The Sea of Shadow: A Map to Dead Kings

“Men live their lives trapped in an eternal present,
between the mists of memory and
the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come.
BLOODRAVEN — BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Would you believe me I told you there was a series of ‘easter eggs’ concealed within A Song of Ice and Fire?

Specifically, would you believe that there are references to other scenes and places secretly placed in passages mentioning shadows?

As I’ve argued in other places on this blog (here and the first few sections here), Martin enjoys wordplay, prose, and the personification of the inscrutable with inhuman power.

For instance, I’ve shown that Martin displays an intense focus on the use of mist as a means to convey a sense of other-worldliness, particularly associated with notion of the spirits of the dead. While there is ample information to suggest that these spirits may be real, we will likely never know: another facet of Martin’s writing is his trend for creating unsolvable mysteries, often enacted by leaving out key details that might make understanding trivial.

He also has a tendency toward writing elements that are intended for readers, not for the characters in Westeros (see my essay concerning his use of prophecy).

So who’s to say that his use of shadows is not also associated with powerful forces and symbols. Perhaps it is yet another mystery intended for the audience and not the characters themselves?

I certainly think so, based on my observations.

If you’ll continue to indulge me, I plan to explain my reasoning for this conclusion. Further, I plan to explain I came upon the pattern described in this essay and provide all the examples of it that I can find.

*   *   *

A SHADOW’S SIGNIFICANCE


The concept that shadows serve an important function in A Song of Ice and Fire is outright declared by several characters throughout the books. Here is just a smattering:

The shadows come to dance, my lord, dance my lord, dance my lord,” he sang, hopping from one foot to the other and back again. “The shadows come to stay, my lord, stay my lord, stay my lord.
— PROLOGUE, A CLASH OF KINGS

. . . the shape of shadows . . . morrows not yet made . . .
— DAENERYS IV, A CLASH OF KINGS

“You are more ignorant than a child, ser knight. There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”
— DAVOS II, A CLASH OF KINGS

We can see that shadows become a prominent theme for several very different people and organizations that vastly different.

What’s unclear is precisely what these passages mean. We know that Melisandre, the House of the Undying and Patchface are all extremely prescient seers. Heck, Bloodraven –the person whom I quoted at the beginning of this essay– is perhaps the most powerful of all. Thus it seems reasonable to think there is something portentous related to shadows in the text.

So what could Patchface mean by dancing shadows, or shadows that are staying? What are the ‘shapes of shadows’ and what is the relevance? A person might argue that the shadows refer to Melisandre’s shadow-children and find that to be all there is to it. However, this is an oversimplification. It does not explain the significance of the ‘dancing’, the ‘staying’ or the mention of the ‘shape of shadows’.

It also does not explain a truly fascinating series of latent ‘easter eggs’ buried in shadows throughout the books.

*   *   *

AN ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY


So what made me believe in the fanciful idea that shadows in A Song of Ice and Fire held special meaning?

Well to begin let me point out that I didn’t form this idea completely out of thin air.

I wasn’t looking to make the initial discovery that led to this essay’s chief argument. Instead I was looking for something entirely different (I can’t remember what). While in pursuit of that other forgotten endeavor I stumbled across one of the more amazing pieces of prose in A Clash of Kings:

Behind him the broken tower stood, its summit as jagged as a crown where fire had collapsed the upper stories long ago. As the sun moved, the shadow of the tower moved as well, gradually lengthening, a black arm reaching out for Theon Greyjoy. By the time the sun touched the wall, he was in its grasp.
— THEON VI, A CLASH OF KINGS

Why is this so amazing?

Because it’s an absurdly precise allegory for the method by which Stannis killed Cortnay Penrose and took Storm’s End. To wit:

  • The tower had a crown.
  • The tower’s shadow moved in accordance with the sun.
  • The shadow is described like a black arm that reached threatening for Theon…
  • …but was unable to grasp him until the sun had breached (touched) the walls of Winterfell.

Now consider these observations against the following rhetorical questions:

  • Does this shadow not resemble the shadow of a king?
  • Does the shadow’s conveyance (the sun) also not bear striking similarity to Melisandre (who glowed when she disrobed in the secret entrance to Storm’s End)?
  • Is it not striking that the shadow could only finally reach Theon when the sun had touched the walls of Winterfell, much like how Melisandre’s shadow of Stannis could not affect Cortnay until she breached the walls of Storm’s End?

