“I don’t…I don’t understand….Help me. Show me.”
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.
I have to admit that I come to this chapter with a little bit of trepidation. Dany IV looms very large in the ASOIAF fandom; there’s a reason why it ranks at the top of Tower of the Hand’s narrative rankings of A Clash of Kings, and why probably more has been written about this chapter than any other.
Another reason why I’m somewhat trepidatious is that, after preparing for this essay, is that Dany IV is maddening to try to put into some rational structure. As a lifelong fantasy genre fan, I’m quite familiar and comfortable with prophecy, but in Dany IV, George R.R Martin throws the normal rules of narrative clarity out the window and plunging headlong into full-on 1960s psychedelica with the brio of someone who lived through it. Thus, while throughout the chapter one can see GRRM setting up a Rule of Three structure and then immediately diverging from it, as if deliberately taunting me.
Arriving at the House of the Undying
When I said back in Dany I that Daenerys’ story in ACOK is a prophet narrative, it was this chapter that I had in mind, because there is nothing as prophetic than going to a place where the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds become thin, having a series of visions, and going through a gauntlet of temptation on the road to enlightenment.
And appropriately for such an experience, and right on the heels of Arya’s fairytale adventure, the whole thing starts off with a dreamlike air, as it becomes impossible to tell reality from illusion:
“In this city of splendors, Dany had expected the House of the Undying Ones to be the most splendid of all, but she emerged from her palanquin to behold a grey and ancient ruin.
Long and low, without towers or windows, it coiled like a stone serpent through a grove of black-barked trees whose inky blue leaves made the stuff of the sorcerous drink the Qartheen called shade of the evening…”
When you look at that description, it’s almost impossible to square it with the way the House of the Undying is represented on the show, in official artwork, or indeed in most fan artwork. Almost all of them display the House as a great tower; the decision to not show the House as described in the books is pretty universal. And the reason for that is that the House is deliberately visually indistinct and uninteresting – a long bungalow without any windows is basically a grey box, more the suggestion of a building than real architecture. There’s method in GRRM’s madness, though; the House is boring because it’s meant to be the Pledge to the Prestige of the interior. GRRM is showing us a single-story building without windows so that when Dany gets inside and finds long staircases and windows a plenty we get the idea that we’re seeing something impossible.
This scene also introduces the topic of shade of the evening, a lovely little hallucinogen that will be rampaging through Dany’s bloodstream throughout this chapter:
“…a slender crystal glass filled with a thick blue liquid: shade of the evening, the wine of warlocks. “Take and drink,” urged Pyat Pree.
“Will it turn my lips blue?”
“One flute will serve only to unstop your ears and dissolve the caul from off your eyes, so that you may hear and see the truths that will be laid before you.”
Dany raised the glass to her lips. The first sip tasted like ink and spoiled meat, foul, but when she swallowed it seemed to come to life within her. She could feel tendrils spreading through her chest, like fingers of fire coiling around her heart, and on her tongue was a taste like honey and anise and cream, like mother’s milk and Drogo’s seed, like red meat and hot blood and molten gold. It was all the tastes she had ever known, and none of them . . . and then the glass was empty.
(Before I get into what this stuff does, I’d just like to point out that GRRM includes among Dany’s favorite tastes mother’s milk and Drogo’s seed, really letting his freak flag fly there.) As I’ll discuss in more detail in the Historical Analysis section, hallucinogens were a key component of the shamanic/prophetic tradition from the American Southwest to the Indian subcontinent, so it’s entirely appropriate here. At the same time, it’s worth asking about how much of what Dany experiences in the House of the Undying is real or just in her head as she’s tripping. (By the way, the fact that Euron drinks this stuff on the regular is another reason why I don’t think he’s a secret mastermind; he’s lucky he can function at all) Then again, when you’re talking about illusion magic, it’s hard to tell the difference.
At the same time, the drugs do explain why the bizarre dream logic built into the rules of the House of the Undying pass by with almost no comment:
“Queen Daenerys must enter alone, or not at all…should she turn away now, the doors of wisdom shall be closed to her forevermore…”
“The front way leads in, but never out again. Heed my words, my queen. The House of the Undying Ones was not made for mortal men. If you value your soul, take care and do just as I tell you…”
“When you enter, you will find yourself in a room with four doors: the one you have come through and three others. Take the door to your right. Each time, the door to your right. If you should come upon a stairwell, climb. Never go down, and never take any door but the first door to your right…Leaving and coming, it is the same. Always up. Always the door to your right. Other doors may open to you. Within, you will see many things that disturb you. Visions of loveliness and visions of horror, wonders and terrors. Sights and sounds of days gone by and days to come and days that never were. Dwellers and servitors may speak to you as you go. Answer or ignore them as you choose, but enter no room until you reach the audience chamber.”
