Bear ancestry

A stab at me, Asha thought, but let it be. “You are wed.”
No. My children were fathered by a bear.” Alysane smiled. Her teeth were crooked, but there was something ingratiating about that smile. “Mormont women are skinchangers. We turn into bears and find mates in the woods. Everyone knows.” (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

The Mormont Women

House Mormont has their seat on Bear Island that lacks resources. Living and surviving on an island with such poor resources, we could imagine how there might come about a sacred bear belief at Bear Island, exactly because it is teeming with bears. Various subarctic regions the world round – where bear encounters were normal – share similar bear folklore, from the Germanic area to Siberia, Japan and Northern Native America. It is no surprise then that a northern subarctic island, teeming with bears and woods, where people rely on fishing and hunting for survival would feature similar folklore.

“My home . . . you must understand that to understand the rest. Bear Island is beautiful, but remote. Imagine old gnarled oaks and tall pines, flowering thornbushes, grey stones bearded with moss, little creeks running icy down steep hillsides. The hall of the Mormonts is built of huge logs and surrounded by an earthen palisade. Aside from a few crofters, my people live along the coasts and fish the seas. The island lies far to the north, and our winters are more terrible than you can imagine, Khaleesi. … Bear Island is rich in bears and trees, and poor in aught else.(aCoK, Daenerys I)

The Mormont blazon is a black bear over a green wood. They have an acenstral Valyrian Steel bastard sword called “Longclaw”. The gate of the hall has a carving of a woman in a bearskin with a child in one arm suckling at her breast and a battleaxe in the other. Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont was called the “old bear”. Dany refers to the son, Jorah Mormon as “bear”. Maege Mormont is called the “she-bear”, and her heir – after Dacey is killed at the Red Wedding – Alysane Mormont is called the “young she-bear”. Both Maege and Alysane are unwed and have children they claim to have been fathered by bears, and they claim the women are skinchangers.

We can easily recognize that Mormont women portray themselves as a female version of Tolkien’s Beorn (skinchanging bear and warrior women). Metaphorically women are armed against all the potentially violent forces of the island, or as they are “bears” they are “warriors” just as well. The Mormonts fit the subarctic folklore of the nature of bears (skinchangers, woods, magical sword, bears for fathers of their children). They even match the biological rearing patterns and lifestyle of solitary bears where males mate but remain functional bachelors, while the females rear their cubs by themselves. Though Jorah and Jeor were married at one time, they lead a bachelor’s life in the books: Jeor as Lorc Commander with the celibate Night’s Watch and Jorah who is widowed from his first wife and living separated from his second. Meanwhile the women certainly had lovers, but are bachelorettes in  life.

But is there truth in Alysane’s claim? Or is it just a bunch of lies? And if so, why did they use this lie at least two generations in a row?

It is completely possible that Mormont women are skinchangers to bears, just as the Starks are wargs to wolves. aDwD’s prologue featuring Varamyr at least shows us that some people can bond and skinchange a bear, though not without danger and difficulty.

Varamyr Sixskins was a name men feared. He rode to battle on the back of a snow bear thirteen feet tall, kept three wolves and a shadowcat in thrall, and sat at the right hand of Mance Rayder. It was Mance who brought me to this place. I should not have listened. I should have slipped inside my bear and torn him to pieces… [snip]… Varamyr had lost control of his other beasts in the agony of the eagle’s death. His shadowcat had raced into the woods, whilst his snow bear turned her claws on those around her, ripping apart four men before falling to a spear. She would have slain Varamyr had he come within her reach. The bear hated him, had raged each time he wore her skin or climbed upon her back… His shadowcat used to fight him wildly, and the snow bear had gone half-mad for a time, snapping at trees and rocks and empty air, but this was worse. (aDwD, prologue)

Varamyr has more affinity with wolves, like his mentor Hagon, and warging seems more common. But he was strong enough to skinchange into other animals as well. It is hinted that Bran can skinchange ravens because of this and shown to us that Arya skinchanges cats at will in Braavos aside from Nymeria when she dreams. Still, just as there are people with an affinity to wolves, other people have an affinity to a boar, eagle, goat or a bear. Notice too, that Varamyr skinchanges a she-bear, and that it are the Mormont women alone who claim to be skinchangers.

