Thursday, January 17, 2013

[Re-read] Catelyn II: Fallout Mom and the Leftfield King

It’s been extremely cold of late, with temperatures dropping to – 25 degrees Celsius, and so there’s been a lot of time spent indoors. I spent Sunday playing old school AD&D, I’ve played a little bit Skyrim, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate (the original, not the enhanced edition) and even gained a couple of levels last night in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (unfortunately the game won’t run for long before the laptop freezes; it is so about time I get my act together and buy a new stationary monster gaming computer). Since I’ve started up a new AD&D campaign I’ve been reading a number of sourcebooks for the game’s setting, Forgotten Realms, and even started a novel set in this world – an old book titled ‘Red Wizard’, and it really is terrifyingly bad (as I expected). Reading it, I actually fear that my own appreciation for writing will be degraded. I’ll come back to it if I manage to finish it. I’m thinking of it as an experiment, and to glean some ‘feeling’ for the Realms so that I may use it to portray this particular setting in my roleplaying games.
To counter this, I better read some more George R.R. Martin, so as to not slide off the scale, to remind myself that there’s also well-written fantasy. So here we are, in A Storm of Swords, at the beginning of Catelyn Stark’s second chapter. On a slightly related note, you can see her in the most recent update from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Molding the Book into a Series.

Riverrun as it probably won't look on the TV.
Martin throws us straight into the chapter with Catelyn realizing her son Robb is returning from Riverrun, the scent of his direwolf sending the hounds at the camp into a frenzy. I love how Martin seems to have this detailed imagination - he doesn't forget that the direwolf's approach has consequences, its presence is felt, and reminding us that these direwolves are scary keeps us aware (this in contrast to aforementioned novel Red Wizard where I struggled trying to imagine a centaur setting up a tent, and the author doesn't bother to give us any insight into how this works). Not only does Martin quickly reestablish the presence of Grey Wind, he also, in the same quick sketch, remind us that Catelyn is a person, thinking of how her brother Edmure hasn't bothered speaking to her, and in the same breath he establishes a certain atmosphere to lend the chapter's beginning strength: "It had been raining for days now, a cold grey downpour that well suited Catelyn's mood." A prisoner of the home - well, castle - she grew up in, Catelyn's situation is perfectly linked to the mood; the rain beating down (she's kind of beaten down), the cold grey downpour symbolizing how she's being kept out of the loop (she's only given choice bits of information on how the fighting in the riverlands is going). 

Also, and this becomes so incredibly obvious when reading Red Wizard, Martin remains the master of the limited point of view. Catelyn isn't getting that much news, so we aren't getting that much news. We are limited to Catelyn's view for her chapters, and Martin keeps it that way. It's tight, efficient, draws us closer to his characters, and for me at least it feels oh so right. Compare this to Red Wizard where the point of view seems to randomly skip from character to character (I guess this is third person omniscient POV - the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters in the story); it seems to be just as valid a way of writing - classics like Anna Karenina are written using this method - but to me, perhaps because of George R.R. Martin's strict adherence to his characters' points of view, it just feels so wrong. I guess it's a matter of taste. To me, it makes a story feel less real, and thus more artificial, and it makes it harder for me to immerse myself. In Red Wizard, there are scenes where you, in the span of a paragraph, read the thoughts of three or more different characters and it seems so...clunky. Maybe I've read too much limited POVs? Or could one in fact argue that, yes, limited POVs do improve a story? I guess there's no easy answer. This is by no means the only thing that detracts from appreciating Red Wizard, and I won't go further as we're talking about A Storm of Swords and not some crap licensed novel, but reading "lesser" fantasy does make me appreciate Martin's efforts all the more. Perhaps I need to read another Forgotten Realms novel along with A Dance with Dragons

Maester Vyman with the winner of the Oscar Awards 2013.
Anyway. Catelyn muses that, with all the depressing stuff going on, there's something else that's wrong as well (as if it wasn't bad enough with her father dying, her brother ignoring her, her son fighting wars, her husband beheaded, her daughters hostage and missing, her youngest sons presumed dead - just off the top of my head). There was something going on in the courtyard of Riverrun the other day, and though Catelyn doesn't know exactly what, Martin's description makes it pretty clear there's been a confrontation and that about forty men abandoned the cause. Maester Vyman refuses to explain, but we know enough, don't we? That all is not well in Robb and Edmure's army. Another fine detail from the master, then; in many fantasy novels the sides are clear-cut, black and white; here, there is dissension within the ranks, consequences beget consequences. Vyman does suggest, however, that it is Edmure who is holding back information from his sister.

