Editorial Featured Game of Thrones Melisandre

Game of Thrones as Myth—Melisandre as the Dark Herald

What is an archetype? In fantasy and myth, certain types of characters constantly reappear: stalwart Heroes, odd Mentors offering talismans, Threshold Guardians and their tests, and more. In this series, we take a fast and fun look at Game of Thrones characters and what traditional archetypes they fall into. This time: Melisandre.

Melisandre 1

The Game of Thrones character of Melisandre is wonderfully slippery and multifaceted as far as archetypes go. Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) reminds us to look at archetypes not as “rigid character types” but rather as “flexible character functions” which shift, expand and illuminate the story. Ergo Melisandre: she oozes elements of the Shadow, Shapeshifter, and Shaman archetypes. However, factoring in the possibilities of the upcoming Jon Snow story line, it is arguable that one of Melisandre’s most important functions is to serve the archetypal role of the Herald, so we’ll look at that today.

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The Herald’s main purpose, as identified by Joseph Campbell (The Hero with the Thousand Faces) and refined by Christopher Vogler, is to warn and challenge the Hero and launch him upon his journey of passage and transformation. The herald figure is so important to Greek myth that one of the Gods, Hermes (his Roman equivalent is Mercury) performed this storytelling function. Melisandre is keenly aware of the danger coming from the North and she sounds the alarm. She seeks to attach herself and her powers to a leader worthy of the communal defense, a leader who can ensure the survival and propagation of her religion, and in the beginning she believes this savior to be Stannis Baratheon At the end of Season 5, her path has led her to Jon Snow. If he survives his current ordeal in some fashion, he’ll need to be called to action.

“The Herald’s summons may be to live … or, at a later moment in the biography, to die. It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination… But whether small or great, and no matter what stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand.” —Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Melisandre_and_Stannis

Like most Game of Thrones characters, Melisandre is complicated in terms of her archetypal function and personal motivations. Though she is full of warnings and challenges, she is not a traditional Herald archetype. Melisandre does not arrive on the Hero’s doorstep with a call to adventure like Gandalf (a Herald/Mentor figure) to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit; she is more of a mysterious seer akin to the Witches in Macbeth. And, dark and manipulative as Melisandre is, her actions in the name of the Lord of Light, no matter how depraved, are ultimately dedicated to the salvation of Westeros. She is on a quest to find a savior to defeat the White Walkers.

melisandre fire

Melisandre’s character proves formidable right from the get-go. When we first meet her in the court of Stannis Baratheon at Dragonstone (Season 2), she has already converted Stannis and many of his followers to her religion. A former slave born in Essos, Melisandre is a High Priestess of the Lord of Light and claims supernatural abilities, including prophesy, blood magic, and shadowbinding. Melisandre burns effigies of the Seven, hands a burning sword talisman named Lightbringer to Stannis, and delivers a speech crackling with warning:

“Lord of Light, come to us in our darkness. We offer you these false gods. Take them and cast your light upon us, for the night is dark and full of terrors. After the long summer, darkness will fall heavy upon the world. The stars will bleed. The cold breath of winter will fill the seas … and the dead shall rise in the North.” —Melisandre (“The North Remembers,” S2/Ep1)

melisandre-fire

Melisandre’s archetypal Shamanic elements are always hard at work (she is a witch, after all), though not without serious misfires. While some of her predictions prove spookily accurate, her fire visions are notoriously suspect. She even admits to using some combination of real magic and trickery to Stannis’ wife, Selyse. But there is real magic to Melisandre: she survives a drink of poison wine offered by Maester Cressen and gives birth to the Stannis shadow baby that kills Renley Baratheon. When Stannis blames (and nearly strangles) Melisandre for his defeat at the Blackwater, she predicts that Stannis shall commit even greater betrayals than the murder of Renley (sorry, Shirreen) and rewards him with—guess what—another unreliable vision in the flames.

