Monday, December 11, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Sworn Sword"

Read the previous entry in this series here!
Read the next entry soon!


“The Sworn Sword”
Legends II, edited by Robert Silverberg, 2004

Almost 10 years after “The Hedge Knight,” Martin released a second Dunk and Egg story, this one taking place about a year and a half later.

Dunk and Egg have been travelling all over, spending some time down in Dorne chasing puppet shows, likely trying to find Tanselle, the girl Dunk has a crush on from “The Hedge Knight.” Now, Dunk is sworn to Ser Eustace Osgrey, a very very minor knight in the Reach. Sometime in the last year and a half, a massive plague rolled through the Seven Kingdoms, killing thousands throughout the kingdoms but nearly 40% of the populace in King’s Landing. Now, there’s a drought and terrible summer heat, and a feud starts between Ser Eustace and the neighboring Lady Rohanne Webber over rights to a stream.

Pride is the main theme in “The Sworn Sword,” though echoes of the chivalry/selfishness theme can be seen here, as well. Ser Eustace remembers when Osgrey was a more prominent house, before the Blackfyre Rebellion. Lady Webber is young and tiny and holding onto her lands with teeth and toenails, hampered by her father’s dying order that she marry within two years Or Else. Egg sometimes has trouble not acting like a Targaryen (he is only about 10 years old). Even Dunk shows a measure of pride when he discovers that Ser Eustace fought for the black dragon (the losing and therefore traitorous side) in the Blackfyre Rebellion; he leaves Ser Eustace’s service immediately.

And yet Dunk’s chivalrous side still stands up, and he protects Ser Eustace’s land and people despite having left his service because it’s the right thing to do. This gets him into yet another trial by combat, fighting Ser Lucas (who’s been out for Lady Webber’s hand in marriage for a while) to prove whether Lady Webber did or did not set fire (or send someone to set fire) to Ser Eustace’s drought-ridden forest.


The conflict begins with the stream, but it’s exacerbated by Ser Bennis, another hedge knight sworn to Ser Eustace, who’s Dunk’s foil in this story. He’s rude, slovenly, and quick-tempered. When he and Dunk confront the smallfolk workers who are building the dam that stops the water from entering Ser Eustace’s lands, he uses force to intimidate them and ultimately cuts one of them on the cheek. Up to that point, Ser Eustace had a beef with Lady Webber, but when Ser Bennis attacks one of Lady Webber’s smallfolk, Lady Webber now has an even more legitimate beef with Ser Eustace (since it turns out Ser Eustace has no legal claim to the stream anyway).

Ser Eustace puts Dunk and Bennis in charge of training the few smallfolk he has (and they actually get names this time!) to fight in case Lady Webber attacks. Watching this upsets Egg because he knows the farmers have no chance against knights like Ser Lucas. Part of why he’s out here, of course, is to learn that smallfolk have names and lives and are people, not cannon-fodder. He still shows some difficulty with this, throwing Dunk’s remark about knights not naming their horses because it makes it harder when they die back at him; they shouldn’t have given the smallfolk their own names (all of them are named some variation of Wat or Willis) because it will make it harder when they die. That he’s concerned about the fate of the smallfolk is good; that he’s talking about them like they’re pets isn’t. Egg wants to stop the whole fight by using the Targaryen signet ring he keeps in his boot, but Dunk won’t let him, partially because it could put Egg’s life in danger and partially because this sort of thing is exactly why he’s squired to a hedge knight.

In order to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, Eustace sends Dunk to offer Lady Webber a blood price for the injury to her peasant man. Rohanne isn’t interested, instead insisting that Eustace turn over Bennis. Eustace isn’t willing to do that, so Rohanne comes to get him—though she denies burning down the forest. Dunk puts himself in the place of the smallfolk they’ve been training, despite having left Eustace’s service by this point, and goes to treat with Rohanne. He sacrifices his own pride by slicing open his cheek as repayment for the injured smallfolk, then letting her in on Egg’s identity and what will happen if Dunk dies here. Rohanne takes that, but she also objects to Eustace accusing her of burning the forest, at which point she demands trial by combat. In the middle of the stream. Dunk wins, but gets beaten half to death in the process.

