ASOIAF Essays

The Others as Shoggoths: Lovecraft & Martin

As much as GRRM likes to draw on traditional high fantasy tropes, A Song of Ice and Fire is very much a sword-and-sorcery world, akin to something written by Robert E Howard. Howard himself was a contemporary and collaborator with H.P. Lovecraft himself, the father of eldritch weirdness. A lot of people have pointed out the many Lovecraftian elements to the world of ice and fire – from Leng to the Five Forts to Asshai to Toad Isle to the Seastone Chair to Battle Isle to the mazemakers to the squishers.

But there’s one big element that needs to be addressed: the Others.

One common theory is that the Others are, essentially “misunderstood snow elves.” They’re a race whose goals and aims run contrary to human life…but they aren’t necessarily evil. This is a popular theory. Some think there’ll be a pact with the Others, that humans need to resolve their Other-ing of a different race. That to end with a big battle would be disingenuous to the messages of ASOIAF, about hard peace etc.

I disagree. And I promise I’ll explain! But first,

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Secrets of the Red Ritual – EXPLAINED!

Fair warning: this post will contain some pretty heavy spoilers for both A Song of Ice and Fire  and the latest episodes of Game of Thrones Season 6. If you have a weak stomach/athsma/serious spoiler aversion, this is your last warning. Turn back!

THAT MEANS YOU!

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Gogossos: Poe’s Red Death in the World of Ice and Fire

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

When A Dance with Dragons was released, it included a brand-new map of the ruins of Valyria and the Summer Sea. At the bottom of the map, the Basilisk Isles peeped up like grotesque little children; at the bottom of the Basilisk Isles, Gogossos grinned. But until The World of Ice and Fire, Gogossos was just a (really cool) name. TWOIAF gave us, in about a paragraph, a desperately bloody history of the island city.

Briefly: Gogossos was once the Ghiscari city of Gorgai. During the Third Ghiscari War, the Valyrans fought the Ghiscari across the seas, from the Summer Isles to the Basilisk Isles and beyond. One of those many battles brought down Gorgai. The Valyrians captured the city and renamed it “Gogossos.” It became a penal colony for the worst criminals in Valyria. All manner of atrocities were done in the pits of Gogossos. When Valyria fell, Gogossos was called the Tenth Free City, albeit ironically. It thrived on the slave trade, an extension of the brutal arm of Slaver’s Bay. Seventy-seven years after the fall of Valyria, however, a disease called the Red Death swept across the island, destroying the entire population of Gogossos.

VALYRIA

it’s down there at the bottom. ugly little stupid island.

in this essay, I’m going to compare the Red Death that obliterated Gogossos to Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”

What’s in a Name?

First, though, let’s take a pit stop to look at the name of the city itself. The original name of the city, Gorgai, is pretty evocative of the Gorgons, the twisted creatures from Greek mythology. However, for most of its relevant life, the city is called Gogossos. And what’s interesting about that?

Abrahamic traditions talk about Gog and Magog. There’s a lot of different opinions on what those might be. The central mythological one (and the one I’ll talk about here) puts it forward that Gog is the leader of the armies of Magog, barbarian warriors from the north who will be a great threat to Israel (or something like that. who knows. i ain’t no bible scholar man). The Muslim tradition holds that the Gog and Magog are a race of evil gnome-troll-monsters who are held back by a gigantic wall, which will come crashing down at the end of days. At various times, they’ve been associated with the Mongols, the Russians, and probably John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Muhammad_ibn_Muhammad_Shakir_Ruzmah-'i_Nathani_-_The_Monster_of_Gog_and_Magog_-_Walters_W659190B_-_Full_Page

this is a muslim depiction of a monster of magog and really is the whole reason for this section to exist. look at his cute little bellybutton. zoom in on it.

 

Now, is GRRM trying to associate Gogossos with a biblical apocalyptic/barbarian kingdom/army? Maybe not. I mean, he was raised Catholic – but so was I, and you can see how well I’m explaining this. Besides that, GRRM’s primary concern when naming things is “does it sound bitchin?” Even with that caveat, though, I’m willing to bet he wanted the same feel of the names Gog and Magog. In English it’s a gross sound, Gogossos; equal parts “gory,” “abyssal,” and “colossal,” with a little “gag” thrown up there for good measure. However, there’s a sort of important theme in ASOIAF regarding walls. You might’ve noticed the Wall, but there’s also the Five Forts on the other end of the world, built to hold back the demons of the Lion of Night. So wall-horde mythology is already very familiar across the world of ice and fire, and a city named with our real-life equivalent seems right at home.

