Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted thoughts upon a careful reread of A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire.
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– When you know The Red Wedding is coming, everything leading up to it becomes suspect. Black Walder arrives at Riverrun to parlay with Robb and Edmure and you recognize how each of Lord Walder’s conditions and commands are built around his plan to entice the Starks into his trap. You understand that the reason Robb and his men receive such excellent accommodations, and Edmure the most fetching of Walder’s daughters, is to lull them into complacency. Roslin Frey’s weeping and forced smiles, at first assumed by Catelyn to be wedding nerves, is more obviously foreknowledge of the role she has been commanded to play, including the way her expression turns to terror when the bedding is announced. Grey Wind’s fierce attack on the Freys who meet Robb on his arrival takes on a Cassandra level of tragedy, especially after a lengthy argument several chapters prior between Robb and Catelyn about making sure the direwolf remained at his side. The fact that Aegon “Jinglebell” Frey has been allowed to see Robb when he was previously hidden out of sight becomes significant, as you realize Walder Frey is enjoying the pageantry of showing off his entire house, even the simpleton, to a man he has agreed to murder. Roose Bolton’s comment to Lord Walder about his two young grandsons (“Big Walder” and “Little Walder”) being kept at the Dreadfort becomes more clearly a veiled threat to follow through on the plan. You watch doomed Merrett Frey fail to match Greatjon Umber drink for drink the first time as normal wedding hijinks, then discover during the epilogue that literally his only job at the Red Wedding was to out-drink Umber, and even at this task he was a failure.
After the deed is done, you learn that even the Westerlings were in on it, in an otherwise throwaway bit of clerical house-cleaning on Tywin’s plate. After Robb had married Jeyne and her family swore fealty to the Stark cause, several characters, including Tyrion, find themselves remarking on what a foolish thing it is to cross Tywin–which then leads us to the grim tale of House Reyne. Tywin seems otherwise unmoved by the betrayal, however, and Tywin’s brother Kevan simply claims that Gawen Westerling is a good man. Immediately after the slaughter, Tywin has the Westerlings pardoned, and Ser Rolph Spicer gains a lordship over the ruins of Castamere.
That knowledge makes it more understandable why Lord Walder was so nonplussed at Jeyne’s absence from the Red Wedding. Jeyne would likely have survived the Wedding itself; indeed, she would never have been in danger at all. Walder’s concern is that this leaves the Westerlings–and therefore Tywin, Roose Bolton, and himself–vulnerable if Jeyne is kept as a hostage.
Jeyne and Roslin Frey in this way both reinforce the Westerosi paradigm of familial politics. Daughters are often married off to secure alliances–Margaery Tyrell is wedded to two kings, Cersei was initially offered to Rhaegar and refused, then offered again to Robert and accepted. Sansa’s aborted wedding to Willas Tyrell could likely have been both joyful and a power play to have greater dominion over the realm; instead, the Lannisters secure their claim by forcing the marriage between Sansa and Tyrion, and then sending the false Arya Stark north to marry Ramsay Bolton. Jeyne Westerling and Roslin Frey, on the other hand, were married to Robb and Edmure as overture to betrayal, and Roslin, at least, knew about it beforehand.
Selling off one’s daughters for political advantage is one of the everyday brutalities of Westeros, but selling them off to harvest murder seems even more horrific. For as much as the Freys have earned eventual comeuppance for their violations of guest right, the Westerlings should also expect retribution upon their house at some later date.
– Martin toys with us as a storyteller, using narrative feints to hide his arc while also using these feints as a larger comment on theme. Martin carefully establishes Robb’s prowess in war through a series of multidimensional strategies, most of which produce decisive victories. His first major victory at the Whispering Wood was disguised by his secondary attack at the Battle of the Green Fork–an attack that itself came as a surprise to the Lannister forces, who thought that Roose Bolton’s host was much further away. His victories at Oxcross, the Golden Tooth, and The Crag were part of a larger plan to draw Tywin Lannister back to the westerlands and trap him far from King’s Landing. It was only Edmure Tully’s thirst for battle glory that prevented the Lannisters from stepping into that snare, having been repelled thrice at Stone Mill despite Robb and Brynden Tully’s specific orders to Edmure to remain barricaded at Riverrun.
Before Robb and his men arrive at the Twins, Martin gives us a lengthy and considered scene of Robb plotting to reclaim Moat Cailin from the ironborn, going so far as to dispatch envoys to House Reed in the Neck to help set up the surprise attack from the north. It is a bold plan, full of cunning as well as strength. It probably would have worked. It’s diabolical on Martin’s part to never let us know.
– What’s also diabolical is this:
– By this third book, it becomes clear that one of the things Martin does exceedingly well is use multiple forms of anecdote to build a sense of history for the realms as a whole. Besides the more straightforward histories and tales of things that once happened–or that may have happened but not quite in that way–Martin also has his characters engage in a good deal of playing “what might have been,” leading us as audience to follow those threads outside of the text
Consider the embedded melancholy epic of House Dayne, presented to us in bits and pieces by the spoken or unspoken observations of Jaime, Eddard, Catelyn, Bran, the Reed siblings, and Edric Dayne, squire to Lord Beric Dondarrion and heir to Starfall, currently wandering through the riverlands and crownlands as a member of the Brotherhood Without Banners.
From Jaime and Eddard you hear primarily of Ser Arthur Dayne, considered by most to be the greatest and noblest knight of his age, a sworn brother of the Kingsguard who was slain by Eddard at the Tower of Joy in the final throes of Robert’s Rebellion.
