(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)
I probably won’t manage to get a review done for The Hollow Crown, Part II until tomorrow, as I’m going to a party tonight. But fear not! I have returned to Read Along with Rhube and the quest to finish reviewing every single chapter of A Dance with Dragons continues.
Chapter 53: Jon
Val has returned to the Wall with Tormund Giantsbane, and Tormond and Jon hammer out an agreement: peace in exchange fr a goodly amount of gold and maybe some men to swell the ranks of those defending the Wall, and they can all stand together against the more fearsome force that is coming. Interestingly, Mormont’s old crow follows Jon when he goes to make the agreement. Have I mentioned yet my theory that Mormont was a skinwalker, too, and that maybe his spirit lives on in that bird? Well, I have now. Just a thought…
Val is properly introduced to the queen and the southern nobles make more foolish comments about Val being a princess because she is sister to Mance Rayder’s wife. Val is respected amongst the free folk, but that’s not how it works. The queen is also unpleased by the fact that the wildlings have been permitted to enter without kneeling to Stannis. And understandable concern, actually, but it was never going to happen.
If Queen Selyse is displeased that the wildlings won’t kneel, it is nothing to Val’s reaction to Princess Shireen having greyscale. She wastes no time, once they are alone, in not only telling Jon that she would have killed a child with the ‘grey death’ if she had given birth to one, but in demanding that her sister’s daughter (or the babe impersonating her) be removed from Castle Black ASAP, so as to be away from the princess. She calls Shireen ‘unclean’ and a ‘dead girl’. It’s kind of shocking, but I’m left wondering if this is the knee-jerk reaction of a hard people to illness in an harsh climate, or if Val really does know something we don’t. Greyscale has become more and more prominent as an issue throughout A Dance with Dragons, and I can’t help but feel that we’re building up to something. Recall that Greyscale is a disease associated with old Valyria. Dragons have come back, white walkers have come back – old powers and old things. I can’t help but wonder whether greyscale mightn’t be a part of that.
Beyond these matters, though, is the tensions rising from Jon’s plan to bring more wildlings south of the Wall. There are questions about where to house them and how to feed them and whether they can be trusted. Jon wisely points out that any man who takes the black has his crimes forgiven, and we are uneasily reminded that many of Jon’s men are rapists and murderers themselves. The Night’s Watch is run on a principal of trust and forgiveness, but it is being tested to its edge as Jon asks his men to fight side by side with the wildings they have spent their lives striving to keep on the other side of the Wall. One can’t help but feel, even though this has to be the right move – they cannot man the Wall by themselves – that things are being set up to go badly wrong, somewhere down the line.
Chapter 54: Cersei
Cersei, Cersei, Cersei. What an interesting character you are. I never know quite what to make of you. Are you strong or weak? Powerful or blown by the winds of your desires? Cunning and intelligent, or not nearly half as smart as you think you are? All of the above, I suspect. But you’ve been brought low now. Imprisoned by the priesthood, accused of killing the High Septon, killing Robert, sleeping with half a dozen man, including your cousin and your brother, or incest, of treason – of deicide, even. And where are all your protectors, now? All those men whose loyalty you bought with your body. You don’t know it, but Jaime has been won from you by a woman you think ugly (sexually? perhaps not, but Brienne has won him over nonetheless). The Kettleblacks and Lancel – all have confessed your crimes to save themselves.
Cersei is a woman who always felt cursed by being female. She felt she was strong, mentally, in terms of will and in terms of brains – stronger than Jaime. But she was born female and was barred from hereditory power or physical strength. And she’s bitter about that – oh is she bitter – but not defeated. She felt her sex as a weakness and sought to turn it into a strength. She saw that she was beautiful and could manipulate men with her beauty. And so she threw herself into that. She came to believe that it was the only way a woman could be strong. She cannot fathom a woman like Brienne. ‘Her,’ she thinks, ‘Jaime would never abandon me for such a creature. My raven never reached him, elsewise he would have come.‘ She cannot fathom Sansa’s quiet strength in retaining her morality – tried to school her in the ways of using her body to control men, in an oddly, almost motherly way.
Somehow, in her bitterness, in her attempt to use the sex that had been used against her as a weapon, Cersei missed that she was – for quite a long time, actually – a powerful woman independently of her beauty. She was Robert’s wife even though he never desired her. While he drank himself to an early grave she ruled the kingdom. It took all his wits for Tyrion to wrest power from her. But ultimately, it has been her attempts to preserve her power through sex that have brought her down. Because power won through sex is as fickle as attraction, as volatile as emotion, as fragile as beauty. There is a new beauty in town and Margery is younger. And she has only tried to use her beauty to gain power via marriage. She understands that to rely on sexuality to get your power you must follow the rules of those who see a woman’s power in their sex. Cersei has transgressed and is being punished for using her sexuality outside the bounds of patriarchal control. She has sacrificed her right to continue to wield that power.
Now, to save her life, she must humiliate herself and play to those stereotypes again: become the weeping woman, sinful by nature ‘a woman needs to be loved, she needs a man beside her’ says Cersei, and ‘The wickedness of widows is well-known’ agrees the new High Septon. In this way Cersei is offered forgiveness for her wanton ways as a widow on the condition that she submits to the further humiliation of walking through the streets naked. But as she does not confess to killing Robert, or the High Septon, as she denies incest with Jaime and attests that she never slept with anyone but Robert whilst she was alive, there must still be a trial for these things. Cersei knows she cannot prove her fidelity, for she was not true to Robert. She must request trial by combat, but to do that she must arrange to have a man on the King’s guard whom she can not only trust, but know will win. As the chapter closes she reveals that she has someone in mind – someone who will need a new face – and we are left wondering who this could be…
I feel like I should have something nuanced and clever to say about Cersei’s presentation. Should I approve of Martin’s critique of women who use sexuality for power instead of their brains? Should I be angry that a woman who took command of her sexuality and rebelled against the confines of the patriarchy is presented as morally and intellectually inferior. I’m not sure I can get behind either of those sentiments. I don’t think Martin is that simplistic on either side. The conversation between Cersei and the High Septon is knowing. We are supposed to be repulsed by the High Septon’s casual sexism and assertion of female moral and sexual weakness. We are equally supposed to recognise that the foundations upon which Cersei built her power were fundamentally unstable – were always going to crumble away from her like this, sooner or later. I think, perhaps, I like it because the writing of Cersei – such an archetype of women who seek to manipulate men through sex – does not cast her as a representative of all women. Not even all women who seek to control men through attraction. She is Cersei – both weak and strong in different ways – and it is her precise decisions, good and bad, that have led her to this place. She resists shallow analysis and labelling. And that can only be to the good.