“Arya thought about running, but she knew she wouldn’t get far on her donkey when the gold cloaks had horses. And she was so tired of running.”
Synopsis: Arya travels with the Night Watch caravan up the Kingsroad, learns about
Nymeria a mysterious she-wolf, encounters Jaqen H’ghar, hides with Gendry, and watches Yoren face down the Goldcloaks.
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.
If Arya I gave out some teasers, Arya II is a salvo for her arc for the series, both in terms of showing how the War of Five Kings is coming to the smallfolk and coming after Arya herself. First in bits and pieces and then in a flood, the youngest Stark daughter witnesses the war’s homefront:
“Morn, noon, and night they came, old folks and little children, big men and small ones, barefoot girls and women with babes at their breasts. Some drove farm wagons or bumped along in the back of ox carts. More rode: draft horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, anything that would walk or run or role. One woman led a milk cow with a little girl on its back. Arya saw a smith pushing a wheelbarrow with his tools inside, hammers and tongs and even an anvil, and a little while later a different man with a different wheelbarrow, only inside this one were two babies in a blanket. Most came on foot, with their goods on their shoulders and weary, wary looks on their faces. They walked south, toward the city, toward King’s Landing…”
In a feudal agricultural society, there can be few sights more emblematic of disorder and disruption than that of a refugee train of people desperately trying to save their belongings from the war (belongings they’re about to lose to Littlefinger’s tax), marching hopelessly from one war-zone into the next. And in this little cameo, we can see gradations of prosperity already, between the people with livestock and those who walk, between the people with skills and tools to their name and the people with only mouths to feed.
George R.R Martin puts an even finer point on his statement here by having Arya’s caravan not only encounter the nobly suffering poor, but also the people who are exploiting them in a time of crisis – “The next morning, a sleek merchant on a grey mare reined up by Yoren and offered to buy his wagons and everything in them for a quarter of their worth.” – and the reality that the desperate poor are not so noble as to be above a bit of exploitation themselves: “Many of the travellers were armed…they fingered their weapons and gave lingering looks at the wagons as they rolled by, yet in the end they let the column pass. Thirty was too many, no matter what they had in those wagons.”
As the Night Watch caravan travels up the Kingsroad, we move from poverty to exploitation to danger to death, and the dramatic question of the end of the chapter is prefigured as the caravan tries to hang on to as much dignity and humanity as possible: “Arya noticed the first grave that same day; a small mound beside the road, dug for a child. A crystal had been set in the soft earth, and Lommy wanted to take it until the Bull told him he’d better leave the dead alone.” The crystal is a small sign of humans trying to cling to pre-war human customs, religion as a source of solace – one can only imagine how expensive a grave crystal must have been to acquire at this time and place – and that brief ripple of faith is followed up by rows of blank graves where either the crystals were stolen or the survivors had simply given up on pricey ritual in favor of practicality. In the end, even the Night’s Watch has to bend to practicality to some extent: “they dug a grave of their own, burying the sellsword where he’d slept. Yoren stripped him of his valuables before they threw the dirt on them…tossed a handful of acorns on top of Praed’s body, so an oak might grow to mark his place.”
But as the gesture indicates, like the protagonists of so many post-apocalyptic dramas, the Night’s Watch has drawn a line and will go no further. But what happens when this resolve is tested?
Rumors and Encounters
Along the way from the asking of the question and the answering, Arya hears some rumors and meets someone new, and both of these events are important enough to take some time to puzzle over them. In the first case, it’s quite clear that this is Nymeria the smallfolk of the Riverlands are terrified of:
“the packs have grown bolder’n anyone can remember….they kill as they like and they got no fear of men…there’s this great pack, hundreds of them, mankillers. The one that leads them is a she-wolf, a bitch from the seventh hell…this hellbitch walked into a village one day..and tears a baby from his mother’s arms….Lord Mooton, him and his sons swore they’d put an end to her. They tracked her to her lair with a pack of wolfhounds, and barely escaped with their skins. Not one of those dogs came back, not one.”
