“…the last time it was life I brought to Storm’s End, shaped to look like onions. This time it is death, in the shape of Melisandre of Asshai.”
Synopsis: Davos is present for the unsuccessful parlay between Ser Cortnay Penrose, King Stannis Baratheon, and his new followers. Stannis summons Davos for an in-depth discussion on questions of loyalty, justice, and military strategy, and then sends him off with Melisandre for a secret mission that is not supernatural or creepy in any way.
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.
As readers of Race For The Iron Throne already know, I really like Davos chapters and this one is no exception. In terms of its importance to the themes and arguments of A Clash of Kings, I would argue that Davos II is one of three most important chapters, up there with Catelyn IV and Tyrion IX. It’s also an incredibly rich chapter – there’s political intrigue, an in-depth portrait of a king, intense moral dilemmas, debates on justice and morality, and a truly eerie account of magic being done in the West.
So before you go any further, you might want to get yourself something to eat and drink, find a comfy chair, and settle in. This is going to be a marathon essay. (Incidentally, I’m also going to be discussing themes I first explored in-depth in my Hollow Crowns essay on Renly and Stannis, so you might want to familiarize yourself with that before beginning.
The South Shifts to Stannis
The first thing that happens in this chapter is that we get an inside view of the transformation within Stannis’ camp following Renly’s death). As Davos puts it:
Now that Stannis had come into his power, the lordlings buzzed around him like flies around a corpse…the Lord of Brightwater Keep had been the first of Renly’s bannermen to declare for Stannis, and the first to renounce his old gods and take up the Lord of Light…the queen’s men were more numerous and powerful than ever, and Alester Florent was the foremost.
As we’ve talked about before – aside from the numbers problem, much of this change makes a lot of sense. The “great lords Estermont, [and] Errol” as well as “Lord Caron and Sur Guyard” are all Stormlords, and now that Stannis is the undisputed lord of the Stormlands, their allegiance naturally flows to him (although Ser Penrose will question that later). Alester Florent’s newfound allegiance to his goodnephew is a clear bid for power through his niece, leavened with House Florent’s traditional rivalry with the Tyrells, and it is at this point that House Florent and the Queen’s Men faction become a force that we have to take into account within Stannis’ camp, a force with their own interests and ideologies.
Other groups are a bit harder to pin down. For example, both branches of House Fossoway – which one would think would be natural rivals – choose their King over their liege lord (a choice that will cost them dearly at the Blackwater) for reasons that are never made quite clear. Indeed, one could say the same for House Varner and House Willem, both Reach houses without much of an explanation for why they found their way into Stannis’ camp.
But to me, the most interesting group is the men who aren’t mentioned here, but who clearly joined Stannis’ army at around this point, since they will be present during the Battle of Blackwater: Ser Justin Massey, Ser Perkin Follard, Ser Humphrey Clifton, Ser Gilbert Farring, and Lord Chyttering. These men all represent Crownlands Houses that owe their allegiance to King’s Landing rather than to Dragonstone – so they’re not part of Stannis’ original bannermen. Nor are they mentioned at all among Renly’s forces. Instead, I believe these men remained neutral at the beginning of the war – hence, why Tyrion couldn’t call upon the Crownlands to defend King’s Landing from siege – and ultimately chose Stannis, partly because of his letter and partly because of Joffrey’s tyranny. To me, this explains why men like Justin Massey and Gilbert Farring would not only fight for Stannis at Blackwater, but continue to follow him to the very ends of the known world. Contrary to what people think, loyalties really do matter in the Game of Thrones (as I argue in Hymn for Spring).
However, if these Crownlands knights are genuinely loyal to Stannis, most of his new host are not (Davos explains both groups, saying “when I was smuggling, I learned that some men believe everything and some nothing.”) Ser Cortnay Penrose points out the uncomfortable truth:
“I know you for a man of ambition,” Ser Cortnay broke in. “A man who changes kings and gods the way I change my boots. As do these other turncloaks I see before me.”
An angry clamor went up from the king’s men. He is not far wrong, Davos thought. Only a short time before, the Fossoways, Guyard Morrigen, and the Lords Caron, Varner, Errol, and Estermont had all belonged to Renly. They had sat in his pavilion, helped him make his battle plans, plotted how Stannis might be brought low…
“No man here is a turncloak, ser. My fealty belongs to Storm’s End, and King Stannis is its rightful lord…and our true king. He is the last of House Baratheon, Robert’s heir and Renly’s.”
“If that is so, why is the Knight of Flowers not among you? And where is Mathis Rowan? Randyll Tarly? Lady Oakheart? Why are they not here in your company, they who loved Renly best? Where is Brienne of Tarth, I ask you?”
As I’ve mentioned before, changing sides in a civil war was not unknown during the Wars of the Roses, and men change sides for different reasons. This dialogue suggests some of the competing impulses – Alester Florent serves for ambition (and will pay for it), but Caron seems to be a genuinely loyal vassal to the Lord of Storm’s End. Which makes Penrose’s rebuttal something of a non-sequitur – Loras Tyrell, Mathis Rowan, Randyll Tarly, and Lady Oakheart are all Reachermen and -women who followed Renly because of his person and his marriage to Margaery, not because of any fealty to House Baratheon. Moreover, as I’m surprised wasn’t pointed out with more force, Ser Cortnay is himself a Stormlander who (by all the laws of gods and men) now owes his allegiance to Stannis, and who yet denies him.
