Wednesday, April 2, 2014

[Re-read] Sam III: I pity the fool

[Spoilers for all books!]

So, Hearthstone had my soul last night, but when I woke up to brilliant weather I went for a long cross-country trip instead, which is really tiring and makes me feel real good afterward; with silly games I only stay up too long and feel bad afterward, so good choice there today. Coming home, the stupid part of the brain wanted to play that game again, but I have abstained. Mostly because it's down for maintenance or something. Playing this game led me to realize there's a way to play Magic: The Gathering on my smartphone now, which also is a bad thing. And this has led me to re-install Magic Online on the computer, another bad thing to do if you're not a massive fan of time sinks. But hey, one must have a guilty pleasure or ten, right? Reading A Storm of Swords, though, is just pure pleasure, and for some reason I never feel bad about reading a book. Maybe because a book is more than just entertainment? With games I feel I'm just wasting my time (well, except for tabletop RPGs), with books I feel...I don't know, more content? Anyway, I know one guy who probably won't be content in today's re-read chapter, and that's the main character himself, Samwell Tarly. He's really getting into trouble up north of the Wall, though I suspect he prefers the undead over his lord father any day. In your face, Randyll.

Totally in character - Sam thinks of himself as a coward - the chapter begins with Sam pleading (to no one in particular), hoping that the village he sees ahead is Whitetree; he's so intent on hoping he's come to the right place that he forgot about the terror and the cold for a moment. There's a huge weirwood tree growing in this village, and Sam becomes uncertain whether he's found the right place or not. Around the tree Sam sees a few hovels, a longhall, a stone well and a sheepfold, but no sheep or people - they have gone to join Mance Rayder (well, either that or having become soldiers in the army of the Others, I suppose); Sam feels sorry for himself what with all the aches, frostbitten toes and blisters under the callus of the previous blisters. But he's got no other choice - apparently, you win or you die not only in the game of thrones, but also in the chase of undeath. So there you have Sam thinking about all his troubles and then you have Gilly right next to him, not complaining much after just having given birth to her father's son and carrying said infant in her arms. She's definitely the tougher of the two in yet another male-female pairing in the series. Will Sam and Gilly live happily ever after? My gut feeling says nah.

Sam leaves Gilly in the longhall where she makes a fire while he goes exploring the village (which is kind of brave); apparently she is much better at making fires than Sam. You know which one of these two you'd want on your team in a survival reality show. He really feels sorry for himself, our Sam. Poor me cutting my finger with my knife when I tried to make a fire and my hand is now stiff and sore and even clumsier than before and I'm afraid to look at it and I hate to take off my gloves because it's cold. He's quite unheroic, our Sam, and I suppose that can make him likable. I find that Martin takes it a little too far and it gets quickly a little bit tiresome all this self-pitying; at the same time, I applaud Martin for adding such a character in this type of (fantasy) tale, and build an arc (no, not ark) where he starts off cowardly and without much skill in anything useful, and gradually becomes more adept; gaining levels of fighter and sage quite fast, really, and getting bonuses to his Survival skills as he goes. Anyway.

Clumsy, unsure & unlucky on photos. Samwell Tarly.

He doesn't find anything he can use in any of the hovels; he turns to the weirwood and studies the carved face, which seems to weep blood. In the real world, of course, only statues can weep blood. Clumsily (lest we forget Sam's clumsy) he sits down and prays to the Old Gods. We might just see a repeat of this scene in a future novel, through the eyes of a certain young lordling with powers ancient and mystical. He simply asks the Old Gods for help, reminding the tree that Gilly has a son. The leaves of the weirwood rustle softly, reminding me of a scene from Game of Thrones, where Osha tells Bran that the rustling is the gods answering. Wonder if this is where the writers took that bit and gave to Osha? Or do the leaves always rustle when somebody talks to the tree? I need to keep an eye out for it.

