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 2 of A Game of Thrones, in which we cover Chapters 2 (“Catelyn”) and 3 (“Daenerys”). Technically these chapters aren’t numbered, at least not in the copy of the book I have, but I’m numbering them my damn self anyway for at least marginally easier tracking purposes.
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.
As a note, “non-spoiler” really means “NON-spoiler.” “Hints of future events,” just so you know, also count as spoilers.
And now, the post!
Chapter 2: Catelyn
Catelyn Stark, née Catelyn Tully of Riverrun, goes to Winterfell’s godswood to find her husband; she knows he always goes there after he takes a man’s life. She finds the godswood of Winterfell very dark and unsettling compared to the sunny one she’d known at home; unlike her own family, the Starks keep faith with the old gods. She finds Ned polishing his sword Ice under the weirwood tree at the heart of the grove. He asks after the children, and Catelyn tells him they are fighting over what to name the pups; Ned is upset to hear that the youngest, Rickon, is a little scared, and comments that Bran did well at the execution. He goes on that this is the fourth desertion from the Watch they’d had this year, and there have been deaths in the ranks as well. He thinks he may have to gather arms soon and deal with the bandit king Mance Rayder himself. Alarmed, Catelyn answers that there are worse things beyond the Wall, but Ned thinks the Others are long extinct, if they ever existed in the first place.
Catelyn has sad news for him; Jon Arryn is dead. She knows Ned regarded him as a second father, especially after Arryn had revolted against Mad King Aerys II Targaryen rather than give Ned (and his other foster son, Robert Baratheon) up for execution, and they were brothers-in-law as well (Arryn was married to Catelyn’s sister Lysa). Saddened by the news, Ned urges Catelyn to take the children to Lysa to cheer her, but Catelyn tells him she cannot; the king is coming to Winterfell. Ned is pleased to hear Robert is coming, but less so that he will be accompanied by his wife Cersei and her brothers, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock; Ned has not forgiven them for only throwing in on Robert’s side once victory was all but assured. Catelyn cautions him to watch his tongue around Cersei, but Ned only begins planning how to welcome the king.
Good Lord, what an infodump.
I suppose that’s somewhat inevitable at this early stage, especially since it’s completely obvious already that Martin has an extreme case of MY TANGLED WEB OF CAST OF THOUSANDS, LET ME SHOW YOU IT. I expect that eventually I’ll learn all these names and relationships, but right now it’s all kind of leaving me blinking. I will say that having to actually summarize these chapters, instead of just read them, helps with the learning curve quite a bit.
Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.
First of all, lovely prose. And, a nice bit of worldbuilding as well as cast-building here, too. I’m unclear, at this point, on whether the gods in Martin’s world are “real” or not, or if they are the “interfering in world events” type even if they are real. Others and direwolves notwithstanding, I get the sense that Martin’s fantasy takes something of a minimalist approach to the actual fantastical elements in it, so maybe not.
Speaking of which, so Ned doesn’t think the Others exist, eh? I’m sure this will not come back to bite him in the ass at all. Nosirree.
Also, “Ned”? From “Eddard”? Why not, you know, “Ed”? Because it would sound sillier? Of course, I don’t know how we all got to “Bill” from “William” either, so maybe I shouldn’t expect made-up nicknames to make logical sense either.
Chapter 3: Daenerys
Dany’s brother Viserys shows her the gown their host Magister Illyrio has given her, and Dany asks why Illyrio is so generous to them. Viserys answers that Illyrio knows he will not forget his friends once Viserys comes to his throne. Dany doesn’t trust Illyrio, but knows better than to say this to Viserys. Viserys cruelly warns her of the consequences should she fail with the Dothraki horselord, Khal Drogo, tonight, and leaves. Dany thinks of the land across the sea that her brother claimed had been stolen from them, which she had never seen; she had not yet been born when the remaining Targaryens had fled the Usurper. Her mother had died giving birth to her (which Viserys had never forgiven), and they had wandered all over since their last protector died to keep ahead of the Usurper’s assassins, according to Viserys. Her brother talked much of how they would have their inheritance back one day, but Dany would rather just have a home.
