Mirror Mirror: Serwyn of The Mirror Shield

(Top illustration: Desperate Measures, by Velinov)

This essay will not explore mirror armor to conclude how a mirror works in aSoIaF, or unveil potential clues about the nature of the Others. Instead it will focus on a legendary hero Serwyn of the Mirror Shield and explain George’s likeliest real world sources for it, such as the “Princess and the Dragon” and the legend of Saint George. We will also use a few minor non-POV characters that are compared to Serwyn to establish Serwyn as a template. These include Joffrey, Byron Swann and Daario Naharis. With Byron Swann we will take the time to explore which dragon Ser Byron did attempt to kill. In the Sellsword versus Sworn Sword subection we will explore Varys’s riddle about power and show how George illustrated this psychological principle with Aegon convincing the Golden Company to go west with him.

Serwyn of the Mirror Shield

The Age of Heroes has several heroes, but we know only a little about them. One of the few we do know different tales about is Serwyn of the Mirror Shield. He remained so popular with the smallfolk, that singers made him a knight of the kingsguard, though he lived thousands of years before the Andals arrived, before Aegon conquered Westeros and created a kingsguard, and served the Kings of House Gardener instead. While maester Yandel fulminates at the sacrilege to history and fact, it serves George to have Serwyn be an anachronistic kingsguard nevertheless.  It turns Serwyn into a usable mirror or parallel to sworn guards or sworn shields with a mirror in the current timeline.

These are the three feats Serwyn is known for.

The way [Joffrey] had rescued her from Ser Ilyn and the Hound, why, it was almost like the songs, like the time Serwyn of the Mirror Shield saved the Princess Daeryssa from the giants, or Prince Aemon the Dragonknight championing Queen Naerys’s honor against evil Ser Morgil’s slanders (aGoT, Sansa I)

“Well, Hugor Hill, answer me this. How did Serwyn of the Mirror Shield slay the dragon Urrax?”
“He approached behind his shield. Urrax saw only his own reflection until Serwyn had plunged his spear through his eye.” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Legend has it that during the Age of Heroes, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield slew the dragon Urrax by crouching behind a shield so polished that the beast saw only his own reflection. By this ruse, the hero crept close enough to drive a spear through the dragon’s eye, earning the name by which we know him still. (Fire and Blood – The Dying of the Dragons, Rhaenyra Triumphant)

When Dany told him how Serwyn of the Mirror Shield was haunted by the ghosts of all the knights he’d killed, Daario only laughed. “If the ones I killed come bother me, I will kill them all again.” He has a sellsword’s conscience, she realized then. That is to say, none at all.  (aDwD, Daenerys VII)

St George and the dragon
Saint George and the dragon

George borrows from real world myth here and the common “the princess and the dragon” quest motif. The eldest known version of this is that of Perseus saving princess Andromeda from being sacrificed to the sea dragon Cretus. He uses his mirroring shield to defeat the Gorgon Medusa, chop off her head and then petrify Cretus when he comes to fetch Andromeda. And then there is Jason of the Argonauts who puts the sleepless dragon to sleep to get at the golden fleece hanging in the tree with the help of the princess-sorceresss Medea. The dragon’s teeth turn into soldiers when strewn across the land.

Perseus and his many fairytale hero versions often end up marrying the princess, who in some way always helps the hero in achieving her rescue. They are not just passive captive damsels in distress, but allies. They cannot free themselves, but only they can get to the information the hero needs to perform a task, which frees the princess. They form a team of brain and brawn so to speak. In some versions an imposter attempts to claim to be the hero and thus the reward of the princess’s hand in marriage, but the actual hero manages to show evidence that the princess can use publically to identify her true hero.

The most famous version is that of Saint George and the dragon (11th century)*. At Selene in Lybia (some of the Perseus tale occurs there too), a venom-spewing dragon poisons the countryside. To prevent worse, the citizens of Selene offer the dragon sacrifices by lottery, and then the lot fell to the king’s daughter. Saint George happens to pass by just as the princess, dressed as bride, was about to be fed to the dragon. He charges and lances or spears the dragon, wounding it. Then the princess threw her girdle around the dragon’s neck, effectively leashing the beast who follows her meekly back to Selene. There Saint George consented to kill the dragon if the people agreed to become Christians and be baptized. They converted, and Saint George beheaded the dragon with his sword. The immense difference between its origin and the later derivated Saint George is that the latter does not necessarily marry the princess (sometimes he does): conversion of people to Christiniaty is the reward here.

* During the publication event of Fire and Blood on Novemer 19 2018, George mentioned the Saint George legend during the conversation with John Hodges.

The “princess and the dragon” motif conflates partially with another fairytale type: that of the Bear’s Son, and Jean de L’Ours (John the Bear) in particular. We will ignore the bear-related hero motifs and identifiers in this essay, but instead focus on the relevant elements that Bear’s Son and John the Bear variations have in common with the “princess and the dragon”. During his journeys and adventures, the hero acquires companions and settles at a castle, with each daily taking turns at doing the house management as the others go about their business outside the castle. The castle houses a nemesis who assaults the one left behind. It can be a dwarf, a giant, a demon or dragon. When it is the hero’s turn, he defeats his assailant, and discovers a well that leads underground and three captive princesses. His comrades, either by cowardice or malice, betray the hero by leaving him in the hole, and take the princesses to their father themselves, falsely claiming they are the rescuers. And thus the king betrothes the hero’s false friends to his daughters. The hero manages to get there before the wedding, go through some tests or show evidence that he was the true rescuer, often with the aid of the eldest and most beautiful princess. His false companions are exposed and punished (sometimes executed), and the hero gets to choose a bride amongst the three princesses.

So, in Serwyn’s story we recognize Perseus’ method in defeating Medusa who is conflated with Saint George’s dragon. We have a princess being saved from a giant, which is the most common adversary in the Jean de L’ours tales. And finally we have a good man who is haunted by those he killed, who may or may not have been trusted friends once.

George did not reveal information on Serwyn’s feats in the same manner as he does with Night’s King for example. All that we know about Night’s King, we know through storytelling – Old Nan’s to Bran or maester Yandel’s in tWoIaF. In contrast, tWoIaF says very little about Serwyn. Measter Yandel only mentions that he was one of the warrior heroes serving his Gardener king in the Reach, and beyond that points out that singers telling tales of Serwyn as Kingsguard is an anomaly, for Serwyn lived during the Age of Heroes, thousands of years before there were knights, let alone a Kingsguard. Instead of acquiring a tale about Serwyn, we get bits and peaces of information on Serwyn as the characters make present situational comparisons.

  • Bran and Dunk want to be knights like Serwyn (or other knights of legend and prowess fame).
  • Sansa compares Joffrey’s rescue of her from Sandor and Illyn Payne to Serwyn saving the princess from a giant.
  • Tyrion compares Selmy Barristan’s popularity to Serwyn’s.
  • Haldon inquires with Tyrion which historical character during the Dance of the Dragons aimed to kill a dragon the same way Serwyn did.
  • Dany compares Serwyn being haunted by those he killed to Daario’s sellsword mentality. The later will not leave a wink’s sleep over the men he killed.

Whenever Serwyn is mentioned or thought of, it is always in the context of a comparison. We can therefore conclude that Serwyn is not meant to be taken as a world-building historical character, but as an exemplary hero. And George is gently pushing us to seek a valid present-timeline comparison, just in a far more subtle way than Azor Ahai returned. By the end of aDwD, we have the necessary nuggets of information about Serwyn to sniff the character out. Spoiler! So far, only one characters actually matches – Jon Snow.

There are two ways to start a search for a Serwyn-match. We investigate the characters that …

  1. are compared to Serwyn in the text by present day characters.
  2. possess a mirror shield.

Most of these characters do not end up being  a Serwyn mirror. Some are frauds. A few come close (but no cigar), yet end up being a reverse or a bent mirror. Most of these do not even own a mirror shield. And yet, some of them still might acquire one in the last books (those that are still alive that is), so we do still need to investigate their chances. And where we can, we will propose an alternative. George made that easy for us, since he rarely compares a character to Serwyn alone: we get a string of historical characters, such as Prince Aemon the Dragonknight and Ser Ryam Redwyne.

Joffrey Baratheon’s One Good Deed

The first and easiest to exclude from being a mirror to Serwyn is Joffrey. He was not a hero, but a monster. He sadistically enjoyed getting people killed and maimed, so the chance that he was haunted by these are nill. The closest he ever got to dragon symbolism, let alone an actual dragon, was handing his dad’s dragonsteel dagger into the hands of a catspaw. He never owned a mirror shield. He was a prince and king and never a guard, let alone serving a descendant of a Gardener. Joffrey is not a Baratheon in truth, but the son of Lannister twincest. And while George inserted a tie to Garth Greenhand with the Lannisters to serve as a connection to foxes (see: Mirror Mirror – Swords, Foxes and Beauty), this tie as Lann the Clever as grandson of Garth is simultaneously shrouded in a “maybe” and a bastard context.

Now, I could argue he did not save a princess from a giant. Not in any literal sense. The incident that provoked Sansa into making the comparison was never life threatening. There was no actual giant (species) in sight (though Joffrey felt he saved her from giant Sandor Clegane). And Sansa was not an actual princess (at the time). However, George pointed out how prophecies can end up coming true in ways that are not always how readers expect it to happen.

[Laughs] Prophecies are, you know, a double edge sword. You have to handle them very carefully; I mean, they can add depth and interest to a book, but you don’t want to be too literal or too easy… In the Wars of the Roses, that you mentioned, there was one Lord who had been prophesied he would die beneath the walls of a certain castle and he was superstitious at that sort of walls, so he never came anyway near that castle. He stayed thousands of leagues away from that particular castle because of the prophecy. However, he was killed in the first battle of St. Paul de Vence and when they found him dead he was outside of an inn whose sign was the picture of that castle! [Laughs] So you know? That’s the way prophecies come true in unexpected ways. The more you try to avoid them, the more you are making them true, and I make a little fun with that. (Interview with Cedria’s News, October 2012)

There is no prophecy in the series about a “Serwyn Returned” as there is for Azor Ahai, but in-world characters only mentioning Serwyn as a comparative and propelling a man who died thousands of years ago into a more recent culture as a knight and Kingsguard suggests to the reader to look for a “Serwyn Returned”. And thus we should not treat the marking events “too literal”.

Joffrey saving Sansa, prompting her to make the comparison, is the one good thing we ever saw Joffrey do on page.

Leave her alone,” Joffrey said. He stood over her, beautiful in blue wool and black leather, his golden curls shining in the sun like a crown. He gave her his hand, drew her to her feet. “What is it, sweet lady? Why are you afraid? No one will hurt you. Put away your swords, all of you. The wolf is her little pet, that’s all.” He looked at Sandor Clegane. “And you, dog, away with you, you’re scaring my betrothed.”(aGoT, Sansa I)

Yes, we already knew how much of a coward, bully and little shit Joffrey was at Winterfell in Arya’s and Tyrion’s chapters, and thus the above scene was a superficial act. None of that takes away from Sansa’s feelings of terror. Those were very real to her.

[…] Sansa could not take her eyes off the third man. […] Slowly he turned his head. Lady growled. A terror as overwhelming as anything Sansa Stark had ever felt filled her suddenly. She stepped backward and bumped into someone.
Strong hands grasped her by the shoulders, and for a moment Sansa thought it was her father, but when she turned, it was the burned face of Sandor Clegane looking down at her, his mouth twisted in a terrible mockery of a smile. “You are shaking, girl,” he said, his voice rasping. “Do I frighten you so much?”
He did, and had since she had first laid eyes on the ruin that fire had made of his face, though it seemed to her now that he was not half so terrifying as the other. […] and Sansa realized that the two stranger knights were looking down on her and Lady, swords in their hands, and then she was frightened again, and ashamed. Tears filled her eyes. (aGoT, Sansa I)

Since her fear was a true feeling, so are her feelings of being rescued. This means that during an event that ties to Serwyn, we do not have to consider how deadly the threat was, but how much it was perceived as a threat by the princess.

Byron Swann and the dragon

Ser Byron Swann lived during the Dance of the Dragons and aimed to kill a dragon the same way that Serwyn did. We learn of this in aDwD, right after we were told that Serwyn killed a dragon and how.

Haldon was unimpressed. “Even Duck knows that tale. Can you tell me the name of the knight who tried the same ploy with Vhagar during the Dance of the Dragons?”
Tyrion grinned. “Ser Byron Swann. He was roasted for his troubleonly the dragon was Syrax, not Vhagar.”
“I fear that you’re mistaken. In The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling, Maester Munkun writes—”
“—that it was Vhagar. Grand Maester Munkun errs. Ser Byron’s squire saw his master die, and wrote his daughter of the manner of it. His account says it was Syrax, Rhaenyra’s she-dragon, which makes more sense than Munken’s version. Swann was the son of a marcher lord, and Storm’s End was for Aegon. Vhagar was ridden by Prince Aemond, Aegon’s brother. Why should Swann want to slay her?” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Obviously, Ser Byron Swann was not a successful mirror of Serwyn, since the dragon roasted him. And this tidbit is almost the sole thing we know of this Ser Byron. He is not mentioned in the short story The Princess and the Queen. But Fire and Blood, penned by Archmaester Gyldayn, gives us a slightly more extensive account.

That Ser Byron Swann, second son of the Lord of Stonehelm, had heard this tale we cannot doubt. Armed with spear and a shield of silvered steel and accompanied only by his squire, he set out to slay a dragon just as Serwyn did.
But here confusion arises, for Munkun says it was Vhagar that Swann meant to kill, to put an end to Prince Aemond’s raids … but it must be remembered that Munkun draws largely on Grand Maester Orwyle for his vresion of events, and Orwyle was in the dungeons when these things occurred. Mushroom, at the queen’s side in the Red Keep, says rather that it was Rhaenyra’s Syrax that Ser Byron approached. Septon Eustace does not note the incident at all in his own chronicle, but years later, in a letter, suggests this dragonslayer hoped to kill Sunfyre … but this is certainly mistaken, since Sunfyre’s whereabouts were unknown at this time. All three accounts agree that the ploy that won undying fame for Serwyn of the Mirror Shield brought only death for Ser Byron Swann. The dragon – whichever one it was – stirred at the knight’s approach and unleashed his fire, melting the mirrored shield and roasting the man crouched behind it. Ser Byron died screaming. (Fire and Blood – The Dying of the Dragons, Rhaenyra Triumphant)

Fire and Blood just seems to add more to the confusion. The timing of Prince Aemond raiding the Riverlands with Vhagar coincides with Syrax being chained in the stables of the Red Keep. From the moment Rhaenyra took King’s Landing and the attack on the Dragonpit, Syrax only had the freedom of the Red Keep’s yard. Syrax did not even land, until Prince Daemon Targaryen felt the city was secured. So, it could not have been Syrax. And if someone had been foolish enough to approach Syrax to kill her inside the Red Keep, as Mushroom basically suggests, then there would have been more witnesses to corroborate it at the time.

Tyrion cites a letter sent by Byron’s squire to his daughter. This is a supposed primary eye-witness account. But the only time for Ser Byron to have attempted to kill Syrax was when a mob of thousands attacked the dragonpit. Prince Joffrey Velaryon was foolish enough to unchain Syrax from the Red Keep’s yard and ride her himself to come to his own dragon’s aid. Syrax’s rider was Rhaenyra and Joffrey’s dragon was Tyraxes. Even though Syrax was familiar with Joffrey, she ended up throwing him off her back and he fell to his death in Flea Bottom. Likely attracted by the carnage at the dragonpit, Syrax arrived there riderless and unchained. By then all other dragons had been slaughtered. Despite her advantage of freedom, the mob managed to kill her. Various people claimed to have killed her, and it is impossible to determine who actually did. But we can safely conclude that there was a mob of people present, and Syrax arrived unexpectedly. None of this jives with Byron Swann “setting out” intent on killing Syrax, “only” taking his squire. The tale sounds more like a knight riding out by himself and his squire to confront a dragon in his (temporary) lair somewhere in the wilderness where there are no other witnesses. Both the multiple claims on who actually killed Syrax as well as the squire’s letter are examples that even primary sources may be untrustworthy – eye witnesses can lie.

If the squire lied to his daughter, then why did he? Tyrion’s arguments about Swann’s loyalties seem sound, except that we have an antecedent of House Swann dividing their loyalties when there are multiple claimants. Lord Swann’s heir Donnel backed Renly Baratheon and then fought for Stannis at the Blackwater, until he was captured and wounded. His younger brother Balon backed Joffrey Baratheon and became one of his kingsguard after the bread riots. Meanwhile Ravella Swann (Lady Smallwood) aids the Brotherhood without Banners. By dividing their allegiances, these marcher lords of the Red Watch seem to try and mimic the Night’s Watch neutrality, at least during the War of Five Kings (see also: The Trail of the Red Stallion – Sansa’s Tourneys). It is possible that Lord Swann and his heir were at Storm’s End to back the greens and Aegon II, while the younger son Ser Byron had joined the blacks and was fighting north of King’s Landing. This becomes more than likely when we also have the Black Swan ruling Lys in all but name, with Lyseni competing for her affection. Johanna Swann had been taken by Lyseni pirates decades before that, but her uncle, the then Lord Swann, refused to ransom her. Lys and thus Johanna Swann backed the Greens during the Dance of the Dragons. Add the ill feelings the Black Swan would have had toward House Swann, and the likelihood that at least some Ser Swann fought for the Blacks increases. If such was the case, Ser Byron could have tried to go after Vhagar or Sunfyre. Except, Byron failed and died. The rumors started to float about at a time smallfolk sentiment started to turn against Rhaenyra, Aemond and Vhagar had free reign in the Riverlands and Hightower had conquered most of the Reach. So, the squire’s motive to create a false eye-witness account would have served covering up Byron backing the Blacks*.

* This is likely one of the thematic reasons why Ser Byron Swann failed to be a Serwyn-come-again. Serwyn served a Gardener King, or well a ‘green man’.

The issue with Vhagar is that Prince-Regent Aemond Targaryen would unlikely have left Vhagar by himself while he scoured the Riverlands and it would have been folly to attempt to slay a dragon with a rider, unless he had a scorpion.This was not the manner in which Ser Byron Swann attempted to kill a dragon. Nor does riding out by himslef and just his squire, especially when nobody was able to predict where Vhagar and Aemond would appear.

So, that leaves us Sunfyre. He had been wounded and left at Rook’s Rest, north of Duskendale. Lord Mooton sent his bravest men to slay it. Both he and many of his unnamed men died in the attempt. The survivors fled. When Mooton’s brother arrived a fortnight later, he found the dead as well as Sunfyre gone. Eventually Sunfyre, unbeknowest to many, turned up on Dragonstone where Aegon II was hiding. The dragon made its lair at Dragonmont after killing the wild dragon Grey Ghost. But how long did Sunfyre linger at Rook’s Rest? And once he flew off, did he cross the bay to Dragonstone from Rook’s Rest directly? Or did the dragon journey and hide more north along Cracklaw Point first? The likeliest answer is that Byron may have been one of Mooton’s men (as their spear method alligns with Byron’s) or sought out Sunfyre on his own, while the dragon was still at Rook’s Rest or farther north along the coast, before Sunfyre finally flew off to Dragonmont. And since Sunfyre was Aegon II’s dragon, the squire would have even more motive to lie about Ser Byron’s target.

Of course the first name Byron is a peculiar choice by George. It instantly brings our historical 19th century Lord Byron to mind. He was a poet and one of the lead figures of the Romantic literary movement. It heavily hints that we ought to see Ser Byron Swann as a byronic hero, a variant of the romantic hero (see also Blue Eyed Wolf’s Shadrich, Morgarth and Byron) , and that the tale about him is full of poetic storytelling license. This puts the whole dragon quest and his method into question altogether and makes the claim an in-world fiction.

If Ser Byron did not even attempt to kill a dragon, then what purpose does he serve? For one, he served Tyrion by showing Haldon he does his source research, even if he got it wrong. Secondly, it helps George to emphasize that the legendary Serwyn serves as a template to compare current heroes against, and that we readers are to expect some byronic hero to be revealed in the upcoming dance of dragons between Dany, Aegon and/or Jon who aims to kill the other. And through George’s name choice we are given a hint of the personality of this Serwyn mirror.

As a romantic hero, it is someone who is set outside the structure of civilization, growing up or living estranged from his or her biological family. A romantic hero acts or is attractive like a force of nature almost, can be ruthless, and is a natural leader. He or she triumphs over theological and social conventions, is often prone to self-critical introspection and self-isolation, melancholic, and regrets his or her actions. The byronic variant is moody, cynical, proud, defiant, often miserable, but capable of strong deep affection.

Sellsword versus Sworn Sword

Dany’s citing of Serwyn highlights a personality trait that falls within the characteristics of the romantic hero.

When Dany told him how Serwyn of the Mirror Shield was haunted by the ghosts of all the knights he’d killed, Daario only laughed. “If the ones I killed come bother me, I will kill them all again.” He has a sellsword’s conscience, she realized then. That is to say, none at all.  (aDwD, Daenerys VII)

Serwyn is not just a chivalrous action hero who saves princesses and kills knights and dragons, but someone with a conscience. His morals do not solely reveal itself while the hero (or heroine) is given choices over which action to take, but also when they are alone; when they have to answer to no one but themselves, even long after those choices were made. In other words, it is someone with a high moral compass at all times.

This is why Dany contrasts it against a sellsword conscience. Let us examine what George means with a sellsword conscience: or rather what do sellswords want? Yoren says they follow the scent of blood or gold, which according to him smells the same in the end. This matches the example that Brown Ben Plumm relates to Dany.

[…] Morning after the fight, I was rooting through the dead, looking for the odd bit o’ plunder, as it were. Came upon this one corpse, some axeman had taken his whole arm off at the shoulder. He was covered with flies, all crusty with dried blood, might be why no one else had touched him, but under them he wore this studded jerkin, looked to be good leather. I figured it might fit me well enough, so I chased away the flies and cut it off him. The damn thing was heavier than it had any right to be, though. Under the lining, he’d sewn a fortune in coin. Gold, Your Worship, sweet yellow gold. Enough for any man to live like a lord for the rest o’ his days. […] (aDwD, Daenerys VIII)

Despite that man being rich enough to live the life of a lord for the rest of his days, he still sold his sword for the scent of blood. It smells the same, because he also followed the scent of gold and lined his vest with it. In the end the blood was his.

Initially, Tyrion thinks it’s just gold, but learns to his grief that titles and castles are also something sellswords want. For a long time gold does seem to be the scent Bronn follows.

Tyrion was a little drunk, and very tired. “Tell me, Bronn. If I told you to kill a babe . . . an infant girl, say, still at her mother’s breast . . . would you do it? Without question?”
“Without question? No.” The sellsword rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “I’d ask how much.” (aCoK, Tyrion II)

But then when Tyrion hopes to acquire Bronn as his champion against the Mountain, Bronn does not want gold anymore.  Tyrion has to outbid Cersei on castles to give, and he has none to give.

The sellsword knight wore a jerkin studded with silver and a heavy riding cloak, with a pair of fine-tooled leather gloves thrust through his swordbelt. One look at Bronn’s face gave Tyrion a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. “It took you long enough.”
“The boy begged, or I wouldn’t have come at all. I am expected at Castle Stokeworth for supper.”
“Stokeworth?” Tyrion hopped from the bed. “And pray, what is there for you in Stokeworth?”
“A bride.” Bronn smiled like a wolf contemplating a lost lamb. “I’m to wed Lollys the day after next.” […] “And when she pops him out, I’ll get her big with mine.”
[…]
“Why are you here, then?”
Bronn shrugged. “You once told me that if anyone ever asked me to sell you out, you’d double the price.
Yes. “Is it two wives you want, or two castles?”
One of each would serve. But if you want me to kill Gregor Clegane for you, it had best be a damned big castle.”
[…] “I find myself woefully short of both castles and highborn maidens at the moment,” Tyrion admitted. “But I can offer you gold and gratitude, as before.”
I have gold. What can I buy with gratitude? (aSoS, Tyrion IX)

Vargo Hoat wanted a castle and bride as well. He hoped to acquire a ransom for Jaime from Tywin Lannister, but then send Jaime to Karstark anyway for Alys as a bride.

“I will thend it to hith lord father. I will tell him he muth pay one hundred thouthand dragonth, or we thall return the Kingthlayer to him pieth by pieth. And when we hath hith gold, we thall deliver Ther Jaime to Karthark, and collect a maiden too!” A roar of laughter went up from the Brave Companions.(aSoS, Jaime IV)

“Karhold is smaller and meaner than Harrenhal, but it lies well beyond the reach of the lion’s claws. Once wed to Alys Karstark, Hoat might be a lord in truth. If he could collect some gold from your father so much the better, but he would have delivered you to Lord Rickard no matter how much Lord Tywin paid. His price would be the maid, and safe refuge.” (aSoS, Jaime V)

Both Vargo Hoat and Bronn introduce another motive: survival. They and Plumm aim to survive, more than anything.

If he didn’t frighten me, I’d be a bloody fool.” Bronn gave a shrug. “Might be I could take him. Dance around him until he was so tired of hacking at me that he couldn’t lift his sword. Get him off his feet somehow. When they’re flat on their backs it don’t matter how tall they are. Even so, it’s chancy. One misstep and I’m dead. Why should I risk it? I like you well enough, ugly little whoreson that you are . . . but if I fight your battle, I lose either way. Either the Mountain spills my guts, or I kill him and lose Stokeworth. I sell my sword, I don’t give it away. I’m not your bloody brother.” (aSoS, Tyrion IX)

The sellsword [Plumm] was nearly as bad a player as the Yunkish lord had been, but his play was stolid and tenacious rather than bold. His opening arrays were different every time, yet all the same—conservative, defensive, passive. He does not play to win, Tyrion realized. He plays so as not to lose. (aDwD, Tyrion X)

“So they betrayed me, is that what you are saying? Why? Did I mistreat the Second Sons? Did I cheat you on your pay?”
“Never that,” said Brown Ben, “but it’s not all about the coin, Your High-and-Mightiness. […] But what good did it do him? There he was with all his coin, lying in the blood and mud with his fucking arm cut off. And that’s the lesson, see? Silver’s sweet and gold’s our mother, but once you’re dead they’re worth less than that last shit you take as you lie dying. I told you once, there are old sellswords and there are bold sellswords, but there are no old bold sellswords. My boys didn’t care to die, that’s all, and when I told them that you couldn’t unleash them dragons against the Yunkishmen, well …”
You saw me as defeated, Dany thought, and who am I to say that you were wrong? (aDwD, Daenerys VIII)

And this important lesson was what Varys tried to teach Tyrion once in aCoK, when he presented him with the riddle.

“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?” (aCoK, Tyrion I)

Shae thinks it will be the rich man. Tyrion opines it will depend on the sellsword. Both are wrong. It depends on the situation, on who the sellsword thinks will win.

Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less” (aCoK, Tyrion II)

So, when Pycelle argues that the sellsword Golden Company will fight for coin and with enough gold could be won over to fight on the Lannister-Tyrell side, he would be wrong. The Lannister-Tyrell coalition faces many issues in maintaining a united front: they lost credit with the Iron Bank, two oncoming trials of the queens, rebellion lurking in the Riverlands. Regardless, the Golden Company fights for coin in Essos only. In Westeros, they fight for lands lost, for home and for the man they want for a king.

And then Prince Aegon spoke. “Then put your hopes on me,” he said. “Daenerys is Prince Rhaegar’s sister, but I am Rhaegar’s son. I am the only dragon that you need.”
Griff put a black-gloved hand upon Prince Aegon’s shoulder. “Spoken boldly,” he said, “but think what you are saying.”
“I have,” the lad insisted. “Why should I go running to my aunt as if I were a beggar? My claim is better than her own. Let her come to me … in Westeros.”
Franklyn Flowers laughed. I like it. Sail west, not east. Leave the little queen to her olives and seat Prince Aegon upon the Iron Throne. The boy has stones, give him that.”
The captain-general looked as if someone had slapped his face. “Has the sun curdled your brains, Flowers? We need the girl. We need the marriage. If Daenerys accepts our princeling and takes him for her consort, the Seven Kingdoms will do the same. Without her, the lords will only mock his claim and brand him a fraud and a pretender. And how do you propose to get to Westeros? You heard Lysono. There are no ships to be had.” This man is afraid to fight, Griff realized. How could they have chosen him to take the Blackheart’s place? (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

In Jon Connington’s chapter of The Lost Lord we see this principle work excellently. Flowers is won over by Aegon’s boldness. For him it denotes power, much like Aegon the Conquerer, enough to argue the case. Harry Strickland is unconvinced and fears failure. He raises a practical issue that has little to do with the very fundamental choice put before them – no ships to be had. It is not so much the argument that is psychologically valuable here, but the fact that Harry appeals to Lysono Maar, inviting the Lyseni to join him and argue against Aegon’s proposal. That Strickland chooses Lysono for this is telling. The man’s home is Lys, not Westeros, and therefore his mind would not be clouded by sentimentality. It is the appeal of a sellsword-through-and-through to the only other one who is another sellsword-through-and-through.

Flowers brushes the minor issue aside.

No ships for Slaver’s Bay. Westeros is another matter. The east is closed to us, not the sea. The triarchs would be glad to see the back of us, I do not doubt. They might even help us arrange passage back to the Seven Kingdoms. No city wants an army on its doorstep.”
“He’s not wrong,” said Lysono Maar. (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

In answer to Harry’s appeal to the Lyseni, Lysono Maar signals both Harry and the rest of the Company that they should not regard him and Harry as a united front. Lysono’s particular phrase implies, “I’m not saying I ‘agree’ with Flowers on everything, yet. But I’m not disagreeing either. I’m open to be convinced of this.”

One of the Coles offers the first argument – Aegon will be a surprise and Westerosi can be expected to join them. There are two men who use Cole for their last name. They likely do speak for two. That would make it three sergeants who side with Aegon. The power balance is starting to lean over to Aegon.

“By now the lion surely has the dragon’s scent,” said one of the Coles, “but Cersei’s attentions will be fixed upon Meereen and this other queen. She knows nothing of our prince. Once we land and raise our banners, many and more will flock to join us.”
“Some,” allowed Homeless Harry, “not many. Rhaegar’s sister has dragons. Rhaegar’s son does not. We do not have the strength to take the realm without Daenerys and her army. Her Unsullied.”
“The first Aegon took Westeros without eunuchs,” said Lysono Maar. “Why shouldn’t the sixth Aegon do the same?”
The plan—” (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

One of the Coles arguing for Aegon’s proposal is enough for Lysono to join Aegon’s cause, despite the fact that Westeros is not his home. It is now four sergeants versus Homeless Harry. From hereon, Strickland will not be even allowed to finish a sentence anymore. Not only does he stand alone, he loses any status of authority when serjeants interrupt him. As a result Rivers joins those arguing for Aegon’s proposal, making a tally of five versus one.

“Which plan?” said Tristan Rivers. “The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back. Then the Beggar King was dead, and it was to be the sister, a pliable young child queen who was on her way to Pentos with three new-hatched dragons. Instead the girl turns up on Slaver’s Bay and leaves a string of burning cities in her wake, and the fat man decides we should meet her by Volantis. Now that plan is in ruins as well.
“I have had enough of Illyrio’s plans. Robert Baratheon won the Iron Throne without the benefit of dragons. We can do the same. And if I am wrong and the realm does not rise for us, we can always retreat back across the narrow sea, as Bittersteel once did, and others after him.”
Strickland shook his head stubbornly. “The risk—”
“—is not what it was, now that Tywin Lannister is dead. The Seven Kingdoms will never be more ripe for conquest. Another boy king sits the Iron Throne, this one even younger than the last, and rebels are thick upon the ground as autumn leaves.”
“Even so,” said Strickland, “alone, we cannot hope to—”
Griff had heard enough of the captain-general’s cowardice. “We will not be alone. Dorne will join us, must join us. Prince Aegon is Elia’s son as well as Rhaegar’s.”
“That’s so,” the boy said, “and who is there left in Westeros to oppose us? A woman.” (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

All the passionate pro-arguments make short work of Harry’s protests. But it is not just this alone. Rivers reframes “the plan” as those not being the Golden Company’s or Harry’s, but Illyrio’s. Simultaneously, he paints Illyrio as fickle, a man who does not seem to be knowing what he is about. So, when Harry continues to cling to Illyrio’s latest plan, he comes off as Illyrio’s puppet on a string, while Illyrio himself has been ridiculed. Hence, Harry loses all status and his voice. And without a voice, he has no power.

When the sixth sergeant, Peake, joins, that number is enough for Rivers to declare the matter settled.

Laswell Peake rapped his knuckles on the table. “Even after a century, some of us still have friends in the Reach. The power of Highgarden may not be what Mace Tyrell imagines.”
“Prince Aegon,” said Tristan Rivers, “we are your men. Is this your wish, that we sail west instead of east?”
“It is,” Aegon replied eagerly. “If my aunt wants Meereen, she’s welcome to it. I will claim the Iron Throne by myself, with your swords and your allegiance. Move fast and strike hard, and we can win some easy victories before the Lannisters even know that we have landed. That will bring others to our cause.” (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

Aegon’s reply is a repeat of his opening statement and summation of the arguments, and is met with silent approval by Rivers.

Rivers was smiling in approval. Others traded thoughtful looks. (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

Some still seem hesitant, but are not confident enough to speak up. They await a few more voices and arguments to join.

Then Peake said, “I would sooner die in Westeros than on the demon road,” and Marq Mandrake chuckled and responded, “Me, I’d sooner live, win lands and some great castle,” and Franklyn Flowers slapped his sword hilt and said, “So long as I can kill some Fossoways, I’m for it.”
One by one, the men of the Golden Company rose, knelt, and laid their swords at the feet of his young prince. The last to do so was Homeless Harry Strickland, blistered feet and all. (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

Did you notice that Aegon never had to argue his case, but that others did it for him? If you ever participated or will participate in some leadership assessment weekend where you have to present a consensus on a certain survival dilemma, then it is this dynamic the observers are looking for. They look for the one who took initiative, who made the proposal and how, not the arguments. They watch whether others will “follow” the initiator and plead his or her case. So, it does not matter much that Aegon only spoke to propose and summarize. Both are exactly the key verbal actions a “leader” must do, albeit in a manner that make the swordsmen think, “I can follow this guy and will defend him to my death.”

Dany displayed such an attitude as well, when she met with the captains of the Stormcrows. Hence, Daario Naharis beheaded his two colleagues and made the Stormcrows follow her.

“Khaleesi,” he cried, “I bring gifts and glad tidings. The Stormcrows are yours.” A golden tooth gleamed in his mouth when he smiled. “And so is Daario Naharis!” […] Daario upended the sack, and the heads of Sallor the Bald and Prendahl na Ghezn spilled out upon her carpets. “My gifts to the dragon queen.” (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

While Dany constantly reminds herself that Daario is a sellsword, he never actually sold it. He swore his arakh to her.

In a blink, Daario’s arakh was free of its sheath. His submission was as outrageous as the rest of him, a great swoop that brought his face down to her toes. “My sword is yours. My life is yours. My love is yours. My blood, my body, my songs, you own them all. I live and die at your command, fair queen.” (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

Yes, Daario is extravagant and over-the-top charming. Only fools would not watch that man closely to see whether his actions match his words. And as it turns out, they do. Not only does he agree to be a hostage of the Yunkai for a peace he personally does not want. He leaves her his arakh, his stiletto and his gold.

“I will leave my girls with you,” her captain had said, handing her his sword belt and its gilded wantons. “Keep them safe for me, beloved. We would not want them making bloody mischief amongst the Yunkai’i.” (aDwD, Daenerys VIII)

He gave her his other “sword” as well (pun intended). Furthermore, he kills his own men when they suggested to him to turn his cloak and he expresses a deep resentment against Plumm for having turned his cloak to the Yunkai.

He shook his sleeve, spattering red droplets. “This blood is not mine. One of my serjeants said we should go over to the Yunkai’i, so I reached down his throat and pulled his heart out. I meant to bring it to you as a gift for my silver queen, but four of the Cats cut me off and came snarling and spitting after me. One almost caught me, so I threw the heart into his face.” […] “Ser Grandfather knows how to count. The Second Sons have gone over to the Yunkai’i.” Daario turned his head and spat. “That’s for Brown Ben Plumm. When next I see his ugly face I will open him from throat to groin and rip out his black heart.” (aDwD, Daenerys VI)

These are not the sentiments of a sellsword, but of a loyal sworn sword. In fact, his anger over Plumm’s betrayal reveals surprise, whereas an actual sellsword would expect it. This implies Daario has become a trusting man of those who join him.

“If it please Your Grace, we are all three knights.”
Dany glanced at Daario and saw anger flash across his face. He did not know. […] “Three liars,” Daario said darkly. “They deceived me.”  (aDwD, Daenerys VII)

Him giving into drinking and suicidal sorties as her marriage to Hizdahr approaches fit more with a desperate man affected by his emotions.

Daario had only grown wilder since her wedding. Her peace did not please him, her marriage pleased him less, and he had been furious at being deceived by the Dornishmen. When Prince Quentyn told them that the other Westerosi had come over to the Stormcrows at the command of the Tattered Prince, only the intercession of Grey Worm and his Unsullied prevented Daario from killing them all. The false deserters had been imprisoned safely in the bowels of the pyramid … but Daario’s rage continued to fester. (aDwD, Daenerys VIII)

Daario is not acting like a sellsword, but a sworn sword in love. Does this loyalty make him a moral man, however? It does not. Just like Jorah Mormont is an amoral man who does not think twice about child trafficking Lhazareen into slavery for rich pedophiles. He was a sellsword for years too, then swore it to Dany and in his heart is loyal to her. Though he proposes the Unsullied to please Dany’s scruples, Jorah’s own morals have remained unchanged so far.

Much of the innate moral compass in a person relies on their ability to empathize. Empathy is not just an on/off status, but varies on a spectrum. Pyschopaths have no empathy but for themselves. Narcissists can have a degree of empathy for siblings or children they consider to be a mirror of themselves. Then you have non disordered people with low empathy. Though often selfish and superficial, they can develop genuine feelings of love. Their empathy rarely extends beyond these loved ones – family and partner. Most mercenary hearts range across this low-end spectrum. At the other end, people can feel empathy with non loved ones, strangers, hypothetical cases, even enemies.

There is an intellectual cognitive compenent to morality, but when people lack or have low empathy, the higher there is a chance that they just do not care and will do wrong without losing sleep over it as long as they can get away with it. Jorah and Daario fall in this low empathy spectrum. They and most men of the Golden Company are the sellswords with a “heart of gold” but only for the very select few they love. Can they be Serwyn mirrors? No, they cannot, for clearly Serwyn had empathy for his opponents and enemies.

Serving a Gardener

A final aspect that requires some symbolic exploring is how Serwyn is said to have served under a Gardener King. Since he lived during the Age of Heroes, there is no actual requirement for a current Serwyn-mirror to be a knight. It suffices that he (or she) is a warrior and protector.

Of course, there is no House Gardener anymore, as Aegon the Conquerer’s Field of Fire finished that House. But theoretically speaking there are descendants of that house who still boast a tie to it, such as the Tyrells and the Florents. If George intends for us to recognize someone as a Serwyn-mirror who serves a Gardener descendant he is quite likely to let the reader know this, by inserting some reference to House Gardener within the text. For example Jon Snow declares he is at Princess Shireen’s service when he welcomes her to Castle Black. Meanwhile Axel Florent – Shireen’s uncle on her mother’s side – reminds Jon Snow, during the wedding feast between Alys and the Magnarr, that the Florents can boast a close tie to the Gardeners.

“Princess.” Jon inclined his head. Shireen was a homely child, made even uglier by the greyscale that had left her neck and part of her cheek stiff and grey and cracked. “My brothers and I are at your service,” he told the girl. (aDwD, Jon IX)

“Who better? We Florents have the blood of the old Gardener kings in our veins. Lady Melisandre could perform the rites, as she did for Lady Alys and the Magnar.” (aDwD, Jon X)

But the tie to a Gardener can also be expressed in a more symbolic way. While House Gardener may be extinct, the primordial figure Garth Greenhand allows us to symbolically widen whom a Serwyn-mirror may serve.

green-man-legend_lauren_raine
The Green Man, by Lauren Raine

Some tales make him out to be High King of the First Men, leading them into Westeros. Some make him a god. Others claim he preceded the First Men. Not only is Garth portrayed as a “wanderer” here, but also as a mediator between giants and the childfren of the forest.

 Yet other tales would have us believe that he preceded the arrival of the First Men by thousands of years, making him not only the First Man in Westeros, but the only man, wandering the length and breadth of the land alone and treating with the giants and the children of the forest. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

The quote says “treating with”, but since he was the sole man there would not have been any need to make treaties between himself and the giants, and himself and the children. The children refer to the giants as those who were once their bane and amongst the Free Folk there are legends of humans mediating between both species when they quarreled over a cave. At any rate, Garth here is protrayed as a diplomat, a peacemaker or going in peace.

The reference to a wanderer of the land reminds us of the wanderers in the sky. In the nightsky of Planetos, seven “stars” wander around. These are sacred to the Faith of the Seven. The word wanderer in Ancient Greek is planet. In ancient times, every celestial body that appeared to move independently from the “fixed” stars – seemingly wandering – was called a planet. If we apply this meaning of a god-like entity wandering the length and breadth of the land, then this tale simply refers to Planetos itself, or more precesily – the land. So, Garth the Greenhand is a representative symbolic figure of earth, nature and land – the realm. Hence, someone who serves the realm can be said to serve a Gardener.

That Garth is a symbolic representation of the land is further emphasized by his appearance as well as various names – Greenhair, the Green, recalling the real world Green Man.

Garth Greenhand, we call him, but in the oldest tales he is named Garth Greenhair, or simply Garth the Green. Some stories say he had green hands, green hair, or green skin overall. (A few even give him antlers, like a stag.) Others tell us that he dressed in green from head to foot, and certainly this is how he is most commonly depicted in paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

So, his hair is green, his hands and even his skin. And just like the pagan real-world god Cernunnos, Garth at times has antlers like a stag. It also matches the tales of the Isle of Faces in the Gods Eye where the Green Men live.

“Finally the wise of both races prevailed, and the chiefs and heroes of the First Men met the greenseers and wood dancers amidst the weirwood groves of a small island in the great lake called Gods Eye. There they forged the Pact. The First Men were given the coastlands, the high plains and bright meadows, the mountains and bogs, but the deep woods were to remain forever the children’s, and no more weirwoods were to be put to the axe anywhere in the realm. So the gods might bear witness to the signing, every tree on the island was given a face, and afterward, the sacred order of green men was formed to keep watch over the Isle of Faces.” (aGoT, Bran VII)

Green Men would be gardeners, but also greenseers and wood dancers. According to Bran they might ride elk, which have antlers. Anyway, the Green Men are an expansion on Garth Greenhand, or suggests that Garth was one of the Green Men. And most importantly, it makes Serwyn who served House Gardener, not just a warrior serving his king of a certain bloodline, but serving the green men, the greenseers, weirwoods and Old Gods.

The island at the lake was named after the faces carved in weirwoods to seal a pact of peace between the First Men and the children of the forest. This parallels to Garth treating with or mediating between giants and children. Therefore, Serwyn was a servant of peace.

More likely, his sobriquet derived from his gifts as a gardener and a tiller of the soil—the one trait on which all the tales agree. “Garth made the corn ripen, the trees fruit, and the flowers bloom,” the singers tell us. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

People who love to garden are said to have green hands. Garth’s primary name refers to this as does the color description of his hands. A gardener in the above means a ruler who focuses on farming, planting trees and corn – a farmer king or queen so to speak who provides for his people.

But we also get allusions to Garth’s darker god-side that match with pre-Christianized nature religions of human sacrifice as well as the pagan Oak and Holly King, a summer and winter king respectively. As one would die, the other would be born and rule two of the four seasons.

A few of the very oldest tales of Garth Greenhand present us with a considerably darker deity, one who demanded blood sacrifice from his worshippers to ensure a bountiful harvest. In some stories the green god dies every autumn when the trees lose their leaves, only to be reborn with the coming of spring. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

It is a speculative neopagan version to symbolize the same tale such as the Rape of Persephone by Hades to explain the coming of winter (see Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts), but one involving festivities where a man was sacrificed as a type of re-enactment. Pentos has a sacrificial practice that alludes to the same principal.

In Pentos we have a prince, my friend. He presides at ball and feast and rides about the city in a palanquin of ivory and gold. Three heralds go before him with the golden scales of trade, the iron sword of war, and the silver scourge of justice. On the first day of each new year he must deflower the maid of the fields and the maid of the seas.” Illyrio leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Yet should a crop fail or a war be lost, we cut his throat to appease the gods and choose a new prince from amongst the forty families.”  (aDwD, Tyrion I)

Alexandre_Dainche_Renly_Baratheon
Renly Baratheon by Alexandre Dainche

During the series, we witness an interval of murders of green men or green boys and old greybeards. Young Renly in his green armor and antler is slain at the onset of autumn. This certainly re-enacts the autumn-death of Garth Greenhand, especially with Catelyn referring to Renly’s army and knights as knights of summer, or better yet green boys.*

Beside the entrance, the king’s armor stood sentry; a suit of forest-green plate, its fittings chased with gold, the helm crowned by a great rack of golden antlers. The steel was polished to such a high sheen that she could see her reflection in the breastplate, gazing back at her as if from the bottom of a deep green pond. The face of a drowned woman, Catelyn thought. (aCoK, Catelyn II)

The king stumbled into her arms, a sheet of blood creeping down the front of his armor, a dark red tide that drowned his green and gold. More candles guttered out. Renly tried to speak, but he was choking on his own blood. His legs collapsed, and only Brienne’s strength held him up. […] The shadow. Something dark and evil had happened here, she knew, something that she could not begin to understand. Renly never cast that shadow. Death came in that door and blew the life out of him as swift as the wind snuffed out his candles. (aCoK, Catelyn IV)

Did you notice that Renly Baratheon wears mirror armor? Catelyn sees a glimpse of her future in it.

Crowfood’s daughter set up Storm Gods and Garth as “green gods” with the Grey King of the Ironborn as a type of Holly King in The Grey King fought Garth the Greenhand. Rather than seeing them as historical figures, we (the three headed Ice Dragon) are more likely to regard Grey King and Greenhand as titles. The life of a greenseer such as Bloodraven is expanded, but not up to a thousand years. For the moment Bloodraven has lived 5 years longer than the genetical optimal maximum lifespan of 120 year. And he is on his last legs. A title is far more likely since for example human greenseers appear as an avatar in dreams that is different than their actual appearance. Thus there would have been several Grey Kings and several Greenhands, or rather several greybeards and several green boys. The green stag-horned Storm King aligns with Greenhand and is a variation of it. The underwater ruler of the dead is the Grey King. His land-locked variant is the King of Winter or presumably earlier Barrow King.

To make our point, while green man Renly is killed, the King of Winter Robb Stark keeps conquering land and winning battles, until he is killed as a guest by a very fertile old man (greybeard) and his castle taken by a grejoy, for ultimately Robb was still but a green boy when it came to politics. But then a greybeard Balon is murdered by a faceless man paid for by the fertile Euron “I am the storm” who is Balon’s brother. On and on it goes. You can believe this pattern is an echo pointing to an “original sin/event” or you can see it as “nature” (in overdrive). Regardless, Garth is a “summer king” who emerges as a green boy with spring, having overcome winter and death, but always remaining within the boundaries of nature’s cycle.

Garth is not only a gardener of the wild, but a farmer, “sowing his seeds” around, growing trees, orchards, fruits, providing for his people.

It was Garth who first taught men to farm, it is said. Before him, all men were hunters and gatherers, rootless wanderers forever in search of sustenance, until Garth gave them the gift of seed and showed them how to plant and sow, how to raise crops and reap the harvest. […] Where he walked, farms and villages and orchards sprouted up behind him. About his shoulders was slung a canvas bag, heavy with seed, which he scattered as he went along. As befits a god, his bag was inexhaustible; within were seeds for all the world’s trees and grains and fruits and flowers. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

And with the allusion of his inexhaustible bag heavy with seed to scatter, we of course recognize the “fertility” gift in him as well. Not only does he represent fertile land, but children and fertile women.

Garth Greenhand brought the gift of fertility with him. Nor was it only the earth that he made fecund, for the legends tell us that he could make barren women fruitful with a touch—even crones whose moon blood no longer flowed. Maidens ripened in his presence, mothers brought forth twins or even triplets when he blessed them, young girls flowered at his smile. Lords and common men alike offered up their virgin daughters to him wherever he went, that their crops might ripen and their trees grow heavy with fruit. There was never a maid that he deflowered who did not deliver a strong son or fair daughter nine moons later, or so the stories say. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

This fertility rounds back to Garth being father to all, and therefore all his descendants being kin, which ensured a peace (at least within the Reach), at a time where petty kingdoms sprouted like wildfire everywhere else, causing territorial wars amongst these petty kingdoms.

That Garth Greenhand had many children cannot be denied, given how many in the Reach claim descent from him. […] And yet there was a difference, in degree if not in kind, for almost all of the noble houses of the Reach shared a common ancestry, deriving as they did from Garth Greenhand and his many children. It was that kinship, many scholars have suggested, that gave House Gardener the primacy in the centuries that followed; no petty king could ever hope to rival the power of Highgarden, where Garth the Gardener’s descendants sat upon a living throne (the Oakenseat) that grew from an oak that Garth Greenhand himself had planted, and wore crowns of vines and flowers when at peace, and crowns of bronze thorns (later iron) when they rode to war. Others might style themselves kings, but the Gardeners were the unquestioned High Kings, and lesser monarchs did them honor, if not obeisance. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

Though Garth and Gardeners are heavily tied to peace and prosperity, in the above we note they did go to war at times. This is not so surprising, since George RR Martin himself is mostly a pacifist, but he feels there are certain situations where war is necessary and justified, such as WW II.

You know: Back then it was said then that most draft boards, and all the draft boards were local, would not give you a CO (Conciencious Objector) status if you only objected to Vietnam. They would only give it to you if you were a complete Pacifists and objected to All wars. And I was NOT a complete Pacifist you know. The the big question they would always ask you is would you have fought in World War II against the Nazi’s. Well YES I would have fought in World War II against the Nazi’s. But the Vietcong were not the Nazi’s and uh I didn’t think America had any business in Vietnam and so forth. So I was objecting that Particular war. […] I still think the Vietnam war was a terrible idea for America, but I STILL would have fought against the Nazi’s. (GRRM on war and pacifism)

So, when George frames the historical Gardeners and Garth the Greenhand as peacemakers and proponents of peace, he is unlikely to make them bend-over-backwards-pacifists-who-would-rather-lay-down-to-die-than-fight.

Not only is the peace insured through kinship, but also through adaptation and embracing the new without setting aside the old. Highgarden’s sept celebrates both the Andal Seven and the pagan Garth Greenhand, while they also maintain a godswood with three entangled weirwoods.

The gods, both old and new, are well served in Highgarden. The splendor of the castle sept, with its rows of stained-glass windows celebrating the Seven and the ubiquitous Garth Greenhand, is rivaled only by that of the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing and the Starry Sept of Oldtown. And Highgarden’s lush green godswood is almost as renowned, for in the place of a single heart tree it boasts three towering, graceful, ancient weirwoods whose limbs have grown so entangled over the centuries that they appear to be almost a single tree with three trunks, reaching for each other above a tranquil pool. Legend has it these trees, known in the Reach as the Three Singers, were planted by Garth Greenhand himself. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

With peace, unity, bountiful harvests and prosperity also comes culture – music, high arts, song, poetry, … And thus here we find the stories of heroes who are pure, honorable.

The greatest champions, men as pure and honorable and virtuous as they were skilled at arms, were honored with invitations to join the Order of the Green Hand. (tWoIaF – The Reach: Garth of the Greenhand)

Can it then be doubted that Serwyn was one of the Order of the Green Hand?

Since George refers to himself as a gardening writer, more than an architectural author, and Serwyn likely is an amalgam of real world fairytales and legends, the Serwyn-mirror character may take up the gauntlet of tasks (mediating, peace making, planting) that otherwise the Gardener superior would do.

Conclusion – tl;tr

In order to investigate characters and in how much they resemble the legendary hero Serwyn of the Mirror Shield the following is required:

  • The use or own a mirror shield or armor.
  • Saving a princess from a “giant”. The threat may be real or imagined, as long as the princess is fearful of the giant or the saviour considers the giant’s threat real.
  • Slaying of a “dragon” that is staring or was staring at its own reflection. The dragon may possibly lose an eye.
  • Serve a Gardener. This “Gardener” may be someone claiming descendance to the Gardeners, but also someone who is a peacemaker, conciliator, greenseer, a green man.
  • Associations with weirwoods, planting trees, harvest and/or summer.
  • It is someone highly moral, haunted by nightmares about those they killed.
  • Rather a sworn sword or shield than a sellsword. This may be a knight, kingsguard, but certainly a warrior.
  • Byronic and/or romantic hero or heroine.

Because GRRM likely based Serwyn on the fairytale type “The princess and the dragon” and a “Bear’s son” we should be looking out for the following potential elements:

  • Castle setting.
  • Three princesses, singers, or sisters requiring saving, and/or betrothed to pretender saviours.
  • A beautiful, smart princess who has her own agency and helps.
  • False friends who betray and abandon the hero.
  • A well that leads underground.
  • A nemesis that is not necessarily a dragon, but a (small) giant, dwarf or demon.

The other source we can expect George to weave into it are those of St. George’s legend. So we have to watch out for the following elements:

  • chains, a net or girdle to bind an animal
  • a dragon
  • poison
  • sacrifice and death of sheep, children, men and womendue to war, disease or plagues
  • destroyed, infertile lands
  • poisoned wells or lands
  • conversions of religion

These elements do not necessarily have to appear in the arc of the Serwyn-like character, but should appear in a dragon’s arc.

Since George loves to play around with themes, we may see reversals not can we rule out a female Serwyn.

Mirror Mirror: Swords, Foxes and Beauty

(Top illustration: Warrior’s Sons escort, by Joshua Cairos)

Their armor was silver plate polished to a mirror sheen, but underneath, she knew, every man of them wore a hair shirt. (aDwD, Cersei II)

Next up are the Swords, the sworn shields of the Faith, also known as the Warrior’s Sons. This analysis will delve into the description of the Warrior’s Sons, and their attributes such as the crystal crests will uncannily remind us of the Others. This should be no surprise, as they are the soldiers of the High Sparrow, who evolves into Cersei’s enemy. Since Cersei is highly associated with “wild” fire symbolism, her enemy ought to have ice symbolism. George regularly creates these mini ice versus fire dynamics to hint at opposing sides. The essay the Plutonian Others discusses a few examples where the dyanmics feature red versus blue blood: Dany versus the Undying, Roose Bolton versus Ramsay Snow. Since the Warrior’s Sons are not just a parallel to the Others via mirror-armor alone, their appearance and how they are used may give us some clues about the Others.

