Hallo there sports fans, and welcome to the penultimate installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club, starring myself and the ethereal Nikki Stafford. We apologize for this week’s late posting—I’ve been grading final essays, and apparently Nikki has been reforming the way the Ontario School Board teaches spelling. We promise to get our last post up on Monday next.
But without further ado …
Nikki: Whew, I was on the edge of my seat for this section. Looking back, it was only about 150 pages in my book, but a lot happens in a short span of time. We begin with Viserys demanding his golden crown, Ned finding out that Robert has been hurt on a hunt, Jon going on his first ranger mission north of the Wall, Tyrion meeting up with the clansmen in the woods, and Catelyn being reunited with Robb. By the end of the section, Viserys is dead and Khal Drogo has agreed to cross the water to join the game of thrones; Robert is dead; Ned’s been captured by the Lannisters; Sansa is under their thumb and being told what to do; Arya has escaped and is on the run; banners in the north are deciding which team to play for; we meet Tywin for the first time; and Catelyn’s made a deal with the Freys involving the futures of two of her children. Wow.
What I’m particularly enjoying in the book is the different subtleties that have been introduced that I don’t remember being there in season 1. Jon Arryn is dead, and Ned’s trying to discover who would have poisoned him to keep the secret of Joffrey’s real father quiet. But now there’s a suggestion that Lysa was terribly unhappy with her husband because he was going to take her beloved son away and let him be raised by Stannis Baratheon. Suddenly she becomes a suspect, even if that never goes anywhere. Meanwhile, Cersei steps up and takes command, getting rid of her enemies quickly, and using Sansa in a brilliant way to try to pull the Starks onside (or just pull them within shooting distance). Now I can see why you’ve been saying all along that she should have been played by Polly Walker, Chris. As of this scene, I say absolutely. Cersei’s far more cunning and harsher than she’s currently played on the show; Lena Headey does a great job, but she plays her a little more demure and contrite, as if there’s more scheming than actual doing. I don’t particularly remember Sansa writing all those letters, but I do remember Cersei manipulating Sansa right out of the gate. If I hadn’t seen Jack Gleeson’s portrayal of Joffrey at this point, I would actually think that he was going to help Sansa. When she begs for mercy for her father, Joffrey is the only one who comes across as sympathetic, who calms her nerves and doesn’t talk down to her like she’s a child. Of course, we all know what awaits Ned anyway… perhaps making Joffrey even worse than he is on the show. I’m looking forward to the little shit having a bigger role soon.
What are your initial thoughts on this section, Chris?
Christopher: I love this part of the novel, and remember feeling entirely taken aback with how quickly everything goes wrong for Ned. Still no idea of what awaits him, of course, and I seem to think I wondered “what else could possibly go wrong?” Ah, but then I was reading in a pre-GRRM paradigm—five novels later and we know, things can always get worse in Westeros.
The part where Daenerys eats the heart is harrowing, not just for the stomach-churning description but the account of how she trained for it by eating bowls of gristle and clotted blood. Urk. If the whole queen gig didn’t work out, she’d have had a good secondary career as a contestant on Fear Factor-like shows.
And Viserys … poor, sociopathic, abusive, megalomaniacal Viserys. It’s a measure of GRRM’s deft touch with character that, even after everything he’s done we feel a certain sympathy for him in his last few moments. Or … I have a certain sympathy for him. Do you? It doesn’t obviate the rather visceral satisfaction of seeing the monster finally get his comeuppance, but at the very end he has gone from being a terror to a pathetic shell, humiliated and inept and completely aware of his failure. Not that he can own that failure, of course—he blames everyone but himself, and his ignorant, drunken blasphemy in the Dothraki holy space serves to epitomize his irredeemably self-obsessed character.
And the scene illustrates just how far Daenerys has come as well—sold cynically by her brother, she has risen to the occasion and become the leader he could never be. There aren’t many bullhorn-symbolism moments in Ice & Fire, but Daenerys eating a stallion’s heart is certainly one of them. Viserys woke the dragon—he just couldn’t have known that the dragon wasn’t him. She is sad but resolute as she sees what Drogo is about to do; the old Daenerys would have begged for her brother’s life, but the khaleesi sees it as justice and necessity.
