Sunday, February 15, 2015

[Re-read] Varamyr versus Man-scent

After the feast comes the reckoning...and spoilers for everything.

All right! Time to delve into those two latest novels! A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, published in 2005 and 2011 respectively, arguably the most divisive works in the series, and which, unlike books I-III, I haven't read to death. Feast I've read two times fully, with the occasional chapter when I felt like it; Dance I've only read fully once, and I stopped a re-read halfway through - so these books occupy far less of my memory than the three first books, and as such I am in one way excited about getting to this point, while at the same time I have to wonder if this re-read will make me appreciate these two novels more, after so many years of debating them. I well remember how disappointed I was with Feast ten (!) years ago - how much of this disappointment was due to my excitement over finally getting a new book? I mean, I was so excited that once the book arrived (before pub date) I had to take a selfie with it. Same with Dance really, but with more apprehension. Right now, before I start over again with these novels, I feel that Dance is the weaker of the two, yet at the same time, by discussing and reading up on what fans say, it seems that these books are perhaps a bit more complex in terms of storytelling, at the expanse of the more outward action-oriented, tightly paced  first three. There are - perhaps - more nuggets of gold to discover in the sense that Martin packed these two with a host of clues, allegories, foreshadowing, possible resolutions to earlier introduced prophecies, new prophecies, enigmatic alliances, unexpected turns etc. and so I'll do my best to try and uncover and explore, and hopefully a deep dive will make it worthwhile. So, without further ado, the first prologue of A Feast with Dragons, featuring Varamyr Sixskins. I suppose he's glad he didn't warg four animals, which would lead to the other wildlings having fun with "Varamyr Fourskins". Tee hee. For the reading order and the announcement about this re-read, check out this post.

(this is Orell, not Varamyr, of course - my bad)
I admit I'm almost hesitant to start this latest project, as re-reading Feast and Dance combined feels somewhat daunting; yet, at the same time, I'm eager to get rolling. The first thing that strikes me as I begin to read the prologue of Dance, is how similar in tone it feels to the first three novels, whereas when I read Feast the first time I felt it was too different in tone. This, of course, could be because Feast surprised me with a prologue with all-new characters in an all-new location that seemed very disconnected from everything so far, while this prologue in Dance follows up on what happened toward the end of A Storm of Swords beyond the Wall. So in that sense, starting with Dance's prologue instead of Feast's is already a good decision made for me. The narrative flows more directly from Storm into Varamyr's story, a fellow we already have met. And even seen, on HBO's Game of Thrones.

That being said, the opening paragraph does not reel me in like Martin's opening paragraphs often do. This is mostly because I am not very fond of the "warged" perspective, which we have experienced through Bran Stark's eyes when he becomes one with his direwolf Summer. In the beginning it was novel but I quickly tired of all the "wolf-names" for things. This particular narrative technique (say, calling a castle a "stone house" or whatever) isn't as prevalent in Varamyr's only chapter, though, at least the beginning of the chapter reads like it could have been told through a human's eyes - which, I guess, goes to show how much of his own identity Varamyr retains while warged (as opposed to Bran, who in the beginning was inexperienced and thus the thoughts were more...wolfish - but I don't blame him, I never mastered the art of warging myself).

So, the night is "rank with the smell of man", immediately telling us this isn't your usual POV, and immediately after the POV is named "the warg", settling the deal. What follows is less a "Point of View" and more a "Point of Smell", which I suspect Martin finds a fun little challenge to write, but fortunately there's some tension right away as we learn the warg full of hate and hunger, and is racing through a forest to catch a human; he can see the victim through the eyes of his two packmates, a one-eyed brother and a small sly sister, and they are hunting for the unknown man's flesh. A sharp-eyed reader will understand the warg is Varamyr right away I suppose; I wasn't sure who I was reading about at first. I think it's kind of cool that Varamyr can actually warg another animal while warging, at least that's how I interpret it (of course, it can be just that he can "borrow" the sight of his packmates, but it makes more sense from what we already know that he can jump between bodies, rather effortlessly it seems, which would make Varamyr a fairly powerful warg, no? I am also assuming that by teaching us some new things about warging like this, is setting us up for Bran's growing powers).

