“On the road Arya had felt like a sheep, but Harrenhal turned her into a mouse…she had killed Chyswick with a whisper and she would kill two more before she was through. I’m the ghost in Harrenhal.“
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.
There’s a lot going on in this chapter – everything from the ongoing story of Harrenhal to high strategy in the War of Five Kings, to Arya’s personal journey – so you’ll need to bear with me because there’s a lot to cover here and this is going to be a long one.
The Happiest Place in Westeros ™
Arya VII dumps us right back in Harrenhal, and after all that build up from last Arya chapter about the horror of the place, the reality is substantially different. Yes, Harrenhal is an old castle (although relatively young by Westerosi standards) and a lot of awful things have gone down there, and it’s led to a lot of ghost stories:
Whatever names Harren the Black had meant to give his towers were long forgotten. They were called the Tower of Dread, the Widow’s Tower, the Wailing Tower, the Tower of Ghosts, and Kingspyre tower…
…ghosts, some said, the spirits of Harren the Black and his sons…Harren and his sons had died in Kingspyre Tower, that was why it had that name, so why should they cross the yard to haunt her?
But the reality is that, compared to Arya’s march around the Godseye, it’s not that bad a place. Arya herself goes from sleeping on the ground to sleeping “in a shallow niche in the cavernous vaults beneath the wailing Tower, on a bed of straw.” She goes from stinking to having “water to wash in whenever she liked,” and even “a chunk of soap.” Yes, she has to work and “the work was hard, but no harder than walking miles every day.” And in return for work, “there was bread every day, and barley stews with bits of carrot and turnip, and once a fortnight even a bite of meat.” And Arya’s friends are doing well too: “Hot Pie ate even better, he was where she belonged…Gendry had been sent to the forge.”
If there is something off about Harrenhal, it’s due to very ordinary human causes: the damn place is a giant white elephant that’s almost impossible to prevent from decaying to pieces:
Harrenhal was vast, much of it far gone in decay. Lady Whent had held the castle as bannermen to House Tully, but she’d used only the the lower thirds of two of the five towers, and let the rest go to ruin. Now she was fled, and the small household she’d left could not begin to tend to the needs of all the knights, lords, and highborn prisoners Lord Tywin had brought, so the Lannisters must forage for servants as well as for plunder and provender. The talk was that Lord Tywin planned to restore Harrenhal to glory, and make it his new seat once the war was done…Lord Tywin had commanded that they be made fit for habitation again.
Harrenhal covered thrice as much ground as Winterfell, and its buildings were so much larger they could scarcely be compared. Its stables housed a thousand horses, its godswood covered twenty acres, its kitchens were as large as Winterfell’s Great Hall, and its own great hall, grandly named the Hall of a Hundred Hearths…was so cavernous that Lord Tywin could have feasted his entire hosts…walls, doors, halls, steps, everything was built to an inhuman scale.
For those of you on Foreshadowing Patrol, note that Tywin’s effort to rebuild the former seat of kings (or king, anyway) makes him the symbolic owner of a monument to hubris that picks him out as doomed to a horrible death, long before ASOS. And while Casterly Rock might symbolize Tywin’s power and prestige, his sense of history and dynasty, there’s a fit with him and Harrenhal, a shared sense of egotism and indifference to humanity. As we learn in AWOIAF, “Harren the Black had driven thousands to their deaths in the building of his great castle.” And how appropriate is it that the human suffering Arya has experienced and witnessed is caused by Tywin’s patrician command for more servants to rebuild the same castle, re-enacting Harren’s life’s work?
However, as Arya finds out in this chapter, what makes Harrenhal an evil place is not the building itself, but the people who live in it:
If there were ghosts in Harrenhal, they never troubled her. It was the living men she feared, Weese and Ser Gregor Clegane and Lord Tywin Lannister himself…in his own small strutting way, Weese was nearly as scary as Ser Gregor. The Mountains swatted men like flies, but most of the time he did not even seem to know the fly was there. Weese always knew you were there, and what you were doing, and sometimes what you were thinking…it took him only three days to earn the place of honor in her nightly prayers.
