Monday, May 30, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.2: "The Kingsroad"

Episode 1.2 – “The Kingsroad”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Commentary by Lena Heady (Cersei Lannister), Mark Addy (Robert Baratheon), and Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau (Jaime Lannister)

Episode 1.2, “The Kingsroad,” is an episode full of partings, both literal and figurative.  People leave other people, people lose pieces of their identity, people leave behind pieces of themselves they no longer have use for.  This is a major theme of the whole series; people (those who survive) are pared down to their essential essences, leaving behind the parts they don’t need or want.  Sometimes this is a literal leaving-behind—of people or objects—and sometimes it’s more figurative.

In this episode, much of the leaving-behind is literal.  Ned, Arya, and Sansa leave Winterfell (and Catelyn, Robb, Bran, and Rickon) to go south.  Jon leaves everyone to go north.  Tyrion and his siblings split up.  The episode is full of goodbyes, and just as with the small moment between Ned and Bran in the last episode, readers and re-watchers know this is the last time most of these people ever see each other.

The first goodbye of the episode is between Jon and Arya and showcases their relationship. Although there have been only hints of how alike they are in feeling like outsiders in their own family, the connection between them is clear in this scene. Jon’s gift to Arya becomes the focal point of her identity as she proceeds on her journey, the one thing she can’t give up at the House of Black and White. Throughout the books, Arya wishes she could see Jon again, and keeps trying to get to the Wall after Ned’s death, though she’s constantly thwarted in that attempt. Of all the Starks, these two are easily the closest and have the best relationship.



The Jon-Arya goodbye stands in immediate and sharp contrast to Jon’s farewell to Bran.  Bran, of course, is unconscious, so the dramatic tension is between Jon and Catelyn, who clearly loathes the very sight of Jon.  Jon, to his credit, doesn’t let that deter him from saying what he needs to say to Bran, and he doesn’t complain to Robb later that his mother was less than kind about Jon’s presence.  (That Robb asks about Cat’s behavior shows how aware everyone else is of Cat’s loathing.)  Robb and Jon’s goodbye uses few words, but shows a deep respect and understanding between the two young men.

Hard on the heels of Jon and Bran’s farewell is Cat and Ned’s. Again, it’s tense and confrontational, and Cat finally puts into words why she despises Jon so much—he’s living proof of Ned’s (supposed) infidelity. She also expresses the frustration of women in this sort of society—men are always going off and doing things in the name of duty, then claiming they had no choice; “You had a choice,” she tells him, “and you’ve made it.” It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t just mean his decision to leave right now, but every decision he’s made in their relationship—leaving to fight with Robert, (apparently) having sex with another woman, bringing the product of that union back to Winterfell, raising him with her children, and now leaving again, against her advice. All of this comes to a head, and she yells at him before he leaves. (I don’t remember if she regrets this conversation when she finds out about his death. We’ll see when I get there.)

The final Stark goodbye in this half of the episode is between Ned and Jon at the cairn marking where the Kingsroad splits north-south.  This encounter continues a so-far pretty subtle theme of Ned letting his honor and duty keep him from doing the right thing (or at least the smart thing). Assuming that the R+L=J theory is correct (as I do, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go look it up), and the promise that Ned made to Lyanna on her deathbed was to keep Jon secret and safe, it makes sense that Ned would keep the identity of Jon’s mother from everyone, even Jon. After all, he was young, and who knew when he might blurt it out where people could hear him. But Jon’s shown himself to be diplomatic and careful with his words, and there is no excuse for Ned not telling Jon right there who his mother is. Ned’s got all the foreshadowing working against him—he’s going south at the summons of a king, which is the same situation in which his father and brother died; the last person in his position was murdered—and Jon’s heading into a demonstrably dangerous life as a brother of the Night’s Watch, weeks after a deserter claimed the White Walkers were a-walkin’. There’s absolutely no guarantee that he’s ever going to see Jon again, and not giving him at least a little bit of information about his mother is just plain irresponsible at this point.