Surprisingly fast (in my memory, this was a slow burner of a prologue - maybe I'll realize I've been wrong?) they come down a forested slope and to a group of people (the weird thing here being that up to this point, we've only known the pack is hunting a man - now there are more), one of them being a woman with a baby (in Varamyr's warged mind, a pup). A voice whispers to leave her be until the men have been taken down, because the men are more dangerous. Man, it's been so long since I've read this prologue, I have no clue who is whispering - is it Varamyr talking to himself, or another warg in another wolf (or bear, or whatever)? Yay, I like not remembering. It's as if I am reading for the first time. That happens all too seldom in the George R.R. Martin readership. Business. Thingy.

Ah, so there were two men in addition to the woman and the child; quickly, Varamyr's pack descends and blood flies through the air as one man has his throat torn open, and the other is, ahem, taken from the rear. Now, the woman is described to have a small tooth of bone, which is warg-speak for, I suspect, a bone dagger, which would be a weapon used by a wildling. Martin breezes through the action here, lingering for a paragraph on the carnage, and it is quite disturbing. The "warg-speak" he employs kind of puts a little distance between reader and text, but is is rather horrifying anyway; I mean, come on: "Underneath her furs the female was just skin and bones, but her dugs were full of milk"; "The sweetest meat was on the pup." There is, then, no compassion - no human compassion - in Varamyr as he watches so matter-of-factly the carnage he's wrought; it could be argued that this tells us the man that was Varamyr is now much more a beast.

The scene shifts, although the character remains the same - Varamyr opens his eyes in a mud and straw hut (doesn't sound like a very comfortable place considering we're far far up North; wouldn't they, you know, build something that keeps the warmth inside?) All right, anyway. Here comes a nitpick. One of the - if not the - main reasons I've complained - at length - about Feast and Dance is that the quality of the prose itself is weaker in these novels than in the first three. The first example (remember, minor nitpick) comes here, when Martin breaks his otherwise strict POV structure: "(...) Varamyr shivered and coughed and licked his lips. His eyes were red (...)" Now, this feels to me like a glaring mistake, because, you know, how can Varamyr see that his eyes are red? Totally takes me out of it for a moment.

While the taste of blood and fat fills his mouth, his belly cries for food; reminding us that what your animal companion eats, you don't. It helps re-establish the rules of warging for the reader, and helps us worry for Bran Stark. We know that if he stays too long inside Summer, his real, human, body will suffer. Varamyr asks himself whether he has sunk so low as to hunger after human meat, which I find odd considering he's just been part of a little massacre which involved eating babies (maybe he's an atheist. Ka-ching). I mean, in his mind it seems that he hasn't just feasted on human flesh, yet he just did. Or was he dreaming? I'm confused. Or is the POV so unreliable, is he denying his own very recent experience? Shrug. There's a Haggon mentioned, who has said something important about cannibalism (in essence, that it's bad, bad as in abominable). Abomination. That's such a Biblical word. Have we ever seen it used in the series before? It feels so...odd, coming up in this series. Maybe I'm still not used to the "newishness" of this part of the tale (to me, Dance especially, though already four years old, still feels rather recent - of course, that's cause it's been a long while since I read it). Makes this re-read more interesting for me, personally, though. That's good. Interestingly, according to this Haggon, the worst abomination of all is to warg into another human being. That's exciting to read, because we know just the crippled boy who has already done so. What does this tell us about Bran and his future? It feels like foreshadowing, or a hint, but now I've come so far into my re-read that we're into territory where I simply don't know anymore. That is kind of exciting, too, marred only by the knowledge that it might still take a year or two for Martin to give us more. MOAR PLS!

Right. So Haggon's a dead guy, and it seems he was killed by Varamyr, who...devoured his heart. See, now I'm confused again. Varamyr wondered only in the previous paragraph if he could sink low enough to eat human meat, but apparently he ate Haggon's fricking heart?! OOOOOH here comes the answer. Good. Phew. Varamyr is thinking, of course, of himself as a human when pondering the human flesh question; he makes a distinction between himself and the self inside the wolf (or whatever animal he was warging earlier; it isn't made clear, though it "feels" wolf-y). Varamyr moves closer to the fire he's got going inside the hut, to stave off the cold, deciding that it was a mercy to kill that little wildling family (my assumption that it was a wildling family; it doesn't really matter). As he does so, we learn that he has a wound and it opens again. I suppose that's the wound he got in A Storm of Swords. See, my memory is kind of fussy already. Imagine me trying to read Dance without re-reading everything prior first. I finished Swords not so long ago, and I already can't really remember the exact circumstances we last saw Varamyr in. I seem to recall he was outside Mance's tent and then his eagle burst aflame (Melisandre's magic) - or maybe that was just the TV show's version? Doesn't really matter.

