(Top image: The Raven, by Black Toad)
“Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. King’s blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It’s nonsense. Mance’s blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He’s a brigand, nothing more. There’s no power in brigand’s blood.”
The raven looked up from the floor. “Blood,” it screamed. (aFfC, Samwell I)
In They’re Here! I laid before you the circumstantial evidence of the presence of some Others just north of Castle Black the day the Pink Letter arrives and Bowen Marsh attacks Jon, as well as the foreshadowing and indication that the moment Jon’s blood dropped on the snow, the Others raise an army of wights from the many brothers still buried and unburned in the lichyard.
Towards the end, I mentioned the concept of a Blood Seal, for which the whole series of essays is named. Basically the Blood Seal Thesis proposes that while children of the forest provide the spellwork for a warding spell as was used for Storm’s End, the Wall and Bloodraven’s cave, the spell is sealed and locked to a location or area by spilling one’s own blood. The spell then is tied to a particular blood imprint and the seal can only be broken by someone who has a similar imprint. And in the Wall’s case, Jon’s blood can break the seal.
It is quite a simple concept, but devastating for the years of speculation and theorizing on how the Wall ends up destroyed: Mel’s bag of tricks or Sam or Euron blowing the mended horn at the Fist of the First Men in Oldtown. If the Blood Seal Thesis is indeed true, then the true Wall (the magical ward) is already done for when Wyck grazed Jon’s neck. And that, quite understandably, is a hard pill to swallow.
Now, I did not pluck this Blood Seal concept out of thin air. Mormont’s raven shows it to Jon, Sam and the reader. He physically mimes it, using Sam as prop. Hence, this essay will analyze the words and actions of Mormont’s raven for two chapters: Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC and Jon’s second chapter of aDwD. These two chapters belong together, for they start as each other’s timeline parallel in Castle Black, before they conjoin with Jon informing Samwell that he is to go to Oldtown.
- Mormont’s Raven: my take on the arguments about interpreting the bird.
- Bloodraven: when Mormont’s raven is skinchanged, Bloodraven is behind it, because this is how Bloodraven keeps true to his vows of the Night’s Watch.
- Swapping Babes: Bloodraven does not want Jon to swap the babes, foreseeing death.
- A Mad Mouse: Bloodraven skinchanges a mouse to hurry Sam into interrupting Jon’s meeting with Sam.
- Saving a Son?: Is Bloodraven a sentimental old sot, or is there more?
- The Shield: Bloodraven reenacts the blood magic that seals a warding spell.
- The Seal: more wordplay by George about the Blood Seal
- The Ward: a hostage is a ward and sending your hostage away may not be a great idea.
- Conclusion (tl;tr)
Theorists and book fans have grown dubious about interpreting Mormont’s raven, ever since Ser Creigthon’s corn-code in 2013. Unfortunately the debunking of this proposal has led to a far too easy rejection of interpretations to the raven’s actions and words in certain context. Both the corn-code and Ran’s answer to it are taken out of context. People misremember the corn-code as some type of dictionary with the word corn meaning death, and Ran’s argument is now used to dismiss any and all interpretations of the raven’s actions and words. Ser Creighton argued that George RR Martin hid a code into the raven’s speech that followed rules about repetition, capitals or non-capital as well as punctuation. It treated any raven’s words as some type of morse code to be deciphered, without context. At the time, Ran debunked the corn-code’s premise – that anything ravens say in threes had foreshadowing meaning – and infamously added that sometimes a raven is just hungry (paraphrasing).
For those interested in rereading the corn-code:
- Corn Code 101 For Beginners
- Corn Code revision 8
- Corn Code revision 10
- Elio’s and Linda’s dismissal of the corn-code theory in an interview (Elio = Ran)
While I appreciated Ser Creighton’s effort, the main mistake and flaw of the theory is to try to fixate George’s writing into a hard set of rules. George’s writing is much more fluid and his bag of tricks varied, but never without context. A touch of (phonetic) wordplay, a rare pinch of an anagram, an evocative imaginative scene, a foundation of parallels, a splash of color, and a generous pouring of symbolism sauce. The corn-code never truly treated Mormont’s raven as a character that wishes to add his own two cents to the topic of discussion between characters within its context with the few means it has available. The corn-code never tackled the raven as an animal that is skinchanged at certain times and at other times is a mere intelligent bird with the ability to parrot words. And sometimes the skinchanger hopes to persuade a suspicious character into believing the raven is merely an animal, just like Bran sometimes says “Hodor” while skinchanging Hodor so that Meera and Jojen would not discover the truth. And since the corn-code never considered Mormont’s raven as an actual character, it therefore is just as silly by the naysayers to apply Ran’s argument to any actual analysis that investigates the raven’s words and actions within the context of a scene. Ran never claimed that whatever Mormont’s raven said or did is meaningless. He debunked the secret code idea in particular.
Analyzing the words and deeds of Mormont’s raven is not easy and certainly not always entirely obvious. Aside from interpreting his words, behavior or body language, one must first determine whether we are seeing Mormont’s raven in action as animal or as skinchanged. I do have a vague rule to assess this: when the raven behaves very deliberate then most of the time he is being skinchanged. And yes, I emphasize “most of the time”, because George also is quite capable of convincing the reader that when the raven is flapping and screaming “snow” repeatedly in warning as I pointed out in They’re Here! it must be skinchanged, when in fact a non-skinchanged raven may be just as alarmed naturally by the smell of the Others or wights as much as Chett’s dogs are at the Fist. In Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC as well as Jon’s second chapter of aDwD, however, Mormont’s raven behaves too deliberate to ascribe to natural behavior and each word and action fits within a certain skinchanger attempting to warn Sam and Jon against the consequences of the baby swap.
Before we tackle those particular chapters, I will lay down the arguments that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in particular. Even if we ‘know’ or ‘speculated’ that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged, we tend to think of him more as a super intelligent bird with uncanny foreknowledge all on his own. That was how he we came to think of him when he was introduced to us in aGoT and had no idea there was such a thing as skinchanging (only introduced in aCoK). But in aDwD he confirms it via Jon’s Wall dream.
The world dissolved into a red mist. Jon stabbed and slashed and cut. He hacked down Donal Noye and gutted Deaf Dick Follard. Qhorin Halfhand stumbled to his knees, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. “I am the Lord of Winterfell,” Jon screamed. It was Robb before him now, his hair wet with melting snow. Longclaw took his head off. Then a gnarled hand seized Jon roughly by the shoulder. He whirled …and woke with a raven pecking at his chest. “Snow,” the bird cried. Jon swatted at it. The raven shrieked its displeasure and flapped up to a bedpost to glare down balefully at him through the predawn gloom. (aDwD, Jon XII)
Someone actually entered into Jon’s dream to wake him up and that someone has a gnarled hand, and thus a tree related individual. Only greenseers have been proven to enter someone’s dream and interact with them. The three-eyed-crow appeared to Jojen in a greywater fever dream and visited Bran’s dreams often, including an infamous one to “wake” him out of his coma after his fall. And Bran appeared once as a slender weirwood in Jon’s wolf dream when he was warging Ghost. Bran then touched Jon’s own third eye, after which Jon became aware he was a warg and actively used Ghost to spy on the wildlings gathering at the source of the Milkwater. And Bran’s own POV in aCoK confirms this was a shared experience.
In the quoted Wall-dream the gnarled hand is associated to Mormont’s raven trying to wake him as well. One might argue that the greenseer reaching out for Jon’s shoulder with his (tree) gnarled hand may not be the raven. But as Jon dresses himself after being woken, Mormont’s raven points out that Jon is King.
He rose and dressed in darkness, as Mormont’s raven muttered across the room. “Corn,” the bird said, and, “King,” and, “Snow, Jon Snow, Jon Snow.” That was queer. The bird had never said his full name before, as best Jon could recall. (aDwD, Jon XII)
Mormont’s raven did not say this out of the blue, but was correcting Jon’s own dream-claim. The raven could only do so if he was a witness to Jon’s dream, and thus the same greenseer with the gnarled hand. So, this is the scene where George shows us without telling that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by a greenseer.
So, why Bloodraven and not Bran? After all, this dream occurs around the time Stannis interrogates Theon and both Bloodraven and Bran skinchange two ravens, advising to drag Theon before a weirwood tree. Bran already appeared as a weirwood tree in Jon’s wolf dream in the Skirling Pass in aCoK. So, having him interact with tree features in Jon’s Wall dream might be a hint to this. I can not fully dismiss that possibility for this dream instance. However, I would point out that there is a second character trying to wake Jon from his dream as an eagle.
Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. (aDwD, Jon XII)
In other words, Bloodraven and Bran are both visiting Jon in this dream, the teacher and pupil. I lean towards Bran being the eagle, while the gnarled hand and Mormont’s raven are Bloodraven. The eagle attempts to wake Jon without much awareness of the magical significance of this dream, while the gnarled hand intervenes in a manner he wants to halt Jon’s Wall dream right there and then. The word gnarled fits the ancient Bloodraven more, and Melisandre sees Bloodraven as a wooden man in her flames.
A face took shape within the hearth. Stannis? she thought, for just a moment … but no, these were not his features. A wooden face, corpse white. Was this the enemy? A thousand red eyes floated in the rising flames. He sees me. Beside him, a boy with a wolf’s face threw back his head and howled. (aDwD, Melisandre I)
There is also another symbolic connection with Bloodraven being the gnarled hand and the raven calling Jon Snow king, and not Bran. It harks back to Bloodraven’s life before he left for the Wall and beyond: Bloodraven was the Hand of the King to two Targaryen kings, Aerys I and Maekar I, and kingmaker when he arrested and executed Aenys Blackfyre. And thus, this imagery of the gnarled hand reaching for Jon’s shoulder and as raven referring to him as king would make it so that Bloodraven served as Hand to a third (Targaryen) king in the skin of Mormont’s raven. This symbolic impact of threes would be lacking if in this instant Bran is the gnarled hand and skinchaning Mormont’s raven. Take note that my proposal here implies that Bran and Bloodraven already witnessed the events of the Tower of Joy from their end, and thus I predict that any such Bran POV chapter in tWoW would timeline with aDwD, Jon XII.
This particular dream waking by Mormont’s raven is not the first time we see this. In his first chapter of aDwD, Jon is woken up in a similar manner from a warg dream.
“Snow,” the moon murmured. The wolf made no answer. Snow crunched beneath his paws. The wind sighed through the trees. […] “Snow,” the moon called down again, cackling. The white wolf padded along the man trail beneath the icy cliff. The taste of blood was on his tongue, and his ears rang to the song of the hundred cousins. Once they had been six, five whimpering blind in the snow beside their dead mother, sucking cool milk from her hard dead nipples whilst he crawled off alone. Four remained … and one the white wolf could no longer sense. “Snow,” the moon insisted. […] “Snow.” An icicle tumbled from a branch. The white wolf turned and bared his teeth. “Snow!” His fur rose bristling, as the woods dissolved around him. “Snow, snow, snow!” He heard the beat of wings. Through the gloom a raven flew. It landed on Jon Snow’s chest with a thump and a scrabbling of claws. “SNOW!” it screamed into his face. (aDwD, Jon I)
As Jon wargs Ghost, the moon starts to call his name to wake him. And as Jon wakes Mormont’s raven lands on his chest screaming his name to wake him. That the moon is actually the raven we can determine by the mention of the moon cackling. Notice too that as Jon wakes the raven is beating its wings and flying to land on his chest. The raven therefore sat perched somewhere in the room at a distance, fitting with the further off moon calling Jon’s name. At this point, Bran has not yet skinchanged any raven yet. Nor do Bran’s POVs of aDwD reveal he decided to serve as an alarm clock for the Lord Commander at the Wall. And thus here we can be certain that Bloodraven = Mormont’s raven, and always has been.
This gives an insight into Bloodraven that may not match with the general reader perception of him based on the gossip of the smallfolk in the Dunk & Egg novellas and his Machiavellian choices as Hand of the King. When readers suggest that Bloodraven skinchanges any other animal beyond Mormont’s raven south of the Neck, they basically consider him still hanging on to his role as Master of Whisperers, spying on anyone anywhere in the realm with regards the Iron Throne. In that view, Bloodraven only skinchanges Mormont’s raven in crucial scenes to keep tabs on the Night’s Watch on an equal level that he spies on the plots in the Red Keep in the black tomcat believed to be Rhaenys’ kitten Balerion. Bloodraven skinchanging Mormont’s raven to be Jon’s alarm clock seems a use of his precious time far beneath that. And yet, I would argue that the animal that Bloodraven skinchanges most of the time is in fact Mormont’s raven, and that this goes beyond keeping tabs. As Mormont’s raven, Bloodraven has attempted to remain true to his vows to the best of his ability: making suggestions to Lord Commanders and waking them up like a steward.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come. (aGoT, Jon VI)
Brynden Rivers ended up taking the black, after he arrested and executed Aenys Blackfyre who had wanted to press his claim at the Great Council of 233 AC after the death of Maekar I. When Aegon V was chosen as the new king, he gave Bloodraven the choice between execution or taking the black. He opted for the black and formed an honor guard to accompany maester Aemon to the Wall. This backstory cleverly makes Bloodraven out to a man who was forced to go to the Wall like a common criminal and abandoned his post eventually to seek for another greenseer.
But I think it was almost a certainty Bloodraven had already decided to join maester Aemon to the Wall voluntarily at the age of 58, once Aemon Targaryen had rejected the offer of a crown. His choices and actions with Daemon II Blackfyre at Whitewalls (in Mystery Knight) show that Brynden Rivers was fully capable of entrapping and arresting traitors and Blackfyres without bloodshed. Bloodraven’s choice to allow Aenys Blackfyre to come, arrest and execute him make the most sense, if he had already decided to step down as Hand and go to the Wall. Once Aemon had rejected the crown, the sole viable Targaryen claimant was Aegon. Meanwhile Aenys Blackfyre proved to be dillusional, but also power hungry. He may have been Daemon Blackfyre’s son, but he tried to jump ahead of his nephew, the son of his older brother, without the backing of even Bittersteel (see House Blackfyre). Aenys’ claim would have failed, but he could form certain alliances with houses (who had just cost them king Maekar) to make trouble at the start of the reign of the new king Aegon. So, he could go to the Wall for the remainder of his life, with his honor intact and hand a divided realm to young king Aegon V, or he could go to the Wall as a convicted criminal, and give Aegon V a few years before Bittersteel would attempt another rebellion with Daemon III (the nephew Aenys tried to get ahead in line of). Ruthless, to be sure, and Machiavellian, but it was never a reason to doubt his devotion for the Wall before and after his disappearance at 77 during a ranging in 252 AC.
And yes, I have quotes that support the notion that at the very least Bloodraven still considers himself a man of the Night’s Watch.
“The Lord Commander’s place is at Castle Black, lording and commanding,” [Thoren Smallwood] told Mormont, ignoring [Jon and Sam], “it seems to me.”
The raven flapped big black wings. “Me, me, me.”
“If you are ever Lord Commander, you may do as you please,” Mormont told the ranger, “but it seems to me that I have not died yet, nor have the brothers put you in my place.”(aCoK, Jon I)
When Jeor Mormont is about to go on the great ranging, Thoren Smallwood tries to convince Jeor that the Lord Commander should not go ranging at all and should remain at Castle Black. Mormont’s raven refers to himself as the role of Lord Commander. It is as if he is saying, “I can lord and command”. After all, Bloodraven was elected as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in 239 AC and he has not yet died.
So, basically what I am saying is that Bloodraven still tries to honor his oath to the Night’s Watch. It may be that he does it in an unorthodox way, both by skinchanging a raven at the Wall to remain at his post as well as searching and now training a greenseer. Nevertheless both align with shielding the realms of men. It is not that different from Jon realizing that the Free Folk are also men/humans and therefore they are part of the realms of men and worth protecting. When we keep that in the back of our mind, then some of his actions and words as Mormont’s raven can be understood more in depth.
One of the major plot developments of both aFfC, Samwell I and aDwD, Jon II is Jon’s plan to send Gilly away from the Wall together with maester Aemon and Mance’s baby, instead of her own son. Amongst readers there is much speculation on the fate of Gilly’s boy because of this swap. And when people argue that sweet little Monster is doomed, they often dig up the dark words of Mormont’s raven in aDwD, Jon II as foreshadowing for this. In fact, I was doing an elaborate analysis on the baby swap plot, when I realized that the raven’s words are more than the literary device of foreshadowing, but instead come from a character with foreknowledge who wants to stop the swap. And I will argue that Bloodraven goes to certain lengths in attempting to stop it.