One final point – the arrival of these lords and Stannis’ need to please them will become very, very important in the Battle of Blackwater in an unexpected way. Namely, “my lords mislike [Melisandre] too. Estermont thinks the flaming heart ill-chosen…Ser Guyard says a woman should not be my standard-bearer. Others whisper that she has no place in my war councils.” Melisandre not being present for the Battle of Blackwater is definitely something we’re going to discuss in the What If? section.
The Question of Loyalty
Which brings up one of the great themes of this chapter, and a natural topic for a book that focuses on a civil war, namely loyalty. If Ser Cortnay is being a bit unfair to Lord Caron, he’s broadly accurate in describing the loyalties of most of Stannis’ host:
Davos had come too far with Stannis to play coy now. “Last year they were Robert’s men. A moon ago they were Renly’s. This morning they are yours. Whose will they be on the morrow?”
And Stannis laughed. A sudden gust, rough and full of scorn. “I told you, Melisandre,” he said to the red woman, “my Onion Knight tells me the truth…”
This dialogue points to precisely why Davos, and only Davos, is the POV here. To begin with, only Davos has the kind of relationship with Stannis (one forged with a meat cleaver) to speak his mind, bluntly and honestly, about the political environment he’s in and bring up the subject in the first place. More importantly, as I’ve argued to my friends at the Game of Owns podcast, Davos’ primary drive as a character is loyalty – thus, his very presence makes him a kind of yardstick by which the other characters are judged. Like Penrose, Davos is a loyal vassal, and indeed a man who will maintain his loyalty perhaps past the point of reason. At the same time, Davos is explicitly a reverse mirror image of Stannis’ new adherents:
“It is not for me to question the king’s commands, and yet…”
Every man of the party was of better birth and higher station than Davos Seaworth, and the great lords glittered in the morning sun. Silvered steel and gold inlay brightened their armor, and their warhelms were crested in a riot of silken plumes…
After the brightness of the morning, the interior of the pavilion seemed cool and dim. Stannis seated himself on a plain wooden camp stool and waved Davos to another. “One day I may make you a lord, smuggler. If only to irk Celtigar and Florent.”
“…You have a passing clever father, Devan,” the king told the boy standing by his elbow. “He makes me wish I had more smugglers in my service. And fewer lords…”
Davos is a commoner, looked down upon by these noblemen as a mere onion knight, and yet it is Davos who is truer to the ideals of lordship – namely, that a lord ought to be a loyal vassal to his liege – than his highborn peers, just as Brienne and Sandor are the truest knights in ASOIAF (with Dunk playing the same role in his eponymous tales). This speaks to GRRM’s particular brand of romanticism (there’s a reason why he spent three years working on Beauty and the Beast), whereby one’s interior qualities rather than appearances are the true test of virtue. At the same time, GRRM is also doing a bit of foreshadowing, showing why it is that Davos will indeed rise not only to lordship but also the position of Hand of the King due to his honest service, whereas his lordly rivals will lose all because of their ambition and self-interest which lead them to betray Stannis (or at least his better interests).
 In addition, Stannis’ comment about wanting more smugglers and fewer lords also sets up the thematic question of meritocracy that will become more prominent in ASOS. Needless to say, it’s unclear whether Stannis’ comment prefigures a program of promoting effective low (or at least lesser) born subordinates to help push his vision of a united and centralized monarchy, much as how Phillip IV used Enguerrand de Marigny to strengthen the French monarchy (yes, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of the Accursed Kings series, on GRRM’s recommendation).
However, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that GRRM’s argument here is as simplistic as “loyal good, ambitious bad.” Yes, it’s true that Martin is critiquing the faithlessness and ambitions of the various lesser lords as a major force that will make the war last longer and get more violent – think of the actions of Roose Bolton or Walder Frey or Rickard Karstark or Mace Tyrell. However, as we’ll discuss more later, I think Penrose’s own extremism is also meant to critique Davos’ own extremism on this score. While in many areas, Davos tempers his idealism with the hardworn pragmatism as a Flea Bottom urchin turned smuggler, when it comes to Stannis, Davos like Penrose may well push his loyalty beyond the bounds of reason.
Stannis and Davos, Stannis and Justice
The topic of loyalty inexorably brings us to the topic of justice – for after all, if lords are disloyal and their disloyalty leads to war, what should a king do about it. Again, Davos is a kind of personification of the idea of justice, as his fingerbones attest to:
“They remind me of what I was. Where I came from. They remind me of your justice, my liege.”
“It was justice,” Stannis said. “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward. You were a hero and a smuggler.” He glanced behind at Lord Florent and the others, rainbow knights and turncloaks, who were following at a distance.