His thoughts go to someone named Thistle, the last of his companions, a spearwife; apparently the rest of his group have deserted along the way. So the wildlings - at least Varamyr and his group - fled the Wall after the arrival of King Stannis Baratheon, and in the end Varamyr and Thistle were the only ones left of their particular group. So, one of the things this prologue does is explain to us the situation for the wildlings after the battle got turned around in A Storm of Swords. Martin sums it up: "(...)but most were lost(...)" Survivors spoke of Mance having fallen, Mance captured, Mance dead. Apparently, Varamyr has always thought well of himself, naming himself Varamyr at the age of ten because it was a name that sounded lordly. Thistle never understood she was fleeing with one of Mance Rayder's closest confidantes (or so it seems that Varamyr thinks of himself), and Varamyr did not want her to know that one of Mance's men was fleeing like a coward, so he named himself Haggon to her. One could say, perhaps, that the real Haggon, whose heart Varamyr ate and whose blood he drank, lives on inside Varamyr, since the fellow was a warg, and that is why Varamyr picked Haggon's name when he decided not to reveal his true name to Thistle. If so, we could have some interesting implications - say, if Bran was to eat one of his friends, maybe some part of that friend would live on inside Bran? Just throwing it out there, now that the text made me think about it.

We also learn that the Weeper gathers warriors to take the Shadow Tower, that there is refuge to be had in the valley of the Thenns, and that many seek the sea. Basically, the wildlings, once united under the King-beyond-the-Wall, are now splintering into factions. Varamyr has apparently been dead nine times (as in, managed to escape by warging, thus setting us up for the possibility that a certain Lord Commander might do the same later in the story), and thinks that the tenth time will be his "true" death. I am not sure why he thinks he can no longer escape death; does Martin mean that Varamyr has run out of hosts for his body? It doesn't make sense, "Sixskins" suggests he has, or has had, six familiars, so to speak. Maybe there is an answer forthcoming. It really feels like I'm reading this for the first time.

He remembers being knifed over a squirrel-skin cloak; he had bent over a dead woman to take it, and was attacked by her son. Thistle patched him up later, but the text doesn't tell us just how he escaped the end (the boy stabbed him in the side with a bone blade). This event also shows that the wildlings are already fracturing and killing each other (it was a Hornfoot man who killed the woman with the cloak). Right, Martin is kind enough to supply a little memory jogging; it was indeed fire that killed Varamyr the last time. Following this we get a short laundry list of Varamyr's deaths (well, almost-deaths I would say): a spear thrust; a bear's teeth; once giving birth to a cub (am I reading that right?!?!); his father's axe; right, we don't get to hear of all the nine deaths of Varamyr Sixskins. But now, for some reason, he is quite sure that the next time something deals massive damage to him, it is over for good.

The fire goes out, so he tosses sticks onto the ashes, blowing upon the embers hoping to get it going again. I like the irony of him remembering the agony of burning, then wishing the fire to burn. Alas, the smoke ceases to rise and it gets colder - and he is suspecting that his true death will, indeed, be of cold. He calls out for Thistle, his voice hoarse and full of pain. He is unsure how long she's been gone, and he regrets not "having taken her" before she left; showing us that, yes, most men in Westeros remain a touch misogynistic. She went in search for food, but now he begins to suspect she isn't coming back. And I'm kind of realizing why I remembered this chapter as being a bit slow, because now we're basically just inside a mud hut with a fellow and his thoughts. However, I have to say, I am actually enjoying it quite a bit more than I expected. The prologue gives us a pretty good look at who Varamyr really is, and how he came to be such a distasteful (un)gentleman. Between his father hitting his head with an axe and his mother abandoning him, it makes sense that Varamyr has little in the way of compassion and such.

