The Viper’s Tale

Writer’s Note– This is a character analysis from 2015 which was published with TheZine.biz. Here’s the original- https://goo.gl/gyF8KH

oberyn_martell_portrait_aka_red_viper_by_alexnegrea-d7pllvm
Portrait titled The Red Viper by alexnegrea

A Song Of Ice And Fire has a myriad of characters that are incredibly well-layered and diverse. When I first started reading the series back in 2009, I found myself viewing every character as particular colours- different shades, hues, and varying levels of contrast and saturation. This was an identifying factor for the emotions and ideas they conveyed and represented. One stood out- a shade of orange mimicking the dying Sun with crimson spatters on a wide canvas. Today, we’re going down South, to the heart and soul of what embodies the lower quarter of Westeros- the living, breathing manifestation of what all Dorne is, and what it stands for.

Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell, The Red Viper of Dorne, was a highly interesting man in almost every regard. He was, if reduced to a sentence, a man guided primarily by six things- passion, love, hatred, knowledge, expertise, and the hubris all five bring with it.

To understand Oberyn, you must understand Dorne. As a character, he is so deeply interwoven with his culture that most of his fellow Dornishmen regard him as the true successor of Dorne, and not his older brother, Doran Martell. Dorne is home to House Martell, which traces its origins from the exotic lands of Essos, specifically Rhoynar. Therefore, their customs are quite different from the most part of Westeros. A simple example of this is that they do not refer to their nobility as ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ but instead, stay true to their Rhoynish traditions and prefer the terms ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’.

Though highly integrated into Westeros’ society and culture, they ensure that their roots are never forgotten. The people of Dorne are ASOIAF’s equivalent of extreme liberalism. For example, the concepts of physical love, emotional investment, and loyalty, and the way the three are interlinked, work differently in Dorne. Sexual fulfillment is seen simply as a need such as hunger and thirst. That does not, however, mean that they will treat it blandly. Just like their food and wine, the Dornish appreciate the finer things in life such as large feasts, good wine, and better sex. They are of the belief that like everything else, this nod to hedonism requires diversity. The Dornish are not known to acknowledge gender. They seem to dismiss it as an unnecessary social construct. Or rather, this would be better explained as them never considering it to be a factor to begin with. This shows in the way their political setup and sexual relations work.

Almost everyone is Dorne is “bisexual”, but by my previous statements, I understand that you are getting what I mean. The manner in which they go about their sexual relations is starkly different from what they regard as love and loyalty. The Dornish are, in emotional terms, fiercely loyal to their wives and/or paramours. It is, in fact, common for the people of Dorne to have two or more paramours with whom they often indulge in sexual relations. This often happens along with their spouse, into whom they are deeply, emotionally invested. There is a stark separation between the two, and it shows very clearly. It is common for bastards in Dorne to be given positions of power as well, which, barring a few exceptions is practically unheard of in most of Westeros. The Dornish people are hotheaded and passionate, alongside being fiercely loyal and territorial. They are regarded as the most skilled fighters in Westeros; their usual choice of weapons includes a round shield and spear, or scimitars, which are curved-edge swords. They have been known to have great knowledge and proficiency in stealth and poison as well. Now that we have covered a few essentials of Dorne, let us look at the character we intend to discuss.

He is described as having a lined face with thin eyebrows, black ‘viper’ eyes, and a sharp nose. His hair was said to be lustrous and black, with a few streaks of grey. Forceful, lusty, quick with his wit, and barbed of his tongue, he was inseparable from his sister, Elia Martell. His steed of choice was a black stallion with a tail the colour of fire, and he wore pale red silk- a shirt armoured with overlapping discs of bright copper, a common metal in Dorne. He had a traditional Dornish round shield with the sigil of his house.

Oberyn was an exceptional fighter; his speed and skill with both spear and sword were renowned. In battle, along with his brightly polished round shield, Oberyn wielded an ash spear eight feet long with a steel spearhead and spike. He chose to wear lightly armored greaves, vambraces, gorget, spaulder, and a steel codpiece, in addition to supple leather and flowing silk. He also wore a helm without a visor, and scales of gleaming copper over his byrnie.

