Tuesday 16 June 2015

The answer to the riddle - or how blood and power works in Game of Thrones.

And another thing...! The season finale of Game of Thrones clearly left its mark on guest blogger Ricardo Victoria - who returns to discuss the matter of power in the series. 

The season finale of Game of Thrones (and the article I wrote and I hope you didn't hate) got me thinking. With all the hints towards the power of the royal blood - both in the finale and in the season in general, made me ponder how power works in Game of Thrones and how it has affected what most consider the three main protagonists of the show: Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow at the outset of Season 5 and A Dance With Dragons.

Before I continue, let me say that the post is dark and full of spoilers.

With that out of the way, I open with this video:

In this scene, Varys makes the point that power resides where people believe it does. And that is quite an important line in terms of implications for the the story. Because in a world where ancient myths are coming back to turn everybody into human popscicles, dragons flying around and a subtle magic system that works around believing in a particular deity, belief is more than just a human fobile.

While it is known that GRR Martin likes to subvert typical fantasy tropes, it is also known he is studious of history and mythology. And one of the most common monomyths in human history is the belief of the power of blood. Be it the sangreal of yore of the medieval legendarium asking for ties with Jesus Christ or the claim made by many royal houses all over Europe and Asia that they were meant to rule by divine decree, blood ties always played an important role. Another example is in the Pre-Columbian times where blood sacrifices were common among certain cultures (but not as maligned as revisionist history made us think). Well, even in our modern fan worshipping culture of vampires, blood makes might (readers of Anne Rice will remember the link between blood and the vampire powers made in Queen of the Damned).

Westeros presents an interesting take on this monomyth. Here the gods are fickle and often absentee landlords (unless you follow the Many-Faced God, but only because Death is more present in this story than in other one else). But unlike our reality, people know of their existence because from time to time they make their presence be felt, be it by the resurrection powers of the Lord of Light, the disguising tricks of the Faceless men and the weirwoods of the Children of the Forest (I would like to add the Drowned God and the weird stones at the Ironborn islands, the necromancers of Asshai by the Shadow or the Lion of the Night of Yi Ti, but those are too obscure fro the regular fan of GoT unless s/he has devoured the World of Ice & Fire that Martin recently published). If any, the Faith of the Seven is the most subdued religion of all with barely a hint of miracles with the dreamcatcher-esque object that Catelyn was making for her sons (interesting to note that the Faith of the Seven is an expy of the Catholic Church, where miracles are important but also analysed before being declared as such). The only gods that we know really nothing of but are germane to the story are those of Old Valyria (whose only action seem to be the Doom). The only hint we have of them are three of their names, which were the names of the three original dragons of the Targaryen during Aegon's conquest.

However in Westeros, well in the whole world, there is no mention of a messiah begotten by the gods to deal with the wicked. Yes there are the legends of the Last Hero and Azor Ahai (which I believe were two different people). There is the prophecy of the Prince that was Promised and of course the foundational myths of each of the great houses (particularly the Starks with Bran the builder and their warg powers and the original rulers of the Reach, the Gardeners who claimed to be descendants of the equivalent to a fertility god not unlike Dyonisius). As you can see, there is no single hero or messiah created by the gods, just mythical people with certain abilities.

Thus where power comes from? How is that royal blood is so powerful to create shadow babies and infuse leeches with death powers? Why is that Melissandre has such an obsession with blood? (See note 1, below)

For this I submit the following hypothesis, derived from the video above: since power resides where people believes it does, blood power resides on those whose personal history, beliefs, lineage or actions generate enough faith (or fear) on the common folk and allies alike to be empowered. Basically this is the same hypothesis proposed by Sir Terry Pratchett in Small Gods. Deities acquire their powers if they have enough worshippers and if they don't, they disappear (Neil Gaiman uses the same idea in American Gods). And to explain my idea I will use the following examples with the three main characters of the story and the house that started this mess, the Baratheons.

The Baratheons:

Never trust a woman in red. Specially if she only wants you for your blood.

I start with them since it was Melisandre, working for Stannis, who introduced the concept of power in the blood to the audience. The Baratheons are related by lineage and by recent blood ties to the former ruling house of Westeros: The Targaryens. After all it was Orys Baratheon, the best friend of Aegon the conqueror (and rumored half brother) who founded his house on the ruins of House Durrandon (original lords of the Storm Lands) by marrying the daugther of the last Storm King. And the grandmother of the Baratheons we meet in the story (Robert, Stannis and Renly) was of Targaryen stock, but they are not rulers until they take the throne by force. So in that regard, the House is full of power. We are reminded of such with the use of Gendry's blood for the leech ritual (in the books it was Edric Storm, same result), albeit the result can not be exactly attached to the ritual, yes, rival kings died, but by more mundane methods such as poison or assassination. Only with Renly's death we see the true power of a blood ritual, one that drains Stannis of much of his power and forces him to later commit acts that will cost him all. That is our first indication that power resides in the blood. But was it because they had magical power or because they were believed to be powerful just by virtue of position? While it is not clear, Melisandre seems to think that Mance Ryder's blood has power too when she attempts to sacrifice him or his son. Remember that Mance was originally a crow, a member of the Night's Watch that became King beyond the wall by sheer force of personality, not by birthright or lineage.

