“Open your eye…the crow gave you the third, but you will not open it.”
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.
I don’t quite like Bran IV as much as the previous one, in part because we’re beginning to move away from Bran’s political plot, and into the realm of the metaphysical. On the other hand, now that I’m rewatching Season 2 for the podcast, I’m much more aware of how much better A Clash of Kings handled the introduction of this theme than the show did, so it could be worse.
The Hornwood Crisis
It’s somewhat fitting that Bran’s mystical plot comes to the fore just as the political side of things is starting to go to hell, just off screen. As I’ve mentioned before, the Hornwood crisis ensures that the North is fully distracted by events to the east, just as the real threat emerges in the west:
“The old knight was off east, trying to set to rights the trouble there. Roose Bolton’s bastard had started it by seizing Lady Hornwood as she returned from the harvest feast, marrying her that very night even though he was young enough to be her son. Then Lord Manderly had taken her castle. To protect the Hornwood holdings from the Boltons, he had written, but Ser Rodrik had been almost as angry with him as with the bastard.”
Even before we meet Ramsay/Reek the person, we’re here exposed to Ramsay the force of nature, disrupting the political balance in the North . By seizing Lady Hornwood and forcibly joining her lands to that of the Boltons (almost doubling their size and giving them a key castle on the White Knife – no wonder the Manderlys intervene), Ramsay threatens to make his House the regional hegemon, just as his father acts to weaken his neighbors. And while Ramsay’s actions are disorganized to the point of bringing down retribution from the Starks, the way they parallel Roose’s actions down south in terms of motive and effect really makes me wonder whether Ramsay has gone rogue, or whether his father is using him as a disavowable asset (more on this later). On a more symbolic level, Ramsay demonstrates that the Starks can no longer keep the peace or protect their bannermen – although Ser Rodrik is conscious enough of the feudal social contract that he’s willing to mobilize to keep it, something he won’t yet do for the overall war effort.
And yet, at the same time, this is a huge distraction. As Errant Bard’s timeline shows, the Ironborn’s attack is mere days away from the next Bran chapter, and the North’s military forces are not ready. As many as 6,000 Northmen are directly engaged in the Hornwood dispute (there’s another 2,000-9,000 Northmen out there who aren’t directly engaged but who are distracted by the crisis), easily enough to repel the lesser assaults on Deepwood Motte and the Stony Shore and to put Moat Cailin under siege, if not to attack the Iron Fleet directly. And while Ser Rodrik chases Boltons, he’s way too busy to raise the hill clans or summon the Umbers and the Karstarks and the Dustins and the Ryswells to arms. And while Wyman Manderly seizing Castle Hornwood makes sense geopolitically, it’s also self-serving at the very time the North needs self-sacrifice, and it greatly delays him bringing any resources to bear on the Ironborn. Unlike Ser Rodrik, however, Wyman’s had his opportunity to learn his lesson.
The Reeds and the Sight
And now we get to the Reeds and their role in Bran Stark’s storyline. Up until now, magic has remained at the subconscious or subaltern (in the case of Osha) level, but the Reeds drag in into the daytime and the waking world, too real and too highborn to be ignored. Indeed, even their House’s holdfast is replete with magical symbolism:
“Ravens can’t find Greywater Watch, no more than our enemies can.”
“Because it moves.”
On one level, I’m almost annoyed that I didn’t pick up on the reference to Howl(and Reed)’s Moving Castle – and for those of you who might be thinking that a 1998 novel can’t be referencing a 2004 film, keep in mind that long-time Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention-goer George R.R Martin is quite likely familiar with the 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones. On another level, there’s a link to Arthurian mythos – Avalon (believed to be Glastonbury Castle), the castle on the lake where the Holy Grail is hidden, the same castle where the wounded Arthur is taken to recover from his poisoned wound and where he rests, awaiting the call for return, is supposedly only able to be found by those of pure heart.
Jojen Reed appears here as a sort of herald of the three-eyed-crow (a force we haven’t really seen since AGOT), a messenger who brings the revelation of what Bran is and where he must go:
“I dreamed of a winged wolf bound to earth with grey stone chains…it was a green dream, so I knew it was true. A crow was trying to peck through the chains, but the stone was too hard and his beak could only chip at them.”
