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(Spoilers Extended) 13 reasons to get your Azor Ah-airhorns ready for an AzorAhaiBowl in TWOW.
It’s a bowl of salt and smoke! Two Azor Ahais enter! One Azor Ahai leaves! Coming this spr… coming this summ… coming hopefully to Dragonstone in TWOW! Stannis "the Mannis" Baratheon takes on Daenerys "Breaker of Chains, Mother of etc etc" Targaryen! Here’s thirteen reasons you should get Azor Ahyped.
1) Stannis is going to win the battle against the Boltons. Whether it’s by Night Lamp or fake death or both or something else entirely. There are far too many surprises up Stannis’s sleeve for him to fail here. One or both Boltons may slink off to the Dreadfort to fight another day, but the odds of Stannis dying like he did on the show are exceedingly low.
If you want a more detailed explanation, turn elsewhere, because Cantuse has already done it better than I ever could and I am not one accustomed to feasting upon another theorist's leavings. Moving on.
2) If Stannis was fated to stay in the North and die in battle against the Others as the conventional “wisdom” believes, he would have done so on the show. Zombie battles are pretty much the only fantastic element GoT loved, do you think they would cut one where Stannis goes out like a champ just because that’s how strong D&D’s hate boner was for him? Do you think they would cut that battle if it was the justification for Shireen’s death? Maybe, but I doubt it.
No, the fact that Stannis’s death was as pointless and stupid as it was supports the idea it was tied to a big plot missing from the show. Like the “stone dragon,” for instance.
3) The terrible weather conditions in the North. Campaigning in the North has proven to be absolutely horrific for Stannis’s Southron core forces. After Winterfell is taken there will be no enthusiasm to march back up the way they came. It might not even be logistically possible without Stannis losing much of the force along the way.
4) The lack of a clear purpose for staying in the North. Yes, of course, there’s the long term threat of the Others. But with Mance’s host dispersed and the “Horn of Winter” destroyed there is no obvious threat to the Wall, and if the Wall falls anyway I doubt Stannis operates under the delusion that his five thousand men will be enough to stop the Others.
Plus the driving force behind Stannis’s belief that the Others are coming is Melisandre and it was never her idea to come to the Wall in the first place, it was Davos’s. Her focus has always been on uniting Westeros to fight them first and foremost. And depending on how long he’s on Skagos, Davos may not be around to argue against a southern attack if Melisandre proposes it.
5) Stannis’s mercenary forces. Ser Massey was sent to acquire twenty thousand mercenaries and no less. It’s unclear if he will actually get those, but he probably won’t fall short by much if he knows what’s good for him. These mercenaries were bought with Iron Bank coin, lended so Stannis can retake the Iron Throne and punish the Lannister-Baratheon regime for failing to pay them back. They were not bought to man the Wall. The Iron Bank will not be pleased if they are used for that. The mercenaries also are probably not going to want to march around in the cold of the Northern winter.
6) Stannis’s naval assets. While Winterfell may be snowed in by land, it sits not far at all from the White Knife and transport by the Manderly fleet. Additionally, there is reason to believe Aurane Waters’ fleet will join Stannis as well. Including Patchface’s claim they will “ride seahorses,” since the seahorse is on Aurane Waters’ sigil as a Velaryon bastard. On top of that will be any sell-sails Massey can purchase. With the Redwynes occupied and the royal fleet practically non-existent, Stannis will have easy control of the east coast of Westeros until Daenerys arrives and can freely transport his forces back to Dragonstone.
7) The imminent demise of Tommen and Myrcella, and the coronation of Aegon Targaryen. Probably in that order, if they are both to be crowned in accordance with the valonquar prophecy. Upon the death of his “nephew” and “niece,” Stannis’s status as Robert’s heir is no longer disputable. The houses of Westeros will have to choose between him and a Targaryen; there will be no other legitimate options (certainly not Cersei as in the show).
However if Stannis is pleased to hear about the death of his false nephew and niece, the likely coronation of Aegon will make him furious. Stannis may have envied Robert, but Robert was his older brother. And Robert had a very clear stance on Targaryens. Stannis will likely not be any more tolerant than Robert would be of this affront to his legacy.