Fostered at Sandstone, Oberyn was caught in bed with Lord Edgar Yronwood’s paramour when he was 16. Owing to the nobility of both parties, Lord Edgar challenged Oberyn to a duel, but only for first blood. Even though both men took deep cuts, Lord Edgar’s wounds festered and killed him .It is rumoured that Oberyn used a poisoned blade, and he did not expressly deny it. Ever since, he got the title of ‘The Red Viper’. Following these events, he was sent to Oldtown, and then he was temporarily exiled to Lys. At the Citadel in Oldtown, he forged six master chains, which shows he had honed a keen knowledge of various subjects. His journey to Lys and the other free cities apparently gave him extensive knowledge about poisons and other darker arts. He eventually got bored at the Citadel and left. He soldiered in the Disputed Lands and rode with the Second Sons before starting his own company. Soon, however, he formed his own company.

As expected, along his journeys, he bedded both men and women everywhere he went. His bastards ended up dispersed in almost every part of Westeros. The bastard girls were referred to as ‘The Sand Snakes’. What is interesting about this is that Oberyn was not the type to not acknowledge the results of his actions. In fact, it was quite the contrary. Most lords would deny the existence of most of their bastards, but not Oberyn. He took full responsibility for their upbringing. He taught them to be fiercely independent and skilled in various arts of fighting. He gave them an education and perspectives that allowed them to be forces in their own right.

When Oberyn was young, the ruling Princess of Dorne planned to wed Oberyn or his sister, Princess Elia, to one of Lord Tywin’s children, or both of them to his twins. For that purpose, they visited Casterly Rock, where they met Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion Lannister. However, they arrived shortly after Joanna Lannister’s death, which left Lord Tywin unreceptive. He offered the newborn Tyrion instead, which was seen as an insult.

Oberyn was also primarily responsible for the revitalization of the ongoing feud between his House and the Tyrells, because he accidentally crippled Willas Tyrell in a tourney. Oberyn struck Willas’ breastplate clean, but his foot caught in a stirrup as he fell, and his horse fell on top of him. Oberyn sent his own maester to help treat him. Willas himself held no grudge against Oberyn, and the two corresponded via raven message even after the accident as both shared a passion for horses. Prince Oberyn was unhorsed by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Ser Barristan Selmy at a tourney at Storm’s End.

The most glaring aspect of Oberyn’s personality was his promiscuity. It is one of the things that captures a reader’s attention, because majority of the modern world treats sex with an unhealthy fascination and obsession. He is described as extremely attractive and magnetic- the phrase ‘hottest male in the series’ is often attached to his name.

Now, what is it that gives Oberyn the charm and appeal that he has, as a character?

This is going to sound strange at first, but bear with me. Keep in mind that the concept of gender is not a very prominent factor in Dorne. Their rulers and successors are often female as well. In essence, Oberyn’s charm lay in the fact that he could understand both ends of the spectrum with a depth and ease that is almost unheard of. Yes, indeed, and the reason for this is because Oberyn, on closer inspection possesses more traits that are classified as feminine than earlier assumed.

From his past and descriptions, he’s portrayed as someone who is traditionally described as masculine. The stereotype of masculinity perpetuates itself in his actions, history, and even his appearance and mannerisms. But, when I speak of feminine traits, I’m speaking outside the realm of stereotype, which is the source of his power of attraction. Firstly, he was bisexual. Even though sexual freedom is commonplace in Dorne, the manner in which Oberyn made it such a large part of his personality is interesting. He employed a kind of frank openness, and a sense of living in the moment in whatever he does.

In our own world, let’s take the example of females who openly claim that they are bisexual. Indeed, watching two girls make out does get most men going. It is, however, fairly uncommon to see men, even if they are bisexual, expressing such openness. Now, I’m speaking of modern times in this scenario. But, when we look at Westeros where it is categorically stated that “laying with another man” is a punishable sin, it is admirable, to say the least, that he was so willing to be open about his sexual relations.

The next point is of his literacy, and the way he applied it. Now, Oberyn might be nobility, but he was primarily a soldier. Even someone like Jaime Lannister, who held such a prestigious position as Kingsguard, is not literate. Oberyn was someone who was not just skilled in the art of warfare from a young age, but he has also been a battle-hardened mercenary who used his skill in battle to help him and not his position of power, during his exile. The idea that he was extremely educated strikes the readers and viewers as odd, because it is often categorically stated that the idea of reading and writing is for maesters and women. Songs and poems are doubly so. And yet, we have Oberyn, who was studying to be a maester, and forged six chains. He was seen writing a poem and letter for his youngest daughter while at King’s Landing. It is the fact that opposite ends of the spectrum somehow exist in Oberyn that draws readers and viewers to him.

