What is the “Song” at the heart of ASOIAF?

I’ve thrashed around some ideas in the past putting forward the hypothesis that GRRM is telling two stories within ASOIAF: the Song of Ice & Fire, and the Game of Thrones.

By taking the dual series names, I’m not advocating for book wank over TV fanboys. (Although I am, in general, a proud book wanker – as far as ASOIAF goes. Some of the changes made by the TV show are perplexing and remain to be seen if they are editorial shortcuts or just very bad ideas…)

What I mean is that two complex stories are being told within the one field of war: a mystical story that we don’t understand yet about the Song of Ice & Fire, and the War for the Dawn; against the political shenanigans which we do understand, with a plethora of interested parties duking it out for absolute monarchical control of Westeros.

The Game doesn’t really require extensive analysis, because it’s familiar to us. It’s the political machinations of King’s Landing, the chaos of Littlefinger, the long game of Varys: we recognise it because we see it daily, or can reflect upon history.

But the Song…. what is the Song? Is the Song about magic in all its forms? Or is it specifically about the Others and the Long Night? Is it about balance between Fire (Valyrian/dragon magic) and Ice (Winter/Others’ magic)? Or is it something else entirely?

Now, despite a litany of hilarious suggestions for appropriate ASOIAF music choices on reddit, I didn’t actually mean this question quite so literally. I don’t mean “what is the Song?” as in who is singing it and why, I mean what is the story at the heart of the more magical and metaphysical side of ASOIAF.

There are certain characters who, while stuck in the Game to some extent or another, are much more heavily involved in the Song. Bran, Jon, Dany, Samwell, Melisandre, Davos, and maybe Victarion now that he’s got Moqorro on board: these are our POV characters who are seeing the Song play out, who are involved in heavily magical things like the war against the Others, the role of greenseers, dragons, the Citadel and Maester Marwyn, and R’hollorism across Planetos. Whether they realise it or not, these are the key POVs for us to analyse the Song. Other characters might end up stuck in the Song too, but for now their journeys have been primarily about the Game.

If you’re looking for a theory, I don’t really have one, beyond saying that the Song is interesting and is going to kick the players of the Game in the arse when the shit hits the fan.

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Is R+L=J important for the Game of Thrones or the Song of Ice & Fire?

For the uninitiated (Hi Mum!) R+L=J is a shorthand for the proposition that Jon’s parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.

Many fans have wondered “assuming R+L=J is true, what’s the relevance to the broader story?” This is a valid question, because even if Rhaegar is Jon’s father, not Ned, Jon is still a bastard in the eyes of Westeros as Targaryen polygamy hasn’t been practiced since Maegor the Cruel. He is still Jon Snow, weirwood wedding or not. He isn’t Jon Targaryen in a way that would be accepted by Westerosi nobility. He is not, nor has he ever been, King Jon, First of His Name, Lord of the Andals, First Men & Rhoynar, Protector of the Realm, Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms etc etc etc.

My two cents on that question is that R+L=J matters for Jon’s personal story, as someone with serious identity issues over his parentage, and  it most likely matters for the Song.

Whether Lyanna was really in love with her silver haired harp playing emo Crown Prince or not, it seems a reasonable assumption that Rhaegar went so far off the reservation in running off with Lyanna and shacking up in the Tower of Joy while Westeros raged with civil war in order for him to fulfil the prophecies he was obsessed with. Rhaegar’s obsession is brought up time and again by character’s describing him, from Ned to Maester Aemon, to the descriptions of him TWOIAF.

As for Jon’s mummy-issues, way back as far as AGOT Jon V we had this nugget:

Even his own mother had not had a place for him. The thought of her made him sad. He wondered who she had been, what she had looked like, why his father had left her. Because she was a whore or an adulteress, fool. Something dark and dishonorable, or else why was Lord Eddard too ashamed to speak of her?

