Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Prologue

“Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible, and red.”

SynopsisMaester 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 SelyseMelisandre, 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.

Political Analysis:

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.

Some Conclusions:

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.”

Renly’s Character

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.

credit to jezebel

credit to jezebel

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.

Historical Analysis:

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.

What If?

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.

117 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Prologue

  1. Winnie says:

    Great as always Steve. I agree the show hasn’t always done Stan full justice in the past but I think that will get better this season and I LOVE Stephen in the part. I’m also worried about the daughter too. It feels like the show might be setting it up for Mel or the mother to kill her which is the last thing I want.

    • Thanks! I hope so as well. There’s a strange thing where I buy Stannis when it’s him and Davos, in part because they use more of his book dialogue, but less so when Mel’s in the room b/c of the way the show’s handled his religion.

      • David says:

        RE: “…I buy Stannis when it’s him and Davos, in part because they use more of his book dialogue, but less so when Mel’s in the room b/c of the way the show’s handled his religion.”

        This is a perfect summation of my own feelings RE: show!Stannis. The burning-for-heresy bit this season made for a new low. (Come on, showrunners: did you miss the part – from *Melisandre’s POV,* no less – in which Stannis & Jon Snow are both described as suspicious agnostics/atheists who value their secular conception of honor over any deity?)

        PS, RE: “Quickened Empowered Magic Missiles” = Well played.

  2. Sean C. says:

    “She was not beautiful” (Disclaimer: Actually she is)

    On the question of the showrunners’ treatment of Stannis, they’ve roundaboutly said they consider their version more interesting than GRRM’s. Whatever they say, I think it’s fairly clear the don’t actually like the character that much, and I’ve tended to think that part of that is the association with the Lord of Light (even though in the books he’s an atheist). So far in the series whenever a character is associated with religion in any notable way it becomes his or her dominant characteristic, and is presented in a fairly negative light (see also: the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose mission to help the smallfolk is so deep background in the show that I know a lot of Unsullied viewers who think it’s all a sham for banditry). I’m really not looking forward to how the show handles the High Sparrow, because they’re pretty much guaranteed to miss all the nuances of that character (i.e., all the ways he’s completely right about Cersei and the aristocracy) in favour of making him Evil Religious Guy.

    Though on the subject of the show, one change they made unwittingly makes a lot more sense to me than the books, namely, they had Stannis and Selyse be married before the Siege of Storm’s End, rather than after. This isn’t why they did it, mind you, but Selyse makes far more sense to me as a bride for a rather dour second son of the Lord of Storm’s End than she does for the Lord of Dragonstone, Master of Ships, and second-in-line for the throne (at a time when babies can die quite easily; heck, Renly’s early death could easily have made Stannis Lord of Storm’s End like he always desired). The books repeatedly go out of their way to establish that Selyse was pretty much the equivalent of discounted meat when the marriage happened, and I really have no clue why Stannis would have ended up with such an undesirable marriage at a time when his status (which is what matters) was eminently desirable.

    I’ve seen people suggest it was because they wanted an alliance with House Florent in the Reach, but (a) this chapter clearly establishes House Florent isn’t really that important and (b) even if that were the case, the Florents themselves had better options available. One of Stannis’ litany of grudges is Robert’s conceiving Edric in Stannis’ marriage bed with Delena Florent (thus, apparently decent-looking enough to attract the king’s attention).

    • Winnie says:

      Yeah I’m pessimistic about how they’ll handle the High Sparrow too. I suspect Stan will get better treatment as he starts to distance himself from Mel. And good point about the marriage making more sense if it took place before Robert became King. I do like the shows interpretation of the wife and the three some with Mel-their dinner party together was a highlight of The Lion and the Rose.

    • Yeah, I think that’s a really good critique.

      I think Robert picked Selyse, as the head of the family would, but specifically to screw over Stannis.

      • Son of fire says:

        I believe robert blamed stan da man over dany & viserys sailing out of dragonstone to freedome & life.
        I’m not sure if there was a blockade around dragonstone commanded by stannis & they slipped past in the night or had all ready left by the time stannis arrived.
        Stannis was charged by robert to capture any targs on dragonstone! it is know.

  3. Jack says:

    The siege of Storm’s End and Stannis’s bitterness over the aftermath is such a huge part of his character that I never understood why the showrunners waited all the way until the end of season 2 before revealing it. Not only would it have given the audience a better understanding of Davos’s relationship to Stannis, but it also humanizes Stannis to a certain degree. Meanwhile, they made every attempt to humanize Renly while overlooking some of his flaws.

