Game of Thrones as Myth: Jaqen H’ghar as the Archetypal Shapeshifter (2023)

What is an archetype? In fantasy and myth, certain types of characters constantly reappear: stalwart Heroes, odd Mentors offering talismans, Threshold Guardians and their tests, and more. In this series, we take a fast and fun look at Game of Thrones characters and what traditional archetypes they fall into. This time: Jaqen H’ghar.

This series examines how Game of Thrones characters fit into the archetypal frameworks developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the more modern version by Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey). Both Campbell and Vogler employthe works of psychiatrist Carl G. Jung. Along with many other academics, Jung suggested that the archetypes of myth and legend sprang from a human collective unconscious, since they appear in so many different cultures separated by space and time.

“In describing these common character types, symbols and relationships, the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung employed the term ‘archetypes,’ meaning ancient terms of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.” —Christopher Vogler

Campbell argues that human beings are biologically hardwired to understand the symbolism and expression of character archetypes. Otherwise, we would be incapable of participating in the shared human experience of storytelling.

“Summoned or not, the God will come.” —Motto over the door of Carl G. Jung’s house

Svipdag Transformed by John Bauer 1911

As we segue into Game of Thrones, it’s important to remember that archetype is not a straightjacketed category but rather a flexible function of storytelling. Any individual character can (and usually does) express various archetypal traits or even moves from one category to another as the story unfolds.

Superficially speaking, Jaqen H’ghar is an obvious Shapeshifter — he literally changes the shape of his face. Metaphorically, he moves through a number of other archetypes, including Mentor and Threshold Guardian. It can be argued that his primary role is that of Mentor or Threshold Guardian for Arya, but in this article we’re going to explore his function as the Shapeshifter.

Shapeshifters are an ancient archetype, appearing in the earliest totemism and shamanism. They’re also present in the oldest recorded stories we know, such as Humbaba changing forms to counter Gilgamesh’s blows in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the goddess Athena altering the appearance of Odysseus in The Odyssey. While the ancient Greek gods were usually the purveyors of the shapeshifting arts, witches and sorcerers in stories from the Middle Ages also had the skill.

As a member of the Faceless Men guild in Braavos, Jaqen is a part of a death cult. Its members assassinate victims in return for lavish pay from clients. His character has parallels with Proteus, an early mythical Greek sea-god whomHomer describes as the “Old Man of the Sea.” Jaqen isn’t a sea god, but like Proteus, he is capable of transforming himself, though in a far more limited fashion. (Where shapeshifting is concerned, Jaqen seemedrestricted to humans; he is not able to perform therianthropy,the metamorphosing of a human being into an animal or vice-versa). Proteus is also able to see into the future—as we’ll explorelater, Jaqen may have this talent as well.

The character of Jaqen H’ghar is inextricably linked to Arya Stark.They first meet in the season 2 episode “The Night Lands.” Arya rescues Jaqen and two other criminals from aburning cart, thus saving them from death. Jaqen feels honor-bound to restore the balance, as the rules of his death cult demand. He reappears to Arya and offers a proposal in “The Ghost of Harrenhall” (S2/Ep5):

Jaqen: “A man pays his debts. The man owes three.”

Arya: “Three what?”

Jaqen: “The Red God takes what is his, lovely girl. And death may only pay for life … You stole three deaths from the Red God—we have to give them back.”

Arya doesn’t know what she’s dealing with at this point, but she is in the presence of a kind of shapeshifter, a death cult monk who operates as an assassin and acts according toa distinct methodology. Jaqen will become her supernatural aid and Mentor, an often-crucial element of the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell:

For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.

Mentors can often be shapeshifters, especially in mythological and fantasy realms, such as the wizard Merlin in the Arthurian tales, who can take the form of both beasts and men.

Jaqen ends up killing more than three people in order to satisfy his debt to Arya, which seems acceptable according tothe Faceless Men rules. After Arya escapes Harrenhal, Jaqen reappears to her in the wilderness (“Valar Morghulis” S2/Ep10) and offers to take her home to Braavos and the House of Black and White, where she can become an acolyte and learn his mysterious trade. “The girl has many names on her lips,” hesays, “Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Meryn Trant, Ilyn Payne, The Hound. Names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one.”

Jaqen’s reappearance here is interesting, because he has already fulfilled his debt to Arya. He must see something in her — perhaps her strong sense of self and her obsession with killing and death — and tries to recruit her into his order. As if he knows Arya will eventually come to him, Jaqen furnishes her with a talisman: aBraavosi coin. Theiron coin does not have magical properties, but he describes it as a “coin of great value,” and it will allow her to find him whenever she decides. If it’s not literally magical, it certainly feels like it.

Jaqen then reveals his secret ability — shapeshifting — by altering his face in front of Arya, and departs. Temptation is often an important tool of the shapeshifter. Like the wicked queen who transforms into the old woman and offers Snow White the poisoned apple, Jaqen’s gift of the coin is delivered from a realm and with a promise Arya does not understand. This leaves Arya to choosebetweeneither trusting or avoiding this intriguing chameleon, a common problem for heroes, as Vogler describes:

Heroes frequently encounter figures, often of the opposite sex, whose primary characteristic is that they often appear to change constantly from the hero’s point of view … Shapeshifters change in appearance or mood and are often difficult for the hero and the audience to pin down. They may mislead the hero or keep her guessing, and their loyalty or sincerity are often in question.

When Arya eventually decides to go down the rabbit hole and arrives at the House of Black and White in season 5, Jaqen greets her as a shapeshifter, first appearing as an older man. He becomes her Mentor as her training among the Faceless Men begins, and constantly measures her progress.

