Mance, Tormund and Styr: On Royal Power in Westeros and Beyond the Wall
Originally published on March 7, 2020 at FSGK in Polish as Mance, Tormund i Styr. O władzy królewskiej w Westeros i za Murem.
When we look back on Jon’s first chapter in A Storm of Swords, we can readily reach the conclusion that in terms of plot development, the most crucial event in this portion of the book is Jon’s meeting with Mance Rayder and a conversation in the course of which Snow has to convince the King Beyond the Wall that he has genuinely joined the Wildlings. That is how matters stand as far as the storyline is concerned. Plot-wise, this chapter can be seen as quite uncomplicated.
However, A Song of Ice and Fire can be read on other planes too. While discussing Jon I, DaeL drew attention to several instances of foreshadowing, hints concerning future events which the author has left for us. The theme of guest-right can also be discerned and it shall be featured not only in ASOS, but also in the subsequent volumes, gaining special significance following the Red Wedding and later attempts to exact revenge on those who had prepared it.
Here I would like to focus on yet another aspect of this chapter. I am not sure how best to define it – it seems terms such as “mythical dimension” or “philosophical dimension” have suffice for the time being. What do I mean by this? Well, I suggest that in the aforementioned chapter, a scene which on the first glance serves a purely humoristic purpose is of vital importance. And yet, when we consider its deeper sense, we may get the impression that any comic elements aside, it also introduces a mythological reference. This in turn leads us to one of the most substantial questions which A Song of Ice and Fire poses to its reader, the one about the essence of power.
Please, let us cast our minds back to the said chapter. Jon Snow arrives at the camp of the Wildlings, who name themselves the Free Folk. The slayer of Qhorin Halfhand and – as he claims – a renegade from the Night’s Watch – is to stand before the King Beyond the Wall. When he enters his tent, canopied by furs of white bears and ornamented with antlers, he finds six people inside. A young, fair-haired woman and a dark-haired man are regaling themselves with mead. A pregnant woman is standing by a brazier, roasting two hens. A grey-haired man in a tattered cloak is lying back on a pillow, singing The Dornishman’s Wife.
In the room, there are also two men to whom Jon Snow pays more attention. One is heavily-built, has a snow-white beard and wears golden armbands with runes graven upon them. The second one is taller and muscular, has somehow lost both his ears and wears a two-handed greatsword across his back. The first man is enjoying a hen, the second contemplates a map. Jon concludes that both look like warriors and wonders “which was Mance Rayder”.
His choice falls on the earless man, whom he addressed as king. It turns out, however, that his behaviour merely elicits a general amusement. The inconspicuous singer is the true King Beyond the Wall.
As I have already mentioned, this scene might be purely comical. Nevertheless, I began to wonder if there might be more to it. What deeper meaning might lie behind this situation: a hero stands before several men and must choose which one is the king?
I have concluded that the answer is partially in the names of our two potential kings. The first one is, as the reader learns a bit later in this chapter, Tormund Giantsbane. The earless warrior is Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, chieftain of a tribe which view consider themselves the last rightful scions of the First Men.
Tormund momentarily brings to mind Thor. His byname – Thunderfist – can be seen as a translation of a name made up of Þórr, which comes from a Proto-Germanic word for thunder, and mund, which is “protection”, but in poetry has also the meaning of “hand”. There exists a Faroese name Tormundur, with Tormund as its Assusative¹. Furthermore, Giantsbane also evokes Thor, slayer of the jötnar, that is of giants. Curiously, Tormund is also known as the Father of Hosts, which in Norse mythology was a cognomen of his father, Odin.
What is more, the word Styr is similar to a name of another Norse deity – Týr, the one-handed god associated with justice and judgement. It should be noted that just like the Norse Týr, the magnar of Thenn is attacked by an enormous wolf. Týr loses his hand in the jaws of Fenrir, and it is foretold that during ragnarök he is to be devoured by Garm. As it happens, Jon’s escape from Styr’s group is successful because the Magnar and his men are suddenly set upon by Bran’s direwolf. We also read that according to Jon’s observations Styr was treated by his followers more like a god than a lord.
