“Do you know where we’re going?” Gendry asked her.
“North,” said Arya.
Hot Pie peered around uncertainly. “Which way is north?”
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.
Arya I is a surprisingly slow start to what is a profoundly transformative story which will see Arya’s connection to her family, her companions, and Westerosi society itself violently severed (in contrast to ACOK, where Arya begins and ends the book as a refugee from the War of the Five Kings). At the same time, however, there are some interesting themes started in this chapter that will be highly influential for her ASOS storyline – most of which revolve around the difficulties of survival in a war zone. Refreshingly, in contrast to much genre fiction, the practical necessities of survival, orientation and navigation, and food and other supplies start as huge barriers and remain so throughout.
On the Lam
The first major theme of this chapter is resolving the loose plot thread from the end of Arya’s ACOK storyline – namely, what Roose Bolton is going to about Arya and company’s escape from Harrenhal:
“They rode north, away from the lake, following a rutted farm road across the torn fields and into the woods and streams. Arya took the lead, kicking her stolen horse to a brisk heedless trot until the trees closed in around her. Hot Pie and Gendry followed as best they could. Wolves howled off in the distance, and she could hear Hot Pie’s heavy breathing. No one spoke. From time to time Arya glanced over her shoulder, to make sure the two boys had not fallen too far behind, and to see if they were being pursued.”
“They would be, she knew. She had stolen three horses from the stables and a map and a dagger from Roose Bolton’s own solar, and killed a guard on the postern gate, slitting his throat when he knelt to pick up the worn iron coin that Jaqen H’ghar had given her. Someone would find him lying dead in his own blood, and then the hue and cry would go up. They would wake Lord Bolton and search Harrenhal from crenel to cellar, and when they did they would find the map and the dagger missing, along with some swords from the armory, bread and cheese from the kitchens, a baker boy, a ‘prentice smith, and a cupbearer called Nan . . . or Weasel, or Arry, depending on who you asked.”
“The Lord of the Dreadford would not come after them himself. Roose Bolton would stay abed, his pasty flesh dotted with leeches, giving commands in his whispery soft voice. His man Walton might lead the hunt…or perhaps it would be Vargo Hoat and his sellswords…”
“If they catch us, he’ll cut off our hands and feet, Arya thought, and then Roose Bolton will peel the skin off us…Every time she looked back, she half expected to see a blaze of torches pouring out the distant gates of Harrenhal or rushing along the tops of its huge high walls, but there was nothing. Harrenhal slept on, until it was lost in darkness and hidden behind the trees.”
While this passage works quite well at building up and maintaining an atmosphere of threat and peril, there’s an underlying irony here that undercuts some of that atmosphere on a re-read. For all that Arya is rightfully justified in her terror of Roose Bolton (more on this in a second), there’s really no evidence at all that Roose gives a damn about petty theft, a single dead guard, and a few escaped peasants – we certainly never see any Dreadfort men out looking for them. And while it’s possible that the Brave Companions we see later in this chapter were out hunting down the runaways, it’s far from certain. In the first place, the Brave Companions raid the countryside as a matter of course as the larger part of their living, so it’s quite likely that it was pure coincidence. In the second place, there are far more valuable targets running around the Riverlands at the moment. That’s not to say that there aren’t threats and dangers out there for a bunch of pre-teens in the Riverlands, but they’re coming from unexpected directions.
At the same time, the above passage also calls into question how reliable Arya is being as a narrator (another rarely acknowledged point of similarity between Arya and Sansa):
“She should be more frightened herself, she knew. She was only ten, a skinny girl on a stolen horse with a dark forest ahead of her and men behind who would gladly cut off her feet. Yet somehow she felt calmer than she ever had in Harrenhal. The rain had washed the guard’s blood off her fingers, she wore a sword across her back, wolves were prowling through the dark like lean grey shadows, and Arya Stark was unafraid. Fear cuts deeper than swords, she whispered under her breath, the words that Syrio Forel had taught her, and Jaqen’s words too, valar morghulis.”
