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Game of Thrones 4.02: The Lion and the Rose

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Hello all, and welcome once again to the great Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. This post is a very special post, as we say a sombre goodbye to one of the show’s best loved characters, someone who warmed our hearts with his gentle generosity and simple compassion for his fellow …

Nah, I can’t keep that up. Joffrey is dead! Ha!

But in the interests of professionalism, I will attempt to keep my gloating to a minimum. I’ll let Nikki do the grave-dancing. But first …

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Christopher: This episode is an excellent reminder that, however much we might complain about GRRM killing off our favourite characters, every so often he kills the people we hate with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. The wee prick is dead! But because I knew that was coming, and because I have enjoyed your vitriolic loathing of the little shit lo these three years, Nikki, I will let you do the first jig upon his grave in this post.

Instead, I will begin by talking about the beginning of this episode: last season we left Theon in the throes of torture, mind-games, and castration. This season we see that young Ramsay Bolton—sorry, Ramsay Snow—was not merely tormenting Theon for his own amusement. Oh, make no mistake: he was totally amused by the whole process, the sick bastard … but it was all also done with an eye to breaking and subjugating Theon to the Bastard of Bolton’s will.

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Poor Theon. I know you have very little sympathy for him, Nikki, but I wonder if the events of this episode have softened that perspective at all. We first see him hobbling along as fast as he can behind Ramsay and his (apparently) equally sociopathic lady friend (I think I heard him call her Miranda?) as they chase a terrified girl through the woods. I must confess that, watching this scene, I could not help but think the same thing as when similar moments occur in A Dance With Dragons—namely, a flashback to that moment in the Simpsons when Ranier Wolfcastle announces at the local community center that he will be teaching people how to hunt “ze deadliest prey … maahhn.” Apparently, Ramsay took the remedial course, in which he learned to hunt helpless terrified chambermaids (I’d like to see him try to hunt Brienne).

However much my mind may jump to such inappropriate allusions, this opening scene serves as a reminder later that Ramsay is only partially a calculating psychopath, and that at heart he takes perverse joy in inflicting terror and pain. For me, the most affecting—and horrifying—moment of this scene is when Ramsay sics his hounds on the wounded girl, which we don’t see but hear … instead we see Theon’s tortured face as she screams. Again, Nikki, you have to admit: however much you might not care about Theon’s torments, Alfie Allen shows his acting chops in this episode. He has little enough to say, but shows everything on his face. In those few seconds of hearing the girl’s screams mingled with the hounds’ growls, we see Theon’s own terror, horror, fear, hatred, and self-loathing … in short, we see Reek.

And we see Reek again when Ramsay commands him to shave him in front of his father. “Theon was our enemy,” he tells Roose Bolton. “Reek? Reek will never betray us.” Roose has not appeared in the series as he is in the novels: in the novels he is described as slightly built, rheumy-eyed, pale, and generally physically unprepossessing … and yet carrying with him cold threat and danger, a man who looks through you. In A Game of Thrones (the novel), when Catelyn suggests at one point that Robb needs someone with cold cunning to lead his southern forces, Robb presciently replies “Roose Bolton. That man scares me.” In the series, Roose (played by actor Michael McElhatton) is somewhat more physically imposing than I imagined the character, but he does a good job of conveying Roose’s cold, calculating nature. We meet his new wife briefly: Lady Walda, a daughter of the Frey clan, part of his reward for helping Walder Frey betray the Starks. I’m probably spoiling a point that will be revealed in a later episode, but the deal with Frey was that Roose’s dowry would be his betrothed’s weight in gold. And so without hesitation he chose the most corpulent of the Frey girls. Roose is not, in other words, a man swayed by anything so fickle as sensual appetites (a reason he was probably disgusted with Robb Stark’s willingness to betray a marriage contract for love); and so we see his disappointment at the pleasure his bastard takes in torturing and killing. “We’ve been flaying our enemies for a thousand years!” Ramsay protests when his father takes umbrage at his treatment of Theon. “The flayed man is on our banners!” “MY banners,” Roose corrects him abruptly. “You’re not a Bolton. You’re a Snow.”

But however much Roose might regret the trust he put in his bastard, Ramsay’s exhibition of Theon’s compliance impresses him in spite of himself, and he suggests that, if Ramsay can retake Moat Caillin, perhaps—perhaps!—that designation of Snow can be reconsidered.

I’ll ask you what you thought of the Ramsay/Theon scenes, Nikki, but first—please, do your Dance of Joy on the corpse of the Wee Prick.

 

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Next appearing on The Walking Dead as zombie #7.

Nikki: Eeeeeeeeeee!!!

Ding dong, the little shit’s dead!
Which little shit?
The INBRED shit!
Ding dong, the lit-tle shit is DEAD!!

Ah. You know, I said last season that Joffrey deserved to die, and yet I didn’t want him to because I enjoyed hating him so much that my enjoyment in despising him outweighed wanting to see him die a horrible death. Now, I shall revel in the moment (even though I know I’ll probably miss him soon). Never has a mess of vomit and blood and snot been so… beautiful. I had no idea this was going to happen; as far as I’m concerned, GRRM kills off the characters we love, and the only time a bad guy dies is when it’s someone we haven’t much invested in (like Polliver in the previous episode). To take out the most despicable of the Lannisters? The king? The single worst person on television right now? Glorious.

