Tower of the Hand

If It's Chains You Want, Come With Me...

Tags: Essay
8/24/2010 5:39:00 PM ET

The project of theoretical analysis arrives in Oldtown. Is the Sphinx actually a Sand Snake? Has Jaqen H'Ghar arrived in the Citadel? And with dragons back in the world and glass candles burning, what is really going on inside the order of maesters?


As we continue to wait for the completion of A Dance With Dragons (I understand Mr. Martin is off to WorldCon this week, so our collective agony shows no signs of being eased) I continue to speculate on what might or might not actually be happening in Westeros. Once again, we're looking primarily at A Feast For Crows, and once again, we will be venturing to a place that was much talked of, but never seen, until that fourth novel; however, this time around, I will be widening the scope somewhat. The prologue and the final chapter of AFFC gave us our first look at Oldtown and the famous Citadel, where the maesters, Westeros' men of learning, are trained and chained. One of the only characters to appear in both Oldtown chapters is the mysterious Alleras, the Sphinx, who is believed by many to be, in actuality, Sarella Sand, bastard daughter of Oberyn Martell. Unlike most other ASOIAF theories, Alleras = Sarella has a large and quite credible amount of evidence backing it up; as a result, I include in this essay a discussion, not only of the true identity of the Sphinx, but of the events taking place in Oldtown as a whole, and what they might mean for the rest of Westeros.

A brief note, before we begin. Sarella Sand is Dornish, and a number of the quotations regarding Alleras = Sarella are taken from the Dorne chapters of AFFC. These happen to be some of my personal favorite bits from that book, and I certainly intend to go in-depth into what is happening in Dorne in a future essay. For this one, however, I focus exclusively on Oldtown and the goings-on within the Citadel.

Anyone who has taken the smallest amount of time to think about Alleras and Sarella has realized the first and most obvious clue that they are the same person; namely, the names. Alleras is Sarella backwards. Enough to establish the connection between the characters, but to maintain it? Hardly. Very well; both characters are Dornish. Again, a connection, but by no means an indication that the two are one and the same. What truly invites an investigation into this theory is the following passage, an exchange between Prince Doran Martell and his captain of guards, Areo Hotah, immediately after Martell has ordered Hotah to take the Sand Snakes, his brother's bastard daughters, into custody.

From A Feast For Crows, The Captain of Guards:

"What of Sarella? She is a woman grown, almost twenty."

"Unless she returns to Dorne, there's naught I can do about Sarella save pray that she shows more sense than her sisters. Leave her to her . . . game.

This is the first mention (specifically) of Sarella Sand in the books, and though she is brought up only briefly, we immediately glean three facts about her. First, her age; she is a grown woman, nineteen years old, almost twenty. Second, she is not presently in Dorne, and far enough away that Prince Doran is forced to leave her alone. Third, and most intriguing, she is engaged in some sort of "game," and given the nature of Doran's comment, it's probably not cyvasse. As we will see, all three of these clues support the theory that Sarella is the Sphinx. If she is studying at the Citadel, she's certainly not in Dorne; she's about the right age to pass for an acolyte; and moreover, since women are not permitted to become maesters, if Sarella is, in fact, passing for an acolyte, her "game" could very well be that she is pretending to be a man. So, it makes perfect sense to interpret the above quotation to mean that Sarella is in Oldtown, passing herself off as a male acolyte of the Citadel in an attempt to become a maester, regardless of her sex.

Still, the theory would remain something of a reach, were it limited to this evidence alone. After all, all we're really doing is making the passage fit the theory; lots of people in Westeros are nineteen without being acolytes, and there are a great deal of places in the world apart from Dorne. Trying to become a female maester could certainly be construed as a "game," but so could a number of other things (see the title of the first book in ASOIAF for the most obvious example). What other, more concrete evidence do we have that Alleras, the talented young acolyte, is actually one of the Sand Snakes?

From A Feast For Crows, Prologue:

The Sphinx was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow's peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.