Arya can hardly be afraid and unafraid at the same time, and we can see from the first passage that Arya can’t stop thinking she’s being pursued by the Boltons, or thinking about the Boltons’ traditional punishment for their enemies. So rather than taking this passage at face value, I think we ought to see this as Arya trying to maintain a stiff upper lip by reaching back to her sources of comfort and control in a time of stress – although it’s notable that she’s now hearkening back to the teachings of both Syrio Forel and Jaqen H’ghar. (Note, however, that the two men offer contrasting advice: Syrio’s maxim is about keeping yourself alive in battle by not freezing up, while Jaqen’s is a solemn meditation on the inevitability of death. Because Syrio != Jaqen.)
How to Find Your Way
While Arya’s concern about pursuit shapes the atmosphere of the chapter, she actually spends far more time engaged in the struggle to find her way across the countryside to Riverrun. While GRRM’s penchant for lengthy (some might say meandering) travelogues has come in for a lot of criticism post-AFFC and ADWD, he doesn’t do it without some kind of character or thematic purpose in mind. Here, I think the target is the genre fiction trope of depicting travel and survival in the wilderness as a piece of cake or making the protagonist an effortlessly competent survivalist as in Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, or (and now I’m reaching way back to my childhood) My Side of the Mountain. In reality, surviving, let alone successfully traveling across, natural environments is incredibly difficult without the proper equipment, supplies, and training (hence why romantics like Timothy Treadwell and Christopher McCandless tend to end badly).
Thus, the first challenge that Arya and Co. have to face is the difficulties of orientation and navigation, even with the fact that Arya knows where she wants to go, has had some limited wilderness training, and has a map:
“Do you know where we’re going?” Gendry asked her.
“North,” said Arya.
Hot Pie peered around uncertainly. “Which way is north?”
She used her cheese to point. “That way.”
“But there’s no sun. How do you know?”
“From the moss. See how it grows mostly on one side of the trees? That’s south.”
“What do we want with the north?” Gendry wanted to know.
“The Trident.” Arya unrolled the stolen mad to show them. “See? Once we reach the Trident, all we need to do is follow it upstream till we come to Riverrun, here.” Her finger traced the path. “It’s a long way, but we can’t get lost as long as we keep to the river.”
Hot Pie blinked at the map. “Which one is Riverrun?”
Riverrun was painted as a castle tower, in the fork between the flowing blue lines of the two rivers, the Tumblestone and the Red Fork. “There.” She touched it. “Riverrun, it reads.”
“You can read writing?” he said to her, wonderingly, as if she’d said she could walk on water.
She nodded. “we’ll be safe once we reach Riverrun.”
“We will? Why?”
Because Riverrun is my grandfather’s castle, and my brother Robb will be there, she wanted to say. She bit her lip and rolled up the map. “We just will.”
In the wilderness, where sight-lines can be compromised and landmarks can be nonexistent, uneven footing makes it difficult to walk in a straight line, and terrain can force you to make frequent detours, it can be extremely difficult just to maintain a consistent direction and heading. Modern studies have shown, for example that people in poor visibility environments tend to loop back on themselves repeatedly, all the while thinking that they’re making consistent progress. These kind of behaviors can lead a lot of hikers to get themselves very badly lost and suffer from exposure, all the while being only a few meters from a well-traveled path, and potentially can get people killed.
Even with a map, even a modern map with proper scale and elevation clearly marked, it can be extraordinarily difficult to keep yourself oriented because of the potential danger of mistaking one landmark for another. Without a compass and a minimum amount of training in orientation, a map is an unsteady guide to your environment. Thus it’s not surprising that despite their best efforts and all of Arya’s careful planning, Arya, Gendry, and Hot Piet (three preteens who primarily grew up in urban environments) get themselves lost almost immediately:
Late that afternoon, they emerged from beneath the trees and found themselves on the banks of a river. Hot Pie gave a whoop of delight. “The Trident! Now all we have to do is go upstream, like you said. We’re almost there!”
Arya chewed her lip. “I don’t think this is the Trident.” The river was swollen by the rain, but even so it couldn’t be much more than thirty feet across. She remembered the Trident as being much wider. “It’s too little to be the Trident,” she told them, “and we didn’t come far enough.”