For a correct analysis of Mormont’s raven commentary, we must reshuffle the two chapters into one but from Bloodraven’s POV. And thus we must begin with aDwD, Jon II first, then switch to aFfC, Samwell I, back to aDwD, Jon II and then both chapters parallel to each other. Jon’s chapter starts with him reading the letter he is supposed to send to King’s Landing, what he refers to as a paper shield, over and over until his eyes blur, knowing he must sign it, but unwilling to do so. Dolorous Edd interrupts Jon by announcing Gilly’s arrival.
It was a relief when Dolorous Edd Tollett opened the door to tell him that Gilly was without. Jon set Maester Aemon’s letter aside. “I will see her.” He dreaded this. “Find Sam for me. I will want to speak with him next.”
“He’ll be down with the books. My old septon used to say that books are dead men talking. Dead men should keep quiet, is what I say. No one wants to hear a dead man’s yabber.” Dolorous Edd went off muttering of worms and spiders. (aDwD, Jon II)
Jon asks Edd to find him Sam and that he wishes to speak with him after Gilly. And Tollett volunteers that his best chance in finding Sam will be down in the library. Gilly enters and Jon informs her he has to tell her something hard. After confirming that Mance will burn, he points out how the life of Dalla’s son is in danger as well.
“[…] It’s not [Mance] we need to talk about. It’s his son. Dalla’s boy.”
“The babe?” Her voice trembled. “He never broke no oath, m’lord. He sleeps and cries and sucks, is all; he’s never done no harm to no one. Don’t let her burn him. Save him, please.”
“Only you can do that, Gilly.” Jon told her how. (aDwD, Jon II)
The chapter never puts Jon’s plan into speech, but the how is revealed in aFfC to send Gilly away from the Wall with Dalla’s boy, pretending that the babe is her son. Bloodraven learns of Jon’s plan the same time that Gilly is told of it here. The greenseer may be able to interact with Jon and Bran on the dreamscape and enter their dreams, but that is the closest he can come to “mind reading”.
Bloodraven and Gilly give a similar reply to Jon’s plan.
Gilly shook her head. “No. Please, no.”
The raven picked up the word. “No,” it screamed. (aDwD, Jon II)
What follows are Jon’s arguments to Gilly where he represents Mel burning Mance’s son a certainty and even threatens to kill Gilly’s son the day that Dalla’s son burns if Gilly refuses.
“You will make a crow of him.” She wiped at her tears with the back of a small pale hand. “I won’t. I won’t.”
Kill the boy, thought Jon. “You will. Else I promise you, the day that they burn Dalla’s boy, yours will die as well.”
“Die,” shrieked the Old Bear’s raven. “Die, die, die.” (aDwD, Jon II)
If Bloodraven foresees (multiple) death, then why does he remain silent for so long in between screaming, “No,” and “Die”? The conversation is no less ominous, also mentions dying and death, but it takes almost two pages of interaction before Mormont’s raven speaks again. We would almost expect him to scream “burn” or “take him” or “cold” and other phrases the raven has uttered in the past. But the raven says none of that. It takes so long, in contrast to his own initial protest, that it leads to the possibility that Bloodraven was not actually in the skin of Mormont’s raven in between his “No,” and “Die”.
I propose that Bloodraven realized that Gilly needed an ally by her side to have the strength to withstand Jon’s pressure and coming threats: Sam. Jon had sent Edd Tollett in search of Samwell to speak with him after Gilly. If Bloodraven could get Sam moving before that, then Sam might interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly and prevent the swap from happening. Sam faced and killed wights to protect and save Gilly and her son. If he could find the courage to do that, he also would have the courage to tell Jon “No”.
Dolorous Edd had volunteered Sam’s whereabouts, and so Bloodraven knew exactly where to find him: in the library with his books. Now I ask you to whose benefit was it that George had Edd reveal Sam’s whereabouts? Tollett is the one to fetch him and it is odd that he would voice the location. Jon does not care where Edd will find Sam, as long as he finds him and tells him to go see Jon. The sole in-world reason for Tollett to mention the otherwise superfluous information of Sam’s whereabouts is for a third ear, which is the raven’s, and thus Bloodraven.
So, after witnessing Jon’s first response to Gilly’s no, Bloodraven stops skinchanging Mormont’s raven and instead skinchanges …
Sam was reading about the Others when he saw the mouse.
His eyes were red and raw. I ought not rub them so much, he always told himself as he rubbed them. (aFfC, Samwell I)
The idea that the mouse in Samwell’s library may be skinchanged is not new. Plenty of people who are on a reread, at least wonder about it for the two first sentences in Samwell’s first chapter of aFfC. A few of those raise the question on the internet. And a rare person will claim that the children of the forest and Bloodraven are skinchanging mice in Castle Black’s library to destroy the information it has about the Others. But overall the question whether that mouse is being skinchanged that very moment is quickly laid to rest again.
Firstly, yes, George wants you to consider the possibility that the mouse is being skinchanged. Those first two sentences contain attention grabbers: mention about the Others and red eyes, and when you are on a reread you remember also some Mad Mouse character in Brienne’s and Sansa’s arc. The truth is that the mouse’s eyes are not actually red. Samwell’s eyes are. He was reading in a dusty moldy library for hours on end. Nevertheless George sure managed to grab your attention and make you wonder. At the very least, George made you reread those two opening sentences twice.
The reasons for the reader to dismiss the skinchanging idea of the mouse so quickly are:
- It is just a grey mouse with black eyes.
- Nothing eventful seems to take place. All the mouse does is feast on Sam’s leftovers of bread and cheese. It does not point Sam to an important revealing passage about defeating the Others, or even a particular book full of forgotten lore. No, nothing of that sort occurs. Sam does not even succeed in squashing it with a book: the mouse escapes.
- Bloodraven is already skinchanging Mormont’s raven in Jon’s solar, screaming “No!” and “Die” and reading Jon’s paper shield when Sam enters the solar, and Bloodraven cannot skinchange two animals at once.
The first reason for dismissal is based on an erroneous self invented rule. Summer and Mormont’s raven are not albinos, and are nevertheless skinchanged. The white-red coloring is more a symbol of alignment or association to weirwoods and Bloodraven, rather than evidence on skinchanging itself. This alignment may be done through suggestion rather than actual coloring, and George does make the suggestion in those two first sentences. More, George has tied mice often with skinchangers before. Arya thinks of herself as a mouse at Harrenhal, and Arya is a skinchanger. Sansa too is called a mouse twice. Her skinchanging abilities are not developed, but George has confirmed that she is. Varamyr is referred to look like a mouse. And then of course we have Shadrich of the Shady Glenn referring to himself as the Mad Mouse who does carry personal arms with a white mouse and red eyes, as cocksure as if he was the knight of the laughing tree. (see Shadrich, Morgarth and Byron by Blue-Eyed-Wolf). Victarion refers to maester Kerwin of Greenshield a mouse as well.
“Could that mouse of a maester be doing this? Maesters know spells and other tricks. He might be using one to poison me, hoping I will let him cut my hand off.” The more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed. “The Crow’s Eye gave him to me, wretched creature that he is.” Euron had taken Kerwin off Greenshield, where he had been in service to Lord Chester, tending his ravens and teaching his children, or perhaps the other away around. (aDwD, The Iron Suitor)
This particular mouse’s fate and treatment by the Ironborn is abominable – he is raped by sailors and eventually killed by Victarion because he failed to heal Vic’s gangrenous wound. Though of course Kerwin as maester is unlikely to have been a skinchanger or even someone who prayed to the old gods, it should be noted that the castle he served, Greenshield, is an allusion to a location protected by “green” magic, where ravens and children (of the forest) live.
The third reason assumes wrongly that Bloodraven must be skinchanging Mormont’s raven the whole time. I pointed out that the raven is suspiciously silent almost throughout Jon’s meeting with Gilly, which includes several opportunities to cry “Die” far earlier and a lengthy scene of Gilly holding her hand above a flame. Bloodraven could indeed exit Mormont’s raven and skinchange the mouse for a short while to accomplish his intent and return to the skin of Mormont’s raven.
