Jon Snow: Arthur/Galahad, The Prince that was Promised/Azor Ahai Reborn

-Galahad, Arthur Rackham

In ASoIaF we are told about the Prince that was Promised, who may also equate with the eastern legend of Azor Ahai Reborn. The signs of the Prince’s coming are believed to be:

  • The birth of a prince from the line of the dragon (gender may not matter, per Maester Aemon)
  • Born amidst smoke and salt
  • A bleeding star
  • Return of dragons

Of Azor Ahai, we have this, from Melisandre:

“There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.”

and

“When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt…”

The bleeding star and smoke and salt are what connect the two prophecies. To indicate the Prince will also wield a sword, we have Rhaegar’s pronouncement:

“I will require a sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.”

In both cases, we seem to be dealing with a messianic figure.

In Arthurian legend, King Arthur himself stands in the role of Messiah, the King that was and will come again to save his people. In other words: the Prince that was promised to return. This messianic figure occurs frequently in European tradition. Finn Mac Cumhaill in Ireland, Arthur in Britain, Bran the Blessed of Wales, Ogier the Dane, Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, the mighty Charlemagne of France and a host of others are all reputed to be sleeping under a mountain or lost beyond a Wall or sea, waiting for the final need of their people to return for their salvation.

Galahad is the son of Elaine of Corbenic and Sir Lancelot. Elaine is the daughter of King Pelles and the two are closely associated with grail mythology and are often equated with the Fisher King and the Grail Maiden.  Pelles, according to Malory, had reason to believe that his daughter Elaine’s son Galahad would become the greatest knight the world has known and lead “a foreign country… out of danger,” something Jon Snow has already done for the Wildlings. (Bonus: In Welsh tradition Galahad is descended from Bron, one of the original followers of Joseph of Arimathea, whose name is a very close cognate to the name Bran, held by numerous illustrious Stark ancestors.) Galahad himself is closely analogous to Arthur, earning a mystical sword and wide repute as a knight at a young age.

Getting back to the parallels between the messianic figures of tPtwP/AAR and Arthur/Galahad we should first deal with the “bleeding star.” In both traditions in ASoIaF there is a bleeding star which many assume to be a red comet. Indeed, we see a red comet blazing across the Westerosi sky around the time of the birth of Daenerys’ dragons. While the comet has different names and significance in various regions, the most common associations seem to be fire and blood or, as Old Nan puts it “…dragons, boy” undeniably relating it to House Targaryen. Yet on several occasions it is also likened to a sword, including by Septon Chayle of Winterfell “…the sword that slays the seasons.” Meanwhile, in Arthurian legend there is a very important comet, also associated with blood and dragons. Legend has it that Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon took his name from a red, dragon-like comet seen in the sky over Britain as his brother and king lay dying. “Pendragon” literally means “chief dragon” or “war leader” but can also be interpreted as “hanging dragon.” This red comet alternately presaged the death of Aurelius Ambrosius, the rise of Uther and the birth of Arthur. In all instances, it is closely associated with the British version of “dragons.” Incidentally, there are some scientists who believe that a comet’s tail passing over northern Europe in the sixth century caused a bombardment of debris that led to a period of climate change and darkness where crops failed and disease killed people in the tens of thousands. In fact early chronicles are rife with descriptions of sixth century comets, which are most often associated with fire, blood and dragons. One can’t help but notice the similarity to the comet and the impending long winter in ASoIaF. These same scientific discoveries have led to theorists who postulate that the myths of Arthur’s sword, his many battles and his mysterious departure are really expressions of the passing of a large comet over Britain, which brings us to the parallel of the swords. The magical sword is another common theme in northern European legend, with swords made by the legendary Norse blacksmith Wayland Smith found in the possession of everyone from Sigurd and Roland to Ogier the Dane and King Arthur. Both Arthur and Galahad possess magical swords that they retrieved from a stone by a test of worthiness only they could pass. Compare to “Lightbringer”, the legendary sword of AAR and the renowned Stark greatsword “Ice” (the original, not Eddard Stark’s Valyrian steel model) While it is early to tell, it has been predicted that Jon Snow will find himself in possession of one of these swords.

