Artwork by Fantasy Flight Games
“There is power in a king’s blood,” the old maester had warned, “and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this.” The king can be harsh and unforgiving, aye, but a babe still on the breast? Only a monster would give a living child to the flames. (ADWD, Jon I)
“Sacrifice is never easy or it is not true sacrifice” underpins the central struggle between Stannis, Melisandre and Davos in A Storm of Swords. Where Stannis wonders aloud, “what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom”, Davos responds with “everything.” The context of this conversation is the fate of Edric Storm, bastard nephew to Stannis. And while readers find resolution in the survival of Edric Storm in A Storm of Swords, the question that Stannis poses and Davos answers doesn’t conclude with Edric Storm.
While Game of Thrones showed us a version of that conclusion with the burning of Shireen Baratheon, this will likely not be the extent of the dynamic of human sacrifice in A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead, George RR Martin has laid down significant groundwork in the extant material for a similar conflict to erupt early in The Winds of Winter — with Melisandre, a Davos archetype and the life of a bastard boy set against the fate of a kingdom.
King’s blood, or the blood properties of a royal/descendant of a royal, has been at the forefront of several moral quandaries in A Song of Ice and Fire. Robert’s bastard son, Edric Storm, was at the center of Davos and Stannis’ moral conflict in ASOS. Before that, Khal Drogo was burned in a possible blood ritual resulting in the birth of the dragons. Lord Alester Florent, descendant of the Gardner kings, was burned by Melisandre on Dragonstone and allegedly provided an evil wind upon which Stannis’ fleet sailed to the Wall. Later, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly noted that Maester Aemon’s Targaryen blood put him at risk of Melisandre’s flames.
This brings us to part of the focus of this theory: children at the Wall. At the end of ASOS, two endangered children arrive at Castle Black: Mance Rayder and Dalla’s son and Gilly and Craster’s son.
- Born during the Battle of the Wall, Mance’s son, his father and other captive wildlings were brought south of the Wall. Prior to that, Dalla died tragically in childbirth, leaving the boy in need of a wet nurse.
- That wet nurse arrived in the person of Gilly who arrived at the Wall with Samwell Tarly and her son (who gets the name of “Monster”), having fled from the Night’s Watch mutiny at Craster’s Keep, passed through the Wall at the Nightfort and made their way to Castle Black.
At Castle Black, Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly and Maester Aemon faced a moral conflict over children at the Wall.
After the Battle of the Wall, Samwell Tarly met up with his old friends from the Night’s Watch. There, he heard from Grenn about what had transpired while he was away. One of those events was forementioned burning of Lord Alester Florent on Dragonstone by Melisandre:
“They say [Melisandre] burned a man alive at Dragonstone so Stannis would have favorable winds for his voyage north.” (ASOS, Samwell IV)
This background presented difficulties for our characters at the Wall. Melisandre had burned people alive already. Meanwhile, word of Melisandre’s desire to burn Edric Storm had made its way down to the rank and file of the Night’s Watch. And Jon, the noble-hearted, did not want to see children burn under his watch.
Saving Children: The Baby Switch
One of Lord Commander Jon Snow’s chief concerns was protecting Mance and Dalla’s child. For Melisandre, the child possessed ‘king’s blood’ through his father. If Melisandre was willing to burn a blood relative of Stannis Baratheon for his king’s blood to raise stone dragons, how much more willing would she be to burn the son of Stannis’ enemy for his king’s blood?
How Jon would save Mance’s son was a question that plagued Jon, but at some point after his election as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a brutal solution presented itself to Jon. As we discussed before, Samwell had turned up at Castle Black with Gilly and her son Monster. Gilly was quickly enlisted to serve as nursemaid to Mance’s larger son, and it’s in Gilly’s son, that Jon came up with the baby-switch scheme.
In short, Jon’s solution was to send Samwell, Maester Aemon Gilly and a baby away from Castle Black. But instead of Gilly’s son going with them, the southron party would secretly take Mance’s son while Gilly’s son, Monster, would pose as Mance’s son and stay at Castle Black.
It was a daring plan, and Jon had to implement it fast. In the first ADWD conversation between Jon, Melisandre and Stannis, Jon tells Melisandre and Stannis:
“Castle Black needs no useless mouths,” Jon agreed. “I am sending Gilly south on the next ship out of Eastwatch.”
