Wednesday, January 21, 2015

[Re-read] Sansa VII: The False and the Fair

And we're on the last chapter of A Storm of Swords. It's been a long ride. The novel is of course best when devoured within a week or so, by stretching it out like I've done the book kind of lost its nerve, but then again I couldn't have done it any other way. Today's chapter is one with some very memorable scenes, scenes that perhaps have become iconic - the esoteric metaphorical building and razing of Winterfell by Sansa in the snow, and Littlefinger finally revealing his ruthlessness. I even have the snow castle art print hanging in my home office (picture on the left). Over at Tower of the Hand, this chapter is rated a whopping 9.15. For a last chapter, it is surprisingly personal. Weirdly, I never think of this chapter as the last chapter, for some reason my mind puts it somewhere near the end but not at the very end. Yet this remains the last chapter, and if you were around fifteen years ago you might remember how fricking necessary it felt to know what would happen next. The pacing of this novel where each chapter is like a wave bringing you closer (or farther) from shore, the intricate plotting, the intensity of so many scenes and character experiences, it was a rush to read this novel the first (and second and third) time. By the time A Feast for Crows finally arrived, it felt like hitting a wall. All of a sudden the relentless pace of Storm was replaced with a more plodding style. The intensity was gone. I think this caught a lot of people (myself included) off-guard. Maybe Feast should have started with a bit more intensity which Martin then could gradually cool down for a better transition between novels. Oh well what do I know. Let's read Sansa VII.

If you were to try and showcase why you think Martin is an excellent writer, you could not go wrong by showing this particular chapter, in my opinion. From the very first paragraph, Martin shows off his mad skills. The very first line, She awoke all at once, every nerve atingle, immediately brings a ...well, nerve to the writing, showing us that Sansa Stark is uncomfortable, out of place - in the same first paragraph we see her remembering her sister Arya, and reminding herself that she is not home - she is at the Eyrie - the particular excellence here being of course that the whole chapter is all about coming home (if in a metaphorical sense). Sansa, then, wakes up one cold morning in the Eyrie knowing she has dreamed of home. It is all the more sad because we know Winterfell was razed and that Sansa has no home to go to. The Eyrie is her home now, and her name is Alayne Stone - yet, she tells herself The Eyrie was no home. I love that.

The second paragraph is basically exposition, giving us a feel of the Eyrie, and the pervasive feeling Martin gets across is that it is a lonely place. In fact, the only companions Sansa has up in the mountain fortress is little Lord Robert Arryn, and an old maid, and the singer, Marillion. Martin continues to build on that sense of loneliness by pointing out that Sansa is not the only one who feels lonely; her aunt, Lady Lysa Arryn, feels lonely too. We learn that Littlefinger spends more time away from the Eyrie, meeting with the Cobrays. We learn that some of the noble Houses of the Vale are on the brink of rebellion (because Lysa married Littlefinger), and the Vale is no longer the peaceful, secluded place it used to be. Knowing she won't find more sleep, Sansa goes to the window and opens the shutters to see snow falling on the Eyrie. It's such a powerful image, because we have been witnessing Martin building up to winter for three fat novels - and now, snow is falling.

The drifting flakes remind Sansa of her childhood, the last time she had seen snow - the day she left Winterfell. Here, Martin links the first paragraph where Sansa dreamed of being home with Winterfell one more time, strengthening the feeling that Sansa is longing for home. How happy she had been that day, off to see the wide world! Not for the first time, it is mentioned that Robb Stark had melting flakes in his hair. I wonder if Martin is trying to tell us something with that image. It appears elsewhere in the story, too. Maybe it symbolizes "going south"? Robb Stark went south and "melted" (like Starks are said to do when they go south of the Neck, if I recall correctly); if this is the symbolism (which I think fits), why is Arya's snowball falling apart? Another hint that she will die in the north, Needle clutched in her frozen fingers (paraphrasing)? Could be, could be. Curious..

She gets dressed, picking some warm clothes - which we get in all their glorious detail: Silken smallclothes and a linen shift, a warm dress of blue lambswool, two pairs of hose, boots laced up to her knees, heavy leather gloves, and a hooded cloak. Sometimes it's so weird when Martin suddenly launches into one of his laundry lists, but in this chapter, with this character, I am thinking it fits. Sansa is a girl who pays attention to clothing. She's fashionable, right? The coloration of course gives the chapter some nice visual contrasts (the blue against the snowy white), which we could see with our own eyes in Game of Thrones, where I feel they really did their best to do justice to this chapter.

