Monday, June 27, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.6: A Golden Crown

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

Episode 1.6 “A Golden Crown”
Written by Jane Espenson, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Commentary by Daniel Minahan, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), and Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen)

“There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today.” –Syrio Forel

The god of Death haunts every aspect of this episode, and he’s not the fun, speaking-in-all-caps Death as found in Terry Pratchett. This episode has the most deaths in a single episode to-date, and even when characters aren’t actively dying, they’re taking actions that put themselves squarely in Death’s path.

Ned makes several moves that put him in checkmate to Death, and one of the biggest moves occurs in this episode. He starts out the episode looking like death warmed over, as he’s suffering from that injury to the leg one of the Lannisters favored him with last episode (it doesn’t hurt that Sean Bean was in the throes of the flu when he shot this scene). He sort-of accepts (in that he doesn’t refuse) Robert re-naming him Hand of the King and demanding he run the kingdom while Robert goes hunting—“killing things clears my head”—and takes Robert’s place on the Iron Throne. Between his leg hurting him, Petyr twitting him about the rising feud between Tully, Lannister, and Stark, and his own sense of honor and justice, Ned makes a crucial misstep: he orders Gregor Clegane stripped of his titles and put to death, then issues an order for Tywin Lannister to appear before the court or be named an enemy of the realm. This is after Robert has ordered him to make peace with the Lannisters so he can keep peace in the realm. So not only is Ned being politically stupid, he’s also defying the order of his king. One way or another, this is obviously going to end badly for Ned. (As Emilia Clarke says in the commentary, “That’s why I love this story, because it’s not like, ‘yay, hero’; you’re kind of at the same time going ‘you idiot.’ [. . .] But at the same time you’re like, ‘yeah, you just signed your life away.’”)

In Ned’s final scene in this episode, the penny finally drops and he realizes what Jon Arryn died for: Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella are not Robert’s true-born children. Whether he’s figured out that Jaime is their father isn’t yet clear, but the fact that Cersei has clearly committed adultery at least three times and put forward children who are not legally Robert’s as his heirs is a serious act of treason. And we’ve already seen what Ned does to people who don’t follow the laws. There’s no reason to expect that Ned will be able to be circumspect about this information or use it to his advantage; Ned is a blunt instrument, not a politician.

Meanwhile, Robert is also taking the final steps that will lead to his death: hunting, drunk and angry, in the Kingswood. There’s an interesting exchange between Robert and Renly about idealizing the past; Robert goes on about the “good old days,” and Renly asked when those were—“Which days, exactly? The ones where half of Westeros fought the other half and millions died? Or the ones before that, when the Mad King slaughtered women and babies because the voices in his head told him they deserved it? Or way before that, when dragons burned whole cities to the ground?” Robert does what he usually does when someone talks back to him: he reminds Renly that he’s king so Renly had better shut his fool mouth. Robert, also, is a blunt instrument, just of a different sort than Ned.

Meanwhile, in Winterfell, Bran’s feeling more alive than he has in months because his new saddle is ready, and he gets to go riding. While he’s galloping in circles and whooping, Robb is laying the foundations for Theon’s resentment that will ultimately lead to a whole lot of horrible stuff over the next several seasons. Robb reminds Theon that he’s not part of House Stark, then yells at him for shooting a Wildling because he could have endangered Bran. Even when Robb’s face seems to indicate that he knows he was wrong to say these things—Theon did save Bran’s life, after all, and the show has already established that he’s a deadeye marksman with a bow—he doesn’t apologize. He’s a lot like his father that way. This dance with Death is a much slower burn than Ned and Robert’s, but the steps are being taken and will culminate in far more deaths than just Robb’s.

Speaking of burn, there’s one character whose dance with Death isn’t slow at all. Viserys has been dashing headlong toward his own death since he left Pentos, and everything finally culminates in this episode. His entitlement leads him to try to steal Dany’s dragon eggs, an attempt that Jorah thwarts. (Interestingly enough, Jorah’s statement to Viserys—“Here I stand”—echoes the words of House Mormont, “Here We Stand.” There’s no indication in the script or commentary whether this homage was purposeful.) Drunk off his gourd and frustrated beyond belief that a) Drogo still hasn’t given him his army; and b) Dany has the love and respect not only of Drogo, but the entire khalasar, Viserys makes his fatal misstep: he threatens the life of Dany and her unborn baby. Up until this point, Dany has been protecting Viserys and trying to help him integrate into the Dothraki, but when the sword tip meets her belly, what family loyalty Dany still had for Viserys is gone. Without Dany standing between Viserys and the consequences of his actions, Drogo melts his belt of gold medallions and pours the molten gold over Viserys’ head, “a golden crown that men will tremble to behold.”

One character in this episode successfully says “not today” to Death: Tyrion Lannister manages to talk his way out of dying in a sky cell in the Vale or being thrown out the Moon Door. He uses his usual weapons—gold and his brain—to gain an audience with Lysa, then demand a trial, then demands a trial by combat when it’s clear that he’s not going to get a fair regular trial (all Robin wants to do is see him “fly” by throwing him out the Moon Door, guilt or innocence be damned). His plan nearly derails when Lysa rejects his demand for Jaime to stand as his champion, but Bronn, who’s been the only one laughing at Tyrion’s “confession” this whole time, steps forward to stand for him. The fight between Ser Vardis and Bronn is pretty evenly matched, but Bronn wins mostly because he’s willing to fight dirty. Lysa yells at him that he doesn’t fight with honor, and Bronn readily admits it, with no apologies. Instead, he points out the Moon Door, where he’s just dumped Ser Vardis’ body, and says, “he did.” The implication is clear: mere honor won’t protect one’s life. It’s a lesson Ned could stand to learn before his own head comes off.

