[Note: Spoilers for all five novels follow!]
Melisandre of Asshai is a mysterious figure in much of the series, and as with all mysteries in A Song of Ice and Fire, she’s beguiling. She’s tall — taller than most knights — and very beautiful, but her hair is an unnatural red hue, and so are her eyes. Is it magic that’s turned them red, or was she born that way, marked — as greenseers were said to be marked — from birth as a priestess of R’hllor? And then there’s the question not just of her origins, but of her purpose and her magic. It’s Melisandre who introduces us to what appears to be a central prophecy of the series, that of Azor Ahai reborn or the prince who was promised, a prophecy that appears to be tied to the worship of R’hllor. Is the magic also R’hllorian magic, however?
These are questions that over time have received partial answers, or at least hints to answers. Perhaps the first thing to get out of the way for those who’ve read the books and watched the show and complained about Melisandre seducing Stannis? Sorry, folks, it did happen! It’s hinted at early on, but in the third novel Melisandre makes it more clearly implicit:
“Is the brave Ser Onions so frightened of a passing shadow? Take heart, then. Shadows only live when given birth by light, and the king’s fires burn so low I dare not draw off any more to make another son. It might well kill him.” Melisandre moved closer. “With another man, though … a man whose flames still burn hot and high … if you truly wish to serve your king’s cause, come to my chamber one night. I could give you pleasure such as you have never known, and with your life-fire I could make…”
There’s a little wiggle room, one supposes. Perhaps it’s a magical ceremony that she conducts in secret, one that causes ecstatic pleasure in the subject, but there’s no actual sex… Or perhaps there’s sex, but that’s what she means to do with Davos, and Stannis’s “life-fire” has been drawn from him some other way to make the shadows that killed King Renly and Ser Cortnay Penrose?
A Dance with Dragons indicates no, not really:
With Stannis gone, her bed saw little use.
Amusingly, that very quote is the one that Carice van Houten has brought out to respond to those who told her that the show was “wrong”. It’s certainly rather definitive, all considered: Stannis is sleeping with Melisandre, at least initially for the purpose of allowing her to create her shadows. The quote does seem to imply that there’s been more occasions than just the two shadow births, it’s true, and perhaps that says something about Stannis. Or perhaps not — perhaps there’s other magic that she’s able to perform with this rather tantric magic of hers, who knows? Although there’s surely something to be said for Melisandre using sex to bind Stannis more closely to her, as she tries to guide him as Azor Ahai reborn. Stannis Baratheon is a stubborn man, not really a true believer, and every hold over him she has must be useful when Melisandre is (in certain lights) a kind of Gandalf figure to Stannis’s Aragorn, not so much advising him to his destiny as forcibly trying to push him into what she conceives as his destiny.
Though she may, indeed, come from Asshai — the place where she was taught her magic, apparently — we’ve also learned in A Dance with Dragons that this is not necessarily her place of actual origin. Her dreams of “Melony” and the repeated crying of “Lot Seven” clearly echoes the slave auction we witness in that novel. It was first hinted in A Storm of Swords that the red priests are generally slaves, and this is certainly confirmed in A Dance with Dragons when we learn of the way the Volantene red priests purchase slaves and train them to be priests or soldiers or servants for the Lord of Light. Martin has hinted that Melisandre — a name she seems to have taken, or was given — was not from Asshai in origin, and many have speculated that she might originally have come from Westeros.
Some have even suggested, in the name of wild speculation, that perhaps she’s Shiera Seastar, a bastard daughter of Aegon the Unworthy who was considered the most beautiful woman in Westeros… and who happened to be lover to Brynden Rivers, also known as Bloodraven, also known as three-eyed crow and the last greenseer. It’s true that there’s a certain similarity to how Martin describes them: trim waists, buxom, heart-shaped faces, unusual eyes, an apparent interest in dark arts… Of course, Shiera Seastar would be over a hundred years old by now, if she lived, and Melisandre doesn’t look anything like that. But… Melisandre is over a hundred years old, at least. Some magic art has kept her alive, and youthful in appearance as well. It doesn’t rule her out as Shiera, does it?
But Melisandre is tall, and Martin doesn’t say Shiera’s tall. Melisandre wears a golden torc with a ruby in it, whereas we’re told that Shiera considered gold vulgar. Still, it’s an interesting idea, however crazed. One hopes that future Dunk & Egg stories might shed more light on what becomes of Shiera Seastar, given that we know Bloodraven’s history into the present reasonably well.
A last detail that seems worth examining, and one that has some basic implications into Melisandre’s purposes, is her magic. We see that Thoros of Myr learned to stare into flames to see the shape of things to come, and in the course of A Storm of Swords we learn that “the last kiss”, a death rite of the R’hllorians, has now allowed him to resurrect Beric Dondarrion. But Thoros says he has no magic, “only prayers”. Melisandre reads the flames just as Thoros did, an art she must have picked up from the red priests… but we’ve no evidence that her kiss can bring the dead to life (not yet, anyways!), and many of her other uses of fire are conjurer’s tricks, using special powders and the like; only the burning of Orell’s eagle in mid-air tastes of real magic.
In fact, her use of substances to reserve her magic for more important things does lead to the speculation that her hair color is the result of art — the dyer’s art — rather than magic. Martin has repeatedly made note of the fact that dyes in the setting are far advanced of where they were in our world, with all sorts of shades and intensities of color possible, including hues that look like silver or gold… or perhaps an unnatural red?
But that’s a digression. The important point is this: nowhere is there any hint that Melisandre’s shadow magic is part of R’hllorian training or doctrine. Thoros of Myr makes no hint of it. Even Moqorro, another magic-wielding (or prayer wielding, if one will) priest of R’hllor, doesn’t seem to control shadows. His magic is the magic of seeing into flames, and of imbuing flames into living bodies to heal or hurt. Melisandre makes note of the fact that she has a fire with her that must never go out, and when we see that Moqorro survives adrift in the sea for a number of days with no apparent ill-effect, it certainly seems that part of the reason for why Melisandre may be so old, and so little lacking in sleep, is because that fire holds or sustains her life. It’s hard not to suppose that in the Temple of Light in Volantis, there’s a fire kept awake by day or night that feeds Moqorro…
But shadows, “the children of fire” as Melisandre calls them… that’s a magic no one but she does, really. Well, she and the shadowbinders. Who come from Asshai, and from the lands of the Shadow. We know very little about the nature of magic and the hows and whys of its differentiation — we don’t even know if gods really exist! — but it seems at least that there’s no coincidence to the fact that Melisandre’s art is most associated with sorcerers from the most legendary foreign city in the world, located next to the most mysterious place in the world, rather than with the magic displayed by other R’hllorians. Melisandre may have been bought and trained by red priests… but somehow, somewhere, she picked up shadowbinding and then attempted to reconcile it with her faith.
To me, this suggests that Melisandre is anything but an orthodox priestess. In fact, she may be considered heretical by other, more orthodox red priests — it’s curious that we’ve yet to hear of a single red priest who remarks on her or what she’s supposed to be capable of. I’m tempted to say that there’s a reason for it, something important that will eventually come out and possibly turn our understanding of Melisandre and her purpose on its head.
Melisandre of Asshai, an international woman of mystery, a beautiful conjurer who knows the art of making glamors, who has an enigmatic past and a zealous belief in her purpose. These details are a recipe for something big, down the road. It’ll be interesting to see what The Winds of Winter brings…