Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I finished my first reread of A Game of Thrones last night and thus far the experience has been deeply rewarding. The first time through I was just doing my best to keep up with plot, but this second time through I’m able to appreciate the saga as history, as mythology, as linguistics and geography.
While in this critique I’m focusing on A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1, I’ll probably reference events that occur in both book and television series beyond the scope of that book.
– This time through I’ve paid closer attention to the brief narrative excursions within the minds of each character and noticed exactly how much history is relayed to the reader through them. What Martin does well, however, is treat many of these stories and memories as commonly understood in the minds of the characters–fuller exposition comes out in conversation, and then only with characters who lack certain knowledge due to age or regional distance — but internally we get shorthand and snippets.
– On that note, Martin’s other great strength is feeding us scraps of complete stories or concepts at unpredictable moments and giving us plenty of opportunity to piece them together on our own, even when the story we deduce isn’t of particular import to the larger arcs. Consider, for example, this delightful discovery.
Shortly after Arya begins training with Syrio Forel, he has her hunting down every cat in the Red Keep to improve her speed, sight, and agility. She spends the first part of a chapter on the trail of the last cat in the castle, a mean old black tom that the guards claim is the true ruler of the keep — fierce and fearless and impossible to capture. They tell Arya that some years back this same cat jumped directly on a dinner table where Tywin Lannister was sitting, snatched a quail off his plate, and ran off.
While Eddard lies in the black cells awaiting his fate, much later, Varys casually remembers the young Princess Rhaenys, killed during the sack of King’s Landing by Ser Gregor Clegane. Varys recalls that the child had a small black kitten she had named Balerion (after Balerion the Black Dread, the legendary dragon of Aegon the Conqueror), and he assumes that the kitten met the same fate as his mistress.
But instead it seems clear, without being outright stated, that Balerion survived the slaughter in the Red Keep, and proceeded to live on as a nuisance to the reign of Robert the Usurper, going so far as to vex however he could the man who had once ordered the death of his mistress.
There is a 16 years-long side tale of a cat who exacted whatever measure of revenge he was able to attain, dropped in the middle of the overarching saga. That’s astounding.
– I find myself more invested this time in the tragedies that befall the families within the lower tiers of the hierarchy, the loyal and not-so-loyal bannermen of the Great Houses. I didn’t catch until this reread that Jory Cassel, captain of the Winterfell guard, was the only surviving son of Martyn Cassel, who was one of the men young Eddard Stark took with him to retrieve his sister Lyanna from the Tower of Joy. Martyn, as well as the rest of Ned’s men save Howland Reed, died in that battle against Ser Arthur Dayne and the other two members of the Kingsguard.
When Jory is killed in the streets of King’s Landing by Jaime Lannister’s men, the City Watch finds Ned there, his leg shattered, cradling poor Jory’s body in his arms. On my first read I understood that this was grief at the death of his loyal captain; on my second read I understood the deeper grief at having failed the father who died for his family some 15 years prior.
– I had also originally failed to notice just how many families suddenly found themselves adjusting to succession and potential extinction even before the War of the Five Kings had five kings in it. Book 1 draws a very deft portrait of conflict in its first stages characterized by the growing furies in the central region of the Riverlands, with both Tullys and Lannisters amassing forces at each others’ understood borders and then pushing their advantages where they could find them, with Stark banners gradually moving into the fray. Three battles in — even before Eddard Stark is unjustly executed in King’s Landing — House Hornwood has seen its patriarch Halys killed at the Battle of the Green Fork and the only male heir Daryn killed at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. Ser Karyl Vance suddenly finds himself Lord Karyl Vance when the Lannisters kill his father at the Battle of the Golden Tooth. The spite and anger that will gradually lead to the Red Wedding start burning here with the deaths of two Karstark sons and the capture of a third, and you can start to see that while some of the choices leading to that ruin were preventable, others were beyond Robb’s control — the fact that war started at all is what sets him on the path towards doom.