Therefore, in our scene we have characters alluding to two Norse deities. We also see in it Jarl and Val, two further characters whose names seem to refer to culture and beliefs of the early medieval Scandinavia. Jarls were one of the three social strata which according to one of the Eddaic poems have been established by Heimdall, and Val is probably meant to evoke the Valkyries, Odin’s female warriors who brought souls of heroes who fell in battle of Valhǫll (Valhalla)². Based on one detail from Val’s plotline in A Dance With Dragons – the fact that once in Castle Black she took up residence in a high tower – one might suspect that Val is based on a specific Valkyrie, Brynhild from the tale of Sigurð Völsung.
Thus, in Mance Rayder’s tent we have seen gathered at least four characters evoking the Norse myths. It is no great surprise that, accordingly, the King Beyond the Wall himself might correspond to one of the deities – Odin. Mance wears a helmet decorated with raven wings, and the very same birds are univocally associated with Odin. He is a singer, and Odin is a god of madness and poetic inspiration, who has won the Mead of Poetry for gods and humans, thus enabling the poets to compose. Just like Odin, Mance delights in hiding his identity and wandering around the world incognito – he journeys to Winterfell twice, disguised as a minstrel from Robert Baratheon’s retinue on the first occasion (in A Game of Thrones) and as Abel the bard on the second (in ADWD). The spearwives accompanying him on this later journey can be compared to the Valkyries. Finally, the surname Rayder might have something to do with Odin’s names such as Atriðr, attacking rider, and Reiðartyr, god of riders.
Jon stands in front “Thor” and “Týr” and has to make a decision which of the two is the King Beyond the Wall. He chooses “Týr”, but it turns out that the singer, “Odin”, was the true ruler. Is there any deeper meaning to this sequence? Is the author’s intention to tell us something, to convey some information about the essence of royal power in A Song of Ice and Fire?
In my view, it is highly likely that this is indeed the case.
The so-called trifunctional hypothesis will emerge as crucial. It refers to the original societal organization of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, a people speaking in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, which has later diverged into groups such as the Hellenic, the Romance, the Celtic, the Germanic, the Balto-Slavonic and others. This hypothesis was formulated by Georges Dumézil, an outstanding French philologist and scholar of mythology³.
Dumézil argued that the society of the PIE people was composed of three classes, with each associated with a specific function – a domain of human existence. The first of those groups were the ruler-priests who possessed “sovereignty”. Below them were those who wielded martial power – the warriors. Finally, there was the third class, governed by the remaining two, that is, the producers, who cultivated the land, herded the animals and engaged in craft.
The scholar proposed that such tripartite division had its reflection in the original religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and its traces can be discerned in later mythologies which descend from it. For instance, in the Norse mythology Odin would be the sovereign ruler, Thor the warrior and the producers would have their deities in the Vanir, figures associated with fertility such Frey or his father Njörð. The society was made up of three strata – the jarls, that is the nobles, the karls – the free farmers (who, if such need arose, would take up arms, and in some periods would participate in raids as vikings) and the thralls, the slaves. Of course, between those groups there were other classes, such as the freedmen or the húskarls (the monarch’s bodyguards). However, on the whole the society was based on the three main groups.
At this moment one might reasonably point out that in the division I have just described there are featured Odin, Thor and the Vanir, but there is no Týr. Obviously, it would be a major, and indeed a devastating, blow to my theory, according to which Styr parallels Týr and the entire situation with him, Mance and Tormund is supposed to be based on Dúmezil’s model. If the ASOIAF pattern was to mirror the Proto-Indo-European one, as I have presented it above, instead of “Týr” beside Tormund there should stand some “Frey” or “Njörð”.
But in actuality, Týr perfectly fits the Dumézilian template, since Indo-European sovereignty has two aspects and that is why I have mentioned the ruler-priests. A priest is someone whose power associated with the supernatural, ecstasy, inspiration, prophesying. Thus, this figure can be seen as someone who represents chaos, unpredictability – just like Odin, who constantly changes shape, breaks promises and tries to escape his fate with the help of arcane knowledge.
To counterbalance this, the other member of the pair of sovereign rulers is the one who introduces order – the law-giver and judge, who organizes all aspects of earthly life. In Norse mythology, Týr plays such role. It is worth to mention that originally his importance may have been greater (his name is a cognate of the name Jupiter) than in the later period and, consequently, in the Eddas.
