Melisandre of Asshai: Subverting The Witch Trope in Game of Thrones

Morally ambiguous and often presented as alluring and dangerous creatures, witches are important characters in horror and fantasy literature and cinema. The traits and characteristics typically associated with witches and their role in storytelling are inherited from the late Middles Ages and the Early Modern period ‒ dreadful times of political unrest and heightened religious intolerance in Europe and American colonies. The infamous Salem Witch trials which took place in colonial Massachusetts between 1662 and 1663 are a sad reminder of the consequences of religious intolerance and disguised misogyny. And today, they still haunt the American imagination. Europe, with the Roman Catholic Inquisition and later on, the Reformation, also had its fair share of religious fanaticism and bloody witch-hunting. Witches and their sinful ways were depicted everywhere, from paintings, treatises on witchcraft such as King James I’s Daemonologie to Elizabethan theatre with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Witches were stigmatized and persecuted under the guise of religion, their femininity, and unconventional lifestyle considered as a threat. They transgressed society’s accepted boundaries and constructs. Said to be powerful, too sexually aggressive, and impious but isolated, these women were a scapegoat for misfortune and the victims of religious persecution.

People’s appetite for stories involving magic and witch-like figures has barely decreased since. However, with the entrance of fantasy literature in mainstream western culture in the middle of the 20th century, namely with J R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings and then George R.R Martin’s grimdark series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire, witchcraft at large became a more complex trope that henceforth wasn’t exclusively equated with the notion of evil. It is no secret that for his novels (which served as a basis for HBO’s TV show Game of Thrones), Martin drew from history to craft political intrigues and build his fictional world. The most obvious example is the War of the Roses, a civil war for the throne of England that was the inspiration for the conflict known as the War of the Five Kings in Game of Thrones. Against a backdrop of murder, incest, and political schemes, the books and its TV show adaptation also tackle the question of religion and magic in a grounded fashion. Politics have always meddled with religion and vice versa, so it’s not all surprising to see glimpses of Europe’s troubled religious history there and characters whose magical abilities advance the plot rather than serve as an ornament in a fantasy setting. Introduced in A Clash of Kings (the second book of the series) and Season 2 of Game of Thrones, Melisandre of Asshai is a character who both embodies and subverts the trope of the witch and a keen example of female empowerment. For the sake of clarity and convenience, this study will refer to the books and the show alternatively or both when necessary.

Melisandre is a red priestess and a shadow binder who hails from Asshai, a distant city across the Narrow Sea. Often referred to as “the Red Woman” by foe and friend alike, Melisandre is a figure whose religious practices blur the line between the spiritual and the magical. As a red priestess, she is a servant of R’hllor (also known as the Lord of Light) a god who is widely worshipped in Essos, the continent where Asshai is located, and has only a few followers in Westeros. But she is also a sorceress who practices blood magic and shadow-binding, a sinister form of magic essentially worked at night. Little to nothing is known about her past, except that she is a former slave (Tituba, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch trials and one of the very few survivors was a slave) and that she is fluent in the Common Tongue (the language is commonly spoken in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros), High Valyrian and the tongue of Asshai.

Her formal introduction in the prologue of A Clash of Kings and the first episode of the second season of Game of Thrones sets the stage for her prominent role in the story and recalls the old stereotypes about witches to better challenge them. Melisandre (played by Carice van Houten) sailed to Westeros and joined Stannis Baratheon’s (played by Stephen Dillane) court at Dragonstone after claiming to have had a vision that Stannis is Azor Ahai reborn, a legendary hero prophesied by the books of her religion. Red priests are capable of seeing into the future by staring at flames and interpreting these visions on divine grounds. On Dragonstone, Melisandre manages to convert most of Stannis’ court ‒ including his wife, Selyse of House Florent – to her faith. At the beginning of the War of the Five Kings, a large conflict that opposed five men (Joffrey Baratheon who was crowned after his father’s death as King of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Balon Greyjoy and Robb Stark) who claimed the title of king, Melisandre convinces Stannis to burn idols of the Seven. The Faith of the Seven is the dominant religion in Westeros.

