Friday, September 21, 2012

Under the bleeding star

Warning: Contains heavy spoilers for all books from "A Song of Ice and Fire" up to and including "A Dance with Dragons".

Note from the editor: On October 13, our first essay book, Tower of the Hand: A Flight of Sorrows, goes on sale at Amazon for $5.99. The ebook contains eight original essays about A Song of Ice and Fire, written by Tower of the Hand editors and contributors, and our frequent collaborators. All of us have worked hard these past few months assembling a collection of essays that are original, fun, and revelatory. There's something in this book for everyone, from first time readers to the most hardcore fans of George R. R. Martin. If you enjoy the essays we offer here on Tower of the Hand, we're sure you'll appreciate A Flight of Sorrows just as well. Here's an exclusive look at one of the essays that will be included in the book, written by Stefan Sasse.

Under the Bleeding Star

On the role of prophecy in songs of ice and fire
"You wear your prophecy like a suit of armor. You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move." Littlefinger (paraphrased)
If there is one topic that really engages fan speculation, it's the subject of prophecies. They can be found in the books as early as A Game of Thrones, when the Dothraki dosh khaleen prophesizes the arrival of "The Stallion Who Mounts the World" in the incarnation of Daenerys Targaryen's son, Rhaego, and they stay with us until the long-awaited pages of A Dance with Dragons, where Quaithe makes another appearance and a red priest named Moqorro utters dark phrases to anyone who listens. One of the most memorable scenes of Dany's whole character arc, the House of the Undying, is littered with prophecy.

For the reader, who has a better look at the whole picture than the individual protagonists do, trying to decipher these very metaphorical prophecies has become a fun game, and trying to figure out which prophecies have already been fulfilled is yet another source of never-ending entertainment. In fact, so many have done this so well, this can hardly be the place to discuss, yet again, who will be the "head of the dragon," which mounts Dany has to ride, and who, exactly, is Azor Ahai reborn. Instead, we will take a deeper look at what the prophecies mean for the people in Westeros and Essos themselves. How do they react to prophecy, what do they make of it, and what role does it play in their actual lives?
Both sides of the narrow sea have to be regarded as lands that are ruled by elites who disdain superstition, or what they think of as superstition. The infamous grumkins and snarks are often used as stand-ins for such things - whoever believes in any magical stuff probably believes in these and other children's stories, too, and is, therefore, not to be taken seriously. Much of this must be attributed to the maesters of the Citadel. They are learned men, wise in what can be viewed as sort-of medieval science, and they are utterly opposed to anything magical. They counsel every important lord and his progeny, and, thus, their views on the world have tremendous impact on the mindset of the Westerosi nobility. The prevailing attitude has long been one that is poised against such ideas as dreams becoming true, obsidian candles burning, or dragons roaming the skies again.
In Essos, the elite are constituted a little bit more on wealth and merit, but this is still no landscape that affords superstition; where numbers, coins, and balance books comprise everything you are and do, there is no room for magical stories. In Essos, as well as in Westeros, magic and prophecy are the domain of the religious, children, and, of course, the lower classes - those social realms ignorant enough to believe in such things. It is no wonder that the religion with the greatest amount of "magic stuff," the cult of R'hllor, is, at its heart, a poor man's faith. The tired, poor, huddled masses flock to the nightfires, while the elites revel in their more aristocratic beliefs, if they have any at all. It is really hard to imagine people like Illyrio Mopatis giving even a second glance at the idea of a "Prince That Was Promised" or a "Mummer's Dragon." Things either work or they don't.
"When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt." Melisandre of Asshai
Therefore, one of the big remaining mysteries is how a man like Stannis Baratheon, so deeply rooted in the idea of a mundane world, where laws are made and obeyed by men, winds up with a woman like Melisandre of Asshai. Initially, his relationship with her is purely utilitarian; she has her uses, which may or may not be magical. It's not until the Battle of the Blackwater that he becomes a true believer, when he finally, grudgingly acknowledges Melisandre's superior skills in an art he cannot understand and doesn't really bother to try. He becomes entrenched in it, applying his sense of duty not only to the role of king but now also to Azor. Most likely, he sees it as another burden he must carry by birth and station (Stannis Baratheon is never one to embrace religious fervor, unlike Lancel Lannister).
