The relationship between weirwood trees, mythology, blood sacrifice and the loss of innocence
There are several aspects of the story in A Song of Ice and Fire that leave the readers with the feeling that “there is more to it”, although by either too much or not enough information, a great deal of the details are left with loose ends, which keeps the fandom speculating and creating theories that explain where those ends tie in to make the story go full circle.
As a writer, GRRM inverts the order of the events and mixes up perception and fact to cause confusion as well as to safeguard some of the surprises until the end. One of the techniques he uses to achieve his result is the implementation of several literary devices, oftentimes separating them by character, which creates a consistent narrative by POV, making the reader adapt to different styles from one chapter to the next, increasing that way the confusion and need to pay close attention to details in order to reach a conclusion.
Literary devices are techniques or structures used by authors to add meaning, control the flow of narrative and, mostly, to create a more compelling story for the reader. Every author uses them, from metaphors, to verisimilitude and meta-text. Some authors use many of them while others are fixed with their select few, but in the case of George R.R. Martin literary devices are used abundantly and, in a manner so specific he becomes a truly unique author whose style is hard to compare.
One of the many devices he uses, is allegory, and it is used for several elements, one of them being the weirwood trees. A smart choice of device, seeing allegory conveys a hidden or complex idea through symbolic figures, actions, imagery or events, to create, in this case, a spiritual meaning.
In the books, the weirwood trees are represented differently from a character to another, some of them are even unaware of how the element influences them morally.
The first description of the weirwood is from Catelyn’s viewpoint and as a southern lady and follower of the Seven, Catelyn could simply not care or be affected by the trees, but as she arrives in the godswood and sees Ned by the Heart Tree, she feels the eyes watching her, but how can gods you don’t believe exist watch you? Theon wanders off and finds himself before the Heart Tree to ask for salvation and when he hears his name, he thinks it’s the gods and that they know him. But it is not the faith of the northerners that made non-believers believe the trees were gods, but rather elements of the trees themselves that caused the general feeling that they meant more than just wood.
In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve are given a garden and from that garden, they could eat every fruit, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which, if they ate, they would ‘surely die’. Many different faiths around the world are based on the premise that knowledge is bad for you. The idea that the more you know, further you become from your god. Adam and Eve come across a mutant, talking animal that is dark, and yet, a guide to their next actions.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Bran, who was afraid of the Heart Tree when the books began, follows this talking, mutant animal that is both dark and yet, a guide, and who seems to be at the same time good and evil. The last chapter, surrounded by death and with strong hints of cannibalism and clear talks of knife and blood, Bran is offered a paste to eat that tastes and looks like blood, and at the same time it’s described that his friend can’t be found. To awaken his gift, Bran must surrender into the guidance.
It’s a popular idea in fantasy that the hero must go through an accident to awake (oftentimes latent) powers. The Peter Parker effect. But in the case of gaining a higher power, there is a catharsis process that is rather different and radical. In literature, that process is nicely described by Bernard Cornwell in the Warlord Chronicles, as the “three wounds”. The three wounds are represented as a wound to the body (Bran’s fall), a wound to the pride (the loss of Winterfell and his status as the Prince in the North), and a wound to the mind (The realization of crimes he committed unknowingly, at first: the violation of Hodor’s mind, then the loss of his love for Meera and friendship with Jojen whose blood was used to open Bran’s third eye). Once he goes through the triple wounds, his third eye opens, and he becomes all that the Three Eyed raven saw in him, but Bran himself will have to realize and understand that the trees only offer once they have their due, and in a shifted form of “only death may pay for life”, only blood sacrifice may nourish the old gods.
In fact, Blood sacrifice has always been a religious concept, often an act of worship or obedience where a life is given to bring good fortune or to pacify the gods. There is no blood sacrifice outside a religious experience.
