The Spider’s Origin, Part I

The Silk Route

 

In the introduction I pointed out how Arachne’s spider-myth is an origin myth and that Ovid’s version includes Arachne’s ancestry in a manner that should perk our interest about Varys’s. Using the very first description we have about Varys in Catelyn’s chapter in King’s Landing, I argued that we ought to investigate the Planetos Silk Route.

 

The actual real-world historical “silk route” was both a maritime as well as an overland route. It originated with the Chinese seeking to trade with the Central Eurasian communities that were renowned for their horse breeding. The Chinese mined jade, lapis lazuli and spinel (if rose tinted it was called Ballas ruby). Around 2000 BC a steppe route to trade jade and minerals for horses came about. Over time, the Chinese began to carve their jade adopting Scythian art. Cultivated silk went also westward, while gold went eastward. By the middle ages, after the collapse of Byzantium, the Arabs controlled much of the caravan routes all the way to Moorish Spain. The Middle East was the midway trade hub. Spices, incense, glass, wood and certain foodware traveled east and from China and India came silk, lacquer and porcelain to the Mediterranean. By then the overland caravans used camels to carry the loads while traversing the various deserts. If religion was cited for popes and kings as reasons to set up crusades, its riches were the lure to sign up. Control of the mediterranean gateway and route sparked the more baser desire. When that ultimately failed, seamanship had vastly improved and European kingdoms sought sailing routes to trade with India, China and Japan directly.

On Planetos there was once a Silk Road.

The Steel Road (so named for all the battles it has seen) and the Stone Road both originate in Vaes Dothrak, the former running almost due east beneath the highest peaks, the latter curving southeast to join the old Silk Road at the ruins of Yinishar (called Vaes Jini by the horselords) before beginning its climb [into the Bone Mountains].  (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond)

According to the Wiki of Ice and Fire, it ran from Yinishar through the Bone Moutains to Shamyriana. From Yinishar two other routes go eastward: one along the shores of the inland saltwater Poison Sea and edges of the Red Waste into Lhazar and another passes north of Lhazar into former Ghiscari territory. Eventually both end up in Mereen. While caravans may still travel these roads either to cross the Bone Mountains or take the Stone Road to Vaes Dothrak, it is clear that aside from the Lhazarene cities all the other cultures and cities once there were either destroyed by the Doom or the Century of Blood in which the Dothraki gained dominion over the grasslands, making it an uncultured wasteland. So, the Silk Road fell out of use as a major trade route between the far east and the Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay of Essos. Instead, the silk route is mostly a maritime one. Silk can be traded for in various ports and islands of Essos – Naath, Qarth, and Asshai. To a lesser extent there is a connection with the Sarnori as well. I will investigate the parallels and reverse parallels that spring from these locations, especially in regard to Varys.

Note: I often refer to symbolic interpretations with the colored coat of horses in this essay, which are based and expand George’s parallel use of horses in relation to those who ride them. For the basic fundamental idea I refer and advize the themed esays of The Trail of the Red Stallion, in particular Ned Stark’s Wrong Bet as background reading.

Index

  1. Naath
    1. Naathi Bedslaves
    2. The Unsullied: Purest Creatures
    3. Concealer
  2. Sarnori
    1. Spider Silk
    2. Tagaez Fen
    3. Saath
  3. Qarth
    1. White As Milk
    2. Qartheen Slaves
    3. Sorrowful Man
    4. Xaro Xhoan Daxos
  4. Grasslands
    1. Grassroot Civilisations
    2. Lyber and the Spider Goddess
  5. Asshai by the Shadows
    1. Red Silk for a Black Cloak
    2. Asshai Citizens
    3. From a Colony to a Port
  6. Summary and Conclusion (tltr)

Naath

The silk route to Naath poses a literary problem: (1) butterflies are not predatory as spiders and (2) Naathi silk is becoming a rarity. The chances that Varys’s silk is Naathi silk are slim.

Such [corsair] raids have become so frequent since the Century of Blood that the Peaceful People have largely abandoned their own shores, moving inland to the hills and forests, where it is harder for the slavers to find them. Thus the fine handicrafts, shimmering silks, and delicate spiced wines of the Isle of Butterflies are seen less and less in the markets of the Seven Kingdoms and the Nine Free Cities. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Naathi Bedslaves

There is however, much less of a literary issue for a slave connection. Naathi are the most favored slaves for being so docile.

The Peaceful People always bring good prices, it is said, for they are as clever as they are gentle, fair to look upon, and quick to learn obedience. (tWoIaF – Beyonde the Free Cities: Naath)

The Peaceful People, [Missandei’s] folk were called. All agreed that they made the best slaves. (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Pycelle claims Varys was born a slave in Lys, implying his mother must have been a slave, already. Most readers speculate his mother would have been a bedslave. I’ll bet though that you just never considered that she might be Naathi. The world book reveals that one pillow house in Lys is famed for their Naathi bedslaves.

It is reported that one pillow house on Lys is famed for its Naathi girls, who are clad in diaphanous silken gowns and adorned with gaily painted butterfly wings. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Illyrio mentioned to Tyrion how Varys hid and stayed ahead from slavers in Pentos.

“I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

Since the peace treaty between Braavos and Pentos, slavery is officially forbidden in Pentos (though the servants are bought as slaves elsewhere), and yet we have slavers prowling the streets. Of course laws will never stop poaching slavers from abducting street urchins, but in the way Illyrio mentions it, he implies that he himself never seemed in any danger of that, but Varys in particular. Varys remained out of sight to them, only coming out at night and even then staying on the rooftops. Is something distinctively recognizable about him from a distance, marking him a slaver target? Like a distinct skin tone?

Add Varys’s behavior of perfect servitude to members of the small council, lords and ladies, and members of the royal court.

“Oh, your poor hands. Have you burned yourself, sweet lady? The fingers are so delicate … Our good Maester Pycelle makes a marvelous salve, shall I send for a jar?” […] Varys bobbed his head. “I was grievous sad to hear about your son. And him so young. The gods are cruel.” […] “Good lady,” Varys said with great solicitude. “There are men in the Free Cities with wondrous healing powers. Say only the word, and I will send for one for your dear Bran.” (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

For a literary parallel it does not really matter that this behavior is only part of his mummer’s repertoire to lull people into underestimating him, even when they distrust him, not when George uses symbolism and parallels in an actual mummer’s act, such as

  • Penny and Groat on their dog and pig at the Purple Wedding
  • Penny and Tyrion in Daznak’s Pit
  • The play and rehearsal scenes in Arya’s tWoW excerpt chapter Mercy.

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The Unsullied: Purest Creatures

At this point, you might be ready to point out to me that Varys does kill Pycelle by bashing his head in and fires arrows at close range into Kevan Lannister’s chest, all the while plotting war, and how that certainly is not the Naathi way.

The Peaceful People, the Naathi are called by seafarers, for they will not fight even in defense of their homes and persons. The Naathi do not kill, not even beasts of the field and wood; they eat fruit, not flesh, and make music, not war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Point granted, but Missandei’s Naathi brothers Mossador and Marselen are Unsullied. In order to become Unsullied, they killed a puppy and a slave’s newborn child. Mossador’s and Marselen’s training and experiences since childhood hardened and desensitized them.

The obvious parallel between Unsullied and Varys is the fact that they are eunuchs, who were castrated “root and stem”.

“In Yunkai and Meereen, eunuchs are often made by removing a boy’s testicles, but leaving the penis. Such a creature is infertile, yet often still capable of erection. Only trouble can come of this. We remove the penis as well, leaving nothing. The Unsullied are the purest creatures on the earth.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

“He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

Vary’s wording is not simply a euphemism for the removal of both testicles and penis, but also an expression that implies his ancestral stem and cultural roots were cut away from him, which may have changed him so profoundly he may not share his ancestry’s cultural beliefs, even if he may still have the servile nature. Just like Mossador and Marselen, Varys may have roots to Naath, but can plan, act and behave in a manner that would sadden his hypothetical Naathi ancestors. If Missandei’s brothers have killed, then so could a Naathi eunuch in King’s Landing.

That George wants us to make a transference parallel between Unsullied and Varys, because of that complete castration, becomes obvious when we compare what happened to the remains. Varys’s sorcerer burnt his parts as an offering on a brazier, while the Unsullied burn their manhoods themselves on an altar to a goddess called the Lady of Spears.

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

Grey Worm looked troubled. “The goddess is called by many names. She is the Lady of Spears, the Bride of Battle, the Mother of Hosts, but her true name belongs only to these poor ones who have burned their manhoods upon her altar. […] (aDwD, Daenerys VI)

The Burning of Male Parts

A third surprising scene that parallels Varys’s description of burning his manhood on the brazier is set in Qarth. Upon the return to Xaro’s Palace, after her unsuccesful appeal to the Pureborn, Daenerys puts on a “loose robe of purple silk” and charrs pieces of chopped snake above a brazier to feed it to her dragons.

In the quiet of her chambers, Dany stripped off her finery and donned a loose robe of purple silk. Her dragons were hungry, so she chopped up a snake and charred the pieces over a brazier. They are growing, she realized as she watched them snap and squabble over the blackened flesh. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

While it is not an actual offering of a chopped penis to a god or demon, “one-eyed snake” is slang for penis. George could have used any type of meat for Dany to chop up and charr. Instead he picked the one animal that resembles a penis. Meanwhile Dany’s dragons can be either feared as demons or worshipped and given offerings like gods.

If we are indeed to make a connection between this scene of Dany feeding her dragons, Varys’s castration and the Unsullied burning their manhoods on the altar, this suggest burned offerings of a penis helps the god/demon in the blue flame and Lady of Spears grow bigger. Someone who burns his cut penis on an altar sacrifices his potential descendants, sacrifices all his sons.

Even though he never sacrifices his privates, Craster does offer all of his newborn sons to his “gods”. Craster helped the Others grow in numbers and power. Likewise Stannis sacrifices his seed and thus his potential sons to the shadow, instead of descendants. And of course Dany’s sacrifice of her son and Drogo helps birth the dragons, which are her “gods” so to speak. Take not of the fact that Mirri Maz Duur’s ritual left Drogo impotent.

The birth had left her too raw and torn to take him inside of her, as she would have wanted, but Doreah had taught her other ways. Dany used her hands, her mouth, her breasts. She raked him with her nails and covered him with kisses and whispered and prayed and told him stories, and by the end she had bathed him with her tears. Yet Drogo did not feel, or speak, or rise.  (aGot? Daenerys IX)

At heart the male sacrifice of descendants seems to be the necessary ingredient to empower magical creatures or spirits. The Unsullied and Craster show that it matters little whether the descendants that are sacrificed are of royal blood or not. And Varys and Dany show it does not even have to be a voluntary sacrifice, but works under duress just as well. The most important resulting question then with Varys’s burning of his manly parts is which power it awoke or helped to grow. And could the blue flames be an indication this sorcerer aimed to stir or help the Others grow?

There is also a reverse parallel between the castration of Varys and Unsullied. The sorcerer who cut Varys regarded the boy as a waste product. Varys could die for all he cared. He was only insterested in Varys’s manhood and his ritual. Varys’s survival and becoming the Spider, was a by-product of the experience.

“Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

But the slavers of Astapor are only interested in the castrated boys, while the testicles and penis are the waste product. It are the Unsullied themselves who burn their parts on an altar to a warrior goddess.

Athena, Lady of Spears

Athena_Giustiniani

The Unsullied’s goddess goes by the epithets of Lady of Spears, Bride of the Battle, or Mother of Hosts. At least two of those are references to the Greek “virgin” goddess Athena. She was a goddess of war. Not the “savage” type like that of Ares dictated by bloodlust, violence and slaughter. No, her war was disciplined and strategic, not unlike the disciplined lockstep legions of Old Ghis.

[…] The Unsullied have something better than strength, tell her. They have discipline. We fight in the fashion of the Old Empire, yes. They are the lockstep legions of Old Ghis come again, absolutely obedient, absolutely loyal, and utterly without fear.”(aSoS, Daenerys II)

And, aside from her helmet, one of Athena’s famous attributes is the spear. It is this Greek Lady of Spears who competed with Arachne. (See image left: Athena Giustiniani Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena with helmet and speaer)

As much as Varys and the Unsullied share a similar experience of pain and loss, the aftermath is so different that in some ways they become almost the opposite of one another. Varys is extremely sensitive to the sight of blood and pain, especially his own.

Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table.
“Careful,” Catelyn told him, “it’s sharp.”
“Nothing holds an edge like Valyrian steel,” Littlefinger said as Varys sucked at his bleeding thumb and looked at Catelyn with sullen admonition. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

“Ser Jaime?” Varys panted. “You frightened me.”
“I meant to.” When he twisted the dagger, a trickle of blood ran down the blade. “I was thinking you might help me pluck my brother from his cell before Ser Ilyn lops his head off. It is an ugly head, I grant you, but he only has the one.”
“Yes . . . well . . . if you would . . . remove the blade . . . yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, I’m pricked . . .” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.” (aFfC, Jaime I)

Unsullied are given a daily drink to make them insensitive to pain. Kraznys can slice off a nipple and the Unsullied (a Lyseni one) does not even flinch.

The wine of courage,” was the answer Kraznys gave her. “It is no true wine at all, but made from deadly nightshade, bloodfly larva, black lotus root, and many secret things. They drink it with every meal from the day they are cut, and with each passing year feel less and less. It makes them fearless in battle. Nor can they be tortured.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Courage is a trait that Varys argues he does not have to Eddard and to Tyrion. Jaime only has to draw a bit of blood to make Varys comply in rescuing Tyrion even though Varys helped Tyrion in looking guilty of the murder of Joffrey.

Neither Varys nor Unsullied can rape anyone by penetration, but the Unsullied do not plunder nor steal, while Varys survives for years as a thief, even was the prince of thieves* in Myr.

* The prince of thieves of course is also a title and reference to a Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner.

“[…] Plunder interests them no more than rape. […] The Unsullied are not permitted to steal. […] Other slaves may steal and hoard up silver in hopes of buying freedom, but an Unsullied would not take it if the little mare offered it as a gift.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)

“To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

“In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

And yet, like Unsullied, Varys evolves into a eunuch who does not take gold, silver and gems, but is interested only in secrets. The prince of thieves became a fence, then a blackmailer and eventually a spymaster.

“[In Pentos] Varys spied on lesser thieves and took their takings. I offered my help to their victims, promising to recover their valuables for a fee. Soon every man who had suffered a loss knew to come to me, whilst city’s footpads and cutpurses sought out Varys … half to slit his throat, the other half to sell him what they’d stolen. We both grew rich, and richer still when Varys trained his mice. […] We left the gold and gems for common thieves. Instead our mice stole letters, ledgers, chartslater, they would read them and leave them where they lay. Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed. ” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

And so despite having to survive in a completely different manner than the Unsullied, his fears and low treshhold for pain, Varys too became a pure creature who is not interested in plunder or rape.

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Concealer

The big elephant in the room would be the distinct physical features of Naathi. They have round flat faces, dusky skin, and large soft amber eyes, often flecked with gold.

The people native to the island are a beautiful and gentle race, with round flat faces, dusky skin, and large, soft amber eyes, oft flecked with gold. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)

Surely, someone would have noticed if Varys had dusky skin, right? Or would they? We do not explicitly know …

  • the color of Varys’s eyes. No POV has ever revealed it to us. We can presume that his eyes are unlikely to be amber, flecked with gold, because such eye color would have been remarked on, as much as when he would have had purple eyes. Of course, if Varys has a mixed ethnical parentage, then he could still have a Naathi mother and yet not display amber eyes.
  • his hair color, since he is bald.
  • his tan or natural complexion, since he powders his face and hands. (It can be logically deduced though as we shall see in the Qartheen section)

The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

His hand left powder stains on Ned’s sleeve,[…] (aGoT, Eddard IV)

Readers speculate that Varys shaves his head to hide the natural color of his hair, but he can just be naturally bald. What is definitely suspect is the powdering of both face AND hands. Powder is used to conceal the true complexion, either to bronze it, or to make the skin tone a shade paler. That is why it is called “concealer”. Varys conceals his natural skin tone.

Incidentally or not so incidentally, we have a round face description for Varys. We just are not certain whether it would still be a round face if Varys were slimmer. And maybe his plumpness is a type of concealment too: Westerosi would assume his face is round because of his plumpness, and never consider his round face may be the features he was born with.

A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, […] (aGoT, Arya III)

Obviously, my point is that we cannot ascertain nor exclude any distinguishable ethnic features (for now). Beneath the powder and the baldness, a mixture of all kinds of origins may be lurking – Naathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazarene, …. We know Varys conceals features and thus we must work with literary parallels, symbolically related clues and hints to speculate what his origins may be.

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Sarnori

spidersilk
Cape of 1 million golden orb spider silk, natural hue
Spider Silk

If butterfly silk does seem a miss-match for spiders, then why not search for a people with spider silk? And in fact such a thing existed on Planetos:  the riders of the Sarnori of old wore spider silk.

Their riders wore steel and spider silk and rode coal-black mares, whilst the greatest of their warriors went to battle in scythed chariots pulled by teams of bloodred horses (oft driven by their wives or daughters, for it was the custom amongst the Sarnori for men and women to make war together). (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

So, spider silk is indeed a thing*! Or rather it was. At the very least it seems to confirm the validity in exploring the silk route for the Spiders’ origin.

*In 2009 a real world manufactured spider silk cloth was exhibited in museums. More in this article with pictures of the result.

Coal-Black and Bloodred Horses

Notice how we get two types of colored horses mentioned in the quote about the Sarnori riders. These horses and their colors are not simply mentioned for an individual rider, but for its people, and the color division is heavily implied to be criss-crossed by gender. The men ride the black mares, while the women drive the chariots pulled by bloodred horses. The savvy reader might notice how George does not just say black and red, but coal-black and bloodred. Unless mined, coal is charcoal, which is manufactured by burning wood. In other words, those coal-black mares are associated with “fire”, while “blood” hardly needs any further explanation. We have the color scheme of the Targaryen sigil here  – black and red – and the words of House Targaryen, “fire and blood“.

Combined with spider-silk, we thus have an association between spiders and House Targaryen. However, I must point out that this association as used in the description about the Sarnori is symbolic, for the Sarnori most certainly do not look like Valyrians.

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Tagaez Fen

The Sarnori are brown of skin, and have black hair and black eyes, matching the coat color of the coal-black mares.

Long of limb and brown of skin they were, like the Zoqora, though their hair and eyes were black as night. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

How the concealment of Varys’s features might disguise Naathi ancestry, applies just as well for Sarnori. The Sarnori features are not out of the range of possibilities. Beneath the powder and bald head may lurk brown skin and black hair. And without the rest, very dark eyes might not startle any Westerosi. That leaves us Sarnori’s long limbs. Once again, we have no explicit description of the Spider’s height. His height is only relayed to us relative in comparison to other characters.

“Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands. The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” (aGoT, Eddard XXV)

Arya saw Varys the eunuch gliding among the lords in soft slippers and a patterned damask robe, and she thought the short man with the silvery cape and pointed beard might be the one who had once fought a duel for Mother. (aGoT, Arya V)

Varys is smaller than Eddard’s regular rat-faced gaoler (and we don’t know how tall that one is). But Varys is not “short”. Arya uses “short” for Littlefinger and thus her lack of height mention for Varys implies he appears to be of “normal” height to her. If I were to ask you how tall Varys may or not be, you will probably answer “average” or slightly smaller than average.

Gendry’s Benefactor

Tobho Mott describes the man who paid for Gendry’s apprenticeship, and many readers presume that this mysterious man is Varys in disguise.

“He was stout, round of shoulder, not so tall as you. Brown beard, but there was a bit of red in it, I’ll swear. He wore a rich cloak, that I do remember, heavy purple velvet worked with silver threads, but the hood shadowed his face and I never did see him clear.” (aGoT, Eddard VI)

Varys is stout and round of shoulder, and he may wear a false beard for disguise, as he does for the Rugen gaoler disguise (different color here). When Varys ventures outside of the Red Keep, he often uses a cloak or robe with hood or cowl to hide his face. The rich, purple cloak seems to be the element that makes it certain in many readers’ minds, for readers associate Varys with purple clothing. But so would characters in King’s Landing who know Varys. If say Janos Slynt or a knight of the Red Keep were to venture in Steel Street or Tobho’s shop and would see this stout, round shouldered man with rich, purple cloak, they would likely assume it is Varys, without ever needing to see his face. So, the purple cloak ruins the success of the disguise.

Either this msytery man was not Varys, or George made a mistake. George could have thought to use the purple cloak as a hint for readers to help us identify the mystery man to be Varys, but never realized that this would make him recognizable to in-world characters. So, yes, I mention this description, though with the added warning that it may not be Varys.

If this man was indeed Varys, then we have our third relative measurement of his height: not as tall as Ned Stark. Catelyn mentions Ned was smaller than his late brother Brandon Stark. This mistakenly leads to the conclusion by readers that Ned Stark was at best average. But Tobho Mott uses the words “not as tall as you”, implying that Tobho regards Ned Stark a tall man, even though he is not one of the notorious giants. Otherwise Tobho would have said, “smaller than you”. Ned considers the Baratheon brothers as giant-tall, and thus exceptionally tall. Robert is 6 ft 6. Ned also has to be able to wield the greatsword Ice easily. At the start of the series the adolescent Robb of fourteen is not yet as tall as Ice, but afterwards he catches up fast. This suggests that Ice is at least 5 ft 2 (160 cm), likely making Ned 5 ft 11- 6 ft (180-183 cm), which is as tall as the average Belgian or Dutch men, who hold the two largest averages for men in the world according to nationality since 2016. So, Lord Varys is likely about 5 ft 8 tall (175 cm).*

*For archived height discussions of characters this might be a fun read: height hierarchy.

Average height is not what we would picture for a Sarnori who are said to be tall, and proudly called themselves Tagaez Fen, which means “Tall Men”.

Westeros remembers [Qaathi’s] conquerors as the Sarnori, for at its height their great kingdom included all the lands watered by the Sarne and its vassals, and the three great lakes that were all that remained of the shrinking Silver Sea. They called themselves the Tall Men (in their own tongue the Tagaez Fen)

Height varies. Around 60-80 % of height is hereditary (depending on “race”), and 20-40 % is determined by environmental factors (nutrients). A person’s height is inherited from both parents. Simply put, with a mixed ethnical heritage with different averages in height, the child would be taller than the parent with the smallest ethnic average, but smaller than parent with the tallest ethnic average. So, if for example Varys were to have a Sarnori father who bedded his Naathi bedslave mother in Lys, then Varys can certainly end up being only average in height.

Let us also not forget the impact Varys’s living conditions would have had on his ability to grow. Diet during childhood and youth heavily influences the ability of an individual to reach his or hers genetic height potential. Children who have been malnourished, knew hunger and had a poor one-sided diet for a while, will never grow into their full potential adult height.

Proteins and Growth

Proteins are essential nutrients for physical growth, muscle building and maintenance. There are various types of proteins that our digestion breaks down into amino acids essential to make sure our body cells lilterally do not collapse. We can only acquire them through food. Not every food source is an adequate provider for those different proteins. On top of that, certain porteins are only present in a limited amount.

The diet that provides an optimal amount of the four most limited proteins in food is one that consists of meat and nuts, which is exactly the diet that hunters and gatherers rely on. If you rely on cereals and grains (staples) like a farmer, you will need fruit and fresh vegetables with that. Staples are rich in sugars to provide energy for immediate use or storage (fat), but as a mono-diet it hampers muscle build up and growth. This is the reason why average height collapsed when people shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, and did not pick up again in the second half of the 20th century.

So, when Varys had to survive on the scraps that he could steal in the streets of Myr and Pentos as a child, he was bound to lack the necessary amount of proteins to grow into his maximal height potential. Meat would only be occasionally on his menu, and of the lean variety. Fresh fruit and vegetables would have been something he rarely – if ever – ate.

This lack of acquiring the necessary variation of proteins through food is aggrevated for Varys due to his castration. As a eunuch he had reduced testosterone production, while this hormone promotes protein synthesis necessary for growth in children.

We can therefore be almost certain that Varys is not as tall as his genetics otherwise may allow him to be. At least one parent of Varys who never knew food shortage or lack of variation would certainly be a tall woman or man. Hence, Varys’s average height does not exclude Sarnori ancestry for Varys, or any other ancestry of tall people, certainly if he has mixed heritage. Once again, George made sure that we cannot ascertain Varys’s ancestry through his physical height.

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Saath

With the Naathi I mentioned that one of the symbolical issues for Naathi silk was that it is not common at the markets anymore. With the Sarnori it is even worse: the number of Sarnori is in decline. Their last remaining city, Saath, only exists by the grace and help of Ib and Lorath.

Let it suffice to say that of all the proud Sarnori cities, only Saath remains unruined today, and that port city is a sad place, much diminished from what it once was, surviving largely because of support from Ib and Lorath (whose colony of Morosh is nearby). Only in Saath do men still name themselves Tagaez Fen; fewer than twenty thousand remain, when once the Tall Men numbered in the millions. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands)

More, the book series itself does not mention Saath or one Sarnori. Whenever a group of slaves, merchants or sailors in ports are described, there is not one Sarnori, while even Ibbinese and brindle-skinned men are mentioned (different species of humans). Without the World Book, we would not even know the Sarnori existed or ever existed. That tells us two things:

  • Sarnoris do not sail, nor do others sail to Saath to trade. There is a better chance that silk comes from Naath, than it coming from Saath.
  • If no Sarnori is mentioned as a character in the series, then they are irrelevant to the ancestry of a character within the story in a physical way.

We can thus safely conclude that Varys has no actual Sarnori ancestry. This does not mean that this section was fruitless. Sarnori are not the sole tall people in the books. And I want you to keep the mention of spider-silk in the back of your mind for the area where it appeared. As the Sarnori were not the sole people whose origin are the Grasslands.

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Qarth

Varys’s silk is far more likely to originate from is Qarth, a city that Varys’s partner in crime, Illyrio, trades with often. The Qartheen Xaro even sails to Mereen on a “silken cloud”.

Many ships of Westeros had sailed as far as Qarth to trade for spices and silk, but he dared to go farther, reaching the fabled lands of Yi Ti and Leng, whose wealth doubled that of House Velaryon in a single voyage. Nine great voyages were made upon the Sea Snake, and on the last, Corlys filled the ship’s hold with gold and bought twenty more ships at Qarth, loading them with spices, elephants, and the finest silk. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings, Jaehaerys I)

[Xaro] had come from Qarth upon the galleas Silken Cloud with thirteen galleys sailing attendance, his fleet an answered prayer. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

If in the past, Yinishar was the Essosi Constantinople of the overland caravan route, Qarth has become the Constantinople of the maritime route. We have the mention of spices, silk, but also jade for the sea.

Of the Qaathi cities, only Qarth remains, dreaming of past glories beside the jealously guarded Jade Gates, which link the Summer and Jade seas. […] Forced to look instead to the sea, the Pureborn who ruled Qarth swiftly constructed a fleet and took control of the Jade Gates—the strait between Qarth and Great Moraq, which joins the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea. With the Valyrian fleet destroyed, and Volantis’s attention turned west, there were none to oppose them as they established control over the most direct route between east and west, and so gained immeasurably in both trade and levied tolls for safe passage.  (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

In that sense, Qarth may not be the city where silk actually originates from, but it is the city to trade for it by people in Essos and Westeros west of Qarth. When it takes months of sea-voyage to trade for certain goods, then the trade city is as good as “origin”. The turkey (bird) is a Central American bird that did not exist as a species on other continents. It was imported into Europe via Turkey, by turkey merchants, a reference that was shortened into turkey. So, a bird of Central American origin was instead called after its trading origin. Likewise Westerosi would tend to refer to silk imported via Qarth as Qartheen silk, even though it is most likely produced and woven somewhere else. To complete the picture of Qarth as an equivalent to the Constantinopel of silk trade, Qartheen ride camels, instead of horses, which is very suggestive of the silk route concept and its caravans.

White As Milk

Like the Sarnori, the Qartheen are tall. The same arguments about Varys’s relative length and how he may have tall ancestors apply here. Like the Naathi and Sarnori, the Qartheen have a distinctive skin tone, but instead of dusk or dark they are so pale that the Dothraki call them Milk Men.

They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. […] Her Dothraki called the Qartheen “Milk Men” for their paleness, […]. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Powder can be used to lighten a dusky complexion, as well as darken pale skin. Pale skin would be distinct enough for slavers to pick Varys as a boy from a distance should he show himself by day, but equally not that distinct for the Pentosi street urchins to be bothered more by his accent and being a eunuch than his skin tone.

“In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

I mentioned how we may after all deduct and conclude what Varys’s true complexion may be underneath all that powder. In the five books published so far, we have two references that Varys appears pale.

The eunuch was lurking in the dark of a twisting turnpike stair, garbed in a moth-eaten brown robe with a hood that hid the paleness of his face. (aSoS, Tyrion XI)

He stood in a pool of shadow by a bookcase, plump, pale-faced, round-shouldered, clutching a crossbow in soft powdered hands. Silk slippers swaddled his feet. “Varys?” (aDwD, Epilogue)

The question is whether Varys is wearing powder during these “observations”. Kevan claims that Varys’s hands are powdered. But like Sherlock Holmes I ask you, “How does Kevan know this, when Varys stands several feet away from Kevan in a pool of shadow?” Kevan refers to the hands as soft, and yet, at that particular moment, Kevan cannot actually feel how soft Varys’s hands are. Kevan is merely assuming that Varys’s hands are powdered and soft, based on memory and experience, not through any actual observation through the senses. And while those hands will undoubtedly be soft, this is not necessarily true for the powder. In fact, there is a very good reason why Varys would not have powdered his hands: powder stains and leaves traces. This powder staining has been noticed by several POVs, repeatedly. As a trained mummer, Varys would be aware of it himself. Varys would be a fool to leave traces of powder on the crossbow, when he wants to make it look as if the Tyrells or Tyrion killed Kevan in Cersei’s mind.

“I thought the crossbow fitting. You shared so much with Lord Tywin, why not that? Your niece will think the Tyrells had you murdered, mayhaps with the connivance of the Imp. The Tyrells will suspect her. Someone somewhere will find a way to blame the Dornishmen. Doubt, division, and mistrust will eat the very ground beneath your boy king, whilst Aegon raises his banner above Storm’s End and the lords of the realm gather round him.” (aDwD, Epilogue)

Whatever Varys is, he is most certainly not a fool!

So, once we combine Varys’s murder purpose in aDwD’s epilogue, the darkness, the distance between Kevan and Varys, Varys holding the murder weapon and the various times we’ve seen and been reminded that powder leaves traces we can logically conclude that Varys was not wearing powder on his hands and face at all when he murdered Pycelle and Kevan. This is the strongest clue that Varys’s natural skin tone is as pale as the powder he uses. Beneath the powder is a pale man, and he conceals it with powder of the same tan, making Kevan assume wrongly that Varys’s hands (and face) are powdered.

How pale is Varys then? In both cases (Tyrion and Kevan) Varys is featured in a dark environment. When he helps Tyrion escape, they are at the levels of the dark cells beneath the Red Keep, at night. On top of that his face is shadowed by a hood. When Kevan describes him in Pycelle’s office, Varys stands in a pool of shadow, again at night. One must be white as milk to appear pale even when hiding in the shadow at night. You can test this in the evening by dousing the lights, allow for your eyes to adjust to darkness and have yourself or a friend stand a few feet away from a mirror. This ultra paleness is probably the reason why even at night, young Varys prowled the roofs of Pentos to stay ahead of slavers, with only the grime and dirt of the sewers to protect him by day.

My deduction that Varys is as pale as a Qartheen leads to two questions:

  1. What can be the possible motive for Varys to conceal his natural paleness with powder that is equally pale? He might just as well not use powder, right?
  2. Can we now throw out dusky Naathi as hypothetical ancestors of Varys?

Half this essay will argue that the answer to both 1 and 2 is “no”.

Now, I could argue that Varys aims to make people believe he only looks pale because of the powder, not his skin, in an attempt to mask his Qartheen origin. Concealer wears off, by wiping sweat off, etc. Just like Kevan, people would not notice any difference and simply continue to assume he is still fully powdered. However, I would find that more of an added benefit that Varys discovered over the years than the actual true reason. Instead I argue that his primary reason is how it serves as a sunblock.

Skin tone is controlled by several genes regarding the production ability of skin cells to produce melanin (protecting our skin against UV’s destructive rays) as well as the type of melanin. As a result a child tends to be not as dark as the darkest parent, nor as pale as the fairest parent, but something in between that. This common principal is why you might assume that if Varys is as pale as a Qartheen, then we can safely rule out any mix between a Qartheen and a Summer Islander, Dothraki, Sarnori or Naathi, … However, Qartheen being as pale as milk in the climate they live for the past centuries, despite wearing robes that expose one breast and showing no sign of tanning, suggests that what causes them to remain so pale is either albinism or leukism. Upon investigation, most clues point to leukism, in particular a dominant genetic form. And this would mask once again any ancestral mixture of ethnicities.

Albinism

Albinism is caused by reduced production of melanin. If there is still some production it is called hypomelanism. When there is no production of melanin whatosever it is called amenalism. Various known mutations exist with varying impact on the affected parts of the body. Ocular albinism only affects the eyes (and/or inner ears), but not the hair, nor skin. Oculocutaneous albinism (OCA) affects skin, hair and eyes in variable degrees for different subtypes. One of those is temperature sensitive, allowing cool regions of the body to produce melanin normally, and thus certain OCA albinos can have dark hair (example: siamese cats). In other words, visible related features can vary along a spectrum, nor is albinism necessarily absolute.

  • Skin (OCA-types): translucent pink (because of underlying blood vessels) or porcelain pale. Less severe forms allow for tanning, freckles or moles. And one type allows for skin pigmentation from infancy onwards.
  • Hair (OCA-types): translucent white, silver, pale blond, golden, strawberry blonde, red or even brown
  • Eyes: commonly blue, true violet, but also grey, green and hazel, and red when amenalistic.

What causes eye color in general? The iris (what we see as the colored section of the eyeball), exists of two layers:

  • The stroma has anterior and posterior cells and is interlaced with blood vessels. The front of the stroma never has any pigment. The posterior of the stroma may have melanin granula, from yellow-brown to brown.
  • The pigment epitheleum is an opaque layer of two cells thick behind the stroma, packed with large melanocytes of black melanin. It serves as a black screen to prevent light from falling onto the retina, except for the light that passes through the pupil behind the iris.

THERE ARE NO BLUE, GREEN, PURPLE OR GREY PIGMENTS in the iris! These eye-colors are structural colors, brought about by the scattering and interference of light as it hits gass molecules or translucent fluids or solids: the Tyndall effect for blue, purple and green, and Mie scattering for grey. These are similar mechanics that make the sky and oceans look blue, green or grey depending on the density, moisture of the medium and the wavelength of visible light that manages to reach our sight first. The largeness of the molecules of a medium in comparison to wavelength determines what color of light will be scattered. Shortest wavelengths of light are first violet and then blue. In order for eyes to be “true violet” the molecules of the collagen within the stroma must be smaller than 450 nm. Then blue can pass and be absorbed by the black eptiheleum and only the violet will be scattered. 

The reason that in extremer forms of albinism people have “red eyes” has to do with reduced pigment epitheleum. As mentioned, normally the epitheleum is a double layer of two cells, both with black pigment. In the case of albinism only one layer of cells has black pigment or even neither has. The epitheleum is not 100 % opaque anymore, and thus light other than the one passing the pupil drops onto the retina, and then is reflected back out of the iris. For the person having albinism this will blur their vision, and people observing the eyes of the albino will see the blood in their iris. Even in these amenalistic cases light will still be scattered by the translucent stroma, and thus the person will have at least partially blue eyes.

I am not the first reader to notice how the range of phenotype traits of hypomenalistic albinism match the “typical” appearance of Valyrians and Targaryens, or Daynes for that matter. Since various forms of albinism came about spontaneously and independently in different regions of the real world, it would explain why non-Valyrians such as the Daynes and the Hightowers display a similar phenotype. The temperature sensitive partial albinism would match the description of Ashara Dayne having pale skin, purple eyes and brown hair. Both are families of First Men descent, as are the Blackwoods (who do not display the features, but may be genetic carriers). Brynden Rivers, a confirmed amenalistic albino, was a child of Missy Blackwood and Aegon IV Targaryen.

Most forms of albinism are recessive: both parents have to be carriers of the albino gene, in order for the child to have the features (phenotype). The Targaryens preferring incestuous relationships fits with a recessive phenotype. The Daynes and Hightowers, Missy Blackwood as mother of Bloodraven or Betha Blackwood as mother of the children of Aegon V can be used to argument that certain families of the First Men are carriers of another recessive form of albinism. Notice too how the Targaryens, Velaryons, the Daynes, Hightowers, Lyseni and even the Valyrians at the Valyrian peninsula lived or live on islands or isolated peninsula. These locations are prone to genetic drift: a phenomenon where a recessive genotype can become so widespread among the local population that it becomes a typical phenotype. (Credit to The Weirwoods Eyes for the latter observation)

I will list and debunk some of the counter-arguments against Valyrian traits being recessive albinism.

  1. Solely Bloodraven is recognized as an “albino” by other in-world characters. Surely, if the characters can recognize that he is an albino, then why would they not say this of Targaryens, Daynes or Hightowers? However, in Brynden Rivers’ case we are talking of an amenalistic form of albinism: absolute. People forget too easily that there are various mutations and effects, and even the same type can vary in effect per individual. When hypomenalistic the features can express themselves on a spectrum range, including one that solely affects the eyes and nothing else, or allows for a degree of tanning (even that of Egg’s), or allow for dark hair.
  2. Aside from maester Aemon, we have never heard of any Valyrian having issues with their eyesight or hearing, which is tied to albinism in the real world, even in hypomenalistic types. Aemon’s blindess is accounted for by his age, not albinism. However, this real world argument conveniently forgets that Bloodraven, a confirmed amenalistic albino, does not have acuity issues either, on the contrary. His red eyes lacking any pigment should blur his sight, and yet he is famed for his abilities with the bow. If Brynden Rivers of all people can see sharply, then the whole eyesight issue related to real world albinism is a moot point for albinism in the series.

I certainly think the proposal that the Valyrian phenotype is a benign fantasy hypomelanistic albinism, where eyesight or hearing is unaffected, and that varies upon a spectrum is a valid one.*

* The Fattest Leech has posted a nice list about Targaryens with a non-Targaryen mother in this westeros.org thread. In how far the Targaryen family tree can rudimentary come about as phenotype if recessive, I explain in this post in the same thread.

Leukism

Leukism or leucism (from Greek “leukos”, which means “white”) is a condition where the coat, hair, feathers and skin lack the pigment production cells (albinos have the cells, but either do not or only partially produce melanin). Leukism only affects skin and coat, not the eyes. Skin and coat are formed from the neural crest during development, while eye tissue is formed from the neural tube. And the genetic mutation causing leukism affects the neural crest, not the neural tube. So, while leukists have skin comparable to an amenalistic albino, they have normal colored eyes: brown, dark or green eyes. Real world examples are white lions, white doves, white tigers, and true white horses.

Just as with albinism there are partial variants with only localized absence of pigment cells, resulting in patches, or piebald. A tuxedo cat, spotted doves, or a piebald horse are common examples. In the real world only piebald is known to occur within humans: piebaldism and Waardenburg syndrome (often accompanied with partial or complete deafness). The individual would sport a white front lock of hair (such as the late Indira Ghandi), and/or visible patches of white or pink skin against normal darker skin. Complete leukism in humans is not described in scientific literature so far. Which is an oddity as leukism and piebald is all caused by a regular occuring random mutation on a gene that we share with pretty much any mammal.

Most of the leukism variants, whether piebald or complete are autosomal dominant, meaning that it will express itself physically if only one parent passes it on, irrespective if the child is male or female. The known variants (complete or partial) with housecats, horses and people are all dominant. An exception are white lions and white tigers, which is recessive. Of interest is the dominant white leukism with horses. They have a true white coat (no pigment cells) and brown eyes (pigmented). Their skin is non-pigmented as well, appearing pink because of the capillaries beneath the skin. The mutation can appear spontaneously in all type of breeds. The name already implies that it is a dominant gene (W). Twenty mutations of the relevant KIT-gene are currently known to cause dominant white. Many of these mutations are nonsense mutations: some DNA code ends up wrongly translated into a halt-whatever-you’re-doing signal in the messenger RNA. As a result such mutations make a homozygous (WW) embryo non-viable. It will die at such an early stage of gestation that it will be reabsorbed rather than aborted. With such a variant only a Ww embryo can grow into a foal. But other type of mutations that cause dominant white may allow for a viable homozygous “true white” horse. 

DominantWhiteHorsesD
Dominant White horse with milk white coat and brown eyes (Leukism)

There are several examples of leukistic animals in the series: the white hart that Robert and Joffrey hunt, the white lion that Drogo hunts down and the white ravens are the first to come to mind.

A white hart had been sighted in the kingswood, and Lord Renly and Ser Barristan had joined the king to hunt it, along with Prince Joffrey, Sandor Clegane, Balon Swann, and half the court. (aGoT, Eddard XI)

“I had a dream that Joffrey would be the one to take the white hart,” she said. […] White harts were supposed to be very rare and magical, and in her heart she knew her gallant prince was worthier than his drunken father. (aGoT, Sansa III)

Drogo would take his bloodriders and ride in search of hrakkar, the great white lion of the plains. […] The brazier was cold again by the time Khal Drogo returned. Cohollo was leading a packhorse behind him, with the carcass of a great white lion slung across its back. Above, the stars were coming out. The khal laughed as he swung down off his stallion and showed her the scars on his leg where the hrakkar had raked him through his leggings. “I shall make you a cloak of its skin, moon of my life,” he swore. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)

“Ah, here is Pylos with the bird.” Shireen gave a cry of delight. Even Cressen had to admit the bird made an impressive sight, white as snow and larger than any hawk, with the bright black eyes that meant it was no mere albino, but a truebred white raven of the Citadel. (aCoK, Prologue)

At the very least they prove that George knows, recognizes and features leukism in the series (as he does in other stories of his work).

There does not appear to be a typical eye-color or hair color related to a form of albinism for the Qartheen. Their paleness is purely skin related. So, a form of fantasy leukism may account for their pale white skin. This would explain why no tanning is in evidence (neither on individual basis, nor across the centuries of generations) despite the climate and sparse dress. Certainly as a fantasy element, George could perfectly elect to create people on Planetos that are the “true white horses” amongst humans.

Hypothetically a complete leukism mutation such as Dominant White should be possible with humans. However, if a hypothetical human being were to have Dominant White leukism similar to a true white horse in the real world then he would have white or silver hair (the coat), normal colored eyes of the possible range, and porcelain pink skin, not actual milk-white skin. The Dominant White horse has a white coat and pink skin, not a white skin. The skin beneath the tuxedo of your housecat (piebald leukism) is a healthy pink. In the aSoIaF case of fantasy human leukism, I propose that George made the skin white while the hair and eyes are unaffected.

It is quite a jump to go from “George features leukistic mammals and birds” to “and also leukistic humans”, let alone “Qartheen in particular”. I cannot expect anyone, including myself, to consider such a thing without providing “evidence” for it. And of course, since this is not a real world where we can test the skin cells or genes of any book character, but a fictional fantasy world in timesetting with minimal understanding of science written by a mystery author who will not give us straightforward world-building answers the “evidence” will be literary allusions and parallels.

Firstly, we should ask ourselves whether there are other examples where George applies a coat pattern of a domesticated animal breed physically onto a race of people, and not necessarily leukism.

  • Black mares and Sarnori who are black-haired, black-eyed and brown skinned.
  • The brindle-skinned men of Sothoryos, another species of men whose skin is brindled like a dog’s coat may be brindled.

The Sothoryi are big-boned creatures, massively muscled, with long arms, sloped foreheads, huge square teeth, heavy jaws, and coarse black hair. Their broad, flat noses suggest snouts, and their thick skins are brindled in patterns of brown and white that seem more hoglike than human. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)

Pale Qartheen, black Summer Islanders, copper-skinned Dothraki, Tyroshi with blue beards, Lamb Men, Jogos Nhai, sullen Braavosi, brindle-skinned half-men from the jungles of Sothoros—from the ends of the world they came to die in Daznak’s Pit. (aDwD – Daenerys IX)

Brindled Half-Man

The brindle-skin reference applies to Tyrion. The quote itself uses the phrase “brindle-skinned half-men.” Half-man is what the clans of the Mountains of the Moon call Tyrion. Now, Tyrion may not have visible brindled skin, but his hair is brindled. If horses can represent their riders or aspects of a character, we could also consider traits of a character into a horse context. In this case, Tyrion’s brindled hair could be applied onto the coat of a hypothetical horse. Brindling with horses is not a genetic trait, but believed to be the result of spontaneous chimerism*: the clumping together of two pre-embryonic fertilized eggs (fraternal twins) resulting in a mish-mash of DNA that develops into one individual (see also House Blackfyre, the penultimate section about Maelys Blackfyre). This would be one of the snippets of literary parallel evidence that Tyrion is a chimera. And though Tyrion’s skin may not be visibly brindled to the naked eye, his skin would be brindled with the DNA of fraternal twins. 

