How did Patchface survive the shipwreck when all others on board drowned? In this updated post, I take a more comprehensive look at the smallfolk’s explanation for his survival regarding the mermaid that taught him to breathe in exchange for his seed. I believe a mermaid did intervene, but not the way we imagine it may have happened.
Some of you may have read the original version and most of that is still valid but you’ll find more food for thought here. By all means catch up with the new insights presented when you find the time.
- Against all odds
- A mermaid’s kiss in watery halls
- The heriditary ability to breathe under the sea
- Possible origins of an amphibious race
To begin with, a recap of the events that brought Patchface to Westeros as recalled by Maester Cressen:
The boy washed up on the third day. Maester Cressen had come with the rest, to help put names to the dead. When they found the fool he was naked, his skin white and wrinkled and powdered with wet sand. Cressen had thought him another corpse, but when Jommy grabbed his ankles to drag him off to the wagon, the boy coughed water and sat up. To his dying day, Jommy had sworn that Patchface’s flesh was clammy and cold. No one ever explained those two days the fool had been lost at sea. The fisherfolk liked to say a mermaid had taught him to breathe water in return for his seed. ACOK, Prologue
Possible explanations for Patchface’s survival
- Fortuitous circumstances
- His own magical ability (he saved himself)
- Intervention of a god, mermaid or other supernatural entity
- A genetic disposition to breathing water
A discourse into the nature of drowning reveals that Patchface could have survived the shipwreck due to fortuitous environmental and biological circumstances. This scenario, remote as it may seem, could explain his survival. In our world, we would probably also conclude that he must have had a guardian angel watching over him.
Patchface warded off death by means of his own magic
Lord Steffon’s letter states that Patchface was able to do magic. We have no idea of what kind of magic he was capable of as a boy. It may have been something as mundane as a card trick, or he may have been capable of performing complex feats of ‘real’ magic. Mel certainly provides us with an example of warding off death via magic. She neutralizes Cressen’s poisoned wine by drawing on her inner cleansing fire, staving off death in the process.
Let’s go back to that passage:
Red silk, red eyes, the ruby red at her throat, red lips curled in a faint smile as she put her hand atop his own, around the up. Her skin felt hot, feverish. “It is not too late to spill the wine, master.”
After Mel drinks of the poisoned wine, she offers it to Cressen, saying:
“He does have power here, my Lord,” the woman said. “And fire cleanses.” At her throat, the ruby shimmered redly. ACoK, Prologue
What strikes me here is that her skin felt hot and feverish, while Jommy swears Patchface’s flesh was clammy cold. Clammy cold. Quite the opposite of hot and feverish, which can be attributed to Mel’s ability to manipulate the magic of fire. There appears to be a fire and ice thing going on here. I wonder if Patchface warded off death with the help of his knowledge of magic, magic powers attributed to some other power we know little or nothing of? Rather than speculate on this, let’s take a look at what the fisherfolk say on the matter.
Careful examination of the evidence shows that Patchface did not die at sea.
- Nobody brought him back from death via CPR or a resurrection ritual.
- While all washed-up corpses are swollen, Patchface’s skin was white, wrinkled and powdered with wet sand, with no sign of swelling.
- If Patchface did not die at sea, who or what ensured his survival in the depths? The Drowned God, Deep Ones, Squishers or perhaps a Mermaid?
As we’ve seen from Old Nan’s stories, folktales usually contain a nugget of truth so it makes sense to examine the fisherfolk’s assertions regarding Patchface’s survival.
The fisherfolk liked to say a mermaid had taught him to breathe water in return for his seed.
The intervention of a mermaid
We can assume that the fisherfolk are experienced in matters relating to the sea. Their culture probably also draws on a rich heritage of oral tradition rooted in the far away truths of past centuries. Also, several aspects of this myth coincide with other mysterious legends found in the narrative, one of these being the legend of the Night’s King, which recalls him giving his seed and his soul to a pale blue-eyed woman.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the quote is that it suggests Patchface never died at sea – instead, a mermaid comes along and teaches him how to breathe in return for his seed. Do we really believe that an immature boy on the verge of drowning found the strength to have sex with a woman underwater? Not really. In fact, the tale can probably be translated into something more in tune with contemporary knowledge and thinking.
Now, in terms of the story, what do we know about mermaids?
