George R.R. Martin takes ideas from works that have inspired him and creates his own in his series 'A Song of Ice and Fire'. Those who have read this series know that many themes in the novels are referenced and borrowed, paralleled and inspired from influences across literature and mythology, religion and culture. His ingenious way of writing creates a spellbinding experience that leaves us wanting to delve into rabbit holes of literature and mythology while still leaving plenty to explore in his own fantasy world.
Lord Brynden Rivers is one of the most mysterious and magical characters in the series. When looking at parallels between George R.R. Martin's universe and literature or mythology, it is easy to find one or two parallels to create a pattern and see his influences. Above and beyond that, one can find an entire story arch will fall seamlessly into place with little effort on the discoverer's part. His influence for Brynden Rivers is found in many forms of literature as the 'wizard figure', but most especially follows a Merlin archetype above all others.
The name 'Merlin' is a derivative of a Welsh name meaning 'sea fortress'. Both the name Merlin and the last name of 'Rivers' have links to water which is widely considered to be symbolic of portals. The importance behind the portal symbolism is the implication of the bearer being able to travel where mere mortals cannot. They have farther reaching sight and farther reaching abilities. Merlin, in many versions of Arthurian legend, has mysterious parentage. He is said to have 'no mortal father' in some versions and in others to be the child of a demon born to a mortal woman. Brynden Rivers is a bastard son of a King and has a mother that was rumored to be a Sorceress. We also learn later in the series that Brynden has links to a magical bloodline causing him to have abilities beyond that of the average mortal.
The magical powers of the 'wizard trope' often involves using disguises and vanishing and reappearing at will. When wizards have their own agenda, the lives of the men around them aren't at the forefront of their decisions. This will add to the mystery and cause characters and readers alike to question where they are or what they are up to. It leads to heightened drama in the story line and in novels such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the 'mortals' that rely on the wisdom of those wizards often find themselves frustrated and left to their own judgement to get out of whatever scrape they find themselves in.
Merlin and Brynden Rivers are noted to be able to change their appearance to spy. In T.H. White 'The Once and Future King' series, Merlin is able to change shape and the shape of others into anything he pleases. In The Sworn Sword, Ser Duncan describes the myths surrounding Brynden Rivers:
"Some claimed the King's Hand was a student of the dark arts who could change his face, put on the likeness of a one-eyed dog, even turn into a mist. Packs of gaunt gray wolves hunted down his foes, men said, and carrion crows spied for him and whispered secrets in his ear."
He also describes Lord Rivers' physical appearance as being mystical as well as describing an injury he received later in life:
"The Mother marked Lord Rivers on the day that he was born, and Bittersteel marked him once again upon the Redgrass Field."
Lord Rivers is described as an albino, a characteristic that has been noted by readers and related to the weirdwood with their white bark and red eyes. Brynden Rivers's injury is a further tie to mystical knowledge shown by the concept that in order to gain godly sight, a price must be paid. The eye is an extra layer of symbolism as he lost "his sight" and gained 'godly knowledge' or 'the third sight'. This is seen in Norse mythology in Odin's character as well as modern fiction in Bernard Cornwell's 'The Winter King'. Nimue looses an eye and declares that it was a wound that was required to give her the sight of the gods. “Madness has a purpose! It’s a gift from the Gods, and like all their gifts it comes with a price”. George R.R. Martin has embedded the 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series with this magical law and Brynden Rivers is no exception.
There are a number of smaller similarities to point out between these two characters, such as their romantic involvement with women that were sorceresses; they took on pupils to give continuity to their purposes; they both ended up with unusually long lives (if not immortal ones); and found themselves stuck in a cave (or a weirdwood tree) for posterity. The most interesting similarities to explore when looking at the outcome of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' however, is their political motivation and their agendas.
It has been confirmed that George R.R. Martin has read the Bernard Cornwell series, 'The Warlord Chronicles'. This fictional version of Arthurian Legend closely relates to the influences of Brynden Rivers' character. In Cromwell's series we see a Merlin who pre-dates the Christian versions that many are familiar with today and that is depicted in popular culture. In the pre-Christian setting Merlin is shown to be a man with an agenda that is not just morally ambiguous, but morally corrupt. He is predatory in nature and uses and manipulates whomever he sees fit, not just for the good of the realm, but for his own desires. When there is such a varied account of the same fictional character cross culture, there is ample opportunity to create new and exciting versions that highlight different themes based on the perspective of the author. It could be considered that Brynden Rivers is multifaceted. Both a hero and an anti-hero. When this perspective is used to interpret characters, the reader can find outcomes that aren't previously considered when reading a fantasy series that remains to be completed.