As I discuss in my Hollow Crowns essay, Stannis’ ideas about justice are one of the things that make him one of the (if not the) most thematically interesting kings in Clash. His views about justice are hard to categorize – while legalism probably comes closest as a real-world comparison, Stannis doesn’t quite share that philosophy’s belief that punishment ought to be incredibly harsh (to deter crime). Rather, he takes a rather holistic perspective, weighing both the virtues and vices of the supplicant and trying to reward both appropriately – which at least gives the guilty an incentive to reform.
Stannis’ relationship with Davos is critical for our understanding of justice in another way, because that shared background in Stannis’ judicial mutilation and ennoblement of Davos gives Davos the license to be the honest man who can call Stannis out and force him to justify himself:
“Davos, I have missed you sorely,” the king said. “Aye, I have a tail of traitors, your nose does not deceive you. My lords bannermen are inconstant even in their treasons. I need them, but you should know how it sickens me to pardon such as these when I have punished better men for lesser crimes. You have every right to reproach me, Ser Davos….”
“These pardoned lords would do well to reflect on that. Good men and true will fight for Joffrey, wrongly believing him the true king. A northman might even say the same of Robb Stark. But these lords who flocked to my brother’s banners knew him for a usurper. They turned their backs on their rightful king for no better reason than dreams of power and glory, and I have marked them for what they are. Pardoned them, yes. Forgiven. But not forgotten.”
…Stannis only seemed to half hear him. “I have no doubt that Cersei had a hand in Robert’s death. I will have justice for him. Aye, and for Ned Stark and Jon Arryn as well.”
“And for Renly?” The words were out before Davos could stop to consider them.
There’s a lot of themes worked into this rather short dialogue. First, as BryndenBFish argues in Hymn for Spring, Stannis shows a surprising degree of flexibility for someone with a reputation for inflexibility. Here, he accepts the support of men he believes deserve to be punished for their crimes, so that he will later be in a position to do so. However, this flexibility extends further, to a rather sophisticated understanding of the motivations of others. For someone who’s not especially empathetic, Stannis shows a real understanding of how devotion to tradition might lead some to support Joffrey, whereas nationalism might inspire others to fight for Robb Stark’s Kingdom in the North – while still condemning those who fought for Renly without any real justification. It does make you wonder how much Stannis’ reputation for inflexibility might be a pose adopted to inspire obedience.
Second, one of the things that does set Stannis apart from other kings is that he is someone with a program he wants to put in place after victory, who sees the monarchy as a means not merely an end. Now, as programs go, wanting to punish the murderers of Robert, Ned, and Jon Arryn, as well as the lesser traitors around him, is somewhat limited. Like Cregan Stark, it leads you to a cleansing purge but doesn’t tell you what to do next. And it’s entirely backward-looking, largely focused on settling old scores, rather than dealing with the crises of the present and future. And this contradiction between an active agenda and narrow grudge-holding is what makes Stannis at this precise moment not the right man for the job – he lacks a sense that the needs of the realm might take precedence over his own desire for vengeance. This is why, dramatically, Stannis needs to lose the Battle of Blackwater, so that he must go through a period of reflection and growth that gets him to see that the duties of the king are more important than his rights.
But for the moment, this leaves us with a “truly just man,” unleavened by proportionality, intent on bringing justice to Westeros by any means necessary, even if those means are less than moral. Which brings us to the question of murder – and whether Stannis is one of the condemned guilty.
Did Stannis Murder Renly?
As 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 evidence that I think points to this conclusion. That being said, it’s very clear from this story that part of Stannis’ life-force actually did carry out the murder:
He looks half a corpse too, years older than when I left Dragonstone. Devan said the king scarcely slept of late. “Since Lord Renly died, he has been troubled by terrible nightmares…maester’s potions do not touch them. Only the Lady Melisandre can soothe him to sleep.”
Is that why she shares his pavilion now? Davos wondered. To pray with him? Or does she have another way to soothe him to sleep?
As we learn later, Stannis’ sudden aging and weight loss is caused by Melisandre’s shadow-binding ritual, where the giving of seed creates an assassin out of the man’s life-force. (By the way, anyone who complained about Stannis sleeping with Melisandre in Season 2, here’s the evidence of them sleeping together – she’s sharing his bed because GRRM’s magic is primal in nature) However, I do not believe that Stannis engaged in the ritual with the conscious intent to kill Renly, nor do I believe that Melisandre told him the true purpose of said ritual. Stannis tells us this directly:
For a long time the king did not speak. Then, very softly, he said, “I dream of it sometimes. Of Renly’s dying. A green tent, candles, a woman screaming. And blood.” Stannis looked down at his hands. “I was still abed when he died. Your Devan will tell you. He tried to wake me. Dawn was nigh and my lords were waiting, fretting. I should have been ahorse, armored. I knew Renly would attack at break of day. Devan says I thrashed and cried out, but what does it matter? It was a dream. I was in my tent when Renly died, and when I woke my hands were clean.”
For those who are skeptical of Stannis’ protestations, we might call this being in denial, but I don’t think there’s a strong argument for Stannis consciously lying to Davos – if that was what he was after, why not just stop with “I was still abed when he died“? Why go into the dream? And while we’re at it, Stannis isn’t really the type of person who would feel the need to lie about killing a traitor to a bannerman.
