Bran Stark (Part 1) – Serwyn Reversed

(Top Illustration: a cutout from Bran Stark, by Richey Beckett).

Bran was going to be a knight himself someday, one of the Kingsguard. Old Nan said they were the finest swords in all the realm. There were only seven of them, and they wore white armor and had no wives or children, but lived only to serve the king. Bran knew all the stories. Their names were like music to him. Serwyn of the Mirror Shield. Ser Ryam Redwyne. Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. (aGoT, Bran II)

The very first POV where Serwyn is mentioned is Bran’s, so naturally, he is the first character to examine in that respect. In this essay, we will focus mostly on several scenes in Bran’s POV of aCoK that include elements of St. George and the dragon, combined with Serwyn’s legend. In the Serwyn introduction, we speculated how  St. George and the dragon is the likely inspirations to GRRM’s Serwyn of the Mirror Shield. That speculation seems correct with the clear tableau-scenes for both in Bran’s chapters. That does not mean these scenes are an exact parallel. Quite the opposite, they are mirror images, meaning a reversal of the original legends, both in-world and real world. This occurs so consistently, that George has a reason for it.

“Your blood makes you a greenseer,” said Lord Brynden. “This will help awaken your gifts and wed you to the trees.” Bran did not want to be married to a tree … but who else would wed a broken boy like him? A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. A greenseer. He ate. (aDwD, Bran III)

Bran’s arc is not just that of a boy discovering he has rare magical abilities, but in a larger sense, an arc of conversion. While, St. George converts the pagans he saves from the scurge of the dragon to Christianity, Bran converts from the Faith (Planetos’s version of Christianity) to the Old Gods over the course of the first five books, but in the last act will convert others too.

But before we get into this, let us first inspect the two significant scenes of aCoK, Bran IV.

Index

Tableau 1 – A Giant, a Prince and a Damsel in Distress

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Hodor is Coming, Restoring Faith in Winterfell by Gumshorts

One of the easiest ways to look for potential Serwyn related scenes is to search for “damsel in distress” scenes. In Bran’s fourth chapter of aCoK, Meera Reed (and her brother) ends up in a distress situation. As Jojen questioned Bran about the dreams he has and his warging, Bran gets so upset that his anger flows over into Summer who threatens the Reed siblings. Sensing Summer’s rage, Shaggy joins in. To keep out of harm’s way and wolf teeth, Jojen and Meera climb the weirwood in the godswood.

Summer rushed forward, but Meera blocked him, jabbing with the three-pronged spear. The wolf twisted aside, circling, stalking. Meera turned to face him. […] The direwolf lunged again, and again Meera’s spear darted out. Summer dodged, circled back. The bushes rustled, and a lean black shape came padding from behind the weirwood, teeth bared. The scent was strong; his brother had smelled his rage. Bran felt hairs rise on the back of his neck. Meera stood beside her brother, with wolves to either side. […] her brother scrambled up the trunk of the weirwood, using the face for his handholds. The direwolves closed. Meera abandoned spear and net, jumped up, and grabbed the branch above her head. Shaggy’s jaws snapped shut beneath her ankle as she swung up and over the limb. Summer sat back on his haunches and howled, while Shaggydog worried the net, shaking it in his teeth. (aCoK, Bran IV)

Meanwhile, on Meera’s urging Bran tried to call Summer and Shaggy back from attacking them, but Summer ignores Bran’s summons.

“Bran, call them off.”
“I can’t!” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Then Bran realizes that Hodor – a human giant- is in the godswood and he calls for him to help chase off Summer and Shaggy. Ever helpful, Hodor waves his arms and stamps his feet and succeeds.

A few moments passed before they heard a tuneless humming. Hodor arrived half-dressed and mud-spattered from his visit to the hot pools, but Bran had never been so glad to see him. “Hodor, help me. Chase off the wolves. Chase them off.”
Hodor went to it gleefully, waving his arms and stamping his huge feet, shouting “Hodor, Hodor,” running first at one wolf and then the other. Shaggydog was the first to flee, slinking back into the foliage with a final snarl. When Summer had enough, he came back to Bran and lay down beside him. (aCoK, Bran IV)

What we have here is a reversal of Serwyn saving his princess from a giant. In the original we have a knight who saves a princess from a giant. But in this scene we have a sworn shield saved by a giant from a prince.

The Prince in the tower

Bran may have wished to be a knight like Serwyn one day, but before long he ends up being the Prince of Winterfell instead.

[Hayhead] peered in, saw Bran howling out the window, and said, “What’s this, my prince?” It made Bran feel queer when they called him prince, though he was Robb’s heir, and Robb was King in the North now. (aCoK, Bran I)

Bran had never asked to be a prince. It was knighthood he had always dreamed of; bright armor and streaming banners, lance and sword, a warhorse between his legs. (aCoK, Bran II)

Better yet, a prince in a tower behind bars and shuttered windows, with Winterfell as his prison.

Bran preferred the hard stone of the window seat to the comforts of his featherbed and blankets. Abed, the walls pressed close and the ceiling hung heavy above him; abed, the room was his cell, and Winterfell his prison. (aCoK, Bran I)

Hodor carried him up the winding steps to his tower and knelt beside one of the iron bars that Mikken had driven into the wall. Bran used the bars to move himself to the bed, and Hodor pulled off his boots and breeches.[…] When he blew out his bedside candle, darkness covered him like a soft, familiar blanket. The faint sound of music drifted through his shuttered window. (aCoK, Bran III)

The prince is even mentally a prisoner (on so many levels at the time as I will show later), with his direwolf locked behind iron bars in the godswood. And yes this seems a deliberate description of the tower-like-prison for a “prince”, because as soon as Bran lies down to sleep, he remembers the conversation he had with Ned Stark about knights, in gleaming armor, marvels who are a shining lesson to the world.

Something his father had told him once when he was little came back to him suddenly. He had asked Lord Eddard if the Kingsguard were truly the finest knights in the Seven Kingdoms. “No longer,” he answered, “but once they were a marvel, a shining lesson to the world.” […] [Bran] went to sleep with his head full of knights in gleaming armor, fighting with swords that shone like starfire, […] (aCoK, Bran III)

And earlier in the chapter, towards the end of the harvest feast, we are of course reminded of Bran not being a knight, when he thinks he wants to be a knight.

“You have done well, Bran. Here, and at the audiences. You will be an especial fine lord one day, I think.”
I want to be a knight. Bran took another sip of the spiced honey wine from his father’s goblet, grateful for something to clutch. (aCoK, Bran III)

Bran often reflects on everyone calling him prince, and how he wants to be a knight in shining armor instead, how they call him prince but do not heed his wishes, such as locking the direwolves into the godswood or not allowing him to ride beyond the gate with Dancer. And yet, just before Bran becomes the actual threat in the Serwyn-tableau scene, through Summer, Bran actually declares himself the Prince of Winterfell for once.

[Jojen] was making Bran angry. “I don’t have to tell you my dreams. I’m the prince. I’m the Stark in Winterfell.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Serwyna of the shield.

Meanwhile, the main female character in Bran’s arc, Meera, is not a princess, but his sworn shield. The very same night that Meera and Jojen arrived at Winterfell, they swore themselves to him. Officially their vow is to the King in the North, Robb, and Winterfell, but they say the words to Bran, and it is emphasized even then that their vow is mostly meant to benefit Bran himself.

“My lords of Stark,” the girl said [on her knees]. “The years have passed in their hundreds and their thousands since my folk first swore their fealty to the King in the North. My lord father has sent us here to say the words again, for all our people.”
She is looking at me, Bran realized. He had to make some answer. “My brother Robb is fighting in the south,” he said, “but you can say your words to me, if you like.”
“To Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater,” they said together. “Hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you.”
“I swear it by earth and water,” said the boy in green.
“I swear it by bronze and iron,” his sister said.
“We swear it by ice and fire,” they finished together. (aCoK, Bran III)

“[…] You are only a boy, I know, but you are our prince as well, our lord’s son and our king’s true heir. We have sworn you our faith by earth and water, bronze and iron, ice and fire. The risk is yours, Bran, as is the gift. The choice should be yours too, I think. We are your servants to command.” She grinned. “At least in this.”
“You mean,” Bran said, “you’ll do what I say? Truly?”
“Truly, my prince,” the girl replied, “so consider well.” (aSoS, Bran I)

Many people refer to Bran as “my prince” in aCoK. For most it is but a courtesy, while they dictatee Bran where to go, where he cannot go, what he must do then or later, and even what he must dream. Meera is the sole one who treats Bran as a minor with some power over his own body, when calling him her prince. In aCoK, Meera refers to Bran as her prince once – in the chapter that features the reversed Serwyn scene.

Bran had never heard of a moving castle before. He looked at  [Meera] uncertainly, but he couldn’t tell whether she was teasing him or not. “I wish I could see it. Do you think your lord father would let me come visit when the war is over?”
“You would be most welcome, my prince. Then or now.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Therefore, not only is there a role reversal in the Serwyn related scene, between whom saves whom from whom, but also a gender reversal: the princess has become a prince, the warrior a girl. Jojen also swears the same vows, but of the siblings, only Meera is described as a warrior as they would have looked during the era of heroes of legends such as Serwyn.

As the newcomers walked the length of the hall, Bran saw that one was indeed a girl, though he would never have known it by her dress. She wore lambskin breeches soft with long use, and a sleeveless jerkin armored in bronze scales. Though near Robb’s age, she was slim as a boy, with long brown hair knotted behind her head and only the barest suggestion of breasts. A woven net hung from one slim hip, a long bronze knife from the other; under her arm she carried an old iron greathelm spotted with rust; a frog spear and round leathern shield were strapped to her back. Her brother was several years younger and bore no weapons. (aCoK, Bran III)

Since she carries no sword at the time, only a knife, her vows do not make her a sworn sword. She does however carry a shield, which makes her a sworn shield. It’s not a mirroring shield, but the bronze scales of her armor would make her a sworn mirroring shield (see Mirror Mirror – Brass Alchemism and Mirror Mirror – Behind the Mirror). And since the chapter nearly ends with Bran remembering his father making a favorable comment about Howland Reed, Meera’s father, as saving Ned’s life from the greatest knight that Ned had ever seen, Arthur Dayne, this sets Meera up to have the potential to be the greatest sworn shield he could wish for.

“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. They called him the Sword of the Morning, and he would have killed me but for Howland Reed.” ( aCoK, Bran III)

Howland Reed is not a knight, and we do not even know exactly in what manner Howland saved Ned. Nor does he sound to have been a sword fighter. This puts Howland more in the defensive “sworn shield” role, rather than the offensive “sworn sword” role. We should regard the legendary Serwyn in the same sense. It is not his sword skill or sword that is the legend’s subject, but the shield.

And yes, by the end of aCoK, Meera does carry Lord Rickard Stark’s grave-sword. But the paragraph makes clear that we still should not regard Meera a sworn sword. Meera complains it is too heavy for her and Bran summarizes the sword carrying a game.

Osha carried her long oaken spear in one hand and the torch in the other. A naked sword hung down her back, one of the last to bear Mikken’s mark. He had forged it for Lord Eddard’s tomb, to keep his ghost at rest. But with Mikken slain and the ironmen guarding the armory, good steel had been hard to resist, even if it meant grave-robbing. Meera had claimed Lord Rickard’s blade, though she complained that it was too heavy. Brandon took his namesake’s, the sword made for the uncle he had never known. He knew he would not be much use in a fight, but even so the blade felt good in his hand. But it was only a game, and Bran knew it. (aCoK, Bran VI)

George did not have them carry swords to turn any of these three into knights or sworn swords, even symbolically. He needed those swords to be gone as evidence for visitors of the crypts that any rumor of Bran or Rickon being alive was corroborated at their hide-out, as Lady Dustin seems to be doing when down in the crypts with Theon.

While many readers focus on the Arthur Dayne-versus-Howland Reed quote to speculate on Arthur Dayne, the main use about this paragraph in Bran’s third chapter of aCoK is how we should see Meera as the closest thing to a legend of the age of heroes walking into his life and swearing to be his protector. After all, garbed in Age of Heroes gear, Meera is the daughter of the man who somehow bested the already legendary Arthur Dayne. Hence the chapter ends not just with Bran dreaming of knights in shining armor, but instead the Reed siblings entering the godswood and Meera acting protectively of her brother.

The Giant

Our giant in the Serwyn tableau is the good-hearted Hodor who measures nearly seven feet. There are several quotes for this, such as Bran referring to Hodor as a simple giant in aGoT or Osha speculating that Hodor’s size may be due to giant’s blood, but I chose two quotes from aCoK instead that precede Hodor rescuing Meera from Summer and Shaggydog and set Hodor up to be a protective giant.

[Osha] gave him a sour grin. “That it’s a fool boy who mocks a giant, and a mad world when a cripple has to defend him.”
“Hodor never knew they were mocking him,” Bran said. “Anyhow he never fights.” […] “Septon Chayle says he has a gentle spirit.”
“Aye,” she said, “and hands strong enough to twist a man’s head off his shoulders, if he takes a mind to. […] (aCoK, Bran II)

Here we have Osha refer to Hodor as a giant, but simultaneously alerting the reader of small seemingly unimportant events where people have unexpected roles. First, a cripple (Bran) has to defend a giant (Hodor) when the Walders mock Hodor, and two chapters later a giant (Hodor) has to defend a sworn shield (Meera) from her prince’s direwolf, because Luwin shamed Bran about his wolf dreams. A mad world indeed.

The singer sang good songs, “Iron Lances” and “The Burning of the Ships” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” but only Hodor seemed to be listening. He stood beside the piper, hopping from one foot to the other. (aCoK, Bran III)

Finally, Hodor becoming a protector is heralded with the song The Bear and Maiden Fair. For more extensive insight on this song and the theme in the series, please read the introduction and essays on Bears and Maidens. But to summarize the important connection here is the fact that in aGoT, George planted the seeds of association between giants and bears through Tyrion at the Wall. There Aemon called Tyrion a giant, while Jon thinks of him as a small bear when huddled in the bearskin Benjen loaned him. In aSoS, George reaffirms this association when Jon thinks of the giants he sees as bearlike. So, when George puts a human giant in the same paragraph along with several songs, including The Bear and the Maiden Fair, then he intends to associate Hodor to that song in particular. This is affirmed with Hodor’s dancing style – a simple hopping from one foot to the other – which is similar to that of dancing bears.

The harvest feast at Winterfell is the first time that George ever mentions the song The Bear and the Maiden Fair. Its hokum lyrics were only introduced in aSoS, so we will ignore its deeper bear hunt-ritual meaning as well as its sexual innuendo. On the surface though it is about a bear dancing with a maiden fair, or at least wishing it. And when the actual dancing begins during the harvest feast, Bran notes that Hodor dances all by himself. In other words, the maiden fair is absent in this dancing scene.

The bear’s folkloristic roles vary: avenger, destroyer, but also groom, lover and protector. Osha highlighted how Hodor has the potential to be a destroyer when she mentions he has the hands to twist a man’s head off, but also implied he should be the protector. The reference to the bear-maiden song sets up Hodor to be a protective bear towards a maiden fair, which he becomes in the godswood scene, when he saves Meera from the direwolves.

Tableau 2 – Netting a wolf

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Meera Reed, by Elera

The same godswood chapter also features a scene of the legend of Saint George and the dragon. In that legend people chose people to be sacrificed to a poisonous dragon by a lake or well by lot. And eventually, the lot fell on the king’s daughter. She was sent out to the lake, dressed as a bride, to be the dragon’s next meal. By happenstance, Saint George passed and when the dragon emerged, he charged and wounded it with his lance, but did not kill it. Instead Saint George throws the princess’ girdle around the dragon and it followed the princess meekly back to the city. Once inside the city, Saint George makes an offer to the citizens – he will kill the dragon for them, but only if they all convert to Christianity.

Bran’s fourth chapter starts with Meera capturing Summer in her net.

