“What if the wolves come?”
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.
For all of my past criticism of some meandering in Arya’s storyline, Arya V actually has some really interesting thematic and plot elements going on, despite being something of a detour on the road to Harrenhal. To begin with, Arya V gives us one of the best examples of the impact of the War of Five Kings on the Riverlands:
“All the other places they’d come upon had been empty and desolate. Farms, villages, castles, septs, barns, it made no matter. If it could burn, the Lannisters had burned it; if it could die, they’d killed it. They had even set the woods ablaze where they could, though the leaves were still green and wet from recent rains, and the fires had not spread.
“They would have burned the lake if they could have.”
Pace to my colleague and friend Stefan Sasse, but it’s easy to see form this quote why someone like the Blackfish would resist the Lannisters to the bitter end – in a sense, they enacted a Red Wedding against the whole of the Riverlands below the Red Fork. It also helps to explain the persistence of the Brotherhood Without Banners, so long after the real fighting is over. Destruction on this scale is hard to forget or forgive. However, as I’ve said there’s something a bit anachronistic about all this. It’s true that the chevauchée could be very nasty, but they were usually a fairly limited tactic and castle sieges and later set-piece battles were a lot more common. Think about it logically – a medieval war is fought so that you can seize land and give it to your cronies as rewards for fighting for you, and so that the next time you fight a war, you can now summon a larger army. Destroying every farm, village, and castle is ultimately self-defeating. You want to destroy just enough that your enemy comes out and fights or bends the knee, and no more.
Thus, even from a Lannisterian perspective, the politics of Tywin’s decision to “unleash Ser Gregor and send him before us with his reavers….each is to have three hundred horse. Tell them I want to see the Riverlands afire from the Gods Eye to the Red Fork,” are oddly short-sighted. After all, if Tywin wins the War of Five Kings, then he inherits the mess of having to rebuild the Riverlands in the middle of winter, as per his philosophy of helping people up after they’ve bent the knee. The more damage he does in the mean time, the more of a mess he has to clean up. Likewise, while he certainly divvied up quite a bit of land after the Red Wedding,the actual value of that land was greatly diminished by the impact of the war – Castle Darry has been sacked four times, the lands around Riverrun are stripped bare, Maidenpool is half-destroyed, and so on and so forth.
If nothing else, I think it speaks to Tywin’s desperation, his real fear that he’s on the verge of losing the War of Five Kings, and his grim intent to leave his enemies little reward for his defeat.
Yoren’s Death and the Abdication of Adult Responsibility
However, Tywin’s devastation of the Riverlands is mostly background detail, framing the decisions that the characters have to make. The major theme is Arya’s progressive abandonment of Arya by every adult around her, a kind of slow-motion breakdown of the most primal responsibility for the survival of the next generation. It begins with the harsh realization that the Mentor (link) is not going to save Arya:
“Arya would not leave until they had found Yoren. They couldn’t have killed him, she told herself, he was too hard and tough, and a brother of the Night’s Watch besides. She said as much to Gendry as they searched among the corpses. The axe blow that had killed him had split his skull apart, but the great tangled beard could be no one else’s, nor the garb, patched and unwashed and so faded it was more grey than black. Ser Amory Lorch had given no more thought to burying his own dead than to those he had murdered, and the corpses of four Lannister men-at-arms were heaped near Yoren’s. Arya wondered how many it had taken to bring him down.
“He was going to take me home, she thought as they dug the old man’s hole. There were too many dead to bury them all, but Yoren at least must have a grave, Arya had insisted. He was going to bring me safe to Winterfell, he promised. Part of her wanted to cry. The other part wanted to kick him.”
Once again, we see the deconstruction of the Hero’s Journey at work. The loss of the Mentor is supposed to lead to personal growth, as the child matures into an independent adult, no longer living in the shadow of a father-figure. Here, it leads to Harrenhal, and Arya’s most intense experience of helplessness. Indeed, the lesson that Arya is learning here is that everyone she loves will abandon her and that protectors don’t exist (note the parallel here to Arya kicking Desmond’s body after the massacre at the Tower of the Hand) – which in turn I think explains her somewhat arms-length relationship with protector figures like Jaqen H’ghar, Beric Dondarrion, and the Hound. There’s also an interesting parallel here to the lessons that Sansa will be taught about the falseness of all friends and rescuers – potentially pointing to the need to unlearn lessons in order to undo trauma.