Harrenhal is a prize of war, a symbol of conquest and colonial exploitation that allows the holder to oppress the entire region, and thus it calls conquerors and exploiters to it, like a lodestone of evil.
The Bloody Mummers
And no group of inhabitants of Harrenhal better express this magnetic draw than the Bloody Mummers. Foreigners to the Riverlands, to Westeros itself, the fate of the Bloody Mummers is tied up with Harrenhal; it will be the stage of their betrayals and their horrid pastimes, it will be the prize that Vargo Hoat tries and fails to grab, and it will be the place of the death of many of them. At the same time, though, the Bloody Mummers are a disruptive force within Harrenhal, putting the lie to Tywin Lannister’s outward show of controlled and civilized power and authority, bringing the violence that is sweeping the Riverlands within the walls:
Arya did not know who Bloody Mummers were until a fortnight later, when the queerest company of men she’d ever seen arrived at Harrenhal. Beneath the standard of a black goat with bloody horns rode copper men with bells in their breads; lancers astride black-and-white horses; bowmen with powdered cheeks; squat hairy men with shaggy shields; brown-skinned men in feathered cloaks; a wispy fool in green-and-pink motley; swordsmen with fantastic forked beards dyed green and purple and silver; spearmen with colored scars that covered their cheeks; a slender man in septon’s robes, a fatherly man in maester’s grey, and a sickly one whose leather cloak was fringed with long blond hair…
The Brave Companions were housed in the Widow’s Tower, so Arya need not serve them. She was glad of that; on the very night they arrived, fighting broke out between the sellswords and some Lannister men…Lord Tywin hanged them both from the gatehouse walls, along with one of Lord Lydden’s archers…the archer had started all the trouble by taunting the sellswords over Beric Dondarrion…Vargo Hoat and Ser Harys embraced and kissed and swore to love each other always as Lord Tywin looked on.
Whenever you’re temped to take A Song of Ice and Fire too seriously, remember that Tywin made Vargo Hoat and Ser Harys Swift make out once. Fun aside, the Bloody Mummers are a nightmare of the worst impulses of soldiers directed at civilian populations. Note that the Bloody Mummers never win a straight-up battle against other soldiers (unlike Ser Gregor, they are cowards) – their victories are betrayals and war crimes (hence Saltpans). And their membership is a horror show: Vargo Hoat is a sadistic rapist and torturer, Urswyck the Faithful betrays everyone, Septon Utt is a pedophile and serial murderer, Qyburn is a mad scientist, Shagwell is a Batmanesque lunatic, Zollo and Tireon are rapist thugs, and so on and so forth. No wonder Rorge and Biter are accepted so readily.
The Mountain’s Men
And yet their horror is matched, pound-for-pound, by the Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane, and his merry band of sociopaths. We’ve seen them in action before, but it’s been kept to mostly off-screen. Chyswick’s story gives us an up-close and personal view of their activities:
“…all the time the brewer’s saying how glad he is to have us…the fool won’t shut his yap, not him, thought Ser is not saying a word, just brooding on the Knight o’ Pansies and that bugger’s trick he played. You can see how tight his mouth sits, so me and the other lads we know bett’n to say a squeak to him, but this brewer he’s got to talk, he even asks how m’lord fared in the jousting. Ser just gave him this look.”
“…what does the old fool do but he goes to Ser and asks him to make us leave the girl alone, him being an anointed knight and all such.”
“Ser Gregor, he wasn’t paying no mind to none of our fun, but now he looks, you know how he does, and he commands that the girl be brought before him…”
“When it’s all done, Ser tells the old man that he wants his change. The girl wasn’t worth a silver, he says…and damned if that old man didn’t fetch a fistful of coppers, beg m’lord’s pardon, and thank him for the custom!”
