Game of Thrones: Melisandre - The Purpose of Prophecy

In Game of Thrones, the story of Melisandre answers a key question of the series: what’s the point of prophecy? Furthermore, is it also a subtle comment on our own appetite for predictions and theories for the show?

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Melisandre: The Purpose of Prophecy

As Melisandre completed her story at the Battle of Winterfell, ‘Game of Thrones’ subtly revealed the answer to a key question of this series: what is the value and purpose of prophecy?

The Red Woman finally gets to play an indispensable part in helping fire prevail over ice, just as she’s always longed to. When she reunites with Arya and reminds the girl of her earlier prophecy:

“Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” - Melisandre in S03E06 (The Climb)

“Brown eyes, green eyes and blue eyes.” - Melisandre in S08E03 (The Long Night)

This is the moment in which the Battle of Winterfell is decided in favor of the living. Arya would never have defeated the Night King without the confidence and sense of purpose that Melisandre imparts to her here. Yet Melisandre’s journey up to this point has been long and rough, full of missteps that caused great suffering and the loss of innocent lives.

And we can’t help but see some morals in her tale that speak to the ‘Game of Thrones’ fandom as well – about our relationship to predictions and our impulse to ‘see the future’ of what will happen in this very show. So let’s look closer at what the Red Woman’s journey teaches us about the complex, dangerous yet central role that visions of the future play in our lives.

Melisandre: Fulfilled

As the army of the dead comes to Winterfell, Melisandre at long last understands her purpose. After the oft-resurrected Beric Dondarrion meets his final end, in a pose that might remind us of a crucifix, she realizes that the Lord of Light brought Beric back so he could help the Hound usher Arya to safety.

Seeing this, she grasps why she’s truly there, and repeats the key part of her earlier prophecy to Arya.

“…And blue eyes.” - Melisandre in S08E03 (The Long Night)

Before this point, we see Arya uncharacteristically losing her nerve. Despite her training with the faceless men of Braavos, she’s overwhelmed by staring true death in the face. But when Melisandre tells her with full faith what is destined to happen, backed by the proof of what her words have already gotten right.

Arya is invigorated by the knowledge of what she must do and the trust that she can do it. Just as Melisandre once drew on the words of a dead person to thoroughly unsettle Jon:

“You know nothing Jon Snow.” - Melisandre in S05E04 (Sons Of The Harpy)

The Red Woman now uses her insight to summon the magic words that have the power to remind Arya of who she truly is and why she’s come all this way – the motto of her teacher, Syrio Forel:

“What do we say to the god of death?” -Syrio Forel in S01E08 (The Pointy End)

“Not today.” -Arya in S01E08 (The Pointy End)

“What do we say to the god of death?” - Melisandre in S08E03 (The Long Night)

“Not today.” - Arya in S08E03 (The Long Night)

Melisandre wins this battle for the side of the Light, because she is here at the right time to repeat and interpret her prediction to inspire the key warrior. Yet if either woman had truly grasped her words’ full significance before this point, that wouldn’t have helped anything. After all, if we were meant to understand a prophecy in more literal detail when we first hear it, wouldn’t it then be delivered to us in as much detail? A prophecy is vague and incomplete by design, it reveals only as much as it wants us to know.

So ultimately, this scene reveals a key lesson about the reason prophecies are given to characters at all in Game of Thrones: it’s not so that they can see the future, but so that when the future comes they will recognize it. They must be ready to seize on the crucial moment, and have the conviction to do what they’re meant to do.

Melisandre: The Zealot

Melisandre’s problem for most of the show is that she gives into the temptation to fill in the blanks between the fragments of what she knows. She arrogantly attempts to decipher the full picture, like an omniscient god.

Due to all her errors, it may be easy to overlook that Melisandre is right about a lot of things. It’s just that she proves the saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ as she supplements what she’s foreseen, like that there is a prince who was promised, with big, baseless assumptions like that Stannis Baratheon must be that prince.

Melisandre’s plot guiding Stannis in his doomed bid for the Iron Throne is a cautionary tale about the perils not only of divination, but also of certainty. The story is deeply reminiscent of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tale of an ambitious man who trusts the prophecy of witches who say he will be king, but he misinterprets their words. In this case, the witch herself is responsible for the misinterpretation.

Ignoring how much she doesn’t know in her fervor for serving her Lord, she backs the wrong horse, focuses on smaller details while sidelining big ones, and rushes to sacrifice innocent people on the chance that this might help.She manipulates men to serve her aims by preying on their powerlust, and regular lust. She’s a portrait of the extremist, who is so sure she’s doing right, that she causes terrible damage.

When it comes to Stannis, she’s wrong – but the moral is that, whether you may be right or wrong, you should never be sure enough to burn a small girl at the stake.

Melisandre: Humbled

After Stannis loses, Melisandre has a crisis of faith.

