Pearson Moore digs into some of the themes and parallels that can be drawn from this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, in his essay on “The Ghost of Harrenhal”.
Only Death Pays For Life: Supernatural Symmetries in GoT 2.05
by Pearson Moore
“Only death may pay for life.”
The saying is not new. We heard these words from the lips of Mirri Maz Duur in Episode 1.09 last year. Tonight this rule of life was given verbal form by Jaqen H’ghar, formerly a despised criminal, now a Lannister man-at-arms. Arya recoiled from the man clothed in the garb of her enemy. But he posed a question germane not only to Arya, but to all of us: “You fetch water for one of them now. Why is this right for you and wrong for me?” Why do we account him an enemy when he merely conforms to behaviour we would expect of anyone—even ourselves—in such a difficult circumstance? Arya Stark fetches water for Tywin Lannister, Jaqen H’ghar fetches laws of nature for Arya Stark. The question we really ought to be asking ourselves, I believe, goes back to Season One: If one such as Jaqen H’ghar is privy to the intimate structure of the universe and its immutable ways and precepts, why was he ever locked in an iron cage?
Tonight was a study in symmetries ignored—harmonies unobserved, rhythms unappreciated, equalities unexpressed. The night is dark and full of terrors most of all because of our ignorance of the ways of woman and nature and man. Many of the characters tonight stumbled about in the darkness of unknowing, a few struggled to observe, appreciate, express. This essay is my attempt to make sense of wildfire, restrained love, shadowy daggers, and sparkling gems. Look closely enough and you can see the harmonies and rhythms for yourself.
The One True God 3.0
Arya’s life lessons have revolved around the nature of death. “There is only one god, and his name is Death,” Arya’s first tutor, Syrio Forel, told her in Episode 1.06. Arya’s second tutor, Yoren, taught her the value of keeping a list of people deserving of intimate contact with the One True God. Tonight, Arya’s third tutor, Jaqen H’ghar lectured her on the expectations of that fiery and unforgiving deity.
“The Red God takes what is his,” Jaqen said. Arya had liberated Jaqen, Biter, and Rorge from certain death; she had essentially cheated Death of his due, and Jaqen knew Death could not be deceived or short-changed in this manner. Restitution would have to be made. Since Arya had been responsible for taking that which belonged to Death, she would have to give something in return.
There were limitations on the types of payment-in-kind acceptable to the Red God. We have heard these limitations before. When Daenerys wished to deny Death its claim on Khal Drogo’s life, she had to give up the life of her infant son. “Only death pays for life,” the Lhazareen witch told her last season. Mirri Maz Duur knew the ways of the world, and by remaining faithful to the laws of the universe, she pulled Khal Drogo out of Death’s grasp. In the same way, since Arya had pulled the three dangerous criminals out of Death’s reach, she would have to present Death with three human lives in exchange.
We need to pay heed to several important qualities of this immutable decree.
First, the law is real. Jaqen is not making light of his survival. He is not imagining the law, or making it up as he goes along. He is not taking matters into his own hands for sport or retribution or personal or communal justice. In fact, since the Law of the Red God is real, and transcends ordinary reality, we cannot be entirely sure that Jaqen is employing ordinary means to satisfy the requirements of the law.
Second, note well that the law applies equally throughout the GRRM universe. The rule is not in effect only on the Dothraki Sea, where Khal Drogo met his fate, nor is it isolated in application to the Free Cities where Jaqen took his apprenticeship. The law carries full effect in both Westeros and Essos, on dry land and on high sea, in sun-drenched desert and snow-covered forest.
Third, this is a “higher law”. The sorceress from Lhazar had to invoke blood magic in order to manipulate the law of life and death to the end she desired. Blood magic, recall, is an art that rose above the limitations of physical reality and also above the constraints of normal magic. Since blood magic was able to alter or reverse the most primal aspects of nature, it was to be considered an illegal art, forbidden even to the most seasoned practitioners of what Maester Luwin called “the higher mysteries”.
