“Weese,” Arya whispered that night as she bent over the tear in her shift…she wondered how much longer she would have to include Weese in her prayer, and drifted off to sleep dreaming that on the morrow, when she woke, he’d be dead.
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 the last Arya chapter I noted that folktales and fairytales that deal with genies and wishes have a similar structure – the first wish is always a test, the second test is always a mistake that creates a crisis, so that the hero can fix their mistake with the third.
War of Five Kings: Tywin Marches West
Before I get into Arya’s second wish, I want to address Tywin’s westward march and what it tells us about Robb Stark’s off-screen campaign. As I’ve suggested, Robb Stark’s strategic move is a lot more successful than it gets credit for.
Indeed, Robb has forestalled Tywin’s strategy completely. Tywin had hoped to use his raids and occupation to force Robb to attack Tywin’s army at Harrenhal, where Tywin would have a defensive advantage and the possibility of defeating the various pieces of Robb’s army in detail, while remaining within distance of King’s Landing so that he could reinforce it as necessary.
“He wasn’t man enough to march on Harrenhal, was he? Ran t’other way, didn’t he? He’d run now if he knew what was best for him.”
“So you say, but might be the boy knows something we don’t, maybe it’s us ought to be run…”
What Robb knows that these two soldiers don’t is the importance of establishing momentum and initiative, and how these can be used to make the enemy commander behave not only predictably but in a way that you’ve dictated. In this case, Robb has created a threat to the Westerlands that he knows Tywin must respond to:
“They were going to fight Robb, she knew. Listening to the talk as she went about her work, Arya had learned that Robb had won some great victory in the west. He’d burned Lannisport, some said, or else he meant to burn it. He’d captured Casterly Rock and put everyone to the sword, or he was besieging the Golden Tooth . . . but something had happened, that much was certain.”
While Robb Stark hasn’t attacked Lannisport, Casterly Rock, or the Golden Tooth, and in fact doesn’t have the necessary siege equipment to do so, Tywin and his commanders don’t know that, and the mere threat that Robb Stark might do any of these things is enough to force Tywin’s hand. In other words, this is a plan founded on a solid comprehension of feudal politics. Just as with Robb Stark, Tywin’s army is not a professional standing army, but a collection of the entourages of various vassals who serve conditionally – and if Tywin fails to maintain those conditions, he might well end up like his father Tytos, given how much of his reputation comes from his maintenance of law and order in the Westerlands.
In fact, we can see the importance of feudal politics in the description of the “main strength of Lord Tywin’s host.” While House Lannister itself has a significant force that requires “no less than four standard-bearers,” the majority of their army comes from the lesser Houses of the Westerlands:
“red ox and golden mountain, purple unicorn and bantam rooster, brindled boar and badger, a silver ferret and a juggler in motley, stars and sunbursts, peacock and panther, chevron and dagger, black hood and blue beetle and green arrow. Last of all came Ser Gregor Clegane in his grey plate steel.”
For the non-heralds among us, that’s the Red Ox of House Prester, the Golden Mountain of House Lefford, the Purple Unicorn of House Brax, the Bantam Rooster of House Swyft, the Brindled Boar of House Crakehall, the Badger of House Lydden, the Silver and Green Ferret of House Ferren, the Juggler of House Falwell, the Sunbursts of House Kenning, the Peacock of House Serrett, the Dagger and Chevron of House Foote, the Black Hood of House Banefort, the Blue Beetle of House Bettley and the Green Arrow of House Sarsfield (because GRRM loves his comic book references), and the three dogs of House Clegane. Now look at the map above and note how many of these House’s seats are close to the path of Robb’s army – while it’s not the majority, it’s easily a third, and given that they don’t know which direction Robb is going to raid, all of them are at risk. Already low in numbers, Tywin cannot afford to see chunks of his army desert in defense of heart and home in the same way that Robb lost the Riverlords after the Battle of the Camps(link), so he must march to keep his army intact.
Finally, as we will see in this chapter and the next Catelyn chapter, Robb’s strategy also works to simultaneously demoralize the Lannisters – hence “not natural, coming on them so fast, in the night at all. He’s more wolf than man, all them Starks are…” – and boosting the morale of his own forces (at least for the moment).
Why Did Arya Choose Weese?
So let’s talk about why Arya chooses Weese in this chapter. To begin with, it’s important to note that Arya is acting in haste without having much of a chance to think things through, in part because Tywin marching has added a sudden time pressure that didn’t exist before:
“Everywhere she went, Arya searched for Jaqen H’ghar, wanting to whisper another name to him before those she hated were all gone out of her reach, but amidst the chaos and confusion the Lorathi sellsword was not to be found. He still owed her two deaths, and she was worried she would never get them if he rode off to battle with the rest. Finally she worked up the courage to ask one of the gate guards if he’d gone…
“The Mountain would be leaving with Lord Tywin, though. He would command the van in battle, which meant that Dunsen, Polliver, and Raff would all slip between her fingers unless she could find Jaqen and have him kill one of them before they left.”