With Areo Hotah we investigated the veracity of reveals in the chapter where George pointed out that Hotah wears mirror-armor (see Mirror Mirror – Behind the Mirror), but pretty much ignored his Captain of the Guards chapter of aFfC, though of course his copper disk armor would be as reflective there as well. George only tips the reader off about the Warrior’s Sons wearing mirror armor in Cersei’s last chapter of aDwD, shortly before she starts her Walk of Atonement. In this essay we will not do an in-depth analysis of that chapter as we did for the Watcher, but instead use George’s tip retroactively, and thus delve into Cersei’s arc as it relates to her growing enmity with the Faith, in particularly how she ends up being tricked. Blue-Eyed Wolf already mentioned how George works in the medieval story Of Reynaert the Fox in her essay on Shadrich, Morgarth and Byron for the Valed Ragtag Band. The tricks of the fox reappear in Cersei’s arc as she deals with the High Sparrow, Septon Reynard escorted by the Warrior’s Sons and Lancel. And on an aside it is also worked into Tywin Lannister’s backstory of the Reyne-Tarbeck rebellion. To trick a lion it is only apt for George to insert references to Reynaert the Fox, but when this also involves Warrior’s Sons we end up with an extra layered allusion to the Crystal Foxes, or a nod to Tad Williams’s White Foxes (the Norns) of his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy as well as the Dan’lai of the Stone City.

Cersei’s arc on page ends with her Walk of Shame, surrounded by an escort of Warrior’s Sons in their mirror-armor, or rather she walks through the city surrounded by truth telling mirrors where she not only has to face herself but the whole city sees her truly – an empress without clothes.

The Swords

The Warrior’s Sons were an order of knights who gave up lands and gold and swore their swords to the High Septon. Those during Aegon’s Conquest wore rainbow cloaks, inlaid silver armor over hair shirts, had star-shaped crystals in the pommels of their longswords. Hence they were called the Swords, while the armed sparrows with a bad of a red and white seven-pointed star were dubbed the Stars.

“They date from before Aegon’s Conquest,” Cersei explained to [Lady Merryweather]. “The Warrior’s Sons were an order of knights who gave up their lands and gold and swore their swords to His High Holiness. The Poor Fellows . . . they were humbler, though far more numerous. Begging brothers of a sort, though they carried axes instead of bowls. They wandered the roads, escorting travelers from sept to sept and town to town. Their badge was the seven-pointed star, red on white, so the smallfolk named them Stars. The Warrior’s Sons wore rainbow cloaks and inlaid silver armor over hair shirts, and bore star-shaped crystals in the pommels of their longswords. They were the Swords. Holy men, ascetics, fanatics, sorcerers, dragonslayers, demonhunters . . . there were many tales about them. But all agree that they were implacable in their hatred for all enemies of the Holy Faith.” (aFfC, Cersei VI)

When the High Sparrow became the newly elected High Septon and King’s Landing was flooded by sparrows, Cersei agreed to allow the Faith to arm itself once more, so she could get rid of the sparrows in the city. In return the High Sparrow would bless King Tommen and forgive the Crown’s debt to the Faith.

When the High Sparrow begins to preach against the brothels in King’s Landing, Cersei sends for him to inform him that brothels are a valued source of income for the crown. Instead of going himself, he sends Septon Raynard with a delegation of the Swords to court.

The delegation from the Faith was headed by her old friend Septon Raynard. Six of the Warrior’s Sons escorted him across the city; together they were seven, a holy and propitious number. The new High Septon—or High Sparrow, as Moon Boy had dubbed him—did everything by sevens. The knights wore swordbelts striped in the seven colors of the Faith. Crystals adorned the pommels of their longswords and the crests of their greathelms. They carried kite shields of a style not common since the Conquest, displaying a device not seen in the Seven Kingdoms for centuries: a rainbow sword shining bright upon a field of darkness. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

Cersei focuses on the number seven here, but Septon Raynard is not a Warrior’s Son, not a Sword. The number of significance here is six. This is the same number of Others that surrounded Waymar Royce in the prologue.

They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. (aGoT, Prologue)

The first Other confronting Ser Waymar and the five extra make six in total. Watch out for that number, because the configuration of six mirror-armored guards surrounding another reappears several times. There is an inherent ambiguity and changeability in the relation between those six and the character they surround. In aGoT’s Prologue for example, the six Others start out as Ser Waymar’s mortal enemy, but towards the end of the Prologue Ser Waymar has become a wight and turned into a mortal tool by the Others.

Another striking example is the scene where Barristan Selmy has six Brazen Locusts with him to arrest Hizdahr.

Twelve levels down he found the Shavepate waiting, his coarse features still hidden by the mask he had worn that morning, the blood bat. Six Brazen Beasts were with him. All were masked as insects, identical to one another. Locusts, Selmy realized. “Groleo,” he said.
“Groleo,” one of the locusts replied.
I have more locusts if you need them,” said Skahaz.
Six should serve. What of the men on the doors?” (aDwD, The Kingbreaker)

Dany’s alchemistic brass arc commences with a brass platter used as a mirror that reveals Selmy as her ally. But the poisoning of the locusts and Dany’s disappearance in aDwD puts Selmy in a very ambiguous position. Superficial evidence points to Hizdahr as the culprit, but Shakaz – the master of the Brazen Beasts – cannot be excluded from being the culprit either (see Who Poisoned the Locusts on the Meereenese Blot). And thus Selmy may regard those six Brazen Locusts as his and Dany’s allies, but may have been cleverly turned by Shakaz to undo all the compromises that Dany made to ensure peace. While brass may be used as a material to mirror and reveal truth, when the material is twisted into beastly masks, the brass is as obscure as any other non-mirroring material.

So, the number six is an important “turning” numeral in the books, and of course we all know six-six-six is the number of the beast. And it begs the question whether Cersei can still consider Septon Reynard her old friend or whether he has been “turned”. We will examine the evidence in a bit, but first let us focus on the appearance of the Warrior’s Sons.

Initially, we merely get a historical, verbal description of Cersei to Lady Merrywheather how they appeared before Maegor’s laws and wars ended their existence. They wore rainbow cloaks, silver armor over hair shirts, and both their helms and pommels are adorned with crystal. By the second description, they have materialized as an escort of six. While we get crystal crests on the helms and pommels, we do not have rainbow cloaks in that scene. Instead we are informed their sword scabbard is rainbow-colored and so is the sword depiction shining bright upon a dark kite field. It are these depictions of swords the Warrior’s Sons got their nickname from – the Swords. George does not yet use the word rainbow-colored in the description of their first appearance, but instead mentions the “colors of the seven” and “rainbow sword”. From their first appearance, however, we can derive that both the scabbard and the sword depiction on the shield imply “our swords are rainbow-colored“. The term for this effect is irridescent. This is what we call any material – whether it are soap bubbles, crystal, pearls, shells or ice – that structurally can break the light into its different color wavelengths and produce a rainbow-color effect rippling across its surface. And an irridescent sword shining on a dark field sounds very close to a sword shining in the darkness – a lightbringer. Except these lightbringers are not made of steel set on flame like a torch, they are hinted to be crystal swords. George confirms this in the final description when the Warrior’s Sons await Cersei to escort her during her Walk of Shame.

In the Hall of Lamps, a dozen Warrior’s Sons awaited her coming. Rainbow cloaks hung down their backs, and the crystals that crested their greathelms glittered in the lamplight. Their armor was silver plate polished to a mirror sheen, but underneath, she knew, every man of them wore a hair shirt. Their kite shields all bore the same device: a crystal sword shining in the darkness, the ancient badge of those the smallfolk called Swords. (aDwD, Cersei II)

Several swords in the books are described to shine with light in the darkness. There is the Dayne sword Dawn, but also Jaime’s weirwood dream sword given to him by dream-Tywin.

“And now it begins,” said Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. He unsheathed Dawn and held it with both hands. The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Jaime groped under the water until his hand closed upon the hilt. Nothing can hurt me so long as I have a sword. As he raised the sword a finger of pale flame flickered at the point and crept up along the edge, stopping a hand’s breath from the hilt. The fire took on the color of the steel itself so it burned with a silvery-blue light, and the gloom pulled back. […] In the cool silvery-blue light of the swords, the big wench looked pale and fierce. […] Their blades made a little island of light, but all around them stretched a sea of darkness, unending. (aSoS, Jaime VI)

Dawn and Jaime’s dream swords are far closer to the “lightbringers” that Others carry with them.

In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor. (aGoT, Prologue)

A rainbow-colored crystal sword of the Warrior’s Sons bringing light in the darkness is eerily close to the crystal swords that the Others use. We tend to focus of course on the blue ghost-light, but the moonlight hitting a crystal-translucent shard makes for an irridescent effect within the crystal, regardless of the extra surrounding ghost light. And yes, this is a very different type of lightbringer than the Red Sword of Heroes Mel or the Jade Compendium talks about. Hmmm, it turns out the “ice blue versus the hot red blood” theme even creeps up in the light swords bring. As mentioned in the introduction, George’s choice of steeping the Warrior’s Sons with parallels to the Others fits their role as men who oppose wildfire-Cersei and thus also Stannis drawing a flaming sword out of a pire of burning Seven.

The king plunged into the fire with his teeth clenched, holding the leather cloak before him to keep off the flames. He went straight to the Mother, grasped the sword with his gloved hand, and wrenched it free of the burning wood with a single hard jerk. […] The gods in the pyre were scarcely recognizable anymore. The head fell off the Smith with a puff of ash and embers. […] By the time the song was done, only charwood remained of the gods, and the king’s patience had run its course. He took the queen by the elbow and escorted her back into Dragonstone, leaving Lightbringer where it stood. The red woman remained a moment to watch as Devan knelt with Byren Farring and rolled up the burnt and blackened sword in the king’s leather cloak. The Red Sword of Heroes looks a proper mess, thought Davos. (aCoK, Davos I)

Anyhow, the Warrior’s Sons carry around symbols of crystal lightbringing swords. And at least Cersei’s escort is noted to have rainbow cloaks. Combine this with their armor being silver like moonlight, and you basically have a symbolic representation of icy crystal irridescent armor.

But beneath all that armor, the Swords wear a hairshirt. This is a real world undercloth worn foremostly by Christian followers as a way to do penance, though in Biblical times Jewish mourners would wear it as well (but not to self-harm). Skin imprint patterns and clothing representations in art indicate usage of hairshirts even at Catalhoyuk (a city; 7500 BC-5000BC) and Gobekli Tepe (religious constructions; 10th millenium BC). Both these Turkish cites predate written history and agriculture. The undergarment is made of coarse animal hair worn in direct contact with the skin. The friction against skin causes irritation and makes the skin raw, hence its serves as doing penance for sins like fasting does. On Planetos men of the Faith and the Bearded Priests of Norvos wear these, and thus George uses them in the same context as real world Christian followers did (and still do).

Aside from penance, the repeated mention of the Otherlike Warrior’s Sons in particular wearing hairshirts likely has a symbolic layer to it. Aside from sigils, George uses pelts and skins all the time to point out that a certain character falls within a certain animal-category. This is something I have pointed out several times in some of the bear-maiden essays. Even if a character does not have a bear sigil, him or her wearing a bear pelt implies they “skinchange” into a bear-character or (hope to) gain the power of the bear. This is also true for seal-skins and wolf cloaks. We could therefore regard the wearing of hairshirts as undergarment, directly to the skin, as George hinting at the nature of the Warrior’s Sons as well. Except in this case, the hair is not worn outward, but inward. As a symbol wearing a hairshirt implies that we are talking about an actual beast that wants to appear as a hairless human. And since the Warrior’s Sons are such a parallel to the Others via visual symbolism, the hairshirt symbolism should also apply to the Others: they seem and appear humanoid, but on the inside, they are rough haired beasts. In the Plutonian Others we argued that their true nature and origin is that of the hairy ice spider.

Crystal Crest

What then is the crystal crest on the helm about? And how could it relate to the Others? Judging by Cairos’ illustration that is some serious ornament on the helm. The Fattest Leech came up with the proposal that it relates to the idea of mind control. And indeed, when we see those huge seven crsytal spikes on the helm of the Warrior’s Sons, they almost remind us of some type of antennae, more than a crown. And especially in a hierarchical order where the Warrior’s Sons are mere soldiers, but are the sole ones to wear these crests (unlike septons) one can see why they might need antennae to receive orders.

Of course, with the Warrior’s Sons, the crystal antennae serve a purely symbolic ornamental purpose to show to us how these men are mind-controlled via religion. But as a parallel to the Others, it adds weight to the idea that the icy enemy does not just apply some form of mind control on wights, but are hive-mind-controlled as well. Hence we have five Others in the Prologue who move in for the kill simultaneously without requiring vocal communication.

The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. (aGoT, Prologue)

As of yesterday, the 2020 aSoIaF callendar has been published with illustrations by Jon Howe, and Treegirl took a picture of an illustration called Night’s King and revealed it on Twitter.

nightsking
Night’s King, by John Howe, aSoIaF Callendar 2020

As he did with his illustration of the Others on Ice Spiders, John Howe converted the subject of his illustration. With the Others riding Ice Spiders, he made a symbolical representation of the Others wearing cowls and carrying a scythe and mostly put the focus on the huge Ice Spiders. The above illustration Night’s King depicts the 13th Lord Commander in the background, while the Corpse Queen takes the center stage. Notice how her hair is like a giant crest of hundred of ice crystals and the irridescent effect John Howe managed to depict in it. Those are a bunch of ice crystal antennae. And does it not look like she has fangs?

The idea of seeing those crystal crests as antennaes by which the Warrior’s Sons are mind controlled stems from several 1000 world novellas and short stories of George. We will discuss several examples here.

The Greeshka

In the 1974 A Song for Lya you get to visit the planet of the native Shkeen. It is also the home of a mold-like parasite called Greeshka. For some reason the native Shkeen Join with a Greeshka.

On their heads rode the Greeshka. I’d expected to find the sight hideous. I didn’t. It was faintly disquieting, but only because I knew what it meant. The parasites were bright blobs of crimson goo, ranging in size from a pulsing wart on the back of one Shkeen skull to a great sheet of dripping, moving red that covered the head and shoulders of the smallest like a living cowl. The Greeshka lived by sharing nutrients in the Shkeen bloodstream, I knew. And also by slowly – oh so slowly – consuming its host. (A Song for Lya)

In time the Joined perform Final Union, a non-formal ritual that essentially comes down to voluntarily suicide, like a lemming. The Joined Shkeen seeks out a cave where a monstrously big Greeshka “lives”, steps right up to it, lays down against it and in a matter of days ends up consumed by it. Two telepathic talents (Robb and Lyanna) are hired to investigate this “religion”, because the past few years human settlers have converted and Joined. When they meet the above described Joined Shkeen, they discover that they are extremely happy, feel loved and love everyone deeply – how people describe being with God must feel like. The love and connection feeling is so intense that none of the Joined ever feel lonely anymore. This is the lie that the Greeshka feeds to Shkeen and humans, in order for them to be willing hosts and food. This is not the essay to figure out the enigma on how Greeshka manage to have such a mind control (it is not drug related), but to establish the fact that they do, and it starts with literally putting a Greeshka on the skull and ending up feeling continuous deep connecting love. That it is an illusion and a trap, we can gather from the fact that the Greeshka is red and the monstrous size ones in the caves are an entangled web of Greeshka texture. Anyway, here we a concept from George by putting something weird on your head and being mind-controlled.

Hrangan Minds

Other stories where the mind is influenced is And Seven Times Never Kill Man, also of 1974. In that novella, the fanatical Steel Angels who follow the pale child Bakkalon of the Sword (yes, the one and the same Bakkalon, the Pale Child that is featured in the House of Black and White) set up a city intent on colonising a planet in a valley they refer to as Sword Valley.

The natives are called the Jainshi, a grey furred humanoid species with golden eyes and no taller than five feet. They live in trees in clans or tribes of forty individuals, but after sunset they worhsip red pyramids that each house a god.

“Interesting,” [Ryther] said finally, after studying the shard for several minutes. It was as hard and smooth as glass, but stronger; colored a translucent red, yet so very dark it was almost black. “A plastic?” she asked, throwing it back to the ground.
NeKrol shrugged. “That was my very guess, but of course it is impossible. The Jainshi work in bone and wood and sometimes metal, but plastic is centuries beyond them.”
“Or behind them,” Ryther said. “You say these worship pyramids are scattered all through the forest?” (And Seven Times Never Kill Man)

The Jainshi are portrayed as pacifists, living in harmony with their environment. They do not hunt for meat, unless hogs and other animals become too numerous and require culling, nor do predators hunt the Jainshi. As the Steel Angels do not recognize any other god than Bakkalon and believe humans to be the sole species as having a soul they begin to destroy several of the pyramids and order the Jainshi to disperse.

The third clan this happens to attempts to defend their pyramid. Though their hunting arsenal is not a match against the advanced technological arms of the Steel Angels, they managed to kill a man. In revenge, the Steel Angels string up several Jainshi, including their children, as a message to the surviving soulless “animals” to never rebel against humans who have the god-given right to take whatever they want and dominate worlds as violent as they please.

“And the pale child heard, and came again, for the sound of battle is more pleasing to his ears than the sound of wails. And when He saw, He smiled. “Now you are my children again,” He said to the seed of Earth. ‘For you had turned against me to worship a god who calls himself a lamb, but did you not know that lambs go only to the slaughter? Yet now your eyes have cleared, and again you are the Wolves of God!” (And Seven Times Never Kill Man)

The Proctor of the Steel Angels (comparable to the High Sparrow’s status) communicates with Bakkalon through visions. During the first winter, he receives several visions and predicts the following miracle – Bakkalon has walked on this world and instructed the Jainshi on submitting to the will of the Steel Angels. And indeed when spring comes around and the Steel Angels move out of Sword Valley to expand their territory, the Jainshi allow them to destroy their pyramid, disperse to join other clans, and they leave a carved statuette for the Steel Angels – all Bakkalons with his sword.

As the evicted Jainshi join the Jainshi tribe at the Waterfall pyramid, the population outgrows sustainability. They are so numerous that the Steel Angels are unnerved by it, and decide to move on them with blast canons, ordering them to disperse. In their experience this works best when they destroy the pyramid. But before they can, the red pyramid transformed itself into a crystal pyramid with Bakkalon inside, before their very eyes.

NeKrol stood paralyzed. The pyramid on the rock was no longer a reddish slab. Now it sparkled in the sunlight, a canopy of transparent crystal. And below that canopy, perfect in every detail, the pale child Bakkalon stood smiling, with his Demon-Reaver in his hand. (And Seven Times Never Kill a Man)

Due to inner disagreements, a massacre between the two factions cannot be avoided – and many of the Jainshi get killed as well as do some Steel Angels, most importantly the suspicious DaHan –  but ultimately the Steel Angels take the pyramid back to their city.

Wyatt was twice as skeletal as[Ryther] remembered him. He had been standing outdoors, near the foot of a huge platform-altar that had been erected in the middle of the city. A startlingly lifelike statue of Bakkalon, encased in a glass pyramid and set atop a high redstone plinth, threw a long shadow over the wooden altar. (And Seven Times Never Kill a Man)

But on account of visions given to them by the Crystal Pyramid Bakkalon, the Steel Angels completely alter their way – they drop their weapons, burn their winter crop believing that henceforth there will be an eternal summer, and cull their own numbers in peace by hanging their own children from their walls this time.

Wyatt gestured toward the altar with a thin hand. “See? In tribute we burn our winter stores, for the pale child has promised that this year winter will not come. And He has taught us to cull ourselves in peace as once we were culled in war, so the seed of Earth grows even stronger. It is a time of great new Revelation!”
[…]
Outside the walls the Angel children hung, a row of small white-smocked bodies still and motionless at the end of long ropes. They had gone peacefully, all of them, but death is seldom peaceful; the older ones, at least, died quickly, necks broken with a sudden snap. But the small pale infants had the nooses round their waists, and it had seemed clear to Ryther that most of them had simply hung there till they starved.  (And Seven Times Never Kill a Man)

All the while, we have been given hints through the POV of an atheistic trader Arik neKrol and the doubts of the Steel Angel Weaponmaster DaHan that the forces that live within the pyramids are telepathic who can extract imagery, ideas and beliefs from minds, and then they have the tribe’s carver make that image to manipulate the one it is gifted to, until eventually they exert hive-mind control over their worshippers.

DaHan was not chief of Psychological Weaponry and Enemy Intelligence for nothing.

“Yet there is a tale, my Proctor – one that troubles me. Once, it is said, in the long centuries of war, the Sons of Hranga loosed upon the seed of Earth foul vampires of the mind, the creatures men called soul-sucks. Their touch was invisible, but it crept across kilometers, farther than a man could see, farther than a laser could fire, and it brought madness. Visions, my Proctor, visions! False gods and foolish plans were put in the minds of men, and ….” (And Seven Times Never Kill a Man)

And indeed the closer one is to a pyramid the easier it is for the pyramids to influence the target. So these are likely Minds of Hranga who survived the galactic wars on some far away colony of theirs.

It turns out that neither the hogs oor the Jainshi are by nature docile or pacifist. Both act far more aggressive after the initial pyramids are destroyed. These “godless” Jainshi also become sexually hyperactive (comparable to bonobos), can feel bitterness and anger, are fully willing to rush into martial conflict with the Steel Angels to protect the mind-controlled Jainshi. And then there is the hint given to us in the change of the color of the eyes. With the godless Jainshi it changed from golden to bronze. Whereas the Proctor’s eyes acquire golden flecks by the end of the story.

His eyes had burned as he spoke to her; eyes darting and fanatic, vast and dark yet strangely flecked with gold. (And Seven Times Never Kill a Man)

Not only do the forces within the pyramids inhibit sexual desire, they compell both the Jainshi and the Steel Angels to cull hogs, commit infanticide and most importantly prevent cultural learning. The pyramids decide which Jainshi will have which status or role within the tribe. Only one speaks. Only one carves. They lack knowledge and understanding on how another can do these things. It is comparable to bee- or ant-hives where it is decided which larva will be a worker, queen, soldier or fertilizing male. And once this is decided, that is all they can do. In contrast, the godless orphaned Jainshi become curious and critical.

This short story comes with a great recommendation as it is deeply layered and requires several rereads to figure out what is going on exactly. So, while in this story, none of the mind-controlled actually wear something on their head, we have a reference to the number seven right in the title, a crystal pyramid, dogmatic fanatical religious thinking and control over the sexuality of individuals. The Faith established itself in Westeros through the xenophobic zealots of Andalos and their military hierarchical structure is similar to that of the Steel Angels. Yes, the pyramids are red-almost-black initially (so is Proctor), but the change in color to translucent glass-like pyramids implies that such is just “form”; that it remains mind-control no matter who does it.

Despite the color red dominating in this story, we get a spiderweb reference for the waterfall of the pyramid that turns into Bakkalon, the corpse like appearance of the Proctor, the Jainshi having grey fur, worship at night (never by day), blue lights outside the steel walls of the Steel Angels, and the godless Bitter Speaker Jainshi (who is much like Arya) ends up wearing a blue scarf.

Less than two kilometers from his base, neKrol found the camp of the Jainshi he called the Waterfall folk. They lived up against the side of a heavy-wooded hill, where a stream of tumbling blue-white water came sliding and bouncing down, dividing and rejoining itself over and over, so the whole hillside was an intricate glittering web of waterfalls and rapids and shallow pools and spraying wet curtains. The clan’s worship pyramid sat in the bottommost pool, on a flat gray stone in the middle of the eddies: taller than most Jaenshi, coming up to neKrol’s chin, looking infinitely heavy and solid and immovable, a three-sided block of dark, dark red. (Seven Times Never Kill Man)

Meanwhile the Others demanding sacrifice of children and lambs from Craster (and other wildlings who worship the Cold Gods, such as of the Frozen Shore) is also a callback to the culling required by the mind-controlling forces of the pyramids.

Psi-boosters

Aside from the Greeshka and Minds of Hranga, George often includes characters with telephatic abilities, such as the Talents Lyanna and Robb in A Song for Lya or Tuff’s cats with psi-abilities in Tuf Voyaging. Most of these characters only use their abilities to read, not to control. But in Tuf Voyaging’s origin short story the Plague Star (1985) we get a character who uses a psi-booster to control animals mentally. The Plague Star is a biowar seedship, a space-arc so to speak.

A team of treasure hunters hoping to win the jackpot attempt to board it and gain control over it. The original human controllers of it are long dead, because of an accidental release of a certain plague on board. And when the team boards the seedship they inadevertently set off its defence program: aside from plagues, it starts to genetically clone several type of monsters of various worlds found all over the galaxy. One of those is a T-Rex. On top of it all, these treasure hunters turn on one another, to claim sole ownership over it. Towards the end only Tuf, green-eyed hireling Rica Dawnstar and the T-Rex. Rica aims to get Tuf killed, and for this she requires a device that allows her to control the T-Rex’s mind.

Hooked over one arm of the captain’s throne was a thin coronet of iridescent metal that Rica had earlier removed from a storage cabinet. She picked it up, ran it under a scanner briefly to check the circuitry, and slid it over her head at a rakish angle. (Tuf Voyaging, The Plague Star)

So this is a type of crown-like object, in iridescent metal, to put on your head. In the final confrontation, Rica explains and demonstrates it to Tuf.

The tyrannosaur took one step, two, three, and now it was directly behind her, its shadow casting her in darkness.
“How manipulated?” asked Haviland Tuf.
“I thought you’d never ask,” said Rica Dawnstar. The tyrannosaur leaned forward, roared, opened its massive jaws, engulfed her head. “Psionics,” she said from between its teeth.
“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf.
“A simple psionic capacity,” Rica announced from inside the tyrannosaur’s jaws. She reached up and picked something from between its teeth, with a tsking sound. “Some of the monsters were close to mindless, all instinct. They got a basic instinctual aversion. The more complex monsters were made psionically submissive. The instruments of control were psi-boosters. Pretty little things, like crowns. I’m wearing one now. It doesn’t confer psi-powers or anything dramatic like that. It just makes some of the monsters avoid me, and other ones obey me.” She ducked out of the dinosaur’s mouth, and slapped the side of his jaw soundly. “Down, boy,” she said.
The tyrannosaur roared, and lowered its head. Rica Dawnstar untangled her harness and saddle and began to strap it into place. “I’ve been controlling him all the time we’ve been talking,” she said conversationally. “I called him here. He’s hungry. He ate Lion, but Lion was small, and dead, too, and he hasn’t had anything else for a thousand years.” (Tuf Voyaging, The Plague Star)

Rica Dawnstar even manages to ride the T-Rex, like a dragon. The difference to the Greeshka and the Warrior’s Sons, Rica wears a crown not to be controlled but to mentally control others, like the Minds of Hranga inside the pyramids do with those in reach.

If the High Sparrow had not sold the High Septon’s crown, we could say he would be wearing the control device to give orders to the Warrior’s Sons from a distance. But the High Sparrow is content with religious doctrinal control alone. We doubt the Corpse Queen sold her icy-spiked hair though.

The Tricks of the Fox

Let us return to the first scene where the Warrior’s Sons actually appear on page in Cersei’s POV.

The delegation from the Faith was headed by her old friend Septon Raynard. Six of the Warrior’s Sons escorted him across the city; together they were seven, a holy and propitious number. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

As I mentioned the number six is significant and we will examine in how much Septon Raynard is still to be considered a friend to Cersei in this scene.

Septon Raynard is one of the Most Devout. This is a conclave comparable to the Cardinals in the Catholic Church who elect a new Pope amongst the candidates, with that exception that in Westeros’s Faith the Mos Devout also include Septas and thus female worshippers also have a vote in who gets to be the new High Septon. Raynard was rumored to be in the running for the job, and Cersei seemed to be looking forward to that.

“No,” said Cersei, “but we must hope that his successor is more vigorous. My friends upon the other hill tell me that it will most like be Torbert or Raynard.”(aFfC, Cersei IV)

Instead the sparrows force the Most Devout’s hands and the High Sparrow is elected instead. We later learn why Cersei would have preferred Raynard or Torbert, when the High Sparrow has not yet come to bless King Tommen.

“Orton says it is the gold [the High Sparrow] really wants. That he means to withhold his blessing until the crown resumes its payments.”
“The Faith will have its gold as soon as we have peace.” Septon Torbert and Septon Raynard had been most understanding of her plight … (aFfC, Cersei VI)

Since the High Sparrow ignores Cersei’s summons, she ends up visiting the High Sparrow herself at the Sept of Baelor.

Two had the insolence to cross their spears and bar her way. “Is this how you receive your queen?” she demanded of them. “Pray, where are Raynard and Torbert?” It was not like those two to miss a chance to fawn on her. Torbert always made a show of getting down on his knees to wash her feet.
I do not know the men you speak of,” said one of the men with a red star on his surcoat, “but if they are of the Faith, no doubt the Seven had need of their service.”
Septon Raynard and Septon Torbert are of the Most Devout,” Cersei said, “and will be furious to learn that you obstructed me. Do you mean to deny me entrance to Baelor’s holy sept?” (aFfC, Cersei VI)

Once Cersei gains entry, to her shock she discovers Raynard scrubbing the floor while wearing a roughspun robe.

In the Hall of Lamps, Cersei found a score of septons on their knees, but not in prayer. They had pails of soap and water, and were scrubbing at the floor. Their roughspun robes and sandals led Cersei to take them for sparrows, until one raised his head. His face was red as a beet, and there were broken blisters on his hands, bleeding. “Your Grace.”
Septon Raynard?” The queen could scarce believe what she was seeing. “What are you doing on your knees?
He is cleaning the floor.” The speaker was shorter than the queen by several inches and as thin as a broom handle. “Work is a form of prayer, most pleasing to the Smith.” He stood, scrub brush in hand. “Your Grace. We have been expecting you.” (aFfC, Cersei VI)

In Septon Raynard we recognize a reference to Reyneart the Fox* and Cersei’s plot in aFfC is analogous to it.

* For clarity I will refer to the medieval literary character as Reynaert (and not the English Reynard) or the fox to differentiate from the septon’s name Raynard.

In the medieval plot, the fox fails the summons of King Nobel (a lion) to defend and explain himself several times against the crimes he is accused of. Eventually Reynaert is persuaded to appear. And when he does, the fox lies and slanders Noble’s allies (Brune the bear and Ysengrim the wolf) in such a way that he manages to make King Noble believe in a conspiracy as well as Reynaert having buried a treasure to foil the usurping plans of Brune and Ysengrim. Except, there is no treasure and no conspiracy. The anology is evident: Cersei believes her allies, the Tyrells, to be plotting to take the throne, and possibly even wanting to harm Tommen. Like King Noble, through her own actions and choices, she alienates her allies and creates enemies out of them. The sole difference to the Reynaert plot is that Cersei comes up with this all on her own, without needing a fox to feed her lies. Gold and treasure is also a constant reappearing want of hers. But instead of having Cersei go on an active treasure hunt, George has her break her repayment contract with the Iron Bank and the Faith, appropriate Rosby lands and castle, etc. And it is with the treasury in mind that Cersei arranges a deal with the High Sparrow in private, much like King Noble does with Reynaert the Fox, where she will enable the re-erection of the Faith Militant in exchange for the High Sparrow’s blessing of King Tommen and the crown’s debt to the Faith forgiven.

High Septon pondered that a moment. “As you wish. This debt shall be forgiven, and King Tommen will have his blessing. The Warrior’s Sons shall escort me to him, shining in the glory of their Faith, whilst my sparrows go forth to defend the meek and humble of the land, reborn as Poor Fellows as of old.” (aFfC, Cersei VI)

The actual mental fox character intending to trick Cersei in this plot is the High Sparrow. The issue for George is that the High Sparrow himself is a devout man, while the medieval Reynaert the fox is as corrupt as any of the other animals he tricks. Reynaert the fox is a noble vassal, who either pretends to go on a pilgrimage to Rome or to be a penitent preaching monk as a scam to commit murder. So, in order to suitably reference this historical work, George inserts a septon who is known by Cersei to be a corrupt clergyman and has him be called Raynard. Whenever we see septon Raynard, George evokes this false penitent image of Reynaert the fox through Cersei’s POV. Cersei’s recollections of septon Raynard fawning over her in the past fits the trickster’s MO as well – like any conman Reyneart first flatters, then hints to something his target desires, and once baited and shamed, the fox flatters his victim again to put salt on the wounded pride. Thus, George splits the analogies across two characters: the High Sparrow does the tricking, while Septon Raynard gets the characterization.

For example, the High Sparrow ignores the crown’s summons to court several times. Cersei has to come to him instead to make the deal about the debt and Tommen’s blessing.

Cersei let the curtain fall. “This is absurd.”
“It is, Your Grace,” Lady Merryweather agreed. “The High Septon should have come to you. And these wretched sparrows . . .” (aFfC, Cersei VI)

Where is the High Septon?” she demanded of Raynard. “It was him I summoned.” (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

Though Cersei has been scheming against Margaery before her visit to the High Sparrow, it is not until her return from Baelor’s Sept and feeling secure about the deal she struck over the gold the treasury owes the Faith, that Cersei conceives of a full blown conspiracy theory.

Every day in every way [Margaery] tries to steal [Tommen] from me. Joffrey would have seen through her schemer’s smile and let her know her place, but Tommen was more gullible. She knew Joff was too strong for her, Cersei thought, remembering the gold coin Qyburn had found. For House Tyrell to hope to rule, he had to be removed. It came back to her that Margaery and her hideous grandmother had once plotted to marry Sansa Stark to the little queen’s crippled brother Willas. Lord Tywin had forestalled that by stealing a march on them and wedding Sansa to Tyrion, but the link had been there. They are all in it together, she realized with a start. The Tyrells bribed the gaolers to free Tyrion, and whisked him down the roseroad to join his vile bride. By now the both of them are safe in Highgarden, hidden away behind a wall of roses. (aFfC, Cersei VI)

While the High Sparrow may ignore the personal summons, he at some points does send a delegation including a Reynaert representative via Septon Raynard, while simultaneously making the High Sparrow out to be on a most important mission for the Faith – battle wickedness. This is analogous to Reynaert’s excuse to King Noble that he cannot join King Noble for he has to go on pilgrimage to Rome to lift the ban on him.

Septon Raynard assumed a regretful tone. “His High Holiness sent me in his stead, and bade me tell Your Grace that the Seven have sent him forth to battle wickedness.” (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

This should alert the reader that we have come at the phase of the story where the fox effectively entices the lion to betray his allies. And indeed in the same chapter that Septon Raynard came to her summons of the High Sparrow, Cersei comes up with an active plan ready to be executed to get rid of Margaery.

A sudden sickness would be best, but the gods were seldom so obliging. How then? A knife, a pillow, a cup of heart’s bane? All of those posed problems. When an old man died in his sleep no one thought twice of it, but a girl of six-and-ten found dead in bed was certain to raise awkward questions. Besides, Margaery never slept alone. Even with Ser Loras dying, there were swords about her night and day. Swords have two edges, though. The very men who guard her could be used to bring her down. The evidence would need to be so overwhelming that even Margaery’s own lord father would have no choice but to consent to her execution. That would not be easy. Her lovers are not like to confess, knowing it would mean their heads as well as hers. Unless . . .

“If it came to it, could [Osney] defeat Ser Boros Blount?”
“Boros the Belly?” Ser Osmund chortled. “He’s what, forty? Fifty? Half-drunk half the time, fat even when he’s sober. If he ever had a taste for battle, he’s lost it. Aye, Your Grace, if Ser Boros wants for killing, Osney could do it easy enough. Why? Has Boros done some treason?”
No,” she said. But Osney has. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

However, while Cersei’s head is mostly occupied with coming up with a way to see Margaery dead, she fails to understand the subtextual warnings in her debate with Septon Raynard.

“How? By preaching chastity along the Street of Silk? Does he think praying over whores will turn them back to virgins?”
“Our bodies were shaped by our Father and Mother so we might join male to female and beget trueborn children,” Raynard replied. “It is base and sinful for women to sell their holy parts for coin.”
The pious sentiment would have been more convincing if the queen had not known that Septon Raynard had special friends in every brothel on the Street of Silk. No doubt he had decided that echoing the High Sparrow’s twitterings was preferable to scrubbing floors. “Do not presume to preach at me,” she told him. “The brothel keepers have been complaining, and rightly so.”
If sinners speak, why should the righteous listen?” (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

Cersei regards Septon Raynard as falsely devout and corrupt, an unwilling septon who is kept in line by the six Warrior’s Sons who escorted him and preferring to be the High Sparrow’s echo over scrubbing floors. Except one of those escorting Swords is Lancel.

And then there was Lancel. She had thought Qyburn must be japing when he had told her that her mooncalf cousin had forsaken castle, lands, and wife and wandered back to the city to join the Noble and Puissant Order of the Warrior’s Sons, yet there he stood with the other pious fools. Cersei liked that not at all. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

And in Lancel we have a third match to Reynaert the fox. When the first complaints and accusations against Reynaert are made at court about the fox, his badger nephew makes these assertions.

Since the king proclaimed his peace on pain of punishment, I know for a fact that he behaved no worse than if he were a hermit or a recluse. Next to his skin he wears a hair shirt. Within the past year he ate no meat, neither wild nor tame animals. So someone said who yesterday came from there. He has left Macroys, his castle, and has built a cell where he now lives. He surely has no other possessions or income than the alms given him. Pale he is and thin with doing penance. Hunger, thirst, sharp chastisement he suffers for his sins’. (Of Reynaert the Fox, King Noble Holds Court 264-281)

Where the original author “Willem who wrote Madocke” has the badger describe a false hearsay portrait of the fox, George actually has Lancel go through such a described self-penitence. Even at Tywin’s funeral, Lancel’s looks have greatly altered, while Jaime sees him even more harrowed at Darry’s.

Though only seventeen, he might have passed for seventy; grey-faced, gaunt, with hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and hair as white and brittle as chalk. […] Lancel lingered, the very picture of a man with one foot in the grave. But is he climbing in or climbing out?[…] Her cousin’s voice was as wispy as the mustache on his upper lip. Though his hair had gone white, his mustache fuzz remained a sandy color. […] It looks like a smudge of dirt on his lip. (aFfC, Cersei II)

Lancel looked even thinner than he had at King’s Landing. He was barefoot, and dressed in a plain, roughspun tunic of undyed wool that made him look more like a beggar than a lord. The crown of his head had been shaved smooth, but his beard had grown out a little. To call it peach fuzz would have given insult to the peach. It went queerly with the white hair around his ears. (aFfC, Jaime IV)

At Darry, Jaime sees all the evidence of Lancel living and sleeping in the sept, instead of the castle.

“Lord Lancel has been sleeping in the sept.”
Sleeping with the Mother and the Maiden, when he has a warm wife just through that door? Jaime did not know whether to laugh or weep. […] The seven gods loomed above carved altars, the dark wood gleaming in the candlelight. A faint smell of incense hung in the air. “You sleep down here?
“Each night I make my bed beneath a different altar, and the Seven send me visions.” (aFfC, Jaime IV)

He learns from Amerei that Lancel fasts, and later Lancel admits it. Jaime’s efforts to extract a promise from Lancel that he will eat if he joins him in prayer is without result.

“My lord prefers to fast,” said Lancel’s wife, the Lady Amerei. “He’s sick with grief for the poor High Septon.” […] Fasting? He is an even bigger fool than I suspected. His cousin should be busy fathering a little weasel-faced heir on his widow instead of starving himself to death.

[…]

Baelor the Blessed once had visions too. Especially when he was fasting. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“My faith is all the nourishment I need.”
“Faith is like porridge. Better with milk and honey.”
“I dreamed that you would come. In the dream you knew what I had done. How I’d sinned. You killed me for it.”
“You’re more like to kill yourself with all this fasting. Didn’t Baelor the Blessed fast himself onto a bier?”
“Our lives are candle flames, says The Seven-Pointed Star. Any errant puff of wind can snuff us out. Death is never far in this world, and seven hells await sinners who do not repent their sins. Pray with me, Jaime.”
“If I do, will you eat a bowl of porridge?” (aFfC, Jaime IV)

And when Jaime puts his hand on Lancel’s shoulders he can feel that Lancel wears a hair shirt.

Jaime put his hand on his cousin’s shoulder. […] Jaime could feel the bones beneath his cousin’s skin . . . and something else as well. Lancel was wearing a hair shirt underneath his tunic. (aFfC, Jaime IV)

Their meeting ends with Lancel announcing his intention to leave “his castle and relinquish all possessions” to become a Warrior’s Son.

“Lancel, you’re a bloody fool.”
“You are not wrong,” said Lancel, “but my folly is behind me, ser. I have asked the Father Above to show me the way, and he has. I am renouncing this lordship and this wife. […] On the morrow I will return to King’s Landing and swear my sword to the new High Septon and the Seven. I mean to take vows and join the Warrior’s Sons.

Like the badger, Jaime can attest that “next to his skin [his cousin] wears a hair shirt. Within the past year he ate no meat, neither wild nor tame animals.” Except, in this case it is not hearsay, but a true account. So, in Cersei’s arc we have three Reynaerts: the High Sparrow who sets up a trap for a lion queen, Septon Raynard who is the flattering corrupt fox saving his own hide, and Lancel the pilgrim seeking penitence and salvation.

Jaime questions the motive behind Lancel’s wish to return King’s Landing though.

“Even if this is true . . . you are a lion of the Rock, a lord. You have a wife, a castle, lands to defend, people to protect. If the gods are good, you will have sons of your blood to follow you. Why would you throw all that away for . . . for some vow?”
Why did you?” asked Lancel softly.
For honor, Jaime might have said. For glory. That would have been a lie, though. Honor and glory had played their parts, but most of it had been for Cersei. A laugh escaped his lips. “Is it the High Septon you’re running to, or my sweet sister? Pray on that one, coz. Pray hard.” (aFfC, Jaime IV)

And this question has merit. Lancel’s praying at Darry does not come out of nowhere. It is not solely his guilt that compels him. Cersei actually told him to.

“When it seemed that I might die, my father brought the High Septon to pray for me. He is a good man.” Her cousin’s eyes were wet and shiny, a child’s eyes in an old man’s face. “He says the Mother spared me for some holy purpose, so I might atone for my sins.”
Cersei wondered how he intended to atone for her. Knighting him was a mistake, and bedding him a bigger one. Lancel was a weak reed, and she liked his newfound piety not at all; he had been much more amusing when he was trying to be Jaime. What has this mewling fool told the High Septon? […] If he confessed to bedding Cersei, well, she could weather that. […] If he sings of Robert and the strongwine, though . . . “Atonement is best achieved through prayer,” Cersei told him. “Silent prayer.” She left him to think about that and girded herself to face the Tyrell host. (aFfC, Cersei II)

Just as he went through with the marriage of Amerei as Cersei told him to.

A gloomy look passed across the young knight’s ravaged face. “A Frey girl, and not of my choosing. She is not even maiden. A widow, of Darry blood. My father says that will help me with the peasants, but the peasants are all dead.” He reached for her hand. “It is cruel, Cersei. Your Grace knows that I love—”
“—House Lannister,” she finished for him. “No one can doubt that, Lancel. May your wife give you strong sons.” Best not let her lord grandfather host the wedding, though. “I know you will do many noble deeds in Darry.”
Lancel nodded, plainly miserable. (aFfC, Cersei II)

To Jaime, Lancel reiterates that he did not want to be Lord of Darry, that he wanted to be Jaime and that he loved Cersei. He confesses all to Jaime.

When his coz did not answer, Jaime sighed. “You should be sleeping with your wife, not with the Maid. You need a son with Darry blood if you want to keep this castle.”
“A pile of cold stones. I never asked for it. I never wanted it. I only wanted . . .” Lancel shuddered. “Seven save me, but I wanted to be you.”
Jaime had to laugh. “Better me than Blessed Baelor […] In any case, you’re not like to be taken for Baelor the Blessed.”
“No,” Lancel allowed. “He was a rare spirit, pure and brave and innocent, untouched by all the evils of the world. I am a sinner, with much and more to atone for.”
Jaime put his hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “What do you know of sin, coz? I killed my king.”
“The brave man slays with a sword, the craven with a wineskin. We are both kingslayers, ser.”
“Robert was no true king. Some might even say that a stag is a lion’s natural prey.” […]”What else did you do, to require so much atonement? Tell me.”
His cousin bowed his head, tears running down his cheeks.
Those tears were all the answer Jaime needed. “You killed the king,” he said, “then you fucked the queen.” […] “Did you force her?”
“No! I loved her. I wanted to protect her.” […] “Do not think ill of the queen,” Lancel pleaded. “All flesh is weak, Jaime. No harm came of our sin. No . . . no bastard.” […] “I was angry with Her Grace after the battle, but the High Septon said I must forgive her.”
You confessed your sins to His High Holiness, did you?
“He prayed for me when I was wounded. He was a good man.”
He’s a dead man. They rang the bells for him. He wondered if his cousin had any notion what fruit his words had borne. (aFfC, Jaime IV)

There is a change in Lancel’s talk of feelings and desires than when he last spoke Cersei though. At Tywin’s funeral, Lancel is about to say that he loves Cersei still. In his exchange with Jaime he talks of (romantic) love and his anger in the past tense. At the time Lancel decides to join the Warrior’s Sons, he is not in love with Cersei anymore. Yet, he still feels protective of her and Jaime. He wants to “save” them, show them how to deal with the burden of guilt. But neither Jaime or Cersei feel guilt. Jaime feels he saved a city from being burned. His relationship with Cersei predates her marriage, always has been one of mutual consent and he was ever faithful to her. And Cersei of course is incapable of feeling guilt.

If Lancel’s feelings have evolved thus with distance, time and guilt, then how would the mute confrontation with Cersei be during a debate between Septon Raynard and Cersei over fornication from behind a truth-seeing mirror-armor have impacted Lancel? The fair conclusion is that Lancel’s last protective feelings towards Cersei would have crumbled. Like Areo Hotah can see objective truth, so would Lancel in this case. Whatever reserve we can imagine that may have held Lancel back from revealing the darkest of Cersei’s deeds (getting King Robert killed) to the High Sparrow, he certainly would have told all after this confrontation, and thus become an instrumental part for the High Sparrow to prey on a lion.

The question then becomes: how much Lancel had already told the High Sparrow by the time he escorts Septon Raynard, and how much did Septon Raynard knew of it? The High Sparrow’s initial dealings with Cersei are those of one who intends to prove he is independent and having the insight that the queen-regent needs something of him more than he needs of her. As the High Sparrow seems content with the deal struck between them, any issues he has with Cersei at this point only regard her vanity and pride. He humbles the Most Devout in similar ways, by having Septon Raynard scrub the floors and put Septon Torbert on a diet. Meanwhile, Lancel is living as a recluse in the sept of Darry.

Then off page, Lancel arrives in King’s Landing and joins the Warrior’s Sons. Even the High Sparrow’s curiosity would be peaked at a young man who has recently been made Lord, suddenly deciding to abandon castle, lands and new wife. Especially if this man is not Baelor the Blessed, but very much refers to himself as a sinner. And even more stunning is that this man is a Lannister of the main branch, the proud lions – a first cousin.

Close to a hundred knights had already come forth to pledge their lives and swords to the Warrior’s Sons, Qyburn claimed, and more turned up every day. […] Most had been household knights and hedge knights, but a handful were of high birth; younger sons, petty lords, old men wanting to atone for the old sins. And then there was Lancel. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

Which words first sparked Lancel to confess and share his personal story to the High Sparrow is not so important, but at the very least, the High Sparrow would have learned of Cersei’s affair with Lancel shortly after his arrival. Lancel had already confessed to the prior High Septon, whom he grieved over. He certainly held nothing back to Jaime. A kind urging from the High Sparrow would have helped Lancel spill the beans over his affair with Cersei at least and how the prior High Septon had helped him repent. Then, in the High Sparrow’s eyes, Cersei is not just some proud and vain queen-regent anymore who required a lesson on humility, but becomes a far more immoral and ruthless regent who will rule for seven years more. Hence, the High Sparrow makes sure to never set foot into the Red Keep himself anymore. And what he gaveth by forgiving the crown’s debt, he can taketh away again by hurting the crown’s revenue from the brothels. When the High Septon accompanied by his Warrior’s Sons preaches in front of the brothels, the customers stay away, for the men would not want to be caught dead seen entering a brothel. Simultaneously, he prepares the smallfolk’s opinion about chastity to chasticise Cersei herself. Lancel being amongst the Warrior’s Sons escorting Septon Raynard is not a coincidence.

Meanwhile our prior fawning and flattering Septon Raynard has turned into a man who can eloquently debate with Cersei, hinting he regards Cersei a sinner whose words are wind and what may be at stake here: the legitimacy of Cersei’s children. At this point it makes no sense for the informed High Sparrow to send a septon to be his voice to Cersei without being secure of Septon Raynard’s allegiance.  So, we can conclude that by then Septon Raynard is like wighted Ser Waymar – a turned man.

These allusions to Reyneart the Fox are entertaining and interesting, certainly in light of Cersei’s arc, but why go down this foxhole in an essay where we investigate mirror-armor wearing Warrior’s Sons to the Others? It is not as if anyone requires the Reynaert allusions to come to the same conclusion what the High Sparrow knows by the time Lancel joins the Swords or that Septon Raynard is turned, is it?

In the Plutonian Others, we mentioned Tad Williams’ trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. George has admitted it to be one of his inspirations that helped him believe it was possible to write epic fantasy that questioned or deconstructed the tropes.

Tad’s fantasy series, The Dragonbone Chair and the rest of his famous four-book trilogy was one of the things that inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy. I read Tad and was impressed by him, but the imitators that followed — well, fantasy got a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, “My god, they can do something with this form,” and it’s Tad doing it. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series. (SSM: Redwood City Signing 2011)

When the American fantasy writer Tad Williams first met Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, Martin growled at him: “Get the hell out of here.” This was not yet another egoistic literary beef; Martin merely wanted his fellow author to get home and finish the next instalment of his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which Martin had been patiently waiting to read. (Tropes, trolls and Trump: the fantasy writer who inspired George RR Martin, Interview by David Barnett of Tad Williams, The Guardian, 17 Jan 2017)

There the existential threat comes from a split of sithi race living in the icy north. They are called the Norns, but are also referred to as White Foxes.

One of the four standing figures raised an arm, the black sleeve falling away to reveal a wrist and hand as thin and white as bone. It spoke, voice silvery-cold, toneless as ice cracking. “We are here to fulfill the covenant.” […] Two of the robed figures moved to the wagon, carefully lifting down a long, dark object. […] The black robes billowed, and the hood on the nearest blew back, spilling a flurry of gleaming white hair. The face revealed in the brief moment was delicate as a mask of the thinnest, most exquisite ivory. An instant later the hood flapped back.
Who are these creatures? Witches? Ghosts? Behind the shielding rocks Simon brought a trembling hand up to make the sign of the Tree. The white foxes …. Morgenes said “white foxes” … (The Dragonbone Chair, 14 The Hill Fire, by Tad Williams)

Overall we have a shared concept between both authors – a humanoid sidhe-appearing species living in the icy north as an existential threat to humans. George himself explained to illustrator Tommy Patterson that the Others are like sidhe made of ice. Without giving away any spoilers, the master of the White Foxes, Storm King Ineluki, plays a fox’s trick on the protagonists of the MST series, and thus their nickname is aptly chosen by Tad Williams.

With Reynaert the fox worked into Cersei’s plot with the Faith and the Warrior’s Sons parallelled to the Others (in their rainbow cloaks, silver mirror-armor, crystal crests and crystal swords), George manages to conjoin the Others with the trickster fox figure into a nod to Tad Williams’ White Foxes. What I have done above is reverse engineer George’s decisions on how to world-build the appearance of the Warrior’s Sons. First, George worked out the plot for Cersei in aFfC. As these characters of the Faith oppose a wildfire queen-regent they require to be surrounded by ice-symbolism and George knew his High Sparrow plot would have analogies to Of Reyneart the Fox. And thus both the Reyneart references and the look of the Warrior’s Sons helped him to create a concept-reference to Williams’ White Foxes, without actually involving the Others.

How can we be so sure that the world-building of the Warrior’s Sons goes hand in hand with the High Sparrow’s fox-trickster plot? Because both are first mentioned in aFfC, which was published in 2005. Any of the other back-story sources that describe or reference the Warrior’s Sons were published after aFfC. tWoIaF was published in 2014 and the short story The Sons of the Dragon in 2017 (also part of Fire and Blood, part 1, published in 2018). It would not just be a nod to Williams though or to “Willem who wrote Madocke” (the medieval author), but a subtextual tip that the Others have trickster-figure qualities, that they are plotting and planning, setting traps.

An earlier attempt of George to work in Reynaert allusions occurs in aCoK, in Davos’s arc. See, The Lambs in the extra reading subsection about Hens and Lambs. Except here the foxes are alligned to fire through Selyse Florent and the queen’s men.

But the link between foxes and Others can be made with the aGoT Prologue alone already. For this we recommend reading George’s 1977 story The Stone City (transcribed at the Fattest Leech’s blog). This story involves an alien species called the Dan’lai, or foxmen. Holt is stranded at a planet beyond the innermost spacezone where human technology can take them. He and his fellow crewmen managed to get there with their spaceship Pegasus using a Dan’lai jumpdrive technology. But the jump drive was so exhausted they required certain fluids to travel onwards.

The Dan’lai set up this kafkian bureauctratic administration on this planet, while the shipless crew has to wait for the right stamps and okay to leave the Stone City. The administrative torment drove several crewmembers, including the captain into going underground below the Stone City, and they never emerged. Meanwhile, the Dan’lai also control the trade within the city. In exchange for stuff, you can get certain colored chips (like in a casino) with which you can buy food, drinks, etc. To trade for these colored coins, Holt must raid and steal from other stranded Stone City residents, such as the dangerous larvae-worm like Cedran. Holt never manages to trade all he stole, because he is partially pickpocketed already. And the foxmen ultimately re-sell the stuff to the creatures Holt stole it from.

Around a year after arriving at the Stone City, Holt manages to procure a gate-pass for a berth on the same spaceship he arrived on, the Pegasus, only to learn from the foxman that he also requires a stamp of approval from the captain, who is missing for a year now. Holt flips and kills the particular foxman, which forces him to flee and hide below the Stone City. Beneath the city Holt discovers a hallway with doors. This scene reminds us a lot of the tricks played on Dany in the House of the Undying, where she peers into certain doorways and sees scenes from the past and present. Holt sees similary clue-scenes through “windows” where the Dan’lai appear in. One such scene reveals that the Dan’lai tampered with the fluids of the jump-drive of the Pegasus, and were thus the culprits for stranding the crew.

[Holt] stood before another window, or perhaps a viewscreen; on the far side of the round crystal port, chaos swirled and screamed. He watched it briefly, and just as his head was starting to hurt, the swirling view solidified. If you could call it solid. Beyond the port, four Dan’lai sat with jump-gun tubes around their brows and a cylinder before them. Except—except—the picture was blurred. Ghosts, there were ghosts, second images that almost overlapped the first, but not quite, not completely. And then Holt saw a third image, and a fourth, and suddenly the picture cracked and it was as though he was looking into an infinite array of mirrors. Long rows of Dan’lai sat on top of each other, blurring into one another, growing smaller and smaller until they dwindled into nothingness. In unison—no, no, almost in unison (for here one image did not move with his reflections, and here another fumbled)—they removed the drained jump-gun tubes and looked at each other and began to laugh. Wild, high barking laughs; they laughed and laughed and laughed and Holt watched as the fires of madness burned in their eyes, and the foxmen all (no, almost all) hunched their slim shoulders and seemed more feral and animal than he had ever seen them. (The Stone City)

This is the devestating truth revealed to Holt as he looks through a window or viewscreen, while George inserts the effect of an array of mirrors. So, here we have a scene of evil tricksy foxes trapping arrivals, combined with looking from behind the mirror.

Far earlier, one of the first scenes Holt witnesses through such a viewscreen is a scene where the foxmen kill a Cedran.

