As A Feast for Crows opens, the Sand Snakes openly press for war, and Doran Martell secretly plans for it. Both want vengeance, and both are fixated on King’s Landing. Arianne Martell has different aims. This essay will discuss her motivations, her main character traits, and her disastrous first attempt to play the game of thrones — and its thematic importance for the larger Dornish arc. Through Myrcella’s fate, we see that it truly is the children who pay the price, when nobles play the game of thrones.
(Spoiler note: This essay will focus on AFFC, but I’ll briefly quote Arianne’s preview chapter from The Winds of Winter toward the end.)
A War for Ambition
Arianne cares little about the events in King’s Landing — she practically never thinks about her uncle’s death, or about Elia’s fate. Though she pays lip service to the idea that Myrcella should be crowned because it’s her birthright, and that she’d be a better ruler — she doesn’t really care about that very much. Here, her thoughts betray what she really wants:
“It occurred to me as I was pissing that this plan of yours may not yield you what you want.”
“And what is it I want, ser?”
“The Sand Snakes freed. Vengeance for Oberyn and Elia. Do I know the song? You want a little taste of lion blood.”
That, and my birthright. I want Sunspear, and my father’s seat. I want Dorne. “I want justice.”
“Call it what you will.” (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne is driven by her fierce ambition and her fear that her brother Quentyn is plotting to steal Dorne out from under her. She grows emotional and angry whenever she thinks or speaks about Quentyn.
“I am not the heir my father wants, he has made that plain. Our laws constrain him, but he would sooner have my brother follow him, I know it…. I have known the truth since I was four-and-ten… I found a letter lying incomplete beside it, a letter to my brother Quentyn, off at Yronwood. My father told Quentyn that he must do all that his maester and his master-at-arms required of him, because ‘one day you will sit where I sit and rule all Dorne, and a ruler must be strong of mind and body.’” A tear crept down Arianne’s soft cheek. “My father’s words, written in his own hand. They burned themselves into my memory. I cried myself to sleep that night, and many nights thereafter.” (AFFC ARYS I)
Arianne knew better. If Quentyn has the Golden Company behind him . . . “Beneath the gold the bitter steel,” was their cry. You will need bitter steel and more, brother, if you think to set me aside. Arianne was loved in Dorne, Quentyn little known. No company of sellswords could change that. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
She leaned her back against a fluted pillar and wondered if her brother was looking at the same stars tonight, wherever he might be. Do you see the white one, Quentyn? That is Nymeria’s star, burning bright, and that milky band behind her, those are ten thousand ships. She burned as bright as any man, and so shall I. You will not rob me of my birthright! (AFFC ARIANNE I)
This is important thematically because Martin could easily have chosen to make Arianne driven by pure vengeance, like the Sand Snakes — in fact, the plotline would be much simpler that way. But Martin is instead telling a more complex story about how war can arise. He establishes that elements of Dornish society desire vengeance for Oberyn, and that Dornish law may favor Myrcella’s claim — but then shows how Arianne uses both of those to try and start a war for fundamentally selfish purposes.
In that respect, Arianne is actually more similar to self-advancing schemers like Littlefinger, than she is to the vengeful Sand Snakes. She is quite a good manipulator, repeatedly using people to advance her own ends. Here with Arys:
“Myrcella would want you to be happy, and she is fond of me as well. She will give us leave to marry if we ask.”Arianne put her arms around him and laid her face against his chest. The top of her head came to just beneath his chin. “You can have me and your white cloak both, if that is what you want.”
She is tearing me apart. “You know I do, but . . .” (AFFC ARYS I)
Here with Myrcella:
“Princess Arianne?” The girl threw her arms around her. “Why do they call me queen? Did something bad happen to Tommen?”
“He fell in with evil men, Your Grace,” Arianne said, “and I fear they have conspired with him to steal your throne.”
“My throne? You mean, the Iron Throne?” The girl was more confused than ever. “He never stole that, Tommen is . . .”
“. . . younger than you, surely?”
“I am older by a year.”
