Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Arya III

“Him in his tree, let’s see how well he likes it up there when the Others come to take him. He’ll scream for the Watch then, that he will.”

Synopsis: Arya and Co. travel through the Riverlands. Nothing happens, but it’s very atmospheric and moody.

SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.

Political Analysis:

Despite the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is told through an ensemble of point-of-views, there is still a degree of variation involved that lend a particular slant to each book. Eddard’s POV chapters significantly outnumber any other perspective in A Game of Thrones; Tyrion absolutely dominates A Clash of Kings; Jon, Tyrion, and Arya are all pretty closely matched in A Storm of Swords; Cersei’s voice is the loudest in A Feast For Crows; and A Dance With Dragons concentrates on the central trio of Jon, Dany, and Tyrion. However, Arya comes a close second in this book to Tyrion in terms of chapters, giving us the perspective of the war on the ground as Tyrion gives us the struggles for power among the elite.

However, I do think that we also see in this chapter that George R.R Martin has a tendency to go in for mood-setting travelogue in a way that really slows down the action. Nothing really happens in Arya III, especially compared to the through-line from Arya II’s confrontation with the Goldcloaks and Arya IV’s attack by Ser Amory Lorch.

Honestly, I feel like this chapter could have been chopped on the editor’s block – so I’m going to breeze through it rather quickly so I can move on to more interesting chapters.

 So what things are important to note?

First, the increasing problem of hunger and scarcity. Two books before the actual arrival of winter, complete with snow falling over the Riverlands, the war has already begun to dramatically reduce the supply of food in the Riverlands:

 “Here farmland gave way to forest, the villages and holdfasts were smaller and further apart, the hils higher and the valleys deeper. Food grew harder to come by. In the city, Yoren had loaded up the wagons…but every bite of it had been eaten. Forced to live off the land, Yoren turned to Koss and Kurz, who’d been taken as poachers.”

As I’ll discuss more later, this phenomenon needs to be understood in a bounded fashion – the Riverlands are going to be starving pretty soon, but Dorne, the Vale, the Stormlands, and much of the Reach and the Westerlands are intact as far as their harvests go, and I’ll get to the North’s food situation when we get to Bran’s next chapter. Localized famines were quite common in medieval Europe, and while they definitely put a dent in the population, they’re rarely existential threats.

Second, the increased issue of danger. Spilling over from the larger strategic decisions made by Tywin that Brynden Tully pointed to in the last Catelyn chapter, the war has already begun to enter into that undifferentiated stage of bushwack-and retaliation where the purposes behind the fighting fall away, as far as civilians are concerned: “The next day, Koss came racing back to warn Yoren of a camp ahead. “Twenty or third men in mail and halfhelms…some of them are cut up bad, and one’s dying from the sound of him….they got spears and shields, but only one horse, and that’s lame.” “Can’t say…might be one side, might be t’other. If they’re hurt that bad, likely they’d take our mounts no matter who they are. Might be they’d take more than that. I believe we’ll go wide around them.” As we’ll see throughout Arya’s chapters in this book, while there are differences of degree between Robb and Tywin in terms of the use of terror as a tactic, they’re not differences of kind on the ground. Both sides are capable of atrocity.

Third, along with this violence comes the breakdown in social custom and tradition as the necessities of survival come to the fore. Whereas before the traditions of the Night’s Watch held in a tavern in the Crownlands, here they break almost entirely:

“Outside a holdfast called Briarwhite, some fieldhands surrounded them in a cornfield, demanding coin for the ears they’d taken. Yoren eyed their scythes and tossed them a few coppers. “Time was, a man in black was feasted from Dorne to Winterfell, and even high lords called it an honor to shelter him under their roofs..now cravens like you want hard coin for a bit of wormy apple.”

“It’s sweetcorn, better’n a stinking old black bird like you deserves…you get out of our field now, and take these sneaks and stabbers with you, or we’ll stake you up in the corn to scare the other crows away.”

