Friday, January 25, 2013

[Re-read] Jon II: Membership Required

This post contains spoilers for Jon Snow's last chapter in A Dance with Dragons.

Our dear author, George R.R. Martin, continues to take his sweet time doing, well, everything at once. Or not. I am not sure anymore. We've been promised a new Dunk & Egg novella for quite some time, but unfortunately the man hasn't been able to finish this story and instead we will be given The Princess and the Queen, which will basically be a collection of notes he's been writing for the also-long-overdue world book. How long can this man keep screwing his fans over? While the Tower of the Hand gently calls it "a surprise", and Westeros (boo!) provide a dry and emotionless presentation of the fact, people over at Is Winter Coming? are a bit more [NSFW!vocal and outraged (as can be expected; this is the forum, after all, where people who do not wish to be screwed over anymore congregate). It doesn't help being pissed off at Martin's bad habits of course, but it is also good to know I'm not the only one feeling constantly disappointed by the man. In fact, the very fact that he is unable to deliver the Dunk & Egg novella after years is kind of even worse than him being late with his Ice & Fire novels, because it shows so clearly that his priorities are a tangled mess. Based on his blog posts I have the feeling he really enjoyed writing those fake historical bits for the world book, and that's what he's been spending his time on, and thus that is what he can add to the Dangerous Women anthology, because he had nothing else produced. I don't know, but...wouldn't any reasonably sane fan of Ice & Fire rather wish that the man focused on The Winds of Winter instead of a world book - for a world that still is unfinished, so to speak? Enough ranting, it is time to dive back into A Storm of Swords, and a time when there was no anger, no disappointment, no resentment, and everyone believed Martin was an incredible author and that it could only get better from there. If you disagree with anything in this rant, feel absolutely free to throw in a comment with your counterarguments! I honestly want to believe better of mr. Martin, but he makes it harder for each and every post on his Not a Blog. Still!

Anyway, we're back to the North - the real North as Craster would remind you - and Jon Snow, bastard of Ned Stark, most likely the son of Ned's sister Lyanna (seriously, I will cook and eat my entire collection of mismatched socks if this turns out to be false), who remains a bit of a boring character in my opinion (but then he's being compared to some of the best characters in fantasy literature ever); still, he's kind of the main character in a way. The young, naive somewhat rebellious character who sets out into the world (and might just end up the big hero in the end). His last chapter in A Dance with Dragons is just a setback, people, and most likely it will end up giving him even more personal power/prowess. 

The chapter opens with a line of dialogue - "Big enough for you?" - and this being 2013, and Martin having turned out to be quite the dirtbag in the meantime - makes me cringe because it is kind of hard to read Ice & Fire without dirty /sexual allusions cropping up, due to the man behind the words having turned into such a creep. You may disagree, but for many readers, the continual increase in awkward sexual situations and plain disgusting scenes gives rise to the thought that not only is Martin not afraid of writing outside the safety net, he enjoys his naughty fantasies. The words he spoke at a certain panel last year goes a long way in supporting this view - Martin is a dirtbag and I somehow feel dirtier for reading some of his stuff. Now, I'm not averse to dirt and I am certainly not offended by anything in his books as they are fantasy and I can't say I am a shining paladin of virtue myself; what gets me is that it makes the author, at conventions and such, seem so socially inept (which he probably is anyway) and that he can't keep his mouth shut when it comes to the dirty. I much rather enjoy the first three books where the amount of perversity is relatively low; when we get to A Feast for Crows it becomes more filthy than edgy, more disrupting of immersion than a look at the setting's norms of behavior. 

Dammit, now I ranted again. Sorry about that. Guess I'm not in a good mood today. Which could happen to anyone not getting a good night's sleep, eh? Anyway, it is Tormund who asks the question, and, if we decide to keep our minds on the dirty side, it doesn't help that the question is followed by "Snowflakes speckled Tormund's broad face, melting in his hair and beard." Seriously, this line is probably as innocent as they come (huh), but once you read the books with the mindset of "George is a creepy pervert", almost everything becomes dirty. So I'll refrain from that now, lest this blog becomes unsafe for work. Which, incidentally, is where I am right now. Lunch breaks are good for many things.