- For one, they feature heavily in Patchface’s ‘under the sea prophecies’.
- Secondly, the Grey King of the Ironborn is said to have taken a mermaid to wife.
- Thirdly, there are stories of selkies, Deep Ones, Squishers and otherwise normal people with hereditary webbing between fingers and toes.
Armed with this background what better place to look for clues than in Ironborn Asha Greyjoy’s chapters in the narrative?
MAKING A FOOL OF MEN
The first thing of note as a parallel between the mysterious mermaid and Asha, is that both make fools of men.
The legendary mermaid may have saved Patchface’s life, but her intervention also turned him into a halfwit fool. Now, you may raise the objection that Patchface was a professional fool before embarking on his journey to Westeros. That he was, but he was also a perfectly normal and exceedingly talented and clever young boy in full possession of his mental faculties. He lost all his abilities during his ordeal. As such, the mermaid’s kiss may have saved his life but not his wits, turning him into mentally handicapped ‘fool’ and like many of the other fools in the story, it is this ‘mad’ status qualifies him as a real fool.
Asha makes a fool of men on several occasions:
Upon meeting her brother Theon for the first time in ten years, she takes advantage of his not recognizing her by playing along with his attempts to seduce her. Theon is livid when he finds out who ‘Esgred’ really is and we have his thoughts after Asha cuckolds him:
“She was the one who made me a fool.”
It’s not the only time she makes him look foolish either. At the feast, the subject of Asha’s deception comes up again between them and the following ensues:
“Oh, that part was true enough.” Asha leapt to her feet. “Rolfe, here,” she shouted down at one of the finger dancers, holding up a hand. He saw her, spun, and suddenly an axe came flying from his hand, the blade gleaming as it tumbled end over end through the torchlight. Theon had time for a choked gasp before Asha snatched the axe from the air and slammed it down into the table, splitting his trencher in two and splattering his mantle with drippings. “There’s my lord husband.” His sister reached down inside her gown and drew a dirk from between her breasts. “And here’s my sweet suckling babe.”
He could not imagine how he looked at that moment, but suddenly Theon Greyjoy realized that the Great Hall was ringing with laughter, all of it at him. ACOK, Theon.
Not only is Theon’s dinner ruined, his reaction to the flying axe, the dripping that splatters onto his clothing coupled with Asha’s witty retorts elicit a gale of laughter directed at him. She makes him look a right fool.
Moreover, Asha’s making a fool of men always occurs in connection with the theme of love, sex and marriage:
In another example involving Qarl the Maid, Asha threatens to have him emasculated:
“I’m a woman wed,” she reminded him afterward. “You’ve despoiled me, you beardless boy. My lord husband will cut your balls off and put you in a dress.”
Qarl ‘despoils’ highborn and wedded Asha by laying with her and ‘giving her his seed’. Cutting off his balls would not only reduce Qarl’s status as a man, putting him in a dress would certainly make him look a fool. In this respect, it’s interesting that Qarl is Qarl the Maid and that on account of Ramsay’s treatment, Theon, whom Asha made a fool of, no longer thinks of himself as a man:
He was not even a man. He was Lord Ramsay’s creature, lower than a dog, a worm in human skin. ADWD, Reek II
This theme continues with Asha’s marriage to Eric Ironmaker. Euron who arranges this marriage has a seal stand-in for the absent Asha.
She had to pay her nuncle his just due. With one stroke, Euron had turned a rival into a supporter, secured the isles in his absence, and removed Asha as a threat. And enjoyed a good belly laugh too. Tris Botley said that the Crow’s Eye had used a seal to stand in for her at her wedding. “I hope Erik did not insist on a consummation,” she’d said. ADWD, The Wayward Bride
Asha had no hand in this marriage, nor in the choice of a seal as her substitute and though Euron turns a rival into a supporter, he humiliates Erik and makes him look a fool through his choice of a seal as a replacement for Asha.
The connection between the mermaid and Asha are also evident in these passages from the Wayward Bride in aDwD:
Tristifer Botley and Asha:
Asha took Tris Botley by the ears and kissed him full upon the lips. He was red and breathless by the time she let him go. “What was that?” he said.
“A kiss, it’s called. Drown me for a fool, Tris, I should have remembered.”