Yoren’s reaction is a lamentation for the old world of peace, or at least limited warfare, in which he managed to only lose three men in thirty years. Unfortunately for him, we’re not even close to the worst it’s going to get.


And that’ll do it for this chapter recap. Really not much material to work with, but Arya IV, with Ser Amory Lorch’s attack on the Night’s Watch holdfast will provide much more material.

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48 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Arya III

  1. Winnie says:

    Thanks for bringing this out so quickly after the last one Steve. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover!

    Agree that while it’s good to establish how hard the Riverlands are being hit, that could easily have been done with a couple paragraphs elsewhere and this chapter was the start of the Cursed Martin Travelogues that really got out of control in AFFC and ADWD. My god, that man needs to let his editors start *editing* him.

    • Yeah. Really going to have to dash through the travelogues as I recap.

      • WPA says:

        Interesting stuff as world-building- but, in terms of these sorts of chapters getting more in the way later in the series- I also suspect as Martin became more prominent, editors became more wary of saying , “No.” when they should have been doing their job of “editing”. A lot of series suffer from that problem if they become extremely well-known while being written.

        • Winnie says:

          Thing is recent interviews with Martin’s editor make it clear she was telling him to cut stuff-but he just wouldn’t listen. You would think the publishing company would have a little more leverage to make him listen, though.

          • Sean C. says:

            What are they going to do, not publish him? He can just take his guaranteed money elsewhere.

        • Mitch says:

          ACOK was written far before the series really started to pick up momentum among readers. Or in other words, if the editors let him run long here, it wasn’t because Martin was throwing his figurative weight around.

          On first read, I found AFFC and the first half of ADWD a bit longwinded. But through reading this blog, as well as the Meereenese Blot (http://meereeneseblot.wordpress.com), I’ve come to view these books as Martin starting to set up pieces again after the torrent of climaxes that came at the end of ASOS.

          Martin has won my trust in dallying here or there, as so far to date he has made everything pay off so satisfyingly in the end. I believe that many of these mini climaxes will start again shortly into Winds of Winter.

    • Amestria says:

      Of all the books in the series I enjoyed ‘A Feast for Crows’ the most, with ‘A Dance of Dragons’ a close second. I didn’t find ‘Feast’s’ pace slow at all, a lot happens, and there isn’t a single chapter I would subtract.

      What some of you are calling “travelogues” are adventures that serve to flesh out both the larger world and the consequences of decisions made on high. In getting to know a little about Crackclaw Point you know a little bit more about the other out of the way places of Westeros, the tucked away countries with their own character legends, and heroes. As a result, Westeros isn’t an empty feeling world, like, say, Third Age Middle Earth, and significant portion of the population lives in places too marginal to ever appear on a map. The travels through the Crown and Riverlands also illuminate the great movements of people taking place: the destabilizing waves of refugees, outlaws, swords for hire, and sparrows who have been uprooted by violence and famine and who are now a major part of the story. This also portends badly for other parts of the country, the southern Reach and the Stormlands, which are about to become battlefields in turn.

      The journey through the Flat Lands and down the Rhoyne in ‘Dance’ shows how successive peoples have left their impact on Near Essos. The mountains of Andalos are forever marked as the place where the Seven walked and where the Andals learned how to make iron. The countryside of the flat lands is made up of estates owned by wealthy Pentosi but there are no suburbs or towns because of Dothraki incursions. The Valyarians have left roads and monuments, but some of these have been carted away to Vaes Dothrak. And we see the Rhoyne as a land of ruins, a dangerous artery of commerce, an area of political contention, and a place of religious pilgrimage all in one. At the mouth of the river is Volantis, slave city, republic, home of the Merchants Inn, capital of Cyvasse, and HQ of the Red Faith. All of this gives Near Essos a feeling of density.

      • I think there’s a difference between travelogues in which interesting things happen vs. this chapter.