I had to cut this story down substantially, because this may be the worst thing to have happened in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I didn’t want to go into lurid detail. Competition is fierce, but there is something about this incident that, on re-read, really grabs me. The Red Wedding, the Mountain and the Viper, Ned’s execution – these things are structured by the tropes of tragedy and its ultimate cathartic purpose. Moreover, it’s pretty rare for the atrocities in this series to be narrated by the guilty party. Normally, George R.R Martin has the victims testify as to what happened to them (think about the peasants testifying about Ser Gregor’s attack on the Mummer’s Ford). Here, he offers the perspective of the perpetrator, by way of evidence for the prosecution. Ser Gregor’s casual brutality and his desire to make the innkeeper complicit in the destruction and degredation of his family to pay him back for mentioning the jousting reminds us once again that he is the murderer and defiler of Elia and her children, Raff’s pedophiliac and murderous tendencies presage his death in “Mercy,” and Chyswick’s twisted sense of humor, the reality that he finds all of this funny, justifies Arya’s actions.
And this is why the story is important – it inspires Arya to move beyond her previous stance of self-defense, to commit murder-by-proxy. As I have said before, I think it’s fundamentally wrong to call Arya a psychopath or sociopath. It is very, very important for GRRM that Arya’s turn to pre-meditated murder be entirely justified, driven by a sense of justice and morality. Arya is not supposed to be a villain, so GRRM goes to some lengths to have Arya be a witness to this story so we understand exactly what is motivating her to do this. At the same time, I do think it marks a divergence between Arya and Sansa’s story – from here on out, Arya will embark on a deliberate path of vengeance, whereas Sansa chooses mercy (although she will kill, unknowingly). On the other hand, Sansa is put into a story line where her choice makes sense; there is goodness to be found in Sandor Clegane that simply is not there in Gregor Clegane, or any of the rest of the Mountain’s Men.
The War of Five Kings: Tywin’s Situation
Completely separately from Arya’s own story arc, Arya VII also gives us a fascinating window into Tywin Lannister’s military operation, in a way we haven’t gotten since the last Tyrion chapter of AGOT. Due to presentism, there is a tendency of the ASOIAF fandom to assume that the victory of the Lannister war machine was inevitable, that Tywin never lost a step before his fatal appointment with a privy. However, in this chapter we see that absolutely was not the case:
“King Robert’s brothers Stannis and Renly had joined the fighting, she heard…Even Lannister men questioned how long Joffrey would hold the Iron Throne…”
Lord Tywin would soon march on Riverrun, she heard. Or he would drive South to Highgarden, no one would ever expect that. No, he must defend King’s Landing, Stannis was the greatest threat…destroy Roose Bolton and remove the dagger from his back. He’d sent ravens to the Eyrie…he was writing Lady Stark to make a peace.
…a northern army under Roose Bolton had occupied the ruby ford of the Trident. “If he crosses, Lord Tywin will smash him again…Bolton’ll never cross, not till the Young Wolf marches from Riverrun with his wild northmen and all them wolves.”
For all that Tyrion likes to make metaphors about lions stalking in the long grass, the reality is that Tywin is in deep trouble right now. He’s got one enemy army on his western flank at Riverrun, another on his eastern flank at the Ruby Ford (now that Roose Bolton has finally done what he should have done five months prior), and two more enemy armies advancing on his position from the south. And to deal with this, Tywin really only has the one army – Ser Stafford’s forces are not yet ready to close his intended trap, Tyrion’s forces are more nominal and are fixed in defense of the capitol – thus, whichever way Tywin turns, he’s leaving himself open to every other flank. And he’s running out of time to make up his mind; eventually, one of the Baratheon armies is going to bring King’s Landing under siege and Tywin is going to have to decide which way to march.
