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Game of Thrones as Myth: Ser Davos as the Archetypal Sage

Game of Thrones

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: Ser Davos Seaworth.

This series examines how Game of Thrones characters fit into the archetypal frameworks developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the more modern version by Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey). Both Campbell and Vogler employ the works of psychiatrist Carl G. Jung. Along with many other academics, Jung suggested that the archetypes of myth and legend sprang from a human collective unconscious, since they appear in so many different cultures separated by space and time.

“In describing these common character types, symbols and relationships, the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung employed the term ‘archetypes,’ meaning ancient terms of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.” —Christopher Vogler

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Aristotle teaching Alexander. (Engraving by Charles LaPlante, 1866)

Campbell argues that human beings are biologically hardwired to understand the symbolism and expression of character archetypes. Otherwise, we would be incapable of participating in the shared human experience of storytelling.

“Summoned or not, the God will come.” —Motto over the door of Carl G. Jung’s house

As we segue into Game of Thrones, it’s important to remember that archetype is not a straightjacketed category but rather a flexible function of storytelling. Any individual character can (and usually does) express various archetypal traits or even moves from one category to another as the story unfolds.

The Game of Thrones character of Ser Davos Seaworth is an experienced man who fills a number of archetypal roles. Davos is heavily representative of the Mentor and Protector archetypes, but his main purpose is to offer his wisdom to a leader he believes in. That makes him primarily a Sage.

Image via HBO

The Sage, or Wise Old Man archetype, need not be old nor male—all it need do is serve its archetypal function. Per Jung, the Sage is an ancient and common archetypal figure, a brilliant philosopher known for his or her solid wisdom and judgement. This does not mean the character is perfect or lacks moral shortcomings, but Sages usually have the capacity to recognize their own flaws even if they cannot overcome them. Jung specifically identified this archetype as the Senex (Latin for ‘old man’), an ancient Roman title originally given to respected family elders in a village. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the Wise Old Man as follows:

…the Wise Old Man of myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds,  and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night.

Ser Davos is highly valued by both Stannis Baratheon and later Jon Snow, two leaders who instinctively understand the value of his council. Unlike many Game of Thrones characters, Davos doesn’t struggle with complicated personal motivations. He has the wisdom to know who he is and what his limitations are. He wants to serve his king and what’s right. The honorable modus operandi has not served the Stark family well, but Davos has survived through a combination of good luck and a grounding in practicality. Unlike King Arthur’s great wizard-sage, Merlin, Ser Davos has not one bit of the supernatural in him. He’s a mortal man who knows how to move in the corridors of the powerful, and in this capacity his advice is invaluable.

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When Ser Davos is introduced in “The North Remembers” (S2, Ep1), his Sage-like characteristics are immediately established. For example, when Maester Cressen expresses his fears that Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre are leading them into war, Davos displays his unyielding loyalty: “Stannis is our king. We follow where he leads, even if we don’t like the path.” Later, we see Davos’ common sense as he tries to help Stannis strategize: “Your grace, the Lannisters are the true enemy. If, for the time being, you could make peace with your brother …” Stannis interrupts Davos, but the counsel is good.

Like Morpheus in The Matrix trilogy, Davos can offer his hero the red pill or the blue one, but he cannot make him swallow. Just being there is everything. Even though Davos’ position as Stannis’ chief councilor is being usurped by Melisandre, Davos remains steadfast in his secular devotion to his king, as seen in a discussion with his son Matthos in “The Night Lands” (S2, Ep2):

You want me to have a god? Fine. King Stannis is my god. He raised me up and blessed me with his trust. He gave you a future I could never have imagined. You know how to read, you’ll be a knight some day. You think a fire-god commanded all that? It was Stannis, only Stannis.

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There are many parallels between the character of Davos and the famous ancient Greek character of Odysseus (Latin Ulysses), who appears in Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. As the king of Ithaca, Odysseus is known as a man of immense wisdom, shrewdness, eloquence and negotiating ability. He’s constantly called upon to calm squabbles among the Greeks, and is instrumental in settling a major dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles. Like Davos, Odysseus is a brave fighter, and is capable of cunning and subterfuge. When the 10-year siege of Troy fails, Odysseus is the man who conceives the famous deception of the Trojan Horse. As a former smuggler, Davos knows something about sneaking hidden cargo across enemy lines, as he did for Stannis’ during the siege of Storm’s End during Robert’s Rebellion.