*A certain brindle coat amongst horses has been proven to be hereditary, and thus not due to chimerism, but this is very recent evidence of only as late as 2016, and thus unknown to George RR Martin at the time of writing the first five books of the series.

If Qartheen are Dominant White leukists in the fantasy form I propose, the dominancy of it would explain why the descendants of kings and queens of Qarth insist on being regarded as Pureborn.

Descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth, the Pureborn commanded the Civic Guard and the fleet of ornate galleys that ruled the straits between the seas. […] The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn.  (aCoK, Daenerys III)

The Pureborn of Qarth are the descendants of the kings and queens of Qarth – royalty in other words. The word “pureborn” is loaded with meaning, beyond “I’m Royal blood” or “trueborn” – it is used as a qualifier on racial purity and thus implies that other milk-white Qharteen are “impure”. The Qartheen are not the sole obsessed with the purity of blood. The dragonlords of Old Valyria were, including Targaryens, as well as the nobility of Lys.

The blood of Valyria still runs strong in Lys, where even the smallfolk oft boast pale skin, silver-gold hair, and the purple, lilac, and pale blue eyes of the dragonlords of old. The Lysene nobility values purity of blood above all and have produced many famous (and infamous) beauties. (tWoIaF – The Free Cities: The Quarrelsome Daughters, Myr, Lys and Tyrosh)

And yet only the Qartheen make a point of it to use a title to indicate purity of blood, whereas the dragonlords and the nobles of Lys do not. Why? People tend to go by appearances. If someone with Valyrian features hatches an egg or becomes a dragonrider they are considered pure of blood, regardless whether they are trueborn or not. Precluding the Dance of the Dragons, the “greens” supporting Queen Allicent Hightower and her sons use this argument to predict that Rhaenyra’s sons (who do not have Valyrian features) will not be able to hatch their dragon eggs. With their non-existent genetic knowledge, they go by “if he/she looks and flies like a Targ, they’re pureborn,” and if not, they are impure. Going by appearances only works (well half of the time), because the Valyrian genotype is recessive, and thus is a rare phenotype. Children of mixed pairings with slaves and commoners from other regions of the world do not tend to sport Valyrian looks and thus are visibly “impure”. But if the Qartheen’s feature of being white as milk is dominant then the sons of royalty, merchants, spicers, pirates, courtesans, bedslaves and the kitchen slave will be white as milk too, no matter it their mother or father is Qaathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazareen, Naathi or of the Summer Islands.

Notice that when Dany passes through the streets she considers every man and woman lining up the streets or the balconies looking like a lord or lady.

The Qartheen lined the streets and watched from delicate balconies that looked too frail to support their weight. They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

When “purity” is not visibly discernable in a society clinging to a stratification according to birth, while commoners can be as rich or richer than royalty, the latter must resort to the verbal claim by calling themselves Pureborn. It is all that is left to them to maintain a line of separation between themselves, other nobles, rich commoners and slaves fathered by Qartheen. This is not unlike Dany’s brother Viserys who must beg while in exile but verbally insists on being called the true king of Westeros, even though everything he owns is gifted to him.

Now, we can return to the question that started all this talk of albinism and leukism: if Varys is pale as a Qartheen, can he have a Naathi mother or grandmother? Well, yes, he can if Qartheen paleness is dominant leukism. A child of a Naathi bedslave in Lys and Qartheen trader visiting the pillow house would not have a lovely bronzed shade between dusk and white, but be as pale as milk too. Dominant white leukism might betray a Qartheen ancestry, but equally hides and disguises every other ancestry. So, Varys’s powder conceals his natural skin tone, which turns out to be as pale as the powder, but then his natural skin tone conceals every other possible genetic ancestry other than the Qartheen one.

Via Dany’s handmaiden Doreah we know that Qartheen traders do visit the pleasure houses of Lys.

A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. […] Magister Illyrio had found her in a pleasure house in Lys. (aGoT, Daenerys III)

By now, you might consider the idea of Qartheen being a population of leukists that pass on their dominant white-skinned gene in analogy of horses as diverting. But you may want to remind me that Qartheen ride camels, not horses. Well, it would be glaringly obvious if Qartheen rode”true white horses”. As Dominant Whites, the Qartheen themselves are the horses already. Without camels we lose the “silk route” Constantinople symbolism for the city. And finally, at Yunkai, an actual white camel is featured. Yunkai lies along the silk trade route and is a trade partner of Qarth.

The envoys from Yunkai arrived as the sun was going down; fifty men on magnificent black horses and one on a great white camel. (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

This leukistic camel was likely a trade gift from the Qartheen, since Qartheen are the ones only riding camels, while the Yunkai tend to ride horses.

You may also agree with my point that it is unlikely that Varys powdered his hands to commit the murder of Kevan with a crossbow, and therefore he is truly a very pale man. But are there clues to actually link Varys’s paleness to leukism? Well, there are. Consider the mention of spotted spiders in Sothoryos.

[…], and spotted spiders weave their webs amongst the great trees. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)

The whole line about these spotted spiders applies metaphorically to Varys weaving webs between the family trees of the great houses in Westeros. But that metaphor would work just as well if the spiders were not spotted. So, the spiders having spots is significant by itself. And since Varys is the sole character called The Spider, the spots tell us something about Varys, but what? Is it entirely metaphorical in the sense of “a spider does not lose his spots” or is it a physical clue about the Spider?

George has several characters called “spotted” for their physical features. Sylva Santagar for example is called “Spotted Sylva” for her freckles, which is another genetic skin trait related to melanin overproduction. People with freckles do not lack pigment cells in their skin. It is a trait where skin cells overproduce melanin, but the cells are unevenly distributed. The main point here is not that “spotted” = “freckles”, since it is unlikely that Varys powders his face and hands merely out of vanity over freckles, but that George uses “spotted” in relation to physical features. Freckles are but one example, but it could also apply for piebaldism.

Note that Sylva’s friends also pretend they call her Spotted Sylva for her “origin”, House Spotswood, and thus the spotting of the spiders weaving in the woods is a clue to Varys’s ancestry. This most certainly is not a reference to Varys having Sothoryi origin, since we are told the women can only breed with males of their own species. This only leaves spotted spiders as a reference to leukism and  piebald (which is most certainly dominant).

Spotted Spider of House Webber

Above I interpreted Spotted Spiders of Sothoryos exclusively how it could fit Spider Varys. However, it may not be a reference to Varys at all, but to an entirely different historical character – Rohanne Webber who appears in the story The Sworn Sword of the Dunk & Egg novellas. The sigil of house Webber is a black field with a spotted spider in a silver web. Rohanne Webber was nicknamed the Red Widow for the many husbands that died, since she was 10. She had red hair and freckles (like Spotted Sylva). And in the novella The Sworn Sword, her soldiers and knights are generally referred to as “spiders”. Eventually, she married six times and only had surviving children with her last husband, Gerold Lannister. Her children with Gerold were the twins Tywald and Tion Lannister, Tytos and Jason. Tytos fathered Tywin, Kevan, Genna, Tygett and Gerion Lannister, while Jason fathered Joanna Lannister, Stafford and Damon.

Freckled Rohanne Webber of the Reach House Webber with the Spotted Spider sigil is thus the grandmother of Tywin, Kevan and Genna Lannister, and the great-grandmother of Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion on both the paternal and maternal side, as well as the great-grandmother of Lancel, missing Tyrek and long haired Daven Lannister on the paternal side.

If we combine this with the brindle-skinned half-men of Sothoryos and how they are tied to Tyrion’s chimerism, then it is far more likely that the Spotted Spider reference in the World Book alludes to House Webber and how Rohanne managed to have woven a web so wide that she has descendants in the Riverlands, marrying into House Frey, great-great grandchildren on the throne (Joffrey and Tommen) and a great-great-granddaughter betrothed to Trystane Martell, a prince of Dorne, than the Spotted Spiders being a reference to Varys.

Another hint for it is Daenerys voyage into the Red Waste, which is what is left of the Qaathi kingdom of city-states, aside from Qarth. Now first notice that when she travels into this ancient kingdom, she does this as bald as Varys, and she wears the pelt of the leukistic white lion, slain in the Dothraki Sea by Drogo.

Her hair had burned away in Drogo’s pyre, so her handmaids garbed her in the skin of the hrakkar Drogo had slain, the white lion of the Dothraki sea. Its fearsome head made a hood to cover her naked scalp, its pelt a cloak that flowed across her shoulders and down her back. (aCoK, Daenerys I)

The white lion is an appropriate leukistic animal for Dany, as the mutation that causes lions to be white is recessive, just as the Valyrian features are recessive, in contrast to the proposed Dominant White of the Qaathi.

Following the comet, Dany’s khalasar ride into the Red Waste until they come across Vaes Tolorro, one of the Qaathi cities sacked by Dothraki. Its every wall and building is white as the moon, windowless, and it seems as if these people never knew color.

Dany was about to command them to make camp when her outriders came racing back at a gallop. “A city, Khaleesi,” they cried. “A city pale as the moon and lovely as a maid. An hour’s ride, no more.” […] When the city appeared before her, its walls and towers shimmering white behind a veil of heat, it looked so beautiful that Dany was certain it must be a mirage. […] How long the city had been deserted she could not know, but the white walls, so beautiful from afar, were cracked and crumbling when seen up close. Inside was a maze of narrow crooked alleys. The buildings pressed close, their facades blank, chalky, windowless. Everything was white, as if the people who lived here had known nothing of color. (aCoK, Daenerys I)

So, in a sense we go from a leukistic lion, to a leukistic city, ending with Dany meeting three (leukistic) Qartheen. The description of the city itself is as befitting of the Qartheen mentality as it is of Varys with his chalked or “powdered” hands and “facade”: crooked, nothing but a beautiful mirage in motivation, until you look closer and the deception cracks and crumbles.

Finally, there are complete leukistic spiders mentioned in the lore of Westeros: the legendary ice spiders.

The horn blew thrice long, three long blasts means Others. The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows, the monsters of the tales that made him squeak and tremble as a boy, riding their giant ice-spiders, hungry for blood …  (aSoS, Samwell I)

“[…] Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part’s plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don’t know what those are. […]” (aFfC, Samwell I)

The tales go on to say [the Others] rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf.  (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Long Night)

400px-Marc_Simonetti_Ice_Spider_OtherYou might suppose those spiders are wighted giant spiders covered in hoarfrost like the dead horses. But Old Nan, who knows more grains of truth than maesters would give credit, describes them as “pale white” and big. The illustration of the World Book by Marc Simonetti agrees with Old Nan’s description – spiders with actual white skin and hair and black eyes (not blue). “

[…] And the Others smelled the hot blood in [the Last Hero], and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—”(aGoT, Bran IV, Old Nan’s story)

If the Ice Spiders are actually living leukist spiders, then they are a metaphor for Varys, and not just a horror story detail that George put in the books for shuddering effect alone. No wonder Sam would not know what they are, because Sam explaining them would be breaking the 4th wall.

The Others generally do not ride “ice horses”, but wighted ones. The horses do not reflect the physical state of the Others, but “how they ride to power”: the animated dead are their armies. This metaphor can then be transferred to the pale white spiders: the Others ride to power because of Varys. If the ice spiders only serve as a metaphor, then we will never see actual ice spiders, just like we will never see spotted spiders of Sothoryos.

It is noteworthy that the ice spiders are only mentioned in relation to history. The metaphor thus is not about how Varys’s actions to plummet Westeros into war to install his self-chosen Aegon on the throne help the Others. If that were the case, then we also would have Others riding ice lions and ice mockingbirds or ice giants. Can we think of a past event in Varys’s life that might have helped the Others? Well, yes – decades ago, the sorcerer burned Varys’s parts for a demon or being in blue flames. And the eerily similar, but mundane scene of Dany charring a snake on a brazier and feeding it to her dragons in Qarth combined with her noticing how they are growing strongly suggests that is what the ritual accomplishes – it feeds whatever power or magic you give it to. Many have wondered and speculated whether the voice that Varys heard may have been related to the Others. The ice spiders being a metaphor for a leukistic Varys would be evidence for it.

All the leukist animals tell us something about Varys. So why not the actual leukistic spiders too?

  • The white hart is featured at a time when Varys appears to serve Robert Baratheon, a deer stag. On top of that Varys blames Ned Stark for Robert’s death, just as wolves are blamed for devouring the white hart that Robert was hunting.
  • A bald Dany wears the pelt of a white lion (a skinchanger metaphor) at a time Varys pretends to serve the Lannisters and Tyrion in particular. He skinchanged from a white hart into a white lion.
  • White ravens only carry the important messages.
  • White camel at Yunkai with a party trying to dissuade Dany from her conquering war path in Slaver’s Bay and just go to Westeros instead. It is likely a Qartheen trade gift to Yunkai, like Illyrio and Qarth both wish to gift Dany riches to convince her to sail West. Certainly at the time, Varys hoped for the same.
  • Spotted spiders in Selhorys weave their webs between trees, like Varys does between the great houses.
White Dwarf Elephant

In aDwD, Tyrion sees a white dwarf elephant in Selhorys, after he convinced Aegon to go West during a game of cyvasse and before Jorah abducts Tyrion at the brothel. He sees more of these in Volantis. Meanwhile Quentyn Martell observes Old Volantis is full of them.

A two-wheeled cart went rumbling past them, pulled by a white dwarf elephant.  (aDwD, Tyrion VI)

Farther on, they fell in behind a smaller elephant, white as old bone and pulling an ornate cart. “Is an oxcart an oxcart without an ox?” Tyrion asked his captor. When that sally got no response, he lapsed back into silence, contemplating the rolling rump of the white dwarf elephant ahead of them. Volantis was overrun with white dwarf elephants. As they drew closer to the Black Wall and the crowded districts near the Long Bridge, they saw a dozen of them. […] For half a heartbeat he thought he glimpsed Illyrio Mopatis, but it was only one of those white dwarf elephants passing the front door.  (aDwD, Tyrion VII)

Real world white elephants are not leukists, but albinos. This is the reason why I did not include it in the above list of leukist animals. Furthermore, while ice spiders, white ravens and white lions and camels are portrayed as large – as big as hounds, larger than normal black ravens and great, respectively – and spotted spiders must be large in order to make such great webs to deserve a mention in the world book about Sothoryos, the white elephants in the books are dwarf elephants. The repeated dwarf mention is thus a link to Tyrion. Other comparisons and mentions imply it is a relevant Tyrion symbol in relation to Illyrio and Old Volantis. So, I will save any meaningul exploration to them for an essay on either Illyrio or Tyrion.

You may argue that complete skin leukists would have to shun the sun. Windowless houses in Vaes Tolorro seem to agree with a lifestyle of avoiding sunlight. And white houses and walls reflect all light away from the house. So, why then do Qartheen children run around naked, and do other Qartheen line the streets and gather on balconies in clothing that leaves them half bare? This is not the type of behavior that fits someone who has no pigment cells to protect the skin against harmful ultraviolet light.

As she rode her silver into the city, small children rushed out to scatter flowers in her path. They wore golden sandals and bright paint, no more.

Notice how the children’s implied naked bodies are “painted”. Paint does not have to be just ornamental, but could act like a sunblock. And I argue that powder may serve Varys for the same purpose.

Then consider the architectural description of Qarth. First there are three city walls.

Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: […] The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: […] The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Different types of material and color reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light as well as radiation that we cannot “see” but feel or be affected by, such as infrared (aka heat) and ultraviolet. Red sandstone reflects red wavelength light and infrared, grey granite reflects most light, while black marble absorbs all light. These walls do not solely function as triple protection against enemies and ornamentation, but are shields against sunlight and sun radiation. First heat is reflected, then the shorter wavelengths are reflected, and finally whatever wavelength manages to still pass is absorbed.

All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Buildings that crowd imply high buildings built close together. The streets would be dappled in shadow most of the day. Rose and violet serve as a shield against violet and ultraviolet light, while umber serves as another heat reflector.

Pyat Pree conducted her little khalasar down the center of a great arcade where the city’s ancient heroes stood thrice life-size on columns of white and green marble. They passed through a bazaar in a cavernous building whose latticework ceiling was home to a thousand gaily colored birds. Trees and flowers bloomed on the terraced walls above the stalls, while below it seemed as if everything the gods had put into the world was for sale.  (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Yes, they have roof gardens and squares with fountains, but these are the ornamentals where the crowds of Qarth do not linger or gather. They line up the narrow streets, buy and haggle in the cavernous bazaar, or gather in the central arcaded plaza. And they travel by palanquins, behind opaque curtains that effectively seal out the heat and sight of the world.

The drapes kept out the dust and heat of the streets, but they could not keep out disappointment. Dany climbed inside wearily, glad for the refuge from the sea of Qartheen eyes.[…] Reclining on cool satin cushions, Xaro Xhoan Daxos poured ruby-red wine into matched goblets of jade and gold, his hands sure and steady despite the sway of the palanquin. […] “Khaleesi,” Aggo called through the drapes as the palanquin jerked to a sudden halt. Dany rolled onto an elbow to lean out. They were on the fringes of the bazaar, the way ahead blocked by a solid wall of people. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

Xaro’s palace matches the description of an Italian palazzo – roomy, airy, wide, but in daylight shadow. Even the pool that Dany bathes in is not touched by sunlight.

She had not expected a palace larger than many a market town. […] Xaro swore that his home could comfortably house all of her people and their horses besides; indeed, it swallowed them. An entire wing was given over to her. She would have her own gardens, a marble bathing pool, a scrying tower and warlock’s maze. […] In her private chambers, the floors were green marble, the walls draped with colorful silk hangings that shimmered with every breath of air. […] When all the men had gone, her handmaids stripped off the travel-stained silks she wore, and Dany padded out to where the marble pool sat in the shade of a portico. The water was deliciously cool, and the pool was stocked with tiny golden fish that nibbled curiously at her skin and made her giggle. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Where Vaes Tolorro shows primitive architectural tactics to hide from the sun, Qarth made an architectural art of it to appear to live out in the open, a feast for eyes, but effectively living in cool shadow. Qarth is like an Italian city, light and airy, yet one is rarely exposed to the sun directly in the narrow shaded streets or beneath the vaulted arcades.

Now consider likewise how Varys traverses the city and keep.  When he is out in the streets, he tends to wear the disguise of a begging brother, with a hood or cowl. He travels in and out the red keep via underground passages. King’s Landing is not built to avoid sunlight, like Qarth. So, he must make due by operating beneath cloaks and shadowed, dark passages, or as a child in Pentos sleep by day in the sewers and only come out at night.

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Qartheen slaves

We could imagine how a Qartheen merchant might have anchored at Lys for trade, and have a night out in the red district, bed a bedslave and father Varys on her. But can Qartheen also end up as slaves? Well, yes. Amongst the 1000 Unsullied (eunuchs) that Daenerys inspects on the Plaza of Pride in Astapor, she sees Dothraki, Lhazarene, Summer Islanders, Ghiscari and pale Qartheen. And a Lyseni gets his nipple cut off.

More than half had the copper skins and almond eyes of Dothraki and Lhazerene, but she saw men of the Free Cities in the ranks as well, along with pale Qartheen, ebon-faced Summer Islanders, and others whose origins she could not guess. And some had skins of the same amber hue as Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the bristly red-black hair that marked the ancient folk of Ghis, who named themselves the harpy’s sons. (aSoS, Daenerys II)

Of course, it should be noted that if Qartheen are indeed dominant white leukists, then they may have only gotten their appearance because of a trader fathering a child on a bedslave.

Historically, Qaathi were taken into slavery over the course of the last four centuries. Qarth is the last remaining city of the Qaathi civilisation that arose in the grasslands, far more north and now dominated by the Dothraki. The Qaathi were natives to the grasslands, much like the white lion is. They built towns, occasionally coming into contact and conflict with the Sarnori who built their kingdom around the Silver Sea. More often than not, the Qaathi lost the wars with Sarnori and migrated more south, building new city-states, including Qarth at the Jade Sea. But the southern soil turned to desert, the Red Waste, as they tried to gain a foothold there. The Dothraki mopped up the remainder in the Century of Blood (between 400 and 300 years ago) after the Doom.  Those who survived the Red Waste, were killed, driven off or sold into slavery by the Dothraki. Only Qarth with its triple wall survived and eventually flourished. Vaes Tolorro (“City of Bones”) where Dany shelters early in aCoK is one such sacked Qaathi city. Nearby Dany’s scouting bloodriders come across similarly sacked, but smaller cities, such as Vaes Orvik (“City of the Whip”), alluding to those Qaathi habitants having been whipped into enslavement.

And this is where it becomes very interesting. The Wiki cites GRRM’s A World of Ice and Fire app as a source for a Qaathi city once called Qolahn. The Dothraki renamed it Vaes Qosar, which means – and I kid you not – City of Spiders. While there are several references to spiders in the World Book, most refer to attributes or features. This one though is an origin reference. It is situated in the southern ranges of the Red Waste, north of Qarkash and north west of Qarth. If the Dothraki renamed it, because they conquered it, then we know what happened to the citizens of that city – they were sold into slavery. Does Varys’s ancestor originate from this Vaes Qosar?

WorldofIceandFire

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Sorrowful Man

When Varys murders Kevan Lannister he apologizes profusedly.

The eunuch set the crossbow down. “Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children. […] This pains me, my lord. You do not deserve to die alone on such a cold dark night. There are many like you, good men in service to bad causes … but you were threatening to undo all the queen’s good work, to reconcile Highgarden and Casterly Rock, bind the Faith to your little king, unite the Seven Kingdoms under Tommen’s rule. […] Are you cold, my lord?” asked Varys. “Do forgive me. The Grand Maester befouled himself in dying, and the stink was so abominable that I thought I might choke. […] I am sorry.” Varys wrung his hands. “You are suffering, I know, yet here I stand going on like some silly old woman. Time to make an end to it.” (aDwD, Epilogue)

“Forgive me, this pains me, forgive me, I am sorry”- Varys sounds like a Sorrowful Man, the assassins in Qarth, who apologize to their victims before killing them.

“Suppose a Sorrowful Man came to my palace one night and killed you as you slept,” said Xaro. The Sorrowful Men were an ancient sacred guild of assassins, so named because they always whispered, “I am so sorry,” to their victims before they killed them. The Qartheen were nothing if not polite. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

While Varys is a sorrowful man when he kills his victim, I in no way try to make the case that Varys is of the guild of Sorrowful Men. I am merely pointing out the striking parallel. The Sorrowful Men and their politeness were born out of the Qartheen belief that this is the civilised way of killing someone. Whatever or whomever Varys is, he most certainly remains polite, empathic and civilised like a Qartheen, even when murdering Kevan Lannister.

In the last section “Now it Ends” of the chthonic cycle essay of the Cursed Souls of Eddard and Robert I mentioned King Pentheus of Thebes who is thorn and shredded by the maenads while spying on them as they mistake him for a boar. Of relevance here is the meaning of the name Pentheus: “Man of Sorrows” or, well a “Sorrowful Man”. The Greek root is the word pénthos for grief, sorrow or mourning. And of course that is exactly the name for Illyrio’s city, Pentos. It is doubtful that George chose this name by coincidence, since this type of grief is caused by the loss of a loved one, which is exactly what Illyio reveals to Tyrion in aDwD. Relevant for this essay and the section, is that Varys spent most of his teen and young adult life in Pentos after escaping Myr, and it is in Pentos that Varys transforms from a common thief into the pure creature of a civilised spymaster who kills his targets politely and apologetically.

If a single tear had been rolling out Varys’s eye like Xaro Xhoan Daxos in aDwD’s epilogue as he speaks to Kevan, the picture of a Qartheen would be complete. And the whole of Varys’s enigmatic behavior, from inaction, betrayals, to helping, combined with his self-proclaimed excuses not to act against injustice or motivations to commit murder are very reminiscint of the same behavior of the Pureborn and Xaro Xhoan Daxos that puzzles Dany so during her stay in Qarth, just as Varys’s behavior and motives puzzle us, the readers. Xaro certainly can do the tear mummery to perfection, so much that George eventually uses the phrase mummer’s tears, which should bring Varys to mind.

The Qartheen wept often and easily; it was considered a mark of the civilized man.[…] A single perfect tear ran down the cheek of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The master of the Indigo Star was Qartheen, so he wept copiously when asked about Astapor. “The city bleeds. Dead men rot unburied in the streets, each pyramid is an armed camp, and the markets have neither food nor slaves for sale. And the poor children! King Cleaver’s thugs have seized every highborn boy in Astapor to make new Unsullied for the trade, though it will be years before they are trained.”  (aSoS, Daenerys VI)

“Shall I ask again?” wondered Xaro. “No, I know that smile. It is a cruel queen who dices with men’s hearts. Humble merchants like myself are no more than stones beneath your jeweled sandals.” A single tear ran slowly down his pale white cheek.
Dany knew him too well to be moved. Qartheen men could weep at will. “Oh, stop that.” […] I know [an enemy] stands before me now, weeping mummer’s tears. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Xaro is not the sole Qartheen weeping tears in front of Dany. The master of the ship Indigo Star weeps as well as he relates what is happening in Astapor. Notice how he laments the “poor children”, like Varys laments little Rhaenys, Robert’s bastard children murdered by the Gold Cloaks, or manipulates Ned Stark over Sansa, or tells Kevan he does it “for the children”.

While Varys does not cry perfect single tears, he washes his hands (from lies and manipulation), and feigns to be close to tears often, and always in relation to the “children”. Of course in feudal Westeros with its macho culture, an actual weeping eunuch would serve his mummer’s purpose less than a near-weeping man.

Rhaenys was a child too. Prince Rhaegar’s daughter. A precious little thing, younger than your girls. She had a small black kitten she called Balerion, did you know? I always wondered what happened to him. Rhaenys liked to pretend he was the true Balerion, the Black Dread of old, but I imagine the Lannisters taught her the difference between a kitten and a dragon quick enough, the day they broke down her door.” Varys gave a long weary sigh, the sigh of a man who carried all the sadness of the world in a sack upon his shoulders. “The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me … why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones? Ponder it, if you would, while you wait upon the queen. And spare a thought for this as well: The next visitor who calls on you could bring you bread and cheese and the milk of the poppy for your pain … or he could bring you Sansa’s head. The choice, my dear lord Hand, is entirely yours.” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

The poor child,” murmured Varys. “A love so true and innocent, Your Grace, it would be cruel to deny it … and yet, what can we do? Her father stands condemned.” His soft hands washed each other in a gesture of helpless distress. (aGoT, Sansa IV)

“Your own sweet sister,” Varys said, so grief-stricken he looked close to tears. “It is a hard thing to tell a man, my lord. I was fearful how you might take it. Can you forgive me?” (aCoK, Tyrion II, in response to Varys knowing that Cersei gave Slynt the order to kill Robert’s bastards)

“Alas, our beloved Tyrek has quite vanished, the poor brave lad.” Varys sounded close to tears. (aSoS, Tyrion III)

Aside from pretending to be close to tears, Varys’s birth connection to Lys implies the Tears of Lys, a poison that Varys claims killed Jon Arryn, but he himself proposes as murder weapon to kill Daenerys during the council meeting in aGoT.

Kinder,” Varys said. “Oh, well and truly spoken, Grand Maester. It is so true. Should the gods in their caprice grant Daenerys Targaryen a son, the realm must bleed.” […] “By now, the princess nears Vaes Dothrak, where it is death to draw a blade. If I told you what the Dothraki would do to the poor man who used one on a khaleesi, none of you would sleep tonight.” He stroked a powdered cheek. “Now, poison … the tears of Lys, let us say. Khal Drogo need never know it was not a natural death.”(aGoT, Eddard VIII)

All of these tears are “fake tears” and “mummer’s tears”. In fact, not only are the tears of Lys false tears, Varys is performing a mummery in that small council meeting. Varys has no intention to have Dany die: with the same karavan bringing the poisonor also arrives a letter for Jorah to stop and reveal the plot. Its sole intent is to provoke Drogo into action. And it would have worked if Drogo had not gotten himself killed by putting mud on a large surface wound.

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Xaro Xhoan Daxos

Speaking of Xaro, …

The bald man with the jewels in his nose answered in the Valyrian of the Free Cities, “I am Xaro Xhoan Daxos of the Thirteen, a merchant prince of Qarth.” (aCoK, Daenerys I)

Xaro was a languid, elegant man with a bald head and a great beak of a nose crusted with rubies, opals, and flakes of jade. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The jewelry in his beaked nose I will leave for the next essay, but here I want to focus on his baldness. Graned, many characters are bald in this series, and not every balding man is a parallel, stand-in or clue to Varys: Tywin, Stannis, Old Bear Jeor Mormont, his son Jorah Mormont, Pycelle, Aemon Targaryen, many and more. Most of these characters are balding as a result of age or only partially bald and they have otherwise nothing else in common with Varys. But some share more attributes or similarities with Varys other than baldness, and therefore can be considered to be a possible parallel or stand-in.

  • Strong Belwas: bald, beardless, big, eunuch, freed slave.
  • Aegon V (aka Egg): hairless as an egg, his brother Aerion Brightflame threatened to castrate Egg and held a knife to his male parts, Aegon V aimed to reduce the power of the lords of Great House in favor of an absolute monarchy ruling for the common folk, and thus a breakdown of feudal society.
  • Hairless Dany: like Egg, who has parallels with Varys.
    • She wears the skin of the leukistic white lion.
    • Her charring a chopped up snake on a brazier and feeding it to magical creatures, while wearing purple silk.
    • Chooses her dragon over her achieved peace and compromize in Mereen, disappears and chooses “fire and blood” in the grasslands, around the time that Varys commits to Aegon (the mummer’s dragon).

So, let us look at the parallels between Xaro and Varys, aside from baldness.

  • Xaro and Varys speak alike, with self pity and empathy, yet plot ruthlessly.
  • Neither are “pureborn”, yet both are pale as milk.
  • Both men dislike magic and advize Dany and Tyrion respectively against using it.
  • Neither Varys nor Xaro are interested in women for the first is a eunuch and the second is homosexual.

Xaro’s flowery protestations of passion amused her, but his manner was at odds with his words. While Ser Jorah had scarcely been able to keep his eyes from her bare breast when he’d helped her into the palanquin, Xaro hardly deigned to notice it, even in these close confines. And she had seen the beautiful boys who surrounded the merchant prince, flitting through his palace halls in wisps of silk. (aCoK, Daenerys III)

In [Xaro’s] honor Daenerys had donned a Qartheen gown, a sheer confection of violet samite cut so as to leave her left breast bare. Her silver-gold hair brushed lightly over her shoulder, falling almost to her nipple. Half the men in the hall had stolen glances at her, but not Xaro. It was the same in Qarth. She could not sway the merchant prince that way. […] “I may be a young girl, but I am not so foolish as to wed a man who finds a fruit platter more enticing than my breast. I saw which dancers you were watching.”
Xaro wiped away his tear. “The same ones Your Grace was following, I believe. You see, we are alike. […]” (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Varys cites a personal reason to hate and fight Stannis: Stannis consorts with a sorceress and meddles in magic. Meanwhile Xaro time and time again attempts to dissuade Dany from seeking council with the Undying and expresses distrust and dislike of their warlocks, like Pyat Pree.

[…] since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

“The young queen is wise beyond her years,” Xaro Xhoan Daxos murmured down at her from his high saddle. “There is a saying in Qarth. A warlock’s house is built of bones and lies.” […] “Once they were mighty,” Xaro agreed, “but now they are as ludicrous as those feeble old soldiers who boast of their prowess long after strength and skill have left them. They read their crumbling scrolls, drink shade-of-the-evening until their lips turn blue, and hint of dread powers, but they are hollow husks compared to those who went before. Pyat Pree’s gifts will turn to dust in your hands, I warn you.” (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The merchant prince sat up sharply. “Pyat Pree has blue lips, and it is truly said that blue lips speak only lies. Heed the wisdom of one who loves you. Warlocks are bitter creatures who eat dust and drink of shadows. They will give you naught. They have naught to give.” (aCoK, Daenerys III)

And of course, like Varys, Xaro is not really on Dany’s side. His sole aim to pretend to be her friend and acting like a suitor is because he wants a dragon. One of the reasons that Illyrio and Varys would want Dany to marry Aegon are her dragons. Dragons are a military power as much as a horde of Dothraki are.

A last visual parallel between Xaro and Varys can be found in aDwD, when Xaro is described in similar clothing than Varys’ introduction to the reader.

The pale, lean, hawk-faced man who shared her high table was resplendent in robes of maroon silk and cloth-of-gold, his bald head shining in the torchlight as he devoured a fig with small, precise, elegant bites. (aDwD, Daenerys III)

Notice how George puts the spotlight, euhm torchlight, onto Xaro’s bald head.

The differences matter just as much as the anologies. Instead of purple silk “robes” in the above quote, we have maroon – dark, brown red. I will go into the dye use of maroon versus purple in the Part II Color Purple essay. Another, glaring difference is that while Varys is plump, Xaro is slender and lean. This is due to Varys being a eunuch, while Xaro is not.

“The slaves in the spiked bronze hats?” Dany had seen Unsullied guards in the Free Cities, posted at the gates of magisters, archons, and dynasts. “Why should I want Unsullied? They don’t even ride horses, and most of them are fat.”
“The Unsullied you may have seen in Pentos and Myr were household guards. That’s soft service, and eunuchs tend to plumpness in any case. Food is the only vice allowed them.[…]” (aSoS, Daenerys I)

As mentioned in the Tall Men section of the Sarnori, having been castrated, Varys has a reduced production of the hormone testosterone. While in children it promotes protein synthesis and thus growth, in adults testosterone boosts the build-up of muscle, bone-mass and body hair. Men producing higher levels of testosterone grow taller and tend to make muscle mass, and thus be lean and slender. They also grow more cartilege on the nose bridge during puberty, and their previous small, cute noses can grow into a big hawk nose. Men’s noses are bigger than women and have more variations in profile because of this. This is the basic idea behind a “man with a big nose has a big penis”. And thus, Xaro is the vision of what a non-castrated Varys would look like basically. If Varys had not been castrated, he would be lean, slender, tall, sexually active and have a masculine, noteworthy nose. And it is with this non-castrated version of Varys that I rest my case on the numerous hints of Varys having ties to Qarth, other than the place where Illyrio acquires silks for Varys.

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Grasslands

Grassroot civilizations

The Grasslands is the area that is portrayed as the area where civilzation was born, of not just one people, but many.

Beyond the Forest of Qohor, Essos opens up upon a vast expanse of windswept plains, gentle rolling hills, fertile river valleys, great blue lakes, and endless steppes where the grass grows as high as a horse’s head. […] It was here amidst these grasses that civilization was born in the Dawn Age. Ten thousand years ago or more, when Westeros was yet a howling wilderness inhabited only by the giants and children of the forest, the first true towns arose beside the banks of the river Sarne and beside the myriad vassal streams that fed her on her meandering course northward to the Shivering Sea. The histories of those days are lost to us, sad to say, for the kingdoms of the grass came and went in large measure before the race of man became literate. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

Where our primate ancestors lived in the trees of the forests of fruit, it was the move into the plains and steppes that forced primates to walk on their hind legs as well as make tools to defend one self against predators. The latter pushed the evolution of the brain capacity in overdrive, leading to invention after invention. And thus the plains and steppes that lacked natural shelters were the regions where the first settlements were built by humans, even if they were hunter gatherers, such as the huts built with mammoth bones in the Ukraine during the Upper Paleolithic (15000 years ago).

The area of the Grasslands on Planetos seems to have functioned as a similar type of accelerator for cultures to develop. Not only is it the origin region of the Sarnori and the Qaathi, but the maesters also speculate that the First Men and Andals may have originated from this region before they migrated westward.

Some maesters believe that the First Men originated here before beginning the long westward migration that took them across the Arm of Dorne to Westeros. The Andals, too, may have arisen in the fertile fields south of the Silver Sea. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

The Qartheen claim that civilisation began with them. Meanwhile, the Sarnori claim descent of the Fisher Queens, who ruled the lands around the Silver Sea at the heart of the grasslands from a floating palace making its way around the shores. The Fisher Queens were sought out as wise women by kings and lords of other people for counsel.

The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

The son of the last Fisher Queen, Huzhor Amai, wed a woman of each of the three people – the Zoqora, Gipps and Cymmeri – surrounding the Silver Sea and bound them to him to become the Sarnori.

In the Sarnori section, I mentioned how their riders wore spider silk, but also stipulated that it is very unlikely that Varys actually has a Sarnori origin. Meanwhile, the literary hints and clues heavily favor a Qaathi origin for Varys instead. Aside from both people being “tall men”, they share the Grasslands as origin region where both initially established their kingdoms and fought each other, before the Dothraki conquered the Grasslands. The Qaathi migrated more south, until they reached the southern seas and established Qarth. Both people were largely conquered and destroyed by the Dothraki in the same Century of Blood, until each people only had one city left. And it is in this last remaining bastion that their fates reversed: Saath is a pitiful city depending on the generosity and help of Ib and Lothar, while Qarth is a rich jewel of a city along the Jade Sea. Hence, the spider-silk reference with the Sarnori does not imply a literal Sarnori origin for Varys, but is a Grassroot clue to the region of origin of the Qartheen civilisation with multiple ties to Varys.

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Lyber and the Spider Goddess

It is in this cradle of civilisations that we come across another spider reference other than spider silk: the lost city Lyber of an unnamed culture who revered a spider goddess.

We hear as well of the lost city Lyber, where acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless, bloody war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)

This is the closest allusion to the Greek Arachne, who is often portrayed as a goddess in fantasy games. It makes sense to put such a reverence in the region from which civilisation originated, since “weaving” (the spider’s activity) is considered to be one of those fundamental cultural hallmark activities of a civilisation. If farming and husbandry renders people independent from gathering and hunting their food, the ability to weave ends the need to hunt furs and skins for clothing. The more cultures separate themselves of natural habitat, the more civilised they will claim themselves to be. Both Athena and her weaving rival Arachne represented this cultural milestone for the Greeks.

Arachne is not the sole ‘spider goddess’ in ancient civilisations. Near Mexico City thousands of tourists visit the mighty pre-Colombian site of Teotihuacan, known for its multiple pyramid complexes, with the moon and sun pyramids as the largest ones. Another famous temple there, the third largest pyramid, is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Though the origin of the feathered serpent likely comes from the older Olmec culture, the Teotihuacan temple (150-200 AD) has the earliest classic depictions of the feathered serpent as we see in later cities across all of Meso-America. Because it became such a widespread god, known as Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs and Kukulcan with the Yucatec Mayans, most people assume that he was the primary deity of Teotihuacan.

He was not. The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan was the primary deity (see top image of this essay). She is depicted on murals in the living quarters of the highest status people, but also featured in the Temple of the Jaguars, Temple of Agriculture, on pottery and even the back of mirrors, and there is a statue of her that once stood at the base of the Pyramid of the Moon. She simply is not as infamous with us modern people, because she was not as popular or widespread after Teotihuacan’s downfall in the 6th century.

Water flows from her hands. She wears a headdress with an owl mask, a nose pendant with three to five spider fangs and her retinue in the tree growing behind or above hers are little birds, spiders and butterflies. Thsoe should ring a bell when it comes to Varys who uses little birds for spies, is nicknamed the spider, and both spiders and butterflies weave silk.

The archeologist Karl Taube dubbed her the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. Especially spiders are often associated with her: they scurry in the background, over her dress, or if she holds a shield a spider-web is depicted on them. Since both the spider and owl were regarded as creatures of the darkness, she was most likely a chthonic underworld goddess, who simultaneously lies at the base of creation and civilisation, but also war. While there are later war-goddess derivates from her such as the Aztec Cihuacoatl, a major difference between them is that while he Aztecs focus on military glory to hold off an apocalypse, the Teotihuacan depictions give this ‘paradise on earth’  feel.

Peculiar is how both Lyber and Teotihuacan share a bloody feud between a spider goddess and a serpent god. Rich dwellings built near a temple of a certain deity are believed to have been occupied by powerful families or functionaries who held a dual spiritual and political role of importance in Teotihuacan. This is true for both the Great Goddess and Quetzalcoatl.

Even though a city-state, Teotihuacan exerted military control as far as the Mayan Peten region, such as Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras). According to an inscription in a monument in Tikal, Spearthrower Owl ascended the throne of an unspecified polity in 374 AD, but presumably Teotihuacan. Notice how this king of Teotihuacan associates himself with the owl, while the Great Goddess has an owl mask in her headdress. Then in 378 AD a military powerful figure called Fire is Born arrives in the Peten area, in Teotihuacan dress, conquers Tikal, killing the king of Tikal. He is believed to have been Spearthrower Owl’s general. In other words, Fire is Born and Teotihuacan committed a military coup in Tikal. And in 379 AD the son of Spearthrower Owl, Curled Nose, ascended the throne of Tikal, while Fire is Born remained the military overlord over the Mayan region. The interesting thing is that the overthrown family who was exiled from Tikal were referred to as the Feathered-Serpent people. After the coup, the Tikalese temple of the Feathered Serpent was burned, its sculptures torn down and a platform was built in front of it to hide its facade. More, around the same time, in the 4th century AD, a platform was also built in front of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan to obscure it from view from the main road as well. So, there was a bloody feud between those who affiliated themselves with the serpent god and those who affiliated with the great goddess, not just in Teotihuacan, but extending as far as Guatemala and Honduras.

It was long believed that Teotihuacan’s downfall was brought on by foreign enemies during a period of drought in the 6th century. Evidence though has shown that while dwellings of the elite and temples were burned and destroyed, no violence was done to the dwellings of the lower classes, suggesting that an internal uprising of the middle class and commoners (a revolution) caused the collapse of Teotihuacan, once the sixth largest city of its era across the globe with its 125,000 citizens. Spider Woman was forgotten and lost the feud of cultural legacy and focus. Instead of striving to create a utopia the apocalyptic war view of domination won out. And the iconographic win of the Feathered Serpent over the Great Goddess after Teotihuacan’s downfall may very well have served as an inspiration for George for Lyber and its bloody feud.

The name Teotihuacan comes to us from the Aztecs who occupied the highlands of central Mexico 1000 years later and is Nahuatl for ‘birthplace of the gods’. We do not know what the citizens called their own city, only that their contemporary Mayans called it ‘place of reeds’, which is likely as generic as our present day ‘The City’ with everyone understanding what city the person refers to in that country: for example New York in the States, Antwerp in Belgium.

We have something similar for Lyber. As it is a lost city and civilisation it is unclear who its citizens were or what they called their city themselves, exactly like Teotihuacan. George likely derived the name Lyber from the Latin “Liber” which means “free” or “the free one”. What are city-states called in Essos even now? Free Cities. So, linguistically the name Lyber suggests the name originates from a much later, possibly Valyrian, era where cities not under direct control of Valyrians were generically called free cities. As they stumbled upon the ruins of a lost, but once huge city with temples depicting  a spider goddess and a serpent god and evidence of internal strife, the discoverers simply called it Lyber as they would call any city-state that was independent of Valyrian rule.

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Asshai by the Shadow

Red Silk for a Black Cloak

We have one book reference that connects silk to Asshai – namely Mance Rayder’s story of the red silken inner lining of his cloak that prompted him to desert the Night’s Watch.

“One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadow-cat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. […]” [The King-Beyond-the-Wall] chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wisewoman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears . . . and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said. I left the next morning . . . for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.” He closed the clasp and sat back down again. (aSoS, Jon I)

We can almost certainly dismiss Varys as having an Asshai origin – no children are born there. The citizens are all immigrants from somewhere else, so to speak. And while Mance Rayder’s cloak of black with red silk calls forth the colors of House Targaryen, as did the coalblack and bloodred horses of the Sarnori, I would also remind the reader that the color red is associated to false trails in the books. Red silk from Asshai is a false origin lead, though it does seem to alter a person’s mind on what sort of life they will live drastically, and thus destiny.

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Asshai Citizens

Even if Asshai silk is a false lead for Varys’s ancestry, my previous speculation about leukism and architectural peculiarities about Vaes Tolorro and Qarth to avoid sunlight may have made you wonder, “What about people of Asshai?” There are Asshai citizens, and Asshai shadowbinders, but not Asshai people. That is perhaps the metaphorical reason why nobody rides horses in Asshai!

An account by Archmaester Marwyn confirms reports that no man rides in Asshai, be he warrior, merchant, or prince. There are no horses in Asshai, no elephants, no mules, no donkeys, no zorses, no camels, no dogs. Such beasts, when brought there by ship, soon die. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

What physical skin issues would lead to people to settle in Asshai in the first place, even though it is so inhospitable to life? Which real world disorder has symptomes and treatments that could be an inspiration for both fire and blood magic, when Asshai was built in an area that is hardly ever touched by direct sunlight?

