As a high-fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire is judicious in the use of supernatural elements, such as witchcraft, magic, super powers, and nonhuman intelligence. Besides the dragons and White Walkers, one element that’s been brought up repeatedly is various predictions to foreshadow future events. These predictions take on different forms, including the curses Mirra Maz Duur puts on Daenerys Targaryen, Melisandre’s fire reading, Bran Stark’s dreams, the deranged songs by Patchface on Dragonstone, Arya’s dark and bloody future told by the “ghost of High Heart,” and Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying. The last scene contains some of the most important spoilers for the series’ ultimate secrets: Who are the three heads of dragon? Who will be the prince that was promised? Who will betray Daenerys for love?
Prophecies and curses are a common device in mythology and theater dating back to ancient Greeks. Cassandra is a prototype who embodies both the human desire to know the future and our acknowledgment of its futility. Oedipus is sent down a road of self-discovery and destruction by a prophecy that entwines the future with the past. Later, Shakespeare takes this tradition to a new level in his most supernatural tragedy, Macbeth.
As the play opens, General Macbeth and his colleague Banquo encounter three witches who offer them uninvited good news. Macbeth will become the king of Scotland, while Banquo will be “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” and “not so happy, yet much happier,” as his children and their children shall be kings after Macbeth. The prophecies kindle the latent ambitions in Macbeth’s heart and seduce him into committing a series of bloody deeds to hasten their realization. Urged by equally ambitious Lady Macbeth, he murders King Duncan to become the king and sends his goons to ambush Banquo.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare takes a more ambiguous view on our wish to control the future. The Greeks believe that the gods predetermine everything, and humans have to live out their predestined fates despite any attempts to alter them. In contrast, Macbeth does not take his fate lying down. He gobbles up the favorable prophecies and struggles mightily to stem the unfavorable ones. He acts in accordance to the prediction, as if it were an order, and murders Duncan in his sleep — which not only makes Macbeth both a kingslayer and kinslayer (they are cousins) but also causes him to break the guest privilege. The assassination of Banquo is his attempt to thwart the part of the prophecies that he does not like. Is Macbeth merely a victim of predetermined fate or a villain who has engineered his own downfall? It’s an eternal question that we humans continue to struggle with throughout history. Today, the question of whether free will exists has even seeped out of the realm of philosophy and into neuroscience.
In ASOIAF, an analogy to Macbeth’s situation is Stannis Baratheon and his “witch” Melisandre. As rigid and entitled as Stannis is, it’s safe to say he would never have persisted for so long in his campaign without the vehement promises and interventions by Melisandre. Like Lady Macbeth, she actively participates in the fulfillment of the predictions by using her magic to assassinate Stannis’ enemies, including his brother Renly, thus making Stannis a kinslayer.
Melisandre can also be seen as a reincarnation of the three witches, egging the man on with a seductive vision of the crown, feeding his hunger for power, whispering in his ear that the throne is destined to be his. Their temptations work because Stannis and Macbeth want to believe, and because the witch(es) first sweetens the pot by giving them a few early successes. Macbeth is quickly convinced when part of it — that he is made the Thane of Cawdor — immediately comes true. Stannis is persuaded by Melisandre’s creation of a shadow assassin.
Yet Macbeth soon realizes the unreliability of the witches’ predictions. After Duncan and Banquo’s sons escape to England, he goes to the witches for more advice. In an eerie scene that is reminiscent of both Melisandre’s fire gazing and the scene in the House of Undying, the witches sing and dance around a boiling cauldron and throw various grotesque objects into the pot (Act IV, Scene I). These objects included “fillet of a fenny snake, eye of newt and toe of frog, … scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, … nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips, finger of birth-strangled babe.” (In comparison, throwing a few leeches fat with royal blood seems pretty tame.) Three ghostly images appear: an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned with a tree in hand. They told Macbeth that he should worry about his former friend Macduff, but no one “of woman born” can kill Macbeth, and defeat is impossible unless the Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. That’s pretty good assurance, isn’t it? Trees don’t climb the hill and who isn’t born of a woman?
Because of the warning and his increasing paranoia, Macbeth tries to kill Macduff. The latter escapes, but his whole family is slaughtered. Driven by hate and revenge, Macduff and Duncan’s son Malcolm lead an English army to march up the Dunsinane Hill with branches in hand to disguise their numbers, thus fulfilling the “moving wood” prophecy (Act V, Scene V). And Macduff declares that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d,” which probably means birth by a primitive caesarian section (Act V, Scene IX). The information terrifies Macbeth. When Macduff slays him, it’s hard to say whether Macbeth’s demise is a result of the inevitable prophecy or of his loss of courage. Thus the effects of free will and fatalism are again indistinguishable.
Shakespeare uses another twisty prophecy in his historical play Richard III. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, lies to his brother Edward IV that the prophecy foretells the king’s death at the hand of someone whose name starts with G. He means, and Edward believes, that this refers to their brother George. So Edward orders George’s execution. Yet both of them seem to have forgotten that Gloucester also starts with G. So the prophecy is both false and true.
Martin takes a similar approach to prophecies as Shakespeare. They all eventually come true, but not in the way the characters have expected or wished, thus keeping the audience or readers also in suspense. Melisandre’s magic does accomplish what she has promised so far. However, it is widely believed among ASOIAF fans that Stannis is not Azor Ahai, glowing sword notwithstanding.
The first parts have all come true. The girl grew up to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and has three children (while the king has his sixteen). Still she cannot sleep soundly at night, just like the crowned Macbeth, fretting over the bad parts that have not happened. The accuracy of the favorable predictions only amplifies the subsequent doom. Like Macbeth, Cersei has gone to great lengths to thwart the future foretold. One could argue that much of her struggle to fight the prophecy is only bringing her closer to the dreaded end at the hand of her “valonqar,” whoever it will be.
Granted, given the numerous prophecies and visions in the ASOIAF series, most differ from the way predictions interact with characters’ choices and behaviors in Macbeth. Some of these just create a mysterious and magical aura in this otherwise largely realistic world, while others connect the distant and seemingly separate plot lines, as Patchface knows what happens outside of Dragonstone and Daenerys sees the War of Five Kings from Qarth. More importantly, the major prophecies give material for fans’ speculations for future events to pass the long years before the next installment, such as who is the real Azor Ahai and who will be the three heads of the dragon. Like the characters, fans should be weary of the traps of prophecies.
“I … begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth,” says Macbeth (Act V, Scene VI). Archmaester Marwyn might be paraphrasing Macbeth when he says, “A prophecy is like a treacherous woman … [It] will bite your prick off every time.” (A Feast for Crows)
In the end, will Stannis and Cersei lament as Macbeth did?
“And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 7)