“They never listened to what he wanted, even though Bran was a Stark and a prince besides, and the Reeds of the Neck were Stark bannermen.”
Synopsis: Bran decides whether to live in the woods or go to the Wall.
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.
Bran I is a pretty slender chapter in terms of plot (which hopefully means I’ll be able to wrap this one up in good time). Bran and his retainers start and end the chapter in the same geographic location and not much “happens.” Instead, the main action here is internal and psychological – this chapter is all about Man vs. Self, Bran’s Hero’s Journey, and where he wants that journey to go.
The central conflict of the chapter, as we might expect, has to do with Bran’s newly-awoken abilities as a warg. Appropriately, we start the chapter in wolfia res:
“Prince. The man-sound came into his head suddenly, yet he could feel the rightness of it. Prince of the green, prince of the wolfswood. He was strong and swift and fierce, and all that lived in the good green world went in fear of him.”
“…Wolves, he knew. His little cousins, chasing down some prey. Now the prince could see more of them, shadows on fleet grey paws. A pack.”
“He had a pack as well, once. Five they had been, and a sixth who stood aside. Somewhere down inside him were the sounds the men had given them to tell one from the other, but it was not by their sounds he knew them. He remembered their scents, his brothers and his sisters. They all had smelled alike, had smelled of pack, but each was different too.”
“His angry brother with the hot green eyes was near, the prince felt, though he had not seen him for many hunts. Yet with every sun that set he grew more distant, and he had been the last. The others were far scattered, like leaves blown by the wild wind.”
“Sometimes he could sense them, though, as if they were still with him, only hidden from his sight by a boulder or a stand of trees. He could not smell them, nor hear their howls by night, yet he felt their presence at his back…all but the sister they had lost. His tail drooped when he remembered her. Four now, not five. Four and one more, the white who has no voice.”
While some previous wolf-dreams were a bit too meandering in their exploration of what it’s like to see thr world through a wolf’s eyes, there’s more of a point here. On the one hand, for Bran to be inside the wolf means he is “prince of the green” as opposed to “Prince of Winterfell,” and in this form Bran has every physical asset that has been denied to him. And while by the normal self-actualizing sybtext of Joseph Campbellian fantasy, this would be a good thing, here the strength and speed and ferocity of Summer represents a potential lotus-eater trap to be avoided and a temptation to be overcome.
On the other hand, while Bran is in wolf-mode, he gets to tap into the warg-net and thus can sense the spirit animals of his siblings, which gives us a sense of where they are with Rickon being the closest (as Rickon and Osha make their way east to the coast and to Skagos), and the rest “scattered, like leaves blown by the wild wind.” This theme of simultaneous interconnection and loneliness emphasizes the sense of loss, both the loss of Lady but also the loss of the pack, the loss of family. Bran’s wolf dreams are literally the one way that he can feel his family any more.
Requiem for a Wolfdream
As Bran wakes up from the dream, we see how Bran is reacting to the allure of warging:
No, he thought. No, I won’t. It was a boy’s thought, not a direwolf’s. The woods were darkening all about him, until only the shadows of the trees remained, and the glow of his cousins’ eyes. And through those and behind those eyes, he saw a big man’s grinning face, and a stone vault whose walls were spotted with niter. The rich warm taste of blood faded on his tongue. No, don’t, don’t, I want to eat, I want to, I want…
Note those first two sentences – this is not Bran’s wolf-self thinking, this is Bran himself who doesn’t want to wake up, to go back to being human. Hold this thought in your head for just a second, because it’s very important when it comes to interpreting his actions and inactions later. Here, the lure of warging is largely about sensory information:
“You were gone too long…”
“I wanted to eat the deer.” For a moment he remembered the taste of it, the blood and the raw rich meat, and his mouth watered. I won the fight for it. I won.
“Did you mark the trees?”
Bran flushed. Jojen was always telling him to do things when he opened his third eye and put on Summer’s skin. To claw the bark of a tree, to catch a rabbit and bring it back in his jaws uneaten, to push some rocks in a line. Stupid things. “I forgot,” he said.
“You always forget.”
It was true. He meant to do the things that Jojen asked, but once he was a wolf they never seemed important. There were always things to see and things to smell, a whole green world to hunt. And he could run! There was nothing better than running, unless it was running after prey.
