Hi everyone, and welcome to the second installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club, wherein my blogging pal Nikki Stafford and I revisit the territory we’ve covered in blogging about Game of Thrones the series—except this time, with the book! This week we’re looking at our arbitrarily selected second section, which starts with Bran finally awakening from his coma and ends with Ned receiving a grave warning from Lord Varys of the whispers. It’s my turn to kick things off, so here we go …
Christopher: What strikes me most on rereading this section is how it develops the mystery plot, and how that plays into our expectations. I suppose the anticipation must be different when you read A Game of Thrones now, knowing that there’s another four novels in the series and two yet-to-be-written after that; but when I read it many moons ago, when GRRM hadn’t written any of the others and was still under the illusion it would be a trilogy, there was a definite anticipation built into Ned playing the detective. It’s a clever little bit of genre-tweaking on GRRM’s part, as murder mysteries build to closure—a rather shrewd little bit of misdirection, when you think of it, making us that much more stunned when not only do we get closure on this little caper, but the rulebooks of both mystery and fantasy fiction get emphatically defenestrated.
I’m also impressed at just how the motif of bastardy surfaces again (and again and again). Like Shakespeare’s history plays, A Game of Thrones (itself loosely based on the Wars of the Roses) is preoccupied with blood, lineage, and patrilineal descent. Who your father was defines you indelibly in this world; and where in Shakespeare bastards like Edmund and Falconbridge, or Don John in Much Ado, are almost invariably villainous, driven to evil out of resentment or given over to it by their “tainted” blood, GRRM deliberately troubles this convention with such characters as Jon Snow and Gendry. Ned’s investigation of Robert’s bastards is a particularly cruel task for him, reminding him of his own relationship with Jon, and prodding him with the concern that he did not do right by him. Certainly, Jon always fared much better in Winterfell under Ned than any of Robert’s bastards have—and though Jon’s relationship with Catelyn was always frosty, she is much more forgiving than Cersei (as we shall see later on).
It is also interesting how bastardy, at this point in the novel, is explicitly associated with the colour black: Jon snow is described as having black hair, in contrast to Robb’s auburn, and Robert’s bastards all share his own dark locks. The Wall itself comprises the Seven Kingdom’s castoffs, and as we come to understand the skepticism, mockery, and indeed contempt in which the Night’s Watch is held by most people south of the neck, it itself comes to be a metaphor for bastardy. This association is also something found in Shakespeare, with his various bastards often described in terms of blackness and darkness. Throughout this second section, as indeed throughout the entire novel, the drama in King’s Landing finds its counterpoint on the Wall—a contrast that is more marked in A Game of Thrones than in the rest of the series so far, mainly because the geography of the narratives hasn’t yet expanded to the extent it will. This contrast is thus especially stark (pardon the pun) at this point, between the monochromatic palette of the North and the sumptuous colour of the south, the sensual riot of sensations in King’s Landing versus the literal numbness at the Wall. How do you think these contrasts work? Are you finding them more or less vivid in the novel as opposed to the series?
Nikki: I think the contrasts work brilliantly, and this section continues to astound me insofar as how faithful to the novels the show really was. On the show as in the books, King’s Landing is full of colour, whereas the Wall is white and black, as you say. Winterfell is in the middle, very grey and stark (pun intended). The metaphor is well taken, with the Wall being the place where things are either good or bad; King’s Landing the place where a happy face is put on everything despite the seamy underbelly of the place, and Winterfell a place where who is good and who is bad is never clear.
Just as in show, I can see why fans were already whispering about Ned Stark being a dumbass. “Hm… look at this dark-haired lad here in the shop, the very picture of Robert Baratheon. Why would Jon Arryn have taken the time to worry about this guy, when Robert has all those lovely golden-haired children of his own at home? Is there something I am missing??!!” 😉 Apparently, in King’s Landing, one does not simply come to an obvious conclusion. Ahem.
I would like to look at Sansa again, and how once again I have far more sympathy for her here than in the show. On HBO, she looks like this vapid girl glancing around the room, seeing what is really going on, and choosing to ignore it for glory and riches. But here, she’s a girl who is in puberty, taken over by the beautiful men on horses handing her roses, heart fluttering as Joffrey dares to look in her direction, dreaming of the day Sir Loras might give her another glance. Despite how much we love making fun of her self-absorption throughout the HBO series, I’m really seeing her as a very young, lovelorn, easily influenced girl here, and I’ve really taken to her a lot in the book. That was a very pleasant surprise.
