August 12, 2011

The King's Prize

Asha Greyjoy
Stannis' host is marching towards Winterfell. Asha is its captive, bound in chains atop a cart. They have to cover 300 miles to Winterfell, which they should be able to do in 15 days as the raven flies. While she remembers the boasting of some warriors about doing it in ten days, she muses about Stannis' relationship to women, concluding that he is uncomfortable with every one of them, but especially with warrior maidens, and that he seems to regard them as members of another race. On the journey, she overhears a strategy debate of some knights being certain that if they bloodied Bolton, the northmen would go over to them since they hate the Dreadfort lord. Interestingly, Arya has a suitor, Ser Justin, who wants to marry her to get to the throne of the Iron Islands.

In the beginning, the host is making good pace, lighting nightfires every evening to pray to R'hollor. These prayers are led mostly by Ser Godry, the "Giantslayer". Her guard is Alysane Mormont, the She-Bear, who tells her of her children and the hard life on Bear Isle, made harder still by the reavers from the Iron Islands. When she is brought before the king once, Asha pleads to him to release her of the chains and to make her one his men, promising him to sway Dagmer Cleftjaw and thereby bring Torrhen's Square to his cause, but Stannis dismisses it, stating that Torrhen's Square is worthless and shunning her for mentioning Robert.

Later, snow begins to fall. It soon becomes a major snow storm, slowing the host down to a single mile per day at the end. The baggage train falls behind, men and horses die by the wayside, talk of sarcrifice for R'hollor to end the storm comes up, and after 15 days of storm they covered less than half the distance to Winterfell and lost all provisions.

In the king's tent at that evening, the clansmen laugh at the Stormlanders about their problems with the snow, saying that they should leave the weak, press to Winterfell and die. A knight, Ser Corliss, accuses the clansmen of being in league with Bolton for killing them with false advice of attacking Winterfell, but the Wull replies that in war, people die, and that it always has been that way, and that he is old and wants to die fighting, and if he does, it should be a good cause like rescueing "Ned's girl". The other clansmen then clamour "Blood and Battle!". When everyone wakes up the next day, they can't move anymore: the camp it totally snowed in, and their supplies are at zero.

This is a rich chapter before us. The character of Stannis is once again shown in detail, the mentality and character of the North is layed out and of course we get some developments within Stannis' heterogenous army. And, above all, snow. The snow prevails in this chapter, threatening to swallow the whole host and to freeze it totally. The looming doom is visible from the first lines onward, when the knights of summer quip about reaching Winterfell in 15 days. You read the line and you know they won't. When the trouble starts, we can see how the southrons are getting the worst of the North, and how ill-equipped they are to deal with it.

Stannis gets only harder with that experience. He is determined to reach Winterfell and stakes everything he has on that aim. If his march fails, so does he. He is not the strong-willed man only driven by his objective, however. When Asha approaches him, and before in her talks with Alysane Mormont, we can see that his judgement is clouded by the sex of women. He treats them badly and doesn't see their value, only grudgingly accepting them in his army. He could make much better use if he took them seriously. It speaks for him, thouh, that he doesn't give in to the quick demands for human sacrifice.

Within his army, we can see a startling development. When they left Dragonstone, they were the hard core of believers, fanatics in worshipping either the person of Stannis Baratheon or the fiery god R'hollor and his promise. Now, half of the army consists of the unruly hill tribes, clinging to their belief to the Old Gods, utterly different from the Stormlanders and people from the Reach that ventured north in the first place. It remains to be seen if this army can hold it together, but they make for very unlikely companions. A thing holding them together is the belief that Stannis is a hero, binding the host together like in the stories of old, evidenced by him bearing Lightbringer.

It is interesting to see in this chapter how Martin paints out the mentality of the North. We see the hill tribes this time, hard men, banging their cups on the table toasting the prospect of fighting a futile battle instead of whithering another winter. Their readyness to kill and die is another bit of proof that the North is inherently barbaric. Let the weak die, the Wull says, they don't make it to the battle field anyway. That is harsh, brutal and uncivilized, and Ser Corliss is taken aback rightfully. You can't imagine such a comment from Eddard Stark, but these are the people he ruled. The dark side of the North becomes visible here once again. Because of this, the sentiment of the hill tribes, their "blood and battle" and readyness to die for "Ned's girl" is certainly not "cool" or something like that. These people are brutal savages, and they ended up on the "right side" just by coincedence.

