Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted thoughts upon a careful reread of A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire.
– In this reread I start to notice just how important the medium of prose is to Martin’s storytelling, allowing him to hide foreshadowing and other details in plain sight using word choices and perspective, a tool that the HBO series finds itself having to go without in most cases. Arstan Whitebeard makes his first appearance at the end of Book 2, and as the only Westerosi natives he first encounters have either never seen him or haven’t seen him in close to 20 years, it is easy for Martin to hide the fact that he is truthfully Ser Barristan Selmy. Still, notably, throughout this narrative Selmy’s reappearance has been casually seeded through other conversations–many in the realm have heard that he intended to go serve “the true king,” and when he doesn’t show up at Renly’s camp or at Stannis’s, Renly assumes that Selmy is on his way over to Robb Stark’s side. Instead, he has crossed the Narrow Sea in search of the Targaryens (and has knowledge of their whereabouts already due to his seat on the small council).
This allows Martin to throw us off of Selmy’s trail using our own better knowledge against us–if Selmy had said he was on his way to serve the “true queen,” or even “the true ruler,” we might be as suspicious of Arstan as Jorah is at first. We would have to remember that Selmy was dismissed before Viserys was crowned by Drogo, and does not realize that “the true king” is dead.
– Martin also gives us the first appearances of “the strangler” using similar sleight of hand–offering a lingering description of its appearance and preparation during doomed Maester Cressen’s prologue and then reintroducing these same crystals as a passing reference to “black amethysts” in Sansa’s final chapter of the book, when Dontos gives her the bejeweled hairnet that will play their infamous part in Joffrey’s forthcoming nuptials.
– While captive, Ygritte tells Jon Snow the wildling legend of Bael the Bard–the long ago King-Beyond-the-Wall who mixed his blood with that of House Stark when he stole south of the Wall and then seduced away Lord Brandon Stark’s daughter (thereafter marking him in the histories as Brandon The Daughterless). Despite an exhaustive hunt for Bael and the daughter, they were not found–but the daughter was later returned, bearing Bael’s bastard son, who would one day be raised and legitimized as the Lord of Winterfell. Bael and the daughter had never run from Winterfell, but had instead hidden in the crypts below the castle.
Later, we discover that this is where Bran, Rickon, Hodor, Osha, and the Reed siblings have hidden themselves from Theon. And although we never see Old Nan tell Bran this story, we know that she often told him stories that his parents might have considered inappropriate for his ears, or that were not part of the accepted House Stark telling–and as Bran is one in a very, very long line of Brandon Starks, he may have asked Old Nan about Brandon The Daughterless at some point.
Martin doesn’t make it explicit in his text, but I love the notion that in this instance, Bran was saved by his appetite for Old Nan’s stories.
– This time around I’m much better able to follow the various intrigues taking place at Harrenhal during Arya’s indentured servitude therein, most occurring on the edge of her viewpoint. I’d forgotten that she misuses her first two owed murders on relatively minor figures Chiswyck and Weese (the TV series has Arya dispatch The Tickler and Ser Amory Lorch) before realizing too late that she should have been requesting men like Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane. I’d also forgotten that her final request–in which Jaqen H’ghar engineers the slaughter of a dozen guards in order to free the captured Helman Tallhart, Robett Glover, and their men–dovetailed with an already existing plot to betray the Lannisters that Arya never knew about, hatched by Vargo Hoat’s Brave Companions alongside the northmen he’d “taken.”
– I’d also missed the significance of the darkly humorous interaction between Arya and the young Elmar Frey, a squire for Roose Bolton’s conquering host, shortly before she escapes the castle with Hot Pie and Gendry. The young Frey had been promised Arya’s hand in marriage after the war, part of the contract that Robb had signed with Lord Walder to secure his men and safe crossing past the Twins. Elmar consistently annoys Arya with talk of his promised “princess,” but then one day wails to her that he’s been told to forget about her. (Arya, not realizing she’s the princess in question, tells Elmar she hopes his princess is dead before stomping away.)
