Sunday, September 4, 2016

[Re-read] Arya I - So Many Gods, So Few Friends - Part II

It's actually happening, I'm back into the combined re-read of George R.R. Martin's A Feast for Crows (2005) and A Dance with Dragons (2011), all in preparation for The Winds of Winter (2017) but also because it's kind of fun to go back into these books and write a little about the process of doing so. Quick recap: Arya has been delivered safely to the front of the House of Black and White by a captain Yorko Terys, and she's right there on the steps leading up to the front door, as we delve back into the story. Note that I'm careless with regards to spoilers for what's coming further down the line.

(As always, I'm using the All Leather Must Be Boiled merged reading order to make both books into one overwhelmingly large re-read project).

Who will open the door for Arya? Will it even open at all? And just why did the captain make sure Arya knew his name? Will this chapter conclude with a stunning cliffhanger or peter out like some of the other chapters read so far? Hit the "Continue Reading" button right below. Le-e-et's queeest!
There's an ominous silence, at least it's silent enough for Arya to hear her own heartbeat, and that's a nice way to start off; it creates a little tension. Suddenly, however, "she is somewhere else" and I wonder if Martin means she's daydreaming or if she's feeling a kind of stronger (mental) movement, a hint that she's a warg - she does, after all, think that she's a wolf, and will not be afraid. This also reminds me of that line about the wolf needing its pack, so what Martin is telling us here is, basically, that Arya might be in some danger as she's cut off from her pack...and it also tells us that Arya still considers herself a Stark of the North, identifying with the 'wolf'. It's a nice little paragraph that one can look at from several angles, but soon enough she's bounding up the steps until she reaches the top.

Here, she finds two wooden doors at twelve feet high. Fairly tall doors, I'd say. The look of the door reminds Arya of the heart tree in the godswood at Winterfell, which is, of course, interesting - she even feels that the door is watching her, like the face carved in the heart tree (this could mean that here's another sight-seeing spot for our young friend Bran). While I understand that the door is made of weirwood, I am not sure what the carved moon face is supposed to represent. Maybe it's obvious and I've forgotten - if so, do not hesitate to educate! She tries to push the doors open, but they are locked. She tells them (calling them "stupid") to open the doors, that she was sent by Jaqen, and that she has the iron coin. Valar Morghulis. And the doors open, but they open without anyone standing on the other side actually opening them. A tad cliché perhaps but I like it when Martin sneaks in an epic fantasy trope instead of deconstructing everything all the time. The doors close behind her, and she pulls Needle (so fast even she herself doesn't notice - that's quite impressive). A few candles burn along the walls, but there's too little light to make life comfortable for Arya. She hears voices, weeping, leather sliding over stone, a door opening and closing, and water. It's a fairly ominous entry into the House of Black and White, and Martin shows again how good he is at setting up a new mystery, you can't just not want to know what's going to happen next here, eh.

© 2014 Donato Giancola

Her eyes adjust (nice, but probably unintended, link to Arya losing her sight later in this storyline) to the darkness and she realizes the temple seems much larger within than it had without. Kind of reminding me of that Lethal Weapon-parody where the hero has a palace inside his caravan. She sees a whole bunch of gods - statues - massive and threatening (as gods should be), red candles flickering at their feet. I like it when Martin adds a few more gods to the divine menagerie, some obviously inspired by gods from the real world mythologies, like the twelve feet woman (good thing when they brought her in, the doors were twelve feet) who has "real tears" trickling from her eyes, just like all the "real tears" statues have produced especially in Catholic lands. Then there's a man with a lion's head, a huge horse of bronze and iron (that's gotta be some Dothraki divinity), a great stone face (Easter Island?), a pale infant with a sword ( of Craster's boys early in his training?), a shaggy black goat (oh yeah, that's the Black Goat of Qohor everybody), and a hooded man leaning on a staff (the hooded man in Winterfell from ADwD?). You know, as much as I don't care for Martin's endless food descriptions, I do like his lists of weird god-statues. Unfortunately he won't go into more desciptions, leaving the rest as "looming shapes". Between the statues are alcoves. I'm just mentioning it in case it becomes important. All in all, the House of Black and White so far has a decidedly more high fantasy flair than most locations in the saga so far, an almost Dungeons & Dragons-esque feel to it in terms of being quite dungeony and mysterious. I both enjoy it, and feel it's kind of out of place. We do get some more detail, like how the floor is made of rough stone and that the air is warm and heavy, but these sensory details are more to show us a bit of Arya's increased perception (i.e., how she's developed since A Game of Thrones). "Her feet told her" is a way of saying how she uses her entire body to sense the world around her; this, too, sets up her eventual loss of sight when she must rely even more on the rest of her body. Quite clever stuff, I have to admit. In terms of narrative progress.