“You are the winged wolf, Bran…I wasn’t sure when we first came, but now I am. The crow sent us here to break your chains.”
“…Is the crow at Greywater?”
“No. The Crow is in the North…Beyond the Wall…”
As people have noted, GRRM doesn’t get too abstruse with his symbolism: Bran is clearly the winged wolf, wings being a metaphor for magic established since Bran III of AGOT; the grey stone chains symbolize both Winterfell itself and the chains of Luwin’s rationalist skepticism (more of which on later). Bran will have to leave all of this behind to realize his destiny, although unfortunately this will require a further sacrifice in the form of Winterfell and Luwin before he’s ready to make the break and travel to the far North. All of this seems a lot more standard fantasy than we’re often used to from GRRM, but as we can see from the Ur-Text, Bran’s story was always meant to be more of a quest narrative – albeit one that will in its own ways comment on and play with the tropes set down by Tolkien.
Jojen is also here to tell Bran without equivocation to “open your eye…you have three.” Helpfully, rather than keep things completely in the dark, GRRM sets out out quite early, through Jojen, what Bran’s powers will include: “with two eyes you see my face. With three you could see my heart. With two you can see that oak tree there. With three you could see the acorn the oak grew from and the stump it will one day become. With two you see no farther than your walls. With three you would gaze south to the Summer Sea and North beyond the Wall.” As we can now see in Bran’s chapters in ADWD and his possible intervention in Theon’s TWOW chapter, Bran will be able to transcend both time and space to see (and influence) events happening in the past, present, and future – and I highly doubt his ability to see into the “heart” will be limited to Hodor. Indeed, while Maester Luwin is skeptical about the “power over the beasts of the wood and the birds in the trees,” the World of Ice and Fire is highly suggestive that those powers exist in far more advanced ways than mere warging.
At the same time, Jojen is also here to provide a kind of shamanic model for Bran Stark:
“Did the crow have three eyes?”
“…When I was little I almost died of greywater fever. That was when the crow came to me.”
“He came to me after I fell…”
“My brother had the greensight…he dreams things that haven’t happened, but sometimes they do.”
“There is no sometimes, Meera.” A looked passed between them; him sad, her defiant…
The common emphasis on suffering as a catalyst for enlightenment is something I’ve talked about a little before, but I might as well tackle in some detail in the historical section. However, it’s interesting that in both these cases we have Bloodraven – who himself lost an eye and gained mystical wisdom, a la Odin – reaching out to a child in pain who might be one of the dreamers. It indicates a larger plot going on in the background of the series to gather allies for the greater struggle with the Heart of Winter aka the Great Other, but it’s also one that can be taken too far. If everything is Bloodraven, then no character really has agency and their value is diminished. Thus, I’m pretty sure that Euron Crowseye is meant to be a failed apprentice, a man grasping after arcane secrets and pretending to more than he truly knows, rather than a major villain who’s going to bind dragons and bring the storms down on the Redwyne Fleet.
Jojen is also a model for Bran in that he signifies that destiny will not bring happiness – it’s not an empowerment or self-actualization fantasy for mythic hero audience standins. As I discussed over on the Tumblr page, Jojen has known for much of his life the precise time and manner of his death. There aren’t many things more fundamental to human nature than our mortality and our understanding of it – realizing and getting over the fact of one’s inevitable death is a big stage of childhood development. And the uncertainty of it all shapes our lives profoundly, the way we understand risk and danger, the way we process fear. Imagine growing up knowing when and how you’re going to die – not just a vague geas as in the case of classic doomed heroes, but a vivid vision that allows you to draw inferences about how old you’ll be, where you’ll be, and how it will happen. In a sense, Jojen Reed is beyond humanity. No wonder the Little Grandfather is without fear, no wonder that he’s old beyond his years. The fact that he can know what he knows and not go mad makes him a hell of a lot more impressive than Bloodraven and Melisandre put together.
And we can see in the case of Meera how his knowledge of his own fate brings her fear and grief, as she simultaneously accepts and rejects what his visions mean, especially when Jojen’s belief that “today is not the day I die” makes him engage in highly risky behavior like trying to stare down a direwolf. The rest of Bran’s family is going to undergo the same fear and grief as they experience separation and supposed death. Because of this, Bran’s refusal of the call comes off much less petulant than it does otherwise:
“…I felt you fall. Is that what scares you, the falling?”