Alleras would make a maester. He had only been at the Citadel for a year, yet already he had forged three links of his maester's chain.

The Sphinx looks slight, but there's strength in those slim arms, he reflected, as Alleras threw a leg across the bench and reached for his wine cup. "The dragon has three heads," he announced in his soft Dornish drawl.

"Is this a riddle?" Roone wanted to know. "Sphinxes always speak in riddles in the tales."

"No riddle." Alleras sipped his wine. The rest of them were quaffing tankards of the fearsomely strong cider that the Quill and Tankard was renowned for, but he preferred the strange, sweet wines of his mother's country. Even in Oldtown such wines did not come cheap.

It had been Lazy Leo who dubbed Alleras "the Sphinx." A sphinx is a bit of this, a bit of that: a human face, the body of a lion, the wings of a hawk. Alleras was the same: his father was a Dornishman, his mother a black-skinned Summer Islander. His own skin was dark as teak. And like the green marble sphinxes that flanked the Citadel's main gate, Alleras had eyes of onyx.

Leo turned to Alleras. "A lord's son should be open-handed, Sphinx. I understand you won your copper link. I'll drink to that."

Alleras smiled back at him. "I only buy for friends. And I am no lord's son, I've told you that. My mother was a trader."

These three passages, all from the prologue, paint a fascinating portrait of this young man, Alleras. First, his physical description. Alleras has black hair, black eyes, a widow's peak, and dark skin. The dark skin is accounted for by his parentage; his father was Dornish, his mother a Summer Islander. The rest, however, combined with the Dornish father, infers a rather startling resemblance to Oberyn Martell, described himself in the following passage:

The princeling removed his helm. Beneath, his face was lined and saturnine, with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal oil. Only a few streaks of silver marred the lustrous black hair that receded from his brow in a widow's peak as sharply pointed as his nose.

ASOS Tyrion V

When Sam Tarly meets Alleras in the final chapter of AFFC, he also notices the black hair and eyes, and the widow's peak. The defining features of Oberyn Martell are the same defining features of Alleras. Moreover, the eyes in particular draw the reader's attention, due to the manner in which they are described. Oberyn's are "black and shiny as pools of coal oil," and Alleras has "eyes of onyx." This becomes even more interesting when referenced with something that Areo Hotah thinks to himself upon viewing one of the other Sand Snakes, Tyene.

From A Feast for Crows, The Captain of Guards:

Her hair was gold as well, and her eyes were deep blue pools . . . and yet somehow they reminded the captain of her father's eyes, though Oberyn's had been as black as night. All of Prince Oberyn's daughters have his viper eyes, Hotah realized suddenly. The color does not matter.

The eyes again, and once more, Oberyn's were "black as night." At the very least, we can say that Alleras looks a great deal like the Red Viper. What else do the above passages have to offer? "The Sphinx looks slight, but there's strength in those slim arms." This certainly suggests that the Sphinx may, in fact, be female. Also, despite his mixed parentage, Alleras speaks in a "soft Dornish drawl," which indicates that he was raised in Dorne (speech patterns are a reflection of childhood environment rather than birth). He drinks expensive wine, and Leo Tyrell makes a point of Alleras possessing more silver than the other acolytes. Is this because his income is linked to the royal family of Dorne? It's clear, after all, that Prince Oberyn, unlike most men, doted on his bastard children. Tyrell also seems to believe that Alleras is a lord's son. Where he got this notion into his head, we do not know, but Alleras' rebuttal brings its own hints with it. Leo thinks his father was a lord, but Alleras answers, contrarily, that his mother was a trader; not truly a rebuttal, at all. And if he is Sarella, than he is certainly no lord's son, but a prince's daughter.

Alleras seems an exceptionally gifted acolyte: "He had only been at the Citadel for a year, yet already he had forged three links of his maester's chain." Thanks to the previously cited Tyrion chapter in ASOS, we know that Oberyn also demonstrated a thirst for knowledge at the Citadel, though his nature was perhaps less determined in this endeavor than his daughter's: "He had studied at the Citadel, going so far as to forge six links of a maester's chain before he grew bored." Additionally, we have a couple of other comments made respectively by Nymeria Sand and Arianne Martell, from two of the Dorne chapters of AFFC:

"Obara would have me go to war."

