Influences: With Morning Comes Mistfall

“…Man needs to know.”

“Maybe,” Sanders said. “But is that the only thing man needs? I don’t think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions, to make him brood and wonder.”
*   *   *

One of GRRM’s earliest works, With Morning Comes Mistfall was first published in May 1973. It gives us a lot of early insight into the themes and issues that attracted his interest the most.

He seems to be especially concerned with the value of mystery in Mistfall. In particular, he presents a single, thematic conundrum that the reader is left to ponder: Is a mystery sometimes more useful than the truth?

Additionally, the novella introduces a few motifs, symbols and other ideas that can be readily shown to have been transplanted into A Song of Ice and Fire.


The story takes place on a barely habitable planet (Wraithworld) with unusual weather conditions. Each morning in a wonderful phenomenon the mist comes down from the mountains escaping the daylight, revealing the beauty of the planet. This phenomenon is called Mistfall.

The planet is home to only few people mostly because it is believed that its mist-covered valleys are occupied by wraiths, claimed to have killed a number of humans. Wraiths are also the main things that attract visitors to the place. The only establishment on the planet is a hotel (Castle Cloud) mounted on top of one of the mountains. The castle is visited by Wraith-Hunters, people looking for a thrill, for something unknown, unexplored.

The novel tells a story of the expedition set out to find the proof of Wraith existence or once and for all establish that they are nothing more than a myth. The owner of the only establishment on the planet fears either answer. He clearly doesn’t want to have the mystery of Wraiths uncovered.

The main theme of the story is a clash between two views of the world, one very logical, pragmatic, physical, and the other one romantic and spiritual. It shows that not all mysteries need to be uncovered, not all secrets revealed, that unknown is not always bad, that it keeps people searching, asking questions, coming back. What is known for certain, is often taken for granted and then loses attraction.

   —From Wikipedia

Surface Similarities

  • Castles in the clouds.
    Castle Cloud, being a hotel mounted impossibly atop a mountain, is strongly reminiscent of the Eyrie.
  • Tall towers and balconies.
    Castle Cloud’s prominent balcony is where much of the beauty of Wraithworld can be observed when the mists recede. This is very similar to Sansa’s experiences at her balcony in the Eyrie in A Feast for Crows.
  • Stealthy, predatory cats.
    Mistfall has rock cats, ASOIAF has shadowcats.
  • Mists that emerge at night, recede by day.
    Throughout both Mistfall and A Song of Ice and Fire, there are numerous references to mist. Quite obviously, Mistfall is entirely based around the idea of the mists that emerge and recede throughout the day and night. While obviously not a central theme in ASOIAF, the mists are also prevalent as well.

Deeper Connections

Mists that conceal ghosts.

First a passage from Mistfall, declaring a scientist’s opinion of the mythical ‘wraiths’ on Wraithworld:

“That’s superstitious nonsense. If I had to guess, I’d say these mist wraiths of yours were nothing but transplanted Earth ghosts. Phantoms of someone’s imagination. But I won’t guess-I’ll wait until the results are in. Then we’ll see. If they are real, they won’t be able to hide from us.”

A striking passage in ACOK shows that ASOIAF has incorporated at least some elements of these wraiths and the nighttime mist from Mistfall:

The nightfires had burned low, and as the east began to lighten the immense mass of Storm’s End emerged like a dream of stone while wisps of pale mist raced across the field, flying from the sun on wings of wind. Morning ghosts, she had heard Old Nan call them once, spirits returning to their graves.

This may simply be a nod to Mistfall. It might just be an author’s predilection for reusing the same prose and style when describing similar phenomenon.

But Old Nan’s stories have often had inklings of some misunderstood truth to them. The idea of morning ghosts may have more substance to them than just words.

The idea that mist contains an element of some sort of supernatural, ghostly presence is widely hinted at in the ASOIAF series:

The mists were so thick that only the nearest trees were visible; beyond them stood tall shadows and faint lights. Candles flickered beside the wandering path and back amongst the trees, pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup. It felt like some strange underworld, some timeless place between the worlds, where the damned wandered mournfully for a time before finding their way down to whatever hell their sins had earned them.

