Here is Pearson Moore’s essay on episode 16, “The Old Gods and the New”.
Spoiler Note: This essay contains some backstory elements that have not yet been addressed on the show but are covered in the books.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue: A Second Look at Game of Thrones 2.06
by Pearson Moore
Some god old,
Some god new,
Some god borrowed,
Some god blue.
A boy, a girl, and the desire that binds them. These are the only necessary elements in any good romance. The single thing keeping lovers apart is their misunderstanding of each other. Roxanne doesn’t know of Cyrano’s love because he believes his nose repulses her, but love is not a function of physical beauty, and with his dying breath Roxanne discovers Cyrano’s deep and enduring affection. Love conquers all, they say, and even someone with as large a nose as Cyrano de Bergerac’s can discover enchantments of the heart.
Would that this were so. Romeo and Juliet’s love is not pure or true, and never will be. Neither the House of Montague nor the House of Capulet is to blame for two deaths in a crypt. If we believe the Bard wishes us to understand that the two houses share in the blame we are missing the point of this greatest of tragedies.
Three people, not two, are required at every wedding. Tonight we saw couplings strange and awkward, lusty and chivalrous, borrowed and blue. But every one of these couples looked up, sometimes as if startled, to see the third person standing in their midst.
“I’ve taken your castle. I’ve taken Winterfell. I took it. I’m occupying it. I sent men over the walls with grappling claws and …”
If not for Bran’s interruption, Theon would probably still be droning on about having taken the Stark castle. (“I stormed your castle, I triumphed over your guards, I own Winterfell, the castle belongs to me now, I own this land by right of conquest, Winterfell is mine, really, I took it, my men took it at my command, everything here is mine and …”)
The reason for Theon’s strange monologue should have been clear to us from the beginning, but the underlying cause became evident in subsequent scenes. Theon Greyjoy, we realised, was not responsible for the victory at Winterfell. That distinction belonged entirely to his capable lieutenant, Dagmer Cleftjaw. Theon borrowed from Cleftjaw the command to attack Winterfell, as we saw in earlier episodes.
When Ser Rodrik spit in Theon’s face, Cleftjaw informed Theon of the command he would have to give. “He must pay the iron price,” Cleftjaw said. Of course. Theon had half a mind to put Rodrik in shackles, but the problem with Theon is not drive or ambition, it’s the fact that he is not whole, that in fact he applies half a mind or less to the problems he confronts, and he is obliged to rely on those with fully expressed personalities to make decisions for him. He capitulates on every half-baked command or scheme his rudderless mind devises.
Theon acquiesces to Cleftjaw’s logic that nothing short of Rodrik’s death will re-establish the Iron Islander’s respect for him after Rodrik’s impudent challenge to Theon’s authority. Anything that anyone says that might be interpreted as casting doubt on any masculine quality Theon wishes to project will be interpreted in precisely that way. So it is that when Cleftjaw is ready to swing the blade to sever Rodrik’s head, for instance, Ser Rodrik reframes Theon’s authority in northern terms: “He who passes sentence should swing the sword, coward.” Theon understands this proclamation as a challenge, and he borrows Rodrik’s command, pushing Cleftjaw away and drawing his own sword.
The butchery that follows is not so much a result of Theon’s inability to maintain control as his inability to project a consistent message from a position of stability. He is unable to control not because he has some innate disability but because he lacks identity. He is neither Stark nor Greyjoy, neither leader nor follower, he bows neither to old gods nor to new. He is neither studied nor self-made. He is nothing, an empty shell, who must therefore yield to others’ commands and absorb them, borrow them, pretend they are his creations.
Osha came to Theon, not at his bidding, but at her insistence. “There are other ways to serve, my Lord,” she told him. “We know things, we free people. Other things. Savage things.”
The entire evening conformed to the plan she developed. As with every other situation calling for a decision or command from Theon, he allowed others—this time Osha—to make the commands for him. He merely borrowed them as his own:
“It comes at a price.”
“What do you want, then, other than your miserable life?”
“What all free people want: my freedom.”
“Well you shall have it then.”