From Catelyn and Bran you know that Arthur’s sister Ashara was rumored once to have been Jon Snow’s mother, a woman of such surpassing beauty that she could understandably make even Eddard Stark forswear his vows. From the Reeds you hear the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree and the great tourney at Harrenhal, where Prince Rhaegar made the fateful decision to crown Lyanna Stark as queen of love and beauty rather than his own wife Elia, and within that story you get the glancing detail that Eddard–“the quiet wolf”–danced with Ashara and seemed to be quite taken with her. Ashara Dayne threw herself from a tower at Starfall after Ned brought back the Dayne family greatsword, and questions followed about whether Ashara had done so solely out of grief for her brother, or whether the grief was further sharpened by the knowledge that her lover had done it.
From Edric Dayne, you discover that Lord Beric was betrothed to Arthur and Ashara’s sister Allyria, who is Edric’s aunt. But Beric’s time hunting Ser Gregor Clegane, being killed and resurrected repeatedly by Thoros of Myr, has ruined his memory of who he was before he agreed to the mission–he has a vague recollection that he was to marry somebody, but he cannot remember who she was, and Edric has mercifully seen fit not to remind him. (Sidenote: We do not know the name of the fourth Dayne sibling, Edric’s parent, although we may be able to assume that both of Edric’s parents are also dead or disgraced. Edric says he is the heir to Starfall, and Dornish custom eschews patriarchal succession.)
What’s striking is not only that House Dayne had a generation of its family meet with different tragedies, though. What’s striking is that Eddard Stark is at the center of three of them–having killed Arthur, possibly driven Ashara to suicide, and sending Beric on the mission that has cost Allyria her betrothed.
– In a similar fashion, you gain a richer portrait of House Baratheon and its three warring brothers over time, first from the perspective of loving, foolhardy Maester Cressen during the prologue of Book 2, and secondly from the observations of Donal Noye, the armorer at Castle Black who had been the Baratheons’ blacksmith before going to the Wall. This time through I find myself more moved by and sad for all three of the siblings, whose conflicting personalities kept them from the greatness they might have achieved together. There’s a sense that everything happened at the wrong time for each of them, and that each of them would have been happier as lords and knights of the Stormlands rather than stewards of the realm as a whole.
– This reread was also the first time I understood the significance of the animosity between Denys Mallister, who holds the Wall’s Shadow Tower, and Cotter Pyke, who holds Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, as well as Lord Commander Mormont’s reasons for assigning the men those castles furthest away from each other. I hadn’t fully internalized that the Mallister stronghold of Seagard was established and maintained specifically as a safeguard against the ironborn, and that Pyke is a bastard of the Iron Islands. Both men have a highly grudging respect for the other but neither will agree to being led by the other, a result of several generations of animosity.
– One of Martin’s prominent world elements is the idea that the birth of the dragons fundamentally shifted reality as a whole, and that magic began returning in earnest as a direct result–often to the great surprise of those who had been studying it or claimed to practice it. Daenerys watches a street performer in Qarth perform a trick that others said he could never do before; the warlocks in the House of the Undying find themselves capable of greater feats. Thoros is suddenly able to resurrect Lord Beric time and again.
On the other hand, certain magic seems to be unattached to the return of the dragons. Warging was practiced handily by wildlings such as Orell and Varamyr Sixskins, and is growing as a skill within Arya, Bran, and Jon. The skills of the Faceless Men are a kind of magic that obviously developed and continued despite the loss of the dragons, and prophetic dreams or foretelling have been a constant throughout the history of this world–albeit a skill fraught with perils and misinterpretations.
– To that end, there are two such dreams and foretellings within Martin’s text that I’m currently obsessing over.
Firstly, the Ghost of High Heart offers several symbolic predictions, all of which come true during the course of Book 3–with the possible exception of one. The Ghost makes two foretellings of Sansa–the first involves “purple serpents in her hair,” which refer to the strangler crystals in her hairnet that later kill King Joffrey. The second talks about her “killing a savage giant in a castle made of snow.” Later, at the Eyrie, Sansa builds a model of Winterfell out of snow, and in a fit of temper tears apart young Robert Arryn’s doll when Robert begins using the doll to smash the castle. But this burst of petulance seems an odd thing for the Ghost of High Heart to have seen, and as such feels like another of Martin’s narrative feints. What seems more likely is that the prediction is affirming what the television series has shown us at the end of last season–that Sansa will eventually be the one to end Petyr Baelish, who stands as a giant of sorts within the model of Winterfell as he helps her craft it.
The second is the dream that Jaime has on his way out of Harrenhal, en route to King’s Landing. Within this dream, Jaime imagines himself lost in darkness and berated by his slain and cast away brothers of the Kingsguard for having slain Mad Aerys. He wields a sword of flames against the darkness within this dream, but it is the sudden presence of Brienne that convinces him, upon awakening, that he must return to Harrenhal and rescue Brienne from Vargo Hoat and the bear pit.
At this time, Melisandre remains convinced that Stannis is the “prince who was promised,” the reborn Azor Ahai who will fight back against the Other who seeks to extinguish life from the world. She has provided him with a sword, Lightbringer, that was tempered in flame and glows as if the sun itself is inside it, although notably Maester Aemon seems unimpressed, noting to Samwell that there seems to be no heat coming from it.
Other well-considered theories point to Jaime being the true reincarnation of Azor Ahai, and this dream outside of Harrenhal seems to support that theory–except again, Brienne is also there, and there are two points to consider: one, that “prince” is an ungendered word in High Valyrian, and two, the sword she receives from Jaime, Oathkeeper, was one of two forged from the Stark greatsword, Ice.
Martin has enjoyed placing a variety of ice and fire dichotomies throughout his work so far, so it strikes me as reasonable that R’hllor, a god of fire, might find himself using either or both of the swords that came from Ice as his instrument. And it would not surprise me either if Brienne of Tarth turned out to be the prince that was promised, rather than Jaime.