“Last night I dreamed of that time Lysa and I got lost while riding back from Seagard. Do you remember? That strange fog came up and we fell behind the rest of the party. Everything was grey, and I could not see a foot past the nose of my horse. We lost the road. The branches of the trees were like long skinny arms reaching out to grab us as we passed. Lysa started to cry, and when I shouted the fog seemed to swallow the sound. But Petyr knew where we were, and he rode back and found us . . .”

Considering this post is only designed to illustrate the thematic connections between Mistfall and ASOIAF, it would be tangential to further explore the idea of ghosts in this essay. Suffice it to say that the text makes it clear that characters feel the presence of the otherworldly in these mists.

Ruins as the home of wraiths

Taken directly from Mistfall:

And the legend of the mist wraiths was born, and began to grow. Other ships came to Wraithworld, and a trickle of colonists came and went, and Paul Sanders landed one day and erected the Castle Cloud so the public might safely visit the mysterious planet of the wraiths.

And there were other deaths, and other disappearances, and many people claimed to catch brief glimpses of wraiths prowling through the mists. And then someone found the ruins. Just tumbled stone blocks, now. But once, structures of some sort. The homes of the wraiths, people said.
— With Morning Comes Mistfall

So the ruins are characterized as ‘tumbled stone blocks’ and considered the homes of the wraiths, or as the scientist called them ‘ghosts’. Compare to the following description from Harrenhal:

The Tower of Ghosts was the most ruinous of Harrenhal’s five immense towers. It stood dark and desolate behind the remains of a collapsed sept where only rats had come to pray for near three hundred years. It was there she waited to see if Gendry and Hot Pie would come. It seemed as though she waited a long time. The horses nibbled at the weeds that grew up between the broken stones while the clouds swallowed the last of the stars…

…The boys picked their way toward her over tumbled stones.

There are also the many quotes from Theon at Winterfell, where he recalls how the castle is in ruins and the place is populated with ghosts. So too with the Nightfort and Bran’s stories of Mad Axe and the Rat Cook.

This is not to say that I’m actually arguing that these ghosts exist: that is not the point I’m making. I’m only illustrating that Martin appears to have reused the same concepts to achieve the presentation of haunted, ruinous places.

Major Themes

Science versus mysticism

The central issue presented by Martin’s novella is whether or not knowledge actually brings joy.

He brings this up throughout the story, but it’s made particularly striking at the beginning and near the end:

If you could go to Loch Ness tomorrow and prove or disprove conclusively the existence of the monster, would you? Should you? When all the questions are answered, when all the superstitions are stilled, when science has unraveled all the mysteries, what will we do? Would you want to live in such a time? Would we be able to live then?

(Spoilers for Mistfall in the following paragraph):

Sanders shook his head sadly, drained his drink, and continued. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Doctor. Don’t kid yourself. You haven’t freed Wraithworld. You’ve destroyed it. You’ve stolen its wraiths, and left an empty planet.”

Dubowski shook his head. “I think you’re wrong. They’ll find plenty of good, profitable ways to exploit this planet. But even if you were correct, well, it’s just too bad. Knowledge is what man is all about. People like you have tried to hold back progress since the beginning of time. But they failed, and you failed. Man needs to know.”

“Maybe,” Sanders said. “But is that the only thing man needs? I don’t think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions, to make him brood and wonder.”

Dubowski stood up abruptly, and frowned. “This conversation is as pointless as your philosophy, Sanders. There’s no room in my universe for unanswered questions.”

“Then you live in a very drab universe, Doctor.”

“And you, Sanders, live in the stink of your own ignorance. Find some new superstitions if you must. But don’t try to foist them off on me with your tales and legends. I’ve got no time for wraiths.”

