You Want to be …Fooled

I want to write a fun, explorative piece: more idea-fuel and moderate insights than it is ‘epic theory’—an essay full of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that reads like a series of magic tricks and less like rote historiography. So here’s an attempt.

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  • What would it take for you to distrust any prediction a character makes?

Obviously a mistaken interpretation or two will hurt someone’s belief. But what about an admission that they’re just guessing in the first place, something like this:

“Some may.” Could the skulls in her vision have signified this bridge? Somehow Melisandre did not think so. “If it comes, that attack will be no more than a diversion. I saw towers by the sea, submerged beneath a black and bloody tide. That is where the heaviest blow will fall.”


Was it? Melisandre had seen Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with King Stannis. That was where His Grace left Queen Selyse and their daughter Shireen when he assembled his knights for the march to Castle Black. The towers in her fire had been different, but that was oft the way with visions. “Yes. Eastwatch, my lord.”

In our haste to zip through Melisandre’s chapter and find the juicy details, we seem to have overlooked what I now think is perhaps the choicest morsel of all. Why?

It means that Melisandre often interprets her visions as applying to things other than literally what she sees.

This is hardly surprising though—we all know she makes mistakes. Even she admits it. But on the other hand, there’s really only one way to broadly interpret Melisandre’s statement:

Visions often show one thing, but are in truth about another.

If this is the case, then when Melisandre wrongly interprets a specific detail in a vision, she’s not only making mistakes, she is almost certainly misleading readers who trust her words or thoughts.

I know it sounds ridiculous: that her own thoughts would fool us. After all, if she saw Jon… she saw Jon. Why would the text in her own POV mislead us, the readers who are free from the supposed perils of bias that afflict the characters?

The assumption about what Melisandre sees being precisely what she thinks (or more accurately being what is on the page) is ignoring that we are reading words set out by an author who has no strict obligation to give us full, accurate information at all times. There have been several occasions where a character’s thoughts seem to omit details that readers could benefit from and have no real reason not to exist. Tyrion’s chain, Victarion’s ‘surgery’, and more, are all examples of when Martin’s words have deftly avoided the ‘whole truth’ in favor of a more compelling story. And as noted, Melisandre herself admitted that her visions may not apply to the exact objects, places or people she envisions… so even if you disagree and think her thoughts aren’t erroneous and that she actually saw Jon, the vision could still instead apply to someone else—by her own admission!

Anyways, It’s one thing to say this, its another to show you just how misleading a bad prediction can be. Like me, you almost certainly never realized that Melisandre’s first bad vision in A Dance with Dragons happens in Jon’s first chapter.

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  • Ready for a magic trick?

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Lets start with a classic Melisandre vision, perhaps one of the most studied since ADWD publication:

The flames crackled softly, and in their crackling she heard the whispered name Jon Snow. His long face floated before her, limned in tongues of red and orange, appearing and disappearing again, a shadow half-seen behind a fluttering curtain. Now he was a man, now a wolf, now a man again. But the skulls were here as well, the skulls were all around him. Melisandre had seen his danger before, had tried to warn the boy of it. Enemies all around him, daggers in the dark.

For completeness, there is a bit more to her visions about this topic, that come from her talks with Jon:

“Do not be so certain.” The ruby at Melisandre’s throat gleamed red. “It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold.”

She straight up says its Jon, so for most people that’s a satisfying conclusion. However, some time ago I made notice of the fact that Ramsay himself undergoes a man—wolf—man transformation of sorts. Neither one fits all the details though:

  • Jon doesn’t actually undergo any observed man—wolf—man transformation, unless you speculate as to his future (which I guess is fair).
  • Ramsay however does, but on an allegorical/symbolic level.
  • Jon doesn’t have skulls all around him at any point, and unless you hazard a guess that his body will get tossed in with some other skulls or bodies it doesn’t really fit.
  • Unless you are willing to wager that Ramsay ends up in the crypts, it seems like he doesn’t have skulls around him either.
  • Both have daggers all around, Jon clearly gets shanked by a few and the Great Hall of Winterfell allows nothing but daggers inside.
  • It’s cold when Jon gets stabbed, and a cold wind follows Hosteen into the Great Hall of Winterfell when he brings in the body of Little Walder.
  • Neither Jon nor Ramsay really fits with any part of her vision related to a face lit by fire (limned in tongues of red and orange), appearing and then disappearing.
  • Or half seen behind a fluttering curtain. You kinda/sorta have to make guesses about Jon being burned or something for it to make sense, and Ramsay… who knows.

I don’t want to waste time on a topic that will likely cause some disagreement, but lets just say that Jon makes sense as the clear target of Melisandre’s vision, and Ramsay is a alternative of questionable merit. The whole point I’m after here is not to say who the vision really is about, but point out who has been labeled a candidate thus far.

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  • But what if I told you that there was a much better match than both bastards for Melisandre’s vision?

This candidate under goes a man—wolf—man transformation, is lit by a fire that appears and then disappears, has skulls and enemies all around him, there is blood frozen red and hard, daggers in the dark, and it is incomparably cold. I am of course talking the other warg that is truly the intended parallel to Jon Snow:

Melisandre’s vision of Jon was actually about Varamyr Sixskins.

Here are supporting passages and how they connect to Melisandre’s words:

The air smelled of mold and damp, the ground was cold and hard, and his fire was giving off more smoke than heat.

Thus we see that Varamyr is sitting before a fire. This pairs with the words about a face ‘limned in tongues of red and orange’. The smoke from the fire also serves as the fluttering curtain that keeps the face ‘half-seen’.

That was when he noticed that his fire had gone out.

This matches with the stating ‘appearing and disappearing’, the idea that the vision of his face lit by fire appears and then vanishes. Martin has a tendency to use awkward phrases like ‘came and went and came again’ to indicate events that repeat or cycle… the absense of such words here fit with the fire going on.

The empty village was no longer empty. Blue-eyed shadows walked amongst the mounds of snow. Some wore brown and some wore black and some were naked, their flesh gone white as snow. A wind was sighing through the hills, heavy with their scents: dead flesh, dry blood, skins that stank of mold and rot and urine.

Here are the skulls and the enemies that are all around him.

The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill.

More skulls.

The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood.

