Thursday, July 3, 2014

[Re-read] Sansa V: Shades of Black

[Series-wide spoilers ahead]

Wow, I just lost two hours to a number of threads about foreshadowing over at Westeros. I am amazed at how many details attentive readers can pry out of the books, and how people collectively have, through observing carefully any and all clues in the texts, kind of figured out where the story is going (of course, until we have those books, it remains speculative but there are a lot of convincing arguments there). Here are some of the threads, practically overflowing with thought-provoking suggestions as to what is, and what is not, foreshadowing in A Song of Ice and Fire.
It feels like Martin went out of his way and beyond to make every sentence constructed either foreshadowing, allusion, or [insert other literary technique]. Needless to say, not everything can have been correctly understood, but still if half of it turns out to be right, Martin is still the most amazing gardener ever. Needless to say, don't dive in if you haven't read everything Ice & Fire.

In other fantasy-related news, the re-read of The Crippled God, the breath-taking, awe-inspiring and challenging finale to Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen cycle, has begun. Follow a first-time reader and a re-reader as they embark on this dense, complicated volume of lore that might just be even deeper than Martin's work in terms of [insert literary techniques]. And Steam is tempting me sooo much with the new CRPG Divinity: Original Sin, with people calling it the best RPG since Baldur's Gate II, but I must be strong and withstand the temptation. I do not have time for this frolickery! But I wanna...

Let's squash that bug and read some Sansa V instead. Sansa Stark, Queen of Darkness! ... Maybe?

So, flipping back from Tyrion to Sansa again, the drama continues and was heightened with the poisoning of Joffrey Baratheon. We learn right away that Sansa has fled the throne room and now finds herself among the trees of her somewhat-secret hideout. She doesn't actually know that Joffrey is dead; we as readers do, as it was described as quite a definite end in the previous chapter. She remembers how terrible it was and that she couldn't watch - instead she ran off, followed by Lady Tanda who found the time to tell Sansa that she has a good heart, and that "not every maid would weep so for a man who set her aside and wed her to a dwarf". I find it strange that Lady Tanda found the time to compose such a long and convoluted sentence as they were both running off, so Martin must have felt he needed it in there; right away, Sansa laughs at the thought that she has a good heart - a clue that foreshadows her character arc going in the direction of, if not outright fantasy evil, a cold/calculating character? Feels like a solid reason to include the minor detail, at any rate. But I still chuckle at the thought of the two fleeing the throne room, then as they take a pause to breathe, Tanda comes up with that long line of dialogue before they both rush on. Of course, there's also the dramatic irony - Tanda doesn't realize that Sansa is not weeping for Joffrey. She even wonders, as she listens to the bells toll, if her tears are the tears of joy. I'm thinking that the tragic circumstances piled upon all the tragedy she already has endured, is more than enough to make her sob. She wants to dance, though, showing us that she is happy with the outcome in the throne room in one way, suggesting that indeed she might develop a "colder armor" - becoming an Ice Queen, perhaps? If not literally, maybe figuratively? Watch me ponder and speculate after having read seven threads on foreshadowing. Lady Tanda had even more to say, we find out, but it doesn't feel as important as the first. Just a bit o' salt in the wound when she says the gods must be cruel to take him at his wedding feast, which no doubt is a statement that would hurt Sansa's heart (as her own brother and mother were murdered at her uncle's wedding feast). The dialogue Tanda has here just gives us examples of how she is a somewhat dim character who doesn't read other characters that well. 

Eventually Sansa realizes she is weeping for her brother -indeed- and Margaery as well, not wishing this upon her ("twice wed, twice widowed"). She wriggles out of her gown and puts on the clothes she has hidden in an oak, and she remembers Ser Dontos Hollard's words of advice (and again, the possibility of foreshadowing Sansa's "turn to the Dark Side"): Dress warmly, and dress dark. Martin spends an entire paragraph describing the look of her new costume, and - again - now I wonder if there's some symbolism or hidden foreshadowing or whatever at play (several posts in those seven threads discuss Martin's seemingly very determined use of colors): Thick brown wool might suggest that she becomes nondescript, which is useful for fleeing of course, but also turns out to be true in the sense that she becomes Alayne Stone; it is decorated with freshwater pearls but the cloak will cover them; could mean that she won't be found anytime soon; the cloak's a deep green; she might end up with Robin Hood; and the shoes are simple and sturdy - showing that she will come to appreciate simpler things in life and not have her head in the clouds all the time. Also, she thinks of her skin as having turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel, which could symbolize her character arc; from the brittle porcelain princess she was in AGoT, to the ivory betrothed of the King, and now to steel - dangerous and deadly. Ah!

