Few events in the show have had as dramatic a response from the fandom toward a single character as Stannis’ decision to sacrifice Shireen in Season 5, Episode 9 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Memes of “Stannis the Mannis” and “Best Father in Westeros” gave way to rage towards Stannis, and rage towards the showrunners for committing character assassination. However, as someone who’s in the middle of a project of analyzing A Clash of Kings, a lot of these arguments relating to Shireen ring falsely to me and ignore much of GRRM’s work.
To me, the bigger scandal is to take this potentially epic tragedy and waste it completely, as was done in Season 5, Episode 10. If it’s any consolation, I’m convinced that GRRM’s plan is quite different from what we saw – but to see the outlines of the destiny that lies in wait for Stannis Baratheon, you need to go back to the text (as Benioff and Weiss should have done).
Stannis and the Prophecy of Azor Ahai
Part of the reason why I didn’t feel the same outrage about Shireen as others is that I’ve always thought that GRRM designed Stannis’ character to be teetering on the knife’s edge between heroism and villainy as he’s put through a series of escalating trials.
And central to that aspect of his character is the way in which Stannis’ character is bound up with the prophecy of Azor Ahai. In the very first Davos chapter and Stannis’ second appearance in the series, Stannis converts from the Seven to the Red God in a ritual that is meant to demonstrate that he is the agent of this prophecy. As Melisandre expounds at the time:
“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!”
It’s not always easy to read Melisandre’s pronouncements – she changes her tune quite often, and you can see just from this statement that she’s yet to tell anyone about the waking dragons bit. Indeed, the very fact that Stannis’ magic sword is repeatedly called out as fake (by Salladhor Saan and Maester Aemon) suggests that Melisandre isn’t quite telling the truth on the beach at Dragonstone – but I’ll get to why later. At the same time, there are some elements here that remain consistent over time and between R’hllorite preachers – Azor Ahai will return at the beginning of the second Long Night, will forge the sword Lightbringer, and will use it to defeat the Great Other.
However, the legend of Azor Ahai, as recounted by Salladhor Saan, is pretty clear that the forging of Lightbringer requires a much greater sacrifice than the burning of some statues:
“Do you know the tale of the forging of Lightbringer? I shall tell it to you. 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 fires. Heat and hammer and fold, heat and hammer and fold, oh, yes, until the sword was done. Yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder.”
“Being a hero, it was not for him to shrug and go in search of excellent grapes such as these, so again he began. The second time it took him fifty days and fifty nights, and this sword seemed even finer than the first. Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it through the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered and split. Great was his woe and great was his sorrow then, for he knew what he must do.”
“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. ‘Nissa Nissa,’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.’ She did this thing, why I cannot say, and 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 and her courage all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes.”
This is pretty clear: to save the world, human sacrifice was necessary. If Stannis is indeed Azor Ahai reborn (or if he comes to share in Melisandre’s belief that he is, however mistaken that belief might be), he’s going to have to follow in the footsteps of the original. And the only thing that is truly precious to Stannis Baratheon, the person he loves “best of all that is in this world,” is Shireen Baratheon.
And from a thematic perspective, Stannis being confronted with the choice of whether to sacrifice Shireen fits precisely with George R.R Martin’s interest in the “human heart at war with itself,” and his deconstructionist approach to fantasy. Fantasy is absolutely littered with Chosen One figures whose metaphysical transformation and/or their saving the world is reliant on an act of martyrdom – whether we’re talking Harry Potter or Darth Vader or Jesus Christ. However, there’s something morally safe about the idea of self-sacrifice versus sacrificing someone else. As I’ve suggested in my Salon columns, what GRRM is doing is taking the moral conundrum of Abraham and Agamemnon and using fantasy to dial it up to eleven – what if sacrificing your own child wasn’t just the will of God/s, but the secret ingredient in a ritual to save the world from a zombie apocalypse?
Another point that becomes quite clear – the legend of Azor Ahai does not mention kingsblood. Neither Azor Ahai nor his wife are described as royalty, and yet the death of Nissa Nissa clearly works to forge Lightbringer and save the world from the Long Night. What makes the ritual meaningful is not the status of the victim, but the emotional cost born by the perpetrator – as Stannis puts it, “sacrifice…is never easy, Davos. Or it is no sacrifice.” This idea is central to R’hlloric ideology:
Melisandre said, “Azor Ahai tempered Lightbringer with the heart’s blood of his own beloved wife. If a man with a thousand cows gives one to god, that is nothing. But a man who offers the only cow he owns… The Lord of Light cherishes the innocent. There is no sacrifice more precious.”