As to side notes, it is interesting to see what a legend Robert in his early warrior days has become at least among the Stormlanders. It's a much better one than the one of the fat king we so deliberately saw in the first novels. Second, Asha Greyjoy remembers a lesson from her father that kneeling to a superior enemy isn't bad, since then you can rise again later with sword in hand and kill him. That provides us with additional insight in the mentality of the Ironborn, who are just as barbaric as the North is. You can't make peace with Pyke, you can just hold them down for a while. A bleak prospect indeed. Third, Theon's fate is also very unlikely to be good. Asha observes how they hate the Ironborn and harbors no illusions about how they will react should they ever get their hands on the "turncloak".

8 comments:

  1. "You can't imagine such a comment from Eddard Stark, but these are the people he ruled."

    I agree with the sentiment, Ned would never have left men behind because he was a good leader, and he wouldn't have allowed this attitude to prevail if it could be avoided. However, I don't think Ned was ignorant of the natures of the people he ruled. The North is a harsh place, and I have a feeling that, if he had to, he would allow the weak to be left behind and press on to do his duty. There's no middle ground in the North once winter comes.

    I was very intrigued by Asha's observations not only of Stannis, but also of the men he brought with him, and the natives. I was a tad surprised to learn that she'd not suffered a winter like the North sees, but then I remembered that the Iron Islands aren't in the same weather sphere that Winterfell is. Ouch!

    A beautiful chapter, as you said!

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  2. Yeah, Ned wasn't ignorant by any means. He knew his northeners, and it was clear that he wouldn't suffer rebellion. Even Eddard was a hard man in a way, but not like these. There is a line between hard and savage, and Eddard is one of the few on the sane side of the line.

    Regarding the winter, it really seems to be harsh. As in very, very harsh. And it has only yet begun.

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  3. See, while they are "savages", I liked the comparison between Ned's people and Tywin's people.

    Tywin spends his whole life working towards making a legacy for his family that will last for generations. He's cutthroat and utilitarian, relying heavily on ye olde realpolitik. In the end, his actions (some would call them dishonorable, though I have to agree with his RW support as much as they hurt me as a Stark fan) lead to "winning" the war, with his house seemingly in the most powerful position in Westeros.

    And now, with Tywin dead, what happens? His empire is rapidly crumbling. Davos is able to survive purely because the people don't expect the Lannisters to win with Tywin dead. Dorne is ready to revolt. The Tyrells are ready to seize power. The Faith seizes Cersei and becomes a major political force. Littlefinger is practically prancing around in happiness with how quickly the Lannisters are collapsing.

    Tywin Lannister died, and his lifelong work died with him. "Loyalty" only lasted as long as he was in power.

    Meanwhile, up in the North, Ned Stark who we all bemoaned for his honorable and merciful nature and how that has doomed his Stark, has people going on a forced march through snow without food to go into a hopeless battle just to save "the Ned"'s daughter. And we see the Boltons support crumbling as the Northerners love the Starks and hating the Boltons, with Manderley clearly not the only one who is just waiting for a chance to return to the true Lords of Winterfell.

    After 4 books of Martin pooping on the Starks, I liked seeing that.

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  4. Oh, most definitely. The loyalty they have is great, but that doesn't change that they can do gruesome things.

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  5. Too true, My friend! Still, it warmed me heart amidst all that snow and ice!

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  6. On Stannis, have you ever seen a more pig headed individual. I know his hopes are hanging on Winterfell's march, but he's going beyond reason here, IMHO! There comes a point where you have to delay and discuss new strategy, and he seems to refuse this in favor of single mindedly sticking to his planned march. DUMB!

    His refusal of Asha's loyalty is typical, but I'd have thought he'd see the merits in bringing her to his side. Is he so anti-woman that he'll toss aside good sense and strategy in favor of keeping his distance?

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  7. Ned was too good of a leader to take "waste of space" fools into battle, if they wouldn't make it.

    But if Robert had taken the men, with Ned at his side? Ned'd say leave 'em.

    Barbaric? Yes! But not brutal, not by any means (these are not the folks who beat their children to death. these are not the folks that abandon children to die in the forest -- though they die just the same. And though they bear a grudge, it is a large grudge. Not MeAndMineAlone. They are not the Borderlanders, not by a long stretch.).

    These are modeled after the Nordic folk, just as much as the Greyjoys are. To die in battle is what a hero does -- at least to the Norse way of thinking.

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  8. I think Stannis might be gay. Some misogynists are, but are so intent on their manliness, they don't face being gay and just despise women instead.

    I really hope Martin comes out with Winds of Winter soon! At least by early 2013. The cliffhangers in adwd are way more intense than those in AFFC.

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