“Child…put up that sword, and we’ll take you to a safe place and get some food in that belly. There are wolves in these parts, and lions, and worse things. No place for a little girl to be wandering alone.”
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.
If Arya I was a bit slow to get off the blocks, the pace dramatically lurches up to speed in this chapter, as our protagonist encounters the Brotherhood Without Banners, who she will spend the next six chapters with (a longer time than she spent in Harrenhal, or with the Night’s Watch, or that she’s spent in the House of Black and White). And for the first time since AGOT, Arya will be openly recognized as a Stark in Winterfell, which is a huge moment for her – but before we can get to that, there’s a lot to get through.
Prelude: What It Means to Survive
As if to punctuate that Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie will shortly emerge from their sojourn in the wilderness of anarchy and abandonment by adults into some kind of society again, the chapter opens with a semi-feral group of children:
“…grubbing for vegetables in a dead man’s garden when she heard the singing…she thought of the Bloody Mummers and Roose Bolton’s men, and a shiver of fear went down her back. It’s not fair, not when we finally found the Trident, not when we thought we were almost safe.”
… I knew we should never have left the woods, she thought. They’d been so hungry, though, and the garden had been too much a temptation. The bread and cheese they had stolen from Harrenhal had given out six days ago, back in the thick of the woods.
Only why would the Mummers be singing?
This passage introduces a theme of the morality of theft versus the necessity of survival in a time of war that runs throughout the chapter. On a surface level, what Arya and company are doing is technically stealing (which they will be called out for later) – but clearly Arya has morally justified her actions to herself by noting that the owner is dead and therefore the property is vacant and thus the theft of crops that would otherwise rot in the field hurts no one. At the same time, any condemnation of Arya’s actions raises difficult questions about why, in the wake of natural and human disasters, we label the same actions either scrounging (and thus morally acceptable) or looting (and thus morally unacceptable. Which in turn brings in Anatole France’s famous observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,” which raises the question of we should consider law as a source of morality at all.
At the same time, this passage works to subtly begin a comparison of the Bloody Mummers and the Brotherhood Without Banners, those darkly mirrored antagonists who symbolize both the worst and the best of how the War of Five Kings have affected the Riverlands. Arya’s omni-present fear at the thought of the Bloody Mummers absolutely will color how she interacts with the Brotherhood, but at the same time…
Meeting the Brotherhood Without Banners
It is noteworthy that the Brotherhood Without Banners are first heard rather than seen – it situates our outlaw band in the realm of song and legend, while also asking the reader to compare and contrast the myth and the reality:
“Off to Gulltown to see the fair maid, heigh-ho, heigh-ho…I’d steal a sweet kiss with the point of my blade, heigh-ho, heigh ho…I’d make her my love and we’ll rest in the shade, heigh-ho, heigh-ho…”
Here the innocent act of singing – the way it works as a deliberate eschewing of stealth and ambush and a signal of benign intentions – is contrasted against the far more morally ambiguous lyrics of the song, which make us re-examine the “romantic” nature of the Robin Hood abduction songs that Henry VIII was so fond of by focusing in on the normally sublimated violence of the action. At the same time, however, it can’t be denied that the Brotherhood do actually offer quarter rather than attack from ambush:
“Could be a wolf. Maybe a lion.”
“With four feet, you think? Or two?”
“Makes no matter. Does it?”
“An honest man would come out and show us his face. Only an outlaw would skulk and hide.”
This last pre-visual exchange serves two purposes: first, it continues the theme (already introduced in Jaime II) that for the smallfolk of the Riverlands, there is no distinction between the armies of Robb Stark or Tywin Lannister. As Terry Pratchett once put it, “Soldiers. Ours or theirs didn’t matter, when a war had gone on this long.” This also works as a subtle preview of the Brotherhood Without Banners’ political philosophy, which will be a major thematic element of the next six Arya chapters. Second, it also works to emphasize the binary of honest men vs. outlaws that runs throughout this chapter: Arya and Co. are constantly trying to figure out which these strangers are, while these strangers are likewise trying to size up these children. (More on this later…)
So who are the members of the Brotherhood that we meet here?
