“Arya rolled headfirst into the tunnel and dropped five feet. She got dirt in her mouth but she didn’t care, the taste was fine, the taste was mud and water and worms and life…Arya held her breath and kissed the mud on the floor of the tunnel and cried. For whom, she could not say.”
Synopsis: Arya and the Night’s Watch arrive at the holdfast by the Gods Eye. A patrol of reavers under the command of Ser Amory Lorch besiege the holdfast, and Arya barely manages to escape, but not before she makes the choice to save the life of Jaqen H’ghar.
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 I’ve been a bit impatient about Arya’s plotline for the slow start, here’s where the payoff kicks in – all of this atmospherics about the impact of the war on the smallfolk coalesces into reality as a band of Tywin’s reavers attacks the neutral Night’s Watch in a complete abandonment of the “laws of war” as generally understood in Westerosi society. While I knew the general strokes of what happened in this chapter, it had been a while since I had re-read it, and some of the details are worth examining.
The End of the Road
To begin with, we can see George R.R Martin in his role as the Greek Fates again, ratcheting the wheels of inevitability into position. As much as it might seem that Yoren and co.’s end is a random event, the medieval equivalent of catching a stray during a drive-by, if you look more closely, you can see how Martin is herding Yoren to destruction:
“Woth reported a wooden bridge half a mile downstream, but someone had burned it up…”Might be we could swim the horses over, maybe the donkeys, but there’s no way we’ll get those wagons across. And there’s smoke to the north and west, more fires, could be this side o’ the river’s the place we want to be…we can’t go round west of the lake, like I thought. East takes us back to the kingsroad…Harrentown…we can buy new mounts there, or else take shelter at Harrenhal. That’s Lady Whent’s seat, and she’s always been a friend o’ the Watch.”
Remember, ever since the incident at the inn, Yoren’s been trying to avoid the repercussions of his actions as well as the war in the riverlands by skirting westward. Now the road forward is blocked by Martin destroying the bridge; the road back leads them back to the Kingsroad and the threat of the Goldcloaks. And Yoren’s solution is to shelter at…Harrenhal, Ser Amory Lorch and Gregor Clegane’s home base. Thus, even if everything had gone well for the Night’s Watch, if they’d managed to avoid the reavers and make it safe to their destination, they still would have ended up in the same place.
While it’s true that GRRM has said that his primary interest is the “human heart at war with itself,” the extent to which we see, again and again, a running meta-theme of free will vs. fate quite apart from any consideration of prophecy and destiny. Indeed, we often find Martin’s plotting, his careful building of rows of dominoes that all have to fall just right in order to bring lords and houses as well as crows down to their doom, applied to characters who are not the Destined Chosen Ones of the series – your Neds, your Catelyns and Robbs, and here, your poor Yorens.
The Limits of Neutrality
In a way, Yoren’s fate is sealed as much by his faith in the Night’s Watch’s neutrality as it is by geography. As much as he insists that “the folks who lived here were at war, like it or no. We’re not. Night’s Watch takes no part, so no man’s our enemy,” Arya’s more cynical observation that “no man’s our friend” is more accurate. Neutrality didn’t save the Brotherhood Without Banners; neutrality didn’t protect the septons and septas of Saltpans, because the military powers driving this war have no interest in allowing anyone to stay neutral. As with the Dulles brothers during the Cold War, they will force you to choose – between sides and between principles.
The arrival of Ser Amory Lorch, preceded as it is by one of the most pointless military actions imaginable – burning an empty town that offered no resistance – makes subtext text:
“And who are you, old man? One of Lord Beric’s cravens?”
“Got no such man here…only some lads for the Watch. Got no part o’ your war.” He hoisted up the staff, so they could all see the color of his cloak. “Have a look. That’s black, for the Night’s Watch.”
“By night all banners look black…open, or we’ll know you for outlaws in league with the king’s enemies.”
In the War of Five Kings, the colors of neutrality and guerrilla warfare have bled together and become one. And in turn, the law has fallen silent in the face of military logic – the same men who burn empty villages are not making the offer to “open your gates…we’ll make certain you’re telling it true and be on our way” genuinely. Rather they make the offer so that it can be refused, giving them a figleaf that “you defy the king’s command, and so proclaim yourselves rebels, black cloaks or no” to legalize their attack on what is after all a royal institution.
Further evidence of the breakdown in the broader norms of Westerosi society – and the extreme unlikeliness that Ser Amory Lorch’s offer was worth the breath it took to speak it – comes as Yoren attempts to appeal to the logic of chivalry, saying “got me young boys in here.” While the Faith of the Seven hasn’t quite developed the same explicit theories of Just Warfare and God’s Peace, it’s clear from the knight’s oath that Ser Amory Lorch is bound by sacred oath to “defend the young and innocent.” But the same man who butchered a baby on command during Robert’s Rebellion offers only the most nihilisticly practical rejoinder imaginable: “young boys and old men die the same.” There are no limits here.