Fortunately, the size Tormund is referring to, is the size of giants. Giants! Yes, we've come a long way from the quasi-medieval earthy A Game of Thrones, 'cause now we are actually witnessing actual giants, and for a moment there you could almost think you had picked up the wrong book and were reading something from, say, the Forgotten Realms. Martin has his own twist on the giants, though, which I think was a smart move, to distance the concept from ye traditional giants as seen in Middle-earth, Dungeons & Dragons etc. Martin's giants are hairy, they ride mammoths (that's another "high fantasy" thing kind of isn't it) and look more like a genetic mix of Chewbacca and neanderthals, then resized to Pretty Damn Big. We get a good long description of them giants which allows us to forget the 'classic giants' and keep believing in the world of Westeros despite the amount of fantasy ramping up considerably. Sometimes I feel the giants, mammoths and other fantasy elements kind of take away from the medieval politics of the south; as if the contrast becomes to large and the story gets separated sort of, if you know what I mean. And at other times I don't care and just get lost in the narrative. It's definitely a scene that probably has HBO scratching their heads, what with a column of mammoth-riding giants (Jon loses count at around fifty), a mammoth's tusk passing over the top of Jon's head. We are given the name of one giant, Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg, quite different from everything else in naming in the series, to be sure. I particularly like the 'Doh' part. D'oh! 
Tormund and D'oh! exchange pleasantries (well, manly talk) and then Tormund and Jon walk back to the head of the column because Mance Rayder will be waiting for them.
All in all this opening scene feels a bit artificial because Tormund and Jon are just standing there so that we can get a look at the giants. I can't say I'm a fan of anything here, really. Tormund is kind of funny when he suggests the mammoth D'oh! is riding, is his father (or so I read it). But...meh.

On the way back, Jon asks if it is true that Tormund has killed a giant, Tormund replies with a story about a storm and him cutting open a sleeping giant to sleep inside her for warmth. I am sorry but I can't help but be reminded of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is kept warm inside a Tauntaun. This part of the tale I can believe, but Tormund doesn't stop there, the story continues with the giant waking up in spring and taking him for his baby. Scratching my head and wondering if Tormund's just making shit up, or if there's any truth to the tale at all. Jon asks more questions about how Tormund earned his other nicknames (he's got a whole host of them); what Jon is really trying to find out, is more information about the legendary Horn of Winter. This leads to another tale from Tormund, and the way he tells it reminds me of a boasting dwarf, the type you play in Dungeons & Dragons, you know? There's a bit o' dirt here as well, with big teats and members hardening, and rape actually, but again it seems Tormund is just having fun with Jon with a story so silly it can't be believed. I guess this is Martin characterizing Tormund as a blowhard, a spinner of exaggerated tales, lustful and not taking himself seriously. And look at that, the circle is complete as talk does indeed turn to the size of Tormund's member. 

What are they thinking?!

Tormund wonders why Jon doesn't give in to Ygritte's charms, and Jon admits that he realizes Ygritte wants to sexy-time with him. He spends most of his days and nights in her company, but doesn't seem to like it - so far, at any rate. We get a closer description of Ygritte as Jon thinks about her; there is more stirring of body parts, and Jon's thoughts serve to show us that he's slowly falling under Ygritte's spell, so to speak. Tormund pesters him about it all, telling him he should go for it, Jon blushes and feels uncomfortable talking about it. It's kind of weird, they are talking about this mundane stuff of sleeping or not sleeping with Ygritte, all the while this huge train of giants and mammoths rumble past. Still, Jon is growing fond of Tormund - or so the text states, rather than showing us - and he is forced to consider the implications of "civilized behavior" as compared to the "free sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" life style of the wildlings. It's a good thing to contrast, I think. It gives this part of the story some needed depth, some food for thought - what is civilized behavior anyway? Is civilized behavior the same as wildling behavior, but with added guilt and deception? 