No wonder Lannister morale is so low that his men are fighting and killing each other, and Tywin is forced into hanging his own men in order to maintain order. Making things even worse is the growing legend of Beric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood Without Banners:
There was always talk of Beric Dondarrion. A fat archer once said the Bloody Mummers had slain him, but the others only laughed. “Lorch killed the man at Rushing Falls, and the Mountain’s slain him twice. Got me a silver stag says he don’t stay dead this time neither.”
One of the woman said that [Amory Lorch’s] men had ridden all the way around the lake chasing Beric Dondarrion and slaying rebels…
…Ser Gregor returned…she heard he’d lost four men in one of Lord Beric’s night raids…
One of the things I absolutely love about GRRM’s writing is the deft way in which he’s able to use third-party conversations to build up a reputation for off-stage players. Whether it’s Stannis in AGOT, or Beric Dondarrion here, or Marwyn the Mage throughout, this technique works wonderfully to ensure that, in a huge sprawling cast of characters, many of whom come in and out of the narrative at different times, the reader is primed to react appropriately. Thus, when Stannis stalks onto the page in the Prologue, or when Beric Dondarrion emerges from the darkness inside the hollow hill, they have a weight far above their “screen-time” would suggest. It’s not a technique that has worked as well in the show as it did in the books, but props to D&D for trying.
As for Beric himself, this is the other side of his legend. We’ve already seen the Robin Hood-esque robs-from-the-rich, gives-promissory-notes-to-the-poor part of the story, so that we understand why the smallfolk see him as someone on their side. But here’s where we see why he is feared by those who would do them harm: he’s an unkillable outlaw who is immune to the violence of the reavers, a will o’ the wisp who can operate under Tywin’s very nose and vanish just as quickly, who mounts daring raids to strike back at those who would harm the people. It’s a hell of a story, and the truth is, for once, even better than the legend.
However, this chapter is Arya’s, not Tywin’s. And in this chapter, we get two distinct and inherently divergent paths for Arya being set up. The first path is Arya’s re-connection with the North and her drive to reunite with her family. The second path is Arya’s new connection to Jaqen H’ghar, and through him, the Faceless Men of Braavos.
Taking these in order, Arya’s arrival at Harrenhal means that, for the first time since Arya III of AGOT, Arya learns where the rest of her family is, and encounters other Northerners:
Arya had not known her brother was so near. Riverrun was much closer than Winterfell…when she thought of seeing Robb’s face again Arya had to bite her lip. And I want to see Jon too, and Bran and Rickon, and Mother. Even Sansa, I’ll kiss her and beg her pardons like a proper lady, she’ll like that.
…three dozen captives taken during some battle of the Green Fork of the Trident…four brothers took their exercise together every day…three of them were Freys of the Crossing, the fourth their bastard brother…two other brothers arrived under a peace banner with a chest of gold, and ransomed them…no one ransomed the northmen, though.
One fat lordling haunted the kitchens…the clasp of his cloak was a silver-and-sapphire trident…the fierce, bearded young man who liked to walk the battlements alone in a black cloak patterned with white suns…one of the guards told her that Lord Cerwyn had died.
This first quote should be brandished at anyone who claims that Arya isn’t really a Stark, or that she hates her sister Sansa and will try to kill her. So strong is Arya’s love for her family that she will, over and over again, throughout the rest of ACOK and much of ASOS, do anything, trying everything to get back to her family. But at the same time, there’s a series of roadblocks placed in her way to ensure that she won’t succeed until GRRM is ready. In this case, the roadblock is recognition – she doesn’t recognize most of these prisoners, and believes in return that they won’t recognize her. Thus her instant despair when Lord Cerwyn dies, closing the door on making a connection to these prisoners, as far as Arya is concerned. It’s also quite consequential, because it means that knowledge of Arya’s survival and her whereabouts does not reach the Northern camp from Harrenhal, despite how likely that would seem to be.