While he’s recuperating, Rohanne and Eustace put aside their pride enough to talk to each other, and decide the best way to handle their mutual issues is to get married. Rohanne needs a husband, Eustace wants the prestige of his house back. Eustace lost all his children in the Rebellion; Rohanne was in love with one of those children, who’s now buried on Eustace’s land. Marrying means Eustace’s smallfolk can have some of the water because the lands are joined. In other words, all of this could have been avoided if it weren’t for the pride of the lords and ladies. Given that they’re very minor lords and ladies, the amount of pride they have is rather outsized, as well.

Poor Dunk is the only one who comes out of this without his pride salved. He manages to develop a pretty major crush on Rohanne, as well, and she says at one point that if he weren’t just a hedge knight, she’d marry him. While he’s unconscious from the fight, Rohanne and Eustace get married, so he wakes up to discover that any chance he had for any kind of relationship with Rohanne is gone. So he leaves, but not before Rohanne gives him a new horse and he steals a kiss and a lock of hair.


Martin’s issues with the common folk are much less pronounced in this story than they are in A Song of Ice and Fire and “The Hedge Knight.” They’re not just a faceless mob here; they have names and personalities. The nobility still treat them like trash (Rohanne, for example, turns down Dunk’s offer of a blood price knowing that the injured peasant—Wolmer—would probably have liked the money and refers to him as “some peasant”), but at least the narrative shows that this is a really bad attitude instead of subtly (and probably accidentally) reinforcing it.

His issues with women are also less here; Rohanne is a well-developed, strong character and the only time her breasts are mentioned is when Dunk has a dream about her being naked. There are still far more male characters than female ones, even in Rohanne’s court. Rohanne’s insistence on being “strong” in a male fashion is explicitly addressed; Rohanne says if she can’t hold the land the way a man would, she’d be summarily removed from power.

There’s one really interesting side mention that comes up several times in “The Sworn Sword,” and that’s Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers’ position as Hand of the King. Those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire and paid close attention will recognize Brynden as the Targaryen bastard who served Aerys I through three Blackfyre Rebellions but was imprisoned for murder when Aegon V took the throne. He swore to the Night’s Watch, was escorted north by Dunk himself (along with Maester Aemon), became Lord Commander of the Watch, then disappeared while ranging north of the Wall, reappearing in the narrative when Bran Stark encounters him in a cave far north, calling himself the three-eyed raven. (On a very side note, this is why I’m confused that Game of Thrones calls Bran “the three-eyed crow” like it’s a title; there’s all sorts of reasons to call Brynden a raven or a crow, but zero reason to refer to Bran that way.)

Next week: the last of the Dunk and Egg novellas (so far) sees the duo embroiled in intrigue at a tourney again.

Art by Gary Gianni from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 2.2: "The Depths"

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

The second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender continues--and it continues to make medievalist motions as it does.

2.2. "The Depths"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

Occurring contemporaneously with the previous episode, "Across the Universe," "The Depths" opens with Lance and Hunk, the pilots of the Blue and Yellow Lions--Voltron's legs--falling out of the destabilized wormhole generated by the Castle of Lions. The two crash through a sheet of ice and into an ocean planet, sinking in their inoperable Lions. Lance chastises Hunk for his reaction to events, needling him somewhat as his Lion, elementally attuned to water, reactivates.

As it does, Lance espies a mermaid, Florona, and makes to pursue her. Hunk is drawn along reluctantly, and the two soon catch up to Florona--at the entrance to a magnificent underwater kingdom fueled by the Baku Garden, the source of warmth and life for the area. They are introduced to the ruling Queen Luxia, who welcomes them warmly and hosts them at a dinner where they soon find themselves ensorcelled by fine food and pleasing entertainment.

That night, Lance is abducted; Hunk, due to his greater bulk, cannot be taken, and while Lance is away, he sees Luxia and Florella confer about retaking the Blue Lion's pilot from forces they describe as terroristic. Luxia also punishes Florella for her perceived failure, bidding her return to the Baku. As this happens, Lance is awakened and released from his ensorcellment; his presumed captors reveal themselves as the last remnant of an opposition force fighting against the mind-controlling tyranny of Luxia, and they enlist Lance's help in overthrowing her.