Which brings us to the next point- the manner in which he provides for his family. Known to take a special interest in his children, Oberyn was inseparable from them, especially his daughters. It is obvious that the love and care he has showered on them moulded them into the women they turned out to be. It is not unusual for nobility to treat their children in this fashion, but a noticeable difference is the elimination of the gender bias. With characters like Catelyn Stark, we see how each child is indispensable to a mother. The same goes for Oberyn, who seemed to care for his bastard daughters just like he’d care for a legitimate heir. His impartial treatment and hugely supportive nature is akin to that of a mother doing all she can for her children in a world where some of them will probably not receive the same treatment by virtue of their birth like younger sons, daughters, bastards, etc. Oberyn is also known for using poison as a weapon. Poison is described as a woman’s weapon, and hence a relatively shallow but relevant connection can be made right there.

Oberyn’s introduction to the story occurs at a critical point just after the Red Wedding, throwing the Martells and Dorne into the clusterfuck that is Westeros, and adding further tension and intrigue to the plot. Oberyn had a very close relationship with his sister Elia. Following the Sack of King’s Landing, he learned that she was raped and murdered by a Lannister knight, Gregor Clegane. Her children were also massacred, ad this was the catalyst for him. He attempted to raise Dorne for Viserys. The new Hand, Jon Arryn, was able to keep the peace, but Oberyn desired for revenge. He seldom left Dorne in a public capacity thereafter.

Prince Oberyn arrived at King’s Landing during the events of Book 3, A Storm Of Swords. He came to claim the seat on the small council on Prince Doran Martell’s behalf, and to obtain justice for his sister Elia Martell’s murder, as was agreed with the acting Hand of the King, Tyrion Lannister. However, it soon became clear that the new Hand, Lord Tywin, meant to forgo that promise. Tywin planed on lying to Oberyn, and claiming that the now deceased Ser Amory Lorch was responsible for all three deaths (Lorch was guilty of the death of only Rhaenys). Though bristling, Oberyn gave King Joffrey Baratheon a red gold scorpion brooch for the royal wedding.

When Tyrion was accused of Joffrey’s murder, Oberyn was one of the judges. The day before the judgment is to be pronounced, Oberyn offered to be Tyrion’s champion in a trial by combat, in lieu of Tyrion telling him who murdered Elia. Tyrion takes Oberyn up on his offer, and though he denies his father’s involvement, he tells Oberyn that Lorch killed Rhaenys, and Ser Gregor Clegane killed Elia and Aegon. This seemed fortuitous for Oberyn, as he saw this as an opportunity to finally face his sister’s murderer.

One of the most pivotal scenes in the entire series is Tyrion’s trail by combat. In the books, the chapter is titled ‘The Mountain and The Viper’. Oberyn took on Ser Gregor to fight for Tyrion’s freedom and innocence and, as it is later revealed, to wring a confession out of Ser Gregor. His core reasoning was, however, that he wanted to exact justice for his family by avenging his sister. Oberyn arrogantly toyed with the Mountain, whose only objective was to kill Oberyn and get him to shut up. Armed with a spear with a deadly poison coating on its tip, Oberyn began his quick, precise slices against the Mountain’s flesh. He targeted joints and vital spots, but it was evident that he only intended to maim him, and not kill immediately.

Even with the Mountain flat on his back with a spear through his gut, he refused to talk. It is at this point that Oberyn pulled out the spear and demanded a confession. He explicitly ordered him to confess to the murder of his sister and her children, and demanded knowledge of who he got the order from, implying that it was Tywin Lannister. Confident of his victory, he let his guard down. In spite of losing a lot of blood, a half dead Gregor Clegane pulled Oberyn down onto the floor, and smashed his teeth out. With a firm grip on his skull, he dug his fingers deep into Oberyn’s eyes, and gouged them out as he screamed the confession Oberyn so desperately wanted, thus ensuring those the last words he heard. He then proceeded to crush his skull with his bare hands by squeezing it. The scene ends with two figures lying prone on the ground, surrounded by blood, gore, and viscera.