“That means the Iron Throne by rights is yours,” Arianne said. “Your brother is only a little boy, you must not blame him. He has bad counselors . . . but you have friends.” (AFFC ARIANNE I)
And later, with the servant girl Cedra:
Cedra was her best hope; the girl was young, naive, and gullible. Garin had boasted of bedding her once, the princess recalled. … Prince Oberyn had armed each of his daughters so they need never be defenseless, but Arianne Martell had no weapon but her guile. And so she smiled and charmed, and asked nothing in return of Cedra, neither word nor nod. The next day at supper, she nattered at the girl again as she was serving. This time she contrived to mention Garin. Cedra glanced up shyly at his name and almost spilled the wine that she was pouring. So it is that way, is it? thought Arianne…
…It was four more days and two more baths before the girl was hers. “Please,” Cedra finally whispered, after Arianne had painted a vivid picture of Garin throwing himself from the window of his cell, to taste freedom one last time before he died…
…“You can smuggle out a letter for me,” said the princess. “Will do you that? Will you take the risk . . . for Garin?” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Despite her constant manipulation of others, Arianne demonstrates an impressive capacity for wishful thinking. She repeatedly tells herself that things will go just as she hopes, and that her actions will cause no harm to anyone:
We are seven, Arianne realized as they rode. She had not thought of that before, but it seemed a good omen for their cause. Seven riders on their way to glory. One day the singers will make all of us immortal. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Even when he was younger and stronger, Doran Martell had been a cautious man much given to silences and secrets. It is time he put his burdens down, but I will suffer no slights to his honor or his person. She would return him to his Water Gardens, to live out what years remained him surrounded by laughing children and the smell of limes and oranges. Yes, and Quentyn can keep him company. Once I crown Myrcella and free the Sand Snakes, all Dorne will rally to my banners. The Yronwoods might declare for Quentyn, but alone they were no threat. If they went over to Tommen and the Lannisters, she would have Darkstar destroy them root and branch. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
So, driven by her ambition, helped by those she’s manipulated, and fortified by wishful thinking, she launches her plot to crown Myrcella.
Myrcella and Darkstar
The spectre of danger to innocents and children recurs constantly throughout the Dorne plotline. Here, as Arianne’s queenmaking subplot unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that she is playing with Myrcella’s life. This has been set up previously, in a conversation between Doran and Arys Oakheart:
If the bluntness of the question had offended him, Prince Doran hid it well. “Yet this peace is fragile . . . as fragile as your princess.”
“Only a beast would harm a little girl.”
“My sister Elia had a little girl as well. Her name was Rhaenys. She was a princess too.” The prince sighed. “Those who would plunge a knife into Princess Myrcella do not bear her any malice, no more than Ser Amory Lorch did when he killed Rhaenys, if indeed he did. They seek only to force my hand. For if Myrcella should be slain in Dorne whilst under my protection, who would believe my denials?”
“No one shall ever harm Myrcella whilst I live.”
“A noble vow,” said Doran Martell with a faint smile, “but you are only one man, ser.” (AFFC ARYS I)
Arianne doesn’t mean Myrcella any malice. She certainly doesn’t want to plunge a knife into her. But she is using Myrcella to advance her own ends, in a way that places the child in danger.
“You do know that when my father returns to the Water Gardens he plans to take Myrcella with him?”
“To keep her safe from those who would do her harm.”
“No. To keep her away from those who’d seek to crown her.” (AFFC ARYS I)
Arianne says she wants to queen Myrcella, not harm her. This brings to mind a conversation between Tyrion and Illyrio on the same topic:
“My niece Myrcella is in Dorne, as it happens. And I have half a mind to make her a queen.”