Once again, a pattern becomes noticeable in the fates of the prisoners: Ser Wylis Manderly, poor bastard, will be liberated by Arya and his fellow Northmen, only to be captured again at the Ruby Ford, returned to Harrenhal, turned into a cannibal by Gregor Clegane, and finally returned to his family a completely broken man. Harrion Karstark will be freed, sent off to die at Duskendale, taken prisoner at Maidenpool, and then his uncle will try to murder by him by proxy to steal his lands. And the three ransomed Freys happen to be Ser Jared, Ser Hosteen, and Ser Danwell – the first will be killed and eaten by Wyman Manderly in revenge for the death of Ser Wendel Manderly, the second is heading to his death at the Battle of Ice, and the third is still at large but is marked by the Red Wedding for an inevitable death at the hands of Lady Stoneheart. No one truly escapes Harrenhal.
At the same time, though, Arya’s immediate destiny lies not in the North but with Jaqen H’ghar, and through him the Faceless Men of Braavos. Almost immediately, Arya and Jaqen share a bond:
Then she saw the three near the end of the column…Jaqen H’ghar still smiled. His garb was still ragged and filthy, but he had found time to wash and brush his hair. It streamed down his shoulders, red and white and shiny…only Jaqen H’ghar so much as glanced in her direction, and his eyes passed right over her.
Arya was dreaming of wolves running wild through the wood when a strong hand clamped down over her mouth…”A girl says nothing,” a voice whispered close behind her ear. “A girl keeps his lips closed, no one hears, and friends may talk in secret. Yes?”
“…a boy becomes a girl,” he murmured.
“I was always a girl. I didn’t think you saw me.”
“A man sees, a man knows…a man pays his debts. A man owes three.”
“The Red God has his due, sweet girl, and only death may pay for life. This girl took three that were his. This girl must give three in their places. Speak the names, and a man will do the rest…three lives you shall have of me. No more, no less. Three and we are done. So a girl must ponder.”
I’ve talked a bit about how Arya’s story is a deconstruction of fantasy and fairy tale tropes, and this is some of the best evidence in the series for that. Arya goes on a journey and along the way she meets a stranger – in myth and fairy tale, these encounters are a testing of character, much in the same way that a stranger showing up to someone’s house is a test of their xenia. Here, Arya looks past Jaqen’s appearance (demonstrating insight), provides assistance as requested (showing compassion), and rescues him from danger (illustrating courage). As a reward for this act of heroism, she is given three wishes. What makes this a deconstruction is that Arya’s wishes are coming from a murder genie. She can’t wish for her freedom, she can’t wish to be united with her family, nor can she wish for more wishes – she can only wish for death. (It’s also a deconstruction in that Arya freeing Rorge and Biter arguably allows the Sack of Saltpans to happen – courage and compassion leading not to a virtuous outcome but horrible unintended consequences).
This seemingly puts Arya into a very different trope – the monkey’s paw scenario. Thus, her wishes become another stage of testing. If she chooses poorly or selfishly, they’ll backfire; only if she demonstrates wisdom and virtue will she be rewarded. And thus Arya has to ponder:
“Weese…Dunsen, Chiswyck, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling. The Tickler and the Hound, Ser Gregor, Ser Amory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei…” If she left herself forget even one of them, how would she ever find him again to kill him?
“Weese…Dunsen, Chiswyck, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling. The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Gregor, Ser Amory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei.” She thought she might add three more names to her prayer but she was too tired to decide tonight.
…When she closed her eyes, she saw faces swimming before her. Joffrey and his mother, Ilyn Payne and Meryn Trant and Sandor Clegane..but they were in King’s Landing hundreds of miles away, and Ser Gregor had lingered only a few nights before departing for more foraging, taking Raff and Chiswyck and the Tickler with him. Ser Amory Lorch was here, though…
As she worked, Arya thought about the people she wanted dead….the Starks were at war with the Lannisters and she was a Stark, so she should kill as many Lannisters as she could, that was what you did in wars. But she didn’t think she should trust Jaqen. I should kill them myself. Whenever her father had condemned a man to death, he did the deed himself…
Arya leaned close and whispered, “Chiswyck,” right in Jaqen’s ear…on the third day Arya went to the kitchens with Weese to fetch their dinner. “One of the Mountain’s men fell off a wallwalk last night and broke his full neck…some are saying it was Harren’s ghost flung him down.”