Nym laughed. "Yes, she wants to set the torch to Oldtown. She hates that city as much as our little sister loves it."

AFFC The Captain of Guards

"My uncle brought me here, with Tyene and Sarella." The memory made Arianne smile. "He caught some vipers and showed Tyene the safest way to milk them for their venom. Sarella turned over rocks, brushed sand off the mosaics, and wanted to know everything there was to know about the people who had lived here."

AFFC The Queenmaker

We know that Sarella is one of the younger Sand Snakes, the eldest being Obara, Nymeria and Tyene, in that order. Nothing we've seen from Tyene's character (in the admittedly limited amount of screen time she's been allowed) suggests a love for Oldtown; Sarella, meanwhile, seems from Arianne's recollections to be fascinated by knowledge and learning. It's hardly inconceivable that such a girl, raised by the Red Viper (who certainly looks to have taken an empowering attitude toward his daughters) and so curious about history and culture, would decide to flaunt the laws of the Seven Kingdoms and become a maester despite her sex. Another Arianne quote strengthens this aspect of Sarella's personality:

Nym would sometimes join them in their sport, and Sarella was forever pushing in where she didn't belong, but for the most part they had been a company of five.

AFFC The Princess in the Tower

Someone who is "forever pushing in where she doesn't belong" is admirably suited to be the type of person who would infiltrate the Citadel, pretending to be a man. And then, of course, there is Alleras' nickname in itself: the Sphinx; given to him by another, but also chosen deliberately by the author. Alleras certainly may be "a little of this, a little of that," and Valyrian sphinxes might not be the same as those of the real world, though the description suggests that they are similar, but in our own history, the mythical creature known as the sphinx demonstrated a certain trend toward gender-bending; the Greek sphinx, to whom the name was originally applied, was female, but the Egyptian sphinx, which contains the origins of the creature's physical nature, is thought to be male. This historical discrepancy between the name of a thing, its physical body, and its gender, suggests a similar (though perhaps reversed) dichotomy in Alleras/Sarella.

I believe that there can be very little doubt, based on the evidence presented, that the Alleras = Sarella theory is true. Perhaps giving a name to one character that happens to be the exact backwards reading of the name of another could be construed as coincidence, but when the characters in question appear to have so much in common, and when there is so much evidence linking the pair of them, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the hints and clues given throughout AFFC are there for some other purpose, or worse, red herrings. I have yet to be presented with any convincing counter-argument that Alleras could not be Sarella, and until that argument comes along, I will treat the theory as truth.

Now, with that in mind...what the hell is going on in Oldtown? Word of Daenerys and her dragons is spreading, that's plain enough, and there is this business with the glass candles, the candles made from obsidian, which have apparently begun to burn. Our first viewpoint character in the Citadel, the acolyte named Pate, suffers an unfortunate death (as all prologue characters do) at the end of his one and only chapter, the manner of which suggests the involvement of our old friend, and Arya's, Jaqen H'Ghar. Compare the following descriptive passages (and in the second make distinct note of Jaqen's comment concerning the alteration of faces):

"Show me your face."

"As you wish." The alchemist pulled his hood down.

He was just a man, and his face was just a face. A young man's face, ordinary, with full cheeks and the shadow of a beard. A scar showed faintly on his right cheek. He had a hooked nose, and a mat of dense black hair that curled tightly around his ears.

AFFC Prologue

Jaqen passed a hand down his face from forehead to chin, and where it went he changed. His cheeks grew fuller, his eyes closer; his nose hooked, a scar appeared on his right cheek where no scar had been before. And when he shook his head, his long straight hair, half red and half white, dissolved away to reveal a cap of tight black curls.

Arya's mouth hung open. "Who are you?" she whispered, too astonished to be afraid. "How did you do that? Was it hard?"