And by the way, Joffrey had to die for so, so many reasons, but chucking money at Sigur Rós and telling them to stop playing and get out? DIE, YOU LITTLE SHIT, DIE! (Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows my deep devotion for the Icelandic band, who play the minstrels at the party and then sing “Rains of Castamere” over the end credits; they are easily my favourite band and the best live band I’ve ever seen. How DARE he?!)

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They’ve played to bigger, but quality counts for something …

But just in case it wasn’t clear that his death is definitely a good thing, they’ve really upped his dickishness these last episodes, especially in his despicable treatment of Tyrion. First bringing out a bunch of dwarf jesters to reenact the war between the kings of Westeros, once again beheading Ned Stark before his daughter Sansa, then treating Tyrion like garbage in front of the hundreds of guests, Joffrey’s sniveling face is the one every viewer most wants to smack, and has been since the first season.

Tyrion, I’ll let you have the honour:

However, beyond our personal grievances, and him being a horrible person in general, Joffrey is, quite simply, a terrible king. He’s weak, too scared to run into battle (as Tyrion brilliantly reminds him when he stands up at the wedding and tells Joffrey to reenact for all the guests how he had handled the Battle of Blackwater). He never, ever listens to any sort of counsel, whether it’s from Tyrion or Tywin or Cersei or Baelish. He knows very little about Westeros in general; remember in the previous episode where Daarios handed Daenerys the flowers and told her that in order to rule, she needs to understand the flora and fauna of the country, the people and what they need and want, and every bit of the landscape? Joffrey wouldn’t know what the difference between a flora and fauna was, much less have any sense of his people. The reason the marriage to Margaery was going to be positive was because she could stand before the people and say all the food was being given to the poor (an offer that Cersei quickly and privately repeals), which is the sort of thing Joffrey would never think of doing, but she tells everyone he did to make him look like a good and benevolent king. A king isn’t any sort of king if he doesn’t have one iota of support from his subjects.

The question now is, who could have done it? Was it Tyrion? He was holding the goblet, but there was really no time that I saw (having watched the wedding scene three times now) where he could have slipped something into that goblet. Could it have been Sansa, who holds the goblet at one point? (Again, she doesn’t seem to slip anything into it.) The final glass of wine was poured from the decanter sitting before Cersei, and she clearly didn’t do it, but that wine had to have been brought in from the kitchens. Sansa is quickly whisked away by the fool we’d seen in the previous episode, the man whose life she’d saved back in the second season, as if he’d known all along this was going to happen. Could he have poisoned Joffrey? Suddenly showing up the day before the wedding to say “heya” to Sansa and then grabbing her by the hand and telling her to run away seems a little suspicious. Could it have been the pie? Joffrey was drinking the wine the whole time, but it’s only after he takes a bit of the pie that he begins choking. Margaery is the one feeding it to him, and she never takes a bite (it’s passed around to others but you never see them bite into it, either). If someone had laced the pie, they would have been chancing killing everyone sitting up on the dais. It makes more sense to have put something in Joffrey’s goblet, but again, he’s using that goblet through the entire scene and it’s only at the end he begins choking.

In any case, there are so many people who would want him dead, the possibilities of who actually killed Joffrey are endless. Jaime for mocking him in the previous episode? (Jaime is his father, and seems to know that, so I doubt he’d kill his own son.)

The court jester?

Tyrion, just because he knows more than anyone what a sniveling little shit he is? (And for mercilessly slicing to bits the book that Tyrion had bought as a wedding gift, which had probably been handprinted and cost a fortune?)

Tywin? Seems like a long shot but since Joffrey’s such a horrible king, perhaps he was cleaning house with him the same way he was trying to do with Jaime? (If he’s willing to kill Shae, the woman Tyrion loves, why not kill the result of his twin children having an incestuous relationship?)

Lady Olenna? She seems pretty darn unfazed by the whole thing, and the goblet that he grabs right near the end is sitting on her table.

My money’s on Jónsi from Sigur Rós. As if I needed a reason to love that man more.

I’m sure the mystery will continue throughout the season, perhaps longer, perhaps just until the next episode, who knows, but at this point it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the king is dead, which will no doubt plunge all of Westeros into war once again. Although, we as viewers know that for all the talk of peace in the land and the war finally being over, there’s nothing but scheming and planning for more wars happening all around. That war will never be over.

I do want to add, however, one last time, that I think Jack Gleeson played Joffrey brilliantly. He was SO despicable, not just in his words, but in the way Gleeson held his lips in a constant sneer, in the way he always nonchalantly leaned against the sword on his hip, or crossed his arms in laid-back defiance, or flicked his hands about as if dismissing the one in front of him. I couldn’t imagine any actor playing him as perfectly as Gleeson did, and I really will miss the way he portrayed his character.