The falling, Bran thought, and the golden man, the queen’s brother, he scares me too, but mostly the falling. He did not say it, though. How could he? He had not been able to tell Ser Rodrik or Maester Luwin, and he could not tell the Reeds either. If he didn’t talk about it, maybe he would forget. He had never wanted to remember. It might not even be a true remembering.
When magic is reduced to the safe, predictable level of Jedi Mind Tricks, dog-latin wand-twirling, or fire-and-forget Magic Missile, this refusal becomes harder to understand. But Bran is clearly coming from a place of trauma and repression inherently tied to his magical awareness – and notably, right at the moment where Bran begins to break through and experience wolf dreams in the day time, he’s powered by his dissociated remembering. Summer becomes immediately aggressive toward Jojen, the one who’s forcing him to remember, and Bran’s inside the wolf and himself at the same time: “the scent was strong; his brother had smelled his rage. Bran felt hairs rise on the back of his neck.” (at the same time, I’m really hoping that this plotline goes somewhere eventually – Bran needs to haunt Jaime and/or Cersei but good in TWOW)
Maester Luwin the Skeptic
However, before Bran can fully accept his destiny, he has to hear the other side – in this case Maester Luwin. The World of Ice and Fire and AFFC have already laid out the foundations for the Grand Maester Conspiracy to eliminate magic in favor of a rational world, but I think it’s noteworthy that, before we get into conspiracy theories, we see how such an effort is rooted in individual psychology:
“…you told me that the children of the forest had the greensight. I remember.”
“Some claimed to have that power. Their wise men were called greenseers.”
“Was it magic?”
“Call it that for want of a better word, if you must. At heart it was only a different sort of knowledge.”
“What was it?”
“…No one truly knows, Bran. The children are gone from the world, and their wisdom with them. It had to do with the faces in the trees, we think. The First Men believed that the greenseers could see through the eyes of the weirwoods. That was why they cut down the trees whenever they warred upon the children. Supposedly the greenseers also had power over the beasts of the wood and the birds in the trees.”
“This is Valyrian steel…only one maester in a hundred years wears such a link. This signifies that I have studied what the Citadel calls the higher mysteries-magic, for want of a better word. A fascinating pursuit, but of small use…all those who study the higher mysteries try their own hand at spells, soon or late. I yielded to the temptation too, I must confess it…what boy does not secretly wish to find hidden powers in himself? I got no more for my efforts than a thousands boys before me…magic does not work…perhaps magic was once a mighty force in the world, but no longer.”
I’ve long maintained that major elements of ASOIAF work as a kind of deconstruction of fantasy as a genre, but it’s important to understand that deconstruction doesn’t mean destruction – the idea is to separate something down to its basest components to understand it better, to scrape away the patina of cliche and genre convention to find the emotional truth that gives it life. So I think there’s a critique of the whole chosen one trope here – especially as it applies to magic: life isn’t going to drop wands and owls or lightsabers in your lap just because you want them to, and that thinking that greatness will simply be dropped down on you without effort leads to passivity and an undeserved sense of thwarted ambition.
At the same time, GRRM is still a fantasy author, and one of the things that separates fantasy from sci-fi is the attitude to science and knowledge – as a genre, sci-fi believes that, ultimately, all of existence will be known and explored; fantasy, by contrast, desires to retain some aspect of mystery, of the supernatural. Thus, the roles are flipped – the rational skeptics are the crazy conspirators, working behind the scenes to pull the wool over the eyes of humanity; it’s the people who believe in snarks and grumpkins who are the champions of truth.
The Second Dream
The second dream thus comes to Bran as a way to test the reliability of greensight, and thus a way to choose between magic and science. The interesting thing here is how prosaic Jojen’s vision is:
“The crow lied when he said I could fly, and your brother lied too…”
“Bran, will you let me tell you about a dream Jojen dreamed of you and your fosterling brothers?”