As Lance advances to retrieve his Lion, part of the plan the opposition forces have made around him, he is captured--and he is forced to fight the still-controlled Hunk. After some time of the two being reasonably evenly matched, Lance is able to break the mental hold on Hunk, and the two Paladins capture Queen Luxia. In her captivity, she reveals that she has also been mind-controlled--by the Baku itself, an eldritch horror that Lance, with some assistance, defeats.

In the wake of the battle, with the undersea civilization beginning to stabilize, Lance and Hunk are able to make contact with Pidge and, presumably, to rejoin the other Paladins and the Castle of Lions.

Discussion

As I watched the episode again--admittedly, after far too long a time--I was struck by two major medievalist threads. The first is that Lance seems to partake not only of Lancelot--obvious from the name and obvious from his being driven by lust--but also of Kay. Like Arthur's Seneschal, he is a braggart whose mouth promises far more than his body can deliver, but he does display substantial martial prowess from time to time. (Lance, however, spreads his moments of excellence out further than Kay does his, and his antics are funnier than Kay's usually mean-spirited attacks.)

The other is more an invocation of medievalism than an instantiation of it, for the manner in which the undersea kingdom under control of the Baku presents itself suggested Spenser's Faerie Queene to me more than anything. As I watched, I kept finding myself in mind of the Bower of Bliss and the corrupting pleasures there to be found. While it is likely that the cartoon is responding to the deeper trope of the poisoned flower that Spenser himself responds to, the heavily chivalric overtones of the series as a whole invite comparisons to other chivalric works, and Spenser's Faerie Queene is explicitly Arthurian, neo-chivalric, and ostentatiously medievalist in itself. More careful viewing and a return to Spenser's cantos (for which I should apologize to some of my graduate professors) suggest themselves as needed to confirm the comparison, but I have to think that there is something there to which I or others might attend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Hedge Knight"

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


“The Hedge Knight”
Legends I, edited by Robert Silverberg, 1998
(reprinted in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms)

So I know I said I was going to work through Dreamsongs Volume 2 starting this week but I lied. Who wants to go back to Westeros?


Over the last almost 20 years, Martin has released three novellas set in Westeros about ninety years before A Song of Ice and Fire, each following the continued adventures of Ser Duncan “Dunk” the Tall and Aegon “Egg” Targaryen, who would later be king with Dunk serving in his Kingsguard. Clear links to A Song of Ice and Fire beyond the historical exist: Egg mentions that his brother Aemon is at the Citadel studying to be a maester, while Dunk has his shield painted in a fashion that anyone familiar with Brienne’s story will recognize.


The first of these stories, “The Hedge Knight,” shows how Dunk and Egg meet and how Egg ultimately becomes the squire to a lowly hedge knight. It also contains many of the same themes of A Song of Ice and Fire, from the tension between chivalry and “reality” (read: people being selfish buttheads), to borrowing tropes from medieval romance (particularly the Fair Unknown), to the dual nature of the Targaryens.


The story begins with Dunk’s knight master, Ser Arlan of Pennytree, dying, leaving Dunk unknighted. In order to make sure he doesn’t starve to death and/or turn outlaw, Dunk goes to the tourney at Ashford and claims to be a knight in order to fight in the lists and earn some money. While Martin never comes right out and says that Dunk’s lying, the clues are many and obvious. “Ser” Dunk is no such thing. However, as Maester Luwin says, “a man’s worth is not marked by a ser before his name,” and Dunk shows that he’s just as much a knight as the rest of them—perhaps even more so. Dunk encounters a bald eight-year-old boy who starts following him around and squiring for him at the tourney. When he sees Prince Aerion beating a young Dornish girl (who Dunk was already attracted to), he beats up Aerion, which of course gets him in a peck of trouble. He asks for trial by combat, and Aerion takes that up to eleven by demanding a “Trial of Seven,” or melee with seven knights against seven knights (rather than a one-on-one trial by combat). The nature of the knights on each side is a clear chivalry-and-honor versus selfishness-and-evil split. Of course Dunk’s side wins, though at horrible cost, and Egg is given permission to continue squiring with Dunk as a hedge knight.