Back to Theon, you’re right, I’ve never been a fan, and perhaps it’s just that I’m not a fan of Alfie Allen. I don’t know why, he just bugs me. But it’s never clouded my judgment about the character and what is happening to him; I think his life has been difficult, being taken from his father as a spoil of war and being a second-rate child to Ned Stark his whole life, constantly reminded he is not a Stark, but a POW, essentially. And then when he finally returns to his own father, Balon shows him even less love and respect than did Ned. He’s spent his life trying to prove he’s someone, and now he’s been tortured both physically and psychologically, and reduced to this sniveling, shaking thing we see before us. The scene of him shaving Ramsay Snow is masterfully executed, from Ramsay’s flippant way of telling him that Robb Stark was dead, to Roose’s very subtle look that he might actually be impressed by what his bastard son has done to the creature, to Theon looking one second like he’s about to lose his mind and try to take all of them out with a razor, then keeping it together and getting back to the task of shaving his slave driver, and calmly and politely telling them the truth about Bran and Rickon, probably the most important bit of information anyone in the Seven Kingdoms could have right now.

Now that you’ve allowed me to rejoice and kick up my heels with glee (I thank you for that, sir), how did the death of Joffrey on-screen compare to what you read in the books?

Meanwhile, I shall continue to do the dance of joy.

 

Christopher: No longer do the dance of joy, Numfar! For though we rejoice at our least favourite Lannister’s timely and appropriately agonizing death, it looks as though our favourite Lannister will be taking the fall for it—whether he did it or not. And obviously I know who was actually responsible for the assassination, and just as obviously won’t betray that fact … and even more obviously will watch in glee as you try and figure it out.

But one way or another, Tyrion has been accused, and suddenly all those images from the trailers of him in a small, dark room make more sense. Cersei is obviously unhinged by her son’s death, which creates a perfect storm between her mother’s grief, her general irrationality, and her hatred of Tyrion. Will Tywin (reluctantly) defend his son? Will Jaime intercede? Or is this the end of Tyrion? Stay tuned!

This was a very Lannister-heavy episode, which makes sense … the final scenes can’t help but echo the toast raised by Tyrion at the beginning, “To the proud Lannister children: the dwarf, the cripple, and the mother of madness!” Joffrey’s madness—or at least his complete and utter willfulness and petulance—is certainly at the forefront of this episode. There is a brief moment when he seems to have attained some semblance of grace and generosity, first when he is magnanimous with Margaery’s fatuous father Mace Tyrell, and then again when he manages to be gracious about Tyrion’s gift of a book. Of course, that lasts only until he receives Tywin’s gift, which is exactly the kind of toy his sociopathic little mind delights in and cannot resist from cleaving Tyrion’s gift in two (it’s probably just as well there wasn’t a hapless servant in reach). As you say, Nikki, the book looks expensive, and it is—in the novel, Tyrion is beside himself, murmuring that that had been one of only four copies of the book in the world. We know, of course, how much Tyrion loves books: that he gave such a rare and valuable tome to Joffrey probably wasn’t the wisest course. He must have known such a gift would goad him (in the novel, after he hacks it apart, he sneers at Tyrion that “You owe me another gift, Uncle”); it would have been smarter to have given him some sort of innocuous weapon, but I tend to see the gift of that book as a moment of genuine hope and kindness on Tyrion’s part, the infinitesimal hope that Joffrey might actually learn something from it, and a kind gesture from someone who knows the true value of books and learning. Whatever moment of sanity Joffrey appears to have had vanishes as he acts out like a spoiled child on Christmas morning, so outraged by a gift that displeases him that he breaks it.

I think it is this essentially childish nature that makes Joffrey’s madness at once so infuriating and so terrifying. Imagine giving a willful toddler power of life and death, and adding into that mix innate sadism, and that’s what we have with Joffrey. His petulance at his own wedding reception is emblematic of this, when he gets impatient with Sigur Ros; also in his planned “entertainment,” which is comedy of the lowest possible brow. Any more lowbrow and it would be underground. What is most interesting about this scene is less the show itself than the reactions of its audience: how everyone responds is a good insight into their character. Margaery at first looks amused and happy, smiling and clapping—probably relieved to see her new husband in good humour for the first time that day—but quickly becomes perturbed as she realizes the cruel intent behind it. Joffrey’s little brother Prince Tommen, who is sitting beside Tyrion, laughs until he also suddenly realizes that it is meant to mock his uncle (his quick, chagrined sideways look at Tyrion exhibits more humanity in a nanosecond than Joffrey has shown in three seasons). Loras Tyrell looks disgusted, and exits as soon as the dwarf Renly is humiliated; his father, Mace Tyrell, looks dismayed; Sansa is in shock; Tywin is at first mildly amused, but slowly grows more obviously impatient with the proceedings; Varys can’t quite keep an appalled expression from his face.

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The only person who seems as amused by the show (besides a handful of sycophants in the audience) is Cersei, who watches the whole event with a smug, indulgent smile. “Mother of madness,” indeed—it’s as if she’s the only person watching who hasn’t realized what a monster, and a childish one at that, her precious Joffrey is. She’s even delighted and amused when Joffrey is so convulsed with laughter that he spits wine.

