By the start of A Storm of Swords, much of Westeros has experienced horrors. Civilians have been raped and murdered, soldiers have been stabbed and burned, prominent noblemen have been maimed and killed, and families have been destroyed. The kingdom of Dorne, however, is at peace. It has stayed out of the War of Five Kings, and out of the series entirely. Then, one prince journeys to King’s Landing while another voyages east — and Dorne begins to drift toward war.
In this essay series, I’ll analyze the Dornish arc as a whole, and argue that it showcases themes that are crucial to Martin’s overall project. The late introduction of the Dornish, and the expanded emphasis on them in books 4-5, have been controversial among some readers. The addition of several new minor POVs and the seemingly “pointless” Quentyn arc have come in for particular criticism.
But this is a plotline that’s not about one particular character — it’s about a family, and a nation. I believe Oberyn’s errand, Doran’s secret plan, Arianne’s scheme, Quentyn’s voyage, the Sand Snakes’ warmongering and Ellaria’s fears should all be considered together, as part of a thematically coherent larger story that Martin is telling. We haven’t spent more than a few chapters in the head of any particular Dornish character, but in this arc Martin has created a multifaceted portrayal of a ruling family facing terribly weighty moral dilemmas about justice, vengeance, war — and most of all, about the potential deaths of innocents.
Doran’s Desires: Water Gardens, Fire and Blood
Doran Martell is a very conflicted man. His decision-making is governed by two competing desires. First, he desires revenge against the Lannisters for his sister’s murder during the sack of King’s Landing, as dramatically revealed near the end of AFFC:
She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”
“Vengeance.” His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. “Justice.” Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, “Fire and blood.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Doran has been nursing this grudge for seventeen years, and says he has been working to get that vengeance that entire time:
“I have worked at the downfall of Tywin Lannister since the day they told me of Elia and her children. It was my hope to strip him of all that he held most dear before I killed him.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
This “badass” revelation of Doran’s vengeful plans leads many readers to cheer him on. “Yeah, kill the Lannisters! Get your revenge!” But there is a second key trait of Doran’s that conflicts with this desire for bloody vengeance — a trait that makes him a much more interesting character. Namely, Doran is intensely aware of and concerned about the innocent lives that could be lost due to his desire for vengeance. This is established through Doran’s feelings about the Water Gardens, which are absolutely crucial to his internal conflict:
“I am eager to see her once again,” said Ser Balon. “And to visit your Water Gardens. I’ve heard they are very beautiful.”
“Beautiful and peaceful,” the prince said. “Cool breezes, sparkling water, and the laughter of children. The Water Gardens are my favorite place in this world, ser. One of my ancestors had them built to please his Targaryen bride and free her from the dust and heat of Sunspear. Daenerys was her name. She was sister to King Daeron the Good, and it was her marriage that made Dorne part of the Seven Kingdoms. The whole realm knew that the girl loved Daeron’s bastard brother Daemon Blackfyre, and was loved by him in turn, but the king was wise enough to see that the good of thousands must come before the desires of two, even if those two were dear to him. It was Daenerys who filled the gardens with laughing children. Her own children at the start, but later the sons and daughters of lords and landed knights were brought in to be companions to the boys and girls of princely blood. And one summer’s day when it was scorching hot, she took pity on the children of her grooms and cooks and serving men and invited them to use the pools and fountains too, a tradition that has endured till this day.” (ADWD AREO I)
Doran loves the Water Gardens, and uses them to remind himself that the good of his people should come before his own personal desires. He uses them to motivate himself to try and be a more moral ruler, as he elaborates further here:
Prince Doran shut his eyes and opened them again. Hotah could see his leg trembling underneath the blanket. “If you were not my brother’s daughters, I would send the three of you back to your cells and keep you there until your bones were grey. Instead I mean to take you with us to the Water Gardens. There are lessons there if you have the wit to see them.”
“Lessons?” said Obara. “All I’ve seen are naked children.”
