Thursday, April 30, 2015

When Women Play the Game: Melisandre of Asshai

Melisandre of Asshai by Elia Mervi
Warranting her own entry separate from other seers, Melisandre is a bold character that commands respect and fear. Known as the Red Woman, The Red Priestess, The King’s Red Shadow, and Lady Red, Melisandre remains resolute in her belief that her visions hold truth, that her prophecies are correct because her god R’hllor is the one true god. Melisandre may not be a priestess of a real god, but she may be a witch or a seer. She may simply be someone who reads people and their outcomes well. She may know how to manipulate people, using religion and fear. That she does quite well.

The Red Woman is a brilliant tactician, leader, and actress. She is a goddess incarnate, exceeding any typical priestess. Just as her male priest counterparts do, Melisandre wears red clothing head to toe with unnaturally red hair. Her whole image was unnatural, evoking a sense of mystery and fear. Maester Cressen notes, “Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible, and red.”1  Melisandre, though equal to a priest in status, is able to do what the priests cannot: give birth to shadow demons. 3

Lightbringer by Audrey Hotte
How can someone refuse divine rite, refuse providence? Melisandre of Asshai has given Stannis Baratheon that very belief as Azor Ahai reborn to defeat the Great Other, or the White Walkers’ god, the anti-R’hllor. Stannis does as Melisandre says, partly because he fears her and partly because he knows her immense power, even if she is not a real seer or witch. Despite not believing in R’hllor or any god for that matter, Stannis completely disregards his own advisors for Melisandre’s counsel, including Maester Cressen and his most esteemed knight and friend Davos Seaworth, The Onion Knight. As R’hllor’s/Melisandre’s most fervent follower, Lady Selyse’s voice echoes those of Melisandre’s prophecies. Melisandre envisions Renly dead in the flames, which is only brought up once Selyse hints that Stannis should murder his brother for treason.1 Melisandre is indeed powerful, and, like the seers and their interpreters of old, has great influence over kings, specifically this one. She must have been of significant notoriety if Stannis sent for her to come to Dragonstone from Asshai.2

Melisandre holds such influence that she even changed the official religion of Dragonstone, thanks in part to Lady Selyse’s insistence on following the Lord of Light as well. Melisandre would have probably sacrificed Selyse to R’hllor if not for the need of Lady Selyse as an instrument for her own influence on Stannis. As a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, she holds a burning ceremony of the Seven, the old “false gods” of the polytheistic pagans, in exchange for an establishment of the new one and only true god R’hllor.2 It’s well known throughout our history that the exact same thing happened with the European pagans and the Roman Catholics.

Melisandre by ElinJ
Whether Davos simply saw what his inner-most thoughts drew him to or if Melisandre had made the sacrifice of the Seven into a prophecy is unclear, but they sure seem to be signs related to Stannis. With Respectively as Brienne and Renly, “The Maiden lay athwart the Warrior, her arms widespread as if to embrace him.” Melisandre would be the Mother, covered in flames with an orgasmic shudder. Davos notes, “The Mother seemed almost to shudder as the flames came licking up her face. A longsword had been thrust through her heart, and its leather grip was alive with flame.” Of course, it’s clearly a reference to how Azor Ahai’s sword Lightbringer was made, by shoving it through his wife Nissa’s heart. This could also reference the three Baratheons’ own mother Cassana and the heart that Stannis would posthumously stab by his future fratricide. The mother and her symbolism of Nissa can also portend the possibility of Stannis re-enacting the sacrifice of Nissa by slaying Lady Selyse. Already drowned, their father is likely the Father. “The Father was on the bottom, the first to fall.” Instantly, one might recognize Davos in The Stranger with his fingers falling off, reminiscent of his own. “Davos watched the hand of the Stranger writhe and curl as the fingers blackened and fell away one by one, reduced to so much glowing charcoal.” The burning of the Seven was most intentionally done by GRRM as some sort of prophecy surrounding Stannis, especially since it was a way to also crown him R’hllor’s hero Azor Ahai reincarnated.2

Far feared, Melisandre is a force with which to be reckoned. Stannis notes of her:
There are four kings in the realm, and three of them have more men and more gold than I do. I have ships... and I have her. The red woman. Half my knights are afraid even to say her name, did you know? If she can do nothing else, a sorceress who can inspire such dread in grown men is not to be despised. A frightened man is a beaten man. And perhaps she can do more. I mean to find out.
Melisandre of Asshai by Martina Cecilia
He may be using him, but she almost definitely using him for some greater gain as well.2 Could it be to serve as his Queen after an eventual sacrifice of Selyse? She even takes up with him in his pavilion, soothing him to sleep due to his intense nightmares after Renly’s death. Davos even questions her validity as a conduit of a one true god, when he refers to R’hllor as “Melisandre’s Lord of Light.” R’hllor is her creation, her rouse, her scapegoat.4

