It’s true. The second I heard that acclaimed Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin had penned this passage, my joy was inexpressible:

As a senior in the Knights Inquisitor, I command my own starship, which it pleases me to call the Truth of Christ. Before the craft was assigned to me, it was named the Saint Thomas, after the apostle, but I did not consider a saint notorious for doubting to be an appropriate patron for a ship enlisted in the fight against heresy…

Peter, the first Pope and ever his enemy, spread far and wide the tale of how Judas had sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver, until Judas dared not even use his true name. For a time he called himself just Wandering Ju’, and afterward many other names.

It’s as if Gene Wolfe and Jorge Luis Borges converge, with more than a touch of Dostoevsky’s famous Inquisitor passage. I highly recommend reading the whole tale here, if only for the novelty, but in summary [spoilers!], an alien Archbishop tasks a young inquisitor with eradicating the Order of Cross and Dragon, a heresy. The heresy goes vaguely like this: Judas was a great king of Babylon who tried Christ, found him guilty, and cut off his legs. Later, he was seized with remorse, and he pledged to follow Jesus, hoisting Christ up on his shoulders and bearing him around until Christ finally healed himself. Then, when the Romans put Jesus to death, Judas summoned his army of dragons (!) and laid waste to Rome and Babylon for three days in anger, betraying the teachings of Christ. He also commanded his dragons to eat Peter for denying Jesus thrice. Finally, when Jesus came back from the dead, he cursed Judas to wander the earth in penitence, pursued by a vengeful Petrine church. Judas achieved sainthood during these wanderings, and only a small remnant remain (mostly on planet Arion) who know the truth about him.

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It’s easy to tell the story was written before Martin was at the peak of his maturity (if by maturity you mean 15 pages’ description every time a dress with Myrish lace shows up), but it’s a fine exercise in imagination. Having spent a successful career straining against heretics on different planets, the narrator, Damien, has questioned too much himself, has considered too many angles of the truth. We learn that the necessary empathy for full conceptual understanding necessarily makes one’s own beliefs porous; no fewer than six anti-Popes exist in Martin’s universe. When the narrator confronts the heresiarch, the man responds with a simple admission that he did, indeed, make it all up. He identifies as a novitiate in the Liars, an order which makes up doctrine to keep humans from having to face the abyss of despair and nihilism:

He smiled. “Of all sorts. Not only religious. Think of it. We know truth for the cruel instrument it is. Beauty is infinitely preferable to truth. We invent beauty. Faiths, political movements, high ideals, belief in love and fellowship. All of them are lies. We tell those lies, among others, endless others. We improve on history and myth and religion, make each more beautiful, better, easier to believe in. Our lies are not perfect, of course. The truths are too big. But perhaps someday we will find one great lie that all humanity can use. Until then, a thousand small lies will do.”

When asked why he abandoned the old faith, he replies:

We studied this world for a long time. We know its psychological profile. Saint Judas will thrive here. He offers drama, and color, and much beauty—the aesthetics are admirable. His is a tragedy with a happy ending, and Arion dotes on such stories. And the dragons are a nice touch. I think your own Church ought to find a way to work in dragons. They are marvelous creatures.”

“Mythical,” I said.

“Hardly,” he replied. “Look it up.”

The notion of different planets, with different developments, which are variously isolated, serves as a brilliant setting for the solipsism and fideism which Martin’s story lives and breathes. Like the interweaving of space-time itself, the planets serve to symbolize the inaccessibility of others’ personalities and the inaccessibility of the past, of history. “Look it up”, indeed: in a more or less fideist epistemology, like that of W.P. Alston or Alvin Plantinga, dragons cannot be disproven; all perception is brought down in its reliability to the level of faith.

This is a good thing, inasmuch as it’s a check on human epistemic hubris, but it tires out the poor inquisitor, who, as he speaks with a telekinetic brain in a vat (!!!), realizes he has lost his faith. Afterward, he asks to resign:

“My Lord Commander,” I said to [Archbishop Torgathon], “I can accept no further assignments. I ask that I be retired from active service.”

“For what cause?” Torgathon rumbled, splashing feebly.

“I have lost the faith,” I said to him, simply.

He regarded me for a long time, his pupilless eyes blinking. At last he said, “Your faith is a matter between you and your confessor. I care only about your results. You have done good work, Damien. You may not retire, and we will not allow you to resign.”

The truth will set us free.

But freedom is cold and empty and frightening, and lies can often be warm and beautiful.

Last year the Church finally granted me a new and better ship. I named this one Dragon. 

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Given how much this story was anticipated/maybe influenced by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, it’s justified to object to the characterization of all religions as comforting lies have the last word. For Dostoevsky, the necessity of faith itself is a check on totalitarianisms of all kinds, religious or otherwise – the reason Christ was unwilling to make a dramatic show of his power when invited to by Satan. If the truth behind the comforting myths is a desolate universe, that’s a place where Christ can be found. As the Inquisitor berates him for refusing to give his people a solid, reliable foundation for belief – a gift which could have avoided so much war and bloodshed – Jesus remains silent, letting despair and doubt exist, making no move to countervail them. Jesus finally kisses the man quietly on the forehead. We have no such display of love, apart from perhaps the Church upgrading the young inquisitor’s starship even after he admitted to losing faith. But there are three takeaways here:

1. The fact I can’t prove there were never dragons is a big problem. Kierkegaard does his best in Philosophical Crumbs and the Postscript, but the epistemic gap between ourselves and history is unbridgeable. If epistemology is granted primacy, we’re kind of stuck there – the inquisitor needs to talk more about the emotional elements of his faith.

2. The range of references here is impressive – a hopeful sign for the development of Westerosi religion! Maybe they’ll end up being more than interesting experiments. But it also indicates that Martin’s relationship to religion has traces of pragmatism; I hope ASOIAF’s religions are more than opiates. (Imagine Melisandre admitting she had made it all up! But clearly there’s more going on.)

3. This came out four years before the Gospel of Judas! Whoever said Martin’s not a visionary….