Thursday, March 20, 2014

[Re-read] Jon V: Half a Crow

[Spoilers for all books galore]
It sure has been an interesting week for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, what with the contradicting information given by George R.R. Martin on one side and the makers of Game of Thrones on the other. The "buzz" over Martin's admitting that HBO might, after all, come to the story's conclusion before himself seems to become the beginning of a second wave of, dare I say it, "detractorship". Where before he faced complaints about the time it took to publish A Feast for Crows and then A Dance with Dragons, now fans are worried that they won't be able to enjoy The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring (sigh, I just can't bring myself to like that title) without having it spoiled by the TV series. And, of course, lurking behind the notion is the fear that we might never get to read the intended ending. It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds (if it does) from the sidelines; I'm not intending to get embroiled in another Internet war over something as trivial as (excellent) entertainment. Of course I'm disappointed that we're still no wiser as to where Martin is with The Winds of Winter, and of course some silly part of me dares to hope that he'll surprise us all with a sudden ambush sometime next year (the odds aren't very good, are they?), but I'm halfway in the camp that a televised alternate ending is better than nothing at all. In other related news, there is of course excitement building for the fourth season of said show, and the latest - fourth already - trailer for the show won't make fans any less eager to get watching. I'm stoked myself. As someone over at Winter is Coming said in the trailer discussion, better to be happy about the things the show gets right, than being miserable about the things that don't work as well (paraphrased beyond belief). I'm excited to see the Red Viper of Dorne in action, I'm excited about Sansa Stark's plot this season, and I'm always excited about the Lannisters, and I am, like most fans, curious as to how far into the fourth (and possibly fifth) book this season will reach (for some of the characters, like Bran Stark, at least). Speaking of Bran Stark, we left him inside Summer last time, and now the scene continues through another point of view, Jon's, and as I said in the previous post, it's lovely when two point of view chapters overlap like this (almost the exact opposite of the disjointed chapters from all over the world we now have). Oh, and yes, I changed my re-read banner again but I like this one a lot so I'll probably keep it. For a while. Maybe.

Can't believe I'm only halfway through A Storm of Swords. So much has happened already, and for sure
things are going to get a lot more interesting in the second half of this volume. Right now, I am back to ranking this book the best in the series (I said the same thing about A Clash of Kings) and I suppose it is only right. No other book ever evoked so many emotions in me as a reader. Shock, excitement, wonder, horror, sympathy, and so on and so forth. Let's see what Jon's up to, in the ruined village by the tower Bran named Queenscrown. 

[Minor Interlude: I was procrastinating, yes the very thing, checking out some threads in a discussion forum for people who are into metal music. In the general section I have a thread about HBO's Game of Thrones and my jaw almost hit the floor when I read that several other forum members prefer the show to the books. Their arguments: They didn't care for Martin's prose that much, and with the show you didn't have to wade through all the "flowery descriptions" to get to the good parts. Mmmf. I can see their point if they are talking about the bloat found in the latter books, but they were talking about the three first tomes...Oh well, to each his own.]

So, in the last post I was attempting to link Bran Stark's character to the descriptions of the ground and the roots and the earth and the trees and all that, comes the next chapter Martin opens up with similar descriptions. Should I just admit that I was reading too much into it, or is he trying to link Jon to the same themes? Maybe to show the connection between Bran and Jon? The chapter opens with colorful description of autumn (I suppose the kind of stuff people prefer to skim...), with pine needles and leaves covering the ground, huge bare oaks and soldier pines all around them. So in a sense, one could argue that I should just take these descriptions as setting dressing, to set the mood, and not to have a deeper meaning for the characters. Still, I find Bran being linked to soil and roots rather appropriate, whether it was Martin's intention or no (in this regard, as a believer in theR+L=J theory (you need to scroll down a bit), there should be a lot of fire in Jon's chapters...and when you think about it, there is; I remember a hand being burned, and a woman kissed by fire, to name two examples off the top of my head - also, fire is needed to fight off the wights).

