“Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible, and red.”
Synopsis: Maester Cressen observes the comet in the sky, discusses its meaning with Shireen and Patchface, hears from Davos Seaworth that the Stormlords will not support Stannis, quarrels with Selyse, Melisandre, and Stannis over political and military strategy, and then takes the ultimate risk in an attempt to rid the world of “the red woman.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
The Prologue of A Clash of Kings is a fascinating beginning for the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire, deeply interior and character-focused rather than plot-oriented, poignant and pathetic, its horror more gothic than the otherworldly survival horror of AGOT, ASOS, and ADWD. At the same time, as with all the prologues in the series, there is a running theme of the supernatural infiltrating into the natural world in a profoundly destabilizing way.
From the very outset, as “the comet’s trail spread across the dawn, a red flash that bled…like a wound in the pink and purple sky,” the sign and signifier of the return of magic and omens appears as a foreboding presence to the rationalist Maester who “did not believe in omens,” and who will struggle throughout the chapter whether to uphold “a lifetime’s hard-won wisdom…[of] a maester, trained and chained in the great Citadel of Oldtown,” or to recognize that there are “too many [omens] to deny.” Despite himself, Cressen wonders if the gargoyles of Dragonstone can talk (prefiguring talk of the birth of dragons and/or being born from stone), even as he denies that they could come to life to Shireen, is an unwitting witness to the prophecies of Patchface, who argues that “the thing in the sky is a comet…a star with a tail, lost in the heavens” but then relapses into omens, yet ultimately goes down swinging, “denying her power, denying her magic, denying her god.”
What gives the magic in the Prologue its feeling of ambiguity and mystery, and what ultimately makes it feel far more magical than fantasy novels in which mages effortlessly fire off Quickened Empowered Magic Missiles, is the uncertainty GRRM leavens this chapter with. Melisandre’s claim that the comet represents dragonbreath and foretells the return of dragons to the world is accurate (although not in the way Melisandre thinks or wants to help come to pass) – but it’s only one of many predictions (mostly false) that fill the opening chapters of ACOK. Likewise, Patchface’s prophecies are a mix of bonafide clairvoyance (“the shadows come to dance, my lord” laying the groundwork for the shadowy assassins we see later) and observations that, while true, aren’t actually prophecies (fish “fly” through the water like birds with scales, air bubbles “snow up” and by definition are “dry as bone“).
Stannis Baratheon – His Position and Character
The second major running theme in this chapter is the story of our two clashing kings, the family drama of Stannis and Renly Baratheon. Let me start by saying that a lot of what I think about Stannis and Renly has already been written in Part IV of Hollow Crowns, so I encourage you to read that essay and keep it in mind as I go through ACOK.
Interestingly, GRRM chooses to show Stannis’ preparation before we see the man himself, so that we see Stannis the experienced, programmatic commander who knows down to a man the military strength of each House in Westeros, emphasizes the humble archer over Renly’s knights: “archers were firing at practice butts to the call of “notch, draw loose…” As we learned in AGOT, Stannis has castled, locking down the island: “the anchorage was crowded with ships. No craft that had come within sight of Dragonstone this past year had been allowed to leave again.” Seizing ships in port isn’t exactly a practice that makes you friends, but historically it’s a practice that allows kings to bulk up their fleet in an emergency without spending much money – so already we’re seeing Stannis’ pragmatism in action. In so doing, moreover, Stannis creates strategic uncertainty about his actions among his enemies, without which nothing else that happens in the book would be possible (more on this later).
At the same time, Stannis is in the worst of situations of a would-be conqueror: his vassal’s forces are tiny, fewer than those of House Frey. As ‘”three thousand men sat down to break their fasts under the banners of their lords,” Stannis also has 2,000 “sellswords he had brought across the narrow sea,” but this army is far too small to have a strategic impact on the scale necessary to win the war – which points to the central importance of the political situation on the military balance of power. As Maester Cressen puts it, “here was the heart of his lord’s weakness; for Dragonstone, old and strong though it was, commanded the allegiance of only a handful of lesser lords…even with the sellswords he had brought across the narrow sea…the host camped outside his walls was far too small to bring down the power of House Lannister.” Stannis has attempted to rectify this shortcoming by reaching out to the Stormlords, but “they will not rise…not for him. They do not love him.”
