Hello again, and welcome to the final installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club, wherein Nikki Stafford and I, after having done three seasons of co-blogging on HBO’s Game of Thrones, talk through the first novel in the series. There will be more to come in the new year as Nikki surges on ahead in the series with book two … we won’t say when we’ll be posting as of yet, though it occurs to me that it might make for a good lead-up to the fourth season of the series.
We’ll see. In the meantime, nothing says Christmas like beheadings, large-scale medieval battles, and dragons.
Christopher: Well, here we are at the end of A Game of Thrones, and if the way GRRM leaves it doesn’t make everyone who’s made it through want to run out and buy A Clash of Kings … well, I just don’t understand you. Of course, Nikki, I know you’ve already ordered book number two, so I guess my first question to you is: did you find the conclusion of the novel as satisfying as the series?
Say what you will about GRRM, he’s a dab hand at keeping us turning the page and running out to the bookstore for the next book. The admixture of triumph and despair, of shock and confusion that we encounter here is genuinely impressive. Here at the end, the war that everyone has feared has finally broken out, and first blood goes to the Starks. Well … first blood on the battlefield, at any rate. The Shot Heard Around Westeros was of course the shocking execution of Ned Stark; and like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it collapsed all the shaky structures of diplomacy that had been hastily built and made a grinding, bloody war inevitable. Had everything worked out as it was supposed to, with Ned taking the black, the Starks might have been brought back into line—certainly, with Ned “confessing” his crime and naming himself traitor, there would be nothing for the North to stand on in terms of casus belli. Even with the Lannisters and the Starks clashing on the field of battle, peace could have been brokered.
If not for the Little Shit. Joffrey. Who decided all on his own that he would not suffer traitors and nicked off Ned’s head before anyone could do anything. Isn’t he just adorable.
What I love about Joffrey’s capricious assertion of royal fiat is how it asserts a similar caprice in the movement of history. Fantasy as a genre is frequently invested in the idea of prophecy and fate and destiny; what happens is meant to happen, and it all unfolds according to a larger, transcendent logic. Not that that sort of logic isn’t on display in A Game of Thrones—after all, the broader story arc entails a great cosmic showdown between the forces of implacably cold anti-life in the form of the Others, and, well, everything in Westeros with a warm body.
But here at the moment of Joffrey’s petulant sentence, he throws everything into disarray (and reminds us that he’s a total sociopath). History is capricious, and GRRM does a really subtle job of playing that basic fact off against the broader sense of social and political (and magical and mythical) moving in mysterious but often implacable ways.
Speaking of the battlefield that Westeros is to become, we get our first glimpse of that common fantasy setpiece: the large-scale clash of armed forces. GRRM does not disappoint on this front: the battle as experienced by Tyrion is wonderfully rendered, with enough detail to communicate how it proceeds and give the reader a sense of the disposition of forces; but falling short of a Bernard-Cornwell-style history lecture (though I do love those, too—for anyone who craves specific historical detail, check out any one of his many, many works of historical fiction). And here, the novel is vastly superior to the series: I remember being quite put out by the way in which the show cheated, giving us a glimpse of the camp and Tyrion’s rousing little speech to his troops … but then Tyrion is knocked unconscious as his men trample him in their eagerness to get to the battle, and he comes to after everything is done. I understand the need to keep things on budget—large-scale battles are expensive to film—but it felt a lot like a cop-out at the time.
Some day we’ll have to have a discussion of battle sequences on TV versus on film. What did you think of the first actual clash of arms, Nikki?
Nikki: It was wonderful, and I’m glad you reminded us that Tyrion gets knocked unconscious in the show. Even though I hadn’t yet read the book, I remember being put out at the time that that’s all we get from the battle. So put out… I apparently put it out of my mind. So when the battle happens from Tyrion’s POV in the book, I kept thinking, Why don’t I remember this?! I’m glad it’s because the show didn’t bother showing it, and not because my memory is terribly faulty. As I read it, I thought it felt so visual, like GRRM was actually writing the script for the series and not just the scene in the book. I loved it; it was on-the-edge-of-your-seat tense, and even knowing how it was going to pan out, I thought it was still full of suspense.