And then … well, the entire confrontation between Joffrey and Tyrion plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel, and if possible, it is even tenser. I’ve got to hand it to GRRM: you know something bad is going down from the moment Tyrion verbally smacks Joffrey down, but you assume it’s going to happen to Tyrion … that he’ll be driven past whatever reserves of patience and calm he has to say or do something that will be unforgivable. It’s one thing to smack Joffrey when he’s still just a prince, with only the Hound and the horses in the stable as witnesses. It would be something else entirely to cuss out the king, or worse, strike him in front of hundreds of witnesses at his own wedding. And I honestly thought, the first time I read it, that that would be Tyrion’s downfall.

Instead, it’s Joffrey’s. But also Tyrion’s, as the distraught Cersei—showing herself as unreasoning at her son’s death as she was blind to her son’s life—points the finger at him.

But as delightful as it is to dance on the little shit’s grave, I suppose we should address the other two key parts of this episode: the ongoing saga of Lady Melissandre’s purgation of nonblievers in Stannis’ household, and Bran’s evolving talents as a skinchanger and seer. What did you make of the Stannis bits, Nikki? That scene does not, to the best of my memory, appear in the novels.

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Nikki: You mean something ELSE happened in this episode? I’ll have to consult my notes… why yes, you’re right. I wanted to note first the sheer beauty of the production of the wedding scene: from the fire eaters and jugglers to the music and the banners; from the gorgeous dresses and hairstyles to the setting (I believe they actually filmed this scene in Croatia), once again the production values and set design of this show just send it soaring above everything else on television. And you commented on the direction of this scene, which is so true: Joffrey’s antics with the little people dancing about in their silly costumes is one thing, but far more important are the reactions to those around him, and I think the look on Varys’s face is the most telling of all. He’s the spider, the one who flits from side to side, knowing exactly what to do or say that will keep him alive, but still performing his little Machiavellian machinations behind the scenes.

He’s the one who has arranged for Shae’s comfortable life across the sea; it just took Tyrion to be cruel enough to get her on the boat (another terrible moment in this episode that is overshadowed by the ending). Tyrion certainly looks devastated when Joffrey chops the book to bits, but much of his moroseness can be chalked up to the fact that he’s just overheard Cersei consulting with Tywin, and he knows what he has to do. He finally found someone who was able to look past his physical stature to love the man, and he has to give her up. “You’re a whore! Sansa is fit to bear my children, and you are not.” Watch the body language in this scene; he stutters and stammers his way through his speech, and is unable to look Shae in the eye as he does so. What he’s doing is saving her life, but he’s destroying her soul — and part of his own — in doing so.

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But now… to Dragonstone! “Lord of Light protect us, for the night is dark and full of terrors!” As we know, his wife is more of an acolyte and devoted follower of the Lord of Light than is Stannis, and when we first arrive at Dragonstone in season 4, it’s to see Selyse’s own brother being burned at the stake as a heretic. While most sisters would be horrified, begging Melisandre to reconsider, Selyse is so filled with the spirit of the Lord of Light that her face is glowing, and she looks like she’s on the verge of ecstacy. “Did you see? Their souls. It was their souls. Our Lord took them, did you see?” Stannis turns in disgust and walks away. I don’t think he saw what Selyse saw. Davos catches up to him to remind him what a travesty this is, that Stannis’s own father had worshipped the Seven Gods, and he was turning his back on his own tradition. Stannis just bluntly states that he’d told his brother-in-law to tear down his idols, and he’d refused. There’s very little conviction in Stannis’s voice; he believes in the Lord of Light — he definitely saw something come out of Melisandre back in the second season — but the Lord did him no favours at Blackwater, and there is doubt on his face. If he keeps killing the soldiers who don’t believe in Melisandre’s religion, he won’t have any left.

“Did you see, Ser Davos? They’re with our Lord now, their sins all burnt away. Did you see?” says Selyse, still beside herself with joy. “I’m sure they’re more than grateful, my queen,” Davos responds with fake sincerity, to the chagrin of Melisandre.

It’s interesting how the rituals to worship the Lord of Light always seem to happen in the dark.

Later, Melisandre goes to see Stannis’s daughter, and she’s gentle and kind, and tells Shireen that she doesn’t believe in a heaven and a hell, just a heaven. The only hell, she says, is the one we live in now. It’s rather difficult to disagree with her on that one.

I’m fascinated by the religion on the show (and as I’ve said before, it’s explained much better in the books) simply because in our world, so much of the turmoil, war, and hardship seems to stem from clashes of religious beliefs, far more than territory or personal grievances. Each group seems to worship someone different in Westeros, and while it rarely comes up as a topic of warfare, when it comes to Stannis, the religion and his devotion to Melisandre (which is stronger than his devotion to the Lord of Light) has been helping him make decisions. There’s an uneasy look on his face, however, that he’s not so sure about the results of those decisions so far…

One quieter aspect of religion on the show is the weirwood, the white trees with red leaves and sap that the Starks have always turned to in times of sorrow. What did you make of the Bran scene in this episode, Chris?

