Quoth, the Raven

(Top image: The Raven, by Black Toad)

“Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. King’s blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It’s nonsense. Mance’s blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He’s a brigand, nothing more. There’s no power in brigand’s blood.
The raven looked up from the floor. “Blood,” it screamed. (aFfC, Samwell I)

In They’re Here! I laid before you the circumstantial evidence of the presence of some Others just north of Castle Black the day the Pink Letter arrives and Bowen Marsh attacks Jon, as well as the foreshadowing and indication that the moment Jon’s blood dropped on the snow, the Others raise an army of wights from the many brothers still buried and unburned in the lichyard.

Towards the end, I mentioned the concept of a Blood Seal, for which the whole series of essays is named. Basically the Blood Seal Thesis proposes that while children of the forest provide the spellwork for a warding spell as was used for Storm’s End, the Wall and Bloodraven’s cave, the spell is sealed and locked to a location or area by spilling one’s own blood. The spell then is tied to a particular blood imprint and the seal can only be broken by someone who has a similar imprint. And in the Wall’s case, Jon’s blood can break the seal.

It is quite a simple concept, but devastating for the years of speculation and theorizing on how the Wall ends up destroyed: Mel’s bag of tricks or Sam or Euron blowing the mended horn at the Fist of the First Men in Oldtown. If the Blood Seal Thesis is indeed true, then the true Wall (the magical ward) is already done for when Wyck grazed Jon’s neck. And that, quite understandably, is a hard pill to swallow.

Now, I did not pluck this Blood Seal concept out of thin air. Mormont’s raven shows it to Jon, Sam and the reader. He physically mimes it, using Sam as prop. Hence, this essay will analyze the words and actions of Mormont’s raven for two chapters: Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC and Jon’s second chapter of aDwD. These two chapters belong together, for they start as each other’s timeline parallel in Castle Black, before they conjoin with Jon informing Samwell that he is to go to Oldtown.

Index

  • Mormont’s Raven: my take on the arguments about interpreting the bird.
  • Bloodraven: when Mormont’s raven is skinchanged, Bloodraven is behind it, because this is how Bloodraven keeps true to his vows of the Night’s Watch.
  • Swapping Babes: Bloodraven does not want Jon to swap the babes, foreseeing death.
  • A Mad Mouse: Bloodraven skinchanges a mouse to hurry Sam into interrupting Jon’s meeting with Sam.
  • Saving a Son?: Is Bloodraven a sentimental old sot, or is there more?
  • The Shield: Bloodraven reenacts the blood magic that seals a warding spell.
  • The Seal: more wordplay by George about the Blood Seal
  • The Ward: a hostage is a ward and sending your hostage away may not be a great idea.
  • Conclusion (tl;tr)

Mormont’s Raven

Theorists and book fans have grown dubious about interpreting Mormont’s raven, ever since Ser Creigthon’s corn-code in 2013. Unfortunately the debunking of this proposal has led to a far too easy rejection of interpretations to the raven’s actions and words in certain context. Both the corn-code and Ran’s answer to it are taken out of context. People misremember the corn-code as some type of dictionary with the word corn meaning death, and Ran’s argument is now used to dismiss any and all interpretations of the raven’s actions and words. Ser Creighton argued that George RR Martin hid a code into the raven’s speech that followed rules about repetition, capitals or non-capital as well as punctuation. It treated any raven’s words as some type of morse code to be deciphered, without context. At the time, Ran debunked the corn-code’s premise – that anything ravens say in threes had foreshadowing meaning – and infamously added that sometimes a raven is just hungry (paraphrasing).

For those interested in rereading the corn-code:

While I appreciated Ser Creighton’s effort, the main mistake and flaw of the theory is to try to fixate George’s writing into a hard set of rules. George’s writing is much more fluid and his bag of tricks varied, but never without context. A touch of (phonetic) wordplay, a rare pinch of an anagram, an evocative imaginative scene, a foundation of parallels, a splash of color, and a generous pouring of symbolism sauce. The corn-code never truly treated Mormont’s raven as a character that wishes to add his own two cents to the topic of discussion between characters within its context with the few means it has available. The corn-code never tackled the raven as an animal that is skinchanged at certain times and at other times is a mere intelligent bird with the ability to parrot words. And sometimes the skinchanger hopes to persuade a suspicious character into believing the raven is merely an animal, just like Bran sometimes says “Hodor” while skinchanging Hodor so that Meera and Jojen would not discover the truth. And since the corn-code never considered Mormont’s raven as an actual character, it therefore is just as silly by the naysayers to apply Ran’s argument to any actual analysis that investigates the raven’s words and actions within the context of a scene. Ran never claimed that whatever Mormont’s raven said or did is meaningless. He debunked the secret code idea in particular.

Ryan_Valle_Old_Bear_MormontII
Jeor Mormont with his raven, by Ryan Valle (Fantasy Flight Games)

Analyzing the words and deeds of Mormont’s raven is not easy and certainly not always entirely obvious. Aside from interpreting his words, behavior or body language, one must first determine whether we are seeing Mormont’s raven in action as animal or as skinchanged. I do have a vague rule to assess this: when the raven behaves very deliberate then most of the time he is being skinchanged. And yes, I emphasize “most of the time”, because George also is quite capable of convincing the reader that when the raven is flapping and screaming “snow” repeatedly in warning as I pointed out in They’re Here! it must be skinchanged, when in fact a non-skinchanged raven may be just as alarmed naturally by the smell of the Others or wights as much as Chett’s dogs are at the Fist. In Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC as well as Jon’s second chapter of aDwD, however, Mormont’s raven behaves too deliberate to ascribe to natural behavior and each word and action fits within a certain skinchanger attempting to warn Sam and Jon against the consequences of the baby swap.

Bloodraven

Before we tackle those particular chapters, I will lay down the arguments that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in particular. Even if we ‘know’ or ‘speculated’ that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged, we tend to think of him more as a super intelligent bird with uncanny foreknowledge all on his own. That was how he we came to think of him when he was introduced to us in aGoT and had no idea there was such a thing as skinchanging (only introduced in aCoK). But in aDwD he confirms it via Jon’s Wall dream.

The world dissolved into a red mist. Jon stabbed and slashed and cut. He hacked down Donal Noye and gutted Deaf Dick Follard. Qhorin Halfhand stumbled to his knees, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. “I am the Lord of Winterfell,” Jon screamed. It was Robb before him now, his hair wet with melting snow. Longclaw took his head off. Then a gnarled hand seized Jon roughly by the shoulder. He whirled …and woke with a raven pecking at his chest. “Snow,” the bird cried. Jon swatted at it. The raven shrieked its displeasure and flapped up to a bedpost to glare down balefully at him through the predawn gloom. (aDwD, Jon XII)

Someone actually entered into Jon’s dream to wake him up and that someone has a gnarled hand, and thus a tree related individual. Only greenseers have been proven to enter someone’s dream and interact with them. The three-eyed-crow appeared to Jojen in a greywater fever dream and visited Bran’s dreams often, including an infamous one to “wake” him out of his coma after his fall. And Bran appeared once as a slender weirwood in Jon’s wolf dream when he was warging Ghost. Bran then touched Jon’s own third eye, after which Jon became aware he was a warg and actively used Ghost to spy on the wildlings gathering at the source of the Milkwater. And Bran’s own POV in aCoK confirms this was a shared experience.

In the quoted Wall-dream the gnarled hand is associated to Mormont’s raven trying to wake him as well. One might argue that the greenseer reaching out for Jon’s shoulder with his (tree) gnarled hand may not be the raven. But as Jon dresses himself after being woken, Mormont’s raven points out that Jon is King.

He rose and dressed in darkness, as Mormont’s raven muttered across the room. “Corn,” the bird said, and, “King,” and, “Snow, Jon Snow, Jon Snow.” That was queer. The bird had never said his full name before, as best Jon could recall. (aDwD, Jon XII)

Mormont’s raven did not say this out of the blue, but was correcting Jon’s own dream-claim. The raven could only do so if he was a witness to Jon’s dream, and thus the same greenseer with the gnarled hand. So, this is the scene where George shows us without telling that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by a greenseer.

So, why Bloodraven and not Bran? After all, this dream occurs around the time Stannis interrogates Theon and both Bloodraven and Bran skinchange two ravens, advising to drag Theon before a weirwood tree. Bran already appeared as a weirwood tree in Jon’s wolf dream in the Skirling Pass in aCoK. So, having him interact with tree features in Jon’s Wall dream might be a hint to this. I can not fully dismiss that possibility for this dream instance. However, I would point out that there is a second character trying to wake Jon from his dream as an eagle.

Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. (aDwD, Jon XII)

In other words, Bloodraven and Bran are both visiting Jon in this dream, the teacher and pupil. I lean towards Bran being the eagle, while the gnarled hand and Mormont’s raven are Bloodraven. The eagle attempts to wake Jon without much awareness of the magical significance of this dream, while the gnarled hand intervenes in a manner he wants to halt Jon’s Wall dream right there and then. The word gnarled fits the ancient Bloodraven more, and Melisandre sees Bloodraven as a wooden man in her flames.

A face took shape within the hearth. Stannis? she thought, for just a moment … but no, these were not his features. A wooden face, corpse white. Was this the enemy? A thousand red eyes floated in the rising flames. He sees me. Beside him, a boy with a wolf’s face threw back his head and howled. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

bloodraven_tree_seanclosson
Bloodraven, by Sean Closson

There is also another symbolic connection with Bloodraven being the gnarled hand and the raven calling Jon Snow king, and not Bran. It harks back to Bloodraven’s life before he left for the Wall and beyond: Bloodraven was the Hand of the King to two Targaryen kings, Aerys I and Maekar I, and kingmaker when he arrested and executed Aenys Blackfyre. And thus, this imagery of the gnarled hand reaching for Jon’s shoulder and as raven referring to him as king would make it so that Bloodraven served as Hand to a third (Targaryen) king in the skin of Mormont’s raven. This symbolic impact of threes would be lacking if in this instant Bran is the gnarled hand and skinchaning Mormont’s raven. Take note that my proposal here implies that Bran and Bloodraven already witnessed the events of the Tower of Joy from their end, and thus I predict that any such Bran POV chapter in tWoW would timeline with aDwD, Jon XII.

This particular dream waking by Mormont’s raven is not the first time we see this. In his first chapter of aDwD, Jon is woken up in a similar manner from a warg dream.

Snow,” the moon murmured. The wolf made no answer. Snow crunched beneath his paws. The wind sighed through the trees. […] Snow,” the moon called down again, cackling. The white wolf padded along the man trail beneath the icy cliff. The taste of blood was on his tongue, and his ears rang to the song of the hundred cousins. Once they had been six, five whimpering blind in the snow beside their dead mother, sucking cool milk from her hard dead nipples whilst he crawled off alone. Four remained … and one the white wolf could no longer sense. “Snow,” the moon insisted. […] “Snow.” An icicle tumbled from a branch. The white wolf turned and bared his teeth. Snow!” His fur rose bristling, as the woods dissolved around him. “Snow, snow, snow!” He heard the beat of wings. Through the gloom a raven flewIt landed on Jon Snow’s chest with a thump and a scrabbling of claws. “SNOW!” it screamed into his face. (aDwD, Jon I)

As Jon wargs Ghost, the moon starts to call his name to wake him. And as Jon wakes Mormont’s raven lands on his chest screaming his name to wake him. That the moon is actually the raven we can determine by the mention of the moon cackling. Notice too that as Jon wakes the raven is beating its wings and flying to land on his chest. The raven therefore sat perched somewhere in the room at a distance, fitting with the further off moon calling Jon’s name. At this point, Bran has not yet skinchanged any raven yet. Nor do Bran’s POVs of aDwD reveal he decided to serve as an alarm clock for the Lord Commander at the Wall. And thus here we can be certain that Bloodraven = Mormont’s raven, and always has been.

This gives an insight into Bloodraven that may not match with the general reader perception of him based on the gossip of the smallfolk in the Dunk & Egg novellas and his Machiavellian choices as Hand of the King. When readers suggest that Bloodraven skinchanges any other animal beyond Mormont’s raven south of the Neck, they basically consider him still hanging on to his role as Master of Whisperers, spying on anyone anywhere in the realm with regards the Iron Throne. In that view, Bloodraven only skinchanges Mormont’s raven in crucial scenes to keep tabs on the Night’s Watch on an equal level that he spies on the plots in the Red Keep in the black tomcat believed to be Rhaenys’ kitten Balerion. Bloodraven skinchanging Mormont’s raven to be Jon’s alarm clock seems a use of his precious time far beneath that. And yet, I would argue that the animal that Bloodraven skinchanges most of the time is in fact Mormont’s raven, and that this goes beyond keeping tabs. As Mormont’s raven, Bloodraven has attempted to remain true to his vows to the best of his ability: making suggestions to Lord Commanders and waking them up like a steward.

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come. (aGoT, Jon VI)

LC Brynden Rivers of the NW by Mike Hallstein
Lord Commander Brynden Rivers of the Night’s Watch, by Mike Hallstein

Brynden Rivers ended up taking the black, after he arrested and executed Aenys Blackfyre who had wanted to press his claim at the Great Council of 233 AC after the death of Maekar I. When Aegon V was chosen as the new king, he gave Bloodraven the choice between execution or taking the black. He opted for the black and formed an honor guard to accompany maester Aemon to the Wall. This backstory cleverly makes Bloodraven out to a man who was forced to go to the Wall like a common criminal and abandoned his post eventually to seek for another greenseer.

But I think it was almost a certainty Bloodraven had already decided to join maester Aemon to the Wall voluntarily at the age of 58, once Aemon Targaryen had rejected the offer of a crown. His choices and actions with Daemon II Blackfyre at Whitewalls (in Mystery Knight) show that Brynden Rivers was fully capable of entrapping and arresting traitors and Blackfyres without bloodshed. Bloodraven’s choice to allow Aenys Blackfyre to come, arrest and execute him make the most sense, if he had already decided to step down as Hand and go to the Wall. Once Aemon had rejected the crown, the sole viable Targaryen claimant was Aegon. Meanwhile Aenys Blackfyre proved to be dillusional, but also power hungry. He may have been Daemon Blackfyre’s son, but he tried to jump ahead of his nephew, the son of his older brother, without the backing of even Bittersteel (see House Blackfyre). Aenys’ claim would have failed, but he could form certain alliances with houses (who had just cost them king Maekar) to make trouble at the start of the reign of the new king Aegon. So, he could go to the Wall for the remainder of his life, with his honor intact and hand a divided realm to young king Aegon V,  or he could go to the Wall as a convicted criminal, and give Aegon V a few years before Bittersteel would attempt another rebellion with Daemon III (the nephew Aenys tried to get ahead in line of). Ruthless, to be sure, and Machiavellian, but it was never a reason to doubt his devotion for the Wall before and after his disappearance at 77 during a ranging in 252 AC.

And yes, I have quotes that support the notion that at the very least Bloodraven still considers himself a man of the Night’s Watch.

The Lord Commander’s place is at Castle Black, lording and commanding,” [Thoren Smallwood] told Mormont, ignoring [Jon and Sam], “it seems to me.”
The raven flapped big black wings.Me, me, me.”
“If you are ever Lord Commander, you may do as you please,” Mormont told the ranger, “but it seems to me that I have not died yet, nor have the brothers put you in my place.”(aCoK, Jon I)

When Jeor Mormont is about to go on the great ranging, Thoren Smallwood tries to convince Jeor that the Lord Commander should not go ranging at all and should remain at Castle Black. Mormont’s raven refers to himself as the role of Lord Commander. It is as if he is saying, “I can lord and command”. After all, Bloodraven was elected as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in 239 AC and he has not yet died.

So, basically what I am saying is that Bloodraven still tries to honor his oath to the Night’s Watch. It may be that he does it in an unorthodox way, both by skinchanging a raven at the Wall to remain at his post as well as searching and now training a greenseer. Nevertheless both align with shielding the realms of men. It is not that different from Jon realizing that the Free Folk are also men/humans and therefore they are part of the realms of men and worth protecting. When we keep that in the back of our mind, then some of his actions and words as Mormont’s raven can be understood more in depth.

Swapping Babes

One of the major plot developments of both aFfC, Samwell I and aDwD, Jon II is Jon’s plan to send Gilly away from the Wall together with maester Aemon and Mance’s baby, instead of her own son. Amongst readers there is much speculation on the fate of Gilly’s boy because of this swap. And when people argue that sweet little Monster is doomed, they often dig up the dark words of Mormont’s raven in aDwD, Jon II as foreshadowing for this. In fact, I was doing an elaborate analysis on the baby swap plot, when I realized that the raven’s words are more than the literary device of foreshadowing, but instead come from a character with foreknowledge who wants to stop the swap. And I will argue that Bloodraven goes to certain lengths in attempting to stop it.

For a correct analysis of Mormont’s raven commentary, we must reshuffle the two chapters into one but from Bloodraven’s POV. And thus we must begin with aDwD, Jon II first, then switch to aFfC, Samwell I, back to aDwD, Jon II and then both chapters parallel to each other. Jon’s chapter starts with him reading the letter he is supposed to send to King’s Landing, what he refers to as a paper shield, over and over until his eyes blur, knowing he must sign it, but unwilling to do so. Dolorous Edd interrupts Jon by announcing Gilly’s arrival.

It was a relief when Dolorous Edd Tollett opened the door to tell him that Gilly was without. Jon set Maester Aemon’s letter aside. I will see her.” He dreaded this. “Find Sam for me. I will want to speak with him next.
He’ll be down with the books. My old septon used to say that books are dead men talking. Dead men should keep quiet, is what I say. No one wants to hear a dead man’s yabber.” Dolorous Edd went off muttering of worms and spiders. (aDwD, Jon II)

Jon asks Edd to find him Sam and that he wishes to speak with him after Gilly. And Tollett volunteers that his best chance in finding Sam will be down in the library. Gilly enters and Jon informs her he has to tell her something hard. After confirming that Mance will burn, he points out how the life of Dalla’s son is in danger as well.

“[…] It’s not [Mance] we need to talk about. It’s his son. Dalla’s boy.”
“The babe?” Her voice trembled. “He never broke no oath, m’lord. He sleeps and cries and sucks, is all; he’s never done no harm to no one. Don’t let her burn him. Save him, please.”
Only you can do that, Gilly.” Jon told her how. (aDwD, Jon II)

The chapter never puts Jon’s plan into speech, but the how is revealed in aFfC to send Gilly away from the Wall with Dalla’s boy, pretending that the babe is her son. Bloodraven learns of Jon’s plan the same time that Gilly is told of it here. The greenseer may be able to interact with Jon and Bran on the dreamscape and enter their dreams, but that is the closest he can come to “mind reading”.

Bloodraven and Gilly give a similar reply to Jon’s plan.

Gilly shook her head.No. Please, no.”
The raven picked up the word. “No,” it screamed. (aDwD, Jon II)

Gilly and Monster_beespit
Gilly, by beespit

What follows are Jon’s arguments to Gilly where he represents Mel burning Mance’s son a certainty and even threatens to kill Gilly’s son the day that Dalla’s son burns if Gilly refuses.

“You will make a crow of him.” She wiped at her tears with the back of a small pale hand. “I won’t. I won’t.”
Kill the boy, thought Jon. “You will. Else I promise you, the day that they burn Dalla’s boy, yours will die as well.”
Die,” shrieked the Old Bear’s raven. “Die, die, die.” (aDwD, Jon II)

If Bloodraven foresees (multiple) death, then why does he remain silent for so long in between screaming, “No,” and “Die”? The conversation is no less ominous, also mentions dying and death, but it takes almost two pages of interaction before Mormont’s raven speaks again. We would almost expect him to scream “burn” or “take him” or “cold” and other phrases the raven has uttered in the past. But the raven says none of that. It takes so long, in contrast to his own initial protest, that it leads to the possibility that Bloodraven was not actually in the skin of Mormont’s raven in between his “No,” and “Die”.

I propose that Bloodraven realized that Gilly needed an ally by her side to have the strength to withstand Jon’s pressure and coming threats: Sam. Jon had sent Edd Tollett in search of Samwell to speak with him after Gilly. If Bloodraven could get Sam moving before that, then Sam might interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly and prevent the swap from happening. Sam faced and killed wights to protect and save Gilly and her son. If he could find the courage to do that, he also would have the courage to tell Jon “No”.

A Mad Mouse

Dolorous Edd had volunteered Sam’s whereabouts, and so Bloodraven knew exactly where to find him: in the library with his books. Now I ask you to whose benefit was it that George had Edd reveal Sam’s whereabouts? Tollett is the one to fetch him and it is odd that he would voice the location. Jon does not care where Edd will find Sam, as long as he finds him and tells him to go see Jon. The sole in-world reason for Tollett to mention the otherwise superfluous information of Sam’s whereabouts is for a third ear, which is the raven’s, and thus Bloodraven.

So, after witnessing Jon’s first response to Gilly’s no, Bloodraven stops skinchanging Mormont’s raven and instead skinchanges …

Sam was reading about the Others when he saw the mouse.
His eyes were red and raw. I ought not rub them so much, he always told himself as he rubbed them. (aFfC, Samwell I)

A mouse!

Shadrich mad mouse by John Jennette
Shadrich’s personal arms, by John Jennette

The idea that the mouse in Samwell’s library may be skinchanged is not new. Plenty of people who are on a reread, at least wonder about it for the two first sentences in Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC. A few of those raise the question on the internet. And a rare person will claim that the children of the forest and Bloodraven are skinchanging mice in Castle Black’s library to destroy the information it has about the Others. But overall the question whether that mouse is being skinchanged that very moment is quickly laid to rest again.

Firstly, yes, George wants you to consider the possibility that the mouse is being skinchanged. Those first two sentences contain attention grabbers: mention about the Others and red eyes, and when you are on a reread you remember also some Mad Mouse character in Brienne’s and Sansa’s arc. The truth is that the mouse’s eyes are not actually red. Samwell’s eyes are. He was reading in a dusty moldy library for hours on end. Nevertheless George sure managed to grab your attention and make you wonder. At the very least, George made you reread those two opening sentences twice.

The reasons for the reader to dismiss the skinchanging idea of the mouse so quickly are:

  • It is just a grey mouse with black eyes.
  • Nothing eventful seems to take place. All the mouse does is feast on Sam’s leftovers of bread and cheese. It does not point Sam to an important revealing passage about defeating the Others, or even a particular book full of forgotten lore. No, nothing of that sort occurs. Sam does not even succeed in squashing it with a book: the mouse escapes.
  • Bloodraven is already skinchanging Mormont’s raven in Jon’s solar, screaming “No!” and “Die” and reading Jon’s paper shield when Sam enters the solar, and Bloodraven cannot skinchange two animals at once.