    • Winnie says:

      To be fair to the show runners I think one reason we’re getting more of the daughter is because she humanized Stan since they make it clear he loves her even if he doesn’t know to express it.

      • Jack says:

        True, but it does seem as though the show runners made a very conscious effort not to humanize Stannis until after Renly was dead. They very clearly wanted the audience on Renly’s side during that conflict and as a result Renly was whitewashed to a certain degree.

        • Winnie says:

          I don’t know-I still think they made it clear, Renly was all style and no substance.

          “My son is fighting an actual war not playing at one.”

          “These are the knights of summer and winter is coming.”

          “He wasn’t fit to rule over anything other than a five course meal.”

          “Yes Renly was very charming. He knew how to smile and dress and please and that somehow gave him the notion he was fit to be King.”

          • Sean C. says:

            Most of that came at the very end or after he was dead. In season 1 it seemed to me that the writers were positioning Renly as one of the “modern” perspectives on the government of the country (like in the hunting scene with Robert), and that he did have substance in that regard.

        • I think Jack has a point here. For example, they really changed his offer to Robb. In the books, he’s suggesting him a title but threatening to crush him and the deal is never done – in the show he’s offering much more an alliance of equals.

          • Petyr Patter says:

            Renly did say Robb would owe him the same oath of fealty Eddard gave Robert, which is pretty much the same as the book. However, that is a blink and you miss it moment and doesn’t really make it clear that Renly demands Robb swear him fealty. The sales pitch is also made without the threat of violence. As a token peace offering, Renly did say Robb could keep the title “King in the North.”

            So, I think the show and the book are the same, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking differently.

          • I’ll have to double-check, but I could have sworn it was different.

          • Bail o' Lies says:

            Petyr Patter he does do what you say but he also bring up what he guesses is the size of Robb’s army is then point out he has four time his number. He does a similar thing with Stannis his threats are when he brings up the number of men he has behind him.

            When he was talking with Cat it was more the carrot and the stick. The carrot was he won’t mind Robb calling himself king in the north as long as still Renly’s vassal. The stick was well if he refuses “I can just crush him with my giant army.”

    • I don’t think they waited ’till the end, rather they dribbled it out throughout the season in a way that I didn’t feel quite worked.

  4. Eric says:

    At least the show gives us this:

    Davos: And it’s four less fingernails to clean.
    Stannis: Fewer.
    Davos: Pardon?
    Stannis: Four *fewer* fingernails to clean.

    • Yeah, that was good. And I think it points to something – it’s not that the show NEVER gets Stannis right, it’s just hugely inconsistent regarding his character.

  5. Leee says:

    Another hypothetical, unlikely as it might be, involves Cressen succeeding in his assassination. He’ll be dead either way (if he doesn’t get poisoned, he’ll probably feel the full force of Stannis’s justice) (which sounds like bad slashfic, I apologize), but that means that Stannis will square off against Renly in actual combat and likely get squashed. All hail King Renly?

    • Sean C. says:

      Would Stannis have gone to Storm’s End without Mel? Though that ties into how much Stannis actually knows about Mel’s activities, I suppose.

    • Winnie says:

      Even if Stannis didn’t go to Storm’s End, it would still be All Hail King Renly-Seven save us. Though, that might have been a helluva lot better for Robb.

    • I don’t consider that a hypothetical, in that it’s textually established that Melisandre is immune to poison and can see the future very clearly when it comes to threats to her life.

  6. Andrew says:

    A good start for analysis of ACoK, Steven.

    Selyse is basically Cersei without the psychopathy in that she has a large sense of entitlement, and is impractical in political matters. Also like Cersei, she thinks she is a good politician when she is actually terrible. She shows this in this chapter and later in ADwD.

    As for Melisandre, she creates an image on omniscience. We learn from her own POV, that it’s a facade. While she does know what some visions mean, she also doesn’t know what she sees in the flames mean plenty of the time. She gives guesses that she is unsure about as fact without considering the consequences of giving possible misinformation. No information is better than misinformation.

    She doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson with killing Renly to avoid the vision of him crushing Stannis’s army against KL that prophecy is set in stone. She thinks she is an objective viewer and prophecy is a like a story being read to her, she is outside the story, so she can erase a few things in the story. Except this isn’t a story (it is but you know what I mean), but real life, and Melisandre is in it.

    I’ll talk about Davos when we reach his POV.

