A Study in Scarlet: Melisandre’s role in Maester Cressen’s death

I think most of us like Davos as a character and would, in general, trust his judgement. So, when we see statements like this…

“Maester Cressen was your faithful servant. She slew him, as she killed Ser Cortnay Penrose and your brother Renly.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

…I don’t think many of us would argue with that assessment.

However, as I was mosying along with my analysis of red fire symbolsim, I noticed something a little odd in Maester Cressen’s actions in the ACOK Prologue, and I wondered if there might not have been… something else at work.

We start the ACOK Prologue in inauspicious circumstances. The Red Comet hangs ominously over the smoking volcanic island of Dragonstone, King Stannis is sequestered in his dark tower, brooding over past insults and plotting fratricide with a sorceress, and Maester Cressen, old and frail as he is, has decided that his last act will be a desperate assassination to save the soul of his king, this man whom he has loved like a son.

dragonstone_by_saphirewings-d8svpe7
Dragonstone by saphirewings

The target?

Melisandre, whose madness must not be allowed to spread beyond Dragonstone.

His chambers seemed dim and gloomy after the brightness of the morning.

And so Cressen searches out his murder weapon – a small indigo vial of seed-like crystals, the poison called the Strangler.

My hands must not shake, nor my courage flag. It is a dreadful thing I do, yet it must be done. If there are gods, they will forgive me. He had slept so poorly of late. A nap would refresh him for the ordeal ahead. Wearily, he tottered off to bed.

I mean, that makes sense. If you’re an 80 year old planning a murder, you need to make sure you don’t muck it up because you didn’t have a quick nap.

When he woke it was full dark, his bedchamber was black and every joint in his body ached.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a second there. It was full dark?! But, the last we saw, Cressen entered his workroom from the bright sunshine of morning, after a meeting with Stannis shortly after dawn. And it’s not like he faffed around in the meeting, being dismissed after a brief conversation. Nor did he spend ages in his workroom – he found a vial of poison, gave some exposition about it and then went for a nap. It was morning. Mid-morning by the latest, I imagine. Meaning that he must have slept for a minimum of 6 hours, probably more like 8-10. The old man, who has literally just told us he’s been having a lot of trouble sleeping and who has just decided to kill someone in a battle over the very soul of his surrogate son, overslept? By 6-8 hours?! I don’t know about you but that strikes me as faintly ridiculous, to say the least.

Then there’s this.

He was always summoned for feasts, seated near the salt, close to Lord Stannis.

So this is something unusual and unexpected – he is not wanted there, for the first time in decades of service.

Moreover, Cressen’s usual carer is also taken away from him so that he is unable to easily get ready for the feast. Indeed, Cressen even points out to us how weird this is:

He secreted the strangler seeds in one of them [his sleeve pockets], threw open his door, and called, “Pylos? Where are you?” When he heard no reply, he called again, louder. “Pylos, I need help.” Still there came no answer. That was queer; the young maester had his cell only a half turn down the stair, within easy earshot.

And it just so happens that all of this happens for the first time at the feast he’s planning a murder at… Coincidence…? I think not! I mean, it’s like some has put a lot of obstacles in Cressen’s way to stop him attending this feast.

So what was the reason for leaving Cressen sleeping? Ostensibly, it was his frailty.

His Grace commanded me to let you rest.Pylos had at least the grace to blush. “He told me you were not needed here.”

[…]

“You are too ill and too confused to be of use to me, old man.” It sounded so like Lord Stannis’s voice, but it could not be, it could not. “Pylos will counsel me henceforth. Already he works with the ravens, since you can no longer climb to the rookery. I will not have you kill yourself in my service.

Foreshadowing alert! I think this turn of phrase is particularly interesting. Now this could easily be George trolling us because Cressen’s about to die, but I think it could also be a case of Melisandre using tricksy language with Stannis when notifying him of what she’s seen in the flames. Indeed, this is something that Steven Attewell has suggested that Melisandre did regarding the shadow baby assassinations.