This disappointment that someone like Yoren could die – offscreen no less – is confirmed by the way in which the survivors of the attack on the holdfast gradually leave her, either willing or not:
“She wished the poacher hadn’t died. He’d known more about the woods than all the rest of them together…and for a day or two Kurz swore the wound was nothing, even though the flesh of his throat was turning dark..then one morning he couldn’t find the strength to get up, and by the next he was dead.
“They buried him under a mound of stones, and Cutjack had claimed his sword and hunting horn, while Tarber helped himself to bow and boots and knife. They’d taken it all when they left. At first they thought the two had just gone hunting, that they’d soon return with game and feed them all…maybe Tarber and Cutjack figured they would stand a better chance without a gaggle of orphan boys to herd along.”
Readers of ASOIAF have been witness to a lot of vile human behavior, both large and small, but there’s something particularly wretched about Cutjack and Tarber leaving these children to die. One thing is that both men are clearly capable of goodness – Cutjack took up arms at the inn to protect the Night’s Watch, and helped to save the injured woman and her child later; Tarber was the first to pick up a weapon to defend Yoren at the inn and provided food for the group in the past – but here are choosing to do evil. Another is that they’re not just leaving these children, but taking from them any possible tools they could use to survive, not just passively but actively contributing to their potential deaths.
And it only confirms what Arya is coming to believe – that no one can be trusted.
What Use is a Lommy, and the Question of Yielding
A second, and related major theme of Arya V is a meditation of the value of human life and the concept of a just war, in so far as much as both apply to the lowest of the low. Soon, Arya and Gendry are brought to the same decision that Tarber and Cutjack faced, with their backs truly up against the wall when it comes to raw survival, and their companions are largely useless:
“He’s going to die, and the sooner he does it, the better for the rest of us…Lommy’s no use to anyone. That crying girl’s no use either…her and Hot Pie and Lommy, they’re slowing us down and they’re going to get us killed. You’re the only one of the bunch who’s good for anything. Even if you are a girl.”
Arya froze in her steps. “I’m not a girl!”
“Yes you are. Do you think I’m as stupid as they are?”
On the other hand, Hot Pie, Lommy, and Weasel are still human beings who cannot be abandoned like this, not without Arya and Gendry surrendering some of their own humanity, and joining the Tarbers and Cutjacks of the world. To paraphrase the Babylonian Talmud and John Dunne, he who abandons Hot Pie abandons the whole world, and the death of a single Lommy (the proverbial clod of earth) diminishes everyone. Moreover, while it’s true that Hot Pie, Lommy, and Weasel lack survival skills, it’s also true that Arya and Gendry’s skills don’t put them in any better stead. At the end of the day, Arya and Gendry are still both children and need other people, not self-sufficient badasses (as much as they might like to think so). And while Arya is learning some rather nasty lessons, she’s also making decisions that cut the other way. When Gendry is captured in the village, Arya chooses not to leave him to the mercy of the Lannisters and charges in to try to save him.
At the same time, this is a chapter that reminds us that Westeros is not a society founded on the ideals of John Dunne or the Talmud, but rather on a profoundly medieval, and quite alien, concept of human inequality, with the murder of Lommy Greenhands. Something about this murder is almost worse than the grand guignol of the Red Wedding or the Rains of Castamere, the exaggerated contrast between the power of the soldier and the pure helpless of a child, the pettiness of the reason that a human life is extinguished:
“Might be they’d kill us too,” Gendry said.
“Not if we yielded,” Hot Pie said hopefully.”
Lommy Greenhands…a spear had taken him through his left calf during the fight at the holdfast. By the end of the next day, he had to limp along one-legged with an arm around Gendry, and now he couldn’t even do that…
“We have to yield…that’s what Yoren should have done. He should have opened the gates like they said.”
“They told Yoren to open the gates, they told him in the king’s name. You have to do what they tell you in the king’s name. It was that stinky old man’s fault. If he’d of yielded, they would have left us be.”
“Knights and lordlings, they take each other captive and pay ransoms, but they don’t care if the likes of you yield or not.”
…”They found Lommy where they’d left him, under the oak. “I yield,” he called out at once when he saw them…
“Something wrong with your leg, boy?”
“It got hurt.”
“Can you walk?” He sounded concerned.