Checking in with the list of PtwP and AAR portents and parallels, we have Jon Snow and Arthur as princes of the line of dragons, predicted to wield or wielding a magical sword, and dragons returning to the world (literally in Westeros, in the form of the descendants of Constantine II in ancient Britain.) We have a long summer ending and a red comet in the sky in both worlds, more or less, and “the cold breath of darkness” is certainly about to hit the world of Westeros like a ton of bricks, while according to chronicles the sixth century saw drought, unusual summer frosts and “failure of bread.” So what of salt and smoke? Those are actually the easiest signs to find as salt can be found in tears (plenty of those in Westeros and Arthurian legend, including Bowen Marsh’s) and smoke is also ever present (witness Jon’s wound “smoking” in his final ADwD chapter and the monk Gildas describing the smoking island of Britain in 540AD) On the other hand, it’s also been suggested that the salt and smoke represent an interpretation of snow and icy breath by someone who had never experienced a cold climate, which certainly prevails in northern Westeros and sixth century Britain. Finally, since R+L have been shown to parallel both Uther and Ygraine (traditional) and Elaine and Lancelot (upon closer inspection), from parentage to comets to swords either Arthur or Galahad works for Jon Snow. Of course, his story has yet to play out upon the page so there will be new depths to explore in the future.

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Elia Martell: Gwenhwyfar Redux

The Accolade, Edmund Leighton

Earlier, the parallel of Arthur Dayne to Sir Lancelot was explored. Elia was posited in the role of Gwenhwyfar, with Lyanna Stark in the role of Elaine. In keeping with Elaine’s theme of disguise, Lyanna transforms into Gwenhwyfar to Rhaegar’s evolving Lancelot. The offspring of R+L, at once Arthur to their Uther and Ygrain, can thus also be viewed as the embodiment of Galahad, as we will see. Yet this scenario leaves discussions of Elia at unsatisfactory loose ends. Inspired by a thorough re-read of all references, we come back to themes of Gwenhwyfar in the character of Elia Martell.

Gwenhwyfar’s story has earth goddess themes, with links to the early Welsh triple goddess and strong parallels to Persephone. The name Gwenhwyfar can be translated to “White Fay (Spirit)” which supports her supernatural origin. Most of the earliest references to the character come from the Welsh triads where, as the three queens of Arthur indicate, we find a strong association with the triple goddess. In the story of Culhwch and Olwen she is referenced as one of Arthur’s “otherworld” weapons, while several other triads reference her involvement in the battle of Camlann and her “faithlessness” as a wife. Speculation surrounding some of these references is that Gwenhwyfar is representative of Arthur’s sovereignty, which is in keeping with divine origins.

Elia Martell is described by Barristan Selmy as:

a good woman … kind and clever, with a gentle heart and a sweet wit. (ADwD, chapter 23)

Her marriage with Rhaegar was marked by “fondness” rather than passion, most likely the union of a well schooled prince and princess who, while they didn’t choose each other, had no real complaints of each other. Aerys, in his paranoia, may have felt he needed the union with Dorne to keep them faithful, in much the same way a British king may have “needed” to wed a representative of the British earth goddess. The characterization of Gwenhwyfar as a faithless wife in the triads seems to come from nowhere, unless one considers the practice of the representative of sovereign goddess taking an annual mate. While on the one hand this furthers Gwenhwyfar’s association with a divine character, it also opens the door to later tales of Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity with Lancelot and therefore the hinted parallel of Elia and Arthur to Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot.

What makes this parallel fascinating, and even possible, is that there is very little agreement in the sources about the nature of Gwenhyfar and Lancelot’s infidelity (see the variation in ideas of courtly love, for instance) and not much consistency in portrayal of their characters. Gwenhwyfar is alternately strong, passive, assertive, insipid, judgmental, gentle, shrewish, maternal, treacherous and tragic. Similarly, there is a lot of confusion about the character of Elia Martell among the ASoIaF fandom.  Much of the characterization of Elia Martell is highly reminiscent of Gwenhwyfar: she is sweet, gentle, maternal (though of uncertain childbearing ability) and inspires great love and loyalty among those who knew her, but is also assumed to be weak or passive because of her husband’s actions. Some assume she drove Rhaegar away with her feebleness, others suggest she passively accepted being set aside. While on the one hand the parallel supports an earthy, maternal image for both, it also becomes very much about the lack of information and confusion about the motives and character of each woman.

After a thorough examination of the Arthurian source  material pertaining to Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, one is left with the distinct impression that there is much that remains untold, hidden in the mists of time. Similarly, we must reach the same conclusion about Rhaegar and Elia: we don’t have sufficient insight into their private lives to pass character judgments. Even what we know of the outcome remains shrouded in mystery. At the end of the day, there’s room to believe Elia had opinions and a strong identity of her own and to accept that there is much and more we don’t yet know about R+E and suspend judgment, as we indeed must for Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.