The first time we see blood offer in A Song of Ice and Fire is when Ned goes in the Godswood to clean his sword by the tree. To him, it was just a natural action – he probably saw his father do it and his father saw his father and so forth. Bringing a bloody sword to clean by the tree offered blood to it, in maintaining with the old tradition, which was that the entrails of criminals were hung on the weirwood branches. Later, we see Daenerys offer her son to the Mother of Mountains to appease the gods for drawing her brother’s blood in the sacred city. The Mother of Mountain accepts her offering and the consequence is a deformed child. It goes back again to Daenerys and Mirri Maz Duur, where Mirri promises to keep Drogo alive and is given a horse’s blood to perform her magic, then Daenerys returns the favour by giving Mirri (and herself and a horse) to be reborn and bring her dragons to life. That is how the first book ends, but then a Clash of Kings starts with the concept of an offering to appease a fire god and upgrades to a full-blown blood sacrifice, offering those who are disobedient to R’hllor. R’hllor is a very hungry god, where the sacrifices in his name began with wooden images of the Seven, escalated to blood of infidels and progressed into the concept that royal blood was necessary for the deeds at hand.
The Ironborn, the Seven, the Faceless Men, the Others, the Mother of Mountain, R’hllor – essentially, the author made no distinction between faith and blood sacrifice, but it is in the old gods that the reader sees the exchange most clearly.
Mythologically speaking, there are two elements. The first, trees related to enlightenment: the Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya, which is believed to be a tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. The Banyan tree in India, often found around temples and it is believed that in its leaves rests Krishna, who is enlightened. The ancient Germans and Celtic polytheists worshiped a wise oak and the word “druid” itself is the Celtic word for oak. Druids, of course, being enlightened after a fashion. The World Tree acted as an axis mundi and a link between heaven, earth and underworld, often compared to Yggdrasil, the Ash tree from Norse mythology that is used in the stories of Thor as a tree that linked the nine worlds and it has a strong connection with the Ygg tree the ironborn call “demon tree” – which is nothing but a weirwood that fed on human flesh. Yggr means terror and as Yggdrasil was branched into the worlds, it hosts infinite knowledge and it combines two elements that are equal to the weirwood trees – knowledge and terror. The tree of Dodona was a Prussian and then Greek belief that the gods inhabited the tree and gave oracle answers.
The second element is the relationship with blood. Weirwood trees unite with the seer by physical contact. BloodRaven’s body is literally part of the tree and for Bran to link to it, he must drink the paste made from the tree and blood, but mythologically speaking, the Jubokko, is a Japanese tree that grows in battlefields where mass deaths occurred, and it feeds off blood. There is the tree of Jinmenju, a Thai myth with fruits that are actual human faces. The Tree of Zaqqum is mentioned countless times in the Quran and it is said that it has very bitter fruit which is given to those in hell who ask for something to eat and once the damned eat the fruit, their faces fall off and their bodies disintegrate into a melting heap of flesh and blood.
The allegory of the weirwood trees and their symbolic meaning has an added layer of George R.R. Martin’s imagination – The story specifies that one cannot lie when that person is before weirwood and on an aspect entirely free from mythology, the author created objects made from that wood and they are found in significant places – starting with the table of the Knights of the King’s Guard, which is a table for those who are true in their loyalty; then the bow used by the Children of the Forest, Ygritte and Brynden Rivers, all characters that are under a coating of wisdom and the last two also had a horn made of weirwood, as if they came to announce the truth; the “Black Gates” in the Nightfort, the most incredible and historical castle at the wall, are made of weirwood and they have the “capacity” to detect true men of the Night’s Watch to grant them protection. There were also three doors in the story that are made of weirwood and ebony – a doors of Tobho Mott’s shop in King’s Landing, the doors to the House of Black and White in Braavos, and the doors to the house of the Undying, in Qarth. Those three doors add another element to the story and seem to be hidden behind yet another literary device: Semiotics.
When Bran eats that paste made of blood and weirwood, his innocence ended and alongside it, his symbolical life. The author, then, completes the circles, offering three deaths as the three wounds - a death to the body – Jojen – who offered himself to a cause; a death to the pride - Meera - who fiercely defended her brother but couldn't save him; and a death to the mind - Bran – whose end generates a new beginning, and to compare to the link between god and follower, experienced first through the blood sacrifice of eating Jesus's flesh and drinking his blood, is repeated time and again in the stories through the trees, for each new seer has to choose the next one, who will sacrifice for the continuity of the faith.