Robin, clearly not understanding the outcome of the trial by combat, asks if he can “make the little man fly now,” and Tyrion responds, “Not this little man. This little man is going home.” Not today, Death.

(Quick side-note: the top writing credit on this episode is Jane Espenson, who did some of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is the first female writer credited on this show. Obviously we don't know how much of this is hers and how much is Benioff or Weiss', but the "not today" line feels very much like an Espenson line.)

RIP: unnamed wildling, Stiv, Wallen, Ser Vardis of the Vale, Viserys Targaryen

Next week: Drogo is pissed. Robert is dying. Jon is a Man of the Night’s Watch.

All images from

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thoughts about Rich Burlew's "The New World" Articles

Like many others, I found my way into studying the medieval through exposure to the medievalist. I read Tolkien early on, as well as other fantasy authors, and I played such role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons. I still read Tolkien and other fantasy authors, and I still--when time and resources permit, so not for longer than I would prefer at this point--play role-playing games. From time to time, I even attempt to make intelligent comments about them, and, on occasion, I am successful in such attempts. To make them, though, I have to continue my readings, and in doing those readings at one point some time ago, I came across Rich Burlew's "The New World" articles on Giant in the Playground. (It is a fine site, notable mostly for hosting the Order of the Stick webcomic--which is well worth reading.) Those articles--"Part 1: Purpose and Style," "Part 2: Class Decisions," "Part 3: Race Decisions," Part 4: "The Right Tool for the Right Job," "Part 5a: Politics," "Part 5b: Politics (Continued)," "Part 6: Geography," "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations," "Part 8: Names and Cultures of the Gnomes," and "Part 9: Names and Cultures of the Barbarians"--begin to sketch out what promises to be an interesting gaming milieu and lay out, at least in part, a world-building process that might be used to great effect not only by others setting up role-playing games, but by any who want to work on extended storytelling in a fictional or fictionalized world. The series has not been completed--and likely will not be, given how long it has remained in stasis--and it does present some problems in its approach to and treatment of medievalist materials; because role-playing games have served and continue to serve as introductions to the medieval, problems present in them become problems for those of us who study the medieval and its more recent reinterpretations. Even so, Rich Burlew's "The New World" articles

Burlew's medievalism does have its problems, despite the things that he gets right and the fact that, as a fantasy world, his does not have to cleave to history. For one, he calls his Viking-analog anacrhonistic (again, in "Part 5a: Politics"), although Charlemagne and his successors lived in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, during which time the Vikings--as opportunistic raiders and marauding conquerors--were certainly active. The dualism of the dominant religion is another point of contention, although it is easy to see the faith as truly one, more like the differences between monastic orders than between, say, Christianity and Druidism (although something like Druidism, broadly conceived, remains in Burlew's milieu, even if displaced from what approaches being the Celt-analog that would have druids*) or even between branches of Christianity. Perhaps most egregious, however, are Burlew's repeated references to "the Dark Ages" and "barbarians."** Both speak to conceptions of earlier times that are outdated; the Dark Ages were not so dark as is often popularly assumed, if the works of Anglo-Saxon scriptoria and others are to be taken as examples. "Barbarian," particularly as contrasted with "civilized" as is the case in "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations" and "Part 9: Names and Cultures of the Barbarians," bespeaks a worldview that normalizes the course of history in the Western world, making it the desired default and necessarily making everything else Other. It reads as a variant, perhaps unwitting, of the colonial project identified by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul in Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, one that is in need of correction.

That said, a role-playing game cannot be expected to reproduce the full complexity of the real world. If nothing else, the demands of simulation and play-balance mean that there will be some simplification and some adjustments made. Indeed, Burlew notes as much in "Part 6, Geography," writing that the article is "a gross oversimplification." He also emphasizes, in "Part 2: Class Decisions," that the construction of a role-playing game world needs to consider player attitudes and expectations; it is a reiteration of the need to address a specific audience, but it is not less valid for that, and, in that light, some inaccuracies in the medievalism to be presented are to be expected. As has been commented in this webspace, and by others than me, people are conditioned to regard as medieval something that is not quite what the medieval was. Addressing such expectations will necessitate the imposition of what those of us who make more formal study of the medieval have to regard as error. There is this, too; Burlew is writing about role-playing games in the Dungeons and Dragons tradition, games which include magic and non-human humanoid species, so the world is clearly not one that is meant to recreate the medieval, although it borrows heavily from it.