At this point in history, Targaryens are everywhere, unlike in A Song of Ice and Fire where there are maybe three (I say maybe because I’m not convinced of Young Griff’s identity). This gives Martin the chance to illustrate the madness/greatness dichotomy he voiced through Ser Barristan in A Storm of Swords. Aerion, for example, believes he is a dragon. Daeron has visions (he may be a greenseer, though the Targaryens call them “dragon dreams”) and self-medicates with wine to stave them off. Maekar is just cruel. But Baelor is a good an honorable man and Egg is decent, too, though young and a tad innocent (which causes all sorts of trouble in the story, but he doesn’t mean to). It’s no wonder that Aerion, Daeron, and Maekar end up on one side of the conflict with Baelor on the other, and it’s symbolic that the only Targaryen to die is Baelor.

~*~

A hedge knight is the truest kind of knight[. . . .] Other knights serve the lords who keep them, or from whom they hold their lands, but we serve where we will, for men whose causes we believe in. Every knight swears to protect the weak and innocent, but we keep the vow best.

~*~

The main thematic conflict in “The Hedge Knight” is the tension between chivalry/honor and selfishness/pride, and this, too, is most clearly symbolized by which side of the Trial of Seven each character ends up on. Aerion is the main antagonist, dragging Daeron into it (because Daeron lies about how he lost Egg, casting Dunk as a monster knight who kidnapped the young prince). Maekar stands with his sons, of course, though he knows them and could just as easily have not taken a side. While Daeron and Maekar can almost be excused—they have to stand with their family, after all—the true treachery comes at the hands of Ser Steffon Fossoway, who first promises to help Dunk, then switches sides for the promise of being elevated to lord, very nearly leaving Dunk in the lurch. Aerion’s side is rounded out by three members of the Kingsguard, who really don’t have a choice here because they’ve vowed to protect the royal family. But it serves to further exemplify Jaime’s statements about conflicting oaths; these three men are knights, sworn to protect women and the weak. They’re also sworn to protect Aerion. So when Aerion attacks a woman, their vows come into conflict. This isn’t dwelt on a lot in the story; they’re just the three Kingsguard filling up the ranks of Aerion’s seven. But the subtext is still there.

On Dunk’s side are the honorable knights—and a few who have reason to oppose the dishonorable ones. Two knights join him immediately: Ser Robyn Rhysling as a favor to Egg and Ser Humfry Hardyng, who faced Aerion in a joust and wound up with a dead horse and a broken leg due to Aerion’s treachery. Lyonel Baratheon, called “the Laughing Storm,” joins because it seems like it’ll be good fun (Baratheons, amirite?). Raymun Fossoway, Steffon’s cousin, demands to be knighted on the spot to join Dunk out of disgust for his cousin’s treachery. He even repaints his shield so his apple is green instead of red, both to differentiate himself on the battlefield and to separate himself from Steffon (thus beginning the split between the red-apple Fossoways and the green-apple Fossoways). Baelor joins last because he recognizes that Dunk was doing exactly as he should—protecting the weak.

~*~

“Why?” he asked Pate. “What am I to them?”

“A knight who remembered his vows,” the smith said.

~*~

Many other knights refuse to join either side, even the face of Dunk’s begging, reminding them that he and Ser Arlan served many of them, even taking wounds in their service. This mass refusal leads him to shout, “Are there no true knights among you?” Clearly, this phrasing echoes Sansa’s frequent lament that there are no true knights. Dunk has a similar idea of the duty and honor of a knight that Sansa does, and while they both know (though it takes Sansa a bit to get there) that it’s at least partly an illusion, they’re both still upset when knights and lords fail to meet their expectations. They both hold themselves to the standards of nobility and chivalry, though, despite the disillusionment and Dunk really not being a knight.

It’s Dunk’s honorable streak that leads Maekar to allow Egg to squire with him, even though Dunk refuses a place in a household. Instead, he insists that Egg squire to him as a hedge knight because, as he puts it, “Daeron never slept in a ditch, I’ll wager [. . .] and all the beef that Aerion ever ate was thick and rare and bloody, like as not.” The princes have never known hardship, and thus they are ruined; Daeron is a drunk and Aerion is insanely cruel. Dunk’s offer should keep Aegon from having the same fate. And we know that it does; The World of Ice and Fire tells us that when he becomes Aegon V Targaryen, “Aegon the Unlikely” due to the circumstances of his rise to the throne, he sends aid to the North during a harsh winter, puts down the last of the Blackfyre rebellion, and attempts to put in place several reforms to protect the smallfolk from their lords. Unfortunately, he gets just enough of the dragon madness to wind up dying, along with his son and Dunk, in a fire while trying to hatch dragon eggs.