The Red Death

OKAY ENOUGH. The real interesting nugget here is the Red Death.

Edgar Allan Poe, in 1842, published a now-classic short story entitled “The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy.” The story, for those who haven’t read it, takes place in an abbey during a horrible plague. Prince Prospero holds a masqued ball for his buddies; the ball spreads through a suite of seven painted rooms in the abbey, the seventh being red and black, with an ebon bell that chimes on the hour. During the party, this creepy fellow comes in dressed as a victim of the Red Death. Prospero tries to chase the guy off, but ends up chasing him into the seventh room. There, Prospero drops dead. The other guests come in and disrobe the creepy fellow, only to find that there was nothing beneath (think obi-wan kenobi). Then they all die of the Red Death. The quote at the top of this post is the last line of the story:

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Cheery stuff!

People have analyzed the sweet hominy out of this story (it’s a popular high school english analysis story as well). The most common interpretation is the inevitability of death, although Poe (like Tolkien, later) claims to not be a fan of allegory and didactic storytelling. While it wasn’t intended as a straight expy for any particular moral, there’s definitely themes and broad ideas at work in the background.

I have absolutely no doubt that the story of Gogossos is a reference to the Red Death story, and works as a microcosm of a lot of commonly-recurring themes in the world of Ice and Fire.

masque_of_red_death_poster_02

look upon vincent price orgy-face ye mighty and despair!!!

A Pair of Deaths

First, the symptom similarities (symptomilarities?) Both Red Deaths involve horrible pain followed by blood shooting out of every pore and orifice, followed by death (duh). That’s verbatim from both sources. But where does the Red Death come from?

In Poe’s story, the Red Death at first besieges the abbey from outside – the “pestilence raged most furiously abroad.” But when it finally touches on Prospero’s company, it happens quietly from within:

there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before

So it is with Gogossos – sort of. The Red Death of Gogossos arises from the slave pits

…a terrible plague emerged from the slave pens of Gogossos.

In Poe’s story, the Red Death is only noticed in the crowd when the bell chimes twelve times and people have time to look around. In Gogossos, the Red Death emerges from the pits seventy-seven years after the fall of Valyria, when it is said the “stink of the pits” reached the nostrils of the gods themselves. In both instances, we have this idea of the Red Death emerging from out of the masses – whether it’s a crowd of Prospero’s partygoers or the slave pits of Gogossos. But where Poe’s story has the Red Death appear in a refuge of luxury and pomp, Gogossos’ Death comes out of that most hateful human crime: slavery.

Moreover, the Red Death in Poe’s story is repulsive to the crowd when he shows up. To quote:

There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.

It’s a reminder of the horror and suffering that they’ve cloistered themselves from. So it is with the slave societies of Slaver’s Bay and Gogossos. It’s no coincidence that GRRM describes Gogossos this way:

Her slave markets became as notorious as those of the old Ghiscari cities on Slaver’s Bay.

When GRRM writes about the Ghiscari and Slaver’s Bay, he writes about elaborately costumed societies built on blood and horror (again, slavery). It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to picture Prince Prospero’s party as an Ghiscari ceremony or party (remember all that stuff about “floppy ears” in ADWD?) While the little paragraph about Gogossos doesn’t explicitly tell us that it was ruled by a small group of cloistered bon vivants, the link to Slaver’s Bay demands that comparison.

GRRM* intentionally used the Red Death to tie Gogossos to Poe.

*(I’ve been talking about GRRM, but of course Elio and Linda probably wrote the text for TWOIAF with the story of Gogossos. Because I have no idea the details of their collaboration on this one little tidbit, I’m just going to blanketly speak about GRRM as the author/creator of these ideas).

