Thursday, July 4, 2013

[Re-read] Bran II: No cure for elusiveness

Holy imps and opossum shrimps, I haven't actually re-read a chapter from A Storm of Swords since Tuesday, May 21st! I do bow my head in shame, folks. That's too long. It's been three busy months, though, I have to say, but still - inexcusable.

As I said in my previous post, I have a hankering for some high quality fantasy prose (as opposed to the drivel I've been reading - purely for educational purposes mind you). Anyway, we've come to the second Bran Stark chapter (kind of weird that the TV series has come farther than I have, I do hope Martin won't have to get intimate with that feeling).
"I love you, Hodor." "Hodor?"
, so that's a good an excuse as any to get back into George R.R. Martin's well-written world of Westeros (I did stand by one of my bookshelves earlier today slobbering over my Steven Erikson collection, wanting to just tear into the Malazan saga again but when you see all those fat books lined up next to each other you realize it's such a massive undertaking, and no matter how cool they are, there are still so many other fantasy novels to explore)

Ah, reading those first lines of description in this chapter, which establish mood and setting, is refreshing after the clumsily written Tantras. It's not typical Martin to open with an entire paragraph of landscape description, but then, as I've mentioned before, the Bran Stark - chapters come perhaps the closest to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings both in style and atmosphere, so there's that. The opening of this chapter could have been in Tolkien's classic (if it were twice as long):

'No roads ran through the twisted mountain valleys where they walked now. Between the grey stone peaks lay still blue lakes, long and deep and narrow, and the green gloom of endless pine woods. The russet and gold of autumn leaves grew less common when they left the wolfswood to climb among the old flint hills, and vanished by the time those hills had turned to mountains. Giant grey-green sentinels loomed above them now, and spruce and fir and soldier pines in endless profusion. The undergrowth was sparse beneath them, the forest floor carpeted in dark green needles.'

That's quite a lot of scenery description from mr. Martin! Also, I am convinced if you asked twenty randomly generated people where this description comes from, a good percentage would answer either "I don't know" or "The Lord of the Rings". Anyway, Martin does a nice job giving us a clear mental picture of the localities, so that we can go on reading about the characters. The now broken fellowship (ahem) is still on its way north, there's a reference to Martin's short story The Ice Dragon (it also features in this book as a constellation), we quickly move into Bran's perspective as he wonders where Osha is (along with the rest of the readership I suppose), some name-dropping (fat Lord Manderly who will become so much more prominent, and the Greatjon lest we forget him), Meera Reed is getting a bit bored with the whole journey-on-foot thing as she complains, "Up and down, then down and up. Then up and down again". They should be glad they don't have that annoying donkey from Shrek with them. Bran retorts that she had said earlier that she loved mountains, so why is she hating on them now? To which wise little Meera responds, "Why can't it be both?" and so we have Martin touching on the series' essence in a subtle way - ice and fire, why can't it be both? "Like night and day, or ice and fire," Meera says (so maybe we're not being so subtle after all come to think of it) - and then we have little grandpa adding, "If ice can burn, then love and hate can mate," and now why would Martin add this little nugget in here? Reading between the lines, one could almost say we are looking at an early hint that we'll see a certain two hook up - a certain bastard of the North and a certain mother of dragons. Or, what this dialogue may imply, there will be no future for Westeros if not Jon and Dany can cooperate. Their differences must not matter - they are one. 

There's bound to be a little mumbo-jumbo in Bran's chapters of course (and much more to come in that department!), contrasted with the mundane task of traversing the high glens forcing them to double back and slowing them down. We are reminded that Summer is with them, and Hodor carrying Bran in his basket. Jojen Reed has decided that they will stay away from the roads so as to not be seen (wise decision I'd say). When Meera asks if nobody lives in this desolate countryside, it's time for ye olde exposition, courtesy of Bran who knows a lot considering his age. Good upbringing. We hear of the Umbers and the Wulls, the Harclays and the Knotts and Liddles and Norreys and the Flints, which in turn leads us to some more tantalizing bits of background story - Meera recognizes the name "Wull", because a Wull rode with their father during the war (Robert's Rebellion, that is); "Theo Wull," Jojen confirms, and any Ice and Fire fan eager for juicy lore is of course all ears by now. Not that there's much we learn, but it could always become essential later on. Buckets and stuff. Bran knows already that the mountain folk already know that the fellowship is wandering through their lands - he has seen them through Summer's eyes.

