By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

1. A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, pp. 1-27

Prologue; Bran; Catelyn

Martin's Prologue is a risky start to the book: It throws you into the middle of some action and into the company of characters who take a good deal of sorting-out. And it flings names and places and words at you that the characters are familiar with but the reader has to puzzle out. And you soon discover that none of these characters are  central to the novel. It's a beginning that's long on atmosphere and short on exposition.

The first to speak in the novel is Gared, a man over fifty, who is nervous because they have just come across a group of "wildlings" and they're dead. The leader of the group, Ser Waymar Royce, scoffs at him, as does the other member of the group, known as Will. Gared persists: They are eight or nine days from home, and it's getting dark. Gared resents being made fun of by Royce, who is only eighteen and has been with the Night's Watch for only half a year, whereas Gared has been a member of it for forty years. But Royce belongs to an "ancient house" and he doesn't. Will is caught between them: He has been on the Wall for four years, and he hates having to go beyond it into the forest. He wants to head back to the safety of the Wall, but he also doesn't want to show his fear to Royce, his commander.

Royce wants to hear again Will's story of finding a group of wildlings apparently dead at their camp in the forest -- "No living man ever lay so still," he says. Royce isn't completely convinced that they were dead, and asks Gared what he thinks might have killed them. Gared says they died of the cold: "I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy." (Thus we learn that "winter" isn't an annual event.) And Gared shows that he has suffered the effects of the cold, having lost two ears, three toes, and the little finger of his left hand to frostbite.

Royce isn't sure that the cold killed the wildlings, and asks Will if he has done any watches on the Wall during the past week. Will says the Wall was "weeping" -- meaning it wasn't frozen solid, so the wildlings couldn't have died of the cold. Royce agrees: It hasn't been cold enough to kill them, so he orders Will to lead them there.

Will rides a "shaggy little garron" and Royce a "great black destrier." A "garron" would seem to be a small horse, for the "destrier" is also called a "warhorse," which "was the wrong mount for ranging, but try and tell that to the lordling." ("Ser" is evidently the equivalent of "Sir.")

As they near the place where Will had seen the bodies, Gared has an eerie feeling, which Will shares: "Four years in the Night's Watch, and he had never been so afraid." Royce draws his longsword, the hilt of which is set with jewels, "a splendid weapon, castle-forged, and new-made by the look of it." Will suggests that a knife would be a more useful weapon in the thicket of trees, but Royce dismisses the suggestion arrogantly, as he does Gared's suggestion that they build a fire.

They reach the top of a ridge that overlooks the place where Will had seen the bodies. They are all gone. When Royce arrives and stands at the top of the ridge, "outlined nobly against the stars for all to see," Will urges him to get down. Royce ignores the suggestion and scoffs, "Your dead men seem to have moved camp, Will." But Will notices that a "double-bladed battle-axe" is still lying in the camp site untouched. Royce urges him to stand up, and he does so reluctantly. Then Royce says, "I am not going back to Castle Black a failure on my first ranging." He is determined to find the vanished wildlings.

Will climbs a tree to get a better view, and he hears Royce call out, "Who goes there?" Will then sees "pale shapes" in the woods and "a white shadow in the darkness." Royce is "turning in a slow circle," and he asks, "Why is it so cold?" Will feels the cold, too. "A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk." Royce challenges it in a voice that "cracked like a boy's."
The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.
Royce continues to challenge the figure, "a boy no longer, but a man of the Night's Watch." Then other figures emerge, bringing the cold with them. Will wants to cry out but stays silent. Royce begins to fight with the first figure. "When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal, only a high, thin sound at the edge of hearing, like an animal screaming in pain." The other figures stand and watch until finally a blow lands on Royce. He cries out in pain but shouts "For Robert!" and attacks furiously. "When the blades touched, the steel shattered. Royce falls to his knees and puts his hands over his eyes. "Blood welled between his fingers."

When Royce falls, the watchers move in. "It was cold butchery." Will stays in the tree until it feels safe to come down. Royce is face down in the snow. "Lying dead like, that you saw how young he was. A boy." He finds the remains of the sword and picks it up for proof to show Gared, who was waiting with the horses. But then he finds Ser Waymar Royce standing over him. "The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw." Will feels the hands tighten around his throat; "the touch was icy cold."

So who are these ice people? And what is the Wall? And the Night's Watch? And the wildlings? That's what the prologue is for: to raise the key questions.

Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran Stark
As the main narrative begins, Martin adopts the technique of limited omniscience: telling the story in the third person but from various points of view. And the first point of view we get is that of Bran Stark, a seven-year-old boy.

Bran is on his way to witness his first execution. The prisoner, it turns out, is Gared, as we recognize from the fact that he is missing both ears and a finger. Bran's father, Lord Eddard Stark, is to perform the execution, as Bran, flanked by his brother Robb and his half-brother Jon Snow, watches.
Sean Bean as Eddard Stark

Eddard Stark is thirty-five, but looks older. "He had taken off Father's face, Bran thought, and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell." The man to be executed is brought forth and forced to stretch his neck over a stump as Stark's ward, Theon Greyjoy, bring him the sword called Ice. Stark invokes the name of the king, Robert of the House Baratheon, and pronounces sentence. Then he raises the sword, as Jon Snow whispers to Bran not to look away: "Father will know if you do."

