It was really no surprise to see Melisandre (Carice van Houten) strolling up to the Battle of Winterfell in the latest “Game of Thrones” episode, right before the fighting got started.
This was, after all, the war she had been talking about since her first appearance — the conflict central to her entire belief system. There was no way she was going to sit this one out.
But what is it that she believes? Is it magic? Religion? Both?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, her High Valyrian words seeming to be both spells and prayers. It’s clear that Melisandre is a devout follower of one god, R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow. That god is eternally at war with another one who is called the Great Other, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror — or not called anything at all.
Mel attempted to explain this dualistic belief system to Shireen in simple terms: “Septons speak of seven gods. There are but two. A god of light and love and joy, and a god of darkness, evil and fear.”
It would be a stretch to call the Night King a god, but he is probably the closest representative of the Great Other that Mel has encountered in her long life. And she foretold his coming during a prophecy she repeated during the rare beach barbecue in which she sacrificed not humans but effigies of another faith’s gods. The point of that ceremony was to anoint Stannis Baratheon as the messiah of her religion — the prince who was promised, Azor Ahai, a great warrior who would fight the Long Night and defend the realms of men in the Battle for the Dawn.
“After the long summer, the darkness will fall heavy on the world,” she said. “Stars will bleed. The cold breath of winter will freeze the seas, and the dead shall rise in the North.”
Melisandre explains this war to Davos in the books, telling him that the war has been waged since time began. Before it is done, she says, men must decide where they will stand: “Ours is not a choice between Baratheon and Lannister, between Greyjoy and Stark. It is death we choose, or life. Darkness, or light.”
Other important premonitions or prophecies arrived when Melisandre merely looked into someone’s eyes. In hindsight, one especially poignant one came when she first met Arya: “I see a darkness in you, and in that darkness, eyes staring back at me,” she said. “Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” In Sunday’s episode, she pointedly reminded Arya about the “blue eyes” part — referring to the Night King — and told her that Beric Dondarrion’s multiple resurrections served their purpose: to save Arya.
The seat of Melisandre’s religion is the Red Temple, based in Volantis. It’s where children are sold and raised to become priests and priestesses, temple prostitutes and warriors. This might explain why Melisandre refers to having been “bought and sold, scourged and branded” as a slave.
It also might explain why seduction is one of her preferred methods of persuasion. Although she probably trained at the Red Temple, where she most likely learned to read visions in the flames, she wouldn’t have stopped there. Unlike other red priests and priestesses, Mel studied abroad, in Asshai, where she also learned shadowbinding and other dark magic. “It was an art, and like all arts, it demanded mastery, discipline, study,” she thought. “Pain. That too.”
Mel felt the weight of the world upon her shoulders; she had to ensure that Westeros united behind the Chosen One in time to keep the darkness at bay.
After her failure with Stannis, she began seeking a replacement. She thought it might be Jon Snow, but her exile from the North for killing Shireen (see: a different barbecue) made her consider other options. Perhaps a combination of Jon and Dany working in tandem?
Other red priestesses in Volantis and Meereen had preached that it was Dany all along. Melisandre encouraged the Khaleesi to meet with the King in the North. Afterward, she told Varys that she had done her part — she had brought ice and fire together. “My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end,” she said, before mentioning she was heading to Volantis before returning once more.
“I have to die in this strange country,” she also said, rather ominously.
How much did Melisandre know in advance?
She clearly knew the time and place to be for the battle. She knew that Arya had a key part to play. And she knew that she, herself, wouldn’t survive — she had served her purpose. She had called down the fire of her god, and her faith had been rewarded.
The New York Times