He is not capable of his own decisions, even when it comes to something as simple as whether or not to sleep with someone. He knows only his desires. He suffers the illusion that when he dismisses the guard he is alone in the room with the woman he happens to desire at that moment. A third person occupies the room, though, whether he understands this or not. But without identity, he is not only incapable of rendering decisions, he is incapable of seeing. Blind to the third person, he plucks desired fruit from a tree he believes was planted for his pleasure.
Theon searched for ways to tell Bran that the castle was his not because he had taken it, but because he hadn’t. The castle doesn’t belong to Theon. He borrowed it.
Tonight’s episode was breathtaking. Plotting was fast, tight, and even. Every moment that might have been offered as a single-dimensional exposition of facts was instead masterfully converted into a multi-faceted feast of high drama. The most important scene came near the end, when Ygritte and Jon were alone, and she began grinding her hips, calling to Jon with the most ancient of temptations. They were not alone, though, and this time they both knew it. Nor was the grinding of hips an ancient temptation. Rather, it was a cultural statement, a matter open to discussion. Three people attended this meeting on the tundra. Tonight we will listen to what they said.
Her dress may be blue, but in discussing the “something blue” between King Robb and Lady Talisa Maegyr I am not thinking of her wardrobe choices.
“I’m not sure I’m a lady; Westerosi customs are a still a bit foreign to me.”
“… A woman of noble birth is always called a lady.”
“Why are you so sure I am of noble birth?”
“Because it’s obvious.”
She wears royal blue—the bleu royal of the French tricolore—not outside, but inside, where it becomes obvious. It is the colour Robb Stark should be able to see. Not the red colour of ordinary nobility, but the blue of highest nobility. He is, after all, a king, and kings perceive and understand truths that evade ordinary mortals.
GRRM is calling Robb to the blue, but the young wolf is missing the mark in this scene. Someone like Theon Greyjoy will never be truly noble, because he cannot even see the colours of his own heart, let alone the colours inside another’s heart. Robb sees the royal blue inside Talisa, but a king is called to something more important than the mere ability to perceive. He must be able to wear the blue, it must fit him perfectly, if he is truly king.
Perhaps sometime this season we will hear tell of a “blue-eyed king” who casts no shadow but carries a red sword. We might imagine words such as these formed by Melisandre’s lips, for instance, but probably because of that “red sword”. What of the blue eyes?
Many characters have blue eyes, of course, but Stannis’ eyes, at least in the HBO adaptation, are more hazel than they are blue. Or does he wear royal blue inside, as Talisa does?
Blue is not ordinary, but in a sense exalted, especially in the world built by GRRM. We can look to the backstory of ASoIaF to understand something of the importance of the colour. This information has not yet been made a part of Game of Thrones, and perhaps it will never be incorporated into the story. But the idea of blue as sign of something extraordinary will help in building the case I am attempting to make in this essay, so I am going to spend a few paragraphs discussing its importance.
Probably most fans of the novels would say that the part of the backstory most relevant to current events concerns Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. We learned a little of the story with Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, in the Winterfell crypt at Lyanna’s statue. It was Rhaegar’s abduction of Lyanna, and her subsequent death at the hands of the Targaryens, that drove Robert into such a state of fury that he raised armies, killed Rhaegar with his own hands, destroyed the entire Targaryen family, and took the Iron Throne.
The backstory really began at a tournament called by King Aerys. Prince Rhaegar was expected to deliver into the hands of the prettiest girl at the tournament a garland of blue winter roses.
Wearing the black and red armour of House Targaryen, his breastplate encrusted with rubies, everyone expected Rhaegar to present the garland of blue winter roses to his wife, Elia Martell. Instead, he rode past the Targaryen stand without even giving his wife a glance. He stopped at the Stark seats, where he presented Lyanna Stark, Ned ’s young sister, with the blue wreath that designated her “queen of love and beauty” at the tournament.
This single incident, relayed in a sparing handful of short vignettes throughout the first novel of the series, carries enormous significance to fans of the novels. I doubt that my way of looking at those roses is in any way unique, but I will say that despite a couple dozen hours of research on this scene I have yet to read a single interpretation that comes close to the spin I’m about to put on the event.
I see the blue colour of the roses, the blue of Lyanna’s dress, and the blue blood of kings and queens in ASoIaF not as something exalted in the sense of being elevated above other things, but in the sense of being outside of, greater than, or foundational of lesser things. The distinction, I believe, is essential to the fullest understanding of ASoIaF and Game of Thrones.
