Any cat may stare into the fire and see red mice at play,
– Melisandre (Davos VI, ASOS)
This is part one of a series of essays investigating the symbolism surrounding fire, hopefully finding consistent lines of symbolism attached to particular words. I’m probably not going to make any major predictions for a little while into this series, because we need to build up our definitions for Martin’s symbolic vocabulary. If you’re looking for immediate plot predictions, I also have an essay about one of the visions from a TWOW spoiler chapter which I analyse using the same technique I’m about to use for fire and I have been able to make a firm prediction for one particular character’s arcs, so feel free to check that out.
TL;DR: “Fire” tends to be used to describe the (pro)creative process and “flame” the destructive. This is echoed within magical processes (such as resurrection), characters points of view and within extended Lightbringer forging metaphors. This is not entirely a one-to-one relationship as descriptors (e.g. “flickering” relates to destructive moon meteors) or context (e.g. fire destroys during Ramsay’s sack of Winterfell but is associated with the re-birth of Bran as a greenseer) can clarify the “fire” or “flame”.
NB: I am a devoted acolyte of Lucifer means Lightbringer’s (LmL’s) Church of Starry Wisdom, and as such, my interpretations are filtered through his “mythical astronomy” lens. In brief, he suggests that there were once two moons in the sky and that the (now extinct) second moon was struck and destroyed by a comet whilst in eclipse position, causing thousands of moon meteors to rain down upon Planetos. The resulting debris from the meteors landing was kicked up into the atmosphere causing the worldwide darkness remembered as the Long Night. These events are depicted in the in-world myths: the Qartheen myth of the origin of dragons describes the moon as wandering too close to the sun (that’s the eclipse position) and hatching dragons (those would be the moon meteors). The myth of Lightbringer’s forging also reflects the astronomical phenomena as Azor Ahai (the sun) wielded Lightbringer (the comet) against Nissa Nissa (the second moon) to create a flaming sword (the moon meteors and the now-transformed Red Comet). There’s even moon breaking implied in the Azor Ahai myth, as Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish and ecstasy “left a crack across the face of the moon”. This sequence of events also appears to have played out on earth too, with the Azor Ahai figure sacrificing a Nissa Nissa figure to enter the weirwood trees and become a greenseer. Given that both myself and LmL are looking at Martin’s use of symbolism generally (although granted from different perspectives and with different aims), there are many crossovers and my interpretations are therefore heavily influenced by LmL’s.
So, on to my essay (quotes are compiled in the appendix, which you can find here):
I believe there is a fundamental difference in the way George R.R. Martin utilises the words “fire” and “flame” in ASOIAF, one that mirrors the traditional duality of a protective or creative force and a treacherous or destructive force, respectively.
Resurrection by fire and by flame
Firstly, let’s consider two of the known examples of fire resurrection we have in the series, Beric Dondarrion and Lady Stoneheart. Beric Dondarrion is resurrected with “fire”:
“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.” (Arya VII, ASOS)
The only occurrence of the word “flame” is only used when Thoros is performing what he thinks just another death rite i.e. a ritual associated with the destructive force. These “flames” transform into “fire” as Beric Dondarrion’s life is restored to him, which comes about from a fiery kiss which causes Beric to shudder awake. In other words, sexy time imagery and so procreation, which is what we should see if my interpretation of “fire” is correct. This line of symbolism is nothing new, so it’s not much of a stretch to see it here as well. This life-giving fire is from R’hllor, making it the fire of the gods, a term used to describe the knowledge and power of the gods. And what does Dondarrion do with that magic power? Well, he goes on to protect the Riverlands as a champion of the smallfolk, just what a benevolent fire wight should do.
In direct contrast, Lady Stoneheart is resurrected by “flames”. As Thoros tells Brienne:
“The Freys slashed her throat from ear to ear. When we found her by the river she was three days dead. Harwin begged me to give her the kiss of life, but it had been too long. I would not do it, so Lord Beric put his lips to hers instead, and the flame of life passed from him to her. And . . . she rose. May the Lord of Light protect us. She rose.” (Brienne VIII, ACOK)
What does Lady Stoneheart do with her flame of life? She becomes an avenging spirit wandering the Riverlands and hijacking the Brotherhood without Banners to wreak her bloodthirsty vengeance on all those connected to the death of her children. She’s essentially a poster girl for the destructive forces within the world, exactly what a flaming wight would be.
