The Last Temptation of Lord Commander Snow, Part 1: Killing the Boy

George RR Martin is a master of immersing readers in thought-provoking internal conflict. Because GRRM believes that “the human heart in conflict with itself is only thing worth writing about,” his point of view characters undergo their most important development when they are at their most conflicted and confused. The beauty of GRRM’s writing is not that he writes charismatic heroes and loath-able villains—the beauty is that he blurs the line between who to love and who to hate and leaves us with more questions than answers about what is heroic and what is right.

The brooding Jon Snow’s tragic arc as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in A Dance with Dragons is a testament to how artfully George uses the human heart in conflict to not only make us empathize with his characters, but also to inspire cognitive dissonance in the reader. George portrays Jon Snow as a charismatic, attractive hero—he’s the son of the honorable Ned Stark and he saves the wildlings…and yet, he is also a liar and an oath-breaker, motivated by love and vengeance as much as by duty. In Dance, George illustrates this complex, contradictory and morally gray set of traits by putting Jon through series of increasingly difficult, borderline impossible challenges to his morality and leadership. Brilliantly, Jon’s melodramatic doubts about his own command invite us to wrestle with his challenges along side him, as this ending passage to Jon’s seventh chapter illustrates:

When Jon had been a boy at Winterfell, his hero had been the Young Dragon, the boy king who had conquered Dorne at the age of fourteen. Despite his bastard birth, or perhaps because of it, Jon Snow had dreamed of leading men to glory just as King Daeron had, of growing up to be a conqueror. Now he was a man grown and the Wall was his, yet all he had were doubts. He could not even seem to conquer those.

During his tenure as Lord Commander, Jon wades deeper and deeper in a series of questionable decisions that become more and more difficult for both Jon and the reader to rationalize. Jon’s crucible begins with compromising the traditional neutrality of the watch to aid Stannis, continues with dismissing his brothers’ concerns about allowing wildlings to cross the wall and the join the Watch, escalates with allying with Melisandre and Mance to save fArya, and ultimately culminates with ordering his brothers to rescue the wildlings at Hardhome while himself asking a Wildling host to march south with him to meet Ramsey Snow.

Unfortunately, nearly all of these events (and the internal turmoil that leads to them) are absent from the show’s adaptation of Jon. As a result, Jon becomes an unambiguous, naive good guy, instead of a flawed leader who wrestled with difficult decisions, proved willing to commit morally questionable deeds, and still ended up failing as lord commander. As BrydenBFish has persuasively argued, HBO whitewashed Jon by removing his support for Stannis and bumping Ramsey’s pink letter plot to after Jon’s resurrection. Thus, the show depicted Jon’s assassination as motivated primarily by his brothers’ objection to letting to the wildlings cross the wall, rather than leadership mistakes or oath breaking on Jon’s part.

Yet, understanding Jon as a leader and how he may ultimately murder Daenerys to save his sisters and the realm requires understanding how George R.R. Martin developed Jon’s character in Dance. Jon’s decision to kill Daenerys will likely be the pathetic result of his own mistakes rather than some sort of clear moral necessity. Not only does Jon’s questionable alliance with Stannis likely foreshadow his political relationship with Daenerys, but also, Dance cements that when duty and honor conflict with Jon’s love for his Stark family, Jon will eventually choose the Starks. Dance is a beautiful synthesis of Jon’s internal conflict between his allegiance to his family, his duty to the Night’s Watch, and his struggle to wield power wisely. These conflicts are explored in depth through the events that motivate the plotlines in Dance that the show erased: swapping Dalla’s boy with Gilly’s, providing military aid to Stannis, and using Melisandre’s power and Mance Rayder to search for Arya.

Each major leadership decision Jon makes in Dance is not only a test of the effectiveness of Jon’s command, but also an illustration of his moral priorities. Jon’s internal decision-making develops how he resolves conflicts between his allegiance and love for his family, his sense of duty to protect the realms of men as well as individual innocents, and his sense of honor as keeping faith with oaths, promises, and customs. Jon may not have Tully blood, but his ranking of family, duty, and honor certainly align with the values expressed by the Tully house words.

Ultimately, Jon fails as Lord Commander because he expects the watch to do what he cannot—put aside vengeance and personal bias to serve the realm. As Jon thinks to himself in Jon VII, “if he could not hold to his own vows, how could he expect more of his brothers?” Lord Commander Snow, like Lord Commander Mormont before him, has a fatal blind spot for the loyalty and honor of the Watch. What’s more, despite his introspection and brooding, Jon represses his own emotions and underestimates how much loneliness, love for family, and his need to protect innocence influence his decision making. Tragically, these flaws not only compound each other by making Jon appear hypocritical to his brothers, but also turn Jon’s best qualities—his selflessness, empathy, and visionary defiance of tradition in favor of duty—into the very weapons that will be sharpened against him.

Winterfell: An illustration of Jon’s moral priorities

To clarify, my goal is not to (1) add to the cacophony of voices proclaiming that the Thrones show is bad or (2) to argue that book! Jon Snow is a bad or immoral person. To the contrary, I think the Thrones show is often challenging and brilliant and Jon Snow’s story in Dance is my absolute favorite in ASOAIF so far. Instead, I want to use the show’s overemphasis on Jon’s good qualities to demonstrate why his flaws in Dance not only make him more human and compelling, but also highlight the brilliance of how GRRM has written his point of view to immerse us in his thoughts. So, hold on to your hats, you’re in for a lot of direct quotations.

The show depicts Jon as intensely honorable in the George Washington, I will not tell a lie sense, but Jon is more than willing break oaths and promises and engage in deception and lies if his lies serve the good of the realm or protect his family. Jon entire Qhorin-inspired arc with Ygritte and wildlings demonstrate that Jon is more than capable of nobly motivated lies, oath-breaking, and deception! Then, in Dance, is deliberately evasive with Stannis about Val, participates in Melisandre’s Mance-Rattleshirt deception to save fArya, and orchestrates the swap of Gilly and Dalla’s babies. Jon’s willingness to break promises and vows when a larger purpose is at stake—whether it be his duty to protect the realm, his love for his family, or his desire to protect an innocent life—is a central part of his character. Thus, the show’s choice to make truth-telling one of Jon’s most important values erases the moral difficulty and greyness of his decision making.

Jon’s reasons for Winterfell are an excellent example of his moral priorities. In the show, Jon rejects Stannis’ offer of Winterfell because “he swore a sacred vow.” But in first in Storm and then throughout Dance, Jon does not resist the temptation of Winterfell because he cares about keeping his vows to the Night’s Watch. Love for his family and his own personal morality—his faith in the old gods—are what holds him to his honor. Stannis tries over and over again to tempt Jon Snow to become Jon Stark, but in his own thoughts, Jon’s love and loyalty to Sansa, Ghost, and his Gods, not his external stated devotion to his vows—are what keeps Jon at the Wall. As Jon thinks in Storm XII, to claim Winterfell, he would have to tear the heart tree up by its ancient roots and “feed it to the red woman’s hungry fire god.”

I have no right…Winterfell belongs to the old gods.

(Storm of Swords, XII)

Throughout Dance, the Old Gods and his family are why Jon continues to draw a line at Winterfell, regardless of what he tells Stannis.

 Jon said, “Winterfell belongs to my sister Sansa.”

“It is not too late to amend your folly, Snow. Take a knee and swear that bastard sword to me, and rise as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.”

How many times will he make me say it? “My sword is sworn to the Night’s Watch.”

Stannis looked disgusted. “Your father was a stubborn man as well. Honor, he called it. Well, honor has its costs, as Lord Eddard learned to his sorrow.

(Jon IV)

Here, the reference to Eddard and Jon’s honor is ironic—because Ned, like Jon, is willing to sacrifice his personal honor for the sake of his family. While Jon tells Stannis that he is rejecting Winterfell because of his vows to the Night’s Watch—the reader, who has been in Jon’s head, knows better. Although it may be a “bastard’s sort of honor” that keeps Jon at the Wall, keeping that honor is not motivated by a stubborn devotion to vow-keeping as Stannis seems to believe.

As we will see throughout this essay, when Jon’s vows (or at least his brothers’ interpretation of those vows) conflict with Jon’s personal sense of duty or family allegiance, Jon will not stubbornly hold to his promises and he does not place a high value on how other people perceive his personal honor.

Kill the Boy: Jon’s view of leadership and power

Maester Aemon’s last piece of advice to Jon before he leaves the wall implores both Jon and the reader to consider the qualities of a good leader. How Jon chooses to interpret this advice will reveals a tremendous amount about Jon.

“Allow me to give my lord one last piece of counsel,” the old man had said, “the same counsel that I once gave my brother when we parted for the last time. He was three-and-thirty when the Great Council chose him to mount the Iron Throne. A man grown with sons of his own, yet in some ways still a boy. Egg had an innocence to him, a sweetness we all loved. Kill the boy within you, I told him the day I took ship for the Wall. It takes a man to rule. An Aegon, not an Egg. Kill the boy and let the man be born.” The old man felt Jon’s face. “You are half the age that Egg was, and your own burden is a crueler one, I fear. You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born.”

(Jon II)

Jon interprets Aemon’s advice as admonishing him to embrace stoicism, to isolate himself from his feelings and friendships. Of course, because Jon is a human—an exceptionally passionate and sensitive human, at that—and he fails miserably in this mission.

Jon reacts to Aemon’s advice by repressing his emotions and embracing fear as a tool of power while he parts Gilly from her child, showing that Jon believes that only boys are motivated by sentiment, while men coldly inspire others to obey with fear. When Jon tells Gilly that she must take Dalla’s boy with her to Old Town and leave her baby at the Wall, Jon tells her that if she fails to obey him, “The boy will still burn … and you with him” while thinking If I comfort her, she may think that tears can move me. She has to realize that I will not yield. To persuade her further, he commands her to stick her hand into a candle flame while thinking to himself Kill the boy. Certainly not Jon’s kindest moment.

Then, Jon’s decision to send Sam away and command him to be brave reveals that Jon also believes that to be a man he must prioritize his vows and duty to the Night’s Watch over his love for his family and affection for his friends.

Kill the boy, Jon thought. The boy in you, and the one in him. Kill the both of them, you bloody bastard. “You have no father. Only brothers. Only us. Your life belongs to the Night’s Watch…I can’t command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. (Jon II)

“[Y]ou have no father, only brothers” is as much Jon speaking to himself as it is to Sam. And Jon’s frustrated repetition of “kill the boy” and the addition of “you bloody bastard” reveal how hard it is for Jon to separate Aemon’s advice from his own shame and self-loathing. In himself and in Sam, any emotional connection to family is a weakness that must be killed. This view is heartbreaking, textbook toxic masculinity—Jon views his own emotions as weak and unmanly.

By Jon’s next chapter, he embraces killing the boy as a command to not only forget his family, but also end “childish” friendships that could compromise his ability to make difficult decisions.

He knew he had to eat, but it was company he craved, not food. A cup of wine with Maester Aemon, some quiet words with Sam, a few laughs with Pyp and Grenn and Toad. Aemon and Sam were gone, though, and his other friends.

No, he had to tell himself, those days are gone. The realization twisted in his belly like a knife. They had chosen him to rule. The Wall was his, and their lives were his as well. A lord may love the men that he commands, he could hear his lord father saying, but he cannot be a friend to them. One day he may need to sit in judgment on them, or send them forth to die.

(Jon III)

In the first half of Dance, and Part I of this essay, we will watch Jon struggle to wrestle with how his emotions, as well as his sense of duty to the realms of men, motivate the decisions he makes as Lord Commander. Paradoxically, the more Jon isolates himself in his attempt to be a man, the less objective and wise his leadership becomes as he loses the advice of trusted advisors and his understanding of the men he leads.

By the second half of Dance, Jon has warped Aemon’s advice in a way that amplifies his flaws rather than correcting them. Far from loving his Night’s Watch brothers, Jon treats them with distain first mentally and eventually verbally. In Part Two of this essay, I will explore how Jon embraces the more flawed elements of the brooding, Byronic hero archetype as he—to varying degree and effect—betrays a promise to his King (Stannis), his duty to his brothers in Watch, and finally his duty to realm.

Significantly for understanding Jon’s struggle to harmonize family, duty, and honor, Maester Aemon has given Jon two other important pieces of advice. The first and most famous is his “love is the death of duty” speech, which I cannot resist quoting here:

“Love is the bane of honor, the death of duty … What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms … or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”

(A Game of Thrones, Jon VIII)

This passage exemplifies how George perceives the human heart in conflict with itself—love is both glory and tragedy. Jon may need to kill the boy to rule and set aside love to follow his duty, but the siren call of love is not all bad. Indeed, in Dance, Aemon is motivated to leave the wall to seek out his own family—to find Daenerys and aid her! In the end, even wise old maester was not faithful to his own advice. Thus, as Jon struggles to find a place for love and family in his black, Lord Commander’s heart, we should do the same. George wants us to question:

  • Is it realistic to expect a human to set aside their love for their family when they join the Watch?
  • Is it realistic to expect a leader to remove emotions from their decision making? Even if it is realistic, is it desirable? When?
  • Can love motivate us to do our duty? Do you think Maester Aemon joined the watch more out of duty to the realm or out of love for his brother? Did Aemon—who regularly wrote to Rhaegar and left the wall to seek Daenerys—ever truly set aside his love for his family?

George presses us to consider whether or not leaders need to abandon connection and compassion to be good leaders. As Clydas reminds Jon when discussing Stannis:

“His Grace is not an easy man. Few are, who wear a crown. Many good men have been bad kings, Maester Aemon used to say, and some bad men have been good kings.”

(Jon III)

Aemon’s point may be that being a good man does not prevent us from doing monstrous things or from acting unwisely.

Aemon had demurred. “There is power in a king’s blood,” the old maester had warned, “and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this.” The king can be harsh and unforgiving, aye, but a babe still on the breast? Only a monster would give a living child to the flames.

(Jon I)

Yet, as Jon assumes command of the Watch, the question Aemon’s advice frames is whether Jon is a good person but a bad Lord Commander. Even if we trust Jon to make difficult, important, morally correct decisions—like allowing the wildlings past the wall—can he withstand the temptations and pressures of power? Does Jon act consistently with his own beliefs and principles?

The Night’s Watch Takes No Part: Challenges to Jon’s Neutrality, Objectivity, and Relationship with Power

On the surface, Jon’s internal conflict over the neutrality of the watch illustrates a conflict between the traditional neutrality of the watch and political realism. The way Stannis and Melisandre pressure Jon illustrates both the political tension between maintaining power through fear and maintaining power by love and Jon’s psychological response to these pressures. On one hand, Stannis reminds Jon that he owes him a debt for saving the Watch, and therefore, Jon should love him. On the other hand, Stannis threatens Jon that if he does demonstrate proper appreciation for his rule, he can kill him, so Jon should fear him! Thus, throughout Jon’s power struggle with Stannis, the reader is left questioning:

  • Can Jon truly be neutral if only one King has decided to aid the watch? Should he even try to be neutral?
  • If Jon refuses any aid to Stannis, will he simply be assassinated and replaced? Does Jon’s fear of Stannis blind him to his enemies within the Watch?