Sanders declares that people need things other than knowledge, in fact, some times they need to not know. He says that not knowing is a part of the human experience, a vital part that science fails to account for in its unyielding calculus.

We see these manifest in ASOIAF with regards to the concept of ghosts. First, Bran is concerned about Old Nan and thinks the ironborn killed her. Meera and Jojen console him and give him the following advice:

“Remember Old Nan’s stories, Bran. Remember the way she told them, the sound of her voice. So long as you do that, part of her will always be alive in you.”

Elsewhere, Jaime has a dream in which he encounters Rhaegar and many other old, dead people from his past. When he wakes up, he is disconcerted, and asks Qyburn about it.

“Do you believe in ghosts, Maester?” he asked Qyburn.

The man’s face grew strange. “Once, at the Citadel, I came into an empty room and saw an empty chair. Yet I knew a woman had been there, only a moment before. The cushion was dented where she’d sat, the cloth was still warm, and her scent lingered in the air. If we leave our smells behind us when we leave a room, surely something of our souls must remain when we leave this life?” Qyburn spread his hands. “The archmaesters did not like my thinking, though. Well, Marwyn did, but he was the only one.”

It’s intriguing because there arises the possibility of ghosts in A Song of Ice and Fire. After all, if Old Nan and Marwyn hold some interest in the idea of ghosts, could they in fact be more than just superstition?

Or as in Bran’s case, is it only something we want to believe because it sustains the idea that our lost family and friends are still ‘alive’ in some sense? Is it a lie we toy with believing out of necessity?

In a way this is addressed with the ending of Mistfall. The unnamed reporter reflects back on Wraithworld, years after the secret of the wraiths is revealed:

Sanders watched him depart in silence, then swiveled in his chair to look out over the mountains. “The mists are rising,” he said.

Sanders was wrong about the colony, too, as it turned out. They did establish one, although it wasn’t much to boast of. Some vineyards, some factories, and a few thousand people; all belonging to no more than a couple of big companies.

Commercial farming did turn out to be unprofitable, you see. With one exception-a native grape, a fat gray thing the size of a lemon. So Wraithworld has only one export, a smoky white wine with a mellow, lingering flavor. They call it mistwine, of course. I’ve grown fond of it over the years. The taste reminds me of mistfall somehow, and makes me dream. But that’s probably me, not the wine. Most people don’t care for it much.

Still, in a very minor way, it’s a profitable item. So Wraithworld is still a regular stop on the spacelanes. For freighters, at least.

The tourists are long gone, though. Sanders was right about that. Scenery they can get closer to home, and cheaper. The wraiths were why they came.

Sanders is long gone, too. He was too stubborn and too impractical to buy in on the mistwine operations when he had the chance. So he stayed behind his ramparts at Castle Cloud until the last. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards, when the hotel finally went out of business.

The castle itself is still there. I saw it a few years ago, when I stopped for a day en route to a story on New Refuge. It’s already crumbling, though. Too expensive to maintain. In a few years, you won’t be able to tell it from those other, older ruins.

Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl. Only the wraiths are missing. Only the wraiths.

The reporter was only there for the story, to report on the scientific exploration of Wraithworld. He had no vested interest in seeing the wraiths proven or disproven. He was an observer between the battle of Sanders’s mystery and Dubowski’s knowledge; mostly concerned with keeping the peace.

In the end he knows that the science was right: there was no real mystery to Wraithworld. Despite this he observes that the absence of the mystery has left the planet just a ‘truck stop’ with little of value.

Returning to the belief in ghosts in ASOIAF, it would seem that he’s suggesting that to believe that ghosts don’t exist doesn’t bring any enlightenment to the world. He’s saying that such mysteries are needed in order for his characters to grow.

Perhaps this is why the idea of supernatural, ghostly presences figure so prominently in the books, but in such a way as to neither be proven or disproven. So that readers have much on which to brood and wonder.

I can’t help but recall one of my favorite passages from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Harry Potter: “Is this real, or is this all happening inside my head?”

Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head Harry, but why would that mean it’s not real?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s