He grinned, revealing a shiny gold tooth. "No harder than taking a new name, if you know the way."


No further explanation is necessary here of the similarities between these two descriptions; it's the same man. The same man that Jaqen H'Ghar transformed into, that is, before claiming that the transformation was no more difficult than taking a new name. And then, after killing Pate for his mysterious purposes at the beginning of AFFC, he appears again at the end, having now taken Pate's form as his own. I don't think there's any doubt that this is what happened; Pate died, he was killed by a man who can change his shape, and in the final chapter, Sam meets him. Is there any other possible explanation than the one given above? I don't believe so. Jaqen H'Ghar, or whatever his name really is (some people believe him to have also been Syrio Forel, although I've been able to find almost no evidence to support that, and much to refute it) is in Oldtown, masquerading as a young novice, and remember, thanks to the original Pate, he's got a key that opens every door in the Citadel. Given the place he sent Arya to with his iron coin, it's likely that he's a Faceless Man. Does that mean he's on a mission of assassination? If so, who? If not, what is he doing there? This man's true nature and secret intentions are one of the most mysterious and intriguing elements of the series, and his presence in the Citadel, along with the recently arrived Sam Tarly, must mean that Oldtown, sight unseen up to now, is about to become a major theater in this developing saga.

Of course, that's hardly all there is to it. Two more elements arise from the final chapter of AFFC that might mean a great deal. The first shall be dealt with quickly, for there is no real context for it as yet; the second shall require somewhat more lengthy discussion, not to mention a rather lengthy quotation. The first is a part of Maester Aemon's dying words to Sam, "The sphinx is the riddle, not the riddler." Can he mean Alleras/Sarella? Sam himself asks himself that question upon hearing the Sphinx's nickname, but admits that "it seemed unlikely." Obviously, going back to connections between Westeros and our own world, sphinxes and riddles are necessarily entwined, but what does Aemon's statement actually mean? As yet, there's no way to know. One interesting thing to think about, however, is that if Alleras is Sarella (and we've accepted thus far that he is) does she know about Oberyn's death? If so, or if she will soon find out, what will she do? Prince Doran prays that Sarella will "show more sense than her sisters," but will she? Does she crave revenge as much as Obara, Nym and Tyene seem to? Or is she more engaged with the conspiracy in Oldtown that she seems to be a part of, along with Maester Marwyn, Leo Tyrell and now, apparently, Sam Tarly?

This leads us nicely to the second element, and the lengthy quotation spoken of earlier. Forgive me, but I do believe the whole of this passage to be extremely relevant to the discussion at hand.

From A Feast for Crows, Samwell V:

Alleras stepped up next to Sam. "Aemon would have gone to [Daenerys] if he had the strength. He wanted us to send a maester to her, to counsel her and protect her and fetch her safely home."

"Did he?" Archmaester Marwyn shrugged. "Perhaps it's good that he died before he got to Oldtown. Elsewise the grey sheep might have had to kill him, and that would have made the poor old dears wring their wrinkled hands."

"Kill him?" Sam said, shocked. "Why?"

"If I tell you, they may need to kill you too." Marywn smiled a ghastly smile, the juice of the sourleaf running red between his teeth. "Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant dragonslayers armed with swords?" He spat. "The world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons. Ask yourself why Aemon Targaryen was allowed to waste his life upon the Wall, when by rights he should have been raised to archmaester. His blood was why. He could not be trusted. No more than I can."

"What will you do?" asked Alleras, the Sphinx.

"Get myself to Slaver's Bay, in Aemon's place. The swan ship that delivered Slayer should serve my needs well enough. The grey sheep will send their man on a galley, I don't doubt. With fair winds I should reach her first." Marwyn glanced at Sam again, and frowned. "You . . . you should stay and forge your chain. If I were you, I would do it quickly. A time will come when you'll be needed on the Wall." He turned to the pasty-faced novice. "Find Slayer a dry cell. He'll sleep here, and help you tend the ravens."

"B-b-but," Sam sputtered, "the other archmaesters . . . the Seneschal . . . what should I tell them?"

