“Ser Davos, and undrowned. How can that be?”
“Onions float, ser.”
Synopsis: “Sing to me, oh muse, of the man resourceful, who, storm-buffeted far and wide…”
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.
Homer’s Odyssey, one of the oldest works of literature in the world, and arguably one of the first to focus on a single protagonist’s interior psychology, begins with a shipwreck and a lone survivor. The “man of techne” washes up on a foreign shore and before he can be given hospitality, he must tell them his name and how he came to be there. So to survive, Odysseus must tell his story and thus tell himself into existance. (Just goes to show that meta-fiction wasn’t invented on Tumblr.) And as we’ll see again and again from here through to ADWD (and incidentally I cannot recommend enough PoorQuentyn’s coverage of Davos’ arc in ADWD), Davos is Westeros’ man of techne, tossed about by the seas in his long path back to his wife and son, placed in front of men and women of power and having to save himself with his rhetoric.
Salladhor Saan as Old Nick
Speaking of the Odyssey as a model for Davos’ story, one of the major repeating beats in Homer’s epic is our hero encountering some major temptation that seeks to side-track him from his return home, whether we’re talking about the Island of the Lotus-Eaters or the charms of Circe (note: not Cersei). So right off the bat, Salladhor Saan pops up to tempt Davos into abandoning his quest. It probably wouldn’t surprise you that I agree wholeheartedly with PoorQuentyn’s argument that Salladhor Saan’s purpose in the narrative (one that Benioff and Weiss have never grasped) is to mirror Davos’ “smuggler-self” back to him:
Salladhor Saan was not aboard his Valyrian. They found him at another quay a quarter mile distant, down in the hold of a big-bellied Pentoshi cog named Bountiful Harvest, counting cargo with two eunuchs. One held a lantern, the other a wax tablet and stylus. “Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine,” the old rogue was saying when Davos and the captain came down the hatch. Today he wore a wine-colored tunic and high boots of bleached white leather inlaid with silver scrollwork. Pulling the stopper from a jar, he sniffed, sneezed, and said, “A coarse grind, and of the second quality, my nose declares. The bill of lading is saying forty-three jars. Where have the others gotten to, I am wondering? These Pentoshi, do they think I am not counting?” When he saw Davos he stopped suddenly. “Is it pepper stinging my eyes, or tears? Is this the knight of the onions who stands before me? No, how can it be, my dear friend Davos died on the burning river, all agree. Why has he come to haunt me?”
Just to show how deep this Odyssey thing goes, note that even though this is something of a side-quest to Davos’ journey, note that the first thing that Davos has to do when he encounters his old friend is to first say who he is (“is this the knight of the onions who stands before me?”) and then to explain how he got there (“Why has he come to haunt me?”). But to get back to PoorQuentyn’s point, if Salladhor Saan’s return to the narrative was any more piratical, he’d need a curled periwig, a hook for a hand, a Gilbert & Sullivan libretto, and a ride at Disneyland. This is the world that Davos came from, a world where spices and other luxuries cross the Narrow Sea in an economic system where legality is a sliding scale rather than Stannis’ iron-clad rule. Salladhor Saan has boosted a cargo belonging to Illyrio Mopatis, but so has Daenerys Targaryen, and Illyrio himself treats laws banning slavery as more of a suggestion. And indeed, Salladhor Saan’s argument here is that the ironclad distinction between law and crime is illusory, that the two are one:
“Who has suffered more from pirates than Salladhor Saan? I ask only what is due me. Much gold is owed, oh yes, but I am not without reason, so in place of coin I have taken a handsome parchment, very crisp. It bears the name and seal of Lord Alester Florent, the Hand of the King. I am made Lord of Blackwater Bay, and no vessel may be crossing my lordly waters without my lordly leave, no. And when these outlaws are trying to steal past me in the night to avoid my lawful duties and customs, why, they are no better than smugglers, so I am well within my rights to seize them.” The old pirate laughed. “I cut off no man’s fingers, though. What good are bits of fingers? The ships I am taking, the cargoes, a few ransoms, nothing unreasonable.”
