Monday, January 7, 2013

[Re-read] Arya II: Hot Pie, Undercover Agent

Game of Thrones Season Three is almost upon us, and I'm almost afraid to read the novel because it reinforces my personal vision of scenes and characters and when the new episodes roll it will feel so different. With the first season I was able to, after a couple of viewings, to integrate the series in my mind but with the second season I couldn't; I don't know why the second season felt less "true" to me, but it did. Here's to hoping the third season doesn't stray any farther away from the source - I am happy they are splitting A Storm of Swords in two seasons if that additional time is used to dive deeper into the source material and make the show as good as the book. For A Storm of Swords, in case you hadn't noticed, is one fine book of epic medieval fantasy unlike any other book in the world (that I'm aware of). It's the pinnacle of the series, a riveting read with enough plot twists, drama and tension to elevate it to something more than "just fantasy literature". It takes on a life of its own, becomes a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and just reading a chapter in it makes me all giddy and excited and immersed and fanb0i. 

It's been a long while since I perused the pages of this particular fantastic novel. November, dammit. My previously intense obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire has definitely become lukewarm. I think I've gone through the factors leading to this development. In three words, too.long.waits. Well, and the fact that the waiting wasn't really worth it. 

Anyway, I'm jumping straight back in with Arya, and once again Martin grabs me by the literary balls with a short to-the-point sentence to get me involved: "She was grubbing for vegetables in a dead man's garden when she heard the singing." That's Martin all right. Bam! Who is singing? I must needs know! What can a reader do but read on, wondering what kind of trouble Arya will get into this time? Also, she is already in trouble kind of, due to the reference of the garden belonging to a dead man, instantly reminding us of the harrowing journey she's on, and how the lands she travels through have been affected - severely - by the War of the Five Kings. Brilliant opening sentence, then, drawing me in like a Tully trout. 

Martin follows up immediately by heightening the tension: Arya thinking of the Bloody Mummers and Roose Bolton's men - both a reminder of what despicable people we've met before in her chapters, and cranking up the intensity of the situation by suggesting these people could be close by. All this from two sentences where, in essence, we have a young girl plucking carrots. Of course, with hundreds of thousands of words preceding this scene it is easier for the author to suggest tension, but still - it is also pretty amazing how he, after two fat books still has us pining, rooting for Arya Stark all the way.

Hot Pie is also present, while Gendry is asleep. Now they hear someone singing, and the sound of a woodharp. Someone's coming all right, and it sounds like ye olde troubadour on the road! The scene gives me a roleplaying game-feeling, you know, it's like a random encounter kind of thing, adventures on the road, a bard approaching...only it isn't simply a bard, of course, and we'll soon enough be reminded this isn't your standard adventuring in the fantasy lands of yore kind of story (in case you forgot). Hot Pie drops his cabbages (nice way of describing him becoming afraid without telling us so). He correctly estimates the best course of action - to hide - but unfortunately hiding places do not abound; this allows Martin to give us a more in-depth look at Arya's surroundings. Very clever, saving that until we're all excited about what's going to happen: "The burned cottage and its overgrown garden stood hard beside the banks of the Trident. There were a few willows growing along the river's edge and reed beds in the muddy shallows beyond, but most of the ground hereabouts was painfully open." Now we get a clear picture of the surroundings (and I'm thinking climb up them willows!); there's also a wall standing which could hide them all. Arya regrets having left the woods but they spotted this abandoned farm and were hungry. Fair enough.

Arya drops her carrots, draws her longsword, heavy and awkward as it is in her hands (reminding us she misses Needle), and moves over to an old willow (there you go), praying to the old gods which is helpful as always as she hears them noticing. "Did you hear that?" a man's voice says, instantly telling us there's more than one coming up the road. There's a reply, then a third voice, the first one is called Archer and then we get to hear Arya eavesdrop on these men as they speak back and forth, kind of loud, suggesting that they do it on purpose to flush out anyone hiding. Which is precisely what happens: Arya springs to her feet shouting for Archer not to loose his arrows over the wall.

Anguy the Archer
She sees three men, afoot and mud-specked. There's a singer with a woodharp, small with a big mouth, a sharp nose and thinning brown hair, the green of his clothes faded - Robin Hood-like then? The man next to him is a lot bigger, looking more like a warrior, with bad teeth to boot - and a yellow cloak with deerskin patched on the right shoulder (just that little additional detail makes it stand out so much more, love it); the last of the three then is Archer, a youth as "skinny as his longbow" (that's really skinny by the way), red-haired and freckled, with fingerless leather gloves, a studded brigandine, high boots and a quiver on his back. The three really do look like a small band of adventurers, don't they? Gotta love these guys right from the get-go, if only for that lovely sense of fantasy they bring to the table abandoned cottage.