Note that here, Arya is thinking in somewhat grander terms than Weese (although not yet at the Tywin level) – she’s worried that the Mountain, Dunsen, Polliver, and Raff (all people from her list) are escaping her grasp before she can name them. And yet once she’s found Jaqen, Arya’s forgotten what she was originally intended, which makes sense. As any number of psychological experiments have found, putting time limits on people’s decision-making, like making them multi-task, significantly impairs cognitive function, so the mistake makes sense.
At the same time, Arya’s decision to name Weese has both conscious and sub-conscious motivations. Consciously, Arya once again acts to maintain some sense of self-actualization and control over her environment: “for a moment she had been a wolf again, but Weese’s slap took it all away and left her with nothing but the taste of her own blood in her mouth.” Both to maintain her identity as a Stark capable of defending herself and to prevent Weese from ever beating her again (“you won’t…you won’t ever again.”), Arya kills her immediate overseer.
On a somewhat sub-conscious level, Arya also chooses Weese in order to facilitate escape from Harrenhal; as she muses to herself, “I could flee…She might have done it if not for Weese. He’d told them more than once what he’d do to anyone who tried to run off on him…maybe if Weese were dead.” Throughout the chapter, Arya is assessing herself for strengths – the fact that “Weese never imagined she could read, though, so he never bothered to seal the messages he gave her…” and that “a mouse couldn’t use a sword but I can...” – that could serve as the foundation for an escape plan:
she thought about going to the stables and telling them that Ser Lyonel wanted a new horse. She had the paper, the stableboys wouldn’t be able to read it any better than Lucan had. I could take the horse and the sword and just ride out. If the guards tried to stop me I’d show them the paper and say I was bringing everything to Ser Lyonel.”
To me, this complicates the question of how much of a mistake it was for Arya to name Weese – unless we expect a 10-year old child to have military responsibility for their House’s war effort, escape ought to be the first priority for someone in Arya’s position. And her plan isn’t half bad – being literate in a world where most people aren’t (one of the strangest cases of intersectionality I’ve ever heard of) gives her the equivalent of the letters of transit from Casablanca, being trained in combat would allow her to kill an isolated guard (which she will do later to escape Harrenhal), and if the man in charge of the slaves is dead, it’s quite possible her escape would go unnoticed for quite some time.
The Second Murder
The downside of this is that Arya has to go to Jaqen to use another name – which is an important first step toward the dark side. In the beginning, Arya killed only in defense of herself and others; next, she killed arguably to maintain the moral balance of the universe. However, there’s no real argument that Weese’s slap deserves death as punishment, so it’s more of a self-interested murder.
And, following the logic of genie stories, it also means that Jaqen is one step closer to freedom – although interestingly, the consequences of his freedom are left ambiguous, whereas in the stories it’s usually quite explicit that the genie will try to kill the person who summoned it, or in general wreak havoc. Which brings us to the bath sequence, where GRRM deliberately writes the scene to play up the uncanny nature of our favorite Faceless Man:
“She found Jaqen soaking in a tub, steam rising around him as a serving girl sluiced hot water over his head…she crept up quiet as a shadow, but he opened his eyes all the same…how could he hear me? she wondered, and it seemed as if he heard that as well…”
“I have a message.” Arya…leaned in until her mouth was almost touching his ear. “Weese,” she whispered.
Jaqen H’ghar closed his eyes again, floating languid, half-asleep. “Tell his lordship a man shall attend him at his leisure.”
To begin with, there’s something really out of place here – why does a mere common soldier rate his own bath and a servant of his own, which you think would be reserved for the officers and the nobility? Jaqen’s heightened sense of hearing could be explained by the House of Black and White’s training process that (as we learn in AFFC) involves temporarily eliminating one of the senses to improve the others (which has some scientific basis). Likewise, his seeming ability to read Arya’s mind might be due to his guild’s emphasis on human observation and acting lessons to cold read her. However, since we don’t know anything about the Faceless Men yet, it all comes off on the first read as occult and uncanny.
This increasingly eerie feeling is only intensified by the deeply unnatural manner in which Weese is assassinated, with Jaqen H’ghar seemingly capable of perverting the proverbial loyalty of man’s best friend:
Weese was sprawled across the cobbles, his throat a red ruin, eyes gaping sightlessly up at a bank of grey cloud. His ugly spotted dog stood on his chest, lapping at the blood pulsing from his neck, and every so often ripping a mouthful of flesh out of the dead man’s face.
Finally someone brought a crossbow and shot the spotted dog dead while she was worrying at one of Weese’s ears.
