Men crowded shoulder to shoulder on the benches. “Stark!” they called as Bran trotted past, rising to their feet. “Winterfell! Winterfell!”
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.
In Bran III, George R.R Martin has finally gotten through the tiresome politics and supernatural horror to finally get to what A Song of Ice and Fire is really about: food. Long, rapturous, semi-pornographic descriptions of food. And so, it’s appropriate that shortly after Thanksgiving, I sit down and write a detailed, 10,000 word essay about the historical accuracy of Westerosi cuisine.
The Meaning of the Harvest Feast
Just kidding. For all that Bran III is a pretty short chapter, in which not many actions or events of great moment happen, there’s some really interesting world-building and thematic work going on. Begin with the fact that, for everyone at this feast (which means virtually the entire political community of the North), this is the last good time any of them will remember. Next comes Jojen Reed’s dark premonitions. Then Lady Hornwood will be abducted – returning home from this very feast – and the North will fall into open civil war. Then the Ironborn will come, the destruction of this place and this family and this community, the rise of the Boltons, the winter snows, and everything to come. But first, there will be one last moment where the North is free, victorious, prosperous, and safe:
“He was old enough to know that it was not truly him they shouted for – it was the harvest they cheered, it was Robb and his victories, it was his lord father and his grandfather and all the Starks going back eight thousand years. Still, it made him swell with pride…he bid them welcome in the name of his brother, the King in the North, and asked them to thank the gods old and new for Robb’s victories and the bounty of the harvest. “May there be a hundred more.”
“If the dish smelled especially choice, he would send it to one of the lords on the dais, a gesture of friendship and favor that Maester Luwin told him he must make. He sent some salmon down to poor sad Lady Hornwood, the boar to the boisterous Umbers, a dish of goose-in-berries to Cley Cerwyn…he sent sweets to Hodor and Old Nan as well for no other reason but he loved them…on the benches below, Winterfell men mixed with smallfolk from the winter town, friends from the nearest holdfasts, and the escorts of their lordly guests. Some faces Bran had never seen before, others he knew as well as his own, yet they all seemed equally foreign to him. He watched them as from a distance, as if he still sat in the window of his bedchamber looking down on the yard below, seeing everything yet a part of nothing.”
Throughout Bran III, food and victory are connected as symbols of good fortune, of continued life and security; indeed, this theme will be darkly inverted in Bran IV when meat and battle are one in Jojen’s green eyes. And both are connected also as what a good lord gives to his vassals that tie the community together – as Bran shares his food with highborn and smallfolk alike, as those who farm and those who fight break bread on the same benches, and echoed again later when the Reeds take their vows. If there is one thing that makes the North as different from the south as Dorne is from the rest of Westeros, besides their ethnic identity as First Men and their religious identity as followers of the Old Gods, it is a sense of collective responsibility for food and shelter. The North may not have the same sense of tribal unity that the Dornish have (although I’d bet you anything the Dornish traditions around water are just as strong – hence the water gardens) – in the North, you are a Bolton man or a Stark man or an Umber or a Glover, and those rivalries are bloody. But it is in the North where guest right is taken more seriously than anywhere else, where Ned Stark sits his servants and his smallfolk next to him at table to learn their lives (one thing he never learned at the Eyrie), where the Lord tells his vassals not just what taxes to pay but how much of each harvest they must save for themselves to prevent the tragedy of the commons becoming a lethal one, where the center of government is located in the one place where all Northerners may shelter against the cold when winter falls.
Thus, Northern political society comes together not in a court as in Highgarden or Casterly Rock or King’s Landing, but in a feasting hall, where all guests are sacrosanct, all guests are fed and fed well, and all guests may share in the warmth that runs through the walls of the castle like living veins.
The Reeds of Greywater Watch
This subtext is made text when the Reeds of Greywater Watch arrive. The Reeds are both literally and symbolically, the last and least to arrive. Two children of a “poor folk, fishers and frog-hunters who lived in houses of thatch and woven reeds on floating islands hidden in the deeps of the swamp,” who are scorned as “a cowardly people who fought with poisoned weapons and preferred to hide from foes rather than face them in open battle,” arrive unexpectedly:
Alebelly led two new guests into the feast. “The Lady Meera of House Reed,” the rotund guardsman bellowed over the clamor. “With her brother, Jojen, of Greywater Watch.”
Men looked up from their cups and trenches to eye the newcomers. Bran heard Little Walder mutter, “Frogeaters,” to Big Walder beside him. Ser Rodrik climbed to his feet. “Be welcome, friends, and share this harvest with us.” Serving men hurried to lengthen the table on the dais, fetching trestles and chairs.
“Who are they?” Rickon asked.
“Mudmen,” answered Little Walder disdainfully. “They’re thieves and cravens, and they have green teeth from eating frogs.”
Maester Luwin crouched beside Bran’s seat to whisper counsel in his ear. “You must greet these ones warmly. I had not thought to see them here, but…you know who they are.”