Travelers tell us that the city is built entirely of black stone: halls, hovels, temples, palaces, streets, walls, bazaars, all. Some say as well that the stone of Asshai has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it, that it seems to drink the light, dimming tapers and torches and hearth fires alike. The nights are very black in Asshai, all agree, and even the brightest days of summer are somehow grey and gloomy. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

Even at the brightest day there is no sun at Asshai, but the sky is grey and gloomy, whether from mist or thick packs of ever present clouds. It is an ideal location for people who wish to avoid the sunlight. The black stone drinks and absorbs the sun, daylight and artificial light. One must be truly motivated to settle here or establish a colony to overcome the drawback of its inhospitability to life: animals die, no ability to grow food. Planetos tends to deal with certain diseases by creating a colony. For example, Chroyane serves as a colony for those with Grey Scale from all over the world and food is delivered to them. Where Chroyane’s isolated colony serves to protect the general populace of any city from contracting Grey Scale, with Asshai it should be a haven protecting those who would suffer horribly in any other parts of the world with normal ligth levels.

Only those people who are extremely light sensitive, even from artificial light would originally see Asshai as a salvation for them. This goes beyond leukism and albinism, though such people might appreciate a few years out of the sun. An extreme form of light sensitivity is associated with Erythropoietic Protoporphyria (EPP) or Protoporphyria or other variants of chronic porphyria disorders. It is a metabolism disorder caused by the deficiency of an enzyme in the blood that forms haeme of haemoglobin. As a result a surplus of unbound protoporphyrin and iron circulates through the body, including the skin. Unbound, the first is sensitive to UV-B light (also emitted by artificial or indirect light) and exposure to light sets of a chain reaction of a burning sensation (the nerves) as if being on fire, as well as the formation of lesions and blisters similar to 2nd degree burns.

Before arriving in Asshai, people may  have developed scar tissue on any skin exposed to light, including the face. They would wear veils and masks, both to protect their faces from light as well as hide the lesions and scars.

Those who walk the streets of Asshai are masked and veiled, and have a furtive air about them. Oft as not, they walk alone, or ride in palanquins of ebony and iron, hidden behind dark curtains and born through the dark streets upon the backs of slaves. […] Most sinister of all the sorcerers of Asshai are the shadowbinders, whose lacquered masks hide their faces from the eyes of gods and men. (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond – Asshai by the Shadow)

Curious is that maester Yandel claims in the World Book that shadowbinders typically wear lacquered masks. Quaithe of Qarth wears one and is a shadowbinder. But the Red Witch Melisandre “of Asshai” is also a shadowbinder and wears no mask, only a glamor (as of yet unconfirmed in the books, but strongly implied). Why not? Well, Melisandre is described as having red eyes, which is a strong indicator that she has at the very least occular albinism. Her albinism would promote her to seek shelter from the sun, but her skin would not blister or form lesions because of light. She may hide her true age, but there is no need to protect her face from any type of light with a mask.

Finally, shadowbinding is closely tied to blood magic. One of the chronic variants of porphyria is treated by bloodlettings, in order to reduce the surplus of iron. The need for the bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms, even in Asshai, would promote the discovery and experimenting with blood magic in combination with shadow magic.

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From a Colony to a Port

Unfortunately, exactly because of the low levels of light, nothing grows at Asshai but ghost grass and for some reason no animal survives for long. Colonies like these require food deliveries. Chroyane shows that food deliveries can be erratic, however, if they solely depend on the will and humane heart of a ship’s captain or a city’s triarch.

“Hatred does not stir the stone men half so much as hunger.” Haldon Halfmaester had wrapped a yellow scarf around his mouth and nose, muffling his voice. “Nothing any sane man would want to eat grows in these fogs. Thrice each year the triarchs of Volantis send a galley upriver with provisions, but the mercy ships are oft late and sometimes bring more mouths than food.”(aDwD, Tyrion V)

If a colony has something to sell that other people may want then people happily sail to the end of the seas for it. Dragonstone, amber and gold from the mountain range of the Shadow Lands serve excellently, as does practicing of magic.

No children are born here, and thus its populace is entirely dependent on settlers, who have no interest in having a family or farm. Despite it being a large city, the populace is small.

Asshai is a large city, sprawling out for leagues on both banks of the black river Ash. Behind its enormous land walls is ground enough for Volantis, Qarth, and King’s Landing to stand side by side and still have room for Oldtown. […] Yet the population of Asshai is no greater than that of a good-sized market town. By night the streets are deserted, and only one building in ten shows a light. Even at the height of day, there are no crowds to be seen, no tradesmen shouting their wares in noisy markets, no women gossiping at a well. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)

Its populace cannot really grow, but it has managed to spark enough interest for individuals of all cultures to settle there temporarily. The safety from sunlight would be a draw for amenalistic albinos and leukists, such as Melisandre. The uncensured teaching of magic without restrictions would draw temporary settlers of people who have no light sensitivity issues themselves. So, one can see how Asshai therefore censures no magical practice and became an attractive colony for people who do not suffer from this allergy to light.

We have met quite a few characters who were trained in Asshai:

  • Mirri Maz Dur of the Lazarene who attempted to save Drogo with a blood magic ritual.
  • Melisandre who was taught shadowbinding, knows the tongue of Asshai and has read the prophecy of Azor Ahai returned there.
  • Quaithe of Qarth, a shadowbinder with lacquered mask, who warns Dany in Qarth and via glass candles (presumed) in Mereen, and who attempts to guide Dany to go to Asshai to learn the “truth”.
  • Maester Marwyn who is one of the few maesters who believes in magic and is skeptical of the anti-magic faction amognst the maesters.

Would it be so farfetched to expect Varys’s sorcerer who cut him stem and root as a child to have studied at Asshai as well? If so, then he “created” what Varys became: plucked him from his destiny with the mummers, made a eunuch of him, let him go to die or survive in the streets of Myr and form a deep hatred against magic, and ultimately the Spider.

Asshai has some type of library of old lore and prophecies. Since people cannot grow anything there and the colonists originally would have risen by people who require to avoid light or remain inside, it is not illogical that with too much time on their hands they wrote and amassed lore that came with the trade winds. If Varys’s sorcerer indeed tried to raise or empower the Others, then Asshai is the most likely place he would have learned much and more about the Long Night, aside from the Citadel of the maesters, the library of Winterfell and Castle Black. Their rolls may even contain references to the infamous ice spiders.

Some speculate that the sorcerer recognized Valyrian traits in Varys when he was with his mummer’s troupe in Myr and therefore performed the castration ritual. However, I suspect it was his paleness that would have caught the sorcerer’s attention.

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Summary and Conclusion (tltr)

In order to verify Varys’s origin it is near impossible to use his physical features. At best we can establish that he has a round face, either because of his plumpness or ethnicity. Using the logic of Sherlock Holmes in aDwD’s epilogue we have a strong indication that Varys has a very pale complexion beneath his powder. He is of average height, but his castration and life as street urchin in his youth may have hampered his growth. We do not know his eye-color, but the lack of remarks on this from POVs indicates they are not of an exceptional or remarkable color. Since he is bald, his hair could have any color.

Our stop-over at Naath taught us that Lys has a pillow house famous for its Naathi bedslaves there and that they  make the best, obedient slaves. We can observe that Varys behaves servile and obediently. On top of that he is extremely sensitive about blood. If the training of Unsullied can turn Naathi boys into men who kill puppies and newborn babies, then Varys’s life experiences can turn him into a man who is willing to murder for his goal. There are several parallels between Unsullied and Varys as well as reverse parallels, but the most noteworthy is the burning of their penis and testicles and thereby sacrifice potential descendants to a demon or god(dess) or magic that indicates this ritual empowers the target power. We even have this parallel when Dany chops up a snake and charrs the pieces on a brazier for her dragons in Qarth.

Traveling to the Grasslands we come across three remarkable spider references:

  • Sarnori riders wore spider-silk.
  • The rivaling kingdom of the Qaathi was pushed southward out of the Grasslands by the Sarnori into the region that became a Red Waste, with only Qarth still standing and even flurishing at the Jade Sea. One of the ruined Qaathi cities was nicknamed “City of Spiders” by the Dothraki.
  • Somewhere in the Grasslands there once was a city-state, now known as Lyber, where a Spider Goddess was revered, but also a Serpent God. The accolytes of these gods held an internal bloody feud that would lie at the basis of the collapse of this lost city. Inspiration for this Lyber’s history is likely real world Meso-American Teotihuacan where political followers of the Great Goddess (who is very much a Spider Woman) and the Feathred Serpent were military rivals at some point. The collapse of that city-state is believed to have been internal revolution from the common class against the elite.

Having three spider references that all relate to origin in an area where several people claim to have invented civilisation is what I consider a jackpot (you need more for a bingo). Spider-silk leads us to the Grasslands where a Spider Goddess was revered by unknown people. The City of Spiders is the strongest geographical indication that part of Varys’s ancestry is Qaathi, or Milk Men, as tall as Sarnori, but pale as milk.

Since George features several leukistic animals in the books, for which we can easily find a link to Varys, I argue that George may actually have made a people in Essos leukists like True White Horses, who carry a Dominant White Gene. Leukism does not affect the color of eyes as albinism would. Circumstantial evidence points to Qaathi and their surviving Qartheen being such leukists. While initially they made cities to hide from the sun, Qarth is a wonder of architecture where people can actually go about half naked in the city without ever fearing the sun, as all important meeting places, markets and streets would be in the shadow most of the day. As a Dominant White gene this form of leukism would mask any other ethnicity mixed into a Qartheen’s ancestry that could otherwise be determined by skin tone. Hence the elite of royal descendance try to distance themselves from the other Qartheen by their title as “Pureborn”, as there would be no other way to discern ethnic purity.

Varys has quite striking parallels with Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Any difference in appearance (nose, weight, height) is due to Varys’s castration. Like Qartheen he prides himself on being polite and civilised, be at the brink of mummer’s tears over the poor children, but is in fact far more ruthless. He murders Kevan much like  an apologetic Sorrowful Man. Not so incidentally, Pentos is Greek for “man of sorrows” or “sorrowful man” and is the city where Varys transformed himself from the prince of thieves hiding from slavers into the spymaster Spider.

Two spider references indicate that Varys himself is a leukist: the piebald Spotted Spiders of Sothyros and the infamous Ice Spiders of the Others. If this interpretation of leukism hints are correct, then the Ice Spiders serve as a metaphor how Varys’s ritual castration and burning of his private parts may have helped the Others. The leukism would be the main reason that Varys wears powder – it primary serves as a sunblock and secondary makes people assume his palenessis is due to powder.

So, I propose that Varys has Qaathi ancestry, either because his grandfather or father was a Qartheen merchant who bedded a woman at Lys, or because they were taken into slavery by the Dothraki. Just like Xaro he is not “pureborn” but instead an ethnic mixture. We cannot exclude him from having Naathi ancestry, because of the leukism.

Beyond this I clarified albinism and how Valyrian traits, the Daynes, Hightowers appear to be independent fantasy mutation types of these. Genetic drift with island populations can explain how such a recessive genotype can become a regular reappearing phenotype. In discussions many fail to account for the various hypomelanistic forms of albinism nor recognize that the argument about acuity is pointless when even an amenalistic albino like Bloodraven can shoot arrows with the sight of a hawk.

In the sidenotes I pointed out that the brindled half-men of Sothoryos are a hint for Tyrion being a chimera twin and mentioned that the many appearances of white dwarf elephants in aDwD tie Tyrion to recessive albinism.

I also propose Asshai was sought out as a refuge colony by people suffering from porphyria (allergy to light). Bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms in that area would have led to the discovery of using blood magic to shadowbind, thereby attracting non sufferers to experiment and learn there. This real world disease would explain the wearing of veils and masks even in an area where the sky is most ofthe time overcast. While Varys certainly could not have an Asshai origin through ancestry, it is not unlikely that the sorcerer who maimed him was trained there in blood magic. His research there about the long night might have prompted the sorcerer to find a perfect victim to empower the Others, thereby setting Varys on his Spider path.

The red thread between Unsullied, Varys, Qarth and Lys is the concept of purity. Kraznys mo Nakloz refers to full castrates as the purest creatures. In Qarth the descendants from Qartheen kings call themselves Pureborn. And in Lys the noble families are invested in pure Valyrian blood. Varys would not be regarded as pure blooded by Lyseni or Qartheen Pureborn. He however evolved into a “puremade” creature, the Spider, who may lurk in the dark, and disguise himself behind layers of ambiguity, but will neither rape nor plunder.

The dominant white leukism could potentially explain Varys’s background. Let’s say that hypothetically a Naathi bedslave slept with a Qartheen merchant. Lyseni aim to breed slaves, especially bedslaves, for beauty. The Lyseni owner might have expected a beautiful ethnic mixture, but to his or her horror instead the child was as pale as his Qartheen father, proving its dominancy over dusky skin. Such a dominant gene could not be tolerated to breed on Lys and thus was sold to a traveling mummer’s troupe. The sorcerer selected Varys for the same reasons – pale as milk skin and nobody would care if the boy would lose his ability to breed. This is of course a pure speculative scenario. We could add even more mixtures in Varys’s ancestry, including Valyrian, but ultimately the Qartheen and leukistic link is the likeliest reason he was sold to serve as a slave away from Lys and why the sorcerer noticed him over any other boy (at least this far west in Essos).

Despite the fact that the link to Qarth is so strong for Varys, I do think that George intends him to be a mixture of many and more people and keep his origin hidden behind layers of ambiguity and disguises, including genetic disguises such as leukism. Ultimately itis this that makes Varys someone “of the people”. It is why the Spider is so strongly linked to the the Grasslands, which is portrayed as a corridor and hotbed of several people that built and destroyed civilisations, era after era.

Qarth serves Varys’s characterization, behavior and self-proclaimed motivation extremely well. At the very least it links Varys to the hypocrisy of those who claim to be civilised. Qartheen regard themselves to be the inventors of civilisation and the most civlised, and yet they declare war on Dany  and help the Yunkai, because she messes up their business interests in slave trade. Qarth has slaves do the menial work. They may treat them kindly. They may not capture slaves like the Dothraki, nor do they train them like the Yunkai, but they buy them and use them. They are the equivalent of the consumers in our western civilised world who pride themselves that all our children have the protected right to get education and seek their own career, but just as well buy clothes from Asian countries where children make them in bondage. Our governments back trade agreements with such countries, even if a dictator or non-democratic government oppresses their people. And just like the Qartheen and Varys many people of our world actually believe we are more civilised. Like Varys they may wash their hands and sound close to tears when they hear or see atrocities somewhere else in the world, but throw up their hands in despair, “What can I alone do against it? I’m just one person,” but just as well would deny refugees from war devestated or extremely poor regions access to safety. Instead every so and so years we vote, to help someone into power we hope or believe might set everything to right, while of course equally we vote for that candidate to serve our own self-interest.

The civilised world funds and backs wars, dictators, oppression and abuse of the common folk. Heck they participate in it. Let us not forget that at the time that George started to publish his series the US had gone to their first war in Iraq, under Bush senior. Europe did nothing while former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, with genocide being committed under the watchful eye of UN blue helmets. While one people in Ruanda macheted millions of the other, the overall international response in the West was ‘pffff, let them kill each other,’ nor did anybody even care about warlord atrocities in Congo. And instead of getting better, it has grown worse the past two decades, and all the while global climate change should be our main social priority.

With Varys, and with Qarth, George reminds us of civilisation’s hypocrisy – pretty empathic words and heartfelt tears, that likely are not even that insincere, but at best followed up with inaction, at worst self-interested war mongering, albeit all very politely. And just once in a while the Western civilisation and Varys save a child’s life.

For more analysis on Qarth and Varys as parallels to the Others via ice spider connections, check out the Plutonian Others.

Lord Varys – Introduction

Lord Varys is an enormously intricate, mostly mysterious character. Readers have divided opinions on his goals, character and origin. It is impossible to encapsulate Varys in one essay. While there are certain good resources out there, most of these merely scratch the surface, and miss out on the load of clues that George has given us, some that are quite surprising and take us across all of Essos. Much of what I will present is new, but certain basic ideas have been floating around. They simply were never tied to Varys before or gotten into as thoroughly. Since some of the investigation and results are quite stunning, I tackle Varys thoroughly, and therefore decided to break it all down in various essays. At least two of those deal with Varys’s origin. Another essay will concentrate on his trickster characteristics to examine his motives and plans. The final one will focus on the role implications and shifts within the ragtag of Exiles.

The story as spelled out to us

Pycelle claims that Varys is from Lys. Illyrio claims he was from Myr but that Varys had to flee Myr because of a rival thief. Tyrion seems to think that Varys originates from Myr as well. Illyrio at least confirms that Varys was a foreigner to Pentos, since the other street boys in Pentos beat and bullied Varys for being a eunuch and having a different accent.

[Pycelle] cleared his throat and spat a thick glob of phlegm onto the rushes. Above them, a raven cawed loudly in the rookery. “The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know?” (aGoT, Eddard V)

“Varys came from Myr.”
So he did. I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat. […] In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him. In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten. (aDwD, Tyrion II)

Both sources also link him to slavery. Pycelle claims he was born as a slave, while Illyrio claims that Varys had managed to ellude slavers who were in pursuit of him. Meanwhile Varys claims to have been part of a Mummer’s Troupe, until a sorcerer bought Varys from his master in Myr. The sorcerer had no further interest in Varys beyond castrating him and burning his manhood, and thus let him go, and Varys survived in Myr until he fled to Pentos.

“I was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly. Our master owned a fat little cog and we sailed up and down the narrow sea performing in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King’s Landing. One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. […] The mummers had sailed by the time he was done with me. Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die. To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, […] (aCoK, Tyrion X)

How Pycelle ever came to learn that Varys was a slave from Lys is not known, and Pycelle is not alive anymore to reveal this. Still, if we combine the three claims, we can infer that Varys likely was born into slavery in Lys, most probably to a bedslave either in a household of Lys or in a pillow house. A few years later Varys was sold to the traveling folly until his owner sold him to the sorcerer in Myr, and there he was castrated. Still a boy, he fled Myr some years later and soon met and formed a partnership with Illyrio. Years and years go by, and following Maester Yandel’s chronology of Aerys II, it appears that Varys was hired by Aerys II to become his spymaster between 278-280 AC, after Steffon Baratheon’s death.

This is roughly what we can put together for Varys. Everything else is and will remain speculation if and when George either confirms or disproves them in the last two books. But that does not mean some of these theories are without some foundation, or that there cannot be interesting gems found along a spider trail.

The Spider

Catelyn ignored his familiarity. There were more important questions. “So it was the King’s Spider who found me.” […] The title [Lord Varys] was but a courtesy due him as a council member; Varys was lord of nothing but the spiderweb, the master of none but his whisperers. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

The Spider is Varys’s nickname. Catelyn makes the obvious association to a spiderweb, and that in relation to spying and whispers. He has a network of spies. So the spying spider is a role association. It is spelled out for us, and the reason why we barely ever look beyond this meaning for the spy-der.

The second association is more subtextual. Spiders are predators who build sticky traps in which to catch their food, and have fangs that inject venom. So, when we think of spiders, we think of poisonous and fanged creepy crawlies on eight legs with eight eyes, scuttling around in the shadows and dank places giving us the heebie jeebus. George uses this cultural association too in the the books, through the prejudiced opinion and physical responses other characters have when interacting with Varys. For example when Pycelle warns Ned not to trust spiders, he thinks to himself how Varys makes his skin crawl.

“[…] Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.”
That was scarcely anything Ned needed to be told; there was something about Varys that made his flesh crawl. (aGoT, Eddard V)

Certain people (with arachnaphobia) cannot even bear to look at a picture of a spider.

pamhobeteus_purple_birds_spider
A purple tarantula (Pamhoboteus), in Dutch a “bird-spider”

George uses the spider shudder prejudice against Varys to make the first-time reader believe that Littlefinger is more trustworthy in aGoT. The distrust is so strong that even after Littlefinger is shown to be behind the murder of Jon Arryn and a lot of murderous and callous plots, betrays Ned Stark, grooms Sansa for his sexual predation, few readers are ever convinced that Varys does not have equally devious plans in mind. So, when Varys confirms that he intends to plummet the realm into chaos to help Aegon’s conquest, shows he is willing to murder good men for it, we chuckle and think, “I knew all along that we cannot trust Varys as far as we can throw him.” BryndenBFish’s excellent essay on the Mummer’s Folly comes to such a conclusion, making him a puppet master with Aegon just being one of his puppets (albeit his most important puppet).

arachne_gustavedore
Arachne in Purgatory, by Gustave Doré

Still, we ought to take a deeper look into spiders beyond the spelled out spy-derweb, beyond how they make our skin crawl. The next step is to look for stories and myths about spiders as they are part of the collective. The first mythical spider to come to mind is Arachne (‘Spider’), an extremely skilled weaver who denied she had learned her skill from Athena (the patron goddess of weaving). Both Athena and Arachne enter into a contest. Sure that she will win, Athena decrees the loser would have to give up weaving ever after. Arachne proves herself to be better skilled, but events lead to Arachne’s hanging, and Athena turns her into a spider so that she can weave forever more. Yes, the Arachne myth is ancient Greek myth1, but still very much part of the pop-art collective, as Gustave Doré’s illustration (at the top) of her in Dante’s Inferno is an often used picture for albums by (metal) bands.

You might argue, “But Arachne is a woman! Not a man. While Varys is a man.” Indeed, Varys is not a woman, but he is effeminate and a eunuch. Cersei points out to Tyrion how Varys is not guided by his cock like men such as Tyrion tend to, and Pycelle affirms that poison is a “woman’s weapon”, but als that of eunuchs.

“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.”
Pycelle stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It is said. Women, cravens … and eunuchs.” (aGoT, Eddard V)

“Do you know why Varys is so dangerous?”
“Are we playing at riddles now? No.”
“He doesn’t have a cock.”
Neither do you.” And don’t you just hate that, Cersei?
Perhaps I’m dangerous too. You, on the other hand, are as big a fool as every other man. That worm between your legs does half your thinking.” (aCoK, Tyrion XII)

So, if the characters in the books tell each other to equate Varys with a woman, then so should we, and Arachne can be an applicable myth.

The myth is of interest as an origin  and a trickster myth. Myths can be classified by what they aim to explain: order of the world or life, creation, fickleness of the gods, national or moral superiority to other people or civilisations, morality, but also a location’s name or origin of an animal’s known attributes or skills.

Arachne’s myth explains where spiders come from. And of course, Varys’s origin is a hot subject of speculation. Not only does the myth relate the origin of spiders, but Ovid explicitly tells us Arachne’s lineage in his Metamorphosis.

Arachne’s distinction lay not in her birth or the place that she hailed from but solely her art. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, practised the trade of dyeing wool in Phocaéan purple; her mother was dead but, like her husband, had come from the people. (Metamormphosis, book 6, Arachne, 6-9, Ovid, translation by David Raeburn)

When we then check the first ever description of Varys it becomes near tantalizing.

He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)

Certainly the words weaving, thread and silk connect to spiders. The threads that spiders produce with their glands are silk. A weaving contest between goddess and human is the plot’s subject of the Arachne myth.

Purple in particular is tied to Arachne’s lineage: the color that first comes to mind when we think of Varys. More, while Athena and Arachne weave in shades with such a subtle variation of hues like the eye cannot tell where one color of the rainbow fades into another, both gold and purple are the colors singled out in Ovid’s telling of the contest.

Webs were woven in threads of Tyrian purple dye and of lighter, more delicate, perceptibly merging shades. […] Their patterns were also shot with flexible threads of gold, as they each spun out an old tale in the west of their separate looms. (Metamormphosis, book 6, Arachne, 61-70, Ovid, translation by David Raeburn)

I cannot but wonder whether Varys’s purple silks hint to his origin, his ancestry. But which “thread” to follow? The silk route or the color purple? And if the latter, do we look for a source of the dye, or another association in-world to purple? Since we are considering a spider, perhaps it is best to explore the entire webbing, for his origin may very well be a mixture of several corners of Planetos.

Varys Web

  • The Spider’s origin:
    • Part I – The Silk Route: Using the origin locations of silk, I discuss Varys’s physical features, using parallels and information we have been given about Naath, Qarth and the Grasslands. It highlights the parallel between Varys and the Unsullied, proposes that Qartheen are a leukist race, and how this impacts Varys’s story.
    • Part II – The Color Purple: This essay goes into purple flowers, poison, perfume, eye color, dyes and purple dragonblood. We travel to Lys, Myr, Tyrosh and Braavos.
  • The Spider Trickster: Arachne but several other mythical or legendary spiders are tricksters. This essay delves into various types of tricksters and how Varys matches a specific type.
  • The Spider’s Ragtag Role: incorporates what we learned of the above and how it relates to Aegon.

Notes

  1. Actually it is a classical Roman myth set in Greece. The oldest source for the Arachne myth is Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Shadrich, Morgarth and Byron

Three Hedge Knights:  Howland Reed, Elder Brother, and Sandor Clegane

Their Gallantry is Yet to be Demonstrated: The Winds of Winter prediction that a glamor spell disguises the Beast as a Beauty

Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”
“Knights they are,” said Petyr. “Their gallantry has yet to be demonstrated, but we may hope.Allow me to present Ser Byron, Ser Morgarth, and Ser Shadrich. Sers, the Lady Alayne, my natural and very clever daughter . . . with whom I must needs confer, if you will be so good as to excuse us.”
The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.(Alayne II, AFFC)

“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong.” (Sansa III, AGOT)

“He was going to take me back to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight[…]” (Sansa IV, AGOT on her misremembering her father’s words.)

First, the acknowledgements.  This essay is possible because of the original post here by the invaluable contributor on the westeros.org forums, bemused in August of 2016.  Bemused presented the case for the identities of Ser Shadrich and Ser Morgarth being Howland Reed and Elder Brother respectively.  I was inclined to agree and even was able to find evidence to expand upon that idea.  The only point of disagreement was on the identity of Ser Byron “the Beautiful,” who I am proposing is Sandor Clegane under a glamor.  This essay sets out to show how this is even possible, how these three men work together in the plot, that this is what GRRM actually intends to happen, and to lay out the textual evidence and clues as clearly as possible.  Other forum contributors who must be thanked for their astute reading and dogged assistance in building this theory are sweetsunray and Ashes of Westeros.

By Blue-Eyed Wolf

Note:  To avoid bogging down an already long essay, I will provide links to smaller, less important quotes if needed for textual support.

Index

  1. Part I:  The Importance of Reading the Three as One
  2. Part II:  Shadrich’s Intentions
  3. Part III:  The Case for Howland Reed
  4. Part IV:  The Quiet Isle, Elder Brother, and Ser Morgarth
  5. Part V:  Sandor Clegane and Ser Byron:  The Beast Enchanted into a Beauty
  6. Part VI:  Brienne’s Symbolic Journey Down the Acorn and Ivy Path
  7. Part VII:  Tying Everything Together in Sansa’s POV

PART I: The Importance of Reading the Three as One

Before exploring the individual identities of our hedge knights, we should first look at how GRRM intends for us to view them:  as a team.  Even though it is Shadrich who we will be introduced to first in Brienne’s AFFC POV, the next two times we see him will be in the company of Morgarth and Byron in Alayne II, AFFC and in Alayne, TWOW sample chapter.  It’s written as if we’re supposed to both see them and unsee them as Sansa’s attention is drawn elsewhere.  Because the author places the men together in consecutive order we should be considering not just their individual identities, but also considering how they will fit together logically and thematically in the story.  They should harmonize well together with each contributing something important for the task at hand.

This makes the name Shadrich all the more a significant choice if we look to the similarities with the biblical Shadrach and his companions Meshach and Abednego from the Book of Daniel.  Just as a brief paraphrase of the story, those are the Babylonian names they’ve taken as appointed officials in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.  Their real Hebrew names are Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria.  The king builds a golden statue and commands that all of his officials must bow down before it on pain of execution in a fiery furnace.  Of course the three being Hebrew and godly men refuse to do so.  When they are set to burn in the furnace, they are protected by God for their faithfulness (as depicted by a mysterious fourth man in there with them referred to as appearing like “the son of God”).  They walk about the flames unharmed and eventually escape.  So in this story we have themes of:  three “godly” men under assumed names, a king that appoints them to positions in his court, the king will be defied, a fourth “man” who will join them, and an unexpected escape by supernatural means.  These themes will become much more clearly fitting as we explore the clues in Brienne and Sansa’s AFFC arcs.

There are a few key points we should keep in mind for the hedge knight team even if they are exactly what they appear to be and only out to kidnap Sansa for a ransom:

  • For any plan, rescue or kidnapping, to work Littlefinger must believe they are exactly the hired swords they appear to be for him to be completely at ease and to allow them around “his daughter.”
  • Littlefinger must believe that there’s no way the hedge knights could know who Alayne really is.
  • Logically, there must be at least one member of the team that can positively ID Sansa through a disguise or physical changes brought on by time and puberty.  Even if they are kidnapping her, there’s no reward for bringing the wrong girl back to King’s Landing.

We know by the fact that they were hired, came back with Littlefinger from Gulltown, spent hours in his solar drinking and talking, have been personally introduced to Alayne, and they have by TWOW sample chapter spent months at the Gates of the Moon without any cause for suspicion means all of the above points are true.

If the hedge knights are in fact under false identities, Littlefinger cannot in any way be previously familiar with any one of them or he would be immediately suspicious of their presence and intentions.  He cannot be able to identify them as anyone other than the identities they have presented.

Shadrich succeeded in finding Sansa where all others had failed.  This means he found the right information that lead him to Sansa.  How he got that information is critically important question to answer.

back to the index

PART II:  Shadrich’s Intentions

In this part we’ll be looking at the evidence in favor of Ser Shadrich being an ally and friend to Sansa, no matter if he is Howland Reed, someone else entirely, or simply the Mad Mouse.  These clues will also directly connect him to associations with Sandor Clegane, an obvious ally to both Stark girls.  But first and as equally important, we need to examine the reasons for Brienne being an unreliable narrator when it comes to analyzing Shadrich through her POV.

Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. “Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her?”
For love, why else?”
She furrowed her brow. “Love?”
“Aye, love of gold. Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.” (Brienne I, AFFC)

This conversation Brienne has upon meeting Ser Shadrich is often cited as damning proof of him being simply a bounty hunter if we take it at face value.  There’s subtle details here that indicate his motivations are not actually greedy, but helpful even to Brienne herself.  Shadrich is telling her, actually warning her, that Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer are liars and frauds.  This is something Shadrich assesses within moments of meeting them, which should be a confirmation of most readers’ first impressions of the two.

As we shall see from the examples presented, Brienne will show a persistent pattern * in AFFC of reading people wrong; therefore, she is an unreliable narrator in assessing Ser Shadrich and we should not fall into the trap of taking a POV character’s word as accurate without supporting evidence.  Here’s a rundown of Brienne’s inability to read others accurately:

  • She fails to be suspicious of the grandiose and dubious claims of Creighton Longbough and his partner, Illifer the Penniless.  After being with them a short time she refers to them as “decent men,” but their knightly status is likely fake as Brienne admits herself she’s never heard of them or the knights they claim to have slain at the Blackwater.  Nor are their sigils recognizable to her.  Yet, it never occurs to her to press them with more pointed questions or to even be particularly wary.  With so many dead soldiers from the war, it isn’t difficult to find bits of armor to pass oneself off as a hedge knight.  They are clearly using her as she pays their way at the inn at the old stone bridge.  This is after the innkeeper makes plain that Creighton is a good-for-nothing freeloader.  While they don’t appear to be as terrible as most outlaws, they do seem to be looking for the next big score.  It would therefore be highly likely they would betray Brienne to get their hands on Sansa.  That much should be obvious to the reader as much as it is to Shadrich.  Even much later on her journey she will still think back that “perhaps she had made a mistake in abandoning Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer. They had seemed like honest men.”  What makes them sohonest to her if she even admits she can’t verify their story?  It’s most likely because she sees them as simply “old,” “vain,” and ridiculous, therefore they are harmless.  So harmless then translates to seemingly decent and honest for her.
  • She tersely notes but immediately forgets the boy on the piebald horse (who turns out to be Podrick Payne) that is mentioned three times across Brienne I & II.  It takes a fourth brush with him before it finally dawns on her she’s seen him before and should take an interest.
  • She constantly thinks of Nimble Dick Crabb as a murderous type, but he actually turns out to be just a starving petty conman who jumped at the opportunity for a little coin; however, unlike Creighton, he is described as “scrawny and ill-fed.” Nimble Dick is telling her the truth as he knew it about “fooling a fool,” who will turn out to be Shagwell of the Brave Companions, not Dontos Hollard.  He only tells her about seeing two girls with the fool because Brienne gave him leading questions with promise of more coin.  But what else does he do that warrants so much mistrust from her?  Nothing.  The worst thing he does is rattle Podrick with colorful stories by the campfire of “squishers” and his ancestor, Ser Clarence Crabb.  Brienne will realize after poor Dick’s gruesome death at the hands of Shagwell that she should have trusted him.
  • Although she has reason to be doubtful of Ser Hyle Hunt at first for a cruel game at Highgarden, his actions thereafter are those of a helper and someone who wants to improve Brienne’s opinion of him.  He carries the stinking, rotting heads of the Bloody Mummers all the way back to Maidenpool, which Brienne believe he plans to claim the credit for himself.  Instead he gives Brienne and Podrick full credit for slaying the outlaws, publicly testifying to her bravery and skill.  He stands up to Randall Tarly and leaves his service to join her, and seems genuinely attracted to her despite the teasing.  The reward for finding Sansa Stark he speaks of is then likely not gold, but earning Brienne’s favor and her accepting him as a suitor.  He also makes the auspicious suggestion to seek out Septon Meribald.  She continues to think the worst of Hyle throughout, but her opinion begins to change after he helps her defend the orphans against Rorge and Biter.  She even defends him before they are about to be hanged by Lady Stoneheart and the BwB.

To sum up, we have good reason to doubt Brienne’s first impressions of Ser Shadrich, because she nearly gets everyone she encounters in AFFC wrong.

* Sweetsunray has noticed Brienne shows a pattern in her internal monologue of being prone to thinking in overly literal terms.  She fails to pick up on sarcasm.  She has no ear for tone of voice, which is key to understanding others.  Unlike most POV characters that do assess the eye movements, facial expressions and body language of others,  Brienne focuses on mechanical movement and misinterprets subtle facial expressions if she notices them at all.  If she does pick up on social cues, they have to be blatantly obvious.  This is not to say she is unintellegent, but there seems to be an impairment there which has an impact on her ability to accurately judge others.  She does have a general mistrust (of men especially) based on her life experience, but that is not the same as having good sense of what makes an individual trustworthy or untrustworthy.  Sweetsunray goes into more details and examples of these patterns here and has proposed Brienne may have a Pragmatic Language Impairment.

Brienne’s AFFC arc is almost a parody of the knight errant story.  The white knight is supposed to be the perfect hero to rescue the maiden.  George would seem to have it otherwise.  As one of the most honest, noble, pure-intentioned characters in the books as well as an excellent warrior, her skillset could not be worse for going up against the likes of Petyr Baelish.  Consider how deftly he outmaneuvered the Lords Declarant who thought to oust him with direct confrontation, noble intentions, and show of military force.  Even when she gives her best attempt at playing the deception game, she is painfully transparent.  She tries to claim that she isn’t looking for Sansa, but an unnamed sister that looks exactly like Sansa.  Shadrich calls her bluff in seconds and this is exactly the reason that he can’t ally himself with her.  She places trust in the wrong people and she can’t lie.  And again, Shadrich warns her that Creighton is not what he seems.  The following quotes are from Brienne I, AFFC.

“I am searching for my sister.” She dared not mention Sansa’s name, with her accused of regicide. “She is a highborn maid and beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair.  Perhaps you saw her with a portly knight of forty years, or a drunken fool.”
“The roads are full of drunken fools and despoiled maidens. As to portly knights, it is hard for any honest man to keep his belly round when so many lack for food . . . though your Ser Creighton has not hungered, it would seem.”

Ser Shadrich laughed. “Oh, I doubt that, but it may be that you and I share a quest. A little lost sister, is it? With blue eyes and auburn hair?” He laughed again. “You are not the only hunter in the woods. I seek for Sansa Stark as well.”

Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. “Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her?

Brienne may keep her face straight and doesn’t mention Sansa by name, but she gave herself away easily.  She mentions the description of Dontos:  portly knight or drunken fool.  Also, if she doesn’t know who Sansa Stark is, why does she care what Shadrich’s intentions are toward her?

“I know no Sansa Stark,” she insisted. “I am searching for my sister, a highborn girl . . .”

“. . . with blue eyes and auburn hair, aye. Pray, who is this knight who travels with your sister? Or did you name him fool?” Ser Shadrich did not wait for her answer, which was good, since she had none. “A certain fool vanished from King’s Landing the night King Joffrey died, a stout fellow with a nose full of broken veins, one Ser Dontos the Red, formerly of Duskendale. I pray your sister and her drunken fool are not mistaken for the Stark girl and Ser Dontos. That could be most unfortunate.” He put his heels into his courser and trotted on ahead.

Indeed, she isn’t fooling anyone.  Now that we’ve looked at Brienne’s limitations as an unreliable narrator and complete ineptitude for subterfuge and detective work, we need to look at Shadrich himself for clues to his intentions.  Let’s go back to this quote:

“Aye, love of gold.  Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.”

Shadrich also claimed that he was on the “losing side” at the Blackwater and that his “ransom ruined [him]” as his reasons for hunting Sansa Stark.  It doesn’t quite make sense that a man as shrewd as Shadrich would be so forthcoming with his personal “ruined” situation and offering to split the reward with Brienne, someone he just met only minutes ago.  Why would he even think at that point that this stranger would a merit a split of the reward?  He also gives no details of who captured him or to whom he paid his ransom to.  It’s a seemingly plausible, but unverifiable backstory.  This exchange seems to be more about Shadrich sussing out Brienne’s intentions rather than the other way around.  Creighton and Illifer he had figured out within seconds.  His curiosity must have been piqued when he meets a lady warrior point-blank asking anyone she meets if they have seen her nameless sister who is obviously Sansa Stark.  Again, he has to warn Brienne she isn’t “the only hunter in the woods.”

Keep in mind it had not even occurred to Brienne at this point that other people would start their search for Sansa and Dontos at Duskendale, where the Hollards had previously served House Darklyn.  Shadrich had to spell this out for her.  This will later be confirmed by the maester in Brienne II when she reaches the castle that several have already been there, including the gold cloaks.  Duskendale was exactly where Creighton and Illifer said they were headed.  Even they had sense enough not to discuss openly their purpose there, yet their destination should have been enough to make someone think they might be going there for the same reason as Brienne.  It’s Shadrich she calls “unsavory,” but what has Shadrich actually done that was so unsavory?  Has he been threatening?  No.  He called her a “wench.”  Jaime’s done that.  He mentions the bounty, but he repeatedly hints to her that her companions are frauds (true) and that the way she is going about her search is hopelessly inept (also true).  It seems like the worst the Shadrich actually does is make her feel foolish.

This initial exchange with Shadrich reveals that plainly.  He then was most likely mentioning the Blackwater, his financial ruin, and the split of the reward to give himself a plausible backstory and motivation.  Also he’s likely trying to bait Brienne with promise of the reward to provoke a response.  Although he can see she is not tempted by gold and would genuinely help Sansa, she would be a liability with her other limitations.  This becomes even more apparent later when we find out Shadrich manages to enter Littlefinger’s service and spend months at the Gates of the Moon without raising any suspicion.  It’s also an early hint that Shadrich is looking for the right allies for a special ops team.  As great a warrior and as good a person as she is, she is unfit for a covert mission to find and retrieve the most wanted girl in Westeros.  This scene is a perfect example of the recurring theme of ravens versus Baelor’s doves that GRRM often gives us.  One seems ideal like a white knight on a noble quest, but it are really the clever and bold that are better equipped for the task… like a Mad Mouse and his crew.

While “love of gold” and “plump bag of gold” may point to avarice, this is also isn’t the first time gold is associated with a Stark girl and it relates directly to the helper, Sandor Clegane.  At the tourney of the Hand, the day after Sandor reveals the secret of his scars to Sansa and she responds compassionately, Sandor saves Ser Loras from being killed by Gregor Clegane.  In turn, he is declared the winner (which Sansa “knew the Hound would win”) and receives the purse of forty-thousand gold dragons.  He also loses that purse when it is taken by the Brotherhood Without Banners.  In return Sandor steals Arya from them with the plan of returning her to her family.  (Greenbeard who also has the same idea but strictly for a ransom also refers to Arya as a “golden squirrel”).  Sandor is firmly established as a character that cares little for gold any more than he does titles, so this bag of dragons is important to him for what it represents and the reasons he won it, not just its monetary value or practical use.

The gold, Stark girls, and Sandor associations continue again in TWOW with this exchange between Shadrich and Alayne Stone.  There’s more to their scene than this, but let’s focus on these connections first.

Alayne turned abruptly from the yard…and bumped into a short, sharp-faced man with a brush of orange hair who had come up behind her. His hand shot out and caught her arm before she could fall. “My lady. My pardons if I took you unawares.”

“A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for, unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons. And that’s not likely, is it?”

The only other person who catches Sansa by the arm to stop her from falling is Sandor (especially after she bumps into him).  It happens twice in memorable scenes, once on the serpentine steps and once the night before the Blackwater.  In the above scene Shadrich appears suddenly behind her after Sansa engages in an increasingly tense conversation with Lyn Cobray, a violent, quick-tempered man.  Shadrich seeing the danger approaches and  positions himself to “accidently” bump into Sansa, drawing her away from Ser Lyn.  As if that wasn’t a clue enough that we should be thinking in terms of linking Shadrich to Sandor, then we also have Shadrich equating Sansa to a “bag of dragons,” which we’ve already established makes a literal and literary connection between Sandor and both Stark girls.  Also another tiny detail, Ser Shadrich is described as having a very similar scar beneath his ear, the same as Hyle Hunt.

Using wordplay to simultaneously express honestly and to obscure one’s true thoughts is a hallmark of Sandor’s way of speaking, often termed “Sandorspeak” in the fandom.  A few good examples of this are here where he is definitely not referring to Joffrey, but himself.  Also here where he is deliberately obscuring if he’s referring to a man needing a woman or both women and men needing wine.  Shadrich also does this in his quip to Ser Creighton after listening to him boast in the inn.  In this sense, if we look at Shadrich claiming to be searching for Sansa “for love, why else?” it actually can be meant honestly before he pivots to “love of gold” in order to test Brienne’s reaction.  From the pattern and Shadrich referring to Sansa as a “bag of dragons,” “love of gold” can just as easily mean “love of Ned’s daughter” too.

We have one last feature of Ser Shadrich that he has in common with other known helpers and Stark allies in the ASOIAF series:  he rides specifically a chestnut courser.  After saving Sansa from the mob in the bread riot of King’s Landing, Sandor mounts upon Sansa’s chestnut courser to carry her back to safety.  Brynden “the Blackfish” Tully also rides one.  So does Brienne’s helper Hyle Hunt, who rides with her on her quest to find Sansa.  It’s established many times over that GRRM uses horses to reflect traits of the rider, named or unnamed. If we can prove three of these four are helpers and these are the only times a chestnut courser is ridden, it stands to reason that Ser Shadrich will also fit this pattern.

Other possible hints at his solidarity with Sansa Stark are in his “shock of orange hair” and in the sigil upon his shield.

[…]Ser Shadrich was a wiry, fox-faced man with a sharp nose and a shock of orange hair[…]”Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen. Some call me the Mad Mouse.” He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. “The brown is for the lands I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve crossed. The mouse is me.” (Brienne I, AFFC)

While it is possible that someone could naturally have a very bright shade of copper that would appear orange, this may actually be from hair dye.  Hair dye is something that is well known in the series.  Tyroshi men use it for flamboyant decoration, but in Westeros it is most commonly used by characters for a disguise in numerous examples.  Sansa’s hair is dyed “chestnut” brown (possibly drawing a connection to the chestnut coursers) to hide her true identity.  Sansa will note Shadrich’s face is aged, so it’s very likely his natural hair color may have at least some gray.  When a person with a significant amount of gray tries to dye their hair a pure red or copper shade, the white hairs appear much brighter and less natural.  Reds can appear even pinkish and copper could appear a shocking orange.  While the orange may seem overly conspicuous a choice, it may be sign of solidarity with Sansa’s natural hair that is lighter and more coppery than her mother’s.

The “orange” connection to helpfulness will turn up again repeatedly in Brienne’s arc in the form of Septon Meribald’s “rare and costly” oranges.  Brienne also purchases an orange for Podrick, a rare treat gifted as an act of kindness toward him.  These are not the blood oranges of Littlefinger or Prince Doran.  The septon gives them away out of kindness and charity to the common people of the Riverlands.  Their monetary value means nothing to him.  This is purely a loving act.  This connection to Shadrich’s hair may reinforce the idea he is indeed there “for love” and Sansa’s ransom actually means nothing to him.  So Shadrich as a shocking orange may mean help is coming in the most unlikely and surprising of ways.