Simply put, these rules don’t make sense. If you keep turning to the right, you should end up turning in a circle, but somehow inside the House, this turns into forward motion. Likewise, you can’t have stairs to a second story of a building that doesn’t have one. Finally, there’s no way that Dany never goes backward but ends up at the same door she entered from. But the rules aren’t really about literal truth, as much as they’re setting up a fairy-tale situation in which the hero’s perception (can they tell which is the right door?) and willpower (can you stick to the rules in a crisis?) will be tested.
So let’s talk about the visions. I’m going to take it slow, because as I said there’s some weird stuff going on with structure going on and it’s really easy to get oneself twisted up. So let me start with my hypothesis: in Dany IV, GRRM has set up a quasi-Dickensian structure of the present, past, and future, each of which involves a set of visions and a temptation. Although, as I’ll explain, GRRM is constantly screwing with the reader, messing with the patterns.
The Visions of the Present
We’ll start with the section that I call the Visions of the Present, or perhaps more accurately Visions of the Near-Future (again, GRRM screwing with the structure). Here, things inside the House are relatively normal, with Dany looking into rooms as per Pyat Pree’s rules. And these two visions are relatively straightforward:
In one room, a beautiful woman sprawled naked on the floor while four little men crawled over her. They had rattish pointed faces and tiny pink hands, like the servitor who had brought her the glass of shade. One was pumping between her thighs. Another savaged her breasts, worrying at the nipples with his wet red mouth, tearing and chewing.
Farther on she came upon a feast of corpses. Savagely slaughtered, the feasters lay strewn across overturned chairs and hacked trestle tables, asprawl in pools of congealing blood. Some had lost limbs, even heads. Severed hands clutched bloody cups, wooden spoons, roast fowl, heels of bread. In a throne above them sat a dead man with the head of a wolf. He wore an iron crown and held a leg of lamb in one hand as a king might hold a scepter, and his eyes followed Dany with mute appeal.
As many many people have explained, the first vision is an allegory for the War of Five Kings – with the four presently surviving kings depicted as predatory dwarves (another running theme in this chapter; note that Dany picks up the shade of the evening from what may or may not be a statue of a dwarf) and Westeros itself depicted as a woman being raped. This is actually quite similar to 18th and 19th century political cartoons, which often personified nations as women – I’m especially thinking of jingoistic British political cartoons from the Crimean War, which depicted Turkey as a beautiful woman about to be ravished by the Russian bear. The second vision is also straight-forward: this is the first depiction of the Red Wedding in A Song of Ice and Fire.
However, the simplicity of these visions still leaves us with some unanswered questions. Why start with these particular images? With the first vision, it’s possible that Dany is meant to end the War of Five Kings by restoring a monopoly on violence with her three dragons, which would fit in with her “mother of dragons” moniker emphasized later in the chapter. But the second is more confusing. Why does Robb Stark look to Daenerys Targaryen, who hates House Stark for their participation in Robert’s Rebellion, for justice for the Red Wedding? If Dany is meant to set right that most infamous of crimes, it’s hard to see any signs of that in A Storm of Swords or A Dance With Dragons. On the other hand, it’s possible that GRRM is simply taking the opportunity to begin the process of outward ripples of the Red Wedding cascading through the minds of every clairvoyant in Westeros (as well Theon for some reason).
At the same time, we can also see GRRM undermining the pattern once again – after a series of visions dealing with the present/near-future, the temptation in this section is entirely about the past:
It is the house with the red door, the house in Braavos. No sooner had she thought it than old Ser Willem came into the room, leaning heavily on his stick. “Little princess, there you are,” he said in his gruff kind voice. “Come,” he said, “come to me, my lady, you’re home now, you’re safe now.” His big wrinkled hand reached for her, soft as old leather, and Dany wanted to take it and hold it and kiss it, she wanted that as much as she had ever wanted anything. Her foot edged forward, and then she thought, He’s dead, he’s dead, the sweet old bear, he died a long time ago. She backed away and ran.
As we’ve seen before, to Dany the house with the red door represents the loss of security and safety, so here’s she’s being offered a second chance at an ordinary childhood, with Refusal of the Call personified in the figure of Ser Willem Darry. What’s odd and unsettling is that, while Pyat Pree had said that “dwellers and servitors may speak to you as you go. Answer or ignore them as you choose,” he presented it as fairly benign. But here the illusion of Ser Willem Darry is trying to tempt Dany off the path in violation of the rules, which suggests that the “dwellers and servitors” are actually hostile forces and that Pyat Pree and the Warlocks (another great band name, by the way) are looking to trap Dany by enchantment.
The Visions of the Past
We proceed from there to the Visions of the Past, where Dany is brought face-to-face with the gamut of House Targaryen’s recent past, and the reasons why their dynasty fell so ignominiously:
Upon a towering barbed throne sat an old man in rich robes, an old man with dark eyes and long silver-grey hair. “Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat,” he said to a man below him. “Let him be the king of ashes.” Drogon shrieked, his claws digging through silk and skin, but the king on his throne never heard, and Dany moved on.