A map of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire

The Faith of the Seven is the direct counterpart of the Roman Catholic Church: the Seven are one God with seven aspects or faces, very much like the Holy Trinity. The Lord of the Light, on the other hand, is a dualistic religion based on Zoroastrianism and Catharism. Followers of the Lord of Light believe that he is the good god, a fiery champion for life locked in an eternal struggle over the fate of the world with the Great Other, the bad god who embodies cold and darkness and death. The Cathars were persecuted by the Inquisition during the 13th century as they believed in two gods equal in power, one good and one evil, which antagonized the monotheist doctrine of the Catholic Church. Like witches, red priests and followers of the Lord of Light are regarded as dissidents and evil, a threat to religious conformity in Westeros. Witches were taken for heretics or servants of the devil, hung or burned at the stake for their supposed sins and crimes in the name of religious propriety.

Melisandre first appears during the burning of the idols on the beach at Dragonstone where she proclaims Stannis Azor Ahai: “In the ancient books, it’s written that a warrior will draw a burning sword from the fire. And that sword shall be Lightbringer. Stannis Baratheon, warrior of light, your sword awaits you.” (Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 1 “The North Remembers”). Stannis Baratheon is a stern, inflexible, and humorless man with a strong sense of duty and justice. In the books, it is also mentioned that he has stopped believing in God after his parents’ death and described as being uncomfortable around women, even his own wife. Selyse is the first to embrace the Red Woman’s faith and gives her lord husband counsel but ultimately, it is Melisandre who persuades Stannis Baratheon to join his cause to her. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon remarks on that “Lady Melisandre wore no crown, but every man there knew that she was Stannis Baratheon’s real queen, not the homely woman he had left to shiver at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.” (Chapter 10, Jon III).

On Dragonstone, the idols of the Seven are burned and Melisandre of Asshai proclaims Stannis Baratheon Warrior of Light: the Lord of LIght has prevailed.

After the death of his brother King Robert Baratheon I and the beheading of Ned Stark, Stannis claims the Iron Throne on the basis that it is his by right since the late Robert’s son is in fact born of incest and de facto, not his rightful heir. Stannis accepts to ally himself with Melisandre because he views her powers and the fear she inspires as strategic tools “There are four kings in the realm, and three of them have more men and more gold than I do. I have ships … and I have her. The red woman. Half my knights are afraid even to say her name, did you know? If she can do nothing else, a sorceress who can inspire such dread in grown men is not to be despised. A frightened man is a beaten man. And perhaps she can do more. I mean to find out.” (A Clash of Kings, Chapter 10, Davos I). In that sense, Melisandre is a character who aligns with the traditional vision of the witch as a woman who must be feared and who is inherently evil. But she also diverges from that vision because instead of being stigmatized and persecuted as witches were in Renaissance England, American colonies, or during the Spanish Inquisition.

Melisandre is a powerful woman who is instrumental in the political intrigue of Game of Thrones. She is more Lady Macbeth than the Three Sisters. Moreover, it is important to add that in George R. R Martin’s world, evil is not a clean-cut notion. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Three Sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be king (“All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” – Second Witch Act I, Scene III) which Melisandre does with Stannis (“You will sit on the Iron Throne, but first there must be sacrifices. The Lord of Light demands it.” – Game of Thrones, Season 3, Episode 3 “Walk of Punishment”) but it is Lady Macbeth who pushes her husband to murder King Duncan. Melisandre’s role is both mystical and political. Alongside Davos Seaworth (portrayed by Liam Cunningham), a smuggler-turned-knight, she becomes Stannis’s most influential advisor. In exchange for his fulfillment of the Azor Ahai prophecy, she aids him in his quest for the Throne. Melisandre partakes in the quarrels of men but her aim is of a higher, darker, divine nature.