“There’s a carving on our gate,” said Dacey. “A woman in a bearskin, with a child in one arm suckling at her breast. In the other hand she holds a battleaxe. She’s no proper lady, that one, but I always loved her.” (aSoS, Catelyn V)

The improper carving of a woman in a bearskin at the gate of the Mormont hall reveals that the claim of Mormont women being skinchangers is an old one. The allusion of her being improper and a child suckling at her breast indicates the lady of the carving is naked, except for the bearskin. In legends, a naked character with a bearskin usually does imply the character has the nature of a bear.

But the claim that human children were fathered by a bear while they had skinchanged into bears themselves is far stranger. Skinchanging in folklore means physically changing into an animal. In aSoIaF it means being able to enter and control the mind of an animal, not actually changing shape. When Bran eats the prey that Summer hunted, while he’s warging Summer, Bran feels like he has just eaten, but Bran’s stomach remains empty.

Jojen shook his head. “No. Best stay, and eat. With your own mouth. A warg cannot live on what his beast consumes.” (aSoS, Bran I)

If a skinchanger’s stomach does not get filled by his animal eating, then surely a skinchanger will not get pregnant by his bonded animal copulating with another animal. So, Maege’s daughters and Alysane’s children having been fathered by a bear through skinchanging is an impossibility, and therefore certainly a lie.

What George seems to feature in the Mormont women is something akin to the totemic bear-wedding and ancestry, where the hunted bear’s bride gets to keep the bearksin of her totemic groom. The improper lady of the carving seems to be the ancestral mother of the Mormonts, while her child would be the first Lord Mormont, the offspring of a totemic bear-maiden wedding.

That the Mormonts who are said to be so poor when it comes to material wealth own a Valyrian bastard sword “Longclaw” seems to fit with the Wayland the Smith legend. In the legend, Wayland gives the princess his magical sword and she becomes the mother of the totemic ancestral Wayland-bear bloodline. And of course the name alone of the sword suggests a tie with a bear.

Longclaw also gives us an answer to the necessity of the skinchanging lie – it’s a bastard sword. Both the bastard sword Longclaw and the improper lady of the carving suggests House Mormont was a bastard line. Normally, the child of an unwed woman would be regarded a bastard, who has no right to inherit his family’s name , land and hall. And yet, none of Maege Mormont’s daughters are regarded as bastards, nor are Alysane’s children.

Mormont snorted. “My sister is said to have taken a bear for her lover. I’d believe that before I’d believe one fifteen feet tall. (aCoK, Jon I)

There is no mention of Maege’s husband. Instead she claims, to her brother, that she took a bear for a lover. Alysane explicitly claims she is unwed to Asha Greyjoy and that her son and daughter were fathered by a bear. A bear being the father of their children I already established to be an obvious lie, even if they can skinchange.

She-bears, aye,” said Lady Maege. “We have needed to be. In olden days the ironmen would come raiding in their longboats, or wildlings from the Frozen Shore. The men would be off fishing, like as not. The wives they left behind had to defend themselves and their children, or else be carried off.” (aSoS, Catelyn V)

While Maege explains to Catelyn how the women of Bear Island learned to defend themselves and their children against the raids of ironment and wildlings, while the men were out on sea fishing, some readers have gone to this extreme vision that the men of Bear Island are stay-at-home fathers protected by their women. Jeor, Jorah and the men Alysane takes with her to fight at Deepwood Motte are evidence enough that such an interpretation goes overboard. The women of Bear Island took to arms to defend themselves and their children, not their husbands.

If they are neither widowed, nor wed, then why don’t they marry? At least their children would not be bastards, and then there is no need to lie about a bear being the father of their children. The answer is the preservation of the Mormont name and bloodline. One of the duties of a noble House is to have heirs and carry on the name. And House Mormont was recently in trouble in that regard. Jeor had only one child, only one son, Jorah. And Jorah failed to produce an heir with both his wives. His first Glover wife could not bear him any childen and died after her 3rd miscarriage after nearly 10 years of marriage.