When he returns to Gilly, it has become evening. Gilly, competent after all those years serving her father/husband (eeeew! Craster not for president), has a fire going and is breast-feeding the baby. Another reminder of Sam's uselessness when he thinks how bad of a hunter he is (and fisher, for that matter). Gilly really couldn't have picked a better man of the Watch to help her out (as it actually turns out). She wonders if they are far, and Sam says that it's not so far as it was. To which Gilly should've responded Oh really!?!? with mighty sarcasm dripping mightly, but she doesn't. More back aches. He has maps but they are useless (or rather, Sam's useless but that's not the way he thinks it). A reminder that Bannen's dead, Dywen gone with Grenn and Dolorous Edd and the others. Sam thinks that by going south they must eventually come upon the Wall, which is reasonable, however, with woods all around him and clouded days he can't be 100% sure he's going south, though. He is even less sure of how far east or west of Castle Black they are.

Gilly asks about the Wall, and Sam responds, trying to sound cheerful about it. He promises her warmth and food. He tries to warm his fingers but they have been so cold that it hurts to warm them - he almost cries. Poor Sam. Poor poor Sam. Gilly wonders if Sam sings, and he blushes. She wants him to sing a song for the baby, and he launches into it. It's 'The Song of the Seven' and now let's see if Martin has hidden some gems and/or nuggets in the lyrics. Each verse is about one of the seven southron gods, and one can easily compare characters to the seven gods; I also read a theory the other day that the seven gods can be likened to the Stark household in the beginning of the story: Lord Eddard Stark as the Father (stern, strong, a judge, loves the children -- sounds Jesusy too); Lady Catelyn Stark is the Mother, giver of life, Robb is the Warrior, Sansa the Maiden, Jon the Smith, Bran the Crone, and Arya the Stranger. Yes, the characters share some similarities but I'm not convinced Martin intended a direct parallel. Although it would be kind of funny if Jon is represented by the Smith; Jon Smith. Ho. Pretty cool little detail: Sam does not sing the seventh verse about the Stranger. Because he is no one? The last time Sam had sung this song was to lull his baby brother to sleep, which angered his father Lord Randyll. He actually said he didn't want Sam "near his son". How Sam grew up to be such a likable fellow is beyond me - he should be psychologically damaged. Really damaged. Gilly's baby falls asleep, though. Which allows us a quick glimpse of Gilly's nipple before it is tucked back inside her furs. High five!

Gilly likes Sam's song, but he says Dareon is much better. All right, he can't take compliments, that's one little thing. But seriously; Randyll Tarly. Not that this series has many good fathers, but Randyll is maybe even a touch harsher than even Tywin Lannister. Speaking of psychological damage, how normal doesn't Gilly seem despite being part of the biggest incest fest of Westeros? Is that why Craster sacrifices his sons - to somehow get some magical aid in avoiding the negative effects of incest? Ah, here Gilly asks about the seventh god missing from his song. "No one sings of the Stranger," Sam replies. Another link between the Stranger and the Faceless Men right there, in bold. They eat black sausages, Sam wincing because his poor poor wrist aches as he saws them in slices. But they're seasoned with garlic, so it's totally worth it. Mmmmm....garlic.

After the meal, Sam goes out to take a leak and look after the horse. A biting wind is blowing from the north. He decides the horse needs to be brought inside because it's going to get cold. He ponders what to do with Gilly once they reach Castle Black, which is notoriously famous for its lack of women. He manages to get the horse inside, then lays down beside Gilly, all three of them under the furs and his big cloak, huddling together for warmth. Almost cozy. He likes being next to her, but that thought leads him to think (again) of his father. He wonders what Randyll would've said if he knew Sam was called Sam the Slayer now, having killed an Other, but he can't imagine his father do anything but scowl in disbelief.

