Friday, November 7, 2014

[Re-read] Arya XIII: Valar D'oh!aeris

Yesterday was an exciting day for Star Wars geeks across the globe, with Lucasfilm announcing the title of Episode VII. Now, any sane person would hear it, shrug, and go back to business but I was adequately swept up in long discussions online on the meaning and quality of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How can a simple movie title cause so much excitement and cause for wasting away time on the Interwebs? It's the same effect that makes me write about A Song of Ice and Fire, of course. Being a fan. A devotee. It's what makes people build websites dedicated to their favorite entertainment. The kind of entertainment that's so solid it becomes something more; an experience, a phenomenon. For some it's Star Trek, for others The Lord of the Rings. For some poor souls like myself we find intense passion for more than one such phenomenon, which makes it difficult to juggle. Feeling so strongly about invented material is both a great feeling, but occasionally it also feels like a drain on my energy as well as my time. I have only a limited time of the day to devote to all those things I love and enjoy immersing myself in, and it's kind of annoying. Also, obviously, a luxury many people in the world can't even fathom. At any rate, I have come to the point I'm almost scheduling my nerdist hobbies. One hour for gaming, one for reading, one for writing etc. It helps. And Fridays, well, Fridays I try to reserve for my A Storm of Swords re-read. So here we go, with Arya Stark's last chapter in the novel, a very poignant chapter at that.

The chapter opens with one of those slightly morbid introductory sentences Martin likes to employ (and which I use in teaching about writing a first sentence that should hook a reader) - there's a gibbet with a woman's bones twisting and rattling in the wind. This in itself might not be a strong enough hook in this case, but the next sentence seals the deal: I know this inn, Arya thinks, and then you, as a reader, should be well and thoroughly hooked because you want to know how Arya knows this inn, you want to know if you know this inn (from previous chapters), and with the disturbing image of those bones, you can start worrying about Arya's safety, and there you go, Martin has reeled you in once more.

Arya doesn't want to go inside, because there might be ghosts there - now, this actually sticks out a bit because we've never seen (well, as far as I can remember)  Arya worry that much over ghosts before. Does she say this as an excuse so to speak? Is Martin playing with language here, and trying to tell us that Arya doesn't want to relive memories of happier times (the last time she had been at the inn, with Sansa and Septa Mordane, before things went downhill) - the ghosts she mentioned being metaphorical? In that sense, I like it. In the literal sense, I feel it is out of character for Arya to avoid the inn because of ghosts.

Sandor, though, doesn't want to hear it. He's thirsty and grumpy (nothing new there); he tells her she can stay outside with the horses, but he's going in, as he says, "it's no hair off my arse". Now, there's a Westerosi proverb that doesn't show up often. It fits Sandor's character and by not reading it all the time it becomes funny, as opposed to the overused proverbs like "words are wind". Arya, if she stays outside with the horses instead of joining Sandor inside, realizes that this might be her best chance to escape him. She can take both horses and simply ride off. The thoughts are, of course, accompanied by some chewing of the lip, Arya-style. However, without us knowing what makes her decide against it, she joins Sandor. As they come inside, she immediately realizes that the persons assembled here know who they see (Sandor/The Hound), and after taking a look she realizes that the soldiers present here are men that she knows as well. Martin doesn't keep us in the dark too long about who she meets, with Polliver named immediately, but he sets up the suspense here so nicely with just a few descriptions - the silence as they enter the inn being the most ominous, revealing the palpable tension in the air. Lovely.

The innkeep whimpers something about not wanting any trouble, a classic innkeep then, and Sandor growls that he'd better stop calling him Ser then. Sandor orders wine, while Arya scans the crowd and now also recognizes another Lannister soldier from back in Harrenhal, perhaps the scariest of them all (the Mountain excepted), the Tickler. The third soldier is a squire, described to have pimples, which gives us an immediate impression of a character young and inexperienced. Clever, because it makes it all the more believable when this squire begins offending Sandor, calling him "the lost puppy" and a coward ("the one who piddled in the rushes and ran off"). The Tickler seems to have recognized Arya (he gives her a long hard stare while the others just give her a glance), and he puts "a warning hand" on the squire's arm, but the boy continues to bleat and gives the Hound a "stupid mocking grin". You can just feel the tension rise, because you know the Hound so well and you can be pretty sure he will have trouble staying calm and non-violent in the face of such blatant ridicule. The Tickler excuses the boy, says he's had too much to drink, but the boy again tries to ridicule Sandor but now the Tickler twists the boy's ear, making him squeal.