“Yai!” the girl shouted, the spear darting out. The wolf slid to the left and leapt before she could draw back the spear. Meera cast her net, the tangles unfolding in the air before her. Summer’s leap carried him into it. He dragged it with him as he slammed into her chest and knocked her over backward. Her spear went spinning away. The damp grass cushioned her fall but the breath went out of her in an “Oof.” The wolf crouched atop her.
Bran hooted. “You lose.”
“She wins,” her brother Jojen said. “Summer’s snared.
He was right, Bran saw. Thrashing and growling at the net, trying to rip free, Summer was only ensnaring himself worse. Nor could he bite through. (aCoK, Bran IV)

The above scene is a reference to the girdling of the dragon. While a net is not exactly a girdle, Meera wears it like a girdle, from her hip.

A woven net hung from one slim hip, a long bronze knife from the other; […] (aCoK, Bran III)

Though Meera is not a princess, as a Serwyn figure she can perform the girdling. This is highlighted in her manner of capturing Summer.

Meera moved in a wary circle, her net dangling loose in her left hand, the slender three-pronged frog spear poised in her right. Summer followed her with his golden eyes, turning, his tail held stiff and tall. Watching, watching . . . (aCoK, Bran IV)

Serwyn uses a feign to kill  a dragon. As the dragon is distracted by the shield, he never sees Serwyn’s spear coming.  Meera uses the same feign with her frog spear and the net, except her spear is the decoy, while the net is her true weapon. Did you notice that is another reversal?

More, the outcome of the capture scene is yet another reversal. After its capture, the citizens want the dragon killed. Saint George tells them he will only do so if they all agree to convert from paganism to Christianity, otherwise he will set the dragon free again. Unlike the citizens in Saint George’s legen, Bran demands Summer’s release.

Let him out.”
Laughing, the Reed girl threw her arms around the tangled wolf and rolled them both. Summer gave a piteous whine, his legs kicking against the cords that bound them. Meera knelt, undid a twist, pulled at a corner, tugged deftly here and there, and suddenly the direwolf was bounding free. (aCoK, Bran IV)

Setting Summer free, rather than kill  him can be seen as a foreshadowing that the Reed siblings and Bran are essential to ensure summer will follow after winter. But from the angle of the Saint George legend, it means Bran chooses the Old Gods over the Faith, and that in fact this conversion is necessary to end winter. Hence, Jojen’s inquiry after Bran’s dreams and explanation of Bran’s abilities, which Bran denies, begins right after Summer is set free. These are conversion attempts that Bran initially resists, clinging to the maester’s beliefs (in contrast to aCoK, Bran I).

The Winged Wolf Chained

“I dreamed of a winged wolf bound to earth with grey stone chains,” he said. “It was a green dream, so I knew it was true. A crow was trying to peck through the chains, but the stone was too hard and his beak could only chip at them.” […] “You are the winged wolf, Bran,” said Jojen. “I wasn’t sure when we first came, but now I am. The crow sent us here to break your chains.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Kristina_Carroll_greendream_chained winged wolf
Greendream “the chained winged wolf” by Kristina Caroll

Jojen relates his dream, after we saw Meera Reed girdle Summer and before Hodor ends up having to save Meera and Jojen from the direwolves. In Jojen’s dream the image of a girdled wolf is repeated, now in chains, with yet another tie to Saint George’s legend: the wolf has wings, like a dragon.

But as with Meera netting of the wolf, the reversel repeats itself here – like Summer was set free, the Reed siblings and the Three Eyed Crow want to set Bran free, before outside forces (such as Theon’s Drowned God or Ramsay Bolton’s desire to wear the skin of Lord of Winterfell) can kill him.

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Bran Stark and his dreams by Teilku

Fly or die!” cried the three-eyed crow as it pecked at him. He wept and pleaded but the crow had no pity. (aCoK, Bran II)

In Bloodraven’s “fly or die”, we recognize Saint George’s choice put to the people of Selene – kill the dragon or free the dragon, and just as in the legend it requires conversion. Except of course, here the desired choice is freedom, the choice to live, and a conversion towards the paganistic Old Gods, not the Christian-like Faith. This makes Bloodraven a saint for the same reasons that Meera is a sworn shield.

Bran’s dreams of the three-eyed-crow are often regarded as cruel, or as implying that the dreamer can die while dreaming, in a similar way as dreamers die in Nightmare on Elm Street. But there is a far more mundane reason for Bloodraven doing everything he can to push for Bran to reach and accept his talents.

“I dreamed that the sea was lapping all around Winterfell. I saw black waves crashing against the gates and towers, and then the salt water came flowing over the walls and filled the castle. Drowned men were floating in the yard. When I first dreamed the dream, back at Greywater, I didn’t know their faces, but now I do. That Alebelly is one, the guard who called our names at the feast. Your septon’s another. Your smith as well.” […] “In the dark of night the salt sea will flow over these walls,” said Jojen. “I saw the dead, bloated and drowned.” (aCoK, Bran V)

And it is not just Theon and Ironborn who poses a danger to Bran, but Reek (Ramsay in disguise).

“Did you see me in a green dream?” he asked Jojen nervously. “Was I drowned?”
“Not drowned.” Jojen spoke as if every word pained him. “I dreamed of the man who came today, the one they call Reek. You and your brother lay dead at his feet, and he was skinning off your faces with a long red blade.” (aCoK, Bran V)

And you would think that if Bloodraven had the power to kill someone in a dream like Freddy Kruger, that he would actually use that power. The ability to kill someone in a dream is the type of magical powers that GRRM is not keen on including in stories, because it leads to the paradox of the magician not using that power more often and solve the issue, before it becomes a threat or a problem. Hence the “die” is not a physical threat to Bran during his dream, at least not after he came out of his coma, but a warning of a physical threat by an enemy that could get Bran killed in the near future, unless he starts to use his abilities and believes in oracle dreams.

It put out his left eye and then his right, and when he was blind in the dark it pecked at his brow, driving its terrible sharp beak deep into his skull. He screamed until he was certain his lungs must burst. The pain was an axe splitting his head apart, but when the crow wrenched out its beak all slimy with bits of bone and brain, Bran could see again. (aCoK, Bran II)

The “fly or die” dream is featured only twice in the series. The first time during his coma, after his mother has left Winterfell. Catelyn held vigil day and night beside him, making sure that even during his coma he had sufficient nourishment. Neither Robb, maester Luwin or Old Nan would be this meticulous, and with a physical state lingering between death and survival, this situation risked to become one where Bran would waste away and maester Luwin eventually would decide that the Starks should prepare to let Bran’s life go. It was time for Bran to wake up and eat. Apart from all the threats surrounding Sansa and Arya, the threat to Westeros coming both from Essos and the North, this is what the crow shows to Bran as being his immediate threat to his life – how skinny he is.

Bran was staring at his arms, his legs. He was so skinny, just skin stretched taut over bones. Had he always been so thin? (aGoT, Bran III)

BTW if you think Old Nan would not let Bran waste away, I must remind you that she was hired as a young woman to wet nurse a baby Brandon Stark, whose mother had died, and that Brandon Stark died at the age of three from a “summer chill”.

Nan had come to the castle as a wet nurse for a Brandon Stark whose mother had died birthing him. He had been an older brother of Lord Rickard, Bran’s grandfather, or perhaps a younger brother, or a brother to Lord Rickard’s father. Sometimes Old Nan told it one way and sometimes another. In all the stories the little boy died at three of a summer chill, but Old Nan stayed on at Winterfell with her own children. (aGoT, Bran IV)

Per the Stark family tree published by George in tWoIaF, this must have been the firstborn son of Willam Stark, Rickard’s grandfather, and Lyanne Glover who died in childbirth. Rickard is recorded in the family tree as only child of Edwyle Stark – second son of Willam – and Marna Locke. A “summer chill” does not sound as a heavy epidemic or disease, and summer is not the worst of seasons. So, for a child that young to die in the summer from a chill, after Old Non was its wet nurse, this sort of reflects badly on her actual caring abilities for another woman’s child.

The second time the dream is featured is at the end of Bran’s second chapter in aCoK, just after Donnella Hornwood’s case is brought to Luwin’s attention, who decides it is not a presseing matter of urgency that can be resolved in the future. This dream also occurs after Theon has learned of his father’s plans to invade the North. Off-page, Ramsay is preparing to seize Hornwood and inevitably weaken the peace and safety within the North, while Theon is manipulated into proving to his father he is a Greyjoy by turning against the family who raised him. That the threath for death is one of an assassination, instead of physical weakness this time around is made clear by one major change in the dream in aCoK to the one during his coma.

A face swam up at him out of the grey mist, shining with light, golden. “The things I do for love,” it said. Bran screamed. The crow took to the air, cawing. Not that, it shrieked at him. Forget that, you do not need it now, put it aside, put it away. It landed on Bran’s shoulder, and pecked at him, and the shining golden face was gone.  (aGoT, Bran I)

What he saw made him gasp in fear. He was clinging to a tower miles high, and his fingers were slipping, nails scrabbling at the stone, his legs dragging him down, stupid useless dead legs. “Help me!” he cried. A golden man appeared in the sky above him and pulled him up. “The things I do for love,” he murmured softly as he tossed him out kicking into empty air. (aCoK, Bran II)

In aCoK, Bloodraven makes no attempt to keep Bran from seeing the truth of what befell (pun intended) him, as he did when Bran was in his coma. Now, he does want Bran to know that men might want to kill him. Of course, Jaime is not a threat to Bran anymore, but Ramsay and Theon are both motivated to act in their own twisted way to earn the respect and regard of a father – another type of “love”.

It seems strange that Bloodraven seems to think it necessary to peck open Bran’s third eye again, when he seemed succesful enough previously, enough for Bran to dream about his father’s death ahead of the dark wings bringing the news, enough for him to not only have wolf dreams, but weirwood dreams as well.

The mention of dreams reminded him. “I dreamed about the crow again last night. The one with three eyes. He flew into my bedchamber and told me to come with him, so I did. We went down to the crypts. Father was there, and we talked. He was sad.” […] “It was something to do about Jon, I think.” The dream had been deeply disturbing, more so than any of the other crow dreams. (aGoT, Bran VII)

Of late, he often dreamed of wolves. They are talking to me, brother to brother, he told himself when the direwolves howled. He could almost understand them . . . not quite, not truly, but almost . . . as if they were singing in a language he had once known and somehow forgotten. […] “When I sleep I turn into a wolf.” Bran turned his face away and looked back out into the night. “Do wolves dream?” […] “Do trees dream?”
“Trees? No . . .”
“They do,” Bran said with sudden certainty. “They dream tree dreams. I dream of a tree sometimes. A weirwood, like the one in the godswood. It calls to me. The wolf dreams are better. I smell things, and sometimes I can taste the blood.” (aCoK, Bran I)

This does not sound like a boy who is chained. It sounds a like a wolf with wings, who can fly, who enjoys it, who does not seem to need to go through an enlightenment ordeal again.

He thought of the golden man and the three-eyed crow, remembered the crunch of bones between his jaws and the coppery taste of blood. “I don’t have dreams. Maester Luwin gives me sleeping draughts.”
“Do they help?”
“Sometimes.”
Meera said, “All of Winterfell knows you wake at night shouting and sweating, Bran. The women talk of it at the well, and the guards in their hall.”
“Tell us what frightens you so much,” said Jojen.
“I don’t want to. Anyway, it’s only dreams. Maester Luwin says dreams might mean anything or nothing.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

In the course of three chapters, Bran has turned from a boy daring to freely speak about his dreams, challenging maester Luwin’s claims, enjoying most of the dreams, even the crow dreams, before the latest “fly or die” dream, into a boy who sounds more and more like a mini maester Luwin, citing him constantly with “maester Luwin says…”.  So Bran changed, but why and when?

A Maester’s Chains

Jojen’s dream about the winged wolf mentions how grey stone chains weigh him down. That creates the question who or what those chains symbolize. The answer is layered:

  • Bran’s fears,
  • Bran’s disappointment that he cannot fly in waking life,
  • beliefs that Brans cling to in order to prevent him from facing his fears and feed on his disappointment,
  • sleeping drugs given to him to try and give Bran dreamless sleep

The last two items on this list stem from the same source: maester Luwin. All in all, the reasons why the Winged Wolf is chained are both internal as well as external, and thus two culprits – Bran himself and maester Luwin.

maester luwin all in grey
Donals Sumpter as maester Luwin in GOT

Grey chains are an apt symbolic representation of maester Luwin. While Lady Dustin refers to maesters in general as “grey rats“, Luwin in particular is grey all over.

The maester was a small grey man. His eyes were grey, and quick, and saw much. His hair was grey, what little the years had left him. His robe was grey wool, trimmed with white fur, the Stark colors. (aGoT, Catelyn II)

“We have no steward,” Maester Luwin reminded her. Like a little grey rat, she thought, he would not let go. “Poole went south to establish Lord Eddard’s household at King’s Landing.”  (aGoT, Catelyn III)

And of course, maesters are “collared”. They wear their chain, day and night, even when sleeping. While all maesters wear their chains, and more than maester Luwin is featured throughout the series, Luwin in particular is regularly featured as tugging his chain.

The maester tugged at the chain around his neck, as he often did when he was uncomfortable. “Bran, sweet child, one day Lord Eddard will sit below in stone, beside his father and his father’s father and all the Starks back to the old Kings in the North … but that will not be for many years, gods be good. Your father is a prisoner of the queen in King’s Landing. You will not find him in the crypts.”
[…]
Maester Luwin tugged at his chain collar where it chafed against his neck. “They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first, before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days, there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms. (aGoT, Bran VII)

When he came back, Maester Luwin was with him, all in grey, his chain tight about his neck. “Bran, those beasts make sufficient noise without your help.” He crossed the room and put his hand on the boy’s brow. “The hour grows late, you ought to be fast asleep.”
[…]
“They do,” Bran said with sudden certainty. “They dream tree dreams. I dream of a tree sometimes. A weirwood, like the one in the godswood. It calls to me. The wolf dreams are better. I smell things, and sometimes I can taste the blood.”
Maester Luwin tugged at his chain where it chafed his neck. “If you would only spend more time with the other children—” (aCoK, Bran I)

“The sea is coming here,” Bran said. “Jojen saw it in a green dream. Alebelly is going to drown.”
Maester Luwin tugged at his chain collar. “The Reed boy believes he sees the future in his dreams, Ser Rodrik. I’ve spoken to Bran about the uncertainty of such prophecies, but if truth be told, there is trouble along the Stony Shore. Raiders in longships, plundering fishing villages. Raping and burning. Leobald Tallhart has sent his nephew Benfred to deal with them, but I expect they’ll take to their ships and flee at the first sight of armed men.” (aCoK, Bran V)

Officially, the chain represents the reminder to a maester that he serves the realm and the household where he lives. And each chain stands for the subject of knowledge he mastered.

Bran thought for a moment, trying to remember. “A maester forges his chain in the Citadel of Oldtown. It’s a chain because you swear to serve, and it’s made of different metals because you serve the realm and the realm has different sorts of people. Every time you learn something you get another link. Black iron is for ravenry, silver for healing, gold for sums and numbers. I don’t remember them all.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

But with Luwin it symbolizes not so much “knowledge” as it does the Citadel’s beliefs that enslaved Luwin into spreading them. Notice how Luwin touches and tugs the chain whenever he is confronted with a controversial subject, and how he recites or answers in a manner that stems from the Citadel’s indoctrination. And in all the instances where he tugged his chain in answer to dreams, maester Luwin’s beliefs turn out to be wrong.

Maesters are called “knights of the mind“. But in the series, knights are mostly featured as “shields”. And thus maesters are meant to shield people’s minds, which is the opposite from learning whatever there is to learn. In Bran’s arc maester Luwin attempts to shield Bran’s mind from having green, wolf and tree dreams by drugging him. Maester Luwin is responsible for the sudden change in Bran’s attitude towards the dreams he has.

The door to his bedchamber opened. Maester Luwin was carrying a green jar, and this time Osha and Hayhead came with him. “I’ve made you a sleeping draught, Bran.” […] “This will give you dreamless sleep,” Maester Luwin said as he pulled the stopper from the jar. “Sweet, dreamless sleep.”
“It will?” Bran said, wanting to believe.
“Yes. Drink.” Bran drank. The potion was thick and chalky, but there was honey in it, so it went down easy. “Come the morn, you’ll feel better.” Luwin gave Bran a smile and a pat as he took his leave. (aCoK, Bran I)

And not just by giving him something physical to stop Bran from having dreams. Luwin also shames Bran, after they have a heated exchange over Summer and Shaggy being locked into the godswood.

