Azor Ahai: A Grain of Salt & Smoke

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones, appropriately titled “The Long Night,” brought about a much-awaited moment, that being the destruction of the Night King and his many minions. It’s a climax already being hotly debated, an inevitable outcome given the level of hyper-scrutiny which accompanies final seasons of event TV.

There’s also still three feature-length episodes left, which raises many questions about the true focus of this final stretch of story, especially since the Night King had been anticipated as the end-game of the series and has now suddenly been removed from the board.

No doubt, we’re supposed to be pondering what lies ahead. But Arya’s defeat of the Night King — a truly cathartic crowdpleaser of an ending — also opens up a rabbit hole of further issues, relating both to previous seasons as well as to the novels on which the show is based. Namely, we’ve heard repeated references to an ancient prophecy foretelling the defeat of darkness at the hands of a messiah, an ancient figure born anew to save the world from a dire threat.

Is Arya that figure? If the criteria involves destroying the White Walkers and the existential danger they pose to humanity, then the answer is a resounding yes. And without a doubt, her killing the Night King is the ultimate payoff for Arya’s character. In season one, Syrio Forel taught her “There is only one god and his name is Death, and what do we say to the god of death? Not today.” Here, she has literally killed what amounts to death incarnate. It’s a fantastic callback, and highlights Arya’s journey from precocious tomboy to stone-cold teenage serial killer to adult woman reconnecting with her humanity and using her finely honed murder skills for the greater good.

But in terms of these prophecies, the only problem is that Arya by and large doesn’t fit what they describe.

It could be that the show has simply diverged completely from whatever George R.R. Martin plans to do in his books, and is forging its own original path. We can’t actually know one way or the other, as the writers promised Martin that, in this final season, they would refrain from clarifying what is or is not drawn from his own designs. But Martin has said that the broad strokes will in many cases be the same, and it’s difficult to imagine such a thematically resonant beat in Arya’s story not having some equivalent in the novel.

Prophecy is a tricky thing in the world of Westeros, but the fact that both book and show called attention to this particular foretelling is a sign that we should be wondering if it’s still in play.

Azor Ahai/The Prince That Was Promised/The Dragon Has Three Heads

In A Song of Ice & Fire there are many prophecies bandied about, but the most significant involve a legendary character who supposedly once triumphed over an apocalyptic force of malevolence. The North tells of the Last Hero, a man who fought the White Walkers (usually called the Others in the books) during the Long Night. Followers of the Lord of Light believe in Azor Ahai, who vanquishes the Great Other, eternal nemesis of R’hllor. We also hear repeatedly about someone called the Prince That Was Promised. And various cultures throughout Essos have myths analogous to the Long Night, the Walkers, and the chosen savior. (For instance, the Dothraki have the Stallion Who Mounts the World).

The legend of Azor Ahai describes a man forging a sword to combat a mighty enemy. His first attempts to create the blade fail, but when he drives it through the heart of his wife Nissa Nissa, the sword is imbued with the essence of her sacrifice and becomes Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes. Priests of the fire god believe Azor Ahai will be reborn to again wield Lightbringer and reclaim the world for the Lord of Light.

Meanwhile, the prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised predicts the arrival of a leader, born amidst salt and smoke under a bleeding star, who will wake dragons from stone. The Targaryens especially were obsessed with this prophecy, and a witch predicted that the Prince would be a descendant of Aerys II, later known as the Mad King. The book version of Maester Aemon, himself a Targaryen, clarifies that the wording of this divination is misleading, as the original High Valyrian used a genderless noun to describe the person in question, so the prophecy could just as easily connote the Princess That Was Promised.

Azor Ahai and the Prince That Was Promised are often used interchangeably, though some argue they’re describing separate individuals. Melisandre considers them to be the same, and on Game of Thrones she has mentioned both prophecies throughout the course of the series: she declares Stannis to be Azor Ahai and the wielder of Lightbringer in season two— convincing him to participate in a tacky and forced ceremony with a burning sword — and later that season she mentions the Prince being birthed in salt and smoke. (The reference causes Renly to ask if the Prince is really a ham).