Saan’s point, that the law arbitrarily defines property rights, so that a piece of paper can turn a pirate into a privateer and (mostly) law-abiding merchants into smugglers, is deliberately hard to refute, because GRRM wants to put Davos’ dedication to the test. Indeed, one could argue that Salladhor Saan’s speech here is meant as an implicit critique of Stannis – that for all that Stannis preaches Javert-like about the immutability of justice, his servants are playing fast and loose with the letter of the law. And if even Stannis’ government has begun to sink into corruption, why not give up the whole thing as intellectually bankrupt, and return to the comparatively honest practice of crime?
The Lyseni shook his head. “Of ships, His Grace has none, and Salladhor Saan has many. The king’s ships burned up on the river, but not mine. You shall have one, old friend. You will sail for me, yes? You will dance into Braavos and Myr and Volantis in the black of night, all unseen, and dance out again with silks and spices. We will be having fat purses, yes.”
Saan’s offer fits in perfectly with this very tropey chapter, essentially proposing the One Last Job that ensnares so many criminals turned honest. But beyond the money, Davos is being offered the possibility for a simpler life, one where he can be with his family (indeed, Saan even announces to Davos that “your young Devan was among those we took off at the end. The brave boy never once left the king’s side, or so they say“) and his sons don’t die screaming in wildfire, to return to his role in this semi-legal international economy where smugglers have an integral role of reducing the incidence of excise taxes on luxury goods and prices rise and fall according to the cycle of merchants buying spices from smugglers who bought them from pirates who stole them from merchants.
As I have said before, the one virtue that characterizes Davos more than anything else is loyalty. It’s an unusual virtue that sets him apart from most dashing rogues – who tend to be humanized by a personal code of honor or putting their friends over their own benefit, as opposed to a larger, more abstract political commitment. But for Davos, “my duty’s to my king, not your purse. The war will go on. Stannis is still the rightful heir by all the laws of the Seven Kingdoms.” After so many years by his side, Davos has absorbed some of Stannis’ belief in the laws, despite his smuggler background, and so he will keep fighting the good fight.
War of Five Kings: Political Update
The next thing Davos does is to get a sense of the lay of the land politically – Odysseus needs to know how Ithaka has fared in his absence before – so that he knows how to proceed. The news, unfortunately, is not good:
Captain Khorane had told him of the end of Stannis’s hopes, on the night the river burned. The Lannisters had taken him from the flank, and his fickle bannermen had abandoned him by the hundreds in the hour of his greatest need. “King Renly’s shade was seen as well,” the captain said, “slaying right and left as he led the lion lord’s van. It’s said his green armor took a ghostly glow from the wildfire, and his antlers ran with golden flames.”
Renly’s shade. Davos wondered if his sons would return as shades as well. He had seen too many queer things on the sea to say that ghosts did not exist. “Did none keep faith?” he asked.
“Some few,” the captain said. “The queen’s kin, them in chief. We took off many who wore the fox-and-flowers, though many more were left ashore, with all manner of badges. Lord Florent is the King’s Hand on Dragonstone now.”
The mountain grew taller, crowned all in pale smoke. The sail sang, the drum beat, the oars pulled smoothly, and before very long the mouth of the harbor opened before them. So empty, Davos thought, remembering how it had been before, with the ships crowding every quay and rocking at anchor off the breakwater.
The overwhelming impression is of disaster and desolation – the fleet lost along with all of Davos’ sons, the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who Stannis forgave who repaid his forgiveness with betrayal. And with those lost Stormlords and Reachermen, we get the first mention that the Florents are now in charge, seemingly by default. Now, we’ve seen the Florents before as ambitious and self-serving in a family way, but before they were always seen in a context of other noblemen who were just as ambitious and self-serving. But now that the supporting cast has fallen away, they start to stand out now:
“All the laws are not helping when all the ships burn up, I am thinking. And your king, well, you will be finding him changed, I am fearing. Since the battle, he sees no one, but broods in his Stone Drum. Queen Selyse keeps court for him with her uncle the Lord Alester, who is naming himself the Hand. The king’s seal she has given to this uncle, to fix to the letters he writes, even to my pretty parchment. But it is a little kingdom they are ruling, poor and rocky, yes. There is no gold, not even a little bit to pay faithful Salladhor Saan what is owed him, and only those knights that we took off at the end, and no ships but my little brave few.”