Finally, because the Law of the Red God is a higher law, it has been relegated to the peripheries of society and forgotten by even the most learned representatives of that society. Maester Luwin is an unusually well-informed member of the most elite stratum of Westerosi society. “Only one maester in a hundred wears a link of Valyrian steel”, and Bran’s erudite tutor was one of those rare geniuses who wore the metallic symbol of mastery of the highest of maester arts. His conclusion? “Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world, but not anymore. The dragons are gone. The giants are dead, and the Children of the Forest forgotten.” As another fantasy character said—in a different universe and galaxy—“Ain’t no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”
For Maester Luwin, and therefore for every other person on the continent, there was no magic, the higher laws were myth and fable, and blood magic and even the knowledge of life and death were things far removed from even an expert’s awareness.
Arya’s exposure to the truth of this Law of Nature, then, has to be understood as something extraordinary. She has knowledge of mysteries no one else in Westeros has even heard or dreamed of.
We should take care, though, not to attribute this rare bit of knowledge strictly to Arya and to believe that the significance ends there. While she is unique in having been given access to the knowledge, the mystery is given weight and bearing not by the personality to which it attaches, but rather by the place it inhabits.
As I’ve said in previous essays, the Game of Thrones is a song for two voices. One voice flits about the Iron Throne, following a melody that dances about here and there, but focusses on the Iron Throne, with a good amount of melody permeating the Red Keep, minimal vocal attention given to the remainder of King’s Landing, and little voice at all devoted to the outer kingdoms and greater Westeros. The second voice, on the other hand, intones the rich cadences and harmonies of A Song of Ice and Fire. This second voice is strongest at the periphery: Beyond the Wall, and in fact, beyond Westeros in general, the voice is strong, to the point of shaking the ground and piercing the skies. The lesser mysteries of ASoIaF are sung within Westeros, but again near the periphery. Witness, for example, the Citadel of Oldtown. Oldtown is on the extreme southwestern coast of Westeros, far from any of the seats of power in the Seven Kingdoms. On the map below, Oldtown is to the west of Highgarden, on the far southwestern coast.
The significance of the Citadel is that it is the place of education for the most learned men of Westeros, the Maesters. It is no accident at all that Oldtown, housing the Citadel, is at the geographic outskirts of Westeros, because it is at the edge of the continent that the knowledge and practice of “higher” laws and mysteries most consistently occurs.
If we attribute no other significance to Arya’s dutiful placement of three names on Death’s list, we should see this acknowledgement of the Law of the Red God as the development of a strange kind of counterpoint in this Song of Ice and Fire, in which voices normally heard only at the geographical periphery of the story are now making themselves heard at the centre. This is an important development in the Game of Thrones, and one we should carefully note as a touchstone for future events.
Those carefully following the story could legitimately argue with the contention of Arya’s uniqueness. Doesn’t the fact of Melisandre’s mastery of the “higher mysteries” indicate the crossover between periphery and centre of the story is already occurring, and in storylines more important than Arya’s? In fact, couldn’t one take the position that there is no distinction at all between “higher” and ordinary knowledge and arts? Some people like Maester Luwin, one might argue, are simply ignorant, while others, such as Lady Melisandre, are well studied. The fact that preternatural events seem to have greater expression far from the centre of power is merely an accident of the story so far. Magic and supernatural powers, and knowledge of those powers, are uniformly distributed. It is merely a matter of individual predisposition that has made most people unaware of the deeper realities of nature.
I have to disagree with any such assessment, for reasons I hope to make clear in this section. The most telling support for the parallel paths argument (the notion that events concentrating on the Iron Throne are distinct in character from those congregating at the geographical and artistic periphery of the story) is the violation of symmetry in Melisandre’s action. The Law of the Red God states that “Only death pays for life.” We might argue that Renly was not really a king (as Margaery plainly stated the morning after Renly’s death) and therefore he could suffer a symmetrical death by means of an assassin that did not really take on human form.
However, if we grant that Renly was a “shadow king”, his death could not be symmetrical, even if killed by a shadow assassin. Renly was truly alive. His life was not a shadow of anything. He was truly killed, and not by any entity born in the light. Melisandre’s evil Shadow Baby was a creation of pure darkness. She did not consult with or adhere to any of the higher laws in her unilateral action to end Renly’s life. The Law of the Red God is as firm as Newton’s Law of Motion (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”). The symmetry of the universe demands retribution—realignment, the reestablishment of balance—for a unilateral, asymmetric death such as Renly’s. That a powerful man was killed, in fact, may require that the “equal and opposite reaction” take the form of more than one life. In fact, possibly dozens or hundreds of lives may be required.