It’s a common misconception that the TV series mostly ignored the prophecy, but not only was it discussed in the show’s second year, it reared its head again last season, when Melisandre uses it to sway Dany to meet with Jon. In this version, it’s Missandei who explains, after Melisandre leaves, that the original language is not gender specific. Melisandre being so intent on uniting Jon and Dany suggests she believes one of them to be Azor Ahai.

Then there’s the book version of Dany’s visit to the warlocks’ House of the Undying in Qarth. On the show she sees the Iron Throne deserted and covered in snow, and encounters a vision of Khal Drogo. In the novel, she instead sees her oldest brother Rhaegar, who tells her that his newborn son Aegon is the Prince That Was Promised, and that “his is the song of ice and fire.” He also reminds her “the dragon has three heads,” a reference to the sigil of House Targaryen. Though this vision is meant only for Dany, it nonetheless ties into what’s been said about both Azor Ahai and the Prince.

Bullshit, or not?

One wrinkle in all of this is that, while fulfilling an ancient prophecy sounds compelling, neither Martin’s story nor Game of Thrones play it quite that easy. Here, prophecies are vague and not fully reliable, in some cases self-fulfilling and/or self-perpetuating. As Tyrion says in the novel, “Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.”

All this portentous talk of bleeding stars, promised princes, and flaming swords is still quite ambiguous, opaque enough to apply to various situations and scenarios. Yes, many cultures are telling a similar narrative based on a historical event, but those tales have become mythologized to the point where separating fact from fantasy is virtually impossible.

And given how this story illustrates the dangers of absolute power when combined with the imperfections inherent in the human condition, the idea that there will be a Chosen One Who Saves All and Restores Peaceful Rule sounds downright laughable.

The Iron Throne itself is a monument to the ego and delusions of grandeur so pervasive in the Targaryen bloodline. The Targaryens loved prophecies because they constantly wanted to be the figures spoken of in said prophecies, their opinions of themselves famously not running low. Rhaegar Targaryen, though notably kind and humble, named two of his children after Aegon the Conqueror, an attempt to shoehorn one of his sons into being the Prince That Was Promised. Even Maester Aemon was convinced that the Prince/Princess would arrive in his lifetime, though he constantly changed his opinion of which one of his relatives fit that description.

Speaking of uncertainty, we have Melisandre, so convinced that Stannis is Azor Ahai that she was willing to immolate numerous people — including his innocent daughter Shireen — only to later change her mind.

It could very well be that prophecy is a complete misdirect. While we know that magic exists in Westeros and Essos, the metaphysical source of that power is uncertain. The characters are not able to prove if there are any gods or any cosmic plans. And what if there are? It’s easy to assume the Lord of Light is real because fire magic suddenly works again, but if that’s true, it means this god who demands people be burned alive in his name is on the right side of history. The implications of that are not in the least bit reassuring.

So, yes, all of this might frankly be direwolf shit, a narrative created to reassure cultures in times of strife and uncertainty, but not specifically applicable to one particular person or situation.

Sleeping Dragons

That being said, a handful of prophecies have panned out in the novels and on the show.

Regarding Azor Ahai/the Promised Prince, there do seem to be quite a few loaded descriptors relevant to the events at hand. Given its open-ended nature, many characters fall under certain traits described in the prophecy — for instance, who at this point hasn’t committed some form of literal or metaphorical sacrifice? It’s worth considering that Jaime especially hits a slew of these notes. But when really opening up and examining the issue, three characters stand out as prime suspects: Dany, Tyrion, and Jon.

Born amidst salt and smoke: Dany was born during a great storm on the island of Dragonstone (salt), and was reborn on the funeral pyre when she burned Drogo and the witch (smoke). Tyrion arguably underwent a spiritual transformation following the Battle of the Blackwater, an event which literally involved a burning bay (salt and smoke). Jon’s mother Lyanna wept as she bled to death following his birth (salt), and he was resurrected by Melisandre using fire magic (smoke).