The singer plucks a string, calls Arya a boy and tells her to put away the sword unless Anguy the Archer put a couple of arrows in her. Arya snaps back that she's a girl, that they better just continue down the road and leave them be. Anguy laughs at this, then talks to the yellow-cloaked guy giving us a name for him as well, Lem, so now we only miss the singer's name. The singer tells her to put away her sword and promises her to take her to a safe place and give her some food. Not sure if he sounds sincere or not, the text doesn't give us any hint; Gendry rides forth from behind the cottage wall, with a badass"She's not alone". Hot Pie follows, not quite as badassly I suspect: "Gendry looked almost a man grown, and dangerous. Hot Pie looked like Hot Pie." That's funny.  The singer eyes their horses, and of course they'd like horses, the author's already mentioned explicitly that these guys are on foot. It's quite a threatening situation really, this meeting, and to think that Arya and Hot Pie and to an extent Gendry are children. These wanderers must truly think themselves superior, and the kids easy prey. But Arya is keeping an eye on Anguy, realizing the singer is distracting her.

The singer introduces himself as Tom of Sevenstreams, but is called Tom Sevenstrings, or Tom o'Sevens. Lem is short for Lemoncloak and Anguy's Anguy. Anyone with a better memory than me could probably connect him to the tourmanent in A Game of Thrones (now that's many pages ago) where an Anguy won the archery competition. They recognize Roose Bolton's sigil on Arya's chest, and immediately deduce that they have escaped from "Lord Bolton's kitchen". Whoops. Hot Pie can't keep his mouth shut as usual, giving them his name and telling them stuff Arya rather would have kept secret. I guess this could be seen as part of Arya's character growth, learning to hide the truth, with Hot Pie being the contrast that allows her to see / learn that it is better not to be too honest about things.

Lem Lemoncloak
Anguy tells them they are King Robert's men, but they also know the king's dead. Arya sees through their appearance, like Syrio Forel has taught her: "Arya didn't think they were king's men at all. They looked more like outlaws, all tattered and ragged. They didn't even have horses to ride." Truly, Arya's character development in this series is perhaps the best of all characters; even though she's a skinny little girl it feels believable how she continually develops her, let's just call it assassin proficiencies. Hot Pie tells them they are looking for Riverrun, and Arya "could have killed him". To this, Tom o'Sevens tells them it is far off, but that there's an inn not too far away where they could go get some food in their bellies. Should be a very seductive proposition, considering the kids' hunger. When Tom explains more about the inn it becomes clear this is the same inn that Brienne and Jaime visited earlier in the novel. Feels a bit convenient to me, how this inn keeps popping up in the story as if there are no other inns along the many roads of Westeros, but there you go. By re-visiting the place we already have an impression of the innkeeper and his family. Of course, this also suggests that Tom, Anguy and Lem are in league with the innkeeper and could have been among those preparing an ambush for Brienne and Jaime. Eventually Arya realizes they have no chance against these people, especially when Anguy shows off his mad archery skills. So up in their saddles they go, following the three wanderers to the inn and their promise of warm food and ale. Nope, wait. I misread that. They walk their horses down the rutted road. No wait they are actually riding, a dozen paces behind the three on foot.Tom asks if they know any songs, to which Arya snaps, quite hilariously, "Singing is stupid. Singing makes noise. We heard you a long way off. We could have killed you."
Doesn't help though, soon Hot Pie is singing from the top of his lungs, "A bear there was, a bear, a bear! All black and brown and covered with hair..." It's a classic, folks. To pop up time and time again. And is it really about King Robert Baratheon? I am wondering...Bet Arya is fuming as they sing their way down the road.

There's a little bit of travelogue, with Anguy shooting a duck and some wading in rivers, but soon enough the inn appears before them at the riverbank. She spots Brienne, Cleos and Jaime's boat at a dock nearby. Arya discusses taking the boat (which seems kind of weird what with the three wanderers nearby). Gendry stays in the stalls as a security measurement, while Arya and Hot Pie follow the outlaws into the Inn of the Kneeling Man. Immediately, we are re-introduced to the somewhat grumpy wife (a "tall ugly woman with a knobby chin") who stands in the doorway. "We shot a duck," Lem says holding the duck "out like a peace banner" - now that's a description that tells us more than enough. This is a woman who clearly isn't afraid of anyone, and who is used to bossing around her husband. A real hag. Anguy, shuffling his feet (to further illustrate the wife's total dominion), asks for lemons. Here's her nice reply: "Lemons. And where would we get lemons? Does this look like Dorne to you, you freckled fool? Why don't you hop out back to the lemon trees and pick us a bushel, and some nice olives and pomegranates too. Now, I suppose I could cook it with Lem's cloak, if you like, but not till it's hung for a few days. You'll eat rabbit, or you won't  eat."
Yes, m'am. All right, m'am. Sorry, m'am. Seems Hot Pie's caught on, though, as he names Arya "Squab". Good boy, Hot Pie. They offer the woman the vegetables they scavenged, to go with the rabbit she offers. But a few seconds later Hot Pie already calls Arya "Arry", the silly boy. The woman goes off to the kitchen, the group settles by the hearth. Tom begins to sing about the innkeeper's wife being plain as a toad, that's funny, and Lem tells him to shut up, afraid that it might turn ugly. Truly a mighty adversary, this innkeeper's wife! Can't believe how ignored she is when fans come up with "favorite villains" or "most evil characters" lists.

