Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Arya IV

“The first sword of Braavos does not run.”

Synopsis: Ser Meryn Trant and five Lannister guardsmen attempt to capture Arya Stark during the attack on the Tower of the Hand. Thanks to Syrio Forel’s sacrifice, Arya manages to escape to the stables, where she recovers Needle and kills a stableboy who attempts to turn her in for a reward. She vanishes into the depths under the Red Keep.

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

Arya IV contains one of my favorite set-pieces in all of A Game of Thrones – Syrio’s duel with the Lannister guardsmen and Ser Meryn Trant – and it’s clearly one of George R.R Martin’s favorites, since the episode he penned for Season 1 included this scene and not, say, Ned’s beheading. However, it’s one that I don’t think the fandom has really grasped correctly, for reasons I’ll get into later.

Syrio’s Death

Before we discuss the fight scene, we have to discuss Syrio’s fable. Naturally for a figure who might as well have a handwritten sign by Joseph Campbell spelling out “THE MENTOR” hanging around his neck, Syrio’s last lesson to Arya is to import to her that the “heart of it,” the quality that makes one a true swordsman, is “the true seeing,” the ability to distinguish between our romantic expectations that a great lord should own a “fabulous beast” and the mundane reality we live in. Given the way in which magic and story-telling are so linked throughout folk culture, the ability to tell the difference between the story and the reality is the ultimate power (it’s not an accident that Campbell emphasizes self-knowledge over and over again).

And the critical importance of “true-seeing” is demonstrated immediately: Arya is immediately confronted with a situation in which she’s presented with the appearance of authority (Lannister guardsman and a “Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard”) and has to divine the truth – that Lord Stark wouldn’t send Lannister guardsmen in place of Stark men, and that wearing a white cloak doesn’t make you a good guy (these hints are getting a bit anvillicious on the fifth re-read). It is this skill that will guide Arya throughout her deconstruction of the Hero’s Journey – Arya alone sees Jaqen H’gar for who he is and of what use he can be made, Arya can look through the illusions of the House of Black and White, and so on and so on. This lesson, more so than the actual art of swordsmanship, is Arya’s secret weapon.

Which gets me to the death of Syrio Forel – because Syrio Forel is dead, and has to be dead, and would probably be offended if someone tried to bring him back to life. In a dramatic sense, Syrio has to die because he’s The Mentor – and the Mentor always dies in the hero’s journey to raise the stakes (since the hero is now alone and unprotected) but also to allow the hero to begin their process of maturity and becoming independent (since the hero now has to stand on their own two feet without hints). Think Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Yoda, or Pa Kent, or Gandalf, or Dumbeldore, or Merlin. More importantly, think Eddard Stark, Yoren of the Night’s Watch, and Jaqen H’gar (at least symbolically), all fathers or substitute fathers whose deaths mark the evolution of Arya’s story and her character. 

Moreover, Syrio’s death perfectly fits with Martin’s dramatic sensibilities – the entire fight is symbolically a clash between the outnumbered and outgunned plucky underdog and the big bully, between the elegance and beauty of the art of the sword and the crude reality of steel swords and plate armor, between doing the right thing and taking the consequences and doing the wrong thing for base profit. In a more pandering work, Syrio would win because most people have been on the underdog’s side for the most part in their lives and want to see the wealthy and the powerful get their comeuppance (hence pretty much every sports movie or slobs vs. snobs movie ever made). But Martin is something of an existentialist when it comes to drama – what matters is that Syrio stands up for the right and defies evil, even when that means facing a knight of the Kingsguard with a broken practice sword, not that Syrio succeeds. (Look at a lot of Martin’s set-pieces: what matters is that Tyrion chooses to go out and fight for King’s Landing not whether he actually succeeds; what matters is that Jaime chooses to dive into the bear-pit not whether he slays the bear; and so on) 

Which brings me to why Syrio would want to be dead – because in this moment, this former First Sword of Braavos turned dancing master, far from his home, is offered a beautiful death (in Greek, a kalos thanatos). He gets to be the champion of right, and the beauty of his craft, and to save a child from imprisonment and possible death. He gets to go down swinging against impossible odds, with the chance to humiliate one of the KIngsguard. He gets to become in the mind of one girl and any man who comes out of that room alive, a legend. Survival means that one day, Syrio Forel’s feet will lose their nimbleness, his sword arm will forget its strength, and he will likely die of old age, alone and unremembered. Why would anyone want to take it from him?

