A Read of Ice and Fire

A Read of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings, Part 11

Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Today’s entry is Part 11 of A Clash of Kings, in which we cover Chapters 22 (“Catelyn”) and 23 (“Jon”).

Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, The Powers That Be at Tor.com have very kindly set up a forum thread for spoilery comments. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.

And now, the post!

 

Chapter 22: Catelyn

What Happens
On her journey to meet with Renly as Robb’s envoy, Catelyn wakes from a dream in which her family is all alive and together, and wishes for a moment that she could have the luxury of not having to be strong. She had argued with Robb about going, not wanting to leave her dying father, but Robb had told her he had no one else to send. He also revealed that he intended to march from Riverrun soon, but was cagy about where he intends to go, except that it is probably not Harrenhal. Catelyn is not happy about it, and resolves to get it over with as quickly as she can.

Her party is found by outriders a half-day’s ride from Renly’s current position. The scout leader treats them with courtesy once Catelyn identifies herself, and escorts them to the camp at Bitterbridge. Catelyn is shocked by the sheer size of Renly’s host, which seems to Catelyn to have all the lords of the south attached to it. They come to where a tourney is being held; a melee is in progress, and Catelyn thinks it “madness,” that Renly sits and plays at war when a real one is in progress all around him.

She sees Renly, handsome and richly dressed, and thinks that he is the spitting image of Robert in his younger years, and does not wonder why so many have flocked to him. Renly is sitting with his new queen, Margaery Tyrell, Ser Loras Tyrell’s sister, who seems shy and sweet. The melee is ending, with only Ser Loras and three other knights left, one a knight in blue armor. The other two knights attack the blue knight at once, who defeats them in one move and then engages Ser Loras. Loras knocks the blue knight’s weapon away, but the blue knight charges him anyway, and grapples him from his horse and defeats him.

Renly calls the champion over and remarks that he is “all your lord father claimed you were,” but there is very little cheering and some complaining. Catelyn asks her escort why no one seems to like the blue knight, and he tells her because he is a woman, Brienne of Tarth. Catelyn is horrified, and the escort adds that she’s called “Brienne the Beauty,” and when she takes off her helm Catelyn sees that the name is a cruel joke, as Brienne is very homely. Renly grants her a boon for winning the tourney, and she asks to be made one of his Rainbow Guard; Renly agrees, and Brienne beams in happiness.

Catelyn is presented to Renly; Renly greets her cordially, and vows to send her Cersei’s head in redress for Ned’s murder when he takes back King’s Landing. Brienne tries to insist that Catelyn kneel and call Renly “Your Grace,” but Catelyn tacitly refuses. Renly only laughs and tries to get her to tell him whether Robb is marching on Harrenhal. She dodges the question, but tells him that Jaime Lannister is still held prisoner at Riverrun, which seems to surprise Renly. Lord Randyll Tarly pronounces it “weak.”

“No disrespect to you, Lady Stark, but it would have been more seemly had Lord Robb come to pay homage to the king himself, rather than hiding behind his mother’s skirts.”

King Robb is warring, my lord,” Catelyn replied with icy courtesy, “not playing at tourney.”

Renly grinned. “Go softly, Lord Randyll, I fear you’re overmatched.”

Renly gives her his own pavilion to rest and refresh herself in, and promises they will speak further at dinner. Catelyn takes in the overblown opulence of the pavilion and thinks it is no wonder Renly’s host moves so slowly. The food at dinner is similarly rich, but Catelyn observes that unlike Robert, Renly does not seem to overindulge in either the meal or the wine, and appears to dote upon Margaery exclusively. The same cannot be said of many of the others, and Catelyn’s seatmate Lord Rowan observes that they are all very young; Catelyn realizes it is true, and that Renly and his unblooded cronies still think this is all a game. Catelyn comments that war will make them old soon enough, and that she pities them. Lord Rowan asks why.