"But now Robb was returned from the west, returned in triumph."

Yeah, I believe you, George. Triumph isn't exactly the most bandied-about word in Westeros and environs. When he adds that Catelyn hopes that Robb will forgive her, you should remember that old adage that so captures the spirit of this long tale: Don't get your hopes up. It really encapsulates A Song of Ice and Fire so far doesn't it? Cat, don't get your hopes up. 
Ser Desmond comes to pick her up, and takes her to the Great Hall where Robb awaits her. Yup, Robb doesn't come running up the stairs for her embrace, he awaits her in the Great Hall. Like a king. 

The hall is crowded, she recognizes some of the people in the assembly; with a few quick strokes Martin re-establishes these minor characters so that we might remember them just in case they'll become more important later on (or he just loves mentioning all these characters, which might be the simpler, more correct answer). Lady Mormont is present, as are the Greatjon, Lord Jason Mallister, and Tytos Blackwood. And Robb is standing on the dais, and he's changed:

"He is a boy no longer, she realized with a pang. He is sixteen now, a man grown. Just look at him. War had melted all the softness from his face and left him hard and lean. He had shaved his beard away, but his auburn hair fell uncut to his shoulders. The recent rains had rusted his mail and left brown stains on the white of his cloak and surcoat."

Again the detail! How many fantasy novels have you read where the characters' armor remains pristine? Here, the consequence of the heavy rains has been given thought, leading to this quick description of Robb's armor rusting. 
In short, Robb seems more kingly, and the effect is realized by taking a break to describe the young man standing on the dais, and further illustrated when we see Edmure Tully, his uncle, bowing his head modestly at his nephew.
The perfect example of Martin adhering strictly to point of view is that Catelyn comes into the Great Hall while Robb is in mid-sentence, and we don't get to hear the first half of his words because, you know, Catelyn didn't hear them. 
Robb's men are shouting and roaring but as Catelyn and Ser Desmond approach the dais, "a hush grew around her" - perfectly described, I can imagine all the northmen's faces turn toward her with dissaproving glares, Catelyn holding her head high...the makers of the TV series truly do not need bothering rewriting this scene at all, it's efficiently and perfectly described and can be lifted wholesale into their scripts. And this season, they will apparently take heed of that guy near Robb, his greatuncle Brynden Tully, the Blackfish, who may or may not be a gay character depending on your interpretation (not that I care, but I've noticed online discussions about this particular subject). 

All right, and now Martin gently nudges us towards apprehension; there's a squire Catelyn does not recognize; behind the squire a young knight and an older one, both with unfamiliar sigils on their surcoats; there's a handsome older lady and a pretty maid and yet another girl at Sansa's age. Now, if I want to be all nitpicky about this I'd probably move this information to immediately when Catelyn enters the Great Hall; wouldn't this be the first she noticed - a host of strangers surrounding Robb on the dais? Minor niggle, there, mr. Martin, perfection has not been achieved but damn it is close. 

Utherydes Wayn (who can forget Utherydes Wayn?) bangs his staff on the floor like a proper herald of yore, hey and look what have we here, the very word I used in the previous paragraph, apprehension, only Martin has turned it around and it is Robb looking apprehensive. Nice. What should Robb fear? Oh, oh, something's fishy in Riverrun and I'm not talking about Brynden Tully.

