Game of Thrones has been getting ahead of the books by George R.R. Martin for a while now. But it’s also been diverging from the books in significant ways. So when we see an event that’s not in the books, it’s hard to tell if it’s a spoiler for Winds of Winter, or another sidetrack. Except we just got one big hint.
Spoilers ahead, for both the books and the TV show up to now...
In Sunday’s episode, Stannis Baratheon takes the insane decision to burn his only child, Shireen, alive, as a sacrifice to the Red God. This could be another event like Sansa marrying Ramsay Bolton, or Brienne fighting the Hound — the show taking a huge liberty and inventing events that clearly won’t happen in George R.R. Martin’s book series.
Except that in the special “making of” featurette, Inside Game of Thrones, producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff say that Martin himself told them that Stannis would sacrifice Shireen. Says Benioff, “When George first told us about this [development], it was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan. It was just like, ‘Oh, that’s just so horrible, and so good in a story sense.’ Because it all comes together. From the beginning, from the very first time we saw Stannis and Melisandre, they were burning people alive on the beaches of Dragonstone, and it’s really all come to this. There’s been so much talk about king’s blood, and the power of king’s blood, and it all leads, ultimately, fatally, to Shireen’s sacrifice.”
Watch for yourself (starting around 1:33):
But wait a minute... how can this happen in the books?
In A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, Stannis actually leaves Shireen and Melisandre behind at Castle Black, instead of bringing them along as he does on the television show. So he’s miles away from Shireen when he gets stuck in the snow.
Also, in the books — as many people have pointed out in the past couple days — Stannis makes a huge point of saying that there will be “no burnings,” because his army is half unbelievers, and they’ll all desert if they see Stannis burning people alive for some foreign god.
Plus, it’s worth remembering that Martin’s writing process seems to involve a lot of blind alleys and changing his mind, over and over. So he may have intended to have Stannis burn Shireen at one point, and may have told Benioff and Weiss so, and then he may have decided some other way was more interesting.
So is Stannis really going to burn Shireen alive in the books? We asked a few Song of Ice and Fire experts for their opinions.
Point #1: This is Stannis’ destiny.
“My own view even before this reveal from Benioff was that Stannis is to Agamemnon as Shireen is to Iphigenia,” says Elio Garcia, co-webmaster of Westeros.org and co-author (with Martin himself and Linda Antonsson) of The World of Ice and Fire. When Stannis really feels as though he’s got no other options, he will sacrifice anything and everything, says Garcia. “Because he believes the fate of the world lies on his shoulders.”
Stannis was ready to sacrifice an innocent once before — Edric Storm (or Gendry, on the TV show.) He only didn’t do so because Davos intervened, and Davos only escaped execution by convincing Stannis there was another way: to go to the Wall and save the kingdom, and thereby rally the realm to his side. But Garcia predicts that “the events of The Winds of Winter shall likely leave Stannis feeling as if there now is truly no option left, and a sacrifice of royal blood must be made.”
Already, just one chapter after he says “there will be no burnings,” Stannis orders men who have committed cannibalism burned alive, in the hopes that will be enough to make a difference.
Stannis has never repented trying to execute Edric. “I think he will have terrible regrets when he decides or is convinced that sacrificing Shireen is the way forward, but he’s a man of iron resolve,” says Garcia. And he says that what Stannis said to Davos about Edric Storm could just as easily apply to his own daughter:
“[S]he may be the best [girl] who ever drew breath and it would not matter. My duty is to the realm.” His hand swept across the Painted Table. “How many boys dwell in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The darkness will devour them all, she says. The night that never ends. She talks of prophecies ... a hero reborn in the sea, living dragons hatched from dead stone ... she speaks of signs and swears they point to me. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her?” He ground his teeth. “We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must ... we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty.”
Garcia also points out that Stannis saw a vision of “a king with a burning crown, being turned to ash” — and unless he was seeing the fate of Viserys, this could be what awaits Stannis himself. It would be “appropriate” if Stannis’ destruction comes from the burden of making such a terrible choice.
But of course, that means that Stannis has to survive the battle at Winterfell (which Ramsay claims he didn’t), and then somehow get back to Castle Black to be reunited with his daughter and Melisandre. Or Shireen and the Red Priestess have to travel to him.
Point #2: Stannis already has two other people of royal blood
On television, Stannis only has one person of royal blood whom he can sacrifice: his own daughter. But in the books, he has two other candidates, Theon Greyjoy and his sister Asha, both of whom are his captives. So why wouldn’t he just sacrifice one or both of them, if he needs king’s blood?
Also, in A Dance With Dragons, Stannis tells his troops that “if he loses the battle at Winterfell, his men are to fight on and place Shireen on the Iron Throne,” says Adam Whitehead with The Wertzone. So Stannis is clearly thinking in terms of dynastic succession, rather than his own ascension. “He sounds unlikely to sacrifice his only heir on a chancy gambit that might never work.”
Adds Whitehead: “I think the TV sacrifice is there purely to make Stannis less likable so audiences don’t mind so much when/if Brienne kills him, as they have (over-obviously, frankly) been foreshadowing.”
This may be a case where George R.R. Martin was simply adapting his thinking to “where the show is at,” and suggesting possible story options for the show, adds Rowan Kaiser, author of Possibility Space and ex-blogger with Winter Is Coming.
Point #3: Maybe Melisandre is acting alone
Another possibility is that Book Melisandre takes it on herself to sacrifice Shireen, back at Castle Black — either because she sees in the flames that Stannis is in trouble, or to save Jon Snow from his fate at the end of A Dance With Dragons. But both Whitehead and Kaiser say that Stannis would probably see this as a betrayal, especially if he didn’t give permission.