Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[Re-read] Arya X: Not a Stark in Sight

[Heed the call - spoilers abound]

Crusader Kings II: A Game of Thrones
Finally the makers of the excellent and impressive A Game of Thrones mod for the obtuse yet appealing game Crusader Kings II released a patch that allowed me to run the game with the mod again. It's quite a hefty modification to the game, requiring power like Cersei Lannister on wine. Having shed my former alter ego "Slynt" after he became over-the-top evil in the TV series, I have come to the conclusion that I better belong to House Mallister of Seagard. I grew up by the sea, I love the sound of the name Mallister, and they are actually on the good side (if there's a good side in Westeros, that is). And the man himself, who we saw briefly a few Catelyn chapters ago, seemed to be a good guy. Hence, I am playing Crusader Kings II: A Game of Thrones as, you guessed it, Lord Jason Mallister of Seagard. Heck, even their banner is cool. Their motto, "Above the rest" might sound a tad arrogant, but I can live with that. It's better than "We slaughter children without batting an eye". So, in the game, you can start in a few different time periods. I picked Robert's Rebellion, and the first thing I had to decide was whether to stay loyal to King Aerys Targaryen, or join the rebels against the Iron Throne. Well, seeing as Lord Jason is a vassal of Lord Hoster Tully, and Tully is a rebel, I didn't really feel I had a choice. Though it would be interesting to see how fast the river lords would decimate me if I chose to stay loyal.
The game is basically a map and a lot of screens filled with information, yet it is the kind of game that allows you to create your own histories, and there are no set victory conditions, making it a game with infinite replayability. Just now (I am playing as I write, two computers in front of me). Not much has happened in the first few years of my rule as Lord Jason, but one big thing that rewrites Martin's tale is that my son, Patrek Mallister, is betrothed to one-year old Lady Margaery Tyrell. Heh. I didn't expect Lord Mace to agree on the proposal. Viserys Targaryen might just never reach Pentos; he is imprisoned at Harrenhal. Alternative Westeros history rocks, when you're in the thick of it yourself. I highly recommend checking out Crusader Kings II with the A Game of Thrones modification. However, be prepared for a game that requires some work on your part. As a fan of Ice & Fire, its a feast. Pick any of several timelines, choose among countless characters to play (including a lot of fan-made, but they always sound like they belong to Westeros proper), its a great experience. The backside is it takes a lot of time, which I generally don't have. But popping in now and then for half an hour is nice too.

Arya X, then!
(c) Victoria Ying
In case you hadn't noticed, Arya is absolutely one of the stars of George R.R. Martin's saga. So far, she has had the most chapters in A Storm of Swords, with Tyrion and Catelyn still behind (and Jon Snow will eventually have as many chapters as Arya) - point is, I suspect Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys are the ultimate main characters, and that Arya will continue to play a vital role, but may just end up dead before the story is over. Not only are there clues in the text for this already, but while she has a lot of pages devoted to her in these early books, her importance seems to dwindle in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while the three aforementioned characters still have a more regular number of chapters (and the most chapters). It remains to be seen, of course, but I have a feeling we shouldn't attach ourselves too much to Arya. Which is hard, because she's so likable, even if her character arc is rather dark and, well, almost nihilistic (no one, truly). I think that when and if Arya bites the dust, it might be one of the harder character deaths to tackle. Anyway, she's still alive and well (somewhat well, in any case), so let's see where her travels with the Hound take her in this chapter. Last time, they got themselves across the swollen waterways, and her relationship to Sandor Clegane is quite different on text from Game of Thrones' darkly humorous partnership. I mean, who hasn't muttered "What the fuck's a Lommy?" or "You're the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms" lately? 

So this chapter begins just an hour after Arya IX, so the time frame is really short here. Arya and Sandor meet a knight and two squires on the muddy road, and the Hound warns her to keep her mouth shut and her head down. They are riding a wagon now (or a wayn, as Martin likes to call it), with Sandor's horse, Stranger, tied to it. Sandor is wearing a hood now, so a lot of the imagery from this chapter has already been used in Game of Thrones, they just moved the wagon and the hood earlier. When Martin describes Sandor as hiding his face beneath the hood and looking like a big, "down-at-heels" farmer, one could easily see this as a little foreshadowing; there is this big gravedigger hiding his face beneath a hood on a certain island in A Feast for Crows, and here we have a hint, if one chooses to read it as such, that the grave digger is indeed Sandor Clegane, the Hound. I like how Arya thinks of herself as looking different too, like a farmer's son or a swineherd, another nudge to her development into someone who can disguise herself rather well, a foreshadowing of her learning in Braavos in the next books. 

The three outriders encircle them, and brandish weapons. Arya had decided to get herself freed from Sandor when they met someone, but she doesn't recognize this stranger knight's sigil and so she doesn't dare to do anything (getting the knight's help to get rid of Sandor, one can assume); she had hoped to see the direwolf sigil of House Stark, but alas, little girl / boy, the Starks aren't exactly numerous in the south anymore. The knight asks if they have business at the Twins, and the Hound replies they are carrying salt pork for the wedding feast. The knight pays no attention to Arya (another nice little detail to show us how Arya can become no one, truly), but stares for a while at Stranger, clearly realizing farmers don't usually travel about with a horse trained for war. Clegane lies that the horse is a wedding gift for Edmure Tully, and that he is giving it on behalf of 'Old Lady Whent'. Fortunately for Sandor and Arya, the knight believes the lie, and lets them pass. 

