Untangling the Meereenese Knot, Part I: Who Poisoned the Locusts?

Meereen. The mere word probably makes you groan. It’s considered to be the weakest, most frustrating plotline in ADWD, and perhaps in in the whole series. It’s thought to be where GRRM lost the plot and spent endless chapters on pointless filler. The solutions seem so obvious, the villains seem obviously evil one-dimensional caricatures. And many fans see it as the plotline that ruined Dany’s character, revealing her to be a naive, incompetent, lovesick girl.

I used to agree with all of those criticisms — but I’ve come to believe that they’re all actually quite wrong. In these essays I’ll debunk them. After a reread (or several), and much productive discussion on various forums, I now firmly believe that ADWD is the smartest, most complex, and most thought-provoking book in the series. It is very carefully constructed, yet quite subtle and therefore rewarding of rereads, close analysis, and an effort to engage. In particular, the Meereen plotline is quite ingeniously constructed by Martin to mislead fans in certain ways. Often, the truth there is the opposite of what it appears on the surface.

I’ll be delving deep into Dany’s decisions, her character development, Meereenese politics, the overall themes Martin intends with the Meereen plotline, and how it’s all setting up the future of the series. But I’ll start near the end of the book, with one neat little case study that doesn’t involve Dany at all, but shows there’s more than meets the eye in Meereen:

Who Poisoned The Locusts?

 Hizdahr had stocked their box with flagons of chilled wine and sweetwater, with figs, dates, melons, and pomegranates, with pecans and peppers and a big bowl of honeyed locusts. Strong Belwas bellowed, “Locusts!” as he seized the bowl and began to crunch them by the handful. “Those are very tasty,” advised Hizdahr. “You ought to try a few yourself, my love. They are rolled in spice before the honey, so they are sweet and hot at once.” “That explains the way Belwas is sweating,” Dany said. “I believe I will content myself with figs and dates.” (DANY IX)

During the celebration marking the peace deal, this bowl of poisoned locusts is placed in Dany’s box. Belwas eats the entire bowl, and quickly becomes very seriously ill. This is all unfolding concurrently with the chaos of Drogon’s attack on the fighting pits and Dany’s departure, so it doesn’t get a great deal of attention in the chapter itself. But afterward, Barristan becomes convinced that Dany’s new husband Hizdahr zo Loraq and/or the Harpy poisoned the locusts to try to kill Dany. Using this as a pretext, Barristan launches a coup and removes Hizdahr from power. Most readers come away quite impressed that the old Kingsguard man learned to play the game of thrones and took some bold action to clear up Meereen’s problems and go after Dany’s enemies.

Except… there is very little evidence implicating Hizdahr, and if Hizdahr is the culprit, the timing and setting of this assassination attempt make very little sense.

  • Dany had just agreed to a peace deal giving the Harpy and Meereenese nobles much of what they seemed to want — Hizdahr as co-ruler and a re-opening of the fighting pits. Hizdahr and his men had just won unfettered access to Dany and her court. Why then have her murdered so publicly, right then, rather than in private?
  • The Harpy has been shown to be very strategic — they could completely halt Meereen’s insurgent killings, or restart them, in a single night. Yet if they are behind the poisoning, it is incredibly sloppy, random, and with very uncertain consequences. The 8,000 Unsullied remain the most powerful fighting force in the city — who knows how they’d react? Or Dany’s freedmen? Not to mention the dragons.
  •  If Hizdahr knew about the locusts, wouldn’t he try to ensure that Dany alone would eat them? What was his backup plan if somebody else did, or if Dany didn’t want any (as proved to be the case?)
  •  Plus, when we’ve seen poison strategically deployed in this series, the poisoner has always lined up a patsy — who is the patsy here? (The Dornish had only shown up only very recently.) Hizdahr is standing right there, he is known to have supplied the food to the box, and Barristan has just seen him suggest that Dany try the locusts. With all that in mind, it’s far more likely that Hizdahr is the patsy.

Let’s look for another possible culprit. The poisoning happened immediately after Dany agreed to a peace deal with both the Meereenese nobles and the Yunkai’i. Who lost the most from that deal? Who lost badly enough that he might do something desperate?

The Shavepate: Meereen’s Own Petyr Baelish

The Shavepate was absent as well. The first thing Hizdahr had done upon being crowned was to remove him from command of the Brazen Beasts, replacing him with his own cousin, the plump and pasty Marghaz zo Loraq. (DANY VIII)

Funnily enough, the very biggest loser from the peace deal happens to be the very person who presents 100% of the arguments and evidence Barristan relies on to implicate Hizdahr as the poisoner. Imagine that! Let’s take a closer look at Skahaz mo Kandaq.