    As for Patchface killing Shireen, don’t worry I don’t he’ll kill her, but rather Stannis. and Mel. I think Val will prove to be right about greyscale, and Shireen’s greyscale will wake from dormancy. Dany will have landed with her dragons, and her being proclaimed as AA, and Stannis and Mel will likely find themselves both pushed to the point of desperation. Stannis knows he must have a dragon or lose the war, and Mel must give him one or admit that she picked the wrong guy for AA, and lose her credibility and do permanent damage to her aura of omniscience. Mel would say Shireen is dead anyway, and better a quicker death than a slow one by greyscale, and her kingsblood could wake a dragon. GRRM all but hinted in one interview that that would happen.

    • I think Selyse actually resembles Lysa in many ways – Selyse’s self-image has long been crippled by the fact that she has only been able to give her husband a single girl child, and that child is plain-featured and marred by disease to boot. Without the scientific understanding to draw a link between the fact that Stannis only sleeping with her once or twice a year to her lack of sons, she blames herself – seeing her marriage as cursed by Robert’s actions at her wedding. But where Lysa turns to over-mothering, Selyse has clearly turned to religion to give her life meaning. While it’s never stated outright, it’s pretty clear that Melisandre’s “in” with Selyse is that Melisandre sold her on the idea that the Lord of Light could cure her infertility.

      As for Melisandre’s prophecies, I think the picture is somewhat more complicated. Melisandre’s visions can be extremely useful – they help her ward off assassinations, they give forewarning of major political events, and they directed Stannis to face the more important threat. As to whether you can change things, well, you’ll have to go back to the Boiled Leather Audio Hour to get my opinion on how prophecies work.

      I don’t think greyscale is going to happen. I think Val’s statement is a red (grey?) herring, and having an outbreak of plague on top of the Others would really be over-egging the pudding. And given the time it takes information to get from north to south, I don’t think they find out before the White Walkers hit the Wall.

      • WPA says:

        Why exactly, do you have that fear of Patchface? That’s something I haven’t heard before.

        Outstanding treatment of Stannis here- I’m really interested on your take on Davos when you get to it- him being one of the few characters that literally bridges the high-born/smallfolk gap

        • Davos is my favorite.

          I dislike Patchface A. because he’s a creepy insane clown. and B. that vision of the blood on his mouth makes me think he’s going to do something bad.

      • Winnie says:

        I agree with your assessment of Selyse, and I think that’s one thing the show’s depiction got completely right-also they do seem to imply that Stannis’s involvement with Mel began at least for his wife’s sake.

      • Andrew says:

        I didn’t say it would be an outbreak, but just Shireen’s greyscale reactivating. I don’t know GRRM would have Val mention it if it never happens to Shireen.

        Given what you say about Selyse, it comes to know surprise as to why she would have no qualms about burning Edric Storm. Edric is a result of the event that she believes cursed her marriage bed. She shifted blame to him as the reason for not giving her husband any sons.

        • Winnie says:

          Or it could be that Shireen is killed in fear that her greyscale will re-activate-even if it definitely can’t.

          I thought Val’s mentioning it was to show the ways in which the Wildlings really are behind the rest of Westeros so to speak…and to showcase why Jon/Val would never really work.

          • I could see that happening.

          • Andrew says:

            I don’t see why GRRM would need Val to say that to show how behind the wildlings are when that is already pretty clear from what we’ve read. How can the wildlings not be in some ways more advanced than the Westerosi?

            The Spaniards were more technologically advance than the Aztecs, but the Aztecs were making crystal spectacles for the visually impaired by the time the Spaniards arrived. The wildlings may have some knowledge of medicine that supersedes that not even the Citadel has.

          • Andrew says:

            Except in order to have observed that the wildlings would have had to originally allow the victims to live. Shamans in the rainforest in the real world have been known to have medical knowledge that rivals Western medicine. And this is a medieval society we’re talking about that still uses leeches and the four humors. It is not unlikely that wildlings could have some knowledge of medicine that the maesters lack.

        • GRRM has Ygritte claim that wildling raiders don’t rape women to point out that there’s ignorance on both sides of the Wall. This might be another case.

          • Petyr Patter says:

            I have to agree with the Maestars who have studied the disease in detail versus wildlings who practice to kill the infected everytime.

            However, there is another infected individual wandering Westeros right now who is refusing treatment. If there is a greyscale outbreak, I’d look to Jon Connington and not Shireen.

          • Andrew says:

            My reply to Peter Patter above. I don’t think one should just write the wildlings off in terms of medicine. The wisewoman who healed Mance managed to show some expertise.

      • tooo says:

        It could be that val’s statement is a twist on the fact that in fantasy novel, folks tale beats science.

      • JT says:

        I think a Greyscale/Grey plauge outbreak almost certainly will happen, although not via Shireen (and not in the North).

        Remember, Jon Connington is afflicted with Greyscale (and a huge amount of time was spent in ADWD discussing it). A more likely scenario is we get the Others in the North and a plague in the South/KL.