Westeros: Points of View
This fire/flame duality can also reflect the characters POV differences. A prime example is the arrival of “King Renly’s shade” at the Battle of Blackwater with his deep green armour and fiery antlers:
“It was Lord Renly! Lord Renly in his green armor, with the fires shimmering off his golden antlers! Lord Renly with his tall spear in his hand! They say he killed Ser Guyard Morrigen himself in single combat, and a dozen other great knights as well. It was Renly, it was Renly, it was Renly! Oh! the banners, darling Sansa! Oh! to be a knight!” (Sansa VII, ACOK)
Here, Renly the fiery resurrected horned lord is the saviour of the city, a benevolent protector of its residents i.e. Dontos and Sansa in this scene. So his antlers run with golden “fire”.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the battle:
“King Renly’s shade was seen as well,” the captain said, “slaying right and left as he led the lion lord’s van. It’s said his green armor took a ghostly glow from the wildfire, and his antlers ran with golden flames.” (Davos II, ACOK)
To the losing side, Renly’s appearance was catastrophic, and so his antlers were alive with the destructive “flame”. We have the exact same thing happening, just from two different standpoints and that viewpoint is the only difference in the scene. Dontos recounts the tale of repentant (now Lord) Renly’s antlers come to save King’s Landing from his brother’s attempted usurpation of the throne and protect the city from being sacked, and these antlers are described using the term “fire” which fits with its benevolence theme. In direct contast, usurping King Renly returns from the dead to treacherously attack the rightful King Stannis from the rear and encourage the defection and rout of Stannis’ men; this is exactly the kind of thing to expect from that “flaming” description.
The burning tree
Martin sometimes – ok, lots of the time – uses extended metaphors in his work. I think he has done this with some trees, and I have chosen two prime examples to highlight this fire/flame difference.
This one just jumped out to me as soon as I saw it.
The tree had been dead a long time, but it seemed to live again in the fire, as fiery dancers woke within each stick of wood to whirl and spin in their glowing gowns of yellow, red and orange. (Jon VIII, ACOK)
This fire is built as Jon and Qhorin are attempting to outrun the wildlings back to the Fist of the First Men to let Mormont know about the wildlings. It is described as “fire” so it should have procreation symbolism draped all over it – and it does.
Firstly, the fire warms the black brothers “like melting butter”; as Thoros explained, “life is warmth, and warmth is fire”, so a warming fire should be life. A quick look on asearchoficeandfire for all items within the extended publications showed the “warm fire” produced 76 results, of which 51 equated fire and warmth to some degree, whereas “warm flame” produced a mere 15, of which only 3 equated flames and warmth. Fro a umber perspective, this seems to like up with what I have been saying: fire is associated with warmth way more than flames are, which means that fire is associated with life way more than flames are.
Along the same vein, “fire” is used to oppose death. When the fire is dwindling, Qhorin states “The fire will soon go out, but if the Wall should ever fall, all the fires will go out.” If the Wall falls, then the Others will march south and the last time that happened “cold and death filled the world” (Bran IV, AGOT): a direct contrast to “life is warmth, and warmth is fire”. In fact, Melisandre makes this connection to Jon in ASOS:
“The Lord’s fire lives within me, Jon Snow. Feel.” She put her hand on his cheek, and held it there while he felt how warm she was. “That is how life should feel,” she told him. “Only death is cold.” (Jon XI, ASOS)
Once again, R’hllor’s “fire” is equated to both life and fire, as Thoros too pointed out, and it is placed in opposition to death and cold.
And oh my word, the descriptions of the fire are littered with allusions to procreation and marriage, just to emphasise the life-giving nature of “fire”. For instance, Qhorin Halfhand describes the fire as “as shy as a maid on her wedding night, and near as fair”, despite the fact that “he was not a man you’d expect to speak of maids and wedding nights”. George is holding up a flashing neon sign here by pointing out how out of character it is for Qhorin to speak like this, like “hey y’all, pay attention to this, I’m having to find a way to force this symbolism into this scene so y’know, do me a solid and notice it”. And we have.
