Friday, May 2, 2014

[Re-read] Arya XI: The Chapter that Really was Just a Scene (But a Good Scene)

Seriously, the Star Wars: Episode VII casting news really rocked my internals, and it has taken me a few days to process, check out the latest rumors regarding the film, and reading people's speculations online. But all this time, the last scenes of this week's Game of Thrones have been lingering in my mind, too. But mostly, my geek time has been spent on two things this week: reading Sovereign by C.J. Sansom, a medieval detective story that's been waiting a couple of years - I'm halfway through, and it's quite interesting so far - and working on a private wiki where I am putting in all the stuff I've made up for my role playing games and fiction (and boy I've been busy - every free moment I've found I've been adding material. Right now I am scanning old hand-drawn maps and heraldry and stuff and stuff). All the while trying to figure out how the heck they are going to continue the Star Wars story, and wondering if HBO didn't inadvertently reveal that the prime minister of the Others is none other than the Night's King
In addition, yesterday my first-born, now eight, wondered if I had any Dungeons & Dragons computer games where he could explore tunnels and traps and fight monsters and find loot. Which had me dragging him into the world of the Forgotten Realms by that venerable but great game of '91/'92, Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon. It doesn't look like much and its a pretty restrictive game for a kid used to Minecraft, I suppose, but I showed him a little bit, and what do you know, I got the urge to run the dungeons of these games again. I didn't, though, but I did fire up Neverwinter Nights 2 again last night, it's been so long since I left my paladin What's-his-name and his story - to the point that when I loaded up the game I had no clue where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. But after looking through the journal and talking to some characters I remembered I was trying to prove myself innocent of a mass murder and so I spent an hour last night investigating Port Llast. It was nice to kick back and just enjoy an adventure again. ...But half-baked computer game fantasy adventures lead to a desire for some proper story-telling, and so it is time to dive back into A Storm of Swords, where we are still reeling from the shock of seeing Robb Stark get peppered with crossbow bolts and thrust through the heart with a sword, and Catelyn Stark going insane as she slits the throat of a lackwit fool before receiving similar treatment herself. What a Moment in Literature!

Well, it's a short and tight chapter this one, so I'll try to keep this post short and tight as well (right). The first paragraph is Martin settling back into the atmosphere outside the Twins, wet clay and torn grass and dancing flames and wind - your average music festival only with armor and swords. Arya realizes that the castle isn't closed, even though the sergeant they met in her previous chapter said it would be. For half a heartbeat she chewed her lip, too anxious to smile. And that is called "rubbing it in", giving us a ray of hope when we already know Arya's too late. It's both harsh and wondrously beautiful in all its dramatic irony. And I kind of wish they had played up the tension like this in the show as well, though I must say they did a mighty fine job with the Red Wedding, generally. 

Sandor reins up suddenly, cursing as their left wheel sinks in the mud. He tells to her get down, knocking her sideways. She screams in anger, but the Hound leaps down off the wagon as well, drawing his sword - there are riders pouring out of the castle, all in plate armor (that Lord Walder does seem to have wealth). They hear Grey Wind (all right, "a wolf") howl and the sound makes Arya shiver, and when Arya looks around, she sees that a pavillion has collapsed. It takes a few moments for her to realize that she is no longer witnessing a camp celebrating a wedding...but a camp in chaos, a battle emerging before her eyes. I like how Martin makes us feel Arya's dawning realization. 

Now she hears that the same song is played in both castles, and she recognizes it as The Rains of
Castamere, which she has heard Tom o' Sevens sing. Three Frey riders have noticed them and come toward them, "pounding through the shallows" (I like that descriptive sentence, really gives me an image of how they move toward them). Sandor cuts his horse loose and leaps onto its back, and wheels toward the Freys and now Arya feels conflicting emotions: All this time she has wanted the Hound to die, but now...he is the only thing between the Freys and her. She thinks of Mycah, the butcher's boy (his legend lives on still!), and for a moment Martin is letting the reader toy with the idea of, what if Arya does decide to throw a rock at Sandor's head and end the fight - and you've bitten down all your nails already in the previous chapter and you just can't take it if Arya decides now's her chance to kill Sandor, and he is fighting now, and she hears drums and warhorns and pipes, the shriek of steel, and damn it if she doesn't actually throw that rock at Sandor! I had forgotten that little detail. She misses though. That's good. The reader exhales, before reading on, plunging back into this very dramatic moment. Oh wait, I read too fast. She didn't throw it at Sandor. Well, that's good. She threw it at one of the Frey riders. Good, good! However, this quick misreading shows how easy it is to miss small details when you are so tense about what's going on and it is as if the words can't flow fast enough because you want to see if Arya too will become a victim of House Frey, or if she will pull through with Sandor at her side. Heck, even now, so many reads later, I am rocking on my chair as I read this.