It’s so dead-on for being an allegory for Melisandre at Storm’s End that I personally find it unreasonable to think otherwise.

*   *   *

I Wondered

After making this novel but rather innocuous discovery I was rather intrigued by the fact that I’ve never seen it pointed out anywhere, online or otherwise.

My indefatigable curiosity drove me to a further question:

I wondered if Martin has done this elsewhere: concealing very specific allegories to other moments in the books in seeming metaphor?

It was this question that led to what I consider the real discovery and heart of this essay.

*   *   *

A SECOND SHADOW: A POSSIBLE PATTERN EMERGES


Why is this connection between the broken tower and Storm’s End in the books? At this point in my research I could not say. I needed something to help convince myself that I was finding something instead of inventing something.

The idea that allegories might be hidden in every metaphor in A Song of Ice and Fire was overwhelming, impractical for use as the basis for research. I needed to start with a narrower scope.

Shadow as Allegory

I decided to operate on the hypothetical presumption that Martin was specifically using shadows for this purpose.

Restricting my search to just the scope of ‘shadows’ doesn’t terribly narrow my search either: there are countless uses of shadows in the books: from literal shadows to shadows as figurative symbols (white shadows, red shadows, etc).

After some rumination, I further limited my search to only those shadows meeting two criteria. Specifically the shadows had to be:

  • True
    As with Theon’s observations about the broken tower, the text had to be discussing an actual shadow, not a person or an object described as a shadow.
  • Personified/Tangible
    Just as the shadow of the broken tower was shown ‘reaching’ for Theon, the shadows in question had to be shown behaving as though they had their own ‘life’. These shadows would be described in terms that make them seem to have a life of their own, or that they move independently of their owners. This could be achieved via the use of visual prose such as ‘reaching’ in Theon’s example, or by use of the active voice when discussing a shadow’s behavior.

These decisions were based on trying to reduce the scope of my search and stick closer to a more literal definition of the word shadow. While this may all seem ad hoc, solely the product of an unregulated imagination, please allow me to share one of the discoveries these guidelines enabled me to find.

*   *   *

A Second Hit: Davos and the Painted Table

After I began researching using these guidelines, I stumbled across another conspicuous pair of passages. Here is the first:

The wind sighed through the chamber, and in the hearth the flames gusted and swirled. He listened to the logs crackle and spit. When Davos left the window his shadow went before him, tall and thin, and fell across the Painted Table like a sword. And there he stood for a long time, waiting.
— DAVOS VI, A STORM OF SWORDS

Notice that Davos’s shadow is described as moving; rather than his shadow being described as following him or moving with him. Further, notice that the shadow is described like a sword, and that it fell across the Painted Table.

Why is this amazing? Because of the following scene:

The king laid his bright blade down on the map, along the Wall, its steel shimmering like sunlight on water.
— JON I, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

This is at the King’s Tower in Castle Black. Stannis has taken his sword and set it down across his map. Now return to the first passage: What is the Painted Table? A map!

The Davos passage seems to somehow reference the later scene with Jon and Stannis, it’s almost impossible to believe that this is mere coincidence.

It’s almost as if the scene bearing the shadow is a sort of signifier or marker, that when properly ‘decoded’ links to an entirely different place and situation: a sort of ‘matched pair’.

It was at this point, holding these two examples in front of me, that the idea ballooned into a very real project. The next steps then seemed clear to me:

  • Establish some hypothetical themes that might be common to these findings.
  • Identify the remaining ‘matched pairs’.
  • Refine search criteria and themes as more discoveries are made.

*   *   *

THE SHADOWS OF KINGS: A POSSIBLE THEME


Using the two examples I found above, are there any common elements? By my reckoning I find the following two possible themes:

  • Both involve kings in the ‘non-shadow’ or ‘answer’ portion of the pair: The Davos-Painted Table example connects to Stannis, and the Broken Tower example connects to Stannis’s shadow.
  • They both involve locations associated with kings, the King’s Tower at Castle Black, or Storm’s End.

With this in mind, I will be on the lookout for connections to kings or locations affiliated with kings.