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck. “Gilly is giving suck to Dalla’s son as well as her own. It seems cruel of you to part our little prince from his milk brother, my lord.”
Careful now, careful. “Mother’s milk is all they share. Gilly’s son is larger and more robust. He kicks the prince and pinches him, and shoves him from the breast. Craster was his father, a cruel man and greedy, and blood tells.” (ADWD, Jon I)
Clever writing on George’s part here. Jon is working hard to sell this deception to Melisandre. By identifying Gilly’s son as the larger than Mance’s son when the opposite is true, Jon sows the seeds of his deception to the king and his red priestess. But there remained a harder task in front Jon: selling Gilly on the idea.
Given Jon’s legitimate concern that Mance and Dalla’s son was at risk and also knowing that Gilly was a mother too and had care for Mance’s child as his wet nurse, he framed his scheme in a way that only a mother could respond to:
“Mance said our words, Gilly. Then he turned his cloak, wed Dalla, and crowned himself King-Beyond-the-Wall. His life is in the king’s hands now. It’s not him we need to talk about. It’s his son. Dalla’s boy.”
“The babe?” Her voice trembled. “He never broke no oath, m’lord. He sleeps and cries and sucks, is all; he’s never done no harm to no one. Don’t let her burn him. Save him, please.”
“Only you can do that, Gilly.” Jon told her how. (ADWD, Jon II)
That framing only went so far. Though Gilly wanted to save Mance’s son, it would mean that she would have to leave her own son behind at Castle Black all the while keeping it a secret from everyone. This was a hard thing for Jon to ask Gilly, and Gilly was reluctant to accept Jon’s offer until Jon made it explicit what would happen to Mance’s son if he stayed at Castle Black:
“Refuse, and the boy will burn. Not on the morrow, nor the day after … but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king’s blood. Mance will be ash and bone by then, so she will claim his son for the fire, and Stannis will not deny her. If you do not take the boy away, she will burn him.” (ADWD, Jon II)
Given this impossible choice, Gilly was forced to make a horrible choice. She would leave her own son behind and take Mance’s son south with her. But there was a fly in the ointment. Monster was now in danger of Melisandre’s fires if Melisandre, Stannis and their followers believed that Gilly’s son was Mance’s. How would Jon safeguard Gilly’s son?
Jon, Protector of Children
“They’ll burn my babe, then. The red woman. If she can’t have Dalla’s, she’ll burn mine.” (ADWD, Jon II)
Lord Commander Jon Snow was aware of the dilemma he posed to Gilly. But he wasn’t going into this scheme blindly. Jon knew that keeping Monster at Castle Black endangered that child — especially since everyone beside he, Aemon, Gilly and someone else we’ll believed the boy to be Mance’s son. Gilly, too, was terrified at the prospect of her son being sacrificed to Melisandre’s flames.
But Jon had a plan. The Lord Commander would be a Castle Black, and he would personally ensure that Monster would stay under his protection:
“Your son has no king’s blood. Melisandre gains nothing by giving him to the fire. Stannis wants the free folk to fight for him, he will not burn an innocent without good cause. Your boy will be safe. I will find a wet nurse for him and he’ll be raised here at Castle Black under my protection. (ADWD, Jon II)
One wonders whether Jon would have revealed his baby-switch plan to Melisandre were she to demand the child be given to the flames. Jon never had to reveal the true identity of the child during his tenure as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in ADWD. He never had the need to reveal the child’s true identity as Melisandre never demanded the child in ADWD.
Jon’s personal protection of the child and innocents hangs over ADWD as thematic skyline, always present. When Jon took new recruits north of the Wall mid-way through his arc, he encountered a band of Wildlings at the weirwood grove who had heard of Mance’s burning and feared that the same would happen to them if they came south of the Wall. Angry, Jon responded in similar fashion as he did to Gilly:
Melisandre, Jon thought, you and your red god have much and more to answer for. “All those who wish are welcome to return with us. There is food and shelter at Castle Black, and the Wall to keep you safe from the things that haunt these woods. You have my word, no one will burn.” (ADWD, Jon VII)
Jon personally extending his protection over Monster and the rest of the Wildlings south of the Wall convinced Gilly to leave with Mance’s son while her own son was under Jon’s protection, but that was not the only person who was invested in Monster’s protection.