“We should put the Walders in the godswood. They could play lord of the crossing all they want, and Summer could sleep with me again.[…]” […] He howled. “Ooo-ooo-oooooooooooo.”
Luwin raised his voice. “A true prince would welcome—”
“AAHOOOOOOO,” Bran howled, louder. “OOOO-OOOO-OOOO.”
The maester surrendered. “As you will, child.” With a look that was part grief and part disgust, he left the bedchamber.
Howling lost its savor once Bran was alone. After a time he quieted. I did welcome them, he told himself, resentful. I was the lord in Winterfell, a true lord, he can’t say I wasn’t. […] He had offered [the Walders] meat and mead and a seat by the fire, and even Maester Luwin had said afterward that he’d done well. (aCoK, Bran I)

Sure, Bran behaved childish, but he is a boy of eight, who has nothing left to entertain himself but his dreams. He cannot partake in play with the Walders, and the wolves are locked away. His rebellious behavior was a howl for acceptance of who or what he may be, and understanding of his pain of being shut out from what a boy his age should be doing – play. And it resulted in Luwin making a face of disgust. Luwin’s rebuke and expression of disgust stung deeply and reveals how Bran wants to please the maester. It is no accident, that Luwin pats Bran like a “good boy” (dog) after drinking the drug Luwin gave him to stop his dreaming. Inevitably, the drugging taught Bran to feel like a freak, to hide and negate what is going on, and to run away from his fears.

Just as much as Luwin is featured with tugging his own chain, he is often seen suggesting or reminding people and wolves should be chained.

“You are a surpassing clever boy when you work at it, Bran. Have you ever thought that you might wear a maester’s chain? There is no limit to what you might learn.”
I want to learn magic,” Bran told him. “The crow promised that I would fly.” (aGoT, Bran VI)

“That … that beast,” Luwin went on, “is supposed to be chained up in the kennels.”
Rickon patted Shaggydog’s muzzle, damp with blood. “I let him loose. He doesn’t like chains.” He licked at his fingers.
[…]
“Bran,” the maester said firmly, “I know you mean well, but Shaggydog is too wild to run loose. I’m the third man he’s savaged. Give him the freedom of the castle and it’s only a question of time before he kills someone. The truth is hard, but the wolf has to be chained, or …” He hesitated.
or killed, Bran thought, but what he said was, “He was not made for chains. We will wait in your tower, all of us.”
[…]
Maester Luwin sighed. “Woman, by rights you ought to be dead or in chains. The Starks have treated you more gently than you deserve. It is unkind to repay them for their kindness by filling the boys’ heads with folly.”  (aGoT, Bran VII)

Maester Luwin wants to chain Bran’s mind like that of a maester’s, and chain or kill anything wild – Shaggydog, Summer, Osha the wildling. Never does he even suggest to render the wolves their freedom, to their natural habitat. A wolf’s life chained inside a kennel 24/7 is a miserable life.

Bran’s first chapter in aCoK starts with him questioning Farlen, Gage, Luwin and Osha about the reason why the direwolves howl. Farlen says they howl for freedom, while Gage claims they howl to express their wish to hunt.

“It’s freedom they’re calling for,” declared Farlen, who was kennelmaster and had no more love for the direwolves than his hounds did. “They don’t like being walled up, and who’s to blame them? Wild things belong in the wild, not in a castle.”
They want to hunt,” agreed Gage the cook as he tossed cubes of suet in a great kettle of stew. “A wolf smells better’n any man. Like as not, they’ve caught the scent o’ prey.”
Maester Luwin did not think so. “Wolves often howl at the moon. These are howling at the comet. See how bright it is, Bran? Perchance they think it is the moon.”
When Bran repeated that to Osha, she laughed aloud. “Your wolves have more wit than your maester,” the wildling woman said. “They know truths the grey man has forgotten.” The way she said it made him shiver, and when he asked what the comet meant, she answered, “Blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet.” (aCoK, Bran I)

Maester Luwin disagrees with Farlen and Gage, as well as paints the wolves as stupid – suggesting they mistake the comet for the moon – and that their howles are pointless. Meanwhile, Osha gives no straight answer, but she paints Luwin to be a fool who knows less truth than a direwolf.

As it turns out, Luwin is wrong, again. Farlen and Gage identify the needs of the direwolves correctly, but Osha’s answer comes closest to the truth. Bran’s wolf dream at the end of the first chapter, despite being drugged by Luwin, reveals us the answer.

  • Neither Summer or Shaggy howl at the comet. It is useful for light, but otherwise they ignore it.
  • Next, we learn Summer misses the hunt. Eating dead meat he did not kill himself gives him no joy, and yet he does not howl at the chittering squirrels out of his reach in the trees.
  • Then, we learn that Shaggy and Summer do feel walled in, but that gets answered with snarls, not howls.

The world had tightened around them, but beyond the walled wood still stood the great grey caves of man-rock. Winterfell, he remembered, the sound coming to him suddenly. Beyond its sky-tall man-cliffs the true world was calling, and he knew he must answer or die. (aCoK, Bran I)

In the last line of the chapter, George gives us the answer to Bran’s question – the direwolves answer the call of the “true” world beyond Winterfell. It seems as if Summer and Shaggy regard man’s world as an illusionary fabrication or unnatural, which would make the call of the “true” world, the call of of the wild.

The mention of dying might mean the threats outside of Winterfell’s protective walls. For all (Bran, Rickon, direwolves and Osha) it ultimately would mean death to remain chained, whereas the wilderness represents freedom and survival. The least wild and most docile direwolf of the pack, Lady, was killed as a precaution. If Bran and Rickon had not set the direwolves free from the godswood nor hid themselves, Theon or Ramsay as Reek would have killed them at some point. Osha would have been dragged to the Dreadfort by Ramsay, like so many other women, and one of the first used for hunting sport. And we can even expand this risk of death to that of the races and people trapped north of the Wall with the Others claiming dominion – – the giants, children of the forest, direwolves and wildlings.

Important is that George chose to identify the answer as a true world, while Osha’s explanation for the wolves’ howling was that they know truths that the maester has long forgotten. Neither Osha or GRRM specify what this truth or true world is, but it suffices to conclude that Osha came closest to the answer.

Jojen’s image of the chained winged wolf therefore represents the wonders of wild nature being held captive physically behind walls or in chains, emotionally through shame, and mentally through drug substance, kept in place until someone decides it is in their best interest to kill them. Ultimately, the chain represents a slow agonizing death. Even in a man who voluntarily forged the chain around his neck something died when he was still a green boy.

All those who study the higher mysteries try their own hand at spells, soon or late. I yielded to the temptation too, I must confess it. Well, I was a boy, and what boy does not secretly wish to find hidden powers in himself? I got no more for my efforts than a thousand boys before me, and a thousand since. Sad to say, magic does not work.” (aCoK, Bran VI)

Once, as a green boy, Luwin hoped and believed, and ended up disappointed. His denial of such powers not existing stems from a projection of his own disappointment. It is easier for him to say magic does not exist, that nobody can have such powers than to entertain the thought that he was not gifted with the abilities others were born with. When Luwin reprimanded Osha for repaying the Stark’s kindness by filling the boys’ heads with folly, perhaps he should reprimand himself for repaying the Starks’ kindness by filling Bran’s head with his own disappointments, bitterness – his mental poison – because he was not chosen, because he was not special.

Eventually, his chain prevents him from being trusted by Bran and the Reeds with their plan to hide, forces him to serve the conquerer Theon somehow, which will cost him his life in Bran’s last chapter in aCoK. Luwin was wounded by a spear thrown at him by one of Ramsay’s men when he ran towards Theon.

On the edge of the black pool, beneath the shelter of the heart tree, Maester Luwin lay on his belly in the dirt. A trail of blood twisted back through damp leaves where he had crawled. Summer stood over him, and Bran thought he was dead at first, but when Meera touched his throat, the maester moaned. […] Gently, they eased Luwin onto his back. He had grey eyes and grey hair, and once his robes had been grey as well, but they were darker now where the blood had soaked through. “Bran,” he said softly when he saw him sitting tall on Hodor’s back. “And Rickon too.” He smiled. “The gods are good. I knew . . .” […] The maester smiled. “Hush now, child, I’m much older than you. I can . . . die as I please.” […]
Osha gazed up at the weirwood, at the red face carved in the pale trunk. “And leave you for the gods?”
I beg . . .” The maester swallowed. “. . . a . . . a drink of water, and . . . another boon. If you would . . .” (aCoK, Bran VII)

Luwin failed to convert Bran into disbelieving in the Old Gods and greenseer magic, and was converted himself into seeking the Old Gods. His bloody trail and his request to the CotF stand-in Osha to give him mercy in front of the weirwood, where the Old Gods can see, then completes the image of a dying man offering his blood and life to the Old Gods voluntarily. It must have taken a strong will and desire to crawl all the way to the heart tree from Winterfell’s yard, and so Luwin did so with a purpose in mind – likely to prey and beg the Old Gods to look after Bran or let him know without a doubt that Bran and Rickon were not the children that Theon killed, perhaps even only shortly before Bran and Rickon show up at the weirwood. Hence he concludes the “gods are good”.

We even have an earlier hint in Theon’s chapter where he attempt to hunt down Bran and Rickon that maester Luwin is willing to change his mind on Jojen’s abilities.

Theon was about to tell [Frey] what he ought to do with his wet nurse’s fable when Maester Luwin spoke up. “The histories say the crannogmen grew close to the children of the forest in the days when the greenseers tried to bring the hammer of the waters down upon the Neck. It may be that they have secret knowledge.” (aCoK, Theon VI)

Measter Luwin cushioned it in histories say and it may be. But ultimately Luwin expressed the consideration here that Jojen had the greensight – a different kind of knowledge as he once put it to Bran. Luwin changed his tune.

In the end, despite his mind-enslaving chain, Lewin has gained the freedom in choosing his exact time of death, once it is inevitable, and where and by whom, begging the wildling woman (he believed earlier should be killed or chained; had been treated by the Starks gentler than she deserved) to gift him with mercy.

maester-luwin-death

Osha’s Support

In the second chapter of aCoK, Osha is the first to inquire after Bran’s dreams since Luwin began to drug him. During this inquiry we see how much Bran has changed when it comes to discussing his dreams.

She tied up her hair. “You have more of them wolf dreams?”
“No.” He did not like to talk about the dreams.
“A prince should lie better than that.” Osha laughed. “Well, your dreams are your business. Mine’s in the kitchens, and I’d best be getting back before Gage starts to shouting and waving that big wooden spoon of his. By your leave, my prince.”
She should never have talked about the wolf dreams, Bran thought as Hodor carried him up the steps to his bedchamber. (aCoK, Bran II)

Bran’s resentfulness towards Osha asking about it may seem inconsistent to his relation with Osha.

Osha lingered behind. “Is it the wolf dreams again?”
Bran nodded.
You should not fight so hard, boy. I see you talking to the heart tree. Might be the gods are trying to talk back.”
“The gods?” he murmured, drowsy already. Osha’s face grew blurry and grey. Sweet, dreamless sleep, Bran thought. (aCoK, Bran I)

However, in Bran’s eyes Osha became an accomplice to Luwin’s drugging. When maester Luwin comes to give Bran his draught, we are told that Osha and Hayhead are alongside him, and she “bore” him into bed. Osha likely came along with the best intentions, her own intentions – make sure those drugs would not harm Bran, to advize him on not fighting the wolf dreams, hinting at her belief that this is Old Gods stuff. But to Bran, she betrayed him and was maester Luwin’s accomplice or ally, possibly explaining why Bran resents Osha asking about the dreams a chapter after.

In truth, Osha aims to remain an independent source of support to Bran, and George depicts this support by having Osha literally carry him in her ams. Normally, Hodor carries Bran on his back for daily movement, but whenever the subject of a scene involves prophetic dreams or wolf dreams, Osha is summoned instead.

  • After Bran had his crypt dream revealing Ned Stark’s death to him, before the raven arrived with the confirming message in aGoT, Bran VII.
  • She carries him into dreambed, before he has his wolf dream that answers the question what wolves howl over in aCoK, Bran I.
  • She carries him after the letter arrives with Robb’s news of his victory at Oxcross and Stevron Frey’s death, confirming Jojen’s prophetic dream about the dishes served to the Walders and Bran will be appreciated differently.

In place of Hodor, the wildling woman Osha was summoned. She was tall and tough and uncomplaining, willing to go wherever she was commanded. “I lived my life beyond the Wall, a hole in the ground won’t fret me none, m’lords,” she said.
“Summer, come,” Bran called as she lifted him in wiry-strong arms. The direwolf left his bone and followed as Osha carried Bran across the yard and down the spiral steps to the cold vault under the earth. Maester Luwin went ahead with a torch. Bran did not even mind—too badly—that she carried him in her arms and not on her back. Ser Rodrik had ordered Osha’s chain struck off, since she had served faithfully and well since she had been at Winterfell. She still wore the heavy iron shackles around her ankles—a sign that she was not yet wholly trusted—but they did not hinder her sure strides down the steps. (aGoT, Bran VII)

Osha scooped him up in her bony arms. She was very tall for a woman, and wiry strong. She bore him effortlessly to his bed. (aCoK, Bran I)

Bran got a sick feeling in his belly. They like the taste of this dish better than I do. He asked Maester Luwin to be excused.
“Very well.” The maester rang for help. Hodor must have been busy in the stables. It was Osha who came. She was stronger than Alebelly, though, and had no trouble lifting Bran in her arms and carrying him down the steps. (aCoK, Bran V)

Before the Reeds arrived, Osha was the sole person at Winterfell who would often disagree with Luwin’s claims, point out how maester Luwin is wrong, talked of the Old Gods and attempted to support him when it came to his dreams.

She confirms the existence of giants and children of the forest north of the Wall, of the Others and wights, always opposing maester Luwin’s dismissals.

Maester Luwin says there are no more giants. He says they’re all dead, like the children of the forest. All that’s left of them are old bones in the earth that men turn up with plows from time to time.”
“Let Maester Luwin ride beyond the Wall,” Osha said. “He’ll find giants then, or they’ll find him. My brother killed one. Ten foot tall she was, and stunted at that. They’ve been known to grow big as twelve and thirteen feet. Fierce things they are too, all hair and teeth, and the wives have beards like their husbands, so there’s no telling them apart. The women take human men for lovers, and it’s from them the half bloods come. It goes harder on the women they catch. The men are so big they’ll rip a maid apart before they get her with child.”
[…]
[Hodor] was awfully big, Bran thought as he watched him go. “Are there truly giants beyond the Wall?” he asked Osha, uncertainly.
Giants and worse than giants, Lordling. I tried to tell your brother when he asked his questions, him and your maester and that smiley boy Greyjoy. The cold winds are rising, and men go out from their fires and never come back … or if they do, they’re not men no more, but only wights, with blue eyes and cold black hands. Why do you think I run south with Stiv and Hali and the rest of them fools? […]” (aGoT, Bran VI)

Bran’s fist curled around the shiny black arrowhead. “But the children of the forest are all gone now, you [Luwin] said.”
Here, they are,” said Osha, as she bit off the end of the last bandage with her teeth. “North of the Wall, things are different. That’s where the children went, and the giants, and the other old races.” (aGoT, Bran VII)

In aSoS, Jon’s POV confirms for the reader that Osha’s claim of the existence of giants is true. In aDwD, Bran’s own POV confirms the existence of the Children of the Forest for the reader.

Aside from being a supportive support character on Bran’s side, since her capture, Osha has been featured most often in godswood scenes, where she speaks of the children of the forest or the Old gods.

A faint wind sighed through the godswood and the red leaves stirred and whispered. Summer bared his teeth. “You hear them, boy?” a voice asked. Bran lifted his head. Osha stood across the pool, beneath an ancient oak, her face shadowed by leaves. Even in irons, the Wildling moved quiet as a cat. […] Her hair was growing out, brown and shaggy. (aGoT, Bran VI)

osha_weirwood
Natalia Tena as Osha in GOT

When Osha’s face is shadowed by leaves, her face would render a dappled skin effect. She may not have cat’s eyes, but she moves like a cat, while her hair is shaggy or atangle. Compare this to the description we have of Leaf.