“Do you know what will be happening to you, if you are caught? While we were burning on the river, the queen was burning traitors. Servants of the dark, she named them, poor men, and the red woman sang as the fires were lit.”Davos was unsurprised. I knew, he thought, I knew before he told me. “She took Lord Sunglass from the dungeons,” he guessed, “and Hubard Rambton’s sons.”“Just so, and burned them, as she will burn you.”
Melisandre: Disney Villain or No?
“A pale grey wisp of smoke blew from the top of the mountain to mark where the island lay. Dragonmont is restless this morning, Davos thought, or else Melisandre is burning someone else.”
“Melisandre had been much in his thoughts as Shayala’s Dance made her way across Blackwater Bay and through the Gullet, tacking against perverse contrary winds. The great fire that burned atop the Sharp Point watchtower at the end of Massey’s Hook reminded him of the ruby she wore at her throat, and when the world turned red at dawn and sunset the drifting clouds turned the same color as the silks and satins of her rustling gowns.”
“She would be waiting on Dragonstone as well, waiting in all her beauty and all her power, with her god and her shadows and his king. The red priestess had always seemed loyal to Stannis, until now. She has broken him, as a man breaks a horse. She would ride him to power if she could, and for that she gave my sons to the fire…
“…The red woman did this to him,” he said. “She sent the fire to consume us, to punish Stannis for setting her aside, to teach him that he could not hope to win without her sorceries.”
“Queer talking I have heard, of hungry fires within the mountain, and how Stannis and the red woman go down together to watch the flames. There are shafts, they say, and secret stairs down into the mountain’s heart, into hot places where only she may walk unburned. It is enough and more to give an old man such terrors that sometimes he can scarcely find the strength to eat.”
I’ll leave the discussion of the content of Stannis and Melisandre’s “viewing sessions” for Davos III through V, but for the moment I’m a little more interested in the location. Perhaps because the show has always shown Melisandre using any old fires as evidence, I’ve never really drawn the connection between the volcanic fires of Dragonstone and Melisandre’s pyromantic prophecies. Indeed, in part because Stannis and Melisandre left the island, there’s been a general discounting of Dragonstone’s importance post-ASOS. I’m not so sure as to how accurate that is now: after all, Dragonstone has links to the dragon eggs of House Targaryen, to the fire magics of Old Valyria, and to the obsidian needed to fight the White Walkers.
Another sign of how unbalanced Davos is in this chapter is that our onion knight spends this chapter acting a lot like his vision of Melisandre: a violent, aggressive religious fanatic who believes that divinity is guiding their every action:
His ordeal had weakened him. If he stood too long his legs shook, and sometimes he fell prey to uncontrollable fits of coughing and brought up gobs of bloody phlegm. It is nothing, he told himself. Surely the gods did not bring me safe through fire and sea only to kill me with a flux.
…I will cut the living heart from her breast and see how it burns. He touched the hilt of the fine long Lysene dirk that the captain had given him.
“…I have a knife myself. Captain Khorane made me a gift of it.” He pulled out the dirk and laid it on the table between them. “A knife to cut out Melisandre’s heart.” If she has one…
“No jest. I mean to kill her.” If she can be killed by mortal weapons. Davos was not certain that she could. He had seen old Maester Cressen slip poison into her wine, with his own eyes he had seen it, but when they both drank from the poisoned cup it was the maester who died, not the red priestess. A knife in the heart, though…even demons can be killed by cold iron, the singers say.
“If you kill the red woman, they will burn you for revenge, and if you fail to kill her, they will burn you for the trying. She will sing and you will scream, and then you will die. And you have only just come back to life!”