Anyway, Hot Pie is all happy with rabbit and ale and the three wanderers toast to the King, and it seems to be in an ironical tone (though it seems Arya misses this, which would be realistic as children don't learn irony until later). We get a confirmation that Tom, Anguy and Lem indeed were supposed to ambush Brienne. There's some more characterization on Tom (a womanizer); Arya wishes she knew how to shoot arrows (foreshadowing?); she continues to think about the boat (also called a 'skiff'), there's complaints about Husband's bread, and Hot Pie suggests some improvements to Husband's bakery skills, "and began talking lovingly of breads and pies and tarts (...)" That is once again pretty hilarious. Gotta love Hot Pie.

Tom Sevenstrings
Tom gives Arya a "dirty scrap of parchment" - a promise of three golden dragons, for their horses. Tom explains that they need the horses and if they had been robbers, well they would just have taken those horses. Arya suggests trading the horses for the boat, instead. Which, of course, is a much more valuable commodity than a scrap of paper. She's quite clever, you know. Unfortunately Gendry shouts an alarm, "Riders! Soldiers!" (well, unfortunately for Arya & co., and quite interesting for the reader - though tension's been running high throughout, with the reader never sure of the loyalties of these shady outlaws, it's like a little explosion of excitement when this happens, riveting and begging you to go on reading).

However, Martin immediately 'calms the situation' so to speak, with Tom and the others barely raising an eyebrow at the commotion; they know who's coming (and it's not winter). Arya feels imprisoned, even though Tom does his best to seem friendly, and she screams and bolts like a deer. Lem, however, is big and strong and yanks her off her feet 'effortlessly'. And then it's too late to flee, and she knows she's just been captured again, must be a pretty despairing feeling that. A ragged band arrives, carrying swords and axes and bows (is it the Fellowship of the Ring?!), including a one-eyed man, a spearman, a limping man, a Braavosi...and then Arya recognizes one of them: "Harwin?" Arya whispered.

The first time I read the series, I had no clue as to who Harwin was. Long forgotten in the murky depths of A Game of Thrones. On re-reads, there's no surprise, of course, but I still appreciate how this minor character reappears. It feels more "realistic" than some other random encounters between folks who know each other, precisely because he was such a minor character the first time around, one you didn't pay particular attention to. We get a little reminder, fortunately; Harwin is Hullen's son, and he used to lead her pony around the yard in Winterfell, ride at quintain with Robb and Jon, and drink too much (bad omen). She tries to squirm out of Lem's grip, calling for him, "It's me." Dark and gritty as the series is, I guess no reader expects a super-happy reunion leading to all problems solved and all your base are belong to us. Arya, in the grip of emotion, begins to cry. So she is clearly happy to meet him.

Harwin looks at her, clearly not recognizing her. "How do you know me? The flayed man...who are you, some serving boy to Lord Leech?" The way he calls Bolton 'Lord Leech' gives us enough of an impression that Harwin isn't a big Bolton-fan. Arya is confused. When she tells him about the pony-riding in the yard, his eyes widen. "Gods be good. Arya Underfoot? Lem, let go of her." Yay, he recognizes her! You're almost thinking he'll never recognize her, what with Martin being not that sympathetic to his characters, so when he does, it's almost a surprise. The chapter ends beautifully, promisingly, with Harwin going to one knee before her: "Arya Stark, of Winterfell."

Inn of the Kneeling Man
What a great chapter! Lots of tension, interesting new (and old) characters, and then this actual happy ending. Well, we'll see just how happy the reunion of Arya Stark and Harwin really is, but still. A chapter ending on a high note, with a promise of hope, is a rare thing in A Song of Ice and Fire and should be cherished. One could imagine how the story could go from here if Harwin became dedicated to bring Arya to her family.

I still love Arya's journey through the riverlands. There's always something happening. Though vastly different from Tolkien's works, it has that same spirit; that something about ragged people journeying across the land, and ever since I read The Lord of the Rings I have been particularly enamored of stories in which characters travel through mythic lands. It's a big part in many fantasy stories, of course, but Arya's journey is definitely the most harrowing and exciting of them all.

Next: Catelyn.

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