The Hound saves her from the rider she tried to hit by planting an axe in the back of his skull. He has taken out the other two Freys (and borrowed the axe from one of them). According to Tower of the Hand, this Frey with the axe lodged in his brains is one Ser Tytos Frey. Very well, we'll probably find out later in the novel. The Hound tells her that Robb is dead, and that she has to "Look. Look, damn you," which reminds me of how Syrio Forel taught her to 'see through' lies in A Game of Thrones. A nice nod to her character arc, for sure. As she looks, truly looks, she does understand that the camp has become "a butcher's den", and that the Freys are slaughtering Robb Stark's host. Sandor tells her to come with him, that they have to get away immediately. Of course we empathize with her when she just can't do that - she has to go inside and find her mother and brother. Cunningly, Martin uses the music to tell us the time outside from the time inside - when Arya hears only one drum beating, we know that this is the moment when only one player inside plays the drum, and Lord Walder Frey begins his little speech before killing Robb; in other words, at this very moment, when the Hound says Robb is dead, Robb is actually still alive - for a minute or two, anyway. Excellent stuff.

"Stupid little bitch," Sandor says to her, and it is harder to sympathize with him; he is right that they have to get out of there, of course, but the man could use a lesson or two in how to talk to young people. Sandor tells her that she will die if she goes into the castle, and maybe "Frey will let you kiss your mother's corpse" which is another nasty thing to say - but also a subtle little chuckle from Martin who knows that Catelyn herself will receive a certain kiss later in the story. Arya says that they might still be able to save her, and he tells her that he's not done living yet. "Stay or go, she-wolf. Live or die." Awesome line. Simple, but awesome. And so Arya spins away from him and darts for the gate. In most writing guides I've read they always stress the points on how to make readers relate to characters, how to make characters likeable. One point is to have a character care about family; that's something most readers can relate to (or wish they could relate to), hence seeing Arya run off to try and help her family helps us further like Arya Stark as a character. 

The mud is slowing her down, which is like taken from a bad dream, the drawbridge begins to lift, and man do I remember on the first read that I was very excited because I thought she would get inside the castle and do all kinds of mischief from the shadows, but then I saw that the chapter was about to end, and I was like dammit they are going to capture her, the Freys I mean, but then we see Stranger pounding after her, Sandor's longaxe still wet with blood and brains (mmmm) and Arya runs like the wind, thinking once more of Mycah and imagining him running from the Hound in a similar fashion (it all comes back to Mycah, eh), and then, that final line. His axe took her in the back of the head.

I was miserable after reading this the first time. I hadn't really caught on to the fact that Sandor is working really hard to keep Arya alive. I actually thought he might have chopped her to bits there, what with Robb and Catelyn dying in the previous chapter. I didn't trust Martin anymore than I did the Hound at this point. So I had to flip back and look at the contents to see if there were more Arya chapters. And there were more. And I sighed with relief, concluding that Sandor probably hit her with the flat of the blade and got her out of there against her will. 

I'm not sure, but I believe this may be the shortest chapter in the novel. But it lingers on after reading it, for sure. High tension all the way through. It really is just one long scene, and as such it kind of breaks the mold of the structure of the book, which writing guides advise not to do. Martin doesn't care, and neither do I. And from now on, we're in the land of the Aftermath of the Red Wedding, and the story will never be the same again. As Martin himself stated in a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine,

"In a long series, readers who loved the early books may envision the story going in certain directions. Often those directions are wildly divergent. When the later books actually come out, some of those readers are inevitably going to be upset, because the story on the page does not correspond with the one in their heads."

(The interview & the interview outtakes - gotta love that one comment about why spending 10 hours on an interview when he could've spent those 10 hours on The Winds of Winter. Still, it's a great and informative interview, recommended reading).

...And I suppose this kind of happened a little with me. No, I found the Red Wedding and its aftermath fantastic in how it shocked me and made all emotional about fictional characters, but from here on the story took a new and different turn, and many of the things that made me fall in love with the series - primarily the conflicts between Stark and Lannister - fell by the wayside, replaced by new characters with new missions only tangentially related to the bulk of the story in the first three books. I have to accept it, of course. If Martin wants Arya to go to Braavos and become a bling girl, and if Martin wants Sansa to marry Harry the Heir, and if Martin feels that Tywin must go, that's his decisions to make, obviously. He branched out, and branched out, adding more characters and Houses and the conflict has turned into a world-wide tapestry of stories that grew out of the initial fewer plot lines, and maybe he will manage to tie it up and in the end we'll see that it all makes sense. Only...this isn't your usual story with the standard structures in place, and, plot-wise often more closely resembles history. And history isn't a nicely linear story.

Still, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are, I suppose, entertaining and interesting on their own, and better than most fantasy fare, but for me they can never be as fantastic as the first three simply because they are, partially, about other characters, locations, and events. As we get closer to the finish line (not that it feels like we're getting closer) I suppose the Starks and Lannisters' conflicts will once again come to a head before it is all over.

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