“I never used to fall before. When I climbed. I went everyplace…now when I sleep I fall all the time.”
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.
As I’ve touched on a bit in the past, ACOK gives us many parallel chapters where we see the impact of one character’s decisions or events through another characters eyes. With this chapter, we’re heading into a section where the parallels are flying at the reader faster and faster as we move towards convergence on Winterfell and King’s Landing. So for example, Bran V, Sansa III, Arya VIII, and Catelyn V are all reacting to the Battle of Oxcross from different perspectives, and Cat’s chapters and Arya VIII both give us a view of the resulting Battle of the Fords from different perspectives, and Bran and Theon’s chapters are giving us the Ironborn invasion of the North from different perspectives.
Now on with the chapter, because this one has a lot going on.
The War and the First Dream
The chapter opens with a scene of Bran receiving a raven “from His Grace, with both good news and ill. He has won a great victory in the west, shattering a Lannister army at a place named Oxcross, and has taken several castles as well. He writes to us from Ashemark, formerly the stronghold of House Marbrand.” This letter does work on a number of different levels – on the surface, we learn that Robb has moved from his victory at Oxcross to capture a key castle in the Westerlands (which is also important for building up Robb as the invincible general that House Stark is putting its trust in). Secondly, we get a sense of how Bran looks at the war:
“Was it Lord Tywin he defeated?” asked Bran.
“No,” said the maester. “Ser Stafford Lannister commanded the enemy host. He was slain in the battle.”
“Lord Tywin is the only one who matters.”
It’s quite similar to Catelyn’s view – as we will will see – this Tully-like focus on family over glory, and it reminds us of the war’s impact on civilians left at home, who are ultimately only interested in the final victory, the one that brings their loved ones back to them. Which in turn provides an even sharper contrast when we arrive at the third layer of the scene, the confirmation of Jojen’s vision:
“My lords, your uncle Ser Stevron Frey was among those who lost their lives at Oxcross. He took a wound in the battle, Robb writes. It was not thought to be serious, but three days later he died in his tent, asleep.”
Big Walder shrugged. “He was very old. Five-and-sixty, I think. Too old for battles. He was always saying he was tired.”
Little Walder hooted. “Tired of waiting for our grandfather to die, you mean. Does this mean Ser Emmon is the heir now?”
“Don’t be stupid…the sons of the first son come before the second son. Ser Ryman is next in line, and then Edwyn and Black Walder and Petyr Pimple. And then Aegon and all his sons.”
“Ryman is old too…past forty, I bet. And he ha a bad belly. Do you think he’ll be lord?”
“I’ll be lord. I don’t care if he is.”
“…Where is your grief? Your uncle is dead.”
“Yes…we’re very sad.”
I’m going to be talking a lot about prophecy later on, but it’s noteworthy that the prophecy in question isn’t particularly difficult to parse – meat equals news, fresh is fresh and old is old. But it’s important that we get this confirmation now, before we get into the prophecy-heavy section of the chapter, so that when Jojen goes full-on doomsaying we believe him.
It’s also useful information because we get a real glimpse into the twisted psyche of the Freys. In somewhat of an inversion of Tolstoy’s adage about unhappy families being unique in their unhappiness, for all of the families of Westeros, it is the nature of feudalism that ultimately is the root cause of their misery, although each manifest the injury in their own way. In the case of the Freys, it is the way in which the link between birth and power, the private and the public, and the way this sets kin against kin in the struggle for succession that has completely destroyed the love and affection that distinguishes a family from any other human organization. Big Walder is almost certainly a murderer, and he is completely lacking in any remorse for anyone that he ought to love, but he is a perfectly raised Frey in his namesakes’ image.
Crisis on the Periphery
Also in this chapter, echoing the foreboding of Jojen’s visions, we get signs of the crises that will bring down the North. However, in strong contrast to the usual cosmic apocalypse obviousness of such threats in most fantasy novels, here the threats are low-key, entirely human in nature, and totally ignored. Here’s how Maester Luwin describes it:
“There is trouble along the Stony Shore. Raiders in longships, plundering fishing villages. Raping and burning. Leobald Tallhart has sent his nephew Benfred to deal with them, but I expect they’ll take to their ships and flee at the first sight of armed men.”