Just like Robb Stark at the beginning of the War of Five Kings, Stannis seemingly has no way out – a clear sign that GRRM has big things in mind for him.
When we get to our explanation of Stannis’ character, it is a complicated and multi-faceted portrait, and it’s not surprising that it’s so often misunderstood. Indeed, I would argue that’s a deliberate part of GRRM’s design – just as Jaime is introduced as an attempted child murderer and sisterfucker two books before his true character is revealed in ASOS, Stannis is introduced as a bitter and petty man arguably neglecting his father figure, who seems to us irrational as well as stubborn, and given who he associates with and how we first see her through Cressen’s eyes – arguably the chief antagonist if not villain of ACOK, right up until his surprise appearance saving the Night’s Watch and arguably all of Westeros at the end of ASOS.
His physical description only accentuates a picture of a buzzkill: “a tightness to his face and flesh that spoke of leather cured in the sun until it was as tough as steel. Hard was the word men use, and hard he was…his eyes were open wounds beneath his heavy brows…a mouth made for frowns and scowls and sharply worded commands…Stannis had never learned to soften his speech, to dissemble or flatter, he said what he thought…his lord was stubborn and proud; when he had set his mind, there was no changing it.”
The overwhelming note in Stannis’ backstory and dialogue is resentment. Cressen, who we see clearly has a deep and abiding paternal love for Stannis, has to admit that “he thinks only of returning to King’s Landing in the fullness of his power, to tear down his enemies and claim what is rightfully his.” Throughout the chapter, Stannis complains:
- that “the storm lords will not rise for me. It seems they do not like me, and the justice of my cause means nothing to them,”
- that Robert “name[d] me Lord of Dragonstone,” that Robert didn’t appreciate his dutifully seizing the island in the first place,
- that Robert “[gave] Storm’s End and its incomes to Renly;”
- that Renly is stealing his crown despite never having done anything to earn it;
- about the number and quality of his bannermen;
- most of all, he complains that “I was [Robert’s] brother, not Ned Stark, but you would never have known it by the way he treated me. I held Storm’s End for him…he thanked Stark..I sat on his council for fifteen years…did my brother name me his Hand? No, he went galloping off to his dear friend Ned Stark.”
It’s an endless litany of complaint – and the cumulative effect is to reduce sympathy for Stannis, because we’ve all known someone who childishly hoards their grievances into one long case for the plaintiff and those people are awful. What makes it tricky is that a lot of Stannis’ catalog of slights are legitimately justified – Robert relied on Stannis to do a huge amount of dangerous or boring work, and not only didn’t show any gratitude for his accomplishments but kind of hated him and spited him repeatedly. Renly is massively screwing over his brother for incredibly selfish reasons (and destabilizing the entire political system in the process). At the same time, Stannis is dealing with it with all of the emotional maturity of an eight-year old. Repeatedly, Cressen tries to get Stannis to stop obsessing about his resentments, trying to remind him that “great wrongs have been done you, but the past is dust” and that “Robert did you an injustice…yet he had sound reasons,” but he can’t get through to get Stannis to look outside himself.
Indeed, as I’ll argue repeatedly from here on out, Stannis’ character arc from this point through to TWOW is him slowly learning to put aside his resentments and focus on the bigger picture. The fact that he has that capacity, more than anything else, is evidence that he’s ultimately not a villain figure.
Pride and Envy
Personality-wise, Stannis is a deeply flawed man, but his flaws are the flaws of a tragic hero – especially his twin sins. “You know his pride,” Cressen says to Davos at one point, and “proud” follows “stubborn” in Cressen’s first impression of Stannis in the council room, like night following day. Throughout the book, Stannis’ pride will get him in to trouble – in this chapter, it prevents him from reaching out to potential allies when his wife’s admonition makes doing so an open admission of weakness. Note that Stannis was willing to reach out to Lysa Arryn when Cressen suggested it and didn’t immediately reject reaching out to Robb, only to be swayed by an open appeal to his pride. In later chapters, his pride will see him waste valuable time at Storm’s End, and leave Melisandre behind before the crucial battle at Blackwater Bay.
His other vice is envy. As Cressen admits, for all his virtues and accomplishments and honors, “yet it is not enough, it has never been enough.” Stannis has lived his life in the shadow of an older brother who shined brightly, and said brother was not the type to share credit or show sympathy. Stannis envies Robert his charisma, Renly his lands and power, and Ned Stark the love of his brother. To the extent that the Iron Throne is something Stannis wants, I think it’s because there’s a huge hole inside Stannis that is hungry for acknowledgement and validation – a common trait of some of our best politicians, ironically.
