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Prophecy in A Song of Ice and Fire

By Taylor Marvin

Note: This post is entirely about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and has nothing to do with IR or economics or any of the other ‘real’ stuff I generally write about. That said, I think that enough people are fans of the series for readers to get something out of it. Spoilers up to A Feast for Crows; spoilers for A Dance with Dragons are marked.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about prophecy in A Song of Ice and Fire. Specifically, Sean Collins has a great overview of the series’ complicated presentation of prophecy and the supernatural in general:

“But the difference between our world and Martin’s, of course, is that in Martin’s world, magic actually works. Some form of the supernatural is repeatedly intervening on behalf of the worshipers of R’hllor. An army of snow demons is raising a larger army of zombies. And speaking most directly to the question of prophecy, multiple characters have actually seen the future. Now, they’re not always able to ascertain exactly what they’ve seen, and we’ve now gotten first-hand evidence that Melisandre fudges her interpretation of her visions to fit her preexisting ideas. But even so, they have, in fact, seen the future — it’s not just a random assemblage of vague bullshit they spit out, knowing that it’s sufficiently ambiguous that eventually something will fit the bill. I don’t see any reason why prophecy should work any differently.”

That’s the problem with prophecy in ASoIaF: prophecies can be broken, and they stem from unreliable sources. We know of at least one that definitively did not come true: the prophecy that Dany and Khal Drogo’s stillborn son would “mount the world”. But this shouldn’t be surprising — Rhaego’s conquests were foretold by a prisoner that had every reason to tell her Dothraki captors what they wanted to hear.

So not only can prophecy’s fail to come true, the quality of their prophets is variable. We haven’t ever seen any evidence that the religious system of the Dothraki has any practical supernatural impact the real world, unlike that of the Red God which we’ve repeatedly seen sometimes is actually magic. So for that reason, we have good reason to suspect that prophecies made by Melisandre and other followers of R’hllor are more reliable than those of the Dothraki, whose religious doesn’t seem to be any more supernaturally powerful than, say, the Seven — that is, not at all.

[Mild A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

This makes the prophecy I’m most interested in — Dany’s — that much more puzzling. Even after five books we still don’t have any more reliable information on the Warlocks of Qarth who originally cast the prophecy that’s come to define Dany. Those words — “three treasons you will know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love” — are increasingly her leitmotif, her “winter is coming” or “a Lannister always pays his debts.” The Dany of A Game of Thrones was a wholly different person, and her original motif, the inherently dynamic and forward looking “if I look back I am lost” is fundamentally alien to the paranoid, inward-looking and increasingly static Dany of A Dance With Dragons. Prophecies in ASoIaF are unreliable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, because they shape characters in a very real way.

So, what do we know about this prophecy, arguably the most important in the series? Though it was made in the Qartheen Warlock’s House of the Undying, we don’t know if the Warlocks were actually responsible for it: it’s repeatedly hinted that the Warlocks’ contemporary supernatural power is far diminished from its former potency. While we do see some evidence of continued supernatural forces in Qarth — most notably, phantom tortoises — this isn’t clear evidence that we should trust the prophecy. Unlike Melisandre’s works (though again, the reliability of our narration is doubtful) it’s possible that the magical constructions of the Qartheen are relics of the past, unable to inform us about the ‘contemporary’ world.

However, let’s assume that the prophecy is trustworthy. What’s most interesting about it is that it’s so ambiguous — just like Melisandre’s visions of the future, it’s easy to twist a prediction as ambiguous as “three treasons” to fit almost any eventuality. What’s most interesting is that the prophecy never actually specifies whether Dany is the victim or the perpetrator of these betrayals. This is wondrously clever because it mirror’s Dany’s fatal character flaw: just as she is repeatedly unwilling to consider the very real possibility that the Targaryens and the madness inherent in their blood could have been bad for Westeros, the idea that she is personally capable of destruction rather than victimhood is alien to her. Dany destroys the institution if slavery in southern Esseros without considering that even patently unjust institutions can have value; that not all social destruction is creative. Though she’s repeatedly confronted with the evidence that her conquests were a catastrophe for the peoples of Slaver’s Bay, Dany refuses to recognize the realities that would destroy her internal worldview, a self-narrative which places her own morality, righteousness, and absolute right to the throne at its center. In her short life Dany’s been repeatedly stripped of everything she loves, except for this — in a world that doesn’t allow her to keep her relationships, this destiny is the only thing she can keep safe. Allowing anything to challenge her own ideal of her righteousness would demolish the only thing she’s been allowed to carry with her.