Here is the blood frozen red and hard, the ice and daggers in the dark. The bit about frozen hard seems to make better sense here than elsewhere, because hard implies mass, and in most other instances frozen blood is just a stiff crust on someone’s clothing.

Finally, there are just too many references to the extreme cold in Varamyr’s chapter. You’ll just have to believe me or check yourself.

Outside of matching the vision to details from the prologue, there is another reason why Varamyr is a better match. In Melisandre’s vision, she talks about a transformation: from man to wolf to man again. And yet, not two sentences later in the same paragraph she refers to Jon as a boy. In fact, Melisandre only ever refers to Jon as a boy—never as a man. Thus if her vision was precise in seeing a ‘man’ undergoing this transformation, you’d think she was seeing someone else. Or at the very least, why wasn’t the transformation characterized as either boy-to-wolf-to-boy or boy-to-wolf-to-man. This is a conspicuous lapse in congruency, that Melisandre’s vision ascribes adult masculinity to Jon when her own words and thoughts betray that she thinks Jon is but a boy should indicate that something is ‘off’. If instead, you test the idea that the vision was about Varamyr instead, it makes much more sense.

All told I think this is a compelling amount of similarities. The only thing I can’t account for is Melisandre’s stated ‘naked steel’. While I could attempt some lame attempt at rationalizing an answer, I’d rather just be honest and leave it hanging. Perhaps its a legitimate problem with this reimagined interpretation of her vision, perhaps I’m just overlooking some spare detail which would account for it. It’s plausible that the ‘naked steel’ is yet another misinterpretation: after all, the ‘naked steel’ doesn’t appear in the vision from her point-of-view chapter, and only exists because she said so (meaning, she could have lied or misspoke or something).

Now comes the big question:

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  • Am I right? Do you think so?

I honestly don’t think that’s the most useful question to ask at this moment. While I’m obviously of a certain opinion, I feel like these things are often more art than science: some people will disagree regardless, emphasizing the fact that Melisandre’s point-of-view chapter unambiguously says she both saw Jon and heard his name. I get that, and so I get people who still think I’m wrong about this.

But what if the question is different:

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  • Was this parallel between Melisandre’s vision and Varamyr intended to be noticed by readers?

While this is obviously a fallacy because it asks you to predict what Martin’s intentions are, I will say this:

  • If you’re wondering if GRRM actually meant for Varamyr to be the person Melisandre saw, you might want to go glance at the final sentence in the prologue.

What you’ll find isn’t proof, but damn if it doesn’t put Cheez-Its in your orange soda.

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Melisandre’s internal admission that her visions are ‘oft’ not directly representational strongly suggests that we view them more in terms of symbols that actual picturesque imagery. This means that the unstated symbols and the specific prose used by Martin can be of more use to us than anything the seer(s) state about their visions.

While there is admittedly a huge risk of taking a vision and thus modifying it to say anything you want, if we combine a bit of restraint with crowd-sourcing the process of evaluating the various ideas, we stand a good chance of at least identifying good ‘candidate’ interpretations of the various visions in the books.

With that in mind, I want to look at a notorious Patchface vision. In Jon’s final chapter in A Dance with Dragons, Jon speaks to Queen Selyse about his plans for a rescue at Hardhome. They argue back and forth and finally someone asks Jon about who is going to lead any rescue mission:

Up spoke Ser Malegorn. “Lord Snow, who will lead this ranging?”

“Are you offering yourself, ser?”

“Do I look so foolish?”

Patchface jumped up. “I will lead it!” His bells rang merrily. “We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves we will ride seahorses, and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh.”

This line from Patchface has received a lot of attention over the years. There are a number of ideas about what Patchface’s words here mean: something bad happening at the Wall, Aurane Waters and his dromonds engaged in piracy, Euron’s fleet, and so forth.

I have previously written that it possibly references Stannis’s army marching into death and back out again, under any of various theories about Stannis faking his death after winning the battle at the crofter’s village.

While opinions vary, most people seem agreed on the notion that his words about ‘under the sea’ or ‘in the dark’ often refer to a state of ‘being on the other side’ of some threshold, or beyond some threshold and in the related domain. What those thresholds or domains are, however, is not something that is clear or agreed upon. There are some common ideas about what it might mean, though:

  • death
  • the Wall
  • the Narrow Sea
  • the reappearance of magic
  • winter
  • the long night
  • a storm

In general, the sorts of thresholds or domains that could be implied fall into three buckets: categorical (like the status of being dead), temporal (meaning some point in time), or spatial (meaning some location). In the case of Patchface’s vision shown above, it seems clear that he’s referring to the idea of leading people across some categorical and/or spatial threshold.

Thus, the other lines about riding seahorses and mermaids blowing seashells can be loosely interpreted follows:

  • a quest-like journey while on the other side of that threshold, through some special domain
  • while in that domain, travel using ‘steeds’ that are suited to that alien environment
  • when nearing the end of the journey on the other side, creatures with feminine attributes that are thematically associated with that domain will somehow herald the return of the travelers

It should be noted that this language of symbols doesn’t mean that Patchface’s visions are logical or that his terminology maps to exactly one answer, his words may refer to multiple thresholds or domains in a single passage. His visions may actually map to more than one situation or instance, which is largely corroborated by my other writings on the perils of prophecy in Westeros.

In any case I think the template above makes for a handy, reasonable way to start trying to decipher Patchface’s words.

To begin, however I want by bringing attention to something that it seems everyone has overlooked, a glaring omission in the efforts of many readers and theorists to resolve Patchface’s words to a useful meaning:

No one ever paid attention to the fact that Patchface says “I will lead it!”.

This is a curious bit from Patchface. Patchface almost never interprets his visions; his bizarre ramblings never more than just that: cryptic, vague metaphors that are almost impossible to decipher until long after a corresponding event occurs. As I’ve said many times throughout other essays, the chief error made by seers in ASOIAF is their attempts to interpret visions. I strongly believe this because prophecies aren’t devices for the characters to benefit from, they are a tool that Martin uses to play with the readers directly. More importantly, Patchface is unlikely to be leading anything.

