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A Storm of Swords: Femininity, Betrayal, and Olenna Tyrell

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

Once againspoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).

Yes, I’m still thinking about A Storm of Swords.  I’ve finished The Second Sex and will be getting to it in a post or two, really! But I have more to say here.

I’d really wanted to write about Olenna Tyrell, Margaery’s grandmother, the Queen of Thorns.  I’m beginning to suspect that my posts on this book do even more than my other posts to show the peculiarities of my attention; I have a strong tendency to focus on things that are very small and maybe don’t even matter to anyone else.  I’ll admit I had to look up her name myself.  But there are a couple interesting things about her.  When she first appeared, she reminded me strongly of Walder Frey—old, grouchy, socially uninhibited and mostly important because she is the head of a significant family.   She’s humorous for reasons similar to those that Lord Frey was humorous when he first appeared (you know, before he was presiding over horrific murders).  And ultimately, she’s behind a fairly significant murder herself, and for arguably similar reasons—although in her case, she is protecting her granddaughter rather than setting an example and revenging wounded pride, as Frey was.

That’s a sidenote, though.  The first place my attention really rested was in her assertion that none of these lords listened to their mothers, but they should, and if they did, things would be much better.   But, in fact, they do.  Robb listens to Catelyn (mostly); Joffrey listens to Cersei (until he doesn’t).

Catelyn seems to give Robb a lot of good advice, actually. She helps him to manage the lords he’s recruited and seems to mastermind a lot of his strategy behind the scenes.  She is the one who initially arranges his marriage to an unspecified daughter of Lord Frey.  As for the eventual disaster of the Red Wedding… Well, he doesn’t listen to Catelyn when he decides to marry Jayne Westerling, but he does listen when she urges him to respond to Lord Frey’s treacherous invitation. So did this happen because he listened to her, or because he didn’t?  Both?

It’s much more ambiguous with Cersei and Joffrey, because neither of them has been a narrator thus far.  It does seem that Joffrey has gotten a little out of control; the execution of Ned was pretty clearly against Cersei’s wishes.  But it’s also pretty clearly implied that Cersei has had a lot to do with making Joffrey who he was, and this is more explicit in the TV series.  So: when he listens to her, he acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk, and when he doesn’t listen to her, he also acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk.  Since Joffrey is basically an evil character from beginning to end, he acts like one whether he listens to his mother or not.  It will be interesting to see how this works with Tommen.

So Olenna is wrong about that, and it’s actually a little reassuring that the mothers in the series are human beings who try to do stuff and have their own agendas and sometimes screw up and sometimes do make things better and sometimes make them worse, and are generally allowed to be human beings.  And of course, it is also very clear that her critique is also attacking the problem from the wrong angle—she is wishing that women had more control over powerful men, rather than wishing that women had some legitimate institutional power of their own.

But that was just the first thing about the conversation that struck me. The second thing is this: while expressing a sort of solidarity for the mothers of kings (which is, I suppose, a very specific part of the population), she demonstrates very little compassion for other women in practice. Specifically, this conversation is about her quizzing Sansa for information about Joffrey and the danger that he poses to her granddaughter.  Although she hesitates out of self-preservation, Sansa responds to her questions in good faith. She’s survived Joffrey’s abuse and she genuinely doesn’t want another woman to be subjected to it.

Olenna, having received this information, acts on it and has Joffrey assassinated in order to protect Margaery, and it’s pretty difficult to condemn her for doing so. But… she uses Sansa to do it, and allows suspicion to fall on her (and, of course, she knows that this suspicion will be more credible because of the information that Sansa has provided).  This betrayal is a lot more troubling than the assassination.

Because, really, when you come to consider the relationships among women in this series, well, there aren’t any.  Or at least, none that are positive.  Most of the interactions among women are incidental, like the untrustworthy abuse counseling I’ve just been describing, or Shae’s disturbing antipathy for rape survivors, which I’ve discussed in a previous post.  There are a few more important relationships, but they’re all bad. I’ve always been bothered by the competition between Sansa and Arya and the way it seems to be based in Sansa’s femininity.  Daenerys and Mirri Maz Duur (whom I loved, if only because she maintained her own point of view and refused to comply with the Nice White Lady Rescues Everyone narrative).  Catelyn and Lysa? Um.  Meanwhile, the men love each other—we have Ned and Robert (with whom there are all sorts of obvious problems, but they do have a genuine close friendship), Samwell and Jon, Bran and Jojen Reed, who is a sort of spiritual guide to him, etc, etc.  Obviously there are enmities and rivalries too, but there’s much more scope in the book for men to have positive relationships.