The reasons for his parents being, well, bad parents, are explained too: they knew he was a skinchanger, and so they gave him over to - you guessed it - Haggon. So this Haggon fellow was like a mentor to him, in the ways of the Force warging. What confuses me a little is that he remembers Haggon teaching him 'the way of the warg and the secrets of the skinchanger'; here I've been thinking that these are just two expressions meaning the same thing. And I suppose it could still mean just one thing, and that it's just the wording that throws me off. By the way, I can completely understand his decision to call himself Varamyr instead of Lump. And he had a brother (or sister?) named Bump. Bump and Lump. I chuckled.

Oh man, does Martin give us more than enough backstory on this character. He did come off as pretty awe-inspiring in A Storm of Swords, didn't he? I mean, riding on the back of a snow bear, trailed by a shadowcat and three wolves (and an eagle, I suppose - he doesn't think of the eagle when he reminisces of his former glory and greatness). Here, alone in his mud hut not able to get a fire going, he comes off as rather more pathetic. Apparently, before joining Mance Rayder, he had been a "lord of sorts", living alone in a hall of moss and mud and logs, attended by his beasts - kind of like a Dungeons & Dragons druid, that's the feel I get. But twisted in a darker direction, of course. Oh, and villages paid homage. That's good and explains the "lord" part of "lord of sorts". It is also revealed, again, how little he thinks of woman, sending his shadowcat to stalk any woman he fancied and forcing her to come to his bed. This means that there probably are a lot of Varamyr bastards running around beyond the Wall, increasing the chances of more warging in the series if Martin so wishes. Oh, right, it even says so in the text that he did get some of them with child. This backstory could really be a story all unto itself; with heroes occasionally arriving to slay the warg lord for raping their village women. Perhaps a story from the POV of such a spear-wielding village hero, arriving at the hall of moss to slay the vile Varamyr.

Suddenly, fear drives him to his feet and out of his train of thought. He goes to check the door and realizes he has been snowed in. He must have been "gone" (warging) for a fairly long time, then. It would take some time for a hut to be completely snowed under - but apparently the snow is so soft it is easy to get out and have a look around. Other huts, being snowed under, a weirwood "armored in ice", and hills and blowing snow. He calls for Thistle again, this time there's a response - a wolf howls, and Varamyr recognizes it as One Eye, the oldest, biggest and fiercest wolf of his pack. The other two are named as well, Stalker and Sly. When he got burned inside the eagle, Varamyr had lost control of the rest of his beasts. Bah, now I'm a little confused again. He thinks of dying and beginning his second life inside one of his wolves, eating his human remains. I thought he was going to die for good? Yes, feel free to explain in the comments!

Next up is a longish explanation that delves deeper into the mysteries of warging - dogs are the easiest, wolves are harder because you can never truly tame one, other animals, like cats, are avoided entirely. Once more, we're given a warning sign with regards to Bran. Haggon told Varamyr that birds are the worst kind of animal to warg into; because once you've spent too much time in the clouds, you don't want to come down again. Well, Varamyr had his eagle and managed to stay in control, so maybe we don't have to worry too much about Bran inhabiting ravens.

This Varamyr is so much cooler than TV show-Varamyr. But less practical to film, obviously.

Right. So Varamyr is desperate for Thistle to return, not because of the cold, but because he needs to warg into her, so as to escape death by freezing. And he keeps thinking about how Haggon would disapprove, so it's a difficult question of morale, too. And that's what he meant by taking her, too. And I called him misogynist. Poor Varamyr. I'm sorry! (Says more about Martin though, that my immediate thought was that he was planning on raping her)

