Let me tell you two stories.
The first story is about Jon Snow. He is born in one place — Dorne. Then he is whisked away, as a baby, to a second place — Winterfell. He grows up in this second place and thinks of it as his home, and he understands that he won’t inherit it by birthright. Then he goes away to a remote third place — the Wall and beyond — where he has a lover (Ygritte) who later dies. In this third place, he is ultimately chosen to lead a warlike, primitive, nomadic people (the wildlings, especially in the TV show; and of course he is chosen more explicitly to lead the warlike Night’s Watch). He will lead those people back to the place he considers home — Winterfell — which is the place he couldn’t inherit by birth but will instead take by conquest.
The second story is about Daenerys Targaryen. She is born in one place — Dragonstone. Then she is whisked away, as a baby, to a second place — the Free Cities in western Essos — where she grows up. She thinks of Westeros as her home, but she understands that she won’t inherit it by birthright. Then she goes away, to a remote third place — the Dothraki Sea — where she has a lover (Drogo) who later dies. In this third place, she is ultimately chosen to lead a warlike, primitive, nomadic people (the Dothraki; and she is also chosen to lead the warlike Unsullied). She will lead those people back to the place she considers home — Westeros — which is the place she couldn’t inherit by birth but will instead take by conquest.
These stories are so similar that I believe they must be telling us what happened in the ancient story of Azor Ahai. Before I turn to Azor Ahai specifically, let me mention a few other similar life paths. Tyrion Lannister leaves Casterly Rock and later King’s Landing, and he sort-of gets chosen to lead the mountain clans of the Vale. Those mountain clans are like Jon’s wildlings and Dany’s Dothraki in many ways: They are warlike, primitive, and nomadic, and they also involve many different tribes that don’t usually get along and work together. Tyrion leads them into battle at the Green Fork, just like Jon will lead the wildlings and Dany will lead the Dothraki. And right when Tyrion leads the mountain clans, he finds a lover (Shae) who later dies. He kills her, as Dany killed Drogo.
Theon Greyjoy’s story has some similarities, too. He grows up at Winterfell but obviously won’t inherit it by birth. Then he goes back to Pyke and ends up leading a group of ironborn (who are warlike and somewhat primitive and nomadic, albeit by sea rather than land). He leads those people back to Winterfell — the home where he was raised — to take it by conquest.
Euron Greyjoy’s story also has some similarities. He’s not going to inherit anything by birth, and he leaves the Iron Islands and ultimately returns and becomes the chosen king of the Iron Islanders — a warlike, primitive people — after killing their leader. The fact that Euron kills Balon is a little bit like the fact that Dany kills a Dothraki leader (Drogo), Jon orders the killing of a wildling leader (Mance), and even Tyrion kills mountain clan guys.
Daemon Targaryen, the Rogue Prince, has similarities as well. He won’t inherit Westeros by birth, so he goes away and becomes the so-called “king” of a remote place (the Stepstones and the Narrow Sea), and then returns and tries to help Rhaenyra take Westeros by conquest.
Why do so many elements of this same story keep getting repeated? As I said before, I think it’s being done to clue us in to the life story of Azor Ahai. So let me try to put the pieces together. If we view Jon and Dany as the most important examples of the Azor Ahai archetype, then Azor Ahai should be born in one place, raised in a second place, and then go to a third place where he becomes chosen as the leader of a primitive, warlike, nomadic people. Then he should lead those people to invade the place he considered home.
There’s actually a pretty straightforward way to make this work. In Azor Ahai’s time, it seems that there were two main groups of people. One was a highly advanced civilization in the Far East known as the Great Empire of the Dawn, which had dragons and was ruled by platinum-haired dragonlords in Asshai. The other group of people was the so-called First Men who crossed the Arm of Dorne — the land bridge that existed then from western Essos into Westeros. The First Men were primitive, warlike, and nomadic, with various tribal factions — just like the modern-day wildlings, Dothraki, and mountain clans of the Vale in the main plot.
We can use that fact to learn an awful lot about Azor Ahai’s life. Remember that Jon and Dany left the place they considered home to join a nomadic group. That means Azor Ahai probably wasn’t raised where the First Men were. Instead, he probably did what Jon and Dany did: He left the place he considered home and went far away, where he met the nomadic people and became their leader. So that means Azor Ahai didn’t start out in Westeros. He might have been born in the Iron Islands — probably an outpost of the Great Empire from which they could trade with Westeros or take slaves from Westeros or plan an invasion of Westeros.
Like Jon and Dany, Azor Ahai was probably taken away from his birthplace as a baby and moved to a second place where he grew up. That second place must be Asshai. Like Jon, Azor Ahai probably grew up with a great family. And the only place such families existed back then was the Far East. Moreover, it’s the only place people existed who weren’t primitive and nomadic, and Azor Ahai had to grow up far away from the nomads because we’re guessing that, like Jon and Dany, he journeyed far to join them.
