As they streak across the sky, striking awe into onlookers, it is easy to forget that such comets could, with just a few degrees difference in angle, be harbingers of the ultimate doom to life on this planet. Such apocalyptic notions are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Hammer of the Gods.
We need only look up at the moon to see the damage which can be done by such celestial cannonballs. The surface of the Earth itself is spotted with craterous bullet-holes, some which are considered to have caused extinction level events.
But as much as such comets could be the bringers of apocalyptic doom and have been in the past, they could also be the harbingers of a new dawn. The PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) world hypothesis suggests that such comets may have brought some of the vital ingredients of the primordial soup to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke’s essay ‘Toilets of the Gods’ is perhaps the most famous iteration of this theory.
This dual nature of bringers of extinction and of the building blocks of life is played out in the reception of the Red Comet in both the literary and televisual versions of Game of Thrones.
Red Comet, by Franz Miklis. © Fantasy Flight Games©
The sheer number of different names that this celestial interloper is recorded by – Red Comet, Red Messenger, Bleeding Star, Mormont’s Torch, King Joffrey’s comet, Red Sword, Sword that Slays the Season, Dragon’s Tail, burning brand, Father’s scourge and Harbinger – demonstrates the varied nature of its reception amongst the various characters and groups across Westeros and Essos. And even this list of names does not cover all of the ideas about the Red Comet.
Bright enough to be seen during the day, many considered the Red Comet to be some kind of sign or messenger, with those in the streets of King’s Landing and in the Riverlands specifically calling the comet the ‘Red Messenger,’ (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I; ch.7, Catelyn I; cf. ch.11, Theon I), although there was little agreement on not only what the comet was to be called but also what that message was.
To Old Nan (who was blind but claimed to be able to smell the comet), it signals the coming of dragons (ACOK, prol.), rather accurately as it turns out, given the events surrounding the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in the grasslands of the Lhazareen. This thought is echoed in S02E01 “The North Remembers” of the TV show, where the words of Old Nan are put in the mouth of the wildling woman Osha.
Unsurprisingly, given her own experiences, Daenerys Targaryen muses that the comet was “Bloodred; fire red; the dragon’s tail,” (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X), clearly associating it not only with her dragons but the cause and even red-dragoned sigil of House Targaryen. In the streets of King’s Landing, perhaps reflecting that city’s memory of actual dragons, the people refer to it as the ‘Dragon’s Tail’, as do some of the servants encountered by Sansa Stark (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Ser Arys Oakheart counters this by pointing out that it is Joffrey Baratheon who sits on the dragon’s throne (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, the red priestess Melisandre tells Selyse Florent that the comet is dragonsbreath (ACOK, prol.)
Drogo’s Funeral Pyre Kim Pope©
Despite this connection to Daenerys, her dragons and her quest to claim the Iron Throne, it is another Dothraki, Jhogo, who is first recorded chronologically seeing the shierak qiya: ‘Bleeding Star’ in the Dothraki language (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). Interestingly, he sees it before Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. It is used as a symbol to light the pyre on fire, as it is believed the brighter the star, the fiercer a man burned in life, a reflection of the great Khal that the Dothraki and indeed Daenerys has lost in the demise of Drogo (and perhaps even of Rhaego, Drogo and Daenerys’ unborn son).
This link to the demise of a great man may also be seen in mentions of the comet in relation to the death of Eddard Stark. Maester Luwin of Winterfell studied the comet through his Myrish lens tube on the morning when a raven brings the news of Eddard’s execution (AGOT, ch.66, Bran VII), which is the first mention of the comet in A Game of Thrones, although the sighting by Jhogo takes place earlier in the timeline of events. The comet makes Arya Stark remember the blood on Ice, her father’s greatsword, which she had seen used to execute him (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Some, like Greatjon Umber look upon the comet as a red flag of vengeance for Ned (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre also sees the comet cast in the role of a sign or guide. Daenerys uses its presence to light said pyre (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X) and given how positively that guidance went, she again takes it as a sign to venture into the waterless Red Waste, claiming that “the gods have sent it to show me the way” (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). That she could command her small khalasar to follow her in such a dangerous journey, even against the mutterings of the old men who saw the comet as ill-omened, demonstrates the respect and awe now felt for Daenerys given her survival of the funeral pyre and status as ‘Mother of Dragons.’ It may also have been a recognition that there was little else they could do due to the presence of other marauding khalasars in the vicinity, highlighted in the TV show by the murder of Rakharo when on a scouting mission, or evidence of a genuine belief in the shierak qiya as a guide to better things, which it could be argued it did given the improving of Daenerys’ position through crossing the Red Waste to Qarth. This idea of the comet being a guide for Daenerys is reiterated by the Undying Ones of Qarth, who claimed to have sent the comet to bring Dani to them (ACOK, ch.48, Daenerys IV).
This guiding hand symbolism may also be present for the men of the Night’s Watch currently employed in the Great Ranging beyond the Wall calling the comet ‘Mormont’s Torch’ after their Lord Commander (ACOK, ch.6, Jon I; ch.23, Jon III), possibly an allusion to the need for light against the coming dark.