      • Bail o' Lies says:

        I think there were a few time in the books where Selyse mentions she wants her and Stannis to be remarried under the Lord of Light such as during the marrage between the Thenns and the Karstarks.

    • Winnie says:

      I could see Mel wanting to sacrifice Shireen-hell I could even see Selsye going along with it, if Mel convinced her this would ‘cure’ her infertility.

      But I just don’t believe that *Stannis* would sacrifice Shireen. I think he’d step into the flames himself first. Even on the show, they’re emphasizing that Stannis loves his daughter and won’t allow any harm to come to her…Shireen might be targeted by Mel, but it would be when Stannis wasn’t around to stop it.

      • Stannis wouldn’t allow that. But Stannis isn’t at the Wall any more, and that makes me nervous.

        • WPA says:

          It would be very Martin-esque (or well, in the Western tradition of tragedy from the Greeks to Ovid to Shakespeare in general) for Stannis to achieve his stunning, character-validating victory at Winterfell with the various Northern Lords swearing him allegiance or common cause or something of the like and have at the moment someone from the Wall arriving to mention…

          “Your Grace, why you’re alive….oh…I have some bad news. Really bad news.”

        • Julian says:

          Wow. I have to say, your theory is so depressing that I’m starting to think you’re right (given GRRM’s tendency to kick readers in the heart-stomach).

          • Yeah..same way I think Tommen’s going to get killed by Frankengregor.

          • Son of fire says:

            IF ser strong gets revealed as headless during or more likely directly after(sand snakes)cersei’s trial by combat the faith could call the lannister- baratheon monarchy enemies of the seven(for using black magic) which in turn would send ser strong into beserk mode as he ‘took a holy oath to not rest untill all king tommen’s enemies are destroyed’.
            Jon connington seems like the person to off tommen,becoming the very thing he despises.
            I think ser strong will be cersei’s reason to flee king landing one way or another.

          • Nah, I don’t think that’s how that’s going to work out.

        • ajay says:

          I don’t see it. Who is going to be an accomplice to the killing of the king’s daughter? How would they think they would get away with it when Stannis found out what had happened? He’d execute every MF last one of them.
          Hell, he’d probably have executed them even for burning Edric the Unimportant Royal Bastard against his wishes. If they burned his own daughter?

          • Winnie says:

            You’re absolutely right that Stan would execute anyone who even tried to harm his child…hopefully that would dissuade them but depending how crazy Mel or the wife are…or how bad hysteria among the free folk over her scars is it might happen anyway. It wouldn’t be the first senseless and incredibly stupid murder in this series.

          • Selyse and Melisandre, perhaps.

            But my money’s still on Patchface killing her.

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        This comment is hilarious in retrospect.

  7. Jeff says:

    Great beginning to your “A Clash of Kings” essays. One slight disagreement I have is your real life comparison to Stannis. I see Cromwell yes but Martin has said more than once that he pictures Napoleon when he thinks about Stannis, especially when the Battle of the Blackwater is fought.
    I personally though (in the beginning at least) see a great deal of James II of England in him as well. Naval commander, heir to a hedonistic king brother with no children by his wife, religion no one likes, only remembered for a great defeat (Battle of Boyne), loveless marriage to a woman he can barely stand (Hyde), stubborn and uncompromising and gives the reigning family nothing but sleepless nights.
    There is also I think more historical Japanese parallels there too. Someone like Torii Mototada would make a good fit I say. He certainly seems to dress that way on the show with the robes and living on a volcanic island.

  8. Ivan T. W. says:

    Fantastic writeup of one of the most complex characters in a story full of complex characters. Wouldn’t mind seeing a writeup on all the fools in the story because, since it’s been a bit since I read ACOK and the show seemed to excised them all except Dontos, I had nearly forgotten about Patchface entirely.

    • Thank you!

      Urg…I might be able to struggle through that. To be honest, clowns kind of freak me out, and GRRM’s clowns especially – Butterbumps is cool, but Patchface and Jinglebells especially are scary.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        Clowns are creepy because they’re always smiling! (It is KNOWN).

      • Ser Biffy Clegane says:

        I always found it hilarious that not only do the Tyrells have wealth and fruitful lands and numerousbgood looking talented kids who apparently get along, their good fortune extends to having the only fool in the series who is amusing instead of disquieting.

  9. priddy says:

    Dear Steven,

    thanks again for a great chapter analysis.
    I understand that you couldn’t make the article too overly long, but I hope you will write more about Melisandre, because she is such a fascinating character.

