Friday, October 11, 2013

[Re-read] Jon IV: A Messiah with an Ice Pick

   The days are getting darker, the wind is picking up as it comes down from the slopes to stir the remaining leaves on the trees. Yes, winter is coming. But first, autumn. Lovely dark autumn with its invitation to huddle inside with a good fantasy be it a book, a game, or a movie. For my part, I'm still reading Wolf Hall and The Crusades at a very slow rate, there hasn't been much time for reading as of late. Well, I read tons of useless stuff on the Internet all the time so you could argue that I am wasting time I could have spent reading books. But there is so much to read on the web as well. Sigh. I haven't played a game in a good while though, but there shall be remedy, oh yes. Next weekend is role playing game weekend. I like to be well prepared for such occasions so I've been fiddling a lot with it. Our game has been going on for many years so I had to refresh myself to the story, its many characters (I think we might be rivaling Martin's appendices by now), the many plot lines resolved and unresolved, etc. I dream of one day turning it into something like a novel, after excising the too obvious 'stealing' of ideas from masters Martin, Tolkien, Erikson et al. Try to pick out the good, somewhat original stuff and write it as a novel. And whenever I daydream about this (I have written bits and pieces too; I guess I have about 30,000 words) the voice in my head (which I know is me, just to make that clear - no exorcist needed thank you) says "But it's not original enough," or "Why do it, you're not good enough" or "You will never be able to do this"... So I end up writing flash fiction and the occasional short story for SFFWorld instead. Which of course is both fun and, I suppose, useful excersises that may aid me in eventually accomplishing a larger project. If ever. Time.
    And, next month it's November again. For now though, I feel like reading a chapter of A Storm of Swords. Always an inspiring read, and I need some inspiration and a kick in the butt to finish a short story for SFFWorld, in which some poor kids find a magical door on the beach.

All right, Jon Snow's fourth chapter in A Storm of Swords (and his twenty-first in A Song of Ice and Fire). We are instantly reminded that Ghost is gone - Jon sent him away in the previous chapter - and that Jon hopes that Ghost finds his way back to Castle Black. A very quick and efficient reminder, done away in three sentences. Then, Martin gives us some atmosphere in the form of landscape description (as he tends to do in the chapters taking place north of the Wall more so than in other chapters - or so it feels), the most important part of it being that Jon and his company are in sight of the massive Wall.

The Magnar of Thenn is out to prove himself: This was to be the young raider's hour of glory. When Martin puts it that way, consider it a warning signal. There will probably be little glory to be had for the Magnar. He's good at giving characters hope, but no so good at fulfilling those dreams of glory and honor and justice. I have a slight suspicion that I am not surprising anyone here.

Jarl (which by the way is earl in Norwegian and, if I'm not mistaken, the origin of the English word) has found a good spot, where the Night's Watch has been neglecting keeping the forest far enough away from the Wall. This will allow the party to get all the way to the Wall without being seen. According to legend, Brandon the Builder had laid huge foundation blocks along the heights (where it is hilly) - knowing that giants do exist in the North, I wonder whether this ancient Brandon had the giants help him haul these massive blocks. Martin gives us some new exposition on the Wall; it feels slightly as something Martin made up on the spot which wasn't part of 'canon' (I almost dare not say the word) until now; I sure don't remember that it has been mentioned before that the Wall "was a sword (straight line) east of Castle Black,  but a snake to the west" but now it seems the story calls for it and so the author decides it is so. On the maps the Wall looks pretty straight to me. Upon re-reading this bit I realize I am a little bit off - it's not that the Wall swings here and there, but that its height varies depending on the height of the ground below it. So the Wall itself is straight from east to west, but its height varies based on the ground (that makes a lot more sense anyway), so we have in fact parts of the Wall as much as nine hundred (!) feet tall. It is not a big deal, of course. Just a small niggle where the immersion falls off for a short moment because Martin is building as he writes. But boy he is good at weaving his tapestry without readers noticing the craft behind it most of the time.
Did this make sense? Sometimes it so hard to think and write in a different language from your own - especially on a Friday with a hard week's work behind ye.

Jon realizes that the Thenns are frightened by the impressive sight of the Wall (something I found lacking in the TV series was a profound feeling of awe upon seeing it - well apart from the scene where Jon and Tyrion arrive from the south; but I'm thinking of the climbing episode here). Jon once more goes into reflection mode, wrangling with the issue of his loyalty to the Watch and to Ygritte. One new thing in this is that Jon begins imagining taking Ygritte with him south - trying to stay loyal to both, in other words. But, as the title of the saga hints at, ice is ice and fire is fire, and Jon is ice and Ygritte is fire in this case (not sure if I ever noticed this link for Jon and Ygritte before but she is after all kissed by fire isn't she?) and so one could perhaps realize before events unfold that Jon and Ygritte are not destined for each other (but following this line of thought, one can also argue that Jon and Daenerys are not meant to be - which of course theoretically can happen). Jarl's raiders aren't impressed by the Wall, though, because they have been here before and seen it all before. 