…Arya dismounted, took out the map, unrolled it. The rain pattered against the sheepskin and ran off in rivulets. “We’re someplace here, I think…there’s miles and miles before we reach the Trident.” She said. “We won’t be there for days. This must be some different river, one of these, see.” She showed him some of the thinner blue lines the mapmaker had painted in, each with a name painted in fine script beneath it. ‘The Darry, the Greenapple, the Maiden…here, this one the Little Willow, it might be that.”
“…the one you’re pointing at runs into that other one, see…the Big Willow, then. See and the Big Willow runs into the Trident, so we could follow the one to the other, but we’d need to go downstream, not up. Only if this river isn’t the Little Willow, if it’s this other one here…it loops around and flows down toward the lake, back to Harrenhal.”
“…Are you sure we’re going north?…that tree’s got moss on three sides, and that next one has no moss at all. We could be lost, just riding around in a circle…”
“You fell alseep,” he told her…”Your horse was wandering in a circle, but it wasn’t till she stopped that I realized you were sleeping.”
When we look at what goes wrong, a lot of it is grounded in these real-world difficulties – not being expert cartographers or navigators, Arya and co. face fundamental uncertainty about how to relate landmarks on the map to those in reality, in a world in which following the wrong river might easily get them all killed. And if Arya wasn’t there, Gendry and Hot Pie would be even more disadvantaged, because neither of them can read, rendering maps useless. At the same time, we also see a basic limit to physiology – however brave and special our protagonists may be, at the end of the day, they’re pre-teens and don’t have the training and discipline needed to deal with fatigue and boredom, so they naturally fall asleep and then loose their bearings.
And I think this is why people find some Arya chapters frustrating, in a way that’s quite similar to why they find certain Sansa chapters frustrating. We’re so used to genre fiction giving us a regular fix of power fantasy that we start to buy into the fallacy of competence. As a result, we’re less understanding when genre fare comes around that shows people with real human limitations (even when I would argue that’s ultimately far more narratively satisfying than hyper-competent protagonists who never have to struggle and who never fail). But without enduring these moments of frustration along with Arya (again, empathy is often the point here), Arya’s bildungsroman at the House of Black and White and her acquisition of competence and control over herself and her environment wouldn’t work.
Women Who Run With Wolves
As proof of Arya’s inner strength and forecasting her future prowess, while Arya and co are wandering in the Riverlands, they come across a pack of wolves – who appear as symbols of threat turning into the familiar symbol of Arya’s house, prompting Arya into an instinctual act of recognition and greeting:
From time to time she sent Hot Pie and Gendry on while she doubled back to try to confuse their trail, listening all the while for the first sign of pursuit. Too slow, she thought to herself, chewing her lip, we’re going too slow, they’ll catch us for certain. Once, from the crest of a ridge, she spied dark shapes crossing a stream in the valley behind them, and for half a heartbeat she feared that Roose Bolton’s riders were on them, but when she looked again she realized they were only a pack of wolves. She cupped her hands around her mouth and howled down at them, “Ahooooooooo, ahooooooooo.” When the largest of the wolves lifted its head and howled back, the sound made Arya shiver.
It’s all but certain that this wolf-pack is Nymeria’s, and that Arya has her own ships-crossing-in-the-night moment that Bran will have with Jon here. That being the case, I want to take a moment to talk about what Nymeria and her wolf pact symbolize – for Arya herself, as we will see in AFFC, ADWD, and TWOW, Nymeria represents her unbreakable connection to her identity as a Stark. However far from home she gets and however much she may submerge herself in other identities, Nymeria is her lodestone pointing back home. For the Riverlands as a whole though, Nymeria is a force of chaos, forever undermining attempts to return to business as usual without vengeance for what was done during the War of Five Kings.
At the same time, in this chapter, Nymeria plays a more complicated role. On the one hand, Nymeria acts as a kind of foil for Arya, making her reflect on her choices and reject a selfish, individualistic, wildness:
She would make much better time on her own, Arya knew, but she could not leave them. They were her pack, her friends, the only living friends that remained to her, and if not for her they would still be safe at Harrenhal, Gendry sweating at his forge and Hot Pie in the kitchens. If the Mummers catch us, I’ll tell them that I’m Ned Stark’s daughter and sister to the King in the North. I’ll command them to take me to my brother, and to do no harm to Hot Pie and Gendry. They might not believe her, though, and even if they did . . . Lord Bolton was her brother’s bannerman, but he frightened her all the same. I won’t let them take us, she vowed silently, reaching back over her shoulder to touch the hilt of the sword that Gendry had stolen for her. I won’t.