These two vices lead me to an important point: at this point in ACOK, Stannis would be a terrible king. Focused on his past to the exclusion of his present, on his personal injuries rather than the well-being of his subjects, inflexible and suspicious, a second King Maekar who himself ruled a brief time and died unhappily. Luckily, for him, Stannis does not remain as he is in this chapter – more on this in a second.
Despite all of these flaws, there’s a reason why Cressen sees Stannis as “strong, able, just…aye, past the point of wisdom,” and in the privacy of his own mind considers him by the grace of gods rightful heir of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros,” clearly taking a side between his two boys. GRRM goes to great lengths to introduce Stannis through the lens of the siege of Storm’s End and especially his reaction to Davos’ smuggling in supplies to save the castle as a perfect encapsulation of all that’s best about him. The fact that Stannis’ defining achievement is holding out against the siege speaks volumes – it’s the least glamorous side of medieval warfare with none of the dynamism and movement of a field battle or the scale and risk of assaulting a castle, and it requires a kind of interior, almost passive, heroism that has everything to do with endurance, willpower, and sacrifice. The fact that Stannis held a castle for a year against the whole power of the Reach without outside supplies is quietly astonishing – as I’ll explain in the historical section, this is a hell of an accomplishment for a young man in his first military action. And from everything we’ve seen, Stannis’ presence and his willingness to endure the same hardships as his men was a huge part of why the siege was successful.
And yet, even if Stannis didn’t get much credit, he was certainly willing to share it: “Davos the smuggler had cared the Redwyne cordon and…kept the garrison alive…Lord Stannis had rewarded Davos with choice lands on Cape Wrath, a small keep, and a knight’s honors…but he had also decreed that he lose a joint of each finger on his left hand, to pay for all his years of smuggling…Davos had submitted, on the condition that Stannis would wield the knife himself.” It’s an interestingly Northern exchange between a Stormlander and a Crownlander, but it’s a perfect synecdoche for Stannis’ overriding theory of justice, that “a good act does not wash out the bad, nor the bad act the good. Each should have its reward.” As a theory of justice goes, it’s an interesting one, avoiding both the chivalric honor code’s unrealistic demand that pure conduct must be maintained at all times lest honor be lost with the first dishonorable action – as if honor was a hymen – or the equally unrealistic belief that confession and repentance are sufficient to overcome habit and human weakness. And in its own way, I think it’s a rather humane attitude that accepts the possibility of redemption
And let’s be clear: Lord Stannis is a just man, and that’s what brings him back from the brink of villainy every time he’s teetering on the edge, about to follow his resentments down into the abyss. However, I want to make a bit of an intervention here: contrary to what some Stannis critics have argued, just does not mean the same thing as honorable. Or nice. Stannis can be both a just man and an asshole to Maester Cressen, desire above all else to bring justice to King’s Landing (in an interesting parallel to Tyrion’s mission as Hand) and go to war against his own brother, and remain a just man. After all, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Inspector Javert is an unflinchingly just and honest man, an “absolute…fanatic,” dedicated to finding a “straight path through all that is most tortuous in the world.” That doesn’t stop him from being an antagonist and something of a tragic anti-villain, in that “he was a compound…of two sentiments, simple and good in themselves…made almost evil by his exaggeration of them.” As thinkers and writers from Shakespeare on have noted, absolute justice is too strict and simplistic to do anything but steamroller over a flawed humanity, hence why “there is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.”
Luckily for Westeros, in addition to his actuarial method of justice, Stannis’ philosophy of justice is not deontological like Immanuel Kant who insists on an unconditional adherence to the abstract principles of the categorical imperative – regardless of the actual outcomes of acting according to universal principles. Nor is he a pure consequentialist like John Stuart Mill who insisted that the only thing that matters is the result – otherwise, he wouldn’t argue that “the good does not wash out the bad.” Rather, I would argue that Stannis is a pragmatist, who seeks justice through the best means available to him, but who is neither so finicky about method that he will allow injustice to occur as a result of incapacity, nor so utilitarian that he is willing to fight injustice with injustice in equal measure (much more on that later). And that’s a critical difference; Eddard’s faith in procedural fairness made him an open target to every conspirator in King’s Landing, but Stannis is a legitimate threat to Cersei, Varys, Pycelle, Littlefinger, and all the other corrupt conspirators of the royal court.