The first reason for dismissal is based on an erroneous self invented rule. Summer and Mormont’s raven are not albinos, and are nevertheless skinchanged. The white-red coloring is more a symbol of alignment or association to weirwoods and Bloodraven, rather than evidence on skinchanging itself. This alignment may be done through suggestion rather than actual coloring, and George does make the suggestion in those two first sentences. More, George has tied mice often with skinchangers before. Arya thinks of herself as a mouse at Harrenhal, and Arya is a skinchanger. Sansa too is called a mouse twice. Her skinchanging abilities are not developed, but George has confirmed that she is. Varamyr is referred to look like a mouse. And then of course we have Shadrich of the Shady Glenn referring to himself as the Mad Mouse who does carry personal arms with a white mouse and red eyes, as cocksure as if he was the knight of the laughing tree. (see Shadrich, Morgarth and Byron by Blue-Eyed-Wolf). Victarion refers to maester Kerwin of Greenshield a mouse as well.

 “Could that mouse of a maester be doing this? Maesters know spells and other tricks. He might be using one to poison me, hoping I will let him cut my hand off.” The more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed. “The Crow’s Eye gave him to me, wretched creature that he is.” Euron had taken Kerwin off Greenshield, where he had been in service to Lord Chester, tending his ravens and teaching his children, or perhaps the other away around. (aDwD, The Iron Suitor)

This particular mouse’s fate and treatment by the Ironborn is abominable – he is raped by sailors and eventually killed by Victarion because he failed to heal Vic’s gangrenous wound. Though of course Kerwin as maester is unlikely to have been a skinchanger or even someone who prayed to the old gods, it should be noted that the castle he served, Greenshield, is an allusion to a location protected by “green” magic, where ravens and children (of the forest) live.

The third reason assumes wrongly that Bloodraven must be skinchanging Mormont’s raven the whole time. I pointed out that the raven is suspiciously silent almost throughout Jon’s meeting with Gilly, which includes several opportunities to cry “Die” far earlier and a lengthy scene of Gilly holding her hand above a flame. Bloodraven could indeed exit Mormont’s raven and skinchange the mouse for a short while to accomplish his intent and return to the skin of Mormont’s raven.

The second reason for dismissal is all about motive. Like Sam we regard a library as a potential treasure trove of secret information. We hope and, for trope reasons, expect Sam to discover the crucial secret about the Others and the Wall in a book. So, if Bloodraven is going to bother with skinchanging any animal in the library it must be either to lead Sam to such a discovery or obstruct him. Since the first obviously does not happen, and we are regularly reminded on how mice nibble at books in the library, the theorized motive for skinchanging whenever the mouse is brought up on forums or reddit becomes obstructing Sam in finding out the truth.

The mouse was half as long as his pinky finger, with black eyes and soft grey fur. Sam knew he ought to kill it. Mice might prefer bread and cheese, but they ate paper too. He had found plenty of mouse droppings amongst the shelves and stacks, and some of the leather covers on the books showed signs of being gnawed. It is such a little thing, though. And hungry. How could he begrudge it a few crumbs? It’s eating books, though . . . (aFfC, Samwell I)

And while some readers have come to believe this as a motive for skinchanging mice in general at Castle Black, it clashes for this mouse in question. If Jon’s exchange with Gilly is so crucial to Bloodraven, he did not just think to himself, “Oh well I’ll have a nibble at some books while I’m at it. This is getting boring.” And if that was indeed his plan, he ended up doing the opposite: exposing himself to Sam and nearly gets the mouse killed. Of course, the counter argument to the idea that the children of the forest and Bloodraven are skinchanging mice to gnaw at books in their spare time is that mice will do this anyhow. There is no need to skinchange mice for mice to do mice-things.

Given the subject at hand in Jon’s solar at the time, Bloodraven’s motive is crucial. I propose that Bloodraven hopes to get to Sam in the library before Dolorous Edd, and have him leave his books so that he bumbles into Jon’s meeting with Gilly and can be her ally against Jon’s bullying. Sam is such a book lover that he forgets all about time and space, and even food. Not that many events can draw Sam’s attention away from books. Only that which destroys books could: fire or mice. And there are plenty of mice that can be skinchanged in the library. Mice are not bold creatures that go near humans and eat their food by candle light right under their nose. That particular mouse must be either mad because of toxoplasmosis or it is being skinchanged.

Samwell Tarly and the mouse, by Colin Boyer

The motive I propose is exactly what the mouse achieves:  it draws Sam’s attention, away from reading. He actually stops reading, for the very first time in hours and hours.

One more book, he had told himself, then I’ll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I’ll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I’ll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he’d think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it. He had not eaten since that bowl of bean-and-bacon soup with Pyp and Grenn. Well, except for the bread and cheese, but that was only a nibble, he thought. That was when he took a quick glance at the empty platter, and spied the mouse feasting on the bread crumbs. (aFfC, Samwell I)

Take note that the mouse is said to feast in the first chapter, after the prologue, of a book called A Feast for Crows. If the mouse is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in this moment, a three-eyed-crow is feasting.

This may seem a non-event to you, but in Sam’s case it is a huge feat. Sam does not just stop reading. The mouse makes him move.

After hours in the chair Sam’s back was stiff as a board, and his legs were half-asleep. He knew he was not quick enough to catch the mouse, but it might be he could squash it. By his elbow rested a massive leather-bound copy of Annals of the Black Centaur, Septon Jorquen’s exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. […] No mouse is a match for Septon Jorquen. Very slowly, Sam took hold of the book with his left hand.  It was thick and heavy, and when he tried to lift it one-handed, it slipped from his plump fingers and thumped back down. The mouse was gone in half a heartbeat, skittery-quick. (aFfC, Samwell I)

And then Sam becomes aware of time and actually gets up. He decides to leave the library.

He was surprised at how low the candle had burned. Had the bean-and-bacon soup been today or yesterday? Yesterday. It must have been yesterday. The realization made him yawn. Jon would be wondering what had become of him, though Maester Aemon would no doubt understand. […] Pushing himself to his feet, Sam grimaced at the pins and needles in his calves. (aFfC, Samwell I)

Sam is already back up at the yard from the library when he runs into Dolorous Edd who was sent by Jon to fetch him.

“Samwell,” said a glum voice, “I was coming to fetch you. I was told to bring you to the Lord Commander.”
A snowflake landed on Sam’s nose. “Jon wants to see me?”
“As to that, I could not say,” said Dolorous Edd Tollett. “I never wanted to see half the things I’ve seen, and I’ve never seen half the things I wanted to. I don’t think wanting comes into it. You’d best go all the same. Lord Snow wishes to speak with you as soon as he is done with Craster’s wife.”
“Gilly.”
“That’s the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, I’d still be on the teat. Mine had whiskers.”
“Most goats do,” called Pyp, as he and Grenn emerged from around the corner, with longbows in hand and quivers of arrows on their backs. “Where have you been, Slayer? We missed you last night at supper. A whole roast ox went uneaten.”
“Don’t call me Slayer.” Sam ignored the gibe about the ox. That was just Pyp. “I was reading. There was a mouse . . .” (aFfC, Samwell |)

So, if Bloodraven skinchanged the mouse to get Samwell moving quick enough to interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly, he had succeeded initially. He could however not account for Pyp and Grenn wanting to make conversation with Samwell over nothing of importance, despite Sam’s protests and insistence that he must see Jon. Unfortunately, Pyp delayed Sam so that he arrives at Jon’s solar just as Gilly leaves.

I don’t have time for this.” Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest. […] Gilly was leaving as Sam arrived, wrapped up in the old cloak he’d given her when they were fleeing Craster’s Keep. She almost rushed right past him, but Sam caught her arm, spilling two books as he did. (aFfC, Samwell I)

In other words, if Sam had not been delayed by Pyp, Grenn and Edd, he would have stumbled into the meeting before Jon could bully Gilly into silence on the subject.

Saving a Son?

It seems reasonable to assume that Bloodraven is against the swapping of the babes, because of the team effort in saving Sam, Gilly and her son from the wights at the not-Whitetree village.

A mother can’t leave her son, or else she’s cursed forever. Not a son. We saved him, Sam and me. Please. Please, m’lord. We saved him from the cold.” (aDwD, Jon II)

Bloodraven has been involved in the business of saving Sam, Gilly and her son, since the mutiny.

“The girl don’t lie,” the old woman on the right said. “She’s my girl, and I beat the lying out of her early on. You said you’d help her. Do what Ferny says, boy. Take the girl and be quick about it.”
Quick,” the raven said. “Quick quick quick.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

Then when Samwell and Gilly arrived at the anonymous village north of the Wall, Sam prays to the Old gods in front of a weirwood.

[Samwell] turned back to the weirwood and studied the carved face a moment. It is not the face we saw, he admitted to himself. The tree’s not half as big as the one at Whitetree. The red eyes wept blood, and he didn’t remember that either. Clumsily, Sam sank to his knees. “Old gods, hear my prayer. The Seven were my father’s gods but I said my words to you when I joined the Watch. Help us now. I fear we might be lost. We’re hungry too, and so cold. I don’t know what gods I believe in now, but . . . please, if you’re there, help us. Gilly has a little son.” That was all that he could think to say. The dusk was deepening, the leaves of the weirwood rustling softly, waving like a thousand blood-red hands. Whether Jon’s gods had heard him or not he could not say. (aSoS, Samwell III)

In this manner, Sam let Bloodraven know his position and whereabouts, and sends Coldhands to the village so that he can accompany Sam to the Black Gate for when Bran arrives there and must pass the Wall. But wights find them first.

“He’s come for the babe,” Gilly wept. “He smells him. A babe fresh-born stinks o’ life. He’s come for the life.” (aSoS, Samwell III)

The wight though has a raven for a companion that tries to peck and strip him, as Sam fights him.

Hoarfrost whitened [Small Paul’s] beard, and on one shoulder hunched a raven, pecking at his cheek, eating the dead white flesh. […] The raven on his shoulder ripped a strip of flesh from his pale ruined cheek. […] Samwell Tarly threw himself forward and plunged the dagger down into Small Paul’s back. Half-turned, the wight never saw him coming. The raven gave a shriek and took to the air. […]  The wight was burning, hoarfrost dripping from his beard as the flesh beneath blackened. Sam heard the raven shriek, but Paul himself made no sound. (aSoS, Samwell III)

That raven should be regarded as a scout or outflyer from Coldhands. Small Paul was not the only wight. There were more, outside. And both Coldhands and Bloodraven united all ravens as a vanguard to attack the wights, until Coldhands could rescue them/

alec-acevedo-got-ravens-11x17
Weirwood Ravens, by Alec Acevedo

She stood with her back against the weirwood, the boy in her arms. The wights were all around her. There were a dozen of them, a score, more . . . some had been wildlings once, and still wore skins and hides . . . but more had been his brothers. Sam saw Lark the Sisterman, Softfoot, Ryles. The wen on Chett’s neck was black, his boils covered with a thin film of ice. And that one looked like Hake, though it was hard to know for certain with half his head missing. They had torn the poor garron apart, and were pulling out her entrails with dripping red hands. Pale steam rose from her belly. Sam made a whimpery sound. “It’s not fair . . .” (aSoS, Samwell III)

At this point Bloodraven speaks to Sam via raven and a large murder of ravens descend on the wights.

Fair.” The raven landed on his shoulder. “Fair, far, fear.” It flapped its wings, and screamed along with Gilly. The wights were almost on her. He heard the dark red leaves of the weirwood rustling, whispering to one another in a tongue he did not know. The starlight itself seemed to stir, and all around them the trees groaned and creaked. Sam Tarly turned the color of curdled milk, and his eyes went wide as plates. Ravens! They were in the weirwood, hundreds of them, thousands, perched on the bone-white branches, peering between the leaves. He saw their beaks open as they screamed, saw them spread their black wings. Shrieking, flapping, they descended on the wights in angry clouds. They swarmed round Chett’s face and pecked at his blue eyes, they covered the Sisterman like flies, they plucked gobbets from inside Hake’s shattered head. There were so many that when Sam looked up, he could not see the moon. “Go,” said the bird on his shoulder. “Go, go, go.”
Sam ran, puffs of frost exploding from his mouth. All around him the wights flailed at the black wings and sharp beaks that assailed them, falling in an eerie silence with never a grunt nor cry. But the ravens ignored Sam. He took Gilly by the hand and pulled her away from the weirwood. “We have to go.” (aSoS, Samwell III)

Sam realizes that words are whispered in a language unknown to him, which is either the Old Tongue of the First Men or the True Tongue of the children of the forest. Though Bloodraven is referred to as the “last greenseer” by the children of the forest, he is not the sole one in the cave. Bran sees plenty of singers on greenseer thrones.

He even crossed the slender stone bridge that arched over the abyss and discovered more passages and chambers on the far side. One was full of singers, enthroned like Brynden in nests of weirwood roots that wove under and through and around their bodies. Most of them looked dead to him, but as he crossed in front of them their eyes would open and follow the light of his torch, and one of them opened and closed a wrinkled mouth as if he were trying to speak. (aDwD, Bran III)

This means that all the skinchangers and greenseers of Bloodraven’s cave were involved in the effort to keep a true Black brother alive as well as Gilly and her son, until Coldhands arrived.

Brother!” The shout cut through the night, through the shrieks of a thousand ravens. Beneath the trees, a man muffled head to heels in mottled blacks and greys sat astride an elk. “Here,” the rider called. A hood shadowed his face. He’s wearing blacks. Sam urged Gilly toward him. The elk was huge, a great elk, ten feet tall at the shoulder, with a rack of antlers near as wide. The creature sank to his knees to let them mount. “Here,” the rider said, reaching down with a gloved hand to pull Gilly up behind him.
Then it was Sam’s turn. “My thanks,” he puffed. Only when he grasped the offered hand did he realize that the rider wore no glove. His hand was black and cold, with fingers hard as stone. (aSoS, Samwell III)

Bloodraven and Coldhands did not save them just because Sam prayed to them, but because he needed Sam to open the Black Gate for Bran so that he could escort him to Bloodraven.

“From Craster’s,” the girl said. “Are you the one?”
Jojen turned to look at her. “The one?”
“He said that Sam wasn’t the one,” she explained. “There was someone else, he said. The one he was sent to find.”
“Who said?” Bran demanded.
“Coldhands,” Gilly answered softly.
Meera peeled back one end of her net, and the fat man managed to sit up. He was shaking, Bran saw, and still struggling to catch his breath. “He said there would be people,” he huffed. “People in the castle. I didn’t know you’d be right at the top of the steps, though. I didn’t know you’d throw a net on me or stab me in the stomach.” He touched his belly with a black-gloved hand. “Am I bleeding? I can’t see.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

It is important to take note of the fact that the night when Sam arrives at the Nightfort is not the same night he was rescued by Coldhands from the wights at the village. There was a full moon the night at the village and a half-moon at the Nightfort, which would be a third quarter half-moon. The two chapters are about a week apart. Since Sam arrives at the Nightfort on the first night of Bran’s arrival there, this means that Bloodraven had foreseen Bran would be there, before he had arrived, and likely even had foreseen that Sam would be the man to help Bran through the Black Gate.

“You won’t find it. If you did it wouldn’t open. Not for you. It’s the Black Gate.” Sam plucked at the faded black wool of his sleeve. “Only a man of the Night’s Watch can open it, he said. A Sworn Brother who has said his words.”
“He said.” Jojen frowned. “This . . .Coldhands?”
“That wasn’t his true name,” said Gilly, rocking. “We only called him that, Sam and me. His hands were cold as ice, but he saved us from the dead men, him and his ravens, and he brought us here on his elk.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

So, close inspection does not warrant the assumption that Bloodraven wishes to save the baby in particular. By the time that Bloodraven sent Sam on his way with Gilly and her son from Craster’s as Mormont’s raven, all the other true brothers of the Night’s Watch had already fled Craster’s and went straight for Castle Black. Meanwhile it was in evidence that Sam needed Gilly and the baby for courage and will to get to the Wall, to survive. Even Gilly points out that the wights came for fresh-life, not necessarily because he is Craster’s son. And in From Sandkings to Nightqueens I show all the evidence and reasoning that babies serve as meat for the Mother of the Others, instead of the imho the flawed theory that Craster’s sons are Otherized. And if babies are meat, then it matters little to the Others whether that meat is Craster’s or Mance’s.

When Mormont’s raven shrieks die four times during Jon’s meeting with Gilly that seems quite a bit excessive to foretell the death of just one baby. It is an indication that Bloodraven foresees a lot of death. Take for instance the scene when Jeor Mormont announces his decision to seek the confrontation with Mance’s united army of wildlings to the men of the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men, Mormont’s raven cries die four times plus.

We’ll die.” That was Maslyn’s voice, green with fear.
Die,” screamed Mormont’s raven, flapping its black wings. “Die, die, die.”
Many of us,” the Old Bear said. “Mayhaps even all of us. But as another Lord Commander said a thousand years ago, that is why they dress us in black. Remember your words, brothers. For we are the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the walls . . .”
[…]
When the shouting died away, once more he heard the sound of the wind picking at the ringwall. The flames swirled and shivered, as if they too were cold, and in the sudden quiet the Old Bear’s raven cawed loudly and once again said, “Die.” (aSoS, Prologue)

He says die five times too when Jeor realizes they must turn the Fist into a fortress to slow or halt Mance’s army and tells Qhorin to pick his men to scout.

“Belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.”
Die,” the raven muttered, pacing along Mormont’s shoulders.Die, die, die, die.” The Old Bear sat slumped and silent, as if the burden of speech had grown too heavy for him to bear. But at last he said, “May the gods forgive me. Choose your men.”
Qhorin Halfhand turned his head. His eyes met Jon’s, and held them for a long moment. “Very well. I choose Jon Snow.” (aCoK, Jon V)

Four times die is slightly less than five times. About 270 brothers died on Jeor’s great ranging, including the scouts in the Frostfangs and those killed during the mutiny at Craster’s, aside from those who died at the Fist. So, we can roughly conclude that Bloodraven foresees about 200 deaths, as a consequence of the swap. So, this is about something bigger than saving a baby’s life, let alone out of some sentiment of having saved him in the past.

The Shield

Since, I propose that Bloodraven skinchanged the mouse in the hope to have Sam interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly, it stands to reason that Mormont’s raven would try to signal something to Sam upon his arrival. And this should give us a better understanding. As it turns out, when Sam enters the solar, we instantly are bombarded with plenty of action by Mormont’s raven.

[…] when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, “Corn, corn!”
Shifting the books, Sam thrust his arm into the sack beside the door and came out with a handful of kernels. The raven landed on his wrist and took one from his palm, pecking so hard that Sam yelped and snatched his hand back. The raven took to the air again, and yellow and red kernels went everywhere.
Close the door, Sam.” Faint scars still marked Jon’s cheek, where an eagle had once tried to rip his eye out. “Did that wretch break the skin?
Sam eased the books down and peeled off his glove. “He did.” He felt faint. “I’m bleeding.” (aFfC, Samwell I)

The raven spies Sam, flaps towards him and cries for corn. As Samwell takes out kernels of corn and opens his hand to the raven, he pecks so hard he pierces Sam’s glove and skin, drawing blood. With the demand for corn, we are inclined to think of it just being a raven in this instance. But this is negated by the raven purposefully reading the parchment from Jon’s shoulder. Furthermore, pecking so hard that he makes Sam bleed is  unprecedented. The worst he has done before was shit on Jeor’s shoulders when Jeor was eating Craster’s questionable breakfast. So, yes, the raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in this instance.

A possible explanation might be that Bloodraven was upset with Sam’s tardiness and wanted to punish him. However, once we add the raven’s response to Jon’s statement about the power of blood once he’s done eating the corn, this becomes quite unlikely.

“Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. King’s blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It’s nonsense. Mance’s blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He’s a brigand, nothing more. There’s no power in brigand’s blood.
The raven looked up from the floor. “Blood,” it screamed. (aFfC, Samwell I)

Instead, I propose that Bloodraven was using the raven to reenact a particular blood magic. In this practice the palm is cut. We already know a certain brigand who cut his palm and used his blood to set his sword aflame: Beric Dondarrion.

Unsmiling, Lord Beric laid the edge of his longsword against the palm of his left hand, and drew it slowly down. Blood ran dark from the gash he made, and washed over the steel. And then the sword took fire. (aSoS, Arya VI)

beric_dondarrion_by_loxaraz_
Beric Dondarrion, by Loxaraz

Such is the power of brigand’s blood after he was kissed by fire. Do I need to remind you that aside from having ties to R’hllor, Beric also has visual references to Bloodraven? The same visual reference that is alluded to when Sam is reminded of Jon’s scars around his eye, because Orell’s eagle tried to tear his eye out?

The walls were equal parts stone and soil, with huge white roots twisting through them like a thousand slow pale snakes. […] In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood. […] A scarecrow of a man, he wore a ragged black cloak speckled with stars and an iron breastplate dinted by a hundred battles. […] One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket scarred and puckered, […] . (aSoS, Arya VI)

And when we compare how effectively Beric uses his blood to light up his common steel sword with flames, to how Mel burns a brigand (Rattleshirt) to light a fake magical sword like the sun, we can see how messed up her use of blood magic truly is.

The sword glowed red and yellow and orange, alive with light. Jon had seen the show before … but not like this, never before like this. Lightbringer was the sun made steel. When Stannis raised the blade above his head, men had to turn their heads or cover their eyes. Horses shied, and one threw his rider. The blaze in the fire pit seemed to shrink before this storm of light, like a small dog cowering before a larger one. The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of king’s blood? (aDwD, Jon III)

The first uses his own fire-blood for justice, while Mel’s magic is a wasteful mummery to show off the trappings of power.

Once you remember Beric bloodying his blade with his palm it becomes quite clear that Bloodraven was trying to show such a magic use of blood to Sam and Jon when he drew Samwell’s blood and then implied that blood is powerful to Jon’s rhetorical question as Mormont’s raven. But why is it so important? And what the hell has it to do with swapping babes?

The raven gives us a hint, because prior to begging Sam for corn, he is doing something noteworthy and odd.

[Jon] was reading a parchment when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont’s raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, […] (aFfC, Samwell I)

Jon is reading Aemon’s letter meant for King’s Landing, again, and so is Bloodraven via the raven. Jon refers to the letter as a paper shield.

“We all shed our blood for the Watch. Wear thicker gloves.” Jon shoved a chair toward him with a foot. “Sit, and have a look at this.” He handed him the parchment.
“What is it?” asked Sam. The raven began to hunt out corn kernels amongst the rushes.
A paper shield.
Sam sucked at the blood on his palm as he read. He knew Maester Aemon’s hand on sight. His writing was small and precise, but the old man could not see where the ink had blotted, and sometimes he left unsightly smears. “A letter to King Tommen?” (aFfC, Samwell I)

Notice how both Samwell’s bleeding palm and the raven hunting the corn that flew and fell surround this mention of the paper shield. So, the shield is the heart of the matter here.

This paper shield prompts Cersei to plot the assassination of Jon. And the kernels that Mormont’s raven sent flying were the sigil colors of the Lannsters: yellow and red.