“Because it will not last,” Catelyn answered, sadly. “Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”

Renly invites Catelyn to walk with him; Brienne seems devastated when he refuses to allow her to go with him to guard him. Outside, Renly tells Catelyn how Ser Barristan Selmy had been dismissed, and left King’s Landing vowing to take service with “the real king,” and asks if he is with Robb. She says he is not, and Renly comments that he’d hoped Barristan would come to him in Highgarden, but he hadn’t done that either. Renly tells Catelyn of his offer of support to Ned when Robert died, and that Ned had refused it, so he’d been forced to flee. He comments that he’d liked Ned, but that Ned “would not listen and would not bend.”

Renly guesses that Robb has something like forty thousand swords; Catelyn knows it is actually much less, but keeps silent. Renly tells her he has twice that here, plus another ten thousand at Highgarden and “a strong garrison” at Storm’s End. He also believes the Dornishmen will be coming to him soon, and seems to think Stannis will support him. Catelyn reminds him that Stannis actually has the better claim to the throne, but Renly insists that Stannis would make an “appalling” king, and that’s it’s not as if Robert’s claim to the throne was terribly legitimate either.

Renly makes his offer: in return for Robb’s support Renly will let him keep all his lands and titles, even “King in the North” as long as Robb acknowledges he is still subordinate to Renly. Before Catelyn is able to answer, they are interrupted by the arrival of a messenger with an urgent message for Renly: Storm’s End is besieged. Renly protests that they would know if Lord Tywin had left Harrenhal.

“These are no Lannisters, my liege. It’s Lord Stannis at your gates. King Stannis, he calls himself now.”

Commentary
Whoopsie!

See, Renly, that’s what siblings do. You let your guard down for one second, and next thing you know: a wet willy and a Nelson laugh.

Well. Though admittedly, Stannis doesn’t seem much like the Nelson laugh type. Or the laughing type, period. I think you have to have a sense of humor before the whole laughing thing happens. Even if you’re only going for the crude schadenfreude style of laughter.

But hey, at least the word “laugh” makes no sense to me anymore!

So I wonder which way Renly’s going to jump now. Bitterbridge is close enough to Storm’s End (she says, all proud of her new map-looking ways) that it seems feasible that he could break off a chunk of his forces and send them to deal with Stannis. That’s what I would do, but of course what do I know?

Speaking of which, I really don’t get how Renly could seriously have thought that Stannis was going to just roll over and let him have the throne. I mean, has he met his brother? Well, that happy illusion has been right shattered now, hasn’t it?

And this is why, incidentally, that despite his superior numbers I persist in seeing Renly as not nearly as much of a threat as any of the other contenders in this conflict, especially after Catelyn’s observations in this chapter. Sometimes it really isn’t as much about size, and really is more about how you use it. Bluntly, I don’t think Renly actually knows how to use what he’s got.

In other news, the Martells must be having an absolute field day, figuring out who’s holding out the plummiest offer for their support. I wonder what Renly’s offering, and whether it’s a better deal than Tyrion’s. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyway. Catelyn’s awesome is continuing to hold, even as she’s making me feel very sad for her. Though of course she did have to throw out this gem re: Brienne:

Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?

Wow. I can’t decide whether that sentence depresses me more than it pisses me off, or vice versa.

And understand, I’m not sad and/or pissed at Catelyn for thinking it. I’m just disappointed in a world where that sentiment is true – or accurate enough to be true by default. And that’s our world as much as it is Martin’s.

Although, it would seem that the women of Martin’s world have at least a few more options available to them than their real-life period counterparts. At least, if there were any women (ugly or otherwise) allowed to be knights in medieval Europe I haven’t heard about them. (Knights in actuality, not just as a title, I mean.) For Martin that practically counts as a maniacal fit of optimism: making something slightly more equitable and fair than it was in real life? Golly!

But then again, Martin obviously has a much higher opinion of the capabilities of women than most of his characters do. Which is something I have definitely had cause to appreciate on this Read.

And, yeah. I don’t think I like Brienne very much, based on the short amount of time I’ve seen her for thus far, but I’m glad she got an opportunity to do something meaningful to her which she obviously enjoys, or at least is good at.

