From their first appearance the Others are a clear supernatural threat, one whose destructive potential vastly dwarfs the ongoing War of Five Kings. Their menacing white shadow steadily advances with each new book of the series and the gradual advent of Winter. Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly’s respective story arches have revolved around discovering and fighting them. Everything Rhaegar Targaryen did was to prepare for their coming. Rhaegar’s sister Daenerys Targaryen has fought them in her dragon dreams. Bloodraven has Brandon Stark brought Beyond-the-Wall to the Children of the Forest so that he might play a major role in the coming war. King Stannis comes North because these “demons of ice and snow” are the real enemy. The story as a whole appears to be building up to a second War for the Dawn, a climatic fight between life and death. But it bears asking, are the Others the only supernatural threat to humanity?
Fire is placed in the series title right alongside ice. This equal billing suggests equal importance and with it equal menace. Fire is after all an extreme that can be just as lethal to life as ice, so the powers of fire are probably no friendlier to human interests then the powers of ice. The “god” of fire, R’hllor, could therefore represent just as great a danger to Westeros as the Others. Yet the implications of this are often missed, possibly because there is nothing about R’hllor that resembles the immediacy of the Other threat, an invading army of ice demons and ice zombies. As a result of this comparison between the very corporeal Others and the very incorporeal R’hllor, the Lord of Light can appear not so much an antagonist in its own right as a ghostly force which human protagonists and antagonists make use of for their own ends. We think such a view is mistaken, that R’hllor is both real and, because of its identity, the great hidden threat of the series, a natural counterpart to the visible threat posed by the Others.
We believe the text indicates R’hllor to be as real an entity as the weirwood spirits, Children of the Forest, Deep Ones, and Others. This conclusion is based on the following three pieces of evidence. First, when young Varys’ was drugged and castrated and the sorcerer burned his cock and spoke into the flame something clearly answered back:
One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. I was in terror. I feared the man meant to use me as I had heard men used small boys, but in truth the only part of me he had need of was my manhood. He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while. I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.
“Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. (CoK Tyrion X)
So there is clearly some otherworldly intelligence which humans can communicate and bargain with through a combination of blood sacrifice and flame. This is remarkably similar to the magic of the red priests and the blood magic Dany experiences in Lhazar. Second, when Thoros of Myr inadvertently revived Lord Dondarrion and then kept reviving him the red priest was using a standard and rather mundane R’hllorite death ritual that is performed constantly throughout the world without having such miraculous results:
“I have no magic, child. Only prayers. That first time, his lordship had a hole right through him and blood in his mouth, I knew there was no hope. So when his poor torn chest stopped moving, I gave him the good god’s own kiss to send him on his way. I filled my mouth with fire and breathed the flames inside him, down his throat to lungs and heart and soul. The last kiss it is called, and many a time I saw the old priests bestow it on the Lord’s servants as they died. I had given it a time or two myself, as all priests must. But never before had I felt a dead man shudder as the fire filled him, nor seen his eyes come open. It was not me who raised him, my lady. It was the Lord. R’hllor is not done with him yet. Life is warmth, and warmth is fire, and fire is God’s and God’s alone.” (SoS Arya VII)
This event doesn’t make sense unless something actively chose for Dondarrion to be resurrected. Thoros knows that, which is why this event restores his faith in R’hllor. The resurrection is yet another indication of supernatural intelligence. Third, something is actively sustaining Melisandre and Moqorro so they are free from the need to eat, drink, and even sleep (merely having to doze):
Melisandre had spent the night in her chair by the fire, as she often did. With Stannis gone, her bed saw little use. She had no time for sleep, with the weight of the world upon her shoulders. And she feared to dream. Sleep is a little death, dreams the whisperings of the Other, who would drag us all into his eternal night. She would sooner sit bathed in the ruddy glow of her red lord’s blessed flames, her cheeks flushed by the wash of heat as if by a lover’s kisses. Some nights she drowsed, but never for more than an hour.
“Does my lady wish to break her fast?” asked Devan.
Food. Yes, I should eat. Some days she forgot. R’hllor provided her with all the nourishment her body needed, but that was something best concealed from mortal men. (DwD Melisandre)
“We found [Moqorro] clinging to a broken spar,” said the Vole. “He was ten days in the water after his ship went down.”
“If he were ten days in the water, he’d be dead, or mad from drinking seawater.” (DwD Victarion I)
From the testimony of Varys and Thoros we know this active something to be an intelligence that is choosing to sustain Melisandre and Moqorro, just as it chose to reply to the sorcerer and resurrect Dondarrion. This active intelligence behind the flames is R’hllor.