Jon also wonders “if ever a kiss had felt as good” when warming his hands on the fire, reminding us of Beric’s fiery kiss of life and procreation. Jon then sees “fiery dancers … whirl and spin in their glowing gowns of yellow, red and orange”. These same fiery dancers were also hired for the alchemical wedding* in Drogo’s pyre: “The flames writhed before her like the women who had danced at her wedding, whirling and singing and spinning their yellow and orange and crimson veils” (Dany X, AGOT). There is a lot of overlap in these two descriptions, with the dancers, and the whirling, and the spinning, and the same colours. I would say this is to invoke the image of weddings during the Jon VIII, ACOK chapter: again, reinforcing this message of procreation being related to the use of the word “fire“, as expected.
*This is the term LmL uses to describe Dany’s transformative experience in Drogo’s pyre.
I don’t want to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes so, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to point out that this fire is referred to as “flames” on four occasions. Firstly:
Qhorin came and stood over him as the first flame rose up flickering from the shavings of bark and pine needles. (p689, UK paperback)
I believe this occurs as part of an extended Lightbringer-forging metaphor. Firstly, these flames are rising up, presumably suggesting to us that they are rising up to challenge the gods. Importantly, they are doing this as the sun is setting and the moon rising, implying the Long Night. Why specifically the Long Night? Well, “flickering” is a very specific descriptor and this fire has that descriptor attached to it three times in the space of one chapter. So, what else does “flickering” describe?
Torches flickered along the walls of Dragonstone, and in the camp beyond, he could see hundreds of cookfires burning, as if a field of stars had fallen to the earth. (Prologue, ACOK)
A thousand flickering campfires burned around the castle, as the fires of the Tyrells and Redwynes had sixteen years before. But all the rest was different. (Davos II, ACOK)
Fog rose all around as she walked through the streets of Braavos. She was shivering a little by the time she pushed through the weirwood door into the House of Black and White. Only a few candles burned this evening, flickering like fallen stars. In the darkness all the gods were strangers. (Cat of the Canals, AFFC)
So, we have a thousand flickering falling star moon meteors that fell to earth when celestial Lightbringer was forged.
The Red Viper landed a quick thrust on the Mountain’s belly, to no effect. Gregor cut at him, and missed. The long spear lanced in above his sword. Like a serpent’s tongue it flickered in and out, feinting low and landing high, jabbing at groin, shield, eyes. (Tyrion X, ASOS)
As he raised the sword a finger of pale flame flickered at the point and crept up along the edge, stopping a hand’s breath from the hilt. (Jaime VI, ASOS)
We then have the weapon related imagery that matches with the comet/moon meteor Lightbringer imagery: the Red Viper acting as the solar figure wielding a poisoned spear against the Moon Mountain that Rides, and Jaime wielding a flaming sword in the caverns below Casterly Rock.
Flickering torchlight danced across the walls, making the faces [of the Seven] seem half-alive, twisting them, changing them. (Cat IV, ACOK)
Around their altars, scented candles flickered whilst deep shadows gathered in the transepts and crept silently across the marble floors. (Jaime I, AFFC)
The flickering light also transforms inanimate god-like figures and creates shadows that move and creep. All of this imagery relates to the forging of Lightbringer. More importantly for our analysis here, the flickering aspect is specific to the destruction caused by Lightbringer’s forging: the rain of flaming swords/falling stars that blotted out the sun and half-alive, half-dead twisted gods and creeping shadow emanations. I would argue that the consistency of the imagery surrounding the word “flickering” necessitates the use of the word “flame”, especially when it’s being paired with sunsets.
The next two uses of the term “flame” come in quick succession and, so I think the same explanation can be used for both:
When they were done [reciting the NW vows], there was no sound but the faint crackle of the flames and a distant sigh of wind. (p691)
The flames were burning low by then, the warmth fading. (p691)
The “warmth fades” from the fire and if life is warmth and warmth is fire, then a fire with fading warmth is a dying fire and so it is quite apt to use the word “flames” to describe it.
