“Where is the god of Ser Davos Seaworth, knight of the onion ship?”
“King Stannis is my god.”
Synopsis: Davos watches as Melisandre leads the burning of the Seven and Stannis pulls a sword out of the fire. He gets an update from Salladhor Saan about the war effort on his way to meet with Stannis, who’s finished his public declaration of his right to the Iron Throne and Joffrey’s bastardy, and the two discuss faith and proof.
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.
Davos Seaworth, Man of the People
I’m thrilled that my chapter-by-chapter analyses has finally gotten me to Davos, my favorite character and one of the most unique point-of-view characters in the series. Keep in mind that every single POV character in A Game of Thrones was, however else they may be affected by sexism or ableism or social prejudice, a noble. Here for the first time, one of the smallfolk is given room to speak on both the political conflicts he is at the very heart of, but also of his own life experience and his own hopes and dreams – because for Davos Seaworth, the two are inextricably linked. As Davos puts it:
“Davos Seaworth stank of fish and onions. It was the same with the other lordlings. He could trust none of them, nor would they ever include him in their private councils. They scorned his sons as well. My grandsons will joust with theirs, though, and one day their blood may wed with mine. In time my little black ship will fly as high as Velayron’s seahorse or Celtigar’s red crabs. That is, if Stannis won his throne…”
Throughout the chapter, and indeed throughout Davos’ entire storyline, this thread of upward mobility is right at the fore – almost uniquely in Westerosi history, Davos has managed to come up from the depths of poverty to the position of landed knight with a holdfast on Cape Wrath, and will throughout the series advance to the position of Lord of the Rainwood (which possibly makes him a liege lord to Houses Mertyns and Wylde) Admiral of the Narrow Sea (essentially Stannis’ Master of Ships), and Hand of the King. Davos is constantly aware of the possibilities and dangers he faces – with luck and with time, his family will acquire the social and cultural capital necessary to become true members of the nobility. However, they are constantly dogged by the prejudice of the more well-established highborn families (much as Littlefinger faces from the Lords Declarant). Just as Davos himself is scorned by and cannot trust the lords of Dragonstone, his older sons are defensive about their nouveau-riche status and lack their father’s acceptance of such scorn: “his sons were good fighters and better sailors, but they did not known how to talk to lords. They were lowborn, even as I was, but they do not like to recall that. When they look at our banner, all they see is a tall black ship flying on the wind. They close their eyes to the onion.”
In this sense, Davos’ family can be likened to an upwardly mobile working class family in which Davos is the generation that lived through poverty, Dale, Allard, Mathos, and Meric are the intermediate generation who enjoy superior material resources but who weren’t born to the life, and Daven, Stannis, and Steffon are the first college-bound generation. Alternatively, we could see House Seaworth through the immigrant story, with Davos as the first generation whose life is shaped by the old country; Dale, Allard, Mathos, and Meric as the “1.5 generation” who immigrated in their teens and who struggle with a tension of identities between old and new; and Daven, Stannis, and Steffon as the fully-assimilated second generation born or at least raised in the new country. We can see this most strongly in the way that Davos is almost nostalgic about his old life and the way in which his wrongdoing paid for his family’s change in status, the way in which the intermediate generation desires to forget yet cannot fully escape their origins, and the full assimilation of the youngest. Perhaps Davos’ grandsons will seek to rediscover their family’s smuggler heritage, much as many third generation immigrants seek to relearn the language and culture of their grandparents.
This enormous step upward for his family leads to Davos’ most important quality as a character: his absolute loyalty to Stannis. As I’ll explain in more detail as we go on, I see Davos as a parallel figure to that of Brienne of Tarth (and arguably Dunk as well). As part of a larger argument about the way in which the ideals of society are in constant tension with the structures of privilege and inequality of that same society, George R.R Martin makes the outcasts the true paragons: Brienne of Tarth is not a knight and yet she is the truest knight in Westeros (the same could be said for Dunk, and it’s by no means an accident that Brienne ends up carrying his shield and may well be related to him); likewise, Ser Davos is not a lord, and yet he is the most loyal lord in Westeros. Just as honor is Ned Stark’s guiding star, and devotion is Brienne’s (more on that later), it is loyalty that defines Davos Seaworth. 