My theory is that when Jon discovers that Ned was actually his uncle and raised him as his own ‘son’ to protect him for a promise to Lyanna, this will help Jon get over this residual bitterness and discomfort about his origins.

Jon has made choices as Lord Commander that are difficult and morally grey, like the baby swap and sending away Maester Aemon, and bringing the wildlings south. He found some of these things hard, but he felt he had to do it as a leader. “Kill the boy, and let the man be born” was Aemon’s advice that Jon took to heart, and I think this perspective and his experience of leadership will help him appreciate the risks Ned took in upholding this promise to Lyanna, and the sacrifices that Ned made with his marriage to keep Jon safe.

I can’t see a way where Jon’s lineage is convincing enough to be given the Iron Throne. Even in an Aegon the Unlikely Grand Council election scenario, there is one legitimate Targaryen Queen, one potentially legitimate/potentially not Targaryen King, and then this illegitimate bastard who might just hold the fate of the world in his hands. Jon won’t be King on the Iron Throne… unless he is given that as a reward for saving everyone – in which case his lineage will have nothing to do with it in the eyes of the Game.

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Rhaegar Targaryen as depicted in The World of Ice & Fire

Who is “The Prince That Was Promised”? Is that the same as Azor Azai Reborn? Or the (next) Last Hero?

Multiple characters in universe have suggested that TPWTP = AAR = LH. This seems to be the accepted wisdom within Westeros/Esso. Is it accurate? We don’t really know. We don’t have enough evidence one way or the other. We, as readers, see a plethora of potential candidates for this hero role, and suspect that several people might have important roles to play.

Generally agreed facts – or as close to facts as we can get

  • AAR and TPTWP are legends and prophecies around the same figure, according to GRRM
  • AAR/TPWTP will be born in salt and smoke, and carry Lightbringer
  • the original AA forged Lightbringer, his magical flaming sword, by three trial, the final of which was by killing his love, Nissa Nissa
  • In the North, there is a belief that the Last Hero was a Stark (there is also fan conjecture that this is linked to the Stark’s traditional ruling name as “The Kings of Winter”)
  • When Jenny of Oldstones came to court and fell in love with Prince Duncan the Small, son and heir of Aegon the Unlikely, she was accompanied by a woodswitch/COTF, who prophesied that TPTWP would come from the line of Aerys and Rhaella, thus prompting Aegon the Unlikely’s second son and new heir (after Duncan abdicated from the heir role to marry Jenny) Jaehaerys to force his children to marry.
  • Aerys and Rhaella’s first son, Rhaegar, was born at Summerhall, while whatever catastrophe that led to the great fire that killed Aegon and most of the royal court happened.
  • Jenny’s woodswitch/COTF buddy is still hanging around, and is now known as the Ghost of High Heart. She still sees visions.
  • Rhaegar believed that he was TPWTP, given the prophecy, but over time realised that his son would be the heroic figure needed.

It’s this last point that helps us conclude that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s Prince That Was Promised (although maybe not Azor Azai Reborn?)

From Dany’s House of the Undying vision:
“He has a song,” the man replied. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany’s, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in the bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.”

We’re all certain this was Rhaegar, Elia and baby Aegon, newborn. Now, I’m sure that Elia, nearly dead from birthing her second child, was less than thrilled at her husband’s assertion that there had to be a third child. More interesting to fans though, “his is the song of ice and fire” – where is Aegon’s ice? What is the possible connection to ice from Aegon’s firey, sunny Targaryen and Martell roots?

My theory isn’t new or particularly earth-shattering: Rhaegar realised that Aegon had no ice, and thus the third child needed to come from the North, enter Lyanna, blah blah blah. Pretty standard R+L=J.

But Jon is not the only candidate for AAR/TPTWP. And he certainly wasn’t born in smoke and salt… so while he fits TPTWP’s prophetic criteria, he doesn’t meet the AAR criteria.