To prevent the fire dying, Jon feeds the flames with some broken branches, which fits the broken sword motif of Lightbringer.
Jon went to cut more branches, snapping each one in two before tossing it into the flames. (P692)
Jon feeding branches to the “flames” presumably turns them into flaming swords (so moon meteor) symbols. Again, this matches “flames” with the destructive aspects of Lightbringer’s forging. It is interesting that these destructive flaming broken sword branches lead us back to the quote that opened this section:
The tree had been dead a long time, but it seemed to live again in the fire, as fiery dancers woke within each stick of wood to whirl and spin in their glowing gowns of yellow, red and orange. (Jon VIII, ACOK)
The wording here suggests that the destructive flaming broken swords lead to the creation of burning trees (i.e. weirwoods) and the sorcerors within them (i.e. greenseers). Turns out that is pretty much the exact scenario LmL is laying out in his Weirwood Compendium series, so I think it bodes well for the accuracy of both of our interpretations that it is reflected in the details of Martin’s language choices as well as the larger scale symbolism that LmL analyses.
… and flame
This is only one side of the burning tree story.
Arya saw a tree consumed, the flames creeping across its branches until it stood against the night in robes of living orange. (Arya IV, ACOK)
This is the chapter Amory Lorch attacks the Night’s Watch as part of Tywin’s scorched earth policy against the Riverlands (“Tell them I want to see the Riverlands afire from the God’s Eye to the Red Fork”: Tyrion IX, AGOT). As such, the “flames” are causing the destruction and death of the tree (in contrast to the fire in Jon’s scene), and this is consistent with Martin’s choice of words.
Other uses of “flame” within this chapter are mostly associated with “licking”:
She saw a roof go up, flames licking at the belly of the night with hot orange tongues as the thatch caught.
So, firstly the flames are reaching for the night sky. Then torches fly through the air, and these flying torches are described later as “trailing long tongues of flame”, which should evoke images of flames licking the air. Finally:
The barn’s on fire, she thought. Flames were licking up its sides from where a torch had fallen on the straw, and she could hear the screaming of the animals trapped within.
Licking flames appear to have some very sexual connotations in ASOIAF:
Edmure cursed softly. “The wind,” he said, pulling a second arrow. “Again.” The brand kissed the oil-soaked rag behind the arrowhead, the flames went licking up, Edmure lifted, pulled, and released.” (Catelyn IV, ASOS)
“Down. Let it kiss you.”
Gilly lowered her hand. An inch. Another. When the flame licked her hand, she snatched her hand back and began to sob. (Jon II, ADWD)
Asha could hold her tongue no longer. “Why not Ser Clayton? Perhaps R’hllor would like one of his own. A faithful man who will sing his praises as the flames lick his cock.” (The Sacrifice, ADWD)
That last quote is about as vivid and obvious as it gets, and also sounds hella painful, like the sex and swordplay motif. But doesn’t this kind of run counter to everything I’ve been saying this essay? Sex often leads to babies and so it’s procreative, but I’ve been arguing that “fire” is the creative/procreative word.
However, a closer look using asearchoficeandfire.com demonstrates that flames lick, not fire: of the 18 hits produced by “fire lick”, only 3 showed fire licking in contrast to 22 of 25 “flame lick” results. When analysing the “flame lick” quotes, they could usually be categorised as follows:
- Direct “Lightbringer and its forging” metaphors = 9
- Burning humans = 8 (10 if you count statues of humans/human-like figures)
- Torches = 6
- Battles/fighting = 6
- Intentional human sacrifice = 5
So, other than “torches”, note how all of these categories are immediately, noticeably destructive. Blood sacrifice and the complete annihilation of Nissa Nissa was required to forge Lightbringer (“…her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel…” Davos I, ACOK); burning humans is a destructive act and so is war. The “torches” category may seem benign, until you realise that torches are often metaphors for the moon meteors. Flying torches are the reason we are even analysing this passage, because a flying torch creates a flaming tree. As such, we can see that symbolism surrounding “licking flames” relates to the destructive act that was a necessary precursor to the creation of Lightbringer i.e. the mutual destruction of sun and moon, or the blood sacrifice of Nissa Nissa.
