Each week we will be bringing you an essay from author Pearson Moore that explores the major themes from that week’s episode of Game of Thrones. This week Pearson’s essay, entitled “Dark and Full of Terrors”, examines the characters and situations from the season two premiere, “The North Remembers.” Read on and then let us know your thoughts and reactions in the comments.
Dark and Full of Terrors: Game of Thrones 2.01
by Pearson Moore
She is known as the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, First Advisor to His Grace, King Stannis Baratheon. “The night is dark and full of terrors,” she says, leading her minions in the chant favoured of her god. We do well to fear the night, its terrors, its craven desires, its thirst for the blood of innocents. “The night is dark and full of terrors, but the fire burns them all away.” Perhaps we would do well to fear the fire, too, the priestess who wields it, and the multitudes willing to see its flames consume the Seven Kingdoms.
Last season we came to know a woman immune to fire. This season we see a woman immune to poison, and a queen immune to reason. Which of these should we fear?
So Many Adventures
“It’s been a remarkable journey. I pissed off the edge of the Wall, I slept in a sky cell, I fought with the hill tribes. So many adventures. So much to be thankful for.”
These are not the words of a smug world traveller or a seasoned veteran of battle. His battle dress does not shine. His fingers carry far fewer jewels than they bore prior to his “adventures”. But he does not appear before the boy king in haste or neglectful of his less than noble appearance. Both the armour and the grit and dirt encasing it are necessary elements of the message he carries—a message intended for both the teenage king and his power-crazed mother.
Tyrion: We looked for you on the battlefield … and you were nowhere to be found.
Joffrey: I … I’ve been here, ruling the Kingdoms.
Tyrion: And what a fine job you’ve done.
Tyrion does not mean to impugn Joffrey’s bravery or interest in battles and war. He has an entirely different agenda.
Tyrion: Enjoy your name day, Your Grace. Wish I could stay and celebrate, but there is work to be done.
Joffrey: What work?
What work could there possibly be? A king does not work. A king celebrates his name day with great jousts and feasts, kills knights for sport. Work implies an effort expended for the benefit of others. But a king does not serve others, does not assist or seek their counsel or ask their permission. “A king does not ask. He commands.”
Tyrion: You brought this on yourself.
Cersei: I’ve done nothing.
Tyrion: Quite right. You did nothing—when your son called for Ned Stark’s head.
Not only has Cersei’s complacency precipitated a war that may cost the Lannisters the Iron Throne, she has allowed one of the two remaining Stark children, Arya, to disappear. Sansa, as valuable as she may be to her mother, Catelyn Tully Stark, will not deter her brother, the King in the North, from littering the South with Lannister corpses.
Tyrion is not dressed for battle. He is dressed for hard physical and mental work. His words, his demeanour, and the very clothes he wears all say the same thing: Leadership requires hard work at all times, in all places. Celebration of a name day might provide great amusement, but a ruler cannot afford to indulge pleasures or succumb to the seductions of power, “especially now, with so much excitement in the world.” If House Lannister falls, it will be because neither Cersei nor Joffrey could abide the thought of donning apron or armour to serve anything beyond their immediate whims.
Something else was lacking in Tyrion’s sister and nephew. When Tyrion expressed to Sansa his sorrow over her father’s death, Joffrey confronted him.
Joffrey: Her father was a confessed traitor.
Tyrion: But still her father. Surely having so recently lost your own beloved father you can sympathise.
To decide the question, Joffrey turned to Sansa, who by now had been receiving daily beatings as payment for the slightest display of independent will. “My father was a traitor,” she said. “My mother and brother are traitors, too.”
Here, then, was Joffrey’s answer to Tyrion’s appeal: There is no sympathy, no compassion, nothing in Joffrey’s soul to connect him to any other human being. If he cannot show the smallest kindness to the woman he claims as his “lady” there can be no question that his is a spirit devoid of even the most inconsequential element of humanity. Only unquestioning devotion to Joffrey’s caprice would be tolerated in the realm.