While Melisandre might be touting Stannis the Mannis as Azor Azai Reborn, right down to giving him a dodgy glamoured Lightbringer to look the part, her church in Volantis has decreed that Danaerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons yada yada yada is AAR. Mainly, I suspect, because of the dragons. At least, that’s why I’m willing to buy that Dany is AAR – born in salt and smoke (raging storm at her actual birth and Drogo’s funeral pyre at her rebirth), with a flaming sword – or three. Dragons do seem like a good thing for a hero to have against icy zombies, no?
Melisandre conveniently overlooks Jenny’s COTF part of the TPTWP prophecy to conclude that Stannis AAR. He is not from the line of Aerys and Rhaella. Assuming TPTWP = AAR (and we have it from GRRM that the legends are interchangable!) then Stannis cannot be AAR, no matter what Melisandre claims to have seen in her fires.

Dany is from the line of Aerys and Rhaella, she is their third and last child. Conceived in violent rape after her father got turned on by burning people. Born as a huge storm raged at Dragonstone. Reborn in smoke as she sat on her khal’s funeral pyre and hatched dragons. Assuming the dragons are Lightbringer, and her euthanasia of Drogo is equivalent to AA killing NN, then she is AAR.

Right?

But then there is Jon. Who, if we are correct, is the product of ICE and fire. Dany is all fire – Fire and Blood, as she keeps reminding herself. Jon is also from the line of Aerys and Rhaella – his father is Rhaegar. His mother is Lyanna Stark. He is connected to the Stark legends of the Kings of Winter as much as he is to the Three Heads of the Dragon. What is his Lightbringer? Is it the Watch? Longclaw?

My vague tinfoil that might explain all this: Rhaegar was AAR, and he brought the world The Prince That Was Promised. Rhaegar was born in salt (tears) and smoke (fire) at Summerhall. He killed his Nissa Nissa indirectly – Lyanna died in or as a result of childbirth. Rhaegar’s Lightbringer is not a physical sword but his Prince – Jon, whose song is the Song of Ice and Fire, and will save Westeros and the rest of Planetos from the second Long Night. But first Jon needs to know who he is, and find out how the Last Hero accomplished his victory. Off to the Winterfell crypts with you Jon! (And get in touch with Sam. You need the book geek’s knowledge)

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What is the Song about? Is it just the Long Night – or something else?

This is a big one. Many fans, myself included, assume that the Song of Ice & Fire is about the Others’ invasion south, rather than magic altogether. What if it isn’t?

Assuming it is, because most of the Song-related evidence points towards the connection to the War for Dawn, let’s look at what the Maesters of TWOIAF have to say….

Yet there are other tales—harder to credit and yet more central to the old histories—about creatures known as the Others. According to these tales, they came from the frozen Land of Always Winter, bringing the cold and darkness with them as they sought to extinguish all light and warmth. The tales go on to say they rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf…

Archmaester Fomas’s Lies of the Ancients—though little regarded these days for its erroneous claims regarding the founding of Valyria and certain lineal claims in the Reach and westerlands—does speculate that the Others of legend were nothing more than a tribe of the First Men, ancestors of the wildlings, that had established itself in the far north. Because of the Long Night, these early wildlings were then pressured to begin a wave of conquests to the south. That they became monstrous in the tales told thereafter, according to Fomas, reflects the desire of the Night’s Watch and the Starks to give themselves a more heroic identity as saviors of mankind, and not merely the beneficiaries of a struggle over dominion.

Now, we know that the maesters of the Citadel have got that last bit dead wrong, and that the Others do exist as described. Accordingly, we can ignore the Southron claims that the Stark history is irrelevant, and assume it is VERY relevant! So how were they defeated last time?

