“Stick them with the pointy end.”
Synopsis: Arya sits through most of a rather uncomfortable dinner with her family, before running off to her room and refusing to come out. Her father comes in to discuss swords, Lyanna, who is to blame for the death of Mycah, and the nature of wolf packs. Three days later, Arya is late to her first dancing lessons, and meets the First Sword of Braavos.
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.
Recapping chapters that have child POV’s is rather difficult for a blog like this, but Arya’s story-line is something of an exception. The eponymous “Underfoot” Stark frequently acts as an unseen witness to political events in King’s Landing, giving us further information filtered through an unreliable narrator because nothing is ever easy. Here, we see that Lord Eddard Stark is fighting with the Small Council, although we don’t learn why or the result of their conflict. We can sift out from this anecdote that Eddard hasn’t made much in the way of allies on the Small Council (although you’d think with Barristan and Renly he could at least muster three out of six votes) and still hasn’t realized that the Hand has power outside of the Small Council.
We get a clearer picture, however, of Eddard Stark’s political theory of lordship as enlightened paternalism: ““Her father used to say that a lord needed to eat with his men, if he hoped to keep them. “Know the men who follow you…and let them know you. Don’t ask your men to die for a stranger.” It’s not entirely clear where Eddard got his hands on a copy of Richard Neudstadt’s Presidential Power, which recommends that political executives should cultivate multiple sources of information, especially at lower levels of their bureaucracy, so that they can get a more accurate grasp of the inner workings of their own government without the biases of their closest advisors, but it’s a rare sign that the Lord of Winterfell actually knows what he’s doing. Far more so than most lords, Eddard is well-informed about accounting, blacksmithing, horse-breeding, literature, and current events from a variety of class perspectives, which helps to explain why men would be willing to fight and die in his name long after his family is thrown from power.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize how this thinking is a hindrance when Eddard comes to King’s Landing. Far too often, commentators focus on his honor as his Achilles’ Heel, but as I have argued, it’s Eddard’s conception of power as entirely relational as opposed to institutional that’s the real problem. At the end of the day, Eddard doesn’t have to fight the Small Council – he has the authority to command them, or to replace them. If he dislikes the tourney’s drain on public funds, he could easily decree that competitors and audience members have to pay a per capita tax to defray the costs of the event. But as we will see again and again, to Eddard his role is to be Robert’s friend and adviser.
An interesting second topic introduced in this chapter is Arya’s resemblance to Lyanna Stark and what that tells us about the internal dynamics of House Stark. Not only does Arya Stark share the same “Stark look” (perhaps another reason why Ned shows a particular interest in his youngest daughter) as the “beautiful and willful” Lyanna, but she also has the “wildness…the wolf’s blood” that brought Lyanna and Brandon to an early death. Certainly, given Arya’s disdain for gender roles and her aggressive temper, this is particularly accurate, although I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the succeeding books have harshly tempered this tendency, focusing her aggression into sudden acts of violence through intense self-repression. I also think this resemblance explains why Eddard acts like a modern, “enlightened” parent in this chapter than then pulls back in Eddard V: Eddard allows Arya to run wild because of his love for his wayward sister, yet at the same time fears that Arya will share her fate.
At the same time, Eddard’s advice to his daughter that the Starks have to act as a wolf-pack in winter shows how the symbols and credos of the Great Houses shape their thinking. The Starks genuinely do form a united front against their enemies, while the Lannisters actively undermine and then murder each-other, and the Greyjoys dysfunction is riddled with abuse, assassination, and conflicting agendas. And while in the short-run, it hasn’t stopped the Starks from falling from power, the growing likelihood that the Lannisters will be brought down by their own actions and that the Greyjoys may well begin warring against each other.
One point before I get to the history: Arya II marks the entrance of fan-favorite Syrio Forel into the narrative, but it also marks the first really strong signifier that Arya Stark is beginning to walk down the path of the hero’s journey. If Sansa’s narrative throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series is a deconstruction of the Disney Princess myth, arguably Arya’s narrative throughout the series is a deconstruction of the traditional fantasy protagonist. Consider the following: Arya is born into a noble household that is betrayed and overthrown, forcing her to assume a false identity as a commoner and often as a boy; gets not just one but two mentors who train her and hand on moral lessons before disappearing from the narrative; has a list of people to revenge herself against in rising order of importance; and is currently hanging out with a bunch of mystic assassins in their secret temple. And yet, the result isn’t so much an upward slope of competence and empowerment and self-understanding, but a conga line of psychological trauma identity loss, and an inability to deal with problems outside of violence (even as many of her revenge targets die unrelated deaths).
Now back to the history. In learning to become a “water-dancer,” Arya Stark joins the ranks of some pretty formidable historical women duelists who hacked their way through traditional gender roles centuries ahead of schedule. Julie d’Aubigny (aka “La Maupin”) was trained in fencing by her father, became the mistress of the Comte d’Armagnac (Louis XIV’s Master of Horse), dumped her husband to run off with a swordmanster and begin dressing as a man, dueled three men at once and later seduced one of them when he turned out to be the son of a duke, kicked off her bisexuality by seducing a novice nun, stealing a nun’s corpse and swapping it for her lover, and then burning down the novice’s room to hide her abduction (for which she received a royal pardon from the Sun King), became a opera contralto superstar (where she busied herself chasing around sopranos and fighting duels), and became the subject of a best-selling novel.
Another duelist Doña Catalina de Erauso, also known as the “Nun Lieutenant,” escaped her nunnery by dressing as a boy, showed away to Peru where she became a duelist after a series of affairs with various married women and mistresses, rose to the rank of Captain in the Spanish Army, was discovered and shipped off to Rome, then arrested as a spy in France, and finally managed to get to Rome where she received a Papal dispensation allowing her to cross-dress. The countess Madame de St Belmont, whose husband was imprisoned for rising up against Louis XIV, responded to a cavalry officer who had billeted himself on her estate by dressing as a man and challenging him to a duel as “le Chevalier de St. Belmont,” which she then won, then dressed down the officer, saying ” “You thought…that you were fighting with the Chevalier de St. Belmont; it is, however, Madame de St. Belmont, who returns you your sword, and begs you in future to pay more regard to the requests of ladies.”
It’s a pretty impressive track record for any young woman to live up to, but as we’ll see, Arya is well on her way to historic levels of awesomeness. I’m still amazed that there aren’t more movies about any of these women. Screenwriters, get on it!
I don’t really see much in the way of potential turning points in this chapter; one could argue, I suppose, that it was possible that Eddard Stark could have not hired Syrio Forel, but in order for that to happen, I think you’d need to go back and rewrite most of Ned’s childhood and personality.
This is one of those character-heavy, plot-light chapters that don’t particularly lend themselves to hypotheticals, but Daenerys III should provide more material to work with.
Book vs. Show:
The HBO show actually did this chapter fairly straightforwardly, with the only change being the addition of Sansa’s doll (which I like, especially when we have the callback to it in Season 2), and leaving out Eddard storming off from the table due to being angry about the tourney, which isn’t a particularly significant detail.