Are we close to a weirwood tree? Yes! Cue strange dreams. Don't believe I haven't noticed, Mr. Martin. You don't have to be coy about it anymore. We know. Sam dreams himself back to Horn Hill. His father is not there; it is Sam's castle now. This could foreshadow Sam eventually becoming the Lord of Horn Hill (possibly with Gilly as his wife); however, the Night's Watch is there, too, which is rather strange, no? Especially considering that some of them, like Mormont, are dead. They're not in black, but in bright colors; I have no idea what to make of this, but I have an idea: Maybe it represents that at one point, these fellows will no longer be men of the Night's Watch, because the whole order will be gone before the end of the series (as in, not needed anymore because the threat has been defeated for good). In this way, Mormont can be part of the "prophetic" (if indeed this is a prophetic weirwood dream) because he's definitely no longer part of the Watch. Sam sits at the high table feasting them all, cutting roast with his father's greatsword Heartsbane. Lots of food, and warmth, and Gilly waiting and willing, suggests wishful dreaming more than prophetic dreaming -- but Martin might have tucked a little symbolism into the beginning of the dream there, with the castle being owned by Sam and the Night's Watch not in black -- and then Sam wakes up to cold and dread. Even dreams get the short shrift in these books.

Martin is ever masterful at portraying suspenseful horror scenes, building them up classic style. Here, the fire has burned down to embers, the air seems frozen, the descriptions matching the approach of an Other but Martin doesn't need to state it explicitly - he creates the dread by showing and not telling in this instance, and it works every time I read it. And then, a big shadow moves by the door and I'm almost afraid to keep my feet on the floor here. "He's come for the life," Gilly weeps. A rather blunt statement from the author, or Gilly misunderstanding the intruder's motivations?

Turns out the figure is Small Paul version 2.0: "Paul's hands were coal, his face was milk, his eyes shone a bitter blue." The coal hands should remind us of a certain character to show up later in this tome; the bitter blue part makes me cringe, as if nails were being pulled along a blackboard, screeching, because it reminds me of one of the worst songs I have ever heard, "Bitter Blue" by Bonnie Tyler. The old gods know I hate that song with a passion. "Hoarfrost whitened his beard, and on one shoulder hunched a raven, pecking at his cheek, eating the dead white flesh." Wait, there's a fricking raven on his shoulder?!?! Now that's a detail I can't say I remember. It's another tie of sorts to Coldhands, really. This scene really wants me to think of Coldhands as a wight under the Others' control. "Gilly, calm the horse and lead her out," Sam tells Gilly as he pisses down his legs (although, to be a nitpick, Sam has just been outside to piss and so should be rather devoid of urine inside). Another mystery but one I suppose we won't see resolved - all right, all right, there's some time between Sam's outside leak and this scene, and they've been eating meanwhile and probably drinking, so it's not impossible for him to soil his smallclothes (to use the proper lingo). Kind of embarrassing though, to wet yourself in front of an enticing prospect. No, not Small Paul.

He fumbles out his dragonglass dagger, moves away from the fire (bad move, Sam), and he tries to talk to the undead. "Small Paul. Do you know me? I'm Sam, fat Sam, Sam the Scared (...)" Yet even as he continues to deride himself for his cowardice he is showing bravery. I like that. I like how we as readers see his bravery even when the character doesn't. It brings a certain...immersion on the reader's part. It's like yelling at a character on TV. "Don't go there, the assassin's right around the corner!" Only here it would be "Stuff it, Sam, you ARE brave!" That raven on Paul's almost creepier than the wight himself. Small Paul forces Sam against a wall, and does not fear the dagger. When Gilly tries to soothe the horse, it rears in fear, and Paul turns around, losing interest in Sam. Sam the Scared throws himself at the wight, plunging the dagger in Paul's back. The raven shrieks and flaps off. Sam stabs and stabs again, the dragonglass shattering on the iron mail.