By shaving, Skahaz had put old Meereen behind him to accept the new, and his kin had done the same after his example. Others followed, though whether from fear, fashion, or ambition, Dany could not say; shavepates, they were called. Skahaz was the Shavepate … and the vilest of traitors to the Sons of the Harpy and their ilk. (DANY I)

Skahaz is a noble, and yet he quickly chose to opportunistically side with Dany and join her regime. He would therefore be viewed as a traitor to his class and collaborator by the other noble families and the Harpy, and in return he’d view them as his mortal enemies. Additionally, the Shavepate’s family is viewed as inferior to Hizdahr’s family, and there has been “blood” between the two families in the past:

“Hizdahr zo Loraq,” Galazza Galare said firmly. Dany did not trouble to feign surprise. “Why Hizdahr? Skahaz is noble born as well.” “Skahaz is Kandaq, Hizdahr Loraq. Your Radiance will forgive me, but only one who is not herself Ghiscari would not understand the difference. Oft have I heard that yours is the blood of Aegon the Conqueror, Jaehaerys the Wise, and Daeron the Dragon. The noble Hizdahr is of the blood of Mazdhan the Magnificent, Hazrak the Handsome, and Zharaq the Liberator.” (DANY IV)

…The Green Grace says there is blood between Loraq and Kandaq, and the Shavepate never made a secret of his disdain for my lord husband. (DANY VIII)

Throughout ADWD, Shavepate has been urging Dany to kill the other nobles, who just so happen to be his own enemies. He tells her peace is impossible, that she’s being naive. He constantly tries to provoke a war.

“You have no lack of enemies, Your Grace. You can see their pyramids from your terrace. Zhak, Hazkar, Ghazeen, Merreq, Loraq, all the old slaving families. Pahl. Pahl, most of all. A house of women now. Bitter old women with a taste for blood. Women do not forget. Women do not forgive.” (DANY I)

…The Shavepate has a harder heart than mine. They had fought about the hostages half a dozen times. “The Sons of the Harpy are laughing in their pyramids,” Skahaz said, just this morning. “What good are hostages if you will not take their heads?” (DANY IV)

…“Every man on that list has kin within the city. Sons and brothers, wives and daughters, mothers and fathers. Let my Brazen Beasts seize them. Their lives will win you back those ships.” “If I send the Brazen Beasts into the pyramids, it will mean open war inside the city. I have to trust in Hizdahr. I have to hope for peace.” Dany held the parchment above a candle and watched the names go up in flame, while Skahaz glowered at her. (DANY V)

He keeps telling Dany to kill the child hostages taken from noble families. He says it’s necessary to show the nobles she means business — but it would have the side effect of hardening the nobles against Dany, making her appear a monster, preventing any peace deal, and ensuring the war Shavepate wants. But Dany refuses. Instead, she makes peace with the nobles. She marries a man from a family that hates Shavepate’s family. And Shavepate is summarily fired once the peace is agreed to.

So Shavepate has a clear motive. And the poison would absolutely achieve his goals. Littlefinger had Jon Arryn poisoned (and had a patsy to pin it on, by blaming it on the Lannisters) so he could sow mistrust between the Starks and Lannisters, and start a war to improve his personal position. Shavepate is running the same play, though perhaps with a bit more desperation because of his sudden loss of power. The poisoning, as outlined above, is a sloppy and random gesture — but it makes perfect sense for someone whose only goal is to blow up the peace. No matter who eats the locusts, mistrust will result and the peace will be damaged — and the Shavepate can use that to his advantage.

Does he have the means or opportunity? Funnily enough, as Dany heads to the fighting pits where the poisoned locusts await, it’s mentioned that Dany would usually be guarded by Unsullied, but just today she is being guarded by the Brazen Beasts, the fighting force that Shavepate put together and still controls:

“I would be happier if you had Unsullied guards about you today, Your Grace,” the old knight said, as Hizdahr went to greet his cousin. “Half of these Brazen Beasts are untried freedmen.” And the other half are Meereenese of doubtful loyalty, he left unsaid. Selmy mistrusted all the Meereenese, even shavepates. “And untried they shall remain unless we try them.” (DANY IX)

