My grandmother (dad’s side) lives in Newport, Rhode Island, in the house her and my grandfather bought after he returned home from the Korean War. Newport’s a densely packed tourist trap, overloaded with overpriced fudgeries and WASPy entitlement and the International Tennis Hall of Fame…like the town in Jaws, but with way too much money and no lovably irascible Roy Scheider.
And so I’ll be walking its brick-paved roads, snarking at everything I see, and then the wind will shift. I smell salt and seaweed and something indescribably old: the ocean out of which we crawled. I remember that beneath the gilded layers of inherited wealth, this was a port once, a border-world where we somehow made land and sea work together for our sustenance, a tribute to our boundless cunning as a species. Port towns mirror the sea: all that movement creates an incredible stink, but even the corpse-stench somehow feels alive.
That’s why my favorite location in ASOIAF is White Harbor, and GRRM would seem to share that love, because he devotes an entire chapter in A Dance with Dragons to exploring it. There’s very little else going on in Davos’ second Dance installment; sure, he spots the Frey warship and picks up some tidbits on what Robett Glover and Whoresbane Umber are up to (which will play out fully in The Winds of Winter, as GRRM’s patient plotting gradually unfurls), but it’s really a sense-heavy deep dive into the city, narrated by a man caught between his past life there as a criminal and his present duty there as a lord.
It was wine he wanted, though—sour, dark, and dismal. He strolled across the yard and down a flight of steps, to a winesink called the Lazy Eel, underneath a warehouse full of sheepskins. Back in his smuggling days, the Eel had been renowned for offering the oldest whores and vilest wine in White Harbor, along with meat pies full of lard and gristle that were inedible on their best days and poisonous on their worst. With fare like that, most locals shunned the place, leaving it for sailors who did not know any better. You never saw a city guardsman down in the Lazy Eel, or a customs officer.
Some things never change. Inside the Eel, time stood still.
Indeed, Davos’ arc in A Dance with Dragons is that of the Hand of the King learning to be a smuggler again, struggling to reconcile his two selves. His first chapter in the book is set not in White Harbor but Sisterton, exactly the sort of mean, inhospitable pirate’s cove that Davos frequented before Stannis raised him up. The chapter has the feel of a flashback to that life:
The guards marched Davos Seaworth across a bridge of black basalt and under an iron portcullis showing signs of rust…[D]avos stumbled across a muddy yard with his hands bound at the wrists.
Davos waited wet and dripping, his wrists chafing where the wet rope dug into his skin. One word from this lord and he would soon be hanging from the Gallows Gate of Sisterton, but at least he was out of the rain, with solid stone beneath his feet in place of a heaving deck.
“You are the onion knight.”
“I have been called that, my lord.” Davos was a lord himself, and had been a knight for long years now, but deep down he was still what he had always been, a smuggler of common birth who had bought his knighthood with a hold of onions and salt fish.
And yet, his position has changed immeasurably.
Once inside, the captain removed his cloak and hung it from a peg, so as not to leave puddles on the threadbare Myrish carpet. Davos did the same, fumbling at the clasp with his bound hands. He had not forgotten the courtesies he had learned on Dragonstone during his years of service.
He might well end up down there, fettered to a wet stone floor and left to drown when the tide came rushing in. No, he tried to tell himself, a smuggler might die that way, but not a King’s Hand. I’m worth more if he sells me to his queen.
“Most knights who land upon my shores seek me in my hall, not in the Belly of the Whale. A vile smuggler’s den, that place. Are you returning to your old trade, onion knight?”
“No, my lord. I was looking for passage to White Harbor. The king sent me, with a message for its lord.”
It’s always been a source of frustration for me that we never get a sense of how any of the smallfolk feel about Davos Seaworth, he who was once one of them but has climbed the social ladder to an extent almost without precedent in Westerosi history. Stannis never won the love of the commons like his brothers did, but in Davos he had a most potent symbol of the radical reforms his Kingship could bring, arguably even more so than Egg and Dunk. Instead, we get a series of bluebloods aghast at the onion knight’s presence in their innermost circles; this of course provides plenty of dramatic tension and engenders our empathy for Davos, but it leaves the picture incomplete.
Godric Borrell, Lord of Sisterton and one of my favorite one-off characters in the series, doesn’t exactly change this dynamic, as he’s a lord himself. But he’s also a robber and shipwrecker, a sort of inverse Davos: one man became a lord by abandoning his piracy, the other sustains his lordship via piracy. Godric and Salladhor, then, represent differing perspectives on the man who escaped their sea-based criminal world. Salladhor is unwilling to make sacrifices for Stannis, as his livelihood is based on going for the quick kill rather than the long-term investment, and so he abandons Davos:
When Davos had tried to assure him that he would have his payment, Salla had erupted. “When, when? On the morrow, on the new moon, when the
red comet comes again? He is promising me gold and gems, always promising, but this gold I have not seen. I have his word, he is saying, oh yes, his royal word, he writes it down. Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchments and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?”
So on one hand, Davos’ ability to be an effective Hand (sailing into White Harbor at the head of a powerful, eye-catching Lysene fleet) is ruined by the symbolic representative of the smuggler’s life. On the other, Lord Godric is an example of how one might square this circle, acting as both a nobleman and a pirate, honoring guest right by serving stolen spices:
“Is it saffron that I’m tasting?” Saffron was worth more than gold. Davos had only tasted it once before, when King Robert had sent a half a fish to him at a feast on Dragonstone.
