A few months before ReNerding started, my wife and I were driving home from an evening at my in-laws, and we found ourselves discussing the familial concerns of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. We discussed family trees, timelines, reveals, and delved deep into the various fan theories behind Jon Snow’s parents (I WAS RIGHT!) I had a personal eureka! moment during this conversation: the Nerddom had officially gone mainstream. How many people who had never read a fantasy novel in their life were having similar discussions with someone who’d never stepped foot into a comic book store? Fifteen or twenty years ago, this conversation would have happened over friends playing Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons inside the safe bubble of their local comic book/game shop. Now, this tale of intrigue, dragons, and magic had become water-cooler talk.
(Who Game of Thrones appealed to before it was on HBO.)
I watched the first season of Game of Thrones shortly after it came out on DVD. I was able to check out movies from work during my ULUB tenure, and when the first season came through, I did just that. I’d heard that the series was amazing. I didn’t have any nerd cred with GoT — I heard of the show first, the books second, like the majority of the show’s viewership. But, nerdiness is about obsession, and I became obsessed.
When the characters started giving each other the standard High Valyrian greeting of valar morghulis, I did what I always do when something piques my interest: I looked it up. I was thrilled when I learned that the phrase meant, “all men must die.” Even if you haven’t watched a single second of the show, you’ve heard this about it: no one is safe. The “good guys” don’t always win — in fact, they rarely do. “All men must die” is the central hypothesis and theme of the show, and all the action revolves around it.
The fact that people in Westeros greet one another with this phrase indicates they are comfortable with death. Counter this to us: we treat it like an elephant in the room, only this elephant never goes away because death never escapes our awareness. We try to contain death in very specific places and in very specific times: hospital beds when we’re old, hospice centers when ill. Death feels rude and impersonal; we spend a lot of our lives consciously and unconsciously pretending that it is not coming for us.
(Why not be more like Abe Simpson?)
But death is a consistent reality for people in Westeros. Comfort and peace isn’t the expected norm like it is for us. The brutish world of Westeros is part of the story’s appeal— it reminds us of where we came from, of how well we have it now, how easily it could all dissipate. We feel the familiarity of the sting of death, because our ancestors felt it so firmly upon their backs at all times. When you are surrounded by something, it becomes your normal, and death is normal for the people of Westeros.
The fact that this phrase sounds so foreign and bizarre to our contemporary Western ears reveals how odd our relationship is with death. Death is coming for all of us, whether we want it to or not. We act like it’s our collective Drunk Uncle, but it will arrive for you and for me and everyone we know and care about.
(How we view death.)
Valar morghulis reminds me of the Latin phrase memento mori: remember that you must die. The phrase originated in the Art of Dying , a book of woodcuts from the Middle Ages that was focused on the Christian conception of a good death. The phrase and idea seeped into philosophy and art of the Medieval Era. Westeros is the Medieval Era with magic and dragons. I doubt the similarity in the phrases is coincidental.
Being aware of our death is part of what makes humanity unique. We understand that a day is coming when we will no longer think or feel or dream. This possibility is difficult for us to comprehend, even more so when we realize that it’s not a possibility, but a definitive event.
How do we think about not-thinking?
How do we imagine not-imagining?
What will we do if it happens to us before we watch the White Walkers battle the Targaryen dragons?
Like all art, Game of Thrones reflects life, and the show has reminded us of something that we forget in our very ease: we will die. There is no way out of it. Death is the great equalizer. Every great name we know and every name we don’t know suffers this same fate.
What do we do with this fact?
In Westeros, you respond to valar morghulis by saying valar dohaeris: “all men must serve.” This phrase reveals something else about the mindset of a Westerosi: we’re all going to die, and we are all going to do something until then. To paraphrase Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “you gotta serve somebody.” We are all doing something with our lives, even if it appears we are doing nothing .We are serving ourselves or someone else.
This greeting and response makes me wonder this: since I’m going to die, how am I going to live?
Since to live is to serve, why not choose who or what we are going to serve? We can live a life of action, not reaction, a life that is of our creation, not the creation of other people. Valar doheris doesn’t mean that we are slaves to someone (unless we happen to the Unsullied), it means that we spend our days working for something.
So what is the something that we work for?
That’s what we must figure out. That’s what ReNerding is all about: what sparks joy in my life? Because if we can figure that out, we’re on the right track to living a life that belongs to us, not to others.
As brutal and violent and sexy and fun as Game of Thrones is, what makes it worth watching is the same thing that makes all stories worth listening/watching: the characters are figuring out their true destinies. Like us, they are going to die and they have to serve, and we watch them work through this dual endeavor of being alive and figuring it out. This work inspires us, and then we do the only thing we can do:
The same thing.
Want more conversations on the quest to rediscover joy? Do you like reading about the Nerddom and philosophy? Want to know about all the amazingly fun stuff we have in the works? Make sure you subscribe to the ReNerders Mailing List! All of that goodness is awaiting you there.
Make sure you subscribe to the podcast! Check out the show notes for the most recent episode to find out the most recent assignment and join in the fun. Also leave us a review wherever you listen. It’s easy karma points for both you and the podcast.
If you enjoy what we’re doing, please consider supporting us. You can do that one of two ways: head over to our Patreon page and choose a regular monthly donation or a one time donation, whatever floats your financial boat! OR, if you click on any of the above links that take you to Amazon, purchase some movies or comics or books and we get some cash thrown our way. It doesn’t cost you anything but helps us out a lot!