The Attack on the Tower of the Hand

A second key thing that happens in this chapter is that the Tower of the Hand is attacked – we know that five men are sent to capture Arya, and we see that an unknown number were dispatched to deal with the remaining twelve Stark guardsmen protecting the Hand’s daughter, with one casualty. Which I think helps to complicate the picture of the coup – rather than being able to concentrate her forces in the Throne Room, Cersei had to divide them, some to the Throne Room, some to the Tower of the Hand, some to the City Gates, and some to the docks.

In that context, we can see how genuinely narrow Cersei’s manpower advantage was. Had the Goldcloaks simply stayed out, it’s quite possible that Eddard and Renly could have overpowered the Lannisters by concentrating their forces and aiming them straight at Cersei and Joffrey. It also explains how Arya is able to escape in the chaos of the attack.

Speaking of which – this chapter marks the first time that Arya kills someone, and it’s noteworthy that she kills not a Lannister soldier but a commoner boy whose death is as sudden, pitiful, unnecessary, and traumatic as it can get, complete with “accusing eyes.” This is important to note, because who Arya kills and why is going to become a crucial measuring device for how her story is not going to follow the classical hero’s journey.

 Historical Analysis

In previous chapters, I’ve compared Arya to famous women warriors to get some basic questions about gender and violence out of the way before we get into the heart of Arya’s storyline. However, at this point, a decidedly non-militant comparison arises: Anastasia, or to be more precise, the Grand Duchess Anastasiya Nikolayevna Romanova. Like the historical Anastasia, Arya is going to disappear and become an instant mystery, with both Starks and Lannisters and Briennes of Tarth all trying to figure out where she went to, complete with impostors trying to fill the hole she left.

Always astonished me that this movie got made without once ever mentioning what the Russian Revolution was actually about.

What’s interesting about the Anastasia thing, apart from the way in which romanticism went hand-in-hand with a particular revisionist history of pre-Bolshevik Russia, is how old this phenomenon is, dating back to an earlier era when the person of the monarch was more important, when ideas about divine right had more prevalence, and when the lack of ubiquitous photography made it easier for people to believe that some con artist might actually be the long-long whoever. After Richard II was executed, Henry IV faced more than one rebellion in which a figure purported to be Richard II was used as a symbolic figure to inspire loyalists; during the reign of Henry VII, a number of impostors popped up, including a Lambert Simnel who claimed to be at various times Richard III or the son of George of Clarence, a Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be Richard Duke of York (the younger prince in the tower) who attempted two separate rebellions before being unmasked as Flemish, and so on and so forth.

The reason why any of this is more than an amusing historical footnote is that it points to the way in which the image of a king, the name itself, can be a thing of power. In Henry IV, Part 1, the Welsh wizard and rebel Owen Glendower boasts to Harry Hotspur that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep;” the skeptical Hotspur, fighting over how to divide the kingdom should their rebellion succeed and worried about their forces for the coming battle, replies “why so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you do call for them?” Some names work better than others, and it really should come as no surprise that men will rise in the North at the name of “the Ned” and his daughter.

What If?

I really only see one hypothetical in this chapter (aside from the inevitable and unpleasant question of death):

  • Arya had been captured instead of escaping?  One of the major tensions in ASOIAF following this chapter is how Arya’s disappearance prevents the possibility of peace, first by preventing Tyrion from genuinely following through on any offer to trade the Stark daughters for Jaime Lannister, and second, by ultimately undermining the possibility of some kind of reconciliation between the Stark North and the Lannister South through some legitimate dynastic marriage. Arya being captured would make that more likely, but not necessarily probable – as I’ll point out later, the children-for-Jaime trade was doomed from the start.

Book vs. Show:

There’s not much to say here, because this scene is beautifully shot and written by George R.R Martin himself. So let’s just enjoy the moment.


60 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Arya IV

  1. It’s also a phenomenon that happens over and over again in Russian history. The number of fake tsars leading populist revolts against the crown is virtually beyond count!

    • stevenattewell says:

      Yep. Which should help those folks who complained about the fake Aryas and fake Sansas from AFFC to understand that sometimes, real life is just that weird.

  2. Sean C. says:

    How Arya would have fared in captivity is one of the great debates. The thing that would concern me most is that, given how psychotically Joffrey hates Sansa, whose only crime was witnessing Arya kick his ass, you would think he must hate Arya much more. The two characters don’t interact at all after the Kingsroad incident, so this slips a lot of people’s minds, but I think Arya rather than Sansa would have been his primary chew toy (and since Arya’s not “pretty”, he probably show a lot less concern for her face).

    Assuming she lived long enough, her presence would potentially have implications for things like Littlefinger’s schemes in the future. While Arya is obviously not interesting to him in a physical sense (though, ironically in the show, Maisie Williams actually looks more like Michelle Fairley than does Sophie Turner), the chance to have two Stark daughters as political pawns would be too good to pass up.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Yes, that would have been problematic. Especially since, unlike Sansa, who Cersei understands the importance of keeping alive, Cersei’s quite open to killing Arya at various points.

