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.

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3 thoughts on “A Grey City in a Green Sea: Green Magic and the Imagery of Braavos”

  1. Mejecam from the LML chat today… I love the connections you are making here, I can’t wait to read more, thanks for pointing me here…! I feel like you are onto the other half of what LML is working on, and that there are a PAIR of dualities in GRMM’s world- ice and fire on one side, and heavens and earth (AKA life/death, aboveworld and underworld) on the other.

    Is this theory something like what you are working towards?: https://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/8z6cgd/spoilers_extended_the_breaking_the_balance_theory/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jessica! They way I like to think of it in mythical astronomy terms is “as above, so below…and also below that” meaning as it is in the heavens, so it is below on earth and then below that in the underworld. If you’ve checked out Wizz the Smith’s hollow hills work that I mention toward the end of this section, he covers that theme too.

      As far as what I think about the magic system more broadly, well I think one of the best pieces I’ve read about that in a abstract sense was probably a r/asoiaf piece from a while back explaining how all magic is blood magic. I don’t necessarily 100 percent agree, but I think the analysis that GRRM has a coherent and balanced magical system (rather than multiple different, incompatible systems) is pretty strong. I chose not to write in more depth about magic generally because I do think the topic is a bit overwritten in the fandom, at least when not tied to specific locations or events.

      Right now, my primary project is the Faceless Men and connecting their magic to their political ambitions. Who knows all the fun places that can take us, just standing by itself?

      Like

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