Tower of the Hand

Magic Mushrooms

Tags: Essay
12/3/2014 1:00:00 PM ET

I had no idea. No idea at all.

Mushroom, the dwarf court jester from the time of the Dance of the Dragons, first appears in The Princess and the Queen as an exceedingly minor character whose presence is limited to a single scene and a single line of dialogue. His name appears in the text twice; before the King's Landing mob swarms the Dragonpit, he warns Queen Rhaenyra against her casual disregard for what she sees as "drunks and fools and gutter rats." The second mention of Mushroom's name suggests, a few paragraphs later and in the same context, that he was right. Beyond that, Mushroom plays no role in the story and is not even mentioned in passing.

dragonpitstorming.jpgMushroom's wisdom is vindicated over Rhaenyra's ignorance (Artist: Paolo Puggioni)

In The Rogue Prince, a direct prequel to The Princess and the Queen, Mushroom's presence is much expanded. He shows up frequently as one of the sources utilized by the author of the piece, Maester Gyldayn, usually to provide the most shocking or controversial version of any given event. In my review of The Rogue Prince, I wrote that "he might be a bit overused in such a role" and "it seems odd that the fool's name should appear more often than any of the more reliable maesters and septons cited by the 'author.'"

I have no excuse for these errors in judgment, aside from sheer ignorance and languid conceit. It turns out that Maester Gyldayn, for all his merits, does a shocking disservice in questioning so much of Mushroom's testimony in The Rogue Prince and almost completely ignoring him in The Princess and the Queen. Fortunately, Maester Yandel and The World of Ice & Fire have arrived to set the record straight, finally shining the transcendent light of truth on one of the most important figures in the history of Westeros. Mushroom, we now know, was a major scholar of his era who witnessed and/or influenced event after event before, during and after the Dance of the Dragons. He has more references in the world book's index than several of the Targaryen kings... and rightfully so. What did Aerys I or Jaehaerys II really do, after all, compared to the history-shaping deeds of Mushroom and his enormous member? At long last, the greatest unsung hero of the Seven Kingdoms has been given his due.

In celebration of this, I present the following list of Mushroom's contributions to The World of Ice & Fire, ranked according to their historical import, their influence on major events in Westeros (past and present) and their demonstrative power in proclaiming Mushroom's status as a credible source. Once his work is fully understood, I fully expect him to appear in the top ten, perhaps even the top five, of the next "favorite characters" countdown. He most certainly deserves it.

10. The Testimony of Mushroom

This first ranking is perhaps the most difficult to settle on. Because the full body of his writing is so vital to understanding Westerosi history, it's next to impossible to declare any one of Mushroom's revelations as less important than all the others. As a result, we begin here, with the first mention - ever - of the work that defined a generation. "Set down by a scribe whose name we do not know," its existence is singularly representative of Mushroom's role in history, and just how slighted he has been to this point. He was given merely a line of dialogue in The Princess and the Queen, then a number of tawdry tales in The Rogue Prince; now, we finally understand the extent of Mushroom's scholarship, coming in the form of his own book. Not only that, but the book and its author are cited so frequently and with so little skepticism toward their claims that it seems Testimony is one of our best sources of information on the Dance of the Dragons. This is merely our first glimpse of Mushroom as the most under-appreciated artist of his time.

9. The Harridan of House Vypren

In Yandel's discourse on the Riverlands, Mushroom is a vital contributor to our understanding of that area, notably regarding the widowed Lady Sabitha Vypren. Apparently her husband was a Frey who was in love with Queen Rhaenyra and died fighting in the Dance of the Dragons. Mushroom describes Sabitha as a "sharp-featured, sharp-tongued harridan of House Vypren, who would sooner ride than dance, wore mail instead of silk, and was fond of killing men and kissing women." This seems a fair and honest account of an otherwise obscure historical figure. Without Mushroom, we would know almost nothing of this noble house of the Riverlands, whose descendants remain abroad following their attendance at the Red Wedding.

8. The Decrees of Gaemon Palehair

Despite outdoing him in almost every arena, Yandel often relies on the patchwork writings of Archmaester Gyldayn, that notorious doubter of Mushroom's Testimony who nonetheless cites him again (albeit in somewhat back-handed fashion) in the chapter on Dorne. Gyldayn describes the strange decrees of Gaemon Palehair, who was briefly a king in King's Landing during the Dance of the Dragons (which is the most interesting war ever). Gaemon's decrees were about female equality and taking care of the poor, and "were almost certainly the work of a Dornish whore named Sylvenna Sand, reputedly the paramour of the king's mother Essie, if Mushroom can be believed." Here we see Mushroom's writings provide a historical link between the Dance of the Dragons and the development of the strange customs of the Dornish, most notably the notion of female inheritance and, of course, the wanton ways of Dornish women. Despite Gyldayn's refusal to properly credit Mushroom here, it's clear that his contribution is vital to a complete understanding of Dornish culture.