        • Amestria says:

          I think Ayra III is largely an investment in future narrative suspense. The fields and habitations they encounter are wary, suspicious, and under guard, but clearly the primary concern is thieves, deserters, and beggars, and the guard indicates that no one’s going anywhere. Then they encounter the burned village and hold-fast, a formerly inhabited place with only two survivors (one of whom is crippled and shortly dies). In the next chapter they encounter utterly deserted fields, homes, and villages, whose people have clearly fled in terror. The atmosphere is much more anxious and the feeling that something very bad is about to happen much more is palpable then if Ayra III had been cut.

          So I think it was written for impressionistic reasons rather then plot reasons.

  2. Sean C. says:

    Arya in books two and three is definitely where the “travelogue” that so many people malign about books four and five starts to creep into the books, though it’s not nearly as pronounced.

    • Maddy says:

      I generally always find something to enjoy in all the chapters even though I agree that sometimes I wish his books were edited a bit more. But then I really like Brienne chapters in Fewst that most people seem to hate.

      • Sean C. says:

        I enjoy Brienne’s chapters. In general my enjoyment of GRRM’s travelogue chapters is proportional to how interesting the place is; I’m happy to visit minor locations about the Riverlands and the Crownlands, because Westeros is a really interesting place. Tyrion’s Essos travelogue doesn’t hold my attention nearly as much, because nothing on Essos is anywhere near as developed as Westeros (apart from the parts that are more blatantly also based on Europe, like Braavos).

        • Amestria says:

          I was rather touched by subtropical Volantis, with its game tables and elephants. We get a pretty good look considering we only see Quentyn there for one chapter, Tyrion for one or two, and Victarion for a paragraph.

      • Brett says:

        Brienne’s chapters really improved for me on re-read, although they’re still a bit dull to read when you’re coming off of Jaime and Cersei’s chapters.

      • I didn’t initially like the Brienne chapters in AFFC, but now that I’ve realized it’s a homage to Don Quixote, I have some interesting meta stuff to work with there.

        • JT says:

          That’s interesting. I found Brienne’s AFFC chapters to be fairly pointless.

          The chapter on the Quiet Isle and with Septon Meribald was great, but the rest seemed to be a re-hash of what we already knew about Brienne/Westeros:

          – She’s a skilled fighter (already pointed out multiple times)
          – The Riverlands are a mess (already pointed out as early as AGOT, and also covered by Jaime’s POV)
          – It’s hard to be a female warrior (will be pointed out multiple times in the Catelyn/Jaime chapters)
          – Randall Tarly is not a nice man (covered when we hear about how Sam ended up at the wall)

          It seems like both Brienne and Tyrion could have afforded to lose multiple chapters from AFFC/ADWD without the story suffering.

          • S. Duff says:

            I think it’s because GRRM’s intricate plotting requires that Brienne be in a specific place at a specific time. The inevitable Jaime vs LS showdown required Brienne to spend a lot of time wandering around the RIverlands until Jaime was in the right position.

          • John says:

            Seeing a non-Sam perespective on Randyll Tarly is not just “reiterating things we already know,” I don’t think.

  3. bryndenbfish says:

    I understand the rationale of wanting to see this chapter cut as it doesn’t impact Arya’s forward momentum plot-wise, but the thematic elements supersede the plot. Consider the difference between how Brynden Tully describes the situations in the Riverlands:

    “The riverlands are awash in blood and flame all around the Gods Eye. The fighting has spread south to the Blackwater and north across the Trident, almost to the Twins.” (ACOK, Catelyn I)

    Now contrast it to how Arya describes it in Arya III:

    As the world darkened, the fire seemed to grow brighter and brighter, until it looked as though the whole north was ablaze. (ACOK, Arya III)

    The Blackfish’s view is from a bird’s eye view — a list of places where fighting is occurring — which is horrible, but it’s not here. It’s far away. But Arya’s viewpoint is very real, visceral even. You feel the impending doom on the horizon. The contrast between the onset of darkness and the glow of fire is just awesome imagery. Arya & Co are heading into hell.

    All that’s to say — I agree that that it’s mood-setting, but I disagree that it should have hit the cutting floor. It’s a chapter that shapes Arya IV and the remaining Arya chapters from ACOK/ASOS onwards. And it might be my favorite Arya chapter from ACOK.