So Azor Ahai grows up with a great family in Asshai, but he isn’t going to inherit anything by birth. He leaves, or gets sent away, to Westeros. In Westeros, he encounters the nomadic First Men. Maybe they’ve been united by a leader like an ancient Mance Rayder, and Azor Ahai probably kills that leader just like Jon has Mance killed (at least he believes it’s Mance), and like Dany kills Drogo, the Dothraki leader. Jon and Dany kill for mercy, so maybe that’s what Azor Ahai did too . . . or, maybe he killed the leader for some other reason, like Euron killing Balon. We just don’t know.
In any event, Azor Ahai must have been chosen to lead the warlike, primitive, nomadic First Men in Westeros. Maybe they chose him because he taught them the knowledge of farming and architecture that his advanced Eastern civilization had discovered. That would make him like Garth Greenhand and Bran the Builder.
After Azor Ahai becomes the leader of the primitive First Men, he does what Dany aims to do with the Dothraki and Jon aims to do with the wildlings: lead them back to conquer his civilized home. So Azor Ahai must have gone back to Asshai with an army of First Men.
Now things get murky. Up to this point, I actually think we have a pretty strong working hypothesis about how the events went. Honestly, the story I’ve told so far fits so much better with what we know than anything else I can think of, that I have to believe it’s right. But what happened next, when Azor Ahai led his army of primitive First Men back to Asshai?
To figure that out, let’s start with what we know. We know that eventually, Azor Ahai kills Nissa Nissa. That’s written on the page in black and white. And if you believe Lucifer Means Lightbringer (or LmL), as I do, then Azor Ahai’s killing of Nissa Nissa brings down moon meteors and wrecks the world. LmL sometimes says he thinks that Azor Ahai did these things in Asshai, and he also sometimes says he thinks that Azor Ahai invaded Westeros at Battle Isle in the first battle of the War for the Dawn.
LmL knows more about the books than anyone other than George R.R. Martin. So I racked my brain trying to figure out a way to make the ancient events work like that: with Azor Ahai killing Nissa Nissa in Asshai and bringing down the moon, then starting the War for the Dawn by invading Westeros at Battle Isle. I tried to think of any way it could have happened like that . . . and I failed. Maybe it will turn out that I failed because I just don’t know enough, or because I’m just not good enough at this, to figure it out. That’s very, very possible.
But let me ask you to indulge me in considering a different possibility — a possibility that makes the pieces fit together much better, as far as I can tell. To explain it, let me tell you three fascinating and important things I learned, each from a different one of my heroes in the community of analyzing these books.
The first point comes from Crowfood’s Daughter, who noticed the pervasive references in these books to the story of Helen of Troy, in which a beautiful woman gets taken from one place to another by a man, and then an army tries to get her back. The Rhaegar/Lyanna story has some major similarities, but there are also references to Helen all over the books. I’ll explain what this means soon.
The second point comes from Ross Miller, who figured out that Azor Ahai figures sometimes protect Westeros and other times invade it, and when they protect Westeros, they tend to be associated with the color green — like Tyrion using green fire at the Blackwater or the faction called the Greens in the Dance of the Dragons. Again, I’ll get to the significance soon.
The third and last point comes from Gretchen Ellis, who showed that the Others were probably created at first to be protectors of the people, not killers. They were probably made to protect the people from dragons, just as Dany’s dragons in the main plot may be thought of as protectors against the Others.
These three big contributions fit together to tell us a story that makes a heck of a lot of sense, in my opinion. Let’s start with Crowfood’s Daughter’s point about Helen. When I was comparing Azor Ahai’s life to that of Jon and Dany, I left off with Azor Ahai leading an army of First Men back to Asshai. Asshai is where the Amethyst Empress was — but I’ll use her more familiar name, Nissa Nissa. It fits the Helen story for Azor Ahai to take Nissa Nissa back to Westeros, and then for the Great Empire to send a military force after him to get her back. That’s what happens with Rhaegar and Lyanna, and it’s what happens when a guy named Paris takes Helen of Troy.
If Azor Ahai took Nissa Nissa back with him to Westeros, and if the Great Empire sent an attacking force after them, then we don’t have to be geniuses to figure out what happened at Battle Isle. Instead of Azor Ahai attacking Westeros at Battle Isle with dragons, he’d be defending Westeros at Battle Isle against invading dragons. LmL has often theorized that the Hightowers and Daynes were fighting on the side of Nissa Nissa in this war: They were Amethyst Empress loyalists. I agree completely. And I think that Azor Ahai was the first Hightower and the first Dayne, just like he may have been the first Stark and the first Lannister.
The first Dayne tracked a falling star and found a stone of magical powers. If that doesn’t scream “Azor Ahai,” then nothing does. And here’s what we’re told about the first Hightower: He was a king in ancient Westeros; he wed the most beautiful woman by taking her away from another man; the other man attacked Old Town (where Battle Isle is) to get the woman back; and the Hightower guy killed the dragons at Battle Isle. That’s exactly the story of Azor Ahai, as I see it. He took Nissa Nissa back to Westeros and then repelled a dragon invasion that was meant to retrieve her.