They were men afoot, travel-stained and mud-specked. She knew the singer by the woodharp he cradled against his jerkin, as a mother might cradle a babe. A small man, fifty from the look of him, he had a big mouth, a sharp nose, and thinning brown hair. His faded greens were mended here and there with old leather patches, and he wore a brace of throwing knives on his hip and a woodman’s axe slung across his back.
The man beside him stood a good foot taller, and had the look of a soldier. A longsword and dirk hung from his studded leather belt, rows of overlapping steel rings were sewn onto his shirt, and his head was covered by a black iron halfhelm shaped like a cone. He had bad teeth and a bushy brown beard, but it was his hooded yellow cloak that drew the eye. Thick and heavy, stained here with grass and there with blood, frayed along the bottom and patched with deerskin on the right shoulder, the greatcloak gave the big man the look of some huge yellow bird.
The last of the three was a youth as skinny as his longbow, if not quite as tall. Red-haired and freckled, he wore a studded brigantine, high boots, fingerless leather gloves, and a quiver on his back. His arrows were fletched with grey goose feathers, and six of them stood in the ground before him, like a little fence.
“…Well, as to that, I’m Tom of Sevenstreams, but Tom Sevenstrings is what they call me, or Tom o’ Sevens. This great lout with the brown teeth is Lem, short for Lemoncloak. It’s yellow, you see, and Lem’s a sour sort. And young fellow me lad over there is Anguy, or Archer as we like to call him.”
Through these three, we see that the Brotherhood Without Banners are squarely in the model of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, those most famous and trend-setting of outlaws – a topic we will discuss in more detail in the Historical Analysis section – as all three have close parallels to various members of the Merry Men, although as usual GRRM is doing his remixing on their characters. To begin with, Tom Sevenstrings is a close parallel for Alan-a-Dale – they’re both minstrels who fight as outlaws and frequently work as spies in those areas held by the forces of law and order, and they’re also the member of the band who’s responsible for creating and transmitting the legend of their bandit chieftain to the masses. However, Tom has some idiosyncrasies that distinguish him from the archetype:
Tom Sevenstrings walked slowly, and liked to strum his woodharp as he went. “Do you know any songs?” he asked them. “I’d dearly love someone to sing with, that I would. Lem can’t carry a tune, and our longbow lad only knows marcher ballads, every one of them a hundred verses long.”
“We sing real songs in the marches,” Anguy said mildly.
“Singing is stupid,” said Arya. “Singing makes noise. We heard you a long way off. We could have killed you.”
Tom’s smile said he did not think so. “There are worse things than dying with a song on your lips.”
“…If a song makes a maid want to slip off her clothes and feel the good warm sun kiss her skin, why, is that the singer’s fault?” asked Tom.
Tom has the slightly obsessive attitude of the professional artist – complaining about his companions’ taste and skill, complaining about his audiences always wanting the same songs, complaining about the critical reaction to his own music, but also clearly a true believer in the value of music to enrich our lives and give voice to the human spirit. And like any good rock n’roller, Tom’s also all about wine and women, although unlike Alan a Dale, he’s much more the love-’em-and-leave-’em type than the marrying kind. (More on this in a bit…) He’s also, in a somewhat surprising turn, both the leader of the group and the most compassionate of the three, which doesn’t quite fit either the legends or RPG adventuring group logic.
The neglected middle child of this trio (seriously, just count how many words Lem speaks and compare that to his companions), Lem Lemoncloak resembles Will Scarlett – they’re both defined by the color of their clothing (although in Lem’s case, his yellow cloak is a sign of his “sour” temper, whereas Will Scarlet’s red clothing was linked to his firey temper), they’re both talented swordsmen (although Lem doesn’t dual-wield like Will is sometimes shown doing), and they’re both somewhat comedic characters. In this chapter especially, we see Lem getting all wet and muddy retrieving a duck, getting thoroughly mocked, and then getting his nose broken by a child. I’m not saying Lem is one of those people destined to be the butt of life’s jokes, but I am saying that he’s got a lifetime subscription to the ACME Corporation’s catalogue.
And finally, we have Anguy the Archer. Anguy is an interesting case, because here GRRM has divided a character from the legends in two: in this case, Anguy is a master archer who has all of Robin Hood’s speed of reflexes, keenness of eye, and strength of arm (whereas Robin Hood’s other qualities, especially his leadership abilities, are vested in the absent Beric Dondarrion):
“The archer’s hand moved quicker than Arya would have believed. His shaft went hissing past her head within an inch of her ear and buried itself in the trunk of the willow behind her. By then the bowman had a second arrow notched and drawn. She’d thought she understood what Syrio meant by quick as a snake and smooth as summer silk, but now she knew she hadn’t. The arrow thrummed behind her like a bee. “You missed,” she said.”