Given the destructive nature of events in this chapter, it was difficult to interpret occurrences of “fire” within this chapter. Most references to “fire” was of firelight reflecting on armour:
Firelight glittered off metal helms and spattered their mail and plate with orange and yellow highlights. [Ser Amory’s men]
The reflection of burning houses glimmered dully on the armour of his warhorse as the others parted to let him pass. [Ser Amory himself]
Arya looked past him and saw steel shadows running through the holdfast, firelight shining off mail and blades… [Ser Amory’s men]
…but Gendry came back, the fire shining so bright on his polished helm that the horns seemed to glow orange. [Gendry]
I believe this is related to the wider concept of fiery clothing as described by LmL in his essay, ‘The Grey King and the Sea Dragon’. He draws attention to the fact that the followers of R’hllor often try to look like fire themselves – think of Melisandre walking around in her scarlet silk and bloodred velvet dress, or Moqorro with his face tattooed with flames. If we extend this idea, it means that Lorch’s men are wearing fiery armour, which would make them the “warriors of fire” or “fire knights”.
[Melisandre] “The old maester looked at Stannis and saw only a man. You see a king. You are both wrong. He is the Lord’s chosen, the warrior of fire. I have seen him leading the fight against the dark, I have seen it in the flames.” (Davos III, ASOS)
He [Ser Jorah] pointed at the steps, where a line of men in ornate armor and orange cloaks stood before the temple’s doors, clasping spears with points like writhing flames. “The Fiery Hand. The Lord of Light’s sacred soldiers, defenders of the temple.”
Fire knights. “And how many fingers does this hand have, pray?”
“One thousand. Never more, and never less. A new flame is kindled for every one that gutters out.” (Tyrion VII, ADWD)
So the “warriors of fire” in the Arya chapter can be equated to Azor Ahai Reborn, via Mel naming Stannis a “warrior of fire” and via Tyrion calling the Fiery Hand “fire knights”, the Fiery Hand in turn representing the thousand moon meteors that fell from heaven. And Arya’s “warriors of fire” are the same guys loosing “flame-licking torches” (read: the same guys destroying the moon to release moon-meteors) to robe trees in flame like fire sorcerers. Sounds eerily reminiscent of Jon, with his flaming sword branches, resurrecting dancing fire sorcerers inside trees – you know, the scene we were talking about for the entirety of the last section. Now, given that these guys have AAR symbolism, armouring them in “fire” as part of a rebirth cycle would be… apt.
Another unexpected use of “fire” comes in the description of the barn being on fire, despite the fact that the barn and the animals within are being destroyed. I had a couple of potential justifications for this. Firstly, the fire means that the Night’s Watch recruits are able to escape from Ser Amory’s men using the tunnel in the barn; in essence, the fire is protecting them from death by Ser Amory Lorch et al.
Secondly, and more importantly for a symbolic analysis, this may be a continuation of the parallels between this chapter and Drogo’s pyre in Dany X, AGOT. Here are some of the running parallels between that Dany chapter and this Arya one:
For a moment she thought the town was full of lanternbugs. Then she realised they were men with torches… (Arya IV, ACOK)
…glowing cinders rising on the smoke … like so many newborn fireflies. (Daenerys X, AGOT)
The fire beat at her back with hot red wings… (Arya IV, ACOK)
The heat beat at the air with great red wings… (Daenerys X, AGOT)
The roof was gone up too, and things were falling down, pieces of flaming wood and bits of straw and hay. (Arya IV, ACOK)
The platform of wood and brush and grass began to collapse in on itself. Bits of burning wood slid down at her… (Daenerys X, AGOT)
…she heard the sound, like the roar of some great beast… (Arya IV, ACOK)
She saw a roof go up, flames licking at the belly of the night. (Arya IV, ACOK)
… more torches were flying, trailing long tongues of flame… (Arya IV, ACOK)
The pyre roared in the deepening dusk like some great beast, … and sending up long tongues of flame to lick at the belly of the night. (Dany X, AGOT)
As I hope this collection demonstrates, there are a lot of similarities in imagery here. All the flames licking at this town have clued us in to the fact that this Arya scene is Lightbringer-y, so it makes sense that there are symbolic parallels with the most obvious Lightbringer forging of all.