 For more on this, see my argument on Game of Owns about the need to differentiate between the virtues. Stannis is not an honorable man, he’s a just man. Davos is not the most honorable of men, but he is the loyalest.
As the quote above suggests, part of Davos’ loyalty comes from straightforward enlightened self-interest: Davos’ rise depends on Stannis. As Davos thinks to himself: “everything I am, I owe to him…All this he had of Stannis Baratheon, for the price of a few finger bones.” And what Davos has gotten from Stannis is considerable – a “knighthood,” a “place of honor at his table, a war galley to sail in place of a smuggler’s skiff…a small keep on Cape Wrath, with servants…his own woods.” Davos bargained well for his family as well: the older sons, despite their rougher upbringing, have naval commisions (“Dale and Allard captained galleys as well, Maric was oarmaster on the Fury, Matthos served his father on Black Betha“); the younger sons have even brighter prospects (“the king had taken Daven as a royal squire. One day he would be knighted, and the two little lads as well.”) More importantly, Davos has the perspective to look backwards and see what would have happened to his family if Stannis hadn’t raised him up: “had I stayed a smuggler, Allard would have ended on the Wall. Stannis spared him from that end, something else I owe him.”
At the same time, there’s also clear evidence that there’s a genuine admiration for Stannis and, what’s more surprising, a shared set of beliefs. It is a rare kind of smuggler who would say of his own mutilation that “it was just, what he did to me. I had flouted the king’s laws all my life,” but as we see from Davos’ actions later in this book, in ASOS (especially his interactions with Stannis at his “trials”), and in ADWD (both at the Sisters and at White Harbor), that he genuinely seems to share Stannis’ beliefs about honesty, law and justice. For example, Davos’ statement that “Stannis is our rightful king, it is not for us to question him. We sail his ships and do his bidding. That is all,” absolutely echoes his king’s own beliefs (even if he tends to honor that one more in the breach than the practice).
Moreover, as we see when Stannis and Davos interact at the end of the chapter, it’s a loyalty based on mutual respect – “the Others take my lords,” Stannis says, speaking of the sicophantic lord Celtigar and the stating-the-obvious lord Velayron, “I’ll hear your words.” This trust in Davos’ opinion comes from that meeting of the minds discussed earlier; Stannis clearly admires that Davos shares his fondness for harsh truths, noting that “I did not make you a knight so you could learn to mouth empty courtesies. I have my lords for that. Say what you would say.” And as ACOK is in the business of evaluating monarchs, it could be argued that Stannis performs the best of any monarch when it comes to listening to his advisors even when they disagree with him, and taking in information from multiple sources, a key virtue of rulers.
A Religious Reformation Comes to Dragonstone
The first major political event of the chapter is the burning of the seven and Stannis drawing “Lightbringer” from the flames, a sign and symbol that Stannis has now committed himself to his new religion. This is a very important scene, but one that’s operating on many different levels and I fear is often misunderstood as a consequence. Part of this is a consequence of how compelling GRRM has made Davos’ point-of-view; as he comes to the conclusion that Melisandre is evil (even if he’s not ready to do anything about it yet), so does much of the audience – especially when Melisandre starts advocating for human sacrifices. And yet, there’s a reason why GRRM has said that Melisandre is the most misunderstood character in the series. As we learn from her chapters in ADWD, Melisandre is absolutely sincere in her faith in R’hllor, her belief that Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai reborn, and that while she shares Varys’ pragmatism in regards to means, she believes her actions are necessary to save humanity.
With this in mind, let’s take a second look at the burning of the gods:
“Dragonstone’s sept was where Aegon the Conqueror knelt to pray the night before he sailed. That had not saved it from the queen’s men. They had overturned the altars, pulled down the statues, and smashed the stained glass with warhammers…Ser Hubart Rambton led his three sons to the sept to defend their gods. The Rambtons had slain four of the queen’s men before the others overwhelmed them. Afterwards Guncer Sunglass, mildest and most pious of lords, told Stannis he could no longer support his claim. Now he shared a sweltering cell with the septon…the other lords had not been slow to take the lesson.”
