Thursday, January 31, 2013

[Re-read] Sansa II: Growing into the Game

Back in the day, and I'm talking the time before A Feast for Crows, when I was ten years younger and more gullible, I still believed that everything George R.R. Martin wrote was pure gold. It was a more innocent age, when certain filters had not yet been installed; it was a time when nothing was wrong, and perhaps the best time for George R.R. Martin to push product on his readers. One of these products was the limited edition tome GRRM: A Rretrospective. It was rather expensive (a new copy on Amazon right now is priced at $335) but it was Martin, and I wanted everything Martin back then. When the book arrived I was awed by the box it came in, the size of the book (about 1200 pages), and dived into it with glee; reading Martin's own notes about him growing up, and getting to read the collected short stories and novellas was appealing to me. I wanted to know more about this man who single-handedly had made me interested in reading, writing and medieval history through those three incredible novels of his: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. It was also pretty cool to have a numbered item, but the autograph didn't and still doesn't look real and so I guess it's just printed onto the paper from a digital image of his scrawl. It took me a while to realize that reading those early stories of his - most of them in the sci-fi/space opera genre - weren't nearly as entertaining as A Song of Ice and Fire. I chalked it up to the stories being presented chronologically, and thus that they would increase in entertainment the deeper into the book I delved. I ended up with a massive tome for a massive price featuring exactly one story I cared about - The Hedge Knight, which I already owned in the first collection of Legends. No, I did not expect medieval fantasy tales. Yes, a few stories like The Sandkings had some neat ideas. The stories simply lacked the magic of the three first Ice & Fire novels. 
Now, the reason I am bringing this up is because Martin's latest advertisement blog post is about the new Bantam edition of Tuf Voyaging. You can win a free copy by sending a mail to Ser Patrek (you remember him from A Dance with Dragons probably) - and the post reminded me of those days of yore when I purchased GRRM: A RRetrospective. It has, as you can guess, stories about the character Tuf. And I have to say that the least interesting stories in the collection were indeed the stories about this Tuf. Least interesting to me, of course. Tuf's isolation was grating on me. Other fans, of course, probably love this stuff. Still, out of pure academic interest in Martin's work, it was interesting to pick up early uses of names and concepts that would later find their home in Westeros - but it was also my first disappointment with Martin, and heralded a new age of long waits and the divide of the readership, a rift that could be healed by The Winds of Winter if we're lucky.

Moving on to A Storm of Swords, we've come to Sansa Stark, her second chapter in the novel. Like the previous chapter it opens with a line of dialogue and immediately the contrast to Jon's chapter is enormous. Where Jon stood in the snowdrift watching an army of mammoth-riding giants, lost to the world and partially lost to himself and struggling with his loyalty, Sansa is being presented with a new gown, an old woman measuring her hips to make sure the 'silk and Myrish lace' will fit. The contrast lies of course in the luxury surrounding Sansa, and the harsh wilderness surrounding Jon - but they are both prisoners of sorts, so there is a link between them as well. Ah, I can't help but love how the pieces of the puzzle fit so nicely together in these books. A tapestry with no broken threads, Martin's finest achievement. The old woman tells Sansa that "the queen has commanded it", and Sansa, perhaps to show her insecurity, asks "which queen?" This is another nice link - not only is the realm full of kings, there are more queens now, as well. Margaery who was Renly's queen and is to be Joffrey's; Cersei, of course; and the Queen of Thorns (and let's not forget the Queen across the Water - and more queens will be forthcoming as well). It was Cersei who ordered a new gown for Sansa, because, according to the old woman, Sansa is a woman now (Martin subtly reminding us that in A Clash of Kings she finally had her first flowering). Her breasts have grown, she's gained height, in short she's had a growth spurt; Sansa is polite to the old woman, but I'm sure it hurts inside to say about Cersei that "she is good to me". The seamstress leaves Sansa, after having promised her all the clothing "befitting a...a lovely young lady of noble birth". Yes, note the "a...a" in there; the seamstress hesitates when she says this, just the smallest clue that there's more to this sudden generousness from Queen Regent Cersei (not that we needed it - still, it's great to see how much a well-placed ... can do in a text).

