Wednesday, June 4, 2014

[Re-read] Bran IV: Whatever is Coming

Man, those last images from this week's Game of Thrones still re-appear in my head from time to time. It rocked, brutally so. I have realized that I never "see" the visceral stuff so...viscerally when I read. Which I suppose is a good thing. In the novel, I have now come to the 57th chapter, and Bran's fourth. Even though his chapters are few and far apart, I feel that Bran's story is written in such a way that it still feels as important as the other story lines. Perhaps because it is the most...mystical and esoteric of the lot? You just know his story line is going to impact other story lines when we (if we) eventually get that far. For this reason, I often try to look for foreshadowing and hints in Bran's chapters as to where the general story is headed. And of course we had that sinister and cold revelation back in was it the fourth episode of this year's Game of Thrones season that may or may not have been a spoiler.

"The Nightfort" (c) Fantasy Flight Games

So the chapter opens with Meera saying "it's just another castle" they are viewing, but Bran thinks it is the Nightfort, and that he has come to the end of the world. A pretty ominous introduction of this abandoned ruin, then. Martin keeps it dark when we are told that Bran has dreamed of the death of his brother Robb and his direwolf Grey Wind, and though he knows he probably dreamed true (because he did the same thing when his father got his head relocated to a pike), he doesn't want to tell Meera and Jojen, as if that increases the chance the dream wasn't true after all. It's sweet and sad at the same time. And it hits me that Bran didn't dream of his mother, Catelyn, which is fun to notice of course! Because, you know, she isn't entirely dead after all. In fact, I notice how Catelyn, as Lady Stoneheart, is often referred to as "ZombieCat", but I guess this is a wrong assumption; after all, whenever Beric Dondarrion was brought back to life, he wasn't considered an undead character, but a living, breathing character who just so happened to have been dead a time or six. So Lady Stoneheart is alive, not looking as good as she used to do, but alive. And this is of course pointed out right before our eyes in this chapter when Bran doesn't dream of her death. So easy to notice now, but I bet you I didn't blink an eye the first time I read it. Just another one of those tiny details that make re-reading these novels fun.

Bran is afraid of the place, because Old Nan has told some scary stories about it (the scariest, actually), and I kind of wish we had experienced such a tale told by Nan in A Game of Thrones, because it would feel more properly setup. Here and now, it feels like something Martin came up with much later in the writing process and thus it feels a bit tacked on. Maybe I've forgotten and she does tell a Rat Cook tale back in the beginning. It's already five years since I re-read A Game of Thrones for this blog and the book based on it ("Waiting for Dragons", available on, run and buy!). Man.

Anyhow, to me, right now, it feels as if the story of the Rat Cook is getting its first proper introduction in this chapter, and before I knew how Martin loves to parallell historical events and current events, I probably didn't pay it too much attention. I thought of it as some coloring, to fill out the historical aspect of the setting. Now, I am not so sure anymore. We might just have a repeated motif here, with the Red Wedding and the tale of the Rat Cook possibly mirroring each other. And, of course, there's another sinister figure from the dark past, the Night's King, who gets mentioned here as the former ruler of the Nightfort. And, finally, the pieces of information we are fed also do some foreshadowing; so Martin juggles a lot with these tidbits from the past, narrative-wise, and it remains interesting to try and figure out where the puzzle pieces are supposed to go.

I mean, in one small paragraph we learn that "the Rat Cook had served the Andal king his prince-and-bacon pie" which foreshadows a certain ploy directed by Lord Manderly in A Dance with Dragons; we learn that seventy-nine sentinels stood their watch - I am not sure what to take away from this piece of information yet; it was the castle where "brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered", echoing Ellia of Dorne's fate, but which could foreshadow an event in the North to come - and I know this sounds way out there, but what if it foreshadows Daenerys' fate? Even the names of the characters are similar (and flint is used to make fire, no?); it was at the Nightfort that King Sherrit had called down a curse on the Andals of old; where apprentice boys faced a "thing" in the night; where blind Symeon Star-Eyes has seen hellhounds fighting (direwolves?); Mad Axe had once walked the yards of the Nightfort, "and climbed these towers, butchering his brothers in the dark". I do hope this doesn't mean Bran will kill his actual brothers - but brothers could mean, in this sense, men of the Night's Watch, and I am not entirely certain we won't see Bran going against the Night's Watch, perhaps those who were being naughty to Jon Snow in A Dance with Dragons? Yes, I am trying to read something into everything Martin gives us here, even though there might be red herrings. The thing is, that the more I read these books and read other people's opinions and perceptions, the text seems to simply abound with meaning and subtext almost everywhere. You just can't know where Martin is playing us, or where he is playing his literary devices straight. He does remind us, through Bran's thoughts, that not everything may be true, though. I feel a little authorial intrusion here. However, now we learn that Bran once asked his uncle Benjen about the Nightfort, and once again Martin manages to put old missing Ben back into the story - he remains a presence, even though he is physically absent from the actions. No way he isn't important to the conclusion of the story! Benjen didn't seem to put much stock in the old tales, though, just telling Bran that the Watch abandoned the Nightfort two hundred years ago. Still, another mention of Benjen, again related to Bran's developing story arc.