The bleeding star: On the show, a red comet streaks over Westeros and Essos not long after the emergence of Dany’s dragons. (In the book, it appears on the night she walks into the flames). The comet is spotted in King’s Landing during the days leading up to the Battle of the Blackwater, where Tyrion almost dies and is left permanently disfigured. Meanwhile, right after Jon’s birth, Ned sets Ser Arthur Dayne’s sword against the bloodstained bed. The sword, called Dawn, is painted with a rising sun on its handle (and according to the novels, had been forged from a meteorite which crashed to earth).

Awaking dragons from stone: On a literal level, this applies only to Dany, who hatched three dragons from eggs thought to be long dead. Less literally, Jon discovered that he’s half-Targaryen, which could be interpreted as an awakening. (As for Tyrion, more on him shortly).

Nissa Nissa, the sacrifice of a lover: As there’s often a cyclical nature to prophecy, many theorize that certain details of the Azor Ahai legend will repeat in his/her new incarnation, particularly this aspect. Again, this has come to pass for all three characters in question. Dany mercy kills Khal Drogo, Tyrion murders Shae after her betrayal, and Jon chooses the Night’s Watch over Ygritte, leading to her eventual death at their hands.

Another element linking all three characters is that their mothers died giving birth to them. While women dying during childbirth wouldn’t be uncommon in a medieval-styled setting like this, and while it’s not mentioned in any of these prophecies, it’s certainly conspicuous given all the other overlap.

Dany’s vision of Rhaegar states that the dragon has three heads, a sentence which Maester Aemon repeats in the novel. This statement is frequently interpreted to mean that there will be three dragon riders to combat the wights. The series has since complicated that assertion by having Viserion become a thrall to the Night King, ending that specific theory (at least for Game of Thrones, which has yet to directly reference this specific prophecy).

However, a different interpretation is that this refers not to actual dragon riders, but to three Targaryens of significance. In that event, another person of Targaryen descent needs to enter the mix.

If true, this leaves room for a third Targaryen*, opening the door to the much debated speculation that Tyrion’s biological father is the Mad King.

There’s a decent amount of highly circumstantial evidence for this, none of it conclusive. Aerys always had a fondness for Joanna Lannister, and as his sanity waned with age, that fondness became a rather bold and perverse lust. It caused numerous issues within his own marriage and contributed to his diminishing relationship with his Hand, Tywin Lannister.

(This also potentially adds new dimensions to Tywin’s hatred of Tyrion. By all accounts Joanna’s death broke Tywin, and if he suspected that Tyrion wasn’t his child but instead the Mad King’s, it would solidify his lifelong resentment).

In the books, Tyrion is described as having hair which looks more white than blonde, as well as mismatched eyes, and his dwarfism is certainly in keeping with the genetic defects passed down through generations of inbreeding. And on the TV show, Tyrion has been the only one other than Dany or Jon who can calm the dragons, during which he revealed his own childhood fascination with the creatures.

Why does any of this possibly matter in relation to Azor Ahai and/or the Prince That Was Promised?

Because of the distinct possibility that this figure might be more than one person.

Such a thing would explain all the parallels between these characters, and tie together the three-headed dragon mystery. It also coincides with the witch’s statement that the Prince would be a descendant of Aerys II. Three people, all part of the same mythic being, meant to realize some great and terrible fate.

A Girl Who Lived

But, if there’s any truth to this theory at all, what exactly is this triumvirate meant to do? The obvious answer is defeat the Night King and prevent another Long Night. If that’s the case, then — considering the latest episode — they’ve failed miserably. Jon and Dany were sidelined for much of the battle and made little to no impact, while Tyrion was forced to hide in the crypts. And as it turns out, dragonfire can’t harm the Walkers, so Dany and Jon’s dragon riding heroics were only good for so much to start with.

This takes us back to Arya, who killed the Night King using a combination of her Valyrian dagger and the stealthiness she learned from teachers such as Syrio and Jaqen. Not only was her story brought full circle, but so was the King’s: he began his icy existence at the foot of a weirwood tree, dragonglass in his heart. Now he ends it at another weirwood, Valyrian blade plunged deep into him.