We’re seeing some of Arya’s “dancing” lessons in this section, bringing back the memories of her learning how to become a swordsman in the book. I remember the actual teacher being more prominent in the series (and perhaps he will be again) but in the book he’s more in the background, as we just see Arya explaining to her exasperated father what she’s learning. I’m falling in love with her character all over again.
More importantly, Bran is back, and it’s interesting seeing his awakening from his point of view. I don’t remember the scene in the series (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there) where the three-eyed crow tells him he can fly if he wants to, but reading this scene certainly brought a lot more meaning and poignancy to the three-eyed crow, who has become far more prominent as the series goes on.
Christopher: No, they didn’t have the “dream” sequence preceding Bran’s waking in the series, at least not such that it was anything like the novel. I remember that pretty clearly, because I’d wondered whether that dream of flying would happen, and how they would do it—in the novel it’s a pretty elaborate sequence, and always reminds me of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo sits on Amon Hen while wearing the ring and is granted the ability to see almost all of Middle-Earth. (As with GoT, that scene was not replicated in the film as described in the novel). Bran’s vision is similar, and as we know from the details given (such as Catelyn and Ser Rodrik’s galley crossing the Bite) that the vision is no mere dream. This is our first inkling of Bran’s new abilities: having lost use of his legs, he is given new sight, as symbolized by the crow’s third eye, and its insistence that Bran, too, has one.
I must confess, Bran’s storyline over the five novels is the one that, mostly, has interested me the least—something best depicted in the series by the long stretch of time where all we saw of him was one or two perfunctory scenes per episode as he and his entourage trek north. That being said, his waking and the dream that prefaces it is probably my favourite part: the description of him falling and all of Westeros slowly coming into focus beneath him is beautifully done. And as I said, it has echoes of Frodo on Amon Hen, one of my favourite scenes in Fellowship:
At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him. Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions: small and clear as if they were under his eyes on a table, and yet remote. There was no sound, only bright living images. The world seemed to have shrunk and fallen silent … Eastward he looked into wide uncharted lands, namely plains, and forests unexplored. Northward he looked, and the Great River lay like a ribbon beneath him, and the Misty Mountains stood small and hard as broken teeth.
Both Bran and Frodo are very briefly gifted with all-encompassing sight, though to dramatically different ends. For Frodo, it galvanizes him into abandoning the Fellowship and pressing on alone. For Bran, it is just his first indication of abilities quickening in him that he has no understanding of, and is thus baffling. But in both cases, the visions are (for the reader, if not the characters) momentarily unifying, framing the totality of the stories in a geographical whole. Already in A Game of Thrones the action has become fragmentary and fractious (and factious), flung all over the seven kingdoms in a series of individual narratives … but for a brief moment in Bran’s vision we’re reminded that, to quote Lester Freamon, all the pieces matter.
Meanwhile … Sansa is in her element, or so she thinks. This is what she was bred for! All the pageantry and beauty of the Hand’s Tourney, all the handsome knights and delectable food, all the courtly manners and beautiful dresses, and being given the rose by Loras Tyrell … for a brief time, Sansa lives inside one of her beloved songs. There are only a few little suggestions that things might be otherwise, the first coming when the Mountain kills the Vale knight in the lists. Sansa is not as horrified as one might expect—she is, as we will find out, made of sterner stuff than she at first appears—but the death is a reminder of knight’s principal function, and that jousting is not a sport as much as it combat training.
Of course, Sansa’s first real education comes when the Hound walks her back to her room and tells her the story of how his face was burned. In the series, it was Littlefinger whispering the story to her in the bleachers as they stared at his scars; but here, we get it from Sandor’s own mouth, along with the dire threat to kill her if she tells anyone. It is the first moment of the odd relationship he and Sansa develop. What did you think of how it happened in the novel?
Nikki: I entirely agree with you on Bran. His story hasn’t interested me much on the show, and it didn’t interest me much more in the book. The vision was beautifully written, and as you say, it unveiled things happening at Winterfell that Bran couldn’t have possibly known (machinations happening in the very moment after he’d been unconscious for weeks) so it indicates right away that we’re not seeing a dream, but something much more real.