Bran forces himself to look around. The description we are given does evoke a good sense of Bran's fears; seen through the eyes of another character, we might not have had "a nervous whistling sound", groaning keeps, or rats scrabbling under the floor (always reminding me of H.P. Lovecraft). I love how Martin really is inside Bran's head when he looks around, and how his perception of the Nightfort colors our perception. There is more - spindly trees and leaves scuttling like roaches, and lest we forget, a weirwood tree. Even Summer is not at ease here, but that could be because Bran is nervous of course. I like how Martin keeps it ambiguous.

We learn that Bran has insisted many times that there is no way to get through the Wall here, but Jojen is curious about the place and wants to check for gates himself, not quite trusting Bran on this. The gate that the castle once guarded is indeed closed to them, packed with frozen stone and rubble. For a moment, Bran regrets not going after Jon, but as the TV show made clear, that wouldn't help very much though he would've gotten quite close.  We're given a brief flashback as to what happened back at Queenscrown from Bran's point of view, where they had seen Jon Snow and the wildlings, and how Bran almost lost Summer. In this recap, Jojen tells Bran that he really doesn't want to meet wildings again, so they better stay away from Jon - but is this line one of those little ironies Martin likes to sprinkle his text with? Will Bran meet wildings later in the story? It is with a palpable shrug I deny any knowledge one way or the other.

Bran points out that only three castles have unsealed gates - Castle Black, Eastwatch, and Shadow Tower. This is a nice reminder for the reader, as well. I remember a time when I believed there were only these three castles along the Wall. Meera wants to climb the Wall, Jojen doesn't see the point. Bran wishes that he could climb up the Wall, which is a clever way to remind us that he's broken but used to love to climb. Martin sure likes to point out how much Bran would like to climb again, at any rate. The question is, could Martin ever find it in his heart to grant Bran such an impossibly seeming wish? Meera climbs up, hoping to see anything that can help them on their quest. There's some information about how the steps are carved into the ice of the Wall itself, but Meera manages to get up without a scratch anyway.

While she's up there having a look, Jojen suggests they take a look around the ruins, and again Bran finds himself fearful, but doesn't want to voice it. It reminds me that Bran, in the book, is so much younger than the puberty-stricken fellow we see on the screen. I like the sweet, young Bran (and I think the actor looked and played the part in the first season) of the books. Summer does catch a big rat, and that creeps Bran out of course. And as they explore the vaults and cellars, there are indeed lots of rats scurrying about here. In Bran's mind, there are "worse things" than rats in the Nightfort, though we aren't told just what. The suggestion, as is so often proved, is more intriguing than a full explanation. We do get some other full explanations however - more historical infodumping. The Nightfort is twice as old as Castle Black, and the largest of the castles on the Wall. Good Queen Alysanne replaced the fort with a smaller castle at Deeplake, paid for by her jewels, and thus the Watch abandoned the Nightfort to the rats and went to Deeplake. I don't know how important this information is, but there it is. And another mention of Alysanne, whose role might just be another mirror to current characters (I suppose most people will think of her as being mirrored by Daenerys).

Bran speaks of ghosts, retelling some of Old Nan's stories to Jojen. Seventy-nine deserters who went south to be outlaws. Ah, the earlier mentioned seventy-nine sentinels who stood watch. One of them was a son of Lord Ryswell, so they went to his keep in the barrowlands for shelter, but the lord only returned them to the Nightfort and their avowed duties. They were all sealed up in the ice, facing north. I wonder if these guys will come back once the Wall falls (or melts), in the employ of the Others? Why not? Or maybe they will have a chance at redeeming themselves and fight the good fight, who knows. The thing is, Martin spends enough energy on this tale to suspect there will be some kind of small payoff.