“Still, the island suited me well enough, and I never lacked for women. I had my share of fishwives and crofter’s daughters, before and after I was wed. I married young, to a bride of my father’s choosing, a Glover of Deepwood Motte. Ten years we were wed, or near enough as makes no matter. She was a plain-faced woman, but not unkind. I suppose I came to love her after a fashion, though our relations were dutiful rather than passionate. Three times she miscarried while trying to give me an heir. The last time she never recovered. She died not long after.” (aCoK, Daenerys I)

And there is no mention of Jorah having any children with Lynesse Hightower, whom he married nine years before the start of events in aGoT. Jorah has been in exile for five years in 298 AC of aGoT, which means he fled Westeros with Lynesse in 293 AC, and his marriage did not last longer than four or five years since they married after the Tourney of Lannisport (celebration of the victory against the Ironborn rebellion) in 289 AC. While Jorah had plenty of marriage offers as Lord Mormont, since his father had joined the Night’s Watch by the time he was a widower, the Greyjoy rebellion prevented Jorah from making any decision, so it seems he was not long a widower before he met Lynesse. Jorah notes he is thrice Dany’s age in 299 AC, when she is fifteen, and so Jorah was Jeor’s only living son for what seems to be forty-five years (born around 254 AC).

Maege is Jeor’s sole sister. Her eldest daughter was Dacey Mormont. Alysane is the second eldest and almost of an age with Asha Greyjoy. Asha is twenty-four and remarks Alysane started young if she has a daughter of nine. Indeed if Alysane is anywhere between twenty-three or twenty-six this means she had her first child between fourteen and sixteen in 291 AC. Dacey seems to have no husband either and while theoretically Dacey could have been born a decade before Alysane, Catelyn’s thoughts about her suggest that Dacey must be years younger than Catelyn and not yet thirty during the Red Wedding. So, Dacey was probably born between 271-275 AC.

Taking a rough timeline into account, Maege started having children when Jorah, the heir of House Mormont, was between sixteen and twenty one, and her brother Lord Jeor Mormont was above his forties. It seemed that Jeor was unlikely to produce other children of his own. With just one male heir to an island that has a rough history of being beset by ironborn and wildlings, Jorah and Maege seemed to have been the sole members of the House to carry on the name. And as the years rolled by with Jorah unable to have an heir of his own, the preservation of House Mormont fell completely on Maege. At the very least she attempted to beget a male heir, for she had five daughters – Lyanna Mormont is the youngest, born in 290 AC.

But there is an issue with Maege’s children being the branch to preserve their dynasty on Bear Island. Normally, children get the name of their father and a son of a noble House equal to or higher than that of his wife’s tends to be more than a consort. That is exactly what many of Stannis’s southern knights are after when they appear in the Northern territory. What the Boltons attempt to do when they proclaim Jeyne Poole to be Arya Stark and wed her to the legitimized Ramsay Bolton. It is what Robb Stark fears and Tywin and Tyrion hope for when Tyrion is wed to Sansa Stark – the usurpation of a noble house and seat through marriage – and exactly the reason why Robb creates a will to appoint his heir and bar Sansa from inheriting Winterfell.

Take note that Alysane chooses to disclose Asha Greyjoy this, not long after Justin Massey attempts to charm Asha constantly. To Catelyn and most likely Robb’s bannermen, Maege and Dacey remain mute about absent husbands and fathers, only hinting at it by mentioning the lady of the carving. Since Maege’s daughters all carry the name Mormont, instead of Snow, the others most likely simply assume there must have been some lowborn husband. But Alysane talks of it explicitly, to a warrior woman who is a historical enemy of hers.