8) The possible turn of the Tyrell garrison on Dragonstone to Stannis’s side. There is some reason to believe the Tarlys are Jon Connington's "friends in the Reach" and will side with Aegon, likely in exchange for lordship over the Reach. This is a massive threat to the Tyrells and rules out their siding with Aegon. Daenerys is unlikely to be able to contest Westeros until a while after the death of Tommen and Myrcella, and even if she could she’s a woman leading an army of savages and monsters. Eww. Stannis is probably the least bad option for the Tyrells. Loras Tyrell, assuming he is still alive, has as far as I’m aware (correct me if I’m wrong!) not accepted the “sorcery hypothesis” of Renly’s death, and continues to believe it was Brienne. Stannis’s R’hllor worship is obviously a big downside, but compared to losing their Lord Paramount position to the Tarlys under Aegon, or the many issues with Daenerys, it’s the lesser evil.
Also, since these are books and “irony” is a perfectly valid reason for things to happen, won’t it be funny for Loras Tyrell to fight alongside Renly’s killers?
9) The fact that Stannis actually will have reason to think he can defeat Aegon and take King’s Landing if he returns for a southern campaign. The size of Stannis’s northern force after the Battle of Ice could vary dramatically depending on various factors. It’s unclear how many casualties he will take, although generally in medieval battles the army that doesn’t rout tends to remain largely intact. It’s also unclear whether many of the lords remaining in Winterfell with the Boltons will defect to Stannis instead of just going home, although if the Manderlys are putting up their fleet for the cause I assume an army will follow. The mountain clansmen also might go home after Stannis wins, but it is a historical practice for armies of Northmen like Roderick Dustin’s Winter Wolves to seek death in battle rather than burden their families with more mouths to feed when winter comes, so I think it unlikely. Overall I imagine a force of somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 seems likely, assuming the Vale remains neutral (or is busy fending off the mountain clans, Lords Declarant, and perhaps Tyrion). Add to that 20,000 mercenaries, and Stannis is in the strongest position he has been in since the Blackwater.
This force will still be numerically inferior to Aegon’s Golden Company and his allies from the Stormlands and Dorne, plus probably the Tarlys. However it is unlikely Aegon will be able to concentrate his force properly around King's Landing while also warding off threats from the Lannisters and Euron. Stannis’s confidence in his destiny will be riding high after his dramatic upswing in fortunes. And then there’s the wildcard: Melisandre. Stannis kept her away at the Blackwater, but he’s unlikely to make that mistake this time. And Melisandre has already allowed Stannis to overcome far greater numerical disadvantages, at Storm’s End.
10) The fact that the HOTU prophecy predicts a battle between Stannis and Daenerys that ends in his death. The “blue eyed king with a red sword,” the first of three lies Daenerys will supposedly slay, is almost indisputably Stannis. Now, some believe that “slaying the lie” doesn’t require them to meet in battle, but rather Daenerys will or already has slain the lie that Stannis is Azor Ahai metaphorically by hatching her dragons. There are some problems with this.
First, Daenerys isn’t Azor Ahai. Why, do you ask? Well, without attempting to convince you here of the obvious truth that Azor Ahai reborn is the ancient ghost of the Bloodstone Emperor that got in Euron Greyjoy’s brain on the Smoking Sea (someday you’ll see, you’ll all see!), the R’hllorist church under Benerro believes that Daenerys is Azor Ahai reborn. And that means she isn’t. A prophecy cannot be correctly interpreted in a useful way before it happens, especially by a bunch of religious nuts. It’s gotta bite your prick off.
Second, the events of S8, where the Golden Company defended King’s Landing gets obliterated by Daenerys with dragonfire, strongly imply that Daenerys is going to literally kill the mummer’s dragon. Not personally, but at the end of the burning of King’s Landing Aegon will probably be toast. So why would Aegon’s slaying be almost literal while Stannis’s is metaphorical?
Third, this generally isn’t how prophecy tends to work in GRRM novels. Everyone complains about how ASOIAF prophecies are so vague they can’t possibly be interpreted. But frankly, the ones we’ve seen happen so far haven’t really been that vague in hindsight. The Red Wedding saw Robb literally get his head cut off and a wolf’s head stitched on, like the HOTU vision suggested. Sansa’s hairnet was actually poisonous. Balon got killed by a Faceless Man at Euron’s direction (probably). And GRRM’s other books aren’t generally super vague either. In The Armageddon Rag the Nazgul’s fictional setlist lines up pretty well with most of the major plot points, and there’s none that require you to do any mental gymnastics to make fit. GRRM prophecies are like badly worded genie wishes: they deliver what they promise, just usually not in the way people want.