Servants enter and bathe and dress Dany richly, talking of Khal Drogo’s wealth and power, and Dany thinks of how she is being sold to a stranger. Illyrio and Viserys enter; Viserys is uncertain of whether she is too young for the khal (thirteen), but Illyrio reassures him. On the carriage ride to Drogo’s manse, Viserys plots how he will overthrow his enemies with the Drogo’s khalasar (army), while Illyrio encourages him with talk of how he has the support of the peasantry in the Seven Kingdoms. Dany is suspicious of Illyrio’s sincerity, but Viserys eats it up. At the manse, he is announced as a king and Dany as the princess of Dragonstone, and once inside Dany realizes fearfully that she is the only woman there. Her attention is caught by a guest Illyrio tells her is Ser Jorah Mormont, who was banished from the Seven Kingdoms for trafficking in slavery; Viserys comments he will want to talk with Mormont later. Illyrio then points out Drogo to Dany, and goes over to make introductions; Viserys points out how long Drogo’s braid is, indicating that he has never been defeated in battle. Terrified, Dany blurts that she doesn’t want to be his queen, which infuriates Viserys; he tells her she will do whatever is necessary to get him his army. Then he makes her smile as Khal Drogo approaches.
There are generally two ways, in my experience, that works of speculative fiction tend to deal with the question of the status of women in the imaginary societies they set up. This is something that is a particular concern for epic fantasy, as it is more often than not set in approximations of historical periods in the real world which were, shall we say, not banner eras for women’s rights. Both approaches have their good points as well as their criticisms.
The first way is to bypass the problem by “fixing” it, i.e. rejiggering the fictional society so that the problem doesn’t exist (or barely exists) in the first place. (A few authors, like Robert Jordan, take this approach to its logical extreme, by flipping the situation around so that the shoe is on the other foot entirely.) This approach can be praise-worthy in that its point is often to show how societies in which women are held in equal esteem with men are both viable and preferable to those which do not. However, “fixing” the problem of sexism also runs the risk of being seen as an attempt to silence or sidestep the issue, rather than correct it.
Martin, by contrast, has clearly decided to go the second way.
[Visery’s] fingers brushed lightly over her budding breasts and tightened on a nipple. “You will not fail me tonight. If you do, it will go hard for you. You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?” His fingers twisted her, the pinch cruelly hard through the rough fabric of her tunic. “Do you?” he repeated.
“With Khal Drogo’s army, that is how we go home. And if you must wed him and bed him for that, you will.” He smiled at her. “I’d let his whole khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army.”
Martin’s approach—which is to say, more or less shoving the reader’s face directly into just how deeply shitty life could be for a woman in any remotely historically accurate representation of a medieval-ish society—is very effective in terms of shock value… as long as that shock value is properly perceived. And as long as that’s what the author intends it to convey. The risk, obviously, is that of presenting the situation not as deplorable but as inevitable—or, at best, as deplorable and inevitable. And obviously, I would have a few issues with the latter interpretation.
The worst, of course, would be if it were being used solely for the shock/titillation factor and no other reason. My instinct is to say that’s not the case here, but I’ve been wrong before. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, because unlike with the Wheel of Time, I don’t really have a sense yet of Martin’s intentions regarding his female characters. Dany is practically the archetype of a victimized woman here, but generally speaking I’m only going to have a problem with that if that’s all she ever turns out to be. So time will tell, I suppose.
And then there’s this:
She had always assumed that she would wed Viserys when she came of age. For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sisters to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, the blood of the dragon. Dragons did not mate with the beasts of the field, and Targaryens did not mingle their blood with that of lesser men.
Other than the heartfelt response of “ICK” I have here, I do have to note that this is also very historically accurate, judging by what I know of dynastic practices throughout history. The Egyptian pharaohs, for instance, were famous for their incest, and for much the same reasons, as long as you equate “blood of the dragon” to “blood of the gods.” So… there’s that, I guess. I’m not sure it makes anything better, though.
Also, I don’t know how much truth there is to the whole “incest causes congenital insanity and/or brain damage” trope, but Martin certainly seems to be running with it, seeing as Ned and Catelyn think of Dany and Viserys’s father as “Mad King Aerys,” and Viserys himself seems to be a bloody idiot in addition to all his other charming personality traits. Then again, it’s not like stupidity is reserved for victims of inbreeding only, and Dany is clearly plenty intelligent, so take it for what it’s worth.
It’s interesting that we’re getting this political drama from both sides of the conflict. At the moment I’m much more inclined to trust the Stark viewpoint on it, but Dany obviously has my strong sympathy as a character, so we’ll see how it all plays out.
And that’s it for now, kids! Enjoy your weekend, and I’ll see you with the next installment on Friday!