So if we tentatively assume that Patchface is wrong when he says “I will lead it”, but made that statement based off of some symbolism that came to him in a ‘vision’ (or however he gets them), this presents an opportunity to answer a question or two:

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  • When Patchface says “I will lead it!”, what imagery or symbols prompted that declaration?
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  • Using that newfound set of symbols and imagery, can we deduce who might ‘actually’ lead whatever march Patchface spoke of?

Essentially the first question is the same as asking “What are some symbols or ideas that you would associate with Patchface?”. This is where the fun begins. If you were going to appreciate Patchface as a collection of symbols, ideas, characteristics, what makes him unique?

  • He’s a fool
  • He’s in motley
  • He wears an antler helm with bells in it.
  • He shouldn’t be alive.

Put simply, Patchface is a cryptic fool, adorned in motley and wearing an antler helm decked with bells and a bizarre story of surviving near death.

Any of those fundamental elements could be a symbol, and therefore useful for finding candidates for his vision. That said, I started by looking at antlers because it was the most unique and had the fewest alternative interpretations.

This led me directly to my first candidate for Patchface’s vision: a giant elk.

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The Great Elk

Just ahead, the elk wove between the snowdrifts with his head down, his huge rack of antlers crusted with ice.

This shows that the elk is ‘leading’ the party, as they trek to Bloodraven’s cave. Its antlers are bedecked in ice. I find this to be a fitting image that compares well to symbols that you could associate with Patchface. Additionally, we know that Bran’s group is-at the time of the excerpt-trekking to the cave of the three-eyed crow, across the land beyond the wall. When they arrive at the cave, they are greeted by the children of the forest. In fact you could say that they started this trek right after crossing the Wall and meeting coldhands.

So in a way, Bran’s journey with the elk at the fore is a pretty good match for what Patchface might have been talking about.

Just in case you suspect that Summer might actually ruin this idea because he would be in front, don’t fret, the text has that conspicuously covered:

Summer brought up the rear of their little band.

There’s just a few problem with this. That elk never makes it ‘out’ of whatever march they’re on:

The elk turns into snack food in BRAN II—ADWD.

And Bran is more accurately the one who shouldn’t be alive. So unless you conceive that Patchface meant the whole group (which is inconsistent with the idea of leading), it doesn’t make sense.

But of course, Bran is not the only other candidate. In the Bran example, we are interpreting Patchface’s use of the word ‘lead’ to mean literally being at the fore. However, there is the alternative, wherein ‘lead’ refers to commanding or directing others.

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The One True King

With that in mind, the answer to the following question should come naturally:

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  • What commander or leader of people is associated with antlers?

Obviously this means Stannis.

And boy does Stannis seem to fit with Patchface’s words:

  1. Stannis is effectively marching his men into a blizzard, snow, and seeming death.
  2. During the trek, the northmen put bear-paws on their feet and the feet of their horses to make the travel easier.
  3. Stannis’s army is a motley of northmen and southrons.
  4. And of course Stannis’s present mission seems totally foolish.
  5. Mors blows horns outside of Winterfell to announce the ‘arrival’ of Stannis.

This seems like a match. Mors isn’t exactly match for the feminine attribute Patchface uses when he talks about mermaids though, but so much of it fits, that it is hard to deny. I really don’t need to go any further.

But like the Elk, Stannis is supposedly dead at the end of A Dance with Dragons.

So he shouldn’t qualify either.

However, there may be more to Stannis than meets the eye. After all, it is widely believed that Stannis has some sort of trick up his sleeve that will give him an advantage. He may not win the campaign or even the war, but most reasonable readers assume he still has a card or two left to play. Thus he looks like a fool but isn’t.

Among the most popular of the ideas is that the king will prevail in the forthcoming battle and subsequently fake his death through some means. If this were true; Patchface’s words would seem to more literally embrace the idea of death: that Stannis was marching into death and back out of it. This is apropos in the context of Patchface’s vision and my ideas about symbols: by faking his death Stannis matches with the ‘I-should-be-alive’ quality that Patchface has.

One area where a lot of more extensive theorycraft gets muddy is the act of translating a faked death into what seems like the next step: capturing Winterfell. There are various ideas about people in diguise, hostages forcing Karstarks to lie to the Boltons, diversionary attacks, and so forth. The path to any foreseeable occupation has many prospective paths, but they all converge on a single point eventually: the doors to the castle have to open.

If the idea about a faked death is true, then I believe the observations above have directed me to what I believe is a more appropriate representative of the ‘mermaids’ from Patchface’s vision. But I’ll get to that in a bit. There’s just one more ‘candidate’ for Patchface’s vision to address.

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Lord of the Hornwood

By the logic I outlined above, even Ramsay Snow is tentatively a candidate: he is the supposed Lord of the Hornwood, whose sigil is a moose.

That said, he doesn’t seem to go on any observable journey that merits comparison to Patchface’s words about ‘marching into the sea’ and then ‘riding seahorses’. Further, there are no observed ‘mermaids’ to herald his coming. I mean, its plausible that Ramsay could fit this vision in a later event (which is why I included him), but as of now I can’t see it.

There’s also the fact that he’s only ever nominally associated with House Hornwood, so it would be a pretty remote stretch to think that Ramsay could associated with any symbols related to antlers.

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So there you have it: Bran (more accurately his elk I guess), Stannis, and Ramsay seem like possible matches. Stannis seems to be the best of all of them, and that’s not even accounting for any tricks he might have. I told you I’d explain my hypothesis about Patchface’s mermaids, but you’ll just have to bear with me a little longer. Since I didn’t originally intend this essay to cover that topic, it occurs later.

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Melisandre has a strong negative feeling about Patchface:

Melisandre’s face darkened. “That creature is dangerous. Many a time I have glimpsed him in my flames. Sometimes there are skulls about him, and his lips are red with blood.”

A wonder you haven’t had the poor man burned. All it would take was a word in the queen’s ear, and Patchface would feed her fires. “You see fools in your fire, but no hint of Stannis?”

The first reason this is amusing is because of a combination of Melisandre’s admission that her visions are often not direct matches, coupled with the idea that Patchface is merely just a symbol (the antlered motley fool). Essentially, what I’m saying here is this:

I can’t help but wonder if some of those times that Melisandre says she seen Patchface, she actually saw Stannis.