The gap in time between when we last hear of Brynden Rivers and when we see his character now called 'Bloodraven' (another name with magical symbolism and implications), provides plenty of mystery surrounding his motivation, agenda, and role in a society that currently disregards the underbelly of magic that exists. If the idea that George R.R. Martin could be basing his character on the dark side of the wizard trope is true, there is a specific path that can be taken when analyzing Brynden Rivers's character. An incident to corroborate this, is the very event that caused him to be banished from his position as Hand of the King by King Aegon V. Brynden Rivers promised the exiled Aenys Blackfyre a safe passage to be allowed to participate in the Great Counsel. Given his word of safety, Aenys traveled to King's Landing. When he arrived he was quickly arrested by the gold cloaks and beheaded. Aegon the fifth considered this treason and murder. Lord Rivers himself said in his own defense that he had sacrificed his own honor for the betterment of the realm. In almost every version of Arthurian Legend, Merlin has a similar incident. Even the most innocent version does not leave out the trickery Merlin used on Igraine in order to facilitate King Uther to rape her under the guise of her own husband's appearance. In these versions, Merlin is contrite for his part in some cases and in others he sees it as just another step towards what he considers 'the greater good'. The questionable agenda in any version of the Arthurian legend is always under the guise of 'the greater good', and Lord Brynden in A Song of Ice and Fire gives himself that same appearance of being 'for the realm'. When larger agendas are in view and men with godlike abilities placate their own goals, there are often casualties and their moral compass can be interpreted depending on the historian.
If we follow closely to the interpretation of Lord Brynden having a 'for the greater good' attitude we can get a better picture of a man that may not have the best intentions for the average character. The Machiavellian idealism required to believe that sacrifices must be made for the greater good can have devastating effects. Bernard Cornwell explores this idea with a more flippant Merlin and what he values. He, like Lord Brynden, would have chosen to "give up his honor" in order to save the realm. In 'The Winter King' Merlin states:
"One of the things I can’t stand about Christians is their admiration of meekness. Imagine elevating meekness into a virtue! Meekness! Can you imagine a heaven filled only with the meek? What a dreadful idea. The food would get cold while everyone passed the dishes to everyone else. Meekness is no good... Anger and selfishness, those are the qualities that make the world march.”
We get a glimpse that Bloodraven has more of a Machiavellian driven attitude from the text before even reaching his chapters with Bran in A Dance with Dragons. One aspect of mythology is questioning the motives and intents of already widely spread stories. Ser Davos does this when he questions whether or not he would be able to stab his own wife to create a magical sword as Azor Ahai did. If the widely accepted Jojen paste theory is true, this question of motivation can be applied to Bloodraven's actions in A Dance with Dragons. As Azor Ahai is accepted to be a hero who saved the realm from the long night, he can also be considered a man who stabbed his own wife. Such a variance of motivation can be attributed to Bloodraven and his use of Jojen as a sacrifice. Is this a ritual with pure intention and consequence of the most dire circumstances or is Jojen an easy casualty? The same question can also be applied to Bran's tutorship. Bran has a heavy loss of innocence to pay in order to gain his abilities, with possessing Hodor and cannibalizing Jojen. Does Bloodraven's agenda take his loss into consideration or was the very reason that he choose Bran because he was described as "sweet and quick to love" and more pliable than another student Bloodraven could have chosen?
The opportunities provided from shrouding a character like Bloodraven in mystery allows the reader to speculate what his true motivations are. There is one last similarity that may be found in the future text of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' concerning Bloodraven's future. In 'Excalibur', the last of the Warlord Chronicle series, Merlin is bested by his pupil, Nimue. She found that his agenda no longer aligned with her own and her abilities had grown greater than his so she sacrificed him to her god. In other versions of Arthurian Legend, Nimue traps Merlin in a cave for all eternity to keep him with her. As there are so many similarities in the rest of Bloodraven's storyline to that of the Merlin of Arthurian Legend, then there could also be a future to match. There are many possible outcomes in Bloodraven's future arch that could follow the progression of a student besting their teacher and there can be no question that Bran's abilities will only grow in strength.