They meet one mountain person, Bran thinks he is one of the Liddles because of a clasp shaped like a pinecone, which is the sigil that family has adopted. Incidentally I was mowing the lawn the other day and a damned big pinecone got stuck between the blades. A curse on the Liddles! Bran asks the stranger if they are close to the Wall, to which he replies - in a very Tolkienesque manner I may add - "not far as the raven flies" (which of course is ironic too, considering Bran is going north to learn to fly). There is one line that makes me suspicious about this Liddle guy, however - take note: 

"The Bastard's boys, aye. He was dead, but now he's not. And paying good silver for wolfskins, a man hears, and maybe gold for word of certain other walking dead." 

Curse you, disruptors of gardening.
Liddle is telling Bran that not only are the Greyjoys about, but the Boltons have become enemies as well - so far, so good. Liddle is also hinting that the Boltons are looking for Bran. But what really makes me itch here is the way the Liddle says, "a man hears" and how this Liddle knows all about the various bounties being placed - to me, he sounds like, you guessed it, a Faceless Man. However, in the very next dialogue from this character he talks about "me mother" which definitely doesn't sound faceless-ish, so maybe I'm jumping at shadows. The Liddle does know a lot for being a random wanderer in them high glens, though! He knows what happened up at the Fist of the First Men as well as what happened at Winterfell. He knows about the Greyjoys and the Boltons. And he sounds despondent and bereft of hope - so it's nothing but sheer coolness when Jojen brings up the retort "The wolves will come again". I just wish Bran had said it, with eyes narrowed and the hint of a Summerly snarl in his voice. That night they huddle together with the Liddle in his cave, Bran spending the night inside Summer. In the morning, the mysterious Liddle is gone, but has left some nice oatcakes (lembas anyone?) and Bran tells himself that one day the Liddles will be repaid a hundredfold for "every nut and berry" (baked into the cakes); will we see this come to pass? Or will we get a scene where a Liddle says, "we don't know a guy like that?" and the stranger is indeed a faceless man? I can only ponder and speculate and hope that we will see an end to this magnificent tale of ice. And fire.

The travelogue continues as they follow a trail and by noon the sun breaks through the clouds, and you would be forgiven for forgetting you're in Westeros and not Middle-earth. There's an eagle in the sky (Orell's eagle scouting?) and Bran tries his best to warg into it, but it doesn't work (because it's already "possessed"?) 

And now for some exposition on none other than Hodor! Hodor! I love how Martin through thousands of pages has stuck to his bastard swords and not be tempted to have Hodor suddenly talk coherently - he has stayed the simple-minded giant all this time, never uttering anything but "Hodor". From the first time I met him in A Game of Thrones, I've always wondered about Hodor, and now Bran is going to give us a tiny tiny little bit more on this character: His real name is Walder. There you go. Oh, and he is in fact related to Old Nan, "She was his grandmother's grandmother or something." And that's all we get, a couple thousand pages into the story. But it's fine. I like that Hodor remains a mystery - and I suspect that Bran will find out more about Hodor in The Winds of Winter or the final book; I suspect he'll want to "go back" to listen to Old Nan's stories, perhaps? This could be hinted at when Meera comforts Bran by saying, "Remember the way she told them, the sound of her voice. So long as you do that, part of her (Old Nan) will always be alive in you." Bran can do one better, I suppose - he will have the power to actually see her again, kind of. If I read my A Dance with Dragons some years ago correctly, that is (I know I wouldn't have used that kind of power on Old Nan, though; I'd be more interested in following Arianne Martell around I guess; or go to a certain tower of certain joy to find out a certain something to sate my curiosity). 

Story-telling time commences as the group climbs the game trail between stony peaks (still evoking that Middle-earth feeling); first, we learn that the bogs around Greywater Watch are full of dead knights - could become a plot point, though the mention could be just to explain a little bit about the Reed home - I mean, either we learn that the Watch moves around and no one has ever conquered them and therefore the Reeds are still alive and kicking, or we'll get scenes where the dead in the bogs become part of the story - maybe they are resurrected R'hlorr-style?) - at any rate, the mystery of the Reeds is largely unresolved but it seems to me that the story has to feature Daddy Howland Reed at some point to wrap up certain plot points. Also, again Martin strays into Tolkien territory with the dead knights in the bogs reminding me not just a little of the dead marshes north of Mordor. Martin really is the American Tolkien, when he writes Bran Stark chapters. 