“Aye,” the prince said. “I told the story to Ser Balon, but not all of it. As the children splashed in the pools, Daenerys watched from amongst the orange trees, and a realization came to her. She could not tell the high-born from the low. Naked, they were only children. All innocent, all vulnerable, all deserving of long life, love, protection. ‘There is your realm,’ she told her son and heir, ‘ remember them, in everything you do.’ My own mother said those same words to me when I was old enough to leave the pools. (ADWD AREO I)
This passage leads up to this important explanation of why Doran so far been so cautious about trying to achieve his revenge:
“It is an easy thing for a prince to call the spears, but in the end the children pay the price. For their sake, the wise prince will wage no war without good cause, nor any war he cannot hope to win.” (ADWD AREO I)
War is the only way Doran can get his vengeance. Yet he also has a responsibility to protect the people and children of Dorne — and war leads to dead children. So he is conflicted. Like Dany in ADWD, Doran has a desire for bloody retribution, but knows that it is in a certain sense deeply immoral, because of the innocents who will pay the price.
Later, when Arianne had gone, he put down his longaxe and lifted Prince Doran into his bed. “Until the Mountain crushed my brother’s skull, no Dornishmen had died in this War of the Five Kings,” the prince murmured softly, as Hotah pulled a blanket over him. “Tell me, Captain, is that my shame or my glory?” “That is not for me to say, my prince.” (ADWD AREO I)
In a culture where “glory” is so often measured by brave and bloody battlefield deeds, it is rather amazing that Doran thinks that simply staying out of a war and keeping one’s people alive might be a form of glory. And he’s right! So many wars sound good in theory and are dreadful in practice. The horrors of war have been dwelled on extensively in other plotlines, and the innocents do suffer most.
But he proceeds to plan for a war nonetheless.
Doran’s Plan: Trying to Have It Both Ways
Doran is quite aware that his desire for vengeance is dangerous. His concern for innocent life is amplified by Dorne’s smaller population and its limited ability to fight an offensive war against the rest of the Seven Kingdoms:
“Dorne is the least populous of the Seven Kingdoms. It pleased the Young Dragon to make all our armies larger when he wrote that book of his, so as to make his conquest that much more glorious, and it has pleased us to water the seed he planted and let our foes think us more powerful than we are, but a princess ought to know the truth. Valor is a poor substitute for numbers. Dorne cannot hope to win a war against the Iron Throne, not alone.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
So, Doran tries to balance both of his competing desires. He will attempt to achieve his vengeance — but only if he can minimize the risk to his people’s lives.
His first plan to do so involves a lot of waiting. He is willing to plan — setting up a marriage pact with Viserys Targaryen:
“It is a secret pact,” Dany said, “made in Braavos when I was just a little girl. Ser Willem Darry signed for us, the man who spirited my brother and myself away from Dragonstone before the Usurper’s men could take us. Prince Oberyn Martell signed for Dorne, with the Sealord of Braavos as witness.” She handed the parchment to Ser Barristan, so he might read it for himself. “The alliance is to be sealed by a marriage, it says. In return for Dorne’s help overthrowing the Usurper, my brother Viserys is to take Prince Doran’s daughter Arianne for his queen.” (ADWD DANY VII)
But he will keep this pact completely secret — from Viserys, and even from his own children. And he’ll do little to hasten the marriage, unless Viserys one day finds an army that can make the war winnable:
“If my brother Viserys had known that he had a Dornish princess waiting for him, he would have crossed to Sunspear as soon as he was old enough to wed.”
“And thereby brought Robert’s warhammer down upon himself, and Dorne as well,” said Frog. “My father was content to wait for the day that Prince Viserys found his army.” (ADWD DANY VII)
Viserys of course dies, ruining this “Plan A” — but there is no harm to the people of Dorne. They have ventured nothing and lost nothing.
“It was a pot of molten gold. We princes make our careful plans and the gods smash them all awry.” Prince Doran made a weary gesture with a chafed red hand. (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Then, at some point, Doran gets the fantastic news that Daenerys Targaryen has hatched three dragons. The potential offensive power of the dragons would obviously be desired by anyone. But for Doran, so intensely concerned with minimizing Dornish casualties, the power of the dragons particularly resonates. Overall, Doran believes that the dragons could allow him to achieve his revenge without having the children of Dorne pay the price.