    • I get the real and the viceral – but is there any reason those elements couldn’t have been added into Arya II or IV?

      • bryndenbfish says:

        IMO, no. The imagery, foreshadowing and impending doom all needed its own chapter — though Martin’s continued return to the theme of Smallfolk destruction in AFFC can seem tedious (It’s not, but the fan-perception is there.). Maybe Arya III could have been shifted to Arya IV, but that chapter was already a bit long.

        One question I’d have is whether this was part of the 400 or so pages that GRRM had after AGOT that became ACOK? It ties thematically to ACOK, Catelyn I — so I’d guess yes.

        • Xirnium says:

          I tend to agree that the Arya chapters were successful from a theme exploring, atmospheric/cinematic and world-building perspective – and that includes the surplus of detail and the pacing. Also, I don’t remember finding them tedious, and I’m the type of reader who found the endless camping and hiking in the Lord of the Rings a bit of a trial to get through.

          Part of what kept my interest during Arya’s journey was the variation. As they got further from King’s Landing we saw different stages of the human cost of war (the ‘home front’, refugees and displaced persons, people fleeing from warzones, atrocities fresh and less recent, and military camps). That was pretty cool.

          • JT says:

            I didn’t so much mind Arya’s chapters here – it’s when we get basically the same thing rehashed again by Brienne in her journey to Maidenpool and then Cracklaw Point and then back again that is seems a bit tiresome.

          • Xirnium says:

            I’m at the start of ASoS at the moment, and I have to admit to an ‘oh here we go’ feeling when I started reading the first Jamie chapter. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, and certainly not on reflection after (lots of cool take-aways from that chapter), nor do I think GRRM should have done something different… simply, there was that feeling of familiarity. ‘Here we go, more of the great outdoors… at least this time we’ve got a boat, that’s new and neat’.

            Sorry, not really a particularly intelligent comment, but… I think I can definitely understand where people are coming from.

          • Xirnium says:

            I think a concession we have to make is that this is not great literature. It will never join the Western Canon. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, I think it’s great and serious and original and worth reading and fun, but it’s not Nabokov, it’s not Rushdie, it’s not Melville. I don’t think every sentence, page and chapter needs to justify its existence in the book, the way they must in great literature. GRRM’s books can and I think should be read the way you drink water. You could never read great literature like that. My point is, when I see a chapter in ASoIaF that I’m not enjoying as much as the previous, I don’t stress. The chapters are short and it’ll be over soon enough and there’s always the possibility that the next one will be great.

            We give the same indulgence to Tolkien. That dude has had almost every scribble he ever put in an exercise book’s margin published. It’s all got some value to someone, because his work is popular and people find his invented world compelling. A similar thing appears to be the case with GRRM.

          • ” I don’t think every sentence, page and chapter needs to justify its existence in the book, the way they must in great literature. ”

            I can’t imagine what you think about Tolstoy, then. There’s no book so full of unnecessary, bloated, repetitive chapters as War and Peace. Multiple chapters are just essays on war and history where he makes the same point in too many words, over and over.

      • Andrew says:

        I admit there isn’t much going in this chapter, either. The north being described as ablaze could point to things to come with Balon’s invasion.

        On another note, where do you find Lord Walder really wanting Riverrun?

    • medrawt says:

      Well, I think part of the question is at what point “the thematic elements supersede the plot” turns into “the belaboring of thematic elements overwhelms the things the reader was interested in to begin with” and “chapters of atmosphere become aggravating, fairly or not, in the context of a plot-driven series that’s taking forever to unfold.” That’ll vary from reader to reader, of course. Personally, I think GRRM has a lot of things going for him as a writer, and almost as many things going against him (at least in these books; I haven’t read his other stuff), and one of the things I think he has going against him is that I don’t trust he’s really in control of all the material he’s using in terms of what’s helpful to telling the most effective version of his story. (Of course, to a degree that’s pretty unusual in a series that’s ostensibly 5/7 completed, I don’t really know what GRRM’s story is! This is also maybe not a great thing?) Martin clearly wants to portray the cost of war and the selfish goals of the nobles as visited on the common people, and deflating romantic notions of the same is clearly important to him. But that’s not what his story is – if it were, it probably wouldn’t need to (project out to) 7,000 pages, and we wouldn’t be getting these scenes almost entirely through the perspective of people who aren’t peasants. It’s a secondary consideration, and one that I think has diminishing returns in terms of reader engagement (from the perspective of myself as a reader, at any rate).