Two things to note before I do some speculation as to why GRRM spends so much time telling us what Nymeria has been up to: first of all, I think this is symbolic in that the wolves are not going to be kind to the Riverlands, however well-intentioned Robb might be. Second, it’s heartbreaking how Arya simultaneously stands up for wolves (in much the same way that she’ll do the same for the Starks and Winterfell! in general) and has convinced herself that she would be rejected if she met Nymeria/her mother again (“she probably wouldn’t even know me now…or if she did, she’d hate me”).
As for Nymeria…well, at the moment she’s acting as a tether for Arya, keeping her true to her Stark identity despite the Faceless Men’s programming (although I think the fandom was a bit over-emphatic on that topic, given the suggestion in “Mercy” that this was less Manchurian Candidate and more method acting). However, I do think GRRM’s going to do more with the wolf than that – if not exactly have a giant army of wolves show up a la the Eagles in the Hobbit, at the very least unite with Arya to prompt her to go North, young woman.
And now – Arya’s first encounter with Jaqen H’ghar (oy, that name is going to be misspelled so many times over the next book)! A rather momentous event, but one that in this re-reading has some interesting comparisons to Sansa’s meeting Ser Dontos that I hadn’t noticed before. In both cases, a Stark sister is encountering a potential guide and ally who is initially hardly promising in appearance, in a dangerous situation, and makes a connection that will be important later. However, the differences are rather instructive – here, the key quality that is demonstrated is not morality, but rather “more courage than sense,” although I would argue that self-possession and a good eye for distances are involved as well. While I would disagree that masculine-presenting characters don’t get their own share of bile directed at them, there is something to the argument that one of the reasons why Arya is often preferred to Sansa in the fandom has to do with the fact that her story leans into more conventionally heroic (and conventionally masculine, unfortunately) traits.
At the same time, it’s an interesting difference that Jaqen H’ghar presents himself as a figure in need (as opposed to Ser Dontos, who is far more in need but who doesn’t know it until too late): “A man could use another taste of beer…A man could use a bath too…A boy could make a friend.” Given what we know about the capabilities of a Faceless Man, there is something deliberate in the way that he’s positioning himself as harmless (emphasizing the “heavy bracelets“) and friendly (disassociating himself from “the company he keeps,” and emphasizing his own “courtesy“). Often, I feel the emphasis on the Faceless Men is on their magical capabilities or their skill at killing; equally important to me is their acting skills, their focus on understanding human interaction both from a performative and observational standpoint. And the interesting thing in this scenario is that, apart from instigating this encounter, making his requests, and making introductions, Jaqen spends much of the encounter not doing anything, observing how Arya reacts to his companions.
Neutrality in a Time of War
Finally, the answer to the question. At the inn, Yoren is confronted with the seeming impossibility of continuing to travel North and of staying neutral, but stays true to the ideals of the Night’s Watch, insisting “stubbornly” that “That’s nothing to us…Tully or Lannister, makes no matter. The Watch takes no part.” And while in the moment, Arya is still drawn to the Tully side, I think there is something in Yoren’s stand that sparks a certain respect for the Night’s Watch as an institution – something that will drive Arya to save Samwell Tarly and execute Dareon the singer.
Indeed, I think we get as good a sense in this chapter as we do in any Jon chapter what the Night’s Watch stands for at its best. First, we get an intriguing mention from the innkeeper that “I had a brother took the black, years ago. Serving boy, clever, but one day he got seen filching pepper from m’lord’s table.” Rather than reacting to the Night’s Watch as an oppressive institution, the innkeeper reaches past that to see it as an institution that his brother is a part of, a source of common identity and interests. Which is not something you expect from a relative’s interactions with a carceral system.
Second, and more importantly, we get the arrival of the Goldcloaks and their conflict with Yoren:
“they were riding up the kingsroad, six in the black ringmail and golden cloaks of the city watch….They drew up in front of the inn. Look with your eyes, Syrio’s voice seemed to whisper. Her eyes saw white lather under their saddles; the horses had been ridden long and hard…
“You men,” one of the gold cloaks shouted. “You the ones left to take the black?…I have a warrant for a certain boy-“
Yoren stepped out of the inn….”Who is it that wants this boy?”