And he doesn't hesitate to go all the way. Once he decides to believe Melisandre (again, we don't know why and how this comes to pass), he commands the burning of the old gods, takes up a new sigil, and forces his bannermen to do likewise. At the heart of this religious conversation and the ensuing war that more and more looks like a jihad is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, brought to the reader (and Davos Seaworth) by courtesy of Salladhor Saan. From him, we learn that Azor Ahai, the hero of heroes, could only forge his magical sword Lightbringer by sacrificing what he loved most, his wife Nissa Nissa.
So, if Stannis is Azor reincarnated and truly believes in this prophecy, what does he sacrifice? When he gains his Lightbringer, which is called false by Maester Aemon (not a man whose testimony is to be taken lightly), he burns the Seven, a faith he surely never loved. In fact, Stannis Baratheon doesn't love - not his wife and child, not the throne he wants to conquer, not the god he has taken, not the red woman he beds. Sacrifice comes naturally to him. He has no problem sacrificing people, because he sacrifices so much of himself in the name of duty; his honor and his dignity have already gone to waste during Robert's time, and the only thing left to him, his sense of justice, perished at Bitterbridge with the death of Renly.
If Stannis believes in being Azor Ahai - another thing we can't entirely be sure of - then even more suffering will ensue. A Stannis Baratheon who believes that he is the rightful heir and that it is his duty to ascend to the throne, even if he doesn't want to, is a man who will literally stop at nothing if he is also pumped up with religious fervor over being the chosen one. The image of him brooding atop his lonely tower in A Dance with Dragons, staring out into the whirling snows and only emerging to silently watch some offenders burn in the glory of R'hllor, is a vivid image of what type of king this man would make. It is like Littlefinger's prophecy (no pun intended) to Lord Eddard Stark: Stannis would mean war and suffering. A man so determined that he would suffer through the Northern winter just to fight a war that, by all accounts, looks to be futile is not a man you want to believe in being destined by god to sit the Iron Throne.
Yet the prophecy did not come to Stannis by chance. It was brought by a woman with a mission, one not really sanctioned by her religious institution. Melisandre of Asshai is convinced that she knows who has to be Azor Ahai, and that it is her duty to help him awaken to his path. In the way she kickstarts events, she mirrors Littlefinger - she's on the sidelines, whispering in the ear of a mighty lord, setting him in motion. Her belief, we now know (thanks to Dance with Dragons), is genuine. She is, however, a political power player. She isn't shy of using her credibility as a prophet to steer people. Her burning of leeches is a prime example of this; she saw the deaths of Renly, Robb, and Balon in the flames and makes a spectacle of it to leverage Stannis to give her what she wants. She needs to build up credibility like this desperately - she's not only a foreigner, preaching of a foreign god, she also proclaims a prophecy nobody basically ever heard of, and she does so to convince others to start a war based on it. (Of course, the problem with all this is that she's wrong; she clearly misreads visions without even knowing it and commits all to suffering based on the simple vanity of wanting to be a seer.)
Although the prophecy of Azor Ahai is a cornerstone of Westeros, circa 299 AL, only a small number of people seem to really know about it, and most of these are Stannis's bannermen. It is interesting that the prophecy never came up in a meeting of the Small Council; at some point, the information of Stannis's beliefs must have found its way to King's Landing, but somehow nobody thought it noteworthy that the contender they had long regarded as the most dangerous had converted to a religion that regarded him as the messiah. Religion is nothing taken too seriously in the nobility of the southron kingdoms, obviously. But without it, it may be that Stannis might never have sailed. Certainly, he would have had no means of defeating Renly. Without Melisandre's interference, fueled by the burning fire of a prophecy fulfilled, Westeros would be a different place. This impact cannot be taken lightly.
This becomes even truer if we look back 19 years. Rhaegar Targaryen also believed in a prophecy: the Prince That Was Promised. There is much debate about whether this legendary prince is identical with Azor Ahai or not, but the truth is we don't know much about the actual prophecy (and, either way, this is not the place for that particular discussion). What is most important about it is in its influence on how events have unfolded. As a boy, Rhaegar read something in a scroll - the prediction of the prince, most likely - and decided that it was time for him to become a warrior. Though he did have some talent in this regard, he was never Aemon the Dragonknight reborn, and he later changed his mind, anyway, and assigned the role of the foretold prince to his son, Aegon. He still saw it as his duty to set things in motion to fulfill legend, though; like Melisandre (and, to a lesser extent, Stannis), he saw it as his personal responsibility to do what fate ordered him to do.