The relationship between Catelyn and Brienne is the one that’s closest to mirroring some of the male relationships, but it’s also the most frustrating to me.  We initially saw Brienne only through Catelyn’s eyes, and Catelyn was all snotty and condescending about it.  So we get a lot of stuff about oh noes Brienne is so ugly (sure, why wouldn’t that be Brienne’s leading concern?) and also a lot of stuff about she must obviously be in love with Renly because seriously why else would she want to be a knight? Clearly there are no other possible reasons and that would definitely constitute sufficient motivation to train and train and become one of the best knights in the country and go so far as to fight in an actual freaking war and stuff. So I read all this stuff as revealing a lot more about Catelyn than about Brienne, and I don’t really buy either of these things (sure, Renly is important to her. He’s also important to the rest of his entire army, which seems to be based primarily on his charisma and good looks).  But that side of their relationship is based on Catelyn’s misguided attempt to identify with Brienne. The other side is Brienne’s loyalty to Catelyn, which I’m assuming is at least partly based on her inability to read Catelyn’s mind.  Other than that, it’s hard to say why she is so loyal. Perhaps it’s because she likes the idea of working for a woman—which makes Catelyn’s condescension another betrayal of sorts.  I don’t know. I really want Book Four to be about how everyone’s perceptions of Brienne are totally based on nothing but their own prejudices and she does what she does just because she’s good at it and she likes being able to do stuff and be in charge of her own life.  Oh, and also Sansa kicking Littlefinger’s ass.  Please let these two things be what Book Four is about, because there doesn’t seem to be much else of interest left here now that everyone is dead.

Oh, while I was thinking about this post, but before I could write it, these two posts happened: Sady Doyle’s (…but I only read the part about the first three books) and a response to it (and probably a lot of other posts, but I don’t want to read the entire internet).  They’re both worth a read, and there are things I agree with in both of them (and other things I don’t agree with), but this is a conversation that I’m not going to engage it at this time, except for three things I want to say.

1)      A lot depends on whether the rape scenes are being used for legitimate narrative reasons or just shock value. At this point… I have to admit I’m not sure.  Is that a cop out? Maybe.

2)      I’m not actually convinced that the Daenerys-as-savior thing is really meant to be taken at face value. It seems to me to be mostly doomed to failure precisely because Dany is fairly clueless about the respective cultures in which she moves (see: Mirri Maz Duur). But I agree they are excessively exoticized.

3)      Interestingly, Sady’s critique of sexist portrayals of female characters avoided the most obvious misogynistic characters in the series: Melisandre (so, this woman wields mysterious magic powers and secretly controls men from behind the throne with her religious beliefs and also gives birth to evil spells… yes, this is not new) and Lysa.  Instead, she focuses on what isn’t quite as obvious, and this is valuable.



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A Storm of Swords: Many Marriages

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

Once again: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.  It’s kind of impossible to talk about these books without giving away the plot.

Since I haven’t been reading the books back to back, I have a reasonable sense of the parameters of each of the ones I’ve read so far, and I remember where they begin and end. However, ASoS is the first one to have a recurrent motif of this sort; this is the one that is easy to describe: “Oh, it’s all about songs and weddings.”  Of course, it also follows in the tradition of having each book a little bloodier than the one before. (I’m not sure this series can have a happy ending; sometimes I wonder if by the end, all the human characters will be dead and the zombies will rule the land.)

So here are the weddings, in no particular order:

Tyrion & Sansa

Joffrey & Margaery

Robb & Jeyne Westerling

Edmure & Roslin (The Red Wedding)

KINDA Jon & Ygritte—they don’t get married, but they do receive some social recognition as a couple, and it is largely a way for Jon to be accepted by the wildlings, just as marriage is seen in the other cases.

You also have Tywin insisting that he’s gong to set Cersei up with someone (plus her reunion with Jaime, who is seen to be cleverly avoiding marriage through his membership in the Kingsguard) and Jorah putting the moves on Daenerys (UGH).

…And some of these weddings don’t even involve murder!

So, okay.  Let’s see.  Skipping out on a political marriage in favor of an emotional one, as Robb does, is clearly A Bad Thing.  This was really the pivotal event that led to his death and a lot of other things.  (It hasn’t yet been revealed, by the end of Book 3, whether Jeyne is pregnant or not.  If she’s less of a mouse than she appears, then this could be interesting…) On the other hand, there do seem to be more or less spectacular ways of successfully escaping a bad political marriage; Margaery’s wedding seems to have turned out well for her insofar as she doesn’t actually have to spend any time married to Joffrey, but this was accomplished through assassination.  I guess it’s good to have relatives who are willing to help out?

