Stannis Baratheon is not new.
Like many viewers, I was sickened by his choice to sacrifice his young daughter, Shireen, in this past weekend’s episode of Game of Thrones. As he and his stranded army freeze in a snowstorm, the high priestess Melisandre advises him to burn Shireen for the “Lord of the Light” so that her “king’s blood” will work its magic and grant him a military victory.
In a brutal scene, tiny Shireen, unsuspecting of her fate until the final moments, is tied to a pyre and set aflame. She dies screaming for her mother and father to save her.
The denizens of the Internet are now united in their hatred for Stannis. Slate has declared him this week’s Worst Person in Westeros. It was arguably the darkest moment of the series, beating even the Red Wedding’s gore with its betrayal of parental sanity and the youth of its victim.
However, most commenters have overlooked one crucial fact: the story of a general sacrificing his daughter to a strict god in return for success on the field of battle is not a new one. It can be found smack in America’s best-selling book ever: the Bible.
Quick show of hands: have you heard of Jephthah’s daughter?
She has no first name. She is only “Bat Jephthah” in Hebrew, or just “Bath” as named by literary critic Mieke Bal, who argues that “not to name her is to violate her with the text.” Jephthah is an early Israelite judge, a military chieftan. Facing a difficult battle against the Ammonites, he makes a vow to God: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
God keeps his end of the bargain, but when Jephthah returns home, “there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing.” He rends his clothes in mourning, but also engages in some heavy-duty victim blaming: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low … for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
She answers him: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth,” (Judges 11:36). A seemingly willing victim, she asks only that she be given two months to wander the mountains and mourn her virginity with other young women. We are told her father then “did with her according to the vow he had made.”
Stannis tries to elicit a similar sort of consent from his own adolescent daughter, but he withholds a crucial piece of information: namely, her imminent death. Visiting her tent, he finds her reading from an old history text, The Dance of Dragons, which describes a civil war. He asks her who she would have chosen in that contest, to which she responds: “I wouldn’t have chosen either. It’s all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible.” Stannis tells her that, “Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes, the world forces his hand.”
Like Jephthah’s daughter, Shireen is interpellated into the role of comforter: “It’s all right, Father,” she says. “… It doesn’t matter. I want to help you. Is there any way I can help?” After a telling pause, Stannis answers, “Yes there is.”
His child sits up straight and tall. “Good,” she says. “I want to. I am the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I am your daughter.”
Shireen is led through a crowd of soldiers, clutching her new toy stag, before she sees the stake and realizes what is happening. “Where’s my father?,” she screams, before her horrific death, which is both visual and auditory, punctuated by screams, the crackle of the flames, her mother’s last minute anguish, and painful reaction shots.
For some critics, the scene defied language. At the New York Times, Jeremy Egner said: “Oh, man. I can’t even write it.” We wanted to avert our gaze. Even the camera had, after all. Some viewers have found many aspects of the show exceed their tolerance for viewing even virtual pain, reaching a “not-for-me” moment. Yet Bal’s interpretation of Bat-Jephthah demands that we grieve in words or ritual: “Lamenting is, precisely, what Bath chooses to use her last months for.”
So here I am, writing. So are hundreds of others. We think that trauma silences us, but, as Dori Laub argues, sometimes it provokes a flurry of speech.
Once again, we must confront the ethically fraught universe of the Game of Thrones. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, show-runner D.B. Weiss acknowledged the ethical reprehensibility of this chess move, but he also called us out for our selective levels of voyeuristic sympathy:
“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”
In other words, what Judith Butler calls “grievable lives” are as hard to come by in fantasy as they are in our national policies and the conversations surrounding them.
The differences between Jephthah’s daughter and Shireen matter as much as their similarities. As in so many biblical sacrifices, Mrs. Jephthah is absent from the sacrificial “choice.” In contrast, Shireen’s mother is present, and even willing, until her last-minute, panicked regret. Unlike Bat-Jephthah, Shireen has a name, one she claims proudly—“I am the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon”—but then subsumes it to her role as Stannis’ daughter.
Re-reading the story of Jephthah’s daughter, I was struck by one of many gaps in the text. She tells her father to do with her as he has promised—but, like Stannis, he has not revealed the details of his bargain. Most critics infer that Bat-Jephthah knows the stakes of the game: she has seen a sign of mourning in her father’s rent garments, and she laments her own demise. Still, I wonder. Did she know the pain of her fate? Did she, like Shireen, scream upon her pyre?
I wish it were harder to draw analogies between Shireen’s fictional burning and the fires of reality. I wish that Weiss’ quote did not, for me, evoke the #blacklivesmatter campaign. I wish that Kalief Browder had not died this week, the traumatized victim of a callous criminal justice system. But fantasy, in its Greek root, is all about “showing,” and it reveals our real horrors—not the other way around.
Do we, like Stannis, think that violence is simply our national fate, the dark side of our manifest destiny? His sin is writ large in his individualistic violation of the parental charge to protect. His daughter’s sympathetic, sweet countenance fulfills our stereotypical image of an innocent victim. In contrast, our collective responsibility for the wars fought in our name or the mistreatment of our fellow citizens is cloaked in the morass of complex systems, systems that require deep analysis and uncomfortable confrontations. Will we break that cycle—or will we say to the news, “not-for-me”? I’m not sure.
For the night is dark and full of terrors.