Anyhow, story-telling time isn't really about the bogs and the Reeds, it's Meera Reed's very interesting story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. It is perhaps the most famous "in-world" lore, a story that has been dissected by fans for more than a decade, with people trying to draw conclusions on what it really is about (those elusive Reeds, they really are like the wizards of fantasy tales that never can say things outright, cloaking their words so that the hero doesn't really have a clue). The story of the Knight has been discussed so much, however, with everyone pitching in their arguments and thoughts, that the mystery of it is all but solved and there's no real disagreement about it anymore:

The "curious lad" who lived in the Neck, could breathe mud and run on leaves and make castles appear andare, Children of the Forest. Anyway, Howland was so bold that he decided to visit the Isle of Faces, where " the green men" live. Howland meant to find these green men. There's the most obvious hint that the character Meera talks about is in fact her father: Bran imagines the character as looking like Jojen, only "older and stronger". Apparently, Howland did meet the green men, but that's for another story - the point is that after having stayed on the Isle for a winter (for what, we do not know), he left and ended up at Harrenhal. Meera, being ever a bit annoyingly vague gives us descriptions that we can match with characters, at least if we've learned our House sigils and all that; there's the White Swords (aha, the Kingsguard), the king himself and his son the dragon prince (Aerys and Rhaegar), the storm lord (Robert), the rose lord (Mace), the great lion (Tywin) stayed away for he had quarreled with the king. Why is Martin being so obtuse about it? I don't know, but it does seem to work - by avoiding names it becomes more "mythic" if you will, there's an aura of mystery kept intact when told like this.
disappear is obviously Meera and Jojen's father, Howland Reed. Meera says they are a "small folk" and seldom venture far from home (again, Tolkien shines through as this could be used to describe hobbits as well) - this is a hint that the crannogmen descend from, or actually

Yeah, there's no point going through the entire story, I suppose anyone reading this is familiar enough with it, suffice to say that the story gives us the background for Howland Reed's friendship to Lord Eddard Stark; it gives us a glimpse of Ned's sister, Lyanna Stark and thereby some additional information to add to the "Promise me..." - plot points, there's a host of detail here, wrapped in that cloak of elusiveness, for fans to enjoy. Now, it's been a good while since last I read these books and so I can't, without cheating, say who the "porcupine" knight or the "pitchfork" knight was, for example, but the basics the story provides are easy enough to grasp. Was the mystery knight of the tale in fact Howland, or was it Lyanna? I don't think anyone doubts who it was, but Martin can still play with it, up until any final reveals of course. The story leaves open the option that Rhaegar did find the mystery knight which in turn gives credence to the rest of Lyanna's story and I guess that is why Martin included it. It is basically exposition on backstory in disguise, and it works fine just like that. And it clearly is important, as the tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree simply concludes Bran's chapter, with Bran thinking that there was magic on the Isle of Faces (thus supporting the idea that Howland went there to learn green magic) and that he wants to find it too, and maybe one day be able to be a knight too (through magic) - what I am feeling here, using the Force, is that we'll have a scene where Bran actually witnesses the tale as it happened, and maybe, just maybe, we'll see him slip inside one of the knights at the tournament...? Will he learn that Lyanna Stark was the mystery knight, or was it Bran all along helping her out? Who knows? The tale of ice and fire has grown rather strange in the Bran department and the developments in A Dance with Dragons truly makes me reconsider almost everything I'm reading in these earlier Bran chapters. And it kind of annoys me, because I don't like this particular development, and yet there it is changing everything from A Game of Thrones onward in various ways.

Oh well, it was good to read something well-written and well characterized again. Next up is Davos Seaworth, who is currently reciding in a warm cell somewhere in the depths of Dragonstone. Geez, I have to hurry up I don't want HBO to be ahead of me. That goes triple for you, master of (s)wordplay Mr. Martin!

In case you'd like to revisit the Knight of the Laughing Tree's story and who was in it and who was not, I refer you to the Tower of the Hand's summary complete with footnotes explaining who's who. Maybe you too had forgotten the existence of Richard Lonmouth. 

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