      And yes, Arya would have been very useful to Littlefinger, hence why he sends out sellswords to go looking for her.

  3. Matt Singer says:

    The analysis here regarding Syrio’s death has a fatal oversight – “Not Today,” arguably the most memorable lesson in the entire series. Why would Syrio all of the sudden, dramatically or literally, want to die? Whether or not the death is beautiful, it seems to go against one of the most important lessons he ever taught – survive.

  4. David says:

    @Matt: As a Syrio-isn’t-dead fan, I like where you’re going with that, but candor compels me to point out that in the books that line is actually “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” If anything, that lends a little extra weight to Steven’s theory, if you interpret that to mean a very Zen/Bushido-inspired rejection of fear even in the face of inevitable death.

    @Steven: I’m still not entirely convinced, though, so I’ll leave a few counterarguments here for your consideration.

    First, as you reference yourself with Jaqen H’ghar, “dying” out of Arya’s storyline doesn’t have to mean physical death.

    Second, Meryn Trant is a venal bully and braggart. If he’s just put down a famous swordsman, esp. one who just re-established his bona fides by maiming four men-at-arms with a stick, I can’t help but feel we’d have at least *some* indicator afterward of the macabre pride he’d take in his achievement, even if it’s relayed secondhand through Cersei or another King’s Landing POV.

    Third: speaking of Cersei, one of the few mentions we get of Syrio afterward uses curiously cryptic language: “…[I sent Lannister men after Arya], but her wretched dancing master interfered and the girl escaped.” (I’ll admit I’m paraphrasing there, but I think my recollection is pretty close.) It’s a choice of words that leaves out any details RE: Syrio’s death.

    More speculatively: we don’t know v. much about the circumstances that brought Syrio to King’s Landing. If the former First Sword just wanted to retire and take up teaching, why go all the way to Westeros? He could have set up shop in the Purple Harbor, named his price, and brought bravos flocking in by the score (I’m assuming he left the Sealord’s service under amicable terms.)

    I’d like to suggest an alternative possibility that touches on both A) what brought him to King’s Landing and B) what happened between him and Sir Meryn.

    A) He’s a Faceless Man. I’m not suggesting that the House of Black and White had some grand, globetrotting conspiracy that involved Arya somehow, but it seems reasonable to suppose they have access to sources of political intelligence that outstrip a lot of the other players. Is it an unsustainable leap to assume they might want an agent present in King’s Landing to observe (and perhaps influence) the increasingly-volatile events they see coming to a slow boil?

    Syrio’s entry into Arya’s life really is happy accident, I think; but in this theory, he sees the potential she represents and starts planting a few seeds. Being her fencing instructor gives him an access and an excuse to spend lots of time in the Red Keep. When events move from boil to burn (faster, quite possibly, than he anticipated) he does what he can to get her out of harm’s way.

    B) He escapes, and Meryn concocts a story in which he (Meryn) valiantly drove off a blood-soaked Braavosi demon-fencer (at the cost of some hapless Lannister men-at-arms.) Meryn would have been a tough target to bring down with Syrio’s limited weaponry, but his plate, mail and cloak would weigh him down; if Syrio can create a momentary diversion that gets him a couple of blade-lengths away, I like his run-away-and-hide chances. (Duck or deflect a high cut with what’s left of his stick, plant a boot in Meryn’s arse, push him into an ungainly tumble, and RUN before he finds his feet again.)

    From there: who knows? Does he morph into Jaqen H’ghar and find a way to watch his unlooked-for protege grow? Does he hop on the next ship to Braavos and put on his Kindly face? Or does he depart the capital for Faceless errands unknown?

    I’m not sure. But I like the idea that Arya’s deconstructed Hero’s Journey might *also* deconstruct the notion that the Mentor figure has to die.

    • stevenattewell says:

      1. It doesn’t have to, but it it doesn’t have to be symbolic either – thus, Ned and Yoren.

      2. And yet at no point do we ever hear of any such story, and given the fact that Arya’s whereabouts become vitally important to Cersei and Tyrion, you’d think it would come up. A braggart who doesn’t brag isn’t good evidence.

      3. I don’t see the Faceless Men as that political in nature; from what we’ve seen, they’re more focused on the religious side. Moreover, we don’t have any evidence of a Faceless Man in action in King’s Landing, as opposed to say at Pyke or Oldtown.

      I just think Occam’s Razor points to Syrio being dead – otherwise, this standoff loses its dramatic and moral significance.

