When it comes to the history of HBO's Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, some fans are wise old maesters and others are know-nothing Jon Snow types. To prepare for season six, we’re looking at some of the most important moments in the long, complex, and often controversial history of Westeros, and what they might tell us about events yet to come. So whether you’re as versed in the past as Maester Luwin or as clueless as Gilly in a castle for the first time, we’re calling your banner to join us on this march to the new season. Either way, be warned: there are major, major spoilers for the series in this post.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.
Brynden Rivers: The Three-Eyed Raven
So far in this series we’ve looked at historical events that are either clouded in mystery or that occurred so far in the past they are like reading mythology. Yet when it comes to Bran Stark's favorite living tree-man, the Three-Eyed Raven, we know so much about his life we could probably write a full biography about him worthy of David McCullough.
First off, yes: we do know who the Three-Eyed Raven once was. Long before he became half-tree, living in the bowels of the earth with the Children of the Forest far beyond The Wall, he was Brynden Rivers, son of a King, military leader in a great civil war, Hand of the King, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and one of the most controversial and mysterious men in the history of Westeros—the man known as Bloodraven.
Okay, so let’s go back and stick to the barest of essentials.
From 172 AC until 184 AC, Westeros was ruled by Aegon the IV, better known as Aegon the Unworthy. Try to guess what kind of king he was.
Aegon the Unworthy was imbued with a cruel devotion to his own pleasures, no matter who may have been hurt by his endeavors. He was the sort of man who ate himself into an early grave. A giant part of his life was sleeping with any woman he wanted, and he didn’t care who knew, having as many as nine official mistresses in his life. What does an “official” mistress mean exactly? The women, before being discarded for the next one, would be part of his court in King’s Landing. These weren’t secret affairs, but rather public ones, with the women becoming public figures.
And they produced very public bastard children.
Brynden Rivers was the fifth, from Aegon’s sixth mistress, Lady Melissa Blackwood. This group of Aegon’s children would come to be known as the Great Bastards, sons and daughters born out of wedlock to the king, but to highborn mothers (Aegon sired many more bastards than these, but to lowborn women).
Jumping ahead in the torrid and amoral reign of Aegon the Unworthy to his final act—the one that led to a massive war, one that would lead to the deaths of thousands for decades…and maybe longer—on his deathbed, Aegon IV legitimized all of his bastard children, including his six Great Bastards. The first, and arguably greatest of them, was Daemon Waters, son of Daena Targaryen. So while still a bastard, he was of all Targaryen blood, and was so physically impressive it was said he resembled Aegon the Conqueror himself, the Warrior reborn.
When his father finally acknowledged him at age 12, after Daemon impressed at a tourney melee, Aegon bestowed Daemon with the Valyrian steel sword of the Targaryen kings, Blackfyre. This ended up being a really, really big deal when his father legitimized him before he died.
Aegon's heir was Daeron II (a.k.a. Daeron the Good—the apple fell far from the tree), born in 153 AC. Daemon was born in 170 AC. Legitimized or not, there should have been no question over who was Aegon's true successor. Except for the damn sword, and rumors that Daeron himself was actually the son of Aemon the Dragonknight, Aegon's best friend.
(So, so much of this story is painted by tales of love, scorn, and jealousy, all resulting in so much bloodshed.)
Eventually, after 12 years, in 196 AC, following growing resentment and urging from his close advisors—most notably his fellow Great Bastard Aegor Rivers, forever known as Bittersteel—Daemon revolted. Half of Westeros would take arms up in his name: he had the sword, he was the Warrior reborn, he was the better man, he was the true heir.
Daemon Blackfyre, as history will remember him, reversed the colors of the Targaryen banner for his sigil, making it a black dragon on a red field, and the (first) Blackfyre Rebellion began.
Except his fellow Great Bastard, Brynden Rivers, stayed loyal to Daeron and the crown. Why?
Bloodraven, a nickname earned because of a wine stain birthmark that ran from his neck to his cheek and was said to look like a raven, may have done it for any number of legitimate reasons. After all, a sword does not make a king, the legitimacy of Daeron’s rule was worth honoring, and Daeron was as much his brother as Daemon anyway. But nearly a century later the Three-Eyed Raven would hint at the very personal reasons behind him remaining a loyalist. He told Bran he was haunted by ghosts: the ghost of a brother he loved (Daeron), a brother he hated (Bittersteel), and a woman he loved (Shiera Seastar). She was another Great Bastard…who Bittersteel also just so happened to love (like I said, so, so much of this seems to involve the love of a woman). Whatever the reason, Bloodraven was an important part of Daeron’s fight to keep his crown.