Whether naturally or unnaturally orange, Shadrich’s hair color seems symbolically significant when we look at the shield connection. The “white mouse with the fierce red eyes” upon Shadrich’s shield is a blatant weirwood face and color reference. This demands our attention that he has some affiliation with Northern First Men culture, which is very strange if Shadrich is passing himself off a knight, even a hedge knight.  Knighthood is mainly part of Southron and Andal culture and a rarity in the North.  Such an unusual sigil in this context should provoke many questions of Shadrich’s backstory.  Tying that to his hair color, there is also a connection to being “kissed by fire and weirwood leaves have been compared to flames like this example here.  GRRM makes a connection to specifically copper hair and a burning tree here with Addam Marbrand.  Addam is one of the three people in the books described as having specifically “copper” hair along with Sansa (who has a weirwood connection by heritage and all the Stark children being wargs as confirmed by GRRM) and Melisandre (who is definitely connected to burning weirwoods as well as statues of the Seven and human sacrifice).  Fire in real world mythology and in the books appears many times over as divine knowledge of the gods or “fire of the gods.”  Biblical Shadrach, as already mentioned, has a connection to fire by being directly protected by God in the fiery furnace.

There will be closer examination of Shadrich’s sigil when we look at Howland Reed, but for now we can safely say there’s enough evidence here to start considering Shadrich an ally to Sansa, no matter if he has another identity or not.  But this begs a very important question…

If Ser Shadrich is a helper and ally, then why is he a helper and ally? What does Sansa Stark mean to him?   Why would a mere hedge knight nobody do this “for love” if he doesn’t have some pre-existing association with House Stark?  To reveal Shadrich’s identity we need to look for someone deeply emotionally connected to House Stark and who has connections to the Old Gods.

In the next few parts we’ll be focusing on the cases for the individuals, but we will definitely not be leaving it there. Some physical descriptions and some parallels are simply not enough evidence to rely on.  If the three are a team, it is equally important to present evidence for the team as a whole working towards a common objective.

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PART III:  The Case for Howland Reed

There is a temptation to look at the physical descriptions of Meera and Jojen as a basis for Howland’s appearance to disqualify him being Shadich outright.  Meera and Jojen are described as having brown hair and green eyes.  There’s no mention of either of having fox-like features on their faces.  Keep in mind they do also have a mother, who they may favor over their father.  She is listed in the AFFC appendix as being Jyana Reed, Howland’s wife.  It is perfectly reasonable that Howland could actually look completely different than his children.

This is Meera Reed’s telling of the little crannogman story that is obviously her father from Bran II, ASOS and note Howland’s traits:

He was small like all crannogmen, but brave and smart and strong as well. He grew up hunting and fishing and climbing trees, and learned all the magics of my people.
Bran was almost certain he had never heard this story. “Did he have green dreams like Jojen?
“No,” said Meera, “but he could breathe mud and run on leaves, and change earth to water and water to earth with no more than a whispered word. He could talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear.”

The lad knew the magics of the crannogs,” she continued, “but he wanted more. Our people seldom travel far from home, you know. We’re a small folk, and our ways seem queer to some, so the big people do not always treat us kindly. But this lad was bolder than most, and one day when he had grown to manhood he decided he would leave the crannogs and visit the Isle of Faces.
“No one visits the Isle of Faces,” objected Bran. “That’s where the green men live.”
It was the green men he meant to find…”

All that winter the crannogman stayed on the isle, but when the spring broke he heard the wide world calling and knew the time had come to leave. His skin boat was just where he’d left it, so he said his farewells and paddled off toward shore.

Howland Reed is set apart from the average crannogman.  He knows all the hunting and survival skills of the crannog as well as all their magic.  He does not have Jojen’s greendreams, but he has an impressive magical repertoire and this is prior to his time on the Isle of Faces.  He does not stay close to home like other crannog out of fear of larger people as he is “bolder than most.”  He has ambition to learn even more magic.  Upon manhood, he travels to stay a whole winter season with the greenmen on the Isle of Faces in the center of the lake called the God’s Eye to learn their secrets.  Howland must have been exceptional to have been allowed this privilege, because as Bran says no one visits the Isle of Faces *.  The isle is one of the few last known places in southern Westeros to have a living weirwood grove, not just individual trees.

* As a quick review of some Dawn Age history, it is said that the Isle of Faces is the site of the children calling down “the hammer of the waters” to break the arm of Dorne to stop further invasion of First Men from Essos.  There’s some speculation that this particular form of magic involved blood sacrifice.  While stopping the tide of First Men was too late, the demonstration of power apparently brought about “The Pact” for peace made on the Isle of Faces between the children and the First Men.  This starts the beginning of the Age of Heroes.  This same magic is probably  the cause of the flooding of the Neck, where the crannogmen currently live.  This caused a natural barrier to invasion from south.  There is legend of crannogmen being small stature because of possible past intermarriage with the children of the forest.

We should also note that young Howland was able to travel alone, through hostile Frey territory, unseen.

He passed beneath the Twins by night so the Freys would not attack him, and when he reached the Trident he climbed from the river and put his boat on his head and began to walk. It took him many a day, but finally he reached the Gods Eye, threw his boat in the lake, and paddled out to the Isle of Faces.” (Bran II, ASOS)

Even lugging a boat around over land for several days, this is testimony to the skill level of the crannog in stealthy movement and living off the land.  Meera and Jojen’s skillsets would appear to confirm this.  Her hunting has kept Bran and company living off the land as they move North in search of the three-eyed raven.  They also haven’t been found out by any hostile parties along the way.  Looking at what Jojen says about Meera and what Meera says about the little crannogman, we see many overlaps:

The gods give many gifts, Bran. My sister is a hunter. It is given to her to run swiftly, and stand so still she seems to vanish. She has sharp ears, keen eyes, a steady hand with net and spear. She can breathe mud and fly through trees. I could not do these things, no more than you could. To me the gods gave the green dreams, and to you . . . you could be more than me, Bran. You are the winged wolf, and there is no saying how far and high you might fly. . . if you had someone to teach you. How can I help you master a gift I do not understand? We remember the First Men in the Neck, and the children of the forest who were their friends . . . but so much is forgotten, and so much we never knew. (Bran I, ASOS)

Again the “breathing mud” and “flying through trees” (and what those things may actually mean we will be exploring later) is mentioned again.  Meera has clearly inherited the survival and hunting skills of her father and Jojen has inherited a more mystical gift, even if Howland does not possess the power of prophetic dreams.

We also know of Howland Reed’s involvement of the events of the tourney at Harrenhal where he first met and befriended Brandon, Ned, Lyanna, and Benjen Stark.  He was beaten and bullied by dishonorable squires for being a small-statured crannogman.  It was Lyanna Stark in particular that drove off the offending squires, who insisted that he attend the tourney feast, and gave him a place among the Starks on the dais.  It is also Lyanna that is widely believed to be the Knight of the Laughing Tree that avenged Howland and earned his undying loyalty to House Stark and Lyanna in particular.  Meera explains as a crannog, he would not have the skillset needed to joust to avenge himself. That Howland Reed cannot compete as a tourney knight is a very important fact that the author makes very clear.  Howland’s loyalty to House Stark will be demonstrated in his service to Ned Stark in Robert’s Rebellion and attempting to rescue Lyanna from the Tower of Joy.  They failed to reach Lyanna in time to save her.  I believe Howland would be particularly motivated to save her niece.  Especially at the Vale tourney, where it would be the inverse of Harrenhal:  a crannogman disguised as a knight saves a Stark girl.

Now let us take a pause before continuing to compare this to what we know of Ser Shadrich and compare him to Howland Reed.  They are both small-statured, but proportional.  Sansa says Shadrich is so short he might have been “taken for a squire.” So he could be mistaken for a youth if you didn’t see his aged face.  Even sixteen-year-old Meera is described as being “scarcely taller than [almost nine-year-old] Bran.”  Shadrich is then consistent with typical crannog body type.

The Mad Mouse is so named not because he is literally mentally ill as Brienne asks, but because he is a contradiction.  He’s not a typical mouse.  “Your common mouse will run from blood and battle. The mad mouse seeks them out.” he tells her.  So like the little crannogman, he is “bold” and “brave.”  They both are not typical of their own kind, whether it be mice or the shy crannog people.  They are both unafraid of danger and experienced fighters.  We don’t know exact details, but we do know that Howland Reed played a key role in Ned Stark surviving the Tower of Joy and in the death of Arthur Dayne, noted as one of the greatest warriors of his day.

They are both well-travelled, even through hostile enemy territory.  Howland Reed travelling alone and undetected through Frey lands at about sixteen-years-old.  He’s also travelled over great distances in his service to Eddard Stark during Robert’s Rebellion.  Ser Shadrich references the device on his shield to point to his travels:

“Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen *. Some call me the Mad Mouse.” He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. “The brown is for the lands I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve crossed. The mouse is me.” (Brienne I, AFFC.)

* The name Shady Glen is an interesting choice to claim to hail from as well.  Shady Glen appears to be a play on Dusken and dale, both roughly meaning a darkened or shaded valley.  Duskendale is also the location of the historic, daring one-man rescue operation of Ser Barristan Selmy the Bold who infiltrated the castle to rescue King Aerys from Lord Darklyn’s dungeons.  Lord Tywin Lannister gave Barristan a day to execute his rescue mission before sacking the city.  Selmy recalls he left at the “hour of the wolf” and returned at the “hour of the wolf’,” successfully saving his king.   He refers to this event as “his finest hour.” 

Ser Shadrich is obviously not alone when Brienne first meets him.  He’s with the merchant, Hibald, and his servants but says he’s only travelling with them as far as Duskendale.  Why not alone?  Because he’s travelling to a large town, not an off-the-grid island.  For practical reasons there is not only some safety in numbers when travelling on main roads, but also there’s news and gossip to be found by fellow travellers passing by or at inns.  By the time we meet Shadrich again at the Gates of the Moon, we know he’s travelled and tracked quite a distance to exactly the right place.  This is very much like how Howland Reed left the Isle of Faces at the most auspicious time to arrive at Harrenhal for the historically significant tourney.  And now in TWOW, we have the tourney of the Winged Knights on the horizon.  Exactly how Shadrich finds his way to Sansa will be explored in the timeline of events.

The “breathing mud” ability attributed to Howland Reed is most likely referring to how well-adapted the crannog are in the harsh environment of the Neck.  Anyone else would easily get hopelessly lost.  Knights have drowned in the bogs and there are poisonous plants and lizard lions.  They are disparaged for seeming to live in a primitive manner in an uncivilized place, but they have made this place home for thousands of years.  This is what Theon describes of the Neck and how dangerous it is:

The swampy ground beyond the causeway was impassable, an endless morass of suckholes, quicksands, and glistening green swards that looked solid to the unwary eye but turned to water the instant you trod upon them, the whole of it infested with venomous serpents and poisonous flowers and monstrous lizard lions with teeth like daggers. Just as dangerous were its people, seldom seen but always lurking, the swamp-dwellers, the frog-eaters, the mud-men. (Reek II, ADWD)

This is precisely the talent one needs for navigating the mud and sinkholes that surround the Quiet Isle at low tide.  In Brienne V, Meribald warns Podrick to stay off the mud as “it will open up and swallow you” if you step in the wrong place.  Meribald is experienced with coming to the isle for many years, so he knows how to get to the isle on foot safely.  It’s a long, winding path guided by “feeling” around the mud with his staff first.  This should be nothing for Howland Reed, who has been navigating through more dangerous mud his entire life.  No ferry to the isle necessary.

We should also be drawing a connection between Shadrich’s weirwood-colored mouse sigil and to The Knight of the Laughing Tree’s weirwood sigil shield. Both the Mad Mouse and the Laughing Tree sigils are contradictions.  Actual weirwoods are not depicted as smiling or laughing.  Their carved out expressions are supposed to look pained or frightening.  The events of the mystery knight avenging Howland also remind us that he cannot avenge himself because he is not a tourney knight.  Now look at Ser Shadrich’s statements about himself:

“…’Tis true, I am no tourney knight. I save my valor for the battlefield, woman.” (Brienne I, AFFC)

In TWOW Alayne sample chapter, Myranda Royce asks him if he will be competing in the joust for a position in Robert Arryn’s Winged Knights:

Will you be seeking wings?” the Royce girl said.
A mouse with wings would be a silly sight.”
Perhaps you will try the melee instead?” Alayne suggested. The melee was an afterthought, a sop for all the brothers, uncles, fathers, and friends who had accompanied the competitors to the Gates of the Moon to see them win their silver wings, but there would be prizes for the champions, and a chance to win ransoms.
A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for, unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons. And that’s not likely, is it?”

So again, no jousting for Ser Shadrich.  His skillset is for the battlefield or a melee.  We’ll also be exploring the importance and parallels between tourneys later, but this exchange between Shadrich and Sansa has some very interesting word play.  “A mouse with wings” being a “silly sight” seems to be a twist on the connections to bats in Sansa’s arc and her Whent grandmother on Catelyn’s side.  A bat is often humorously albeit inaccurately called a “flying mouse,” especially in the Old German word for bat, fledermaus.  Sansa has compared a fluttering inside her to swallowing a bat and she was rumored to escape the Purple Wedding by turning herself into a wolf with bat wings.  Bats are also on the sigil of House Whent, who hosted the aforementioned tourney at Harrenhal.  Also the bat is the sigil of the much-maligned House Lothston *, previous owners of Harrenhal before the Whents, who once served them.  This has led many to reasonably speculate that Sansa’s future arc may somehow intersect with Harrenhal owing to these connections as well as the fact that Littlefinger is the current Lord of Harrenhal.

* The last Lothston, red-haired “Mad” Danelle was mysteriously brought down by (most likely false or grossly over-exaggerated) accusations of dark sorcery, child kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.  This is not unlike Sansa being rumored to use sorcery to kill Joffrey and escape the Red Keep.  Danelle  is also connected to Bloodraven, known sorcerer and greenseer, in The Mystery Knight novella.  So there’s a kissed-by-fire, magic, bats, and Harrenhal connection with the “Mad” moniker as well.

The importance of this cannot be overstated:  Ser Shadrich’s shield is a direct reference to the Old Gods, weirwoods, the Harrenhal tourney and the Knight of the Laughing Tree.  It’s the pivotal moment that earns Howland Reed’s fierce loyalty to the Starks.  That generation of Starks stood up for him, befriended him, and treated him as an equal.  Except for a brief mention of being at the Tower of Joy, GRRM has not featured Howland Reed in any other story except the tourney at Harrenhal.  When Howland Reed re-enters the story, it makes literary sense for the author to establish him with Harrenhal and Old Gods references.

The “flying mouse” motif may point to a larger idea connected to weirwoods and magic.  Children of the Forest have been described as squirrels by the giants.  Arya herself has been called a squirrel many times.  Bran draws comparisons to Arya in both Meera Reed and one of the children who he will call Leaf.  Squirrels do fit that motif if we consider the way they can flit among tree branches with ease (as well at there being a species called a flying squirrel).  This comes full circle with Meera and Howland being able to “fly through trees” and “run on leaves.”  Also note that Shadrich’s sigil colors are on a bendy, the same as House Lothston and both with a “mouse” related to magic at it’s center.  It’s well-known that GRRM has drawn upon Yggdrasil from Norse mythology with his weirwood concept.  There is a squirrel related to Yggdrasil named Ratatoskr who acts as a messenger running up and down the tree between an unnamed eagle at the top and the wyrm>, Níðhǫggr, at the roots (very much like the dragon, Bloodraven, seated at the weirwood’s roots).

We can also make magical associations to another animal Ser Shadrich is connected to:  the fox.  Shadrich has a fox-like face and fox orange hair.  He also comes across as being sly and cunning.  Foxes in real world folklore have been connected to magic, illusion, and deception such as in the Japanese kitsune.  There’s also the very popular medieval folk tales of Reynard the Fox, which GRRM is familiar with.  They were so popular, renard came to replace the old French word for fox.  Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox character and trickster figure whose stories usually involve him deceiving or cunningly escaping other anthropomorphic animal characters.  His character was often used in parodies of medieval courtly love and chanson de geste, or songs of heroic deeds (think Shadrich’s meeting Brienne on her hapless quest to rescue Sansa) as well as satire of political and religious institutions.

There are some very interesting parallels between Reynard and Howland Reed.  Reynard’s castle home is called Maleperduis, which is described as having hidden tunnels, entrances and exits, and confusing pathways to elude his enemies from finding him *.  This is strikingly similar to descriptions of Greywater Watch, Howland’s seat, which is built to move elusively (“he can make castles appear and disappear”) and cannot be found by outsiders or ravens.  The name Reynard is theorized to have derived from the old Germanic man’s name, Reginhard.  The word regin meaning “divine powers of the Old Germanic religion” plus hard meaning “made hard by the Gods.”  It could also mean regin + harti or “strong counsel,” denoting someone wise and clever.

* There is solid proof GRRM is familiar with the Reynard stories.  In the story of Tywin Lannister obliterating House Reyne, Tywin drives Ser Reynard Reyne and his people into the mining tunnels of Castamere, very much like Maleperduis, but with a tragic end:

To the ignorant eye, Castamere seemed a modest holding, a fit seat for a landed knight or small lord, but those who knew its secrets knew that nine-tenths of the castle was beneath the ground.
It was to those deep chambers that the Reynes retreated now.  Feverish and weak from loss of blood, the Red Lion was in no fit state to lead. Ser Reynard, his brother, assumed command in his stead. Less headstrong but more cunning than his brother, Reynard knew he did not have the men to defend the castle walls, so he abandoned the surface entirely to the foe and fell back beneath the earth. Once all his folk were safe inside the tunnels, Ser Reynard sent word to Ser Tywin above, offering terms. But Tywin Lannister did not honor Ser Reynard’s offer with a reply. Instead he commanded that the mines be sealed…” (The Westerlands:  House Lannister Under the Dragons, TWOIAF.)

One Reynard story that has parallels with Shadrich’s role in Sansa’s arc and has that familiar feature of clever word play is in one where he tricks Bruin the Bear, a likely Lothor Brune connection.  Brune is made captain of the guards by Petyr, so he is in command over the hedge knights.  In this story, Reynard steals Bruin’s honey (which calls back to the Bear and the Maiden Fair) or butter depending on the telling.  First, Reynard comes to live with Bruin (like entering service at the Gates of the Moon) and pretends to leave to attend a christening.  He’s really going to sneak back into the house to eat some honey.  When Bruin asks him what the baby’s christened name was, he replies “Just Begun.”  A second time he says he needs to attend a christening, he does the same thing and tells Bruin the baby’s name was “Half-Eaten.”  This same scenario happens a third time with the baby’s name being “All Gone,” at which point Bruin realizes his honey (as a symbol of Sansa) that he was supposed to be guarding is now gone.

And even more importantly to note, one of Reynard’s primary adversaries in his stories is a wolf character dressed up in monks robes named Ysengrim, who is not particularly pious and is used as a parody of the Church.  This has some obvious parallels to Sandor as the gravedigger and the strange bedfellow relationship between the two will make even more sense when we explore Brienne’s journey through the Riverlands on a symbolic level in Part VI.

If there’s any doubt about Howland Reed’s continued deeply personal devotion to House Stark, consider this:  Howland Reed sent his only children, his only heirs, alone to aid Bran and Rickon after Ned was executed.  This is more than the loyalty of vassal to liege lord.  This decision was based on a greendream of Jojen’s, which shows not only their commitment to Ned’s children and also their faith in the mystical for guidance.  That the Reeds’ role in the story is not only to protect, but also offer their knowledge of the Old Gods’ magic and mysticism.  Jojen and Meera get Bran to the three-eyed raven, so that he can fully realize his power as a greenseer and a warg.  Robb has his army, his mother, and Greywind.  Jon has Ghost and his own arc in the North.  Bran has Meera, Jojen, Hodor, and Summer.  Rickon has Osha and Shaggydog.  Arya is lost and presumed dead after Ned’s execution.  Sansa is the one Stark child that is alone in enemy hands and who desperately needs allies.

We don’t know the details of Jojen’s greendream that he shared with his father, but it does not make sense that Howland Reed would send his children to Winterfell and he would stay in the Neck.  His wife, Jyana, would still be at Greywater Watch during the War of the Five Kings.  Recall that Shadrich said he was at the Blackwater and was on the “losing side” of the battle.  Does that mean Howland Reed had fought for Stannis?  Perhaps, as Ned believed Stannis was Robert’s rightful heir.  Yet, there is no indication in our comparison of Howland and Shadrich that his motives are remotely political.  Sansa is imprisoned in Maegor’s Holdfast, the castle within a castle, where the royal family and Hand of the King have their chambers.  Even if there was a way for Ser Shadrich to enter the castle, it is highly unlikely he could get so far inside the Red Keep and get Sansa out undetected.  If Stannis had succeeded in sacking King’s Landing, Sansa would likely then be moved from from the Red Keep to Stannis’s camp, potentially presenting the opportunity to rescue her.  This did not happen.  Hence being on the “losing side” for the lost opportunity, forcing him to wait patiently for another to arise.

It won’t be until the Purple Wedding on the first day of the year 300 that Sansa finally escapes and disappears, but she is headed for her next prison, not freedom.  There is a hint to how her prayers will be answered when Sansa is changing clothes in the godswood to escape King’s Landing:

“Sansa felt as though she were in a dream. “Joffrey is dead,” she told the trees, to see if that would wake her.” (Sansa V, ACOK)

Dontos is not the real Florian and this is no true rescue.  The true answer to her prayers and her freedom will be connected to the Old Gods and tree-talker, as Meera says her father is.  The greendream, Ned’s death, the bonds of friendship forged at the Harrenhal tourney, and the failure to save Lyanna in time at the Tower of Joy are more than enough reason for Howland Reed to head to King’s Landing.

Shadrich and Howland’s Timeline of Events

While using the ASOIAF timeline, we should keep in mind this is a fairly accurate but still an approximation as to the order of events in the series.  There is a margin of time that cannot be exactly accounted for.  Certainly GRRM never intended to follow timeframes rigidly for a story with this many moving parts.  This is only to illustrate how in general the timeline would allow for Howland Reed and / or Ser Shadrich to find Sansa Stark. There is nothing that grossly falls outside of possible time and distance limits that we would have to disqualify the theory.  Real world names of months are used simply to help conceptualized the passage of time.

Ned Stark is executed around early January of 299 and Winterfell learns of his death about two weeks later.  Approximately two months after that, Jojen and Meera arrive in Winterfell during the harvest feast in Bran III, ACOK to re-pledge themselves to House Stark.  Note that the Reeds knew to come to Winterfell without use of ravens as none can find Greywater Watch.  There’s no exact distance from Greywater Watch to Winterfell; however, using Moat Cailin as a rough half-way point (about 590 miles to Winterfell) it would take about two months on horseback.  This is using the distance and travel time calculators on said timeline.  So Meera and Jojen (after the greendream) must have left home about the time Winterfell receives word of Ned’s death.

The battle of the Blackwater was between late August and early September in 299.  As a single rider travelling from Greywater Watch to King’s Landing, there’s still approximately six months of leeway for Howland Reed to arrive in King’s Landing in time for the battle even if he left much later than Jojen and Meera.

New Year’s Day of the year 300 is the Purple Wedding.  Ten days later Sansa arrives at the Baelish holdings on the Fingers.  Eight days after that Lysa will arrive and marry Petyr that night.  Around that same time, Jaime sends Brienne to find Sansa Stark.  About early February, we find Brienne’s first chapter in AFFC opens in Rosby (to the southwest of Duskendale).  That day she meets Creighton and Illifer.  The next day they catch up to Ser Shadrich and the merchant Hibald’s party farther up the the road near the old stone bridge inn, also heading to Duskendale.  By their conversation, it is now widely public knowledge at this point that Sansa Stark is a wanted fugitive for regicide and there is a bounty on her.  Brienne will leave the old stone bridge inn in the late hours of the night, abandoning Creighton and Illifer.  One of Hibald’s serving men in the stables sees Brienne leaving.

I propose that Ser Shadrich may have been curious of Brienne leaving so abruptly in the middle of the night considering their conversation over Sansa Stark and may have decided to track her.  He reasonably may have thought she had found a lead that caused her to suddenly abandon her companions and go it alone.  If we are being honest, Brienne would not be that difficult to track.  Podrick did it pretty easily.  She’s as big as the Hound and a lady knight.  Up until she has her shield repainted in Duskendale like Ser Duncan the Tall’s sigil, she’s obliviously carrying the reviled Lothston device on her shield.  She’s extremely memorable everywhere she goes.  

At this point, events take place in closer succession and the following will show when relevant information from the Vale reaches the Riverlands.

  • In Sansa VII, ASOS, Lysa will be murdered by Littlefinger around 2/9/300.
  • In Brienne II, AFFC at around 2/11/300, Brienne will get the lead from the pious dwarf at the Seven Swords in Duskendale to find Nimble Dick Crabb at the Stinking Goose in Maidenpool.
  • At around 2/17 and in Brienne III, she will learn of Lysa Arryn’s death from Randall Tarly at Maidenpool.
    • Although Brienne had considered going to Sansa’s aunt, it’s precisely the news of Lysa’s death that makes her reject the idea of going to the Vale.  This is probably true of other bounty hunters as well except for Ser Shadrich, since his team is the only one that actually arrives in the Vale.
  • Brienne goes on her wild goose chase tour of Crackclaw Point with Nimble Dick in Brienne IV, returning to Maidenpool around 4/9 in Brienne V.
  • Sometime after 3/23 and after the failed Lords Declarant meeting to oust the Lord Protector of Alayne I, AFFC, Littlefinger will leave the Eyrie for Gulltown for the wedding of Lyonel Corbray.
    • As an ancient, noble house of the Vale and with many other prestigious Vale lords as guests, the Corbray wedding would be a widely-known impending event around the region.
    • The marriage to a Gulltown merchant’s daughter was brokered by Littlefinger likely sometime well before Alayne I in anticipation of the Vale lords opposition to him.  By land (~450 miles), that would be approximately a 18 – 21 day journey.
  • This means the wedding probably takes place somewhere in a window between 4/10 and the party leaving Gulltown around 4/26.
  • Brienne will reach the Quiet Isle in Brienne VI, AFFC around 4/20/300 then leave the next morning.  Ser Shadrich could find the isle as early as that day or the next following Brienne without being seen.  We’ll see the clues he did indeed follow her in Part VI.
  • The very next time we see Ser Shadrich will be in Alayne II, when Sansa descends from the Eyrie to the Gates of the Moon.  This will be around 5/14/300.

So, even if Shadrich follows Brienne to the Quiet Isle to meet Elder Brother and Sandor Clegane as early as the next day (4/21/300), they can still board a ship (which I will describe in greater detail in Part IV) and arrive in Gulltown in couple of days.  Brienne confirms the voyage to Gulltown from Maidenpool is very short.  It took Sansa only 10 days to reach the Fingers from King’s Landing by ship and that is a much, much greater distance.  That’s still a safe window of a few days to enter Littlefinger’s service and follow his party back to the Gates of the Moon.  In Part IV, the importance of meeting Littlefinger in Gulltown rather than going directly to the Vale will be discussed in more detail.  Again, the timeframes are approximations.  This is only to show that there’s nothing that is so outside the limits of time and distance that it couldn’t work, disproving any part of this theory on that basis.

Keep in mind, GRRM always intended for Brienne to sync up with people from Arya’s arc:  Gendry, the Brotherhood Without Banners, and unCat.  Her skillset, vow to Catelyn, knowledge of Gendry’s parentage, and her reunion with Jaime are far more valuable and relevant there.  It makes sense then that when Arya eventually returns to Westeros, her path will also intersect with Brienne’s.  So the Quiet Isle visit, meeting Elder Brother and seeing the gravedigger is not truly intended for Brienne’s purpose in the story.  Aside from limited word of Arya’s last known sighting months prior and the Hound being “dead,” she doesn’t come away from the isle with anything truly useful to her.  So none of this extensive set up is meant for Brienne to act upon.  It has to be meant for someone else entirely…

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PART IV:  The Quiet Isle, Elder Brother, and Ser Morgarth

The Elder Brother was not what Brienne had expected. He could hardly be called elder, for a start; whereas the brothers weeding in the garden had had the stooped shoulders and bent backs of old men, he stood straight and tall, and moved with the vigor of a man in the prime of his years. Nor did he have the gentle, kindly face she expected of a healer. His head was large and square, his eyes shrewd, his nose veined and red. Though he wore a tonsure, his scalp was as stubbly as his heavy jaw. He looks more like a man made to break bones than to heal one, thought the Maid of Tarth. […]
[..]He leaned forward, his big hands on his knees. (Brienne VI, AFFC)

“Aye,” said [Ser Morgarth], a burly fellow with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, a red nose bulbous with broken veins, and gnarled hands as large as hams.” (Alayne II, AFFC.)

As far as physical description similarities, both Elder Brother and Ser Morgarth are heavily built.  Both have noticeably large, strong hands.  They both have a highly distinguishing noses that are veined and red.  Elder Brother says he is forty-four years old, which would be consistent with the salt-and-pepper hair in Ser Morgarth’s beard.  With a few minor changes of shaving his head to hide the tonsure and letting the stubble on his face grow in thicker, the Elder Brother could easily become Ser Morgarth.  Notice, the beard mentioned is thick, not long, so not much time is required for the growth.  Of course, we won’t be relying on the physical descriptions to rest our case on, but the features mentioned are quite distinguishing and GRRM makes sure we are supposed to notice them.

If there’s one thing Brienne is detailed about, it’s the markings of a fellow warrior.  She notes almost immediately that Elder Brother looks like “a man made to break bones” rather than a “gentle,” “kindly” faced healer. Like the Mad Mouse, he is a contradiction.  Indeed, he was formerly a knight, a third son from a knightly house.  We will also see from his backstory that GRRM tailor-made the Elder Brother to rehabilitate Sandor Clegane physically and psychologically.  He had a girl he would have liked to marry, but as a third son he had nothing to offer her.  He describes himself as a “sad man” and self-medicated with alcohol abuse (hence the veiny red nose).  He also admits he had raped women to his shame.  His entire sense of self was defined by being a warrior.  He’s a veteran of Robert’s Rebellion and fought on the Targaryen side at the Trident where he was “killed,” stripped of his armor and washed up on the Quiet Isle.  He was healed by the Elder Brother before him, spent the next ten years in silence, before he took up the role of the current Elder Brother.

“Instead I woke here, upon the Quiet Isle. The Elder Brother told me I had washed up on the tide, naked as my name day…  We are all born naked, so I suppose it was only fitting that I come into my second life the same way. I spent the next ten years in silence.” (Brienne VI, AFFC)

This passage describes a very important concept about the Elder Brother, making the name “Morgarth” very significant, and connecting him to the biblical Shadrach’s “godly men.”  Elder Brother is surrounded by real world pagan greenman symbolism which GRRM translated into his in-book mythology of Garth Greenhand *. This is only one of many Garth-type names and greenman themes that appear repeatedly in the series.  This is all about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, sacrifice to ensure life continues, and the god acting as the gatekeeper between the living and the Underworld. GRRM hammers this association home between literal in-book greenmen on the otherworldly Isle of Faces.

* Garth Greenhand is the legendary High King of the First Men.  Some legends say he didn’t just lead the original First Men from Essos into Westeros, but he actually predated this and was the first and only human in Westeros and that he interacted with the Children of the Forest and the giants.  Other legends make him a green god of fertility and harvest who demanded blood sacrifice or sometimes the green god himself is the sacrifice in autumn needed to ensure the renewal of life in the spring.  He not only brings about fertility in the land, but also increases fertility in women leading to maids flowering, crones regaining their moonblood, and mothers giving birth to twins and triplets.

The Quiet Isle is a perfect metaphor for the Underworld or afterlife.  It’s a place of life, death, and rebirth.  The isle is an idyllic self-sustaining place of food and drink.  They have abundant varieties of fruits and vegetables grown there.  They have sheep, ponds of fish, and shellfish from the bay.  They make their own butter and have a windmill to grind their own grain to make bread.  They even brew quite a few alcoholic beverages:  ale, mead, cider, and wine.  Brewing alcohol is an important theme of green gods like Dionysus making Elder Brother’s red nose from alcohol abuse symbolic of this concept.  The honey bees and beehive shapes of the women’s cottages have mythological associations with goddesses and the underworld.  It is noted women come there too to be healed and to give birth.

The role of a symbolic Garth fits Elder Brother like a glove.  His hands are described as “healing hands” and he is credited with being able to heal people that maesters cannot.  His (green) hands restore life.  He resides in the Hermit’s Hole, a cave over two-thousand years old next to a chestnut tree where the first holy man to live there “worked wonders” and established the monastic order.  It’s also very possible the cave is pre-Andal invasion and was a place of mystical power for the First Men (again, look at the parallels to the Isle of Faces) before it was Andal-ized and adopted by the Faith of the Seven.  So the Elder Brothers of the isle inherit their healing abilities, which are widely regarded as being somewhat miraculous.

The Quiet Isle is also a place to cross over into the afterlife in more than one way.  Sometimes the dead and dying wash up on the shores, as did the Elder Brother.  Sometimes they are brought there like the Hound or the people of the Saltpans after the massacre to die or be healed.  The metaphoric and most common way is for penitents to abandon their old lives to be reborn in a new monastic life.  In a sense, the brothers on the isle are dead to the outside world.  They don’t speak with few exceptions.  Many cover their faces as well, obscuring their past identity.  Their brown robes and cowls are like the dead driftwood that washes up there, but even driftwood gets reborn as beautiful polished furniture and cups.  If you want to come on the Quiet Isle, you need Elder Brother’s or one of his proctor’s permission.  There’s a ferry to the isle which is evocative of Charon.  So that makes Elder Brother, like Garth Greenhand, a psychopomp.  He’s a gatekeeper between life and death, literal and metaphoric, and can also return people to the world of the living.  The imagery is evocative of the Elysian Fields and especially Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to recover from wounds sustained against Mordred at the Battle of Camlann and is destined to return from.  By that alone we should expect to see Sandor restored and renewed to something closer to a “true knight.”  It’s also important to know that Elder Brother also has ravens and is a gatekeeper of news of the outside world, but he largely withholds that information from the other brothers.

If the Elder Brother has abandoned his old life as a knight and has such a clearly defined purpose on the Quiet Isle, why would he then join Shadrich’s hedge knight team to rescue Sansa?  There are actually three major reasons for this that he speaks extensively about:  a debt he owes to Sandor Clegane, the inaction of Ser Quincy Cox during the Saltpans massacre, and the effect that Brienne has upon him.

“I buried him myself. I can tell you where his grave lies, if you wish. I covered him with stones to keep the carrion eaters from digging up his flesh, and set his helm atop the cairn to mark his final resting place. That was a grievous error. Some other wayfarer found my marker and claimed it for himself. The man who raped and killed at Saltpans was not Sandor Clegane” (Brienne VI, AFFC)

Before the massacre, Sandor Clegane only stood accused of turning craven and deserting.  With some time passing and a regime change in King’s Landing, this might have been forgiven and he could have possibly moved forward with his life.  Because of Elder Brother’s mistake with the helm, the Hound is wanted for horrific mass murder, burning and pillaging, and the mutilation and rape of children.  Both Frey and Tarly men are hunting him and well as Brienne and her party.  At this point Sandor cannot show his face outside the isle without risking being killed on the spot.  He is then a novice not by choice and indefinitely trapped.  This is something Elder Brother did attempt to correct by sending a raven out to try to explain the mistaken identity, but that has proven weak and ineffective.  Writing well-meaning letters has done nothing to rectify the injustice of Sandor being falsely accused of heinous crimes and being condemned for it.

It was Elder Brother that directly dealt with the aftermath of the massacre.  He personally witnessed the horrors Rorge and Biter inflicted on the people.  He talks in explicit detail of the burning and screaming, the graphic violence done to women and children, and the last words of the dying.  There is no doubt Elder Brother was deeply affected by this event (as he still feels guilt over raping women).  The last building standing in the Saltpans is the castle of Ser Quincy Cox, who barred his doors while his people sought his protection.

The smile vanished. “They burned everything at Saltpans, save the castle… It fell to me to treat some of the survivors. The fisherfolk brought them across the bay to me after the flames had gone out and they deemed it safe to land. One poor woman had been raped a dozen times, and her breasts…  her breasts had been torn and chewed and eaten, as if by some . . . cruel beast… As she lay dying, her worst curses were not for the men who had raped her, nor the monster who devoured her living flesh, but for Ser Quincy Cox, who barred his gates when the outlaws entered the town and sat safe behind stone walls as his people screamed and died.”
“Ser Quincy is an old man,” said Septon Meribald gently. “His sons and good-sons are far away or dead, his grandsons are still boys, and he has two daughters. What could he have done, one man against so many?”
He could have tried, Brienne thought. He could have died. Old or young, a true knight is sworn to protect those who are weaker than himself, or die in the attempt.
“True words, and wise,” the Elder Brother said to Septon Meribald. “When you cross to Saltpans, no doubt Ser Quincy will ask you for forgiveness. I am glad that you are here to give it. I could not.” (Brienne VI, AFFC)

This is a story about someone who had the power to do something and did nothing.  GRRM didn’t write this story to motivate  Brienne to action, because she already knows what a true knight should do.  It’s what she will do when she defends the orphans from Rorge and Biter, preventing another Saltpans.  Elder Brother knows this too, yet he has his own moment of denial and self-comforting lies to avoid action, that someone else will deal with the ills of the world and all will be well.

“If so, give up this quest of yours. The Hound is dead, and in any case he never had your Sansa Stark. As for this beast who wears his helm, he will be found and hanged. The wars are ending, and these outlaws cannot survive the peace. Randyll Tarly is hunting them from Maidenpool and Walder Frey from the Twins, and there is a new young lord in Darry, a pious man who will surely set his lands to rights. Go home, child.”

This is all utter nonsense.  The wars are not even close to ending.  The murderers are still out there murdering people and have yet to be caught.  It’s Brienne taking action herself who will kill them.  The “new young lord” is Lancel Lannister, who even his father says is not the one to deal with these problems in his physical and psychological condition after the Blackwater.  Brienne responds to his urging for her to give up and go home to her father by tearfully telling him the story of her journey and ending with:

I have to find her,” she finished. “There are others looking, all wanting to capture her and sell her to the queen. I have to find her first. I promised Jaime. Oathkeeper, he named the sword. I have to try to save her . . . or die in the attempt.

So, in a short period of time two people have come to the Quiet Isle who are emotionally connected to Sansa Stark, who have tried or are trying to save her.  He’s also been a warrior himself who fell very short of knightly virtues and was himself a “broken man.” The terrible things he did still haunt him.  By healing and mentoring Sandor he is healing himself; however, by being unable to forgive Quincy Cox indicates he has also been unable to fully forgive himself even years later.  As a person of faith and a believer in what knights should do, he is at a tipping point between action and inaction.  He’s primed for a little nudge in the form of a third person coming to the isle with the same purpose.  Might he then take this as some sort of sign from his gods and that saving Sansa is also part of his own redemption?

What he contributes as Ser Morgarth is very important.  His skillset is not only martial experience, but as gatekeeper of information he can help connect some important dots.  Getting these three men together to compare notes, they could very quickly deduce they should start looking in the Vale.  They don’t have to know Sansa is there for a fact to be suspicious enough to go there first.  First they have the news of Lysa’s marriage to Littlefinger, her death about a month later, and him becoming the new Lord Protector.  This all happening very shortly after the Purple Wedding when Sansa disappeared.  Recall that news of Lysa’s death is what made Brienne decide against the Vale and everyone else too apparently.  Sandor, being so close to the royal family, would have known Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn for many years at court and would have probably thought the exact opposite.  Littlefinger bragging that he deflowered Sansa’s mother (openly disparaging of her honor) was also well-known court gossip.  Then later he is directly involved in the downfall and death of her father, which Sandor witnessed.  They don’t have to know anything for certain, but these dubious and unsavory connections to Tully women should be enough to make anyone suspicious.

The Elder Brother would then also know about the upcoming marriage of Lyonel Corbray to the Gulltown merchant’s daughter.  Sandor would also know that Littlefinger was in charge of customs in Gulltown and his success there was the reason he was brought to court and eventually made master of coin.  It is then likely he will be in attendance at the wedding with ties to both parties and as Lord Protector. The importance of the hedge knights meeting Littlefinger in Gulltown (rather than travelling directly to the Gates of the Moon) cannot be stressed enough. Unlike anyone else who made connections between Sansa and Lysa, this team of men made a connection between Littlefinger and Sansa. You wouldn’t be able to do that if you didn’t have relevant information on Littlefinger’s history at court.  Remember it’s widely accepted Lysa was murdered by Marillion and without Lysa no one else sees a reason to search in the Vale.  Shadrich, Morgarth, and Byron clearly didn’t buy that.

The most important thing that Elder Brother could contribute is access to a ship.  Travelling by ship to is the only way to make it in time to Gulltown while Littlefinger is there.  There would appear to be a problem with this as the nearest port at the Saltpans is completely destroyed and abandoned.  The Elder Brother says it himself:

“Only the castle remains. Even the fisherfolk are gone, the fortunate few who were out on the water when the raiders came. They watched their houses burn and listened to screams and cries float across the harbor, too fearful to land their boats. When at last they came ashore, it was to bury friends and kin. What is there for them at Saltpans now but bones and bitter memories? They have moved to Maidenpool or other towns.”

But the fishermen’s boats are still out there on the Bay of Crabs and Elder Brother has built relationships with the people of the Saltpans for many years.  They’ve traded goods from the island in town.  He’s tended to their sick and pregnant women.  He cared for their wounded and dying after the massacre.  The brothers helped bury their kin.  At least one of those survivors would take them to Gulltown if he asked for their help.  This would be even faster than going to a port and trying to find a ship headed there.  No port is even necessary as they can easily be ferried out to a ship from the island as Sansa was taken by a small boat out to the Merling King during her escape.  Such a ship may even be used later for their own escape.  Most importantly, the captain and crew of that ship would be highly unlikely to betray them.

In fact, this calls back to what Ned did to return home from the Vale to call his banners during Robert’s Rebellion.  Just like her father, Sansa is wanted by crown to be brought to King’s Landing to be beheaded.  Gulltown seemed to remain loyal to the Targaryens, so Ned crossed the Vale from the Eyrie to the Fingers to hire a fishing boat to take him across the Bite.  The reverse happens during Sansa’s escape of King’s Landing:  Sansa thought she would be taken home, but instead the Merling King took her to the Fingers, and then they travelled by land to the Eyrie.  It makes perfect literary sense for a fishing boat to be involved in Sansa’s escape from the Vale, just like her father.

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Part V:  Sandor Clegane and Ser Byron:  The Beast Enchanted Into a Beauty

Off to Gulltown to see the fair maid, heigh-ho, heigh-ho. I’ll steal a sweet kiss with the point of my blade, heigh-ho, heigh-ho. (“Off to Gulltown”)

The most glaring issue readers may have with this idea is the gravedigger having such a pronounced limp when Brienne sees him. She notes he “walked with the awkward lurching gait of one half-crippled.”  When we see Byron in Sansa’s POV, there’s no such limp.  It would then seem doubtful that Sandor is even physically up to the task of a rescue mission and would disqualify him as Ser Byron.  Arya abandoned Sandor by the Trident at around 1/31/300 in Arya XIII, ASOS.  Brienne sees him as the gravedigger at around 4/20/300.  So roughly three months later after being near dead from blood loss and infected wounds, Sandor has a noticeable limp, but he’s also digging graves all day long.  That’s very hard, physically taxing labor.  So this shows a very rapid rate of healing and is testimony to Elder Brother’s exceptional healing hands *.  When Byron is introduced three weeks later, it is plausible that Sandor has recovered even further in that time to make the limp unnoticeable or non-existent.

* Just to drive home the point as to how seriously ill Sandor was, he most likely would be diagnosed in the real world with having sepsis with the symptoms Arya describes.  He would have been at higher risk of developing sepsis due to a depressed immune system from alcohol abuse, lack of sleep and proper nutrition.  Every patient is different, but some people even take a year to fully recover from sepsis with the advantage of modern medicine.  Still, 50% of survivors may have continued health issues post-sepsis like severe fatigue, disabling pain, and decreased mental functioning.  Of course, we’re talking about GRRM’s fantasy world medical care, but it’s interesting that he leaves Elder Brother’s the treatment methods somewhat vague adding to the mystery of it.  It’s the results that are clear from what we can glean from the details.  It is an extraordinary rate of recovery.

