The Doll’s House

Continuing my Sandman re-read which I started here, as I’m focusing on themes of portraits, I’m skipping right to the end of Volume 2 The Doll’s House. The volume is bracketed at the beginning (following the prologue) and the end with depictions of the same portraits, but rendered with both subtle and obvious differences.

As I described for the start of the volume, we see a portrait of Desire in statue form followed by a depiction of Desire’s Gallery. At the end of the volume, this order is reversed as we see first Dream’s Gallery and then Desire’s statue on the final page.

The Gallery is a space in each of the Endless’s Realm. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their Gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The Gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Dream’s Gallery is made up of the same framed portraits as Desire’s but the frame has changed; Each symbol is framed with a highly ornamental golden frame. As well, although the colour tones are similar to Desire’s Gallery, small changes make the space slightly less alien, as the pictures are clearly arranged as framed pieces on the wall instead of a disturbing doubling effect where they also appear to be comic panels.

The portrait of Desire is also slightly less alien. There’s no mistaking it for a portrait of a human – the eyes are whited out, with no pupils or irises. But the colour pallet and setting has changed. In the first, the setting is immediately recognizable as a realm of the Endless with a background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon, an image that would not occur in the natural world. Here, Desire’s portrait is set on a clear sky blue with a rolling tan landscape. Likewise, while the first depiction of the statue is done in cold colours, hinting at a metallic or marble hard and enduring medium, the depiction here hints of yellows and tans, a dusty, sandy substance that seems it will crumble away. It matches the final messages of the volume as Dream tells Desire:

We of the endless are the servants of the living–we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.

Neil Gaiman, The Doll House

Rather than being supreme and mighty beings, the Endless living at the whimsy and service of of the humans. In this light, the Endless Realms are just another “doll house”; tucked away in a decorative shell until their service is required. Desire demonstrates this with their flippery, pondering their existence in one moment, and in the next moment “smiles and forgets, for Desire is a creature of the moment.” Desire’s whimsy reinforces the idea that they are a doll themselves, a creature unable to maintain sustained thought when not being “played with”. In this light, we can re-examine the sculpture of Desire. While the dimensions of the first suggested an immense and powerful being, the sculpture of Desire here is a blank, empty doll.

Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).

Can you hear the violins? BBC’s Merlin and the Arthurian Canon

I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.

The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)

The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.

Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):

GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]

ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]

GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]

The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.

              In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.

In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.

[i] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[ii] Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 297-298

[iii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2, my transcription throughout

[iv] Malory, 47 and 53

[v] Merlin, “The Changeling” 3.6

[vi] Merlin, “The Sword in the Stone, Part 2” 4.12

[vii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[viii] Merlin,“The Darkest Hour, Part 2” 4.2

[ix] Merlin, “The Darkest Hour, Part 1” 4.1

[x]  Merlin, “Lancelot” 1.5

Sandman Issue 13: Snapshots of Humanity

I love issue 13 of The Sandman. In “Men of Good Fortune” we take a break from the main narrative of volume 2 Doll’s House; a much needed reprieve before the rollercoaster of horror we’ll face in issue 14. Instead we see snippets of a White Horse tavern in England where every hundred years Dream meets with Robert Gadling, a man who simply refuses to die. Each time we are treated to a change in scenery as, even though it’s the same tavern, over the course of some 600 years, the tavern changes with the time, along with its customers, their fashions and aesthetics. The background dialogue from the tavern customers also tell of us the continued political strifes and struggles that the everyman has to face – the latest being “Thatcher’s bloody poll tax”. So while my re-reading of Sandman has focused on portraits, the issue operates as a series of portraits in itself.

That being said, there IS one illustrated portrait within the issue: a miniature painting of Robert Gadling’s wife and new born son, which Robert shows to Dream with evident pride stating, “this is what I always dreamed heaven would be like, way back. It’s safe to walk the streets, enough food, and good wine. Life is so rich.”