      • Andy says:

        Another reason to believe he’s dead is that there have been 4 books with no real hint that he survived. In a narrative sense, I think the window has closed for him to come back.

        You could say that Aegon’s “resurfacing” is similarly out of the blue, but it’s unlikely that he’s actually Aegon. And the jury’s out on what the hell his function in the story is.

      • stevenattewell says:

        Andy – you have a good point. It’s a bit like wondering if Bran will ever remember what happened to him when he fell; at this point, there aren’t a lot of people left who that would still matter to.

        And while Aegon’s resurfacing is out of the blue, it actually ties into a bunch of storylines – the whole King’s Landing nexus, Dany’s hopefully forthcoming arrival in Westeros, etc.

    • John says:

      Whether or not Syrio could have survived, the timeline does not work at all for Jaqen H’ghar to be Syrio.

      Here’s the order of events:

      1. Yoren comes to King’s Landing seeking recruits.

      2. Ned Stark, as Hand of the King, gives Yoren access to the prisons, including the Black Cells

      3. Yoren finds Jaqen H’ghar, Rorge, and Biter in the Black Cells and gets them removed, thanks to Ned’s authority. They are kept in a cage as he finished his recruiting work.

      4. Ned’s failed coup attempt. Ned is being thrown into the Black Cells probably only a few hours after Syrio has his confrontation with Meryn Trant – or even at around the same time. By this time, we know, Jaqen H’ghar is no longer in the Black Cells.

      Jaqen H’ghar is a prisoner in the Black Cells during most of Arya’s time in King’s Landing, and thereafter is a prisoner of Yoren. This is all at the very time when Syrio is acting as Arya’s teacher.

      Now, I suppose it’s possible that Syrio, as a Faceless Man, escapes Trant and then somehow murders and replaces the real Jaqen H’ghar. But why would he do that? He couldn’t possibly know at this point that Yoren is going to take charge of Arya, so it wouldn’t be for that reason, and we also know that the Faceless Man’s next mission does not involve using the form of Jaqen H’ghar. So why make himself a prisoner of the Night’s Watch? If he wants to protect Arya, he can remain Syrio, rescue her himself, and take her to Winterfell or Riverrun. If he has a mission as a Faceless Man, then a) why was he spending all this time chilling as a sword instructor in the first place?; and b) why doesn’t he go directly to Oldtown?

      • stevenattewell says:

        That’s a very good point.

      • 1.) Yoren doesn’t ask Ned’s permission to take from the Black Cells until Robert is hunting, remember Sansa watched him ask while Ned is sitting on the throne and thinks about how he looked rather destitute and feels bad for Jon “if that’s what the Night’s Watch really was”. Jeyne yawns at this point and they decide to nick some food from the kitchens. All that to say, the window is a lot closer than you think.

        Now, I imagine Yoren doesn’t collect actual prisoners until the day he leaves, who will watch to make sure they don’t run away? He’s going out and recruiting, by himself, who watches the prisoners (as opposed to volunteers) while he’s gone? Nobody. In that case, what is to stop the prisoners from just walking away while he’s gone? Nothing. Jaqen, Rorge, and Biter, are unique in that he keeps them caged, but if that’s the case, where does he store caged humans? I can’t picture many inns willing to have people in a cage in (or outside) their establishment, alone, for extended periods.

        2.) It seems the prisons are not as carefully monitored as they should be, with Tyrion’s escape not being entered into the leger for a few days after until Jaime goes to investigate, it’s unknown if names and crimes were carefully put down as they have been. In that case what is there to prevent Syrio from entering the Black Cells, and Jaqen from emerging?

        It is noted the Rorge and Biter are both afraid of him, I can’t imagine many things instilling fear in those two, unless they knew he was a faceless man. Since I doubt faceless men go about bragging about who they are, the only explanation to their knowing is that they saw him change with their own eyes. Again, I can’t imagine him changing faces in front of two untrustworthy people without good reason… My idea is that “Syrio”‘s crimes were not ones that allowed for his release to the Night’s Watch, so he had to change to ensure his release.

        3.) Firstly, I imagine the Black Cells, as individual cells (1 prisoner each) to prevent them from joining together and overpowering their jailor, I may be wrong though. However even then I’d imagine they had solitary cells for important prisoners. Cersei clearly wanted Ned alive, her reaction when Joffrey has him killed makes this obvious. If there aren’t individual cells would they throw such a prisoner in with the general Black Cell populace? Probably not, it’d be too easy for him to be murdered. If there were individual cells, most prisoners (Rorge, Biter, and Jaqen) would probably be placed adjacently, to minimize the work of those charged with feeding them. However I would also imagine Cersei wouldn’t want to give Ned anyone to talk to, and have instructed them to place him far away from the others.