Davos further proves his use as a counsellor when convinces the Iron Bank to loan Stannis the money he needs to push his claim on the Iron Throne. Stannis turns north, and Davos is at his side when he crushes Mance Rayder’s army. After Jon Snow is elected the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Davos gives him sage advice in Season 5’s “High Sparrow”:

Davos: “The shield that guards the realms of men. That’s what you swore to be. Now I’m not a learned man, but the best way to help most people might not be sitting in a frozen castle at the edge of the world. It just might mean wading in the muck, getting your boots dirty and doing what needs to be done.”

Jon Snow: “And what needs to be done?”

Davos: “As long as the Boltons rule the North, the North will suffer. Just one man’s opinion.”

Mel, Davos and Jon at Castle Black

Davos has already become a wise counselor to Jon Snow, even though he’s still in Stannis’ employ. As a Sage, it’s in his nature to give sound advice.

When Jon Snow is assassinated, Davos is the first to recognize something wrong in Ghost’s cries, and it is Davos who gathers the loyalist black brothers together to defend Jon’s body. Davos shows his dry Odysseus-like wit here when he draws his sword: “I’ve never been much of a fighter. Apologies for what you’re about to see” (“Home,” S6, Ep2). Davos is also instrumental in convincing Melisandre to attempt Jon’s resurrection, and is the first person to see him breathing again. After that, Jon recognizes Davos’ ability as a counselor and brings him into his inner circle, particularly after he sways young Lyanna Mormont to Jon’s cause in Season 6’s “The Broken Man.” “Jeor Mormont and Jon Snow both understood that the real war isn’t between a few squabbling houses,” he tells her. “It’s between the living and the dead. And make no mistake my lady, the dead are coming.” It’s hard not to be on board after that.

Like Odysseus, Morpheus and Gandalf in the The Lord of the Rings, we’ve seen that Davos is a Sage who can swing a weapon if he has to, and he fights alongside Jon at the Battle of the Bastards. But mostly, his role is that of counsellor in service to his master of choice. Even when he powerfully wants something, as when he wants to execute Melisandre after her murder of Shireen comes to light in Season 6’s “The Winds of Winter,” he obeys the will of his leader, Jon Snow, and allows her to go into exile.

PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTION OF THE SAGE

The elder, or Sage archetype, represents the hero’s journey towards self-realization. The Sage may not be able to accomplish the journey himself, but he knows the way. In Ser Davos we see a man who is wise and street-smart, a natural counselor who can guide a hero through the treacherous politics of a world at war. Davos also recognizes his own shortcomings, even advertising his past as a smuggler by keeping his fingertips (severed by Stannis as punishment for said smuggling crimes) in a pouch around his neck.

Melisandre and Davos

Another important function of the Sage is his ability to accept reality. For example, Davos is a secular character who puts little stock in magic and religion, but he cannot deny that Melisandre has extraordinary powers after he sees her birth a murderous shadow creature in Season 2’s “Garden of Bones.” That allows him to overcome his disbelief and confusion and petition Melisandre to resurrect Jon Snow in Season 6’s “Home.”

Melisandre: “The great victory I saw in the flames, all of it was a lie. You were right all along. The Lord never spoke to me.”

Davos: “Fuck him, then. Fuck all of them. I’m not a devout man, obviously. Seven Gods, Drowned Gods, Tree Gods, it’s all the same. I’m not asking the Lord of Light for help. I’m asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist.”

Davos, as the Sage, accepts the truth, no matter how much he might want things to be otherwise.

DRAMATIC FUNCTION OF THE SAGE

The Sage can serve many dramatic functions, so let’s look at Davos specifically. The Sage, like the Mentor, is usually a teacher, and often takes part in a master/apprentice relationship. Like one of mythology’s greatest sages, the Greek centaur Chiron from the Iliad, Davos has an instinct for nurturing young people. He is very protective of and empathetic with Stannis’ daughter Shireen, although in their case, the teacher/student roles are reversed, as she teaches him to read. The Sage can also be a gift-giver, the hand-carved stag Davos presents to Shireen in “The Dance of Dragons” being a perfect example.