But Jon’s conflict is about more than negotiating competing promises or weighing his personal honor against the duty of the realm. Instead, Jon’s motivations are also bound up with his own personal biases, his psychological inability to think neutrally, and his sense of obligation. Jon is quite politically shrewd (when he wants to be) but his ability to be pragmatic is often compromised by his idealism and allegiance to his family. Jon’s own thoughts reveal that his (somewhat lukewarm) desire to adhere to Watch’s oath of neutrality conflicts with his family identity. Similarly, his repressed desire for vengeance for the Starks becomes bound up in his motives for wielding his power as Lord Commander.

The Paper Shield: Can Jon set aside vengeance in favor of neutrality?

Jon’s major internal conflict in Dance is very similar to primary internal conflict Game—can he truly set aside his love and loyalty for the Starks and embrace the neutrality of the Watch? From the very beginning of Dance, GRRM illustrates that Jon’s desire to aid Stannis is nearly inseparable from his desire to destroy the Lannisters:

“It’s death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn.”

In Jon II, we learn that both Sam and Aemon counseled Jon to send a raven bearing a paper shield to Tywin Lannister. The letter explains that the realm is in dire peril and even though the Watch is housing Stannis, they are not openly supporting his claim “Stannis Baratheon aids us against our foes from beyond the Wall, though we are not his men…”

But, internally, Jon does not want to send the letter to Tywin. And although Jon’s thoughts are not explicit about precisely why he objects to sending the letter, George illustrates that Jon is uncomfortable with neutrality toward the Lannisters. But advice from two people that he trusts—Sam and Aemon—are able to change Jon’s mind. Unfortunately for Jon, later in this chapter, he decides to send these two counselors away. Since Game, Sam and Aemon have helped Jon choose his Night’s Watch brothers over his allegiance to his Stark family.

Jon’s choice to send away the very people who not only helped him keep his oath in the past, but also just advised him on the importance of the watch’s appearance of neutrality, is an excellent example of a plot point that serves as both character development and foreshadowing. The paper shield scene reinforces an important element of Jon’s character: that Jon still needs to be reminded to prioritize the neutrality of the watch over his loyalty to the Starks. Because Jon then chooses to send Sam and Aemon away, after demonstrating that he needed their advice to make the “right” decisions, the scene also foreshadows Jon’s subsequent decisions undermining and ultimately abandoning the neutrality of the watch.

Thus, through Jon’s letter to Tywin, Jon’s arc in Dance opens with George asking the reader:

  • What will it take to make Jon abandon the neutrality of the watch?
  • What impact will sending away his two most trusted advisors have on Jon’s ability to lead the watch wisely?
  • Would Jon have sent the “paper shield” to Tywin if Sam and Aemon had not told him to?

Janos Slynt and Mance Rayder: Does Jon apply justice objectively?

Jon’s internal conflict between family allegiance and his duty of neutrality continues later in Jon II when Jon decides to execute Janos Slynt. Although Jon’s choice to kill Janos is also justified by Jon’s need to cement his authority as Lord Commander, his thinking about Janos is transparently colored by the Former City Watch Commander’s role in betraying Ned.

Jon slid the oilcloth down his bastard sword, watching the play of morning light across the ripples, thinking how easily the blade would slide through skin and fat and sinew to part Slynt’s ugly head from his body. All of a man’s crimes were wiped away when he took the black, and all of his allegiances as well, yet he found it hard to think of Janos Slynt as a brother. There is blood between us. This man helped slay my father and did his best to have me killed as well.

(Jon II)

Indeed, when Jon assigns Janos to command Greyguard and Janos initially refuses, Jon thinks I am giving you a chance, my lord. It is more than you ever gave my father.

Then, Jon’s decision behead Janos—rather than hang him—reinforces the thematic connection between Janos’ execution and Ned’s death. Not only was Ned ultimately beheaded, but Jon executes Janos in precisely the fashion that Ned had taught him. Jon’s thought—this is wrong—about executing Janos by hanging is directly inspired by Ned’s advice—he who passes the sentence must swing the sword. This leads Jon to personally behead Janos after hearing his last words. Thus, GRRM intentionally frames Jon’s decision to execute Janos as Stark justice.

So, George lets the reader consider several competing motivations for Jon to kill Janos.

  • Because he needed to be seen as a ruler—a man who inspires fear than a green boy?
  • Because there was “blood between” him and the man who helped kill his father?
  • Because, at the wall, the law means disobedience justifies death?
  • Because, in Jon’s opinion, Janos Slynt is dishonorable and deserves to die?

And thus, also invites us to evaluate the morality and wisdom of the decision.

  • Is Jon’s decision to kill Janos any more or less moral or just if it was motivated by justice as vengeance (for his family) rather than justice as duty (as the Lord Commander)?
  • Which of these potential motives—securing his power, obtaining vengeance, or doing his duty as Lord Commander are most important to Jon? If any of these motives were absent, would Jon have made the same decision?

Similarly, much like Jon’s thoughts about Janos’ execution, Jon’s opinions about Mance Rayder’s execution in the following chapter begin with Jon’s emotional reaction rather than reasoned thoughts about justice. Jon’s first thoughts about Mance in Jon III are cloaked in sympathy and affection. Jon considers how Mance’s limbs are left naked to the cold while Stannis marches him to be hanged and thinks They could have let him keep his cloak…the one the wildling woman patched with strips of crimson silk. Jon’s empathy for Mance is deep, as he observes “small wonder that the Wall was weeping.” And based on Jon’s near constant reflection that he knows nothing, we know that his thoughts about wildlings and wildling women are filled with his love for and grief over Ygritte.

Then, we learn that Jon continued to plead with Stannis for mercy for Mance by arguing that he will be useful to forge a political alliance with the wildlings and as a tool against the Others. But the reasons Jon gives Stannis for sparing Mance do not match the personal motivations we see in his own head. So again, George leaves us several competing motivations for Jon to advocate for Mance’s life:

  • Because Mance would be politically useful Stannis in securing the allegiance and love of the wildlings?
  • Because Mance would be useful in the fight against the others and help both Jon and Stannis do their duty to protect the realms of Men?
  • Because Mance is an honorable, good person who does not deserve to die?
  • Because Mance showed mercy and spared Jon’s life in the past and Jon feels personally indebted to him? Because Jon likes Mance views him as a friend?
  • Because watching Mance die would remind Jon of Ygritte’s death?
  • Which of these motives is most important to Jon? Does that change your view on whether or not Jon showing Mercy to Mance is the right thing?
  • Is Jon “lying” to Stannis by insisting his primary motives for wanting to save Mance are based in politics and duty?

By placing Mance’s execution immediately after Janos’, George also invites the reader to compare Jon’s reactions to the two events.

  • In Jon’s view, why does Mance deserve mercy and Janos death? Aren’t they both turncloaks?
  • Why might Stannis and the Men of the Night’s watch disagree with Jon?
  • Is there “blood between” Mance and the brothers of the Night’s Watch in the same way that there is blood between Janos and Jon?
  • Is Jon succeeding at “killing the boy” when he makes these decisions?

Swords are swords: How does power tempt and influence Jon away from neutrality?

Jon’s struggles with the neutrality of the watch and his obligation, loyalty, and indebtedness to Stannis are vital to understanding how Jon responds to other leaders. Thus, Jon’s interactions with Stannis help to both develop and foreshadow what Jon’s motives may be for supporting, loving, and ultimately betraying Daenerys.

In Jon’s first chapter in Dance, Stannis demands that Jon sign a grant ceding him more castles on the wall—remember at this point in the books Jon has already given Stannis the Nightfort—to grant to lords loyal to Stannis who will apparently ensure the castles are manned with men willing to defend the realm. Jon refuses, replying that Stannis asks too much and that, politically, it’s a terrible plan. Stannis responds by throwing Jon’s rejection of Winterfell back in his face:

“It is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace.”

“Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?”

“If Your Grace wishes to lose all of my lord father’s bannermen, there is no more certain way than by giving northern halls to southron lords.”

“How can I lose men I do not have? I had hoped to bestow Winterfell on a northman, you may recall. A son of Eddard Stark. He threw my offer in my face.” Stannis Baratheon with a grievance was like a mastiff with a bone; he gnawed it down to splinters.

“By right Winterfell should go to my sister Sansa…Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn.”

(Jon I)

As Stannis continues to pressure, Jon reveals his own conflict,

“In times as confused as these, even men of honor must wonder where their duty lies.”

Then Melisandre stresses that Jon owes something to Stannis:

Lady Melisandre stirred. “Tell me, Lord Snow … where were these other kings when the wild people stormed your Wall?”

“A thousand leagues away and deaf to our need,” Jon replied. “I have not forgotten that, my lady. Nor will I.”

(Jon I)

And Stannis reminds Jon that:

“You are only lord commander by my sufferance. You would do well to remember that.”

Finally, as Stannis and Melisandre continue to pressure him, Jon resorts to his oath:

“The Night’s Watch built those castles …”

“And the Night’s Watch abandoned them.”

“… to defend the Wall,” Jon finished stubbornly, “not as seats for southron lords. The stones of those forts are mortared with the blood and bones of my brothers, long dead. I cannot give them to you.”

“Cannot or will not?” The cords in the king’s neck stood out sharp as swords. “I offered you a name.”

“I have a name, Your Grace.”

“Snow. Was ever a name more ill-omened?” Stannis touched his sword hilt. “Just who do you imagine that you are?”

“The watcher on the walls. The sword in the darkness.”

This interplay establishes several things about the relationship between Jon and Stannis. First, Jon’s first impulse is to reject Stannis’ request for more castles for political reasons—the North would never accept granting lands to Southern lords to manning castles on the wall. Jon’s political instincts here, as they will be later, are likely correct and establish that Jon is shrewd about Northern politics—at least when he wants to be. But they also reveal that Jon’s first instinct is not emphasize the honor and oaths of the Watch, but to act as Stannis’ ally and advisor. This is in line with Jon’s motivations for rejecting Winterfell—his loyalty to the old gods rather than his loyalty to the Watch—as well as the difficulty that Jon has sending Tywin the paper shield avowing the Watch’s neutrality in Jon II.

Next, Stannis and Melisandre use their power to influence Jon by invoking debt and fear. They both remind Jon that he should feel obligated to back Stannis because he was the only king willing to defend the realm from the wildlings. And then Stannis emphasizes that he could chose to remove or execute Jon at will. While Jon appears unmoved by either of these appeals at the time, in later chapters, Jon will not only reflect on both his sense of obligation to Stannis and Stannis’ threats to execute him, but also consider how fear and obligation are tools Jon can personally wield to obtain his own goals. For example, the final element of Jon’s execution of Janos is Stannis’ nod of approval. Throughout Dance, Jon learns from Stannis that fear is a component of power. This not only reveals that Jon believes fear is a legitimate tool, but also lays the foundation for how Jon is likely to understand Daenerys’ fire and blood style of leadership.

Finally, in Jon I, Lord Snow rebuffs Stannis by relying on his duty to defend to the wall and uphold his oaths to the watch. Significantly, this also interchange reveals what appears to be Jon’s true objection to granting castles on the wall to Stannis—that the purpose of the castles is to defend the wall, rather than serve as seats for Southern Lords. Later in Dance, though, Jon will use wildlings to man and defend the castles on the wall—even though he observes to Stannis here that granting lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn would be a political folly. Thus, this discussion raises significant questions about Jon’s motivations for aiding Stannis by granting him the Nightfort, while simultaneously rejecting the offer of Winterfell and Stannis’ plea to grant him more castles on the Wall:

  • Why does Jon think ceding castles on the wall to Stannis violates his duty to the watch but later think it is okay man those same castles wildlings? Is the distinction Jon draws morally meaningful? Politically meaningful?
  • Why does Jon later disregard his own wisdom about the optics of using granting castles and lands the Magnar of Thenn? Of manning forts mortared with the blood of his brothers to the former enemies of the watch? Why? Even if Jon was correct to do so, what would the Jon who gave Stannis advice in this chapter have to say about the risks of this strategy?
  • How and why does the position Jon takes toward Stannis in this chapter change throughout Dance?
  • Are Stannis or Melisandre ultimately successful in using fear and obligation to motivate Jon to do what they want him to? In what ways?
  • Does Jon believe the neutrality of the Watch is an important principle standing alone? Or does Jon only find that the Watch’s neutrality is important in situations where it helps the watch defend the realm?

By the time Stannis leaves the Wall to take up his part in the game of thrones at the end of Jon IV, Jon’s view on the neutrality of the Watch has become more…flexible. When Stannis openly requests political advice concerning Mors Umber at the beginning of the chapter, Jon thinks:

The Night’s Watch takes no part, Jon thought, but another voice within him said, Words are not swords.

And eventually, after giving significant military advice to Stannis all the while repeating internally that the Night’s Watch takes no part and that Baratheon and Bolton should be the same to me, Jon gives in:

He means to plunder our armory, Jon realized. Food and clothing, land and castles, now weapons. He draws me in deeper every day. Words might not be swords, but swords were swords. “I could find three hundred spears,” he said, reluctantly. “Helms as well, if you’ll take them old and dinted and red with rust.”

Internally, Jon gives up trying to rationalize his decision to arm Stannis. His thoughts reveal that his sense of obligation and allegiance to Stannis draw him in deeper every day. Indeed, as Jon warned himself in his first chapter in Dance, “The more you give a king, the more he wants.” Thematically, Jon’s indebtness to Stannis is also re-enforced by Iron Bank’s presence at the Wall and its connection with Stannis. Psychologically, Jon’s behavior is a brilliant illustration of irrational escalation of commitment or the sunk-cost fallacy—despite new evidence about the cost of supporting Stannis (blatantly violating the neutrality of the Watch), Jon continues to make decisions that align with his previous commitments, even when he realizes there difference between offering words and offering swords.

Eventually, Jon’s strategic advice to Stannis becomes bound up with his desire to save the wildlings. Again, Jon outwardly frames his comments to Stannis as political counsel—telling Stannis to leave the wildlings at the wall because marching them south would be a political mistake:

“Your Grace, leave the wildlings here. Taking them will only serve to turn my lord father’s bannermen against you.”

But his internally, his thoughts belie a different motive:

If Stannis placed the free folk in the van, most would perish quickly.

The Night’s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. “Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how.”

“I gave you Rattleshirt. Be content with him.”

“I want them all.”

“Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself. Is it true?”

“To you they are only arrow fodder. I can make better use of them upon the Wall. Give them to me to do with as I will, and I’ll show you where to find your victory … and men as well.”

Jon then advises Stannis to ally with the Mountain Clans and attack Deepwood Motte. Trading a starving wildling host of dubious loyalty for military intelligence is a great deal for Stannis—Jon gives Stannis a route to victory over the Ironborn and path to winning the loyalty of the North.