On one level, to our modern 21st century eyes, this seems like a straightforward act of religious repression by a gang of militant fanatics. However, if we look more closely, the picture is more mixed: Melisandre’s followers intend harm to property rather than persons, and it’s the followers of the Seven who kill four men in the name of their Faith. The destruction of religious symbols have been part of almost every religious transformation in human history: the early Christian church pulled down the statues of the pagan gods and claimed their temples for Christ; Muslims converted Christian and Jewish religious sites into mosques (and then the reverse and the re-reverse happened during the Crusades); during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants “purified” Catholic churches and Catholics did the same to Protestant churches (often the same buildings). As I’ll talk about more in the historical section, the destruction of the Seven could equally be seen as a liberatory action by those who sincerely believe that R’hllor is the true god and the “seven who are one, and him the enemy,” and the same people who condemned the burning of the Sept would likely have cheered the burning of a godswood or the destruction of a temple to R’hllor.
Moreover, the response of the crowd points to a more complicated situation: while there are a few fervent believers on either side, the dominant response is a quiet muttering, with some disapproving of the burning of the Seven, others not knowing what to think, and some being genuinely swayed by the drama of the moment who are coming around to the new faith (“the old man had challenged the Lord of Light and been struck down for his impiety, or so the gossips told each other…somehow her god shielded her”). Indeed, it seems from the evidence that Davos’ feelings are close to that of the man in the street: “The gods had never meant much to Davos the smuggler, though like most men he had been known to make offerings to the Warrior before battle, to the Smith when he launched a ship, and to the Mother whenever his wife grew great with child.” For Davos, religion is a matter of custom and habit rather than genuine religious passion. He feels bad that the gods have been burned, but ultimately can’t come up for a better defense of the Seven than that “when I was a boy in Flea Bottom begging for a copper, sometimes the septons would feed me.”
The question of how the people will respond to this religious transformation is echoed later in the chapter, when Davos brings up the issue of Stannis’ public letter including a subtle statement of his new religious allegiance. “Your people will not love you if you take from them the gods they have always worshipped, and give them one whose very name sounds queer on their tongues,” he argues, and there is some evidence for this. Tyrion makes use of Stannis’ new religion through his High Septon, and the High Sparrow is certainly opposed to Stannis on religious grounds. On the other hand, the population of King’s Landing (as opposed to the rural Sparrows) are about to tear the High Septon limb-from-limb so religion is hardly their primary concern; likewise, the Antler Men appear to support Stannis despite his religious preferences. Finally, as Stannis points out, a strategy relying on public opinion was never going to work: “They will not love me, you say? When have they ever loved me? How can I lose something I have never owned?”
A final layer on religious appears when Stannis himself speaks on the topic, and here we see George R.R Martin commenting on the difference between the public uses of religion and the private nature of faith, in that Stannis remains an athiest even after the ceremony:
“It was wood we burned this morning…I stopped believing in gods the day I saw the Windproud break up across the bay. Any gods so monstrous as to drown my mother and father would never have my worship…the High Septon would prattle at me of how all justice and goodness flowed from the Seven, but all I ever saw of either was made by men.”
“If you do not belive in gods-“
“-why trouble myself with this new one?…I know little and care less of gods, but the red priestess have power…The Iron Throne is mine by rights, but how am I to take it? There are four kings in the realm, and three of them have more men and more gold than I do. I have ships…and I have her…If she can do nothing else, a sorceress who can inspire such dread in grown men is not to be despises…and perhaps she can do more. I mean to find out.”
Just as Constantine was never a practicing Christian despite relying on the political support of the Christian Church, and just as William the Conqueror probably didn’t believe that God had willed a Crusade against Harold Godwinson (but found it quite useful all the same), Stannis is willing to use the power and symbolism of R’hllor to instill loyalty among his men even if he doesn’t share their faith (at this moment). The success of this can be seen in the fact that his men will charge across a bridge over a river of fire, attack an army 100,000-strong, and follow him along a freezing death march to Winterfell. And it should be noted that for all that he’s considered a merciless man, he merely imprisons bannermen who take up arms against him – no executions are ordered.
However, we can also see here GRRM building in the central 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 his reaction in Davos II as I will argue later. However, I do think that Stannis’ utilitarian approach to religion and Melisandre specifically is evidence that points to the positive, given that he doesn’t make use of her powers after Storm’s End, which is oddly ambivalent for the man. And yet, as I’ll discuss in Davos II, I still don’t think it was a case of pre-meditated murder.
What Is Melisandre Game Here?