Holt was standing in a window in an oddly shaped gray stone building, looking out over the stone city. […] Below, near an octagonal pool, six Dan’lai surrounded a Cedran. They were laughing, quick barking laughs full of rage, and they were chattering to each other and clawing at the Cedran whenever it tried to move. It stood above them trapped in the circle, confused and moaning, swaying back and forth. The huge violet eyes glowed brightly, and the fighting-claws waved.
One of the Dan’lai had something. He unfolded it slowly; a long jag-toothed knife. A second appeared, a third; all the foxmen had them. They laughed to each other. One of them darted in at the Cedran from behind, and the silvered blade flashed, and Holt saw black ichor ooze slowly from a long cut in the milk-white Cedran flesh. There was a blood-curdling low moan and the worm turned slowly as the Dan’la danced back, and its fighting-claws moved quicker than Holt would have believed. The Dan’la with the dripping black knife was lifted, kicking, into the air. He barked furiously, and then the claw snapped together, and the foxman fell in two pieces to the ground. But the others closed in, laughing, and their knives wove patterns and the Cedran’s moan became a screech. It lashed out with its claws and a second Dan’la was knocked headless into the waters, but by then two others were cutting off its thrashing tentacles and yet another had driven his blade hilt-deep into the swaying wormlike torso. All the foxmen were wildly excited; Holt could not hear the Cedran over their frantic barking. (The Stone City)

Despite the fact that the Cedran look so hideous and are indeed deadly dangerous themselves at night, Holt sympathizes with the Cedran. He takes out his laser and fires at the foxmen, only to have a curtain drop before the window and when he shoves it aside, the view through the window has changed – the Cedran and foxmen are gone. He could not alter what happened, because it was a view on a past event.

This particular scene has little relevance to Holt’s plot. But it shows the callous violent nature of the Dan’lai in a manner we do not see otherwise in the story, how Holt can sympathize with other species in pain, and is the first reveal about the nature of the hallway beneath the city: altered laws of space-time continuum, where he can see the past but not travel to it or change it, but he can travel to other worlds in his present, which operates at an entirely different time-scale than the one on the surface of the Stone City.

While some of the foxmen die in the fight scene with the Cedran, the number is incorrect and all the foxmen slash at the Cedran, it still strikes as an origin scene for the Prologue of aGoT. There Waymar Royce is surrounded by Others, mocked and eventually butchered while the Others laugh.

Behind him, to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. Yet they made no move to interfere.
Again and again the swords met, until Will wanted to cover his ears against the strange anguished keening of their clash. […] Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red.
The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.
Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy. When the blades touched, the steel shattered.
A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers. The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery. The pale blades sliced through ringmail as if it were silk. Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles. (aGoT, Prologue)

So, in the Prologue of aGoT, George already linked the Others’ tricksy callous nature to foxes by re-using a scene from his own 1977 The Stone City. Important here as a distinction between Stone City foxmen and the foxes of the Faith is that the Dan’lai story does not have plot allusions to Reynaert yet, but a far more general portrayal of foxes as evil tricksters or Reyneart beating up Isengrym or simple-minded Brune. Only in the Lannister plotlines does George make various far more subtle allusions to the medieval story that cemented the fox as a malignant conman in the minds of people for hundreds of years now.

The Hens

More allusions by George to the plot of the Reynaert the Fox tale is seen in the plot surrounding Margaery. In “Of Reynaert the Fox”, right after the badger defended the accusations about his nephew the fox, Cantecleir the cock joins the court, bringing with him his dead daughter Coppe who was ‘of great repute’ on a bier carried by her two brothers. All used to live safely in the courtyard, protected by dogs, and no matter how much Reynaert the fox tried with tricks and traps, he just could not get access to the chicks. Then, a long while later, he appears as a hermit with a writ with King Noble’s seal, where the king declared peace to all animals in his kingdom, including birds (the feudal contract). Reynaert also claimed he had done penance, showing his pilgrim’s staff, mantle and the hair shirt he wears. He swore that from now on Lord Cantecleir and his family can live without need to protect themselves against him, because he swore to abstain from meat and is more occupied with saving his soul, as old as he is, than eating. Cantecleir believed him and went outside of the yard with all his children. But Reynaert had lain in wait and cut off the access back into the gate of the safe castle, and splurges on Cantecleir’s children, killing a total of eleven – both sons and daughters. The dogs managed to save Coppe’s body of being eaten, but not her life. The court buries Coppe with great ceremony, and King Noble agrees that the fox must stand trial for his murders. Cersei continuously compares Margaery’s handmaidens to hens, a total of seven times.

They were crossing beneath the shadow of the broken Tower of the Hand when the sound of cheers swept over them. Across the yard, some squire had made a pass at the quintain and sent the crossarm spinning. The cheers were being led by Margaery Tyrell and her hens. (aFfC, Cersei V)

The first time that George uses “hens” as a reference is exactly as Margaery and her handmaidens are cheering in the courtyard of the Red Keep, where supposedly they are protected and safe. And indeed, at the time her brother Loras is still at the Red Keep. Nevertheless, the chapter before that Cersei convinced Ser Osney Kettleback to seduce Margaery and take her maidenhead so that Margaery could lose her head. The name Coppe in middle-Dutch means “head”. 

“The little . . . Margaery, you mean?” Ser Osney’s ardor was wilting in his breeches. “She’s the king’s wife. Wasn’t there some Kingsguard who lost his head for bedding the king’s wife?”
“Ages ago.” She was his king’s mistress, not his wife, and his head was the only thing he did not lose. […] Cersei did not want Osney dwelling on that ancient unpleasantness, however. “Tommen is not Aegon the Unworthy. Have no fear, he will do as I bid him. I mean for Margaery to lose her head, not you.”
That gave him pause. “Her maidenhead, you mean?”
That too. Assuming she has one still.” (aFfC, Cersei IV)

Except Margaery is not taking the bait and Margaery never meets Ser Osney without being in company.

“She likes his face. She touched his scars two days ago, he told me. ‘What woman gave you these?’ she asked. Osney never said it was a woman, but she knew. Might be someone told her. She’s always touching him when they talk, he says. Straightening the clasp on his cloak, brushing back his hair, and like that. One time at the archery butts she had him show her how to hold a longbow, so he had to put his arms around her. Osney tells her bawdy jests, and she laughs and comes back with ones that are even bawdier. No, she wants him, that’s plain, but . . .” […] “They are never alone. The king’s with them most all the time, and when he’s not, there’s someone else. Two of her ladies share her bed, different ones every night. Two others bring her breakfast and help her dress. She prays with her septa, reads with her cousin Elinor, sings with her cousin Alla, sews with her cousin Megga. When she’s not off hawking with Janna Fossoway and Merry Crane, she’s playing come-into-my-castle with that little Bulwer girl. She never goes riding but she takes a tail, four or five companions and a dozen guards at least. And there’s always men about her, even in the Maidenvault.”
“Men.” That was something. That had possibilities. “What men are these, pray tell?”
Ser Osmund shrugged. “Singers. She’s a fool for singers and jugglers and such. Knights, come round to moon over her cousins. Ser Tallad’s the worst, Osney says. That big oaf don’t seem to know if it’s Elinor or Alla he wants, but he knows he wants her awful bad. The Redwyne twins come calling too. Slobber brings flowers and fruit, and Horror’s taken up the lute. To hear Osney tell it, you could make a sweeter sound strangling a cat. The Summer Islander’s always underfoot as well.” (aFfC, Cersei V)

So, there is no access to Margaery, not even when she goes outside the courtyard.

A little foster brother might be just what Tommen needs to wean him away from Margaery and her hens. […] She was forever inviting him to accompany her and her hens on their adventures, and the boy was forever pleading with his mother for leave to go along. The queen had given her consent a few times, if only to allow Ser Osney to spend a few more hours in Margaery’s company. For all the good it has done. Osney has proved a grievous disappointment. (aFfC, Cersei VI)

Such wretched weather was enough to discourage even the little queen. Instead of riding with her hens and their retinue of guardsmen and admirers, she spent all day in the Maidenvault with her hens, listening to the Blue Bard sing. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

George solves Margaery going outside of the castle and staying safe in comparison to the chicks in Reyneart’s tale, by having Lady Merryweather explain that Margaery’s handmaidens are her castle walls, her courtyard.

“Margaery is too shrewd to be caught so easily,” said Lady Merryweather. “Her women are her castle walls. They sleep with her, dress her, pray with her, read with her, sew with her. When she is not hawking or riding she is playing come-into-my-castle with little Alysanne Bulwer. Whenever men are about, her septa will be with her, or her cousins.”
“She must rid herself of her hens sometime,” the queen insisted. (aFfC, Cersei IX)

But when Cersei learns that Margaery intends to visit Baelor’s Sept – the fox’s burrow – on the day that men and grown women are barred from it, she sees her chance. On Maiden’s Day, Margaery will enter the fox’s den, without any guards, her brother allegedly dying of burns at Dragonstone and her father Mace Tyrell far away besieging Storm’s End.

Fast and purify . . . oh, for Maiden’s Day. It had been years since Cersei had been required to observe that particular holy day. Thrice wed, yet she still would have us believe she is a maid. Demure in white, the little queen would lead her hens to Baelor’s Sept to light tall white candles at the Maiden’s feet and hang parchment garlands about her holy neck. A few of her hens, at least. On Maiden’s Day widows, mothers, and whores alike were barred from the septs, along with men, lest they profane the sacred songs of innocence. Only virgin maids could . . .  (aFfC, Cersei IX)

Margaery and her fellow hens are captured and apprehended outside of the Red Keep, after Cersei sent Osney Kettleback to “confess” his affair with Margaery and her cousins to the High Sparrow, while the Blue Bard sings a song accusing many of the courtiers visiting and hunting Margaery and her hens all thet ime. By the end of aDwD the following are still accused in relation to Margaery’s alleged treason: Margaery (of great repute), her cousins Elinor and Megga, Ser Tallad the Tall, Jalabhar Xho, Hamish the Harper (already dead), Hugh Clifton, Mark Mullendore, Bayard Norcross, Lambert Turnberry, and the Blue Bard. These are exactly eleven people.

Now while Cersei refers to them as “hens”, of course the Tyrell sigil is not that of a chicken nor of the others. But notice the response of Harys Swyft when the delegation of the Septas recount their physical findings of the examination of Margaery’s maidenhood.

At the council table Harys Swyft gasped, and Grand Maester Pycelle turned away. […] Harys Swyft appeared dazed. He stumbled at the door and might have fallen if Aurane Waters had not caught him by the arm. […] Ser Harys Swyft was so pale and damp he looked about to faint. “When word of this reaches Lord Tyrell, his fury will know no bounds. There will be blood in the streets . . .” The knight of the yellow chicken, Cersei mused. You ought to take a worm for your sigil, ser. A chicken is too bold for you. (aFfC, Cersei X)

Swyft is featured somewhat significantly in only two of Cersei chapters of aFfC, despite the fact that she made him her Hand: during the Small Council chapter Cersei IV, mostly to ask questions, and the one where the small council learns of Margaery’s arrest. Though he is no relation to any of the Tyrells of course – in fact, he is Lancel’s grandfather – his emotional responses to these accusations is almost that of a father, or indeed Cantecleir. And his sigil is not that of a yellow chicken, but a blue “rooster” on a yellow field.

And for her Hand, Ser Harys Swyft. Soft, bald, and obsequious, Swyft had an absurd little white puff of beard where most men had a chin. The blue bantam rooster of his House was worked across the front of his plush yellow doublet in beads of lapis. Over that he wore a mantle of blue velvet decorated with a hundred golden hands. Ser Harys had been thrilled by his appointment, too dim to realize that he was more hostage than Hand. His daughter was her uncle’s wife, and Kevan loved his chinless lady, flat-chested and chicken-legged as she was. So long as she had Ser Harys in hand, Kevan Lannister must needs think twice about opposing her. To be sure, a good-father is not the ideal hostage, but better a flimsy shield than none. (aFfC, Cersei IV)

The Lambs

Overall the story of Reynaert the Fox starts with a feudal society in harmony and peace, where solely the fox is the criminal. King Noble listens to his vassals, summons the fox for his crimes to be put on trial and has his vassals as fellow judges. He wants convincing evidence for the fox’s crimes and only targets Reynaert. Ned Stark’s scene ordering the arrest of the Mountain as Hand with kingly power in response to the Riverland supplicants is an example on such feudal workings of justice. Once the fox, however, mentions the treasure to King Noble, the lion takes Reynaert aside and forgives all his crimes without conferring with his vassals. Here, the king breaks the feudal contract for his own gain and makes enemies of his vassals who have been misused and abused by the fox, which is what we see Cersei doing.

While King Noble colludes with Reynaert, he orders Belin the ram to help Reynaert get the attributes he needs to start his pilgrimage to Rome. Reynaert manages to persuade the ram and Cuwaert the hare to accompany him part of the way. He invites the hare into his home and kills him, while leaving Belin the ram to wait outside. Then he sends Belin back to court with a letter in a bag and advizes Belin to claim authorship of the letter. Belin does so, but when the bag is opened it contains Cuwaert’s head. The innocent and unwitting Belin therefore proclaimed himself to be the murderer of Cuwaert. Finally, King Noble realizes that he was conned by Reyneart into making an enemy of his mightiest barons. Eventually, the leopard Fyrapeel reconciles King Noble with his two barons, for a price: both the bear and the wolf are forever allowed to pursue and kill all members and descendants of Belin’s and Reynaert’s families. This restores the peace, but at the cost of a broken feudalism and thus justice, as now all rams and lambs and any fox are forever outlawed. All can be hunted and killed without repercussion.

house_florent_rambtonWe witness two ram related houses going near extinct. In Mirror Mirror – Behind the Mirror, we pointed out Lord Guncer Sunglass’s demise after Stannis allows the queen’s men to destroy the sept of Dragonstone. But he was not the sole burned victim here, and at least his brother managed to sail for Volantis. But in the same quotes, Ser Hubard Rambton, whose house has a ram’s head for sigil, attempted to protect the sept alongside his three sons. He and one son died in the fight, the other two sons were burned at the stake alongside Lord Sunglass. So, here we have pious rams being killed, by queen’s men and later on the orders of Sylese herself. House Florent’s sigil is that of a fox-head surrounded by blue flowers. So the noble King Stannis, through the fox, got his rams and his descendants killed.

But then you have a Queen-regent and lioness who ends up getting House Stokeworth near extinct. The sigil of House Stokeworth is that of a lamb holding a chalice. Cersei is responsible in two ways. Firstly, she arranges Bronn to wed simple-minded Lollys Stokeworth who was pregnant after the gang rape during the riot in aCoK. Cersei did this to deprive Tyrion from an ally. But in aFfC, Bronn becomes a problem. He hires four upjumped sellswords and names Lollys’s son, a bastard, Tyrion Tanner. And the first of deadly mishaps befall the Stokeworths: someone tampered with Lady Tanda’s saddle girth.

“Sweet Falyse,” she exclaimed, kissing the woman’s cheek, “and brave Ser Balman. I was so distraught when I heard about your dear, dear mother. How fares our Lady Tanda?”
Lady Falyse looked as if she were about to cry. “Your Grace is good to ask. Mother’s hip was shattered by the fall, Maester Frenken says. He did what he could. Now we pray, but . . .”
Pray all you like, she will still be dead before the moon turns. Women as old as Tanda Stokeworth did not survive a broken hip. “I shall add my prayers to your own,” said Cersei. “Lord Qyburn tells me that Tanda was thrown from her horse.”
Her saddle girth burst whilst she was riding,” said Ser Balman Byrch. “The stableboy should have seen the strap was worn. He has been chastised.” (aFfC, Cersei V)

Three Cersei chapters later, the news is that she died of a chill in the chest brought on by her broken hip. Fearing that Bronn might turn against her after all, Cersei suggests Falyse’s husband to ensure Bronn gets killed in a hunting accident. And since Ser Balman is slow on the uptake, we can therefore conclude that Bronn had his upjumped sellswords arrange Lady Tanda’s saddle girth was so “worn”.

Cersei let her hand shake. “A child’s name is a small thing . . . but insolence unpunished breeds rebellion. And this man Bronn has been gathering sellswords to him, Qyburn has told me.”
“He has taken four knights into his household,” said Falyse.
Ser Balman snorted. “My good wife flatters them, to call them knights. They’re upjumped sellswords, with not a thimble of chivalry to be found amongst the four of them.”
“As I feared. Bronn is gathering swords for the dwarf. May the Seven save my little son. The Imp will kill him as he killed his brother.” She sobbed. “My friends, I put my honor in your hands . . . but what is a queen’s honor against a mother’s fears?”
“Say on, Your Grace,” Ser Balman assured her. “Your words shall ne’er leave this room.”
Cersei reached across the table and gave his hand a squeeze. “I . . . I would sleep more easily of a night if I were to hear that Ser Bronn had suffered a . . . a mishap . . . whilst hunting, perhaps.”
Ser Balman considered a moment. “A mortal mishap?
No, I desire you to break his little toe. She had to bite her lip. My enemies are everywhere and my friends are fools. “I beg you, ser,” she whispered, “do not make me say it . . .”
I understand.” Ser Balman raised a finger.
A turnip would have grasped it quicker. “You are a true knight indeed, ser. The answer to a frightened mother’s prayers.” Cersei kissed him. “Do it quickly, if you would. Bronn has only a few men about him now, but if we do not act, he will surely gather more.” (aFfC, Cersei V)

Except, Cersei’s plan backfires.

Lady Falyse’s face was bruised and swollen, her eyes red from her tears. Her lower lip was broken, her clothing soiled and torn. “Gods be good,” Cersei said as she ushered her into the solar and closed the door. “What has happened to your face?”
Falyse did not seem to hear the question. “He killed him,” she said in a quavery voice. “Mother have mercy, he . . . he . . .” She broke down sobbing, her whole body trembling. (aFfC, Cersei VII)

Chivalrous Balman did not arrange for some hunting mishap as Cersei had hinted, but instead challenged Bronn to single combat, because “Bronn was no true knight,” and Balman believed he could unhorse him before killing him. Indeed, Bronn has a sellsword mentality, and instead of aiming the lance at Balman he drove the lance through the chest of Balman’s horse. Balman’s legs were crushed beneath his horse and Bronn made Balman confess (and he did) before putting a dagger in his eye. He then ordered Falyse to leave, acting like Lord Stokeworth. She ran straight to Cersei asking for help. But Cersei offers her to Qyburn for his dark work in the black cells.

The queen took Qyburn aside and told him of Ser Balman’s folly. “I cannot have Falyse spreading tales about the city. Her grief has made her witless. Do you still need women for your . . . work?”
“I do, Your Grace. The puppeteers are quite used up.”
Take her and do with her as you will, then. But once she goes down into the black cells . . . need I say more?” (aFfC, Cersei VII)

Later, Cersei realizes it might have been better to help Falyse get rid of Bronn and make her Lady of Stokeworth, but while she is still alive, Qyburn admits the woman cannot even feed herself anymore.

“Is Lady Falyse still alive?”
“Alive, yes. Perhaps not entirely . . . comfortable.”
“I see.” Cersei considered a moment. “This man Bronn . . . I cannot say I like the notion of an enemy so close. His power all derives from Lollys. If we were to produce her elder sister . . .”
“Alas,” said Qyburn. “I fear that Lady Falyse is no longer capable of ruling Stokeworth. Or, indeed, of feeding herself. I have learned a great deal from her, I am pleased to say, but the lessons have not been entirely without cost. I hope I have not exceeded Your Grace’s instructions.”
“No.” Whatever she had intended, it was too late. There was no sense dwelling on such things. It is better if she dies, she told herself. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

The appendix of aDwD confirms that Falyse died screaming in the black cells. This time it was not Bronn who got a lamb killed, but it happens on Cersei’s direct orders within the Red Keep, and to a woman who was an ally. Falyse may have been naive and her husband a fool, but Cersei’s callous willingness to let a woman be experimented on and tortured in her dungeons, while Falyse had shown absolute loyalty to her, sought her help in the dead of night without telling another soul is shocking. It is not even smart. Bronn is able to spread the tale himself, and it tactically would have been better to help Falyse become Lady of Stokeworth. Hence, imho it therefore makes Falyse’s ending the most depraved callous act of Cersei that completely undermines her credibility to be a ruler in a feudal society.

The Strong Counsel of Ellyn Reyne

But it is not only Cersei who fits the role of King Noble the lion who breaks the feudal contract. Tywin does the same in his dealing with the Reynes of Castamere, who end up with the role of the outlawed Reynaert and his descendants, and thus the foxes. Yes, their sigil is that of a Red Lion (for the general meaning of red in George’s writing see The trail of the Red Stallion), but the family name Reyne, the description of Castamere and the last Reyne standing, as well as the particulars of the downfall of House Reyne all nicely fit ‘Of Reynaert the Fox’ a bit too much to ignore.

Etymologically the fox’s name derives from Reginhard, or ‘strong counsel’, and this role in the Reyne backstory is taken by Ellyn Reyne, a strong-willed woman who wed into House Lannister with the ambition to become the Lady of Casterly Rock.

Tywald Lannister had long been betrothed to the Red Lion’s spirited young sister, Lady Ellyn. This strong-willed and hot-tempered maiden, who had for years anticipated becoming the Lady of Casterly Rock, was unwilling to forsake that dream. In the aftermath of her betrothed’s death, she persuaded his twin brother, Tion, to set aside his own betrothal to a daughter of Lord Rowan of Goldengrove and espouse her instead.
Lord Gerold, it is said, opposed this match, but grief and age and illness had left him a pale shadow of his former self, and in the end he gave way. In 235 AC, in a double wedding at Casterly Rock, Ser Tion Lannister took Ellyn Reyne to wife, whilst his younger brother Tytos wed Jeyne Marbrand, a daughter of Lord Alyn Marbrand of Ashemark.
Twice a widower, and ailing, Lord Gerold did not wed again, so after her marriage, Ellyn of House Reyne became the Lady of Casterly Rock in all but name. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

Notice how George portrays Ellyn as strong-willed and persuasive. She became an important influencer at Casterly Rock.

As her good-father retreated to his books and his bedchamber, Lady Ellyn held a splendid court, staging a series of magnificent tourneys and balls and filling the Rock with artists, mummers, musicians…and Reynes. Her brothers Roger and Reynard were ever at her side, and offices, honors, and lands were showered upon them, and upon her uncles, cousins, and nephews and nieces as well. Lord Gerold’s aged fool, an acerbic hunchback called Lord Toad, was heard to say, “Lady Ellyn must surely be a sorceress, for she has made it rain inside the Rock all year.” (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

We learn of her brothers, Roger Reyne, but most importantly a brother named after that famous medieval fox – Reynard, who was said to be charming and cunning.

Roger Reyne, the Red Lion, was widely feared for his skill at arms; many considered him the deadliest sword in the westerlands. His brother, Ser Reynard, was as charming and cunning as Ser Roger was swift and strong. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

Unfortunately, Tion died in the fourth Blackfyre rebellion. The widow-law required the Lannisters to still have her live at the Rock with them, but her influence waned, but not because of Ellyn’s lack of trying.

The “Reign of the Reynes” was at an end. Lady Ellyn’s brothers soon departed Casterly Rock for Castamere, accompanied by many of the other Reynes. Lady Ellyn remained, but her influence dwindled, while that of Lady Jeyne grew. […] Beldon tells us that in 239 AC, Ellyn Reyne was accused of bedding Tytos Lannister, urging him to set aside his wife and marry her instead. However, young Tytos (then nineteen) found his brother’s widow so intimidating that he was unable to perform. Humiliated, he ran back to his wife to confess and beg her forgiveness.
Lady Jeyne was willing to pardon her young husband but was less forgiving of her goodsister, and did not hesitate to inform Lord Gerold of the incident. Furious, his lordship resolved to rid Casterly Rock of Ellyn Reyne for good and all by finding her a new husband. […] Within the fortnight, Ellyn Reyne was wed to Walderan Tarbeck, Lord of Tarbeck Hall, the florid fifty-five-year-old widowed lord of an ancient, honorable, but impoverished house. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

818px-House_Tarbeck.svgOf interest here, is that the sigil of House Tarbeck is a silver-blue seven pointed star on a silver-blue field. So, in House Tarbeck we have the star of the Faith of the Seven and the ice color-scheme of blue and silver. Hence, we get a conflation of ice, the Faith and foxes once more. This color scheme is also all over the text in The Stone City, the 1977 short story with the foxmen.

After Lord Gerold’s death, Tytos became Lord of Casterly Rock. He wanted to be loved and liked and therefore was too generous and too forgiving to his vassals. During these times Ellyn used her influence once more.

As the Reynes rose, so too did their close allies, the Tarbecks of Tarbeck Hall. After centuries of slow decline, this poor but ancient house had begun to flourish, thanks in large part to the new Lady Tarbeck, the former Ellyn Reyne. Though she herself remained unwelcome at the Rock, Lady Ellyn had contrived to extract large sums of gold from House Lannister through her brothers, for Lord Tytos found it very hard to refuse the Red Lion. Those funds she had used to restore the crumbling ruin that was Tarbeck Hall, rebuilding its curtain wall, strengthening its towers, and furnishing its keep in splendor to rival any castle in the west. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

But when Tytos’s heir, Tywin Lannister, returned from the War of the Ninepenny Kings, he acted independently from his father and demanded the lords of the Westerlands to pay back their debts and interests on the loans.

Lord Reyne reportedly laughed when his maester read him Ser Tywin’s edicts and counseled his friends and vassals to do nothing. Lord Walderan Tarbeck unwisely chose a different course. He rode to Casterly Rock to protest, confident in his ability to cow Lord Tytos and force him to rescind his son’s edicts. But he found himself facing Ser Tywin instead, who had him consigned to a dungeon.
With Lord Walderan in chains, Tywin Lannister no doubt expected the Tarbecks to yield. But Lady Tarbeck was quick to disabuse him of that notion. Instead that redoubtable woman sent forth her own knights and captured three Lannisters. Two of the captives were Lannisters of Lannisport, distant kin to the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, but the third was a young squire, Stafford Lannister, the eldest son and heir of Lord Tytos’s late brother, Ser Jason.
The resulting crisis drew Lord Tytos away from his wet nurse long enough to overrule his strong-willed heir. His lordship not only commanded that Lord Tarbeck be released, unharmed, but also went so far as to apologize to him and forgive him his debts.
To safeguard the exchange of hostages, Lord Tytos turned to Lady Tarbeck’s younger brother, Ser Reynard Reyne. The Red Lion’s formidable seat at Castamere was chosen to host the meet. Ser Tywin refused to attend, so it was Ser Kevan who returned Lord Walderan, whilst Lady Tarbeck herself delivered Stafford and his cousins. Lord Reyne feasted all the parties, and a great show of amity was staged, with Lannisters and Tarbecks toasting one another, exchanging gifts and kisses, and vowing to remain each other’s leal friends “through all eternity.” (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

So, Ellyn Reyne may not have had the actual name Reynaert (only the Regin- part) nor the fox sigil, but her personality and influence at the time certainly could have earned her the name Reginhard. Her strong counsel and actions overcame her misfortunes time and time again, if it had not been for Tywin Lannister completely ignoring his lord father’s actions and decisions.

Tywin Lannister, who had not been present at the Red Lion’s feast, had never weakened in his resolve to bring these overmighty vassals to heel. Late in the year 261 AC, he sent ravens to Castamere and Tarbeck Hall, demanding that Roger and Reynard Reyne and Lord and Lady Tarbeck present themselves at Casterly Rock “to answer for your crimes.” The Reynes and Tarbecks chose defiance instead, as Ser Tywin surely knew they would. Both houses rose in open revolt, renouncing their fealty to Casterly Rock. So Tywin Lannister called the banners. He did not seek his lord father’s leave, nor even inform him of his intent, but rode forth himself with five hundred knights and three thousand men-at-arms and crossbowmen behind him. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

Here, we have the lion summoning the fox to court. And of course, the foxes refused and went in open rebellion. Lord Roger Reyne’s rebellion against House Lannister is a callback to Reyneart’s claim to King Noble that his brother intended to help King Noble’s ‘false’ allies usurp the king.

It can be argued that the Tarbecks and Reynes had invited this doom upon themselves by their bold choices before. However, Tywin breaks the feudal contract here. Peace had been established nor was Tywin lord over the Westerlands, and he had been in breach prior by imprisoning Lord Tarbeck.

The Lannister host descended so quickly [on House Tarbeck] that Lord Walderan’s vassals and supporters had no time to gather. […] In a short, brutal battle, the Tarbecks were broken and butchered. Lord Walderan Tarbeck and his sons were beheaded, together with his nephews and cousins, his daughters’ husbands, and any man who displayed the seven-pointed blue-and silver star upon his shield or surcoat to boast of Tarbeck blood. […] At their approach, Lady Ellyn Tarbeck closed her gates and sent forth ravens to Castamere, summoning her brothers. Trusting in her walls, Lady Tarbeck no doubt anticipated a long siege, but siege engines were readied within a day, and those walls proved little help when one great stone flew over them and brought down the castle’s aged keep. Lady Ellyn and her son Tion the Red died in the keep’s sudden collapse. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

Tywin further annihilates the feudal contract by killing all Tarbecks. He killed Lord Tarbeck, his sons, his nephews, cousins, the husbands of his daughters, any man sporting the sigil, Ellyn and her son. Her daughters were forced to join the Silent Sisters, and Ellyn’s grandson was likely murdered by Amory Lorch, or alternatively ended up as a bard in Essos. Not only Ellyn’s line went extinct, but the rest of House Reyne was also extinguished at Castamere. Her brother Lord Roger Reyne arrived too late to her aid at Tarbeck Hell and was outnumbered. Not even a surprise attack could prevent the Reynes from being defeated. Wounded and fleeing, Lord Reyne had to be carried back to Castamere, where Ser Reynard Reyne took command of the defences. This brings us to Castamere itself.

Like Casterly Rock, the seat of House Reyne had begun as a mine. Rich veins of gold and silver had made the Reynes near as wealthy as the Lannisters during the Age of Heroes; to defend their riches, they had raised curtain walls about the entrance to their mine, closed it with an oak-and-iron gate, and flanked it with a pair of stout towers. Keeps and halls had followed, but all the while the mineshafts had gone deeper and deeper, and when at last the gold gave out, they had been widened into halls and galleries and snug bedchambers, a warren of tunnels and a vast, echoing ballroom. To the ignorant eye, Castamere seemed a modest holding, a fit seat for a landed knight or small lord, but those who knew its secrets knew that nine-tenths of the castle was beneath the ground. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

Thus aside from the castle and curtain walls on the surface, Castamere was mostly an underground castle. The house of a fox is an underground burrow of vast tunnels with several exits and entrances. In English this is called a ‘foxhole’. In Dutch, however, it is called a ‘burcht’, which in English means ‘castle’. Castamere being fabled for having been a gold mine, and thus a treasure, but now long gone, is also a parallel to Reyneart’s lie about having a treasure buried at home.

Like a fox’s burrow, Castamere has several entrances and exits. Ser Reynard Reyne counted on this being his advantage, when he had his people take refuge inside. It would have been a suicidal nightmare to send an army into the tunnels in order to conquer Castamere.

It was to those deep chambers that the Reynes retreated now. Feverish and weak from loss of blood, the Red Lion was in no fit state to lead. Ser Reynard, his brother, assumed command in his stead. Less headstrong but more cunning than his brother, Reynard knew he did not have the men to defend the castle walls, so he abandoned the surface entirely to the foe and fell back beneath the earth. Once all his folk were safe inside the tunnels, Ser Reynard sent word to Ser Tywin above, offering terms. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

How much Tywin ignores feudal code and law is show by the fact that Tywin does not even sends a reply back to the other. Instead, Tywin took a much tried method to kill and flush a fox out of its burrow. From the moment that Tywin sent his summons, he had already decided he would completely annihilate these two houses and their people (castle and smallfolk), regarding them all as outlaws basically.

But Tywin Lannister did not honor Ser Reynard’s offer with a reply. Instead he commanded that the mines be sealed. With pick and axe and torch, his own miners brought down tons of stone and soil, burying the great gates to the mines until there was no way in and no way out. Once that was done, he turned his attention to the small, swift stream that fed the crystalline blue pool beside the castle from which Castamere took its name. It took less than a day to dam the stream and only two to divert it to the nearest mine entrance. The earth and stone that sealed the mine had no gaps large enough to allow a squirrel to pass, let alone a man…but the water found its way down. Ser Reynard had taken more than three hundred men, women, and children into the mines, it is said. Not a one emerged. A few of the guards assigned to the smallest and most distant of the mine entrances reported hearing faint screams and shouts coming from beneath the earth one night, but by daybreak the stones had gone silent once again. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister under the Dragons)

The sole difference is that hunters use fire to prevent a fox from using certain exits and goad him into escaping from the sole exit left, where the hunter waits to capture and kill him.

So, do not let the red lion sigil of House Reyne mislead you. Ellyn Reyne’s personality and influence, Ser Reynard Reyne’s name, Castamere’s construction and House Reyne’s fate enacted by the Great Lion of Casterly Rock, Tywin Lannister, all contain references to Reyneart the Fox, and the way real world foxes live and many were hunted like vermin.

In fact, both the Reynes and Lannisters may have a fox origin. In the Reach, some stories claim that Lann the Clever – who hoodwinked the Rock from the Casterlys – was a bastard son of Florys the Fox, a daughter of Garth Greenhand. She was the cleverest of Garth’s children. She was so clever that she managed to have three husbands who were unaware of it. Not only does that make Florys cunning, but secret bygamy is a classic red alert you may be dealing with a psychopath. The children of those three marriages are the founders of House Florent, House Ball and House Peake. House Lannister is a potential fourth bastard line from Florys the Fox. House Reyne was one of the first allies of House Lannister through marriage. The first King Loreon Lannister married a Lady Reyne. And since both houses date back to the Age of Heroes it is very likely that the Lannisters and Reynes intermarried several times after, with blood of Florys the Fox ending up in House Reyne.

Though the fate of the Rains of Castamere is known to us in some poetic general way since aSoS, we do not get the particulars of the backstory until tWoIaF, years after George inserted the Reynaert allusions in Cersei’s arc in aFfC. It stresses how important it is to George to allude to Reynearts as enemies in the arcs of ruling Lannister lions. And as we now already have two arcs with a trinity of Reynaerts, we therefore should expect a third plotline with a trinity of foxes who ultimately operate against Cersei’s interests. The fox-faced Shadrich and his two companions point to events in the Vale and Sansa’s arc being the third, as Blue-Eyed Wolf has argued.

Now, the question for the Cersei-Faith arc is whether the Faith will go the Reyne way in tWoW (like the show did in the season 6 finale) or that Cersei will. After all, the lion king Noble outlaws the foxes for eternity. But then we also have Maggy the Frog’s prophecy intertwined throughout Cersei’s aFfC arc, prophesying the death of her three children and her own death. The odds that Lannister lions will go extinct like the Reynes and Tarbecks did are low, when you have Lannisters of Lannisport, and a chance that Tyrion Lannister will survive the series. Still, it should be noted that George deliberately inserted a potential connection to the Lannisters being descendants of Florys the Fox. He has Cersei go through the same ordeal that Tywin put his father’s mistress through after Lord Tytos died.

Cersei had been a year old when her grandfather died. The first thing her father had done on his ascension was to expel his own father’s grasping, lowborn mistress from Casterly Rock. The silks and velvets Lord Tytos had lavished on her and the jewelry she had taken for herself had been stripped from her, and she had been sent forth naked to walk through the streets of Lannisport, so the west could see her for what she was.
Though she had been too young to witness the spectacle herself, Cersei had heard the stories growing up from the mouths of washerwomen and guardsmen who had been there. They spoke of how the woman had wept and begged, of the desperate way she clung to her garments when she was commanded to disrobe, of her futile efforts to cover her breasts and her sex with her hands as she hobbled barefoot and naked through the streets to exile. “Vain and proud she was, before,” she remembered one guard saying, “so haughty you’d think she’d forgot she come from dirt. Once we got her clothes off her, though, she was just another whore.” (aDwD, Cersei II)

This potentially hints that Cersei may end up going the way of Ellyn Reyne, her house literally or figuratively crumbling about her. Cersei’s Walk of Shame brings us to the last subsection of this essay.

The Naked Empress

Magali_Villeneuve_Walk_of_Shame
Walk of Shame, by Magali Villeneuve

Cersei ends up being thrown into a cell and is arrested for regicide, high treason, murder of the prior High Septon, adultery and fornication by the end of aFfC. Her arc in aDwD picks up where we left off, with Cersei working and attempting to manipulate the Septas and the High Sparrow in releasing her back to the Red Keep to be with her son, while she awaits hers and Margaery’s trial. She denies all charges, except those that will preserve her head, especially faced with the confessions of Osney Kettleback and the understanding (finally) that Lancel confessed all to the High Sparrow.The High Sparrow allows Cersei to return to the Red Keep, if she shows public penance for her fornication by performing a walk of atonement (dubbed the Walk of Shame) naked and head shaven through the streets of the capital. It is in this scene that a dozen mirror wearing Warrior’s Sons are to be her safekeeping escort and that George informs us that their armor acts like a mirror.

Their captain knelt before her. “Perhaps Your Grace will recall me. I am Ser Theodan the True, and His High Holiness has given me command of your escort. My brothers and I will see you safely through the city.” (aDwD, Cersei II)

We are only informed by George of the mirroring capacity of the Swords’ armor at this point, as this is the chapter where Cersei mentally and emotionally faces her mistakes (in as much as a narcissistic personality as Cersei is capable of): that she does not have the body of a goddess anymore, but a woman who bore three children and age, diet choices, nursing and gravity doing its work; that she is a mere mortal woman and physically no different than a common woman. George stresses Cersei facing certain truths in this chapter of past events and herself by having the captain of these escorting mirrors be nicknamed the True. Theodan is of House Wells originally, either of Dorne or the North. Both regions have a House Wells, but we have no confirmation which of the two Ser Theodian alludes to. Important here though is the immediate connection to the noun well. A well is a water source and could otherwise referred to as a pool or a pond. Both well and pools often have magical properties with fortune telling and truth seeing nymphs, Fates or norse norns. There are several scenes in which a character is told a truth from a woman emerging or swimming in a pool or well or pond. Remember that George compared the Others’ armor not just to a mirror but as a pond.

Theodan as name reminds us of King Theoden in Tolkien’s trilogy Lord of the Rings. For years he was fed lies by his servant Wormtongue, who actually was an agent of Saruman. It had turned Theoden in a fearful, indecisive man who grew suspicious of his own family. Gandalf manages to lift the spell, helping Theoden see true once more and regain his valor and bravery. Tolkien likely based the name Theoden on the old English word peoden, which means prince, king or leader. Once again, it ties George’s Ser Theodan the True to a character who is not blinded by lies anymore.

How much Cersei ultimately cannot face the truth about her mistakes towards others is figuratively revealed after she fell a first time via Ser Theodan the True. Cersei even forgot his name, and thus cannot recognnize the whole truth.

“Your Grace.” The captain of her escort stepped up beside her. Cersei had forgotten his name. “You must continue. The crowd is growing unruly.”
Yes, she thought. Unruly. “I am not afraid—”
“You should be.” He yanked at her arm, pulling her along beside him. She staggered down the hill—downward, ever downward—wincing with every step, letting him support her.

The truth yanks her forth, pulls her, and for a short moment, Cersei allows it for support, as truth makes her stagger and wince in pain. But when the truth cares not one jot that she is queen, and when she can see the Red Keep again, Cersei wrenches herself free from truth’s grasp. In the end she runs to the safety of lies again, foreshadowing the bloody trail Cersei is willing to leave behind in order to cling to false beliefs.

The knight wrenched at her arm again, as if she were some common serving wench. Has he forgotten who I am? She was the queen of Westeros; he had no right to lay rough hands on her. Near the bottom of the hill, the slope gentled and the street began to widen. Cersei could see the Red Keep again, shining crimson in the morning sun atop Aegon’s High Hill. I must keep walking. She wrenched free of Ser Theodan’s grasp. “You do not need to drag me, ser.” She limped on, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the stones behind her.

And of course, Lancel is one of the Swords assigned to escort her.

Cersei’s gaze swept across the faces of the men behind [Ser Theodan]. And there he was: Lancel, her cousin, Ser Kevan’s son, who had once professed to love her, before he decided that he loved the gods more. My blood and my betrayer. She would not forget him. (aDwD, Cersei II)

As mirrors surrounding Cersei, the Warrior’s Sons do not function in the same way as it does with Areo Hotah’s POV – huge reveals – but instead function to make Cersei reflect back on the past and herself. Lancel is the first man she faces and reflects back on about the past in the face of mirrors. Here, she twists the truth as Lancel betraying her, incapable of recognizing how she might have wronged a young boy who she used as a tool for her own ends and discarded after. Next, she faces the spot where Ned Stark lost his head. We learn a few general details about Cersei’s plans and hopes at the time, and who worked out the terms (including Littlefinger). It is somewhat more truthful about the past, but Cersei puts all the blame on Joffrey.

It came to her suddenly that she had stood in this very spot before, on the day Lord Eddard Stark had lost his head. That was not supposed to happen. Joff was supposed to spare his life and send him to the Wall. Stark’s eldest son would have followed him as Lord of Winterfell, but Sansa would have stayed at court, a hostage. Varys and Littlefinger had worked out the terms, and Ned Stark had swallowed his precious honor and confessed his treason to save his daughter’s empty little head. I would have made Sansa a good marriage. A Lannister marriage. Not Joff, of course, but Lancel might have suited, or one of his younger brothers. Petyr Baelish had offered to wed the girl himself, she recalled, but of course that was impossible; he was much too lowborn. If Joff had only done as he was told, Winterfell would never have gone to war, and Father would have dealt with Robert’s brothers. Instead Joff had commanded that Stark’s head be struck off, and Lord Slynt and Ser Ilyn Payne had hastened to obey. It was just there, the queen recalled, gazing at the spot. Janos Slynt had lifted Ned Stark’s head by the hair as his life’s blood flowed down the steps, and after that there was no turning back. (aDwD, Cersei II)

If only Joff had done as he was told, but Cersei fails to recognize how she failed. She was the queen-regent, having the legal power, whereas Joff did not have any. She allowed Joff free reign. She raised and admired him to do as he please, nurturing his worst tendencies. She put him on the stage and allowed him to decide. Then we get Theoden the True dragging and supporting her towards the truth, which she frees herself from, before she reaches the bottom of Vysenia’s Hill. Right after a child exclaims she can’t be the queen, because she looks saggy like his mum, Cersei is met by those she failed and wronged, but without mentally recognizing her culpability, without ever voicing it in her head.

The queen began to see familiar faces. A bald man with bushy side-whiskers frowned down from a window with her father’s frown, and for an instant looked so much like Lord Tywin that she stumbled. A young girl sat beneath a fountain, drenched in spray, and stared at her with Melara Hetherspoon’s accusing eyes. She saw Ned Stark, and beside him little Sansa with her auburn hair and a shaggy grey dog that might have been her wolf. Every child squirming through the crowd became her brother Tyrion, jeering at her as he had jeered when Joffrey died. And there was Joff as well, her son, her firstborn, her beautiful bright boy with his golden curls and his sweet smile, he had such lovely lips, he … (aDwD, Cersei II)

She failed her father, killed Melara, betrayed Ned Stark who had given her a chance; Sansa who lost her wolf, because Cersei wanted some wolf dead to pay the price, guilty or not; and by not heeding Ned Stark’s offer to seek security for her children in Essos, Cersei got her eldest son killed. These are the implied mistakes, but a narcissist cannot admit to themselves that they were wrong. And neither can Cersei.

The sole mistake that she can admit to herself is agreeing to the Walk of Shame and the truth of age and altered appearance, but no more.

She did not feel beautiful, though. She felt old, used, filthy, ugly. There were stretch marks on her belly from the children she had borne, and her breasts were not as firm as they had been when she was younger. Without a gown to hold them up, they sagged against her chest. I should not have done this. I was their queen, but now they’ve seen, they’ve seen, they’ve seen. I should never have let them see. Gowned and crowned, she was a queen. Naked, bloody, limping, she was only a woman, not so very different from their wives, more like their mothers than their pretty little maiden daughters. What have I done?  (aDwD, Cersei II)

Not only Cersei is forced to face her reflection, the smallfolk too get to see the proud, vain queen-regent in a manner they have never before seen a queen: naked, stripped from all her symbolism, and without rich clothes hiding her imperfections. The smallfolk seeing Cersei naked and Cersei enduring her Walk of Atonement concludes with a similar truth as that of Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Alasti_keiser,_Edward_von_Lõnguse_töö_Tartus
Edward von Lõnguse, graffiti by Tartus

In this tale, two weavers (conmen) claim to be able to make a magical garment that is only invisible to the stupid and illequippred. In truth they make no clothes at all, while both the emperor and those who serve him pretend to see the cloth and garments for fear of being outed as stupid. The emperor ends up parading through the city, stark naked, with nobody daring to state the obvious, except for a child blurting out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

“That can’t be the queen,” a boy said, “she’s saggy as my mum.” (aDwD, Cersei II)

Truth comes from a child’s mouth. The cry of truth by the child is taken up by others until eventually the emperor realizes the truth of the scam. Nevertheless he continues his parade naked.

Septa Moelle moved up on the queen’s right. “This sinner has confessed her sins and begged for absolution and forgiveness. His High Holiness has commanded her to demonstrate her repentance by putting aside all pride and artifice and presenting herself as the gods made her before the good people of the city.”
Septa Scolera finished. “So now this sinner comes before you with a humble heart, shorn of secrets and concealments, naked before the eyes of gods and men, to make her walk of atonement.” (aDwD, Cersei II)

There is an obvious inversion of Anderson’s tale when George uses it in Cersei’s arc. The Emperor begins his  parade believing he wears clothes on that are only invisible to him. He learns the truth during his walk, but finds the dignity within himself to overcome his shame of being so stupid he could not see the clothes or later that he was conned. Cersei on the other hand starts out her walk, trying to keep her pride and head high, fully knowing she is naked.

She bared herself in one smooth, unhurried motion, as if she were back in her own chambers disrobing for her bath with no one but her bedmaids looking on. […] It took all her strength of will not to try and hide herself with her hands, as her grandfather’s whore had done. Her fingers tightened into fists, her nails digging into her palms. They were looking at her, all the hungry eyes. But what were they seeing? I am beautiful, she reminded herself. […] She had to move. Naked, shorn, barefoot, Cersei made a slow descent down the broad marble steps. […] She held her chin high, as a queen should, and her escort fanned out ahead of her. (aDwD, Cersei II)

But it ends up on her knees, shamed and vulnerable, running towards the castle from prying eyes, shamed.

And then there was no stopping the tears. They burned down the queen’s cheeks like acid. Cersei gave a sharp cry, covered her nipples with one arm, slid her other hand down to hide her slit, and began to run, shoving her way past the line of Poor Fellows, crouching as she scrambled crab-legged up the hill. Partway up she stumbled and fell, rose, then fell again ten yards farther on. The next thing she knew she was crawling, scrambling uphill on all fours like a dog as the good folks of King’s Landing made way for her, laughing and jeering and applauding her. (aDwD, Cersei II)

The Emperor reconciles himself with the fact that now all his subjects know he is a human like them. Like a narcissist, Cersei cannot, nor can she ultimately recognize her responsibilities into how she wronged others. Cersei breaks, not because of the vision of Maggy foretelling the death of her children, but instead how she will be cast down by a younger and more beautiful queen, and therefore reducing her to the Evil Queen of Snowwhite.

And suddenly the hag was there, standing in the crowd with her pendulous teats and her warty greenish skin, leering with the rest, with malice shining from her crusty yellow eyes. “Queen you shall be,” she hissed, “until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold most dear.” (aDwD, Cersei II)

So, in Cersei’s Walk of Shame we have a subverted Emperor’s New Clothes tale, especially since Cersei does end up in a whole new style choice of her wardrobe in aDwD’s epilogue.

The queen was dressed as modestly as any matron, in a dark brown gown that buttoned up to her throat and a hooded green mantle that covered her shaved head. Before her walk she would have flaunted her baldness beneath a golden crown. (aDwD, Epilogue)

The story does not originate with Anderson, however. There is also a 13th and 14th century Indian and Spanish version respectively of this fairytale, but the meaning of the invisible clothes varies. The Spanish Tales of Count Lucanor has a source version where the tailors claim they can make clothing that is only invisible to a man who is not the son of his father. The Indian tale has the same implication. Anderson altered it to to focus on pride and vanity rather than adulterous paternity. In the figure of Cersei we have both – on the surface her vanity and pride ends up a smoking rubble at the end of the walk, but throughout one of the jeers that people throw at her, aside from whore is brotherfucker. The implication that her children are illigitemate is a constant subtext during her Walk of Shame.

Anderson made the decision to alter the meaning of the clothes and its climax with the child crying out the truth, when the tale was ready to go to print. Many theories exist what inspired Anderson. One of these is how he himself as a child once went to see a parade of King Frederick VI and exclaimed, “Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!”

Because of the inversion, George humanizes Cersei’s appearance, but mentally maps out her narcissistic inability to face the truth when she has her vision of Ned Stark, Sansa, the wolf, Tywin, Tyrion and Joffrey. He also implies she is stupid, ill-equipped to be a ruler and that the king, her son, is illigitemate. The reason why the timing of the inversion of the Emperor’s New Clothes tale matches so well with the previous Reyneart arc of aFfC is not only because the Faith’s foxes managed to trick her, but she broke the feudal contract in every way possible, including with her allies. Feudal societies have kings and queens. Post-feudal societies have emperors and empresses. Cersei behaves as if she has the might of an empress, while she lives in a society where she is mightily dependent on the Faith’s recognition and her vassals supporting her military. Clothes make the woman, or not.

Suggested Reading

Introduction “Of Reynaert the Fox”, edited by Andre Bouwman and Bart Besamusca, English translation of the middle-Dutch “Van den Vos Reynaerde” by Thea Summerfield, Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

The Stone City, GRRM, 1977, transcribed online by The Fattest Leech, audio-read by Martin Serur on youtube, reviewed by Preston Jacobs in his youtube book club, easily found as one of the short stories in GRRM’s collection book Dreamsongs Part 1, The Light of Distant Stars, 2003

A Song for Lya, GRRM, 1974, easily found as one of the short stories in GRRM’s collection book Dreamsongs Part 1, The Light of Distant Stars, 2003

Seven Times Never Kill Man, GRRM, 1974, easily found as one of the short stories in GRRM’s collection book Dreamsongs Part 1, The Light of Distant Stars, 2003, quotes discussing Bakkalon of Seven Times Never Kill Man by The Fattest Leech.

 

Mirror Mirror – Behind the Mirror

(Top Illustration: Maester Caleotte revealing Gregor’s skull, by Joshua Cairos)

The Watcher

A quite interesting chapter that actually involves mirroring armor is that of Areo Hotah’s The Watcher in aDwD.

Areo Hotah had polished his shirt of copper scales mirror-bright so he would blaze in the candlelight as well. (aDwD, The Watcher)

Areo Hotah
Areo Hotah, by Henning Ludvigsen, Copyrighted to Fantasy Flight Games

Hotah is the sole character with his own POV in the books who wears mirror armor. The chapter’s name The Watcher is a reference that Will uses in relation to the five Others surrounding Waymar Royce who do not interfere with the duel, until he bleeds.

Behind him, to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. […] The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. (aGoT, Prologue)

So, what we can learn from Hotah’s abilities as a watcher might give us important clues to the Others’ abilities who also wear mirror armor and watch.

The Watcher is the chapter where Kingsguard Balon Swann presents the skull of Gregor Clegane to Prince Doran Martell, Oberyn’s mistress Elaria Sand makes a speech against further “revenge”, Doran manages to make the Sand Snakes swear loyalty to him, and each of the missions of the three eldest Sand Snakes is laid out. Many a reader wondered why George could not just have written this from an Arianne POV. After all, she is present almost the entire time, and Areo Hotah’s private mind is not the most entertaining. We propose it has to do with using a reliable narrator, instead of an unreliable narrator. George relies heavily on the latter technique in his POVs. Most often we need to read between the lines to decide which is fact, which may be an act, and what may be the meaning, or reread a chapter to figure out what actually happened for the POV lacks objectivity. For example, even in an observant POV such as Arya’s, the Weasel soup chapter of aCoK may read as confusing, because just like Arya we are not in the know yet that Vargo Hoat made a deal with Roose Bolton to switch sides at the time. George’s use of the unreliable narrator is such an accepted fact by the reader by the time aDwD rolls around, we are ready to question every claim, every emotional scene and every opinion. But as a bodyguard with intimate knowledge of the household, with decades of experience in a region where people conspire and plot, weary of any person who may mean harm to Prince Doran (including the Sand Snakes), Areo Hotah is a living, breathing lie detector.

Areo Hotah ran his hand along the smooth shaft of his longaxe, his ash-and-iron wife, all the while watching. He watched the white knight, Ser Balon Swann, and the others who had come with him. He watched the Sand Snakes, each at a different table. He watched the lords and ladies, the serving men, the old blind seneschal, and the young maester Myles, with his silky beard and servile smile. Standing half in light and half in shadow, he saw all of them. Serve. Protect. Obey. That was his task. (aDwD, The Watcher)

Objective reliable narration  is the reason why George chose to write this chapter from Areo’s POV, not Arianne’s. If he had used Arianne’s POV and wanted to convince the reader that all the information George condences and reveals in that chapter is the truth, he would have had to include multiple chapters to prove it, since Arianne’s chapters in aFfC already showed her to make quite some mistakes in character assessment, in who to trust, and to even figure out after the fact that nobody actively betrayed her, but it was most likely Garin who bragged and blabbed a bit too much to his cousins about his mission. After all Garin would have been the man to enlist Orphans with a boat to meet them at an unnamed location at the river, hidden behind a willow. (see Arianne’s Snitch for more discussion on Westeros.org)

So, let us examine the reveals of the Watcher chapter and the evidence that would confirm the veracity of these reveals to help you see why George needed a lie-truth detector POV here.

The Mountain’s Skull

The first issue is the skull that Balon Swann gifts. Is it truly Gregor’s skull or another? Even the Sand Snakes question amongt themselves whether it is Gregor’s skull or not.

Obara Sand plucked the skull from [Maester Caleotte] and held it at arm’s length. “What did the Mountain look like? How do we know that this is him? They could have dipped the head in tar. Why strip it to the bone?
“Tar would have ruined the box,” suggested Lady Nym, as Maester Caleotte scurried off. “No one saw the Mountain die, and no one saw his head removed. That troubles me, I confess, but what could the bitch queen hope to accomplish by deceiving us? If Gregor Clegane is alive, soon or late the truth will out. The man was eight feet tall, there is not another like him in all of Westeros. If any such appears again, Cersei Lannister will be exposed as a liar before all the Seven Kingdoms. She would be an utter fool to risk that. What could she hope to gain?”
The skull is large enough, no doubt,” said the prince. “And we know that Oberyn wounded Gregor grievously. Every report we have had since claims that Clegane died slowly, in great pain.”
“Just as Father intended,” said Tyene. “Sisters, truly, I know the poison Father used. If his spear so much as broke the Mountain’s skin, Clegane is dead, I do not care how big he was. Doubt your little sister if you like, but never doubt our sire.” (aDwD, The Watcher)

The skull that Hotah sees certainly fits Gregor’s size.

He allowed himself a brief glance at the chest. The skull rested on a bed of black felt, grinning. All skulls grinned, but this one seemed happier than most. And bigger. The captain of guards had never seen a larger skull. Its brow shelf was thick and heavy, its jaw massive. (aDwD, the Watcher)

Qyburn made clear to Cersei that he could not save Gregor from dying from Oberyn’s poison, but he perhaps could use Gregor in some dark arts way to continue to serve Cersei.

