Monday, December 2, 2013

[Re-read] Samwell, II: Everybody listens to Slayer, Part I of II

You know what I would really really like right now? I am seated at the window, laptop on my lap (indeed I am using it as intended), looking out over wooded low mountains covered with frost and last night's fresh snow, beneath a pink dawn sky. It's rather beautiful and evocative. I would really really like to hold in my hands, instead of the laptop, a copy of The Winds of Winter. The smell of a freshly printed new volume of Ice and Fire, with a thousand pages of unexplored Ice and Fire territory, a cup of coffee at the ready, and seeking answers. Oh my, I do miss that feeling of having an entirely new novel in the series to devour. It doesn't happen too often, we can agree on that, right? To flip open the book, look over the maps, excitedly look at the chapter headings to see who's in and who's get back into the story wondering what Martin will serve us next.
I suppose many fans find reading his other material a way to alleviate this yearning for a new book - in just three days' time, Dangerous Women will be published, featuring George R.R. Martin's novella The Princess and the Queen, and for many fans this will be a nice morsel while waiting for the main course.
Personally, I am not curious about this text at all. Not out of spite or anything, it's just that I don't care that much about the Targaryens and their dragons and their history. Certainly I care less than Martin who seems to have developed a great love for this part of his creation. If the novella had been the fourth The Hedge Knight tale, you know, a proper story instead of a history, I'd buy it. As it is, I am offered a bite while I wait for the main course, but I don't like the food being offered, so I'll have to live with that, or eat it anyway. What to do, what to do? I am hungry, but not that hungry. However, there is also a story in the collection from some guy who calls himself "Joe Abercrombie", and that might just be a good enough reason to cave in, after all. We'll see next week whether I am the owner of a copy - I think that if I go for it, I'll go for the e-book. I simply have run out of space on my shelves. And space for more shelves.

A Storm of Swords, then, and Samwell Tarly's second chapter. I suppose re-reading this novel is my way of   That's really what this blog has been all about since I set it up back in 2009 or thereabouts. To scratch that famous itch. To get a fix. At least I don't have to wonder about Brienne anymore (well I do still wonder what word she said, as we haven't been told explicitly, but at least I know she isn't hanging around anymore). Samwell Tarly, it is! At once an obvious homage to another Samwell, although with the opposite main trait of being cowardly instead of being brave (but that's changing all right), I've always found Samwell to be somewhat too stereotypically portrayed,  but at the same time he's rather different from the rest of the cast in terms of personality, so I'm fine with it. There's also, as one would expect from this series, a rather convoluted and dark background to the character explaining some of his behavior - such as having a rather unsympathetic father (I know, I'm putting it mildly) - something he shares with the Lannister Three.
I have to commend Sam's listening habits.
staving off the hunger for a new novel in the series.

The chapter opens with a typical Martin contrast, with a woman giving birth up in the loft, and a man dying by the fire. Death and life in juxtaposition. Will we see this contrast explored further in the chapter? Let's check it out. It is a useful hook for inviting the reader to read on, of course. Samwell doesn't know which one scares him more, which is kind of funny. Bannen's the guy who is dying, complaining about the cold and not able to drink the onion broth Sam is trying to give him. I sympathize with Bannen there; I cannot imagine onion broth tasting anywhere near good. Craster, still alive (and I admit, a little to my surprise - watching the third season of Game of Thrones has screwed with my perception in more than one way), comments that Bannen can be considered dead - within earshot of the man, of course - immediately reminding us of Craster's personality - he's rather indifferent, as Martin perhaps too bluntly states in the following sentence (what I mean is that the reader gets how indifferent the man is to Bannen's fate by his dialogue, and that we don't need the added "Craster eyed the man with indifference". Bedwyck, better known as Giant, asks Sam, by calling him 'Slayer', if they had ever asked for Craster's counsel - and by that dialogue we see that Giant isn't very interested in Craster's opinion and neither is he afraid of him. Martin excels at showing what characters feel and think through dialogue, it's brilliant at times, like here. Sam cringes at the nickname Slayer, instead of headbanging and hailing and shouting Slaaaayyyeeeeer!! which is possibly what I would have done. You see if you're a metalhead and into Slayer, you're not just into Slayer. You're intooooooo Slaaaayyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!
Giant complains to Craster; Craster had promised food and fire yet is stingy with the food. Craster tells him to be glad he is providing them with fire (or rather, warmth). We are given a description of Craster at this point, probably to remind readers. He is kind of the polar opposite of the friendly loner you often encounter in fantasy tales. Instead of inviting the adventurers to the hearth to share tales over an ale, Craster is a repugnant fellow who's not really interested in helping out at all. Imagine Biblo and the dwarves coming upon Beorn's homestead and they found Craster and his happy family of inbreeds instead. Heh.
Craster launches into a speech which I suppose is in defense of his decisions: "I fed you what I could, but you crows are always hungry. I'm a godly man, else I would have chased you off. You think I need the likes of him, dying on my floor? You think I need all your mouths, little man?"
Not sure if those excuses hold up if you are into solidarity. Still, maybe Craster has a point - he is gambling on his own existence (if it is true that he is running out of food, that is). Also, we can assume that he is worried about keeping himself in the good graces (?) of the Others. And maybe, just maybe, he is worried that the Others will come and kill them all and he wants to get them off before the Others arrive. A stretch perhaps, because Craster never seems to be rushed.
Interestingly, Sam wishes they had a maester who could help Bannen better than he can. Was Martin already at this point considering sending Samwell Tarly to Oldtown? I see this as foreshadowing, regardless. Nice. Reading it again, it is also ironic, because Bannen suffers without a maester and we know that Sam might just end up being a maester later in the story, but by then, of course, it's too late for Bannen. Apparently they have hacked off Bannen's foot as well to keep it from killing him, so there really is no hope for the man and one can only feel sorry for him. The hardest part, then, is that he has to listen to Craster's indifference.

