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.

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.

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)

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’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’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”)

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”)

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.

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’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.


“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.

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?

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”)

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