The second reason for dismissal is all about motive. Like Sam we regard a library as a potential treasure trove of secret information. We hope and, for trope reasons, expect Sam to discover the crucial secret about the Others and the Wall in a book. So, if Bloodraven is going to bother with skinchanging any animal in the library it must be either to lead Sam to such a discovery or obstruct him. Since the first obviously does not happen, and we are regularly reminded on how mice nibble at books in the library, the theorized motive for skinchanging whenever the mouse is brought up on forums or reddit becomes obstructing Sam in finding out the truth.
The mouse was half as long as his pinky finger, with black eyes and soft grey fur. Sam knew he ought to kill it. Mice might prefer bread and cheese, but they ate paper too. He had found plenty of mouse droppings amongst the shelves and stacks, and some of the leather covers on the books showed signs of being gnawed. It is such a little thing, though. And hungry. How could he begrudge it a few crumbs? It’s eating books, though . . . (aFfC, Samwell I)
And while some readers have come to believe this as a motive for skinchanging mice in general at Castle Black, it clashes for this mouse in question. If Jon’s exchange with Gilly is so crucial to Bloodraven, he did not just think to himself, “Oh well I’ll have a nibble at some books while I’m at it. This is getting boring.” And if that was indeed his plan, he ended up doing the opposite: exposing himself to Sam and nearly gets the mouse killed. Of course, the counter argument to the idea that the children of the forest and Bloodraven are skinchanging mice to gnaw at books in their spare time is that mice will do this anyhow. There is no need to skinchange mice for mice to do mice-things.
Given the subject at hand in Jon’s solar at the time, Bloodraven’s motive is crucial. I propose that Bloodraven hopes to get to Sam in the library before Dolorous Edd, and have him leave his books so that he bumbles into Jon’s meeting with Gilly and can be her ally against Jon’s bullying. Sam is such a book lover that he forgets all about time and space, and even food. Not that many events can draw Sam’s attention away from books. Only that which destroys books could: fire or mice. And there are plenty of mice that can be skinchanged in the library. Mice are not bold creatures that go near humans and eat their food by candle light right under their nose. That particular mouse must be either mad because of toxoplasmosis or it is being skinchanged.
The motive I propose is exactly what the mouse achieves: it draws Sam’s attention, away from reading. He actually stops reading, for the very first time in hours and hours.
One more book, he had told himself, then I’ll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I’ll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I’ll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he’d think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it. He had not eaten since that bowl of bean-and-bacon soup with Pyp and Grenn. Well, except for the bread and cheese, but that was only a nibble, he thought. That was when he took a quick glance at the empty platter, and spied the mouse feasting on the bread crumbs. (aFfC, Samwell I)
Take note that the mouse is said to feast in the first chapter, after the prologue, of a book called A Feast for Crows. If the mouse is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in this moment, a three-eyed-crow is feasting.
This may seem a non-event to you, but in Sam’s case it is a huge feat. Sam does not just stop reading. The mouse makes him move.
After hours in the chair Sam’s back was stiff as a board, and his legs were half-asleep. He knew he was not quick enough to catch the mouse, but it might be he could squash it. By his elbow rested a massive leather-bound copy of Annals of the Black Centaur, Septon Jorquen’s exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. […] No mouse is a match for Septon Jorquen. Very slowly, Sam took hold of the book with his left hand. It was thick and heavy, and when he tried to lift it one-handed, it slipped from his plump fingers and thumped back down. The mouse was gone in half a heartbeat, skittery-quick. (aFfC, Samwell I)
And then Sam becomes aware of time and actually gets up. He decides to leave the library.
He was surprised at how low the candle had burned. Had the bean-and-bacon soup been today or yesterday? Yesterday. It must have been yesterday. The realization made him yawn. Jon would be wondering what had become of him, though Maester Aemon would no doubt understand. […] Pushing himself to his feet, Sam grimaced at the pins and needles in his calves. (aFfC, Samwell I)
Sam is already back up at the yard from the library when he runs into Dolorous Edd who was sent by Jon to fetch him.
“Samwell,” said a glum voice, “I was coming to fetch you. I was told to bring you to the Lord Commander.”
A snowflake landed on Sam’s nose. “Jon wants to see me?”
“As to that, I could not say,” said Dolorous Edd Tollett. “I never wanted to see half the things I’ve seen, and I’ve never seen half the things I wanted to. I don’t think wanting comes into it. You’d best go all the same. Lord Snow wishes to speak with you as soon as he is done with Craster’s wife.”
“That’s the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, I’d still be on the teat. Mine had whiskers.”
“Most goats do,” called Pyp, as he and Grenn emerged from around the corner, with longbows in hand and quivers of arrows on their backs. “Where have you been, Slayer? We missed you last night at supper. A whole roast ox went uneaten.”
“Don’t call me Slayer.” Sam ignored the gibe about the ox. That was just Pyp. “I was reading. There was a mouse . . .” (aFfC, Samwell |)
So, if Bloodraven skinchanged the mouse to get Samwell moving quick enough to interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly, he had succeeded initially. He could however not account for Pyp and Grenn wanting to make conversation with Samwell over nothing of importance, despite Sam’s protests and insistence that he must see Jon. Unfortunately, Pyp delayed Sam so that he arrives at Jon’s solar just as Gilly leaves.
“I don’t have time for this.” Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest. […] Gilly was leaving as Sam arrived, wrapped up in the old cloak he’d given her when they were fleeing Craster’s Keep. She almost rushed right past him, but Sam caught her arm, spilling two books as he did. (aFfC, Samwell I)
In other words, if Sam had not been delayed by Pyp, Grenn and Edd, he would have stumbled into the meeting before Jon could bully Gilly into silence on the subject.
It seems reasonable to assume that Bloodraven is against the swapping of the babes, because of the team effort in saving Sam, Gilly and her son from the wights at the not-Whitetree village.
“A mother can’t leave her son, or else she’s cursed forever. Not a son. We saved him, Sam and me. Please. Please, m’lord. We saved him from the cold.” (aDwD, Jon II)
Bloodraven has been involved in the business of saving Sam, Gilly and her son, since the mutiny.
“The girl don’t lie,” the old woman on the right said. “She’s my girl, and I beat the lying out of her early on. You said you’d help her. Do what Ferny says, boy. Take the girl and be quick about it.”
“Quick,” the raven said. “Quick quick quick.” (aSoS, Samwell II)
Then when Samwell and Gilly arrived at the anonymous village north of the Wall, Sam prays to the Old gods in front of a weirwood.
[Samwell] turned back to the weirwood and studied the carved face a moment. It is not the face we saw, he admitted to himself. The tree’s not half as big as the one at Whitetree. The red eyes wept blood, and he didn’t remember that either. Clumsily, Sam sank to his knees. “Old gods, hear my prayer. The Seven were my father’s gods but I said my words to you when I joined the Watch. Help us now. I fear we might be lost. We’re hungry too, and so cold. I don’t know what gods I believe in now, but . . . please, if you’re there, help us. Gilly has a little son.” That was all that he could think to say. The dusk was deepening, the leaves of the weirwood rustling softly, waving like a thousand blood-red hands. Whether Jon’s gods had heard him or not he could not say. (aSoS, Samwell III)
In this manner, Sam let Bloodraven know his position and whereabouts, and sends Coldhands to the village so that he can accompany Sam to the Black Gate for when Bran arrives there and must pass the Wall. But wights find them first.
“He’s come for the babe,” Gilly wept. “He smells him. A babe fresh-born stinks o’ life. He’s come for the life.” (aSoS, Samwell III)
The wight though has a raven for a companion that tries to peck and strip him, as Sam fights him.
Hoarfrost whitened [Small Paul’s] beard, and on one shoulder hunched a raven, pecking at his cheek, eating the dead white flesh. […] The raven on his shoulder ripped a strip of flesh from his pale ruined cheek. […] Samwell Tarly threw himself forward and plunged the dagger down into Small Paul’s back. Half-turned, the wight never saw him coming. The raven gave a shriek and took to the air. […] The wight was burning, hoarfrost dripping from his beard as the flesh beneath blackened. Sam heard the raven shriek, but Paul himself made no sound. (aSoS, Samwell III)
That raven should be regarded as a scout or outflyer from Coldhands. Small Paul was not the only wight. There were more, outside. And both Coldhands and Bloodraven united all ravens as a vanguard to attack the wights, until Coldhands could rescue them/
She stood with her back against the weirwood, the boy in her arms. The wights were all around her. There were a dozen of them, a score, more . . . some had been wildlings once, and still wore skins and hides . . . but more had been his brothers. Sam saw Lark the Sisterman, Softfoot, Ryles. The wen on Chett’s neck was black, his boils covered with a thin film of ice. And that one looked like Hake, though it was hard to know for certain with half his head missing. They had torn the poor garron apart, and were pulling out her entrails with dripping red hands. Pale steam rose from her belly. Sam made a whimpery sound. “It’s not fair . . .” (aSoS, Samwell III)
At this point Bloodraven speaks to Sam via raven and a large murder of ravens descend on the wights.