A strange addition is the mention of the smells of the candles. At first they seem unfamiliar but suddenly they "seemed to smell of snow and pine needles and hot stew" (in other words, it sounds like they smell of home) and this makes Arya feel brave enough to slip Needle back into its sheath. I am not sure what to make of this tiny paragraph; do the candles actually smell like that? Is someone making them smell like that to make Arya feel more comfortable? Does it really matter?

She finds, in the center of the temple, a pool of water, ten feet across, black and lit by more candles. A young man in a silvery cloak sits beside it, weeping. He dips his hand in the water, pulls it back and sucks his finger. There are stone cups along the rim. Arya fills one and brings it to him, and you can only wonder how the fellow didn't notice all these stone cups. He accepts the cup with a "Valar Morghulis" and Arya responds (correctly, we can assume), with "Valar Dohaeris." (And somewhere in the back of my mind, not able to let go of The Winds of Winter, I'm thinking valar delayris). The man drinks deep, drops the cup in the pool, gets up swaying, Arya notices the guy has a stab wound from which he's bleeding, and he lurches off to crawl into one of the alcoves (ah there you go) to die. Arya realizes that there are more people here, also in the alcoves, dead or dying. It is a really spooky place, am I right? Gives me the shivers.

All right, enough suspense-building and mystery; a hand touches Arya's arm. Boo! It's a little girl, pale in a cowled robe, the robe black on one side and white on the other. Gaunt and bony face, hollow cheeks, dark eyes. Bit ghoulish, to keep with the sense of dread, I suppose. The girl speaks to Arya in a language she doesn't recognize, Arya gets annoyed but then a new voice behind her interrupts them before Arya can go violent on the girl (there's some implied threat here) and Arya sees a hooded man (that would be Jaqen H'Ghar in the TV series; I wonder if I'll be able to separate the TV character from the hooded man in this book - or will we, eventually, learn that this hooded man is Jaqen in the books as well? Valar Finishthebookgeorgis). He tells her she's come to a "place of peace", and we are formally introduced to "The House of Black and White". The hooded man also tells Arya she's young to seek the favor of the "Many-Faced God" (despite an even younger girl standing right next to them, that's kinda weird). Since Arya has no clue about this god, the hooded man is free to deliver some exposition; in this case, I'm fine with it - we learn along with Arya, and we get the info through dialogue, not a history lesson or what have you. In short, the way I read it, the "Many-Faced God" is basically all the gods rolled up into one. Makes it easier to reference. Arya tells him she came to find Jaqen from Lorath, and she mentions his hair...and that's kind of interesting, I don't think I've thought about it before, but he had his hair divided into two colors, like the girl's robe is black/white, only his hair was red/white. I wonder if there's significance to this. Was Jaqen an outcast of sorts, since he's got a different color? She shows him the coin, as well, and that's when the man asks for her name (the coin, again, allowing her "access" to the next part). She lies, and he knows immediately: "No", he said. She tries a few more times (Squab, Nan, Weasel, Arry...) until she admits she's Arya of House Stark; when the hooded man's satisfied, he tells her the temple is no place for her, but she says she has no other place to go. At this, he asks if she fears death, and she bites her lip and replies, "No." Then, the priest lowers his cowl and reveals a "yellowed skull with a few scraps of skin still clinging to the cheeks, and a white worm wriggling from one empty eye socket". Croaking, he asks her to kiss him. It's a ghastly vision for sure, and yet Arya is all business. Does he think to scare me? indeed; she kisses him "where his nose should" be; the vision melts into "the kindliest man that she had ever seen". Smiling he tells her no one has ever tried "to eat my worm before" (which is kind of gross in another way but all right, I assume Martin's having some fun here).

The thing here is that while I'm surprised Arya doesn't so much as shy from the horrific vision of death before her - I mean, she doesn't even have a flicker of doubt - I guess it also feels right as part of her character journey and arc; at this point, she's already seen so much horror that this doesn't really bother her at all. In a way, this proves to the hooded man that Arya already has the soul of a killer, I guess. The chapter ends when he asks her if she's hungry, and she thinks yes, but not for food. 

Now personally maybe I'd end the chapter with the reveal of the yellow skull, leaving the reader hanging for a while, but I kind of like this ending too, implying that Arya is thirsting for.... revenge? It's got to be revenge, right? She's here but does she realize what kind of place this is already? Does she understand she will be able to hone the art of murder here? I don't know. I kind of chuckled when she thought of the hooded man as "the kindliest old man" she had ever seen, it kind of comes out of nowhere and doesn't feel like something Arya would think; I think the text here would perhaps be stronger if Martin just gave a description of the man's face and let the reader think for herself just how kind a face that would be. But that's a minor niggle. I like this chapter. Even though I spent half of 2016 reading it (kinda). 

It's a pretty straight-forward chapter, though, not much to ponder; it's not as deep as many other Ice & Fire-chapters, if you know what I mean. Still, great introduction of a new and rather strange location (compared to the more medieval style in books I-III), and it had me curious the first time and now I'm curious again (but mostly to see the differences between the book and the TV series). 

Avast! Next up should be Cersei Lannister's second Feast chapter. 

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