*   *   *

OUT OF DARKNESS: A LIST OF SHADOWS


So with my possible theme of ‘kings’ and our narrowed scope of what kinds of shadows I’m interested in, I set out to identify other ‘shadow-mappings’.

I share these findings here, starting with the most startlingly in terms of support and ending on the most tenuous or debatable claims.

Pillars at the Eyrie

There are some conspicuous shadows noted by Sansa in the Eyrie’s High Hall in A Feast for Crows:

The slender pillars looked like fingerbones, and the blue veins in the white marble brought to mind the veins in an old crone’s legs. Though fifty silver sconces lined the walls, less than a dozen torches had been lit, so shadows danced upon the floors and pooled in every corner.
— SANSA, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Again, we see that the shadows have been given animus or human-like qualities (they are dancing). What’s intriguing is the associated descriptions of the High Hall, pillars like fingerbones and veins in the marble resembling a crone’s legs.

This is peculiar because it quite neatly matches with the initial description of Raventree Hall:

Raventree Hall was old. Moss grew thick between its ancient stones, spiderwebbing up its walls like the veins in a crone’s legs. Two huge towers flanked the castle’s main gate, and smaller ones defended every angle of its walls. All were square. Drum towers and half-moons held up better against catapults, since thrown stones were more apt to deflect off a curved wall, but Raventree predated that particular bit of builder’s wisdom.

The castle dominated the broad fertile valley that maps and men alike called Blackwood Vale. A vale it was, beyond a doubt, but no wood had grown here for several thousand years, be it black or brown or green. Once, yes, but axes had long since cleared the trees away. Homes and mills and holdfasts had risen where once the oaks stood tall. The ground was bare and muddy, and dotted here and there with drifts of melting snow.

Inside the castle walls, however, a bit of the forest still remained. House Blackwood kept the old gods, and worshiped as the First Men had in the days before the Andals came to Westeros. Some of the trees in their godswood were said to be as old as Raventree’s square towers, especially the heart tree, a weirwood of colossal size whose upper branches could be seen from leagues away, like bony fingers scratching at the sky…

…No great hosts encircled Raventree, as Riverrun had been encircled. This siege was a more intimate affair, the latest step in a dance that went back many centuries. At best Jonos Bracken had five hundred men about the castle. Jaime saw no siege towers, no battering rams, no catapults. Bracken did not mean to break the gates of Raventree nor storm its high, thick walls.
— JAIME, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Notice that the prose invokes both the notion of ‘bony fingers’ and ‘veins in a crone’s legs’. This is an alarming specificity of these two descriptors, there are no other allusions to a crone’s legs or specifically the veins in a crone’s legs anywhere else.

Further, compare the similarity between the inability of the torches that line the Eyrie’s hall and how it results in the dancing shadows, with Bracken’s army, surrounding Raventree Hall but unable to take it. Notice further how Jaime specifically refers to this as just another step in a dance.

What further moves this from just an mere coincidence is that Raventree Hall is specifically associated with a line of kings, the old Blackwood kings from millenia ago. This is mentioned by Hoster Blackwood while talking about regional politics with Jaime Lannister.

So once again we have an anthropomorphic shadow and it’s related prose, seemingly mapping to a location associated with kings.

*   *   *

Trees North of the Wall

North of the Wall, Bran once makes the following observations:

Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry. All the trees were bowed and twisted by the weight of ice they carried. Some hardly looked like trees at all. Buried from root to crown in frozen snow, they huddled on the hill like giants, monstrous and misshapen creatures hunched against the icy wind. “They are here.”
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hungry shadows is what draws our attention in this case. Notice that all of the trees are described as being giant-like, monstrous and misshapen. Further, being buried in snow from top to bottom, and yet characterized like some hideous humanoid calls to mind the image of a terrifying snowman.

Which coincidentally describes the snowmen that were built in Winterfell in A Dance with Dragons:

Above, he could see some squires building snowmen along the battlements. They were arming them with spears and shields, putting iron halfhelms on their heads, and arraying them along the inner wall, a rank of snowy sentinels.
— THE TURNCLOAK, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Outside the snow still fell. The snowmen the squires had built had grown into monstrous giants, ten feet tall and hideously misshapen.
— A GHOST IN WINTERFELL, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Giant, misshapen, monstrous. All three of these words are precisely used for both descriptions. Although I find it a bit unreasonable, a person might simply claim that these similarities reflect the author’s reuse of certain phrases. However that is not borne out by the text, you find no reuse of these adjectives in such close proximity anywhere else in the text –even in other chapters describing trees or giants.

