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Oracles of Ice and Fire:
Functions of Prophecy in Game of Thrones and the Bible
David G. Garber
"Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head."
"Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."
Prophecy is cryptic and confusing. It frustrates as much as it informs, condemns as much as it gives hope, and aggravates as much as it intrigues. In the Hebrew Bible, prophecy is a central method for communication with the divine. Although prophecy in the Hebrew Bible had specific meanings for specific historical contexts, it has seduced generations of interpreters to consider that the prophecy is about themselves, so much so that even centuries after their original utterances, generations of us have reread the signs, often incorrectly.
The usefulness and cantankerous mystery of prophecy is not lost on George R. R. Martin in his hit-novel series A Song of Ice and Fire and its companion television program Game of Thrones. The prophecies in Martin's work take as many forms as does prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, from one-line utterances and omens to forbidden ritual practices of divination and impromptu visionary experiences. Though I will not force false analogies to the point of suggesting the Bible's influence on Martin's work, reading prophecies in the Bible and Game of Thrones intertextually might inform our understanding of prophecy as a cultural phenomenon and its grip on our imagination.3
Omens and One-line Oracles
The opening episode of Game of Thrones is titled "Winter Is Coming," a phrase uttered by countless characters, first by Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark in reference to his son, Bran, who "won't be a boy forever, and winter is coming." The phrase is a motto of House Stark, the northernmost lordship of the kingdom of Westeros, and essentially means "be prepared." As various characters utter it, however, the audience knows that it is much more than just a motto. It foreshadows not only the colder weather, but also the White Walkers, undead creatures who live in the wintery arctic region above the Wall and who threaten to become the fierce adversaries of the kingdoms south of the wall. Both the television series and books open with an encounter with these White Walkers who slay a group of Free Folk, ungoverned humans who live in remote areas north of the Wall and who are often pejoratively called "wildlings."
The opening episode also provides another omen, and players throughout the series constantly interpret such portents. As Ned and his sons are travelling, they encounter the corpses of a stag and a direwolf, both of which seemed to die in battle against one another. Each animal is a sigil for two great noble houses in the series. The stag is the sigil of House Baratheon and the direwolf is the sigil for House Stark. The deaths of both animals foreshadow the deaths of the heads of these houses, but there is life also. Alongside the dire wolf are six pups, representing the six children of Ned Stark, five who are "trueborn" heirs with the sixth, the runt of the litter, going to the bastard son of Eddard Stark, Jon Snow (and just in case we missed the correlation, this runt is pure white as snow). The fates of these wolves are intertwined with the fates of each of the children. In fact, it is Jon who first interprets this omen: "Lord Stark? There are five pups [he had not yet seen the sixth]. One for each of the Stark children. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. They were meant to have them." One may wonder if Jon here is interpreting the omen for its own sake or simply being kind to his younger brother, who is taken with the pups. Whatever the case, this begins a long line of characters who interpret cosmic signs and natural occurrences as portents of the future. These signs function to drive the narrative forward, and indeed, the fate of each wolf is tied to each of the Stark children.
In the second season opener, "The North Remembers," another cosmic sign appears, a red comet that all of the characters across many lands can see. One of the Stark children, Bran, who has been having visions of his own, has a conversation with Osha, one of the Free Folk who accompanies Bran on part of his journeys:
Osha: You've been having those dreams again.
Bran: I don't dream.
Osha: Everyone dreams.
Bran: I don't. Heard some of the men talking about the comet. They say it's an omen. They say it means Robb [Stark] will win a great victory in the South.
Osha: Did they? I heard some other fools say it's Lannister Red. Means the Lannisters will rule all Seven Kingdoms before long. Heard a stableboy say it's the color of blood to mark the death of your father. The stars don't fall for men. The red comet means one thing, boy…dragons.
Bran: The dragons are all dead. They've been dead for centuries.4
The interpretation of this omen is more clear in the television series than in the books as the editors use it to cut between this scene with Bran to a scene with Daenerys, the last heir of House Targaryen who, in the previous season's finale, walked into her dead husband's funeral pyre with three stone dragon eggs and emerged unscathed, baring three live dragons.
Carice van Houten (as Melisandre). Credit: HBO/Photofest.
Biblical prophecy and apocalyptic genres also suggest interpreting such natural and cosmic phenomena as portents, usually of a coming calamity. Animal/beast sigils are notably present in Daniel 7, where the prophet has a vision of monsters coming from the sea: a griffin, a bear, a leopard, and a serpent, each more terrifying than the one before. Terrified by the vision (v. 15), Daniel approaches one of God's attendants demanding some explanation. The attendant responds: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever (vv. 17–18)." Likewise, cosmic phenomena map the future in books such as Joel.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes (Joel 2:30–31).