We have not yet seen evidence that Melisandre’s dabbling in magic constitutes a legitimate, well-informed application of higher powers. As Marcus Brody would have told her, “You’re meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend.” We should expect, then that some “equal and opposite reaction” will occur at a place and time that no one, least of all Melisandre, will be able to predict.
I believe the real issue revolves around legitimate understanding. Knowledge is acquired not only as a matter of passionate self-interest, but as a consequence of identity. Thus, Bran sees with the three eyes of a raven and runs with the four legs of a direwolf because he in some sense is a raven and is a direwolf. His interest in direwolves is not an expression of desire but is informed almost entirely by the fact that he is and needs be a direwolf. Identity is two or three orders of magnitude (a hundred or a thousand times) more important than Bran’s comparatively feeble desire to see and run. As I made clear in my essay on Bran (Game of Thrones Season One Essays), he desires to see and run and fly more than perhaps anyone in history has ever desired these things. Also as I argued, Bran doesn’t see or run in the same way that you and I do; seeing and running, for Bran, are the same activity.
Bran has the same kind of sight and animal-connected existence celebrated in the stories of the Children of the Forest. His identity as a Child of the Forest is much stronger than his ordinary human desire to run and fly. As extraordinary as that desire must be, especially in his current state of physical disability, his identity remains so much more powerful to the determination of final ability that even his strong desires can be accounted as nothing.
If this is true of Bran, we should expect the same comparative strengths within others. Even if I have great desire, if I lack true identity, I will never achieve the knowledge of someone like Bran. Even if Melisandre prays all day to her God of Light, she will not achieve the level of enlightenment of Bran, Arya, or Daenerys without first seeking the true expression of her identity.
In the end, the people of Westeros surrender to identity only when their usually-competing and sensory-dulling desires are thwarted. If identity is to achieve preeminence of action it is only because the desires are not put down once or twice, but continually, every day, and in the most humiliating and horrendous ways imaginable. The people who have most fully surrendered to the truth of their identity are the ones who have been slapped down, insulted, held in contempt, despised, hated, enslaved, disrespected, forced to the back of the bus. These are the people I refer to as constituting the Sisterhood of the Damned—Tyrion’s “cripples, bastards, and broken things”.
Because her desire far outweighs the manifestation of her identity, Melisandre could never gain admittance to the Sisterhood. She enjoys some of the powers of the Sisterhood, but this does not suffice to her rampant desire. She seeks ordinary, conventional, physical and political power. These don’t seem to be antithetical to the powers cultivated in the Sisterhood (Tyrion is a member and seems to be thriving in the halls of political power), but they do seem to exist at the edge of what is most useful and meaningful to those whose identities are determined by the higher mysteries.
Wildfire and The Sea Bitch
I question Melisandre’s ability to maintain a balanced position in the story. I believe she is a destabilising force. Her actions have already had profound impact, but as I argued above, they are almost certainly the result of an unstudied, disconnected dabbling in forces she cannot truly control or understand. Her impact may be deep, but it should be temporary and unpredictable.
Just as I believe Melisandre should be seen as an unguided missile, with high potential to wreak havoc, I think we have to consider Cersei’s wildfire and Dagmer Cleftjaw’s raid on Torrhen’s Square as destabilising actions carrying unpredictable and potentially enormous consequences.
As Tyrion noted, 7811 pots of wildfire could consume all of King’s Landing. Think of Dresden in February, 1945. The RAF dropped so many incendiary bombs on the city that every molecule of oxygen in a 40-square-mile area was consumed. There was literally no air to breathe. Even those who were not “burned to atoms” in the maelstrom were suffocated to death as the firestorm consumed every bit of oxygen in the air. The accidental ignition of so much wildfire would bring a quick and disastrous end to the Lannister hold on power.
Even if the wildfire does not accidentally turn King’s Landing into cinders and ash, I have to believe there will be enduring and unforeseeable consequences to this extreme action.