So what constitutes this intelligence? What is its character? It might be a single entity or merely the image employed by a collective of demons, but when it presents itself publically it prefers to be perceived as a singular being. Despite its pretenses of benevolent godhood, R’hllor is fundamentally transactional and operates outside mortal morality. Its modus operandi is to make favorable interventions in the natural world in exchange for fiery sacrifices, many of them human. At least some of these interventions are necessary in order to battle the Others, but it’s quite clear that many are requested solely for petty personal power. We know from R’hllor’s various manifestations that it is always hungry, extremely dangerous, necessary for human society, a useful weapon, and not the least bit discriminating about who feeds it. Its lack of discrimination is especially important. Besides the red priests, blood and fire magic has been employed by Valyarian sorcerers, Shadowlander mages, numerous maegi, various Myrish magicians, certain maesters, the smiths of Qohor, the Warlocks of Qarth, the street magicians of Qarth, successive Targaryen dynasts, and Euron Greyjoy. The Lord of Light it appears is an extremely promiscuous deity. In all these respects R’hllor is very much like natural fire: always hungry for fuel, dangerous to human life, necessary for civilized human life, an inescapable part of war, and not the least bit discriminating about what it burns.
There is good reason to believe that R’hllor was the fire power that the Valyrian dragon lords bargained with, sacrificed to, unwittingly empowered, and were eventually devoured by. The Freehold’s empire was founded on fire and blood and ended in fire and blood and R’hllor is the power of fire and blood. The interesting thing about the various explanations for the Doom (a more or less supernatural “why did Rome fall?” befitting a supernaturally forged empire) is the fact that none of them are mutually exclusive. In fact they all go very well together, forming an awesome mosaic of the Valyrians reaping what they had sown. Consider:
To this day no one knows what caused te Doom. Most say that it was a natural cataclysm – a catastrophic explosion caused by the eruption of all Fourteen Flames together. Some septons, less wise, claim that the Valyrians brought the disaster on themselves for their promiscuous belief in a hundred gods and more, and in their godlessness they delved too deep and unleashed the fires of the Seven hells on the Freehold. A handful of maesters, influenced by fragments of the work of Septon Barth, hold that Valyria had used spells to tame the Fourteen Flames for thousands of years, that their ceaseless hunger for slaves and wealth was as much to sustain their spells as to expand their power, and that when at last those spells faltered, the cataclysm became inevitable.
Of these, some argue that it was the curse of Garin the Great at last coming to fruition. Others speak of the priests of R’hllor calling down the fire of their god in queer rituals. Some, wedding the fanciful notion of Valyrian magic to the reality of the ambitious great houses of Valyria, have argued that it was the constant whirl of conflict and deception amongst the great houses that might have led to the assassinations of too many of the reputed mages who renewed and maintained the rituals that banked the fires of the Fourteen Flames. (World Book 26)
We propose that the septons had it right in that the arrogant, godless Valyrians dug way too deeply into the Fourteen Flames in their quest for magic and found some malevolent power in there willing to serve their purposes. In order make use of and at the same time contain this uncovered power the Valyrians needed sacrifices, particularly blood sacrifices, hence the rapacity of their empire. As Septon Barth theorized, when the growth of these spoils faltered these spells consequently weakened and what they contained became ever hungrier. Those who speak of R’hllor’s sorcery are correct in that the demonic fire the Valyrians were feeding wanted to burst forth and devour all of Valyria. To this end the entity attained followers from amongst the slave classes by presenting itself as a benevolent god, R’hllor, the Lord of Light and the Heart of Flame. These red priests then proceeded to empower R’hllor and weaken the Valyrian’s protections further with their own blood and fire sorceries. While this was happening, Garin’s Curse came to fruition in the form of a Grey Plague that destabilized the politics of the Freehold. The blood feuds that sprang up amongst the surviving dragon lords were then seized upon by the Faceless Men to assassinate the remaining Valyrian mages in the hopes of bringing about a cataclysm. Between plague, feud, and Faceless Men too many crucial spellcasters perished and the Valyrians were unable to maintain their now extremely weakened magical protections when they suddenly came under attack from a surging R’hllor. The result: BOOM!
Post-Valyria, R’hllor is now the deity of a universal, world spanning religion that could be defined as Valyrian blood and fire sorcery for the masses (namely, the slaves and barbarians who were excluded from it during the Freehold). As the source of blood and fire sorcery, every contemporary magician, regardless of their beliefs, is its unwitting agent and tributary. Its influence therefore extends wherever there are red temples and magicians.