Unfortunately, the bargain feels like a terrible deal for the Watch, who are left with very little apparent upside. As Jon thinks, And I will have a thousand wildlings…and no way to feed even half that number. Although we learn later that Jon plans to use able bodied wildlings to augment the strength of the Watch, that rationalization of this choice appears nowhere in Jon’s thoughts in this chapter. Further, we also learn that Jon is already driving the Watch into debt with the Iron Bank to feed itself through Winter. So, once more, Jon’s motives leave the reader with questions:

  • Is appropriate for Jon, as Lord Commander of the Watch, to trade political advice to Stannis in return for the wildlings? Is the Watch better off with this group of wildlings—who have already crossed the Wall—under the Watch’s care than under Stannis’?
  • When striking this bargain with Stannis, is Jon motivated more by his desire to strengthen the watch or more by his desire to protect the wildlings? If Jon’s choice is motivated primarily by a desire to protect the wildlings, is it treasonous because it conflicts with his duty to feed and protect the watch?
  • If marching wildlings south would turn Northerners against Stannis, why would making “better use of them upon the wall” have a better result for Jon? Why doesn’t Jon consider how his brothers will react to keeping wildlings at the Wall?
  • Why does Jon ignore Stannis’ questioning, “Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself”? Is Stannis’ questioning Jon’s loyalty to the Watch or merely the optics of Jon’s choice? Does Stannis care?
  • Is there either a strategic or duty-centered difference between absorbing wildlings who have already crossed the wall—who will not be raised into the army of the dead—and absorbing Tormund’s wildling host or rescuing the wildlings at Hardhome?

A Sword without a Hilt: the Temptations of Power and Love

Mance for Arya: What price will Jon pay for the power to save the people he loves?

Melisandre manipulates Jon’s emotions much more effectively than Stannis by offering him a way to protect his family, rather a chance to claim to the power of Winterfell for himself. Although Jon desires power, he wants to wield it purely and his desire for Winterfell is complicated by his guilt: Winterfell belongs to his Stark family and he is not a Stark. Thus, when Jon eventually accepts the power offered by Melisandre, we learn he believes protecting his family, and in particular his innocent sister, is worth the cost to his morality. Thus, Jon accepts Melisandre’s offer to send Mance for Arya, even though it involves him in Melisandre’s lies and deception.

Significantly, the show never poses forces this dilemma on Jon or even portrays him as willingly accepting help from Melisandre. But, agreeing to send Mance to rescue fArya is one of Jon’s most morally ambiguous acts as Lord Commander and it demonstrates that Jon is willing give in to the temptation to use both Melisandre’s power and his own.

Jon’s desire to rescue fArya is the ultimate crucible for his conflict between duty to the Watch and family allegiance. Jon recognizes that he has put his sisters aside to become a brother of the night’s watch, but the very thought makes him feel guilty. He views his vows as a poison.

“I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you.” Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton’s throat as easily.

Dark dreams, he thought, and guilt. His thoughts kept returning to Arya. There is no way I can help her. I put all kin aside when I said my words. If one of my men told me his sister was in peril, I would tell him that was no concern of his. Once a man had said the words his blood was black. Black as a bastard’s heart.

(Jon VI) 

Melisandre’s success in placing Jon in her debt by sending Mance for fArya, demonstrates that Melisandre understands how to manipulate Jon—by using Jon’s affection for his family to tempt Jon with her power and his own.

“I have no sister.” The words were knives. What do you know of my heart, priestess? What do you know of my sister? (Jon VI)

Melisandre knows Jon’s heart and that it cares for family more than his vows. She suspects that Jon will use her power to find Arya, and therefore drive Jon into her debt. She thinks, that much like with Stannis, He does not love me, will never love me, but he will make use of me. Well and good.

What’s more, by making Jon choosing his human heart over his black-hearted vows, Melisandre encourages Jon to step further and further away from political neutrality by taking action and embracing power.

She knelt and scratched Ghost behind his ear. “Your Wall is a queer place, but there is power here, if you will use it. Power in you, and in this beast. You resist it, and that is your mistake. Embrace it. Use it.”

I am not a wolf, he thought. “And how would I do that?”

When she suggests their, uh sexual joining as a route to power, unlike in the show, Jon does not outright reject her out of honor, a desire to keep his vows, or love for Ygritte. Instead, he is tempted by her offer of power.

He turned back to the red priest-ess. Jon could feel her warmth. She has power. The thought came unbidden, seizing him with iron teeth, but this was not a woman he cared to be indebted to, not even for his little sister.

And while, in the moment, Jon rejects Melisandre’s magical, sexual proposition, he will eventually give in to her power. The exchange where he rejects Melisandre goes down like this, with Jon rejecting Melisandre’s offer out of caution rather than morality:

“Dalla told me something once. Val’s sister, Mance Rayder’s wife. She said that sorcery was a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”

“A sword without a hilt is still a sword, though, and a sword is a fine thing to have when foes are all about.”

(Jon VI)

But, by Jon VIII when Val reminds Jon of Dalla’s advice, after Jon has made the decision to secretly send Mance to save fArya, he has changed his mind and come to agree with Melisandre’s perspective.

A sword without a hilt, with no safe way to hold it. But Melisandre had the right of it. Even a sword without a hilt is better than an empty hand when foes are all around you. (Jon VIII)

Symbolically, this shift in mentality is tied to Jon’s death—Jon cannot defend himself from the foes all about him during the Watch’s attempt on his life because he literally cannot grasp with own sword.

Indeed, internally in Jon IX, we see Jon has retroactively justified his decision to put himself and watch in debt to the Iron Bank out of necessity. Whatever moral qualms Jon may have had about accepting aid from Melisandre, Stannis, or the Iron Bank at the beginning of Dance, Jon has set them aside.

A long hard winter will leave the Watch so deep in debt that we will never climb out, Jon reminded himself, but when the choice is debt or death, best borrow.

Because Jon’s decision to send Mance to rescue fArya happens in Melisandre’s POV chapter, rather than in one of Jon’s, George leaves Jon’s exact logic and motivations ambiguous. Melisandre, for example, thinks that loosing Mance on the North to save Jon’s sister is consistent with Jon keeping his vows—but its unclear whether Jon is as clear on the matter. Naturally, that provides fertile ground for questioning Jon’s decision making.

  • In the moment, how do you think Jon rationalized this decision? How does that affect your view of his moral priorities? How does it foreshadow the decision he makes after he receives the Pink Letter?
  • How much is Jon’s decision influenced by the secrecy of this arrangement? If Jon announced this decision openly to the Watch, would there have been instant mutiny? Was he right to do it anyway?
  • Which decision is more problematic for Jon’s faithfully executing his duties Lord Commander—giving swords and advice to Stannis or accepting Melisandre’s help to secretly send the supposedly dead King Beyond the Wall to save the sister he supposedly doesn’t have? Which act do you think more directly influences Bowen Marsh’s decision to assassinate him?
  • Does the Pink Letter letter demonstrate that Jon was wrong to disregard Dalla’s advice? Was there actually no safe way to use Mance to rescue Arya or to accept aid from Melisandre?
  • Jon’s mental image of Arya as innocent and in need of protection is deeply ironic given that she is training to be a faceless man simultaneously with this chapter. How does this irony affect your perception of Jon’s decision making and his feeling about Arya? Does it make seem naïve? Paternalistic?

Alys Karstark: What customs or obligations will Jon set aside to protect an innocent?

Jon’s choice to wed Alys Karstark to the Magnar of Thenn at the wall is another important illustration of Jon’s reasoning based on an event entirely absent from the show. In Dance, Alys is the penultimate temptation for Jon’s outward neutrality as Lord Commander—an innocent girl in need of protection who reminds him of Arya. However noble Jon’s intentions, orchestrating and hosting a wedding between a wildling leader and a noble northern girl seeking a strange form of political asylum at the wall—officiated by the red priestess/mistress of the declarant King you’re accused of being too friendly with—is a deeply questionable choice. Wedding Alys to the Magnar doesn’t feel related to guarding the realms of men and is too easily explained by Jon’s apparent willingness to take part in the wars of men.

With a line reminiscent of Leia’s immortal message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alys arrives at the wall and makes a plea that Jon Snow cannot resist:

“You are my only hope, Lord Snow. In your father’s name, I beg you. Protect me.”

Not only does Alys tugs at Jon’s heart strings by invoking Ned Stark in her request for protection, but she arrives while Jon is pinning for his little sister and does not fail to remind him of Arya. Trust me when I say this are only three of the many times that Jon thinks of Arya while looking at Alys:

The girl smiled in a way that reminded Jon so much of his little sister that it almost broke is heart… (Jon X)

She does look a bit like Arya, Jon thought. Starved and skinny, but her hair’s the same color, and her eyes. (Jon IX)

She rubbed away a tear angrily, the way Arya might have done it. (Jon IX)

Yet, as Jon orchestrates the political marriage between Alys and the Magnar of Thenn, Jon hears other members of the Watch imply that the wedding does not feel consistent with the Watch’s vows.

Hobb had come to him two nights ago complaining that he’d joined the Night’s Watch to kill wildlings, not to cook for them. “Besides, I never done no wedding feast, m’lord. Black brothers don’t never take no wifes. It’s in the bloody vows, I swear ’tis.”

(Jon X)

Even armed with this knowledge, Jon continues to internally cling to the political neutrality of the Watch and tell himself that he has not already crossed the line towards taking part:

I should make his head a wedding gift for Lady Alys and her Magnar, Jon thought, but dare not take the risk. The Night’s Watch took no part in the quarrels of the realm; some would say he had already given Stannis too much help. Behead this fool, and they will claim I am killing northmen to give their lands to wildlings.

(Jon X)

It is hard to reread these chapters without wanting to throttle Jon for being so willfully blind to how the watch perceives him given that his own thoughts reveal that understands the political problems posed by the wildlings. Alys’ wedding is the culmination of Jon’s emotional motivations—his love for Arya, his longing to be with Ygritte, and his need to protect innocence driving his empathy for Alys—and his choice to embrace his own power in service of both politics and his Stark family. The biggest question posed by Jon’s choice here is why did he think the Watch would go along with this wedding? But George also uses Alys to show how Jon projects his desire to preserve Arya’s innocence on to others, leaving us with the following questions:

  • Would Jon have treat Alys the same way if he has not already made the decision to send Mance for Arya? How would Sam and Maester Aemon have Jon counseled if they were present at the Wall?
  • How, if at all, is Jon’s decision to orchestrate this marriage justified by the interests of the Watch? Where does the line between Jon Snow, the individual, and Lord Snow the Commander begin and end?
  • Does Jon view protecting innocents as his duty? As a necessary component of honor? Does actually protect innocents out of love or out of obligation? Do these distinctions matter?

That’s it for Part I!

Part II will pick up with Jon’s bargain with the Wildings at Mole’s Town and use the Byronic Hero archetype to explore how Jon’s character flaws affect his moral reasoning and leadership choices and ultimately lead him to betray the Stannis, his sworn brothers, and his duty to the realm.

Dark Sweet Secrets: Unmasking the Magic of the Faceless Men

Featured Image: The House of Black and White by Sebastian Kowoll 

The House of Black and White is an embarrassment of magical riches. Let’s take a quick inventory as we embark on imaginary tour that feels a bit like an internet RPG circa 1998. If you will, please keep your hands inside the litter and pay close attention that any item that appears like it could be a magical artifact.

Level One

First, you enter through an enchanted weirwood and ebony door.House_of_Black_and_White

As you enter, you’re greeted by inviting, comforting scents. You notice that they waft from tallow candles with flickering with red flames.

The candles surround a still black pool. As you silently observe the scene, you notice that solemn people surround the pool, with their knees bent in prayer. Some scoop the water from the pool into a black cup, and after they drink from it they appear to wander off and die.

Some of the dying, praying people stumble into alcoves where they lay down on dreaming couches which, you’re told, give them pleasant dreams as they drift into eternal slumber.

Level Two 

Braavos_House_of_Black_and_White_5x06_(2)Congratulations. You’ve been promoted to acolyte!

You spend most of your days washing dead bodies and on the more interesting ones, you deliver the bodies to the sanctum that lies deep under the city, past twisting tunnel full of bones and darkness. When arrive, you are greeted by never-ending walls of disembodied faces, watching you.

 

Pretty creepy tour, if you ask me. One by one, we are going to explore all these artifacts, as well as the deeper mysteries of the sanctum, all the while using what we learn to ask some hard questions.

Let’s recall my basic argument all the way back from Part 1—the Faceless Men are collectors of magic. The major sources of magic in ASOIAF are Children of the Forest’s Green Magic and Valyrian era fire and blood magic. Below we will be looking for clues that connect what we find in the House of Black and White to these kinds magic and to help potentially explain how the magic works. I am going to pose a lot of questions as food for thought where I feel there are no clear answers and also draw conclusions where warranted. We are steeped deep in magical theory at this point, so my goal is for us to think creatively together and work through what is plausible, possible, and likely.

The Hall of Faces: Our Spells are Sharp

Arya’s introduction to the Hall of Faces is one of my favorite horror passages in all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

A thousand faces were gazing down on her.

Masks, she told herself, its only masks, but even as she thought the thought, she knew it wasn’t so. They were skins.

The empty eyeholes of the skins upon the walls seemed to follow her. For a moment, she could almost see their lips moving, whispering dark sweet secrets to one another in words too faint to hear.

The Blind Girl, A Dance With Dragons 

Not only are whispering skins are extraordinarily creepy, I love this passage because it is so uncertain to both Arya and the reader what is going on. As we talked about earlier in the essay series, dead heads whispering secrets is a common theme throughout the novels even when there is nothing magical a foot. Here, while I think Arya is right that faces are more like actual skins preserved somehow, rather than carved masks, it seems unlikely that the skins are actually conscious and talking to each other. But, can you blame a girl for having a little imagination? A girl is Arya Stark, the skinchanger, afterall.

In this part, we are going examine clues from the Kindly Man and Melisandre about how the magic of the faces works and then use those clues as our template for a close reading of the face-changing scene itself, and finally review the evidence to make an educated guess about how the Faceless Men save faces—actually. A lot of what I will be doing is putting forth a variety of specific ideas about how certain magical artifacts may work and then pointing out what conclusions we can draw the most strongly.

(1) Deeper than Shadow, More Solid than Bones

GRRM goes out of his way to tell us what faceless man magic is not. The Kindly Man tells Arya explicitly here:

Mummers change their faces with artifice and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye. These arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as the face you were born with. Keep your eyes closed…Stay still.

The Blind Girl, A Dance With Dragons

Now here is how Melisandre describes a strong glamor:

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

Melisandre, A Dance with Dragons

These passages give us a surprising amount of information about how supposedly different magics work. It is not by mistake that these chapters appear in the same book—by the time we have reached the close of ADWD, George is deliberately drawing connections between different kinds of magic and helping signal the importance of magic to the final act of the story. Let’s draw a couple conclusions.

First, Glamors Weave Light & Shadow.