I don’t believe things will work out so neatly.
Meanwhile, Doran dispatches his brother Oberyn to King’s Landing. We are not privy to exactly what either brother was thinking here, or what instructions Doran might have given Oberyn. But it’s clear the two brothers are working closely together.
“Oberyn was ever the viper. Deadly, dangerous, unpredictable. No man dared tread on him. I was the grass. Pleasant, complaisant, sweet-smelling, swaying with every breeze. Who fears to walk upon the grass? But it is the grass that hides the viper from his enemies and shelters him until he strikes. Your father and I worked more closely than you know…” (ADWD AREO I)
Now, Oberyn has to know that Quentyn has departed to seek Daenerys and her dragons. (According to Arys Oakheart’s POV chapter, Quentyn was already gone when Myrcella arrived at Dorne — which would’ve been before the beginning of Book 3.)
So, Oberyn’s actions should be evaluated with this in mind. His repeated demands that he is only seeking “justice” for his sister’s killers are somewhat of a smokescreen, hiding his real endgame — the plan for a dragon invasion and conquest of Westeros:
“I have hungered for a long time. Though not for food. Pray tell me, when will the justice be served?”
“Justice.” Yes, that is why he’s here, I should have seen that at once. …”I did not come for some mummer’s show of an inquiry. I came for justice for Elia and her children, and I will have it. Starting with this lummox Gregor Clegane . . . but not, I think, ending there. Before he dies, the Enormity That Rides will tell me whence came his orders, please assure your lord father of that.” (ASOS TYRION V)
For most of A Storm of Swords, Oberyn is content to wait around, without causing any particular trouble… or is he? Sean T. Collins lays out a compelling case that Oberyn may have been up to something big behind the scenes:
“Your father,” said Prince Oberyn, “may not live forever.” Something about the way he said it made the hairs on the back of Tyrion’s neck bristle. Suddenly he was mindful of Elia again, and all that Oberyn had said as they crossed the field of ashes. He wants the head that spoke the words, not just the hand that swung the sword… (ASOS TYRION IX)
…“To be sure, I have much to thank your sister for. If not for her accusation at the feast, it might well be you judging me instead of me judging you.” The prince’s eyes were dark with amusement. “Who knows more of poison than the Red Viper of Dorne, after all?” (ASOS TYRION IX)
“Widow’s blood, this one is called, for the color. A cruel potion. It shuts down a man’s bladder and bowels, until he drowns in his own poisons.” (Pycelle, ASOS TYRION IX)
He found his father where he knew he’d find him, seated in the dimness of the privy tower, bedrobe hiked up around his hips… ….For once, his father did what Tyrion asked him. The proof was the sudden stench, as his bowels loosened in the moment of death. Well, he was in the right place for it, Tyrion thought. But the stink that filled the privy gave ample evidence that the oft-repeated jape about his father was just another lie. Lord Tywin Lannister did not, in the end, shit gold. (ASOS TYRION XI)
The King’s Hand was rotting visibly. His face had taken on a greenish tinge, and his eyes were deeply sunken, two black pits. Fissures had opened in his cheeks, and a foul white fluid was seeping through the joints of his splendid gold-and-crimson armor to pool beneath his body. (AFFC JAIME I)
I find Sean’s theory that Oberyn poisoned Tywin to be very persuasive. We have a named poison that would do the job, consistent symptoms, and a very odd comment about “your father may not live forever” that stands out to both Tyrion and the reader. If Oberyn did do this, it was certainly not part of the original plan, since Doran doesn’t know anything about it:
“It was my hope to strip him of all that he held most dear before I killed him, but it would seem his dwarf son has robbed me of that pleasure. I take some small solace in knowing that he died a cruel death at the hands of the monster that he himself begot.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
But as an improvisation, poisoning Tywin makes a great deal of sense:
- First, it is an opportunity to take out the true culprit behind Elia’s murder, in a particularly painful way, without leaving any fingerprints. Would Oberyn really turn down such an opportunity if it arose?
