Game of Thrones: The Power of Symbols


(Warning: Contains spoilers.)

Game of Thrones is back on our screens, and YouTube and Reddit and a billion other social media platforms are buzzing with rumours and predictions. Only Harry Potter and Star Wars rival the show in the way that fans have taken up the task of attempting to tease out the endings to its numerous story-lines.

Some of these theories are pretty bizarre (one names Mance Rayder as secretly being Rhaegar Targaryen) but others have a lot of evidence behind them. Most of this evidence takes the form of symbols and motifs Martin has placed throughout the series.

Martin has repeatedly cited Shakespeare as an influence on the series. With its noble characters, frequent plot twists and many, many deaths, A Song of Ice and Fire would probably have the Bard waiting impatiently for each new episode. But it also prominently features another staple of Shakespeare’s work: his love for symbols.

Martin has said that he’s known the broad outline of the series’s ending for quite some time, and has planted a number of clues throughout the books and episodes to hint at this. From the sigils of the noble houses to prophetic visions and mysterious lines: all of these symbols are heavy with meaning. For example, in the first episode (or chapter, if you’re going by the books) the Starks encounter a dead direwolf, slain by a stag. The direwolf is the sigil of House Stark, and the stag of House Baratheon. A few episodes later, Ned Stark is be beheaded by a Baratheon.

Even seemingly insignificant lines of dialogue often foreshadow major events. For example, in Season 4, when Tyrion tells Bronn about how cruelly his father Twyin Lannister treated him after he married a peasant girl, Bronn replies, “I’d kill the man that did that to me.” Which is, as we see in the final episode of Season 4, exactly what happens.

A symbol causing a lot of speculation is the song of ice and fire itself, the prophecy from which the series gets its name. The prophecy is at least 1000 years old, and perhaps even as ancient as 5000 years. It forms the centre of a religion, the Red Priestesses (of which Melisandre is a member). The prophecy speaks about a Christ-like saviour figure called ‘the prince that was promised’. Basically, the prophecy says that the only person who will be able to save the world from the Others (read white-walkers) is this prince, and “if he fails, the world fails with him.”

Readers and viewers alike have not yet encountered the prophecy in its entirety, only fragments and half-remembered accounts of it. But we do know that the prophecy points out a number of signals that will herald the coming of the prince. One of these is the line the prince will be “born in salt and smoke.” Another line makes reference to a “bleeding star” marking his arrival.

The first part, about the prince being born in fire, is an interesting one. It calls to mind one example: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s birth. Rhaegar was the son of the Mad King Aerys, and heir to the Iron Throne (at least until Robert Baratheon’s revolt). On the day of Rhaegar’s birth, the Summerhall tragedy took place. Summerhall was the Targaryen’s pleasure palace, and when Rhaegar was born a great fire broke out there. It killed many members of the royal family and razed the palace to the ground. This suggests that Rhaegar may be the prince that was promised, the prince “born in salt and smoke”.

Rhaegar survived the blaze and grew to be a “bookish” boy, but one day – seemingly without warning – he approached the master-at-arms and asked to be trained as a knight. “It seems I am to be a warrior,” he is remembered as saying. The fact that Rhaegar spent so much time reading old texts – which would certainly have contained some mention of the prophecy – coupled with his sudden interest in learning to fight suggests that Rhaegar believed himself to be the promised prince.

It seems he was wrong though. Robert smashed in his chest with a warhammer, after all. So maybe someone else fits the description. Valyrian (the language the prophecy was originally written in) is gender-neutral, so a lot of people suggest Danaerys could be the prince. She’s a Targaryen, after all. She emerged from the salt and smoke of Drogo’s pyre unscathed, there was a comet – a bleeding star – overhead during much of her struggles during Season 2, and she certainly has the dragons for the job.

But it could also be true that the prince is more than one person. The dragon has three heads, as Rhaegar mentions in one Danaerys’s visions.

Its one of many visions Danaerys sees  in the House of the Undying. Another of them is of a blue rose growing out of a wall of ice. It’s been mentioned a few times that Lyanna Stark was fond of blue winter roses. Most notably, at the tourney at Harrenhal Rhaegar Targaryen was victorious. By tradition, the tourney victor gets to crown the next ‘queen of beauty’. On that day, Rhaegar was given a wreath of blue roses to crown his lady with. He caused gossip, and even some outrage, when he rode past his wife, Elia Martell of Dorne, and placed the blue roses in Lyanna Stark’s lap. He would go on to kidnap her (or so we’re told), and they would both die soon after.

The image of the blue rose (associated with Lyanna) and the wall of ice (probably the actual Wall, which is associated with Jon) suggests a link between them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is yet another hint at the R+L=J theory.

Danaerys’s seeing this is important. Maybe there’s some connection between her and Jon and the prophecy. Maybe they’re both the promised princes, and need to find their third counterpart. In that case, they’d each have a dragon to ride. They’d be something like Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters.

At this point, this is all speculation. We’ll just have to watch and find out.Maybe Game of Thrones will shatter our expectations and upturn all our guesswork. It wouldn’t be the first time.







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