She discovers that one of the stones in her hairnet is missing, which is Martin telling us there was indeed something up with that hairnet. The stones in the hairnet were black amethysts from Asshai; but I have no idea whether this has any bearing on the plot, whatsoever. I don't think so. One could wonder where the Tyrells had gotten Asshai amethysts, perhaps? Silver is mentioned twice here, suggesting the moon perhaps - or night. Problem is you can read into details until you go bleary-eyed, but sometimes one must assume things are just what they are without seeking deeper meaning. Lest you go mad and join the ravenous hordes of Westeros dot org. Dammit, silver's mentioned thrice. Sansa remembers that Dontos had told her that she absolutely had to wear it at the wedding, and that it was magical. Interestingly, Martin has her think What kind of magic? and in the next sentence she thinks of how the king is dead - linking, however faintly, to Melisandre burning three leeches; one for Balon Greyjoy, one for Robb Stark, and one for...Joffrey. She is worried that Ser Dontos won't show up, but before she can get overly nervous, he appears, "reeling drunk".

Calling himself the Florian to her Jonquil, he evidently sees this encounter and rescue as quite more romantic than scared, sobbing Sansa does. Of course, Sansa's notion of romance has changed quite a lot since she began her journey, and Martin choosing to remind us through Dontos' idealizing of the situation brings the point home (perhaps bluntly). She knows now that the story of Florian and Jonquil is hopelessly romantic, and the real world is less so. He catches her arm, and Sansa pulls away from his touch, which says everything about her stance. Suspecting foul play, Sansa asks what sort of stones were in the silver net, and he tells her they held magic, and she counters that with "There was murder in them!" Dontos tries to assure her Joffrey choked on his pie, and that the black amethysts in her hairnet had nothing to do with it. When she continues, he tells her to be quiet, denying that he did anything but leaving it open for the reader to continue to assume that Sansa is on to something with regards the hairnet (and of course, the TV show made it quite clear who was behind the murder of Joffrey). He tells her they have to run, because they will search for her, and her husband Tyrion has been arrested. She is shocked to hear this, suggesting Sansa has no suspicion of Tyrion in the matter.

She follows Dontos, and as they run she begins to wonder if Tyrion might be involved after all, which leads to her realizing that if he is arrested, suspected for poisoning the king, then she will be suspected as well - after all, she is his wife. It is still strange, after all these decades of having read A Storm of Swords, to think that Sansa Stark is married to Tyrion Lannister. For me, it remains THE twist of the tale so far. It's not a twist exactly. Rather an unexpected plot development. She even has good reason to kill Joffrey, she cleverly (being Sansa this is pretty clever thinking) realizes, making it even more possible that she's a prime suspect. She pulls up her hood to hide her face, and Dontos leads her on, stopping to retch. She notices he is wearing the arms of House Hollard and he explains that for once, for this moment, now that Joffrey is dead anyway, he wants to be a knight - he wants to do at least one thing right.

Down some steps they flee, through a small courtyard, into a dark gallery lined with rows of empty armor; the light from Dontos' taper makes their shadows stretch into shapes reminding Sansa of dragons - and she thinks, "The hollow knights are turning into dragons." Here again I feel that Martin is spending a sentence on something that seems like nothing but a stray thought, but might just have a deeper meaning. My personal take on it is that the Knights of the Hollow Hill, aka the Brotherhood without Banners, will end up serving either Daenerys Targaryen or (the presumably fake) Aegon - both "dragons" (Targaryens). Mmm, I didn't see this line in any of the "Foreshadowing" threads (admittedly I didn't read all closely because it got tiring after a while - in the meantime I have discovered there are parts 8 and 9 as well, by the way).

Dontos opens a door, and Sansa finds herself atop a cliff, below her the river and above the sky, both black (there's black again, Martin using dark colors to describe Sansa's flight might just also "color" her arc). Dontos shows her the secret ladder carved into the stone and they descend to meet a boat that will row them out to a waiting ship.

He has to convince her to climb down, she's afraid, but in the end she complies if he goes first: an interesting little look at how Sansa is changing - she's always been a little cold at heart, I suppose (when it comes to others, at any rate), and now she is thinking it is better he go first so she doesn't get him atop of her if he falls. Of course, he's drunk so she has to take some precautions, but it reminds me that Sansa Stark in other scenes earlier in the story also has shown herself to be somewhat detached and calculating. Here's an example to prove the point, from as early as A Game of Thrones:

Jeyne Poole wept so hysterically that Septa Mordane finally took her off to regain her composure, but Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too (...)

This part shows us that Sansa feels no compassion for a "hysterically weeping" friend, and that watching a man die fascinates her rather than makes her frightened, or hysterical, or sad.

Speaking of weeping, Dontos is weeping, as Sansa realizes (again, in a somewhat detached way; will Sansa end up a person stripped off emotions?) - it makes her decide Dontos killed Joffrey, which we know is not true, and then he gives her a sloppy kiss and begins the descent. As she waits for him, she listens to the bells still tolling, before beginning her own descent. Ironically she thinks she has to be brave like "a lady in a song", precisely the type of character she no longer can believe in. Not daring to look down, we get a slowly written paragraph of her descent which reflects how slow the going is, which is pretty brilliant. When she finally gets down, Dontos pulls her to her feet and leads her to a small skiff with a mysterious man. Dontos names him Oswell. Since we only know of one Oswell in the story, it must be Oswell Kettleblack and this might be our first indication that he works for Littlefinger. I guess he is disguised, as the appearance described sounds more like a Halloween-costume than a corrupt knight. Martin continues to play with words related to darkness: shadows, black river, black shadows. I love the image of this clandestine boat-trip through a river filled with wreckage from the battle: "(...) sliding above the sunken galleys, past broken masts, burned hulls, and torn sails." I missed the wreckage on screen.