These farewells are poignant, but also speak to new beginnings and moving forward. The farewells in the second half of the episode are harder and tend more toward the symbolic. There are two literal farewells between Starks, though—Cat leaving Bran and Arya driving away Nymeria.

The assassination attempt on Bran is what shocks Cat out of her stupor and refusal to do anything besides sit next to Bran’s bed—anything, even things that, as lady of Winterfell, she’s duty-bound to take care of. She neglects her guests and other children for weeks, refuses to handle the affairs of the house (Robb has to take over for her), and is not present to see off her lord-husband and her guests. I think the sheer magnitude of her faux pas get lost in both the books and the show; Martin doesn’t do a lot with the responsibilities of women in running a household, and the show doesn’t have time to instruct the viewer on the finer points of medieval courtly etiquette and household responsibilities. But the attempt on Bran’s life and her realization that this is the second attempt on Bran’s life give Cat a purpose again, and she finally gets up, dresses, and leaves in order to warn Ned that everything is so much worse than they thought.

Arya, too, learns that everything is worse than previously thought when she’s forced to send Nymeria away. Again, this is somewhere that the show loses some nuance in the visual rather than written medium. The show doesn’t really establish the wolves as much beyond special pets; the depth of the Stark children’s relationships to their wolves and how the wolves represent their identities as Starks and/or Northerners is completely lost in the show (at least as far as I remember; if the re-watch turns up evidence to the contrary I’ll point it out).  Arya has to drive Nymeria away to save her from being executed, but that puts Lady in danger—which Arya of course never anticipated. Thus, Sansa, too, loses her wolf, though she never gets to say goodbye to Lady.

Which brings us to the figurative farewells; among the Starks it’s mostly their sense of justice. Ned begins to realize how incapable Robert is of ruling. Sansa gets a glimpse of Joffrey and Cersei’s true natures. Arya realizes that nothing is fair and loses her trust in just about everyone (except maybe Ned). It’s a loss of innocence on a wide scale—all in these two or three scenes. Jon, too, is losing his innocence, realizing that what he signed up for isn’t as grand and respectable as he tried to convince Jaime it was at the beginning of the episode. These farewells and losses aren’t complete yet, but the groundwork is being laid for the catastrophic end of the season.

In the Dothraki Sea, Daenerys is also losing parts of herself. She begins the episode miserable, in pain, and being raped (again). But something about the dragon eggs seems to awake something in her, and she voluntarily recruits Doreah to teach her how to “make the Khal happy.” This is a slight shift in agency from the books; in A Game of Thrones, Doreah is a wedding gift from Viserys, given specifically so that Doreah can teach Dany how to please a man. These lessons are never shown. Instead, there is a brief mention that Dany and Doreah stay up late talking before Dany takes charge and seduces Drogo. In this episode, Dany is losing her fear and timidness and gaining agency. She has been sold to Drogo like a slave, but when Doreah asks if she is a slave, she shakes her head. She demands equality in her next sexual encounter with Drogo and begins to gain the confidence of a khaleesi. Obviously, there are still problematic elements here; Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau points out that this is very Stockholm-Syndrome-y: “because if you see in episode one, she is basically just given to this man who is just raping her, and now she falls for him.” This is continued fallout from the issue I mentioned in the last post, that changing that one scene and Dany’s early dynamic with Drogo will have far-reaching consequences for their relationship and its implications.