With the tension properly in place, Martin could pull back but, and I love it, instead he ramps it up, with descriptions like "the muscles in his neck working as he gulped", the innkeep "suddenly" remembering something in the kitchen, the locals's like a classic Western saloon scene, really, innit? Polliver tells Sandor that his brother - Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain that Rides - is no longer at Harrenhal (seems Polliver suspects that Sandor is seeking out his brother?), because "the queen has sent for him"; we know, now, of course, the whys behind that order (stand as champion against the Red Viper). I love how we get a paragraph where Arya looks over Polliver, noticing in detail the longsword on his left hip, the dagger on his right, and a third blade. This harkens back to Syrio Forel's teachings about truly seeing and here we see she has internalized this lesson. Polliver tells them Joffrey - the king of Westeros - is dead, which is big and shocking news, of course.

She knows she should have been happy with that news, but instead she feels empty inside (as she has felt before) - this time it seems that she is feeling that it doesn't matter anymore, because it won't bring Robb back. That's quite a humane thought really considering the brutality she occasionally shows; and the contempt she seems to hold. Now Sandor and Arya also learn that the Imp is the prime suspect, and that he was married to Sansa, now there's shocking news for Arya. When Sandor suggests dipping Tyrion in wildfire or "tickle him until the moon turns black", Arya realizes that for all they've been through together, Sandor is more like them than her. A sobering realization, for sure. Also, could "the moon turns black" be a small foreshadowing tucked in here - a hint of an "everlasting night" or darkness? Either that or Sandor's got some poetry in him.

There's more updates for Sandor and Arya, also known as exposition, but when told through dialogue it becomes less offensive (it's not offensive at all, to be honest), and of course it's believable because Sandor and Arya have been out in the wilderness for so long, not being able to hear the latest news of the realm. There's some setup for Feast as well, with the information on the Blackfish being under siege at Riverrun and the fight between the Brackens and the Blackwoods. So here Martin does pull back a little on the tension, allowing the scene to breathe and the characters to interact. But there's this undercurrent all the time, the one that reminds you that this could escalate - quickly - at any moment. Such a great scene.

Sandor displays some curiosity about Sansa, using harsh language but really reminding us he's got the hots for her. And then comes a nice little twist for the unlikely pair: Polliver tells them that Arya Stark has been found, and that she's going to get herself married to the Bolton's bastard. Arya is confused (fortunately, as it allows her to keep her mask, so to speak), and the Hound laughs aloud. And in that moment, when Polliver wonders what's so "bloody funny", I'm on the edge of my seat (well, I guess I was fourteen years ago), wondering what the Hound will say to that. He's laughing because the girl they are speaking of is sitting right there, of course...but he just says that he doesn't want to tell Polliver, and that's that. Instead he asks if there are ships at Saltpans, moving the conversation away from the topic of Arya. We learn that Randyll Tarly has taken the castle there, another setup for Feast, but other than that the Lannister soldiers have no clue about ships at Saltpans. The Tickler wonders if the Hound can really leave Westeros without "bidding farewell" to his brother, and the way he asks creeps Arya out. Because, you know, she remembers well how the Tickler's questions ended in torture.

And then, the explosion! From a lull to full-on action. Love it! "The Tickler shrugged, straightened, and reached a hand behind his head to rub the back of his neck." With that sudden movement, everything seems to happen at once. Sandor lurches to his feet, Polliver draws his sword, a knife is thrown, Sandor dodges, and Sandor gives us a chilling laugh, saying "I was hoping you'd do something stupid." That's such a great line in this situation. And then we get a fight. Arya can feel panic building in her; the stupid squire boy is seemingly already panicking; Arya fears Sandor's too drunk to win the fight, and most of all, she fears what will happen to her if Sandor dies and the Tickler wins. High stakes for Arya, then, and Martin revels in keeping us on our toes as we read through the fight. Sandor is bleeding, the stub of his ear gone, but then he drives Polliver back furiously, and ... well, somehow you are rooting for Sandor Clegane, who really isn't the nicest fellow around. That's Martin in a nutshell, isn't it, twisting and screwing with your perceptions and your emotional investment in characters and story.

It seems that Polliver and the Tickler are killing Sandor, like two hyenas on a wolf, but Arya gets into trouble of her own as the pimple-nosed squire accosts her. More tension then. Man, I feel my heartrate going up just reading this scene. How does Martin make it so vivid? Arya stabs the squire with her knife, quick and efficiently. Polliver suggests the Hound give up, but he doesn't. More classic dialogue:
"You think we won't?" said Polliver. "You're drunk."
"Might be," said the Hound, "but you're dead."
Polliver soon enough loses half his head to a brutal counterattack from the Hound, and now Arya sees that the Tickler is fearful; and as a reader, it feels good to see the Tickler facing his comeuppance. He is really one of those nasty characters you just hate. I mean, I don't even love to hate him. And Arya steps up behind him and stabs him.