As was the actual beheading scene. On the series, we see the sword come down on Ned’s head, and Arya’s head turned away by Yoren, who grabs her because Ned pleads with him to not let her see it. And yet… we know the sword connects with Ned’s neck. We know he’s dead. (I still remember the chatter after, and the few people who thought he was NOT dead, despite it being pretty darn clear on the episode.) And yet… how shocking to get to that part and discover that you see even less of the execution in the pages of GRRM’s book than you did on the show! We see Ilyn Payne come out, and then Arya’s wrenched away, and the moment that Ice makes contact with Ned’s neck is overshadowed by Arya’s distress, and trying to remember the name of the man who has her. I kept thinking they were coming back to it, that time had been suspended for this moment of Arya trying to get her bearings, when the story continues… “The plaza was beginning to empty. The press dissolved around them as people drifted back to their lives.” Wait, what? I had to go back and reread that page about three times before I realized the decapitation happens entirely within our minds, with no description. It’s as if GRRM came to a point in his book where he had to kill off his hero, and then couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. So he just left the execution out and put us directly in Arya’s perspective, being jostled about on the streets and confused and trying to put her mind on something else. It’s one of the most brilliant scenes I’ve ever read in a book.
And then there’s how the word travels. From that point on we see the others find out… Bran gets a raven; Sansa throws herself on the bed and hides from the world; Tyrion finds out from an offhand remark made at a council meeting, and nearly chokes on his food… and then we get to Jon Snow and Catelyn, and their stories continue after they’ve found out. Again, like with the beheading, we don’t read how they find out, just what they do when they know. Jon jumps on his horse and races southward, thinking he’ll join Robb’s battle and help him. And Catelyn is grief-stricken and in shock, trying to focus on her son’s battle, but she can’t help but thinking of her husband, followed by, “Oh Ned…” or “Oh, poor Ned…” as the memory suddenly hits her anew once more. I loved how GRRM has this ability to unfold the story by showing the consequences and reactions, not necessarily the Big Moments themselves.
Do you remember your reaction when you first read the scene of Ned’s execution?
Christopher: I remember being baffled more than shocked. Your description of how GRRM handles the moment of execution is spot-on—you don’t see the actual downstroke of Ice, and with Arya our gaze is forcefully turned aside. The first time I read it I didn’t gasp or throw the book down, as it seemed entirely likely Ned might still be alive, that I’d just been subjected to some cruel misdirection. But as you astutely point out, all doubt about Ned’s death is erased in the subsequent chapters.
I’m also struck by your observation that GRRM quite artfully emphasizes not the shock of Ned’s death in the moment but the reverberations through Westeros. For the assembled crowd, it’s an afternoon’s entertainment. The real sturm und drang in King’s Landing, we assume, happens offstage as Cersei et al panic over Joffrey’s peremptory action. Elsewhere, we see how irrevocably things have shifted. When one of Tywin’s more craven knights suggests suing the Starks for peace, Tyrion’s answer is apt: throwing his wine goblet to shatter on the floor, he declares, “There’s your peace … My sweet nephew broke it for good and all when he decided to ornament the Red Keep with Lord Eddard’s head. You’ll have an easier time drinking wine from that cup than you will convincing Robb Stark to make peace now. He’s winning … or hadn’t you noticed?”
It really is such a GRRM flourish to hand the Starks a great victory simultaneously with unspeakable loss. Robb’s first victory shows the Lannisters that they had underestimated him drastically, and in capturing Jaime he has taken that which is most precious to Tywin. Had Ned not been killed, trading Jaime for him would have been the obvious move, one that might even have established peace—a wary, unstable peace to be certain, but one in which the statesmen would have had some breathing room.
Jon Snow’s reaction to his father’s death is one of my favourite parts of this novel. His headlong flight down the Kingsroad is a poignant reminder of just how much he loved his father, and his friends’ refusal to let him go signals that he now in fact has a new family. Lord Commander Mormont is wonderful here: gruff, sensible, wise. When Jon grudgingly admits that his desertion would not bring his father back to life, Mormont turns that fact around on him rhetorically and reminds him of the stakes the Watch are now playing for: “We’ve seen the dead come back, you and me, and it’s not something I care to see again.” There is so much laded in that brief statement, not the least of which is that death is irrevocable, and where Jon’s ultimate responsibility lies when it proves otherwise.