Martin gives us a paragraph's worth of reminders of who the main players in Mance's army are; Rattleshirt, the Weeper, Harma Dogshead, Styr, Varamyr Sixskins....reminding us that even though Jon is on good terms with a few of the wildlings, there are more than enough potential enemies. But I don't feel the tension here; remember a few chapters back when Arya and her companions faced the uncertainty of an approaching band of outlaws? It was ripe with tension. Here, I don't feel tension; it's just the two characters walking alongside the column of mammoths, and Jon thinking this and that about Ygritte and the other wildlings. I don't get the feeling that he's afraid, or nervous, or uncertain. 

This is followed by a few paragraphs of pure exposition, weakening the chapter in my opinion, but of course it is also a necessity if we are to understand the wildlings better. The essential information, I guess, boils down to how Mance Rayder assembled this host, that there are factions within the host that are considered rivals, and that for all the wildlings' talk of being free people, Mance Rayder does actually function as a uniting leader, a king (because Westeros needs more kings right now, eh). 
More backstory reminders of how Jon had joined the wildlings at Qhorin Halfhand's command, and reminders that Jon is still loyal to the Night's Watch as he thinks of his mission (infiltrate and learn); we realize that Jon knows nothing of Bran and Rickon or the fact that Winterfell is pretty much ruined - of course, as long as he is with the wildlings, news of the south will be sparse. 

There's finally a little injection of tension as we learn that the wildling host is closing in on the Fist of the First Men, where he expects to find three hundred men of the Night's Watch. However, from the book's prologue we know that the men of the Fist have probably already been attacked by the Others, thus taking away a little bit of the tension - well, on Jon's behalf I mean - we know that he won't have to fight his friends, but there is still tension for us as readers as we will want to know what Jon discovers on the hill - will he find his brothers dead, or turned into wights?

More thinking as Jon considers how undisciplined the wildlings are, how few mounts they have. Then, we get Jon meeting up with Ygritte, who comes trotting beside Jon. More description of Ygritte, some singing, and it does provide a certain "mythical" feeling akin to Tolkien's song verses found in The Lord of the Rings; it's almost hard not to envision a party of dwarves walking the frozen wastes, singing:

In stone halls they burn their great fires,
in stone halls they forge their sharp spears
Whilst I walk alone in the mountains,
with no true companion but tears (...)

Ygritte actually has tears on her cheeks when she finishes singing, weeping for the fading of the giant race from the face of the world, not unlike how the dwarves and ents of Middle-earth and the Elves too, are "fading". The scene with the singing really brings home Martin's fantasy influences, while the medieval history influences are literally gone here. 

And then WHAM after all this thinking and trudging and blushing and mentions of various penises, suddenly Jon is assaulted by an eagle, the world turning upside down in "a chaos of feathers and horseflesh and blood". It comes so suddenly, it's like...Okay I've been giving a lot of exposition and there's been a lot of talk, better have something exciting to keep the readers' attention. The eagle fortunately missed Jon's eye; he's bleeding and his face is throbbing, but that's the extent of the damage. Maybe there's a small trauma in there, too. Tormund bellows for the Bag o'Bones to "call off his hellcrow", so this is basically confirming the fact presented earlier that Jon has more enemies than friends among the wildlings. And some of them aren't scared to try and hurt him, no matter what the King Beyond the Wall says. Orell, a man slain by Jon, apparently still kind of lives inside the eagle (hey, is that why Tormund spoke of sleeping "inside a giant" - could this be foreshadowing, and not just empty boasting from the character? - either just to subtly clue us in and lay the groundwork for Orell/the eagle, or might we even see Jon Snow taking up residence inside a giant in The Winds of Winter? Since reading Dance I've been quite sure we'd see Jon warging into Ghost, but maybe he'll go for a giant instead - it would link up nicely to this chapter, at any rate). 

Jon decides to not tend to his wound just yet, wanting Mance Rayder to see it first. Rattleshirt comes to fetch Jon, calling him "the crow-come-down", that's a cool nickname. I should've called myself Crow-Come-Down all those years ago instead of Slynt. For some reason "Slynt" stuck, though. Easy to pronounce, and not well liked among most readers ;-) Such is the lot of those who dare speak freely like a wildling! Muha. Anyway. 