When viewed in context, I think we should take him at his word – that Stannis subconsciously experienced the assassination of Renly but did not order it. Earlier in the same chapter, when the parlay is debating whether Brienne killed Renly, Stannis cuts across the argument by saying “the Lord of Light willed that my brother die for his treason.” For all that Stannis might not be the most fervent R’hllorite, he clearly has come to believe in Melisandre’s prophecies:
“Ser Cortnay will be dead within the day. Melisandre has seen it in the flames of the future…Her flames do not lie. She saw Renly’s doom as well. On Dragonstone she saw it, and told Selyse. Lord Velaryon and your friend Salladhor Saan would have had me sail against Joffrey, but Melisandre told me that if I went to Storm’s End, I would win the best part of my brother’s power, and she was right.”
To me, the fact that Stannis believes Melisandre’s prophecies that both men would die is persuasive evidence that Stannis viewed Renly’s death as fated to happen, and therefore not requiring his intervention to come to pass; this is backed up by the consistency of his attitude toward the deaths of Renly and Penrose. Equally importantly, if we compare his reporting of Melisandre’s predictions to what we saw from Maester Cressen’s perspective, it seems quite clear that Melisandre is not telling Stannis “if you go here, I can summon a shadow-assassin,” but rather attributing her own actions to the hand of R’hllor, which further explains Stannis’ beliefs (more of this in a bit). This last part is especially important, when we consider the context of Stannis’ orders later.
At the same time, there’s also some interesting stuff going on here in terms of how prophecy works in ASOIAF (which is going to be very important come Dany IV). This is a subject I’m very interested in, and this chapter brings up some conflicting perspectives. On the one hand, Stannis seems to be arguing for some version of predestination – what Melisandre sees in the flames will come to pass. On the other, Stannis seems to be saying that there are multiple and conflicting futures, which reintroduces the question of free will:
“Melisandre saw another day in her flames as well. A morrow where Renly rode out of the south in his green armor to smash my host beneath the walls of King’s Landing. Had I met my brother there, it might have been me who died in place of him.”
As Davos wisely points out, this is kind of bullshit: “if she saw two futures, well…both cannot be true.” Either the future is set in stone or there’s multiple futures, which means there’s free will. Moreover, Davos has a point when he says “Lord Renly only came here because you had laid siege to the castle,” which makes Melisandre’s prophecies rather self-fulfilling. Stannis’ riposte seems to be an argument that multiple futures having varying degrees of likelihood – “some lights cast more than one shadow…every man casts a dozen. Some are fainter than others, that’s all.” However, that’s not exactly a rejoinder – it would still seem to be the case that free will exists.
What’s The Deal With Ser Cortnay Penrose?
After that long discussion, let’s talk about Ser Cortnay Penrose, since he’s the subject of most of these discussions, and a rather good symbol himself of questions of loyalty, guilt, and justice. To begin with, let’s talk about why Penrose refuses Stannis’ terms:
“And the terms?” asked Ser Cortnay.
“Remain as before,” said Stannis. “I will pardon you for your treason, as I have pardoned these lords you see behind me. The men of your garrison will be free to enter my service or to return unmolested to their homes. You may keep your weapons and as much property as a man can carry. I will require your horses and pack animals, however.”
“And what of Edric Storm?”
“My brother’s bastard must be surrendered to me.”
“Then my answer is still no, my lord.”
On the face of it, this refusal is rather strange. Especially by medieval standards, Stannis is giving Penrose a good deal – a general pardon, the right to choose whether to go home or to fight with Stannis, he right to keep their weapons and property. The sticking point seems to be Edric Storm, but this is where audience knowledge vs. character knowledge could lead us astray. Penrose can’t possibly know about the blood sacrifice angle that comes up in ASOS, and while he might suspect that the story about the shadowbinding might mean something dark for Edric, there’s no textual evidence to support that.
From Catelyn V, we learn that Penrose is sending letters out to anyone and everyone, asking for help, because “he fears for the boy, he says.” My guess is that Penrose thought that, assuming Renly was assassinated by his brother, Stannis might want to have Edric killed as a potential rival to power; if for example the Tyrells had forged a legitimization decree from Renly proclaiming Edric to be his heir, as Robert’s bastard, he might have gained support from the Reach and complicated Stannis’ rise to power.
Moving on from this question, let’s examine Davos’ estimation of the castellan of Storm’s End:
“A smuggler must be a fair judge of men,” the king said. ‘What do you make of this Ser Cortnay Penrose?”
“A stubborn man,” said Davos carefully.
“Hungry for death, I call it. He throws my pardon in my face. Aye, and throws his life away in the bargain, and the lives of every man inside those walls. Single combat?” The king snorted in derision. “No doubt he mistook me for Robert.”
“More like he was desperate. What other hope does he have?”
…”The king was relentless. “You esteem this Penrose more than you do my lords bannermen. Why?”
“He keeps faith.”
