“It made Bran feel queer when they called him prince, though he was Robb’s heir, and Robb was King in the North now. He turned his head to howl at the guard. “Oooooooo. Oo-oo-ooooooooooo.”
Synopsis: Bran Stark, Prince of Winterfell, is out of sorts – he’s been having wolf dreams, he can’t get a straight answer on the comet, he doesn’t like Big Walder and Little Walder, and the direwolves have been locked on. So he acts like a little brat and gets drugged to sleep…and then dreams about wolves again.
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.
On Tower of the Hand’s rankings of A Clash of Kings chapters, Bran’s storyline is one up from dead last, which I find interesting because I’d say his Clash of Kings material is a noted improvement from his plot in A Game of Thrones. Even in this short chapter, which has Bran acting as a rather annoying brat with a wolf obsession and some wolf-dreams where nothing happens, there’s some fascinating material to work with.
Once again, the mystical arrives in the form of the comet, where people in Winterfell are likewise divided about the comet’s meaning. Septon Chayle and Maester Luwin, like Maester Cressen, believe the comet is a natural phenomenon, arguing that the wolves are “howling at the comet” because “they think it is the moon,” and that the comet is only the “sword that slays the season.” People who insist on scientific explanations for the seasons and other ASOIAF phenomena should note that, in the text, the scientific explanation is explicitly called out as incorrect. However, because Winterfell is of the North, it has more of a connection back to the Old Way, and thus Old Nan is on hand to take the prize for spot-on prediction that the comet signifies “dragons…it be dragons, boy.”
Moreover, Osha is on hand to provide the additional info from further North that the wolves are howling at the comet for important reasons: “Your wolves have more wit than your maester…they know truths the grey man has forgotten,” although she’s a bit more enigmatic about the comet significance: “blood and fire, boy and nothing sweet.” (Where did a wildlings learn the Targaryen words?) The role of the wolves in the mystical meta-narrative is often a bit vague, but always significant. Here, the wolves are clearly responding to something important about the comet (given the story of Azor Ahai, the comet doesn’t just signify the dragons, but also their opposite), and sufficient intelligence to try to communicate to Bran: “They are talking to me, brother to brother, he told himself when the direwolves howled. He could almost understand them…as if they were singing in a language he had once known and somehow forgotten.”
Sometimes, people tend to assume that the “wolf blood” of the Starks refers to warging, and that warging only involves the psychic possession of animals – but I doubt it. The signs all point to the source of the Starks’ wolf blood coming from Bran the Builder, and given that he was almost certainly the Last Hero and Azor Ahai, and that his magic clearly extended far beyond warging if he built the Wall and Storm’s End (both structures which have magical protections in addition to their physical fortifications). It’s quite possible that “speaking the many tongues of the animals of the forest” is also in their repertoire.
Certainly Bran’s magical heritage goes beyond wolf-dreams: “Do trees dream?” “They do…they dream tree dreams. I dream of a tree sometimes. A weirwood, like the one in the godswood. It calls to me.” On the one hand, this is likely Bloodraven in his more rustic appearance, trying to get through on the weirwoodnet. On the other hand, it could also be a time-travelling Bran trying to communicate with himself as well as foreshadowing that he’s going to end up as a greenseer as well as a warg. Certainly, that’s Osha’s opinion: “Is it the wolf dreams again?…you should not fight so hard, boy. I see you talking to the heart tree. Might be the gods are trying to talk back.”
On the political side of things, I have to admit that the young Walders are a beautiful little gem that I completely missed on the first few re-reads through A Song of Ice and Fire. While initially I shared Bran’s irritation with them, on closer inspection Big Walder and Little Walder are a perfect synecdoche for their poisonous clan, and surprisingly important. “Sharp-faced and skinny and half a foot shorter,” Big Walder represents the weaselly side of the Frey, their gift for deceit and stealthy murder. He’s the one with the succession lines of the vast Frey clan mapped out in his head and an eye on the prize: “We’re cousins, not brothers,” added Big Walder, the little one….”he’s ahead of me in the line of succession even though I’m older.” “Only by fifty two days,” Little Walder objected. “And neither of us will ever hold the Twins, stupid.” “I will,” Big Walder declared.” And of course, he’s the one who murders his cousin in Winterfell and throws the suspicion on the Manderlys – his grandfather would be proud. “Tall and stout, with a red face and a big round belly,” Little Walder, by contrast, represents the bullying, sadistic side of the Freys that explains why they haven’t been turfed out of their Twin before. He’s the one who takes to being Ramsay’s squire (and what a testament to moral character that is), and he’s the one who always wins the game.