Moreover, Stannis’ character shows levels of complexity that I don’t think the showrunners quite grasp. To begin with, it’s important that Stannis starts off as a genuine atheist rather than a confirmed believer in R’hllor: “your god can keep his grace,” said Lord Stannis, who did not share his wife’s fervent new faith. “It’s swords I need, not blessings. Do you have an army hidden somewhere that you’ve not told me of?” He remains largely skeptical through ASOS, and even thereafter there is a difference between Stannis’ commitment to R’hllor and that of his wife and her followers. Stannis’ atheism is an important part of his character, rooted in the traumatic death of his parents, and it’s interesting that he and Tywin share that quality (I wonder if they ever met?) – while the show certainly had that a little bit in early Season 2, I think they made the switch way too fast at the end of Season 2 which had negative repercussions for Season 3.
Secondly, Stannis seems to be asexual (and is quite sexually conservative in either case). As Cressen notes, “Stannis had always been uncomfortable around women, even his own wife.” Between that and his genuine disapproval of prostitution, his dislike for his brother Robert’s uncontrolled sexuality (especially the way it shamed Stannis at his own wedding), and Cersei’s comments about seducing his horse, it makes his relationship with Melisandre a rather complicated one that has more to do with power and religious ritual than sexual desire – although it’s quite possible that Stannis, like many men with socially-awkward teenage years who come into power later in life, finds it difficult to resist the opportunity to “make up for lost time” when the opportunity presents itself, especially when that opportunity has the seductive charisma of the Red Priestess.
Consider this a hypothesis to be proved across the text of ACOK, ASOS, and ADWD – as I’ve suggested in bits and piece above, I think that while he acts as an antagonist in ACOK and would make a terrible king if he took the Iron Throne at this point, I do think Stannis Baratheon has that capacity for growth that is a mark of the best leaders, and which makes him the best man for the job and the potential savior of the realm.
As Dubois once said about Lincoln:
“Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln…
But personally I revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth and his fight was within as well as without. I care more for Lincoln’s great toe than for the whole body of the perfect George Washington, of spotless ancestry, who “never told a lie” and never did anything else interesting.
No! I do not love evil as evil; I do not retail foul gossip about either the living or the dead; but I glory in that crucified humanity that can push itself up out of the mud of a miserable, dirty ancestry; who despite the clinging smirch of low tastes and shifty political methods, rose to be a great and good man and the noblest friend of the slave.”
Much of the same can be said about Stannis – that he will learn to rise above himself, to subordinate his interests to those of the realm (how ironic it would be if Varys could have been there at the Wall to watch the man he fears most embodying the virtues of the perfect prince he has sought for decades), and become a much better man than he started as.
Hence why GRRM himself has said: “Stannis becomes one of the few characters fully to understand that [the real battle is in the North], which is why in spite of everything he is a righteous man, and not just a version of Henry VII, Tiberius or Louis XI.”
For all that readers of the Prologue often focus on Stannis’ negatives, it’s interesting how many people look past some critiques of Renly that are presented in parallel with those of Stannis. After all, Cressen knew Renly for some of his most formative years and is as much a surrogate father for the youngest Baratheon orphan as he is for the others (although clearly Stannis is his favorite). However, the portrait that emerges is not exactly favorable – Renly is seen as a rather frivolous person from childhood on who craves attention and spectacle above all else: “It was just the sort of notion that would appeal to Renly Baratheon;” Cressen thinks of the Rainbow Guard (which, btw, if someone didn’t notice Renly being gay by this point, they really aren’t paying attention), “a splendid new order of knighthood, with gorgeous new raiment to proclaim it. Even as a boy, Renly had loved bright colors and rich fabrics, and he had loved his games as well. “Look at me…I’m a dragon…I’m a wizard…I’m the rain god…Look a me, I’m a king.”
Style over substance isn’t a promising start to a man who would be king – and it gets worse. “it would surprise me if Lord Renly sought counsel…the youngest of Lord Steffon’s three sons had grown into a man bold but heedless, who acted from impulse rather than calculation.” Now, one might argue that Cressen is biased here, but his conclusions about Renly’s character are echoed by Donal Noye’s comment that Renly is “copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.”