Anyway, Ygritte wonders who built a roundtower they spot nearby on a hill, wondering if it was a king; Jon replies that it was just some men. This immediately ties into Ygritte not knowing much of the world south of the Wall, as she is impressed by a tower that anyone south of the Wall wouldn't give a second thought. Jon thinks about Brandon's Gift, some exposition Martin started in the Bran chapter before this one. It does feel as if Martin, three books in, finally realized that the Watch would need some means of support to exist, and thus invented the backstory for the lands now called the Gift. That's a minor nit I have with these books - due to their long gestation periods, there will come some new element into the story at a point where you'd think it should already be known, because it's something Martin has thought of only later (the most obvious examples being the sudden introduction of nicknames that nobody used early in the series, like 'nuncle', a sudden abundance of catchphrases nobody used early in the series, like 'words are wind' (especially 'words are wind'), or, indeed, exposition one would expect to have been met with earlier, like the existence of the Gift as lands belonging to the Night's Watch). Minor nit. I can't begrudge the man wanting to expand his own horizon. Certain ideas just have to creep in at later stages of the story (like the sudden use of groats) because they came into existence long after A Game of Thrones was published. Anyway.

Jon tells Ygritte that Winterfell has towers three times the size of the one they are seeing on the hill, and she doesn't seem to believe it; how could men build so high with no giants to lift the stones? Oh, but I see what you did there, Mr. Martin! You are suggesting the possibility that Winterfell was raised with the aid of giants. Oh. Wait. Read on, read on. "In legend, Brandon the Builder had used giants to help raise Winterfell (...)". Jon mentions an even more impressive tower in Oldtown, which is supposedly taller than the Wall (now we're talking tall towers!), I like how we're given this little detail as that tower will indeed feature in A Feast for Crows, if only briefly. I've read some theories that this tower in Oldtown is in fact a beacon, also from the time after the Long Night, a beacon to warn the people of Westeros of an attack from the icy north. There better be some magic involved in that case, if people all around the continent are to see the light, no matter how tall that tower is. Jon dreams of taking Ygritte to Winterfell and show her, which is a nice way of reminding us he loves this girl without stating it explicitly. There is also a link here to Lyanna Stark, if one wishes to read it like that, when Jon thinks of "giving her a flower from the glass gardens".

Interestingly, we see a plot development from A Dance with Dragons already taking root here in A Storm of Swords, when Jon thinks about how Lord Eddard had "once talked about raising new lords and settling them in the abandoned holdfassts as a shield against the wildlings (...)". This though closely resembles what Jon will eventually try to do, only he takes it one step further and brings the wildlings south of the Wall. And also, Eddard Stark said about his own thoughts, "It is a dream for spring, though", from which we then could infer that we'll see, in A Dream of Spring, the castles along the Wall (if it exists) manned (maybe by wildlings) - only, a dream is a dream, eh?

Jon and Ygritte argue for a bit; Jon complains that the lands were once settled, but everyone has been drivenA Dance with Dragons - come a time when the wall is down or gone, he will have hindered this disturbing future of raiders running amok in northern Westeros. There is some echo of the North American Indian tribes losing their lands to Europeans when Ygritte tries to set Jon straight: "My trees, they said, you can't eat them apples. My stream, you can't fish here (...)" Them apples, she said. According to her version of history, then, the forefathers of the wildlings were driven away, beyond the Wall. I like how different cultures have different interpretations of history in this setting, which is another thing that gives the story such a realistic feel despite the impossible towers and ice walls and direwolves and wargs. Their conversation (it almost sounds like a quarrel, highlighting their differences - as if to show how these two can never become a real couple, they have too different views of the world) turns into Jon wondering what Ygritte would do if she was carried away by some man she hated, and she replies that she would just cut that man's throat and be done with it. Jon just can't understand her, nor does she really want to understand him (or so it seems). Martin sums it up like this: "(...) I know that you are wildling to the bone. It was easy to forget that sometimes, when they were laughing together, or kissing. But then one of them would say something, or do something, and he would suddenly be reminded of the wall between their worlds." Funny how Martin can use "wall" in two senses here. Nice.
off by the wildlings. His true allegiance (still a crow at heart) really shines through here , but it doesn't seem like Ygritte realizes this (or doesn't care/is blinded by her love for him). When Jon thinks that if the Wall should fall, the north will be defenseless against wildlings raiders, might tie in to the fact that he is uniting the wildlings with the Night's Watch in