Also developed in this penultimate section is the growing threat in the North, and Jon’s chilling (ha!) encounter with the wights. We’re some six hundred pages on from the prologue now, with plenty of narrative action to blur the memory of that opening scene north of the Wall—but of course we’re brought sharply back by the appearance of Jon’s dead brothers, both of whom have startlingly blue eyes. When they lurch back to life and attack the Lord Commander, the story itself lurches from straightforward fantasy to that genre we’re all so familiar with, the attack of the living dead (Carl, get back south of the Wall!). That scene is just as terrifying now as it was the first time I read it; when I first read it, however, the zombie craze had not yet begun. I hope readers only coming to the series now don’t think to themselves “sheesh, more zombies … how unoriginal.” GRRM has a knack for genre mixology, and his introduction of the wights is at once an interesting turn on a figure that first appears in Tolkien (the barrow-wights), and a prescient variation on the Romero-esque zombie.
Nikki: The wight scene is truly terrifying. I remember when you and I first started writing about the show and you flipped back and forth between “white” and “wight” and I couldn’t figure out which was the correct spelling, and now I realize they both are! The white walkers are the same as the wights, is that correct? The scene is really frightening, especially when Jon finds the door wide open and the dead guard on the other side; if I’d been reading it without knowing the outcome, I would have thought the direwolf was going to get it. But then again, I started to worry that maybe Ghost WOULD die in the book, and they just kept him on for the show; it was that scary.
I couldn’t agree with you more about Viserys. Last week my husband and I were driving to Toronto, so he was trapped in a car with me for two hours as I talked about the book and how amazing it is, and I told him he really has to read these himself. (Though, like me, he knows he won’t be able to stop and then he’ll be ahead of the TV show; but then again, I kind of like the idea that the TV series spoiled me for the books, and now the books are going to spoil me for the TV show…) And it was Viserys I was talking about specifically. Like you, I felt a pang of sympathy as he drunkenly loped into the party, with thousands of dothraki laughing at him as he roared about being their rightful ruler. As I said a couple of weeks ago, and can’t stress enough, he was a child when his entire family was ripped from him, and he raised Daenerys himself from her infancy. What kind of a child is able to do that? And considering the strong-willed warrior woman she became, perhaps Viserys wasn’t all bad. Not having parents, and spending his childhood and adolescence on the run with a baby on his back, he’s never been allowed to truly mature and grow up, instead just resting on the laurels of the great dragons from whom he’s descended. After being treated like a leper or a wanted man for most of his life, one can’t really fault him for raging against the perceived wrongdoing against him, for insisting that he finally get his due just for bloody surviving all these years in the face of all of Westeros keeping an eye out for him. I really did feel sorry for him as the golden crown was poured over him, and I think GRRM meant for us to.
Speaking of the Targaryen family, I only just realized this week that there are entire family trees of all of the major families at the back of the book. Duh. Let’s just say it’s made reading this book a hell of a lot easier and has cleared up a lot of things with regards to both the book and the series. Something I keep forgetting to ask you, but were the Tyrells introduced prominently back in season 1 of the show? I don’t remember Margaery really coming into anything until the second season with Joffrey, and the grandmother showing up in the third, but they’re already talking about her, and we’ve seen her brother Loras on the jousting field. I DO remember Loras being in the jousting tournament back in season 1, but then he was shown to be Renly’s lover, and that’s not even insinuated in this book (yet). Is that something introduced on the show only, or does it come later in the books?
Christopher: The white walkers—the “Others”—are distinct from the wights. The former are malevolent magical beings, and the wights are the dead humans they resurrect to act as their undead army. Back in the prologue, Ser Waymar Royce fights an Other and is killed, and then comes back as a wight a few lines later. (Speaking as an English prof, I think someone really needs to write a tongue-in-cheek paper on the white walkers under the title of “Discourse on the Others”).
I have to confess, as regards Renly and Loras, that it never occurred to me that they might be lovers until the series made it explicit. Going back now and rereading, the hints are all over the place, but I was merrily oblivious. Part of the reason for that, to be sure, is that neither Renly or Loras benefit from a POV or that of another character intimate enough with them to reveal their relationship.