RIP: Mycah the Butcher's Boy, unnamed would-be assassin, Lady

Next week: Jon grows up. Dany gets pregnant. Littlefinger smarms his way onto the screen. Arya's dancing lessons begin.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.1: "Winter is Coming"

This is the first in (what I hope will be) a weekly series of re-watching Game of Thrones and each episode’s commentary.  There will be some slight recapping, but primarily analysis, and I welcome (polite) discussion.  Spoilers will abound, as will criticism and comparison to A Song of Ice and Fire.  Without further ado—

1.1 “Winter is Coming”
Writ. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Dir. Tim Van Patten
Commentary by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Original Air Date: April 17, 2011

Episode 1.1 is (aptly) titled “Winter is Coming,” and it sets up the overall plot, aesthetic, and ethos of the show, while introducing most of the major characters. Like the books, the show begins with Ser Waymar Royce, Will, and Gared heading out north of the Wall and encountering the wights and the White Walkers. This scene helps to set up one of the central themes of the book and the title of the episode—winter is coming, and it’s not coming alone.  That’s why I was so surprised to hear David Benioff and D.B. Weiss discussing how close they came to not including this scene at all.  They were going to start with the Starks, but realized that characters kept talking about the Wall, but no (non-book-reading) viewers would have any idea what they meant by “the Wall,” so they shot and included the scene while reshooting the pilot.  This scene isn’t just the prologue of A Game of Thrones; it helps to establish the central struggle of the novels, that most of the people of the southern kingdoms have no idea what kind of danger they’re in and are in no way prepared for the coming winter.  With the hindsight of knowing how much of a mess the show becomes in later seasons, this is an early red flag for trust in Benioff and Weiss’ understanding of the nuances and deeper themes of the novels.



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tales after Tolkien at Kalamazoo 2016: A Session of Ice and Fire

At 1330 EDT on Saturday, 14 May 2016, the Tales after Tolkien Society sponsored several talks in A Session of Ice and Fire: Medievalism in the Game of Thrones Franchise. Three excellent papers were presented to a full audience (of which thirty members signed up for inclusion in the Society). Abstracts for each appear below, listed with a brief blurb about the author and organized by order of presentation.

Alexandra Garner

Alexandra Garner holds master's degrees in both medieval studies and popular culture. In Fall 2016, she begins work on a doctorate in English at the University of Oregon. Her ongoing work traces medievalism in popular culture. Describing her paper, "Forging and Reforging Valyrian Steel: The Role of Arthurian Sword Motifs in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire," she writes
George R.R. Martin himself has characterized Valyrian steel as “a fantasy metal, which means it has magical characteristics, and magic plays a role in its forging.” While Valyrian steel weapons often have a mystical aura about them in the series, both on page and screen, they are marvels not only magical, but literary. The Valyrian steel weapons that are crucial to the narrative as has thus far been revealed all carry a genealogical relevance to Arthurian swords and their properties.

This presentation delves into a few weapons—especially swords—from Martin’s series and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones that are reflections or deviations of Arthurian swords and sword motifs. In particular, I discuss Ice, the greatsword held by Ned Stark until his death, at which point Tywin Lannister has it re-forged into the longsword Oathkeeper and the shortsword Widow’s Wail, given to Jaime Lannister (and then Brienne of Tarth) and Joffrey Baratheon, respectively. Additionally, the Mormont house sword called Longclaw, repurposed and given to Jon Snow, bears some significance when compared to Arthurian swords.

Being weapons crucial to survival in Westeros and in the medieval period, swords feature prominently in the literature of both. Depictions of Valyrian steel swords, their owners, and the contexts in which they feature in the series reveal their deviance from and adherence to medieval sword motifs. I analyze the aforementioned examples and juxtapose these with Arthurian swords like Excalibur to argue that Martin’s Valyrian steel relies on and adapts these motifs and characteristics in particular ways for the series.