Too, Burlew does make a point of returning to at least some medieval views in his medievalist presentations. For example, he does work to ground his milieu in some (although probably not enough--but when is there ever enough?) historical reading about Charlemagne and the Carolingians, as he notes in "Part 5a: Politics," working from Frankish inheritance practices and the disjunction between Charlemagne and Louis the Pious in his background for the milieu. The integration of religion discussed in several of the articles rings true, as well, as do both the setting-aside of small nation-states for the faith (in "Part 5b: Politics [Continued]") and the push of the religion against lingering animist and shamanistic faiths, although the dualistic nature of the dominant religion is a bit of a stepping-away from medieval European practice. He also makes a point of writing in "Part 5a: Politics" that "we'll paint these Vikings not as heroic warriors, but as the Europeans saw them: murdering thieves who snuck into towns at night and pillaged"; he bespeaks wanting to work towards a more authentic medievalism than is typical among role-playing games, at least in some respects, and that is a good thing.

I am sure there is more to be said about such things, of course, both the problems and the many good things. I could hope that Burlew had continued his efforts on "The New World" series; despite its problems, it is an interesting series that would work well for many concerned with world design. And it does offer some hope that popular culture renditions of the medieval and medievalist can work towards authenticity and accuracy--even as it shows that there remains much work to do in that line.

*As a note, Burlew's assertion in "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations" that "it’s important for anyone who picks up the book to be able to relate to the people in the world, and thus there should be a variety of skin tones in the characters depicted" is a good one, accordant both with the kind of thinking that represents the best of the creative communities and, albeit unintentionally, with the decidedly not "monochrome Middle Ages" Helen Young has identified as a problematic construct and which is repeatedly referenced in this webspace.

**Writing for role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons does permit some use of the term in a non-pejorative fashion, as there is a character class in Dungeons & Dragons called the Barbarian (along with the Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, Cleric, Wizard, Sorcerer, and the like). Where Burlew uses the term to refer to groups other than the character class, however, he does less than well.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Kalamazoo 2017: Beginnings

As noted in a 14 May 2016 post to this webspace, "Tales after Tolkien at Kalamazoo 2016: Introduction and Meeting," the Society determined to ask for two sessions in the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies: a roundtable session on unconventional medievalisms and a traditional paper session on medievalism in children's and young adult literature, particularly the works of JK Rowling. In an email, Helen Young, who submitted the appropriate paperwork to the Congress requesting those sessions, notes that one of them was approved: the traditional paper session.

A formal call for papers will be issued after the formal announcement comes from the Congress, but a preliminary version can be offered, deriving from the materials presented to the Congress in proposing the session. To wit:

Growing Up Medieval: The Middle Ages in Children's and Young Adult Literature
The generation that "grew up" with J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter are now young scholars going into doctoral training and embarking on academic careers. The proposed session of papers explores the visions and versions of the Middle Ages that, like Rowling's, can serve to spark interest in an era where students are increasingly unlikely to encounter the medieval period through their elementary and high school years. What kinds of medievalist texts are written for children and young people? How are decidedly adult Middle Ages-influenced texts like Game of Thrones impacting them? What ideas about the Middle Ages are taught to young people through popular fiction? The session will welcome papers that engage in theoretically grounded readings of individual texts or authors' oeuvres. The session builds on significant foundational work in this area, notably Clare Bradford's The Middle Ages in Children's Literature (Palgrave, 2015), and chapters by Society members in The Middle Ages in Popular Culture (Cambria, 2015).

The idea is that having a preliminary version will help people get started on drafting abstracts; we'll have submission information when the formal CFP arrives in the coming months. And, as last time, we hope to post abstracts of the accepted papers to this webspace as a means to help document what the Society is doing--and news of it is always welcome!

This information is cross-posted to the Society website.

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.5: "The Wolf and the Lion"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

1.5 “The Wolf and the Lion”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk

Episode 1.5, “The Wolf and the Lion,” puts me halfway through season one, which seems like a good time to do some reflection. And the thing I’ve been reflecting on the most is the show’s use of “sexposition,” or shoving “boring” but necessary information into dialogue happening between characters engaged in some sort of sex act or at least nude or semi-nude. Now, the existence of sex scenes isn’t a huge surprise, given that it’s HBO and I don’t think HBO knows how not to have gratuitous nudity. Game of Thrones is (so far) a lot tamer than, say True Blood in that respect. What bothers me most about it is that Benioff and Weiss seem to think that audiences are too stupid? Or easily bored? To sit through exposition scenes that are necessary for understanding the fundamental issues of the show. So in order to make sure they keep the audience’s attention, they make sure there’s boobs on screen at all times. So far, there’s been exactly one sexposition scene that didn’t include boobs, and that was between Loras and Renly (more on that later). It’s also worth noting that every sexposition scene so far has been written by Benioff and Weiss; granted, four of the five episodes I’ve written about so far were written by Benioff and Weiss, but the scene in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreah was theirs and added in—Bryan Cogman didn’t write that scene.

The other thing worth noting is that none of the sexposition scenes include actual consensual sex. They’ve all included prostitutes and slaves, or Daenerys. While the prostitute/slave scenes may appear consensual—there’s no actual violent rape going on, at least—there’s all sorts of issues with slavery, sex work, and consent that aren’t even touched on. Only in the Viserys/Doreah scene is it even hinted at, and then it’s not really dealt with. Then we have the scene in episode one where we learn who Daenerys and Viserys are—while Viserys strips Dany naked and fondles her breast, and the camera makes sure we see said fondling close up. I can think of only one scene in the first four episodes that falls into any kind of consent, and that’s when Dany tells Drogo she’s sure she’s pregnant with a boy. And I’m not even sure that really qualifies as “sexposition,” since it’s a) super short; b) not about a character’s backstory, the history of Westeros, or any other sort of necessary-yet-boring stuff; and c) all the bits are covered.