In the shadow of the Wall the wildlings ready themselves and Martin does a sweet job of giving us just enough of a glimpse into their preparations so that we can imagine it without going overboard with the laundry lists. The Others take them all, Jon thinks as he watches the raiders scramble up the slopes toward the Wall, which might well be a prophetic thought. We're given a bit more info on raiding activities - the wildlings have scaled the Wall many times, in fact, but usually these expeditions result in death by falling or capture. Of course, we saw a few wildlings in A Game of Thrones who had managed to slip past the mighty Wall - Osha among them. In addition to climbing the icy Wall, raiders sometimes slip across the Bay of Seals in boats which sounds way easier to me than scaling seven hundred feet of ice (even though it means travelling further across land) - maybe Martin could have slipped in a mention of how dangerous it to travel so far on the "wrong" side of the Wall especially with the Others about - you know, to make it more believable. I find it hard to buy that these people annually try to climb the Wall and most die and that they continue doing it after all those failures, even though some manage to get through once in a while. Oh, and sometimes they "descend into the black depths of the Gorge to make their way around the Shadow Tower" - nothing suggests this is harder or less hard to do than climbing the ice, but there it is. 

Ygritte and Jon watch as the climbers emerge above the treetops with Jarl in the lead. They move from the trees onto the Wall itself, ropes tied to each other, moving higher. Martin spends time describing the climb in detail, giving us a good "look" so to speak. The Magnar complains that the raiders are moving too slowly; Jon doesn't respond but thinks to himself that he'd be pretty slow himself if he had to claw his way up that wall of ice. He does hope that the Watch will discover them and shoot them down. Which kind of suggests that Jon, subconsciously, already has made his decision with regards to his loyalty. He is still a man of the Watch; not a wildling. No defenders appear however, and the raiders continue to climb for, well, the longest time. It is well written and while I'm not biting my nails, I think it is sufficient since we don't - at this point - have a POV climbing the wall, which would require more powerful descriptions. Vertigo.

Six hours of climbing later, the ice cracks and the raiders fall. Well, that's kind of anticlimactic of course butThe Wall defends itself, Jon thinks to himself, which is kind of imposing an intelligence upon it (also called animism)  which I can only hope the Old Gods will forgive him. Jarl ends up impaled upon a branch; one of his raiders actually survived but is killed off when he pleads for mercy (as in death). Their corpses are all burnt when Grigg the Goat reaches the top of the Wall; here, Martin speeds up the narrative, avoiding another long six-hour trek description, which is good for him and good for us, and the sun is sinking in the west. During the evening, the guys on top begin to lower rungs of woven hemp so as to make it easier for those who will follow. Ygritte utters that she hates the Wall, which is a good thing, after all, walls separate people right? Walls have this tendency to reduce meaningful communication when used like this. When Jon says it's made of ice, she says it's made of blood, which is kind of silly because it has repeatedly been described as being made of ice and she is looking straight at it. Dump her, Jon, she's too dumb for ye (I realize she is being all meta, by the way). 
then you have to realize this actually heightens the tension once Jon Snow himself goes climbing. So in that regard it is time well spent, groundwork is laid for the reader to realize just how dangerous this will be for Jon once he ascends like a messiah with an ice pick.

It is of course a Wall of Blood when your people keep falling off it to die. At midnight, Jon reaches the top. And this is my one problem with this chapter. Here, Martin has the chance to give us a fantastic exciting bit of narrative from Jon's eyes as he makes his way up the wall, step by step, grip by grip, occasionally slipping, looking down and experiencing vertigo, and we get nothing. A very exciting and possibly traumatizing and profound (and heroic admit it) moment for Jon Snow is refused to one sentence. Oh well. Leaves more space in the book for the Lannisters.

The chapter ends with Ygritte crying- Jon believes she is frightened, after all they have been climbing seven hundred feet of sheer ice wall, but no - she is crying because, "...we never found the Horn of Winter. We opened half a hundred graves and let all those shades loose in the world, and never found the Horn of Joramun to bring this cold thing down!"

This chapter feels uneven, this ending statement bolted on for a bit of a climactic chapter ending, but I'm more confused than excited to read the next Jon chapter (which should be what the chapter's end strives to achieve).

Why I'm confused? Well, up until this point I haven't heard anything about graves holding shades that, once those graves are opened, escape their graves. Did the Others lie in graves? I can't understand what else those shades can be - except that they opened the graves, there were corpses there, and when the wildlings left, the Others showed up to animate them. I guess that's plausible. But the way it's written here makes it sound, you know, like shades let loose. I imagine dark-cloaked ethereal beings flying off, not wights or Others. What do you think this passage means to convey? The horn part I get well enough. Mance Rayder was looking for a legendary horn said to be able to blow down the Wall. I wonder if that horn would be the horn in Euron Crow's Eye's possession or if it is indeed another horn. What's with all the horns all of a sudden anyway? Aaaaooooooooooooooooo!

And you BET that Wall's going to come down. If there ever was a given in this book (aside from characters with hope getting their hopes crushed), it's that the Wall is coming down. One final note: I find myself thinking that the climb as HBO portrayed it in the TV series worked better than it does in this chapter. You may note that I early on in this post kind of look forward to Jon's attempt on the wall, so it seems I have forgotten it is skimped over, or I have mixed it up with my experience of seeing it on the screen. 

Next: Jaime's non-existent hand burns!

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