However, what does strengthen the connection is the realization that many of the trees north of the Wall are sentinel trees. The trees Bran sees are covered in snow from ‘root to crown’. With this in mind, wouldn’t it be fair to say that Bran’s trees could be called snowy sentinels? Which is the exact phrase used to describe the snowmen.

It goes without saying that Winterfell is clearly associated with kings, via the old Kings of Winter.

Yet again, an anthropomorphic shadow (or group in this case) and the accompanying prose can be mapped to a location associated with kings.

*   *   *

A Moth Caught in a Lamp

In A Feast for Crows, there is a rather out of place set of passages in one of Cersei’s chapters. She has just found out about Tywin’s death, and during the proceedings in the chapter she is drawn to thinking about a moth that is trapped in Boros Blount’s lamp:

A moth had gotten into the lantern Ser Boros was holding; she could hear it buzzing and see the shadow of its wings as it beat against the glass…

…Her heels scraped against the stone as she climbed, and she could still hear the moth fluttering wildly inside Ser Osmund’s lantern. Die, the queen thought at it, in irritation, fly into the flame and be done with it.
— CERSEI I, A FEAST FOR CROWS

So we are given a bunch of prose about a moth, how its wings create shadows and how Cersei thought the moth should just get it over with and fly into the flame. In particular, note that she couldn’t see the moth, only its shadow. What’s interesting is to consider that the moth was functionally trapped in the lamp. A person could argue that the lamp acted as a cage for the moth. This is a handy notion when we realize how strongly these passages apply to the execution of ‘Mance Rayder’ on the north side of the Wall at Castle Black:

Inside his cage, Mance Rayder clawed at the noose about his neck with bound hands and screamed incoherently of treachery and witchery, denying his kingship, denying his people, denying his name, denying all that he had ever been. He shrieked for mercy and cursed the red woman and began to laugh hysterically…

…When the fire reached him he did a little dance. His screams became one long, wordless shriek of fear and pain. Within his cage, he fluttered like a burning leaf, a moth caught in a candle flame.
— JON III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Rattleshirt’s incoherent screaming and hysterical laughter could be considered allegorically similar to the moth’s buzzing. What’s more interesting is that Rattleshirt is described as a fluttering and acting like a moth in a candle flame, and he’s quite literally in a cage similar to the moth’s lamp.

And the location, being just north of the Wall outside of the tunnel to Castle Black, we know that this field is associated with Mance Rayder, the former King-Beyond-the-Wall. It’s where he camped his forces during his attack on the Wall.

*   *   *

A Pacing Brigand

In A Storm of Swords there is a notable moment where the Brotherhood without Banners take refuge in an abandoned building:

Jack-Be-Lucky hacked some dry wood from a stall, while Notch and Merrit gathered straw for kindling. Thoros himself struck the spark, and Lem fanned the flames with his big yellow cloak until they roared and swirled. Soon it grew almost hot inside the stable. Thoros sat before it crosslegged, devouring the flames with his eyes just as he had atop High Heart. Arya watched him closely, and once his lips moved, and she thought she heard him mutter, “Riverrun.” Lem paced back and forth, coughing, a long shadow matching him stride for stride, while Tom o’ Sevens pulled off his boots and rubbed his feet.
— ARYA VIII, A STORM OF SWORDS

What’s interesting here is Lem’s shadow. Notice that has been afforded a life of its own. When you consider a person pacing back and forth in front of a fire, the movements of the shadow would have a pendulous quality. When the shadow is shown to be matching Lem’s movements “stride for stride” it indicates synchronicity. So essentially we have a ‘long’ shadow that moves with a regular speed in a pendulous manner, sweeping across the floor in time with the position of the fire.

And beyond, where the Honeywine widened into Whispering Sound, rose the Hightower, its beacon fires bright against the dawn. From where it stood atop the bluffs of Battle Island, its shadow cut the city like a sword. Those born and raised in Oldtown could tell the time of day by where that shadow fell.
— PROLOGUE, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Here we see that the Hightower in Oldtown acts as a large sundial, it’s shadow moving ‘in stride’ with the position of the sun. Thus, the way the text describes Lem’s shadow and its movement could be viewed as some sort of allegory referring to the Hightower.