“He is dying of the venom, but slowly, and in exquisite agony. My efforts to ease his pain have proved as fruitless as Pycelle’s. […] Be that as it may, his veins have turned black from head to heel, his water is clouded with pus, and the venom has eaten a hole in his side as large as my fist. It is a wonder that the man is still alive, if truth be told.” (aFfC, Cersei II)

Even then, when Cersei consents to this, she still demands his head to be gifted to Dorne as her father had promised.

“Very well. The Mountain is yours. Do what you will with him, but confine your studies to the black cells. When he dies, bring me his head. My father promised it to Dorne. Prince Doran would no doubt prefer to kill Gregor himself, but we all must suffer disappointments in this life.” (aFfC, Cersei II)

Qyburn mentions it took beetles hours to clean the large skull from flesh. The conversation between Cersei and Qyburn does not confirm a deception on their part, and Cersei thinks of the Mountain’s screams in the next paragraph. It is not impossible for the duo to have used someone else’s skull in theory, but there is no solid evidence for it. And in fact, a resurrected ice wight for example does not require a skull to keep functioning. Gregor’s skull could have been gifted to Doran, and the rest of his body could still function as Robert Strong.

My champion will need a new name as well as a new face. (aDwD, Cersei I)

Eight feet tall or maybe taller, with legs as thick around as trees, he had a chest worthy of a plow horse and shoulders that would not disgrace an ox. His armor was plate steel, enameled white and bright as a maiden’s hopes, and worn over gilded mail. A greathelm hid his face. (aDwD, Cersei II)

And indeed Bran’s vision of three knights looming over Arya and Sansa in aGoT indicates a headless Gregor.

He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood. (aGoT, Bran III)

The first shadow contains symbolic references to Sandor Clegane (ash, a terrible face of a “hound”), the second to Jaime Lannister (golden armor, beautiful, sun-gold) and the third to Gregor Clegane (a giant, armor of stone for someone nicknamed the Mountain, black thickened blood).

So, the skull gifted to Doran is indeed Gregor Clegane’s. Note that if the Sand Snakes may suspect deception, Areo Hotah does not seem to.

Cersei’s Plan

In aFfC Cersei alludes in thought of a special task she intends to give Balon Swann during the small council.

A tiresome creature, this prince. “His long wait is almost done. I am sending Balon Swann to Sunspear, to deliver him the head of Gregor Clegane.” Ser Balon would have another task as well, but that part was best left unsaid. (aFfC, Cersei IV)

Cersei’s POV never betrays this task to the reader. Instead we, the Sand Snakes and Areo Hotah learn of it directly from Prince Doran, during a private meeting in his solar, after the dinner with Balon Swann.

Prince Doran took a jagged breath. “Dorne still has friends at court. Friends who tell us things we were not meant to know. This invitation Cersei sent us is a ruse. Trystane is never meant to reach King’s Landing. On the road back, somewhere in the kingswood, Ser Balon’s party will be attacked by outlaws, and my son will die. I am asked to court only so that I may witness this attack with my own eyes and thereby absolve the queen of any blame. Oh, and these outlaws? They will be shouting, ‘Halfman, Halfman,’ as they attack. Ser Balon may even catch a quick glimpse of the Imp, though no one else will.” (aDwD, The Watcher)

So, Cersei wants the Stone Crows of the Vale who remained in the Kingswood after the Battle of the Blackwater to kill Trystane, thereby liberating Princess Myrcella of her betrothal that Tyrion once arranged, and Balon will blame Tyrion for the attack. Important for this essay here is how Areo Hotah already picked up signs about Balon Swann that he was nervous about something during the feast earlier.

Ser Balon gave a nod and sipped his wine. This one is not so easily seduced [by Arianne] as was his Sworn Brother, Hotah thought. Ser Arys was a boy, despite his years. This one is a man, and wary. The captain had only to look at him to see that the white knight was ill at ease. This place is strange to him, and little to his liking. […] And now that they had reached Sunspear, neither Princess Myrcella nor Ser Arys Oakheart was on hand to greet them. The white knight knows that something is amiss, Hotah could tell, but it is more than that. Perhaps the presence of the Sand Snakes unnerved him. (aDwD, The Watcher)

Notice how George stresses often that Areo notices this about Balon just by ‘looking’ at him. Hotah does not know the reason for it yet though. And he lists several rational explanations for it: the strangeness of Dorne, not liking Dorne, anxious about Myrcella and Arys not being at the feast. And yet Hotah can see that Balon’s discomfort goes beyond that. Having run out of explanations, Hotah temporarily settles on the knight being nervous about the presence of the Sand Snakes. It is around this time that Prince Doran mentions Cersei’s letter where the request Myrcella’s return to King’s Landing and invites Prince Doran to sit on the small council.

Midnight was close at hand when Prince Doran turned to the white knight and said, “Ser Balon, I have read the letter that you brought me from our gracious queen. Might I assume that you are familiar with its contents, ser?” Hotah saw the knight tense.(aDwD, The Watcher)

And as the knight extends the invitation to include Trystane, saying how King’s Landing would welcome him, Hotah notices that Balon has started to sweat.

Why is he sweating now? the captain wondered, watching. The hall is cool enough, and he never touched the stew. (aDwD, The Watcher)

In fact, far earlier during the feast, Hotah had noticed that Balon had eaten very little of the fiery food. He did eat one small spoon of the stew and broke out in sweat because of it then, but only the spoonful and not any more since.

[Ser Balon] ate little, Hotah observed: a spoon of soup, a bite of the pepper, the leg off a capon, some fish. He shunned the lamprey pie and tried only one small spoonful of the stew. Even that made his brow break out in sweat. Hotah could sympathize. When first he came to Dorne, the fiery food would tie his bowels in knots and burn his tongue. (aDwD, The Watcher)

So, Hotah picked up on Balon’s body signs like a lie detector, while he did not yet know of Cersei’s murderous plan and what role Balon plays in it. Once Doran explained it to the Sand Snakes and the reader, we come to understand in retrospect that Balon was ordered to extend the invite to Trystane, knowing full well he has to guide the boy right into the planned ambush. Balon is nearly panicking when Prince Doran suggests they travel by ship to King’s Landing, instead of overland.

“By ship?” Ser Balon seemed taken aback. “That … would that be safe, my prince? Autumn is a bad season for storms, or so I’ve heard, and … the pirates in the Stepstones, they …” (aDwD, The Watcher)

Doran refers to Balon’s feeble attempt at dissuading Prince Doran from going to King’s Landing by ship when he revealed Cersei’s plan to the Sand Snakes.

“This is monstrous,” said Lady Nym. “I would not have believed it, not of a Kingsguard knight.”
“They are sworn to obey, just as my captain is,” the prince said. “I had my doubts as well, but you all saw how Ser Balon balked when I suggested that we go by sea. A ship would have disturbed all the queen’s arrangements.” (aDwD, The Watcher)

818px-House_Swann.svg
Sigil of House Swann

aFfC already acquainted us with Cersei’s shocking ways to get people murdered, and the Kettlebacks have been known to the reader since aCoK to have low morals. Balon Swann, however, has not yet been known by the reader to be an amoral man. Both Tyrion and Jaime approve of Balon’s appointment as Kingsguard.

[Tyrion] approved of his sister’s choice of Ser Balon Swann to take the place of the slain Preston Greenfield. The Swanns were Marcher lords, proud, powerful, and cautious. Pleading illness, Lord Gulian Swann had remained in his castle, taking no part in the war, but his eldest son had ridden with Renly and now Stannis, while Balon, the younger, served at King’s Landing. If he’d had a third son, Tyrion suspected he’d be off with Robb Stark. It was not perhaps the most honorable course, but it showed good sense; whoever won the Iron Throne, the Swanns intended to survive. In addition to being well born, young Ser Balon was valiant, courtly, and skilled at arms; good with a lance, better with a morningstar, superb with the bow. He would serve with honor and courage. (aCoK, Tyrion XI)

Jaime had served with Meryn Trant and Boros Blount for years; adequate fighters, but Trant was sly and cruel, and Blount a bag of growly air. Ser Balon Swann was better suited to his cloak, and of course the Knight of Flowers was supposedly all a knight should be. The fifth man was a stranger to him, this Osmund Kettleblack. […] “The king is dead,” Jaime began. “My sister’s son, a boy of thirteen, murdered at his own wedding feast in his own hall. All five of you were present. All five of you were protecting him. And yet he’s dead.” He waited to see what they would say to that, but none of them so much as cleared a throat. The Tyrell boy is angry, and Balon Swann’s ashamed, he judged. From the other three Jaime sensed only indifference. (aSoS, Jaime VIII)

He felt ashamed over Joffrey dying, despite the fact he once jested they would need three glasses to toast to the health of the King, during the War of the Five Kings. He testified during Tyrion’s trial that he believed Tyrion to be innocent of murdering Joffrey.

Ser Addam had told it true; the first man ushered in was Ser Balon Swann of the Kingsguard. “Lord Hand,” he began, after the High Septon had sworn him to speak only truth, “I had the honor to fight beside your son on the bridge of ships. He is a brave man for all his size, and I will not believe he did this thing.” A murmur went through the hall, and Tyrion wondered what mad game Cersei was playing. Why offer a witness that believes me innocent? He soon learned. Ser Balon spoke reluctantly of how he had pulled Tyrion away from Joffrey on the day of the riot. “He did strike His Grace, that’s so. It was a fit of wroth, no more. A summer storm. The mob near killed us all.” (aSoS, Tyrion IX)

He is invulnerable to Arianne’s attempts of seduction. He is affronted on principle by the manner in which Gregor died – poison.

“That is as it may be, my lady,” said Balon Swann, “but Ser Gregor was a knight, and a knight should die with sword in hand. Poison is a foul and filthy way to kill.” (aDwD, The Watcher)

Whether he would have participated without protest in beating Sansa or would have objected like Ser Arys, we do not know. Ser Balon only became a kingsguard after the riot, and by then Tyrion had already made sure Sansa’s physical abuse had ceased.

Symbollically, George linked him to the honorable side of the Night’s Watch, for his home was Stonehelm overseeing the Red Watch, and George pitted him against Slynt’s son during Joffrey’s nameday tourney as a foreshadowing parallel to Slynt’s fate at the Night’s Watch (see The Trail of the Red Stallion – Sansa’s tourneys). Hence, the reader has plenty of reasons to doubt Balon’s knowing participation in the plot, and therefore reason to doubt Prince Doran’s assertions about the plot.

And indeed, if the reader had learned of this through Arianne’s POV there would be debate about the veracity of the plot. We never actually heard it verified in Cersei’s POV. She only hinted at something unsavory, beyond delivering the skull. And Arianne already knew of this plot before the feast, so any observation she would have made of Balon Swann would come across as prejudiced. This is the foremost reason why George chose Areo Hotah to be the POV. Hotah did not yet know of the plot and independently gives the reader all the body sign clues about Balon Swann that verify the knight has been ordered to get a Lord’s innocent son killed. Add the fact that his sigil are a white and black swan fighting, and we know Balon Swann must be at inner conflict with his vows.*

His snowy cloak was clasped at the throat by two swans on a silver brooch. One was ivory, the other onyx, and it seemed to Areo Hotah as if the two of them were fighting. (aDwD, the Watcher)

So many vows . . . they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.” (aFfC, Catelyn VII)

“My lord.” Ser Balon drew himself up. “On my sword, on my honor, on my father’s name, I swear . . . I shall not do as you did.” (aSoS, Jaime VIII)

* Yes this raises the question where George is going with Balon Swann, the “little brother” of Donnel Swann, heir to Stonehelm. Balon swears to Jaime he will not be a kingslayer, in response to Jaime’s inquiry of Donnel Swann’s loyalty, after Donnel first rallied to Renly, then fought for Stannis at the Blackwater, got captured and bent the knee to Joffrey and after Joffrey’s death swore fealty to Tommen. Though I myself tend to lean to Jaime or Tyrion as the Valonqar in Cersei’s prophecy, I cannot exclude the possibility that George has bigger plans for Balon and that he might end up as a Queenslayer. (See here for further discussion: Balon as Valonquar?)

We can conclude that Doran’s reveal of Cersei’s plot is indeed what Cersei had planned.

Doran’s Plan and Myrish Lies

The chapter also informed us and the Sand Snakes on Doran’s response plan and it is meant to solve two issues. Obara points out that Balon meeting with Myrcella is dangerous: Ser Balon will see how Myrcella is short an ear and can reveal that Areo Hotah killed Arys Oakheart, a fellow Kingsguard of Ser Balon.

“Procrastinate, obscure, prevaricate, dissemble, and delay all you like, Uncle, Ser Balon must still come face-to-face with Myrcella at the Water Gardens, and when he does he’s like to see she’s short an ear. And when the girl tells him how your captain cut Arys Oakheart from neck to groin with that steel wife of his, well …” (aDwD, the Watcher)

This is indeed an issue. But Doran and Arianne prepared for it: they will blame Gerold Dayne for all of it, both the maiming of Myrcella as well as killing Gerold Dayne.

“No.” Princess Arianne unfolded from the cushion where she sat and put a hand on Hotah’s arm. “That wasn’t how it happened, Cousin. Ser Arys was slain by Gerold Dayne.”
The Sand Snakes looked at one another. “Darkstar?”
Darkstar did it,” [Hotah’s] little princess said. “He tried to kill Princess Myrcella too. As she will tell Ser Balon.”
Nym smiled. “That part at least is true.”
It is all true,” said the prince, with a wince of pain. Is it his gout that hurts him, or the lie? “And now Ser Gerold has fled back to High Hermitage, beyond our reach.” (aDwD, the Watcher)

All will lie, including Myrcella, to Ser Balon. It is an obvious lie to all people present and the reader. The man who killed Ser Arys is the POV. Arianne saw it happen, and we read it in Arianne’s chapter. The person who likely did not see it happen was Myrcella, for she was attacked at the same time by Dayne.

Still, George makes a point of it to have Hotah, the lie detector wearing mirroring armor, identify it as a lie in his POV. This serves to relay the objectivity of the narrator to the reader. Areo Hotah is not someone to sugar coat his prince’s lies when he is lying. The lie also ties to a symbol that George tends to use to warn the reader about deception and lies. That Arbor gold represents lies is well known*. The same is true for everything Myrish: Doran uses a Myrish blanket to cover his gouted legs.

* see Lies and Arbor Gold at Westeros.org (2013), All Lies and Arbor Gold on reddit (2015), and examples on Quora.

Not until the doors of his solar were safely closed behind them did he wheel his chair about to face the women. Even that effort left him breathless, and the Myrish blanket that covered his legs caught between two spokes as he rolled, so he had to clutch it to keep it from being torn away. Beneath the coverlet, his legs were pale, soft, ghastly. Both of his knees were red and swollen, and his toes were almost purple, twice the size they should have been. (aDwD, the Watcher)

When Areo wonders whether Doran winces from the lie or the gout, both relate to the blanket, as the blanket is Myrish (lies) and hides his hideous gouted legs.

I will not present all the examples of Myrish lies in this essay. There are so many examples it requires a whole essay of its own. Maybe one day I will write it, for I have not yet encountered such a one. Or perhaps someone else will write it. But I will highlight two here that are relevant to mirrors and spying. The first one is Arya’s mirror at the House of Black and White.

“Puff up your cheeks.” She did. “Lift your eyebrows. No, higher.” She did that too. “Good. See how long you can hold that. It will not be long. Try it again on the morrow. You will find a Myrish mirror in the vaults. Train before it for an hour every day. Eyes, nostrils, cheeks, ears, lips, learn to rule them all.” He cupped her chin. “Who are you?”
“No one.”
A lie. A sad little lie, child.”
She found the Myrish mirror the next day, and every morn and every night she sat before it with a candle on each side of her, making faces. Rule your face, she told herself, and you can lie. (aFfC, Arya II)

Mirrors reveal the truth. They do not reflect lies. But Arya specifically uses a metaphorical lie detector to train her face in order to learn to lie. As a real world concept it is rather simple. Symbolically though it is a twisted form of training. And while several characters look at their reflection in mirrors, the sole time we are told a mirror is Myrish mirror is in Arya’s POV, and only to train to lie.

Another example are Myrish lenses, especially lens tubes. This is actually the very first Myrish object that appears in the series, and the one I used on the home page to illustrate the concept of symbolism. But that Myrish lens contained a letter with Lysa’s lie claiming that Cersei had killed Jon Arryn. Furthermore in optics the terms real and virtual (false) are scientifically used in relation to the type of image a lens produces. A so called real image is an upside-down image, whereas a virtual image is a produced image that looks straight up. lensesmirrors01

For example, the image projected on the back of our eye, after reflected light of an object passes through the lens of our eye is a real upside-down image. Our nerve system and brain turns it back up. A lens tube produces a virtual image, which looks closer and/or bigger than they are, and thus it technically creates an illusion. Hence a real world spyglass is a lying glass, and only Myr makes desired spyglasses on Planetos.

Now, Doran’s Myrish blanket slips from his lap, exposing his legs. So, basically George makes Doran out to be a liar most of the time, someone who keeps up an illusion of being a pacifist, but the mask slips here. For the first time in their lives, the Sand Snakes get to know the real Prince Doran. Not only do get they the shock of a lifetime when they hear about Cersei’s plan for Trystane, they end up genuinely humbled by how far ahead he is of them when it comes to being prepared, and they all embrace their tasks. Note how this slippping of the blanket occurs before Doran commences to make his reveals and only when Hotah puts him to bed does a blanket fully cover him again.

Later, when Arianne had gone, he put down his longaxe and lifted Prince Doran into his bed. “Until the Mountain crushed my brother’s skull, no Dornishmen had died in this War of the Five Kings,” the prince murmured softly, as Hotah pulled a blanket over him. “Tell me, Captain, is that my shame or my glory?” (aDwD, the Watcher)

More importantly, the blanket actually emphasizes that Doran is not lying to the Sand Snakes and Hotah about what he reveals, when it slips away and he pulls it free from his wheelchair.

While his plan to have Myrcella lie to Balon the next day may work for a little while, Obara points out that sooner or later Myrcella will reveal the truth and that Ser Balon cannot be allowed to carry tales back to King’s Landing. Tyene proposes to kill him. After learning of Cersei’s plot to kill Trystane, Obara demands her spear back. But Doran has another idea.

Prince Doran raised a hand. His knuckles were as dark as cherries and near as big. “Ser Balon is a guest beneath my roof. He has eaten of my bread and salt. I will not do him harm. No. We will travel to the Water Gardens, where he will hear Myrcella’s story and send a raven to his queen. The girl will ask him to hunt down the man who hurt her. If he is the man I judge, Swann will not be able to refuse. Obara, you will lead him to High Hermitage to beard Darkstar in his den. The time is not yet come for Dorne to openly defy the Iron Throne, so we must needs return Myrcella to her mother, but I will not be accompanying her. That task will be yours, Nymeria. The Lannisters will not like it, no more than they liked it when I sent them Oberyn, but they dare not refuse. We need a voice in council, an ear at court. Be careful, though. King’s Landing is a pit of snakes.” […]
“And what of me?” asked Tyene.
“Your mother was a septa. Oberyn once told me that she read to you in the cradle from the Seven-Pointed Star. I want you in King’s Landing too, but on the other hill. The Swords and the Stars have been re-formed, and this new High Septon is not the puppet that the others were. Try and get close to him.” (aDwD, the Watcher)

And so far, all these plans have been executed. Kevan visits Cersei in her cell and relays the news that Balon wrote to King’s Landing – Myrcella accused Gerold Dayne of both maiming her and slaying Ser Arys. Meanwhile Kevan’s POV in the epilogue confirms that King’s Landing is expecting to welcome Myrcella in the company of Lady Nym who will take the seventh seat at the small council, and that Balon Swann is hunting after Darkstar. Meanwhile Arianne’s excerpt of tWoW, reveals that Areo Hotah is hunting Gerold Dayne together with Obara and Balon.

Balon’s Fate

The following is the first observation that Hotah has about Balon.

Ser Balon Swann was taut as a drawn bow, the captain of guards observed. This new white knight was not so tall nor comely as the old one, but he was bigger across the chest, burlier, his arms thick with muscle. […] The man who wore [the fighting swans] looked a fighter too. This one will not die so easy as the other. He will not charge into my axe the way Ser Arys did. He will stand behind his shield and make me come at him. If it came to that, Hotah would be ready. (aDwD, the Watcher)

It reminds instantly of Hotah’s foreshadowing thoughts on Ser Arys Oakheart in Hotah’s POV chapter of aFfC.

“Hotah had felt a certain sadness whenever he saw the man in the long snowy cloak, […]. One day, he sensed, the two of them would fight; on that day Oakheart would die, with the captain’s longaxe crashing through his skull.” (aFfC, The Captain of the Guards)

Hotah notes several differences between Balon and Arys. For example Balon is not that easily seduced by Arianne, but he also expects them to fight very differently, with Balon being the more difficult fighter. Because Areo’s thoughts on Arys foreshadowed Oakheart’s fate, it is tempting to the reader to see the same POV’s thoughts on Balon also as a foreshadowing – that one day Balon and Hotah will fight one another and one of them will die. And certainly on the surface it seems as if Doran is setting up an excellent trap for Balon to die, when he sends Obara with him. After all, she argued Balon was to never leave Dorne alive and demanded her spear back to kill him once she learned of the plot about Trystane. If both Balon and Darkstar were to die in confrontation, Doran succeeds in getting rid of two problems: Gerold Dayne and Balon.

But there are three remarks that suggest this idea that Doran wishes Balon’s death may be a red herring. First of all, Doran “defended” Balon as having sworn to obey, just like his own captain of the guards, when it comes to Balon’s involvement in the plot to kill Trystane. At the very least, Doran’s “defense” of Balon reveals that Prince Doran does not deem the Kingsguard knight as immoral per se. In fact, he later also says “If he is the man I judge, Swann will not be able to to refuse” Myrcella’s request to hunt Gerold Dayne. Furthermore, Arianne’s seduction of Ser Arys Oakheart opened Doran’s eyes to the possibility that a Kingsguard knight could be “turned”.

Let us consider Doran’s “if he is the man I judge” more closely. Doran suspected Balon to be of such a character that he would accept Myrcella’s request. This brings us back to three historical Kingsguards – Arthur Dayne, Gerold Hightower and Oswald Whent. In his “Tower of Joy” dream, Ned Stark questions them about their choice not to be with Prince Rhaegar at the Trident, not with King Aerys II, not with Viserys on Dragonstone and not surrendering like the Tyrells and Selmy to Robert Baratheon. To this, Ser Gerold Hightower answered, “We swore a vow.” This recall to Gerold Hightower, may be why George chose to give Darkstar the name Gerold. Even the Lord Commander Gerold who was a stickler to rules and not intervening when Aerys abused his own wife made clear that all three had sworn a vow that was more important than anything else. Whatever that vow was, whatever the order they had been given, they stuck to it, even after Rhaegar’s death. In a way they found moral freedom from Aerys to follow their own consciousness while remaining a Kingsguard.

In the Dornish plot, Myrcella serves a similar purpose to Ser Arys and Ser Balon as Rhaegar does with the three Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy. Myrcella is not yet an adult like Rhaegar, nor is she a warrior. She is King Tommen’s heir though. Arianne hoped to use her to dethrone Tommen by crowning her, which echoes the Whents vying to set up a great council to make Rhaegar the regent over his own mad father, and also echoes Tywin’s suspected hope to get Aerys killed in Duskendale so he could crown Rhaegar.

Doran uses Myrcella to give an order to Balon Swann that will effectively derail Cersei’s plot for Trystane. Myrcella is not the king nor the regent, and in fact she was not under direct threat for her life anymore. Ser Balon certainly had wriggle room to not obey her, but to pack her up and carry her back to King’s Landing kicking and screaming. Except, Ser Balon was conflicted about the mission that Cersei had given him (hence the Swann sigil), and he grabbed the excuse that Myrcella gave him with both hands, even knowingly allow Myrcella to be escorted back to King’s Landing without him guarding her. This is why Cersei’s choice of Ser Balon for this Trystane ambush task is so stunning. If Cersei had sent Meryn Trant instead of Ser Balon, Trant would have ignored Myrcella’s request.

It seems as if Prince Doran knew what he was doing with Balon Swann when he offered him an alternative to be a heroic Kingsguard, instead of a villainous one, and may be counting on the confrontation having an impact on Balon where he survives, and returns to King’s Landing a changed Kingsguard who lets his own consciousness outweigh immoral orders given to him by Cersei. So, Hotah’s “if it comes to that” may be a hint that unlike Ser Arys, Balon and Hotah will not fight one another at all.

Ricasso’s Toast

Seneschal_RicassoAM
Ricasso’s toast to King Tommen

Another aspect of Hotah’s chapter is the toast to King Tommen. Some do toast, others do not. Areo takes specific note who does not, because he expects these to potentially cause issues for house Martell. We can divide these non-toasters into several groups.

  • There are those who are closely allied or tied to Oberyn Martell, and Gregor’s skull does not satisfy their thirst for revenge.
    • the three eldest Sand Snakes – Obara, Lady Nym and Tyene – who are Oberyn’s daughters;
    • Ser Daemon Sand was Oberyn’s squire, knighted by Oberyn, rumored to also have been Oberyn’s lover and he sent a letter to Lady Nym about Oberyn and the Mountain;
    • the Fowler twins are close friends of Lady Nym;
    • Lord Uller is the grandfather of the four youngest Sand Snakes, through his natural daughter Ellaria Sand;
    • Dagos Manwoody also helped Oberyn arm up agains the Mountain, like Daemon Sand; so his sentiments are likely due to a personal tie to Oberyn.
  • As with any region of Westeros, you also always have houses who disagree with their liege and vie for an opportunity. They have a political motive to seek war for war’s sake and to oppose seeming peace efforts by Prince Doran.
    • House Uller has a personal connection with Oberyn, via Ellaria Sand, but they are reputed for being mad or worse (violent and aggressive). Arianne contemplated sending a letter for aid to the Ullers, but refrains from reaching out to them: she does not want to bring anymore lives in danger. This “mad or worse” impression is emphasised by the fact that Prince Doran has Ellaria’s children by Oberyn in his grasp at the Water Gardens. If the Ullers refuse the toast it is not because they care for Oberyn’s children.
  • We should expect some pretending to be openly disagreeing with Prince Doran’s public policy, in order to gain the trust of those houses that seek war, but are actually in league with Prince Doran. Think of Corbray being Littlefinger’s agent with the Lord Declarant in the Vale. This would help them and Doran in learning what true troublemakers plan.
    • Prince Doran squired for Lord Gargalen. Not only do squires feel a personal loyalty towards the lord or knight they serve, the lords and knights tend to feel like a foster parent to their squires. By the tale how Lord Gargalen attempted to ease Doran’s mind about the early birth of his sister Elia, we get a glimpse of Lord Gargalen’s fostering feelings. The fact that Prince Doran fostered Quentyn to House Yronwood hoping for a personal bond of loyalty to grow between Quentyn and Lord Yronwood indicates Doran experienced something similar with Lord Gargalen.
    • The Wyls entertained Balon Swann for over a week with hunting and hawking in the Boneway to delay his arrival to Sunspear. They did Doran’s bidding while they were far out of reach of Sunspear’s wrath, but do not toast to King Tommen in Doran’ face? That certainly seems odd.
  • Those who do toast are
    • Princess Arianne, who is in Doran’s confidence since the end of aFfC. Not having been a witness to the conversation that brought Doran and Arianne closer together, Hotah takes note that Arianne and Doran share a secret.
    • Lady Jordayne of the Tor and Lady Nymella Toland of Ghost Hill both arranged games for Balon Swann to delay him (like the Wyls). Lady Toland is not in Doran’s closest confidence. Lady Nymella seems an anxious woman who is dutifully loyal to House Martell. It is likely that Lady Jordayne is similarly loyal: Nymella and Jordayne are compared by Doran when he says Lady Toland would attempt to outmatch Lady Jordayne in entertaining Balon Swann with games.
    • The Lord of Godsgrace would be Ser Ryon Allyrion, the heir of Lady Delonne Allyrion, and father of Daemon Sand (the bastard of Godsgrace). In aFfC, Doran had Daemon Sand imprisoned upon his return from King’s Landing, for Daemon demanded the release of the Sand Snakes. Ryon’s motivation to toast would be an apology for his natural son’s potential treasonous actions and prove to Prince Doran they are loyal to him. Though Daemon Sand is not in a cell anymore, he can still be considered a hostage.
    • Ser Deziel Dalt, the knight of Lemonwood, is brother to Ser Andrey “Drey” Dalt (one of Arianne’s conspiritors in the attempt to crown Myrcella). Ser Deziel has a reason to prove himself loyal to whatever Doran wishes, especially since Prince Doran let Drey off with three years service of Lady Mellario in Norvos, instead of wasting away in Ghaston Grey. On top of that Arianne considers him utterly dutiful to Prince Doran.

    We conclude that the toasters, aside from Arianne, are of little to no consequence in this chapter’s revelations or Doran’s intentions. He trusts them to be loyal. There is no need to persuade them nor confide his actual plans with them.

Doran does not confide in those who toast, except for Arianne, but instead in those who did not, such as the Sand Snakes and Areo Hotah later that same evening. He confides in Daemon Sand who is to accompany Arianne as her shield on her mission to meet with Jon Connington. Prince Doran ordered two hosts to amass in the Boneway and the Prince’s Pass. They are led by the Yronwoods and Wyls who control the Boneway, whereas House Fowler is warden of the Prince’s Pass where the Manwoodys have their seat Kingsgrave. House Yronwood was not present at the feast of this chapter, and the other three did not toast. So they too have been confided in by Prince Doran for his war plans. Hence, Areo Hotah’s thought to watch the non-toasters in particular is the advice the reader should go by, not so much because the reader should fear them causing trouble for Prince Doran, but because Doran uses those people to execute his war plans.

Armageddon’s Mirrors

Armageddon RagSince the role is so small, we will not devote a stand alone essay on the character called Mirrors of George’s novel The Armageddon Rag of 1983. Unlike Areo Hotah, Mirrors is not a POV whatsoever and appears in the novel but a few times. But both have a similar status and like Hotah, George uses Mirrors to tip off the reader to what is really going on. (spoiler warning ahead)

This novel is not set in a world of epic fantasy, but on earth in the early eighties of the 20th century. It is part a rock novel, part a murder mystery, part ghost story and includes winks to Tolkien – what George’s father would dub “weird stuff”.  The protagonist is former hippie journalist Sandy Blair who begins to investigate the bizarre and brutal murder of rock promotor Jamie Lynch. One of the bands Lynch once promoted were the Nazgûl (there is the wink to Tolkien). This band split ten years earlier to the day in 1971, after their lead singer Patrick Henry “Hobbit” Hobbins (someone with absolute albinism) was shot while on stage during a concert at West Mesa. The murder of Jamie Lynch and several other disastrous events push the three surviving band members to reunite with the rich Edan Morse as promotor. Edan is rumored to have had ties and sympathies with radical-and-violent left revolutionists in the 70s.  This promotor manages to procure a doppleganger of the dead Hobbins (but not having the same voice abilities) – Larry Richmond. Investigating the murder of Jamie Lynch and Edan Morse’s role and motivation to promote the reunion tour of the Nazgûl, Sandy ends up being the band’s press agent and starts a love affair with Edan’s fanatical aid, Ananda. As occult events occur where it seems that the dead Hobbins manages to possess Larry Richmond on stage, Sandy fears and suspects Morse intends to perform an occult sacrificial ritual that will unleash a dark supernatural power upon the world to make the radical-left revolution happen after all.

Mirrors is one of the roadie bodyguards hired on the tour. Sandy and Ananda call him Mirrors because he is recognizable by the pair of mirroring sunglasses he wears. So, like Areo Hotah, Mirrors is a guard and he watches the events, characters and the world from behind a mirror. He appears for the first time in chapter nineteen of the book.

The road manager was a veteran hired for his experience, and he did his job well enough, but the roadies were like no other roadies Sandy had ever encountered. They were quiet, distant, humorless. They never got drunk, never got stoned. […] One of the men wore silvered sunglasses everywhere and carried a nunchaku. […] But when Gort gave them an order – Gort had been put in charge of the roadies – they obeyed with an almost military precision. (The Armageddon Rag, Nineteen)

Hotah too is a quiet character, a watcher, detached, humorless, dry. He never drinks on duty. He has no lover. “Serve. Protect. Obey.” That is Areo’s task as it is Mirrors. George stresses the military discipline of the roadies, including Mirrors, during a discussion between Sandy and Ananda.

Ten days before Chicago, Sandy had a brief discussion with Ananda about the orcs. “They’re Edan’s people, aren’t they?” he asked her. “Alfies or worse? That’s why they seem so damned, I don’t know … disciplined, I guess.”
She smiled. “So? I’m one of Edan’s people too, remember?”
“Not like them. There’s something wrong with them, ‘Nanda. I think they’re hearing things on the Jim Jones/Charlie Manson wavelength if you know what I mean. I think they’d do anything Gort told them to do. Anything.”
They would.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
They’re soldiers,” she told him. (The Armageddon Rag, Nineteen)

The first time it seems as if Hobbins managed to pass through and possess Larry Richmond during the Nazgul’s first actual reunion concert, Larry’s dog Balrog becomes aggressive and wants to attack Larry-turned-Hobbins (who hated dogs) back stage at the after-party. The dog only calms down again, once Larry becomes himself again. Ananda has Gort take the dog outside. Needing air after a couple of screwdrivers, Sandy wanders outside.

He went out the back door. One of the roadies was there, the man with the silver mirrored shades. He stared at Sandy and said not a word. Balrog was there too, tied up just outside the door. He barked, and Sandy patted his head before making his way to the street. (The Armageddon Rag, Twenty One)

But when Sandy returns, he finds the roadie gone, the door locked and Balrog’s head nearly severed off. That night, Sandy confronts Edan Morse over the butchered dog. This is when Ananda first refers to the roadie with sunglasses as Mirrors.

Sandy held out his hands. “I … the dog.” His voice was thick. “They butchered the dog. Richmond’s dog.”
Morse feigned astonishment. “You know anything about this, ‘Nanda?”
Mirrors was out watching the dog. He went inside for a couple minutes to bum some cigarettes. Somebody did the job while he was gone.”
“Gort,” Sandy said suddenly, glaring at the big man.
“Hey, fuck that shit,” Gort grumbled. “I been here with Edan for hours. Hell, if I wanted to kill the dog I could of done it at the party, when the fucker went nuts.” (The Armageddon Rag, Twenty Two)

During the tour, it becomes clear that Ananda has some deadly physical reflexes and that Mirrors takes orders from her. When Edan Morse understands the price he (and others) will have to pay to bring Armageddon about, he wants to stop it, but Ananda takes over. Sandy only sees one way to stop the doom: shoot Larry Richmond on the West Mesa stage while possessed by Hobbins before the song Armageddon Rag is completed. He aims to climb a light-effects tower without Mirrors spying him.

He waited until Mirrors had glanced away, then pulled himself up unto the tower, and began to climb. […] He was scarcely ten feet up, on the same level as the guard, when Mirrors turned and saw him. Sandy tried to flinch away, to conceal himself in the shadow of the tower’s leg, but it was no good; he had been seen. Mirrors came toward him, walking along a girder as sure-footed as a cat, his nunchaku in hand. No retreat, Sandy thought. He braced himself against the leg, prepared to use the rifle as a club.
Then Mirrors stopped. “You,” he said. He nodded. “Didn’t recognize you. Go on up.” He smiled and turned his back. (Armageddon Rag, Twenty Seven)

Just minutes before, Mirrors knocked a girl from that same tower with his nunchaku. So, Mirrors’ relaxed, smiling response – after Sandy believes he escaped a hotel room (where Ananda knocked him out) by stealing the car keys that Ananda left “unguarded” on top of the TV – is strange to say the least. It takes Sandy a great deal of the concert to realize the implication of Mirrors’ behavior in the above scene, but the reader is already clued in that Ananda wants Sandy to shoot the possessed Richmond on the stage. Once he appears on page, Mirrors is a tip-off to the reader what is really going on, who holds the strings and what their actual plan is.

Lord Guncer Sunglass

Interesting enough, in a world where people do not wear sunglasses, we do have a very minor character of House Sunglass. And yes, George seems to put as many references to Mirrors of Armageddon Rag in this character. His first name is Guncer. Half of that name is the word gun. And the character Mirrors becomes an immense clue to what is really going on, when Sandy climbs the “tower of light” with a duffelbag of guns (that will never go off). The lands that he is lord over are Sweetport Sound. Drop -port and you end up with Sweet Sound. Music is a sweet sound. And this would make for another pointer to The Armageddon Rag, as it is a rock music novel. The title refers to a song of the Nazgûl band, and it is this song of theirs that must be song at West Mesa to bring about the revolutionary apocalypse. And of course we have the word song in the series’ title, with a heavy wink at an oncoming apocalypse, since in Norse myth both ice and fire are hellbent on destroying the world, heavens and time itself.

I think it is safe to say that Lord Guncer Sunglass serves as an early hint by George to a truth in a confusing mess. So, who the hell is he? Well, he appears in aCoK’s Prologue in Cressen’s POV as one of the few Lords who supports Stannis’ claim to the throne.

“Your Grace,” Stannis repeated bitterly. “You mock me with a king’s style, yet what am I king of? Dragonstone and a few rocks in the narrow sea, there is my kingdom.” He descended the steps of his chair to stand before the table, his shadow falling across the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and the painted forest where King’s Landing now stood. There he stood, brooding over the realm he sought to claim, so near at hand and yet so far away. “Tonight I am to sup with my lords bannermen, such as they are. Celtigar, Velaryon, Bar Emmon, the whole paltry lot of them. A poor crop, if truth be told, but they are what my brothers have left me. That Lysene pirate Salladhor Saan will be there with the latest tally of what I owe him, and Morosh the Myrman will caution me with talk of tides and autumn gales, while Lord Sunglass mutters piously of the will of the Seven. Celtigar will want to know which storm lords are joining us. Velaryon will threaten to take his levies home unless we strike at once. What am I to tell them? What must I do now?”  (aCoK, Prologue)

The first thing we learn of this man is that he is pious, a man of the Faith. Later on in the prologue, we get a short description that he wears moonstones at the throat, wrist and finger.

Cressen looked over the knights and captains and lords sitting silent. Lord Celtigar, aged and sour, wore a mantle patterned with red crabs picked out in garnets. Handsome Lord Velaryon chose sea-green silk, the white gold seahorse at his throat matching his long fair hair. Lord Bar Emmon, that plump boy of fourteen, was swathed in purple velvet trimmed with white seal, Ser Axell Florent remained homely even in russet and fox fur, pious Lord Sunglass wore moonstones at throat and wrist and finger, and the Lysene captain Salladhor Saan was a sunburst of scarlet satin, gold, and jewels. Only Ser Davos dressed simply, in brown doublet and green wool mantle, and only Ser Davos met his gaze, with pity in his eyes.  (aCoK, Prologue)

Color symbolism is used over and over by George since his earliest writings to indicate certain factions. We recommend reading George’s introductions to each section of the gathered short stories and novellas in Dreamsongs for this. The basic color symbolism scheme is laid out already in one of his earliest published short story Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark. Black and red combined are the colors of the demon Prince Saagel, while green and gold are the colors of Dr. Weird, a savior angel. George never wavered from this scheme, though the writing became far more ambiguous with time and his color palette expanded. He lays out that color palette in aCoK’s Prologue, like factions.

The single red of Lord Celtigar stands for a red herring, or a false religion, or a character you should not put your trust in, because they either die or lead you to even greater danger. A great short story example for this is And Seven Times Never Kill a Man (see the Fattest Leech’s Bakkalon the Pale Child and Flames). Lord Velaryion’s green-sea with gold harks back to Dr. Weird. Salladhor Saan’s sunburst of scarlet and gold is the scheme of the Martells. Purple stands for the descendants of the Emperors of the Dawn, proto- Valyrian and Valyrian, but also Braavos. Then you have trickster foxes (see upcoming Mirror Mirror: Swords, Foxes and Beauty).

What are we missing here? Ah yes, ice and the Faith. And with those moonstones for a pious man we get two for one. It seems odd for a man named Sunglass to be linked to ice. We associate sunglasses with something you wear on hot scorching sunny days. But if you think of them as “shields against the sun”, you can see why sunglasses could fit as an ice symbol. Others after all hide or shield themselves from the sun. And if you, like Lord Melnibonian, believe the reference to mean a sunstone in-world, it fits even more. It is hypothesized that Vikings used a certain type of stone, called sunstones, to help navigate, for you could locate the sun’s position with it while the sky is overcast. An overcast snow sky sounds like the thing.

He never appears on page anymore after the Prologue, but he is mentioned several times in Davos’ chapters, and thus you know his fate. While Lord Guncer Sunglass supported Stannis’ claim, he backs out when Stannis has the sept at Dragonstone destroyed. And for that he is put in a cell.

Dragonstone’s sept had been where Aegon the Conqueror knelt to pray the night before he sailed. That had not saved it from the queen’s men. They had overturned the altars, pulled down the statues, and smashed the stained glass with warhammers. Septon Barre could only curse them, but Ser Hubard Rambton led his three sons to the sept to defend their gods. The Rambtons had slain four of the queen’s men before the others overwhelmed them. Afterward Guncer Sunglass, mildest and most pious of lords, told Stannis he could no longer support his claim. Now he shared a sweltering cell with the septon and Ser Hubard’s two surviving sons. (aCoK, Davos I)

Now, it makes sense why Lord Guncer Sunglass is associated with ice symbolism. He renounced Stannis’ claim, because Stannis showed he wants to make Rh’llor and the red-fire religion a state religion, willing to destroy the places of worship of the Faith by fanatical zealots. The enemy of fire is ice, and the enemy of ice is fire. So, once Stannis declared war on the Faith on behalf of the red god of fire, logically devout men of the Faith ought to be tied to ice  in a symbolic way.

When Davos is picked up by Salladhor Saan after the defeat at Blackwater, he learns that Selyse and Melisandre burned Lord Sunglass in her fires as a traitor.

“[…] While we were burning on the river, the queen was burning traitors. Servants of the dark, she named them, poor men, and the red woman sang as the fires were lit.”
Davos was unsurprised. I knew, he thought, I knew before he told me. “She took Lord Sunglass from the dungeons,” he guessed, “and Hubard Rambton’s sons.”
Just so, and burned them, as she will burn you. If you kill the red woman, they will burn you for revenge, and if you fail to kill her, they will burn you for the trying. She will sing and you will scream, and then you will die. And you have only just come back to life!” (aSoS, Davos II)

They are keeping me alive, for some purpose of their own. He did not like to think what that might be. Lord Sunglass had been confined in the cells beneath Dragonstone for a time, as had Ser Hubard Rambton’s sons; all of them had ended on the pyre.
[…]
Melisandre sighed. “They did not protect Guncer Sunglass. He prayed thrice each day, and bore seven seven-pointed stars upon his shield, but when R’hllor reached out his hand his prayers turned to screams, and he burned. Why cling to these false gods?”
[…]
Lord Alester waved his hand feebly. “Lord Celtigar was captured and bent the knee. Monford Velaryon died with his ship, the red woman burned Sunglass, and Lord Bar Emmon is fifteen, fat, and feeble. […]”(aSoS, Davos III)

George is really clubbering us on the head with this: Selyse and Mel burned a man, who denounced Stannis, when Stannis declared war on other religions but that of the Red God with the destruction of the sept. We learn that Stannis himself is not such a zealot himself, and becomes less so othe further and longer away he is from Melisandre in aDwD. In fact, he makes Davos his Hand, despite Davos refusing to renounce the Faith on Mel’s urging.

Stannis snorted. “Bar Emmon, that boy? My faithless grandfather? Celtigar has abandoned me, the new Velaryon is six years old, and the new Sunglass sailed for Volantis after I burned his brother.” He made an angry gesture. “A few good men remain, it’s true. Ser Gilbert Farring holds Storm’s End for me still, with two hundred loyal men. Lord Morrigen, the Bastard of Nightsong, young Chyttering, my cousin Andrew . . . but I trust none of them as I trust you, my lord of Rainwood. You will be my Hand. It is you I want beside me for the battle.” (aSoS, Davos IV)

Stannis prefers loyal and honest men over the zealous Queen’s Men. And if he takes responsibility for the burning of Sunglass, he likely does so, the same way Ned Stark took responsibility for Catelyn taking Tyrion Lannister. George had Selyse and Mel burn Sunglass, while Stannis was away. So, George wants to point us to a truth about Mel and Selyse, not Stannis. And alongside we learn Lord Guncer Sunglass had a brother, and he sailed off for Volantis, where Benerro ends up preaching over and over about Dany being Azor Ahai Reborn in aDwD.

Haldon nodded. “Benerro has sent forth the word from Volantis. Her coming is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. From smoke and salt was she born to make the world anew. She is Azor Ahai returned … and her triumph over darkness will bring a summer that will never end … death itself will bend its knee, and all those who die fighting in her cause shall be reborn …” (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

To proclaim Stannis the prophesied hero Azor Ahai returned, Mel had the Seven wooden statues of the sept of Dragonstone burned so he could take a burning sword from the pyre of the Seven and proclaim it Lightbringer.

By the time the song was done, only charwood remained of the gods, and the king’s patience had run its course. He took the queen by the elbow and escorted her back into Dragonstone, leaving Lightbringer where it stood. The red woman remained a moment to watch as Devan knelt with Byren Farring and rolled up the burnt and blackened sword in the king’s leather cloak. The Red Sword of Heroes looks a proper mess, thought Davos. (aCoK, Davos I)

With some spell, Mel manages to make the sword glow with a red and orange light, but both maester Aemon and Jon noticed that it did not give off heat. For this trickery and falsehood, Mel had the sept destroyed, several men killed in a fight and three men burned at the stake to die screaming, for a battle that Stannis was fated to lose, exactly through her meddling by getting Renly killed. Imagine being Guncer’s brother, arriving at Volantis and hear Benerro proclaim Dany Azor Ahai returned instead. Even Rh’llorists cannot agree over who is Azor Ahai. Our Lord Sunglass is George’s tip off that Mel is more likely to help bring about the apocalypse than stopping it, even though that is far from her intention. She is as fanatical and scarred as Ananda of The Armageddon Rag and as zealous and overly relying on tricky visions like Proctor Whyte of Seven Times Never Kill a Man, who in the end burns all the winter crops and hangs their own innocent children from a red wall.

Conclusion

The numerous reveals of the chapter The Watcher require a character who is a reliable narrator and lie detector. George’s readers have been trained to question almost everything by the time they get to aDwD, could be weary of so much info dumped on a platter in such a short amount of time. But the lie detecting mirror as a POV helps us see that for once George was not coy at all.

So, where Myrish objects and Arbor Gold stand for lies, mirrors reveal a crucial truth. We may not always understand all that is shown in such scenes at first read and without more information, but they are truthful. There is no deception. Even if the scenes include characters lying, we the reader will already be aware which are the lies.

We must also suspect that mirror-armor chapters contain and build up to crucial information or development and put major clues out there in plain sight that illuminate motivation, plans and goals of actors, even if the character wearing that mirror armor is but a Captain of the Guards with little to no plot significance himself, or a man wearing sunglasses or called Sunglass.

And just because a character may not see who or what is behind a mirror, this does not mean that there is not something or someone behind the mirror watching.

Mirror Mirror – Brass Alchemism

(top illustration: Aegon and Quicksilver dying during the Battle Beneath the Gods Eye, by Michael Komarck, in tWoIaF)

The Brass Platter

The mirror we will discuss is a brass platter that Dany and Jorah pick up from a brass merchant stall on a quay in Qarth to spy on two men following them. It is important that a mirror is used for more than self-inspection, but to survey the environment instead.

As they made their way toward the next quay, Ser Jorah laid a hand against the small of her back. “Your Grace. You are being followed. No, do not turn.” He guided her gently toward a brass-seller’s booth. “This is a noble work, my queen,” he proclaimed loudly, lifting a large platter for her inspection. “See how it shines in the sun?”
The brass was polished to a high sheen. Dany could see her face in it . . . and when Ser Jorah angled it to the right, she could see behind her. “I see a fat brown man and an older man with a staff. Which is it?”
“Both of them,” Ser Jorah said. […] The ripples in the brass stretched the strangers queerly, making one man seem long and gaunt, the other immensely squat and broad. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Later on, Jorah uses the platter as a type of shield, by banging it on Belwas’s head, when he erronously thinks Belwas and Selmy mean to attack Dany.

[…] Ser Jorah slammed the eunuch over the head with the brass platter […] Ser Jorah had shouldered his way to her side, holding the brass platter awkwardly under his arm. Belwas’s hard head had left it badly bent. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

The Way of Quicksilver to Valyrian Steel

We chose this mirror first, because it links to a particular mention of material that The Fattest Leech already connected to mirrors in 2018 – quicksilver.

The surface of the mirrors seemed to ripple and bulge, like a wave cresting on some quicksilver sea. (Skin Trade)

I make a fist, a familiar gesture, and in my hand a mirror takes shape from the iron of my will and the quicksilver of my desire. (The Glass Flower)

In the chapter that features the brass platter, Quicksilver is one of the ships that Jorah and Dany boarded to negotiate shipping costs.

The two brothers who captained the sister ships Quicksilver and Greyhound seemed sympathetic and invited them into the cabin for a glass of Arbor red. They were so courteous that Dany was hopeful for a time, but in the end the price they asked was far beyond her means, and might have been beyond Xaro’s. […] “They have been following us since we left Quicksilver.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Quicksilver is another name for the chemical element mercury and has the symbol Hg, from the old name hydrargyrum. The latter translates to silver water: it is liquid at room temperature like water and shiny like silver. Several faulty supernatural beliefs held their sway about mercury in ancient times. In Asia and the Middle East it was regarded as having curative powers, even that of rendering someone immortal. The first emperor of China drank a jade-mercury given to him by Qin alchemists all with the aim to acquire eternal life, only to die of liver failure, mercury poisoning and brain death. The second Tulunid emperor of Egypt (Muslim) floated on an airbed in a mercury filled pool to fall asleep on its vapors. The Mayans and people of Teotihuacan also filled chambers beneath temples and ball courts with pools of mercury. Finally, alchemists regarded mercury the First Matter from which all other metals were formed. In Sanskrit the word for alchemy is Rasavatam, which means “the way of mercury”. Mercury was the Roman god of speed and mobility. It is also referenced in the naming of the mercurial temperament: quick, intelligent, unpredictably changeable in mood. That George implies this meaning of quick* is supported by the fact that the sister ship of Quicksilver is called Greyhound, which is a dog bred for its speed and (ab)used to race for people’s gambling entertainment (apart from being a mode of bus transport).

* In Dutch mercury is called ‘kwik’ which you pronounce exactly as the English word ‘quick’. And fast, flexible physique is referred to as ‘kwiek’ (an elongated pronunciation of the English ‘ui’ vowel).

The mercurial reference seems to sum up Dany’s temperament, especially in aCoK. There she had little patience, wanted to be gifted a fleet and army to retake the Iron Throne ASAP. There is nothing realistic about a young woman expecting such costly things from a city who have no ties or affinity with her, all to conquer a realm half a world away, just because her father was once a king there. And if she had rushed to Westeros as she intended initially, it would have likely cost her own life, for she had no accumen for court intrigue, no military experience and dragons only the size of dogs. In this way, George is “reflecting” Dany’s growth in an alchemistic way. Her growth follows the “way of mercury”.

George uses the same name Quicksilver in the background stories of the series one more time. The dragon of Aegon The Conquerer’s eldest son Aenys I was called Quicksilver. When Aenys died, his son Aegon the Uncrowned got to be the dragonrider of Quicksilver. Both died in the Battle Beneath the Gods Eye against his usurping uncle Maegor the Cruel on Balerion.

In 43 AC, his nephew, Prince Aegon, attempted to win back the throne that by law should have been his, in what came to be known as the great Battle Beneath the Gods Eye. Aegon died in that battle, leaving behind his wife and sister Rhaena, and their two twin daughters; his dragon, Quicksilver, was lost as well. (tWoIaF, The Targaryen Kings: Maegor I)

The Gods Eye is likened several times in smith and metal terms: as a sheet of beaten or hammered copper.

The sun was low in the west by the time they saw the lake, its waters glimmering red and gold, bright as a sheet of beaten copper. (The Mystery Knight)

The setting sun made the tranquil surface of the water shimmer like a sheet of beaten copper. It was the biggest lake she had ever seen, with no hint of a far shore. (aCoK, Arya IV)

Gods Eye was a sheet of sun-hammered blue that filled half the world. (aCoK, Arya V)

So, via Quicksilver’s death “beneath” the “copper sheet”, George links mercury to metal work.

For alchemists, the higher metals were not just the more “pure” (gold), but also those that required higher temperatures to melt and thus were more difficult for smiths to forge. The first alloy smiths could forge was bronze (copper with tin). In aGoT, Bronze is heavily featured amongst the Dothraki as medaillon belts, Drogo’s bronze mask of a face, the bronze horse statues at Vaes Dothrak.

Men and women alike wore painted leather vests over bare chests and horsehair leggings cinched by bronze medallion belts, and the warriors greased their long braids with fat from the rendering pits. […] Most of all, she was afraid of what would happen tonight under the stars, when her brother gave her up to the hulking giant who sat drinking beside her with a face as still and cruel as a bronze mask. (aGoT, Daenerys II)

The Horse Gate of Vaes Dothrak was made of two gigantic bronze stallions, rearing, their hooves meeting a hundred feet above the roadway to form a pointed arch. Dany could not have said why the city needed a gate when it had no walls … and no buildings that she could see. Yet there it stood, immense and beautiful, the great horses framing the distant purple mountain beyond. The bronze stallions threw long shadows across the waving grasses as Khal Drogo led the khalasar under their hooves and down the godsway, his bloodriders beside him. Dany followed on her silver, escorted by Ser Jorah Mormont and her brother Viserys, mounted once more.

Dany laid out the clothing she’d had made to her brother’s measure: a tunic and leggings of crisp white linen, leather sandals that laced up to the knee, a bronze medallion belt, a leather vest painted with fire-breathing dragons. The Dothraki would respect him more if he looked less a beggar, she hoped, and perhaps he would forgive her for shaming him that day in the grass. […] She reached out with her other hand and grabbed the first thing she touched, the belt she’d hoped to give him, a heavy chain of ornate bronze medallions. She swung it with all her strength. (aGoT, Daenerys IV)

Khal Drogo stood over her as she ate, his face as hard as a bronze shield. (aGoT, Daenerys V)

“This day I will go to the grass and hunt, woman wife,” he announced as he shrugged into a painted vest and buckled on a wide belt with heavy medallions of silver, gold, and bronze. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)

Mirri Maz Duur chanted words in a tongue that Dany did not know, and a knife appeared in her hand. Dany never saw where it came from. It looked old; hammered red bronze, leaf-shaped, its blade covered with ancient glyphs. (aGoT, Daenerys VIII)

As she adapts more to her husband’s culture, Dany starts to bronze. Notice how initially, Dany thinks of Drogo’s face as a bronze mask, but later as a bronze shield. She starts to appreciate the hard quality of the bronze as a material. Silver is beautiful, but less useful to be used in war as armor, shield or sword.But when MMD begins her magic to physically save Drogo from sepsis, the bronze is featured with unknown words and writing that Dany does not yet know. She maesters it intuitively when she burns Drogo, Rhaego and MMD to birth her dragons.