It’s an amusing thought, but the main reason it appeals to me is because there is this queer “I’m-not-touching-you” game regarding fools and kings throughout A Dance with Dragons:

“He sounds an utter fool.”

“Viserys was Mad Aerys’s son, just so.”

“All your questions shall be answered. Look to the skies, Lord Snow. And when you have your answers, send to me. Winter is almost upon us now. I am your only hope.”

“A fool’s hope.” Jon turned and left her.

If Griff wants to cast me as the fool, I’ll play the game.

“Your Grace could not have saved them,” said Ser Barristan. “You warned King Cleon against this war with Yunkai. The man was a fool, and his hands were red with blood.”

More fool him.

Jorah Mormont finally took pity on Tyrion’s struggles and pulled him to his feet. “You looked a fool.”

“Is Stannis fool enough to storm the castle?” a sentry asked.

“Do you take me for a fool, Obara?” The prince sighed.

Gerrick’s daughters shared her same flame-red hair, though hers had been a tangle of curls and theirs hung long and straight. Kissed by fire. “Three princesses, each lovelier than the last,” he told their father. “I will see that they are presented to the queen.” Selyse Baratheon would take to these three better than she had to Val, he suspected; they were younger and considerably more cowed. Sweet enough to look at them, though their father seems a fool.

Their path took them past the statue of Baelor the Blessed, standing tall and serene upon his plinth, his face a study in benevolence. To look at him, you would never guess what a fool he’d been.

I could go on. Obviously there are many more mentions of fools that aren’t in the context of a king or other ruler. I’m not saying that this is some unique bond between the word fool in the text and kings, only that they seem to be thematically linked.

I’m sure this sounds somewhat harebrained to some people, It still kinda does to me too. But then you must realize too, that the aggregate message of those excerpts is that one man’s king is another man’s fool. And by that light, the use of symbols or imagery of fools may indeed be a sensible symbol for a king, depending on the context.

But there is another, darker reason why Melisandre’s concerns interest me.

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Skulls and Red Lips

Here are Melisandre’s words again:

Melisandre’s face darkened. “That creature is dangerous. Many a time I have glimpsed him in my flames. Sometimes there are skulls about him, and his lips are red with blood.”

A wonder you haven’t had the poor man burned. All it would take was a word in the queen’s ear, and Patchface would feed her fires. “You see fools in your fire, but no hint of Stannis?”

Many, many people have noticed that her description is close to that of the sigil for House Lonmouth. Which of course means that many flavors of tinfoil have been born of these words—Richard Lonmouth was one of Rhaegar’s squires and is presumed missing or dead after Robert’s Rebellion. But honestly there is a far more compelling answer right in A Dance of Dragons.

Given that Melisandre has admitted that her visions are often inaccurate or don’t map to reality well, you have to wonder… could the skulls she sees around Patchface actually be something else? Symbols of death?

With the understanding that Melisandre’s ‘vocabulary’ for this vision may be wrong, we can ponder what other symbols or icons convey the same macabre features of a skull: eyeless yet seeming to see all, intrinsically associated with the death of the owner, a ghastly expression.

Could the skulls actually be something else—like faces, masks, or the like?

Because given one change in line with Melisandre’s admitted error with visions, Patchface suddenly sounds like he’s been in the House of Black and White.

A thousand faces were gazing down on her.

They hung upon the walls, before her and behind her, high and low, everywhere she looked, everywhere she turned. She saw old faces and young faces, pale faces and dark faces, smooth faces and wrinkled faces, freckled faces and scarred faces, handsome faces and homely faces, men and women, boys and girls, even babes, smiling faces, frowning faces, faces full of greed and rage and lust, bald faces and faces bristling with hair. Masks, she told herself, it’s only masks, but even as she thought the thought, she knew it wasn’t so. They were skins.

He led her across the chamber, past a row of tunnels leading off into side passages. The light of his lantern illuminated each in turn. One tunnel was walled with human bones, its roof supported by columns of skulls.

Still as stone, she thought. She sat unmoving. The cut was quick, the blade sharp. By rights the metal should have been cold against her flesh, but it felt warm instead. She could feel the blood washing down her face, a rippling red curtain falling across her brow and cheeks and chin, and she understood why the priest had made her close her eyes. When it reached her lips the taste was salt and copper. She licked at it and shivered.

As you can see, simply considering the idea that the skulls Melisandre is seeing refer to masks instead makes for a compelling reinterpretation of her words:

  • ?
  • Could Patchface now or have previously been a Faceless Man?

Before going further, keep in mind a few reasons why this is such a fun, compelling idea:

  • He was cold and dead according to people who found him.
  • By all accounts he behaves like a completely different person than who was described by Steffon Baratheon.
  • He was procured while on a mission to find a bride for Rhaegar Targaryen
  • His goddam name is Patchface.

The reason for the mention about the mission to find a bride is because it is tantamount to going on a world tour—the headline act written in giant marquee letters “More Targs Incoming”. This was always bound to draw the attention of those in power who love or hated Valyrians or just wanted to profit.

While there is still lots of discussion concerning how the Free Cities might react, many readers are quite taken with ideas have been raised that the Faceless Men, the Iron Bank, the Sealord of Braavos or maybe the entire city, does not want to see dragons or the rise to prominence of Valyrians. There is often speculated obsession with dragon eggs, that the faceless men are after them. Sometimes even as bold as theories that they had a hand in the disaster of Summerhall, or Hardhome. It is unclear. If any of those ideas are true, then perhaps Patchface plays some role in stymieing efforts at dragon eggs, stone dragons, and so forth that might be associated with Stannis, Dragonstone or some other element of the crushed Targaryen dynasty.

As for why Patchface has his strange visions, who knows? Honestly, given that prophecy is more for readers than the characters, Patchface is something of a Tom Bombadil character to me.

Further, Patchface isn’t really my cup of tea, so I’m not exactly invested in any particularly viewpoint. I’m not gonna sit here and debate whether or not what I’ve said is actually true or not. This could be total bullshit, and I’d still think this exercise was a fun lark. However, I do believe it warrants a question:

  • ?
  • Was this possible interpretation of Melisandre’s vision—that Patchface was someone affiliated with the faceless men—intentionally written into the story, or is it a complete fabrication by me?

