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Re-reading from the first novel

Thomas Foster

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It’s hard to take orders from a man you’ve laughed at in your cups.

It took me a few reads to realise that Ser Waymer Royce is basically right about most of the key points. There are indeed things to be learnt from the dead (though the misogynistic way he expresses this point naturally doesn’t endear him to us). He’s right about the wall weeping (though this gives rise to the first continuity error in this epic series). He gets Will to review the facts before deciding what to do (obviously this is a literary technique, Martin starts us in media reswith the argument, then uses this to bring us up to speed in of the situation, but still . . .). He’s right about no fire.

In short, Royce’s attitude may be bad, but his decision making is mostly sound, albeit he ultimately falls to an ‘outside context problem’.

As we see at the end, his courage is sound too, but the standards of this setting.

We are introduced to the wall, the Night’s Watch, the Others, the Wildlings, feudal lords (in particular, the Royces and the Mallisters), the old bear Mormont, Maester’s (though not what they are) and Aemon in particular.

The description of the Other who first challenges Royce is particularly poetic: 
 Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.

Martin, George R.R.. GAME OF THRONES (A Song of Ice and Fire) (p. 36). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

However it doesn’t actually say very much in detail. The graphic novel comes up with one depiction. The show came up with something very different. Plenty of other visuals are possible based on that description.

Speaking of the graphic novel, in the back of the first volume there’s a lot of good ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. One line in particular, an instruction from Martin to the artist, reads ‘think, oh . . .the Sidhe made of ice’. On the ‘Westeros’ chat forum a group of fans took this very much to heart, and began a thread – that six or seven years ago when I stopped following had run to dozens of threads – based on the assumption that that wasn’t an off-hand comment or purely cosmetic comparison by Martin, but rather a deep insight into his plans for the Others. The thread  (I think called Heresy) considers the implications of this for the wider ASoIaF story, at least as far as it covers The North. It’s probably the longest erudite discussion based on (almost) nothing I’ve ever read since a discussion of whether balrogs have wings that I found on the old TOR.net site. It might still be going – I’ll check it out.

Having revisited the first five chapters so far, I’m very struck by how much Martin uses contrast to build his world. Here we have the contrast between the smallfolk Will and Gared (though we don’t encounter that term for a few more chapters, until we’re in Pentos) and the aristocratic Ser Waymar Royce. It would be facile to deliberately structure that conflict around the aristocrat being right based on the evidence to hand, but the smallfolk having better instincts, so I hope it’s only coincidence that Martin does so.

This conflict begins with the first two paras and continues to define the chapter. It’s a simple, but rich way of keeping us engaged and providing us not just with drama driving conflict but also with comments that illuminate Martin’s world. It’s a frequent contention of mine that while Martin deserves much praise for the scope and scale of his work, for the creativity and moral and emotional resonance it has, the essential skill that underlies all of that is first rate craftsmanship. He gets the basics right, time and again. His use of this one conflict – the ambitious, analytical upperclass Royce versus the risk-averse, intuitive, smallfolk Will and Gared serves all the way through the prologue as a source of both light and heat. The fact that he disguises Royce’s general astuteness behind his poor leadership and appalling attitude just adds to my admiration.

In Will’s eyes, Royce becomes a man of the Night’s Watch when he faces the Other with sword drawn, but looks like a boy when he’s dead, having been thoroughly outclassed by the Other. This lays down early Martin’s theme that a lot of the so-called ‘manly’ activities of the cultures we find in Westeros are actually futile and childish. In the moment of conflict Royce might look like a man, but bereft of that context, left alone in death with the consequences of his brief manhood, he is just a boy.

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Here’s Martin literally and literarily creating foreshadow.

“A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce.”

GRRM literally puts a shadow in the foreground of Royce. And literarily he’s creating FORESHADOWING! Then we see that each movement  from each combatant foreshadows the move of the Other combatant. They are both doing the exact same moves. Though Martin disguises this well. Truth, Waymar is mirroring himself. He’s starring into a black mirror made of obsidian, soot, and ice (Great Rock). He’s scrying or using divination to discover hidden knowledge or future events, especially by means of a black mirror.

Waymar is literally fighting his own shadow and it’s white because it’s a black mirror. It’s why Will saw “a couple” sitting up against the rock. There’s a reflection.

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