…”The queen wants him, old man, not that it’s your concern,” the officer said, drawing a ribbon from his belt. “Here, Her Grace’s seal and warrant.”
…Yoren fingered the warrant ribbon with its blob of golden wax. “Pretty…thing is, the boy’s in the Night’s Watch now. What he done back in the day, don’t mean piss-all.”
“The queen’s not interested in your views, old man, and neither am I…”
“You’ll have no one,” Yoren said stubbornly. There’s laws on such things.”
“”The gold cloak drew a shortsword. “Here’s your law.”
Yoren looked at the blade. “That’s no law, just a sword. Happens I got one too.”
It’s a fairly short passage, but there’s incredible depth here (behind everything else, we’re also seeing Cersei’s execution of the bastards in action and how desperate she is to remove all possible evidence of her crimes and how that policy affects people on the ground). What we have here is a conflict between two kinds of authority – on the one hand, an autocratic authority of royal decrees, which rests merely on the will of “Her Grace” without reference to any kind of precedent and which is ultimately backed up by naked force; on the other, Yoren’s appeal both to legal precedent and historic custom, backed up by an appeal to solidarity. Faced with the question I described above, Yoren is so devoted to the Night’s Watch’s promise of neutrality and amnesty that he’s willing to draw steel against a royal officer.
The contrast to Jeor Mormont’s last stand at Craster’s Keep is quite instructive. At this place and time, when the Night’s Watch is put to the test, ordinary men like Tarber, Cutjack, Kurz, Koss, Reysen, Dobber, and Hot Pie (for the most part, non-entities who will be dead in a few chapters) step up to the challenge, Spartacus-style in a show of soldiarity. For all that Yoren warned Arya that these ex-prisoners and castoffs were only a danger, we get a rare moment where the better angels of human nature prevail. It’s very much an underdog triumph, as Yoren takes advantage of the momentary loss of concentration on the party of authority, and brings what power he has to a point – up against “the apple of the officer’s throat.“
And just as we’ve seen before, it’s an existential triumph – a momentary victory that buys the Night’s Watch only a head start – but the act of standing up is what matters.
The kind of mass refugeeing we see in Arya II is one aspect of the War of Five Kings that didn’t come from the Wars of the Roses – which, while they did see quite a bit of banditry and occasional pillaging of various towns, didn’t focus heavily on the chevauchée as had the Hundred Years War. After all, both sides were hoping to win the throne of England and give their enemy’s land to their followers, so despoiling the countryside in a thorough fashion was good for business. And while the commoners of England were not best pleased by the banditry and pillaging, they tended to respond either by demanding better police service from the monarchy or starting local rebellions, rather than decamping to somewhere else. However, there is a good historical parallel for the scale of devastation that did cause this kind of mass migration – the Thirty Years War.
Both a religious war over the futures of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation and a continental power struggle about the power of the House of Hapsburg (who controlled both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire), the House of Bourbon ruling France, and the ambitions of both the Danish and Swedes to become dominant regional powers in the Baltic, the Thirty Years War devastated Germany for decades on end. Given the size of the armies involved vis-a-vis the crude systems for logistics, the religious impulse to either expel or convert the population belonging to the wrong faith, and the sheer duration of the conflict, total war was brought to bear on the civilian population. As a result, historian Günther Franz estimates a 30% loss of population in urban areas and a 40% loss of population in rural areas, much of which was due to either the actions of soldiers; epidemics of typhus, dysentery, and bubonic plague; and a 40% drop in birth rates. However, as historians have pointed out, much of those declines marked mass migrations of people away from centers of conflict – and thus a mass refugee crisis was born.
“In sober fact, civilian prisoners were led off in halters to die of exposure by the wayside, children kidnapped and held to ransom, priests tied under wagons to crawl on all fours like dogs until they dropped, burghers and peasants imprisoned, starved, and tortured for their concealed wealth to the uttermost of human endurance with the uttermost of human ingenuity.