In Martin’s very first novella, With Morning Comes Mistfall, he betrays one one themes that permeates his entire body of work: the existence of great unsolvable mysteries may often be better for the human experience that dry hermetic knowledge devoid of seductive uncertainty. This observation of Martin’s interest—appreciating the incomprehensibleness of the world as a theme—makes it clear that some mysteries in A Song of Ice and Fire will never be resolved, and this is by design. But it also indicates that Martin’s writing can be ‘hacked’ after a fashion: while he does a superlative job at creating mysteries that we struggle to solve, he’s often very obvious about the existence of the mysteries in the first place. Thus sometimes its worth pondering to identify the mysteries which are probably created for the reader to encounter and forever mull over.

To this end, while I certainly agree that interpreting Melisandre’s vision as I’ve done here is not some sort of solid confirmation of a faceless man connection to Patchface—I do believe that the possibility of such a mysterious connection seems strong enough that it might be intentional, something we were expected to find, like our Varamyr.

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In other essays I thoroughly tackled the observation that seers often have visions that, while true when understood by the reader, have no real applicability to the seer’s current situation—often the real applicability of a seer’s vision happens to be in a completely different plot-line in the books, often happening at some other moment in time as well.

A specific variant on this idea is that the seers in A Dance with Dragons do the following series of actions, which are only noticeable by readers:

  1. These seers have a vision of sorts.
  2. They interpret it in one fashion that ends up having calamitious consequences.
  3. Elsewhere in the books a more apropos manifestation of their vision appears.

I feel confident that I successfully argued these points in my other writings. However, I recently noticed a vision that I’ve never considered before… because we only ever have second-hand information about what was seen. Even though we have such a limited ability to know the original vision, I believe we can make some striking interpretations that, once again, are intended to be mulled over by readers.

The vision in question comes from the Green Grace of Astapor, and was originally interpreted as some sort of vision that would save Astapor from the Yunkai:

The cobbler told them how the body of the Butcher King had been disinterred and clad in copper armor, after the Green Grace of Astapor had a vision that he would deliver them from the Yunkai’i. Armored and stinking, the corpse of Cleon the Great was strapped onto the back of a starving horse to lead the remnants of his new Unsullied on a sortie, but they rode right into the iron teeth of a legion from New Ghis and were cut down to a man.

The rest was butchery, but this time it was the Butcher King on the wrong end of the cleaver. Caggo was the one who finally cut him down, fighting through the king’s protectors on his monstrous warhorse and opening Cleon the Great from shoulder to hip with one blow of his curved Valyrian arakh. Frog did not see it, but those who did claimed Cleon’s copper armor rent like silk, and from within came an awful stench and a hundred wriggling grave worms. Cleon had been dead after all. The desperate Astapori had pulled him from his tomb, clapped him into armor, and tied him onto a horse in hopes of giving heart to their Unsullied.

The big man pointed out the Butcher King to him, sitting stiff and tall upon an armored horse in a suit of copper scale that flashed brilliantly in the morning sun.

Dead or alive, the Butcher King still took the Wise Masters unawares.

This is more or less the extent of what we know about the vision experienced by the Green Grace of Astapor. While it would be best if we had access to the exact ‘prose’ of her vision, there is enough content here to make some inferences about what her original vision might have been:

If you attempt to ‘reverge engineer’ the facts in these excerpts into symbols or ideas that may have been in the vision, there are some very compelling findings:

  • A dead king: Clearly the vision must have suggested something about a dead king being a savior of sorts, somehow rising or returning from the dead to vanquish some outside threat.
  • A red king: The king’s red scale armor made of copper is a striking feature, suggesting that the envisioned ‘dead’ king was also affiliated with the color red.
  • Armored in sunlight: Coupled with the distinctive coloration of this king, it also appears that the king seemed to embody or project the light of sun in an intense fashion.
  • A starving horse: The Cobbler’s tale specifically mentions that Cleon’s body was strapped to a starving horse. This seems like the kind of detail that, if the horse being starved was incidental (meaning the Astapori merely chose a starving horse because of logistical reasons) wouldn’t have been common knowledge or shared as a part of the story. Thus, the fact that the starving horse is mentioned at all implies (to me anyways) that it was a part of the original vision.

The elements listed here are the ones that, from the details we have, seem to be odd enough to have come from a vision.

There are some additional factors about the situation in Astapor when the vision was enacted. These other factors, while not specifically weird enough to sound like they came from a vision, may have been somehow in the visions or in some other way contributed to the determination that the Grace’s vision was truly aimed at the Astapori and their salvation, and not some delusion.

The two most prominent of these other factors concern the state of the army and the city of Astapor at the time of the vision.

  • The first is that observation that the army that Astapor had consisted of nothing but half-training unsullied with little training or discipline.
  • The other, more notable factor is the starvation and desperation that is depicted within Astapor at the time of this vision:

    “Outside our walls, the Yunkai’i devoured our crops and slaughtered our herds,” the cobbler went on. “Inside we starved. We ate cats and rats and leather. A horsehide was a feast. King Cutthroat and Queen Whore accused each other of feasting on the flesh of the slain. Men and women gathered in secret to draw lots and gorge upon the flesh of him who drew the black stone. The pyramid of Nakloz was despoiled and set aflame by those who claimed that Kraznys mo Nakloz was to blame for all our woes.”

Given all the details I’ve enumerated, like me you can probably guesstimate what the Green Grace’s original vision likely was:

A dead king come back to life, (armored/clothed) in (red/sunlight), riding a starving horse, would (deliver his people from death and starvation and enemies).

While obviously this vision didn’t work out for Astapor, it doesn’t take a genius to spot two or three candidates elsewhere in the books:

  1. Aegon VI: He’s obviously a red king thought dead. The starving horse bit has less seeming applicability. At a stretch, Aegon is also a son rising to power, thus the Cleon’s copper armor reflecting the morning (rising) sun may also be relevant.
  2. Jon Snow: Under the all-but-confirmed theory about Jon’s Targaryen ancestry, he also fills several of the vision’s seeming criteria: he is likely dead, his Targaryen ancestry would affiliate him with the color red. Under the same stretchy logic I used for Aegon, Jon would also exemplify the rising son/rising sun parallel.
  3. Stannis Baratheon: Under the popular notion that Stannis fakes his own death, he certainly qualifies as a dead king. Given his sigil of the flaming heart and his affiliation with the red god, he also matches the ‘red king’ characteristic. Even more apropos are the details about being armored/clothed in a brilliant red that flashed sunlight. And finally, what sets him apart from the other ‘red kings’ is the fact that Stannis is almost certainly riding a starving horse.