Her stoic, know-it-all demeanor forces others to be seen as inferior to her power and wisdom. She made a joke of Maester Cressen, likening him to a fool as she placed Patchface’s hat on his head. And so as her biggest antagonist, one must be defeated, as in the battle of the Lord of Light versus the Lord of Darkness. Cressen decides to poison her and offers her the poison wine, knowing that he will likely die, serving Stannis how he thinks best. She drinks it with no effect, so he must drink as well. But he succumbs to the poison as the flames dance in her eyes, a fear that struck him at the very end. So she may be immune to poison or saw the poisoning coming in her flame-fueled visions and drank a potion to counter the effect of the poison.1

Just as she may be invulnerable to poison, she is also invulnerable to fire, which could indicate a connection to the dragons, bringers of light and fire. Treading to the molten middle of Dragonstone, Melisandre descends by herself, as she the only one able to withstand the heat without consequence.6

To kill Renly and to prevent the loss of men for a massive army, Melisandre used Stannis’ seed to birth a shadow vessel with the face of Stannis (as Brienne says in the TV series and as Catelyn hints in the book) and the coldness of evil. Lady Catelyn Stark said of the shadow:
The shadow. Something dark and evil had happened here, she knew, something that she could not begin to understand. Renly never cast that shadow. Death came in that door and blew the life out of him as swift as the wind snuffed out his candles.
Birthing a Shadow by AniaMitura
This is the type of fear that Melisandre instills. This is the kind of power she efforts. This is why Stannis uses her. Granted, as a woman with great belief in the Seven, she would naturally think R’hllor an enemy. She even warns the Baratheons of the coming winter, of the darkness that will come for them all. Stannis’ name slips off her tongue with ease, and Catelyn is not one to let words slip. She is quite careful with her word choice, as any lady of a house would be if brought up properly. How easy this is, then, for Stannis and Melisandre to set up Brienne and Catelyn. Even if Melisandre would have foreseen Cat and Brienne in the tent with Renly, the outcome would have been the same: no proof of Stannis’ fratricide. No one would believe it. It could be as Catelyn says and nothing to do with R’hllor but Melisandre herself and “sorcery, some dark magic.”3 Melisandre tells Davos, though, that a man must be good or evil, not both. She declares that she is good and that she fights for light and life. Through her magic, Melisandre transferred Stannis’ being into a shadow to kill Renly. This is what provides him nightmares, why Catelyn knew it was Stannis, and why Stannis was not present but recalls the murder vividly. In the same manner, Melisandre births a shadow cast by Stannis to slay Ser Cortnay Penrose, as witnessed by Davos. Though she declares the shadow a servant of light, where the brightest light casts the darkest shadow, he feels and sees the evil seething out of her.4

Her visions at times seem to less of prophetic sight given by a god and more like a sorceress who orchestrates events to a powerful person’s liking. Stannis tells Davos:
“I do not require your understanding. Only your service. Ser Cortnay will be dead within the day. Melisandre has seen it in the flames of the future. His death and the manner of it. He will not die in knightly combat, needless to say.” Stannis held out his cup, and Devan filled it again from the flagon. “Her flames do not lie. She saw Renly’s doom as well. On Dragonstone she saw it, and told Selyse. Lord Velaryon and your friend Salladhor Saan would have had me sail against Joffrey, but Melisandre told me that if I went to Storm’s End, I would win the best part of my brother’s power, and she was right.”

Melisandre by Patrick McEvoy
But, like Davos, we question that. It would be within Ser Cortnay’s character to die not in a knightly manner, but Melisandre also had planned to birth another shadow demon by Stannis and murder Ser Cortnay. Renly’s doom only came because of her. As Davos points out, he would not have done so if Stannis did not siege the castle and divert Renly from his path to King’s Landing. Of course, Melisandre had a backup vision, where Stannis’ decision might lead the outcome. If you can predict someone’s decisions based on previous actions, it would be easy to tell what will happen if you plant a bug in one person’s ear.4 Melisandre likely orchestrated Blackwater Bay’s outcome by knowing what would be held in store for Stannis with green wildfire. Even if she knew from the fires of foresight,7 it was portended in riddle songs by Patchface. She told Stannis that she would need to be present for him to win, and he told her stay. They did not win. Of course, he chose to not bring her for fear that the victory would be known as hers and not his.5 She could have been a naval commander, a savior, and a hero. It would have gained more followers for the Lord of Light but perhaps not for Stannis’ cause and rather for Melisandre’s. The Red Woman not only orchestrates events, she participates in battle, as she would have done if she were at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. When Stannis arrived at the Wall with an army, she engaged in battle with flames blazing, killing Orell’s eagle and driving its skinchanger Varamyr Sixskins mad.9