Second-time readers know that this is Theon’s raiding party, which will shortly capture Winterfell, in no small part because Ser Rodrik never provided Benfred with any training, or oversight from a more experienced commander. And yet, it’s completely ignored. Which is hilarious, because Balon’s whole plan assumes that Theon will “draw some of the northern lords out from behind their stone walls…when my sons have struck their blows, Winterfell must respond.” Yet if Theon hadn’t departed from the plan – something I’ll discuss in Theon III – Winterfell wouldn’t have responded at all, and could have potentially sent their army to trap the Iron Fleet in Moat Cailin, crippling Balon’s plan for a conquest of the North.
There’s an element of synecdoche here: just as the game of thrones and its logical conclusion, the War of Five Kings, is distracting Westeros from the true threat of the White Walkers, here the Hornwood Affair is distracting the North from the Ironborn invasion:
“…Ser Rodrik returned to Winterfell with his prisoner, a fleshy young man with fat moist lips and long hair who smelled like a privy, even worse than Alebelly had. “Reek, he’s called,” Hayhead said when Bran asked who it was. “I never heard his true name. He served the Bastard of Bolton and helped him murder Lady Hornwood, they say.”
The Bastard himself was dead, Bran learned that evening over supper. Ser Rodrik’s men had caught him on Hornwood land doing something horrible (Bran wasn’t quite sure what, but it seemed to be something you did without your clothes) and shot him down with arrows as he tried to ride away. They came too late for poor Lady Hornwood, though. After their wedding, the Bastard had locked her in a tower and neglected to feed her. Bran had heard men saying that when Ser Rodrik had smashed down the door he found her with her mouth all bloody and her fingers chewed off.“The monster has tied us a thorny knot,” the old knight told Maester Luwin. “Like it or no, Lady Hornwood was his wife. He made her say the vows before both septon and heart tree, and bedded her that very night before witnesses. She signed a will naming him as heir and fixed her seal to it.”“Vows made at sword point are not valid,” the maester argued.“Roose Bolton may not agree. Not with land at issue.” Ser Rodrik looked unhappy. “Would that I could take this serving man’s head off as well, he’s as bad as his master. But I fear I must keep him alive until Robb returns from his wars. He is the only witness to the worst of the Bastard’s crimes. Perhaps when Lord Bolton hears his tale, he will abandon his claim, but meantime we have Manderly knights and Dreadfort men killing one another in Hornwood forests, and I lack the strength to stop them.”
There is a certain tautology here – Ser Rodrick lacks the strength to stop the Boltons and Manderlys because in this kind of a feudal society, his army would be made up largely of Boltons and Manderlys. Ser Rodrik himself has only 600 Winterfell men, plus another 300 Cerwyn men, close at hand, who make up the remaining strength of House Stark itself, while the strength of the North is much, much larger, but divided against itself. What we are seeing here is the typical weakness of feudal societies, whereby the king or liege lord’s distribution of lands to his vassals leaves him with insufficient power to suppress power conflicts between his vassals. These petty wars, although small in scale, were a bit like guerrilla conflicts in the way that they could drag on for years if not decades, racking up the body count and the destroyed property. It was these wars that helped to justify the so-called New Monarchies of the 15th and 16th centuries – royal taxation and standing armies were rarely popular on their own but as protection from the nobility, they had a certain charm. Just ask the Tudors.
It’s not a good sign for the Starks as effective rulers of the North, therefore, that they’ve gone from being the arbiters of feudal demesnes to being unable to protect their vassals from each other to worrying about whether the Boltons will give up their claim to the Hornwood lands.
Speaking of the Boltons, let’s talk about the capture of Reek. This is a quietly crucial turning point for the plot, because if Reek had been executed on the spot as a murderer and defiler of corpses, then it’s quite likely that the plan to “kill” Bran and Rickon doesn’t come to pass, and that Winterfell is successfully retaken by the North and isn’t burnt to the ground because Ser Rodrik wouldn’t have been bushwhacked by Ramsay. It’s also a quietly crucial turning point for character as well, as Reek would not have been the demon on Theon’s shoulder, prompting him to follow his worst instincts.