When next we see Robert a 100 years later, nearly thrown out of the tavern for looking like a homeless drunkard, it’s clear life hasn’t treated him so well. His wife died in childbirth, his son in a tavern brawl, and Robert was set upon by angry villagers suspicious of his immortality and charging him of witchcraft. Robert pawned the portraiture of his family 40 years ago for food, and tells Dream, “I hated every second of the last eighty years. Every bloody second.” But when Dream asks if he wishes to die, Robert responds, “Are you crazy? […] I got so much to live for.” It’s an odd but striking sentiment. Homeless, with a dead wife and son. What can he possibly have to live for? Although the fact that he pawned their portrait might indicate that he didn’t value their lives too highly. But I wonder… I wonder if he pawned their portraits so he WOULDN’T dwell on their memories. So that he could move on and keep living, instead of being haunted by their pictures. How else would a man keep living 600+ years through sheer will alone?

And it also makes me wonder, who would have that drive, to keep living, keep surviving, despite all else? Robert’s been through so many ups and downs and he doesn’t seem to resent a second of living. I doubt I would have the same stamina.

In the next installment of my Sandman re-read I discuss Volume 3 Dream Country. Until then, take care!

Sandman Issue 10: An Introduction to the Gallery

Continuing the Sandman re-read that I began here, today we get our first glimpse of the gallery; a personal, private gallery, housed in each of the Endless’s Fortresses. We’ll later learn that there are 7 Endless “siblings.” We were introduced to two of them in volume 1: Dream, of course, along with his older sister Death. Issue 10 opens with another Endless sibling, Desire, introduced by means of a visual portrait on the first page of the issue. As I discussed last time, the portrait is cold, alienlike. Portraits, of course, show us the artist’s representation of the qualities of the person. I’ve been musing on Desire’s portrait for the last 24 hours. The concept of desire, for me, evokes ideas of heat and passion, fire and colour and energy. But Desire here is cold, detached. It is perhaps a more appropriate depiction of Desire than the image in my head. Desire does not equate to passion. Passion seems to suggest a depth of feeling brought about by connection. One fuels the flames of passion by constantly feeding it, nurturing it, sustaining it. Desire here seems to indicate an intense longing for something without doing the work to achieve it. It suggests a fickle feeling that passes once one’s attention is diverted.

Given this assessment, the design of Desire’s gallery is suitable with their person. The gallery of the Endless is a personal space in each of their fortresses. But instead of being lined with famous artwork, the gallery contains “portraits” of each of the Endless siblings. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Desire’s gallery is.. cold. Reminiscent of a real world art gallery, in some ways… wide open spaces, large art pieces dominating the room with little context or curation. But the room is dark, threatening. Splashes of red add small marks of colour. The gallery pieces are placed in a uniform line on a nearly black wall.

Desire’s Gallery in Issue 10 of The Sandman

The image is cleverly depicted like the squares of a panel in a comic or graphic novel. But in fact this is the way the gallery is exhibited: simple but powerful images on a canvas of white hanging on black. The simplicity is stark and cutting, much like Desire themselves. This is not a space that invites its viewers to linger.

That feeling of uneasiness increases as Desire summons their sibling, their twin, Despair, and the two discuss Desire’s plots against their elder brother Dream. Given that Dream has firmly been established as the protagonist of the series at this point combined with the memories of the events of the last volume, the reader is left with a quiet foreboding that a trap has been set for Dream, one that might be just as horrifying as his last set of challenges. Hopefully he will emerge from this next trial will less collateral damages.

Click here if you want to see the next post on my Sandman read-along.

Is there any news, Reshi? – (A Contrast of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear – Chapter 1)

I’m taking a break today from the University 411/811 blog to read some fantasy fiction. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up a running commentary of a comparison between Book 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (which I began here), but for now it’s amusing me to see the similarities and contrasts.