Not content with letting you feel relief at the Tickler falling to her blade, Martin now makes you consider the implications of cheering for the bad guy's death. Arya shouts his questions back at him as she stabs him. "Is there gold hidden in the village?" "Is there silver? Gems?" She stabs him again, and again. "Is there food? Where is Lord Beric?"
It's a moment where you are forced to watch a young girl snap. Instead of relief, or schadenfreude, we have to deal with Arya losing her mind and repeatedly stabbing the guy, repeating those questions, and the scene becomes sinister and disturbing, instead of a cheerful victory over evil. Know what I mean?

Sandor eventually has to drag her off the guy's corpse; that is an image that says so much about Arya's mental condition at the moment. The squire is still alive, sobbing and pleading for mercy (linking us all the way to the teaser chapter from The Winds of Is it Done Yet?, "Mercy") and Sandor tells Arya to stab him through the heart and she does so. There's a hint in the squire's pleadings that he might be some noble lord's son (he says his father has gold) but we do not learn more. Not at this point anyway.  Then, they decide to go to Saltpans, where, Sandor explains, they might find a ship to take them to the Vale. He's thinking that maybe her aunt, Lady Lysa, will marry Arya to her little Robert.

Badly wounded, Sandor needs her help to get on his horse, oh and wait! Here's the squire's cloak - green with a green arrow on a white bend - our hint as to what noble House the squire was born into. Not being an übernerd (just regular), I have to resort to the Interwebs to figure out the puzzle. House Sarsfield. Doesn't ring a bell. Oh well.

Somewhere out in the wilderness, they make camp. Sandor lies down as if preparing to die, and Arya has to help him with his wounds. That night, she realizes her to-kill-list has grown shorter by three names. She wishes she could change into a wolf (ironic, since she can...from a certain point of view); she wonders about Sansa. She realizes she has left Sandor's name out of her list, too. Then she adds him back as she remembers Mycah, the butcher's boy. The next morning, Sandor is up, but in a bad condition. Interestingly, she notices a crow flitting from tree to tree. Has Bran seen her? Bloodraven? A little description or more to it? I want to know!

Before noon, Sandor falls off his horse, unable to ride more. He crawls up under a tree, cursing. She notices he has a fever, and the wound on his thigh "smells funny" - not good. She pulls out her weapon, and Sandor assumes she is going to give him the gift of mercy, like she gave it to the squire back in the inn. The text never tells us explicitly that Arya was going to kill him here; maybe she was considering it, maybe not. Sandor begins to taunt her into killing him; says some pretty harsh stuff. In the end, Arya decides he doesn't deserve the gift of mercy. And so she rides away from him, leaving him to die beneath that tree (which is never identified as a birch or oak or, you know, weirwood).

How many stories leaves a character like that? Not many. I like that Arya leaves him; it shows us that, despite everything, she still can't forgive him for being the person he is, and it obviously allows for a surprise comeback - the Hound's arc feels terribly unfinished, but then again I wouldn't mind that this was the last we saw of him, an unfinished, incomplete life. It's more realistic, I suppose.

Six days later she finds Saltpans, sells Craven, her horse, and eventually finds a captain. With the money she got for the horse, little as that was, she hopes to secure a place aboard a ship to take her away. She wants to go to the Wall (Eastwatch, specifically), but the captain doesn't want to go there, and also isn't impressed with the sum she offers. In order to remind us that Westeros consists of 50-60% pedophiles, an oarsman suggests she can sleep with him; the captain tells him to mind his tongue, however - the point, I guess, being to show that this captain is a decent enough fellow. On a whim Arya asks what ship he commands, and when he tells her it is from Braavos, she produces the coin she was given so long ago by Jaqen H'ghar. Now, the captain is stunned, and she adds, "Valar morghulis" as she hands it over, and he replies, "Valar dohaeris", and tells her that of course she will have a cabin.

So that little coin changes everything. Knowing valar dohaeris means "all men must serve", I take it that the Faceless Men have some kind of understanding with the rest of the world (at least the city of Braavos) - if they pay with such an iron coin, whoever is accepting payment is obliged to serve that member of the Faceless Men. Almost like churches being exempt from tax, the Faceless Men thus have a system in place that allows them to be served (I suppose you either serve or die - dohaeris or morghulis - thus showing us that this assassinhood or what you want to call it is a more prominent power in the world than we knew up to this point).

And that concludes Arya's story in A Storm of Swords and also on the continent of Westeros. Her story is taking a major turn here, and even now I am surprised that her story brought her to the docks of Saltpans for a journey across the Narrow Sea. From now on, we'll have an entirely different tone to her chapters. From the blood-red Riverlands to the Venice-like city of Braavos; from being on the run to becoming an apprentice at the House of Black and White.

I'm still, after all these years, uncertain about my feelings about her story in Braavos. We'll see once I get into Feastdance.

1 comment:

  1. I liked Facebook-like recap of season 4 finale - Arya leaves "Westeros thr besteros" group to join " W. the worsteros".
    With season 6 finale, it's clear what she learned and whether it was useful ;)