The Tyrells as a group are introduced in the novels in dribs and drabs—first with Loras, then with the mention of Margaery. They enter the story in significant fashion in book two and become an increasingly significant presence as the series proceeds (much, as you will have gleaned from the series, to Cersei’s annoyance and unease). For the time being, they fill a role not unlike that of Tywin Lannister for most of this first book—a name and a vague sense of wealth and power. They are, after all, one of the Big Seven, the families that had ruled Westeros when it was still literally the Seven Kingdoms, before the Targaryen conquest. The Tyrell demesne is a large region to the south called The Reach, and the castle of Highgarden their seat of power.
On another front, as you point out, Ned’s Great Unraveling continues (and yes, isn’t Cersei totally Atia-worthy in this part of the novel?). What did you think of that moment of betrayal, when Littlefinger pulls his knife on Ned? I would argue that that is really the pivotal moment of this particular story, and the harshest lesson Ned learns—though too late, far too late. It is a moment that unfolds in the series almost exactly as it is described in the novel … but on rereading, there is a substantive difference in sense and tone, something almost intangible, which I attribute to our slightly different understandings of Littlefinger in the novel versus the adaptation. Or perhaps I’m projecting: it’s in seasons two and three that we really come to understand Baelish’s ruthlessness, epitomized in Varys’ dark observation that “he would see the realm burn if he could be king over the ashes”; but in the novel he’s a far more ambiguous character, and his actions more inscrutable, as it is made obvious just how deep his love for Catelyn was and is. What do you think? I was not shocked by his betrayal of Ned when watching the series, obviously, but when it happened in the novel I was gutted … first, because I had come to like his character in spite of myself and (foolishly) trust him, and second, because it seemed to obvious in retrospect. But what made it seem obvious on that first go-around was the sense that the betrayal proceeded from a singular motive: to have Ned out of the way. Of course, we soon realize that his motives are more tangled than that.
But in the series, his motives again seem straightforward—and far more cynical and mercenary. Thoughts? Did you see much difference in this scene as opposed to the series?
Nikki: There is a huge difference in the two scenes. Like Viserys, Baelish is a far more sympathetic character in the novel, as we’ve discussed. Played on the series, he always has a mischievous, almost sinister gleam in his eye, and the nasally tone of his voice makes you constantly suspicious of him, waiting for him to show his true, nasty colours. But in the book he waffles, moving back and forth, seeming to be trustworthy one moment and deceitful the next. And yet his love for Catelyn, shown through both the flashbacks and in the moments where he’s seen with her and seemingly helping Ned, he appears to be working against the Lannisters, hiding Catelyn away and arranging clandestine meetings with Ned in the brothel. Now we see it was all a trick, making it look like Ned spends his time in brothels while dear, pure Littlefinger was innocently off doing his own thing and had no idea Ned was there. By the time he pulls out the knife, I gasped. I’d COMPLETELY forgotten that he did that, just because this Baelish had drawn me in so much more than the TV one had, and I was just as shocked here as I was on the show when he pulled his knife; more so, in fact. Game of Thrones is one of the best shows on television, but when you are that caught off-guard by something you’ve already seen on the HBO series, it certainly points to the book’s superiority over the series. (Yay, once again… books win!)
And what of the Starks? When Sansa was working with Cersei in the TV series, I rolled my eyes along with everyone else who hadn’t actually read the books and thought she was such an annoying character. Now, from her perspective, you can see how she was drawn in hook, line, and sinker by Cersei and Joffrey, and I don’t hate her at all; I feel sorry for her. There are times when you are right there with her, believing that if she just does these things, the Lannisters will spare her father, right? RIGHT?!