“The War has just begun. It will last for years. Thousands will die at your command. You will betray the men serving you. You will betray your family. You will betray everything you once held dear … and it will be worth it because you are the Son of Fire. You are the Warrior of Light.” —Melisandre, to Stannis (S2/Ep10 “Valar Morghulis”)

stannis-melisandre 2

In Season 3, Melisandre leaves for the Riverlands in search of something she needs and finds the Brotherhood Without Banners and Thoros of Myr. She witnesses Beric Dondarrion’s sixth resurrection (after he is chopped by the Hound). Melisandre is astonished, stating that even if such resurrections were possible, Thoros should not possess that kind of power. Thoros says he has no idea how he performs such miracles—he is but an instrument of the Lord of Light. Melisandre has also arrived to collect Gendry, presumably having seen him in her fires, and buys him for two bags of gold, intending to drain him of his kingly blood back at Dragonstone. Melisandre also displays her prophetic talents when she hints at Arya Stark’s future experience with the Many-Faced God:

“I see darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.” —Melisandre to Arya Stark (S3/Ep6: “The Climb”)

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So far, studying Melisandre as a Herald archetype, we see she has some fine-tuned seer skills and a supernatural knack for knowing where to go to find what she needs. And while she can be brutal, she is also calculating; rather than giving in to rage over Ser Davos releasing Gendry, she prevents Stannis from executing Ser Davos because his skills will be needed in the coming war:

“The War of Five Kings means nothing. The true war lies to the north, my king. Death marches on the wall.” —Melisandre to Stannis (S3/Ep10: “Mhysa”)

For Melisandre, it all comes down to winning the war against the White Walkers, and it can only be accomplished through a savior acting under the banner of the Lord of Light.

Jon and Melisandre

When stationed with Stannis’ army at Castle Black (S5/Ep1: “The Wars to Come”) Melisandre becomes interested in Jon Snow, asking him if he is a virgin and happy with his negative response. Not long afterwards, she attempts to seduce Jon (S5/Ep4: “Sons of the Harpy.”) Melisandre wants Jon to prove that he is on the side of life, not death, but, still in love with Ygritte, he rejects her advances. Melisandre serves us another example of her supernatural powers when she repeats Ygritte’s special words to Jon: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

“The Herald may be a positive, negative or neutral figure. In some stories the Herald is the villain or his emissary, perhaps issuing a direct challenge to the hero, or trying to dupe the hero into getting involved.” —Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey)

Melisandre tries to seduce jon Snow

Melisandre’s sexual advances towards Jon Snow are important. The inner heat that keeps Melisandre warm in the cold landscape is also one of her weapons, a tool she uses to manipulate the man she suspects could be the savior. The fact that she attempts to seduce Jon Snow signals her sense that she is aware, even unconsciously, of a uniqueness in him, one she is prepared to betray Stannis to acquire:

“This power in you, you resist it and that’s your mistake. Embrace it. The Lord of Light made us male and female, two parts of a greater whole. We’re now joining this power: power to make life, power to make light and power to cast shadows.” —Melisandre to Jon Snow (S5/Ep4 “Sons of the Harpy”)

Melisandre’s willingness to commit evil acts in service of the Lord of Light reaches its darkest moment in “The Dance of Dragons” (S5/Ep9) when she convinces Stannis to burn his daughter Shireen alive. This appears to be an act of desperation on Melisandre’s part, for she has witnessed both the crippling of Stannis’ army by a Bolton raid and the sight of a burning horse, which seems to shake her certainty concerning Stannis’ ultimate victory.

Melisandre burns Shirreen
“The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels (unknown knowledge) glow.” —Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

In the following episode (Mother’s Mercy, S5/E10), Melisandre’s sacrifice of Shireen appears to work: a thaw melts the snow and opens the way south for Stannis. But unforeseen consequences destroy the benefit of Melisandre’s grievous act: half of Stannis’ army, sell swords and non-followers of R’hllor, disgusted by the burning of the child, have deserted in the night. Self-preservation trumps Melisandre’s devotion to Stannis’ lost cause and she slips out of camp.

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So far, the Shaman and Shadow parts of Melisandre have proven to be ineffective, and perhaps even self-destructive. Her fire-visions, blood magic, shadowbinding, and killings of Renly and Shirreen have only paved the way for Stannis to suffer two awful defeats, the second one fatal to him. It looks like Melisandre, in her campaign to link the Lord of Light to the champion needed to face the threat from the North, picked the wrong hero.

