Game of Thrones Recap: The Problem With Prophecies

Game of Thrones Recap: The Problem With Prophecies

Does it really matter if Arya is Princess Who Was Promised?

Helen Sloan/HBO

Much was made, at the outset of Game of Thrones, about the elemental conflict that loomed at its end : the malign, icy evil creeping silently in the frozen lands beyond the Wall, the fire rising everywhere else to meet it. Blue-eyed wights awoke from the bodies of dead men in the forests of the North; living dragons hatched from stone eggs in the heart of a funeral pyre, and the glass candles of lost Valyria burned with magic for the first time in a hundred years.

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For Melisandre, a 400-year-old priestess of R’hyllor, this was confirmation that the apocalyptic battle predicted by her faith was close at hand, a war for the dawn fought between dualistic forces of good and evil: the Lord of Light and the Great Other of the endless night. Like so many fundamentalists, she saw a cataclysmic threat solely through the lens of her scripture, insisting it was being fulfilled chapter and verse, pointing to all the prophetic "evidence" with the myopic, connect-the-dots-sheeple fervor of a conspiracy theorist.

But prophecies and magic are a slippery business in Game of Thrones, both real and fallible, true and apocryphal. In that sense they are stories, and all stories are true in one sense or another—but what they tell us about our future depends not on what they say so much as what we decide that they mean. Sure, Melisandre can actually raise people from the dead and give birth to shadow murder babies, but the visions she saw in the flames were not inevitabilities. As Tyrion once said in the books, "Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head."

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Stannis was not Azor Ahai, after all, and the show remains agnostic on whether Arya's shanking of the Night King makes her the Princess Who Was Promised or just a kick-ass girl with a cool dagger at the right time. Sure, we can go back through the legend and find ways to connect Arya to passages about smoke and salt and blood—and sure, Valyrian steel was forged by dragonfire according to some accounts, so in that sense she was wielding a fiery blade. But if we can squint and make enough of the piece fit, does that mean a prophecy has been fulfilled or just that we've skillfully reimagined the outcome to line up with the story we expected to hear?

And does it really matter if Azor Ahai is Jon or Arya or whether he was inside us all along? The Night King is equally dead regardless, the Red God's faith no more or less affirmed as ultimate truth. That's the thing about stories, the ones we tell both about ourselves and the world we live in; they're only useful insofar as they get us where we need to go, when they serve us and not the other way around.

Sure, we can go back through the legend and connect Arya to passages about smoke and salt and blood, but does that mean a prophecy has been fulfilled or just that we've skillfully reimagined the outcome to line up with the story we expected to hear?

Regardless, Arya's assassination of the Night King is a return to form for Game of Thrones on a subtextual level. This is a show that made its bones by promising to tell us one sort of story, the kind that fantasy stories usually told us about inevitable heroes and inevitable prophecies and inevitable victories. Instead, it gave us something messier and more complicated, something we loved specifically because it did not feel safe or predictable. Anointing Jon as the hero of this battle and then giving Arya the kill shot is the most Game of Thrones thing the show has done in a long time, asking us to reconsider not only the hero of its story but the inevitability of "the hero" as a concept. It pulls us in and then pushes us away, which has always been its love language.

Someday people will spin legends and sing songs about this battle too, and I submit that in addition to whatever mournful ballad Jorah gets for dying in defense of his queen, Lyanna Mormont deserves whatever the medieval version of a metal song is for taking out a goddamn ice giant on her way down, like a true woman of the North if there ever was one. But not everyone gets such a noble or fitting death, nor will all their stories be told properly, if at all.

The Dothraki, who united behind Dany and ignored all their (apparently prescient!) taboos about crossing the poison water of the black salt sea, are sent out as zombie fodder in the first wave of attack and are wiped out in a matter of seconds. To be clear, we're seeing an entire culture get completely exterminated with little fanfare. Sure, it makes the oncoming undead hordes feel even spooookier, but it's treated as neither particularly dramatic nor significant compared to the deaths of named characters. Maybe that's because none of the remaining Dothraki are important enough to have names and thus are more easily dispatched with fewer sad piano songs!

Think about the armageddon that the Night King promised, the murder beyond murder that was the death of human history and memory. It imagined the end of the world as an end of stories, an erasure of the voices that would carry the past of a people into its future. As far as the Dothraki go, the Night King achieved his goals; they can no longer tell their own stories, and so those stories will disappear.

As far as the Dothraki go, the Night King achieved his goals; they can no longer tell their own stories, and so those stories will disappear.

Instead, they will pass into the myths of other cultures as bogeymen or, at best, "noble savages" without interiority and remembered by future generations only as others saw them and not as they saw themselves. Maybe Dany will create some sort of cultural preservation initiative if she takes the Iron Throne, but the loss is still profound and irrevocable, measured not just by how many Dothraki were killed on the battlefield but also by how many past generations will now be forgotten, their names and victories and deaths as silent on the lips of the living as if they had never been.

Bran, at least, will remember—Valyria, the Dothraki, and this story, too, one day when everything recognizable about this world has been swept away. There's something strangely comforting about that, a faint sense of salvation that emerges from the idea that no one is truly forgotten or lost, that some piece of every human being lives on in a sort of memory that endures beyond the world. Maybe that's what stories are supposed to be, when they serve us best—not prophecies but legacies, not promises of what is to come but promises of what has come before, not destiny but the knowledge that greatness often lies in defying the path laid out for you.

After his terrible fall from the tower and before his transformation into the Three-Eyed Raven, young Bran asked Old Nan to tell him a scary story. And so she spun the tale of the Long Night and the War for the Dawn, when the White Walkers crept out of the deep North to destroy all life and plunge the world into an endless winter.

"I hate your stories," Bran old Old Nan. "I know a story about a boy who hated stories," she replied. But he would listen anyway, and one day he would know them all, and they would all be true.

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