“war everywhere…each man against his neighbor, and winter coming…such folly, such black mad folly…”
Synopsis: Bran is risen. He is risen indeed.
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.
And so, at last, we come to the end of A Clash of Kings. It’s an interesting choice of final chapters – George R.R Martin chose to end not with Tyrion’s downfall (which would have privileged the King’s Landing/Battle of Blackwater arc) or with Dany (as was the case in AGOT), or with Arya who began the novel, but with Bran.
And I think there’s a reason for that. For all that GRRM is seen as a deconstructor of tropes, he uses them more than he’s given credit for and this is especially true with Bran. Bran VII marks a crucial step in Bran’s Hero’s Journey. He’s already had his Call to Adventure, his refusal of same, his Supernatural Aid, and now we get the Crossing of the First Threshold. Winterfell is gone and there is (at least for now) nothing to return to even if Bran wanted to. Thus, he has no choice but to embark on his adventure.
The Fall of Winterfell
Speaking of which, Bran VII opens with another wolf dream that shows us the damage that Ramsay hath wrought:
Men, many men, many horses, and fire, fire, fire. No smell was more dangerous, not even the hard cold smell of iron, the stuff of man-claws and hardskin. The smoke and ash clouded his eyes, and in the sky he saw a great winged snake whose roar was a river of flame. He bared his teeth, but then the snake was gone. Behind the cliffs tall fires were eating up the stars.
All through the night the fires crackled, and once there was a great roar and a crash that made the earth jump under his feet. Dogs barked and whined and horses screamed in terror. Howls shuddered through the night; the howls of the man-pack, wails of fear and wild shouts, laughter and screams. No beast was as noisy as man.
In addition to the lupine imagery, one of the things we see from this dream is how much of a production the sack of Winterfell was. It wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision that was over and done with quickly, it took hours and hours of destruction; after all, Theon VI shows us that Ramsay won his battle while the sun was still in the sky and as this quote shows us, the sack continued all through the night. It’s an impressive commitment to destruction.
Once Bran and co. manage to escape from their confinement in the crypts (more on which later), we get to see this devastation in the light of day. And as they are touring the ruins of Winterfell, we begin to explore the significance of destruction:
The sky was a pale grey, and smoke eddied all around them. They stood in the shadow of the First Keep, or what remained of it. One whole side of the building had torn loose and fallen away. Stone and shattered gargoyles lay strewn across the yard. They fell just where I did, Bran thought when he saw them. Some of the gargoyles had broken into so many pieces it made him wonder how he was alive at all. Nearby some crows were pecking at a body crushed beneath the tumbled stone, but he lay facedown and Bran could not say who he was.
The callback to Bran’s fall from the tower is both deliberate and thorough – it’s more than just the location, it’s the gargoyles that were Bran’s handholds transformed into murder weapons, and the crows that are for Bran the signs and signifiers of prophecy are here rendered as mere scavengers, pecking at the dead body on the ground. Bran Stark is the shaman-king of the Old Gods and thus protected from death until his mission is done, but that does nothing to protect the unnamed man from getting his head staved in by a gargoyle.
And here is where we get GRRM’s commentary on Campbell; it’s not that the Hero’s Journey is entirely rendered false, but that we see the limits and costs of such a way of looking at the world. As we might expect from a story structure invented in a pre-modern world, the Hero’s Journey is a fundamentally aristocratic way of seeing the world, where those with special abilities or from special bloodlines are empirically better and born to rule. In a world divided between Chosen Ones and background characters, very few get handed plot armor and indeed their horrible deaths are required by the gods (i.e, by the writer) to increase the stakes for the main character. And the odds of being Chosen aren’t much better than the odds of being born a nobleman in a medieval world in which 90% or more of the population are peasants bound to the soil.
But beyond the meta-textual, there’s another significance to all of the destruction, which is to point out what a horrible, stupid waste the Sack of Winterfell was:
It took the rest of the morning to make a slow circuit of the castle. The great granite walls remained, blackened here and there by fire but otherwise untouched. But within, all was death and destruction. The doors of the Great Hall were charred and smoldering, and inside the rafters had given way and the whole roof had crashed down onto the floor. The green and yellow panes of the glass gardens were all in shards, the trees and fruits and flowers torn up or left exposed to die. Of the stables, made of wood and thatch, nothing remained but ashes, embers, and dead horses. Bran thought of his Dancer, and wanted to weep. There was a shallow steaming lake beneath the Library Tower, and hot water gushing from a crack in its side. The bridge between the Bell Tower and the rookery had collapsed into the yard below, and Maester Luwin’s turret was gone. They saw a dull red glow shining up through the narrow cellar windows beneath the Great Keep, and a second fire still burning in one of the storehouses.