“The Lord of Light only allows me glimpses!” —Melisandre to Stannis (S3/Ep10 “Valar Morghulis”)

The downtrodden Melisandre arrives at Castle Black and confirms the deaths of Stannis and Shirreen, though she does not mention her part in bringing them about. Melisandre’s appearance at Castle Black can be seen as a harbinger of Jon Snow’s impending doom. Is she in the right place at the right time again? Is her return the result of an instinctive knowledge that she must be there to help usher the savior forward into his next stage of existence?

Melisandre downtrodden

So, Game of Thrones season 6 shall arrive and find our dark, red Herald in what circumstances? Let us assume that Jon Snow is going to return. Whether Melisandre raises Jon Snow from the dead with her own powers drawn from the Lord of Light (she doesn’t know how to do it but neither did Thoros of Myr—he simply says the old words) or shepherds him forward during/after his return from death, she will be there to call Jon Snow to face his greatest challenge: fighting the White Walkers, which she has been warning everyone about since she arrived in Westeros.

“Death is coming for everyone and everything … a darkness will swallow the dawn.” —Melisandre, to Gendry (S3/Ep8: “Second Sons”)

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Melisandre may now find the hero she requires in Jon Snow, a man freshly arrived in the realm of the dead, a man in search of the means and knowledge to save the world, a man whose true bloodline is unknown, a man perhaps ready for a Dark Herald to call him “through the wall of day into the dark where the jewels … give light to the demon cities of the underworld.” —Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

The Dark Herald Melisandre: Specifics

Occupation: High Priestess
Home country: Essos
God: R’hllor. The Lord of Light
Animal: Fox
Weapons: Sex and magic
Nemesis: The Seven
Sidekick: Stannis, sort of
Greatest Love: R’hllor
Greatest Strength: Prophesy
Greatest Weakness: Flame Visions
Color: Crimson
Tarot Card: The High Priestess
Ice Cream: Cinnamon Red Hot
Future Prospects: first savior failed but another might be waiting in the wings.

Other articles in the Winter is Coming Archetype Series:
Jon Snow as the Archetypal Hero
Alliser Thorne as the Threshold Guardian

62 Comments

  • Fantastic article about an equally fascinating character. There’s definitely no black and white with Melesandre and the readers/ viewers who view her that way are being very simplistic in their opinion of her. She is a tool being used by R ‘hllor. I think the only question is whether R ‘hllor is the good or evil. I have not decided on that myself.

  • A very interesting post. Melisandre is an enigmatic character, a quality that she deliberately cultivates. I would like to see how she will react and what powers she would be able to call on if and when she is actually confronted with a White Walker and/or a Wight.

  • John snow is not a bastard.

    R (married) + L (as his second wife) = Son Targaryen {JonSnow}

    Following the foot steps of Aegon Targaryen & his sisters-wives, Rhaenys & Visenya.

  • Melisandre is keenly aware of the danger coming from the North and she sounds the alarm.

    WUT???
    She didn’t have a fucking clue until Davos got the message from the wall…

    • You must have missed her very first scene on the beach at Dragonstone, talking about the dead rising in the North?

      • Oh, I never forgot that comment but she did many times.
        She was so focused on the Iron Throne she forgot about what the actual threat was time and again.
        She was advising Stannis to execute Davos until he gave them the message from the wall…then she remembered where the real threat was but that slipped out of her grasp as soon as they go to the wall. The whole “You have to sit the Iron Throne before the Long Night starts” is what made Stannis so hell bent on taking Winterfell and ultimately led to his downfall.
        If her real focus was on stopping the Others, she would not have had Stannis wasting all those men in waging war against the other kingdoms…

    • Yeah she traveled all the way from asshai for nothing. Of course she knew about the others. They are part of the Azar Ahai prophecy. They are agents of the Great Other. The letter from Aemon was just validation in her mind.

    • In the books, she is much more opportunistic than prescient. The North is totally not on her radar screen until Davos finds the ravengram from Aemon.