“Another problem has arisen on the Wall, however. The brothers of the Night’s Watch have taken leave of their wits and chosen Ned Stark’s bastard son to be their Lord Commander.” […] “I glimpsed him once at Winterfell,” the queen said, “though the Starks did their best to hide him. He looks very like his father.” […] Catelyn Tully was a mouse, or she would have smothered this Jon Snow in his cradle. Instead, she’s left the filthy task to me. “Snow shares Lord Eddard’s taste for treason too,” she said. “The father would have handed the realm to Stannis. The son has given him lands and castles.”
“The Night’s Watch is sworn to take no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Pycelle reminded them. “For thousands of years the black brothers have upheld that tradition.”
“Until now,” said Cersei. “The bastard boy has written us to avow that the Night’s Watch takes no side, but his actions give the lie to his words. He has given Stannis food and shelter, yet has the insolence to plead with us for arms and men.” (aFfC, Cersei IV)

Notice that Cersei thinks Catelyn must be a mouse by allowing Jon to live. This seems like a reference to Samwell’s mouse that I proposed Bloodraven skinchanged to get Sam moving: mice don’t want Jon to die.

There is one issue: Cersei never managed to execute her plan, since she and her assassin Osney Kettleback both ended up arrested by the High Sparrow. Even if Cersei was victorious in her trial by combat, Osney has confessed under torture to the murder of the High Septon. Kevan Lannister thought of sending Osney’s brothers to the Wall for their crimes, but he was murdered by Varys before he could ever turn his unvoiced idea into a command. Was there ever time for Cersei to even send Osney’s brothers to Eastwatch? A message to friends within the Watch? I do think that Eastwatch and Cersei may have been involved in warning Bowen Marsh, but that is for another essay.

We seem to have three separate issues:

  • an assassination plot on Jon’s life
  • swapping babes
  • blood magic in the spirit that Beric used it

And yet, all are tied together.

When we look to the paragraphs and sentences shortly before we are told that Jon and Mormont’s raven are reading the parchment, the paper shield, the word shield is mentioned several times in a short span of text.

I don’t have time for this.” Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest.I am the shield that guards the realms of men, he remembered. He wondered what those men would say if they realized their realms were being guarded by the likes of Grenn, Pyp, and Dolorous Edd.
[…]
Jon’s solar was back beyond the racks of spears and shields. He was reading a [paper shield] when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont’s raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, “Corn, corn!” (aFfC, Samwell I)

the Wall_by Mathias Habert
The Wall, by Mathias Habert

The blood magic that Mormont’s raven reenacted has to do with a shield. And the shield that guards the realms of men is not just a physical wall, but a magical warding spell. And in fact, right after Mormont’s raven drew blood of Sam’s palm, Jon tells Sam, “Close the door“!

The paper shield is a great analogy to the warding spell. The medium on which the words are written is not the shield; the words written on it are. And spells are words too.

Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck and spoke a word. The sound echoed queerly from the corners of the room and twisted like a worm inside their ears. The wildling heard one word, the crow another. Neither was the word that left her lips. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

When it comes to warding spells, we know of three confirmed locations being protected by such: Bloodraven’s cave, Storm’s End and the Wall.

“There was no need,” she said. “[Renly] was unprotected. But here . . . this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can pass—ancient, forgotten, yet still in place.” (aCoK, Davos II)

“The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, he said. There are spells woven into it . . . old ones, and strong. He cannot pass beyond the Wall.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

The ward upon the cave mouth still held; the dead men could not enter. (aDwD, Bran III)

The last two locations and constructions are ascribed to both children of the forest and Brandon the Builder.

A seventh castle [Durran] raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build it, shaping the stones with magic; others claimed that a small boy told him what he must do, a boy who would grow to be Bran the Builder. No matter how the tale was told, the end was the same. Though the angry gods threw storm after storm against it, the seventh castle stood defiant, and Durran Godsgrief and fair Elenei dwelt there together until the end of their days. (aCoK, Catelyn III)

With Storm’s End, Catelyn presents the help Durran received to build the protective walls as an either or choice of what you believe: children of the forest or Brandon the Builder. Something similar occurs with the legends on the raising of the Wall. For the Wall though, it is portrayed as a cooperation between Brandon the Builder and the children of the forest, with the first as the architect of the physical wall, and the later get credited for weaving magic into the construction.

Maester Childer’s Winter’s Kings, or the Legends and Lineages of the Starks of Winterfell contains a part of a ballad alleged to tell of the time Brandon the Builder sought the aid of the children while raising the Wall. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Dawn Age)

Legend has it that the giants helped raise the Wall, using their great strength to wrestle the blocks of ice into place. There may be some truth to this though the stories make the giants out to be far larger and more powerful than they truly were. These same legends also say that the children of the forest—who did not themselves build walls of either ice or stone—would contribute their magic to the construction. (tWoIaF – The Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch)

The ward on Bloodraven’s cave affirms this is a magic that originates from the children of the forest. It is their spell. This notion of Brandon the Builder as architect, however, can be easily disproven by Winterfell, yet another construction ascribed to him: Winterfell’s grounds were never leveled.

It taught him Winterfell’s secrets too. The builders had not even leveled the earth; there were hills and valleys behind the walls of Winterfell. (aGoT, Bran II)

Any actual architect would have leveled the ground. And if we compare the oldest constructions of Winterfell to the Storm’s End, the Hightower (also ascribed to Brandon) and the Wall, we would have a boy genius for Storm’s End (and the Hightower), but is not even a mediocre architect when he built his own home. If Brandon the Builder was not an architect, he helped in raising the magical ward that the children of the forest cast. One of the legends claims that Brandon the Builder learned the language of the children of the forest, “which was described as sounding like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water.” Bran’s mentions of the True Tongue (the language of the children of the forest) makes it doubtful that any human can actually learn to speak it, let alone their spells. Bloodraven is a human and has been the sole human amongst the children of the forest for decades in the cave, and apparently cannot speak it either.

I propose that Brandon’s contribution was that of blood magic: the children of the forest said the words, while Brandon the Builder cut the palm of his hand and sealed the spell to the stones, to the location with his blood. His ancestor Brandon of the Bloody Blade is a likely hint that The Builder knew of such blood magic. George also added “the use of a sword” in connection to the ward of Bloodraven’s cave.

“The cave is warded. They cannot pass.” The ranger used his sword to point. “You can see the entrance there. Halfway up, between the weirwoods, that cleft in the rock.” (aDwD, Bran II)

With a few exceptions, almost all magic involves some form of blood magic. While we easily consider it an evil magic where the lives of innocents (other people or children) need to be sacrificed to empower someone who sacrifices nothing, there are also examples where but a few drops of one’s own blood suffices. Maggy the Frog and the one-eyed prostitute Yna in Braavos can tell someone’s fortune with that person’s drop of blood.

Matt_Olson_Maggy_Maegi
Maggy the Frog, by Matt Olson

“Maegi?”
“Is that how you say it? The woman would suck a drop of blood from your finger, and tell you what your morrows held.”
“Blood magic is the darkest kind of sorcery. Some say it is the most powerful as well.” (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

[Merry’s] girls were nice as well; Blushing Bethany and the Sailor’s Wife, one-eyed Yna who could tell your fortune from a drop of blood, […] (aFfC, Cat of the Canals)

Notice how Yna has the one-eyed connotation to Bloodraven. Maggy the Frog may have Essosi origin, but the nickname “the frog” and her green tent, link her to green magic as well. So, it is entirely possible that Brandon the Builder could fixate the warding spell to a particular location by slashing his palm and allow drops of blood to fall on a stone foundation.

Since Bloodraven is inside a cave warded by the same spell as the Wall or Storm’s End, he likely has first hand knowledge how this blood magic works. He might have done the exact same blood letting of his own palm with his Dark Sister when the children of the forest warded the cave. Hence as Mormont’s raven he tries to reveal this to Samwell and Jon.

Note: Jon’s chapter of his meeting with Samwell leaves out most of these hints. Jon is unaware that Mormont’s raven is reading the paper shield along with him. And the chapter leaves out the exact words Jon says when the raven cries “Blood”.

Samwell Tarly turned up a few moments later, clutching a stack of books. No sooner had he entered than Mormont’s raven flew at him demanding corn. Sam did his best to oblige, offering some kernels from the sack beside the door. The raven did its best to peck through his palm. Sam yowled, the bird flapped off, corn scattered. “Did that wretch break the skin?” Jon asked. […] “Val sent her to plead for Mance again,” Jon lied, and they talked for a while of Mance and Stannis and Melisandre of Asshai, until the raven ate the last corn kernel and screamed, “Blood.” (aDwD, Jon II)

So, Sam’s chapter is crucial in figuring out what the raven is about.

The Seal

I refer to this fixation with blood magic of the warding spell as a seal. This is a deliberate choice, as much of the other hints to this concept occur in relation to George’s use of that word. For example in They’re Here! I already mentioned the foreshadowing name Sealskinner. But the most glaring examples are related to parchments, or paper shields: Ramsay’s letters written in blood to Asha and Jon and Stannis’ signing of his contract with the Iron Bank with his own blood.

The paragraphs about Ramsay’s letter to Asha mention a seal, spatter of drops of blood, fluttering skin, dark wings, ravens, writing in blood, and iron.

“My lady.” The maester’s voice was anxious, as it always was when he spoke to her. “A bird from Barrowton.” He thrust the parchment at her as if he could not wait to be rid of it. It was tightly rolled and sealed with a button of hard pink wax. Barrowton. Asha tried to recall who ruled in Barrowton. Some northern lord, no friend of mine. And that seal … the Boltons of the Dreadfort went into battle beneath pink banners spattered with little drops of blood. It only stood to reason that they would use pink sealing wax as well.
This is poison that I hold, she thought. I ought to burn it. Instead she cracked the seal. A scrap of leather fluttered down into her lap. When she read the dry brown words, her black mood grew blacker still. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens never brought glad tidings. The last message sent to Deepwood had been from Stannis Baratheon, demanding homage. This was worse. “The northmen have taken Moat Cailin.” […`] the message above was scrawled in brown in a huge, spiky hand. It spoke of the fall of Moat Cailin, of the triumphant return of the Warden of the North to his domains, of a marriage soon to be made. The first words were, “I write this letter in the blood of ironmen,” the last, “I send you each a piece of prince. Linger in my lands, and share his fate.” (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)

The seal is linked to the image of spattered blood droplets. The letter is linked to skinchanging via the fluttering scrap of leather, raven wings and words. The words on the parchment are written in blood of men. And of course a parchment of written words can be equated to a paper shiel. In this case a paper shield of blood.

A seal, is a stamp or imprint identifying a person or house. It is a type of signature, or a person, for in Asha’s case a seal (animal) was a stand-in bride to Ironmaker, for a union arranged by a crow’s eye.

Asha was still at Ten Towers taking on provisions when the tidings of her marriage reached her. “My wayward niece needs taming,” the Crow’s Eye was reported to have said, “and I know the man to tame her.” He had married her to Erik Ironmaker and named the Anvil-Breaker to rule the Iron Islands whilst he was chasing dragons. […] Tris Botley said that the Crow’s Eye had used a seal to stand in for her at her wedding. “I hope Erik did not insist on a consummation,” she’d said. (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)

In the King’s Prize, we get another wordplay that links a seal to the Wall.

Asha crawled out from under her sleeping furs and pushed her way out of the tent, knocking aside the wall of snow that had sealed them in during the night. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

Where Asha’s POV focuses on the taking of Moat Cailin, Jon’s POV focuses on Ramsay’s forthcoming marriage to Arya Stark, reminding us of the seal standing in for a person at a wedding.

Clydas thrust the parchment forward. It was tightly rolled and sealed, with a button of hard pink wax. Only the Dreadfort uses pink sealing wax. Jon ripped off his gauntlet, took the letter, cracked the seal. When he saw the signature, he forgot the battering Rattleshirt had given him. Ramsay Bolton, Lord of the Hornwood, it read, in a huge, spiky hand. The brown ink came away in flakes when Jon brushed it with his thumb. Beneath Bolton’s signature, Lord Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own marks and seals. A cruder hand had drawn the giant of House Umber. “Might we know what it says, my lord?” asked Iron Emmett.
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. “Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to …” His heart seemed to stop for a moment. (aDwD, Jon VI)

We see another interplay of these words and concepts during the war meeting with Stannis.

Candles had been placed at its corners to keep the hide from rolling up. A finger of warm wax was puddling out across the Bay of Seals, slow as a glacier.

We have a mention of a hide, and thus a reference to skinchangng. Next a finger, and a thumb is still a finger. The word wax is used, instead of blood, but since a seal can be made of wax as well as blood, here the wax stands for blood.

Finally, we witness Stannis signing his contract with the Iron Bank with his own blood.

“Your Grace,” a second voice said softly. “Pardon, but your ink has frozen.” The Braavosi, Theon knew. What was his name? Tycho… Tycho something… “Perhaps a bit of heat… ?”
“I know a quicker way.” Stannis drew his dagger. For an instant Theon thought that he meant to stab the banker. You will never get a drop of blood from that one, my lord, he might have told him. The king laid the blade of the knife against the ball of his left thumb, and slashed. “There. I will sign in mine own blood. That ought to make your masters happy.”
“If it please Your Grace, it will please the Iron Bank.”
Stannis dipped a quill in the blood welling from his thumb and scratched his name across the piece of parchment. (tWoW, Theon I)

So, George is showing us repeatedly how (paper) shields get signed or sealed with drops of blood. Notice too, how iron is also mentioned in combination with this: Ironmen, Iron Emmett or Iron Bank. This implies that Brandon the Builder used an iron sword (and not a bronze one) to cut his palm or thumb to draw blood and seal the warding spell for the Wall. And yes, there are often hints of foreshadowing to the “breaking” or “cracking” of this seal as well as Jon coming to harm.

We also have numerous mentions of walls mixed with blood or built on blood. So, George has connected the concept of building with blood and walls.

Arya remembered Old Nan’s stories of the castle built on fear. Harren the Black had mixed human blood in the mortar, Nan used to say, dropping her voice so the children would need to lean close to hear, but Aegon’s dragons had roasted Harren and all his sons within their great walls of stone.  (aCoK, Arya VI)

Bricks and blood built Astapor,” Whitebeard murmured at her side, “and bricks and blood her people.” […] “An old rhyme a maester taught me, when I was a boy. I never knew how true it was. The bricks of Astapor are red with the blood of the slaves who make them.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Of course, in the case of Harren the Black and the masters of Astapor it is the blood of other people that built those walls: the evil of slavery and murder. That is as evil as Ramsay writing letters with the blood of his prisoners of war. The Blood Seal instead is like Stannis writing his signature with his own blood from his thumb. Regardless, Ygritte tells Jon and us the reader that the Wall is made of blood.

“I hate this Wall,” she said in a low angry voice. “Can you feel how cold it is?”
“It’s made of ice,” Jon pointed out.
You know nothing, Jon Snow. This wall is made o’ blood.” (aSoS, Jon IV)

The Ward

While I have shown just a few of the many examples of hints to this Blood Seal of the ward of the Wall, you probably are still wondering how this connects to Jon wanting to swap the two babes. Just as the flying yellow and red kernels of corn after reading the paper shield foreshadows an assassination attempt on Jon’s life for the Lannister side, I think Bloodraven foresaw that somehow the swapping of the two babies would lead to the writing and sending of the Pink Letter. But the Pink Letter and the assassination plot itself are for another essay within the Blood Seal Thesis. Instead, I will focus here on a more symbolical connection between the baby swap and the Blood Seal. Instead of focusing on the fate of Craster’s son, perhaps we should consider Mance’s son.

Jon thinks that Mel wants to burn Mance for his king’s blood and will burn his son for the same reason. This is his motivation to swap the babes. But Mel has already decided to see whether Mance is a man worth saving, after Jon argued for his life to Stannis and the latter has admitted that Mance has value to him.

“I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king’s dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want, she is like to slit his throat on their wedding night. Even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”
I know that,” Stannis said, unhappily. “I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I’ll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder’s life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms.”
The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance.” (aDwD, Jon I)

At the end of the meeting between Stannis and Jon, Melisandre announces she will walk Jon to his quarters, and tells him she will counsel the flames on his character.

As they stepped out into the yard, the wind filled Jon’s cloak and sent it flapping against her. The red priestess brushed the black wool aside and slipped her arm through his. “It may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance. When I gaze into the flames, I can see through stone and earth, and find the truth within men’s souls. I can speak to kings long dead and children not yet born, and watch the years and seasons flicker past, until the end of days.” (aDwD, Jon I)

And she did, for she had Rattleshirt burned instead of Mance. So, what does Melisandre have to say about Mance’s son (despite her knowing he is actually Gilly’s son)?

“Our false king has a prickly manner,” Melisandre told Jon Snow, “but he will not betray you. We hold his son, remember. […]” (aDwD, Melisandre I)

“Monster?”
“His milk name. I had to call him something. See that he stays safe and warm. For his mother’s sake, and mine. And keep him away from the redwoman. She knows who he is. She sees things in her fires.” (aDwD, Jon VIII)

Mel uses and considers the baby a hostage for Mance’s good behavior. And what are hostages referred to as well?

“[…] So I insisted upon hostages.” I am not the trusting fool you take me for … nor am I half wildling, no matter what you believe. “One hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. A son from each of their chiefs and captains, the rest chosen by lot. The boys will serve as pages and squires, freeing our own men for other duties. Some may choose to take the black one day. Queerer things have happened. The rest will stand hostage for the loyalty of their sires.”
The northmen glanced at one another. “Hostages,” mused The Norrey. “Tormund has agreed to this?”
It was that, or watch his people die. “My blood price, he called it,” said Jon Snow, “but he will pay.”
“Aye, and why not?” Old Flint stomped his cane against the ice. “Wards, we always called them, when Winterfell demanded boys of us, but they were hostages, and none the worse for it.” (aDwD, Jon XI)

That’s right! Hostages are wards! And in this instance the wards are a blood price – yet another reference for the magical ward to blood magic. But what happens if you send wards away instead of keeping them close as hostage? Robb sent his ward Theon back to the Iron Islands. And that backfired immensely.

So, when Bloodraven learned of Jon’s plan to swap Gilly’s son for Mance’s and send his hostage away, he foresaw the breaking of the Blood Seal on the magical ward as a result of the assassination attempt on Jon’s life after the arrival of the Pink Letter. That is why he screamed, “No,” warned for mass death, and tried to show Samwell how the magical ward is locked in place by the Blood Seal.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

In aFfC, Samwell I and aDwD, Jon II, Mormont’s raven acts out in an unprecedented manner and strongly opposes Jon’s plan to swap the babes. This is enough to support the assumption that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in these scenes.

To make sense out of it, we should first start with Jon II and notice that the raven is suspiciously silent in between its strong opposition of Jon’s plan to swap Gilly’s son for Mance’s and its ominous foreshadowing of mass death because of it. The raven’s silence is long enough to allow for Bloodraven skinchanging a mouse in the library to draw the attention of a book lover’s greatest fear in Samwell I. And indeed, Samwell’s attention is finally not focused on books anymore, and he decides to leave the library, well before Dolorous Edd could get down there. And had Pyp, Grenn and Edd not delayed Sam in the yard, he may well have stumbled into Jon’s meeting with Gilly. As allies both would have had the courage to stand up against Jon’s bullying.

Despite, Bloodraven’s and Sam’s efforts, he arrived a moment too late. Upon entering Jon’s office, Mormont’s raven is ostensibly reading Jon’s shield of words (paper shield) to King Tommen, before he pecks through Samwell’s gloves to bloody his palm and points out that blood is the necessary ingredient for blood magic.

This is the Blood Seal reenactment, and how the spell for a magical ward cast by the children of the forest is sealed: cutting the palm or thumb and seal the spell of words in the True Tongue to stone with the droplets of blood. There are a multitude of references to this shield of words and blood seal, via Ramsay’s letters to Asha and Jon after Moat Cailin falls, and Stannis signing his contract with the Iron Bank with the blood from a cut he made in his thumb.

In other words, They’re Here! argues the foreshadowed end result, point B – the assassination attempt on Jon’s life breaks this Blood Seal of the magical ward of the Wall and the Others that are present can raise an army of wights from the lichyard because of it. And the events that lead to point B is the swapping of the babes. The two synched chapters of Samwell and Jon are point A. How we get from A to B is for another essay.

Haldon, the Halfmaester

“I am Haldon, the healer in our little band of brothers. Some call me Halfmaester.” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Every ragtag team has its maester and healer. Apart from tending the wounded, their role is that of the intellectual, who knows history, stories and believes to know the facts.

The Halfmaester’s cabin was the largest of the four. One wall was lined with bookshelves and bins stacked with old scrolls and parchments; another held racks of ointments, herbs, and potions. Golden light slanted through the wavy yellow glass of the round window. The furnishings included a bunk, a writing desk, a chair, a stool, and the Halfmaester’s cyvasse table, strewn with carved wooden pieces. (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

Haldon is shown to be very accomplished: a polyglot in languages, history, mathematics, …

The lesson began with languages. Young Griff spoke the Common Tongue as if he had been born to it, and was fluent in High Valyrian, the low dialects of Pentos, Tyrosh, Myr, and Lys, and the trade talk of sailors. The Volantene dialect was as new to him as it was to Tyrion, so every day they learned a few more words whilst Haldon corrected their mistakes. Meereenese was harder; its roots were Valyrian as well, but the tree had been grafted onto the harsh, ugly tongue of Old Ghis. […] Geometry followed languages. There the boy was less adroit, but Haldon was a patient teacher, and Tyrion was able to make himself of use as well. He had learned the mysteries of squares and circles and triangles from his father’s maesters at Casterly Rock, and they came back more quickly than he would have thought.  By the time they turned to history, Young Griff was growing restive. (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

Haldon can spar with Tyrion over history.

“No doubt. 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.”
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 trouble … only 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)

Except they are probably both wrong and even a primary source such as a squire may lie. In the essay on Serwyn of the Mirror Shield I argue that given Syrax’s whereabouts during the whole of the Dance and the hundreds of witnesses at the Dragonpit it could not have been Rhaenyra’s Syrax. Instead it was most likely Sunfyre while Lord Mooton had knights attempt to kill Aegon II’s wounded dragon. Tyrion is wrong to assume House Swann would only support the Greens because they are vassals to House Baratheon. Instead, House Swann is a house that typically divides their loyalties.

And Haldon is adept enough a cyvasse player to teach it.

Later, when Young Griff went up on deck to help Yandry with the sails and poles, Haldon set up his cyvasse table for their game. Tyrion watched with mismatched eyes, and said, “The boy is bright. You have done well by him. Half the lords in Westeros are not so learned, sad to say. Languages, history, songs, sums … a heady stew for some sellsword’s son.”
“A book can be as dangerous as a sword in the right hands,” said Haldon. “Try to give me a better battle this time, Yollo. You play cyvasse as badly as you tumble.”
I am trying to lull you into a false sense of confidence,” said Tyrion, as they arranged their tiles on either side of a carved wooden screen. “You think you taught me how to play, but things are not always as they seem. Perhaps I learned the game from the cheesemonger, have you considered that?”
“Illyrio does not play cyvasse.”
No, thought the dwarf, he plays the game of thrones, and you and Griff and Duck are only pieces, to be moved where he will and sacrificed at need, just as he sacrificed Viserys. “The blame must fall on you, then. If I play badly, it is your doing.” (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

Tyrion tells Haldon the truth when he warns Haldon that he is lulling the halfmaester into a false sense of confidence. Tyrion only pretended to be a bad player to ensnare Haldon in a bet to reveal the secret of Griff’s identity. Nevertheless, even when Tyrion played to win it required three hours of play.