“And this is why,” said Davos. “To do this thing. To make an end of Melisandre of Asshai and all her works. Why else would the sea have spit me out? You know Blackwater Bay as well as I do, Salla. No sensible captain would ever take his ship through the spears of the merling king and risk ripping out his bottom. Shayala’s Dance should never have come near me…the Mother spoke to me…She blessed me with seven sons, and yet I let them burn her. She spoke to me. We called the fire, she said. We called the shadows too. I rowed Melisandre into the bowels of Storm’s End and watched her birth a horror.” He saw it still in his nightmares, the gaunt black hands pushing against her thighs as it wriggled free of her swollen womb. “She killed Cressen and Lord Renly and a brave man named Cortnay Penrose, and she killed my sons as well. Now it is time someone killed her.”
Essentially, what we have here is a combination of survivor’s guilt – Davos doesn’t know how to explain why he’s alive and his sons are dead, and rather than accept the idea that he lives in a fundamentally random universe, he’s constructed this mission as a purpose – and his guilt about his complicity in the murder of Ser Courntey Penrose, which he’s choosing to respond to by projecting all of the blame onto Melisandre. As coping mechanics go, it’s not a particularly healthy one. As Salladhor Saan points out, there’s a continuing suicidal impulse underlying all of this that is hugely selfish when you consider both his “lady wife” who has “lost…four sons” and won’t appreciate losing her husband on top of that, his remaining son who have their own grief that doesn’t need to be compounded, and “sad old Salladhor Saan,” who’ll “be bringing your ashes and bones back” to that “the sons you leave behind” can “wear [them] in little bags around their necks.”
But the unfortunate thing about mental trauma is that logic alone isn’t going to snap Davos out of it – so he ignores Salladhor Saan’s pragmatic advice and goes off on his quixotic mission to right all wrongs.
When he finally gets to Dragonstone, which requires him to tell his story again (more on this in the Historical Analysis section), Davos doesn’t meet Melisandre or Stannis. Instead, in a a turn of events that’s way more significant in retrospect, he runs into Shireen and her creepy companion:
When the fool saw Davos, he jerked to a sudden halt, the bells on his antlered tin helmet going ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling. Hopping from one foot to the other, he sang, “Fool’s blood, king’s blood, blood on the maiden’s thigh, but chains for the guests and chains for the bridegroom, aye aye aye.”
Now, as we all know, in addition to triggering coulrophobia, Patchface’s purpose is to be the Cassandra. Last time, the unacknowledged true prophet of the Drowned God predicted the deaths of Renly, Ser Courtney Penrose, and defeat at the Battle of Blackwater. This time, Patchface is directly foretelling the Red Wedding – but you don’t see it coming on a first read because the “blood” and the “chains” language doesn’t link back to either Theon’s or Dany’s visions so we don’t necessarily associate this prophecy with those because of the lack of wolfshead imagery. You really do have to hand it to GRRM, he’s masterful at forehsadowing.
More significant to Davos’ mission in this chapter and the in the rest of his ASOS arc, Davos literally runs into Shireen’s new companion, Edric Storm:
The boy went down as well, but he was up again almost at once. “What are you doing here?” he demanded as he brushed himself off. Jet-black hair fell to his collar, and his eyes were a startling blue. “You shouldn’t get in my way when I’m running.”
“…are you unwell?” The boy took him by the arm and pulled him to his feet. “Should I summon the maester?…I am Edric Storm…King Robert’s son.”
“Of course you are.” Davos has known that almost at once. The lad had the prominent ears of a Florent, but the hair, the eyes, the jaw, the cheekbones, those were all Baratheon.
“Did you know my father?….[he] taught me to fight…he came to see me almost every year, and sometimes we trained together. On my last name day, he sent me a a warhammer just like his, only smaller. They made me leave it at Storm’s End, though…”
Robert was a different man than Stannis, true enough. The boy is like him. Aye, and like Renly as well. That thought made him anxious.