As I’ve suggested above, a good part of Davos’ respect for Ser Penrose is that Davos sees in Penrose a symbol of his own ideal – in a world where men change their cloaks all the time, Penrose keeps the faith. However, the fact that he’s also called out as stubborn and hungry for death – with even Davos wondering whether “could it be that Ser Cortnay seeks for a way to yield with honor? Even if it means his own life?” – the comparison also suggests that extremism in the pursuit of loyalty might actually be a vice. For Penrose, we must ask, what is the value of loyalty to a dead man whose closest followers have abandoned his cause (Loras Tyrell is going to want revenge, but you don’t see him trying to put Edric Storm on the Iron Throne), especially when your stubbornness might lead to the death of thousands? For Davos, we have to ask, what happens if his loyalty to Stannis leads him to embrace bad means for a good end? (More of which in a minute.) And indeed, as we’ll see in ASOS, it’s not like Davos is without a death wish of his own.
However, Davos isn’t summoned to speak with Stannis just to discuss theoretical questions – there’s also the difficult question of what to do with Storm’s End. There are a number of different alternatives here:
“Lord Velaryon will urge me to storm the castle walls at first light, grapnels and scaling ladders against arrows and boiling oil. The young mules will think this a splendid notion. Estermont will favor settling down to starve them out, as Tyrell and Redwyne once tried with me. That might take a year, but old mules are patient. And Lord Caron and the others who like to kick will want to take up Ser Cortnay’s gauntlet and hazard all upon a single combat. Each one imagining he will be my champion and win undying fame.”
These options have major downsides. As we’ll see later in the case of Loras Tyrell’s attack on Dragonstone, an assault on a well-fortified, heavily-garrisoned castle leads to massive casualties – and with 21,000 men, Stannis doesn’t have enough troops to absorb those kinds of losses, especially if he also has to take King’s Landing and face down Tywin Lannister. Starving out Storm’s End would take a long time, and in that time, Tywin could bring his army east to defend King’s Landing, the Tyrells could declare for another candidate (Joffrey, Robb, and even Edric Storm are all possibilities), the Martells could pick a side and menace his rear. Single combat doesn’t necessarily get Stannis the castle, and as we’ll see in Meereen, could potentially damage morale. It also potentially adds further delay.
Davos offers Stannis a fourth option:
Davos considered a moment before he answered. “Strike for King’s Landing at once.”
The king snorted. “And leave Storm’s End untaken?”
“Ser Cortnay does not have the power to harm you. The Lannisters do. A siege would take too long, single combat is too chancy, and an assault would cost thousands of lives with no certainty of success. And there is no need. Once you dethrone Joffrey this castle must come to you with all the rest. It is said about the camp that Lord Tywin Lannister rushes west to rescue Lannisport from the vengeance of the northmen . . .”
As military strategy and political advice, Davos’ proposal has several things going for it. First, while we know for sure that every hour could have made the difference between victory and defeat, it’s clear at the time that speed is of the essence. While Tywin has gone to the west, there’s no reason he can’t march back east; likewise, every day give King’s Landing more time to prepare for the siege. Second, as a political symbol, Davos is right that the Iron Throne holds the key; even after Robert Baratheon won the Battle of the Trident and seized King’s Landing, the Tyrells and Martells could have overcome them in a pitched battle, but the Tyrells balked at making war on an enthroned king. Third, it’s not clear how much Davos’ advice would have changed things – more on this in the What If? section.
Stannis rejects this advice for a mix of military and political reasons:
“…you are wrong in one respect, Davos. There is a need. If I leave Storm’s End untaken in my rear, it will be said I was defeated here. And that I cannot permit. Men do not love me as they loved my brothers. They follow me because they fear me . . . and defeat is death to fear. The castle must fall.” His jaw ground side to side. “Aye, and quickly. Doran Martell has called his banners and fortified the mountain passes. His Dornishmen are poised to sweep down onto the Marches. And Highgarden is far from spent. My brother left the greater part of his power at Bitterbridge, near sixty thousand foot. I sent my wife’s brother Ser Errol with Ser Parmen Crane to take them under my command, but they have not returned. I fear that Ser Loras Tyrell reached Bitterbridge before my envoys, and took that host for his own.”
On an ideological level, here’s another clash about what makes kings – is it the symbolism of legitimacy (as Varys argues) or is it fear, the raw Hobbsian monopoly on violence? There are points to both sides. However, I think we can also see here a reason why Stannis isn’t ready at this moment to be king. As with Tyrion’s belief that he cannot be popular, Stannis’ belief that he cannot inspire loyalty (by say, defending the realm and freeing a land from foreign invaders and traitors) is something that will have to be beaten out of his iron on the twin anvils of the Blackwater and the Dragonstone.
Davos’ Service and Stannis’ Guilt
As I’ve discussed above, I think there’s a strong case that Stannis didn’t order Renly’s death. On the other hand, how do we interpret Stannis’ order to Davos to escort Melisandre under the walls of Storm’s End?
“I do not require your understanding. Only your service….”
“What would you have me do?”
“Nothing you have not done before. Only land a boat beneath the castle, unseen, in the black of night. Can you do that?”