We have already made the acquaintance of a blue-eyed man carrying a sword. In fact, we’ve seen him twice so far in GoT, north of the Wall on both occasions.
I don’t feel the blue eyes of White Walkers are coincidental, accidental, or arbitrary. I think the colour was chosen quite intentionally, and I believe the significance is the same as the meaning contained in the blue winter roses that Rhaegar presented to his beloved Lyanna.
I believe the significance George Martin wishes to attach to the colour blue is not the idea of exaltation or royalty necessarily, but an idea that, at least in Game of Thrones, transcends even royalty: Blue is a revelation of that which is primal. Blue is that which is at the periphery of the story, because it is foundational and not something to which we are normally allowed access. The colour appears most forcefully in the backstory—at the Tournament of Harrenhal, inside the Tower of Joy—because this is the foundation of the present story. The colour makes split-second appearances north of the Wall because the White Walkers (“Others” in the novels) somehow express another necessary primal aspect of the greater story.
When I hear of a blue-eyed man carrying a sword, then, I don’t first think of Stannis and his flaming sword and Melisandre’s proclamation that Stannis is the divine messiah, Azor Ahai, sent by the Red God himself. The first image I see on hearing these words is an apparition that goes beyond anything I can relate to past experience, and yet seems necessary to the story—in other words, the imagery is primal.
If Robb Stark is truly king he will of course be able to discern the truth of Talisa Maegyr’s nobility, “because it’s obvious.” Yes. But he must be able to move beyond that, to discern that which is necessarily primal. That’s always the objective in Game of Thrones, and those who play without catching sight of the necessary and the primal will never have a chance of winning the game.
So, the questions King Robb really should be asking centre on the true nature of Talisa. Who is she, really? Why is she here? How can this particular person help Robb become a better king?
Catelyn knows immediately, even without hearing any of the woman’s history, that Robb has lost focus, he is not posing the proper questions.
“I’ve missed you,” Robb said to his mother.
“Yes, you look positively forlorn.” [She didn’t even attempt to hide the sarcasm!]
“You surprised me, that’s all. I’m glad I could see you today.”
“I wish that you were free to follow your heart.”
“You’ve inherited your father’s responsibilities. I’m afraid they come at a cost. You are promised to another—a debt that must be paid.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
I have said a few times that a third person is present in each situation involving would-be lovers. Based on Catelyn’s words of wisdom to her son, we might understand her to mean that Walder Frey was the third party whose needs had to be considered—he was the third person. After all, Robb had promised to marry one of Lord Walder’s daughters in exchange for the use of his bridge. But I don’t think Walder Frey is the third person in this case. If we wish to understand the danger of Robb’s amorous overtures toward Lady Talisa, we should consider the case of Joffrey Baratheon and his impending union with Sansa Stark.
Ah, the happy couple. The young lovebirds.
We know this marriage will never be. We know Sansa is tolerated at court only to the extent that she serves as reciprocal payment for the life of Ser Jaime Lannister, currently enduring the rain and cruel elements every evening in the cell just outside King Robb’s tent. But even if she were not Ser Jaime’s ransom, even if she could become Joffrey’s wife, we know they could never be happy. Joffrey is a jerk, of course. But why is he a jerk?
He is not noble, one might say. He can’t be noble because “he’s a bastard,” as one of his subjects yelled during the courtyard riot scene. But we ought to recognise immediately the faulty nature of this assessment. Much of the story so far has focussed on the necessary and exalted nature—the primal nature, if you will—of cripples, bastards, and broken things. Jon Snow has a noble heart and noble bearing despite (or maybe because of) his identity as a bastard. Tyrion Lannister is a bastard because “all dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” yet Tyrion has a noble heart and noble bearing, too.
We understand the need to refine the connection between the primal and the broken, though. Viserys Targaryen, Daenerys’ older brother, was a cruel and selfish jerk much in the mold of Joffrey Baratheon, yet he was in many ways a member of the Sisterhood of the Damned, as Daenerys was. What set these two boys apart? Why did they not claim full membership in the humble association of cripples, bastards, and broken things? Why must Joffrey receive his humility in the form of accurately aimed horse apples?
