CW: torture, mutilation
Hello again everyone, and welcome to Red Mice at Play. We’re continuing our analysis of the Bloody Mummers by taking a closer look at Qyburn. Like any storied band of adventuring characters, you need to have a healer in the party – but, as with everything about the Brave Companions, they managed to hire basically the most evil healer ever to have existed.
However, we’re not explicitly aware of how evil Qyburn is for quite a while, except with the implication that he’s associated with the Brave Companions. Instead, Qyburn is introduced to us as a warm, fatherly figure:
In the maester’s chambers beneath the rookery, a grey-haired, fatherly man named Qyburn sucked in his breath when he cut away the linen from the stump of Jaime’s hand. (ASOS, Jaime IV)
“My lord.” Qyburn knelt beside him, his fatherly face all crinkly with concern. “What is it? I heard you cry out.” (ASOS, Jaime VI)
Qyburn was old, but his hair still had more ash than snow in it, and the laugh lines around his mouth made him look like some little girl’s favorite grandfather. A rather shabby grandfather, though. The collar of his robe was frayed, and one sleeve had been torn and badly sewn. “I must beg Your Grace’s pardon for my appearance,” he said. (AFFC, Cersei II)
This humble appearance however does still contain clues to the Other symbolism that we’ve consistently found throughout the character analyses of the Bloody Mummers. For starters, he is depicted as having ash and snow in his hair, introducing those colder elements to his appearance. In addition, he is described as having “bold blue eyes” (AFFC, Cersei I). The blue eyes remind us of the cold blue star eyes of the Others, so check one for cold symbolism there. In addition, his eyes are described as “bold”, introducing the brave-but-not-really-Other vs. craven-but-not-really-Night’s Watch distinction that we touched on in the very first essay in this series.
After ingratiating himself into Cersei’s circle in King’s Landing, he manages to go on a shopping spree and get himself some resplendent new robes:
He had garbed himself in something very like maester’s robes, but white instead of grey, immaculate as the cloaks of the Kingsguard. Whorls of gold decorated his hem, sleeves, and stiff high collar, and a golden sash was tied about his waist. (AFFC, Cersei IV)
These long white robes are explicitly linked to the colouring of the Kingsguard, who frequently represent the Others. As such, for Qyburn to be directly linked to them in this way is very suggestive of him having the same Other-like associations. In addition, we see that these robes are decorated with “whorls” of gold. The gold decorations introduce the gold/cold pun (e.g. “hands of gold are always cold”)and suggests even more Others symbolism from Qyburn’s appearance.
So, that’s what Qyburn looks like for most of the time we see him. His appearance and the general friendliness of his disposition are quite incongruous with where we are introduced to him – in the pay of Vargo Hoat. This discrepancy is actively called out to us in the dialogue:
Qyburn did not look a monster, Jaime thought. He was spare and soft-spoken, with warm brown eyes. “How does a maester come to ride with the Brave Companions?”
“The Citadel took my chain.” (ASOS, Jaime IV)
Qyburn neatly dodges the question of why he lost his chain, but it is something that has been whispered about since his first appearance on page:
Though he wore maester’s robes, there was no chain about his neck; it was whispered that he had lost it for dabbling in necromancy. (ACOK, Arya X)
“I hate this lot worse. Ser Amory was fighting for his lord, but the Mummers are sellswords and turncloaks. Half of them can’t even speak the Common Tongue. Septon Utt likes little boys, Qyburn does black magic, and your friend Biter eats people.” (ACOK, Arya X)
“Tend to him?” She laughed. “Let Ser Ilyn tend to him.”
“If that is Your Grace’s wish,” Qyburn said, “but this poison . . . it would be useful to know more about it, would it not? Send a knight to slay a knight and an archer to kill an archer, the smallfolk often say. To combat the black arts . . .” He did not finish the thought, but only smiled at her. (AFFC, Cersei II)
Black magic, black sorcery, and necromancy – my oh my. The “black arts” are most frequently associated with evil places, such as Asshai and (more importantly for an analysis of the Brave Companions) Qohor. We touched on the symbolism of Qohor in the Vargo Hoat essay, but to reiterate, Qohor has a lot of Other-y associations – one of which is black magic and necromancy. As such, it is interesting to see Qyburn, practitioner of black magic and necromancy, be introduced to us under the banner of a Qohorik god. The necromantic magic that Qyburn practises is probably the most important in our analysis here, given that the Others are most known for raising the wights.