In “The Wolf and the Lion,” there are two such scenes, one between Theon and Ros, and one between Loras and Renly. In the first, Theon has snuck Ros into Winterfell, directly defying the rules of the keep. It’s interesting that while Theon is clearly enjoying himself, Ros looks bored out of her mind, and her pleasure noises are obviously fake. Theon doesn’t notice, though, because he’s pretty self-confident when it comes to women. The rest of the scene, during which we learn more about the Greyjoy Rebellion and Theon being a hostage, is shot from a static angle, with Ros’ breasts front and center. The audience is treated to a brief full-frontal shot of Theon, but during the rest of the scene, he’s strategically covered by shadows or the back of Ros’ chair. The consent issue comes up very briefly when Theon reminds Ros that anyone can “own” her for enough money, but it’s not dealt with in any depth. Rather, it seems like an almost throwaway line meant to show what a (frankly) turd Theon is, which is reinforced a bit later when he grabs her by the hair and yanks her head back to help make his point. So this whole scene, with its focus on Ros’ breasts, a reminder that Ros’ consent is technically coerced, and Theon physically abusing Ros, is all in service to reinforcing things we already knew—Theon is a jerk, Theon regularly hires prostitutes in general and Ros in particular, and Theon is a hostage, not a guest. (This isn’t the last time Ros’ body is used to showcase how terrible a male character is.)

The scene between Loras and Renly, at least, is fully consensual. Renly isn’t so sure about this whole shaving-all-his-body-hair thing, but the sex part, at least, is on the up-and-up. So to speak. The disturbing issue with this scene is how stereotypically “gay” Benioff and Weiss have made Loras and Renly. In the books, Renly loves tournaments and hunting just as much as Robert. In the show, the sight of blood makes him want to faint and/or throw up. Show-Renly is delicate. Book-Renly takes care with his appearance and is a bit of a clotheshorse, but he’s not delicate. He’s also much more confident than this Renly; Loras spends the whole scene working to convince him that he should be king. It’s a weird time to be doing that, since Robert is still alive and well and has three children that so far nobody has pegged as bastards. So what Loras is suggesting is outright treason—in the event of Robert’s untimely death, he wants Renly to seize the throne out from under four other people in line ahead of him. When Renly broaches the subject to Ned in the books, it’s at least while Robert’s on his deathbed and Renly wants to back Ned’s claim to Lord Protector, not replace Joffrey on the throne. Not until after Ned’s death does Renly marry Margaery and claim the throne. Sure, this scene sets up Renly’s decision to declare himself king later, but the way it’s approached—not hey, you’d make a better king than Robert, just saying, but hey, let’s discuss outright treason and get you prepared to see lots of blood in the upcoming war that has no reason to start unless we start it—is definitely odd.

The entire episode also kind of has a thing with defining Loras as “the gay one.” He appears in exactly two scenes in this episode: the sexposition one and the tournament, during which Petyr makes a sly comment to Renly about “having” his “friend,” moments after Loras appears on screen for the first time. On the one hand, I kind of appreciate that the show wasn’t particularly shy about their relationship, since Martin drops hints throughout the books (very loud ones if you know what you’re looking for) and the show isn’t restricted to the points of view of Martin’s main characters, so we can see private moments between the men. Representation is good! But this early portrayal of these two characters makes me a little nervous for how they’ll handle the issue of homosexuality throughout the rest of the series. There’s not a lot of respect here, and more than a little stereotyping.

That’s a lot of time to spend on two whole scenes out of the entire episode, but I feel like talking about these long-running issues is just as important as picking individual episodes to little pieces.

Most of this episode is putting pieces in place for the massive reveals and shocks that will happen over the next couple of episodes. It’s also very confined to King’s Landing; the only other place we see is the Eyrie. Jon, the Wall, Daenerys, and the Dothraki don’t show up at all. Ned’s slowly figuring out the secret that Jon Arryn died for, and Cat is beginning to realize that maybe she doesn’t have all the answers. Tyrion’s logic—why in the world would he give an assassin his own dagger to kill Bran?—is beginning to make sense, and Lysa’s accusation that the Lannisters killed Jon Arryn is beginning to weaken now that Cat is faced with what a hot mess Lysa has become (not to mention Robin, who we will discuss in more depth later). There’s also a really great scene between Robert and Cersei that establishes the foundations of their relationship and why the animosity between them runs so deep. In a series where everyone is always hiding their true motivations and talking out of both sides of their mouths (see the scene between Petyr and Varys, which is also brilliant), it’s refreshing to have two people sit down and be completely honest with each other for a change.

Also in this episode is the showdown we knew was coming—Jaime vs. Ned. That’s been foreshadowed since the first episode. They’re pretty evenly matched until a Lannister guardsman decides to help Jaime out by stabbing Ned through the back of the leg with a spear. Jaime’s clearly irritated about it, too; he was having fun playing who’s-the-better-swordsman with Ned. Unfortunately, the brawl preceding the duel includes the death of Ned’s right-hand guardsman, Jory, who had just promised Arya that he wouldn’t let anyone kill Ned. Uh-oh.