      • Winnie says:

        Good points all. Martin could get the same effect by just occasionally doing a stand alone peasant point of view chapter before death and would be even more effective. I am getting worried he’s lost control of the story and while he knows what the ending *should* be, he can’t quite figure out how to get there especially since he added so many sub plots and dangling threads. I’m counting on the show for closure.

        • JT says:

          Agreed. I also thought Martin could have done the same thing with Quentyn Martell and eliminated Quentyn’s POV altogether in ADWD, and had Quentyn’s storyline play out in the background through the eyes of Dany and Barristan.

          I also though that the majority of Tyrion’s chapters in ADWD were focused on world building to the detriment of moving the plot forward.

  4. MightyIsobel says:

    Arya and her pack meet Weasel in this chapter.

    Poor Weasel…

    • Maddy says:

      That makes me sad. I do like know Arya tries to take care of her though. She does care a lot about other people. Even by the time we get to her chapters in Dance I think the people who describe her as a ‘sociopath’ are being a bit over the top. Then again I am a big fan of Arya and all the Stark kids so I get defensive when people criticise them I guess.

  5. Abbey Battle says:

    I will say that while I do enjoy the little tidbits of fact and legend one finds in the ‘Travelogue’ sections, I have to admit that part of the reason I enjoy the contributions of Grand Maester Gyldayn is that they provide almost exactly the same fix without the plot-procrastination.

    I must also admit that I rather enjoy the ‘Multiple Choice’ nature of these ‘Histories’ since they provide DELICIOUS fodder for speculation!

  6. JT says:

    I think I’m like a lot of book readers in that I always “rooted” for all of the Starks. By the end of ASOS Arya isn’t “good” in any sense of the word.

    By the time we get to the Mercy chapter in TWOW, my impression of Arya is that she falls closer to Ramsay Bolton than she does to Ned Stark. She’s long past killing people in self defense (like she did in AGOT or she’ll do in an upcoming chapter), she’s killing people for her own pleasure.

    I suspect Arya gets a pass from a lot of people since she’s a Stark, she’s been with us from the beginning, and she has a lot of obstacles thrown in her path. But talk about a Heisenberg-like transformation from Good to Evil…

    • Rufus Leek says:

      Even by the end of book 5, Arya still has the same two motives she’s always had: protecting her family and friends, and getting payback against anyone who wronged her or her family or friends. She doesn’t have any family or friends around at this point in the story, so we see her focus on revenge killings when the opportunity presents itself. I think that will change if and when she learns where Rickon or Sansa are.

      She isn’t like Ramsay, who enjoys cruelty for its own sake. Rickard Karstark, maybe.

    • I think this goes way too far – she kills people on her list, who got on her list for being bad people. Remember Raff the Sweetling killed at least three children we know of, in addition to being a rapist. If Arya starts killing innocent people, then I’ll start to get worried.

      • JT says:

        You’re right, Ramsay is an overly harsh comparison.

        I guess a more apt comparison is Ned v. Lady Stoneheart. They both kill “bad” people, but one is doling out justice and enforcing the rules as fairly as he can, the other one is meting out vengeance to anyone who wronged her.

        Most (all?) of the people Arya kills are “bad”, but it’s not like she has any official capacity to judge them (as even the Kindly Man points out to her). She’s just killing people who have wronged her. That’s pretty much the definition of vengeance.

        And what about Daeron? He did desert the Night’s Watch, but it’s not like he murdered anybody or personally harmed Arya. Arya kills him in AFFC.