  • Fantastic, astute article. The genius of Carice van Houten in this role is how she brings the same quality of the great silent films actors to the character. Most of her acting is through expression, through suggestion and ambiguity. As a result, she has created arguably the most layered and provocative character on the entire show. She deserves an Emmy for her ability to invite multiple interpretations to the smallest scene. I can’t say enough about what Carice does but she recalls a quote that Bette Davis once made about Greta Garbo: “Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyze this woman’s acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera.”

    • Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane were great with expressions and using them to play their respective characters too. The casting for thrones has been outstanding for the most part.

      • Let’s not forget about Alfie Allen’s talent (the best on the show in my opinion) of acting by using just his eyes and expression(s).

        It’s a G*D damn shame he hasn’t at least been nominated – once – for a Best Supporting Actor award!

        • I agree about Alfie Allen deserving some awards love. His acting didn’t make that much of an impression on me during Season One, but his transformation since then has been so total and so believable! As you say, he doesn’t even need lines to suck you into what’s going on inside him. That scene at Moat Cailin where he’s doing Alfie pretending to be Theon pretending to be Reek pretending to be Theon, and almost losing it, was absolutely masterful.

  • Thank you Richard Preston for another provocative and well-written article; really enjoying your archetypal series! The characterization of Melisandre as the ‘red herald’ hearkens back to the omen of the red comet, upon which, like Melisandre, multiple meanings and intentions have been conferred. I’m hoping that she is indeed the embodiment of the red ‘star that will bleed’…Wouldn’t it be a great irony were she to fulfil her own prophecy? While she is undeniably layered and mysterious, she strikes me as rather hypocritical, in that, as you noted, her instinct for ‘self-preservation’ trumps all others. So far in the story, she is too willing to sacrifice others (and I’m not talking ‘Others’!), against their will; others burn, others bleed, for her cause; where is the self-sacrifice? Perhaps I am unfairly anthropomorphizing someone, or something, that is not human, and therefore not subject to human moral enquiry. GRRM has said that she is one of his most misunderstood characters. She reminds me of that famous line from Goethe’s Faust, ‘I am part of that power not understood, who always wills evil, and always works the good.’ (P.S. what is your archetypal assessment of Bloodraven?)

  • Going to put on my Stannis the Grammariannis hat here and nitpick that ‘downtrodden’ might have been an appropriate adjective to describe Mel as a child in slavery, but not when she arrives at Castle Black. I suspect that ‘downcast’ is the word that the author is after.

    Also, ‘prophesy’ (prof-eh-sye) is the verb; ‘prophecy’ (prof-eh-see) is the noun form.

  • Good article. I think Mel’s comments to Jon about Men and Woman are more important than she knows. Her saviour is not one person but two, Jon and Dany. The interesting question however relates to their dualistic opponent The Nights King and who his queen will be? I can’t see any obvious candidates unless of course it is Mel herself given in sacrifice to creat a balance between the worlds of ice and fire.

      • Good question. We need a few scenes with the Nights King taking some down time, drinking ice wine and chilling before we can answer that question. Perhaps he’ll even have a rebellious child who keeps on bringing his zombies back to life to get at the old man. A perfect buddy for Arya. Anything is posssible.

    • Simon– I fear you may be right. But, eewww…Jon-‘n-Dany-shipping…cringe! Can’t stand Dany, glorified (Dan-)Aerys, portrayed by vapid, pouty actress. Unfortunately, GRRM has a morbid infatuation with this character, and many (not all, I realize) of his readers/showfans must fall bored victim to his schoolboy crush. We all have our blindspots, including authors! So, I have a sneaky suspicion that GRRM would sooner dispatch more compelling characters (played by more nuanced actors) such as Jaime, Brienne, Bron, or Sansa, than Dany-precious– so we will be stuck with her till the end. I’m sure he’ll even kill off one of her dragons (who are vastly more entertaining than she is) in order to give her more gravitas, sooner than he’d do away with her. Your post made me think of this passage from ADOD where Dany dreams of kissing Hizdahr (before their wedding) and he turns into this blue-, bruised- lipped ice king, and she feels his icy manhood thrusting up in her…In light of this foreshadowing, this could be Jon, who could also become the next Night’s King, though I hope not. But, as Kit Harington once noted, Jon does have ‘mommy’ issues, he’s pretty ‘Freudian,’ so I fear we might just end up with that ‘Skywalker’ moment, to which Alfie Allen alluded, with Dany saying, ‘Jony baby, I am your auntie (and/or twin sister), but nevermind, we’re both Targs, so let’s keep those bloodlines pure…’ Yuck-yuckity-yuk.