The more rapid and widespread movements of the troops in the last six years and increased the ravages of plague and hunger and uprooted the population of Central Germany from the soil, turning them into a fluctuating mass of fugitives. This the only explanation for the total desertion of villages…
The fugitives who fled from the south after Nordlingen died of plague, hunger and exhaustion in the refugee camp at Frankfort or the overcrowded hospitals of Saxony; seven thousand were expelled from the canton of Zurich because there was neither food nor room for them; at Hanau the gates were closed against them; at Stasbourg they lay thick in the streets through the frosts of winter, so that by day the citizens stepped over their bodies, and by night lay awake listening to the groans of the sick and starving until the magistrates forcibly drove them out, thirty thousand of them.”
As we can see from the chapter quote I put up top, the parallels with the Thirty Years War are especially strong with the the way in which the back and forth of the conflict puts smallfolk (either settled or refugeed) in the position of being labelled a collaborator for either the “wolves” or the “lions” – much in the same way that the Imperial army would persecute Lutherans and Calvinists (or people suspected of being Lutherans or Calvinists, or Catholics who supported their Lutheran or Calvinist liege lord, or who supported the Swedes), and then the Swedes would swing back through the area and persecute anyone who was a “Papist” or a supporter of the Emperor, or who had collaborated or opportunisticly sided with the same to survive, and vice-versa.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there is no scene of violence or violation that George R.R Martin has written that humanity has not written a thousand times before in its own history.
There’s not really a huge scope for hypotheticals here, as much of the episode boils down to one decision, but I have a few things in mind and I’m sure more will turn up in the credits.
- Gendry had been taken? I don’t give a huge weight to this one because it’s not in Yoren’s character to give up a recruit, but let’s say more than five goldcloaks had been sent and he’d been taken by main force. Well…the most likely outcome is that Gendry dies the same brutal death meted out to all the other royal bastards. However, if Gendry is brought alive back to King’s Landing, it’s possible that Tyrion’s accession to power might have saved his life and he’d seen out the siege making iron links; smiths are valuable after all. Given that Tyrion already knows about the bastards thing, Gendry wouldn’t be that vital to his storyline – but Varys probably would have continued to keep an eye on him. Without Gendry in the main plot, it’s quite possible Arya doesn’t manage to escape Harrenhal since she wouldn’t have had weapons to hand; likewise, it’s quite likely that Brienne would have died on the floor of the Inn at the Crossroads, which means Jaime never disappears…
- Arya had revealed herself? Arya comes rather close to saying who she is in a fit of emotion in this chapter. Given the rather large audience, it’s interesting to think what would have happened if it had become widely known that Arya had escaped the capitol and was running around in the Riverlands – for one thing, given that the Starks still have armies in the field, it’s quite possible that Arya gets found by one of them and is reunited with her mother. Either way, I think Catelyn is much less likely to release Jaime in a bit to save her daughters. On the flip side, if the Lannisters found out, it might have actually aided diplomacy since the Lannisters would actually have had both Stark daughters to work with.
- Arya stayed away from Jaqen H’ghar? Now here’s an interesting one. Let’s say Arya does as she’s told and doesn’t befriend Jaqen here – there’s a chance that the Faceless Man burns to death in a cage in a nameless holdfast in the Riverlands. In which case, besides Chyswyck and Weese surviving, there’s a possibility that Harrenhal never falls to Roose Bolton – which in turn might butterfly away the Red Wedding, Duskendale, and the Ruby Ford if Roose is never able to make contact with Tywin. Likewise, it’s quite possible that Jaime keeps his hand, because without Harrenhal under Roose Bolton, Vargo Hoat doesn’t have the opportunity to switch sides.
Book vs. Show:
The show kept this one pretty much on par, with the only real difference being that the Goldcloaks arrive when the Night’s Watch are camped out by the side of the road rather than staying at an inn, and that most of the wartime devastation is “shown” rather than “told.”
In general, if there’s one bright spot in Season Two, it’s the Arya plotline, in which the writers went in many ways above and beyond the text (especially in the Harrenhal material with Arya and Tywin) to construct some really amazing television.