As you can see, when you step back and revisit the Green Grace’s vision, you can see how she likely saw a vision of Stannis (or less likely a Targaryen heir), but in her desperation misinterpreted it to be about Astapor. This is consistent with the perils of prophecy that I’ve already outlined in the previous essays Prophecy: A Cipher for Readers and The Error of Her Ways.

When you couple this vision from the Green Grace with my earlier assessment of Patchface’s “march into the sea”, it seems like there are multiple seers of different strokes that all seem to see Stannis: Patchface with his march, the Green Grace of Astapor with her dead, red king on a starving horse armored in sunlight, Melisandre and her antlered fool.

I of course accept that some people might think I’ve been a little liberal with the rules to concoct a theory that I already had in mind. And yeah, that’s certainly a risk. But I sourced the basis of my ‘reinterpretation’ of Melisandre’s visions to her own words saying that what she sees is often literally wrong. I based my interpretation of Patchface’s vision on a more comprehensive approach that included the heretofore “I will lead it!” line. And my assessment of the Green Grace’s vision was honest about the shortcomings of my approach and only truly tried to appraise things that seemed truly bizarre enough to have only made sense coming from a vision.

It should also be noted that I don’t really ‘need’ any of these ideas to be true. It’s well-known that I have written extensively about Stannis and am probably biased. But none of my prior work is dependent on visions or prophecy for explanation. Because of Martin’s preference for unsolvable mysteries, its unlikely that these ideas about visions will sit well with everyone. That’s unavoidable.

  • ?
  • Is this hypothetical interpretation of these visions correct?

In a lot of cases like this its often useless and incendiary to try and ask or posit an answer to this question. Everyone has their own read on the prose. I would be a hypocrite to point out that Martin wants us to savor mystery as much as possible and then pretend that I’ve totally got it all worked out.

  • ?
  • Were these hypothetical interpretations intended to be found and discussed?

To me this is a much better question, because its recognizes that using prophecy or visions to argue for a factual determination of the future is fools work. It recognizes Martin’s desire for incomprehensibility and attempts to work with it.

It is as the famous hosiery connosieur Harry Truman said: You cannot beat a river into submission; you have to surrender to its current, and use its power as your own.

I just hope you can sit back and tolerate—enjoy even—the ride while I finish this out.

* * *


Jon_Arryn_Silent_Sisters_FuneralEarlier in this essay, I told you had a possible explanation for Patchface’s ‘mermaids who blow seashells’, from the following excerpt:

Patchface jumped up. “I will lead it!” His bells rang merrily. “We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves we will ride seahorses, and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh.”

Now is the time to reveal that tantalizing possibility. However, in order to do so we must first take a diversion and head into the Winterfell crypts, with none other that Barbrey Dustin and Theon.

* * *

In A Dance with Dragons, Lady Dustin confronts Theon and orders him to lead her to the crypts. Obedient as ever, he does as she commands and leads them into the crypts.

What interests a lot of people about this scene is the mystery of Dustin’s motive:

  • ?
  • Why does Dustin want to visit the crypts so badly?

The intuitive answer is that its because she wants to visit Brandon’s tomb. However, at the end of the chapter Lady Dustin warns Theon not to tell anyone of anything she might have said while in the crypts. This final command and the associated threat betray to readers that something important was shared while in the crypts—but we don’t know which parcels of their conversation are of value and which are not.

In mysteries like these, where a reader is left to ponder what element of a conversation has hidden value, there is a particular strategy I like to use:

  1. First I attempt to establish who initiated or currently seems to be the pursuer or ‘driver’ of a conversation: Who is the one that wants to talk?
  2. Then I look for incidental speech. This is conversation that, while flavorful and possibly full of secrets as well, is driven more by things encountered by the group in the course of talking.
  3. I also look for interjectional/tangential speech. This is talk derived from some tangent, almost always started by the participants in a conversation, and not the person who really sought out the conversation in the first place.
  4. Once accounted for, I set aside the incidental and tangential portions of a conversation and focus on the elements that truly seem to be driven by the original ‘driver’ of the conversation.
  5. Lastly, I look for when the ‘driver’ of conversation is ready to quit the conversation, which indicates when they’ve finished exchanging whatever knowledge they wanted to share or gather.

In doing this, I unmask the core topics that aconversation was intended to discuss, which can often be revealing as to a character’s motive or form subsequent ideas or questions.

Martin’s dialogue often feels very natural, and thus full of tangents and incidental talk. This has a tendency to confuse the core issues that people are trying to talk about. Using the above strategy helps me zero in on people and get a better picture of their motive.

In the case of Barbrey Dustin’s conversation in the crypts with Theon, there are only a few moments where she’s truly conveying something that isn’t incidental or tangential:

  • She complains about Arya’s crying. Its also all-but-stated that she knows that its not really Arya. She mentions that it is bad for morale and more dangerous than Stannis himself.
  • Dustin asks if Theon knows where Ned Stark’s tomb is.
  • She reveals a big picture overview of the ‘southron ambitions’ that she blames for the politics that kept her from Brandon Stark and forced her into a loveless marriage that ended abruptly.
  • Finally, Lady Dustin states that Ned Stark’s bones will never come back to Winterfell, to be fed to her dogs.

This is pretty good overview of the topics that Dustin brings up of her own volition. With that in mind, you have to wonder about two things:

  • ?
  • Which of these details is she concerned about when telling Theon not to talk about anything?
  • ?
  • Why did she ask where Ned Stark’s tomb was, only to mostly ignore it and look at and talk about the other statues?

Let’s start with the latter question. There are only two foreseeable reasons for Dustin to ask for Ned’s statue and then seem to ignore it:

  • because she either only needed to see it briefly, or…
  • because she lied about which statues truly interested her.

Given that this is such a trivial request of no seeming consequence, it doesn’t make sense that she’d lie. No one would be offended by her choice of Stark to admire. So I’m of the impression that she simply wanted a brief look at Ned’s tomb. Indeed, that’s what we see in the text.