- Second, it helps the larger plan — it removes the Lannisters’ most fearsome and formidable strategist, thus easing the way for Dany and Quentyn’s eventual invasion.
- Third, it parallels Oberyn’s behavior regarding Gregor Clegane and the trial by combat. That was certainly an improvisational response to a situation that could never have been foreseen by Doran — and also involves the use of poison.
- Fourth, Oberyn tells Tyrion they will head back to Dorne together after he defeats Gregor. Why would Oberyn depart the capital and leave his most dangerous enemy, Tywin, standing and in command? Departing does, however, ensure that Oberyn is far away if Tywin does unexpectedly drop dead.
- Fifth, it explains why Oberyn would be willing to risk dying in the fight against Gregor, who was merely “the hand that swung the sword,” if he has already dealt with “the head that spoke the words.” Look at what he says right before the fight begins:
“Elia and her children have waited long for justice.” Prince Oberyn pulled on soft red leather gloves, and took up his spear again. “But this day they shall have it.” (ASOS TYRION X)
Sand Snakes and Blood Oranges
Whether Oberyn poisoned Tywin or not, both Tywin and Gregor are dead by AFFC — or mostly dead, in Gregor’s case. But this “justice” came at the cost of Oberyn’s own life. His death leads to a new round of demands for vengeance, and unleashes forces in Dornish society that Doran will have a difficult time controlling.
So our first Dornish POV chapter, in AFFC, begins with this evocative imagery:
“The blood oranges are well past ripe,” the prince observed in a weary voice, when the captain rolled him onto the terrace.
After that he did not speak again for hours.
It was true about the oranges. A few had fallen to burst open on the pale pink marble. The sharp sweet smell of them filled Hotah’s nostrils each time he took a breath. No doubt the prince could smell them too, as he sat beneath the trees in the rolling chair Maester Caleotte had made for him, with its goose-down cushions and rumbling wheels of ebony and iron.
For a long while the only sounds were the children splashing in the pools and fountains, and once a soft plop as another orange dropped onto the terrace to burst. Then, from the far side of the palace, the captain heard the faint drumbeat of boots on marble.
Obara. He knew her stride; long-legged, hasty, angry. (AFFC AREO I)
It’s a beautiful passage symbolizing how war and death are soon to come to Dorne. Doran watches the Water Gardens, the innocent children he loves so much, enjoying peace and happiness. But he knows that the “blood oranges” are past ripe — that war is approaching. Some of the oranges fall and splatter on on the terrace of the Gardens. Then, the “drumbeat” of Obara Sand’s boots are heard in the Gardens — the drumbeat of war, which Obara and the Sand Snakes will now demand.
“My father has been murdered.”
“He was slain in single combat during a trial by battle,” Prince Doran said. “By law, that is no murder.” (AFFC AREO I)
Obara is infuriated by Oberyn’s fate, even though Doran tries to point out the obvious — he willingly risked his own life in a lawful combat. She wants to lash out blindly and attack Oldtown, for some reason. Doran attempts to get her to consider innocent life, but she just wants blood:
The prince gestured toward the pools. “Obara, look at the children, if it please you.”
“It does not please me. I’d get more pleasure from driving my spear into Lord Tywin’s belly. I’ll make him sing ‘The Rains of Castamere’ as I pull his bowels out and look for gold.”
“Look,” the prince repeated. “I command you.” (AFFC AREO I)
Nym and Tyene Sand make similar demands for violence:
“Obara would make Oldtown our father’s funeral pyre, but I am not so greedy. Four lives will suffice for me. Lord Tywin’s golden twins, as payment for Elia’s children. The old lion, for Elia herself. And last of all the little king, for my father.”
“The boy has never wronged us.”
“The boy is a bastard born of treason, incest, and adultery, if Lord Stannis can be believed… Only royal blood can wash out my father’s murder.”
“Oberyn died during single combat, fighting in a matter that was none of his concern. I do not call that murder…” …
…Prince Doran sighed. “Obara cries to me for war. Nym will be content with murder. And you?”