“Damnedest thing,” she heard a man say. “He had that bitch dog since she was a pup.”
“This place is cursed,” the man with the crossbow said.
“It’s Harren’s ghost, that’s what it is,” said Goodwife Amabel. “I’ll not sleep here another night, I swear it.”
…Arya lifted her gaze from the dead man and his dead dog. Jaqen H’ghar was leaning up against the side of the Wailing Tower. When he saw her looking, he lifted a hand to his face and laid two fingers casually against his cheek.
In retrospect, however, there’s a mundanity beneath the magic, continuing the theme of the the worst things in Harrenhal being people rather than curses. Jaqen H’ghar, continuing his signature style of killing people via “accidents” and/or poisons (incidentally, the former is why it’s more likely than not that Jaqen was the Faceless Man who killed Balon Greyjoy), simply slipped Weese’s dog some meat dosed with tasty, tasty basilisk venom and let the dog do the work for it.
And all of these atmosphere-building is for the benefit of the reader and Arya, to make us realize what kind of a person she’s made a bargain with, so that before we see Jaqen change his face both of us understand that he’s not just an ordinary hired dagger but something darker and more mysterious.
And so Arya realizes too late, in the classic mode of both genie stories and tragedies, that she’s made a horrible mistake by making a rash decision:
A shiver crept up Arya’s spine as she watched them pass under the great iron portcullis of Harrenhal. Suddenly she knew that she had made a terrible mistake. I’m so stupid, she thought. Weese did not matter, no more than Chiswyck had. These were the men who mattered, the ones she ought to have killed. Last night she could have whispered any of them dead, if only she hadn’t been so mad at Weese for hitting her and lying about the capon. Lord Tywin, why didn’t I say Lord Tywin?
Perhaps it was not too late to change her mind. Weese was not killed yet. If she could find Jaqen, tell him . . .
Again, we have to be measured in our judgement of a ten-year old, because in a major way it’s not her fault. GRRM, once again acting as the Greek Fates, needs Tywin to survive his brush with death for his plot to work – it’s necessary for the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s trial and escape, and to make the downfall of House Lannister a proper Fall of the House of Atreus rather than a mere military defeat.
Thematically, I think it’s also important in GRRM’s ongoing deconstruction of fantasy, specifically his attitude to magic. Even as A Clash of Kings massively ramps up the presence of magic in Westeros and Essos, GRRM is very careful to ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of his story. In his world, magic is something that adds to the drama by creating problems for his characters to deal with, rather than something that decreases the drama by instantly (and costlessly) solving problems out in the world. Arya’s three wishes aren’t unimportant – after all, they are capable of capturing one of the largest castles in Westeros – but they’re not going to end the war. Similarly, Melisandre’s shadowy assassins can slay Renly and seize Storm’s End, but they can’t win the war for Stannis.
Thus, the balance is maintained.
So while we’re hanging out in Harrenhal with everyone’s favorite Lorathi, let’s talk about the history of poisons in the premodern world. Prior to the advent of the industrial revolution, with all of its lovely byproducts like cyanide, strychnice, arsenic, and mercury, to say nothing of the 20th century’s chemical, biological, and radioactive agents, poisons were your original organic, locally-grown, and authentic solution for inconveniently alive people.
The most famous and popular of these, the four horsemen of the natural world, were hemlock (AKA the “Mother-In-Law’s Poison”), aconite (AKA monkshood, wolfsbane and the Queen of All Poisons), belladona (AKA deadly nightshade), and mandrake.
Hemlock, which is similar in effect to nicotine, acts on the nervous system as a very strong paralytic, causing the respiratory muscles to seize up, producing asphyxiation – all the while keeping the victim completely conscious. Hemlock was ancient Greece’s preferred method of execution, famously being used to dispatch the philosopher Socrates when some of his students attempted an aristocratic coup and pissed off the Athenian democrats enough to condemn their teacher to death.
Aconite is an extremely efficient poison (it’s deadly at very low concentrations and can be absorbed through the skin as well as ingested) to that uses alkaloids to attack the heart and the respiratory system, while leaving almost no traces behind. Historically and in literature, it was one of the most popular – Medea attempted to poison Theseus with aconite, the emperor Claudius was killed by his wife using a dish of mushrooms laced with aconite, it’s used in novels from the Cadfael series to Joyce’s Ulysses, and because it’s speculated that aconite got the name wolfsbane by being used to kill wolves via poisoned projectiles, it became part of the mythology of both Dracula and the Wolfman.
