Thursday, August 14, 2014

[Re-read] Jon VIII: I've Always Wanted a Wall. No seriously.

Boy, I'm so glad Martin decided not to write an episode of Game of Thrones season five, in order to get some writing done on The Winds of Winter.
I haven't even found time to post about all the cool stuff that went down at Comicon, or in France and Switzerland before that, but in a few hours we'll be off again... for Scotland and the Edinburgh Book Festival first, then London for worldcon, then straight to LA for the Emmys.

I am exhausted just thinking about it.

It's time to get back into A Storm of Swords! 

I know, I know, it's been a while but life's been pretty busy. On the flipside (for me personally, of course) is that I'm almost halfway through Emperor of Thorns. That's quite a lot better than the six months I spent on King of Thorns. So now I have definitely figured it out - I read more, and more often, using the Kindle app on my smartphone. Dead tree books are officially out. I still have a pile of about twenty dead tree books to finish, though. First and heaviest among them is still The Way of Kings, now officially the book I've spent the longest time on ever. I did read a couple of chapters in it the other day, though. Maybe I'll finish it this year. I don't know. It's not too bad once I'm inside it's remarkable world, but it doesn't ever whisper seductively to me to come read. Enough about other books already! Time for another Jon Snow chapter, with a more than peculiar dream kicking it off.
....and yeah, I begun writing this post six days ago but I've been swamped in work (the kind I get paid for) so it has been a decidedly harsh week to be a geek. Barely able to drop by my favored websites to keep up to date on games, movies and books. Oh well, trying again now. What was it again? Oh yeah, Jon Snow and a peculiar dream.


Not sure if holding the sword like that is a good design choice.
The dream which opens this chapter isn't anymore peculiar than other dreams experienced by characters, but I've noted how often Jon's dream here is mentioned when discussing Jon's possible future story arc, and if you do not subscribe to the theory that Jon will eventually become Jon Targaryen, rightful king of Westeros, well then I suppose this dream is peculiar, because if you ask me, this dream lays it out pretty clear: there's a connection between Jon and the Winterfell crypts and it has to do with him becoming a liberator of sorts. I've read theories about Rhaegar Targaryen's harp being hidden in the crypts and that this instrument will provide the needed evidence to link Jon to Rhaegar, but I kind of doubt that one; a harp, after all, is just a harp. However, I have no idea how Martin would put this on paper in a way that it made sense, but I suppose there's a way if that's where he is going with it. All right, so how to interpret this dream?
It begins with Jon limping past the stone kings, their eyes following him and tightening on the hilts of their rusted swords - and he hears them mutter that he is no Stark and that there is no place for him there in "heavy granite voices", actually. What does granite sound like, anyway? Is this Jon projecting his feelings into the dream, that he feels unwanted and not a Stark? That's the most obvious interpretation, I suppose. It also supports that Jon Snow is not a Stark because his true name is Targaryen. However, if his mother is indeed Lyanna Stark, he does have Stark blood but Martin is keeping the distinctions clear here for narrative purposes. To my mind, then, this both shows us Jon's feeling of alienation and hints at his Targaryen blood.
This is only reinforced when he calls for "Father" (in retrospect we'll chuckle as we know that when he calls for his father, he is actually calling for Rhaegar Targaryen); he also calls for Bran and Rickon, and Uncle Benjen, all three characters lost to the world. Then he hears drums above, a feast is going on, just like it actually did in the beginning of A Game of Thrones, when Jon was seated away from the Stark family. Then he faces a direwolf, grey and ghastly, golden eyes shining through the dark - and I can only assume this is Summer, or rather, Bran, seeing him through a greendream (but I am not banking on this one).
The question is, of course, why does Jon dream about the Winterfell crypts, and why does Martin take care to give us this dream? I suppose I have already answered it. And I wonder if Jon's song will indeed be of ice and fire simply because he will end up having both the blood of the dragon and the ability to warg (blood of the First Men). No way Martin just needed a random dream and put it to paper - this is a carefully constructed small development toward Jon's destiny.

