(Index to previous A Dance with Dragons posts here.)
Apologies for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. It’s been crazy in Womblevonia. Plus, you know, supposing an average of 1,500 words per RAWR post, I had totted up around 33,000 words on this here behemoth, so I hope you’ll excuse the break. Anyway, onwards and upwards! The end is in sight – I want to see if we can reach it by the new year!
Chapter 45: The Blind Girl
It’s Aryaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I’m excited, I am. I have to admit, early on I had completely forgotten that Arya had gone to Braavos and been taken in by the House of Black and White (after killing someone?), but a friend reminded me, and it came back. As well as the fact that she’s blind now. Not that I really expected her to stay blind. Martin does like to kill off people we like, but he clearly had much left to do with Arya, and whilst I could believe that a blind assassin could still kill people, it seemed a bit of an odd step for the House of Black and White to take with her. And thus we see in this chapter that it is a part of her initiation, and she is repeatedly asked if she would like her eyes back. To which question she must say ‘no’, of course. She must become so used to being blind that ‘darkness is as sweet to [her] as light’.
I suppose that must be a useful skill for an assassin to have – to be able to move just as well in darkness as in light. But this is not all that Arya must do. She must obliterate her own sense of identity until she thinks of herself as ‘no one’. She went to Braavos to learn to kill. She has a specific list of people that she wants to kill, which she has been repeating as a mantra, and adding to as people commit unforgivable actions towards her and those she loves. Now, perversely, she must let go of her own selfish motivations for killing. The people at the House of Black and White only give out death that is asked for by others, not for their own wishes. They give good deaths to people who come to them suffering sickness or depression. They give deaths to bad people that others have asked them to kill. They never do it on their own behalves. Arya must therefore make herself a tool, not a person, and certainly not Arya Stark.
Which is all well and good, but Arya has a part of herself that she can never entirely let go of – a part that runs with the wolves at night. A part that can also see out of the eyes of a cat, if she wishes to. She uses this skill to correctly identify the person who has been delivering beatings to her in the darkness as the priest she thinks of as ‘the kindly man’. These beatings are meant to train and toughen her, of course. She reveals that she has worked out that it is him when she reports to him one day – as she does every day – three things she knows that day that she did not know before. That he is her tormentor is one of those things. And in return for this, she is rewarded by the restoration of her sight.
I liked this chapter. The harsh training of a young person is a stock fantasy coming-of-age thing. Jon had it, up at the Wall. I must have read it countless times in other stories – Alanna, in The Song of the Lionness, by Tamora Pierce, as she trains to be a knight; Fitz, as he trains to become an assassin, and as he learns to control the Skill in Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb; Leland, in Steven Gould’s Helm as he is toughened physically and mentally for the unexpected responsibilities his stealing of the ‘helm’ have thrust upon him – the whole ‘forging’ thing is important in explaining both where your hero’s skills have come from, and why they’re extra-humanly tough, as well as skilled. So this aspect was familiar and therefore not especially interesting, but it was fairly well done. What’s more interesting is the tension maintained between Arya’s (and our own) desire that she should succeed and become all that she can be, and equally her desire (and our own) that she avenge what has been done to her and her family, thus fulfilling the motivation that took her to Braavos in the first place.
It is precisely this motivation that she really ought to give up if she is to succeed. But we don’t want her to. I’m not in favour of violence. I’m not in favour of a child being raised to be a killer, or a person taking revenge by killing others, but there is a dramatic satisfaction that is required. Arya’s mantra – the listing of those she wants to kill – has reinforced this as a poetic justice that is demanded by the text. I’m caught in the rhythm of her anger and hatred and the injustices that have been done to her: ‘Ser Gregor… Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei‘. I can’t even remember what all of these people did, but I am caught up in the rhythm of her feelings. I want to see this through.
Which is a quandary, because I’m made of the same stubborn stuff that makes me not want her to quit, that makes me want her to prove that she has what it takes… even though what it takes in letting go of her anger. So the way that Martin has found around this is interesting – that she can keep a part of herself hidden away with her dire wolf – but it also feels a bit like cheating. And I can’t help but feel that this is going to come back to bite her somewhere down the line…
Chapter 46: A Ghost in Winterfell
The title of this chapter puzzles me. It doesn’t seem to refer to the point-of-view character, which is, as ever, Theon. Unless he’s really gone mad and this is a split personality disorder. Anyway, temperatures have been running high in Winterfell, and someone has started killing people – the ‘ghost’ of the title. Theon is briefly under suspicion, but it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that he doesn’t have it in him. Fights very nearly break out between the Manderleys and the Freys, but that gets smoothed over for the time being. And then… the sound of drums. Stannis has apparently come at last (although that seems mighty quick to me, given that we last saw him snowed in a considerable distance away). As the castle prepares for battle, Theon is drawn to the godswood – they are not his gods, but he grew up with them, and he fancies, as he stands beneath the weirwood, that he can hear Bran. In grief and guilt he speaks aloud of how he killed two other boys to take the place of Bran and Rickon: ‘I had to have two heads’… and Abel’s women come upon him. The time has come to throw off pretense and demand Theon’s help where it could not be wheedled out of him.
A nice chapter of things coming to head and alliances fraying as the idea of war is put to test under the reality of waiting for attack in a ruined castle in the sort of winter most of us will never experience. Sometimes it feels like the message of these books is simply ‘War is hell and war is stupid; anyone who would wage it is a dick, and a bloody idiot besides’. Not that we’re not bloodthirsty enough to want to read and write about it nonetheless.
I enjoyed the reveal where Abel’s women disclose themselves to him, but the fact that they don’t seem to cotton on to the fact that he is admitting to having not killed Bran and Rickon is a bit annoying. I know it’s a way of drawing it out for dramatic tension, but it feels a bit like Gaeta not bothering to mention the one crucial bit of evidence that proves his innocence in Battlestar Galactica until they practically have him out an airlock. That’s just not how it would go down. You’d shout the crucial part of your defence from the beginning! Not that Theon’s in the habit of protesting his innocence, but he pretty much confessed to not having killed Bran and Rickon right in front of those who despise him as a kin-killer, and somehow they don’t understand the implication and he fails to adequately protest. It just feels a little… contrived.
But never mind. An otherwise good and entertaining chapter of things coming to a head. Rock on!