Suddenly, Martin kinds of breaks his style by introducing a lot of parenthetical sentences (but I don't really mind).  One thing's for sure, the Nightfort is very old, as evidenced by crumbling iron bars and parts sunk in the ground and other parts collapsed.

At the end of the day, Meera returns telling them she saw the haunted forests, wild hills, a lake, and clouds. And patches of old snow. An eagle circling, which she waved at. At first I'm like rolling my eyes with Bran thinking how very interesting Meera, but then Martin just stabs you in the eye with the mention of the eagle, suggesting a warg spy. I bet he chuckled over that one. She tells them there's no way they can climb down the wall on the northern side. Which is bad. Jojen insists this is the place he has seen in a dream, so there must be a gate somewhere that hasn't been sealed.

Night falls, and it all becomes even spookier for Bran, who now begins to think of the Night's King. He had been the 13th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, a fearless warrior; and his fault was that he was fearless, "for all men must know fear." This little bit, then, might just point ahead to a certain fearless warrior from Dorne. The Night's King's downfall was a woman, however, "glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars". This sounds, of course, suspiciously like an Other - but not necessarily. Describing someone like this is not unusual in the poetic sense. However, we also learn that her "skin was cold as ice" but somehow this fellow still fell in love with her, and gave his seed to her (and by extension, according to Old Nan anyway, his very soul). Could Hodor have humped and Other, giving his soul (wits) away?! Anyway, this Night's King brought her to the fort and proclaimed himself king and her his queen, and used "strange sorceries" to bind his brothers to his will. They ruled for thirteen years, king and "corpse queen" (yes it is stated that bluntly) until a Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings (the guy with the horn, then) joined to free the brothers at the Nightfort. The text does not state clearly if the Night's King fell during this rescue operation or later, but he did fall eventually, and it was discovered that he had been sacrificing to the Others. So his name had become forbidden and all records of his existence were erased (but not successfully, since we're reading about him now). The final revelation from Old Nan is that the Night's King was a Stark.

Oh man, you could probably write a book on this alone. One can speculate in all directions, not getting any closer to the truth, but the TV show then, showed us a horned character (the horns looking like a crown) among thirteen, and before they changed it, the press material from HBO called this character "Night's King". So it seems very likely that the Night's King is out and about, that his tale will have some bearing on the current plot, and that it is no accident Martin spends so many words on this legendary figure (and the Rat Cook, in this chapter, could be the red herring - the one Bran initially seems to fear the most). One could wonder where Old Nan got all her stories from, though.

They decide to sleep in the kitchens, which is one of the least ruined spots, and of course holds a crooked weirwood which has bursted up through the domed roof; and, instantly reminding me of that great scene in Moria in The Lord of the Rings, there is a well here. It's a different kind of weirwood it seems, though. I type for the Children, another for the Others? Bran's thoughts return to the Rat Cook, as if Martin tried to kind of "hide" the Night's King information in between Bran's memories of the other tales. We get a sweet bit where Hodor calls his own name in the well, enjoying the echo. It surely must be a homage to the classic Tolkien-scene where Pippin alerts the orc population of Moria to their presence by throwing a rock down a well? Hodor tosses a slate over the edge as well, and Bran reprimands him. Bran is clearly afraid to wake something up. Very Tolkienesque. For some reason, Martin decides to break up the nice fantasy atmosphere by having Meera bone a fish, but there you go. They get a fire going, and its all cozy, but Bran can't stop thinking of the big white rat hunting down and eating his children. Why was he so cursed? Because he had violated the custom of guest right. In essence, it tells us that 'don't you worry, Walder Frey will have his comeuppance'. That's how I choose to read it at least. And then they go to sleep.

Bran wakes up when he hears a noise. Now, he tries to tell himself it's nothing, kind of finding his courage after all the morose thinking before. But he hears footsteps, coming their way. It is really exciting though, or at least it was the first time around, because I had no idea what was going on, who it could be, what would happen next. He realizes the sound comes from the well (the most properly introduced and featured well in the series, I believe). Martin relishes in keeping up the tension, slowing down the pace to have us literally feel the fear with Bran, his senses alert to whatever is coming. That should have been the Stark family motto. Whatever is coming.

It must be something big coming, Bran realizes, which is our first clue. I never thought we'd see a Rat Cook, of course, but I didn't guess correctly either I suppose. Meera wakes up to, tense and alert. Oh man, Martin really pulls you in, but loves to keep you hanging so long, filling us in with sensory details to make the scene come alive so splendidly.