Illyrio smiled as his serving men spooned out bowls of black cherries in sweet cream for them both. “What has this poor child done to you that you would wish her dead? …To queen her is to kill her. Dorne might rise for Myrcella, but Dorne alone is not enough.” (ADWD TYRION I)
Despite her claims that she has Myrcella’s best interest at heart, she enlists Gerold Dayne, the Darkstar, in her plot. Darkstar has a similar thematic function to Daario Naharis. He is so ruthless that he would not hesitate to try and kill a child. He is also both incredibly attractive to and feared by Arianne:
Arianne watched him warily. He is highborn enough to make a worthy consort, she thought. Father would question my good sense, but our children would be as beautiful as dragonlords. If there was a handsomer man in Dorne, she did not know him. Ser Gerold Dayne had an aquiline nose, high cheekbones, a strong jaw. He kept his face clean-shaven, but his thick hair fell to his collar like a silver glacier, divided by a streak of midnight black. He has a cruel mouth, though, and a crueler tongue. His eyes seemed black as he sat outlined against the dying sun, sharpening his steel, but she had looked at them from a closer vantage and she knew that they were purple. Dark purple. Dark and angry. He must have felt her gaze upon him, for he looked up from his sword, met her eyes, and smiled. Arianne felt heat rushing to her face. I should never have brought him. If he gives me such a look when Arys is here, we will have blood on the sand. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne thinks she is skilled enough to use the Darkstar. But as Doran will chide her later:
“You were a fool to make him part of this. Darkstar is the most dangerous man in Dorne. You and he have done us all great harm.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Darkstar’s ruthlessness contrasts with Arianne’s wishful thinking. He symbolizes the dangerous and cruel truths of war. Here he argues to kill Myrcella, and Arianne firmly maintains that this is a line she’ll never cross:
Crowning the Lannister girl is a hollow gesture. She will never sit the Iron Throne. Nor will you get the war you want. The lion is not so easily provoked.”
“The lion’s dead. Who knows which cub the lioness prefers?”
“The one in her own den.” Ser Gerold drew his sword. It glimmered in the starlight, sharp as lies. “This is how you start a war. Not with a crown of gold, but with a blade of steel.”
I am no murderer of children. “Put that away. Myrcella is under my protection.”(AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne still believes at this point that she can use Myrcella as a piece in the game of thrones without harming her. Darkstar will teach her the error of her ways. As Doran says:
“It is an easy thing for a prince to call the spears, but in the end the children pay the price.” (ADWD AREO I)
Plans Smashed All Awry
Out into the sunlight stepped Areo Hotah, longaxe in hand.
Garin jerked to a halt. Arianne felt as though an axe had caught her in the belly. It was not supposed to end this way. This was not supposed to happen… (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne’s queenmaking plot ends in disaster. As it fails, she keeps thinking and saying that this “was not supposed to happen.” Her fantasy of a bloodless and glorious success is now brutally contradicted in front of her.
…“No,” some girl was shouting, some foolish little girl, “no, please, this was not supposed to happen.” She could hear Myrcella shrieking too, her voice shrill with fear…
…Arianne did not remember climbing from her horse. Perhaps she’d fallen. She did not remember that either. Yet she found herself on her hands and feet in the sand, shaking and sobbing and retching up her supper. No, was all that she could think, no, no one was to be hurt, it was all planned, I was so careful. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Interestingly, in an earlier draft of this chapter, the bloody tableau did not unfold. Arianne told Arys to yield, he did so, and the entire party simply surrendered and no one was harmed. I would guess that Martin thought this let Arianne off the hook too easily. Arys’ death and Myrcella’s maiming make it clear that Arianne’s attempt at the game of thrones has serious consequences.
The published text diverges from the draft in the following passage. In the draft, Arys was initially defiant, but Arianne told him to yield. In the final version, she considers telling him to yield — but the words become “caught in her throat.” Disaster follows.
“No!” Ser Arys Oakheart put his horse between Arianne and the crossbows, his blade shining silver in his hand. He had unslung his shield and slipped his left arm through the straps. “You will not take her whilst I still draw breath.”
…We are taken, ser, Arianne might have called out. Your death will not free us. If you love your princess, yield. But when she tried to speak, the words caught in her throat. Ser Arys Oakheart gave her one last longing look, then put his golden spurs into his horse and charged.
He rode headlong for the poleboat, his white cloak streaming behind him. Arianne Martell had never seen anything half so gallant, or half so stupid. “Noooo,” she shrieked, but she had found her tongue too late. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne’s hesitation is quite interesting. Was some part of her curious to see whether Arys would sacrifice his life for her? Later on, she tells herself that she never meant for Arys to do that — but she can’t quite complete the sentence when she tries to think of what she did want:
Arys, she thought, my white knight. Tears filled her eyes, and suddenly she was weeping, her whole body wracked by sobs…. Why did you do it? Why throw your life away? I never told you to, I never wanted that, I only wanted . . . I wanted . . . I wanted . . . (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Arys dies very gruesomely, and his last stand gives Darkstar the opportunity to try and kill Myrcella while the others are distracted.