“Fair.” The raven landed on his shoulder. “Fair, far, fear.” It flapped its wings, and screamed along with Gilly. The wights were almost on her. He heard the dark red leaves of the weirwood rustling, whispering to one another in a tongue he did not know. The starlight itself seemed to stir, and all around them the trees groaned and creaked. Sam Tarly turned the color of curdled milk, and his eyes went wide as plates. Ravens! They were in the weirwood, hundreds of them, thousands, perched on the bone-white branches, peering between the leaves. He saw their beaks open as they screamed, saw them spread their black wings. Shrieking, flapping, they descended on the wights in angry clouds. They swarmed round Chett’s face and pecked at his blue eyes, they covered the Sisterman like flies, they plucked gobbets from inside Hake’s shattered head. There were so many that when Sam looked up, he could not see the moon. “Go,” said the bird on his shoulder. “Go, go, go.”
Sam ran, puffs of frost exploding from his mouth. All around him the wights flailed at the black wings and sharp beaks that assailed them, falling in an eerie silence with never a grunt nor cry. But the ravens ignored Sam. He took Gilly by the hand and pulled her away from the weirwood. “We have to go.” (aSoS, Samwell III)
Sam realizes that words are whispered in a language unknown to him, which is either the Old Tongue of the First Men or the True Tongue of the children of the forest. Though Bloodraven is referred to as the “last greenseer” by the children of the forest, he is not the sole one in the cave. Bran sees plenty of singers on greenseer thrones.
He even crossed the slender stone bridge that arched over the abyss and discovered more passages and chambers on the far side. One was full of singers, enthroned like Brynden in nests of weirwood roots that wove under and through and around their bodies. Most of them looked dead to him, but as he crossed in front of them their eyes would open and follow the light of his torch, and one of them opened and closed a wrinkled mouth as if he were trying to speak. (aDwD, Bran III)
This means that all the skinchangers and greenseers of Bloodraven’s cave were involved in the effort to keep a true Black brother alive as well as Gilly and her son, until Coldhands arrived.
“Brother!” The shout cut through the night, through the shrieks of a thousand ravens. Beneath the trees, a man muffled head to heels in mottled blacks and greys sat astride an elk. “Here,” the rider called. A hood shadowed his face. He’s wearing blacks. Sam urged Gilly toward him. The elk was huge, a great elk, ten feet tall at the shoulder, with a rack of antlers near as wide. The creature sank to his knees to let them mount. “Here,” the rider said, reaching down with a gloved hand to pull Gilly up behind him.
Then it was Sam’s turn. “My thanks,” he puffed. Only when he grasped the offered hand did he realize that the rider wore no glove. His hand was black and cold, with fingers hard as stone. (aSoS, Samwell III)
Bloodraven and Coldhands did not save them just because Sam prayed to them, but because he needed Sam to open the Black Gate for Bran so that he could escort him to Bloodraven.
“From Craster’s,” the girl said. “Are you the one?”
Jojen turned to look at her. “The one?”
“He said that Sam wasn’t the one,” she explained. “There was someone else, he said. The one he was sent to find.”
“Who said?” Bran demanded.
“Coldhands,” Gilly answered softly.
Meera peeled back one end of her net, and the fat man managed to sit up. He was shaking, Bran saw, and still struggling to catch his breath. “He said there would be people,” he huffed. “People in the castle. I didn’t know you’d be right at the top of the steps, though. I didn’t know you’d throw a net on me or stab me in the stomach.” He touched his belly with a black-gloved hand. “Am I bleeding? I can’t see.” (aSoS, Bran IV)
It is important to take note of the fact that the night when Sam arrives at the Nightfort is not the same night he was rescued by Coldhands from the wights at the village. There was a full moon the night at the village and a half-moon at the Nightfort, which would be a third quarter half-moon. The two chapters are about a week apart. Since Sam arrives at the Nightfort on the first night of Bran’s arrival there, this means that Bloodraven had foreseen Bran would be there, before he had arrived, and likely even had foreseen that Sam would be the man to help Bran through the Black Gate.
“You won’t find it. If you did it wouldn’t open. Not for you. It’s the Black Gate.” Sam plucked at the faded black wool of his sleeve. “Only a man of the Night’s Watch can open it, he said. A Sworn Brother who has said his words.”
“He said.” Jojen frowned. “This . . .Coldhands?”
“That wasn’t his true name,” said Gilly, rocking. “We only called him that, Sam and me. His hands were cold as ice, but he saved us from the dead men, him and his ravens, and he brought us here on his elk.” (aSoS, Bran IV)
So, close inspection does not warrant the assumption that Bloodraven wishes to save the baby in particular. By the time that Bloodraven sent Sam on his way with Gilly and her son from Craster’s as Mormont’s raven, all the other true brothers of the Night’s Watch had already fled Craster’s and went straight for Castle Black. Meanwhile it was in evidence that Sam needed Gilly and the baby for courage and will to get to the Wall, to survive. Even Gilly points out that the wights came for fresh-life, not necessarily because he is Craster’s son. And in From Sandkings to Nightqueens I show all the evidence and reasoning that babies serve as meat for the Mother of the Others, instead of the imho the flawed theory that Craster’s sons are Otherized. And if babies are meat, then it matters little to the Others whether that meat is Craster’s or Mance’s.
When Mormont’s raven shrieks die four times during Jon’s meeting with Gilly that seems quite a bit excessive to foretell the death of just one baby. It is an indication that Bloodraven foresees a lot of death. Take for instance the scene when Jeor Mormont announces his decision to seek the confrontation with Mance’s united army of wildlings to the men of the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men, Mormont’s raven cries die four times plus.
“We’ll die.” That was Maslyn’s voice, green with fear.
“Die,” screamed Mormont’s raven, flapping its black wings. “Die, die, die.”
“Many of us,” the Old Bear said. “Mayhaps even all of us. But as another Lord Commander said a thousand years ago, that is why they dress us in black. Remember your words, brothers. For we are the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the walls . . .”
When the shouting died away, once more he heard the sound of the wind picking at the ringwall. The flames swirled and shivered, as if they too were cold, and in the sudden quiet the Old Bear’s raven cawed loudly and once again said, “Die.” (aSoS, Prologue)
He says die five times too when Jeor realizes they must turn the Fist into a fortress to slow or halt Mance’s army and tells Qhorin to pick his men to scout.
“Belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.”
“Die,” the raven muttered, pacing along Mormont’s shoulders. “Die, die, die, die.” The Old Bear sat slumped and silent, as if the burden of speech had grown too heavy for him to bear. But at last he said, “May the gods forgive me. Choose your men.”
Qhorin Halfhand turned his head. His eyes met Jon’s, and held them for a long moment. “Very well. I choose Jon Snow.” (aCoK, Jon V)
Four times die is slightly less than five times. About 270 brothers died on Jeor’s great ranging, including the scouts in the Frostfangs and those killed during the mutiny at Craster’s, aside from those who died at the Fist. So, we can roughly conclude that Bloodraven foresees about 200 deaths, as a consequence of the swap. So, this is about something bigger than saving a baby’s life, let alone out of some sentiment of having saved him in the past.
Since, I propose that Bloodraven skinchanged the mouse in the hope to have Sam interrupt Jon’s meeting with Gilly, it stands to reason that Mormont’s raven would try to signal something to Sam upon his arrival. And this should give us a better understanding. As it turns out, when Sam enters the solar, we instantly are bombarded with plenty of action by Mormont’s raven.
[…] when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, “Corn, corn!”
Shifting the books, Sam thrust his arm into the sack beside the door and came out with a handful of kernels. The raven landed on his wrist and took one from his palm, pecking so hard that Sam yelped and snatched his hand back. The raven took to the air again, and yellow and red kernels went everywhere.
