Valentine’s Day in Westeros

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Ah, Valentine’s Day, a day celebrating love new and old. Flowers, candies, special dinners, declarations and tokens of love the world over. But a tradition steeped in the shadows of the past, no one quite sure what it actually is or what it used to mean. Only reacting to vague cultural recollections passed down from generation to generation until the true story is lost to an endless game of telephone errrr…. .raven? I challenge you dear reader, could anything be more Game of Thrones? The basic, simple truth at the core of the show we watch: love.

As for anything like Valentine’s Day in Westeros, it is hard to say. Many of the holidays from the Faith of the Seven revolve around their seven faced deity and there’s not an exact paragon of love and romance. The closest may be the feast of the Maiden’s Day, although it’s a rather gloomy affair when maiden’s gather in septs, light candles, and sign hymns while placing parchment garlands around the neck of statues of the Maiden.

Valentine’s Day itself is not a holiday whose origins are easy to trace. Depending on the source it goes back to any number of martyred Valetine’s and their feasts. Like the Starks and their problem of too many Brandons getting confused for each other. Some say it has connections with an ancient Roman holiday called Lupercalia, which functioned as a multi-day party around February 14th celebrating “fertility” if you catch my drift. Other stories link the holiday of love and romance to games of picking girl’s names out of hats. Whatever the true origin actually is, it has been lost to time but still it persists as a kernel of truth of being somehow a celebration of love.

In that vein, I’m going to tell you a story of romance, passion, and tragedy. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Two star-crossed lovers, each from a totally different world but intrigued by each other. Their culture, obligations, families, their identities make it impossible that they can be together. And yet they do, and in the rush of passion they fall in love and commit to each other. Reality though cannot be stopped forever, and the consequences of their actions ripple across their very world and what they had eventually falls. If that sounds familiar, it should.

Who did you think I was describing? Rhaegar and Lyanna? Jon Snow and Ygritte? Romeo and Juliet? Martin often loves uses allusions to other works, and the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet is one of his favorites. You could see the Starks and Targaryens or the Northerners and Wildlings as re-interpreted versions of the Montagues and Capulets taken far from Verona.

But no, I was talking of an ancient myth in the world of Westeros, one remembered as a warning and tragedy for every young boy and girl in the North. The Night’s King and his corpse bride, sometimes known as the Night’s Queen.

As remembered by Bran in the maw of history and horror known as the Nightfort in ASOS Bran IV,

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The gathering gloom put Bran in mind of another of Old Nan’s stories, the tale of Night’s King. He had been the thirteenth man to lead the Night’s Watch, she said; a warrior who knew no fear. “And that was the fault in him,” she would add, “for all men must know fear.” A woman was his downfall; a woman glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. Fearing nothing, he chased her and caught her and loved her, though her skin was cold as ice, and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.

He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, and with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will. For thirteen years they had ruled, the Night’s King and his corpse queen, till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden.

This is intended as a scary story for the children of the North to show them what happens when they forget their duty and turn towards the wickedness of lust and desire. However, strip away Old Nan’s warnings and moral lessons, and you have a story very much like Romeo and Juliet or Rhaegar and Lyanna or Jon and Ygritte. A man of the Night’s Watch looking over the Wall and seeing his enemy, someone he should cut down, and instead they fall in love instead. Almost a direct parallel to Jon and Ygritte in the mountains.

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He raised Longclaw over his head, both hands tight around the grip. One cut, with all my weight behind it. He could give her a quick clean death, at least. He was his father’s son. Wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?

“Do it,” she urged him after a moment. “Bastard. Do it. I can’t stay brave forever.” When the blow did not fall she turned her head to look at him.

Jon lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered.

Their romance started after that, and eventually turned bitter and violent with Ygritte dying in Jon’s arms. It wasn’t just her that died though, it was the child inside Jon too. As Maester Aemon told him, Kill the boy. Lord Snow was born out of death that day and his heart hardened.