Sansa enters the garden. It is a beautiful place, with snow drifting down on statues and trees from a dark grey sky above. She thinks to herself that she does not belong in such a pure world, which I find a curious thought - is she thinking of herself as somehow tainted? Beside a broken statue of a weeping woman (symbolizing Sansa's sorrow, or perhaps Catelyn Stark's?), she turns her face up to the sky and closes her eyes, letting the snow fall on her lashes, on her lips. Again, she thinks of Winterfell, here referred to as the "taste of innocence and the taste of dreams". This chapter is almost poetry, at times. It just oozes atmosphere, loneliness, sorrow. We learn that this garden, like so many other places in Westeros, used to be a godswood once, but here the soil had been too thin and stony for a weirwood to take root, making her think the place is as empty as she is. Sansa is really on a roll when it comes to self-deprecation here. It makes perfect sense too, after all she has been through. Unlike the other Stark kids, Sansa's role has been mostly a reactive one. Things have happened to her. In a way, she has displayed less agency than the others, but it is coming, if slowly.

On her knees, Sansa begins to put together balls of snow, while reminiscing of better times, when she had snowball fights with her younger siblings, Arya and Bran. She begins to pack the snowballs together, and (perhaps without realizing it at first) begins to build a snow castle, which soon turns into Winterfell (again). Home. Martin allows himself to linger on this sad but beautiful moment where the snow falls and the castle rises, describing in some detail how she builds it using snow and bits of bark, and how she becomes almost obsessed with building it. Time seems to slow as she continues to build; the maid asks if she wants breakfast but she ignores the question. Other servants watch her for a time, but Sansa pays them no mind. Lady Lysa watches her from the balcony, Maester Colemon too, but she ingores them, too.

Frustrated that her bridges keep collapsing, she curses aloud; it is a nice way of Martin to show us just how concentrated she is while working on her project, without telling us. This is when she is interrupted by a voice belonging to none other than Littlefinger, who has been gone for four days and chooses this moment to return. Obviously. He suggests packing the snow around sticks to make the bridges stronger, then asks if he may come into her castle. Now there's a slimy metaphor if ever there was one. "Don't break it," Sansa replies, and he smiles and suggests he will be gentle. It is quite creepy how these lines take on a double meaning once you know just how far Littlefinger is willing to go to live his old dreams of Lady Catelyn Stark, Sansa's mother. Littlefinger tells her he used to dream about Winterfell when Catelyn went there with Ned, thinking it a dark place and cold (of course he would think that, and he was probably dreaming of riding up there on a white horse to rescue Cat from the horrors of the North). Sansa tells him he is wrong, though; Winterfell was always warm, even when it snowed. That's another hint that we're not yet done with that mighty, if razed, fortress.

When she says she doesn't know how to do the glass roofs, Littlefinger helps her out, gathering twigs which he works into a latticework, "very like the one" that roofed the glass gardens of Winterfell. Is Martin telling us Littlefinger has seen Winterfell, after all? He continues to help her, complimenting her smile when she is happy with his latticework.  They continue to build Winterfell together, almost like two children at play, but let's not forget Littlefinger is an adult. Which makes the scene creepy. When she throws snow in his face, you can see how young she is, playful and innocent, while he's trying to act friendly, yet his words sound adult: "That was unchivalrously done, my lady." To this, she replies that it was unchivalrous of Littlefinger to take her to the Eyrie, and not home. There's home again. Lovely. She wonders how she suddenly dares to say this to his face; and thinks it is because of Winterfell; she thinks she is stronger "within the walls of Winterfell". A hint that the Starks are somehow empowered (by the Old Gods, for example) while at Winterfell? It jives with the theories of the Kings of Winter guarding the particular spot where Winterfell was built; it might just be where the Long Night's winter is kept at bay.

The creepiness level is raised to red alert when Littlefinger pulls her into his arms and begins to kiss her. She tries to squirm, his mouth is on hers, swallowing her words, he tastes of mint, she yields for half a heartbeat, then wrenches free, asking what the hell he's doing. He straightens his cloak, telling her he is "kissing a snow maid". She reminds him he is supposed to kiss his lady wife, her aunt Lady Lysa. He tells her that he does kiss her too, and that she has no cause to complain, then continues to try and romance Sansa by telling her how beautiful she looks with the snow crusted over her, her face flushed. He offers to warm her hands, but she won't hear it. He reminds her now of Marillion, who was also taken with her. She tells him again he shouldn't kiss her, that she could have been his own daughter; to this, he smiles ruefully (suggesting that indeed this is all a psychologically damaged fellow who, by going for the daughter, tries to make up for the loss of the mother).

