Friday, August 23, 2013

[Re-read] Davos III: How the World is Made

This post contains vaguely described yet major spoilers for A Dance With Dragons.

Hello and welcome to the second part of my re-read of Davos Seaworth's third chapter in A Storm of
Never have I photoshopped so well before.
You can find the first part of this re-read right here. So, Davos is still hanging out in his cell somewhere below Dragonstone, and Melisandre just arrived to give him a lesson in biology, physics and chemistry. And other stuff that relates to how the world is made. Let's see what Davos thinks of her lessons. Can Martin deliver the feels (my new favorite expression these days). The feels, you know Heh. Enough digression, let's dim the lights for atmosphere, eat a rat for mood, and get cracking on the last half of Davos III. It's going to be enlightening, I tell thee. What carnage has Rh'llorr wrought, He of the Unwriteable and Unpronounceable Name, the Lord of Light, who keeps the darkness at bay? Or so they say? All I know is He held sway over Blackwater Bay, but not today, Stannis, not today. That battle went the Lannister way. Uhm. Where the hell did that come from ?!?!!!?

This is bad for you mmmkay?
Oh my, how long has that weird digressive introduction existed as a draft? The last two weeks have just flown by, with an average of ten minutes a day where I could geek out. That's not much for someone who could geek out twenty-four seven. Oh well. At least I finished Richard Awlinson's final novel in the Avatar Trilogy, "Waterdeep". I know, I said I probably wouldn't bother reading it but then I found myself needing to know how it concluded and if it could get better, which it didn't, in fact it got worse. It's so bad I should really reproduce a few of its pages here with commentary, just to show you how awkward it is. Seriously, it reads like a weak first draft. Everything that makes a novel good is absent. I could go on about it, and but I'll rein myself in and get back to business, the reason I started up a blog in the first place - not Davos Seaworth particularly, but you know, A Song of Ice and Fire. Fasten your seat belts.

All right, we have Davos and Melisandre chit-chatting, with the latter trying to convince the former that Rh'llor is the god to venerate (she already her opinion kind of known when she had Stannis burn the statues of the Seven - lucky they had wooden statues of the gods! On Dragonstone!) -- seat belts fastened? All right, diving back in.

And I'm diving back in by looking at a point Martin seems to make (intended or not, I do not know); Davos"Why cling to these false gods?" The question itself is loaded as it is, and makes me think of the state of the world as it is today. Religion and politics are muddled up in many nations, and adherents of a religion each claim to worship the 'true' god; it shows us how narrow-minded Melisandre is, not able to conceive of any other deity possibly being "the one" (I suspect though that, if the gods indeed do exist within the setting, they are many and R'hlorr could be one of them). Davos' reply to this is equally interesting with regards to the real world: "I have worshiped them all my life." Is Martin trying to point out that your outlook and your religion are inherited from parents or whoever made you look in the same direction as they did? If so, I applaud the subtlety, and hopefully it makes people think, for it is nothing but truth; your religion, absolutely more often than not, decides what you yourself will believe. Born in a Muslim country? You praise Allah. Born in Italy? Most likely a Catholic. And so on and so forth. Born in southern Westeros? Yay for the Seven. Born in the northlands? Go Old Gods. Born on the Iron Islands? Three cheers for the Drowned God. Of course, this being a fantasy, Martin has the opportunity to make these deities both exist metaphorically and/or physically. However: Since magic is on the rise, and there has so far not been any clear connection between magic and the gods (excuse me if I'm wrong here), we could also interpret Melisandre's "evidence" of Rh'llor's powers as Melisandre misinterpreting magic, believing it to be the power of her god, but in actuality being her manipulation of the forces that have grown in the wake of the birth of Daenerys' dragons. In other words, believing something doesn't make it true, and sometimes you alter your perception of reality to accommodate your beliefs. Yup, this is Slynt the Atheist trying to make sense fantasy world religiosity (I have no idea where Martin stands on the faith issue, by the way, he was raised something-something but of course many people abandon their religion if they are not continually being fed a particular religion).
refuses to be a part of Melisandre's machinations - and she asks,

"Open your eyes," Melisandre pleads, and Davos wonders what it is she would have him see - the way the world is made. What she seems to forget is that she's asking, 'Let me show you how I believe the world is made.' To her, it is the one and only truth, and she cannot comprehend seeing life from any other angle. The hallmark of a zealot, then. The only problem I have with this, story-wise, is that it becomes a bit muddled when we, as readers, are not (yet) aware of the realities of Westeros as defined by its author. In, say, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, we know for sure that the gods exist; some of them are even vital to the plot as actual characters. In Abercrombie's worlds, the gods are mostly absent and treated as ideas and concepts for the most part (again, excuse me if I'm wrong in this; been a while since I read The First Law). In A Song of Ice and Fire, the gods are more ambiguous; there are hints of their existence but Martin also throws us hints that they are man-made concepts of worship. I think the "rise of magic" bit is the vital clue here - but then, we have seen some strange things in Bran's POV that suggest the Old Gods may just exist in one form or the other, but perhaps they are not gods in the traditional sense. Beings of greater power mistakenly taken for deities? Reminds me of cargo cults in a way.

