Valar Morghulis: The Faceless Men, Magic, and the Logic of Learning (spoiler alert)

The Faceless Men from A Song of Ice and Fire.  [spoiler alerts abound for all the books in the series]They are a haunting set of characters, and the reference point to which I return whenever I think about stealth mechanics and ideas in games and other media.   They conjoin magic and stealth in a way that I’ve written about before in relation to Thief and Assassin’s Creed, both games that feature mystical societies of elusive acolytes.

the Faceless Men's history is intertwined with Valyria

the Faceless Men’s history is intertwined with Valyria

The Faceless Men are at heart a religious society, who serve the Many-Faced God, who is the God of Death.  At one point, we learn that the Many-Faced God is equivalent to the Stranger (the hooded and hideous monster of the Sevenfold Westerosi pantheon spoken of only indirectly, in the way that the Greeks referred to the Furies as the Kindly Ones, or early Christians spoke of the Devil as the Evil One).  In other cultures, he has other names (one of which echoes Lovecraft’s Black Goat of a Thousand Young).

Arya’s induction into the Faceless Men is my favorite dramatization of the process of education, in all its subtlety and slowness and difficulty (which starkly contrasts with Hollywood’s cheesy training montages that teach us to expect visible results in a short time). When [spoiler alert again] Arya becomes initiated into the Faceless Men, the process is slow both in narrative terms and in real time.  Her mentor, the Kindly Man, asks her to go undercover as an oyster monger in Braavos, where she observes everyday life silently and reports back monthly three new things that she has learned.  After Arya delivers each of these apparent trivialities, the Kindly Man responds “This is good to know.”  The Faceless Men are natural polymaths with a universal respect for information and intelligence gathering.

The roots of the Faceless Men are at the most mysterious heart of the series’ mythology: Valyria, the birthplace of the Targaryen dynasty.  Valyria succumbed to the Doom, a cataclysm whose details remain hazy but that seems to have destroyed magic and everything related to it in the series: sorcery, enchanted artifacts, and Dragons.  The motto of the Faceless Men (Valar Morghulis) translates to “All men must die” in High Valyrian, the language of the sorcerers, who use Valyrian glyphs to cast spells.  The first Faceless Man was a slave in the mines of Valyria (a setting which never fails to remind me of the Mines level in Demon’s Souls), who overheard another slave pray for his abusive master’s death.  In keeping with their origins, the Faceless Men seem to choose their targets based on a logic of mythological transaction.  When the Red god is deprived of three deaths by Arya’s saving of some captors from a burning prison cart, the Faceless Man Jaqen seeks to repay the debt to this god by killing three men named by Arya.  The Faceless Men regard their victims as in some way fortuitously or synchronistically marked by the Many-Faced God.

Martin takes joy in allowing Maester Luwin to deny the power of magic in Westeros, asserting that it has attenuated and all but disappeared along with Valyria, the greenseers, the giants, and the Dragons.  Starting with this premise of a low-magic world, Martin then takes an impish joy in bringing back all of the interdicted elements in Luwin’s list.  By the time the Faceless Men appear as something other than rumor, they are walking incarnations of the mystery of magic in Martin’s world: elusive, vague, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, but governed by a deep and poetic logic.

Like Dungeons & Dragons players, fans of Martin’s world often become invested in a particular favorite character, then cry betrayal when that character dies unexpectedly and cruelly.  The Red Wedding is merely the most publicized and televised of these apparent betrayals, which lead some fans to attack Martin as the equivalent of a perverse Dungeon Master in an unwinnable role-playing campaign.  But the wisdom of the Faceless Men (and I do believe that they are the wisest figures in Martin’s world) is the acceptance is that *all* men must die, and that (equally) all men must serve (Valar Dohaeris).  It doesn’t matter whether Arya or Tyrion or the Kindly Man himself dies . . . it matters when and to what end they die.

The magic of the Faceless Men is their subtle transcendence of death, which they achieve by openly courting the elimination of their own egos.  “Who are you?” asks the Kindly Man in a kind of catechism or litany, and the only acceptable answer is “No one.”  Being No One in the world of a Song of Ice and Fire might just allow someone to live long enough to act effectively or even to perform wonders.  But, like the Pygmy in the game Dark Souls, the wisdom of the Stranger is so easily forgotten . . .

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