To me, this conclusively answers the counterargument that Stannis could sacrifice Theon or Asha Greyjoy to get kingsblood. Not only does this option have no grounding in the religion of the Red God (as opposed to the lore of blood magic), but I would also argue it completely misses the thematic significance of the Azor Ahai legend. Stannis wouldn’t particularly mind killing either of the Greyjoys – they are, after all, rebels and traitors and his enemy. There’s no pain in that sacrifice.
Threefold Revelations and Sacrifice
Moreover, I believe that GRRM has already given us a clue that this is going to happen, in the form of one of his threefold revelations. The first “revelation” comes early in A Clash of Kings, where Stannis partakes in the sacrifice on the beach, and we are introduced to the legend of Azor Ahai. However, the sacrifice is explicitly called out as fake – both because it doesn’t involve real loss on Stannis’ part (indeed, given that the “victims” are mere wooden statues, there’s no human loss on anyone’s part) and because the purpose of the ritual is hollow and selfish. Stannis isn’t a true believer at this time, and his only motivation for partaking is to gain power – “the Seven have never brought me so much as a sparrow. It is time I tried another hawk, Davos. A red hawk.”
The second “revelation” comes in A Storm of Swords, when Edric Storm’s life is brought up as a sacrifice “to wake dragons out of stone.” This scenario comes closer to the Azor Ahai model – Edric Storm is Stannis’ nephew, he genuinely struggles with the question of whether to go through with it, and the sacrifice is explicitly justified with reference to the Long Night. However, there’s a few things missing – Stannis doesn’t particularly care for “this wretched boy,” and the raising of the dragons is aimed as much at political victory (“the kingdom shall be yours…like Aegon you shall conquer”) as it is at preventing “the night that never ends.”
In other words, things still hang in the balance when Stannis and Davos debate the question of human sacrifice, but in the terms of their debate we can see the outlines of a scenario in which Stannis would be willing to go through with it. First, the stakes must be about much more than just Stannis’ own success or failure, but rather the salvation of the realm:
“He may be the best boy who ever drew breath and it would not matter. My duty is to the realm…how many boys dwell in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The darkness will devour them all, she says. The night that never ends.”
“….what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
“If I must sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million from the dark…”
Secondly, Stannis must see the act of sacrifice not as an act of self-aggrandizement, a means for him to conquer, but rather as a heavy duty required of him both as king and as Azor Ahai. Indeed, Stannis believes that his duty will destroy him, although that’s a price he’s willing to pay:
“She talks of prophecies…a king reborn in the sea, living dragons hatched from dead stone…she speaks of signs and swears they point to me. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her…We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must…we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty.”
“I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning…burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash…do you think I need Melisandre to tell me what that means? Or you?”
…Stannis ground his teeth again. “I never asked for this crown. Gold is cold and heavy on the head, but so long as I am the king, I have a duty…”
At the time, Davos manages to forestall this sacrifice by spiriting Edric Storm away, but I think this happens not necessarily because his position is meant to win in the end, but because this isn’t the right moment or the right sacrifice.
The sacrifice of Shireen would be a logical extension of the “threefold revelation.” It better matches the legend of Azor Ahai in terms of how close and personal the sacrifice is, and on a meta level it raises the emotional stakes greatly from the Edric Storm test-run. Finally, the sacrifice of Shireen fits the foreshadowing-by-prophecy – not only Melisandre’s prophecies, and Stannis’ vision of a king whose duty totally consumes him, but also Daenaerys’ House of the Undying vision of a “red sword…raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow…from a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire…mother of dragons, slayer of lies. Shireen’s “bad dreams. About the dragons. They were coming to eat me,” would also fit this ultimate fate.
The Battle of Ice and the Context of Sacrifice
As the previous revelations indicate, GRRM needs to massively up the stakes, both to justify why Stannis makes the shift from being genuinely conflicted over whether or not to sacrifice Edric Storm to save the world and completely opposed to carrying out human sacrifice for mundane reasons (“I will have no burnings. Pray harder.”), but also as good writing (you don’t generally want the dramatic stakes to plateau or decline at the climax).
So what would constitute a good raising of the stakes? Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, my belief is that Stannis will sacrifice Shireen in Winterfell, when that castle comes under siege from the “army of the dead” following the fall of the Wall. This works for a number of reasons – it better fits the progression of Stannis and the Azor Ahai legend since the sacrifice will be tied directly to the war against the Great Other, rather than mundane logistics or Jon Snow; it involves incontrovertible evidence of an existential supernatural threat that would persuade Stannis that the sacrifice is in fact necessary for the salvation of all mankind (as Melisandre has argued); it also moves the plot along to the endgame rather than requiring yet another battle to eliminate the Boltons.