In these post-Skyrim days I couldn't help but raise my eyebrows in mild amusement when Catelyn looks up at her son and tells him she's heard he was wounded. "I took an arrow through the arm," he explains and I guess I don't need to elaborate. Tee and also hee! Good thing he didn't get it through the knee, that could have more severely limited his adventures as a commander and king of the North. Robb is all safe and sound then, and who would expect anything else from this important character who has taken up his father's legacy as a stern leader of men? Surely he will lead the North to independence and... you know, triumph.

Not wanting to circle the subject (what we in Norway call, for some silly reason, "walk around the porridge"), Catelyn immediately asks Robb if he knows why she released Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. His answer is suitably short: "For the girls."
Lord Rickard Karstark pushes his way to the fore, clearly not agreeing with Catelyn on the decision (we knew that already, of course, but it's a way for Martin to remind us of the personal conflicts brewing in this here hall of greatness). Greatjon rumbles that it was "a mother's folly", but Karstark names it "treason". Whatever hopes Catelyn had before coming to the hall, she should perhaps have realized beforehand that there would be trouble from Lord Rickard (and I'd dare say, his anger is justified too). 

Fortunately for Catelyn, she's not the only one who's gone and done folly. Nice weaving of story, there. The story could have demanded Catelyn's execution or at the very least imprisonment forever, but Robb's a fool too, and so the story can be given a nice little twist instead. Robb forgives Catelyn (to Lord Rickard's dismay - and yes, again Martin doesn't forget and will instead weave a consequence out of this as well - it's all so amazingly coherent, the tapestry so rich): "I know what it is to love so greatly you can think of nothing else," Robb tells her and that's the turning point isn't it? Strange, though, that she doesn't immediately wonder what he's talking about. Robb commands everyone (well, almost) to leave the hall. Catelyn realizes that Grey Wind is missing. This is a subtle hint (actually I don't know how subtle it is, but the first time I read the series I wasn't really aware of just how intrinsically linked the wolves were to the kids and that this wolf missing now means bad). It also leads us into the second half of the chapter, where we are given new and plot-changing elements.

The strangers on the dais are introduced; first up is Lady Sybell, wife of Lord Gaven Westerling of the Crag. Catelyn is now able to place them as a minor house sworn to the Lannisters. Next up Robb introduces Ser Rolph Spicer, who is Lady Sybell's brother, the young knight is Ser Raynald, there's a Elenya (who can forget Elenya? I did), Rollam Westerling is the squire; Cat wonders whether Robb has won the allegiance of the Crag which seems pretty obvious doesn't it, but of course we're saved the best for last which is the maid, shy and all that, and then Robb drops the bomb: "Mother, I have the great honor to present you the Lady Jeyne Westerling. Lord Gawen's elder daughter, and my...ah...lady wife." Well, the first thing I notice on this read is that the name of the Lord of the Crag is spelled either with a 'v' or a 'w' (I'm suspecting the 'w' is the one that will stick). 

Jeyne : Shelling out to the Starks
Catelyn's response is surprise, and a number of thoughts all vying for space in her mind, but what she mainly reacts to, it seems, is the fact that Robb kind of tricked her into this by forgiving her for her own follies of love. Annoyed but also admiring him for this trickery, is how Martin describes it. Stiffly she takes Jeyne's hands in her own and welcomes her into the family. Now here comes the second nitpick of the day; shouldn't Catelyn's immediate reaction be anger, and thinking of the deal struck with Lord Frey? I don't know, maybe they don't think of Frey as important anymore since they got the army across the Twins, but rankles me just a tiny bit. Now, it also seems that Catelyn is reining herself in and that we'll get a proper explosion from her later (I honestly don't remember). Cat makes note of Jeyne's good hips which I believe is a tidbit to file away for future speculation. 

When Catelyn and Robb are alone, she is able to find her words and get into a proper discussion with her love-blinded son. Jason Mallister captured Jeyne's father - Lord Gawen that is - in the Whispering Wood and been held at ransom at Seagard; Robb intends to free him, but admits that Gawen might just stay on the Lannister side anyway, as he did not consent to the marriage. 