7. Causes of Death

Mushroom's claim that Queen Alicent poisoned her husband, King Viserys, and that Criston Cole threw Lord Beesbury out a window instead of slitting his throat, are treated cautiously by Yandel, though perhaps not as cautiously as some would like to think. Mushroom's suggestion of poison is one that "we may, perhaps, dismiss," and as regards Beesbury, Yandel points out that Mushroom was not present in King's Landing at the time. However, Yandel begins to reveal himself here as an author who seeks to draw from the Testimony as a primary source without suffering the academic consequences of such a decision. Exactly how King Viserys I and Lord Beesbury died is not actually relevant to the history of the Dance of the Dragons; as such, Yandel is free to cast half-hearted doubts on Mushroom's account and thus remain credible to his contemporaries. And yet, it's never made clear why the charge of poison is to be disbelieved, while the rest of the Testimony is accepted without question. Yandel is clearly influenced by Mushroom's book and often fails to provide the ambiguous language favored by Gyldayn. When he does provide such language, it seems almost hesitant, as though he knows he will never be taken seriously if he gives Mushroom too much credit and is obliged to slip in such phrases as "half of what he says cannot be trusted" despite obviously trusting much more than half. It is a shame that Yandel is disinclined to offer the complete picture of Mushroom's greatness for fear of ridicule.

6. The Sexual Appetites of Rhaenyra Targaryen

And yet, perhaps Yandel is actually playing a more subtle game. Not even Archmaester Gyldayn could ignore Mushroom's stories of Rhaenyra Targaryen, her uncle Daemon, and their scandalous escapades. The suggestion that Rhaenyra was schooled in sexuality by Daemon in hopes of seducing Ser Criston Cole, and that Daemon later ordered Ser Qarl Correy to murder Laenor Velaryon, appear in The Rogue Prince, and while Gyldayn again deems Mushroom's account worthy of questioning, Yandel shows no such inclination. For him, Mushroom's version of events is rightly considered just as credible as those of any other source, including Septon Eustace, a known confidant of the Targaryens. "Septon Eustace's and Mushroom's accounts are often at odds with one another," Yandel observes, "but at times there are some surprising areas of agreement between them." Here, we finally catch a glimpse of Yandel's subversive nature as one of the only scholars willing to give Mushroom the credit he deserves. Septon Eustace, widely considered the more credible source, must be cited by Yandel to preserve his own scholastic integrity, but he cleverly uses the points of connection between Eustace and Mushroom to establish the latter's information as plausible and henceforth refers to the Testimony and its author far more frequently than any other source. Far from being afraid to cite Mushroom, Yandel brilliantly turns the tables on those who doubt him, pretending to conform to popular belief while actually elevating the Testimony in the eyes of his readers.

5. The Cargyll Twins

As Yandel's account goes on, he reveals more and more of Mushroom's penetrating insight. Everyone knows the tale of the twin knights of the Kingsguard, Ser Erryk and Ser Arryk, who the songs say engaged in a deadly but loving duel on Dragonstone that ended with each dying in the arms of the other, tears on their cheeks. Only one scholar dares to question this highly romantic but utterly improbable course of events: Mushroom. The fool, who all agree was also on Dragonstone at the time, claims to have witnessed the duel between the brothers. He says the Cargyll twins leveled accusations of treason at one another rather than words of love and honor, and that they died with a mutual curse instead of an embrace. Mushroom's presence at the duel provides the only counter to the unlikely account of the singers, and one must note that his version of these events does not appear in the work of Gyldayn. While many prefer to remember history as legend instead of fact, only Mushroom bears witness to the truth.

4. The Dragonseeds

Another feat of greatness ignored by Gyldayn is Mushroom's role in the anointing of the infamous dragonseeds, an act that fundamentally altered the course of the Dance of the Dragons, and thus the course of history itself. Gyldayn, of course, gives Prince Jacaerys Velaryon the credit for offering to ennoble Dragonstone peasants with a drop of Targaryen blood in exchange for mastering a riderless dragon. Only Yandel presents Mushroom's claim of being the one who gave Jacaerys the idea in the first place, as written in the Testimony. This is, perhaps, the most egregious slight against Mushroom and thus one of the most enlightening revelations of The World of Ice & Fire. The taming of the dragons, the notoriety of the Two Betrayers, the valor of Addam of Hull, the mystery of the girl called Nettles - none of this would have been possible without Mushroom's initial suggestion. We see here, truly for the first time, how important Mushroom was in shaping the course of Westerosi history.

3. Baelor's Book-Burning

If you need more proof of the importance of The Testimony of Mushroom, consider the fear it engendered in no less a man that King Baelor I, the Blessed. While none can doubt his piety, Baelor was far from enlightened when it came to great works of scholarship. He was zealous in his crusade to burn books he found inappropriate or scandalous, and it is truly said that the value of a book can be found in the number of copies burned or banned. When writing about this unfortunate tendency of Baelor's, Yandel specifically mentions only two works: Septon Barth's Unnatural History and, of course, The Testimony of Mushroom. Not only does this indicate the high regard Yandel places on the Testimony, it is also demonstrative of the significance of Mushroom's work. Often derided as a scandalous liar, Mushroom is revealed here in his true form: as a rebellious martyr of the anti-censorship movement. The subversive nature of the Testimony is proof of the truth contained within it, for knowledge concealed by the powerful is almost always the most accurate knowledge of all, and the fact of its burning is merely the book's highest praise. We can only be thankful that a few copies survived Baelor's madness, that they might provide an ironclad account of events long past.

