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 51 of A Storm of Swords, in which we cover Chapter 78 (“Samwell”) and Chapter 79 (“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, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. 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 78: Samwell
Samwell knows that Stannis is angry, and cannot understand why the red woman Melisandre seems so interested in him, when he is only at this audience to assist Maester Aemon. Stannis demands to know why the brothers have not yet chosen a new Lord Commander, and Bowen Marsh explains that no one has achieved two-thirds of the vote yet. Stannis tells them he doesn’t have time for their delays, and Slynt sycophantically opines that his royal counsel would be most useful in their deliberations. This angers some of the others, and Aemon points out calmly that the Night Watch has always chosen their own leader.
Stannis then opines Slynt would make a terrible Lord Commander, pointing out his history of selling promotions for bribes. Slynt protests that that is lies, but Stannis replies that he saw the evidence, and Slynt would have been executed had he been king instead of Robert. Aemon points out that a man’s past transgressions are wiped clean when he joins the Watch, and Ser Deny Mallister further points out that the Watch cannot help Stannis in his contest for the throne.
Stannis assures him that he does not require that, but then adds that he does want their castles (excepting Eastwatch, Castle Black, and the Shadow Tower), as well as the Gift from them. Bowen Marsh protests that the Gift was given to the Watch in perpetuity; Cotter Pyke asks what he means to do with it, and Stannis replies “ to make better use of it than you.” He intends to restore the other ruins on the Wall; Melisandre adds that theirs is a war “for life itself,” and if they fail, the world dies. Aemon asks Melisandre, if it is “the war for the dawn” she speaks of, then where is the promised prince? Melisandre answers that he stands before them.
“Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai come again, the warrior of fire. In him the prophecies are fulfilled. The red comet blazed across the sky to herald his coming, and he bears Lightbringer, the red sword of heroes.”
Sam notes that the declaration seems to make Stannis uncomfortable, and Stannis brusquely dimisses them all except Aemon and Samwell, to Sam’s shock. When the others are gone, Stannis asks about Sam’s slaying of the Other with the dragonglass dagger. Melisandre calls it “frozen fire,” and is not surprised it is anathema to these “cold children.” Stannis tells Sam he has ordered the mining of obsidian to begin on Dragonstone, where there are rich deposits of the mineral. Sam notes nervously that the dagger shattered when he tried to stab a wight with it; Melisandre replies that wights are only “dead flesh,” while the Others are something more.
Stannis then asks about Sam and the wildling girl’s passage through the Black Gate at Nightfort, and reveals that he intends to make that castle his new seat, and so orders Sam to show it to him. Sam doesn’t know if it will open for a man not of the black, but agrees. Aemon asks to see Lightbringer, Stannis’s sword. Stannis points out that Aemon is blind, but Aemon replies that Sam will be his eyes. Stannis reluctantly draws it, and Sam tells Aemon how the sword glows “like sunshine on water.” Stannis dismisses them, and warns that the Watch had better have chosen a commander by nightfall.
As they walk back to Aemon’s chambers, Aemon comments that he felt no heat from the sword, and Sam confirms that the scabbard that held it was not scorched or blackened. Sam asks if there is anything Aemon can do about the choosing, but Aemon says that as a maester, he cannot interfere. Sam asks if he, Sam, could.
Aemon turned his blind white eyes toward Sam’s face, and smiled softy. “Why, I don’t know, Samwell. Could you?”
Sam thinks he must, despite his fear, and assures himself that he is braver now than he had been. He goes to Cotter Pyke first, but though Pyke admits he doesn’t actually want the job, he dismisses out of hand the idea of bowing to Mallister, saying they need a fighter to stand up to the Others and Stannis both. Sam asks if he could support someone else, then, but Pyke laughs and says there is no one else he can think of.