The man was no doubt legendary, and it put him on par with figures like Arthur Dayne and Gerold Hightower. This, however, did not mean that Oberyn was an untouchable, flawless man with no weakness. Indeed, George R.R. Martin seemed content in the knowledge that he had created a man who embodied a kind of perceived invincibility, and staying true to his style thus far, Oberyn met a tragic end. His many virtues kept aside, he was, after all, human.

Oberyn embodied all emotions that were stormy and fiery, and within him, he held such intensity that it flared without any given notice. He was a decisively proud and arrogant man. Aware of his noble status, he never missed an opportunity to use it to his advantage and for his personal gain. He often got ahead of himself and allowed his fire to take control and guide his actions. The un-romanticised translation of that sentence is that his hubris often got in the way of his judgment. Quick to anger, and even quicker to act, he often made decisions that negatively impacted his life, and the lives of those around him. His ‘no regrets’ attitude and approach to life was admirable, but not necessarily beneficial. His hubris is what made him, and it is what eventually led to his demise.

A reason why Oberyn was, and still is, one of the most enduring characters of the series is because of what he embodied. Although his arc itself was relatively short, Oberyn represented a sense of freedom. Whether it was the way he paraded his bastard paramour in King’s Landing, or how he didn’t pay heed to courtly intrigue, he was an unquenchable flame that burned freely. In a world controlled by invisible threads that bound each house, and each player together, Oberyn was a wildcard that refused to be to swaddled by the cocoon they created. They say the flame that burns the brightest also burns quickest. Oberyn burned brightly, fed by his ego and justifiably inflated sense of self. And burn out, he did.

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Five Steps to Fall

Harvest

And, as the dawn winds blow
We put away our shears, and carry their labours
To sow, or to sell?
We turn to one another, hand raised to shield our eyes
Just to have a better look, and be sure there was
Understanding.

Melancholy

Fleeting seasons, and tired thoughts-
I can only rake the same yard so many times.
We push our scraps and discarded bones to neat piles,
Set them alight in empty corners
And, look to the smoke and stars for
Fresh hopes.

Sharada // Kama

I don’t mind the prostration.
Even faith can blind so I look away, but who said I don’t enjoy it?
You breathe tiny miracles, laced incense with love and knowledge,
Being carried in on an evening breeze.
And, it is with each thing you change in this world
That teaches me, even under grey dawns,
I can still be lucky.

Samhain

We lay hands on the other’s raiment
Admiring the departed spectres of our self,
Who weaved much of their essence just behind our skin.
This was a night where even the past met with the present
And, found a way to flow together.
Why should we miss out on crossing new boundaries?

Remembrance

Each grave that had been dug,
With dirt patted neatly around the tombstone,
Now had fresh flowers to wither upon it,
To help the grass and vines grow into
Unchecked bursts of new life.
Today, we give thanks to the dearly departed.
For letting the chill in, and to thaw into
A new Spring.

——x——

Faith in the Foolish

We let the light in when we can,

Settle for effervescence all the same,

Although, who or what should you blame?

Incense made of the heart comes costly,

For not all caverns fill like the marked swells of home,

And, your devotions are lapped up by wind sprites,

Accepted graciously, and wholly unremembered.

*****

It’s never easy popping a window.

You never know what would shine after,

Or, how the tangles writhing across the walls,

Would react- by digging their veins deeper into this home,

Or, will they embrace us as a mother loves her youngest,

With blooming ivy crawling out our throats

when all our passions are back to the cold?

*****

Questions, none of which with easy answers,

Desires, some of which are better left well alone.

Choices, all of which make for a fitting strife,

At the tail end of the karmic current.

And, yourself- with two hands to hold on tight,

To threads of silver, looping through this overgrowth,

Taking you over, and under, curving with each new

pattern, nagging at the memory of another that you traced,

In a near, but regrettably irrelevant time, nestling you

Deep in your seat of heart, space, and bramble.

*****

I feel most lament this fool’s weapon- yet I do not.

The unending silver threads have a keen sheen, with a reputation,

Of obscuring clarity, and if you hadn’t noticed,

It’s gotten rather dark in here, hasn’t it?