Viserys, was her first thought the next time she paused, but a second glance told her otherwise. The man had her brother’s hair, but he was taller, and his eyes were a dark indigo rather than lilac. “Aegon,” he said to a woman nursing a newborn babe in a great wooden bed. “What better name for a king?”
“…He has a song,” the man replied. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany’s, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in the bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.” He went to the window seat, picked up a harp, and ran his fingers lightly over its silvery strings. Sweet sadness filled the room as man and wife and babe faded like the morning mist, only the music lingering behind to speed her on her way.
Again, these visions are fairly easy to deduce – the first is King Aerys at the very moment that he orders the immolation of King’s Landing, representing the sadistic madness that brought Rickard and Brandon Stark to their deaths; the second is Prince Rhaegar at the birth of his son, which incidentally gives us the first instance of a link between Rhaegar’s actions and the prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised, which is sadly the spark that will set the kingdom ablaze. This moment is interesting, because while in ASOS and ADWD Dany has carefully tiptoed around the question of what motivated her father and brother in conversation with Ser Barristan, she’s never really confronted the visceral reality of what her family did. If Dany can bring herself to remember and accept what she saw here, it may go a long way toward moving past pointless reprisals when she lands on Westeros’ shores.
However, there’s also a larger question of why Dany is shown these particular visions. I’ve already given a hypothesis for the Aerys vision – to knock loose some of Viserys’ propaganda so that she can let bygones be bygones – but why GRRM chose this particular moment in Rhaegar’s life is more interesting. To begin with, I think it’s meant to tee up the “dragon has three heads” prophecy so that when it comes up later in the chapter we’re paying attention. Secondly, I think it’s meant to prime Dany with regards to Jon Snow. One of the things that comes up frequently in discussions of how R+L=J is actually going to play out in ASOIAF is who’s going to believe any revelation that Ned Stark’s bastard is actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen (let alone that he could possibly be a trueborn Targaryen). But if you think about it for a second, Jon Snow probably only needs to convince one person – the one indisputable, dragon-riding Targaryen, Daenerys Targaryen. And Dany is one of the only people alive (especially after the death of Aemon Targaryen) who knows that Rhaegar was looking for a male child who would have the qualities of both ice and fire.
This section also has the longest, and (in my opinion) most interesting, temptation, although once again GRRM screws with the pattern. Before Dany gets to her temptation, she first has to race the extinguishing torches down the hall – very reminiscent of a Dr. Who episode there – and get past a fake Pyat Pree (another case of “dwellers” deliberately misleading supplicants). Moreover, she also has to demonstrate her understanding of the rules, by realizing that “the first door on the right…is the last door on the left.” But after all that:
Finally the stair opened. To her right, a set of wide wooden doors had been thrown open. They were fashioned of ebony and weirwood, the black and white grains swirling and twisting in strange interwoven patterns. They were very beautiful, yet somehow frightening. The blood of the dragon must not be afraid. Dany said a quick prayer, begging the Warrior for courage and the Dothraki horse god for strength. She masde herself walk forward.
Beyond the doors was a great hall…shafts of sunlight slanted through windows of stained glass, and the air was alive with the most beautiful music she had ever heard.
To begin with, we should notice that, whereas previously the visions and temptations have all been to the left and thus forewarned against, here a temptation is coming very definitely from the right, another sign that the Warlocks are not exactly trustworthy. And if you weren’t already on edge, the room that Dany emerges into is impossible – inside a single-story building without windows, shaded by the black trees whose leaves make up the active ingredient in the shade of the evening, we suddenly have a great hall filled with sunlight.
Equally importantly, GRRM is also raising the question about whether what Dany is seeing here is true or false by making an allusion to classical Greek and Roman mythology. From Homer’s Odyssey through Virgil’s Aeneid, dreams and visions were said to come up from Hades through one of two gates, one of ivory and one of horn; contrary to expectations, false visions came through the gates of polished ivory, whereas true visions came through the more humble gates of horn. And in a building which so far has been resolutely shabby and decrepit, to suddenly emerge into a room of visual delight should be off-putting. Likewise, there’s something not quite right about the room’s inhabitants:
a…splendor of wizards. Some wore sumptuous robes of ermine, ruby velvet, and cloth of gold. Others fancied elaborate armor studded with gemstones, or tall pointed hats speckled with stars. There were women among them, dressed in gowns of surpassing loveliness…
A kingly man in rich robes rose when he saw her, and smiled. “Daenerys of House Targaryen, be welcome. Come and share the food of forever. We are the Undying of Qarth.”
“Long have we awaited you,” said a woman beside him, clad in rose and silver. The breast she had left bare in the Qartheen fashion was as perfect as a breast could be.
