A Read of Ice and Fire

A Read of Ice and Fire: A Feast for Crows, Part 25

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 24 of A Feast for Crows, in which we cover Chapter 35 (“Samwell”).

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 35: Samwell

What Happens
On board the Cinnamon Wind, Sam performs funeral rites for Maester Aemon, eulogizing his wisdom and heroism, and weeps when he is done. After, Xhondo and the crew honor Aemon in their tradition, which is to “drink his life,” and celebrate him with a party. Sam mourns that they were not able to get Aemon to Oldtown in time for the healers there to save him. He remembers how Xhondo’s talk of dragons in Braavos had seemed to revitalize Aemon, who excitedly made plans to find Daenerys and advise her. Sam had given everything he had except the clothes on his back and the broken horn Jon had given him to get passage on the ship, but the stormy voyage was too much for Aemon, whose health deteriorated quickly.

He remembers how Aemon charged Sam with convincing the archmaesters at the Citadel of the dire conditions at the Wall. He’d spoken of how Melisandre had misread the signs about Stannis, and how Daenerys is their true hope. He said she must be sent a maester to advise her, and lamented bitterly that he learned about her too late to go to her himself. Sam tells Gilly that Aemon should never have left Castle Black, but Gilly points out that the red woman would have likely burned him for his king’s blood if he’d stayed, same as Dalla’s child that Gilly now cares for. She suggests naming the child Aemon Battleborn in his honor, and Sam agrees.

Kojja Mo, the captain’s daughter and commander of the archers, adores the child and has him for the evening. Sam and Gilly get drunk on the rum being served, and when he walks her back to the cabin, Gilly kisses him. Sam tries to tell himself he cannot do this, but quickly succumbs and they make love. She tells him she is his wife now, and though he thinks it can’t be, he says yes. After, he curses himself for breaking his vows, and considers jumping into the sea, but falls asleep instead.

Sam is miserable and hungover the next day, working with the crew to earn their passage, and avoids Gilly until Xhondo drags him to see Kojja, who threatens to throw him into the sea unless he goes to see Gilly. She makes a speech declaring that love is a natural and good thing, and that the Westerosi gods are demons if they condone shaming love. Sam protests that he took a vow, and Kojja tells him that Gilly knows she cannot keep Sam, but he is all she has for now, and again insists he go to her.

He went to Gilly. “What we did… if I could take a wife, I would sooner have you than any princess or highborn maiden, but I can’t. I am still a crow. I said the words, Gilly. I went with Jon into the woods and said the words before a heart tree.”

“The trees watch over us,” Gilly whispered, brushing the tears from his cheeks. “In the forest, they see all… but there are no trees here. Only water, Sam. Only water.”

Aw, Sam. And aw, Aemon.

This was a very sad chapter. And a very problematic one, but I’ll get to the latter in a moment.

I won’t lie, I got genuinely choked up at Sam’s eulogy for Aemon, but even more so at the depiction of Aemon’s regrets re: Dany. How terrible to discover what you’ve been looking for your whole life, just a little too late. Not exactly a fulfilling end. Granted, it’s a rare person indeed who comes to the end of his or her life without at least some regrets, but this one is a bit more acute than most, I think.

I left this bit out of the summary, but it is very interesting that the Baratheons are Targaryens by Salic descent; I don’t think we’ve been told that before. And Egg’s direct descendants, too. I sort of doubt he’d have been proud to know that his daughter’s descendants were responsible for massacring his son’s descendants and plunging the entire continent into a bloody civil war. Assuming, of course, that the agnatic line wasn’t broken between Egg and Aerys, which I’m not sure is the case, but it was only like three generations so it seems reasonable to suppose. (For the sake of sanity I am ignoring the ritualized incest thing, because it seems that Rhaelle at least married outside the family, so those two lines of descent would be separate. I think.)

Well, nobody can fuck you up like family can fuck you up, I guess. Yay?

[Aemon] spoke of dreams and never named the dreamer, of a glass candle that could not be lit and eggs that would not hatch. He said the sphinx was the riddle, not the riddler, whatever that meant.

Crap, I know that this is referring to something I read earlier and I can’t for the life of me remember what it is.

As for Sam, it would be pretty easy (and tempting) for me to say that his vow of chastity is bullshit and no one in the Watch honors it anyway and he should just be happy with Gilly—and maybe I have said that in the past, about both him and Jon, I can’t remember—but I have to acknowledge my own personal biases on this score. I do rather think that vows of chastity are unnecessary at best and actively counterproductive at worst—but at the same time, it behooves me to acknowledge that advocating sexual freedom also includes advocating for the right of people not to have sex, if that is the path they freely choose.

Sam’s case is a little problematic on the “choosing freely” front (as, indeed, many of the Night Watch’s cases are, since “take the black or die” is hardly much of a choice), but technically, no one forced him to take that vow, and having taken it, it is a problem that he’s now violated it. And saying “everyone else is doing it” is a shitty and lame excuse, and we all know it.