But then, just as the dream gets exciting, he wakes up in his hard bed beneath the Old Bear's chambers, and he immediately begins to think of how much warmer his naps had been with Ghost and Ygritte at his side. He worries about Ghost, then wonders about the dream he had, realizing he probably saw Summer, and whether the dream means Bran is dead (well, "lost for good and all"). As he tries to make sense of his dream, he hears a horn blow. For a moment, he thinks of the Horn of Winter, and it feels mostly like something Martin put in to remind us of its (possible) existence. The horn is blown once more. I love how Martin has managed to add tension to horn blows by letting us know that three blows means the Others are approaching. You kind of sit there waiting for the third blow. Nice little touch.
As for the following line, I am not sure what Martin intended with it, but I couldn't help myself from chuckling: "Jon had to get up and go to the Wall, he knew, but it was so hard..."
Those three dots at the end give the line a fun ambiguity. But then I'm not right in the head.
Slinging Longclaw over his shoulder and finding his crutch, he hobbles off.

Outside, the night is black, and people are spilling out. He thinks to himself that Mance has at last come, and that they will finally get a battle done. He sounds quite depressed here, Jon, not caring if he lives or dies, as long as he can get some well-earned rest after the battle. Not depressed, perhaps, but in a pretty gloomy mood at any rate. With the destruction of the stairs (already I have forgotten this minor detail), he has to wait along with the others for a ride in the elevator. Martin spends a paragraph telling us who else is waiting for the lift, mainly to reinforce that sense of the Night's Watch being really down to its last reserves. Jon thinks of Mance's words - you cannot fight the dead - which seems a bit strange as we've seen time and again that you can fight the dead; Jon himself saved the Old Bear from a wight, hence his wounded hand. And Sam, of course, slays. What I find strange is, that Mance Rayder with his host, hasn't yet figured out that a little fire goes a long way. Minor nitpick.

Eventually Jon gets himself up on the top of the Wall, where a line of fires is burning along its length, and the cold wind hits him. We're told about quarrels and arrows and spears and bolts, rocks, barrels of pitch and oil, and the scarecrow sentinels along the ramparts, which gives us a good quick look at the situation here, preparing us for the battle to come. They hear a mammoth - it is indeed Mance Rayder! Donal Noye with his one arm comes to stand with Jon. He commands the men to give him light, and barrels of pitch are lit and thrown out from the Wall, and when they land (you'd perhaps think the flames would be conquered by a seven hundred feet drop through icy air, but I don't know enough about barrels of pitch and flame oil to really nitpick here), they light up the flats north of the Wall, and Jon can see mammoths on the move, and then a roaring giant.  Noye orders more light. Jon realizes there are a hundred mammoths approaching. Take that, TV show.

And then Mance Rayder's host attacks. Pyp cries out that they have already reached the gate. Pyp, by the way, kind of just suddenly pops up - Jon was looking for him (and Grenn) earlier in the chapter, but there's no "reaction" to seeing them on the Wall in the narrative, which feels a bit clunky. Should've been a "Ah, there you are" from Jon or something. You know, to connect the dots. Jon knows the wildlings must take the gate because only a few of them are skilled enough to climb it (I've always wondered why they don't just swim around it, by the way). We're told that the tunnel through the Wall is narrow and crooked, with three iron grates closing the inner passage, locked and chained and protected by murder holes. When Martin tells me this stuff, I know it will come up later. Jon realizes that the tunnel defenses might not hold against powerful enemies such as giants, though. Another sure sign that we'll be seeing some action in this tunnel.

As Mance's army comes closer, the Night's Watch pelts the wildlings with jars of fire, and they hear shouts and screams, "sweet music to their ears". It is satisfying. By now, deep into book three (getting close to the end, in fact), we know so much about the Watch and their struggle that you're almost forced to sympathize with them in their plight, but let's be honest, if the book held a wildling POV at this point, we might be just as anxious to see the wildlings break through to the relative safety of the south side of the Wall. The wildlings are many, though, so the attack continues unabated, even though some of them are on fire. I recommend rolling around in the snow (you'd think fire wasn't that big an obstacle with so much snow around; of course, explosions and stuff).