“Close the door, Sam.” Faint scars still marked Jon’s cheek, where an eagle had once tried to rip his eye out. “Did that wretch break the skin?”
Sam eased the books down and peeled off his glove. “He did.” He felt faint. “I’m bleeding.” (aFfC, Samwell I)
The raven spies Sam, flaps towards him and cries for corn. As Samwell takes out kernels of corn and opens his hand to the raven, he pecks so hard he pierces Sam’s glove and skin, drawing blood. With the demand for corn, we are inclined to think of it just being a raven in this instance. But this is negated by the raven purposefully reading the parchment from Jon’s shoulder. Furthermore, pecking so hard that he makes Sam bleed is unprecedented. The worst he has done before was shit on Jeor’s shoulders when Jeor was eating Craster’s questionable breakfast. So, yes, the raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in this instance.
A possible explanation might be that Bloodraven was upset with Sam’s tardiness and wanted to punish him. However, once we add the raven’s response to Jon’s statement about the power of blood once he’s done eating the corn, this becomes quite unlikely.
“Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. King’s blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It’s nonsense. Mance’s blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He’s a brigand, nothing more. There’s no power in brigand’s blood.”
The raven looked up from the floor. “Blood,” it screamed. (aFfC, Samwell I)
Instead, I propose that Bloodraven was using the raven to reenact a particular blood magic. In this practice the palm is cut. We already know a certain brigand who cut his palm and used his blood to set his sword aflame: Beric Dondarrion.
Unsmiling, Lord Beric laid the edge of his longsword against the palm of his left hand, and drew it slowly down. Blood ran dark from the gash he made, and washed over the steel. And then the sword took fire. (aSoS, Arya VI)
Such is the power of brigand’s blood after he was kissed by fire. Do I need to remind you that aside from having ties to R’hllor, Beric also has visual references to Bloodraven? The same visual reference that is alluded to when Sam is reminded of Jon’s scars around his eye, because Orell’s eagle tried to tear his eye out?
The walls were equal parts stone and soil, with huge white roots twisting through them like a thousand slow pale snakes. […] In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood. […] A scarecrow of a man, he wore a ragged black cloak speckled with stars and an iron breastplate dinted by a hundred battles. […] One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket scarred and puckered, […] . (aSoS, Arya VI)
And when we compare how effectively Beric uses his blood to light up his common steel sword with flames, to how Mel burns a brigand (Rattleshirt) to light a fake magical sword like the sun, we can see how messed up her use of blood magic truly is.
The sword glowed red and yellow and orange, alive with light. Jon had seen the show before … but not like this, never before like this. Lightbringer was the sun made steel. When Stannis raised the blade above his head, men had to turn their heads or cover their eyes. Horses shied, and one threw his rider. The blaze in the fire pit seemed to shrink before this storm of light, like a small dog cowering before a larger one. The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of king’s blood? (aDwD, Jon III)
The first uses his own fire-blood for justice, while Mel’s magic is a wasteful mummery to show off the trappings of power.
Once you remember Beric bloodying his blade with his palm it becomes quite clear that Bloodraven was trying to show such a magic use of blood to Sam and Jon when he drew Samwell’s blood and then implied that blood is powerful to Jon’s rhetorical question as Mormont’s raven. But why is it so important? And what the hell has it to do with swapping babes?
The raven gives us a hint, because prior to begging Sam for corn, he is doing something noteworthy and odd.
[Jon] was reading a parchment when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont’s raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, […] (aFfC, Samwell I)
Jon is reading Aemon’s letter meant for King’s Landing, again, and so is Bloodraven via the raven. Jon refers to the letter as a paper shield.
“We all shed our blood for the Watch. Wear thicker gloves.” Jon shoved a chair toward him with a foot. “Sit, and have a look at this.” He handed him the parchment.
“What is it?” asked Sam. The raven began to hunt out corn kernels amongst the rushes.
“A paper shield.”
Sam sucked at the blood on his palm as he read. He knew Maester Aemon’s hand on sight. His writing was small and precise, but the old man could not see where the ink had blotted, and sometimes he left unsightly smears. “A letter to King Tommen?” (aFfC, Samwell I)
Notice how both Samwell’s bleeding palm and the raven hunting the corn that flew and fell surround this mention of the paper shield. So, the shield is the heart of the matter here.
This paper shield prompts Cersei to plot the assassination of Jon. And the kernels that Mormont’s raven sent flying were the sigil colors of the Lannsters: yellow and red.
“Another problem has arisen on the Wall, however. The brothers of the Night’s Watch have taken leave of their wits and chosen Ned Stark’s bastard son to be their Lord Commander.” […] “I glimpsed him once at Winterfell,” the queen said, “though the Starks did their best to hide him. He looks very like his father.” […] Catelyn Tully was a mouse, or she would have smothered this Jon Snow in his cradle. Instead, she’s left the filthy task to me. “Snow shares Lord Eddard’s taste for treason too,” she said. “The father would have handed the realm to Stannis. The son has given him lands and castles.”
“The Night’s Watch is sworn to take no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Pycelle reminded them. “For thousands of years the black brothers have upheld that tradition.”
“Until now,” said Cersei. “The bastard boy has written us to avow that the Night’s Watch takes no side, but his actions give the lie to his words. He has given Stannis food and shelter, yet has the insolence to plead with us for arms and men.” (aFfC, Cersei IV)
Notice that Cersei thinks Catelyn must be a mouse by allowing Jon to live. This seems like a reference to Samwell’s mouse that I proposed Bloodraven skinchanged to get Sam moving: mice don’t want Jon to die.
There is one issue: Cersei never managed to execute her plan, since she and her assassin Osney Kettleback both ended up arrested by the High Sparrow. Even if Cersei was victorious in her trial by combat, Osney has confessed under torture to the murder of the High Septon. Kevan Lannister thought of sending Osney’s brothers to the Wall for their crimes, but he was murdered by Varys before he could ever turn his unvoiced idea into a command. Was there ever time for Cersei to even send Osney’s brothers to Eastwatch? A message to friends within the Watch? I do think that Eastwatch and Cersei may have been involved in warning Bowen Marsh, but that is for another essay.
We seem to have three separate issues:
- an assassination plot on Jon’s life
- swapping babes
- blood magic in the spirit that Beric used it
And yet, all are tied together.
When we look to the paragraphs and sentences shortly before we are told that Jon and Mormont’s raven are reading the parchment, the paper shield, the word shield is mentioned several times in a short span of text.
“I don’t have time for this.” Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest.I am the shield that guards the realms of men, he remembered. He wondered what those men would say if they realized their realms were being guarded by the likes of Grenn, Pyp, and Dolorous Edd.
Jon’s solar was back beyond the racks of spears and shields. He was reading a [paper shield] when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont’s raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, “Corn, corn!” (aFfC, Samwell I)
The blood magic that Mormont’s raven reenacted has to do with a shield. And the shield that guards the realms of men is not just a physical wall, but a magical warding spell. And in fact, right after Mormont’s raven drew blood of Sam’s palm, Jon tells Sam, “Close the door“!
The paper shield is a great analogy to the warding spell. The medium on which the words are written is not the shield; the words written on it are. And spells are words too.
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck and spoke a word. The sound echoed queerly from the corners of the room and twisted like a worm inside their ears. The wildling heard one word, the crow another. Neither was the word that left her lips. (aDwD, Melisandre I)
When it comes to warding spells, we know of three confirmed locations being protected by such: Bloodraven’s cave, Storm’s End and the Wall.
“There was no need,” she said. “[Renly] was unprotected. But here . . . this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can pass—ancient, forgotten, yet still in place.” (aCoK, Davos II)
“The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, he said. There are spells woven into it . . . old ones, and strong. He cannot pass beyond the Wall.” (aSoS, Bran IV)
The ward upon the cave mouth still held; the dead men could not enter. (aDwD, Bran III)
The last two locations and constructions are ascribed to both children of the forest and Brandon the Builder.
A seventh castle [Durran] raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build it, shaping the stones with magic; others claimed that a small boy told him what he must do, a boy who would grow to be Bran the Builder. No matter how the tale was told, the end was the same. Though the angry gods threw storm after storm against it, the seventh castle stood defiant, and Durran Godsgrief and fair Elenei dwelt there together until the end of their days. (aCoK, Catelyn III)
With Storm’s End, Catelyn presents the help Durran received to build the protective walls as an either or choice of what you believe: children of the forest or Brandon the Builder. Something similar occurs with the legends on the raising of the Wall. For the Wall though, it is portrayed as a cooperation between Brandon the Builder and the children of the forest, with the first as the architect of the physical wall, and the later get credited for weaving magic into the construction.