The Hebrew term for portents here is the same term that refers to the miraculous signs that God commands Moses to use to prove YHWH's power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exod 4:21). The New Testament draws upon the prophetic tradition of cosmic wonders to point to the end of days: "The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day" (Acts 2:20; See also Rev 6:12–14).
Both the Hebrew Bible and Game of Thrones recognize the danger of prophecy and prophetic interpretation run amok. The Hebrew Bible takes great pains to restrict such prophetic interpretation:
When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead…Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so (Deut 18:9–14).
Like Deuteronomy 18, the official religion of Westeros, the Faith of the Seven, forbids certain types of divination. This trope is most apparent in the opening scene of season 5, "The Wars to Come," a flashback to Cersei Lannister traveling with a friend to visit Maggy the Frog, a diviner who lives deep in the forest. Clearly her friend knows the two should not be in the forests and voices the forbidden nature of Cersei's quest. They reach the woman's hut, and face immediate resistance:
Maggy: Get out. Get out!
Friend: Let's go.
Maggy: Listen to your friend.
Cersei: They said that you were terrifying with cat's teeth and three eyes. You're not terrifying. You're boring.
Maggy: You don't know what I am.
Cersei: I know you're a witch and you can see the future. Tell me mine.
Maggy warns against the prophecy: "Everyone wants to know their future until they know their future." After Cersei insists and threatens the diviner, Maggy asks for a taste of Cersei's blood, ritually establishing the taboo nature of this inquiry. Maggy's prophecy, though, has limits; she will only answer three questions:
Maggy: Three questions you get. You won't like the answers.
Cersei: I've been promised to the prince. When will we marry?
Maggy: You will never wed the prince. You will wed the king.
Cersei: But I will be queen?
Maggy: Oh, yes. You'll be queen. For a time. Then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.
Cersei: Will the king and I have children?
Maggy: No. The king will have twenty children and you will have three.
Cersei: That doesn't make sense.
Maggy: Gold will be their crowns. Gold their shrouds.
While the form of the prophecy seems quite cryptic, because it is a flashback, the viewer already has seen portions of its fulfillment. Cersei was Queen of Westeros and is currently the Queen Mother in the series. Her late husband, Robert Baratheon, has many illegitimate children, and she has three by an incestuous relationship with her brother. She has already lost one son, and her second son's queen threatens to usurp her authority.
Of all the prophecies in the series, this one most closely resembles a biblical narrative—King Saul's visit to the medium at Endor (1 Sam 28). Like the encounter with Maggy, the medium has been forbidden, not only by Deuteronomic law (Deut 18:11), but also by King Saul himself (1 Sam 28:3). Both enquirers, Saul and Cersei, exercise authority over the medium. Both mediums are successful, Maggy by giving a straightforward fortune and the medium at Endor by raising the prophet Samuel from Sheol to decree Saul's fate. Both oracles portray a very negative future for Saul and Cersei. While these similarities are fairly clear, the portrayal of the medium is quite distinct. In Game of Thrones, the producers have accentuated the mystery and danger of the medium almost to the point of caricature. In 1 Samuel 28, however, the woman at Endor, while submissive to the king's authority, acts quite compassionately, offering Saul and his men food and rest after he hears the dire word from his former friend (1 Sam 28:22–25).
Like the woman at Endor, forbidden mediums in the Game of Thrones tend to be women. The most powerful and visible prophetic voice in the series is Melisandre, the Red Woman, a Jezebel-like figure who uses both her power as a medium and her seductiveness to sway another contender for the throne, Stannis Baratheon, away from the traditional Faith of the Seven to worship a foreign deity, the Lord of Light. Melisandre claims to read the flames, in which this god of fire shows her the future of Westeros. Melisandre's is a militant and aniconic faith, in which she burns symbols of the Faith of the Seven in effigy as an offering to the Lord of Light in the second season opener, "The North Remembers." Melisandre intones, "Lord of Light, come to us in our darkness. We offer you these false Gods. Take them and cast your light upon us…For the night is dark and full of terrors." During this ritual, Melisandre also interprets, and perhaps manipulates, the prophecy of Azor Ahai, which foretells the rebirth of an ancient hero in a time of crisis:
After the long summer, darkness will fall heavy on the world. The stars will bleed…The cold breath of winter will freeze the seas. ... And the dead shall rise in the North…In the ancient books, it's written that a warrior will draw a burning sword from the fire. And that sword shall be Lightbringer. Stannis Baratheon, warrior of light, your sword awaits you. Lord, cast your light upon us! For the night is dark and full of terrors.