It's in this chapter that I feel mostly that Robb maybe should've had his own POV. I'd like to see the story of how he met and fell in love with Jeyne. The TV series is pulling it in (albeit in very different strokes); it comes perhaps as too much of a surprise in this chapter. All of a sudden, Robb's married and we had no real signs (that I'm aware of) that Robb could rush into something like this. He's always been Ned's son, cool and all that. I understand HBO's decision; in the TV series, Robb suddenly turning up married with a girl not seen before would feel less believable. 
Catelyn reminds her son that they now have lost the Freys, which is one of the more important plot points to keep in mind as we continue the story. It also explains what happened back in the courtyard with the forty men leaving Riverrun, and so Martin comes full circle in this chapter. Not only is Robb a fool for his loving, he's also chosen a girl from a minor family who will assist the Starks with an astonishing fifty men. Well, looking on the bright side, that's ten more than those who left in anger, so now the Starks are at + 10 fighting men. Of course, as Catelyn and Robb too, probably, realize, if he'd married a Frey their army could have had a much more substantial bonus. 

No, to be honest, this plot twist doesn't really work for me. Robb never seemed to me the guy who could do this. Is there any subtle foreshadowing I've missed that point to Robb walking into this trap of his own devising? Robb goes on to explain, but it doesn't really convince me - I mean, I "believe" it because it's what happens, but I have a hard time buying into this particular development precisely because there's been no build-up to it. It just...comes out of left field I guess. That's what the singers will call him a thousand years from now, you know. Robb Leftfield Stark. Or the Leftfield King. You can't miss Robb's second mention of taking an arrow in the arm, by the way. Jeyne treated him back to health (so that's where HBO got their own plot from with "their" Jeyne being a field medic). And so they did a little beasting and followed up with a marriage the day after. And here I thought it was Tyrion always thinking with his twig. Also, Robb tells her he got the news about Bran and Rickon being dead, and so he was in very much need of consolation, provided by Jeyne's moose knuckle (yeah I am really onto slang am I not?).

I'd buy this story if I could kind of experience it with Robb; be in his thoughts as he got that arrow in his knee arm, understand his motivations as Jeyne came to him to heal him and, ah, heal him some more, to be there when the Crag fell. But we only have Robb's recollections, and that I fear is too little for such an important plot development. I guess I've made myself clear on this issue.

Robb admits to having botched everything except for his battles; he admits he should have listened to his mother instead of sending Theon off. Boy I wonder how Robb felt when he heard that the Iron Islanders were attacking the North? The more I think of it, the more I'd like to have Robb's POV in this novel. Catelyn reminds Robb (and us) that the Freys are now grievously insulted, setting up the repercussion to come. Robb seems to think he might yet get out of this pickle, but Catelyn tells him that Walder Frey is an unreasonable man. They discuss back and forth, but Catelyn wins out; her arguments are stronger. 

Brynden reappears (the text - at least in the Kindle version I am reading at the moment - calls him "brother", which should be uncle), telling them to get a room. To discuss the matter at hand more privately, that is. Catelyn then asks Robb where Grey Wind is. It's a nice bit of dialogue right there, and shows us that Catelyn is sensing the supernatural link between man and beast better than Robb himself seems to do; when Robb says he's keeping the wolf away because it's growling and snapping and restless, Catelyn thinks, And there's the heart of it (...) There's a clue here too; "He bares his teeth every time Ser Rolph comes near him." In most stories the characters wouldn't think much more about it, but fortunately Catelyn immediately reads between the lines (so to speak) and begs her to send the knight away at once. There's a reason the wolf distrust the knight, Robb; Martin is spelling it out for us all. 

"Any man Grey Wind mislikes is a man I do not want close to you. These wolves are more than wolves, Robb. You must know that. I think perhaps the gods sent them to us. Your father's gods, the old gods of the North (...)" (who I happen to believe are the Children of the Forest; well, believe is perhaps the wrong word; it's kind of settled isn't it?) It's nice when a character for once sees through the crap and calls things out as they are. Robb agrees to keep Ser Rolph at a distance, and Catelyn is relieved. Now, no matter what happens down the line, Martin has efficiently planted a seed of doubt in our minds as to Ser Rolph Spicer, and by extension, the whole Westerling family. 

