Thanks to a lack of Internet and light pollution, ancient cultures did a whole lot more stargazing than we do these days, so they discovered a lot about the patterns of the heavens, namely that they moved in a reassuringly constant way. But every now and then, a comet would appear and wreck the whole reassuring aspect.
The red comet was first spied by Jhogo in A Game of Thrones, but it is featured much more prominently in A Clash of Kings. Every character has now witnessed it streaking through the sky, and its interference in the pattern of the stars has led everyone to believe the times they are a changing.
But before we consider how the characters interpret the red comet's meaning for their world, we should look at how ancient people viewed comets in general to help get us in that medieval mindset.
Doom and Gloom
Today we know comets are icy remnants of the Solar System's birth that continue orbiting the Sun and occasionally swing by Earth's neighborhood for a quick hello before launching into deeper space (source). Here's the thing though: We didn't confirm that Halley's Comet was a regularly scheduled event until 1758, so it was believed a comet's appearance was a totally random event until then.
Even today, we discover new comets all the time, and sometimes comets are lost to us as they burn up in the Sun's immense heat. As such, these objects are still full of surprises and new details for scientists to learn about.
Our ancient and medieval ancestors were still gathering the knowledge we've built upon, so the appearance of a comet in the sky was always a complete surprise for them, one that remixed their worldview to the beat of an R.E.M. song.
They believed that comets were messages from the gods, and since their arrival was so unpredictable, the ancients assumed it had to be a pretty important message. Some saw the tail of the comet as a sword blade and prophesied it signaled war; others saw a woman's head with long flowing hair, symbolizing the gods' sorrow and displeasure with them (source).
As you can imagine, doomsday scenarios such as floods, earthquakes, and all manner of plagues were popular prophecies, making comets the twenty-four-hour news of the medieval world. Since diseases and natural phenomenon were equally mysterious at the time, and war and struggle were constants in life, these doomsday scenarios generally played out as prophesied.
Of course, that's like prophesying that the sun will rise in the east or that someone will be unhappy with election results—it's pretty much a given. On the other hand, no one could say the prophecy was wrong either.
The Seven Kingdoms is more medieval than modern, so you can expect the characters to have a more medieval approach to the red comet. They believe the gods are trying to tell them something and, since texting hasn't been invented yet, sent a solar-sized emoticon to get the message across.
Cressen has seen comets before, but he notes that he has "never seen a comet half so bright, nor yet that color, that terrible color, the color of blood and flame and sunsets" (1.Prologue.3). Everybody who observes the comet will see the same one, but as with most prophecies, the information one receives really depends on the prophet and not the sign itself.
As such, there are a variety of interpretations in the novel about what the gods are trying to tell the world or, for that matter, which gods are doing the speaking. Here are a few of the interpretations:
- Lady Selyse argues the comet is a fiery red, signifying a celestial banner for the Lord of Light and Stannis Baratheon. She considers it a foretelling of Stannis's victory (1.Prologue.114).
- Gendry and Arya both see the comet as a sword. As a blacksmith's apprentice, Gendry sees a blade "red-hot from the forge" (2.Arya.43), while Arya sees her father's sword, Ice. In both instances, the sword provides a sign of the war both characters will get caught up in while also hinting at what they have already lost to it.
- Ser Arys views the comet as glory for the king. He claims, "See how it flames across the sky today on His Grace's name day, as if the gods themselves had raised a banner in his honor" (3.Sansa.2). So basically, what Lady Selyse sees but different king and different gods.
- Varys explains that the smallfolk call the comet the "Red Messenger" (4.Tyrion.147), sent to warn the king of fire and blood. Osha follows Varys's sentiment, telling Bran the comet signifies "Blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet" (5.Bran.9)
- The men of the Night's Watch name it Mormont's Torch and say "(only half in jest) that the gods must have sent it to light the old man's way through the haunted forest" (6.Jon.38).
- Catelyn notes that Greatjon believes it is a red flag of revenge for Ned, while Edmure sees a fish that symbolizes Riverrun's victory (8.Catelyn.96).
- Theon proclaims it his comet (12.Theon.7). Because of course he does.
- Dany interprets the comet is a "herald of my coming" and that the gods "sent it to show me the way" (13.Daenerys.1). In other words, it's a giant sign reading, Turn Right for Destiny. Or something along those lines.
Who Are You?
In many ways, the comet is less a symbol and more an analysis on the act of interpretation itself. The various interpretations of the comet tell us more about the character making the interpretation than any meaning we can derive from the comet itself. It's just like how our ancient ancestors' interpretations of comets tell us more about their culture and lifestyles than the true nature of comets.
Having just lost Khal Drogo and her family, Dany feels lost in the world, so she identifies the comet as a signpost sent from the gods to tell her how to proceed. Likewise, Gendry longs to return to the blacksmith forge and Arya misses her father terribly, hence the unique swords they see in the comet. Greatjon was one of Ned's bros, so he would naturally want to seek revenge for his death. And finally, Theon is a greedy lad who has a habit of claiming things that don't belong to him, castles and comets alike.
It's interesting to note that all of these interpretations, as varied as they are, turn out to be true. Varys and Osha's predictions that it means blood and fire come true in King's Landing, Winterfell, and basically everywhere in Westeros. Although the war is far from over, Edmure does win victories in the Riverlands, and Ser Arys is correct as Joffrey does receive glory in the Battle of Blackwater. Granted, he doesn't earn it, but that's another matter.
It's as though the novel is saying that all acts of interpreting are true—at least for the people making them. For those of us listening, interpretations point to the various truths held by other people.
Then again, maybe that's just our interpretation….