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 14 of A Feast for Crows, in which we cover Chapter 20 (“Brienne”).
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 20: Brienne
As they travel, Dick Crabb tries to convince Brienne he is trustworthy, but Brienne instructs Podrick to watch him, and is proved right when she catches him searching through her bags; she hopes he is a better guide than he is a thief. He tells them stories of the lords of Crackclaw Point, who he says were all loyal to the Targaryens, and is unimpressed by Brienne’s stories from her region. He is irritated by her continuing lack of trust for him, and Brienne thinks of how she once believed that all men were as noble as her father, but was soon disabused of that notion. She remembers her “suitors” at Harrenhal, and how she had sought them out at the Bitterbridge tourney and trounced them all.
As they go further north, Dick warns Brienne of “squishers”, scaly fish monsters who steal bad children at night. Brienne doesn’t believe a word of it. She wishes Jaime were with her, but knows his place is with the king. She thinks of how she had sworn to protect both Renly and Lady Catelyn, and failed them both.
They climb a cliff up to the Dyre’s Den, and Podrick points out a rider following them; Dick swears he has nothing to do with whoever it is. They reach the top, and Dick urges them to ride on before Lord Brune gets suspicious of their presence. Brienne is uneasy about the rider at their rear, but agrees. They enter a boggy pine forest which unnerves all of them; Podrick opines that it is “a bad place”, but Brienne tells him there is nothing to worry about. She frets privately that Dick is luring them somewhere to murder them, but determines to carry on for lack of any better option. She remembers how her old master-at-arms had worried that she was too soft to kill when necessary, and promises herself that she will not flinch from it.
They reach the ruins of The Whispers. Dick becomes nervous that the fool will be angry at him that he lied about smugglers still coming there, but Brienne says the gold she’ll give him will be more than enough to placate him—if he is even there. They find signs that someone has been to the ruins recently, and Brienne doubts that Sansa and Dontos were ever here, but thinks someone else was, and she must check to be sure. She gives Crabb her ordinary sword, to his surprise, before they enter the castle, and takes Oathkeeper out for herself.
They enter the ruins, leaving Podrick behind to guard the horses, but instead of Dontos and Sansa, they find Pyg, Shagwell, and Timeon, from Vargo Hoat’s crew. Shagwell kills Crabb, and cheerfully threatens to rape Brienne. Timeon tells Brienne she pretty much doomed Vargo with the bite to his ear, and how Gregor Clegane finally killed him. Brienne blurts that she is looking for a daughter of Lord Stark, and Timeon tells her Sandor Clegane has her, and went toward Riverrun.
Then they attack, and Brienne swiftly kills Pyg. Timeon and Shagwell are about to flank her when a stone come out of nowhere and hits Shagwell; Brienne seizes the opportunity and kills Timeon. Podrick hits Shagwell with another rock and shouts to Brienne that he can fight, see? Shagwell tries to plead for mercy, saying he is too funny to die, and Brienne makes him dig a grave for Crabb. He tries to attack her as she buries Crabb, and Brienne pulls out her dagger.
She knocked aside his arm and punched the steel into his bowels. “Laugh,” she snarled at him. He moaned instead. “Laugh,” she repeated, grabbing his throat with one hand and stabbing at his belly with the other.
“Laugh!” She kept saying it, over and over, until her hand was red up to the wrist and the stink of the fool’s dying was like to choke her. But Shagwell never laughed. The sobs that Brienne heard were all her own. When she realized that, she threw down her knife and shuddered.
Hyle Hunt appears as they are burying Crabb, and says Lord Randyll bid him to follow her in case she came upon Sansa Stark. He asks what she will do, and she decides she will find the Hound and see if he has Sansa. Hyle helps her bury Nimble Dick.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, about heroines vs. heroes and whether the divide between the two needs to be as big as it seems to be, and I’m still fairly conflicted about the entire question.
Because functionally, Brienne is no different from any hero on a quest we’ve ever read about: she is an honorable warrior, she has a person to rescue (a damsel in distress, even), she encounters obstacles to that objective and overcomes them (at least so far), she has crises of conscience/worries of worthiness along the way. On a bare-bones level, her story arc is no different from any similar hero you might come across in the fantasy genre, or even outside of it.