Bran decides to slip his skin and reaches for Hodor, and Martin takes his sweet time going through that process again; Bran is able to walk with Hodor's body and grabs a sword. And then finally - finally - a huge black shape heaves itself up into darkness, and it is none other than Sam the Slayer. The only nice guy in Westeros, so that's pretty lucky, Bran. Be joyous! And Gilly, of course. The text never makes it clear how Sam got up that well, we only hear footsteps, and so I often imagine Sam defying gravity and walking up the well vertically. Teehee!  Gilly by the way reminds me of Craster, and Craster sacrifices babies to the Others, which in turn reminds me of the Night's King. There is a link here - I suppose the Night's King started the tradition of sacrifice to the Others somehow, a tradition not broken until Craster's death. Could the Night's King still be a good guy in a way, saving the realm by sacrificing babies? Why do they have to be male, though? Maybe that was just Craster. He would need only the women.

Sam and Gilly explain that someone named Coldhands told them to find people here at the Nightfort (how did Coldhands know? Told by the Three-eyed Crow I suppose). The obvious question is finally uttered - how did Sam and Gilly get through the Wall? And so Bran & co. learn what to do next. Apparently, though, only a man of the Night's Watch can open it. Why? This must link to the Night's King as well, I believe. Or the sentinels. We get a fragment more info on Coldhands; the most important thing perhaps is a connection to the Children of the Forest, who, according to Old Nan, ride on elks, just like Coldhands does. But what is the connection between everything mystical north of the Wall and the direwolves? I am curious. I love how so little has been revealed in this story line about the mysterious forces, even though it is frustrating to know so little at the same time. And then when we get to A Dance with Dragons I feel like we get to know too much, but I still want to know more. #confused #borntoolose

Now I do think that Martin perhaps drags the text a little bit too long in this chapter; the essentials of the chapter could have been conveyed in a couple of pages less. I do love the banter between Sam and Bran's group, and how they are a bit confused as to who's who (Sam believes Meera's name is Summer, for example), but there is a point where I'm like, get on with it. The main event is the discovery of a way out and the meeting, and we've had both now.

But time is spent describing the journey down the well in search of the gate, until we finally get to it. Once more I get high fantasy vibes. It's not Durin's Door, but there is something magical about it; The Black Gate is white, with a face carved in it. Like a weirwood tree in door format. It even glows! Speak, friend, and enter! Interestingly, the face, to Bran, seems old and dead: "If a man could live for a thousand years and never die but just grow older, his face might become like that." This is Martin foreshadowing A Dance with Dragons, way back in 2000. Another small detail I had forgotten. Now, if the door actually shows the character Bran meets, or if this is an other seer, remains to be seen. The door opens its eyes and speaks, not friend, but "Who are you?" This really is magical, Tolkienesque high fantasy, isn't it? It's so far removed from King's Landing in terms of tone and style. The contrast might just be too big for me to "believe" this story as much as I find myself believing in, say, Tyrion's politicking in the south. When Sam speaks the magic password - the oath of the Night's Watch - the mouth opens until it disappears and leaves an opening into the north. It's so fantasy!

Exiting the gate, Bran bangs his head because Hodor doesn't stoop low enough, and a drop of water falls on his nose. It is strangely warm and salty. I don't know why Martin chooses to end the chapter with this particular detail, but I am sure he had reasons. It could tell us that the Wall is "weeping" (melting); but what does the salt have to do with it? Wait! The prophecy.

Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone

Now, I know Bran isn't being born again here, but I am trying to point out that "salt" is mentioned here, and Martin chose to add it to the description that ends this chapter. What's with Martin and salt? Dammit. I do believe the prophecy came true in A Dance with Dragons in Jon's latest chapter, but then why have this description here in Bran's chapter? A red herring? It's like he's building up to the end of the chapter, then TADADADDA! A drop of water is warm and salty. Oh, all right. Exciting. There must be something to it. Maybe I am overlooking something, or forgetting something essential here. I am very tired after a few days of hard work, and have a hard time keeping my eyes open even though it's the middle of the day, but there's something about this description that I feel eludes me. Feel free to enlighten at will!

A difficult chapter to write about, because so much of it is exposition on legends that may or may not be true.

Oh, I realize now that there were steps carved into the walls of the well. Then it all makes much more sense.
Have a nice day!

1 comment:

  1. What do steps have to do with salt? Especially when water in wells is usually drinkable.
    Also I constantly thought the sound wasn't from the well and that Bran misheard the source - thanks to TV series =D