Arguably, this is the best evidence that he was responsible. After all, if Stannis is giving an order that makes deliberate use of a shadow-assassin, then he must know about them, and given that Renly’s death was only two weeks prior to this chapter, so Occam’s Razor would suggest that the same was true in that case. However, this conclusion gets more complicates when we consider these scene in light of what we discussed above – namely Stannis’ intent and Melisandre’s forthcomingness. As I’ve shown above, Stannis believes that both deaths were inevitable – indeed, there’s twice as much evidence that Stannis felt that ordering a death was unnecessary as there is that he ever gave any order of any kind.
More importantly, this theory of the crime requires Melisandre to have been totally forthcoming with Stannis about her magic. Not only is this completely contrary to her behavior in the Prologue, with Davos in this chapter, as well as in ASOS and ADWD, but it makes little sense from her perspective. Coming to Stannis with the proposal is a huge risk – not only is it quite likely that someone like Stannis would recoil at the thought of kinslaying, but her argument would undercut her attempts to establish herself as a prophetess. Here’s what I think happened: we know that Melisandre predicted Renly’s death and that “Melisandre told me that if I went to Storm’s End, I would win the best part of my brother’s power,” and that she told him that “I must have the boy,” but not yet why. She then passes off her primal rituals (sleeping with Stannis both times and her travel underneath Storm’s End) as a holy rite meant to garner R’hllor’s favor (which is absolutely in keeping with her modus operandi) and kills both men, while passing it off as the actions of her god (which advances her agenda).
Now, I would say that Stannis probably harbors some suspicions – he’s an intelligent man, capable of putting two and two together – but consciously he doesn’t know or perhaps doesn’t want to know. Indeed, for someone with Stannis’ ends-centric philosophy and his attitudes to Melisandre, he might well have not cared. Melisandre is a woman with power, who can work magic and see the future – if she says that she needs to be underneath the walls of Storm’s End to speak to R’hllor, why should he care whether she’s actually talking to god or is a powerful magus? The castle falls either way.
I will concede that the situation is somewhat ambiguous, but I think that ambiguity is a deliberate strategy. GRRM wants to up the stakes for Davos, to make him struggle over whether it’s right to be loyal if loyalty leads to evil. He also wants to set up Davos’ and Stannis’ arcs in ASOS, where the intensity will be ratcheted up as they go round 2 on justice and loyalty. Without Davos being a witness to Melisandre, without Stannis giving the order, Davos wouldn’t have attempted murder on Melisandre, gone through a dramatic imprisonment and release, and had the interactions with Stannis and Edric Storm that he did.
An Exchange of Views
All of these themes come to a head in a small boat on a dark knight, where Davos and Melisandre can confront each other face-to-face, rather than through Stannis. And the two of them could not be more diametrically opposite:
“Are you a good man, Davos Seaworth?” she asked.
Would a good man be doing this? “I am a man,” he said. “I am kind to my wife, but I have known other women. I have tried to be a father to my sons, to help make them a place in this world. Aye, I’ve broken laws, but I never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m’lady. Good and bad.”
“A grey man,” she said. “Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?”
“What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey.”
“If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”
The fandom tends to reject Melisandre’s argument out of hand, arguing that much of GRRM’s work (the complexity of Jaime’s motivations, Tyrion’s fall from grace, Theon’s horrific suffering) is a depiction of black and grey morality and a critique of much of the black and white morality of classic fantasy. However, I don’t think the situation is as simple as that; after all, what we have here is a classic philosophical debate between idealism and realism, and that’s never a one-sided contest.
Both perspectives are based in the lived experiences of both parties. Davos’ ordinariness (which Ned was unleavened with), deeply rooted in his working class origins, leads him to conclude that human beings are complicated and diverse, with most containing both good and evil. Melisandre’s Manichean perspective is founded not only in a religious tradition thousands of years old but also a life that saw her lifted out of the darkness of slavery into a direct connection with a living god – it would be hard to live through that and remain a realist. And while we 21st century types naturally side with Davos’ position (indeed, I do as well), we shouldn’t be so quick to quick to deny Melisandre’s argument in the context of ASOIAF. After all, Melisandre and Davos live in a world in which there really is a supernatural omnicidal force bringing about an apocalypse – so why assume that an opposing force couldn’t exist? Yes, R’hllor seems to demand human sacrifice, but this might be one of those cases where a god of life isn’t the same thing as a god of good.
Moreover, I would argue the debate paints both participants as flawed individuals (which might be a point for Davos, come to think of it):
She laughed. “Is it me you fear? Or what we do?”
“What you do. I’ll have no part of it.”
“Your hand raised the sail. Your hand holds the tiller…”
“You speak of men and onions,” Davos said to Melisandre. “What of women? Is it not the same for them? Are you good or evil, my lady?”
That made her chuckle. “Oh, good. I am a knight of sorts myself, sweet ser. A champion of light and life.”
“Yet you mean to kill a man tonight,” he said. “As you killed Maester Cressen.”
“Your maester poisoned himself. He meant to poison me, but I was protected by a greater power and he was not.”
“And Renly Baratheon? Who was it who killed him?”