Bran nodded. “Crannogmen. From the Neck.”
“Howland Reed was a great friend to your father.”
Note the contrast between the welcome from the Northmen and the hatred of the Freys – given the proximity between Greywater Watch and the Freys, the Freys’ bloodthirsty insistence on extracting tolls from their neighbors, and the fen folk’s more lax attitude to customs duties, it’s not unsurprising that the two peoples have a historical enmity. However, as much as Bran’s been told stories of the Reeds’ otherness, it’s clear that the North still considers them a part of the political community, worthy of a seat above the salt, bound to House Stark by bonds of friendship and loyalty that go back much longer than House Frey’s entire existence. And for all that the relationship between House Stark and House Reed began with King Rickard Stark, the Laughing Wolf, conquering the Marsh King and carrying away his daughter, it’s clearly a relationship of mutual respect:
“My lords of Stark…the years have passed in their hundred and their thousands since my folk first swore their fealty to the King in the North. My lord father has sent us here to say the words again, for all our people…to Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater…hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you.”
“I swear by earth and water,” said the boy in green.
“I swear it by bronze and iron,” his sister said.
“We swear it by ice and fire.”
While the Reeds’ oath is not the usual format (as Bran notes, “their oath was not one he had been taught”), it is as good as any a description of the feudal relationship as the North understands it. Once again, we see the centrality of shelter and food with “hearth and heart and harvest” coming before the more traditional military obligations of “swords and spears and arrows.” But we also have an interesting view of the lord’s obligations as well – “mercy…help…and justice.” I’ve talked about in the past Ned Stark’s firmly held belief in noblesse oblige, but I think we see the roots of it here. It’s not the same thing as Dornish nationalism – a Stark doesn’t consider himself the same as one of his smallfolk, but unlike among the Lannisters or even among the Baratheons, there’s a sense of responsibility to them that’s extremely rare in the south (with exceptions for Edmure Tully or arguably Beric Dondarrion). If Ned’s sense of honor was an Arryn transplant, this remains his Northern heritage.
However, the Reeds straddle the world of the political and the world of the metaphysical, and here function to bring the latter to the foreground – right at the moment when the metaphysical is beginning to break through. Whereas Bran’s wolfdreams have been confined to the night, the time when the unconscious and the irrational take over. Now, they’re breaking through into his waking life:
“suddenly he wished he were anywhere but here. It is cool in the godswood now. Steam is rising off the hot pools, and the red leaves of the weirwood are rustling. The smells are richer than here, and before long the moon will rise and my brother will sing to it.”
Bran’s clearly on the verge of advancing from mere wolfdreams to active warging, and it’s quite impressive the way he’s actively perceiving both locations at the same time – something he’s yet to accomplish consciously. At the same time, however, it’s clear that Jojen Reed has more of an agenda than just presenting his fealty to Winterfell, as he immediately asks to see the wolves, has seen them in the future (hence knowing how big they’re going to get), and can both feel Bran inside his wolf, and quite possibly is capable of knocking Bran out of the wolfdream by touching him.
The Tower of Joy, Part 2
The final area in which the Reeds are significant is that they act as a window into Eddard Stark’s past – in this case the Tower of Joy, and in the future the Tourney at Harrenhal. While the Reeds themselves are not frequent visitors to Winterfell, the family is already known to Bran Stark, who knows that “Howland Reed had been one of Father’s staunchest companions during the war for King Robert’s crown, before Bran was born.” (it’s interesting that Howland Reed must have served at the Bells, the Trident, etc. without getting more name recognition) More importantly, their arrival triggers a memory that we the readers know pertains to the Tower of Joy:
Something his father had told him once he was little came back to him suddenly. He had asked Lord Eddard if the Kingsguard were truly the finest knights in the Seven Kingdoms. “No longer,” he answered, “but once they were a marvel, a shining lesson to the world.”
“Was there one who was best of all?”
“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. The called him the Sword of the Morning and he would have killed me save for Howland Reed.”
This provides us with more information about what happened at the Tower of Joy – Ned Stark went sword-to-sword (possibly Ice to Dawn, although it’s not clear from the text) with Ser Arthur Dayne, and Howland Reed saved his life during the fighting. Left unclear is what happened to Willam Dustin, Ethan Glover, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and Mark Ryswell, or Ser Gerold Hightower and Ser Oswell Whent.
Now, some have taken this quote in very strange directions – that Howland Reed somehow warged into Arthur Dayne’s body and continues to inhabit it to this day. I find this a bit hard to believe. For one thing, if Ned was that familiar with warging, you’d think he’d be more cognizant of what the direwolves mean – instead, he doesn’t think about what they could mean, and remains somewhat unsure about their larger mystical purpose, until Catelyn arrives and tells him about how Summer saved Bran, after he’s executed Lady. For another, there are some logistical problems involved – where did Arthur and Howland’s bodies hang out while Ned was in Starfall? How did Ned transport not just a baby and his sister’s coffin, but also a comatose Reed and the most famous knight in Westeros, all the way from Dorne to the North with no one noticing?