Arya’s First Battle
Another key event in Arya IV is Arya’s first 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 engaged in true battle, taking orders from Yoren, defending a fixed objective and making use of fortifications, fighting as part of a unit along with Hot Pie and Gendry, and all in the name of “Winterfell!” Unlike before, here she is making use of her training: “Fear cuts deeper than swords, she remembered as the top of a pothelm loomed up behind the hand. She slashed down hard, and Needle’s castle-forged steel bit into the grasping fingers between the knuckles…the second man was bearded and helmetless…as he swung his leg over the parapet, she drove her point at his eyes. Needle never touched him; he reeled backward and fell.”
And unlike in her later killings, Arya is emotionally engaged in both negative and positive ways during the conflict, “feeling sorry for him as she was killing him.” While it’s certainly not healthy for a nine-year old child to be killing people, there is a difference here between a spirited self-defense and the kinds of vengeful, traumatized reenactments that befell the Tickler and Raff the Sweetling. Arya will not fight in the name of House Stark then.
Jaqen H’ghar and Arya’s Choice
Another crucial moment and an example of Arya’s often underrated capacity for the same kind of mercy that her sister Sansa will show to Sandor Clegane (interesting we don’t see more examinations of the mirror image parallel there), comes with her decision to free Jaqen H’ghar and the other inmates from the black cells from burning to death.
Arya’s story – her meeting Jaqen H’ghar, impressing him with her lack of fear, etc. – has clearly been building up to this point, where’s she’s faced with the decision of whether or not to release the prisoner. GRRM has the decision come up twice. Before the battle, Jaqen makes her an offer: “Boy! Sweet boy! Is it war, red war? Boy, free us. A man can fight. Boy!” And yet, despite what we know about the Faceless Man’s abilities in that area, she doesn’t take him up on it. Rather than a quid-pro-quo, Arya delays, and acts instead in a much more unilateral fashion:
“Good boys, kind boys,” called Jaqen H’ghar, coughing.
“…Going back into that barn was the hardest thing she ever did. Smoke was pouring out the open door like a writhing black snake, and she could hear the screams of the poor animals inside, donkeys and horses and men. She chewed her lip, and darted through the doors…Jaqen saw her, but it was too hard to break, let alone talk. She threw the axe into the wagon.”
This decision, to render unconditional assistance to the helpless at the risk of her own life, underlines an essential quality of altruism that we can see running throughout Arya’s storyline, from Mycah the Butcher’s boy through to her saving Sam in the alleys of Braavos. It’s one of the reasons why the claim that Arya is psychopathic or sociopathic fall flat – a lack of empathy for others being a key quality of those mental disorders.
But here it’s especially important because it changes the relationship between Arya and Jaqen H’ghar, who in this deconstructionist storyline represents her most Supernatural Aid. Rather than a devil’s bargain, in which Arya trades his freedom for Jaqen’s murderous services, here Arya acts to save another person in distress, and thus is found morally deserving of a boon. That’s good news for Arya, because the former generally end badly (with the magical quid-pro-quo having some horrific unanticipated consequence) while the latter usually ends alls-well.
I don’t have a particular subject in mind for historical parallels for this chapter, as we’ve already discussed the history of refugees and chevauchées; historical analysis for Arya’s storyline will pick up much more when we get to Harrenhal and I have more to work with.
As a chapter framed around a series of high-stakes decisions, there’s a lot of scope for some interesting hypotheticals here:
- Yoren had made it to Harrenhal? As I mentioned above, there’s a good deal of dramatic irony in the fact that Yoren was about to walk into the lion’s den when his party was attacked by lions. However, there’s a good deal of ambiguity as to what would have happened if Yoren had made it to Harrenhal, depending on whether Tywin was present at the time, or whether Ser Gregor and Amory Lorch were left in charge. While Tywin is certainly a ruthless bastard, as we see from his dialogues with Tyrion and Joffrey in ASOS that he doesn’t believe in needless bloodshed, and he strongly believes in keeping his hands clean and making sure the dirty work is taken care of by disposable and disavowable subordinates. So, it’s possible that Tywin might have allowed the Night’s Watch caravan to leave his territory alive. He would most likely have taken the bulk of their supplies “out of military necessity,” and might well have conscripted the able-bodied adult recruits on the same logic (at least the ones who had joined willingly as opposed to convicted criminals), but I don’t think he would have been interested in the children.