The bronze mastering “arc” continues in aCoK. In Vaes Tolorro, where Dany and her khalasar shelter from the Red Waste, children follow a trail of bronze coins. At Qarth she passes under a bronze arch. Both times the bronze is linked to snakes in the same sentence or image. Snakes can be a metaphor for dragons, but in this case it would mean an unfinished dragon, still growing. It is not until the House of the Undying that Dany is ready to move on to the next stage, for to linger in the bronze formation stage of the dragon can only mean the death of dragons.

Children wandered the twisty alleys and found old bronze coins and bits of purple glass and stone flagons with handles carved like snakes.(aCoK, Daenerys I)

All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber. She passed under a bronze arch fashioned in the likeness of two snakes mating, their scales delicate flakes of jade, obsidian, and lapis lazuli. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Finally a great pair of bronze doors appeared to her left, grander than the rest. They swung open as she neared, and she had to stop and look. Beyond loomed a cavernous stone hall, the largest she had ever seen. The skulls of dead dragons looked down from its walls. Upon a towering barbed throne sat an old man in rich robes, an old man with dark eyes and long silver-grey hair. “Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat,” he said to a man below him. “Let him be the king of ashes.” Drogon shrieked, his claws digging through silk and skin, but the king on his throne never heard, and Dany moved on.  (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

And by the end of aCoK, she is ready to be master (or maester) of bronze, and acquires herself a bronze capped army, the Unsullied, early on in aSoS.

After bronze comes brass (copper with zinc) in temperature. It is only introduced in the last chapter of aCoK, right after George dropped the quicksilver mention. And yes, it heralds a new growth and a new arc for Dany – that of conquering slaver’s bay, culminating in her reign over Meereen where her city guards, the Brazen beasts, wear brass masks.

Skahaz mo Kandaq had given her the new watch she had asked for, made up in equal numbers of freedmen and shavepate Meereenese. They walked the streets both day and night, in dark hoods and brazen masks. (aDwD, Daenerys II)

The Shavepate was accompanied by two of his Brazen Beasts. One wore a hawk mask, the other the likeness of a jackal. Only their eyes could be seen behind the brass. (aDwD, Daenerys V)

It is also in this arc that Daario appears: he wears brass medallions.

Ser Jorah Mormont returned an hour later, accompanied by three captains of the Stormcrows. They wore black feathers on their polished helms, and claimed to be all equal in honor and authority. Dany studied them as Irri and Jhiqui poured the wine. Prendahl na Ghezn was a thickset Ghiscari with a broad face and dark hair going grey; Sallor the Bald had a twisting scar across his pale Qartheen cheek; and Daario Naharis was flamboyant even for a Tyroshi. His beard was cut into three prongs and dyed blue, the same color as his eyes and the curly hair that fell to his collar. His pointed mustachios were painted gold. His clothes were all shades of yellow; a foam of Myrish lace the color of butter spilled from his collar and cuffs, his doublet was sewn with brass medallions in the shape of dandelions, and ornamental goldwork crawled up his high leather boots to his thighs. Gloves of soft yellow suede were tucked into a belt of gilded rings, and his fingernails were enameled blue. (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

If before Dany bronzed, she becomes brazen, as in bold as brass, in aSoS. And thus it becomes clear that the brass-phase is an intermediary one, a step towards the gold.

The masters of gold are the Lannisters, and Tyrion Lannister joining Dany’s faction heralds the start of the gold phase, while Young Griff – whom many of us expect to end up in opposing war with Dany – has the Golden Company for his loyal army. It is doubtful the alchemist growth ends with gold. On Planetos the most precious metal is not gold, but Valyrian steel. George has Donal Noye, the smith at the Night’s Watch, compare the Baratheon brothers to certain metal qualities as well.

The armorer considered that a moment. “Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.” (aCoK, Jon I)

But if Robert was the true steel, then there ought to be at least one character who is true Valyrian Steel. While in Dany’s arc we have this alchemistic ma(e)stering of metals reminiscint to maesters “forging” their chainlinks, in Jon’s we have a heavy allusion to him being “forged” and “reforged” as a sword over time. Jon does not need to “master” each metal like Dany. Jon has a clear allusion of being the Valyrian Steel being reforged as he lives behind the forge in the armory at Castle Black. He is a “sword in the darkness” since he made his vows to be a brother of the Night’s Watch. And he earned a Valyrian Steel sword towards the end of aGoT.

Meanwhile Young Griff is already gifted the gold rank, but may very well end up as dragonlord-bonecoal to forge a new Valyrian Steel sword, and thus we dare to propose that Aegon will literally end up as a physical Valyrian Steel sword. (Also see further discussion on this idea on “the secret to Valyrian Steel” on Westeros.org)

Shield and Spyglass

Okay, we’ve discussed at length about metal – quicksilver and brass – in Dany’s overall arc. With that out of the way, we will now focus on the mirror function specifically. From the moment Dany notices Belwas and Selmy in the brass platter used as a rearview mirror, the question that dominates the discussion between Jorah and her is whether they mean her harm or not.

For Jorah, [Dany] lowered her voice and spoke in the Common Tongue. “They may not mean me ill. Men have looked at women since time began, perhaps it is no more than that.” […] she studied the reflections. The old man had the look of Westeros about him, and the brown-skinned one must weigh twenty stone. The Usurper offered a lordship to the man who kills me, and these two are far from home. Or could they be creatures of the warlocks, meant to take me unawares? […] Only fools would stare so openly if they meant me harm. All the same, it might be prudent to head back toward Jhogo and Aggo. “The old man does not wear a sword,” she said to Jorah in the Common Tongue as she drew him away.
Ser Jorah said, “A hardwood staff can crack a skull as well as any mace.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Before long, Dany will learn both are allies. Selmy saves her life from the manticore that was handed to her by one of the Sorrowful Men hired by the warlocks, in revenge of her destroying the Undying.

A Qartheen stepped into her path. “Mother of Dragons, for you.” He knelt and thrust a jewel box into her face. […] Dany caught a glimpse of a malign black face, almost human, and an arched tail dripping venom . . . and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. Sudden pain twisted her fingers. […] Ser Jorah slammed past her, and Dany stumbled to one knee. She heard the hiss again. The old man drove the butt of his staff into the ground, […]
“Your Grace, a thousand pardons.” The old man knelt. “It’s dead. Did I break your hand?” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Though Selmy is not truthful about his identity at this point, he is a true ally. The same is true for the gruff Belwas. Jorah throws shade at both men in aSoS, planting seeds of doubts, but both men prove their loyalty time and time again. Much later, Strong Belwas ends up unwittingly saving Dany from the poisoned locusts by eating them all himself. Nor does Selmy try to make less of his initial disguise. Even when everybody else believes Dany to be dead after she flew off on Drogon, Selmy keeps believing and is reluctant to go against Dany’s prior wishes. When he does so, it is under the belief that Hizdahr attempted to poison Dany. While I see Selmy ending up dead because he trusts men like Shakaz, I think the chances are nill that either Selmy or Belwas will defect from Dany’s side to another. Meanwhile, the same scene featuring the mirror exposes Dany’s mortal enemies to be the warlocks of the Undying.

Bactericide Properties

It seems all we can conclude about quicksilver, brass and a platter used as a rearview mirror to spy on people has been covered. However, much of the scene preceding the assassination attempt lingers a great deal on the haggling of the brass merchant. It certainly serves comical entertainment for the reader, but it has a symbolical clue too.

“A most excellent brass, great lady,” the merchant exclaimed. “Bright as the sun! And for the Mother of Dragons, only thirty honors.”
The platter was worth no more than three. “Where are my guards?” Dany declared. “This man is trying to rob me!” […]
The brass-seller ignored their whispers. “Thirty? Did I say thirty? Such a fool I am. The price is twenty honors.”
“All the brass in this booth is not worth twenty honors,” Dany told him […]
“Ten, Khaleesi, because you are so lovely. Use it for a looking glass. Only brass this fine could capture such beauty.”
“It might serve to carry nightsoil. If you threw it away, I might pick it up, so long as I did not need to stoop. But pay for it?” Dany shoved the platter back into his hands. “Worms have crawled up your nose and eaten your wits.”
“Eight honors,” he cried. “My wives will beat me and call me fool, but I am a helpless child in your hands. Come, eight, that is less than it is worth.”
What do I need with dull brass when Xaro Xhoan Daxos feeds me off plates of gold?” […]
“Four! I know you want it!” He danced in front of them, scampering backward as he thrust the platter at their faces. […] “Two honors! Two! Two!” The merchant was panting heavily from the effort of running backward.
Pay him before he kills himself,” Dany told Ser Jorah, wondering what she was going to do with a huge brass platter. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

As a shield on the wrong head, the platter seemed to serve little at all once bought. And yet, the brass platter changes ownership right before the Sorrowful Man hands Dany the jewelry box with the manticore inside. Maybe there is more to this platter? Well, the interesting aspect about brass in particular is that it has bactericide properties. It kills bacteria within minutes to hours after contant (over 99% kill rate, including antibiotic resistant bacteria). If it is therefore used as coating on a surface, it prevents biofouling. The latter is a problem especially in the marine business: bacteria settle on a surface, followed by algae, barnacles, plants, worms, … Now that sounds an interesting tidbit and ironic in light of Dany haggling over the platter’s use to carry nightsoil, but it becomes a viable choice by George when we see how the brass merchant got embroiled in the manticore events.

[…] and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. Sudden pain twisted her fingers. As she cried out and clutched her hand, the brass merchant let out a shriek, a woman screamed, and suddenly the Qartheen were shouting and pushing each other aside. […] The brass merchant was still rolling on the ground. She went to him and helped him to his feet. “Were you stung?
No, good lady,” he said, shaking, “or else I would be dead. But it touched me, aieeee, when it fell from the box it landed on my arm.” He had soiled himself, she saw, and no wonder.(aCoK, Daenerys V)

Selmy knocked the jewelry box with the manticore out of Dany’s hands, not yet killing it. Only after the manticore lands on the brass merchant’s arm, Selmy manages to kill it by crushing it with his staff. It is quite peculiar that George has an insect killed after it touches a person who handles brass all day but does not sting it, and after Dany became the official owner of the platter. And obviously the merchant “fouled” himself in his fear for the manticore.

And so in light of that it becomes suspicious that much later, George has Dany’s Meereenese city guards wear brass masks in the shape of animals, almost as if the city guard is biofouling itself, lowering the brass’s ability to kill bacteria and insects. But we will leave our examination of the brass platter here. The Brazen Beasts will be discussed as we examine the camouflaging aspects of armor.

The Plutonian Others

(Top illustration: metaphorical reaper Others riding Ice Spiders, by Jon Howe, for 2020 aSoIaF Calendar)

For the first time in years I touch upon the Others, a subject I sidelined. But as I have been working on drafts for other essay, I keep bumping into them, and for those drafts to work, I cannot but expand on them, and thus write an article on them. Meanwhile, season 8 of the show was about to start, and this generated several discussions between myself, the Fattest Leech and Kissdbyfire on the nature of the Others, and ultimately the decision to write an analysis and formulate a proposal about them.

There are several sources that can shed a light on this, some more trustworthy than others, while some conflict with one another: the books (including peripheral ones set in Planetos), George’s own words in interviews and to illustrators who had to draw them, prior writing of George that falls outside the Planetos universe, and the show. For example Tom Patterson helped to illustrate the graphic novels of a Song of Ice and Fire. And he says that “[Martin] spoke a lot about what [the Others] were not, but what they were was harder to put into words.” And well, we have to do the same to start out with: clarify what they are not. And when we do that, it becomes instantly clear which source is the least reliable, but alas also the best well known one: the show Game of Thrones.

The show gave us men of icy substance, initially with a strange type of language of their own in S3 when they attack the Night’s Watch, but have remained mum ever since. The show also “revealed” in S4 that the White Walkers took human babies and when the Night King touched them with his finger at his “ice palace” they became ice-babies, who supposedly grow up into White Walkers or short WWs (the WeeWees). In S6 the show expands on this through a flashback that Bran sees while he’s being trained by the three-eyed-raven: the Night King was once a human himself, a man, tied to a weirwood tree, by Children of the Forest. They stuck a dragonstone into his heart to make him their minion to drive the First Men off as they threatened the peaceful existence of the Children and he became the icy Night’s King. So, basically, according to the show all the White Walkers, including the Night King, are humans tansformed into ice. Flesh-made-into-ice so to speak. But the portrayal of the White Walkers after George was not part of the writing team anymore is highly questionable. Many readers speculated along the lines of what the show ended up doing. But there are serious problems with this explanation, whether it is argued by readers or the main writers of the show, D&D. For all we know, D&D scoured the internet for fan theories to explain the “making of” and went with a theory that gained traction, thereby amplifying it, without there actually being a thorough re-examination of it.

So, we deconstruct the portrayal of the White Walkers as depicted on the show and point out differences. These have major implications both on the origin story of the Others, what they are, and what narrative role they serve in the books. We rely on book information we have, George’s own words about the Others as well as Benioff’s and Weiss’s. We examine their physical description, using text from the books, but also George’s words on them to illustrators. With that evidence we offer a speculation on this particular lifeform, using scientific knowledge insofar it is supported by text and fits symbolically and is supported by parallels.

This article is not written just by myself, but is a joint effort that came into being with the help of The Fattest Leech and Kissdbyfire. We are the “three-headed ice dragon”.

As this is a long essay, this index may help navigate to the different sections:

Night King or Night’s King

The first issue is that there is no Night King as leader for the Others in the books, nor was he the first White Walker. In the books the Night’s King (different title) was indeed a man, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to be specific. Old Nan and maester Yandel have this to say about the Night’s King.

The gathering gloom put Bran in mind of another of Old Nan’s stories, the tale of Night’s King. He had been the thirteenth man to lead the Night’s Watch, she said; a warrior who knew no fear. “And that was the fault in him,” she would add, “for all men must know fear.” A woman was his downfall; a woman glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. Fearing nothing, he chased her and caught her and loved her, though her skin was cold as ice, and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.
He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, and with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will. For thirteen years they had ruled, Night’s King and his corpse queen, till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden. (aSoS, Bran IV)

The oldest of these tales concern the legendary Night’s King, the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, who was alleged to have bedded a sorceress pale as a corpse and declared himself a king. For thirteen years the Night’s King and his “corpse queen” ruled together, before King of Winter, Brandon the Breaker, (in alliance, it is said, with the King-Beyond-the-Wall, Joramun) brought them down. Thereafter, he obliterated the Night’s King’s very name from memory. (tWoIaF – the Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch)

Clearly the Night’s King of the books cannot be the Night King of the show, nor could he be the beginning of the Others, as he existed when there was already a Wall and a Night’s Watch, a structure and a force specifically created before his existence to deal with the threat of the Others, after the Long Night. The Night’s King was not a White Walker, not an Other, let alone King of the Others, and he did not live during the Long Night. Think of him as a type of Craster as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch at the Nightfort.

George Martin himself has made it quite clear that the two should not be confused with one another.

As for the Night’s King (the form I prefer), in the books he is a legendary figure, akin to Lann the Clever and Brandon the Builder, and no more likely to have survived to the present day than they have. (So Spake Martin on Maegor III and the Night’s King)

You might argue, “Yes I know all that. That does not disprove there once might have been a man who ended up as the First White Walker and who makes all the other Weewees – an Adam-WeeWee.” Indeed, that alone does not disprove it. But then Benioff and Weiss have this to say about the Night King in a 2019 EW interview (thank you Lolligag for posting a link to this interview during a discussion at westeros.org).

EW asked GoT showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss what inspired them to add the character to their HBO hit series.

“It was almost logical as you went back in time, as you create the prehistory for all this,” Weiss said. “We’ve seen what the White Walkers do, we’ve seen how they perpetuate themselves and created the wights. If you’re going backwards, well, they made these things … so what made them? We always liked the implication that they weren’t some kind of cosmic evil that had been around since the beginning to time but that the White Walkers had a history — that something that seems legendary and mythological and permanent wasn’t. They had a historical cause that was comprehensible like the way the wars on screen we’re seeing unfold are comprehensible. They’re the result of people, or beings, with motivations we can understand.” […] “And once you go back into that flashback scene, that required a person there — and that was Vlad, who for a long time was our best stuntman,” Benioff added. (Game of Thrones runners explain why they created the Night King, EW, by James Hibber, March 26 2019)

Their statements heavily indicate they themselves decided to insert a person and character as leader and creator of the Weewees in order make him something with motives that viewers can easily recognize and relate to. Unfortunately it also turns the Weewees into soldiers of a Big Bad Villain that Doctor Who or Marvel heroes can neutralize and then it is game over (at least for the Night King and his army). While it seems to make the leader of the Weewees more complex on an individual basis, and can be quite entertaining, it simplifies the threat, one that has a loophole. The anticlimatic ending of the threat by the end of episode 3 of season 8 shows how problematic this choice truly was.

George’s Night’s King is that historical Big Villain. He allied with the Others and became quite formidable, but an alliance between the King-Beyond-the-Wall Joramun and the Stark King at the time managed to kill him. They did not succeed in ridding Westeros of the Others though. That threat survived to return in the current timeline of the books.

The show’s Night King is a major step away from Lovecraftian horror (a major inspiration for George). Lovecraft might have created a pantheon of big bads, but they were a cosmic ever-existing evil that has an alien disregard for human life (like insects are disinterested about us). Without a Night King, you get a natural threat that is insolvable, comparable to a virus or bacteria. Yes, we might find a vaccine or antibiotic for them, but we cannot completely eradicate it. There is always a risk for a flare that may become an epidemy, even if you take safety and hygiene precautions. And while vaccination nearly managed to push back polio and measles to small pockets of the world, anti-vaccine beliefs allowed such diseases to gain a foothold once more. These threats may not have complex emotional and cognitive motivations behind their actions, but are still incredibly scary, exactly because there is no easy solution.

So, when George RR Martin decided to write a world in which exists a threat to humanity, would he have gone with an Adam-Other who is the Big Bad or a Lovecraftian timeless cosmic hivelike threat that cannot truly be eradicated, when he already has human characters such as Euron who he can turn into a powerful villain? George’s implementation of a historical Night’s King being taken out as the Big Bad and the Others surviving heavily indicates that the Others are a Lovecraftian threat.

Skroth

Though it is not directly stated in the books that the Others are a separate species, there are indications to argue they are. One of those is the fact that they speak an unknown language that sounds like the cracking of ice and their laughter sounds as sharp as icicles.

The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking. […] Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles. (aGoT, Prologue)

This is unique from any known humanoid species in the books. For each species, George made sure that either their sound or their language coincide with their nature or way of life.

The Others also have their own language, one that Will does not know. We can conclude though that it is not the Old Tongue that free folk and giants speak. Will may not be able to speak the Old Tongue, but he has been a brother of the Night’s Watch for four years and is a veteran of one hundred ranges, often hunting wildling raiders. Will would recognize the Old Tongue if it was spoken.

Children of the Forest speak their own True Tongue (or Truth Tongue?). The language needs to be sung, as it sings a song of earth, which is why Bran starts to refer to them as Singers (of the Forest). Maester Yandel refers to the legend of Brandon the Builder learning the speech of the Singers, and that it sounds “like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water.” Bran too compares the song of the True Tongue as “pure as winter air“.

Speech and language is an easy tool to help an audience or reader to recognize whether humanoid characters are a different species than humans. Speech is dependent on the vocal cords and the physionomy of the soundbox used to manipulate harmony and pitch of the soundwave. Other species would have a different physionomy and therefore sound and talk quite differently in a manner that humans cannot. For example, Tad Williams features child-sized creatures called ghants in his series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (an epic fantasy series that inspired George). Even if you do not know what they look like, their strange buzzing click-language would alert you of them being an entirely different species.

Initially a language was indeed developed for the show’s pilot by David Peterson. It was called Skroth.

David Peterson, the language consultant who developed Dothraki and Valyrian for the show, also created a spoken language for White Walkers that the showrunners intended to include in the pilot. It’s called Skroth, and probably won’t end up being used even if White Walkers do one day speak. “It was actually going to be for the very first scene of the show where the White Walker comes and cuts that guy’s head off. There are parts where you hear them kind of grumble and vocalize; it was going to be for that,” Peterson explains to Zap2it at San Diego Comic-Con. “I think ultimately they decided they didn’t want them actually saying stuff and even subtitle it. That might have been a little corny, honestly, for the opening scene of the show.” Skroth sounded “pretty scratchy,” Peterson explains, because he used audio modification to “give it a particular sound.” (Screenertv, “‘Game of Thrones’ language creator explains why White Walkers don’t speak”, Terri Schwartz)

While they did not use the Skroth concept in the pilot, there was an attempt in the finale of season 2 to introduce Skroth for the White Walkers. When the army of the dead attacked the Fist and Sam hides behind a rock, one of the WWs makes a high scratchy sound to signal the army to shamble on. This was developed by Peter Brown according to Benioff in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

Peter Brown, our sound designer, is our hero because he finally came up with the ice-cracking chatter we had in our heads when we imagined the White Walkers speaking Skroth. (Entertainment Weekly, ‘Game of Thrones: How producers pulled of ‘Blackwater’, by James Hibberd, May 27 2012)

Since then, the WWs haven’t made a peep any more, despite them leading an army at Hardhome, into the cave of the Children, and so on. Instead, the wights have become the skratchy screechers, so much that it became a plot point in season 7 during the episode when Jon et all go hunt for a wight north of the Wall. Benioff’s recent explanation is that having the Night King speak would diminish him.

Benioff notes that another common question they get about the character is why doesn’t the Night King ever speak. “What’s he going to say?” Benioff asks. “Anything the Night King says diminishes him.” (EW, GOT showrunners explain why they created the Night King, by James Hibber, March 26 2019)

We argue it goes further than that. Giving the Night King and his icy Weewees a human origin, necessisates them being silent. Once the writers gave them a human origin and therefore basically the same soundbox and vocal cords, having them use Skroth would be confusing to the viewer. For example, in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, people begin to make non-human sounds and it immediately gives the viewer the impression they are possessed or mind controlled by an alien thing. And it might be alright for Star Wars to have all type of aliens speak English, but with the Weewees it would turn them into run-of-the-mill laughable villains.

But George did include a language and speech for them. And he may have a symbolic motivation for this beyond the physical. If you check out the essays of the chthonic cycle, you will find that being silent is one of George’s symbolic ways to indicate a character should be considered a dead man. For example Lady Stoneheart has her vocal chords cut, and at best can only whisper. Ned Stark’s ghoaler in the Black Cells reminds him to be silent. Hence, George’s wights do not speak, because they are dead-dead, despite being animated. Meanwhile talking Others makes them out to be actual living beings, rather than animated, though they are deadly for all other type of life.

All of this further confirms that D&D’s White Walkers are not George’s Others. D&D’s decisions to have White Walkers be silent fits the concept of human origin while preserving their menace. George’s Others speaking an entirely different language with inhuman sounds fits the concept of them being an entirely different species.

Inhuman Humanoids

Other_GoT_illustrated_prologue
A Game of Thrones: illustrated (Bantam Books)

Now, let us inspect the actual appearance of the Others. Like Giants and Children of the Forest, the Others have a humanoid morphology and walk erect. What sets them apart from giants and the Children is how they seem to resemble the height of humans, albeit a tall one.

Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. (aGoT, Prologue)

They are also gaunt and their “flesh” is hard like bone and white as milk. This is quite corpse-like, and yet they are not. While this appearance in the prologue of aGoT does not exclude a potential human origin yet, Samwell’s observation about the Other that he kills in aSoS makes clear that the humanoid form is inhuman, in the sense that the Other is indeed another species and of non-human origin.

On [the horse’s] back was a rider pale as ice. […] The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white. (aSoS, Samwell I)

An Other, by Marc SimonettiSam repeats their pale appearance, like ice and white milk. While Will calls them gaunt and tall, Sam instead refers to them as sword-thin. And when we combine both these descriptions, we do not picture humans anymore, but some elongated, thin humanoid figure, which is exactly what Marc Simonetti drew for his illustration of them in the World Book (left illustration).

George said to David Patterson, illustrator of aGoT, the Graphic Novel,

the Others “are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of lifeinhuman, elegant, dangerous.”

Some readers argue that inhuman has two meanings. We can read it to mean non-human or as cruel, callous and inhumane. But with George’s matching words of “a different sort of life” the devil is in the detail and one missing ‘e’. George uses the word inhuman thrice in the books and always to mean non-human: Harrenhal is of inhuman scale reminding Arya of Old Nan’s tales about giants, Sansa’s nightmare of being attacked has people wear monstrous inhuman masks, and Yandel’s World Book refers to the Children of the Forest as inhuman allies. No reader debates over the fact that giants and children of the forest are a different species, but many do about the Others.

To top this, George referenced them as being like the Sidhe, who in our own folklore tend to be pictured as tall, elongated, graceful, but dangerous non-humans going on their Wild Hunt: once again a different humanoid species. So, the Others are a type of Sidhe made of ice, or rather “something like that” (but not really ice). Certainly the description of how they move is George’s attempt to make the connection to Sidhe in the reader’s mind.

Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers. […] Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all? […] A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. […]  The Other slid forward on silent feet. […]  They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … […] Behind [Royce], to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. Yet they made no move to interfere. […] The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. (aGoT, Prologue)

The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. (aSoS, Samwell I)

George could have stopped there, with the Others as icy Sidhe, or Tad Williams’ Norns. But why would he? His dwarfs are real humans. His elves are cat-eyed Children of the Forest. His manticores are insects. His unicorns are goatlike. His dragons have two legs. And his Giants are bearlike. None of his species of legends are a copy of how they are depicted in real world folklore, Middle Earth or even Osten Ard. He gives each his own unique twist.

Plutonians

A startling fact that Samwell notices about the Other and that Coldhands tells Bran is that the Others do not leave an impression on the snow when walking.

Its armor rippled and shifted as it moved, and its feet did not break the crust of the new-fallen snow. (aSoS, Samwell I)

“The white walkers go lightly on the snow,” the ranger said. “You’ll find no prints to mark their passage.” (aDwD, Bran II)

Samwell’s Other moves gracefully and it is so light-weighted that it does not break the snow beneath its feet. Floating and hover may befit a Sidhe of folklore and other fantasy series, but George does try to create species to still adhere to laws of physics. In other words, gravity is still working on this Other and it has mass.

If you thought George does not care about the laws of physics, let me remind you that he described the Other’s sword-thin shape as well as its inability to leave an impression on the snow in the same paragraph. Their shape is important for byouancy reasons. Think of objects of different types of density you put in a bucket of water. Some sink, some sink only halfway, others float on top. Density is not the sole determinant though. Steel and iron ships can float on water because of their buoyant shape. Given that Will called them tall, and Sam thinks of them as sword-thin, their shape is more comparable to an icicle dropping onto snow.

Furhtermore, George has the mountain clan men who allied with Stannis to save the Ned’s girl wearing snow shoes.

Many of the wolves donned curious footwear. Bear-paws, they called them, queer elongated things made with bent wood and leather strips. Lashed onto the bottoms of their boots, the things somehow allowed them to walk on top of the snow without breaking through the crust and sinking down to their thighs. (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)

Where humans have to wear these bear-paws, the Others do not. The Others do not have a buoyant shape and should leave an imprint in the snow according to the laws of pressure. And yet they do not. So, what is going on here?

The first reflex is to simply wave our hands at this and think “It’s magic.” And most likely it is. Nevertheless, as a thought experiment we considered whether this might be a hint to physical attributes of the Others. If it went nowhere and had no symbolical value and no textual back-up, we would have dropped it. Instead we came across a workable idea that answers a great deal and puts several other non-Other events in a coherent context. For our thought experiment, we played around with the idea that it might be a hint by George that the Others have a density* that is lighter than or equal to the snow they walk on.

* Yes, we recognize that no matter what density the Others have, they still have mass and that gravity and the laws of pressure would still have them leave footprints. Just bear with us for the moment and we will return to this issue, later on.

Theoretically, the Others are made of a substance that has a lighter density than fresh snow. And if they consist of entirely different compounds or elemental substance, then they would have a solid state at other temperatures than lifeforms typically have. What matter can they be made of, if it is not actually ice?

Snow’s density is between 0.1-0.8 g/cm³ (depending on atmospheric pressure), while the density of fresh water as a fluid is 1 g/cm³. The two substances with the lightest density are hydrogen and helium respectively, and both are the most prevalent elements in the universe. Another element we will explore is nitrogen as well as the molecule carbon monoxide.

Helium Hydrogen Nitrogen Carbon Monoxide
Density 0.145 g/cm3 (at mp) 0.0763 g/cm3 (solid) 0.808 g/cm3 (liquid at bp) 0.789 g/cm3, liquid (liquid)
 (Melting point (mp)
0.95 °K (- 272.20 °C or -457.96 °F) 13.99 °K ​(−259.16 °C, ​−434.49 °F) 63.15 °K (-210 °C, -346 °F) 68.13 °K (−205.02 °C, −337.04 °)
Boiling point (bp)
4.222 °K (−268.928 °C , ​−452.070 °F) 20.271 °K ​(−252.879 °C, ​−423.182 °F) 77 °K (−195.795 °C, ​−320.431 °F) 81.6 °K (−191.5 °C, −312.7 °F)

Liquid helium has a density approximating the low end of snow’s scale. One of its possible advantages is that it cannot bind with any other element. It is colorless, tasteless, and inert. Helium is only a warming up exercise to our thought experiment; we do not actually think their body contains helium. When ionised, helium would emit an orange glow, which is unheard of in the tales and encounters with the Others. Instead the color we associate them with is the deep inhuman blue of their eyes.

Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. (aGoT, Prologue)

Helium’s name is derived from the ancient Greek name for the sun helios. And the Others shun the sun.

Samwell to Jon: “They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night … or else night falls when they emerge.” (aDwD, Jon II)

The old man [Tormund] glanced uneasily toward the trees in their white mantles. “They’re never far, you know. They won’t come out by day, not when that old sun’s shining, but don’t think that means they went away. Shadows never go away. Might be you don’t see them, but they’re always clinging to your heels.” (aDwD, Jon XII)

So, we can eliminate helium. Nevertheless, we can take away a potential idea out of it. Helium can only be a solid, less than 1° K off from the absolute zero point (-273.15 °C). It is called the absolute zero point, because it is the absolute minimal temperature in the universe – atoms stop moving and have zero kinetic energy, and once their kinetic energy is zero they cannot have any lower temperature. It is death of energy. So, symbolically this seems an idea that George might be after and why the Others “bring the cold” with them. If they are made of a substance that requires extreme low temperatures, in order for them to remain solid, it becomes reasonable (in a fantasy way) that they naturally lower the environmental temperature wherever they go following the laws of entropy. Their cold would cause low pressure pockets in the air, and thus snow cloud formation as well as mist (liquid formation of vapor). It explains why they can only ride dead animals, that end up covered in frost, or why Waymar Royce’s sword is covered with frost during his duel and why the cooled metal of the sword becomes brittle and ultimately breaks.

It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch.[…] The wind had stopped. It was very cold. […] They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence. (aGoT, Prologue)

[Waymar’s] blade was white with frost; […] “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy. When the blades touched, the steel shattered.A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. (aGoT, Prologue)

Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. […] He could hardly breathe. Had he gone to sleep? He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up. Snow was falling. […] Chett got to his feet. His legs were stiff, and the falling snowflakes turned the distant torches to vague orange glows. He felt as though he were being attacked by a cloud of pale cold bugs. They settled on his shoulders, on his head, they flew at his nose and his eyes. Cursing, he brushed them off. […] The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. (aSoS, Prologue)

A horse’s head emerged from the darkness. […] Hoarfrost covered it like a sheen of frozen sweat, and a nest of stiff black entrails dragged from its open belly. […] Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.” (aSoS, Samwell I)

Varamyr woke suddenly, violently, his whole body shaking. “Get up,” a voice was screaming, “get up, we have to go. There are hundreds of them.” The snow had covered him with a stiff white blanket. So cold. When he tried to move, he found that his hand was frozen to the ground. He left some skin behind when he tore it loose. “Get up,” she screamed again, “they’re coming.”  (aDwD, Prologue)

But the air was sharp and cold and full of fear. Even Summer was afraid. The fur on his neck was bristling. Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry. All the trees were bowed and twisted by the weight of ice they carried. Some hardly looked like trees at all. Buried from root to crown in frozen snow, they huddled on the hill like giants, monstrous and misshapen creatures hunched against the icy wind. “They are here.” The ranger drew his longsword. […] “Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?” (aDwD, Bran II)

“My tongue is too numb to tell. All I can taste is cold.”
“Cold?” Val laughed lightly. “No. When it is cold it will hurt to breathe. When the Others come …” (aDwD, Jon VIII)

If even a cold dead ranger like Coldhands can sense a drop in temperature, the Others do bring an extreme cold with him. Val too says the cold of the Others is lower even than winter’s tongue numbing cold – it will hurt to breathe, as Chett experiences at the Fist right before the attack in the prologue of aSoS.

Hydrogen comes close to the same principle of nearing the absolute zero point. Like helium it is colorless and tasteless but when ionised in an electrical field it could have the blueness of the ‘blood’ that Sam recognizes. Now, hydrogen is highly combustible and flammable when it comes into contact with air. But it requires a spark, heat or sunlight to explode. Spontaneous ignition requires 500° C (932° F). So, if the Others’ blood at least contains fluid hydrogen, then it is to be expected that they shun sunlight. This combustability of hydrogen however means that the material their swords and armor is made of is not pure hydrogen: Grenn’s torch does nothing except make a screeching sound.

Get away!” Grenn took a step, thrusting the torch out before him. “Away, or you burn.” He poked at it with the flames.
The Other’s sword gleamed with a faint blue glow. It moved toward Grenn, lightning quick, slashing. When the ice blue blade brushed the flames, a screech stabbed Sam’s ears sharp as a needle. The head of the torch tumbled sideways to vanish beneath a deep drift of snow, the fire snuffed out at once. And all Grenn held was a short wooden stick. He flung it at the Other, cursing, as Small Paul charged in with his axe. (aSoS, Samwell I)

Now, we’re getting “warmer”.(pun intended)

Another element you might think of is nitrogen. Nitrogen’s melting and boiling point is not as low as that of hydrogen and helium, but serves as deadly temperatures. It is slightly denser than hydrogen and helium, but still works for snow. As a gas or liquid it is colorless, and looks like plain water, but anyone who has ever been treated with nitrogen knows that it seems to evaporate in clear white fumes, as Sam describes the Other’s flesh does.

Nitrogen is a basic element in all life on the planet: amino acids (and thus proteins), DNA and RNA contain nitrogen. It is also part of the energy transfer processes within living beings. So, you would expect a lifeform to consist of nitrogen. In its pure form it binds with another nitrogen in a triple bond. After carbonmonoxide this is the strongest molecule bond and the reason why most of the nitrogen on and around earth is encountered in this form. As N2 it is deadly – inhaling it leads to asphyxiation. Hence scientist named it after the Greek word that means “to choke“. In my native language, Dutch, it is called stikstof (translated choke-matter). This should ring a bell as this is one of the two main and common ways the minions of the Others, the wights, attack a target: via strangulation. This standard wight MO of killing is also discussed in Craster’s Black Blooded Curse.

Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw. […] Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold. (aGoT, Prologue)

When [Jon] opened his mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers into Jon’s mouth. Gagging, he tried to shove it off, but the dead man was too heavy. Its hand forced itself farther down his throat, icy cold, choking him. (aGoT, Jon VII)

[…] the wight’s black hands locked beneath his chins. Paul’s fingers were so cold they seemed to burn. They burrowed deep into the soft flesh of Sam’s throat. Run, Gilly, run, he wanted to scream, but when he opened his mouth only a choking sound emerged. (aSoS, Samwell III)

Since wights are the soldiers and weapons of the Others, it seems symbolically sound to have their MO match the ‘nature’ of the Others. Furthermore, not long after the element was discovered by Rutherford, Lavoisier suggested azote as an alternative name to nitrogen. This is another Greek based name that means “no life”.

98% of Pluto‘s surface is solid nitrogen ice. This dwarf planet of our solar system was named after the Greek god of the underworld and the dead, Pluto (an alternative name for Hades). Bingo!

The name choice for this planet could not be more apt with its atmosphere and surface consisting basically of matter that kill Earth life. The same Pluto also contains traces of solid carbon monoxide and methane on its surface and atmosphere. If the Others are a lifeform built from the same solid frozen molecular matter on Pluto, then they basically are Plutonians, or natural born killers. (also see The Fattest Leech’s quotes about Lovecraft’s Deep Ones losing the battle against some Plutonian half-crustaceans conquering the North)

A lifeform cannot be ‘fleshy’ without containing carbon, but those are not necessarily the same organic bonds as our own earth life has. After molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxoide is the second-most common molecule in space, and solid carbon monoxide is a component of comets. Haley’s comet for example consists 15% out of solid carbon monoxide. This is interesting when we consider that many readers have increasingly speculated that there was at least one impact event of either a meteorite or a comet in the history of Planetos. Yes, this is mostly linked with the coming of the dragons around the time of the Breaking of the arm of Dorne, and that they may have come into being as a result of exogenesis, but surely this might also be the source of the lifeform we know as Others at a prior impact even.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a killer gas. Without the ancient Greeks knowing the actual mechanism of death, they used to execute people by shutting them in bathing rooms with smoldering coals. Nazis used it on a large scale during the Holocaust at some extermination camps. It kills life that relies on hemoglobin to transport oxygen via the bloodstream to the various organs, because carbon monoxide is able to bind with hemoglobin as well. In fact, the affinity of hemoglobin to carbon monoxide is 230 times larger than that of oxygen. So, given the chance, the hemoglobin will prefer to bind with carbon monoxide over oxygen. Except, once bound as carboxyhemoglobin the blood cannot release the oxygen to tissue anymore and causes tissue damage. Carbon monoxide poisoning is deadly. And since it is an odorless, colorless gass people are rarely aware they are breathing a deadly gas, instead of air.

The first symptoms of such a poisoning can easily be mistaken with the flue – headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. In other words you would feel sick at your bowels. Hmmm, the second area that wights target when they attack are the bowels.

The other wight, the one-handed thing that had once been a ranger named Jafer Flowers, had also been destroyed, cut near to pieces by a dozen swords … but not before it had slain Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men. Ser Jaremy had finished the job of hacking its head off, yet had died all the same when the headless corpse pulled his own dagger from its sheath and buried it in his bowels. (aGoT, Jon VIII)

Something grabbed hold of him. That was when his shout became a scream. Bran filled a fist with snow and threw it, but the wight did not so much as blink. A black hand fumbled at his face, another at his belly. Its fingers felt like iron. He’s going to pull my guts out. (aDwD, Bran II)

Another symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is how it turns the blood a cherry red: hemoglobin acquires a bright red color when converted into carboxyhemoglobin. This is not so easily visible with a living person suffering from this type of poisoning, but someone who died of carbon monoxide poisoning will look lifelike becacuse of this. Whereas normally an unenbalmed dead person looks bluish and pale. The food industry thus uses carbon monoxide to give meat a healthy looking red color. Now in aGoT’s prologue Will notes a particular bright red color when Waymar is first injured, as red as fire. Blood is not that bright usually, not even the normally oxygenated blood of a vein.

Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red. (aGoT, Prologue)

At the very least, we should investigate whether the sword may be actually crafted from frozen carbon monoxide and methane. In an interview by Robert Shaw after the publication of a Storm of Swords, George says the following about the swords of the Others.

Shaw: Do you know what substance an Other sword is made from.
Martin: Ice. But not like regular old ice. The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine and make substances of it.

He at least confirmed that it is not like regular ice, but some other kind of substance. If it was made of carbonmonoxide though that would explain its ghostly blue glow or shimmer, its crystalline appearance, yet still reminding us of ice.

In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor. […] the Other’s [sword] danced with pale blue light. (aGoT, Prologue)

The Other’s sword gleamed with a faint blue glow. […] It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. The weight of him tore the strange pale sword from the Other’s grip. (aSoS, Samwell I)

Both methane and carbonmonoxide form a crystalline structure when solid. And methane even has an interesting intermediate solid state called a plastic crystal before being frozen into a solid crystal. As a plastic crystal it would be malleable and thus be shaped at will.

Blue_hazes_over_backlit_Pluto
Departure shot of Pluto by New Horizons, showing Pluto’s atmosphere backlit by the Sun. The blue color is close to what a human eye would have seen, and is caused by layers of haze in the atmosphere. (NASA)

Now the top illustration of this essay is a picture of Pluto backlit by the sun by New Horizons of NASA taken in 2016, so you can see its atmosphere clearly, which has a ghostly pale blueish appearance, exactly as the swords have been described by George. He could not have known from imagery that Pluto’s atmosphere would have looked like this during the writing of any of the books, but he could have guessed it correctly. When carbonmonoxide is in the presence of oxygen (including atmospheric concentrations) it burns with a blue flame. The actual science behind Pluto’s blue atmospheric haze is not due to carbonmonoxide burning, but scattering of light as it hits particles of near 10 nm in its asmophere consisting of majorly nitrogen, methane and carbonmonoxide. But in 1993 scientists already knew the composition of Pluto’s surface. Since nitrogen would only be seen as white fumes when evaporating that would have left George to speculate that carbonmonoxide would be the sole color potential. Hence we have a blue-flaming sword that causes people to bleed bright red.

For an interesting read on what life possibilities there are on cold or hot planets, FictionIsntReal provided this link of Isaac Asimov’s speculations. Certainly in several of his sci-fi stories George has shown to have some basic idea about the biochemical make-up of potential lifeforms in extremely different circumstances than our own. For instance, in Nighflyers of 1980 we have this scene.

“Jupiter,” the xenotech announced loudly, “is a gas giant in the same solar system as Old Earth. Didn’t know that, did you?” […] “Listen, I’m talking to you. They were on the verge of exploring this Jupiter when the stardrive was discovered, oh, way back. After that, course, no one bothered with gas giants. Just slip into drive and find the habitable worlds, settle them, ignore the comets and the rocks and the gas giants—there’s another star just a few light years away, and it has more habitable planets. But there were people who thought those Jupiters might have life, you know. Do you see?” […]
Christopheris looked annoyed. “If there is intelligent life on the gas giants, it shows no interest in leaving them,” he snapped. “All of the sentient species we have met up to now have originated on worlds similar to Earth, and most of them are oxygen breathers. Unless you’re suggesting that the volcryn are from a gas giant?”
The xenotech pushed herself up to a sitting position and smiled conspiratorially. “Not the volcryn,” she said. “Royd Eris. Crack that forward bulkhead in the lounge, and watch the methane and ammonia come smoking out.” Her hand made a sensuous waving motion through the air, and she convulsed with giddy laughter. (Nightflyers)

And in The Plague Star of Tuf Voyaging, George includes a silicone rock-like spider.

There was a black blob of some sort, floating in the air ahead of him. […] The dark blob was small and round, barely the size of a man’s fist. Nevis kept about a meter’s distance from it, and studied it. Another creature – as damned ugly as the one that had dined on Jefru Lion too, but weirder. It was brown and lumpy, and its hide looked like it was made of rocks. It looked almost like it was a rock, in fact; Nevis only knew it was alive because it had a mouth – a wet black hole in the rocky skin. Inside, the mouth was all moist and green and moving, and he could make out teeth, or what looked like teeth, except they looked metallic. He thought he saw a triple set of them, half-concealed by rubbery green flesh that pulsed slowly, steadily.
The weirdest thing was how incredibly still it was. At first, Nevis thought it was hovering in the air somehow. But then he came a little closer and saw that he’d been wrong. It was suspended in the center of an incredibly fine web, the strands so very thin they were all but invisible. In fact, the ends of them were invisible. Nevis could make out the thickest parts near the nexus where the creature sat pulsing, but the webbing seemed to get thinner and thinner as it spread, and you couldn’t see where it attached to wall or floor or ceiling at all, no matter how hard you looked.
A spider, then. A weird one. The rocky appearance made him think it was some kind of silicon-based life. He’d heard of that, here and there. It was real god-damned rare. So he had some kind of silicon-spider here. Big deal. (Tuf Voyaging, The Plague Star, 1985)

George never goes into a scientific essay on these other-type-of-lifeforms even in his sci-fi. He is not a biochemist like Asimov, nor a physicist, and he will not write a story-debate about the boiling temperature of water in vacuum as Asimov. But he does know his Asimov. And in a fantasy series he does not even have to elaborate on the biochemistry of a species, since that world does not even have characters that are biochemists. However, that does not mean that George has no preconceived concept of what the Others are chemically. Unlike our sciency-like thought experiment, George does not have to reverse-engineer it. He is the gardener god who decides and sprinkle hints without us having a clue. You may think, “Yeah, that’s all well and good, but that’s sci-fi and this is fantasy!” Except George fudges the genre lines, mixes genres, and (re)uses his prior material, including ideas from sci-fi short stories often. Nor does he care about “definitions” of what is proper fantasy and proper sci-fi. Here is a summary of George’s own introduction words on the matter in Dreamsongs Part 2. We will pick out the most important quotes in answer to the “But it’s fantasy!” argument.

Motor cars or horses, tricorns or togas, ray-guns or six-shooters, none of it matters, so long as the people remain. Sometimes we get so busy drawing boundaries and making labels that we lose track of that truth. Casablanca put it most succinctly. ‘It’s till the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.’ […] We can make up all the definitions of science fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture. […] The Furniture Rule, I call it. Forget the definitions. Furniture Rules. (George RR Martin, introduction of the “heart in conflict” section of part 2 of Dreamsongs)

The point is that horror, sci-fi ideas and the fantastical have all fused in George’s minds, and to him it’s all ‘weird stuff’. He has read and written all of these stories with their typical appropriate furniture. But they eventually all fuse in some way. His space stories involve horror. His fantasy is grounded and riddled with suggestion of interbreeding and alien stuff and maesters studying the high iron content of dragon bones. But the horror as part of the story is always present, as fear is one damn good human emotion.

Which brings us close to the next section of this essay. Something may have jumped out at you in that description of the silicone-spider: it appeared to hover. It did not actually hover, but it only appeared to do so. It hovered, because the web is actually physically attached to the silicone spider and its threads get so nano-thin that the ends of the web are invisible to the naked eye. The seed ship that cloned this silicone lifeform from its database as a biological defense mechanism against unwanted intruders names it a ‘walking web’. (Hey a WW!) It does walk, and when it does, the invisible ends of the web leave tiny holes in the metal walls of the hallways of the ship. And this provides alternative ways than ‘It’s magic!’ on why the Others do not leave visible footsteps in the fresh snow. Maybe they have invisible webbing beneath their feet that work like bear-paws. Maybe they can alter their solid status into that of a plasma or even gas when they approach. We do not know.

Another glaring notion is the fact that these walking webs are spiders, and the Others are legendary linked to a spider species – Ice Spiders.

 

Ice Spiders

Not all lifeforms are dependant on hemoglobin. For example photosinthezising plants, such as trees, are not affected by carbon monoxide. And certain animal families rely on hemocyanin instead to bind oxygen. These are molluscs (snails), crustaceans and arthropods. Hemoglobin is more efficient than hemocyanin in normal conditions for oxygen transportation with blood, which is why every vertebrate uses this type of bloodcell. But in cold environments with low oxygen pressure, the hemocyanin method is the most efficient. One of the crucial differences between hemoglobin and hemocyanin is the metal atom the proteins are bound with. Hemoglobin is bound with iron and locked in a bloodcell, giving the cell its characteristic red color. Hemocyanin proteins are bound with two copper atoms, however, and flow freely in the ‘blood’ unbound to a cell. The copper makes the hemocyanin molecule in the hemolymph fluid look blue! Creatures that thus rely on hemocyanin are “blue blooded“, though the fluid is not considered to be true blood.

hemocyanin
(left) the hemocyanin molecule; (right) horseshoe crab “blood”

This explains why the protein is called cyanin. It derives of the word cyan, which is a blue-green hue and the word means aqua or water in Ancient Greek. This blue color is exactly what Samwell notices to be the color of the Other’s blood when he kills him. (painkillerjane69 pointed this out two years ago in a comment of the Varys essay, the Silk Route; @ixchelayida on twitter.. Thank you.)

And then [Sam] was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.
When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.
Sam rolled onto his side, eyes wide as the Other shrank and puddled, dissolving away. In twenty heartbeats its flesh was gone, swirling away in a fine white mist. Beneath were bones like milkglass, pale and shiny, and they were melting too. Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.”
“Obsidian.” Sam struggled to his knees. “Dragonglass, they call it. Dragonglass. Dragon glass.” He giggled, and cried, and doubled over to heave his courage out onto the snow. (aSoS, Samwell I)

Notice how its milk-white flesh and bones melt and evaporate into a fine white mist. This effect suggests that our guess about nitrogen may be right. What the dragonglass basically seemed to do here is break the magic that enables the Others to maintain their ultracold temperature to keep gases such as those of Pluto in a solid state. However, once they are incapable of doing that, the environmental temperature would quickly liquidify and boil the substances, so that they react with one another and the environment to form water.

And having this or a similar type of blue blood might actually be the reason why they hate iron.

Old Nan nodded. “In that darkness, the Others came for the first time,” she said as her needles went click click click. “They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins.” (aGoT, Bran IV)

Yes, the fact that George compared them to Sithe, and the Sithe usually hate iron in folklore, might be enough reason. And yet, Waymar’s steel (containing iron) was futile against the Other he fought. The Other was wary at first, but over time seemed persuaded that Royce’s blade could not harm him. Notice how in Old Nan’s quote this purported hatred of iron is in the same line as hating hot blood of people who can endure the sun and the warmth of fire. It is weird that Old Nan asserts the Others hate iron, when the metal that the First Men wielded before the coming of the Andals and thus during the Long Night was bronze. The sole iron that the First Men could have wielded were weapons crafted from an iron-nickel-meteor. It is unlikely that there were many of those going around. So, either Old Nan does not know what she is talking about (and that is unlikely – though she’s wrong about giants), or she is right. And if she is right, then the sole iron that the Others could hate is the iron in the hemoglobin of red hot blood.  And as beings relying on hemocyanin (or something akin to it), their preferred habitat would be cold, darkness and around copper.

Now, you might argue that plain iced water or hydrogen may serve for the blood of the Others, but there is some serious issue with both of them. Water cannot remain a fluid under the extremely cold body temperatures that the Others evidently must maintain. Once you straightforwardly introduce oxygen to liquified hydrogen you either end up having water that will freeze or a potential combustion of the hydrogen if it is gaseous. And to force the hydrogen to release the oxygen to tissue you require electrolysis. Therefore, hydrogen cannot be used directly to bind with oxygen. Something else, inside the liquid stream of hydrogen needs to bind with oxygen – the hemocyanin.

The biggest hint that George gives us to consider this type of blood system are the ice spiders, for most spiders use this oxygen transport method, of which the tarantula is a typical example mentioned for this.

“One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—” (aGoT, Bran IV)

Yet there are other tales—harder to credit and yet more central to the old histories—about creatures known as the Others. According to these tales, they came from the frozen Land of Always Winter, bringing the cold and darkness with them as they sought to extinguish all light and warmth. The tales go on to say they rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Long Night)

Spiders and other exoskeletal species can use hemocyanin, because their respitory system does not need to rely on hemoglobin to exchange oxygen for carbondioxide as vertebrates do. Insects and arachnids exchange oxygen for carbondioxide in the separate trachea system of the book lungs. All their “blood” needs to do is spread the oxygen to tissue. Since hemocyanin is reluctant to bind with oxygen, it therefore will easily release it, even if bound as carbonmonoxide.

And since both spider and Others have hemolymph for blood, George mentioned the ice spiders as a direct parallel to the operational body functions of the Others in aGoT. George reinforces this link of the Others and Ice Spiders through both Lord Varys, the Qartheen and the Undying. In what follows we discuss some of George’s spiders and some of the most relevant summarized anologies.

Varys the Spider

Silk-wearing Varys was explored in detail in the essays for both the mythological spider introduction and the silk route. However, there the focus lay heavily on leukism. Here we will focus on the physical aspects of spiders that are far more relevant for the Others’ nature. There is his glaring story on how he he became a eunuch in Myr.

“I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

Here, George linked Varys the Spider to a blue flame and a language he did not understand. Many readers have speculated whether this blue flame and voice may be related to the Others. We do not know. But at the very least George set up a parallel here between spiders and the substance that causes flames to turn blue – carbonmonoxide – and some force or being that speaks a strange language.

Twice George has Varys squeal and moan about the sight of his own blood, when he cuts himself to a Valyrian dagger – or should we say dragonsteel, the potential steel that could harm an Other? – and when Jaime nicks his throat (Samwell stuck the dragonstone dagger into the Other’s throat). Despite being metaphorically blue-blooded, Varys is still human and thus his blood is red, containing hemoglobin with iron. One could say that Varys hates the sight of iron.

Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

“Yes . . . well . . . if you would . . . remove the blade . . . yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, I’m pricked . . .” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.” (aFfC, Jaime I)

In the Silk Route essay about Varys it was argued how Kevan’s observations prove that Varys is truly pale-faced beneath his usual powder, for Kevan’s assumption that Varys is wearing powder on his hands in the epilogue is wrong. As smart as Varys is, he would not touch the crossbow he uses to make Cersei suspect the Tyrells or Tyrion of the murder on Kevan Lannister with powdered hands. It would leave traceable evidence to him on the crossbow. And this paleness of course is yet another thing that Varys has in common with the Others. Further indications lead us to believe that Varys prefers to shun the sun of a potential condition called leukism.

Another possible hint towards a parallel for Varys with the Others is how he tends to wear lavender as both color and perfume. Varys is the sole character associated with lavender in particular actually. Historically, people believed lavender warded against the black plague, and thus this flower became heavily associated to gravesites (corpses and the dead). Ned Stark alludes to this association for Varys when he thinks Varys smells as foul and sweet as flowers on a grave.

The purple dyes he wears are begotten through sea snails, either from Braavos or Tyrosh. Tyrion compares him to a cold and slimy slug. Snails also use hemocyanin to transport oxygen instead of hemoglobin, exactly like spiders.

Varys is often featured in poison plots, which seems to fit as some spiders inject venom to paralize their prey. In the conversation that Arya happens to spy upon between Varys and Illyrio in aGoT, the latter suggests Varys could get rid of Ned Stark the Hand as he has dealt with another Hand before. Certainly upon first read of the books, most readers suspect Illyrio believes that Varys killed Jon Arryn. Pycelle suggests to Ned Stark that it may have been Varys who possibly poisoned Jon Arynn.

“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.”
Pycelle stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It is said. Women, cravens … and eunuchs.” He cleared his throat and spat a thick glob of phlegm onto the rushes. Above them, a raven cawed loudly in the rookery. “The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know? Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.” (aGoT, Eddard V)

Of course, we learn in aSoS, that Lysa Arryn poisoned Jon Arryn at Littlefinger’s suggestion to then accuse the Lannisters of the crime in a secret letter to Ned and Catelyn. Pycelle points the finger at Varys, not because he actually suspects Varys, but hopes to steer any suspicion away from Cersei Lannister. The sole actual poison plot that Varys had a role in during the series is his proposal to use the Tears of Lys for Dany.

“By now, the princess nears Vaes Dothrak, where it is death to draw a blade. […]” He stroked a powdered cheek. “Now, poison … the tears of Lys, let us say. Khal Drogo need never know it was not a natural death.” (aGoT, Eddard VIII)

But even in that plot, which he has executed, he also has Illlyrio send the remedy – a letter to Jorah Mormont to warn him of the intended assassination. It seems unspider-like for Varys, to never actually use poison, except in George’s short story of 1974 This Tower of Ashes the male of the spider species in that story has no venom, only a deadly bite.