However, the bigger thing is that it’s not clear at all that the Reeds are wargs. Jojen himself has the greensight, although he claims that he’s not a greenseer because he’s not a warg as well. He may indeed have inherited the greensight from his father, but it seems unlikely that he would have gotten the former and not the latter if his father was both. Indeed, it’s notable that Jojen later states that his father sent them to Winterfell when Jojen had a vision – not Howland.
I think the more likely scenario is that Howland Reed saved Ned’s life using the crannogman’s tactics of net and spear to hinder Ser Arthur Dayne right before he would have struck down Ned Stark – a greatsword can be a rather cumbersome weapon, especially if it gets fouled in a net. It may well be that Howland was able to accomplish this because he had seen the danger to Ned’s life ahead of time, through the greensight. But that’s all we can say.
The crannogmen actually have a fascinating historical comparison – the “fenfolk” who inhabited extremely low-lying regions of East Anglia around the Wash, which for thousands of years were a nigh-impenetrable mass of peat bogs, subject to periodic floods that left islands standing in the middle of lakes, basically a nightmare for any king or lord to conquer and govern. The Fens became a refuge to basically everyone on the losing side of conflicts for hundreds and hundreds of years: the Icini, the rascally Britons who gave us Boadicea, supposedly fled into the fens when the Angles and Saxons invaded in the 5th century. Various orders of Christian monks loved the isolation, so they established five monestaries in the area, despite the fact that random Britons kept trying to attack Saint Guthlac.
Then when the Normans invaded, Hereward the Wake (Outlaw), led a Saxon-Danish resistance to Norman rule using the Isle of Ely as his base. Hereward, who murdered some fifteen Normans who’d murdered his brother, was knighted by his uncle, a local abbot, and began attacking the Norman invaders from his island hideout, notably sacking Petersborough Abbey. William the Conqueror then sent an army after Hereward, forcing him to retreat to the the Isle of Ely, from which he held off the Norman army as they build a wooden causeway that sank under the weight of men and horses, and then a wooden siege tower, which Hereward set on fire. Eventually the Normans bribed some local monks into showing them a safe path to the Isle, where they defeated Hereward’s Anglo-Danish army, but not before Hereward escaped into the fens to continue his resistance. But the story doesn’t end there: in 1381, the fenfolk rioted against the Bishop of Ely, who held them to the forced labor of villeins, and occupied the town in the name of the Great Society, burning the legal documents that were the basis of their bondage, and killing more than a few judges and lawyers in the name of the people, before the Peasant’s Revolt was brutally supressed.
For centuries after this, the “fen folk” made their living fishing, grazing animals, hunting wildfowl, and a good bit of smuggling, protected by customary rights to the use of the fens and the general difficulty in governing this wild country from London. To outsiders, the fen folk were considered “a kind of people according to the Nature of the Place where they shall dwell, rude, uncivil, and envious to all they call Upland men…barbarous, sort of lazy, beggarly people.” In short, to early modern Englishmen, there was something not right about these not-quite English people who didn’t farm, didn’t have much in the way of nobility or gentry around the place, didn’t have much private property but were very very insistent about communal property, and who were notoriously violent to outsiders who wanted to improve the place by draining the Fens and destroying their livelihood. In the 17th century, King Charles I got it into his head that there was a lot of money to be made in draining the Fens to create new farmland, only to run into the “Fen Tigers” who liked to riot and destroy his dykes and drainage canals. The “Fen Tigers” weren’t just a bunch of mindless rioters however – they were politically well-organized and produced a flood of pamphlets and ballads to support their cause, trying their defense of their ancient rights to the commons with the larger struggle between the King’s despotism and the supposedly ancient liberties of all Englishmen defended by the House of Commons. And they managed to elect one Oliver Cromwell to the Parliament, and we all know how that ended up.
 Juliette Roding, Lex Heerma van Voss, ed. The North Sea and Culture, p. 74.
So yeah, don’t mess with the fenfolk.
There really isn’t any scope for hypotheticals here. Next chapter, though, boy howdy…
Book vs. Show:
Narrative economy, especially as it applies to a TV show’s budget, often means that characters aren’t introduced until absolutely necessary – hence the Tullys don’t show up until Season 3, and the same for the Reeds. Now, I actually like what they did with the Reeds’ introduction; it’s a very economical display that Jojen is magical and Meera’s a little badass. And the Season 2 changes worked out for the most part.
The main difference, therefore, is tonal. Here, the Reeds’ introduction is warm, and inviting, there’s the familiar tie to Ned Stark, the ancient pact of fealty, etc. In the show, they’re much more sudden and frightening, and it’s less immediately clear why Bran should trust these people who suddenly show up in the forest and tell him he needs to go to the Wall.