  • According to TWOIAF, the Long Night affected the whole of Planetos, and not just Westeros. Every culture has some version of the darkness, ice, cold and the hero who stopped it.
  • A hero in the Rhoyne convinced the lesser gods to put aside their bickering and sing for the dawn.
  • In Yi Ti, the legends say the sun hid its face for shame for a lifetime, until until a woman with a monkey’s tail convinced it to show again. (Possibly my favourite random version of the Last Hero myth!)
  • Asshai legends tell of a fierce hero Azor Azai with a flaming red sword who stopped the Long Night, who will come again. These legends spread with the faith of R’hollor, across Valyria and Old Ghis.
  • In the North they say the Last Hero sought out the help of the Children of the Forest and with them, the first men of the Night’s Watch were able to turn back the Others’ and finish the Long Night.

We have met the Children of the Forest, and Bloodraven, the last greenseer, so many readers (including myself!) suspect that the Northern tales are probably more accurate. So does that mean that Azor Azai was just another name for the Last Hero from House Stark? If so, why the change in details about the legend? And why was all of Planetos affected by the Long Night if it was just caused by the Others moving south in Westeros?

I think that we will find out why as the Song repeats itself. History is a wheel, and we are seeing a new Others’ invasion, a new round of candidates for the Last Hero, a new Long Night.

Kings of Winter is an interesting title, considering the historical issues of the Long Night. Winterfell is an even more interesting castle name, when you consider that the Last Hero was a Stark. What is in the Winterfell crypts? Why does Jon keep dreaming of them? Hopefully these questions will be answered in TWOW as Jon turns his back on the Night’s Watch who have abandoned him, and comes back to his Starkness.

But what is Dany’s role? Dragons are an awfully big chess piece. Especially against an enemy that can only be defeated with Valyrian steel (rare) or obsidian (rarer!). Will the dragons remain with Dany, or will they be stolen to be used in the War for the Dawn? (all this and more in ADOS….)

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Artist unknown – would credit if I knew it! It’s a great image. 

More questions about the Song to ponder:

  • Why are the Stark children wargs? Is this just because magic is coming back to Planetos, or something else?
  • Are Jon and Bran acting out this generation’s aspects of the Last Hero – being the warrior hero, seeking out the COTF? If so, how will Bran communicate to Jon about his discoveries north of the Wall?
  • Is there any force left in Westeros with enough stamina and people after the civil war (WOTFK) to be able to fight the Others? Answer: the Vale! What is Sansa’s Song role
  • Dany’s out of Meereen now, but she isn’t out of Essos. Nor is she aware of the Others. How will her focus shift from the Game to the Song – if at all?
  • Stannis isn’t AAR, that’s pretty clear. But was Melisandre completely wrong? Does the Mannis have an important role in the War for the Dawn?
  • the Red Priests in Volantis celebrate the coming of Dany as AAR and are excited about her “sword of fire that will cleanse the world”. Should we be all that excited about fire, an indiscriminate, volatile and dangerous substance, fixing the magical problems of Westeros? Isn’t there a parallel between the Red Priests enthusiasm for killing the world with fire, and the Others killing it all with ice?
  • if the COTF/Others/Last Hero made a pact, what was it? And why have the Others breached it now? Did humanity breach it first?
  • If Archmaester Marwyn is correct in his conspiracy, and the Citadel has not only actively suppressed all knowledge of magic from Westeros, but engaged in rituals and plans to eradicate it originally, what will Oldtown’s response be to the re-emergence of magic now?
  • How big an “oh” will the characters focused on the Game have when they realise that the Song is more important?!
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One thought on “What is the “Song” at the heart of ASOIAF?

  1. Azor Ahai not Azor Azai…

    I like to think that Melisandre was being led to Jon Snow the whole time, she saw Stannis fighting at the Wall with a shiny sword, so she… went to Dragonstone and gave Stannis a sword with a ruby in its hilt.

    I think the secret is that there are three reborn heros, Jon, Dany, and Bran or Tyrion. Because wow if Dany’s last chapter of GoT isn’t a total match for the AA legend Saan tells Davos!

    Like

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