It was three hours later when the little man finally crept back up on deck to empty his bladder. […] I need that skin of wine, the dwarf thought. His legs were cramped from squatting on that stool, and he felt so light-headed that he was lucky not to fall into the river. (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

Even if Tyrion bests Haldon in intellect and sources in some respect, Haldon is not just highly educated, but undoubtedly also a bright mind. Haldon can certainly give other maesters in Westeros a good run for their money. But ultimately this begs the question – why is Haldon only half a maester?

Half a Maester

At_the_gates_game_of_thrones_lcg_by_jcbarquet
At the Gates, by Juan Carlos Barquet

Whereas Pate in the prologue of aFfC will never earn his links to form a maester’s chains, we have no evidence that Haldon would have failed any of the subjects in the Citadel. Any House in Westeros would be so lucky to have Haldon teaching their children, take care of the ravens, etc. This is why readers who have speculated on the mystery about Haldon suggest the halfmaester may have committed an act in Oldtown for which the archmaesters expelled Haldon. Some propose Haldon may have dabbled in sorcery. Others propose a crime or having a mistress.

A mistress?

An affair or a mistress adoes not seem to fit Haldon’s character whatsoever. Whenever Tyrion expresses sexual desires, Haldon responds to it in ways as if it is an almost alien concept to him.

“Shy maids are my favorite sort. Aside from wanton ones. Tell me, where do whores go?
Do I look like a man who frequents whores?
Duck laughed derisively. “He don’t dare. Lemore would make him pray for pardon, the lad would want to come along, and Griff might cut his cock off and stuff it down his throat.” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

While by itself one might argue that Haldon doth protest too much, Duck’s immediate response to the idea of Haldon at a brothel is derisive laughter. Yes, Duck adds that Haldon would get into trouble with Lemore and Jon Connington, but his immediate response reveals Duck considers the idea absurd on its own merit. And Duck knows Haldon long enough to motivate such a response. Moreover, if an affair or visiting a brothel had been the reason why Haldon would have been kicked out of the Citadel, then would the halfmaester laugh at Tyrion’s joked about lusting after women and allow him a visit at a brothel in Selhorys?

The glow of candles glimmered from the windows of the brothel. From inside came the sound of women’s laughter. “The night is still young,” said Tyrion. “Qavo may not have told us everything. And whores hear much and more from the men they service.”
Do you need a woman so badly, Yollo?
“A man grows weary of having no lovers but his fingers.” Selhorys may be where whores go. Tysha might be in there even now, with tears tattooed upon her cheek. “I almost drowned. A man needs a woman after that. Besides, I need to make sure my prick hasn’t turned to stone.”
The Halfmaester laughed. “I will wait for you in the tavern by the gate. Do not be too long about your business.” (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

Moreover, acolytes and novices are shown to frequent a tavern with the prostitute Rose. Pate saves up for a dragon (money) to be able to bed her. Neither Lazy Leo or Pate fear being kicked off the Citadel for sleeping with a woman or girl.

[Lazy Leo] stretched, yawning. “How is our lovely little Rosey, pray?”
“She’s sleeping,” Pate said curtly.
“Naked, I don’t doubt.” Leo grinned. “Do you think she’s truly worth a dragon? One day I suppose I must find out.” (aFfC, Prologue)

And Lady Dustin informs Theon that archmaesters have been known to have fathered bastards, who they then end up adopting into the Citadel. Maester Walys’ father, an archmaester never got expelled for this.

“That was how it was with Lord Rickard Stark. Maester Walys was his grey rat’s name. And isn’t it clever how the maesters go by only one name, even those who had two when they first arrived at the Citadel? That way we cannot know who they truly are or where they come from … but if you are dogged enough, you can still find out. Before he forged his chain, Maester Walys had been known as Walys Flowers. Flowers, Hill, Rivers, Snow … we give such names to baseborn children to mark them for what they are, but they are always quick to shed them. Walys Flowers had a Hightower girl for a mother … and an archmaester of the Citadel for a father, it was rumored. The grey rats are not as chaste as they would have us believe. Oldtown maesters are the worst of all.” (aDwD, The Prince of Winterfell)

Novices, acolytes, maesters and even archmaesters are little different from brothers of the Night’s Watch in this.

“If we beheaded every boy who rode to Mole’s Town in the night, only ghosts would guard the Wall.” (aGoT, Jon IX)

We can thus safely conclude that neither an affair or visiting brothels was the reason why Haldon is only a halfmaester: it is not in Haldon’s character, nor an offence for which the Citadel would expel such an intelligent acolyte for.

Dabbling in magic?

There is nothing that the Citadel dislikes more than maesters practicing magic. Even the archmaester Marwyn, whose subject to teach is magic, is hated by all the other archmaesters and they smear their colleague with acolytes and novices.

Armen pursed his lips in disapproval. “Marwyn is unsound. Archmaester Perestan would be the first to tell you that.”
Archmaester Ryam says so too,” said Roone.
Leo yawned. “The sea is wet, the sun is warm, and the menagerie hates the mastiff.”
[…] When Marwyn had returned to Oldtown, after spending eight years in the east mapping distant lands, searching for lost books, and studying with warlocks and shadowbinders, Vinegar Vaellyn had dubbed him “Marwyn the Mage.” The name was soon all over Oldtown, to Vaellyn’s vast annoyance. “Leave spells and prayers to priests and septons and bend your wits to learning truths a man can trust in,” Archmaester Ryam had once counseled Pate, but Ryam’s ring and rod and mask were yellow gold, and his maester’s chain had no link of Valyrian steel. (aFfC, Prologue)

Marwyn himself claims that the Citadel would have killed maester Aemon if he had survived the voyage and had talked of prophecy and dragons.

Alleras stepped up next to Sam. “Aemon would have gone to her if he had the strength. He wanted us to send a maester to her, to counsel her and protect her and fetch her safely home.”
“Did he?” Archmaester Marwyn shrugged. “Perhaps it’s good that he died before he got to Oldtown. Elsewise the grey sheep might have had to kill him, and that would have made the poor old dears wring their wrinkled hands.”
Kill him?” Sam said, shocked. “Why?
“If I tell you, they may need to kill you too.” Marywn smiled a ghastly smile, the juice of the sourleaf running red between his teeth. “Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant dragonslayers armed with swords?” He spat. “The world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons. Ask yourself why Aemon Targaryen was allowed to waste his life upon the Wall, when by rights he should have been raised to archmaester. His blood was why. He could not be trusted. No more than I can.” (aFfC, Samwell V)

And he advises Samwell to pretend to be an obeying novice who will not talk of dragons and prophecy to other archmaesters.

“B-b-but,” Sam sputtered, “the other archmaesters . . . the Seneschal . . . what should I tell them?
“Tell them how wise and good they are. Tell them that Aemon commanded you to put yourself into their hands. Tell them that you have always dreamed that one day you might be allowed to wear the chain and serve the greater good, that service is the highest honor, and obedience the highest virtue. But say nothing of prophecies or dragons, unless you fancy poison in your porridge.” (aFfC, Samwell V)

So, the Citadel would kill maesters and novices over magic, and wish to squash any belief in magic. We know of a maester who lost his chain over dabbling in magic – Qyburn of the Bloody Mummers.

Qyburn pulled a roll of parchment from his sleeve. Though he wore maester’s robes, there was no chain about his neck; it was whispered that he had lost it for dabbling in necromancy. (aCoK, Arya X)

He is not Pycelle, that much is plain. The queen weighed him, wondering. “Why did the Citadel take your chain?
“The archmaesters are all craven at heart. The grey sheep, Marwyn calls them. I was as skilled a healer as Ebrose, but aspired to surpass him. For hundreds of years the men of the Citadel have opened the bodies of the dead, to study the nature of life. I wished to understand the nature of death, so I opened the bodies of the living. For that crime the grey sheep shamed me and forced me into exile . . . but I understand the nature of life and death better than any man in Oldtown.” (aFfC, Cersei II)

The Citadel uses the glass candles to crush any hope or belief in magic within an acolyte before they are allowed to say the vows of a maester. Acolytes have to perform a vigil in a dark room with only a glass candle for light, if they can make it burn. But as far as most maesters and acolytes know, they cannot be lit.

It is a lesson,” Armen said, “the last lesson we must learn before we don our maester’s chains. The glass candle is meant to represent truth and learning, rare and beautiful and fragile things. It is made in the shape of a candle to remind us that a maester must cast light wherever he serves, and it is sharp to remind us that knowledge can be dangerous. Wise men may grow arrogant in their wisdom, but a maester must always remain humble. The glass candle reminds us of that as well. Even after he has said his vow and donned his chain and gone forth to serve, a maester will think back on the darkness of his vigil and remember how nothing that he did could make the candle burn . . . for even with knowledge, some things are not possible.” (aFfC, Prologue)

Armen is correct that the glass candle vigil is a lesson, but only to teach the last he mentions: the lie that magic does not exist. And of course, if there ever is an acolyte who manages to light a glass candle during their vigil, we can surmise such a man would never even be permitted to say his vows, never be allowed to wear a chain. Such a man might not even be allowed to live and tell the tale.

So, is Haldon such a man? Did he dabble in magic and got exiled? Did the halfmaester light a glass candle and was he refused the right to say his vows and don a chain? Or did Haldon have to flee for his life for either one of the offences in the eyes of the Citadel? It seems a plausible explanation, except for the fact that Haldon seems the perfect maester: the halfmaester does not believe in magic. Time and time again, Haldon mocks or displays disbelief to magic. If the halfmaester rejects the existence of magic, it is improbable that Haldon would have been caught dabbling with it.

Take for instance one of the earliest conversations between Haldon and Tyrion as they ride to the Shy Maid, shortly after meeting, accompanied by Ser Rolly Duckfield.

This time Duck laughed, and Haldon said, “What a droll little fellow you are, Yollo. They say that the Shrouded Lord will grant a boon to any man who can make him laugh. Perhaps His Grey Grace will choose you to ornament his stony court.”
Duck glanced at his companion uneasily. “It’s not good to jape of that one, not when we’re so near the Rhoyne. He hears.”
Wisdom from a duck,” said Haldon. “I beg your pardon, Yollo. You need not look so pale, I was only playing with you. The Prince of Sorrows does not bestow his grey kiss lightly.”
His grey kiss. The thought made his flesh crawl. Death had lost its terror for Tyrion Lannister, but greyscale was another matter. The Shrouded Lord is just a legend, he told himself, no more real than the ghost of Lann the Clever that some claim haunts Casterly Rock. Even so, he held his tongue. (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Haldon makes a joke about the Shrouded Lord giving Tyrion the grey kiss. Greyscale is said to have come into the world because of a curse by Garin the Great of the Rhoynar. After he gathered an army against the Valyrians and had several victories, including killing three dragons and dragonriders, the Valyrians moved against him. They captured him.

Locked in a golden cage at the command of the dragonlords, Garin was carried back to the festival city to witness its destruction. At Chroyane, the cage was hung from the walls, so that the prince might witness the enslavement of the women and children whose fathers and brothers had died in his gallant, hopeless war…but the prince, it is said, called down a curse upon the conquerors, entreating Mother Rhoyne to avenge her children. And so, that very night, the Rhoyne flooded out of season and with greater force than was known in living memory. A thick fog full of evil humors fell, and the Valyrian conquerors began to die of greyscale. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: Ten Thousand Ships)

Chroyane_by_didier_graffet
Chroyane, by Didier Graffet

The Shrouded Lord rules the mists around the Sorrows beyond Chroyane, and is by some believed to be a supernatural being or ghost of Garin. His kiss means he curses someone with greyscale. And only those who do not believe in ghosts, the supernatural or magic would joke about this on Planetos. Duck is superstitious enough to reprimand Haldon for making such a joke. And even the otherwise rational Tyrion who tends to classify such legends as tales of grumkins and snarks pales after Haldon’s jape over it. Haldon apologizes for it, but has given us our first hint that he does not take the legends or supernatural beliefs serious. He disdainfully calls Duck’s superstition duck’s wisdom. All this, despite the fact the halfmaester takes greyscale itself very serious. After Tyrion fell into the Sorrows, being pulled down by a stone man, Haldon instructs Tyrion how to inspect for greyscale himself, so that Haldon can avoid touching him:

Haldon produced a small knife from his sleeve. “Here,” he said, tossing it underhand at Tyrion. […] “Take off your boots. Prick each of your toes and fingers.” [… ] “The purpose of the exercise is not to count your toes. I want to see you wince. So long as the pricks hurt, you are safe. It is only when you cannot feel the blade that you will have cause to fear.” […] “As you prick, look for patches of dead grey skin, for nails beginning to turn black,” said Haldon. “If you see such signs, do not hesitate. Better to lose a toe than a foot. Better to lose an arm than spend your days wailing on the Bridge of Dream. Now the other foot, if you please. Then your fingers.”
The dwarf recrossed his stunted legs and began to prick the other set of toes. […] Tyrion drove the dagger’s point into the ball of his thumb, watched the blood bead up, sucked it away. “How long must I continue to torture myself? When will we be certain that I’m clean?”
“Truly?” said the Halfmaester. “Never. You swallowed half the river. You may be going grey even now, turning to stone from inside out, starting with your heart and lungs. If so, pricking your toes and bathing in vinegar will not save you. When you’re done, come have some broth.” The broth was good, though Tyrion noted that the Halfmaester kept the table between them as he ate. (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

When the Shy Maid nears the Bridge of Dreams, surrounded by the fog, we get a conversation where several people express their various views on the curse, ghosts, and the Shrouded Lord. Even if they use the same names, they each talk of different concepts.

The Shy Maid moved through the fog like a blind man groping his way down an unfamiliar hall. […] “I do not like this place,” Haldon Halfmaester muttered. (aDwD, Tyrion V)

Haldon’s dislike could be taken as superstitious without any further information. And Tyrion takes it that way too.

“Frightened of a little fog?” mocked Tyrion, though in truth there was quite a lot of fog. […] The lanterns had been lit fore and aft, but the fog was so thick that all the dwarf could see from amidships was a light floating out ahead of him and another following behind. (aDwD, Tyrion V)

Despite mocking Haldon’s dislike, Tyrion has to admit the fog is dangerously thick. A few paragraphs later the text reveals that the halfmaester wrapped a scarf around his mouth and nose. And Haldon advizes them all not to breathe the fog, calling it Garin’s curse.

We’d do well not to breathe the fog either,” said Haldon. “Garin’s Curse is all about us.”
The only way not to breathe the fog is not to breathe. “Garin’s Curse is only greyscale,” said Tyrion. The curse was oft seen in children, especially in damp, cold climes. The afflicted flesh stiffened, calcified, and cracked, though the dwarf had read that greyscale’s progress could be stayed by limes, mustard poultices, and scalding-hot baths (the maesters said) or by prayer, sacrifice, and fasting (the septons insisted). Then the disease passed, leaving its young victims disfigured but alive. Maesters and septons alike agreed that children marked by greyscale could never be touched by the rarer mortal form of the affliction, nor by its terrible swift cousin, the grey plague. “Damp is said to be the culprit,” he said. “Foul humors in the air. Not curses.” (aDwD, Tyrion V)

Tyrion seems so intent on misunderstanding Haldon that it seems to go completely over his head that what the maesters believe is the culprit is exactly the reason why Haldon is wearing a scarf to cover his mouth and nose, and why he advises not to breathe the fog. When Haldon refers to Garin’s curse, the halfmaester means exactly what Tyrion explains it to be ‘foul humors in the damp air‘. For a long time in our own world, diseases were believed to have spread because of bad or foul airs and gasses even by the first rational scientists. It was not discovered until the start of the 18th century that micro-organisms lived and existed in water. And the paper that described such microscopic observations (without proposing them to be spreaders or carriers of disease, let alone the actual cause) was long ignored after its publication. Hence, Haldon’s fear for the fog and trying to avoid breathing it matches the ideas of a rationalist in a feudal society.

Chroyane_philip straub
Chroyane, by Philip Straub, illustration from The World of Ice and Fire

The only ones expressing beliefs that the fog is supernatural are Ysilla and her husband.

“This is no common fog, Hugor Hill,” Ysilla insisted. “It stinks of sorcery, as you would know if you had a nose to smell it. Many a voyager has been lost here, poleboats and pirates and great river galleys too. They wander forlorn through the mists, searching for a sun they cannot find until madness or hunger claim their lives. There are restless spirits in the air here and tormented souls below the water.”
“There’s one now,” said Tyrion. Off to starboard a hand large enough to crush the boat was reaching up from the murky depths. Only the tops of two fingers broke the river’s surface, but as the Shy Maid eased on past he could see the rest of the hand rippling below the water and a pale face looking up. Though his tone was light, he was uneasy. This was a bad place, rank with despair and death. Ysilla is not wrong. This fog is not natural. Something foul grew in the waters here, and festered in the air. Small wonder the stone men go mad.
“You should not make mock,” warned Ysilla. “The whispering dead hate the warm and quick and ever seek for more damned souls to join them.” (aDwD, Tyrion V)

In response to Ysilla’s supernatural explanations for voyagers naturally losing their way in the fog, claiming there are ghosts in the air and in the water, Tyrion mocks her by pointing at a statue below the waters of the sunken city. And yet, here Tyrion comes to believe the fog is unnatural and at the very least believes something foul is coming from the waters to fester in the air – the foul humors he mentions much later in the conversation.

After Ysilla warns Tyrion not to mock stone men, and claimed that the whispering dead hate the warm and the quick, Haldon proves once more his rational beliefs.

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)

And when the Shrouded Lord is brought up, Ysilla’s husband Yandry explains that the Shrouded Lord is Garin the Great, resurrected after he rose from his watery grave. Whereas Haldon immediately denies the possibility of the dead rising again or that they could live a thousand years. Instead he explains it as one leader pretending to be the prior one after that one died – not unlike men of the Brotherhood Without Banners pretending to be Beric (and yet Beric was a resurrected man and Lady Stoneheart may roam the Riverlands forever)

The heat from the glowing coals brought a flush to Tyrion’s face. “Is there a Shrouded Lord? Or is he just some tale?
“The Shrouded Lord has ruled these mists since Garin’s day,” said Yandry. “Some say that he himself is Garin, risen from his watery grave.”
The dead do not rise,” insisted Haldon Halfmaester, “and no man lives a thousand years. Yes, there is a Shrouded Lord. There have been a score of them. When one dies another takes his place. This one is a corsair from the Basilisk Islands who believed the Rhoyne would offer richer pickings than the Summer Sea.”
“Aye, I’ve heard that too,” said Duck, “but there’s another tale I like better. The one that says he’s not like t’other stone men, that he started as a statue till a grey woman came out of the fog and kissed him with lips as cold as ice.” (aDwD, Tyrion V)

Even more interestingly is Haldon’s reaction after they first passed beneath the Bridge of Dreams safely, but somehow end up having to pass beneath it again after Tyrion revealed in that accursed place that Young Griff is Rhaegar’s son. Too soon Tyrion believed they had reached safety from the stone men on the Bridge of Dream. The moment it is all out in the open, the Shy Maid passes the underwater stone statue that I already mentioned above, the marble spiraling staircase, an uprooted tree, and finally the Bridge of Dream again. As it happens, Haldon expresses disbelief.

On the larboard side of the boat, a huge stone hand was visible just below the water. Two fingers broke the surface. How many of those are there? Tyrion wondered. A trickle of moisture ran down his spine and made him shudder. The Sorrows drifted by them. Peering through the mists, he glimpsed a broken spire, a headless hero, an ancient tree torn from the ground and upended, its huge roots twisting through the roof and windows of a broken dome. Why does all of this seem so familiar? Straight on, a tilted stairway of pale marble rose up out of the dark water in a graceful spiral, ending abruptly ten feet above their heads. No, thought Tyrion, that is not possible. […] All of them looked. All of them saw it. […] No one said a word. The Shy Maid moved with the current. Her sail had not been raised since she first entered the Sorrows. She had no way to move but with the river. Duck stood squinting, clutching his pole with both hands. After a time even Yandry stopped pushing. Every eye was on the distant light. As they grew closer, it turned into two lights. Then three.
“The Bridge of Dream,” said Tyrion.
Inconceivable,” said Haldon Halfmaester. “We’ve left the bridge behind. Rivers only run one way.” (aDwD, Tyrion V)

Something magical had just happened and showed Garin’s curse has some truth in it. The curse was aimed at Valyrians. And when Tyrion exposed Young Griff as Rhaegar’s son before they were well away from the Sorrows, Aegon was still within grasp of the curse’s magic. At their second approach of the Bridge of Dream, the stone men that dropped themselves onto the Shy Maid aimed for Aegon specifically. And as it was happening , Haldon was the sole one who voices disbelief aloud.

Haldon’s skepticism on magic is not just betrayed with regards the Shrouded Lord or Garin’s Curse, but dragons as well. Jon Connington ordered Tyrion to write down and assemble all he has ever read about dragons while on the Shy Maid. Haldon refers to this as defacing parchment, despite the fact that Jon Connington hopes to have Aegon meet up with Dany and wed her, and they know she has dragons.

When the Halfmaester appeared on deck, yawning, the dwarf was writing down what he recalled concerning the mating habits of dragons, on which subject Barth, Munkun, and Thomax held markedly divergent views. […] “I see you have been defacing more good parchment, Yollo.” Haldon laced up his breeches. (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

So, Haldon is as much a skeptic of magic and dragons as the Citadel would love a maester to be… and as we would expect Varys would prefer. The last person Varys would want near Aegon is a mage. We can therefore conclude in full confidence that Haldon was not expelled or ran from the Citadel for dabbling in magic.

A crime?

A crime may be much harder to ignore for the Citadel. There is one scene that seems to suggest Haldon may have been up to something fishy in aDwD.

It should not have taken this long, Griff told himself as he paced the deck of the Shy Maid. Had they lost Haldon as they had Tyrion Lannister? Could the Volantenes have taken him? I should have sent Duckfield with him. Haldon alone could not be trusted; he had proved that in Selhorys when he let the dwarf escape. […] “Where in the seven hells is Haldon?” Griff complained to Lady Lemore. “How long should it take to buy three horses?
[…]
“Griff,” Yandry called loudly, above the clanging of the mummers’ bell. “It’s Haldon.”
So it was. The Halfmaester looked hot and bedraggled as he made his way along the waterfront to the foot of the pier. Sweat had left dark rings beneath the arms of his light linen robes, and he had the same sour look on his long face as at Selhorys, when he returned to the Shy Maid to confess that the dwarf was gone. He was leading three horses, however, and that was all that mattered. […] Haldon’s horses did not please him. “Were these the best that you could find?” he complained to the Halfmaester.
“They were,” said Haldon, in an irritated tone, “and you had best not ask what they cost us. With Dothraki across the river, half the populace of Volon Therys has decided they would sooner be elsewhere, so horseflesh grows more expensive every day.”
I should have gone myself. After Selhorys, he had found it difficult to put the same trust in Haldon as previously. He let the dwarf beguile him with that glib tongue of his. Let him wander off into a whorehouse alone while he lingered like a mooncalf in the square. The brothel keeper had insisted that the little man had been carried off at swordpoint, but Griff was still not sure he believed that. (aDwD, The Lost Lord)

After losing Tyrion, Jon Connington has begun to distrust Haldon. He becomes suspicious of the length of time that Haldon needs to secure three horses. And on top of that Haldon returns with three disappointing horses and warns Connington not to ask how much they cost.