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Rhaegar and Lyanna fit the pattern as well. Although not bound by Night’s Watch vows, they were bound all the same. Rhaegar already had a wife in Elia Martel and children. Although the Targaryens practiced polygamy in the past, it had long been abandoned as a conciliation towards the local religion of the Faith of the Seven. Lyanna was betrothed to a great lord herself, Robert Baratheon Lord of the Storm’s End. And yet they did the same as their son and Ygritte, they eschewed the things in their lives holding them down and ran off to be together. And the realm burned and bled over that choice.

Getting back to the Night King and his Queen though, what this ancient myth of pursuit, love, and tragedy is telling us is that at their frozen hearts, the White Walkers were people too once. They went into caves and wish they had never left. They laid blue winter roses on the laps of the girl they would come to love. We’re all very used to the icy visage of the show’s Night King leering at his enemies and commanding his hordes of the dead at this point, yet forget the scared man tied to a tree that had obsidian shoved into his chest. What was his life before that moment? What made his heart-break as the stories tell? Was he, as Old Nan tells Bran, a Stark of Winterfell too?

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“Some say he was a Bolton,” Old Nan would always end. “Some say a Magnar out of Skagos, some say Umber, Flint, or Norrey. Some would have you think he was a Woodfoot, from them who ruled Bear Island before the ironborn came. He never was. He was a Stark, the brother of the man who brought him down.” She always pinched Bran on the nose then, he would never forget it. “He was a Stark of Winterfell, and who can say? Mayhaps his name was Brandon. Mayhaps he slept in this very bed in this very room.”

Perhaps like Jon Snow, he too lost his love and figuratively and literally had his heart turned to ice in his pain. It’s telling that we have never seen a female white walker anywhere either. Maybe because the true King of Winter couldn’t bring himself to make even an icy Galatea of his long-lost love. Or he’s still seeking her, the cold woman with the blue eyes beyond the Wall that he caught once and loved and lost. At the core of this character’s story and his motivations, there should be something knowable and human driving his intense need for revenge and  conquest. Heart break, loss, despair. He wants something, whether it is trapped in the Crypts of Winterfell or revenge on his own kind for intense loss. After all, no villain truly sees themselves that way. They’re the heroes of their own stories, what they are doing makes sense in some way. If the Night King finally speaks in this coming season, perhaps he will only speak a name.

Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name. – ACOK Daenerys IV

24 responses

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    1. I haven’t read this yet and on my way out to lunch… but as a shameless note… it’s my birthday today. Yep, I’m a Valentine’s baby. 😛

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    2. Clob:
      I haven’t read this yet and on my way out to lunch…but as a shameless note… it’s my birthday today.Yep, I’m a Valentine’s baby.😛

      Happy Bday!

        Quote  Reply

    3. Clob:
      I haven’t read this yet and on my way out to lunch…but as a shameless note… it’s my birthday today.Yep, I’m a Valentine’s baby.😛

      Happy birthday, Valentine!

        Quote  Reply

    4. Clob:
      I haven’t read this yet and on my way out to lunch…but as a shameless note… it’s my birthday today.Yep, I’m a Valentine’s baby.😛

      Happy birthday 😉

        Quote  Reply

    5. Clob,

      It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday… hope you enjoy it!

      JoeMagician,

      Fun read! I would add Tyrion and Shae to the list of star crossed lovers (tho book version more so than show version)

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    6. “After all, no villain truly sees themselves that way. They’re the heroes of their own stories, what they are doing makes sense in some way.”

      Yep – the hallmark of a good villain. 🙂

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    7. Sister Kisser:
      Clob,

      It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday… hope you enjoy it!

      JoeMagician,

      Fun read!I would add Tyrion and Shae to the list of star crossed lovers (tho book version more so than show version)

      Yes absolutely! It’s a long running theme, I chose these couples to show a Stark through line but there’s many more examples. Jaime and Cersei, Robb and Talisa, etc. Even historical stories like Paris and Helen of Troy.

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    8. David Rosenblatt:
      “After all, no villain truly sees themselves that way. They’re the heroes of their own stories, what they are doing makes sense in some way.”

      Yep – the hallmark of a good villain. 🙂

      I always love the reaction of fans the First time they learn George considers Tyrion a villain. We’re seeing how someone justifies becoming the villain of a story.

