The Lure of Futile Prophecies

====TV SPOILERS====
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.

Cassandra-never-believed

To seduce her, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. After she spurned him, Apollo cursed her so that nobody would believe her prophecies. Here, Cassandra stands by Troy as it burns, an event she foresaw. Artist: Evelyn De Morgan (1898).

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.

macbeth-three-witches

The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner Housed at the National Portrait Gallery, UK.

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.

Banquo-ghost

“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo” by Théodore Chassériau.

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-shadow

Melisandre gives birth to the shadow assassin that took Renly’s life. © HBO.

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.

melisandre-fire

Melisandre sees visions in the flames. © HBO.

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?

macbeth-witches-act4

Desperate for reassurances about the future, Macbeth visits the Witches. They warn him about Macduff and tell him that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”

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.

Stannis_and_leeches

Stannis throws leeches onto the fire to curse his enemies. © HBO.

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.

Patchface-luisi-gilberti

Stannis’ jester, Patchface, is mysteriously not included in the show. Image: © 2005 M.Luisa Giliberti.

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)

Jun Yan is a spontaneous, home-grown Shakespeare fan. Her day job is pharmaceutical writing.

10 Comments

  • Reply October 31, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Jun, I love your article but would it be possible to put something at the top to the effect that there is a reference therein to something that hasn’t happened yet in the show (i.e. Maggy the Frog, so that it doesn’t come as a “spoiler” to anybody who is a show watcher only who might happen across the feature – though it’s likely that plot point will feature in season 5 of GoT).

    You know, I hadn’t picked up on Macbeth having broken guest rights. When I first experienced the shock of the Red Wedding I thought of the Massacre of Glencoe and GRRM has said he was inspired by the “Black Dinner” – but you are quite right, kinslaying and betrayal of guest rights does happen in “the Scottish play” (no, I’m not a member of the acting profession). “The lure of futile prophecies” – that’s something to ponder. I think followers of the books/show (maybe more so the books) may have become inclined to dwell on what various prophecies might mean because the story of ASOIAF is so long in the telling – though I’m not one of those persons who “trolls” GRRM because of his slow production rate.

    • Reply October 31, 2014

      Jun Yan

      You’re right, Watcher. Sorry. I cannot edit the post now that it’s published, but Jamie can add a spoiler warning on top. According to the casting news, it is almost certain that Season 5 of GoT series will contain Cersei’s flashback.

      Ah, yes, “the Scottish play” is how it is normally called in theatre. 🙂

      • Reply October 31, 2014

        Jamie Adair

        Everyone, my apologies I should have caught the spoiler! Watcher **thank you very much** for pointing it out.

  • Reply November 10, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    Did I hear someone mention my beloved Clarence? There were actually a couple of earlier references to the ‘Prophecy of G’ so it’s origins are rather curious.

    • Reply November 10, 2014

      Jun Yan

      I want to know too! So it was not Shakespeare’s invention?

  • Reply November 10, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Olga, to quote an old Cliff Richard song, “Please don’t tease”. Do clarify the earlier references to the “Prophesy of G” to puzzled folk like me.

  • Reply November 10, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    No, it definitely wasn’t Shakespeare’s invention. AFAIK it was a real prophecy in Edward IV’s lifetime; I’m sure I’ve read that he actually took it (somewhat) seriously. I have a book about Edward IV’s interest in alchemy; he was (like many in that period) quite superstitious. However, Olga, I want to hear what you have to say as well. I only know the prophecy existed but not much beyond that.

  • Reply November 11, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    Sorry guys I didn’t see your comments earlier. There is no record of where the prophecy originated but it is mentioned twice in the 16th century.

    There is a poem about Clarence which is thought to be from about 1547 ‘George Plantagenet’, attributed to William Baldwin.

    A prophecy was found, which sayd, a G

    Of Edward’s children should destruction bee.
    Mee to bee G, because my name was George,
    My brother thought, and therefore did me hate.

    And there is Hall’s Chronicle from 1542

    “the king or the Queue, or bothe sore troubled with a folysh Prophesye, and by reason therof begii to stomacke & greuously to grudge ngaynst the duke. The effect of which was, after king Edward should reigne, one whose first letter of hys name shoulde be a G.”

  • Reply November 13, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Thanks for answering the queries, Olga. The belief in prophecies and the superstition that abounded in times past seems strange now (I wonder how many unfortunate women were disposed of, accused of witchcraft, by drowning due the old method of determining innocence or guilt, namely throwing them in the water to see if they were “witches” and if they floated they were indeed witches and if they were innocent they sank – but of course it was no use being not guilty if they were dead from drowning).

    I’m sure I mentioned on another thread that I was somewhat disappointed when I read that the English (Anglo-Saxon) King, Alfred the Great burning the cakes was not recorded until a couple of hundred years after the alleged event. It’s quite well-known but if anybody doesn’t know the story it alleges the king was travelling incognito (to avoid the Danes {Vikings??]; a housewife said he could rest up at her place without knowing who he was and put him to watch her cakes, and inadvertently he let the cakes burn, so the housewife told him off soundly. But in the case of the Clarence prophecy we have recorded instances of it occurring as mentioned above.

  • Reply November 22, 2016

    BeeTea

    On the final disc in the Season 5 GoT collection, there is a 2-part bonus feature on the history behind the novels in which Martin discusses the Wars of the Roses at length. Two thoughts came to me after watching those — one is that Stannis is a lot like Macbeth and the other is that the storyline is heading towards a showdown between the two Queens, Cersei and Daenerys, in the manner of Mary Stuart Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor, respectively. But their positions are reversed, as Martin often does, with Cersei/Mary firmly on the throne and Dany coming in as the threat. But back to Stannis ….. same thing: the story of Stannis is an alternative version or (as Umberto Eco might put it) a palimpsest of Macbeth, to wit: Macbeth has no children of his own, but he kills the children of others, while Stannis kills his own child; Melisandre is Lady Macbeth and the witches all rolled into one; Banquo has become Renly — Macbeth has Banquo killed and then Banquo shows up as a ghost, but here Stannis comes upon Banquo *as a ghost* (the shadow) to do the killing deed itself (ingenious!!); Selyse kills herself, just as LadyMacbeth does; Macbeth is secure in his castle as king when Macduff comes out of the woods to assault that castle and ultimately to kill Macbeth, while in GoT, it is Stannis who comes out of the woods at Winterfell to assault it and is defeated. Macduff becomes Brienne of Tarth — Macbeth fears no man of woman born, which is Macduff from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, but Martin assigns the job to a woman. Macbeth accepts that if he is to die, it should be at Macduff’s hands, for he wronged him and he will accept that death from him. Likewise, Stannis accepts Brienne’s sentence of death against him for the murder of Renly — it is that sense of karmic appropriateness. Lex talionis. Valar morghulis — all men must die; if death is to come now, let it be from a source and for reasons that I can accept. His “Go on — do your duty” is equivalent to Macbeth’s “Lay on, Macduff”. Stannis and Brienne are equals in their commitment to Duty. I think the name Stannis must derive from Anglo-Saxon for “stone”. Also, see Tolkien: the witchking of Angmar is killed by Eowyn, the shieldmaiden of Rohan — “I am no man” she says.

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