“We knew you were to come to us,” the wizard king said. “A thousand years ago we knew, and have been waiting all this time. We sent the comet to show you the way.”
“We have knowledge to share with you,” said a warrior in shining emerald armor, “and magic weapons to arm you with. You have passed every trial. Now come and sit with us, and all your questions shall be answered.”
She took a step forward. But then Drogon leapt from her shoulder. He flew to the top of the ebony-and-weirwood door, perched there, and began to bite at the carved wood.
“A willful beast,” laughed a handsome young man. “Shall we teach you the secret speech of dragonkind? Come, come.”
In this illusion, perhaps of how the Undying want others to see them, or how they once appeared, or how they want to appear, the adjectives are as lush and overpowering as Qarth itself – sumptuous, kingly, perfect, handsome – and the visual descriptions are once again a riot of precious metals and gems and sensuality. This is as close as ASOIAF will ever get to your traditional high fantasy, complete with wizards in pointy hats (and what a lovely phrasing, a splendor of wizards), and it’s an instant suggestion that something is very wrong. The Undying offer Dany actual magical weapons; they offer secret knowledge and answers to all her questions; they offer the gift of immortality. This is all straight out of the Hero’s Journey playbook, but GRRM presents it as a sinister temptation, as a set of cheat codes that allows the hero to coast through their challenges without having to demonstrate any inward quality that makes them worthy of being the Chosen One.
But the most interesting temptation of them all is “the secret speech of dragonkind,” because that’s what Dany ultimately needs the most. Throughout the rest of the series, Dany will struggle (and in ADWD, ultimately fail) to control her dragons. And while from a thematic perspective that has to do with the inherently destructive nature of her draconic conqueror heritage and her unwillingness to accept that part of her identity, from a plot perspective it’s also because she’s an untrained amateur. Whatever lore or training that House Targaryen rescued from the Doom of Valyria that allowed them to continue the tradition of dragon-riding for another 150-odd years, that seems either to have been lost when the dragons died (which might make sense, giving the emphasis on a psychic bond between rider and dragon), or simply wasn’t passed on to Viserys and Daenerys when they were evacuated to Dragonstone and then again to Essos.
Thus, when Dany rejects this temptation in favor of keeping true to the rules, there really is a sense that this is a genuine sacrifice.
The Visions of the Future
Once Daenerys passes through the true door, which is notably “splintery and plain” in contrast with the opulence of the gates of horn and ivory, she is confronted with the very ugly reality of the Undying:
Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart…
Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather.
Peel away the glamour and the enchantment (ever notice how many words for beauty also mean magic?), and we see the truth of the Undying, as if GRRM is standing on a box with a megaphone and shouting “this is what magic really looks like!” The pursuit of knowledge and power at perilous cost to the soundness of mind and body (to say nothing of soul), Tithonius’ trap of eternal life without eternal youth, an entire cabal of vampires in hibernation.
And now that Dany has pierced through this veil and seen the truth – which is after all the central mission of all shamans and prophets – she finally gets access to genuine prophecy of the future, and everything goes completely insane:
…mother of dragons… came a voice, part whisper and part moan…dragons…dragons…dragons… other voices echoed in the gloom. Some were male and some female. One spoke with the timbre of a child. The floating heart pulsed from dimness to darkness. It was hard to summon the will to speak, to recall the words she had practiced so assiduously. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” Do they hear me? Why don’t they move? She sat, folding her hands in her lap. “Grant me your counsel, and speak to me with the wisdom of those who have conquered death.”
“I come for the gift of truth…in the long hall, the things I saw, were they true visions or lies? Past things, or things to come? What did they mean?”
“…mother of dragons…child of three…three heads has the dragon…three heads has the dragon…the ghost chorus yammered inside her skull with never a lip moving, never a breath stirring the still blue air…mother of dragons…child of storm…The whispers became a swirling song…three fires must you light…one for life and one for death and one to love…Her own heart was beating in unison to the one that floated before her, blue and corrupt…three mounts must you ride…one to bed and one to dread and one to love…The voices were growing louder, she realized, and it seemed her heart was slowing, and even her breath…three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love…”
This section, the Prophecies of Three, is prophecy without interpretation and very little structure. There is little better evidence of GRRM screwing with threefold structure than here – on the one hand, you have the three fires, three mounts, and three treasons which fit the pattern, but then the child/mother references don’t have a third component (which would normally be either widow or crone). Even within them there’s inconsistency – Dany is described as a “child of three,” a “child of storm,” and later a “daughter of death,” but as a mother only of dragons. In a similar case of inconsistency, the refrain of the “three heads has the dragons” refers to the prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised, whereas the rest of these prophecies refer only to Dany.
