Is Melisandre a hero or a villain in Game of Thrones?
Killing children and giving birth to demonic shadow assassins usually would be a clear indication of the latter, but the Red Woman is a complicated being. To fully answer this question, wefirst must have a deep understanding of the Red Woman’s history, beliefs, actions, and motives.
Let’s take a look into the flames, shall we?
Melisandre’s History & Beliefs
Before she was not-so-casually seducing men and burning children around Westeros, Melisandre was once a slave from the mysterious city of Asshai, which is located south of the Shadowlands in the south-eastern potion of Essos. She was sold to the Red Temple, subsequently becoming a Red Priestess of R’hllor, a shadowbinder, and the Lord of Light’s biggest fangirl.
Followers of the Lord of Light believe that the earth is dictated by two gods: R’hllor, who is the god of heat, life, and light, and the Great Other, who is the god of ice and death. The two gods are eternally fighting for control of the fate of the world, but, according to prophecy, this struggle will end when the messianic Azor Ahai returns wielding Lightbringer – a flaming sword – and raises dragons from stone.
There are some specific qualifications that Azor Ahai must meet, and these qualifications have been reiterated by Melisandre and other characters throughout the series:
- Azor Azai will be born again amidst salt and smoke
- Azor Ahai will be able to wake dragons out of stone
“When the red star bleeds and the Darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst salt and smoke to wake dragons out of Stone” -Melisandre
Contrary to popular opinion, Melisandre does firmly believe that Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai. Or at least she did before Stannis’ head rolled down the snowy hills of Winterfell.
It’s unclear how Melisandre came to this conclusion, but it is possible that she saw a vision of Dragonstone (Stannis’ stronghold) in the flames and put two and two together. Who better to wake dragons out of stone than the Lord of Dragonstone, afterall?
Melisandre, believing that her subsequent visions have further proven Stannis to be Azor Ahai, went to incredible lengths to ensure that Stannis met all of the Azor Ahai qualifications, the most notable example of which occurred in Dragonstone during season 2.
As part of a strange ceremony for the Lord of Light, the Red Woman burned statues of the Seven (the commonly worshipped gods of Westeros) whilst reciting the legend of Lightbringer. She prompted Stannis forward, who then drew a flaming sword from one of the statues and thrust it into the earth. Melisandre declared the sword to be Lightbringer, and because smoke (the fire) and salt (the ocean) were present, she publicly declared Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn.
The Murder of Renly & the Sacrifice of Shireen
Melisandre looked into the flames and saw great victory for Stannis on the battlefield, but his army was not nearly large enough to accomplish such a feat, so Melisandre took up the task of getting her Lord some more troops.
She seduced Stannis with the promise of a son and had sex with him to receive his seed. After what was the shortest and strangest pregnancy ever, Melisandre eventually gave birth to a creepy shadow which immediately flew off to assassinate Stannis’ brother, Renly. With Renly dead, Stannis was able to take full control of his brother’s army, which was quickly utilized, and quickly defeated at Blackwater. Oops.
Killing your baby daddy’s (or shadow daddy’s) brother usually cannot be described as a kindred act, but it’s very clear that Melisandre sacrificed Renly solely to further Stannis on his path to unite the Seven Kingdoms and lead the inevitable fight against the greatest threat to their existence: the White Walkers.
Sacrifice one life to help protect the life of millions? That’s a no-brainer for Melisandre.
But because that sacrifice didn’t exactly play out the way Melisandre had literally visioned, she questioned the Lord of Light’s happiness, and not her interpretation of her visions (which are often skewed). So she attempted to appease the Lord of Light by burning detractors of R’hllor within Stannis’ camp as further sacrifices, but that didn’t seem to be enough.
Melisandre theorized that she needed to spill king’s blood in order to secure a victory for Stannis at Winterfell and elsewhere, so she kidnapped (well, bought) the bastard of Robert Baratheon, Gendry, with the intention of sacrificing him. But because Davos managed to save Gendry and help him escape, Melisandre was “forced” to sacrifice the next closest person with king’s blood in their veins: Shireen.
Stannis was enraged and disgusted by the idea (no duh, right?), but Melisandre, convinced that this was the only way to ensure victory for Stannis, managed to change his mind, and Shireen was sacrificed on a pyre.
The Red Woman’s faith in her abilities and the Lord of Light began to waver during the season 5 finale and the season 6 premiere.
After Shireen was killed, half of Stannis’ army deserted and Selyse, who was Melisandre’s most devout follower and arguably her closest friend, committed suicide. Upon hearing this horrible news, Melisandre’s confident aura vanished away and was replaced with one of immense disappointment and sorrow. It appeared that she had finally realized the error of her ways, the error of her visions.
She fled to Castle Black, where she greeted Davos and Jon Snow with a face painted with shame and disbelief.
That shame and disbelief intensified after Jon Snow’s brutal murder, as Melisandre had seen a vision of Jon Snow fighting in Winterfell through the flames – a vision that is clearly now impossible.
She was still wallowing in her sorrow and feeling disillusioned with her abilities when her true form was revealed, which allowed us to finally see the Red Woman for what she really is: frail and weak, inside and out.
Let’s just say that if the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, then the Red Woman likely has her own freeway leading into the flames.
Melisandre is one of the only characters on Game of Thrones who isn’t concerned with the fight for the Iron Throne. Instead, she is far more concerned with the threat that the White Walkers pose, and she is willing to go to any length (including murder) to ensure that man reigns victorious after the inevitable battle between the living and the dead.
But Melisandre’s recent efforts, as good intentioned as they may have been, were far too hasty. She was too eager to believe that Stannis is Azor Ahai, and she was overconfident about her powers of foresight. She set herself (and the Baratheon family) up for failure as a result, and she does seem to be genuinely remorseful.
With that in mind, it is evident that the Red Woman is no villain, but make no mistake, she’s not exactly hero material either.
The Red Woman lacks the courageous, moral fervor that distinguishes characters like Jon Snow and Daenerys from the others. Let’s not forget that she did burn a child to death, after all.
As far as character archetypes go, Meslisandre is a clear antihero: she’s on the right team, but she doesn’t play by the right rules.
Perhaps Melisandre will eventually evolve into the hero type, but only time will tell.