The House of the Undying of Qaarth. Asshai by the Shadow. Two incredibly strange and mysterious places in the books. One, a long low building full of blue lipped warlocks, visions, and the nearly dead Undying. The other, an ancient and bizzare city of two headed fish, strange people in masks, and no children or fresh water. These two places stick out in a relatively tame fantasy narrative, like you walked into another story almost. I believe that is intentional and this oddness links the Undying of Qaarth with the city of Asshai in one simple explanation. The permanent citizens of Asshai and the Undying of Qaarth are wights.
In my intro essay to this posted on Watchers on the Wall, I look at how if Jon Snow survives the War against the Others he may follow the path of the legendary Grey King of the Iron Islands. To summarize, the Grey King was an unaging, undying King who ruled over the Iron Islands for 1000 years in the stories about him. The only visible signs of his age was over time his skin turned a grey color. As a fire wight, Jon Snow has the possibility of following that same path. He will not age or have his body break down on its own and as the secret heir to the Iron Throne, there is a path that leads to him ruling over Westeros nearly indefinitely.
What does that have to do with Asshai and Qaarth? I believe they are practical examples of the concepts in the story of the Grey King. Let’s look first at the Undying Ones from Daenerys IV.
Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather.
She is not breathing. Dany
listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead?
Her answer was a whisper as thin as a mouse’s whisker. . . . we live . . . live . . . live . . . it sounded. Myriad other voices whispered echoes. . . . and know . . . know . . . know . . . know . . .
To Dany’s eye, she thinks she is looking at shriveled corpses. But, after their trap is sprung at catching Dany, they show that they can actually moved.
But then black wings buffeted her round the head, and a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying wer
e all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting . . .
compared with the wights of the Others, the signs of what they are become obvious.
All around him, wights were rising from beneath the snow.
Two, three, four. Bran lost count. They surged up violently amidst sudden clouds of snow. Some wore black cloaks, some ragged skins, some nothing. All of them had pale flesh and black hands. Their eyes glowed like pale blue stars.
are human bodies that have kept aging long past the point they should’ve died from natural causes. In a strange way, they also resemble the face of the Black Gate.
It was white weirwood, and there was a face on it.
A glow came from the wood, like milk and moonlight, so faint it scarcely seemed to touch anything beyond the door itself, not even Sam standing right before it. The face was old and pale, wrinkled and shrunken. It looks dead. Its mouth was closed, and its eyes; its cheeks were sunken, its brow withered, its chin sagging. If a man could live for a thousand years and never die but just grow older, his face might come to look like that.
The door opened its eyes. – A Storm of Swords – Bran IV
This lines up with the quote George gave Time Magazine in an interview
Q: And Jon Snow, too, is drained by the experience of coming back from the dead on the show.
A: Right. And poor Beric Dondarrion, who was set up as the foreshadowing of all this, every time he’s a little less Beric. His memories are fading, he’s got all these scars, he’s becoming more and more physically hideous, because he’s not a living human being anymore. His heart isn’t beating, his blood isn’t flowing in his veins, he’s a wight, but a wight animated by fire instead of by ice, now we’re getting back to the whole fire and ice thing.
However unlike the wights of the Others, the Undying still have their sentience and free will putting them more in line with known wights like Beric, Jon, and Coldhands that are not under anyone’s thrall. Whether it is ice or fire that powers their cursed lives, it appears they are in the same class of wights with self-control.
And then we come to the people of Asshai. In the descriptions of the city and its denizens.
Asshai is a large city, sprawling out for leagues on both banks of the black river Ash. Behind its enormous land walls is ground enough for Volantis, Qarth, and King’s Landing to stand side by side and still have room for Oldtown.
An account by Archmaester Marwyn confirms reports that no man rides in Asshai, be he warrior, merchant, or prince. There are no horses in Asshai, no elephants, no mules, no donkeys, no zorses, no camels, no dogs. Such beasts, when brought there by ship, soon die. The malign influence of the Ash and its polluted waters have been implicated, as it is well understood from Harmon’s On Miasmas that animals are more sensitive to the foulness exuded by such waters, even without drinking them. Septon Barth’s writings speculate more wildly, referring to the higher mysteries with little evidence.
Remember from above that wights have no need for sustenance and the basic things that keep our bodies working.
Yet the population of Asshai is no greater than that of a good-sized market town. By night the streets are deserted, and only one building in ten shows a light. Even at the height of day, there are no crowds to be seen, no tradesmen shouting their wares in noisy markets, no women gossiping at a well. Those who walk the streets of Asshai are masked and veiled, and have a furtive air about them. Oft as not, they walk alone, or ride in palanquins of ebony and iron, hidden behind dark curtains and borne through the dark streets upon the backs of slaves.
