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 rich shade of orange 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.