Before we explore glamoring, we should look at why the idea of Sandor as Ser Byron actually makes quite a bit of sense in context.  His motivation for jumping at a second chance to save Sansa considering his “dying” regrets should need no further explanation.  Since I’ve shown that the names our other hedge knights have significant meaning to their real identities, Byron is no different.  In character analyses of Sandor Clegane, he often regarded as quite Byronesque with his brooding, arrogant, passionate and self-destructive traits.  The term coming from the dark romantic themes and antiheroes in the works of English poet, Lord George Gordon Byron.  A passage from Byron’s The Corsair (1814) could easily be describing Sandor Clegane and compare that to his own defiant speech to the Brotherhood Without Banners:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt. (The Corsair, Lord Byron)

“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just as dead. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses.  I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other that your shit don’t stink. You hear me?” (aSoS, Arya VI)

As if that weren’t enough of a perfect connection to the name, sweetsunray found another little gem.  “The poet Byron had a favourite dog who died of rabies.  He treated him personally without any fear of being bitten or attacked, and afterwards wrote a poem for his dog, Boatswain (a Newfoundland dog), called Epitaph to a Dog. The poem is engraved on the dog’s grave and the grave is larger than Byron’s. The first two introductory paragraphs were written by his friend.”  Original post here.

Near this Spot are deposited the Remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery if inscribed over human Ashes, is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boatswain, a Dog who was born in Newfoundland May 1803 and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,

Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!

By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

“It puts the idea of the Hound declared dead and buried, becoming a gravedigger in quite another light all by itself. And he “died” a mad dog, with biting words wanting to be killed in mercy.  But then a Byron appears near Sansa’s side.” (sweetsunray).  It also fits well with the better nature of Sandor Clegane: the protector, his loyalty to his master, the honest one in a court of liars, and the one whose worth also goes unnoticed and unappreciated.  So as we can see “Byron” could not be a more fitting alias for Sandor.

How does Sandor fit into Shadrich’s “godly” men? There are greenman associations with Sandor just as much as with Howland Reed and Elder Brother.  A variant on greenman depictions is that he has the head of a beast, much like the Hound’s helm.  Despite being a Westerman, Sandor in appearance and values seem much more aligned with being of First Men stock so much that he is mistaken for Arya’s father.  He’s also one of many Odin-archetypal characters by “dying” against a tree (like Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil to gain wisdom and knowledge).  He’s crossed over to the Underworld (the Quiet Isle) and has been reborn symbolically (the Hound persona having “died”).  His steed is named after the Seven’s god of death.  He is also of the “wickerman” variety of greenman being literally a burned man.  It should be no coincidence either that one of the most mentioned First Men clans of in the Vale are called the Burned Men, led by Timett son of Timett (who also sacrificed an eye like Odin).  The Burned Men prove their worth in a trial of self-mutilation by fire.  Similarly, Sandor faced a trial by combat against Beric Dondarrion (another Odin and greenman figure), burning his arm and “proving” his worth, or at least that he didn’t deserve execution.

There are other Norse mythology parallels * to the Vale arc, but there are a few themes that GRRM seems to be cherry-picking into an amalgamation.  Sansa is very much like Idunn, the Norse goddess who possesses apples that grant immortality and youth (she is Catelyn reborn to Petyr).  She is kidnapped by the giant, Thjazi (disguised as an eagle, mirroring the original titan sigil of House Baelish to the new unassuming mockingbird sigil but also his commandeering of House Arryn, the falcons), with the help of Loki (in this case, the trickster is Dontos).  When the gods begin to grow old, Loki (the trickster now as a hero) is tasked with retrieving Idunn by using Freya’s falcon-feather cloak that turns him into a falcon (shape-shifting for the rescue of Idunn).  Loki (in falcon form) turns Idunn into a nut (the chestnut-haired Alayne) and carries her off in a daring escape from the giant.  Loki playing both roles of the kidnapper’s agent and the rescuer of Idunn is not unlike the two versions of “Florian the Fool” in Sansa’s arc:  Dontos and Sandor.

* There’s another interesting story of Thor’s prized possession, the hammer Mjollnir being stolen by giants which would only be returned if Freya married the giant, Thrym.  Thor using Freya’s falcon-feather cloak disguised himself as the bride Freya and with Loki’s help infiltrated the giant’s home of Jotunheim to retrieve his hammer.  There are themes of a false bride, a thieving giant, a trickster, and using shape-shifting  Full story here.

Just as there are many Odin figures, there are many Loki-trickster figures, especially in the wildling concept of wife-stealing such as Bael the Bard.  As Ygritte explains to Jon, in wife-stealing it’s the quick, cunning, and brave that earn the favor of the prospective wife.  Sandor had once attempted symbolic wife-stealing with Sansa “at the point of his blade” the night of the Blackwater, but he was in no state to win her consent and she refused him.  This brings us back to the aforementioned song of “Off to Gulltown,” from where the bastard Alayne hails and where the hedge knights meet Littlefinger.

The description of Ser Byron would appear to be at odds with Sandor’s values, however.  On the surface, he seems like a “puffed up” noble that Sandor would disdain.

“Dutiful and beautiful,” said an elegant young knight whose thick blond mane cascaded down well past his shoulders.” […] the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.” (Alayne II, AFFC)

There are no physical similarities (aside from being tall) between Ser Byron and Sandor Clegane obviously. The two could not seem more different in every possible way.  Sansa calls Byron “elegant.”  How does Sansa define “elegant” when she sees it?  She only uses the word two other times in AFFC to describe Marillion and Symond Templeton.  She uses it to describe mostly clothing that is refined and fashionable with some luxurious embellishments and when someone’s appearance is sleek and sharply styled.  We can then deduce that Ser Byron stands out from the other two (a sign we should pay attention to him) because he is likely more refined and stylishly dressed rather than just being merely handsome.  Add to that his mannerism of kissing her hand like a courtier.

Assuming this is a glamor, why would Sandor choose to look like Ser Byron?  The last time Sandor saw Sansa was the night of the Blackwater in Sansa VII, ACOK.  He left her ashamed of his actions, but also believing she wouldn’t leave with him because she was still afraid of his appearance. Choosing an identity that is more aligned with the gallantry and physical ideal of Loras Tyrell would seem to be a way to gain her trust, especially if they want her to leave with them willingly.  Now is a good time to remind ourselves that no matter who the hedge knights are, friends or villains, there still needs to be one person on the team that can positively ID Sansa Stark. Gaining her trust and identifying Sansa through a disguise would be Sandor’s contribution to the team.  The kiss on the hand then may not be mere gallantry, but a signal to the other two men confirming her real identity.

Sandor as Ser Byron is also quite in line with GRRM’s worst kept secret of being a dark fairytale fan, particularly Beauty and the Beast.  Even more specifically his favorite film version is La Belle et la Bête (1946) written and directed by Jean Cocteau.  Actor Jean Marais portrays the Beast and another of Beauty’s suitors, the handsome and blonde Avenant (meaning “pleasant”).  At the end of this version and as the Beast is transformed back into a Prince Ardent (meaning “passionate”), Avenant is transformed into a Beast.  It then may be that GRRM is playing with the idea of Sandor as Jean Marais in three roles:  the tormented Byronic Hound, Ser Byron, and the reclaimed identity of Sandor Clegane divorced from the overly negative aspects of the Hound.  It’s a very George-like twist to rebuild the fairytale better with the handsome prince as the enchantment and the Beast as the true form.  We will be examining other evidence in favor of a beast disguised as a beauty later in Part VI when we look at the symbols and signposts along the way in Brienne’s arc and in Alayne II leading right up to meeting the hedge knights.

I would also think it’s fair to say there would be a touch of wish-fulfillment * here on Sandor’s part of becoming more ideal in her eyes.  He would not know since then how her opinions have evolved.  She’s more wary that a pretty face can conceal a bad character and is gravitating more towards the good qualities of honest and plain people, like Ser Lothor.  The irony in their introduction is that Sansa is only brusquely acknowledging Ser Byron’s presence.  She isn’t swooning or flattered at all as she might have been in AGOT.  Because of Joffrey and Marillion, she may have internalized the association of superficial charms with abuse and sexual threat.  She pays more attention to details about Shadrich and Morgarth if we look at the full exchange:

“You are never an intrusion, sweetling. I was just now telling these good knights what a dutiful daughter I had.”
“Dutiful and beautiful,” said an elegant young knight whose thick blond mane cascaded down well past his shoulders.
“Aye,” said the second knight, a burly fellow with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, a red nose bulbous with broken veins, and gnarled hands as large as hams. “You left out that part, m’lord.”
“I would do the same if she were my daughter,” said the last knight, a short, wiry man with a wry smile, pointed nose, and bristly orange hair. “Particularly around louts like us.”
Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”

“Knights they are,” said Petyr. “Their gallantry has yet to be demonstrated, but we may hope. Allow me to present Ser Byron, Ser Morgarth, and Ser Shadrich. Sers, the Lady Alayne, my natural and very clever daughter . . . with whom I must needs confer, if you will be so good as to excuse us.”
The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.
“Hedge knights?” said Alayne, when the door had closed.

* Sandor romanticizes what he probably regards as his finest hour of saving Sansa from the mob in the bread riots.  He misrepresents the story to Arya and tells her she sang a song for him after this event, which is completely re-writing history to reflect a more idealistic fantasy.

From the above scene, the hedge knights have been in Littlefinger’s solar for hours, drinking and talking into the predawn since they arrived at “evenfall.”  Littlefinger is clearly at ease around them and apparently has been doing a little bragging about his “daughter.”  They were able to lower his inhibitions with alcohol, broach the subject without suspicion and get him to summon Alayne to the solar (very late at night and immediately following the long ride down) so that her father could do a bit of showing off, exploiting a weakness in his character that would be familiar to Sandor.  It took several re-reads before I caught this due to the POV trap.  Sansa doesn’t necessarily regard certain details as important, so the reader doesn’t either.  The hedge knights need to meet Alayne ASAP to confirm her identity.  If she isn’t Sansa, they need to leave and keep looking elsewhere.  But is Sandor capable of this level of deception around Littlefinger who is also familiar with him especially over a long period of time?

We actually do have quite a bit of evidence for Sandor being a highly effective actor when necessary, being able to exploit other’s expectations, and even do things that seem to be out of character.  Even to the Lannisters who he has served closely for many years, they consider him little more than a loyal dog and a weapon with personal aspirations no greater than wine or killing his brother.  Being seen as such has granted him privileges denied to others and a wide berth of trust from his masters, such as the kingsguard position that is normally only reserved for anointed knights and without requiring him to swear vows.  Unlike Brienne, he’s shown he can lie believably and “sniff out” falsehoods.  He is often described as almost appearing out of nowhere, so even for such a large and easily noticeable person, he’s quite capable of making himself unassuming, almost invisible, in public.

In Arya X, ASOS, we see Sandor’s abilities on full display when they successfully infiltrate the Twins just before the Red Wedding.  With only a hood over his scars, he adjusts his manner of speaking and acting, gives plausible explanations, and effectively fools a knight that is well-acquainted with him because he understands how others think.

“Salt pork for the wedding feast, if it please you, ser.” The Hound mumbled his reply, his eyes down, his face hidden.
“Salt pork never pleases me.” The pitchfork knight gave Clegane only the most cursory glance, and paid no attention at all to Arya, but he looked long and hard at Stranger. The stallion was no plow horse, that was plain at a glance…   “How did you come by this beast?” the pitchfork knight demanded.
M’lady told me to bring him, ser,” Clegane said humbly. “He’s a wedding gift for young Lord Tully.
“What lady? Who is it you serve?”
Old Lady Whent, ser.
“Does she think she can buy Harrenhal back with a horse?” the knight asked. “Gods, is there any fool like an old fool?” Yet he waved them down the road. “Go on with you, then.”
Aye, m’lord.” The Hound snapped his whip again, and the old drays resumed their weary trek… Clegane gave them one last look and snorted. Ser Donnel Haigh,” he said. “I’ve taken more horses off him than I can count. Armor as well. Once I near killed him in a mêlée.”
“How come he didn’t know you, then?” Arya asked.
Because knights are fools, and it would have been beneath him to look twice at some poxy peasant.” He gave the horses a lick with the whip. “Keep your eyes down and your tone respectful and say ser a lot, and most knights will never see you. They pay more mind to horses than to smallfolk. He might have known Stranger if he’d ever seen me ride him.”

Even though he despises knights and normally lashes out when someone calls him “ser,” he doesn’t mind being misidentified as a knight when the need arises.  In Arya IX, ASOS, when Sandor needs a ferry to cross a flooded river with Arya, he becomes a knight to the ferryman and uses “knight’s honor” as credit.  He’s capable of suppressing his usual reactions, seeming to behave out of character, to accomplish a goal.  As Sandor is well aware of how to adjust his speech and behavior to convincingly become a peasant and has allowed himself to be thought of as a knight, becoming Ser Byron is not such a stretch.

As a Lannister man and “sworn” shield, Sandor has been exposed to proper courtly conduct his entire life.  He may not choose to behave with flowery courtesy, but he does not act or speak crudely when he is in his professional role.  He can be courteous to a lady as when he dabbed Sansa’s lip with a handkerchief, the difference being it’s sincere act and not for show.  As his position is close to the royal family, he needs to be trusted to act properly.  He is not Gregor.  Unlike the tv adaptation, Sandor is depicted as having a care with his appearance, usually neat and plain or lightly adorned.

In TWOW sample chapter, the next time we see all three hedge knights again, they will also be dancing with Sansa.  Again, this isn’t that strange a thing for Sandor to do even if we haven’t seen him do that on page.  Like all courtly protocols, dancing was a required part of real medieval knightly training (even done in full armor), Andal chivalric culture, not to mention being a primary form of entertainment found everywhere.  Courtesy is not just a part of a medieval girl’s education.  It was expected of all nobility to know the rules of etiquette and chivalry to advance family interests.  Sandor is not so anti-knight or lives so outside Andal culture that it ever made him refuse to learn how to compete in a tourney joust, which was normally reserved only for anointed knights.  It’s the title and vows he takes issue with, not the skillset.  Sandor is from an Andal knightly house with some formal education from a maester, served in an Andal highlord’s house and then at the royal court.  It would be more shocking if he didn’t know at least one dance.

If the hedge knights are following a pattern of being contradictions, I would expect Ser Byron not to conform to expectations, but to turn out to defy them.  On one final note, it shouldn’t be mere coincidence that GRRM has already placed a Sandor in the Vale in the form of Sandor Frey, squire to Donnel Waynwood, Knight of the Gate after Brynden Tully. Sandor Frey is not seen on page, only mentioned in the ACOK appendix as existing.  The name Sandor is only used twice in the entire series.  His mention then is likely a hint by the author of what is to come.  Now we will look at glamoring and the plausibility of a glamor being used in this context.

Glamoring and the Precedents Set For It In ASOIAF

Melisandre I, ADWD, tells us quite a bit of good information on glamoring:

“The bones help,” said Melisandre. “The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man’s shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak. The wearer’s essence does not change, only his seeming.”

“The glamor, aye.” In the black iron fetter about his wrist, the ruby seemed to pulse. He tapped it with the edge of his blade. The steel made a faint click against the stone.
The spell is made of shadow and suggestion. Men see what they expect to see. The bones are part of that.”

Glamoring magic is not something restricted to R’hllor and can be something any magician can do of any discipline or religion.  The Faceless Men also teach glamoring, but take it to the final level of donning a dead person’s face.

Mummers change their faces with artifice,” the kindly man was saying, “and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye. These arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as that face you were born with.(The Ugly Little Girl, ADWD)

Howland Reed can “change earth to water and water to earth with no more than a whispered word. He [can] talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear.”  His words can create magic the same as Melisandre.  There is no reason that glamoring would be beyond him, especially when it seems to be a very basic form of illusion.  The raw materials for a good glamor are readily available on the Quiet Isle.  They have countless bones of long dead, anonymous people that have washed up on their shores and GRRM really emphasizes that the Quiet Isle has rubies and Meribald couples them with bones:

“…many strange and wondrous things are pushed toward us, to wash up on our shores. Driftwood is the least of it. We have found silver cups and iron pots, sacks of wool and bolts of silk, rusted helms and shining swords . . . aye, and rubies.”

Better rubies than bones.” Septon Meribald was rubbing his foot, the mud flaking off beneath his finger. “Not all the river’s gifts are pleasant. The good brothers collect the dead as well<. Drowned cows, drowned deer, dead pigs swollen up to half the size of horses. Aye, and corpses.”

Note how the items listed appear to a dichotomy between the beautiful and elegant and the rough and practical with the wording pairing them together.  Each item in the pairing has similar or related functions, but it’s their appearances that are different.  It would not be such a stretch then if there is at least one ruby somewhere on Ser Byron’s “elegant” person even if Sansa hasn’t seen it as she barely pays any note to him.

There are two major precedents for glamoring being used in the series that are highly significant this theory.  In ADWD, glamoring is being used by Melisandre and Mance Rayder as a plot device in a situation that has many parallels and inverses to the Vale.  Mance Rayder is glamored by Mel to look like Rattleshirt, while the real Rattleshirt is glamored to look like Mance.  It is the latter that will face execution freeing the other for his mission.  The glamor is to allow Mance to leave Castle Black while I propose a glamor is used to infiltrate the Gates of the Moon.  Mance takes on the alias of Abel (not insignificantly an anagram of Bael the Bard, wife stealer) to go to Winterfell and rescue a “Stark” girl, Jeyne Poole as (f)Arya.  In the Vale, a Stark girl needs to be rescued from Petyr Bael-ish, the false Bael.

Both arcs in Winterfell and the Vale involve usurpers using scheming, murder, and a puppet to give themselves an air of legitimacy.  For the Boltons, it’s using the marriage of (f)Arya to Ramsay Bolton.  For Littlefinger, it’s using his marriage to Lysa to become Lord Protector over Robert, murdering her, then marrying his “daughter” to the next heir, Harrold Hardyng.  In both situations there is something false about the bride’s identity.  There’s an inversion in that an imposter, Jeyne Poole is playing a legitimate Stark and a real Stark, Sansa, is a fake bastard daughter. Petyr hovers over both Winterfell and Vale arcs, responsible for the false brides’ respective situations and for at least some involvement in the deaths of the heads of those houses:  Ned, Catelyn, Jon Arryn, and Lysa.  There’s another layer of inversion in the brides and grooms.  The legitimate offspring Sansa Stark has become a bastard and the groom, Ramsay Bolton, born the bastard Ramsey Snow, was legitimized.  Harrold Hardyng, the potential groom, is Sweetrobin’s unlikely heir through an accident of fate.  Arya, being the youngest female Stark, would be the least likely to inherit Winterfell, yet here “Arya” is the heir and solidifying the Bolton’s hold on Winterfell.  With so many twists on the same themes in both regions, it is safe then to seriously consider a glamor being used in both.

The other major precedent that parallels with the upcoming tourney in TWOW is from the tournament at Whitewalls in The Mystery Knight which was pointed out by Ashes of Westeros.  Ser Duncan the Tall attends a tourney at Whitewalls, which was built from stone quarried in the Vale.  The host is Lord Ambrose Butterwell, a former master of coin (as was Littlefinger) in celebration of his second marriage, not so unlike the Vale tourney to secure Harry and Alayne’s betrothal, which would be Sansa’s second marriage.  Butterwell has other motives as the event is also a ruse for others who support the Second Blackfyre Rebellion to gather.  The tourney is rigged so Daemon II Blackfyre (under the alias “Ser John the Fiddler”) will win a red dragon egg (as Sansa is associated with a bag of dragons) as a prize.  Dunk meets and befriends three hedge knights, one of whom was Maynard Plumm (possibly a play on the name Reynard), who is Bloodraven under a glamor there to squash the Blackfyre plot.  In this case a moonstone is used instead of a ruby, but it’s also further proof that glamors can be done by a greenseer magician too:

Dunk whirled. Through the rain, all he could make out was a hooded shape and a single pale white eye. It was only when the man came forward that the shadowed face beneath the cowl took on the familiar features of Ser Maynard Plumm, the pale eye no more than the moonstone brooch that pinned his cloak at the shoulder.

It’s an agent of Bloodraven that actually stole the red dragon egg by the privy shaft in Lord Butterwell’s chamber.  The only one small enough (specifically child-sized) to fit is a dwarf.  Ser Shadrich is not a dwarf, but Sansa says he is “wiry” and could be mistaken for a squire.  After the plot is dismantled, Butterwell is attained and Whitewalls is torn down to the ground and the earth salted.  The destruction of Whitewalls speaks to a probable and massive upheaval in the Vale in TWOW (again, see the avalanche theory).

There’s also a strong possibility that the tourney of the Winged Knights will also be rigged by Littlefinger.  By comments made here and here, no one seems to have a high opinion of Harrold Hardyng’s jousting skills and he’s up against far more experienced tourney knights.  He was only just knighted by Yohn Royce in a tourney for squires and according to Myranda Royce it was set up so Harry would win.  With Sweetrobin’s health uncertain, both men are jockeying for influence over the heir.  Littlefinger arranging for Harry to do well in the tourney is another way to woo him away from Bronze Yohn, further isolating and diminishing the Lord of Runestone’s power to oppose him.  It also encourages him to view the betrothal to Alayne more favorably.  At Whitewalls, the master of games was being bribed to fix the listings of matches between competitors for a favorable outcome.  In the TWOW sample, Alayne visits Petyr’s solar and finds a window open and a stack of papers on the floor, one of which was the list of competitors.  We shouldn’t fall into the POV trap again and think these details are unimportant as her attention is drawn elsewhere.  Someone child-sized and good at climbing could have easily been in that room to get a look at the list of competitors in advance.

As we can see there are numerous parallels in the Northern arc and in precedents for glamors being used in the series with the current Vale arc.  So many that we can safely say that the theory can work with the established canon.  Now we need to look for other clues that this is what GRRM actually intends to do.

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Part VI:  Brienne’s Symbolic Journey Down the Acorn and Ivy Paths

By acorn and ivy paths, I’m referring to the two parallel dresses both Sansa and Arya have worn.  Sansa’s is embroidered with ivy and Arya’s is embroidered with acorns, both on the bodices and over their hearts.  This is about their true identities inside despite their outward appearances.  Arya who has struggled with issues of acceptance and seeing herself as beautiful is admired by Gendry and called pretty by Lady Smallwood while wearing her acorn dress.  By her likeness to Lyanna and her association with swans, she will grow into a beauty all her own.  Sansa is dressing modestly for her bastard status, but the vines and leaves are embroidered in gold (again, Sansa equated with gold) thread.  She also chooses to wear as her only adornment an “autumn gold” ribbon with her practical wool dress when she cannot wear Stark or Tully colors.  So she chooses her own colors and styling that are reminiscent of Sandor telling her the story of his house sigil, the only other time “autumn” is used as a descriptive of gold or yellow in the series.  Ivy and acorn symbolism will repeatedly show up in Brienne’s path and it will be important to examine the context we find them in.

Brienne will start her AFFC arc believing herself on Sansa’s trail as Arya is presumed dead, but actually finds herself in the end meeting significant people from Arya’s arc.  GRRM then has always intended the acorn path for Brienne, so the ivy path is meant for another to follow.  Though Brienne’s AFFC arc has been panned by many readers as mostly a long, meaningless road trip, I would say the colorful people she meets and sights she sees are a symbolic journey pointing us to what the author actually intends for the real ivy path to Sansa.  The signposts were never for Brienne to read, they were for the reader.

Food symbolism and animal descriptives will be particularly important.  It starts right from the jump and tells us exactly where Brienne will end.  In Brienne I, when she chances upon the con men, Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer, they offer her to share their meal of grilled trout.  As if grilling trout weren’t enough of a bad sign in the Tully Riverlands, it’s a reference to the “dead trout” Lady Stoneheart that Brienne will meet.  The next morning, Brienne sees Illifer skinning a squirrel and Creighton pissing on a tree.  They break their fast on squirrel, acorn paste, and pickles.  With the tree, those are clearly symbols related to Arya and the pickles likely being a euphemism for her very difficult position with Lady Stoneheart.  The next meal she shares is the “goat on the spit” at the inn at the old stone bridge after she crosses paths with Ser Shadrich and he warns her of the company she is keeping.  Brienne will later be encountering the slobbering Goat’s, aka Vargo Hoat’s men, Shagwell, Timeon and Pyg, but we’ll go into more detail with that later.  It’s leaving the inn and going to Duskendale alone where Brienne will find the first major clue (for the reader) of the ivy and acorn path.

In Brienne II, when she is seeking to have her Lothston shield repainted by the captain’s sister, she has a good look at the mural upon the doors of the Seven Swords inn which has very interesting features:

They showed a castle in an autumn wood, the trees done up in shades of gold and russet.Ivy crawled up the trunks of ancient oaks, and even the acorns had been done with loving care. When Brienne peered more closely, she saw creatures in the foliage: a sly red fox, two sparrows on a branch, and behind those leaves the shadow of a boar.

At the time of TWOW chapter, it is autumn and winter wheat is ripening.  The timing is ripe for harvesting the seeds of winter sown at the Gates of the Moon.  Gold is paired with reddish-brown (as in Sansa’s red hair covered by brown).  We have the ivy and the acorns featured.  By looking closely, Brienne sees the hidden animal figures in a particularly significant order.  The crossing of paths between Team Brienne and Team Shadrich is for mutual benefit, serving to spur each party toward their respective paths.  The “sly red fox” is “fox-faced” Ser Shadrich, who Brienne meets first.  We will see another fox again later.  The two sparrows being a euphemism for the sparrows, the humblest members of the Faith of the Seven.  She meets Septon Meribald and then is led to the Elder Brother, who redirects her from her pursuit of the Hound and reveals she’s actually been chasing Arya, not Sansa.  The boar is not actually seen, only its shadow (as glamors are made of “shadow and suggestion”) and it hidden behind the leaves.  A face covered in leaves is a classic green god depiction (also as hunters in the wood like Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos).  The most significant appearance of a boar in the series is the mortal wounding of Robert Baratheon, the instrument for upheaval and sudden regime change  *.  Recall that while Robert was plied with strong wine while hunting, it was Cersei exploiting his natural tendencies to ensure his death — the very same tactics we saw in Petyr’s solar at the first meeting of the hedge knights.  Regime change is hidden and it’s coming for the Lord Protector.

* Another significance of the boar is Norse mythology is the Hildisvíni or “battle swine” that belongs to Freya, whose name means “Lady.”  The boar is actually her devotee, Óttar.  His name is believed to be a version of Freya’s husband, Óðr, which is also a version of Odin.  

It should also be no coincidence that right after leaving her shield to be painted, Brienne hears the story of Barristan Selmy’s one-man daring rescue of King Aerys at Duskendale, but more important than that is her next meal and meeting with the pious dwarf at the Seven Swords inn.  A meal of hot crab stew is shared between them and Brienne gets her next lead to the Stinking Goose to find the man that “fooled a fool.”  Pay attention to the dwarfs features and his story.

Not until he hopped off the bench did Brienne realize that the speaker was a dwarf. The little man was not quite five feet tall. His nose was veined and bulbous, his teeth red from sourleaf, and he was dressed in the brown roughspun robes of a holy brother, with the iron hammer of the Smith dangling down about his thick neck.

“Do you serve some holy house in Duskendale, brother?”
“‘Twas nearer Maidenpool, m’lady, but the wolves burned us out,” the man replied, gnawing on a heel of bread. “We rebuilt as best we could, until some sellswords come. I could not say whose men they were, but they took our pigs and killed the brothers. I squeezed inside a hollow log and hid, but t’others were too big. It took me a long time to bury them all, but the Smith, he gave me strength. When that was done I dug up a few coins the elder brother had hid by and set off by myself.”

His detailed features are a perfect amalgamation of Shadrich, Elder Brother, Septon Meribald, and the gravedigger.  He’s about Shadrich’s height, he has Elder Brother’s veiny, bulbous nose, he wears the roughspun of a holy brother, he favors the smith like Septon Meribald, he hid in a tree like a crannogman, he dug graves like the gravedigger and has a burly, thick neck.  The outlaws that attacked his septry were looking for coins (like gold dragons) that their elder brother had hidden before he was killed.  With the feature of sourleaf and the “red smile”  this does not bode well for particularly our Elder Brother as Morgarth — a dead Garth.  This particular dwarf is also beheaded and taken to KL to claim the reward for Tyrion, Sansa’s supposed accomplice in regicide.  The most important thing here is that Elder Brother, Septon Meribald, and Sandor are helpers and are twice symbolically grouped together with Ser Shadrich / Howland Reed in the mural and in this dwarf.

The hot crab stew obviously points to her next significant part of the journey with Nimble Dick Crabb from the lead she received from the pious dwarf.  (Note also he doesn’t want any monetary reward for his help, only the bowl of crab stew).  Following Nimble Dick Crabb, she will hear the tale of Ser Clarence Crabb as they travel up Crackclaw Point.  We are supposed to draw parallels between Brienne and the legendary knight in her battle with the Bloody Mummers.  Clarence Crabb is extremely tall, wields a “magic sword”, takes the heads of his foes back to his woodswitch wife to bring them back to life and elicit their “good counsel.”  At the ruins of Crabb’s ancestral castle called the Whispers which is covered in ivy, they will finally meet Shagwell, Timeon, and Pyg.  Nimble Dick will be killed after comparing himself to Clarence Crabb, and Brienne will slay the outlaws with her “magic sword” Oathkeeper.  Before that they will give her “good counsel” of reporting that the Hound has the Stark girl she is seeking at the Saltpans.  Hyle Hunt takes the heads of the outlaws back to Maidenpool to “speak” to Brienne’s bravery and skill.  So Nimble Dick was not the real crab here, it was the maiden Brienne.  And with Nimble Dick’s death at the Whispers the ivy path has literally reached a dead end for Brienne.  She’s now unknowingly on the acorn path to Arya when they meet Septon Meribald back at Maidenpool.

The association of crabs with maidens makes even more sense when we consider they are tidal creatures, which are related to the Moon and goddess symbolism.  Think of the crab as the astrological sign Cancer which is associated with the Moon.  “Moon is god, woman wife of sun.  It is known.”  Other tidal shellfish that have feminine associations are clams for their comparison to female genitalia.  Arya also has her associations with shellfish as Cat of the Canals in her arc, but Sansa is the only maiden at the Gates of the Moon (also a female genitalia metaphor).  As Ygritte explained to Jon, the ideal time for stealing a wife is when the Thief is in the Moonmaiden.  The astrological mythology is important.  The Stallion (like Stranger) is called the Horned Lord by the Freefolk, connecting more greenman symbolism to Sandor.  “The red wanderer” (as an analog to Mars the planet and god of war) is sacred to the Smith (the laborer, such as the gravedigger) and is also called the Thief.  Sansa is the Moonmaiden (as she is also associated with moonstone jewelry) and the crab.  We will soon see who really finds the crab on Brienne’s path.

In Brienne V, Brienne, Podrick, and Hyle Hunt join with Septon Meribald and Dog (who has not revealed his true name, is a huge beast, and like Sandor he is his own dog) to use his knowledge of the region to find the Hound that supposedly has Sansa.  Podrick also tells of his own dog named Hero, who wasn’t actually a hero, but he died a “good dog.”  The terrain they are travelling has descriptive features that we should take note of:

The lands they traveled through were low and wet, a wilderness of sandy dunes and salt marshes beneath a vast blue-grey vault of sky. The road was prone to vanishing amongst the reeds and tidal pools, only to appear again a mile farther on; without Meribald, Brienne knew, they surely would have lost their way. The ground was often soft, so in places the septon would walk ahead, tapping with his quarterstaff to make certain of the footing. There were no trees for leagues around, just sea and sky and sand.
No land could have been more different from Tarth, with its mountains and waterfalls, its high meadows and shadowed vales, yet this place had its own beauty, Brienne thought. They crossed a dozen slow-flowing streams alive with frogs and crickets, watched terns floating high above the bay, heard the sandpipers calling from amongst the dunes. Once a fox crossed their path, and set Meribald’s dog to barking wildly.

They are navigating through the wetlands where they must check their footing, a slightly less dangerous version of the Neck.  They would be lost without an experienced guide.  They are amongst the reeds and the land is “alive with frogs” pointing to Howland Reed and the derogatory association with crannogmen as “frog-eaters” and “mud-men.”  Most telling of all, it is a fox that crosses their path and sets Dog to barking.  In Part III, I mentioned the fox association to the kitsune who can create elaborate illusions.  It’s dogs that are able to see through a kitsune’s illusions and unmask them, because “a dog can smell a lie.”  What’s important here is that we have the fox crossing paths with a dog and holy man.  Yes, Ser Shadrich has definitely followed Brienne to the Quiet Isle.  Now look at the very next passage:

And there were people too. Some lived amongst the reeds in houses built of mud and straw, whilst others fished the bay in leather coracles and built their homes on rickety wooden stilts above the dunes. Most seemed to live alone, out of sight of any human habitation but their own. They seemed a shy folk for the most part, but near midday the dog began to bark again, and three women emerged from the reeds to give Meribald a woven basket full of clams. He gave each of them an orange in return, though clams were as common as mud in this world, and oranges were rare and costly. One of the women was very old, one was heavy with child, and one was a girl as fresh and pretty as a flower in spring. When Meribald took them off to hear their sins, Ser Hyle chuckled, and said, “It would seem the gods walk with us . . . at least the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.” Podrick looked so astonished that Brienne had to tell him no, they were only three marsh women.

We have the repetition of being among the reeds two more times and now we have even more allusions to crannogmen with their (according to Meera) “little skin boats,” being a “shy folk” living closely among themselves.  They were yet untouched by the war here like in the Neck.  What Dog barks at should be taken as something we need to pay attention to.  Dog’s barking alerts them to the presence of the women.  GRRM is very bluntly making sure the reader sees the three women as three incarnations of the goddess, but he doesn’t want you to read it that way literally by Brienne’s response.  So who are our symbolic goddesses relevant to the people in this story arc?  The Crone is Lady Stoneheart.  The Mother is Lyanna Stark.  The girl is the Maiden, Sansa *.  All of these women in the past needed help and the helper fell short to some degree.  Brienne swore to Catelyn to find her daughters and she will find herself held accountable for her failure by Lady Stoneheart.  Howland Reed was there with Ned when they failed to reach Lyanna in time to save her.  He sent his children to help Bran and Ned’s only other known living child is in danger.  Sandor promised he would help take Sansa home and keep her safe, but his mental state was too volatile to even protect himself.  It’s too late to save Catelyn and Lyanna, but it isn’t too late for Sansa.  This is about renewing old vows and making good on past failures.  We’ve already seen the way oranges are used to express help freely given as a loving act.  They are exchanged for “common as mud” clams pointing to the bastard-born Alayne with her rare copper hair blotted out by common brown dye.

*  As an alternate interpretation that works equally well, The Crone is Lady Stoneheart, The Mother is Sansa (in her surrogate mother role to Sweetrobin), and the Maiden is Arya).  At this time, Arya is in her Cat of the Canals persona and she is heavily connected to clams and mussels.  Brienne, with Septon Meribald’s guidance, is inadvertently sending help in three directions associated with each goddess aspect.  As she is on her way to the Quiet Isle, this represents an intersection of the acorn and ivy path which we will see again on the isle.  She leads Shadrich to his special ops team and motivates the Elder Brother to action.  Brienne is heading toward Lady Stoneheart, the Brotherhood Without Banners, and Gendry — a convergence of people from Arya’s arc.  She still needs to fulfill her oath to Catelyn and she has relevant information on Gendry’s parentage.  When Arya returns to Westeros, we should expect to see her reconnect here.  The mayhem in the Riverlands still needs to be set right and Brienne is gaining a reputation for putting down outlaws.

Along their path to the Quiet Isle, “Dog [leads] the way, sniffing at every clump of reeds and stopping every now and then to piss on one.”  This doesn’t speak well of a liking between Howland and Sandor, more of a strange bedfellow relationship in their common cause.  (Can’t you just hear Sandor saying “Piss on that, Reed!”?)  From these passages it’s Dog’s job to sniff things out along the path, because “a dog can smell a lie” just as it’s Sandor’s task to see through Littlefinger’s lies and the disguise that is Alayne Stone.  Now see what happens when they are navigating the dangerous muddy ground around the isle at low tide.

The soft brown mud squished up between his toes. As he walked he paused from time to time, to probe ahead with his quarterstaff. Dog stayed near his heels, sniffing at every rock, shell, and clump of seaweed. For once he did not bound ahead or stray. Brienne followed, taking care to keep close to the line of prints left by the dog, the donkey, and the holy man. Then came Podrick, and last of all Ser Hyle. A hundred yards out, Meribald turned abruptly toward the south, so his back was almost to the septry. He proceeded in that direction for another hundred yards, leading them between two shallow tidal pools. Dog stuck his nose in one and yelped when a crab pinched it with his claw. A brief but furious struggle ensued before the dog came trotting back, wet and mud-spattered, with the crab between his jaws. (Brienne VI, AFFC)

Dog is forced to trust in the guidance of the holy man while he’s sniffing around.  He does not “bound ahead and or stray” in the fervor of the search.  The plan in the Vale requires months of patience and avoiding detection.  It’s Dog that finds the crab hidden in the low tidal pool (the Gates of the Moon).  The pinched nose and the brief struggle before successfully carrying off the crab is highly evocative of wife-stealing.  If there was still any uncertainty left about Dog’s association with Sandor, the author drives the point home “when Dog went to sniff [the gravedigger] he dropped his spade and scratched his ear.”  Sandor is of course missing an ear and this will come up again when we look at Stranger in the stables.

Ser Hyle gave the big horse an admiring look as he was handing his reins to Brother Gillam. “A handsome beast.”
Brother Narbert sighed. “The Seven send us blessings, and the Seven send us trials. Handsome he may be, but Driftwood was surely whelped in hell. When we sought to harness him to a plow he kicked Brother Rawney and broke his shinbone in two places. We had hoped gelding might improve the beast’s ill temper, but . . . Brother Gillam, will you show them?
Brother Gillam lowered his cowl. Underneath he had a mop of blond hair, a tonsured scalp, and a bloodstained bandage where he should have had an ear. (Brienne VI, AFFC)

Under the cowl of the holy brother is blonde hair.  Under the blonde hair is a missing ear.  This is a perfect description of the masks Sandor hides true identity behind.  Remember Ysengrim who I mentioned in Part III as a character in Reynard the Fox stories?  Here we have the wolf (or beast) in monk’s robes who is not as godly as they would like him to be.  Handsome is repeated twice but he is a beast, refusing to be gelded and tamed into a plow horse.  They tried to rename him Driftwood and insist that he is a plow horse, turning him into something he is not.  What happens to driftwood when it washes up on the Quiet Isle?  It gets transformed into something new and is “polished till [it shines] a deep gold.”  Or, in other words, it is made blonde and elegant.

The meal they share with the Elder Brother and in the presence of the gravedigger marks the last meeting between the acorn and ivy path travellers.  The next day, Brienne will finally head towards her final two chapters, meeting Gendry, Lady Stoneheart and the Brotherhood Without Banners.  It will be left to the characters on the isle to resume the ivy path.

Their supper in the septry was as strange a meal as Brienne had ever eaten, though not at all unpleasant. The food was plain, but very good; there were loaves of crusty bread still warm from the ovens, crocks of fresh-churned butter, honey from the septry’s hives, and a thick stew of crabs, mussels, and at least three different kinds of fish. (Brienne VI, AFFC)

Just what exactly are we supposed to find “strange “about this meal?  That is a curious word to use and doesn’t appear to make sense at all in context.  There’s nothing particularly strange about bread, butter, honey, and locally-fished seafood stew if we take it literally.  The stew is the last juncture of the acorn and ivy paths before paths diverge again.  We have the crabs and mussels, with mussels featured heavily in Arya’s ADWD arc.  Bread and honey have associations with Catelyn.  “Strange” can also hint to the presence of the Stranger (the god aspect that Sandor most identifies with, more so than Warrior).  The gravedigger is one of those novices tasked with serving and clearing the food.  The Stranger has no single depiction of his face:  it can be a shadow, an animal, shrouded completely as is the gravedigger’s, or as I am proposing the face of a blonde gallant knight.  We’ve already seen how Sandor will play a pivotal role on the hedge knight team as the only one that can ID Sansa.  In a stew, the ingredients all retain their own flavors but are together in a common broth.  There are also three different kinds of fish, like our three very different hedge knights.  I would also expect to see on the acorn team, Arya’s own “different kinds of fish” coming together.  It’s not the literal meal that we are supposed to see as strange, but the people the ingredients represent.  Our hedge knights might be “strange” but in the end the maiden finds them “very good.”

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Part VII:  Tying Everything Together in Sansa’s POV

 Logically if Brienne’s chapters were full of signs of the author’s intent, we should be able to find those seeds also planted in Alayne II AFFC, the chapter leading up to meeting the hedge knights.  While there’s much that could be unpacked from this chapter, we’ll be staying focused on things pertaining to our hedge knight team.

Just a brief aside first before I wrap up my final points.  Most readers should already be aware of the romantic and sexual subtext the author has included in the dynamic between Sansa and Sandor, whether they approve of it or not; however, casual readers may have missed many of those themes on their first reading.  Delving into that analysis here isn’t necessary for proving the original theory, nor does disagreeing with a romantic interpretation disprove the theory in the least.  If you aren’t familiar with this idea already, you may find these links to essays and resources helpful.  It paints a clearer picture of why Sandor re-entering Sansa’s arc as presented in this theory is thematically satisfying and consistent with what GRRM has already established.

More Repetition of Themes and Motifs

As mentioned in Part V, the Norse goddess Idunn is transformed into a nut by Loki as the rescuer to escape the giant’s home.  To get a little more specific into this myth, the story actually starts with three Aesir gods Odin, Loki, and Hoenir on a journey far from Asgard in a desolate land where food is scarce.  They come upon a herd of oxen and slaughter one, but they find sorcery has made the meat unable to be cooked by fire.  The culprit is the giant Thjazi, in disguise as an eagle.  He promises to remove the spell in exchange for letting him have his fill of the meat.  The eagle flies down and eats the choicest portions of the meat.  Loki, finding this unacceptable, challenges the eagle with a tree branch but is snatched up by the eagle and carried high into the air.  The eagle coerces Loki to give him Idunn and her fruits that grant everlasting youth.  There’s no myth that GRRM utilizes that is an exact one-to-one, but look at this scene of Sansa leaving the Eyrie with Sweetrobin in the bucket attached to a winch chain:

Mord took up his whip and cracked it, and the first pair of oxen began to lumber in a circle, turning the winch. The chain uncoiled, rattling as it scraped across the stone, the oaken bucket swaying as it began its long descent to Sky. Poor oxen, thought Alayne. Mord would cut their throats and butcher them before he left, and leave them for the falcons.

The difference is the order of events and the eagle is switched out for falcons.

Consistent with Norse mythology, Loki is often the cause of problems in the story as well as the one who is tasked with setting things right again.  We’ve already shown that this Loki-trickster figure is Dontos, who helps the giant Littlefinger abduct Sansa.  Idunn is tricked by Loki into being led away from Asgard and is snatched up by Thjazi in eagle form.  She is taken to his home called Thrymheim (“Thunder Home”) which has “icy towers” in the high mountain peaks overlooking a green valley below, as is the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn.  When the gods start to rapidly age, Loki was found out to be the last one seen with Idunn as Dontos disappeared at the same time as Sansa.  Loki (this time as rescuer) is shape-shifted into a falcon using Freya’s feather cloak and turns Idunn into the nut to carry her off.  Lothor Brune, who has acted as a stand-in for Sandor, is in the winch room to see Sansa and Robert into the bucket that will lower them down to Sky.  See how the oaken bucket is like the nut, enclosing them on all sides except the top:

Some of the winch chains were fixed to wicker baskets, others to stout oaken buckets. The largest of those was taller than Alayne, with iron bands girding its dark brown staves. Even so, her heart was in her throat as she took Robert’s hand and helped him in. Once the hatch was closed behind them, the wood surrounded them on all sides. Only the top was open. It is best that way, she told herself, we can’t look down. Below them was only Sky and sky. Six hundred feet of sky…”
“AWAY!” came Ser Lothor’s shout.

The next part of the “escape” from the Giant’s Lance is trusting the mules to carry them safely down.  While I plan on a companion piece covering this area in more detail, we again have animals representing our rescue team.  Mules are hybrids of horses and donkeys signifying the dual identities of our hedge knights and that they are well suited for their task at hand.  One mule in particular is of interest.

She turned to Robert Arryn, her black hair blowing. “Which mule will you ride today, my lord?”
“They’re all stinky. I’ll have the grey one, with the ear chewed off. I want Alayne to ride with me. And Myranda too.”

Yet another repetition of the missing ear we saw in Part VI with Sandor and Brother Gillam.  As if that weren’t enough, two repeated statements Robert makes about mules calls us back to an earlier quote from Sansa:

“I hate those smelly mules. One tried to bite me once! You tell that Mya that I’m staying here.”
“I hate mules,” he insisted. “Mules are nasty. I told you, one tried to bite me when I was little.”

