Okay, first things first: turn back if you don’t want to be exposed to SPOILERS.
Okay, for all those still here: Game of Thrones fans got a shocker at the end of “The Red Woman,” the Season 6 premiere: Melisandre, the Red Priestess played since Season 2 by Carice van Houten, took off her ruby-studded choker and revealed that she is quite a bit older than she looks. Melisandre is a beautiful woman, and Van Houten is 39, but the Melisandre we saw at the end of the episode was ancient, a bent-backed woman with brittle hair and sagging breasts. Clearly, she’s done some serious time in the world.
Before we try and answer the question of exactly how old she is, let’s acknowledge that the show has hinted at this before. At the end of Season 2, Stannis is angry at Melisandre following his defeat in the Battle of the Blackwater.
Melisandre: “Will you quit the war just because you’ve lost a battle?”
Stannis: “You talk about war as if you understand it.”
Melisandre: “I’ve been fighting far longer than you.”
Stannis is a middle-aged man, so in order to be fighting far longer than him, Melisandre would have to have some years on her. Most fans didn’t give that line too much thought when it first happened, but it seems important now.
I don’t how old she is, but she’s way over 100 years, so she is a wiser spirit, in a way, but it’s difficult for me to say too much because A — we want it to at least stay sort of a mystery and B — I didn’t read the books.
This was before the show tightened up spoilers, and if she had said that today, surely Van Houten would be in hot water. Actor Oliver Ford Davies, who played Maester Cressen in the Season 2 premiere, also once told journalists that Melisandre was “400 years old.” So the information has been out there for a while.
The most recent estimate comes from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff himself, in the “Inside the Episode” feature that followed the Season 6 premiere. He said that Melisandre is “several centuries old.” He also said that he got this information from George R.R. Martin, so consider that book detail spoiled.
Book-readers probably even have a good guess as to how Melisandre manages to make herself look younger. In A Dance with Dragons, she puts an enchantment on wildling king Mance Rayder to make him look like the wildling Rattleshirt, and vice versa. It’s not hard to believe that she does the same thing on herself. In the case of Rattleshirt, her ability to maintain the illusion was tied to the ruby-studded choker she always wears. It makes sense that her real self was revealed after she took it off.
Fans have rightly pointed out that Melisandre doesn’t wear the choker in a Season 4 scene where she’s bathing and talking with Selyse, Stannis’ wife. Is this an inconsistency? Probably, but there are a couple of theories that could make sense of it. Some fans think that Selyse does indeed see Melisandre’s true form here, hence why she’s averting her eyes. That seems unlikely to me, though—she could have been averting her eyes just because she’s uncomfortable with nudity.
It’s also possible that taking off the choker isn’t the only thing that needs to happen in order for her true self to shine through. As Dan Weiss notes in the “Inside the Episode” segment, Melisandre removed her glamour on purpose. Her faith was shaken following Stannis defeat outside Winterfell. She was tired of all the lies in her life, and wanted to remind herself who she truly was, and what she really looked like. There may be a mental element at work here.
We’ll see if this development has more of an effect on the story going forward, or if it’s just something private we share with this centuries old Red Priestess.