It is not known what reasoning went into his actions, but it surely informed his decision to abscond with Lyanna Stark. Religiosity, then, was a direct cause of the War of the Usurper, the downfall of House Targaryen, and the deaths of Rhaegar and his fabled son, whose head was famously dashed against the wall. Robert's Rebellion can't be imagined without Rhaegar's actions, igniting the fuse that lead to the murders of Rickard and Brandon Stark and also to King Aerys's demand to Jon Arryn.
The Prince That Was Promised and Azor Ahai are at least similar in their scope of impact. Both foretell the arrival of a messiah to battle an important, mighty enemy afflicted with coldness and darkness and averse to fire and light. In Azor Ahai's case, the prophecy is bound to the faith of R'hllor, while the Prince That Was Promised seems more like a Targaryen-exclusive item, but both feature the same inescapable outcome: the two major wars of the last twenty years - Robert's Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings - have been defined largely by odd and widely unknown prophecies that were enacted by key players who believed in them. It was not important that they convinced others; Rhaegar as well as Stannis act on their own terms, standing above the petty interests of their underlings - and both are ill-advised to do so.
This is hardly an exclusive attribute to either them or their kind of prophecy, however. Besides Melisandre, the double novel that is A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons also brings us another prophet, even called that in one of his POV chapters: Aeron Damphair. The Greyjoy priest is a more ambiguous figure in terms of championing a real prophecy, but that is known only to the reader. He himself believes that he can hear the Drowned God in the crashing of waves, and an ever-growing number of followers believes so, too. On the Iron Islands, the Damphair is a respected figure because of his relentless conviction. He doesn't articulate a clear prophecy like Melisandre does, for sure, and he oftentimes covers up insecurities with thunderous-but-empty phrases, but he nonetheless is a prophet, in the sense of being a mouthpiece of his god if not in delivering predictions to his people.
That he does speak with divine authority is most evident when he declares that "no godless man will sit the Seastone Chair" and calls for a kingsmoot. He prophesizes that the Drowned God will make his will known on Old Wyk, choose a new king for them (which is, undoubtedly, Victarion Greyjoy), and lead the Iron Men into a new iron age. Of course, Aeron doesn't really know what will happen on Old Wyk - he inadvertently sets events in motion that lead to Euron Crow's Eye's ascension to the throne. The takeaway here is that, once again, prophecy has shaped the destinies of entire peoples.
"The old gods stir and will not let me sleep. I dreamt I saw a shadow with a burning heart butchering a golden stag, aye. I dreamt of a man without a face, waiting on a bridge that swayed and swung. On his shoulder perched a drowned crow with seaweed hanging from his wings. I dreamt of a roaring river and a woman that was a fish. Dead she drifted, with red tears on her cheeks, but when her eyes did open, oh, I woke from terror." The Ghost of High Heart
The Ghost of High Heart is acting on a much smaller scale, at least today. She dreams of things coming true, although in very metaphorical ways, and sells the knowledge, along with some sketchy interpretations, if she has some and is in the mood for it. We see her giving information to the Brotherhood without Banners, and Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion seem to have more experience with her and a better understanding than we as readers do, since her dreams are fairly cryptic if one doesn't already know of the events they describe. It's not entirely clear to what extent Beric and Thoros use the Ghost as a source of intelligence, but they certainly go through the trouble of seeking her out. This makes it safe to assume that they put some weight into her pronouncements, and it also means that the Brotherhood acts on predictions and visions, delivered by a prophet of (presumably) the old gods.
That she is an agent of the children of the forest's deities is a detail that the characters themselves can't possibly know and only we as readers can deduct. In Dance, Ser Barristan Selmy delivers this information almost casually to Dany, indicating that the Ghost not only belongs to the old gods, but also that she: is responsible for the marriage between Aerys II and Rhaella Targaryen; came to court with Jenny of Oldstones; and is the love of Duncan the Small, Prince of Dragonflies (and the firstborn son of Aegon V, of the Tales of Dunk and Egg fame). This strikes the connection to Rhaegar, since the Ghost of High Heart (referred to as the "wood's witch" by Barristan) knew about the Prince That Was Promised and told the Targaryens that he would be born of the line of Aerys and Rhaella. Given that Aerys didn't exactly seem the type for prophecies - unlike Aegon V, Duncan, and Prince Duncan's lover, Jenny of Oldstones - it's likely that most knowledge of that connection was destroyed in the burning of Summerhall the night of Egg's death. It's also likely that Rhaegar's morbid fascination with the ruins stems from his discovery of the legend in the ancient scrolls. In this way, the old prophecy binds together the story threads and sets the actors in motion.
"When will I marry the prince?"