The fog grows thicker, suggesting Sansa is heading into unknown territory not only literally but also figuratively; a change to her arc, new possibilities but also new dangers. I suppose that traditionally fog symbolizes confusion, danger, and the unseen, and all three of them will be part of Sansa's continuing story. Again Martin reminds us the waters are dark before they come to a galley waiting out on the Blackwater. Sansa thanks the rower for his assistance before boarding the galley. Two sailors await by the rail, I'm glad to report (the ship in the TV series felt like a ghost ship with no crew - or maybe I just didn't notice them). Littlefinger stands waiting for her, together with Ser Lothor Brune. When Dontos asks for his reward, Littlefinger has three men pelt him with crossbow bolts and then they light the little boat on fire. Sansa seems to be horrified, but again it seems to be more for altruistic reasons (because he saved me). Still, she does retch over the rail in disgust with the current events. She wonders if she's actually done something stupid, going from worse to worst. Littlefinger though claims Ser Dontos was just after the money (though the way Ser Dontos acted made it look like the man had some honorable intentions at the same time, just that his alcoholism was stronger).

And so Littlefinger's teachings begin in earnest, right away: "You told me that life was not a song (...) Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?" Littlefinger responds that, yeah, pretty much, well except for the two of us, of course. He goes on to reveal that it was him behind the note leading Sansa to the godswood; then, he tells her he will show her the cabin because she must be weary. Astute observation, there.
On their way down, Littlefinger, like a classic movie villain, reveals more of his involvement: it was him who had hired the jousting dwarfs but the intent remains unclear except that Littlefinger suggested it would annoy uncle Tyrion a deal, which made Joffrey agree to have the dwarfs at the wedding. What it seems then, is that Littlefinger did actually attempt to have Tyrion arrested so that he is blamed for the poisoning and summarily executed - "Widowhood will become you, Sansa" is the clue here. By removing Tyrion, Littlefinger can have Sansa for himself. Which makes me think that the other part of the scheming - the poisoning of Joffrey - was a Tyrell thing only. It didn't matter for Littlefinger if Joffrey lived or died, but combining the two deals was of course what he needed to free Sansa from her marriage. Quite clever then. But it would perhaps have been easier to just poison Tyrion. Plans within plans, plots within plots, plots and schemes are the same thing yadayada. I guess Petyr made a deal with the Tyrells (he's already shown to be on good terms with them in A Clash of Kings) and so both parties got something out of it.

Littlefinger shows her the cabin, and a chest full of fresh clothes. Not quite the clothes deserving of her beauty, as Littlefinger creepily notes, but Sansa only thinks that he had this all prepared just for her. Ah, and here Littlefinger confesses he had no motive for killing Joffrey. However, he is supposed to be in the Vale, so he is sowing confusion among his enemies, which is the point he tries to hammer home rather bluntly, because Sansa is going to learn to play the game of thrones. He goes on to tell her how he could never have Catelyn Stark, but in another dimension (so to speak) Sansa could have been his daughter. It all amounts to showing us that Petyr is motivated by a twisted sort of love or lust for Sansa, a replacement for the Catelyn he never had. "You are safe now, that's all that matters. You are safe with me, and sailing home."

I remember coming to this point the first time I read the novel, some fourteen years ago. At the time, I didn't quite see how creepy Littlefinger is (the TV show this season made it quite clear, however, strange how images and sound can change perception). At that moment, I still thought that Sansa was indeed safe now, and that it was a good thing Littlefinger came for her. Re-reading it and getting all the details right, of course, shows that already here Martin suggests Sansa is in as much trouble as ever. What with the constant use of dark colors, Littlefinger casually ordering Dontos dead, and the way he talks to her. Quite a brave thing, too, by the author, to portray a character like Petyr Baelish. Quite unusual type, especially for a fantasy tale. I, like the rest of fandom, eagerly await his comeuppance, which no doubt will come. The most logical solution would have to be Sansa outmastering the master of the game in some way, but maybe Martin wants to avoid that most obvious of routes. Knowing him, we might just see a different outcome, but we won't know that...until if and when we get the rest of the story.

I am afraid I have resigned to the belief that Martin will not be able to finish the saga. It feels like time has run out, in a way, but I hope I am just overly pessimistic. Game of Thrones is breathing down his neck; a fanbase growing out of all sane proportions have begun to feel the sting of the Long Waits; and yet he thinks it is prudent to fly over to France and Switzerland for some fun. Yes, it is his choice, but it does mean that The Winds of Winter will be even later. In this particular case, maybe just by a few days (a week?) but still. It's like everybody is watching the train come in at full speed, and Martin is supposed to be running the train but he is busy editing a superhero collection on his lap at the wheel.

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