Friday, August 22, 2014

[Re-read] Arya XII: Riders of Doom

Hello and welcome to the latest re-read of A Storm of Swords! This time I'm tackling chapter 66, Arya's twelfth, which means I have fifteen chapters and an epilogue left. I am still amazed today, fourteen years after my first read, by the scope and complexity, the characterizations and, of course, the shocks, that this massive tome provides. And even though I have previously called A Clash of Kings my favorite book in the series, I think I must now retract that statement and properly announce Storm as the best book in the series, even though it takes a little dive after the Red Wedding, but that is more due to my expectations for where the story could go and not having those expectations met. This is the main reason why I look forward to re-read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, hoping that now that I know where and how the story-lines move, I can read the story without being too bothered how Martin kind of did a massive perspective shift from King's Landing, the North, and the Riverlands to encompass a much larger world, with the Iron Islands, Dorne, and Essos becoming so much more prominent backgrounds.

One of the story-lines that I initially had a hard time getting into, was actually Arya Stark's. Yes, her adventures in Braavos are generally entertaining and well-written but to my mind, taking her away from Westeros sort of diminished my interest. I thought it would be better to continue to flesh out Westeros through Arya's eyes, than getting Braavos which I found a less interesting setting (the Titan aside, it is basically Venice, isn't it?) - by introducing an entirely new and somewhat different (culturally) setting, Martin had to kind of do a lot of work over again in terms of setting description. If the House of Black and White had stood on a lonely promontory on Crackclaw Point, or if it was found on Driftmark, we could have gotten the same story but kept it within the setting Martin has so painstakingly established through three books. I would have loved to see one more of the islands out in the storm-ravaged Narrow Sea, like Driftmark.

Of course, I have no inkling as to why Martin wanted to move Arya away; if it was only because he wanted to indulge himself in a different part of the setting (because he was tired of Westeros, for example and needed something else), I can understand it - but not necessarily like it. However, Martin may have something cooking because now that fans have kind of pieced together the rest of the story (give or take), it does seem that Braavos has become some kind of central for a lot of character movements and plot points.

Anyway, Arya is not near Braavos yet, so let's go back fourteen years in time and see how she fares while she is still on the run through the war-torn Riverlands. Oh, by the way, I have a new article up at Tower of the Hand, this time a recollection of the A Game of Thrones: Collectible Card Game. Check it out at will!

The Riverlands: Not where you take your children for a picnic

ARYA wakes up with a hole inside every morning. This might be a clue as to her future, in which she will (try to) become "no one"; it is a roundabout way of saying that Arya is losing her identity, and I like it, simple and effective. It is an "emptiness where her heart had been", which is a roundabout way of saying she is losing her humanity, becoming indifferent. All in preparation for her adventure in Braavos. I think Martin does an excellent job laying out the puzzle pieces for Arya's arc, maybe more so than with other characters. It is easy to spot on a re-read, yet written in a way that feels natural; there's a kind of natural flow to her development as a character, whereas there are some rough patches elsewhere with other characters (the best example is Tyrion Lannister's acrobatic mad skills in the beginning of A Game of Thrones). Arya is pretty depressed here, thinking of how she feels empty, and how she some mornings does not wish to wake at all (which one can chalk up as yet another hint that Arya won't outlive this tale, by the way). It's all rather bleak, isn't it? And the Hound still doesn't leave her alone, so she's kind of a prisoner as well.

However, there's a "best part". During the night, Arya dreams of wolves, and this nocturnal activity becomes her escape from the dreariness of her life. She dreams of a great pack, which she leads - quite clearly then (or is it) she is inside Nymeria in her dreams, but is she actually warging and not realizing she is not dreaming, or is she only dreaming that she is Nymeria? For some reason, Arya does not seem to recognize that she, as the pack leader, is Nymeria. She is clearly not as attuned to the Force Wargability as Bran (and Jon), so it could be that. And her pack, she dreams, will never leave her. I am of a mind to call out a foreshadowing here. This wolf pack will be waiting to join with Arya when she returns to Westeros, and she's going to rip a throat or thirty-six. You heard it here first! Unless you read other sites about A Song of Ice and Fire. I guess.

We're told how Sandor Clegane treats her as a military recruit, and we learn that they have one horse each. Sandor has Stranger (quite poetic how [the] Stranger brings Arya to Braavos, no?) and Arya's "sorrel palfrey mare" (I had to check that out, hence the link; this chapter actually came up third when I searched for the word sorrel using Google!) which she has named Craven. Interestingly, we're told from inside Arya's perspective that "she could not love a coward". I wonder if this little line will have some sort of payoff somewhere down the road, or if it is just another bit of characterization, of Arya's hardening spirit.

