There’s a popular phrase about life imitating art, but in George R.R. Martin’s case, the opposite often holds true. The prolific author recently revealed that his famous militant religious group, the Sparrows, is actually based on a famous religious organization’s past. The cruel but oft effectual Sparrows, with the High Sparrow at the head, are actually based on the medieval Catholic Church. Here’s how Martin put it in a recent interview:
The Sparrows are my version of the medieval Catholic Church, with its own fantasy twist.

He goes on to say that the church was often more political back in the day as opposed to spiritual, and that’s what he was exploring when he first wrote the Sparrows as characters for “A Song Of Ice And Fire.” The way his narrative relates to the actual Catholic Church is actually complex, and he also tries to expand on that train of thought to EW.
You also had periods of religious revival or reform—the greatest of them being the Protestant Reformation, which led to the splitting of the church—where there were two or three rival popes each denouncing the other as legitimate. That’s what you’re seeing here in Westeros. The two previous High Septons we’ve seen, the first was very corrupt in his own way... The one Tyrion appoints in his stead is less corrupt but is ineffectual and doesn’t make any waves. Cersei distrusts him because Tyrion appointed him. So now she has to deal with a militant and aggressive Protestant Reformation, if you will, that’s determined to resurrect a faith that was destroyed centuries ago by the Targaryens.

Yeah, that’s a pretty complex analogy, but it doesn’t strike me as shocking that George R.R. Martin would incorporate some semblance of medieval religious politics into his works. Despite the fact that his series features fantasy aspects like dragons, there are plenty of other medieval European nods on the show, including the foods that are consumed, the technologies that are used and the clothing that is worn on the drama. Adding a medieval religious component totally makes sense.

Spoilers if you haven’t caught this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, yet.

The High Sparrow has become a key character in Season 5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, thanks to wreaking havoc on King’s Landing. It was only recently that Loras Tyrell and Margaery Tyrell were confined to jail cells for hiding Loras’ homosexual relationship. This week, their grandmother, Olenna, spent a hell of a time trying to figure out the High Sparrow’s ultimate motivations, to little avail. More importantly, however, the High Sparrow also took a bigger step, actually imprisoning the Queen Mother Cersei for her misdeeds with cousin Lancel, who is now a Sparrow and revealed their affair. Cersei getting imprisoned was a key moment for fans, and while those who have read the books have an inkling of where her trajectory is going, the High Sparrow is much more of a mystery. Of course, we’re not expecting any sort of Thirty Years War, here. After all, Game of Thrones is only expected to last for a few more seasons.

You can catch new episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET.

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