The raid on Torrhen’s Square, to which Theon Greyjoy seems to have whole-heartedly subscribed, does not seem to have any greater prospect for creating stability than those thousands of pots of wildfire. The plan is to initiate a surprise attack on Torrhen’s Square, stay just long enough to ensure Winterfell’s response, and then march on Winterfell proper, taking the castle. And all of that with just one shipload of passionate but poorly disciplined, independent thinkers from the Iron Islands. Theon is not coordinating with his sister, Yara, but even a carefully planned and coordinated attack of this kind, going up against potentially tens of thousands of seasoned soldiers, would seem foolhardy to most observers.
How long could Theon reasonably hope to hold Winterfell? This is no symbolic Doolittle Raid; Theon actually believes he will be able to hold Winterfell long enough to make a name for himself among the tough men pledging allegiance to Pyke. It seems to me a desperate, reckless move, very much akin to Melisandre’s assassination of Renly.
Identity is a central concept in Game of Thrones, and not only for the members of the Sisterhood of the Damned. Brienne and Loras both drew their identity from their close association with Renly, but in very different ways. Curiously, even though their needs were different, the advice they received from friends was nearly word-for-word identical.
Margaery told her brother, Loras, “You can’t avenge him [Renly] from the grave.” Several minutes later, Catelyn told her protector, Brienne, “You serve nothing and no one by following him [Renly] into the earth.” The difference in Brienne’s reaction and Loras’ was striking, and indicative of the expression of their identities.
Brienne found her identity in giving of herself. When she lost one master, she was obliged to commit herself immediately to another. She did not fear physical death; indeed, in her capacity as the primary guard for highly-visible targets, she put herself in harm’s way. When Catelyn warned her she would serve no one by “following [Renly] into the earth”, her immediate response was not fear of death, but fear loss of service to another. Her response did not address death, it addressed service: “I could serve you, if you would have me.” Seeking retribution for Renly’s murder was a low second on her list of priorities.
Loras, on the other hand, did not serve Renly. He could not be motivated by service, and Margaery did not bring up this idea in her advice to him. Loras supported Renly because Renly supported Loras’ image of himself. I discussed this in my essay on Episode 3.03 a couple of weeks ago. Loras’ motivation in fleeing the Baratheon camp was not any inability to serve, but rather the preservation of his own skin and his desire to extract vengeance. Margaery’s words of advice perfectly reflected Loras’ emotional state at Renly’s wake.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the continuation of the theme of nonspecificity first engaged in Episode 3.03 in the scene between Renly and Margaery. The scene was framed by Margaery’s introductory remark that Renly could do as he wished “because you are a king” and her concluding statement that “you are a king.” Not once did she say “You are the king.” The qualification of the noun ‘king’ with the indefinite article—twice—was striking. I remarked then that the fact that the scene was framed in this manner was significant, and we saw that significance become very apparent in tonight’s episode.
Margaery told Littlefinger, “If Renly wasn’t a king, I wasn’t a queen.”
Littlefinger asked, “Do you want to be a queen?”
“No. I want to be the queen.”
That Margaery did not mourn Renly was more than obvious. That she again relegated Renly to the status of nonspecificity (as I said two weeks ago, she didn’t care about Renly per se—any king would suit her fancy) was almost beyond belief. But then she went a step further, and revealed to Littlefinger her true intention: She wished to assume all power to herself.
Here, then, is the leader of the fifth khalasar of whom I spoke several weeks ago. For the moment, she may be in a khalasar of one (herself!), but her intention is nothing less than the de facto control of all of Westeros. The fact that she is married to a king (I place the indefinite article here with prejudiced intention) is subordinate to the final objective of becoming the queen. A king that marries her and sits the Iron Throne is projecting the appearance of power, but it is in the person of Margaery Tyrell that the true sovereignty—the true power—will reside. For Margaery, identity is not something she owns, but something she seeks. Power and identity, in her mind, are one and the same. So it is that when Renly dies, she shrugs her shoulders. Her identity is not affected, because she has no identity, only desire. “Oh well,” she says, seeing the dead body of a king, “there are other kings, after all.”
