Wednesday, November 26, 2014
[Re-read] Jon XI: Dangler of Carrots
47 Ronin, Hercules: The Legend Begins, Homefront, and Seventh Son (yeah I generally look for scifi/fantasy movies which might be part of the problem of finding tired stories). These trailers lay it all out - the film's premise, the basic plot, the characters, and the question becomes "do I want to see all the bits in between?", and not a desire to learn more, or a wish to see it all. None of the trailers leave me with a sense of curiosity or excitement.
So why am I thinking about movie trailers all of a sudden? Well, in two days we are getting our first glimpses (eighty-eight seconds, to be precise) of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (wow, I think I have actually not talked about the subtitle on here .. at length), so that's probably the link. I am insanely excited about this teaser trailer as it will most likely determine my hype level for the next year. In a way, I hope it turns me off, so I don't have to go all Star Wars-crazy again...but I suspect that, being a "teaser" (which is the format all trailers should employ, if you ask me), it will show me just enough to get me excited and not enough to form a solid opinion on what VII will be like.
Maybe Jon Snow can help me stay grounded and off the Star Wars fever. He's a fairly grounded guy, himself, if, in many ways. Off we go to the seventy-seventh chapter of A Storm of Swords! But, really, Mr. Martin, you're facing some stiff competition in the years ahead. A new novel would be quite useful in staying on top of the game...of thrones.
So we stay at Castle Black for another chapter, just changing the point of view from Sam to Jon. I like it when we get a few chapters in a row from the same area, it lends some coherence to an already very fractured tale (but I also like that the characters are all over the setting, so it's not like I would want to see the story told in a limited environment or anything like that).
I like how this chapter opens with a quick scene - a sketch, almost - where we are up close to Jon Snow and Satin as they practice swordplay in the courtyard of Castle Black. The scene shows us how far Jon has come; in A Game of Thrones, he came to Castle Black and was trained by Ser Alliser Thorne - Jon was a rookie - and now we see Jon training new recruits. It also further emphasizes Jon's leadership skills, thus laying the groundwork for him eventually becoming the next Lord Commander. Their training is interrupted, however, when Satin takes a step backward, raises his visor, and says "Jon" in an anxious voice: The images Martin conjures here are so... like a film. The way we "see" Satin stepping back and looking over Jon's shoulder because someone's coming up behind him, that's classic film-making, where we as the audience wonder who is showing up that Satin can see, but Jon isn't aware of yet. It's as if Martin really saw this scene like a movie running in his head, which he then translated to the page in that efficient way of his. It's a way of writing that, in my opinion, makes the story so suitable for an adaptation (as HBO may have noticed). The dialogue and the stage direction has already been written; it only needs actors, props and a camera. This is why, I believe, I tend to favor the Game of Thrones scenes that hew the closest to the book scenes; it was already so well "directed" (written) to begin with. But I digress; who is the mysterious character appearing behind Jon's back that makes Satin anxious? None other than Melisandre of Ashai, with six soldiers backing her up. "Queen's men," Jon thinks of them, an early indication that the faction Stannis brought north has some divisions to it.
Jon thinks of her as beautiful, but that her red eyes are unsettling. Melisandre has come to tell Jon that "the king" - Stannis - wishes to see him. When he asks to go change his clothes first, she agrees and tells him they will be waiting for him atop the Wall. The way she phrases it makes Jon realize that Melisandre is more Stannis' queen than his wife Selyse, left behind at Eastwatch. It's an important recognition, I suppose, because Jon now begins to realize the extent of the red woman's powers. Remember when Melisandre was just the "red woman"? Those were the times.
All right, so Jon goes and changes his clothes, picks up his bastard sword Longclaw (note how by doing this, Martin reminds us that Jon is a bastard), and chooses a heavy hooded cloak to shield him from the icy winds above. Melisandre awaits by the lift, and as they ascend Jon wonders what the king wants of him. Her answer is cryptic, as is proper for a mystic character: "All you have to give, Jon Snow. He is a king." Wizards always seem to talk like that. No straight answers.