“More fool you if you think so,” said Anguy. “They go where I send them.”
…As they waded across, their singing flushed a duck from among the reeds. Anguy stopped where he stood, unslung his bow, notched an arrow, and brought it down. The bird fell in the shallows not far from the bank. Lem took off his yellow cloak and waded in knee-deep to retrieve it, complaining all the while.
At the same time, Anguy the Archer has a complicated identity and backstory (although we’re not privy to most of yet) that sets him apart from Robin of Sherwood. On the one hand, there’s an innocence to him – “Do you think Sharna might have lemons down in that cellar of hers?” said Anguy…”A Dornish girl once cooked me duck with lemons.” He sounded wistful.” – that constantly reminds one that Anguy is a teenager whose biggest moment in his entire life was winning the archery contest at the Hand’s Tourney. On the other hand, after the Mummer’s Ford, Anguy has a disturbingly cavalier attitude towards killing people: “when I don’t fancy a man’s eyes, I put an arrow through one.” That’s a strange thing to say at any time, but the way that Anguy says it among friends while he “smiled over his ale,” suggests someone with a deep well of anger from what he’s seen so far of the War of Five Kings but who hasn’t figured out how to express that anger outside of war.
So what do we think of these three outlaws in all their human ambiguousness? Ultimately, our evaluation must rest on their treatment of these three children – always a good test of character in ASOIAF, as we’ve seen both in Arya and Sansa’s stories. And in a rare turn of events, the Brotherhood Without Banners genuinely want to help these kids, offering them both immediate peace and safety and a longer-term place of refuge, which in the Riverlands during the War of Five Kings is something close to a miracle:
The three men looked at her, standing there in the road with her blade in hand. Then the singer idly plucked a string. “Boy,” he said, “put up that sword now, unless you’re wanting to be hurt. It’s too big for you, lad, and besides, Anguy here could put three shafts through you before you could hope to reach us.”
“Child…put up that sword, and we’ll take you to a safe place and get some food in that belly. There are wolves in these parts, and lions, and worse things. No place for a little girl to be wandering alone.”
Speaking of places of refuge, this brings us to our first major location of the chapter…
The Inn of the Kneeling Man
While it’s more common in film than in literature, there are times when the location becomes a character – and that is definitely the case in Arya II. And GRRM is careful to establish character before Arya ever claps eyes on the building itself:
“There’s an inn not far ahead kept by some friends of ours. We could share some ale and a bite of bread, instead of fighting one another.”
“An inn?” The thought of hot food made Arya’s belly rumble, but she didn’t trust this Tom. Not everyone who spoke you friendly was really your friend. “It’s near, you say?”
“Two miles upstream,” said Tom. “A league at most…Sharna is the innkeep’s name…She has a sharp tongue and a fierce eye, I’ll grant you that, but her heart’s a good one, and she’s fond of little girls.”
“I’m not a little girl,” she said angrily. “Who else is there? You said friends.”
“Sharna’s husband, and an orphan boy they took in. They won’t harm you. There’s ale, if you think you’re old enough. Fresh bread and maybe a bit of meat.” Tom glanced toward the cottage.
The core elements are all there: the Inn is a place where you can find food (which also means guest-right); the Inn is a place where you’re not going to be harmed so you can put aside the war-of-all-against-all; the Inn is a fuctional family, with Sharna as matriarch looking out for orphans and little girls. And GRRM carefully piles on the repetition to enhance all these themes so that we know what the Inn of the Kneeling Man means even before we see it. That way, when we see it, like Arya, we are convinced that “It did not look like an outlaws’ lair, she had to admit; it looked friendly, even homey.”
And when Arya arrives and actually gets to meet Sharna and her family, it’s everything that Tom Sevenstrings promised:
The painted sign above the door showed a picture of some old king on his knees. Inside was the common room, where a very tall ugly woman with a knobby chin stood with her hands on her hips, glaring. “Don’t just stand there, boy,” she snapped. “Or are you a girl? Either one, you’re blocking my door. Get in or get out. Lem, what did I tell you about my floor? You’re all mud.”