And yet there she was, whirling, a scrawny thing, ragged, wild, her hair atangle. […] It was a girl, but smaller than Arya, her skin dappled like a doe’s beneath a cloak of leaves. Her eyes were queer—large and liquid, gold and green, slitted like a cat’s eyes. No one has eyes like that. Her hair was a tangle of brown and red and gold, autumn colors, with vines and twigs and withered flowers woven through it. (aDwD, Bran II)

cotf_zerochan anime
A Child of the Forest by Blu Oltramare

Osha is a stand-in for a child of the forest like Leaf, hence she is also stationed beneath a stand-in heart tree (see Winterfell and the North as Underworld), instructing him on how the Old Gods communicate via winds and rustling of leaves, teaching him to listen. The oracle’s priests and priestesses of Ancient Grecian Dodona would interprete the rustling of leaves as Zeus’s words.

“Who do you think sends the wind, if not the gods?” She seated herself across the pool from him, clinking faintly as she moved. […] “They see you, boy. They hear you talking. That rustling, that’s them talking back.” […] “They’re sad. Your lord brother will get no help from them, not where he’s going. The old gods have no power in the south. The weirwoods there were all cut down, thousands of years ago. How can they watch your brother when they have no eyes?” Bran had not thought of that. It frightened him. If even the gods could not help his brother, what hope was there? Maybe Osha wasn’t hearing them right. He cocked his head and tried to listen again. He thought he could hear the sadness now, but nothing more than that. (aGoT, Bran VI)

The Setting – A Well and a Tree

The setting of both tableau scenes, Luwin’s conversion and Osha’s oracling is Winterfell’s godswood, with a heart tree as old as the Age of Heroes, symbol and home of the Old Gods (Westeros’s paganism), and a pool. It is the most apt location to stage reverse parallels for Saint George’s legend as the dragon settled at a well or lake. Saint George’s dragon was not just a fire breathing dragon. It dripped poison that poisoned the land and threatened to poison Selene’s well. Hence, they sacrificed sheep, men, boys and the princess – to prevent the dragon from poisoning the well. And so, to witness an entrapment of Summer similar to Saint George’s dragon, to witness Summer scaring Meera and Jojen up into the weirwood raises the question whether we should consider the black pool of Winterfell’s godswood poisoned or not. If so, what is the poison at Winterfell? And what is required to purify it?

dotreesdream_idiacanthidae
Do trees dream, by idiacanthidae

From the onset, George ties the pool to the heart tree: the pool acts like a mirror reflecting the tree.

At the heart of the godswood, the great white weirwood brooded over its reflection in the black pool, its leaves rustling in a chill wind. When it felt Bran watching, it lifted its eyes from the still waters and stared back at him knowingly. (aGoT, Bran III)

By itself, the scene already matches the Serwyn story of the dragon looking at its own reflection. But instead of a dragon, the weirwood tree stares into the mirror. More, if Bran sees the eyes of the weirwood looking at him via the mirroring pool, then Bran himself is staring into the mirror. Combine this with Summer standing in for the dragon part in both scenes of aCoK, Bran IV, and we begin to wonder whether the weirwood and/or greenseer is a poisonous monster equivalent to a dragon? A section of the fandom believes this to be the case forwarding various theories:

  • children of the forest making the Others
  • Azor Ahai pushing tree spirits out of the tree, thereby creating the Others
  • First Men sacrificing people in front of the Winterfell heart tree
  • Bloodraven who has blood of the dragon in him living under the tree and this being compared to Niddhog gnawing at Yggdrasil’s roots.

However, we cannot just make the blanket claim that when George inserts a direwolf in the girdled position, or a weirwood and Bran staring into the pool-mirror, they therefore are as monstrous as the dragon. George did not simply replace the dragon with a greenseer or a direwolf here. He reversed the legends! Summer is released after capture, and Meera and Jojen needed to be saved by Hodor the giant, because Luwin had shamed Bran about the dreams he has, even drugs Bran against them.

And then there is the paradox of the weirwood staring into the mirror. In the various “Princess and dragon” tales, the mirror represents self-absorption: the dragons and Medusa are so captivated by their own reflection that they lose sight of their surroundings – the bigger picture – and therefore do not see the weapon aimed at them. A self-absorbed weirwood though is a paradox. It is a being that knows all of humanity’s history in Westeros since the Long Night at least. It has the biggest picture anyone can ever have. Take note that the paragraph reminds us that the tree stares back at Bran “knowingly”.

Creepy Trees and Good Guys

katie-hallaron-bloodraven-final-got

Much of the belief that weirwoods and green magic are evil amongst the fandom relies on quotes about chthonic elements regarding the weirwoods or the caves beneath the groves – skulls, slithering roots, scary faces with red bleeding eyes. These elements are culturally considered to be creepy and thus readers conclude that creepy equals evil (or tainted or poisoned). Both through the first POV and our cultural conditioning we have been set up to see any symbol related to death, forests and the wild as “evil”. One of my aims of the Chthonic Cycle essays was to make clear that death (and its symbols) does not equal evil, but instead is part of the natural cycle. Here are George’s own words on “good and evil”.

Too many contemporary Fantasies take the easy way out by externalizing the struggle [between good and evil], so the heroic protagonists need only smite the evil minions of the dark power to win the day. And you can tell the evil minions, because they’re inevitably ugly and they all wear black. I wanted to stand much of that on its head. In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which. (Sunsets of High Renown, an interview with GRRM, by Nick Gevers)

The example George regularly gives to illustrate how he wants to turn prejudices about evil on its head is that of the Night’s Watch: they wear black, but George in general regards the institute the ‘good guys’, even if members of that institute may be malicious. A reader would be wrong to argument the Night’s Watch is an evil organization because they wear black. The same principles hold for weirwoods and hollow hills, or a black pool. George wrote them to look creepy so that the reader fears them, but not necessarily because the reader should fear them. Appearances can be deceiving, and this is just as true for trees with sinister faces and caves with disturbing skulls. In other words, “creepy” is an invalid argument, whether it is to evaluate weirwoods, Ilyn Payne, Sandor Clegane, Tyrion Lannister, Varys, and so many others.

A variant of the creepy-argument is how a POV or in-world characters or people consider them creepy, such as Catelyn, Bran, the initial First Men or the Andals. We first see a weirwood through Catelyn’s eyes and mind who grew up with the Andal bias that weirwoods should be cut down and she considers them creepy. The prologue of aGot describes trees as reaching or grabbing Waymar Royce’s sword, reminding anyone who ever watched Disney’s Snowwhite of the nightmarish trees during her flight from the hunter and evil queen. Likewise, in Bran’s first chapter in the godswood we learn the heart tree frightens him.

He raced across the godswood, taking the long way around to avoid the pool where the heart tree grew. The heart tree had always frightened him; trees ought not have eyes, Bran thought, or leaves that looked like hands. (aGoT, Bran II)

But if a POV’s fear – an emotion – is a valid argument, then what do we do if Bran comes to enjoy the same spot later on and finds it peaceful?

The godswood was an island of peace in the sea of chaos that Winterfell had become. […] Summer lapped at the water and settled down at Bran’s side. He rubbed the wolf under the jaw, and for a moment boy and beast both felt at peace. Bran had always liked the godswood, even before, but of late he found himself drawn to it more and more. Even the heart tree no longer scared him the way it used to. The deep red eyes carved into the pale trunk still watched him, yet somehow he took comfort from that now. The gods were looking over him, he told himself; the old gods, gods of the Starks and the First Men and the children of the forest, his father’s gods. He felt safe in their sight, and the deep silence of the trees helped him think. Bran had been thinking a lot since his fall; thinking, and dreaming, and talking with the gods. (aGoT, Bran VI)

Bran’s initial fear of the heart tree is comparable to Sansa’s early terror of the Hound, who barks more to her than he actually bites. These are the anxieties of children whose judgment is based on appearances, not intuitive insight. For in the same chapter that Bran still fears the heart tree, he considers Jaime Lannister what a knight is supposed to look like.

Ser Jaime Lannister looked more like the knights in the stories, and he was of the Kingsguard too, but Robb said he had killed the old mad king and shouldn’t count anymore. (aGoT, Bran II)

And yet, it is the good looking knight of the Kingsguard who pushes him out of a window at the end of the chapter. The golden handsome knight ends up being Bran’s enemy, whereas the scary weirwood has never done him harm. Hence, the feelings of in-world POVs based on appearance serve to illustrate George’s quoted point – do not determine good and evil on appearance alone.

The only time a man can be brave

George used the creepy stereotype, both in-world and for the reader as a perception that he gradually deconstructs, especially in Bran’s arc. Bran starts out as a 7-year old who on the one hand loves scary monster stories of Old Nan, but is also still afraid of the boogieman in his closet. As he grows up and gets older, he learns to conquer his childish fears for creepy looking things and horror stories and face the real life dangers instead. After all, his father did say the only time a man can be called brave is when he is afraid.

Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him. (aGoT, Bran I)

The earlier example of Bran being afraid of the weirwood, while golden knight Jaime is the man he ought to fear leads to a new fear that Bran in time needs to overcome. Bran’s coma was not the right time for it yet, but later when the immediate health danger has passed, there is physical and emotional room for Bran to confront the trauma and fear related to it. But Luwin’s sleeping drug takes that away from Bran. By itself it is nothing more than a band-aid, not a medicine or antisceptic to keep a wound from festering. As it turns out, the drug did not prevent Bran from dreaming whatsoever.

Fearing dreams

“Do they help?”
Sometimes.”
Meera said, “All of Winterfell knows you wake at night shouting and sweating, Bran. The women talk of it at the well, and the guards in their hall.”
“Tell us what frightens you so much,” said Jojen. (aCoK, Bran IV)

Worse, his fears fester.

After Jojen mentions the ability to see north beyond the Wall, Bran becomes nervous and wants to change the subject. Bran once saw into the heart of winter and it teriffied him.

“[…] With three you would gaze south to the Summer Sea and north beyond the Wall.”

Summer got to his feet. “I don’t need to see so far.” Bran made a nervous smile. “I’m tired of talking about crows. Let’s talk about wolves. Or lizard-lions. Have you ever hunted one, Meera? We don’t have them here.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Finally he looked north. He saw the Wall shining like blue crystal, and his bastard brother Jon sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him. And he looked past the Wall, past endless forests cloaked in snow, past the frozen shore and the great blue-white rivers of ice and the dead plains where nothing grew or lived. North and north and north he looked, to the curtain of light at the end of the world, and then beyond that curtain. He looked deep into the heart of winter, and then he cried out, afraid, and the heat of his tears burned on his cheeks. (aGoT, Bran III)

So that is one fear Bran has – that which he saw in the heart of winter. As long as he can tell himself it are only dreams that do not mean anything, just a bad dream, then whatever he saw that scared the living daylight out of him does not exist, is not real. But, whatever monstrous thing is out there, it is very real.

Her brother interrupted. “Did you dream of a lizard-lion?”
“No,” said Bran. “I told you, I don’t want—”
“Did you dream of a wolf?”
He was making Bran angry. “I don’t have to tell you my dreams. I’m the prince. I’m the Stark in Winterfell.”
“Was it Summer?”
You be quiet.”
“The night of the harvest feast, you dreamed you were Summer in the godswood, didn’t you?”
Stop it!” Bran shouted. Summer slid toward the weirwood, his white teeth bared.
Jojen Reed took no mind. “When I touched Summer, I felt you in him. Just as you are in him now.”
“You couldn’t have. I was in bed. I was sleeping.”
“You were in the godswood, all in grey.”
“It was only a bad dream . . .”
Jojen stood. “I felt you. I felt you fall. Is that what scares you, the falling?” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Bran stark falling
Bran Stark “Now you know,” by aprilis420

Jojen hits on Bran’s other fear – his fall, and Jaime who pushed him. It is here we get the explicit reasoning for Bran’s silence: he wants to forget and imagine it is not true. And this reasoning also applied to what he saw in the heart of winter.

The falling, Bran thought, and the golden man, the queen’s brother, he scares me too, but mostly the falling. He did not say it, though. How could he? He had not been able to tell Ser Rodrik or Maester Luwin, and he could not tell the Reeds either. If he didn’t talk about it, maybe he would forget. He had never wanted to remember. It might not even be a true remembering. (aCoK, Bran IV)

Ultimately, the thing at the heart of the lands of always winter is what Bran should remain in fear of, while simultaneously proving himself brave by fighting it. All his other fears are merely lessons to become so brave. And his first lesson in bravery is to overcome the fear of what happened to him in the past – Jaime and his fall.

“Do you fall every night, Bran?” Jojen asked quietly.
A low rumbling growl rose from Summer’s throat, and there was no play in it. He stalked forward, all teeth and hot eyes. Meera stepped between the wolf and her brother, spear in hand. “Keep him back, Bran.”
“Jojen is making him angry.”
It’s your anger, Bran,” her brother said. “Your fear.”
“It isn’t. I’m not a wolf.” Yet he’d howled with them in the night, and tasted blood in his wolf dreams.
“Part of you is Summer, and part of Summer is you. You know that, Bran.”
Summer rushed forward, but Meera blocked him, jabbing with the three-pronged spear. The wolf twisted aside, circling, stalking. (aCoK, Bran IV)

Maester Luwin’s rationalisatons, shaming and drugging are the external chains applied to Bran, but it are his fears that make him embrace them. And it has the absolute opposite effect that Luwin intended – it makes Bran and Summer deadly dangerous for all the wrong reasons. Their warg link is unbroken, since Summer acts for Bran when Bran is angry, but with Bran denying his abilities, even to himself, he can neither control himself nor Summer. Luckily nobody is actually harmed.

Though Bran was reluctant and angry with the Reed siblings when they pressed him about his dreams, Jojen’s explanations and claims about greensight arm Bran with courage and knowledge to confront Luwin again.

“My brother has the greensight,” said Meera. “He dreams things that haven’t happened, but sometimes they do.”
“There is no sometimes, Meera.” A look passed between them; him sad, her defiant. (aCoK, Bran IV)

This enables Bran to inquire after the topic, armed with terms and explanations, without risking Luwin’s disapproval over his own wolf and crow dreams. Even if Luwin does not believe such powers are real and manages to convince Bran to suppose that Jojen lied to him, Bran also provoked Luwin into reciting tidbits of knowledge.

“Meera says her brother has the greensight.” […] [Bran] “You told me that the children of the forest had the greensight. I remember.”
“Some claimed to have that power. Their wise men were called greenseers.”
“Was it magic?”
“Call it [magic] for want of a better word, if you must. At heart it was only a different sort of knowledge.”
“What was it?”
Luwin set down his quill. “No one truly knows, Bran. The children are gone from the world, and their wisdom with them. It had to do with the faces in the trees, we think. The First Men believed that the greenseers could see through the eyes of the weirwoods. That was why they cut down the trees whenever they warred upon the children. Supposedly the greenseers also had power over the beasts of the wood and the birds in the trees. Even fish. Does the Reed boy claim such powers?” (aCoK, Bran IV)

For the very first time, maester Luwin divulges something close to the truth, including the admission that neither Luwin or his colleagues know the answers. Luwin confuses greensight (foretelling dreams) with greenseeing (skinchanging and green dreams), but with the information he surrenders, Bran can start to tie this against his own experiences – tree dreams, wolf dreams and the Reed siblings believing that Bran can mentally control Summer.

“No. I don’t think. But he has dreams that come true sometimes, Meera says.”
All of us have dreams that come true sometimes. You dreamed of your lord father in the crypts before we knew he was dead, remember?”
Rickon did too. We dreamed the same dream.”
“Call it greensight, if you wish . . . but remember as well all those tens of thousands of dreams that you and Rickon have dreamed that did not come true. Do you perchance recall what I taught you about the chain collar that every maester wears?” (aCoK, Bran IV)

When Luwin also discloses he studied the higher mysteries, magic, but found it did not work, he indirectly betrays his disbeliefs stems from his personal disappointment as a boy. This background story makes Luwin very human, and therefore fallible. This conversation and admittance by Luwin plant the seeds of doubt for Bran.

