Spoilers for the season premiere of Game of Thrones are below.
The sixth season premiere of Game of Thrones, titled “The Red Woman,” ended with a major shocker for viewers, as that titular character — the Lady Melisandre — revealed that she’s been keeping a very big secret since she first appeared on the series.
As revealed in the episode’s final scene, Melisandre has been keeping her very appearance magically disguised all along. Her true visage isn’t that of 39-year-old actress Carice van Houten — instead, she is immensely older.
It’s a revelation that certainly makes us look at some earlier scenes — like Melisandre’s seduction of Stannis Baratheon back in season two and attempted seduction of Jon Snow in season five — in a new light.
And it’s another example of magic taking a more prominent role in Game of Thrones as the series moves toward its conclusion. (There will likely only be two more seasonsafter this one, according to showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss.)
The big question, of course, is whether Melisandre’s magic is powerful enough to raise the late Jon Snow from the grave. And while we didn’t get an answer to that this week, Jon’s body remains intact and in prime condition for some magical reanimation.
Overall, though, this twist won’t be a surprise to the most avid fans of the series — it was set up well by George RR Martin’s books, and van Houten actually said her character was over 100 years old in an interview back in 2012.
How can Melisandre change her appearance?
Well, she’s a witch with magic powers! But, more specifically, in the books we do get more details on this type of magic, which is called a “glamor.”
In the most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, Melisandre tells Jon Snow that the Lord of Light has given her the power to create illusions:
“Call it what you will. Glamor, seeming, illusion. R’hllor is Lord of Light, Jon Snow, and it is given to his servants to weave with it, as others weave with thread.”
Later on in the book, Arya Stark gets a brief explanation about glamor magic too, from her mentor in the Faceless Men:
“Mummers change their faces with artifice,” the kindly man was saying, “and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye.”
Melisandre puts those powers to use in that book. She reveals to Jon that she had faked the dramatic execution by burning of wildling king Mance Rayder, by substituting another wildling in his place and “glamoring” his appearance to look like Mance. (This kinda-confusing plotline was omitted by the HBO show.)
Furthermore, she reveals that certain objects with a strong connection to a person can be used to strengthen the illusion. In Mance’s case, he’s wearing the Lord of Bones’s “bone armor” to look more like him.
“The bones help,” said Melisandre. “The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man’s shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak. The wearer’s essence does not change, only his seeming.”
In Melisandre’s case, the magical object helping her weave her illusion is that ruby necklace she usually wears.
We also learn that glamor magic isn’t easy for her — it takes serious effort. “They need never know how difficult it had been, or how much it had cost her,” she thinks.
So just how old is Melisandre?
As soon as Melisandre’s glamor powers were introduced in A Dance with Dragons, book fans began speculating that she was disguising her own appearance. And there was a big clue that she was older than she seemed in a chapter told from Melisandre’s point of view, in which she thinks that she “had practiced her art for years beyond count.”
The following year, Melisandre was introduced in the HBO series — and actress Carice van Houten seems to have been told about Melisandre’s advanced age from the start, likely to help inform her performance.
We know this because van Houten has been a bit loose-lipped about this secret. “I don’t how old she is, but she’s way over 100 years,” she casually revealed in that 2012 interview.
Not long afterward, an actor with a bit part early in season two — he tried to poison Melisandre, but the poison had no effect — revealed that van Houten had told him on set that, by his account, she’s “400 years old.”
“In between takes, I said to her, ‘I’m not quite up to speed on this, why don’t you die?’ And she said, “I’m 400 years old.” And I thought, oh, well, fair enough, that’s a lesson learned. If you’re trying to poison somebody, check first that they’re not 400 years old.”
In addition to that, showrunner David Benioff revealed in this week’s “Inside the Episode” segment that, as per an early conversation with George RR Martin, Melisandre is “several centuries old.”
As to whether that impressive display of magic will allow her to resurrect Jon Snow, though — we’ll have to wait until next week to find that out.