After this encounter, Sandor reveals that the pitchfork knight who stopped them was Ser Donnel Haigh, and apparently Sandor's met him before in tournaments, almost killing him once. Sandor thinks that Donnel didn't recognize him because Donnel wouldn't look twice at a peasant. Again, a nod to the whole theme of appearances and how they can deceive. We're told how they came by the wagon (Sandor took it from a farmer at swordpoint, vaguely reminiscent of the scene we saw in this week's Game of Thrones, only there the Hound takes a farmer's silver). 

Come evening, Arya thinks that they are almost there, but she isn't excited - instead, her belly is knotted up tight, and I remember the first time I read this book how I hoped to see Arya reunited with her mother and brother, reading and reading and waiting for her to finally reach the Twins and the wedding, but, like Arya, feeling that this would probably not end the way I'd like it to. She does sense danger, kind of, as she had a troubling dream that she can't remember. She feels uneasy about Roose Bolton, for she has fled him after all, and she wonders if he will recognize her; or if, indeed, Robb or her mother will recognize her. She doesn't really look like a highborn lady anymore, especially not after the Hound has shaved the hair off half her head.
They hear music before they see the castle, and the Hound says they have missed the wedding but that he will soon be rid of Arya anyway. Arya thinks that it is she who will be rid of him. Love that little thought there, wouldn't mind if she said it to him instead. And Martin makes sure to draw out the tension, not giving us the emotional release of seeing Arya reunite with her family - suddenly time slows to a crawl as Martin deems it necessary to describe the road's direction, the apple orchards and a field of drowned corn they pass, and then they see the encampments and the thousands of soldiers everywhere. 

The sound of horns and drums is loud, but I am kind of surprised they can hear the music being played inside the castles (especially the one on the far bank). It's not like they have invented amplification yet. It might be the way it is written that confuses me here, but it does indeed seem as if Arya is hearing music from within the two castles of Lord Walder Frey, in addition to the din of the encampment. Nowhere does the text suggest the musicians are outside playing. Arya wishes it was day so she could look for friendly banners, but rain and mist and dusk makes this impossible.

They are stopped by guards at a hedge of wagons and carts, a crude wooden defensive wall. One can wonder why they are making walls out of wagons and carts...The guards wear the livery of House Bolton, and Sandor gives them the same tale he'd spun for Ser Donnel Haigh. The Bolton man isn't as agreeable, however. He tells them the feast is half done, and that the castle is closed and the lords within are not to be disturbed. The Bolton guard tells them to unload their wagons here outside instead, and that the lords in the castle have no need for more food. Here, pavilions are lit and so Arya has a chance to see some sigils: she recognizes only Lord Smallwood's, however. A very subtle hint of unease from Martin: "The music grew louder as they approached the castle, but under that was a deeper, darker sound: the river, the swollen Green Fork, growling like a lion in its den." In other words, there is something ominous going on at the same time as the revelry, and likening it to a lion (House Lannister's sigil) is surely no coincidence. Arya tries to look for the direwolf of House Stark, but all she sees is strangers. It is apparent that the party has been going on for a while, and soldiers and camp followers alike are drunk. To think how close Arya is to see her mother and brother again! At the feast tents, most revelers have gathered to sit dry and drink, shouting toasts to Lord Edmure and Lady Roslin, and the Young Wolf and Queen Jeyne. Arya wonders who that queen can be, knowing only of Queen Cersei. 

Finally, Arya spots men of the North. In one feast tent, she recognizes Karstarks and Umbers, and believes there will be Stark men there too. And they are eating, and the smell of roasted meat makes her mouth water. Sandor won't have it, however - he doesn't want to heed the Bolton guard's command, he is going to find a way inside because it is "your bloody brother I want." Again with the subtext, George! First Sandor called it a "bloody wedding", and now he calls Robb Arya's "bloody brother". Not the most subtle of allusions, perhaps, but you know, it works. 

And that's how this surprisingly short chapter ends! Not much to work with, really, it's just an account of their last bit of traveling and finally reaching the Twins. Of course, now that Arya is so close you must be either dead, deaf or down in Dorne not to want to flip that page and continue to read, waiting for the next Arya chapter to see if she will indeed rejoin her family. Well done, Martin. Still, this chapter has a dark undercurrent which becomes all too obvious on a re-read (the Green Fork is literally the undercurrent in Martin's metaphor described earlier). 

And ouch, next chapter is Catelyn again. I read another book on fiction writing again yesterday, a rather short one, but one of its tips was to make sure chapters and characters were evenly divided in size and occurence. Here, Martin breaks the rule by focusing more on the Catelyn and Arya plot lines as they almost converge here at the Twins. I think it works just fine, and the other characters can wait as we bite our nails to see what is going on at Lord Edmure Tully's wedding...which we'll get to in the next chapter. That chapter. Oh, how Martin stretches the moments leading up to it. Lovely. 

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