He is a dog, just as he says. A half-wild, mean-tempered dog that bites any hand that tries to pet him, and yet will savage any man who tries to hurt his masters. (Sansa IV, ACOK)

Like Brienne’s arc, Alayne II is not without its food symbolism.  When the party arrives at the waycastle Snow, they share a meal of “stewed goat and onions.”  While Brienne had the “goat on the spit” representing Vargo Hoat (or his men rather), the goat here seems to refer to Littlefinger whose often-mentioned feature is his goatee.  Goats also are symbolic of male lust as in the god Pan, who was known for chasing nymphs.  Depictions of the Devil began to be infused with goat imagery during the medieval period.  “Stewed” is also a slang term for being drunk, which is also how we find Petyr in his solar with the hedge knights.  As for the onions, the most notable onions in the series are Davos Seaworth’s onions.  During Robert’s Rebellion, Davos slips past enemy lines and smuggles onions into Storm’s End to save Stannis from starvation during a siege, an act that earned him a knighthood.  Onions are a fairly common enough ingredient mentioned in the series.  They are pretty unassuming and what you expect to see in a stew, but peel back the layers

In relation to earning a knighthood through heroism, we have the conversation between Sansa and Myranda about a squire:

“Saving yourself for Lord Robert?” Lady Myranda teased. “Or is there some ardent squire dreaming of your favors?”
“No,” said Alayne, even as Robert said, “She’s my friend. Terrance and Gyles can’t have her.”

The mystery “squire” in question is as much a tease by the author as it is by Myranda.  “Ardent” is a rarely used word in the entire series — only three times to be exact.  As discussed in Part V, “Prince Ardent” is the true identity under the Beast in GRRM’s favorite film version of Beauty and the Beast.  I would also argue that “squire” is actually a fitting metaphor for Sandor at this point.  As the gravedigger and a novice on the Quiet Isle, one of his jobs is serving food.  If we compare this to traditional knightly training, food service would be on the page level below squire.  The next level of squire means he must stick close to the knight (as Elder Brother was) training him and do as he is told.  As we’ve seen in Part VI, Dog sticks close to Meribald’s side, not “bounding ahead,” especially when they are moments away from finding the crab.  By using the word “squire” the author implies that Sandor has not yet earned his knighthood.  We should expect to see if everything proves correct, some metaphoric dubbing of Sandor by the Elder Brother as a knight in the near future.  Plus there is the early hint of her favor that will later prove important in the outcome of the tourney in TWOW as it is the last line of the sample chapter.

[Harrold Hardyng]  grinned. “I will hold you to that promise, my lady. Until that day, may I wear your favor in the tourney?”
You may not. It is promised to…another.” She was not sure who as yet, but she knew she would find someone.

A mystery knight to carry her favor, which calls us back to parallels with the tourney of Harrenhal and the tourney of Whitewalls in The Mystery Knight novella.

Plot, Characterization, and Alternate Theories

Before we conclude with Sansa meeting the hedge knights, we should take a step back to examine how this theory is serving the plot and characterization as well as glance over a few alternate ideas for comparison.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate where Sansa is in all this.  She’s at a point in her arc where she’s resigned to the fact that she is indefinitely trapped in the Alayne Stone persona.  The rescuer she prayed for (or rather the one she got) in the godswood has turned out to be unwholesome and false to say the least.  She’s tormented by being implicated in his unsavory schemes on one hand, but cannot reveal her true identity out of fear of being beheaded on the other.  The only option she sees is to bravely move forward and try to make the best out of being Alayne Stone in a day to day existence.  As a result, the reader is lulled into anticipating only more of the same:  Sansa spending another book treading water in her imprisonment or yet another arranged marriage as a plot point.  That would be exceedingly dull writing if it were true and thankfully GRRM is better than that.

Looking through the lens of the original theory, there’s several ironies going on here that solve the above predicament.  Sansa spends a great deal of time reminding herself to be vigilant in maintaining her Alayne Stone character as being unmasked means her certain death.  Being unmasked in the solar by the hedge knights is precisely what happens despite her efforts, but it means her rescue instead.  It means her godswood prayers have actually been answered.  The key to her freedom was already in the works, but readers have been looking in all the wrong places.  She’s completely unwitting that one of the men she is bantering with is a staunch Stark loyalist and the other is the man she’s been literally dreaming of.  Not only are their respective appearances different, but there’s a stunning display of character growth held up side by side between Alayne and Ser Byron.  Sansa has become more self-assured, warm, and outspoken.  Sandor has learned to be more self-controlled, patient, and respectful.  This isn’t entirely a performance, it’s applying what they’ve learned in their parallel humbling stints as a bastard and the gravedigger.

This is not to say that Sansa is a damsel who will be passively rescued.  Many readers expect she will play a pivotal role in the downfall of Petyr Baelish, as do I.  On the contrary, the hedge knights can give her a place of power to act from.  For the first time, she has allies loyal to her and who will fight for her best interests alone.

Finally, the wool is being pulled over the eyes great con artist himself, who at the same time thinks he’s fooling everyone with his “daughter.”  It’s a completely appropriate comeuppance.  Most of all there’s a way out that doesn’t involve yet another marriage proposal, which has never meant anything good in her story before.  The possible betrothal to Harry the Heir makes for great slight-of-hand, because it’s what we’re trained to expect in her arc.  While the reader and Sansa are looking toward the young falcon, our attention is drawn away from the hedge knights.  Too many Vale arc speculations play up the importance of Harry the Heir (only just mentioned in Alayne II) and completely ignore or downplay the role of Ser Shadrich, who has been lurking around since Brienne I.  Not that Harry won’t serve a purpose, but Shadrich is the obvious Chekhov’s gun here.

The original theory solves some very key questions that readers have had.  It addresses:

  • How Sandor will re-enter Sansa’s arc in a logical, canon-supported, and thematically satisfying way that serves both characters.
  • How Howland Reed will help an actual Stark on page in a way that utilizes his established backstory and talents (which is all we are given by the author).
  • How to effectively use a character like the Elder Brother that we only meet briefly, but we’re given a wealth of detail concerning his backstory, talents, and capacity to be of service.  To leave him just treating the gravedigger off page is a waste.
  • How to solve the current Vale arc predicament with plenty of surprise for a majority of readers, that streamlines the good use of existing and important characters, and serves to further the overall plot of the series.  It also thwarts one of the biggest villains in the books in a manner that is fitting for his hubris and deceit.
  • How to make sense of the frustration with the author for seeming to place Sansa on an endless treadmill of imprisonment and marriage proposals when other POV characters seem to have more to do.  For the reader, it ushers us into the third act of the series without having to spend more time watching and waiting for the the conflict to somehow resolve.  The process was already happening over the course of months.  It was cleverly hinted at all along, but we fell for the author’s use of misdirection and unreliable POV narrators hook, line, and sinker.

It also assimilates well with other well-laid out theories and gives them a new twist.  In sweetsunray’s Sansa and the Giants (aka the avalanche theory of the Vale), the presence of Howland Reed and his knowledge of the “hammer of the waters,” provides a magical cause to the cataclysmic avalanche.  The hedge knight team can also protect Sansa from that danger and get her to safety.  In The Beast’s Kiss, it’s theorized that Harry combines aspects of Loras Tyrell and the blunt, offensive honesty of Sandor Clegane.  An older and more experienced Sansa knows how to go toe to toe with him.  She’s clever, confident, and flirtatious and may be open to a kiss from Harry.  Point taken; however, Ser Byron can be read as the physical ideal of Loras and his gallantry, but with the better part of Sandor’s nature:  the loyal protector who is now saving his bite for those who truly deserve it.  Plus, I have presented my own interpretation on the use of the Beast, Avenant, and Prince Ardent as Sandor playing all three like the actor, Jean Marais.  It’s a great twist on the fairytale for GRRM to make the handsome prince the enchantment and the Beast the true form to be revealed.

The problem with alternative theories and speculations on secret identities is that they often fail to address important issues to plot and characterization.

  • That Sandor is still the gravedigger and Sansa will find him?
    • For Sansa to somehow find her way to the Quiet Isle with no way of knowing Sandor is there or not having any other cause to go there makes no sense.  While most expect them to re-unite, this version doesn’t advance the overall plot or address how Sansa will be freed in the first place.
  • Howland Reed as the High Sparrow?
    • That makes no use of his magical talents, his backstory, his affiliation to the Old Gods, and helps no Starks at this point.  The idea rests on Howland Reed being solely motivated by revenge and pits him against Cersei.  That’s not narratively satisfying as she didn’t order either the Red Wedding (Tywin did and he’s dead) or Ned’s beheading (Joffrey did and he’s dead).  Besides the High Sparrow’s punishment of Cersei has nothing to do with the injustice toward the Starks.
  • Howland Reed as the Hooded Man?
    • Most of the same problems as the above, helps no actual Starks, and rests solely on revenge.  With the loss of a POV inside Winterfell until Stannis retakes the castle means anything he does will be off page, which would be a very weak use of a pivotal character.  There are much stronger candidates for the Hooded Man, such as Harwin sent by the BwB and LS and who can positively ID Arya.
  • Ser Shadrich working for Varys?
    • Fails to address the weirwood, Old Gods, Harrenhal, and KotLT connections.  A supposed agent of Varys just inexplicably asks a stranger (Brienne) if she’d like to hunt Sansa Stark for the Spider’s reward when everyone at Duskendale is doing the same thing and she’s clearly a terrible detective, let alone spy.  That makes no sense.
  • Ser Byron as Tyrek Lannister or Harry Rivers?
    • Tyrek Lannister is proposed on account of the blonde hair and that he could ID Sansa.  This can be ruled out immediately by the fact that both Littlefinger and Sansa know exactly who Tyrek is.  There’s no way Littlefinger would let a Lannister know he has Sansa or that Sansa would trust a Lannister.  I’ve also heard Harry Rivers, the Bastard of Bracken, by the blonde hair but he’s pretty much confirmed dead.  Both have zero connection to Sansa’s story.

So we can see, it’s quite easy to not see the forest for the trees when proposing theories.  That’s why it’s so important to thoroughly outline how a theory works on the individual level, the affected POV character’s level, and in the big narrative picture.

Meeting the Hedge Knights

The very last passage before they arrive at the Gates and Sansa is summoned to the solar is loaded with important references and foreshadowing.

By the time they finally reached her father’s castle, Lady Myranda was drowsing too, and Alayne was dreaming of her bed. It will be a featherbed, she told herself, soft and warm and deep, piled high with furs. I will dream a sweet dream, and when I wake there will be dogs barking, women gossiping beside the well, swords ringing in the yard. And later there will be a feast, with music and dancing. After the deathly silence of the Eyrie, she yearned for shouts and laughter.

The sweet dream is a veil over her eyes much like the glamor and the false identities that hide her saviors. It’s also the role she must play to create a feeling of safety.  Then the author reveals what she will find when her eyes finally open.  This part is reality, not the dream.What she imagines are references related to Sandor:  dogs, swords, and a reference to a past incident where Sansa hears the Hound mentioned by gossiping washerwomen. There’s also foreshadowing of the tourney feast where our hedge knight team is spotted dancing with her.  Waking in the morning to these references is fitting since they arrive in the predawn hours and she is summoned to Petyr’s solar.  There the hedge knights, her gallant knights, are revealed to her.

The author isn’t done yet and this ties the beginning and ending of the chapter together:  Byron’s kiss.  In the opening scene of Alayne II, Sansa recalls her final version of the unkiss, the kiss she misremembers Sandor giving her the last time she saw him.  There will be a companion essay that will go into more detail, but essentially she muses on the kiss then she puts the “memory” aside.  From her point of view, “that day is done” and she must get on with the business of being Alayne Stone.  What’s really important here is what she tells Robert Arryn, who sparked the final version with his own “clumsy” kiss.

Alayne pushed her little lord away. “That’s enough. You can kiss me again when we reach the Gates, if you keep your word.”

Another kiss for a promise kept.  Who is it she thinks she has already kissed?  Who was it she was just thinking of?  Who also made a promise that he initially failed to deliver on?  Sandor.

I could keep you safe,” he rasped. “They’re all afraid of me. No one would hurt you again, or I’d kill them.” (Sansa VII, ACOK)

The one who actually kisses Sansa first at the Gates of the Moon is not Robert Arryn.  It’s Ser Bryon and it’s a chaste and respectful kiss on the hand.  As I have said before, the kiss on the hand is likely the signal to the other two he’s positively ID’d Sansa, but it’s definitely more than that.  It’s chivalrous and indicates the character growth of Sandor Clegane toward true knighthood and being of service to another more worthy than his previous masters.  It points to this rescue succeeding where he failed the first time.  It’s the irony of Sansa believing the man she wants to kiss her again is gone forever then receives a kiss from that man without realizing it.  The chaste kiss is stark contrast to any other kiss she’s received, real or not.  It marks a restoration of faith in the existence of true knights for the reader if not Sansa herself (yet).  Time and time again she’s been told how naive and foolish the songs are (and many readers have bought into this cynicism as well), but the author is saying on a few rare occasions they are true.  Deconstruction and reconstruction complete.  Byron’s kiss brings us full circle on themes of knighthood, idealism, and second chances for each of our hedge knights.  It combines chivalry and Arthurian romances with the toppling of corrupt power by the trickster underdog themes of Reynard the Fox and Loki.  Most of all, it is a ravens versus doves story that GRRM so loves.

“I would do the same if she were my daughter,” said the last knight, a short, wiry man with a wry smile, pointed nose, and bristly orange hair. “Particularly around louts like us.”
Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”

The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.

The twist on the word “lout” is that when used in the verb form, it means to bow respectfully, exactly what the hedge knights do when they take their leave of Sansa.  They are a motley crew of tricksters that slipped in under Littlefinger’s nose, effectively fooling the fooler.  One of whom is Sansa’s much prayed for Florian the Fool, the knight in motley armor — or rather the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory disguise for the man beneath it.

GRRM has been quoted that Sansa’s pattern of misremembering things has been purposely built up over time and will eventually “mean something.”  One of those instances I believe is specifically relevant to this theory and shows where the author’s intentions have been since AGOT:

“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong.” (Sansa III, AGOT, What her father actually said)

“He was going to take me back to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight…”(Sansa IV, AGOT, What she misremembers her father saying)

The Conclusion

  • In Part I, we saw the importance of the name Shadrich and it’s biblical relation to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three “godly” men who will defy a king while under assumed identities.  No matter friends or foes, there must be at least one person on the hedge knight team that can positively ID Sansa for any plan to work.
  • In Part II, Brienne’s limitations on judging Ser Shadrich fairly and accurately were laid out.  No matter who Shadrich is or isn’t, there is a substantial amount of evidence that he is a helper if we look past Brienne’s limitations.  He has parallels to Sandor Clegane as well as other known helpers and he is surrounded by weirwood, Old Gods, KotLT, and Harrenhal references.
  • In Part III, I made the case for Howland Reed based on what we know from Jojen and Meera about their father.  Not resting on physical descriptions alone, Ser Shadrich’s claims and skillset are consistent with details we know of Howland Reed.  Most importantly Howland Reed has thus far only been featured in the story of the Harrenhal tourney with ties to the KotLT (aside from a brief mention of being at the ToJ).  When he re-enters the story it makes sense that he will have those references surrounding him as does Ser Shadrich.  We’ve also looked at the importance of the fox representing Ser Shadrich as medieval folk hero, Reynard the Fox, and his parallels to Howland Reed.  The timeline of events shows that Howland Reed as Ser Shadrich has likely been searching for a way to get to Sansa since word of Ned’s death reached the North.  There’s also plenty of plausible time and the means to find Elder Brother and Sandor Clegane on the Quiet Isle, devise their plan, and meet Littlefinger in Gulltown.  Howland’s role is to provide the glamor to disguise Sandor.
  • In Part IV, we established that Elder Brother and Ser Morgarth share distinctive physical features.  The Quiet Isle represents a metaphoric afterlife or an Avalon where King Arthur (Sandor) will be healed and restored.  The Elder Brother’s role is a green god type linked to Garth Greenhand (hence his alias) and he serves as a psychopomp, ushering people between the worlds.  He’s also a gatekeeper of information from the outside world and has access to a ship that can take them to Gulltown.  He also has a debt to pay to Sandor Clegane for his mistake with the Hound’s helm that led to Sandor’s death warrant.  We also looked at how Elder Brother is still searching for his own redemption and the effect that Brienne and the Saltpans massacre has on him.  No other bounty hunters make a connection between Sansa and Littlefinger, something that can only be done if you know Littlefinger’s history.
  • In Part V, I showed that Sandor could be plausibly healed enough for a rescue mission.  Sandor’s character shares a remarkable amount of parallels to the poet Lord Byron and his works, making the name “Byron” extremely appropriate as an alias.  Sandor fits the “godly men” motif as a literal burned man or wicker man variety of green god.  I made comparisons to Odin as well as Loki in the rescue of Idunn myth.  The choice of Sandor become a blonde, handsome knight makes sense in the context of the author’s favorite film adaptation of La Belle et la Bête and with his knowledge of Sansa.  We looked at the textual evidence for Sandor being able to pull off the role of Ser Byron as well as the precedents for glamors used in the series and their parallels to the Vale arc.  The raw materials for a glamor, bones and rubies, are heavily emphasized as being present on the Quiet Isle.  Most importantly, Sandor’s role on the team is to positively ID Sansa through a disguise, which the others cannot do.
  • In Part VI, we looked at the symbolic journey of Brienne through the Riverlands and Crackclaw point.  The signposts along the way were never meant for Brienne to act upon, because she winds up with people from Arya’s arc (the acorn path).  Through animal and food symbolism and colorful side characters, we see who is actually on the ivy path to Sansa.  The mural at Duskendale and the pious dwarf link Shadrich as Howland Reed to two holy men, Septon Meribald and Elder Brother, as well as Sandor as the gravedigger.  Along the way the fox crosses paths with Dog and we have repeated mention of being “among the reeds.”  Sansa is symbolically linked to the Moon Maiden through crabs and clams and it is Dog that finds the crab and steals it from it’s hiding place.  The Quiet Isle gives us Stranger (renamed Driftwood), who bit the ear off a brother, hidden under his blonde hair and cowl.  Missing ears become an important motif pointing to Sandor.  Then we have the symbolism of the “strange” but “very good” stew representing our hedge knight team.
  • In Part VII, from Sansa’s POV chapter we see a repetition of previous themes and symbols:  the rescue of Idunn, the stewed goat and onions representing the hedge knights with a drunken Petyr, the missing ear of the mule, and the significance of the “ardant squire” and Sansa’s favor that will play a role in the tourney.  The theory presented serves all characters involved as well as the Vale arc and the overall plot of the series.  It also compliments other well-supported theories and shows were alternate theories fall short.  Sansa’s POV ends on references directly related to Sandor and the tourney feast where our hedge knights will most likely make their move if the author is parallelling Whitewalls and Harrenhal.  She then meets her saviors and the scene culminates with Byron’s highly significant, chaste kiss that ties major themes together.

back to the index

House Blackfyre

The elephant in the room for a series of essays on the rag-tag members of Aegon’s team is House Blackfyre. Just the history of House Blackfyre is an essay all by itself. So, that is what this essay is for – the historical story of House Blackfyre, based on the information from the World Book, the Dunk & Egg stories and aSoIaF series. And I recommend Lost Melnibonian’s thread the Blackfyre where he has compiled sources in chronological order of publication. With all things Blackfyre compiled some mysteries and certain consistencies come to the forefront. The answers to these are my personal speculation (in italics) based on the scant evidence and hints there are.

  • Prelude to Daemon Blackfyre (135 – 172 AC): Aegon IV’s life in chronological order that leads up to Daemon’s birth. Theory proposal that in 161 AC a near scandal situation developed, and that as a result of it Baelor locked his sisters up and sent Aegon on an officious exile to Braavos without end date to keep him away from Naerys, Baelor’s sisters and his own son.
  • Founding of House Blackfyre (172 – 182 AC): Summary of King Aegon IV’s reign leading to the founding of House Blackfyre, and Daemon’s children by Rohanne of Tyrosh. Proposes that Aegon’s hatred for Dorne and Baelor the Blessed compelled him to keep the sword Blackfyre out of his grandson Baelor’s hands and therefore gave it to Daemon.
  • The First Blackfyre Rebellion (196 AC): Summary of the rebellion and its result. Proposes that Daemon Blackfyre and Bittersteel came into evidence that convinced them that Daeron the Good was not the son of King Aegon IV.
  • House Blackfyre in Tyrosh (196 – 211 AC): Speculation on what life would have been like for Rohanne and her children, the likeliest marriage agreements made for Daemon’s daughters, and Bittersteel’s activities as a sellsword. Proposes that Daario Naharis at least ought to be considered as a possible descendant through the female line of House Blackfyre.
  • The Second Blackfyre Rebellion (211 AC): Proposes that Bittersteel did work and supported Daemon II’s claim, carrying the sword Blackfyre with him to gather exiled lords to the Blackfyre cause. Lord Gormond Peake used Bittersteel’s absence from Tyrosh to start a rebellion with Daemon II on his own terms. Speculates that the homosexual Daemon II had no issue, but neither did his younger brothers yet.
  • Court of King’s Landing: Kiera, Daemon II and freak-deaths (197 – 222 AC): Highlights the strangeness of Valarr and Daeron the Drunken having been wed to Kiera of Tyrosh, suspicious freak-deaths of heirs, Aerion Brightflame’s exile and what he was up to in Essos, while Daemon II was a hostage in King’s Landing.
  • The Golden Company (since 212 AC): About Free Companies, size, reputation, discipline, and the claim that the Golden Company sacked Qohor.
  • The Third Blackfyre Rebellion (219 AC): summary of the events and the proposal that Aerion Brightflame slew Haegon Blackfyre after he surrendered Blackfyre.
  • Jumpîng the Line (233 AC): Points out that Aenys Blackfyre tried to sneak ahead of his already crowned nephew Daemon III when writing his claim to the Grand Council called after the death of Maekar I killed in a rebellion by House Peake. This establishes a pattern that when House Peake is involved, it is against or without Bittersteel’s support.
  • The Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion (236 AC): summary of the rebellion, the speculation that more Blackfyres than Daemon III died then, and what Bittersteel left as legacy after he died.
  • The Last Blackfyres (after 258 AC): a closer look at Maelys “the Monstrous” Blackfyre and his cousin Daemon Blackfyre and my theory that Maelys is one of Daemon I’s youngest unnamed sons. I assess the implications of Maelys Blackfyre having sacked Tyrosh for Blackfyre descendants of the female line.
  • Literary Purpose: why I think George has constructed the history of House Blackfyre.

The Prelude to Daemon Blackfyre (135 – 172 AC)

Daemon Blackfyre’s father, King Aegon IV Targaryen, was not in the line of succession for the Iron Throne when he was born in 135 AC. His uncle King Aegon III was a boy of fifteen, struggling with his regents. With his second wife, Daenaera Valeryon, King Aegon III had two sons and three daughters. Both sons became kings: Daeron The Young Dragon (b. in 143 AC) who conquered Dorne, and Baelor the Blessed (b. in 144 AC) who built the Great Sept in King’s Landing. Aegon’s father served as Hand to his brother and his nephews.

Prince Aegon’s brother Aemon was born a year after him (136 AC), while their sister Naerys was born in 138 AC. They nearly all grew up without a mother, as Larra Rogare packed her bags in 139 AC and returned to Lys, where she died in 145 AC. Even as a child and youth, Aegon gave his father great trouble. In 149 AC, he lost his virginity to twenty-four year old Lady Falene Stokeworth. The affair went unnoticed for two years, until in 151 AC a kingsguard found them abed. Prince Viserys married Falena to his master-at-arms Lucas Lothston and persuaded his brother, King Aegon III to name Lothson Lord of Harrenhal, making Aegon a frequent visitor at Harrenhal until 153 AC.

Prince Aemon and Princess Naerys were good children and fond of each other’s company. Naerys was so pious she could have been a septa. Perhaps hoping that marriage to such a sister would settle Aegon down, Prince Viserys wed Naerys to Aegon in 153 AC. Singers sing how Aemon and Naerys wept during the wedding ceremony. Histories say that Aemon and Aegon quarreled at the feast, and that Naerys wept during the bedding. Aemon joined the kingsguard that same year. After giving Aegon a son in Daeron, with great difficulty, towards the end of that year, Naerys had done her duty to him as wife and begged to live as sister and brother without sharing a bed. Neither two desired or loved one another and the maester had warned Naerys that another pregnancy might kill her. But Aegon refused.

Prince Viserys’s hope was for naught. Near Fairmarktet in 155 AC, Prince Aegon’s horse threw a shoe and his wandering lusty eye fell on the wife of the local blacksmith – Megette. He bought her for seven dragons and, wary of his father, installed her in a house of King’s Landing. He “wed” her in a secret ceremony with a mummer playing the septon. Prince Aegon had four daughters with her in four years, until Viserys put an end to it in 159 AC. The Hand sent Megette back to her husband and gave the daughters to the Faith.

Crown Prince Daeron became king at the age of fourteen in 157 AC. Despite advice against it, King Daeron I had his mind set on conquering Dorne. While Prince Viserys led King’s Landing as Hand, young King Daeron,  his cousin Aemon the Dragonknight and Prince Aegon conquered Dorne overland and Alyn Velaryon by sea. By 158 AC, the Prince of Dorne and two score Dornish lords had bent the knee to King Daeron and handed hostages over. Prince Aegon escorted the hostages to King’s Landing, keeping one for himself in his own chambers – Lady Cassella Vaith.

King Daeron’s eldest sister Daena, born in 145 AC, was Prince Aegon’s female counterpart – wilfull and wild. She grew up into a beauty fast. Apparently, Prince Viserys had not yet learned from his mistake with his own children, and Daena was wed to her pious brother Baelor in 160 AC. Baelor refused to bed her though.

After Sunspear’s surrender, the Targaryens finally rulled all of Westeros south of the Wall… for a fortnight. King Daeron I had left Lyonel Tyrell to oversee Dorne, but he was killed in a trap and this sparked an uprising. In the following three years, King Daeron I lost 50,000 men as he tried to hold it. And when he met the enemy under a peace banner in 161 AC, the Young Dragon was murdered and Aemon “the Dragonknight” captured and imprisoned by House Wyl. All the Dornish hostages in King’s Landing were to be killed, and Prince Aegon bored with his “hostage” returned Cassella to her place with the other prisoners. Fourteen hostages awaited their execution in the dungeons. But Daeron’s younger brother, King Baelor, pardoned them all, ignoring the outcry against it by his council and people, and took them back to Dorne and Sunspear.

He negotiated a peace with the Prince of Dorne. Both agreed that Prince Viserys’s only grandson, and thus Prince Aegon’s only son, would wed Maron Martell’s sister Mariah when both were of age. Next, he walked to House Wyl in the Boneway to retrieve Aemon from his cage. In the succesful attempt, Baelor was bitten a dozen times by snakes, and a naked Aemon carried a comatose king to Blackhaven of House Dondarrion, where Baelor needed half a year to recover before he could journey to King’s Landing. There he sent Prince Aegon to Braavos on a diplomatic mission, for in the same year, Princess Naerys had almost died in the childbirth of stillborn twins. He had the High Septon annull his marriage to his sister-wife Daena, swore the celibacy vows of a septon, and locked his three sisters away in the Maidenvault to ensure their virtue.

After 161 AC, we know little of Prince Aegon’s life, except that he had a ten year long affair with Bellegere Otherys. No more pregnancies are mentioned for Princess Naerys until 172 AC. Meanwhile, as King Baelor had agreed with the Prince of Dorne, Prince Aegon’s son Daeron was wed to Mariah Martell. Their first son was born in 170 AC, and named after the King, Baelor. Daena “the Defiant” escaped the Maidenvault three times, disguised as a servant or one of the smallfolk. According to an SSM to the illustrator Amoka, Three Maidens in the Tower, she escaped once through “the connivance of her cousin, Prince Aegon”. And towards the end of 170 AC, she gave to birth a child she named Daemon, refusing to give up the name of the father.

However, one of those natural children came from a woman not accounted his mistress: Princess Daena, the Defiant. Daemon was the name Daena gave to this child, […]. Daemon Waters was his full name when he was born in 170 AC. At that time, Daena refused to name the father, but even then Aegon’s involvement was suspected. (tWoIaF, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon IV)

King Baelor went into a fasting fit, living on water and minimal bread, as he had done for a month when Naerys’s life was in peril in 161 AC. On the 41st day of his fasting in 171 AC he collapsed and died.

It is unclear how long Prince Aegon was away on this diplomatic mission to Braavos. While it is mentioned that the Black Pearl sailed on different ports in those ten years, and had a lover in each port, the mysterious absence of records of other mistresses until 170 AC for Prince Aegon seems more than odd. After all, at some point he had a wife and two mistresses all at once. Perhaps wrongly, we assume that Prince Aegon was in King’s Landing for most of the years between 161 and 170 AC, because Daena ended up birthing his bastard son Daemon Waters. But what if Prince Aegon was presumed and supposed to be in Braavos?

When did Aegon help Daena the Defiant escape? Was it in 170 AC, when Daena ended up pregnant by him, meeting Aegon incognito outside of the Red Keep? Still, Aegon might also have gotten into the Maidenvault, via the tunnels. What if Baelor first locked up his sisters, fearing for their virtue with Prince Aegon around, and Aegon helped Daena escape in 161 AC? If Baelor could not even protect his sisters from his lecherous cousin Aegon, after locking them away, King Baelor would have had no other recourse but to send him abroad. Naerys’s near escape from death during childbirth would have been the straw on a camel’s back. It would explain, why Baelor fasted for a month – not only to pray that Naerys would live, but that his sister Daena would not end up scandalously pregnant in 161 AC already. A mission to Braavos without an end date would also keep the father away from having an immoral influence on his son Daeron. It was never officially declared an exile, to save face for Aegon’s father Viserys.

The last scenario would explain Baelor’s choices and actions in 161 AC, how Aegon is only known to have a Braavosi mistress for a decade, and no stories of Naerys lingering near death after failed deliveries for eleven years. Prince Aegon would have taken it very personal, because it was personal – his only son promised and wed to a Dornish princess after her fellow Dornishmen murdered King Daeron I, being sent away from Westeros altogether, his beautiful cousins locked away, and his father not standing up to it. And the year that Aegon’s own son fathers a half Dornish son with Dornish features on Mariah Martell, Prince Aegon begets Daena with a child like a big “Fuck you!” to King Baelor.

Whatever the series of events were both in 161 AC and 170 AC, if on the one hand Daena’s bastard caused Baelor’s death and set Daena and her sisters free from the vault, it also sabotaged her claim to the Iron Throne. Having lived in isolation for a decade the three sisters had no powerful allies to back their claim to the Iron Throne. Daena the Defiant had proved herself wild, unmanageable and wanton. And if one wants to dismiss the claim of the eldest sister, one can hardly make her younger sister, Queen of Westeros. So, the precedent of the Great Council of 101 was cited as was the Dance of the Dragons, and Baelor’s uncle Prince Viserys was crowned King Viserys II. It would be the father of Daena’s bastard son who would reap the benefits, for he now was heir to the Iron Throne, Prince of Dragonstone, having to fear no rival, as his younger brother Aemon was a kingsguard. Just imagine how it would have stung when Daena Targaryen was permitted to be in male company again, only to have Prince Aegon become entranced with one of her ladies in waiting, sixteen-year-old Barba Bracken.

In 172 AC, King Viserys II died under suspicious circumstances, from a sudden illness. His eldest son, Prince Aegon was crowned King Aegon IV. It is more than possible that Aegon was behind the death of his own father. If he was a resident in Braavos for such a long time, Aegon certainly knew how to request a death from the Faceless Men. The Tears of Lys could have caused the sudden illness of King Viserys II. Free from restraint, or so he thought, King Aegon IV appoints Lord Bracken as his Hand and takes Lady Barba openly as his mistress. Queen Naerys was to perform her wifely duty again, and she gave birth to fraternal twins. While the son died, the daughter Daenerys survived, but Naerys lingered near death, yet again. Not a fortnight after, Barba gave birth to a bastard son Aegor Rivers, and Barba’s father talked openly of King Aegon IV wedding Lady Barba. Queen Naerys recovered, however, and both Crown Prince Daeron and the Dragonknight forced Aegon to send his mistress and bastard son away. Aemon would again prove an opponent against Aegon’s intentions for one of his mistresses, when he jousts as a mystery knight “The Knight of Tears” at a tourney in which King Aegon IV had forbidden his brother to ride. Winning the tourney, Aemon crowned his sister Naerys “Queen of Love and Beauty”, preventing Aegon to crown his mistress as such. So, King Aegon IV soon learned even kings meet with opposition.

Founding of House Blackfyre (182 AC)

Aegon’s bastard son Daemon Waters was born in 170 AC, the same year that Mariah Martell birthed Aegon’s grandson Baelor Targaryen. The first had nothing but Targaryen blood in his veins, the other was half Dornish. Daemon looked all Targaryen too: silver hair, purple eyes. Baelor looked all Dornish: dark hair and dark eyes. And yet, the first was a bastard, the second was destined to be king. And if initially, King Aegon IV could not blame his son, Crown Prince Daeron, for King Baelor wedding Dearon to Mariah Martell, he would soon learn that Daeron sympathized with Dorne.

In 174 AC, Aegon IV was set on launching an unprovoked war against Dorne. Where his personal enemy, Baelor had brokered peace and forgiven Dorne’s uprising and murder of King Daeron I, King Aegon IV wanted to finish what King Daeron I had started, and likely avenge his murder too. Crown Prince Daeron strongly opposed it, basically “supporting the enemy”. Really, when maester Yandel starts to speculate on cause and effect, he seems to put the cart before the horse, by claiming that Aegon sought war with Dorne to make Daeron powerless. Despite, Daeron’s protests, King Aegon IV went on ahead, building a huge fleet and “wood-and-iron” dragons that could shoot wildfire. But the fleet was lost in a storm and the “dragons” burned in the Kingswood, long before they could reach the Boneway, along with hundreds of men.

With the king and crown prince quarreling over Dorne, Aegon threatened to name one of his bastards heir, instead of Dearon. It is around this time that, seemingly out of nowhere, after twenty one years of marriage, Ser Morgil Hastwyck accused Queen Naerys of adultery and treason. Kaeth’s Lives of Four Kings claims that Aegon IV himself had instigated Ser Morgil to accuse Naerys, linking it to the quarrel between father and son over Dorne. King Aegon denied it at the time, but Lord Bracken had already planted the seed for the idea of getting rid of Naerys. Accusing Queen Naerys of adultery would solve King Aegon’s issues:

  • The freedom to wed a wife of his own choice.
  • No more pious bleating
  • Disown his son who opposes him politically and his mistresses
  • Disown his half-Dornish grandson and deprive Dorne of having a Queen of Westeros.
  • Be rid of the Lord Commander of the kingsguard, his own brother, Aemon “the Dragonknight”.

The Dragonknight championed for Queen Naerys in the trial by combat and slew Ser Morgil. The plan had failed. To make matter worse, Aegon’s own mistress, Lady Melissa Blackwood, was friends with Queen Naerys, Aemon and Daeron in the five years she lived at court from 172 to 177 AC.

Not accusations ended the life of Aegon’s siblings, but duty. Lady Barba and her father had groomed the younger Bethany Bracken to catch Aegon’s eye when the king visited his bastard son Aegor Rivers, later to be known as Bittersteel. The plan worked and Aegon took Bethany as his mistress and sent Missy Blackwood and her three children (one of them Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers) by him back to Blackhaven. Not enjoying his embraces, Bethany turned to a knight of the Kingsguard, Ser Terrence Toyne. After fiding them abed in 178 AC; King Aegon IV had both of them executed (and Bethany’s father). In revenge, Toyne’s brothers attempted to assassinate Aegon. The Dragonknight died saving his brother’s unworthy life. And the year after, Queen Naerys died in childbirth, along with the child.

Daeron fathered three more sons on Mariah Martell. These three might have appeased King Aegon IV some – they had light silvery hair and purple eyes at least. Still the promising grandson, Baelor, would have remained a Dornish thorn in Aegon’s eye. Baelor was smart, generous, fair and proved to have an aptitude for swords and the lists, as much as Daemon Waters seemed to be a promising warrior in the making. It is as if Aegon used Daemon as a competitor against Baelor, rather than Daeron.

Raised at the Red Keep, this handsome youth was given the instruction of the wisest maesters and the best masters-at-arms at court, including Ser Quentyn Ball, the fiery knight called Fireball. (tWoIaF, the Targaryen Kings: Aegon IV)

blackfyre_by_velvet_engine
by Velvet Engine

In 182 AC, Daemon won a squire’s tourney, a victory that Aegon IV used to dub Daemon Waters a knight, though Daemon was only twelve. Hence Daemon is on record as the youngest boy ever knighted. The king knighted Daemon with Aegon the Conquerer’s sword Blackfyre, the ancestral Targaryen sword of Valyrian steel that was handed from king to the next king. King Aegon IV went even a step further then. He legitimized Daemon and gave him the sword of kings. Hence, Daemon changed his name from Waters to Blackfyre, after the sword, and thus the Targaryen Cadet branch, House Blackfyre, was born.

King Aegon knighted Daemon in his twelfth year when he won a squires’ tourney (thereby making him the youngest knight ever made in the time of the Targaryens, surpassing Maegor I) and shocked his court, kin, and council by bestowing upon him the sword of Aegon the Conqueror, Blackfyre, as well as lands and other honors. Daemon took the name Blackfyre thereafter. (tWoIaF, the Targaryen Kings: Aegon IV)

For his sigil, Daemon reversed the colors of House Targaryen – a three-headed black dragon on a red field. The words of House Blackfyre are at present unknown!!!1 The Blackfyre lands with the right to build a castle were situated along the Blackwater Rush. Beyond that, Aegon IV arranged a betrothal for Daemon to Rohanne, the daughter of the Archon of Tyrosh.

Despite Aemon’s and Naerys’s deaths in service of him, Aegon IV referred to Daeron’s alleged illegitimacy in less than veiled terms, often threatening to disinherit him, and choose Daemon as heir instead. Though Aegon IV never actually disowned Daeron. While Yandel and others speculate over the reason why King Aegon IV did not disown Daeron, I will speculate why King Aegon IV threatened to disown Daeron. The simplest reason is pure selfishness, as a type of blackmail, reminding Daeron not to oppose the king with each new mistress or whatever other selfish thing he planned. He started the rumors that led to the accusation against his sister-wife Queen Naerys mainly for the same reason. While Daeron argued over plenty of things with the king, he does not seem to have bothered in meddling with his father’s mistresses anymore after Queen Naerys’s death. I do not think King Aegon IV believed his own allegations against Naerys. His ego would not allow the actual possibility that his wife and brother made a cuckold of him. Ultimately, King Aegon IV never disowned Daeron, because he never really had any intention of doing so. It was simply a threat to keep Dearon on a leash.

Why then did he give the sword Blackfyre to Daemon? The answer to that would be Baelor Targaryen, named after that “wretched” king Baelor who “exiled” Aegon to Braavos for years. By gifting it to Daemon, he kept it out of Baelor’s half Dornish hands. King Aegon IV could hardly give the Conquerer’s sword away to a bastard, hence he legitimized Daemon. Vanity and hatred for Dorne was the motivator, where Aegon IV did not so much favor Daemon over Daeron, but Daemon over Baelor.

Three years after Aegon IV’s death, Baelor proved his tourney prowess at the age of seventeen over Daemon Blackfyre at the 187 AC wedding tourney of Princess Daenerys Targaryen to the Prince of Dorne, Maron Martell, by winning it. This is how Baelor earned himself the nickname “Breakspear”. No doubt, King Aegon IV would have rolled over in his grave (if he ever would have had one – Targaryen burrial is burning the remains on a pyre).

Daeron II made sure the betrothal of Daemon and Rohanne was honored. Daemon married Rohanne at the age of 14 in 184 AC.

[Dearon II] paid the dowry that Aegon had promised to the Archon of Tyrosh, thereby seeing his half brother Daemon Blackfyre wed to Rohanne of Tyrosh as Aegon had desired, for all that Ser Daemon was only four-and-ten. […] (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II)

Daemon Blackfyre and Rohanne of Tyrosh had seven sons and at least two daughters. Their eldest children were twin sons, Aemon and Aegon, born in the same year of their marriage. The twins died in the Battle of Redgrass Field towards the end 196 AC, at age twelve. The third son, Daemon II, claimed he was only seven when he and his family fled to Tyrosh after the battle, and was twenty two during the events of the Mystery Knight in 211 AC. So, he was born in 189 AC. Four more younger sons were born between 190 and 196 AC, before the First Blackfyre Rebellion: Haegon, Aenys and two unnamed sons. Calla Blackfyre was the eldest of the daughters, at some point old enough to arrange a betrothal. As there is a gap of five years in age between the firstborn twins and Daemon II, she and at least one sister would have been born between 185 AC and 189 AC.

This gives us these estimated birth dates for Daemon’s children:

  • b. 184 AC: the twins Aegon and Aemon Blackfyre
  • b. 185/187 AC: Calla Blackfyre
  • b. 186/188 AC: at least one more daughter
  • b. 189 AC: Daemon II Blackfyre
  • b. 190/193 AC: Haegon I Blackfyre
  • b. 191/194 AC: Aenys Blackfyre
  • b. 192/196 AC: two more unnamed sons, and it cannot be ruled out they were twins

The First Blackfyre Rebellion (196 AC)

King Daeron II tried to preserve the peace as best as he could, with his legitimized half-brothers, the lords and Dorne. But many sycophants had profited from Aegon’s unworthy rule and others thirsted for war with Dorne. They had no use of a diplomatic king such as Dearon II “the Good”, let alone one who had such close peaceful ties with Dorne. They wanted a warrior king, like Daemon Blackfyre who sported all of the Valyrian looks, over-romanticising the love between Daeron’s sister Daenerys and Daemon Blackfyre and thus her political marriage to the Prince of Dorne, Maron Martell, as an insult and slight to Daemon. For years they hoped to move Daemon Blackfyre into rebellion. One of them was the Great Bastard, Aegor “Bittsersteel” Rivers, two years younger than Daemon Blackfyre. After agreeing to wed his eldest daughter Calla to Bittersteel, Daemon finally planned his coup towards the end of 195 AC.

Whatever the case may be, Aegor Rivers soon began to press Daemon Blackfyre to proclaim for the throne, and all the more so after Daemon agreed to wed his eldest daughter, Calla, to Aegor. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II)

King Daeron II discovered Daemon’s intentions and sent the Kingsguard to arrest him, but Daemon fled the Red Keep. Daemon’s backers ended up accusing King Daeron of acting against Daemon out of fear, while others repeated the rumor that Daeron was Falseborn. Eearly 196 AC, the rebels declared Daeron the bastard and Daemon the trueborn son of Daena and Aegon. The war was fought in the Vale, the westerlands, the riverlands and elsewhere. It all ended at Redgrass Field near the end of 196 AC, where Daemon and his eldest sons, the twins Aegon and Aemon (age 12) died, Bittersteel dueled Bloodraven, and Baelor Breakspear smashed the rearguard of the rebel army against his brother Maekar’s shieldwall. Baelor’s hammer and anvil tactic earned him the position of Hand of the King.

“Daemon was the Warrior himself that day. No man could stand before him. He broke Lord Arryn’s van to pieces and slew the Knight of Ninestars and Wild Wyl Waynwood before coming up against Ser Gwayne Corbray of the Kingsguard. For near an hour they danced together on their horses, wheeling and circling and slashing as men died all around them. It’s said that whenever Blackfyre and Lady Forlorn clashed, you could hear the sound for a league around. It was half a song and half a scream, they say. But when at last the Lady faltered, Blackfyre clove through Ser Gwayne’s helm and left him blind and bleeding. Daemon dismounted to see that his fallen foe was not trampled, and commanded Redtusk to carry him back to the maesters in the rear. And there was his mortal error, for the Raven’s Teeth had gained the top of Weeping Ridge, and Bloodraven saw his half brother’s royal standard three hundred yards away, and Daemon and his sons beneath it. He slew Aegon first, the elder of the twins, for he knew that Daemon would never leave the boy whilst warmth lingered in his body, though white shafts fell like rain. Nor did he, though seven arrows pierced him, driven as much by sorcery as by Bloodraven’s bow. Young Aemon took up Blackfyre when the blade slipped from his dying father’s fingers, so Bloodraven slew him, too, the younger of the twins. Thus perished the black dragon and his sons.” (The Sworn Sword)

Maester Yandel speculates on the possible reasons that finally prompted Daemon I Blackfyre to rebel:

  • Love for Daenerys Targaryen and his resentment of her being wed to the Prince of Dorne, though the rebellion did not take place until eight years after her marriage, and both Daenerys and Daemon seemed to have happy and fruitful marriages.
  • Bittersteel filling Daemon’s mind with poison, citing Bittersteel’s rivalry and hatred for Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers over Shiera Seastar. The actual evidence we have about Bittersteel’s character is that he very much respects the feudal Westerosi rules of succession and is immensely loyal to House Blackfyre throughout his life.  