Pictured: Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth, Kerry Ingram as Shireen Baratheon. Photographer: Helen Sloan/HBO

Davos’ instinct to protect the young also motivates him to risk his life by defying Stannis when he allows Gendry to escape Dragonstone in “Mhysa,” the Season 3 finale.

Stannis: “What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”

Davos: “Everything.”

Davos’ big-hearted protective streak can get him into trouble, but we have to remember where he came from. He was born among the poorest of the poor in the King’s Landing slum of Flea Bottom, and because of his impoverished beginnings, he holds no illusions about the fates of the weak and disadvantaged in Westeros.

Melisandre, Davos, and Jon

THE SAGE AS HERO’S CONSCIENCE

Despite all his wisdom, Davos was often unable to dent Stannis’ headstrong decision-making process. Davos also realized (in the end) that Stannis was not the hero he thought he was. Now he has found Jon Snow, a leader to whom he can devote himself anew. As we see in his exchange with Jon immediately after the latter’s resurrection in “Oathbreaker,” Davos senses Jon’s disorientation and moves to get him back on track.

Davos: “You were dead. And now you’re not. That’s completely fucking mad, seems to me. I can only imagine how it seems to you.”

Jon Snow: “I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. And now I’m back. Why?”

Davos: “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. What does it matter? You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.”

Jon Snow: “I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but… I failed.”

Davos: “Good. Now go fail again.” (“Oathbreaker,” S6/Ep3)

Davos knows that Jon Snow is good, and that he can hopefully be convinced to fight for what is right. Hopefully Davos will continue to be a reassuring and motivating voice in Jon’s ear as the story reaches an ending.

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CONCLUSION

Game of Thrones tends to be rough on the good guys, but Ser Davos Seaworth has proven both fortunate and durable, not to mention vital to the storyline. Melisandre may have resurrected Jon Snow, but it was Davos who saved him. And now that Jon Snow and Sansa Stark lead the stouthearted forces of the North against formidable foes, they are going to need their Sage’s measured council more than ever.

The Sage Ser Davos: Specifics

House: House Seaworth, allegiance to House Stark (formerly House Baratheon of Dragonstone)
Sigil: Onion
Animal: Seahawk
Weapon: Wisdom
Nemesis: Melisandre
Sidekick: Shireen Baratheon (now deceased, see Melisandre)
Greatest Love: The truth
Greatest strength: Loyalty
Greatest Weakness: Sentimentality
Greatest Mystery: Smuggler past
Color: Sea green
Tarot Card: The Hermit
Ice Cream: Onion. Well, a recipe folding caramelized onions in with raisin caramel and walnuts, because Ser Davos isn’t a bitter guy.
Future Prospects (Season 7): Gloomy, but survivable. Headstrong Jon Snow and great game neophyte Sansa Stark are really, really going to need him.

HJ Update S6

OTHER WIC GAME OF THRONES AS MYTH ARTICLES in the ARCHETYPE and HERO’S JOURNEY series:

Hero’s Journey: Jon Snow

Hero’s Journey: Daenerys Targaryen

(Anti) Hero’s Journey: Tyrion Lannister

Alliser Thorne as Archetypal Threshold Guardian

Melisandre as Archetypal Dark Herald

Osha as Archetypal Protector

Jon Snow as Archetypal Hero

Daenerys Targaryen as Archetypal Hero

Hero’s Journey: Bran Stark

Hero’s Journey Update: Season 6

Qyburn as Archetypal Shadow

Other Myth and Story-related Articles

Dire Wolves: Real and GRRM Imagined

The Happy Relationships on Game of Thrones

7 Comments

  • Sorry about that thought it didn’t post Sandor watched over Sansa then Arya and now possibly Jon if you believe the spoilers I think he is an important part of the story

  • ” I’m not asking the Lord of Light for help. I’m asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist.”

    It’s weird I recall him talking about Melisandre’s Magic in very different terms in previous seasons.
    You know, in his discussion with Stannis. “It is evil, and you are NOT an evil man!”.
    In the books he calls is “horror”.

    But now Davos is just a plot device on Jon Snow’s crew so somehow he thinks melisandre is doing “miracles”.

  • I look forward to informative articles of this type. Great art can be appreciated in more ways than we originally understand.

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