11) Stannis Baratheon, debatably the greatest naval commander in Westeros, has never actually commanded a naval battle on page. GRRM probably wants to fix that. Stannis will be gravely outmatched, especially because of the dragons, but his fleet will probably acquit itself well. Maybe that one show moment where a dragon gets downed at Dragonstone and Tyrion goes for a swim will happen not because of Euron, but Davos the Dragonslayer?
12) Shireen’s death is almost certainly not going to be an attempt at heroically defeating the Others that ends up resurrecting Jon to heroically defeat them later. I don’t really get why this theory is the most popular “stone dragon” theory tbh. Shireen is an innocent child. GRRM likes to introduce unexpected moral ambiguity into various situations, but burning a little girl to appease the blood god is not one of those situations. We are not going to look back at Shireen’s death after the whole Other situation is straightened out and think “did Stannis and Melisandre do the right thing?” No. Again, check out The Armageddon Rag, it’ll tell you where sacrificing little girls in a GRRM book gets you. It is going to be an immediate fuck up of cataclysmic proportions.
Because Chekov’s volcano needs to blow. We’ve received two separate warnings, once in the ACOK prologue and once in the second chapter of ASOS that Dragonmont is acting up lately. Additionally, there has been a whole lot of mention of the thousand gargoyles and grotesques on Dragonstone and the strange foreboding of them coming to life. Some horrible paranormal catastrophe of flame and shadow is bound to go down there and kill most of Stannis’s remaining army when “the stone dragon” wakes, and I for one am totally psyched. My predictions for Stannis’s horrible but also kind of badass demise will be in a separate post someday.
13) A clue related to Melisandre's whereabouts at this point in the story from the show. At the end of S7E1, Daenerys arrives in Dragonstone. At the beginning of S7E2, Melisandre, voted “most likely to survive a fiery cataclysm she accidentally caused through blood sacrifice of a child” in high school, is already there, standing in the throne room. Somehow. And then Varys mentions Stannis…
VARYS: She once served another who wanted the Iron Throne. It didn't end well for Stannis Baratheon, did it?Suspicious, no?
MELISANDRE: No, it didn't.
Stannis' defining characteristic is duty, not justice or ambition. That should trouble us [Spoilers EXTENDED]
"There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man."Lest we let others define him, here's Stannis himself declaring himself an agent of justice:
“It was justice,” Stannis said. “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward. You were a hero and a smuggler.”But is justice truly the key to unlocking Stannis? I think not. It is an important trait of him, near all-encompassing even, but we cannot define Stannis as a truly just man without making some qualifications.
Some of these qualifications are minor. For instance, Stannis' sense of justice and adherence to the law becomes murky when we consider his choice of Robert over Aerys, but it can still be claimed that he was just in this instance, through several arguments (Aerys lost his right to rule by breaking the social contract, Stannis' primary allegiance was to the head of his house, younger brothers should obey their elders, etc).
We can also claim that Stannis was unjust in his actions against Renly, yet even here things get murky. Killing Renly was an act of kinslaying, but it is dubious whether Stannis really gave the order (he might be in heavy denial or just lying, but the text is ambigious), so the verdict is still out. Pardoning Renly's former supporters after Renly's death is a more damnable case, something Stannis even acknowledges himself:
“Davos, I have missed you sorely,” the king said. “Aye, I have a tail of traitors, your nose does not deceive you. My lords bannermen are inconstant even in their treasons. I need them, but you should know how it sickens me to pardon such as these when I have punished better men for lesser crimes. You have every right to reproach me, Ser Davos.”Yet even here, there's ambiguity. Stannis' treatment of Renly's former supporters is inconsistent with his treatment of Davos, yet it's not all clear that it is unjust. Pardoning former enemies may not be Stannis's modus operandi, but it is a well-established custom in Westeros (even Tywin adheres to this maxim), and hardly a great injustice.
However, where Stannis' characteristic as a just man truly breaks down, is his choice to burn Shireen. Obviously, we do not know the full details of how this will play out in the books, yet it's hard to argue that any scenario of this tragedy can be considered just. It is an act of kinslaying, plain and simple.