The one option that Yandel never utters, but the most logical one is that Daemon came to actually believe that Daeron II Targaryen was Aemon’s son, because he and Bittersteel came into evidence of a reliable witness account. Naerys’s piousness and Aemon’s heroism does not mean there was not a moment of weakness, shortly after Naerys’s marriage to their elder brother Aegon while Aemon attempted to comfort her, before he became a kingsguard. The one-time might have prompted Aemon to become a kingsguard. No matter how pious and dutiful either two were, they were human. Aegon IV hit on the truth by accident, one that he himself did not believe. It is not as if the result of a trial by combat is actual evidence of innocense. If Daeron II was the Dragonknight’s son, it does not make Daemon I Blackfyre any less bastardborn, but he at least would have been Aegon IV’s son, and King Aegon IV legitimized him.

Of course maester Yandel can never actually propose this option, since Robert Baratheon’s grandmother is a Targaryen descendant of Daeron the Good. Yandel has an agenda and his life to protect. But we as readers can consider the possibilities he must censure: that despite rumors Daemon Blackfyre remained unconvinced and unmoved for years, until he and Aegor Rivers came into evidence that convinced them that Daeron the Good was not Aegon IV’s son. The selfish motives of the sycophant lords of Aegon IV and Aegon IV himself, the war motives of Marcher Lords such as House Peake, the goodness of Daeron as king, the piousness of Naerys and the heroism of the Dragonknight, the enmity between Aegor Rivers and Brynden Rivers are nothing more than a lot of trees to obscure the forest – that there was truth in the accusation of Naerys and that House Blackfyre and Bittersteel were convinced of this, just like Stannis Baratheon believes that Cersei’s children on the Iron Throne are not Robert’s children, but Jaime’s. In the case of Cersei’s children, we know that Stannis is correct.  

House Blackfyre in Tyrosh (196 – 211 AC)

Daemon’s widow Rohanne fled with her surviving children and Bittersteel to Tyrosh.

[…]Daemon Blackfyre’s surviving sons fled to Tyrosh, their mother’s home, and with them went Bittersteel. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II)

We know almost next to nothing about their lives in Tyrosh until 211 AC when Daemon II attempts to start a Second Blackfyre Rebellion. This is of course, because maester Yandel is not writing a history for House Blackfyre in Tyrosh. He writes a history that is relevant for Westeros about the Targaryen kings and what problems and threats House Targyaren had to overcome. For fifteen years, history and the aSoIaF series remains silent about House Blackfyre and Bittersteel, except for three slight mentions that “Bittersteel gathered exiled lords and knights” with which he formed the Golden Company in 212 AC, after the Second Blackfyre Rebellion failed.

No matter how throwaway, obscure and little these tidbits are, they give crucial information about House Blackfyre living as refugees and exiles in Tyrosh and what Aegor Rivers aimed to accomplish. These lead to a conclusion that actually contradicts the in-world conclusion by Yandel in the World Book and characters in the Mystery Knight about the Second Blackfyre Rebellion.

The first concrete tidbit of information is that Daemon’s widow, Rohanne of Tyrosh, was the daughter of the Archon. The position of an archon is not a hereditary function transferred from father to son, though it may be a function for life. It would require lobbying, not unlike what we see in our modern political system. It is not totally the same, as only a conclave of the wealthiest and noblest elects the Archon amongst themselves. So, it requires blood, wealth, promises and marriage ties to get to the top of the Tyroshi power pyramid. And since it is not hereditary, an Archon and his family would spread their wealth and marriage ties in order to remain influential withinthe conclave. As Tyrosh is not a kingdom with extensive lands to farm, but a city, the nobility’s wealth would be funneled into and be dependent on merchant business, ships, and trade, like we see with Illyrio, a magister of Pentos.

We do not know whether Rohanne’s father was still Archon in 196-197 AC. Doran Martell though confirms that the Archon of Tyrosh in 300 AC is still the same Archon that Viserys and Dany resided with, as Arianne was supposed to serve as cupbearer there. And after the Tyrant of Tyrosh, a self-crowned merchant prince, was killed, the previous Archon was reinstalled into power. So, Rohanne’s father likely still was the Archon. Even if not, Rohanne would still have one of the wealthiest and noblest families of Tyrosh to seek shelter with, nor would they turn her out since she and her children were kin (unlike Dany and Viserys).

Daemon I Blackfyre agreed to wed Calla Blackfyre to Aegor Rivers, aka a betrothal. Calla could not have been born before 185 AC and therefore would only have been eleven at the most when her family fled Westeros, younger even at the time that Daemon agreed for Bittersteel to become his brother-in-law, before the rebellion. Therefore the marriage would have happened in Tyrosh. Though, no source confirms that Bittersteel actually married Calla or had children with her, Aegor Rivers was tied to House Blackfyre and its cause for the rest of his exiled life. He lived, fought and died for that family from 196 AC until 241 AC. It would require suspension of disbelief for Bittersteel remaining this loyal to a family if Rohanne broke the marriage agreement. Furthermore, House Blackfyre needed a male Westorsi kingmaker figure to lead the family. A man like Bittersteel would think for House Blackfyre and would have prevented another Tyroshi adult patriarch from using Daemon’s children completely for their own personal Tyroshi interests. So, we can conclude that Aegor Rivers became part of the Blackfyre family through marriage with Calla Blackfyre.

George has refrained of bedding any character in the series before the year they turn thirteen. The earliest possible year for Calla would be 198 AC. Veering into the imaginative, we can see how such a wedding of the Archon’s granddaughter to Aegor Rivers was the excellent feast to invite important families and make introductions, and/or for Rohanne’s father to give Calla (and thus House Blackfyre) a mansion for a wedding gift, thereby making House Blackfyre established residents of Tyrosh. Amongst these introductions would have been promising cousins or sons or daughters of wealthy contacts or allies withinthe conclave as possible groom or bride for Daemon’s others daughters and surviving sons, respectively.  f course, these introductions would serve the interests of Rohanne’s father or family more than House Blackfyre. Fundamentally, House Blackfyre’s aim is to return to Westeros and claim the Iron Throne, not getting a son to be elected as Archon or settle a political feud between two families. Even if Rohanne’s own father was obviously interested in gaining some foothold into royalty in Westeros, this would be more of an extra expansion on the side. The main political and financial roots of Rohanne’s family are invested in Tyrosh, not Westeros.

Daemon’s daughters are the easiest to give up for that purpose. Rohanne and Bittersteel can ask dowries for them. House Blackfyre gain family ties with other noble families in Tyrosh, or strengthen the tie with Rohanne’s own family. And Rohanne’s Tyroshi family is happy too, as their own political and business interests are served. Meanwhile Tyroshi merchant princes and ambitious nobelmen hoping to be Archon one day would find “princesses” with Valyrian dragonlord blood in their veins most interesting, if not for themselves, their sons or brothers.

Alternatively House Blackfyre could have married Daemon’s other daugther(s) to exiled lords who fled along with them, but that would not advance the family’s survival in Tyrosh. The assets of both House Blackfyre as well as those exiled lords are land and castles in Westeros. As exiles in Tyrosh they have no access to them and thus have no material assets at all. They are noble or royal beggers. Aside from Aegor Rivers himself, we never hear of any exiled lord or knight who remains attached to House Blackfyre in Essos. And thus I think it unlikely that beside Calla, another daughter was wed to landless exiled lords.

It would not be impossible for a family brought up amongst Targaryens to consider marrying one of the daughters to a younger brother. But then they would lose out on making allies, either in Tyrosh or Westeros. Lord Bloodraven’s remark to Duncan the Tall in the Mystery Knight about the possibility that if he were to kill Daemon II either his younger brothers or even his sisters could be used by Bittersteel to rally a rebellion behind (see the Second Blackfyre Rebellion section), suggests that the sisters were not wed to their younger brothers. But I could be wrong, and if Daemon had three daughters George can go with Calla married to the exiled knight Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers, another married to a Tyroshi merchant prince and a third married to a younger brother.

The earliest speculative year that the second eldest daughter could have been wed at thirteen would be 199 AC, but Rohanne and Aegor Rivers may both have wanted to wait a few years for them to find eligible and worthy grooms. So, they likely were wed out in the first five years after 200 AC.

We are also told by Illyrio that House Blackfyre only went extinct in the male line.

Illyrio brushed away the objection as if it were a fly. “Black or red, a dragon is still a dragon. “When Maelys the Monstrous died upon the Stepstones, it was the end of the male line of House Blackfyre.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)

In other words, there still are descendants of House Blackfyre through the female line. None of them would carry the name Blackfyre, but they would have the blood. While the “female line” can cover Blackfyre issue from any daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, certainly some of those may be descendants of both Daemon I Blackfyre and Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers through Calla Blackfyre, whose children would also marry into the Tyroshi nobility, for after all Calla and her children never returned to Westeros. The same is true for Calla’s sister(s) and their children.

Thus Tyroshi characters with a Tyroshi last name and deep blue eyes that seem purple in certain circumstances in the present timeline of the series are of particular interest. Only those born to nobility or wealthy long-standing middle class families have an actual family name. Commoners and slaves do not, not in Westeros (unless acknowledged bastards, which is rare for bastards born on commoners), nor in Essos. Daario Naharis is such a character². His Tyroshi last name tells us that he is noble born and his eyes appear purple when he changes his attire and dye from indigo blue to purple. So,  he is certainly a character under consideration of being a descendant of Daemon I Blackfyre through a daughter, a granddaughter or great-granddaughter wed to a man of the Naharis family, sometime roughly between 200 AC and 270 AC.  

What about Daemon’s sons? Since the intent was to make one of them king of the Iron Throne, House Blackfyre would require the support of houses in Westeros both to rebel, gain and keep a throne. I expect that at least the first decade it would be prudent to wait and hold off on betrothals for the sons, especially since the wife of one of Daemon’s sons could end up being Queen of Westeros. And since Bloodraven does not take sons of Daemon II or his younger brothers into account in the Mystery Knight, it seems as if Daemon I’s sons neither married nor fathered children yet by 211 AC.

Another pressing issue would have been funding. Rohanne’s family may help out with gifting a mansion, providing staff (slaves), but family help would only go so far in educating, clothing, and feeding a household, keeping (exiled) supporters close or interested, especially when one has royal pretensions. Take for instance Daemon II’s jewelry and attire –

[John the Fiddler] was the sort of name a hedge knight might choose, but Dunk had never seen any hedge knight garbed or armed or mounted in such splendor. The knight of the golden hedge, he thought.[…] His white silk doublet had lagged sleeves lined with red satin, so long their points drooped down past his knees. A heavy silver chain looped across his chest, studded with huge dark amethysts whose color matched his eyes. That chain is worth as much as everything I own, Dunk thought. […] The Fiddler smelled of oranges and limes, with a hint of some strange eastern spice beneath. Nutmeg, perhaps. Dunk could not have said. What did he know of nutmeg?  […] Dunk could only stand and watch as the Fiddler’s big black trotted onto the field in a swirl of blue silk and golden swords and fiddles. His breastplate was enameled blue as well, as were his poleyns, couter, greaves, and gorget. The ringmail underneath was gilded. (The Mystery Knight)

That requires money. Even the most generous amongst wealthy families do not let a refugee family as large as Rohann’s live on their dime for fifteen to sixteen years, not for free. And certainly the exiled Blackfyre supporters were forced to sell their swords.

Those followers of the Black Dragon who survived the battle yet refused to bend the knee fled across the narrow sea, among them Daemon’s younger sons, Bittersteel, and hundreds of landless lords and knights who soon found themselves forced to sell their swords to eat. (aDwD, Tyrion II)

While Maynard Plumm and Ser Eustace Osgrey refer to Bittersteel as plotting with Daemon’s sons in Tyrosh, in 210 and 211 AC, Inkpots of the Second Sons has this to say –

Inkpots to Tyrion: “Aegor Rivers served a year with us, before he left to found the Golden Company. Bittersteel, you call him.” (aDwD, Tyrion XII)

Like other exiled, landless lords, Bittersteel eventually ended up selling his sword. Even Yandel knows this.

Many famous names from the Seven Kingdoms have served in the Second Sons at one time or another. Prince Oberyn Martell rode with them before founding his own company; Rodrik Stark, the Wandering Wolf, was counted one of them as well. The most famous Second Son was Ser Aegor Rivers, that bastard son of King Aegon IV known to history as Bittersteel, who fought with them in the first years of his exile before forming the Golden Company […] (tWoIaF – The Three Quarrelsome Daughters)

Notice how Yandel says “years” while Inkpots explains it was only a year. Of the two, I am inclined to consider Inkpots a better and more precise source than Yandel. And we should, imo, take “first years of exile” as a broad stroke in comparison to Bittersteel’s forty five years of exile, not as a reference to the first years of the first phase of exile up to the second rebellion. In fact, I interprete the year of selling his sword to the Second Sons as being more towards the end of that first phase of exile than at the start, either 210 or 211 AC.

Money was not the sole reason for Aegor Rivers joining the Second Sons. Initially the lords and knights that fled to Essos with Rohanne and Bittersteel might have lingered, but they were forced to sell their sword to eat. Some joined the Second Sons, the Ragged Standard, the Maiden’s Men. And Aegor Rivers saw the swords, the forces he hoped to use to put Daemon’s son on the throne less and less, some dying for merchant wars in the Disputed Lands, and divided across several Free Companies.

Some joined the Ragged Standard, some the Second Sons or Maiden’s Men. Bittersteel saw the strength of House Blackfyre scattering to the four winds […] (aDwD, Tyrion II)

It seems that Bittersteel hoped to reconnect with those scattered sellswords, see whether fighting alongside them might bring them back to House Blackfyre.

We can conclude in general that Rohanne took care of her children, while Aegor Rivers played house for several years with Calla Blackfyre, helped to raise Daemon’s sons as their uncle and brother-in-law, kept tabs on Westeros, and started to prepare for the future in a military sense, by selling his sword to the Second Sons. Meanwhile the surviving children grew up into marriagable teens and early tweens.

The Second Blackfyre Rebellion (211 AC)

The lords who had not gone into exile with Rohanne and Bittersteel, but bent the knee to Daeron II, had surrendered sons and daughters as hostages to ensure their good conduct and loyalty. Crown Prince Baelor “Breakspear” Targaryen was Hand and popular for he was known as one of the best warriors, but also just and generous. Baelor had two sons, Valarr and Matarys, with Valarr also showing promise in popularity, and interestingly enough also wed to a noblewoman of Tyrosh, named Kiera. Until 209 AC, Daeron II and the realm could not be more sure that Breakspear would be king after him and that the Targaryen line would continue either through Valarr or Matarys. But then a Trial by Seven at the Tourney of Ashford cost the life of the Crown Prince and later in the same year, the Great Spring Sickness took the lives of Daeron II, Prince Valarr and Matarys. Valarr had no heirs: both of Valarr’s sons on Kiera of Tyrosh were stillborn. Neither a diplomat, nor a warrior became king of Westeros, but a man who was preoccupied with books about prophecy and higher mysteries, Daeron’s second son, Aerys I. Like Baelor the Blessed, King Aerys I did not care about fathering offspring. Though he refused to set his cousin-wife Aelinor Penrose aside, he never bedded her. The best and seemingly only decision of importance that Aerys I ever made in order to safeguard his dynasty was to appoint Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers as Hand.

In such a climate, Lord Gormon Peake contacts Daemon II Blackfyre in Tyrosh and smuggles or lures him across the narrow sea, back to Westeros, in the hope to kick off a second Blackfyre Rebellion in 211 AC at a wedding tourney at Whitewalls. But Bloodraven knows of the plan and the lords and knights grow increasingly doubtful, as they realize that Bittersteel is not involved, that Daemon does not have the sword Blackfyre with him and that Daemon the Younger might look the knightly part but is far from a skilled one. Towards the end, most men doubt whether he is even Daemon’s son.

In the Mystery Knight, one of the important points repeated several times by the conspiritors at the Wedding Tourney of Whitewalls is how Bittersteel is not involved and how Daemon II does not carry Blackfyre with him.

Dunk heard footfalls on the steps, the scrape of boots on stone. “…beggar’s feast you’ve laid before us Without Bittersteel…”
“Bittersteel be buggered,” insisted a familiar voice [Gormond Peake]. “No bastard can be trusted, not even him. A few victories will bring him over the water fast enough.” […]
[…] Lord Butterwell: “Frey and I harbored doubts about Lord Peake’s pretender since the beginning. He does not bear the sword! If he were his father’s son, Bittersteel would have armed him with Blackfyre.[…]” (the Mystery Knight)

Yandel and the Citadel discuss and speculate why Bittersteel did not support Daemon II.

That Daemon the Younger dreamed of becoming king is well-known, as is the fact that Bittersteel did not support him in his effort to claim the throne. But why Bittersteel supported the father but refused the son remains a question that is sometimes argued over in the halls of the Citadel. Many will claim that Young Daemon and Lord Gormon could not convince Bittersteel that their plan was sound, and truth be told, it seems a fair argument; Peake was blind to reason in his thirst for revenge and the recovery of his seats, and Daemon was convinced that he would succeed no matter the odds. Yet others suggest that Bittersteel was a hard man who had little use for anything beyond war and mistrusted Daemon’s dreams and his love of music and fine things. And others still raise an eyebrow at Daemon’s close relationship to the young Lord Cockshaw, and suggest that this would have troubled Aegor Rivers enough to deny the young man his aid. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aerys I)

I question whether it was actually a “fact” that Bittersteel did not support Daemon II. There is a distinction between Bittersteel not supporting Daemon the Younger, Bittersteel not being present and therefore unable to support the plan. Inkpots’ revelation of Bittersteel serving the Second Sons for a year before he founded the Golden Company (in 212 AC), provides us with the simplest answer to explain Bittersteel’s absence in the plot – If Bittersteel was not in Tyrosh at the time, but serving the Second Sons, then Lord Peake and Daemon II acted without Bittersteel’s knowledge. Then Peake’s plot with Daemon II was hatched and executed behind Bittersteel’s back, while he was away trying to earn money and making military contacts for Daemon II. Certainly Gormon Peake’s reply to Thomas Heddle about Bittersteel befits that of a man who does not want others to delve too deep in Bittersteel’s absence. If Peake went behind Bittersteel’s back, naturally he would not want Thomas Heddle and others moan about “but Bittersteel!”

Daemon II is shown to be a charming dreamer, more than a warrior. He has the looks, can ride a horse and hold a lance. Even if his skills are not worthy of praise and Lord Peake has to bribe the opponents to lose the jousts against “John the Fiddler”, Daemon the Younger still had basic martial and jousting training.

John the Fiddler paid the older man no mind. “I would love to cross swords with you, ser. I’ve tried men of many lands and races, but never one your size. Was your father large as well?” (The Mystery Knight)

Daemon was seven years old when he fled with his mother to Tyrosh. It would have fallen to Bittersteel to hire or instruct Daemon the Younger. The quote does indicate that Aegor Rivers tried to have Daemon taught in arms and war, insofar Daemon actually would have wanted to practice, instead of dreaming of songs and stories and big knights to “cross swords” with (wink wink at the double entrendre in the above quote for a gay character).

While Bittersteel would have realized that Daemon II is not one to lead an army himself, this does not mean that Bittersteel believed him an unsuitable pretender, not if Bittersteel could be Daemon’s Hand for example.

Furthermore, we have explicit evidence that Bittersteel never tried to upjump a younger brother or nephew before Daemon. Aegor Rivers respected the line of succession and did not crown a new Blackfyre pretender before Daemon II was dead. Bloodraven counts on this when he explains to Duncan why he will not kill Daemon the Younger.

[Bloodraven] is marking down the men to die, Dunk realized. “My lord,” he said, “we saw the heads outside. Is that… will the Fiddler… Daemon… will you have his head as well?”
Lord Bloodraven looked up from his parchment. “That is for King Aerys to decide… but Daemon has four younger brothers, and sisters as well. Should I be so foolish as to remove his pretty head, his mother will mourn, his friends will curse me for a kinslayer, and Bittersteel will crown his brother Haegon. Dead, young Daemon is a hero. Alive, he is an obstacle in my half brother’s path. He can hardly make a third Blackfyre king whilst the second remains so inconveniently alive. Besides, such a noble captive will be an ornament to our court, and a living testament to the mercy and benevolence of His Grace King Aerys.” (The Mystery Knight)

Bloodraven certainly implies that Bittersteel crowned Daemon II himself, before Peake believed himself to be a better kingmaker than Bittersteel. And he already hinted to Duncan as Maynard Plumm that Peake was acting to make Daemon II king for his own ends, with Daemon as a puppet, far earlier.

Maynard Plumm (aka glamored Bloodraven): “You would be surprised to know how many lords prefer their kings brave and stupid. Daemon is young and dashing, and looks good on a horse.” (The Mystery Knight)

While maesters of the Citadel might argue that Bittersteel would roll his eyes at Daemon the Younger having dragon dreams, because the majority of the maesters consider prophetic dreams preposterous, I doubt that Bittersteel himself would have shrugged them away or considered them nonsense. For all we know, Daemon’s dragon dreams might have prompted Bittersteel to go into the service of the Second Sons with the aim to start gathering knights and lords.

My proposal presents a scenario where Bittersteel ironically tried to prepare for a new rebellion for the lead pretender he had, King Daemon II Blackfyre, rather than the heir he wished for. It is just that while Bittersteel worked for this, away from Tyrosh, Lord Peake messed up Bittersteel’s efforts for Daemon II.

So, why did Daemon not have the sword with him then? Imagine that more than ten years after you last rebelled and fled Wester, you attempt to recruit exiled knights and lords across the Free Cities, all serving in different free companies. How would you test their loyalty and convince them, without dragging Daemon the Younger himself along in order to avoid the dreamer ends up killing himself? Carrying the sword Blackfyre would be of extreme help in this. It would certainly serve better than introducing them to Daemon the Younger.

From Bloodraven’s words about there being four younger brothers and even sisters that Bittersteel could crown and how killing Daemon II would grieve Rohanne, we can infer several things. First, Rohanne of Tyrosh is still alive in 211 AC, so are all of his younger brothers and at least two of his (older) sisters. Secondly, Daemon the Younger had no legitimate sons. If Daemon II had any children, they were either illigitemate, stillborn, or daughters. However, since Bloodraven makes a mention of sisters, but not daughters in relation to Daemon II, this suggests that Daemon II had no children whatsoever. This would not be all that surprising, with the many hints of Daemon’s homosexuality. We do not ever see Daemon II charm any woman in the Mystery Knight, while he does not lack charm and looks. He uses that charm only for lords and hedge knights. Certainly in the Mystery Knight, Alyn Cockshaw is possessive of Daemon II and twice plans to have Dunk murdered, because Daemon the Younger shows too much attention to Duncan.  From Renly Baratheon we can extrapolate how Daemon the Younger would only have married out of necessity to produce an heir after he already had won the Iron Throne he was so certain he would win.

Bloodraven makes no mention of nephews to Daemon. While nephews would never come before their fathers, they would come before Daemon’s sisters. Hence any sons born to the younger brothers of Daemon the Younger were not born yet before 211 AC.

Court of King’s Landing: Kiera, Daemon II and freak-deaths (197 – 222 AC)

Bloodraven seems to want to spare Rohanne the grief of losing yet another son. We could interprete that as Brynden Rivers being merely sympathetic to Rohanne, but the story where he shoots one of the twins, before Daemon and then finally the other twin son at Redgrass Field makes me doubts such an interpretation. He speaks euphemistically about the more machiavellistic reasons not wishing to incite Rohanne’s Tyroshi family any more than they might already be. The oddity of Kiera of Tyrosh further strengthens my suspicion.

George has remained very close mouthed about Kiera – that is, her name is not mentioned except in the appendix of the Targaryen lineage of the World Book. Without the lineage Valarr’s wife who had two stillborn sons would remain unnamed. Without the lineage the mother of Daeron’s daughter, Vaella would remain unnamed. Baelor Breakspear’s son Valarr was wed to this Kiera of Tyrosh. We have no actual confirmation of Valarr’s age, but we know he is the eldest son of Baelor Breakspear. Hence, we can predict that Prince Valarr was not born before 183 AC. That is the earliest year when Baelor (born in 170 AC) would have turned thirteen.

Baelor’s wife is Jenna Dondarrion, the daughter of a Marcher Lord. This gives us some information to estimate the earliest possible date of a marriage between a Prince with a Dornish mother and a daughter of a longtime enemy of Dorne. Especially, when we remember that House Dondarrion guested Baelor the Blessed for half a year to recover from the snake bites. This match seems something Daeron II would do, rather than Aegon IV. It seems unlikely that Aegon IV would give his half Dornish-grandson such a strategical house just North of the Boneway for an ally through marriage. But aside from rewarding House Dondrarrion in helping to save Baelor the Blessed’s life, Daeron could have used it to balance out the marriage of his sister Daenerys to the Prince of Dorne in 187 AC : a Marcher Lord gets the Crown Prince for a son-in-law, while the Prince of Dorne gets the King as brother-in-law. Since Daeron II was not king before 184 AC, then Baelor not-yet-Breakspear would not have married Jenna Dondarrion before 184 AC, and thus Valarr could not have been born before 184 AC.

The earliest possible date for Prince Valarr to marry Kiera of Tyrosh was 196-197 AC, either during the First Blackfyre Rebellion or a year later, after House Blackfyre had fled to Tyrosh. Because of the rules of taking part in the Tourney of Ashford, we know that Prince Valarr (who was champion for Lord Ashford’s daughter) was at least sixteen in 209 AC. The Wiki speculates that Vallar was at least eighteen, since his father could fit in his armor, and men physically reach full maturity at eighteen. So, Valarr was born at the latest in 191 AC, and then the marriage to Kiera of Tyrosh would have taken place in 204 AC at the earliest. We do know that since Valarr died in 209 AC of the Great Spring Sickness, and that Kiera of Tyrosh had given birth to two stillborn sons, the last possible marriage year would have been 208 AC. Whichever precise year Valarr and Kiera married, it falls right smack in the time period that House Targaryen and Bloodraven were nervous about Bittersteel plotting with Daemon’s sons in Tyrosh and House Blackfyre building a network of marriage alliances there.

We do not know how Kiera of Tyrosh related to Rohanne of Tyrosh: a daughter of a rivaling political family or Tyroshi kin. But the least we can say is that it must be meaningful that another Tyroshi noblewomen was married to a likely Targaryen heir, after Rohanne, while Rohanne’s children are plotting in Tyrosh. It becomes all the more suspicious, and possibly mercenary, when Kiera of Tyrosh does not return home after Valarr’s death.

After Valarr, Kiera of Tyrosh is wedded to Daeron “the Drunken” Targaren, eldest son of Maekar. This is rather eye-brow raising given the fact that she has already proven to have had difficulty in delivering a healthy, living child. Again, we do not know when Kiera of Tyrosh married Daeron, but we have confirmation that she gave birth to a daughter Vaella, sweet but simple-minded, in 222 AC. No stillbirths are mentioned with Daeron prior to 222 AC. It almost appears as if Kiera of Tyrosh was not wedded to Daeron the Drunken until 221 AC, the year that Aerys I died and Daeron’s father Maekar I became king. With a possible gap between marriages of twelve years, I almost wonder whether Kiera was kept in in King’s Landing all those years as an officious hostage to prevent the political powers in Tyrosh from uniting all behind House Blackfyre. As a recompensation, Tyrosh would get a Queen of Westeros, regardless of the evidence that she had trouble birthing heirs.

Another possibility for the hypothetical twelve year gap was that they wanted to keep the option open for Aerys I to wed Kiera of Tyrosh. As soon as Aerys I became king, his small council proposed for him to set aside his wife Aelinor Penrose and take another.

Wed to Aelinor Penrose, he never showed an interest in getting her with child, and rumor had it that he had even failed to consummate the marriage. His small council, at their wits’ ends, hoped it was simply some dislike of her that moved him, and thus they urged him to put her aside to take another wife. But he would not hear of it. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aerys I)

He never fathered an heir. Aelinor Penrose presumably died a maid. Meanwhile, Aerys had to appoint a new heir several times, because they kept dying before him. His younger brother, next in line, was Rhaegel (who ran around mad and naked in court), but choked to death on a lamprey pie in 215 AC. Rhaegel’s son, Aelor, died in 217 in some grotesque incident by the hand his twin sister-wife, Aelora. She went mad with grief over it, and eventually took her own life, after an attack by the Rat, the Hawk and the Pig at a masked ball.

His brother Rhaegel, third son of Daeron the Good, had predeceased him, choking to death upon a lamprey pie in 215 AC during a feast. Rhaegel’s son, Aelor, then became the new Prince of Dragonstone and heir to the throne, only to die two years after, slain in a grotesque mishap by the hand of his own twin sister and wife, Aelora, under circumstances that left her mad with grief. (Sadly, Aelora eventually took her own life after being attacked at a masked ball by three men known to history as the Rat, the Hawk, and the Pig.)  (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aerys I)

Especially with Rhaegel and Aelor one starts to wonder whether there was an assassin operating. Was it the Strangler in a cup of wine instead of lamprie pie that killed Rhaegel?

Margaery Tyrell began to sob, and Tyrion heard her mother Lady Alerie saying, “He choked, sweetling. He choked on the pie. It was naught to do with you. He choked. We all saw.” (aSoS, Tyrion VIII)

And that grotesque incident where a a twin-wife killed her beloved twin-husband and afterwards is mad with grief sounds like someone had her eat a roast seasoned with basilisk blood.

The waif put the tears to one side and opened a fat stone jar. “This paste is spiced with basilisk blood. It will give cooked flesh a savory smell, but if eaten it produces violent madness, in beasts as well as men. A mouse will attack a lion after a taste of basilisk blood.” (aFfC, Cat of the Canals)

Was Aelora pregnant? An assault could cause her to miscarry. And rape by three thugs would throw doubt on the paternity of such a hypoethetical child. Yes, this is a highly speculative serial murder and assassination scenario, but given the Purple Wedding and the Waif’s words about basilisk poison not that farfetched. The question would then be: who was behind these rapidly consecutive deaths?

  • Kiera of Tyrosh or her family, all in order to get her be queen.
  • Daemon II who was a hostage in King’s Landing and wears a silver chain with dark purple amethysts.
  • Another prince who due to dragon dreams believed he would be king one day, like Aerion Brightflame.
  • Bittersteel.
  • A supporter of House Blackfyre acting on his own (like House Peake has done before)

I do not plan to solve a murder mystery that may not even be a murder mystery. But I will give some initial reflections regarding those hypothetical organizers. Hiring Faceless Men and thugs to assassinate Targaryens does not seem like anything that Bittersteel would approve, let alone organize. He seems a man who wants to win the throne by conquering Westeros, not poison.

A secret Blackfyre supporter in Westeros might be less scrupulous though. Aerys I and Maekar were estranged, after Aerys I made Bloodraven his Hand. Maekar took this as an insult and brooded in Summerhall. Aerys I would be politically at his weakest with Rhaegel and Rhaegel’s children gone with Maekar in Summerhall, the eldest nephew a drunk, the other temporarily exiled by his own father, the third learning for maester and the fourth being no more princely than a peasant is. And yet, why stop at Aelora?

Unless the organizer himself ends up dead. Daemon II Blackfyre‘s estimated death would be either 218 AC or early 219 AC, because in 219 AC Bittersteel crowns Daemon’s younger brother Haegon. Even if he seems a buffoon on the one hand, and his disguise is a poor one, he is not dirty of deception or trying to get innocent people executed. All his opponents at the tourney are bribed to lose when they joust against John the Fiddler and Ser Glendon Ball is accused of stealing a dragon egg, with the evidence only being a painted stone put in his bag. While Lord Gormond Peake is proven to be behind this and Dunk leaves room for Daemon to be innocent of it, in the end Daemon does not have the painted dragon egg fetched and jousts against Ser Glendon Ball to prove that Glendon is guilty. How far Daemon himself is willing to go into deception and actually has little honor is left ambiguous. And of course we have that glaring silver necklace with dark purple amethysts around his neck. It should not be fully ignored that the freak-accidents coincide with his captitivy in King’s Landing, if only because he might have had dragon dreams that the organizer or murderer may have used as a guide to bring it about.

Aerion Brightflame Targaryen certainly has the cruelty to plot murder and assassination. Egg tells Duncan in the Hedge Knight how Aerion once entered Aegon’s room, held a knife to Egg’s private parts and threatened to make him a eunuch. He believed in dragon dreams insofar he thought he would turn into a dragon if he drank a cup of wildfire. And it is claimed he meddled in dark arts. Except we do not know whether he was even in Westeros at the time. Maekar sent Aerion to Lys in 209 AC for the trouble he had caused at the Tourney of Ashford.  But we do not know when he returned, except that he was present during the Third Blackfyre Rebellion in 219 AC. In answer to a question, George answered

Lastly, (iv), well, Aerion Brightfire did not stay in Lys all his life, only a few years. He may have fathered a few bastards there, […] (SSM, Many Questions, october 14, 1998)

However, Inkpots of the Second Sons reveals that Aerion was not always in Lys and served with them, like Bittersteel.

“The Bright Prince, Aerion Targaryen, he was a Second Son.” (aDwD, Tyrion XII)

Curiously, Yandel does not mention him as one of the members of the Second Sons, either because he does not know, or left it out. I would say that serving with the Second Sons ought to be added to the “few years” in Lys. Now while interpreting the use of “a few” and “several” is highly speculative, we do tend to use “few” in relation to roughly indicate two, maximally three years, while “several” for example is used to indicate more than two, either three or four. Why would it matter? Because it is not impossible for George to write Bittersteel and Brightflame serving the Second Sons at the same time. Not that would have anything to do with a murder plot of his uncles and cousins, of course. Nor is it unusual for princes and Westerosi traveling in Essos to join a Free Company. It almost sounds like one of those touristy things to do. At any regard, it does show that Aerion travelered around in Essos, possibly fought alongside Bittersteel, or against him after Bittersteel founded the Golden Company, that he sold his sword for cash, and still might have made it back to King’s Landing by 215 AC.

That Kiera of Tyrosh was married twice to a crown prince while House Blackfyre is sheltering in Tyrosh is no coincidence either. And if she was already married to Daeron during Aerys’s reign, she was one of those who seemed about to reap the benefits of those deaths. 

Anyway, with that I end the interlude of eyebrow raising “coincidences” for this time period between the Second and Third Blackfyre Rebellion that raise more questions than answers.

The Golden Company (since 212 AC)

The year after Daemon’s failed attempt at starting a second rebellion, Aegor Rivers founded his Golden Company in 212 AC.

In Essos, Bittersteel gathered exiled lords and knights, and their descendants, to him. He formed the Golden Company in 212 AC, and soon established it as the foremost free company of the Disputed Lands. “Beneath the gold, the bitter steel” became their battle cry, renowned across Essos. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II)

Their battle cry is “Beneath the gold, the bitter steel,” but their motto is “Our word is as good as gold.” The latter refers to their reputation of never haven broken a contract, not until 300 AC, when they broke their contract with Myr in order to honor the one writ in blood with Illyrio for Aegon.

Most free companies are born in the Disputed Lands that lie between Tyrosh, Myr and Lys. At present there are two score (aka forty) free companies.

The Disputed Lands has been the birthplace of more of these so-called free companies than any other place in the known world, beginning during the Century of Blood. Even today, there are twoscore free companies in the region; when not employed by the three quarrelsome daughters, the sellswords oft seek to carve out conquests of their own.(tWoIaF – The Three Quarrelsome Daughters: Myr, Lys and Tyrosh)

However, many of those would be low in numbers and nothing more than rabble out for loot. In an interview George explained it thus:

Hal9000: I presume the mounted mercenaries from the eastern continent aren’t as heavily armored as the Westerosi knights? What about their skills and discipline compared to the Westerosi knights?

George: It varies. Some of the sellsword companies are very disciplined, and some are nothing but rabble joined together in search of loot. At one end there would be the Golden Company, at the other the Brave Companions. The Second Sons and the Stormcrows are in the middle. (SSM Military Questions, June 21, 2001)

The Brave Companions, aka the Bloody Mummers, for example are a Free Company of around 100 men. Jaime’s escort of Walton Steelshank of two hundred men outnumbers the Brave Companions two to one. The Brave Companions lost members during the fight with Ser Amory’s men inside Harrenhal, some to Nymeria’s pack, and some more to the Brotherhood Without Banners before Jaime’s escort. That still accounts for a loss of little over a score of men, not hundreds, let alone thousands. Most of those forty Free Companies would be comparable to the Bloody Mummers – in numbers and poor discipline.

While Ben Plumm’s Second Sons is one of the oldest companies and falls on the middle side of discipline it allegedly has only five hundred men under contract. Daario’s Stormcrows are of similar size, all ahorse. I should add that the Second Sons at one time may have had double their present number. The former commander of the Second Sons prior to Ben Plumm, Mero, caused the Second Sons to have such a bad reputation (comparable to the Brave Companions) that the Free Cities did not even want to hire the Second Sons anymore. Companies that are not hired mean loss of revenue for a sellsword. The last few years, the Second Sons would have had a low number of recruits, while every sellsword who had finished their contract would leave and seek another more profitable company to join. 

We have no known numers for historical companies such as the Bright Banners, Stormbreakers or the Company of the Rose, but presumably are at best the same in size. The Company of the Rose for example was founded by Northerners who chose exile over bending the knee to Aegon the Conquerer three hundred years ago, including female warriors. It is unlikely that Torrhen Stark lost even thousands of warriors to self-chosen exile, or that the North keeps losing a significant drain of northerners to Essos afterwards.  

Next up in size are the Long Lances who comprize eight hundred riders. But even with those numbers they seem poor in discipline, as the Stormcrows defeat them in a night raid. The Stormcrows lose only nine of their own, while gaining twelve recruits out of them. tWoW spoiler: the Mereneese company, the Mother’s Men, formed by freedmen (former slaves) and commanded by Marselen (Missandei’s Unsullied brother) break through their defense like a “rotten stick”.

In comparison the Windblown, commanded by the Tattered Prince, are a large company: they have 2000 horse and foot. The Company of the Cat, commanded by Bloodbeard, is even larger with their 3000 members. The Windblow and Company of the Cat can be called an actual army, albeit a small one. The largest of them all and the most disciplined is the Golden Company, having 10,000 men, which is a full, proper professional army. 500 of those are knights, each with three horses, and as many squires, each with one horses, making for two thousand horses. Then they have a 1000 archers. A third of those are crossbowmen, another third uses double curved bows of the east, and a final third use Westerosi long bows, and then there is another set of fifty Summer Islanders with goldenheart bows (the best bows in Planetos). And then there are the elephants. Did I mention the elephants? They are very important! The elephants I mean.

In discussions about army size, you might see debaters downplay the Golden Company as only having 10,000 men. Minus the knights, the squires and the archers, they have 8000 infantry. In numbers, the armies of the Tyrells and Lannisters should be able to crush them. However, large numbers of the infantry with the Tyrells and Lannisters are levied peasants who were shoved a poorly made sword or lance in their hands. The Lannister levies’ experience is mostly that of killing peasants, the Battle of the Green Fork, Blackwater Bay and an alleged storming of Dragonstone. The Tyrell levies only fought at Blackwater Bay, except for Tarly’s troops who fought at Duskendale. The men with the Golden Company are battle hardened commoners who joined the company because they already learned they were good at it, and at least in tWoW they are fighting to conquer a home, not for money or loot. Here are George’s general words about Westerosi armies, followed with those of recruits of Companies.

Hal9000: What is the general composition of the Westerosi armies? My impression is that the knights or mounted men represent the back-bone of their armies.
George: They are certainly the most feared component, yes.
Hal9000: What is the relative composition of archers (or horse-archers), infantry and cavalry?
George: Infantry outnumbered cavalry by a considerable margin, but for the most part we are talking about feudal levies and peasant militia, with little discipline and less training. Although some lords do better than others. Tywin Lannister’s infantry was notoriously well disciplined, and the City Watch of Lannisport is well trained as well… much better than their counterparts in Oldtown and King’s Landing. (SSM Military Questions, June 21, 2001)

George: Sellswords are mercenaries. They may or may not be mounted, but whether ahorse or afoot they fight for wages. Most tend to be experienced professional soldiers. You don’t have a lot of green young sellswords — some, sure, but not many. It’s a profession a man tends to chose after he’s tasted a few battles and learned that he’s good at fighting. (SSM Mercenaries, May 13, 2000)

According to the app of tWoIaF one of the first feats of the Golden Company was the sack of Qohor. Allegedly Qohor had hired them, but had broken its contract, and Bittersteel retaliated by sacking Qohor. But then we have the story of the Three Thousand (as Jorah Mormont tells it to Daenerys).

“It was four hundred years ago or more, when the Dothraki first rode out of the east, sacking and burning every town and city in their path. The khal who led them was named Temmo. His khalasar was not so big as Drogo’s, but it was big enough. Fifty thousand, at the least. Half of them braided warriors with bells ringing in their hair.
“The Qohorik knew he was coming. They strengthened their walls, doubled the size of their own guard, and hired two free companies besides, the Bright Banners and the Second Sons. And almost as an afterthought, they sent a man to Astapor to buy three thousand Unsullied. It was a long march back to Qohor, however, and as they approached they saw the smoke and dust and heard the distant din of battle.
“By the time the Unsullied reached the city the sun had set. Crows and wolves were feasting beneath the walls on what remained of the Qohorik heavy horse. The Bright Banners and Second Sons had fled, as sellswords are wont to do in the face of hopeless odds. With dark falling, the Dothraki had retired to their own camps to drink and dance and feast, but none doubted that they would return on the morrow to smash the city gates, storm the walls, and rape, loot, and slave as they pleased.
“Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained . . . but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.
“Since that day, the city guard of Qohor has been made up solely of Unsullied, every one of whom carries a tall spear from which hangs a braid of human hair. […] (aSoS, Daenerys I)

Maester Yandel adds Qohor might contract a free company during times of peril and they also pay off a regular visiting Dothraki khal.

If Qohor contracted the Golden Company not long after 212 AC, then that implies it were times of peril. Possibly the threat (likely Dothraki) was bought of with gifts and thus the Golden Company thanked for showing up but not getting paid. That the Golden Company managed to sack the city while it is permanently defended by Unsullied suggests that Bittersteel found a strategy to combat and defeat the Unsullied, without using the time consuming method of the Harpy’s Sons in Mereen. This certainly would have cemented their reputation from the get go, as the App claims. Still, it is curious that this remarkable and exceptional sacking of Qohor is never mentioned by characters in the series, nor by maester Yandel in the World Book. Either this is a fact that George does not want us to know yet, or it is equally possible that he might end up altering the name of the Free City that got sacked, to Norvos perhaps.

Regardless of the story that the Golden Company sacked Qohor, Bittersteel’s company certainly gained a reputation in the next seven years, quickly attracting more exile knights and lords. To this day in Planetos, it is the first company sought after by those who can afford them.

The Third Blackfyre Rebellion (219 AC)

As Bloodraven had predicted, Bittersteel did not crown Daemon’s brother Haegon Blackfyre, not while Daemon the Younger still lived as hostage in King’s Landing. But by 219 AC Daemon II has died (likely 218 or 219 AC), and Bittersteel crowns Heagon I (26-29) in Tyrosh. This is a surprising young age. Daemon II was in the prime of his life, and life as a royal hostage living at a court that wanted to keep him alive would. Especially since he loved poetry and singing songs more than anything else. So, he had a freak-accident like the Targaryen predecessors, or was either murdered or executed (and not necessarily by a Targaryen supporter).

After crowning Haegon, Bittersteel and Haegon launch a third rebellion. We hardly know anything about this rebellion at present: not where or how long. We know more about Bittersteel’s escape afterwards than the Third Rebellion itself.

In 219 AC, Haegon Blackfyre and Bittersteel launched the Third Blackfyre Rebellion. Of the deeds done then, both good and ill—of the leadership of Maekar, the actions of Aerion Brightflame, the courage of Maekar’s youngest son, and the second duel between Bloodraven and Bittersteel—we know well. The pretender Haegon I Blackfyre died in the aftermath of battle, slain treacherously after he had given up his sword, but Ser Aegor Rivers, Bittersteel, was taken alive and returned to the Red Keep in chains. Many still insist that if he had been put to the sword then and there, as Prince Aerion and Bloodraven urged, it might have meant an early end to the Blackfyre ambitions. But that was not to be. Though Bittersteel was tried and found guilty of high treason, King Aerys spared his life, instead commanding that he be sent to the Wall to live out his days as a man of the Night’s Watch. That proved a foolish mercy, for the Blackfyres still had many friends at court, some of them only too willing to play the informer. The ship carrying Bittersteel and a dozen other captives was taken in the narrow sea on the way to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, and Aegor Rivers was freed and returned to the Golden Company. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aerys I)

So, after the battle was over and lost for House Blackfyre, Haegon Blackfyre surrendered, but was treacherlously killed, while Bittersteel was captured alive after a duel with Bloodraven and sent to the Wall. But Bittersteel managed to escape and returned to Tyrosh and the Golden Company that also seemed to have largely survived the battle. Prince Maekar led the Targaryen army against Haegon and Bittersteel, Egg (by then 19) showed courage, and Aerion’s “actions” are “well known”, but not necessarily heroic deed. Yandel wrote in general “deeds done, for good and ill”. In fact most “deeds” cited and specified are those we can count as “good” ones:

  • Maekar leading the Targaryen army and defeating the Third Blackfyre Rebellion.
  • Aegon’s couragiousness.
  • Bloodraven defeating Bittersteel in a duel that ended in his live capture and leaving it up to a trial and Aerys I to decide his fate (though arguing for his execution).