Me no like spicey scents
But the chapter doesn't end there (though I feel it should, perhaps, end now)! Next up Martin moves the scene to Lord Hoster Tully's private audience chamber, a small room above the Great Hall, where Robb takes the high seat and Edmure blathers about the fight at the Stone Mill. The Blackfish is tired of the man's boasting and, again we have a character calling things out for us, which feels good. Brynden tells Edmure he's boasting and even goes so far as to tell him he'd flay him for his stupidity. Seems both Brynden Blackfish and Robb Leftfield are displeased with Edmure, and they have the right to; he was supposed to hold Riverrun, not get out in the field to bloody Tywin's nose, sacrificing men against orders. A discussion follows, in which Martin drops a few details to keep us informed on battles and who is doing what where, and it also shows us that Robb is, as Catelyn noted early in the chapter, very much acting the king: "I told you to hold Riverrun (...) What part of that command did you fail to comprehend?" Edmure must be feeling pretty shameful getting this from his young, young nephew. I do wonder if this will also have repercussions. Consequences. Will Edmure betray House Stark? Become a dissenter? Seek someone who values him more? Who the hell knows?

There's a lot of talk here, about things going on elsewhere, and again I am caught feeling that we should have been shown all this stuff and not being told about it. Of course, A Storm of Swords would become very large and we'd probably be waiting for A Feast for Crows still...Catelyn wonders if Edmure is out for glory - again, Martin subtly shading Edmure's character. I will have to keep an eye out on this brother of Catelyn. He's a very well realized character, and he's probably not happy with being shamed like this. He wants to be a good leader, a hero perhaps even, and it seems to me reading this that he is more than a little envious of Robb's status. 

Sigh, I want to do something else now but the chapter just keeps going on dammit. Next, Catelyn tells Robb that he should stop looking to the south; don't worry about the Lannisters and the Tyrells, but turn north - where Theon Greyjoy sits in Winterfell. She's pretty blunt about it too: "Your first duty is to defend your own people, win back Winterfell and hang Theon in a crow's cage to die slowly." Guess she regrets being such a bitch to Jon all this time when she could have directed that anger at Theon. A chilling line from Catelyn here, the best of the chapter no less: "All that remains is vengeance." Hard words!

However, getting back to the North is no easy thing; there's Moat Cailin, and the Greyjoys control the seas and, snake bites tail, they would have to re-cross the river commanded by Lord Walder Frey's castle. Oh, how the story twists and turns, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. Robb and his host is trapped in the south when they really should be in the north; Edmure is being shamed; Lord Rickard is becoming a liability; Robb is foolishly in really doesn't bode well for the North any of it. 

"We must win back the Freys," Robb announces. He says he'll give Lord Walder whatever he requires, be it apologies, honors, lands, gold -- anything that could soothe the old dirty man, and the chapter closes with Catelyn countering that they can win him back not with something, but with someone. 

Plots within plots and all that aside, I kind of feel sorry for Robb too, you know. He's just a boy, trying to be king. And I feel sorry for Catelyn, who witnesses everything she loves and cares about being either destroyed or taken away from her. I even felt a little sorry for Edmure trying to do his best but not really managing anything worthwhile. The only one in this chapter that comes across as a little cardboard is Brynden Tully, who, compared to the other main characters here, doesn't feel as fully realized -as human if you will. 

Be very afreyd! Muhah.
Now what does Catelyn mean by someone? Is she suggesting Robb go off and marry a Frey anyway (by first annulling the marriage to Jeyne)? I believe that's precisely what she's thinking. Well, we'll see how all these complex political narrative strands are woven further. I obviously remember where it all leads - to a scene that any reader is unlikely to ever forget; but the journey toward that scene is just as interesting now on a re-read, seeing all the little details Martin conjures up that together form this incredible and incredibly entertaining story that is simply put unique. Laterz.

Hey! Now I notice that Forgotten Realms novel I'm reading is called Red Magic and not Red Wizard. No wonder I need to re-read books ten times, eh.

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