Lady Lysa Arryn

In the series of aSoIaF, it are the female ice spiders who do the poisoning. With the Jon Arryn plot that was Lysa, who ended up a jumping ice spider widow (though she did not jump voluntarily).

[Catelyn’s] sister was two years the younger, yet she looked older now. Shorter than Catelyn, Lysa had grown thick of body, pale and puffy of face. She had the blue eyes of the Tullys, but hers were pale and watery, never still. (aGoT, Catelyn VI)

Lysa, freshly scrubbed and garbed in cream velvet with a rope of sapphires and moonstones around her milk-white neck, was holding court on the terrace overlooking the scene of the combat, surrounded by her knights, retainers, and lords high and low. Most of them still hoped to wed her, bed her, and rule the Vale of Arryn by her side. From what Catelyn had seen during her stay at the Eyrie, it was a vain hope. (aGoT, Catelyn VII)

Lysa changed since Catelyn last saw her sister. She has grown pale, bloated and her eyes are now a pale watery blue. Her graceful figure has become a bloated belly, reminding us of Shelob. She wears cream (white) or blue velvets, reminding us of the larger types of spiders with velvet furry hair. She wears jewelry that remind us of the sapphire blue eyes of the Others or linked to milk-white and icy moons, amidst blue veined marble and blue silk.

The High Hall of the Arryns was long and austere, with a forbidding coldness to its walls of blue-veined white marble, but the faces around him had been colder by far. (aGoT, Tyrion V)

Sansa walked down the blue silk carpet between rows of fluted pillars slim as lances. The floors and walls of the High Hall were made of milk-white marble veined with blue. Shafts of pale daylight slanted down through narrow arched windows along the eastern wall. Between the windows were torches, mounted in high iron sconces, but none of them was lit. Her footsteps fell softly on the carpet. Outside the wind blew cold and lonely. Amidst so much white marble even the sunlight looked chilly, somehow . . . though not half so chilly as her aunt. Lady Lysa had dressed in a gown of cream-colored velvet and a necklace of sapphires and moon-stones. (aSoS, Sansa VII)

And Sansa notices that despite the sweet perfume scents that Lysa wears, beneath it is a sour milk smell.

Should we remind you of the Tully colours, red and blue? Where initially, Lysa lived south, red and hot blooded, she became icy pale blue blooded and is only featured as such in the Eyrie. On the other hand, Catelyn lived in the icy North for over a decade, growing more like Northerners than she even suspected, but ends up as the fiery Fire wight Lady Stoneheart.

The Milk-Men of Qarth

The same Silk Route essay investigated Qarth and uncovered parallels between Xaro, Qarth, the Qaathi and Varys, and ultimately the tall white spiders and the Others. The Qaathi and descendant Qartheen are tall and pale. The Dothraki refer to them as milk men. The men wear beaded silk skirts, which remind of spider silk glands. While the city has plazas and seems airy, it is mostly reminiscint of an Italian city where the citizens can shun the sun, and children wear colorful sunblock covering their skin.

The Qartheen are descendants of the prior Qaathi kingdom, with Qarth the sole remaining remnant. Dany visits and rests at one of the former Qaathi cities Vaes Tolorro, which means ‘City of Bones in the Red Waste. It is chalk white and compared to be as pale as the moon. It also is a maze of narrow alleys and the houses are windowless, indicating the Qaathi shunned the sun. Another Qaathi city that Dany did not visit was once called Qolahn. The Dothraki renamed it Vaes Qosar or ‘City of Spiders‘.

Where Ned Stark believed Varys to wear perfume to mask a foul smell, Jorah Mormont expresses a similar sentiment for the entire city of Qarth.

“I would not linger here long, my queen. I mislike the very smell of this place.”
Dany smiled. “Perhaps it’s the camels you’re smelling. The Qartheen themselves seem sweet enough to my nose.”
Sweet smells are sometimes used to cover foul ones.” (aCoK, Danaerys III)

And pretty much every faction of Qarth is implicated to using poison. We get the mention that the Pureborn are famed for offering poisoned wine in a scene where Rhaegal mislikes the wine that Xaro offers Dany while riding a palanquin. The pomegranate taste and the fact that Dany does not get ill from it show that the wine is only poisoned in a metaphorical sense – the topic of discussion is Xaro’s offer of marriage where he hopes to get a dragon out of it.

He also gave her a wing of his palace with several scrying elements (such as pool and tower), with only one being related to spiders – a warlock’s maze. The palace of the Undying is a warlock’s maze. A spider’s web can be called a maze. And at the heart of a maze waits the spider to catch its prey.

web_maze

In this city of splendors, Dany had expected the House of the Undying Ones to be the most splendid of all, but she emerged from her palanquin to behold a grey and ancient ruin. Long and low, without towers or windows, it coiled like a stone serpent through a grove of black-barked trees whose inky blue leaves made the stuff of the sorcerous drink the Qartheen called shade of the evening. No other buildings stood near. Black tiles covered the palace roof, many fallen or broken; the mortar between the stones was dry and crumbling. She understood now why Xaro Xhoan Daxos called it the Palace of Dust. Even Drogon seemed disquieted by the sight of it. The black dragon hissed, smoke seeping out between his sharp teeth.

It is important here to note that there are NO towers here, nor windows. Towers are basically the stone equivalent to trees. However, the maze is built in a grove, like spiders use branches to weave a web, but the maze itself is not part of the trees. Nevertheless, the dream poison that the warlocks use is made of trees with inky blue leaves and black bark. The blue (!) drink is called the Shade of the Evening. Since Others are also called shadows and only operate when the sun is gone, you could call the Others “Shades of the Evening”.

The trees remind many a reader of the weirwoods, and thus many readers suspect the Qartheen trees may be some corrupted version. We will not go that far. We will point out that the color of the leaves fit a certain blood color. Blue for spider types and red for the CotF and any other mammal. Weirwoods have red leaves and bleed red treesap, representing red blood and the red fire of iron. So, these trees are each other’s opposites, as much as spiderblood and fireblood are.

Golden blood

Since we mention tree leaves being the color of blood, you may wonder “Well, what about trees with golden leaves?” (Ser Jaemes, Knight of the Broken Hearted asked)

For half a moon, they rode through the Forest of Qohor, where the leaves made a golden canopy high above them, and the trunks of the trees were as wide as city gates. There were great elk in that wood, and spotted tigers, and lemurs with silver fur and huge purple eyes, but all fled before the approach of the khalasar and Dany got no glimpse of them.  (aGoT, Danaerys III)

Notice that it is in this forest that  the Little Valyrians live – lemurs with silver fur and purple eyes. And in Dany’s very first chapter, we learn that both Viserys and her consider their blood to be golden blood.

The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, the blood of the dragon. Dragons did not mate with the beasts of the field, and Targaryens did not mingle their blood with that of lesser men. (aGoT, Danaerys I)

More, there is a bloodtype amongst real world humans that goes by the name of “golden blood” too. You probably know the following human blood types for transfusion: A, B, AB or O. These are the labels of the antigen protein on the outside of the red bloodcell (hemoglobin) that identify the type to our guardian white bloodcells. For example, if you have bloodtype A and you get a transfusion of bloodtype B, those white bloodcells will attack the B bloodtype. AB blood has both antigens, and O-blood has neither. On top of that, bloodcells also carry the antigen RhD protein. People who have it are +, those who do not are -. Because of this people with O negative blood are considered universal donors for the other seven types. With no A, no B and no RhD white bloodcells will never flag attack on it. But this oversimplifies the RhD. There are 61 potential proteins for the RhD system. Golden blood is Rh-null blood: it does not have any of the 61 Rh-proteins and can be used as universal donor for other people with rare Rh-blood. Until 1961 scientists believed an embryo would die in utero if it had such a bloodtype. But then an Aboriginal Australian woman was identified to have it. It is so rare, that only 43 people on the globe are known to have it at present. So it is worth its weight in gold. The problem for Rh-null bloodtypes is that they must be their own blood-donor.

So, when George likens Targaryen blood to golden blood that must be preserved and only cautiously shared, he borrows from this real world meaning. And he associated Valyrians via the lemurs with a forest of a golden canopy. But there are other golden trees, such as the Goldenheart tree of the Summer Islands. Their bows are made of this wood, but it only grows on two of the islands and to export it is forbidden by the princes of the Summer Islands. Lemurs can also be found on the Summer Islands, though we do not know what they look like. Are the Summer Islanders, golden blooded? Perhaps not. But those we meet may be considered golden hearted.

This brings is us to the heart of the matter: pale blue lipped Pyat Pree and the Undying. The name for the Undying makes for an excellent parallel to the Others too. Others do not die, unless wounded by dragonstone or -steel. We jump right ahead to Dany’s actual meeting with the real Undying ones.

Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather. She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead? (aCoK, Danaerys IV)

The Undying are blue, nor do they breathe. They do not require much oxygen. And now we come to the heart of the parallel that George set up between Qarth, Varys and the Ice Spiders of the Others.

Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart.

Red hearts (and a body depending on hemoglobin in the blood) pump oxygen- and iron-rich blood out to the rest of the body through sealed veins, and then after oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide, the blood is sucked back into the heart via the arteries. It is a closed circulatory system. This Undying heart does no such thing. It only pumps copper-rich and oxygen-poor hemolymph freely out into the room. None of the blood is sucked back in. This is an open circulatory system, and it is exactly how a spider heart operates. Hemolymph fluid is a combination of both hemocyanin and the other fluids. It is pumped out by the heart freely without the body having an ability to send or guide it to a particular area. The fluid fills all the interior of the blood holding body and surrounds all cells. And only when the heart relaxes the “blood” will settle back in the heart via open ended pores (rather osmotic).

Spider_internal_anatomy-en
Diagram of the internal anatomy of a female two-lunged spider. (Wikipedia)

The spider heart is situated at the top of the body, above the digestive system. Compare this with George’s idea of a heart of the Undying floating above and a paralised Dany being the meal about to be digested by the Undying.

[…] a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying were all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting . . .Then indigo turned to orange, and whispers turned to screams. (aCoK, Danaerys IV)

George wrote the Undying as behaving as well as internally survive like a spider. The Undying here are not the Others, nor do they operate on behalf of them, just themselves. But they serve as a parallel to the biological hemolymph nature of the Others.

In the 1974 This Tower of Ashes (a reading on youtube by Kerby Hayborn) we find a proto-version of what was about to befall Dany in the House of the Undying. Self-exiled John Bowen survives on a colonized planet by hunting for the poison of dreamspiders in the forest. The poison is used as an illegal dream drug in the city of Port Jameson. These white jumping spiders are nocturnal, dangerous predators. The strands of their web are as thick as a finger or a cable. Larger webs can cross an entire chasm. Instead of eating the males, the females mate for life with a male in a specialised partnership. The male – approximating the size of a large pumpkin – spins the web and guards the catches. He has no venom, but a bite dangerous and sizeable enough to kill. The female – the size of a fist – prowls in the trees and jumps down from the canopy to inject her prey with venom, before taking them to cache in the web. The poison causes dreams and feelings of ecstacy and John Bowen imagines that the prey probably enjoys it all because of the poison’s effect, even if it was eaten alive.

Upon first read, the short story may be confusing. John Bowen misremembers several events wrongly, and his cat Squirrel turns out to be a white eight legged creature, even though we got a full description of color and type of tail far earlier. In between, John tells us the story of an incident with dreamspiders, which he appears to have survived despite being stung in the neck by a female dreamspider of unsafe size. Upon further reading, and if you as reader are brave enough to face the horror, you realize that John Bowen is kept alive and being eaten by a dreamspider since the start of the short story. He is paralized and hallucinating fantastical ego-boosting visions and memories because of the effect the venom has, while being nibbled at. He simply never realizes it, nor does he want to, for to face the reality of what is happening to him is too horrific. Nearly the same thing happened to Dany.

Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were reaching for her, touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot, her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them . . . (aCoK, Danaerys IV)

The difference is that John Bowen is doomed, while Dany is saved by Drogon, whose bones are abnormally rich with iron. He attacks the Undying heart and saves Dany from being a spidermeal. Interesting in the proto-version is that John actually saw a large winged unknown creature right before the incident, except it cannot help him because it was already caught in the web.

Crowfood’s Daughter has indepedently and simultaneously been working on the blood biology side of dragons. Tyrion reads how dragonbones are black because of its high iron content. In a twitter thread she speculated that if the bones are rich with iron then likely so is their dragonblood, for the primary site for the creation of bloodcells and hemoglobin is within the bonemarrow. As a consequence dragon’s blood will have a very high concentration of oxygen. In high concentrations, oxygen is flammable. So, Crowfood’s Daughter has come across the opposite principle for the fire side. It is all about the blood, or rather the difference between a blood circulation system like that of a spider for the ice side or like that of superhemoglobin for the fire side.

The Spiderblood versus Dragonblood dichotomy is repeated on a racial scale for the Qaathi in the World Book. Before the Dothraki came and destroyed all of their city states, but one, the Qaathi warred with the Sarnori or the Tagaez Fen (or Tall Men). They are tall, brown of skin and have hair and eyes as dark as the night. They are linked to the Qaathi because they are tall and wear spider silk, not as allies but as enemies of Spiderblood. They are said to have ridden coal-black mares and bloodred horses. In the Silk Route essay it is noted that the color combination of these horses matches the Targaryen sigil of black and red, as well as the Targaryen words, “Fire and Blood”. The Sarnori therefore represent a variation of the Dragonblood side, having the dark pigment related to iron and thus iron-rich hemogoblin. But in order to avoid mistakes, we shall call them Fireblooded. For a long time, the Fireblood won, pushing the Spiderblooded Qaathi out of the Grasslands, south into what become the Red Waste. But then the Dothraki arrived and destroyed every Sarnori city-state save one – Saath – during the Century of Blood as well as the later Qaathi cities in the Red Waste save one – Qarth.

Far in the north of Essos, Saath is held on life support by the Ibbinese and Lorath. The Fireblood side does not fare well in the cold and icy north, for their circulatory system is malladapted to it. Meanwhile the descendants of the Qaathi, the Spiderblood side of this Essosi tale, managed to survive the desert that is the Red Waste and thrive in Qarth, despite the hot climate and the sun, using archictectural tricks and sunblock to remain cool and out of the sun, exactly as real world spiders manage. Despite the fact that the hemocyanin system is more efficient in a cold oxygen-poor environment, spiders can be found in deserts and tropical climates.

This war between Spiderblood and Fireblood at the Grasslands is not the first of them. The world book also tells of the lost city Lyber, prior to the Sarnori-Qaathi wars. In that city acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless bloody war. Once again Ice versus Fire, represented as Spider versus Serpent (or Wyrm, Wyvern and eventually Dragon). The surprise here is how the spiderside has a goddess, instead of a god. Most of these spider parallels we have seen so far are littered with people and creatures that are male, not female. Only one female Undying was truly described to us for example. The only near equivalent to a conceptual spider goddess that we have is Night’s King wife – the Corpse Queen.

The World Book claims the Corpse Queen was a sorceress and pale as a corpse. This does not mean she was in fact a corpse. It simply links her to a Spiderblooded type. She is said to have possessed sorcery and since she was a Corpse Queen, this sorcery potentially may have been her ability to raise and command the dead as wights. In order to do this, she must have been like the Others. And in Old Nan’s tale to Bran, she is described as having skin as white as the moon, eyes like blue stars and skin as cold as ice. If this is true, she was in fact an Other.

Spiderants

In GRRM’s 1973 Slide Show (transcribed on Fattest Leech’s blog), Becker is a funds recruiter for SPACE starcruisers. He was once a commander on the Starwind exploring other planetary constellations, but was ‘demoted’ to raise funds for the exploring programs instead by depicting slideshows of some of the discoveries, including those he was part of. One of those planets dubbed Anthill is where humanity made their first contact with another sentient race, the spiderants, who “grow” cities (rather than build) from some type of plant. They look like four feet ants. However they do not have an exoskeleton, are intelligent and possess a type of esthetical culture, sing to the sun at dawn daily, and fly on domesticated airborn manta-ray type of looking plant. The spider-part of their name is based on how the cities and infrastructures of their cities are like a web, glowing at night.

The spiderants of Slide Show are almost written the opposite of the Others. They look like insects but in reality are not. They seem to be benevolent bio-engineers and worship the sun. The pets they grow and ride are actually plants and thus it harms noone. Meanwhile the Others shun the sun, only grow ice and ride dead animals. And while the Others look humanoid their mind and blood circulation system is likely to be more insectlike.

The Manticore

This insect-like being having humanoid features is repeated with the manticore. It is a scorpion-like insect of the Jade Sea, found mostly on Manticore Island, with a stinging tail and seemingly a human face. Its exoskeleton is deceptive as it appears jewel-like and its fast working venom induces a heart attack (unless Oberon Martell tampers with it). After the House of the Undying, Pyat Pree hires the Sorrowful Men to assassinate Dany with a manticore.

A Qartheen stepped into her path. “Mother of Dragons, for you.” He knelt and thrust a jewel box into her face. Dany took it almost by reflex. The box was carved wood, its mother-of-pearl lid inlaid with jasper and chalcedony. “You are too generous.” She opened it. Within was a glittering green scarab carved from onyx and emerald. […] As she reached inside the box, the man said, “I am so sorry,” but she hardly heard. The scarab unfolded with a hiss. Dany caught a glimpse of a malign black face, almost human, and an arched tail dripping venom . . . and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. […] Ser Jorah slammed past her, and Dany stumbled to one knee. She heard the hiss again. The old man drove the butt of his staff into the ground, […] “He was a Sorrowful Man. There was a manticore in that jewel box he gave me.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

And it is right after the failed assassination attempt with the manticore that Jhogo, one of Dany’s bloodriders, says this peculiar line.

Aggo kicked his staff away and Jhogo seized him round the shoulders, forced him to his knees, and pressed a dagger to his throat. “Khaleesi, we saw him strike you. Would you see the color of his blood?” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

You know you remember that line, as the expression is so unique. You know you’ve read over it several times, never thinking it has a broader context. But now you have a context – the blood of insects and spiders and Others. Cheeky George!

Like spiders, most scorpions have hemocyanin, and George reminds us that manticores are spiderlike when Tyrion has Podrick name the families based on sigiles.

“Three black spiders?”
“They’re scorpions, ser. House Qorgyle of Sandstone, three scorpions black on red.” (aSoS, Tyrion V)

We also have a human character in the books that has the manticore for a sigil, Ser Amory Lorch, the ruthless landed knight who butchered Rhaegar’s daughter Rhaenys Targaryen during the sack of King’s Landing and attacked Arya, Yoren and the band of boys recruited for the Night’s Watch at the holdfast in the Riverlands.

He was a stout man with a manticore on his shield, and ornate scrollwork crawling across his steel breastplate. Through the open visor of his helm, a face pale and piggy peered up. “Ser Amory Lorch, bannerman to Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock, the Hand of the King. The true king, Joffrey.” He had a high, thin voice. “In his name, I command you to open these gates.”

He is pale faced and his high, thin voice indicates that Amory has a low level of testosterone, which would make him prone to having weight issues (like Varys). It suggests that the male spiderlike characters are but soldiers, unqualified to mate.

Amory takes no prisoners, only kills mindlessly, friend and foe, and does not even bother to bury his own fallen me, not unlike the Others. He only differs in that he uses fire as a weapon as well and cannot raise the dead.

“Storm the walls and kill them all,” Ser Amory said in a bored voice. […] The night rang to the clash of steel and the cries of the wounded and dying. For a moment Arya stood uncertain, not knowing which way to go. Death was all around her. (aCoK, Arya IV)

When they finally summoned the nerve to steal back into the ruins the next night, nothing remained but blackened stones, the hollow shells of houses, and corpses. […] They found the gates broken down, the walls partly demolished, and the inside strewn with the unburied dead. One look was enough for Gendry. “They’re killed, every one,” he said. […] Ser Amory Lorch had given no more thought to burying his own dead than to those he had murdered […]. (aCoK, Arya V)

More than Varys, Xaro and the Pureborn, Amory is as monstrous as the Undying. He looks human, but whatever lies behind that human face is a killer who has no regard whatsoever for life. The sole personal thing we know of Ser Amory is that he is partial to tarts. Basically, Ser Amory Lorch is void, a killer machine – a psychopath who gets more emotional over food than a picture of a cute kitten.

Spider Crabs

We get another spider reference at the Sisters in the first chapter of Davos in aDwD, after Salladhor Saan put Davos in a dingy nearby. Davos gets taken to Lord Godric Borrel and is offered sisterstew.

“There’s three kinds of crabs in there. Red crabs and spider crabs and conquerors. I won’t eat spider crab, except in sister’s stew. Makes me feel half a cannibal.” His lordship gestured at the banner hanging above the cold black hearth. A spider crab was embroidered there, white on a grey-green field. (aDwD, Davos I)

Many crab species as crustaceans also rely on hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin. The three kind of crabs in sister’s stew that Borrel talks about serve as a parallel to the three dangers in the series. The red crabs are the  false Lannister kings, and more generally, the petty squabbles of humans over power. We know this is partially throne related as the third type of crab is called conquerer, or the dragons with their dragonriders having dragonblood. The second threat are the white spiderlike Others symbolised by the spider crabs that aside from the Fingers can also be found in the Shivering Sea.

In the chapter, Davos and Godric Borrel discuss Cersei Lannister being the regent. But earlier on Lord Borrel also mentions a witty remark about a sloe-eyed-maid, which is a ship that Dany tried to hire in Qarth in aCoK. After it harbored at Pentos, it ended up being lured to its doom on the cliffs by the Sistermen using a false night lamp. The spices aboard the ship end up in the sister’s stew. With the sloe-eyed-maid come the tales about the conquering dragon queen. If Lord Godric Borrel has heard tales of Dany from a ship crashing on his rocks that has sailed all the way from Qarth to Pentos and then was on its way to Braavos, then no doubt he has tales too of ships that sailed from Eastwatch. After all, Alisser Thorne was already sent to King’s Landing by ship via Eastwatch with a wight’s hand by the end of aGoT, which is not an unlikely source of information, since inspecting hands and fingers is a recurring theme in the chapter. Lord Godric inspects Davos’s hand to make sure he is the Onion Knight, and Davos notes the webbing mark on both Lord Godric and one of his granddaughters.

He was an ugly man, big and fleshy, with an oarsman’s thick shoulders and no neck. Coarse grey stubble, going white in patches, covered his cheeks and chin. Above a massive shelf of brow he was bald. His nose was lumpy and red with broken veins, his lips thick, and he had a sort of webbing between the three middle fingers of his right hand. Davos had heard that some of the lords of the Three Sisters had webbed hands and feet, but he had always put that down as just another sailor’s story. […] The woman brought them a fresh loaf of bread, still hot from the oven. When Davos saw her hand, he stared. Lord Godric did not fail to make note of it. “Aye, she has the mark. Like all Borrells, for five thousand years. My daughter’s daughter. Not the one who makes the stew.” (aDwD, Davos I)

The only tale in the books that potentially points to the origin of the Borrel webbing mark is that of Nimble Dick about squishers. Nimble Dick’s real name is Dick Crabb who claims to be a descendant of Ser Clarence Crabb. Of interest for this essay is the parallel between both chapters. In one, Davos notices the webbing of the Borrels between their fingers over eating crab stew, while a crab tells tales of water-dwelling monsters with webs between their fingers in the other.

Speculation over the connection between the Squishers and the Borrels are not our concern here, but the potential tie to spiders instead. Crabs are crustaceans, which are mostly aquatic animals, while arachnids are mostly terrestrial. Both crustaceans and arachnids are subgroups of the arthropod animal group, having both an exoskeleton as well as hemocyanin reliance in common. But each survive in another environment and evolve into a different shape as they adapted to it. Crabs are not spiders, but their cousins. As a consequence the same thing would be true for the white spiderlike Others and the fish-belly white Squishers, and this evolutionary tie is represented by referring to white crabs as spider crabs, which is the Borrel sigil. Where spiders build mazes and silk webs to catch their prey, the Borrels lure their prey at night into the trap that are the Fingers with a night lamp and cliffs, hence they webbing between their fingers. And of course, it brings those Walking Webs of the Plague Star back to mind. And as with Varys, the Qartheen and Lysa Arryn we get a “this smells” allusion by George: Sisterton and Godric Borrel are “fishy”.

“Then you are in the wrong place, with the wrong lord.” Lord Godric seemed amused. “This is Sisterton, on Sweetsister.”
“I know it is.” There was nothing sweet about Sisterton, though. It was a vile town, a sty, small and mean and rank with the odors of pig shit and rotting fish. (aDwD, Davos I)

An honourable mention goes to Biter, who stinks of bad cheese. We meet him first on the road to the Riverlands in Arya’s chapter. He is one of the dangerous captives that Yoren keeps caged, together with Rorge and Jaqen H’ghar. He hisses like a manticore. He is bald like Varys and Xaro, has eyes like nothing human, pointed teeth like a squisher and milk-white flesh. He has no webbing though, lacking the cunning and wit to set traps. He is but a simple being who eats people. The latter reminds us of the deadly bite of the male dreamspider.

. . . and Biter crashed into her, shrieking. He fell on her like an avalanche of wet wool and milk-white flesh, lifting her off her feet and slamming her down into the ground. […] She had only her hands to fight him off, but when she slammed a fist into his face it was like punching a ball of wet white dough. He hissed at her. […] He was crushing her, smothering her. […] Biter’s mouth gaped open, impossibly wide. She saw his teeth, yellow and crooked, filed into points. When they closed on the soft meat of her cheek, she hardly felt it. […] Biter’s mouth tore free, full of blood and flesh. He spat, grinned, and sank his pointed teeth into her flesh again. This time he chewed and swallowed. He is eating me, she realized, but she had no strength left to fight him any longer. (aFfC, Brienne VII)

Roose Bolton

The bolt-on theory has been around for some time. The mentioning of Roose Bolton here is not this though. We do not believe that Roose Bolton is an actual Other, nor an immortal. But he seems to have been set up to have parallels with them and other spider-characters. Therefore, the first relevant quote about Roose in this essay is how Jaime considers Roose’s voice to be spider soft.

Roose Bolton’s eyes were paler than stone, darker than milk, and his voice was spider soft. (aSoS, Jaime V)

Roose always played the long game, watching and waiting in the shadows for Robb Stark to make a mistake, as well as thinning out the levies of other Northern lords by putting them in the most dangerous positions in the battlefield and sending Glover and Manderly to Duskendale, while his son did the dirty work for him up North. Arya may have heard and seen crucial information that alert the reader to Roose’s decision to kill wolves, but she is not politically conscious yet. Jaime is the first POV to realize what Roose may be up to, during the conversatoin over dinner, and therefore recognizes him as a spider who has spun his trap.

One of the most noticeable feature of Roose Bolton are his eyes. Catelyn thinks they are pale, almost without color. Theon compares them to ice or chips of dirty ice, as well as two white moons. Roose’s eyes therefore are not literal Others’ eyes – those are a deep blue – but only a metaphorical reminder of them when we throw pale, ice, moon and milk together to describe the same thing. George also has Theon wonder what Roose’s tears would feel like on his cheeks.

Reek wondered if Roose Bolton ever cried. If so, do the tears feel cold upon his cheeks? (aDwD, Reek II)

This is an allusion to a much repeated phrase in the series of it being so cold that tears freeze on cheeks or even over the eyes itself. Chett’s tears freeze to his cheeks at the onset of the attack on the Fist in the Prologue, Sam’s during his escape to Craster’s from the Fist, as well as when he has to fight wighted Small Paul. In a snowstorm on the way to the cave with Coldhands, Bran’s tears do the same, as do Hodor’s. Jon thinks of tears freezing upon cheeks when the Free Folk hostages surrender to him. The Wull uses it as a phrase for why he and his men joined Stannis against Roose Bolton. But Old Nan was the first to use the phrase to Bran when she tells tales of the Others.

“The Others,” Old Nan agreed. “Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. […] Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.” (aGoT, Bran IV)

Of course, when Theon thinks of Roose’s, he is not wondering what winter would do to Roose’s tears, but whether Roose’s body temperature is so cold that his tears would freeze. Assuming that the Others must maintain a body temperature lower than -200 °C in order remain in a solid state, Theon’s musings are a strong allusion to this.

Another noteworthy musing by Theon about Roose’s eyes is how empty they look.

Bolton’s pale eyes looked empty in the moonlight, as if there were no one behind them at all. (aDwD, Reek III)

This is analogues to the proposal of Others as insect-like minds behind the humanoid face. Even if they are intelligent, they have no personality, no emotions, nothing human-like. Not having much of a personality or emotions is also exemplified in Roose’s facial features. Both Arya and Theon consider him to be plain and ordinary looking.

It was almost evenfall when the new master of Harrenhal arrived. He had a plain face, beardless and ordinary, notable only for his queer pale eyes. Neither plump, thin, nor muscular, he wore black ringmail and a spotted pink cloak. (aCoK, Arya IX)

[Roose Bolton’s] face was clean-shaved, smooth-skinned, ordinary, not handsome but not quite plain. Though Roose had been in battles, he bore no scars. Though well past forty, he was as yet unwrinkled, with scarce a line to tell of the passage of time. His lips were so thin that when he pressed them together they seemed to vanish altogether. There was an agelessness about him, a stillness; on Roose Bolton’s face, rage and joy looked much the same. (aDwD, Reek II)

Despite the Others being so inhuman, different and otherworldly to both Will and Samwell, Will is the sole POV witness who sees several Others at once at close proximity, and therefore should be capable of noting individual differences in expression between them – signs of individual personality. But Will remarks on the opposite really – he calls them ‘twins’ to the first one and to each other. Their faces therefore lack dinstinguishable characterization or personality, much like Roose. He even refers to them as faceless.

They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … […] Behind [Royce], to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, […] (aGoT, Prologue)

Lady Dustin gives an explanation for Roose’s ageless appearance to Theon and the reader: he has no feelings.

“Roose has no feelings, you see. […] He does not love, he does not hate, he does not grieve.” (aDwD, The Prince of Winterfell)

There is a real world phenomenon that George applies here on Roose. Psychopaths tend to have little to no wrinkles or grey hair. They age well, if they leave substance or food abuse well alone, and might easily look ten or even twenty years younger than they truly are. This is because they do not experience stress or anything more than superficial emotions. So, when George has Lady Dustin declare the man has no feelings, that is the explanation why Roose seems to lack any signs of aging, and therefore lack of notable personality. It are after all our laughing lines and our frowns that give us visible “character”.

If Roose Bolton serves as a parallel to the Others, we can then conclude that the Others do not love nor grieve either. The Others may speak their own language, but they sing no songs of mourning or love. Most noteworthy of all the emotions the Others would not feel is hatred. They do not hate Bran, Bloodraven, greenseers or humans. They do not do what they do out of hatred, revenge or pay-back. The conflict is impersonal to them and they do what they do simply because it is their nature and the opportunity presents itself. We are not saying they lack motivation, just that it is not an emotional one.

Despite the fact that Roose Bolton has no profound feelings, he is not a robot either. Lady Dustin also points out to Theon that he sees other humans as plaything to divert him.

I think he would be pleased if the fat man attempted some betrayal. It would amuse him. […] This is a game to him, mildly diverting. Some men hunt, some hawk, some tumble dice. Roose plays with men.” (aDwD, The Prince of Winterfell)

And certainly Dustin’s words put to mind the game the Other plays with Waymar Royce when he duels him, mocks Royce, and they all laugh as they butcher him in the end.

Roose Bolton lay abed, naked. Leeches clung to the inside of his arms and legs and dotted his pallid chest, long translucent things that turned a glistening pink as they fed. (aCoK, Arya X)

When we think of Roose as a spider-parallel to the Others, it gives the leeching a deeper layered meaning. Varys the Spider hates the sight of his own red blood. The underlying psychological reason is how the red blood conflicts with his self-identity as a spider, for it ought to be blue. Roose cites Hyppocratic beliefs of humours when he advocates leeching, but when we look at it from a spider angle, we realize that as a human his body makes red blood daily, and only the leeches can help him get rid of it.

“Frequent leechings are the secret of a long life. A man must purge himself of bad blood.” (aCoK, Arya IX)

Lord Bolton sighed. “His blood is bad. He needs to be leeched. The leeches suck away the bad blood, all the rage and pain. No man can think so full of anger. Ramsay, though … his tainted blood would poison even leeches, I fear.”  (aDwD, Reek III)

With the red human blood also come the hormones that signal emotions. Whether Roose started to self-medicate with leeches because of unwanted emotions first or hating the idea of red blood and discovering peace of mind is a chicken-and-egg question. The result is that over time he has become to physically and emotionally resemble an Other more and more, and blames the bad (=red) blood, for that is all leeches suck.

Now, while Roose Bolton is some icy lord with a spider voice, Ramsay is quite another creature. Yes, they share the same ghost grey eyes, but Ramsay has a far more fiery nature. And when Ramsay fantasises aloud about setting Barrowton afire (as he did with Winterfell), Roose is greatly displeased and expresses doubt how Ramsay could be his son.

Ramsay seethed. “All she does is spit on me. The day will come when I’ll set her precious wooden town afire. Let her spit on that, see if it puts out the flames.”
Roose made a face, as if the ale he was sipping had suddenly gone sour. “There are times you make me wonder if you truly are my seed.” (aDwD, Reek III)

It is not just the dumb violence that apalls Roose, but his sourness is set against the use of flame and fire.

In Ramsay we see a strange mixture of the icy paleness struggle with that of the fiery red blood. His face is said to be pink and blotchy, almost as if his skin is part ice, part fire; as if the red blood is trying to conquer the icy side.

[Ramsay’s] skin was pink and blotchy, his nose broad, his mouth small, his hair long and dark and dry. His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes. He had his lord father’s eyes—small, close-set, queerly pale. (aDwD, Reek I)

This is even reflected in father’s and son’s attire with a subtle nod. While the Bolton’s sigil colour is pink – dilluted red blood – and Roose wears grey plated armour, Ramsay prefers black and very much attempts to redden the pink with his clothing and a garnet earring (garnet being a bastard ruby). Black and red are “fire and blood” colors, not icy ones. Ramsay even rides a red stallion with a fiery temper that loves to kick people, and Ramsay called him Blood.

Ramsay was clad in black and pink—black boots, black belt and scabbard, black leather jerkin over a pink velvet doublet slashed with dark red satin. In his right ear gleamed a garnet cut in the shape of a drop of blood. (aDwD, Reek I)

His lordship [Ramsay] himself rode Blood, a red stallion with a temper to match his own. He was laughing. […] [Reek] led Blood off toward the stables, hopping aside when the stallion tried to kick him. (aDwD, Reek III)

You may argue that Roose’s attire also has plenty of red in it (blood-red leather, red silk), except it is not actually Roose wearing it. It is a ruse.

Back where the press was thickest at the center of the column rode a man armored in dark grey plate over a quilted tunic of blood-red leather. His rondels were wrought in the shape of human heads, with open mouths that shrieked in agony. From his shoulders streamed a pink woolen cloak embroidered with droplets of blood. Long streamers of red silk fluttered from the top of his closed helm. […] An enclosed wagon groaned along behind him, drawn by six heavy draft horses and defended by crossbowmen, front and rear. Curtains of dark blue velvet concealed the wagon’s occupants from watching eyes.  […] When the rider in the dark armor removed his helm, however, the face beneath was not one that Reek knew. Ramsay’s smile curdled at the sight, and anger flashed across his face. “What is this, some mockery?”
“Just caution,” whispered Roose Bolton, as he emerged from behind the curtains of the enclosed wagon. (aDwD, Reek II)

Instead of wearing the heavily red-coded attire, Roose sat in a wagon behind a blue velvet curtain. Given a choice, Roose prefers blue over red. At the most Roose suffers the pink cloak with blood droplets. And as Ramsay is set against his father more and more, Roose’s son becomes more fire. And that both these very destructive men, in their own way will clash is certain.

Reek saw the way Ramsay’s mouth twisted, the spittle glistening between his lips. He feared he might leap the table with his dagger in his hand. Instead he flushed red, turned his pale eyes from his father’s paler ones, and went to find the keys. (aDwD, Reek III)

If you expand that though, whomever of these two survives to face Stannis, Jon Snow, or Rickon Stark with Sansa and the Vale army, the Boltons ultimately still represent the “dirty ice” side of the North, using dishonourable methods, lies and skin stealing to gain dominion over the North and declare themselves Kings of Winter. And just like the Starks are not allies of the Others, nor are the Boltons, the Borrels, the Qartheen, or Varys. They are microcosmos rivalries of ice and fire within families, regions, continents, and so on. But we can learn a great deal about the Others indirectly through them.

As with Varys, Lysa Arryn and the Qartheen, once again the Boltons are tied to smelly business – Reek. The original Reek was a manservant at the Dreadfort before he was gifted to Ramsay. He seemed to be born with a bad smell, though he bathed as often as he could, drenched himself in the prior Lady Bolton’s perfume and once even tried to drink the perfume. After, the original is killed, Ramsay pretends to be Reek and makes sure not to bathe to mimic his former servant. Eventually Theon is reekified instead, also smelling badly, having to sleep with the dogs.

Fire Spiders and Ice Dragons

For the final section we bring you the Spotted Spider of House Webber of Coldmoat, Rohanne Webber or the Red Widow. At first glance, you may end up just piling her on the heap of ice spider characters in the books. Her castle has the word cold in it. She is rumored to have poisoned her three to four husbands, hence the variation on the black widow spider.

Ser Eustace to Dunk: “The woman has a spider’s heart. She murdered three of her husbands. And all her brothers died in swaddling clothes. Five, there were. Or six, mayhaps, I don’t recall. They stood between her and the castle.”

Egg to Dunk: “You’d best not take any food or drink at Coldmoat, ser. The Red Widow poisoned all her husbands.” […] “Four,” said Egg, “but no children. Whenever she gives birth, a demon comes by night to carry off the issue.” (The Sworn Sword)

Sounds like a good and proper evil ice spider. Except those tales of her are twisted truths, or as Bennis explains to Dunk, “There’s truths and truths, lunk. Some don’t serve.” As you know, from the trail of the red stallion, when something is called ‘red’, they are not exactly who they say they are or who others claim them to be. And so it is with these witchy poisoner tales. Her first husband was twelve and died in battle, squiring for her father. At the age of thirteen she was wed to her second husband of fifty-four, who died of a chill. Her baby son born half a year later had been too weak. The third husband choked on a chicken bone and the fourth husband died of the Great Spring Sickness that killed millions of people (including King Daeron and his grandson Prince Valarr).

Dunk imagined her to be an older woman near her menopause, because of these tales. Instead she is but a young woman of twenty-five, as petite as a Child, with hair kissed by fire.

If Dunk was shy an inch of seven feet, the archer was shy an inch of five. He could have spanned her waist with his two hands. Her red hair was bound up in a braid so long it brushed past her thighs, and she had a dimpled chin, a snub nose, and a light spray of freckles across her cheeks. […] Dunk looked from one lady to the other. “You are the Red Widow?” he heard himself blurt out. […] Dunk could feel her fingers through the silk. Her hand was freckled, too. I’ll bet she’s freckled all over. His mouth was oddly dry. (The Sworn Sword)

She does however lay out a spider trap early on in the stoy: a dam.

Behind the dam the flow was creeping up the banks and spilling off into a ditch that had been cut through Lady Webber’s fields. Dunk stood in his stirrups for a better look. The glint of sun on water betrayed a score of lesser channels, running off in all directions like a spider’s web. (The Sworn Sword)

A trap not to kill husbands, but to catch herself one, as well as be rid of an unwanted suitor who cockblocks the others. After the death of her fourth husband, her father wished she would marry his castellan Longinch. She refused. Her father then decreed in his will that if she remained unwed on the second anniversary of his death, Coldmoat and its lands would pass to her father’s cousin instead. He also charged Longinch to protect Rohanne from unworthy suitors, and Longinch expanded this to mean all suitors. By the time Rohanne lays her trap of webbed water, she only has one moon left before her father’s cousin becomes its master. Her choice, for that purpose, was Ser Eustace Osgrey, an old knight, who she hopes to antagonize enough to fight Longinch. And due to his age, she no doubt expected him to not last decades beyond their marriage. Luckily for the both of them, Dunk ends up fighting Longinch and kills him.

818px-House_WebberRohanne Webber is not ice nor nocturnal at all during the story. She behaves very much the opposite – a fiery red spider. Aside from being a redhead with freckles, her banner is a black field, a silver web and a red-white spotted spider in the heart of it. The color scheme of red, black and silver is that of the Targaryens and the dragonblood. It is not the cream velvet, milk-white and sapphire blue of the Others and ice spiders. We even get the reference of an iron spider.

From every turret and spire the black banners of Webber hung heavy, each emblazoned with a spotted spider upon a silvery web.[…] The drifting smoke made it hard to tell how far off they were, until her banner bearer pushed through the ragged gray curtain. His staff was crowned by an iron spider painted white and red, with the black banner of the Webbers hanging listlessly beneath. (The Sworn Sword)

When Rohanne herself appears at the dam, in armor, for the confrontation, this color scheme is repeated. She rides a coal-black mare, decked on in strands of silver silk. At the end of the story, she also has a blood bay called Flame to gift to Dunk. A blood bay and a coal-black mare are described in the same wording as the Sarnori ones.

Only then did Lady Rohanne herself appear, astride a coal-black mare decked out in strands of silverly silk, like unto a spider’s web. The Widow’s cloak was made of the same stuff. It billowed from her shoulders and her wrists, as light as air.

“A big courser, with some Dornish sand steed for endurance.” She pointed to the stall across from Thunder’s. “A horse like her.” She was a blood bay with a bright eye and a long fiery mane. […] “I call her Flame, but you may name her as you please. Call her Amends, if you like.” (The Sworn Sword)

When Dunk visits her as envoy to broker a peace between Eustace and her over the built dam, Rohanne sends Dunk back to the landed knight with the threat of ‘fire and sword’.

“Tell Ser Eustace to bring me Bennis of the Brown Shield by the morrow, else I will come for him myself with fire and sword. Do you understand me? Fire and sword! ” (The Sworn Sword)

Swords are made of steel, of iron. And both iron and swords imply red blood. Later, it seems as if she had Wat’s Wood puto flame. All that is left is charcoal and ash. And far earlier on in the story, we also learn that Wat’s Wood once extended as far as Coldmoat at her side of the Chequiy water, but Rohanne’s spiders cleared all the trees on her side of the river. This red fiery spider does not plant trees. So, it is rather awkward that Dunk tells the smallfolk on Eustace’s land that “there are no dragons in this, black or red“. Rohanne may not have a drop of Valyrian blood in her, but her words, the color scheme and her not planting trees, make her look more like a dragon than a spider, let alone an ice spider.

As for Coldmoat, the Webbers were NOT the original masters of it, but Eustace’s ancestors: for a thousand years, until Maegor the Cruel took it from them, because the Osgreys opposed his law to disarm the Faith.

“For a thousand years before the Conquest, we were the Marshalls of the Northmarch. A score of lesser lordlings did us fealty, and a hundred landed knights. We had four castles then, and watchtowers on the hills to warn of the coming of our enemies. Coldmoat was the greatest of our seats. Lord Perwyn Osgrey raised it. Perwyn the Proud, they called him.” (The Sworn Sword)

With the Osgreys having been marshalls of the Northmarch for a thousand years, they come off as a lower status version of the Starks in the Reach (despite their lion sigil, despite its colors of yellow and green).

How does a fire spider work if spiders are blue blooded? Well, the world book tells us the actual spotted spiders can be found in Sothoryoys. This continent has a sweltering tropical climate and thus is naturally far richer in oxygen than oceans and cold low pressure regions. The spotted spiders therefore may have evolved in such a manner that they have hemoglobin, which is a far more efficient way to bind with oxygen in a hot climate. They thus would be red blooded, and thus fire-and-iron spiders, which is what Rohanne Webber comes to represent for the main part.

Rohanne seems an anomaly in comparison to the other icy spider characters, but without a fire spider, readers could mistake the dragons opposing the Others as the universal rescue and aid against them. In the Sworn Sword, George highlights that both ice and fire are two sides of the same destructive coin. A generation long winter is deadly, but so is a long crippling drought where a tiny spark can set a whole wood ablaze.

If a common dragon can be equated with a fire spider, then Others could be equated with ice dragons. The World Book relates how some people claim to have seen ice dragons.

These colossal beasts, many times larger than the dragons of Valyria, are said to be made of living ice, with eyes of pale blue crystal and vast translucent wings through which the moon and stars can be glimpsed as they wheel across the sky. Whereas common dragons (if any dragon can truly be said to be common) breathe flame, ice dragons supposedly breathe cold, a chill so terrible that it can freeze a man solid in half a heartbeat. […] As ice dragons supposedly melt when slain, no actual proof of their existence has ever been found. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Shivering Sea)

The show has given us an ice dragon (dead Viserion). There is a children’s book of George called the Ice Dragon and the back cover’s synopsis tries to make out as if it is set in Westeros and the North. But George himself said on his Not a Blog that the story was written before the world of Ice and Fire existed, and that the Ice Dragon short story is not set in Westeros or Planetos. The publication of Fire and Blood assured readers that none of Dany’s dragons will be flying north of the Wall, since Alysanne’s dragon refused or could not fly across the Wall when she visited Castle Black. We do not know whether ice dragons truly exist on Planetos, and we doubt George will ever feature an actual ice dragon. They just seem to serve as a mythological parallel to the Others themselves. We may, however, see an icy dragon character.

As with Varys and other spidery characters, Rohanne Webber is more than a fire spider alone. She may act the antagonist, but is likely as innocent of burning Wat’s Wood as she is of poisoning her husbands. Her sought-out confrontation is something she sets-up to benefit both Ser Eustace as herself, and she actually aims to forge a peace through marriage. Longinch guarded her every move too well for his own gain and prejudices were so against her that she required a ruse without Longinch suspecting anything. Even as she rode to the dam on a coal-black mare under a fire spider banner, she still wore armor that made her look more like a forest child bedecked in leaves.

Conclusion aka TL;TR

Well, that was long, and we have not yet covered the Long Night, ice magic, whether there is a relation between the Children of the Forest or not. But we hope it covers extensive food for thought, some more tinfoil than others.

So, to recap. Forget pretty much all of what the show depicted as Others. The White Walkers are most definitely not the Others. The likelihood that the Others have some Adam-Other comparable to the show’s Night King are close to zero, for it takes away the sole Lovecraftian threat in the series in the current timeline that George has set up. If there is some boss force for the Others, whether that is a blue flame or a Spider Goddess, then it will likely be nigh indestructable and will remain in the Heart of the Lands of Always Winter.

Though the Others are only featured in two chapters in two different POVs across the currently published books of the series, George gives us several clues that the Others are an inhuman species of their own, with their own language and own soundbox. George likens them to Sidhe, and on the surface that seems to be true.

But taking a physical approach to the tidbit clues George gives us in those scenes, we dare to propose that the Others are not just made of ice or iced flesh, but that George has them made out of Plutonion matter: solid nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and liquid hydrogen. They require such a low body temperature to remain solid that this could explain how the Others manage to affect the environment (the cold, the snow). Pluto also thematically fits with deadly reapers of the Underworld building their army to expand their dominion beyond the Heart of the Lands of Always Winter. Not so coincidentally, Jon Howe painted the Others as reapers with a scythe in his ice spider illustration for the 2020 calendar.

The description of the bones and flesh match that of nitrogen, which is a chemical element that leads to suffocation and named after the Greek word “to choke”, one of the two main methods the Others’ minion, the wights, use to kill someone. Meanwhile the glow of the sword and the deep inhuman blue of their eyes matches the spectrogafic color that carbon monoxide produces, echoed in Varys’s blue flame. Waymar bleeding blood as bright as fire from the wound inflicted by the Other’s sword can be considered a hint of the blood having bonded with CO. Once the ice-magic spell is broken though, and body temperature cannot be maintained anymore, these chemicals would end up reacting to form water and vapor with the oxygen in the air. Hydrogen explains the need of the Others’ to avoid flames and sun, for this chemical is highly explosive then.

The biological approach makes us realize that the legend about the ice spiders likely serves as a hint and metaphor of the Others’ mental, emotional and biological nature. The Others bleed blue blood, or rather the hemocyanin protein  (or similar alternative without denaturating – thank you Lady Dayne) in liquid hydrogen (rather than water). The copper binds oxygen, whereas hemoglobin uses iron. “Hemocyanin’s” performance is overall not as efficient as hemoglobin in normal conditions, but it does far better than the latter in cold and low-oxygen environments and is failproof against carbon monoxide. This type of untrue blood is typical for anthropods – including arachnids and crustaceans. Others having blood like spiders explains why they are said to hate iron and red blood, despite the fact that humans fought mainly with weaponry made from bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) in the age of the Long Night.

We consistently meet references and allusions to blue hemocyanin blood with ice spider-like characters,  such as blue veins, blue hearts pumping blue stuff freely into a room (aside from pale milk-white skin). We even have a scene in the House of the Undying that copies the inside anatomy of a spider, with a heart floating above the dinner table where Dany is about to be digested in a dreamspider way. Meanhile fire or dragonlike characters are typically associated with black iron and coal, red blood and flames. This is even true for the thematic scheme with the weirwood trees and the trees that are used to make Shade of the Evening. Ice  versus fire are thus also ‘blue’ versus ‘red’ (blood), copper/bronze versus iron, spiders versus snakes/wyverns/dragons.* There is the occasional anomaly where George writes a fire spider, but a fire spider is just a wordplay for a dragonlike character who has no dragonlord blood. Likewise an ice dragon is an ice spider and therefore an Other.

* For their own arc and purpose in the story, it is not so much the appearance that matters for these spider-characters, but how stinky they are and whether they try to mask the smell with flowers or perfume.

Mentally and emotionally, the humanoid looking Others being ice spiders, makes them an inhuman species that is far removed from our human understanding. Trying to figure out their motives for rounding up an army of wights to overrun all of Westeros, whether during the Long Night or in the current timeline is as futile as contemplating the motives of a hive of ants. Through a character parallel such as Roose Bolton we can conclude their do not love, grieve or hate. Hence, hatred for mankind does not motivate them. At best they see humans and other hot blooded mammals as a diversion.

Hence, there is nothing human whatsoever about the Others. They are not made from matter the way any other life is on Planetos, but more like what life would be like on Pluto, if it had life. They do not have the same blood circulation system as most life has on Planetos, but at best share something similar with insects, arachnids, mollusks and crustaceans. They have no human or even mammalian motivations or emotions. They are comparable to intelligent insects that only have a humanoid shape.

Ice Magic

(top illustration: Ice Magic by Mari Kyomo)

“Ice. But not like regular old ice. The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine and make substances of it.” (George Martin in interview with Robert Shaw, answering a question about their swords)

In The Plutonian Others we laid the foundation of our concept for the Others – a completely different lifeform and species that is comparable to highly intelligent insects looking humanoid. We focused on the possible chemical make-up of the Others and the blue spider blood via various spider parallels strewn throughout the series. We even strayed to far older non-fantasy stories to prove George’s ability to come up with alternative lifeforms and how his fascination for spiders goes back a long time. But we said nothing about the magical abilities of the Others. We will tackle that in this essay.

That they are sorcerers is something most readers will agree on. Even if we do not know how exactly it works, their ability to wightify dead people and mammals, and their control over the wights serve as evidence of this. Explanations for this by theorists have relied heavily on the skinchanging and greenseeing magic. And this idea has been expanded the last few years to Others having the ability to spy on people via the weirnet. In other words, many believe the Others corrupted the weirnet for their own use. This logic relied heavily on the belief that Others were once humans who were magically turned into Others, and on the show’s portrayal during the seasons that strayed far from the book material.

Since we do not see the Others as “corrupted” humans, but as an entirely different species who came into existence independently from Children of the Forest and humans, we therefore also do not agree that Others use weirwoord related magic at all. Instead we argue they have their own elemental ice magic, and that the Others as ice sorcerers have several abilities that are similar to what fire magic and green magic can do, beyond wightifying and sword making. We believe those magical abilities include remote location viewing and either seeing the future or the past with ice, and potentially using an ice glamor or camouflage to make them appear to be something entirely different than they are. What may seem surprising to many is that we will use the same Other “tool” (if it is a tool) as a clue or evidence to argue for both abilities – their armor.

Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took. […] Behind [Royce], to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. (aGoT, Prologue)

What does their armor have to do with ice magic? The illustrator Tom Patterson claims George told him that “the reflective, camouflaging armor” is able to pick up “the images of the things around it like a clear, still pond.” What else is reflective? A mirror, or looking glass … or spyglass. What else can be a camouflage? A glamor or wearing faces.

The most glaring clue for ice magic’s existence are George’s words when answering a question about the swords of the Others: “The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine.” That phrase obviously does not just cover ice swords. George’s statement was generalizing and thus expanded the abilities of the Others. And ‘things we cant’ imagine‘ is a different way of saying magic, not just forging swords. George further acknowledges this when he referred to Beric Dondarrion (and consequentionally Lady Stoneheart) as a fire wight, instead of an ice wight in his Time interview of July 13 2017.

[Beric’s] memories are fading, he’s got all these scars, he’s becoming more and more physically hideous, because he’s not a living human being anymore. His heart isn’t beating, his blood isn’t flowing in his veins, he’s a wight, but a wight animated by fire instead of by ice, now we’re getting back to the whole fire and ice thing. (George RR Martin on the One Game of Thrones Change He ‘Argued Against’, Time, July 13 2017)

With this statement, George confirmed a parrelel between the two types of resurrection that had been speculated on but had not caught widespread attention yet. Until then, people still posited that greenseers may have had something to do with Beric’s resurrection and debated whether Beric could be considered a wight or not. George confirmed fire magic was responsible and that Beric is indeed a wight. In doing so, he further established that in his mind there is such a thing as ice magic.

And in fact, a fire and ice parallel is also established through swords. While we as modern day people do not recognize the act of forging as anything but a physical and chemical technological process, smiths used to be seen as magicians in ancient times (and amongst certain African tribes still are). Scandinavian smiths forged iron tools from bog-iron and imbued it with the spirit of heroic ancestors or totemic animals by excavating their bones and burning them during the smelting process. The bones were thus turned into bonecoal and the Scandinavian smiths unwittingly forged steel, harder and more durable than what the bog iron would have resulted in otherwise. It literally gave them an edge.

“Omg!” This certainly set your mind on track of Valyrian Steel and dragonsteel, amiright? George did give us a hint that dragon bones are iron rich and therefore special. He gave us charred bones left in a weirwood tree in the Whitetree village, a leftover of the Free Folk burning their dead, as do Valyrians. And in Fire and Blood we learn that the Valyrian Steel sword darkened after it had been retrieved from Aegon the Conquerer’s funeral pyre. Perhaps the secret to Valyrian Steel is the use of the charred bones of dragonlords (not dragons as dragonbones do not burn). George does not even need to know about the practice by the Scandinavian smiths. It suffices he knew the general process that is required to make steel and the insight that bones can be burned to become bone-coal. Regardless whether there is an actual rational technological explanation rather than a magical one for the forging of Valyrian Steel, the point is that George has at the very least alluded to the making of it as involving magic, and their magic would have been fire and blood magic. Parallel to the Valyrians, the Others forge icy crystal swords with ice magic.

If we have two (alleged) magical parallels between ice and fire – swords and wights – then why should we assume the list of abilities that Others can do with ice stops there? Then why presume that they use the weirnet to spy? Because viewers believed that was what the show implied? All that the show depicted was that their Night King could see, but not how, not the means.