“No, my prince. Jojen Reed may have had a dream or two that he believes came true, but he does not have the greensight. No living man has that power.”
Bran said as much to Meera Reed when she came to him at dusk as he sat in his window seat watching the lights flicker to life. “I’m sorry for what happened with the wolves. Summer shouldn’t have tried to hurt Jojen, but Jojen shouldn’t have said all that about my dreams. The crow lied when he said I could fly, and your brother lied too.”
Or perhaps your maester is wrong.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

Bran initially defends maester Luwin, referring to his father relying on the maester’s counsel. But Meera points out that Ned Stark may have listened, yet made his own decisions.

“He isn’t. Even my father relied on his counsel.”
“Your father listened, I have no doubt. But in the end, he decided for himself.[…]” (aCoK, Bran IV)

After which she relates him one of Jojen’s dreams that Bran can treat like a test case in order to see whether Jojen does have a power to know future events through dreams or not. Once Jojen’s prophetic dream about the Walders liking their dish (news of the war) better than Bran’s turns out to come true, the first thing Bran does is search whose counsel he can listen to, apart from maester Luwin’s. He asks Osha, the wildling CotF stand-in, who also always told him that maester Luwin was wrong.

“Osha,” Bran asked as they crossed the yard. “Do you know the way north? To the Wall and . . . and even past?”
“The way’s easy. Look for the Ice Dragon, and chase the blue star in the rider’s eye.” She backed through a door and started up the winding steps.
And there are still giants there, and . . . the rest . . . the Others, and the children of the forest too?
The giants I’ve seen, the children I’ve heard tell of, and the white walkers . . . why do you want to know?”
Did you ever see a three-eyed crow?
No.” She laughed. “And I can’t say I’d want to.” Osha kicked open the door to his bedchamber and set him in his window seat, where he could watch the yard below. (aCoK, Bran V)

Osha confirms she has seen giants with her own eyes, but simultaneously admits the existence of the children is a hearsay claim. And when she answers she never saw the three-eyed crow, Bran also knows that Osha is not the one to seek out as a teacher about greensight or greenseeing. For this his sole nearby expert is Jojen.

I would also like to point out that George signals Bran is back at the point of the first chapter, when he was open to trees dreaming and his own wolf dreams. Osha carried Bran to his bedchamber to the window seat, where he could watch the yard below. And it is this window seat and yard watching that Bran’s first chapter in aCoK opens with.

Bran preferred the hard stone of the window seat to the comforts of his featherbed and blankets. Abed, the walls pressed close and the ceiling hung heavy above him; abed, the room was his cell, and Winterfell his prison. Yet outside his window, the wide world still called. He could not walk, nor climb nor hunt nor fight with a wooden sword as once he had, but he could still look. (aCoK, Bran I)

At the start of the fifth chapter, Bran has come full circle and came around. A window that is not shuttered (as it is in aCoK, Bran II) represents the ability to see, physically but also metaphorically. And it is not just any window, but a tower window. While on the one hand it represents a prison for a princess or prince, it also functions as a stand-in for a weirwood tree. And thus it hints at how greenseeing may in time be a joy for Bran that can replace his inability to become a knight, to walk with his own two legs.

Both the tower window and the greenseeing symbolize spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. In the spiritual sense it is often associated with clairvoyance, pre-cognition (greensight) and out-of-body experiences (flying, skinchanging). So, greensight stands for enlightenment in George’s world, a higher form of consciousness, a clearer and therefore purified view on issues, unclouded by fear and desire for the mundane. In order to have such an understanding one must be able to have a bird-like overview – exactly what a window looking over the yard provides. Being able to see all that happened in the past that led to the present as well as the consequences it may have in the future via weirnet accomplishes the same thing. And of course, the oriental symbol of enlightenment is the opened third eye.

“How would I break the chains, Jojen?” Bran asked.
Open your eye.”
“They are open. Can’t you see?”
“Two are open.” Jojen pointed. “One, two.”
“I only have two.”
You have three. The crow gave you the third, but you will not open it.” He had a slow soft way of speaking. “With two eyes you see my face. With three you could see my heart. With two you can see that oak tree there. With three you could see the acorn the oak grew from and the stump that it will one day become. With two you see no farther than your walls. With three you would gaze south to the Summer Sea and north beyond the Wall.” (aCoK, Bran IV)

bran 3rd eye julie kabbache
Three-Eyed-Crow giving “Bran Stark” his third eye (by Julie Kabbache)

George links this with the real world phenomenon of flying-dreams. Sometimes people do end up dreaming that they are flying, but it requires a specific set of conditions. First, it requires the dreamer to know that he or she is in fact dreaming. Most of the time when you have a dream, you live and experience that dream as if it is real, because you do not know that you are dreaming. There might be a flicker of realization where you suddenly think, “Oh, I’m dreaming,” but even that often soon passes and your mind is submerged into the experience once more as if it is real. If however you do preserve this insight and continue to dream all the while knowing it is a dream, you are having a lucid dream. Once you become fully aware that you are dreaming, you gain the power to choose what you will be doing in a dream. Hence, you can say, “I may not be able to fly in the real world, but this is a dream and gravity is not an actual thing here, so I can fly if I want to.”

Being lucid in a dream is not enough, though. It requires a great amount of confidence and awareness to fly in a dream, since the fear of falling is an instinctual one. In order to fly, even in a dream, the dreamer’s consciousness must overcome his instincts (the opposite of intuition). So, both the lucid state and the required consciousness imply an opened third eye.

And so, having come full circle, and with Osha admitting she cannot actually teach Bran about dreams, he is finally ready for Jojen as his first teacher.

It seemed only a few heartbeats after she took her leave that the door opened again, and Jojen Reed entered unbidden, with his sister Meera behind him. “You heard about the bird?” Bran asked. The other boy nodded. “It wasn’t a supper like you said. It was a letter from Robb, and we didn’t eat it, but—”
“The green dreams take strange shapes sometimes,” Jojen admitted. “The truth of them is not always easy to understand.”
“Tell me the bad thing you dreamed,” Bran said. “The bad thing that is coming to Winterfell.”
“Does my lord prince believe me now? Will he trust my words, no matter how queer they sound in his ears?”
Bran nodded.
“It is the sea that comes.” (aCoK, Bran V)

And though Bran is still afraid, he finally dares to tell Jojen and Meera about his own dreams.

Jojen sat on Bran’s bed. “Tell me what you dream.”
He was scared, even then, but he had sworn to trust them, and a Stark of Winterfell keeps his sworn word. “There’s different kinds,” he said slowly. “There’s the wolf dreams, those aren’t so bad as the others. I run and hunt and kill squirrels. And there’s dreams where the crow comes and tells me to fly. Sometimes the tree is in those dreams too, calling my name. That frightens me. But the worst dreams are when I fall.” He looked down into the yard, feeling miserable. “I never used to fall before. When I climbed. I went everyplace, up on the roofs and along the walls, I used to feed the crows in the Burned Tower. Mother was afraid that I would fall but I knew I never would. Only I did, and now when I sleep I fall all the time.”
Meera gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Is that all?”
I guess.” (aCoK, Bran V)

Sometimes, sharing, talking and describing something you fear can help you see it in another light, from another angle, and suddenly it is not as frightening anymore. Is it no surprise then, that no falling dream has ever been mentioned in Bran’s POVs ever again.

Next, Bran learns that he is a warg and that what he calls wolf dreams are not really dreams, but him acutally being awake and his soul inside Summer. Jojen also explains to him why Bran cannot freely tell people about his wolf dreams – it might motivate people to kill him – which is far more honest than Luwin’s attempt to drug Bran.

Warg,” said Jojen Reed. […] “Warg. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams.”
The names made him afraid again. “Who will call me?”
“Your own folk. In fear. Some will hate you if they know what you are. Some will even try to kill you.”
Old Nan told scary stories of beastlings and shapechangers sometimes. In the stories they were always evil. “I’m not like that,” Bran said. “I’m not. It’s only dreams.”
“The wolf dreams are no true dreams. You have your eye closed tight whenever you’re awake, but as you drift off it flutters open and your soul seeks out its other half. The power is strong in you.” (aCoK, Bran V)

Once again, Jojen reminds Bran to open his third eye, explaining he needs to use his heart for that. After the sea has arrived at Winterfell with Theon and his Ironborn, after the three men that Jojen predicted would drown are indeed dead (Alebelly, Mikken and Septon Chayle), Bran hides inside the crypts, together with Rickon, Osha and the Reed siblings, while Summer and Shaggydog roam freein the Wolfswood.

Setting aside any speculation about the bending of spacetime*, Bran has managed to open his third eye while inside the crypts, and we learn of it while Jon wargs Ghost during his scouting mission with Qorin Halfhand in the Skirling Pass.

He sat on his haunches and lifted his head to the darkening sky, and his cry echoed through the forest, a long lonely mournful sound. As it died away, he pricked up his ears, listening for an answer, but the only sound was the sigh of blowing snow.
Jon?
The call came from behind him, softer than a whisper, but strong too. Can a shout be silent? He turned his head, searching for his brother, for a glimpse of a lean grey shape moving beneath the trees, but there was nothing, only . . .
A weirwood.
It seemed to sprout from solid rock, its pale roots twisting up from a myriad of fissures and hairline cracks. The tree was slender compared to other weirwoods he had seen, no more than a sapling, yet it was growing as he watched, its limbs thickening as they reached for the sky. Wary, he circled the smooth white trunk until he came to the face. Red eyes looked at him. Fierce eyes they were, yet glad to see him. The weirwood had his brother’s face. Had his brother always had three eyes?
Not always, came the silent shout. Not before the crow.
He sniffed at the bark, smelled wolf and tree and boy, but behind that there were other scents, the rich brown smell of warm earth and the hard grey smell of stone and something else, something terrible. Death, he knew. He was smelling death. He cringed back, his hair bristling, and bared his fangs.
Don’t be afraid, I like it in the dark. No one can see you, but you can see them. But first you have to open your eyes. See? Like this. And the tree reached down and touched him. (aCoK, Jon VII)

3 eyed Bran
Three Eyed Bran (author unknown)
Reaching out across time?

Some readers believe this can only be a future Bran who is already down in Bloodraven’s cave, because of Ghost smelling death and barring his fangs at it, and Bran mentioning “not before the crow” and Bran’s avatar being a weirwood tree. However, in Jon’s present time, Bran is down in the crypts and Theon has already wreaked havoc in Winterfell; the three-eyed-crow “gave” Bran his third eye already in the coma-dream, and Bran has had tree-dreams since the start of aCoK.

Moreover, the reference to death is important in this scene for George, because he wants to have the first-time reader believe that Theon killed Bran. He builds up the suggestion as follows, to then reveal the truth:

  • In Arya IX, Arya water dances in a tree and then prays before the weirwood tree of Winterfell. She hears the voice of her dead father speak via the weirwood tree. This puts the idea in the reader’s mind that the souls of dead Starks can still communicate via weirwoods.
  • In Theon IV, Theon goes in search for Bran and Rickon, the direwolves, Osha and the Reed siblings. Reek makes a veiled suggestion that Theon understands, but is left unexplained for the reader.
  • In Jon VII, in the Skirling Pass has this weird wolf-dream where Ghost sees his brother Summer/Bran in a weirwood tree and smells the stench of death. Because of Arya’s experience, this plants the idea that Bran must be dead.
  • In Catelyn VII, Catelyn shares the news to Brienne that Bran and Rickon were killed by Theon after he found them at the mill, before releasing Jaime.
  • At the very end of Theon V the hoax with the miller boys is revealed, while George and Theon’s thoughts keep up the pretense and suggestion that Theon did kill Bran and Rickon, in a manner that matched Jojen’s green dream. Moreover, the chapter starts with direwolves with the faces of Bran and Rickon, which ties in with Jon’s weird wolf/tree/Bran dream. 

Bran’s last chapter of aCoK confirms that Bran’s third eye opened while hiding down inside the crypts. He mostly uses it to warg, but one time, this must have converged into a tree dream, while he was warging Summer.

Here in the chill damp darkness of the tomb his third eye had finally opened. He could reach Summer whenever he wanted, and once he had even touched Ghost and talked to Jon. Though maybe he had only dreamed that. […] Bran had told himself a hundred times how much he hated hiding down here in the dark, how much he wanted to see the sun again, to ride his horse through wind and rain. But now that the moment was upon him, he was afraid. He’d felt safe in the darkness; when you could not even find your own hand in front of your face, it was easy to believe that no enemies could ever find you either. And the stone lords had given him courage. Even when he could not see them, he had known they were there. (aCoK, Bran VII)

And in a vision where Bran checks whether it is daylight or not for Osha to explore the surface, George snuck in a reference of broken chains.

Never moving his broken body, he reached out all the same, and for an instant he was seeing double. There stood Osha holding the torch, and Meera and Jojen and Hodor, and the double row of tall granite pillars and long dead lords behind them stretching away into darkness . . . but there was Winterfell as well, grey with drifting smoke, the massive oak-and-iron gates charred and askew, the drawbridge down in a tangle of broken chains and missing planks. Bodies floated in the moat, islands for the crows. (aCoK, Bran VII)

This particular visual event has only two purposes: proving that Bran can use his third eye at will, while fully awake, as well as signal the chains that bound the winged wolf are broken. The in-story purpose is pointless. The reader and Bran already knew it was daylight, because of the opening “wolf dream” of the chapter, and Osha never managed to venture out all by herself on the surface, since the doorway of the crypts was blocked and it required Hodor to push it open.

And hence, when Bran faces his fear of dreams in which he falls, just by sharing the experience with people who will not judge him for his wolf dreams, Bran rids himself of maester Luwin’s chains, opens his third eye and can see with it at will.

Ensnaring a Black Brother

In aSoS, Bran has to overcome yet another irrational fear – the fear of Old Nan’s horror stories. Where Bran’s arc in aCoK revolves around dreams and the fear of them, Bran’s arc in aSoS features storytelling, both heroic tales of smiling tree knights as well as Old Nan’s horror stories that have the Nightfort as their setting. Both type of stories reflect Bran’s growth. His initial fear of a weirwood as featured in aGoT, Bran II has evaporated completely. By aSoS, weirwoods may as well be smiling in his mind. But the bad people from which Old Nan’s horror stories originate still freak him out and he fear their ghosts may still linger. The ruin that the Nightfort has become feeds into the typical image of a haunted castle. This stereotype is so strong in the minds of the reader that most consider it to be a future setting where depraved, bad things will happen in tWoW, just like bad things happen at Harrenhal over and over.

But there is an immense difference between Harrenhal and the Nightfort. Nobody claims the Nightfort is cursed and it stands for thousands of years, while Harrenhal only stands for little over three hundred years. Why is that important? There will always be bad people, always be some murder or rape that occurs in some castle – just look at all the horror that occurred in Winterfell at the hands of Theon or Ramsay, or the horrors and murder for the building of the Red Keep. It would be far more significant if no murder, mayhem or rape occurred in a castle in Westeros. And over the course of thousands of years, perhaps even eight thousand years, a castle would gather multiple such stories. With the Nightfort you have a horror story per thousand or two thousand years. Harrenhal on the other hand has a horror story per generation since its very existence. So, the Nightfort actually has a rather good track record. Meanwhile the sole evidence for ghosts haunting anyone is in the dreams of people who are on an evil path themselves.

In fact, I believe that the Nightfort actually may be the safest haven at the Wall from the Others. But the actual argument for this will come up in the Mirror Mirror essay for Jon. For this essay, the Nightfort is of significance for two reasons. Bran needs to conquer his childhood fear for ghosts and horror stories, just as Arya did at Harrenhal. And this culminates in a similar scene as the one where Meera netted Summer in aCoK. In aSoS, Bran IV, Meera uses her net to capture Sam, at a well and weirwood in the Nightfort’s kitchen.

First, the Nightfort’s kitchen is the equivalent of Winterfell’s godswood: it has a well (a black pool) in the middle of it and a weirwood growing just beside it.

The Reeds decided that they would sleep in the kitchens, a stone octagon with a broken dome. It looked to offer better shelter than most of the other buildings, even though a crooked weirwood had burst up through the slate floor beside the huge central well, stretching slantwise toward the hole in the roof, its bone-white branches reaching for the sun. It was a queer kind of tree, skinnier than any other weirwood that Bran had ever seen and faceless as well, but it made him feel as if the old gods were with him here, at least. (aSoS, Bran IV)

While the weirwood makes Bran feel safe, he is wary of the well and horrified by the kitchen setting, constantly reminding Bran of the Rat Cook.