Going further with analysis of Poe’s story, it’s pretty easy to draw the parallels. Prospero creates his castle to keep the disease out, but it emerges from within the company – that illusion of control ties in nicely with the theme of the fall of a slave society, where the fall comes from the slaves themselves, not from someone liberating the slaves from the outside. Moreover, his abbey itself is an oppressive and spooky place. It’s literally Gothic (Poe describes it as such), with iron nails holding the doors shut. There’s also a mention of how Prince Prospero is a fan of the “bizarre,” to the extent that his final chamber unsettles his guests with its gory miasma of light and color:

But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

Thus it is with Gogossos as well, although GRRM has his own little “ramp it up to 11” twist on the motif:

In the flesh pits, blood sorcery of the darkest sort was practiced, as beasts were mated to slave women to bring forth twisted half-human children.

Gogossos is a retelling of the Masque of the Red Death in about a paragraph. We have a society predicated on excluding the great and lordly from the low and shitty, we have the aesthetic of horror and the grotesque, we have a sickening, inevitable, inimitable disease that erupts from in the midst of society to consume everyone who thought themselves safe.

The Red Death and the future of Westeros

Of course, Poe’s story just ends with that famous line – Death Decay etc etc. But Gogossos is a footnote in history. Life went on around it. What’s particularly interesting is that the Red Death erupted seventy-seven years after the fall of Valyria. This is right around the time that Aegon the Conqueror is born. Gogossos embodied the worst of the Century of Blood, that period of time after the Doom of Valyria. It was unchecked horror and slavery; it was sorcery without conscience, and brutality for profit. GRRM ties the end of Gogossos very neatly to the beginning of the Kings of Westeros. The Century of Blood begins to wind down, and Aegon the Conqueror begins to clean shit up in Westeros. In this way, GRRM shows us almost something of an optimistic take on the Masque of the Red Death: horror and gory destruction are not, in fact, the end of the world. Or, rather:

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held did not hold illimitable dominion over all.

And people say GRRM’s a negative nellie!

Besides, Gogossos only stays uninhabited for about a century. Right around the time Jaehaerys I and Alysanne are squirting out the future troublemakers Viserys and Rhaenyra, the Basilisk Isles boom with pirate drums as Xandarro Xhore the Corsair King and his Brotherhood of Flies settle the isles again. The Isles are almost something of a barometer for stability; they wane and wax inverse to stability abroad. It’s not any coincidence that, during ASOIAF proper, we learn that “a new new corsair king has risen in the Basilisk Isles and has raided Tall Trees Town.” As the world explodes into violence once again, death leaks out like an oil slick from the blood-drenched shores of Gogossos.

The Tinfoil Link: Don’t Trust Marwyn

Everyone loves Archmaester Marwyn. He’s a tough dude, a hella cool guy who doesn’t play by the “rules” of the “Citadel.” He prays to queer gods and has probably killed some people.

He should also be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

Judge a Man by his Company

One of the basic writing tricks is to flesh out your characters by having other people orbit around them. GRRM does this to the extreme in AGOT with Stannis. Stannis never appears on the page, but we get reactions to him from a variety of characters, all of whom have been characterized in their own right. Ned likes him, Cersei fears him, Renly mocks him.

Marwyn is given the same treatment. Way back in AGOT, Mirri Maz Duur tells Dany that she learned of her healing arts from a Maester named Marwyn (aside – it’s likely that “Maz Duur” is just a Lhazarene corruption of “Maester.” Also – there’s some cool stuff gong on with Mirri. Her name sounds liky “Mary,” Lhazarene sounds like Nazarene, her people are lamb people…there’s an odd early-Christian link there).

Anyway! Mirri starts off as a healer, but eventually does some CRAZY magic. Seriously dark stuff. Demons come to life thanks to Mirri Maz Duur. She’s involved in dire dark magic. And if Marwyn taught her stuff…

But that’s not that bad. Marwyn’s a scholar! He was part of an exchange of knowledge! So who else talks about Marwyn?

Qyburn.

Qyburn praises Marwyn; he says that Marywn is one of the few who understood his experiments. Like Marwyn, he refers to the majority of Maesters as “gray sheep.” And this is a man who performs Mengele-esque experiments on the living, a man who is the living embodiment of the “WE’VE GONE TOO FAR” scientist trope.