“Aye. From Qarth. There’s pepper too.” Lord Godric took a pinch between his thumb and forefinger and sprinkled his own trencher. “Cracked black pepper from Volantis, nothing finer. Take as much as you require if you’re feeling peppery. I’ve got forty chests of it. Not to mention cloves and nutmeg, and a pound of saffron. Took it off a sloe-eyed maid.” He laughed. He still had all his teeth, Davos saw, though most of them were yellow and one on the top was black and dead. “She was making for Braavos, but a gale swept her into the Bite and she smashed up against some of my rocks. So you see, you are not the only gift the storms have brought me. The sea’s a treacherous cruel thing.”
Not as treacherous as men, thought Davos. Lord Godric’s forebears had been pirate kings until the Starks came down on them with fire and sword. These days the Sistermen left open piracy to Salladhor Saan and his ilk and confined themselves to wrecking. The beacons that burned along the
shores of the Three Sisters were supposed to warn of shoals and reefs and rocks and lead the way to safety, but on stormy nights and foggy ones, some Sistermen would use false lights to draw unwary captains to their doom.
With that chapter providing the context, Davos’ vivid and visceral return to White Harbor has the distinct feel of a man measuring the gap between his past and present, and like him, the city has both stayed the same and changed dramatically:
Roro Uhoris, the Cobblecat’s cranky old master, used to claim that he could tell one port from another just by the way they smelled. Cities were like women, he insisted; each one had its own unique scent. Oldtown was as flowery as a perfumed dowager. Lannisport was a milkmaid, fresh and earthy, with woodsmoke in her hair. King’s Landing reeked like some unwashed whore. But White Harbor’s scent was sharp and salty, and a little
fishy too. “She smells the way a mermaid ought to smell,” Roro said. “She smells of the sea.”
She still does, thought Davos, but he could smell the peat smoke drifting off Seal Rock too. The sea stone dominated the approaches to the outer harbor, a massive grey-green upthrust looming fifty feet above the waters. Its top was crowned with a circle of weathered stones, a ringfort of the First Men
that had stood desolate and abandoned for hundreds of years. It was not abandoned now. Davos could see scorpions and spitfires behind the standing stones, and crossbowmen peering between them. It
must be cold up there, and wet. On all his previous visits, seals could be seen basking on the broken rocks below. The Blind Bastard always made him count them whenever the Cobblecat set sail from White Harbor; the more seals there were, Roro said, the more luck they would have on their voyage. There were no seals now. The smoke and the soldiers had frightened them away.
All this speaks to a city arming itself against the southern might that has despoiled it, as represented by the Freys. Of course, Davos and Stannis are also interlopers who worship the “wrong” gods, and I definitely think that Wyman Manderly (along with the Glovers, Mormonts, Umbers, and the mountain clans) are feigning allegiance to Stannis with the goal of crowning Rickon as Robb’s heir once the Boltons and Freys are eliminated.
Yet the Manderlys are themselves southerners if you go back far enough, as Lord Godric reminds us:
“The Manderlys are no northmen, not down deep. ’Twas no more than nine hundred years ago when they came north, laden down with all their gold and gods. They’d been great lords on the Mander until they overreached themselves and the green hands slapped them down. The wolf king took their gold, but he gave them land and let them keep their gods.”
If the Manderlys are still deemed strangers after centuries in the North, what chance do Stannis and Davos have of winning “the Ned’s” vassals to the cause of “one land, one god, one king?” By appealing to their duty to the Winter Kings who welcomed the summer lords, as Davos hopes the Manderlys welcome him and his king in turn:
“Death,” he heard himself say, “there will be death, aye. Your lordship lost a son at the Red Wedding. I lost four upon the Blackwater. And why? Because the Lannisters stole the throne. Go to King’s Landing and look on Tommen with your own eyes, if you doubt me. A blind man could see it. What does Stannis offer you? Vengeance. Vengeance for my sons and yours, for your husbands and your fathers and your brothers. Vengeance for your murdered lord, your murdered king, your butchered princes. Vengeance!”
“Yes,” piped a girl’s voice, thin and high.
“I know about the promise,” insisted the girl. “Maester Theomore, tell them! A thousand years before the Conquest, a promise was made, and oaths were sworn in the Wolf’s Den before the old gods and the new. When we were sore beset and friendless, hounded from our homes and in peril of our
lives, the wolves took us in and nourished us and protected us against our enemies. The city is built upon the land they gave us. In return we swore that we should always be their men. Stark men!”
Wylla Manderly is another terrific one-off character (though I very much hope she’ll return). Even more than her grandfather, she represents the spirit I love best in port cities, the ex-smuggler world that defines Newport (of course there were smugglers there this is New England we’re talking about) and Davos himself: a sense of responsibility that comes with living on the edge between worlds, of remaining true to the sea that brought you here while staying loyal to the land-lubbers (be they Stannis or the Starks) that made it your home. Lord Seaworth, the onion knight, shouldn’t have to choose between his selves, because the memory of his old life is what informs his successes in his new life, as we will no doubt see on Skagos. His is the only perspective through which we could come to truly understand White Harbor, the scent of both silver and the sea, the gorgeous palace at the top of the hill and the bloody sacrifices made long ago (but never forgotten) underneath.