“He wants you,” said the She-Bear, after his third visit….[snip]…
“He wants my lands,” Asha replied. “He wants the Iron Islands.” She knew the signs. She had seen the same before in other suitors. Massey’s own ancestral holdings, far to the south, were lost to him, so he must needs make an advantageous marriage or resign himself to being no more than a knight of the king’s household. Stannis had frustrated Ser Justin’s hopes of marrying the wildling princess that Asha had heard so much of, so now he had set his sights on her. No doubt he dreamed of putting her in the Seastone Chair on Pyke and ruling through her, as her lord and master. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

If Maege got herself a noble husband of a strong noble house in the North, when Jorah was still young and unwed and there was still a chance that he could get an heir, there was no way she could make it a condition that her husband would forfeit passing on his name to their children. And what were her chances in demanding him to waiver being Lord Whateverhisname of an island that has no other riches than game and wood? Maege could only enforce that if she wed a noble of far lower birth than herself or a commoner. In the South that would be manageable with a knightly house, but the North has no knights, and therefore no knightly houses. The problem for Maege was that she was not sure enough yet that her possible children would end up having to continue House Mormont, but that the risk for that to happen was big enough. Maege risked her reputation by not marrying at all, took an anonymous lover and claimed the father of her children is a totemic bear. In this way, she repeated what House Mormont’s improper ancestral mother did. So, it may be impproper and shady, but not being queens of King’s Landing or princesses of Dorne, this seems the only possible solution to their lineage issues.

And we see Alysane picking up Maege’s torch at the time it becomes almost certain that Jorah will father no heir, not even with his second wife, and is getting into financial trouble. The year after Lyanna Mormont is born, Alysane’s first child is born, two years before Jorah flees Westeros, while she is still very young.

“Do you have brothers?” Asha asked her keeper.
“Sisters,” Alysane Mormont replied, gruff as ever. “Five, we were. All girls. Lyanna is back on Bear Island. Lyra and Jory are with our mother. Dacey was murdered.”
“The Red Wedding.”
“Aye.” Alysane stared at Asha for a moment. “I have a son. He’s only two. My daughter’s nine.”
“You started young.”
Too young. But better that than wait too late.” (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

Not until 298 AC does Alysane have her second child, a son, a male heir, explaining why Alysane remained at Bear Island at the start of the war. While Dacey, the unmarried heir, takes the most chances, being one of Robb’s close battle companions.

It is sometimes argued that Alysane lies to Asha about having a husband to protect him from the Ironborn. But that is a very odd claim to make. Why would Alysane protect the knowledge on the identity of her husband more than the knowledge of her children, including the only male heir, and the whereabouts of her sisters?  If she would lie about being married to protect her husband from being captured by Ironborn in a raid, would she then not also deny having children at all? Would she then not remain mute about her youngest sister of ten commanding Bear Island for the moment? And if she were widowed, there is even less reason to lie about it.

No, Alysane is passing along vital lineage information to Asha – the ruling Mormonts are all women, with only one male heir, her own son who is a toddler of two, and the only reason I can fathom Alysane telling Asha this is presenting a way for Asha to keep the Iron Islands for herself. At the time, Asha does not yet realize it, not believing anyone will ever be able to take the Iron Islands away from Euron, but with Masey hoping to have Asha as a prize and either Theon dead or unable to have an heir in the future, the continuation of House Greyjoy will fall on Asha. There is even a chance she might be pregnant already, having been unable to drink the abortive tea due to her capture at Deepwood Motte, the same night she shared her bed with her lover Qarl the Maid, a thrall’s grandson. She herself already goes by the nickname “the Kraken’s daughter”. It seems George wrote this totemic ancestry tale of the Momont women in Asha Greyjoy’s arc as a checkhov’s gun for her to remember and apply in her own tale, once she finds herself with child – she could claim she is a skinchanger and that a kraken fathered her child.

After Jorah flees and becomes an exile, Meage becomes ruler of House Mormont. She has five daughters, with Dacey as heir, and certainly within marriagable age, and yet she too seems to remain single, despite her elegance and looking pretty.