Sam goes to Ser Denys Mallister next, who greets Sam courteously, but will not countenance the idea of supporting an ironborn commoner like Pyke for Lord Commander, nor can he endorse either Bowen Marsh or an “upjumped butcher’s whelp” like Slynt. Sam blurts that there is another, trusted by Mormont, Halfhand, and Noye, son of a lord and brother to a king. Mallister concedes that that man would be more suitable than the others, but still thinks he himself is the better choice. Sam then lies, and tells him that Stannis intends to name Pyke if no one is chosen by tonight. Mallister says he must think on this, and dismisses Sam.
Sam is terrified at what he’s done, but soldiers on, and returns to Pyke, to make much the same pitch for Jon, except this time emphasizing that he is a bastard. Pyke is pleased at how that would stick in Mallister’s craw, but still thinks he himself would be better, and “any fool” can see that.
“Any fool,” Sam agreed, “even me. But… well, I shouldn’t be telling you, but… King Stannis means to force Ser Denys on us, if we do not choose a man tonight. I heard him tell Maester Aemon that, after the rest of you were sent away.”
Oh ho ho!
Why, Samwell, you sneaky sneaker, you! I heart you lots.
And y’all, make no mistake, the little game Sam is attempting here isn’t just brave, it’s straight-up ballsy. Which I really hope that someone gets around to bloody telling Sam someday, because AGGH you are not a coward SHUT UP.
Will it work? Well, we’ll see, won’t we. But either way, doesn’t change the brass it takes to try it.
I suppose there’s a debate to be had over whether what Sam’s doing is unethical. My immediate instinct is to say it’s not, but then, I have a vested interest in backing the same pony Sam is backing, so my opinion is rather suspect. When you put it into the context of “would I be okay with Sam spreading lies to bolster the vote for his candidate” if I didn’t also support that candidate, it’s probably a different thing, isn’t it?
But, well, I suppose it is kind of also on Pyke and Mallister for believing Sam’s unsubstantiated word on what transpired between himself, Stannis, and Aemon in the first place. I’m not sure, admittedly, how they could have cross-checked his report (other than by asking Aemon, of course), but I’m just saying, you believe hearsay at your own peril, especially when you’re in politics of any kind. Maybe that doesn’t make it better, but anyone who thinks politics isn’t a veritable quagmire of ethical gray areas clearly hasn’t been paying attention.
Speaking of Aemon, his little comment here about Stannis’s sword’s lack of natural heat definitely has me raising an eyebrow or two. The immediate presumption, of course, is that Aemon, as a maester and Very Old Guy, has access to legends/accounts/whatever of the Chosen One’s magical destiny sword that most people don’t, and furthermore, that those accounts mention something about the sword being hot as well as flame-y. Which Stannis’s sword is not, implying that it is a imitation rather than the real thing.
I will attempt to contain my shock. Yep, shock contained, moving on.
And Stannis totally knows it, too. There’ve been hints of his lack of faith in his own Chosen-ness all throughout his story arc, and there’s just more of it here, when Stannis looks actively uncomfortable when Melisandre declares him Messiah Boy to the Watch. Granted, he could just be modest, but I’m pretty sure it’s discomfort with the entire idea, not just squirming under scrutiny. I mean, he may not have been king before the succession (and has been only debatably king of anything since then), but he was still raised in a noble-to-royal family environment. Which is a situation in which modesty, self-effacement, and a dislike of being in the public eye are not generally considered virtues, and trained pretty ruthlessly out of you at a young age. Or so I imagine, but I don’t think I’m being outlandish in thinking so.
Anyway, my point being, the signs all point to Stannis’s status as the One True Savior of Everything is probably at least partially carefully crafted bullshit, and that Stannis knows it. (Whether Melisandre knows it too is… debatable. It’s amazing how far delusion will get you, after all.)
It’s… kind of awesome, though, that even knowing that, Stannis is trying to save the world anyway, isn’t it. Huh.
(Also, I chortled that Stannis said right to Slynt’s face that he was a dishonest incompetent dickwad. I have many issues with Stannis, but sometimes you really have to love him.)
“We’ll defend the Wall to the last man,” said Cotter Pyke.
“Probably me,” said Dolorous Edd, in a resigned tone.
Ah, Dolorous Edd, how you make me LOL. Never change.