All of the details of the sack point to how crucial and irreplaceable Winterfell is for the North’s chances of survival – the glass gardens that were the promise of fresh food in the midst of winter are broken and their precious crops spitefully ruined, the Great Hall which could keep so many people safe from the elements is exposed to the open sky, and worst of all, the stone walls through which the hot springs were so carefully channeled through are cracked and the life-giving water is spilling out like blood. If Roose Bolton was here, he would be calling for the leeches to purge the furious anger he would feel at the needless destruction of a valuable resource.
But as I’ve said elsewhere, the importance of Winterfell goes beyond the merely practical. Bran the Builder constructed the castle for a reason – as we learned in the World of Ice and Fire, it’s sitting on top of the same kinds of “furnaces of the world” that fuel Valyria and Dragonstone, both key mystical locales – and I think that purpose was to defeat the White Walkers in the Battle for the Dawn. If, as I believe, Winterfell is an engine for fighting the White Walkers, Ramsay Snow has thrown a giant money-wrench into the gears.
Waking and Warging
If Winterfell is gone, what of the once and future Prince of Winterfell? After all, if Bran is the wounded Fisher King of the North, for whom the health of the king is the health of the land and vice versa, how should the destruction of his realm affect him? Well, as is rather appropriate for not that long after Easter, Bran has slept the sleep of death for:
“Three days,” said Jojen. The boy had come up softfoot, or perhaps he had been there all along; in this blind black world, Bran could not have said. “We were afraid for you…”
“Bran,” a voice was whispering softly. “Bran, come back. Come back now, Bran. Bran…”
He closed his third eye and opened the other two, the old two, the blind two. In the dark place all men were blind. But someone was holding him. He could feel arms around him, the warmth of a body snuggled close. He could hear Hodor singing “Hodor, hodor, hodor,” quietly to himself.
“Bran?” It was Meera’s voice. “You were thrashing, making terrible noises. What did you see?”
“Winterfell.” His tongue felt strange and thick in his mouth. One day when I come back I won’t know how to talk anymore. “It was Winterfell. It was all on fire. There were horse smells, and steel, and blood. They killed everyone, Meera.”
If we’ve been paying attention to the shamanistic aspect of Bran’s story, the fact that Bran has metaphorically come back from the dead shouldn’t be surprising, because the role of the shaman is to stand as a liminal figure between the world of the living and the dead, the material and the supernatural, the waking and the dreaming. It’s noticeable, however, that Bran’s attitude to his supernatural power has completely changed. Where once he was resistant to the very idea, now Bran sees his normal eyes as blind and his third eye as his source of true (in)sight. At the same time, however, GRRM introduces us to the idea that there is a potential threat of the loss of identity should Bran spend too much time adrift from his human body:
“I was with Summer,” Bran said.
“Too long. You’ll starve yourself. Meera dribbled a little water down your throat, and we smeared honey on your mouth, but it is not enough.”
“I ate,” said Bran. “We ran down an elk and had to drive off a treecat that tried to steal him.” The cat had been tan-and-brown, only half the size of the direwolves, but fierce. He remembered the musky smell of him, and the way he had snarled down at them from the limb of the oak.
“The wolf ate,” Jojen said. “Not you. Take care, Bran. Remember who you are.”
He remembered who he was all too well; Bran the boy, Bran the broken. Better Bran the beastling. Was it any wonder he would sooner dream his Summer dreams, his wolf dreams? Here in the chill damp darkness of the tomb his third eye had finally opened. He could reach Summer whenever he wanted, and once he had even touched Ghost and talked to Jon. Though maybe he had only dreamed that. He could not understand why Jojen was always trying to pull him back now.
There’s a lot going on here: to begin with, there’s this running theme about the need for balance between the wolf and the man, the spiritual and the physical. Staying too long in the wolf dream, like staying too long in the spirit realm, threatens the ascetic’s death of drifting away into the ether. And for all that asceticism is romanticized, I don’t think there’s anything noble or enlightened about accidentally fasting yourself to death out of sheer absent-mindedness and neglect. At least Baelor the Blessed was consciously courting martyrdom.
The problem is that Bran doesn’t want to be balanced, because for him the wolf represents physical agency and ability, things his human body can no longer give him. Disability scholars have done a lot of interesting work on ASOIAF and HBO’s Game of Thrones, but one of the aspects of GRRM’s work that I really like is that Bran and others with disability aren’t depicted purely as quietly and patiently suffering and he’s allowed to be pissed off about his situation. At the same time, you do get the sense that Bran is going to have to move beyond self-hatred (more on this in a bit).
