That said, now that I’ve realized his three-fold revelation strategy, I see it in play almost every time. The first, subtle hint for the really astute readers, followed later by the more blatant hint for the less attentive, followed by just spelling it out for everyone else. It’s a brilliant strategy, and highly effective.
— Anne Groell, GRRM’s editor
I believe a careful exploration of Martin’s use of prophecies in A Song of Ice and Fire can allow us to make an insightful observation:
Prophecies are a device used by Martin to communicate with his audience – NOT with characters in the books.
As a cryptic form of direct address, the utility of prophecies is often not hinged on the real-world possibilities (meaning as a prophecy might make sense to a character).
Continuing, the value of prophecy is most often derived from things perceptible only to readers (e.g., such as the prose used by the author).
Note: I use the term ‘prophecy’ throughout this essay. In this context I’m not only referring to classic ancient ‘prophesies’, but also to visionary dreams, things seen in fire, and so forth.
To explore these assertions further, I wander through a number of different ideas, broken into the following sections:
- The Beneficiary
- The Paradox of Prophecy
- Prophecies and Television
- Examples: Prophecies Only A Reader Can Solve
* * *
Who really benefits from prophecy?
In evaluating the role of prophecies, one feature to consider is the function or purpose they fulfill. This doesn’t just refer to their utility to characters and events in the world of Westeros, but also to readers on a more cerebral level.
Thus we can examine how each group (the characters and the readers) interacts with prophecies in the series.
How do characters interact with prophecy?
From the perspective of characters, one of the biggest things to note is just how cryptic and useless almost all prophecies have been throughout the series.
There are a number of ways that this uselessness manifests in the books:
Patchface is the poster-child for this. Often his prophecies make no sense until well after the associated events have been presented and only after careful decryption of his words.
Lack of temporal and/or spatial locality.
Another major issue is that the prophecies given to characters are often associated with events that happen to entirely different characters or in different plot lines. In effect, they are of absolutely no merit to those who convey or receive these visions.
The books have given us some strikingly accurate visions, portents and prophecies; particularly from characters like Patchface, Melisandre and Moqorro. However, in almost all cases, these characters cannot clearly identify specific details about their visions. Melisandre could not clearly determine if the grey girl was actually Arya and resorts to lying. Moqorro can only describe his visions in abstract metaphors. Patchface obliquely refers people and events through a cipher that encodes everything as undersea fantasy-allegory. Thus those who hear prophecy, even if they recognize it as such, are often unable to find any utility due to a lack of specificity.
Detrimental to believers
One notable curiosity is that ill fortune often awaits those who readily subscribe to prophecy, particularly if they believe themselves involved with it. Cersei and her valonqar. Rhaegar and the prince who was promised. Melisandre and her fixation on Stannis being Azor Ahai. Daenerys and the House of the Undying’s three betrayals. Aegon V and Summerhall. In every case, a character’s personal sense of involvement in a prophecy has led to their woes or even downfall.
This in striking contrast to the notable accuracy of prophecies that apply to characters or events in unrelated story lines.
The sum of these effects suggests that prophecies are virtually pointless to characters who receive them. Additionally, on the rare occasion that a prophecy does apply to a listener, it’s downright harmful to those who believe they are involved with them.
You can’t get much more useless to the characters than that, can you?
* * *
How do readers interact with prophecy?
In stark contrast to the characters, readers derive numerous benefits from prophecies and visions:
They offer tantalizing suggestions of future events.
In many cases, a vision is striking or compelling enough to spur reader speculation about its meaning or applicability. There is often a suggestion that connects a vision to some existing fragment of the plot. This encourages readers to invoke their imaginations to wonder what the actual meaning is and how it might apply to that plot.
They are essentially small puzzles that a reader can enjoy attempting to resolve.
By bringing these visions and prophecies into the story, readers are given a thought-provoking exercise that transforms the experience: what might have been a passive venture resolved by agents of the plot is instead a series of mind-bending riddles embedded in great fiction.
They are often later found to be correct, but orthogonal to the original or literal interpretation.
Many times we have seen a vision fulfilled, it has been in a fashion that was ‘sideways’ from how a person might original interpret it. Most often, this manifests in the prose itself, as either the riddle posed by a vision or its answer are laden with metaphor that becomes clear elsewhere in the text. This is an important point that I explore further below.
They make rereads more enjoyable and fulfilling.
During re-reads many subtle mysteries and prophecies will pop with suddenly clarity of meaning and purpose. It rewards the reader by keeping already-trod prose alive and worthy of thoughtful interpretation.
It interweaves disparate plot lines.
Since a great many prophecies relate to characters or events that happen in other plot lines, the visions help keep readers attentive during chapters that might be otherwise less compelling to other storylines that are of more interest to them.
Collectively it seems that the primary beneficiary of visions and prophecies are the readers themselves. There is almost no utility to actual characters.
Considering this conclusion, one might begin to wonder if these visions and prophecies are a form of direct address: the author communicating directly with the audience, an oblique method of breaking the fourth wall.