    First of all, she is an interessting subversion of the court mage/advisory wizard-archetype that can be found in regular High Fantasy. While her magic abilities prove helpful for Stannis’s cause in the short run, Melisandre’s extremism could prove fatal for him and Westeros in the long run. Indeed, that Stannis decides to help the Nightwatch isn’t because of Melisandre, but thanks to Davos, who counters her influence on the king. Aemon Targaryen states it best by observing that the red priestess believes in doing the right thing, but that a false light offers no salvation and only leads deeper into darkness.

    Secondly, through Melisandre the readers are introduced to the faith of R’hllor, which is so far the only religion with the exception of the old gods (and that big turtle god in ADWD) that seems to be supported by a true deity. I know that many fans have speculated that it will be revealed that both R’hllor and the Other are evil and only use humanity as canon fodder, but I wonder if George Martin will go with such a simple solution. We must remember Thoros of Myr, whose religious re-awakening has made him a better person. His character is probably the last decent member of the Brotherhood without Banners and fits the role of the typical wizard in fantasy literature better. Personally, I believe that R’hllor goes along Martin’s theme that “magic is a sword without a hilt.” Every supernatural power that the readers have so far encountered in the books – except perhaps the Wights and the White Walkers – seems to be impartial towards humanity’s notions of right and wrong, and whether it is used for good or ill, depends entirely on the user. Perhaps this is Martin’s criticism of mankind’s habit of reflecting it’s ideas of god and bad on the forces of nature and believing in an universal order.

    Anyway, that is my two-cent on Melisandre and her faith. Looking forward to the next chapter analysis.

  10. Roger says:

    Great article, Steven. You started ACOK real well.

    I mostly agree with your valoration of Stannis’ personality. But is curious that, despite being called “uncharismatic” and “unloved”, his soldiers and bannermen are willing to follow him against everybody in Westeros.

    It’s interesting to note that a considerable part of his army comes from Myr (mostly ships, but also crossbowmen). The fact that this Free City allow his citizen joining his cause is a sign he has some sort of alliance with them. The same happened with Volantis and Yunkai in ADWD.

    The Stormlords aren’t the most constant flock. Perhaps is due to the fact they have lacked a real lord for many years. After Lord Steffon death, Robert spent most of his time in the Eyre. Stannis was too young and Renly was a child. So they lacked a real Baratheon ruler. During the war, many Stormlords joined Rhaegar’s side (and werfe defeatead at SUmmerhall).

    After the war, the situation remained the same: Robert was King, Renly spent many time in King’s Landing or the Reach. Stannis in Dragonstone… Probably the Stormlords had lacked “The Baratheon at Storm’s End” for almost a generation.

    About your question: Stannis meet Tywin once. When he was a child, his father took him and Robert to King’s Landing. They saw a man sitting in the Iron Throne and found him very impressive. They thought he was the king. But Steffon told him Aerys had cuted himself with the Iron THrone, and the man they had seen was Tywin Lannister.

    Despite Hollywood’s images, taking a castle by storm, with hooks and ladders, is a suicide affair. Real sieges were led mostly by starvation. Assault was a complicate operation that needed trenches, digging, and patience. Lots of patience. Storm’s Keep siege had some action, though. Donal Noye lost an arm in it.

    Keeping Mace Tyrell (and the Reach’s army) and Redwyne fleet busy for a year was an important part of Robert’s victory. Probably if Randyll Tarly had had more men at Ashford, he would had completly defeated Robert.

    • AJD says:

      “is curious that, despite being called ‘uncharismatic’ and ‘unloved’, his soldiers and bannermen are willing to follow him against everybody in Westeros”

      Yes, especially since his bannermen are the *Dragonstone* bannermen, who for longer than anyone else in Westeros had been allies and/or vassals of the Targaryens, whom Stannis personally chased out of their ancestral castle. It really is very impressive that Stannis is able to hold their allegiance after a stunt like that.

    • Stephen says:

      “It’s interesting to note that a considerable part of his army comes from Myr (mostly ships, but also crossbowmen). The fact that this Free City allow his citizen joining his cause is a sign he has some sort of alliance with them.”

      Not really; the people from Myr whom he hired are mercenaries, private operators. It doesn’t mean he has any relationship with the government of Myr.

  11. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, you mentioned that it seemed peculiar that Dragonstone and it’s subordinate lords could keep The Blacks in contention for the Iron Throne against The Greens, but could not seem to do the same for Stannis against Renly:-

    The simply answer to this is that in Lord Stannis’ day there were no DRAGONS on Dragonstone; on a more conventional level, from what I’ve been able to gather it was the Velaryon forces that kept The Black Princess in contention and at a guess I’d say that a major part of the reason for this is that the Sea-Snake had taken YEARS (possibly decades) to build up a heavyweight fleet – doubtless so that he could take and hold the Stepstones or at least control them (having enjoyed at least a partial security against prosecution for what I suspect were decidedly piratical adventures, in the vein of that Earl of Warwick called The Kingmaker, into which Prince Daemon seems to have been drawn).