A couple things of note here: first, Arya’s prayer is changing, mirroring her changing circumstances. Weese gets added to the list and Chiswyck gets taken off it, and Arya almost adds Rorge, Biter, and Jaqen H’ghar to the list for their betrayal, setting up her third wish way in advance. Second, contrary to much of the fandom’s recollection, Arya is being quite discerning with her wishes – Arya doesn’t fully trust Jaqen H’ghar, so she’s testing him out; she’s thinking about the practicalities of who’s in the vicinity; and finally, she’s thinking about questions of justice and the need to take personal action to revenge her family. Third, Arya’s choice works to renew her sense of control over herself and her environment – rather than a helpless, harmless mouse, Arya now has a way to strike back at her captors, to restore a moral order in which crime (Chiswyck’s enjoyment of rape and murder) is met with punishment. If Sansa will wonder whether all the stories are lies and think that the monsters always win, Arya will act to enforce a system of moral justice on the universe, however bloodily.
However, to get back to the deconstruction of fairy-tale below, GRRM is working a rather subtle game here. First wishes tend to be mundane or frivolous tests of the system, and Arya’s would appear to be one of these. At the same time, because of Chiswyck’s story, Arya’s naming is paralleling the slaves of Old Valyria whose prayers were granted by the first Faceless Men, whose cries for revenge were deemed worthy by the God of Many Faces. And as we’ll see later, her future wishes both conform and diverge from the mythical model.
Given that Jaqen H’ghar has finally unveiled himself as one of the Faceless Men of Braavos, let’s talk about the historical parallel, the organization that gave birth to the term “assassin,” the Ḥashshāshīn of the Nizari Ismailis. This is a difficult subject to get to the bottom of, for two main reasons. The first is that most of our historical sources are incredibly biased, given that so many of them were filtered, first through anti-Nizari propaganda and then second through Western orientalist writers writing centuries later. The second is that pop culture – most noticeably the Assassin’s Creed video game series – has done a number on the public’s historical imagination, so that there’s a lot of additional misinformation to be pared away.
To begin with, the Ḥashshāshīn were the result of a religious schism within Islam – if you pay attention to modern world politics, you’ve probably heard of the Sunni and Shia split within Islam, but you may not be familiar with the Ismaili who split off from the Shia over whether Isma’il ibn Jafar or Musa al-Kadhim were the true spiritual successor to the sixth Shia Imam. The Nizari were a sub-sect of the Ismaili, who believed that Nizar was the true heir of the Fatamid Caliph-Imam of North Africa, who had been murdered by an ambitious general who replaced him with another heir. The Nizari fled Egypt and found refuge in the mountainous regions of eastern Syria/western Persia.
Somewhere in the late 11th century, a Nizari missionary named Hassan-i Sabbāh came across the mountain fortress of Alamut in northwest Persia and took it, through the less-than-dramatic means of converting a bunch of the locals and then buying the fortress with donations. This fortress became the legendary Fortress of Eagles, and Hassan-i Sabbah would go down in history as the “Old Man of the Mountain.” And from this fortress, Hassan-i Sabbah built a small kingdom of Nizari converts, eventually controlling no less than nine fortresses, in the mountains of northwest Persia/eastern Syria. From these fortresses, the Assassins would wage an unrelenting unconventional war – primarily against the Seljuk Turks ruling from Baghdad and the Fatamid Caliphate of Egypt, but including any power that sought to control their strategically vital area.