I've long pondered how GRRM could square the idea of a truly just man succumbing to such an act. It might be a moment of Stannis breaking before bending, a horrific realization of Meribald's assertion of how exactly "the man breaks." I even made a thread about this very conundrum, where I asked how Stannis' view of justice, which is firmly rooted in deontologic ethics, can lead to an act that is inherently utilitarian.
I got a lot of good answers to that question, yet I still wasn't entirely content. "The man breaks" is a perfecly valid endgame scenario, yet it seemed in my eyes to be a only a partial argument, maybe because it doesn't explain why Stannis breaks. After all, how can a man who survived the siege of Storm's End on rats and boot letters, a man who declines burnings in favor of "praying harder," break in such a horrific fashion?
The answer? Duty.
It's all personal, baby
To understand this explanation, I think it's important to consider a point that I don't see enough people make: most of what Stannis does can be explained by him taking everything personally.
There is a tendency to portray Stannis as a justice robot, a man who adheres to a strict set of principles and rarely shies away from them, a man who rises the occasion when he becomes the true heir to the throne, who fights on even when the realm denies him.
This is not a wrong portrayal, but I think it's also important to consider that Stannis has a tendency to view everything through a personal lens, and that has major implications for how we are to understand him (this is true for many other characters as well, but that is a discussion for another time).
On the personal level, the story of Stannis is the story of a man who grows up in his big brother's shadow, who curses the gods when his parents are killed and refuse to worship them thereafter, who does everything that is asked of him, who grinds his teeth while still carrying out orders he might not agree with, who uncovers a conspiracy, yet is not asked to become hand of the king. And when Robert finally dies, Stannis has to face a younger brother who looks just like Robert and argues he has a better claim to the throne.
Stannis' story is in large part a story about a man who is not only principled, but also extremely dutiful, who has to swallow endless bowls of shit, so when Renly challenges his right to rule, it's not a surprise to see him angered. Supporting his older brother is bad enough, but at least there's precedence. But supporting his younger brother as well? No wonder Stannis' sperm is able to produce shadow assains; it's a wonder Melisandre didn't birth a shadow dragon.
Speaking of Melisandre: I think it's also important to consider her role in Stannis' story. There is a tendency to portray Melisandre as a pragmatic tool of Stannis as well, a red hawk he can use to catapult himself to the throne, but even here, we must consider the personal level.
Melisandre is, after all, not only armed with a toolkit of skills, but she's also a very attractive woman, one who is able to seduce a man not typically associated with seductions. On a personal level, we clearly see in Stannis a man who never shared his brother's ability with women, and now gets a chance to make up for lost time, and then some!
Also important is Melisandre's proclamation of Stannis as Azor Ahai. Normally, fans tend to view this through a political/religious lens, arguing its implications for the political picture in Westeros and the metaphysical narrative, but we must also consider the personal level. For Stannis as a person, the thought of him being Azor Ahai is somewhat unbelivable (he still thinks Robert would be more fitting, which is just heartbreaking), yet I also think he silently rejoices, because this means he not only gets to be more king, but also a mythical hero! Had he not realized what a heavy burden this is, I think we coud have seen the famous buzzkill party pooper dancing around in Dragonstone (okay, maybe not, but you get my point).
The question of duty
All right, you've made this far. Isn't it time to talk about duty soon? Yes, absolutely, now's the time.
From a dramatic perspective, duty is a strange beast. At its core, duty is inherently undramatic, as it removes agency from characters, and agency is so often the key to great drama. Characters who just do their duties are not bad characters, but there is always the possibility that they become uninteresting, which is always a dangerous pitfalls for writers.
Duty is all over ASOIAF, and GRRM neatly avoids the pitfalls, using a variety of tricks. For starters, he recognizes that while duty removes agency, characters must still make a choice on where to apply their duty. In Westeros, this results in a large number of characters casting their lot with dubious authorities, simply for the chance to enact their personal brand of sadism (Meryn Trant would be a well-trod traveler down this alley).
GRRM also recognizes that while characters make a choice on where to cast their duty, certain causes are clearly less deserving of duty (again, Meryn Trant). This greatly enhances the dramatic possibilities of using duty as a theme, as it affords us the chance to evaluate characters based on where they cast their duty.
Which brings us to Stannis, who obviously cares about duty:
“We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must… we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty.”From judicial perspective, Stannis' duty is largely based on a belief that the letter of the law is worth upholding, even when it is otherwise tempting to deviate. From an ethical perspective, Stannis' duty is largely adherent to the deontological framework.