On the one hand, Melisandre has something of a point that Davos is morally complicit in the death of Penrose – and indeed in most of Stannis’ actions – yet again, reminding us that some of the worst things ever done in history were done not out of sadism or hatred but out of loyalty to a bad cause. And the fact that Davos won’t face up to that, and indeed tends to project responsibility outwards (as he’ll do in the wake of Blackwater) doesn’t look very good on him. All we can say is that is that it’s a very ordinary human foible.
On the other hand, Melisandre’s shortcomings are no less glaring and far more dangerous. Her self-image as a holy warrior turns every murder into an act of devotion, her identity as an evangelist excuses every lie and clothes every act of sorcery as the will of R’hllor – more of which in a minute. If we compare her duplicity to the honesty with which Thoros of Myr encounters a genuine miracle, it doesn’t come off well. And it speaks to something I’ve long believed about religion – that faith doesn’t change people but rather reveals them. Here, it shows a woman whose faith in the light leads her into dark places.
The Shadows Under Storm’s End
And now the grand finale – the summoning of the shadow-assassin under the great castle in the dark of night. As one of the biggest and boldest acts of magic in the series to date, I would place it well above Mirri Maz Duur’s zombiefication and on-par with the waking of Dany’s dragon eggs. And there’s a lot we can learn from this section about the place of magic in GRRM’s world:
“There was no need,” she said. “He was unprotected. But here . . . this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can pass—ancient, forgotten, yet still in place.”
“Shadow?” Davos felt his flesh prickling. “A shadow is a thing of darkness.”
“You are more ignorant than a child, ser knight. There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”
First of all, given what we’ve learned from Dunk & Egg and the World of Ice and Fire, it’s quite likely that Melisandre is not the first shadow-binder to work magic in Westeros. This raises the question of what forms of magic Storm’s End was built to protect against – the weather magic of the First Men’s gods (which might well be the magic of the Children of the Forest), the magic of the Others (especially if Bran Stark really did build it), and possibly the Dornish water wizards. But we might also suppose that, in times past, the Storm Kings (especially the ones who liked to intervene in Essosi politics) might have needed protection from shadowbinders.
Second, as we can see, Melisandre has a tendency to dissemble about magic (as discussed above). Between Dunk & Egg and the WOIAF, we know that shadow-binding has absolutely nothing to do with the religion of R’hllor, as it’s practiced by many non-believers in both continents. As is her practice, Melisandre attributes her own magic to that of her god, both as an evangelical tactics but also following her self-image. When Melisandre says that “shadows are the servants of light,” what she really means is that the shadows are her servants, she serves R’hllor, and thus the transitive principle of magic.
Another thing we can learn is that GRRM wants magic to be primal, irrational, and scary; not to mention a lot of effort:
Davos raised a hand to shield his eyes, and his breath caught in his throat. Melisandre had thrown back her cowl and shrugged out of the smothering robe. Beneath, she was naked, and huge with child. Swollen breasts hung heavy against her chest, and her belly bulged as if near to bursting. “Gods preserve us,” he whispered, and heard her answering laugh, deep and throaty. Her eyes were hot coals, and the sweat that dappled her skin seemed to glow with a light of its own. Melisandre shone.
Panting, she squatted and spread her legs. Blood ran down her thighs, black as ink. Her cry might have been agony or ecstasy or both. And Davos saw the crown of the child’s head push its way out of her. Two arms wriggled free, grasping, black fingers coiling around Melisandre’s straining thighs, pushing, until the whole of the shadow slid out into the world and rose taller than Davos, tall as the tunnel, towering above the boat. He had only an instant to look at it before it was gone, twisting between the bars of the portcullis and racing across the surface of the water, but that instant was long enough.
He knew that shadow. As he knew the man who’d cast it.
There can be few things as primal as childbirth, nor more deeply frightening than the inversion of the embodiment of life turned into the embodiment of death. The one danger to going back all the way to the very earliest human conceptions of magic – we’re talking caveman folklore here – is that it runs the risk of painting Melisandre as an Evil Witch stereotype.
And the fact that the ritual requires not only the life force of a male donor (which is difficult to repeat), but also requires Melisandre to undergo labor every time, which can’t be easy either. This is critical for avoiding Deus Ex Machina – contrary to the way Stannis is portrayed in Season 3, there’s a reason why Stannis hasn’t been solving every problem he runs into by having Melisandre pump out shadowbabies. At the same time though, you can see why Stannis now has to be defeated at King’s Landing, to make as clear that magic is not a Win Button.
So now that we’ve actually had a full discussion of Melisandre’s religious views. As GRRM has stated repeatedly, the religion of R’hllor is an homage to two historical world religions – Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. While these two religions are separate, and indeed the prophet Mani was executed largely at the behest of Zoroastrian clergy (more of which in a bit), they have a lot in common – both religions were founded in Persia, both were dualistic religions that believed in an eternal conflict between a god of light and a god of darkness (Azhura-Mazda vs. Druj in the former, and God vs. Satan in the latter), both were heavily associated with imagery of fire (especially in the case of Zoroastrianism, which put sacred fires at the center of their temples and rituals) and light (Mani called his religion the “Religion of Light,” and fire in the Zoroastrian context is used as a symbol of both light and truth), both were wildly influential in and influenced by other major religions, and both spread widely across the ancient worlds before declining dramatically.
