WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE THIRD EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE LONG NIGHT,” FOLLOW.
Who can know the will of the gods? In Game of Thrones, red priests and priestess from dozens of faiths think they can, sometimes with devastating results. Nowhere within the narrative is this more noticeable than with Melisandre. The Red Priestess of R’hllor dedicated her entire life to reading the will of her red god in his flames. From her first interpretation to her last, Melisandre’s inferences were seemingly wrong more than they were right and yielded a high cost. Yet she still managed to complete the will of R’hllor. Or did she? Just what does the God of Flame & Shadow want and how does this religion from the far reaches of Essos play into the battle for the Iron Throne?
WHO IS R’HLLOR?
The Lord of Light, also known as R’hllor, the Heart of Fire, God of Flame and Shadow, and the Red God, is an ancient deity worshipped in Essos. His followers pre-date written history and stretch from Braavos to Asshai-By-The-Shadow. In Volantis, his Great Temple is thrice the size of the Sept of Baelor. A majority of the Volantene population worships R’hllor, selling their children to the temples to be raised as warriors, courtesans, and priests. Melisandre and Thoros of Myr were both sold to their respective Red Temples as young children.
The scriptures of R’hllor are dualistic. On one side is the Lord of Light as the representation of life. On the other side is the one known only as the Great Other, a god of ice and death. Followers of R’hllor believe the world is trapped in a cyclical battle between these two gods and that the time to beat back the forces of death are at hand once more. Their holy books speak of a hero known as Azor Ahai who will be born into the world at the opportune moment. That Chosen One will wield a flaming sword known as Lightbringer and bring about the end of this cycle, restoring order to the world and ushering in a time of peace for the living. To reach this goal, the red priests and priestesses dedicate their long lives to perfecting the sorceries and rituals of their god.
The origins of the Great War between R’hllor and the Great Other are lost to the mists of time. As of this writing, neither George R.R. Martin in his novels or HBO’s Game of Thrones have hinted at where the religion of the Lord of Light originated, though it dovetails with several other religions, histories, and mythologies present in the Known World. The implication being that many of these faiths — the Old Gods, R’hllor, the Seven, the Drowned God — are all variants on a “mono-myth” shared by the ancient peoples of Planetos.
THE POWER OF R’HLLOR
Unlike some of the other gods in the Planetos pantheon, R’hllor delivers the goods. His priests and priestesses are consistently blessed with real, inarguable power. Within the show, Melisandre was one of the first humans to show that magic is indeed real. From birthing a shadow baby to destroy Stannis Baratheon’s brother, Renly, to her last act of lighting the trenches during the Battle of Winterfell, Melisandre was tapping into sorcery beyond the understanding of men. His power over life even extends to staving off death, as shown with Melisandre’s necklace granting her youth, beauty, longevity, and immunity to poison. If her necklace is standard issue, it leads to the question of how long any other red priest or priestess has been in service to the Lord of Light. Though R’hllor seemly cares not for the true faith of his priests, as the disillusioned Thoros of Myr is also able to perform miracles, including resurrection.
Outside the scope of the HBO series, where several other red priestesses have made brief appearances — albeit without revealing the scope of their abilities — the books have provided many more priests of the Lord of Light popping up with powers and prophecy. High Priest Benerro of Volantis has been seen preaching to thousands, fire springing from his fingertips to draw the Valyrian glyphs for “Darkness” and “Doom.” Benerros demonstrates the power of prophecy and the Sight, sending one of his priests, Moqorro, to Daenerys by way of a ship he knows will never make it to its destination.
Moqorro himself also has a gift for divining the will of R’hllor in the flames, as well as healing sorcery. It is he who saves Victarion Greyjoy‘s hand, though the hand is forever charred and blackened after the ritual is complete. Moqorro is knowledgeable about Old Valyrian magic, including the need of the Dragonbinder horn to be soaked with blood to bind dragons to its will.
Blood sacrifice is a recurring theme in the religion of R’hllor. Over and over, Melisandre uses the “blood of kings” to augment her power. Whether it’s Stannis’ seed to create the shadow baby, leeches full of Gendry’s blood, or the literal sacrifice of Shireen Baratheon, blood magic is stronger when the bloodline is royal. In Chapter 54 of A Storm of Swords, Melisandre goes so far as to claim that R’hllor also prefers the sacrifice of innocents, as he “cherishes” them. Looked at from the outside, one has to wonder if R’hllor is the good guy here.
THE PROPHECIES OF R’HLLOR
The most notable prophecy connected to R’hllor is Azor Ahai. The prophecy originated in Asshai over five thousand years ago. When the red star bleeds after a long summer, and darkness threatens to consume the world, Azor Ahai will be born amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone. Also known by some as “The Prince Who Was Promised,” this legendary hero is eagerly sought out by red priests. It is based on this prophecy that Melisandre traveled to Westeros, though her interpretations of both the legend and the visions in the fire led her to incorrect conclusions many times. Prophecies can be slippery.
Case in point, “The Prince Who Was Promised” and Azor Ahai may be different people. The prophecy was original from Asshai but was translated into High Valyrian, a language where the word for “prince” is gender neutral. Is the Night King the darkness or is that too literal an interpretation? Did Arya Stark, Princess of Winterfell — after being assisted along the way by Beric Dondarrion, who was himself resurrected by R’hllor’s power via Thoros — complete the prophecy or is it still yet to come to pass? If only prophecy could be as straightforward as a Stark.
Other minor prophecies attributed to R’hllor throughout the series include Melisandre seeing “Arya Stark” on a pale grey horse headed to Winterfell (but who turns out to be Alys Karstark ); asking to see Azor Ahai and seeing Jon Snow with his face blending from man to wolf and back again; and seeing a wooden face, white as a corpse with a thousand red eyes, along with a boy wearing a wolf’s face. Melisandre believes that last vision to be the avatar of the Great Other, and quite frankly, the show hasn’t proved that wrong yet. But that’s another tale.
Across the Narrow Sea, the red priest Moqorro prophecies to Tyrion that he sees “Dragons old and young, true and false, bright and dark. And you. A small man with a big shadow, snarling in the midst of all.” He also foretells of a thing with a dark eye and ten long arms has set its sights on Daenerys, which is very likely Euron Greyjoy.
At the end of “The Long Night,” Melisandre removes the sorcerous necklace that masked her true appearance and walks into the dawn light, her body turning to ash. While her motives are murky, the straight read of the situation is Melisandre believes her work is done. The Night King and his horde of undead have been defeated, the Long Night averted, the prophecy fulfilled. After centuries of planning and praying and waiting, her watch had ended. One could even argue an interpretation where Melisandre sacrificed the last of her power to light the trenches, given they took quite a while to ignite. In that vein, she may simply have been too exhausted to go on and chose to die on her own terms.
Or, she could have once again stumbled into a self-fulfilling prophecy trap. Melisandre says she has seen in the flames that she will die in Westeros, but never expands on that. R’hllor rarely, if ever, speaks that directly. The Lord of Light much prefers metaphor and vague imagery. It’s possible that Melisandre died a complex hero of sorts, having made unforgivable errors in her zeal to save the world. Or it’s possible that her final act was once again a misinterpretation of the flames, leaving the remnants of the living without a sorceress to help them when the true avatar of the Great Other appears. One with a thousand red eyes, the body of a boy, and the face of a wolf.
We only have three episodes left to find out.