After all, we are talking about a sorceress who can see the future especially well when it involves, say, plots to murder her:

Danger to her own person was the first thing she had learned to see, back when she was still half a child, a slave girl bound for life to the great red temple. It was still the first thing she looked for whenever she gazed into a fire. (ADWD, Melisandre)

So it’s pretty obvious that Cressen’s mission was doomed to fail the moment he conceived of it. In which case, she had definitely seen what Cressen was planning that day. Potentially, she could have seen it even earlier – it depends on how long Cressen had been toying with this idea prior to the day the Prologue events occur. I have a sneaking suspicion that frail, loyal, old men don’t just decide to kill people on a grumpy whim, so Cressen has probably been thinking of this or something like it for quite some time.

With advance planning, be it hours or days, Melisandre could easily take steps to prevent her death. She could also try to prevent Cressen’s. Personally, I’m imagining a conversation emphasising that Cressen is old and frail and it is such hard and demanding work to advise a king, “he’s killing himself for you”, and creatively omitting a mention of what she’d seen in her flames.

So, Step 1: involve Stannis, by suggesting to him that his Maester was old, frail and needed rest. Step 2: get a sorceress to induce said rest?

With this in mind, the way Cressen wakes up seems… off.

When he woke it was full dark, his bedchamber was black, and every joint in his body ached. Cressen pushed himself up, his head throbbing. Clutching for his cane, he rose unsteady to his feet.

This reads like someone who was drugged, but we do not see Cressen ingest anything in that Prologue chapter. Indeed, the reason Cressen meets with Stannis is because Pylos overheard some kitchen servants, which stops him eating breakfast, so it’s hard to see how Cressen could have been drugged. Instead, maybe some powerful sorceress cast a spell cast on him? Speculative I know, as we don’t see sleeping spells cast, but this detail in conjunction with everything else seems suspicious.

melisandre_by_sir_heartsalot
Melisandre by SirHeartsalot

During the actual poisoning sequence, Melisandre offers Cressen a last opportunity to stop the poisoning and save himself:

She met him beneath the high table with every man’s eyes upon them. But Cressen saw only her. Red silk, red eyes, the ruby red at her throat, red lips curled in a faint smile as she put her hand atop his own, around the cup. Her skin felt hot, feverish. “It is not too late to spill the wine, Maester.”

After then, she also downs the vast majority of the glass of wine before handing it back. This indicates to Cressen (or should) that she is confident of surviving the poisoning, kind of implying that there is no point for Cressen to drink the remainder and he could spill the wine, as suggested earlier. Again, Cressen could choose not to drink the wine but no chance and no choice is a theme we come across a lot in ASOIAF.

After this, she even seems sad about Cressen’s death while it’s happening, with the pity in her eyes an exact match for the way Davos also looks at Cressen earlier in the chapter.

Only Ser Davos dressed simply, in brown doublet and green wool mantle, and only Ser Davos met his gaze, with pity in his eyes.

[…]

And the cowbells peeled in his antlers, singing fool, fool, fool while the red woman looked down on him in pity, the candle flames dancing in her red red eyes.

This leads me to suggest that Melisandre’s actions throughout the Prologue demonstrate that she doesn’t bear any ill will towards Cressen, as alluded to by the pity in her eyes in the above quote. During Melisandre’s first interactions with Cressen, she is quite respectful to him. She is the one to help him get up after he is knocked over by Patchface and it is made explicit that she speaks to him courteously:

He felt strong hands grasp him under the arms and lift him back to his feet. “Thank you, ser,” he murmured, turning to see which knight had come to his aid . . .

“Maester,” said Lady Melisandre, her deep voice flavored with the music of the Jade Sea. “You ought take more care.” […]

“A man your age must look to where he steps,” Melisandre said courteously. “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

These aren’t the actions of a vengeful witch planning to get rid of Cressen and I would argue that her actions suggest there is an underlying respect for Cressen, much like the one she has for Davos and Jon. I think this means that she would do what she could to prevent killing Cressen. A similar thing happens with Davos after he is arrested for planning to kill her – it is Melisandre who advocates on his behalf:

“And it was Melisandre who told me to send for you when Ser Axell wished to give you to R’hllor.” He smiled thinly. “Does that surprise you?” (ASOS Davos III)

This respect, and the trust that Mel has in Davos’ loyalty even in the face of his open hostility towards her, does lead her to take actions to protect his family.