“We shot a duck.” Lem held it out like a peace banner.
The woman snatched it from his hand. “Anguy shot a duck, is what you’re meaning. Get your boots off, are you deaf or just stupid?” She turned away. “Husband!” she called loudly. “Get up here, the lads are back. Husband!”
Up the cellar steps came a man in a stained apron, grumbling. He was a head shorter than the woman, with a lumpy face and loose yellowish skin that still showed the marks of some pox. “I’m here, woman, quit your bellowing. What is it now?”
“Hang this,” she said, handing him the duck.
Anguy shuffled his feet. “We were thinking we might eat it, Sharna. With lemons. If you had some.”
“Lemons. And where would we get lemons? Does this look like Dorne to you, you freckled fool? Why don’t you hop out back to the lemon trees and pick us a bushel, and some nice olives and pomegranates too.” She shook a finger at him. “Now, I suppose I could cook it with Lem’s cloak, if you like, but not till it’s hung for a few days. You’ll eat rabbit, or you won’t eat. Roast rabbit on a spit would be quickest, if you’ve got a hunger. Or might be you’d like it stewed, with ale and onions.”
…Husband had stepped outside, but at her shout he hurried back. “The duck’s hung. What is it now, woman?”
“Wash these vegetables,” she commanded. “The rest of you, sit down while I start the rabbits. The boy will bring you drink.” She looked down her long nose at Arya and Hot Pie. “I am not in the habit of serving ale to children, but the cider’s run out, there’s no cows for milk, and the river water tastes of war, with all the dead men drifting downstream. If I served you a cup of soup full of dead flies, would you drink it?”
Sharna really is a sharp-tongued but clearly caring mother-figure, there is really is food and drink available for free (!), and the Inn really is a place where orphaned children are cared for. The war is still there – hence Sharna offering ale to children because the rivers are filled with dead bodies – but it’s far away enough from the door that people are free to act human to one another. It’s a heartwarming scene, almost unbelievably so, as if Arya and Co. had walked through a door and suddenly ended up on Westeros’ equivalent of Cheers. (Seriously, the dynamic between Sherna and “Husband” isn’t that far off from Sam & Diane, and the way that Sherna busts on Anguy and Lem for being doofuses isn’t that far off of Norm and Cliff.)
In a particularly heartwarming moment (on a Very Special Episode?), the Inn of the Kneeling Man becomes a permanent refuge for Hot Pie. After twelve chapters of being little more than the Comedy Fat Guy (or you know, an ordinary child plunged into the horrors of war who’s somehow managed to retain some innocence), Hot Pie finally gets to show his worth:
Hot Pie made a face as soon as he tasted it. “That’s bad bread,” he said. “It’s burned, and tough besides.”
“It’s better when there’s stew to sop up,” said Lem.
“No, it isn’t,” said Anguy, “but you’re less like to break your teeth.”
“You can eat it or go hungry,” said Husband. “Do I look like some bloody baker? I’d like to see you make better.”
“I could,” said Hot Pie. “It’s easy. You kneaded the dough too much, that’s why it’s so hard to chew.” He took another sip of ale, and began talking lovingly of breads and pies and tarts, all the things he loved. Arya rolled her eyes.
While Hot Pie isn’t going to say goodbye just yet (that’s going to happen next chapter, because GRRM likes to space out his heartbreaks), this Inn with a kitchen waiting for a gifted apprentice baker, is clearly the end of his story. Hot Pie was always an unlikely travelling companion, one so clearly unsuited for the rigors of travel and war in a fantasy universe that the fact that he managed to survive and find a good home at the end of the road is both a minor miracle and yet further evidence that GRRM is not a grimdark nihilist who lives for crushing the hearts of his fans. (And not before time either, because as Bran’s Last Hero story should remind us, unlike in Tolkien, the protagonist’s boon companions aren’t going to have many happy endings…)
This whole scene would result in a major tone whiplash, except for two things: first, it’s a well-timed moment of comic relief in a novel which can be pretty unrelenting in its long march to tragedy. And second, we then get a sudden reminder that we’ve seen this place before in a different genre context:
“There’s strange horses in the stable,” he announced, as if they hadn’t known.