Septon Cellar Door Cellador begins to sing, because a good psalm is always useful when you're facing a blood-thirsty enemy. In fact, it helps zero times out of ten. Still. Nice little verse going on there: Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war we pray; stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know...
Donal Noye, pragmatic and not much more interested in the septon's song than me, cuts him off: "Any man here stays his sword, I'll chuck his puckered arse right off this Wall...starting with you, Septon." Gotta love that. A nice little scene that wouldn't have been amiss in the ninth episode of season four of Game of Thrones, entirely dedicated to this battle. A little humor to break up the bleakness and warfare. Noye orders the archers to start firing into the hordes below, then asks for two bows and two spears to accompany him to the tunnel to hold it. Doesn't sound good for Donal Noye's continued existence. And then Donal gives the Wall's command to Jon. Jon can't believe his own ears, but yup. The Wall is his. A bit of a sudden spike in his career, Jon does take charge as bid, and Martin rushes us through the night under Jon's command, using the technique of having it all seem a bit of a blurry dream to Jon; it's a nice way to sum up what could be a detailed, long description of a battle with many elements. We're getting picks, so to speak, through Jon's recollection. I suppose this is a variant of the (oft-dreaded) flashback. Works for me.

Nice little possible foreshadowing here: He might as well wish for another thousand men, and maybe a dragon or three. Oh yes, mark my words - Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion will come to the Wall and they'll sniff Jon's dragon blood and be gentle with him into the night. Feverish, Jon fires arrows with a longbow, his fingers half-frozen (another hint, maybe, that Jon's body will be frozen for a while - fits with the theories that he'll be inside Ghost's mind while his body is encased in ice to be preserved for his return).

Morning comes at last, and having watched an entire episode of this battle, it feels like it comes quite fast, doesn't it? Both battle episodes feel a bit like they are overcompensating for the lack of battles elsewhere in the show story. Ah, nitpicking. I thought it was a fine enough episode. With the sun providing proper light, he can finally see how the land between the Wall and the forest has become a wasteland of corpses and pitch, with crows feasting on the carcass of a mammoth providing a particularly vivid image. Septon Cellador is moaning about mercy as he witnesses the sight. No Noye to give him a clout to the ear, though; Donal Noye hasn't returned from the tunnel and I guess it's obvious here that he's dead. I believe I thought it obvious even on my first read of this book, and I'm dim. Jon sees the wildlings gathered beneath the trees across the open battlefield. He thinks that this is not their land, which I find interesting in the sense that Jon certainly changes his mind about that after a while. Maybe we can blame it on the fever. Jon never struck me as the character to think...territorial-ish. Oh, but look! The battle is not over. I must be confused because the TV show battle was a night-only event. But now the wildlings come again at the Wall, in morning's light, with a hundred giant-carrying mammoths and a ram, and much more. "The fury of the wild", Jon thinks poetically. He can feel the despair around him, and Satin gives voice to it when he wonders how they can stop so many?

"The Wall will stop them," Jon "hears himself say" - suggesting that while he isn't brave, he is able to sound brave. A good trait for a commander to have I suppose. He turns and repeats himself, even though he feels his words are hollow he now feels he needs to say them to bolster morality. Another good thing to do for a commander. And so the seeds are being planted, perhaps a little late for me to find it enitrely believable, for Jon Snow becoming the next Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. William Wallace-like he gives his attempt at a rousing speech, and there's a shadow of Tolkien flitting about as well when Jon shouts that the wildlings cannot pass! Jon is acting the fearless commander here, and it works. "Brother," he tells Kegs, "sound for battle." Cooool.

Jon tells the archers to fire at the ram exclusively, with an added threat that they have to go down and pick up the arrows that missed. And Jon begins to laugh like a drunk, and right here, right now, Jon Snow grows into a commander, and it's riveting and gives off a good feeling, to see a character succeed in this bleak and seemingly hopeless setting, even though it's quite banal, too. Good thing Martin twists our nipples again later in Jon's storyline, to keep it from becoming too predictable. Because, you know, I am quite confident Jon's story is the most predictable in the sense that it seems to follow the pattern of the mythological hero archetype.

When the ram is in range, everyone fires their arrows; they must stop it before it can reach the gate. Maybe the intensity and need to be quick would have come across better if Jon was standing in the tunnel, seeing the ram approach, but I understand he needs to be on the Wall to see the ram approach and all that. Just saying. Next, when the ram has come to a halt, he orders fire arrows to put the thing on fire.
It seems that everything is going the right way for Jon and the Night's Watch. Mammoths and giants are screaming and fleeing in all directions, flames eating at them (roll in the snow!)