But most importantly, this scenario better fits with Stannis’ character arc and GRRM’s exploration of key themes. It returns Stannis to the Siege of Storm’s End that began with his story – surrounded, under siege, outnumbered, and running low on supplies – but raising the intensity and stakes. Indeed, I would argue that there is a perfect match between character and themes in this scenario – GRRM has been arguing over and over again that “love is the death of duty,” showing how even deeply honorable men like Eddard Stark and Jon Snow fail that test for the best of reasons. However, as the quotes above should suggest, Stannis is the one person in Westeros whose devotion to duty is so total that he would actually go through with this action despite the consequences. It’s a scenario that rides the line between heroism and villainy, with the most horrible of crimes being committed for the most noble of reasons, proving that “there is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.”
However, you’ll notice that this scenario differs from the show in one key respect – along with Brynden BFish, Cantuse, and others, I believe that Stannis will defeat the Boltons in the Battle of Ice. Both in the Pink Letter and in the Theon TWOW chapter, we see hints that this is the case – “seven days of battle” is impossible, Theon and “Arya” aren’t found in the aftermath despite being in no state to outrun Ramsay’s cavalry, GRRM explicitly sets out Stannis laying the groundwork for faking his own death, the depth of description of the geography of the village by the lake and Stannis’ comment that he doesn’t yet but will soon have a defensive advantage, the fact that that Stannis has scotched the Bolton’s Karstark subterfuge and that half of the Bolton forces are made up of Manderly troops, and so on and so on.
Here’s what I think will happen – Stannis will use the hollowed-out lake as a trap for the Freys, and will crush them between himself and the Manderlys. He will then fake his own death to lure the Boltons into a false sense of security, using some combination of the Winterfell ravens from Theon TWOW, giving Lightbringer to the Manderly’s as “proof” of his death, and possibly using a rubied glamour from Melisandre to create a decoy (a la Henry IV at the Battle of Shrewsbury). He will then march his army around Ramsay’s personal force (remember Ramsay didn’t leave with the main body of Frey and Manderly soldiers because of Reek and “Arya’s” escape), while the Manderlys sell the story to Ramsay that Stannis’ entire army is dead at the bottom of the lake. Stannis will then use the tunnels through the walls of Winterfell and inside men in the form of the Karstarks and Manderlys to launch a surprise assault on Winterfell, defeating the Boltons.
There’s a number of reasons why I think this scenario will happen: on a logistical level, we know that the Battle of Ice will take place very early in TWOW, which doesn’t leave enough time for Stannis or Melisandre, Shireen, and Selyse to travel the 700 miles between Castle Black and Winterfell in order to carry out the sacrifice before the battle; moreover, we know that the Bolton forces are only a few days’ march from Stannis’ position at the village by the lake. More importantly, it’s Winterfell and not the Wall that’s associated with dragons – sacrificing Shireen at the Wall (or to resurrect Jon Snow) simply doesn’t accomplish Melisandre’s purposes, let alone Stannis’ purposes. Moreover, real blood magic (as opposed to leech fakery) is generally not remote – Dany wakes the dragons, Moqorro heals Victarion, and Melisandre works weather magic, all in situ.
Finally, I think having Stannis win the Battle of Ice only to see the Wall fall and then sacrifice Shireen for a ritual that will backfire importantly (there may be a stone dragon birthed, but Dany’s vision of herself as a slayer of lies relating directly to the stone dragon breathing shadow fire suggests that it will go wrong somehow and have to be put down) fits with GRRM’s writing style. GRRM likes to set up seeming victories and then undercut them immediately – Robb’s victories in the Riverlands and Eddard’s execution, Robb’s westward campaign and Edmure’s victory at the Ruby Ford and the Battle of Blackwater, Cersei’s campaign against the Tyrells, and so on and so forth. For Stannis to triumph against the Boltons and seize control of Winterfell, only to find his work undone by the fall of the Wall fits this pattern.
Moreover, GRRM also seems to be distinguishing between secondary and primary threats, from the very beginning of AGOT, where the Others are revealed in the Prologue as the true threat that the “Game of Thrones” is distracting people from. Especially in the context of the North, the Boltons are not primary villains. They aren’t existential threats, they’re just a traitorous House who were needed to eliminate Robb and Catelyn and get House Stark out of the War of Five Kings, and who now need to be swept away to allow the Starks to return to their place in Winterfell.