    While he doesn’t seem to have held the Stepstones he DOES seem to have made mighty profits trying and ploughed much of those profits into building up his forces into the principal Naval Force on the East Coast of Westeros – to the eventual profit of Queen Rhaenyra – until those profits and the infrastructure he seems to have built up with them were pillaged beyond hope of recall.

    So it seems likely that Lord Stannis’ status as Lord of Dragonstone alone would be more usual than Princess Rhaenyra’s marginally more comfortable starting position.

  12. Abbey Battle says:

    By the way, top-flight article! (it’s always good to see a new entry in your Chapter-by-Chapter analysis series).

  13. Djinn says:

    Very interesting article. I like your contrasting analisys of Stannis vs Renly political clash and the Davos vs Melisandre ideological clash. I think it’s very ironic that of out of all the commanders of RR, the one most likely to avenge Robert(ally and brother) is also ”crippled by Roberts decisions.

  14. JT says:

    Great analysis per usual!

    I’m really excited for TWOW (or even just season 6 of AGOT if that arrives first) to see what Stannis’ ultimate fate is…

  15. ajay says:

    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…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.

    You’re touching on something very interesting here (which you may or may not be aware of); a characteristic of a surprising number of successful leaders is that they lose a parent at an early age, normally a father. This might seem obvious for kings – you get to be king, generally, by losing your father, and if you lose him early then you’ll still be energetic and young and have plenty of time to achieve great things – but it’s also true of non-hereditary leaders. The classic study on this was done on British prime ministers, 67% of whom had lost a parent young – far more than the average for people of their period and social class. (And many of the ones who didn’t, like Winston Churchill and Ramsay MacDonald, had fathers who were emotionally or physically absent.)

    And it’s something that’s true of a lot of the effective leaders in ASOIAF too. Daenerys Targaryen, Ned and Robb Stark, Stannis, Tywin…

  16. Orpho says:

    So, your work on RftIT is absolutely fantastic and I am thrilled to be able to read more of it. I had a small nitpit on your choice for one of your similes, re: hymens.

    I am _soooo_ sorry to be That Person, but it really jumped out at me.

  17. JT says:

    Hi Steven,

    Not sure if it’s fair to describe Stannis as “asexual”. Selyse is physically described as having the large ears of a Florent and a moustache that grows back as fast as she can pluck it out. Yikes! (And that description comes from Davos, who is about as charitable a narrator as can be found in the entire series).

    I wonder if his lack of sexual activity (outside of Melisandre) is due to Stannis not finding Selyse at all attractive yet being too honor to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere.

    • Cressen says he’s uncomfortable around women period, and Stannis wanted to ban prostitution.

      But I did say seems for a reason.

      • JT says:

        Ah got it. I do wonder how much of his uncomfortable-ness around women comes from the fact that men are expected to act courtly around women and engage in courtesies – two things that Stannis refuses to do.

        • Roger says:

          I think other facts must be considered: Stannis consider sexuality a weakness, so he keeps away for it. He dislikes courtly love, probably. Also his personality has been build completly opposite to Robert’s, and Robert was a notorious womanizer.
          I think Stannis isn’t invulnerable to Melisande exotic’s looks.

  18. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, I just came across this historical curiosity while reading about the Hansa, the old Hanseatic League – I post this link here, but suspect that the first ‘Davos’ chapter might be more appropriate (albeit these fellows seem to have stuck with piracy – or at least privateering – after making their way into a Royal Heart through hungry bellies).

  19. David Hunt says:

    A thought about Cressen and the Maester Conspiracy (MC). I’d never heard any of the theories about the MC when I was reading ACOK, so I didn’t look for any signs of it when I read the chapter. The copy of the book I read was borrowed from a friend and he’s moved out of town, so I can’t check. Did anybody note anything in Cressen’s narrative that would indicate that he’s part of such a conspiracy? I can’t think of anything that even hints at it. If I’m right about that, I’d think that the MC (if it actually exists) is concentrated in a very limited number of Massters. Cressen would have been an ideal person to have in such a conspiracy. He was the Maester serving Storm’s End before he moved to Dragonstone with Stannis. He was serving a Lord Paramount and then he was serving the man who was next in line to be king before Joffrey was born. Also he’s when he’s at Dragonstone, he’s at the place that nurtured the Targaryan dragons for over a hundred years before the conquest. Who know what secrets could be gleaned by him or (more importantly) anyone who he couldn’t stop from uncovering them?