I admit this seems a bit stretchy – a bit like I’m finding something that fits instead of finding a truly deductive answer.

However, remember that I’m working with the principle that the places revealed in these shadows are associated with kings. Isn’t it a happy coincidence then that our dear writer Martin went out of his way to specify that the Hightowers were once kings:

Once kings, they have ruled Oldtown and its environs since the Dawn of Days, welcoming the Andals rather than resisting them, and later bending the knee to the Kings of the Reach and giving up their crowns whilst retaining all their ancient privileges.
— APPENDIX II, A FEAST FOR CROWS

So we have a long shadow, arcing repeatedly, steadily over a wide arc; an allegory to a tower that once held kings, the Hightower.

*   *   *

A Liver-Stained Birthmark

Early in A Dance with Dragons, Davos Seaworth is briefly the captive of Godric Borrell, lord of Sisterton on the island Sweetsister. Davos is brought to see his captor on a dark and stormy night, and there is an interesting moment during their encounter:

The lord leaned back. “Cut him free,” he said, “and peel those gloves off him. I want to see his hands.”

The captain did as he was told. As he jerked up his captive’s maimed left hand the lightning flashed again, throwing the shadow of Davos Seaworth’s shortened fingers across the blunt and brutal face of Godric Borrell, Lord of Sweetsister.
— DAVOS I, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The shadow of Davos’s maimed hand is ‘thrown’ across Godric’s face, again attributing liveliness (certainly tangibility) to the shadows.

What could this imagery possibly relate to? My first guess was to any statue or figure that had a shadowed or covered face, particularly if it was covered by a hand. However I could find nothing really representative. Was I lost, at a dead end?

As we can see, the findings thus far were increasingly showing that the ‘shadow’ riddles were associated with the locations of former kings. As such I started finding the places of kings and worked backwards from there. It was when I discovered the Darklyn kings that I made this find:

He put her on the second floor, and a woman with a liver-colored birthmark on her face brought up a wooden tub, and then the water, pail by pail. “Do any Darklyns remain in Duskendale?” Brienne asked as she climbed into the tub.

“Well, there’s Darkes, I’m one myself. My husband says I was Darke before we wed, and darker afterward.” She laughed. “Can’t throw a stone in Duskendale without you hit some Darke or Darkwood or Dargood, but the lordly Darklyns are all gone. Lord Denys was the last o’ them, the sweet young fool. Did you know the Darklyns were kings in Duskendale before the Andals come? You’d never know t’look at me, but I got me royal blood. Can you see it? ‘Your Grace, another cup of ale,’ I ought to make them say. ‘Your Grace, the chamber pot needs emptying, and fetch in some fresh faggots, Your Bloody Grace, the fire’s going out.’” She laughed again and shook the last drops from the pail. “Well, there you are. Is that water hot enough for you?”
— BRIENNE II, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Notice that the woman has a liver-colored birthmark on her face. Isn’t it further odd that the text went to the effort to add such a trivial characteristic to this woman, who quite literally only appears once.

And at the exact same time we learn of this apparently trivial birthmark, we learn about the Darklyn kings. This suggests that perhaps I was wrong about my interpretation of the shadow: the shadow was really indicating a person with a ‘shadow’ (aka a stain) on their face.

In total isolation, I would agree that this kind of connection is completely absurd. However, when you see the chain of previously established shadow-to-king connections, this actually seems rather sane. It starts to beg the question; did GRRM put some of these bits of superfluous world-building in to satisfy riddles such as these?

And yes, Karyl Vance is another character with a birthmark. But his covers his neck and half his face, it doesn’t match the provided shadow.

*   *   *

Knights in the Red Keep’s Gallery

After Joffrey’s abbreviated wedding reception, Sansa and Dontos Hollard are shown to be fleeing the Red Keep:

Ser Dontos shoved open a heavy door and lit a taper. They were inside a long gallery. Along the walls stood empty suits of armor, dark and dusty, their helms crested with rows of scales that continued down their backs. As they hurried past, the taper’s light made the shadows of each scale stretch and twist. The hollow knights are turning into dragons, she thought.
— SANSA V, A STORM OF SWORDS

The candle’s light made the shadows scale, stretch and twist; yet another interesting association of shadows with animated qualities. Further we see that Sansa observes that the hollow knights are becoming dragons.