The Rat Cook had cooked the son of the Andal king in a big pie with onions, carrots, mushrooms, lots of pepper and salt, a rasher of bacon, and a dark red Dornish wine. Then he served him to his father, who praised the taste and had a second slice. Afterward the gods transformed the cook into a monstrous white rat who could only eat his own young. He had roamed the Nightfort ever since, devouring his children, but still his hunger was not sated. “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him,” Old Nan said, “nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.”  (aSoS, Bran IV)

The kitchen and its ovens are akin to a forge, a symbolic setting where George has Jon’s character “forged”. So, in a way, just as aCoK, Bran IV is a chapter to herald Bran is about to “grow”, he too will take a further step in growth in aSoS, Bran IV, and the Rat Cook’s story takes a central place here. Why? Well, Bran is actually digesting and working through a very particular trauma – the Red Wedding. We learn at the start of the chapter that Bran saw it in a dream.

The dream he’d had . . . the dream Summer had had . . . No, I mustn’t think about that dream. He had not even told the Reeds, though Meera at least seemed to sense that something was wrong. If he never talked of it maybe he could forget he ever dreamed it, and then it wouldn’t have happened and Robb and Grey Wind would still be . . . (aSoS, Bran IV)

Bran knows what the Freys did to Robb and Grey Wind at the Twins. He dreamt it. He felt it. He saw it. He knows it. But the horror, the trauma and the grief of it is so enormous, that Bran does not want to dwell on it. Instead he clings to childish fears, on every horror story Old Nan ever told him set at the Nightfort – Mad Axe, Night’s King, the thing that comes in the night, Danny Flint and the Rat Cook. And as long as he has these tales on his mind, he does not have to consciously think of the events of the Red Wedding. Real life loss is scarier than any of Old Nan’s stories.

In this context, in this setting, Bran’s worst Old Nan nightmare almost seem to come to life.

Then he heard the noise. His eyes opened. What was that? He held his breath. Did I dream it? Was I having a stupid nightmare? He didn’t want to wake Meera and Jojen for a bad dream, but . . . there . . . a soft scuffling sound, far off . . . Leaves, it’s leaves rattling off the walls outside and rustling together . . . or the wind, it could be the wind . . . The sound wasn’t coming from outside, though. Bran felt the hairs on his arm start to rise. The sound’s inside, it’s in here with us, and it’s getting louder. He pushed himself up onto an elbow, listening. There was wind, and blowing leaves as well, but this was something else. Footsteps. Someone was coming this way. Something was coming this way. […] It’s coming from the well, he realized. That made him even more afraid. Something was coming up from under the ground, coming up out of the dark. Hodor woke it up. He woke it up with that stupid piece of slate, and now it’s coming. It was hard to hear over Hodor’s snores and the thumping of his own heart. Was that the sound blood made dripping from an axe? Or was it the faint, far-off rattling of ghostly chains? Bran listened harder. Footsteps. It was definitely footsteps, each one a little louder than the one before. He couldn’t tell how many, though. The well made the sounds echo. He didn’t hear any dripping, or chains either, but there was something else . . . a high thin whimpering sound, like someone in pain, and heavy muffled breathing. But the footsteps were loudest. The footsteps were coming closer. (aSoS, Bran IV)

He fears it’s Mad Axe or the thing that comes at night. He does not dare to make a noise, wants to hide his face behind his blanket, but wakes up Meera who prepares to capture it, while Bran slips in Hodor’s skin.

From the well came a wail, a piercing creech that went through him like a knife. A huge black shape heaved itself up into the darkness and lurched toward the moonlight, and the fear rose up in Bran so thick that before he could even think of drawing Hodor’s sword the way he’d meant to, he found himself back on the floor again with Hodor roaring “Hodor hodor HODOR,” the way he had in the lake tower whenever the lightning flashed. But the thing that came in the night was screaming too, and thrashing wildly in the folds of Meera’s net. Bran saw her spear dart out of the darkness to snap at it, and the thing staggered and fell, struggling with the net. The wailing was still coming from the well, even louder now. On the floor the black thing flopped and fought, screeching, “No, no, don’t, please, DON’T . . .”
Meera stood over him, the moonlight shining silver off the prongs of her frog spear. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m SAM,” the black thing sobbed. “Sam, Sam, I’m Sam, let me out, you stabbed me . . .” He rolled through the puddle of moonlight, flailing and flopping in the tangles of Meera’s net. (aSoS, Bran IV)

Meera captures Sam, who emerged straight from the well. George used capitals and then repeated the name thrice over afterwards. Many readers tie Goerge’s choice of name for Sam to Tolkien’s Sam, comrade and friend throughout every ordeal of Frodo Baggins, the ring bearer who enters into Mordor to destroy the One Ring to rule them all. Bran believing Hodor woke something terrible up when he threw a slate into the well to check how deep it went certainly is a reference to Pipin’s mistake in Moria. But that is not who George is referring to in this scene. Instead, he refers to another Sam – Roger Zelazny’s Sam. Zelazny was a good friend of George, and one of the novels he wrote is “Lord of Light”. George considers this novel “One of the five best SF novels ever written.” The protagonist in the novel is a man called Sam, who is the Lord of Light, or the enlightened Buddha.

His Followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. […] Thereafter to be portrayed in murals at the ends of countless corridors, carved upon the walls of Temples and painted onto the ceilings of numerous palaces, came the awakening of he who was variously known as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri, Siddharta, Tathagata, Binder, Maitreya, the Enlightened One, Buddha and Sam. […]
“Hail, Lord of Light!” It was Ratri [goddess of the Night] who spoke these words. […]
“Hail, Mahasamatman – Buddha!” said Yama [god of Death]. […]
“Hello, Sam,” said Tak [the ape]. (Lord of Light, i, Roger Zelazny)

His full name is Mahasamatman, but if you drop the Maha- and the -atman, you get the shortened Sam, which is the name the Lord of Light prefers. Don’t believe that George is pointing to Sam, the Buddha? This is what George writes next, immediately after Samwell identies himself as SAM.

It was Jojen who fed the sticks to the fire and blew on them until the flames leapt up crackling. Then there was light, and Bran saw the pale thin-faced girl by the lip of the well, all bundled up in furs and skins beneath an enormous black cloak, trying to shush the screaming baby in her arms. (aSoS, Bran IV)

He even has Bran wonder whether Sam is the Three-eyed Crow – the “third eye” commonly a symbol of enlightenment.

Bran was suddenly uncertain. “Are you the three-eyed crow?” He can’t be the three-eyed crow.
“I don’t think so.” The fat man rolled his eyes, but there were only two of them. “I’m only Sam. Samwell Tarly. Let me out, it’s hurting me.” He began to struggle again. (aSoS, Bran IV)

“Are you truly he whom we have named?” asked Yama. […] “Who are you, man?”
“I? I am nothing,” replied the other, “A leaf caught in a whirlpool, perhaps. A feather in the wind…” […] “I am” – he squinted again – “Sam. I am Sam. Once – long ago … I did fight, didn’t I? Many times …”
“You were Great-Souled Sam, the Buddha. Do you remember?”
Maybe I was …” (Lord of Light, i, Roger Zelazny)

And of course there is the description of Sam’s corpulence – that of the fat Buddha.

“The Night’s Watch, yes.” The fat man was still breathing like a bellows. “I’m a brother of the Watch.” He had one cord under his chins, forcing his head up, and others digging deep into his cheeks. “I’m a crow, please. Let me out of this.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

Still not convinced? Then please read George’s Not a Blog “In Memoriam: Roger Zelazny” post of 1995.

And Sam. Him especially. “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.”

Lord of Light was the first Zelazny book I ever read. I was in college at the time, a long time reader who dreamed of writing himself one day. I’d been weaned on Andre Norton, cut my teeth on Heinlein juveniles, survived high school with the help of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I read Ace doubles and belonged to the Science Fiction Book Ciub, but I had not yet found the magazines. I’d never heard of this Zelazny guy. But when I read those words for the first time, a chill went through me, and I sensed that SF would never be the same. Nor was it. Like only a few before him, Roger left his mark on the genre. (GRRM, Not a Blog – In Memoriam: Roger Zelazny, June 1995)

If you’ve ever wondered how Jetboy’s last adventure came to be, who actually wrote his final words, or how H’ard pissed off Roger Zelazny, the world’s nicest man, this is the interview for you. (GRRM, Not a Blog – Brad and H’ard, 2 May 2020)

sam good guy
Sawell Tarly by Lidia Macov

But even if you did not know that George named Samwell in reference to Zelazny’s Sam, we do know Sam is squeamish, not even trying to be brave, loathes hunting and killing, scared of a stickfight, unable to sqaush a mouse with a book even. And when he does kill, he does it stumbling, fumbling, his hands before his eyes, almost by accident. There is not a more innocent man on the whole of Planetos, devoid of resentment, anger and hatred than Sam, who could have ended up in Meera’s net at a well and a weirwood. And on top of that he is a Black brother of the Night’s Watch.

The thing on the floor was pushing an arm through the net to reach his knife, but the loops wouldn’t let him. He wasn’t any monster beast, or even Mad Axe drenched in gore; only a big fat man dressed up in black wool, black fur, black leather, and black mail. “He’s a black brother,” said Bran. “Meera, he’s from the Night’s Watch.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

You know the “good guys” (excluding some misguided bad apples amongst the bunch) that George dressed in black to turn the easy identifiers to differentiate evil from good on its head. Having Meera catch this “good guy” (or as a reference to Zelazny, the world’s nicest man) in her net, in that setting, is a parallel to Meera catching Summer being unwittingly warged by Bran, and retroactively tells us that the weirwood is a good guy, that the black pool is a good guy, that greenseers and the Old Gods religion are the good guys, that Bran is one of the good guys.

Considering that George meticulously makes everything a reversal in the godswood scene with the Reed siblings to Serwyn’s and Saint George’s story, that they capture and release an enlightened Sam, a good guy at the Nightfort, and George uses creepiness as a stereotype to turn good and evil on its head, we believe the return to “worshiping” weirwoods as outcome is not a poisoning, but a purification. The poison then would be the Faith, the Citadel, the Drowned God, Rh’llor or dragon rule trying or establishing a root in Winterfell, each on their own trying to make the Starks and the North to turn their back on the Old Gods.

Conclusion – tl;tr

Bran is the very first POV who mentions Serwyn. In aCoK, we see two Serwyn related scenes in one and the same chapter in the godswood:

  • Hodor (the giant) saving Meera (a sworn shield) from Prince Bran angrily warging Summer: a reversal of Serwyn saving a princess from a giant.
  • Meera netting Summer and then setting him free: a reversal of Saint George girdling a dragon before killing him in return for the people converting from paganism to Christianity

Both scenes point out how Bran is not so much a Serwyn (yet), but needs saving from his tower prison, from the chains of maester Luwin and be once and for all a convert to George’s equivalent of paganism – the Old Gods.

In order to grow, become a responsible and able greenseer, Bran must conquer childish fears, and learn to be brave while he is afraid. Hence, as young as he is, throughout the series, Bran is often fearful of things he should not fear.

  • Creepy weirwood trees (aGoT)
  • Falling dreams (aCoK)
  • Ghosts at the Nightfort coming alive and wells (aSoS)

By facing those fears, he grows up a little, gains a new perspective, and therefore enlightenment. This is all in preparation for him to be brave when the time comes to face the monstrosity at the Heart of the Lands of Always Winter, as well as learn to recognize the monster within people’s hearts. And because we walk in Bran’s shoes as he must face each childish fear, George couches the trees, the dreams and the Nightfort in stereotypical creepy horror fashion. But in reality these are the things that provide shelter, protection and truth, while some of the worst things are done by people for love of people. Further evidence of the sheltering aspect of trees, despite their creepy outlook, is deferred to a Jon-Serwyn essay, but Meera and Jojen being safe in the weirwood tree and later Meera catching a converted “good guy” (black brother) Sam (reference to the nicest man that ever lived in George’s eyes – Roger Zelazny) heavily suggest that the pool, the weirwood and green magic has pure and right intentions.

This essay lays the groundwork for a concept of purification from the poisons threatening Winterfell, the Starks and Westeros as a whole: the Citadel, the Faith, Ironborn and Rh’lorr. It is not just Bran who requires conversion. But those who often unwittingly threaten to poison Winterfell are to be converted as well. We therefore expect Bran to be featured before the onset of the Battle of the Ice Lakes, in Riverrun during or after the Red Wedding 2.0, mayhaps Oldtown, each time converting non Old Gods followers into believers in various ways by providing help, mercy and even vengeance. What and who those poisoning agents are will be explained far more in depth in part 2. This will also contain potential suggestions on how Bran may be featured in Stannis’ and Theon’s arc in order to rid Winterfell from Ramsay’s poisonous blood without risking Stannis burning Winterfell’s weirwood, help kill both the Freys at the Ice Lakes and in the Riverlands and potentially strike in the heart of the Citadel at Oldtown.

Winterfell and the North as Underworld

So far, the Chthonic voyage into the Crypts gave us the insight how Lyanna fits the profile of Persephone, and how as Queen of the Underworld she haunts and curses Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, making both of them tragic heroes. Ned’s voyage from Crypts to Dungeons suggests the Starks may have a deep connection with the underworld and that it might actually be their source of power. We also deduced out of this exploration a chthonic lexicon that George RR Martin uses for further reference in other scenes, point of views and chapters.

With this essay we investigate whether the underworld extends beyond the crypts – Winterfell castle, the godswood and the North in general.

The godswood of Winterfell

As we leaf from Ned’s crypt chapter to Catelyn’s first chapter, we enter the godswood with her, meet the heart tree, and Ned Stark through her eyes. The very first thing we learn and read in her chapter is that she never liked Winterfell’s godswood.

Catelyn had never liked this godswood.
She had been born a Tully, at Riverrun far to the south, on the Red Fork of the Trident. The godswood there was a garden, bright and airy, where tall redwoods spread dappled shadows across tinkling streams, birds sang from hidden nests, and the air was spicy with the scent of flowers.
The gods of Winterfell kept a different sort of wood. It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest untouched for ten thousand years as the gloomy castle rose around it. It smelled of moist earth and decay. No redwoods grew here. This was a wood of stubborn sentinel trees armored in grey-green needles, of mighty oaks, of ironwoods as old as the realm itself. Here thick black trunks crowded close together while twisted branches wove a dense canopy overhead and misshapen roots wrestled beneath the soil. This was a place of deep silence and brooding shadows, and the gods who lived here had no names.
But she knew she would find her husband here tonight. Whenever he took a man’s life, afterward he would seek the quiet of the godswood. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Right at the start of Catelyn’s first chapter, George contrasts Riverrun and its godswood that was Catelyn’s home when she was still a maiden with that of Winterfell’s. Like Robert’s speech that symbolizes life, the same is true for Riverrun’s godswood. Riverrun is far to the south. Its godswood is bright and thus full of light. Streams and birds make sound and are changeable. And the air smells of spices and flowers. The paragraph evokes the senses, a garden where one can see, hear and smell.

But the godswood of Winterfall is dark, untouched, moist, decaying. It is earthy, twisted, misshapen, black, brooding and deeply silent. It is has been ever-present, as old as time itself almost. It is stubborn, has needles, weaves, and with an overhead canopy it blocks the sky and it is as if you  are in an underworld. The names of those who dwell there are eventually forgotten – nameless. With so many chthonic lexicon words used for the godswood, and one even for the castle, this already suggests Winterfell and its godwood represent the underworld.

“How can that be?” you may ask. Crypts and dungeons as underworld setting where the dead ar buried or the imprisoned are left to die and be forgotten is not that odd. But the godswood and the castle where living characters work, play and dwell might seem a contradiction to being dead. But in mythology, the underworld is a world all by itself, with different regions, places and levels. It only takes a crossing from one bank to the other with the help of the ferryman Charon as long as you pay him an obol, or a sea voyage west to the edge of the living world where the sun sets, or a journey passing several gates. And once you are in the underworld there are castles, islands, rivers, mountains, meadows and hellish nether regions, including characters that work, play and dwell. In fact, in ancient mythology, the underworld is not that much different from earth. It is a second world. And George actually refers to this concept in Theon’s chapter during the wedding of Ramsay to Jeyne Poole in Winterfell’s godswood.