Chapter 79: Jon
Jon spars with Iron Emmett, wrestling internally with Stannis’s offer, and flashes back to play fighting with Robb at Winterfell, and how Robb had told him he couldn’t pretend to be Lord of Winterfell even though he could pretend to be any other legendary hero, and beats Emmett almost to a pulp without realizing it. He apologizes and retreats to the armory, and thinks of Lady Catelyn, and how she had always looked at him as if he did not belong there, and imagines that the stone kings and the weirwood are saying the same to him. He thinks that Winterfell belongs to the old gods, and he cannot tear up the grove as Stannis commands.
He overhears Bowen Marsh and Alliser Thorne making the pitch for Slynt to Othell Yarwyck, insinuating that Tywin Lannister will surely defeat Stannis in the end anyway; they see Jon and stop, but Jon tells them coldly to go on with their plotting, and leaves. He wanders through the passage in the Wall to the other side, and considers what it will mean for him if Slynt is elected. He thinks that the choice seems easy in that light, and thinks of having a son of his own, of fostering Mance and Gilly’s sons with him. He admits to himself that he has always wanted Winterfell, deep down. Then he realizes he is sensing Ghost’s presence, and leaps up to greet the wolf joyfully. He looks at Ghost’s white and red-eyed coloring, like the weirwood, and thinks that Ghost belongs to the old gods, and realizes he has his answer.
He goes back to the castle and to the dining hall, where a furious debate is in progress. Pyp sees Jon and whistles shrilly, silencing the hall, and they watch him and Ghost enter silently. Thorne finally remarks that “the turncoat returns,” and Slynt begins shouting about beasts and wargs and the creature that killed Halfhand. Jon asks what is going on, and Aemon replies that his name has been put forth as Lord Commander. Jon grins, thinking it a joke, and asks by whom.
It was Dolorous Edd Tollett who stood. “By me. Aye, it’s a terrible cruel thing to do to a friend, but better you than me.”
Slynt begins sputtering that they should be hanging Jon, not electing him Lord Commander, but Pyke and Mallister shout him down, and the hall erupts in arguing again, until Thorne leaps up and demands that Othell Yarwyck be allowed to speak. Othell rises and says he is withdrawing from the race, and that he was going to say that those who supported him should vote for Slynt, but now he thinks maybe Snow would be a better choice. Slynt and Thorne look apoplectic, and a call goes up for a vote. When the kettle for containing the ballots is opened, Lord Mormont’s raven flies out of it, and lands on Jon’s shoulder, croaking, “Snow, Snow, Snow.”
After that, the vote is a landslide for Jon, and he is surrounded by well-wishers. Pyke threatens to “rip his liver out and eat it” if he messes up, and Mallister asks him not to make Mallister regret that now his time will never come to lead the Watch. Jon feels as if he is in a dream until Pyp and Grenn tell him it was Sam’s doing, though Sam insists he had nothing to do with the raven. Jon calls them “mad fools.”
“Us?” said Pyp. “You call us fools? We’re not the ones who got chosen as the nine-hundredth-and-ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. You best have some wine, Lord Jon. I think you’re going to need a lot of wine.”
So Jon Snow took the wineskin from his hand and had a swallow. But only one. The Wall was his, the night was dark, and he had a king to face.
Oh, wow, that is awesome. SUCK IT, Slynt and Thorne, because you got SERVED. Ahahahaha hee hee I dance around in schaedenfreudical glee. How you like Jon Snow NOW, beeches? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT. EVERYBODY SAY YEAH, YEAH!
Ahhh, that was nice. I was so terrified most of the way through this chapter that Jon was going to take Stannis’s offer, which was just the worst idea for any number of reasons, so this was a truly gratifying payoff. Jon is Lord Commander! Which is probably going to be a terrible job Real Soon Now! But it is awesome anyway!
Also, DOLOROUS EDD IS MY FAVORITE. I always said it! You saw it here first!
Also also, GHOST IS BACK OMG FINALLY YAY BUT WHAT THE HELL. Seriously, where has he been all this time? Are we ever going to find out? I hope so!