Like the ancient Greek sorceress Circe, who takes Odysseus into the Underworld in Homer’s The Odyssey, Jaqen shows Arya the ways of “raising” the dead. In “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (S5/Ep6), Jaqen takes Arya into the Hall of Faces (another kind of Underworld) and prepares her for what’s ahead. “Is the girl ready? … No. she is not ready to become ‘no one.’ But she is ready to become someone else.”

He gives her an assignment: assassinate an insurance broker known as “the thin man,” a mission she fails.Afterwards, Jaqen displays more qualities of the shapeshifter when he drinks poison and apparently dies before the Waif takes on his face, making it seem as though he is still alive. Later, after Arya fails another assassination mission, Jaqenbriefly transformsinto aThreshold Guardian when he sends the Waif to kill Arya. Arya must now overcome Jaqen’s brutal punishments (tests) in order to continue her journey. Jaqen changes roles as easily as he changes faces.

In season 8’s “No One,” Aryadefeats the Waif in battle and confronts Jaqen himself.

Arya: “You told her to kill me.”

Jaqen: “Yes. But here you are. And there she is. Finally, the girl is no one.”

Arya: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell and I am going home.”

Strangely, Arya’s defiance seems to please Jaqen H’ghar. Here is where I suggest that Jaqen can, like Proteus, see into the future (through a kind of necromancy, perhaps), or at least that the Faceless Men, like Melisandre and the Red Priestesses of R’hllor, understand the White Walker threat and are working to prepare for it. It’s possiblethat Jaqen and the Faceless Men have intentionally groomed Arya into a well-trained assassin to combat this evil, a ‘someone’ free to act as they desire who can use their shapeshifting skills to fight alongside the living against the undead.


Shapeshifter archetypes need not be capable of actual physical transformation. They often take the form of sexual partners — thinkof fictional femme fataleslike Matilda in The Monk (1796) and Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. But since the Arya-Jaqen relationship is not romantic, this aspect of the archetype does not apply.

Vogler states that “an important purpose of the shapeshifter archetype is to express the energy of the anima and the animus, terms from the psychology of Carl Jung.” The animus is the name for the male aspects of the female unconscious, and the anima is the opposite: the female aspects of the male unconscious. These opposite sex aspects of the hero’s personality are often kept tightly repressed within the hero by the norms of their society. But since the shapeshifter revels in this explosive dichotomy, their mentorship can allow the hero to unleash these powerful forces from within. Arya’s journey is largely abouta womantrying to recover power territorialized by the men who run the male-dominated society in which she lives, and Jaqen is there to assist her along the way.

The animus and anima conflicts raised in the hero by the shapeshifter may be positive or negative — they canhelp ahero or destroy her. In some stories, it’s the task of the hero to figure out which side, positive or negative, sheis dealing with and/or wants to ally herself with. For example, in the X-Men universe, the shapeshifter Mystique (above) is primarily a villain (and like Jaqen, she can mimic other human forms, and is apparently ageless), but she is also the adoptive mother of the hero Rogue, who has a complicated relationship with good and evil because of her.

The Shapeshifter archetype can also be a catalyst for change — Arya transforms from a wandering misfit to a magical assassin under Jaqen’s tutelage. This function of the shapeshifter can be seen in the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, a professor of Potions who does not literally transform but instead falsely presents himself as an enemy to Harry when his true purpose is to antagonize the young boy in a fashion that prepares him for the battles ahead. The wizard Merlin (a true physical shapeshifter, being a cambion: the child of a mortal woman and an incubus) also serves the same function with Arthur Pendragon, forging him into a man who can withstand the trials and difficulties of kingship.


It’s impossible to know who exactly Jaqen is, or how long he’s been doing what he does. He could be an ancient shapeshifter (the order of the Faceless Men is older than the Doom of Valyria, at least), a self-erased creature so dissipated that it is unafraid (and apparently unaffected) by death. For all we know,a man named “Jaqen” could havedied hundreds of years before, his likeness now ahusk inhabited by an anonymous ghost whose original identityis completely unknown to anyone, perhaps even to itself.

(All quotes by Joseph Campbell are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces unless otherwise noted. All quotes by Christopher Vogler are from The Writer’s Journey unless otherwise noted.)

Jaqen H’ghar as the Shapeshifter: Specifics

House: The Faceless Men Guild, The House of Black and White
Sigil: Iron Coin
Animal: Moulting Snake, Chameleon
Weapon: Assassination
Nemesis: Arya Stark
Sidekick: The Waif
Greatest Love: the Many-Faced God
Greatest strength: Surety of purpose
Greatest Weakness: Intractable religious beliefs
Greatest Mystery: Metamorphosis
Color: Black and White
Tarot Card: Death
Ice Cream: Morgenstern’s Finest Black and White Ice Cream (coconut ash & vanilla)
Future Prospects (Season 7): He’s already dead, so nobody can hurt him.

Other articlesin the ARCHETYPE and HERO’S JOURNEY series:

Hero’s Journey: Jon Snow

Hero’s Journey: Daenerys Targaryen

(Anti) Hero’s Journey: Tyrion Lannister

Alliser Thorne as Archetypal Threshold Guardian

Melisandre as Archetypal Dark Herald

Osha as Archetypal Protector

Jon Snow as Archetypal Hero

Daenerys Targaryen as Archetypal Hero

Hero’s Journey: Bran Stark

Hero’s Journey: Arya Stark

Hero’s Journey Update: Season 6

Qyburn as Archetypal Shadow

Ser Davos as Archetypal Sage

Ser Jorah as the Archetypal Dishonored Knight

Other Myth and Story-related Articles

Dire Wolves: Real and GRRM Imagined

The Happy Relationships on Game of Thrones

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