But the political marriages don’t do what they’re supposed to do, either.  The relationship between Jon and Ygritte is both political and emotional—and false.   There’s no real alliance there and he didn’t really switch sides, though for a while I wished he would, because, frankly, I wanted them to win. If the point of the book is that monarchy is stupid and primogeniture is a joke, then the wildlings are really the heroes—and I liked them very much, with their hero-bard and their spearwives and their general values of liberty and egalitarianism.

The better example of the pure political marriage is Tyrion’s and Sansa’s.  I have to admit, after I got over the initial shock (and once it became clear that Tyrion would not rape her), I had some hopes for that one.  Tyrion seemed likely to stand between Sansa and the abuse of his family, and Sansa seemed likely to lend him some social legitimacy.  Each of them had access to types of important information that were hidden from the other.  They’re both pretty clever (and yes, I do think Sansa is smart) and they both understand that they are in the midst of a very corrupt situation to which they are both outsiders, to one degree or another.  For them to function as allies, to plot together and make things a work a little better for themselves, could have been very powerful.  There is no sex involved, of course, but since they know that, they could both take lovers—hey, Tyrion already had one!—and focus on the important stuff.  But there wasn’t time for Sansa to adjust to this before Joffrey’s wedding and all its attendant chaos happened.  I was disappointed; I wanted to see them work together and scheme and end up running the whole place. And I do think that she’d begun to adjust to the realpolitik thing; her choice of Tyrion over Lancel shows that she had at least learned something.

I’ve always liked Tyrion, and when the wedding came up, I was afraid I wouldn’t like him anymore, so when he refused the bedding, and declined to press himself on Sansa afterward, I really wanted to cheer.  But then, it’s really depressing to want to cheer for that.  I mean, you know, “Go Tyrion! Way to not rape that thirteen year old girl!” Greeeat.

All the jokes about Tyrion’s sexuality and his reliance on women he pays are kind of sad.  He’s the only male character in the entire series who actually seems to understand the concept of sexual consent.  Jon comes close, and his belief that he has invented cunnilingus is amusing, but there are moments when it becomes clear that he believes that rape=sex outside of marriage.  Sigh. So while Shae’s effusions about Tyrion’s sexual prowess should be taken with a grain of salt, I suspect that they’re not totally groundless.  He’s dismissed as ugly, but he’s undoubtedly a better husband or lover than most of the characters in the book.

(A sidenote on Shae: I haven’t liked her since she was all snotty about Lollys, and her betrayal didn’t surprise me at all.  It’s possible, I suppose, that a person who demonstrates sneering contempt for the victim of a horrific gang rape and mocks her mental disability could also be a person who cares about Tyrion for himself and remains loyal to him once his social status has been stripped away—but it didn’t strike me as likely. I am nevertheless disturbed and upset that he killed her. And didn’t he know?)

Oh, and the Red Wedding.  It all comes down to Lannisters, doesn’t it? Maybe as long as they are not involved, things at least have the theoretical potential turn out okay.  Wasn’t  it Tywin’s idea that Arya is now supposed to marry the Bastard of Bolton? Shudder.

In any case.  I’m starting to think that Daenerys has the right idea here—consolidating her power by refusing to remarry and punishing anyone who suggests otherwise.

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A Storm of Swords: Narration and Clout

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

I’ve read the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire now and will read the fourth in January.  Spoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).

I hesitated for a long time before starting this series, even though it had been highly recommended to me, and even though I love high fantasy in general, and even though it was sitting on a shelf in my house.  There were opportunity cost issues, and the fact that it’s an unfinished series, and the overblown rhetoric of the recommendations.

These weren’t the most important things, though. Fans of the books always talk about the author’s willingness to kill off anyone and everyone, which, you know, is important when the story demands it, but shouldn’t be done for its own sake, and it isn’t exactly a draw to the book. After all, I don’t think most of us sit down and say, “You know, I’d really like to read a book where everyone dies!” At least, I haven’t so far.  I’d also heard it was based on the Wars of the Roses (and I have nothing against historical fantasy, but let’s look at this in context) and the cover art (different from what is pictured here) seemed to feature a lot of stern, pensive white men with swords in vaguely historic settings.  I have no problems with any of these things per se—my love of eurogames should acquit me of a prejudice against pictures of stern white men in vague historical settings—but when you put them together, it creates a certain idea of what the books are like.  I feared it would be an endless parade of badass warlords beating each other up on the field of battle and then going home and bragging about it and plotting their next move, and occasionally getting killed. What I imagined was basically similar to Hal’s description of Hotspur in Henry IV:

I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou kill’d to-day?’  ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he, and answers ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after, ‘a trifle, a trifle.’