And here comes Melisandre's treatise on how the world is made - I'm trying to keep my head on.

"The truth is all around you, plain to behold. The night is dark and full of terrors, the day bright and beautiful and full of hope. One is black, the other white. There is ice and there is fire. Hate and love. Bitter and sweet. Male and female. Pain and pleasure. Winter and summer. Evil and good." 

There can be no doubt Melisandre's world-view is pretty black-and-white; a duality with no refinement, yin and yang. Is Martin's world, after all, just as banally divided in two sides as Tolkien's Middle-earth? Good and evil? The statement feels unfitting for the rest of the story, at least at first glance; Martin has spent three novels deconstructing that particular trope. Interestingly, if you dare click that link, you'll find that it is headed by an actual quote from A Clash of Kings by, you guessed it, Melisandre. She is used to exemplify black-and-white morality so I may be on to something here. Is Martin using her as a kind of contrast to the grey morality found in most other chapters of the series? Almost confusing, Martin does his best to make us change our point of view on characters like Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane, then with Melisandre he goes the other way and gives us a black/white character.

When there is no room between opposites, you get into trouble. That's when you get the "us versus them" mentality. No nuances. However, when Melisandre continues, she gives us this:

"The war has been waged since time began, and before it is done, all men must choose where they will stand."  (Note the all men must... phrase in there; Valar Choosis?) The two opposites Melisandre presents are, in one corner of the ring, the great R'hllor (there! I finally spelled it right), the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow, and against him the Great Other, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror. I believe (that doesn't make it true!) that this is the first mention of a "great other" and it obviously ties to the Others, but then you start thinking, "Is Martin pulling one here?" and is he deliberately trying to make us think that the Great Other is some sort of god for the Others? Could "the Great Other" simply mean "the Others"? Could R'hllor be another way of saying "dragons", misinterpreted by the Red Priests for millenia? Is Martin twisting the myth, so to speak, to emulate how real-world myths and religions have shape-shifted over the course of centuries and millenia? It seems to me that the story points toward an epic confrontation between the Others and the Dragons, and that they are indeed the ice and fire Melisandre speaks of? Say one thing about this chapter, say it makes my head hurt.

Davos, at first stoically telling her he swears to the Old Gods, finally admits to being "full of doubts"; a sign that Melisandre has begun to convince him (not only is indoctrination an actually effective way of forcing people to think like you do, it probably helps that she can see things in flames and give birth to shadow babies of the assassinating kind), or have her glamours (not that we have seen this word being used yet, but it turns up later) begun to convince him?

Eventually Melisandre asks Davos why he tried to kill her, which is all kinds of interesting as the very question implies she could not see it in her flames, and yet in the same breath she tells him that she has the power to see through falsehoods - for me, at least, its a warning signal from the author - she claims power but at the same time reveals that she at least is not all-powerful. I wonder what went through Martin's mind when he wrote this chapter. Did he analyze it all beforehand to make sure it all fit together, or did he simply oversee the apparent contradiction in Melisandre's statement? Gah! Nobody knoooows. 
When Davos asks her why the battle on the Blackwater was lost, she replies that Stannis had surrounded himself with unbelievers. There wasn't enough faith on those ships. Personally, I'd say it was Tyrion's strategies and tactics with the unexpected aid of his lord father and the Tyrells that did it, but you know. The faithful will twist any event to make it match their vision. Which is precisely what Melisandre is doing here.

If the chapter isn't confusing enough already, Melisandre throws in a prophecy too, one that we will see fulfilled in A Dance with Dragons. It is the prophecy that, when fulfilled, will finally make us realize that Stannis wasn't the Lord's chosen, the "warrior of fire". Here, in this chapter, Melisandre misreads the prophecy; in one of the last (was it the last?) chapters of A Dance with Dragons, we see it come to pass albeit in a different way:

"When the red star bleeds and darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be reborn again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone."

Now, this lends credence to my suggestion that R'hllor and the Great Other are merely aspects / metaphors for the Others and the Dragons - why? Because Jon Snow has Targaryen blood by Rhaegar Targaryen (is there anyone out there who still refuses this theory as valid?), hence he is a "warrior of fire". I suppose we'll get back to this in 2232 when I've come to that chapter and Martin receives a Hugo for The Winds of Winter.