    Finally, I can remember nothing in his thoughts of Melisandre that hinted at his knowledge of an overarching conspiracy to rid the world of magic. He’s sure that she needs to die, but I recall that it’s to save Stannis from her evil influence, not to wipe out someone who’s actually proficient in magical feats.

    I’ll grant that none of this precludes Cressen having been trained to view the world in such a way that anyone with magical talents like Melisandre is automatically a force of evil. However, he’s the master of an extremely important man and to the best of my recollection he always has been: Steffon Baratheon who was first cousin to the King in addition to Lord Parmount of the Stormlands at first, and then later, his children. Storms End still has magical wards and I doubt they’ve been maintained since the Conquest. You’d think the a conspiracy of Maesters intent on wiping out magic would find Cressen’s position to be a good place to assign someone who would further they’re goals. Of all the places outside the Citadel, the only place I can think of that’s clearly more attractive to have a maaster as an agent is the Red Keep and that’s pretty much got to be job of the Grand Maester, whether he’s in on it or not.

    Did the MC basically shut down after the dragons were dead? Is it simply so small that only the a very few maesters are in on it? Does it control the Citadel or is it outside of the existing power structure?

    Hmmm. I was just about to hit “post” when it occurred to me that if someone were looking for evidence of action taken by the MC since the dragons died, the Tragedy at Summerhall would be the place to start. If Aegon were trying to hatch a dragon egg and the maester there thought he had a chance…

    • I didn’t see anything like that – Cressen didn’t believe in her magic or her god, but he also didn’t seem hugely informed about magic.

      • David Hunt says:


        I’ve got to buy a copy of the books for reference If I’m going to keep commenting in places like this. It’s obvious that my memory isn’t sufficient. The real bitch of it is that I’m not sure that I’d manage to find stuff I wanted in any case. A lot of my “reading” was listening to audio books in the car as I went to work and back.

  20. Abbey Battle says:

    Just so long as you use it in addition TO instead OF actual ‘dead tree’ editions; my dear fellow as a fellow scholar I must hold you to the time-honoured pen/pencil and paper approach because quite frankly paper may burn, but it doesn’t deny you access to what you’ve written upon it at the most inappropriate times NOR does it require a battery!

    (NO, I’m not a Luddite, I’m just bookish AND old-fashioned).

  21. Andrew says:

    As for the ritual prostitution on Mel’s part :Her tears were flame. We know she was sold to the Red Temple of Volantis. In Volatnis, slaves are marked by tattoos with flames meaning they belong to the Red Temple while tears indicate slave prostitutes. A tears of flame tattoo would mean Mel was a temple prostitute.

  22. I fear we have deadstraight prophecy in this case. Patchface says Shireen is gonna be eaten by a dragon and that’s exactly it. And Targ hate Stannis will feel for Dany will help him die with a little better understanding of Robert

  23. Aerik The Great says:

    Re: Sansa marrying Willas

    When the deal is first brought up, it’s after the QoT has decided to have Joff killed and before the Red Wedding, when Robb is still a threat. I think the Tyrell’s want the war over asap and Peace restored to the realm.

    When Robb is crowned, his reason for not accepting Stannis as King is that Robb wants to kill Joff and that would leave Tommen as heir. To my knowledge, this wasn’t a secret meeting, so it’s possible that the Tyrell’s could get a report; if not, it’s not a bad guess that Robb won’t ever bow to Joff (since he ordered the execution of Ned), but that Joff’s heir might be more tolerable.

    With Joff dead, Marg married to Tommen, and the Lannisters needing the Tyrells military, the Tyrells are in a good position to force the Lannisters into peace talks. With Sansa genuinely happy with Willas, they can likely count on her active participation in getting Robb into peace talks. Robb may be angry that his sister was married without his consent, but the reality is that marrying Willas is better than anything he could have expected from the Lannisters. And the Tyrells actually do have something to offer him — a navy and army capable of helping him retake the North from the Ironborn, which they likely wouldn’t offer without a marriage anyway.

    By having ties into both House Stark and Lannister, and the largest army and navy, the Tyrells are also very well positioned to be able to make sure that whatever peace gets made stays in place.

    • “his reason for not accepting Stannis as King is that Robb wants to kill Joff and that would leave Tommen as heir” – that’s not his reason. Stannis hadn’t declared himself, so the choice was Joffrey or Renly. Robb actually was favoring Stannis, said he had “the right.”