We cannot know Tyrion’s feelings after his meeting with the boy king. My sense is that he exuded neither anger nor contempt, but something closer to sorrow.
“A king does not ask. He commands.” Or so Joffrey wishes to believe.
Bran Stark, Lord of Winterfell, listened. He was attentive, correcting the appellant lord only when he referred to Lord Bran’s older brother without title. “King Robb,” Bran said. He was no longer simply Robb Stark, but His Grace, Robb Stark, King in the North.
Bran Stark listened. We might consider that such attentiveness is unusual in a boy of ten years. His ability to concentrate on the appellants’ words was made all the more challenging by the nature of their requests. The first lord was asking Lord Bran to repair his house. A degree in medieval studies is not required to know that lords do not go about repairing knights’ and squires’ walls and roofs. The lord provides land; it is up to the knight or landholder to maintain and improve that land. When my great great great great grandfather appealed to King George for land in New Brunswick, he did not ask the King to come and repair his roof. Rather, he promised the King that he would improve the land and construct buildings. This is a normal expectation of landowners in a feudal system, and even Bran knew it.
Bran listened. When Maester Luwin told the lord that Winterfell would provide four masons for a week, Bran did not object, but he did raise questioning eyes to the Maester.
“Listening to people you’d rather not listen to is one of your responsibilities as Lord of Winterfell.”
We might well imagine that if Bran sat the Iron Throne, Maester Luwin’s counsel would not change in the slightest: Listening to people you’d rather not listen to is one of the responsibilities of a king. Any maester rendering such advice to King Joffrey would be in immediate fear for his life.
The advice is not at all foreign to Bran. He does not engage childish desires. He does not impose on others any whim intended to cause pain or discomfort. In fact, he does not even dream. He listens. He sees. He runs with wolves. He experiences life at a depth of engagement that eludes the rest of us.
Bran is responsible. He is a considerate servant of those who seek his assistance. This is the legacy of Eddard Stark, and an enduring proof of the wisdom that claims a good person cannot suffer annihilation. Goodness and mercy cannot be killed, but will follow us, all the days of our life.
Bran listens. He sees. He runs with wolves. We consider these to be distinct activities, but for Bran, they are inseparable. He sees because he runs. His wolf legs propel him because he has eyes to see (for a complete explanation of this, please see “Bran Stark: The Third Eye” in Game of Thrones Season One Essays).
Integrating the priceless knowledge Bran obtains during his romps in the godswood with the information he obtains from Maester Luwin and Osha is something that as yet eludes his ten-year-old mind. The wolf in him knows the red comet is not meant for him, or Robb, or anyone in Winterfell. It heralds a phenomenon troubling to the wolf, and should therefore be troubling to Bran.
“That comet means one thing, boy: Dragons.”
Even if Osha’s words do not make sense to Bran, he would do well to heed her warning. At the very least, his unusual ability to run as fast as a wolf, to see things as they are and not as others would believe them or like them to be, means that he is acquainted with the notion of objective truth. He knows the stories of Old Nan contain greater truth than anything he or anyone else can experience with eyes, ears, or hands. He should be willing, then, to listen and hear and absorb into his being the full significance of Osha’s words.
“The dragons are all dead. They’ve been dead for centuries.”
Looking at his reflection in the godswood pool, thinking on the very different reflection he saw only hours earlier, Bran chose to dismiss Osha’s words. He committed a dangerous error. It seems quite likely he will end up having to pay for his choice of ignorance, at a time and under circumstances chosen by his enemies to most fully exploit his penchant to dismiss incongruent thoughts. We can only hope Bran will come to place greater value on information brought to him when his legs are not working, and that this will happen sooner rather than later. Bran needs to understand that he can see and run even when his legs dangle uselessly below him.