A Valiant Princess
Artwork by mattolsonart
Back in ASOS, Davos Seaworth served the role of arguing on behalf of Edric Storm’s survival. His consistent, moral voice kept Stannis from allowing Melisandre to burn Edric, and when all hope of swaying Stannis failed, Davos smuggled the child off Dragonstone. In ADWD, the Davos archetype is present. Besides Jon, there is one other person who has a vested interest in keeping Monster alive: Val.
If you’ll recall, Val was the sister to Dalla and thus the aunt to Dalla’s son. She’s blonde and beautiful. Part of the beauty lay in her playful-yet-tender care for Gilly’s child in her mother’s absence. In ADWD, Jon decides to send Val north of the Wall to find Tormund Giantsbane and bring him and the surviving Wildlings south of the Wall. But just prior to her departure, they talk about Monster:
“You will return. For the boy, if for no other reason.”
“Craster’s son?” Val shrugged. “He is no kin to me.”
“I have heard you singing to him.” (ADWD, Jon VIII)
That Val shows real care for this kid is a tender touch in ADWD. That she knows that the boy isn’t Mance’s son has all sorts of story-possibilities. Val likely knows that the child isn’t Mance and Dalla’s son, because she was there in the tent when Dalla gave birth. She’s been with the child from the get-go, knows what he looks like, knows that he’s larger than Gilly’s child.
After her conversation with Jon, Val heads north of the Wall in search of Tormund Giantsbane, and for a few chapters we’re left wondering whether her mission will prove a success. Thankfully, Val returns to Castle Black and bring Tormund and his Wildlings with her.
After assisting Jon and Tormund in hashing out early details of the Wildling march through the Castle Black gate, she presents to Queen Selyse as a “wildling princess” and after seeing Shireen and her greyscale then demanding that Monster not be kept in the same tower as Princess Shireen.
In Jon’s final ADWD chapter, Val doesn’t appear in-person, but her whereabouts and who she’s with are made known to Jon:
“Where can I find Toregg?”
“With the little monster, like as not. He’s taken a liking to one o’ them milkmaids, I hear.” (ADWD, Jon XIII)
Val’s presence with Monster and Toregg (Tormund’s son) displays a consistent care for the child. So, Jon has an ally in keeping Monster alive. Moreover, Val recognizes the threat that Melisandre poses to the child:
“See that [Monster] stays safe and warm. For his mother’s sake, and mine. And keep him away from the red woman. She knows who he is. She sees things in her fires.” (ADWD, Jon VIII)
So, Val and Jon are invested in Monster’s safety, they know the danger that Melisandre poses and the two of them have the means and wit to safeguard the child. But what if one of them becomes incapable of protecting the child?
What if, gods forbid, Jon dies?
Artwork by Connor Campbell
Jon never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold. (ADWD, Jon XIII)
Sadly, these what-ifs are not what-ifs. At the end of ADWD, Lord Commander Jon Snow is murdered by the very men he led. The peace that Jon had achieved between the Wildlings and Night’s Watch was now at significant risk. Meanwhile, Melisandre, now joined by Queen Selyse and a party of Queen’s Men, was still present at the Wall.
Without sample chapters or statements from GRRM, we can’t know for certain what will occur at the Wall (though Martin has obliquely mentioned that in TWOW there will be ‘a lot of stuff happening at the Wall’). But it’s a safe bet that violent chaos will erupt in the wake of Jon’s death.
One can imagine Wildlings, Night’s Watch mutineers, pro-Jon Night’s Watchmen and Queen’s Men battling in the Castle Black courtyard. But there’s more here than violence erupting between differing factions.
For one, Jon reading the Pink Letter at the Shieldhall was a bombshell. Though Tormund says that the letter may be a ‘pack o’ lies,’ that did not lessen the impact on those who heard the contents of the letter. For one, Stannis was allegedly dead. For another, Mance Rayder was revealed alive and being held prisoner. Then, Ramsay demanded the return of his Reek, the wildling Princess (Val) and demanded it all be done in person by Jon Snow.