…[after the poisoning] “The Beasts are still mine. Do not forget it.” The Shavepate’s voice was muffled by his mask, but Selmy could hear the anger in it. (BARRISTAN I)

Finally, and perhaps most suggestively to me, the key “evidence” Barristan gets is that Shavepate has captured Hizdahr’s confectioner, who has confessed. Barristan demands to see the man and question him — this occurs offscreen, but since Barristan proceeds with the coup, he has apparently gotten answers to his satisfaction. Yet it’s already been established in the book that Shavepate has a talent for torturing people into false confessions…

The Brazen Beasts had taken dozens of the Harpy’s Sons, and those who had survived their capture had yielded names when questioned sharply … too many names, it seemed to her. (DANY V)

Implications: Barristan the Peacebreaker

The Shavepate being the true poisoner might seem like a cool little Easter Egg, but it actually has a great many implications to how we should view the Meereen plotline as a whole. It shows that GRRM wrote the Meereen plotline very subtly and carefully, with intricate schemes underneath. It shows that we should not necessarily trust our POV characters’ impressions about Meereenese politics.

It also shows that GRRM can write a character arc that reads one way on the surface, but has a completely different hidden meaning. As I mentioned, most readers cheer Barristan’s actions in these chapters, as the bold and badass moves of a Kingsguard man who’s discovered a surprising aptitude for the game of thrones. He’s often compared favorably to Ned. In reality, the Shavepate appears to be playing him just like Littlefinger played Ned.

“Why?” Doubts gnawed at him. “The Sons had stopped their killing. Hizdahr’s peace—”

“—is a sham. Not at first, no. The Yunkai’i were afraid of our queen, of her Unsullied, of her dragons. This land has known dragons before. Yurkhaz zo Yunzak had read his histories, he knew. Hizdahr as well. Why not a peace? Daenerys wanted it, they could see that. Wanted it too much. She should have marched to Astapor.” Skahaz moved closer. “That was before. The pit changed all. Daenerys gone, Yurkhaz dead. In place of one old lion, a pack of jackals. Bloodbeard … that one has no taste for peace. And there is more. Worse. Volantis has launched its fleet against us.”

“Volantis.” Selmy’s sword hand tingled. We made a peace with Yunkai. Not with Volantis. “You are certain?”

“Certain. The Wise Masters know. So do their friends. The Harpy, Reznak, Hizdahr. This king will open the city gates to the Volantenes when they arrive. All those Daenerys freed will be enslaved again. Even some who were never slaves will be fitted for chains. You may end your days in a fighting pit, old man. Khrazz will eat your heart.”

His head was pounding. “Daenerys must be told.”

Now, follow the (lack of) logic here. Shavepate admits Hizdahr’s peace was not a sham at first, until after the pit. So why would Hizdahr poison the locusts at the pit? Shavepate doesn’t even answer that question! He instead just changes the subject to the Yunkai’i and the Volantenes and proposes a dark conspiracy where every disparate group is plotting together against Dany. Note also that Barristan has “doubts” at first, but then his “sword hand tingled,” and then “his head was pounding,” and he’s convinced. Those descriptions hint pretty strongly that Barristan isn’t a bold game-player, he’s a dupe who’s in way over his head.

One final implication — maybe the most important — is, if the Harpy did not in fact poison the locusts, then there’s no indication that they were plotting to betray Dany and break the peace. Most readers come away from ADWD convinced that Dany’s peace was foolish and doomed — because her enemy the Harpy, the bad guy, did poison the locusts, right? But what if the bad guy had legitimately agreed to make a peace, and intended to stick with it? What if, instead, Martin has arranged the plotline so that it’s the good guy who chooses to throw a real peace away, and bring about the horrors of war, based on bad information and for bad reasons? What if the Green Grace is being completely honest here, to Barristan?

“Her Grace gave her hand to Hizdahr zo Loraq, made him her king and consort, restored the mortal art as he beseeched her. In return he gave her poisoned locusts.”

In return he gave her peace. Do not cast it away, ser, I beg you. Peace is the pearl beyond price. Hizdahr is of Loraq. Never would he soil his hands with poison. He is innocent.” (BARRISTAN IV)

And what if Martin pulled the same basic trick, writ large, with the rest of Dany’s plotline?

Next: Dany didn’t fail in Meereen — she succeeded.


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86 responses to “Untangling the Meereenese Knot, Part I: Who Poisoned the Locusts?

  1. AryaReady?

    This is very well thought out, and I’ve enjoyed reading it. I have a couple of questions for you, since you’ve obviously looked well in to Dany’s ADWD plotline.