Assertion of Identity
In the movie Gladiator (Dreamworks/Universal Pictures, 2000), Proximo wished to make a bold statement for the second appearance of the “Spaniard” (former general Maximus Decimus Meridius) in the gladiatorial arena of Zucchabar. He chose to give Maximus a sword and a very small shoulder guard, called a pauldron, but provided no other armour. Virtually defenceless, the image Proximo wished Maximus to project was that of the completely confident attacker who would fend off all challengers. The idea contained in the image is that this gladiator is so powerful, so confident in himself, and so assured of his own victory, that he cannot but win, even when every aspect of the spectacle has been engineered so as to virtually assure his defeat.
To appear in the gladiatorial arena wearing only a pauldron is the strongest possible statement of tactical prowess and supremacy in battle. It is the confident assertion of the fearless warrior.
Khaleesi Daenerys could have chosen any material as a shoulder perch for her dragons. She might have had her handmaids sew ornamental towels or mats, perhaps with cute little embroidered flowers or rainbows and unicorns. Instead she chose a bare leather pauldron.
The unadorned leather did not match her hair or her eyes or her desert attire. She would win no fashion awards for her choice. But the raw strength of boiled leather communicated a message entirely in concert with her identity:
“I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen. I am the blood of the dragon.”
Fearless warrior, able to defeat all challengers. It is the boldest of all possible assertions made in the gladiatorial arena. How can an ordinary man, carrying a sword and protected by a few square centimetres of leather, take on a dozen or more determined challengers? How can an ordinary woman, carrying three feeble dragons and protected by a few dozen men, ever hope to take on an entire continent? In this game of thrones, though, I believe the smartest money is on the beautiful silken-haired woman seeking a way in the Red Waste.
“You are my last hope, blood of my blood,” she said to Rakaro. He will not fail. Not because she has placed her last and greatest hope in him, but because he is blood of her blood, and she is the blood of the dragon. She is the one feared by Osha, by House Baratheon, by the very wolves of Westeros. The essence of her is written in the sky and in the stars.
The North Remembers
The North Remembers. It’s a simple saying. In the context of Ned Stark’s death, we believe we understand the meaning of the three words. King Robb will extract revenge for his father’s death. In fact, he has been doing just this in the last three battles, the reality of Ned Stark’s brutal execution serving as potent instigator of King Robb’s martial excellence.
Robb Stark and his brother, Jon Snow, were nothing if not northerners. We understand Jon Snow’s indignation, then, when the incestuous old man, Craster, called the men of the Night’s Watch “southerners”.
“We’re not southerners,” Jon Snow said, barely able to contain his irritation with the man who had sexual relations with his own daughters.
Commander Mormont had no patience for Jon’s petty assertions of northern pride. By challenging Craster, Jon had jeopardised the entire mission. Worse, he was spending inordinate time and energy eyeing Craster’s sexual playthings. Mormont put Jon in his place as soon as the meeting with Craster ended. The intention was to force Jon to realise that his pride was inconsistent with service in the Night’s Watch, and to communicate to him the extreme danger his pride posed to every one of his brothers. But the message we take from this unpleasant confrontation is much richer.
Winterfell is not the north. Even the Wall marks the southernmost limit of the north. The north is the home of Craster’s daughters and Mance Rayder’s wildlings. It is the abode of direwolves and wights and White Walkers.
The North Remembers. If the North remembers, the red streak across the sky carries greater significance north of the Wall than anywhere else. The North remembers because the primal forces of nature do not forget, and the red comet is a call to arms. Direwolves cross the Wall. Wildlings are active. Wights and White Walkers rise from their frozen lairs and walk again the paths of women and men.
The fact that this game of thrones is played at two levels has been reinforced in our minds from the very first episode. We began our own game of thrones north of the Wall, witnessing with our own eyes the wights and White Walkers that the most learned man in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, would later consign to the robust imaginations of wet nurses and nannies. “You’re a smart boy,” Tyrion told Jon Snow. “You don’t believe in that nonsense.”
The more dangerous part of the game of thrones is played not between armies of men, but between armies of direwolves and dragons. The name George Martin applied to this story was not “The War for the Iron Throne” but rather “A Song of Ice and Fire”. The most important players are the ones who recognise the melody of this song, who hear harmonies in the beating of wings and the howling of wolves.