“The great victory I saw in the flames, all of it was a lie.” - Melisandre in S06E02 (Home)

And in the episode titled ‘The Red Woman’ we see her true form. The sight of this centuries-old woman underneath the illusion, reveals to us that hers has been a very long journey. She’s been waiting to realize her Lord’s will for a far longer time than we can even fathom. So we can sympathize with why she was so eager to bring the Prince that was promised prophecy to fruition, and we might see why she doesn’t feel the deaths of individuals as we do.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Melisandre’s backstory – but she was born a slave and sold as a young girl to the Temple of the Lord of Light, where she became a Red Priestess. She comes from Asshai, a city in the far east of the continent of Essos that’s associated with magic. We hear mention of the Shadow lands beyond Asshai, said to be the origin of Tyene Sand’s poison and Daenerys’ dragon eggs.

Melisandre—and Quaithe, another character we meet from Asshai, are shadowbinders, meaning they can direct shadows to do what they will. According to ‘The World of Ice and Fire’, Shadowbinders are the most fearsome of all magical people in Asshai, the only ones who dare to venture to explore the Shadow Lands. They’re also the only ones who eat the blind fish that live in Asshai’s toxic river Ash, which has made all of the city’ residents sterile, a fact that may relate to Melisandre’s peculiar pregnancy. The Lord of Light is also known as the God of Flame and Shadow. And as passionately as she serves fire, Melisandre sees the shadow as the necessary inverse of this, just as she has no problem with using dark methods to aid her righteous purpose.

For all her dark powers and knowledge, though, when she learns that Beric has been resurrected, she’s stunned. She doesn’t know what death is and yearns to truly understand what is on ‘the other side’.

After her great failure, the humbled and nearly destroyed Melisandre allows doubt in, accepting how much she doesn’t know makes her not only a more likeable character, but also a key player on the team for the side of life. It’s significant that the person who comes to her in her moment of despair is the skeptic who’s fought to free Stannis from her influence: Ser Davos.

Davos rouses her out of her depression, not by claiming to care about her god, but by acknowledging the power he’s witnessed in her.

And indeed, in addition to her visions, on the show we see her perform blood magic, pyrokinesis, resurrection, glamour magic, extreme longevity, and resisting poison and cold. Despite his feelings about her, Davos comes to Melisandre because Jon Snow has been murdered and only magic could possibly help. This more lost and malleable Melisandre, who is no longer so sure, is far more useful to the greater good; her immense power can be called on and directed where it’s most needed. After this, she shifts to believing Jon is the Prince who was Promised.

But she becomes more measured in her faith. She’s no longer such a zealous proselytizer, and accepts blame for her mistakes. Her ability to admit complexity into her worldview makes her more powerful than she was when she saw the world in certain, simplistic terms.

In the Battle of Winterfell, her Lord appears to answer her by helping her deliver much-needed fire in two key moments: first when she lights the Dothraki swords, and then when she lights the trenches. And as we see the fire reflected in her eyes here, this appears to signal that the battle fulfills a key vision we’ve heard her speak of before. Back in Season 2, we see similar flames in Stannis’ eyes when Melisandre helps him have a vision. They both later refer to what they saw in the fire.

“I saw a vision in the flames, a great battle in the snow.” - Stannis in S03E08 (Second Sons)

“You saw it yourself, my king, when you stared into the flames. A great battle in the snow.” - Melisandre in S05E07 (The Gift)

This victory in the snow that they were seeing was the Battle of Winterfell, but their desire and self-interest led them to misread what they saw as Stannis’ triumph. Only now, much later, does Melisandre get the satisfaction of piecing together the full picture. So her story illustrates that being a believer is a long, difficult road. She wants to give everything, do anything for her Lord, but so much of a devout person’s life takes place in the dark, not knowing what the point of it all is.

When she at last gets the death which she has also foreseen. This confirms that, like Beric, she has fulfilled her Lord’s purpose and can go in peace.

The Beauty Of Not Knowing

In this story which is full of cryptic words about the future, Melisandre illustrates the power, limitations and dangers of vision. Without her words to Arya, everyone at Winterfell would be fodder for the army of the dead. And it’s significant that two of her key relationships turn out to be with Davos and Arya who both hate her for most of the story.

And both overcome inherent cynicism to appreciate the role of magic in their lives. Yet, as much as prophecies factor into this story, almost everyone who believes in one gets it wrong, or feels trapped by a fixed idea of the future.

It’s human nature to twist a fortune-teller’s words to match what we hope for, to count on a good thing happening sooner than it will, or deny that a bad thing will come to pass.

As incredibly tempting as it is to know the future, our self-interest makes it impossible for us to actually hear a prediction with the objectivity necessary to understand it. As we see in Melisandre, even the desire to know before it’s time is a self-interest that clouds our vision. Melisandre isn’t alone in putting great store in clues about the future of Westeros. The entire Game of Thrones fandom has devoted ample time to deciphering the story’s prophecies, striving to know the ending in advance. More often than not this has borne no fruit. And one of the things many of us love most about this show is its ability to surprise us, which can be one of the great beauties of life as well.

So viewers might learn from Melisandre, we don’t need to be in such a rush to see what will be, before it comes. While we crave certainty that things will turn out okay, in our lives, and in Game of Thrones, it’s our human lot not to know. And in time, all will be revealed.