And there are no children in Asshai.
No food grows there, the water is undrinkable, the corruption warps all animals and fish there. And yet a population subsists there. A population that wears masks and is known for sorcery, blood magic, and shadowbinding. If you wanted to find a population of fire wights living out their lives, these are the exact signs you’d want to see. The inhospitality is perfect for fire wights, they can focus all their time on higher mysteries and not worry about how most of their city feeds itself. They don’t have to. And what little is needed for foreigners is imported by ship. The masks as well, as we’ve seen with the Undying, Beric Dondarrion, and the Black Gate, the rigors of time may not be kind for wights and masks could preserve the vanity of these people as they go in in public or as they ride on palanquins of rare materials.
Why would there be populations of fire wights living in cities like this though I hear you asking? Well for that, let’s look closer at the undying and Asshai and how they portray themselves.
Beyond the doors was a great hall and a splendor of wizards. Some wore sumptuous robes of ermine, ruby velvet, and cloth of gold. Others fancied elaborate armor studded with gemstones, or tall pointed hats speckled with stars. There were women among them, dressed in gowns of surpassing loveliness. Shafts of sunlight slanted through windows of stained glass, and the air was alive with the most beautiful music she had ever heard.
And the Asshai
Those who walk the streets of Asshai are masked and veiled, and have a furtive air about them. Oft as not, they walk alone, or ride in palanquins of ebony and iron, hidden behind dark curtains and borne through the dark streets upon the backs of slaves.
These are not common people, these are people who think themselves grand and powerful. Who have vanity despite their current appearances and the trappings of power. I propose that in the far past when Asshai and Qaarth were still mighty, the rulers, heads of houses, the rich and powerful would ritually kill themselves and be raised back from the grave as wights after reproducing. The problem of power, wealth, and knowledge is that you cannot take them with you when you die. However, in this fantasy universe, you could be brought back from the dead and maintain your identity and power centuries longer than any normal person.
It is the dream of people the world over and in George’s world that you can cheat the inevitability of death. Here though, in the courts of the powerful with mages and people capable of returning the dead from the grave, it would be the ultimate status symbol. We see the Undying as they truly are, withered, lustful, greedy, and decrepit. However in their prime, these men and women could be near immortal rulers of Valyria, the Great Empire of the Dawn, Asshai, Yi Ti, and who knows how many other kingdoms. The Grey King of the Iron Islands may be only one example of a worldwide practice among the most powerful in the world before the fall of empires a
The Grey King built a mighty longhall about her bones, using her ribs as beams and rafters. From there he ruled the Iron Islands for a thousand years, until his v
ery skin had turned as grey as his hair and beard. Only then did he cast aside his driftwood crown and walk into the sea, descending to the Drowned God’s watery halls to take his rightful place at his right hand.
How did the Valyrian Freehold stay so stable for so long despite being made of various mighty houses that vote? That should surely be a recipe for disaster with Roman style emperors eventually coming to power and families falling in and out of the Freehold. Not so if behind every great house there’s a council of their greatest family members giving advice and calling the shots. The problems of passing power from one generation to the next is a serious problem in these kind of societies, removing them in favor of a near immortal undead secret council would explain how they kept themselves from imploding. Stability of rule from the guiding hand of their greatest individuals.
The Undying, with this in mind, are probably the original rulers of Qaarth whose power has dwindled over time and have been supplanted by the more youthful factions in the city. And as for Asshai, the detail of there being no children there is extremely telling as wights probably cannot reproduce. Their bodies do not have normal functions anymore, blood no longer pumps in their veins, it seems impossible that two fire wights could ever actually have a living child. A stable population with no children is nearly impossible unless the residents never die. It’s an extremely practical solution for what the wealthy would do to hold onto their power and lives that they’ve worked so hard for in a world where this is possible.
This idea, of the powerful never dying, is the thing of nightmares for everyone else in the world. Imagine if people like Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Ivan the Terrible would never die of old age and sickness. They would be free to continue their reigns of terror until someone stopped them by destroying their bodies past the point of resurrection. I painted a rosier picture above, the best and brightest steering the way but it’s far more likely that these councils of the undead would be made up of people much closer to Tywin Lannister with his brutality and effectiveness than someone like Ned Stark or Aegon V. The power to resurrect someone into a fully conscious fire wight doesn’t not seem to have a morality measure attached, it would work for anybody presumably. A horrifying reality that may have lead to the creation of organizations like the Faceless Men to return these immortals to the grave and give power back into the hands of the living.