Here's the problem for Stannis: while strict duty removes agency, all characters must still (as mentioned) make a choice on where to cast their duty, and it is here I think we will find the key to unlocking how Stannis breaks.
Let's rewind to ASOS, to the scene where Davos brings him the letter from the Night's Watch. Here, Stannis realizes he must travel North, as it is there he will find his true true purpose. Note that the argument here is not justice or ambition, but duty:
"Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne."Stannis' sense of duty will find him beating Mance Rayder, before marching on take Winterfell from the Boltons. Here, his story in the books ends, but I think it's reasonable to consider that Stannis ends up taking the castle.
So far, there's no reason to call Stannis anything but a just man. He has not yet become a "broken man," and he still adheres to his principles. But will it last?
Here we enter the theoretical portion, so from now on you'll just have to trust my assumptions on where the rest of the story goes.
Sometime after Winterfell is taken and the Boltons are defeated, the Wall will break. The White Walkers will march for Winterfell, and Stannis will find himself stuck in a replay of the siege of Storm's End, only now, everything's turned up to an apocalyptic 11.
Melisandre will present Stannis with dragon eggs (the same eggs Mushroom claims are there), possibly after Mance Rayder found them in the crypts. She will point to the WWs and call it a sign, and she will argue that Stannis has to make a true sacrifice, his only daughter, in order to save the world.
And here Stannis must choose. If he is truly a just man, loyal to the law and those sweet Kantian ethics, he'll refuse. If his memory is intact, he'll likely quote Davos:
Stannis: "What is the life of one bastardBut Davos might not be present. And even if he is, Stannis' choice will be harder now, with the White Walkers knocking on the door, threatening existence itself. And besides, Stannis might not really be a just man – not really, not when it truly counts.
boygirl against an entire kingdom?"
But he might be a dutiful man, and so the question becomes: to where will Stannis cast his duties? What is Stannis truly dutiful to? Let's go back to the quotes:
Melisandre moved closer. "Save them, sire. Let me wake the stone dragons. Three is three. Give me the boy."Again we see the repetition of duty as an argument, only now, it's portrayed as the argument for burning a child (albeit Edric and not Shireen). And Stannis says it clear as day: his duty is to the realm. Not the law, not himself, but the realm.
"Edric Storm," Davos said.
Stannis rounded on him in a cold fury. "I know his name. Spare me your reproaches. I like this no more than you do, but my duty is to the realm. My duty . . . " He turned back to Melisandre. "You swear there is no other way? Swear it on your life, for I promise, you shall die by inches if you lie."
Let's see what happens when we only make some small changes to the quote above:
Melisandre moved closer. "Save them, sire. Let me wake the stone dragons. Three is three. Give me the girl."Justice cannot explain why Stannis burns Shireen. Deontological ethics can't explain it either. But duty can explain it, because duty is still a choice, defined by where we cast it. And Stannis' duty, in his own words, is to the realm, the millions of people in Westeros who will die if the White Walkers are not stopped.
"Shireen," Davos said.
Stannis rounded on him in a cold fury. "I know her name. Spare me your reproaches. I like this no more than you do, but my duty is to the realm. My duty . . . " He turned back to Melisandre. "You swear there is no other way? Swear it on your life, for I promise, you shall die by inches if you lie."
One can obviously wonder why Stannis doesn't believe there are other solutions. After all, other characters are also dutiful to the realm. Why don't they reach the same conclusion?
Here we must consider the importance of Azor Ahai. Stannis is obviously not the chosen one, but if Melisandre can make him believe it, he will believe he has no other choice:
And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fire…yet when he plunged it intoAnd there it is!
the waterwooden idols to temper the steel it burst asunder.
The second time it took him fifty days ... Azor Ahai captured
a lionEdric Storm, to temper the blade by plunging it in the boy’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered ...
A hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his
wifedaughter … know that I love you best of all there is in this world …
Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer.”
If duty is the key that helps us understand why Stannis makes his choice, then his belief that he is Azor Ahai is the key that helps us understand why he doesn't consider options.
Stannis is sometimes portrayed as an ambitious man, and often as a man of justice. And while those traits, especially the latter, certainly define in him in their own ways, I argue that the true common denominator for all his actions is actually duty, as duty not explains his campaign to become king, but also why he ends up damning himself.