Fortunately for Sansa, they are interrupted before it can become even more awkward (if possible): Little Robert appears, excited to see the snow castle. Littlefinger "sketches" a bow (love how that verb suggests Littlefinger's irritation at being interrupted) and asks if the boy should be outside without gloves (hoping he'll go back inside, of course). He wonders who made the castle, Sansa explains it's meant to be Winterfell. She explains it is the seat of House Stark, the great castle of the north. "It's not so great," the boy replies. Imagine hearing that nonchalant utterance after all those hours building the castle you call home, the only place in the world where you would feel safe...I really feel sorry for Sansa by this point, perhaps even more than when she was a prisoner of the Lannisters, though that was of course a terrible ordeal too; this is just a different, more creepy kind of imprisonment. Little Robert takes his doll and uses it as a giant, lets it attack the snow castle, beginning to ruin it.

Sansa can't take it anymore, and tells the boy to stop. Instead, he smashes down a wall. She grabs for him, catches the doll, and it rips apart. The little boy's mouth begins to tremble as he wails out that she killed his doll; this is followed by the inevitable shaking of his. Littlefinger seizes him and calls for the maester. Soon enough he is taken away and given dreamwine by the maester. Sansa says it was her fault, but Petyr says that he had it coming (well, that's not what Littlefinger says, but it seems to be what is implied when he says, "His lordship was destroying the castle"). Can we infer some foreshadowing in these sequences? Will giants arrive at Winterfell's door, taking down whatever remains of it? I have a feeling - just a gut feeling, really - that we will see Winterfell restored, not utterly demolished, but who knows? We could go check Not a Blog to see if there are any clues in the updates on The Winds of Winter. Oh, wait...

When Lord Robert is taken away, Sansa angrily slams the doll's head atop the snow gatehouse, in classic Tywin Lannister-fashion: A head on a pike. The servants are shocked, but Littlefinger laughs, perhaps enjoying the sight of some real emotion from the otherwise reserved Sansa.

Back in her bechchamber she sits down by the fire to get warm, wondering if this incident will lead to her aunt banishing her from her small court. Sansa hopes it will happen. Martin gives us a little insight into House Royce when Sansa thinks she might be better off with them, down at the Gates of the Moon - this is setup for Feast, so we have heard of these characters - Lord Nestor and Myranda - and comes off as a little obvious in this sequence, perhaps. She decides to tell her aunt what Littlefinger did to her, hoping this might help get her sent away from the Eyrie.

That afternoon Sansa is summoned to the High Hall and we are all excited of course to see how this will go down, but not before noting how Marillion is undressing her with his eyes. Naughty fellow. We learn how everyone hates him but Lady Lysa, who dotes on him as her favorite singer. As he brings her to the High Hall, he tells her he is composing a song, 'The Roadside Rose', which obviously is meant to be about her, about a baseborn girl bewitching every man who sees her; but she thinks of herself that she is a Stark of Winterfell, wants to tell him so, but she is able to keep quiet.

Lysa sits in her weirwood chair. Sansa walks down the blue silk carpet toward her aunt, and Martin gives us some nice sensory details of the High Hall. It truly is one of the great chambers of the saga. Lysa goes straight to the matter, telling Sansa that she saw her kissing Littlefinger. Sansa says that it is the other way around: he kissed her. This, of course, Lysa refuses to believe. Why would he kiss a child when he's just married a grown woman like herself? Lysa tells her there will be punishment (but fortunately, someone else will take the whipping for Sansa - another element of weird medieval customs Martin sneaks into the narrative - yes, whipping boys / girls did, and probably do, exist). Lysa launches into a long tirade against Sansa, and we realize that Lysa has always been envious of Sansa's mother Catelyn - Lysa's sister - who "used Littlefinger as a toy", teasing him with smiles and wanton looks. Now, I don't believe this to be the truth as much as a twisted truth; I never felt Catelyn was that kind of character. Neither is Sansa; yet even so, men seem to become infatuated with her whether she wills it or no, which may have been the case with Catelyn too; in other words, it was not Catelyn's fault that Littlefinger was infatuated with her. Lysa explains how Catelyn had danced six times with Petyr (suggesting that she was giving Petyr hope)...the dialogue is really strong here, full of emotion. Lysa accuses Sansa of enticing Petyr (just like she accuses Catelyn of doing the same, back in the day) and there's more than a little envy on display here. "He is mine now. Not Catelyn's and not yours." Oh, the drama! I love how such a dramatic personal conflict with a scorned sister acting abusive and being abused can be put in the middle of a fantasy novel yet work so well.