The big question here is what’s going on with Melisandre’s ritual – on the one hand, we have Word of God that Melisandre is a faithful servant of R’hllor and believes Stannis is Azor Ahai, which has been confirmed by her chapters in ADWD; on the other, the text of Davos I is thick with suggestions that the ritual is faked. To begin with, there are a number of signs of Melisandre stage-managing a magic show. Rather than making a genuine leap of faith, Stannis is outfitted with “a long padded glove..[and] a stiff leather cloak” to protect himself. More significantly, the blade once removed from the idol burns with “jade-green flames,” and then loses its impressive appearance: “thrust into the ground, Lightbringer still glowed ruddy hot, but the flames that clung to the sword were dwindling and dying…the burnt and blackened sword in the king’s leather cloak. The Red Sword of Heroes looks a proper mess.” This description of a sword more “burned” than “burning” recalls Davos’ memory of Thoros of Myr (another priest of R’hllor) and his old party trick:
“A year ago, he had been with Stannis in King’s Landing when King Robert staged a tourney for Prince Joffrey’s name day. He remembered the red priest Thoros of Myr, and the flaming sword he had wielded in the melee…his blade writhed with pale green flames, but everyone knew there was no true magic in it.”
Given that a book later we’ll see a priest of R’hllor move from false fire to a genuine magic in which blood burns with living fire, I think the color of the flames is a sign that Melisandre has jury-rigged the sword with wildfire, and is using a glamour to give it its mystical appearance later on. So – if Melisandre is misunderstood and really believes Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn, why this farce?
I think we have to understand this ritual as Melisandre’s attempt to get Stannis’ minimum buy-in as a convert of R’hllor as a stepping-stone to a future, genuine ritual, in much the same way that a door-to-door salesman will ask for a glass of water to get inside someone’s house and gain a minimum of good-will needed to start their pitch. This would fit in with Melisandre’s general policy of using underhanded means for what she considers to be good ends, and I think the necessity of this deception is shown in reflection through the story of the forging of Lightbringer:
“That sword was not Lightbringer, my friend…do you know the tale of the forging of Lightbringer?…it was a time when darkness lay heavy on the world. To oppose it, the hero must have a hero’s blade, oh, like none that had ever been. And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fire…yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder…the second time it took him fifty days…Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it in the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered…a hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his wife…know that I love you best of all there is in this world…Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer.”
This story is quite important in two ways; first, it confirms that the broad strokes of Melisandre’s ritual (R’hllor will send Azor Ahai during the next War for the Dawn, the hero will have a sword, etc) showing that there’s truth embedded amidst the lies; second, it fits in with our experience of magic in the world of ASOIAF as something that requires sacrifice (which in turn, helps to explain where . In the story, Azor Ahai first makes an offering of his own diligent labor and it’s not enough; next, he makes a show of courage and sacrifices a symbolic animal and it’s not enough. Only when Azor Ahai sacrifices what he loves “best of all there is in this world,” does the magic work and the world is saved.
I think Melisandre is well aware of these requirements, and is trying to commit Stannis deeply to the R’hllorite cause so that he’ll be willing to sacrifice what he loves most of this world (she does succeed in getting him to publicize his faith in his public letter) – and I have a feeling this is why Shireen was brought to the Wall – to bring the true Lightbringer into world. What this has to do with the stone dragon, I’m not exactly sure, because Melisandre hasn’t yet brought that element into her prophecy:
“In ancient books of Asshai it is written that there will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him…Azor Ahai, beloved of R’hllor! The Warrior of Light, the Son of Fire! Come forth, your sword awaits you! Come forth and take it into your hand!”
A couple things to note here: first, the oldest prophecies of Azor Ahai come from Asshai, which may suggest that the church of R’hllor is centered in Asshai; the parallel between a people who dwell in the eternal darkness of the Shadow Lands and a religion that fears darkness and raises up the light in defense are quite strong. In turn, this might explain why the faith of R’hllor has such a presence in Essos and such a small foothold in Westeros. Second, as I mentioned, the stone dragon hasn’t yet entered the story – the key MacGuffin here is the sword. Third, we can see some common elements in the prophecies here that don’t change – the coming of the darkness, the bleeding star, and a champion chosen by the gods – which again suggests a core of truth underneath the stagecraft.