And then there’s Arya. Already established as a scamp and the most fun of the Stark youngsters, she’s in the middle of her dancing lesson when the Kingsguard comes for her. I want to say here that I love how GRRM unfolded the betrayal. Littlefinger pulls the knife on Ned and that pretty much endeth the section. You don’t have Ned being dragged off kicking and screaming, you just have this moment, and GRRM leaves it up to the reader to figure out the obvious conclusion of what happened next. Instead he moves to the children, a far more sympathetic move, because if Ned is captured and locked away for his failing to guess the temperature of the situation, that’s one thing, but watching the far-reaching consequences of his actions puts a much finer point on it. Just as on the show, Syrio steps up and tells Arya to run, and she does, and he stands before the Guard. I remember at the time writing that I really hoped we’d see the teacher again, because I never believe that someone is dead unless I saw them die. But… now I realize that he’s dead. (Unless there’s a REALLY big surprise in a future season or book, but I really doubt it at this point.) With the whole Guard before him, his job has ended, and now we see if Arya can actually take care of herself without him.
Ned is desperate and realizing the scope of his errors as he sits in the dungeon, and Catelyn and Robb are travelling to the Freys to see if they can find a way to cross the Twins. You begin to realize in this section just how scattered the Starks are, with Sansa being kept close to Cersei’s bosom; Arya on the run; Bran and Rickon up at Winterfell and both unable to do anything; and Jon at the Wall, working as a steward and fighting snow zombies. But back to Catelyn; when Walder Frey is brought out on his litter, I couldn’t help but shudder. I know what’s coming with this foul, decrepit old man, and he’s even more disgusting in the book than he was on the show. I barely remember him in this scene in season 1, and instead the extent of his rudeness is shown when Robb and Catelyn return to the castle before the Red Wedding in season 3. But GRRM lays it all out right here. He’s 90, he’s got a 16-year-old wife, he’s got countless children and grandchildren, he’s rude and obnoxious and horrible to everyone around him; the only person I can think of who turns my stomach more in the book just for the way he treats his own family would be Craster, the man north of the Wall who rapes his own daughters to beget more daughters that he can rape. Knowing what’s to come with Frey, I felt a cold chill throughout this entire scene, muttering under my breath, “Don’t agree to this, Catelyn… don’t agree to this.” While I’m the first person to talk about how much I hate spoilers, I must say the tension of the book is increased tenfold when you know what Ned’s fate will ultimately be, and when you know what’s going to happen later at the Freys.
And, speaking of which, we now ready ourselves for the big finish. I can already feel my palms beginning to perspire, knowing what’s coming next.
Christopher: I can honestly say I’d forgotten how revolting Walder Frey is. Not that he’s at all sympathetic in the series, but David Bradley’s portrayal makes him a truculent asshole rather than a repulsive old man (and this is the actor who played Argus Filch, too!). GRRM’s depiction of Frey makes my skin crawl, between the verbal tics he gives him and the way he describes his toothless mouth working, and of course the prospect of him forcing himself one whatever young bride he’s recently wed. As you say, knowing what is coming way down the road does in fact make this part of the novel more harrowing … and it is also retrospectively fascinating to see all the foundation blocks being laid, especially in terms of Frey’s paper-thin ego and obsession with family honour.
The scene with Syrio handing the guardsmen their asses is one of my bittersweet favourites from this novel. I loved that character from start to finish; and you’re right, there really isn’t any chance that he survived it. Yet another moment where GRRM dashes expectations with a painful dose of realism. Inigo Montoya would have survived, but that’s because he inhabits another fantasy realm. Ditto for D’Artagnan, Zorro, Jack Sparrow, or even the Dread Pirate Roberts himself … not if they stood and fought, anyway. Even with a sword in hand, Syrio could not best a knight in full plate.
But he sacrifices himself for his student, and Arya is able to escape—and in the process kills for the first time. It is a moment that will haunt her in later books, even after she grows accustomed to killing.
I think it’s worth mentioning the slaughter in the Red Keep, in part because I remember being somewhat shocked by it my first go-around. Ned has been taken prisoner, as has Sansa, and if all had gone according to plan, the Lannisters would also have Arya in hand—certainly, enough hostages to bring the Stark people to heel? But no—Arya literally trips over the bodies of her family’s entourage, and even Septa Mordane is murdered as part of what could only be called a purge. This is really our first glimpse of the zero-sum game of thrones, a grisly realization of Cersei’s dictum that “you win or you die.”
And on that cheery note, readers, Nikki and I leave you for another week. Tune in next Monday for our final installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club!