Martin also throws in the romance trope of the fair unknown, which continues through the Dunk and Egg stories, since telling people Egg’s true identity could be fatal for him. In the early part of the story, before Egg has to reveal himself to save Dunk’s life, Dunk has no idea that the cheeky eight-year-old following him around and sassing him is a prince. Later, of course, he realizes that he should have recognized the signs—Egg doesn’t want to go into the castle, he speaks familiarly of the various knights and princes kicking around the tourney grounds, he seems to take Aerion’s treachery in the joust personally—but until then, he treats Egg like he would any other small boy. Of course, once Egg is his squire and they’re headed out on the road, he does the same, because teaching Egg humility is half the point of squiring him to a hedge knight.


Unfortunately, “The Hedge Knight” has some of the same problems as A Song of Ice and Fire, as well. The smallfolk, despite being the kind of people Dunk usually deals with and who he’s protecting, are generally a faceless mob. Only the Dornish puppet girl (Tanselle) and the smith (Steely Pate) get names. At least this faceless mob is generally less bloodthirsty than, say, the faceless mob in the King’s Landing riot that kills the High Septon. Like A Song of Ice and Fire (and the medieval romances Martin’s emulating, whether he knows it or not), the primary focus is the nobility and their hijinks.

There’s also the small but extremely irritating issue that Martin has of introducing women with their breast size, and I promise once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere. It would be one thing if it just showed up in situations like this—Dunk is a 17- or 18-year-old man who’s attracted to Tanselle, so noticing her boob size might be expected—but he does it constantly in A Song of Ice and Fire. Men notice boob sizes. Women notice other women’s boob sizes. Women are hyperaware of their own boobs. At least there’s no rape or attempted rape in “The Hedge Knight,” which is a nice change, though it is unfortunate that the one named female character feels so incidental to the whole plot. She’s practically a MacGuffin—she’s there to give Dunk a reason to act to drive the plot forward, not to act herself.

Next week, we’ll look at “The Sworn Sword,” wherein Dunk spends some time sworn to service under another knight.

Art by Gary Gianni from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Friday, December 1, 2017

Thoughts about a Piece by One of Our Own

Frequent (and excellent) contributor to this blog, Shiloh Carroll, had a piece published by The Public Medievalist on 28 November 2017, "Race in a Song of Ice and Fire: Medievalism Posing as Authenticity." The note must be made first that the Society takes no small pleasure in one of its most prominent members having such a piece published in such a place.

Carroll's piece, part of a series in The Public Medievalist on race and racism in the Middle Ages, explicates the prevailing whiteness of fantasy literature and some of its historical underpinnings, working in part from Helen Young's earlier studies. It usefully asserts that "our fantasy literature’s treatment of race [is] rooted in thinking from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s" and situates Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series firmly therein. Carroll then provides a wealth of popular sourcing for investigations into how Martin tries--and ultimately fails--to negotiate the tensions of refiguration and accuracy and expounds upon how those failures reinforce the skewed and segregationist notions of the early-to-mid 20th century--and how those notions find repugnant voice in fan communities that purport to know the "real" medieval, but only through the medievalist whose "feedback loop" origins Carroll details. She ends with a call echoing much of the work already done in this webspace and elsewhere to foster and promote a wider, more inclusive view of the Middle Ages--a call which still needs to be answered far more forcefully and thoroughly than it has yet been.

Having had the pleasure of reading much of what Carroll writes, I find much in the article familiar--and correct. Looking at the Public Medievalist piece, I note with some interest the comments Carroll makes about the feeling of accuracy--that the facts do not matter nearly so much as the impressions of authenticity created and fostered by the dominant tendencies of fantasy literature, and that those most in need of adjusting their views are the least likely to do so. While all of us are guilty of confirmation bias to some extent (and some more than others), the overwhelming push to cleave to a vision of history constructed from overt fiction (or even the constructed "non-fiction" of the Victorian medievalists whose work still informs much English-language public understanding of the Middle Ages) is and remains troubling. That the fiction is seen as the truth is worrisome for other reasons entirely--although it is unsurprising (hell, the fact that "fiction" is the definitional standard speaks to it). But that it is no surprise does not mean it ought to be accepted, and Carroll's call for medievalists to work against that acceptance bears repeating.