We could classify several elemental magics: ice magic, fire magic, shadow magic, green magic, water magic. But we also have the fringe magic of the Undying and that of the followers of the Many Faced God. Below I have outlined some magical and supernatural ways to acquire information, weapons, afterlife and sorcerers or magical creatures as well as ways to disguise themselves.

Remote Seeing
Past/Future Weapons Life after death
Living creations Disguises
Fire (and shadow) Magic
obsidian glass candles, flames Flames – past, future; dragon dreams – future; glass candle dreams/visions – ? Valyrian steel, obsidian Fire wight Dragons, shadowbaby, dragonriders Glamor
Ice Magic
Wights, ? ? Some type of crystal ice Ice wight Others Armor, ?
Green Magic
Greenseeing via trees or skinchanged animals Greensight (dreams) – future Obsidian Trees or (second life in) animal Greenseers, skinchangers, woods witches Animals, Glamor
Undying
Shade of the evening Shade of the evening ? Immortal undying, warlocks (hallucigenic?) Illusions
Water Magic “Under the sea” “Under the sea”

(iron)

Patchface

(resuscitation)

Squishers, merlings ?
Face magic
wearing a face – past

(moonsingers)

as face Faceless Men Faces, (mummery), glamor

Not all use their own magical means, but rely on normal human means for a lot of abilities, or borrow technologies or magical abilities from other types of magic. For example the Faceless Men have their own “face-magic”, which is foremostly a disguise. They might get glimpses of the last moments in the life of the person whose face they wear, but otherwise have to rely on their own human senses to gather information. They might use special poisons, but those poisons could be made and used by anyone with the right knowledge. They may gather prophecies from the moonsingers or may want access to a glass candle, but these operate independently from the face magic.

We have quite an incomplete picture on water magic, and the only true magical person we know in the series for that element is Patchface. We have the most complete understanding of the fire and green magic. Those are also the most magical across all abilities. One could say these are two of the main magics because of this. As mentioned, ice magic would be the third main elemental magic. And so we should expect there to be a complete set of abilities with ice magic as well. Except we have no confirmation on abilities to see remotely, past or future or disguise anything beyond the “technological” armor. But it seems reasonable to expect them to have access to some magic to do these things. And we will see there are several indications that the armor may be more than just an ice technology.

In a series of Mirror Mirror essays we will examine parallel mirrors. These are scenes where mirrors are used to spy on the environment or chapters with characters wearing reflecting armor. In cinema, mirrors are rarely used as mere real-life objects. They tend to have an underlying role in the scene. And whole essays have been written on their use in cinematography. aSoIaF is literature, not cinema. But George was a screenwriter for many years, and mirrors can be used in a symbolical fashion in writing as much as they are used in cinema. The Fattest Leech has a general summarizing post on mirrors in George’s writing, focusing on two uses:

  • a moment to self-reflect for the POV as they look at themselves in a mirror.
  • as a doorway in the Skin Trade.

There are two more thematic uses for George that were not yet picked up on at the time, which we will focus on here – as shedding a light of truth on the environment and spyglasses. This happens in chapters and scenes with characters who wear mirrors as a shield, armor or sunglasses. This is exactly how the mirrors are used by the Others: they wear them. And what we can discern from the parallels where mirrors are used in this way is that whomever is revealed to be an ally or enemy in such a scene or chapter, we can trust George is not using misdirection then. There is no “unreliable narration” in such scenes or chapters to the reader. Parallels that will be examined in depth are …

  • Dany’s Brass Platter
  • Areo Hotah as The Watcher
  • the Swords that escort Cersei during her walk of shame
  • the bodyguard nicknamed Mirrors, a minor character in the novel Armageddon Rag
  • Serwyn of the Mirror Shield and how Jon Snow as 998th Lord Commander with the biggest mirror shield on Planetos is the characters closest to paralleling the legendary Serwyn.

We will re-analyse the prologue, this time examining the actions of the trees that are reflected in the Others’ armor. This will show without a doubt that the trees are not the allies of the Others, that the Others do not use trees to materialize or even use the weirnet at all. Instead the trees in the prologue consistently aim to protect the three rangers of the Night’s Watch. We will also show that how the trees aim to protect Waymar in particular supports Joe Magician’s theory that the Others are after Jon Snow.

We will lay out our arguments how Others use ice, including the Wall, as looking glass to spy on people. We test this out on both Jon Snow’s and Bran’s arc at the Wall and north of it and how that worked out for the Others.

Just as we examine the parallels of mirror armor, we will also analyse camouflaging methods and magic and armor as George uses them to camouflage the nature or identity of characters and even a species. All eventually share a comparison to insects or exoskeleton. These are …

  • Rohanne Webber
  • The Manticore
  • The Brazen Beasts
  • Rattleshirt and Mance Rayder
  • Faceless Men

Much of this material has already been analysed and gathered into comprehensive drafts and all the parallels point to this conclusion:

  1. The Others use their own type of elemental magic, not tree-magic as a section of the fandom has come to believe.
  2. They use ice mirror surfaces as spyglasses to make strategic decisions, including the Wall, waterfalls, rivers and glaciers. And the likeliest reason why the “black gate” was made where it was made and what material it was made from was to prevent the Others from seeing who passed the Wall.
  3. The Others’ camouflage is multi-layered and hides their being. They are not what they seem. And every single parallel, whether “mirror mirror” or “camouflage” point to the Others being intelligent hairy ice spiders, and nothing even remotely humanoid, let alone human.
  4. The Others hunt for Jon Snow and his sword out of fear. Analysis supports the hypothesis they can see glimpses of the future which leads to them actually being just north of Castle Black at the rim of the Haunted Forest in Jon’s last aDwD chapter, ready to raise the dead as wights within Castle Black the moment Wick Whittlestick draws Jon’s blood.

This series of essays are once again the result of collaboration of the Three Headed Ice Dragon (The Fattest Leech, Kissdbyfire and myself – SSR).

We would also like to thank several forum members who have brainstormed along with certain preliminary thought experiments on this take: It_spelt_Magalhaes, Ice Queen, Lady Dacey, St Daga and LynnS. Not all are convinced, and we may not have agreed on everything, but all have contributed by discussing aspects with us. Thank you.

 

The Spider’s Origin, Part I

The Silk Route

 

In the introduction I pointed out how Arachne’s spider-myth is an origin myth and that Ovid’s version includes Arachne’s ancestry in a manner that should perk our interest about Varys’s. Using the very first description we have about Varys in Catelyn’s chapter in King’s Landing, I argued that we ought to investigate the Planetos Silk Route.

 

The actual real-world historical “silk route” was both a maritime as well as an overland route. It originated with the Chinese seeking to trade with the Central Eurasian communities that were renowned for their horse breeding. The Chinese mined jade, lapis lazuli and spinel (if rose tinted it was called Ballas ruby). Around 2000 BC a steppe route to trade jade and minerals for horses came about. Over time, the Chinese began to carve their jade adopting Scythian art. Cultivated silk went also westward, while gold went eastward. By the middle ages, after the collapse of Byzantium, the Arabs controlled much of the caravan routes all the way to Moorish Spain. The Middle East was the midway trade hub. Spices, incense, glass, wood and certain foodware traveled east and from China and India came silk, lacquer and porcelain to the Mediterranean. By then the overland caravans used camels to carry the loads while traversing the various deserts. If religion was cited for popes and kings as reasons to set up crusades, its riches were the lure to sign up. Control of the mediterranean gateway and route sparked the more baser desire. When that ultimately failed, seamanship had vastly improved and European kingdoms sought sailing routes to trade with India, China and Japan directly.

On Planetos there was once a Silk Road.

The Steel Road (so named for all the battles it has seen) and the Stone Road both originate in Vaes Dothrak, the former running almost due east beneath the highest peaks, the latter curving southeast to join the old Silk Road at the ruins of Yinishar (called Vaes Jini by the horselords) before beginning its climb [into the Bone Mountains].  (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond)

According to the Wiki of Ice and Fire, it ran from Yinishar through the Bone Moutains to Shamyriana. From Yinishar two other routes go eastward: one along the shores of the inland saltwater Poison Sea and edges of the Red Waste into Lhazar and another passes north of Lhazar into former Ghiscari territory. Eventually both end up in Mereen. While caravans may still travel these roads either to cross the Bone Mountains or take the Stone Road to Vaes Dothrak, it is clear that aside from the Lhazarene cities all the other cultures and cities once there were either destroyed by the Doom or the Century of Blood in which the Dothraki gained dominion over the grasslands, making it an uncultured wasteland. So, the Silk Road fell out of use as a major trade route between the far east and the Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay of Essos. Instead, the silk route is mostly a maritime one. Silk can be traded for in various ports and islands of Essos – Naath, Qarth, and Asshai. To a lesser extent there is a connection with the Sarnori as well. I will investigate the parallels and reverse parallels that spring from these locations, especially in regard to Varys.

Note: I often refer to symbolic interpretations with the colored coat of horses in this essay, which are based and expand George’s parallel use of horses in relation to those who ride them. For the basic fundamental idea I refer and advize the themed esays of The Trail of the Red Stallion, in particular Ned Stark’s Wrong Bet as background reading.

Index

  1. Naath
    1. Naathi Bedslaves
    2. The Unsullied: Purest Creatures
    3. Concealer
  2. Sarnori
    1. Spider Silk
    2. Tagaez Fen
    3. Saath
  3. Qarth
    1. White As Milk
    2. Qartheen Slaves
    3. Sorrowful Man
    4. Xaro Xhoan Daxos
  4. Grasslands
    1. Grassroot Civilisations
    2. Lyber and the Spider Goddess
  5. Asshai by the Shadows
    1. Red Silk for a Black Cloak
    2. Asshai Citizens
    3. From a Colony to a Port
  6. Summary and Conclusion (tltr)

Naath

The silk route to Naath poses a literary problem: (1) butterflies are not predatory as spiders and (2) Naathi silk is becoming a rarity. The chances that Varys’s silk is Naathi silk are slim.

Such [corsair] raids have become so frequent since the Century of Blood that the Peaceful People have largely abandoned their own shores, moving inland to the hills and forests, where it is harder for the slavers to find them. Thus the fine handicrafts, shimmering silks, and delicate spiced wines of the Isle of Butterflies are seen less and less in the markets of the Seven Kingdoms and the Nine Free Cities. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Naathi Bedslaves

There is however, much less of a literary issue for a slave connection. Naathi are the most favored slaves for being so docile.

The Peaceful People always bring good prices, it is said, for they are as clever as they are gentle, fair to look upon, and quick to learn obedience. (tWoIaF – Beyonde the Free Cities: Naath)

The Peaceful People, [Missandei’s] folk were called. All agreed that they made the best slaves. (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Pycelle claims Varys was born a slave in Lys, implying his mother must have been a slave, already. Most readers speculate his mother would have been a bedslave. I’ll bet though that you just never considered that she might be Naathi. The world book reveals that one pillow house in Lys is famed for their Naathi bedslaves.

It is reported that one pillow house on Lys is famed for its Naathi girls, who are clad in diaphanous silken gowns and adorned with gaily painted butterfly wings. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Illyrio mentioned to Tyrion how Varys hid and stayed ahead from slavers in Pentos.

“I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

Since the peace treaty between Braavos and Pentos, slavery is officially forbidden in Pentos (though the servants are bought as slaves elsewhere), and yet we have slavers prowling the streets. Of course laws will never stop poaching slavers from abducting street urchins, but in the way Illyrio mentions it, he implies that he himself never seemed in any danger of that, but Varys in particular. Varys remained out of sight to them, only coming out at night and even then staying on the rooftops. Is something distinctively recognizable about him from a distance, marking him a slaver target? Like a distinct skin tone?

Add Varys’s behavior of perfect servitude to members of the small council, lords and ladies, and members of the royal court.

“Oh, your poor hands. Have you burned yourself, sweet lady? The fingers are so delicate … Our good Maester Pycelle makes a marvelous salve, shall I send for a jar?” […] Varys bobbed his head. “I was grievous sad to hear about your son. And him so young. The gods are cruel.” […] “Good lady,” Varys said with great solicitude. “There are men in the Free Cities with wondrous healing powers. Say only the word, and I will send for one for your dear Bran.” (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

For a literary parallel it does not really matter that this behavior is only part of his mummer’s repertoire to lull people into underestimating him, even when they distrust him, not when George uses symbolism and parallels in an actual mummer’s act, such as

  • Penny and Groat on their dog and pig at the Purple Wedding
  • Penny and Tyrion in Daznak’s Pit
  • The play and rehearsal scenes in Arya’s tWoW excerpt chapter Mercy.

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The Unsullied: Purest Creatures

At this point, you might be ready to point out to me that Varys does kill Pycelle by bashing his head in and fires arrows at close range into Kevan Lannister’s chest, all the while plotting war, and how that certainly is not the Naathi way.

The Peaceful People, the Naathi are called by seafarers, for they will not fight even in defense of their homes and persons. The Naathi do not kill, not even beasts of the field and wood; they eat fruit, not flesh, and make music, not war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Point granted, but Missandei’s Naathi brothers Mossador and Marselen are Unsullied. In order to become Unsullied, they killed a puppy and a slave’s newborn child. Mossador’s and Marselen’s training and experiences since childhood hardened and desensitized them.

The obvious parallel between Unsullied and Varys is the fact that they are eunuchs, who were castrated “root and stem”.

“In Yunkai and Meereen, eunuchs are often made by removing a boy’s testicles, but leaving the penis. Such a creature is infertile, yet often still capable of erection. Only trouble can come of this. We remove the penis as well, leaving nothing. The Unsullied are the purest creatures on the earth.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

“He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

Vary’s wording is not simply a euphemism for the removal of both testicles and penis, but also an expression that implies his ancestral stem and cultural roots were cut away from him, which may have changed him so profoundly he may not share his ancestry’s cultural beliefs, even if he may still have the servile nature. Just like Mossador and Marselen, Varys may have roots to Naath, but can plan, act and behave in a manner that would sadden his hypothetical Naathi ancestors. If Missandei’s brothers have killed, then so could a Naathi eunuch in King’s Landing.

That George wants us to make a transference parallel between Unsullied and Varys, because of that complete castration, becomes obvious when we compare what happened to the remains. Varys’s sorcerer burnt his parts as an offering on a brazier, while the Unsullied burn their manhoods themselves on an altar to a goddess called the Lady of Spears.

“I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

Grey Worm looked troubled. “The goddess is called by many names. She is the Lady of Spears, the Bride of Battle, the Mother of Hosts, but her true name belongs only to these poor ones who have burned their manhoods upon her altar. […] (aDwD, Daenerys VI)

The Burning of Male Parts

A third surprising scene that parallels Varys’s description of burning his manhood on the brazier is set in Qarth. Upon the return to Xaro’s Palace, after her unsuccesful appeal to the Pureborn, Daenerys puts on a “loose robe of purple silk” and charrs pieces of chopped snake above a brazier to feed it to her dragons.

In the quiet of her chambers, Dany stripped off her finery and donned a loose robe of purple silk. Her dragons were hungry, so she chopped up a snake and charred the pieces over a brazier. They are growing, she realized as she watched them snap and squabble over the blackened flesh. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

While it is not an actual offering of a chopped penis to a god or demon, “one-eyed snake” is slang for penis. George could have used any type of meat for Dany to chop up and charr. Instead he picked the one animal that resembles a penis. Meanwhile Dany’s dragons can be either feared as demons or worshipped and given offerings like gods.

If we are indeed to make a connection between this scene of Dany feeding her dragons, Varys’s castration and the Unsullied burning their manhoods on the altar, this suggest burned offerings of a penis helps the god/demon in the blue flame and Lady of Spears grow bigger. Someone who burns his cut penis on an altar sacrifices his potential descendants, sacrifices all his sons.

Even though he never sacrifices his privates, Craster does offer all of his newborn sons to his “gods”. Craster helped the Others grow in numbers and power. Likewise Stannis sacrifices his seed and thus his potential sons to the shadow, instead of descendants. And of course Dany’s sacrifice of her son and Drogo helps birth the dragons, which are her “gods” so to speak. Take not of the fact that Mirri Maz Duur’s ritual left Drogo impotent.

The birth had left her too raw and torn to take him inside of her, as she would have wanted, but Doreah had taught her other ways. Dany used her hands, her mouth, her breasts. She raked him with her nails and covered him with kisses and whispered and prayed and told him stories, and by the end she had bathed him with her tears. Yet Drogo did not feel, or speak, or rise.  (aGot? Daenerys IX)

At heart the male sacrifice of descendants seems to be the necessary ingredient to empower magical creatures or spirits. The Unsullied and Craster show that it matters little whether the descendants that are sacrificed are of royal blood or not. And Varys and Dany show it does not even have to be a voluntary sacrifice, but works under duress just as well. The most important resulting question then with Varys’s burning of his manly parts is which power it awoke or helped to grow. And could the blue flames be an indication this sorcerer aimed to stir or help the Others grow?

There is also a reverse parallel between the castration of Varys and Unsullied. The sorcerer who cut Varys regarded the boy as a waste product. Varys could die for all he cared. He was only insterested in Varys’s manhood and his ritual. Varys’s survival and becoming the Spider, was a by-product of the experience.

“Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

But the slavers of Astapor are only interested in the castrated boys, while the testicles and penis are the waste product. It are the Unsullied themselves who burn their parts on an altar to a warrior goddess.

Athena, Lady of Spears

Athena_Giustiniani

The Unsullied’s goddess goes by the epithets of Lady of Spears, Bride of the Battle, or Mother of Hosts. At least two of those are references to the Greek “virgin” goddess Athena. She was a goddess of war. Not the “savage” type like that of Ares dictated by bloodlust, violence and slaughter. No, her war was disciplined and strategic, not unlike the disciplined lockstep legions of Old Ghis.

[…] The Unsullied have something better than strength, tell her. They have discipline. We fight in the fashion of the Old Empire, yes. They are the lockstep legions of Old Ghis come again, absolutely obedient, absolutely loyal, and utterly without fear.”(aSoS, Daenerys II)

And, aside from her helmet, one of Athena’s famous attributes is the spear. It is this Greek Lady of Spears who competed with Arachne. (See image left: Athena Giustiniani Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena with helmet and speaer)

As much as Varys and the Unsullied share a similar experience of pain and loss, the aftermath is so different that in some ways they become almost the opposite of one another. Varys is extremely sensitive to the sight of blood and pain, especially his own.

Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table.
“Careful,” Catelyn told him, “it’s sharp.”
“Nothing holds an edge like Valyrian steel,” Littlefinger said as Varys sucked at his bleeding thumb and looked at Catelyn with sullen admonition. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

“Ser Jaime?” Varys panted. “You frightened me.”
“I meant to.” When he twisted the dagger, a trickle of blood ran down the blade. “I was thinking you might help me pluck my brother from his cell before Ser Ilyn lops his head off. It is an ugly head, I grant you, but he only has the one.”
“Yes . . . well . . . if you would . . . remove the blade . . . yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, I’m pricked . . .” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.” (aFfC, Jaime I)

Unsullied are given a daily drink to make them insensitive to pain. Kraznys can slice off a nipple and the Unsullied (a Lyseni one) does not even flinch.

The wine of courage,” was the answer Kraznys gave her. “It is no true wine at all, but made from deadly nightshade, bloodfly larva, black lotus root, and many secret things. They drink it with every meal from the day they are cut, and with each passing year feel less and less. It makes them fearless in battle. Nor can they be tortured.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Courage is a trait that Varys argues he does not have to Eddard and to Tyrion. Jaime only has to draw a bit of blood to make Varys comply in rescuing Tyrion even though Varys helped Tyrion in looking guilty of the murder of Joffrey.

Neither Varys nor Unsullied can rape anyone by penetration, but the Unsullied do not plunder nor steal, while Varys survives for years as a thief, even was the prince of thieves* in Myr.

* The prince of thieves of course is also a title and reference to a Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner.

“[…] Plunder interests them no more than rape. […] The Unsullied are not permitted to steal. […] Other slaves may steal and hoard up silver in hopes of buying freedom, but an Unsullied would not take it if the little mare offered it as a gift.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

“To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

“In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

And yet, like Unsullied, Varys evolves into a eunuch who does not take gold, silver and gems, but is interested only in secrets. The prince of thieves became a fence, then a blackmailer and eventually a spymaster.

“[In Pentos] Varys spied on lesser thieves and took their takings. I offered my help to their victims, promising to recover their valuables for a fee. Soon every man who had suffered a loss knew to come to me, whilst city’s footpads and cutpurses sought out Varys … half to slit his throat, the other half to sell him what they’d stolen. We both grew rich, and richer still when Varys trained his mice. […] We left the gold and gems for common thieves. Instead our mice stole letters, ledgers, chartslater, they would read them and leave them where they lay. Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed. ” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

And so despite having to survive in a completely different manner than the Unsullied, his fears and low treshhold for pain, Varys too became a pure creature who is not interested in plunder or rape.

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Concealer

The big elephant in the room would be the distinct physical features of Naathi. They have round flat faces, dusky skin, and large soft amber eyes, often flecked with gold.

The people native to the island are a beautiful and gentle race, with round flat faces, dusky skin, and large, soft amber eyes, oft flecked with gold. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Surely, someone would have noticed if Varys had dusky skin, right? Or would they? We do not explicitly know …

  • the color of Varys’s eyes. No POV has ever revealed it to us. We can presume that his eyes are unlikely to be amber, flecked with gold, because such eye color would have been remarked on, as much as when he would have had purple eyes. Of course, if Varys has a mixed ethnical parentage, then he could still have a Naathi mother and yet not display amber eyes.
  • his hair color, since he is bald.
  • his tan or natural complexion, since he powders his face and hands. (It can be logically deduced though as we shall see in the Qartheen section)

The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

His hand left powder stains on Ned’s sleeve,[…] (aGoT, Eddard IV)

Readers speculate that Varys shaves his head to hide the natural color of his hair, but he can just be naturally bald. What is definitely suspect is the powdering of both face AND hands. Powder is used to conceal the true complexion, either to bronze it, or to make the skin tone a shade paler. That is why it is called “concealer”. Varys conceals his natural skin tone.

Incidentally or not so incidentally, we have a round face description for Varys. We just are not certain whether it would still be a round face if Varys were slimmer. And maybe his plumpness is a type of concealment too: Westerosi would assume his face is round because of his plumpness, and never consider his round face may be the features he was born with.

A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, […] (aGoT, Arya III)

Obviously, my point is that we cannot ascertain nor exclude any distinguishable ethnic features (for now). Beneath the powder and the baldness, a mixture of all kinds of origins may be lurking – Naathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazarene, …. We know Varys conceals features and thus we must work with literary parallels, symbolically related clues and hints to speculate what his origins may be.

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Sarnori

spidersilk
Cape of 1 million golden orb spider silk, natural hue
Spider Silk

If butterfly silk does seem a miss-match for spiders, then why not search for a people with spider silk? And in fact such a thing existed on Planetos:  the riders of the Sarnori of old wore spider silk.

Their riders wore steel and spider silk and rode coal-black mares, whilst the greatest of their warriors went to battle in scythed chariots pulled by teams of bloodred horses (oft driven by their wives or daughters, for it was the custom amongst the Sarnori for men and women to make war together). (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

So, spider silk is indeed a thing*! Or rather it was. At the very least it seems to confirm the validity in exploring the silk route for the Spiders’ origin.

*In 2009 a real world manufactured spider silk cloth was exhibited in museums. More in this article with pictures of the result.

Coal-Black and Bloodred Horses

Notice how we get two types of colored horses mentioned in the quote about the Sarnori riders. These horses and their colors are not simply mentioned for an individual rider, but for its people, and the color division is heavily implied to be criss-crossed by gender. The men ride the black mares, while the women drive the chariots pulled by bloodred horses. The savvy reader might notice how George does not just say black and red, but coal-black and bloodred. Unless mined, coal is charcoal, which is manufactured by burning wood. In other words, those coal-black mares are associated with “fire”, while “blood” hardly needs any further explanation. We have the color scheme of the Targaryen sigil here  – black and red – and the words of House Targaryen, “fire and blood“.

Combined with spider-silk, we thus have an association between spiders and House Targaryen. However, I must point out that this association as used in the description about the Sarnori is symbolic, for the Sarnori most certainly do not look like Valyrians.

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Tagaez Fen

The Sarnori are brown of skin, and have black hair and black eyes, matching the coat color of the coal-black mares.

Long of limb and brown of skin they were, like the Zoqora, though their hair and eyes were black as night. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

How the concealment of Varys’s features might disguise Naathi ancestry, applies just as well for Sarnori. The Sarnori features are not out of the range of possibilities. Beneath the powder and bald head may lurk brown skin and black hair. And without the rest, very dark eyes might not startle any Westerosi. That leaves us Sarnori’s long limbs. Once again, we have no explicit description of the Spider’s height. His height is only relayed to us relative in comparison to other characters.

“Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands. The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” (aGoT, Eddard XXV)

Arya saw Varys the eunuch gliding among the lords in soft slippers and a patterned damask robe, and she thought the short man with the silvery cape and pointed beard might be the one who had once fought a duel for Mother. (aGoT, Arya V)

Varys is smaller than Eddard’s regular rat-faced gaoler (and we don’t know how tall that one is). But Varys is not “short”. Arya uses “short” for Littlefinger and thus her lack of height mention for Varys implies he appears to be of “normal” height to her. If I were to ask you how tall Varys may or not be, you will probably answer “average” or slightly smaller than average.

Gendry’s Benefactor

Tobho Mott describes the man who paid for Gendry’s apprenticeship, and many readers presume that this mysterious man is Varys in disguise.

“He was stout, round of shoulder, not so tall as you. Brown beard, but there was a bit of red in it, I’ll swear. He wore a rich cloak, that I do remember, heavy purple velvet worked with silver threads, but the hood shadowed his face and I never did see him clear.” (aGoT, Eddard VI)

Varys is stout and round of shoulder, and he may wear a false beard for disguise, as he does for the Rugen gaoler disguise (different color here). When Varys ventures outside of the Red Keep, he often uses a cloak or robe with hood or cowl to hide his face. The rich, purple cloak seems to be the element that makes it certain in many readers’ minds, for readers associate Varys with purple clothing. But so would characters in King’s Landing who know Varys. If say Janos Slynt or a knight of the Red Keep were to venture in Steel Street or Tobho’s shop and would see this stout, round shouldered man with rich, purple cloak, they would likely assume it is Varys, without ever needing to see his face. So, the purple cloak ruins the success of the disguise.

Either this msytery man was not Varys, or George made a mistake. George could have thought to use the purple cloak as a hint for readers to help us identify the mystery man to be Varys, but never realized that this would make him recognizable to in-world characters. So, yes, I mention this description, though with the added warning that it may not be Varys.

If this man was indeed Varys, then we have our third relative measurement of his height: not as tall as Ned Stark. Catelyn mentions Ned was smaller than his late brother Brandon Stark. This mistakenly leads to the conclusion by readers that Ned Stark was at best average. But Tobho Mott uses the words “not as tall as you”, implying that Tobho regards Ned Stark a tall man, even though he is not one of the notorious giants. Otherwise Tobho would have said, “smaller than you”. Ned considers the Baratheon brothers as giant-tall, and thus exceptionally tall. Robert is 6 ft 6. Ned also has to be able to wield the greatsword Ice easily. At the start of the series the adolescent Robb of fourteen is not yet as tall as Ice, but afterwards he catches up fast. This suggests that Ice is at least 5 ft 2 (160 cm), likely making Ned 5 ft 11- 6 ft (180-183 cm), which is as tall as the average Belgian or Dutch men, who hold the two largest averages for men in the world according to nationality since 2016. So, Lord Varys is likely about 5 ft 8 tall (175 cm).*

*For archived height discussions of characters this might be a fun read: height hierarchy.

Average height is not what we would picture for a Sarnori who are said to be tall, and proudly called themselves Tagaez Fen, which means “Tall Men”.

Westeros remembers [Qaathi’s] conquerors as the Sarnori, for at its height their great kingdom included all the lands watered by the Sarne and its vassals, and the three great lakes that were all that remained of the shrinking Silver Sea. They called themselves the Tall Men (in their own tongue the Tagaez Fen)

Height varies. Around 60-80 % of height is hereditary (depending on “race”), and 20-40 % is determined by environmental factors (nutrients). A person’s height is inherited from both parents. Simply put, with a mixed ethnical heritage with different averages in height, the child would be taller than the parent with the smallest ethnic average, but smaller than parent with the tallest ethnic average. So, if for example Varys were to have a Sarnori father who bedded his Naathi bedslave mother in Lys, then Varys can certainly end up being only average in height.

Let us also not forget the impact Varys’s living conditions would have had on his ability to grow. Diet during childhood and youth heavily influences the ability of an individual to reach his or hers genetic height potential. Children who have been malnourished, knew hunger and had a poor one-sided diet for a while, will never grow into their full potential adult height.

Proteins and Growth

Proteins are essential nutrients for physical growth, muscle building and maintenance. There are various types of proteins that our digestion breaks down into amino acids essential to make sure our body cells lilterally do not collapse. We can only acquire them through food. Not every food source is an adequate provider for those different proteins. On top of that, certain porteins are only present in a limited amount.

The diet that provides an optimal amount of the four most limited proteins in food is one that consists of meat and nuts, which is exactly the diet that hunters and gatherers rely on. If you rely on cereals and grains (staples) like a farmer, you will need fruit and fresh vegetables with that. Staples are rich in sugars to provide energy for immediate use or storage (fat), but as a mono-diet it hampers muscle build up and growth. This is the reason why average height collapsed when people shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, and did not pick up again in the second half of the 20th century.

So, when Varys had to survive on the scraps that he could steal in the streets of Myr and Pentos as a child, he was bound to lack the necessary amount of proteins to grow into his maximal height potential. Meat would only be occasionally on his menu, and of the lean variety. Fresh fruit and vegetables would have been something he rarely – if ever – ate.

This lack of acquiring the necessary variation of proteins through food is aggrevated for Varys due to his castration. As a eunuch he had reduced testosterone production, while this hormone promotes protein synthesis necessary for growth in children.

We can therefore be almost certain that Varys is not as tall as his genetics otherwise may allow him to be. At least one parent of Varys who never knew food shortage or lack of variation would certainly be a tall woman or man. Hence, Varys’s average height does not exclude Sarnori ancestry for Varys, or any other ancestry of tall people, certainly if he has mixed heritage. Once again, George made sure that we cannot ascertain Varys’s ancestry through his physical height.

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Saath

With the Naathi I mentioned that one of the symbolical issues for Naathi silk was that it is not common at the markets anymore. With the Sarnori it is even worse: the number of Sarnori is in decline. Their last remaining city, Saath, only exists by the grace and help of Ib and Lorath.

Let it suffice to say that of all the proud Sarnori cities, only Saath remains unruined today, and that port city is a sad place, much diminished from what it once was, surviving largely because of support from Ib and Lorath (whose colony of Morosh is nearby). Only in Saath do men still name themselves Tagaez Fen; fewer than twenty thousand remain, when once the Tall Men numbered in the millions. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands)

More, the book series itself does not mention Saath or one Sarnori. Whenever a group of slaves, merchants or sailors in ports are described, there is not one Sarnori, while even Ibbinese and brindle-skinned men are mentioned (different species of humans). Without the World Book, we would not even know the Sarnori existed or ever existed. That tells us two things:

  • Sarnoris do not sail, nor do others sail to Saath to trade. There is a better chance that silk comes from Naath, than it coming from Saath.
  • If no Sarnori is mentioned as a character in the series, then they are irrelevant to the ancestry of a character within the story in a physical way.

We can thus safely conclude that Varys has no actual Sarnori ancestry. This does not mean that this section was fruitless. Sarnori are not the sole tall people in the books. And I want you to keep the mention of spider-silk in the back of your mind for the area where it appeared. As the Sarnori were not the sole people whose origin are the Grasslands.

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Qarth

Varys’s silk is far more likely to originate from is Qarth, a city that Varys’s partner in crime, Illyrio, trades with often. The Qartheen Xaro even sails to Mereen on a “silken cloud”.

Many ships of Westeros had sailed as far as Qarth to trade for spices and silk, but he dared to go farther, reaching the fabled lands of Yi Ti and Leng, whose wealth doubled that of House Velaryon in a single voyage. Nine great voyages were made upon the Sea Snake, and on the last, Corlys filled the ship’s hold with gold and bought twenty more ships at Qarth, loading them with spices, elephants, and the finest silk. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings, Jaehaerys I)

[Xaro] had come from Qarth upon the galleas Silken Cloud with thirteen galleys sailing attendance, his fleet an answered prayer. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

If in the past, Yinishar was the Essosi Constantinople of the overland caravan route, Qarth has become the Constantinople of the maritime route. We have the mention of spices, silk, but also jade for the sea.

Of the Qaathi cities, only Qarth remains, dreaming of past glories beside the jealously guarded Jade Gates, which link the Summer and Jade seas. […] Forced to look instead to the sea, the Pureborn who ruled Qarth swiftly constructed a fleet and took control of the Jade Gates—the strait between Qarth and Great Moraq, which joins the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea. With the Valyrian fleet destroyed, and Volantis’s attention turned west, there were none to oppose them as they established control over the most direct route between east and west, and so gained immeasurably in both trade and levied tolls for safe passage.  (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

In that sense, Qarth may not be the city where silk actually originates from, but it is the city to trade for it by people in Essos and Westeros west of Qarth. When it takes months of sea-voyage to trade for certain goods, then the trade city is as good as “origin”. The turkey (bird) is a Central American bird that did not exist as a species on other continents. It was imported into Europe via Turkey, by turkey merchants, a reference that was shortened into turkey. So, a bird of Central American origin was instead called after its trading origin. Likewise Westerosi would tend to refer to silk imported via Qarth as Qartheen silk, even though it is most likely produced and woven somewhere else. To complete the picture of Qarth as an equivalent to the Constantinopel of silk trade, Qartheen ride camels, instead of horses, which is very suggestive of the silk route concept and its caravans.

White As Milk

Like the Sarnori, the Qartheen are tall. The same arguments about Varys’s relative length and how he may have tall ancestors apply here. Like the Naathi and Sarnori, the Qartheen have a distinctive skin tone, but instead of dusk or dark they are so pale that the Dothraki call them Milk Men.

They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. […] Her Dothraki called the Qartheen “Milk Men” for their paleness, […]. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Powder can be used to lighten a dusky complexion, as well as darken pale skin. Pale skin would be distinct enough for slavers to pick Varys as a boy from a distance should he show himself by day, but equally not that distinct for the Pentosi street urchins to be bothered more by his accent and being a eunuch than his skin tone.

“In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

I mentioned how we may after all deduct and conclude what Varys’s true complexion may be underneath all that powder. In the five books published so far, we have two references that Varys appears pale.

The eunuch was lurking in the dark of a twisting turnpike stair, garbed in a moth-eaten brown robe with a hood that hid the paleness of his face. (aSoS, Tyrion XI)

He stood in a pool of shadow by a bookcase, plump, pale-faced, round-shouldered, clutching a crossbow in soft powdered hands. Silk slippers swaddled his feet. “Varys?” (aDwD, Epilogue)

The question is whether Varys is wearing powder during these “observations”. Kevan claims that Varys’s hands are powdered. But like Sherlock Holmes I ask you, “How does Kevan know this, when Varys stands several feet away from Kevan in a pool of shadow?” Kevan refers to the hands as soft, and yet, at that particular moment, Kevan cannot actually feel how soft Varys’s hands are. Kevan is merely assuming that Varys’s hands are powdered and soft, based on memory and experience, not through any actual observation through the senses. And while those hands will undoubtedly be soft, this is not necessarily true for the powder. In fact, there is a very good reason why Varys would not have powdered his hands: powder stains and leaves traces. This powder staining has been noticed by several POVs, repeatedly. As a trained mummer, Varys would be aware of it himself. Varys would be a fool to leave traces of powder on the crossbow, when he wants to make it look as if the Tyrells or Tyrion killed Kevan in Cersei’s mind.

“I thought the crossbow fitting. You shared so much with Lord Tywin, why not that? Your niece will think the Tyrells had you murdered, mayhaps with the connivance of the Imp. The Tyrells will suspect her. Someone somewhere will find a way to blame the Dornishmen. Doubt, division, and mistrust will eat the very ground beneath your boy king, whilst Aegon raises his banner above Storm’s End and the lords of the realm gather round him.” (aDwD, Epilogue)

Whatever Varys is, he is most certainly not a fool!

So, once we combine Varys’s murder purpose in aDwD’s epilogue, the darkness, the distance between Kevan and Varys, Varys holding the murder weapon and the various times we’ve seen and been reminded that powder leaves traces we can logically conclude that Varys was not wearing powder on his hands and face at all when he murdered Pycelle and Kevan. This is the strongest clue that Varys’s natural skin tone is as pale as the powder he uses. Beneath the powder is a pale man, and he conceals it with powder of the same tan, making Kevan assume wrongly that Varys’s hands (and face) are powdered.

How pale is Varys then? In both cases (Tyrion and Kevan) Varys is featured in a dark environment. When he helps Tyrion escape, they are at the levels of the dark cells beneath the Red Keep, at night. On top of that his face is shadowed by a hood. When Kevan describes him in Pycelle’s office, Varys stands in a pool of shadow, again at night. One must be white as milk to appear pale even when hiding in the shadow at night. You can test this in the evening by dousing the lights, allow for your eyes to adjust to darkness and have yourself or a friend stand a few feet away from a mirror. This ultra paleness is probably the reason why even at night, young Varys prowled the roofs of Pentos to stay ahead of slavers, with only the grime and dirt of the sewers to protect him by day.

My deduction that Varys is as pale as a Qartheen leads to two questions:

  1. What can be the possible motive for Varys to conceal his natural paleness with powder that is equally pale? He might just as well not use powder, right?
  2. Can we now throw out dusky Naathi as hypothetical ancestors of Varys?

Half this essay will argue that the answer to both 1 and 2 is “no”.

Now, I could argue that Varys aims to make people believe he only looks pale because of the powder, not his skin, in an attempt to mask his Qartheen origin. Concealer wears off, by wiping sweat off, etc. Just like Kevan, people would not notice any difference and simply continue to assume he is still fully powdered. However, I would find that more of an added benefit that Varys discovered over the years than the actual true reason. Instead I argue that his primary reason is how it serves as a sunblock.

Skin tone is controlled by several genes regarding the production ability of skin cells to produce melanin (protecting our skin against UV’s destructive rays) as well as the type of melanin. As a result a child tends to be not as dark as the darkest parent, nor as pale as the fairest parent, but something in between that. This common principal is why you might assume that if Varys is as pale as a Qartheen, then we can safely rule out any mix between a Qartheen and a Summer Islander, Dothraki, Sarnori or Naathi, … However, Qartheen being as pale as milk in the climate they live for the past centuries, despite wearing robes that expose one breast and showing no sign of tanning, suggests that what causes them to remain so pale is either albinism or leukism. Upon investigation, most clues point to leukism, in particular a dominant genetic form. And this would mask once again any ancestral mixture of ethnicities.

Albinism

Albinism is caused by reduced production of melanin. If there is still some production it is called hypomelanism. When there is no production of melanin whatosever it is called amenalism. Various known mutations exist with varying impact on the affected parts of the body. Ocular albinism only affects the eyes (and/or inner ears), but not the hair, nor skin. Oculocutaneous albinism (OCA) affects skin, hair and eyes in variable degrees for different subtypes. One of those is temperature sensitive, allowing cool regions of the body to produce melanin normally, and thus certain OCA albinos can have dark hair (example: siamese cats). In other words, visible related features can vary along a spectrum, nor is albinism necessarily absolute.

  • Skin (OCA-types): translucent pink (because of underlying blood vessels) or porcelain pale. Less severe forms allow for tanning, freckles or moles. And one type allows for skin pigmentation from infancy onwards.
  • Hair (OCA-types): translucent white, silver, pale blond, golden, strawberry blonde, red or even brown
  • Eyes: commonly blue, true violet, but also grey, green and hazel, and red when amenalistic.

What causes eye color in general? The iris (what we see as the colored section of the eyeball), exists of two layers:

  • The stroma has anterior and posterior cells and is interlaced with blood vessels. The front of the stroma never has any pigment. The posterior of the stroma may have melanin granula, from yellow-brown to brown.
  • The pigment epitheleum is an opaque layer of two cells thick behind the stroma, packed with large melanocytes of black melanin. It serves as a black screen to prevent light from falling onto the retina, except for the light that passes through the pupil behind the iris.

THERE ARE NO BLUE, GREEN, PURPLE OR GREY PIGMENTS in the iris! These eye-colors are structural colors, brought about by the scattering and interference of light as it hits gass molecules or translucent fluids or solids: the Tyndall effect for blue, purple and green, and Mie scattering for grey. These are similar mechanics that make the sky and oceans look blue, green or grey depending on the density, moisture of the medium and the wavelength of visible light that manages to reach our sight first. The largeness of the molecules of a medium in comparison to wavelength determines what color of light will be scattered. Shortest wavelengths of light are first violet and then blue. In order for eyes to be “true violet” the molecules of the collagen within the stroma must be smaller than 450 nm. Then blue can pass and be absorbed by the black eptiheleum and only the violet will be scattered. 

The reason that in extremer forms of albinism people have “red eyes” has to do with reduced pigment epitheleum. As mentioned, normally the epitheleum is a double layer of two cells, both with black pigment. In the case of albinism only one layer of cells has black pigment or even neither has. The epitheleum is not 100 % opaque anymore, and thus light other than the one passing the pupil drops onto the retina, and then is reflected back out of the iris. For the person having albinism this will blur their vision, and people observing the eyes of the albino will see the blood in their iris. Even in these amenalistic cases light will still be scattered by the translucent stroma, and thus the person will have at least partially blue eyes.

I am not the first reader to notice how the range of phenotype traits of hypomenalistic albinism match the “typical” appearance of Valyrians and Targaryens, or Daynes for that matter. Since various forms of albinism came about spontaneously and independently in different regions of the real world, it would explain why non-Valyrians such as the Daynes and the Hightowers display a similar phenotype. The temperature sensitive partial albinism would match the description of Ashara Dayne having pale skin, purple eyes and brown hair. Both are families of First Men descent, as are the Blackwoods (who do not display the features, but may be genetic carriers). Brynden Rivers, a confirmed amenalistic albino, was a child of Missy Blackwood and Aegon IV Targaryen.

Most forms of albinism are recessive: both parents have to be carriers of the albino gene, in order for the child to have the features (phenotype). The Targaryens preferring incestuous relationships fits with a recessive phenotype. The Daynes and Hightowers, Missy Blackwood as mother of Bloodraven or Betha Blackwood as mother of the children of Aegon V can be used to argument that certain families of the First Men are carriers of another recessive form of albinism. Notice too how the Targaryens, Velaryons, the Daynes, Hightowers, Lyseni and even the Valyrians at the Valyrian peninsula lived or live on islands or isolated peninsula. These locations are prone to genetic drift: a phenomenon where a recessive genotype can become so widespread among the local population that it becomes a typical phenotype. (Credit to The Weirwoods Eyes for the latter observation)

I will list and debunk some of the counter-arguments against Valyrian traits being recessive albinism.

  1. Solely Bloodraven is recognized as an “albino” by other in-world characters. Surely, if the characters can recognize that he is an albino, then why would they not say this of Targaryens, Daynes or Hightowers? However, in Brynden Rivers’ case we are talking of an amenalistic form of albinism: absolute. People forget too easily that there are various mutations and effects, and even the same type can vary in effect per individual. When hypomenalistic the features can express themselves on a spectrum range, including one that solely affects the eyes and nothing else, or allows for a degree of tanning (even that of Egg’s), or allow for dark hair.
  2. Aside from maester Aemon, we have never heard of any Valyrian having issues with their eyesight or hearing, which is tied to albinism in the real world, even in hypomenalistic types. Aemon’s blindess is accounted for by his age, not albinism. However, this real world argument conveniently forgets that Bloodraven, a confirmed amenalistic albino, does not have acuity issues either, on the contrary. His red eyes lacking any pigment should blur his sight, and yet he is famed for his abilities with the bow. If Brynden Rivers of all people can see sharply, then the whole eyesight issue related to real world albinism is a moot point for albinism in the series.

I certainly think the proposal that the Valyrian phenotype is a benign fantasy hypomelanistic albinism, where eyesight or hearing is unaffected, and that varies upon a spectrum is a valid one.*

* The Fattest Leech has posted a nice list about Targaryens with a non-Targaryen mother in this westeros.org thread. In how far the Targaryen family tree can rudimentary come about as phenotype if recessive, I explain in this post in the same thread.

Leukism

Leukism or leucism (from Greek “leukos”, which means “white”) is a condition where the coat, hair, feathers and skin lack the pigment production cells (albinos have the cells, but either do not or only partially produce melanin). Leukism only affects skin and coat, not the eyes. Skin and coat are formed from the neural crest during development, while eye tissue is formed from the neural tube. And the genetic mutation causing leukism affects the neural crest, not the neural tube. So, while leukists have skin comparable to an amenalistic albino, they have normal colored eyes: brown, dark or green eyes. Real world examples are white lions, white doves, white tigers, and true white horses.

Just as with albinism there are partial variants with only localized absence of pigment cells, resulting in patches, or piebald. A tuxedo cat, spotted doves, or a piebald horse are common examples. In the real world only piebald is known to occur within humans: piebaldism and Waardenburg syndrome (often accompanied with partial or complete deafness). The individual would sport a white front lock of hair (such as the late Indira Ghandi), and/or visible patches of white or pink skin against normal darker skin. Complete leukism in humans is not described in scientific literature so far. Which is an oddity as leukism and piebald is all caused by a regular occuring random mutation on a gene that we share with pretty much any mammal.

Most of the leukism variants, whether piebald or complete are autosomal dominant, meaning that it will express itself physically if only one parent passes it on, irrespective if the child is male or female. The known variants (complete or partial) with housecats, horses and people are all dominant. An exception are white lions and white tigers, which is recessive. Of interest is the dominant white leukism with horses. They have a true white coat (no pigment cells) and brown eyes (pigmented). Their skin is non-pigmented as well, appearing pink because of the capillaries beneath the skin. The mutation can appear spontaneously in all type of breeds. The name already implies that it is a dominant gene (W). Twenty mutations of the relevant KIT-gene are currently known to cause dominant white. Many of these mutations are nonsense mutations: some DNA code ends up wrongly translated into a halt-whatever-you’re-doing signal in the messenger RNA. As a result such mutations make a homozygous (WW) embryo non-viable. It will die at such an early stage of gestation that it will be reabsorbed rather than aborted. With such a variant only a Ww embryo can grow into a foal. But other type of mutations that cause dominant white may allow for a viable homozygous “true white” horse. 

DominantWhiteHorsesD
Dominant White horse with milk white coat and brown eyes (Leukism)

There are several examples of leukistic animals in the series: the white hart that Robert and Joffrey hunt, the white lion that Drogo hunts down and the white ravens are the first to come to mind.

A white hart had been sighted in the kingswood, and Lord Renly and Ser Barristan had joined the king to hunt it, along with Prince Joffrey, Sandor Clegane, Balon Swann, and half the court. (aGoT, Eddard XI)

“I had a dream that Joffrey would be the one to take the white hart,” she said. […] White harts were supposed to be very rare and magical, and in her heart she knew her gallant prince was worthier than his drunken father. (aGoT, Sansa III)

Drogo would take his bloodriders and ride in search of hrakkar, the great white lion of the plains. […] The brazier was cold again by the time Khal Drogo returned. Cohollo was leading a packhorse behind him, with the carcass of a great white lion slung across its back. Above, the stars were coming out. The khal laughed as he swung down off his stallion and showed her the scars on his leg where the hrakkar had raked him through his leggings. “I shall make you a cloak of its skin, moon of my life,” he swore. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)

“Ah, here is Pylos with the bird.” Shireen gave a cry of delight. Even Cressen had to admit the bird made an impressive sight, white as snow and larger than any hawk, with the bright black eyes that meant it was no mere albino, but a truebred white raven of the Citadel. (aCoK, Prologue)

At the very least they prove that George knows, recognizes and features leukism in the series (as he does in other stories of his work).

There does not appear to be a typical eye-color or hair color related to a form of albinism for the Qartheen. Their paleness is purely skin related. So, a form of fantasy leukism may account for their pale white skin. This would explain why no tanning is in evidence (neither on individual basis, nor across the centuries of generations) despite the climate and sparse dress. Certainly as a fantasy element, George could perfectly elect to create people on Planetos that are the “true white horses” amongst humans.

Hypothetically a complete leukism mutation such as Dominant White should be possible with humans. However, if a hypothetical human being were to have Dominant White leukism similar to a true white horse in the real world then he would have white or silver hair (the coat), normal colored eyes of the possible range, and porcelain pink skin, not actual milk-white skin. The Dominant White horse has a white coat and pink skin, not a white skin. The skin beneath the tuxedo of your housecat (piebald leukism) is a healthy pink. In the aSoIaF case of fantasy human leukism, I propose that George made the skin white while the hair and eyes are unaffected.

It is quite a jump to go from “George features leukistic mammals and birds” to “and also leukistic humans”, let alone “Qartheen in particular”. I cannot expect anyone, including myself, to consider such a thing without providing “evidence” for it. And of course, since this is not a real world where we can test the skin cells or genes of any book character, but a fictional fantasy world in timesetting with minimal understanding of science written by a mystery author who will not give us straightforward world-building answers the “evidence” will be literary allusions and parallels.

Firstly, we should ask ourselves whether there are other examples where George applies a coat pattern of a domesticated animal breed physically onto a race of people, and not necessarily leukism.

  • Black mares and Sarnori who are black-haired, black-eyed and brown skinned.
  • The brindle-skinned men of Sothoryos, another species of men whose skin is brindled like a dog’s coat may be brindled.

The Sothoryi are big-boned creatures, massively muscled, with long arms, sloped foreheads, huge square teeth, heavy jaws, and coarse black hair. Their broad, flat noses suggest snouts, and their thick skins are brindled in patterns of brown and white that seem more hoglike than human. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)

Pale Qartheen, black Summer Islanders, copper-skinned Dothraki, Tyroshi with blue beards, Lamb Men, Jogos Nhai, sullen Braavosi, brindle-skinned half-men from the jungles of Sothoros—from the ends of the world they came to die in Daznak’s Pit. (aDwD – Daenerys IX)

Brindled Half-Man

The brindle-skin reference applies to Tyrion. The quote itself uses the phrase “brindle-skinned half-men.” Half-man is what the clans of the Mountains of the Moon call Tyrion. Now, Tyrion may not have visible brindled skin, but his hair is brindled. If horses can represent their riders or aspects of a character, we could also consider traits of a character into a horse context. In this case, Tyrion’s brindled hair could be applied onto the coat of a hypothetical horse. Brindling with horses is not a genetic trait, but believed to be the result of spontaneous chimerism*: the clumping together of two pre-embryonic fertilized eggs (fraternal twins) resulting in a mish-mash of DNA that develops into one individual (see also House Blackfyre, the penultimate section about Maelys Blackfyre). This would be one of the snippets of literary parallel evidence that Tyrion is a chimera. And though Tyrion’s skin may not be visibly brindled to the naked eye, his skin would be brindled with the DNA of fraternal twins. 

*A certain brindle coat amongst horses has been proven to be hereditary, and thus not due to chimerism, but this is very recent evidence of only as late as 2016, and thus unknown to George RR Martin at the time of writing the first five books of the series.

If Qartheen are Dominant White leukists in the fantasy form I propose, the dominancy of it would explain why the descendants of kings and queens of Qarth insist on being regarded as Pureborn.

Descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth, the Pureborn commanded the Civic Guard and the fleet of ornate galleys that ruled the straits between the seas. […] The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn.  (aCoK, Daenerys III)

The Pureborn of Qarth are the descendants of the kings and queens of Qarth – royalty in other words. The word “pureborn” is loaded with meaning, beyond “I’m Royal blood” or “trueborn” – it is used as a qualifier on racial purity and thus implies that other milk-white Qharteen are “impure”. The Qartheen are not the sole obsessed with the purity of blood. The dragonlords of Old Valyria were, including Targaryens, as well as the nobility of Lys.

The blood of Valyria still runs strong in Lys, where even the smallfolk oft boast pale skin, silver-gold hair, and the purple, lilac, and pale blue eyes of the dragonlords of old. The Lysene nobility values purity of blood above all and have produced many famous (and infamous) beauties. (tWoIaF – The Free Cities: The Quarrelsome Daughters, Myr, Lys and Tyrosh)

And yet only the Qartheen make a point of it to use a title to indicate purity of blood, whereas the dragonlords and the nobles of Lys do not. Why? People tend to go by appearances. If someone with Valyrian features hatches an egg or becomes a dragonrider they are considered pure of blood, regardless whether they are trueborn or not. Precluding the Dance of the Dragons, the “greens” supporting Queen Allicent Hightower and her sons use this argument to predict that Rhaenyra’s sons (who do not have Valyrian features) will not be able to hatch their dragon eggs. With their non-existent genetic knowledge, they go by “if he/she looks and flies like a Targ, they’re pureborn,” and if not, they are impure. Going by appearances only works (well half of the time), because the Valyrian genotype is recessive, and thus is a rare phenotype. Children of mixed pairings with slaves and commoners from other regions of the world do not tend to sport Valyrian looks and thus are visibly “impure”. But if the Qartheen’s feature of being white as milk is dominant then the sons of royalty, merchants, spicers, pirates, courtesans, bedslaves and the kitchen slave will be white as milk too, no matter it their mother or father is Qaathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazareen, Naathi or of the Summer Islands.

Notice that when Dany passes through the streets she considers every man and woman lining up the streets or the balconies looking like a lord or lady.

The Qartheen lined the streets and watched from delicate balconies that looked too frail to support their weight. They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

When “purity” is not visibly discernable in a society clinging to a stratification according to birth, while commoners can be as rich or richer than royalty, the latter must resort to the verbal claim by calling themselves Pureborn. It is all that is left to them to maintain a line of separation between themselves, other nobles, rich commoners and slaves fathered by Qartheen. This is not unlike Dany’s brother Viserys who must beg while in exile but verbally insists on being called the true king of Westeros, even though everything he owns is gifted to him.

Now, we can return to the question that started all this talk of albinism and leukism: if Varys is pale as a Qartheen, can he have a Naathi mother or grandmother? Well, yes, he can if Qartheen paleness is dominant leukism. A child of a Naathi bedslave in Lys and Qartheen trader visiting the pillow house would not have a lovely bronzed shade between dusk and white, but be as pale as milk too. Dominant white leukism might betray a Qartheen ancestry, but equally hides and disguises every other ancestry. So, Varys’s powder conceals his natural skin tone, which turns out to be as pale as the powder, but then his natural skin tone conceals every other possible genetic ancestry other than the Qartheen one.

Via Dany’s handmaiden Doreah we know that Qartheen traders do visit the pleasure houses of Lys.

A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. […] Magister Illyrio had found her in a pleasure house in Lys. (aGoT, Daenerys III)

By now, you might consider the idea of Qartheen being a population of leukists that pass on their dominant white-skinned gene in analogy of horses as diverting. But you may want to remind me that Qartheen ride camels, not horses. Well, it would be glaringly obvious if Qartheen rode”true white horses”. As Dominant Whites, the Qartheen themselves are the horses already. Without camels we lose the “silk route” Constantinople symbolism for the city. And finally, at Yunkai, an actual white camel is featured. Yunkai lies along the silk trade route and is a trade partner of Qarth.

The envoys from Yunkai arrived as the sun was going down; fifty men on magnificent black horses and one on a great white camel. (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

This leukistic camel was likely a trade gift from the Qartheen, since Qartheen are the ones only riding camels, while the Yunkai tend to ride horses.