We wrap it around our wrists, our chest,

Feel them curling through each toe,

Offer some home and sanctuary with our very veins, till

We see the gleam under our skin, and we smile.

Wrapped head to toe, if you must choke,

Do it on your own adamant terms, on the light

You bent for, and refused to blow out.

The Sun, The Sun- I am the Sun.

What else may I do but rise?

*****

 

Between Smudges

Have you ever painted on white canvas before?
Even yet coarse, it pulls fresh paint as only impatient yearning can.
The first few strokes are rarely forced, like a tide rolling in,
Half wrought, with the promise of infinite- in lines of foam, and
Swirls of blue, as a November horizon half-mindedly nestles behind it.

It is much like this queer plague I found between
Light laughs and sighs of separation, understated and limitless.
The entanglement has a way of blending fresh colours in unseen ways,
Congealing unfavourably, at a spot, till the pattern you sought was
As a dream you intended to leave between the folds of the dawn sky.

For all our sermons on the nature of man,
We still find ways to martyr our dreams
To the altar of our fallibility.
Perhaps the waves were too big,
Crashing, and curling, impossibly against themselves,
Refusing to bloom with dawn, unintended and unwanted.
And, getting worse with each brush and scrape.

Hardening to an ugly aberration on canvas skin,
Crusting and pulling its corners taut-
Threatening to birth your mistake,
Eyes in the front and lining the inside of its skull,
So you cleanse- scrape, wash and scrub,
Till untidy flakes, congealed spots and tarnished
Dabs of curling paper, saved yet irredeemable
Fades to a thin, translucent membrane-
Fragile and ineffective.

Forsake your dreams to the rain,
Leave them out till the drench
Seeps away their core, melting slowly
But all at once, starting as thin lines of
Regretfully wasted and vibrant colour, flowing surely
But undeniably towards a forgotten end,
In tight paths and curves, till the lights
Are all but forgotten to a dot,
Moving down, always down.

Life is much like a painter between smudges-
A promise of euphoria and an inescapable regret
Or three, or none, and for the life of me,
I have forgotten the bigger farce.
Don’t you find the weight of being
Quite unseemly?

Of Forest Fire

​I dreamt of sorrow, awoke in paradise.

An eldritch vale with clear nights,

And, the scent of gooseberries and vanilla.

Thick oaks and babbling brooks,

Which whispered tales through every tree’s hollow,

Sliding between sunbeams and chilling the leaves,

In fevered anticipation, even on this moonlit night.

Trespassing is forbidden- I dare not tarry long.                                                               

-X-

For under the sun, this vale grows,

But, under the cover of night, it chokes.

My fingertips are cinders, and each footfall.

Scorches the floor to ash.

What manner of curse is this?

-X-

I carry a heart of flint,
And, to strike at it- to ring a bell of primal awakening,

Of forgotten beginnings on ashen earth, wrought in disdain,

And, charred regret- coating dry tongues with unwanted.

Memories of distant dreams, glimpses into the nature of desire.

-X-

The brooks babble on as the vines pull me under,

Snuffing under peat and moss, mud and dirt,

Out of reach from every dawn.

I feel my skin crackle, my chest pours upwards.

And, my eyes extend beyond the boundaries of my skull.

I can move again- I run up each vine and tendril.

Felt my mind follow each unending whisper, until it was all I knew,

And, sang them all into the night sky.

-X-

Stand at the edge of the vale, watch smoke rise in the east.

And, an orange flame grows out from the heart of the tree-line.

Do not tarry long-

The roaring is a rumble of something yet sleeping.

Dream Journal- Log 1- The Valley, 12th September, 2016

(These are incoherent remembrances of imagined occurrences, written in a half-trance state. Ignore any grammatical or spelling errors.)

​I dreamt of my father today. After years of not dreaming of my father, today it seemed to have happened, out of nowhere. It was strange. It was the smoothest transition I had into a dream since a long while. I woke up at 4:30 AM for a bathroom break and a quick glass of water. I came back to bed, and lay on my mattress with my pillows underneath my arms. I don’t know at which point I started dreaming but I distinctly remember thinking of Zoey(a puppy) at some point and I felt as if baba walked into the room, said some quip and commented on how “well-maintained” my bed was, because I had been sick recently and there were wrinkles everywhere and the sheet was folding over itself. I got up, got him a glass of water, used the pale dawn light to quickly hide my flatmate’s crusher and rolling paper. (What did I have to hide? I stay sober.) I did the action in such a way that it looked like I was taking something out rather than putting it in. He was convinced by it or is that what he wanted me to think?