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    9. Clob,

      Feliz Cumple! 🎉🎉

      JoeMagician,

      Thanks for this post! I always did draw parallels between Romeo + Juliet and Rhaegar and Lyanna (down to a tragic message not sent to parties that needed to know crucial information), but I didn’t even think about the 13th Lord Commander and his Night’s Queen – another forbidden love. And there are different references to Westeros’ own famed couple: Jonquil and Florian the Fool.

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    10. Re: the Night’s King of the books (nothing at all like the show’s “Night King”): when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.
      Old Nan never said anything about whether this Lord Commander and his “corpse bride” ever had any offspring, though. And, was his bride a wight or an Other … or something entirely different? What did Nan mean by “sacrificing to the Others”? Like Craster, giving his newborn children to them? If only Nan were still around to ask! Or George RR to … write.

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    11. Dark Sister:
      Clob,

      Feliz Cumple! 🎉🎉

      JoeMagician,

      Thanks for this post! I always did draw parallels between Romeo + Juliet and Rhaegar and Lyanna (down to a tragic message not sent to parties that needed to know crucial information), but I didn’t even think about the 13th Lord Commander and his Night’s Queen – another forbidden love. And there are different references to Westeros’ own famed couple: Jonquil and Florian the Fool.

      Definitely, and it all comes down to perspective of who is telling the story. In the mind of Viserys and Targaryen supporters, Rhaegar was a man in love. To those on Robert’s side, Rhaegar was a demon and the worst of all people. Much the same for these legends, whether they are heroic or villains many times comes down to the context of the speaker. The Night King broke his vows, but we know many beyond the Wall notably Mance and Ygritte think those vows are stupid anyway. What that person has become is undoubtedly awful, in the leader of an apocalypse causing magical race, but somewhere in him is an origin story. Not to forgive the monster he has become, but to at least understand what drove him to this point. It must’ve been traumatic on a deep level.

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    12. Clob,

      Tillykke med fødselsdagen, Clob! Great date to have Your birthday: a dream of spring, days become longer, birds drive wild, daffodils look out for sunshine, dogs go crazy of joy – yeah!
      Have a nice day!

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    13. … oh, and JoeMagician – thank You for Your Valentine-essay :o)
      Here wasn’t much Valentine today, no red roses, no lovely letters, no kind kisses – but Your essay. That’s fine and the sun was shining, too.

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    14. Clob,

      Happy Birthday Clob!

      And a beautiful, tragic post, Joe.
      “At the core of this character’s story and his motivations, there should be something knowable and human driving his intense need for revenge and conquest.”
      I hope the show gives us this insight before it ends.

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    15. Clob:
      I haven’t read this yet and on my way out to lunch…but as a shameless note… it’s my birthday today.Yep, I’m a Valentine’s baby.😛

      Many happy returns of the day, Clob. And thank you for sharing your day with us hopeless romantics. In your honour, HBO España did something on 10 favourite GoT couples–including ASNAWP and her blacksmith.

      Nice essay, Joe. So many doomed matches, so little time. And most of the others are tainted with incest or other problems.

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    16. Oz of Thrones:
      Clob,

      Happy Birthday Clob!

      And a beautiful, tragic post, Joe.
      “At the core of this character’s story and his motivations, there should be something knowable and human driving his intense need for revenge andconquest.”
      I hope the show gives us this insight before it ends.

      They should, either through bran, the NK actually speaking, or maybe the Long Night series. And that teaser basically said he’s going into the Crypts and probably as far as the Trident.

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    17. I thought Ygritte & Jon! 💔

      Beautifully written Joe. I’d be surprised if NK utters a word by the end of the season but it would be interesting. Maybe he turns human once more before death with Longclaw in his chest and what a story he could tell then, though I’m sure there wouldn’t be time or inclination for people to listen.

      Happy belated birthday Clob, and hope everyone had a wonderful Valentines Day 🎉

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    18. Slightly off topic but I recently started reading the World of Ice and Fire ahead of S8. One thing that struck me was if Jon had been named Jaehearys rather than Aegon it would have been a far better meaning. I mean the original Jaehearys his great, great grandfather (I assume) was one of the best rulers the 7 kingdoms had seen and it led to a period of great stability. Whereas Aegon was a good ruler and a conqueror too I’m not sure that’s how I see Jon.

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