After her sermon (complete with blazing eyes, now that's cool), she leaves him in the dim light of a torch to reflect and ruminate and ponder. And also contemplate, cogitate and wonder. He wonders what she meant when she told him he had already served R'hllor and would do so again, and you know, I was wondering just the same thing. Something I missed?

Doubting Melisandre, he still knows what he saw beneath Storm's End crawling out from between Melisandre's legs, and he futilely tries to peer into the torch flames maybe to get a glimpse of something, but nothing happens - another hint that Melisandre's powers are not divine.

Three days later, Alester Florent, the Lord of Brightwater, is thrown into Davos' cell by Axell Florent, his brother. See, that's what religion can do to people - brother against brother, all in the name of ideas. They have a chat in which Davos reverts back to the Seven by means of a silent prayer to the Father and the Mother, and in which they tell each other what they have lost. Alester's loss of valuables pales in comparison to Davos' four sons, obviously. We are reminded of Ser Imry who we saw during the battle, turns out he was Alester's nephew. Apparently, Alester no longer agrees with Stannis' war for the Iron Throne and has therefore been cast down into the darkness of the Dragonstone dungeons.

What we're really getting here is exposition. A prisoner of noble birth is conveniently placed in Davos' cell (as opposed to any other unoccupied cell Dragonstone surely possesses) so that Martin can feed us an update on the status of Stannis' forces. Stannis has lost most of his fleet, most lords have bent their knee to Joffrey or died, and only House Florent's strength still supports House Baratheon (or what remains of it). Alester wants to talk peace with the Lannisters, which is considered treason by iron Stannis. He's basically thinking like Davos does, that their chance has come and gone, except Alester seems to have sworn his allegiance to the Lord of Light as well. Alester did write a letter to Lord Tywin so it's perhaps no surprise that Stannis got a bit riled up about that. In the letter, Alester suggested that if Stannis gives up his claim, maybe he can be accepted back into the king's peace and confirmed a Lord of Dragonstone and Storm's End. Sneakily, he also suggested he might keep Brightwater for himself as before. Obviously. He's trying to salvage what he can. Finally he offered to marry Shireen to Joffrey. And Davos thinks it all good, and Alester begins babbling about dragons (where did they come from all of a sudden into the conversation) and we get the oh-so-annoyingly-cryptical "Did we learn nothing from Aerion Brightfire, from the nine mages, from the alchemists? Did we learn nothing from Summerhall? No good has ever come from these dreams of dragons (there they are!)". 
What happened at Summerhall? Some experiment with fire, I suppose. See, R'hlorr and the dragons seem linked. But it's a bit vague, innit. Wait. Summerhall. I have to check out what info we have on it. Ah, what I thought I remembered; some failed experiment with dragon-breeding. But why mention this in the same breath as Melisandre and her fiery god? But what did the Ghost of High Heart mean when she 'gorged on grief at Summerhall'? Apparently she was at Summerhall. What the heck was she doing there? All those questions and more I would very much like to have answered because they are gnawing at me whenever I read a chapter. This, more than entitlement or any other ludicrous suggestion from die-hard defenders of Martin's work ethics, is why I so passionately wish for The Winds of Winter to come out. Yesterday.

Oh. Yeah. The talk of "stone dragons"; there's your link to dragons. Waking a stone dragon. Still. Weak? The chapter kind of ends on a downer with Alester weeping and Davos suggesting that Stannis will rather go down in flames (aha) than yield to the Lannisters. In that regard Stannis and Melisandre are a good match. Do or die. Black and white.

It's all very much more in the vein of traditional fantasy literature, isn't it, with lords of darkness and prophecies and a hero and dragons and all that. And it keeps taking over from what I deem, perhaps unfortunately, is the series' greatest strength, namely the grey characters and the intrigue and the warfare and the medievalism, but that is due to taste, I suppose. Which is how I ended up with Wolf Hall last night, first chapter. From the first page it's all grim and violent and medieval (a character is beaten to within an inch of his life by his father) but as it is a Tudor-area novel there will be no magic/fantasy at all and I do like some of it to spice it all up (and in some cases an abundance of the supernatural works too, like in Steven Erikson's works). Sometimes I wonder if the series of ice and fire would be better if the magic was kept more subdued all the way through. Better for me personally, I mean. And sometimes I wonder...I wonder about it all, the story, its characters and their motivations, and where it is going and if it is going. One can wonder endlessly as long as the story is so multi-layered, and remains unfinished. Can every loose thread be resolved? Will the series, in the end, be a story of good versus evil after all? And is the world made of opposites? 

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