"Tell them how wise and good they are. Tell them that Aemon commanded you to put yourself into their hands. Tell them that you have always dreamed that one day you might be allowed to wear the chain and serve the greater good, that service is the highest honor, and obedience the highest virtue. But say nothing of prophecies or dragons, unless you fancy poison in your porridge." Marwyn snatched a stained leather cloak off a peg near the door and tied it tight. "Sphinx, look after this one."

"I will," Alleras answered, but the archmaester was already gone. They heard his boots stomping down the steps.

"Where has he gone?" asked Sam, bewildered.

"To the docks. The Mage is not a man who believes in wasting time." Alleras smiled. "I have a confession. Ours was no chance encounter, Sam. The Mage sent me to snatch you up before you spoke to Theobald. He knew that you were coming."


Alleras nodded at the glass candle.

Sam stared at the strange pale flame for a moment, then blinked and looked away. Outside the window, it was growing dark.

It seems there was a reason that we, as readers, have remained blind to the Citadel all this time. We've been led to believe in the wisdom and intelligence of the order of maesters, but we also believe in the power and beauty of what magic we've been allowed to witness. Now, the author appears to be pitting one against the other. When one looks back on it, it seems inevitable; miracles against reason, science against superstition. Of course, in Westeros, in the world of ASOIAF, unlike our own world, magic is real, and the readers know it. From her kingdom at Slaver's Bay, Daenerys Targaryen is gathering emissaries to her, those who want to help her, or join her, or use her for their own purposes. Barristan the Bold is with her; Quentyn Martell and Victarion Greyjoy are on their way; so, it seems, is Marwyn the Mage, and it's believed that Tyrion Lannister is, as well. But just as the word of her gathering power is bringing her friends, we now know that it's also bringing her enemies. Marywn's purpose is to reach Daenerys before the man sent by the maesters of the Citadel, for he, at least, believes that they plan to murder her, and her dragons. Like Robert Baratheon, though for different reasons, the maesters seem to be decidedly anti-Targaryen, and will not suffer dragons to exist. The Citadel has placed itself in direct confrontation with Daenerys Targaryen, and as such, has suddenly become one of the central villains of the piece.

What's going on in Oldtown? The glass candles are burning, one of may signs we and others have seen that dragons are alive in the world again, and it seems that through them, one might see across miles of actual terrain, and even, perhaps, into prophecy itself.. The Citadel is building a world of knowledge and reasoning, quite different from the ages of heroes and sorcery that existed previously. I would say that one of the overall themes of this series is becoming clear: we are reading about Westeros in a time of transition, the rough and difficult time of change directly following the end of the line of dragon-kings, and the real battle being fought is the battle to determine the nature and shape of the future. It might be that the maesters are not villains; perhaps, in the end, it will be magic that must die out, making room for science and enlightenment. But the war is being fought, and Oldtown appears to have become, if not a direct battleground, then certainly a philosophical one. I don't know what's going to happen in the Citadel over the course of the next three books, but under any circumstance, with Alleras/Sarella, Leo Tyrell, Sam Tarly and the enigmatic Jaqen H'Ghar all thrown into the mix together, I doubt that it will be anything less than epic. After all, that is what we have come to expect from this series. To anyone who says that A Feast for Crows was somehow less exciting or less important than the previous installments, I say you are sadly mistaken. Dark and mysterious things are brewing here, things whose import will have consequences that rock the world of ASOIAF, and the excitement is just beginning.

Switch View | Show Spoilers | Share this: Facebook Twitter


Warning: Discussions are not subject to scope. That is, commenters can and often do discuss events from the most recent book. We recommend avoiding these discussions until you're caught up.

Loading comments...

Comments Closed

Comments are no longer allowed for this topic.

More Posts

Subscribe to our RSS Feed to be notified about the latest Tower of the Hand posts.


  1. 8/11/2010 - The Sailor's Wife
  2. 8/2/2010 - Heir to the North
  3. 3/5/2008 - Rhaegar's Council