“War,” said Tyene, “though not my sister’s war. Dornishmen fight best at home, so I say let us hone our spears and wait. When the Lannisters and the Tyrells come down on us, we shall bleed them in the passes and bury them beneath the blowing sands, as we have a hundred times before… we need only hail Myrcella as the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and lawful heir to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and wait for the lions to come.” (AFFC AREO I)
The populace of Sunspear also seems eager for war, and the situation seems dangerous for Doran:
Prince Doran had closed the draperies of his litter as soon as the Spear Tower came in sight, yet still the smallfolk shouted out to him as the litter passed. The Sand Snakes have stirred them to a boil, the captain thought uneasily… “The prince is dead!” a woman shrilled behind him. “To spears!” a man bellowed from a balcony. “Doran!” called some highborn voice. “To the spears!” Hotah gave up looking for the speakers; the press was too thick, and a third of them were shouting. “To spears! Vengeance for the Viper!” By the time they reached the third gate, the guards were shoving people aside to clear a path for the prince’s litter, and the crowd was throwing things. One ragged boy darted past the spearmen with a half-rotten pomegranate in one hand, but when he saw Areo Hotah in his path, with longaxe at the ready, he let the fruit fall unthrown and beat a quick retreat. Others farther back let fly with lemons, limes, and oranges, crying “War! War! To the spears!” One of the guards was hit in the eye with a lemon, and the captain himself had an orange splatter off his foot. (AFFC AREO I)
Knowing Dorne is not yet ready to fight — that they must wait for Daenerys and her dragons — Doran attempts to keep the dogs of war at bay, by locking up the Sand Snakes.
“I want this done as quickly and as quietly as possible, with no blood spilled.”
“Quick and quiet and bloodless, aye. What is your command?”
“You will find my brother’s daughters, take them into custody, and confine them in the cells atop the Spear Tower…. ….I shall not sleep until I know that they are safe and under guard.” (AFFC AREO I)
This is a temporary measure, though, and a bit of a misdirection. As outlined above, Doran feels the same intense desire for vengeance that the Sand Snakes do. He fully intends on giving them their war — he just wants to do it in a smarter way, from more of a position of strength, with dragons — so he can try to keep more of his own people alive.
Will he succeed? I’ll close this section by returning to the blood oranges at the Water Gardens — the past-ripe ones that fall down and spatter on the terrace. This scene seems to symbolize that the blood of innocent Dornish children will soon be spilled in Doran’s war.
He was still groping for some words to say when another orange fell with a heavy splat, no more than a foot from where the prince was seated. Doran winced at the sound, as if somehow it had hurt him. “Enough,” he sighed, “it is enough. Leave me, Areo. Let me watch the children for a few more hours.” (AFFC AREO I)
In another passage fraught with symbolism, Littlefinger emphasizes to Sansa that the blood orange tastes sweet, but leaves sticky fingers:
Lord Petyr cut the blood orange in two with his dagger and offered half to Sansa. “The lads are far too treacherous to be part of any such scheme . . . and Osmund has become especially unreliable since he joined the Kingsguard. That white cloak does things to a man, I find. Even a man like him.” He tilted his chin back and squeezed the blood orange, so the juice ran down into his mouth. “I love the juice but I loathe the sticky fingers,” he complained, wiping his hands. “Clean hands, Sansa. Whatever you do, make certain your hands are clean.” Sansa spooned up some juice from her own orange. (ASOS SANSA VI)
Our narrator and ax-man Areo Hotah also thinks about the blood oranges’ sweet taste and their sticky “red juice”:
Only when both edges were sharp enough to shave with did the captain lay his ash-and- iron wife down on the bed… I should have gathered up the oranges that fell, he thought, and went to sleep dreaming of the tart sweet taste of them, and the sticky feel of the red juice on his fingers. (AFFC AREO I)
Vengeance, like blood oranges, might taste sweet, but can prove rather messy. It will not be so easy for Doran to keep his hands clean, or to keep those children alive.