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Christopher: Frankly, the Bran scene was a bit of a relief. For so long he’s been carried and dragged northward, with Jojen and Meera telling him how important he is, but with only a few exceptions—mostly when he sees through his direwolf’s eyes—we haven’t really had much evidence that this is in fact the case … instead, we’ve been treated to a rather tedious and uneventful journey north. It is a welcome change to have such a vivid scene in which we see through Summer’s eyes as he brings down a kill, and be about as irritated as Bran to be yanked out of it. Jojen reiterates a point (I think) he’s made before: that it is dangerous to spend too much time in your animal’s mind, for the longer you’re in there the more tenuous your grasp on your own humanity. His little speech does a good job in reminding us of the temptation for Bran: to be able not only to walk, not only to run, but to hunt, and be the master of the forest … “It must be glorious,” Jojen acknowledges, and for crippled Bran, who suffers the daily humiliation of having to be carried everywhere, it must be like a drug. But one that is, as Meera warns, just as addictive and even more dangerous.

It is not, apparently, just Summer who offers Bran oracular sight, however—the weirwood he touches gives him a series of visions more vivid than any he has yet experienced: he has visions of the past (his father polishing Ice in the Godswood, the tombs beneath Winterfell, himself falling from the tower); he sees his three-eyed crow; he sees the massive shadow of a dragon over King’s Landing; and he has the same vision Daenerys did in the House of the Undying, of a roofless and snow-filled throne room in King’s Landing. And repeated several times is the image of a great weirwood, with the whispered words “Look for me beneath the tree.”

It’s the first time since the assassin attempted to kill the sleeping Bran that any part of his storyline has given me chills. Any final thoughts, Nikki?

 

Nikki: I, too, got chills, and it was a thrill to see Ned Stark again, even if it was just a flash of his face from some piece of stock footage. I still miss him…

I’m definitely excited about next week’s episode, and the fall-out of Joffrey’s murder. Tyrion is clearly in for a world of hurt, Tommen suddenly has a new and huge responsibility, and I hope Sansa’s able to get away before the Lannisters capture her. Until then!!

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Hic Sunt Dracones

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There’s a moment in The Hobbit, before Bilbo and company arrive at Rivendell, when Bilbo sees the first of the Misty Mountains, the range that more or less runs the length of Middle-Earth. Gazing up at it in awe, he asks whether the mountain he sees is in fact Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the troupe’s ultimate destination. Balin the dwarf scoffs at him, setting him straight—informing him that they will have to go over those mountains and then through huge swathes of wilderness on the other side before they will arrive at Erebor.

It’s one of those fish-out-of-water moments, of which Bilbo has many over the course of the novel. It also emphasizes his parochialism and his complacent ignorance of the wider world. In itself, it is not much worth dwelling on, except that it is replicated by Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. As the Fellowship journeys south they come in sight of a spur of the Misty Mountains, prompting confusion on Pippin’s part, who assumed that the mountains should be to their left and not directly ahead. Exasperated, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them.” And once again they are set aright by a dwarf, as Gimli comes forward, declaring, “I need no map” and naming all of the mountains in view. A little bit later Sam, unknowingly echoing Bilbo, says “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought at first that this here Redhorn, or whatever its name is, might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece.” Tolkien wryly observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

We can hardly blame Sam or Bilbo, for either their geographical ignorance or their wistful hope that the respective objectives of their journeys are much closer than they actually are. There might have been maps at Rivendell, but how useful would they have been to people who lack an understanding of the scope and scale of the wider world? In The Hobbit, Bilbo is excited by the appearance at his unexpected party of Thror’s map because he loves maps—and then we are informed that he had a large map framed in his hallway of the local land around him, with all his favourite hiking trails drawn in red ink. The juxtaposition of what is literally a treasure map depicting a mountain hundreds of miles away with one highlighting local hiking trails is almost touching, so great is the difference between the two—like a map of local parks placed alongside the map of a military campaign (which, when you consider how The Hobbit ends, is not an inapt comparison). By the same token, after Bilbo’s departure at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, “Frodo began to feel restless, and all the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders.” It is hard (for me, at least) not to read this passage without thinking of Heart of Darkness and Marlow’s fascination with “the white spaces on the map.” (Indeed, when talking about maps in my Tolkien class, I allude to Conrad’s novel enough that I’m starting to wonder if there’s an article there to be written).

Maps play a significantly different semantic role in fantasy fiction, however, insofar as they reverse the standard relationship between maps and the territory they depict. One way or another, maps are inherently fictional, in that they necessarily distort the material they seek to represent, even as they strive for scientific or mathematical accuracy. The actuality of the world, with all its intricacies, is translated into a set of lines on a flat surface, alongside a set of such overt fictions as national borders, other political designations, and place names. (To be clear: in calling borders and place names “fictional,” I am not saying they are not real, just that they are invented—they are fictions agreed upon by a consensus, and as such, are always subject to change). Mountains become gradations of colour or concentric lines on a relief map, cities and towns are rendered as dots, different nations are designated by a palette of striking colours and circumscribed by dotted lines. In this respect, maps are not dissimilar from fiction proper, which similarly seeks to render a given interpretation of reality but must needs deform it for specific purposes.

It is at this point in discussing maps that I like to pause and show a clip from The West Wing.

Maps in fantasy fiction, by contrast, are not depictions of extant territory. How could they be? They are rather outright inventions, but therefore have a drastically different relationship to their worlds than our maps. They are, in a word, deterministic. That is to say, the map determines the territory.