Asha kissing Tristan on the lips until he is red and breathless is reminiscent of resuscitation and teaching Patchface to breathe water can be interpreted in terms of the ‘kiss of life’ employed during CPR. In this context, her next statement, “a kiss, it’s called. Drown me for a fool,” evokes the drowning Patchface as well as the fisherfolk’s commentary on his survival. Additionally, the phrase ‘drown me for a fool’ has a certain ambiguity to it. It could mean drowning someone in order to raise him as a fool (along the lines of ‘only life can pay for death’) or it could mean ‘drown me because I am a fool’. Perhaps both. The implication of the first interpretation is far reaching because it evokes the raising of wights, who on account of the controlling magic they are subjected to, can be described as ‘witless fools’. Indeed, there’s every indication that Patchface’s story and fate is closely tied to that of the wights, their raising and the mechanism of control employed by their masters. See my essay on Water Magic for more on this subject.
Whatever the case, the mermaid giving Patchface ‘the kiss of life’ is another example of women infusing men with life, reminding us in particular of the ‘whispering heads’ and the Shrouded Lord, both returned to the living via a woman’s kiss. Another example of this kiss of life is ‘the Lord’s Kiss’, employed by Thoros of Myr to raise Lord Beric.
In further parallels, Tristifer and Asha also make statements that connect Ironborn beliefs to Patchface’s declarations:
During the battle for Deepwood Motte, Asha faces certain death at the hands of a Northman. She thinks her time to enter the Drowned God’s watery halls has arrived. Just before the Northman raises his axe to deliver his final blow, she hears a trumpet:
A trumpet blew. “That’s wrong,” she thought. “There are no trumpets in the Drowned God’s watery halls. Below the waves, the merlings hail their lord by blowing into seashells.”
Doesn’t this remind you of one of Patchface’s declarations from Jon’s last chapter in ADwD?
I will lead it! We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves, we will ride seahorses and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh.
Originally hailing from Volantis, Patchface is not Ironborn, yet he echoes the Ironborn belief regarding merpeople that blow seashells below the waves.
Compare also Tristifer’s suggestion to Asha with Patchface’s words to Shireen:
Tristifer to Asha:
Sail away with me, and we will make new lives upon the sea.
Patchface to Shireen:
Away, away. Come with me beneath the sea, away, away, away.
In most of these cases, Asha mirrors the mermaid, while the men in her life serve as parallels to the fool Patchface.
THE HERIDITARY ABILITY TO BREATHE UNDER THE SEA
Having established links between Patchface, Asha, mermaids, the Ironborn and a ‘kiss of life’, the question of how the fool survived his ordeal in the sea is easily answered. Let us return to some of the observations noted above.
THE GREY KING’S MERMAID WIFE
The Grey King who marries a mermaid is our first clue. We are given a reason for this union: he wanted his children to be able to choose between living on land and living in the ocean. This strongly implies the following:
- the mermaid in question was a woman capable of breathing water
- her children inherited this ability
Humans do not breathe water in the real world but this is fantasy and regardless of the reference to mermaids, the Grey King’s wife appears to have been amphibious. Like those amphibians that retain their gills after completing the aqueous part of their life cycle, she was (possibly) able to survive in water as well as on land. We can expect some of her children to have inherited this trait and we can also assume that a few persons within the population have retained this trait over the centuries.
Further pointers that this may have been the case come from Ironborn history itself and include the antique designation of ‘Rock Kings’ and ‘Salt Kings’ as well as the taking of rock wives and salt wives.
Also significant in this regard is the stand-in seal that represents Asha during her wedding in absentia. The seal, though not amphibious, spends its life both on land and at sea. Numerous legends surround this animal, none more so than the stories of selkies, the seal people, purported to live as seals in the sea but shedding their skins to become human on land. The word selkie originates from the Scots selich, meaning seal. Both sexes were thought to have seductive powers over humans. A human man could prevent a selkie woman from returning to the sea by stealing and hiding her seal-skin. Possessing her sealskin gave the man power over her, forcing her to become his wife and mother to his children. Though they succumbed to their fate, a seal woman would always return to the sea on retrieving her sealskin. Children of the union usually showed amphibious features such as webbed hands and feet known as ‘selkiepaws’. GRRM mentions selkies in the World Book where they are listed among mysterious ‘enemies from the sea’ (including merlings and walrus-people) who presumably exterminated the mazemakers. Owen Oakenshield, a son of the legendary Garth Greenhand and conqueror of the Shield Islands is said to have driven selkies and merlings back into the sea. The selkies mentioned appear to be the stuff of legend but if they did exist, they are likely related to or synonymous with mermaids. Indeed, in Gaelic folklore, female selkies were known as ‘maidens of the sea’ and in fact, no distinction was made between them and mermaids.
