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.
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.
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.
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.
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.