But this provides an interesting revelation as well as black comedy: Up until this point, Cersei has managed to keep a lid on the information that Arya had escaped her. Catelyn makes several decisions based on the idea that she can get both Arya and Sansa returned from King’s Landing, and nobody among Robb’s bannerman seems to know otherwise.
Elmar may have been told to forget about Arya because the Boltons never expected to get the girls back alive. But even while Roose Bolton is taking Harrenhal, his bastard Ramsay Snow has been a right monster up north from the Dreadfort, having abducted and forcibly married the widowed Lady Hornwood before torturing her to a ghastly end. While Ser Rodrik’s forces believe that they killed Ramsay for this crime, and captured his servant Reek, in reality Ramsay has switched places with Reek, and later betrays Theon in order to capture Winterfell for his own.
I’m uncertain at this moment if Martin has written that Bolton had already made designs on betraying Robb long before he marched on Harrenhal. But we are told elsewhere about the long enmity between Houses Stark and Bolton: During Ygritte’s tale of Bael the Bard, she also mentions that Bael’s son, the Lord of Winterfell, was one day killed in battle by a man who flayed him and wore his skin.
– The visions that Martin writes into this text are enjoyable to revisit after you know exactly what they mean. One of Daenerys’s visions in the House of the Undying basically spells out the Red Wedding right down to the fate of Robb and Grey Wind. There is a comic sadness in Bran attempting to forestall Jojen Reed’s vision of the ironborn takeover of Winterfell, with guards such as Alebelly–who would prove the first to die–staying away from baths because Bran had made him fear drowning.
– A recurring theme of the entire saga is that the search for glory is bound to lead to disaster in one way or another, at a time you will be unprepared for. Rhaegar Targaryen dies on the Trident while in a fervor of destiny, attempting to slay Robert Baratheon in single combat, while Robert himself is gutted by a great boar after pushing aside his men to keep them from interfering. In Book 3, Edmure Tully’s great victory at the Stone Mill will be revealed to have ruined Robb and Brynden Tully’s carefully wrought strategy to draw Tywin Lannister west and contain him. During the assault on King’s Landing, the catastrophe on the Blackwater begins when Stannis’ ill-made ship Swordfish, with its overly long bow that caused it to be unbalanced and slow, eagerly grabs the opportunity to ram the first ship it encounters–which turns out to be the booby-trapped vessel filled with wildfire, leading to the destruction of Stannis’ fleet.
– The other recurring theme of Martin’s work is his unapologetic sympathy for the lesser folk of the realm, all of whom suffer most when the nobles decide to march upon each others’ borders. While the larger arc of his work focuses primarily on the greater houses he’s created, and the long histories of conquest, rebellion, and courtly intrigue, there is a reason he also devotes so much time to describing the wretched conditions of the starving masses in King’s Landing–cut off from the bounty of the Reach by Renly having secured its allegiance–as well as the devastation left behind in towns by not only Lannister forces, but also those sworn to honorable House Stark. None of the time spent in the company of Gregor Clegane or Vargo Hoat is easy to stomach, but nor should it be. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and his gift for describing atrocity seems born of a vivid imagination for the awfulness that men, given the slightest shred of power over others, could be counted upon to inflict–which no doubt also fed his feelings on going to war himself.
– One of those throwaway things in this world that I find fascinating: The Sorrowful Men, a competing guild of assassins in Essos who lack the Faceless Men’s magic for disguise but whose trademark is to say “I am so sorry” right before they kill you. Thus far we have not explored anything of their order in the same depth that has been discussed of the Faceless, but I’m very curious about the principles that lead to such a signature.
– Just in case you needed reminding of what a terrible marriage Robert and Cersei had, Martin informs you that one of the ships in Robert’s fleet was named the Lady Lyanna. One can easily imagine the disgust on Cersei’s face the day that boat was dedicated; it seems only further insult when that same ship is used by Tyrion to spirit Princess Myrcella off to Dorne.
– Martin published A Clash of Kings in 1998. Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films–Baman Forever and Batman & Robin–were released in 1995 and 1997, respectively.
I don’t know for certain that Martin is taking a shot at these two films when he describes something by calling it “as useless as nipples on a suit of armor” but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true.