In the elevator, Jon becomes "acutely aware" of her presence to the point he thinks she even smells red. That is crazy, Jon. Colors don't give off any odor. Still, the mention makes me wonder if Melisandre has enchanted herself with some Spell of Presence. The redness of it all makes Jon think of Ygritte and her red hair; and he describes the scent of red as the scent of smoke and blood; enough to ensure that we, as readers, don't trust Melisandre anymore than Jon to the point that we are possibly worried about Jon's welfare simply by the danger of falling under her influence the way it seems Stannis did. Breaking the spell (pun not intended), Jon asks if she shouldn't be cold, what with the wind and the ice and snow and her wearing loose flapping robes, and she laughs and says, "Never." Again with the short non-committal answers. I guess the flow of the story would be kind of disrupted if she began lecturing Jon on whatever magics she uses to keep herself warm. Martin immediately mentions that ruby pulsing at her throat (again), once more insinuating that at least some of Melisandre's powers are linked to said ruby. A trinket; a magical item - but Melisandre tells Jon that 'the Lord's fire' lives inside her which of course is a little bit more grandiose. But it's another hint that Melisandre isn't as divine a chosen being as she professes to be.
Stannis is brooding (surprise!) atop the Wall, his gaze on the battlefield far below. Apart from a heavy golden cloak, he looks much like a brother of the Night's Watch or my wardrobe, all in black. Martin allows us to see Stannis through Jon's eyes, as the king doesn't speak right away - instead he studies the bastard of Winterfell before him. This new description of Stannis serves to tell us that the man is looking sicklier than he has done before; "His hollow cheeks", "The gauntness of his face". And we get the classic Donal Noye description of the Baratheon brothers, with Stannis being pure iron, black and hard and strong - but brittle. Jon bows before the brittle king, and like the readers seeing through his eyes, wonders what Stannis could want of him.
To his surprise, and to Jon's fans' delight, Stannis actually says that he believes Jon's explanations - the things Janos Slynt and Ser Alliser Thorne want to see him hang for. However, I find Stannis' reasoning a little easy. Jon has the looks of Eddard Stark, who was an honorable man, and so he assumes Jon is honorable as well - however, Stannis also knows the commendable things Jon has been responsible for; finding the dragonglass, holding the gate against the wildlings (in both cases, Jon tells the king it wasn't him, showing that he can be humble as well, another fine quality in a hero). Stannis goes on to say Donal Noye would have been the best choice for a Lord Commander, so here we see the conversation shift back to the plot points from the previous chapter (Sam IV) and prepare us some more for the ascension of the hero bastard.
Stannis also hasn't forgotten that it was Jon who "brought us this magic horn, and captured Mance Rayder's wife and son." Jon is still sad about Dalla dying; again Jon is meek, saying it wasn't very hard to capture Val and her son; he learns that Melisandre was behind the burning of the eagle that turned the skinchanger Varamyr insane. Jon asks Stannis is Val can see Mance Rayder, so she can bring his son - her nephew - to him. Stannis, being himself, wonders why he should allow such a kindness for a man everyone wants dead. Jon replies that it is to do a kindness to Val, not Mance. Which is kind of shrewd. Jon admits that Val is very comely, which might be a way of letting Stannis believe Jon does this out of affection, and why not? If it works.. Stannis proceeds to ask if there's honor in the wildlings, and Jon says there is, but a different kind of honor. And look what have we here! A mention of words being wind! By Stannis the Mannis. He asks Jon what kind of man he is, and Jon answers that he is a man of the Night's Watch (between the lines, telling Stannis where his loyalty lies).
Jon is bold when he tells Stannis he took his time coming to the North, and Stannis actually smiles at that. "I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne." That's both a great line and a great admission from Stannis, and we are reminded that it was Ser Davos Seaworth who is ultimately responsible for getting Stannis out of his chair and north to help defend the realm. Stannis says that the foe he was born to fight is north of the Wall (i.e, the Others), to which Melisandre adds, "His name may not be spoken (...) He is the God of Night and Terror, Jon Snow, and these shapes in the snow are his creatures." Having her add this right after Stannis' talk about his true enemy enforces the belief that it is Melisandre who is behind it, too; while Davos sent Stannis north for honor and glory and justice, Melisandre is nudging him northward to confront the ancient enemy of Rh'llor. Gods how do I spell that name again?!