Jon gives Grenn the wall.
"Me?" said Grenn. "Him?" said Pyp.
They are almost like Hobbits, those two. And more interesting and fun alive than dead, HBO! Boo. Hiss.

With Pyp and Maester Aemon in tow, Jon enters the tunnel to see how Noye fared during the battle. Martin spends some time building up the suspense (though I can't really feel it, as I feel it was telegraphed well and good). They come upon a scene of gore and disaster, with Spotted Pate's head twisted off by the giant that now lies dead. Noye gave his life while killing off the giant. Jon recognizes the giant as Mag the Mighty. Jon needs sun; too cold, too dark, too suffocating. He gives Clydas the lantern, then squeezes past the pile of corpses to find a dead mammoth partially blocking the way. He makes a quick calculation, then returns to tell the others they will need to repair the outer gate and block up the tunnel section. Again, he sounds like a seasoned commander, which Maester Aemon also realizes; the maester suggests Jon continue to lead (instead of giving the command to Ser Wynton Stout, who, according to Aemon, is not capable to take the leadership).

Jon tries to protest, but Aemon says he doesn't have to lead for long - only until the garrison returns. "Donal chose you, and Qhorin Halfhand before him. Lord Commander Mormont made you his steward. You are a son of Winterfell, a nephew of Benjen Stark. It must be you or no one. The Wall is yours, Jon Snow."

Sweet, and once again Martin feels the need to remind us of this fellow named Benjen Stark. If he doesn't have a major impact on the plot down the line, I'll be both surprised and a little disappointed. Whenever he has the chance, Martin seems to want to remind us of Benjen. It's logical of course, since he's been gone since the very beginning of the tale. The theories about Benjen are numerous; but I haven't seen many ideas on just why Martin needed Benjen gone for so long; what purpose does this fulfill, and when he does came back, how will it affect everything at the Wall? What if he returns now that Jon is on hold (so to speak)? Is that the reason - that Martin needed a Lord Commander to step up and take Jon's place, but didn't want him around meanwhile because, I don't know? Or has Benjen become an Other? Is he Coldhands (I don't believe it)? All I know is that a) Benjen is introduced and is the link between Jon Snow and the Night's Watch and b) Benjen disappears immediately but is constantly mentioned, and I don't know if a novel exists where a character gets accidentally lost and stays lost. Which means c) Benjen at one point must come back into the story for some reason.

Oh well. At least I found the time to read a chapter today. Well written, well paced and even somewhat joyous in the sense that Jon's future is looking just a little brighter. I mean, as a functioning Lord Commander he will have his own servant handing him the beer and the TV controller. It's good to be LC.


  1. This page is broken in both Firefox and Chrome

  2. Jon thinks of Mance's words - you cannot fight the dead - which seems a bit strange as we've seen time and again that you can fight the dead; Jon himself saved the Old Bear from a wight, hence his wounded hand. And Sam, of course, slays. What I find strange is, that Mance Rayder with his host, hasn't yet figured out that a little fire goes a long way. Minor nitpick.

    [Tormund to Jon:] "You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up... How do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth... Air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest... You do not know. You cannot know... Can your sword cut cold?"

    We will see, Jon thought, remembering the things that Sam had told him, the things he'd found in his old books. Longclaw had been forged in the fires of old Valyria, forged in dragonflame and set with spells. Dragonsteel, Sam called it. Stronger than any common steel, lighter, harder, sharper... But words in a book were one thing. The true test came in battle.

    "You are not wrong," Jon said. "I do not know. And, if the gods are good, I never will." (Jon XII, ADWD)

  3. a good psalm is always useful when you're facing a blood-thirsty enemy.

    Yes, it is. Prayer helps avoid panic in the troops by helping them believe that God will keep them from dying. No atheists in foxholes, right?

  4. "Martin twists our nipples again later in Jon's storyline"

    Interesting choice of words. Caused by a traumatic childhood memory?

  5. "c) Benjen at one point must come back into the story for some reason."

    He'll return as the Red Herring, a superhero with the power of being delicious with cream sauce.

  6. I also found funny Jon thinking about 3 dragons. What if it's Danny's dragons that will defeat the Others?

  7. Also, web page doesn't appear properly.