The mists were so thick that only the nearest trees were visible; beyond them stood tall shadows and faint lights. Candles flickered beside the wandering path and back amongst the trees, pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup. It felt like some strange underworld, some timeless place between the worlds, where the damned wandered mournfully for a time before finding their way down to whatever hell their sins had earned them. Are we all dead, then? Did Stannis come and kill us in our sleep? Is the battle yet to come, or has it been fought and lost? (aDwD, Prince of Winterfell, courtesy Blackfyre Bastard)

The life-death contrast continues when Catelyn’s Faith of the Seven is set against that of the First Men, against her husband’s worship. The Faith uses smell, song, color and light. The gods have faces and names.

Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.
For her sake, Ned had built a small sept where she might sing to the seven faces of god, but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest.

The Faith of the Seven is a faith that focuses on life, celebrates life. While they acknowledge death itself with the Stranger aspect, barely anyone worships the Stranger. The Song of the Seven does not even contain a stanza for the Stranger. And while the Stranger can be regarded as a name, it is faceless, masked or hidden behind a shroud, Unseen. Not even the gender is definable.

And the seventh face . . . the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.(aCoK, Catelyn IV)

George stresses the facelesness and namelesness of death in Catelyn’s thoughts. Unless we use modern reconstructive software, DNA testing and forenisch research, the dead lose their identity as they decay and only bones are left. Skeletons look alike, stripped from rank, status, gender,  faces, and thus also their names. This concept is still reflected in our modern day usage of John and Jane Doe – the name for a dead person whose identity is unknown.

The Old Gods of course are not actual gods – they are greenseers living under the ground, tapping into the roots of the weirnet to see the past and the future, and able to prolong their lifetime by merging with the roots of weirtrees, beyond the time given to the family and friends who once knew the greenseer. Later generations would forget his or her name.

Meera’s gloved hand tightened around the shaft of her frog spear. “Who sent you? Who is this three-eyed crow?”
“A friend. Dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer.” (aDwD, Bran II)

When Meera Reed had asked him his true name, he made a ghastly sound that might have been a chuckle. “I wore many names when I was quick, but even I once had a mother, and the name she gave me at her breast was Brynden.”
“I have an uncle Brynden,” Bran said. “He’s my mother’s uncle, really. Brynden Blackfish, he’s called.”
“Your uncle may have been named for me. Some are, still. Not so many as before. Men forget. Only the trees remember.” (aDwD, Bran III)

The only names and identities that are remembered are the Lords of Winterfell who get a statue of their likenness in the crypts. The other Stark bones are normally buried without a face and without a name in the tombs.

So, we have the unidentifiable Stranger as personification of death, and so are pretty much the greenseers. Meanwhile the rulers of Winterfell, both in the crypts and in the godswood cleaning the blood of their execution sword have names and faces. And this difference is significant. In mythologies the personification of death is not always the ruler of the underworld. The ruler is often not even dead. This seems to apply in aSoIaF when we consider Winterfell as a whole as an underworld, and not just the crypts.

Underground Pools and Rivers

At the center of the grove an ancient weirwood brooded over a small pool where the waters were black and cold. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Above is the first description in the series of a weirwood tree, a heart tree in a godswood, and the small pool. In several mythologies specific pools, wells or rivers are an important feature of the underworld. For example, Hades has five rivers. Two of these have a significant underworld function. The newly dead are ferried across the Acheron (river of sorrow, or woe) by Charon if they pay him an obol, from earth to the underworld. When the shades of the dead have crossed they are to drink from the Lethe (river of oblivion) – which can be a river, pool or well – so that they forget their life and can reincarnate. Thus the Lethe relates to the concept of loss of names and faces, of identity. Meanwhile, some mystic schools speak of the Lethe having a secret counterpart – the Mnemosyne (memory). The initiates were advized to drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe when they died to gain omniscience and remember everything.

Could the cold, black pool in the godswood be a reference to the Grecian Lethe? Might it even have a similar power? At the moment these questions cannot be answered with certainty without further information.

Ovid claimed the Lethe passed through the cave of Hypnos (god of sleep), and its murmur would bring drowsiness to the listener. While sleep is not death, the state of oblivion in sleep is often philosophically compared to that of death.1 Hence, Hypnos’ cave was located in Hades. Though it is purely speculative, several readers have wondered whether the underground river in Bloodraven’s cave might travel all the way under the Wall and is connected to the godswood pool. So, let us examine a few quotes from Bran’s chapters in a Dance with Dragons from the cave.

The last part of their dark journey was the steepest. Hodor made the final descent on his arse, bumping and sliding downward in a clatter of broken bones, loose dirt, and pebbles. The girl child was waiting for them, standing on one end of a natural bridge above a yawning chasm. Down below in the darkness, Bran heard the sound of rushing water. An underground river.
“Do we have to cross?” Bran asked, as the Reeds came sliding down behind him. The prospect frightened him. If Hodor slipped on that narrow bridge, they would fall and fall.
No, boy,” the child said. “Behind you.” She lifted her torch higher, and the light seemed to shift and change. One moment the flames burned orange and yellow, filling the cavern with a ruddy glow; then all the colors faded, leaving only black and white. Behind them Meera gasped. Hodor turned.
Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.
…[snip]…
The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river. (aDwD, Bran II)

We have a cave setting and a river running through it. And in the hall beside the chasm where the river runs at the bottom of it, Bloodraven is dreaming. Instead of writing a gaping chasm, George used yawning, which of course has the double entendre of the yawning we do when we are sleepy. So, we do actually seem to have references here of Lethe passing through Hypnos’ cave. On top of that, we also get a river crossing reference, and how Bran fears it might be the death of them if they do try to cross. This brings the Acheron to mind. Leaf’s answer implies this river is not to be confused with the Acheron. So, in a smart and neat way, George includes references to several rivers of Hades, without conflating them into one. Further interpretation and implication of this for Bran I will leave for a later chthonic essay on Bran, but at least we do seem to have the appropriate references of a Lethe-like underground river running through a dreaming cave situated in the underworld.

George ends the environment description with a black river mention. It is possible GRRM simply used black as a general reference where light is absent, but he usually tends to write dark instead of black then, while he tends to preserve black for the color description. In fact, dark is what you would actually expect here, because the river is not actually visible, just as you would have expected him to write dark water for the pool. So, there is a good chance we are meant to associate the river in the cave with the pool in Winterfell’s godswood.

Bran’s third chapter in aDwD has more of these dream-cave references and how the river sings a song. The chapter is even written in a manner as if several months went by like in a dream. Very noteworthy is this passage.

No sunlight ever reached the caves beneath the hill. No moonlight ever touched those stony halls. Even the stars were strangers there.  (aDwD, Bran III)

And that is pretty much how Hypnos’ cave is described: to never see the rise or setting of the sun, just as it does not witness noon.

If  indeed the cold, black pool of Winterfell’s godswood is connected to the underground river in Bloodraven’s cave, then several phrases and descriptions about it in the cave fit the Lethe. What is the relevance? It may have plot impact as a way for anyone in the cave to get back to Winterfell. It may have a magical forgetfulness impact if someone drinks from either the underground river or the pool. Or it may have no more significance than to serve as an environmental element to help us consider Winterfell, the North and the area beyond the Wall as an underworld on a meta-level.

The cold, black pool near the heart tree is not the sole pool in the godswood. Three other ponds are fed by an underground hot spring. Since these ponds are described as being murky green, they do not seem to be linked with the underground river of Bloodraven’s cave.

Across the godswood, beneath the windows of the Guest House, an underground hot spring fed three small ponds. Steam rose from the water day and night, and the wall that loomed above was thick with moss. Hodor hated cold water, and would fight like a treed wildcat when threatened with soap, but he would happily immerse himself in the hottest pool and sit for hours, giving a loud burp to echo the spring whenever a bubble rose from the murky green depths to break upon the surface. (aGoT, Bran VI)

Two Hades rivers might be of interest here. The Phlegethon means the flaming river, which sounds more like a lava current, than one of water. The Styx (hate) was the river where Achilles’s mother dipped him in as a child to make him invincible, except for his heel. In Greek mythology rivers or locations tend to have a deity or nymph of the same name, just as the realm Hades is ruled by Hades. So, there is a deity Phlegethon as well as a goddess Styx. Though married, Styx supposedly desired Phlegethon and was consumed by his flame. When Hades allowed her to run her course through or close the Phelegethon they were reunited. Water flowing parallel or close to a lava current would end up being heated. Such a combination could result in hot springs or ponds with steaming hot water to relax in.

Below, I give you Plato’s description of both rivers. Notice here how the Phlegethon is described as being muddy and turbid, and boiling, and how it fits George’s description of Winterfell’s bubble making, murky green hot pools.

The third river [the Pyriphlegethon] flows out between [Okeanos and Acheron], and near the place whence it issues it falls into a vast region burning with a great fire and makes a lake larger than our Mediterranean sea, boiling with water and mud. Thence it flows in a circle, turbid and muddy, and comes in its winding course, among other places, to the edge of the Akherousian lake, but does not mingle with its water. Then, after winding about many times underground, it flows into Tartaros at a lower level. This is the river which is called Pyriphlegethon, and the streams of lava which spout up at various places on earth are offshoots from it. Opposite this the fourth river issues [the Styx] . . . it passes under the earth and, circling round in the direction opposed to that of Pyriphlegethon, it meets it coming from the other way in the Akherousian lake. (Plato, Phaedo 112e ff)

The Heart Tree

The weirwood heart tree is the most obvious feature of Winterfell’s godswood.

“The heart tree,” Ned called it. The weirwood‘s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true; they had watched the castle‘s granite walls rise around them. It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Obviously, the cut faces in the bark bring the religious practice of tree worship to mind, something the Celts were famously known to do. Their most sacred tree was the oak and specifically tied to druid practice. Overall, the oak is the most sacred in any Indo-European mythology and associated with a thunder deity – the Greek Zeus, Norse Thor, Germanic Donar, Balthic Perkon, Celtic Taranis, and Slavic Perun. The likely reason for this thunder deity connection is the fact that oak trees have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than any other tree of the same height.

In Zeus’s 4000 year old oracle, Dodona in Epirus, the oak tree stood in the heart of the precinct. And the priests and priestesses interpreted the rustling of the leaves as the counsel given by Zeus. He was worshipped there as Zeus Naios, meaning “god of the spring below the oak“. In Homer’s Illiad, Achilles prays to Zeus, “Lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off, brooding over wintry Dodona.”According to Herodotus the Peleiades were the sacred women of the grove of Dodona. Peleiades means a flock of doves and is not to be confused with the Pleiades (seven nymphs that were sisters). According to legend the oracle of Zeus was founded there, because a black dove who spoke human language instructed people to do so.

The weirwood tree obviously is not an oak and the existence of oaks in Westeros sets the two tree genera apart. Nor does Ned Stark have much in common with Zeus or any thunder god. Still, a lot of the Greek oak worship fits the introduction of the heart tree of Winterfell’s godswood:

  • The weirwood tree is a heart tree, the heart of the godswood. And in King’s Landing where Robert is king – who has plenty of thunder stormgod references – the heart tree is an oak.
  • Catelyn described the heart tree as brooding. Meanwhile that brooding heart tree stands in wintry Winterfell, that lies far off [from the rest of Westeros]. This fits Homer’s reference in the Illiad.
  • Ned Stark sits under the heart tree beside the pool/spring, and could be called Ned Naios.
  • Murders of ravens tend to gather in the branches of weirwood trees: in Winterfell after it is burned, at Raventree, in the wildling village where Sam and Gilly are attacked by wights before meeting Coldhands, at the Citadel’s weirwood in Oldtown. Ravens are not doves, but in Westeros they have our earthly role of messenger birds (doves). Meanwhile black doves seem as rare as white ravens of the Citadel. And finally, the ravens once spoke their message instead of carrying it. Some ravens still oracle and instruct with human speech.
  • Osha tells Bran how the Old Gods speak via the rustling of the leaves.

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.” (aSoS, Samwell III)

A faint wind sighed through the godswood and the red leaves stirred and whispered. Summer bared his teeth. “You hear them, boy?” a voice asked.
Bran lifted his head. Osha stood across the pool, beneath an ancient oak, her face shadowed by leaves.
…[snip]…
Bran commanded her. “Tell me what you meant, about hearing the gods.”
Osha studied him. “You asked them and they’re answering. Open your ears, listen, you’ll hear.”
Bran listened. “It’s only the wind,” he said after a moment, uncertain. “The leaves are rustling.”
Who do you think sends the wind, if not the gods?” …[snip]… “They see you, boy. They hear you talking. That rustling, that’s them talking back.” (aGoT, Bran VI)

When Samwell and Gilly are attacked by wights on their way tot he Wall, having escaped the mutiny at Craster’s, they cry out how it’s “not fair”. But it’s rather the other way around. Life is unfair, and death is fair, since everybody is to die. The raven on Samwell’s shoulder instantly corrects him: “Fair, far, fear,” he says. Or in other words: death is fair, far, and feared. The raven speaks as oracle. Though ravens are chthonic messengers, aka psychopomps, in this scene they act like guardians and are ready to feast on the dead – the wights. They are carrion eaters after all. And in doing that they save Sam and Gilly and prevent the wights to escape or wreak any more havoc. Finally, the raven instructs Samwell to go.

In the second quoted scene, there are no ravens, but Osha explains how the Old Gods speak to him by rustling the leaves with wind. Notice too, how Osha here stands “across” the (cold, black) pool, beneath an oak (the tree worshipped by the Greeks), and stands in the shaodw. Both her position at the other side of a body of water and the shadow identify Osha as a chthonic charachter. She is like a dead person advizing Bran from the other side. She also proceeds to oracle to Bran, telling him that Robb is taking his bannermen the wrong way, to South of the Neck, and ought to take them North of the Wall.

The World Tree and the Well of Fate

There are some aspects of the heart tree that possibly cannot refer to Greek mythology since the Greeks had no world tree concept. A world tree is a collossal tree that supports creation, reaches into the heavens with its branches, while its roots make up the underworld and the trunk is like the earth’s axis. This motif can be found in Scandinavian, Slavic, Siberian, North and Meso-American mythology.² One of the best known world trees is the Scandinavian Yggdrasil of Norse mythology – an immense evergreen ash tree with three far reaching roots, each ending at a well, pool or lake with different purposes at distinct locations/worlds.

31. Three roots there are | that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel, | ‘neath the second the frost-giants,
‘Neath the last are the lands of men. (Poetic Edda, Grimnismol)

yggdrasils-roots

I will show that George RR Martin also puts weirwoods in different worlds and locations, as distinct in function as Norse mythology in does.

  1. Winterfell’s godswood and heart tree beside a pool with the crypts nearby.
  2. Bloodraven’s cave with an underground river rushing through a yawning chasm in a cold winterland where giants still roam.
  3. Hollow Hill in the Riverlands that does not feature a pool explicitly but is in the heart of the Riverlands with undead humans ruling.
  4. The Isle of Faces, an island, in the middle of a lake called the Gods Eye, in the Riverlands where greenmen guard a large grove of weirwood trees.
  5. A twisted, angry looking weirwood tree at Harrenhall.
  6. A weirwood tree in the Rock’s godswood that grew queer and twisted with tangled roots that have all but filled the cave where it stands, choking out all other growth.
  7. Three weirwood trees, known as the Three Singers, in Higharden’s lush green godswood whose branches have grown so entangled that they appear almost as a single tree with three trunks. Here too its branches reach over a tranquil pool.

The two main sources for Norse mythology both confirm and contradict each other about info on Yggdrasil’s roots. In the Ballad of Grimnir (Grimnismol) of the Poetic Edda – poems gathered in the 13th century from 10th century traditional sources, pre-dating the Christianization – it is said that underneath the three roots are the following worlds: Hel which lies in Niflheim, Jötunheimr (land of the frost-giants), and Midgard (world of men). The Prose Edda – written in the 13th century with the author Snorri Sturluson a Christian – agrees with Hel and Jötunheimr, but claims the third root to end in Asgard (land of the AEsir,  the gods), instead of Midgard. For the mythological connections in aSoIaF the disctinction matters less, because all locations are part of Westeros on Planetos, with mortal men. And regardless of their differences, both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda identify the same well or lake at either the Midgard or Asgard root: the Urdarbrunnr.