The last four chapters set us up for A Clash of Kings, each ending with a suggestion of what is to come. Jon Snow’s last chapter has him accepting his new identity as a Brother of the Night’s Watch, and Mormont’s declaration that, for the first time in centuries, the Watch will ride in force. Mormont’s resolve on this point is both literally and figuratively chilling—something the series translated well by having his speech play over images of the assembled Watch marching through the tunnel at the base of the Wall into the wilderness beyond.
Here at the end, we see several characters transformed. Jon embraces his new identity, while to the south his half-brother is acclaimed King in the North. What did you think of how GRRM brings each of these narrative threads to a provisional close?
Nikki: It’s so beautifully done, and I can’t believe initial readers such as you were forced to wait for the next book. No wonder new installments are snatched up quicker than new Harry Potter novels. GRRM has a masterful touch with knowing just how much to reveal, and how much to hold onto. I’m not sure if he’s able to maintain that throughout the series, but certainly in this first book, he knows what to show and what to suggest; to whom he can give a perspective chapter and who should remain more of a mystery; and in these final chapters, how much of the story to give us here to make it feel like it’s the first major stage in the game of thrones. The entirety of the King’s Landing material leads up to Joffrey becoming king, but he knows you can’t leave it there… you need to go one step further, showing what a nasty and thoughtless (and reckless) king he is. Not only is he a sociopath, but the little shit has just wreaked major havoc throughout the kingdom. In that incredible earlier scene in the Eyrie, with Bronn fighting the champion chosen by Lysa, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right with Robert, Lysa’s young son. (And on the series they cast him perfectly.) And this odd child who’s a little touched in the head continually claps his hands, stomps his feet, and shouts, “Make him fly!!” because his mind wants nothing more than watching a dwarf fly through the Moon Door.
And now, here we are at King’s Landing, where Joffrey is older, more mature, and should know better than to act rashly with so much going on around him, but he’s essentially the same impetuous child that Robert is. He practically hops up and down squeeing and clapping his hands for Ilyn Payne to make Ned’s head fly in much the same way Robert had earlier, and he clearly takes much pleasure and glee in the execution while everyone around him looks horror-stricken. Sansa and Arya because it’s their father losing his head, and Cersei because she’s cunning enough to know this is a VERY grave error. Joffrey is nothing more than a child, and a psychotic one at that. He believes that with Ned Stark dead, the Starks are out of play, and everyone else will claim fealty to him.
He’s forgetting about the mother of dragons.
The scene at the end of the book is as powerful and moving as it was in the series. The death of Khal Drogo was even more devastating on the page than it was on the show. Once again, I was gobsmacked to see just how faithful to the book the show was when it came to the entire thing, from the mage and Khal’s men refusing to listen to Dany, to the death of her baby and her ultimate sacrificing of the zombified Khal that she’s left with. It made me cry in the book, something that it didn’t do on the show. And Ser Jorah stands by her side the entire time, never wavering in his loyalty to her. (Another character that was perfectly cast on the show; I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.) Did you think Daenerys was going to become as powerful a character at the end of this book as she did? Were you surprised when her sun-and-stars died?
Christopher: I wasn’t surprised by Drogo’s death as much, if for no other reason than it was obvious Daenerys was destined to be the one with power, something that couldn’t happen if Drogo lived (which I guess answers your other question—yes, I did expect Dany to become a powerful character. Any doubts I had on that front evaporated when she ate the horse’s heart). But the khal’s death was extremely affecting: much more so than if he’d died in battle. One imagines a Boromir-esque death for Drogo, in which he is impossibly outnumbered and only gives up his last breath atop a mountain of his enemies’ corpses. But again … GRRM doesn’t play to expectations. Drogo suffers a double humiliation: weakened by an infection to the point where he falls off his horse, and then reduced to a vegetative state. There is a certain brutal poetry to his actual death: Daenerys’ act of euthanasia is a mercy but not, in either her or Drogo’s mind (if he could still think), a killing—the Drogo she knew was gone, and she has learned enough about him to love him and know how much he would hate being left like that.