In addition, there’s the bit about Bran touching Jon’s wolf dream from Jon VII. I maintain that it’s still quite possible that this is Bran dreaming about doing this in the future – after all, he can travel through time through the weirwood net, and as this is well before Bran actually gets connected with the weirwood net in ADWD.
Life and Death in the Tombs
Speaking of the sleep of death and certain spiritual allusions, Bran VII is absolutely chock-full of references to death and resurrection. Let’s begin with the fact that Bran, who suffered a supposed death in Theon V, is shown alive down in the crypts under Winterfell:
When the shadows moved, it looked for an instant as if the dead were rising as well. Lyanna and Brandon, Lord Rickard Stark their father, Lord Edwyle his father, Lord Willam and his brother Artos the Implacable, Lord Donnor and Lord Beron and Lord Rodwell, one-eyed Lord Jonnel, Lord Barth and Lord Brandon and Lord Cregan who had fought the Dragonknight. On their stone chairs they sat with stone wolves at their feet. This was where they came when the warmth had seeped out of their bodies; this was the dark hall of the dead, where the living feared to tread.
And in the mouth of the empty tomb that waited for Lord Eddard Stark, beneath his stately granite likeness, the six fugitives huddled round their little cache of bread and water and dried meat.
I love that last paragraph – this little cluster of life finding shelter in the shadow of the death of the father. However, the life and death imagery doesn’t end there: to begin with, there are the statures of the recent dead. What these recent dead have in common is that many (if not all) of them have died violent or untimely deaths – Eddard executed along with his father Rickard and his brother Brandon, Lyanna dead on her bed of blood, Willam beheaded at the Battle of Long Lake, Jonnel and Barth and Brandon who all reigned in the years remembered by the North as “the troubles.” And as any student of ghost stories know, violent and untimely deaths are how ghosts are summoned. And so the crypts of Winterfell become a place of dread, “where the living feared to tread,” because the dead are restless and seem willing to rise.
Now, some have interpreted this passage as suggesting that the dead of Winterfell will rise as wights during the final battle – as if Brandon the Builder would not have known or remembered the tactics of the enemies he fought. I disagree, because I think GRRM goes out of his way to balance that sense of dread and fear with a more positive attitude toward the dead:
A naked sword hung down her back, one of the last to bear Mikken’s mark. He had forged it for Lord Eddard’s tomb, to keep his ghost at rest. But with Mikken slain and the ironmen guarding the armory, good steel had been hard to resist, even if it meant grave-robbing. Meera had claimed Lord Rickard’s blade, though she complained that it was too heavy. Brandon took his namesake’s, the sword made for the uncle he had never known. He knew he would not be much use in a fight, but even so the blade felt good in his hand.
…The shadows behind them swallowed his father as the shadows ahead retreated to unveil other statues; no mere lords, these, but the old Kings in the North. On their brows they wore stone crowns. Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt. Edwyn the Spring King. Theon Stark, the Hungry Wolf. Brandon the Burner and Brandon the Shipwright. Jorah and Jonos, Brandon the Bad, Walton the Moon King, Edderion the Bridegroom, Eyron, Benjen the Sweet and Benjen the Bitter, King Edrick Snowbeard. Their faces were stern and strong, and some of them had done terrible things, but they were Starks every one, and Bran knew all their tales. He had never feared the crypts; they were part of his home and who he was, and he had always known that one day he would lie here too.
This paragraph, by context, shows Bran taking strength from the dead, both in the form of his uncle Brandon’s sword and the comfort he takes from the Kings of Winter. So overall, I think the death symbolism in this chapter draws more of its inspiration from Gothic horror where ghosts appear not as malevolent forces but representations of unfinished business and the need for closure.
On a different note, one of the disappointments of the World of Ice and Fire is how little of this history has been uncovered. We know a great deal about Theon the Hungry Wolf and why his legend has endured, we know a bit about Brandon the Shipwright and Brandon the Burner, and we’ve learned a little bit about Edrick Snowbeard, but there are so many thousands of years of history about which we know nothing. Given Westerosi naming conditions, we can assume that Edderion the Bridegroom made a particularly advantageous dynastic marriage that expanded House Stark’s territory, that Walton may have gone mad or possibly was a warg, and that Edwyn likely ruled after a long winter. But the rest are historical mysteries, still keeping their secrets in their crypts.