Is Arya the return of Azor Ahai/the Promised Prince/Last Hero? Melisandre, who as mentioned has demonstrated a fixation on these prophecies, certainly helps Arya come to the realization that it’s her destiny to destroy the Night King. The Red Priestess also suggests both Beric and the Hound were chosen to protect Arya, so that she would be alive for this very moment. And the episode is called “The Long Night,” which Azor Ahai is supposedly returning to defeat. As for the song of ice and fire, Arya is a Stark carrying Valyrian steel. Not to mention, Arya’s dagger could theoretically qualify as Lightbringer, as could Beric himself.

Yet, something about this seems off. Arya fits a few of the qualifications laid forth in both prophecies, but falls short on many more, especially regarding the Prince. The latter moniker also implies someone who might rule, and Arya, though technically a princess, thus far has never shown any interest in leadership.

Regardless, Arya’s transformation during the Battle of Winterfell fully realizes her character, as in order to destroy the Night King, she first has to reconnect with her own humanity. As much as her acts of vengeance were oft-justified, Arya always ran the risk of losing her soul, becoming an emotionless killer (with a twinge of sadism) who executes enemies like a robot hardwired with a murder program. But during the Battle of Winterfell (as well as in the hours just before), she finally allows herself to be vulnerable, to feel fear, to trust others, to be a fully integrated human being.

Syrio Forel taught her to say no to death. Whereas the Faceless Men — despite the many skills Arya learned from them — do not live. They have no identities, and their service of the Many-Faced God is a code for saying they worship oblivion. In order to kill the Night King, Arya had to remember to live again. Her destruction of him is Arya rejecting not just this walking embodiment of our shared inevitable mortality, but saying no to becoming yet another ice cold agent of suffering and loss in a world with too many of them already.

She’s not just saving her own life. In that moment, she is saving Life.

The idea of prophecy sounds almost silly and insignificant in comparison to her heroism. Arya is not actively trying to fill some dusty prescription of messianic behavior or acting upon a birthright, but merely doing the thing that needs to be done the most.

If the purpose of this destined figure was strictly to defeat the Night King and nothing else — because what’s important is that he was destroyed, not necessarily who destroyed him and if that person meets some predetermined litmus test — then these prophecies might as well not matter at all.

And, perhaps they don’t matter. Perhaps this illustrates the idea that relying on prophecy is ultimately a form of staring in the wrong direction, taking you away from the here and now, a distraction which becomes more about ticking off boxes of ancient criteria than finding a solution. That would absolutely be within the wheelhouse of this story.

However, previous events have established prophecy to possess some element of accuracy, even if just symbolic. Arya’s arc still does not really fit, even in that respect.

This leads to the possibility that whatever these prophecies are referring to has yet to reach fruition. If that’s true, and Azor Ahai is meant to do something other than kill the Night King, where exactly is this going?

Ice & Fire

It might be best to return to the title of Martin’s book series when asking this question.

At first glance, the character who looks to embody the title most directly is Jon/Aegon, literally the product of ice and fire, coming from the Stark and Targaryen bloodlines. Him being the son of Rhaegar tracks with what Dany is told in the House of the Undying, and as Jon is the rightful heir to the Targaryen throne, he easily conforms to the implications of the prophecy. He also wields Longclaw, a Valyrian sword that immediately brings to mind Lightbringer.

But Jon being the Chosen One destined for the crown is such an obvious trope and not really the kind of conclusion that feels correct for either the novel or the show, at least not when reduced to this description.

Dany is a more complex possibility as she’s always been a walking contradiction, torn between a genuine desire to make life better for people and a ruthless sense of entitlement to the Throne by any means necessary. She could downplay this dichotomy in Essos, but now that she’s stepped foot in Westeros, there’s no hiding that her attempt to have it both ways is sending a confusing and sometimes threatening message to the people whose support she’s hoping to win.

And of course, Jon and Dany together are another version of ice and fire. This also gets back to the idea that the prophecies could be separate. What if one of them is Azor Ahai and the other the Promised Prince?