Opposing R’hllor are the Others, who are the powers of ice, pure and simple.* The Others present themselves very differently from R’hllor: R’hllor makes itself appear as a singular power, while the Others appear as a multitude of individual beings. At the same time the conduct of each towards the human world inverts their respective presentations. R’hllor’s universal promiscuity leads it to become involved in all kinds of magical spells and cults. In contrast the Others seem limited to their northern kingdom and single mindedly focused on their own invasion of Westeros. While R’hllor and its agents work through and within human society through religions and magicians, the Others don’t seem to court humans or grant magic. The most it appears they will accept is a very one sided (and perhaps temporary) tributary submission. As a rule, R’hllor tries to convert or seduce humans into killing each other while the Others directly kill humans and animate the bodies.
In these aspects R’hllor and the Others mirror their respective elemental realms. All embers of fire are essentially part of the same fire. Every spark of flame can independently go on to burn in so many different ways. The difference between a lit candle, a forest fire, and the eruption of a volcano is merely a question of fuel. Without fuel all fires eventually die. Ice crystals on the other hand are individually unique. Winter, frozen water, and blizzards come about from the presence of a mass of such crystals. Hence it makes sense that R’hllor is unitary but diverse in its activities while the Others appear individualized yet act to accomplish a single collective goal. For these reasons we can’t dismiss the possibility that their respective images actually invert their reality, that R’hllor is really a collective presenting itself as a unified entity and the Others are a collective animated by a single individual will.
Ice is a natural force, like fire. But unlike fire it’s not a natural force human civilization has mastered and utilized. Human beings presently lack refrigeration technology and so all ice comes from outside of human civilization. While any commoner can light a fire with flint and dry wood, ice can only be made from on high, by a fall in temperature or by high altitudes. Human beings regularly employ mundane and magical fire against each other as a weapon and almost all of their weapons are made with some amount of fire. Ice in contrast is something that is imposed on human combatants from without and humans cannot use it to make weapons, whether these be mundane or magical. The reason the Others are so distant and alien is because they are like Ice, while R’hllor is close and double natured (helpful and destructive) because it is like Fire.
Despite their binary opposition there’s good reason to suspect that R’hllor and the Others are only fighting each other because they both want to be the single power that dominates the earth. The Others clearly want to freeze the world along the lines of the icy Land of Always Winter, while the R’hllor we’ve theorized desires to consume the world like it consumed still burning Valyria. The Others are just inherently more straightforward in how they approach things, so they attack human civilization directly, from the outside as a foreign enemy would. R’hllor in contrast is more subtle and insidious and attacks from the inside while making a show of protecting its victims from existential outside threats. It leads Melisandre and King Stannis North to stop the Others while at the same time empowering Euron and Lady Stoneheart as they spread war and chaos in the South. Fire melts ice, but fire devours what it burns and it burns all it can. It will be no victory if R’hllor’s flames save Westeros from freezing only to immolate it.
R’hllor is humanity’s fiery salvation from the Others and a power that can be used by human civilization, but it is also a threat every bit as great as the Others. Blood and fire magic, Valyrian steel blades, flaming swords, and dragons are necessary to defeat the merciless powers of Ice, but once the need for these magical tools is gone they must be promptly put away, otherwise further catastrophes will result. A lot of old conflicts have are about to be replayed or given one last chapter in this story: the Long Night, the War for the Dawn, the Blackfyre Rebellions, Aegon’s Conquest, and the Dance of Dragons. It is likely that there will also be a replay of the Birth and Doom of Valyria. During and after the war against the demons of ice, the heroes who command R’hllor’s fire will start being tempted to feed its hungry flames so that they might discipline, master, and make empires over their fellow men. Those who give in and flatter themselves that through such empire building they will save and rebuild the world will in reality only be doing the destructive work of the second, wilier enemy.
The real war of the series is not humanity against supernatural outsiders but humanity against itself. And it will be decided not by humanity defeating or being defeated by these outsiders, but humanity rescuing or defeating itself. In this sense R’hllor is all the more dangerous for being hidden. Once the Others and their army are witnessed it’s abundantly clear that they are a threat that must be mobilized against, resisted, and driven back or outlasted. The mobilizing and fighting are complicated, but the nature of threat itself isn’t. The Others are nothing more than the ultimate invading enemy against which all human conflict is petty and self destructive. How much more difficult it will be to fight something that hides behind and works through the beliefs, wants, needs, and desires of numerous individual human beings. It is always easier to master oneself in order to battle an outside enemy then to master oneself solely to fight one’s desires. Especially when there is a power, whispering from the flames, ever eager to give you what you want – for a price.
* Some have theorized that the weirwood spirits are somehow associated with ice, but this is nonsense. Ever seen a tree sprout from a block of solid ice? Also, the weirwood’s give off heat and this is antithetical to ice. As trees are living things, the weirwood’s interests align with that segment of humanity that doesn’t burn them and cut them down.