And Now For Some Actual Politics
Fortunately, not everything in Bran VII is Campbellian mythology and ghost stories; there’s still some time for politics in the midst of all this high fantasy palaver. The first thing to discuss is that, after they creep out of the crypts, Bran and Co. are some of the few people int he North who know the full story of what happened at Winterfell:
“If the gods are good,” Osha said in a low angry voice, “the Others will take them that did this work.”
“It was Theon,” Bran said blackly.
“No. Look.” She pointed across the yard with her spear. “That’s one of his ironmen. And there. And that’s Greyjoy’s warhorse, see? The black one with the arrows in him.” She moved among the dead, frowning. “And here’s Black Lorren.” He had been hacked and cut so badly that his beard looked a reddish-brown now. “Took a few with him, he did.” Osha turned over one of the other corpses with her foot. “There’s a badge. A little man, all red.”
“The flayed man of the Dreadfort,” said Bran.
That’s not to say they’re the only ones who know anything – the prisoners held at the Dreadfort know that Theon didn’t burn Winterfell to the ground (although they don’t know that Bran and Rickon are alive), the survivors of Ramsay’s ambush know that the Boltons betrayed the Starks before the Red Wedding, which by the end of ADWD means the Northern lords with Stannis and the Manderlys know, but they wouldn’t know what happened next. Likewise, the few prisoners held at the Twins or on the road know about Roose’s actions, but are ignorant of what really happened in the North. But Bran and co. know the most about what happened within and without Winterfell.
The treachery of the new information adds to the paranoid atmosphere of this chapter, because GRRM needs to sell why Bran Stark is going to go north of the Wall rather than flee to any number of loyalist holdfasts that still exist throughout the North. And this is further reinforced by their bittersweet reunion with Maester Luwin. As sweet as it is for Maester Luwin to die with the merciful knowledge that his charges are still alive, it’s still a moment rooted in deception:
Gently, they eased Luwin onto his back. He had grey eyes and grey hair, and once his robes had been grey as well, but they were darker now where the blood had soaked through. “Bran,” he said softly when he saw him sitting tall on Hodor’s back. “And Rickon too.” He smiled. “The gods are good. I knew…”
“Knew?” said Bran uncertainly.
“The legs, I could tell…the clothes fit, but the muscles in his legs…poor lad…” He coughed, and blood came up from inside him. “You vanished…in the woods…how, though?”
“We never went,” said Bran. “Well, only to the edge, and then doubled back. I sent the wolves on to make a trail, but we hid in Father’s tomb.”
“The crypts.” Luwin chuckled…
Luwin knew the truth, but kept it to himself, not only from Theon (which if you stop to think about is a pretty significant violation of his oath as a maester) but also from the smallfolk of Winterfell, a decision not without its cost in human lives. Likewise, Luwin was himself deceived by Bran, Rickon, and Osha as to their hiding place, a clear example of the value of compartmentalization. This focus on deception and mistrust moves from subtext to text when Luwin doles out his final advice about:
“…where to take them?”
“…Maester Luwin shook his head, though it was plain to see what the effort cost him. “Cerwyn boy’s dead. Ser Rodrik, Leobald Tallhart, Lady Hornwood…all slain. Deepwood fallen, Moat Cailin, soon Torrhen’s Square. Ironmen on the Stony Shore. And east, the Bastard of Bolton.”
“Then where?” asked Osha.
“White Harbor…the Umbers…I do not know…war everywhere…each man against his neighbor, and winter coming…such folly, such black mad folly…”
To me, this quote sums up Bran’s A Clash of Kings storyline. Winterfell fell to the enemy and then was sacked and torched by its own because of selfish political divisions within the North. While certainly the Boltons deserve the vast majority of the blame both for Ramsay’s attack on Winterfell and the Hornwood crisis that precipitated it, others are also responsible. The hardcore loyalists – the Cerwyns, Cassels, and Tallharts – are dead both because of poor command decisions and because of a failure to mobilize and coordinate the North’s military resources. And the Manderlys, Karstarks, and Umbers were so focused on their own political gain that they were unable to help when there was still time to put things right. The sad truth of it is that, if Bran had fled to White Harbor or Karhold or Last Hearth, he would have become a pawn in their Northern game of thrones, just as poor Rickon may yet be.
And the “mad, black folly” of it all is that, in its hour of maximum danger, the North indulged in a civil war it could not afford in the midst of an Ironborn invasion, an incomplete mobilization for the War of Five Kings, the arrival of Mance Rayder and his wildlings, and the White Walkers who come after. As I’ve argued before, had the North been truly unified and made full use of its resources, it may have dealt with most of these: the Ironborn invasion certainly, the southern campaign would have been greatly changed by the lack of a need to relieve the North and if Robb Stark had ten thousand more men under his command, and the Wall certainly would have gotten the assistance it desperately needed during the Battle of Castle Black. Whether they could have dealt with the White Walkers, we have yet to see.