Despite it being obviously evil to murder people in the pursuit of science, Qyburn just doesn’t seem to get it and is really quite bitter about being stripped of his chain:
“Why did the Citadel take your chain?”
“The archmaesters are all craven at heart. The grey sheep, Marwyn calls them. I was as skilled a healer as Ebrose, but aspired to surpass him. For hundreds of years the men of the Citadel have opened the bodies of the dead, to study the nature of life. I wished to understand the nature of death, so I opened the bodies of the living. For that crime the grey sheep shamed me and forced me into exile . . . but I understand the nature of life and death better than any man in Oldtown.” (AFFC, Cersei II)
This bitterness theme is one that we frequently come across in our analysis of characters who represent the Others, so it’s noteworthy that it crops up again here with respect to Qyburn. We also see that Qyburn views the maesters as “craven” and frames himself and his scientific pursuits as in opposition to them (i.e. brave), giving us another iteration of the brave-but-not-really-Other/craven-but-not-really-Last Hero dichotomy.
What Qyburn does on page gets increasingly disturbing – but at first, to go along with the friendly father figure act, we see Qyburn primarily in his role as healer at first.
With a bowl and a sharp blade, Qyburn cleaned the stump while Jaime gulped down strongwine, spilling it all over himself in the process. His left hand did not seem to know how to find his mouth, but there was something to be said for that. The smell of wine in his sodden beard helped disguise the stench of pus.
Nothing helped when the time came to pare away the rotten flesh. Jaime did scream then, and pounded his table with his good fist, over and over and over again. He screamed again when Qyburn poured boiling wine over what remained of his stump. Despite all his vows and all his fears, he lost consciousness for a time. When he woke, the maester was sewing at his arm with needle and catgut. “I left a flap of skin to fold back over your wrist.”
“You have done this before,” muttered Jaime, weakly. He could taste blood in his mouth where he’d bitten his tongue. (AFFC, Jaime IV)
We’ve analysed this scene in a bit of detail as a part of the Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things series, when we covered Jaime’s hand loss as his breaking event/Last Hero transformation. In particular, we noted that there are a significant number of parallels to the forging of Lightbringer, such as the three poundings of the fist as an echo of the three forgings of Lightbringer and the bloody mouth as a link to the weirwood!Lightbringer. What we didn’t mention was Qyburn’s role in that scene. Given that this scene depicts a symbolic forging of Lightbringer, this suggests that Qyburn is in the role of the forger of Lightbringer who appears most frequently to be a symbolic Other figure. Indeed, we see some things that back this up. For instance, Qyburn tries to give Jaime the milk of the poppy, which has been identified as an ice-associated item – after all, dying from the cold is like “sinking into a sea of warm milk” (AGOT, Prologue), so there’s a milk-cold association. He also tries to leech Jaime of the bad blood, with leeches primarily appearing to have ice associations given their associations to Roose Bolton (arch Night’s King figure) and Chett (another Other figure).
When in place at King’s Landing, Qyburn increasingly ingratiates himself into Cersei’s circle and she becomes ever more reliant on him. This is, in my view, an interesting spin on the Night’s King/Night’s Queen relationship. Cersei acquires increasing amounts of Night’s Queen type symbolism: for example, being described as a beautiful corpse (AFFC, Jaime II), just as the Night’s Queen is called a beautiful woman and a corpse queen. Qyburn cannot hold lands or titles, much like the Night’s Watch:
“You all know Lord Qyburn, I am sure.”
Grand Maester Pycelle did not disappoint her. “Lord Qyburn?” he managed, purpling. “Your Grace, this . . . a maester swears sacred vows, to hold no lands or lordships . . .”