Alternatively, she might have somehow heard the story of Bran and Rickon surviving in the crypts and came to see if there was any evidence. But even if that’s something she perhaps does, it has no bearing on the secrecy she demands from Theon.

Given these observations, I’m inclined to guess that Lady Dustin asked about Ned’s tomb because she only needed to confirm something that could be discerned effortlessly: and to wit, that most likely means she was verifying if the tomb was empty or full, open or shut.

While its interesting to ponder Dustin’s motivations regarding Ned’s tomb, there’s no reason why her interest in it should be kept a secret either.

Now we can look at those other details, the topics that Dustin seemed to bring to the fore on her own and assess how secretive they must need to be:

  • I highly doubt that Dustin’s complaints about Arya’s crying are meant to be a secret. She literally says that Ramsay needs to be told to fix it. Further, I don’t she’s the only person at Winterfell who thinks this.
  • I’ve already mentioned some thoughts on Dustin’s asking about Ned’s tomb.
  • While the ‘southron ambitions’ details are amazing and fill in a lot of details that readers can appreciate, all of the secrets and insights from it are fifteen years old at least. I can’t see how this would be damaging. Indeed, I would be surprised if most of the other northern lords didn’t know this already.

Which leads me to the last topic that Dustin brings up of her own volition: the fate of Ned Stark’s bones. She reveals to Theon her apparent intentions to confiscate Ned Stark’s bones should she ever find them. This is almost certainly the information that Dustin wants kept a secret. If you are asking why, consider the following:

  • ?
  • Ned’s bones were last seen in the custody of Hallis Mollen, a small honor guard of northmen and the silent sisters. How is she going to confiscate the bones without addressing their custodians?
  • ?
  • What would the other northern Houses think if it was revealed that Dustin fed the bones to her dogs?

So you can see the obvious predicament she puts herself in with this plot. It’s obvious that she wouldn’t want people to know this. So why tell Theon if these ideas are so dangerous to her?

I’m not sure, honestly. Ultimately I think the problem she faces is that the bones are expected to show up at Winterfell eventually. So even if she murders everyone and throws the bones away, the north will still wait expectantly; the missing bones an affront to northern custom. While I’m not sure what to make of all this, what it does do in general is conjure up a sense of mystery and deception regarding the bones. Could Dustin seize the bones and send another skeleton in its place? Possibly yes.

But consider the alternative: That Dustin is lying to Theon. Why would she lie? Well one reason is because she ‘knows’ he can’t keep secrets—after all the secondary words of House Bolton are “A naked man’s got few secrets, a flayed man none”. In that case, the reason to tell Theon is because she wants other people to somehow find out. We could speculate as to who: Mance or some other person in the castle? Maybe even Ramsay or Roose for some reason.

Taking a step back, regardless of the truth… this mystery lends a cloudy air of mystery and falseness to the bones, should they ever appear… that they’ve somehow been tampered with, corrupted or bewitched.

As I said, I’m not quite sure what to make of this other than it feels … ominous. And yet… it may not be necessary to have a fully formed definite, proof for an answer in order to grope around in the dark and stumble upon a thread that leads us somewhere perhaps enlightening.

* * *

Putting it Together

We are in the endgame now, just a few more steps and my conclusion is at hand. We just have some last-minute work to do.

  • First, consider the unique power of the bones. Should the bones arrive at Winterfell, you would expect that all northmen demand a proper burial for Ned. Thus the castle would need to open their doors and accept his bones and the retinue of people escorting them.
  • Second, notice that regardless of how you slice Lady Dustin’s statements about Ned’s bones, it conjures up an aura of secrecy and possible deception. We don’t know necessarily what’s going on, but that whatever it is-its fishy as hell.

And seven hells, I can finally loop this tangent back into Patchface’s words:

Patchface jumped up. “I will lead it!” His bells rang merrily. “We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves we will ride seahorses, and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh.”

What I promised you, oh so long ago in this essay was that I had a better manifestation of the ‘mermaids blowing seashells’ to announce the coming/return of Stannis. Let me ask you something:

  • ?
  • If Stannis fakes his death, and thus is marching into ‘death’ per Patchface’s vision, what feminine creatures are strongly associated with death’s domain?

If it wasn’t obvious at this point, here you go:

The women in grey bowed their heads. The silent sisters do not speak to the living, Catelyn remembered dully, but some say they can talk to the dead. And how she envied that . . .

Putting it plainly, here is my hypothesized ‘mermaids’ from Patchface’s riddle:

The mermaids that will announce Stannis’s coming are the silent sisters escorting Ned’s bones.

Now, please keep in mind that I know this is all very tenuous, I don’t normally work with visions much beyond showing their inaccuracy, when interpreted by characters in the books. On the contrary I do strongly believe that readers can benefit from them, while obviously aware of being susceptible to the same errors of translation.

Anyways, this notion of the silent sisters heralding Stannis conjures up visions of using Ned Stark’s bones like some sort of trojan horse.

But there are a ton of logistical hurdles involved in any attempt to make something like this a reality outside of a vision. I’m not saying its impossible, but it seems like it would a big task for Martin to write sensibly implement any such idea.

But again, coupled with the strange significance Lady Dustin conferred onto Ned’s remains, it draws attention to them and their political significance is such that the Boltons would need to necessarily let some people into the castle, possibly resulting in a Trojan Horse-like assault.

So once again, we’re left with a conundrum, an interesting idea that could be dismissed out of hand, and that larger question of whether or not this was a plausible—better yet intended—possible interpretation. I think that is really up to each reader to decide at this point.

NOTE: I will say that it is also interesting that Lady Stoneheart is referred to as the Silent Sister at times. Just putting that out there for the people who have yearned to have the Brotherhood turn north eventually.

* * *

Rather than belaboring the ending of this essay, I’ll stop here.