Lysa continues to prattle, trying to explain to Sansa how much she deserves Petyr, how much they love each other...and Sansa gets more and more scared, naturally. Apparently, her aunt isn't much better than Cersei Lannister. Lysa grabs her wrist and drags her to the Moon Door. She tells Marillion to sing a song, 'The False and the Fair' (how fitting), then forces Sansa to open the door. Lysa forces her to look down, once the door flies open, and shoves her to the edge, asking Sansa if she wants to go (Sansa begged leave to go, but Lysa is suggesting she take the Moon Door). It's an exhilarating, dramatic, exciting scene. The snow flying in through the opening, the cold wind, the possibility that we are witnessing Sansa's execution. Not that I ever expected her to fly, of course; Littlefinger has a way of showing up in the nick of time. Teetering on the edge, Sansa now hysterical, she is but a step away from death when Littlefinger enters, shouting at Lysa. Lysa lets go of Sansa; Sansa manages to stumble onto her knees instead of dropping out the Moon Door.

Littlefinger walks up, trying to converse with Lysa. It is obvious now that Lysa is well into the realm of insanity, though. Screaming, Lysa tells him that Sansa has no decency; why would she marry her to her son, Robert? She was only teaching Sansa a lesson, that she should not be kissing her husband...he suggests sending her away then, but she refuses with a solid NO! This is when Lysa begins to realize that Littlefinger may just be the one who kissed Sansa, not the other way around: "You can't want her. You can't." She begins to cry, it is revealed that she had a baby (with Littlefinger) that "they" murdered with moon tea, tansy, mint and wormwood (the "tansy" then being what Lord Hoster Tully is babbling about on his death bed, needing his daughter Lysa's forgiveness for the abortion he organized). Can there be any doubt, really, when she says, "I only drank what Father gave me"? Hoster Tully did not want his daughter to have a bastard, and that's that. Makes one wonder if there are children of Littlefinger running around in Westeros? Maybe not. He seems very dedicated in his love for Catelyn, and now Sansa. I don't know.

Lysa wonders why Petyr always loved her sister best, when it was Lysa who loved him. Coolly, he approaches, telling her that everything will be all right, that there is no reason to cry, that she must let go of Sansa. Another revelation is given to us; Littlefinger had Lysa poison Jon Arryn - her husband's - wine! That is a huge revelation, actually, to a mystery that has gone unsolved since one of the first chapters of A Game of Thrones. Awesome!

Finally, Littlefinger convinces Lysa to calm down and release Sansa. Lysa throws herself in Littlefinger's arms. He assures her that he will never leave her side again for as long as they live (can you hear the ominous music building up as he speaks these words?). Sansa notices she has lost one of her shoes (a nod to Cinderella?). While Sansa wraps her arms around a pillar, fearful of falling out the Moon Door, Littlefinger tells Lysa that there always has been only one love in his life, and she is so happy to hear this, "Oh Petyr, do you swear it? Only one?"

"Only Cat."
He gave her a short, sharp shove.

And so Lysa flies backward out the Moon Door. It is a fantastic scene, so well written I am literally holding my breath even on the tenth re-read. It's such a fantastic twist. From the serene garden to the creepy kiss, Little Robert's epileptic seizure to this - Littlefinger calmly killing Lysa Arryn. His wife. The sister of the love of his life. Aunt of the girl watching with terror.

To top it off, Littlefinger tells Sansa to call for the guards, because the singer has killed his lady wife.

Oh, he's a total creep, but I can't help being impressed by Littlefinger's ruthlessness, his political savvy, his cunning, the way he is behind so much, even the poisoning of Jon Arryn so long ago. What a great chapter. Now I'm high on Ice & Fire again. I feel like watching the Game of Thrones episode again (though I am in the camp who hated that they changed the line, "Only Cat", I think they could have had him say, "Only Catelyn Stark" or something like that - oh well). And now, as I look out my window, and see lazy snowflakes descend upon an already snow-covered ground, every branch of every tree in sight laden with snow, I am so in the mood for more chapters like this. Unfortunately, I am almost at the end of A Storm of Swords...I can't remember any chapter in Feast or Dance that makes me so giddy about the story, but it has been a good while since I read any of those two; I remember enjoying Theon's chapters in Dance, and some of the later chapters of Feast...but we'll see. Once I am done with the Epilogue of A Storm of Swords it is time to plan out this Feastdance-reread. Maybe once I am through, The Winds of Winter has been announced. I wouldn't mind if it came earlier, but it seems that this will not be the year, unfortunately. Prove me wrong, George. Please. Pretty please.

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