But even if both Jon and Dany are Azor Ahai — and let’s say for the sake of argument that Tyrion learns he’s a Targaryen as well, all three dragon heads accounted for — is their real purpose to defeat more evil? To lead? To destroy the Throne? To what??

It’s within the realm of possibility that the threat of the Night King isn’t quite resolved, not so much for what he was but for what he represented. Ice and cold haven’t only indicated a form of magic or the change of seasons, they’ve also been a stand-in for lack of humanity, for soullessness, for cruelty, and for death itself. All of which await in King’s Landing.

The Night King at least had the excuse of being forcibly turned into an unrelenting killing machine. Cersei, despite growing up in an abusive paternalistic world which mistreated and underestimated her, has no such excuse. She’s contributed as much to her current state as any outside circumstances, and countless people have died because of her decisions.

And she absolutely does not care in the slightest. Any potential for empathy, love, or connection has been snuffed out in the name of an all-consuming, vengeful megalomania. Cersei is a black hole, human only in the most technical sense, now aligning herself with a bloodthirsty madman who believes in nothing but his own desire for chaos and power.

With the help of an undead brute and an amoral mad scientist, Cersei occupies the seat of what’s considered the civilized world, and because of the North’s war with the Night King now has the advantage in almost every sense, apart from commanding dragons.

And despite the death of the Night King, the supernatural also remains active: Bran is the living incarnation of the weirwood’s powers, Dany maintains a mystical connection to fire, and Jon is the union of two magical bloodlines and has literally died and come back to life. The stakes haven’t suddenly been reduced to squabbling over a chair, even if it might seem that way.

While Martin and Game of Thrones have made a habit of subverting the expectations typical of a fantasy story, it’s very clear that both Jon and Dany do have some major role to play in wherever all of this is going. Even if ultimately the story bucks convention, factors such as Dany’s awakening of dragons and Jon’s resurrection demonstrate that they’re still needed for something significant, and as it turns out, that particular something wasn’t killing the Night King. It might not be ruling Westeros, either . . . prophesied figures tend not to meet happy endings in this tale. (On the other hand, neither do rulers of Westeros).

At this juncture, the story could go almost any direction. Tyrion could find out he’s part of Azor Ahai or be immolated by Dany, Bran might be the third head of the dragon (especially if it doesn’t have to be a Targaryen) and warg into Drogon or Rhaegal, or Cersei could kill absolutely everyone and then enjoy her evening over a nice glass of wine. We don’t even know 100% for sure that the White Walkers have been completely annihilated, or if a part of their magic has been left behind. All pieces are up in the air, currently.

Maybe Azor Ahai/The Prince That Was Promised/Westerosi Neo Luke Potter is a myth, maybe not. Maybe it’s multiple people, maybe just one. Maybe we’ve already seen the prophecy fulfilled by Arya and it’s now an irrelevant carcass to be chucked aside. Maybe the whole point of this particular myth is that it fails to come true as predicted despite the pieces being in place to do so. Maybe we never get an answer.

No matter what, winter is here.

And the Long Night is still coming.

*The novels introduce a new subplot in the form of Young Griff, a teenage boy in Essos who later reveals to Tyrion that he’s actually Aegon, the son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell. According to him, as a baby he was smuggled out of King’s Landing before it was sacked, Varys having swapped Aegon with a different child later killed by the Mountain. Varys has since been grooming Aegon/Young Griff from afar in support of his claim to the Throne, hoping to reinstate the Targaryen dynasty.

The only issue here is that this could all be a ruse on the part of Varys, as there’s no way to prove Young Griff is really and truly Rhaegar’s son. Some prophecies have also referred to a false dragon challenging Dany, and now that we know Jon’s real name is Aegon Targaryen — and especially since the series completely bypassed this storyline — it seems likely that Young Griff is looking at an existential crisis on the horizon.

On the other hand, should Martin choose to make Young Griff legitimate and the third head of the dragon, this would open numerous fascinating avenues the TV series can’t even visit.

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