We chilled in the same room, I told him about Pune, my last month there, about my book, about this one girl who drives me crazy, only positive things and he even ran his hand through my hair like used to because I got that from my mother and I know how much he used to miss her.

At some point, he convinced me to order some McDonalds(Our standard McFillet and Oreo Shake) and call over some friends, all of whom he began to get friendly with. I am not sure where a landscape transition happened but I remember that even though the house layout was the same, the outside world was completely different by the time the dawn sun came up. 

We were in a valley, there were extremely fast moving rainclouds, all of which were either extremely low-lying or we were higher up in the sky than I thought. One was forming a mini cyclone and we saw it blow by. Cue collective exclamation. The valley was flanked on its right side by a mountain range and that is where the Sun was coming up from. As the rainclouds went by, I saw that the valley was lush, not very thick, seemed more overrun with shrubbery than trees, a low fog lay over it but did little to hinder visibility because of the Sun’s brightness.

Now, here’s the curious part. My friends, all of whose faces I cannot recall, jumped onto my mattress(I remembered their voices but not anymore), and we literally flew straight out of the balcony and into the forest. Up along the treeline first, then moving closer to ground level as we came up on a meadow, through the forest bobbing and weaving between trees, frequently changing directions. I can still smell the petrichor and morning dew. The sounds were so vivid. We passed through some friend village with mudhuts and lots of flowers- yellows, whites and purples. I think we reached some kind of shore before the mattress did an about turn and sped us back the way we came, entering back into the house through the balcony, reaching the bed, doing a quick 180 turn and placing itself on how it originally was. Someone, I don’t know who, from the other room, I don’t know who it was, but that person asked me if I enjoyed our journey. I said yes ecstatically and he asked me to tell him all about it, so I looked over to my father for permission, he smiled and nodded, and I hopped out of bed, ran to the door and it was at this point that I realized I was awake now.

I can’t interpret this at all, it feels slightly fourth-wall breaking but… there isn’t a weight on my heart today morning, I’m not entirely awake and for the first time in days, I feel ready to take on the world. And, I think that’s what matters in the end.

Details- He held his palm across my heart when I started talking about the girl I mentioned. He smiled widely when he heard it beat faster, trademark boyish grin from ear to ear. I woke up today with a lighter heart and you have no idea how it feels right now. (Ah, so THAT’S where I get it from.)

My father would always sit crosslegged while I lay on my stomach next to him as I told him about things. It was no different in the dream. 

He mentioned the distinct lack of books in my new home, and I agreed. I should order some today.

He smiled to himself when he saw my camera tucked under my computer.

He loves the fact that I lost my weight, but he’s concerned about the multivitamin pills and codliver oil I should be taking after every meal as well but I don’t. He’s convinced they keep me healthy, almost fanatically. It was always so amusing to see him in that mode.

He wanted to start playing DoTA with me.

An Accession To Night

The sun’s glare dies
To an amber incandescence.
Unravelling each tendril of light,
Unbinding itself from the open sky.
The rustle of the trees marks
The hourglass,
and its accession to night.

—x—

A flick of the finger and,
The seal is complete.
A match sparks- the embers
Curl to cinders and,
Burn a hole into the dusk sky.
Bury desires beneath ash and soot,
Choke the emptiness with
Clouds of euphoria.

—x—

Take every stunted hope you grew,
And, pull it by the roots.
Tear it to ribbons, and
Toss it to the wind.
The wind carries bleak clouds.
Watch it struggle, watch it drown!
Life is the deranged sneer you laughed
Into the dying light.

—x—

Let your faith fester,
Drip with regret, ooze bitter revelation
Feel the rot taint its pillars
And, soften resolve,
To damp, trampled splinterwood.
The rain soaks the grimy stubs,
In the corners of the balcony floors.
And, the wind howls over
The grief you whispered,
Into the final cascades of night.

—x—