– With their fates in mind, you also now see how often Martin planted the seeds of certain revelations and events. Robb Stark is constantly drawing his sword or grabbing at its hilt, ready at nearly every perceived slight to show his willingness to fight. The wisdom he gained from his father and his natural sense of strategy is constantly being undermined by his impulsiveness and need to prove himself, which ends up causing him to not only insult Walder Frey by taking another wife, but also to walk into the trap Frey sets for him later.
When you understand that Lysa Arryn poisoned her own husband at Littlefinger’s behest, you also observe how badly she overplays her deception when she has Tyrion in her grasp as an alternate culprit. Catelyn sees her as unstable and temperamental — which she is — but she is also taking every opportunity she can to name her prisoner as Jon Arryn’s murderer, specifically to shift attention away from her own culpability.
– Taking the time to look closely at the dozens of names attached to people and places in Westeros and Essos grants you a much deeper appreciation for how logically the world has been constructed, even for as much confusion as it creates within the mind of the first-time reader. You start to notice the prominence of certain consonants and phonemes, to the point that you can make educated guesses as to the origin of characters who only appear once before getting slain in a melee. The “ae” and “rys” structures common to House Targaryen are the most obvious example of this, but you can also see how often combinations of y, l, and n, as well as “er” and “ur”, show up in the Riverlands; the harder r’s, t’s and k’s of the north; the “ic,” “eon,” and “ion” sounds of the Stormlands. “Gar” and “flor” is everywhere in The Reach, left over from the remnant of House Gardener and the regional myth of descent from Garth Greenhand. There’s the way that “Brandon” becomes “Brynden” as it travels south, and the way that the “or,” “ar,” and “el” sounds of Dorne descend from the rise of House Martell and Princess Nymeria of the Rhoynar. But none of this is monolithic, simply prominent. You find Roberts, Robbs, Robetts, and Robins throughout the realm, as well as Jon, Yohn, Jonos, and Janos.
In Essos, you get unique combinations of “jh” and “kh” along with “ir” “az,” and “ogo” throughout the tribes of the Dothraki Sea. You find “io,” “os,” and “osh” all over the Free Cities. Martin also slowly gives you the linguistic clues you need to pick up the basics of the Dothraki language (which was then developed more extensively for the TV series) by translating “dothrae” as the verb for “riding” and “rakh” as the word for “man,” so that it becomes very clear how the people have named themselves “the riding men.”
– It’s something of a joy to rediscover just how much more depth there is to the Dothraki culture in the books than the series can realistically give us. It remains brutal, warlike, and overtly masculine, but it also includes an oddly contrary reverence for feminine forms. Vaes Dothrak sits in the sacred shadow of the Mother of Mountains, next to the great sacred lake known as the Womb of the World. But while none are allowed to defile the waters of the Womb, only men are permitted to climb the Mother. The all-female dosh khaleen are simultaneously considered the rulers of all Dothraki tribes, laying down edicts and prophecies that must be followed by even the most powerful khals, but the dosh khaleen are also the singularly decreed fate of women whose khals have died. They practice both romance and horrific rape culture, and while the former certainly does nothing to cancel out the latter, it’s intriguing to me to be reminded that there is much more to this culture than merely “they behave savagely.” And it should be pointed out, yet again, that the series’ choice to make Drogo and Daenerys’ wedding night a non-consensual affair was the beginning of a bad translation between the two versions of the tale.
– Other things I’d forgotten — that Tyrion finds himself in many more battles, including several raids by the Vale’s roaming tribes and the Battle of the Green Fork, when he bests a knight in battle by resourcefully knocking the knight’s horse on top of him (in the series, he is comically knocked unconscious before the battle even occurs). That Stannis was a significant presence in the lead-up to Ned’s arrival in King’s Landing, going with Jon Arryn on his investigations and learning the truth of Cersei’s children alongside him before fleeing to Dragonstone and closing off the island. Just how much detail Martin spends on each unique castle, even ruined ones like Moat Cailin, and their cleverly designed defenses — the long path up to the Eyrie, the way that Riverrun is able to turn itself from a castle at a river fork into an island by opening two sluice gates and creating a moat. That most of the Stark children look like Catelyn, not Ned, with auburn hair and blue eyes, but with Arya looking so much more like Jon that she initially thought she might be a bastard as well, and that concern serving as the foundation of their devotion to each other.