Haldon shows signs of sweating. But this is not evidence of falsehood. Jon Connington’s POV points out that it is sweltering hot. However, Jon’s memory of Haldon’s explanation about what the halfmaester was doing while Tyrion visited the brothel in Selhorys does not match with what Haldon told Tyrion before leaving Tyrion. To Tyrion, Haldon said he would wait for Tyrion at the tavern at the gate. Apparently the halfmaester told Jon Connington that he was waiting for Tyrion in the square instead. Maybe, Haldon lied not to appear even more naïve for going to a tavern instead of waiting outside the brothel at a square. But it also may be related to a vice – a weakness that requires money and time. While neither Tyrion or Haldon are responsible for Jorah Mormont kidnapping Tyrion, Jorah could not have done so without Tyrion giving into his vices – whores and wine. And Haldon’s own character weakness may have been the reason why he allowed Tyrion out of his sight. Haldon’s vices are neither women like Pate or Tyrion, nor drinking like Tyrion or Aeron Greyjoy. Haldon’s vice may be gambling though.

Tiziano_Baracchi_Trystane_Martell
Trystane Martell, by Tizziano Baracchi

When Tyrion wagered with Haldon over a game of cyvasse for secrets, Haldon could not resist. He ended up revealing the identity of Young Griff to Tyrion, which was a secret guarded for seventeen years from a great many people, after three hours of cyvasse and an undetermined number of losses.

The night that Haldon lost Tyrion to Jorah Mormont, Griff sent Haldon to Selhorys to acquire information with Qavo, a custom’s officer of Selhorys, who tends to share information over a game of cyvasse.

Finally Griff beckoned to Haldon. “We need to know the truth of these rumors. Go ashore and learn what you can. Qavo will know, if you can find him. Try the Riverman and the Painted Turtle. You know his other places.”
“Aye. I’ll take the dwarf as well. Four ears hear more than two. And you know how Qavo is about his cyvasse.”
“As you wish. Be back before the sun comes up. If for any reason you’re delayed, make your way to the Golden Company.” (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

Jon Connington knows that Haldon may potentially take a whole night playing cyvasse with Qavo and also implies that Haldon is familiar with every other place that Qavo frequents in Selhorys. This means that Jon is aware of Haldon’s weakness.

When Tyrion later meets with Qavo, we learn that Haldon has never won from Qavo yet.

“It may be that we can use this trouble to our advantage. I know where we may find answers.” Haldon led them past the headless hero to where a big stone inn fronted on the square. The ridged shell of some immense turtle hung above its door, painted in garish colors. Inside a hundred dim red candles burned like distant stars. The air was fragrant with the smell of roasted meat and spices, and a slave girl with a turtle on one cheek was pouring pale green wine. Haldon paused in the doorway. “There. Those two.” In the alcove two men sat over a carved stone cyvasse table, squinting at their pieces by the light of a red candle. One was gaunt and sallow, with thinning black hair and a blade of a nose. The other was wide of shoulder and round of belly, with corkscrew ringlets tumbling past his collar. Neither deigned to look up from their game until Haldon drew up a chair between them and said, “My dwarf plays better cyvasse than both of you combined.”
[…]
He beckoned Tyrion toward the empty chair. “Up with you, little man. Put your silver on the table, and we will see how well you play the game.”
Which game? Tyrion might have asked. He climbed onto the chair. “I play better with a full belly and a cup of wine to hand.” The thin man turned obligingly and called for the slave girl to fetch them food and drink.
Haldon said, “The noble Qavo Nogarys is the customs officer here in Selhorys. I have never once defeated him at cyvasse.”
Tyrion understood. “Perhaps I will be more fortunate.” He opened his purse and stacked silver coins beside the board, one atop another until finally Qavo smiled.
[…]
The rest was slaughter, though the dwarf held on another dozen moves. “The time has come for bitter tears,” Qavo said at last, scooping up the pile of silver. “Another game?”
“No need,” said Haldon. “My dwarf has had his lesson in humility. I think it is best we get back to our boat.” (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

Haldon admits to having played Qavo often and never having won so far. This may be in part because of purposeful losses. Qavo basically sells information for a bribe, but to onlookers it must appear as if Qavo came by the money over winning a game of cyvasse. It is understood by both Haldon and Tyrion that the price for information is losing a game of cyvasse and the money you put on the table. This is why Qavo reveals any information Tyrion asks after, before Tyrion loses and the money is Qavo’s.

We never see Haldon play against Qavo personally, and Haldon takes Tyrion away after learning enough information. But it seems that Haldon returned to challenge Qavo personally after Tyrion entered the brothel, not for information this time, but to try and win from him. Notice how Tyrion’s excuse for being allowed to visit the brothel is the acquisition of more information.

“The night is still young,” said Tyrion. “Qavo may not have told us everything. And whores hear much and more from the men they service.”
Do you need a woman so badly, Yollo?

Haldon is not fooled by Tyrion’s rationalisation. The halfmaester knows Tyrion’s main reason is to bed a woman. But Haldon also had an itch and hours of leave from Jon Connington to scratch it. It may not be too much of a stretch to assume that the halfmaester likely has another favorite player to challenge in Volon Therys.

So, we could think of a scenario where Haldon gambled himself into debt at Oldtown either having to flee the Citadel without finishing his chain. Alternatively the halfmaester attempted to steal something valuable from the Citadel to try and pay off a debt. There is only one issue with this scenario. Haldon’s “vice” seems to be tied to cyvasse specifically. It is a specific addictive game stemming from Volantis and largely unknown at Westeros.

He had left her in her chambers, bent over a gaming table opposite Prince Trystane, pushing ornate pieces across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli. Myrcella’s full lips had been slightly parted, her green eyes narrowed with concentration. Cyvasse, the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Volantis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. The Dornish court was mad for it. Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares. Prince Trystane had taken to the game at once, and Myrcella had learned it so she could play with him. (aFfC, The Soiled Knight)

From Ser Arys Oakheart we learn the game was introduced in Dorne via a trading galley from Volantis. The orphans spread it. Neither Arys from the Reach and Myrcella knew the game before coming to Dorne. But Ser Arys also informs us that Trystane took to the game at once, implying that Cyvasse only took the Dornish court by storm after the kingsguard and Myrcella had already arrived at Sunspear. Hence, we can date the introduction of cyvasse in Westeros to at the earliest 299 AC. And it only gets introduced at court in King’s Landing in 300 AC, when Margaery attempts to learn it with her cousins.

Margaery was in the Maidenvault, sipping wine and trying to puzzle out some new game from Volantis with her three cousins. (aFfC, Cersei VIII)

Not only is it a new game to several characters of the Reach. Cersei does not know the game either. This means that no maester ever taught it it at the Rock to Tyrion.

Hence, we can conclude that while the game is Haldon’s vice to lure him into a bet over it, the halfmaester certainly never got into debt over cyvasse at Oldtown. It is possible though that Haldon may have had this weakness in other games as well, not unlike Lazy Leo.

“Leo. My lord. I had understood that you were still confined to the Citadel for . . .”
. . . three more days.” Lazy Leo shrugged. “Perestan says the world is forty thousand years old. Mollos says five hundred thousand. What are three days, I ask you?” Though there were a dozen empty tables on the terrace, Leo sat himself at theirs. “Buy me a cup of Arbor gold, Hopfrog, and perhaps I won’t inform my father of your toast. The tiles turned against me at the Checkered Hazard, and I wasted my last stag on supper. (aFfC, Prologue)

Leo Tyrell is broke because he lost at a game with tiles in a tavern called the Checkered Hazard. It may not be cyvasse, but clearly a type of checkers game is played at this tavern for money. Its name including hazard implies it is known as a place to gamble. Notice too that George wrote this in the paragraph after we learned Leo was confined for an unspecified offense. Even if the ordered confinement of Leo Tyrell is not actually related to gambling, George sets up the two concepts close to one another, potentially for a later parallel.

And Prince Doran Martell of Dorne makes an astute observation about himself in relation to cyvasse.

“I told them to place a cyvasse table in your chambers,” her father said when the two of them were alone.
“Who was I supposed to play with?” Why is he talking about a game? Has the gout robbed him of his wits?
“Yourself. Sometimes it is best to study a game before you attempt to play it. How well do you know the game, Arianne?”
“Well enough to play.”
“But not to win. My brother loved the fight for its own sake, but I only play such games as I can win. Cyvasse is not for me.” (aFfC, The Princess in the Tower)

Doran describes himself as someone who would not enjoy cyvasse for the sake of playing itself; that if he plays, he plays to win. In other words, Doran cannot stand losing, and it is this inability to accept loss and let the loss go that can lead to gambling debt. This is something that Haldon seems to suffer from. And such a character trait would rear its head with any potential strategic game.

And thus gambling over cyvasse and checkers seems like a promising trail, but at this point it is highly speculative. We do not have enough information of either the Citadel and Haldon anywhere near confirmation. We do not even know whether a gambling debt would be something so severe the Citadel would expel such a promising acolyte over. And if Haldon stems from a noble family then surely they could have covered some of the debt.

Identity

The potential hints to a gambling issue for Haldon speaks more of a character flaw, a weakness, than it being an identity issue.

The identities of the members of Ragtag Band of Exiles involves a lie, a vice and a hidden identity. With Jon Connington the vice was the lie in order to create a new identity as a cover. It was made out as if he stole from the Golden Company and drank himself to death. In reality, JonCon never stole and never died. And what caused him to be an exile actually makes him out to be a good and honorable man (at least so far). He was unwilling to slaughter smallfolk to capture Robert. Lord Varys recruited the members of Aegon’s team on being skilled as well as caring for people and having morals, despite the vices the elite condemned them for.

With Lemore it is apparent what caused her to be expelled from the order of the Septas: her stretch marks prove she delivered a child once and thus had a lover or affair. And yet, she is perhaps the wisest of the septas we have seen on page, both in her faith and compassion, not unlike Haldon proving to be an exemplary maester who would be greatly desired by the Citadel. The stretch marks cannot be a lie, so that leaves either Lemore being a septa or her name a lie. It is more than likely that her name is the lie.

Haldon_Halfmaester_by_cloudninja9
Haldon Halfmaester, by cloudninja9

The question here is what is Haldon lying about? The vice is gambling, which is unspoken, but shown to us, and therefore not a lie. The halfmaester does not lie about having a chain and evidently has been trained at the Citadel. That leaves a fundamental lie about Haldon’s identity. Some readers speculate that Haldon may benefit of the Citadel’s practice of dropping the last name. But this is a deception practiced by the Citadel anyhow. If an archmaester’s bastard is used to influence House Stark to become more southron, it makes it hard to believe that the Citadel would not have overlooked Haldon’s vice and origin for such a gifted maester who would be a perfect grey sheep as Marwyn would like to say. There seems to be only one specific thing that the Citadel cannot and would not abide by, other than dabbling in magic: gender identity. A maester can no more be a woman, than a septa can be a mother. This is why Doran refers to Sarella’s studies at Oldtown as a game.

What of Sarella? She is a woman grown, almost twenty.”
Unless she returns to Dorne, there’s naught I can do about Sarella save pray that she shows more sense than her sisters. Leave her to her . . . game. […]” (aFfC, The Captain of the Guards)

Most readers figure out even on first read that Alleras in aFfC‘s Prologue is Sarella. I will not quote everything about Alleras in here. For a summary on the theory I refer to the wiki of ice and fire page about it. It is one of the least uncontested hidden identity theories amongst the readers, because it is pretty much on the nose, as much as the singer Abel at Winterfell in aDwD is universally accepted to be Mance, before the Pink Letter confirms it. A very small minority of readers are suspicious of the obvious Alleras = Sarella, because George is rarely that obvious. Many more readers, who accept the Alleras = Sarella theory, suspect that the real sphynx’s riddle are Sarella’s motives; that they go beyond just learning.

Alleras_by drafturgy
Alleras, by drafturgy

Arianne’s thoughts that Sarella was never really a part of Arianne’s close circle because “Sarella was forever pushing in where she didn’t belong” (aFfC, The Princess in the Tower) suggest that Sarella has a trans identity or at the very least is gender fluid, and that from a very young age. Dorne and its court are some of the most emancipated regions of Westeros. The eldest child is heir to the rule of Dorne regardless of gender. All the Sand Snakes are allowed to choose a weapon of their preference by Oberyn. And they are also free to express their femininity however they prefer it to be: nobody forces Obara in a dress, and nobody forces Tyene to wear pants. And they seem as tolerant when it comes to sexual preference. Not only is Oberyn’s bisexuality not a thing that makes him any less loved. But nobody thinks less of Nymeria Sand for her lesbian relation with the Flower twins (see: Tower of the Hand’s Queers of Ice and Fire). So, if Sarella always pushed to be where she “did not belong”, then this implies Sarella was not just content with being a tomboy; that he never accepted the gender assigned to him at birth. Therefore, we should not think of Alleras as a disguise for Sarella, but his truest identity expression, in a world where Alleras cannot physically transition. His motivation is not just acquiring knowledge and learning in an environment where women are forbidden to study, but exactly to be in a male mini-world where everybody automatically identifies you as male and away from Dorne where everybody would misidentify him as a woman.

So, one of the reasons that George makes it so obvious is because as an author he wants to include trans representation, while he can believably write about Alleras as a he. The second reason why George makes it so obvious is because he needed Alleras in order to set up a parallel: Haldon is trans as much as Alleras is.

Right now, you’re thinking, “Wait! What? We have no hint whatsoever that Haldon has a woman’s body!” Well actually there are several glaring ones.

But let us first take Haldon’s physical description.

His companion was older, clean-shaved, with a lined ascetic face. His hair had been pulled back and tied in a knot behind his head. […] The man called Haldon studied Tyrion with cool grey eyes before turning back to Illyrio. […]  (aDwD, Tyrion III)

There are not that many male characters that are clean shaven. And both the ascetic features and knot behind the head are slyly suggestive of a level of femininity about Haldon, that we see but rarely in the series. The maester robes would also allow Haldon to disguise any female physical features.

Meanwhile the conversation during their introduction and first meeting includes jokes about crossdressing and maesters not needing a cock. Haldon introduces himself to Tyrion as healer and how some call him Halfmaester. Rolly Duck is Duck and was knighted by Griff. Then they ask Illyrio to introduce the dwarf to them. Illyrio invents a name on the spot – Yollo.

“Ser Rolly,” said the big man. “Rolly Duckfield. Any knight can make a knight, and Griff made me. And you, dwarf?”
Illyrio spoke up quickly. “Yollo, he is called.”
Yollo? Yollo sounds like something you might name a monkey. Worse, it was a Pentoshi name, and any fool could see that Tyrion was no Pentoshi. “In Pentos I am Yollo,” he said quickly, to make what amends he could, “but my mother named me Hugor Hill.”
“Are you a little king or a little bastard?” asked Haldon.
Tyrion realized he would do well to be careful around Haldon Halfmaester. “Every dwarf is a bastard in his father’s eyes.”
“No doubt. Well, Hugor Hill, answer me this. How did Serwyn of the Mirror Shield slay the dragon Urrax?”(aDwD, Tyrion III)

From the start, Tyrion is aware he should be careful around Haldon if he does not want the truth of his identity known. But we should see this caution also mirrored with Haldon, because Tyrion is as inquisitive, skeptical and observant, especially since George writes Tyrion’s thought about being careful “around” Haldon, after he already introduced us to the main mystery of Haldon and immediately follows up with Haldon mentioning a mirror concept: Serwyn of the Mirror shield.

In the discussion over which dragon Ser Swann killed, Tyrion ends up being careless. First of all, only bastards that have been acknowledged by a noble parent end up with surname. The surname Hill makes him a Westerlander. His need to prove his intellectual prowess reveals instantly that he was highly educated, so much he had access to historical primary sources. By the end of the dragon discussion, Haldon likely already figured out that Hugor Hill was Tyrion Lannister. There are not that many extremely high educated dwarfs in the Westerlands.

The conversation takes a turn, meaning the mirror of discovery is now shining a light on Haldon. It starts with Tyrion inquiring where whores go.

“Shy maids are my favorite sort. Aside from wanton ones. Tell me, where do whores go?
Do I look like a man who frequents whores?”
Duck laughed derisively. “He don’t dare. Lemore would make him pray for pardon, the lad would want to come along, and Griff might cut his cock off and stuff it down his throat.”
“Well,” said Tyrion, “a maester does not need a cock.”
“Haldon’s only half a maester, though.” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Tyrion is wrong: a maester does need a cock. Without it, he is not allowed to don a chain. And it is in answer to this mistaken claim about not needing cocks that Duck reveals Haldon is only half a maester. So, Haldon being only half a maester is directly linked to ‘not having or needing a cock’. Immediately after this conversation, Haldon declares Duck must be the one who shall have to double ride with Tyrion and creates a physical distance between both of them, and seems quite offended.

“You seem to find the dwarf amusing, Duck,” said Haldon. “He can ride with you.” He wheeled his mount about. It took another few moments for Duck to finish securing Illyrio’s chests to the three pack horses. By that time Haldon had vanished. (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Upon first read we easily come to the conclusion that Haldon may have been offended about Tyrion’s whore question. But as I have already shown, Haldon is perfectly comfortable with Tyrion’s request to visit the brothel and his jokes about having to make sure his prick is not turning into stone. The offence that Haldon took seems to be therefore more directly related to the speculation on Haldon’s cock and him needing one or not, and Duck joking about it as well. If Haldon is trans then Tyrion’s jokes about a maester’s cock and Duck’s response to it hit way too close to Haldon’s unresolvable gender identity. And just like Alleras moved away from Dorne to be his male self, he put physical distance between himself and the people who reminded him so painfully he lack the physical attribute that would make him physically male and would have allowed him to wear a maester’s chain.

A secondary reason for Haldon to decide that Tyrion should ride with Duck would be avoiding the risk of Tyrion discovering his secret. Haldon is being careful by not being around Tyrion altogether. 

But Duck catches up with Haldon and the conversation ensues, this time about the corsairs or pirates on the Rhoyne.

Duck caught up with Haldon Halfmaester a quarter mile on. Thereafter the riders continued side by side. Tyrion clung to the high pommel with his short legs splayed out awkwardly, knowing he could look forward to blisters, cramps, and saddle sores. “I wonder what the pirates of Dagger Lake will make of our dwarf?” Haldon said as they rode on.
“Dwarf stew?” suggested Duck.
“Urho the Unwashed is the worst of them,” Haldon confided. “His stench alone is enough to kill a man.”
Tyrion shrugged. “Fortunately, I have no nose.”
Haldon gave him a thin smile. “If we should encounter the Lady Korra on Hag’s Teeth, you may soon be lacking other parts as well. Korra the Cruel, they call her. Her ship is crewed by beautiful young maids who geld every male they capture.”
“Terrifying. I may well piss my breeches.”
“Best not,” Duck warned darkly.
“As you say. If we encounter this Lady Korra, I will just slip into a skirt and say that I am Cersei, the famous bearded beauty of King’s Landing.” (aDwD, Tyrion III)

Haldon brings up gelding, as if trying to mirror the idea that Tyrion would hate to not have a cock. And Tyrion answers this by claiming he would cross dress by putting on a skirt, pretending to be a bearded queen. Haldon’s reply to this is the harsh jape about the Shrouded Lord granting him a boon. So, once again, Haldon responds offended or offensive the moment Tyrion hits way too close to home.

So, these are quite a lot of references that can be taken as Haldon being trans. “Haha!” you may think. “I have evidence that Haldon has a cock! He pisses from the stern of the Shy Maid!” He seems to, yes. But did he really?

When the Halfmaester appeared on deck, yawning, the dwarf was writing down what he recalled concerning the mating habits of dragons, on which subject Barth, Munkun, and Thomax held markedly divergent views. Haldon stalked to the stern to piss down at the sun where it shimmered on the water, breaking apart with every puff of wind. “We should reach the junction with the Noyne by evening, Yollo,” the Halfmaester called out.
Tyrion glanced up from his writing. “My name is Hugor. Yollo is hiding in my breeches. Shall I let him out to play?
“Best not. You might frighten the turtles.” Haldon’s smile was as sharp as the blade of a dagger. “What did you tell me was the name of that street in Lannisport where you were born, Yollo?” (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

Firstly, Haldon pissing from the stern is connected once more to an identity mystery, and seems a continuation of the sparring with words over it in the prior chapter. Next, Tyrion is not really “looking” in this scene, but writing. He merely glances up, and only after Haldon explicitly calls attention to himself for Tyrion to notice that Haldon is pissing like a man. But when Tyrion threatens to take his cock out, Haldon responds threateningly enough to dissuade Tyrion from doing exactly that.

Remember how Arya started out her journey with Yoren into the Riverlands disguised as a boy. Yoren warned her to pee privately, far away from the other boys’ eyes.

“Lord Eddard gave me pick o’ the dungeons, and I didn’t find no little lordlings down there. This lot, half o’ them would turn you over to the queen quick as spit for a pardon and maybe a few silvers. The other half’d do the same, only they’d rape you first. So you keep to yourself and make your water in the woods, alone. That’ll be the hardest part, the pissing, so don’t drink no more’n you need.” (aCoK, Arya I)

Her habit to stalk off and pee in private convinced Gendry that she was a girl.

“She’s no use,” Gendry repeated stubbornly. “Her and Hot Pie and Lommy, they’re slowing us down, and they’re going to get us killed. You’re the only one of the bunch who’s good for anything. Even if you are a girl.”
Arya froze in her steps. “I’m not a girl!”
Yes you are. Do you think I’m as stupid as they are?”
“No, you’re stupider. The Night’s Watch doesn’t take girls, everyone knows that.
“That’s true. I don’t know why Yoren brought you, but he must have had some reason. You’re still a girl.
“I am not!”
Then pull out your cock and take a piss. Go on.”
“I don’t need to take a piss. If I wanted to I could.”
“Liar. You can’t take out your cock because you don’t have one. I never noticed before when there were thirty of us, but you always go off in the woods to make your water. You don’t see Hot Pie doing that, nor me neither. If you’re not a girl, you must be some eunuch.”
“You’re the eunuch.”
“You know I’m not.” Gendry smiled. “You want me to take out my cock and prove it? I don’t have anything to hide.
Yes you do,” Arya blurted, desperate to escape the subject of the cock she didn’t have.Those gold cloaks were after you at the inn, and you won’t tell us why.” (aCoK, Arya V)

The scene with Haldon seemingly pissing from the stern, getting Tyrion’s attention to see what he is doing, Tyrion threatening to take his cock out and Haldon making it about Tyrion’s identity mirrors much of Arya’s conversation with Gendry about her being a girl or not, albeit a shorter less verbal scene where and the unspoken assumption that the “Citadel doesn’t take girls, everyone knows that.”