Maester Childer’s Winter’s Kings, or the Legends and Lineages of the Starks of Winterfell contains a part of a ballad alleged to tell of the time Brandon the Builder sought the aid of the children while raising the Wall. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Dawn Age)
Legend has it that the giants helped raise the Wall, using their great strength to wrestle the blocks of ice into place. There may be some truth to this though the stories make the giants out to be far larger and more powerful than they truly were. These same legends also say that the children of the forest—who did not themselves build walls of either ice or stone—would contribute their magic to the construction. (tWoIaF – The Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch)
The ward on Bloodraven’s cave affirms this is a magic that originates from the children of the forest. It is their spell. This notion of Brandon the Builder as architect, however, can be easily disproven by Winterfell, yet another construction ascribed to him: Winterfell’s grounds were never leveled.
It taught him Winterfell’s secrets too. The builders had not even leveled the earth; there were hills and valleys behind the walls of Winterfell. (aGoT, Bran II)
Any actual architect would have leveled the ground. And if we compare the oldest constructions of Winterfell to the Storm’s End, the Hightower (also ascribed to Brandon) and the Wall, we would have a boy genius for Storm’s End (and the Hightower), but is not even a mediocre architect when he built his own home. If Brandon the Builder was not an architect, he helped in raising the magical ward that the children of the forest cast. One of the legends claims that Brandon the Builder learned the language of the children of the forest, “which was described as sounding like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water.” Bran’s mentions of the True Tongue (the language of the children of the forest) makes it doubtful that any human can actually learn to speak it, let alone their spells. Bloodraven is a human and has been the sole human amongst the children of the forest for decades in the cave, and apparently cannot speak it either.
I propose that Brandon’s contribution was that of blood magic: the children of the forest said the words, while Brandon the Builder cut the palm of his hand and sealed the spell to the stones, to the location with his blood. His ancestor Brandon of the Bloody Blade is a likely hint that The Builder knew of such blood magic. George also added “the use of a sword” in connection to the ward of Bloodraven’s cave.
“The cave is warded. They cannot pass.” The ranger used his sword to point. “You can see the entrance there. Halfway up, between the weirwoods, that cleft in the rock.” (aDwD, Bran II)
With a few exceptions, almost all magic involves some form of blood magic. While we easily consider it an evil magic where the lives of innocents (other people or children) need to be sacrificed to empower someone who sacrifices nothing, there are also examples where but a few drops of one’s own blood suffices. Maggy the Frog and the one-eyed prostitute Yna in Braavos can tell someone’s fortune with that person’s drop of blood.
“Is that how you say it? The woman would suck a drop of blood from your finger, and tell you what your morrows held.”
“Blood magic is the darkest kind of sorcery. Some say it is the most powerful as well.” (aFfC, Cersei VIII)
[Merry’s] girls were nice as well; Blushing Bethany and the Sailor’s Wife, one-eyed Yna who could tell your fortune from a drop of blood, […] (aFfC, Cat of the Canals)
Notice how Yna has the one-eyed connotation to Bloodraven. Maggy the Frog may have Essosi origin, but the nickname “the frog” and her green tent, link her to green magic as well. So, it is entirely possible that Brandon the Builder could fixate the warding spell to a particular location by slashing his palm and allow drops of blood to fall on a stone foundation.
Since Bloodraven is inside a cave warded by the same spell as the Wall or Storm’s End, he likely has first hand knowledge how this blood magic works. He might have done the exact same blood letting of his own palm with his Dark Sister when the children of the forest warded the cave. Hence as Mormont’s raven he tries to reveal this to Samwell and Jon.
Note: Jon’s chapter of his meeting with Samwell leaves out most of these hints. Jon is unaware that Mormont’s raven is reading the paper shield along with him. And the chapter leaves out the exact words Jon says when the raven cries “Blood”.
Samwell Tarly turned up a few moments later, clutching a stack of books. No sooner had he entered than Mormont’s raven flew at him demanding corn. Sam did his best to oblige, offering some kernels from the sack beside the door. The raven did its best to peck through his palm. Sam yowled, the bird flapped off, corn scattered. “Did that wretch break the skin?” Jon asked. […] “Val sent her to plead for Mance again,” Jon lied, and they talked for a while of Mance and Stannis and Melisandre of Asshai, until the raven ate the last corn kernel and screamed, “Blood.” (aDwD, Jon II)
So, Sam’s chapter is crucial in figuring out what the raven is about.
I refer to this fixation with blood magic of the warding spell as a seal. This is a deliberate choice, as much of the other hints to this concept occur in relation to George’s use of that word. For example in They’re Here! I already mentioned the foreshadowing name Sealskinner. But the most glaring examples are related to parchments, or paper shields: Ramsay’s letters written in blood to Asha and Jon and Stannis’ signing of his contract with the Iron Bank with his own blood.
The paragraphs about Ramsay’s letter to Asha mention a seal, spatter of drops of blood, fluttering skin, dark wings, ravens, writing in blood, and iron.
“My lady.” The maester’s voice was anxious, as it always was when he spoke to her. “A bird from Barrowton.” He thrust the parchment at her as if he could not wait to be rid of it. It was tightly rolled and sealed with a button of hard pink wax. Barrowton. Asha tried to recall who ruled in Barrowton. Some northern lord, no friend of mine. And that seal … the Boltons of the Dreadfort went into battle beneath pink banners spattered with little drops of blood. It only stood to reason that they would use pink sealing wax as well.
This is poison that I hold, she thought. I ought to burn it. Instead she cracked the seal. A scrap of leather fluttered down into her lap. When she read the dry brown words, her black mood grew blacker still. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens never brought glad tidings. The last message sent to Deepwood had been from Stannis Baratheon, demanding homage. This was worse. “The northmen have taken Moat Cailin.” […`] the message above was scrawled in brown in a huge, spiky hand. It spoke of the fall of Moat Cailin, of the triumphant return of the Warden of the North to his domains, of a marriage soon to be made. The first words were, “I write this letter in the blood of ironmen,” the last, “I send you each a piece of prince. Linger in my lands, and share his fate.” (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)
The seal is linked to the image of spattered blood droplets. The letter is linked to skinchanging via the fluttering scrap of leather, raven wings and words. The words on the parchment are written in blood of men. And of course a parchment of written words can be equated to a paper shiel. In this case a paper shield of blood.
A seal, is a stamp or imprint identifying a person or house. It is a type of signature, or a person, for in Asha’s case a seal (animal) was a stand-in bride to Ironmaker, for a union arranged by a crow’s eye.
Asha was still at Ten Towers taking on provisions when the tidings of her marriage reached her. “My wayward niece needs taming,” the Crow’s Eye was reported to have said, “and I know the man to tame her.” He had married her to Erik Ironmaker and named the Anvil-Breaker to rule the Iron Islands whilst he was chasing dragons. […] Tris Botley said that the Crow’s Eye had used a seal to stand in for her at her wedding. “I hope Erik did not insist on a consummation,” she’d said. (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)
In the King’s Prize, we get another wordplay that links a seal to the Wall.
Asha crawled out from under her sleeping furs and pushed her way out of the tent, knocking aside the wall of snow that had sealed them in during the night. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)
Where Asha’s POV focuses on the taking of Moat Cailin, Jon’s POV focuses on Ramsay’s forthcoming marriage to Arya Stark, reminding us of the seal standing in for a person at a wedding.
Clydas thrust the parchment forward. It was tightly rolled and sealed, with a button of hard pink wax. Only the Dreadfort uses pink sealing wax. Jon ripped off his gauntlet, took the letter, cracked the seal. When he saw the signature, he forgot the battering Rattleshirt had given him. Ramsay Bolton, Lord of the Hornwood, it read, in a huge, spiky hand. The brown ink came away in flakes when Jon brushed it with his thumb. Beneath Bolton’s signature, Lord Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own marks and seals. A cruder hand had drawn the giant of House Umber. “Might we know what it says, my lord?” asked Iron Emmett.
