For those who found Meribald's commentary on broken men to be an irritating authorial intrusion, I think you are missing what a Feast for Crows is all about. This speech is the heart of the book. This is where war excitement - Renly's "Knights of Summer" - ultimately leads. Slaughter in battle, famine, and men losing their souls. The title "A Feast for Crows" tells us that this book is in many ways a rumination on the costs of war.
Like some other readers, I was impatient on my first reading, feeling like the plot had slowed down and that I wished I could know what was happening in the north. But to read this book just for the plot (and the plot is great, as always) is to miss Martin taking the depth of his work to a new level. It forces one to view characters not just from whether we like their personality or whether or not they are personally honorable, but through the lens of the consequences of their actions on other people, unnoticed people as well as the famous.
Viewed through this lens, Varys can be viewed as the heroic ideal of ASOIAF. The Whisperer does not appear in Feast, but his ethos is fully echoed in Meribald's speech. Varys has no personal ambition; he has no lusts; he cares not whether he is liked or hated. Like Meribald, he has learned to shed his ego for a larger purpose. He is viewed with contempt and mistrust by those he serves. Once he is asked what his goals are, and he answers with a single word: peace. He strives to prevent what has happened in Feast, and his failure does not make him less heroic. He tries and fails to save Ned Stark's life, not for one man, but because he knows Ned's death means war and death across Westeros. Unlike Littlefinger who schemes for power, Varys schemes for peace. He is common born, mistreated, castrated, and he is one of the few in a position of power in ASOIAF who thinks of the impact "The Game of Thrones" has on the common man.
Coming back to Meribald's speech, it's worth noting where it occurs in both place and time. It comes halfway through the fourth book of a seven book series; it is halfway through Feast, and halfway through the whole series. It is a moment of calm. It comes after Brienne's fight with Shagwell and friends, Tarly's hanging of outlaws, and before Saltpans, the row of hanged outlaws, and Brienne's terrible encounter with Rorge and Biter. It comes as they walk through a peaceful, open land of water and marshes and simple folk, less than a day from the horrors of war. It is a call to peace and calm amidst the ravages of war. And it gives Brienne's quest a deeper meaning. Her quest to find Sansa or Arya and fulfill her promise to Catelyn can also now be seen as a quest to defend those unable to defend themselves, to be the 'true knight' that men will never see her as because of her sex. Brienne's quest is a quest of the mundane - it could occur in a world without magic or the fantastic.
The mirror is the quest of Bran, which one could call the larger, mystical quest taking place in Westeros. Along with Varys and Brienne, I view the Reed family as among the most selfless and honorable characters in the whole series. Howland risks his only children to aid Bran based merely on his son's dreams. Jojen, ridiculed by some readers and hated sometimes by Bran for his intransigence, is in fact a savior to Bran. Meera too - with her skills, she is a physical savior, while Jojen is a savior through his wisdom. Little Grandfather makes the hard decisions that keeps Bran on his quest which can save Westeros through mystical means, while Brienne seeks to save just two girls through mundane means.
I simplify of course, as there are countless other questers in the series. But I don't think it's too much at all to say this speech is the Heart and Soul of Feast; the reminder of the consequences of violence. If you doubt that this is what this is about, look at the character that one could say begins and ends this book: Catelyn. Her unexpected arrival in the epilogue of Storm shows her as something no longer fully human: she has become vengeance personified, like the Greek furies. In the epilogue and through much of Feast we are happy thinking of her - we take a grim delight in her hanging Freys and other scum wherever she finds them. But at the end, in hanging Pod and Brienne she seems cruelly unfair, whether or not they survive. Brienne has given so much to fulfill her word to Catelyn, and to be treated so seems unjust in the extreme. But Catelyn is neither fair nor unfair, she is simply vengeance - a demander of blood for what has been done to her and her own. We like it when the Freys bleed, Brienne not at all.
Thoros' speech near the end of Feast where he acknowledges how war has warped their band of 'honorable' bandits is a perfect echo of Meribald's speech. The best intentions of Dondarrion, who gave everything to uphold the rule of Robert, has ended through the process of war in a band of cutthroats who are almost as bad as those they hunt. Here, as in King's Landing with the new High Septon, the smallfolk are having their revenge, but with Martin, all violence brings an enormous price.
And with these ruminations ended, I, like so many others, can't wait for Dance and am thrilled beyond measure to read that GRR finished another chapter today. For Feast is the pause and the reflection at the center of the series, and with Dance comes the plot roaring onwards downhill with full force, I suspect.
Edited by maxlongstreet, 05 January 2010 - 08:21 PM.