This is a great introduction, because in the moment it seems completely incidental, but it’s clear in retrospect that here is Davos’ mission, the reason why
the Seven GRRM needed him to survive the Battle of Blackwater, because if Davos hadn’t, there was a strong chance that Edric Storm was going to die at Dragonstone, either because of a decision of Stannis’ or when Loras Tyrell stormed the castle.
In order to set up the stakes for Stannis’ dilemma later on, we establish from the jump that Edric is like a young Robert but better. He’s charismatic and a bit selfish in a childlike way (“You shouldn’t get in my way when I’m running”); he’s absolutely obsessed by the legend of Robert Baratheon the perfect warrior-king and clearly wants to emulate his father as much as possible. However, he’s more considerate than Robert is – the moment he gets a good look at Davos, his first instinct is to get a sick man help. And he’s much more compassionate than Stannis, as we see when he declares outright that “he should not have chopped any of your fingers.” Definitely a kid who places loyalty to the individual over the abstract ideal, and someone the reader wants to remain alive.
An Unexpected Twist
But all of this is mere prologue – Davos’ mission is to assassinate Melisandre, and now he’s inside the citadel. The very next moment after he meets Edric Storm…
“The boy was about to say something more when they heard steps. Davos turned. Ser Axell Florent was coming down the garden path with a dozen guards in quilted jerkins. On their breasts they wore the fiery heart of the Lord of Light. Queen’s men, Davos thought. A cough came on him suddenly.”
“Ser Axell was short and muscular, with a barrel chest, thick arms, bandy legs, and hair growing from his ears. The queen’s uncle, he had served as castellan of Dragonstone for a decade, and had always treated Davos courteously, knowing he enjoyed the favor of Lord Stannis. But there was neither courtesy nor warmth in his tone as he said, “Ser Davos, and undrowned. How can that be?”
“Onions float, ser. Have you come to take me to the king?”
“I have come to take you to the dungeon.” Ser Axell waved his men forward. “Seize him, and take his dirk. He means to use it on our lady.”
Needless to say, this is plainly impossible in a world without magic (or cellphones). Davos has only told Salladhor Saan about his plan to assassinate Melisandre, and neither Saan nor a member of his crew came with Davos to the castle to inform on him. And so we start to get the sharp shock needed to break Davos out of his murder-suicide train of thought: proof positive that he simply cannot kill Melisandre, because she can see the future and will take precautions against him.
More will come next chapter.
When Davos gets to up to the castle gates, he runs into a roadblock where, due to casualties from the Battle of Blackwater, the gate guard doesn’t recognize him and won’t let him in, because Ser Davos Seaworth is listed as KIA:
“Ser Davos Seaworth, to see His Grace.”
“Are you drunk? Go away and stop that pounding.”
Salladhor Saan had warned him. Davos tried a different tack. “Send for my son, then. Devan, the King’s squire.”
The guard frowned. “Who did you say you were?”
“Davos,” he shouted. “The onion knight.”
The head vanished, to return a moment later. “Be off with you. The onion knight died on the river. His ship burned.”
As strange as this might seem to those of us who grew up with photo ID and government-issued identification numbers, but this isn’t such a strange attitude for the guard to take. As Miriam Elva-Feldon points out in Renaissance Impostors and Proofs of Identity, “Early modern Europe was teeming with impostors. Men and women from all walks of life were…lying about who they were or pretending to be someone they were not. As a result, authorities, both religious and secular, were franctically creating new means for ascertaining each person’s identity.” And one of the more common identities that could be stolen were people who had gone off to be soldiers – there was no system of dog-tags or organized method of informing the families of casualties, and the odds that someone would go come back home weren’t always great, so people were often so overjoyed to get a loved one back that they didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Which brings us to the famous story of the return of Martin Guerre. Martin Daguerre was a peasant from the French side of the Basque country who ran away from home in 1548, supposedly to become a soldier; audiences have always liked the historical irony of the last name, as “guerre” is French for war. In 1577 a man turned up claiming to be Martin Guerre; he looked similar to the man, he knew his life story in intimate detail and Guerre’s wife, uncle, and four sisters were all convinced he was the man.