And then after reading this letter, Jon stated his intent to march on Ramsay with a band of Wildlings. And then he was stabbed.
This confluence of bombshells that occur in Jon’s final ADWD chapter pave the way for chaos, but they also likely set the foundation for panic and desperation at Castle Black. Jon’s stabbing itself can be read as the first panicked move by scared people. What further panicked moves will other people make at Castle Black? What will Melisandre do?
Lady Melisandre’s Fires
All of these events, from Jon’s baby-switch gambit, to Jon personally ensuring the safety of Monster to Jon’s death are building to horrific tragedy. With Jon dead, Stannis allegedly dead and her fires only showing her “Snow” when she asks for a glimpse of Azor Ahai Reborn, Melisandre will be lost in sauce. And Monster will come under threat of the flames.
“But wait,” you think. “Melisandre definitely knows about the baby switch. She knows that the child at Castle Black is not actually Mance Rayder’s son. She saw it in her flames — just like Val said. Right?” Maybe, but I’m not so sure.
Though Melisandre puts on airs of omniscience, there’s instances in both ASOS and ADWD where she’s not. Back in ASOS, she never saw Davos spiriting Edric Storm away:
“[Edric Storm] is aboard a Lyseni galley, safely out to sea.” Davos watched Melisandre’s pale, heart-shaped face. He saw the flicker of dismay there, the sudden uncertainty. She did not see it! (ASOS, Davos VI)
Moreover, in ADWD, when we get Melisandre’s POV, we see her struggling to interpret the visions in her flames and having to guess at the veracity of what she sees:
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.” (ADWD, Melisandre I)
Finally, Melisandre states that the boy at the Wall is Mance’s son:
“Our false king has a prickly manner,” Melisandre told Jon Snow, “but [Mance Rayder] will not betray you. We hold his son, remember. And he owes you his very life.” (ADWD, Melisandre I)
It’s of course possible that Melisandre is lying here, but we don’t get indication in her chapter that she is. Thus, there is significant set-up for the potential that Melisandre will demand and potentially execute a horrific sacrifice of Gilly’s son at the Wall.
At this juncture, I do not want to presuppose a single motivation for Melisandre to burn Monster for his “king’s blood.” I can see several potential general motivations at work. Like Jon tells Gilly:
“Refuse, and the boy will burn. Not on the morrow, nor the day after … but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king’s blood. (ADWD, Jon II)
So maybe it’s a spell, to bring Jon back from the dead, to bring Stannis back from the dead, to raise stone dragons that rain down fire on Ramsay — but the motivation angle has not been explicitly established by the end of ADWD. All that we know is that Melisandre has an interest in Mance’s son and has a willingness to burn children for “the greater good.”
Samwell Tarly realizes the danger that Monster faces when Maester Aemon finally clues him in on what Jon did:
He wanted to scream. He wanted to howl and sob and shake and curl up in a little ball and whimper. He switched the babes, he told himself. He switched the babes to protect the little prince, to keep him away from Lady Melisandre’s fires, away from her red god. If she burns Gilly’s boy, who will care? No one but Gilly. He was only Craster’s whelp, an abomination born of incest, not the son of the King-beyond-the-Wall. He’s no good for a hostage, no good for a sacrifice, no good for anything, he doesn’t even have a name. (AFFC, Samwell II)
Jon did not mean to kill everyone, but it’s possible that his actions and choices lead to deaths. But maybe not. Maybe George has provided plausible foundation to forestall Melisandre’s monstrous sacrifice.
How a Valiant ‘Princess’ Could Save a Monster
There may yet be hope for Monster even with Jon Snow dead. As we discussed previously, the wildling Val was last reported with Monster in the King’s Tower in Jon’s final ADWD chapter. And perhaps there in the tower, Val, Toregg and other Wildlings will keep the baby safe from Melisandre and her fires.
Val’s fear of what Melisandre will do if she gets her hands on Monster works as foundation for her and her wildling friends to protect the baby even with Jon gone. Without Jon’s leadership and with heavily-armed Queen’s Men decamped in Castle Black, there remains the potential that Melisandre will forcibly seize Monster from Val early in The Winds of Winter.
