed protected by his invisible cloak of faith and humility. But he became less humble, less careful, and less wise to the guile of those he may have deemed lesser than his own, making him vulnerable. So when he is told to watch out for the extremes Cersei by Margaery, the one person who knows it better than anybody else, High Sparrow refuses to accept it. He would be protected as he has always been and his former benefactor was a broken person now, ready to openly submit to his religion and to himself.
And then he dies.
These are the reasons why I thought High Sparrow should have been given more credit like Jon Snow and Ned Stark. Because his fate could have been easily theirs, not in the sense of dying, but becoming corrupted by the environment and power that they were immersed in. Say what you want about Ned Stark being a fool for not killing Cersei like he was told way back in season one, but the one thing you can’t say about him is that he was a hypocrite or was turned by the cesspool of corruption that was Kings Landing. It meant he didn’t win the game, like how High Sparrow did for a time, but he died uncorrupted by it and standing in a kind of passive judgment of Kings Landing and the people it produced. That's why he was still fondly remembered even six seasons later.
That was High Sparrow’s goal: to stand in judgment of the city and the land because of the evil that lived in it. And he chose to do it by their rules, but ended up dead and without barely making mark on the society. I like High Sparrow because he’s a mirror image of the characters we want to win and a tragic character at the same time.
© 2018 Jamal Smith