RIP: Jory, Gregor Clegane’s horse

Next week: Robert continues to be irresponsible. Drogo has enough of Viserys. Tyrion refuses to fly.

All images from

Monday, June 13, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.4: "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

Episode 1.4 “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Brian Kirk
Commentary by Bryan Cogman and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow)

Finding a theme to discuss in episode 1.4, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” wasn’t difficult; it’s all right there in the title. Not only is this episode home to Tyrion’s iconic line that he has a “soft spot in [his] heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things,” the whole episode focuses on outsiders, people who don’t quite fit right, and their way of dealing with (or not dealing with) that lack of fit.
The most obvious “broken thing” in the episode is Bran, who is literally broken, having lost the use of his legs after his fall. Last episode, he told Robb he’d rather be dead than crippled, and this episode he initially refuses to leave his room to greet their visitors. Theon essentially forces him into it, calling on Hodor to carry Bran down, which Bran can’t really do anything about. He’s still in a bit of denial, as shown when he insists to Tyrion that he’s not a cripple. Tyrion, as usual, has a quick comeback: “Then I am not a dwarf. My father will be delighted to hear it.” While Tyrion can’t fix Bran any more than he can stop being a dwarf, he does offer Bran a little bit of hope in the shape of schematics for a saddle that will allow him to ride—“On horseback, you’ll be as tall as any of them,” he assures Bran, winning a little smile.

Bran is not the only person in this scene who is broken, of course. Hodor doesn’t have a huge part, but he’s there, and he’s also disabled. Tyrion treats him with just as much dignity as he treats Bran, asking nicely that Hodor kneel to bring Bran to Tyrion’s eye level. At no point is he rude to either Bran or Hodor, just a bit brusque with Bran’s initial refusal to admit to his new disability. Tyrion’s method of dealing with his own outsider status is frequently blunt truthfulness, tempered with a bit of dry humor, as much at his own expense as anyone else’s. He has little to no patience with people refusing to admit the truth of their situations, as is seen in his scene with Theon immediately after this one.

Theon, eager to share his knowledge of local whores with Tyrion, follows him out to the yard and gets a typical Tyrion takedown and reminder that he doesn’t belong in Winterfell. He’s a hostage to his father’s good behavior after the Greyjoy Rebellion, not a member of the Stark family, and Tyrion reminds him of it. Theon’s gotten a bit too comfortable with the Starks, forgetting that he’s not a fosterling or a brother, but a symbol of his father’s defeat. Jaime remarks in another scene that seeing Theon in Winterfell was like seeing a shark on a mountain; he’s out of place there but refuses to admit it to himself until Tyrion takes him down a peg. Bryan Cogman mentions that Tyrion can’t really help himself from poking at Theon because he sees the anger simmering just under the surface, and it’s similar to the anger Tyrion himself lives with constantly. Of course, this scene also provides a bit more backstory about the Greyjoy Rebellion and helps set up Theon’s arc for the next season.

On the Wall, Jon meets another broken thing: Samwell Tarly, whom the other trainees immediately start calling “Piggy.” Sam is extremely overweight and terrified of everything, and as he explains to Jon later in the episode, his father gave him a choice between taking the black and renouncing his claim—or being killed in a “freak hunting accident.” (Randyll Tarly is a real piece of work, and I don’t remember how much of him we see in the show, but the books are not shy about his utter contemptibility.) Sam accepts the bullying from Grenn, Pyp, and Rast because he believes that’s what he deserves for being fat and a coward. After all, even his own father didn’t want him. He’s completely given up at trying to be anything other than a coward, terrible with a sword, and a disappointment to everyone around him. Keeping with the theme of the broken things starting toward being mended, Jon decides to be friends with Sam, assuring him that he’s not weird for never having been with a woman and getting the other boys to agree not to beat Sam up in the training yard, regardless of Alliser Thorne’s orders.

Viserys is shown to be another of the broken things in this episode. In one way, he is one of the last of a broken line of kings; he and Daenerys represent the destroyed Targaryen dynasty, and as Dany began to realize in the last episode, under Viserys, the line will never be reforged. But Viserys himself is also broken, partially because the Targaryen dynasty practiced lots and lots of inbreeding and Viserys is barely clinging to sanity (madness as a birth defect specifically resulting from incest is a topic for a whole other discussion, but it’s definitely a theme in A Song of Ice and Fire). His discussion with Doreah about the dragon skulls shows that he comes from a powerful family, and he was promised all the power and privilege that comes from being in that family, but it was taken away from him. He’s old enough to remember his father, the throne, and the dragon skulls, unlike Dany, who was born right as Robert’s Rebellion was ending. Viserys is also an outsider among the Dothraki, at least partly by choice; he sees them as savages, tools to be used to take back his throne, and no more. He refuses to learn to speak Dothraki, refuses Dany’s gift of Dothraki-style clothing, and pooh-poohs the city of Vaes Dothrak. Unlike Bran and Sam, Viserys does not accept attempts to bring him into the fold and help him live with or work around his brokenness. Instead, he harshly reminds Doreah that she is a slave and further abuses Dany, taking out his frustration, loneliness, and, well, insanity on them. Thus, he lacks the support structure that other “broken things” in the episode have, setting him up for his later death.

