CAVEAT EMPTOR: The following post will contain spoilers for specific incidents in HBO’s series, Game of Thrones, from Seasons 5-6. You have been warned.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
Game of Thrones has now concluded its sixth season in what can only be described as “epic” fashion. And while I would love nothing more than to write a small dissertation on every single scene from the season finale (“The Winds of Winter”), I want to, instead, focus upon one specific moment: the dismissal of the Red Witch, Melisandre, by Jon Snow.
The confrontation between Davos and the Red Witch, Melisandre over the immolation of Shireen in the finale of the fifth season (“The Dance of Dragons”) has been a long time coming, and was one of those scenes where I spent the majority of its duration hurling profane insults at her character with some smatterings of “You get ‘er, Davos!” for good measure. I guess by this point it’s easy to guess that I don’t particularly like Melisandre. It started as general dislike and a kind of unease with the religious fanatic which quickly exploded into a visceral inferno of loathing. I hate Melisandre and relish the day that either Davos or Arya ends her life — personally, I would prefer it be Davos, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Despite this hatred, I don’t feel the same way towards R’hllor. I talked a bit about the Red God when I analyzed Shireen’s death and came to the conclusion that, as a potentially divine being, the Lord of Light was relatively blameless in the young girl’s demise. He explicitly demands nothing of the humans who serve him. Now, sure, I’m not too fond of just about any of the religions of A Song of Ice and Fire, with perhaps the exception of the Old Gods of the North due to their mystery. Making the distinction between a perceived deity and its followers is an important one to me, especially in this situation wherein it would be easy to call R’hllor “evil,” just as Davos does in this scene.
But, again, R’hllor never comes down to give explicit instructions; he doesn’t appear to lay out anything concrete to the audience, or even to his followers. What he offers are “signs” — usually visions in the flames — that must be interpreted by the priests or priestesses who serve him. What someone like, say, Stannis gets from Melisandre is not the direct word of R’hllor, but an interpretation: something that is from man, not god. This distinction between the deity and its worshippers is something that Melisandre herself has pointed out to the audience, as in the sixth season’s ninth episode (“The Battle of the Bastards”) in conversation with Jon:
Melisandre: “I serve the Lord of Light. I do what he commands.”
Jon: “How do you know what he commands?”
Melisandre: “I interpret his signs…as well as I can.”
In other words, she guesses — not only that, she guesses without explicit affirmation of accuracy until it’s too late to do anything. She’s like the men of Plato’s Politea (Πολιτεία): looking at shadows on a cave wall that are but a facsimile of reality, not reality itself. This knowledge that Melisandre is guessing, injecting her own thoughts and opinions into what she claims are the commands of a god, is what gives me cause to loathe Melisandre more than the Lord of Light.
This analysis is what also leads me to conclude that Melisandre originated the idea to burn Shireen alive. It was Melisandre who had the idea to murder a little girl who, as Davos says, was “good [and] kind.” And it was Melisandre who never thought twice about this same, horrible idea. The only thing the Red Witch offers as a potential counter-argument during this scene is that “so did [Shireen’s] father. So did her mother” when it came to who burned the girl at the stake. And, yes, I’ll agree with that: Stannis and Selyse were both complicit in this scheme, even though the latter did have a change of heart at the actual event. I think neither of Shireen’s parents are wholly blameless in the act of their daughter’s murder, but that Melisandre would list them all as equal is to what I personally object. Davos points out that:
Davos: “You told everyone Stannis was the one. You had him believing it — all of them fooled.”
Melisandre got them all believing. Stannis, Selyse, the Baratheon bannermen and soldiers — all of them believed. The result of this was that Stannis himself believed in Melisandre so much that she was able to hold sway over decisions the middle Baratheon brother made. After all, how many seasons did we spend watching Davos fight her influence over Stannis to no avail? It was like if Melisandre said “jump,” Stannis and Selyse asked “how high?” She enthralled the couple to the point that they more than believed in her illusions. Now, to be fair, she does work some magic — though she’d be the first to tell you that it’s all the Lord of Light’s magic and not her own — so calling what she does illusion might be too strong. But I use the word only to illustrate that Stannis and Selyse were believing in a woman who was playing at tricks, and both the Baratheons believed it. There’s a great quote from the film, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, where the eponymous character details the differences between “illusion” and “delusion,” saying:
Harlock: “Illusion is a sleight of hand, a trick. Can’t blame the ones who fall for it. But those who know it’s a trick and still believe it? That’s delusion.”
When I follow that definition, Melisandre’s own tricks are, therefore, illusion to Stannis and Selyse, who believe in the Red Witch’s own power; conversely, that same definition would label her personal beliefs as delusion, for she is aware that she is powerless. In fact, Carice vs Houten, the actress portraying the character, herself notes that, at the season start, Melisandre is “defeated” because, as the character says, “the great victory I saw in the flames was a lie.” And yet despite all of this, Melisandre continually dares to speak for a god, as a god, and with the power of said god. What she preaches are her own words and interpretations, stated as fact — as if from the lips of R’hllor itself. Therefore, while the immolation of Shireen rests at all three of these people’s feet, the largest pile of ashes lies before Melisandre.
And the worst part of it all is that she never apologises for what she did. In that scene within the season 6 finale, Melisandre continually makes excuses and explanations for what she did, consistently attempting to justify her actions, but never once saying that she is in any way sorry that she killed that little girl — that she killed countless others because she “made a mistake” in believing Stannis was the ‘Prince Who Was Promised.’ I think that’s what gets me the most. That’s what fans the flames of my righteous hatred against this Red Witch more than anything else.
I also cannot help but wonder, had she not been confronted, would Melisandre have ever even thought of Shireen again? Would she have admitted to Jon the atrocity she both proposed and committed? Would she have confessed to the crime of deliberate, premeditated murder?
I think not, because even when confronted with it, she doesn’t even admit that it was the wrong thing to do — she admits she made a mistake about Stannis, but not about killing Shireen. Melisandre does not — and I think cannot — bring herself to apologise or atone for that horror that was of her idea and of her making. Her interpretation and hers alone.
And, in the end, “they all died anyway.”