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Melisandre’s Power, Daenerys’s Destination, and Whatever’s Happening in Dorne

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Winter is coming, the white ravens are stretching their wings, and the cold winds are blowing in from the North. Yet I’ve never felt cozier, friends. Game of Thrones is back. But this is a complicated world. One you might have questions about, such as, “Who is this person again?” or, “Why is this happening?” or even, “Are they really going to do Dorne like this?” Well, fear not. Every week, I’ll be answering your questions about the who, what, where, why, and how of Game of Thrones.

Everyone asks, “How old is Melisandre? How powerful is she really?”

Ah, a lady never tells! Especially when she could be, like, 280.

Judging by hints in the books (and other semicanonical sources), we can safely put her age somewhere north of 100 years, and possibly into the 400-year range.

The most obvious clue that Melisandre isn’t what she seems involves her using a “glamor” spell to disguise another character who is thought to be dead. At one point, the disguised character fights a member of the Night’s Watch at Castle Black in front of a crowd. No one, not even the fighter who is close enough to smell the glamored one’s breath, has any inkling that they are seeing an illusion. When Melisandre later reveals what she did, she explains, “Call it what you will. Glamor, seeming, illusion. R’hllor is the Lord of Light … and it is given to his servants to weave with it, as others weave with thread.” Now, the Lord of Light being the source of this power is probably another of Mel’s numerous embellishments (more on this tendency in a bit), but her ability to cast potent illusions has long been established.

The books also suggest that she’s been around for an inhumanly long time. In one scene, while gazing into the flames in her chamber at Castle Black, she thinks about how she’s “practiced her art for years beyond count” and in doing so has “paid the price.” Though she requires only one hour of sleep per day, Melisandre wishes that she “would not sleep at all” because of the nightmares of her previous life as a slave named Melony. (A quick aside for the book readers: The “Melony” reference makes me think it’s highly unlikely that Melisandre is actually Shiera Seastar, a character from the prequel novels who was rumored to have age-extending powers.)

Melisandre’s powers — glamoring, smoke-baby creation, unnatural lifespan — are not usually associated with followers of R’hllor. It’s hard to say what this means for the potential of Jon’s return via the kiss of R’hllor, but we’ve seen the Lord of Light’s followers carry out a resurrection before: in Season 3, when the Hound kills Beric Dondarrion, leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners, in a trial by combat, and the Brotherhood’s red priest, Thoros of Myr, brings Beric back from the dead, apparently for the sixth time. When Melisandre visits the Brotherhood and sees Beric, she’s shocked. “You should not have this power,” she says to Thoros, who admits that he brought Beric back by accident. Thoros whispered the Lord of Light’s prayer in the newly deceased man’s ear not out of religious zeal, but because “they were the only words” he knew and “he was my friend.” Then Beric opened his eyes.


Derek asks, “Is the youth-giving amulet that Melisandre wears a staple of all red priestesses, or is it specific to her? Can she use it to bring Jon back to life?”

That’s all her. I doubt the necklace will be used to bring Jon back. Also, Melisandre has been seen without the necklace, in Season 4, when she takes a bath in the presence of Stannis’s wife, Queen Selyse. Whether this means Melisandre is capable of casting illusions without the necklace or that Selyse is such an ardent believer that Melisandre’s true form doesn’t matter to her is unclear, but I lean toward the latter. During the bath scene, Melisandre makes a joke, but it goes over Selyse’s head. When Selyse apologizes, noting that humor isn’t her strength, Mel responds, “That’s because most jokes are lies and you are devoted to the truth.” Melisandre then walks over to her potion shelf and admits that much of what she appears to be able to do is trickery, “deceptions to make men think they witnessed our lord’s power.”

Livia asks, “Is there an expiration date for being dead too long for resurrection?”

Good question. There are three known methods for resurrection: fire (R’hllor), ice (White Walkers), and science (Qyburn). Of the three, the one that seems to have the most restrictions, in terms of time since death and quality of corpse, is fire. When Beric tells Arya about his multiple resurrections, she asks Thoros if he can bring back her father, Ned. Thoros replies, “I don’t think it works that way, child.” Whether Thoros refuses because of the time elapsed since Ned’s execution (this scene takes place in Episode 5 of Season 3; Ned was beheaded in the penultimate episode of Season 1), or the manner of death, or both, is unclear. In the books, Thoros of Myr refuses to revive someone who was gruesomely murdered several days prior and whose body was floating in a river.

James asks, “Is Margaery in jail for something other than perjury?”

In the books there are other charges, but on the show it’s basically perjury. The Faith Militant are holding her because she lied when she backed up her brother Loras’s denials about having sex with men.


Jarrett asks, “Where is Dany being sent to?”