      • I forgot about that vision. It could just be a foreshadowing of betrayal or perhaps GRRRM’s bitter twist. She finds love with Jon but has to sacrifice herself to break whatever wheel the white walkers are on (with Summerhall in mind) . Not so bothered by Dany. She’s better when she’s fighting slavers and burning their faces off though. I can see her and Jon getting together Targ style but their will be a catch as stated above – though I’ve always thought he would be the one to pay the price as he will be the resurrected one. I also think Dany and Jon will be in conflict to start with, her seeing him as a pretender until convinced and then joining forces with him to face the real threat. Again of course there could be Tyrion option (who I am guessing will put R + L + J together to bring both sides together) if he is in fact a bastard Targ. That would of course be the half brother to half sister route rather than the uncle Jon pathway – how do you like them apples?

      • I think Tyrian will be the one to tell her. They’ll hear about a king in the north who claims Targ blood and Tyrian will put it together. Remember he has an interesting conversation with Jon about his mother and their both being bastards (because all dwarfs are bastards). Tyrian as a student of history will put the pieces together and in some way facilitate them getting on side with each other.
        I don’t have a problem with D. She gets some good scenes but is best as a figure head with her dragons burning face.
        Jon and D doesn’t bother me either (but remember Tyrian could also be a Targ).
        As for D’s dream it could be that she will marry the nights king to bring peace and balance and or to smash the white walkers wheel. I’ve always thought it would be Jon who will pay the most but perhaps it is D. And again the books tell us again and again marrying for love will only bring ruin (as evidenced ant Summer Hall)

        • Simon: Could be– it’s fiction, so the author (and now writers/producers) can do anything they damnwell please..! However, I’ve never been partial to the idea of Tyrion being a Targ. Good storytelling maximizes dramatic irony (as you point out with Summerhall), and this works best if Tyrion is Tywin’s only trueborn child. I like the idea of the twins both being Aerys’ (they’re the literal embodiment of the famous/notorious Targaryen ‘coin-flip’). I also don’t think we should get too fixated on Targs. Let’s not forget, Targs don’t have some God-given birthright to Westeros either; they were also originally conquerors and invaders, in effect usurpers no less upstart and brutal than Robert Baratheon. Tyrion will play an important part in the restoration of Westeros, as Varys foretold; he can be a King’s Hand without having to be a Targ (his own father (a Lannister, I’m assuming!) effectively governed for nigh on 20 years alongside Targs). As for the sacrifice required to purify the realm, perhaps it’ll be neither Jon nor Dany, but Arya. That would break my heart even more than when Ghost dies; so, that’s what GRRM will probably do… (when in doubt, my speculations tend in direction of maximal ‘heartbreak impact’!)

  • The only issue I found, and this is nitpicking for certain, is swallowing the poison and surviving as proof of her real or inherent magic and not trickery. At some point someone powerful in Quarth during aCoK (Xaro I believe) offers to give or gives Dany a choker that would provide the exact same protection against poisons as Mel’s. Dany takes it off because it’s uncomfortable. Now I have to go get the quote……….. (insert searching forever here)…….

    “Dany’s tight silver collar was chafing against her throat. She unfastened it and flung it aside. The collar was set with an enchanted amethyst that Xaro swore would ward her against all poisons. The Pureborn were notorious for offering poisoned wine to those they thought dangerous…..”

    Now these have different stones but seem errily similar and Dany’s is even thought of in the context of poisoned wine specifically. I think the wine was another sorcerers trick like her powders. Mel uses her ruby choker for other things other magics but that passage always made the survival of Cressen’s wine seem like a former of trickery.