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. “Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to …” His heart seemed to stop for a moment. (aDwD, Jon VI)
We see another interplay of these words and concepts during the war meeting with Stannis.
Candles had been placed at its corners to keep the hide from rolling up. A finger of warm wax was puddling out across the Bay of Seals, slow as a glacier.
We have a mention of a hide, and thus a reference to skinchangng. Next a finger, and a thumb is still a finger. The word wax is used, instead of blood, but since a seal can be made of wax as well as blood, here the wax stands for blood.
Finally, we witness Stannis signing his contract with the Iron Bank with his own blood.
“Your Grace,” a second voice said softly. “Pardon, but your ink has frozen.” The Braavosi, Theon knew. What was his name? Tycho… Tycho something… “Perhaps a bit of heat… ?”
“I know a quicker way.” Stannis drew his dagger. For an instant Theon thought that he meant to stab the banker. You will never get a drop of blood from that one, my lord, he might have told him. The king laid the blade of the knife against the ball of his left thumb, and slashed. “There. I will sign in mine own blood. That ought to make your masters happy.”
“If it please Your Grace, it will please the Iron Bank.”
Stannis dipped a quill in the blood welling from his thumb and scratched his name across the piece of parchment. (tWoW, Theon I)
So, George is showing us repeatedly how (paper) shields get signed or sealed with drops of blood. Notice too, how iron is also mentioned in combination with this: Ironmen, Iron Emmett or Iron Bank. This implies that Brandon the Builder used an iron sword (and not a bronze one) to cut his palm or thumb to draw blood and seal the warding spell for the Wall. And yes, there are often hints of foreshadowing to the “breaking” or “cracking” of this seal as well as Jon coming to harm.
We also have numerous mentions of walls mixed with blood or built on blood. So, George has connected the concept of building with blood and walls.
Arya remembered Old Nan’s stories of the castle built on fear. Harren the Black had mixed human blood in the mortar, Nan used to say, dropping her voice so the children would need to lean close to hear, but Aegon’s dragons had roasted Harren and all his sons within their great walls of stone. (aCoK, Arya VI)
“Bricks and blood built Astapor,” Whitebeard murmured at her side, “and bricks and blood her people.” […] “An old rhyme a maester taught me, when I was a boy. I never knew how true it was. The bricks of Astapor are red with the blood of the slaves who make them.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)
Of course, in the case of Harren the Black and the masters of Astapor it is the blood of other people that built those walls: the evil of slavery and murder. That is as evil as Ramsay writing letters with the blood of his prisoners of war. The Blood Seal instead is like Stannis writing his signature with his own blood from his thumb. Regardless, Ygritte tells Jon and us the reader that the Wall is made of blood.
“I hate this Wall,” she said in a low angry voice. “Can you feel how cold it is?”
“It’s made of ice,” Jon pointed out.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow. This wall is made o’ blood.” (aSoS, Jon IV)
While I have shown just a few of the many examples of hints to this Blood Seal of the ward of the Wall, you probably are still wondering how this connects to Jon wanting to swap the two babes. Just as the flying yellow and red kernels of corn after reading the paper shield foreshadows an assassination attempt on Jon’s life for the Lannister side, I think Bloodraven foresaw that somehow the swapping of the two babies would lead to the writing and sending of the Pink Letter. But the Pink Letter and the assassination plot itself are for another essay within the Blood Seal Thesis. Instead, I will focus here on a more symbolical connection between the baby swap and the Blood Seal. Instead of focusing on the fate of Craster’s son, perhaps we should consider Mance’s son.
Jon thinks that Mel wants to burn Mance for his king’s blood and will burn his son for the same reason. This is his motivation to swap the babes. But Mel has already decided to see whether Mance is a man worth saving, after Jon argued for his life to Stannis and the latter has admitted that Mance has value to him.
“I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king’s dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want, she is like to slit his throat on their wedding night. Even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”
“I know that,” Stannis said, unhappily. “I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I’ll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder’s life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms.”
“The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance.” (aDwD, Jon I)
At the end of the meeting between Stannis and Jon, Melisandre announces she will walk Jon to his quarters, and tells him she will counsel the flames on his character.
As they stepped out into the yard, the wind filled Jon’s cloak and sent it flapping against her. The red priestess brushed the black wool aside and slipped her arm through his. “It may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance. When I gaze into the flames, I can see through stone and earth, and find the truth within men’s souls. I can speak to kings long dead and children not yet born, and watch the years and seasons flicker past, until the end of days.” (aDwD, Jon I)
And she did, for she had Rattleshirt burned instead of Mance. So, what does Melisandre have to say about Mance’s son (despite her knowing he is actually Gilly’s son)?
“Our false king has a prickly manner,” Melisandre told Jon Snow, “but he will not betray you. We hold his son, remember. […]” (aDwD, Melisandre I)
“His milk name. I had to call him something. See that he stays safe and warm. For his mother’s sake, and mine. And keep him away from the redwoman. She knows who he is. She sees things in her fires.” (aDwD, Jon VIII)
Mel uses and considers the baby a hostage for Mance’s good behavior. And what are hostages referred to as well?
“[…] So I insisted upon hostages.” I am not the trusting fool you take me for … nor am I half wildling, no matter what you believe. “One hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. A son from each of their chiefs and captains, the rest chosen by lot. The boys will serve as pages and squires, freeing our own men for other duties. Some may choose to take the black one day. Queerer things have happened. The rest will stand hostage for the loyalty of their sires.”
The northmen glanced at one another. “Hostages,” mused The Norrey. “Tormund has agreed to this?”
It was that, or watch his people die. “My blood price, he called it,” said Jon Snow, “but he will pay.”
“Aye, and why not?” Old Flint stomped his cane against the ice. “Wards, we always called them, when Winterfell demanded boys of us, but they were hostages, and none the worse for it.” (aDwD, Jon XI)
That’s right! Hostages are wards! And in this instance the wards are a blood price – yet another reference for the magical ward to blood magic. But what happens if you send wards away instead of keeping them close as hostage? Robb sent his ward Theon back to the Iron Islands. And that backfired immensely.
So, when Bloodraven learned of Jon’s plan to swap Gilly’s son for Mance’s and send his hostage away, he foresaw the breaking of the Blood Seal on the magical ward as a result of the assassination attempt on Jon’s life after the arrival of the Pink Letter. That is why he screamed, “No,” warned for mass death, and tried to show Samwell how the magical ward is locked in place by the Blood Seal.
In aFfC, Samwell I and aDwD, Jon II, Mormont’s raven acts out in an unprecedented manner and strongly opposes Jon’s plan to swap the babes. This is enough to support the assumption that Mormont’s raven is being skinchanged by Bloodraven in these scenes.
To make sense out of it, we should first start with Jon II and notice that the raven is suspiciously silent in between its strong opposition of Jon’s plan to swap Gilly’s son for Mance’s and its ominous foreshadowing of mass death because of it. The raven’s silence is long enough to allow for Bloodraven skinchanging a mouse in the library to draw the attention of a book lover’s greatest fear in Samwell I. And indeed, Samwell’s attention is finally not focused on books anymore, and he decides to leave the library, well before Dolorous Edd could get down there. And had Pyp, Grenn and Edd not delayed Sam in the yard, he may well have stumbled into Jon’s meeting with Gilly. As allies both would have had the courage to stand up against Jon’s bullying.
Despite, Bloodraven’s and Sam’s efforts, he arrived a moment too late. Upon entering Jon’s office, Mormont’s raven is ostensibly reading Jon’s shield of words (paper shield) to King Tommen, before he pecks through Samwell’s gloves to bloody his palm and points out that blood is the necessary ingredient for blood magic.
This is the Blood Seal reenactment, and how the spell for a magical ward cast by the children of the forest is sealed: cutting the palm or thumb and seal the spell of words in the True Tongue to stone with the droplets of blood. There are a multitude of references to this shield of words and blood seal, via Ramsay’s letters to Asha and Jon after Moat Cailin falls, and Stannis signing his contract with the Iron Bank with the blood from a cut he made in his thumb.
In other words, They’re Here! argues the foreshadowed end result, point B – the assassination attempt on Jon’s life breaks this Blood Seal of the magical ward of the Wall and the Others that are present can raise an army of wights from the lichyard because of it. And the events that lead to point B is the swapping of the babes. The two synched chapters of Samwell and Jon are point A. How we get from A to B is for another essay.