“No,” said Lommy. “You got to carry me.”
“Think so?” The man lifted his spear casually and drove the point through the boy’s soft throat. Lommy never even had time to yield again…”Carry him, he says,” he muttered, chuckling.”
Here we see Gendry proved horribly right – yielding is a privilege of birth, not a human right, and in the world of Westeros, Lommy doesn’t rate. The sad reality is that neither the rules of war nor political allegiance would have saved either Yoren or Lommy, because in the eyes of Ser Amory Lorch, Ser Gregor Clegane, and their flunkies, Yoren and Lommy are non-persons. Yielding is reserved for those whose lives can be measured in gold; allegiance only matters for that class of people whose allegiance can bring swords with it.
At the same time, however, it’s not the case that we’re meant to adopt this worldview, and I think this is where fans of Tywin Lannister’s brutal Machiavellianism miss the point. In George R.R Martin’s world horror is built into the very social structure, but the heroes of the story are those who choose to fight against it, whether we’re talking about Brienne of Tarth or Ser Beric Dondarrion. To accept injustice as not merely present, but inevitable or natural, is to side with the Cleganes and Lorches.
So I’ve touched briefly in the past on the concept of a just war, which is pretty closely tied in with the idea of defeated soldiers being allowed to “yield” rather than be executed en masse at the end of the battle. Which absolutely happened all the time – in the 1990s, workers digging in Towton, where the battle where Edward IV shattered Lancastrian power and established himself as the King of England in fact as well as in name, also known as the battle that saw the deaths of 1% of the population of England, found a mass grave of more than 40 soldiers. The bodies of the fallen had suffered repeated injuries, with one suffering as many as eight wounds to the head, any three of which would have been fatal.
The point here is that yielding in battle was very much a privilege of the nobleman, just as chivalry was a privilege of the noblewoman. The symbolism of surrender – handing over one’s sword, pulling off one’s right gauntlet (symbolically rendering one’s sword-hand vulnerable) – is all based around the emblems of knighthood. Indeed, the Peace of God and Truce of God promulgated in the 10th and 11th centuries did not mention the treatment of prisoners – rather, the idea was to limit the violence done to non-combatants, especially members of the Church and their property.
There’s not a huge scope for hypotheticals in this chapter. Really, the only room for speculation I can see is the alternate timeline in which Arya and Co. are not captured and taken to Harrenhal. From SerMountainGoat’s hypothetical locating of the nameless holdfast and village, which is as good as guess as any other, it seems as if the group was heading east toward Harrenhal in the same direction Yoren was heading – more of GRRM clicking the wheels of inevitability into gear.
However, since the children walking into Harrenhal by themselves isn’t really a change from OTL, let’s say they somehow get around Harrenhal without running into Tywin’s men. Eventually, they’d hit the Kingsroad near Darry, which at this point has been captured, recaptured, and then sacked by Gregor Clegane. Assuming for the moment that Arya decides to follow the same course that she does after leaving Harrenhal, Arya should reach the Inn of the Kneeling Man about two weeks after her 10th birthday, and Riverrun about another week after that – roughly at the same time that Catelyn arrives at Bitterbridge.
Again assuming that Arya is able to persuade the people at Riverrun that she is who she says she is, some interesting butterflies emerge. To begin with, it’s much less likely that Catelyn releases Jaime if Arya’s rediscovery is on-hand to balance out the “loss” of Bran and Rickon. This in turn might butterfly away the Red Wedding – Tywin might not be willing to pull the trigger if he knows it’ll cause Jaime’s death, and Walder Frey might be slightly more hesitant if it means throwing away Arya Stark’s hand in marriage (Arya’s definitely not going to the wedding in this scenario).
Book vs. Show:
To give Benioff and Weiss credit, in trying to streamline from the book, they sometimes to have a way of finding the core of the material to be saved. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter where Lommy Greenhands is foully murdered with Arya’s own sword, only that he does and Arya is there to witness it. And while the thematic elements of deciding whether to keep struggling on-wards with Lommy or to rush in and try to save Gendry are an important loss, it’s clearly a decision that’s been made for the over-arching purpose of narrative economy, rather than a seemingly random change happening for no reason (I’m looking at you, Jaime in Dorne) or a massive misreading of character and plot arcs (looking at you, Jaime and Cersei plots in Season 4).