So enough of structure, let’s start breaking down the content for meaning. First, some definitions on the various terms that get thrown around:
- “mother of dragons” – this one’s pretty self-explanatory; Dany is the mother-figure to Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal. It might also be a reference to Dany’s supposed infertility, the idea that the dragons are the only children she’ll ever have, but I’m skeptical.
- “child of storm” – again, this one’s pretty easy. Daenerys Targaryen is also known as Daenerys Stormborn for being born during the great storm around Dragonstone that shattered the royal navy yet allowed Ser Willem Darry to sneak his ship through Stannis’ blockade.
- “child of three” – this one’s a bit more ambiguous. I don’t think it’s a reference to an unknown third parent other than her mother Rhaella and King Aerys – gods know we’ve got way too many secret parent theories going on already, and come on, Ser Bonifer Hasty? Rather, given how the previous label is more symbolic than literal (no, Dany was not fathered by the storm god in some weird Zeussian disguise), I think it’s a way of calling Dany a child of prophecy, given the importance of threes in the prophecies that surround her.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s discuss the three fires, the three mounts, and the three treasons, the real meat of this section:
- “three fires must you light…one for life and one for death and one to love” –
- Consensus among the fandom is that the first fire references the bonfire Dany set to birth the dragons. Again, a bit self-explanatory, and it’s not really surprising that it was included in this section.
- The second fire seems to be a bit more up for debate – some people think it refers to Drogon burning the House of the Undying at the end of the chapter; this would fit the past, present, future pattern running through the chapter. On the other hand, Dany doesn’t really actually give an order to burn the HOTU as we’ll see in a minute. Another possibility is the second fire refers to her giving the “DRACARYS!” command at the Sack of Astapor, which certainly lead to the death of many thousands.
- The third is most interesting, because it breaks the pattern of “for” in favor of “to,” (another case of GRRM screwing with threes!) and because “love” is the common denominator in these prophecies. A lot of people think this has something to do with Jon Snow. It could be a reference to Jon’s resurrection – although I’m a bit skeptical that Dany gets to the North before Jon’s revived. It could be a symbolic “fire” as feelings of love are often compared to a fire in the heart, but the other two fires seem pretty literal. My hunch, based on the fact that she’s lighting a fire “to” (which suggests a salute to someone) and my own thinking about what’s likely to happen with Jon and Dany, is that it may well be Jon’s funeral pyre, an honor done from one Targaryen to another. After all, there’s nothing that says love has to mean romantic, or that it can’t be a tragic love…
- “three mounts must you ride…one to bed and one to dread and one to love…”
- The fandom seems split on whether the first is her silver, which Dany rode to the consummation of her marriage to Drogo, or Drogo himself, when Dany introduces the great khal to the cowgirl position. I must say I lean somewhat to the former. If we look at the rest of these prophecies (the previous section on fires for example), GRRM tends to the literal and uses symbolism in a pretty straightforward fashion. Moreover, Dany’s silver is symbolic beyond just her initial ride – it symbolizes her marriage to Drogo and her connection to the Dothraki culture in general, something she’s brought with her all the way from Pentos to Meereen, where it becomes such a symbol of her reign that Ser Barristan rides it in the Battle of Fire.
- For that reason, I don’t think the second refers to a future husband or lover of Dany’s, whether it’s Daario or Hizdahr, or Victarion (pssh, no), or Euron (naaaah). Rather, it seems clear to me that this refers to Drogon, especially as Drogon becomes associated with Balerion the Black Dread, and the way Dany’s ride on his back at the climax of ADWD was so central both to her solution to her identity issues and so plot-crucial in terms of putting her back in the mix with the Dothraki. At the end of the day, is Dany’s second marriage really going to be more important than her becoming the first Targaryen dragonrider in a hundred-and-fifty-odd years? I don’t think so.
- The third gets a bit more difficult. Many people think this is Jon, although given the logic above I don’t think it refers to him directly. If it refers to a means of transport, as the previous two mounts have, one possibility is that it’s the ship that brings her to Westeros, and thus eventually to Jon Snow. Or, according to Aziz from History of Westeros Podcast, it’s a Ferrari. That’s right folks, you heard it here first!
- “three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love”
- Again, there seems to be pretty wide consensus that the first treason was Mirri Maz Duur, who killed Dany’s baby and Khal Drogo in retribution for the attack on her village. This raises a somewhat uncomfortable question – can a slave striking back against the slavers who murdered her people, enslaved the survivors, and violated her own person, truly be said to be committing treason against a woman who claimed to own her? Wouldn’t we otherwise call this an act of revenge?