“Aye,” said Tom, setting the woodharp aside, “and better horses than the three you gave away.”
Husband dropped the vegetables on a table, annoyed. “I never gave them away. I sold them for a good price, and got us a skiff as well. Anyways, you lot were supposed to get them back.”
I knew they were outlaws, Arya thought, listening. Her hand went under the table to touch the hilt of her dagger, and make sure it was still there. If they try to rob us, they’ll be sorry.
“They never came our way,” said Lem.
“Well, I sent them. You must have been drunk or asleep.”
This inn, which moments ago was so warm and inviting, is in fact a haven for outlaws, a secret refuge for the Brotherhood Without Banners that provides bandits with a steady stream of victims and supplies in return for a cut of their proceeds and their protection from the wolves and lions. While Brienne and Co. managed to avoid being waylaid on the road, you can tell from the suddenly-owner-less horses that many others who weren’t so lucky to find Anguy in a good mood and probably ended up thrown into a river.
At the same time, if we think back to the frank discussions of eating horse-meat in Jaime II, you begin to realize that this refuge for lost children depends on the robbery of passersby to put food on the table – and that the Brotherhood Without Banners are engaging in large-scale banditry in part to feed refugees. As with Arya grubbing in the dead man’s garden, it raises the question of where we draw the line when it comes to survival, in a far darker and more adult context.
King’s Men and Honest Men
This brings us to the issue of the Brotherhood Without Banner’s ideology, because the justification of banditry is obviously a major issue for them. The Brotherhood is a pretty unique institution in ASOIAF: in a story in which the nobility predominate as POVs and major characters, the BwB are a majority-smallfolk institution who shape the story (albeit in often subtle and complex ways); in a story which has centered so much on the polarizing conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters (as we have already seen above) the Brotherhood are not merely neutral but view the two sides as morally indistinguishable. And their ideology is likewise rather complex:
“Anguy the Archer said, “We’re king’s men.”
Arya frowned. “Which king?”
“King Robert,” said Lem, in his yellow cloak.
“That old drunk?” said Gendry scornfully. “He’s dead, some boar killed him, everyone knows that.”
“Aye, lad,” said Tom Sevenstrings, “and more’s the pity.” He plucked a sad chord from his harp.
Arya didn’t think they were king’s men at all. They looked more like outlaws, all tattered and ragged. They didn’t even have horses to ride. King’s men would have had horses.
Here we learn that the Brotherhood Without Banner’s neutrality between the Starks and the Lannisters is due to them taking a third option by pledging their allegiance to the now-dead King Robert, the last undisputed monarch in Westeros. As we see with Tom Sevenstrings, there is an element of nostalgic romanticism to their choice, a naive belief that “Good King Robert” wouldn’t have allowed the devastation of the Riverlands despite the fact that the historical Robert was something of a drunken absentee officeholder who had very little to do with efforts to prevent the devastation of the smallfolk. (We also see with Lem Lemoncloak that not every member of the Brotherhood is equally on-board for this romantic position.) As I’ll discuss more in the Historical Analysis section, this position also allows the Brotherhood to mount a critique of the social order (not so much here, but in future Arya chapters) without placing themselves outside said order. Similar to how peasant rebellions would cloak their radical demands with outward shows of loyalty to the king and denunciations of “evil councilors,” the Brotherhood can always point to their allegiance to King Robert as proof that they’re not rebels or radicals.
There’s another consequence of this: because the Brotherhood Without Banners claims legitimate political authority through King Robert, they’re not just a group of bandits – they’re a guerrilla movement. This not only places their banditry more in the realm of revolutionary nationalization of property and emergency requisition of supplies during wartime (more on this in a second), but it also raises the question of how the Brotherhood Without Banner relate to the people of the Riverlands. When the Brotherhood Without Banner first run into Arya and Co., they almost act as law enforcement:
“…And whatever you stole from Old Pate’s garden besides.”
“We never stole,” said Arya.
“Are you Old Pate’s daughter, then? A sister? A wife? Tell me no lies, Squab. I buried Old Pate myself, right there under that willow where you were hiding, and you don’t have his look.”