However, that’s the end of the non-metaphysical section of this chapter – now, with confidence that we now have in Jojen’s ability to see the future, we plunge headlong into prophecy and mysticism:
“I dreamed that the sea was lapping all around Winterfell. I saw black waves crashing against the gates and towers, and then the salt water came flowing over the walls and filled the castle. Drowned men were floating in the yard. When I first dreamed the dream, back at Greywater, I didn’t know their faces, but now I do. That Alebelly is one, the guard who called our names at the feast. Your septon’s another. Your smith as well.”
“Mikken?” Bran was as confused as he was dismayed. “But the sea is hundreds and hundreds of leagues away, and Winterfell’s walls are so high the water couldn’t get in even if it did come.”
“I dreamed of the man who came today, the one they call Reek. You and your brother lay dead at his feet, and he was skinning off your faces with a long red blade…I couldn’t see why, but I saw the end of it. I saw you and Rickon in your crypts, down in the dark with all the dead kings and their stone wolves”
As with the first dream, this is not abstract or occult – the water representing the Iron Islanders is not exactly “you will destroy a great empire.” But the fact that George R.R Martin goes in for an obvious metaphor is actually a magic trick – it’s meant to make you think that Bran and Rickon might have their faces flayed off (an early clue to Reek’s identity there) and be dead, because every other prophecy was straightforward. It’s the flashy Turn to the first dream’s Pledge – not so much to make the reveal that Bran and Rickon are actually alive in the crypts more impressive, but to make the deaths of the miller’s boys, their impact on Theon, and the truth of Reek’s identity that much more amazing.
At the same time, Bran V also gives us a sustained investigation of prophecy and what it means for the free will of Bran, but by extension of all of the characters. (Before reading this section, you might want to listen Bran begins with the question of whether the prophecy can be forestalled to save others:
“We have to tell them…Alebelly and Mikken, and Septon Chayle. Tell them not to drown.”
“It will not save them…”
…he tried to warn others about what Jojen had seen, but it didn’t go as he wanted.
So far, predestination is winning. Now Bran and consider whether prophecy can be forestalled to save himself:
“If I went to the dungeon, I could drive a spear right through his heart. How could he murder Bran if he was dead?”
“The gaolers will stop you…the guards. And if you tell them why you want him dead, they’ll never believe…they won’t be able to stop him, Bran…it will not matter. The dream was green, Bran, and the green dreams do not lie.”
A second strike against free will. But then Bran asks the ultimate question about the purpose of prophecy in a world of predestination:
“Why would the gods send a warning if we can’t heed it and change what’s to come?”
“I don’t know.”
Not very satisfying, is it? But hang on a second…Jojen just said that Bran and Rickon were doomed to die, because “the things I see in green dreams can’t be changed.” But we second-time readers know that Bran and Rickon aren’t going to die, simply that they are going to hide in the crypts of Winterfell when Ramsay obscures their identity. In other words, Jojen makes the opposite mistake from Melisandre. She clearly believes that destiny can be changed (although she pretends otherwise) through the providence of R’hllor, and thus brings about “the ghost of Renly” beneath the walls of Blackwater due to her failure of interpretation (although it’s not clear whether that’s a case of Can’t Fight Fate or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy). He believes destiny can’t be changed, but misses how his prophecy itself is the solution to avoiding its supposed outcome. The problem with Jojen and Melisandre’s prophetic certainty that destiny trumps free will is that it hinges on an imperfect understanding of what that destiny is – which calls into question how perfect their understanding of prophecy and thus free will is.
In the podcast linked above, I suggest that prophecy in Westeros seems to be acting like signals sent from the future back in time, causing ripples as they go. In other words, prophecy seems to be acting less like the will of the gods and more like time travel, which given what we learn of Bran’s future abilities might actually be the case. Which raises an interesting metaphysical question: does prophecy eliminate free will if an individual’s decision to change the past creates those prophecies?
In addition to these questions, Bran V also gives us an exploration of Bran himself as a shaman figure and a hero on the proverbial journey:
“Warg. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams…your own folk. In fear. Some will hate you if they know what you are. Some will even try to kill you.”
“The wolf dreams are no true dreams. You have your eye closed tight whenever you’re awake, but as you drift off it flutters open and your soul seeks out its other half. The power is strong in you.”