Solving this one is a bit more straightforward in some ways and harder in others, compared to the previous findings.

First, we know that the Brotherhood without Banners refer to at least some of their own as ‘knights of the hollow hill’:

The marcher lord moved the sword from the right shoulder to the left, and said, “Arise Ser Gendry, knight of the hollow hill, and be welcome to our brotherhood.”
— ARYA VII, A STORM OF SWORDS

Next, we have to take note that Beric Dondarrion appears to set his blade on fire using his blood, which appears black. This is notably similar to what Daenerys observes about Drogon’s blood:

Black blood was flowing from the wound where the spear had pierced him, smoking where it dripped onto the scorched sands. He is fire made flesh, she thought, and so am I.
— DAENERYS IX, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Unsmiling, Lord Beric laid the edge of his longsword against the palm of his left hand, and drew it slowly down. Blood ran dark from the gash he made, and washed over the steel. And then the sword took fire.
— ARYA VI, A STORM OF SWORDS

The black blood may just be a metaphor in either case. The flaming/smoking ‘black’ blood they share certainly seems to suggest that at least one hollow knight (Beric) is turning into a dragon. He certainly seems to think that he’s being consumed by fire, at least.

The question that remains is “how is the hollow hill associated with a king?”

Well, if you believe that a weirwood throne would suffice, there is sufficient context in the books to suggest there is a throne inside the hollow hill:

In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood.
— ARYA VI, A STORM OF SWORDS

If that doesn’t do it, then perhaps you subscribe to the notion that the hollow hill is directly beneath High Heart, a place whose weirwood grove was cut down long ago by the king Erreg the Kinslayer.

Lastly, but perhaps the most simply argued, is that the connected is made because Gendry is at the hollow hill, and Gendry is the oldest male child of Robert Baratheon.

*   *   *

Weirwood Roots in the Cave of the Three-Eyed Crow

During Bran’s descent into the cave of the Three-Eyed Crow, he makes a peculiar observation:

The way the shadows shifted made it seem as if the walls were moving too. Bran saw great white snakes slithering in and out of the earth around him, and his heart thumped in fear. He wondered if they had blundered into a nest of milk snakes or giant grave worms, soft and pale and squishy. Grave worms have teeth.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

So once again we see shadows being conferred with a sort of lifelike quality, this time making them appear like some slithering creature like a snake or a ‘giant grave worm’. Bran even describes them as being soft, pale and squishy. A further oddity is the mention of teeth.

‘Soft and pale and squishy’ is an almost precise, specific description of the special leeches used by Roose Bolton. In fact, outside of Nimble Dick’s ‘squishers’, Squire Squishlips, Sam’s attempt to crush a mouse with a book, and many references to things squishing underfoot, the leeches are the only squishy objects in the text:

Arya didn’t care about his precious princess, and didn’t like him giving her commands. “I have to bring m’lord water for his basin. He’s in his bedchamber being leeched. Not the regular black leeches but the big pale ones.”

Elmar’s eyes got as big as boiled eggs. Leeches terrified him, especially the big pale ones that looked like jelly until they filled up with blood…

…Leeches clung to the inside of his arms and legs and dotted his pallid chest, long translucent things that turned a glistening pink as they fed.

“At once, my lord.” It was best never to make Roose Bolton ask twice. Arya wanted to ask him what Ser Hosteen had meant about Winterfell, but she dared not. I’ll ask Elmar, she thought. Elmar will tell me. The leeches wriggled slowly between her fingers as she plucked them carefully from the lord’s body, their pale bodies moist to the touch and distended with blood. They’re only leeches, she reminded herself. If I closed my hand, they’d squish between my fingers.
— ARYA VIII, A CLASH OF KINGS

Also note that Bran refers specifically to a nest, which would indicate a home or residence. Coupled with our leeches, this would seem a possible reference to the Dreadfort, a nest of leeches figurative (and probably literal as well).

Now consider Bran’s thoughts about teeth at the end of his passage. Isn’t it interesting that grave worms are mentioned a few other times in the text (both as ‘grave worms’ and also as ‘graveworms’), yet no other occurrence mentions teeth.