So honestly, going by Marwyn’s peers, he seems more than just mildly eccentric. He seems – well, frankly, potentially dangerous.

The thing is, people love to romanticize the fringe. The Rebels in Star Wars are a good example – taken objectively, they’re terrorists. But the fringe is romanticised, the weirdos made the good guys. For an even better example, peep the X-Files – specifically the Lone Gunmen. A group of well-meaning conspiracy theorists and weirdos, who are really sweet at heart and don’t pose much of a threat to anyone. Just some harmless loonies who happen to be right about the aliens sometimes!

But the thing is, in the real world, conspiracy theorists – real fringe folks – aren’t all sweet and cute and fun. They’re 9-11 truthers, they’re Sandy Hook truthers, they’re the kind of people who turn to a fictionalized version of reality in the most dangerous and frightening way.

(this isn’t to say there are no real conspiracies. I’m not trying to disparage anyone, either).

Judge a Man by his Words

So in the last chapter of Feast, we meet Marwyn face-to-face. Sam has a particularly wonderful conversation with the man, as he spills all the secrets he’s ever learned – Bran is alive, the babies were swapped, Dany is the Prince that was Promised. Marwyn makes an offhand comment about the “gray sheep” killing Aemon because they believed him dangerous. Specifically, he says –

“Ask yourself why Aemon Targaryen was allowed to waste his life upon the Wall, when by rights he should have been raised to archmaester. His blood was why. He could not be trusted. No more than I can.”

Okay, let’s unpack that. First off – Aemon goes to the Wall for a reason. A specific reason. To quote the eternally-wise wiki:

Aemon then chose to go to the Wall to take the vows of the Night’s Watch for fear that he may be used in a plot to usurp his brother.

Aemon *chose* the Wall. Because *he* feared his own blood. It had nothing to do with a maester conspiracy theory. But how would Marwyn know that? He wasn’t even born at the time – this was the mid-230s AC, and Marwyn ain’t THAT old.

So Marwyn is projecting his own conspiracy theories onto someone else’s life. Good sign! But there’s more to unpack: “He could not be trusted. No more than I can.”

Some people have taken this to mean that Marwyn too has magical blood, that he’s someone of import. But I really, really doubt it. I find it more likely that Marwyn has been made paranoid and bitter after a lifetime of harassing and quiestioning everyone around him. Some of it, I’m sure, has been justified. But this is Marwyn embiggening himself, comparing himself to a Targaryen. He’s not saying he has special blood, he’s saying that he’s so cool and edgy that he’s just as dangerous as a dude with special blood.

And this is the guy heading off to advise Daenerys Targaryen.

Referring for a second to the most accurate ASOIAF timeline, Marwyn departs Oldtown on 5/15/300 (arbitrary placeholder month/date). The Battle of Meereen happens on 7/19/300, about two months later. For reference, according to Quhuru Mo (captain of the Cinnamon Wind, Marwyn’s new ship), it takes him about “half a year” to get from Oldtown to Qarth. So we should expect to see Marwyn pop up in Meereen about a month or two after the Battle of Meereen. Maybe just in time for Dany to return with a Dothraki army.

A Man on the Fringe

Earlier I talked about how people like to romanticize the fringe. It’s an incredibly common fantasy trope for the weirdos to be right – for information to come from the unlikeliest sources. From a narrative perspective, this makes sense. When you’re writing about alien abductions, the crazy abductee theorists are the first ones to recognize what’s happening. Look at Independence Day, for crying out loud. OL CRAZY RANDY ISN’T SO CRAZY AFTER ALL, EH? The same holds true for fantasy – when you’re dealing with ancient prophecies, it’s the eccentric scholars who remember these prophecies.

But in real life, those people aren’t just eccentric. More often than not, there are other, personal reasons for why they think the world is out to get them. A lot of times, real conspiracy theorists have their theories as a stand-in for a personal problem with the world. In other words: sometimes it’s easier to believe that everyone is out to get you than it is to admit that you’re a dick.

Now let’s look at GRRM, a dude who plays with common storytelling ideas the way a kid plays with LEGO. What do you think is more likely: that GRRM is playing Marwyn straight, a la Independence Day, or that he’s going to portray him like a human?