- The second betrayal is more contested, with some people thinking it was fulfilled by Jorah continuing to report on Dany after pledging to be her bloodrider at the birth of the dragons, and others pointing to Brown Ben Plumm switching over to Meereen’s side, as both are pretty clear cases of self-interested behavior, even if Jorah wants a pardon and Brown Ben Plumm is way more motivated by survival. There’s merits and demerits to both options – at the end of the day, Jorah was passing on reports to someone who was ultimately hoping to put her family if not her person back on the Iron Throne and who ensured that she would remain safe (for a given value of safe) from the Usurper; Brown Ben Plumm tried his level best to get Dany to use her dragons before changing sides. Ultimately, I think the identity is less important than the way in which this particular prophecy works on Dany, making her paranoid and tempting her to probe people for potential disloyalty, in ways that make the prophecy something of a self-fulfilling one.
- The third betrayal is probably one we have yet to experience. The difficulty here is the ambiguity in this one is how we define love – I could see either Daario or Jorah or someone else betraying Daenerys out of a sense of jealousy or possessiveness that they describe as love; but that’s not quite the same thing. And given the people Dany has around her, it’s hard to see who would betray Dany to save someone they loved who was in danger (which is one way to interpret a betrayal out of love). I could see some sort of Judas-in-Jesus-Christ-Superstar scenario in which one of Dany’s more devoted followers, maybe Grey Worm or maybe Ser Barristan or maybe the Shavepate, betrays her for selling out her ideals, but if that was the case I think Grey Worm and Shavepate would have done it already. My hunch is that it could be Ser Barristan, if Dany’s return to Meereen at the back of an army of Dothraki and in full Laurence of Arabia “no prisoners!” mode convinces him that she’s gone full Aerys, who makes the wrenching call to try to save her from herself.
Needless to say, Dany finds all of this as difficult to understand as we do. Unfortunately for her, when she rather understandably asks for clarification, the Undying of Qarth attempt to roofie her with an intoxicating rush of prophecies. To be fair to these horrible vampiric warlocks, these prophecies to seem to elaborate on some of the identity prophecies in the original Prophecies of Three paragraph. So for clarity’s sake I’m going to separate these into Daughter of Death, Slayer of Lies, and Bride of Fire sections:
Viserys screamed as the molten gold ran down his cheeks and filled his mouth. A tall lord with copper skin and silver-gold hair stood beneath the banner of a fiery stallion, a burning city behind him. Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name. . . . mother of dragons, daughter of death . . .
Especially in this chapter, but it’s hardly the only time, we think of Dany as a Chosen One, a world-historical Woman of Destiny. But here for the first time we really consider what the costs of that are, in this case the deaths of every male in her family in order to clear the way for Dany to become *the* Dragon, the scion of House Targaryen. The death of Viserys, however cathartic in the moment, is nonetheless an awful death meted out to a rather pathetic figure. The death of Rhaegar is there both because the loss at the Trident led directly to Rhaella fleeing to Dragonstone and the Sack of King’s Landing, but also because it ties directly back to his earlier appearance and suggests a connection between his obsession with prophecy and his obsession with Lyanna Stark. But the appearance of Rhaego, the idea that Dany could not have become who she has become if she had continued to sublimate her ambitions in her son, and thus that his death was her liberation, is what really stings. (Not really sure what to think of the gender politics of that idea, tbh)
Glowing like sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow. A cloth dragon swayed on poles amidst a cheering crowd. From a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire. . . . mother of dragons, slayer of lies . . .
Here’s where we move from past to future, where Dany seems to be destined to confront false claimants to her position, although it’s not entirely clear whether that’s her position as the rightful monarch of Westeros or as Azor Ahai Reborn, or both. The first figure here is clearly Stannis Baratheon, complete with his glamoured “Lightbringer” and bearing the scars of the life energy he’s given away; as I’ve speculated, I believe that Stannis will be brought to a moment of tragic realization, even as he carries out the work of Azor Ahai in rallying humanity to stand against the Army of the Dead. From this prophecy, it seems that Dany will be instrumental in this process.
The second figure here is, as has become clear in ADWD, Aegon VI. Here, the metonymic “cloth dragon” stands both for the ersatz “mummer’s dragon,” which may refer either to Aegon’s false origins or to Varys’ role in creating him, and for the banners of House Targaryen being raised in Westeros once again. It’s this latter meaning, along with the invocation of a cheering crowd, that makes me absolutely confident that Aegon VI’s downfall will come only after he takes the Iron Throne from King Tommen, as this clearly indicates a triumph or at the very least a popular upheaval in support of a Targaryen restoration, signs of which have already been seen in AFFC.
The third figure seems to be referring to the dragon woken from stone that becomes part of Melisandre’s purposes for Stannis in A Storm of Swords. Again, we see GRRM breaking with the pattern here – the previous two instances have both dealt with false kings, so it’s jarring for the third to be focused either on a priestess who’s never claimed royal status or on the birth of dragons; alternatively, if it’s focusing on both kings as falsely identified forces of prophecy (since Aegon was thought by Rhaegar to be one of the three heads of the dragon), this would seem to be pointing to Stannis as incorrectly trying to wake dragons from stone, which means we have three images referring to two subjects, which would break the pattern of threes.
