“Robb was in the middle of it, shouting commands with the best of them. He seemed to have grown of late, as if Bran’s fall and his mother’s collapse had somehow made him stronger.”
“I wish you were coming with us”…”Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.”
Synopsis: Jon Snow makes his goodbyes before leaving for the Night’s Watch, first to Bran where he deals awkwardly with Catelyn Stark, next more amicably parting with Robb, then brings Arya a going-away present.
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.
Similar to the previous chapter, Jon II gives us more of a glimpse into family politics as Jon Snow visits the Stark siblings (all except Rickon, naturally). We see a bit of his relationship with Bran, who he shares a certain romantic idealism and love of adventure; to Bran, the brotherhood of the Night’s Watch is a dark parallel to the Kingsguard, “almost as good as going south with the king,” the Wall an exotic location he very much wanted to visit, something that the show actually brings up here that the book doesn’t.
Jon’s relationship with Robb is more complicated, as we might expect between the heir and the bastard. As we saw in Bran I and Jon I, the two are often matched against each other as rivals in the arts of war, and there’s a strong undercurrent of competition between the two, that for all their camaraderie one will always be Stark and the other Snow. At the same time, the competition exists alongside a strong rapport – Robb seems to pick up on Jon’s emotions regarding Bran and Catelyn, and Jon in turn noticing the beginning of his brother’s transformation into leadership, which like Jon’s begins unexpectedly amidst a crisis. Given that Robb’s last command as King of the North was to legitimize his brother and name him as heir should he have no offspring, the relationship must have been quite strong indeed.
By contrast, Jon’s relationship with Arya, as many have said, stems from their mutual position as half-way outsiders. Given how much ink has been spilled analyzing this particular facet of their relationship, I think I’ll let it pass and focus instead on what might be an interesting bit of foreshadowing near the end of the chapter where Arya vocalizes her desire to have Jon together with herself and Sansa, and Jon responds by saying “Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.” While part of the complaints from fans about Feast for Crows and Dance With Dragons was that the plot seems to be atomizing the characters into a thousand different unconnected places, I actually think we’re starting to see movement back towards the same castle – namely Winterfell. Consider that Littlefinger is planning to marry Sansa to Harry the Heir once Robert Arryn dies and use the forces of the Vale to stake her claims to the North (which might get difficult, given that Sansa lacks the direwolf that Northmen take as a seal of approval); that Davos Seaworth is sailing to Skagos to retrieve Rickon Stark so that the Manderlys have a Stark in Winterfell once again; and that Arya Stark has advanced in her training such that she now is entrusted with the face-changing arts of the Faceless Men., while her wolf waits for her at the Godseye (a place with many heart trees, and much potential for Bran Stark to act). It may well be that the surviving Starks are at long last on their way home as they were always meant to be.
I did want to say one thing about Arya Stark getting her Needle and the larger question of medieval gender roles. While it’s true that the prevailing role for medieval high-born women was closer to Sansa’s ideal of ladyship than Arya’s desire to be a swordswoman, it’s not a totally hegemonic prohibition. Arya isn’t an absolutely unprecedented misfit, but rather part of a distinct minority group of medieval warrior women who managed to break through the “glass ceiling” of their time. While they were generally not supposed to personally take part in battle, highborn ladies were expected to defend their lord’s castles against siege if their husbands were away, and if they were feudal heiresses, they could call upon their vassals to serve them in the field – as the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Acquitaine, and Margaret d’Anjou all did. Nor was Joan of Arc a statistical aberration – Sichelgaita of Salerno, Isabel of Conches, and a number of other women donned armor and fought in battle.
The point here isn’t to diminish Arya’s struggle against gender restrictions that are quite real, but rather to note that George R.R Martin’s realism is a literary technique, not a camera. What is achieved is not absolute fidelity to the world as is, but a kind of hyper-realism that rubs our nose in the dirt and the grime, the poverty and bigotry, as a way of deconstructing Romantic conceptions about what the Middle Ages were like that have been foundational to the fantasy genre from the beginning. What Martin is doing is reminding us that there is no such thing as a rightful king, that peasants weren’t happy and humble, that knights are only noble if they want to be, that beauty is not a reflection of character – and he’s doing it by showing us a heightened, slightly exaggerated sense of frustration and aggravation from Arya’s persepctive. She’s not completely wrong – very few people in A Song of Ice and Fire are – but the bear women of the Mormonts are real, as are Myra Reed and Mya Stone, Brienne of Tarth, and the relative egalitarianism of Dorne. It’s just that, like most of the POVs in the book, she’s reacting most strongly to what she sees and experiences.
I don’t really see any good hypotheticals in this chapter, so I’ll just say there are some really good ones in Eddard II that I’m working on.
Book vs. TV:
There’s actually a lot that’s different in this scene between the book and the tv show, and some of it shows improvement in adaptation, with other choices are a bit more questionable. For example, the order of Jon’s goodbyes – in the book, Jon says goodbye to Bran, then Robb, then Arya, which means that we get through the very abrasive interaction with Catelyn first and see that he actually has a fairly good relationship with most of his family that he’s about to lose; in the show, Jon meets with Arya first, then Bran, then Robb, which is a bit more muddled in terms of showing an arc of different interactions.
I do think that the change to his scene with Catelyn was probably a necessary change from the book, given how so many of the fans base their extreme dislike of Catelyn on the emotional damage she inflicts on a fan-favorite character. I think this misses the point of what Martin was trying to get across in their encounter, which is that this kind of reaction is absolutely a normal reaction to grief and loss. Part of the audience reaction I think therefore is a kind of denial that they’d ever act the same and projecting their guilt that they probably would onto Catelyn. In reality, the second stage of the Kübler-Ross model is anger for a reason – we look for someone to blame, we demand “why me” and “why not you” when we experience a sudden, wrenching loss in our lives. The obverse is also true – when we escape loss, there is a sense of guilt that arises from our non-vocalized thought “thank god that’s not me.” So in the end, given how strongly emotional visual mediums are compared to the written word, this shift was probably for the good if Catelyn Stark is to remain at all sympathetic as a character.
Another thing I like about the adaptation is that we have a more sustained transformation in Robb Stark compared to the book, where Robb tends to switch back and forth between being a rather cartoonish boy, prone to waving his sword around at the slightest provocation, and a more mature figure. It may be more realistic for a 15-year old boy to act this way, but it doesn’t lend itself to a good narrative arc. In the show, Robb is seen as becoming more mature almost immediately and continuing to shift in this direction as he leads men onto the field, which I think works better and gives us a more interesting character.
Finally, we have the addition of Jon’s farewell scene with Eddard, which I think is a major improvement, both in terms of highlighting the R+L=J theory which is necessary given the excision of Eddard’s interior monologue and flashbacks, and in giving Jon and Eddard some interaction together, which is something missing from the books. It’s not really believable that Eddard would let his “son” leave for the Watch without even saying goodbye, and yet we don’t get this scene in the book.