Alone, Sansa wonders about it as well, half concluding that this is the doing of the Tyrells - remember Sansa's meeting with Lady Olenna and Margaery - though as a reader, it's good to remember that we are watching the world, and thinking about the world, through Sansa's senses now, and of all the characters in the story the Tyrells are perhaps the most ambiguous, the ones whose motivations we know the least about. I've certainly changed my mind about Margaery Tyrell over the course of the books. Turns out Margaery has been exceptionally kind (a warning sign perhaps in this brutal setting?), as have her ladies; she's been given harp lessons, she's been gossiping, listening to stories, generally been able to live like a noble lady. Margaery's cousins, Elinor, Alla, and Megga (incidentally, 'megga' is 'the bitch' or 'that bitch' in Norwegian) have taken Sansa into their company "as if they had known her all their lives"; yeah, reading this the first time I was just happy for Sansa to find some reprieve. Now, I'm frowning suspiciously at these girls and their seemingly over-friendliness. So much going on between the lines! Sansa's having a great time, though, and I find it much easier to envision these passages of description than Jon watching the mammoths; it really is two worlds in one setting. We learn that these cousins occasionally share Margaery's bed where they gossip all night - guess this is a line to keep in mind. Also, knowing that her brother Loras is a homosexual, could Marge be homosexual as well? Sansa remembers the Hound on the night of the Blackwater battle, but this seems more to have been added to remind us of that scene. The memory kind of breaks the flow of the narrative a little bit. Megga gushes over Joffrey (in Sansa's memory of an earlier incident happening between chapters), and the way Megga says it also makes me suspcious, as if she's trying to coax Sansa into spilling the beans about Joffrey's true nature. Elinor is promised to a young squire and son of Lord Ambrose; this may or may not come into play at a later point in the story, but if all these minor details have to come to play before the end, the series can't possibly end after seven books. There's just so many threads in this epic tapestry, and it breathes such life into the story. Hear me gush. One more point about the three cousins of Margaery - Martin uses them so that Sansa can see herself in them: "They are children," Sansa thought. "They are silly little girls, even Elinor. They've never seen a battle, they've never seen a man die, they know nothing." A bit like Jon Snow, then. That last part, anyway. Sansa is growing, though, as a character, seeing through things and having realized that her dreams were just that...dreams.

Still in Sansa's mind, we know move to Margaery herself. According to Sansa, she's different from the three cousins. The most revealing bit, I think, is said right at the beginning of this section: "Sweet and gentle, yet there was a little of her grandmother in her, too." Devious, then. We get a flashback to another scene not written - Sansa and Margaery outside of the city hawking - a fresh breath of air for Sansa, though we can't escape phrases like "the dead had been burned or buried", "scarred and splintered", "hulls of smashes ships", and "shallows like gaunt black fingers". On this nice excursion, Margaery talks about Willas Tyrell, her oldest brother. Apparently, he has the best birds in the Seven Kingdoms. Well, that will make Sansa happier. Interestingly, though, "sweet bird" is what the Hound used to call her - so it's almost ironic. It is during this hunt that Sansa finally dares tell Margaery that she must not marry Joffrey, her eyes full of tears as she tells her that he'll hurt her. Margaery, however, seems confident, partially because Loras has been named Kingsguard and will be there to protect her. This is pretty cool - it is the opposite of the story between Jaime and Cersei, isn't it? Margaery shows herself as brave, confident, and with a streak of Arya to her as well...but Sansa feels doubt still gnawing on her. Briefly, she imagines a war inside the city between the Tyrells and the Lannisters and I am going to hold on to that vision, because you never know when it will turn into foreshadowing. 
Ser Dontos Hollard has told Sansa that she must not go to Highgarden to marry Willas Tyrell; "I tell you, these Tyrells are only Lannisters with flowers." A correct observation, or just a way of trying to free her for his master? We are reminded that on the night of Joffrey's wedding, Dontos has planned to whisk Sansa away from King's Landing, a plot that's been in the making for so long. But now Sansa doesn't want to; this is when Dontos tells her that the Tyrells want her claim, not her. Apparently, Sansa is still wearing blindfolds. She sees that the three cousins are gullible, but she is still gullible herself. There is still a way to go before she really learns the game of thrones. Dontos has to remind her that she is the heir of Winterfell and that's a pretty good argument in his favor. Of course the Tyrells would be interested in dominion of the North. Are the Tyrells merely a more cunning version of House Lannister? Even more devious, and better at hiding their motivations and intents? I happen to think so. In that way, I've really come to like the Tyrell family creeping into the story as they have, slowly but surely. Well written characters and with no POVs on their side, we can remain unsure about them even now, in 2013. Clearly Sansa doesn't know that power begets power when she wonders why Willas would want Winterfell when he already has Highgarden. She spends some time thinking about Willas, his broken leg, and how they could none the less enjoy each other's company with puppies in their laps. At this point I'd like to slap Sansa in the face and tell her to stop daydreaming, you're going through the same motions again. Remember what Littlefinger said. Life is not a song, sweetling. 

Mind you that story-wise, exactly nothing has happened except for the seamstress taking Sansa's measures. It's all Sansa dreaming and thinking and pondering, and even so it's very interesting, because the paragraphs are kept fairly short and self-contained as she skips from thought to thought, bringing us up to date on certain things, reminding us of other things. Sansa is still infatuated with Ser Loras, or so the text seems to suggest to me, whenever she tries to picture Willas in her mind's eye, the face turns into Loras'. The chapter, short and swift, ends with a paragraph where we sense Sansa taking pride in herself: "She would wear the gown for the ceremony at the Great Sept of Baelor (...)". I can't see a way that Sansa could, on her own, come to realize what is really going on - so when she finally realizes just why Cersei wants her to look splendid, it comes as a shock not only to her, but to the reader as well. Dramatic irony at its finest as Sansa's last thought before the chapter ends, is "She could scarcely wait to wear it." 

Oh man. If only she knew how much she really should not want to wear that gown. I feel sorry for her already. One of the great twists in the saga, this one, but seldom mentioned in the same breath as certain other twists. Looking forward to Sansa's storyline in HBO's show! Two more months... 

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