Part of the joy of Game of Thrones and its source material is the double-game that author George R.R. Martin plays with the conventions of the fantasy genre. The story’s heroes, as in most fantasy stories, are the ones who stay true to their words, who protect the weak against the depredations of the strong, who seek honorable solutions to conflict. The villains are those who plot betrayals, who don’t blanch at the murder and defilement of women and children, who mutilate people for kicks. Not exactly revolutionary stuff there. Except that Martin engineers things so that adherence to high-minded ideas of chivalry and honor is often a character’s near-idiotic and certainly fatal flaw. Ned Stark was a beloved lord and father, and nice to his bastard, but the dude came to a knife fight armed with ideals instead of steel. Cat Stark was a doting mother whose love blinded her into making awful, dumb, no-good decisions. Jon Snow is a brooding outsider and a guy who so values his oath that he doesn’t take Stannis’s offer of legitimization. Samwell Tarly is a leal friend to Jon and possessed of a valuable and inquisitive mind, but for some reason he decides — yet again — to honor his promise to a strange child and not tell his friend that the lawful heirs to Winterfell are actually alive,1 news that would have saved Jon from the heartache of turning down Stannis.
Actually, this plot point differs in the show and the books; in the show, Samwell does tell Jon that Bran Stark is still alive.
Meanwhile, acts that in any other story would be sheer villainy have a certain in-world logic to them. Murdering the Targaryen babes at the close of Robert’s Rebellion was a horrible crime … but also the only way to secure a lasting Baratheon victory. The Red Wedding was an abomination in the eyes of gods and men … but also an expedient and relatively less bloody way to win the peace.
Season 5’s second episode, “The House of Black and White,” was rife with examples of Thrones’s constant tension between heroism and idealism. Upholding the rule of law over the rule of the sword should serve Dany well whenever she gets to Westeros. Currently, though, she’s in Meereen, a city where the rule of law is just a facade waiting to be torn off the minute she sails away. Brienne continues to live according to the values of a society that does not value her. Then there’s Prince Doran, who, in the eyes of many of his people, doesn’t seem to understand what hostages are actually for.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Who Is Doran Martell?
Doran is the head of House Martell, Lord of Sunspear, and the cautious, gout-ridden Prince of Dorne. His brother was Oberyn “The Red Viper,” everyone’s favorite trash-talking Dornishman (before his face turned into spaghetti sauce), and their sister was Princess Elia Martell, making Doran uncle to Elia and Rhaegar’s equally deceased children. All slain by the Lannisters. So the question posed quite forcefully by Oberyn’s mourning paramour Ellaria is a fair one: What does Doran plan to do about this?
(Many asked who made the call to incite the Lannisters by sending Myrcella’s necklace to King’s Landing. I’m guessing it was Ellaria. It doesn’t feel like Prince Doran’s style.)
Two weeks ago, I picked Dorne, specifically the coast, as the best place in Westeros to live, and the scene between Doran (Alexander Siddig) and Ellaria (Indira Varma) is a perfect illustration of why. You’ve got quality wine, spicy food, a sun-soaked climate, and relative gender equality. Ellaria is the bastard-born mistress of Doran’s late brother — she’s not a queen, she’s not a princess, she’s essentially just the girlfriend of a man who’s now dead — yet she can waltz up to the prince as he’s trying to get his chill on at the Water Gardens and dress him down in full view of his guards and whomever else, as something like his equal. This could happen nowhere else in the Seven Kingdoms, and it’s a testament to Dorne’s unusual history with regard to Westeros at large.
I’ve talked before about how Dorne’s geography and climate — mountains in the north and west, vast deserts, extreme heat — have contributed to its status as something like a semiautonomous region within the Seven Kingdoms. The genesis of that unique cultural independence stems from the region’s ethnic makeup.