So, why might George use “fire” to describe the burning barn? Here’s the description of the dragons being born in Drogo’s pyre.
She heard a crack (1), the sound of shattering stone. … And then there came a second crack (2), loud and sharp as thunder… The third crack (3) was as loud and sharp as the breaking of the world. (Dany X, AGOT)
Let’s compare that to the fiery barn in Arya’s chapter.
She threw the axe into the wagon. Rorge caught it and lifted it over his head, rivers of sooty sweat pouring down his noseless face. Arya was running, coughing. She heard the steel crash through the old wood (1), and again (2), and again (3). An instant later came a crack as loud as thunder, and the bottom of the wagon came ripping loose in an explosion of splinters. (Arya IV, ACOK)
In both chapters, we have three loud sounds associated with cracks and thunder (the cracks are even italicised), and with that three monsters are born into the world (“Mother of Dragons, Daenerys thought. Mother of monsters.” Dany II, ADWD; “If they slept, they might open their eyes to find Vargo Hoat standing over them with Shagwell the Fool and Faithful Urswyck and Rorge and Biter and Septon Utt and all his other monsters.” Arya I, ASOS). Given the consistency of the parallels between Arya IV, ACOK, and Dany X, AGOT, this suggests that the dragons and the prisoners are symbolic brothers in some way. There’s even some Azor Ahai Reborn symbolism in there, Rorge and Biter linking them to hellhound meteors with their dog-fighting history and the acquisition of the Hound’s helm (and they also have a weird adoptive father-son relationship) and Jaqen, who ends up aligned to the old gods and in the service of the death goddess, Arya. In which case, each of these men undergoes a re-birth process in a sense, and so “fire” would be the more appropriate if I’m right about .
The grey spaces
This is a nice segue to highlight that, whilst “fire” may be associated more with protection and procreation, the result of this may not necessarily be good. “Fire is always hungry” (Leaf to Bran; Bran II, ADWD) and “it consumes, and when it is done there is nothing left” (Beric to Thoros; Arya VIII, ASOS). Fire births Daenerys’ dragons that are “death and devastation, a flaming sword above the world” (Dany III, ADWD), and Rorge and Biter led the horrific raid of Saltpans which was “the work of some fell beast in human skin” (Jaime IV, AFFC). And who knows what on earth Jaqen/Pate is up to at the Citadel, but it probably isn’t ‘good’.
Consider how it is “fire” that destroyed Winterfell during Ramsay Snow’s sack:
“Winterfell.” His tongue felt strange and thick in his mouth. One day when I come back I won’t know how to talk anymore. “It was Winterfell. It was all on fire. There were horse smells, and steel, and blood. They killed everyone, Meera.” (Bran VII, ACOK)
It took the rest of the morning to make a slow circuit of the castle. The great granite walls remained, blackened here and there by fire but otherwise untouched. But within, all was death and destruction. The doors of the Great Hall were charred and smoldering, and inside the rafters had given way and the whole roof had crashed down onto the floor. The green and yellow panes of the glass gardens were all in shards, the trees and fruits and flowers torn up or left exposed to die. Of the stables, made of wood and thatch, nothing remained but ashes, embers, and dead horses. Bran thought of his Dancer, and wanted to weep. There was a shallow steaming lake beneath the Library Tower, and hot water gushing from a crack in its side. The bridge between the Bell Tower and the rookery had collapsed into the yard below, and Maester Luwin’s turret was gone. They saw a dull red glow shining up through the narrow cellar windows beneath the Great Keep, and a second fire still burning in one of the storehouses. (Bran VII, ACOK)
Here, “fire” has completely destroyed everything within the castle that will be useful for continuing to live. So, why is it associated with “fire”? Because Bran is born! Specifically Bran, one of the most powerful greenseers ever to exist, is born.
Let me just unpack that a bit.
1) Maester Luwin equates Winterfell to a stone tree (Bran II, AGOT), so Winterfell on fire is like a stone tree on fire.