* * *
THE PARADOX OF PROPHECY
Several characters in the series warn that prophecies are not to be trusted:
“Born amidst salt and smoke, beneath a bleeding star. I know the prophecy.” Marwyn turned his head and spat a gob of red phlegm onto the floor. “Not that I would trust it. Gorghan of Old Ghis once wrote that a prophecy is like a treacherous woman. She takes your member in her mouth, and you moan with the pleasure of it and think, how sweet, how fine, how good this is . . . and then her teeth snap shut and your moans turn to screams. That is the nature of prophecy, said Gorghan. Prophecy will bite your prick off every time.” He chewed a bit. “Still . . .”
— SAMWELL V, A FEAST FOR CROWS
“Prophecy is like a half-trained mule,” he complained to Jorah Mormont. “It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.
— TYRION IX, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
However, this is in stark contrast to the overwhelming number of times that a vision, prediction or prophecy comes true in some capacity.
In mind my this leads to some rather important observations:
Between the characters of Westeros and the readers, there is an undeniable disparity in the value of prophecies.
This strongly suggests that these prophecies are deliberately aimed at readers.
Two notable characters have observed that prophecies are not altogether trustworthy.
However, the basis for their claim is rooted entirely in the faculties limited by the very nature of being characters in a story: they obviously have no idea that prophecies benefit readers. Note that this is true regardless of the validity of my essay’s premise.
Thus, these ‘observations’ have extremely limited applicability –to only the inhabitants of Westeros.
I’m sure some people will see a logical flaw in there:
Even if the characters hadn’t said anything about prophecies being unreliable, shouldn’t we readers should naturally be skeptical as well?
Isn’t presupposing the validity of every prophecy fraught with perils of misinterpretations?
Indeed they can be. But that makes the exercise no less compelling or fruitful.
But as noted, look at the success rate that many of the better prophets seem to exercise, and the points I outlined above. Given the quantity of evidence suggesting that prophecies are notable to readers, it seems to be entirely fair to say that what character’s believe about prophecy has little applicability on the true value to readers.
So why are readers treated so special? Other than the evidence and observations shared above, why would Martin divulge information to readers in lieu of characters?
* * *
We are On the Outside
The answer to the question I just posed is rooted in the intrinsic nature of being a reader:
We have access to much more data than any individual, we can ‘see’ into many storylines.
This allows us to scan a wide range of information to find the applicability of a given prediction. As noted in later sections of this essay, it is often this ‘omniscient’ quality that allows these visions and predictions to be resolved.
We are reading prose as opposed to actually being in the world of Westeros.
This is a critical distinction. As will be shown in the later segments of this essay, readers are subjected to the author’s prose, not the world itself. And as I will show you, the prose itself is often what connects a riddling prophecy with it’s associated ‘answer’. By it’s very nature, this demonstrates that the visions and prophecies are aimed at readers instead of characters.
So what to make of these warnings about prophecy? Are the visions and prophecies bunk?
Based on the established trend for visions to be startlingly accurate to readers only, I believe that these warning are intended to warn the characters to avoid placing excessive faith in their utility.
These warnings however do not apply to readers who have enough data to see that a great many visions, signs and prophecies have elements of truth that characters intrinsically cannot understand.
Thus, there visions and prophecies continue to have discernible value for readers, even though they are openly acknowledged as unreliable by the characters in Westeros.
* * *
PROPHECY AND TELEVISION
If you’ve watched the show with any regularity, then you’ll already know that virtually all of the visions, prophecies, portents, and dreams have been removed.
If these precognitions were of vital importance to the story or characters themselves, one would figure that they would have been incorporated into the television show.
As they are not, we must subsequently question how important they really are to the characters as opposed to the readers. It highlights the fact most consist of details which are superficial to following the principal storylines and/or are revealed elsewhere.
Returning to the quote that opened this essay from Anne Groell, she reveals a pattern that she finds in Martin’s writing; that foreshadows events quite cleverly, typically three times. She points out that they become more blatant as the story approaches the fulfillment of said foreshadowed events. Thus, these visions can often be considered as that early foreshadowing. Foreshadowing which is likely unnecessary or incompatible with the TV format.
* * *
EXAMPLES: PROPHECIES ONLY A READER CAN SOLVE
Here I provide some examples of visions and prophecies which demonstrate that they are often fulfilled in ways that are impossible for any character in the books to resolve; because the visions describe something only discernible to a reader due to prose.
* * *
Axell Florent’s vision of dancing maidens
After the burning of the idols of the Seven on Dragonstone, Davos has a brief encounter with Axell Florent. Florent describes a vision that came to him during the burning:
“The Lady Melisandre tells us that sometimes R’hllor permits his faithful servants to glimpse the future in flames. It seemed to me as I watched the fire this morning that I was looking at a dozen beautiful dancers, maidens garbed in yellow silk spinning and swirling before a great king. I think it was a true vision, ser. A glimpse of the glory that awaits His Grace after we take King’s Landing and the throne that is his by rights.”