(Henry IV, Act 2, Scene 4)

I mean, let’s face it, those guys are boring.  (Well, Hotspur is pretty fun, but imagine if there were four or five of him running around?) There’s a reason Lord of the Rings was about Frodo and not Aragorn.

So, I was pretty happy to find out that the books are mostly narrated by people like Tyrion and Arya and Davos, and I suspect this is at least part of the reason that Eddard died in the first book.  So I wasn’t all that excited to see Jaime become a narrator in this book.  I’m still not that excited about it; the best thing about Jaime is that you get to spend some time with Brienne, who I am hoping will be a narrator in Book 4.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he becomes a narrator just in time to lose his hand.

As far as I can tell, Martin chooses narrators based on a few criteria. Some of them are technical.  There are often parts of the world we need to keep track of, and there needs to be a narrator there.  A Clash of Kings let Theon narrate so that we could get a first-hand look at what was going on in the Iron Isles, and, more importantly, what happened in Winterfell  after Bran left.  Davos was brought in, not only for his personal charms, but also in order to expose us to Stannis, who would make little sense otherwise (okay, true, Stannis continues to be fairly incomprehensible.  But at least we know exactly what it is we don’t understand.)

But the narrators also seem to be people who are not in control of what is going on.  Tyrion gets the upper hand at times, but it’s always a struggle, and by the end of the book he’s been imprisoned and sentenced to death.  As for the rest… Arya temporarily becomes the leader of her little group, between stints as a prisoner, but they are travelers who are desperately trying to dodge the larger forces around them.  Sansa, too, is a prisoner.  Davos is a minor lord in service of a king who is doing things that make no sense to him (though at least he lets him out of prison).  Jaime, after spending some time as a prisoner and being tortured and so on, does indeed reclaim his place as the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but he’s a rather impotent one.  Bran’s primary goal is to control his own abilities; in the meantime, having escaped from his ancestral home, he listens to his cousins. Jon’s star is rising, but first he has to spend time going along with the wildlings under close surveillance and then being imprisoned by the Night’s Watch.  Catelyn is perhaps the most active of those that I’ve listed; she occasionally attempts to take control, but it always ends disastrously.  Of course, she is also imprisoned at Riverrun for sending Jaime off with Brienne.  I’m not sure what all this means, aside from indicating that George R. R. Martin really likes the view from prison.

And Daenerys.  She seems to be the exception.  There’s a lot of focus on the things she cannot fix, but she is, by the third book, very clearly the leader of her group and she has a lot of power (and, while she’s sort of non-free in A Game of Thrones, she isn’t imprisoned in this book at least).  The list above makes me wonder why she is the narrator, and not, say, Jorah (though at this point I dislike Jorah so much that I’m certainly not complaining) or possibly one of her maids.  But I’m glad she is; nobody else really understands where she is coming from, and it’s really important to understand her motivations.  She is perhaps the most earnestly well-meaning person in the entire series.  She’s invading and she wants to become queen, but her distance from the action in Westeros allows her a certain idealism wherein she can think about the kind of country she’d like to inhabit and govern.  She doesn’t just want power; she wants peace and prosperity and to end rape and slavery. (Compare to Stannis, who throws out a lot of rhetoric to absolve himself of responsibility but never seems to worry about the well-being of people who aren’t named Stannis Baratheon.)  Of course, we can spend a few seconds looking at her invading force and feel grave misgivings about the relationship between her goals and her methods. It’s extremely unlikely that things will turn out the way she wants them to, even if she wins, and by the end of ASoS she’s noticed that all her good intentions seem to go terribly wrong somewhere.  Still, she’s very different from the rest of the narrators.

This is rather far afield from the observation I wanted to make, though, which had to do with the vulnerability of the narrative characters, which functions to increase the reader’s sympathy with them but also to make the world seem bigger—it’s by far a larger and more unmanageable landscape to Arya than it is to, say, Tywin (who would certainly have been a narrator if it had been based on political importance, and who would very likely have bored all the readers to tears).

Either that, or it’s all just a reference to “Hotel California.”  We are all prisoners here, of our own device. (Sometimes that’s a fish, sometimes it’s a black field, sometimes it’s…)

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