I’m not entirely sure how honest Bran is being here: is he actually forgetting, or is it just that he prefers the power fantasy of hunting, the physical pleasure of getting to eat fresh meat instead of scarce trail rations, and of course, the mobility that his fall denied him? This raises an interesting question about the double-edged nature of his gift: is the danger that the wolf-form might over-take him (i.e, an outside force acting on him) or is the danger that he might voluntarily choose a life inside the animal to the one outside? As we see from the following conversation, there’s a bit of talking past one another going on here:
“I was a prince, Jojen,” he told the older boy. “I was the prince of the woods.”
“You are a prince,” Jojen reminded him softly. “You remember, don’t you? Tell me who you are.”
“…Bran,” he said sullenly. Bran the Broken. “Brandon Stark.” The cripple boy. “The Prince of Winterfell.” Of Winterfell burned and tumbled, its people scattered and slain. The glass gardens were smashed, and hot water gushed from the cracked walls to steam beneath the sun. How can you be the prince of someplace you might never see again?
“And who is Summer?” Jojen prompted.
“My direwolf.” He smiled. “Prince of the green.”
“Bran the boy and Summer the wolf. You are two, then?”
“Two,” he sighed, “and one.” He hated Jojen when he got stupid like this. At Winterfell he wanted me to dream my wolf dreams, and now that I know how he’s always calling me back.
“Remember that, Bran. Remember yourself, or the wolf will consume you. When you join, it is not enough to run and hunt and howl in Summer’s skin.”
It is for me, Bran thought. He liked Summer’s skin better than his own. What good is it to be a skinchanger if you can’t wear the skin you like?
As we see, Jojen is worried that Bran is in danger of losing his identity to the wolf; to continue the flying metaphor from earlier, that Bran, like Icarus, will fly too close to the sun. This is where the Campbellian logic begins to re-assert itself here: now that Bran has opened his third eye and Crossed the Threshold into a more magical world, the danger is that he falls completely into the spirit world instead of maintaining a balance and controlling his gift.
However, as we can see from Bran’s internal monologue, this is not what’s going on. Bran consciously “liked Summer’s skin better than his own,” and not just because of the sensory and mobility reasons discussed above. As a “prince of the woods,” Bran has a pristine kingdom to enjoy where he is the biggest dog on the block; but if he returns to his “prince of Winterfell,” he has to face up to his failures as a leader and the destruction of his home, and the guilt and despair that entails. In the myth of the Fisher King, “as fares the king, so fares the land,” and vice versa; Bran is broken, so his castle is broken. But the wolf-dreams allow Bran a way out, a way to lose himself in the idylls of the king, to spend his time fishing rather than having to confront the rigors and pains of questing after the grail that could rebuild his castle and restore the land.
Just another brick in the Wall
Jojen’s frustration with Bran is compounded by the fact that Bran both physically and mentally isn’t ready to move on from their current position at the “tumbledown tower” in the wolfswood, preferring to run around as a direwolf. What’s interesting is how cagey Jojen is being about why he wants to move on:
“…we had best move on.”
“Have you had a green dream?”
“No,” he admitted…”This is not the place we are meant to be…”
“We have plowed this field before…you want to make for the Wall, and your three-eyed crow. That’s well and good, but the Wall is a very long way and Bran has no legs but Hodor. If we were mounted…”
We know from before that Jojen wants Bran to go beyond the Wall, but the way that Meera phrases it here suggests that they’ve been having this conversation repeatedly in recent days. At the same time, however, Jojen isn’t telling the whole truth to Meera. One strong possibility, given Meere’s tension at the idea of another green dream, is that Jojen knows the place where he’s destined to die and saw Bran there, so thus has always known that they need to go there. The confusing thing is why Jojen seems concerned about their schedule; surely if he sees the future, he knows when they’ll get there?
Another reason for Jojen’s frustration is that Bran’s Refusal of the Call extends beyond just wanting to stay in the wolfdream. Linked to Bran’s desire for a connection to his family, he also dreams of escaping the magical meta-plot altogether and remain within the sphere of normalcy by avoiding the quest altogether:
“We should steal horses like Meera wants,” Bran said, “and ride to the Umbers up at Last Hearth.” He thought a moment. “Or we could steal a boat and sail down the White Knife to White Harbor town. That fat Lord Manderly rules there, he was friendly at the harvest feast. He wanted to build ships. Maybe he built some, and we could sail to Riverrun and bring Robb home with all his army. Then it wouldn’t matter who knew I was alive. Robb wouldn’t let anyone hurt us.”