Marwyn isn’t a hidden genius. He’s probably accidentally right about some stuff. And he did light a glass candle. But he’s also a man on the fringe, and it wouldn’t really be very ASOIAF-y if GRRM played that one straight for some reason. He’s been associated with necromancers and dark witches, with the dangers of unbounded curiosity. And he’s about to go join up with a nihilistic dwarf genius and a dragon queen with an army of savage warriors and a reinvigorated penchant for burning the shit out of her opponents.

I’m sure nothing could go wrong.

The Personal Hell of George R. R. Martin

Pity him, pity him.

In his end-of-2015 wrap-up blog post, George R. R. Martin made a doom-wrought update on his progress on The Winds of Winter, book 6 in A Song of Ice and Fire. The news was not good.

To quote him:

Here it is, the first of January. The book is not done, not delivered. No words can change that. I tried, I promise you. I failed. I blew the Halloween deadline, and I’ve now blown the end of the year deadline. And that almost certainly means that no, THE WINDS OF WINTER will not be published before the sixth season of GAME OF THRONES premieres in April (mid April, we are now told, not early April, but those two weeks will not save me). Even as late as my birthday and our big Emmy win, I still thought I could do it… but the days and weeks flew by faster than the pile of pages grew, and (as I often do) I grew unhappy with some of the choices I’d made and began to revise… and suddenly it was October, and then November… and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became.

This will not sit easy with the fanbase. The fans are growing restless – the dedicated ones particularly. They – we – see Season 6 approaching like a freight train, threatening to spoil these books that some of them have waited twenty years to read. There’s a lot of righteous anger. But still I say – pity him, pity him.

In 2007, GRRM sold the rights to A Song of Ice and Fire. He handed over the TV show reins to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It would be another several years before they could even put a pilot together, he knew. And 2007 was three years after the release of A Feast for Crows. A Dance With Dragons was progressing, and promised to be out sooner rather than later. With the show slated to hit the small screen around 2011, GRRM felt safe. He had a four-year buffer to get further along; even if the show did well and even if it got renewed for further seasons, it wouldn’t be until, oh, 2016 that he really had to worry. That gave him almost nine years to write three books.

It wasn’t enough.

A Dance With Dragons is, thus far, the ASOIAF book with the longest downtime. After insane perfectionist rewrites and edits, GRRM finally published the book in 2011. His lead was gone. Now he had five, maybe six years to finish two books. Having just taken six years to finish ADWD, you’d think he’d be a little more expedient, aware of the building pressure.

But he was not. The sudden, unexpected wave of celebrity from the show completely undermined GRRM’s writing pace for 2011 and 2012. Nobody was ready for Game of Thrones to get as big as it did, least of all GRRM. By the time he realized what had happened, it was far, far too late to save it.

When GRRM set out to write ASOIAF, he wanted to escape the constraints of the TV medium. He wanted to write budgetless and free; he wanted them to give him the reins and and just let him wander happily until his messy little fantasy series was completed.

What has happened here is nothing short of Greek tragedy. George R. R. Martin is in a prison, a hell of his own making – and he’s genre-savvy enough to know it. He’s a walking cautionary tale. Cyclically he suffers; he stresses about writing, so he doesn’t write as much, so he stresses about writing, so…

There’s no place for value judgments here. It would be a waste of time. As GRRM said in his blog post – “No one else is to blame.” GRRM is fully, keenly aware of what he’s done to himself. No amount of kvetching on our part is going to tell him anything he doesn’t know. And as Theon says at the end of Season 2, he’s “come too far to pretend to be anyone else.” GRRM has, like Theon, trapped himself in a mighty fortress with legions of wolves at the gates. Pity him, pity him.

The good news is that ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, none of this will’ve mattered. When someone in Space Barnes and Noble picks up the holobook of A Game of Thrones in the year 2072, they won’t know anything about the interminable wait, the slow-motion horror story, the nightmare prison that George R. R. Martin built for himself. They will just know a good book when they see it. And it will be a good book, I’m sure. Those insane perfectionist rewrites for ADWD gave us an incredible book, a rich and powerful story with more layers than a thousand clones of Shrek.

There is light. But GRRM is still in his tunnel, the one he built when he wasn’t looking. All we can do is wait.