I really can’t believe I missed the game – such a sneaky little piece of foreshadowing:
“The game was played with a log, a staff, a body of water, and a great deal of shouting…the way their game was played, you laid the log across the water, and one player stood in the middle with the stick. He was the lord of the crossing…and the other player had to make up a speech about who they were and why they should be allowed to cross. The lord could make them swear oaths and answer questions. They didn’t have to tell the truth, but the oaths were binding unless they said “Mayhaps,” so the trick was to say “Mayhaps” so the lord of the crossing didn’t notice. Then you could try and knock the lord into the water and you go to be lord of the crossing, but only if you’d said “Mayhaps.”
This is a game about treachery, deceit, the making and breaking of oaths, and ruthlessly abusing the family’s chokehold on the Green Fork of the Twins. It’s a game that Walder Frey was raised on – did you think his “mayhaps” was an accident? – and it trains Freys from childhood on to be liars, abusers and manipulators of oaths, and to see the world in the grimmest of Machiavellian terms of victors and victims. No wonder why Big and Little Walders are tiny sociopaths who speak of their family members only in terms of obstacles or dangers .
In other words – it’s the Red Wedding writ small, a book and a half ahead of schedule. GRRM, you sneaky so-and-so.
Normally, I’d talk here about fostering as a custom in medieval Europe, but I already did that – so if you’re interested in fostering, you can read that entry here. Instead, I want to talk a bit about the legend of Bran the Blessed, who I briefly mentioned here.
In Welsh mythology, Bran the Blessed (Brân Fendigaidd, or “the blessed raven”) is both a giant (a nod to the giants who built the Wall) and the High King of Prydain (or Britain, depending on your spelling). In the story, the King of Ireland travels to Wales to meet with Bran in his castle of Harlech, in order to make a marriage alliance between Bran’s sister Branwen and himself and unite the two kingdoms (shades of Sansa and Joffrey there). However, the King of Ireland is insulted by Bran’s half-brother, and when he takes Branwen back to Ireland, he mistreats her so badly that she sends a letter across the sea to her brother to come rescue her.
Bran assembles an army to rescue his sister, but the Irish meet him with an offer of peace. Inside the hall where the two sides are to feast and discuss peace, the Irish hide warriors in sacks of flour who burst out and attack Bran’s men, aided by the magical cauldron Bran had given them that revives the dead (which many consider to be the origin of the Holy Grail’s supposed power to heal the wounded and bring the dead back to life). With the cauldron destroyed, Bran cannot be healed and yet cannot die – so he has his head removed from his body and returned to Harlech.
There, the head of Bran the Blessed continues to live, separate from the body, speaking prophecies that always come true and seemingly preserving everything around him from the passage of time. Eventually, Bran the Blessed instructs them to take his head and bury it beneath the White Hill (believed to be the spot where the Tower of London sits), facing the Channel. In this place, Bran’s mystic presence will eternally safeguard Britain from foreign invasion, as long as it is not disturbed.
I’ve already mentioned the parallels to Grail legends about the Fisher King, but it’s pretty clear that GRRM was attracted to the name and the legend of Bran as a source of inspiration – a King with mystic powers, a brother who goes to war for his sister and is struck down in a feasting hall under flag of truce, a King who sacrifices himself to save his family, the idea of a sacred place which safeguards against invasion.
I don’t really have any hypotheticals here, but I have a bunch for next week. So stay tuned!
Book vs. Show:
Outside of Bran’s interactions with Osha, the show cuts out this chapter completely, especially the Frey boys (who are mentioned in Season 1, but who never appear thereafter). Ultimately, narrative economy seems to have prevailed here, eliminating two background characters who are interesting thematically, but would chew up valuable screen-time.