Richard Madden as Robb Stark
Kit Harington as Jon Snow
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy
Bran watches as the head is chopped off with one blow and the blood spills out on the snow. The head rolls over to where Greyjoy is standing; he laughs and kicks it away. Jon mutters, "Ass." We learn then that Jon is Eddard Stark's bastard son, and that he is fourteen. Greyjoy is "a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything funny."

Robb comments, "The deserter died bravely," giving us our first link to the prologue, but Jon says that you could see the fear in his eyes. Bran notes the contrast between Robb and Jon, who are the same age: "Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast." They speed off on a race to the bridge. Bran's father comes up on his horse, and Bran tells him about what Robb and Jon said. Eddard comments that the only time a man can be brave is when he's afraid. He tells Bran that the man who was executed "was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night's Watch." He also explains that while King Robert and the Targaryen kings had executioners, the Starks believe "that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword," and if you can't bear to look the man in the eye, "perhaps the man does not deserve to die."

Then there's a shout from Jon, calling Bran to see what Robb has found. They discover Robb standing over the carcass of a giant wolf, "bigger than [Bran's] pony, twice the size of the largest hound in his father's kennel." It's a direwolf, which has not been seen "south of the Wall in two hundred years." And not only that, there are five pups.

Eddard investigates the dead direwolf and discovers a broken antler stuck in its throat. Hullen, the master of horse, wants to kill the pups, and Greyjoy draws his sword, but both Bran and Robb protest. Jon points out that three of the pups are male and two female, and that Stark has "five trueborn children.... Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord." Bran realizes what Jon has done: He has excluded himself from the count of Stark's children. "He had included the girls, included even Rickon, the baby, but not the bastard who bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky to be born with no name of their own."

Stark notices what Jon has done, too, and asks why. "'The direwolf graces the banners of House Stark,' Jon pointed out. 'I am no Stark, Father.'" Robb and Bran say they will take care of their pups, and Stark agrees, while warning , "These are not dogs to beg for treats and slink off at a kick. A direwolf will rip a man's arm off his shoulder as easily as a dog will kill a rat."

They head back for Winterfell, but as they cross the bridge, Jon hears something: It is another pup, whose "fur was white, where the rest of the litter was grey." It's an albino, a misfit, and though Greyjoy says, "This one will die even faster than the others," Jon gives him "a long, chilling look" and claims it as his own.

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark
Catelyn Stark's point of view dominates the next chapter, as she goes to talk to her husband, Eddard, in the godswood, a kind of sacred grove. Each noble family seems to have one, for Catelyn, who was born a Tully in the south, remembers hers as a "bright and airy" garden, whereas the Stark godswood is "a dark, primal place." She and her husband belong to different religions: In hers, the gods have names and faces. "For her sake, Ned had built a small sept where she might sing to the seven faces of god, but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest." However, there were faces carved in the trees at Winterfell, said to have been done by the children of the forest "during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea."

Catelyn finds Ned where he always came after an execution, and tells him the children are arguing about names for their wolf pups. Three-year-old Rickon, she says, is a little afraid of his. Ned says, "He must learn to face his fears. He will not be three forever. And winter is coming." The last phrase is the Stark family motto.

Ned is cleaning the sword Ice, which is four hundred years old. He reflects that this was the fourth man he had had to execute this year, and that Ben, his brother, says that the Night's Watch is down below a thousand, not only from desertions but also deaths "on rangings as well." He blames it on the wildlings, and fears that he may have to "call the banners and ride north to deal with this King-beyond-the-Wall for good and all." He assures her that "Mance Rayder," the King-beyond-the-Wall, "is nothing for us to fear," but she is afraid of anything beyond the Wall.
His smile was gentle. "You listen to too many of Old Nan's stories. The Others are as dead as the children of the forest, gone eight thousand years. Maester Luwin will tell you they never lived at all. No living man has ever seen one."
"Until this morning, no living man had ever seen a direwolf either," Catelyn reminded him. 
And then she brings him news: "Jon Arryn is dead." Ned and Robert Baratheon had been Jon Arryn's wards, and he had rebelled against Mad King Aerys II Targaryen to protect them. He had also married Catelyn's sister, Lysa. The message announcing his death said that Lysa and her son by Jon Arryn had returned to the Eyrie, Jon Arryn's "high and lonely" castle. They are under the protection of Catelyn and Lysa's uncle, Brenden, the Knight of the Gate.

Ned urges her to go visit them, but Catelyn informs him that the king is on his way to Winterfell. She is troubled by this, partly because there has been talk of the omen of a direwolf found dead with an antler in its throat: The sign of the house of Stark is a direwolf, but that of the house of Baratheon is a stag. But Ned is happy, especially when she suggests they send for his brother Ben. He is less happy when he hears that the queen will be accompanied by her brothers, the Lannisters.

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