Dany is acutely aware of the prophecy, and attempt to explain it in terms of her own victimhood. Though Dany remains confused about how to fit the actual betrayals she has suffered into the already ambiguous framework of the prophecy, she most commonly imagines Mirrim Maz Duur as the “once for blood” and Ser Jorah’s as the “once for love.” However, this explanation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Mirrim Maz Duur made little effort to conceal her obvious grievances against the Dothraki, and calling her actions ‘treason’ is difficult to justify. Ser Jorah’s betrayal is even more difficult. The exile knight didn’t betray Daenerys for gold, but instead in the hope of returning to his homeland. Claiming that Ser Jorah betrayed Daenerys for love makes less sense, though could possibly work if we understand ‘love’ to encompass Ser Jorah’s longing for Westeros. Dany is on some level aware of these logical problems, but she refuses to draw the obvious conclusion — she, not the world around her, is the betrayer.

Intriguingly, Dany’s own actions convincingly fit into the prophecy’s framework of treason. Let’s start with the “once for gold.” It’s hard to say Dany’s acceptance of her brother’s killing fall outside the definition of treason. Though it’s arguable that Dany was powerless to prevent Visery’s death, she likely could have made it less gruesome: we know that Dothraki society allows for strangulation within Vaes Dothrak, a death certainly more merciful than a crown of molten gold. However, Dany didn’t attempt to influence Khal Drogo away from executing Visery in the most graphic (and poetic) way possible. On some level this is attributable to Daenerys’ justifiable hatred towards her abusive older brother. But it’s also because she didn’t want to risk he position of increasing influence in Dothraki society by showing any mercy to her errant brother, mercy the Dothraki would view with disdain. Dany had already began thinking about leading Khal Drogo’s forces across the narrow sea and into Westeros. While it’s possible that she could have made Viserys’ necessary death easier, Daenerys wasn’t prepared to risk her army. Fittingly, this indifference can be seen as the “once for gold.”

[Mild A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

The next treason — “once for love’ — also fits into this framework. For much of A Dance With Dragons Daenerys keeps her dragons locked up in Meereen. She has a good reason for doing so — the dragons are getting big enough that they begin hunting humans. Her increasingly uncontrollable dragons place her in an impossible position: either she locks up the dragons, or they will continue killing children. Her decision is especially interesting because Dany repeatedly and explicitly refers to both her dragons and the people who flock to her as “my children”. Either way she’s forced to betray her own children. Daenerys’ love for her followers and the underclass of Meereen forces her to betray her dragons, the source of all her power. This is the treason for love.

[Major A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

The last treason — the “once for blood” — almost certainly hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that Visery’s death fits this description, but this is a stretch; Dany arguably allowed Viserys to die horribly out of a desire for ‘blood’ — war in Westeros — but this doesn’t seem likely. It’s a safer bet that one aspect of the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled yet. After all, we still have 2,000 pages of ASoIaF, and it doesn’t make much sense from a narrative perspective for Dany to commit all of the prophecy’s predicted treason without realizing it. What I think is more likely is a climactic realization by Dany that she isn’t perfect, and that in becoming an instrument of destruction she’s hurt real people. This would fit nicely into the books’ themes. I’ve always though one of ASoIaF’s most interesting themes is the illegitimacy of power through  anything but violence. Dany always talks about her ‘right’ to the throne. However, in a world governed by violence rights are transient. Daenerys has no more right to the Iron Throne than Robert, Cersei, or any of the other pretenders — just because her ancestors conquered Westeros 300 years before the Baratheons doesn’t make the Targaryens any more legitimate than the Andals, First Men, or anyone else. Power flows from the barrel of a gun. Only when Dany conquers Westeros does she have the ‘right’ to rule anything.