Finally, I’d note that as Melisandre is prophecizing, we get an ironic echo from Patchface, as he foretells the outcome of the Battle of the Blackwater: “under the sea, smoke rises in bubbles, and flames burn green and blue and black.” Only wildfire burns green and burns beneath the water, causing smoke from burning, sinking ships to rise from the depths. Thus, even as Melisandre pushes forward her religious mission, metaphysical events are happening below her nose that she cannot see coming.
The War of Five Kings: The Military Situation
Before Davos can move from the beach to meet with Stannis, he gets an update on the current status of the War of Five Kings. While this is little more than an exposition dump, it does answer some important questions. For example, Davos learns the current situation of the defenses of King’s Landing (Salladhor has some impressive sources, btw): “The walls are high and strong, but who will man them? They are building scorpions and spitfires, oh, yes, but the men in the golden cloaks are too few and too green and there are no others. A swift strike, like a hawk plummeting at a hare, and the great city will be ours.” This brings up a question that many people have been asking for some time: why didn’t Stannis immediately attack King’s Landing? Why the detour to Storm’s End?
Davos answers those questions in a way that’s completely intuitive in retrospect: “might be we could take King’s Landing, as you say…but how long would we hold it? Tywin Lannister is known to be at Harrenhal with a great host, and Renly…” With only 5,000 men, Stannis likely could overwhelm the defenders of King’s Landing at the moment (after all, as we’ll see, the shortcomings of the Goldcloaks are quite real), but the casualties he’d take would likely place him in a worse position than Tyrion is right now – and banking on some unlikely chances (Robb preventing Tywin from attacking Stannis, Stannis’ occupation of the Iron Throne creating a political cascade that wins him enough support to build an army) in order to survive.
Another question that comes up is what Renly’s strategy is here – as we’ll learn from Catelyn’s chapters, Renly is not exactly planning to storm King’s Landing with his “flowered lords and shining knights, and a mighty host of foot.” Rather, I think the inclusion of “his fair young queen” is an early hint – part of GRRM’s three-fold revelations strategy – that Renly’s whole strategy is a political one. Margaery is being used (and given what we glean about her from later in the books and what we’re shown outright in the TV) and is using herself as a kind of totem of future stability via procreation. Renly’s fair young queen is a promise of a royal heir that will stabilize the realm for the next generation in a way that Stannis daughter can’t (given past precedent); makes you wonder why Renly didn’t announce a royal pregnancy to drive the point home. Given the chaos that a disputed succession has wrought, royal heirs are valuable symbols of themselves – there was a reason why the “three sons of York” and later Edward IV’s children were trumpeted by the Yorkists as proof of God’s favor.
At the same time, though, I think we can see here some of the limitations of the political strategy, which is based on creating the illusion of victory without the substance of it. Renly’s actions here prompt Stannis to move against Storm’s End, both to halt Renly’s physical progress to King’s Landing and as a symbolic counter-move (Renly is hardly the inevitable victor if his home can be taken in his absence; cf. Robb Stark and Winterfell), and it’s his very decision to take it slow on the Rose Road that allows Stannis’ strike to succeed.
The War of Five Kings: The Political Situation
And finally, we move to the second major political event of the chapter – Stannis’ public letter to the lords of Westeros that he is the rightful king of Westeros and that the Lannister-Baratheons of Kings’ Landing are bastards born of incest:
“All men know me for the trueborn son of Steffon Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End, by his lady wife Cassana of House Estermont. I declare upon the honor of my House that my beloved brother Robert, our late king, left no trueborn issue of his body, the boy Joffrey, the boy Tommen, and the girl Myrcella being abominations born of incest between Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime the Kingslayer. By right of birth and blood, I do this day lay claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Let all true men declare their loyalty. Done in the Light of the Lord, under the sign and seal of Stannis of House Baratheon, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.”
I’ve discussed the letter in some detail here, because I really think there’s an enormous amount you can learn about Stannis’ political thinking, along with the brutal honesty that demands deletions of “beloved” and a grudging insertion of “Ser” in front of Jaime. To begin with, as I’ve said, Stannis is deeply concerned with hereditary succession: he begins the letter by listing his uncontested lineage, he stakes his claim “by right of birth and blood,” and the centerpiece of the letter is a crime against lawful procreation and inheritance. And as I argue in the essay, the hereditary principle is the foundation of all political and economic power in Westeros (such that undoing it risks the undoing of the social contract and returning to a war of all against all, even within the family) and thus the source of the order that Stannis prizes and thinks of in terms of natural law. To overthrow that principle is to unleash elemental chaos.