When she wore a dress in place of a hauberk, Lady Maege’s eldest daughter was quite pretty; tall and willowy, with a shy smile that made her long face light up. It was pleasant to see that she could be as graceful on the dance floor as in the training yard. (aSoS, Catelyn VII)

You would think, that normally, some second son would be interested in marrying the heir of Bear Island. If Justin Masey can see past Asha Greyjoy’s attire, then surely some other Lord’s son could see an opportunity in Dacey Mormont. Nor does Dacey appear to have any children. It seems that Dacey opted out of marriage and children, and that Alysane volunteered in maintaining the bloodline in the same manner her mother Maege did. And perhaps not so coincidentally, she has her mother’s looks too.

Catelyn had grown fond of Lady Maege and her eldest daughter, Dacey; they were more understanding than most in the matter of Jaime Lannister, she had found. The daughter was tall and lean, the mother short and stout, but they dressed alike in mail and leather, with the black bear of House Mormont on shield and surcoat. (aSoS, Catelyn V)

Her proper name was Alysane of House Mormont, but she wore the other name as easily as she wore her mail. Short, chunky, muscular, the heir to Bear Island had big thighs, big breasts, and big hands ridged with callus. Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth. All those layers made her look almost as wide as she was tall. And ferocious. Sometimes it was hard for Asha Greyjoy to remember that she and the She-Bear were almost of an age. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

In conclusion, it seems that Meage, Dacey and Alysane all made some sacrifice to ensure the continuation of their house. None of them married, thereby preventing any man from usurping their home seat, and two of them risked their reptuation by having bastards with lovers but keeping those children legitimate through the claim of a totemic bear. In that sense, Dacey’s comment about the lady of the carving is also a sign of recognition to her mother – improper it may be, but they love her nonetheless.

Personal commentary: I hope Lyanna Mormont writes as strong a letter to Daenerys as she did to Stannis, if Dany were to ever decide to make Jorah Lord over Bear Island again. He cannot be blamed for remaining childless, but to squander away his home and his house’s name, while his aunt and cousins sacrificed the possibility of a respectable marriage to ensure house Mormont would remain house Mormont. 

Many have wondered why a House would simply give away a 500 year old Valyrian sword away. Jorah abandons Bear Island and the ancestral Longclaw. Instead of keeping it, Maege sends it to Jeor at the Wall, where Jeor gives it to Jon. It is another indication that Maege seems to consider the ancestral totemic bear bloodline from which she and Jeor are descendants finished. The bloodline only continues now through the female line with a new totemic bear. It is still House Mormont, but a new “bear” as ancestral father.

Wayland’s sword was given to his princess for his bloodline, but at some point in the legends ends up in the hands of the hero Sigurd’s foster-father. His foster-father gifts the sword to Sigurd who slays the dragon Fafnir with it. Fafnir used to be a dwarf, but after killing his father and betraying his brother for a hoard of gold and treasure, he gained the form of a dragon guarding his hoard. At Castle Black, Jeor Mormont becomes Jon’s emotional foster-father. On top of that he is a bear character who can gift a precious sword to a hero after a test. And it is hard not to think how befitting Fafnir’s tale sounds of Tyrion with Casterly Rock as the hoard. But that is for another essay.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

At least for the last two generations, the Mormont women seem to establish a new totemic bear ancestry in order to avoid usurpation of their house and seat through marriage. Regardless of their ability to skinchange (which is uncertain), GRRM brings the Mormont bloodline as well as the Mormont warrior women, their offspring and the bear-lovers within a social, acceptable matrlinieal context. They do this out of necessity, the same way the Bear Island women took to arms out of necessity.

The improper lady of the carving at their gate as well as the ancestral Valyrian sword Longclaw suggest that the Mormont bloodline is actually a bastard bloodline since the beginning, but that people and other houses allow for it with the claim that a bear is their male ancestor.

This type of cultural practice to prevent other houses of taking a female heir to wife to usurp their seat in the way the Lannister and Boltons attempt to do with House Stark and Winterfell, and Orys Baratheon did with Storm’s End of the Durrandons, was most likely featured in Asha Greyjoy’s arc so that the Kraken’s daughter can do something similar by claiming a kraken as a father of the child of her lowborn lover.

Note: Tormund as husband and father to bears will be handled in a bear essay of Jon’s arc.

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