“Your Citadel took away his chain,” Cersei reminded him. “If he is not a maester, he cannot be held to a maester’s vows. We called the eunuch lord as well, you may recall.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)
In turn, he makes himself useful to Cersei and she frequently thinks on how his loyalty is useful to her. Early in A Feast for Crows, Qyburn becomes Master of Whisperers in Cersei’s Small Council. She thinks:
Varys had all of us believing he was irreplaceable. What fools we were. Once the queen let it become known that Qyburn had taken the eunuch’s place, the usual vermin had wasted no time in making themselves known to him, to trade their whispers for a few coins. It was the silver all along, not the Spider. Qyburn will serve us just as well. (AFFC, Cersei IV)
So, Qyburn is replacing Varys, a man who also has a ton of icy symbolism by wandering around in purple most of the time, being a master of disguise and a mummer, orchestrating an invasion by armies from across the sea and by stealing children to mutilate and turn into his weapons. Notably, Qyburn is here compared to Varys earlier too – “We called the eunuch lord as well”. This creates some association between Varys, a symbolically icy character, and Qyburn, who is also associated with the Others by virtue of his association with the Bloody Mummers amongst some of the other (lol) things we’ll get into today. However, Qyburn performs his role with “silver”, with silver being a cold-associated colour. This again suggests Qyburn as utilising the cold to perform his role on the council.
At his first Small Council meeting, Qyburn takes the opportunity to suggest an assassination plot against the newly elected Lord Commander Snow. This could suggest that Qyburn is working to undermine the Night’s Watch, and thus places him in the role of an Other. Come to think of it, this plot is rather like the theory that the Others planted the Night’s Watch wights close to the Wall in A Game of Thrones specifically so they could try to infiltrate the Watch and assassinate the Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont. In terms of the dynamic of Cersei and Qyburn’s relationship, it is suggestive of a Night’s King figure using the Night’s Queen figure for his own ends. This is a very similar dynamic to Lysa Arryn and Littlefinger’s relationship as well, both of whom have a ton of icy symbolism.
As a part of his studies, Qyburn needs a regular supply of
victims to torture subjects to conduct research:
“For the puppeteers, the axe.”
“There are four. Perhaps Your Grace might allow me two of them for mine own purposes. A woman would be especially . . .”
“I gave you Senelle,” the queen said sharply.
“Alas. The poor girl is quite . . . exhausted.”
Cersei did not like to think about that. The girl had come with her unsuspecting, thinking she was along to serve and pour. Even when Qyburn clapped the chain around her wrist, she had not seemed to understand. The memory still made the queen queasy. The cells were bitter cold. Even the torches shivered. And that foul thing screaming in the darkness . . . “Yes, you may take a woman. Two, if it please you. But first I will have names.” (AFFC, Cersei V)
We see that he is working in “the bitter cold” where “[e]ven the torches shivered”, reinforcing the Others symbolism associated with Qyburn. In particular, “bitter cold” is a phrase particularly used when the Others appear in ASOS, Prologue and Sam I, and with clear examples of Long Night symbolism, such as the aftermath of the death of Lysa in AFFC, Sansa I. Returning to Qyburn, the “foul thing” that Cersei speaks of isn’t described in detail – I presume this is the un-Gregor WIP, but I could be wrong. In particular, this description speaks to corruption, a theme also consistently associated with the Others (e.g. the theory that the Shade of the Evening trees are corrupted versions of weirwoods). In addition, the need for women in Qyburn’s “research” is an interesting (and horrible) one and could speak to the idea broached by the Faceless Men:
“Women bring life into the world. We bring the gift of death. No one can do both.” (AFFC, Arya II)
Given Qyburn’s research is to do with the space between life and death, it’s interesting that he requires women for his necromancy. That the women he requests are specifically “puppeteers” is especially interesting as Bronsterys has clearly shown that the puppet motif is associated with the Others, and a female puppeteer would therefore be the Night’s Queen. Altogether, this very suggestive of the importance of the role of the Night’s Queen potentially as a progenitor of the Others, an idea explored by All Hail the Night’s Queen amongst others, and it reinforces the “Qyburn as Other or Night’s King” symbolism.