I would also argue that it shows an abiding obsession with truth – Stannis’ lineage is “true” because the community universally “knows” it, Stannis then leverages the “honor of my House” to lend weight to a sudden revelation of secrets pulled into the light, and then demands that “all true men declare their loyalty,” so that everyone’s cards are on the table. Looked at on its face, the public letter is an attempt by a man who has seen people murdered because of what they know again and again (both in the case of Jon Arryn’s investigation and the corruption inquiry against Janos Slynt) to blow the whistle against corruption in high office. Hence his decision to send out “one hundred seventeen copies of my letter to every corner of the realm” so that “a hundred maesters will read my words to as many lords,” but also his decision to send Davos (chosen specficially for both his honesty and his “smuggler’s tricks,” again playing with this theme of honesty) and his sons from White Harbor to the Arbor and “across the narrow sea, to Braavos and the other Free Cities” with “a chest of letters, and you will deliver one to every port and holdfast and fishing village. Nail them to the doors of septs and inns for every man to read who can…[and] knights to do the reading.”
For all that Stannis is described as lacking in political skill, this shows an impressive grasp of the public face of politics. More than Robb, more than Cersei, and arguably more than Renly, Stannis understands that the War of Five Kings is ultimately a struggle for the hearts and minds of the whole of the realm. Very much a realist, Stannis knows that the letters he sends to the lords of Westeros “will like as not be consigned to the fires, and lips pledged to silence…I am their rightful king, but they will deny me if they can.” By making his accusations known to the whole of the community, he prevents a conspiracy of silence among the nobility (thus forcing their hand to either accept or reject the letter in the face of an informed public) and ensures that “the world will know of my claim, and of Cersei’s infamy.” Even more so than Robb Stark’s peace offer shifted the terms of the Stark/Lannister conflict from mere brute strength to one of identity, Stannis’ actions here transform the Baratheon/Lannister conflict from a struggle over mere force of arms to a struggle over legitimacy.
At the same time though, GRRM also calls into question the foundations of proof. For all that the readers know that Stannis’ accusations are true, the honest Davos reminds us that “you have no proof. Of this incest. No more than you did a year ago.” Among the many consequences of Eddard’s death, the fact that his carefully assembled proofs died with him will help to ensure that there is no easy way to bring the war to an end with an uncontrovertable display of truth. As Stannis says, there is only proof “of a sort at Storm’s End. Robert’s bastard…he is said to be the very image of my brother. If men were to see him, and then look again at Joffrey and Tommen, they could not help but wonder.” As with the beginning of his letter, proof and truth collapse back into what the political community knows and sees and believes.
In our own time, iconoclasm is seen as a disruptive, barbaric, and illiberal action, associated with terrorists seeking to eliminate the historical evidence of rival faiths or deranged individuals who seek to obliterate great works of art with paint, razors, or hammers. However, I would argue that iconoclasm historically has been a quite ambivalent action, equally capable of being seen as destructive and intolerant or as an act of liberation and enlightenment, and above all else, as an act of dramatic symbolic communication, a way to describe and create sweeping transformations in the order of things both mundane and sublime.
One of the first and best examples of iconoclasm in action came in the early Christian period of the 3rd century CE in which the hauling down and destruction of statues of the pagan gods was a way for militant Christians to prove that the pagan gods were false by showing that no vengeful bolts of lightning from Zeus were falling on the heads of those who destroyed his statues and defiled his temples, but also as a political demonstration, as the temples that had been the repository of civil and political virtue and the organizing centers for a whole class of Roman elites were now replaced by a Christian establishment drawing its legitimacy directly from the Emperor.
We could classify this as an example of aggressive iconoclasm (although the Christians would have disagreed) – but five centuries later, iconoclasm erupted as a controversy within the Eastern Church in ways that point to more complexity. To the iconoclast emperors Leo III and Constantine V and the iconoclast church Council of Hieria, Byzantium’s defeats at the hands of the Muslims and a number of natural disasters meant that the worship of Christian icons had crossed over into idolatry that had brought on the wrath of God; to them, the removal of icons from the walls of Constantinople between 726-730 CE was both in obedience to God’s Commandments and necessary for the salvation of the Empire. To the iconophiles, these icons were physical links to the divine and literally protected Constantinople from the infidel; to remove them was to risk the destruction of the Empire and the damnation of all those people cut off from their saints. When both sides took up weapons to slaughter those who disagreed with them, which is the extremist?