But here’s where the misconceptions start. To begin with, the Ḥashshāshīn did not call themselves Ḥashshāshīn (i.e, users of hashish) – as with so many group names in history, this started as a slur. The story that the Assassins inducted acolytes by drugging them with hashish was propaganda invented by their enemies – the Fatamid Caliphate, then the Turks, then the Mongols – as a way to undercut their piety as rooted in drug-addled fantasy. In reality, the Assassins were a rather austere and monklike group, who used much more ordinary forms of indoctrination and training to convince the Ladiq (“Adherents”), actually the lowest and most disposable of the order, to carry out the targeted killings that their group became famous for.
Another misconception is that, while the Assassins were very good at infiltrating their enemy’s strongholds, what made them terrifying wasn’t the master of disguise or stealth thing. Rather, it was the fact that the Assassins would carry out missions that they knew were going to end with their death – whether it was the killing of Nizam al-Mulk (Visier of the Seljuk Empire), or the killing of the newly-elected King of Jerusalem Conrad of Monferrat, or the attempted assassinations of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn or Mongke Khan – Assassins very rarely survived their most famous missions, getting struck down by the belated bodyguards of their targets after they accomplished their task. And this was what terrified the powers that be, because it is almost impossible to guard yourself against someone who is ready to die. Thus, their most famous missions usually took place out in the daytime in public areas, to demonstrate that no one was safe – psychological warfare being a key doctrine of the Assassins.
So to say the least, we’re going to have to watch our step here in future installments.
This is an extremely rich chapter when it comes to hypotheticals, because so much of Arya VII revolves around decisions/questions. And they really boil down to two major questions: will Arya reach out to the Northern captives, and which name would she give to Jaqen?
- Arya reached out to Ser Wylis Manderly? I started with the best one first, because the consequentiality of Arya’s decisions here entirely depend on whether any of these poor bastards make it out of Harrenhal. And Ser Wylis will eventually make it out – which would mean that Wyman Manderly would learn that Arya is alive and well, for a given value of well. And this could be extremely relevant during ADWD, if Wyman could produce the real Arya in a bid to undercut Roose Bolton. Not that Wyman still isn’t going to try to get his hands on Rickon – a male Stark trumps a female Stark real or not, and he can’t exactly marry Wylla to Arya.
- Arya reached out to Harrion Karstark? This one is a bit difficult to measure, because as far as we know, Harrion Karstark is still a prisoner at Maidenpool despite the best attempts of his uncle to get him killed. However, it would be interesting in ADWD if Arnulf had been able to try to leverage this information against Jon Snow to get him to release Alys Karstark – certainly a good case of the “human heart at war with itself” if Jon Snow has to choose between the right thing (protecting Alys from her awful relatives) and his family.
- Arya reached out to the Freys? I consider this one extremely unlikely – Arya is way too smart to ever trust a Frey – but if Arya did reach out to the Freys, it would potentially complicate some things. Potentially, it would mean that Tywin might find out that Arya was within his very grasp all along – which is a hilarious thought. However, while I doubt that this would prevent the Red Wedding (Walder has way too much riding on that particular event to back out over Arya), it might have created some interesting tensions between the Freys and the Boltons over who gets to claim Winterfell through Arya.
Regarding the assassinations, one of the things I think fans often overlook is there are limitations that Arya is working with for her murder wishes – chiefly, geography. Arya and Jaqen are in Harrenhal, almost 400 miles away from King’s Landing, so Jaqen is unlikely to travel to King’s Landing to assassinate anyone, especially because Jaqen is inhabiting a cover story and doesn’t want to break character. Moreover, from a narrative perspective, it’s far more meaningful for Arya to order the death of someone in her vicinity, so that she can see cause and effect.