Stannis goes on to explain that he will "need the North", and goes on to fill us in with some heavy exposition about how Roose Bolton is the new Warden of the North, the ironmen fighting amongst themselves, and that a new lord of Winterfell is needed...and, stunned, Jon Snow realizes that Stannis means for Jon to become the Lord of Winterfell, and in this capacity he will be able to support Stannis' war. When Jon counters that Theon Greyjoy burned Winterfell down, Stannis says that granite doesn't burn easily (I guess that's an understatement), and that a Lord of Winterfell could rally the north to join Stannis' forces. It's quite a proposal, really. Next Jon counters that he isn't a Stark, but a Snow; Melisandre replies that "a king can remove the taint of bastardy with a stroke", as in legitimizing him. Imagine how these words must sound to Jon Snow's ears after all those years in the shadows, all those years at the far end of the hall during feasts...and of course there's that writ Robb Stark wrote which may legitimize Jon Snow anyway (but I have a feeling that's what Martin wants us to believe Robb wrote, and that there's a twist coming from that direction). Jon continues to argue, now saying that Stark or Snow, he still swore an oath before a heart tree, the oath of the Night's Watch. That's a fairly solid argument, so solid that Melisandre has to come up with some mumbojumbo next: "R'hllor is the only true god. A vow sworn to a heart tree has no more power than one sworn to your shoes. Open your heart and let the light of the Lord come in (...)" Of course, in a pseudo-medieval setting like Westeros, this might be a good argument - but it is Jon thinking on how he had dreamed of becoming a lord of Winterfell that occupies his mind. It's kind of funny, he doesn't react or think of Melisandre's words at all, totally ignoring her prattle. Teehee. What makes the decision even more complex is of course that Jon believe she is the "only one left"and so he has an excuse... but he does not want to turn against his father's gods, he does not want to forswear his vows again. He's been there, done that.
The king tries a different, more solid argument; the wildlings will regroup and try again, and those on the south side of the Wall must unite against it. Jon has come to the same realization. It's like a miniature version of the problem that plagues all of Westeros - the Houses should be united against the coming apocalypse, yet they are fighting among themselves. Stannis explains that he has been having talks with Mance Rayder, and has decided to "give him to the flames". Oh, the casual way he mentions it. He goes on to say there are other leaders captured who won't be fed to the fires, and that he means to let the rest of the wildling rabble through, to settle the lands known as the Gift, because everyone is needed on the right side of the coming war. And really, isn't that a good thing? Stannis says even the giants can come. Jon is forced to agree this is a good decision. Better to have wildlings in the Gift than having them all turned into wights, anyway.
Next surprise from Stannis is that he means to marry Jon Snow to Val - to seal an alliance between Winterfell (and by extension the North, which would fall under Stannis' jurisdiction as overking) and the wildling hordes. Jon can only laugh (but I am sure somewhere inside him there's this tingling glow at the thought of marrying Val because if you haven't realized it she's hot - about the only character trait we've had of her so far). Jon laughs because he knows the wildlings would never just simply nod their heads and say "okay" to this imagined political alliance. That's just not the way these people roll. Also, this could potentially be a foreshadowing of Jon ending up with Val somewhere down the line...I know, I know, there are some pretty interesting rumors on the Internet about Val and what she could possibly be, but for now, she's just the sister of the departed wildling queen.
At any rate, Jon really has gotten a lot to chew on during this conversation, and begs time to consider. Stannis tells him to consider quickly, because he is not a patient man. The king puts a "thin, fleshless" hand on Jon's shoulder (why the emphasis on thin and fleshless here - a man can wonder), and tells Jon to be quiet about all they've been talking about. The chapter ends with Stannis' promise to Jon, "But when you return, you need only bend your knee, lay your sword at my feet, and pledge yourself to my service, and you shall rise again as Jon Stark, the Lord of Winterfell."
Of course, during the first read, that was a powerful way to end the chapter. I really needed to know how Jon would respond to all of this; though I suspect I didn't really believe Jon would go along with this, no matter how alluring the promise. I also like the use of the words "rise again" here, because the echo of those words might just be heard in The Winds of Winter in, what is it now, 2018?
And that's chapter 77! Basically one long conversation atop the Wall, with a tiny introductory sparring yard scene and an elevator scene to build up to it. I think it works, it's an interesting chapter because the characters have interesting things to say, and there's this sense of "the plot can really go anywhere" at the end. Martin sure knows how to dangle them carrots.
Still, if I could make a minor complaint, I'd say the chapter feels static. They could have walked around as they talked, to give us some glimpses; or we could be reminded a little more that they are far atop the world, for long stretches it feels as if they are standing in a room talking instead of in a very dangerous and exciting location (atop the Wall). But, as I said, the implications here are mind-boggling. What if Jon had said yes to become Lord Stark? It would so change everything. There's also the subtle hint that Stannis and Roose will be at each other's throats, which we almost get to see in A Dance with Dragons. I am still, fourteen years later, curious about the exact nature of Melisandre and R'hllor, and how it will all play out once He Whose Name May Not Be Spoken is confronted. Where are the lines drawn? And will that damned writ from Robb Stark ever resurface? As in, EVER?!
Posted by R.J. at 5:48 AM