“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.