  5. CoffeeHound14 says:

    I had always interpreted the attack on the Tower of the Hand as having happened perhaps an hour or so after the showdown in the throne room, rather than simultaneously. I mainly base this interpretation on the fact that the Hound breaks down Jeyne Poole’s door after having participated in the combat in the throne room. Such a timeline would require less dispersion of Lannister guardsmen, as some of those present in the throne room could then participate in the attack on the Tower of the Hand. I also don’t think that there are Lannister men at the docks at this point; we don’t receive mention of guards being posted at the docks until the next Arya chapter, which takes place at least several days after this one. Furthermore, there isn’t really any reason for the Lannisters to cordon off the docks until they know that Arya has escaped the castle, since they have no reason to expect her escape from the castle without knowing that she has discovered an alternative exit.

    All this doesn’t really detract from your main argument that Ned nearly had local parity of forces before the goldcloaks came in against him.

    • stevenattewell says:

      1. An hour isn’t needed. The Tower and the Throne Room are less than 50 yards from each other. And we don’t quite know the timing between the Hound breaking the door and what’s happening now.

      2. Cersei’s reason to guard the docks comes from the fact that Sansa has told her that they’re going to be smuggled out via boat that evening.

      • CoffeeHound14 says:

        You’re right that an hour isn’t needed, but all the same, I think it seems likely that the Tower of the Hand comes under attack after Eddard has been captured. If nothing else, there’s no need for the attack to come at the same time as Ned is being taken in hand.

        Your second point is correct, but it doesn’t change the fact that she wouldn’t know that she needs to guard the exits to the city until she realizes that one of the Starks has escaped the castle.

        • stevenattewell says:

          1. I disagree – taking the kids would work as good insurance in either case. Lets say the throne room coup goes better than in OTL…what’s Ned going to do if Sansa and Arya are captured?

          2. I disagree again – Cersei’s policy here was clearly a blanket no-one gets in, no-one gets out so that she could prevent more Renlys. Hence the Redwyne twins, etc.

        • She wouldn’t have attacked the Tower of the Hand until she captures Eddard, I am 100% positive of this. She gives him the chance to swear fealty and leave, what if he had taken her up on the offer? Would he have returned to have found everyone dead? Plus the book definitively states that 5 of the Kingsguard are arranged in a crescent around the king, it says that the missing two are Ser Barristan (who is standing near Eddard having just arrived with him from his summons to the Tower of the Hand), and Jaime. How would Ser Meryn Trant be in the throne room, at the same time he is fighting Syrio?

          She wouldn’t have had the boat guarded either. She does not seem to know of the alternate exit out of the Red Keep, so since she wasn’t letting anyone in or out of the main gate she had no reason to believe it possible for Arya to escape. She also KNOWS Arya is at a “dancing lesson” and where they are held, otherwise Ser Meryn Trant wouldn’t have known to look for Arya there. Why would she guard the boat when she has no idea of a method of escape that she hasn’t blocked, and knows exactly where Arya and Sansa are at the time?

          Also, the men watching the boat are wearing Winterfell clothing, where would she have gotten Winterfell clothing on such short notice? She would have had to have it specially made (or taken it off some non-bloody Winterfell corpses which is a highly unlikely find). We know Sansa’s dress took a month to be made, since this is simpler, I’d give it a few days to a week. Was she preparing for this boat-watching days in advance? I highly doubt she had that much time to plan.

  6. MightyIsobel says:

    I’m glad you’re discussing Arya’s “true-seeing” because it’s one of the reasons she is appealing from the very beginning of the book, and it’s a source of many of her troubles until she meets Syrio.

    Arya is the only woman of Winterfell who resists the gender-based training inflicted on noble Westerosi. She gets the unfairness of being expected to waste her time doing embroidery, and she turns Septa Mordane’s criticism of her “blacksmith’s hands” into a defiant exit line. She doesn’t have the authority or vocabulary to articulate her critique, but her “true-seeing” of the injustice of Westerosi gender roles explicitly puts her in the line of fire for abuse from her own family.

    She also shows “true-seeing” at the Ruby Ford. Arya sees no appeal whatsoever in spending the day in the queen’s wheelhouse. I think she instinctively “gets” that Cersei is no friend to her family, where obedient princess-in-training Sansa is blinded by the queen’s status and physical comforts. And, of course, Arya sees right through Joffrey’s loathsome swaggering, and physically assaults him to defend Mycah, but lacks the political skills to ultimately protect her friend from his sadism.