Now he's only got a useless hilt and Paul turns back and locks his black hands (another link to Coldhands) around Sam's throat ("beneath his chins" the author writes, in plural, chuckle). Small Paul, already freakishly strong in life, begins to squeeze the life out of Sam. But I'm not afraid for him, not really. His arc has only just begun, and Martin, and I've said this before, Martin really doesn't kill that many characters of importance. It's just a trick; Ned's arc, as an example, led to his death; Sam's arc doesn't seem to do so at all. Sam struggles against Small Paul, desperate and dying, tries to kick him, then uses his grand weight to topple Small Paul. They crash down together and Sam remembers that fire is a good thing to use against wight. A little more struggling later and Small Paul goes up in flame and Sam can breathe freely again. The blue glow has gone out of Small Paul's eyes. Imagine having a dragon to breathe fire on these wights! That would take them out in great numbers efficiently.

Outside, Gilly is surrounded by a dozen more wights. I like how Martin ramps up the tension here; he puts the characters into even more trouble, Indiana Jones-style, and you're wondering, with twelve wights surrounding Gilly how the heck they're going to get out of this one. Also, by surrounding her, we get a pretty clear hint that they are indeed after her baby. Picking it up for the Others. Sam recognizes the wights as both wildlings and brothers; among the brothers he sees Lark the Sisterman, Softfoot, Ryles, Chett (from the prologue) and Hake with half a head missing. Their horse has been torn apart. "It's not fair," Sam says with a whimper, and the raven lands on his shoulder repeating the word. "Fair, fair..." and then "far, fear." Uh? What? Again, Sam hears the weirwood leaves rustle (they must be rustling pretty loud to be heard over twelve wights ripping apart a horse), and man the raven is using different (but similar) words (or Sam hears it so) and I'm like, WTF BABY. "Go," the bird says as thousands (really?!) of ravens are perched on the weirwood tree and suddenly descend on the wights with fury and determination. The Old Gods have listened, Sam! Whoever they might be...ahem. I had forgotten this scene, to be honest; or, the TV series has twisted my memory of it. But here, then, we have lots of ravens actively helping Sam and Gilly escape. But why? And why didn't they help, say, Ser Waymar Royce? Or Jon, back at Castle Black with the two wights there? I suppose because of the weirwood tree and its face; someone's been looking through it and sees what's going on, and sends the ravens to help. I'm in A Dance with Dragons territory now I realize, and I want to re-read it to properly understand everything that's going on north of the Wall in that book before I decide what's going on here and now in Sam III, ASoS. 

 Coldhands art, by acazigot @

OOOOOH! Haha! No, I hadn't forgotten about him, but I had forgotten he appeared so (fairly) early in the novel! There he is, Mr. Coldhands himself. But are the ravens his, or is he too sent by someone else? But do note how he appears in the same chapter that places much focus on Small Paul's appearance; Coldhands is a wight, no doubt. Another mystery comes riding into the saga, on an elk of all things. The elk sounds like the ancient megaloceros, actually. The elk rider says "Here" and offers his hand, and Sam thanks him, then sees that the hand is black and cold...just as we've had Small Paul's hands described a few times. Only this wight has kept his social skills.

And so one of the big unsolved mysteries of A Song of Ice and Fire has entered the stage. Coldhands. We're all wondering who he is - there's too little textual evidence to be 100% sure who he is (or rather, was) - unlike, say, who Jon Snow's mother is (or rather, was). Fourteen years we've been waiting to find out who Coldhands is. I wonder if Martin knows or if it's something he's still figuring out himself. He could've told us in A Dance with Dragons but didn't, even after all those years. If Martin does know Coldhands' identity and has always known, then he's really good at abstaining from revealing too much too early.

Also, Coldhands calls Sam "brother", which is a big hint that the wight might in fact be Dickon Tarly. Or a brother of the Night's Watch.
Among the many suggested candidates we have Benjen Stark, Stonesnake, a son of Craster (then his "brother" could have been meant for Gilly as in "No, I am your brother"), Ser Waymar Royce, Gared, Ser Duncan the Tall and I'll add Bittersteel to that list. No, I'm not telling you why just yet.

Short but exciting little chapter punctuated by pity, next up is Arya, who is nowhere near as clumsy or unsure of herself as Sam is. Contrast is good.

1 comment:

  1. Royce was fully turned, while all Craster sons were taken by Others