The closest we get to present day ‘selkies’ are House Farwynd of Sealskin Point on Old Wyk and the Farwynd branch at the Lonely Light, a group of thirteen islands eight days sail from Old Wyk. These are the westernmost outpost of the Iron Islands. The Lonely Light is known for its seal and sea-lion population, while the Farwynds themselves are thought to be a queer folk of skinchangers and shapeshifters, similar to what we would expect from selkies:
The Farwynds there were even queerer than the rest. Some said they were skinchangers, unholy creatures who could take on the forms of sea lions, walruses, even spotted whales, the wolves of the wild sea. AFFC, The Drowned Man
HUSBAND TO BEARS
As we see, the legends persist. But that is not all. Tormund, Father to Bears, also tells a story straight out of selkie legend when he recounts a night of passion with feisty woman who leaves her bearskin behind:
All ripped and torn I was, and half me member bit right off, and there on me floor was a she-bear’s pelt. And soon enough the free folk were telling tales o’ this bald bear seen in the woods, with the queerest pair o’ cubs behind her. Har!” He slapped a meaty thigh. “Would that I could find her again. She was fine to lay with, that bear. ASOS, Jon II
Tormund is quite enamored by this spirited woman and does not seem to mind that she ‘bites half his member off’. Despite her ferocity, she, like a selkie woman, appears to have had seductive appeal, while ‘biting his member off’ evokes giving a woman one’s seed. Tormund is not only a ‘Father to Bears’, he is also a ‘Husband to Bears’, as evidenced by the bearskin left behind in his possession. Theoretically, his queer bear cubs should be able to take on both human and bear forms as they please. This tale involves a bear but it mirrors the known image of the selkie in every detail.
WEBBED HANDS AND FEET
On the more tangible side of things are concrete examples of otherwise normal humans with amphibious physical features. Lord Godric Borrell of the Three Sisters and his daughters all have ‘the mark’, as he himself names the feature:
His nose was lumpy and red with broken veins, his lips thick, and he had a sort of webbing between the three middle fingers of his right hand. Davos had heard that some of the lords of the Three Sisters had webbed hands and feet, but he had always put that down as just another sailor’s story.
The woman brought them a fresh loaf of bread, still hot from the oven. When Davos saw her hand, he stared. Lord Godric did not fail to make note of it. “Aye, she has the mark. Like all Borrells, for five thousand years. My daughter’s daughter. ADWD, Davos I
This is quite phenomenal. A genetic trait that has been passed down from generation to generation for five thousand years! But perhaps it’s not that much of a surprise. Most genetic traits are not lost. They tend to survive within isolated populations such as the Three Sister Islands where many people may exhibit them. With the mixing of populations over the passage of time, they become rare but never disappear entirely from the general gene pool. Traits associated with a group of people living at one end of the earth may crop up thousands of miles away from their point of origin and indeed this is how geneticists trace and confirm ancient migratory routes and origins.
INHERITANCE IS THE KEY
Lord Steffon bought Patchface in Volantis. Being a slave boy, we cannot say for sure if that was his birthplace but that does not matter. Given the above, a plausible conclusion is that Patchface survived his ordeal because he inherited the rare ability to breathe water. The seed he gives the mermaid in exchange for the kiss of life represents the ancient union between his ancestral human father and his ‘mermaid’ mother. The trait may have suffered some dilution or changes along the way so that the organs that enabled his forebears to breathe are now less well adapted to a watery medium. In short, the trait enabled him to survive but was not efficient to supply enough oxygen to prevent damage to his brain.
Thus, breathing water may have nothing to do with magic, but everything to do with inheritance; this would also apply to Howland Reed, who as Meera informs us, can breathe mud.