Another tack suggests itself, as well. If fiction is the primary venue through which people come to the past--and I would agree that it is for many--then those who write fiction should work to create the same kind of nuanced worlds that Carroll and others call for us to show the medieval as being. That is, more inclusive fictions need writing--and reading and teaching. Some are moving in such directions already, to be sure, and still others have long worked within them (LeGuin comes to mind for me as an example). The more who join them, though, the better.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Few Administrative Notes

Hello, folks!

I know it's been a while since I've last posted, and in that time, our own Shiloh Carroll has continued to do excellent work. But she can't do it alone; so we are seeking contributions. They can be one-off essays or series (re-)reads / (re-)watches, or some other thing that fits our general purpose of exploring how the medieval is (re)figured in the works following Tolkien. Send pitches or outright submissions to me here.

In the meantime, it's been a while, and I need to tend the garden of this blog. I'll be going through and updating pages and trying to gather posts together in some semblance of order. If you're a member, please check your member entry on the Members page. If you'd like to be a member, or some adjustment needs to be made to your membership entry, let us know here.

I'll also be trying to get my own writing for this blog back in order. I hope to be able to keep things going and add to what we have--and I hope to be joined by many!

Best,

Geoffrey B. Elliott
VP, USA

Monday, November 20, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Lost Lands"

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


“In the Lost Lands”
Amazons! edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, 1979

“You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it is better not to.”

In this story, Martin takes on the theme of “be careful what you wish for” but approaches it with a slight twist. No cackling evil fairy or cranky genie making things appear out of thin air here; rather, Gray Alys is a woods witch who has to put in some actual work to make things happen.

The story is also unusual in Martin’s choice of main character—Gray Alys herself. Why exactly Grey Alys serves as a procurer of favors, magical objects, etc. isn’t clear in the story, but it doesn’t seem that she particularly enjoys doing so. This creates almost a chicken-egg dichotomy: does she dislike selling her magical favor because things always turn out bad, or do things always turn out bad because she dislikes selling her magical favor? Martin doesn’t tell us, and that’s fine.
 


In the particular wish-granting incident of “Lost Lands,” Gray Alys is approached by a knight, Jerais, in service to the Lady Melange (ha). Melange wants to learn to shape-shift, and Jerais wants her to not learn to shape-shift, so Jerais pays Alys for Melange’s favor, then for his own—that Alys fail to help Melange. The lady seems to think that sending Jerais will prevent the inevitable blowback that Alys’ wishes always cause; she’s very wrong. Alys recognizes that what Jerais is asking for isn’t what he really wants, and when he asks if he’ll “have what [he] ask[s],” she replies, “You shall have what you want.” That’s not the same thing, and should have been a warning bell for Jerais, but Jerais isn’t particularly bright, and he’s arrogant, to boot.

Jerais—and the other male character, Boyce—is an interesting study in stereotypical maleness. Jerais doesn’t want Melange to learn to shape-shift because “I know what is good for her, better than she knows herself.” He’s smug, he’s full of himself, and he’s condescending regarding his lady, a woman he claims to be in love with. Alys recognizes immediately that what he really wants isn’t to protect Melange from herself, it’s to be the only one she loves: “You have been one lover among many, but you wanted more. You wanted all. You knew you stood second in her affections. I have changed that.” So Jerais is in the “friendzone” and seeks magical help to make Melange love him and only him because that’s not gross in any way. Alys giving him what he actually wants instead of what he verbally asked for is an interesting way of turning the tables; Alys knows what he wants better than he knows himself and gives him what he wants, and it turns out to be horrifying.

In order to give Melange what she wants, Alys has to find a werewolf and steal his skin. She sends out word that she’s seeking a werewolf, and a few weeks later, Boyce shows up at her door, telling her he knows where she can find a werewolf. Boyce is a different kind of stereotypical; if Jerais is the friendzoned protector who knows better than you, Boyce is the sexy predator. He is the werewolf he promises Alys, and he has every intention of taking her out into the lost lands and killing her. Alys isn’t dumb, of course, and uses her own magical artifacts to shape-shift into a silver-taloned bird and half kill him. Only half, because she needs him to be whole and a wolf when she skins him for his pelt.