“Maybe she has a more modern look on it all, but at the same time, she’s very manipulative. She is the right hand of one of the people that could become king and she’s basically manipulating him… She’s very influential and she’s the opposite of Liam [Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth]. Liam is the left hand.” – Carice van Houten (March 2, 2012 ‒

In a lot of respects, Melisandre’s character is founded on the traditional image of the witch, inherited from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and European folklore. This is especially striking in the way she is described for the first time to the readers by Maester Cressen, a scholar in the service of the Baratheons on Dragonstone, on the Prologue of A Clash of Kings “As ever, she wore red head to heel, a long loose gown of flowing silk as bright as fire, with dagged sleeves and deep slashes in the bodice that showed glimpses of a darker blood red fabric beneath. Around her throat was a red gold choker tighter than any maester’s chain, ornamented with a single great ruby. Her hair was not the orange or strawberry color of common red-haired men, but a deep burnished copper that shone in the light of the torches. Even her eyes were red…but her skin was smooth and white, unblemished, pale as cream. Slender she was, graceful, taller than most knights, with full breasts and narrow waist and a heart-shaped face

Men’s eyes that once found her did not quickly look away, not even a maester’s eyes. Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red and terrible, and red.” Like her fellow red priests, she wears red exclusively and possesses a multitude of abilities such as pyrokinesis or resurrecting the dead through religious incantations. Red, of course, is evocative of the Devil, and all that is passion and blood. The last sentence of the quote above is particularly important here. Melisandre is beautiful but her beauty is stained by the color she favors, her wantonness, and her faith. Christian imagery and symbolic associations are woven into the very fabric of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That color inspires dread but it also contributes to building the allure of Melisandre both as a woman and a sorceress. Cressen is frightened of her but he cannot take his eyes off her (note: maesters are scholars and healers, often characterized as pious and prudish). That fear prompts him to try to assassinate her by pouring poison in a cup of wine he shares with her under the pretense of making peace, but he dies and she survives. This attests to the superiority of the witch. She is deceitful and above common men.

Witches have for a long time been depicted as temptresses, a notion connected to the Biblical idea that women are inherently sinful. Melisandre puts fear in the heart of common men but doubtless, she also fascinates them. She is sultry and a symbol of forbidden feminine power. In the books, many times it is mentioned how hot, feverish her skin is. She emanates heat, this is a mark of the unnaturalness of the witch. The ruby at her throat glistens whenever her magic is at work, a fiery and ominous gem. As Stannis prepares for a potential battle against his younger, more popular brother Renly in Episode 2 of Season 2, she seduces him and promises to give him a son. Stannis initially resists her advances, telling has made sacred vows when he married Selyse (although their marriage is a loveless affair and; he only had stillborn sons and one surviving daughter). But her promise and her vision of victory motivate him to cast his honor aside. From there, he takes her as a lover and she becomes one of his closest counselors. He also abandons the sigil of House Baratheon and puts in its stead a personal variation: the crowned black stag of House Baratheon enclosed in a red heart surrounded by orange flames on a yellow field.

Melisandre entices Stannis.

After a fruitless parley with Renly in Episode 4, Stannis prepares for a battle that seems inevitable although he knows that Melisandre’s abilities will assist him, only the way her magic works is lost on him. So he commands Davos to smuggle her nearby Renly’s camp and there, she births a shadow that stabs Renly. In Shakespeare’s play, King Duncan was stabbed by Macbeth. Unknownst to Stannis, he conceived the shadow with Melisandre, an offspring of their lovemaking and her shadowbinding powers. One could infer that this particular aspect is a reinterpretation of the witch as an anti-mother. This is also illustrated by her practice of blood magic. In the books, Melisandre brings Edric Storm (one of King Robert’s known bastards) on Dragonstone and pressures Stannis to burn him in sacrifice to the Lord of Light for the boy has king’s blood in him. Eventually, Stannis refuses. On the show, this happens to Gendry (another of Robert’s illegitimate children, present in the books as well) and after Stannis refuses the burning, Melisandre makes up for it by leeching Gendry in order to collect his blood and “sacrifice” him. Note that in Season 1, Mirri Maz Duur, the woman responsible for Daenerys losing her child and Khal Drogo’s death practiced blood magic. The Dothraki despised Duur and accused her of being a sorceress. Examples of blood magic are usually connected to child loss or child sacrifice, both in books and shows.