Very good at, at that, considering how she trounced Loras and a whole fieldful of other knights. Hmm.

Oh, and by the way, it is completely obvious that girl is absolutely head over heels, stupid in love with Renly. Which could be either a very good thing for Renly, or a very bad one.

As for Barristan, I guess if he’s not with Renly and he’s not with Robb, then he’s with Stannis. Which makes sense, since regardless of his personality flaws Stannis really does have the most legitimate claim to the throne.

That said, Renly does make a good (if cynical) point in this chapter, which is that history is written by the victors. Or rewritten, if necessary. Barristan and Ned may have been all about following the rules no matter what, but a large percentage of people are more than happy to switch to the “they’re more like guidelines, anyway” point of view when those rules become inconvenient to what they want. And sometimes that’s not even a bad thing, if the circumstances are dire enough (or if the rules are egregiously stupid enough), but it’s definitely not an attitude that promotes stability. As the current state of the Seven Kingdoms (which might be best summed up by the acronym FUBAR) attests.

 

Chapter 23: Jon

What Happens
The rangers ride through a miserable icy rain toward the keep of a wildling named Craster. Jon has heard many things about him; Thoren Smallwood swears he is a friend to the Watch, but Dywen and others say he is a liar and a rapist who traffics with slavers and demons. Mormont tells Jon to pass the word down the column where they’re going, and to warn the officers that everyone is to leave Craster’s wives alone.

Jon sees Sam on his way, who tells him that Dolorous Edd says Craster marries his own daughters and is a bas- he stops, embarrassed, but Jon laughs and reassures Sam that he’s heard the word “bastard” before. He goes on and encounters Dywen and Grenn. Dwyen makes a crude joke about Craster’s wives, saying it’s not hard to have that many “when you breed your own.” Ghost returns from the woods and he and Jon return to Mormont as they arrive at Craster’s “castle,” which is basically an oversized and extremely filthy hovel.

Craster, who matches his surroundings, tells Mormont that he hasn’t seen Benjen Stark for three years; he does remember when Ser Royce, Gared and Will came through, but doesn’t know or care where they went. Mormont tells him the times are bad to be alone in the wilderness, and offers him the hospitality of the Wall, but Craster rudely rejects the offer. Mormont tells him of the abandoned villages and the incident with the rangers who turned into wights, but Craster insists that the gods keep him safe, and he knows how to send wights back to their graves. He allows as how he might know where Mance Rayder is hiding.

Craster agrees to shelter them for the night in return for a share of their food and Mormont’s axe, but warns that any man who lays a hand on his wives loses the hand. Mormont tells Jon to bring Sam to draw maps. Craster comments that Jon “has the look of a Stark” before he goes. Outside, he hears a shout and finds Ghost with two dead rabbits and a young pregnant woman who pleads with him to get it away. Jon reassures her that Ghost won’t hurt her, and offers to make reparations for the rabbits. She calls him “m’lord”; he tries to tell her is no lord, but Chett and Lark overhear and taunt him that he is Lord Snow, “bastard of Winterfell and brother to kings.” The girl runs, and Jon ignores the men’s continued japes and goes to find Sam.

Jon and Sam share the second rabbit for dinner while Jon tells him about what Craster had said, and wonders how Craster holds the place with just him and his “wives.” Sam goes to the keep to draw maps, and Jon and Ghost go to sleep. The next morning, the rabbit girl (named Gilly) seeks him out, wearing Sam’s cloak, and asks if he is truly brother to a king. Jon owns that he is half-brother to one. She almost falls and Jon helps her up. She says she heard the king “gives justice and protects the weak,” and begs Jon to take her with him.

“For the baby, not for me. If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy, and she’s had six and knows these things. He gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often.”

[…] “What gods?” Jon was remembering that they’d seen no boys in Craster’s Keep, nor men either, save Craster himself.

“The cold gods,” she said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows.”