The attraction of both religions was quite similar as well – they had all of the advantages of monotheism (belief in a singular, benevolent, and omnipresent god), with a novel solution to the problem of evil (namely, that all evil was the result of a second, evil deity). And to the potential convert, the individual’s faith had epic consequences – human beings had free will to choose between the god of good and the god of evil, and would swell the ranks of either side at the final apocalyptic battle, which would happen when a messiah figure (Saoshyan in the former and arguably Jesus in the latter, more of which in a bit) would rise up to defend humanity from an onslaught of demons. Here we can see the seeds of Melisandre’s uncompromising attitude about human nature – since everyone has a choice and our choices determine the fate of all creation, Davos’ spiritual neutrality makes him a deserter from the army of humanity.
The major difference between these two faiths largely revolved around their views on the material world. The Manicheans argued that the physical world was the creation of the Devil, whereas the spiritual creation was the creation of God, and that ultimate victory would bring about a transcendence of the body. Zoroastrianism believed that the world was the creation of Azhura Mazda according to a perfect plan, and all shortcomings were caused by the forces of evil who needed to be combated here and now – hence, Zoroastrianism’s hostility to asceticism and its insistence that right actions rather than spiritual zeal were the source of salvation.
This spiritual/material conflict also influenced their attitudes to other religions – while Zoroastrianism influenced the Abrahamic religions, it wasn’t hugely fond of other religions and more than a few times warred against Christian kingdoms in the name of Azhura Madza (again, that emphasis on right actions in the here and now), and gave no quarter in its struggle with the new Islamic faith that had swept out of the Arabian desert and would crush the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire. By contrast, Manicheans were wildly syncretic (the prophet Mani viewed himself to be the spiritual heir of the Buddha and Zoroaster, as well an apostle of Jesus Christ), which made missionary work much easier – Manichean evangelicals competed vigorously with Christian missionaries from North Africa to China, and Manichean ideas penetrated the Catholic church, giving rise to the “heresies” of the Cathars, the Paulites, and the Bogomils.
So when you’re tempted to wonder why anyone would follow Melisandre’s faith, remember that in our history, countless millions have heard the message of moral absolutism and a holy war between the forces of light and darkness, and found there a greater meaning for their own lives.
There’s several interesting hypothetical scenarios that follow from Davos II:
- Stannis takes Davos’ advice? As I discuss above, it’s a bit unclear how much of a time difference this makes with regards to the Battle of Blackwater, since we’re not particularly clear when the fleet sets sail from Storm’s End in OTL, and the critical fortnight has already passed – it could be that the fleet set sail the next day or the day after or it could be they sailed the next morning. However, a conservative estimate says that by sailing immediately as opposed to the next tide, Stannis’ fleet probably would have arrived at least 12 hours earlier.
- That’s not early enough to prevent the wildfire from wreaking havoc, but enough time to get the army across the Rush and take the city before Tywin and Mace arrive, so that Stannis would have his army behind the walls and his navy holding the Blackwater against any crossing by the Tyrells on the southern bank.
- The other main change here is that Cortnay Penrose would survive and Edric Storm would remain in Storm’s End, rather than being sent to Essos. Likewise, Stannis and Davos’ arcs in ASOS would change dramatically, with the object of their conflict no longer there. At the same time, there’s potentially a lot of change with the King’s Landing plot in AFFC/ADWD and Aegon’s landing in the Stormlands. Without having to besiege Storm’s End, Mace Tyrell and his army doesn’t leave the capitol – which might scotch Cersei’s plot against Margaery.
- Stannis agreed to single combat? This is pretty similar to the above, but with the major difference being that Cortnay Penrose is dead and Melisandre’s shadowbaby isn’t used up. Which might mean that Tywin or Joffrey or even Roose Bolton might day well ahead of schedule – which could forestall the Lannisters’ arrival at Blackwater, cause an even earlier rout of the defenders, or win Stannis the Battle of Ice handily.
- Melisandre is there at Blackwater? This one is a bit uncertain. In ASOS, Melisandre says that “had I been with you, your battle would have had a different ending.” What that means, exactly, is unclear, as is exactly how powerful Melisandre is – could she, for example, control the wildfire to shield Stannis’ navy and burn his enemies?
- What we do know is that Melisandre’s prophecies work better when they directly involve her, so it’s quite possible she would have seen the fireboats and the boom chain coming. If Stannis’ fleet had landed their men on the north bank east of the city, they could have seized the winch towers with ease, landed their whole force intact, raised the chain against Tyrion’s fireboats, ferried the army across the bay rather than the river, and taken the city with minimal losses – and once the battle was over, Stannis would have his whole fleet to hold the Rush and supply the city.
Book vs. Show:
So overall, I have few complaints about how the show handled this part of the plot. It makes sense to have one shadow, since the sudden surprise worked a lot better on the screen than the reverse reveal would have. It does make the whole smuggling thing completely nonsensical, given that Renly is in a tent rather than in Storm’s End.