I’m surprised at how much I can remember of the first season, right down to scenery and tiny details, and when they were at the jousting tournament, I kept waiting for Littlefinger to show up, sit next to Sansa, and tell her the story of the Mountain and the Hound. And then he walks over, says hello, gives her a shiver, and turns and walks away again. I thought, “Wait… aren’t we going to get the story?” And instead it’s delivered by the Hound himself. I think it’s actually more powerful to come from Sandor than Baelish, to be honest. I can see why they did it — dramatically speaking, it’s far more effective to know what the Mountain did to the Hound when they’re both in the jousting tourney, and it allows the audience at home to hate the Mountain and cheer when he falls. But the relationship between Sansa and the Hound is a complicated one on the show, and having this beginning to it now gives me far more insight into the later complications. In season 1 she’s merely afraid of him. But in season 2 he seems to take care of her, rushing into her room and offering to whisk her away from the Lannisters and the horrible betrothal to Joffrey (and her certain death, as he sees it) but she turns him down. Yet there’s this affection there that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. (By season 3 he’s with Arya instead.) So I really enjoyed that scene, the moment where she seems rapt by his story and shows sympathy to him, telling him that his brother “was no true knight.” He seems rather bemused by her response, but still growls at her that if she tells anyone what he just said, he’ll kill her. That explains the constant terror she feels around him. On the show, we just chalk her terror up to the look of his face and the seeming menace he presents, but in the book it’s a very real menace.
Speaking of complicated characters, oh how I love the introduction to Varys in this section. On the show I can never put my finger on him. Is he good? Is he bad? In one scene he’s entirely sympathetic, and in the next his little birds have sung to the wrong person and one of our heroes is in trouble. You’ve said in our back and forth discussions on the HBO show many times that they couldn’t have made a better casting decision than bringing on Conleth Hill to play the Spider, and WOW were you ever right. (Not that I questioned you!) Entire sections of dialogue are taken directly from the book, and I can’t help but picture Hill every time Varys enters the scene. Interestingly, I’m not always picturing the actors playing these characters anymore, since some of the descriptions are different from the actual characters on screen, but with Varys, he’s exactly the same character.
In the final EDDARD scene of this section, Varys seems far more on board than he is on the show. I didn’t trust him at all in the first two seasons of the series, but in this scene I really do believe he’s trying to help Ned. But then again, that could all be part of his plan. I look forward to the Varys scenes now, just like I do on the show. But, interestingly, it took until season 3 before I was really intrigued by the character on the show; I’m fascinated by him immediately in the book. Was he a favourite of yours from the get-go?
Christopher: I wish I could remember what my first impression of Varys was, because he has become one of my favourite characters. GRRM has a talent for characterization across a broad spectrum, but he’s particularly good at the sociopaths (The Mountain, the Bastard of Bolton) and such shrewd, highly intelligent schemers as Tyrion, Tywin, Littlefinger … and Varys. I think one of my favourite parts of the series that doesn’t appear in the books is the occasional verbal sparring between Baelish and Varys—and I wonder whether that was just something the writers decided on before the actors were cast, or whether they added the scenes when they realized what brilliant banterers they had in Aidan Gillen and Conleth Hill. We don’t have any such moments in the novel, mainly because we don’t have POVs from either of those characters, but also (I suspect) because the Littlefinger of the novels isn’t quite as ruthless as the one on the show (perhaps we should call this the “Carcetti Effect”). A crucial scene in this respect is his secret conference with Ned and Catelyn—his unrequited love for Lady Stark doesn’t prevent him from betraying Ned (or possibly incites him to do so, it is hard to say), but it humanizes him in a way that the series never allows. In season three, Varys says of Littlefinger that he would burn the realm to the ground if he could be king over the ashes; the Baelish of the novels is not nearly that monomaniacal, and his lingering love for Catelyn is an element of that.
In both the novel and the series, however, Varys and Littlefinger act, at this point in the story, as much as foils to Ned Stark’s suspicious and yet obtuse sense of King’s Landing as anything else. Both act as apparent guides, offering him counsel and advice; in both cases, their counsel and advice seems legitimate at first glance, though we will understand in hindsight that both were just testing the waters and getting a sense of this new Hand. The difference? Varys is, perhaps counter-intuitively, more honest. “I will make another confession, Lord Eddard,” says Varys. “I was curious to see what you would do. Why not come to me? you ask, and I must answer, Why, because I did not trust you, my lord.” The fact that Ned is frankly gobsmacked that anyone would not trust him at once vindicates Varys’ recently-found trust in him and bodes ill for his future in King’s Landing. What both the Spider and the Master of Coin try to teach him is one-half of the X-Files’ dictum: Trust No One. (The “truth,” such as it is, remains pretty far Out There after five novels).