    I have a question as to your thoughts about Quaithe…

    Quaithe warns Dany, “Beware the perfumed seneschal (Reznak),” and informs Dany of the impending arrival of the son’s sun, mummer’s dragon, etc… She tells Dany to trust none of them. At no point does Quaithe warn Dany about the Shavepate.

    Given your position on Skahaz in your essay, what are your thoughts on Quaithe warning Dany of Reznak, but not Skahaz?

    • AryaReady?

      Sorry I didn’t proofread before submitting… I didn’t mean to say “I have a couple questions…” then later say “I have a question…”

    • neverstatic

      Quaithe does warn: “Beware the perfumed seneschal (Reznak),” but it seemed pretty clear to me that wasn’t intended to refer to Reznak. It’s about Tyrion.

      During Tyrion’s chapters (7, 8, 9) he’s headed to Dany on board a Volantene trading cog named “Selaesori Qhoran”. Tyrion roughly translates that to “Stinky Steward”, but another possible translation would be “Perfumed Seneschal”. The ship itself is destroyed in a storm, and no one else on board seems to be important at all, so the only thing from the ship for Dany to “beware” is Tyrion.

      • neverstatic

        Edit: My mistake, Jorah, and the red priest Moquorro (that with Victarion now) were also onboard that ship. The warning could have been a reference to either of them.

  2. Mike Heywood

    I actually have a different theory on who the poisoner was. I think it was Daario, with Hizdahr as the intended target. He was definitely jealous of Hizdahr, as he made very clear, so he wanted to kill Hizdahr. But had he attempted to simply attack and stab him, he would have never gotten past the guards. So he resorted to poison. He chose to poison the locusts, because during his affair with Dany, he would have gotten an idea of her eating habits, and known that she wasn’t likely to eat locusts. He would have had to sneak into the kitchens, which would require stealth, but we know that he’s capable of that from the way he snuck through the camp to Dany’s tent in ASOS. He probably disguised himself as a Brazen Beast. It was a very risky plan, in which any number of things could (and did) go wrong, but this is Daario Naharis, he’s not going to be cautious. If you’received right about Daario symbolizing war, it fits very well that he would do something so likely to destroy the peace.

  3. Ab3nd

    If Danny died, the Wise masters would have cheered the loudest. No scenario would favor Shakaz: without Danny and her dragons he has no powerful allies in Mereen.Yunkay, Astapor and Volantis would still destroy the Shavepate and the unsullied, then resume slavery

    In the even that the poisoner turns out to be Shakaz, he must have meant to kill Hizdhar. A desperate way to break the peace in front of all the Wise Masters. The Brazen Beasts knew, they there to stop Danny from eating a locust by mistake. And surely one of those doubtfully loyal beasts told Rheznak, who warned Hizdar in turn. That’s why Hizdhar didn’t ate a single locust and why he urged Danny to try them.

    …Or maybe it was Hizdhar himself. He gets rid of Dany and overcomes the unsullied with the help of Yunkai, Astapor and Volantis. His line is restored to the throne, and his deed as poisoner helps ensure he stays there. With Dany dead, he would have no problem resuming the slave trade and making alliances with the rest of the cities. I don’t think he would care much if Belvas died in the process. And he clearly wants to kill the dragons, the only thing giving Danny any strategic advantage at the moment.

    • Moore Lake

      Except nobody actually died. Belwas ate a whole bowl and lived. Pretty weak poison… And it would fit the theory laid out here, where political consequences of the poisoning are the intent, rather than the actual murder.

      • Are we certain it was even poison? Belwas is strong indeed but if a bowl of locusts were poisoned – the whole bowl – any poisoner worth their nightshade is going to make a normal human’s portion enough to kill – which would undoubtedly kill Belwas no matter his size. Like you said, this indicates that the motive was the poisoning – not an assassination – but it seems a very risky move to take such a chance. What if Daenerys tried it and suddenly found a taste for locusts – ate more than her share – and actually did die? I suppose one of the Beasts could’ve accidentally knocked the bowl over after she’d consumed the ‘right’ amount.