“A Place for Demons”, Chapter One of The Name of the Wind, begins simply

It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

The Name of the Wind, p. 3

It’s an interesting way to introduce the hero of the story. “A young innkeeper,” no other identifying markers except age and job title. He’s not even in the scene, but standing just out of sight, listening to the events on stage – the gossip and folktales relayed by his 5 customers – and not contributing anything himself until two pages later. When he does speak, his customers evidence surprise: “The men at the bar seemed surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote have never interjected anything of his own before” (p 5). It’s almost comical, that the minor characters in this story are shocked to see the protagonist and to hear him speak. It’s also noteworthy that it takes 5 pages before the readers are even introduced to our hero’s name. Of course, as the narrative continues, Rothfuss fully puts his reader through their paces in interrogating the protagonist’s actions as heroic. Kote’s uncertain status is established just a few sentences later, as the passage continues: “Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger” (5). We still have no details of Kote, except his name, that he’s a stranger, and he evidently has detailed knowledge of half-completed idioms, but brushes off this knowledge as “Just something I heard once” (p. 5).

The mystery of Kote only continues in chapter 1 as a missing companion joins them, hurt and bloodied, and carrying the body of the beast that attacked him, “a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate” (p. 7). Kote immediately identifies the creature as as a “scrael,” cleans and sews up Carter with fourty-eight stitches, and takes the leads in identifying the scrawl as a “demon” by pressing a piece of iron on the body. In each case, Kote attempts to hide his authority as knowledge-keeper by dismissing them: as sources of gossip (a traveller told him about the scrael); or a common saying (that demons react to iron); or by telling his student-companion Bast to spread a rumour about (in this case, that his grandfather was a caravan guard, as explanation for his stitching skills). He also confirms in his conversation with Bast that he made sure they properly disposed of the scrawl (burning it in a fire made of rowan wood and then burying in a pit that was at a suitable depth): “They took it to the priest. He did all the right things for all the wrong reasons” (p. 12). That Kote knows more than a priest, a person who holds secret, divine knowledge, suggests that Kote is at once more learnéd than a person who puts their stock in faith, while also functioning as a figure who had knowledge of deep mysteries itself. The question on hand, after all, is the presence and explanation of a *demon* and while the reader – like the minor characters – might be considering explanations for this mysterious beast, the fact that it reacted to iron in a physical way (smoke arising from burnt flesh where the iron touch), gives the reader a sense of a supernatural mystery that the novel in their hands will hopefully give some answers to. Taken together, the reader is also quick to pick up on the clues that Rothfuss lays out: that our hero is a skilled and knowledgeable person that is in hiding. Rothfuss makes this plain when he finally introduces Kote properly on page 10:

He called himself Kote. He has chosen the name carefully when he came to this place. He has taken a new name for most of the usual reasons, and for a few unusual ones as well, not the least of which was the fact that names were important to him.

The Name of the Wind, p. 10

Who then is Kote? What is his real name, and why did he take a new name? One presumes that the “usual reasons” are because he’s hiding, but hiding from what? And why are names important to him? Clearly there is something significant here, given the title of the book: The Name of the Wind.

In contrast to The Name of the Wind, Chapter One of The Wise Man’s Fear (“Apple and Elderberry”) sets a slightly different mood. As I discussed when examining both prologues, while the beginning notes in The Name of the Wind worked together as a “complement” (NotW p.1), The Wise Man’s Fear adds a “counterpoint” (WMF p.1 ), another layer to the melody. Instead of a scene set at night with a nearly-empty room (5 customers with Kote off-stage), we begin in the morning, in early dawn, with Bast standing in that same room alone and bored. The set piece stays the same, but the scene has changed. Instead of fanciful gossip of demons – “The word ‘demon’ was being spoken, but it was with smiles half-hidden behind raise hands” (NotW p. 16) – we move now to the very real and serious aftermath of a man’s death – “Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham would had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life” (WMF p. 7-8). There are echoes between both chapters in the form of gossip of serious topics, demons and death, but while the first is treated with half-amusement and small caution as both townspeople and the reader are unable to confirm fact from fiction, the latter is treated with proper gravitas as both the townspeople and the reader are contemplating the death of a man at the end of the previous novel. The note of this somber counterpoint is reinforced in the final paragraph of chapter 1 in WMF:

The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for gray.

The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 11

These final sentences of chapter one closes with a careful evocation of rhythm without music, a feeling of a joylessness, distant, grey, setting a mood similar to the one from NotW, but with a deeper resonance that conveys a forced and false normality.

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.