“The night is dark and full of terrors.” Though far from the most common, that sentence is uttered a number of times in Game of Thrones, most of which are stated by Melisandre. She has gone through a pretty big transformation in the past two seasons, which makes her one of the most interesting minor characters.
Unlike many characters in Game of Thrones, we know little about Melisandre’s history. The tidbits we’re given include that she was once a slave and is from a city called Asshai. Asshai is a city in Essos, the same continent as Mereen and the Vaes Dothrak. Though it’s mentioned numerous times in the show, (usually along with the very ominous-sounding Shadowlands) we never see it. But in the Game of Thrones lore, it’s the birthplace and hub of the religion of R’hllor, the Lord of Light. It makes sense then that Melisandre is a priestess of that religion. It’s also what defines her as a character… at least in the beginning.
Confidence, Magic and Sexuality
When Melisandre makes her first appearance in the first episode of Season 2, we see her leading a ceremony where statues of the “Seven,” commonly known as the “New Gods,” are being burned on the beach at Dragonstone. It’s also the first time we see Stannis Baratheon. Melisandre believes that Stannis is Azor Ahai, a character from a R’hllor religion that will basically save the world. He’s the prince in the phrase, “the prince who was promised will bring the dawn.” (We’ll dive into the R’hllor religion in a future article.)
When Stannis’ maester confronts the crowd on the beach, Melisandre taunts him. “Do you want to stop me?… Stop me.” It’s this kind of confidence in herself and her faith that defines her character all the way up through the end of Season 5. We’re shown proof of her magical power minutes after that scene when she drinks a cup of wine laced with poison, which has no effect on her. Later in the season, she seduces Stannis and gives birth to his “son,” a shadow demon who goes on to murder Renly Baratheon. Despite these very clear magical events, we see Melisandre admit to Stannis’ wife that some of it is a facade – powders and potions that can intensify flames or seduce men.
Faith and the Lack of It
Throughout the earlier seasons Melisandre has fully blind faith in the Lord of Light, and most of it proves to be at least coincidentally true. Stannis refuses to bring her to the Battle of Blackwater Bay and he suffers a bitter defeat. Leeches she has placed on Gendry extract his “king’s blood” and lead to the deaths of Rob Stark and Joffrey Baratheon. But her “visions” lead Stannis down a fatal path when she convinces him to abandon his pursuit of the Iron Throne and go north to defend The Wall. But as Stannis and his army make their way south, taking Winterfell proves to be a difficult task with lots of snow and an army that’s not used to it.
It’s then that Melisandre commits the act that becomes the tipping point in her whole character arc, and rightly so. The sacrifice of Stannis’ daughter Shireen seems to pay off at first. The morning after her sacrifice, Melisandre wakes to the thawing of the snow that had incapacitated the army. She heads out of the tent, almost gleefully, to tell Stannis “I told you so,” until she learns that many men have deserted, taking horses with them. After this, she quietly slips away and heads back to the safety of The Wall.
It’s then that her confidence is gone and her entire demeanor changes. But we see more of her (or the Lord’s) magic in the first episode of Season Six when it becomes clear that Melisandre as we know her is all an illusion, and she’s decades if not centuries older than she appears. But in my opinion it’s episode 2 of Season 6 that perfectly illustrates how she now questions her religion.
“Everything I believed, the great victory I saw in the flames…all of it was a lie,” she tells Davos when he asks her to attempt to bring Jon Snow back to life. Despite her misgivings he convinces her to try the resurrection anyway. After going through the ritual, when she finally speaks the words that are supposed to bring him back to life, nothing happens. She utters the phrase again and again, but at the end we see her simply say, “Please.” That entreaty is not just hoping Jon will come back to life; it’s an entreaty for the Lord of Light to prove to her that he exists and she hasn’t wasted her life and committed terrible acts in the service of a false god.
After Jon is resurrected, Melisandre’s faith returns, though in a much more tempered fashion. Gone is the confidence and the sexuality. She goes from taking an active role in advising a king to sitting on the sidelines while Jon and Sansa plan their assault on Winterfell. Though we see her pleased when her vision of Jon fighting at Winterfell comes to pass, we see her brought down as far as anyone can go when confronted about the murder of Shireen Baratheon. It’s during that conversation with Davos that she utters more words that I believe are defining of her new beliefs. “I didn’t lie,” she says. “I was wrong.” The last are said through tears.
After being exiled at the end of Season 6, we see her appear on Dragonstone in Season 7 to implore Daenerys to summon Jon Snow. It’s then she tells Daenerys about the ancient prophecy. But when Daenerys asks Melisandre if she believes the prophecy applies to Daenerys, she says, “Prophecies are dangerous things.”
I think that line perfectly sums up Melisandre’s entire character arc. It will be interesting to see if that prophecy carries any weight and what role Melisandre will play at the end.