The North Remembers. Indeed. Direwolves see deep in the forest, their eyes perceive things invisible to the most perceptive of human beings. Dragons fly higher than the strongest bird, their eyes perceive things invisible in the forest. Direwolves and dragons remember. It is the humans who forget, who begin to think the primal realities of the world are the fairy tales of nannies and wet nurses. But the north remembers.
“In the ancient books it’s written that a warrior will draw a burning sword from the fire.”
It wasn’t much of a sword, and the flame was sustained not more than a few seconds. I found myself wondering if King Stannis plunged the sword into the sand because the carefully choreographed ritual demanded the action, or because Stannis’ hand was burning despite the thick leather glove.
Melisandre, the Red Priestess, is one of the most compelling characters in the corpus of A Song of Ice and Fire. We have witnessed already some of the more troubling aspects of her character. She is apparently unaffected by poison, and Maester Cressen’s sudden and fatal hemorrhaging after imbibing just a sip of the poisoned wine hints at other powers she may possess. If the television series continues to hew close to the novels we can expect some interesting developments centred on Melisandre in the next few episodes. She is far too important a character to sum up in a few sentences. I plan on devoting an entire essay to this fascinating visitor from across the sea, most likely in the first of the Season Two editions of Direwolves and Dragons, tentatively scheduled for publication in early May of 2012.
Stannis is all about justice. He considered Joffrey “and the rest of them” to be usurpers of his proper authority—in Stannis’ eyes, Joffrey is a thief. “I’ve always served thieves according to their desserts, as you well know, Ser Davos.” I hope we are given more detail about this inscrutable statement; in A Clash of Kings the expansion of this idea provides excellent insight into the relationship between Stannis and Davos. Ser Davos is one of the main characters in the second novel, and he narrates several of the chapters. I will write more about Davos, Stannis, and Melisandre in future essays. For now, I think it is safe to say I believe Melisandre’s proclamation that King Stannis Baratheon is the long-promised Azor Ahai is probably more a political assertion than a religious prophesy.
I enjoyed seeing Littlefinger quickly cut down to size by Cersei. He has been far too smug in his pithy exclamations of the virtues of knowledge. Knowledge is power, but only if used wisely. Those who exploit knowledge willy-nilly, without regard to the impact that knowledge may have, are more often considered fools than maesters. Littlefinger’s revelry in the public release of the Queen’s secret represented anything but wise judgment. I am open, though, to the possibility that Littlefinger’s outburst was more carefully placed than the situation seemed to indicate. Perhaps he had already made the calculation that the Queen needed his help in finding Arya.
Cersei’s response, that “power is power”, may have had relevance to Lord Baelish, especially when cold, sharp steel pressed against his throat, but it was a meaningless statement. If her younger brother had been in the vicinity, he probably would have expected words along these lines, though. Cersei was training all her energy on maintaining power, but she seemed to exhibit no understanding of the qualities that allowed the propagation of unquestioned authority over others. What were the social or political forces compelling her guards to obey her commands? Power has structure, requires firm foundations, and demands careful manoeuvring of resources, agents, and commitments. Cersei seems almost oblivious to all of this. It will be interesting to see how her younger brother deals with the intricacies of knowledge and power brokering in the Red Keep.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18)
The Slaughter of the Innocents, the penultimate scene in tonight’s episode, was powerfully done, and stronger than anything portrayed in the novels. The placement of the scene at the end of the episode begs for response, and I have no doubt that this will be provided in later episodes.
The Roman Empire could not long survive an officially sanctioned level of barbarity that provided for the slaughter of entire populations of children. The implication is that Westeros will not much longer tolerate the tyranny of King Joffrey. I have not yet seen the second or third episode, but having read the novels, I expect this scene will feed into and elevate an important development that will have bearing on several of the characters, but especially on Arya. I have rarely been this excited about an upcoming television episode, but I can say I await Episode Two with impatience and hearty anticipation.