The two main ethnic groups that make up Westeros are the First Men and the Andals.2 The First Men are just that: the first human inhabitants of the continent, who migrated from Essos some 12,000 years before the events of the show, using the now defunct land bridge known as the Arm of Dorne. About 6,000 years later came the Andals, also from Essos, this time as invaders in ships. The Andals brought the Faith of the Seven with them, and over time, their culture came to dominate Westeros.3 Dorne, like the rest of Westeros, is influenced by both cultures, though the Andals had less impact on the kingdom than they did on the rest of the continent below the Neck. The First Men, traveling on foot, had to pass through Dorne; the seafaring Andals could go anywhere they wanted to, and so largely picked greener, less hot-as-hell places. Not all the Andals did so, though. The Martells, for instance, can trace their lineage back to an Andal adventurer by the name of Mors Martell.
Depending on how you interpret Iron Islander creation lore, it’s also possible the Ironborn are descended from an unidentified people.
Except for the North, where the culture of the First Men largely prevails.
The chief difference between Dorne and the rest of Westeros — the spicy pepper in the cultural stew, so to speak — came with the arrival in Dorne of the Rhoynar, and their warrior queen Nymeria,4 roughly 700 years before Aegon’s Conquest. The Rhoynar take their name from the river Rhoyne, the largest river in the world, which runs north-south through the western part of the continent of Essos. The Rhoynar thrived for centuries on the banks of the Rhoyne, building numerous independent city-states up and down the river. In the cities of the Rhoynar, women were held to be the equals of men, and could rule cities, inherit property, divorce their husbands, all of that stuff. Eventually, the Rhoynar’s minor conflicts with the Valyrian dragonlords, who were expanding into the area from the east, spiraled into a series of major wars. The Rhoynar fought valiantly, overcoming their natural fractiousness to join together in a coalition of cities in the attempt to beat back the Valyrians. In the end, though, the Valyrians had dragons and the Rhoynar did not. Seeing the writing on the wall, Princess Nymeria of Ny Sar gathered every ship she could — 10,000, it is said — packed them to the gills with surviving Rhoynar, and led them out of Dodge. After wandering for many years in an epic and circuitous fashion, Nymeria and the remainder of her fleet — made up mostly of women, many of whom were warriors — made landfall in Dorne.
The namesake of Arya’s direwolf.
Mors Martell, the hardscrabble ancestor of Prince Doran and family, sensed an opening. Dorne was a divided land of competing warlords, none strong enough to dominate. The Rhoynar had thousands of veteran soldiers, not to mention expert stonemasons and metalworkers with skills far beyond anything the native Dornish were capable of. What the Rhoynar needed was a place to stay. So, rather than fight these strange invaders, Mors decided to ally with them, and he and Nymeria were wed. The union of the Martells and their banner lords with the Rhoynar was the seed that allowed Rhoynar customs to take root in Dorne, and is why a bastard-born paramour can air out a prince without anyone finding it strange.
Alex asked, “Who is that creepy dude that Cersei brought to the small council?”
That’s the disgraced ex-Maester known as Qyburn, whose taste for weird medical procedures got him stripped of his chain. We first met Qyburn at Harrenhal in Season 3, where he kept Jaime’s stump from becoming lethally gross. He accompanied Jaime to King’s Landing and has slowly worked his way into Cersei’s graces since then. Last season, we saw him do some as-of-yet unexplained experimenting on the grievously injured Gregor Clegane after the Mountain’s duel with Prince Oberyn. Think of him as a cross between Christian Grey and Dr. Mengele.
Drew asked, “My wife and I believe that Drogon’s return signals an important transition for Daenerys — from mother of Meereen to mother of dragons. What do you think?”
It’s possible. Clearly Drogon feels drawn to Daenerys in some way, as evidenced by his presence, but also — and maybe more importantly — by the fact that he didn’t eat her.
Paul asks, “The Free City of Braavos seems like it has everything. Plenty of food. Lots of money. Relative calm. Why can’t Daenerys just head there, declare it the new capital and let King’s Landing wither?”