At least for the moment, Arya will resist the Social Darwinist logic of so much post-apocalyptic fiction in favor of a stubborn attachment to maintaining the integrity of the group at all lengths. And while this effort will ultimately fail, in the moment there’s a lot of logic behind it: after all, she’s quite right that she bears ultimate responsibility for Gendry and Hot Pie, having lied to them to get them to flee Harrenhal. And while Arya doesn’t know it it yet, she’s absolutely right not to trust Lord Bolton, for all that he’s “her brother’s bannerman.”
But most of all, Nymeria represents for Arya a sheer power fantasy stripped of the bowlderization that Hollywood and AAA videogame developers use to cloak the consequences of combat. Here there’s no discrete crumple of human bodies out of sight, stripped of viscera and human pain, or the dissociation that comes with fighting demons on Mars or grunts on a Covenant ship:
“Her dreams were red and savage. The Mummers were in them, four at least, a pale Lyseni and a dark brutal axeman from Ib, the scarred Dothraki horse lord called Iggo and a Dornishman whose name she never knew. On and on they came, riding through the rain in rusting mail and wet leather, swords and axe clanking against their saddles. They thought they were hunting her, she knew with all the strange sharp certainty of dreams, but they were wrong. She was hunting them.”
“She was no little girl in the dream; she was a wolf, huge and powerful, and when she emerged from beneath the trees in front of them and bared her teeth in a low rumbling growl, she could smell the rank stench of fear from horse and man alike. The Lyseni’s mount reared and screamed in terror, and the others shouted at one another in mantalk, but before they could act the other wolves came hurtling from the darkness and the rain, a great pack of them, gaunt and wet and silent.”
“The fight was short but bloody. The hairy man went down as he unslung his axe, the dark one died stringing an arrow, and the pale man from Lys tried to bolt. Her brothers and sisters ran him down, turning him again and again, coming at him from all sides, snapping at the legs of his horse and tearing the throat from the rider when he came crashing to the earth.”
“Only the belled man stood his ground. His horse kicked in the head of one of her sisters, and he cut another almost in half with his curved silvery claw as his hair tinkled softly.”
“Filled with rage, she leapt onto his back, knocking him head-first from his saddle. Her jaws locked on his arm as they fell, her teeth sinking through the leather and wool and soft flesh. When they landed she gave a savage jerk with her head and ripped the limb from the shoulder. Exulting, she shook it back and forth in her mouth, scattering the red droplets amidst the cold black rain.”
Intellectually, we know that these people are, to a man, murderers, robbers, and worse, and that their deaths probably make the world a better place. But on a literally visceral level, their physical obliteration is rendered into a scene out of a horror movie involving werewolves, and it’s hard to just cheer when you know that all of this is being piped into the head of a ten-year. At the same time, though, it’s hard to begrudge Arya her power-fantasy made real, given the horror she’s had to endure and will have to endure in the future.
And at the same time, given the established psychic links between direwolf and warg, and their tendency to display an uncanny foresight (whether it’s Summer’s nick-of-time rescue of Bran, Ghost’s premonition about the wights, or Grey Wind finding the goat path), we do have to think carefully about Nymeria’s role in the plot. As I said above, Nymeria predominently acts to keep the conflict in the Riverlands going: hence the cowardly Lord Mooton who refuses to defend his own people when the Lannisters attack barely escapes with his life when he tries to hunt her down, hence bringing Catelyn to shore and trying to reawaken her before Beric Dondarrion comes to finish the job, hence the wolves attacking Frey baggage trains and Lannister scouts. Will she play some role in Red Wedding 2.0? The destruction of the Twins? Something else involving Arya’s journey out of the path of vengeance?
Only time will tell.