The Hound doesn't watch her so closely as he did before, leading Arya to consider murdering him, which also shows how hard she is becoming. However, while she thinks of killing him with not a hint of remorse, she does understand that outrunning the Hound is a futile project, because she has nowhere to go. She considers reuniting with people she has met and liked, like Hot Pie or Gendry, but tells herself that they abandoned her and don't want her, which is all kinds of sad. And dark. And all the while they ride, and when she finally asks the Hound where they are going, he just says "Away". A brilliant comeback line from Arya when Sandor says he should have let her run into the castle (The Twins) and Arya responds, "You should have."

We're given a brief glimpse through Arya's eyes of the Hound, who is basically very angry, but otherwise this chapter so far meanders along kind of. All the while, they do their best not to be seen, another elegant way of building Arya's character - after all, she will end up trying to become no one. All this sneaking and skulking will no doubt serve her well in the future. Her destiny seems to be laid out before her feet, as if everything she experiences is already part of her training. It's what I mean with her having a very natural progression. Or the Stranger is actually pulling her strings. Who knows? I know who knows. That guy who isn't all that forthcoming with new books. Or maybe he doesn't know. But it does feel very...destiny-ish. When the Hound advises her to duck the moment she hears hooves has me wondering if we'll get a scene where she does indeed hide away, and then of course those passing her on horses would be friends or something like that. Typical George.

House Piper's sigil

One day they encounter a House Piper bowman, wounded and dying, and through him Arya and the Hound learn that he was betrayed by a Bolton soldier, thus - again, in a roundabout way - allowing Arya to learn of the betrayer House's foul deeds. Something tells me Arya will meet Lord Roose Bolton again. She did spend a good chunk of time as his cup bearer, after all, and by having this seemingly random encounter inserted here, I feel I can allow myself to assume that Roose Bolton's comeuppance will come through the vengeance of Arya Stark. The Hound offers the bowman a cup of water and the gift of mercy...speaking of destiny entwined in Arya's story... She pours the man water from the Hound's helmet, and the Hound drives his dagger into the man's heart, while calmly explaining to Arya where to put the point of the blade to, you know, puncture said heart. "That's how you kill a man," the Hound says, and Arya thinks to herself, That's one way. Oh, but Arya knows a lot of ways to murder men already, and she will learn even more..Love the ominous foreshadowing here. They rob the bowman of his valuables and move on.

Eventually they find themselves in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, and she asks again where they are going, and this time she gets an answer. The Hound explains that he is going to ransom Arya to her aunt in the Vale, and do I remember thinking that we would get a reunion of Sansa and Arya, up in the Vale, and I spun a lot of stories in my mind about how that would go down, but alas, it was not to be. Not yet, anyway. Thinking of Aunt Lysa Arryn makes Arya feel empty (again, an emphasis on emptiness); she wants her mother, not her aunt. Suddenly, she has convinced herself that her mother and brother might still be alive, and she asks the Hound to turn around and go back.
"I thought your sister was the one with a head full of songs," the Hound replies, but he admits that Walder Frey may have kept Catelyn alive as a prisoner. I love how the characters are unsure of situations, not knowing enough to make informed decisions. It gives the story authenticity. But you knew that already.

Arya accuses the Hound of being afraid to die, leading to a somewhat awkward moment when the Hound just laughs at that. "Death don't scare me. Only fire (...)" I feel the response is a bit awkward because Martin is telegraphing here, loud and clear: Remember the Hound is afraid of fire, people! I feel the Hound's reply could have been more poignant than this, but there you go. Even in the world's greatest novel, there are small nits to pick.

One night Arya goes into Nymeria has a dream, she realizes she actually smells her mother. A faint scent beneath other smells; she pads to the river's edge, lifts her head to see dead men clogging the waters (reminding me of one of the battles during the Wars of the Roses, Bosworth perhaps?), the other wolves tearing at their flesh. And then she sees something pale and white drifting down the river, and she pulls the corpse out by one arm. She drives off another wolf, protective of the body she has plucked from the river, but then she has to run off because men are approaching.
It's a dark and disturbing scene, haunting and sad. There, for a moment, as Nymeria, Arya saw her mother again for one last time, but in the worst possible way. You could argue it's an easy way out for Martin story-wise, to make Arya certain there's no sense in returning to the Twins, but at the same time the scene itself is an excellent idea/concept. However, I would have moved the dream sequence so that Arya already knows but hasn't told the Hound, and then have a scene where he says something like, "Bloody hells! All right then, let's walk straight back in and smack Walder Frey and get your mother." And then Arya, all morose, would say, "She's dead." It would confirm to the reader that Arya did indeed fish her mother out of the river, and (in my opinion) it would make for a stronger structure in the chapter. But that's another nit.

Now, when they wake up Arya tells her that her mother no longer matters, that she saw her dead in a dream, it loses some of its potency - in my opinion.