“…You were sitting at supper, but instead of a servant, Maester Luwin brought you your food. He served you the king’s cut off the roast, the meat rare and bloody, but with a savory smell that made everyone’s mouth water. The meat he served the Freys was old and grey and dead. Yet they liked their supper better than you liked yours.”
It’s a nice touch, because it avoids the bombastic element often found in prophecy and other forms of clairvoyance. If every prophecy is about saving the world from certain destruction, if every past life is as an Egyptian princess or a priestess from Atlantis, then the monotony begins to work against the wonder of it all. Having Jojen see the future as it appears to both mundane and truly important events makes it feel more real. On the other hand, and I’ll get into this more next Bran chapter, this vision has a subtle nod to the Red Wedding, another ripple of that event back through time.
Enough dancing around the topic, let’s get into shamanism.
There is an absolutely voluminous anthropological literature on shamanism in cultures across the world – while the term shamanism comes out of the Tungusic cultures of Northern Asia (i.e, eastern Siberia and Mongolia), anthropologists have found evidence of shamanistic traditions in Europe (especially in Russian, Scandinavian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian culture), across virtually all of the Americas from the Inuit in the polar region down to the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego, an enormously rich tradition in Africa, in Papua New Guinea and Australia, and so on and so on. Basically anywhere that human beings have ever lived, they’ve developed a tradition of shamanism.
And shamanism tends to have several key aspects related to Bran Stark of Winterfell’s story. The first is something I’ve alluded to briefly in the past as a need for the shaman to undergo an injury or an illness, something that anthropologist Victor Turner labelled the “shamanistic initiatory crisis.” This crisis varies from culture to culture, but tends to have a basic commonality:
The gift of shamanism requires a special call. Quite of a sudden — and that usually happens in early youth, at the time coinciding with sexual maturity — the future shaman is taken with an acute disease, followed by hysterical fits, faintings, hallucinations, etc., that sometimes torture him for weeks on end… (Andrei A. Znamenski, Shamanism: Critical Concepts in Sociology, 2003)
Injury or disease that brings the shaman to the point of death, accompanied by mystical dreams and hallucinations, is believed to be a sign that the shaman has spiritually crossed over into the world of the dead, the world of the spirit, so that they can learn their secrets to be used for the benefit of the community. Indeed, in many instances, there is a sense of sympathetic magic at work – as the “wounded healer,” the shaman understands illness in ways that ordinary humans cannot and can thus provide insight and medicine to the sick; in this context, illness is often seen as much as a matter of the mind and spirit as the body, and the role of the shaman is to uncover that which is secret and shameful so that it can be purged, by learning how to control and induce their trances (again, shades of warging here). Thus, Bran Stark loses his legs so that he may fly – he is broken, so that he can learn how to rebuild.
Another aspect of the shamanic tradition – in Hindu culture, Taoist tradition, European theosophy, and various New Age movements – is the idea of the third eye, a sign of enlightenment that signifies one can perceive the supernatural, and perhaps peer into the future. The symbolism is pretty straightforward; as TV Tropes notes, if two eyes lets you see better than one, maybe three are even better. Thus, Bloodraven opens Bran’s third eye, so that he can gain the greensight, see into the past and future, and see the truth of the real conflict that awaits our heroes in the Far North.
There’s not really any scope for What Ifs here, as the one moment with some actual danger (Summer charging Jojen) is specifically precluded by George R.R Martin. Jojen is not going to die today.
Book vs. Show:
For completely understandable reasons, the HBO show tried to keep its casting budget to within reason by pushing the Reeds to Season 3 and eliminating the Walders Frey completely – now, the latter aren’t much of a loss. The Walders are a nice bit of foreshadowing of their family’s evil nature and eventual fate, but they’re ultimately rather disposable.
On the other hand, I really do think that something was lost when the show pushed the Reeds to Season 3. The result of that decision was to push all of Jojen’s mysticism into Bran, but without a real source for explanation or a way of making that world seem bigger and larger than it was in Season 1 – what should come off as a direct introduction to the mystical Northern plot, that Bran has to get North to see the three-eyed crow who is something more than just a vision in his head, just never really lands. Of course, it’s not helped by the fact that Bran’s visions were really minimized all the way up to Season 4, leaving the audience no real handle that all of this mysticism is going somewhere important for the larger story about the White Walkers.