Somehow, using sciences or magics unknown, Qyburn manages to
resurrect Ser Gregor Clegane introduce an entirely new person to court:
“Someone splendid,” she agreed. “Someone so young and swift and strong that Tommen will forget all about Ser Loras. A bit of gallantry would not be amiss, but his head should not be full of foolish notions. Do you know of such a man?”
“Alas, no,” said Qyburn. “I had another sort of champion in mind. What he lacks in gallantry he will give you tenfold in devotion. He will protect your son, kill your enemies, and keep your secrets, and no living man will be able to withstand him.”
“So you say. Words are wind. When the hour is ripe, you may produce this paragon of yours and we will see if he is all that you have promised.” (AFFC, Cersei VII)
“My queen, your champion stands ready. There is no man in all the Seven Kingdoms who can hope to stand against him. If you will only give the command . . .” (AFFC, Cersei X)
Cersei never saw where Qyburn came from, but suddenly he was there beside them, scrambling to keep up with her champion‘s long strides. “Your Grace,” he said, “it is so good to have you back. May I have the honor of presenting our newest member of the Kingsguard? This is Ser Robert Strong.” (ADWD, Cersei II)
Ser Robert Strong is immediately inducted into the Kingsguard to champion Cersei in her upcoming trial by battle, thus giving him all of the Others-associated symbolism of the Kingsguard. In addition, he has taken a vow of silence, reminding us of the Others who are almost silent (except when cackling as they butcher a member of the Night’s Watch, but we’ve not had much of a chance of un-Gregor to laugh yet). The turn of phrase used twice to describe the knight – “no [living] man shall withstand him” – is a particularly interesting one, as it is used by Melisandre to describe Azor Ahai. This Azor Ahai symbolism is reinforced as Qyburn is specifically noted to wear a blacksmith’s leather apron during his experiments:
Down here in the dungeons, Qyburn wore roughspun wool and a blacksmith’s leather apron. (AFFC, Cersei IX)
So, Qyburn’s experiments are, in effect, a symbolic forging of Lightbringer, just as his healing of Jaime was also a symbolic forging of Lightbringer. The leather apron is also suggestive of skinchanging – Qyburn is literally wearing the skin of an animal, after all. That he is wearing this apron while performing gruesome human experiments could be indicative of human skinchanging in particular, as was suggested by Urswyck’s ragged leather cloak, with human skinchanging being a hallmark of a Night’s King or Other figure (yep, I’m mentioning Varamyr again, but honestly, the symbolism in that scene is so clear that I can’t not mention it).
As others in the fandom have noted, Qyburn is written very much in the vein of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein – a genius studying the line between life and death, ostracised by his scientific community for gross ethical misconduct (y’know, that teensy ethical issue of murder). The novel’s full title is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which introduces some very interesting symbolism to Qyburn’s character. For those of you who aren’t aware, Prometheus is a Titan from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind; Frankenstein, as a modern Prometheus, steals the secrets of life and death from God to become a creator himself. The idea of stealing the fire of the gods is super prevalent in A Song of Ice and Fire and is directly associated with Azor Ahai characters – and we’ve just pointed out that Qyburn fulfils this Azor Ahai as Other-y bad guy symbolic archetype. This suggests that, by becoming a Westerosi Prometheus, Qyburn is also fulfilling the role of Azor Ahai, the Night’s King.
And that’s the Other-y symbolism that I’ve got for Qyburn – what do you think of the scientific necromancer? I’d love to hear your thoughts either in the comments below or by finding me on Twitter under the handle @elsmith1994. If you liked this essay, the rest of the Brave Companions series can be found here and more of my essays can be found here. I mentioned Bronsterys a bit today and you can find his essays here.
See you all again next week as we finish up our analysis of the Brave Companions with Rorge and Biter!
– Archmaester Emma x