Her silver was trotting through the grass, to a darkling stream beneath a sea of stars. A corpse stood at the prow of a ship, eyes bright in his dead face, grey lips smiling sadly. A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness. . . . mother of dragons, bride of fire . . .
Here’s we have three prophecies that seem to refer to the three mounts section above – once again, the figure of Dany’s silver returns as a symbol of her past and over her marriage. While the “grey lips smiling sadly” have led some to speculate that Dany will marry a Greyjoy, the fact that Victarion the obvious patsy may indeed have died down in the hold of his ship only to be brought back to life by Moqorro for his own purposes suggests instead to me that he is key to her destiny as the rider of Drogon, as the second mount prophecy refers to. After all, Dany has only just completed her first flight as a dragonrider, what she needs training on next is how to use a dragon actively in combat, which would probably be the result if a certain dull-witted Ironborn attempted to kidnap her dragons via a magic horn. The third image, however, as we’ll see in Jon VI, is a deliberate reference to Jon Snow as the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, given the crucial role of blue flowers in both the legend of Bael the Bard and the Tourney at Harrenhal. I’m not the first to think that the fact that the flower is growing from “a chink in a wall of ice,” suggests that Jon will come to learn of his heritage during or shortly after his death, as his body rests in an ice cell inside the Wall, ready to come back to life (or is that un-life?).
And finally, we’ve come to the last of the sections of prophecy, as things come to a climactic conclusion:
Faster and faster the visions came, one after the other, until it seemed as if the very air had come alive. Shadows whirled and danced inside a tent, boneless and terrible. A little girl ran barefoot toward a big house with a red door. Mirri Maz Duur shrieked in the flames, a dragon bursting from her brow. Behind a silver horse the bloody corpse of a naked man bounced and dragged. A white lion ran through grass taller than a man. Beneath the Mother of Mountains, a line of naked crones crept from a great lake and knelt shivering before her, their grey heads bowed. Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were reaching for her, touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot, her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them . . .
I have to say, I find the selection of imagery here very confusing; it’s an odd mish-mash of past and future all the way from Dany’s childhood to her reconnection with the Dothraki in TWOW, and a strange mixture of critically important events (the birth of the dragons, Dany liberating Yunkai) and rather unimportant events (the dragging of the wineseller, the white lion that Drogo killed for Dany). Indeed, aside from inadvertently telling us that Dany will liberate the slaves of Old Ghis and will be recognized as the Stallion Who Mounts the World – both of which have unpleasant implications – it’s quite possible that these illusions don’t have an intended meaning, rather being used by the Undying to distract their prey as their primary hunting technique.
Drogon the Burninator
Luckily for Dany, despite Pyat Pree saying that she should come “alone or not at all,” she’s got Drogon by her side. Throughout the chapter, Drogon has played a subtly important role, keeping her on the correct path and helping her to see through illusions. Here he protects his mother in dramatic fashion:
But then black wings buffeted her round the head, and a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying were all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting . . .
Then indigo turned to orange, and whispers turned to screams. Her heart was pounding, racing, the hands and mouths were gone, heat washed over her skin, and Dany blinked at a sudden glare. Perched above her, the dragon spread his wings and tore at the terrible dark heart, ripping the rotten flesh to ribbons, and when his head snapped forward, fire flew from his open jaws, bright and hot. She could hear the shrieks of the Undying as they burned, their high thin papery voices crying out in tongues long dead. Their flesh was crumbling parchment, their bones dry wood soaked in tallow. They danced as the flames consumed them; they staggered and writhed and spun and raised blazing hands on high, their fingers bright as torches.
Before I jump into the analysis, can I just say that the imagery of the mouth on the eye is really squicky? First things first, one of the things that I find quite curious is why, if Dany’s immunity to fire is a one-time-only deal, she shows no burns and indeed no injuries of any kind from being set on by a mob of vampire mummy wizards. This might suggest that, to some extent, this too might be more in Dany’s head or more metaphorical than real, although the fact that the House gets burned to the ground suggests otherwise. Second, I think it’s interesting how Drogon acts as Dany’s draconic heritage, and that might just as practical as it is symbolic – after all, for a descendant of Old Valyria, her connection to dragons is at the same time her connection to sorcery itself.
And with that, Dany leaves the House of the Undying…and I kind of wish GRRM had ended her ACOK arc there. But that’s a story for next time.
So as I said above, hallucinogens (or in this context “entheogens“) have traditionally played a huge role in the shamanic and prophetic traditions, not only as a means of divination but also as an agent used in rituals of healing or coming of age. Americans are probably most familiar with the buds of the peyote cactus, which contain mescaline, or psilocybin mushrooms, which were originally used by tribes in Central America and then migrated north from what is now Mexico, becoming especially prominent in the American Southwest.