"Never. You will wed the king."
"I will be queen, though?"
"Aye. Queen you shall be... until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear."
"Will the king and I have children?"
"Oh, aye. Six-and-ten for him, three for you. Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds. And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands around your pale white throat and choke the life from you." Cersei and Maggy the Frog
This prophecy is one of the most important in the whole saga, and there is only one person who knows about it: Cersei Lannister. (The other eyewitness, Melara Hetherspoon, is disposed by Cersei [by being thrown down a well].)
The case of Maggy's prophecy is really interesting. Not only do we learn that she is a maegi (the sound of that word should raise some uncomfortable feelings, after A Game of Thrones), she also is most likely the woman that old Lord Westerling married. This creepy coincidence aside, Maggy's prediction is responsible for almost everything that happens in the King's Landing storyline in Feast for Crows. Cersei is convinced not only that she is reading the prophecy correctly, but that she also is able to forestall and eventually evade it. And she has every reason to believe so: everything Maggy prophesized came true, except, of course, for the last part, which is still to happen. Cersei has a rather broad base of information from which to judge and interpret the prophecy.
She still gets it totally wrong, however. It seems very likely that Margaery Tyrell isn't the younger queen to take everything away from her - that would be Daenerys. It seems likely Tyrion isn't the valonqar - that would be Jaime. Cersei can't know this, and she has literally no chance of knowing this. In her desire to prevent the final, fatal part of the prediction from happening, she takes such actions as to bring about her own demise; the Tyrells would never have acquired the position of power they have now if Cersei wouldn't have attempted to put Margaery on trial.
"As swift as the wind he rides, and behind him his khalasar covers the Earth, men without number, with arakhs shining in their hands like blades of razor grass. Fierce as a storm this prince will be. His enemies will tremble before him, and their wives will weep tears of blood and rend their flesh in grief. The bells in his hair will sing his coming, and the milk men in the stone tents will fear his name. The prince is riding, and he shall be the stallion who mounts the world." The dosh khaleen
No character in the whole series is as conscious about prophecies as Daenerys Targaryen or is as guided by them. She encounters prophecy early on, and, unlike Stannis or Rhaegar, she does so in an environment that is open to them. It's in the Dothraki capital, Vaes Dothrak, where the dosh khaleen - the old wise women of the tribes, whose job it is to head the Dothraki nation, such as it is - prophesize that her son would be the "Stallion Who Mounts the World," which can be seen as yet another variation of the Prince That Was Promised or Azor Ahai. Yet this very early prophecy does not come to pass (at least, not as the crones interpreted it; there's always room for metaphorical explanations), as Dany's son, Rhaego, died in her womb. And even the Dothraki themselves, although conscious of the prophecy, don't seem to hold it in too high regard: they are not above slaying Dany and her child in order to consolidate their own power.
In fact, it's strange that the role of this Stallion is never quite clear in the books - the prophecy falters too fast. In the narrative, it seems to serve the function of discrediting the concept of prophecy itself. It's the first we hear in the series, and it is contradicted before we ever learn another (Bran's dreams excluded).
Shortly after Rhaego's death, Dany hears her next prediction: only when the sun sets in the east and rises in the west, when the mountains blow in the wind like leaves, and when the sea goes dry, will she bear a living child and have Khal Drogo return to her. When Mirri Maz Duur spits these words in Dany's face, she doesn't take them as a prophecy, but thinks it just means "never." It is not entirely clear what Mirri Maz Duur's intent was. Was she aware she was making a prophecy, or is it mere coincidence? At the end of Dance, no one can be sure anymore. Dany's womb seems to have quickened again, Quentyn Martell (who has the sun in his arms and comes from the west to die in the east) has perished, a pyramid was reduced to ashes whirling in the wind, and a dragon named Drogon, who was thought lost, returned. Dany hasn't jumped to that conclusion yet, but in a narrative function, it works again to unsettle the reader and plant the seed of doubt.
"To go north, you must go south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward, you must go back, and to touch the light, you must pass beneath the shadow."Quaithe
Dany is a person driven by a sense of fate, anyway. Even if she doesn't accept Mirri Maz Duur's words as prophecy, there is an aura of determination surrounding her. She acts as if she were destined to do whatever she is doing at the moment, an attitude that certainly was strongly encouraged over the course of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords.