Melisandre and Marco_Caradonna’s Prince Who Was Promised
Through its fiery colour, heavenly position and sword-like look, the Red Comet was also closely associated with the prophecies surrounding the worship of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Maester Aemon recalls how Prince Aegon was conceived under the light of a comet at King’s Landing, leading Rhaegar to believe that his son was the ‘prince that was promised.’ Aemon later began to think that Daenerys was the promised hero (AFFC, ch.35, Samwell IV), and she too claimed that the comet was the herald of her coming. (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I)
In Westeros, it is Melisandre who suggests that the comet was acting as a herald, specifically for Stannis Baratheon, who she saw as the ‘prince that was promised’ to stand in the name of R’hllor against the Great Other, something echoed by his wife Selyse (ASOS, ch.63, Davos VI; Chapter 78, Samwell V; ADWD, ch.54, Cersei I).
Beyond the prophecies of the Lord of Light, Theon records the men of Riverrun seeing “the Red Comet is a herald of a new age. A messenger from the gods” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Varys reports how the people in the streets of King’s Landing “say it comes as a herald before a king” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), with the royal court sycophantically proclaiming it as “King Joffrey’s comet,” something echoed by Ser Arys Oakheart, who sees it as the herald of Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, which Sansa doubts as the comet is red, a Lannister colour while Joffrey is supposed to be a Baratheon… the audience, reader and a select few know why the comet is not gold…(ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I)
Ser Oakheart, perhaps demonstrating his own sycophancy or willingness to believe propaganda, also tells Sansa that the comet means that King Joffrey “will triumph over his enemies” (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). The comet being a harbinger of victory is a common enough idea in Westeros, although there is plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that victory will be for your or your enemies.
Even some non-regal but self-centred persons, like Theon Greyjoy, could think that the comet was a sign for them personally (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), but this question of ‘whose victory?’ is seen most clearly in the musings of Catelyn Stark, who mentions how the men of Winterfell see the comet as an omen of the victory of Robb Stark, and that her brother Edmure Tully, viewing the comet as a fish with a long tail and the red being the mud red colour of the river, sees future triumph for his family and himself. Being more pessimistic in the wake of her husband’s execution and the seeming loss of her daughters, Catelyn sees the comet’s colour as reminiscent of Lannister red crimson.
Brynden Tully dismisses these musings, claiming that the Red Comet is neither Lannister crimson not Tully red, but that of blood: a sign of the horrors about to unfold. Not deterred from her pessimism, Catelyn wonders whose blood that might be (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
The Blackfish is not the only one to identify the Red Comet as a sign of war and bloodshed, with several speaking in almost Targaryen terms of ‘fire and blood.’ Aeron Greyjoy tells Theon that it is an invitation from the Drowned God for the Ironborn to go on the warpath once more (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Maester Cressen thought the comet was “the colour of blood and flame and sunsets” (ACOK, prol.), while Osha warns Bran that it means “blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I). In King’s Landing, Varys refers to how the people in the streets say the comet warns of “fire and blood to follow” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), which could be laced with foreboding of his own Targaryen leanings as well as some of the lower classes in the capital.
There are also some references to the panoply of war in the shape of the comet. Gendry calls the comet the ‘Red Sword,’ through his own background as a blacksmith and how he sees it as a “blade still red-hot from the forge,” while this conversation reminds Arya remember the blood on Ice, Eddard Stark’s greatsword, after the execution of her father (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Aeron Greyjoy also sees the comet as the burning brand the Ironborn used to carry and as a call to go to war with “fire and sword” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), while amongst the Faith of the Seven, it is known as the “sword that slays the season” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), highlighting not only the weapon shape of the comet but also the recent arrival of a white raven signalling the end of summer.
Similar supernatural links to the comet may be seen Maester Luwin’s recording of how the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer, were howling at the comet. He thought that they were mistaking it for the moon (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), although the ability of the direwolves to seemingly sense danger (see the Red Wedding) and their seeming connection to the more mysterious goings on in Westeros may connect their howling to the reawakening of magic, dragons and the Others which coincided with the passing of the Red Comet.
Varys recounts to Tyrion how “the comet has brought forth all manner of queer priests, preachers, and prophets… [to] foretell doom and destruction to anyone who stops to listen” (ACOK, ch.8, Tyrion II), something which Tyrion himself then experiences while returning to the Red Keep, pointedly after having met with the Guildhall of Alchemists regarding his proposed use of wildfire in the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater.
This particular prophet describes the Red Comet as a sign of an approaching cleansing sent by the Father:
“Corruption! There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge! We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all … but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting! There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, ch.20, Tyrion V)
While his shouts of “Fire!” are shouted down with derision, as with many other opinions on the significance of the Red Comet, this prophet is hardly to be considered incorrect. The War of the Five Kings was about to arrive on the doorstep of King’s Landing in the form of Stannis Baratheon, famine and pestilence cannot be far behind and there are also the looming threats of the Ironborn raids, Daenerys’ dragons and Dothraki, the arrival of the Faith Militant, Cersei’s destructions of the Sept of Baelor in the TV show and whatever there is to come with the fulfilling of the Stark’s words – Winter is Coming.
It is also worth noting that in the midst of what might be considered a significant amount of superstition regarding the meaning behind the Red Comet, there is also something approaching the actual truth in the conversation between Maester Cressen and Shireen Baratheon. He informs her that “the thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes” (ACOK, prol.).
In the next two blog entries, we will look at how these numerous reactions to the appearance of a comet in the fictional world of Game of Thrones reflects the similarly wide variety of receptions of such celestial interlopers in ancient history.