And it’s here that the political and the metaphysical converge. The division of the North is the “push” factor that means Bran cannot stay at home and must go beyond the Wall, while destiny acts as the “pull factor,” pointing to the direction he should follow. Thus, Jojen (and it might as well be GRRM himself) says “our road is north.” Because otherwise the story can’t continue.
Broken But Not Dead
One final thought about A Clash of Kings before we go. If you want to know where Bran’s story is going to end, I think this chapter gives us a giant honking clue:
The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep, and under the ground the Kings of Winter sit their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m not dead either.
Especially after ADWD, many people have assumed that Bran’s destiny is to replace Brynden Rivers as the last greenseer enthroned in the weirwood tree. I disagree. Firstly, Brynden entombing himself was clearly not sufficient to prevent the White Walkers from awakening, so I would argue that Brynden’s path represents a failed strategy in the war against the Heart of Winter, rather than Bran’s destiny. Secondly, Brynden’s role in ASOIAF is to be a mentor figure, to help Bran take the next step from mere apprentice to full master of his craft. But in stories, the student is supposed to surpass and transcend the master; for Bran merely to follow Brynden’s plan is to reduce the POV character (GRRM’s very first POV character) to a mere tool in Bloodraven’s hand.
Thirdly and finally, Bran is not going to end his days in the tree because he has work to do. Winterfell has been broken, and Bran is the namesake of its builder, so he is the one who’s going to have to fix it. The great machine for fighting the White Walkers needs to be rebuild, and it’s going to take Bloodraven’s knowledge of the earth magic of the Children of the Forest to do that – that’s why Bran went to the Three-Eyed Crow. And speaking of that machine, I’m going to lay down a marker for the future: I think that the stone (which may also refer to the hot springs beneath), the weirwood tree (which gives us a connection to the greenseers and their magic), and the Kings of Winter (is this why there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, why the bodies of the Starks must be brought back to this place no matter what?) are three crucial components to the functioning of this machine.
One of the things that I like more after having read ADWD – where we see the seemingly final destruction of Winterfell greatly reversed – is that GRRM is actually quite historically accurate about how non-final the burning of a capitol can be.
Partially because premodern cities were really really easy to burn, and partially because important locations remain important even when the structures of a given city have been leveled, a lot of historical capitol cities burned many times over. As you can see from this list, London burned no less than four times, and it yet remains as the capitol city of Great Britain; Constantinople burned five times and yet you can see many of its great structures in present-day Istanbul.
But as long as the people survive, cities cannot die. After the Great Fire of London, the residents returned to the city while the ashes were still warm, and used pegs and rope lines to mark out where their homes had stood until the city’s building trades got to them. The Great Fire of Chicago and the San Francisco Earthquake (and Fire) of 1906 leveled most if not all of those great metropolises, but the cities barely paused in their growth, in part because the aftermath of a great disaster often means there’s nowhere to go but up.
And this was especially true of the sack of cities. Sacks often involve a great deal of murder and unfortunately of sexual assault as well, but rarely the destruction of the structures and the whole of the people who live in them, because what the sackers are after is movable wealth. As Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell says of the sack of Rome in 1527, “soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.” We think of the Sack of Rome in 476 as the end of a civilization, but as I’ve discussed before, Odoacer didn’t harm the city as much as he did one element of its political order in order to get his back pay.
In this chapter especially, there isn’t really a place for hypotheticals. Bran exists as a character to go north of the Wall and always has, as we can see from the Ur-Text. If that makes for disappointment, I apologize. All I can say is, just you wait for A Storm of Swords, because that book is absolutely riddled with moments of extreme contingency.
See you there!
Book vs. Show:
As with a lot of Bran’s Season 2 storyline, this moment doesn’t quite land the way it should. Part of it is the premature revelation about his survival – remember, in the book this chapter is the first Bran chapter after the capture of Winterfell – which means that their emergence from the crypts doesn’t have the same surprise moment. I would also say that part of it is the staging and filming of the sack of Winterfell; even without the presence of Ramsay, the way that the showrunners depicted Theon’s capture and then shot the outside shots here make it rather unclear what precisely happened in Winterfell and why we should care who burnt it to the ground.
Likewise, leaving out the Northern political plotline (and Jojen and Meera) means that Luwin has to tell Bran and Rickon to go to Jon at the Wall, which isn’t quite as good a launching-off point for where Bran’s story is going to go. I will say, however, that Donald Sumpter was an amazing Maester Luwin and made for a quite poignant death.