Let's recap for a moment. First she breeds the first living dragons in two centuries, then she survives the Red Waste, defeats the Undying, conquers Astapor, defeats the Yunkish army, and storms Mereen. There, of course, it starts to fall to pieces, but what a ride it has been! Imagine her taking the demon road and conquering Volantis, freeing the largest slave population in the world - it would have cemented her image. The road she took after she defeated the Undying was already pregnant with the air of prophecy. When they told her "Three fires must you light... one for life and one for death and one to love... three mounts must you ride... one to bed and one to dread and one to love... three treasons will you know... once for blood and once for gold and once for love," she took it to heart. She's constantly wondering whether the prophecy has already been fulfilled or not. Her decisions are impacted greatly by her fears of its wording - who might be the next betrayer? She believes she can't avoid the prediction, but perhaps she can take away some of its impact.
At this point, the question of free will forces itself into the picture once again, since there's no certainty about whether the prophecy must come true or not. But before we can ruminate on this point in full, we need to first look at the last kind of prophecy in the books we haven't covered yet: greenseeing.
"He saw his mother sitting alone in a cabin, looking at a bloodstained knife on a table in front of her, as the rowers pulled at their oars and Ser Rodrik leaned across a rail, shaking and heaving. A storm was gathering ahead of them, a vast dark roaring lashed by lightning, but somehow they could not see it.
"He saw his father pleading with the king, his face etched with grief. He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was as dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.
"He lifted his eyes and saw clear across the narrow sea, to the Free Cities and the green Dothraki sea and beyond, to Vaes Dothrak under its mountain, to the fabled lands of the Jade Sea, to Asshai by the Shadow, where dragons stirred beneath the sunrise.
"Finally, he looked north. He saw the Wall shining like blue crystal, and his bastard brother Jon sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him.
"North and north and north he looked, to the curtain of light at the end of the world, and then beyond that curtain. He looked deep into the heart of winter, and then he cried out, afraid, and the heat of his tears burned his cheeks.
"Now you know, the crow whispered as it sat on his shoulder. Now you know why you must live.
"'Why?' Bran said, not understanding, falling, falling.
"Because winter is coming.
"Bran looked down. There was nothing below him now but snow and cold and death, a frozen wasteland where jagged blue-white spires of ice waited to embrace him. They flew up at him like spears. He saw the bones of a thousand other dreamers impaled upon their points. He was desperately afraid. Bran's dream
Bran's prophecies are perhaps the most interesting and beautifully haunting ones, at least for me. He truly looks behind the curtain of his mortal existence and crosses the boundaries of mundane materiality. He also doesn't try to interpret what he sees, at least not until A Dance with Dragons. He's communicating more or less directly with the forces (which we now know to mainly be Lord Bloodraven, from the Tales of Dunk and Egg) that actually make the prophecies. This is an interesting diversion from other characters dealing with predictions, whether they actively seek them out or are handed them by other agents.
One could make an argument about whether what Bran sees are really prophecies. In the end, the three-eyed crow is just Bloodraven inviting him into the Far North, where Bran eventually arrives in his second chapter of Dance. It is not yet entirely clear why the message was so cryptic. Is it because Bloodraven is no longer really connected to the hearts and minds of average people anymore? Is it because the magic of the greenseers doesn't allow for any type of clear communication? Or does he just want to pique Bran's curiosity? Whatever it is, obviously it is not enough to get a seven-year-old boy on such a journey. Luckily, we have Jojen Reed, who is also highly susceptible to such things.
Looking through the ages using weirwoods seems to be more a kind of magic than an act of the old gods or prophecy (a point I made at length in my essay about the true origins of religion, which can still be checked out at Bran's prophecies, therefore, really qualify as a matter of communication, as do Jojen Reed's. What they receive are almost exclusively warnings, encrypted in metaphor, but clear enough to those who can read them. Jojen is really good at this sort of thing, but like Melisandre, he can't get the logic of a warning if he lacks sufficient information (the sea coming to Winterfell in Jojen's case; the towers of Eastwatch in Melisandre's). Unlike Melisandre, however, Jojen is humble enough not to jump to conclusions just for the sake of grandstanding.
Having explored the prophecies as they appear in the story, there are still three unanswered questions left to deal with. The first is whether or not there is a special purpose of or to these prophecies. (If so, this would imply that an external force is broadcasting them, and only those with a sensitive enough antenna can receive them.) Second, is there such a thing as free will in a world where the future is so obviously pre-determined (knowing it doesn't change it, as Stannis painfully learns on the Blackwater)? And third, what consequences does the existence of prophecy have for Westerosi society?