So, they are inside Craster's hall, the black brothers who fled the Fist, drinking onion broth (mmmm....) and chewing on chunks of hardbread; some are even worse off than Bannen; they have lost a lot of the supplies that could have been useful in patching up these fellows, so it is left to Sam and the other stewards present to try and treat their patients as best they can. It's warm inside the hall, Sam muses, but they are given too little food. Martin makes sure to spell that out for us over these first pages of the chapter and one might wonder if the need for food might lead to something. Heh (Walder Frey is my ghost writer). There is an entire paragraph dedicated to their need for food, even; also, Sam worries that Craster might know about him and Gilly, but Martin doesn't delve too deeply into these fears (which one could take as a sign that it won't be important, while the many mentions of food might indicate that it will be important).

Bannen continues to complain about the cold, and Sam feels cold himself, despite the heat we've been told about. Also, he's really tired. He wants to sleep but when he closes his eyes, nightmarish visions of dead men shambling appear before him. Upstairs, Gilly continues to give birth. Now, as it is, I witnessed a birth only seven months ago, and I'd argue that it would be scarier to have a man dying on the floor. Craster is annoyed by Gilly's "shrieking", and threatens to go up and slap her into silence. I've spoken about the bestiality of many characters in the series before, and here it is again. How inhuman are you when you want to slap a woman giving birth for making noises? He really needs therapy. And a cell.
The otherwise forgettable ranger, Ronnel Harclay, reminds them that they are beneath Craster's roof: His roof, his rule. In other words, they should not interfere. The whole shtick on guest laws runs through much of A Storm of Swords and it is obvious why - we are headed for a quite dramatic scene in which these laws/rights are violated like never before, and to build up to this, Martin tells us often how important these laws are to the people of Westeros, to make the impact of the infamous Red Wedding even more gut-wrenching. In the NaNoWriMo story I wrote this month, I had a character named Ronnel. Subconsciously taken from A Storm of Swords, or coincidence? I lean toward coincidence on this one. I would never have known if there was a Ronnel Harclay in the series if someone asked me.

There are more descriptions to remind us what a bad man Craster is, another reminder of guest rights, and a recap of what happened before between Sam and Gilly before we can get on with the story - which happens when Sam realizes Gilly is giving birth to a boy (it's kind of strangely written because they say "his head" but if only the baby's head has exited the you-know-what, how do you know it's a boy? does the baby have really manly looks? A beard? Bushy eyebrows?). Anyway, the point is of course that if Gilly gives birth to a boy, that means Craster will give it to "his gods" which any HBO-viewer can tell you are bad gods. Bad gods for bad men. Is Martin making a point? I dunno. But I like to think so.

Sam can't take it anymore, what with Bannen dying before him and Gilly howling above (to Craster's annoyance - man does Martin make some of his characters disgusting; Craster certainly's in the top, uh, thirty or something). Sam walks outside, into a cloudy day, some patches of snow weighing down branches which makes for a nice visual; water is melting, so it can't be very cold (in fact, I guess this means it is at least 1 degree above Celsius which is what I consider the threshold temperature concerning the wearing of T-shirts outdoors - okay, I am exaggerating a bit but it really isn't that cold - but then the winters around here tend to bring minus 10 to 20 degrees Celsius - not this year, though, it has been worryingly mild). It's a good thing though, because melting snow means that the Others can't be close by right? (Only I'm not sure Sam has connected this yet).

There have been no attacks and Craster says it's because he's a "godly man", which is ironically funny for the reader/viewer who knows more, but this could be a line that a casual first-time reader will never pick up on. Oh, the nuisances! When he says, "You best get right with the gods", isn't he basically saying, "You better try to be friends with the Others"? And if people all over Westeros would pay the Others tribute in the form of baby boys, would that be enough to keep them off? Kind of a bad deal, though, especially if you want the human race to continue. Also, this makes me wonder why the Others specifically want baby boys (or whether this is just Craster wanting to keep all the women for himself). Quite dark territory this. Oh, Gilly apparently has told Sam that Craster makes all kind of offerings to the Others, so it seems they are not specifically target baby boys after all. Is there a thematic link here to the Baratheon bastards dotting the landscape? Are the Others perhaps looking for one specific sacrifice? It's an entertaining thought - what if they want/need the blood of the Azor Ahai reborn? Far out.