Compounding this problem is that most of the wildlings have turned their weapons into the Night’s Watch while passing through the gate:
As they passed, each warrior stripped off his treasures and tossed them into one of the carts that the stewards had placed before the gate. Amber pendants, golden torques, jeweled daggers, silver brooches set with gemstones, bracelets, rings, niello cups and golden goblets, warhorns and drinking horns, a green jade comb, a necklace of freshwater pearls … all yielded up and noted down by Bowen Marsh. One man surrendered a shirt of silver scales that had surely been made for some great lord. Another produced a broken sword with three sapphires in the hilt. (ADWD, Jon XII)
Still, there’s hope. Tormund Giantsbane tells Jon that he’s kept some of his warriors north of the Wall to ensure that the Night’s Watch kept their word:
“You wanted warriors, didn’t you? Well, there they are. Every one worth six o’ your black crows.”Jon had to smile. “So long as they save those weapons for our common foe, I am content.”“Gave you my word on it, didn’t I? The word of Tormund Giantsbane. Strong as iron, ’tis.” (ADWD, Jon XII)
It is also not outside the realm of possibility that Tormund’s band of wildlings smuggled weapons south of the Wall — for their own protection if nothing else. The wildlings could rally to save Monster from any potential burning and hopefully, they’ll forestall it indefinitely.
Tying It Into the Narrative: Shireen and What it Means
Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 9 has Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre of Asshai burning Shireen Baratheon to grant Stannis and his army victory over the Boltons. In the “Behind the Episode” featurette posted on youtube, David Benioff stated:
“When George first told us about this, it was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan and thinking ‘Oh that’s so horrible but so good in a storytelling sense’ because it all comes together from the first time we saw Stannis with Melisandre…”
In the Game of Thrones, Season 5 blu-ray, George RR Martin confirmed that it was “always his intention” that Shireen would burn. So, we know that this will occur in either The Winds of Winter or A Dream of Spring. So, how does this play into the potential sacrifice of Gilly’s baby?
The burning of Edric Storm in A Storm of Swords sets our first narrative foundation for Shireen’s burning. So, too, does the burning of Alester Florent and the Peasebury cannibals by either Stannis or Melisandre or both. But the tension has to ratchet forward in the narrative in a way that concludes with the burning of Shireen. Though it’s my fondest hope that Monster doesn’t burn in The Winds of Winter, I understand why GRRM might have this occur or at least be a part of the struggle in the early Wall chapters in Winds.
If Monster burns and something magical happens (like, say, Jon Snow rises from the dead), it will reinforce Melisandre’s belief that flaming human sacrifice can work wonders in the world. In the converse, if Val, Toregg and the other Wildlings prevent Melisandre from burning Monster, it still works to reinforce the narrative foundation for Shireen’s eventual burning. It will show that Melisandre is still willing to burn innocents “for the greater good.”
And while I don’t believe that Shireen’s burning will occur in similar fashion as it did in Game of Thrones, it will still occur, be done at the hand of Stannis and have the narrative foundation of Monster’s actual or attempted burning acting as groundwork for this horrific event.
Finally, there’s a horrific irony in Melisandre burning Gilly’s son: if Jon rises, and I think this is a 100% certainy in the books, especially given that Jon rises from the dead in Game of Thrones, Season 6, and this comes after Monster is sacrificed, then it will put to rest the notion that there are special, magical properties in king’s blood.
That being said, it’s the type of irony that I do not want to witness in the books.
Regardless whether Monster burns or not, I believe his burning or a conflict over whether he will burn or not will play a major role early in the TWOW Castle Black storyline. My hope is that Monster survives, but I see where George RR Martin has laid significant groundwork for his sacrifice. George RR Martin did say this about TWOW:
There are a lot of dark chapters right now in the book that I’m writing. It is called The Winds of Winter, and I’ve been telling you for 20 years that winter was coming. Winter is the time when things die, and cold and ice and darkness fills the world, so this is not gonna be the happy feel-good that people may be hoping for. Some of the characters [are] in very dark places…In any story, the classic structure is, ‘Things get worse before they get better,’ so things are getting worse for a lot of people.” – GRRM, Guadalajara Q/A, 12/2/2016
Dark chapters, dark words. Monster may burn.
Thanks for reading. I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have started a ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast. Come listen to us on itunes, podbay, soundcloud, google play, everywhere you get your podcasts!