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?