Characters I ended up paying special attention to this reread, some on purpose, some not:
Catelyn Stark:I tried really hard to give Catelyn the benefit of the doubt on this reread, yet ended up actually liking her less than I did before. She’s a good person and generally thinks she’s doing the right things, but her stubbornness and self-absorption keep preventing her from seeing the true effects of her actions.
Robb Stark:Prior to this reread,I remembered Robb as an uninteresting stock noble-young-prince from central casting, and was fascinated by the way many readers seemed to project depth and nobility into his character. Paying special attention to him on this reread, I found his character a bit more fully developed on paper than I had thought. Not much more so, though, and not in particularly interesting ways: he loves his brother, loves his mom but wishes she wouldn’t treat him like a kid, feels overwhelmed when thrust early into a position of leadership. Pretty (deliberately) clicheed stuff there. And if he’s supposed to be a military genius, it’s not coming across to me: his strategies don’t seem that radical, and surely his advisors — particularly Brynden — have a lot to do with them?
Ned Stark: Here I have to take issue with the common “being too honorable was his downfall” characterization. Ned actually shows a reasonable degree of political awareness and is under no illusions about the honor of the Lannisters or the Small Councillors. Sure, Littlefinger played him, but Littlefinger has successfully played just about every character in the novels; besides, Ned didn’t so much foolishly expect him to behave honorably, as falsely believe he’d gotten to the bottom of his dishonorableness. And warning Cersei was a big mistake, but it was an error born of compassion, not “honor” (as the example of Stannis shows, compassion is if anything antithetical to Westerosi ideas of honor and justice).
If Ned has a central tragic flaw, it’s his blindness to the true nature of his “best friend,” Robert. Ned’s insistence on behaving as if “the Robert he had known” had his back — even after the Robert he knew *now* had repeatedly demonstrated that he didn’t — made him think he was far safer than he was. (Not to mention that, just as Ned was never the boy he once was, Robert quite possibly never was the noble “Robert” Ned thought he had known. But that’s something we’ll see more clearly in later books.)
Speaking of stuff I have to get through to get to the good stuff … it’s a Bran chapter. Still, I found a lot to remark on here.
- Old Nan says: the Karstarks have Stark blood in them. Also, Maester Lewin dismissively equates Osha’s warning about the Others to an Old Nan story.
- The Karstarks are described as barbarians with “hair worn loose past the shoulders.” Once again, except for a couple of baldies, pretty much every man whose hair length has been described so far has been identified as having long hair, including such civilized types as Jaime, Tommen, Renly, Loras, et al., as well as Ned — so how does having long hair suddenly make one a barbarian? (Especially when it somehow also makes one a woman?)
- Here Bran approaches the Old Gods as some modern American Christians do Yahweh, i.e. with prayers phrased as a list of requests. The Old Gods religion has in general struck me as more like animism: the spirits are out there in nature, you may or may not be able to appease them, but they are definitely not your personable, human-like sugar daddy. Does Bran’s behavior reflect the influence of the Faith on the Stark children, as transmitted by Catelyn?
- In any case, Bran is also becoming more comfortable being watched by the weirwood.
- What would have happened if Robb had given the command to Theon, as he was apparently advised? I don’t see Theon turning cloak under those circumstances–he would probably have never had the chance to visit the Iron Islands, and this show of faith on Robb’s part would have inspired him to be his best self. Then again, Theon, being no great strategist, might well have lost the war, in which case the Lannisters would have executed Robb (though not burned Winterfell; that would be a waste of good capital).
- Robb seems to have taken some anger management lessons, and still shows his vulnerable side only to Bran.
- Who will go south and return? (Sansa? Arya?)
- TMI about your sex life, Osha, not to mention that of your giant friends.
- Smiling is a bad thing, judging by the constant contemptuous descriptions of Theon doing so.
- You know you’re living in a culture of violence when an eight-year-old can be described as “too craven to take his own life.”
- “‘Hodor,’ Bran agreed, wondering what it meant.” Will we ever find out?
Here the after school special about how character building it is for the popular, athletic kid to befriend the fat kid continues. (The couplet “We did all we could”/ “All we could wasn’t enough” could have come straight from Degrassi: The Next Generation.) And the exposition around the roles of rangers, builders, etc. is a bit clunky. Still, Jon shows believable leadership potential here, and his steadfast but calm reaction to suggestions that Benjen is dead forms yet another great contrast with Robb.