Melisandre and Stannis have a relationship very similar to that of Jezebel and Ahab (see especially 1 Kings 21). Both narratives exhibit a fear of the influence of foreign women, and both women devise schemes to advance the power of their men, thereby increasing their own standing. Melisandre demonstrates this power in a confrontation with Maester Cressen, the priestly representative of the Faith of the Seven who confronts Melisandre's followers during the burning of the symbols of the Seven. Unlike the biblical prophet Elijah, however, Maester Cressen protests to no avail. In a council scene following, Maester Cressen feigns reconciliation while attempting to poison Melisandre with a goblet of wine. Instead, Cressen, who apparently thought he built a tolerance for the poison, dies from it while Melisandre demonstrates immunity by drinking it in full. After her introduction, Melisandre exhibits more and more power over Stannis and the events surrounding his part in the conflict over the monarchy, so much so that Melisandre convinces Stannis to sacrifice his own daughter by fire to the Lord of Light before a great battle to insure his victory (Season 5, "The Dance of Dragons").
While Melisandre clearly demonstrates power and influence, the she might be a red herring when it comes to interpreting the Azor Ahai prophecy. In the books, another wizened figure, Maester Aemon deconstructs her interpretation of the ancient prophecy:
Lady Melisandre has misread the signs. Stannis…Stannis has some of the dragon [Targaryen] blood in him, yes…I remembered that, so I allowed myself to hope…perhaps I wanted to…we all deceive ourselves, when we want to believe. Melisandre most of all, I think. The sword is wrong, she has to know that…light without heat…an empty glamor…the sword is wrong, and the false light can only lead us deeper into darkness, Sam. Daenerys is our hope.5
Of course with Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire being unfinished narratives, the audience still does not know the true meaning of the prophecy, and Maester Aemon may not have the final word. After all, before taking his vows to join the Night's Watch, Maester Aemon was a member of House Targaryen, which might influence his interpretation. Indeed the prophetic mystery of Azor Ahai has led to an online cottage industry of speculation and fan theories, much in the same way that apparently unfulfilled biblical prophecies have generated interpretation for centuries.
This brief essay has only scratched the surface of prophetic motifs and their interpretation in Game of Thrones and the Hebrew Bible. Martin's series also includes prescient visions like those of Bran Stark and his travelling companion Jojen Reed, Tyrion Lannister's uncanny ability to predict future events based on present actions, and countless other characters (like Morkoro, another devotee of the Lord of Light) who are present in the books, but not to date in the television series. Moreover, while there are certainly affinities between biblical prophecy and Martin's work, those prophecies function very differently in their respective settings. The prophecies in Game of Thrones are mostly about driving the narrative forward, or sometimes distracting the reader with multiple possibilities to keep the mystery alive. While we have some of this function in the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua—Kings), interpretations of such biblical prophecies within the canon itself do not leave as much room for the imagination. While the mystery may remain for other biblical prophetic works without clear or final interpretations, these prophecies do not attempt to merely entertain the reader, guiding her through an intriguing page-turner. Also, despite the fan fervor surrounding the Game of Thrones, the zeal has not yet reached the boiling point of becoming an official religion (though I would be quite fascinated to read a study on the ritual practices of serial television viewing). Finally, when it comes to the final prophecies and their fulfillment in Game of Thrones, we are all subject to the whims of the authors, whether they be the subversive pantheon of writers for the television series or the arbitrary and cruel "One True God," Martin himself. In either case, until they finish spinning their tale, we are all Jon Snow. We know nothing.
1Martin, George R. R., A Dance with Dragons. (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), pg. 534.
2All scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
3Though I am sure Martin is aware of biblical prophecy, I would rather treat the works as true intertexts and this analysis is more about the literary function of prophecy in each body of work. For the purposes of this essay, I will confine myself to direct references to the prophetic in the television series, Game of Thrones, resorting to the books only where it might fill in some background understanding.
4In the books, the correlation of the comet with the birth of dragons belongs to a different character, Old Nan, the elderly woman who used to tell stories to the Stark children (A Clash of Kings. [New York: Bantam Books, 2011], pg. 72).
5Martin, George R. R., A Feast for Crows. (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), pgs. 521–522, emphasis original.