So why did Season 5 go the other way? I think that Benioff and Weiss decided to foreshorten Stannis’ arc – Stannis will sacrifice Shireen, sacrifice won’t actually work, so just have him lose the Battle of Ice – in such a way that they’ve missed the thematic significance and potential payoff of the original scenario.
A big party of this has to do with the fact that Benioff and Weiss have only intermittently understood Stannis as a character. If you watch the various Inside the Episode, character introduction, and other videos that Benioff and Weiss have done from Season 2 onwards, it doesn’t seem like Benioff and Weiss have really understood Stannis as a character – for example, their comments that Stannis is driven primarily from ambition (as opposed to duty), or that his statements about justice are entirely self-justifying, since justice would require him to be king. (Interestingly, I wonder to what extent their opinions were changed by learning from GRRM that Stannis would sacrifice Shireen in bullet point format, without having read the not-yet-completed TWOW that would provide the context for his actions.)
Moreover, throughout the series, Benioff and Weiss have shown a lack of interest in themes versus results, especially when it comes to “what matters.” There’s a strong emphasis on outcomes above all else – Tyrion has to kill Shae and Tywin, but it doesn’t matter why; Jon Snow has to be assassinated by the Night’s Watch but it doesn’t matter why it happens; Myrcella has to die, but it doesn’t matter how or why this happens, nor does the AFFC Dorne storyline’s ruminations on the futility of vengeance. So I think what they concluded is that Stannis’ failure to summon a dragon, the fact that he’s not really Azor Ahai, means that nothing that happens along the way really matters. Stannis can die a defeated and broken man, ignoring the basic story structure of tragedy, and the defeat of the Boltons can be handed off to some weird combination of Northmen and possibly Littlefinger. That approach loses is the richness of George R.R Martin’s world, the depth and complexity of character he insists on giving not just to the main protagonists like Jon, Dany, and Tyrion, but also secondary characters like Stannis and Melisandre.
I’m confident enough in my prediction that I’m willing to lay money on it, just as with my wagers with Sean T. Collins and BryndenBFish, but I might be wrong. We’ll have to wait to see what happens when TWOW is published, hopefully before Season 6 launches. I am confident of one thing though; if I am right, and TWOW significantly diverges from Season 5 of Game of Thrones, there’s going to be a lot of unhappy fans who’ll feel they didn’t get the full experience, but rather the televisual equivalent of a premature ejaculation.
 Indeed, there’s an echo here to the religion of the Many-Faced God, whose adherents weigh the offering of supplicants according to how great a sacrifice it is, rather than by some set monetary value. A rich man offering a third of his wealth and a poor man offering his own life are seen as equal – the point is to see how sincere their prayers for vengeance are by seeing how much they are willing to give up to get what they want.
 Another side-point: I think this same line applies to the theory that Melisandre would sacrifice Shireen in Stannis’ absence to bring Jon back to life. As we’ve seen with Thoros of Myr and Moqorro, human sacrifice is not necessary for R’hlloric healing and resurrection. Rather, human sacrifice has only ever been mentioned in context of waking dragons (only Melisandre) and performing weather magic (both Melisandre and Moqorro). If R’hlloric resurrection is to be part of Jon Snow’s rebirth, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t involve Melisandre using the same ritual that Thoros of Myr used. Moreover, from a thematic perspective, Melisandre sacrificing Shireen doesn’t cost her anything. And as her POV chapter indicates, Melisandre is not a stereotypically-evil sacrifice-crazy witch as much of the fandom thinks – she seeks to save people’s lives when possible.
 Moreover, I think this escalation from statues to leeches to nephews to Shireen explains Melisandre’s deceit in regards to R’hllor and sacrifice – Melisandre has known from the start that Shireen’s sacrifice is necessary and that the ritual on the beach (and the leeches) was fake, but also that Stannis would refuse if approached with the truth initially, so instead she’s attempted to gradually acclimate Stannis to the idea over time. Her unique connection to kingsblood also makes sense – it moves Stannis closer in the direction towards his kin since Shireen is both his beloved daughter and has kingsblood (note how GRRM has carefully moved all other sources of kingsblood, from Mance to Mance’s baby to Aemon, away from Melisandre to eliminate those options), and in a pragmatic way, since kingsblood is useful in blood magic anyway, Melisandre may be hoping to use blood magic (as opposed to Rh’lloric miracle) as a Plan B to pull off the wakening of stone dragons.