You may also agree with my point that it is unlikely that Varys powdered his hands to commit the murder of Kevan with a crossbow, and therefore he is truly a very pale man. But are there clues to actually link Varys’s paleness to leukism? Well, there are. Consider the mention of spotted spiders in Sothoryos.

[…], and spotted spiders weave their webs amongst the great trees. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)

The whole line about these spotted spiders applies metaphorically to Varys weaving webs between the family trees of the great houses in Westeros. But that metaphor would work just as well if the spiders were not spotted. So, the spiders having spots is significant by itself. And since Varys is the sole character called The Spider, the spots tell us something about Varys, but what? Is it entirely metaphorical in the sense of “a spider does not lose his spots” or is it a physical clue about the Spider?

George has several characters called “spotted” for their physical features. Sylva Santagar for example is called “Spotted Sylva” for her freckles, which is another genetic skin trait related to melanin overproduction. People with freckles do not lack pigment cells in their skin. It is a trait where skin cells overproduce melanin, but the cells are unevenly distributed. The main point here is not that “spotted” = “freckles”, since it is unlikely that Varys powders his face and hands merely out of vanity over freckles, but that George uses “spotted” in relation to physical features. Freckles are but one example, but it could also apply for piebaldism.

Note that Sylva’s friends also pretend they call her Spotted Sylva for her “origin”, House Spotswood, and thus the spotting of the spiders weaving in the woods is a clue to Varys’s ancestry. This most certainly is not a reference to Varys having Sothoryi origin, since we are told the women can only breed with males of their own species. This only leaves spotted spiders as a reference to leukism and  piebald (which is most certainly dominant).

Spotted Spider of House Webber

Above I interpreted Spotted Spiders of Sothoryos exclusively how it could fit Spider Varys. However, it may not be a reference to Varys at all, but to an entirely different historical character – Rohanne Webber who appears in the story The Sworn Sword of the Dunk & Egg novellas. The sigil of house Webber is a black field with a spotted spider in a silver web. Rohanne Webber was nicknamed the Red Widow for the many husbands that died, since she was 10. She had red hair and freckles (like Spotted Sylva). And in the novella The Sworn Sword, her soldiers and knights are generally referred to as “spiders”. Eventually, she married six times and only had surviving children with her last husband, Gerold Lannister. Her children with Gerold were the twins Tywald and Tion Lannister, Tytos and Jason. Tytos fathered Tywin, Kevan, Genna, Tygett and Gerion Lannister, while Jason fathered Joanna Lannister, Stafford and Damon.

Freckled Rohanne Webber of the Reach House Webber with the Spotted Spider sigil is thus the grandmother of Tywin, Kevan and Genna Lannister, and the great-grandmother of Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion on both the paternal and maternal side, as well as the great-grandmother of Lancel, missing Tyrek and long haired Daven Lannister on the paternal side.

If we combine this with the brindle-skinned half-men of Sothoryos and how they are tied to Tyrion’s chimerism, then it is far more likely that the Spotted Spider reference in the World Book alludes to House Webber and how Rohanne managed to have woven a web so wide that she has descendants in the Riverlands, marrying into House Frey, great-great grandchildren on the throne (Joffrey and Tommen) and a great-great-granddaughter betrothed to Trystane Martell, a prince of Dorne, than the Spotted Spiders being a reference to Varys.

Another hint for it is Daenerys voyage into the Red Waste, which is what is left of the Qaathi kingdom of city-states, aside from Qarth. Now first notice that when she travels into this ancient kingdom, she does this as bald as Varys, and she wears the pelt of the leukistic white lion, slain in the Dothraki Sea by Drogo.

Her hair had burned away in Drogo’s pyre, so her handmaids garbed her in the skin of the hrakkar Drogo had slain, the white lion of the Dothraki sea. Its fearsome head made a hood to cover her naked scalp, its pelt a cloak that flowed across her shoulders and down her back. (aCoK, Daenerys I)

The white lion is an appropriate leukistic animal for Dany, as the mutation that causes lions to be white is recessive, just as the Valyrian features are recessive, in contrast to the proposed Dominant White of the Qaathi.

Following the comet, Dany’s khalasar ride into the Red Waste until they come across Vaes Tolorro, one of the Qaathi cities sacked by Dothraki. Its every wall and building is white as the moon, windowless, and it seems as if these people never knew color.

Dany was about to command them to make camp when her outriders came racing back at a gallop. “A city, Khaleesi,” they cried. “A city pale as the moon and lovely as a maid. An hour’s ride, no more.” […] When the city appeared before her, its walls and towers shimmering white behind a veil of heat, it looked so beautiful that Dany was certain it must be a mirage. […] How long the city had been deserted she could not know, but the white walls, so beautiful from afar, were cracked and crumbling when seen up close. Inside was a maze of narrow crooked alleys. The buildings pressed close, their facades blank, chalky, windowless. Everything was white, as if the people who lived here had known nothing of color. (aCoK, Daenerys I)

So, in a sense we go from a leukistic lion, to a leukistic city, ending with Dany meeting three (leukistic) Qartheen. The description of the city itself is as befitting of the Qartheen mentality as it is of Varys with his chalked or “powdered” hands and “facade”: crooked, nothing but a beautiful mirage in motivation, until you look closer and the deception cracks and crumbles.

Finally, there are complete leukistic spiders mentioned in the lore of Westeros: the legendary ice spiders.

The horn blew thrice long, three long blasts means Others. The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows, the monsters of the tales that made him squeak and tremble as a boy, riding their giant ice-spiders, hungry for blood …  (aSoS, Samwell I)

“[…] Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part’s plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don’t know what those are. […]” (aFfC, Samwell I)

The tales go on to say [the Others] rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf.  (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Long Night)

400px-Marc_Simonetti_Ice_Spider_OtherYou might suppose those spiders are wighted giant spiders covered in hoarfrost like the dead horses. But Old Nan, who knows more grains of truth than maesters would give credit, describes them as “pale white” and big. The illustration of the World Book by Marc Simonetti agrees with Old Nan’s description – spiders with actual white skin and hair and black eyes (not blue). “

[…] And the Others smelled the hot blood in [the Last Hero], and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—”(aGoT, Bran IV, Old Nan’s story)

If the Ice Spiders are actually living leukist spiders, then they are a metaphor for Varys, and not just a horror story detail that George put in the books for shuddering effect alone. No wonder Sam would not know what they are, because Sam explaining them would be breaking the 4th wall.

The Others generally do not ride “ice horses”, but wighted ones. The horses do not reflect the physical state of the Others, but “how they ride to power”: the animated dead are their armies. This metaphor can then be transferred to the pale white spiders: the Others ride to power because of Varys. If the ice spiders only serve as a metaphor, then we will never see actual ice spiders, just like we will never see spotted spiders of Sothoryos.

It is noteworthy that the ice spiders are only mentioned in relation to history. The metaphor thus is not about how Varys’s actions to plummet Westeros into war to install his self-chosen Aegon on the throne help the Others. If that were the case, then we also would have Others riding ice lions and ice mockingbirds or ice giants. Can we think of a past event in Varys’s life that might have helped the Others? Well, yes – decades ago, the sorcerer burned Varys’s parts for a demon or being in blue flames. And the eerily similar, but mundane scene of Dany charring a snake on a brazier and feeding it to her dragons in Qarth combined with her noticing how they are growing strongly suggests that is what the ritual accomplishes – it feeds whatever power or magic you give it to. Many have wondered and speculated whether the voice that Varys heard may have been related to the Others. The ice spiders being a metaphor for a leukistic Varys would be evidence for it.

All the leukist animals tell us something about Varys. So why not the actual leukistic spiders too?

  • The white hart is featured at a time when Varys appears to serve Robert Baratheon, a deer stag. On top of that Varys blames Ned Stark for Robert’s death, just as wolves are blamed for devouring the white hart that Robert was hunting.
  • A bald Dany wears the pelt of a white lion (a skinchanger metaphor) at a time Varys pretends to serve the Lannisters and Tyrion in particular. He skinchanged from a white hart into a white lion.
  • White ravens only carry the important messages.
  • White camel at Yunkai with a party trying to dissuade Dany from her conquering war path in Slaver’s Bay and just go to Westeros instead. It is likely a Qartheen trade gift to Yunkai, like Illyrio and Qarth both wish to gift Dany riches to convince her to sail West. Certainly at the time, Varys hoped for the same.
  • Spotted spiders in Selhorys weave their webs between trees, like Varys does between the great houses.
White Dwarf Elephant

In aDwD, Tyrion sees a white dwarf elephant in Selhorys, after he convinced Aegon to go West during a game of cyvasse and before Jorah abducts Tyrion at the brothel. He sees more of these in Volantis. Meanwhile Quentyn Martell observes Old Volantis is full of them.

A two-wheeled cart went rumbling past them, pulled by a white dwarf elephant.  (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

Farther on, they fell in behind a smaller elephant, white as old bone and pulling an ornate cart. “Is an oxcart an oxcart without an ox?” Tyrion asked his captor. When that sally got no response, he lapsed back into silence, contemplating the rolling rump of the white dwarf elephant ahead of them. Volantis was overrun with white dwarf elephants. As they drew closer to the Black Wall and the crowded districts near the Long Bridge, they saw a dozen of them. […] For half a heartbeat he thought he glimpsed Illyrio Mopatis, but it was only one of those white dwarf elephants passing the front door.  (aDwD, Tyrion VII)

Real world white elephants are not leukists, but albinos. This is the reason why I did not include it in the above list of leukist animals. Furthermore, while ice spiders, white ravens and white lions and camels are portrayed as large – as big as hounds, larger than normal black ravens and great, respectively – and spotted spiders must be large in order to make such great webs to deserve a mention in the world book about Sothoryos, the white elephants in the books are dwarf elephants. The repeated dwarf mention is thus a link to Tyrion. Other comparisons and mentions imply it is a relevant Tyrion symbol in relation to Illyrio and Old Volantis. So, I will save any meaningul exploration to them for an essay on either Illyrio or Tyrion.

You may argue that complete skin leukists would have to shun the sun. Windowless houses in Vaes Tolorro seem to agree with a lifestyle of avoiding sunlight. And white houses and walls reflect all light away from the house. So, why then do Qartheen children run around naked, and do other Qartheen line the streets and gather on balconies in clothing that leaves them half bare? This is not the type of behavior that fits someone who has no pigment cells to protect the skin against harmful ultraviolet light.

As she rode her silver into the city, small children rushed out to scatter flowers in her path. They wore golden sandals and bright paint, no more.

Notice how the children’s implied naked bodies are “painted”. Paint does not have to be just ornamental, but could act like a sunblock. And I argue that powder may serve Varys for the same purpose.

Then consider the architectural description of Qarth. First there are three city walls.

Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: […] The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: […] The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Different types of material and color reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light as well as radiation that we cannot “see” but feel or be affected by, such as infrared (aka heat) and ultraviolet. Red sandstone reflects red wavelength light and infrared, grey granite reflects most light, while black marble absorbs all light. These walls do not solely function as triple protection against enemies and ornamentation, but are shields against sunlight and sun radiation. First heat is reflected, then the shorter wavelengths are reflected, and finally whatever wavelength manages to still pass is absorbed.

All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Buildings that crowd imply high buildings built close together. The streets would be dappled in shadow most of the day. Rose and violet serve as a shield against violet and ultraviolet light, while umber serves as another heat reflector.

Pyat Pree conducted her little khalasar down the center of a great arcade where the city’s ancient heroes stood thrice life-size on columns of white and green marble. They passed through a bazaar in a cavernous building whose latticework ceiling was home to a thousand gaily colored birds. Trees and flowers bloomed on the terraced walls above the stalls, while below it seemed as if everything the gods had put into the world was for sale.  (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Yes, they have roof gardens and squares with fountains, but these are the ornamentals where the crowds of Qarth do not linger or gather. They line up the narrow streets, buy and haggle in the cavernous bazaar, or gather in the central arcaded plaza. And they travel by palanquins, behind opaque curtains that effectively seal out the heat and sight of the world.

The drapes kept out the dust and heat of the streets, but they could not keep out disappointment. Dany climbed inside wearily, glad for the refuge from the sea of Qartheen eyes.[…] Reclining on cool satin cushions, Xaro Xhoan Daxos poured ruby-red wine into matched goblets of jade and gold, his hands sure and steady despite the sway of the palanquin. […] “Khaleesi,” Aggo called through the drapes as the palanquin jerked to a sudden halt. Dany rolled onto an elbow to lean out. They were on the fringes of the bazaar, the way ahead blocked by a solid wall of people. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

Xaro’s palace matches the description of an Italian palazzo – roomy, airy, wide, but in daylight shadow. Even the pool that Dany bathes in is not touched by sunlight.

She had not expected a palace larger than many a market town. […] Xaro swore that his home could comfortably house all of her people and their horses besides; indeed, it swallowed them. An entire wing was given over to her. She would have her own gardens, a marble bathing pool, a scrying tower and warlock’s maze. […] In her private chambers, the floors were green marble, the walls draped with colorful silk hangings that shimmered with every breath of air. […] When all the men had gone, her handmaids stripped off the travel-stained silks she wore, and Dany padded out to where the marble pool sat in the shade of a portico. The water was deliciously cool, and the pool was stocked with tiny golden fish that nibbled curiously at her skin and made her giggle. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Where Vaes Tolorro shows primitive architectural tactics to hide from the sun, Qarth made an architectural art of it to appear to live out in the open, a feast for eyes, but effectively living in cool shadow. Qarth is like an Italian city, light and airy, yet one is rarely exposed to the sun directly in the narrow shaded streets or beneath the vaulted arcades.

Now consider likewise how Varys traverses the city and keep.  When he is out in the streets, he tends to wear the disguise of a begging brother, with a hood or cowl. He travels in and out the red keep via underground passages. King’s Landing is not built to avoid sunlight, like Qarth. So, he must make due by operating beneath cloaks and shadowed, dark passages, or as a child in Pentos sleep by day in the sewers and only come out at night.

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Qartheen slaves

We could imagine how a Qartheen merchant might have anchored at Lys for trade, and have a night out in the red district, bed a bedslave and father Varys on her. But can Qartheen also end up as slaves? Well, yes. Amongst the 1000 Unsullied (eunuchs) that Daenerys inspects on the Plaza of Pride in Astapor, she sees Dothraki, Lhazarene, Summer Islanders, Ghiscari and pale Qartheen. And a Lyseni gets his nipple cut off.

More than half had the copper skins and almond eyes of Dothraki and Lhazerene, but she saw men of the Free Cities in the ranks as well, along with pale Qartheen, ebon-faced Summer Islanders, and others whose origins she could not guess. And some had skins of the same amber hue as Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the bristly red-black hair that marked the ancient folk of Ghis, who named themselves the harpy’s sons. (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Of course, it should be noted that if Qartheen are indeed dominant white leukists, then they may have only gotten their appearance because of a trader fathering a child on a bedslave.

Historically, Qaathi were taken into slavery over the course of the last four centuries. Qarth is the last remaining city of the Qaathi civilisation that arose in the grasslands, far more north and now dominated by the Dothraki. The Qaathi were natives to the grasslands, much like the white lion is. They built towns, occasionally coming into contact and conflict with the Sarnori who built their kingdom around the Silver Sea. More often than not, the Qaathi lost the wars with Sarnori and migrated more south, building new city-states, including Qarth at the Jade Sea. But the southern soil turned to desert, the Red Waste, as they tried to gain a foothold there. The Dothraki mopped up the remainder in the Century of Blood (between 400 and 300 years ago) after the Doom.  Those who survived the Red Waste, were killed, driven off or sold into slavery by the Dothraki. Only Qarth with its triple wall survived and eventually flourished. Vaes Tolorro (“City of Bones”) where Dany shelters early in aCoK is one such sacked Qaathi city. Nearby Dany’s scouting bloodriders come across similarly sacked, but smaller cities, such as Vaes Orvik (“City of the Whip”), alluding to those Qaathi habitants having been whipped into enslavement.

And this is where it becomes very interesting. The Wiki cites GRRM’s A World of Ice and Fire app as a source for a Qaathi city once called Qolahn. The Dothraki renamed it Vaes Qosar, which means – and I kid you not – City of Spiders. While there are several references to spiders in the World Book, most refer to attributes or features. This one though is an origin reference. It is situated in the southern ranges of the Red Waste, north of Qarkash and north west of Qarth. If the Dothraki renamed it, because they conquered it, then we know what happened to the citizens of that city – they were sold into slavery. Does Varys’s ancestor originate from this Vaes Qosar?

WorldofIceandFire

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Sorrowful Man

When Varys murders Kevan Lannister he apologizes profusedly.

The eunuch set the crossbow down. “Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children. […] This pains me, my lord. You do not deserve to die alone on such a cold dark night. There are many like you, good men in service to bad causes … but you were threatening to undo all the queen’s good work, to reconcile Highgarden and Casterly Rock, bind the Faith to your little king, unite the Seven Kingdoms under Tommen’s rule. […] Are you cold, my lord?” asked Varys. “Do forgive me. The Grand Maester befouled himself in dying, and the stink was so abominable that I thought I might choke. […] I am sorry.” Varys wrung his hands. “You are suffering, I know, yet here I stand going on like some silly old woman. Time to make an end to it.” (aDwD, Epilogue)

“Forgive me, this pains me, forgive me, I am sorry”- Varys sounds like a Sorrowful Man, the assassins in Qarth, who apologize to their victims before killing them.

“Suppose a Sorrowful Man came to my palace one night and killed you as you slept,” said Xaro. The Sorrowful Men were an ancient sacred guild of assassins, so named because they always whispered, “I am so sorry,” to their victims before they killed them. The Qartheen were nothing if not polite. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

While Varys is a sorrowful man when he kills his victim, I in no way try to make the case that Varys is of the guild of Sorrowful Men. I am merely pointing out the striking parallel. The Sorrowful Men and their politeness were born out of the Qartheen belief that this is the civilised way of killing someone. Whatever or whomever Varys is, he most certainly remains polite, empathic and civilised like a Qartheen, even when murdering Kevan Lannister.

In the last section “Now it Ends” of the chthonic cycle essay of the Cursed Souls of Eddard and Robert I mentioned King Pentheus of Thebes who is thorn and shredded by the maenads while spying on them as they mistake him for a boar. Of relevance here is the meaning of the name Pentheus: “Man of Sorrows” or, well a “Sorrowful Man”. The Greek root is the word pénthos for grief, sorrow or mourning. And of course that is exactly the name for Illyrio’s city, Pentos. It is doubtful that George chose this name by coincidence, since this type of grief is caused by the loss of a loved one, which is exactly what Illyio reveals to Tyrion in aDwD. Relevant for this essay and the section, is that Varys spent most of his teen and young adult life in Pentos after escaping Myr, and it is in Pentos that Varys transforms from a common thief into the pure creature of a civilised spymaster who kills his targets politely and apologetically.

If a single tear had been rolling out Varys’s eye like Xaro Xhoan Daxos in aDwD’s epilogue as he speaks to Kevan, the picture of a Qartheen would be complete. And the whole of Varys’s enigmatic behavior, from inaction, betrayals, to helping, combined with his self-proclaimed excuses not to act against injustice or motivations to commit murder are very reminiscint of the same behavior of the Pureborn and Xaro Xhoan Daxos that puzzles Dany so during her stay in Qarth, just as Varys’s behavior and motives puzzle us, the readers. Xaro certainly can do the tear mummery to perfection, so much that George eventually uses the phrase mummer’s tears, which should bring Varys to mind.

The Qartheen wept often and easily; it was considered a mark of the civilized man.[…] A single perfect tear ran down the cheek of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The master of the Indigo Star was Qartheen, so he wept copiously when asked about Astapor. “The city bleeds. Dead men rot unburied in the streets, each pyramid is an armed camp, and the markets have neither food nor slaves for sale. And the poor children! King Cleaver’s thugs have seized every highborn boy in Astapor to make new Unsullied for the trade, though it will be years before they are trained.”  (aSoS, Daenerys VI)

“Shall I ask again?” wondered Xaro. “No, I know that smile. It is a cruel queen who dices with men’s hearts. Humble merchants like myself are no more than stones beneath your jeweled sandals.” A single tear ran slowly down his pale white cheek.
Dany knew him too well to be moved. Qartheen men could weep at will. “Oh, stop that.” […] I know [an enemy] stands before me now, weeping mummer’s tears. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Xaro is not the sole Qartheen weeping tears in front of Dany. The master of the ship Indigo Star weeps as well as he relates what is happening in Astapor. Notice how he laments the “poor children”, like Varys laments little Rhaenys, Robert’s bastard children murdered by the Gold Cloaks, or manipulates Ned Stark over Sansa, or tells Kevan he does it “for the children”.

While Varys does not cry perfect single tears, he washes his hands (from lies and manipulation), and feigns to be close to tears often, and always in relation to the “children”. Of course in feudal Westeros with its macho culture, an actual weeping eunuch would serve his mummer’s purpose less than a near-weeping man.

Rhaenys was a child too. Prince Rhaegar’s daughter. A precious little thing, younger than your girls. She had a small black kitten she called Balerion, did you know? I always wondered what happened to him. Rhaenys liked to pretend he was the true Balerion, the Black Dread of old, but I imagine the Lannisters taught her the difference between a kitten and a dragon quick enough, the day they broke down her door.” Varys gave a long weary sigh, the sigh of a man who carried all the sadness of the world in a sack upon his shoulders. “The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me … why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones? Ponder it, if you would, while you wait upon the queen. And spare a thought for this as well: The next visitor who calls on you could bring you bread and cheese and the milk of the poppy for your pain … or he could bring you Sansa’s head. The choice, my dear lord Hand, is entirely yours.” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

The poor child,” murmured Varys. “A love so true and innocent, Your Grace, it would be cruel to deny it … and yet, what can we do? Her father stands condemned.” His soft hands washed each other in a gesture of helpless distress. (aGoT, Sansa IV)

“Your own sweet sister,” Varys said, so grief-stricken he looked close to tears. “It is a hard thing to tell a man, my lord. I was fearful how you might take it. Can you forgive me?” (aCoK, Tyrion II, in response to Varys knowing that Cersei gave Slynt the order to kill Robert’s bastards)

“Alas, our beloved Tyrek has quite vanished, the poor brave lad.” Varys sounded close to tears. (aSoS, Tyrion III)

Aside from pretending to be close to tears, Varys’s birth connection to Lys implies the Tears of Lys, a poison that Varys claims killed Jon Arryn, but he himself proposes as murder weapon to kill Daenerys during the council meeting in aGoT.

Kinder,” Varys said. “Oh, well and truly spoken, Grand Maester. It is so true. Should the gods in their caprice grant Daenerys Targaryen a son, the realm must bleed.” […] “By now, the princess nears Vaes Dothrak, where it is death to draw a blade. If I told you what the Dothraki would do to the poor man who used one on a khaleesi, none of you would sleep tonight.” He stroked a powdered cheek. “Now, poison … the tears of Lys, let us say. Khal Drogo need never know it was not a natural death.”(aGoT, Eddard VIII)

All of these tears are “fake tears” and “mummer’s tears”. In fact, not only are the tears of Lys false tears, Varys is performing a mummery in that small council meeting. Varys has no intention to have Dany die: with the same karavan bringing the poisonor also arrives a letter for Jorah to stop and reveal the plot. Its sole intent is to provoke Drogo into action. And it would have worked if Drogo had not gotten himself killed by putting mud on a large surface wound.

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Xaro Xhoan Daxos

Speaking of Xaro, …

The bald man with the jewels in his nose answered in the Valyrian of the Free Cities, “I am Xaro Xhoan Daxos of the Thirteen, a merchant prince of Qarth.” (aCoK, Daenerys I)

Xaro was a languid, elegant man with a bald head and a great beak of a nose crusted with rubies, opals, and flakes of jade. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The jewelry in his beaked nose I will leave for the next essay, but here I want to focus on his baldness. Graned, many characters are bald in this series, and not every balding man is a parallel, stand-in or clue to Varys: Tywin, Stannis, Old Bear Jeor Mormont, his son Jorah Mormont, Pycelle, Aemon Targaryen, many and more. Most of these characters are balding as a result of age or only partially bald and they have otherwise nothing else in common with Varys. But some share more attributes or similarities with Varys other than baldness, and therefore can be considered to be a possible parallel or stand-in.

  • Strong Belwas: bald, beardless, big, eunuch, freed slave.
  • Aegon V (aka Egg): hairless as an egg, his brother Aerion Brightflame threatened to castrate Egg and held a knife to his male parts, Aegon V aimed to reduce the power of the lords of Great House in favor of an absolute monarchy ruling for the common folk, and thus a breakdown of feudal society.
  • Hairless Dany: like Egg, who has parallels with Varys.
    • She wears the skin of the leukistic white lion.
    • Her charring a chopped up snake on a brazier and feeding it to magical creatures, while wearing purple silk.
    • Chooses her dragon over her achieved peace and compromize in Mereen, disappears and chooses “fire and blood” in the grasslands, around the time that Varys commits to Aegon (the mummer’s dragon).

So, let us look at the parallels between Xaro and Varys, aside from baldness.

  • Xaro and Varys speak alike, with self pity and empathy, yet plot ruthlessly.
  • Neither are “pureborn”, yet both are pale as milk.
  • Both men dislike magic and advize Dany and Tyrion respectively against using it.
  • Neither Varys nor Xaro are interested in women for the first is a eunuch and the second is homosexual.

Xaro’s flowery protestations of passion amused her, but his manner was at odds with his words. While Ser Jorah had scarcely been able to keep his eyes from her bare breast when he’d helped her into the palanquin, Xaro hardly deigned to notice it, even in these close confines. And she had seen the beautiful boys who surrounded the merchant prince, flitting through his palace halls in wisps of silk. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

In [Xaro’s] honor Daenerys had donned a Qartheen gown, a sheer confection of violet samite cut so as to leave her left breast bare. Her silver-gold hair brushed lightly over her shoulder, falling almost to her nipple. Half the men in the hall had stolen glances at her, but not Xaro. It was the same in Qarth. She could not sway the merchant prince that way. […] “I may be a young girl, but I am not so foolish as to wed a man who finds a fruit platter more enticing than my breast. I saw which dancers you were watching.”
Xaro wiped away his tear. “The same ones Your Grace was following, I believe. You see, we are alike. […]” (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Varys cites a personal reason to hate and fight Stannis: Stannis consorts with a sorceress and meddles in magic. Meanwhile Xaro time and time again attempts to dissuade Dany from seeking council with the Undying and expresses distrust and dislike of their warlocks, like Pyat Pree.

[…] since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

“The young queen is wise beyond her years,” Xaro Xhoan Daxos murmured down at her from his high saddle. “There is a saying in Qarth. A warlock’s house is built of bones and lies.” […] “Once they were mighty,” Xaro agreed, “but now they are as ludicrous as those feeble old soldiers who boast of their prowess long after strength and skill have left them. They read their crumbling scrolls, drink shade-of-the-evening until their lips turn blue, and hint of dread powers, but they are hollow husks compared to those who went before. Pyat Pree’s gifts will turn to dust in your hands, I warn you.” (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The merchant prince sat up sharply. “Pyat Pree has blue lips, and it is truly said that blue lips speak only lies. Heed the wisdom of one who loves you. Warlocks are bitter creatures who eat dust and drink of shadows. They will give you naught. They have naught to give.” (aCoK, Daenerys III)

And of course, like Varys, Xaro is not really on Dany’s side. His sole aim to pretend to be her friend and acting like a suitor is because he wants a dragon. One of the reasons that Illyrio and Varys would want Dany to marry Aegon are her dragons. Dragons are a military power as much as a horde of Dothraki are.

A last visual parallel between Xaro and Varys can be found in aDwD, when Xaro is described in similar clothing than Varys’ introduction to the reader.

The pale, lean, hawk-faced man who shared her high table was resplendent in robes of maroon silk and cloth-of-gold, his bald head shining in the torchlight as he devoured a fig with small, precise, elegant bites. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Notice how George puts the spotlight, euhm torchlight, onto Xaro’s bald head.

The differences matter just as much as the anologies. Instead of purple silk “robes” in the above quote, we have maroon – dark, brown red. I will go into the dye use of maroon versus purple in the Part II Color Purple essay. Another, glaring difference is that while Varys is plump, Xaro is slender and lean. This is due to Varys being a eunuch, while Xaro is not.

“The slaves in the spiked bronze hats?” Dany had seen Unsullied guards in the Free Cities, posted at the gates of magisters, archons, and dynasts. “Why should I want Unsullied? They don’t even ride horses, and most of them are fat.”
“The Unsullied you may have seen in Pentos and Myr were household guards. That’s soft service, and eunuchs tend to plumpness in any case. Food is the only vice allowed them.[…]” (aSoS, Daenerys I)

As mentioned in the Tall Men section of the Sarnori, having been castrated, Varys has a reduced production of the hormone testosterone. While in children it promotes protein synthesis and thus growth, in adults testosterone boosts the build-up of muscle, bone-mass and body hair. Men producing higher levels of testosterone grow taller and tend to make muscle mass, and thus be lean and slender. They also grow more cartilege on the nose bridge during puberty, and their previous small, cute noses can grow into a big hawk nose. Men’s noses are bigger than women and have more variations in profile because of this. This is the basic idea behind a “man with a big nose has a big penis”. And thus, Xaro is the vision of what a non-castrated Varys would look like basically. If Varys had not been castrated, he would be lean, slender, tall, sexually active and have a masculine, noteworthy nose. And it is with this non-castrated version of Varys that I rest my case on the numerous hints of Varys having ties to Qarth, other than the place where Illyrio acquires silks for Varys.

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Grasslands

Grassroot civilizations

The Grasslands is the area that is portrayed as the area where civilzation was born, of not just one people, but many.

Beyond the Forest of Qohor, Essos opens up upon a vast expanse of windswept plains, gentle rolling hills, fertile river valleys, great blue lakes, and endless steppes where the grass grows as high as a horse’s head. […] It was here amidst these grasses that civilization was born in the Dawn Age. Ten thousand years ago or more, when Westeros was yet a howling wilderness inhabited only by the giants and children of the forest, the first true towns arose beside the banks of the river Sarne and beside the myriad vassal streams that fed her on her meandering course northward to the Shivering Sea. The histories of those days are lost to us, sad to say, for the kingdoms of the grass came and went in large measure before the race of man became literate. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

Where our primate ancestors lived in the trees of the forests of fruit, it was the move into the plains and steppes that forced primates to walk on their hind legs as well as make tools to defend one self against predators. The latter pushed the evolution of the brain capacity in overdrive, leading to invention after invention. And thus the plains and steppes that lacked natural shelters were the regions where the first settlements were built by humans, even if they were hunter gatherers, such as the huts built with mammoth bones in the Ukraine during the Upper Paleolithic (15000 years ago).

The area of the Grasslands on Planetos seems to have functioned as a similar type of accelerator for cultures to develop. Not only is it the origin region of the Sarnori and the Qaathi, but the maesters also speculate that the First Men and Andals may have originated from this region before they migrated westward.

Some maesters believe that the First Men originated here before beginning the long westward migration that took them across the Arm of Dorne to Westeros. The Andals, too, may have arisen in the fertile fields south of the Silver Sea. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

The Qartheen claim that civilisation began with them. Meanwhile, the Sarnori claim descent of the Fisher Queens, who ruled the lands around the Silver Sea at the heart of the grasslands from a floating palace making its way around the shores. The Fisher Queens were sought out as wise women by kings and lords of other people for counsel.

The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

The son of the last Fisher Queen, Huzhor Amai, wed a woman of each of the three people – the Zoqora, Gipps and Cymmeri – surrounding the Silver Sea and bound them to him to become the Sarnori.

In the Sarnori section, I mentioned how their riders wore spider silk, but also stipulated that it is very unlikely that Varys actually has a Sarnori origin. Meanwhile, the literary hints and clues heavily favor a Qaathi origin for Varys instead. Aside from both people being “tall men”, they share the Grasslands as origin region where both initially established their kingdoms and fought each other, before the Dothraki conquered the Grasslands. The Qaathi migrated more south, until they reached the southern seas and established Qarth. Both people were largely conquered and destroyed by the Dothraki in the same Century of Blood, until each people only had one city left. And it is in this last remaining bastion that their fates reversed: Saath is a pitiful city depending on the generosity and help of Ib and Lothar, while Qarth is a rich jewel of a city along the Jade Sea. Hence, the spider-silk reference with the Sarnori does not imply a literal Sarnori origin for Varys, but is a Grassroot clue to the region of origin of the Qartheen civilisation with multiple ties to Varys.

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Lyber and the Spider Goddess

It is in this cradle of civilisations that we come across another spider reference other than spider silk: the lost city Lyber of an unnamed culture who revered a spider goddess.

We hear as well of the lost city Lyber, where acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless, bloody war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

This is the closest allusion to the Greek Arachne, who is often portrayed as a goddess in fantasy games. It makes sense to put such a reverence in the region from which civilisation originated, since “weaving” (the spider’s activity) is considered to be one of those fundamental cultural hallmark activities of a civilisation. If farming and husbandry renders people independent from gathering and hunting their food, the ability to weave ends the need to hunt furs and skins for clothing. The more cultures separate themselves of natural habitat, the more civilised they will claim themselves to be. Both Athena and her weaving rival Arachne represented this cultural milestone for the Greeks.

Arachne is not the sole ‘spider goddess’ in ancient civilisations. Near Mexico City thousands of tourists visit the mighty pre-Colombian site of Teotihuacan, known for its multiple pyramid complexes, with the moon and sun pyramids as the largest ones. Another famous temple there, the third largest pyramid, is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Though the origin of the feathered serpent likely comes from the older Olmec culture, the Teotihuacan temple (150-200 AD) has the earliest classic depictions of the feathered serpent as we see in later cities across all of Meso-America. Because it became such a widespread god, known as Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs and Kukulcan with the Yucatec Mayans, most people assume that he was the primary deity of Teotihuacan.

He was not. The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan was the primary deity (see top image of this essay). She is depicted on murals in the living quarters of the highest status people, but also featured in the Temple of the Jaguars, Temple of Agriculture, on pottery and even the back of mirrors, and there is a statue of her that once stood at the base of the Pyramid of the Moon. She simply is not as infamous with us modern people, because she was not as popular or widespread after Teotihuacan’s downfall in the 6th century.

Water flows from her hands. She wears a headdress with an owl mask, a nose pendant with three to five spider fangs and her retinue in the tree growing behind or above hers are little birds, spiders and butterflies. Thsoe should ring a bell when it comes to Varys who uses little birds for spies, is nicknamed the spider, and both spiders and butterflies weave silk.

The archeologist Karl Taube dubbed her the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. Especially spiders are often associated with her: they scurry in the background, over her dress, or if she holds a shield a spider-web is depicted on them. Since both the spider and owl were regarded as creatures of the darkness, she was most likely a chthonic underworld goddess, who simultaneously lies at the base of creation and civilisation, but also war. While there are later war-goddess derivates from her such as the Aztec Cihuacoatl, a major difference between them is that while he Aztecs focus on military glory to hold off an apocalypse, the Teotihuacan depictions give this ‘paradise on earth’  feel.

Peculiar is how both Lyber and Teotihuacan share a bloody feud between a spider goddess and a serpent god. Rich dwellings built near a temple of a certain deity are believed to have been occupied by powerful families or functionaries who held a dual spiritual and political role of importance in Teotihuacan. This is true for both the Great Goddess and Quetzalcoatl.

Even though a city-state, Teotihuacan exerted military control as far as the Mayan Peten region, such as Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras). According to an inscription in a monument in Tikal, Spearthrower Owl ascended the throne of an unspecified polity in 374 AD, but presumably Teotihuacan. Notice how this king of Teotihuacan associates himself with the owl, while the Great Goddess has an owl mask in her headdress. Then in 378 AD a military powerful figure called Fire is Born arrives in the Peten area, in Teotihuacan dress, conquers Tikal, killing the king of Tikal. He is believed to have been Spearthrower Owl’s general. In other words, Fire is Born and Teotihuacan committed a military coup in Tikal. And in 379 AD the son of Spearthrower Owl, Curled Nose, ascended the throne of Tikal, while Fire is Born remained the military overlord over the Mayan region. The interesting thing is that the overthrown family who was exiled from Tikal were referred to as the Feathered-Serpent people. After the coup, the Tikalese temple of the Feathered Serpent was burned, its sculptures torn down and a platform was built in front of it to hide its facade. More, around the same time, in the 4th century AD, a platform was also built in front of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan to obscure it from view from the main road as well. So, there was a bloody feud between those who affiliated themselves with the serpent god and those who affiliated with the great goddess, not just in Teotihuacan, but extending as far as Guatemala and Honduras.

It was long believed that Teotihuacan’s downfall was brought on by foreign enemies during a period of drought in the 6th century. Evidence though has shown that while dwellings of the elite and temples were burned and destroyed, no violence was done to the dwellings of the lower classes, suggesting that an internal uprising of the middle class and commoners (a revolution) caused the collapse of Teotihuacan, once the sixth largest city of its era across the globe with its 125,000 citizens. Spider Woman was forgotten and lost the feud of cultural legacy and focus. Instead of striving to create a utopia the apocalyptic war view of domination won out. And the iconographic win of the Feathered Serpent over the Great Goddess after Teotihuacan’s downfall may very well have served as an inspiration for George for Lyber and its bloody feud.

The name Teotihuacan comes to us from the Aztecs who occupied the highlands of central Mexico 1000 years later and is Nahuatl for ‘birthplace of the gods’. We do not know what the citizens called their own city, only that their contemporary Mayans called it ‘place of reeds’, which is likely as generic as our present day ‘The City’ with everyone understanding what city the person refers to in that country: for example New York in the States, Antwerp in Belgium.

We have something similar for Lyber. As it is a lost city and civilisation it is unclear who its citizens were or what they called their city themselves, exactly like Teotihuacan. George likely derived the name Lyber from the Latin “Liber” which means “free” or “the free one”. What are city-states called in Essos even now? Free Cities. So, linguistically the name Lyber suggests the name originates from a much later, possibly Valyrian, era where cities not under direct control of Valyrians were generically called free cities. As they stumbled upon the ruins of a lost, but once huge city with temples depicting  a spider goddess and a serpent god and evidence of internal strife, the discoverers simply called it Lyber as they would call any city-state that was independent of Valyrian rule.

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Asshai by the Shadow

Red Silk for a Black Cloak

We have one book reference that connects silk to Asshai – namely Mance Rayder’s story of the red silken inner lining of his cloak that prompted him to desert the Night’s Watch.

“One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadow-cat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. […]” [The King-Beyond-the-Wall] chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wisewoman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears . . . and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said. I left the next morning . . . for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.” He closed the clasp and sat back down again. (aSoS, Jon I)

We can almost certainly dismiss Varys as having an Asshai origin – no children are born there. The citizens are all immigrants from somewhere else, so to speak. And while Mance Rayder’s cloak of black with red silk calls forth the colors of House Targaryen, as did the coalblack and bloodred horses of the Sarnori, I would also remind the reader that the color red is associated to false trails in the books. Red silk from Asshai is a false origin lead, though it does seem to alter a person’s mind on what sort of life they will live drastically, and thus destiny.

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Asshai Citizens

Even if Asshai silk is a false lead for Varys’s ancestry, my previous speculation about leukism and architectural peculiarities about Vaes Tolorro and Qarth to avoid sunlight may have made you wonder, “What about people of Asshai?” There are Asshai citizens, and Asshai shadowbinders, but not Asshai people. That is perhaps the metaphorical reason why nobody rides horses in Asshai!

An account by Archmaester Marwyn confirms reports that no man rides in Asshai, be he warrior, merchant, or prince. There are no horses in Asshai, no elephants, no mules, no donkeys, no zorses, no camels, no dogs. Such beasts, when brought there by ship, soon die. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

What physical skin issues would lead to people to settle in Asshai in the first place, even though it is so inhospitable to life? Which real world disorder has symptomes and treatments that could be an inspiration for both fire and blood magic, when Asshai was built in an area that is hardly ever touched by direct sunlight?

Travelers tell us that the city is built entirely of black stone: halls, hovels, temples, palaces, streets, walls, bazaars, all. Some say as well that the stone of Asshai has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it, that it seems to drink the light, dimming tapers and torches and hearth fires alike. The nights are very black in Asshai, all agree, and even the brightest days of summer are somehow grey and gloomy. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

Even at the brightest day there is no sun at Asshai, but the sky is grey and gloomy, whether from mist or thick packs of ever present clouds. It is an ideal location for people who wish to avoid the sunlight. The black stone drinks and absorbs the sun, daylight and artificial light. One must be truly motivated to settle here or establish a colony to overcome the drawback of its inhospitability to life: animals die, no ability to grow food. Planetos tends to deal with certain diseases by creating a colony. For example, Chroyane serves as a colony for those with Grey Scale from all over the world and food is delivered to them. Where Chroyane’s isolated colony serves to protect the general populace of any city from contracting Grey Scale, with Asshai it should be a haven protecting those who would suffer horribly in any other parts of the world with normal ligth levels.

Only those people who are extremely light sensitive, even from artificial light would originally see Asshai as a salvation for them. This goes beyond leukism and albinism, though such people might appreciate a few years out of the sun. An extreme form of light sensitivity is associated with Erythropoietic Protoporphyria (EPP) or Protoporphyria or other variants of chronic porphyria disorders. It is a metabolism disorder caused by the deficiency of an enzyme in the blood that forms haeme of haemoglobin. As a result a surplus of unbound protoporphyrin and iron circulates through the body, including the skin. Unbound, the first is sensitive to UV-B light (also emitted by artificial or indirect light) and exposure to light sets of a chain reaction of a burning sensation (the nerves) as if being on fire, as well as the formation of lesions and blisters similar to 2nd degree burns.

Before arriving in Asshai, people may  have developed scar tissue on any skin exposed to light, including the face. They would wear veils and masks, both to protect their faces from light as well as hide the lesions and scars.

Those who walk the streets of Asshai are masked and veiled, and have a furtive air about them. Oft as not, they walk alone, or ride in palanquins of ebony and iron, hidden behind dark curtains and born through the dark streets upon the backs of slaves. […] Most sinister of all the sorcerers of Asshai are the shadowbinders, whose lacquered masks hide their faces from the eyes of gods and men. (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond – Asshai by the Shadow)

Curious is that maester Yandel claims in the World Book that shadowbinders typically wear lacquered masks. Quaithe of Qarth wears one and is a shadowbinder. But the Red Witch Melisandre “of Asshai” is also a shadowbinder and wears no mask, only a glamor (as of yet unconfirmed in the books, but strongly implied). Why not? Well, Melisandre is described as having red eyes, which is a strong indicator that she has at the very least occular albinism. Her albinism would promote her to seek shelter from the sun, but her skin would not blister or form lesions because of light. She may hide her true age, but there is no need to protect her face from any type of light with a mask.

Finally, shadowbinding is closely tied to blood magic. One of the chronic variants of porphyria is treated by bloodlettings, in order to reduce the surplus of iron. The need for the bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms, even in Asshai, would promote the discovery and experimenting with blood magic in combination with shadow magic.

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From a Colony to a Port

Unfortunately, exactly because of the low levels of light, nothing grows at Asshai but ghost grass and for some reason no animal survives for long. Colonies like these require food deliveries. Chroyane shows that food deliveries can be erratic, however, if they solely depend on the will and humane heart of a ship’s captain or a city’s triarch.

“Hatred does not stir the stone men half so much as hunger.” Haldon Halfmaester had wrapped a yellow scarf around his mouth and nose, muffling his voice. “Nothing any sane man would want to eat grows in these fogs. Thrice each year the triarchs of Volantis send a galley upriver with provisions, but the mercy ships are oft late and sometimes bring more mouths than food.”(aDwD, Tyrion V)

If a colony has something to sell that other people may want then people happily sail to the end of the seas for it. Dragonstone, amber and gold from the mountain range of the Shadow Lands serve excellently, as does practicing of magic.

No children are born here, and thus its populace is entirely dependent on settlers, who have no interest in having a family or farm. Despite it being a large city, the populace is small.

Asshai is a large city, sprawling out for leagues on both banks of the black river Ash. Behind its enormous land walls is ground enough for Volantis, Qarth, and King’s Landing to stand side by side and still have room for Oldtown. […] Yet the population of Asshai is no greater than that of a good-sized market town. By night the streets are deserted, and only one building in ten shows a light. Even at the height of day, there are no crowds to be seen, no tradesmen shouting their wares in noisy markets, no women gossiping at a well. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

Its populace cannot really grow, but it has managed to spark enough interest for individuals of all cultures to settle there temporarily. The safety from sunlight would be a draw for amenalistic albinos and leukists, such as Melisandre. The uncensured teaching of magic without restrictions would draw temporary settlers of people who have no light sensitivity issues themselves. So, one can see how Asshai therefore censures no magical practice and became an attractive colony for people who do not suffer from this allergy to light.

We have met quite a few characters who were trained in Asshai:

  • Mirri Maz Dur of the Lazarene who attempted to save Drogo with a blood magic ritual.
  • Melisandre who was taught shadowbinding, knows the tongue of Asshai and has read the prophecy of Azor Ahai returned there.
  • Quaithe of Qarth, a shadowbinder with lacquered mask, who warns Dany in Qarth and via glass candles (presumed) in Mereen, and who attempts to guide Dany to go to Asshai to learn the “truth”.
  • Maester Marwyn who is one of the few maesters who believes in magic and is skeptical of the anti-magic faction amognst the maesters.

Would it be so farfetched to expect Varys’s sorcerer who cut him stem and root as a child to have studied at Asshai as well? If so, then he “created” what Varys became: plucked him from his destiny with the mummers, made a eunuch of him, let him go to die or survive in the streets of Myr and form a deep hatred against magic, and ultimately the Spider.

Asshai has some type of library of old lore and prophecies. Since people cannot grow anything there and the colonists originally would have risen by people who require to avoid light or remain inside, it is not illogical that with too much time on their hands they wrote and amassed lore that came with the trade winds. If Varys’s sorcerer indeed tried to raise or empower the Others, then Asshai is the most likely place he would have learned much and more about the Long Night, aside from the Citadel of the maesters, the library of Winterfell and Castle Black. Their rolls may even contain references to the infamous ice spiders.

Some speculate that the sorcerer recognized Valyrian traits in Varys when he was with his mummer’s troupe in Myr and therefore performed the castration ritual. However, I suspect it was his paleness that would have caught the sorcerer’s attention.

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Summary and Conclusion (tltr)

In order to verify Varys’s origin it is near impossible to use his physical features. At best we can establish that he has a round face, either because of his plumpness or ethnicity. Using the logic of Sherlock Holmes in aDwD’s epilogue we have a strong indication that Varys has a very pale complexion beneath his powder. He is of average height, but his castration and life as street urchin in his youth may have hampered his growth. We do not know his eye-color, but the lack of remarks on this from POVs indicates they are not of an exceptional or remarkable color. Since he is bald, his hair could have any color.

Our stop-over at Naath taught us that Lys has a pillow house famous for its Naathi bedslaves there and that they  make the best, obedient slaves. We can observe that Varys behaves servile and obediently. On top of that he is extremely sensitive about blood. If the training of Unsullied can turn Naathi boys into men who kill puppies and newborn babies, then Varys’s life experiences can turn him into a man who is willing to murder for his goal. There are several parallels between Unsullied and Varys as well as reverse parallels, but the most noteworthy is the burning of their penis and testicles and thereby sacrifice potential descendants to a demon or god(dess) or magic that indicates this ritual empowers the target power. We even have this parallel when Dany chops up a snake and charrs the pieces on a brazier for her dragons in Qarth.

Traveling to the Grasslands we come across three remarkable spider references:

  • Sarnori riders wore spider-silk.
  • The rivaling kingdom of the Qaathi was pushed southward out of the Grasslands by the Sarnori into the region that became a Red Waste, with only Qarth still standing and even flurishing at the Jade Sea. One of the ruined Qaathi cities was nicknamed “City of Spiders” by the Dothraki.
  • Somewhere in the Grasslands there once was a city-state, now known as Lyber, where a Spider Goddess was revered, but also a Serpent God. The accolytes of these gods held an internal bloody feud that would lie at the basis of the collapse of this lost city. Inspiration for this Lyber’s history is likely real world Meso-American Teotihuacan where political followers of the Great Goddess (who is very much a Spider Woman) and the Feathred Serpent were military rivals at some point. The collapse of that city-state is believed to have been internal revolution from the common class against the elite.

Having three spider references that all relate to origin in an area where several people claim to have invented civilisation is what I consider a jackpot (you need more for a bingo). Spider-silk leads us to the Grasslands where a Spider Goddess was revered by unknown people. The City of Spiders is the strongest geographical indication that part of Varys’s ancestry is Qaathi, or Milk Men, as tall as Sarnori, but pale as milk.

Since George features several leukistic animals in the books, for which we can easily find a link to Varys, I argue that George may actually have made a people in Essos leukists like True White Horses, who carry a Dominant White Gene. Leukism does not affect the color of eyes as albinism would. Circumstantial evidence points to Qaathi and their surviving Qartheen being such leukists. While initially they made cities to hide from the sun, Qarth is a wonder of architecture where people can actually go about half naked in the city without ever fearing the sun, as all important meeting places, markets and streets would be in the shadow most of the day. As a Dominant White gene this form of leukism would mask any other ethnicity mixed into a Qartheen’s ancestry that could otherwise be determined by skin tone. Hence the elite of royal descendance try to distance themselves from the other Qartheen by their title as “Pureborn”, as there would be no other way to discern ethnic purity.

Varys has quite striking parallels with Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Any difference in appearance (nose, weight, height) is due to Varys’s castration. Like Qartheen he prides himself on being polite and civilised, be at the brink of mummer’s tears over the poor children, but is in fact far more ruthless. He murders Kevan much like  an apologetic Sorrowful Man. Not so incidentally, Pentos is Greek for “man of sorrows” or “sorrowful man” and is the city where Varys transformed himself from the prince of thieves hiding from slavers into the spymaster Spider.

Two spider references indicate that Varys himself is a leukist: the piebald Spotted Spiders of Sothyros and the infamous Ice Spiders of the Others. If this interpretation of leukism hints are correct, then the Ice Spiders serve as a metaphor how Varys’s ritual castration and burning of his private parts may have helped the Others. The leukism would be the main reason that Varys wears powder – it primary serves as a sunblock and secondary makes people assume his palenessis is due to powder.

So, I propose that Varys has Qaathi ancestry, either because his grandfather or father was a Qartheen merchant who bedded a woman at Lys, or because they were taken into slavery by the Dothraki. Just like Xaro he is not “pureborn” but instead an ethnic mixture. We cannot exclude him from having Naathi ancestry, because of the leukism.

Beyond this I clarified albinism and how Valyrian traits, the Daynes, Hightowers appear to be independent fantasy mutation types of these. Genetic drift with island populations can explain how such a recessive genotype can become a regular reappearing phenotype. In discussions many fail to account for the various hypomelanistic forms of albinism nor recognize that the argument about acuity is pointless when even an amenalistic albino like Bloodraven can shoot arrows with the sight of a hawk.

In the sidenotes I pointed out that the brindled half-men of Sothoryos are a hint for Tyrion being a chimera twin and mentioned that the many appearances of white dwarf elephants in aDwD tie Tyrion to recessive albinism.

I also propose Asshai was sought out as a refuge colony by people suffering from porphyria (allergy to light). Bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms in that area would have led to the discovery of using blood magic to shadowbind, thereby attracting non sufferers to experiment and learn there. This real world disease would explain the wearing of veils and masks even in an area where the sky is most ofthe time overcast. While Varys certainly could not have an Asshai origin through ancestry, it is not unlikely that the sorcerer who maimed him was trained there in blood magic. His research there about the long night might have prompted the sorcerer to find a perfect victim to empower the Others, thereby setting Varys on his Spider path.

The red thread between Unsullied, Varys, Qarth and Lys is the concept of purity. Kraznys mo Nakloz refers to full castrates as the purest creatures. In Qarth the descendants from Qartheen kings call themselves Pureborn. And in Lys the noble families are invested in pure Valyrian blood. Varys would not be regarded as pure blooded by Lyseni or Qartheen Pureborn. He however evolved into a “puremade” creature, the Spider, who may lurk in the dark, and disguise himself behind layers of ambiguity, but will neither rape nor plunder.

The dominant white leukism could potentially explain Varys’s background. Let’s say that hypothetically a Naathi bedslave slept with a Qartheen merchant. Lyseni aim to breed slaves, especially bedslaves, for beauty. The Lyseni owner might have expected a beautiful ethnic mixture, but to his or her horror instead the child was as pale as his Qartheen father, proving its dominancy over dusky skin. Such a dominant gene could not be tolerated to breed on Lys and thus was sold to a traveling mummer’s troupe. The sorcerer selected Varys for the same reasons – pale as milk skin and nobody would care if the boy would lose his ability to breed. This is of course a pure speculative scenario. We could add even more mixtures in Varys’s ancestry, including Valyrian, but ultimately the Qartheen and leukistic link is the likeliest reason he was sold to serve as a slave away from Lys and why the sorcerer noticed him over any other boy (at least this far west in Essos).

Despite the fact that the link to Qarth is so strong for Varys, I do think that George intends him to be a mixture of many and more people and keep his origin hidden behind layers of ambiguity and disguises, including genetic disguises such as leukism. Ultimately itis this that makes Varys someone “of the people”. It is why the Spider is so strongly linked to the the Grasslands, which is portrayed as a corridor and hotbed of several people that built and destroyed civilisations, era after era.

Qarth serves Varys’s characterization, behavior and self-proclaimed motivation extremely well. At the very least it links Varys to the hypocrisy of those who claim to be civilised. Qartheen regard themselves to be the inventors of civilisation and the most civlised, and yet they declare war on Dany  and help the Yunkai, because she messes up their business interests in slave trade. Qarth has slaves do the menial work. They may treat them kindly. They may not capture slaves like the Dothraki, nor do they train them like the Yunkai, but they buy them and use them. They are the equivalent of the consumers in our western civilised world who pride themselves that all our children have the protected right to get education and seek their own career, but just as well buy clothes from Asian countries where children make them in bondage. Our governments back trade agreements with such countries, even if a dictator or non-democratic government oppresses their people. And just like the Qartheen and Varys many people of our world actually believe we are more civilised. Like Varys they may wash their hands and sound close to tears when they hear or see atrocities somewhere else in the world, but throw up their hands in despair, “What can I alone do against it? I’m just one person,” but just as well would deny refugees from war devestated or extremely poor regions access to safety. Instead every so and so years we vote, to help someone into power we hope or believe might set everything to right, while of course equally we vote for that candidate to serve our own self-interest.

The civilised world funds and backs wars, dictators, oppression and abuse of the common folk. Heck they participate in it. Let us not forget that at the time that George started to publish his series the US had gone to their first war in Iraq, under Bush senior. Europe did nothing while former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, with genocide being committed under the watchful eye of UN blue helmets. While one people in Ruanda macheted millions of the other, the overall international response in the West was ‘pffff, let them kill each other,’ nor did anybody even care about warlord atrocities in Congo. And instead of getting better, it has grown worse the past two decades, and all the while global climate change should be our main social priority.

With Varys, and with Qarth, George reminds us of civilisation’s hypocrisy – pretty empathic words and heartfelt tears, that likely are not even that insincere, but at best followed up with inaction, at worst self-interested war mongering, albeit all very politely. And just once in a while the Western civilisation and Varys save a child’s life.

For more analysis on Qarth and Varys as parallels to the Others via ice spider connections, check out the Plutonian Others.