I'm kind of flipping the pages now hoping the chapter to be over. It's really not a very interesting chapter in my opinion. They gallop off, two miles down the column through swirling snows, the shape of the great white hill looming above the trees (take note HBO - trees!!! dammit) - that hill being the Fist of the First Men, a raven looking down on Jon (could it be Mormont's?); they circle the south slope, and here we go, Jon discovers a dead horse half buried in snow; entrails spilling from the carcass, not eaten by wolves. Mance is already on the top of the hill (I actually don't remember this scene, even on the {sigh} ninth reread); to cut to the chase, Jon realizes that the black brothers are no longer on the fist, they have been attacked and most of their horses are dead. 

In Mance's tent, Mance learns that Jon was attacked by Orell the Eagle (did you know that "orell" is actually 'eagle' in I think it was Hungarian correct me if I'm wrong); Mance is kind of pissed off because Jon hasn't told him the truth about the number of men on the Fist (or so I read it) and Jon admits they were three hundred; "You should never have lied to me, Jon Snow" Mance says, tension rising; Jon is forced to admit the Old Bear himself had been here, and that Castle Black's command is under Bowen Marsh. This is of course vital information for Mance, and not something Jon really wants to give him. It's a dilemma, folks. In fact the whole story arc beyond the Wall is one big dilemma. Mance decides that they will try and follow the wights, using Varamyr's wolves as scouts (that's a pretty neat idea, wolf scouts); Rattleshirt wants to see Jon dead, but Ygritte steps in front of Jon; this furthers the dilemma, as not only is Jon forced to think about who he is, but Ygritte must find out who she is, as she tells Rattleshirt that they can't blame Jon for trying to protect his former allies; she, unlike Rattleshirt, sees through the organization to the personal. I don't know if I made sense right now. 

The solution to the confrontation is simple, and Martin has laid the groundwork for it earlier in the chapter; by telling Mance that he shares his sheepskin cloak with Ygritte (insinuating that they are doing the sexy without lying that they just sleep). "Is that the way of it, Jon Snow?" Mance asks. "Her and you?"
Jon struggles between honor and shame, but it is apparently enough to appease Mance. Is it just me or does this Mance Rayder seem a little too gullible here? However, Mance adds that Jon will join Jarl and Styr on the next day to climb the Wall - and to prove his faith with something more than words. A good thing to add, to make it more believable on Mance's behalf. "I'm not trusting you just yet," is what he is saying. Between them lines. When the Magnar of Styr objects, Mance says that should Jon betray them, the Magnar can cut out his heart. So he isn't that gullible, after all. Good, good! 

Finally the chapter comes to a close with a short confrontation between Jon and Rattleshirt who still thirsts for Jon's blood. Fortunately, at the exact right moment to match their dialogue (weird isn't it), Ghost reappears after having been off hunting in the woods, a threat more than good enough to have Rattleshirt not draw his sword and instead back away. Ygritte and Jon ride off on their garrisons, Ghost at their side, and Ygritte tells him that tonight they are going to hanky-panky. Good for Jon Snow, not very interesting for me. I do wonder at Ygritte's motivations, though. Why would she go out of her way to have sex with Jon Snow, when he's not trusted by any of her allies? Doesn't she stop to think that it might be a know, treasonous for lack of a better word? I can't quite buy this little love story in the middle of all the giants, mammoths, undead, and dilemmas. Maybe later chapters give a clearer picture of Ygritte's motivations, I don't remember. We'll see when we get there. Next up is Sansa however, whose story is vastly more interesting to me personally.

1 comment:

  1. "I honestly want to believe better of mr. Martin"

    This is nonsense and if you believe this yourself then you are really divorced from reality.
    Every time you comment on something of Martin it is negative. You find fault in all of his actions. And in your writing you express emotions that show you are not an impartial judge (anymore).

    I really find this strange. Yes he is slow and yes the quality of his work is declining. So? Why is that a reason to dislike the man? If bad work would be a reason to dislike someone then who can you like?

    This is just my opinion so feel free to ignore it. You used to be very good in recognizing what was good (quickly showing the scene) and what was less good (undeveloped characters) about the work. But my impression is that your anger against Martin influences the quality of your analyses. A shame because I would really like to read your analyses of A Dance with Dragons. Why does the book not work? Not psychology about Martin please, but a emotionless, critical analyses of what in the book is not right.