Impulsivity, recklessness, and superficiality are terrible qualities in a king – and I think this particular thread is intended as a subtle deconstruction of the Good King trope in fantasy. Renly is the image of a perfect King, but if you look at his words and (more importantly) his actions he’s just as bad for the kingdom as Daeron the Young Dragon or Baelor the Blessed. What’s interesting is how much of the audience seem to have missed the substance for the surface.
War of Five Kings: the Political Situation
However, just because Renly is a lightweight, that doesn’t stop him from having a vaslty superior position to his brother – he declared himself first, he’s got the might of Highgarden on his side, and the power of Storm’s End…or does he? One interesting little detail that Davos brings up suggests that Renly went to war without the full support of the Stormlands behind him – “I broke bread with Gulian Swann and old Penrose, and the Tarths consented to a midnight meeting.” Only “Lord Caron is with Renly.” As Stannis will sum up later, “the storm lords will not rise for me. It seems they do not like me, and the justice of my cause means nothing to them. The cravenly ones will sit behind their walls waiting to see how the wind rises and who is likely triumph. The bold ones have already declared for Renly.”
This is interesting for several reasons – first, it speaks to Renly’s habit of counting his chickens before they hatch and assuming the best will happen (more of that when we get to Catelyn’s chapters). Second, I think it shows the limits of charisma in the game of thrones; at the end of the day, no matter how glamorous and handsome Renly may be, a civil war is a matter of life and death. Thus, the lord of House Swann stays neutral but places his sons on both sides; thus, House Penrose will raise its banners for Renly but breaks bread with Davos in secret first; thus even the honorable Tarths have a midnight meeting with Davos. Only romantic lord Caron outright declares for Renly, dazzled by the thought of an orange cloak, but even he will turn when it suits him. Third, it raises the question of how many men the Stormlands can muster – if the 20,000 Stormlords who joined Renly and will later join Stannis represent only half the available manpower of the kingdom (which helps to explain why the Stormlands managed to hold off the Reach and the Dornish and conquer the Riverlands back in the day), how many former Targaryen loyalists that Robert once fought at Summerhall will flock to Aegon’s banners if Storm’s End falls?
However, this half-heartedness hardly changes Stannis’ political position. In a war that already includes the Starks in control of two kingdoms (the North and the Riverlands), the Lannisters in control of two kingdoms (the Westerlands and the Crownlands), and Renly (in control of the Reach and half of the Stormlands,” Stannis can only call on “my lords bannermen, such as they are. Celtigar, Velaryon, Bar Emmon, the paltry lot of them…Lord Sunglass.” What’s interesting about this is that a hundred and fifty years prior, the lands and vassals of Dragonstone were enough to keep the blacks in the Dance of the Dragons until the North and the Riverlands could be mobilized. Perhaps because of the damage done during that civil war, this is clearly not the case.
To the extent that Stannis has some other cards in his hand, they are uncertain at best. For all that his wife Selyse claims that “”House Florent will rally to your banner,” Stannis is well aware that “House Florent can field two thousand swords at best…and you have a deal more faith in your brothers and uncles than I do my lady.” While House Florent’s divided loyalties make sense – it’s not an easy thing to go against your liege lord by yourself, especially when Stannis had not yet declared himself – I think GRRM has made a bit of a mistake as far as numbers go. Given that the Reach can field an army of 100,000 and that there are about 25 significant lesser Houses, you’d think that House Florent should be able to raise 4,000 men (especially given the size of their lands and proximity to Oldtown) at least. Indeed, it’s hard to see how House Florent could be any kind of a credible threat to Tyrell dominance of the Reach with only 2% of the military forces of the Reach, or how they could be so dominant within Stannis’ coalition when they were only 8% of his army.
However, I do want to point out an interesting thing about Stannis’ political thinking and actions here – although he’s often described as solely unbending, Stannis is at least initially willing to look outside his own men for support – while he’s clearly unhappy with the idea of allying with Robb Stark, it’s interesting that he starts out questioning whether he should accept Robb’s claim to the North rather than stating outright that “they are all usurpers, and all my enemies.” More importantly, Stannis is willing to betroth Shireen to Robert Arryn in order to win the Vale to his side (a decent idea on paper if you don’t know what we know about Lysa’s true allegiance) – at least before Selyse arrives and shames him into eschewing diplomacy. However, Stannis is adamant from the outset and of his own accord that “I will not treat with Renly…not while he calls himself a king.” This is an important point, as we shall see shortly.