First questions first. It seems like the "true" prophecies we have experienced - the ones that are fairly clear (Aeron Greyjoy's over-interpretation of the sound of waves doesn't qualify) - contain accurate descriptions of the future. Daenerys gets some (the vaguest ones, too), as do the greenseers Bran and Jojen and the followers of R'hllor, Moqorro, Thoros, and Melisandre. Of the latter, Melisandre seems to be seeing things for the longest duration of time, having sought out Stannis before the Red Comet arrived, while Moqorro and Thoros started their visions only when the comet appeared and the dragons were born. In the case of Bloodraven, he uses greenseeing to perfection and knows about the threat of the Others. Bran seems to play some role in the grand scheme of things and needs to help him, so he uses glimpses of his knowledge to lure Bran into the North (by way of Jojen).
Daenerys, however, gets prophecies from various sources. Nonetheless, they seem to come true, and they, too, seem to come in the disguise of warnings most of the time. Melisandre and her ilk also use the visions of the flames to avoid lurking dangers, as we learn from her own chapter in Dance with Dragons, so it seems fair to conclude that, in most cases, prophecies serve to warn their recipients. They also seem to be effective when used in one other, more profane way: as information, as we see with the Brotherhood without Banners utilizing Thoros as well as the Ghost of High Heart as a kind of medieval CNN or GPS device.
These deliberations bring us to question number two. If prophecies serve as warnings, then is there free will? Despite knowing the future, events still transpire as predicted in every single case, even if the various actors were able to read the prophecies correctly. Distilled down to their bare essence like this, it seems almost hilarious how frequently the predictions are misjudged due to missing information - which then causes the recipients to inadvertently fulfill them. Indeed, the self-fulfilling prophecy surely is a topic not unknown to George R.R. Martin. In fact, we have no situation (yet) in the books where a character gets a prophecy and immediately deduces its meaning correctly. Even more to the point, there is never a situation like this even for the reader, with his supreme advantage of having access to the entire story.
Unsatisfying as it may be, we simply can't say whether there is free will or not. Until now, all that has happened could have been a pure product of chance. The players are acting with incomplete information, and they can never be sure of their interpretations; since they can't do anything else, they have to make do with their limited knowledge and experience, which leads to interpretative errors like the ones Melisandre produces with alarming regularity. It's only mumbo-jumbo like the business with the leeches that helps her to retain her position as Stannis's most trusted advisor.
Then there's the smallfolk. Interestingly enough, prophecies seem to be more a thing of the learned people, despite their unwillingness to discuss them publicly. We know of no prophecies the smallfolk believe in, not even some savior or messiah who will come and make everything right for them at some point in the future, whether that happens to be the Promised Prince or Azor Ahai (two figures which would seem to be especially popular) or not. It is interesting, however, just how much the life of the Westerosi people is influenced by the prophecies; Cersei's actions prove to be consequential for a great number of individuals, but only she knows the rationale behind them. Stannis acts on the "knowledge" of his being the chosen one of the one true god, but he doesn't exactly adapt his marketing strategy to it. And Daenerys has yet to have her beliefs falsified, but she's already conquered two cities, smashed the army of a third, and is in the midst of fighting a rather far-reaching war.
Prophecy is what drives many of the main events of A Song of Ice and Fire, but it's not the divine predictions themselves, as if some celestial entity were actively manipulating events (as seen, for example, in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica); rather, it's human nature, prone to error and prejudice and ego. This is the essence of what makes prophecies such a compelling narrative theme in the saga: they are not forced unto the reader as they are in many other fantasy stories (such as Diablo) - they are instead more a means for the author to communicate with his audience. Prophecies seem to break the fourth wall in a way, as no character (as of yet) has the slightest chance of unraveling the pieces. Only the reader comes close to having the information required.
In the end, however, this could be just another illusion by Martin, who already made his audience believe that Eddard Stark was the central character of his story. We like to believe that we have deciphered a certain prophecy and now know what it means, but if the events of A Dance with Dragons - with its highly malleable solutions to such concrete-sounding predictions - are any indication, prophecies are not only a sword without a hilt for the characters, they also are for the readers, as well. For good or for ill, we are bound to interpret and misinterpret them as the characters do themselves and, thus, experience the struggle for knowledge firsthand.
It is known.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider buying Tower of the Hand: A Flight of Sorrows, a new ebook that includes this essay as well as seven other original essays about A Song of Ice and Fire from Tower of the Hand writers and frequent collaborators. A Flight of Sorrows goes on sale October 13, exclusively at Amazon, for $5.99.

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