In terms of subjects for historical analysis, given that most of the chapter revolves around Arya and Co. trying to find their way across the Riverlands with the help of a map, the only one that really works for this chapter is the history of medieval cartography. There is a quite rich, if rather niche literature on the subject, in part because so much mythology has grown up around the topic that needs debunking. Contrary to popular belief, for example, people did not think that the world was flat – all you need to do is watch ships disappearing over the harbor and note that the sun is directly overhead at different times in different places, to work that out.
Rather, medieval maps diverged from modern maps for other reasons. First and foremost, their purpose was not accurate navigation – since almost all ships were following the coastline rather than plotting straight lines across the sea, and marine astrolabes wouldn’t be in wide use in Europe until the end of the 15th century, maps would not be as useful for those purposes as they would later. Instead, most medieval maps were primarily theological in purpose, meant to “instruct the faithful about the significant events of Christian history” in the worlds of Harley and Woodward (1987).
This is why so many medieval maps centered on Jerusalem, even when they were produced and displayed in countries where the Levant was thousands of miles away, and why maps often depicted the known world as parallel with the body of Christ – with the cardinal directions associated with the Crucifixion, Jerusalem depicted as the “navel” of the world and of Christ, and so on. More importantly, this is why the world is often shown as circular in ways that wildly distorted the shape of landmasses – not because people really thought that the world looked like that, but because the circle was thought to symbolize the unity and perfection of God and that was more important than any petty real-world details.
This began to change very gradually. Beginning in the mid 13th century, we begin to see in Western Europe individual or freestanding maps of kingdoms, which parallel the rise of more powerful monarchies which viewed maps as a display of their hegemony, demarcating their empires, as well as a useful tool of state that could help them govern more efficiently.
These gradual shifts would see a wholesale revolution in the 14th and 15th century: the cartographic school at Majorca (which because it was largely Jewish could design new maps outside of Christian academic traditions) began developing new techniques which introduced compass grids and other innovations; the European “discovery” (and conquest) of the Americas destabilized European academic traditions which had insisted on contuity with classical Greek maps and led to an explosion of new map-making; finally, the vast profits to be made in foreign empires led nation-states from Portugal and Spain to the Netherlands to France to invest in cartography, as developing the best maps could offer a huge advantage in commerce, war, and conquest.
Unfortunately for Arya, I don’t think Westeros has arrived at a cartographic revolution any time soon, if the show’s depiction of the map of the Riverlands is any judge.
Given the lack of any major decision points in this chapter, there’s not a huge range of hypotheticals in this chapter, especially compared to Arya II. However, there is one that comes to mind:
- They got to Riverrun? Now, it’s not a hugely likely outcome, given the difficulties of traversing the countryside that we’ve explored above. But if Arya and company had actually managed to get to Riverrun, some interesting things happen. For one thing, if my calculations are correct, Arya would have arrived just a few days ahead of Robb Stark’s return to the castle. I’m not sure how much of an impact on Northern morale her miraculous appearance would have had, but it would have gone something towards salving the sting of the loss of Jaime Lannister.
- However, the bigger question is whether Arya would have been included in the Red Wedding as per the original deal, which would likely mean either her death or captivity. On the one hand, it was part of the original deal, and Robb might have felt that bringing her along would be a show of good faith. On the other hand, Edmure is a much better catch in dynastic marriage terms, so Arya may have stayed behind at Riverrun – which would definitely have stiffened Brynden’s spine. No way he gives up Catelyn’s daughter to the Lannisters’ clutches.
Book vs. Show:
One of the advantages that the show has over the books is that it can cut right to the point – rather than have Arya wander in the forest for a chapter before she runs into the Brotherhood Without Banners, or have her travel with the Brotherhood for another four chapters before she meets Beric Dondarrion, they can wrap up this chapter with a single scene of Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie rambling around in the forest and getting interrupted by Thoros of Myr and Anguy.
While there is a lot of worldbuilding lost along the way, I do appreciate the narrative economy that the transition between mediums allow. It’s certainly far less surprising that the show managed to make such short work of AFFC and ADWD, given how quickly they could truncate some of the more peripatetic chapters with one shot of someone leaving and another shot of them arriving.