Nikki: You are so correct about the Littlefinger of the novels being more sympathetic than the Carcetti version. Like I said with Viserys, it’s the little details about their childhoods that make you look at them with a little more sympathy than we do on the show. There are no flashbacks to childhood in the HBO version, just the here and now. But hearing about his love for Catelyn, and how he followed her and her friends around like a little lapdog (and how they bullied him and laughed about his sadness in his face) really casts a sympathetic light on him. If a rather unsympathetic one on Catelyn…
We don’t get much of Daenerys in this section, just one check-in with her, but I really enjoyed it. Despite the gentleness of Khal Drogo on their wedding night, the scenes in this section are more in keeping with what we saw on the show, with her in extreme pain from riding the horse, and then having to be taken roughly by her husband every night whether she likes it or not (and generally it’s not). Just like on the show, she takes control and makes him face her when they’re making love, and you can tell how completely consumed by her he becomes in that moment, making everything we know will come later fall right into place. The scene where she humiliates Viserys is well played in the book, reminding me of the same scene on the series. Man, reading this is really making me want to watch season 1 again! 😉
We didn’t get much of a chance to talk about Tyrion last week, and I think we’ll probably get more of a chance to talk about him in next week’s segment, but I’m really enjoying reading his parts. I meant to mention a line that made me gasp in the first section because of how much I loved its poetry, and the line still fits in this section. As Tyrion turns to walk away from Jon Snow after pointing out the similarities between the two of them (both cast off by their fathers; one for being a dwarf, the other for being a bastard), GRRM writes, “And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.”
What a beautiful, beautiful line.
In this section he leaves behind Jon Snow and returns home to that fateful moment in the tavern, where Catelyn calls on her bannermen to nab him. It’s played almost exactly the same way as it was on the show, and yet GRRM handled the scene so deftly I still found myself worried and nervous about what was about to happen.
I know back when the show began, you expressed as much delight as the other fans in the choice of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. In the book, he’s ugly and twisted and far more deformed than he is on TV, and yet I can imagine absolutely no one else. It’s Dinklage on every page where Tyrion appears. When you read it now, are you also picturing Dinklage or do you picture the original Tyrion in your head? How about the other characters?
Christopher: There’s a few discrepancies, to be certain. Dinklage is amazing as Tyrion, but Dinklage is also an exceptionally handsome man. The way Tyrion is described in the novels makes him out as a grotesque, and not just because of his height. The series makes it work, if for no other reason than we expect television to give us more attractive people on the screen than we encounter in normal life, but I do think we lose something of Tyrion’s characterization in the novels by having him portrayed as someone genuinely attractive.
In our episode recaps, I have frequently voiced my ambivalence about Lena Headey as Cersei, and part of that proceeds from her description in the novels. Headey’s performance has been really good—I don’t want to take anything away from her as an actress—but she emphasizes the icy dimension of Cersei and little of the sensuality we see in the novels. It occurred to me recently that Polly Walker, who played Atia of the Julii in Rome would have been ideal in this role: similarly aloof and cold when necessary, but always exuding a syrupy aura of sex. (By the same token, James Purefoy, who played Antony, would have made for a good Jaime … though you’d have had to bleach his entire body).
Aside from those quibbles, the casting on this show has been pretty much spot-on. It’s easy to gloss over those little discrepancies, like Joffrey’s shoulder-length curls. The Darcy Effect only really takes hold, for me, with the Stark children, especially Jon, Robb, and Arya. How about you?
Nikki: As much as I love Purefoy, I think the casting of Jaime Lannister is pretty much spot-on. Even when GRRM describes him the first time, it’s like he’s describing the actor playing him, not just the character in the book. And I haven’t seen enough of Cersei to comment on Lena Headey; she’s cold, that’s for sure, but I agree her character feels a little thin compared to the far more sensuous Cersei in the book. But I’m looking forward to more of her.
The last character is Jon Snow. We get introduced to Samwell Tarly, one of my favourite characters on the show, and while the Sam of the book seems to be even fatter, I think John Bradley plays him wonderfully on the show. Much like it plays out on the show, Jon comes to Sam’s rescue against the bullies on the Wall, and slowly earns the respect (or fear) of those around him by using his cunning. In the books as well as on the show, Jon certainly comes off as the “Stark” who is the smartest of the bunch, save for Arya, perhaps.
And that’s it for week 2!
Next week: Part Three: 324-488 mass market; 272-408 trade paperback (starting with TYRION “As he stood in the predawn chill…”)