Slavery is a minor theme of the episode, but there is some focus on how slavery breaks people—not only the slaves, but sometimes the slavers, as in the case of Jorah. Doreah tells Viserys she’s fascinated by dragons because of their freedom and power; they can fly away whenever they want and burn their enemies to death. Freedom and power are two things Doreah demonstrably does not have. Viserys reminds her that he bought her, that he owns her, and that her job is to give him pleasure, regardless of her own mindset or mood. Later, he drags her by her hair into Dany’s tent, screaming about Dany sending a whore to give him commands. Unlike a dragon, Doreah cannot fly away from Viserys, or burn him for hurting her. Dany might be a kind mistress, but she doesn’t belong to Dany. Most importantly, she doesn’t belong to herself.

Dany reminds Jorah that he lost his family and home and nearly his life because of slaving, and he shows regret, though whether it’s genuine remorse for doing something so horrible as attempting to sell a couple of poachers into slavery or regret for what he lost when he got caught is harder to tell. In the books, he’s not a nice person; he clearly has little regard for human life, especially when slavery or war is involved. He sees absolutely nothing wrong with buying, selling, or keeping slaves, and brushes off battlefield rape as an unfortunate side effect of the Dothraki style of raiding and pillaging. The Jorah of the show is, so far, a bit more sympathetic—but only a bit. Of course, Dany’s still starting to figure out what she thinks of the whole slavery thing; she generally seems to dislike it, but she owns a couple and uses them. She treats them better than the other Dothraki treat their slaves, more like handmaidens than slaves, but the truth is that they are still slaves. They can’t leave and they can’t refuse her orders. We never learn much about Irri and Jhiqui’s lives before becoming slaves, but Doreah has been one most of her life. These are also broken people, separated from family, heritage, and culture and forced to serve.

Besides Jon, the other “bastard” of the episode is Gendry, who makes his first (rather sullen) appearance here. In order to figure out why Jon Arryn was killed, Ned is retracing his last few steps, including borrowing a “ponderous tome” from Grand Maester Pycelle and visiting “the boy” at the armorsmith’s. Pieces are beginning to click into place for Ned as he realizes Gendry is one of Robert’s, though he’s not yet quite sure why Gendry is important beyond that. Robert’s left bastards all over the place, after all. Ned leaves instructions with the smith to send Gendry to him if he ever wants to be a soldier, then sends a note to Robert, probably letting him know he has a bastard son.

Other hints of brokenness in people are sprinkled throughout the episode. Jaime is forced to stand guard while Robert has a small orgy in his room, showing extreme disrespect for Jaime’s sister (and lover, though Robert doesn’t know that). Sansa is still upset over the loss of Lady, the schism between her and Joffrey, and the one between her and Ned. Arya once again tries to tell Ned that she doesn’t fit into his idea of what a young lady should be (I kind of wish they’d kept the “That’s Sansa. That’s not me” when she rejects the idea that she’ll be the mother of lords and knights and heroes; I feel like that juxtaposition on Arya’s part is important). Petyr tells Sansa the story of how Sandor Clegane got his face all burnt (again, I wish they’d had Sandor tell her the story as he does in the books, but Cogman says there were production reasons for the change). A broken lance kills Ser Hugh, who could possibly have given Ned some information about what Jon Arryn was up to. And Catelyn arrests Tyrion, which of course is a major instigating factor of the War of the Five Kings, which breaks the entire kingdom. (Way to go, Cat.)

RIP: Ser Hugh “I’m a knight and you’re not” of the Vale

Next week: Cat makes another dumb decision. Tyrion stands “trial.” Ned finds another bastard. Arya overhears plotting.

All images from

Monday, June 6, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.3: "Lord Snow"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

Episode 1.3 “Lord Snow”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk
Commentary by Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark)

While the first two episodes were primarily setup for the main arc of the season—Ned traveling to King’s Landing to run the kingdom for Robert and discover who killed Jon Arryn—this episode finally gets to move past setup and start the wheels in motion. To quote Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in this episode, “the thick plottens.” Nearly everyone has reached the place they’ve been traveling toward in the last episode or two, and everyone is discovering that it’s not what they expected.

Since I’ve shoved Daenerys to the end of the last two posts, let’s start off with her this time (it’s only fair). The khalasar is still on the move, but that doesn’t mean parts of Dany’s journey aren’t coming to fruition. She’s getting more comfortable in the khalasar, learning to speak Dothraki and give commands—like a queen khaleesi.

She’s even finding the strength to stand up to Viserys, though that’s still a work in progress. He’s still her brother, and it’s clear that she still cares about him, but she doesn’t stop Rakharo from making him walk (a massive shame for a Dothrakan), and her demeanor is much less submissive. This is also when Dany finds out she’s pregnant, and when she and Drogo share their first on-screen kiss, so her relationship with Drogo is also progressing and growing stronger.

One thing about Dany’s scenes I found a bit odd was Irri’s attitude. Irri is a slave; this has been established, and continues to be evident in this episode because she’s walking rather than riding. Her attitude toward Dany is as expected—deferential but not quite servile—but the way she talks to Rakharo gives me pause. She gives him orders, bosses him around, and is generally not deferential. Rakharo is a bloodrider and a free man; it seems odd that a slave would dare to speak to him like that, especially considering that the director made it a point to show a slave being beaten for no particular reason. Now, maybe Irri and Rakharo have a special relationship—he does seem more amused with her attitude than anything else—and maybe being Dany’s slave in particular gives Irri some perks, but I doubt sassing a man as high in the khalasar hierarchy as Rakharo is one of them. (The show has kind of a problem with slavery and the conditions of slavery only mattering some of the time; this will probably be a developing theme in these posts.)