Arya caught Gendry’s inquisitive attention when she expressed the belief that the Gold Cloaks were after her. He began to observe, watch and study her and figured it out. If Haldon is trans, watering privately may exactly have been the way how a fellow novice or acolyte discovered he did not have a cock. And since Haldon is aware enough that Tyrion is observant, smart and suspicious, Haldon may have wanted to avoid the same mistake. It would just be enough to pretend to piss like a man, seen from afar to throw off Tyrion, which is why Haldon does not allow Tyrion to come close or take out his own to verify each other’s cocks. In contrast, and by parallel, earlier in the same chapter Ser Duck is taking a piss and Tyrion comes to stand beside him.

The smell of the bacon cooking soon fetched Duck up from the hold. He sniffed over the brazier, received a swack from Ysilla’s spoon, and went back to have his morning piss off the stern.
Tyrion waddled over to join him. “Now here’s a sight to see,” he quipped as they were emptying their bladders, “a dwarf and a duck, making the mighty Rhoyne that much mightier.” (aDwD, Tyrion IV)

“Well, but if Haldon has the anatomy of a woman then he cannot piss standing up!” you might argue. Well, it can be messy, but there are some aids/tools available to help with that. And Tyrion never actually verified whether Haldon actually watered. Haldon could have just be pretending at the stern. The description of the sun on the water and the wind breaking the water with every puff gives a false impression to the reader that Tyrion is witnessing this. But he does not. The imagery is in fact a recollection of his own experience when he pissed off the stern earlier that morning with Duck.

Finally, there is Franklin Flowers’ choice of words when greeting Haldon after their arrival at the Golden Company.

“It’s worse than that, you bugger,” said Franklyn Flowers. “They knighted me as well.” He clasped Griff by the forearm, pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. “You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When Harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” (aDwD, JonCon I, The Lost Lord)

Franklyn greets JonCon with bugger, which is vulgar slang for a gay man. Likewise he greets Haldon as cunt. In the UK this slang may refer to both a man and a woman, but it originates as a vulgarity towards women, for it is also slang for vagina. And since Franklyn correctly identifies Jon Connington as gay, we can thus infer he also correctly points out Haldon’s sex.

You might also argue that Haldon may be a eunuch as an alternative. It might explain his response to the mention of needing cocks, the gelding reference, and the seeming ability to piss from the stern. However, we already have a eunuch in the team with Varys. And would either Varys or one of the Unsullied ever jape about gelding? And then there is the ascetic look. We are told that eunuchs tend to plumpness, especially those doing soft service. There is some discussion on how George makes his eunuchs in aSoIaF to be bald, such as Varys and Belwas. In our world the opposite tended to be true, especially for men who were gelded in their youth. (see: androgens and hair loss eugenics, and hair loss and testosterone). But on Planetos eunuchs seems to tend to baldness, and Haldon clearly does not suffer from that. One of the reasons that Haldon may tie his hair in a knot is to keep it from softening his features and betray that his features are not so much ascetic as they may be feminine. Finally, there seems to be no directive against eunuchs donning a maester’s chains. Whereas it would immediately explain why Haldon is but half a maester.

The proposal that Haldon is a trans-male who was born as a woman is as speculative as the character flaw of gambling, but it has quite a lot of textual set up. At least as much as the gambling, if not more. 

Conclusion (tl;tr)

Haldon is the perfect maester insofar the Citadel wishes to have learned men who have no issues with celibacy and reject the existence of magic, even when they witness it firsthand. This only magnifies the mystery on why Haldon was unable to acquire a chain.

We have evidence of only one major character flaw: a penchant for gambling. But so far we can only determine this for cyvasse, a game unkown to Westeros before 299 AC. Nor does this seem enough a transgression to turn away such a talent as Haldon from the order of maesters. It is possible though that George may expand on this in tWoW.

More strikingly though are several references to the necessity of a cock or at least being physically male to acquire a maester’s chain, amidst the identity interplay between Tyrion and Haldon since they first met. Haldon seems to water from the stern of the Shy Maid once. But this scene too is couched in lies about identity, and parallels the scene where Gendry confronts Arya about being a girl. She always went off to water by herself. And it is potentially suspect that during Haldon’s stern moment, Tyrion is engrossed in his writing about dragons as well as warns Tyrion against joining him and taking his yollo out. Finally, in the Lost Lord, Franklyn Flowers refers to JonCon as bugger and Haldon as cunt, both vulgar slang words, but for JonCon it is confirmed to apply. All this is highly suggestive of the notion that Haldon may be trans in a society where he is unable to physically transform, and thus a male identity in a woman’s body, just like Alleras. This would explain perfectly why Haldon never acquired the chain.

I know there are some other identity theories out there. They tend to follow the reasoning of “which character/maester is unaccounted for and might have fled or gone undercover and could be considered a halfmaester“. I found no textual hints for this whatsoever in the interplay between Tyrion and Haldon. If these identities had any potential, then we would have references to this on the Shy Maid chapters, just like Tyrion mentions a lion with wings once, long before the reveal that Griff is Jon Connington.

The cursed souls of Eddard and Robert

As I have shown in Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts, George has Lyanna tied and surrounded with basically every possible symbol and feature of the mythical Persephone who was abducted by Hades and made Queen of the Underworld. Persephone’s task as Queen of the Underworld was to ensure that a soul’s curses were visited upon. Already during the visit of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon we learn both men are haunted by the past, and one of the major plot arcs in aGoT is how both men are sick in their souls, each in their own way, and eventually come to their doom when they join hands again as the theoretical two most powerful men in all of Westeros.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Kingmonkey for his great essay “Eddard in Wonderland” which inspired me to approach the books from a chthonic angle.

Melinoe’s nightmare

Eddard Stark is regularly visited with nightmarish, strange dreams ever since Lyanna’s death, all involving the Underworld.

Sansa cried herself to sleep, Arya brooded silently all day long, and Eddard Stark dreamed of a frozen hell reserved for the Starks of Winterfell.(aGoT, Eddard IV)

This frozen hell cannot but be a reference to the crypts of Winterfell. Hell is another name for the Underworld. It is up in the North, cold, and related to winter. And it is the sole place we know of that is reserved for the Starks of Winterfell, with already assigned empty tombs for whichever time they die.

It would be good to return to Winterfell. He ought never have left. His sons were waiting there. Perhaps he and Catelyn would make a new son together when he returned, they were not so old yet. And of late he had often found himself dreaming of snow, of the deep quiet of the wolfswood at night. (aGoT, Eddard VIII)

While Ned interpretes these as dreams of longing for Winterfell, the dream contains five chthonic references we are already acquainted with since his visit to the crypts: snow, silence, wolves, forest, darkness. In other words, the dream is reminding Ned there is no way back, only the Underworld awaits him.

His most famous and most analyzed dream is the one about his confrontation with the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy. A most excellent analysis (must read!) of this dream as a Celtic porter scene was done by Kingmonkey at Westeros.org: Eddard in Wonderland. But the same dream can also be analyzed from a chthonic lens, and complement Kingmonkey’s. I mentioned how Persephone has a daughter called Melinoe. She was a chthonic moon goddess who visited mortals with night terrors (nightmares) by taking strange forms.

She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,
As she appears in weird shapes and forms,
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,
And all this in hostile encounters in the gloom of night. (fragment of Orphic Hymn of Melinoe)

This Orphic Hymn is an excellent description of Ned’s portal dream of the Kingsguard:

  • His own bannermen appear as shadows, grey wraiths on misty horses with shadow swords  = weird shapes, forms, now shadowy
  • But the three Kingsguard’s faces burn clear = now plain to the eye
  • Arthur Dayne’s Dawn is pale as milkglass, alive with light = now shining in the darkness
  • Ned and his men come together with the three Kingsguard in a rush of steel and shadow, Lyanna screaming his name, and a storm of rose petals blowing = hostile encounter
  • He wakes to moonlight = gloom of night
  • 3 x “now” appears in the dream: “Then or now“, “Now it begins,” and “Now it ends.” (Keep the last two phrases in the back of your mind, and recall how “almost at the end” appeared in Bran’s paragraph in the crypts after Ned’s death)

George included every shape and form that is typical for Melinoe related nightmares. The dream is not just a portal scene, but a nightmarish chthonic curse born from Lyanna beyond the grave upon his very soul.

In the dream his friends rode with him, as they had in life…Lord Dustin on his great red stallion. Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, grey wraiths on horses made of mist.
They were seven, facing three. In the dream as it had been in life. Yet these were no ordinary three. They waited before the round tower, the red mountains of Dorne at their backs, their white cloaks blowing in the wind. And these were no shadows; their faces burned clear, even now.
[…]
“The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.
Ned’s wraiths moved up behind him, with shadow swords in hand. They were seven against three.
“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.
“No,” Ned said with sadness in his voice. “Now it ends.” As they came together in a rush of steel and shadow, he could hear Lyanna screaming, “Eddard!”. A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.
[…]
Groaning, Eddard Stark opened his eyes. Moonlight streamed through the tall windows of the Tower of the Hand. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Though Ned wakes from the dream, the rest of that chapter repeats several features of the dream, revealing that in fact the waking life is a repeat of Melinoe nightmare. It is still night and Persephone’s moon daughter is still hard at work. It starts with only seeing shadows, then light being brought and conflict between Ned, Robert and Cersei.

“Lord Eddard?” a shadow stood over the bed […] “Six days and seven nights.” The voice was Vayon Poole’s. […]”The King left orders,” Vayon Poole told him when the cup was empty. “He would speak with you, my lord.”
“On the morrow,” Ned said. “When I am stronger.” He could not face Robert now. The dream had left him weak as a kitten
“My lord,” Poole said, “he commanded us to send you to him the moment you opened your eyes.” The steward busied himself lighting a bedside candle.
[…]
“Whatever happens,” Ned said, “I want my daughters kept safe. I fear this is only the beginning.”
[…]
“I gave them to the silent sisters, to be sent north to Winterfell. Jory would want to lie beside his grandfather.”
It would have to be his grandfather, for Jory’s father was buried far to the South… Ned had pulled the tower down afterward, and used its bloody stones to build eight cairns upon the ridge. It was said that Rhaegar had named that place the tower of joy, but for Ned it was a bitter memory. They had been seven against three, yet only two had lived to ride away; Eddard Stark himself and the little crannogman, Howland Reed. He did not think it omened well that he should dream that dream again after so many years.
[…]
“Keep the king’s peace, you say. Is this how you keep my peace, Ned? Seven men are dead…”
Eight,” the queen corrected. “Tregar died this morning, of the blow Lord Stark gave him.”
Abductions on the kingsroad and drunken slaughter in my streets,” the king said. “I will not have it, Ned.”
[…]
Three of my men were butchered before my eyes, because Jaime Lannister wished to chasten me. Am I to forget that?”
[…]
“Some whorehouse? Damn your eyes, Robert, I went there to have a look at your daughter! Her mother has named her Barra. She looks like that girl you fathered, when we were boys together in the Vale.”[…]
[…] Robert flushed. “Barra,” he grumbled. “Is that supposed to please me? Damn the girl. I thought she had more sense.”
“She cannot be more than fifteen, and a whore, and you thought she had sense?” Ned said, incredulous. His leg was beginning to pain him sorely. It was hard to keep his temper. “The fool child is in love with you, Robert.”
[…]
The king swirled the wine in his cup, brooding. He took a swallow. “No,” he said. “I want no more of this. Jaime slew three of your men, and you five of his. Now it ends.”
[…]
Purple with rage, the king lashed out, a vicious backhand blow to the side of the head. She stumbled against the table and fell hard, yet Cersei did not cry out. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Not only is the structure of the dream paralleled with the events in Ned’s room, the same numbers of are repeated too: seven and three. The present (now) parallels the past (then), and actually may give us clues about the past. Ned, Robert and Cersei discuss the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in the streets of King’s Landing, both its causes and results. At times you are left wondering whether Ned is talking of the girl Ned visited at the whorehouse or his dead sister. While it involves other characters, the events of then and now are strikingly similar.

Parallel event Tower of Joy GoT present
Abduction in the Riverlands Ned’s sister, Lyanna Jaime’s brother, Tyrion
Now it begins Arthur Dayne to Ned Ned to Alyn: This is the beginning
Now it ends Ned to Arthur Dayne Robert to Ned
8 dead =  3 + 5 3 KG + 5 of Ned’s men 3 of Ned’s men + 5 of Jaime’s men ( reversed)
2 men walk away alive Ned and Howland Reed Ned and Jaime Lannister
A red stallion5 Lord Dustin’s Jaime’s blood bay
Death of a Cassel Martyn Cassel his son Jory Cassel
Burrial of a Cassel South North (reversal)
Buried beside ancestar at Winterfell Lyanna beside her father Jory beside his grandfather
Visiting the sick Ned and Howland Reed with Lyanna Robert and Cersei with Ned
Weakened Lyanna from fever Ned from the dream (and fever)
A child-woman of fifteen to sixteen Lyanna Barra’s mother
Promises, including empty/broken to Lyanna to Barra’s mother
Dangerous secrets result from Lyanna’s abduction result in Tyrion’s abduction (a reversal)

It is thus little surprise that Ned dreams the old dream about his confrontation with the Kingsguard again, shortly after a similar confrontation with Jaime, also involving an abduction. The parallel is more than a gimmick. We can use it to figure out some of the mysteries, such as

  • Did Lyanna have a child?
  • Was Lyanna in love with the father of her child?
  • How long after giving birth did she die?
  • What did Ned and the Kingsguard fight about?
  • What did Ned promise Lyanna? What promise did he break?
  • What secret is too dangerous to even tell your loved ones?

There is a near-parallel in age between Barra’s mother and Lyanna and Ned making promises to both women. He recalls Rhaegar while visiting the whorehouse and concludes Rhaegar would not have visited one. This visit occurs right before the confrontation with Jaime. The logical conclusion is that Lyanna did have a child.

The reversal in number of people dying on each side, suggest that Jaime takes Ned’s part of the past. Jaime’s attempt to keep the parentage of his sister’s children a secret eventually led to Tyrion’s abduction. Hence, Ned’s secret resulting from Lyanna’s abduction properly ought to be the parentage of his sister’s child. Ned is the sole person who knows both secrets (per Cersei’s confession). After Ned’s death, Howland Reed is the sole person alive as prime witness to confirm the identity of Lyanna’s child, while Jaime is the sole person alive to confirm the identity of Cersei’s children (aside of course from Cersei and she will never confess it). They are at present the sole survivors of the two violent encounters.

Ned wakes from his dream weak as a kitten six days and seven nights after his confrontation with Jaime, like Lyanna was weak from fever related to childbirth complications (most likely puerperal fever). The repetitiveness of other numbers suggests that she died six days and seven nights after giving birth.

Since Barra’s mother was in love with the father of her child (King Robert) – a young girl with little sense and a fool in love – then yes the parallel suggests that Lyanna was in love with the father of her child and must have talked foolish in his eyes.

Barra’s mother prattles on about her baby, and how she’s waiting for Robert to return to her, wanting Ned to promise to tell Robert all of this. And in his own way, Ned does keep his promise, by telling Robert his daughter’s name, how she looks like Mya Stone and that the mother is in love with him. Of course, he relays it in a manner Barra’s mother in no way intended it. Ned also makes promises to Robert on his deathbed, and we can actually see how Ned interpretes Robert’s words in such a way that he can make the promise in a manner it agrees with his own conscious.

“I will,” Ned had promised her. That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them. (aGoT, Eddard, IX)

So, what type of promises did he make to Lyanna and what was the price for them? We know at least one already – to come home and be buried with her brother and father.

“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

Taking her bones from the Tower of Joy to a location where he could have them sent North, like Starfall, might have been a pain, especially since he would have been regarded the killer of Arthur Dayne. Returning Dawn to Starfall to secure the Daynes’ secrecy and the return of Lyanna to the North might have been a price. But it seems like a thing Ned would have done anyway, or even something he promised Arthur Dayne as he lay dying. All in all, it seems but a little price to pay.

The likeliest promise that most people have surmised is to care or guard her child as his own, exactly as he promises Robert on his deathbed. He did so by claiming her child to be his bastard and he paid the price for it in his marriage – Jon1. However, the fact that so often Ned keeps his vows in a manner the other person did not exactly intend it, should make us cautious about the assumption that Lyanna wanted Ned Stark to adopt her son as his bastard. It is very likely, she knew very little of the outcome of Robert’s Rebellion or even Rhaegar’s fate, as the Kingsguard would have not been motivated to distress a woman so close to childbirth, let alone dying. And just like with Barra’s mother and Robert’s deathbed we see Ned’s reluctance to destroy hope. I propose her dying wishes were in the general line of, “Take me home, Ned, to Father and Brandon,” and, “Keep my boy safe, teach him about his heritage.” What safe keeping and heritage means was up to Ned’s own discretion.

This leads us to the Kingsguard and the deadly confrontation Ned had with them. Who are they? Do they have any symbolism that tells us more?

Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, had a sad smile on his lips. The hilt of the greatsword Dawn poked up over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent was on one knee, sharpening his blade with a whetstone. Across his white-enameled helm, the black bat of his House spread its wings. Between them stood fierce old Ser Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

Persephone belonged to both the Underworld as that of the living, never a permanent resident at either one of them. The most prominent carriers of Persephone symbols at the Tower of Joy are the Kingsguard. Oswald Whent’s black bat is a chthonic symbol of Persephone and stands for death and rebirth. In Lyanna’s case – she dies, but a part of her is reborn in her son.

Persephone’s son Dionysus was twice born. First he was born, then he died, and then reborn. This, and other myths about him, make him another chthonic figure. There are several alternative versions, but of relevance is that the jealous Hera2 wanted him dead and asked the Titans to kill him. To escape them Dionysus took several animal forms, including a bull. But the Titans caught him, ripped the bull to pieces and ate him, but for the heart. The heart was saved by either Demeter or Persephone and used to birth Dionysus a second time via the mortal woman Semele. Hence the fertile bull symbol also became a sacrificial symbol. The second-time born Dionysus is called Zagreus. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, would celebrate this rebirth into Zagreus (‘Zagre’ meaning ‘pit trap to catch live animals’) in a mad frenzy by shredding and pulling a bull to pieces in the woods. Gerold Hightower’s moniker “White Bull3 refers to the Dionysus bull.

House Hightower’s sigil is that of a torch or beacon upon a tower and their words are, “We Light the Way”. The torch is a symbol for Demeter’s search for her daughter, but also for the third epiteth of Dionysus – Iacchus, the torch bearing, divine child, a star to bring light to the night. The Hightower sigil basically says, “The torch bearer, the divine child,” is up there on the Tower of Joy, and the House’s words reaffirm this interpretation.

Arthur Dayne is twice referred to as the Sword of the Morning who wields the pale greatsword Dawn, which is alive with light in the darkness. Like, dusk, dawn is the moment that does not belong to either night and day. It heralds the end of the night and the start of the day, and yet belongs to neither – an in between moment. Again this would fit the scheme of Dionysus as Iacchus, who brings light in the night, but belongs to the ‘in between’ world, who can go to and fro. A light in the darkness mostly calls forth the image of moon- and starlight, with the moon and stars being the lanterns that “light the way”. And Dawn’s light is pale, miky white, like a moon or star.

Dionysus-Zagreus was hidden and protected by alternative protectors. George seems to have conflated these into the Kingsguard. In one version it are three aunts (sisters to Dionysus second mortal mother who rebirthed him) or three nymphs. At the Tower of Joy it are three Kingsguard instead. In another Greek version it are the Korybantes. They were an order of nine armored men who worshiped the “Great Mother” Cybele with a ritual armed dance of shields and swords. With all that ruckus the Korybantes prevented Hera from hearing Dionysus’ cries. Twice Ned’s dream mentions seven against three, which adds to ten people. But only nine of those ten actually have a guarding role – the Kingsguard and Ned’s personal bodyguard. So, we have in fact nine Korybantes who dance the dance of swords, clashing and making ruckus, drowning out the cries of George’s secret infant in the tower. From this we can infer that both Kingsguard and Ned’s men all wish to protect Lyanna’s child.

From Lyanna’s and baby Jon’s point of view the Kingsguard fighting Ned and his men is as much an irrelevent in-fight, just as it is for Robert when his brother-in-law Jaime would fight his Hand. Both Hand and Kingsguard are sworn and meant to operate in the King’s interest, not their own, let alone fight each other. So, we have another parallel between the present and past. On the surface, the fight between Ned and Jaime seems to be about the kidnapping, but the deeper conflict arises from Ned wanting to uncover the truth, while Jaime attempts to keep the parentage of Cersei’s children a secret. The death-toll numbers of that fight are the reverse of those at the Tower of Joy. It suggests that the Kingsguard fought for the truth of Jon’s identity, while Ned and his men fought to make it a secret.

“I looked for you on the Trident,” Ned said to them.
We were not there,” Ser Gerold answered.
[…]”When King’s Landing fell, Ser Jaime slew your king with a golden sword, and I wondered where you were.”
Far away,” Ser Gerold said, “or Aerys would yet sit the Iron Throne, and our false brother would burn in seven hells.”
“I came down on Storm’s End to lift the siege,” Ned told them,”… I was certain you would be among them.”
Our knees do not bend easily,” said Ser Arthur Dayne.
“Ser Willem Darry is fled to Dragonstone, with your queen and Prince Viserys. I thought you might have sailed with him.”
“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” said Ser Oswell.
“But not of the Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold pointed out. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.

I have no intention to cuagmire this essay in the debate regarding Jon’s legitimacy and whether Rhaegar and Lyanna were married or not. At the time of writing this essay, there are 158 threads at westeros.org that debate the implications of the above conversation, whether polygamy is legal or not for Targaryen princes, etc. Still, the conversation is part of the dream and thus also subject for (chthonic) symbolic analysis and patterning. And it should be noted that all people and places referred to are either an heir or kings.

  • Trident: crown-prince and heir Rhaegar, who is dead.
  • King’s Landing: King Aerys II, to whom Ser Gerold expresses loyalty, but he’s dead.
  • Storm’s End: King Robert I, whom Arthur Dayne rejects and calls Usurper.
  • Dragonstone: alleged Targaryen heir Viserys and exiled King, but the refusal of the three Kingsguard to join him heavily suggest they do not regard him as their king.

This does reinforce the idea that the Kingsguard and Ned had a discussion about who the Kingsguard regarded as their king. Something similar occurred when Lannister bannermen came upon the scene in the throne room where Jaime killed Aerys and asked him who he elected as king. While Jaime left it to others to work it out, the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy did not.

The locations Ned mentions can be grouped in another symbolic way: mythologically. In Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I already mentioned how Zeus, Hades and Poseidon divided the ‘realm’: the storm god Zeus was king of the gods at Olympus, the seagod Poseidon with his trident ruled the seas, and Hades governed the Underworld. The Trident and Dragonstone can be seen as a reference to Poseidon’s domain, while Storm’s End and King’s Landing are Zeus’s. Hence, Ned is symbolically saying that he looked for the Kingsguard in Zeus’s realm as well as Poseidon’s, but could not find them there. This only leaves the Underworld where the Kingsguard can be found. And their replies reflect this location. They were “unseen”, “far away” and their knees are like the stone statues in the crypts that “do not bend”. From this we can infer that Ser Gerold Hightower, the Sword in the Morning and Oswell of House Whent declare themselves to be chthonic characters.