Furthermore, even though the producers have their own deities – in Norse mythology the Vanir are such a group – those gods are figures of lower status than deities of rulers and warriors. The Vanir are less powerful than the Aesir such as Odin, Týr and Thor, just like producers are subordinate to priests, kings and warriors (and primarily to those first two groups, as warriors heed their orders), The warriors’ domain is power, but this is purely physical might, governing is the realm of someone else.
This tripartite division – Odin, Týr and Thorª – perfectly fits the situation from the chapter about Jon’s meeting with Mance. Interestingly enough, Styr and Tormund’s associations with monarchical power are not limited to Jon’s belief that one of them is the King Beyond the Wall. As we read in another chapter:
“Are you a true king?” Jon asked suddenly.
“I’ve never had a crown on my head or say my arse on a bloody throne, if that’s what you’re asking,” Mance replied. “My birth is as low as a man’s can get, no septon’s ever smeared my head with oils, I don’t own any castles, and my queen wears furs and amber, not silk and sapphires. I am my own champion, my own fool, and my own harpist. You don’t become King-beyond-the-Wall because your father was. The free folk won’t follow a name, and they don’t care which brother was born first. They follow fighters. When I left the Shadow Tower there were five men making noises about how they might be the stuff of kings. Tormund was one, the Magnar another. The three other I slew, when they made it plain they’d sooner fight than follow.” —ASOS, Jon IX—
Now let us examine more closely the sources of power of our three “kings”. Tormund, the Mead-King of Ruddy Hall, is above all else a warrior. People follow him because of his physical strength, not his deep wisdom or great cunning – as he himself admits, Mance surpasses him in that later respect. Styr is also a warrior, but of another kind – his men are more disciplined, better armed and he himself is more of a general than a common yeoman. In the first scene in which we see him he is standing over a map, while Tormund is sitting on a stool, devouring a roast hen. Styr’s power comes primarily from the law. “You don’t become King-beyond-the-Wall because your father was” – that is true. Yet, the title of the Magnar of Thenn is hereditary, following Styr’s demise it will go on to his son, Sigorn (who bears another name with an Old Norse element – sigr, which means “victory”), who will later become a husband of Alys Karstark. The Thenns see themselves as last rightful heirs of the First Men and their society is significantly more orderly than other tribal communities of the Wildlings. Thus, we see that just like Týr, the Magnar is a figure whose power touches upon the field of law and introduction of order.
What about Mance’s power? Well, in the symbolic sense he is the inspired bard, a seer and prophet who leads his people through a certain vision – the idea of crossing over the Wall. He is a warrior, but he is also characterized by cunning, captiousness and a kind of wisdom. Like Odin, he is filled with curiosity about the wider world and desires to know more. He seeks secret knowledge, excavating graves of giants in the Frostfangs in hope of finding the Horn of Joramun (another name which might be a Norse reference – to the Midgard-serpent Jörmungandr, king Jörmunrek – Gothic ruler Ermanaric, or both). Lastly, in A Dance With Dragons he changes shape – it is true that not through his own skills, but because of Melisandre’s art, but nevertheless, in he is still similar in this respect to the master skinchanger Odin.
Mance is not a priest of any religion, but as poet and singer he evokes a shaman or a seer, and as a counterpart of Odin – just like Bloodraven and Beric Dondarrion – in the symbolic sense he is connected with the Children of the Forest, the weirwood trees (which parallel Yggdrasil) and the greenseers.
George R.R. Martin might be alluding to Odin and the division of Norse society also through the lover of Val’s sister, Dalla – for whom he chose the name Jarl. According to the Elder Edda, jarls who fall in battle belong to Odin. We know that the author of ASOIAF has read this compendium of poems. Thus, we should not be surprised that it is Jarl who is so closely associated with Odin’s counterpart Mance. Moreover, from this perspective the significance of manner of his death is also easy to understand. While scaling the Wall, Jarl and his companions are swept off by an ice block detached from the cliff.