As Dany’s star begins to rise, however, everyone else is getting in way over their heads. Jon, for example, had a bit of a wake-up call on the road to the Wall, but not until he’s actually in training with his new brothers does he realize just what kind of person tends to make up the “brotherhood.” And because Jon already has a bit of a chip on his shoulder because of the bastard thing, his attitude toward the other recruits is pretty bad—until Tyrion smacks him down a peg by humanizing Pyp and Grenn and reminding Jon that privilege is relative; at Winterfell he might have been lowish on the totem pole, but these boys are lower than that, and haven’t had the noble upbringing that Ned provided Jon despite his parentage. He also gets a bit of a smackdown from Benjen when Jon assumes that he’ll be going ranging with his uncle. Benjen has to teach him that preexisting family connections mean nothing here, and Jon won’t be going anywhere until he finishes his training and is assigned to the rangers—assuming that’s what he’s assigned to. Nothing is going like Jon expected, and he’s torn between feeling like a big fish in a little pond and completely out of his depth. While he’s being kind of a twit now, this is an important part of his growth, and it’s good to see him struggling rather than just becoming a hero overnight.

Ned is also in over his head, as he begins to learn here. The kingdom is in much worse shape than he anticipated, and Robert just as hands-off as he threatened to be. The intrigues of court begin to take shape, as well, as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and Varys “the Spider” make their appearances on screen. While Varys tries to ingratiate himself with Ned and immediately fails (though his face makes it clear that he’s taken note of that failure and will use it to his advantage later), Petyr sets up a weird semi-adversarial relationship with Ned by immediately bringing up his previous relationship with Cat. Ned clearly doesn’t know where Petyr’s going with this, but immediately doesn’t trust him or like him (for good reason). That trust is not enhanced by Petyr taking him to see Cat, who has tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak into King’s Landing, at his brothel (complete with gratuitous boobies). The weird adversarial relationship continues when Petyr promises to help, but keeps insinuating that he and Cat have some sort of pre-existing relationship—despite Cat claiming that Petyr is like a little brother to her (witness his whole face tightening up when she says that). Also: “he would never betray my trust.” Oh, Cat. You have no idea.

At least Ned and Cat get a proper goodbye, which I’ll admit I’d completely forgotten about when writing last week’s post. It’s another bittersweet moment, because this is absolutely the last time Cat and Ned will see each other, but their love comes through so clearly. Ned tells Cat that Petyr still loves her, and her response (“does he.”) makes it clear that she doesn’t care how Petyr feels about her, only how Ned feels about her.

Several small scenes help set up a mix of foreshadowing and useful-but-not-essential information for the reader. Cersei and Joffrey’s discussion over his wounded arm gives some useful background on how the Westeros version of feudalism works and why a standing army wouldn’t be prudent or even really possible. Jorah and Rakharo’s discussion of their swords sets up differences in fighting style and weaponry between Westeros and the Dothraki as well as showing Rakharo learning to speak Westerosi and further establishing Jorah’s regret over being exiled from Westeros and having shamed his father. And Robert, Barristan, and Jaime’s discussion about the men they’ve killed shows that winning a throne and being a king aren’t the same thing, that Jaime still thinks he absolutely did the right thing in killing Aerys, and that Robert doesn’t have the best relationship with Lancel Lannister (foreshadowing dun dun duuuuuun).

Finally, let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Syrio Forel. I don’t think this part could have been cast better, and I love every second of the few minutes of screentime he gets. Miltos Yerolemou and Masie Williams have great chemistry, and seeing Arya finally truly happy is a delight. Yet as the music, sound effects, and push-in on Ned’s face warn us, this happiness will not last long; King’s Landing is a dangerous place, and while Arya might be sparring with wood, true steel will be bared before too long.

RIP: nobody! I don’t think anyone dies in this episode. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Next week: Dany grows even more. Ned reads a book. Arya balances on one foot. Also: Sam Tarly! Gendry!

Screencaps from Gif from

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Thoughts about Another Children's Program: The Secret of Kells

Read the previous piece in the series here.
Read the next piece in the series here.

As I note in "Thoughts about a Children's Program", I have the great pleasure of being a father to a young daughter, and I try to keep abreast of what media my daughter consumes. Recently, my wife, daughter, and I watched--for similar meanings of "watched" as before--Tomm Moore's 2009 The Secret of Kells. The movie dramatizes part of the production of the Book of Kells, following the theory that it was begun at Iona and taken through Kells amid Nordic raids on the British Isles. An illuminator, Aidan, arrives at the abbey at Kells, which is in the process of fortification under the guidance of Abbot Cellach; the abbot's nephew, Brendan, falls in with Aidan, violating his uncle's dicta to help Aidan work on the text and turn his own hand to the illumination. In doing so, he faces down and defeats Crom Cruagh, the dark pre-Christian deity whose stone altar remains nearby; he is aided by the fairy Aisling, who takes an interest in the boy and sacrifices much of herself to help him. With Aidan, Brendan flees a Viking raid on the abbey, venturing into the wilds with his tutor in the illuminator's art and completing much of the work on the Book of Kells before returning at length to his now-old uncle's bedside with the glorious book in hand. Despite some inaccuracies and some few oddities, The Secret of Kells is a solid, engaging presentation that points towards a more useful idea of the medieval than many other children's programs that pretend to partake of the medieval, one I am glad my daughter has gotten to see (and likely will again).