Given the general suggestions to the Dreadfort, take note of the special attention the text gives to the appearance of the castle walls:

Out in the yard, night was settling over the Dreadfort and a full moon was rising over the castle’s eastern walls. Its pale light cast the shadows of the tall triangular merlons across the frozen ground, a line of sharp black teeth.
— REEK I, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

This suggestion that the castle itself has teeth is particularly ominous and fits incredibly well with the suggested connection.

How does the Dreadfort associate itself with kings? With the skins of the dead Stark kings that are rumored to be held in its dungeons.

As a bonus, recall that Bolton’s nickname is Lord Leech, and it all fits too perfectly.

*   *   *

There are many other shadows, and indeed places associated with kings, but I haven’t fully explored all of them. I stop here because I think I’ve made my point about as well as I can make it.

*   *   *

CONCLUSIONS


So what is the point of all of this?

One might simply argue that this was a pointless exercise, even if it does point out some intriguing ‘easter eggs’. Perhaps you like some but not all of them.

In reality, my purpose in writing this was to help substantiate my belief that Martin not only writes a story meant to be read in the conventional sense, but he also imbues his work with subtle mysteries like this, aimed directly at readers and designed to stimulate greater interest in his prose and in his world-building.

Put simply:

Martin covertly uses shadows as allegories for other places in the text, particularly places associated with kings for some reason.

This is yet another example of how he directly addresses the reader with prose and knowledge unavailable to inhabitants of the world he’s created.

The notion of this form of ‘direct address’ is something I wholeheartedly believe Martin employs. I believe he also uses it extensively in his implementation of prophecies and visions in A Song of Ice and Fire, as I’ve explained in another essay.

4 thoughts on “The Sea of Shadow: A Map to Dead Kings

  1. Sam

    Really interesting read, after so much analysis of the books its always nice to read fresh ideas and insight, particularly when it’s so well written.
    The only slight disagreement I might have is with the Bran example, where I’d always assumed that the ‘soft, pale, squishy’ things were the roots of the innumerable weirwoods within the cave and surrounding the CotF? Not that this invalidates what you;re saying, but I take it as the focus being more on the actual roots themselves, and their appearance as worms – rahter than on the shadows themselves.
    I don’t think there can be much doubt over the examples with Davos and the map, or the killing of Courtnay Penrose.
    Anyway, long time reader of these essays – I particularly loved the in-depth look at Stannis’ campaign, and it really reinforced to me why he is by far my favourite character. Thanks for all the enjoyable and interesting reads, and I’m hoping for plenty more to keep me entertained while waiting for TWOW!

    Reply
    1. cantuse Post author

      Thanks a bunch! This was an older essay, and after the attention it got on /r/asoiaf yesterday I re-read it. There are a couple of changes/additions I’d like to make in hindsight, aka I agree with some of what you’re saying.

      While writing this essay I knew that most readers would eventually reach a point where they thought I was grasping at straws. I kept trying to ‘prove’ every example beyond reasonable doubt but it was impossible. I ultimately decided to provide all of the examples and hope that readers were at least convinced about the Cortnay Penrose and Davos/Painted Table examples. As with a lot of my writings, I try to find an amazing idea that acts as a ‘tentpole’. By that I mean a sound, attractive theory that is so large it allows us to begin evaluating other hypotheses that might have otherwise seemed ludicrous. Hence the dabbling in other shadows. In this regard, I do feel that the hollow knights and Hightower/Lem examples were pretty compelling. I also liked the birthmark/Darklyn connection. I’ll admit some of the others are definitely YMMV.

      I always wanted to revisit this and look for or add other connections – I’d have to revisit my notes, I thought I found some after publishing this essay.

      Reply
  2. Lady Dyanna

    A little bit off topic, but your essay caused my mind to stray a little based on the quote provided towards the top from Patchface… Mellissandra has now birthed at least two of these shadow assassins into the world, but what exactly happens to them after they fulfill their purpose? Do the shadows indeed “come to stay?” Any thoughts? I can’t say I’ve ever seen a discussion on this topic, but I’m also very new to the ASOIAF world (only started with the series this past December to become completely hooked, setting me into an immediate re-read and binge-watch of GOT.)

    Reply

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