Look Closely Enough
“He [the dragon] loves you,” Daenerys told her handmaid, Doreah.
Irri, who was never invited to teach Daenerys the ways of love, who never straddled the Khaleesi’s waist and brought her lips to within millimetres of her master’s own lips, was jealous of the Khaleesi’s favourite handmaid. It showed in every contorted muscle of her face.
“He [Ser Jorah] loves you,” Xaro told his companion, Daenerys.
Xaro, who was never invited to share in the intimacies of Daenerys’ life, who never bowed down in worship before Daenerys’ naked body, was jealous of the knight’s affections for her. It showed in every contorted muscle of Xaro’s face.
Had Daenerys been oblivious to Jorah Mormont all this time? Had she failed to see his love for her?
“I only want—”
“What do you want?” Daenerys asked Ser Jorah.
“To see you on the Iron Throne.”
“You have a good claim, a title, a birthright. But you have something more than that. You may cover it up and deny it but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be feared and respected, you would be loved.”
Reading between the lines is not difficult. Ser Jorah could state she would be loved because he had to believe that others would be stirred to the same feelings he himself carried. He loved her, and he always had. The feelings were profound. “Centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times when I look at you and still can’t believe you’re real.”
So she knows now. But how will she respond? Is that fact that her primary confidant and protector is in love with her something she will sense as an obstacle to her work? An enhancement to be exploited?
We have as yet no indication the Mother of Dragons has any affection for Jorah. But romance is not a central theme in Game of Thrones. We are not going to—or at least, I very much hope we are not going to see the kinds of childish love triangles that have taken centre stage in some otherwise fine pieces of television drama (yes, I am talking about Lost!). But the two loves interests do have great relevance to the story. The question is not, “Which man will Dany choose?” Rather, the question is, when she brings Pyat Pree’s green gem close to her eyes, what does she see?
“Look closely enough and you can see yourself.”
Will she look closely enough? Will she make sense of what she sees?
Ser Jorah’s interest in Daenerys is intimately tied to his image of her as Queen, and therefore to her role as future ruler of Westeros. This is the real significance of Jorah’s profession of amorous intent. His opinion of her is well informed and therefore something she ought to engage and interrogate. He said “You have a gentle heart.” If she rebuffs him, she may end up behaving as he feared, she may “cover it up and deny it.” Denying it might even seem a natural consequence of her true intentions. How could sentimentality and being “gentle” help her in forcefully taking the throne?
The problem in denying Ser Jorah’s statement is that she would be denying the truth of her own identity. Early at Xaro’s party, Ser Jorah noted that the Dothraki were “good at killing.” Daenerys’ response was immediate: “That’s not the kind of queen I’m going to be.”
The fact is that her intention to act with gentle heart has always been connected to her ascension to power, even as she spoke with bravado and aggressive force. She deeply empathised with slaves, and her first act upon assuming power was to take off the collars and free those who had given up their freedom in order to live as unpaid servants. She vowed to take care of her people, including those without power or ability to contribute productively. Women under her authority would no longer be raped and treated as cattle, they would be shown the same respect accorded men. While her words have been uncompromising and fierce, her actions have been gentle and kind.
The importance of Ser Jorah’s love to the story is that of spiritual touchstone, compass, and guide. In heeding the counsel of people like Ser Jorah—those with deep and authentic connection to her truest self—Daenerys has the ability to remain faithful to her true identity throughout the travails to come. Will she avail herself of this freely-given guide?
A Man Has a Thirst
Many questions were answered tonight. Many questions remain.
A question has been on a man’s mind for many months, and has resisted every attempt at response: If one such as Jaqen H’ghar is privy to the intimate structure of the universe and its immutable ways and precepts, why was he ever locked in an iron cage?
I am going to attempt an answer to this riddle, but not tonight. Tonight it is enough, I believe, to think on the Law of the Red God, the desperation of shadow assassins and sea bitches, the Westerosi rules of identity, the awesome force of powers we cannot possibly comprehend.
We have before us a shiny green gem. We stare—bewitched, entranced, immersed—delighted in its brilliant symmetries. Will we look closely enough? Will we make sense of what we see? We will take a look again next week, to find whether we can see the harmonies and rhythms for ourselves.