“I don’t want it. I want to be a knight.”
“A knight is what you want. A warg is what you are. You can’t change that, Bran, you can’t deny it or push it away. You are the winged wolf, but you will never fly…unless you open your eye.”
“How can I open it if it’s not there?”
“You will never find the eye with your fingers, Bran. You must search with your heart…or are you afraid?
“Maester Luwin says there’s nothing in dreams a man need fear.”
“There is…the past. The future. The truth.”
As other people have noted, GRRM plays his genre cards straight a lot more than he’s perceived as doing. Most of this is extremely straightforward Campbellian convention: the hero is hated and feared for their specialness (which feeds into the whole hero-as-martyr trope) and thus must leave their childhood home, Bran refuses the call perfunctorily, the hero is called upon to find apotheosis and enlightenment, and so on and so forth. What is interesting is that, at the very same time that Bran is going through these steps, at least part of him has moved onto the next step and already knows where he’s going:
“Do you know the way north? To the Wall and…even past?”
“And are there still giants there….and the children of the forest too?”
“Did you ever see a three-eyed crow?”
In both the shamanic tradition and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, there’s a strong element of psychological liminality – because the hero/shaman is supposed to straddle the mundane and the spiritual, their selves are divided between the conscious and the unconscious and the natural and the supernatural. Having Bran simultaneously cling to his childhood dream of knighthood while planning to travel north to meet the three-eyed crow is a good way to accomplish this while tamping down on the more annoying qualities of this stage in the Hero’s Journey.
At the same time, I also want to point out something I find odd – namely, given the tie between warging and the greensight, and in turn between greensight and the Old Gods, why would Northmen raised in the Old Ways be hostile to a warg? Why isn’t the attitude of the crannogmen, that mystic gifts indicate a connection to the Children of the Forest and thus the divine, universal across the North? It’s certainly true that the World of Ice and Fire gives us examples of Starks warring with warg kings supported by Children of the Forest, but it seems to me a conflict within GRRM’s world-building.
This will have to be a placeholder, I’m afraid, because while I wanted to say something here about how the ancient Greeks dealt with the topic of free will and prophecy, it wasn’t really going below the surface and rather than put up something sub-standard. However, I will replace this once I have a bit more time to go back and re-read the Iliad and the Odyssey so that I can do a proper job on it.
The idea of predestination makes this section philosophically problematic, but for the sake of consistency, let’s press ahead:
- Reek had been killed? I’ve already discussed some of the immediate consequences of Reek’s death for the North, but let’s talk about the long-term implications. If Bran and Rickon aren’t “killed,” then it’s likely that Robb isn’t in need of “comforting” by Jeyne Westerling, and Catelyn isn’t desperate enough to free Ser Jaime Lannister. And if Winterfell is retaken, then Robb has no immediate need to travel back to the North. While I’m firmly of the belief that Walder Frey would have betrayed Robb regardless of Jeyne Westerling, I do think that these events collective butterfly away the Red Wedding as the loss of Winterfell seems to be Roose’s green light for betrayal, I don’t see Walder acting without Roose’s help, and Jaime’s presence in Riverrun further complicates the scenario for Tywin.
- Winterfell had heeded Bran’s warning? To an extent, this falls into a similar problem with Arya’s warnings from AGOT, but let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that Bran and Jojen accurately interpret the prophecy and hold back enough troops to prevent Theon’s 30 men from taking Winterfell, leaving them exposed in the interior. It’s quite astonishing how quickly everything falls apart for the Ironborn – with 900 men, Ser Rodrick could easily capture Theon and disperse Dagmer Cleftjaw’s force. Which raises the interesting question: what happens when Balon dies but the North holds Theon?
Book vs. Show:
The major change in Season 2 to this plotline, as I discussed last time, is the removal of the Reeds. Here, the key consequence is that Jojen’s visions (or at least the vision of the waves drowning Winterfell) get off-loaded onto Bran, which has the interesting consequence of making Bran much more clearly a prophet figure than he is in the books. Indeed, what with all of Bran’s tree-touching in Season 4, and the show’s habit (or need) to keep the wolves to a minimum, I would argue that show-watchers probably associate Bran more as someone who can see the future (and maybe secondarily as someone who can possess humans) than as a warg.