“Him in his tree, let’s see how well he likes it up there when the Others come to take him. He’ll scream for the Watch then, that he will.”
Synopsis: Arya and Co. travel through the Riverlands. Nothing happens, but it’s very atmospheric and moody.
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.
Despite the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is told through an ensemble of point-of-views, there is still a degree of variation involved that lend a particular slant to each book. Eddard’s POV chapters significantly outnumber any other perspective in A Game of Thrones; Tyrion absolutely dominates A Clash of Kings; Jon, Tyrion, and Arya are all pretty closely matched in A Storm of Swords; Cersei’s voice is the loudest in A Feast For Crows; and A Dance With Dragons concentrates on the central trio of Jon, Dany, and Tyrion. However, Arya comes a close second in this book to Tyrion in terms of chapters, giving us the perspective of the war on the ground as Tyrion gives us the struggles for power among the elite.
However, I do think that we also see in this chapter that George R.R Martin has a tendency to go in for mood-setting travelogue in a way that really slows down the action. Nothing really happens in Arya III, especially compared to the through-line from Arya II’s confrontation with the Goldcloaks and Arya IV’s attack by Ser Amory Lorch.
Honestly, I feel like this chapter could have been chopped on the editor’s block – so I’m going to breeze through it rather quickly so I can move on to more interesting chapters.
So what things are important to note?
First, the increasing problem of hunger and scarcity. Two books before the actual arrival of winter, complete with snow falling over the Riverlands, the war has already begun to dramatically reduce the supply of food in the Riverlands:
“Here farmland gave way to forest, the villages and holdfasts were smaller and further apart, the hils higher and the valleys deeper. Food grew harder to come by. In the city, Yoren had loaded up the wagons…but every bite of it had been eaten. Forced to live off the land, Yoren turned to Koss and Kurz, who’d been taken as poachers.”
As I’ll discuss more later, this phenomenon needs to be understood in a bounded fashion – the Riverlands are going to be starving pretty soon, but Dorne, the Vale, the Stormlands, and much of the Reach and the Westerlands are intact as far as their harvests go, and I’ll get to the North’s food situation when we get to Bran’s next chapter. Localized famines were quite common in medieval Europe, and while they definitely put a dent in the population, they’re rarely existential threats.
Second, the increased issue of danger. Spilling over from the larger strategic decisions made by Tywin that Brynden Tully pointed to in the last Catelyn chapter, the war has already begun to enter into that undifferentiated stage of bushwack-and retaliation where the purposes behind the fighting fall away, as far as civilians are concerned: “The next day, Koss came racing back to warn Yoren of a camp ahead. “Twenty or third men in mail and halfhelms…some of them are cut up bad, and one’s dying from the sound of him….they got spears and shields, but only one horse, and that’s lame.” “Can’t say…might be one side, might be t’other. If they’re hurt that bad, likely they’d take our mounts no matter who they are. Might be they’d take more than that. I believe we’ll go wide around them.” As we’ll see throughout Arya’s chapters in this book, while there are differences of degree between Robb and Tywin in terms of the use of terror as a tactic, they’re not differences of kind on the ground. Both sides are capable of atrocity.
Third, along with this violence comes the breakdown in social custom and tradition as the necessities of survival come to the fore. Whereas before the traditions of the Night’s Watch held in a tavern in the Crownlands, here they break almost entirely:
“Outside a holdfast called Briarwhite, some fieldhands surrounded them in a cornfield, demanding coin for the ears they’d taken. Yoren eyed their scythes and tossed them a few coppers. “Time was, a man in black was feasted from Dorne to Winterfell, and even high lords called it an honor to shelter him under their roofs..now cravens like you want hard coin for a bit of wormy apple.”
“It’s sweetcorn, better’n a stinking old black bird like you deserves…you get out of our field now, and take these sneaks and stabbers with you, or we’ll stake you up in the corn to scare the other crows away.”
Yoren’s reaction is a lamentation for the old world of peace, or at least limited warfare, in which he managed to only lose three men in thirty years. Unfortunately for him, we’re not even close to the worst it’s going to get.
And that’ll do it for this chapter recap. Really not much material to work with, but Arya IV, with Ser Amory Lorch’s attack on the Night’s Watch holdfast will provide much more material.