Once again, two year old horses are rarely ridden except in a modern racing or (very recently) show context, and generally would not be considered safe to ride by a small child, let alone a disabled small child still acclimatizing to his disability. Nice to see Robb riding a gelding instead of stallion, though (stallions are relatively impractical mounts, and the number of them encountered in many fantasy novels is quite unrealistic).
- WiC #7.
- Robb is now adopting the hippie look.
- Old Nan says (again): “Dark wings, dark words.”
- Bran tells another story of Jon’s overcompensating generosity: he once gave Bran his fish when Bran failed to catch one.
- Introducing Osha, an alternate model of womanhood: a head taller than Robb (who is himself described as tall), lean, hardened, “scarcely … like a woman,” a reasonable match for Robb in battle, and happy to talk back to the man she’s with when he gives nonsensical orders.
- Robb is getting a little more nuanced: he restrains himself when his rash actions could endanger Bran, controls his anger at Theon and is “relieved” to be given an excuse not to kill Osha. (Has Robb ever killed anybody at this point? Probably not.)
Another Bran chapter that’s a rich source of insight on Robb. Robb is going through the motions of being Lord of Winterfell, but seems awkward and uncomfortable in the role. He also demonstrates a worrying lack of anger management skills, waving a naked sword at Tyrion, and almost drawing one on Yoren(!) for implying that Benjen is dead. I can’t blame him for finally crying in Bran’s room: he’s out of his league.
More stories from Old Nan (who was originally a wet nurse!):
- “Crows are all liars.”
- Brandon the Builder built Winterfell and possibly the Wall.
- Long ago, there was an epically bad winter, featuring Others, flesh-eating wights, giant spiders (?!), and “a night that lasted a generation.” The Last Hero sought out the children of the forest. (Old Nan is interrupted before we find out what happened after that.)
Miscellany from this chapter:
- Bran is now eight.
- The famous “You Starks are hard to kill” is uttered in this chapter.
- Annoying lack of horse knowledge: yearling horses are generally not ridden (except for modern race horses which have been bred to mature early).
- “Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name.” That’s either a big coincidence, or some epically long-term foreshadowing.
In a delicious little touch adding to the sense of mystery around Jon’s parentage, we learn that Sansa once asked her mother if Arya was a bastard (because, after all, Arya looks like Jon). Answered in the negative, “Sansa could not think why Mother would want to lie about it, so she supposed it had to be true.” If Jon isn’t really Ned’s biological son, Ned’s counting on everyone to have exactly that kind of reaction to Ned’s claim that he is.
We also see Joffrey’s mask really slip for the first time, revealing behavior that startlingly echoes Robb’s in Arya 1: both characters, in their respective chapters, let out streams of curses, threaten other characters with violence, and must be restrained (in Joffrey’s case, by Arya’s wolf). The underpinnings of Robb’s actions are completely different–he isn’t a sociopath–but something is being said about his own maturity and preparedness for responsibility.
I do find it a bit implausible that Sansa still seeks Joffrey’s approval after his behavior in this chapter, particularly the “terrible…filthy words” and his final rejection of her.
Characters we meet in this chapter:
- Barristan Selmy, described only as an old, white-haired, but fit man. I love how his spoken language sets him a generation apart from the other adult characters, whether he’s solemn (“[Ilyn Payne] has a fearsome aspect”) or joking around (“a prancing jackanapes*”).
- Renly Baratheon is about twenty and is the handsomest man Sansa has ever seen, tall and well-built with long black hair, green eyes, and a clean-shaven face.
- Ilyn Payne, “a gaunt grim man….pockmarked and beardless, with deepset eyes and hollow cheeks” and “colorless” eyes, not old but bald except for for a fringe “as long as a woman’s.”**
*BTW, according to Wikipedia “jackanapes” was the nickname of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk and is short for “Jack of Naples.” If Braavos is Venice, where is Naples 😉 ?
**OK, this has been bothering me: every description of a Westerosi male character so far which has mentioned the character’s hair length at all, has specified long hair. So how could long hair be considered specifically characteristic of women in this society?