        • Right, but I don’t necessarily agree that vengeance is wrong in all situations.

          That’s true – but historically, desertion is punishable by death and anyone’s allowed to pass sentence on an outlaw.

          • And in this case, Arya is actually following Ned’s example, by killing a deserter, 1) although he did it in official capacity, and 2) I don’t think Arya would have killed him if she hadn’t been sure that he was also an asshole.

  7. JT says:

    Actually, won’t the famine in the Riverlands be localized as well? The southern half of the Riverlands (from the Golden Tooth to Saltpans/Maidenpool including the area around Riverrun and Harrenhall) was where most of the fighting, burning and subsequent marauding takes place.

    We don’t hear about the fighting/burning reaching the northern Riverlands (Oldstones to the Neck, including the Twins/Seagard) though. As late as ADWD, the Freys are able to ship food down the Trident to support their troops near Riverrun.

    When Winter comes, it’s likely that the areas that bore the brunt of the war will starve, and the rest of the Riverlands (including the Freys and Mallisters) will be fine.

    • Mr Fixit says:

      My impression as well.

      Actually, if you stop and think about it, Riverlands shouldn’t be nearly as ravaged as they supposedly are. The area is huge, something on the order of hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. I don’t really see how a few thousand raiders can inflict such catastrophic damage over that large an area in a single year. Medieval warfare was conducted on much longer timescales.

      • Roger says:

        Not all the Riverlands have been destroyed. Mostly the areas inside the fray. AFAIK, Seagard, the Twyns, Pinkmaiden, and the lands of the Vances have been spared.

        Medevial warfare was conducted on seasonal timescales. Winter was an almost obligated truce. Logistic consisted mostly in sacking and extorting. Remember Lannisters and Starks have real big armies for medieval estandards. And they keep them on the field for long times. Tywin, especialy, lives from the (enemy) land.

        During the Hundred Years War, French peasants said “woods follow the Englishmen”, becouse after their rides and chevauchees, people fled from the area, and woods took the fields.

  8. I don’t mind the ‘travelogue’, specially not this one. Because it’s setting for what’s to come, we’re already seeing the scars of war and we’re to see them in a much grander scale soon. And I think it’s important that it is Arya who witness all this, why? I’m still not able to pinpoint why, but I think that Martin is very deliberate on this.

  9. empire25 says:

    I will also confess to being a fan of mood laden travelogues. I guess we all have our thing.

    Since we are criticizing Martin however, I thinking his writing does borrow too much from the cheap cliffhanger’s used heavily in other books and comic books. Yes it is a series, but given the quality and how long they take to write, I think the style detracts more than it adds. The books would benefit from a more formal style.

    • S. Duff says:

      I don’t think the time between books would be nearly as frustrating if Martin didn’t rely on cliffhangers as much.

      • John says:

        Let’s note that, for the most part, the first two books (and the first book, in particular) didn’t end on cliffhangers. For the most part, they resolved their main plots while giving us a first glimpse of where the story was going to go next. I think this is arguably true of A Storm of Swords, as well. The endings of those books work fine, resolving the main plot strands of those stories while leading us into the next story.

        In the last two books, we end either with complete cliffhangers or with no real resolution at all. I assume this is because we *still* haven’t gotten to the end of what Martin originally planned to include in the fourth book.

  10. John says:

    I’ll just take this opportunity to note that Martin totally undermines his own attempts to argue that the Starks and Lannisters are about equally bad for the people of the Riverlands by then going and making the only Stark man that we see doing awful atrocities into an evil traitor to the Starks.

    He makes it completely easy for people to say that it is just Roose Bolton who is bad.

    • Did he actually ever argue that the Starks and the Lannisters are as bad for the people of the Riverlands? I’ve never gotten that impression. Martin does go for moral greyness, but not for moral relativism. We’re supposed to see some people as utterly evil (Gregor, the Bloody Mummers, Ramsay, etc.) or predominantly evil, and others as relatively good, some even mostly good.

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