The Blackfyre Rebellion saw half of Westeros take arms against the other half, and on many occasions the war could have turned in Daemon Blackfyre’s favor. Luck was arguably the deciding factor in which Targaryen banner eventually soared in the winds over the Red Keep. The final blow, however, came from Brynden Rivers.
There’s so much to tell about the battle at the Redgrass Field—heroes, strategy, and honor worthy of their place in any history—but for today we’ll focus just on Daemon Blackfyre’s death, when Brynden Rivers and his unit of archers known as the Raven’s Teeth showered Daemon and two of his sons with arrows, killing them, and ostensibly ending the rebellion. So much of the Blackfyre support came from support of the impressive Daemon himself it’s hard to imagine them continuing even if the forces hadn’t fled with Bittersteel (but not before Bittersteel took one of Bloodraven’s eyes).
When myriad problems plagued Westeros following the war—drought, unsafe roads, the Great Spring Sickness that killed Daeron the Good in 209 AC—many whispered it was all a result of Bloodraven, a kinslayer who murdered his brother.
Lord Bloodraven was named Hand of the King by his nephew, Aerys I, Daeron’s successor to the Iron Throne. While Aerys studied his books, Bloodraven ruled, and though beset by many serious issues he never forgot to be on the lookout for the remaining Blackfyre’s under Bittersteel in Tyrosh, just across the Narrow Sea. When they came in 211 AC he was ready, and squashed the rebellion before it even started. Relying on his network of spies (and possibly other means we’ll get to) he captured the conspirators at the Whitewall tourney and imprisoned Daemon Blackfyre II, the Blackfyre claimant.
In 219 AC, Bittersteel launched a third Rebellion, and faced his brother Bloodraven again. Again Brynden Rivers proved his mettle, defeating Bittersteel and taking him captive. Bloodraven wanted him put to death, but King Aerys decided to send Bittersteel to the wall. Unfortunately Bittersteel was rescued from the ship he was on while en route, and escaped back to Tyrosh, where he could once again plot against the Iron Thrones. Bloodraven would not make that mistake again.
Aerys died in 221 AC and was succeeded by Maeker I, who kept Brynden Rivers as his Hand. When Maeker died in 233 AC with no obvious heir (it was a total mess), Bloodraven called a Great Council to choose his successor. Aenys Blackfyre, the latest Blackfyre heir, wanted to peacefully put in his claim. Promising his safety, Bloodraven agreed, only to have Aenys arrested and put to death upon his arrival. He had his head brought to the Council in case any Blackfyre loyalists had any ideas about where the next king would come from.
When Aegon V (Aegon the Unlikely) was named king, he had his uncle arrested for Aenys Blackfyre’s murder and for violating the word of the Iron Throne, which Bloodraven had been acting under when he promised Aenys’ safety. Bloodraven was sentenced to death, but was allowed to take the black and accompany Aegon’s brother Aemon to the Night’s Watch.
(Yes! That Aemon! Our sweet, old, blind maester from the show and books. He was quietly offered the throne but passed, resulting in his brother being named king, his brother that he called “Egg.” You might remember, through your tears, the scene where he was dying and said, “Egg, I dreamed that I was old.” That’s Aegon V he was talking about, that’s his brother Egg.)
We know very little of Bloodraven’s time at The Wall except for two very important facts. In 239 AC, he was named Lord Commander and then, in 252 AC, during a ranging, he disappeared without a trace.
With a life like that you might be thinking it’s pretty easy to see why he is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Westeros, but it goes well beyond that, and that's where we start to get into how and why he became the Three-Eyed Raven (in the books he's the Three-Eyed Crow).
From Brynden Rivers to the Three-Eyed Raven
Brynden Rivers was said to be a sorcerer and practitioner of the dark arts, one who used "spies and spells" to rule Westeros. He certainly looked the part, with his long white hair, albino skin, red eyes, thin frame, grim demeanor, and proclivity for dark clothing, which often included a cloak to protect him from the sun. Even after he lost his eye he didn’t cover it up. There is a famous song about him, “A Thousand Eyes and One,” in reference to the old saying about how he knew so much.
In George R.R. Martin’s prequel novellas, "Tales of Dunk and Egg," about the eventual King Aegon V’s travels as a young boy with a hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, Bloodraven is an important character in terms of his presence in the world, one that is discussed far more than he is actually seen, but who is important to Westeros. In The Mystery Knight Ser Duncan thinks to himself:
"'How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have?' the riddle ran. A thousand eyes, and one. Some claimed the King's Hand was a student of the dark arts who could change his face, put on the likeness of a one-eyed dog, even turn into a mist. Packs of gaunt gray wolves hunted down his foes, men said, and carrion crows spied for him and whispered secrets in his ear. Most of the tales were only tales, Dunk did not doubt, but no one could doubt that Bloodraven had informers everywhere."