So here we have the Brotherhood Without Banners acting as the rough-and-ready arbiters of local justice, which as I’ll discuss more in the Historical Analysis section is also pretty familiar to anyone who’s studied or experienced how guerrilla and resistance movements interact with the communities they live among, in terms of both providing “protection” (and how that intersects with the desire for justification and legitimacy) and in terms of asserting that authority through revolutionary justice. In this particular case, as discussed above, Arya and Co.’s grubbing in dead men’s gardens is much easier to defend from a moral position if you think of the owner as an abstract entity who no longer needs or uses their property. But when you’ve got someone standing in front of you naming the owner, who knows how they died and why, and can point to living descendants who have every right to complain, it becomes a bit harder.
At the same time, however, GRRM turns it around and raises the question as to whether the Brotherhood can claim any moral high ground when it comes to this issue of theft-for-survival, by contrasting Arya and Co.’s behavior with the Brotherhood’s own pattern of requisitioning:
Tom sat down across from her. “Squab,” he said, “or Arry, or whatever your true name might be, this is for you.” He placed a dirty scrap of parchment on the wooden tabletop between them.
She looked at it suspiciously. “What is it?”
“Three golden dragons. We need to buy those horses.”
Arya looked at him warily. “They’re our horses.”
“Meaning you stole them yourselves, is that it? No shame in that, girl. War makes thieves of many honest folk.” Tom tapped the folded parchment with his finger. “I’m paying you a handsome price. More than any horse is worth, if truth be told.”
Hot Pie grabbed the parchment and unfolded it. “There’s no gold,” he complained loudly. “It’s only writing.”
“Aye,” said Tom, “and I’m sorry for that. But after the war, we mean to make that good, you have my word as a king’s man.”
Arya pushed back from the table and got to her feet. “You’re no king’s men, you’re robbers.”
“If you’d ever met a true robber, you’d know they do not pay, not even in paper. It’s not for us we take your horses, child, it’s for the good of the realm, so we can get about more quickly and fight the fights that need fighting. The king’s fights. Would you deny the king?”
The question of whether the Brotherhood Without Banner’s IOUs are any better than theft is actually more complicated than one might think. To begin with, it’s not a sign that the Brotherhood have fallen off some moral perch – they’ve been using these IOUs since Arya VI of ACOK, and Tom seems entirely sincere, if somewhat rueful, about redeeming them. Indeed, the fact that the Brotherhood provide these bills of exchange instead of simply asserting their right to requisition supplies from the people in the name of the King (although Tom still does make the argument that “it’s not for us we take your horses, child, it’s for the good of the realm, so we can get about more quickly and fight the fights that need fighting. The king’s fights.”) puts them ahead of most historical guerrilla and resistance movements.
While the value of the Brotherhood Without Banner’s IOUs are often derided by novices, it’s not entirely clear that they’re worthless. If these IOUs are not just debts owed by the Brotherhood but are also transferable instruments, what’s actually happening is that the Brotherhood Without Banners is essentially printing a rebel currency:
The value, therefore, of what Tom is offering Arya and Co. is dependent on the extent of the Brotherhood’s political influence in the Riverlands. Where the Brotherhood is seen as the legitimate expression of the political community (which is the ultimate goal of pretty much all guerrilla and resistance movements, after all) their IOUs will circulate at or close to their face value. Where the Brotherhood’s influence is weaker (say, Maidenpool under Randyll Tarly’s rule), their value will decline to the point of worthlessness. However (and this is an important point), this is basically true of all forms of currency – the value of the currency ultimately depends on the political influence of the government that issues them. And in times of war, especially civil war, this in turn will depend on the people’s willingness to accept and circulate this currency.
But at the end of the day, it’s hard to see Tom’s actions as entirely moral either. Theoretical arguments about the value of paper money aside, the reality is that the Brotherhood is taking Arya and Co.’s major source of mobility against their will – and as much as he believes that he’s doing it so that the Brotherhood can fight “the fights that need fighting,” I think there’s part of Tom that recognizes that here the Brotherhood is (however much out of necessity) taking from someone who can’t spare the loss. Hence, “war makes thieves of many honest folk.”