POSSIBLE ORIGINS OF AN AMPHIBIOUS RACE
The existence of an amphibious race in the past is certainly possible. Just as Westeros had its Elder Races – the Children of the Forest, the Giants and possibly the Others, so too could Essos have once been populated by races now predominantly lost to history, with features preserved only in tiny scattered populations. The World Book makes mention of a lost race of Centaurs, fearsome monstrosities residing in the Grey Waste, the hairless green-tinged folk of the Thousand Islands, the inhabitants of the Isle of Toads who have an unpleasant fish-like appearance, just to name a few. The latter are interesting due to the link between their huge Toad idol of malignant aspect and the Seastone Chair of the Ironborn, both being of the same oily black stone material. Is there a connection between the amphibious selkies/merlings and the fishy folks of the Isle of Toads? That Owen Oakenshield, a first generation First Man, drove selkies into the sea and the accounts of the Ironborn stating the Seastone Chair was found on the beach when the first man arrived on the Iron Islands suggests the amphibious folk had already established a foothold in Westeros before or around the time of the coming of the first men. Were they the Deep Ones of legend?
Besides the distinct races, we also have evidence of breeding experiments such as those the Valyrians subjected their slaves to: at Gogossos, beasts were mated to slave women to bring forth twisted half-human children. The people of Ib differ from the human species – their women cannot bear children with humans. Giant/human hybrids exist, as do zorses and a variety of weird and wonderful creatures as kept by the Sealord of Braavos in his menagerie:
The ships of Braavos sail as far as the winds blow, to lands strange and wonderful, and when they return their captains fetch queer animals to the Sealord’s menagerie. Such animals as you have never seen, striped horses, great spotted things with necks as long as stilts, hairy mouse-pigs as big as cows, stinging manticores, tigers that carry their cubs in a pouch, terrible walking lizards with scythes for claws. Syrio Forel has seen these things. AGOT, Arya
Mouse-pigs, walking lizards that sound like dinosaurs….. Figuring this out is not an easy task. The mysterious Merpeople may have been a distinct race such as the Fisher Queens of the Silver Sea or they may have bred to the purpose. We cannot be sure. What I am sure of is the importance of these hybrids to the background story.
Three-headed-dragons, griffins and harpies? Perhaps not of legend but hidden examples of breeding, recombinant DNA, magical genetic engineering and the answer to the riddle of the sphinx?
The author definitely has a thing for chimeras and hybrids. In the following clever weaponized analogy to a child of mixed origin may lie hidden the source of the Others:
Asha snatched the axe from the air and slammed it down into the table, splitting his trencher in two and splattering his mantle with drippings. “There’s my lord husband.” His sister reached down inside her gown and drew a dirk from between her breasts. “And here’s my sweet suckling babe.”
Balon Greyjoy says his daughter Asha is wedded to her axe, her husband and father to the dirk, her sweet babe, which she draws from her breasts. Besides the Hammer of Waters and Nissa Nissa connotations evident in this citation, the axe itself is reminiscent of the double-headed axe that lies so prominently at the spot where the dead wildlings once lay before vanishing in the prologue to the series:
His eyes swept back and forth over the abandoned campsite, stopped on the axe. A huge double-bladed battle-axe, still lying where he had seen it last, untouched. A valuable weapon …
The dirk, a naval-shortsword, is her sweet suckling babe. Dirks have only one sharp side with a grip traditionally fashioned in the shape of a thistle. The thistle itself is an interesting plant. Like the Ironborn and the Others themselves, it is an invasive species, one whose seeds can lie dormant for a long time but germinate, grow rapidly and destroy whole areas of pasture when the conditions are right. And of course there is the matter of Thistle… and the thing that came in the night. Recall also the phrasing of the smallfolk’s statement and its echo of the Night’s King tale.
The main point is that Patchface’s genetic heritage very likely includes the ability to breathe water.
That he may still survive under water is suggested by one of his last pronouncements to date:
I will lead it! We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves we will ride seahorses and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh. ADwD, Jon
Notice the omission of I know, I know, I know. Patchface sees himself in an active role (I will lead it!) here. This isn’t a vision nor a song that he hears. The fool is telling us that he can still enter the water and emerge unscathed.
The next essay in this series deals with Patchface as a recipient of messages from different sources. You might also be interested in Water Magic which includes a theory on the relationship between virulent diseases such as the grey death and the magic of the Others.
Acknowledgements and Credits:
Featured Image: Patchface imposed on the sea. Image of Patchface by sprrow on deviantart