The Question of Melisandre
When I came to this chapter again, having now read her chapters in ADWD, I realize how much Melisandre’s character and our initial highly negative opinion of her stems from how unthinkingly we accept Maester Cressen’s opinions as gospel truth, which is always a problem given how much GRRM loves unreliable narrators. Cressen’s mental portrait is totally damning – “the red woman” is introduced having “filled the head of the mother with madness,” a Rasputin-like figure who has “won [Selyse], heart and soul,” and she is portrayed as the source of all that’s wrong about Stannis’ decisions, the dangerous supernatural force that is “red, and terrible, and red.” When she finally speaks and acts, it’s to humiliate a man who we’ve come to respect and empathize with.
And yet, I think the chapter leads us to misinterpret her thinking and her actions. Maester Cressen incorrectly assumes that Melisandre has caused Stannis to make war against his brother – as he puts it, “”Stannis, Renly…had he done so ill that he must watch one kill the other? He could not allow it, would not allow it. The woman was the heart of it…the red woman, the servants had named her, afraid to speak their name.” However, as we’ve seen, Stannis is the one who insists from the start that he will not negotiate with Renly, that it will come to swords.
Moreover, Melisandre’s proposal to Stannis is not a call for “fratricide,” as Cressen deems it. As she puts it forward to Stannis and Selyse, Renly’s death is a preordained outcome: “Melisandre has gazed into the flames, and seen him dead.” The result of his death will be that Stannis will gain the army he needs: “the swords of Storm’s End and Highgarden for a start, and all their lords bannermen.” To my mind, this has a huge amount of bearing as to Stannis’ culpability in his brother’s murder – at this point in time, to the extent that Stannis believes anything Melisandre is saying, he believes that Renly’s death is fated, that it will happen without his taking any action against him. I think this points to Stannis not making a conscious decision to kill his brother, that he hasn’t connected a rite of ritual prostitution with any shadowy assassin. Given how much Melisandre withholds the whole truth about her visions and how she rationalizes her faith with her command of magic, I highly doubt that either in Renly’s case or Ser Courtnay Penrose that she explained things to Stannis beyond “this is required to beseech the Lord of Light’s favor.”
This essay is running long, so I’ll table the discussion about Melisandre’s use of illusions and the question of what her true appearance actually is to another day.
Ok, there’s an absolute smorgasbord of historical parallels here, so rather than an extended essay, I’m going to point out a bunch of smaller things.
First, the comet. Astrological phenomena have obsessed many human cultures for a long time, and the Middle Ages was no exception. What’s interestingly different is that almost everyone in Westeros and Essos treats the red comet as a good sign from the heavens, a foretelling of victory, success, and magic entering the world. Whereas in the Western European tradition from the classical era through the medieval era, comets were seen as harbingers of bad luck, signifying war, plague, famine, the death of kings and the coming of the apocalypse. Famously, in 1066, Halley’s Comet was seen in the skies above England before the death of King Harold Godwinson and the Norman Conquest, prompting the chronicler Eilmer of Malmsbury to denounce the comet as “you source of tears to many mothers…brandishing the downfall of my country.”
Second, the topic of religious competition. While we tend to think of Medieval Europe as pretty monolithicly Christian and Catholic to boot, that’s really something confined to specific places and times within the Middle Ages and religious evangelism was not just a religious matter but of great geopolitical importance, ever since the Gothic missionary Ulfilas converted his Germanic countrymen to the Arian version of Christianity at the same time that the Roman Empire had declared Arianism heretical. For example, the Bulgarian conversion to Christianity in the 9th century CE was critically important for shoring up the eastern flank of “Christendom” as a cultural entity, but also in propping up the Byzantine Empire and checking the influence of the Pope vis-a-vis the Patriarch of Constantinople for several hundred years. Likewise, the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity was a major accomplishment of Charlesmagne’s reign and had the effect of making the Saxons a buffer versus the Orthodox Slavs in the east and the pagan Vikings in the North. On the other side, the conversion of the Mongol Khanates to Islam in the 13th century had a huge effect on geopolitics, helping to allow the Ottoman Empire to be founded and expand (with the significant exception of Tamurlane, the “sword of Islam”).