Both Melisandre and the Kindly Man describe glamors as weaving light and shadow. Remember that Bloodstone and seastone can “drink the light,” a property that might be pretty darn exciting to someone looking to cast a strong glamor.

Second, the Strongest Glamors are built of bones.

Like the North and the trees, the Bones Remember. Parts of people or things they owned are vessels for their spirit and seeming. Recall, this is key to Melisandre’s glamor with Rattleshirt.

Third, the Faces are True and Solid and Very Expensive.

I don’t think the book leaves much room to doubt that Arya is physically donning another person’s face when she becomes the Ugly Little Girl. As far we know, this particular magic is unique to the Faceless Men. We are about to explore the “face donning” scene in more depth, but let’s set the last elements of the stage.

We know all magic has a cost. Melisandre’s ruby burns her when Rattleshirt burns Melisandre flamesin her fire and GRRM takes care to have her mention “how much it cost her.” If the magic the Faceless Men weave here goes deeper than glamors and gives Arya a new face, “as true and solid” the one she was born with, face-swapping is some damn costly magic.

And it is the real deal. Just like Melisandre, I think the Faceless Men rely on glamors and artifice when they can, but they also rely on real sources of magical power.

(2) A Close Reading of Face Swapping

What follows is a close reading and analysis of Arya’s face-swapping scene. As we read, it becomes apparent that wearing a false face requires a blood and soul sacrifice and donning a false face awakens the memories of the dead. If you have your copy of Dance, now would be great time to grab it, turn to the Ugly Little Girl Chapter, and read along.

First, a line about a price.

“This will hurt…but pain is the price of power.”

So, this price idea is somewhat self-explanatory and I’ve just mentioned it, however, the message is repeated often throughout the House of the Black and White. For example, the man with bleeding eyes (side note: non-subtle weirwood symbolism) —one of the Faceless Men who sits on the order’s council—has this memorable line for Arya,

“You will be the very goddess of humility, I am sure. But can you pay the price?”

Also, although pain is one of the prices of power, it is likely not the only one. Here, the relevant price is more likely losing your own identify. Recall how often the Faceless Men tell Arya that she must become no one. After we read the full passage, we will return to analyze this price.

But first, a mythological digression. In ancient Greece, there was a goddess of shame and humility named Aidos. She frequently traveled with Nemesis, the daughter of the night and goddess of retribution for evil deeds and dispenser of dues. Nemesis, the mythological other half of Aidos, has a lot in common with the vengeful Arya and her list of evil doers—something we will discuss in an upcoming essay analyzing Arya. For now, consider the tension between humility and vengeance, and ask yourself if Arya ever thinks through the cost of the magic she accepts. Hint: I doubt it.

Second, A cut and curtain of blood

This next part is packed so let’s read it through and then take it line by line.

Still as stone. She sat unmoving. The cut was quick, the blade sharp. By rights, the metal should have felt cold against her flesh, but it felt warm instead. She could feel the blood washing down her face, a rippling red curtain, falling across her brow and cheeks and chin, and she understood why the priest had made her close her eyes. When it reached her lips, the taste was salt and copper. She licked at it and shivered.

Recall that still as stone is one of Arya’s mantras in the Temple. The Kindly man first tells her “you must stand as still as if you had been carved of stone.” She repeats “still as stone” and “I am carved of stone” to herself when playing the lying game and acting as a cup-bearer for the men of the order. Perhaps, this is what she has trained her stone face for.

Arya then describes a single, quick cut made near what must be the top of her face—notice how the blood washes down her face from brow to chin. To me, this evokes a straight line so I do not read this as single, circular cut removing her entire face.

We also get the description of the blade as warm, rather than either cool or hot. We also do not know what kind of blade is used – Arya’s eyes are closed, so we never see the instrument – but the text does describe the blade as metal. As sensory imagery, the warmth of the blade evokes blood and life so the most direct implication is the Kindly Man is using a magical process and the heat of the blade seems to imply fire magic.

So, yeah that’s a lot of blood, dripping from her brow all the way down to her chin – again implying that the blood is dripping from the top of her face. She describes “a curtain of blood washing” across her face. Here, George’s use of the word washing evokes a ritual cleansing with blood. And the use of the word curtain implies not only waves and movement, but also Arya’s face, hidden behind a curtain of blood.

Finally, Arya tasting blood mirrors the last image that we have of Bran. Bran lays down and dreams on a stone bed in Bloodraven’s cave and “as his life flowed out of him in a red tide, Brandon Stark could taste the blood.” Then, despite her warm blood and the warm blade, Arya shivers.

Third, A tug and a rustle

Then came a tug and a soft rustling as the new face was pulled down over the old.

First, “soft rustling” reminds us of leaves. And rustling is one of the words Bloodraven uses to describe what it would sound like if Bran tried to speak through a weirwood tree. Rustling is a magic word, so to speak.

Second, the text says the new face was “pulled down over the old.” Again, this is telling us the new face is placed over the top of Arya’s own face.

Fourth, Soaked with blood

The leather scraped across her brow, dry and stiff, but as her blood soaked into it, it soften and turned supple.

So the face placed on Arya feels like “dry and stiff leather” that is softening and transforming into a “true, solid” face as Arya’s blood soaks into it. Her blood is awaking or quickening the face the she dons. Let me state the obvious: this is blood magic. Arya gives the face her blood and it quickens.

Finally, Bad Memories

Her cheeks grew warm, flushed. She could feel her heart fluttering beneath her breast, and for one long moment she could not catch her breath. Hands closed her throat, hard as stone, choking her. Her own hands shot up to claw at the arms of her attacker, but there was no one there. A terrible sense of fear filled her, and she heard a noise, a hideous crunching noise, accompanied by blinding pain. A face floated in front of her, fat, beared, brutal, his mouth twisted with rage. She heard the priest say, “Breathe, child. Breathe out the fear. He is dead. She is dead. Her pain is gone, breathe.”

As if it wasn’t creepy enough that Arya is putting on a dead person’s face that revitalizes itself with an offering of her blood, the face is somehow imprinted with the memories of the deceased. As Arya dons the face, she remembers or relives the trauma of the Ugly Little Girl. Then, the Kindly Man tells her,

“You may have bad dreams from time to time. Her father beat her so often and so brutally that she was never truly free of pain or fear until she came to us.”

Lovely.

So, what is going here? Somehow the face not only remains “true and solid” for who- knows-how-long after the girl’s death, but it is also a vessel for some of her memories. Specifically it seems, memories of her pain and fear. Shout out to @ThisGrayArea on Twitter, who perfectly described the face as a “haunted skin.”

Note that this stands in contrast to what we know about glamors, which so far as we know, (1) do not create an exchange or transference of memory and emotion and (2) are not “true and solid” but instead made of light and shadow. It’s safe to say that if glamors are like a level 12 spell, the faces are at least level 30.

(3) Blood and Shadow

Let’s quickly review the key evidence we have about how quickening a face works—

  • It requires a blood sacrifice from the person donning the face, like Arya’s cut.
  • It awakens the memories of the dead person’s face.

Now let’s ask, what does that tell us about making the face?

  • It preserves not only the physical face, but also the memories of dead.
  • More likely than not, it requires the blood and face of the dead, possibly obtained while they are still living or while they are dying.

(a) Bran Dons a Raven

In many ways, the magic of the faces seems unique. But the eerie echo of the girl’s memories does recall one other passage:

“Someone else was in the raven… Some girl. I felt her.”

“Long dead, yet a part of her remains, just as a part of you would remain in Summer if your boy’s flesh were to die upon the morrow. A shadow on the soul…”

Bran II, A Dance with Dragons

I bring up this quote because “a shadow on the soul” seems like an apt description for the imprint of pain and suffering that Arya experiences when she dons the face. It explains the “haunted skin.” Not knowing more about how Bran “feels” the girl in the Raven, its possible he experienced something similar to Arya.

We also know that this “shadow on the soul” is distinguishable from second life—the Girl is dead and her soul is not experiencing second life in the raven. Instead, this “shadow on the soul” seems to be a different kind of partial soul imprint.

(b) WWMD (What Would Melisandre Do? or Weirwood Weapons of Mass Deception)

With this is mind, let’s ask: based on what we know from Melisandre and the Kindly Man, what would we need to make a disguise more potent than a glamor, as true as solid as the face you were born with?

Well, to start off with bones or a part of the person you’re trying to imitate, a la Rattleshirt’s bones would be really helpful. Given that the Faceless Men get dead folks entire bodies, we’ve got a check plus for creating what Melisandre would call the person’s essence or seeming. In fact, it seems possible the Faceless Men create glamors the same way as Melisandre when they are not using one of faces.

But the real rub is this—how are they not only keeping the person’s memories but also creating or preserving a face? This is the trickier question, but I think two components reveal themselves close to intuitively.

  • The blood that quickens the face is part of the blood magic price for using or awakening the face.
  • The Faceless Men must have some kind of vessel, like Bran’s still living bird or Bloodraven’s weirwood tree, to contain the dead person’s memories or seeming.

What is the vessel? For a few reasons, I think a good deal of evidence points to some kind of weirwood, shade of the evening tree, or bloodstone related substance. We just don’t have any other examples in world of preserved souls outside of green magic and Leaf seems to imply to Bran that the singers—that is even the children who were not greenseers—all had the ability to go into “rock and tree and stone” when they died.

(c) Death Masks and the God of Death: Historical Parallel Practices & Beliefs

The above evidence points to the faces being a kind of weirwood death mask—as the face’s owner dies, their blood and soul “go into” a weirwood vessel, leaving an imprint of both their likeness and their soul. It would be a corruption or imitation of the faces carved into the weirwood trees in Westeros.

The real world ritual history of death masks is deeply consistent with how GRRM describes the faces in couple major ways.

First, across earth cultures death masks have been given special status as embodying or signifying the watchful eyes of the dead. In Ancient Rome, for example a roman citizen could demonstrate his or her lineage

1024px-Napoleon_Death_Mask
Bronze Death Mask of Napolean

through imaginesdeath masks of their ancestors. These death masks were wax casts kept in the family shrine, called a lararium. Significant rites of passage in roman society, like initiating young members of the family or conducting funerals, were carried out at the shrine under the watch of the ancestral masks. Also, in Melenesian society – where ancestor worship is an important aspect of culture – both religious ceremonies and secret societies treated masks of the dead as a form of revelation, because a mask was linked to the spiritual presence of the ancestor it represented. So a death mask that actually does contain the spirit of the dead is simply dialing up real world religious belief all the way past ten – something we know George loves to do.

Minoan-Bull-Head-Rhyton
Minoan Bull’s Head Rhyton, a vessel used to contain the blood of sacrificial animals

Next, and perhaps even more on point, many historians believe the first masks in history were used by primitive cultures to imbue the wearer with unimpeachable authority, such as the authority or persona of the Gods. This is consistent with how the Faceless Men view death as a gift of the Many-Faced God. In essence, when donning a face to complete a killing, the Faceless Men take on an aspect of the many faced god and claim his authority supports their killing. This echoes early greek practice, where ritual sacrifice was often accepted by a person wearing a mask that signified a deity. For example, one historical explanation for the myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur relies on ritual sacrifice and masks. When Crete was the dominant power in the Aegean Sea, Athens and other greek cities paid tribute to Crete by presenting men and women for sacrifice in a religious ceremony performed by a priest wearing a bull mask to represent the Minoan sun god.

Within the order of the Faceless Men, donning a face before performing a killing is a kind of religious ritual where the assassin takes on an aspect of both the watchful, dead ancestor as well as an aspect of the Many-Faced God. As the Kindly Man makes clear to Arya after she choses to kill the Night’s Watch Deserter, Dareon—their order believes the gift is only to be given to someone marked by their God:

“And are you a god, to decide who should live and who should die?” he asked her. “We give the gift to those marked by Him of Many Faces, after prayers and sacrifice…

All men must die. We are but death’s instruments, not death himself. When you slew the singer, you took god’s powers on yourself. We kill men, but we do not presume to judge them. Do you understand?”

 The Blind Girl, A Dance with Dragons 

This passage reinforces the ritual nature of the assassin’s killing and in doing so suggests they may hold a genuine belief in the power of the magic they practice.

(d) Flayed Faces & Magical Preservatives: Counter-Arguments and Questions

Overall, the biggest counter-argument to the weirwood-death mask theory is how the faces feel – Arya describes the face pulled over hers as like leather and she also calls them skins. These descriptions call to mind an actual flayed face skin. The sharp blade cutting Arya’s face also evokes the words of the flayed-man sigil-ed House Bolton. So, could it be the skins are just that…regular old skins?

I think not, at least not without some kind of blood magick-y assistance. Given the shear number of faces in the hall, we can fairly assume the Faceless Men have been collecting the faces for quite some time and a regular, non-magic piece of flesh just isn’t going to hold up that well without some kind of special…uh, preservative? So perhaps the skins are gruesomely carved off of faces, but then attached or pressed into something—I’d guess Weirwood or Shade Tree bark—to help them “remember” their true nature. Or they are made like real world death masks—maybe weirwood paste or a thick version of shade of the evening is used as plaster to cast the face? Or maybe something similar can be done with oily black stone?

I’m going stop at that level of detail before we all vomit. My point is that we absolutely have evidence that magical substances related weirwood or connected to the magic of the Children fit with what we know about the faces and how they work. Plus, the imagery and magical concepts used in Arya and Bran’s chapters are deeply similar when compared.

Now, with this in mind, we are going to work our way back through the House of Black and White to see if we can pick up any other clues about what magic the Faceless Men use to serve the Many-Faced God.

II. Red Candles: The Flames are Bright and Full of…Memories?

As Arya walks into the House of Black and White for the first time, one of the first things she notices is how the place smells:

The air was warm and heavy, so heavy that she yawned. She could smell the candles. The scent was unfamiliar, and she put it down to some queer incense, but as she got deeper into the temple, they seemed to smell of pine needles and snow and hot stew. Good smells, Arya told herself she felt a little braver. Brave enough to slip Needle back into its sheath.

Arya I, A Feast for Crows

Then, in her next chapter, the Kindly Man specifically calls out how the candles smell.

“If they are afraid, the candles soothe them. When you smell our candles burning, what does it make you think of, my child?”

Winterfell, she might have said, I smell snow and smoke and pine needles. I smell the stables. I smell Hodor laughing, and Jon and Robb battling in the yard, Sansa singing about some stupid lady fair. I smell the crypts where the stone kings sit, I smell hot bread baking, I smell the godswood. I smell my wolf, I smell her fur, almost as if she were still behind me.

Arya II, A Feast for Crows

By two mentions in back to back chapters, GRRM is purposely drawing our attention to these candles. At first they are unfamiliar “like some queer incense” but quickly they become soothing with the familiar scents of Arya’s home. So, what’s the deal with that? I didn’t realize Yankee Candle sold a “Winterfell” scent in Braavos.

(a) Magically Delicious

The text speaks for itself here, so let’s go ahead and compare Arya’s description of the smell of the red candles to the taste of two other magical edibles: weirwood Paste and Shade of the Evening.