Consider the history of maps of our world. The earliest known attempt to present a map of the world is one from Babylon, around 600 BCE. It essentially depicts the world as a disc, with a handful of lands and cities and landmarks surrounding Babylon, all of which is surrounded by a circle of ocean.

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Consider, in turn, a series of maps down through the ages:

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The Tabula Peutingeriana (ca. AD 500), a Roman illustrated itinerarium (road map) showing the cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire.

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The Ebstorf Map (ca. 13th century), a medieval map of the world.

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A map purporting to show Vinland (Newfoundland and the Maritimes–upper left corner), based on Viking exploration in the tenth century.

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Can you see my house?

I suppose it could be argued that the movement of maps toward increasing accuracy contradicts my premise that maps are inherently fictional, but I would disagree; accuracy and reality are not the same thing. And as the (fictional) Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality would point out, the conflation of accuracy with reality can and has been deployed in the service of the powerful.

But I digress. Maps in fantasy fiction are paratextual, which is to say that—like prefaces, indices, appendices, annotations, title pages, afterword, and so forth—they work to circumscribe and define the text of the story. And by the same token, we are privy to them in a way the characters of the narrative are not. So when Sam grumbles about Caradhras not being Mount Doom, as he’d hoped, it is a moment not unlike dramatic irony—assuming, of course, the reader is anything like myself and obsessively consults the maps provided in order to know where in the world the characters are at any given point.

(This is not, I have been given to understand, a pervasive tendency—indeed, last year when I taught The Hobbit in my first-year English class, I polled the students to find out how many of them consulted the maps while reading. To my considerable shock, two-thirds of them did not look at the maps at all. And suddenly the more general geographical ignorance of our undergraduate population became a little bit more comprehensible).

The (quasi) dramatic irony of Sam and Bilbo’s misapprehension lies in the fact that readers know, far more indelibly than the characters, the geography of the world they inhabit.

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Of course, such characters as Bilbo and Sam and Pippin are contrasted with Elrond and Gandalf and Aragorn (for example), all of whom presumably have a much greater and more thorough grasp of the extant maps of Middle-earth. But for a long time I have wondered—and yes, this is entirely speculative—do they consult the same maps as the readers? Over the Christmas holidays this past year I read Creation by Gore Vidal, which is about a Persian diplomat named Cyrus, a boyhood friend of the Emperor Xerxes, who over the course of his life travels from Persia to India, to China, and at the end of his life to Greece. At one point as he consults with the Emperor Darius about his first embassy to India, a map of the known world—etched onto copper shields—is produced. Part of Cyrus’ mission is to map the territory into which he ventures, with an obvious emphasis to be put on trade routes. His description of the maps makes it clear that they are only slightly more accurate than the Babylonian map pictured above.

However, the novel provides maps at the beginning, one depicting the entirety of the Persian empire around 500 BCE, and a detail map depicting Greece and the Greek colonies on Asia Minor. Maps of such accuracy are not of course available to Cyrus. And when we read histories of, for example, the Wars of the Roses or the Roman conquest of Gaul, we similarly have maps that the Yorks and Lancasters did not have; and the Romans were sojourning into (literally) unmapped territory. All of which is by way of observing that, if fantasy is in part a nostalgic escape to premodern, neo-medieval settings, I think it is a fair assumption that Middle-earth’s cartographers were no more accomplished than their medieval European counterparts.

Again, this is entirely speculative: I can no more determine the accuracy of the maps in Rivendell than I can definitively tell you how many children Lady Macbeth had. The point here is more to draw attention to the dissonance between the maps with which Tolkien provides us, and his characters’ experience of the territory those maps determine. (It makes me think that someone needs to write a fantasy novel that unfolds as a series of increasingly-accurate maps, with disputes over their validity and the theological arguments over the shape of the world providing the main conflicts for the narrative).

The point is also the epistemological certainty the maps of various fantasy novels afford. One could argue that a fantasy map isn’t meant to be seen as accurate, that it is in fact meant to be understood as replicating the distortions and inaccuracies of medieval maps … except that I cannot think of any reason The Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy novel gives us to make that assumption. Rather, maps of Middle-Earth, Westeros, Pern, Earthsea, and so forth—take your pick—provide a privileged perspective that is consonant with fantasy’s relationship to history. As Farah Mendlesohn observes in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, the genre tends toward a scholastic conception of the past—which is to say, like medieval Scholasticism, it treats historical accounts as straightforward fact rather then with historiographic skepticism. However much Tolkien characterized his writing of the tales that would become The Silmarillion (and the countless subsequent books edited by his son Christopher) as “creating a mythology,” in the context of The Lord of the Rings they comprise its history. Beren and Luthien, the voyage of Earendil, the fall of Gil-Galad—all of which we encounter in The Lord of the Rings through song—are not mere myth or legend like Gilgamesh or Odysseus, or legend embellished from history, like the Trojan War, but are indelible history. (In case we doubt their validity, we have such literally immortal figures as Elrond and Galadriel, who were actually around for much of Middle-earth’s “mythic” origins).