She heard Areo Hotah roar, “After him. He must not escape. After him!” Myrcella was on the ground, wailing, shaking, her pale face in her hands, blood streaming through her fingers. Arianne did not understand. Men were scrambling onto horses whilst others swarmed over her and her companions, but none of it made sense. She had fallen into a dream, some terrible red nightmare. This cannot be real. I will wake soon, and laugh at my night terrors. (AFFC ARIANNE I)
Arianne thinks she’s in a nightmare, but this is what war is. This is what she brought about. Later, after her capture, she persists in some wishful thinking, telling herself repeatedly that this wasn’t what she wanted, and that things only went wrong because she was “betrayed.”
She was less certain whether she would forgive herself. “Areo,” she had pleaded with her captor during the long dry ride from the Greenblood back to Sunspear, “I never wanted the girl to come to harm. You must believe me…”
…Ser Arys was still dead, and Myrcella . . . I never wanted that, never. I meant the girl no harm. All I wanted was for her to be a queen. If we had not been betrayed… (AFFC ARIANNE II)
However, after her conversation with her father, she begins to take responsibility. She realizes what she did, and realizes the cost:
It was my own fault. Arianne had made them part of her plot to steal off with Myrcella Baratheon and crown her queen, an act of rebellion meant to force her father’s hand, but someone’s loose tongue had undone her. The clumsy conspiracy had accomplished nothing, except to cost poor Myrcella part of her face, and Ser Arys Oakheart his life… I was a foolish willful girl, playing at the game of thrones like a drunkard rolling dice. The cost of her folly had been dear… Ser Arys had paid with his life’s blood, Myrcella with an ear. (TWOW ARIANNE I)
But how much has Arianne truly changed? I’ll revisit that question in the final part of this essay series.
Conclusion: Is Doran so different?
When Doran reveals his master plan to Arianne, he harshly criticizes her. His main objection is that she attempted to start a war that she had no hope of winning:
“I told them to place a cyvasse table in your chambers,” her father said when the two of them were alone.
“Who was I supposed to play with?” Why is he talking about a game? Has the gout robbed him of his wits?
“Yourself. Sometimes it is best to study a game before you attempt to play it. How well do you know the game, Arianne?”
“Well enough to play.”
“But not to win. My brother loved the fight for its own sake, but I only play such games as I can win. Cyvasse is not for me”…
…“I never meant her harm,” Arianne insisted. “If Hotah had not interfered . . .”
“. . . you would have crowned Myrcella queen, to raise a rebellion against her brother. Instead of an ear, she would have lost her life.”
“Only if we lost.”
“If? The word is when… Dorne cannot hope to win a war against the Iron Throne, not alone. And yet that may well be what you have given us. Are you proud?” (AFFC ARIANNE II)
Many readers agree with Doran, and come away thinking that he is impressively competent and responsible compared to Arianne. And it’s certainly true that his plan is more likely to succeed than Arianne’s.
But viewed from a different angle, the actions of father and daughter may not seem so different. Doran is choosing to put the children of Dorne in danger, for personal reasons, to wage a war with an uncertain outcome against a powerful foe. The game of thrones is incredibly dangerous, and as Doran himself has said, any plan can go wrong — “We princes make our careful plans and the gods smash them all awry.”
Just as Arianne foolishly thought she could make use of the dangerous Darkstar, Doran hopes to wage this war by harnessing forces he may not be able to control — the dragons, the Sand Snakes, and Arianne herself. The consequences may be quite dire for Dorne. Is Doran wishfully thinking much like Arianne was — and will his hopeful optimism also be contradicted by brutal reality?
His voice broke when he said that. “Where are the dragons?” he asked. “Where is Daenerys?” and Arianne knew that he was really saying, “Where is my son?” (TWOW ARIANNE I)
Next: Quentyn’s Quest