But, well. ASOIAF does glory in its gray areas, and this is most definitely one of them. I can acknowledge that by the letter of the law what Sam did was wrong, while still feeling that on a more spiritual level (ironically), acting on his love for Gilly was right, and wishing he could stop beating himself up about it.

Sigh. But, given that “beating himself up about things” is pretty much Sam’s core character trait, I’m not holding my breath on that one. Especially since, unlike so many other things Sam berates himself for, this one actually is a fault of his own doing.

(Same goes for the flip side of the equation; I can acknowledge that Gilly was wrong to seduce him while still feeling total sympathy for why she did it.)

Very parenthetically, I get the feeling I was supposed to be shocked by the lactation kink thing, but yeah, I have been on the Internet way too long for that to be shocking. And besides, kink-shaming is also shitty and lame, and as these things go, this particular kink is actually pretty mild. So whatever with that.

The Cinnamon Wind was a swan ship out of Tall Trees Town on the Summer Isles, where men were black, women were wanton, and even the gods were strange.

Ho, boy. And now we reach the problematic portion of our program.

Okay, so. Whenever evaluating something a character says, does, or thinks about a thing—particularly when that character is doing/saying/thinking something highly questionable for whatever reason—it inevitably comes down to the question of authorial intent versus authorial bias. In other words, how much of that problematic thing the character is thinking is because the character thinks that, and how much of it is because the author thinks that?

Because, it’s ridiculous to suppose that an author is never going to write a character whose views or beliefs differ from his or her own, unless you have a hankering for some seriously crappy and monotone writing. Ergo, an author can have a character say deeply racist things, for instance, without it necessarily indicating that this is a viewpoint the author herself endorses. In fact, more often than not, the intent is to point out how very much not cool the author thinks that attitude or belief is.

This has been my general supposition with regard to Martin and his portrayal of the rampant misogyny endemic to most of his invented cultures in ASOIAF, for example. And I have been making that judgment based on a bunch of factors, but mostly on the fact that though his female characters are consistently demeaned and dehumanized by other characters, the text itself generally does neither of those things. The other characters may not see these women as real people, but they themselves do, and so, by inference, does the author.

That said, there have been points at which (in my opinion) his portrayal of that misogyny has crossed beyond the point of anti-sexist commentary and into a realm which verges uncomfortably close to fetishization. Or, at least, into using it as an excuse to be grim and edgy for the mere sake of grimness and edginess, which isn’t much better. Case in point would be the recent Reaver chapter, which as I’m sure you noticed I was less than complimentary about.

“I was afraid of her at first,” said Gilly. “She was so black, and her teeth were so big and white, I was afraid she was a beastling or a monster, but she’s not. She’s good. I like her.”

Therefore, believe it or not, this quote was not what made me uneasy about the portrayal of race in this chapter, because my evaluation of the author’s intent (obviously subjective, of course, but whatever, this is all subjective) is that Gilly’s statement was about establishing her character’s general ignorance and naïveté, and certainly not endorsement of the racism inherent in that ignorance.

But there is a racism issue in this chapter, and I’m calling it out because unlike Gilly’s blatantly ridiculous fears (and Sam’s equally ludicrous prejudices reflected in the quote I used earlier), it was endemic to the worldbuilding itself, and therefore I regard it as far more potentially problematic.

The culture of the Summer Islanders as presented in this chapter is, on the surface, seemingly a good thing. They are obviously far more egalitarian with regards to gender, for instance, than any other culture we’ve seen so far with the possible exception of Dorne, and they reflect what seems to be a marvelously enlightened and liberated attitude toward death and sex and life in general compared with what we’ve seen elsewhere.

All of which, to me, especially Kojja’s speech to Sam about the follies of his people’s ways, fell on the scale of Unintentionally Racist Tropes somewhere between Noble Savage and Magical Negro. There’s also something in here I can’t quite articulate about the perceived “barbaric” (and incidentally dark-skinned) society being so much more “free love” and “back to nature” and full of wisdom than those silly over-civilized white people, which has the same flavor of being intended as a compliment to that society but actually isn’t.

Those links explain what these concepts mean (and why they are problematic) fairly cogently, so while I normally warn y’all not to click on the timesuck vortex that is any given TV Tropes link, in this case you probably want to peruse them before commenting on my assertion here.

I am hesitant to expound more on this issue at this juncture, because I have at this point really only had the barest of introductions to the Summer Islander culture, and perhaps later on they get a fairer shake in being presented as flawed individuals rather than a monolithic collection of stereotypes. So maybe I am jumping the gun here. But nevertheless it was a thing that definitely jumped out at me when reading this chapter, and it’s subtle enough that maybe a lot of readers would not have noticed it (and, perhaps, is subtle enough that the author didn’t notice it, which is the problem) and so I point it out.

And that oughta be more than enough for you guys to chew on for this week, I reckon, so we’ll stop here. Be nice in the comments, and I’ll see you next Thursday!


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