Freedom and Identity
Strangely, from the moment that she enters the Inn, Arya’s stress goes up and up rather than relaxing and this loss of physical freedom, a real blow to her plans to get to Riverrun, almost takes her over the edge, to the point where she almost loses it when the Brotherhood laugh at her counter-offer that “you can have our horses for that boat outside.” And it is a real sign of the tension that she’s under that – in response to Sharna telling them that they’ll be kept safe when riders approach the Inn – this is Arya’s response:
Lem grabbed her wrist. “We’ll have no more of that, now.” He twisted her arm until her hand opened. His fingers were hard with callus and fearsomely strong. Again! Arya thought. It’s happening again, like it happened in the village, with Chiswyck and Raff and the Mountain That Rides. They were going to steal her sword and turn her back into a mouse. Her free hand closed around her tankard, and she swung it at Lem’s face. The ale sloshed over the rim and splashed into his eyes, and she heard his nose break and saw the spurt of blood. When he roared his hands went to his face, and she was free. “Run!” she screamed, bolting.
While for Hot Pie and Gendry, the Inn and the Brotherhood can be a real home, Arya can’t accept what she’s being offered. In part, I think this is because Arya is still reeling from the shock of having killed in cold blood to effect her escape from Harrenhal and somehow feels that if the whole group doesn’t make it to Riverrun, her actions were in vain. But also in part, it’s because these refuges can’t be for her what they are for Hot Pie and Gendry, because they’re not the protagonist and she is. For most of Arya’s chapters from ACOK on, we’ve seen this more as a negative for them (they don’t have her training as a water dancer, they don’t have her highborn education, they don’t have a murder genie) it also works as a positive – they don’t have Arya’s burden of a family name that means a family she has to reunite with.
So Arya panics, desperate to hang on to the physical autonomy that’s been her one constant except for the worst period in her life, and instead finds the one other thing she has been desperate for since the end of AGOT:
“Harwin?” Arya whispered. It was! Under the beard and the tangled hair was the face of Hullen’s son, who used to lead her pony around the yard, ride at quintain with Jon and Robb, and drink too much on feast days. He was thinner, harder somehow, and at Winterfell he had never worn a beard, but it was him—her father’s man. “Harwin!” Squirming, she threw herself forward, trying to wrench free of Lem’s iron grip. “It’s me,” she shouted, “Harwin, it’s me, don’t you know me, don’t you?” The tears came, and she found herself weeping like a baby, just like some stupid little girl. “Harwin, it’s me!”
Harwin’s eyes went from her face to the flayed man on her doublet. “How do you know me?” he said, frowning suspiciously. “The flayed man…who are you, some serving boy to Lord Leech?”
For a moment she did not know how to answer. She’d had so many names. Had she only dreamed Arya Stark? “I’m a girl,” she sniffed. “I was Lord Bolton’s cupbearer but he was going to leave me for the goat, so I ran off with Gendry and Hot Pie. You have to know me! You used to lead my pony, when I was little.”
His eyes went wide, “Gods be good,” he said in a choked voice. “Arya Underfoot? Lem, let go of her.”
“She broke my nose.” Lem dumped her unceremoniously to the floor. “Who in seven hells is she supposed to be?”
“The Hand’s daughter.” Harwin went to one knee before her. “Arya Stark, of Winterfell.”
I maintain that anyone who doesn’t tear up after reading that passage is a monster lacking in all human emotion, because it’s such a beautiful encapsulation of all of her hopes and desires and fears rolled up into one page. Arya is often misunderstood by the fandom as an invincible murdering badass, but while she’s absolutely able to wrestle with fierce physical challenges as she’s had to do, there is an underlying vulnerability that speaks to the fact that she is still a child. A child who desperately wants her home, her family, but just as much, recognition. For thirteen chapters she has had to deny who she is, to remain hidden behind an array of false names and identities, and we can see what this effort has cost her when she thinks for a second that “she’d had so many names. Had she only dreamed Arya Stark?“
And so when Arya meets Harwin, someone she knows from back in the day, this need for human recognition bubbles up from inside her, as undeniable and unstoppable as a flood – taking her all the way back to childhood. Again, if you need any proof that GRRM is a romantic above all else, it is that this moment of aching human vulnerability is requited in a scene straight out of a chivalric romance.
So I promised that I would talk about the Thirty Years War when Arya met the Brotherhood Without Banners, and while I don’t want to go on too long because there’s a lot to talk about with this chapter and there are other chapters where it fits better. However, I do want to talk about requisitioning – i.e, the forced transfer or official theft of supplies from civilians – because it was at the heart of what made the Thirty Years War a nigh-genocidal conflict that wiped out a third or more of the population of Germany.