Braavos is pretty chill, with a singular and interesting melting-pot kind of culture. That said, there are numerous logistical problems with Dany going there, the largest of which being that the Braavosi people are descended from slaves who fled the yoke of the Valyrian dragonlords. In other words, they’re not going to be super agreeable to a queen of Valyrian blood with three dragons and a huge army showing up and being like, “Yo, I rule this place now.” They’d fight her every inch of the way. I’ll go more in depth on Braavos — and the House of Black and White — at a later date.
Joel asks, “Who was the last dude in the recitation of Arya’s kill list she recited in the rain outside the House of Black and White?”
That’s Meryn Trant, a knight of the Kingsguard and one of Cersei’s most ruthless henchmen. In Season 1, it was Trant, with a clutch of King’s Landing guardsmen in tow, who showed up to arrest Arya in the wake of King Bobby B’s death by swine. Her Braavosi fencing teacher, Syrio Forel, bought Arya time to escape, bravely holding off the fiends with a wooden sword and getting himself killed in the process.5 So that’s where that beef comes from. More recently, we saw Ser Meryn in the scene from this past episode, in which Cersei is presented with a dwarf’s head.
Michael asks, “How did she know to remove some of the names from her list?”
HE’S DEAD, OK?
Braavos is a major hub of intercontinental trade, and ships from every port in Westeros and Essos sail in and out daily. The news of Tywin’s and Joffrey’s deaths would’ve reached Braavos pretty quickly, and it’s fair to assume Arya would’ve heard about them once she pulled into the harbor. I mean, you’re on a ship for a week, the first thing you’re going to do when you disembark is ask about the news. Arya could probably learn more about Westerosi current events from 10 minutes at the Purple Harbor than a month on the road with the Hound.
Craig asks, “Given Jaqen’s role as a Faceless Man, and all of the unique powers of disguise and stealth that entails, how is it that he managed to get arrested in King’s Landing, thrown in a cage with two baseborn thugs heading to the Wall, and in need of rescue way back in Season 2? It seems like a man of his talents wouldn’t be so easily captured.”
Agreed. It almost makes you think he was there on some kind of yet to be explained mission. This is a topic of much book-world speculation.
Jacob asks, “What was up with the greyscale discussion between Gilly, Sam, and Shireen?”
Probably some Chekhov’s plague type of situation. Greyscale is a disease found throughout the world of Game of Thrones, particularly in Essos. The region in and around the ruined Rhoynar city of Chroyane on the Rhoyne river is infested with the afflicted, who, driven mad by the disease, often attack ships sailing through the area.
Greg asks, “So if giving legitimacy to a bastard is so easy for Kings and Lords to do, then why didn’t Ned Stark ever do that for Jon Snow?”
First off, shouts to Jon Snow, the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, in that once-venerable institution’s several-thousand-year history of providing a cushy landing spot for rapists and murderers. Some notable Lord Commanders include:
• Brynden Rivers, a.k.a. “Bloodraven,” a.k.a. “the three-eyed raven,”6 legitimized bastard of King Aegon IV Targaryen, and a former King’s Hand to Aerys I Targaryen. Rivers went to the Wall at the same time as Maester Aemon and is currently enmeshed in the roots of a weirwood tree, teaching Bran Stark how to do warging things.
It’s “three-eyed crow” in the books.
• The Night’s King, 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Legend has it that he fell in love with a ghostly white woman, declared himself king, and proceeded to commit ungodly atrocities. He was eventually cast down by the combined might of the King in the North and Joramun, the legendary King-Beyond-the-Wall.
• Hoare, Lord Commander during Aegon’s invasion. Hoare’s brother Harren the Black’s melted and ruined castle is a testament to Hoare’s adherence to the Watch’s vow of noninvolvement.
• Jon Snow’s ancestor Osric Stark, who became Lord Commander at the tender age of 10 and served for another 60 years.
To your question: Only the king can legitimize bastards. Stannis is a king, though there is the annoying complication that most of the realm doesn’t actually agree that’s the case. The seal on Ramsay Bolton’s legitimization papers is likely from King Tommen, who would’ve signed a kitten if Tywin had told him to.
Scene of the Week
Set to the tune of “Up on the Roof.”