Varamyr gets dizzy. All right, now I'm at the point where I ask the character to get on with it. The wind begins to rise (always ominous), and he leaves the hut. At the weirwood tree he finds a branch that he uses as a crutch. He staggers to a hut, hoping to find some food so he can keep himself alive until Thistle returns. The crutch snaps and he falls, and is too weak to stand up again. He thinks that the snow will bury him. His wound leaks. It all looks pretty bad for Varamyr Sixskins. He feels sad knowing he will never see the lands south of the Wall, but remembers Haggon warning him that south of the Wall, skinchangers were hunted down and killed. This leads to yet another memory of Haggon, when he showed Varamyr, his apprentice, Eastwatch. I am not sure why Martin felt he needed to include this memory, but there it is. More knowledge of warging: When you live on as a spirit inside an animal, you gradually fade away until the warged animal is just an animal again. Noted, Mr. Martin. I am worried for Bran now. Right, it's good to get this (re-) explained because I was a bit confused now about Orell. So Orell slipped inside his eagle and later Varamyr slipped inside the eagle too, jostling for space, as it were, with Orell even as he was fading. Knowledge learned: More than one skinchanger can join inside one animal. I have a feeling we'll see Jon and Bran sharing a beast, based on what I'm reading here. Martin has set the precedent, so to speak.
And more: Skinchangers can "feel" each other, as in, sense each other. I like how he thinks of meeting Jon Snow, and then thinks that warging into Ghost would be "a second life worthy of a king". Foreshadowing Jon Snow rising to kingship (or at least having king's blood)?

The weirwood eyes seem to look down at Varamyr, and he thinks of all the sins he has committed. And frankly, it doesn't sound good for the dying skinchanger. He justifies his sins by blaming the beasts he slipped into. The gods made no reply. Yes, Martin, I know what you're telling us. The gods aren't real in this setting. But maybe we'll see Bran watch Varamyr bleeding out before the tree later?

And more backstory. Do we really need all this for Varamyr? I don't know. Oh, we get a confirmation that Bump was indeed a brother, not a sister. But there was a sister, too, Meha. And she named her brothers Lump and Bump. We are told (for the second time in this prologue, actually) that a woods witch told Varamyr's mother that, when Lump died at two, that the gods had taken him "down into the earth, into the trees", foreshadowing Bran's meeting with Bloodraven somewhere else beyond the Wall. It also fleshes out the belief among wildlings (?) that the gods are all around, in water and trees and rocks and birds and beasts. Pantheism. Or... the belief sprung out from ancient knowledge of the Children of the Forest and how they merged with trees, and this has become the wildlings' religion - so "the gods in the birds and beasts" were originally skinchangers, like the Old Gods seem to be a concept derived from the greenseers watching the world through weirwood trees. Now, all this is fairly interesting. Martin, in Dance, seems to confirm that the Old Gods are misunderstood in the sense that they were never gods but other beings of flesh and blood (if semi-immortal), yet we haven't seen any similar explanations for, say, Rh'llor, the Seven, or my favorite, the Black Goat of Qohor, whose presence in the series is way too underwhelming. When shall he rise to claim dominion?! Anyway, the whole business with Children, greenseers, skinchangers etc. turning into the people's gods reminds me more than a little of those ancient astronaut theories - the basic premise being, what if the gods we have (and have had) were misinterpreted aliens? I'm not saying I believe in the theory (and it's just a theory, not a scientific theory - a difference more people should know about), just that there are similarities - if I'm reading Martin correctly, of course.

We get a more detailed explanation as to why and how his father put an axe in his head, though this story too doesn't seem to advance the plot anymore than the other backstory nuggets we've gotten - this prologue is more of an isolated character study. And well, one of Martin's strongest assets is his characterization skills so I can't complain too loudly.

Varamyr, lingering between alertness and sleep, wakes up violently, his body shaking; "Get up," someone says, "Get up, we have to go. There are hundreds of them." And just like that, Martin has my attention back again. I'm like, what? What hundreds? Wights? Wildlings? Snow flakes?! It is Thistle who has finally returned, urging him to come along. His hand has frozen to the ground (that's weird), and he has to tear it loose. She shakes him, and he feels the warmth coming off her, and he decides that now is the time to slip inside her skin.

He summons his strength and makes the leap. Thistle screams as he forces himself into her mind. Or soul. Or whatever. Body? It's such a cool concept, though, innit. Warging. Imagine being able to warg. I'd slip inside the cat and stay away from my feet when it was time to sleep. Less scratches that way.
"His old flesh fell back into the snowdrift as her fingers loosened." 
Thistle screams for him to get out, obviously realizing what he did, and now we are actually reading two characters inside of one. That's quite neat: "(...)he heard her own mouth shouting."