First, Bran experiences the taste of Weirwood seed paste very similarly to how Arya experiences the scent of the red candles.

It had a bitter taste, though not so bitter as acorn paste. The first spoonful was the hardest to get down. He almost retched it right back up. The second tasted better. The third was almost sweet. The rest he spooned up eagerly. Why had he thought that it was bitter? It tasted of honey, of new-fallen snow, of pepper and cinnamon and the last kiss his mother ever gave him. The empty bowl slipped from his fingers and clattered on the cavern floor.

Now, here’s Dany in the House of the Undying.

Dany raised the glass to her lips. The first sip tasted like ink and spoiled meat, foul, but when she swallowed it seemed to come to life within her. She could feel tendrils spreading through her chest, like fingers of fire coiling around her heart, and on her tongue was a taste like honey and anise and cream, like mother’s milk and Drogo‘s seed, like red meat and hot blood and molten gold. It was all the tastes she had ever known, and none of them … and then the glass was empty.

With both Weirwood Paste and Shade of the evening we immediately get the impression that magic is somehow invading the mind of the person who drinks it—it spreads throughout the body and seems to make the drinker taste their own memories. The memories are important ones too—memories of home, comfort, and experiences central to the drinker’s identity.

As an aside, Shade of the Evening is a great example of a “magical artifact.” It appears to give people who imbibe it magical visions, even if they themselves are not magical by bloodline.

(b) Visions of No-one

But while the sensory experiences of the red candles are similar to weirwood paste and Shade of the Evening, there are some notable distinctions.

First, the candles seem much more subtle and less invasive. Recall that Leaf tells Bran eating the paste will help “awaken his gifts and wed him to the trees.” Though marriage is not literally referenced in Dany’s shade experience, it is figuratively invoked, because “when she swallowed it seems to come to life within her” and “fingers of fire” coil around her heart. At least so far as we know, smelling the candles is not magically linking Arya to anything.

As a bit of a side bar, let’s consider the likely correct, extremely creepy theory

shadeandww
Weirwood & Shade of the Evening Trees by @WinterDesign

that weirwood paste contains Jojen’s blood or flesh. If Shade of the Evening and weirwood paste are parallel, then shade of the evening may also contain blood. My guess is that foul, spoiled meat taste could indicate blood or flesh mixed with magic. So, that may indicate a kind of magical recipe: blood plus part of tree equals a magical link between the person consuming the potion and the tree. This fits really well with what we know about blood magic. Plus, Arya describes one of the candles in her in alcove as a tallow candle. Shout out to brilliant @MelanieLot7 for this catch, tallow is rendered animal fat — meaning it fits for a tallow candle to contain flesh.

Second distinction for Arya, after Bran and Dany drink shade of the evening, they both receive visions. Bran sees back in time through the eyes of the Winterfell heart tree and Dany recieves set of visions of the past and future. Arya quite obviously does not receive trippy, time-bending visions from hot-boxing the red candles. This is another clue that whatever magic is inducing Arya’s nose guided walk down memory lane is either less invasive or otherwise different than the magical edible variety.

So, what gives then? I think its likely that a similar magical recipe is at play in making the candles of the House of Black and White, but it takes an extra step to trigger visions or some other long-term effect. If the candles have a magical, calming effect, it is possible there is some kind of off screen cost—perhaps it allows the Faceless Men to remotely view the sensations it triggers and thus learn about the people who seek the black cup or perhaps it seeks to erase memories to aid in turning acolytes into no one. Or maybe they’re just the Essosi version of pot.

For now, we’ll leave here, but in the next section we’ll briefly return to see how the candles may interact other artifacts in the temple.

III. Couches, and Cups, and Chairs: Homemaking for Mages

To complete our tour, we should look at few other miscellaneous items of interest in Faceless Men’s Temple–namely, the black cup, “dreaming couches” and the weirwood and ebony chairs. Each of items, even if not overtly magical, contribute to the atmosphere of the House of Black and White, as well as the understanding of the resources the Faceless Men use to aid the Many-Faced God. Again, keep in my mind that my goal is to make us think creatively about different explanations for potential magic, question our assumptions about what’s happening, and draw limited conclusions where there is clear evidence.

(a) The Poisoned Black Cup

I begin with the black cup and the still black pool because, in the fandom, this is one of the more analyzed aspects of the temple. The popular fandom belief in is that the waters of temple’s still black pool are poisoned. There are two pieces of strong evidence for this conclusion. The first is based on timing – people drink from the pool and then die:

The dead were never hard to find. They came to the House of Black and White, prayed for an hour or a day or a year, drank sweet dark water from the pool, and stretched out on a stone bed behind one god or another. They closed their eyes, and slept, and never woke.

Then, more directly, when the Kindly Man answers Arya’s inquiry about the Waif, we get a more full explanation:

Arya bit her lip. “Will I be like her?”

“No,” he said, “not unless you wish it. It is the poisons that have made her as you see her.

Poisons. She understood then. Every evening after prayer the waif emptied a stone flagon into the waters of the black pool.

But there is something curious about this explanation by itself – the water alone doesn’t seem like it is potent enough to kill, at least not in small doses. Recall, when Arya first walks into the temple we get this passage:

In the center of the temple she found the water she had heard; a pool ten feet across, black as ink and lit by dim red candles. Beside it sat a young man in a silvery cloak, weeping softly. She watched him dip a hand in the water, sending scarlet ripples racing across the pool. When he drew his fingers back he sucked them, one by one. He must be thirsty. There were stone cups along the rim of the pool. Arya filled one and brought it to him, so he could drink. The young man stared at her for a long moment when she offered it to him. “Valar morghulis,” he said.

Arya I, A Feast For Crows

I think the most plausible explanation is that the poison, or one of the poisons, used in the pool is sweetsleep. Arya describes the pool’s waters as sweet and dark and we know that sweet sleep is dosage sensitive—watch out Robin Arryn! Sweet sleep is also one of the poisons the waif teaches Arya about. But on the other hand, we don’t really have any evidence that sweet sleep in particular affects other people like it has the waif.

I would also suggest that one alternate explanation is that the black cup is poisoned, or at least it has a poisonous or magical part to play in the gift. The Kindly Man tells Arya that “those who come to drink from the black cup are looking for their angels,” which plays up the ritual role of the cup itself. As we move on to look at the dreaming couches, keep in mind that the black cup may have some special role to play in triggering sweet dreams and death. If the Black Cup must be offered by a servant of the House of Black and White, this may also allow the Faceless Men to control how the gift is given to those who seek it. At this point, I don’t think any of this is crystal clear from the text, but George has given us enough to question these mysteries.

(b) Dreaming Couches

Now, let’s talk about creepy alcoves and extremely firm, stony mattresses in caves! Namely, let’s look at what Arya calls the “dreaming couches” where she looks for corpses and then compare the couches with the stone bed where Bran receives visions in Bloodraven’s cave.

Dreaming couches are Arya’s name for one of the prominent features of the House of Black and White: the stone beds where people lay themselves to rest after drinking from the black cup. Here’s Blind!Arya finding a corpse one of them:

The second body was that of an old woman. She had gone to sleep upon a dreaming couch, in one of the hidden alcoves where special candles conjured visions of things loved and lost. A sweet death and a gentle one, the kindly man was fond of saying. Her fingers told her that the old woman had died with a smile on her face.

The Blind Girl, A Dance with Dragons

And here’s what happens after Arya offers the black cup to the dying man she encounters when she first enters the temple:

He lurched unsteadily toward the wall and crawled into an alcove onto a hard stone bed. When Arya peered around, she saw other alcoves too. On some there were old people sleeping.

Arya I, A Feast for Crows

Arya then scolds herself to look with her eyes as she realizes the old people are not in fact sleeping. The description of these hard stone beds in rocky alcoves matches the description of where Bran sleeps in Bloodraven’s cave after he consumes weirwood paste and while he has his first set of visions:

Their snug alcove in the rock was cold and empty. Hodor eased Bran down onto his bed, covered him with furs, and made a fire for them. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees.

Bran III, A Dance With Dragons

Just like with Bran’s stone bed in Bloodraven’s cave, the bed or couch in the alcove either facilitates dreaming and visions or is part of the ritual invoking such dreams. Recall that the Children have gone into stone and earth as well as the trees and also the connections between rocky hollow hill locations and the Children’s magic—laying directly on stone, inside the earth may be a significant part of this underworld ritual.

Remember the creepy candles we were talking about, the ones Arya thinks of “special candles that conjure visions of things loved and lost”? Let’s think about them together with the dreaming couches. What if their purpose was to prepare seekers to receive the gift by priming them for the dreaming couch? Does the dream couch collect and absorb their memories? Does it help prepare the Faceless Men for making faces from the dead? Are the Faceless Men harvesting the visions the dying dreamers experience after they drink from the cup? Are these memories the same or different from the memories that end up embedded in the faces?

Something is definitely up here–which is why I included the seemingly minor stone beds in their alcoves in this section. The dreaming couches help to cement similarity between Bloodraven’s weirwood paste vision ritual and the Faceless Men’s special candle death ritual. Given the wealth of similar symbols, locations, and artifacts, I think it is abundantly clear that the magic involved is related, but beyond that, it is hard to know what that means for the motives of the Faceless Men. But, George is certainly leaving us a big hint asking us to look with our eyes and question the nature of what we’re seeing in House of Black and White.

(c) Weirwood and Ebony chairs

As I argued when I discussed the doors to the temple, I don’t think George places weirwood and ebony items as an abstract symbol—instead, he uses them as a sign that magic is present, that someone in the past or in current practice is tapped into blood magic and sorcery. Here, we not only have special doors and bunch of clues that the magic the Faceless Men tap into green magic and blood magic, we also have weirwood and ebony chairs with carved faces placed in what appears to be one of the most sacred and secret parts of the House of Black and White—the sanctum where the servants of the Many-Faced God meet to make life and death decisions:

Eleven servants of the Many-Faced God gathered that night beneath the temple, more than she had ever seen together at one time. Only the lordling and the fat fellow arrived by the front door; the rest came by secret ways, through tunnels and hidden passages. They wore their robes of black and white, but as they took their seats each man pulled his cowl down to show the face he had chosen to wear that day. Their tall chairs were carved of ebony and weirwood, like the doors of the temple above. The ebon chairs had weirwood faces on their backs, the weirwood chairs faces of carved ebony.

The Ugly Little Girl, A Dance with Dragons

Again, we see George has intentionally placed weirwood and ebony artifacts in a place of high honor and importance in the temple. Recall that in a “Rocky Knoll” I theorized that this woody black and white combination is a calling card for Essosi blood magic—so, this reinforces the conclusion that the Faceless Men are blood magic practitioners similar to the Undying or Tobho Mott.

Then, referencing the chairs and their carved faces in the same breath as the faces donned by the servants, subtly suggest an association between the two. Choosing to represent the faces worn by the servants in the medium of weirwood and ebony should cause us pause: are they representing the magic or medium that enabled the creation of the faces? The earlier portion of the passage emphasizing secret ways, tunnels and hidden passages also reinforces the connection to hollow hills and the magic of the children.

What Strange Sorcery?

So, do all these weirwood and ebony artifacts mean the Faceless Men are Greenseers? I doubt it. Instead, we have good reason to believe they have scavenged and appropriated artifacts from Children of the Forest and mingled them blood magic from Valyria and the East. Let’s review what we know.

First, the Faceless Men don’t skin-change animals, people, or trees in the same way

house_of_black_and_white_by_alldeles-d6xs8yj
The House of Black and White by Sofie Oldberg

greenseers like Bran and Bloodraven do. There is simply no evidence that Faceless Men’s consciousness can leave their bodies and enter another living organism while they are living.

Second, instead the magic of the faces seems more like a deathly echo of the Children’s magic. At best, they can preserve part of the essence of a likely dying person using the “haunted skin” death mask. Then, they can use a blood magic ritual to transfer the preserved skin to a servant. While preserving a person’s essence in weirwood vessel recalls greenseer magic, the rest of the ritual and practice is just too different to fit.

Next, the Faceless Men appear to use a wide variety of magical and non-magical forms of trickery. For example, they not only use glamors, but also poisons, stagecraft inspired artifice, and textbook spying and intelligence gathering. This style recalls practiced sorcerers and sorceresses like Melisandre, Mirri Maz Dur, or even Marwyn the Mage more than it does a magic-by-blood person like Bran or Dany.

Finally, while Braavos is overflowing with symbols associated with green magic from mists to hollow hills and watchful eyes, these symbols are mixed with Ebony and Black stone. The Seastone Titan, with fiery eyes and broken sword, is biggest example. Both Lucifer Means Lightbringer and Crowfood’s Daughter have persuasively argued that the Titan represents the Braavosi incarnation of the Azor Ahai monomyth, and thus a kind of magic that goes beyond the Children and suggests connections to the darker magic of the Bloodstone Emperor or at least the Sorcerers of Valyria, the land that gave birth to the Faceless Men.

What does this mishmash of magic tell us about the motives of the Faceless Men and their agent Jaqen H’gar roaming around citadel? These are question for our next installment, where will turn our focus away magic and towards political intrigue, mysterious motives, and ambitious plots.

The Rocky Knoll: The House of Black and White as a Magical, Hollow Hill Location

The House of Black and White is gateway to death and the underworld. The way Arya describes its location is strikingly similar to other magical, underworld passageways and caverns in A Song of Ice and Fire:

The knoll on which the passage stood was honeycombed with passageways hewn from the rock.

Arya II, A Feast for Crows.

In this section, we will explore the similarities between the honeycombed passageways that lie beneath the House of Black and White and hollow hill dwellings of the Children of the Forest. We will discover that the knoll where the temple of black and white rests has all the markings we would expect from a dwelling of the children of the forest, and therefore, I will argue that at some point in the distant past, the children lived in what is now Braavos.

My analysis is deeply indebted to Wizz the Smith’s Essay, “Caves are Timeless: Hollow Hills. Magic Castles and Greenseers.” When I started investigating whether or not Braavos was magic location or had any relationship to greenseers, I realized right away that I could end up doing an endless amount of research on the activity of the Children of the Forest outside of Braavos for comparison. Thankfully, the ASOIAF community is wonderful and I got the chance to chat with Wizz the Smith and read his award-winning essay from Westeros.org. Wizz put in an enormous amount of work into examining the characteristics of the Children’s Hollow Hills in Westeros. My analysis of the Hollow Hill where the House of Black and White rests would not be possible without his work, which I will be referencing and relying on throughout this part.

The Footprints of the Children in Essos

My goal is to create a sort of scavenger hunt-like list of Children of Forest clues and then use our list to explore the House of Black and White. Our clues are based primarily on my own re-reads and research about the characteristics of the Mistwood cave from the Arianne TWOW sample chapter, Bloodraven’s cave beyond the wall, the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands, and Winterfell Crypts. This is a solid sample size, but please trust me when I say there are plenty of other examples that are consistent with the traits I will identify. If you’re skeptical, Wizz the Smith comprehensively analyzes ALL the hollow hills locations in his essay and the grouping of traits is remarkably consistent.