That leaves only Aerion’s actions as the possible deeds for ill. Aerion had to earn his nickname “the Monstrous” somehow, no? It sounds like one of those actions was slaying unarmed Haegon Blackfyre after he surrendered his sword. Speaking of a sword, since Bittersteel did fight alongside Haegon in complete support of him and dueled with Bloodraven, just as he did in the First Blackfyre Rebellion with Daemon I, can there be any doubt that Haegon Blackfyre fought with the sword Blackfyre and that Haegon surrendered it? It thus appears that Blackfyre got “lost” there and then.

After his escape, Aegor Rivers crowned Haegon’s eldest son Daemon III (born in exile) before the year was out.

Before the year was out, he crowned Haegon’s eldest son as King Daemon III Blackfyre in Tyrosh, and resumed his plotting against the king who had spared him. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aerys I)

Take note that House Blackfyre still resides and operates from Tyrosh. Then notice that Bittersteel crowned Haegon’s son, Daemon III, and not Haegon’s younger brother Aenys. Bittersteel respected normal inheritance laws for House Blackfyre:

  1. No heir can be crowned before the previous head of House Blackfyre is dead
  2. Sons come before uncles.
  3. daughters and sisters come last.

And since Daemon III Blackfyre was Haegon’s eldest son, Haegon Blackfyre had at least fathered one other son by 219 AC.

Bittersteel does not launch a Fourth Rebellion with the crowned Daemon III Blackfyre until 236 AC. This is a gap of seventeen years. These might be some of the reasons why Aegor Rivers waits this long:

  • Even with a weak king such as Aerys I, Bloodraven proves too strong an opponent as Hand.
  • Aerys I, Bloodraven and Maekar formed a united front after all.
  • The political support of House Blackfyre in Westeros is shattered after two failures during Aerys I
  • Daemon III is still a child at the time.

Jumping the Line (233 AC)

In Westeros, King Aerys I dies in 221 AC. His last remaining and youngest brother Maekar I became king instead. In 222 AC the Crown Prince Daeron the Drunken becomes the father of Vaella. Allegedly Daeron died of the pox some time later that he caught from a whore. Aerion Brightflame’s son Maegor was born in 232 AC, but Aerion the Monstrous died in the same year when he drank a cup of wildfire believing he would turn into a dragon. Then in 233 AC, House Peake rebelled and King Maekar I Targaryen died in the storming of Starpike, as a rock fell and crushed his helm. Maekar’s death caused a succession crisis. Who was to be king or queen? Simple minded Vaella of 11 years old, Baby Maegor and son of a monster like Aerion, maester Aemon, or the peasant prince Aegon? In order to avoid war, Bloodraven called a Great Council to decide the matter. In response to this, Haegon’s younger brother, Aenys Blackfyre, writes a letter from Tyrosh to put his claim forward.

Even as the Great Council was debating, however, another claimant appeared in King’s Landing: none other than Aenys Blackfyre, the fifth of the Black Dragon’s seven sons. When the Great Council had first been announced, Aenys had written from exile in Tyrosh, putting forward his case in the hope that his words might win him the Iron Throne that his forebears had thrice failed to win with their swords. Bloodraven, the King’s Hand, had responded by offering him a safe conduct, so the pretender might come to King’s Landing and present his claim in person. Unwisely, Aenys accepted. Yet hardly had he entered the city when the gold cloaks seized hold of him and dragged him to the Red Keep, where his head was struck off forthwith and presented to the lords of the Great Council, as a warning to any who might still have Blackfyre sympathies. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Maekar I)

Bloodraven’s actions in this are regularly discussed and debated. But I would like to remind the reader that Bittersteel crowned Haegon’s eldest son Daemon III Blackfyre as king in 219 AC already. So, had Daemon III and his brother(s) died by 233 AC? No! Daemon III leads the Fourth Rebellion three years later in 236 AC. So, what did Aenys think he was doing when he wrote to the Great Council? If any Blackfyre ought to petition with the Great Council for consideration to be king in a feudal society, it ought to have been Daemon III Blackfyre, NOT Aenys Blackfyre. Aenys was not solely a pretender in the eyes of the Targaryens. He had no first claim even in the eyes of Bittersteel or House Blackfyre. He sneakily tried to jump ahead in line of his nephews. It seems a strange distinction I make for a family of pretenders trying to wrestle the throne away from the Targaryens. But if House Blackfyre and Bittersteel truly believed Daeron II was not King Aegon IV’s son, then it was their duty to rebel in their eyes, as much as it is Stannis’s duty. Then House Blackfyre and Bittersteel were acting according to feudal honor, except for Aenys. He was nothing more than an opportunist, without any feudal honor or family loyalty.

Is it any coincidence then that House Peake is somehow involved in the events leading up to Aenys making his claim? House Peake and Aenys may not have been plotting actively as Lord Gormond and Daemon II did, but at the very least House Peake likely hoped to create a climate to convince one member of House Blackfyre to cross the narrow sea. That goal worked, resulting in the death of King Maekar, a Targaryen succession crisis and a Blackfyre pretender making a claim, except it was the wrong Blackfyre. It seems that George is setting up a meta-parallel that when House Peake is involved, it is without Bittersteel’s approval. And this meta-parallel might have serious consequences for theories that propose Varys’s Aegon is a Blackfyre descendant: we have three exiled Peakes fighting for Aegon.

  1. First we have a true crowned Blackfyre, but house Peake opportunistically tried to be kingmaker behind Bittersteel’s back, and everyone else ended up believing Daemon II was fake.
  2. The second time, house Peake rebels first, but the wrong Blackfyre who is neither crowned nor in line to be crowned makes his claim.
  3. The third time, members of house Peake fight alongside an alleged Targaryen claimant, but we have hints he is the son of a Lyseni bedslave and a Pentosi cheesemonger, and Moqorro mentions a “fake dragon” surrounding Tyrion.

This is getting progressively worse over time. So, when a Peake says they have “friends in the Reach,” it should make us cringe about Aegon’s identity as possibly not even being a Blackfyre.

Laswell Peake rapped his knuckles on the table. “Even after a century, some of us still have friends in the Reach.” (aDwD, The Lost Lord, aka JonCon I)

Would the consideration and eventual dismissal of Aenys Blackfyre’s claim by the Great Council have resolved the Blackfyre issue once and for all? No, Aenys did not have first Blackfyre claim. It would not have dismissed any potential claim of the crowned King Daemon III Blackfyre, nor his brothers, nor his children’s. Not then, nor the future. Nor did Aenys have value as a hostage. He was a traitor to his own house. In two ways, Brynden Rivers did House Blackfyre a favor: he killed an opportunistic traitor and as a result of his actions Bloodraven ceased to be Hand and Protector of the Realm.

Because, Aenys was not the head of House Blackfyre and we lack any comment about his potential family life, other than that he lived in Tyrosh, we cannot make a definite conclusion regarding his marriage status, nor any children he might have had. We have no confirmation in this regard, nor do we have hints that Aenys (39-42 old) died a bachelor without issue. But his murder and the dismissal of the claim of Kiera’s daughter Vaella indicate that by this time either Aenys’s mother Rohanne or her father have died. The political threat of Tyroshi nobility siding with the Blackfyre cause seems to have waned.

The Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion (236 AC)

Westeros suffered under a long winter from 130 AC to 135 AC, while lords grew to dislike “peasant” King Aegon V for meddling in their affairs, even before he was king, and then reducing their rights and privileges in favor of the common folk. Meanwhile, Bloodraven had been sent to the Wall. If there ever was a time ripe to rally support and hope for success for the Blackfyre cause, it would have been at the end of that winter. And so, King Daemon III Blackfyre and Bittersteel led the Golden Company in a fourth attempt to seize the throne in 236 AC.

In 236 AC, as a cruel six-year-long winter drew to a close, the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion saw the self-styled King Daemon III Blackfyre, son of Haegon and grandson of Daemon I, cross the narrow sea with Bittersteel and the Golden Company at his back, in a fresh attempt to seize the Iron Throne. The invaders landed on Massey’s Hook, south of Blackwater Bay, but few rallied to their banners. King Aegon V himself rode out to meet them, with his three sons by his side. In the Battle of Wendwater Bridge, the Blackfyres suffered a shattering defeat, and Daemon III was slain by the Kingsguard knight Ser Duncan the Tall, the hedge knight for whom “Egg” had served as a squire. (tWoIaF – the Targaryen Kings: Aegon V)

It ended far more quickly than the pretender might have wished, at the Battle of Wendwater Bridge. Afterward, the corpses of the Black Dragon’s slain choked the Wendwater and sent it overflowing its banks. The royalists, in turn, lost fewer than a hundred men…but amongst them was Ser Tion Lannister, heir to Casterly Rock. (tWoIaF – The Westerlands: House Lannister Under the Dragons)

But they failed once again. Daemon III died fighting Duncan the Tall. As ever, Bittersteel escaped and lived for another five years, to die fighting in the Disputed Lands in 241 AC.

Bittersteel eluded capture and escaped once again, only to emerge a few years later in the Disputed Lands, fighting with his sellswords in a meaningful skirmish between Tyrosh and Myr. Ser Aegor Rivers was sixtynine years of age when he fell, and it is said he died as he had lived, with a sword in his hand and defiance upon his lips. Yet his legacy would live on in the Golden Company and the Blackfyre line he had served and protected. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aegon V)

If Aegor Rivers crowned anyone in Tyrosh, we have not been told. If he did not crown anyone, it was not because there was no male heir as the mention of the last Daemon Blackfyre and Maelys “the Monstrous” Blackfyre seventeen years later prove. There certainly is the possibility that several Blackfyres died at Wendwater Bridge, not just Daemon III. Yandel phrases the defeat as “shattering” and the river choked with bodies. An uncle, his brother(s) and perhaps even an eldest son could have fought along and died there. Perhaps Bittersteel did not consider the male heirs worthy of any crowning, such as Maelys. Maybe Bittersteel recognized that it would not happen in his lifetime and simply refused to crown someone when he could not be at their side. It is however certain that Aegor Rivers never actually gave up on the dream that one day the Golden Company and House Blackfyre would succeed.  Aegor Rivers commanded the Golden Company to carry his golden skull back across the narrow sea when they would retake Westeros.

All the skulls were grinning, even Bittersteel’s on the tall pike in the center. What does he have to grin about? He died defeated and alone, a broken man in an alien land. On his deathbed, Ser Aegor Rivers had famously commanded his men to boil the flesh from his skull, dip it in gold, and carry it before them when they crossed the sea to retake Westeros. His successors had followed his example. (aDwD, The Lost Lord, aka JonCon I)

The Last Blackfyres

Sometime, before 258 AC, only two male Blackfyres remain with unspecified ties: the last Daemon Blackfyre and Maelys “the Monstrous” Blackfyre. Maelys challenges his cousin Daemon for command over the Golden Company and kills him.  Then in 258 AC, Maelys forms the Band of Nine with eight other exiles and outlaws, promising each other they will help each of them carve out a kingdom. Prince of the Dragonflies, Duncan, dubbed them the Ninepenny Kings.

In 258 AC on Essos, another challenge rose to Aegon’s reign, when nine outlaws, exiles, pirates, and sellsword captains met in the Disputed Lands beneath the Tree of Crowns to form an unholy alliance. The Band of Nine swore their oath of mutual aid and support in carving out kingdoms for each of their members. Amongst them was the last Blackfyre, Maelys the Monstrous, who had command of the Golden Company, and the kingdom they pledged to win for him was the Seven Kingdoms. Prince Duncan, when told of the pact, famously remarked that crowns were being sold nine a penny; thereafter the Band of Nine became known as the Ninepenny Kings in Westeros. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aegon V)

In the same year that 259 AC Aegon V and others died in the tragedy of Summerhall and his last remaining son Jaehaerys became king, Maelys helps an ambitious merchant prince Alequo Adaris in taking Tyrosh, that city that House Blackfyre had called home from 196 AC until at least 233 AC. Tyrosh would have been the sole home the second, third and even fourth generation of House Blackfyre, whether still having that name or not, had ever known. The Ninepenny Kings sacked it and installed Alequo as Tyrant King. Next, they seized the Stepstones for their base to conquer Westeros for Maelys.

The tragedy of Summerhall brought Jaehaerys, the Second of His Name, to the Iron Throne in 259 AC. Scarcely had he donned the crown than the Seven Kingdoms found themselves plunged into war, for the Ninepenny Kings had taken and sacked the Free City of Tyrosh and seized the Stepstones; from there, they stood poised to attack Westeros. Jaehaerys had known that the Band of Nine meant to win the Seven Kingdoms for Maelys the Monstrous, who had declared himself King Maelys I Blackfyre, […] (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys II)

Instead of waiting for the Ninepenny Kings to launch an invasion in Westeros, King Jaehaerys II sent armies to defeat them on their self-chosen turf in 260 AC. They warred across islands and channels for close to a year. But it was the young knight Barristan Selmy who killed Maelys in single combat.

[…] In 260 AC, his lordship landed Targaryen armies upon three of the Stepstones, and the War of the Ninepenny Kings turned bloody. Battle raged across the islands and the channels between for most of that year. […] Hightower and his men were hard-pressed for a time, but as the war hung in the balance, a young knight named Ser Barristan Selmy slew Maelys in single combat, winning undying renown and deciding the issue in a stroke, for the remainder of the Ninepenny Kings had little or no interest in Westeros and soon fell back to their own domains. Maelys the Monstrous was the fifth and last of the Blackfyre Pretenders; with his death, the curse that Aegon the Unworthy had inflicted on the Seven Kingdoms by giving his sword to his bastard son was finally ended. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Jaejaerys II)

Offcially, House Blackfyre ended with Maelys. But Illyrio Mopatis specifies that Maelys was the last Blackfyre of the male line. This means that with his death, so died the name Blackfyre, not necessarily the men, women, boys and girls who had Blackfyre blood running through their veins. They simply did not have the Blackfyre name, because their closest ancestor named Blackfyre was their mother, or grandmother.

Because we get no specifix textual ties to previous Blackfyres other than their names, most people do not go further than assume that Maelys is a grandson of Daemon I Blackfyre via either Haegon, Aenys or the last two unnamed sons, and that the relationship between Maelys and the Last Daemon is a type of cousin relationship. However, while we may have no direct textual confirmation for Maelys, we have something else – an illustration of Maelys in the duel against Selmy.

Maelys_Selmy
Maelys Blackfyre fights Barristan Selmy during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, as depicted by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena in tWoIaF

maelys_the_monstrous_woiaf_8931

The illustrations in the World Book or those of the illustrated novels are approved by George or made using George’s  guidelines about the character. So, I ask you, how old does Maelys look to you? To the right is an enlargement of Maelys alone, for readers who do not own the World Book.

Maelys is an old man with wrinkles. He looks he could be a grandfather. Considering that he still has a heavy frame with a broad chest, Maelys is younger than seventy. If I say I see a man who is over fifty, I am being optimistically generous, taking a hard life as well as weathering of sand and sun into consideration for appearing older than he might be. Maelys died in 260 AC. That would mean he was born at the latest in 209 AC. But any of Daemon I’s grandsons who carries the name Blackfyre was born after 211 AC. So, Maelys is not a grandson, but one of Daemon’s last unnamed sons, who would be between 64 to 68 in 260 AC. The last name carrying male Blackfyre was also the last living son of Daemon I Blackfyre. Since, Maelys killed his cousin (and perhaps others) this makes Maelys not just the last surviving male Blackfyre in 260 AC, but the man who destroyed and killed House Blackfyre: a kinslayer and usurper. If the destroyer of House Blackfyre was indeed Daemon I’s last son, it becomes cruelly poetic. Daemon I founds House Blackfyre, while his last (youngest) son ensures it goes extinct, as if everything and everyone between the beginning and the end hardly mattered. 

There is his nickname, “the Monstrous”. But even his first name is a phonetical hint. If you were to pronounce Maelys and ask someone who would not know you were uttering a name to write it down, they would write malice. Maelyis is just malice spelled differently. Then there is his parastic twin, sprouting from his neck as a second head.

Captain of the Golden Company, named for his grotesquely huge torso and arms, fearsome strength, and savage nature. A second head grew from his neck, no bigger than a fist.

Fraternal twins (non-identical) are the result of a woman’s ovaries releasing two eggs around the same time, and thus two eggs are fertilized by a sperm each. While they are conceived and born simultaneously, genetically they are no closer than siblings born apart in time, across various pregnancies. How over-active ovaries are is regulated by a woman’s hormones, and thus the chance of birthing fraternal twins is genetically dependent – and this is important – on the mother (not the father!). No amount of genetic make-up of men can increase the chance of their wives giving birth to twins. All a man can do is pass the genes onto a daughter who, as a result, is more pre-disposed at having fraternal twins. So, if a mother has given birth to fraternal twins once, there is a higher chance that she might have another set of fraternal twins afterwards than a woman who has never birthed twins.

A chimera twin is created from a basic fraternal twin situation when the two zygotes conjoin. A zygote is a fertilized egg, a cell, traveling down the tubes into the womb and has not yet nestled. It is only in the earliest stages of division, not yet even increased in size – a pre-embyrionic stage. So, basicaly the cells of what could have been two persons gets clumped together, like two colors of plasticine (that do not mix) lumped together to mold one figure out of it. The baby born has for example one eye with cells with genes dictating that the eye color ought to be green, while the cells of the other eye have another genetic code dictating it ought to produce another color. Same thing with cells in the scalp to produce hair color. People theorize for example that Tyrion is a chimera twin. Joanna has already birthed paternal twins, and Tyrion seems a mish-mash (not a mix) of different genetic material – bi-colored hair and bi-colored eyes.

Unlike with fraternal twins, there is no factual genetic predisposition for giving birth to identical twins. It is mere random chance. However, since there is an erronous belief that twinning is genetically predisposed in general, we cannot rule out that George made this mistake. With identical twins you start out with one sperm having joined with one egg, like a normal pregnancy. The zygote starts to divide and travels to the womb, nestles, but sometime later in the embryonic stage, the clump of cells dividing end up splitting, so that you have two clumps of embryos that develop furhter and are born as identical twins, who are near identical genetic copies of the same gender.  Rohanne’s firsborn twin sons Aemon and Aegon could be identical twins, as they at least are both male.

If an embryo splits after day 12 of fertilization, there is a risk that they do not completely separate, resulting in conjoined twins. Sometimes one of the conjoined twins ceases to develop and dies, while the other develops in full – parasitic twins. The underdeveloped twin is called the parasite, whereas the twin who developed completely is the autosite, who has all the vitals to survive on his own. Since a vital phoetus will try to get as much oxygen, nutrients and space for development in utero, the underdeveloped parasite may end up being partially reabsorbed, resulting in a vanishing twin. Conjoined twins and parasitic twins are ALWAYS identical twins³, with a parasitic twin being a special type of conjoined twins. The description we have for Maelys is typical for a parasitic twin (NOT a chimeric twin). Since it appears that we have two set of identical twins, this furthers the (scientifically erronous) idea that Rohanne is the likeliest mother of Maelys.

It would be completely unfair to blame the surviving half of a conjoined twin of the death and underdevelopment of the other in real life. But as feudal societies go, without much scientific insight, of course Maelys is regarded as a “kinslayer in utero”. Do you think Maelys was treated better than Tyrion, because his last name was Blackfyre? No, if anything he would have been treated worse, with the constant reminder of the parasite twin sticking out his neck. Even his own mother would have recoiled from him. No father or brother would agree to wed their daughter or sister to such one. It would not be Westeros or King’s Landing making mock of him, but the Tyroshi, from the highest born to the street urchins. Maelys grew up in Tyrosh, since he was a suckling baby or a crawling toddler, hating his family and the city that welcomed them, but not him. What histories tell us he was involved in – slaying his own cousin and sacking Tyrosh – is the obvious result of the inevitable hatred. Maelys did not simply kill his cousin with a sword. He twisted and tore his cousin’s head off with his hands.

He won command of the Golden Company by fighting his cousin, Daemon Blackfyre, for it, killing his cousin’s destrier with a single punch and then twisting Daemon’s head until it was torn from his shoulders. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys II)

Ouch! The hatred is deep.

Speaking of heads. Usually, the lead male of the family is called, “the family head,” or “the head of the family”. There would be no reason to challenge the Last Daemon for command of the Golden Company if Maelys was already ahead in line. Hence, Daemon Blackfyre would be ahead of Maelys, according to the inheritance order that Bittersteel followed. And nobody gives the same name to two of their sons, not even the Freys. We can exclude the last Daemon Blackfyre from being a grandson of Daemon I, because these would not be Maelys’s cousins, but nephews. Hence, the last Daemon Blackfyre is either a grandson of Haegon, Aenys or the other unnamed brother.

In order for the Last Daemon to be the Captain General of a professional army such as the Golden Company, he would have been an experienced fighter in his twenties, not a mere boy or teen, especially if it required a man like Maelys to battle him for command over it. Theoretically one can argue that the Last Daemon may have died years before Maelys formed the Band of Nine in 258 AC. However, with Maelys kinslaying the Last Daemon in order to get command, and thus usurping him, it seems unlikely that Maelys wasted too much time. Time was ticking for a man looking that old already. Maelys’s actions leave a “last chance for a rogue” impression. So, I lean towards the Last Daemon dying in 257 or 258 AC.

Haegon’s line

  • Daemon III: born between 211 & 218 AC, died in 236 AC
    • sons of Daemon III: born between (earliest) 224 and 236 AC.
      • 4th rebellion: max 12
      • Bittersteel’s death: between 5 and 17
      • Maelys’s challenge (latest 258 AC): between 22 to 34
  • brother(s) of Daemon III: born between 212 & 219 AC.
    • (cannot be named Daemon)
      • 4th rebellion: between 17 and 24
      • Bittersteel’s death: between 22 and 29.
    • his sons: born earliest 225 AC.
      • 4th rebellion: max 11
      • Bittersteel’s death: max 16
      • Maelys’s challenge: max 33

Aenys’s line

  • sons: born between 211 & 233 AC
    • (would be nephew, not cousin to Maelys)
      • 4th rebellion: between 3 and 25
      • Bittersteel’s death: between 8 and 30
    • grandsons: born earliest 224 AC
      • 4th rebellion: max 12
      • Bittersteel’s death: max 17
      • Maelys’s challenge: max 34

The line of the penultimate unnamed son of Daemon I would be similar as Aenys’s.

I do propose that there was at least another Blackfyre, before the Last Daemon, who commanded the Golden Company after Bittersteel’s death. This would not necessarily have to be the first in line of sucession, but a Blackfyre who could be seen as the steward, much like Aegor Rivers was to House Blackfyre. The following line in the World Book gives that impression. 

After Bittersteel, the company was led by descendants of Daemon Blackfyre until the last of them, Maelys the Monstrous, was slain in the Stepstones.  (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II)

Technically the last Daemon Blackfyre and Maelys Blackfyre are enough to warrant the use of the word “descendants”. But by specificying “until the last of them” it strongly suggests there were at least two descendants who led the Golden Company prior to Maelys.

For Westeros, Maelys Blackfyre and the Golden Company sacking Tyrosh has little to no meaning. Of course for House Blackfyre this is immense. Maelys sacking Tyrosh, home to House Blackfyre for so long, is huge. It closes a door on House Blackfyre as much as tearing the head off the Last Daemon off. It is revenge, rejection and goodbye all rolled into one. And if in Tyrosh they speak ill of the Tyrant Alequo Adaris, the name Blackfyre would equally be synonymous to an enemy in the eyes of the Tyroshi. If there even had been another living male Blackfyre relative of Maelys in Tyrosh after the sacking, he would have needed to alter his name or flee the City. And basically because of this many readers assume or suppose, that any Blackfyre descendant, whether they still had the name or not, were hunted, enslaved and sold or purged from Tyrosh.

I strongly disagree with this, however. Calla Blackfyre’s first children, sons and daughters, would have been born fifty to sixty years before the sack. None of them would have had the Blackfyre name. They would have married into the noble and wealthy families of Tyrosh. Calla’s and Bittersteel’s first grandchild could have been born somewhere around 215 AC, their great-grandchild by 230 AC, and so on. By 260 AC a 5th generation of descendants of Calla Blackfyre could be born, with each of them carrying a different noble Tyroshi name.

There is an enormous difference between Tyroshi despising the name Blackfyre and Tyroshi effectively killing or  enslaving their own kin (male or female) or in-laws simply because the mother, grandmother or great-grandmother of that kin had the name Blackfyre. For instance, at present in the series, the name Frey may be the most reviled name. Before long the saying will be “the only good Frey is a dead Frey.” But do you think House Vance will kill or sell off Marianne, Walder and Patrek Vance, just because they had a Frey mother? Will Anya Waynwood or anyone of her household kill her ward Cynthea Frey? What about Robert, Walder and Jon Brax? Many readers think Olyvar Frey is the ward of Rosby. If he claims Rosby and takes the name Rosby in order to be Lord of Rosby will people kill him? If Roslin Frey births a son to Edmure Tully, will they slay her and her child in its cradle? Of course not. People can hate a name and any stranger bearing the name. But they will not hate their children, wives, husbands, parent, grandparent, cousins, uncles or aunts, let alone betray them. These are people they know personally to be innocent of wrongdoing.

The threat to such descendants are not the Tyroshi, but Maelys himself. He could fear another challenger with Blackfyre blood, though not the name. Certainly sacking a city can be used as a cover-up for a purge to hunt down kin. Maelys would not have been able to know them all, however, and several could have escaped his notice, just not many.

After the sack of Tyrosh and the defeat of Maelys and the Ninepenny Kings at Steptones, Alequo Adaris remained the king tyrant of Tyrosh for six more years.

Half a year of hard fighting remained before the Stepstones and the Disputed Lands were freed from the remaining Band of Nine, and it would be six years before Alequo Adarys, the Tyrant of Tyrosh, was poisoned by his queen and the Archon of Tyrosh was restored. For the Seven Kingdoms, it had been a grand victory, though not without cost in lives or suffering. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I)

Alequo’s significance can be manifold. On the one hand the Tyrant of Tyrosh and his seven year reign would add fuel to the hatred for the name Blackfyre. Secondly, he could have been a cousin or nephew of Maelys, a son of one of Maelys’s sisters or one of his nieces, or an in-law wedded to one of Maelys’s cousins. If so, then Alequo would have had as much interest in holding a purge of Blackfyre descendants like himself (or his wife), and many years to do it. Thirdly, any of the surviving descendants could have been involved in his downfall. This would have resulted in the restored Archon forgiving the surviving descendants.

So, while I overall agree that the sack of Tyrosh by Maelis and the tiranny of Alequo would have greatly decimated the number of non-name-carrying Blackfyre descendants, I disagree with the belief that they would not be tied to Tyrosh anymore.

Finally, to me the far more subtextual break for Blackfyre descendants is the one with the Golden Company, founded by Bittersteel for House Blackfyre. But they betrayed Bittersteel and House Blackfyre when they flocked to a Blackfyre who slew his own kin ahead in line of him. They too sacked Tyrosh, and would have been an instrument to purge those descendants who had the blood, but not the name. Imagine if you will, a great-great-great grandson of Calla Blackfyre and Aegor Rivers and the stories he would have been raised with – of his fierce ancestor Bittersteel who founded the famous Golden Company and put his whole life in service of House Blackfyre, about Calla’s noble mother and her father the Archon, how Tyrosh had welcomed them, about the valiant Blackfyre pretenders and the treacherous ones, and finally Maelys the Monstrous who destroyed his own house, stole the Golden Company and turned against Tyrosh. What chance is there that such a descendant would have anything to do with the Golden Company? Almost none.

Literary purpose

At the heart of the story and feud between House Targaryen and House Blackfyre lies the same issue of Stannis Baratheon rebelling against Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon. The entire series of political conflicts in aGoT kick off with the queen-consort having an affair, cuckolding the king, effectively putting children on the throne that are not the king’s, and willing to murder children, the king and an honest man who is not even without empathy. Everything surrounding this cuckolding and affair is set-up to make us angry and disgusted by it: twin-incest, attempt to murder an innocent child, a child-heir who is a monster and a coward, and on top of it, Cersei is narcissistic and power-hungry who does not actually love her children, and a strict set of feudal inheritance rules. And according to those rules, Stannis should be king, and Shyreen after him.

Meanwhile we are introduced to a series of bastards: Jon Snow, Gendry, Mya Stone, Joffrey, Tommen, Myrcella, Edric Storm, and Bella, the Sand Snakes, Boodraven, Ramsay, and so many more. Some do not know they are bastardborn. Others believe they are bastardborn, but actually may be trueborn. Sansa is trueborn, but has to survive by taking on the identity of a girl who is bastardborn. Some of the bastards are utter villains and monsters, but so are several trueborn characters. Others are heroes, but so are several trueborn characters. Many are just trying to survive. And then slowly, from aSoS onwards, George starts to introduce the concept of descendants whose ancestry is actually a line that exists thanks to their bastard ancestor. There is Ben Plumm who is a descendant of Viserys Plumm, whose true father was not a Plumm, but Aegon IV Targaryen. Ygritte tells Jon Snow the story of how House Stark’s lineage was saved because a daughter Stark birthed a bastard fathered by Bael the Bard. The first Baratheon, Orys, was allegedly a bastard. And then House Blackfyre is mentioned and becomes an integral part of the Dunk & Egg stories, and the Targaryen history in the World Book.

As my first parts pointed out  – the prelude, the founding of House Blacfkyre and the First Rebellion – we get a similar kick-off as in aGoT: a queen who likely did cuckold her king once and one of the king’s legitimized bastards rebelling after he is convinced that the king has no feudal right to be king. Except this time, the queen is a dutiful woman who is not out to gain power, nor would she have intended to cuckold him. She would have simply given in, when young and heartsick, to her true love that one-time. On top of it, her son was one of the best kings in the Targaryen history, a truly good person, with diplomatic skills, achieving with it what no other king has done – bringing Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms peacefully and without losing it. Nor is there evidence that Daemon I Blackfyre or Bittersteel were evil people, acting out of hunger for power. They rebelled, because they believed that by the feudal rules of their society, Daeron the Good had no right to the throne.

If Daeron II was indeed a bastard, this has a consequence that his descendants are actually a bastard line, as much as House Blackfyre, House Plumm, House Stark and House Baratheon. That in fact there are no characters who are more true heirs with more right to a throne and rule of a whole continent on account of their birth than the known bastards. Recognizing this, was Aegon IV so morally wrong then when he legitimized all his bastards, no matter if he did it as a joke or a “fuck you” to feudal society? 

His last act before his death, all accounts agree, was to set out his will. And in it, he left the bitterest poison the realm ever knew: he legitimized all of his natural children, from the most baseborn to the Great Bastards—the sons and daughters born to him by women of noble birth. Scores of his natural children had never been acknowledged; Aegon’s dying declaration meant naught to them. For his acknowledged bastards, however, it meant a great deal. And for the realm, it meant blood and fire for five generations. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings: Aegon IV)

Purely from the ethical view of human rights, this may in fact have been the only responsible decision that Aegon IV ever made in his life – differentiating people based on whether they were born in wedlock or not, to a noblewoman or a tavern wench is wrong. Aegon IV did not start those wars. The lords and houses clinging to feudal rules did.

The result is that George first traps us readers into supporting characters (whether it is Stannis or Dany or anyone else you want to pick) who have the most right to rule according to the feudal rules of the order in which someone is born, on the right side of the blanket, where the fraudulent bastard is a monster and the challenger is either a just person or an emancipating liberator. Then he completely deconstructs the validity of those rules by giving us heroic bastards and trueborn monsters, good kings who are actually bastards, and horrific kings, princes and pretenders you do not want anywhere near a throne. And on top of that he makes everyone either bastardborn or a descendant of a bastard line, so that in the end we readers will completely abandon the feudal rules of legitimacy, birth order and gender, and judge a character for the good or ill they do, exactly as we would judge a character in our own modern world. And yes that means that Aenys Blackfyre should not be judged until we know more of him. He was a traitor to his own nephew Daemon III according to feudal rules, but he was also a peaceful and trusting man, and may have made a better king than Daeron the Good for all we know. Daemon III and Bittersteel had a chance in 233 AC to write their own letter, but preferred to go on a full scale war invasion three years later, while the realm still needed to recover from a long winter. And clearly Aenys was nowhere near the monster that Maelys was.

And I think that the main role of whomever will be revealed to be a Blackfyre descendant in the present timeline of the series will be for Daenerys Stormborn to question her assumptions of legitimacy based on a name and ancestry. It is perhaps one of the first things that Jorah Mormont brings up…

“He is still the true king. He is …”
Jorah pulled up his horse and looked at her. “Truth now. Would you want to see Viserys sit a throne?”
Dany thought about that. “He would not be a very good king, would he?”
“There have been worse … but not many.” The knight gave his heels to his mount and started off again.
Dany rode close beside him. “Still,” she said, “the common people are waiting for him. Magister Illyrio says they are sewing dragon banners and praying for Viserys to return from across the narrow sea to free them.”
The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” He gave a shrug. “They never are.”
Dany rode along quietly for a time, working his words like a puzzle box. It went against everything that Viserys had ever told her to think that the people could care so little whether a true king or a usurper reigned over them. Yet the more she thought on Jorah’s words, the more they rang of truth. (aGoT, Daenerys III)

 George will not let us forget that “women are important too”, nor that they do not merrit a throne any more just for being a woman, or Targaryen, or the blood of the dragon. Dany will have to earn the throne, because she wants to serve the common people and make sure they are left in peace, able to discern when it is time to defend with fire and blood and when to conquer hearts and minds.

Notes

  1. You may have seen it claimed that the words of House Blackfyre are the reversal of the Targaryen words. That instead of “Fire and Blood” the words of House Blackfyre are “Blood and Fire”. There is however no source whatsoever that confirms this, and Dany herself mixes up the order of the words: “Blood and fire, thought Dany. The words of House Targaryen.” (aSoS, Daenerys II). The claim that the words of House Blackfyre are “Blood and Fire” instead of the Targaryen “Fire and Blood” is but a fan theory without any hint or evidence backing it up.
  2. Putting aside the joke that Daario’s “hidden identities” have become, suggesting Daario to have dragon related ancestry is not a “hidden identity”. It is the equivalent of Tyrion revealing to Ben Plumm that he has two drops of dragon blood in his veins. Daario Naharis would still be Daario Naharis, just as Brown Ben Plumm is still Brown Ben Plumm. The sole difference between Ben Plumm and Daario Naharis is that the first is upfront to Dany about his drop of dragon blood, whereas Daario is not. If he is a descendant of House Blackfyre through the female line, then obviously Daario would have a most logical reason to stay quiet about it. “Hey, I have dragon blood too, because my grandmother was a Blackfyre,” is not something you would want to say to a Targaryen who has three dragons and is not afraid of telling them to burn you to a crisp. Lady Blizzardborn made a nice compilation of quotes for Daario as Blackfyre descendant.
  3. Unless you have the very rare chimera, splitting incompletely again more than twelve days after the zygotes clumped together.

The Ragtag Band of Exiles

Aegon’s Team

Spoiler Warning – this essay contains a quote and a reference to a crucial point of Arianne’s arc in her excerpt chapters of tWoW. The quote is harmless in relation to plot, but I will repeat the spoiler warning for Arianne’s arc.

First I will determine all what unites this particular ragtag band; determine the member rules. Then I will address plot context. I tackle the prominent members separately and show you how they prove my assertions about ragtag band context and roles. This will include identity speculation, list and discuss the often proposed candidates, referring to essays and theories out there, and in some cases I will propose a candidate myself.

Lysono Maar – “We prefer to call ourselves a free brotherhood of exiles.” (tWoW, Arianne II)

The members of this band are defined by a backstory that led to a forced or voluntary exile. Their stories or origin reveals how they could not practice their life’s calling, except in exile, because of society’s or their peers’ short-sightedness, while plenty of their inferior colleagues get recognition in Westeros.

  • An armorer’s son cannot be a knight
  • A woman who had sex and had a child cannot be a religious instructor
  • A man who lost a battle cannot possibly win a war
  • A gay man cannot be a proper father

These type of prejudices affected characters in other ragtag bands as well1, but instead of turning into Bloody Mummers, outlaws or brothers of the Night’s Watch, the characters in this particular ragtag chose or were forced into exile. And in doing so, reclaimed their purpose and freedom.

The founder of this ragtag band of exiles was not Aegon, nor Jon Connington, nor the Golden Company, but Varys.

The shame of the lie still stuck in his craw, but Varys had insisted it was necessary. “We want no songs about the gallant exile,” the eunuch had tittered, in that mincing voice of his. “Those who die heroic deaths are long remembered, thieves and drunks and cravens soon forgotten.” […]
[…] Varys had been adamant about the need for secrecy. The plans that he and Illyrio had made with Blackheart had been known to them alone. The rest of the company had been left ignorant. What they did not know they could not let slip. (aDwD, JonCon I, The Lost Lord)

As original recruiter, Varys put his stamp on both the ideology and the goal of the ragtag band. Varys hates magic.

Magic, you mean?” Tyrion said impatiently. “Bloodspells, curses, shapeshifting, those sorts of things?” He snorted. […]
[…]”Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)

Hence, anyone that Varys recruited or helped to recruit would follow the least magical religion – the Faith of the Seven. The recruited members are rationalists, at worst “superstitious”, but most importantly they do not practice magic or lack magical abilities. They are the closest thing to a secular ragtag band in the books.

Secondly, Varys is a master of mummery, of disguises, and so are the recruits living a life of disguise, but not a magical one: different name, different hair color, …

And yet, not all is false. While Varys is not dirty of machiavelistic methods² and murder to accomplish his goals for what he believes is the greater good, he espouses a belief in a uniting enlightened despot, who historically altered society from feudalism and serfdom to a far more meritocratic society and promoted the formation of middle class and cities³.

“No.” The eunuch’s voice seemed deeper. “He is here. Aegon has been shaped for rule since before he could walk. He has been trained in arms, as befits a knight to be, but that was not the end of his education. He reads and writes, he speaks several tongues, he has studied history and law and poetry. A septa has instructed him in the mysteries of the Faith since he was old enough to understand them. He has lived with fisherfolk, worked with his hands, swum in rivers and mended nets and learned to wash his own clothes at need. He can fish and cook and bind up a wound, he knows what it is like to be hungry, to be hunted, to be afraid. Tommen has been taught that kingship is his right. Aegon knows that kingship is his duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them.” (aDwD, Epilogue)

Hence, Varys recruited members he believed to be genuine in their professions, callings and hearts, often because they experienced prejudice first hand. Even while disguised or keeping a secret, the ragtag members are true at heart. These are not false people, only in it for themselves and their more base needs, but following a calling that appeals to a higher nature, in reconciliation with their integrity of self.

And finally they all share the goal in hiding Aegon and keeping him alive.

So, all true ragtag members share these traits:

  • Exiles in hiding because of prejudice
  • Free
  • Followers of the Faith of Seven
  • Secular, rationalists, no magic
  • In disguise, keeping a secret, cautious or prudent
  • Yet true at heart, answering a calling of the higher self
  • Protect and instruct Aegon

Lastly, it must be noted that if Varys and Illyrio as founders start out by being the behind the scene leaders of the ragtag band, who recruit, form the plans and order the band where and when to go, Jon Connington and Aegon have now effectively taken control of the band, reducing Illyrio and Varys to men who will have to follow suit.

[…] Very little of what the fat man has anticipated has come to pass.” Griff slapped the hilt of his longsword with a gloved hand. “I have danced to the fat man’s pipes for years, Lemore. What has it availed us? The prince is a man grown.[…]

[…]”Which plan?” said Tristan Rivers. “The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? […]I have had enough of Illyrio’s plans. […]” (aDwD, The Lost Lord, Jon Connington I)

As they reject Illyrio’s plans, they also drop the disguises which Varys insisted was necessary.

[Jon Connington] was sick of hiding, sick of waiting, sick of caution. I do not have time enough for caution. […]

[…]Young Griff ran his fingers through his hair. “I am sick of this blue dye. We should have washed it out.” […]

[…]”No man could have asked for a worthier son,” Griff said, “but the lad is not of my blood, and his name is not Griff. My lords, I give you Aegon Targaryen, firstborn son of Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone, by Princess Elia of Dorne … soon, with your help, to be Aegon, the Sixth of His Name, King of Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.”[…]

[…] It was not the prudent course, but he was tired of prudence, sick of secrets, weary of waiting. (aDwD, The Lost Lord, Jon Connington I)

Instead of remaining hidden, they decide to strike out by themselves, return to Westeros, reclaim lost lands and a kingdom (they hope). Hence  some of the rules alter for the members.

  • Instead of exiles, they are returned exiles who reclaim
  • Drop the disguise
  • Help Aegon take the Iron Throne

So, any of the others having secrets should be revealed in quick succession in tWoW. And if the rules change, other characters who were never exiled can be recruited to become part of the team, which is exactly what Jon Connington aims to do after taking Griffin’s Roost.

“[…] No one ever seems to mention the Vale, which suggests to me that the Arryns have taken no part in any of this.”
And Dorne?” The Vale was far away; Dorne was close. […] Without Daenerys and her dragons, Dorne was central to their hopes. “Write Sunspear. Doran Martell must know that his sister’s son is still alive and has come home to claim his father’s throne.”
“As you say, my lord.” The Halfmaester glanced at another parchment. “We could scarcely have timed our landing better. We have potential friends and allies at every hand.” […]
“[…]And whilst they dither, we will send out word secretly to likely friends in the stormlands and the Reach. And Dorne.” That was the crucial step. Lesser lords might join their cause for fear of harm or hope of gain, but only the Prince of Dorne had the power to defy House Lannister and its allies. “Above all else, we must have Doran Martell.” (aDwD, The Griffin Reborn, Jon Connington II)

And so, I have arrived at the plot development with regards to the Ragtag Band of Exiles. While I notice mostly speculation with regards to “friends in the Reach” (which is referred to by Peake more as a vague hope of potentials rather than a surety), including speculations of prominent members of House Hightower to be secret members of this Ragtag of Exiles, the speculation regarding Dorne’s recruitment seldom goes beyond, “When Doran learns of Quentyn’s death he’ll side with Aegon,” despite the fact that several times Jon Connington’s thoughts and words hammer on Dorne being the most crucial ally.

There is however a more imminent issue to be dealt with. Prince Doran is cautious and is unlikely to believe that either Jon Connington or Aegon are alive, that they are who they claim to be on their word alone. Even if Aegon and Jon Connington take all of the Stormlands by storm (pun intended), there is still the issue of verification. Learning of Quentyn’s death might help, but his emissary Arianne Martell still needs to be convinced, and she will be the one making the decision by sending the word “dragon” back to Sunspear.

tWoW spoiler warning! Skip to next paragraph if you do not wish to be spoiled.

Arianne’s two excerpt chapters of tWoW focus on her wondering what happened to Quentyn, but also pondering the problem how she could ever verify whether Aegon is indeed Elia’s son, or just a pretender. Combine this with the likelihood of secrets and disguises being let go of in rapid succession, when we solely have Arianne’s POV in the Stormlands while meeting the members of the Ragtag Band of Exiles

End of spoiler warning.

One of the possible secret identities must be someone who is quite capable of winning Arianne’s trust and convince her that Aegon is indeed a dragon (regardless whether it’s actually true or not). This limits the possible identities considerably. One of their members must be someone she knows personally, someone she can recognize upon meeting, someone whose story she knows, someone she can trust on their word alone, because she would regard this person as affiliated to her family’s inner circle. If there is such a person amongst the prominent characters of the Ragtag Band of Exiles, we could expect Arianne to send the raven to Sunspear with the one word, “dragon”, regardless of Arianne learning of Quentyn’s fate before or after.

And so, I have proposed a framework, context and important expected plot developments where roles, backstories and identities have to fit for the members of the Ragtag Band of (Returned) Exiles.

Ragtag Members

  • Lord Varys, the Spider: links to the introduction on Varys.
  • Illyrio Mopatis, the Golden Goose
  • Jon Connington, the Silver Griffin
  • Aegon
  • Ser Rolly, the Duck
  • Lemore, the Soiled Septa
  • Haldon, the half maester
  • Tyrion, the Fool
  • Serra
  • Lysono Maar
  • Elephants

Notes

  1. These prejudices are actually used by readers to argue a certain character can never achieve this or that nor will have plot importance  – tsk, tsk, you should know better
  2. I proposed in the past on westeros.org that much of Varys’s plans, machinations and expressions of his personal beliefs match Machiavelli’s Il Principe that was adopted by the Tudors and Catherine de Medici in England and France.
  3. The War of the Roses occurred within a feudal system, but the Tudor dynasty emerged out of that war with the reconciliation marriage between Lancastrian Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Their son Henry VIII ruled as an enlightened despot rewarding and elevating commoners to high stations, while ridding himself of long-time lines of noble blood, as did his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. Feudalism ended within one generation.