Iconoclasm during the Protestant Reformation often focused on the destruction of symbols of inequality and hierarchy, such as the rails that separated the clergy from the laity, or in the elimination of ornamentation seen by some as glorifying worldly wealth rather than spiritual simplicitly (glass windows allowing in natural light were seen as representing the purity of God vs. man-made stained glass; the destruction of church organs or choir stands was meant to pave the way for the more democratic singing of the congregation) or the physical transformation of the church from emphasizing the altar (and thus communion and the miracles that were believed to occur during this ritual) to emphasizing the pulpit (thus emphasizing preaching and reading from the Bible as a source of religious authority).
Likewise, during the French Revolution, iconoclasm could have many meanings. Churches could be burnt in order to destroy feudal deeds and contracts that denoted some farmers as free men and others as serfs or to demonstrate that ignorance and superstition were going to be replaced by a new world of reason and enlightenment. The Jacobin regime that sought to forcibly de-Christianize France in the name of the liberation of mankind (including the liberation of those who didn’t want to be liberated, and very much ignoring Article X of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen), preserved much of what it destroyed by creating art museums, on the grounds that what was dangerous to freedom in a church was safe to appreciate aesthetically in the Louvre.
The point here isn’t to take sides between the iconoclast and the iconophile, but to point out that iconoclasm can have deeply layered meanings and expressive intent. And I think GRRM is pointing in this direction when he has the religion that’s being iconoclasted in this chapter be the same religion that chopped down the godswoods in most of the southern Seven Kingdoms in an attempt to extirpate the Old Gods – rather than a situation with neat good guys and bad guys, we have a case of what goes around, comes around.
If Stannis doesn’t declare for the Iron Throne here, his plot pretty much stops, so there’s not much use in hypothesizing what would happen if he didn’t send the letter. Likewise, I don’t actually think there’s much impact to Stannis sending the letter “in the light of the Lord” versus “in the name of the Old Gods and New.” However, I do think there is one main hypothetical:
- Stannis goes straight for King’s Landing? Given that Tyrion has yet to arrange for the boom chain or the hulks stuffed with wildfire, I do think that Salladhor Saan and Davos are correct in thinking that Stannis could take King’s Landing at this point in time. The question is what happens next: certainly Tywin could march from Harrenhal (which would please Catelyn although not without risk of being attacked en route by Robb Stark, although there’s the real possibility that Tywin is politically stymied by Stannis in the same way that he was in the Defiance of Duskendale. Unlike with Tyrion’s kidnapping by Catelyn Stark, Tywin can’t exactly exact vengeance on Stannis elsewhere. The North and the Riverlands are certainly happy that Joffrey’s gone and Tywin’s no longer the Hand, and certainly Robb and Catelyn might be willing to deal with Stannis over Sansa, but there is the tricky issue of independence to deal with. Renly could eventually push out Stannis’ army, but the lords of the Stormlands (less so the lords of the Reach) might very well balk at attacking a sitting King who’s been vindicated on the field of battle. On the other hand, Stannis isn’t going to get any support from Dorne, or the Iron Islands, or the Vale, so even in the best scenario the Crownlands and the other half of the Stormlands rallies to him but he remains outnumbered. So maybe everyone is just stalemated around King’s Landing?
Book vs. Show:
As I’ve suggested before, I don’t think Season 2 ever quite got a handle on Stannis – but what’s odd is that rather than an unending string of misinterpretation, I think the show bounces back and forth between on-point and off. For example, the scene in which Stannis’ letter is drafted and sent out is vintage Stannis – honest to a fault, sour and sardonic – but the excision of his later conversation with Davos doesn’t give the audience any window into a Stannis who knows his own limitations and understands the world around him, who has positive relationships and ideals, so that when Stannis sleeps with Melisandre (which absolutely happens in the books, just off screen), it comes across as self-interested and selfish rather than emerging out of complex tensions between the man who demands honesty of everyone including himself and the man who’s looking for a new hawk.