Third, let me start with some historical parallels on Stannis Baratheon. Initially, when I did my appearances on Sky and Gamer Garage, I made the comparison to Ho Chi Minh and George Washington circa Valley Forge, focusing on Stannis’ absolute determination and willingness to endure hardships and mass casualties on behalf of his rather revolutionary beliefs. Since then I’ve only found more parallels – as I’ve suggested in my Madness of Thrones series, Stannis’ combination of dourness and military ability makes him a close fit to Oliver Cromwell, whereas his family relationships make him a good parallel with Richard III (and Renly himself is a good fit for the charismatic but ultimately rotten George of Clarence).
Fourth, a note about sieges. Castle sieges only became prominent starting in the 11th century CE, before which sieges of walled towns were far more common. They also tended to be last months rather than a year plus, in part because feudal obligations to serve tended to last around 40 days, which meant that long-term sieges were incredibly expensive to pull off since you now had to pay your men to stick around. Moreover, until the late 15th century when the use of cannons spread, defense usually beat offense when it came to a siege, so that sieges often were either quick affairs ended by a surprise assault or subterfuge or long, inconclusive affairs where both sides were trying desperately to outrun the problem of supply.
Thus, the siege of Storm’s End appears as something on a dramatic exaggeration and a real feat by both sides. It no doubt helped Randall Tarley that he could eat off the land and had good supply routes back to the breadbowl of Westeros, but it would have been a massive undertaking in any case – Storm’s End has walls 100 feet high and 40 feet thick (not to mention as smooth as glass), technology that wouldn’t appear in Europe for quite some time, a narrow land approach and the necessity of besieging by sea to truly cut it off from supply and reinforcement. Prague Castle, the largest castle in Europe, can only boast walls 50 feet high, although they are closer to 70 feet thick, and it took about 900 years to build the whole thing.
Oh man, there are so many interesting hypotheticals here:
- Cressen decides not to poison Melisandre or oversleeps? One interesting possibility is to see what happens if Cressen doesn’t make his doomed bid for murder-suicide. A small but possibly telling detail is that Cressen might leave out the “Done in the Light of the Lord” from Stannis’ open letter in Davos I, which might have a small effect of tamping down the rumors of Stannis’ religious conversion; certainly, I think Cressen would be a useful adviser to Davos and brains trust to the “King’s Men” faction. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that Cressen would die along with Sunglass and the brothers Rambton when Selyse orders them burned in Stannis’ absence (HINT HINT, SHOWRUNNERS).
- Cressen had let Patchface die? Now this is a real long ball, because Patchface’s prophecies and Melisandre’s spooky visions of him make this character one obese Chekov’s Lunatic, but there’s not much evidence to go on. I have a terrible feeling that he’s going to kill Shireen, but I really really don’t want that to happen.
- Selyse doesn’t interrupt Cressen? Let me be clear, I think Cressen is clearly wrong about Stannis going after Renly being Melisandre’s fault – that part of the War of Five Kings is bound to happen. However, it might have been possible for Cressen to work on Stannis on the Starks (perhaps arguing that Robb was elevated before Stannis had declared himself, and suggesting that if they share their evidence with him that he might be willing to bend the knee), but Stannis was quite open about the possibility of working out an Arryn alliance. Now, we know that that would come to naught because of Lysa’s orders from Littlefinger (although we never knew what those orders were exactly or how Lysa’s instability might affect how much they govern her actions) – but the interesting thing is that this would potentially either give Littlefinger a huge lever on Stannis, or just as likely, prompt Stannis to come to his daughter’s rescue after Blackwater as the Vale makes for a not half-bad refuge and recruiting area for Stannis.
Book vs. Show:
This scene in the show honestly shows the limitations of the medium. While well shot and acted, although there are some weird script changes (more on this in Davos I), you just don’t care as much for Maester Cressen when you’ve just spent twenty pages in his mind, feeling his old and weary body, his love for Stannis, his fears and hopes, his humiliation at Selyse and Melisandre’s hands.
I will defend, however, the change to the drinking – I thought it worked just as well for Melisandre to drink second (although I thought having Cressen visibly poisoned first does wreck the logic of this action), showing the audience and Maester Cressen that she knows what’s going on and does not fear it, as that red gem pulses at her throat.