- This potentially means that Arya might make it back to Winterfell about a month after the Reeds and well before the Ironborn attack – the implications of this are quite interesting. For one thing, this reduces the likelihood of Catelyn releasing Jaime as a bid to get her daughters back; at the very least, this probably butterflies away the Karstark defection and creates the possibility for Robb to achieve a truce with the Lannisters post-Blackwater. It also increases the likelihood that Catelyn returns to Winterfell, given that the bulk of her children would now be there; this might in turn butterfly away Theon’s capture of Winterfell, which might in turn keep Robb more focused on the southern campaign and butterfly away the Red Wedding, if not the Bolton and Frey betrayal. For another, this creates problems down the road for the Boltons, because the fake Arya marriage would clearly not be a viable route to control of the north. The remaining question is where Arya goes after the sack of Winterfell; my guess would be that she gets dispatched separately from Bran, either to the Mormonts or the mountain clans, at which point we have yet another potential Stark for Stannis to back after ASOS.
- On a side note, it would be very interesting to see what happens if Catelyn or Ser Rodrick Cassel gets sight of Gendry, given the high likelihood of them recognizing the resemblance to King Robert.
- Yoren opened the doors to Ser Amory? I’ve suggested that I consider Ser Amory’s offer to be wholly false; had they opened the doors, the reavers would have poured in and attacked them anyway. However, given that the reavers are now dealing with surrendered people and are in the business of capturing people, it’s possible that Yoren et al. would have been taken as prisoners rather than killed. This in turn leaves open the possibility that when the Northmen seize Harrenhal, their respect for the Night’s Watch allows the caravan to continue – which would mean that the Arya chain of events takes place, but also potentially that the Night’s Watch gets about 20-30 recruits ahead during its weakest point, and that Yoren is potentially on hand as a replacement for Donal Noye and/or a more practical adviser to Jon Snow.
- Arya never freed Jaqen? This is both the biggest change and the most ambiguous. If Jaqen H’ghar and company burn to death in this nameless holdfast, clearly Arya isn’t going to the Faceless Men of Braavos. This creates something of a hole for Arya’s storyline, post-Red Wedding and the death of the Hound, as she no longer has anywhere to go. On the other hand, and this is where the double-edged sword of Arya’s mercy kicks in, if Rorge and Biter die here, it’s quite possible the Sack of Saltpans never happens, and the Hound does not become the ominous specter haunting the Riverlands that he does in OTL. In turn, the death of Rorge and Biter means that Brienne of Tarth remains in fighting condition and may well manage to escape the Brotherhood Without Banners, which in turn might mean that Jaime doesn’t leave the siege of Riverrun.
- Arya freed Jaqen before the fight? This is an option that also potentially changes a lot. GRRM has been very careful about keeping the capacity of the Faceless Men a mystery, never directly showing us the limits of their power. So it’s not clear whether Jaqen H’ghar could have actually prevented the forces of Ser Amory Lorch from prevailing, but given that if he’d failed the difference between that and OTL would largely have been a higher body count, let’s take the outcome if he’d succeeded. Well, Arya gets the same introduction to the mysteries of the Faceless Men that she does in OTL – this likely keeps Arya on the road to Braavos post-Red Wedding. But what’s more interesting is Yoren et al. getting to see what Jaqen is capable of. There’s no way Yoren would let a warrior of Jaqen’s capabilities escape the Night’s Watch, especially with Mance Rayder barreling down on the Wall, so it may well be that Jaqen plays a key supporting role in the Siege of Castle Black – and quite possibly replaces Mance Rayder as the special forces man dispatched to Winterfell.
Book vs. Show:
While I have many, many complaints about how Benioff and Weiss handled season 2, I actually thought they did a rather good job of condensing this section – stripping out the rather complicated section in which Arya and co. wander around before they’re recaptured and just having a straightforward movement from the holdfast to Harrenhal; wrapping up the Gendry-being-hunted plot by having Lommy steal his helmet (whereas it just sort of peters off in the books). Likewise, while I think it’s fair to say that they’ve slow-rolled Arya’s transformation, I think it succeeded. Arya’s transformation in Season 4 would not have been as moving as it was.
However, I have to give a lot of credit to their send-off for Yoren. I never really connected with Yoren before the show – he was too easily overshadowed by Jaqen H’ghar, he’s a bit of a cipher and dies off-screen, which diminishes the impact he makes on the reader. However, Francis Magee was too compelling a presence to let him go out that way, and Benioff and Weiss gave him a hell of a sendoff, with a compelling backstory that gave his character more of a three-dimensional presence (and an ongoing connection to Arya through the list of names prayer), and an epic death scene.
So here’s to Yoren, the truest brother there ever was.