Egg had no great love for him as a young boy, which would show up years later of course. But more importantly in the novellas we see the way the people of Westeros view Lord Brynden Rivers. He was a mysterious, shadowy figure, one they believe to be using magic to crush his enemies. His reputation also wasn’t helped by the fact Westeros was half full of people that supported Daemon Blackfyre, and Bloodraven not only didn't support his fellow Great Bastard, but he killed him.
The thing is, they probably weren’t totally wrong, at least not about his mystical abilities.
We don’t know how or why he became the Three-Eyed Raven, but we do know the Children of the Forest consider him the last greenseer. Greenseers have two known abilities, and a third that only Bloodraven and Bran seem to have among that very small group. Greenseers can warg and they have the greensight (prophetic dreams).
The third one might be the biggest though. Bloodraven and Bran can also see through weirwood trees, using them to look throughout time—past, present, and future. The First Men believed greenseers had this ability, and Jojen himself tells Bran they do. Did Bloodraven always have this ability, or did his metamorphosis into an actual weirwood tree give him this ability? Is Bran just uniquely powerful and special? Is this ability the training Bran requires, the reason the Three-Eyed Raven called out to him in the very first book?
Whatever the case now, Bloodraven almost definitely did have a network of spies throughout the Seven Kingdoms, but he almost definitely did have some incredible abilities, ones that would one day lead him to long outlive his mortal body and become one with the earth, a being that would call out to Brandon Stark to find him.
Like I said, the Three-Eyed Raven deserves a full autobiography.
But we’re worried about season six of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire going forward. So what can we learn from all of this about where the story is going?
Melisandre doesn’t trust her vision, the one that she sees in the flames that is the Three-Eyed Raven and Bran. She thinks they may be the enemy, because they are surrounded by darkness, and obviously they have some power. “A thousand red eyes floated in the rising flames. He sees me,” she thinks to herself.
Yet, the Children of the Forest, the ones who long ago helped defeat the White Walkers, tell Bran (emphasis mine):
“Most of him has gone into the tree ... He has lived beyond his mortal span, and yet he lingers. For us, for you, for the realms of men. Only a little strength remains in his flesh. He has a thousand eyes and one, but there is much to watch. One day you will know.”
"For the realms of men" does not sound like an ally of the Others, or their god of cold and darkness. He may be a mysterious figure to us still, but he would appear to be on the side of the living.
If the Three-Eyed Raven has lived on to help defeat the Others, what should we make about what he says to Bran about darkness? "The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother's milk. Darkness will make you strong." If darkness is not the enemy, but an ally, how does that reflect on the light, on fire, on everything Melisandre believes is the only way to defeat the Long Night?
(Oh, and just in case you are thinking maybe the Three-Eyed Raven isn't actually Bloodraven, he tells Bran his name was once Brynden, happens to be missing an eye, has long white hair, pale white skin, and a wine stain birthmark. I mean, as a person he looked like if a weirwood tree wished to be a real boy. It's him. It is known.)
All of this clouds the idea of this being a war between light and dark/fire and ice. It would indicate that the Three-Eyed Raven, the one that fought to protect Westeros time and again, is still doing that by training Bran, so we should put some trust in his motives, and probably also his wisdom. By extension we might not trust in Melisandre’s beliefs, which means we might not trust in dragons as a savior, because this does not seem to be a clear cut war between the light and the dark, of fire OR ice. Rather, the hero of mankind will sing the song of ice AND fire.
It also seems that the Three-Eyed Raven is not above doing what is necessary, even if it is not honorable, a lesson that Starks have been slow to learn. If he would kill Aenys Blackfyre, sacrificing his own honor in the name of potentially saving more lives, and rain down arrows on his brother, what else would he do? What would he ask of Bran?
Bran is given a weirwod paste in the books to eat, one that he is told will awaken his greenseer abilities and allow him to become one with the trees, the next step in going past warging to become as powerful as the Three-Eyed Raven. Might Bran be consigning himself to this life under the ground? Also, I don’t want to ruin a crazy, possibly true theory, but I encourage you to strongly look into the idea of what this paste is made up of. It's kind of nuts, but in the way that seems way too plausible.
Bran might end up being the most important person to this entire story. Not Jon, not Daenerys, not anyone else, but Bran, with his abilities to see through time and to warg, maybe even into dragons. Those skills are being awakened and trained by a man that knows the responsibility of power and duty, about the decisions one has to make to save lives, and the lives that must be taken to do that. That man is extolling the virtue of darkness at a time when the Long Night is coming. It runs counter to the idea of a war between the light and the dark.
How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have? Hopefully enough to see what must be done to save the realms of men.
What do you think the life of Brynden Rivers can tell us about where the Three-Eyed Raven is leading Bran? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.