If you were to ask me to tell you which of the above interpretations I believe or don’t believe personally, I would say this:

  • I’m pretty sure I’m dead to rights on the Melisandre vision of Varamyr.
  • The idea that many of the times Melisandre thought she saw Patchface the antlered fool she was actually seeing Stannis is simply irresistible. I wouldn’t put it past her. And after all Jon practically lampshades it by saying she’s a fools hope.
  • I’m pretty satisfied with my general interpretation of Patchface’s “march into the sea” vision where I declared it to be about Stannis. But I admit that is tentative and based on ideas that Stannis fakes his death.
  • The idea that Patchface is somehow connected to the Faceless Men seems absurd. But there are a strange number of compelling reasons its makes sense. Thus, like Melisandre I would wager Patchface is dangerous, but for possibly different reasons.
  • I feel like I made about as reasonable an attempt to decipher the Green Grace’s vision in Astapor, and that it just happens to be strongly applicable to the various Stannis-fakes-his-death theories.
  • As for the the notion that the silent sisters with Eddard Stark’s remains are the mermaids from Patchface’s vision is striking and would make for a compelling match. However I’ve got nothing to support it beyond my interpretation of a few visions.

Thanks for reading. I did not intend for this to be nearly ten thousand words long.

8 thoughts on “You Want to be …Fooled

  1. Tyler

    “He shouldn’t be alive.” More specifically, he was drowned. Importance? I’m not sure, but I can’t help but feel a relation to the iron born words, “What is dead may never die.”

    I’m firmly in the camp of the wall being the proverbial ring of salt to keep the boogie man out, literally being frozen salt water at its core. That’s why bran tasted “salty like tears” water going through the black gate.

    My other theory, is that people who have died and came back are immune to the others ‘turning’, hence the words, and why the others don’t just swim south.

    I do like your idea that patchface is analogous to Stannis. Him saying “I will lead it” referring to Stannis does make more sense than as if he were referring to the “returned living” (For lack of a better term) leading it, which could be Jon, or some of the iron men we have met in the North.

    If the drowned cannot be turned, this was the day I theorized it, thanks to your writings. (I always assumed it meant the iron born would end up on the undead side, a’la Euron.) Could be wrong, but fun to theorize.

  2. g0ld00

    I really like your demonstration of the sideways possibility of Patchface’s prophecy being linked to Stannis’assault on Winterfell. While looking at your link between Varamyr and Melisandre’s prophecy, I wanted to look at the last sentence of the Prologue and opened up by kindle version of ADWD and, of course, got to the last page of the epilogue and its last sentence.

    “And in their hands, the daggers”

    It made me re-read the whole epilogue just to see if the methodology of your analysis would hold as to the imagery found in Melisandre’s vision and it holds up well, although not perfectly.

    I would gladly see your take on it.

  3. The Fattest Leech

    Any thoughts on this vision sequence? It seems a little too straightforward to be the Fist battle compared to the other fire visions, but maybe I am wrong? Maybe this one is “more correct” because it comes from Stannis? Just looking for other input. Thanks.
    A Storm of Swords – Davos IV
    [Davos] “You saw it, sire?” It was not like Stannis Baratheon to lie about such a thing.

    “With mine own eyes. After the battle, when I was lost to despair, the Lady Melisandre bid me gaze into the hearthfire. The chimney was drawing strongly, and bits of ash were rising from the fire. I stared at them, feeling half a fool, but she bid me look deeper, and . . . the ashes were white, rising in the updraft, yet all at once it seemed as if they were falling. Snow, I thought. Then the sparks in the air seemed to circle, to become a ring of torches, and I was looking through the fire down on some high hill in a forest. The cinders had become men in black behind the torches, and there were shapes moving through the snow. For all the heat of the fire, I felt a cold so terrible I shivered, and when I did the sight was gone, the fire but a fire once again. But what I saw was real, I’d stake my kingdom on it.”

    “And have,” said Melisandre.

  4. Aaron Deemer

    My interpretation of Lady Dustin’s motivation was a bit different. I agree with you that she seems to have wanted to check out the crypt and that whatever she was looking for, it didn’t take her long to verify it. But I’m pretty sure it’s about the missing swords and other signs that Bran/Rickon and company were in the crypts. Most likely, Rickon and Osha have turned up offscreen and Dustin is being wooed as a potential ally. She claims to hate the Starks, but it’s clear she loved Ned’s brother, Brandon.

    But, she needs proof that Rickon is who they say he is. She doesn’t want to be tricked by another “Arya”. Rickon/Osha told her their story, mentioning the swords they took from the crypt. So, Dustin gets Theon to show here the crypts. They make a beeline for Ned’s statue, noting the missing swords. It’s likely been many years since she last saw Ned Stark in person, and seeing his statue (as well as the much younger statue of Brandon) is probably also her looking for the likeness between Ned/Brandon and Rickon

  5. Shannon

    Just wanted to say: I am so very happy to see you having written again!! Looking forward to reading this when I have the time to relish it (this week)!

  6. Bryan

    Can’t tell you how happy I am to see your back! I feared we’d never hear from you again. I hope this means you’re health has improved!
    Just before you stopped posting you sent me an email address so I could have you look at a theory. Before I could send it I had a few health issues as well and by the time I was up and about again you’d gone dark. If you’re still willing to take a peek at it contact me at the email below. It’ll take a couple days for me to polish it off, been awhile since I last looked at it, and I’ll email it to you. Either way, it’s great to see you back!

  7. Illyrio Mo'Parties

    Varamyr – Melisandre’s vision would surely show him turning from man to wolf, but not back to man again. Or is that the final abomination that he’s going to try? His wolf join Summer’s pack – is Varamyr in the cave with Bran, soaking up all the skinchanging lessons and ready to try and take human form once more?

    This would make sense of something else: she sees Bran and Bloodraven later – is she actually seeing two visions connected to Bran, and to a possible attempt on his life by Varamyr? Will Varamyr warg Hodor – the easiest human to warg – and roam free and kill people? If Hodor suddenly starts talking or being sly – watch out!


    Patchface leading an expedition actually fits pretty well with Dontos: a fool who saves someone, rides on a boat into the sea – to a ship called the Merling King, iirc – the only problem is that he doesn’t ride out again. (But maybe he will? No, that’s crazy talk.)


    Other options for the subject of the Green Grace’s vision:

    * Quentyn
    * Rhaegar
    * Mance

    There’s probably more if we put our minds to it.

    1. cantuse Post author

      Sorry for the delay in approving this comment. The bit about Dontos is pretty funny, but I agree I’m not sure how it fits.


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