However, a dispute broke out between Martin and his paternal uncle over Guerre’s father’s inheritance. Around that time, a soldier passing through town told the uncle that “Martin” was a fraud, because the real Martin had lost a leg during the war. There was a criminal case in 1559, but “Martin” was aquitted due in no small part ot the fact that Martin’s wife supported his claim…and then the next year his uncle put him on trial again in Rieux. His uncle claimed that “Martin” was in fact Arnaud du Tilh, a known confidence fraud from a nearby village. This time, Martin was convicted and sentenced to death. He then appealed up to the Parlement of Toulouse.
Then things got really nuts. The wife and uncle were arrested on charges of false accusation and perjury and it looked like the court would clear “Martin” of all charges. And then another Martin Guerre showed up in Touluse…and this Martin had a wooden leg, the real one having been lost in Flanders while serving as a mercenary in the Spanish army. With the two men side-by-side, the family now unanimously lined up behind the new arrival and Arnaud du Tilh was convicted of adultery and fraud and sentenced to death. Having maintained his innocence throughout, Arnaud confessed to having stolen Martin Guerre’s identity and apologized for his actions.
Understandably the court was not impressed by his last-minute change of heart and had Arnaud hanged…in front of Martin Guerre’s house, just so that everyone could be sure this time.
So there’s not really a huge scope for hypotheticals here; I’m not even going to bother with “what if Davos actually killed Melisandre,” because clairvoyance is clairvoyance and that’s just not going to happen. Instead, I’m just going to ask:
- Davos left with Salladhor Saan? The first thing that happens is that Edric Storm will die. Whether Stannis ultimately decides to have him sacrificed to save the world, or whether he dies in Loras Tyrell’s reckless assault on the castle, the odds are very bad. And given that Edric Storm is almost certainly going to be the future Lord of Storm’s End when Stannis’ line ends, this is a bit of a problem.
- The next issue is that Davos won’t be around to argue against Stannis attacking Claw Isle; whether Stannis goes in for it or not is ambiguous and I’ll discuss in Davos IV. Regardless, odds are very good that Stannis doesn’t get to the Wall in time, which means it’s very likely going to fall to Mance Rayder, Jon Snow dies, the North falls into utter chaos, and the world is quite possibly doomed. So in one sense, Davos Seaworth is the most important man in the world.
Book vs. Show:
While the show stages the scene between Davos and Salladhor Saan accurately enough, I’ve always felt that the show didn’t quite get Salladhor Saan’s character, as we see in the way that he’s awkwardly handled in both Season 2 and Season 4. Now, I’m firmly of the opinion that recasting Saan is perfectly fine, there’s no reason that his character can’t be black. But I do think Benioff and Weiss didn’t quite get that Saan is supposed to be the dark mirror to Davos; indeed, I would argue they don’t quite understand any character whose primary function is thematic rather than plot-relevant.
Where things get really really weird is when Davos gets back to Dragonstone and meets with Stannis and Melisandre directly. Not only does this kind of miss the point about Melisandre’s clairvoyance, but Melisandre’s cruel taunting to Davos – “I wasn’t there when the wildfire killed our men by the thousands. I could have saved those men. You would have taken the city, Stannis would now sit upon his rightful throne, and you would stand beside him. But I wasn’t there because you convinced your king to leave me behind. Do you hear them screaming? All those burning men in the water crying for their mothers, for their gods for help? Until the moment the Blackwater swallowed them. ( gasps ) Don’t despair, Ser Davos. What I told your son is true. Death by fire is the purest death.” – is entirely out of character. Melisandre is not an evil witch, she doesn’t hate or resent Davos, and in fact goes to some pains to try to protect his family.
It is strange to me, given how much the show goes out of its way to whitewash characters they like, that Benioff and Weiss doubled-down on the Melisandre = Evil idea. Perhaps this is the influence of knowing ahead of time what happens to Shireen without access to the more complicated and nuanced inner monologue that GRRM gave her in ADWD?