    For Ned, Arya’s resistance reminds him of Lyanna, as you note in your analysis of Arya II. Which leads to her formative encounters with Syrio, where she finally meets someone who enjoys “true-seeing,” but is not tormented by what he sees. And he truly-sees her, as the future water dancer she can be. He accepts her body as it is, without gender as an obstacle, and educates her without the barrage of criticism Septa Mordane was employed to deliver on her.

    Makes you wonder what Brienne might have taken from some lessons from the First Sword of Braavos, doesn’t it?

    • stevenattewell says:

      Good point – although I’d make a caveat: she’s the only Winterfell woman of this generation. Lyanna was there before her, and I’m dying to find out about the Wolf Women of Winterfell that Dunk and Egg are going to meet.

  7. kylelitke says:

    Great stuff. Just wanted to throw out there though that Cersei didn’t necessarily need to split her forces to take the Tower of the Hand, as it doesn’t happen at the exact same time as the Throne Room. Meryn Trant is in the throne room during the previous Eddard chapter, as all six Kingsguard members (minus Jaime) are present. They could have taken the Tower immediately after the events in the Throne Room.

  8. Ivan T. W. says:

    Great essay as always, Steven. Glad to see you agree about Syrio, I like the guy, but it seems like his death would be a lot more meaningful than if he were to suddenly reappear. Littlefinger is one of my favorite characters, but if he DOESN’T die thanks to his own hubris, I’ll be disappointed since his character points to that, and I think Syrio’s character points to him going out in a blaze protecting his young charge.

  9. ajay says:

    I am slightly suspicious of any argument along the lines of “this wouldn’t happen in GRRM because it’s just not the way that traditional fantasy stories go”. Yes, in any other fantasy the Mentor would get killed at the start of the Hero’s Journey. But that’s almost the best argument that it’s been subverted here and he’s still alive..

    • stevenattewell says:

      It’s not that it’s the way that “traditional fantasy stories go” – it’s the way that all stories go, if you buy Joseph Campbell’s argument. And I think we can over-generalize from Martin’s deconstructionist tendencies – he doesn’t actually subvert every trope out there. Bran’s a pretty straightforward example of the Hero’s Journey, there’s strong elements in both Jon and Dany’s story-lines, the tropes of prophecy are in full effect, etc.

      It’s not deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake – Martin uses deconstruction to accomplish dramatic effects and advance themes and meta-arguments, but never indiscriminately.

      • John says:

        Martin’s willingness to deconstruct tropes has, I think, been greatly exaggerated by fans who haven’t actually read very many novels (or history books). What Martin really does is confuse us and disorient us so that we don’t expect what are actually totally conventional narrative maneuvers

        In the larger structure of ASOIAF as a whole, Ned’s death is not only non-subversive, it’s exactly what we should predict. Four of the major points-of-views are of his children. He is the wise father whose death will be the motivating factor for his children to grow up and avenge him. This is not an unusual type of character – Duke Leto from Dune springs to mind as the closest analogue, but they seem pretty innumerable to me. What Martin actually does is trick us into not realizing that Ned is fulfilling this standard trope by instead structuring AGOT as a murder mystery, with Ned as the detective. The detective doesn’t get killed! But that’s just a screen for what’s actually going on.

        Martin accentuates his disorientation of us by hiding his intentions from us for as long as possible. So even after Ned’s coup fails and he is in prison, he holds out what seems like a very plausible hope that Ned will survive and be sent to the Wall. The thing is, that in terms of standard narrative expectations, of course Ned has to die. Martin disorients us by making us think the standard narrative device *isn’t* going to happen, and then makes it happen anyway, and in the cruelest and most painful way possible. But I don’t think Martin actually subverts many traditional narrative tropes at all.

      • stevenattewell says:

        Couldn’t agree more.

  10. Ser Ponce says:

    IMHO Syrio exists in a creative quantum state — GRRM is keeping him on reserve in case he’s needed or GRMM figures out a cool way to end the debate definitively (in either direction).

    But if I had to guess… well, there were six swords laying on the ground, all he had to do was pick one up after Arya left…

    • stevenattewell says:

      Actually, Martin’s been pretty candid about this one publicly.

      • David says:

        @Steven: has he, truly? Because all I’ve turned up in my Googling have been “his sword broke; draw your own conclusions” quotes a la

        Again, I’m v. much of two minds on this – I think your points RE: Occam’s Razor and conservation-of-deconstruction have real weight.

        In what’s *not* being said, though – Arya’s failure to notice the swords on the floor, Cersei’s omission of death when she reflects on Syrio’s involvement, and even Martin’s refusal to give a straight up-or-down answer – I find reason for some uncertainty (and hope.)