You might ask, why does it matter if the temple where the House of Black and White resides was built on top of a hollow hill of Children of the Forest or some other related race? Because these caves are places of great power and dark magic that are connected to center of the earth. The magic of the Children stills lingers at High Heart, for example, even though it has been mostly abandoned as a place of worship for the Old Gods. Plus, as we will explore in the essay, the Children could have left behind magic artifacts that the Faceless Men discovered.cavdemounreal

Also, these hints help build the case that the Children of the Forest were once active in Essos. According to the Worldbook, many maesters believe that a “dimunitive race” that was kin to the children lived in northern forests of Essos—which like Braavos, border the Shivering Sea. Further, while describing the area outside the free city of Norvos, the Worldbook offers this juicy clue:

The streams here are swiftrunning and stony, and caverns honeycomb the endless hills…In some can be found the bones of giants and painted walls that speak of men’s dwelling here in ages past. One cavern system, some hundred leagues northwest of Norvos, is so vast and deep that legend claims it is the entrance to the underworld; Lomas Longstrider visited it once and counted it as one of the world’s seven natural wonders in his book Wonders.

The World of Ice and Fire, The Free Cities: Norvos

The presence of the children in Essos the lends credibility to the argument that their magic lingers under Braavos. Circumstantial evidence, sure, but a potent counter to the claim that the influence of the Children was only in Westeros. In other words, we totally busted their alibi!

Dark and Deep: Breaking Down the Characteristics & Imagery of Hollow Hills

We can identify caves used by the Children of the Forest because they typically have the following characteristics:

  1. They are described as knolls or hollow hills.
  2. They contain “still black pools” or “black rivers.”
  3. They have chambers filled with skulls, bones, and/or carvings of faces.
  4. They are connected to winding, snaking tunnels or honeycombed hills.
  5. They are (often) protected by wards.

torchescaveGRRM uses consistent imagery to evoke the feel created by these elements. Wizz the Smith pointed out to me, for example, that snaking passageways are a consistent motif when describing the Children’s subterranean tunnels. Think of when Bran describes the weirwood roots in Bloodraven’s cave as “white snakes” or how descriptions of darkness and passageways plunging deep into the earth are also common in hollow hill locations. We will be hunting for these sort of similarities in imagery as we explore the characteristics above.

Let’s take a look at the descriptions of the cave Arianne visits in the Mistwood, to verify our list of criteria and get a feel for the imagery of these locations. It’s telling that in this Winds Spoiler chapter, one of the more recent pieces of writing we’ve gotten from George, we have these intricately detailed passages explicitly describing the Children’s dwellings:

The cave proved much deeper than any of them had suspected. Beyond the stony mouth…a series of twisty passageways led down and down, with black holes snaking off to either side (4). Further in, the walls opened up again, and the searchers found themselves in a vast limestone cavern, larger than the great hall of a castle…A slow circuit of the hall revealed three further passages, one so small that it would have required them to proceed on hands and knees…And all at once she found herself in another cavern, five times as big as the last one, surrounded by a forest of stone columns (3). Daemon Sand moved to her side and raised his torch. “Look how the stone’s been shaped,” he said. “Those columns, and the wall there. See them?”

“Faces,” said Arianne. So many sad eyes, staring.

“This place belonged to the children of the forest.” (3)

Their passageway led down to a still black pool, (2) where they discovered the girl up to her waist in water, catching blind white fish with her bare hands, her torch burning red and smoky in the sand where she had planted it.

Arianne II, Winds of Winter Sample Chapter

As it happens, this passage hits all the most imagery driven elements but omits the (1) hollow hill and (5) magic ward elements. No big deal, we will look at examples of hollow hills and wards side by side with our analysis of the House of Black and White. This is also a good time to recall that sometimes not all of these clues are present in the description of a potential hollow hill locations and that’s okay, this is literature, not a math problem.

(I) Hollow Hills or Knolls

The phrase “Hollow hills” is concretely tied to the Children of the Forest. For example, Old Nan mentions the Children of the Forest living in Hollow Hills when telling Bran scary stories at the beginning of Game of Thrones.

Hollow hills are also frequently described as “old” and “secret” locations, further tying them to the ancient Children and the secrets of the greenseers. We get this lovely description from Lem Lemoncloak about the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands:

“An old place, deep and secret. A refuge where neither wolves nor lions come prowling.”

We will come back to the refuge idea a little later when we discuss warded doors, but I want to emphasize that refuge, deep, and secret are all important motifs not only for Hollow Hills, but also for the history of Braavos and the House of Black and White.

And yes, the House of Black and White is described multiple times as being on a knoll or hollow hill.

The knoll on which the passage stood was honeycombed with passageways hewn from the rock.

Cat would always find the kindly man waiting for her when she went creeping back to the temple on the knoll on the night the moon went black. 

Cat of the Canals, A Feast for Crows.

Equally significant, I think, is that the imagery George uses to describe the hollow hill that houses Bloodraven’s cave calls to mind the Black and White motif. Let’s take a look:

Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry. All the trees were bowed and twisted by the weight of the ice they carried. Some hardly looked like trees at all. Buried from root to crown in frozen snow, they huddled on the hill like giants, monstrous and misshapen creatures hunched against the icy wind.

Bran II, A Dance with Dragons

The hungry black shadows of giant weirwoods cast against a frozen white hill. I found this very evocative of the not only of the doors of the House of Black and White, but also of the Titan of Bravos who is black and hungry (for the flesh of high born girls).

George uses the key word “knoll” to describe the Faceless Men’s temple and then reinforces that language by using imagery linked to Braavos and the black and white motif to describe Bloodraven’s Hollow Hill. I’d call this a check plus for the temple qualifying as a hollow hill location.

(II) Still Black Pools

The most prominent “still black pool” in ASOIAF lies next to the heart tree in Winterfell. Although this pool is not inside a cave, so to speak, it is likely directly above the snaking, cavernous Winterfell crypts. The Winterfell still black pool features prominently in Bran’s first set of visions in Bloodraven’s cave and of course, is where Ned and his family pray to the old gods. As we saw above, the exact still black pool descriptor is also given Arianne’s cave in the Mistwood. Here’s how Bran thinks of the Winterfell pool:

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.

(Bran III, A Game of Thrones)

A still black pool is one of the dominant features of the House of Black and White. Because GRRM is not always subtle, just like at the Godswood at Winterfell, people kneel and pray around the still black pool. Arya first describes it as “a pool ten feet across black as ink and lit by dim red candles” (Arya I, Feast) and then later as “a still black pool” (Arya II, Feast). The dim red candles evoke both blood and the eyes of the weirwoods. Again, check plus.

(a) Dark Water and Death

Now, not every still pool is necessarily a sign of the Children of the Forest. Instead, I think it is “the still black pool” in particular that is important as a symbol of their presence. The still black pool does, however, tie into a broad and often repeated motif tying death to dark water or black pools.

First, dark or still pools surround the imagery of death more broadly throughout the novels. Not only do we have lots of descriptions of pools of blood, we have many more vivid examples.

  • A pool at Maidenpool is full of floating corpses in Feast for Crows.
  • The children who kill Kevan at Varys’ command in the epilogue of Feast emerge from a pool of darkness.
  • And there is some fun stranger/the stranger wordplay hanging out in still pools:

“Of late, whenever he knelt to drink from a still pool, he saw a stranger’s face gazing up from the water’s depths.”

Barristan, A Dance with Dragons.

A stranger or the stranger, eh Barry?

Also, recall the still black pool by the heart tree at Winterfell is cold. There are other Winterfell_Godswoodpools in Godswood and Glass Gardens that are heated by the hot springs, but not the pool by the heart tree. Theon notes in Dance that the pool is icing over as winter approaches. But both the hot and cold pools have death symbolism. Theon notes that “Steam rose off the hot pools, fragrant with the smell of moss and mud and decay.”

These are all examples of George connecting pools more generally with death and underworld symbolism. Of course, the pool at the House of Black and White is different by an order of magnitude because people drink from the pool and die when they come to receive the gift. That people drink from a still black pool to die reinforces the connection between still black pools and the underworld.

(ii) Black Rivers and Sunless Seas

Bloodraven’s cave is connected to a black underground river, instead of a still black pool. The river is described “as swift and black, flowing down to a sunless sea.” The sunless sea is tied into the green see magic idea directly by Leaf who tells Bran, “Men lives 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.”

So, why a black river instead of a still a black pool? I have two possible explanations, one literal and another more abstract.

  • We have not gone deep enough into the other caves to find the black river. Bran’s journey toward the center of the earth with Bloodraven goes much deeper than any of the other characters. Recall that caves are created by underground water, so both the pools and the river would have the same source.
  • Symbolically, we see a powerful, flowing river in Bloodraven’s cave because the Children still live there and Bloodraven is tapped into the river where the flow of memories would be the most swift. The other black pools are relics or echoes of this power.

 

(III) Chambers filled with skulls, bones, and/or carvings of faces.

The most effective way to see how the chambers under the House of Black and White are similar to Children’s chambers is to directly compare passages from Bran and Arya chapters. So, that’s how we’ll start, comparing the siblings’ passages exploring underground passageways from a Dance with Dragons.

The Ugly Little Girl

Bran II

One tunnel was walled with human bones, its roof supported by columns of skulls.

 

The empty eyeholes of the skins upon the walls seemed to follow her. For a moment, she could almost see their lips moving, whispering dark sweet secrets to one another in words to faint to hear.

The floor of the passage was littered with the bones of birds and beasts. But there were other bones as well, big ones that must have come from giants and small ones that could have been from children. On either side of them, in niches carved from the stone, skulls looked down on them. Bran saw a bear skull and a wolf skull, half a dozen human skulls and near as many giants. All the rest were small, queerly formed. Children of the forest. The roots had grown in and around and through them, every one.

The comparison between Bran and Arya is direct on a few important levels.

  • The passageways are both filled with bones.
  • They are niches carved in the stone, filled either with skulls or skins looking down on whoever enters.
  • The Ugly Little Girl uses “whispering dark secrets” imagery; imagery we associate with greenseers and hear throughout Bran’s chapters.

Similarly, remember that in the Mistwood Arianne sees “a forest of stone columns” carved with faces and “so many sad eyes.”

So what is going on here? Was Arya’s tunnel of bones and skulls built by the Children of the Forest? Are those really old fossilized trees in Arianne’s cave? And aside from being horrific, what does it mean?

We are entering more theoretical territory, but my best guess is the following. We know not just the greenseers, but all of the singers have “gone down into the earth. Into the stones, into the trees.” How? The mostly likely answer, based on what we know about weirwoods, is that they were bled or ritually sacrificed to the trees or stones when they died. Time for a shoutout to Joe Magician’s awesome video discussing weirwoods and ritual, blood sacrifice. Check it out now if you haven’t already.

Given the large collection of bones and the mention of bones as a totem for magic, some kind of ritual magic involving the bones of the dead is also possible. If the founders of Braavos found an underground cave full of bones and other magical things, its possible they would have imitated the practices they found there, particularly if they were powerful.

Or, these skulls and bones and faces could just be death and underworld symbols without any connection to a shared ritual sacrifice across locations. Regardless, I think the allusion to ritual sacrifice is deliberate.

In addition to the parallel to Lovecraft’s creepy stone sacrifice—the Shining Trapezohedron—I think Martin is deliberating drawing on some of the artifacts of Mayan and Aztec ritual sacrifice. To simplify, in Mayan mythology cenotes or underground caves were places of religious significance. Not only were these caves often connected in vast underground networks, the Mayans ritually sacrificed people to the gods of underworld by throwing them into the caves. Even today, when archeologists or scuba divers explore the caves they still find human remains. This same idea is echoed when the Maester Yandel tells us in TWOIAF that legend has it that vast underground caverns, littered with bones, are gateways to the underworld.

cenote-3
A scuba diver encounters a skull in a Mayan Cenote.  Image and article available from National Geographic.

Given the importance of ritual sacrifice throughout the story—Melisandre seeking King’s blood for her flames, the First Men making blood sacrifice to their heart trees, the greenseers planting themselves in trees, blood magic liked that used by Mirri Maz Dur, and House of Black and White’s framing of death as a gift from the Many-Faced God—I am confident that groups of bones stacked in columns or places in alcoves are part a religious rite of sacrifice.

Because its highly suggested that both the Faceless Men and Children engage in ritual sacrifice—whether via Jojen Paste, feeding weirwoods, or the worship of a death god—I’d call this a check plus for piles of bones and skulls tying the House of Black and White to other hollow hill locations.

(IV) They are connected to winding tunnels that seem to go on forever

Underground tunnels with long and winding ways recur throughout the books—Jaime dreams of them under Casterly Rock when he sleeps on a weirwood stump, Arya explores a system of tunnels under King’s Landing, when Jon and Ygritte famously get naked together in a cave they recount tale of Gendel and Gorne using underground tunnels to navigate under the wall. If you are interested in a more comprehensive examination of potential tunnel systems connected to hollow hills in Westeros, I again suggest turning to Wizz-the-Smith’s essay. Recall this quotation from Bran III,

The caves were timeless, vast, silent. They were home to more than three score living singers and the bones of thousands dead, and extended far below the hollow hill. “Men should not go wandering in this place,” Leaf warned them. “The river you hear is swift and black, and flows down and down to a sunless sea. And there are passages that go even deeper, bottomless pits and sudden shafts, forgotten ways that lead to the very center of the earth. Even my people have not explored them all, and we have lived here for a thousand thousand of your man-years.”

This description definitely calls to mind the almost infinite cave system discovered by Lomas Longstrider in Essos as well as the forgotten ways of Gendel and Gorne under the Wall. 

The Temple of the Faceless Men is also built on top of a vast underground cave system. Arya calls the tunnels “cramped and crooked, black wormholes twisting through the heart of the great rock.” To reach the sanctum, Arya notes that they go down 54 steps and that “they were under even the canals.”   The Hall of Faces itself has even deeper tunnels connected to it and, like every other character who encounters one these places, Arya wonders if the system of tunnels and cellars goes down forever.

So again, I’m calling check plus for similar imagery as well as including this snaking, winding characteristic.

(V) They are protected by wards

The three best examples of warded cavern locations are the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands, Bloodraven’s cave, and the Nightfort. In a Clash of Kings, Melisandre mentions wards and spells built into the walls and caverns under Storm’s End. Based on these examples, we know that in ASOIAF, like in other fantasy worlds, wards are magical barriers that can hide places or limit who may enter them.

(a) The Warden of the Dead

Leaf tells us that Bloodraven’s cave is warded against the dead—so neither Coldhands nor the Others can enter. Similarly, the Brotherhood without Banners use the Hollow Hill as their base to take advantage of the magic ward left over from the Children of the Forest. Not only is it implied that the ward prevents other people from entering or using the cavern, the Ghost of High Heart tells the Red Priest, Thoros, that he would not be able to read the flames in the weirwood grove. So, the ward at the Hollow Hill can block the use of certain kinds of magic while allowing the use of others. 