Though I guess now we will have to conclude that one of Ghost’s warging superpowers is awesome dramatic timing, because I have a mental image of Jon strolling into that hall with this giant-ass scary ethereal-looking direwolf, that probably all the other guys had forgotten about by now, with him, and yeah, even if I wasn’t his number one fangirl I’d probably vote for him then too. As Eddie Izzard once observed, when it comes to politics, it’s 70% about how you look, 20% how you sound, and only 10% is about what you say. And as looks go, having a giant direwolf at your side and a Poe-esquely portentous raven on your shoulder is… pretty damn impressive.
The raven thing is such classic ASOIAF, too, because it was clearly the tipping point to getting Jon elected, and yet we will never really know whether it was the magical portentous omen everyone took it to be, or just a fantastic coincidence. Which, certain unmistakably magical elements aside, tends to be how Martin rolls when it comes to the “fantasy” part of his epic fantasy. It has not escaped my notice how often those “ambiguously magical” magical moments tend to be concerned with fate and/or destiny, and the dispensation thereof.
As a literary device, I kind of tend to like it, personally, even when I’m annoyed by it. I get the impression that some people feel like it caters to the “literary” crowd, who as a general rule vastly prefer their “magical” moments to be able to be safely slotted into the allegorical/symbolic/metaphorical category, instead of the “no, this is magic magic, suck it up” route your average fantasy ghetto series generally takes, but in a weird way I feel like maintaining that ambiguity actually makes this kind of thing more powerful than if you knew for sure it was of supernatural origin.
Faith, after all, (which is strongly tied up with that whole fate/destiny thing) depends not on confirmation of a belief, but on the affirmation of that belief despite the lack of evidence for it. Confirmation, in fact, is generally not wanted, because not needing concrete evidence for a belief is actually pretty much the entire point of the exercise. This is a thing I tend to find incredibly problematic in real life, but rather adore in fiction, which probably makes me either inherently contrary or inadvertently hypocritical, but there you go.
I have layers, okay? I don’t always have to make sense! So there, nyah!
With her deep blue eyes and hard cold mouth, [Lady Catelyn] looked a bit like Stannis. Iron, he thought, but brittle.
I found this observation of Jon’s to be… startling. Because I find the “brittle iron” descriptor to be marvelously apropos when it comes to Stannis, but it had never once occurred to me to apply it to Catelyn. Jon’s view of her is, unavoidably, rather prejudiced—and quite understandably so, since I’m pretty sure very few people could manage to maintain an objective view of someone who blatantly hates them—but even so, I kind of feel like this assessment of her is unfair.
Don’t get me wrong, I will certainly admit that Catelyn had issues, and in fact her treatment of Jon was probably my single biggest sticking point with her. But calling her “brittle,” in the same way Stannis is, just seems wrong to me. She was rigid on some things (i.e. Jon), and she made a number of debatably bad calls over the course of the series, but she also had the ability to adapt to her circumstances in a way that I think Stannis never could have.
Partially this is just sheer circumstance of gender, because women in heavily patriarchal societies are expected (and forced) to bend and adapt to circumstances beyond their control in ways men never are (the entire merry-go-round of her marriage to Brandon-oops-no-wait-Eddard Stark being a prime example), but it goes beyond that, in my opinion. With regards to her interactions with Brienne, Tyrion, and Jaime in particular, Catelyn displayed an ability to think outside the box (for better or for worse) that I rather doubt Stannis would be capable of.
Problematic? Yes? Brittle? No. Not in my book. Though I suppose one could make an argument about whether her crushing grief over the loss of her family wouldn’t have gotten her there eventually. But I guess we’ll NEVER KNOW, WILL WE.
But anyway, Jon Snow is now Head Brother in Charge and that is stupid awesome. I am officially Pleased—at least until I find out why it totally sucks, of course. But UNTIL THEN I WILL BASK. Nyah!
And that’s my spiel, lemon peel! Have a week, and we polish off this puppy next Thursday!