        My new favorite out-of-left-field theory is that Syrio killed Meryn and took his place. =P If his Faceless mission was simply “find a good reason to be in the Red Keep that keeps you v. close to people of power; await further orders,” that would have been a brilliant adaptation to changing circumstances.

        I think my only point of real disagreement with your argument thus far is RE: the political nature (*/lack thereof) of the Faceless Men. I don’t think you can develop a cadre of world-renowned assassins and *not* be a political player, even if it’s only in response to other political players taking notice of you and trying to incorporate you into their moves. More: I like the idea that the Faceless Men as a whole are at least partly based on, which would support the idea of both religious and political motivations.

        I’d argue that if we haven’t seen v. much RE: their political goals, interactions with the Sealord and the Iron Bank, et al., it’s because our exposure to them is based primarily on Arya’s POV, not because their political side doesn’t exist.

      • stevenattewell says:

        “GRRM does not understand why he gets asked the question repeatedly, pointing out that Syrio is not immortal; if accurate, this seems to more heavily imply that Syrio Forel is dead.”

  11. drevney says:

    My thought was about the “and now you’re dead, dead girl” quote.

    We can understand that author means that the girl Aria is dead. She will no longer be Aria the innocent and optimistic girl.

  12. Andrew says:

    I was also a bit ticked by the Anastasia film’s revisionist history of the Russian Revolution, putting the blame on a baddie sorcerer rather than Nicholas II’s incompetence and inability to adapt to a changing climate. Other than that it was the only Fox animated film to be able to compete alongside films from Disney’s golden age.

    Dany no doubt views Robert’s Rebellion in a way similar to the way the film views the Russian Revolution.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Well, script problems aside, Don Bluth is Don Bluth. Can’t go far wrong there.

      And yes, I would agree with that.

  13. empire25 says:

    “Fear Cuts Deeper than Swords”. You talk about Syrio as a proto father figure. GOT opens with Ned telling Bran that “a man can only be brave when he is a afraid”. Similar advice passes from Ned to Jon Snow. The idea that fear is universal, and to be a strong person one has to transcend it is the preeminent piece of fatherly advice in the series. The fact this advice comes to Arya from Syrio is meant to crown him as a father figure.

    However the fact that Arya needs to get this advice from someone else also symbolizes the fact that Ned was not a very feminist character, and treated his daughters with something along the lines of benign neglect. (The same advice about fear passes to Sansa from Littlefinger, also for the first time. Given your … feelings toward the man, I am going to attach that last piece without editorial comment)

    • stevenattewell says:

      “Ned was not a very feminist character.”

      Given the standards of the time, he let her keep a sword and gave her a teacher, which is more than 90% of fathers would do. He’s certainly up there with Lord Selwyn Tarth, if not quite at Balon Greyjoy levels.

  14. […] gets to John from the comments’ point about the extent to which GRRM is deconstructing standard fantasy tropes; I disagree somewhat in […]

  15. […] battle, and the first time that she kills in earnest – as compared to her almost accidental stabbing of the stableboy in the Red Keep. It’s an interesting comparison to her later, somewhat darker, killings. Here, Arya is […]

  16. anai says:

    i feel like if grrm was going to kill syrio in that scene he wouldve shown us syrio’s death. why spare the blood and gore now? we were about to lose ned in gorey scene and we already lost jory in a terribly painful scene so why now? meryn trant wouldnt admit to cersei that he lost in a fight to a guy with a wooden sword especially not when he came in with two other men. also why wouldnt syrio just pick up one of the lannister guards swords? my best guess is that since the first sword of braavos does not run, syrio beat meryn trant fair and square with the sword of one of the guards and allowed him to live and simply walked out of that room like a boss. that being said i do believe syrio is in someway affiliated with the faceless men i dont think he is Jaqen or anything like that but i’m willing to be that his mentality comes from having in some way trained with them or maybe being a former FM. he says a lot of things that sound like the things the FM believe in.

    • 1. POV. Arya’s the only camera he’s got on on the scene, so showing Syrio’s death means Arya’s sticking around way too often.

      2. That’s only in the show. BookSyrio does not mention the god of death.

      3. He beat him…without leaving any sign of injury? Remember, Cersei interviewed Meryn Trant that same day and didn’t mention Trant being injured at all.

      4. Off-screen death can be just as powerful as on-screen death. Hence the whole of classic Greek tragedy.

  17. Henry says:

    I noticed when re-reading this chapter a peculiar piece of writing, “Calm as still water, a small voice whispered in her ear. Arya was so startled she almost dropped her bundle. She looked around wildly, but there was no one around.”

    This may have just been in her head, but when you hear your own thoughts you do not normally get startled like she has. This makes me wonder if Syrio Forel is not a faceless man then perhaps he has some other mystical powers.