19. An ash I know, | Yggdrasil its name,
With water white | is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews | that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth’s well | does it ever grow.

20. Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the lake | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates. (Poetic Edda, Völuspá)

Three women reside at the Urdarbrunnr. They are Norns, the Germanic concept of the three Greek Fates. Norse mythology has more than three Norns, but only three live at the well – Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (debt or future). They spin threads of life, cut prphetic runes into wooden poles and measure the destinies of people and gods. Obviously their names make them the respresenatives of the past, present and future.

For this essay, especially Winterfell’s weirwood and pond location in relation to Norse mythology is of particular interest. Niflheim with Hel is the equivalent of the Greek Hades. It is a world of primordial ice and cold. That would seem to fit the North and Winterfell at a first glance. Niflheim means “mist world” or “mist home”, however, and  features nine rivers. On top of that it is ruled by a woman called Hel, nor does she have a consort. In short, there are a few too many references that do not make Winterfell match with Niflheim.

There are also too many inconsistencies for Winterfell to be located in Jötunheimr, where the frost giants live and the primordial Giinungagap (gaping chasm or yawning void) is located. The well at that root is is one of wisdom, and only a very few can drink from it in payment of a self-sacrifice. A barrier separates Jötunheimr from Asgard in order to keep the frost giants out. Westeros has a far better candidate than Winterfell to match with the root and well in Jötunheimr – namely Bloodraven’s cave.

This leaves only Midgard or Asgard at the Urdarbrunnr as a possible match for Winterfell. The Norse creation story claims there were only two worlds in the beginning – a world of ice (Niflheim) and a world of fire (Muspelheim). Where the two worlds met a creation steam formed, and all the other seven worlds were born from it. The unique hot springs of Winterfell and the name – winter fell – suggest Winterfell is the middle, rather than the extreme north. From that perspective it would match Midgard as a root location much better. After all, the Stark family and Winterfell are arguably also the main story (aside from Daenarys and Tyrion).

Meanwhile, the crypts and statues of Kings of Winter and Lords of Winterfell with swords in their laps can be said to resemble slain heroes in Valhalla of Asgard (hall of the slain/the fallen). Theon’s dream of the feast of the dead in Winterfell’s hall would add to that impression. The large Winterfell hall is full of noble guests, filled with music and laughter with wine and roast served by girls. In Valhalla the warriors drink mead, eat undefined meat dish³ and Valkyries serve it all.

That night he dreamed of the feast Ned Stark had thrown when King Robert came to Winterfell. The hall rang with music and laughter, though the cold winds were rising outside. At first it was all wine and roast meat, and Theon was making japes and eyeing the serving girls and having himself a fine time . . . (aCoK, Theon V)

Next, Theon notices the whole atmosphere growing dark and realizes he is feasting with the dead instead of the living. As in Hades, the dead still have their mortal wounds, the majority having died violently: Robert with his guts spilling out, a headless Eddard, decaying corpses, … The dead are described in a certain order related to time: first the present (from aGoT to aCoK), then the past (pre-aGoT) and finally the future (post-aCoK).

until he noticed that the room was growing darker. The music did not seem so jolly then; he heard discords and strange silences, and notes that hung in the air bleeding. Suddenly the wine turned bitter in his mouth, and when he looked up from his cup he saw that he was dining with the dead.

King Robert sat with his guts spilling out on the table from the great gash in his belly, and Lord Eddard was headless beside him. Corpses lined the benches below, grey-brown flesh sloughing off their bones as they raised their cups to toast, worms crawling in and out of the holes that were their eyes. He knew them, every one; … [snip]… and all the others who had ridden south to King’s Landing never to return. Mikken and Chayle sat together, one dripping blood and the other water…[snip]… even the wildling Theon had killed in the wolfswood the day he had saved Bran’s life.

But there were others with faces he had never known in life, faces he had seen only in stone. The slim, sad girl who wore a crown of pale blue roses and a white gown spattered with gore could only be Lyanna. Her brother Brandon stood beside her, and their father Lord Rickard just behind. Along the walls figures half-seen moved through the shadows, pale shades with long grim faces. The sight of them sent fear shivering through Theon sharp as a knife.

And finally Robb and Grey Wind enter the hall. When Theon has his dream, Robb is still in the Westerlands, most likely having just married Jeyne Westerling. Robb married her after taking her maidenhood when he had comfort-sex with her, grieving of the news that Theon had killed Bran and Rickon.

And then the tall doors opened with a crash, and a freezing gale blew down the hall, and Robb came walking out of the night. Grey Wind stalked beside, eyes burning, and man and wolf alike bled from half a hundred savage wounds. (aCoK, Theon V)

So we have the fallen and the slain feasting in a hall, heroes and heroines of the past, the present as well as arrivals of the future, which combines the concept of Valhalla with the three Fates, and thus the Yggdrasil root (underworld) location of the Urdarbrunnr at Asgard.

Alternatively, Highgarden’s godswood may fit the model too. The Reach seems pretty much the land of milk and honey, rich in food, drink and money. The name Highgarden would seem like a good alternative to a heavenly garden of the gods such as Asgard (garden of the gods). Its godswood too is said to have a pool, and the three weirwoods are called the Three Singers. This seems an allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth which includes Three Witches who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to power but also his downfall. They are alternatively known as the Weird Sisters. Many editions include a footnote to explain that at Shakespeare’s time the word weird was a different spelling of the Old English wyrd, but carried the same meaning – fate.

Consider the PIE root *wert- (to turn, rotate) and its different variations in European languages in the table below.

PIE root Old Norse Old English Old Saxon English Common Gemanic Old High German Dutch German
*wert- urdr wyrd wurd weird *wurdíz wurt worden werden

All these words encompass the meaning of “to come to pass, to become, to be due” and were used for the concept of fate. The Old English wyrd (fate) eventually developed into the modern English adjective weird. Its use develops in the 15th century to mean “having power to control fate”, for example in the name of the Weird Sister. The modern meaning as “odd, strange” is only first attested in 1815, but its usage is then still tied to the supernatural or portentious. It is not until the early 20th century that it is increasingly applied to everyday situations, although in fantasy literature and Frank Herbert’s Dune words such as wyrd and weird are often again associated with the supernatural and with divination powers.

Now, weird- or wyrd- is not exactly the same as weir- and a weir is a pre-existing word that is used to indicate either a type of dam or fishing trap, and anologies can be made how the weirwood trees trap Children of the Forest, Bloodraven, … But I think it is most likely that George derived weir- from weird. One reason is that weirdwood does not flow as easily in pronunciation as weirwood, and since George is not a linguist as Tolkien was, he simply dropped the consontant ‘d’. Let us not ignore that George Martin’s weirwood tree harks back to the fate concept in how it is used to watch events in Westeros from the past, the present and even the future. It is after all a ‘fate tree’.

“Once you have mastered your gifts, you may look where you will and see what the trees have seen, be it yesterday or last year or a thousand ages past. Men live their lives trapped in an eternal present, between the mists of memory and the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come. Certain moths live their whole lives in a day, yet to them that little span of time must seem as long as years and decades do to us. An oak may live three hundred years, a redwood tree three thousand. A weirwood will live forever if left undisturbed. To them seasons pass in the flutter of a moth’s wing, and past, present, and future are one…” (aDwD, Bran III)

In a way, any weirwood tree is a well to derive the fate of a person from, but in combination with a pool and three singers, that are weird wood, in a High Garden and fields of plenty we get the most evocative representations of Yggdrasil’s root at the Urdarbrunnr. The extra connection to a weir is a bonus.

It is quite possible that both Winterfell and Highgarden are Asgard root locations equally, as each other’s counterparts. This would fit the many other times Highgarden is set against Winterfell – Robert’s life speech, the roses, Renly thinking Margaery might look like Lyanna, Loras basically re-enacting joust mummery with his grey mare and blue forget-me-nots as stand-in for Lyanna. It is as if Highgarden and Winterfell are two sides of the thematical same coin.

Aside from the three Norns, the Urdarbrunnr is of significance in relation to the color of Yggdrasil’s bark and consequentionally to the weirwood tree. Yggdrasil’s bark is said to be white, as are weirwoods. But Yggdrasil is an ash tree and ash trees don’t have white stems. Norse mythology solved the issue by claiming that Yggdrasil was daily washed white with the white water and clay/lime of the Urdarbrunnr.

It is further said that these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter XVI)

Basically Yggdrasil is treated daily with a whitewash – a technique where wet lime is spread across house walls made of wattle mats to help isolate the dwelling. The three Norns throwing a mix of white water and clay across Yggdrasil’s stem refers to this technique of protection.

“Hold on a minute!” I hear you think. “The water of Winterfell’s pool is described as BLACK, not white.” Correct. The pool has the opposite color. But what is Ned doing under the wierwood tree, near the pool? He is washing the greatsword Ice with and in the water of the pool.

Catelyn found her husband beneath the weirwood, seated on a moss-covered stone. The greatsword Ice was across his lap, and he was cleaning the blade in those waters black as night. A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet, but the red eyes of the weirwood seemed to follow her as she came. “Ned,” she called softly. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

So, why would George not make the pool white colored? After all, the color white belongs to the chthonic lexicon as the color of bone and snow. The issue though would have been the double meaning of whitewashing: suppressing negative information or impression to make an act, person or group of people appear better than they are. By having Ned wash Ice in black water George avoids the visual metaphor of that meaning of whitewashing.

Finally you may wonder how I can reconcile Winterfell being both an underworld (especially Greek Hades) and the Norse Asgard and/or Midgard, especially when Niflheim is the Norse underworld of the dead and yet I rejected it as the possible referenced location for Winterfell. At a first glance the Norse division of realms gives the impression that only Niflheim is the Norse Underworld, as it is the place where the dead go, including dead gods like Baldr. But a treeroot is also chthonic in nature, and Yggdrasil’s roots end up in three different realms. At least one root locale does not compare to the classic idea of an “underworld” – namely the celestial Asgard. And yet it serves as a realm for the dead, since Freyja’s palace and Odin’s palace (Walhalla) at Asgard are the final destinations of dead warriors. The fact that the three Norse wells of the three different realms are found beneath the treeroots make them chthonic, regardless whether one root ends in the heavens and the other in a nether world.

As I mentioned, there are two more locations and roots with the Yggdrasil tree that can be strongly identified with the aforementioned godswoods or weirwood root locations. I will not go into these for the moment, however. I wish to save the most of Bloodraven’s cave for Bran’s Chthonic essay, and the Riverlands and Hollow Hill for Cat’s Chthonic voyage, so I will come back to it then.

Implication

If  Winterfell, the castle and the godswood, are features of aSoIaF’s symbolical underworld, then this has narrative implications – we actually start the books in the underworld already. The crypts acted as a portal to have underworld characters cross back into the realm of the living.

  • The Prologue: introduction to the Others on the prowl and how they defy the laws of nature by raising people from death as wights; basically wights and Others represent dead shades wishing to escape from the underworld.
  • Bran’s first chapter: introduction to the ruler of the underworld Ned Stark through the eyes of his son as he judges a deserter strictly by the letter of the law and dutifully executes his judgement himself without taking pleasure in it.
  • Cat’s first chapter: introduction to the wife of the ruler of the underworld, Catelyn Stark, and how she experiences living in the underworld, not being a native to it.
  • Ned’s first chapter: festive welcoming of visitors to the underworld, and a voyage into the portal crypts where the ruler of the underworld is invited to cross to the realm of the living by the king.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

In this essay I have shown that the godswood and Winterfell are described in a manner that we can identify them as being part of an underworld as much as the crypts are by using the chthonic lexicon that I started to build with the quotes of the previous two essays. We should regard Winterfell as a whole as an underworld.

Aside from the in-world preliminary lexicon, comparison to Greek and Norse chthonic mythology yields a ton of references for Winterfell’s godwood and Bloodraven’s cave. We find surprisingly accurate references in the books to several rivers of Hades: the black, cold pool and underground river of Bloodraven’s cave with the Lethe, and the hot springs with the Phlegethon and Styx. This makes Bloodraven’s cave the equivalent to the cave of the god of sleep, Hypnos. Likewise, we also find references to link Winterfell and its pool near the weirwood tree with the Norse Urdarbrunnr  (Ned Stark washing off blood from Ice) and Valhalla (Theon’s nightmare of the feasting dead of the past, present and future). These references underline how the North and region beyond the Wall are identifiable as a chthonic realm.

I also explored several features regarding the weirwood tree in relation to the Norse world tree Yggdrasil as well as, surprisingly, the Greek oak oracle at Dodona. I say, surprisingly, because the Greeks did not have a world tree concept nor ar they renowned for tree worship as the Celts were. But Osha’s belief  on how the Old Gods communicate, the ravens that flock to weirwoods and advize Samwell, together with the Illiad’s geographical reference of the Oracle of Dodona show that Greek mythology has been a major source contributing to George’s world building, along with the Germanic and Celtic idea of the three fates, the wyrd sisters.

Summary of chthonic locations

Mythological locations or features Function aSoIaF characters
Cave of Hypnos in Hades Home of the god of sleep Bloodraven’s cave
Lethe River or pool of forgetfulness in Hades, the dead drink of it to forget their life before death in order to be allowed to reincarnate, runs along Hypnos’ cave, creates drowsiness with its murmur Cold black pool of Winterfell’s godswood, underground river in Bloodraven’s cave
Phlegethon Lava stream (river of fire) in Hades. Joins with the Styx Underground cause of the hot springs at Winterfell
Styx Murky river of hatred on which the gods vow and do not break their word. Joins with the Phlegethon. Three hot pools of Winterfell
Oracle of Dodona A sacred grove in wintry Northern Greece, where priestesses, the Peleiades (‘flock of doves’), interpreted the rustling of the leaves of a sacred oak in the heart of the grove. Legend claims a black dove flew to Dodona and instructed people in human speech to build an oracle there. Weirwood heart tree in Winterfell’s godswood, heart tree in godswood of King’s Landing (oak).
Yggdrasil World tree in Norse myth. It is an evergreen ash tree, whitened by the daily whitewash applied from the Urdarbrunnr Weirnet, weirwood trees
Valhalla One of Odin’s halls where the selected slain feast and prepare for Ragnarok.The slain are those picked by Valkyries in battle. Winterfell’s hall and crypts per Theon’s nigthmare
Urdarbrunnr The well, pool or lake of the three main Norns covering past, present and future and determining the fate of men. One of Yggdrasil’s roots ends at the Urdarbrunnr. The three Norns are otherwise known as the weird or wyrd sisters in the English tradition. They pour water and lime from the well each day over the world tree, from which it gets it white color. Two different sources locate it either in Midgard or Asgard. A hall where the gods gather is built nearby. Cold, black pool in Winterfell’s godswood, beside the weirwood, in which Ned Stark cleans his greatsword Ice. The pool beside the Three Singers (three tangled weirwood trees) in Highgarden’s godswood.
Jötunheimr Realm of the frost giants Land North of the Wall, where the giants still live
Ginnungagap The ‘yawning void’ or ‘gaping abyss’ is a primordial void from which the Norse cosmos was born and that is located in Jötunheimr The ‘yawning chasm’ in Bloodraven’s cave where the underground river runs through in the darkness.
Mimisbrunnr Well of knowledge that lies beneath one of the three roots of Yggdrasil, for which the seeker must make a sacrifice in order to be allowed to drink from it. Located in Jötunheimr. Weirnet connected to weirwood grove at Bloodraven’s cave.

Notes

  1. Not only the Greeks thought the experience of being dead is like sleeping (and dreaming), but Alan Watts refers to this belief as well in one of his 20th century speeches.
  2. It is such a popular concept in early religions and mythologies that scholars proposed an evolutionary hypothesis to explain its origin. Primates originate from ancestors who lived in trees, and the majority of them still spend a large part of their lives in trees. Thus the idea of a vast tree being our whole world might still be present in our Jungian collective subconscious as either an instinct or archetype, just as much as it is a source of survival and wisdom as a tree of life.
  3. It sometimes is translated as boar meat, but the Old Norse words Sæhrímnir is difficult to translate. Some scholars make it out to be some soothy sea-animal dish. The beast’s name though is listed by Snorri in an appendix as a boar.