Curiously, most life and underworld references throughout the dream switch between Ned and his men and the Kingsguard. For instance, Ned’s men appear as wraiths on horses made of mist and wielding shadow swords, like ghosts of the Underworld. Meanwhile the three Kingsguard appear clear and very much alive, with a good wind blowing their white cloaks in the air. And yet, these Kingsguard claim they can only be found in the Underworld and have several symbols tying them to the chthonic Dionysus. So, who represents life and who represents the Underworld? The likeliest answer is that it is set between life and death, neither in the Underworld, nor in the world of the living, an in-between realm, and that would fit exactly with a porter-scene interpretation as in Kingmonkey’s essay “Eddard in Wonderland”. The final image of the dream sky is that one of ‘dusk’ or ‘dawn’, which fits the time of an in-between world.

A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.

Why an in-between world and not an Underworld? A journey into the Underworld heralds a change in the character’s life that cannot be overturned and is beyond the character’s control. But a voyage into an Otherworld that lies in between worlds implies options, choices and thus a great deal of freedom over the hero’s own fate. In other words, when Ned appeared at the Tower of Joy he had the power to shape his own destiny. And the present is a result of that choice then.

Kingmonkey makes a remarkable observation about this scene. If Ned was trying to gain access to the Underworld to retrieve Lyanna-Persephone then the guards would be asking the questions, and Ned would need to answer them with boasts. But strangely enough, we see the reverse in the dream: Ned asks the questions, the Kingsguard boast. So, either the Kingsguard aim to gain access, or this is not about a retrieval of Lyanna at all (which is supported by the other symbolism). In the later case, this would imply Ned had visited with Lyanna prior to the violent confrontation and that she was already dead. Then the mysterious “they” who found Ned holding Lyanna’s dead body were his men as well as the Kingsguard. The description of the sky as they clash alluding to death could support such an interpretation. Lyanna calling out to Eddard in the dream would not be a chronologically correct event4. Perhaps for Ned she calls out to him from beyond the grave.

If this is true then we get an entirely different situation. The Kingsguard are not keeping Ned from seeing his sister and his nephew, but allow him to be with her in her last moments. After her death, only her son remains and how to proceed further becomes the imminent problem. The disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard would then be exclusively about Jon’s future, where the Kingsguard are Jon’s sworn swords and Lord Eddard Stark Jon’s guardian. We know with a certainty what Ned wanted to do – take him home, claim Jon as his own bastard and not challenge Robert’s as the rightful king through conquest. The Kingsguard, who regarded Robert to be a Usurper, would have wished to preserve Jon’s possible claim to the Iron Throne (then or later, in exile in Essos, or in secret at Starfall or Oldtown).

Why would George add a misdirection in the dream by having an already dead Lyanna call out to Ned during the clash? Well, George wishes to keep Jon’s parentage a confusing secret. If Lyanna is confirmed to be dead already when the fight occurs, then the cat’s already out of the bag. The dream’s chronology and only hinted subject of disagreement preserves the theoretical possibility that the Kingsguard intended to prevent Ned from being reunited with his sister.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

The meeting with Robert after the dream of Tower of Joy is the start of the final act for the both of them. The King makes Ned the Hand again and leaves for his fatal hunt the following day. Where before Ned hoped his chthonic dreams about the North were a reminder of happy times, already here their premonition and reminder of “No way back” come into play. Soon, Ned will realize he cannot even change or alter the bethrotal arrangement for Sansa either.

He was walking through the crypts beneath Winterfell, as he had walked a thousand times before. The Kings of Winter watched him pass with eyes of ice, and the direwolves at their feet turned great stone heads and snarled. Last of all, he came to the tomb where his father slept, with Brandon and Lyanna beside him. “Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

Ned descends in the Underworld, with the direwolves snarling like hellhound guards. Lyanna wears her garland of roses, but the Queen of the Underworld has a role to perform – to ensure a soul’s curse are visited upon. Alas for Ned, the night of reckoning has come. It all started with a promise he made, and there were two ways for him to fulfill it. The one he chose leads to his doom. Lyanna’s eyes weep blood. Blood shot eyes reference the Furies, chthonic deities of vengeance and they punish those who swear a false oath. Lyanna may have been his sister, but she too is bound to her Underworld duty, and cannot save her brother from the doom he brought on to himself. And as he wakes from this cursed related dream in the pitch black (no moonlight this time), Ned learns of Robert’s fateful accident. This dream at the start of this chapter heralds the undoing of Robert and Ned.

Ned is not the sole character slowly going mad with nightmares. Robert too dreams every night of killing Rhaegar and yet by the time Ned has his Dionysus-porter dream of the Kingsguard, Robert admits that Rhaegar as Hades has won – Lyanna is with him now in death.

Confused, the king shook his head. “Rhaegar … Rhaegar won, damn him. I killed him, Ned, I drove the spike right through that black armor into his black heart, and he died at my feet. They made up songs about it. Yet somehow he still won. He has Lyanna now, and I have her.” The king drained his cup.(aGoT, Eddard X)

It would appear that Robert pretty much lives and acts like a Dionysus – drinking, eating, feasting, philandering.

Robert groaned with good-humored impatience. “If I wanted to honor you, I’d let you retire. I am planning to make you run the kingdom and fight the wars while I eat and drink and wench myself into an early grave.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

The adult Dionysus is often portrayed as a handsome and clean shaven youth. His moods are extreme in nature, varying from relaxed and pleasant, but then switch to bitterness and fury, reflecting the impact of wine on a person. Used within reason the drinker is amiable, but when alcohol is misused it has aggressive negative effects. That pretty much describes Robert’s mood swings from jolly buddy  –  the young Robert Ned remembers and loved – to a swearing bully or bitter man drowning in self-pity. Meanwhile, Robert traded his young handsome, clean shaven looks for that of the Roman bearded Bacchus (equivalent of Dionysus) who’s too fat for his armor. Does that make Robert take on the adult Dionysus role?

It seems far more likely he portrays a character suffering from a Dionysus curse. Such a curse would inflict a mortal man with drunkenness, varying mood swings, slowly driven mad to finally end up shred to pieces by frenzied maenads in the woods, as they mistake the victim to be an animal.

“Oh, indeed. Cersei gave him wineskins, and told him it was Robert’s favorite vintage.” The eunuch shrugged. “A hunter lives a perilous life. If the boar had not done for Robert, it would have been a fall from a horse, the bite of a wood adder, an arrow gone astray … the forest is the abattoir of the gods….” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Varys mentions several manners in which Robert could have died to Ned later in the dungeons, and how it was inevitable. Many of these ways reference Greek myths. For revenge, Artemis sent a boar to kill Adonis. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was bitten by a snake in the woods, after she ran from a Satyr. A Trojan war related Greek hero, Acamas, dies of a snakebite while hunting. His brother Demophon is so frightened when he looks in the basket given to him by the wife he forgot about that he spurrs on his horse so violently that it stumbles and he falls on his own sword. And of course Achilles dies by Paris’ stray arrow. Even the hunting and a forest being the abode of gods gives it a typical Greek myth feel, rather than a mid-eval forest. So, it is in the abattoir of the gods, the forest where the satyrs live, that Robert meets his fatal doom, stupendously drunk, his guts torn and shredded by a boar’s tusks, like a proper tragic hero.

Three men in white cloaks, he thought, remembering, and a strange chill went through him. Ser Barristan’s face was as pale as his armor. Ned had only to look at him to know something was dreadfully wrongFires blazed in the twin hearths at either end of the bedchamber, filling the room with a sullen red glare. The heat within was suffocating… A green doublet lay on the floor, slashed open and discarded, the cloth crusted with red-brown stains. The room smelled of smoke and blood and death… They had done what they could to close him up, but it was nowhere near enough. The boar must have been a fearsome thing. It had ripped the king from groin to nipple with its tusks. The wine-soaked bandages that Grand Maester Pycelle had applied were already black with blood, and the smell of the wound was hideous. Ned’s stomach turned. He let the blanket fall.
“Stinks,” Robert said. “The stink of death, don’t think I can’t smell it. Bastard did me good, he? But I … I paid him back in kind, Ned.” The King’s smile was as terrible as his wound, his teeth red. “Drove a knife right through his eye. Ask them if I didn’t. Ask them.”… Robert gave a weak nod. “As you will. Gods, why is it so cold in here?”
[…]
“By rights he should be dead already. I have never seen a man cling to life so fiercely.”
“My brother was always strong,” Lord Renly said. “Not wise, perhaps, but strong.”… “He slew the boar. His entrails were sliding from his belly, yet somehow he slew the boar.” His voice was full of wonder. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

At Robert’s death bed almost all the symbols of life used in his celebration-speech on the spiral stairs leading into the crypts of Winterfell have been corrupted or claimed by the nightmare that Ned’s life had become in quick succession after he left his home in the North. The laughter has become a terribly smile that resembles a wound. The heat that made women dress undecent is now suffocating. The blood is black. Wine is used to soak useless bandages. White stands for the paleness of death. And instead of the sweet smell of flowering roses, it is the stench of death. Gradually, George has been converting summer and flower symbols into those of death.

The Damned

Ned’s nightmare is complete in the black cells. Both waking life and dreams are nightmares, slowly turning him mad. The dungeons are deep down below the Red Keep. There is no sun or moon, only darkness, and silence. It is as if Ned is left in the Underworld.

Once the door had slammed shut, he had seen no more. The dark was absolute. He had as well been blind. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

A door has been slammed shut, as if Ned is tombed in. Twice there is a reference to blindness and not seeing. Ned is like one of the Kings of Winterfell in the crypts who watched with blind and unseeing eyes. And indeed, the immediate next sentence in the next paragraph makes Ned think he might as well be dead.

Or dead. Buried with his king. “Ah, Robert,” he murmured as his groping hand touched a cold stone, his leg throbbing with every motion. He remembered the jest the king had shared in the crypts of Winterfell, as the Kings of Winter looked on with cold stone eyes. … Yet he had gotten it wrong. The king dies, Ned Stark thought, and the Hand is buried.

That paragraph is very symmetrically and repetitively written to hammer it home to us. Dead and dying, each followed by ‘buried’. Ned touches cold stone and he remembers the cold stone eyes of the crypt statues. He evokes the name of the Kings of Winter (or Kings of the Underworld) as a central theme surrounded by those words. And finally, George does not just evoke the name ‘Ned’ but the name ‘Ned Stark’. The Kings of Winter are Starks and the crypts of Winterfell are their realm. Ned belongs to them. Down in the depths of the dungeons and the black cells, Ned becomes a King of Winter himself.

When he kept very still, his leg did not hurt so much, so he did his best to lie unmoving. For how long he could not say. There was no sun and no moon. He could not see to mark the walls. Ned closed his eyes and opened them: it made no difference….He blinked as the light vanished , lowered his head to his chest, and curled up on the straw. It no longer stank or urine and shit. It no longer smelled at all.

Apart from being blind in the darkness, his leg troubles him. To avoid pain, he must sit or lie and refrain from moving, like a statue. With no markings of time passing, time becomes always, eternal, and nothing makes a difference anymore. He even loses the sense of smell. To be alive is to sense. By contrast, being dead is to be without the senses: blindness, silence, and even without smell.

The dungeon was under the Red Keep, deeper than he dared imagine. He remembered the old stories about Maegor the Cruel, who murdered all the masons who labored in his castle, so they might never reveal its secrets.

More related Underworld words: under, deeper. Murder is how people end up dead in the Underworld. Secrets are things people are murdered for. Secrets are preserved by the dead, by the Underworld. Secrets are what the Underworld and the Crypts of Winterfell harbor. The dungeon is as much an Underworld as the crypts are. And while Ned lives the life of a crypt statue and becomes a King of Winter, deep down in the belly of the Underworld, he damns a certain list of people.

He damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his gold cloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly, Robert’s own blood, who had run when he was needed most. Yet in the end he blamed himself. “Fool,” he cried to the darkness, “thrice-damned blind fool.”

  • Dead: Renly Baratheon, Janos Slynt, several Gold Cloaks, Pycelle
  • Prophesied to die: Cersei (Maggy the Frog)
  • Possibly prophesied to die: Littlefinger (GoHH), Jaime (doom-dream)
  • In perilous, life-threatening circumstances: Ser Barristan Selmy (disease and battle at Mereen), Jaime (lured away by Brienne in BwB territory, and missing)

It doesn’t bode well for Varys.

This is one of the most overlooked damnations/curses in the series. And yet when we stop to think of it, it is actually one of the most powerful. Ned does not just “pray” for them to die with the gods. He damns them as if he’s a god, while he is in the Underworld and heavily identified as a King of the Underworld. As a Hades his damnation has weight. None of them will survive the series, all of the remaining will die: Littlefinger, Cersei, Jaime, Varys and Barristan.

Last but not least, Ned thrice-damns himself. The kindly man of the order of the Faceless Men would call it Ned’s sacrifice to seal his curse with blood. If the image of the blindness and immobility did not make the reader consider he’s a dead man sitting, his self-damnation seals it. A voyage into the Underworld leads to a path of no return. Though Ned is led to believe there is a chance of life if he confesses his treason, there are hints regarding his leg that tell us that even if Joffrey had not chopped his head off Ned was a dead man.

Hours turned to days, or so it seemed. He could feel a dull ache in his shattered leg, an itch beneath the plaster. When he touched his thigh, the flesh was hot to his fingers.[…]Ned was feverish by then, his leg a dull agony, his lips parched and cracked.
[…]
[Varys] leaned forward intently. “I trust you realize you are a dead man, Lord Eddard?”
[…]
The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him… pain shot through his broken leg, beneath the filthy grey plaster of his cast.

Fever, dull agony, filthy grey plaster, sleeping in straw that does not smell of urine and shit anymore but still contains it. Meanwhile, note how the open break was in Ned’s calf (lower leg), and yet the flesh of his thigh (upper leg) is hot. That must be quite an infection, and with an open bone break germs have easy access to the bone marrow. The fever, skin hot to the touch, his parched lips, confusion and having visions are all signs of sepsis, where his whole body tries to battle an infection from spreading. Untreated with fluids and antibiotics it eventually leads to septic shock. George includes several hints in aCoK how Ned would have fared on the King’s Road on his way to the Wall:

  • Coughing Praed dies on the King’s Road a few days after leaving King’s Landing. One of the primary infections that leads to sepsis to this day are the lungs.
  • Gendry is sure that Lommy will die because of his festering leg wound. Wet gangrene is another cause of sepsis.
  • And in aSoS, the Hound was dying from a wound in the leg that Arya thought smelled funny.

In other words, Varys was correct – Ned was a dead man, showing signs of sepsis caused by wet gangrene that had spread via the bone marrow. He would have died of septic shock, like Lyanna (puerperal infection), Drogo (wet gangrene) and Robert. And in relation to Jon, pain shooting from his leg while he thinks of seeing and talking to Jon inside the Underworld is a sure way to say – nope, you’ll be dead, and there will be no seeing and no talking. So, in his own unintended ironic way, Joffrey did give mercy to Ned. Without antibiotics, Ned was beyond anyone’s help. Chances are high that Varys realized this upon his visit, and even may have reported this to Cersei. Both would have been secure of his fate, and it was politically more expedient for them that Ned died on the King’s Road rather than in a black cell.

While in the black cells, Ned has several visions, visitors and a goaler. Ned communicates with all, except the goaler who refuses to talk to him and only answers with kicks and grunts.

The goaler was a scarecrow of a man with a rat’s face and frayed beard, clad in a mail shirt and a lether half cape. “No talking,” he said, as he wrenched the jug from Ned’s hands. […] At first he would beg the man for some word of his daughters and the world beyond his cell. Grunts and kicks were his only replies.

The visions and visitors are Cersei, young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys – a dead man and three of Ned’s damned. It is as if Ned Stark, who has become a King of Winter, can only truly communicate with the dead and the damned, but not the living (the goaler). The damned may not be dead yet, and very much alive, but there is already a place for them reserved down in the Underworld, in the same way Ned and his children have a tomb reserved for them down in the crypts. So, let us briefly look at each of those visions and communications in the dungeons.

There is Cersei’s floating head.

Cersei Lannister’s face seemed to float before him in the darkness. Her hair was full of sunlight, but there was mockery in her smile. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she whispered.

His next vision is one of a young Robert.

He saw the king as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god. He heard his laughter in the dark, saw his eyes, blue and clear as mountain lakes. “Look at us, Ned,” Robert said. “Gods, how did we come to this? You here, and me killed by a pig. We won a throne together …”

Notice the emphasis on the antlered helm and Ned considering Robert as a horned god. The horned god is revered by the modern day Wiccans and Neopagans. His meaning and significance are based on a combination of early 20th century pseudohistoric origins as well as actual horned deities such as Pan and Cernunnos (often featured in fantasy). Putting aside the question of the actual historicity of there having been a general worhsip of a horned god since the paleolithic, for the Wiccans the Horned God is associated with the wilderness, a personification of the life force in animals and people, of virility and the (wild) hunt. Doreen Valiente also appointed to him the ability to carry souls of the dead to the Underworld, a psychopomp like Hermes. In the essay Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I showed how Robert’s speech about the South and summer is a speech of life, how Robert himself symbolizes life, while Ned Stark and the North appears to symbolize the opposite – Hades and cold, lonely, unsmiling death. Even after gorged by a wild boar, Robert clings fiercely to life. He certainly was a virile man and beside whoring and drinking he spent the majority of his time hunting. Now it seems Robert talks to Ned as if he already carried Ned’s soul to the Underworld. Again George reminds us here that we should regard Ned as one who is already one of the dead himself.

Finally I want to draw the attention that it is not the late Robert he sees, but the young man he used to be, ahorse, with his warhammer, handsome and tall. And there is one young man, amongst Ned’s list of the damned that looks very much like yong Robert, namely Renly Baratheon. In fact, these are Ned’s thoughts about Renly’s appearance.

Renly had been a boy of eight when Robert won the throne, but he had grown into a man so like his brother that Ned found it disconcerting. Whenever he saw him, it was as if the years had slipped away and Robert stood before him, fresh from his victory on the Trident. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

This early passage ties neatly with how the vision of young Robert is portrayed later in the dungeons. In that vision it is as if the years have slipped away and young Robert visits him. So, Ned seeing young Robert is not solely a visitation from dead Robert, but also that of the damned Renly. Meanwhile in Sansa’s first chapter we see Renly for the first time through her eyes with an antlered helm.

His companion was a man near twenty whose armor was steel plate of a deep forest-green. He was the handsomest man Sansa had ever set eyes upon; tall and powerfully made, with jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders and framed a clean-shaven face, and laughing green6 eyes to match his armor. Cradled under one arm was an antlered helm, its magnificent rack shimmering in gold. (aGoT, Sansa I)

Ned Stark’s next vision in the dungeons follows out of the vision of young Robert/Renly. The image of young Robert alters into that of Littlefinger.

Cracks ran down his face, fissures opening in the flesh, and [Ned] reached up and ripped the mask away. It was not Robert at all; it was Littlefinger, grinning, mocking him. When he opened his mouth to speak, his lies turned to pale grey moths and took wing. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Another man hides behind the vision of young Robert, emphasising the double nature of the vision. Of the other council members, Renly Baratheon is most often associated with Littlefinger. Despite their mockery of each other, these two men seem to get along very well. Even upon first arriving at King’s Landing, the two men are already talking quietly.

[Ned] disentangled himself from the eunuch’s grip and crossed the room to where Lord Renly stood by the screen, talking quietly with a short man who could only be Littlefinger. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

At the Hand’s tourney the men bet opposing jousters, but jape good naturedly at one another. Perhaps they mock each other to hide they support each other. Renly proposes to seize Cersei’s children and retain the power and put Joffrey on the throne. He offers his house guard and friends, imagining he could muster one hundred men for Ned Stark. Ned refuses the offer, shying away from waking children in the middle of the night and suggesting they ought to pray that Robert should live. But he at least considers Renly’s words insofar that he considers that Cersei might choose to oppose him and that he should prepare himself with a force. Ned summons Littlefinger, who proposes something similar as Renly, except with the addition that in a few years time, they could still opt to expose Cersei’s children as bastards and put none other than Renly on the throne instead. Again Ned refuses the advice and insists on exposing the parentage of Cersei’s children and put Stannis Baratheon on the throne, the brother whom Renly dislikes greatly and the man who wishes to send Littlefinger back to his modest lands in the Vale (if Stannis does not execute him for embezzling, bribing and corrupting staff). Renly and Littlefinger have each other’s back, and behind Renly’s face – which is young Robert’s face – hides that of Littlefinger.

Ned’s last visitor in the chapter is Varys. While Varys is real enough, he appears to Ned in disguise, and just as much an illusion or ghost as Cersei and Littlefinger. In fact, Ned has to make sure for himself that Varys is truly and physically there, and not some apparition or a dream.

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?” he said groggily when it came. He touched the man’s face. “I’m not … not dreaming this. You’re here.” The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. “How did you … what sort of magician are you?”
“A thirsty one,” Varys said. “Drink, my lord.”

All these visions relate to Ned’s guilt and the mistakes he damns himself for:

But usually the damned are also undone by their own preferred tool or trait. Eventually, those who keep playing the game will eventually lose and die. Renly’s bid for the throne and refusal to make way for his older brother Stannis gets him killed by one of Mel’s shadowbabies. At some point the web of lies will make Peter Baelish trip. And Varys’ mummery might very well make him blind to the fact that real life might be bigger and stranger than a staged act, in the form of Daenerys, the Stark children, staunch loyalty of the North and even perhaps the Riverlands.

Broken promises

He slept and woke and slept again. He did not know which was more painful, the waking or the sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke, there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts were worse than nightmares. (aGoT, Eddard XV).

Since, Ned’s first chapter in the books, George has consistently linked promises to Lyanna’s death. Most dreams include or involve her, and her death was tied to a “bed of blood”. So, we are almost bound to suspect that “dark disturbing dreams  of blood and broken promises” implies Ned broke his promises to Lyanna. Ned’s thoughts on promises to Barra’s mother when he visits Chataya’s to see Robert’s bastard girl, however, should assure us that Ned kept every promise he made to Lyanna, albeit not always in the manner that Lyanna intended it.

Using that line about blood and broken promises as evidence that it are dreams involving Lyanna relies on circular reasoning: namely that since Ned dreams of Lyanna and promises, dreams about promises must always be about Lyanna, which is not necessarily true. Before, George included her name and her “Promise me, Ned,” like an echo. George never fails to emphasise the parallel of the present to Lyanna of the past in the paragraph or neighbouring text. So, if that line about broken promises was indeed linked to Lyanna, George would make that clear to us in the same paragraph, or the next, or the previous.

Closer inspection of what comes before and after this paragraph, however, shows that the disturbing dream of blood and broken promises has nothing to do with Lyanna, but an entirely different death scene. It starts with the vision of Cersei’s floating head, and ends with the vision of young Robert. When awake, he thinks of his daughters Sansa and Arya. He thinks of Cat and how she will raise the North, joined by the Riverlands and the Vale. He thinks of his loved ones that are alive. He hopes that Stannis and Renly raise their armies, that Alyn and Harwin return after arresting Ser Gregor. He makes plans. For the first time perhaps, we see Ned link the present with the future, instead of the past.