Now we learn that the two of them aren't alone; a group of wildlings is following them, including the Magnar of Thenn, Errok, Big Boil and Hempen Dan. Jon whispers to Ygritte that Mance cannot win this war he has started, but she insists he can (again, the wall between their worlds); it sounds like Jon is now at the point where he wishes to take Ygritte with him away from it all, trying to convince her, cautiously. Ygritte, angry now, warns Jon that she vouched for him and that he no longer is a crow. Yeah, she's a bit dim. She kisses him before Grigg the Goat urges her on. Ygritte gets a great line (which I'm glad they kept in the show): "You're mine," she whispered, "Mine, as I'm yours. And if we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first we'll live." Lovely how Martin sneaks in "valar morghulis" there. And, if you've finished A Dance with Dragons, this line might just give the scene an extra dimension. Jon feels sad - he's sad because he knows she won't budge; he must lose her in order to keep to his Night's Watch vows. He reminds himself of Qhorin Halfhand's orders, to stay with the wildlings as long as necessary, but we can sense from the way Jon thinks that this time is coming to and end. He needs to get back to the Watch and warn them that wildlings have crossed the Wall. And again Martin adds in the notion of guest right; Jon has shared bread and salt with these wildlings, so betraying them would be an affront to the gods - and it ties in to the Red Wedding, again. So even though characters are separated by miles upon miles, and their story arcs don't really touch upon each other (yet), Martin manages to use little tricks like this to tie it all together; even Jon's chapter in the north, then, builds (if only a little) toward the soon-to-come Red Wedding.

Jon is questioned every day on the journey by the Magnar, asking about Castle Black and its defenses. Jon lies when he dares, and so what he tells them is mostly true; and not very good news for Westeros. Her wonders if anyone from the Fist has returned (man, it's been a while since he saw Sam, that is all kinds of sad). Jon makes a mental list of people he supposes are still at Castle Black (including the new, plump Lord Steward Bowen Marsh); Jon continues to ponder his allegiance to Ygritte, and they are still having sex beneath the sleeping skins at night, but Jon feels that Ygritte has trapped him. He thinks of how he has to betray them soon, and this journey south of the Wall makes it harder because he gets to know these wildlings as actual people and not just some nameless enemy from the far north.

More wondering (it's quite an introverted chapter so far) - Jon wonders where Ghost is, not sensing the animal (not even in his dreams). Eventually they come to the village where Bran is already hiding in the tower on the lake, and so the chapter's synchronizes with Bran's when it's evening and the storm is raging and they look for shelter among the ruins of the village. Look, I was wrong about Bran seeing Jon Snow! The rider turns out to be an old man. It is this old man who is burning branches inside a roofless inn. See, even on the tenth re-read there are details that just slip right past me. But now it's coming back to me - this old man can possibly be the Lidle who Bran encountered earlier, am I right? Anyway, the wildlings capture the fellow and rummage through his things. Jon walks towards the water, where he sits down to have a thought. Ygritte follows him. Jon tells her he knows the place, and Ygritte says the Magnar heard noises from the tower, which Jon says is thunder. The wildlings believe they heard shouts, however. And we, of course, know this to be Hodor's frightened shouting. Like Bran, Jon recognizes the tower as Queenscrown when a lightning flash makes him see it clearly. This allows Martin to expand on the backstory we were given in Bran's chapter. Alysanne was the wife of King Jaehaerys the Conciliator. He used to travel across Westeros, and when at Winterfell, Alysanne was bored and flew off on Silverwing to see the Wall; she stopped at this village, and hence the smallfolk here painted the top of their holdfast to look like her golden crown. Not the most exciting of backstories, but Martin is putting it in for a reason. There are many theories, one I like is that her visit in the North coincides with other things that happened around the same time, namely the disappearance of the direwolves south of the Wall. So Alysanne Targaryen is somehow linked to this; also, the Nightfort was abandoned at the same time. I actually have to research this stuff to make sense of it, because I've never paid real attention to this backstory, maybe precisely because it is presented in an off-hand manner ("Alysanne grew bored..."), but there is obviously something to it. And, of course, Alysanne was responsible for increasing the Watch's lands, which this and the previous chapter have delved into. Her gifts to the Watch; Martin is showing us a Targaryen, flying a dragon, befriending the Night's Watch and agreeing to help them out because she believes in their could simply be a foreshadowing of Daenerys' coming to the north. But first we'll have to twiddle our thumbs a few more years before we even know if she ever gets to land in Westeros. The point being that it seems that certain chains of events in Westeros' past seem to repeat in similar ways in the main story. But it remains speculation, obviously.

