A Game of Cowards: Thoughts on the Last Honourable Man of Westeros

(Obligatory spoiler warnings ahead for those of you who live in a hole and haven’t seen/read A Game of Thrones. Not that I have anything against Hobbits. But I’m assuming if you haven’t seen/read GoT/ASOIAF then you wouldn’t be interested in reading this blog post anyway.)

Eddard Stark. The Last Honourable Man Left in Westeros. One can say that “the game of thrones” doesn’t really start until the very end of the book. Ned’s not really a player in the game. Or, if he is, he’s playing correctly by the rules while everyone else is stealing from the bank and sleeping with each other. But Ned’s so damn honourable that he thinks everyone else is playing by the rules too. While he doesn’t trust anyone, Ned still has a core faith in people’s decency. Sure, he acknowledges that: “The Lannisters appetite for officers and honors seemed to know no bounds” (p. 258), yet when faced with the evidence of murder and treason, Ned’s still professes, “no, I will not believe that, not even of Cersei” (268).

There’s a striking difference between Ned and King Robert when they feud halfway through the book. Ned argues vehemently against the idea of killing innocents. Repeatedly Ned returns to the image of dashing the head of the infant prince Targaryen against a wall. A mere babe, snatched from the hands of his mother. To Ned, this is the ultimate act of evil. And so, when Robert demands the death of Daenerys, Ned reacts with horror at the thought of “murdering a child” (p. 294). Robert of course insists on the deed in order to secure his throne. What’s one more death in the grand scheme of things?

Yet, when the council suggests poison as a way of killing Dany (that way the Dorthraki wouldn’t even know it was murder and there would be no repercussions), Robert complains:

“Poison is a coward’s weapon”

P. 296

Ned quickly points out the hypocrisy:

“You send hired knives to kill a fourteen-year-old girl and still quibble about honor?”

P. 296

The thing that Ned still doesn’t see is that Robert’s honour is about image and perception. He needs to be seen as a strong king, a good one, even though he knows in his heart that he’s failed. But Ned’s honour is bone deep. Consider his adoption and fostering of Jon Snow. What could be more honourable than lying and sacrificing your image in order to save the life of an innocent?

The A Song of Ice and Fire series along with it’s television adaptation is a story of corruption. But with the first book, Martin delicately shows us this rot through the eyes of innocents. There’s Jon, so convinced of the bravery and honour of the Black Brothers; Catelyn, who naively thinks her sister will sacrifice safety for duty; and Sansa, who sees the court as a “beautiful dream” (p. 252), complete with Joffrey as her golden prince. Even the death of Ser Hugh doesn’t jolt Sansa out of the dream, as she compliments herself on stoically observing his death. Death means little to the court and the commoners:

After they carried off the body, a boy with a spade ran onto the field and shoveled dirt over the spot where he has fallen, to cover up the blood. Then the jousts resumed.

A Game of Thrones p. 248

Such a simple image, but so appropriate for the theme of the book: shoveling dirt to cover up blood so that they can get on with their sport.

The first book is narrated completely by people of honour and innocence. Even Tyrion Lannister has been manipulated by his family’s game. Here are our protagonists. Although later books introduce other point-of-view characters, and Martin is renowned for creating grey characters that the audience ends up rooting for, these 8 pov characters introduce the reader to the world of ASOIAF. It’s through their eyes that we see the corruption of Westeros. And through their thoughts that we set up our moral compass to read the rest of the series.

But with Ned’s death, that moral compass is shattered. With the death of the last honourable man of Westeros, honour itself dies. Each pov character from that moment on has questionable scruples. And that includes our remaining 7 pov characters because they have lost their innocence. With Ned’s death, they see the blood and rot under the mud, and each character has to adapt – and adapt quickly – if they’re going to survive the game. Which means, becoming players themselves: cheating, vicious, rotten ones.

An Unexpected Journey – Re-Reading The Hobbit Chapter 1

After a 2020-apocalypse-driven hiatus, I’m diving back into reading with a Tolkien re-read. I hope you’ll join me on my adventure!

I haven’t read The Hobbit in nearly a decade. I’m sure the events of chapter one amused me when I was younger. But as my 34th birthday has passed me by a couple weeks ago, this time I was struck with feelings of ire on behalf of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Here’s this polite, friendly guy, greeting a stranger with a hearty “good morning” and from that small interaction Bilbo gets stuck with a houseful of uninvited guests demanding seedcakes and telling him how they like their breakfast done in the morning.

At least most of the dwarves are a friendly, affable sort. But Thorin Oakenshield … well I wouldn’t him as my employer. Someone who’s too good to help clear the dishes? No thanks. Tolkien does an amazing job of painting a picture of someone who is puffed up with his own importance, while also indicating that the pride isn’t deserved. (Reminds me of the Tory party…..) Just look at his lineage. Grandfather Thrór is ran out of the North for reasons unknown. Luckily he stumbles across a huge pile of gold in his new mountain and declares himself King under the Mountain. In the South. (Nevermind the dwarves in the North.)