Carol Jamison

Carol Jamison, an eminent professor of medieval literature and linguistics at Armstrong State University, has taught and written on Martin, as well as on Gower, Rowling, and fabliaux, among many others. She is currently at work on a book on Martin's chivalric codes. In the abstract of her paper, "Peaceweaving in Westeros," she remarks
The female characters in A Song of Ice and Fire echo the freoβuwebbe, or peace weavers, of Anglo-Saxon literature who are married off in attempts to form political alliances. The peace weaver could become, in the best of situations, a sort of diplomat, participating actively in the politics of her husband’s kingdom. However, in a society that values warfare, especially one in which a game of thrones is underway, marrying off women as a means to gain power or ensure peace could turn out badly. Martin’s peace weaving exchanges are pervasive and numerous, and they vividly evoke the various situations of literary peace weavers in such works as Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon elegies "The Wife’s Lament" and "Wulf." Like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, peace weavers in Westeros have a number of possible responses to marital exchanges. While some are victimized by the exchanges, others find power within the system, either asserting their influence as mothers and diplomats in their new husbands’ homes, or exerting power as queens. My presentation explores several of the peace exchanges in Martin’s novels that illustrate the variety of possibilities that could occur when women (and men and children) are used to forge alliances. I emphasize Sansa Stark, who echoes the passive peace weavers of the Anglo-Saxon elegies, and Cersei Lannister, who causes destruction rather than using her status as queen to wield positive political power.

Shiloh Carroll

Shiloh Carroll, working at the Tennessee State University Writing Center, is working on a book on Martin's medievalisms in A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation. Of her paper, "Dragons, Alliances, Power, and Gold: Disruptor Beam's Game of Thrones Ascent," she notes
This paper examines the structure, mechanics, and medievalism of Game of Thrones Ascent, the social media flash game based on HBO's Game of Thrones. An examination of video game theory reveals that Ascent suffers from many of the problems usually seen in social media games, particularly Skinner box mechanics and micro-transactions. Likewise, the game also uses neomedieval trappings to enhance engagement and keep players involved with their Skinner-box mechanics and paying for neomedievally-themed gear and other perks. However, Ascent does provide some psychological satisfaction through meeting the player's need for mastery, autonomy, and social relevance.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tales after Tolkien at Kalamazoo 2016: Introduction and Meeting

As the current Society webpage notes (here), the Society emerges from paper sessions hosted at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and it tends to privilege that conference. In keeping with the regard for the Congress, as well as §5.1 of the Society constitution, the Society Annual General Meeting (AGM) was held at approximately 6pm EDT on 13 May 2016 in Kalamazoo, proximal to the Congress itself. Attending were Luke Baugher, Shiloh Carroll, Alex Garner, Jim Hard, Carol Jamison, Jewell Morow, and Kris Swank; Geoffrey B. Elliott presided. As announced on 19 April 2016, the stated agenda for the meeting included what sessions to propose for the 2017 Congress and what efforts should be made to expand Society activities to other conferences; some other new business also followed. Reports of each appear below.

Proposed Sessions for the 2017 Congress

The AGM suggested that the Society propose two sessions for the 2017 Congress. The first is something of an ongoing project, a roundtable session on Unconventional Medievalisms. Information about earlier attempts to offer such a session can be found here and here; it is expected that the session to be proposed will be of similar sort. The second session is a traditional paper session meant to treat medievalism in young adult and children's literatures, emphasizing but not restricting itself to the works of JK Rowling. CFPs are expected to emerge after session proposals are made to the Congress; it is hoped that they will be approved.

Expansion to Other Conferences

The idea of expanding Society presence outside the International Congress on Medieval Studies and the International Medieval Congress at Leeds remains one the Society wishes to pursue. To that end, Kris Swank will be proposing a Society session at the 2017 Southwest Popular Culture/American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Shiloh Carroll will attempt to propose one at the upcoming Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in the South conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

New Business

Two items of new business were discussed. One was informal and wholly welcome; the Society welcomed new members Luke Baugher and Jim Hart.

The other was more formally conducted. Kris Swank resigned her position as Social Media Officer for the Society. Upon her announced resignation, a call for nominations/volunteers to succeed her was offered. Discussion ensued, and Luke Baugher was acclaimed as the Social Media Officer for the Society, with a term to extend from the end of the 2016 meeting to the 2019 meeting, following the three-year term expressed in §4.2 of the Society Constitution.

This report also appears on the Society website.