In the hills they decide to go into a village for food and shelter. They even offer the Hound work (seeing his broad shoulders) and he tells them that he'll help them for wine. Arya has also noticed, by the way, that the Hound is indeed a little softer than many other cruel men she has encountered; she knows there's good in him, to use Star Wars jargon. Man, I'm on such a high with Star Wars VII approaching. I just can't keep away from rumor sites and such. It interrupts my other hobbies and projects. Bah!

When the villagers speak of frost and snow and shadowcats and cave bears (are they new?) and clansmen, the Hound's dream of delivering Arya to her aunt dies. But what I love the best is how we learn of the consequences of Tyrion arming the mountain clansmen. It remains one of the story's strongest points - Martin never loses sight of consequences, thus adding to our immersion. "They have steel now, good swords and mail hauberks, and they watch the high road (...) - all of them." Tyrion has essentially doomed the villages in the foothills by allying with the clansmen, something he never considered. And Arya, she doesn't really care. She was only some girl who ran with a dog by day, and dreamed of wolves by night. Lovely line, that. I would have liked to read more about these foothill villages, by the way. They kind of pop up here and are forgotten again. I would have loved some more description here to give me a better sense of what I am supposed to see in terms of architecture, layout etc.

Arya hates the villagers for being cowards (Martin reinforcing the same point again), and when a small child calls a doll for Ser Soldier, Arya rips the doll open and tells the child that now it looks like a soldier. Clearly Arya is disillusioned, hopeless, and angry. She has been through so much, that this reaction is quite believable though I feel sad for the small child. Interestingly, we see Arya take on some of the Hound's anger, Martin comparing them when Arya tries to practice with a stick but only ending up angry, similar to how the Hound chops wood. Love it!

Eventually, the village elder tells them they have to go - winter is coming and there is not enough food to spare. They also reveal that they knew all along who the Hound is, and he offers them protection from the clansmen, but the village elder tells him he's heard that the Hound has lost his stomach for fighting; I think the dialogue here feels a little too constructed, something added to give the Hound a reason to move on but it isn't believable - because I feel that the village elder would not say no to having the Hound around to help fend off raiding clansmen. The Hound could have just told him that the rumors aren't true, or that he decided to change allegiance because Joffrey was a prick, or whatever. Instead, the Hound gets some wine, food and a sword and is off. With Arya in tow, of course. She, too, wonders if Sandor has indeed lost the will to fight, but is clever enough to see that he keeps his sword sharp.

The Hound suggests going to Riverrun, to try and sell her to the Blackfish. Arya argues that her uncle doesn't even know her. Again, she notices that the Hound talks like someone who is ready for a fight, not someone who's become a coward all of a sudden. In her mind, she thinks that the only place for her to go is to Jon Snow, and so she suggests going to the Wall. And the first-time reader in me is pumping his fists and thinking Oh Hell's YEAH!

He argues that it's too far away, and that the Freys hold the Neck. She asks if he's scared of them and for a moment she believes he is going to smack her down. Instead, he takes a roasting hare off a stick and tosses half of the meat in Arya's lap. I'm thinking here that she sees anger flaring in him, but he is able to hold it back.

The chapter ends right there at the campfire, the two unlikely travelers on the road in the wilds again, with the Hound telling her - and I feel this comes a little bit out of left field in one sense - that he hasn't lost his stomach for fighting, but that he doesn't really care about Arya or her brother (referring to Jon Snow): "I have a brother too."

Now, I feel this comes a little sudden and bluntly, but what Martin is essentially telling us is, and this is the way I read it and I'm not saying I'm right, that the Hound has decided to stop fighting for other people and is only going to pick the fights he wants - and the one fight he longs for is, of course, a fight with his brother, Ser Gregor Clegane (you may not remember him if you only watch the show). He seeks revenge. Simple as that. But here we've had this longish chapter of traveling and seeing some careful character building and then BAM! we get this one last bit thrown in our face. It feels so blunt compared to the more roundabout narrative elsewhere in the chapter, if you know what I mean. Also, it doesn't feel powerful enough to end a chapter with it, I feel, but that's more a personal thing I suppose. It's not like I'm going, Whaaaaat! He's off to kill Ser Gregor?! If the Hound had said something more, like, "We're going south. I'm going to kill my brother," it would be more poignant perhaps because it would strip away any last hope from Arya; she would realize that the Hound is going to take her straight back into the lion's (pun intended) den. It would have the reader swallow a lump in his throat. It would be more powerful, in my opinion, to have an added sense of doom to close off this particular chapter. Oh well. All personal opinion.

And that was chapter 66! Next up is Tyrion Lannister, and boy I'm looking forward to revisit the trial, which I think is a powerful sequence both in the books and in the TV show.

1 comment:

  1. If Hound agreed to go find Cat, THAT would be nitpick, 'cause he says clearly even if she's alive, he can't save her only himself.