If the other characters like Robb and Jon and Arya take on new identities at the end of A Game of Thrones (and Sansa too, in a somewhat different way), Daenerys is the one to experience a genuine rebirth. The final chapter is one of the most emphatically mythic sequences we find in A Song of Ice and Fire: with Drogo’s humiliation and death, all of those who might have been Daenerys’s power base desert her. She is only left with a few hundred, mostly women, elderly, and infirm—and her would-be bloodriders, all of whom inform her that being bloodrider to a woman would shame them, and their last remaining task is to escort her to Vaes Dothrak to live among the other widowed khaleesis. Ser Jorah implores her to flee with him and sell the dragon eggs—and is horrified when she consigns them to the fire. All of which is a classic moment of divestment, when the mythic hero finds himself shorn of all worldly goods, wealth, and power.
But here the mythic hero is a her. Having lost nearly everything, Daenerys makes a leap of faith. Had she been docile, she would have gone to Vaes Dothrak; had she been pragmatic, she would have fled with Jorah, sold the dragon eggs, and lived in comfortable exile. But no: looking out at her sparse followers, she wonders “How many had Aegon started with?” However little she has, she knows, it is not nothing.
She has next to nothing. She is quite literally in the desert. The setting is frankly biblical. She walks into the conflagration of Drogo’s funeral pyre, glorying in the heat, and Jorah finds her afterward—rising phoenix-like from the ashes, dragons clinging to her. It’s actually a scene done so well in the series that I can’t let it pass without showing it (warning: NSFW):
And as it appears in the novel:
As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.
This moment is a rebirth for the world as well: the magic that had gone out of it with the Fall of Valyria and the decline in Targaryen fortunes is reborn in the three dragons. GRRM does not pull any symbolic punches here: Daenerys literally becomes the Mother of Dragons, having figured out how to hatch the eggs; that two of the three dragons are nursing at her breasts sort of drives that point home.
In all, a pretty spectacular way to end the novel. It’s worth noting that A Game of Thrones is the only novel in the series (so far) to not have an epilogue. Generally, the books begin and end with chapters from the perspective of characters other than those featured in the standard POVs. But here, we end with Daenerys—anything less would subtract from the power of this conclusion.
What did you think, Nikki? How did you feel the novel’s end compared with that of the series?
Nikki: That’s so funny that you posted that YouTube clip, because I had it banked and all ready to post myself! Perfect. I thought the ending was near perfect, and again, almost shot-for-shot the way it was on the show. The main differences were the two dragons suckling at her breasts (I’m kind of glad they removed that for the series, to be honest, although there’s certainly a suggestion of it, the way she has the one positioned on her lap) and the fact that all her hair is singed off so she’s bald when she stands up in the book. I didn’t know about the epilogues (I’m not a huge fan of epilogues) but I’m really glad this one ends like this. It gives the novel a sense of an ending of this first wave of the game of thrones, but every ending also stands as the beginning of the next stage.
As you said at the outset, it was during this final section that I jumped online and ordered A Clash of Kings. And here I said I would be able to stop at the end of the first book… (Now you see why I neither smoke nor drink; I have an addictive personality, apparently.) I couldn’t stop there. Even though I’ve seen so much of it played out on the TV series, reading these books adds a new dimension to the story that you simply can’t get from the series. Despite the astounding fidelity to the books that the series offers, the books put us in their minds, reminding us that Sansa is just a little girl; that Catelyn is a harder woman than I thought she was; that Littlefinger has a difficult past and is worthy of some sympathy; that Viserys was a little boy once who lost his family; that Daenerys might be 14 but she never betrays her youth, not even in her thoughts; that Ned Stark regretted what he did right before he died, and that he lost his head thinking of his children. The show can hint at all of these things, but you only really get a sense of the interior workings of each of these characters’ minds when we get the books from their perspective. I’m very excited to see which voices we’ll hear in the future (presuming he’ll branch out and offer some new ones) and I can’t wait to get started on Book 2. Incidentally, I received the package containing Book 2 just two days ago… on a Sunday. I have never, ever received a package from Canada Post (delivered right to the door, no less) on a Sunday. Methinks there is some magic afoot.
So stay tuned everyone… we will be covering A Clash of Kings next, so make sure you get your second books and we’ll reconvene in the new year, after Chris and I have read the book in advance so we’re not rushing to do these things every week!! I’ll post the schedule in January. And until then, thanks to everyone for reading along with us, and thanks to Christopher, as always, for offering his perspective and being my better half in all of these installments. Prepare for winter… it’s coming.