The question of history versus myth in Tolkien is one I will return to in a future post. For now, let me return to his maps: I know I am not alone in having been enthralled by the geography of Middle-earth; certainly, the hugely popular multiplayer Lord of the Rings Online game exploits the detailed topography of Middle-earth to great effect (I recently signed up for an account, but haven’t yet had much chance to play—more on that when I have). I unfortunately don’t have anything resembling a proper conclusion to this post—like most of them, this is mostly my musings and little more—but I do mean to return to this topic in the future. Stay tuned.

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My top one hundred. Sort of. After a fashion. You know.

David Bowie recently listed his top one hundred must-read books as a part of his art show David Bowie Is, which has had spectacular runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and more recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He has, as one would expect of such an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person, some thought-provoking choices, and the list, overall, is endearingly eclectic. It is gratifying to see some of my own favourites there (Lolita, Herzog, In Cold Blood, Nights at the Circus, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), though he also includes On The Road (ick) … and there are a lot of Newfoundlanders who will not be pleased to see Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, a book that ranks even lower in people’s esteem than The Shipping News for its hackneyed and egregiously inaccurate depiction of outport Newfoundland.

That being said, reading the list got me thinking … not so much about what my one hundred “must-reads” would be, but which one hundred books have affected me the most profoundly over the years. I’m not sure why my mind went there precisely, when the practice of telling people what they should read is both a pedantic hobby and a professional imperative … but I suspect that in the aftermath of last week’s posts about David Gilmour and his insistence on only teaching what he loves had me reflecting on those texts that I love.

It didn’t really occur to me as I wrote those posts, but when I go back and reread Gilmour’s Hazlitt piece and his interview in The National Post, I find it a little odd that, if his personal mandate is to teach only what he truly loves, he seems to have such a narrow range of authors he’s willing to teach. As I sat and made my own list, I reflected that the books I have read that I love and which had affected me profoundly is massive. My favourite part of teaching is that I get to share some of these books with my students.

But then, perhaps I’m just undiscriminating.

I’ve been picking away at this list all week in my spare moments. I started compiling it partially out of curiosity, because I’ve never really done it before. I was also curious to see—after two posts in which I took issue with David Gilmour’s and Margaret Wente’s antipathy to women authors—whether I would prove myself a hypocrite. The one comment I received on those posts was someone pointing out that the banner image at the top of this blog is almost exclusively male, with only Zadie Smith and Marjorie Garber as exceptions. As I replied, my choice of banner image is actually quite random: I took a few pictures of the various bookshelves in my office at home, and that was the one that turned out best (if I’d posted the shelf beneath, you’d think this was a George R.R. Martin fan site). I quite deliberately did not rearrange books to be more flattering—I wanted something honest, if not necessarily representative.

So, a word on my list: my rules to myself were that I could choose one book per author. (If it was a list of books proper, regardless of author, you’d see an awful lot more of Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, and so forth). The representative book had to be the work by that author that affected me in a significant manner, not the book that I would later come to consider the best by that author. So for example, Love in the Time of Cholera is the entry here from Gabriel García Marquez, even though I believe One Hundred Years of Solitude is his masterpiece (and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century), because that was my first real encounter with Marquez. By contrast, the first book of Annie Dillard’s I read was The Writing Life, a slim volume in which she talks about the nature of writing and what the writer’s task is. I read that in high school and loved it, but it was eclipsed a few years later when I read A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read Jane Austen’s Emma when I was an undergraduate, and hated it. Later I read Pride and Prejudice, which made me grudgingly think maybe this Austen person had some game; but it was on reading Northanger Abbey as the urging of an Austen-mad friend that I truly grasped Austen’s genius. I then went back and reread the other two novels (as well as the rest of her books) with new eyes , but it was Northanger that had the greatest affect.

All this is by way of saying that these choices are entirely idiosyncratic.

Also: there is no poetry, for the simple reason that, for me, that is an entirely different category and an entirely different species of affect. What we have here are novels, histories, philosophy and theory, and a handful of plays.

I encourage other lists. Most of the people reading this probably came here from Facebook: if so, post a list there! Otherwise, for you other bloggers, post to your blog and I’ll link to you.

Isabelle Allende, The House of the Spirits
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina
Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
John Banville, Doctor Copernicus
Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door
Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Don DeLillo, Libra
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman
Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
Paul Fussel, Wartime
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Homer, The Iliad
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism
Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Milan Kundera, Immortality
Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Toni Morrison, Paradise
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
Gloria Naylor, Mama Day
Edna O’Brien, The House of Splendid Isolation
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Terry Pratchett, Night Watch
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Bill Readings, The University in Ruins
Jean Rhys, The Wide Sargasso Sea
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity
Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Elaine Scarry, On Beauty
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Jane Smiley, Moo
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Sophocles, Antigone
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Art Spiegelman, Maus
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor
Jeannette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Slavoj Zizek, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan, But were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock

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Of deck renovation, podcasts, and the art of lecturing

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The deck, in process.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I’ve been renovating my home’s back deck and reminisced about the art of the mixed tape—an exercise largely lost in the world of MP3s and iPods, in which a playlist can be thrown together in minutes. As nostalgic as I got—exactly nostalgic enough to write a blog post about it, apparently—I do reiterate my protestation that I do not regret this particular evolution of technology. At all. Certainly, there is a lingering affection for handwritten playlists on those always-too-small card inserts in blank tapes, and the time and care that went into making them … but nostalgia is a dangerous thing, as it tends to elide the less-than-excellent elements of the past, in this case the crappy sound quality, heavy, chunky walkmans, the tapes that tended to get chewed up and tangled, and the space they occupied. As a friend of mine observed, people who grew up with iTunes will likely find excuses to be nostalgic about a time when you actually chose what MP3s you wanted rather than having Apple anticipate, based on an algorithm, what your next favourite songs would be. (Actually, I have a feeling that might be happening very soon).