They found Jarl in a tree, impaled upon a splintered branch and still roped to the three men who lay broken beneath him. One was still alive, but his legs and spine were shattered, and most of his ribs as well. —ASOS, Jon IV—
In Norse mythology it was Odin who hung for nine long nights on a “windy tree”, pierced with a spear and sacrificed to himself – in this way he got to know the secret art of runecraft. It seems that GRRM is showing us here that he knows that it is Odin with whom the class of jarls is connected.
Now let us have a look on the following excerpt from a chapter in which Jon sets off with a band of Wildlings on a journey to south of the Wall:
Jarl was with the Magnar; Mance had given them joint command. Styr was none too pleased by that; Jon had noted early on. Mance Rayder had called the dark youthº a “pet” of Val, who was sister to Dalla, his own queen, which made Jarl a sort of good brother once removed to the King-beyond-the-Wall. The Magnar plainly resented sharing his authority. He had brought a hundred Thenns, five times as many men as Jarl, and often acted as if he had the sole command. But it would be the younger man who got them over the ice, Jon knew. —ASOS, Jon III—
Mance’s representative – Jarl – shares power with Styr. Meanwhile, Odin and Týr jointly occupy the same level, the one associated with sovereignty. Styr is not pleased about the prospect of having to co-rule – perhaps because it was Týr who might have been once the supreme god, but was dethroned by Odin.
Returning to Jon’s first chapter in ASOS, I suggest we can read it in the following way: Jon arrives at a meeting with the Kind Beyond the Wall and stands before two “candidates”. One symbolizes rule stemming from the law, the other power arising from physical might. Jon rightly (if we consider Dumézil’s tripartite division) concludes that Styr is the more important one of the two. After all, Norse Thor is placed below Týr, who occupies the highest level – the one of sovereignty. However, Jon is not aware that sovereignty has two aspects. He picks earthly power, but altogether ignores the supernatural – he does not even consider the inconspicuous singer. And yet, it is revealed that this very singer is the second member of a pair of rulers of the highest strata, Odin’s counterpart. Curiously, it is the case in both Norse mythology and in ASOIAF that the priest-king is placed a bit higher than the judge-king. There are no two equal King Beyond the Wall – Mance has defeated Styr, who ultimately submitted to him. Týr is also not equal to Odin, at least in those sources which are available to us (some scholars suggest that Týr may have once been a vastly more significant figure, perhaps more important to Odin, a supreme god, just like his etymological cousins Jupiter and Zeus).
A similar “choice” features elsewhere in A Song of Ice and Fire – in one of Tyrion’s chapters in A Clash of Kings. The issue of various kinds of power and their sources is directly brought up. Here is Varys’ famous riddle:
“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the three great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours,’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?” —ACOK, Tyrion II—
When Varys leaves, Shae asks Tyrion if it will be the rich man who survives. To this, the Lannister responds that “Perhaps. Or not. That would depend on the sellsword, it seems.”
In another chapter Tyrion and Varys return to the topic:
“Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man – who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword. (…)
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. —ACOK, Tyrion III—
A King, a priest and a rich man… those two figures do not exactly correspond to Styr, Mance and Tormund, nor Týr, Odin and Thor. However, they can easily be placed within Dumézil’s pattern. Varys states clearly the source of the power of the king from the riddle – he is “lawful” – thus, he parallels the judge-king who represents one of the two aspects of sovereignty. The priest next to him stands for the supernatural power. The rich man might represent the producers, who in Norse mythology have their deities in the Vanir associated with fertility and abundance. The rich man does not belong to the same level as the other two “great ones”, he is more of a merchant, who boosted his status through financial prosperity. Theoretically, the rich man has no power, he is located at the bottom of the social ladder upon the highest spokes of which the king and the priest are located. And yet, Martin presents a world in which material commodities become equally, and perhaps even more important, than law and religion (or generally, everything that belongs in the sacrum). Finally, in Varys’s riddle there is also the sellsword, representative of physical and martial power. He is the one to make a choice. The power the king and the priests exercise over the producers, those who own material wealth, depends largely on whether they will have under their command those who enforce their will, that is, the warriors.