Jon tells her they are riding toward these Others and their wights, and her baby would not be any safer with them. Gilly asks what about when they return, but Jon hedges that he cannot be sure they will come this way. Despairing, she flees. Jon goes to check in with  Mormont after breakfast, and then finds Sam with Gilly, getting his cloak back. She slinks off, and Jon berates Sam for sending her to him. He demands to know how they’re supposed to help her; wounded, Sam says that he thought Jon would help, and that they would come up with something. Jon walks off, feeling angry but also ashamed.

When the party departs, Jon tells Mormont that one of the wives told him Craster “gives his sons to the wood.” Mormont tells him he knows, and while he doesn’t like it, says that the wildling serve “crueler gods than you or I,” and that Craster’s hospitality has saved a lot of ranger lives. Jon comments that his father said some men are not worth having, but Mormont points out that they do not “have” Craster, and that the Night’s Watch’s purpose is not to set the world to rights.

Mormont goes on that Craster told them that Mance Rayder is gathering his people together in the Frostfangs and that’s why the villages are empty. Mormont is sure this is a precursor to Rayder leading a strike into the south. Jon points out that wildlings have tried to invade before and failed, but Mormont answers that now the Watch is a shadow of what it once was, and the lord of Winterfell is busy fighting Lannisters, and Rayder knows it. Jon asks what they will do.

“Find him,” said Mormont. “Fight him. Stop him.”

Three hundred, thought Jon, against the fury of the wild. His fingers opened and closed.

Commentary
Oh, yeah, that sounds like a fabulous idea.

Mormont’s seriously planning on engaging Rayder? In hostile territory, with no clue (as far as I can tell) of his numbers or tactical advantages?

Well, all righty then. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Sheesh.

Craster: Now there’s a prince among men, whoo yeah. Serial incest and infanticide, that’s just super awesome. Though I guess it depends on your definition of “infanticide,” of course: if you send your sons off to become undead zombies (yeah, yeah, wights, I know, whatever, “zombies” is cooler) does that count as murder per se?

And now I’m getting all distracted with deeply silly questions on how this whole thing (probably doesn’t) work. Because, like, if the baby sons are going to the Others as fresh wight material, do the wights and/or Others raise the babies, and then make them wights? Because as improbable as that sounds, if they don’t, then I would think there would be an awful lot of eternally miniature baby zombies wandering around, and that doesn’t strike me as being very practical. Or maybe I’m being misled by my insistence on thinking of them as zombies, and they make the babies into baby wights and then the baby wights grow up to be adult wights. And now I’m picturing the Daycare Center From Frozen Hell with tiny blue and white homicidal toddlers crawling everywhere with rattles made of finger bones aaaaand maybe I should quit while I’m ahead here.

Or is it that the wights/Others are just eating the babies, and it is murder slash ritual sacrifice? It’s a little unclear from the text. And do wights eat people, or do they just murder them for fun? Because actually I’m not sure why I assumed they eat people in the first place. I guess it’s kind of like, why not have them eat people as well as everything else? Brutal atrocities, collect the whole set!

(…It’s possible that I’m a little punchy right now.)

ANYWAY. Craster’s a nutball either way. I’m contractually obligated to be pro-freedom and all, but I feel that Craster’s version of “freedom” lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would keep it from being, I don’t know, a completely monstrous LIVING HELL. I mean, really.

I felt terrible for Gilly, of course, and all the other “wives.” And I felt almost as bad for Jon, who of course wants to save her and almost certainly can’t, but who I bet is going to try anyway. Related to that, I have a bad feeling about the fact that Jon definitely “laid a hand” on her. Sure, it was to help her up, but somehow I highly doubt Craster’s into semantics.

“Why not give [Craster] all our axes, and our swords as well? I mislike the way they clank and rattle as we ride. We’d travel faster without them, straight to hell’s door. Does it rain in hell, I wonder? Perhaps Craster would like a nice hat instead.”

Heh. I left Dolorous Edd’s commentary out of the recap for obvious reasons, but he is so hilariously Eeyore-like (an R-rated Eeyore, to be sure, but still) that I kind of love him.


And I think that is what I got for now, kids. Have a green beer or nine this St. Patty’s Day if that be your inclination, and I’ll see you next week! 

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