In truth, he [Devan Seaworth] was here because Melisandre had asked for him. The four eldest sons of Davos Seaworth had perished in the battle on the Blackwater, when the king’s fleet had been consumed by green fire. Devan was the fifthborn and safer here with her than at the king’s side. Lord Davos would not thank her for it, no more than the boy himself, but it seemed to her that Seaworth had suffered enough grief. Misguided as he was, his loyalty to Stannis could not be doubted. She had seen that in her flames.

The relationship between Melisandre and Cressen shares the same dynamic as the one between Davos and Mel – they are both men who are loyal to Stannis, almost to a fault, but with a deep suspicion of the magic he has employed in his quest to become king. However, Mel will always prioritise their loyalty to Stannis the Savior above their loyalty to her – after all, she can see any plots against her person in the flames, so she is always safe from them.

Melisandre also has a track record of trying to save people, even though she has seen their deaths in the flames:

“She would have spared Renly if she could. It was Melisandre who urged me to meet with him, and give him one last chance to amend his treason.”

Thus it is well within the realms of possibility that she employed this philosophy with Cressen – having seen his death in the flames, she did what she thought she could to try to save him but, ultimately, left it to R’hllor to decide (in her mind, at least).

To avoid being a total Mel apologist, I also want to note that she is also quite cruel to him in some ways. However, I would argue that (within the Prologue) this cruelty is provoked by Cressen patronising her deeply held religious beliefs, calling her a fearful child and belittling the power of R’hllor.

He knew the phrase, some prayer of her faith. It makes no matter, I have a faith of my own.Only children fear the dark,” he told her. Yet even as he said the words, he heard Patchface take up his song again. “The shadows come to dance, my lord, dance my lord, dance my lord.”

“Now here is a riddle,” Melisandre said. “A clever fool and a foolish wise man.” Bending, she picked up Patchface’s helm from where it had fallen and set it on Cressen’s head. The cowbells rang softly as the tin bucket slid down over his ears. “A crown to match your chain, Lord Maester,” she announced. All around them, men were laughing.

[…]

“Gods make uncertain allies at best,” the old man insisted, “and that one has no power here.

“You think not?” The ruby at Melisandre’s throat caught the light as she turned her head, and for an instant it seemed to glow bright as the comet. “If you will speak such folly, Maester, you ought to wear your crown again.”

In addition to this, she also… y’know… doesn’t actually save his life, even though that’s clearly in her power (because she survived). So that’s a bit mean, to employ an understatement. And that’s before we get on to the horrors of fratricide by shadow baby and human sacrifice, including children.

Nevertheless, I do think there is a large enough collection of slightly weird things happening within this Prologue to support the premise of this essay: that, having seen this situation in the flames, Melisandre had a hand in influencing context and events surrounding Cressen to prevent him attending the feast and, thus, prevent him dying. In summary, these events are:

  • He sleeps for a ridiculously long time, despite sleeping poorly recently
  • When he wakes, his head throbs, like he’s been under a spell (presumably cast by Melisandre)
  • Pylos-as-carer is removed from Cressen’s side, meaning that Cressen cannot ready himself for the feast, adding further obstacles to him getting to the feast

When these actions fail, Melisandre offers Cressen two clear opportunities to choose not to ingest the poison, one explicit and one implicit, in a more passive attempt to prevent his death. Moreover, from the respect (in general) that Melisandre accords Cressen and from extrapolating from the parallels to the Mel-Davos dynamic, I think it is clear that she bears no ill will towards the maester. Finally, she also has a track record of giving people chances to repent their treasons and save themselves from their fate, so it is not beyond the pale to think that she would have done the same here.

If true, this sequence of events would also support George’s statement that Melisandre is one of the most misunderstood characters within the series. It would appear that she doesn’t want to kill people and that she will try to prevent deaths where she can. Ultimately though, what is the life of one old maester against a kingdom?

 


Thanks for reading this essay, your support is greatly appreciated. This is the only character/plot based piece of writing that I have attempted to date, but if you liked it, I’ll make sure that I prioritise writing these in future whenever I see the inspiration. If you liked my style, then you may want to try some of my other symbolic analyses – I have a couple of one-off essays (about Tobho Mott and the Forsaken TWOW spoiler chapter) as well as a longer series about the symbolism of fire, which you can find listed here.

Hugest of thanks to the Twitteros community, for all the fun chats and encouragement. In particular, thanks to @Crowfood_sD, @RRavenousReader and @MelanieLot7 for their comments on the first draft.

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