"JON SNOW!" one of the Thenns looms above the couple, and if I were Jon I'd be rather startled after all this internal pondering and storytelling. The Magnar wishes to speak with Jon, so he and Ygritte go look him up. Styr doesn't like Ygritte tagging along but she reminds him she's a free woman. Styr is standing beneath a tree that grows through the floor of the common room of the inn (great imagery), with his captive kneeling before the hearth and surrounded by spears and swords aimed at him (adds to the imagery). And Styr tells Jon to kill the man. All the internal back-and-forth Jon has been going through is suddenly externalized as he now must prove himself true. He draws Longclaw, rain washing the steel (yes, the inn does not need some repairs to its roof), and hesitates. The captive never speaks, and Jon wonders if the man knows enough of wildlings that there is no point in trying to beg for mercy. Jon ponders some more, Styr is getting restless, back and forth we go in Jon's mind; eventually he tries to make them see that they shouldn't kill an innocent man. Enemies you fight, yes, but an innocent man, no. And so he says, "No." And the chapter goes from mostly being inside Jon's head to action! The Magnar says once more that Jon must kill the man, Jon says he's no Thenn for Styr to command, Styr calls Ygritte for a "crow wife" which makes her angry, drawing a knife and cutting open the captive's throat. And then we come to the point where Bran's chapter ended, with death leaping among them in direwolf-shape.

The scene is well described and easy to visualize, and would add to the drama in the TV series, where they
chose an easier route. No ruined village, no thunder and lightning flashes, no tree growing in the common room of the leaking inn. All this setting dressing makes the scene stronger in the book, and more memorable. For a moment, Jon believes it is Ghost who comes to his aid, but he realizes the direwolf is grey. I can only imagine how great and tense it would be to have this visualized as Martin wrote it; first, the darkness of the night and then a brilliant flash of light and you see, quickly, a snarling grey direwolf, and when it is dark again a split second later, you hear snarling and limbs being torn off bodies. Go Summer!

The chaos that ensues is Jon's best chance at getting away from the wildlings, as he decides rather quickly (which is fortunate, if he kept on pondering the way he has this chapter, he'd be dead); so he cuts down a man, shoves his way past another, he hears someone calling his name, the dead captive's horse is adding to the chaos frightened as it is, but Jon manages to grab it by the mane and vault himself onto her back and get out of there. Quite an exciting and very short scene.

Hours pass and Jon finds himself alone in the wilderness, surprised to discover an arrow in his right thigh. He can't remember that it happened. He wonders briefly whether it was Grey Wind he saw, and whether than means that Robb has returned to the north. He stops to get that arrow out of his body which is painful (duh), but he does show some remarkable resilience, not fainting or anything. He lies on the ground for a while, before crawling to a stream where he can wash off the blood and bind his wound. He realizes that the arrow probably belongs to Ygritte. Now there's a relationship that's going quickly down the drain. For once rather positive (because Jon isn't the jolliest of fellows) he realizes that he was lucky to have been shot in the leg; if the arrow had hit the horse, they would have taken him. He gets himself back up on the horse and rides for Castle Black.
"I am going home, he told himself. But if that was true, why did he feel so hollow?"
Because you just most definitely ended the relationship to the woman you love, because you left behind people you have come to understand and, for some at least, perhaps even like? I don't know, dumbass.

And so our lone hero rides into the sunrise (as opposed to sunset; that Martin sure likes to twist them tropes) and the chapter ends on that note.

Next up, we return across the Narrow Sea to find Daenerys Targaryen who is facing problems of her own. Say one thing for the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire, say they have some problems they must deal with.

Artwork in this post from A Game of Thrones: Collectible Card Game © Fantasy Flight Games

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