Tyrion states, that everything depends on who the sellsword is. To this I would add that there is another equally important factor – when the choice is made. Let us examine the consecutive phases of plot development in A Song of Ice and Fire. On the onset of the War of the Five Kings, many pretenders allege that their right to rule stems from the law. Stannis declares that he is the sole rightful heir of Robert, Joffrey claims the Iron Throne is his by right, Robb Stark evokes the right of the Northerners to self-governance. Here the choice falls on “the king”. In contrast, Renly relies chiefly on military might – he is “the warrior”. (Interestingly enough, the number of the potential kings defeated by Mance was also five). Afterwards, the Lannisters allied with the Tyrells reign supreme for a time – that is “the rich man’s” triumph. However, following the death of Lord Tywin, the order forged by him begins to crumble and in many regions religious leaders rise in prominence – for instance, the High Sparrow and Melisandre. This is also the period of the ascendancy of Euron, a highly Odinic figure, who apparently bases his rule of magic, arcane forces and chaos, things associated with the Indo-European “priest”.
In this ASOS chapter, Jon becomes, in a sense, the sellsword from Varys’ riddle, the one who must “choose” the king. Curiously, by choosing Styr, Jon symbolically champions the cause of law – and Jon is the one who attempts to act justly and be guided by honour, thus defending the existing order, just like his “father” – Eddard Stark – who chose Stannis, “the rightful king”.
Yet, it turns out that Mance Rayder, “the seer” and “the priest”, is the true ruler. What does this mean? Perhaps George R.R. Martin is implicating that the spiritual and the supernatural have primacy over the material and the earthly. It is also possible that he is simply foreshadowing another “phase” of the game of thrones, in which religion will be brought to the forefront, just like magic, thus far marginalized. It might be the case that this is some clue as to the ultimate result of the conflict. I suppose this is closely connected with the weirwoods, which parallel the Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, and the greenseers – symbolically associated with Odin, hanged on a tree, who through self-sacrifice won wisdom and arcane knowledge about runes. One can attempt to match various claimants to the Iron Throne and rulers of Westeros to the following four basic categories: kings (law), priests (religion and magic), warriors (military might) and “rich men” (material commodities). The group of three major deities, which represent two aspects of sovereignty and physical strength might also have some connection with GRRM’s idea of the three heads of the dragon.
At any rate, there is something deeply moving and beautiful in the fact that in A Storm of Swords, a book published on the threshold of the 21st century, we see a scene, which might recreate a tripartite division of the society and the deities which, according to scholars such as Georges Dumézil, existed among the primeval Indo-Europeans many millennia ago.
Thank you for your attention, I hope you have enjoyed this piece!
©2020 Bluetiger and The Tolkienic Song of Ice and Fire. Original Polish essay ©2020 Bluetiger and FSGK.PL
¹ Wiktionary: Tormundur
Having written this essay, in Tormund – Horned Lord of Winter by The Fattest Leech I came across information that there also existed the Old Norse name Þórmundr. Faroese Tormundur is apparently its descendant.
As for Styr, a character named Styrbjörn Sterki (the Strong in English, der Starke in German) is featured in several sagas and stories. However, I believe that even if GRRM is familiar with this figure, the name of his Styr is meant to evoke primarily Týr, who is much more prominent and well-known.
² Associations between Val’s name and the Valkyries have been noted before, for instance, they were discussed by The Fattest Leech in When was Val introduced into ASOIAF? – when an observation by Corvo the Crow is mentioned.
³ I was first acquainted with Dumézil’s theory in a book Wierzenia Prasłowian [Beliefs of the Proto-Slavs] by Jakub Zielina
ª It might be a coincidence, but I still find it interesting that we find the very same three deities – Týr, Odin and Thor – or rather, their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, in the names of weekdays in the English language (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). Wednesday being the day of Woden (Odin) might explain why in the first chapter of The Hobbit Bilbo invites Gandalf, the Odinic wanderer, for supper on Wednesday and writes down “Gandalf Tea Wednesday” in his engagement tablet. This also means that Thorin’s Company embarks on its journey on Thursday.
º Jarl being called “dark youth” reminds me of the so-called Fair Youth, a figure to whom many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are apparently addressed. “Dark youth” might be a play on two characters: the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady. (Perhaps in ASOIAF we should look for a “fair lady” to complement Jarl as the “dark youth”. Maybe Val is supposed to be that figure?)
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