“…your maester said naught of Robb when he lay dying,” Jojen reminded him. “Ironmen on the Stony Shore, he said, and east, the Bastard of Bolton. Moat Cailin and Deepmood Motte fallen, the heir to Cerwyn dead, and the castellan of Torrhne’s Square. War everywhere, he said, each man against his neighbor.”
There is something endearingly childlike about Bran’s desire to go back to the days in which he was the Prince of Winterfell and Wyman Manderly was proposing to build him a navy. Far more explicitly than before, this backwards-looking attitude is linked to a desire to reunite the family, to have Robb back as a protector. But as Jojen reminds him, this is impossible: the political unity of the North was broken by the Hornwood Affair and the Ironborn invasion of the North has cut off assistance from the west and from the south. Bran’s Stark identity is no longer a shield: “a crippled boy with a direwolf, a simpleminded giant, and two crannogmen a thousand leagues from the Neck. We will be known. And word will spread.”
But beyond Bran’s own individual circumstances, Jojen’s blockquote above points to a larger political phenomenon, that the North has devolved into a Hobbesian war of all against all. As we’ll see in the future, there are reasons to believe that this diagnosis may be somewhat premature, but in the wake of the Sack of Winterfell, it’s easy to see why he’s come to that conclusion.
The Meaning of the Three-Eyed Crow
The second main theme of the chapter is the three-eyed crow, bringing that supernatural force into sharper relief. Bran and Jojen have talked about him briefly, but here we get a real sense of what the three-eyed crow is for and what he represents to both Bran and Jojen. For Bran, the three-eyed crow represents something more threatening, the Threshold Guardian and the Crossing of the Threshold in the same unknown and unknowable, but darkly discomforting figure:
“Jojen, what did you mean about a teacher?” Bran asked. “You’re my teacher. I know I never marked the tree, but I will the next time. My third eye is open like you wanted…”
“Then you teach me.” Bran still feared the three-eyed crow who haunted his dreams sometimes, pecking endlessly at the skin between his eyes and telling him to fly.
For Jojen, however, he represents a teacher, “wiser than me.” As we’ve said above, Jojen fears that Bran will be lost completely in the realm of the spirit and never come back, either because he will have forgotten his way or being overcome by the identity of the wolf, or (what Jojen doesn’t realize) that Bran might choose it consciously and willingly as an escape from his destiny.
“So wide open that I fear you may fall through it, and live all the rest of your days as a wolf of the woods…The boy promises. Will the wolf remember? You run with Summer, you hunt with him, kill with him…but you bend to his will more than him to yours.”
At the same time, however, I think Jojen is frustrated with his situation. As someone with the greensight, he’s used to knowing exactly what to do, used to having the mystical knowledge that solves every riddle. But here, possibly for the first time in his life, Jojen is dealing with something that is beyond him:
“You’re a greenseer.”
“No,” said Jojen, “only a boy who dreams. The greenseers were more than that. They were wargs as well, as you are, and the greatest of them could wear the skins of any beast that flies or swims or crawls, and could look through the eyes of the weirwoods as well, and see the truth that lies beneath the world.”
“The gods give many gifts, Bran…To me the gods gave the green dreams, and to you …you could be more than me, Bran. You are the winged wolf, and there is no saying how far and high you might fly…if you had someone to teach you. How can I help you master a gift I do not understand? We remember the First Men in the Neck, and the children of the forest who were their friends…but so much is forgotten, and so much we never knew.”
I do have a bit of a fantasy bone to pick with GRRM here: if not all people with the greensight are greenseers but all greenseers have the greensight, the author could at least for the sake of clarity use more variated terminology to avoid confusion. Nevertheless, I think the sense of limitations explains why Jojen sees the three-eyed crow as “wiser” – unlike Jojen, the three-eyed crow has the full suite of powers of the ancient greenseers, and thus is a natural fit to teach someone who has both greensight and warging abilities. Hence why Jojen wants to pass Bran on to someone who has the necessary experience and perspective.