So, could the knoll where the Faceless Men built their temple have been the site of a warded cave? We know the moonsingers lead the escaped Braavosi to a place where the Dragonlords could not find them. So it is possible, and consistent with the description of the knoll as magical, hollow hill location, that the moonsingers chose Braavos, not only because of persistent fogs, but because the location was either already warded or could easily be warded. This would be a solid explanation for why even with glass candles, the sorcerers of Valyria could not find the Braavosi settlement. Either the original settlors lived underground in the cave system or perhaps the fogs and mists that cloak Braavos are part of the magical ward that surrounded the temple or the city.

In the next part, we will compare other Weirwood doors, like the Nightfort, and compare them to do the doors of at the House of Black and White. I think its worth expanding our analysis to include all weirwood doors, and not only those that are clearly warded, so we’ll start a new section that will also serve as a teaser and transition to the next essay, covering magical artifacts in the House of Black and White.

 

Hold the Door: Magic Words and Warded Weirwood Doors

Here, we will compare the door to the House of Black and White with three other magical, weirwood doors: the Qohoric Smith Tobho Mott’s Door, the door to the House of the Undying, and the Black Gate at the Nightfort. All of these places are associated with either blood magic or green magic and they’re described in varying degrees of detail. The best way to appreciate how these doors are similar is to walk right through them, so let’s go.

(I) Speak Friend and Enter

First, we will refresh our memory of the Black Gate at the Nightfort, because next to the doors of the House of Black and White, it is described in the most detail:

  • It’s as old as the wall itself, and
  • It’s hidden at the bottom of creepy deep well, and
  • It is a talking door that only a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch can open by reciting magic words, in this case, the Night’s Watch vows.

Here’s how Bran describes the Black Gate:

It was white weirwood, and there was a face on it.

A glow came from the wood, like milk and moonlight, so faint it scarcely seemed to touch anything beyond the door itself, not even Sam standing right before it. The face was old and pale, wrinkled and shrunken. It looks dead. Its mouth was closed, and its eyes; its cheeks were sunken, its brow withered, its chin sagging. If a man could live for a thousand years and never die but just grow older, his face might come to look like that.

The door opened its eyes.

They were white too, and blind.

Bran IV, A Storm of Swords

To summarize, the Black Gate is a white weirwood door that “glows like milk and moonlight” with a face that looks like a thousand year old man. It can talk and it opens when magic words are spoken. Sounds like a magic ward to me.

Now, here is Arya’s description of the door at the House of Black and White:

A set of carved wooden doors twelve feet high. The left-hand door was made of weirwood pale as bone, the right of gleaming ebony. In their center was a carved moon face; ebony on the weirwood side, weirwood on the ebony. The look of it reminded her somehow of the heart tree in the godswood at Winterfell.”

Then when Arya speaks, “Valar Morgulis”

The doors made no reply, except to open.

They opened inward all in silence, with no human hand to move them. Arya took a step forward, and another. The doors closed behind her, and for a moment she was blind.

So on the one hand, we have a “black gate” that is actually white – The white Black Gate – and then we have a set of doors that are literally Black and White. Both doors are described with moon symbolism, one glows like moonlight and the other has a moon carved into the center. While the Black Gate has a face like a heart tree, the look of the door at the House of Black and White reminds Arya of the carved heart tree at Winterfell.

Oh and hey! At least from Arya’s perspective, the doors to the House of Black and White opened on their own when she spoke the magic words! That sure seems like a Tolkien-esque “speak friend and enter” ward from the Mines of Moria, right? Except here, it’s speak death instead of speak friend, because this is ASOIAF and the House of Black and White is that kind of creepy place.

(b) Ebony and Weirwood

The other weirwood and ebony doors mentioned throughout the story also carry interesting associations. The first one we see comes all the way back in Eddard VI, in King’s Landing. There, our dear nearly dead Ned continues his ill-fated investigation of Robert’s bastards by turning up at Tohbo Mott’s double doors, which “showed a hunting scene carved in ebony and weirwood.”

While we don’t get another further description of the doors, we do learn that Tobho had learned the spells to work Valyrian steel at the forges of Qohor as a boy. Side note, Archmaester Emma has an excellent essay on Tohbo Mott’s symbolism, so be sure check it out!

So why do we care about Tohbo’s Door? The spells Tohbo Mott works, the spells needs to reforge Valyrian steel, are likely blood magic spells. Maester Pol, in the World of Ice and Fire, posits that blood sacrifice is required to work the proper spells. Further, the TWOIAF also associates Qohor with the Black Goat, blood magic, and blood sacrifice, so again, its fair to read all these as significant details hinting that Tohbo’s door is an important symbol of something bloody and magical.

We find the final set of Ebony and Weirwood doors in another dark, magical place—the House of the Undying.

To her right, a set of wide wooden doors had been thrown open. They were fashioned of ebony and weirwood, the black and white grains swirling and twisting in strange interwoven patterns. They were very beautiful, yet somehow frightening.

Daenerys IV, A Clash of Kings

The Undying Ones of Qarth are ancient warlocks known for drinking Shade of the Evening. Given that they wanted to drain Dany and her dragons of their life, it is likely that their magic also requires some kind of blood sacrifice.

(c) Black and White with Blood Magic All Over

Interestingly, all three of these Ebony and Weirwood doors are either found in Essos or mark the trade of an Essosi. In contrast, the weirwood doors we find in Westeros are strictly Weirwood, with no ebony, like the Black Gate. For example, the other significant Weirwood door we find in Westeros is the Moon Door in the Eyrie. Like House of Black and White, the Moon Door is also carved with a crescent moon and in its own way, is a door to death because it is used for executions, or a la Littlerfinger, murdering lovers you no longer find useful.

Black Gate_House of the Undying _01
The Black Gate and The House of the Undying, by Winter Design.

So what should we make of these magical and potentially magical doors? First, observe that the weirwood and ebony combination is closely tied to the practice of blood magic either through the Sorcery of the Undying or through Qohoric spells. Second, note that “ebony” is very likely the bark of the Shade of Evening tree. Here, I want to credit the brilliant Crowfood’s Daughter, whose must-listen video linking Shade of the Evening, Seastone, and Bloodstone can be found on her YouTube Channel, the Disputed Lands. If we take Shade of the Evening as a kind of corrupted or inverted weirwood tree, it makes sense for these doors to include both Weirwood and Shade of the Evening bark to create a black and white, yin and yang expression of balance.

Finally, let’s take the presence of a Black and White warded door as a concrete sign of two things: (1) that the magic practiced inside the temple is similar to the Valyrian spells used in Qohor and the sorcery practiced by the Undying and (2) that magic is connected to weirwood and shade of the evening trees.

And with that to chew on, let’s break and next time we’ll return to examine all the magical artifacts in the temple—from candles and couches, to magical, disembodied skins.

A Grey City in a Green Sea: Green Magic and the Imagery of Braavos

Originally, I set out to map and compare all of the greenseer related imagery and symbolism in Braavos alongside the magical artifacts we find in the Faceless Men’s House of Black and White. Alas, as so often happens when analyzing George RR Martin’s rich work, I bit off more than could chew in a single essay. So I have split this analysis into two distinct but related sections.

This part compares the City of Braavos to other locations, like Greywater Watch and Bloodraven’s cave, that the story heavily associates with Greenseer magic.

I propose that George has left us a “greenprint,” a series of terrain features and other physical clues that indicate reither greenseer magic or a dwelling of the children of the forest. I call this the “Wet Wild” and the concept, as I will outline later in the essay, is based on Jojen Reed’s description of Greywater Watch.

We start here, with more abstract analysis because laying the green-print groundwork in Bravos, is important to understanding how GRRM uses nature imagery to hint at magic. In the next part of this series, we will look at the magical artifacts inside the House of Black and White. That analysis will have better context if we already understand what’s happening above the water in Braavos.

The Wet Wild Remembers: Exploring the Spectrum of Weirwood Magic 

I. Introduction

Before we dive into the deep green sea, I want to clarify a couple terms and interlocking systems of symbolism. If this sounds super boring, let me clarify that I’m talking about symbols and stories related to the nature cycle and underworld mythology – which are not only freaking awesome on their own, but also1 part of the most important themes in A Song of Ice and Fire and key to understanding what is up with greenseer magic.

1. The Nature Cycle: Only Death Can Pay for Life

First, both the children of the forest and greenseer magic are surrounded by underworld symbolism. The children of the forest literally live under the world in caves, and the last greenseer is a half alive, half dead corpse-like dude who is gradually becoming a tree.  As we examine the concept of the “green,” keep in mind the cyclical nature of life and death from the perspective of nature. A tree dies and another tree grows in its place. The more life present in nature, the more death will be present as well. It’s balance, the natural version of that whole “only death can pay for life” thing.

demeter
Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture

I don’t want to do a deep dive into mythology here, but take note that gods or goddess who symbolize both death and fertility are ALL over mythology. Hades, for example, in some tellings, stored grain underground during the fall and winter so that the seeds of new life could be planted again in the spring. In the traditional telling, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grain, causes the seasons to change because she neglects her duties during the winter months when her daughter descends into the underworld.

If you want to go explore these mythologies in more depth, I recommend Sweet Sunray’s essays on the chthonic cycle and also the Nature Cycle Mythology panel from Con of Thrones 2018, staring Crowfood’s Daughter, Ideas of Ice and Fire, and LuciferMeansLightbringer.

2. Passage to the Underworld: the Veil Between Worlds

Also, consider that greenseer magic relates to the broader idea of a gateway to the underworld. In ASOIAF, the underworld is in part an actual place—I mean, Bloodraven the half-dead, half-alive tree dude hangs out in a cavern deep under the world. In this way, the underworld or the realm of the greenseers is akin to an actual heaven or hell dimension apart from our reality.

Sometimes, though, the underworld symbols are purely symbolic but still allude to something magical or ineffable. For example, when Hyle Hunt convinces Brienne to carry the heads of a men she killed through a forest in the Riverlands, Brienne thinks:

She did not want to travel through the green gloom of the piney woods with the heads of the men she’d killed…Brienne had no choice but to try and pretend they were not there, but sometimes, especially at night, she could feel their dead eyes on her back, and once she dreamed she heard them whispering to one another.

Brienne V, A Feast for Crows

The head is not in fact talking to her, but the scene reinforces the idea of dead people speaking through the whispers of the trees.

the_mists_of_avalon_by_prairiekittin-d4qt8o3
The Mists of Avalon, by PrairieKittin. Depicting the magical veil separating Avalon from England.

Gateways to the underworld are compatible with the ancient religions and mythology George builds on throughout the text. Consider the role of the river Styx in Greek mythology, the underground cults that worshiped Isis and Mithras in the Middle Ages, and how cenotes are portals to the underworld in Mayan mythology. A central theme of all these mythologies as well as ASOIAF is that in certain locations—like underground caves or bodies of water—the veil between our world and the magical world is thin and permeable.

II. The Green Arcana: A Spectrum of Weirwood Magic

Second, it is a bit confusing to talk about “greenseer” magic without defining what we are talking about because “green” magic exists on a spectrum. I think a lot of disagreements in the fandom are actually arguments about what counts as greenseer-related magic, so I want to be crystal clear about the definition. As usual, the best clues we have come directly from characters explaining greenseer magic in the text. Jojen explains,

It is given to few to drink of that green fountain whilst still in mortal flesh, to hear the whisperings of the leaves and see as the trees see, as the gods see…Most are not so blessed. The gods gave me only greendreams.

(Bran III, A Dance with Dragons).

So, “green” magic encompasses not only Bran and Bloodraven’s (1) time-traveling, astral projection greensight, but also Jojen’s (2) prophetic greendreams and (3) the magic of skinchanging.

We also have strong evidence that (4) powerful dreams can be inspired by proximity to weirwoods, take for example the dream that Jaime has while sleeping in a weirwood grove. In Storm of Swords, Jaime dreams of watery caverns under Casterly Rock, Brienne, and a pair of flaming blue swords. He is then inspired to go back Harrenhal to save Brienne. This may be a kind of greendream where a greenseer reached out from the weirwood into Jaime’s head or it could be Jaime reacting to the weirwood on his own. It is NOT clear from the text.

It is also heavily implied that greenseer magic is a kind of (5) blood magic. Weirwoods weep blood. Weirwood seed paste is veined with blood (and maybe bits of Jojen). The First Men made blood sacrifices to their heart trees. And the last time we heard from Bran in A Dance with Dragons, he was tasting blood “as his life flowed out of him in a red tide.”

And, speaking of Weirwoods, there is also that (6) talking weirwood door at the Nightfort. And if we plod through the mists of time, Westerosi Legend holds that Children of the Forest somehow (7) raised the seas to break the arm of Dorne.

Asoiaf_snowylocks_by_sickdelusion_by_sickdelusion-d6wgdf3
Snowylocks, SickDelusion

This is a huge variety of different types of magic that go far beyond skinchanging and seeing through the eyes of weirwoods. Although powerful greenseer magic, the kind that allows you skin change or control what you see through the weirnet, is rare, it seems possible for non-greenseers to tap into the magic of the green when the right artifacts or locations are present. Jojen and Jaime’s dreams are both examples. And perhaps, even if you are not a greenseer, you may be able to use the blood of a greenseer to access enhanced magical abilities. Think of Melisandre and her obsession with king’s blood, for example, or the undying and their black-tree based psychedelic, Shade of the Evening.

To summarize, when I talk generally about “green” or “greenseer” magic, I’m using it as a fairly broad term that covers any magic that taps into the same source as the magic practiced by the Children of the Forest. This is powerful stuff, and aside from the idea that all magic has a price, George has left the limits of green magic to our imagination. But he has given us clues for where to find it…

III. Greenprints to the Wet Wild

This next passage is perfect, so let’s jump right into it:

“What do the trees remember?”

“The secrets of the old gods,” said Jojen Reed…”truths the First men knew, forgotten now in Winterfell…but not in the wet wild. We live closer to the green in our bogs and crannogs, and we remember. Earth and water, soil and stone, oaks and elms and willows, they were here before us all and will still remain when we are gone.”

(Bran III, A Dance with Dragons)

Closer to the green, eh? Jojen is telling Bran pretty explicitly that in the “wet wild” it is easier to remember the secrets of the old gods. What are the secrets of the old gods? The collective knowledge of the weirwood and the greenseers. Green Magic is stronger in places close to and connected with the life force of the earth. Not only trees, but “earth and water, soil and stone.”

1. Greywater Watch

Naturally, the Reed’s home in the Neck, Greywater Watch is our first description of the wet wild, and it is a place that is as wet and green as it is hidden and hostile. Theon has this to say about the Crannogmen of the Neck:

You never see them, but they see you. Those who go into the bogs after them get lost and never come out. Their houses move, even the castles like Greywater Watch.

(A Clash of Kings, Theon IV).