All that gold attracts a dragon, of course. Damn those greedy dragons. Which means Thorin is forced to flee with Grandpop and Dad and a handful of unnamed dwarves. (He doesn’t mention his dear mum. Guess dwarves are born from the ground or something.) The mighty king and heirs are forced to (make their people) work for a living. The horror! Instead of doing fancy smithing work for kings, the dwarves have to resort to the lowly job of blacksmithing and working mines. Thorin’s pride obviously takes a huge hit that his people have to do something so base. (Can you all see me rolling my eyes?)

I’m not sure how I would react if this guy showed up on my doorstep, judging my character while ordering his breakfast. To Bilbo’s credit he handles it with – not exactly grace – but with extremely good manners, going so far as to sacrifice his share of the cakes in order to be a good host.

Of course, it must have been the Baggins part of his nature that has instilled all that politeness and respectability as Tolkien goes on for a lengthy paragraph to state that the adventure-spirit comes from his mother’s side. And not just from his mother, the (im)famous Belladonna Took, but potentially there’s a fairy wife in the Took ancestry too. So the mother’s line damns him twice over. (Un)Luckily for Belladonna, she loses both identity and character when she becomes Mrs. Bungo Baggins. She stops going on adventures, gains respectability through her new name, and her husband builds her a beautiful and luxurious home – with her money. And really, what more could a woman ask for?

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

A Re-Read of the first 10 pages of Piers Anthony’s A Spell of Chameleon

After a December hiatus (tangential note: I blame Christmas for that; turns out it’s not a practical idea to make a handcrafted stocking for your baby while on maternity leave), I decided to mosey into the next decade with a re-read some of my favourite Fantasy books that I haven’t touched in years.

I’m now contemplating how many of these books I’m going to absolutely HATE now that I’m reading them as an adult; by which I mean, *not* as a person who disparages children’s fiction, but as a person who can think critically and is more socially aware. In most of my research to date I have focused on 1990-2010 literature, with a brief study dipping into the ’60s. When I started my postgraduate work, though I couldn’t put a finger on why, I knew that ’70s and ’80s Fantasy didn’t appeal to me. I’m desperately hoping as I continue my re-read that the horribly misogynist pattern that I discovered in Anthony doesn’t hold up for any other books I re-examine.

After re-reading the first 10 pages of Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (all I can stomach really), it shocked me how blatant the misogyny was. Keep in mind that I’ve been studying ’90s and ’00s Fantasy for the last decade, where authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are accused of misogyny because of flat, stereotypical depiction of women (Jordan), or because of their mistreatment of the gender (Martin). And then we have Anthony, who doesn’t believe that women are people in any sense of the word. They are objects, or creatures, designed specifically to fulfill men’s “needs.” That idea doesn’t get more blatant than the chapter where the main character plants and grows a nymph in order to have her as a sex slave. (I didn’t read that far, but it all came screaming back to me as I started the book.)

As early as page 2, we have the main character introduce the supposed love of his life (the woman he wants to marry, or, at least, the women he has to marry in order to have sex with her). The passage reads:

All plants had their enchantments, but no spell could eliminate the need for light, water, and healthy soil. Instead, magic was used to make these necessities of the vegetable kingdom more available, [….].

Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this.

Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon, p. 1-2

So here we have a man who has brought his beloved out to a romantic lookout point in order to ask for her hand in marriage, and the first thought on his mind when he sees her is how he has “needs”. Are you swooning with the romance of it all? And what a segue-way; contemplating the needs of a plant to a needs of a man. It’s an awkward transition because there ISN’T an nice, normal, respectable way of blatantly stating that women are there to be sexual partners for men.

There’s not much more I can add to this criticism that reviewers Jason Heller and Oren Ashkenzi haven’t already said in their detailed breakdowns on why the book/series/author is horrible. They’re both worth checking out, as they each bring a unique take on the misogyny. Heller dwells into some of Anthony’s other books to flag the pedophilia that keeps cropping up. And Ashkenzi uses the text to give practical lessons on writing; his paragraph-by-paragraph analysis gives a good idea of how Anthony’s novel could have been so much better.

The one thought that does occur to me in re-reading these pages is it’ll be interesting to see whether other ’70s and ’80s Fantasy books have aged well. While reading a handful of reviews posted on other blogs, the theme that kept popping up for me is people who read the work as a teenager and loved it, but re-reading it as an adult realized what a disgusting misogynist mess it is. I wonder if this has to do with maturation (although the main character is nearly 25, he comes across more as a teenager and may appeal more to an adolescent crowd), or whether we, as readers, have become more critically aware. I’d like to think it’s the latter; the young adults of today seem to be a much more socially-conscious group than earlier generations and I can imagine a number of young adults picking up the book and immediately objecting to the obvious male gaze and objectification of women. But I can’t help but contemplate the effect this hugely popular author has had readers in the ’70s. Among all the negative reviews, there are also a number that praise the book for it’s “refreshing” take on sexuality. The very idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I hope I’ll be able to stomach other re-reads as my great adventure continues.