So, the massive library of music at my fingertips? All on a device so small, granted, I worry I might inhale it by mistake? Yeah, that doesn’t bother me so much.

But there’s also the amazing fact of podcasts. In the last several years I have become a podcast addict, discovering and downloading a whole assortment of stuff, political discussions and arguments, dramatic and comedic series, food shows, literary shows—and what’s so great about the medium is how, while many of these are professionally done by institutions like the CBC or Slate Magazine, many are also just done out of some guy’s basement … and often, the latter prove to be just as good or better.

I’m thinking as I write this that I’ll start doing a weekly podcast recommendation … starting with this one.

I listen to podcasts in the car, or when I’m doing dishes or housework. I like having something to occupy my mind at such times. I will also listen to them when playing Civilization V or a comparable strategic game on the computer, or when I’m working on something that doesn’t require me to write or comprehend sentences. And while the process of tearing up my old deck was best accompanied by eclectic mixes of heavy metal and Korean dance music, the process of framing and laying decking is much better accompanied by podcasts.

And because I’m a dork, many of the things I listen to are quasi-educational: podcasts about books and writers, about politics, and, most recently, I have discovered the joy that is iTunesU.

For the uninitiated, iTunes has a section dedicated to all things academic—or, well, some things academic. There is a lot of dreck to wade through, as many if not most universities posting channels have used it principally for advertising purposes. But there are some gems in there, and my favourite so far is Open Yale … which has put up podcasts of entire courses, mostly (so far as I can see) undergraduate survey courses. Which makes sense: a seminar course would not work on podcast, whereas as a series of lectures delivered to large classes fits the bill nicely. There have been two I’m listening to, a course on European history after 1645 by John Merriman, and an introduction to ancient Greece by Donald Kagan. I’ve only listened to a few of Merriman’s lectures so far; I’ve been entirely sucked in by Kagan’s. I’ll get back to Europe when my sojourn in ancient Greece is done. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the endearingly cantankerous Kagan’s narrative of Greece from the dark ages to the twilight of the city-state—not least because it reminds me of my time as a first-year university student taking a very similar class. For the record, Kagan is an academic rock star (a number of years ago, I read his magisterial account on the Peloponnesian War, and was entranced), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good lecturer. Kagan? Great lecturer. He may have a lot of harrumphs, both bronchial and political (he likes to refer to the contemporary university as the “Politburo”), but the story he tells of the rise and fall of Greek society is wonderfully compelling.

(Credit where it’s due: I learned of Open Yale by way of the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs for The Atlantic—someone whom, if you’re at all interested in American politics, you should read. One of the smartest and best writers currently blogging. The link is to your right).

Kagan had one lecture that sent me to YouTube, in which he uses students in his class to demonstrate the arrangement of a hoplite phalanx. This had me wracking my brain to think of novels I could teach that would allow me to make a similar demonstration. The fun stuff starts to happen at 17:30:

I like to think I’m a good lecturer, but then I listen to such things and am reminded that I can always get better.

So: Open Yale. My podcast recommendation for the week.

I can’t quite let this go, however, without a little more nostalgia—even though I inveighed against nostalgia at the start of this post. As I said, one of the things I love about listening to these podcasts is remembering how amazed I was by some of the lecturers I encountered in my undergrad. I really hope people reading this post had similar experiences, because there is really nothing, nothing, like sitting in a lecture hall and listening to someone who knows his or her craft blowing your mind with their account of, well, anything. I don’t discriminate: some of the best lectures I had in my first year were on the history of science. I suppose that is one of the things—or perhaps the thing—that makes me a dork. I just love learning stuff. Which is why I am so happy to be out under the blazing sun (well, sun that blazes as much as it can in Newfoundland) building a deck while listening to the vagaries of ancient Athenian politics. IF … and this, granted, is a big if … it can be done in an engaging and compelling way. If it can be done so that the story is good (see how I brought that around to this blog’s theme?).

On that note, I leave you with something I recently discovered. My undergraduate alma mater, York University, has discovered YouTube … and while much of its postings are of an advertising nature, they have also posted some lectures by prominent professors—including my favourite professor ever, and my first real academic mentor, Arthur Haberman. Arthur is now retired, but he is one of those people who affected me profoundly. Every time I teach—and I am not exaggerating there—I sense his influence. He was, and is, an extraordinary educator and academic, and a wonderful person. York has posted a lecture of his on Impressionism and society, broken into nine parts. Here is the first.

I watch this and think: students of mine will probably see echoes in my teaching. Believe me when I say they are just echoes. I could never live up to Arthur’s example.

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