And we get these details from the Worldbook:

“The swamp-dwellers of the Neck [are] known as crannogmen for the floating islands on which they raise their halls and hovels…amidst the fens and swamps and salt marshes.”

2. Arianne’s Cave

And if that was too subtle for you, George gives us detailed, on-point description of “the wet wild” in the Arianne II TWOW sample chapter. And spoiler alert, later when Arianne explores a cave in the rainwood, she will explicitly recognize the work of the Children of the Forest.

Dusk found them on the fringes of the rainwood, a wet green world where brooks and rivers ran through dark forests and the ground was made of mud and rotting leaves. Huge willows grew along the watercourses, larger than any that Arianne had ever seen, their great trunks as gnarled and twisted as an old man’s face and festooned with beards of silvery moss. Trees pressed close on every side, shutting out the sun; hemlock and red cedars, white oaks, soldier pines that stood as tall and straight as towers, colossal sentinels, big-leaf maples, redwoods, wormtrees, even here and there a wild weirwood. Underneath their tangled branches ferns and flowers grew in profusion; sword ferns, lady ferns, bellflowers and piper’s lace, evening stars and poison kisses, liverwort, lungwort, hornwort. Mushrooms sprouted down amongst the tree roots, and from their trunks as well, pale spotted hands that caught the rain. Other trees were furred with moss, green or grey or red-tailed, and once a vivid purple. Lichens covered every rock and stone. Toadstools festered besides rotting logs. The very air seemed green

After further description, she continues:

merinolight-verdant-junecolourway
Verdant, June Colourway

The wood was full of caves as well. That first night they took shelter in one of them, to get out of the wet. In Dorne they had often travelled after dark, when the moonlight turned the blowing sands to silver, but the rainwood was too full of bogs, ravines, and sinkholes, and black as pitch beneath the trees, where the moon was just a memory.

(Arianne II, TWOW Sample Chapter)

IV. The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep: Walking the Moist Miles Before we Sleep

In Greywater Watch and definitely in the Arianne sample chapter, George gives us a FEAST of green description. And it vividly develops the characteristics of the “wet wild.” We can take away a lot from descriptions.

On a direct and concrete level, Arianne’s cave and Greywater Watch show us the physical locations where green magic will be the strongest – swampy, marshy, boggy places. But they also operate on an abstract and symbolic level that hints about how the magic itself works. Let’s look at three key elements of the wet wild map. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to let loose your giggles about how dirty this sounds or get over how much the word moist creeps you out. We’ve talking about cycle of life stuff here, so yeah, go to town on sexy wet and wild double entrendre.

1. Wet and Green Together

Wet and green are paired together. Science-wise, this makes sense. Water spawns green life. To borrow Jojen’s words, the neck and the rainwood, are green fountains.

This ties into another more abstract metaphor and delightful pun that is present throughout the text, the pun on green SEE and green SEA. Honestly, I owe most the depth of this analysis of the “wet wild” as a template for green magic to @ravenousreader who discovered the pun and to LML who has used it to explore Patchface’s prophetic dreams among other things, which of course begin with “under the sea.” The greensee pun and symbolism are ALL OVER a Song of Ice and Fire. You cannot unsee (unsea?) them.

2. A Dark, Green Maze

The wet wild is a green maze, dark and overwhelming. The natural life in the both the Neck and the Rainwood make it hard to find your way. People get lost trying to find Greywater watch. In the Rainwood, dark forests choke out the sun and Arianne cannot travel by night because it is “black as pitch”.

The equation of greensight with darkness is extremely vivid throughout Bran’s arc. In the cave beyond the wall, Bloodraven admonishes him:

“Never fear the darkness, Bran.” The lord’s words were accompanied by a faint rustling of wood and leaf, a slight twisting of his head. “The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother’s milk. Darkness will make you strong.”

(Bran III, A Dance with Dragons)

Forests are dark. Night is dark (and full of terrors). But in the underworld of the wet wild, caves reign supreme as places of dark magic.

3. Caves, Sinkholes, and Crypts…oh my.

The wet wild is full of caves and sinkholes. Again, this jives with what we know about geology because, to grossly oversimplify, caves are formed by rock dissolving into water.

A quick sidebar: Caves, caverns, crypts and mines are all over A Song of Ice and Fire. So I am not arguing here that every place underground place is somehow magical, but a lot of them definitely carry strong magical symbolism. The crypts of Winterfell, for example, are located underneath the Godswood and a pool of still black water, are full of the creepy statutes of dead Starks, and Jon and Bran return there over and over again in their dreams. That is whole mess of not only dark symbolism, but signs of greenseer influence.

We will explore some more concrete underground terrain features a little bit later, for now let’s return to Bloodraven’s cave and the more abstract motif of “depth.” Leaf, one of the children of the forest, gives Bran this explanation of Greenseers that becomes a refrain for Bran: A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. Greenseers.

Leaf calls out the hidden and hostile nature of the cave and ties together the symbolism of darkness, mazes, and water as he cautions,

“Men should not go wandering in this place…The river you hear is swift and black, and flows down and down to a sunless sea. And there are passages that go even deeper, bottomless pits and sudden shafts, forgotten ways that lead to the very center of the earth.”

Bran III, A Dance with Dragons

Any place with all these features is not only likely to be full of greensee symbolism, but likely close to where green magic is the strongest. Places closely tied to the natural cycle of life, decay, and death. They are green and black, dark and deep, wet and wild. Recall that throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, George has closely tied magic to nature. These descriptions offer the careful reader clues while allowing the signs of magic to remain hidden in plain sight.

Braavos, a Grey City in a Green Sea

If you are a couple steps ahead of me, you may be thinking, wet and wild, I get it, but SHOW ME THE TREES! Braavos doesn’t have any damn trees. Or bloody weirwoods. Hold your zorses, friends, we’re getting there. But first consider that the “wet wild” does not require trees. Our first example of green magic, the home of the Reeds, is Graywater Watch and its bogs and saltmarshes. And as we will see, Braavos and the Neck share some strikingly green similarities. I’ll also point out that “greywater” is distinctly evoking the more deathly side of the green equation.

Another quick sidebar, some of these similarities may only be symbolic, meant to bring out the importance of greensight in Arya’s arc. But bear with me, because I think there are enough clues to reinforce the conclusion that dark green magic is at the heart of the mysteries of Braavos.

A Drear, Green, Uninviting Place

Let’s start with the World Book’s description of where the escaped slaves–those moonsinger following founders of Braavos—chose to settle:

The lagoon where the fugitives found a refuge seemed a drear and uninviting place of mudflats, tidal shallows, and saltmarshes at first glance, but it was well hidden behind outlying islands and sea stacks, and oft cloaked from above by fog. Moreover, its brackish waters were rich with fish and shellfish of all sorts, the sheltering islands were thickly forested

greywater
What someone on Reddit thinks Greywater Watch looks like.

A well-hidden lagoon of mudflats and marshes, nestled behind thickly forested islands and cloaked by fog? You don’t say, that sure sounds a lot like Greywater Watch but in the sea.

Jojen tells Bran back in Game of Thrones, “Ravens can’t find Greywater Watch, no more than our enemies.” The Braavosi version is just, “No one can find Braavos.” Pun intended.

I. A Bridge over Green Water

In Braavos, wet and green are paired together. Upon arriving in Braavos, Arya vividly observes that the canals and marshes surrounding the islands are green, thinking to herself that Braavos is “A grey city, in a green sea.” To make sure we get the imagery right, Arya also sees:

  • “a broad expanse of pea-green water rippled like a sheet of colored glass”
  • “A great canal, a broad green waterway that ran straight into the heart of the city.”

But this is all just a coincidence, right? George is just giving us these descriptions because that’s what marshes and canals look like. But then you discover this passage from Arya’s initial voyage through the canals of Braavos, acting like a greensea greenseer decoder ring, literally bridging the gap between natural sea and the magical see:

They passed under the arches of a carved stone bridge, decorated with half a hundred kinds of fish and crabs and squids. A second bridge appeared ahead, this one carved in lacy leafy vines, and beyond that a third, gazing down on them from a thousand painted eyes. (Arya I, A Feast for Crows)

The bridge speaks for itself:

  • The wet wild under the greensee represented by fish and crabs and squids.
  • The wet wild above the greensee represented by leafy vines.
  • And a thousand painted eyes – just like Bran’s refrain in Bloodraven’s cave – gazing down on them.

II. A Cloak of Fog, a Maze of Canals

Braavos is cloaked by fog and built on top of a system of maze-like underground caverns. I am going to save my discussion of the underground caverns for our next part, because there is some additional context we need to develop before we can plumb those depths. Moreover, the maze-like caverns are closely tied to the House of Black and White itself.

Braavos is also replete with hostile imagery about getting lost in the canals and drowning in green canal water.   This is a great example of how George mixes abstract symbolic clues like “getting lost” with more specific, nature driven imagery.

1. Blundering Knights and Lost Gilly Flowers

Let’s use this delightful exchange between Bran and Jojen to explore the idea of getting lost in or drowning in the green.

“Not one of them could find it. They ride into the Neck, but not back out. And sooner or later they blunder into the bogs and sink beneath the weight of all that still and drown in their armor.”

The thought of drowned knights under the water gave Bran the shivers. (Bran, A Game of Thrones)

the dead marshes by anke katrin eissmann
The Dead MarshesAnke Katrin Eissmann

There are a million things I love about this passage, the similar imagery to the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings, the Arthurian nod to islands getting lost in the mists, and of course the symbolism of people drowning in the green.

George uses Sam’s POV to help establish the hostility of Braavos to outsiders. Sam recounts that “the stony maze of islands and canals that was Braavos frightened [Gilly] so badly that she soon lost the map and herself.”

Maester Aemon, on the verge of death and troubled by dreams of dragons and the princess that was promised, has following exchange with Sam:

“I have dreamt enough for now. Canal water will suffice. Help me, if you would.”

Sam eased the old man up and held the cup to his dry, cracked lips. Even so, half the water dribbled down the maester’s chest. “Enough,” Aemon coughed, after a few sips. “You’ll drown me.” He shivered in Sam’s arms. “Why is the room so cold?”

Sam III, A Feast for Crows

If you remember that we learned in Arya’s first Braavos POV that the canal water is green and you get a lovely, abstract image of a Targaryen drowning under the cold green sea.

2. Cat of Canals and the Claws of Death

It gets more literal quickly when Sam crosses paths with Arya, who is posing as Cat of the Canals. When Cat defends Sam from a troublesome bravo, the bravo tries to threaten her, saying “Little cats who howl too loud get drowned in the Canals” and Cat retorts, “Not if they have claws.” And of course, Arya Stark has claws.

cat of the canals reneaigner
Cat of the Canals by Rene Aiger

Of course, memorably, in the Cat of the Canals chapter in later in Feast, Arya slits the throat of Daeron—a Night’s Watch deserter—and pushes him into a canal.

I could probably write an entire essay unpacking the symbolism of those events by themselves, but let’s quickly note the obvious. George is tying drowning and the green sea to death.

Arya, who can skin change direwolves and cats, has the green in her blood. And she moves through the canals of Braavos like a natural born killer, delivering northern justice and drowning a Night’s Watch deserter. Arya is ruling the greensea and delivering death. She is acting as nature’s instrument of death during her time in Braavos.

3. In the Fog All Men are Killers

Finally, let’s take a brief look at how the fog in Braavos serves to enhance the wet, wild imagery and allude to the presence of green magic. After all, as the Kindly Man  this is this the city that help the Faceless Men “flower among these northern fogs.”

She could tell the fog was thick from the clammy way her clothes clung to her and the damp feeling of the air on her bare hands. The mists of Braavos did queer things to sounds as well, she found. Half the city will be half-blind tonight.

The mists seemed to part before her and close up again as she passed. The cobblestones were wet and slick under her feet. She heard a cat yowl plaintively. Braavos was a good city for cats, and they roamed everywhere, especially at night. In the fog all cats are grey, Mercy thought. In the fog all men are killers.

(Mercy, TWOW Sample Chapter)

This is chilly, ghostly imagery for sure. The fog makes everyone ghosts and killers. And Arya feels like she can control the mists that “part before her” as she prowls the night. 

Spelunking for Magic: A Conclusion and Teaser

After comparing passages from Braavos to passages about other locations where green magic is present, it is hard to deny that Braavos checks many of the same boxes as Greywater Watch and the Rainwood where Arianne finds her cave. Even looking primarily above ground, its easy to create a long list of comparisons running from how damp and disorienting these places are, to how hostile they are to outside life they drown out, and how, once you’re trapped there, the green or grey water seems all consuming, almost as if the place itself were watching you.

These similarities and symbols are intentional—George is using vivid, sensory imagery to show us how these green locations are alive with magic.

But where is this magic? Remember the “abandoned iron mine” beneath the House of Black and White? What if it wasn’t a mine at all, but instead some kind of magic cave? Like, for example, Bloodraven’s cave or Arianne’s cave that we looked at briefly as part the wet wild greenprint.

Indeed, caves have their own set of concrete characteristics that are tied to presence of the Children of the Forest. I could devote an entire essay to sussing out these characteristics. And in fact, someone already has. So if you are looking for a more detailed description of the similarities between caves, caverns, and hollow hill magic in the Seven Kingdoms, I commend to your reading this excellent essay by Wizz the Smith.

In the next part of this series, we will examine not only caves and hollow hills, but all the different magic artifacts present in the House of Black and White, beneath the green sea of Braavos.

An Order of Whispers, A City of Secrets

Featured Art: Braavos by MsieuFrodon

Braavos may be the youngest of the Free Cities, but the city’s history is as rich as the famed Iron Bank. To unlock of the magic at the heart of Braavos, we must understand the people that founded the city and their motivations. I promise, the origins of the Faceless Men and story of the founding of Braavos are worth revisiting with our third eye open.

Continue reading “An Order of Whispers, A City of Secrets”

A Stupid, Flesh-Eating Statue

 Assassination plots, political intrigue, and strange dark magic jump out as my favorite elements of A Song of Ice and Fire. They combine to make a story that is fantasy, horror, political thriller, and mystery at all rolled into one. This potent mix lives at the heart of Braavos and the mysterious House of Black and White. And like every good fantasy-horror-thriller-mystery, the deeper you go, the weirder it gets.

So, I’ll start my investigation with a simple question, what in the holy heck is going on in the deep levels of House of Black and White?

Seriously, what strange sorcery allows a cult of death god worshipping assassins to preserve THOUSANDS OF FACES underground and then wear them like skins? It’s so creepy I have to laugh when describing it out loud or I scare myself.

I began with my own suspicions. There is a ton of common symbolism between Arya’s chapters with the Faceless Men and Bran’s with Bloodraven. For an amazing analysis those similarities as symbolism, check out In Grove of Ash from Lucifer Means Lightbringer. But I wondered, is it only symbolism? Or are the Faceless Men using some kind of greenseer or Children of the Forest or other blood magic to create and preserve their skins?

Continue reading “A Stupid, Flesh-Eating Statue”