      However, he wasn’t sure what to do. “I prayed to know what to do, but the gods did not answer.”

      And then his bannermen take it out of his hands.

      I think the Tyrells want a peace, I’m not sure on what terms tho.

      • Aerik The Great says:

        First, sorry, I meant this to go in the Sansa I thread in response to the speculation about Sansa not saving Dontos meaning LF didn’t cock block her wedding plans.

        Second, you are right, they were discussing just Joff/Tommen/Renly. However, Robb is quite clear that he plans to kill Joff, and that he believes Tommen would be heir. His bannerman argue against Tommen as being just as much a Lannister (although nobody there suspected how much of a Lannister that meant), and Robb objects that that still doesn’t make Renly the king, as he has an older brother. So I don’t see (at this time) any favoring of Stannis, just a clear rejection of Renly.

        Anyway, my point was mainly that Sansa-Willas marriage would have been profitable for both Starks and Tyrells without the Tyrells *needing* to eliminate Robb or worry about installing Willas’s and Sansa’s children into Winterfell. That doesn’t mean that the Tyrell’s couldn’t have been thinking that, but it’s at least less obviously the only reason than with Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion.

  24. […] Winterfell are likewise divided about the comet’s meaning. Septon Chayle and Maester Luwin, like Maester Cressen, believe the comet is a natural phenomenon, arguing that the wolves are “howling at the […]

  25. […] ambiguity about Stannis: namely, did he knowingly use black magic to murder his brother? As I wrote earlier, the fact that Melisandre prophecies Renly’s death points towards a negative answer, as does […]

  26. JT says:

    So if Steffon died when Robert/Stannis/Renly were children, and Robert was fostered in the Eyrie, who ruled Storm’s End and served as Lord Paramount of the Stormlands. I can see having a castellan to rule Storm’s End, but who would the Storm Lords come to settle disputes?

  27. […] the same time, for all his off-putting ways, there is a core of justice to Stannis Baratheon. Of the two brothers, Stannis is the one who promises that “I give you […]

  28. […] ensuring that the readers’ sympathies begin to trend against Stannis, who so far has been a rather ambiguous presence, the moment that Stannis acquires an army that makes him a real threat. Indeed, I would argue that […]

  29. […] capable of threatening King’s Landing, and so Stannis now has 15,000 knights added to the 5,000 soldiers he had already, which gives him three times as many troops as Tyrion has to hand, just enough to make an assault […]

  30. […] I’ve mentioned back in the Prologue, I don’t think Stannis ordered the murder of Renly Baratheon and this chapter has much of the […]

  31. Tony Moore says:

    “Moreover, Stannis’ character shows levels of complexity that I don’t think the showrunners quite grasp.”

    Not QUITE? If you want to hear – in their own words – their damning confession to being utterly clueless and stupid on Stannis (as they are on nearly everything else), here you go: The shallowness of their conception of Stannis is just appalling.

  32. […] a thoroughly unlikable person in strong contrast from the relateable Will and the pathos-laden Maester Cressen, so that you wouldn’t feel bad about the horrible things that are going to happen. Second, […]

  33. […] Achilles, neglecting his responsibilities, he’s at his most unsympathetic this side of the Prologue of ACOK, and this is doubly true because at first glance it looks like Stannis is actively participating in […]

  34. […] the Blackfyre Rebellions. My only real criticism from a world-building perspective is that the Florents are a bit too weak to be taken seriously as a real threat to Tyrell rule in the Reach, requiring of harsher treatment […]

  35. […] of Summerhall. Lingering Targaryen loyalties might yet explain why so many Stormlords sat out the War of Five Kings, and perhaps might swell the ranks of Aegon VI Targaryen now that he has landed on Cape […]

  36. […] Brightwater Keep is something of a paradox to me, because the Florents are described as having barely any men to begin with, and now after Blackwater, somehow they’ll be able to hold off Garlan’s […]

  37. […] light source in the room, Melisandre appears like a sudden burst of fire, bringing literal heat and color to a previously austere setting. Incidentally, I wonder whether Davos’ “queer […]

  38. […] of the legend of Azor Ahai), if not outright hostile (given that it comes just after Melisandre has seemingly murdered a sympathetic old man). But here, the context is transformed: the converts are revolutionary smallfolk rather than […]

  39. […] to the Young Robert, up to the level of the trappings of martial prowess as opposed to the substance thereof. More to the point, King Daeron went to great lengths to promote noted tourney knight Baelor […]

  40. Somehow, I never connected Stannis’s skepticism towards religion and the trauma of his father’s death with the frustratingly common trope of atheism being born from trauma. Ugh. I guess no backstory can be perfect…

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