[Tyrion said the facial wound to Joffrey’s pride was inflicted by a cow pie. I hate to differ with someone as well educated at Lord Tyrion Lannister, but the object that hit King Joffrey was not a cow pie. It may have been a horse apple—a very fresh horse apple—but it definitely was not a cow pie!]
I believe the problem is simply that Joffrey and Viserys did not wish to acknowledge their humble nature. Viserys insisted on a golden crown, and he got it. Joffrey insists on being above other people, and I have to believe his vision of himself will likewise be given full expression by those around him. The courtyard riot was a definite sign of the people’s true feelings toward their king, and if they have their way, his head will surely end up adorning the end of a pike; he will, in the end, find himself elevated above other people.
The problem began three generations ago, as we learned this evening. Tytos Lannister, Tywin’s father, “was good, but weak. He nearly destroyed the Lannister house and name. He loved us.” But love, in Tywin’s estimation, was not enough. Rather than loving his children, then, Tywin taught them strength. Be strong, keep House Lannister strong, he taught them. Cersei and Jaime did as they were told, and when their father wasn’t looking they sought love between themselves. The result of that twisted love and focus on keeping the house strong was the two-legged monster currently occupying the Iron Throne.
I don’t believe Joffrey’s inability to become intimate is a result of any lack of love. The problem is an inability to recognise his humble state. All human beings share the ability to see themselves as dependent, contingent creatures, but much of this ability was removed from Joffrey at an early age, with daily instruction in bending others’ desires, needs, and even perceptions to whatever whim he conceived at that moment. In Episode 1.03, for example, Cersei taught Joffrey to see reality creatively:
Cersei: You killed the beast. You only spared the girl because of the love your father bears her father.
Joffrey: I didn’t.
Cersei: When Aerys Targaryen sat on the Iron Throne your father was a rebel and a traitor. Someday you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it.
That is, Joffrey could tell the world that he had killed Arya’s direwolf because as the king’s son he was entitled to make history conform to his vision. Robert Baratheon was the same man before and after the fall of Aerys Targaryen. Before the fall, Robert was traitor. After the fall, Robert was king. Truth is a matter of royal decree. Joffrey had only to conform to the superficial expectations of his people.
Joffrey: Do I have to marry her?
Cersei: Yes. She’s very beautiful, and young. And if you don’t like her you only need to see her on formal occasions.
Joffrey heard fifteen years of this kind of talk from his mother, every day, whenever they shared time together. Not only would Joffrey never have a sense of himself as an ordinary, humble person, he would not even enjoy the privilege of understanding what reality was. The only reality he need ever concern himself with was whatever fantasy world he wished to construct for himself.
The characteristic shared in common among the wretched members of the Sisterhood of the Damned is that they not only have a keen sense of harsh reality, they have at least fleeting insight into the profound underpinnings of life. By his upbringing, Joffrey will be forever ignorant of these insights. Viserys missed out on these insights, too, though in this case his pride seems to have been the primary cause of his blindness.
There are always three people at any valid wedding. This is true regardless of the religious tradition to which one adheres. It is true in every culture, in every place, in every time. Even if you skip over the religious mumbo-jumbo and just go to the courthouse, fill out a form, and pay a fee (Presto! You’re married!), you’re still appearing before a third person.
In the tradition I try to maintain in my life, the bride and groom are called the ministers of the sacrament. They are the “active principles” of the wedding ceremony. The guy standing between them—a priest or deacon in my faith tradition—is not the presider. He does not officiate. All he does is read the prayers, ask questions, and ensure some adherence to ritual. He does have one other very important function, though.
One can be validly married in many religious traditions without any formal ritual at all. People have been officially and validly married over the phone. If this is true, why must that third person be there at all? Even if some formal ritual were required, couldn’t the bride and groom learn the ritual and then carry it out themselves? Why invite some guy with a bad haircut to stand between the two lovers and read from some old book?