Now, what said suite consists of is quite interesting: the warging into all animals brings up Septon Barth’s theories about the ravens (does this suggest a connection between the First Men maesters and the greenseers? Are they hostile to all magics or just some?). As we see from ADWD and TWOW, the weirwood connection seems linked to the ability to look backwards in time (and possibly aids in dream-walking as well as we saw in Mercy, which is interesting because Jojen doesn’t mention that one). And finally, that last item, “the truth that lies beneath the world.” What this means is deliberately obscured – all part of GRRM’s strategy to keep magic magical – but the directionality is crucial here. This is something other than the relevation of the Heart of Winter, or any of the various hinges and other centers of power in the world. To me, anyway, the language suggests something about the nature of the Children’s earth magic (although the whole Hammer of Waters thing always made Avatar-like delineations complicated).
It could be some connection to the rootedness of weirwood trees, some connection to the soil itself, or perhaps some sort of cthonic wisdom. After all, there has to be a reason why Bloodraven decided to make his nest underneath a weirwood tree instead of in its branches. And as much as Bran is associated with flying, he also repeatedly goes underground to experience a death-and-rebirth (even if it’s only symbolic), whether it’s the tombs of Winterfell as in AGOT or ACOK or the Black Gate of the Nightfort which we’ll discuss later. Is this a potential link between Bran Stark and Bran the Blessed of Welsh myth, who as a psychopomp is tasked with liasing between the lands of the dead and the living, and whose prophetic head is buried in the White Hill to safeguard the realm from invasion. (This myth has also been linked to the Fisher King, btw…)
And so, the major “event” of the chapter comes down to Bran’s choice about which path to take: does he Refuse the Call and head for safety with the remaining Stark loyalists, thus remaining part of the political plot, or does he Jump at the Call and go to the Wall and the magical metaplot that waits on the other side of the barrier?
“If we stay here, troubling no one, you’ll be safe until the war ends. You will not learn, though, except what my brother can teach you, and you’ve heard what he says. If we leave this place to seek refuge at Last Hearth or beyond the Wall, we risk being taken. You are only a boy, I know, but you are our prince as well, our lord’s son and our king’s true heir. We have sworn you our faith by earth and water, bronze and iron, ice and fire. The risk is yours, Bran, as is the gift. The choice should be yours too, I think.”
The Greatjon’s uncles Hother Whoresbane and Mors Crowfood were fierce men, but he thought they would be loyal. And the Karstarks, them too. Karhold was a strong castle, Father always said. We would be safe with the Umbers or the Karstarks.
Or they could go south to fat Lord Manderly. At Winterfell, he’d laughed a lot, and never seemed to look at Bran with so much pity as the other lords. Castle Cerwyn was closer than White Harbor, but Maester Luwin had said that Cley Cerwyn was dead. The Umbers and the Karstarks and the Manderlys may all be dead as well, he realized. As he would be, if he was caught by the ironmen or the Bastard of Bolton.
If they stayed here, hidden down beneath Tumbledown Tower, no one would find them. He would stay alive. And crippled.
Bran realized he was crying. Stupid baby, he thought at himself. No matter where he went, to Karhold or White Harbor or Greywater Watch, he’d be a cripple when he got there. He balled his hands into fists. “I want to fly,” he told them. “Please. Take me to the crow.”
What I find profoundly ironic about this decision is that, even though for the meta-plot of the series this is absolutely the right decision to make for the sake of the world, Bran undertakes it for profoundly selfish reasons. He’s still not ready to accept the truth of the vision of the Heart of Winter, any more than he’s ready to accept that he’s never going to walk again. To me, this is a great example of how to do a flawed hero right – not by choosing random positive and negative qualities and ramming them together into the same character, or by having your character randomly acting like a dick or a good samaratin like they’re flipping a coin, but by having your character sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason.
In the past, I’ve discussed Bran’s links to the shamanic tradition in some detail, but I’ve delayed talking about Bran as a skin-changer in any depth. But given the way that this chapter starts to talk about warging from such an internal perspective, I thought now was a good time to start discussing the folklore and mythology of werewolves and other skin-changers. Now, this is an extremely large literature, because as with shamanism, you can find this idea/belief/legend in cultures around the world – the Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Pagan Scandinavians, 16th century Germany and Switzerland, the Caribbean, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, Russia, Armenia, France as late as the 18th century due to a long tradition in Normany, and so forth.