The only actual dead person that Ned starts to think of more and more is Robert, and that gives an entirely different context to dreams of blood. The “bed of blood” with Lyanna is a typical expression for the birthing bed. But in the line about “blood and broken promises” the word “bed” is curiously absent. We therefore should be thinking of a bloody death scene that is not related to birthing. Robert dies, because a boar ripped him open from groin to nipple. Wine-soaked bandages are black with blood. Even his smile is a death grin of red blood. It is as bloody a death as one can imagine, and Ned makes several promises to the dying Robert:

  • to serve and eat the boar on Robert’s funeral feast;
  • to stop the assassination of Daenerys;
  • to help his son;
  • to guard Robert’s children as if they are his own.

Of course, when Ned promises to take care of Robert’s children, Ned has Robert’s bastards in mind, instead of Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella.

George strongly parallels the death scenes of Robert and Lyanna, when he has Eddard Stark recollect Lyanna’s echo when the dying Robert asks, “Promise me, Ned.” But Lyanna’s deathbed scene of the past involves new life and kept promises, whereas Robert’s scene is one of death claiming personified “Life” and broken promises. In short, Ned was unable to keep any of the promises made to Robert. He did not eat any boar. It was too late to revoke the order on Dany’s assassination. And in a black cell he could neither guard or help any of Robert’s bastard children.

Worse, he fails his own two daughters as well. The vision of young Robert tells him as much.

The king heard him. “You stiff-necked fool,” he muttered, “too proud to listen. Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor shield your children?” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

When next we see Ned, it is on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, confessing to treason for Sansa’s life, and inadvertently Arya’s life who followed the crowd and was spotted by Yoren who recognized her as he waited for Ned to take the black.

Yoren:”Here’s something you don’t know. It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. I was set to leave, wagons bought and loaded, and a man comes with a boy for me, and a purse of coin, and a message, never mind who it’s from. Lord Eddard’s to take the black, he says to me, wait, he’ll be going with you. Why d’you think I was there? Only something went queer.”(aCoK, Arya I)

The “boy” Yoren talks about is Gendry, Robert’s bastard son. Varys later confirms to Tyrion he saved Gendry. It is speculated that Varys did this on his own accord because he wished to preserve Robert’s bastards to expose the truth of Cersei’s children at his own convenience. There is however an issue with this speculation – if Varys supposed Gendry was in enough danger, then why not save Barra and her fair-haired mother?

Varys: “Alas, no. There was another bastard, a boy, older. I took steps to see him removed from harm’s way . . . but I confess, I never dreamed the babe would be at risk. A baseborn girl, less than a year old, with a whore for a mother. What threat could she pose?”  (aCoK, Tyrion II)

The above paragraph is often taken as Varys not expecting Cersei to order the murder of Barra, that he believed Cersei would never harm a baby and her mother. But that would be very naive of Varys, given the fact that he knew Cersei was bold enough to have a king murdered several times, to fuck her twin brother and make them out to be Robert’s. And then Littlefinger mentioned a rumor to Ned Stark about a twins fathered by Robert in Lannisport, and how Cersei had the babies killed and sold the mother to a slaver three years earlier. Now, admittedly Varys cannot always know everything, but surely if there is talk about this in Lannisport, then Varys would know it too.

Consider also that Varys is talking to Tyrion, quite early on in their acquaintance. Tyrion has just sacked Slynt and Allar Deem, condemned the first to the Wall and the second to be tossed overboard for the murder of Barra. Then he tells Varys he ought to do the same thing to him. Does that sound like a situation where Varys could admit that he refrained from saving Barra on purpose, instead of naivity? Varys had not been even sure before this whether he should tell Tyrion about Cersei ordering Slynt to kill Robert’s bastard.

We can only be certain of one motive with Varys – he wants to put Aegon on the Iron Throne. It would still take at least over a year and a half before Aegon is old enough to come when Robert dies. The epilogue of aDwD where Varys kills Kevan and had Pycelle murdered so that Cersei can come into power again, shows that Varys prefers an antagonizing fool such as Joffrey or Cersei ruling Westeros, than a charming but cunning Renly or a strict, righteous, and strategic Stannis. Once the lords war each other, spending their forces, Robert’s bastards become an inconvenience to Varys. Varys cannot really risk black haired bastards with fair haired mothers being produced to prove that Mad Joffrey or Tiny Tommen are not Baratheons. He does not want people to flock around a Baratheon. He wants the people to reject all of the Baratheons – Cersei’s children, Stannis, Shyreen and Renly – and embrace Aegon. That is why he did not do anything to save Barra and her mother.

Then why did he save Gendry? Does he not pose the same danger as Barra, especially since he looks so much like Robert? Well, I doubt that Varys wanted to save him voluntarily. But he is less of a danger than Barra. The issue with the bastards is not whether some look like Robert, but that they have Robert’s black hair while their mother is fair haired. And Gendry’s mother is already dead. Without a living mother it is far easier to deny any claims made about the hair color of his mother.

We know that Ned dreams of broken promises, and that he was completely unable to keep any promise he made to Robert. Ned would feel a moral obligation to save Gendry, because he always tries to keep his promises. And I propose that the letter he wanted Varys to deliver for him was a letter to Tobho Mott to send Gendry North. Then when Varys wants Ned to confess to treason and take the black, Ned made Gendry an extra condition before he would agree to such a plan. Varys allowed it, because he benefited more from Ned confessing his treason and recanting his accusation that Joffrey had no right to the throne, than risking Gendry to be recognized as Robert’s bastard. Without a living mother and just the one bastard he is not that big a risk. And at the Wall, Gendry would foreswear lands, titles and crown.

And that explains why Varys helped Gendry, but not Barra or any other bastard, combined with Ned’s public concession that Joffrey was the rightful king.

If Ned did not break his promises to Lyanna, then why is Ned cursed and haunted by Lyanna? several pages later in the dungeon chapter, Ned does remember how Lyanna was crowned by Rhaegar.

Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke trembling, in the dark.
Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses.
“Gods save me,” Ned wept, “I am going mad.”(aGoT, Eddard XV)

When Lyanna weeps tears of blood it relates to the Furies who avenge false oaths or wrongdoing against kin. Ned’s dreams and visions are repeatedly like Melinoe’s nightmares that drive her victims to madness. The vision of the crown with thorns evokes both again, reaching for Ned from the Underworld – beneath, hidden, unseen – where the blue winter rose and the crown as a symbol of death.

Ned Stark may keep his promises, but what he promised does not always agree with the intent of the person asking for the promises. Strictly speaking, Ned kept all his promises to Barra’s mother: he mentioned the baby’s name and how much the mother loved Robert. But he certainly did not communicate it the way Barra’s mother intended it. Ned promises to keep Robert’s bastards safe, knowing full well that Robert meant for Ned to look after Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella. So, there is a form of duplicity in how Ned keeps his promises. Eddard Stark makes and keeps promises that comply with his own wishes, not the wishes of the people he makes the promises to. It would have been no different with the promises to Lyanna. This brings us back to the dream of the Tower of Joy, where the symbolism and parallels suggests there is a disagreement between the Kingsguard and Ned Stark over Jon’s fate.

The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him … (aGoT, Eddard XV)

No doubt Lyanna asked him to keep her son safe from the king, to bring him up in a manner that he would know his Northern heritage. But it is doubtful that she meant ‘without knowing who his parents are‘, ‘without knowing his Targaryen heritage‘. She may have believed that Jon would be brought up as a Targaryen prince. She may have thought that Mad Aerys was the king still. And within that context, Lyanna would never have wished for her son to be deprived of his Targaryen heritage, let alone his right to the throne if he was an eligible heir. Lyanna’s context is bound to have been a different one than Ned’s. At heart, Ned chose Robert over his sister and over his nephew. As Robert’s (unrequieted) love for Lyanna doomed him to the ending of a tragic hero, so is Ned’s brotherly love for Robert the root cause of Ned’s end.

Now it Ends

Everyone was moving in the same direction, all in a hurry to see what the ringing was all about. The bells seemed louder now, clanging, calling. Arya joined the stream of people. Her thumb hurt so bad where the nail had broken that it was all she could do not to cry. She bit her lip as she limped along, listening to the excited voices around her.
“—the King’s Hand, Lord Stark. They’re carrying him up to Baelor’s Sept.”
“I heard he was dead.”
“Soon enough, soon enough. Here, I got me a silver stag says they lop his head off.” (aGoT, Arya V)

And so, for Sansa’s life and the chance to take the black, Ned agrees to confess to treason at the steps of Baelor’s Sept, which lies on the top of Visenya’s Hill. Even though he’s dressed in finery he looks haggard, his cast for his leg is rotten, and he needs support in order to stand, further confirming the suspected sepsis.

That was when she saw her father.
Lord Eddard stood on the High Septon’s pulpit outside the doors of the sept, supported between two of the gold cloaks. He was dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn on the front in beads, and a grey wool cloak trimmed with fur, but he was thinner than Arya had ever seen him, his long face drawn with pain. He was not standing so much as being held up; the cast over his broken leg was grey and rotten.

Ned Stark confesses his treason, as agreed, in the sight of gods and men at a sacred location where it is sacrilege to behead someone. But Joffrey sabotages the plans of Cersei and Varys, goes against the High Septon’s effort to stop it and orders Ilyn Payne to bring him Ned’s head. The inevitable happens and Joffrey later shows Sansa her father’s head on one of the spikes.

A thick stone parapet protected the outer edge of the rampart, reaching as high as Sansa’s chin, with crenellations cut into it every five feet for archers. The heads were mounted between the crenels, along the top of the wall, impaled on iron spikes so they faced out over the city. Sansa had noted them the moment she’d stepped out onto the wallwalk, but the river and the bustling streets and the setting sun were ever so much prettier. He can make me look at the heads, she told herself, but he can’t make me see them.
This one is your father,” he said. “This one here. Dog, turn it around so she can see him.”
Sandor Clegane took the head by the hair and turned it. The severed head had been dipped in tar to preserve it longer. Sansa looked at it calmly, not seeing it at all. It did not really look like Lord Eddard, she thought; it did not even look real. (aGoT, Sansa VI)

I mentioned how Robert’s death relates to certain mythical deaths as punishment by Dionysus. There is the death of Orpheus and that of Pentheus. Apart from Orpheus’ failed attempt to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice from Hades, he is also known for being a follower of Persephone and as founder of the Dionysus Mysteries, for which he supposedly wrote hymns and poems. But much later in life, he turns heretic and rejects all gods, except the sun-god Apollo. Worse, he climbs the mountain of Dionysus’ oracle one morning to salute Apollo and thus the sun at dawn. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, catch Orpheus during this evident sacrilege and shred him to pieces in a frenzy, until all that is left is his head and his lyre, so he can still sing his bewitching songs.

King Pentheus of Thebes meets an almost similar fate, when he attempts to ban the frenzied worship of Dionysus in the forests, because he denies Dionysus’ divinity. As a retaliation for this ban, Dionysus lures Pentheus’ mother Agave and aunts Ino and Semele8 as well as the women of Thebes into becoming maenads on the mountain nearby. Angered, Pentheus then has a suspected Dionysus follower thrown in jail, not knowing that this is really Dionysus himself. The chains though will not stay on Dionysus, and in the same disguise he tricks Pentheus in spying on the maenads on the mountain. Pentheus expects to witness sexual orgies, but is spotted by the maenads. They mistake him for a boar9 and tear and shred him. His own mother carries his head on a spike back to Thebes. And only upon arriving does Agave realize what she has done. The name Pentheus means “Man of Sorrows”, from the root pénthos, which means grief caused by the loss of a loved one. His name thus marked him a man for tragedy.

So, twice we have characters who deny Dionysus’ divinity and either ban the worship or perform sacrilege against him. In both cases, the men ended up torn to pieces, and only the head remains. One head retains some form of communication, the other head ends up on a spike. And it is as if George has applied this Orphic/Penthean death and split it across both tragic “men of sorrows” – Robert who gets torn up by a boat from groin to nipple in the forests, while Ned Stark loses his head on top of a hill after confessing to denying the rightful king. His head ends up on a spike. More, Joffrey performs a sacrilege himself by demanding for Ned’s head, much like the murder of Pentheus is a crime for which Agave ends up in exile. And though Eddard Stark is dead, he somehow still manages to communicate with Bran and Rickon right after his death, but also much much later with Arya.

The split Orphic death between Robert and Ned is another hint that both performed a type of sacrilege against a lightbringer character that fits the Dionysus concept. Perhaps Robert is right when he suspects the boar was sent by the gods to kill him for his assassination order of Daenerys, and for his irrational hatred against children of the Targaryen bloodline, in so much he welcomes child murder. The dream of the Tower of Joy, his feelings of shame regarding Jon, the haunting dreams of Lyanna and his beheading all hint that Ned Stark wronged Jon by denying his parentage and importance.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

Both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are haunted by the past, by Lyanna. Both gave her a power over their lives from beyond the grave. As Queen of the Underworld it is Lyanna’s responsibility to see that the curses are visited upon souls. Ned is haunted by dreams of Lyanna and the Tower of Joy much in a manner how Melinoe, Persephone’s daughter, operates – strange shifting and violent nightmares that turn the afflicted mad. Robert too suffers from murderous dreams where he never gets what he wants the most. He lives life like a Dionysus, but ends up torn apart while drunk in the abattoir of the gods – the forest – like a Greek character cursed by Dionysus. Meanwhile Ned’s waking life grows more nigthmarish than his dreams.

The chthonic symbolism and the parallelling of the Tower of Joy with the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in King’s Landing, as well as the angry debate between Robert, Cersei and Ned right after the dream, do not only reveal that Lyanna bore a son, but suggest that the fight occurred after Ned saw Lyanna, after she died, and after “they” found him. The irreconcilable disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard seems to be about Jon, rather than Lyanna, with one faction defending the truth, while Ned wishes to keep it a secret. The Kingsguard in particular carry symbols, styles, swords, sigils and house words that relate to Persephone’s son Dionysus, who carries the torch and brings light in the night. This makes them symbolically Jon’s sworn swords, sworn protectors of a lightbringer or light carrier figure.

When Ned and Robert go down into the crypts of Winterfell, Robert starts out representing life and all that is good about life, while Ned is like Hades who lived in the cold, northern Underworld for far too long. But by the end George has almost every symbol of life overturned into a gruesome symbol of death.

The dungeons are as much an Underworld as the crypts were. Here, Ned finally gets back in touch with the Stark power source, when he damns Cersei, Jaime, Janos Slynt, the Gold Cloaks, Pycelle, Barristan Selmy, Renly, Littlefinger and Varys, and finally himself. Several are dead already. Others have been prophesied or foreshadowed to die. And some are in perilous situations. The visions Ned has in the dungeons comprise the foremost damned – Cersei, Renly as young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys. Ned himself would not have survived the dungeons for long, even if Joffrey had not ordered for his head – he has all the signs of sepsis, which indicates a severe infection affecting the whole body, and could only be remedied with antibiotics and fluids.

While Ned feels bound to keep his promises, he makes them with different intentions in mind than the person asking for them. And we should expect that several of Ned’s promises to Lyanna were made in a similar vain. He managed to keep all his promises to Lyanna, but most likely not in the way Lyanna had intended it. They are not so much “broken promises” than that they are “false promises”, because he loved Robert better than his sister, than his nephew and in some respects even more than his own daughters.

I propose that the “broken promises” refer to the promises Ned made to the dying Robert. The dungeon prevents him from keeping them. And I suggest that Ned attempted to recitify this, by writing a letter to Tobho Mott to ask him to send Gendry with Yoren to the Wall. Varys allowed it, because as an orphan Gendry is poor evidence in the hands of anyone attempting to prove that Cersei’s children are not Baratheons, and Gendry would be required to foreswear title, crown and lands when making the Night’s Watch vow. So, with the letter and his confession of treason, Ned saves Sansa, Arya and Gendry. This would make him the character behind Arya meeting Gendry.

Summation of symbols

If we’d expand the compiled list of all the associations we get this:

Life Persephone/Both worlds Underworld
  • the earth, flowers, roses, fruit, melons, peaches, fireplums, green grass, pollen
  • rich harvests, food, wine, fat and drunk
  • seasons: summer, spring, hot, heat
  • elements: breeze, wind, sun, clouds and rain
  • South, towns, cities, castles, Highgarden, inns, hill
  • gold, rich, cheap
  • loud, roar, hug, laughter, smile, sparkling, explosion, bursting
  • the senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling
  • fertility, sex, nakedness, make a new son
  • everywhere, everyone, people, endless, good, sweet
  • light
  • Beginning
  • Sword of the Morning
  • Cling
  • Breath
  • Smile
  • Roses, rose petals, flowers, wreath of (blue) flowers, garland, flowery crown
  • Blood
  • Horse
  • Tower
  • Color: red, white
  • Milkglass, moonlight, moon, star
  • Promises
  • Dawn, dusk
  • Animals: Black bat, white bull
  • Torch, beacon, candle, fire
  • Heat
  • Three men in white cloaks
  • Wine
  • One-eyed
  • Horned God
  • down, subterranean, deep within the earth, under, beneath
  • crypt, vault, tomb, sepulchre, sealed, shut, bury and burrial, holes, cairn
  • wilderness: bogs, forests, Wolfswood, fields, emptiness, no people
  • dungeon
  • hell
  • dreams, nightmares, visions
  • winding, narrow passage or way
  • stone, granite, unbending
  • shadows or wraiths (moving, lurching, shifting, stirring, creeping), mist, smoke
  • ring, echo
  • silent sisters, stranger
  • dead, mortal remains (watching, staring, listening)
  • underfoot, overhead
  • procession
  • pillars, thrones, walls, statue
  • sound and communication: wordless, silence, whisper, deep quiet, only with the dead or damned <>screaming, snarling
  • sight: blind, eyes, dark, darkness, dead of night, night, “unseen” or “far away”, no sun and no moon
  • still, lie, rest, unmoving
  • smell: hideous, stink, no longer smelled
  • shiver, shudder, tremble
  • cold, chill, snow, ice, frozen, winter, Others <> burn, fire in the gut
  • always, eternal, unchanged, absolute, no difference
  • House Stark, Lords of Winterfell, this is his/her place, Stark(s) of Winterfell, Winterfell
  • direwolves, boar, wood adder, moths
  • sadness, sad, weep, sorrow
  • the end
  • North (of the Neck)<> far South
  • hiding, containing, hidden, secret
  • appearance: solemn, older, grim, disapproving, sullen, glare
  • color: black, grey, blue, pale
  • dwindle, stop
  • manner of death: freeze, choke, suffocating, sickness, fever, beheading, blow, butcher, arrow, rip, murder, gangrene, sepsis
  • curse, the cursed, damn, the damned
  • game of thrones, lies, disguise, broken or false promises
  • severed/floating head, on a spike
  • Sword: Ice

Summation of mythological roles

Mythological characters or gods Roles aSoIaF characters
Persephone Queen of the Underworld, seasons, abducted, flowers Lyanna Stark
Despoina horses, animals, dance, conflated with Persephone Lyanna Stark
Demeter Harvest and life, searches and grieves Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hades King of the Underworld, abductor Ned Stark, Rhaegar Targaryen
Dionysus-Iacchus Lightbringer, secret, protected, Persephone’s son Jon Snow
Dionysus-Bacchus wine, drunk, fat, shred to pieces Robert Baratheon
Orpheus Gifted musician, lyre, heretic, shred to pieces, only head remains Rhaegar Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Pentheus “Man of sorrows”, king, heretic, shred to pieces, head on a spike Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hermes messenger, psychopomp Ned Stark, young Robert Baratheon, Varys
Zeus Storm god, lightning bolt, King of the gods on Mount Olympus Robert Baratheon, Lord of the Stormlands and King of Crownlands and Westeros
Poseidon God of the sea, rivers, a trident Stannis Baratheon, lord of Dragonstone
Korybantes armed protectors, guards Kingsguard, Arthur Dayne, Oswald Whent, Gerold Hightower
Hera Queen of the gods, power, jealous, murderous Cersei Lannister
Athena war, pious, intelligence Elia Martell
Aphrodite love, beauty Lyanna Stark
Helen of Troy most beautiful woman, abducted, cause for the War of Troy and downfall of Troy Lyanna Stark
Paris prince of Troy, judge of beauty, abducts Helen Rhaegar Targaryen
Thor Storm god, warhammer Robert Baratheon
Horned god fertility, hunt, psychopomp young Robert Baratheon, Renly Baratheon

Notes

1. George mentioned in an SSM that Brandon died before he had sons. Strictly speaking a case can be made for Jon being Ned’s son, and Aegon Lyanna’s (since Aegon must have very belated low testosterone levels to not have some bulk, is beardless and looking no older than 16 in aDwD in the year 300 AC when he ought to be 18). But that would basically ignore Ilyrio’s sentimental behaviour and Ned paying a price to keep his promise and thinking that some secrets are too dangerous to even tell the wife. The best fitting identities for these boys are Jon being Lyanna’s son by Rhaegar, and Aegon being Ilyrio’s son with his Lyseni wife Serra.
2. In Greek mythology Hera was jealous, because Dionysus was Zeus’ son he begot with Persephone, after he disguised himself in the shape of Persephone’s husband Hades. Other references make him the son of Hades (Pluto), but Zeus wanting to make him his heir.
3. The White Bull is also related to a disguise of Zeus to abduct Europa, while she was picking flowers, or as a disguise of the woman Io – whom Zeus coveted – in order to hide her from Hera’s jealousy. However, Ser Gerold Hightower has not been confirmed to have been present at Lyanna’s abduction by Rhaegar, and only joins the Tower of Joy long after the start of the rebellion, when Aerys commands him to find Rhaegar and send him to King’s Landing. That, as well as his House’s sigil and words fit an interpretation of Lyanna as Persephone and there being a torch bearing child much better.
4. In the following SSM George answers a question regarding Ned’s dream of the Tower of Joy and says the following, “I might mention, though, that Ned’s account, which you refer to, was in the context of a dream… and a fever dream at that. Our dreams are not always literal.” This implies that while the underlying subject of the dream conversation between the Kingsguard and Ned would have been discussed in the real life events as well, but that the actual words and length of the discussion would be different. It is a stylized dream, not a memory relay of events. Nor was there any actual storm of rose petals.
5. For more on red stallions: watch out for “The Trail of the Red Stallion”
6. GRRM has admitted that in this particular passage he mistakenly wrote Renly’s eyes to be green, while they in fact are blue.
7. Chronologically Ned confronted Cersei as dusk fell three days before his daughters would get on the ship. As it took Renly and Selmy two days to carry Robert back to King’s Landing, and Arya and Sansa were to board the ship the next day by noon, this means that actually Robert was already gored by the boar at the time Ned spoke to Cerse. It is likely that she either already had a raven regarding his hunting accident, or learned of it shortly after her confrontation with Ned. Anyway, it was not Ned’s mercy that killed Robert.
8. Semele is Dionysus’ second mother after his heart is saved from the murderous Titans. Zeus uses the heart to have Dionysus reborn again in a human mother, Semele, making her the first surrogate mother.
9. In some versions they mistake King Pentheus for a lion.