    Great article though, I love holding asoiaf characters up against the hero’s journey and looking for enlightenment. I enjoyed the read.

    • Good point but remember Mel also used a silmilar stone to creat the illusion that Mance was the Lord of Bones.

      • @Davos,

        I definitely think she has powers, the shadow child being a prime example. I’m just looking at what is inherently the power of a red preistess vs. spells that anyone can learn, do, or possess.

    • You are also partly right because Mel also suggest a lot of her powers are tricks/spectacle for the small folks but that there is a difference between her powers of foresight and these. Here’s a proposition Melesandra is in fact derived from Cassandra of Greek Myth who sees the future but is unable to change its course. Think 12 monkeys, (the film).

    • Since GRRM has declared himself “agnostic” on the subject of whether or not any of the gods of Planetos actually exist, we at least have to consider the possibility that they do not, and that all of Mel’s apparent powers have alternative explanations.

      With regard to her poison-resistance, I find it quite plausible that mithridatism (gradually acquiring immunity to a poison by starting off with an infinitesimal dose and increasing it by a tiny amount each day) could be a standard part of the magical training that Mel underwent in Asshai. If the pulsing jewel that she wears has actual magic powers and is not just a prop to distract her audience from her sleight-of-hand, I’m inclined to think that its primary purpose is to fuel her glamour (presuming that she is hiding something about her appearance, whether it be as simple as a tattoo from her slave days or as complex as her being much, much older than she lets herself appear).

      And no, I don’t have a hypothesis for the shadow baby! But I am prepared to learn eventually that Rh’llor is not real.

  • Melisandre is under someone’s ordens (Moqorro?). The Red Priests sent her to Westeros for some reason, probably to help put Dany on the Iron Throne. That might be why she helped kill all Baratheons, so Targs and theirs Dragons coube rule Westeros agiam. The Red Priests will likely try to convert Dany to their faith, too.

  • I had posted I think Melisandre is following the Red Priests orders, like they did with Thoros, they sent her to take their faith to Westeros. She probably had a special mission to wipe out the Baratheons usurpers so hopefully Dany would be grateful to her and prone to trust her. I think her endgame is to restore Targs to the throne, but with Red God Priests by their side

    • Do you think that Melisandre is in possession of any powers or knowledge that would be of use in any confrontation with the Others? I know that she has never had to deal with them at this point in the books and TV show both, but she is located at the Wall alongside large numbers of NW and Wildlings who have dealt with the Others & Wights and who may be interested in what she can do. Equally, Mel herself may want to know more about them from eye witnesses. If and when the Others show up next it will probably be at the Wall and Mel could well find herself toe to toe with the Nights King and then we will find out what she is truly made of.

  • I’m reserving judgement on Mel. Partly because I’m with George, in the books as with life, that people are rarely (ever!) straight up good or bad. Also because I remember (though can’t remember details right now and cba reviewing) reconsidering my preconceptions of her when I finally got her POV. But I think she might be some kind of Miltonesque anti-hero and a kind of necessity for the wider good. Sometimes evil actions result from good intentions and sometimes the results justify the action.

  • Also, how will she play in with whassisname setting out to meet Dany?

    Ooh and, who buys the Shiera Seastard/Bloodraven parentage theory?

  • Sorry to nitpick but mel never actually witnessed Beric being rez’d. She only saw him after the fact

  • I think she’s working with the White Walkers. They lost the first war and sent her to figure out how to beat the living this time around. Religion.

  • havin read the books many times, also the novelles and the spoiler chaps and world of ice and fire.

    i dont find ANY reference to Melisandre is born in ESSOS.

    so writer of this article, can you PLEASE reply me with the qoute from the books.

    • Illuminatus…Is that a reference to an Arthurian legend? That reminds me, as Meera Reed suggested, there are only dead knights in the neck, below the water…but where are their swords?

    • You have to rember we live in an anarcho syndicalist collective. Watery bints distributing swords is no way to constitute a legitimate form of government.

      Not quite a quote more a poorly recalled memory.

      And if you don’t like it “i fart in your general direction”