And yet it is not similar at all, because she is a woman in a society that does not recognize her right to be “a hero”, and so she deals with that obstacle on top of all the other obstacles a male hero would expect to occur. Because, I’m pretty sure that a male knight on a quest wouldn’t have to deal with literally every opponent he comes across threatening to rape him as well as kill him. Not in your average fantasy literature, anyway.
Which is interesting, because you know, technically there is no reason why a man can’t get raped by another man just as easily as a woman can be, and there is quite a bit of evidence that (especially in the absence of any women being available) that is something that is more likely than not to actually occur, and yet that is the kind of thing that we rarely or never see happen in the stories we get told, in books or in movies or on TV.
And at some point, you know, as long as we’re doing the gritty realism thing (which Martin certainly seems to be striving for, within the “epic fantasy” box, of course), I have to begin to wonder how much of that dichotomy is “realism”, and how much of it is just conforming to gendered expectations, and an instinctive aversion to applying the threat of rape across the board. Because (disgustingly enough) we are conditioned as a culture to expect that the threat of rape is an ever-present (and therefore disturbingly normal) one to women, but the idea of raping men is still either completely taboo, or so far beyond the pale that it is only presented as a possibility in the most extreme of conditions, and not something that really happens otherwise.
And I am… not convinced that that is an accurate portrayal of how things were, back in the day. Or even how things are, in the here and now. It has too often turned out to be that the things which are not talked about at all are the things that are the most pervasive (and horrifying) demons of our society, until they are forcibly brought to light, and I have always had a sneaking suspicion that this particular issue is one of them.
My point being, in reference to Brienne, is that I am starting to have conflicted feelings about the way her story is portrayed. On the one hand, I applaud that it is bringing such things to light about what it would be to be a female hero in a world that doesn’t acknowledge such a thing is possible. But on the other, I begin to have a certain irritation that the only aspect of her story anyone seems to dwell on (including Brienne herself) is the fact of her femaleness, and the automatic and ever-present sexualization of that fact.
I don’t know. It is a dilemma, because on the one hand, yes, that is a thing and it must be acknowledged, but on the other, does it always have to be this acknowledged? Does literally every opponent Brienne meets have to threaten or actually attempt to rape her? At what point does it stop being about “realism” and start being about… well, fetishization?
I’m not sure. But I do think it is something to consider.
In less meta news, whoops, it seems like Brienne is now accidentally on Arya’s trail instead of Sansa’s! I’m… not actually upset by this, because even though Sansa probably could use more rescuing as a general thing than Arya does, the idea of Brienne and Arya getting together and sharing Warrior Women Tips with each other is totally squee-worthy material as far as I am concerned.
Of course, Arya isn’t even on the continent anymore, and tracking her is probably going to be even more difficult than tracking Sansa, so it’s perfectly possible that my pipe dream of Arya and Brienne being besties is, well, a pipe dream, but hey, I can have wild fantasies if I want to, okay! HATERS TO THE LEFT. Thbbt!
“Squishers”: totally not real. Unless they are, in which case I’ll say wow I totally knew they were real, go me. Okay, not really. But I could have!
Just as an FYI, pine forests are totally ten times creepier than regular forests. I personally think it’s something to do with the pine needles, and how the dead ones completely carpet the ground, all springy and deep, and they muffle all the sounds, even your own footsteps, so that it kind of feels like you aren’t even there. Maybe you were never there. Maybe you NEVER EXISTED, and you’ll never find your way out of this pine forest because you’re NOT REAL.
Or, you know. Something like that. This is totally not based on that time I got lost in a pine forest in Mississippi as a child and got kind of hysterical about it before I was finally found. Nope, not at all.
Am I to understand, by the way, that this is the first time Brienne has actually killed someone? I don’t think that that’s right, but given the way she reacted to it, it sort of seems like it is. Either way, though, I certainly hope she doesn’t bother to grieve over killing those three.
And that’s what I got for now, kids! Have a weekend, and I’ll see you next Thursday!