2. The Maidenvault

The extent of Mushroom's influence on Yandel, and on Westerosi culture in general, can be found once again in the chapter on King Baelor's reign. Despite the fact that Baelor's decision to lock his sisters in the Maidenvault occurred long after Mushroom was writing, Yandel mentions his name in the context of the youngest of those sisters, Elaena Targaryen, and her marriage to Lord Ossifer Plumm. "Later," he writes, "scurrilous rumors came to suggest that Lord Plumm, in fact, died at the sight of his new bride in her nakedness (this rumor was put in the lewdest terms - terms which might have amused Mushroom but which we need not repeat) and that the child she conceived that night was by her cousin Aegon - he who later became King Aegon the Unworthy."

Did Mushroom live on to write more scurrilous rumors about Westerosi nobility in his vaunted Testimony, or was his name invoked colloquially because a scurrilous rumor - any scurrilous rumor - was under discussion? The former seems unlikely; surely, if Mushroom were still an active author at the time, we would have more searing sexual insight into the depravities of other Targaryen kings and their perky, provocative courts. Moreover, this was about the same time that Baelor was burning the Testimony, suggesting the book had long since been completed and entered wide circulation. It's far more likely that Mushroom's work was so influential that his name has practically infiltrated Westerosi language as a full-on slang term, at least in the Citadel. One would think that it is only because of puritanical skeptics like Gyldayn that "mushroom" has not wholly replaced "slander" in the popular vernacular. Again, only Yandel is willing to grant Mushroom his proper place in history. He really does deserve his own word.

1. The Dragon in Winterfell

It is strange to think that Yandel, so willing to accept the unquestionable words of Mushroom, falters in his faith at the most important time. In fact, what is possibly Mushroom's greatest contribution to our understanding of current events in Westeros is utterly ignored by the author, leaving us to lament his ultimate lack of comprehension while simultaneously glorying in the gift given to us by the legendary scholar-fool.

In the section on Winterfell, Yandel mentions the idea that a dragon sleeps beneath the castle, but dismisses it as "even more foolish than Mushroom's claims and need not be given any consideration." This can be read either as Yandel again attempting to reign in his reliance on the Testimony for the sake of appearances, or as Yandel, despite his open-minded acceptance of Mushroom thus far, falling short of realizing the full truth. Regardless, he repeats this mistake later in the same section.

Yandel writes, "We can dismiss Mushroom's claim in his Testimony that the dragon Vermax left a clutch of eggs somewhere in the depths of Winterfell's crypts, where the waters of the hot springs run close to the walls, while his rider treated with Cregan Stark at the start of the Dance of the Dragons. As Archmaester Gyldayn notes in his fragmentary history, there is no record that Vermax ever laid so much as a single egg, suggesting the dragon was male. The belief that dragons could change sex at need is erroneous, according to Maester Anson's Truth, rooted in a misunderstanding of the esoteric metaphor that Barth preferred when discussing the higher mysteries."

Whether by accident or by design, what is actually erroneous here is Yandel's sudden inclination to go along with conformist thinkers like Gyldayn and openly question Mushroom's work. We, of course, know the true implications of the fool's suggestion. Yandel and Gyldayn claim Mushroom is wrong because they believe Vermax was male. They claim the idea that dragons can change sex is wrong because Maester Anson said it was wrong. But really, who is Maester Anson to contradict the great Mushroom? He's barely mentioned in the world book; for a man who named his book Truth, he doesn't seem to have contributed much to the historical record, does he? He might think Septon Barth's talk about sex-changing dragons is just a metaphor, but readers know that someone else takes Barth's work far more literally: Maester Aemon of the Night's Watch, whose dying words clearly indicate his belief that dragons go from male to female and back again. On this point, the little-known Maester Anson is on one side, while Septon Barth, Maester Aemon and, of course, Mushroom, are on the other. The contest between them is not close.

So dragons do change sex at need, which means Vermax could very well have been both male and female, which means there's no reason to disbelief Mushroom's claim.

Which means... there was a dragon in Winterfell. There probably still is a dragon in Winterfell, unless it flew away when Winterfell burned, a popular fan theory that holds weight thanks to the description of the destroyed castle from Summer's point of view ("in the sky he saw a great winged snake whose roar was a river of flame") and the contrast between the apparently natural heat of the castle before its destruction and the chill running through it when it is re-inhabited by Roose Bolton's host afterward. Whatever the case, the dragon either is still there or is now abroad in the Seven Kingdoms. That's a thing, friends. I just proved it. There can be no doubt.

And Mushroom? Mushroom's words are gospel.

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