Apparently, it is quite different for Varamyr to experience warging into another human, because he isn't able to dominate her mind; when she claws at her eyes, he is not able to stop her hands from doing so. I'm not quite sure what Thistle is doing, but it seems she is basically going insane, biting herself so hard that she bites off her own tongue. And then, the world seems to fall away, and he watches the world in a state of disembodiment, and it seems then that he feels like he is everywhere at the same time, like how the woods witch explained the presence of the gods. He sees a lot of different animals, which makes me wonder if what he is really doing is jumping from beast to beast, at last settling in his trusted old wolf, One Eye (sparrow, squirrel, oak, horned owl, hare, trees, earthworms, ravens, elk - waitaminute, does he see Coldhands and the gang?). So one can actually warg into trees? The text seems to imply so. Then there could be two kinds of warging - the spiritual one (moving the mind into a new body) and a physical one, like Bloodraven merging with the tree later in the novel. You'd think this was the end of the prologue, ending with a death (of sorts), but Martin isn't ready to let go just yet.

From a crest, the three wolves (One Eye, Sly, Stalker) watch the village of half-buried huts; and he sees blue-eyed shadows - a small army of wights wandering through, and with them comes the cold; fingers of frost crept slowly up the weirwood - but wait, I thought the cold came with the Others, yet the description here seems to match wights. Maybe they are being herded by Others? And one of them is Thistle, looking up at Varamyr and his pack. Varamyr realizes she sees him, and then the prologue ends.

Which is the first prologue, if I'm not mistaken, where the POV character actually survives. Yet, of course, he also died. So Martin kept the tradition, but we also now have a big wolf running around in the North with Varamyr inside, so he's a potentially returning/recurring character.

All right! The first chapter of A Feast with Dragons has been re-read and, despite a few niggles - the nitpick I mentioned early on, perhaps a little too much time spent on Varamyr's backstory (though, since he survived the prologue, he might come back and by then we'll know him better due to the backstory presented here), the wights bringing the cold being actually wrong (isn't it?) - it was fun to read this chapter. I remembered only some of it (it must be three or four years since I read this), mainly the opening hunt and Varamyr sitting in a hut, and that made it all the more enjoyable. There wasn't much outward action, which is telling for the Dance side of things, with almost everything written taking place inside Varamyr's head as memories, but it was fairly interesting anyway. I wasn't particularly thrilled at the "reveal" of an undead army marching through the village, because the threat of the Others was established way back in the first prologue of the saga, and this was basically just the same in a way - it would have been even cooler if Varamyr saw his own body come marching through the snowdrifts. The only reason I can think of why Martin didn't choose that (because it would have been quite disturbing for Varamyr-inside-One-Eye) is to show us that bodies whose spirits are gone, can't be resurrected into wights, by the Others.

Next up: The second prologue, featuring everybody's favorite Pate.


  1. Chett survived his prologue (and didn't die in any way during it) - you noted it at the time.

  2. Varamyr didn't die nine times. He experienced the death of the animal he was controlling nine times. His body never died before the chapter. His father didn't hit Varamyr's body with an axe. He used an axe to execute the family's dogs, after Varamyr warged into them and (as far as I remember) used them to murder his brother.

    The purpose of this chapter isn't to comment on Bran's story arc. It's basically a primer for warging, so that the mechanism by which Jon is resurrected after his murder is established. His soul will hide in his wolf until his body is healed by whatever means, then return there.

  3. Minor nitpick - we haven't actually seen varmyr in the TV show yet. Mackenzie crook was actually playing the skinchanger orell. Although according to the wiki we will be getting varamyr in season 5:

  4. @ Nikolas - You are right! Thanks for pointing it out (he did die quite soon after, if I recall correctly)
    @ Unknown - I realized as I was reading and blogging what you are saying is how it happened, yes; I guess I didn't make it clear that I, while reading, came to the understanding of how the nine deaths worked. Thanks for pointing it out. I agree about setting us up for Jon, but I think I'll stand by my claim that the chapter also aids our understanding of Bran's arc in this book :)
    @mixmastered - See, no wonder I get confused. And I even put in a picture of Orell. Thank you for pointing it out, this one is embarassing lol. :-)
    Thanks for reading, all.