    I think it is possibly Syrio that she hears as she goes on to think that she’s not sure if it was his voice or her own.

    Interested as to what you guys think?

  18. […] matter whether Waymar defeats the White Walker or Yoren actually saves his hostages (or whether Syrio Forel wins his duel). What matters is that they made the […]

  19. olof says:

    I did think when I read the scene that we had the classic heroic sacrifice and that Syrio was a goner for sure. But then, no confirmation on his death? We get several scenes with dead Stark bodies and heads and some discussion about the events, but no confirmation on Syrio whatsoever. Suspiciously vague language from Martin; draw your own conclusions. You mention the dying mentor archetype, but that point is of course completely undermined by the fact that Jaqen is alive.

  20. […] (even elite rangers like Qhorin’s band) to deal with this kind of a threat. But as with Syrio Forel or Yoren, the fact that Dalbridge’s sacrifice fails does not diminish its meaning. The fact […]

  21. Eadgyth says:

    I keep coming back to Arya and gender issues and wanted to thank you for overall deft handling of the issues. My own gender ID is non-standard, where around mixed company I take on neutral-feminine appearance but identify far more with things men identify with- think math and loving tools vs shopping and makeup. So I have found much of the discussion of Arya disorienting out in the broader Internet as the general thing people tell each other is that she must be very traumatized and is possibly a kind of psychopath, whereas I find myself in 100% agreement with most of what she thinks and does. This *does* cause a person to wonder about their own morality!

    What I wanted to note here is that Arya identifies with the boys of her family. And the boys are all explicitly being taught that they will have a moral duty to kill people, and they had better be good at it. Also it is part of their paradigm that as lords they have the natural right to kill people as they see necessary. So while Arya might have a moment or two of distress when she kills the stable boy without a clear mandate from a trusted advisor, why would she be thinking of this as an immoral act? And if it is not immoral, why would she be haunted/ traumatized by it?

    I would also like to note I have yet to see a post where people wonder about how traumatized Robb must be after the murder of Rickard Karstark, or the hound after the murder of poor Mycah. Clearly Arya’s gender underlies people’s expectation of trauma, where the book includes extremely minimal signs of trauma. I would argue Arya’s primary experiences of trauma are when she lacks agency to live life on her own terms (e.g. at Harranhal) and when she starts having people killed is when she regains her sense of empowerment and begins to set out her own life path.

    • Bwbah says:

      Arya being traumatized by her first kill has nothing to do with her being a girl. She’s a ten year old child with a sheltered upbringing who didn’t even intend harm. Plus the fact that we got to ride along inside her head as she experienced the event. And it’s an obvious turning point for her, as it reveals something new about her to both us and her.

      As for Sandor Trauma Clegane? Trauma would be your middle name, too, if you had Gregor for an older brother. From what we learn of him later, the butcher boy’s death probably did traumatize him. But it wasn’t a turning point. And therefore, in his context, boring.

      Similarly, Karstark’s execution wasn’t a turning point for Robb, either. After finishing _A Clash of Kings,_ if someone had asked ‘What would Robb do if one of his bannermen killed some of his other bannermen in an attempt to murder a prisoner Robb needed to stay alive?’ what other answer could you possibly give?

  22. […] something that the ASOIAF fandom doesn’t make a bigger deal about; yes, we’ve seen Arya hear voices before, but in that case she only heard things that she heard before and it could be argued that she was […]

  23. […] things she could not bear having her father know.” This is partly out of shame – the stableboy and the Northern guard at Harrenhal are the two instances where Arya has killed outside of the […]

  24. […] I talk about existential heroism in ASOIAF, this moment is the exact kind of thing I mean. No one south of the Wall will ever rank […]

  25. […] The second major question between Davos and Alester is the question of what to do when one finds oneself “in dubious battle on the plains of Heaven”? While I think Alester exaggerates for effect, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong that Stannis is at a tremendous disadvantage and that surrendering would no doubt spare some lives. However, this is where I disagree with Stefan Sasse’s thesis about Brynden Tully, because I think this chapter places Alester Florent squarely in the wrong for arguing that there is “no choice” but surrender in the face of overwhelming odds, and Davos in the right for arguing that it is better for Stannis to “choose to die a king,”  or “the royal purple is the noblest shroud” to quote the original authoress. While George R.R Martin hates war, he also describes himself as “an objector to a particular war,” distinguishing between wars fought for a good cause and a bad cause. Here, Davos is arguing the existential case: when surrender requires you to proclaim the truth to be a lie, when surrender requires you to be complicit in injustice, then the only correct action is to do the right thing no matter the odds. […]

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