        We have the cook admitting it was such – that the Harpy had his daughter – etc, but we also know that the Shavepate conducts some rather ‘enhanced’ interrogations and who do you think interrogated the cook? It could be he planned the whole thing – or it could be something else entirely –

        Now, we know GRRM loves history – history is full of tense political situations, powder kegs set off not deliberately but by happenstance – which at any rate become co-opted by one side or another as casus belli. Case for war. The one which first comes to mind is the Spanish-American war – you have a tense diplomatic climate, an incident which is immediately picked up and viewed as sabotage because THAT’s exactly what was being watched for (the loss of the USS Maine), but later turns out to be tragic happenstance (in our example, an internal explosion not linked in any way to sabotage).

        I don’t think we’ll ever get a satisfactory answer to ‘who spiked the locusts’ but trying to put myself in GRRM’s headspace as a student of history, I think it’s ultimately irrelevant. The Shavepate may have seized on the opportunity after the fact, or due to his harsh interrogation style inadvertently extracted a false confession – then a false cover story for said confession. This is what we often see in torture victims – to make the pain stop they say one thing, one slim morsel of what they believe the interrogator wants to hear, but then immediately recognizing the further peril in which they’ve placed themselves they ‘pass the buck’ – “yes I poisoned the locusts but you have to understand, they MADE me do it – they twisted my arm – they threatened my family” etc.

        I think we have to entertain the notion that Belwas’ poisoning may have just been food poisoning, or the natural result of eating a whole fucking bowl of large insects dipped in honey and rolled in spices. Belwas was a slave, could be he was so tempted to eat them because they were a delicacy he was denied in his prior life – I don’t know, this is pure conjecture on my part. But while I’m not a big man I have made the mistake of eating a whole bag of potato chips over the course of an evening, taking nyquil for a cold, and feeling as though I’d poisoned myself as a result.

        We have to look at this whole Mereen arc as being heavily informed by the US experiences in Afghanistan and ESPECIALLY Iraq – situations, dynamics, even the setting roughly mirrors these real-world events and we know that GRRM likes to pick from both distant and recent history (or current events, as they would have been at the time) to craft his stories. Now – viewing the plotline from both the perspective that Belwas was not deliberately poisoned is supported when we view the narrative through this historical lens because at the time of the book’s writing and publication, the ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ scandal was in full swing and the general consensus of all those involved – including eventually the military – was that torture is not an optimum means for extracting valuable information. We see this reinforced in the book – particularly in the case of the Shavepate – when his ‘sessions’ yield names – ‘too many’ names – this is absolutely consistent with the findings of the investigations into the US torture program post-9/11 – this would either be a case of GRRM leaving the news on in the background and unknowingly incorporating this – or doing it deliberately but I do not believe the timing and the rest of the loans from the Iraq Insurgency point to this as coincidence. So I highly doubt the confessions of the cook if they were taken under duress – we see this once more in his new book Fire and Blood – long story short, a member of the royal court at King’s Landing is taken and tortured such to the point that he was admit to literally ANYTHING – and the court fool even gets him to admit to things that happened before he was born.

        However, viewing the theory that the Shavepate was acting a-Baelish is ALSO consistent with this historical/topical framing. When GRRM was writing the book the US was attempting to hand most of their duties over to the Iraqis they’d put in power, and this resulted in a bloody sectarian conflict – the Iraq Civil War, in the late 2000’s – the US had sponsored Iraqi elections and supported the candidate which eventually won – a Shia who in turn appointed Shia leaders and favored them heavily and disproportionately favored Shia in the military and police force – when the US handed power over to him, he promptly turned around and began conducting bloody reprisals on the Sunni population of Iraq in reprisal for oppression dealt out previously by Saddam’s heavily-Sunni regime. This caused an upsurge in violence which led to a civil war and eventually even led to ISIS gaining short-lived support in their capture of Mosul and offensive into the heart of Iraq – while the bits with ISIS occurred AFTER GRRM had finished the book – the Shia reprisals were very much a thing during the process – much like the Shavepate beys for blood.

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  5. Reading this makes me realize that D&D didn’t see this, hence cut it from the show..

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  7. I know this is old, and maybe it is nothing but a hed herring, but nobody talks about the locusts masks the Brazen Beasts wear sometimes.

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  9. A.J.

    On YouTube, Preston Jacobs nails it (in my opinion)… The head of House Pahl in Meereen poisoned the locusts. Strong Belwas beheads his son, Oznak zo Pahl, then defecates on the body. He wants to repay him for the shame and embarrassment so he just does a slow torture of him with no intent on Dany eating them.

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  11. Abhi Prakash

    Wow. I realized skahaz might have been the poisoner but I never thought he was playing barristan . Damn if this is true that guy is smart as hell

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