There are a lot of different angles to take here, and I don’t intend to cover all of them here, both because there are some aspects of my research that are much better suited for later chapters (the discussion of cannibalism in mythology about werewolves, for example, is perfect for the ADWD Prologue), and there’s a lot of Bran chapters where there’s nothing else to talk about. So instead, I’m going to be breaking up the discussion and discussing it one part at a time.
First of all, let’s talk about which traditions most resemble the way that GRRM describes skin-changing. Well, there’s a pretty big difference between ASOIAF’s model and the various animal-skin mythologies, where humans garb themselves in the skin of an animal in order to physically transform into them, or the Chinese and Japanese traditions where you have animals shape-shifting into human form – Bran doesn’t physically become a wolf, and any suggestions that that sort of thing happens (as in the discussions of Oxcross or the Frey’s depiction of the Red Wedding in ADWD) are usually shown as bigotry and ignorance at work.
Rather, warging resembles most the shape-changing seen in the Old Norse sagas, according to H.R Ellis Davidson. Leaving aside the whole idea of the beserkerin their bear-skins or wolf-skins, which is a topic for another time, there are examples of various mystics (called hamhleypa or shape-leapers) engage in a practice of “sending out of the spirit in animal form while the man’s body rests in a state of sleep or trance.” In the poem Bjarkamál, the Danish King Rolf Krake is set upon by Swedes who resent his taxes and decide to ambush him at a feast. Bödvar Bjarki, a Norwegian shape-shifter in service to Krake, goes into a trance as the rest of the Danes desperately rally:
“Men saw that a great bear went before King Rolf’s men, keeping always near the king. He slew more men with his forepaw than any five of the king’s champions. Blades and weapons glanced off him, and he brought down both men and horses in King Hjorvard’s forces, and everything which came in his path he crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept through King Hjorvard’s army.”
However, his companion Hjalti tries to wake his friend from his slumber, so that they might together fight for King Rolf. When he is awakened from his trance, however, the spirit bear vanishes, and Bjarki rebukes his friend for having unknowingly undone the king by robbing him of his strongest ally.
What’s more interesting for the sake our discussion here is the way that the Iceland sagas thought about the line between human and animal. For example, the word “hamr,” meant both shape and animal skin, and the sagas would talk about people becoming “hamask,” falling into a state of wild animal fury (both in terms of emotion and taking on a new form), or being “hamslaus,” out of one’s proper shape, to describe them being unruly or angry. What’s interesting about this is it seems to suggest a worldview in which the human form is inherently mutable and responds to our emotions and our wills.
In this context, Jojen’s fears wouldn’t seem so much baseless as almost entirely outside of the right frame of reference, because they suppose a rigid division between the human and the animal that the Icelandic tradition simply didn’t believe existed.
Given the nature of the chapter, there’s only one real hypothetical here, the other side of the coin that we flip in this chapter:
- Bran goes to his bannermen? Now, in addition to not receiving the vital mystical training from the three-eyed crow that remains rather ambiguous in both book and show, some things change rather drastically here. For one thing, Jon likely dies at Queenscrown, quite possibly leading to the success of the wildling surprise attack on Castle Black and the fall of the Wall.
- But in a political sense, things change for the North as a whole. With Bran as a symbol for the rest of the North to rally behind, you’re highly unlikely to see the Bolton ascendency or at least it’ll be slower and resistaed. Remember, Ramsay only has around 600 men and Roose is still on the wrong side of Moat Cailin. A determined push from a united loyalist force could, at the very least halt Ramsay in his tracks and thus prevent him from threatening Moat Cailin from the north.
Book vs. Show:
As I suggested in Bran III of ACOK, one of the main changes between the book and the show has to do with the way that the timing of the Reeds’ arrival affects their relationship with Bran. Let’s take this scene, for example, where Bran relates to the Reeds in very complicated ways: he simultaneously resents Jojen for making him do things he doesn’t want to and not listening to him, but also needs him and is afraid of moving on from his care at a time when everything known and familiar had been lost to him. This scene really couldn’t happen in a context in which he’s just barely met Jojen and doesn’t really have a basis of trust in him.
On a somewhat different subject, one thing that’s been generally true of HBO’s Game of Thrones from a very early time is that they don’t really have any interest in the direwolves or anywhere they really want to go with them – hence, Bran’s story has been pretty much entirely about him being a greenseer or warging into Hodor, and Summer receded into the background in any important plot sense since Season 4.