Yet another alkaloid-based killer, Belladonna was historically used more often as a beauty product than an assassination device – as the noble ladies and courtesans of Venice knew all too well, belladonna paralyses the muscles in the eyes that constrict pupils, causing the pupils to look much bigger, and when used on the cheeks causes them to flush, thus producing soulful eyes and a natural blush. Of course, use too much, and in addition to some really trippy hallucinations and confusion, you also get paralysis, tachycardia, and convulsions. The Empress Livia was suspected of having used belladonna to kill the Emepror Augustus, and if aconite wasn’t used to kill Claudius this certainly was. My favorite example, however, is that Macbeth of Scotland supposedly used belladonna to poison the army of King Harald Harefoot of England, forcing the army to retreat from Scotland.
Finally, mandrake. The plant’s human-like shape unsurprisingly made it a huge deal in folklore and magical traditions – that it only grew under gallows from the semen of hanged men, that it screamed when pulled out of the ground, which was either fatal and/or condemned you to hell, that you could use it to create homunculi, that it could cure impotence or be used to brew love potions, etc. As a poison, it has more panache than most – large doses of mandrake cause hallucinations, delirium, narcotic comas, and/or death by asphyxiation. Like many of these premodern poisons, it had as many medicinal uses – as an anesthetic (since it’s a fairly strong narcotic), to deal with rheumatism and other chronic pain – as it did homicidal ones.
Just goes to show, never piss off someone with a herb garden.
Once again, a chapter that involves the main character making a choice brings up some major hypothetical scenarios. So let’s jump into them:
- Arya names Tywin? While obviously this choice would have enormous implications for Tyrion, Cersei, Jaime et. al. down the road, immediately the main impact is that the Lannister army’s morale would have been badly shaken (although I doubt the army would have collapsed immediately) and control would have reverted over to Kevan Lannister (FYI, you should definitely read this). What happens next is somewhat uncertain.
- Kevan’s style has always been dutiful loyalty to Tywin’s wishes, which might mean that he’d try his hardest to get across the Red Fork – which probably means that the Lannister army would probably miss the rendezvous with Littlefinger’s messenger, given how tight the timing is, King’s Landing falls, and at that point Kevan probably swings round to the Gold Road to get home so he can sue for peace in the safety of Casterly Rock (especially since the lords of the West aren’t going to take no for an answer when it comes to getting back to their holdfasts). Essentially, the West would be knocked out as an active participant in the war, trying to weather the storm as best it could – and the question becomes what happens to them. The Starks could make a peace with Stannis if they can get Sansa back – with the Lannisters defeated and the Riverlands freed, it’s quite likely Robb decides that he’s accomplished his war aims, he doesn’t like being king, and it’s time to go home (especially with the North under attack). The Riverlanders might stay in for a bit to see if they can’t grab the Golden Tooth and firm up their defenses against the Westerlands. Given that Stannis is going to be preoccupied with consolidating his rule (starting with the Stormlands, and then trying to get the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale into his fold, while keeping a wary eye on his southern border) for some time, he might be willing to let the West bend the knee, as the guilty parties would be dead.
- On the other hand, Kevan might try to get back to King’s Landing, given that he was never that keen on Tywin’s Riverlands strategy to begin with. In that case, he probably would be able to link up with the Tyrells (if they’re willing to go through with the deal without Tywin’s name on the dotted line) and win at Blackwater Bay, although it’s probable that without Tywin’s driving force, Stannis would at the very least be able to withdraw in better order than he did OTL, maintaining a larger army for his northern campaign. On the other hand, the politics would go absolutely loco – without Tywin’s strong hand on the rudder, Cersei and the Tyrells are going to tear each other to pieces from day one, especially if Cersei and/or Kevan isn’t fast enough on the ball to block Sansa’s Highgarden marriage, which Cersei especially would see as treason. Imagine Cersei’s AFFC plot, but much much faster.
- Arya names the Mountain? Here’s an interesting one, somewhat smaller-scale. On the one hand, Gregor’s death probably wouldn’t change the outcome of many battles – the Fords, Duskendale, and Ruby Ford would probably go down the same, but with a lower casualty rate. On the other, it has a huge impact on a more human level. First, Oberyn lives, which probably means that the Dornish plot from AFFC is butterflied away entirely – it’s quite possible that he and Tyrion end up backing Myrcella for queen instead, or it’s possible Oberyn was lying about that since he clearly knew about the Targaryen pact. Second, Tyrion might well win his trial by combat, as Bronn (or a different sellsword) would probably not mind going toe-to-toe with a Kettleblack – on the other hand, I could definitely see Tywin sending him to the Wall anyway. Third, it almost definitely means that Cersei loses her coming trial, which might bring down the Lannisters in one fell swoop.
Book vs. Show:
If there’s one critique I have of the Arya Season 2 plot, it’s that I never felt like they quite got the second name right. Yes, they still have the sudden sense of urgency causing the mistake, but the assassination of Ser Amory Lorch is played for comedy, rather than tying back either to the death of Yoren and the sense of missed opportunity isn’t really hammered home (and again, is played for comedy in Season 3).
It’s not a devastating critique, but it seems like a missed opportunity.