Any presentation of the medieval is bound to provoke complaints about inaccuracies, particularly from those of us who study the medieval in (something resembling) serious fashion. The Secret of Kells is not an exception. For one, the Vikings in the film, although bestial in accordance with prevailing impressions of them among Insular religious communities of the time, are depicted as horned. Although the horned Viking helmet is a fixture of pop-culture depictions of Nordic raiders--likely accounting for its inclusion in the movie--it is not attested by available physical evidence, and it would be impractical in any event, being likely to get stuck in doors. For another, the Book of Kells is treated in the film as a thing to be taken among the people; in truth, the kind of book of which the Book of Kells is among the most prominent examples was kept indoors and used little. It certainly was not taken out among the populace as the film suggests it was meant to be.

Several things in The Secret of Kells stand out as oddities. One that presents itself to my eye, as I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, is that Aidan evokes Willie Nelson in terms of his appearance and frequent association with strange smokes. Whether such a resonance is intentional or not, it is striking, and somewhat at odds with the medieval Irish milieu of the film--although it does amuse. Another is that there is relatively little overt prayer in the movie. It could be expected that a religious community--and an abbey is certainly a religious community--that makes much of religious artifacts and other places of worship would have more to do with the ritual exercise of faith. Yet aside from the occasional cross and the imagery deriving from the Book of Kells itself, there is not much in the way of observance. There are implications that such things happen "off-camera," but the centrality of faith to abbeys would suggest that it should be much more "on-camera" than it is.

Something that will likely strike many audiences as odd but is more accurate than many realize is the incorporation of multiple ethnicities into the community at Kells. Although there is something of the stereotype about them, such characters as Brothers Assoua and Tang point to the presence of non-white persons in medieval Europe. That they are among the few named characters in the work privileges them, and in their narrative privilege, they do serve to mitigate the idea of what Helen Young calls "the monochrome Middle Ages," the fallacy that there were not non-white people in Europe during the medieval period (see "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do" for more). Admittedly, the treatment is not as balanced or nuanced as it could or should be, given the aforementioned stereotyping and the isolation of the named brethren as representatives of non-white sympathetic characters, but it is a fair sight better than it could otherwise be.

Something else that comes out as accurate, although perhaps unlikely to be recognized as such, is the aforementioned smoke with which Aidan is associated. Notably, it is green, the result of an almost alchemical process--and green has overtones of magic and mysticism among the Insular medievals. The ink whose production occasions the smoke is itself lined with mystical overtones, both in the prevalent association of writing with salvation and preservation and in the lightening of darkness directly ascribed to the illuminator's art in the film. And the smoke serves to afford Brendan and Aidan the opportunity to escape the Viking raid on Kells, something that would doubtlessly have seemed a miracle to the characters. (Notably, too, the fairy-girl Aisling is green-eyed, reinforcing the connection of magic and greenness.) In using the green to connote the (helpfully) otherworldly, then, the film makes use of a medieval trope well, something that is refreshing to see in a work of near-contemporary children’s programming.

Other accuracies and invocations are perhaps more expected. In the film as in truth, Kells features a standing tower, although the film exaggerates its proportions. The layout of the abbey evokes any number of medieval mappa mundi, depicting a circle with a high tower at its center and seemingly divided into three parts, an eastern half and northern and southern quadrants, or Jerusalem surrounded by Asia, Africa, and Europe--much as medieval geographers conceived of the world. And the art in the movie as a whole is relatively faithful to its source material; there is much of the illuminated iconographic in the presentations of the characters in the film, and the beauty of the Book of Kells itself is clearly conveyed. The audience is left with a clear idea of the medieval world the film depicts as a place that has much to offer, a place where enduring glory could come to be, which is a useful corrective to prevailing ideas of the medieval as unmitigated squalor and dullness. It is a wholesome thing for children to see, something that can help them to proceed into their later lives with a better understanding of and appreciation for their long forebears.

There is more to plumb in the movie, to be sure. Much could be said of the emphasis placed on Pangur Bán, for instance, or the oceanic, non-Euclidian geometry--and concomitant invocation of the Lovecraftian--of Crom Cruach. But as a way to show children some of what the medieval has to offer, The Secret of Kells has much to recommend it; it will be a film I will encourage my daughter to watch again.

About _Travels in Genre and Medievalism_ in 2016

On 12 June 2015, a post to this webspace, "About Travels in Genre and Medievalism" (here), noted the status of the blog. Since that post, it has been nearly a year as of this writing, marking just over two years that the blog has been in existence. At present, including this post, there are 84 posts to it, averaging less than one per week. Another contributor has begun work: Shiloh Carroll, whose excellent "Game of Thrones Rewatch" posts look to become a regular and welcome feature of the blog. Others are welcomed, indeed; please feel free to contact the Society about submitting.

Much of what I wrote a year ago remains true. We are happy to host news of members' achievements and calls for papers with which they may be involved. We also hope those of you who have been reading will stay with us for the next year and for the years that follow.