Melisandre and Stannis during the parley.
(HBO/Helen Sloan)

Historically, witches were painted as seductresses, often childless and antagonised the traditional representation of women as housewives and mothers. Melisandre, even in her devotion to the Lord of Light and her ties to her king and lover Stannis, is a lonely woman. Throughout the show, she allies herself with different characters multiple times, always with the intent of doing her god’s bidding and after Stannis’ death, in a quest to find the true Azor Ahai. Historical witches were often women who were outcast and did not adhere in lifestyle to the patriarchal structure of society because they were either unmarried and not pious or they were old widowed women, crones. Melisandre’s features and characterisation conform to that. While she appears young and eerily beautiful, she is much older than her physique suggests. Indeed, the choker she wears also grants her a youthful appearance as opposed to her true, ancient self.

Removing her red gold choker, Melisandre reveals her true age to the audience.
Melisandre’s choker, ornamented with a single great ruby.

She is also a foreigner and Davos is wary of the influence she has on Stannis “She’s a foreigner, preaching her foreign religion. Some believe she whispers orders in your ear and you obey” (Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 5 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”), which brings us back to the similarity with Lady Macbeth. Yes, she is manipulative and ambiguous although she is honest in her beliefs. Her character serves as a vehicle for commentary about religious fanaticism. She converted a disillusioned, hardened leader and warrior to her faith, pushed him to destroy idols of a religion he once believed in. She pushed him to burn at the stake members of his court deemed traitors on political or religious ground, including Axell Florent, Queen Selyse’s brother.

Religious fanaticism: Axell Florent and other traitors are burned at the stake.

Melisandre isn’t a villain but her actions are questionable and some have had very negative repercussions on the plot in the later seasons (some writing choices have been rightfully decried as bad characterization and a misunderstanding of the source material – E.g with Stannis and the burning of Shireen – but the point of this article is to discuss what has been done well, so let’s not dwell on it). She is a character of a somewhat darker shade than others because those actions are generally perceived by the people surrounding her as evil and she has blind spots. Her motivations largely differ from the rest of the characters because they aren’t rooted in state matters or personal glory. But despite the character’s intimidating presence and mysterious aura, she did have fears and doubts which brought an interesting contrast to her aura. Behind the scenes considerations aside (there has been much ado among fans about the showrunners’ alleged negative bias towards Stannis Baratheon and by extension, Melisandre, given her influence on him), the TV show cannot convey that dichotomy between how Melisandre is perceived by other character and her beliefs, simply because it is a visual adaptation. Martin’s books are structured in chapters from the point of view of a given character and Melisandre becomes a PoV character in A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book of the series. Unquestionably, this gives the reader more insight into the character and allows them to interpret more freely her actions.

Faith and power: Melisandre lights the trench during the Long Night by praying to her god in High Valyrian.

Viewed this way, with Melisandre, George R. R Martin uses stereotypical elements and bits of history to deconstruct the witch as a character type, and like for many of his most complex, well written female characters, there is a feminist perspective to her role. Instead of being sexualized and degraded by men like unfortunately, women accused of witchcraft were, she is a proactive character who embraces her sexuality and femininity. Melisandre has agency and isn’t reduced to a one-dimensional, villainous character. She has made grave mistakes, meddled with politics, and committed unspeakable acts. But on the small screen, Melisandre of Asshai had a crucial role in battles against wildings (she also resurrected Jon Snow) and during the Second Long Night. Complexity doesn’t have to rhyme with moral goodness. From her bewitching introduction on the dreary beaches of Dragonstone to her poetic death in Season 8, Carice van Houten’s Melisandre made a strong and unforgettable impression.