2) Weirwoods are trees with leaves like “bits of flame”, so they are burning trees that turn in to stone
3) So, Winterfell on fire is akin to a weirwood tree.
As Winterfell is set on fire, Bran is hiding in the crypts and it is here he learns to consciously skinchange Summer: in symbolic terms, Bran is in the realm of the dead, underneath a weirwood tree, and this facilitates the opening of his third eye. (The crypts are also associated with birth as it is here that Bael the Bard concealed the daughter of Lord Stark until she bore Bael’s child.) Then Hodor opens the door to the crypts, “making enough noise to wake a dragon” in the process (thus equating Bran’s emergence from the realm of the dead to the birth of Dany’s dragons), and the destruction of Winterfell is surveyed.
Stone and shattered gargoyles lay strewn across the yard. They fell just where I did, Bran thought when he saw them. Some of the gargoyles had broken into so many pieces it made him wonder how he was alive at all. Nearby some crows were pecking at a body crushed beneath the tumbled stone, but he lay facedown and Bran could not say who he was. (Bran VII, ACOK)
LmL goes in to some detail analysing these gargoyles in both his Tyrion Targaryen essay and his A Burning Brandon essay, but I will point out some of the symbolism here for those who haven’t read it (although I have no idea how you’re keeping up with this essay without that knowledge base – thanks for ploughing on, great to have you).
1) These are the gargoyles that Bran straddled to overhear Jaime and Cersei going at it in the First Keep, so he could be viewed as riding them.
2) These gargoyles subsequently gain moon meteor symbolism by falling in a nightmare that Bran has (Bran IV, AGOT) and in the quote above, so Bran has ridden the moon meteors.
3) The crows pecking at the corpse just where Bran was – implying Bran as the corpse – invokes the imagery of the little boy who climbed to high and had his eyes pecked out by crows. And, it just so happens that Bran symbolism matches perfectly this myth (Old Nan ftw!).
4) Bran wonders how he is alive at all, implying he has transcended death, which is fitting given that he has just emerged from some crypts after everyone (including the reader) thinks he’s dead.
In essence, what we are seeing is the creation of a greenseer which, according to LmL, likely requires the death and rebirth/resurrection of the greenseer. In the case of Winterfell’s destruction by “fire”, the entire scene is devoted to Bran’s rebirth as a powerful greenseer to be, and as such the procreative overtones lent to this scene by “fire” are necessary. However, consider the cost – Winterfell is an empty shell (holla, dragon eggs), with death and devastation all around, leaving nothing but an “ember in the ashes”.
Along the same vein, the destructiveness of “flames” is not necessarily a bad thing. Obsidian is called “frozen flame“ and it destroys the Others. When I say “destroy”, I mean it completely annihilates them.
And then he was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.
When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.
Sam rolled onto his side, eyes wide as the Other shrank and puddled, dissolving away. In twenty heartbeats its flesh was gone, swirling away in a fine white mist. Beneath were bones like milkglass, pale and shiny, and they were melting too. Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.” (Sam I, ASOS)
Here, you can see the destructive force of “flame” working to full effect: the Other just melts away into the ether/absorbed into the dragonglass, as if it never existed. Throughout Sam I, ASOS, “flame” is made use of to destroy the Others and the wights, as Mormont’s repeated shouting of “Give them flame!” suggests. However, it would be difficult to argue that it is a mistake to use the destructive force of “flame” to destroy the legions of the undead and their masters.
So, hopefully I have provided enough evidence to demonstrate that “fire” and “flame” are used to represent different concepts by Martin. That is, “fire” tends to be associated with protection or procreation, and “flame” with destruction. As small asides, I demonstrated that adjectives can qualify a “fire” or “flame” noun choice: for instance, “flickering” is an adjective almost exclusively used to describe or represent moon meteor metaphors and the influence these have on creating or transforming god-like beings and that “flames licking” tends to be associated with the mutual destruction of the sun and moon to create the moon-meteors.
If all that hasn’t been enough to convince you, then tough luck – it’s taken me a year to get my act together enough to complete this, so I’m not hunting around for anything more. In subsequent parts, I will analyse the colours of fire and tell you what, if anything, this all actually means for the series.