Melisandre by pollipo
For all she does, Melisandre lies to further her own agenda. She lies to Jon Snow and to Stannis about Mance burning. Rather, she had cast a glamour over Mance and Rattleshirt, making them look like one another. It was then Rattleshirt who’d died at the stake.14 She lies to Stannis about birthing shadows to kill Renly and Ser Cortnay. She had been with him when Renly was slain, as both bodies can attest. She claims that there is power in the blood of kings and so draws blood from Robert Baratheon’s bastard Edric Storm to kill the remaining three kings. She tells him that the result is not so sure as a sacrifice of life. However, Stannis demands only the leeches be taken. It turns out that only the leeches were needed, for Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon all died from the ritual. To note, Melisandre did not see two deceptions coming: 1) sending off and hiding Edric Storm8 and 2) the switching of Craster and Gilly’s baby and Mance and Dalla’s baby.10 Both were done to save the babies with royal blood from sacrifice at the hands of Melisandre, and she knew about neither. So just as Melisandre deceives her “lord” Stannis, she is deceives by Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth.

For how much doubt, though, she places just as much belief, if not more for both the characters and readers, that she is a true seer. She portends events at the Wall more specifically, seeing Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven, whom she assumes are in league with the Great Other.13 Melisandre, thus, is parted from Stannis, whom marches on Winterfell to reclaim it and seat Jon Snow on its throne.12 In separating from Stannis, she seems to throw more weight at Jon Snow, trying to win him over and make him believe in R’hllor. Melisandre may possibly be seeing that Jon Snow is now the hero Azor Ahai reborn. When she asks the flames to see Azor Ahai, she sees Jon instead of Stannis and the impending attack on him.11 As it happened at Blackwater, Melisandre being present with Stannis makes him more powerful. Will he return from the siege upon Winterfell? Will she then crown Jon Snow? Will she be able to heal or revive him and back him as the Lord of Light’s savior? She begins to warn Jon of events to come, all of which come to pass as she had said. 
Jon Snow and Melisandre by Alexandre Dainche
Like Artemisia I of Caria, Melisandre advises Stannis on warfare as she did Xerxes. And, like Artemisia, Melisandre could have been a naval commander at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. But one can also draw a slight comparison to Joan of Arc, where the Lord of Light works through her, providing visions of the future and leading people into the Lord’s work. It’s no coincidence that both figures are most known for fire. However, Joan of Arc was certainly not immune to flames like Melisandre.

Whatever Melisandre is, she is a major player in the Game of Thrones. Her visions lead leaders, and her R’hllorian beliefs are justified by the sacrifices made all in the name of Azor Ahai, or Stannis Baratheon. While Varys and Littlefinger orchestrate events at King’s Landing, spreading beyond, Melisandre orchestrates from Dragonstone and beyond. These two forces on occasion clash and even help each other’s causes. Getting rid of all king’s blood will rid Stannis of any opposition to the throne: Renly, Robert’s bastards, or any of the incestuously born Lannisters.

1. Martin, George R. R. “Prologue.” A Clash of Kings (Book II of A Song of Ice & Fire). 1998. Voyager Books.
2. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 10: Davos.” A Clash of Kings (Book II of A Song of Ice & Fire). 1998. Voyager Books.
3. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 33: Catelyn.” A Clash of Kings (Book II of A Song of Ice & Fire). 1998. Voyager Books.
4. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 42: Davos.” A Clash of Kings (Book II of A Song of Ice & Fire). 1998. Voyager Books.
5. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 58: Davos.” A Clash of Kings (Book II of A Song of Ice & Fire). 1998. Voyager Books.
6. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 10: Davos.” A Storm of Swords (Book III of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2000. Voyager Books.
7. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 25: Davos.” A Storm of Swords (Book III of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2000. Voyager Books.
8. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 36: Davos.” A Storm of Swords (Book III of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2000. Voyager Books.
9. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 76: Jon.” A Storm of Swords (Book III of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2000. Voyager Books.
10. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 15: Samwell.” A Feast for Crows (Book IV of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2005. Voyager Books.
11. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 3: Jon.” A Dance with Dragons (Book V of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2011. Voyager Books.
12. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 17: Jon.” A Dance with Dragons (Book V of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2011. Voyager Books.
13. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 31: Melisandre.” A Dance with Dragons (Book V of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2011. Voyager Books.
14. Martin, George R. R. “Chapter 69: Jon.” A Dance with Dragons (Book V of A Song of Ice & Fire). 2011. Voyager Books.

Previously on When Women Play the Game...
Sansa Stark
Brienne Tarth
Daenerys Targaryen
Catelyn Tully Stark
Arya Stark
Lady Olenna Redwyne Tyrell and Margaery Tyrell
The She-Bears 
Lysa Tully Arryn 
Cersei Lannister 
The Martells, Part 1 (House Martell, Arianne)
The Martells, Part 2 (Sand Snakes)
The Seers (Maggy the Frog, The Lady of the Leaves, Mother Mole, Teora Toland)

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