Thus lies the first hint that the power contained in blood by certain persons or families is granted by the belief that comes with a position of power to lead men. Basically if the people accept you as their leader in the form of a kingship, your blood starts to absorb that power and mixes with it. The more people believe in your right to rule and has faith on you, the more power (be it spiritual or mental) absorbs. Here we can see a reference to the Fisher King myth of the medieval era, where the ruler had in his blood the power to create an everlasting paradise. Here instead of a divine boon, is a power granted by your followers. Which takes me to the next example, probably the most important one: Daenerys.

Daenerys Targaryen, Stomborn, Khalessi, Queen, Mother of Dragons:

If this doesn't screams 'cult of personality' I don't know what will does. That or she was in a concert.

Going into a Starbucks for her must be such a nightmare, but lame jokes aside, Daenerys present an interesting take on my hypothesis and the one that made me think on this essay in first place. But before talking about here, it is important to make a clarification.

Originally the Targaryens weren't rulers. In fact they were a minor family of the Valryian Freehold, that was ruled by some kind of oligarchy were the landed gentry had a vote and carried weight based in their lands, slaves and more important, dragonriders, as they proved the strong links of that house with the dragons that formed the core of the Valyrrian culture. The Targaryen would be an equivalent of a family not unlike the Kennedy or the Rockefeller under that system). They were the only powerful family to escape the Doom and came to power by taking it. They believed that power was on those fit to take it by fire and blood and their storied ruling proves that point. So how come that their blood is so full of power? Because they managed to acquire it by any means until they impose their personalities. And that is something that Dany has proven again and again to be quite adept to do.

When season 5/A Dance With Dragons ends, she is somewhere lost in the Grasslands. And as such her blood power is infectual... or is it? Just look at the scene with these three men.

They look like the cover for a soulful powerballad record. 
Here we have three guys that with an absentee queen, they are planning how to keep her in the throne she earned (and is still learning to use). If it were Westeros (the continent, not the setting), a lot of them would be pouncing at the empty spot. However here in Mereen, things are run differently. Dany has built around herself a nifty cult of personality than can be divided in three subsections:

Those who want her: in other words, the guys that are interested in her romantically, which are Ser Jorah of the Friendzone and Daario. Both of them came to her in circumstances that boded ill for the Queen (one as a traitor, the other as captain of a rival army). Both saw something in her that won their alliegances and favours, making both fall in love with her (with only Daario progressing beyond that) and working in her favour, even if they know that they are not a fit consort for a Queen, as Tyrion bluntly pointed. They don't believe in her cause, they believe in her personally. Their faith is in her as a person, not unlike apostles.

Those who worship her: basically all the Unsullied she freed, Missandei her confidant and all the former slaves that see her as Mhysa, the 'Mother'. For them, Dany, the one that commands three dragons, is the closest thing to an archetypical messiah. They don't care about her personal goals or history. They believe in her because she fought for them and gave them the most precious thing she could have gave them: freedom. Their faith in her is in her position, like followers of a religion.

Those who choose her: the smallest but possibly the most dangerous group. These guys believe in Dany not because she has awesome skills as leader (she has, but is not perfect), not because she has three dragons (although it helps to be in the side with the equivalent of a nuke in this world) and certainly not because of her lineage, albeit that is part of the reason. Ser Barristan Selmy went to her because he wanted to serve a worthy ruler,s a Targaryen loyalist and was a staunch friend of Rhaegar, Dany's elder brother. Varys is an unknown quantity, but seems to be a Targaryen loyalist and thinks that a strong, decent ruler that knows how hard is to earn the faith of your followers is the kind of ruler Westeros needs. I wouldn't put it past him that he knows about the White Walkers and the prophecy and is working towards that, since is the other character of the story that has had a close experiencie with magic, during the rite were he lost his manhood and thus is possible to argue that he knows more than he lets know about certain prohecies and powers. You don't last as Master of Whispers by ignoring those kind of things..

Dany all her life has been surrounded by destiny, by magic, by prophecy, to the point that she has bought her own publicity (which has given her more headaches than needed). If someone is prone to absorb power from these sources by sheer willpower, it is her. Hers is the case of a powerful ruler that has the power because she not only believes she has it, but has convinced others that she has it and acts in accordance. People either fear, love or follow her because they think of her as this magical ruler, not unlike King Arthur that will save the realm  (see note 2). And everybody buys it except one person.


Tyrion looks like he is coveting power. Vote for him.

Tyrion, former hand of the King and plumber supreme, technically could fit with the third subsection of Dany's followers, albeit not enterely. He has no loyalty to her House, has barely known her for a few days and has been the only one capable of seeing under her facade as a strong leader and see the scared girl lying behind, trying to make her way in an uncaring world the best she could and following a developing code of honor. And yet he decided to cast his lot in Mereen while she returns, trying to keep the peace of a city almost as bad as King's Landing, while he could easily go somewhere else.