The key statement the guy with the bad haircut gets to make is this:
“If anyone knows of any reason why these two should not be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
The idea is that marriage is not free. There are valid reasons why two people should not be wed. The two people deciding to spend their lives together as one must pay a minimum price. They owe the community, represented by the priest or deacon or justice of the peace, a commitment. They must demonstrate responsibility toward the greater community. This responsibility can be understood in terms of service, but for the purposes of this essay I’m going to frame the idea as humility. Marriage is not a means of setting apart, but a means of embedding into the greater community. It is an acknowledgement of contingency, humility, dependence on other human beings. The guy with the bad haircut is there, most of all, to ensure that the couple understand they are not alone, that they are supported, and that the community expects certain things of them, too. The bride and groom make promises to each other, but they make a promise to the community, too.
In the context of GoT, the idea of humility is transformed into the notion of awareness. A union might be valid without deep awareness of the primal nature of life, but the most effective unions will be based on this profound insight into the ways of the world.
I have to confess to a bit of foolishness. I am from northern lands similar to those Jon Snow grew up in, but for several decades I have chosen to take my vacations in the very far north, in darkest winter, in a tent. I have pedaled my bicycle through fifteen centimetres of fresh fallen snow in the wilderness of Northwestern Ontario. I have ventured onto the thick ice of Great Slave Lake in Northwest Territories, and meandered farther north. I have pitched my nylon hovel on the treeless tundra and endured gales I was sure would rip my tent to shreds. I spent an especially brutal night inside a double sleeping bag rated to -40 degrees, and could not sleep through the cold.
I felt a kinship tonight with Qhorin Halfhand when he lectured Jon on the trail of Mance Rayder’s scouts. I feel on some of those cold, northern nights, struggling to keep my blood pumping under conditions close to the limits of human survival, I might have gained a glimpse into some of Halfhand’s trials.
“You can’t tame a wild thing,” Halfhand said. “Can’t trust a wild thing. Wild creatures have their own rules, their own reasons, and you’ll never know them. Start thinking you know this place and it will kill you. We’re at war. We’ve always been at war. It’s never going to end, because we’re not fighting an enemy—we’re fighting the north, and it’s not going anywhere.”
That is, Jon is joining a battle against a condition (the north), not an enemy. The north is not an enemy, but a nasty condition, a brutal environment to be endured. But the north is full of creatures—wild things—that are a kind of animated version of the primal brutality of the elements. When you pitch your tent north of treeline, you have a good bag, plenty of fuel for your stove, and plenty of bullets for your rifle. You set little cans and strings around your tent, because you need time to get that rifle out and shoot the polar bear before she makes a meal of you.
Primal reality is not an enemy. It’s just reality. It’s the deepest reality there is. When I see the White Walkers, I’m guessing I look at them in a way that is probably different than the way most people see them. To me, they’re kind of like those polar bears. Polar bears are not inherently evil. There’s nothing evil about a polar bear wanting to eat me for dinner. That’s just the way she is, the way she was built. It’s the way of life and death and survival in the very far north.
I have a keen sense, then, of this idea that Jon Snow is fighting a condition of which “wild things” are merely an animated manifestation. “Start thinking you know this place and it will kill you.” If you do some of the things I’ve done you need to cultivate an attitude of vigilant respect for the extreme possibilities of the environment. If you lose that respect, you’ll probably die.
Why fight it?
I think this is the question Jon Snow posed tonight. There are several possible responses. It’s hard to imagine camping on the tundra without a rifle. You just can’t walk up to a polar bear and work out a peace treaty. She might be amused for a few seconds, but she’s still going to eat you for dinner. Reality is what it is. You can’t spin it as Joffrey’s mother taught him.
But there is a certain sense in which Jon’s question has enormous merit. The wildlings are not fighting the north, not in the same way that the men of the Night’s Watch fight. And if you give some thought to the question, you realise it can be seen in the light of common knowledge. We all understand the truth that we can die at any moment. The heart can stop, the brain can suffer an embolism, you can fall in the shower or get hit by a car. Life can end without warning, or it can be the final result of years of unrelenting, inhuman suffering. The reality undergirding all this is that cruel, primal nature surrounds us at all times, not only in environments akin to those north of the Wall.
The question is worth exploring. I believe Jon first posed the question when he raised Longclaw over Ygritte’s neck—and brought the blade down onto the rock in front of her.