And one of the reasons why I think hypotheticals work so well here is that Chiswyck is such a nothing character – even among Gregor’s goon squad, he’s not the worst offender – that he gets written out of the show altogether. Here, GRRM is leaning into the trope – the first wish is almost always a wasted wish to raise the stakes and tension for the next two wishes. And it works here, because it gets you thinking “oh, if only she’d…”
- Arya named Gregor? In an extremely rich target environment, one of the biggest bastards for Arya to name is the Mountain himself, especially because he’s responsible for so much of the suffering Arya has had to witness. And his death here would be incredibly significant – to begin with, if Gregor dies unexpectedly, he’s not on hand to retake Harrenhal from Vargo Hoat, who’ll die of an infected ear. In ASOS, there’s no reason for Oberyn Martell to travel to King’s Landing and risk his life if the Mountain and Amory Lorch is dead (which might mean that Tyrion is condemned and sent to the Wall or executed). Furthermore, if Gregor Clegane isn’t killed in such a drawn-out fashion, Qyburn probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to turn him into Ser Robert Strong – which means Cersei would really be in trouble in TWOW.
- Arya named Vargo Hoat? Another particularly apt target would be the Goat himself. Now, if Vargo Hoat dies, a whole bunch of things suddenly change. To begin with, it’s quite possible Roose Bolton either doesn’t take Harrenhal or takes it completely differently (because you really can’t hold Harrenhal with 300 men). Next, it’s quite likely that Jaime Lannister doesn’t get his hand chopped off and either gets taken to King’s Landing directly or gets returned to the Starks – the latter of which would short-circuit the Red Wedding – and Brienne would probably avoid the bear pit.
- Arya named Tywin? This is the biggest one; Tywin’s death at Harrenhal is supposed to be the “one that got away,” as Arya will find out. Because if Tywin dies here and now, everything changes – no one’s coming to save King’s Landing, so King’s Landing falls. Kevan Lannister is a good and worthy man, but he’d be dealing with an army in an absolute morale crisis at the very moment that the lords of the Westerlands learn that Robb Stark is loose in their fiefs; for all the best motives in the world, Kevan would bang his head into the Tully defenses over and over again, just long enough for King’s Landing to fall, Robb Stark to return to Riverrun and command the net to be closed around the Lannister army. Another interesting question: without Tywin’s hand behind it, how far along would the Westerling honey trap go? As I’ll discuss later on, there’s a good deal of ambiguity as to at what stage Tywin became involved that potentially could change Robb Stark’s destiny enormously.
Book vs. Show:
As I discussed in the podcasts, the Tywin/Arya relationship is one of the biggest divergences from the book to the show so far (pre-Season 5, anyway)…and it’s sublime. It’s a perfect example of how the show’s emphasis on having main characters directly interact as opposed to ships passing in the night can bring out the best in the actors and elevate the show, because Charles Dance and Maisie Williams are two great actors working wonderfully together.
From a process standpoint, it reminds me a little of J.K Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash – not so much because of the similarity between the characters (although Tywin and Arya have a bit of a mentor-mentee thing going on), but in the way that their scenes showcase a veteran actor giving a magnetic performance, but without overwhelming their junior partner, who surprises you with how well they’re able to hold their own. I think we all loved Maisie Williams as Arya from the beginning of Season 1, but it really wasn’t until Season 2 and her interactions with Tywin that we got to see the full scope of her range.
And likewise, while Roose Bolton is a fascinating character, it’s far more important for the show to get inside of Tywin’s head at this moment, because Tywin is going to become an absolutely central character in Season 3 and Season 4, whereas it kind of works for Roose Bolton to come out of nowhere in the Red Wedding.
If I have a critique of this storyline on the show, it’s a relatively minor one – that having Jaqen kill the Tickler set off an odd line of dominoes – it meant that Arya’s tavern encounter in Season 4 wouldn’t be the same as it is in ASOS, which in turn means that her re-enactment of Lommy’s death got borrowed from “Mercy,” which in turn prompted GRRM to release that preview chapter to show that he was still the best, which in turn is probably going to spell death for Ser Meryn Trant if and when he accompanies Mace Tyrell to Braavos.