Now let’s talk about Ross Miller’s point that the people defending Westeros have green imagery. That’s why Tyrion uses green fire when defending King’s Landing at the Battle of the Blackwater, and it’s why the faction that starts out in King’s Landing during the Dance of the Dragons is called the Greens. The color green is George R.R. Martin’s way of symbolizing summer, as we can tell from the ancient figure Garth the Green. The fertile Garth was a classic summer king figure, and his analogue in the main plot is Robert Baratheon. (Parenthetical point: This creates a bit of a problem for George R.R. Martin with respect to Robert’s Rebellion, because if the green guy is supposed to be defending Westeros, then how come Robert is invading? But George solves that problem by not having Robert invade King’s Landing. Tywin Lannister gets there first instead.)
What does this green stuff have to do with Azor Ahai? Everything. We know that Azor Ahai killed Nissa Nissa. We believe that killing her brought down moon meteors in an event known as the Hammer of the Waters. The word “hammer” is always associated with green summer king figures like Garth or Robert. Obviously, Robert’s weapon is a hammer. I want you to think about how vital a piece of information this is: The term “Hammer of the Waters” tells us that when Azor Ahai brought down the moon, he was acting as a green, Garth-like, Robert-like, summer king figure.
Clearly, that’s not the only kind of person Azor Ahai was throughout his life. He underwent at least one transformation and ultimately attacked Westeros himself, in his new identity of Night’s King. But a green, Robert-like summery figure is the kind of person Azor Ahai was at the moment he brought down the moon, because that act is called the Hammer of the Waters, and only summery figures like Robert wield hammers. Those summery figures like Robert are kings of Westeros. Garth was the first king of Westeros, and Robert is Westeros’s king when the main plot begins. The king of Westeros is called the Protector of the Realm, and the color green is associated with protecting the capital of Westeros when someone else attacks it.
And that brings us to Gretchen’s point. The Others were created to protect people from dragons. We know that the Long Night and the Others go together like ham and eggs. When Azor Ahai brought down the moon and paved the way for the creation of the Others, he was trying to protect Westeros against invading dragons.
The capital of Westeros was Old Town in ancient times. It was probably the only city in Westeros back then. And Old Town is where Battle Isle is. So when the Great Empire sent a force to invade the capital of Westeros at Battle Isle, Azor Ahai was playing the role of the green, hammer-wielding, summer king, Garth figure who needed to protect the realm.
How exactly did he try to defend Westeros? Well, let’s put together the pieces we’ve all unearthed about the event in which Azor Ahai killed Nissa Nissa and brought down the moon. In order to bring down the moon, Azor Ahai needed the supernatural power of the old gods, which means the power of nature or the weirwood trees. To access that power, he probably needed to make a sacrifice to the trees.
One of the best things I’ve ever read about these books is an essay called “Answered Prayers” by Ross Miller, which you can find on this very website under the category “Unchained Essays.” In that essay, Ross uncovers a gigantic repeated theme in which the following sequence of events happens. First, a major character says a prayer. Then that prayer gets granted, but not always in the way the character expected or even wanted. And then whoever said the prayer gets their child taken from them. Sometimes the child is killed, and other times rescued. This happens with Dany and Rhaego, and with Catelyn and Robb, among many other examples. Often, this theme is related to sacrificing one or two people to stop a much bigger conflict, as when Renly dies to avoid a battle, or when Robb and Catelyn are murdered to end a war, or when Robert’s Small Council plots to murder a young Daenerys to stave off an invasion.
That’s what I think happened with Azor Ahai. He wanted the gods to take Nissa Nissa’s baby in exchange for protecting Westeros from an invasion from the Great Empire and its dragons. Nissa Nissa may have tried to protect her baby, like Catelyn protected Bran from the assassin, and Azor Ahai ended up killing her too. Whatever the specifics were, Azor Ahai got what he asked for: The invading force was destroyed by moon meteors falling from the sky. But as is often the case with blood magic rituals, the cure was worse than the disease. The event probably drove Azor Ahai mad and ultimately turned him into an ice monster who tried to kill everyone on the planet. Oops.
To recap: The stories of Jon and Dany, among other major characters, show us that Azor Ahai was chosen to lead a primitive, nomadic, warlike people and to unite many different tribes of those people. In Azor Ahai’s day, the only such people were in Westeros, so he must have been chosen to lead the Westerosi. And I believe he was leading them when the Great Empire of the Dawn sent an armada and dragons to invade Westeros at Battle Isle. Azor Ahai killed the invaders and their dragons by bringing down the moon via a blood magic ritual — probably one in which Nissa Nissa and her baby died. That began the Long Night. It was only after this battle that Azor Ahai went north, transformed into Night’s King, and attacked humanity in the War for the Dawn.