For an entire generation, Catholic and Protestant armies from almost every nation in Europe marched across Germany on the way to or from various indecisive battles and along the way they “lived off the land” in the manner of the chevauchée or Sherman’s March through Georgia. Armies stripped the land bare like locusts and doing that year-in, year-out, for thirty years left whole swathes of central Europe depopulated, either as people desperately sought refuge anywhere where food was and soldiers were not, or due to famine and the epidemic diseases that ravaged the malnourished. Hence why Bertolt Brecht placed the theft of a cow at the center of Eilif’s story in Mother Courage.
On to Robin Hood! The Robin Hood mythos, like a lot of medieval literature, is a shifty thing indeed because people kept adding to the story and changing it in important ways, like fanfic writers let loose on the canon. And because literate people tended to be of the upper orders, these changes had some real political weight to them. For example, while modern audiences associate Robin Hood as a partisan of the true King Richard Lionheart against the evil usurper Prince John, the earliest ballads make no mention of either King, and Robin appears as a much more anti-establishment figure. Likewise, earlier versions of the Robin Hood legend describe him as a yeoman (hence his skill with a peasant weapon like the bow) as opposed to Sir Robin of Loxley. In these ways, writers and minstrels made Robin Hood into a safe figure of approved rebellion against generalized badness, instead of the kind of man who orders his men to:
- loke ye do no husbonde harme
- That tilleth with his ploughe…
- …he was a good outlawe,
- And dyde pore men moch g[o]od.
More on this in future chapters…
Finally, let’s talk resistance and guerrilla movements. It’s a tricky topic to discuss, because the idea of a guerrilla movement misusing and abusing its power, twisting revolutionary rhetoric to justify any oppression against the masses it claims to speak for, has a basis in reality, but is also often used and over-used to cast aspersions on all forms of resistance (while often failing to make the same fearless moral inventory of the state).
At the same time, it’s also true that resistance movements have been and are frequently mythologized – a classic example of this being the way that the Resistance in France or other areas of Western Europe were embraced after WWII as a way for occupied countries to assert moral purity and paper over the messier realities of collaboration, when their Resistance movements were relatively small especially in comparison to the Resistance in Yugoslavia.
More on this in future chapters…
So there’s not a lot of room for hypotheticals in this chapter, since Arya doesn’t really make any choices, but let’s take one potential alternative:
- Arya gets away from the Inn? Now, the first major change that follows from this is that Arya doesn’t meet Sandor Clegane – which in turn means she doesn’t get kidnapped, which means she doesn’t get taken to the Twins and doesn’t become a witness to the Red Wedding.
- But one interesting possibility is, if Arya got to Riverrun, when would she arrive? According to my calculations, Arya arrives at the Inn a week and change before the next Catelyn chapter (when Robb returns to Riverrun). Now the Inn is 120 miles from Riverrun, and 240 miles from Harrenhal (which makes Arya’s trek rather impressive in retrospect) – and it took Arya a full month to make that 240 mile journey, so on land she’s not going to make it. But on a skiff, Arya could potentially make the trip in as little as two days, which would put her on schedule to reunite with her family. The question then becomes, what happens to her: does she go with Robb to Riverrun, hoping to belt-and-braces the peacemaking Frey unions? (Won’t Elmar be happy?) Or does she get left behind, and become a rallying symbol for Brynden Tully and the other Stark loyalists in the Riverlands?
Book vs. Show:
Now, I have to say that I feel somewhat ambiguous about this scene in the show. On the one hand, the initial introduction of Thoros and Anguy and their meeting with Arya and Co. works rather well on a relatively comedic level. So I don’t have much to complain about that syncs up with this scene in particular – only to say that having Arya be obsessed with only fighting and have her recognition come from Sandor Clegane kind of misses a lot of the character work that GRRM is doing here.
My problems kick in later, where I feel that Benioff and Weiss try to telescope characters too much, rushing them to the end-state that they know the character is going to get to without letting them develop at a natural pace. Hence, in general Arya’s path towards violence is accelerated considerably compared to the books. And as I’ll discuss more in future chapters, the Brotherhood Without Banners are made way too close to their later incarnation, which makes the whole theme of a fall from grace kind of wasted, much like they will be…