She moved her hips to and fro. The movement was obvious, instinctual, tantalising. But it was the most meaningful event we witnessed this evening.
The movement was not intended to seduce or tease. That was not its purpose, and that is not the way Jon understood it. When Ygritte moved her hips she was inviting Jon, but she was merely continuing the dialogue he had initiated when he chose to spare her life. She was inviting him into conversation. She was making a playful statement of the truth that had first attracted Jon and caused him to put the question.
Why fight it?
The wildlings did not fight. They went with the flow of life and death and survival, they didn’t put themselves in opposition to it. Could it be that the Free People have knowledge of “savage things” that has eluded the “civilised” people south of the Wall? What did they understand about the North that Jon did not?
The wildling culture, we already know, could be considered in many ways superior to the society built by the Night’s Watch. Halfhand disparaged the wildlings as “girl f—ers”, but these words were definitely sour grapes, especially coming from the man who laughed at his own pearls of wisdom as “Just words … to keep us a little warmer in the night … make us feel like we got a purpose.” Wildlings existed comfortably at the very frontiers of human survival. With cold and dark forces surrounding them, they lived on. How could they exist in easy harmony with such forces? Clearly they were not fighting, but they were as human as Jon and therefore subject to the same undesirable outcomes that are the necessary result of losing deep-felt respect for the harsh north.
More than mere humanity and susceptibility to nature unite Jon and Ygritte. The wildlings, we know from Osha, worship the same gods. The Old Gods. That’s the “something old” these people from very different cultures share.
I know Jon felt temptation, and perhaps he will at some point yield to the thoughts that surely filled his mind as soon as Ygritte began her hip gyrations. But the greater questions will continue to fill his mind, and will not be satisfied by any sexual act.
Here, on a rock slab protected from the wind by a wall of stone, is the beginnings of an answer to Jon Snow’s question. “We’ll stay warmer if we stay close.” It’s a statement of basic human necessity. In the south, where people can live by pretense and dreams, societies can pretend there are heroes and self-made men, that one can live in solitude. In the far north men in solitude will not live, but die.
There is only one god, Syrio Forel said. Here, on the tundra, it would be tempting indeed to believe Syrio was correct, that the one true god is death. But the true god is not death, not the God of Light proposed by Melisandre, not the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, not the Seven Gods of the southern kingdoms. The one true god is that entity which sits even now with Jon and Ygritte, the same god that sits in judgment of King Robb and Lady Talisa. We have not been given a name for this god, but we know its demand. The single demand is to drop down on bended knee and acknowledge dependence. Humility is the only route to the enlightenment enjoyed by those abased creatures of the Sisterhood of the Damned. Humility, as I said two sections ago, can be understood as service—a promise to self, spouse, and community. Humility is a promise to this unnamed, unseen god who determines the height and width and depth of brutal, primal reality.
Robb’s promise then, first of all, is not to Walder Frey, but to the primal god—to the forces that determine his place in GRRM’s world. Out of that humble awareness must derive the lesser promise he makes to the Lord of the Twins (Frey’s bridge). Jon’s first promise must be to this primal god. His commitment to the Night’s Watch, after all, was made only after he bowed down on bended knee before the Old Gods at the weirwood north of the Wall.
Tonight’s episode was the most dynamic, exciting sixty minutes of television I have seen since last season. I can’t wait until next week!
An Announcement from Winter Is Coming
Pearson Moore has graciously decided to withdraw his essays from WinterIsComing.net. Pearson felt (and I agree) that the discussion generated from his essays was not a positive one and we both agreed that it would be best if we part ways. For those who are fans of Moore’s work, you can continue to read his Game of Thrones essays on his own website, WinterfellKeep.com.
We may not have an essay feature for the last four episodes of this season, unless I can find someone to step in immediately. If anyone wishes to try their hand at a thematic analysis of episodes of Game of Thrones, send your request via our Contact page and include in the request an essay on episode 16 as a sample of your work. I will evaluate all the submissions and decide whether to bring on a new essayist.
I thank Pearson for his contributions to the site and wish him the best. And thanks to all who responded to his essays, whether in criticism or praise, in a reasoned and polite manner. We continue to strive to make this the best Game of Thrones site on the web and highly value the input and feedback from our readers. Thank you.