In the European tradition, things are a bit trickier to pin down as many of the traditional prophetic or shamanic practices have been lost. We think that the Dacians brought cannabis with them when they invaded Greece from Central Asia. The Elusians and other Greek mystery cults used a drink called Kykeon to induce visions, which was supposedly made up of water, barley, and other substance, which has led some to think that kykeon’s active ingredient was ergot fungus in the barley producing an LSD-like effect. But the biggest mystery is what precisely induced the visions that the oracle at Delphi used to induce visions – with some leaning to the priestess’ fits being a side effect of the natural gas vent that the oracle sat above to hear the breath of Apollo, and others arguing that the Pythia (who had been fasting for a month before giving an audience, remember) was eating and burning leaves of nerium oleander, and that the toxic plant caused the priestess’ seizures and hallucinations.
But by far the most tantalyzing mystery of lost prophetic tradition is soma. Mentioned in the Vedas and in the writings of Zoroaster as a ritual drink consumed by the Indo-Iranians (the original and actual Aryans), soma was a liquid extracted from an unknown plant, that when consumed had some pretty intense effects:
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?
What precisely this plant was, that gave both Hindus and Zoroastrians a main line to the divine, is entirely unknown. Unfortunately the source texts tend to be entirely metaphorical in describing the plant soma was supposed to come from, so candidates range from the fly-agaric mushroom (rich in ephedrine), peganum harmala (which is used as a entheogen in South America while also appearing in Iran as a plant used in incense), Ephedra plants (which are used by some Zoroastrian communities in Iran today), or the old standbys cannibis sativa or psilocybin mushrooms.
So there’s not a lot of room for hypotheticals in this chapter. At the end of the day, Dany’s story requires her to move on from here otherwise it just stops. But what if Dany does succumb? Well, in addition to the likelihood that Westeros will fall to the White Walkers, a lot changes. First, the crusade in Slaver’s Bay never happens, which in turn means that Volantis doesn’t switch from elephant to tiger, undoing a huge amount of upheaval in Essos that has ramifications for Westeros in terms of access to credit, access to mercenaries, etc. Second, it’s likely that the Golden Company doesn’t march east to Volantis, which means it could land in Westeros sooner or at the very least that Varys and Illyrio’s plans don’t get disrupted by Tyrion. Third, it changes a lot of people’s travel plans – Ser Barristan has nowhere to go, Quentyn Martell gets to stay home (poor kid), Tyrion has to relocate to Dorne and gets marginally less drunk on the voyage, etc.
Book vs. Show:
Famously, when Benioff and Weiss sought to adapt this scene for HBO’s Game of Thrones, while keeping to the overall themes of Dany IV – Daenerys enters the House of the Undying, sees visions, faces temptations, and is saved by her dragon – they jettisoned the original visions. Instead, Dany follows the sound of her draconic children to a ruined throne room in King’s Landing:
This works both as a potential prophecy of what may be coming with winter to Westeros – possibly if Dany doesn’t arrive, possibly even if she does – and as a temptation, the idea that if Dany actually touches the Iron Throne as she leans forward to do, she will sit down on it and never be able to stand up again. Luckily, the sound of her dragons distracts her and instead she finds herself north of the Wall:
Again this works as a potential prophecy of where Dany needs to go instead, given the utility of her dragons in fighting the White Walkers, and as a temptation once Dany encounters an impossibly-alive Khal Drogo and the similarly-impossible Rhaego:
Now, here’s where I’m going to take a controversial stand and say that, on balance, I think this was a good decision. Given the different nature of the two media, it’s easier to disguise some things on paper than one can on screen – while readers debated whether this vision meant Robb Stark was going to die when ACOK came out, there was just enough room for debate that the fandom as a whole couldn’t be certain (a good deal of denial helps). But when you see that the king in question is wearing Robb Stark’s armor, the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen. Thus, for the same reason that the show hasn’t really bothered with the whole Ser Barristan disguise that’s going to come up in the next Dany chapter, a bunch of the prophecies here would have been far too spoilery.
At the same time, I think a bunch of these prophecies fell pray to editorial decisions made in Season 1. Given the decision not to do the Tower of Joy sequence (which given that they’re filming it for Season 6 is a bit jarring), and to leave most of the stories about Bael the Bard and the Tourney at Harrenhal out, the audience really wouldn’t have had the context clues necessary to make sense of a lot of the visions they were seeing.
Finally, I think there might be a benefit to trying to go light on the prophecies. As we’ve seen with the tv show Lost, the danger to any mystery plot in serial entertainment is that the audience can become utterly consumed by trying to figure out the mystery and lose interest in anything else, and then get pissed off when the creators don’t follow through with the solution or if they don’t like the solution. I would rather have an audience for HBO’s Game of Thrones that was emotionally invested in the Red Wedding and Tyrion’s trial than an audience that wasn’t engaging with the material beyond an intellectual puzzle game.
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