Dothraki tradition holds that when a khal dies — after all the ritual suicide of his bloodriders and internecine bloodletting — his khaleesi is to receive safe passage to Vaes Dothrak (“City of the Dothraki”), where she will live out her days as a member of the dosh khaleen (“council of crones” or “council of widows”). This unique retirement program reveals the paradox — the hypocrisy, even — at the wild heart of Dothraki culture. The horselords value strength above all else. Khals gain their position at the head of a khalasarby mercilessly slaying rivals and enslaving their enemies’ women and children. They spend all of their lives on horseback and consider the sedentary nature of urban life unnatural and even cowardly. They do not engage in commerce and they do not farm. They deeply despise witches and all forms of sorcery.

So it is kind of weird that the Dothraki have a huge capital where violence is strictly forbidden, international trade flourishes, and an assembly of revered holy women are tasked with doing witchlike stuff such as reading omens and prophesying the future. But that’s a patriarchy for you.

The existence of Vaes Dothrak makes a bit more sense when you consider that the Dothraki likely weren’t trying to found a city, though. Imagine it’s 80 B.C. (before Aegon’s conquest of Westeros), the period when the Dothraki were exploding onto the scene, and you’re a khal rampaging across the land with fire and sword, 40,000 screamers at your back. You just finished sacking picturesque Gornath by the Lake, murdering its menfolk, clapping the women and children in chains, and stripping the city of its treasures. Drunk on victory, you ride off with your spoils. Then, when the endorphins wear off, you suddenly realize that, along with the thousands of wailing Sarnori captives and other liquid valuables, you’re also dragging numerous multi-ton pieces of random statuary and architectural features around on horse-drawn carts under the blazing sun. You’re nomads; you don’t need statues, bros. What you do need: a place to dump all the spoils before going out and destroying another town.

By choosing a place close to the Mother of Mountains and the Womb of the World, holy sites that are integral to the Dothraki creation myth, they were simply being efficient. Vaes Dothrak is really just a vast salvage yard — and I do mean vast. The year-round population (mostly made up of the dosh khaleen, their eunuch servants, and some slaves) of Vaes Dothrak is very low, like Coachella in the offseason, but the city is large enough to house all the khalasars should they ride into town at once — which one day, who knows, they might. The Dothraki believe that a great khal (hm) will appear at Vaes Dothrak (hmm) to unite thekhalasars (hmmm) under his (HMMMM) banner and go on to conquer the world.

Tyler asks, “How many Dothraki tribes are there? Why did they split in the first place?”

The histories put the number of independent khalasars during the Century of Blood (the chaotic years after the Doom of Valyria, about 300 to 400 years ago) at around 60. Fractiousness is the Dothraki’s natural state. Only rarely does a khal powerful enough to unite the tribes appear, the first being the great Khal Mengo, the scourge of the Tall Men.


Zane asks, “Realistically, what kind of fight can Dorne put up against the Lannisters and the Tyrells?”

Ah, Dorne. I’ll write more about about this sunbaked land later. Or who knows, maybe we’ll never go back there again!

Dorne is sparsely populated, and most of its greatest military achievements, at least in recent history, involved guerrilla warfare on its own land. That said, before Aegon’s conquest, during a time of weak governance in the Reach, the Dornish did manage to sack Highgarden, then the home of the Gardner kings (the Tyrells were their stewards in those days), executing the feeble King Garth X and turning the famed Oakenseat throne into firewood in the process. With the Tyrells focused on events in King’s Landing and the status of the Stormlands basically up in the air, Dornish cross-border raids could surely do real damage. But generally speaking, Dorne is most dangerous when working at covert assassination plots (usually involving poison! Never kiss a Dornish on a dock in the morning!) or goading enemies into invading her territory, where heat and lack of water can take its toll.

Prashanta asks, “Do you think that with Doran’s death, the Dornish side with Daenerys? As a queen, she could legitimize the Sand Snakes, right?”

With or without Doran’s death, Dorne is a natural ally for Daenerys because of the marriage of Prince Rhaegar (Dany’s eldest brother) and Elia Martell. Dorne has much to gain from a Targaryen revanche, not the least of which would be delicious revenge. This is why I’ve always argued that Dany should’ve sailed for Dorne as soon as she was able. It took the Targaryens more than 150 years and tens of thousands of deaths, including King Daeron I, to bring Dorne into the realm via marriage, and that was with dragons.

As for legitimizing the Sand Snakes, I don’t think they particularly care about being legally recognized thanks to Dorne’s accepting culture.

Benjamin asks, “Have the Boltons always had a Maester?”

They probably brought him over from the Dreadfort. Every family rich enough to house and feed a Maester has one. Maesters handle health care issues and, crucially, everything involving ravens. Long-range communication would be impossibly slow without Maesters. Even the Iron Islanders have them, and they are predisposed to hate “greenlanders.”

Who leads the Night’s Watch now?

As First Ranger, Alliser Thorne wields the most authority. But officially speaking, the Watch will have to hold another vote to decide who the next Lord Commander is.

This piece originally appeared in the April 26, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.