— DAVOS I, A CLASH OF KINGS
Later in A Clash of Kings we encounter the following two passages that occur at brief camping respite from Jon and Qhorin’s flight from the Frostfangs:
Qhorin came and stood over him as the first flame rose up flickering from the shavings of bark and dead dry, pine needles. “As shy as a maid on her wedding night,” the big ranger said in a soft voice, “and near as fair. Sometimes a man forgets how pretty a fire can be.”
— JON VIII, A CLASH OF KINGS
Jon went to cut more branches, snapping each one in two before tossing it into the flames. The tree had been dead a long time, but it seemed to live again in the fire, as fiery dancers woke within each stick of wood to whirl and spin in their glowing gowns of yellow, red, and orange.
— JON VIII, A CLASH OF KINGS
Axell Florent’s vision is strikingly similar to the text of these two passages. It seems all but certain that his vision was indeed referring to this chance bit of text.
And yet notice, that it was the prose, the text, which made it apparent. Only the reader can make the connection. A connection to a vision that was made thousands of leagues away in a completely unrelated story line. Further, the reference to a king offers the tantalizing prospect that Jon might be of some royal stock, which we all know is a common theory.
A final significant note is that when Axell declares that his vision is of Stannis’s victory, he makes the classic error of interpretation that I described, expectation bias resulting from his desire to make sense of his ambiguous vision.
This example elegantly illustrates the various concepts I’ve described throughout this essay.
* * *
The Horn of Winter
An example of how ancient prophecy can also be manifested in ways only detectable by readers is the fabled Horn of Winter, also called the Horn of Joramun.
According to the fables and oral histories, the horn has fabled powers:
And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth.
— JON II, A STORM OF SWORDS
Specifically the horn is suggested to be capable of collapsing the Wall.
The implicit function of this legendary horn then is to invoke some sort of massive earth-moving power that will destabilize the Wall and cause its collapse. This sounds very much like an earthquake. In fact, I once made a well-founded argument to this effect which I recommend reading (click here to read it).
In the middle of A Dance with Dragons, Jon has a chance encounter with some wildling refugees at the weirwood grove north of the Wall. His band of men surprise these wildlings as they are sleeping. Among the wildlings is a sleeping giant. Most notable is the scene when the giant actually wakes up:
The giant was the last to notice them. He had been asleep, curled up by the fire, but something woke him—the child’s cry, the sound of snow crunching beneath black boots, a sudden indrawn breath. When he stirred it was as if a boulder had come to life. He heaved himself into a sitting position with a snort, pawing at his eyes with hands as big as hams to rub the sleep away … until he saw Iron Emmett, his sword shining in his hand. Roaring, he came leaping to his feet, and one of those huge hands closed around a maul and jerked it up.
Ghost showed his teeth in answer. Jon grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck. “We want no battle here.” His men could bring the giant down, he knew, but not without cost. Once blood was shed, the wildlings would join the fray. Most or all would die here, and some of his own brothers too. “This is a holy place. Yield, and we—”
The giant bellowed again, a sound that shook the leaves in the trees, and slammed his maul against the ground. The shaft of it was six feet of gnarled oak, the head a stone as big as a loaf of bread. The impact made the ground shake. Some of the other wildlings went scrambling for their own weapons.
One could almost wonder if this passage actually fulfills the prophecy/fable of the Horn of Winter, and thus we will not see some fabled, colossal earthquake to collapse the Wall. As speculative as the argument is, our dear author George RR Martin has on numerous occasions indicated that magic plays a special part in his world, but prefers that it remain mysterious and not come to dominate the proceedings. Thus I’m inclined to believe the passages above are all that we will ever see of any such Horn of Winter.
I write far more about the Horn’s subdued manifestation in a separate essay, “Who blew the Horn of Joramun?” It is provides an exhaustive examination of just how subtle the prophesied waking of giants has actually been.
* * *
Melisandre’s Three Eyeless Faces
She saw the eyeless faces again, staring out at her from sockets weeping blood.
— MELISANDRE, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
This is the basis for her belief that Jon will find three heads of his rangers, eyeless due to the Weeper’s cruelty.
However, as I argue in an extensive reddit post, I strongly believe that she erroneously misses a fact (unknown to her) that her ‘eyeless faces’ could very well have been the three carved trees that Jon encountered in Jon VI, ADWD when he traveled to Moles’ Town in search of volunteers.
* * *
And Many More…
I’m obviously cutting this venture short, but without much effort its easy to find many cases of such visions where the characters gained virtually no benefit from such visions.
* * *
The biggest benefit a reader reaps from taking ownership of interpreting visions and other portents is a more active involvement in the mysteries embedded in the text.
Additionally, it is only when readers accept the concept that visions and prophecies often manifest purely in the text rather than in the world itself, that they will be able to identify and enjoy the various connections present throughout the books.
So, summarily stated, here are the key points:
- Characters almost never benefit from precognitive or prophetic information.
- Readers do benefit from this information, despite characters protesting their unreliability.
- These visions and portents often appear in clever prose in the text, and never manifest in the world itself.