Being a fugitive for kinslaying is a powerful motivator, but not the major one for Tyrion. In some way, he represents the perfect servant, the ideal ruler in the ancient Roman terms where he was but the first of the people and worked for the people. Of all the rulers in Westeros, he is the one that should be in power, that should have the faith of all to do so because he has vision, mercy and intelligence to be an effective ruler. Sadly for him, his role is that of the classical antihero (like Ulysses), the one that gets by with smarts rather than feats of power. And in this world, being intelligent is seen by people as a sign that you are evil. Add his personal defects and the issue of his size and you can see how he will never get into the throne (he could sue for discrimination actually). So for him - an addict to the power, who has actually held power in his hands but had no real followers (and only a couple of friends) and as such becomes powerless unless backed up by someone that has the faith of others - Dany is a means to use that power for what he believes is the best way to rule a realm. Following this hypothesis, if Tyrion by some means manages to become king and does an excellent job, he would be en route to creating one of the most powerful (in terms of blood power as well as political power) families ever. No wonder he is often hinted at as the third head of the dragon.

Jon Snow and the Starks:

He knows nothing of the power of his blood. Maybe that's what Ygritte was talking about.

Dany has proven to be a ruler adept at earning power through a mix of resourcefulness, lineage, luck, personality and destiny. But she is not the only one that was on that path (until the finale - see note 3). Jon Snow was her reflection.

Like her, he is cast away (although in his case was by something resembling choice). Like her, he is of a powerful lineage. The Starks were heroes in the ages of yore, wargs of powerful capacity (we saw that with Bran) and the closest thing to the Fisher King in the imaginarium of the Northerners. And we are to believe the R+L=J theory (see note 4), he is powerful through two noble lines. Even Mellisandre seems to think so when she offered herself to him (in the books she is starting to think he is Azor Ahai, her messiah) or when she ditched Stannis to return to Castle Black exactly the day Jon got into his very own Ides of March on the show. Jon managed to be charismatic enough to get a valyrian sword, deal with the wildlings, win an election and inspire a rescue and a last stand. He could have gotten more if he was aware enough to realise that his inborn power was rubbing off the wrong way on very dangerous people (he really needed a Tyrion-style advisor here). Jon is not only the closest to the typical hero (see note 5), but the closest to the Good King in the mold of Arthur or Aragorn. He and Dany are sides of the same coin.

It is my personal theory that he will play such an important role at the end that Shireen's unwilling sacrifice did work, but not for Stannis, but to ensure that Jon is going to make it alive. I don't think it is coincidence that Melisandre changed her mind just because sellswords deserted Stannis' army, After all, she was a zealot that stayed with him even after Blackwater. I think she realised that Azor Ahai is Jon and that her presence was needed at the Wall (this being a setting with magic is not impossible). Neither I think is a coincidence that the last shot made such an emphasis in the blood of a bastard if he weren't to have a special destiny.

In conclusion:

In regards to the original riddle, yes power resides where people believe it does. In a world with blood magic, that place is in the vital liquid of the rulers that have gathered enough faith around themselves to infuse it with mystical propierties. Power resides with those who decide to create it for them, like Aegon, like Dany. It can be passed through bloodline, like with the Baratheons and the Starks. It can be lost when people lose faith in you as ruler, like what happened to Stannis (and Jon to a certain degree). And can be only gained by faith of your followers in you, not just by holding power due to a political position, otherwise Tyrion would be the most powerful being on Westeros (he still has time). In that regard, power resides in the faith of people that creates their own 'gods' and by those that decide to take on the challenge to ascend to such 'godhood'. The ultimate Nietzschean dream.

Game of Thrones: the boardgame is also full of blood power. Mainly that dripping from the nose of your former friend that has just betrayed you for a slice of pizza. 


1. It is necessary to remember that she is originally from Asshai by the Shadow, the utmost frontier east of Essos, the so called city of necromancers.
2. Imagine what Melissandre could do with her blood. The Red Witch would go mad with power as it would be the equivalent of enriched uranium. Interestingly enough, the third red priest that appears in the books, Moqorro, and the girl that appears in the show in Volantis preaching to the masses seem to believe that Dany, not Stannis is Azor Ahai. Is Melisandre wrong when she sees now Jon Snow? Or the PtwP and AA are related propechies being read wrong.
3. Kit Harrington and the showrunners can say whatever they want, I don't believe them. We know that Jon will be back. As much as Martin likes to subvert tropes, he is aware enough to not screw with his own story by killing a character that will be a lynchpin in his endgame. My bet is that like with Bran, they will take Jon of the table for a season and he will be back by season 7, alive (or similar) and back for vengeance.
4. Basically it says that Jon is no bastard son of Ned and a wench/Ashara Dane, but the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lianna Stark, who was not kidnapped but voluntarily decided to give the Targaryen prince a third son to fulfill the prophecy of the Prince that was Promised and the three headed dragon.
5.  In fact, his character is following to a T the Hero's Journey. Let's see if Martin respects it or subverts it.

You can follow Ricardo Victoria on Twitter here - as he plunges through fandom following Tyrion, Green Arrow and Turtles.

Previously on the blog, The Storytelling of Game of Thrones


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