A Dance With Dragons sets the stage for this realization. By the book’s close Aegon Targaryn is in direct competition with Dany for the throne. It’s possible that he’s a pretender engineered by Varys and Illyrio as a backup in case their primary instrument of a Targaryen restoration — the unreliable Viserys — didn’t work out. However, Aegon’s legitimacy doesn’t really matter. If he wins the throne it’s his, not Dany’s. It’s possible that this conflict will be resolved through a Daenerys/Aegon (aunt and nephew…) marriage, but again this seems unlikely: Dany’s awful marital experiences, paranoia and deep belief that the Iron Throne is her’s and her’s alone make it unlikely that she will consent to share power with a nephew she’s never known existed. This sets up for a potentially fatal conflict between Daenerys and Aegon, one that could end with his death. This would be one of the most climactic “treasons for blood” imaginable, and one suited for the realization that Dany is as much of a monster as her enemies. For a series that dwells on themes of destructive self-deception, this would be a fitting development for a character we’ve been encouraged to like. George R.R. Martin delights in destroying fantasy tropes. Jon’s failures as Lord Commander have shown that command is no guarantee of righteousness or even legitimacy. It would be poetically just for Daenerys — the fire to Jon’s ice — to experience same realization, and suffer for it.

What do you think?

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anaik #

    Valar dohaeris. It is known.
    Melisandre’s readings are just as accurate as a Rick Santorum’s political assessment of Iran.

    February 9, 2012
  2. Patrick Johnson #

    Excellent article, that interpretation of Daenerys prophecies is not one I’d heard before. I also agree that what she has interpreted as the outcome of her prophecies is not correct. While your character analysis of Daenerys is spot on in terms of her inability to see the destructiveness of her own “morally good” actions, I do think that your assessment of her motives behind the death of her brother was overly harsh; at that point Daenerys thoughts were centered on the newly realized insanity of her brother, and the protection of her future son, rather than on the long term conquest of Westeros. Also, in ADWD plays a key role in Daenerys discovering her own destructiveness, at least the part of her externally represented by her dragons.

    If Daenerys poor marriage decisions are any indication of future events, there will be no reconcile for her and her nephew, and I would venture a guess that your prediction of betrayal for blood concerning Aegon will come to pass.

    I am particularly keen to see what the role of supernatural forces in the future books will be. Clearly R’holler’s followers have demonstrated the existence of magic in the world, but the “Old Gods” of the north clearly have a (much diminished) role in the affairs of men. I would suspect that the “new gods” of the south have some yet unseen power as well. At some point Arya’s tutelage in the temple of the hundred faced god may artfully deal with these competing supernatural forces.

    February 21, 2012
  3. admin #

    @Patrick,
    I’m also really curious to see where GRRM goes with the supernatural. It’s kind of a dilemma for me – I generally think the books have gotten too long and complex from AFfC on, but I eat up all of the extraneous detail about magic, the warlocks of Qaarth, and Assai.

    I understand your criticism that I’m a bit harsh on Dany. I tend to be less of a fan of her’s than most other readers, which is a bit odd because I’ve loved all the Essos chapters.

    -Taylor Marvin

    February 26, 2012
  4. Mohak Gandhi #

    Just to bring to your notice that the prophecy says, “Three treason you shall know.”
    Why do all theories revolve around Daenerys being either the prey or the predator?
    I feel each of these treason are meant to teach her the importance of love, gold and blood in influencing the minds of people and their actions thereafter.

    To know a treason, one need not be at the giving or receiving end of it. One can know it even from a distance as an ideal spectator and still learn from it.

    Once For Love:
    Assuming the R+L=J theory is true, at some point Daenerys will realize that fact and will see that Rhaegar betrayed his wife Ellia and their children fro his love for Lyanna Stark.

    I haven’t exactly figured out what the other 2 could be, so I’ll try to post them as and when I figure those out.
    And yes, I’d love your views on this.

    July 1, 2015
    • That’s a good point! I haven’t reread the books recently enough to comment on them anymore (I really hope to so), but this is an interpretation I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, particularly the Ellia angle.

      Thanks for the comment.

      July 3, 2015

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