Sam encounters a group of his brothers entertaining themselves by shooting arrows at a butt they have built, Sweet Donnel (brother of Ronnel?) in the process of firing an arrow at it as Sam approaches. I bet these guys would have liked an iPad. Ulmer's up next to shoot, and we learn he has once with the Kingswood Brotherhood (nice way of putting some info on that organization into the text here - by having people from all over the place in the Night's Watch, Martin really stands free to introduce whatever background he wants to develop). What little we learn of the legend that is Ulmer is quite interesting as Martin keeps it brief and enticing (it involves Dornish princesses, gold and a Kingsguard). There's some banter to enjoy, and we get our first (I believe) couple of Dicks (lots of Dicks in A Feast for Crows if I recall correctly) - Fletcher Dick and Old Dick. I wonder if Martin was giggling hysterically while coming up with the idea to have a lot of characters named Dick with nicknames appended.. If so, -1 respect points. There's even more background on the Kingswood Brotherhood (one could almost assume they will become important to the plot one of these days, or we have drifted into exposition for the sake of worldbuilding territory - it's really around this point in the story that Martin begins to slacken on the tight-paced storytelling). "Slayer", Sweet Donnel calls, the way Martin italicizes it suggesting it is said in a mocking tone, "Come, show us how you slew the Other." Indeed, and realistically so, not everyone believes the tale of Sam the Slayer. I like that. I like how Martin keeps us grounded; his people are real, they don't believe everything they hear (well, not all of them). Sam is immediately afraid he'll fail, telling them he had used an obsidian dagger, not an arrow.

What we get here is a fine example of peer pressure, medieval style. Even otherwise nice Grenn gets in on it, they all want to see Sam shoot, probably to have a laugh. These guys are bored and cold and probably a little annoyed by Craster. However, it seems that Grenn isn't really understanding the underlying motives here, which is a nice little touch. Sam having to explain it to him takes away from the scene, though, I find; as if Martin didn't trust us enough to read into it ourselves. I can understand if he suspected me of not paying attention, but you guys...

Sam repeats that it was the dragonglass (obsidian) that had done in the Other, and that he is no hero or "slayer". SLAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEERRRRRR! R.I.P. Jeff Hanneman :(
Exposition follows, giving us details on where the discovered dragonglass has gone to (which I guess we need to know in the event that the Others actually advance on the fricking Wall). Sam doesn't think they have enough though. Depends on how many Others there are, of course. Does Sam know something about their numbers? I don't think so. Sam wonders what comes first - the cold, or the Others. I suppose it's an important question, but I am not sure it really matters once you face one of them. Sam also believes the Others are emotionless, which I suppose we should keep in mind. Either Martin is setting us up thinking the Others are these undead, icy automatons, and they actually are more (in the prologue of A Game of Thrones there is a hint that they speak a language of sorts, am I right?), or they are forces of nature without minds...but I tend to think it's the former. Sam misses Jon Snow (who is with the wildlings). He thinks back on the horrors of his recent experiences, until his train of thoughts is interrupted by Mormont's raven calling, "Snow." Coincidence?

The Lord Commander appears and tells Sam to come with him (after having stated that they will have to leave). Mormont complains that they had forgotten what dragonglass was made for and asks if it is truly made of dragons (Sam replies it comes from the earth) - still, a hint that there is a link between dragons and obsidian - did the Targaryens fight the Others back in the day? Did the Others cause the Doom of Valyria? Sometimes I feel like I have questions that only one man can answer. Oh wait, "the children of the forest used dragonglass" . That kind of sucks the life out of my Targaryen suggestion. Craster appears to interrupt their discussion, telling them he's had a son. "Son," Mormont's raven replies. Seriously, I had whacked the thing a long time ago. Craster tells them it's time to leave, he's sick of having the Night's Watch around (or so he makes it sound - could be he just wants them gone before he makes his offering to the Others); Mormont tells him they aren't strong enough to ride yet, but Craster won't have it (further suggesting he's in a hurry to get rid of his visitors).

When Craster complains that with the baby he "has another mouth to feed" (an obvious lie), Sam squeaks that the Watch could take the baby with them. Craster's eyes narrow. That actually scares me a little. The Lord Commander understands that Sam is making a mess of diplomatic relations, and orders him inside. And to be quiet. I don't know where Sam found the courage to speak up like that; he must really like Gilly to want to save her son. He's basically risking everything here.

And now I need a break lest I drop off the chair and onto the floor, to lie there in a semi-perturbed state of semi-consciousness. Which means I'm splitting up this post and get to the rest of the chapter in a post very soon.

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