~*~

“You were beautiful, Gray Alys. I watched you fly for a long time before I realized what it meant and began to run. It was hard to tear my eyes from you. I knew you were the doom of me, but still I could not look away. So beautiful. All smoke and silver, with fire in your eyes. The last time, as I watched you swoop toward me, I was almost glad. Better to perish at the hands of she who is so terrible and fine, I thought, than by some dirty little swordsman with his sharpened silver stick.”

~*~

When Boyce realizes what’s about to happen to him, he switches from smooth, self-assured predator to “you’re not like other girls.” He tries to convince Alys not to kill him by promising not to kill her because she’s a shape-shifter and thus the only one who can really understand him. He even throws in a bit of “too pretty to die.” He talks about the other women he’s been with and says that they meant nothing because they didn’t truly understand him the way Alys understands him. He wants her to run away with him so they can be predators together. Like Jerais, he’s hoist on his own petard; he lived as a predator with no concern for human life and every intention of murdering Alys for the fun of it, and he dies at the hand of another shape-shifter, pleading for his life as those he’s murdered likely did.

Martin works in quite a bit of humanity into Alys, as well. She doesn’t want to hurt people, but she gives them what they ask for, and they ask for stupid, harmful things. She tries to talk Jerais out of his and Melange’s bargain. She has sex with Boyce to try to ease the pain of what she has to do (her pain, not his pain), and then hides in her wagon while she waits for him to change into a wolf for the second time rather than facing his fear and rage.

There’s one last warning in the last two paragraphs of “In the Lost Lands.” Jerais brings Melange the wolfskin, and she’s upset because she’s aware of what it is and the limitations it places on her shapeshifting, but she uses it anyway. She has the chance to refuse, to turn away from her wish, to recognize that this is a really bad idea. There’s also some implication that Melange had been sleeping with Boyce, that she knows he was a werewolf and recognizes the pelt when it’s brought to her. If that’s the case, it makes her choice to bind the skin to her and wear it even more horrifying. And Jerais gets his wish, as well; Melange marries him, but he “sits beside a madwoman in the great hall by day, and locks his doors by night in terror of his wife’s hot red eyes, and does not hunt anymore, or laugh, or lust.”

Next week I’m taking a short break, but I’ll be back the week after with Dreamsongs Vol. 2. The last chunk of volume one is horror, and while I enjoy reading horror, I’m not particularly good with analyzing it.

Happy American Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Ice Dragon"

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


“The Ice Dragon”
Orson Scott Card’s Dragons of Light, 1980

“The Ice Dragon” is frequently mistaken for an A Song of Ice and Fire story, and the reasons for that mistake are clear. The setting and thematic material are very similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, even if closer reading reveals that this is not Westeros and these are not the Targaryen dragons.

In this unnamed land, two kings—one north, one south—are at war, and appear to have been for years, if not decades. Both sides have dragons as well as ground-based armies, and Adara’s uncle, Hal, is a dragonrider in service of the southern king. Adara has a special relationship with winter; she was born in the dead of the worst winter in living memory, her skin is cold to the touch, and she’s friends with the ice dragon that accompanies winter every year. This isn’t the Game of Thrones wight-dragon that breathes fire/ice that Viserion turns into, but a true dragon made of ice that breathes cold and chills everything around it. There are also ice lizards, which only Adara can play with because her hands aren’t as hot as everyone else’s, so she doesn’t kill them just by handling them.

~*~



Ice formed when it breathed. Warmth fled. Fires guttered and went out, shriven by the chill. Trees froze through to their slow secret souls, and their limbs turned brittle and cracked from their own weight. Animals turned blue and whimpered and died, their eyes bulging and their skin covered with frost.



~*~

“The Ice Dragon” reads very much like practice for A Song of Ice and Fire, with not-insignificant thematic similarities: dragons, winters, war, rape, and ice vs. fire. As in ASOIAF, the dragons are weapons of mass destruction, forces of nature barely controlled by their riders, not really characters in their own right. Even the ice dragon is more of a prop for Adara’s story than a character in it, a representation of winter and the thing that allows Adara to be a hero at the end of the story. It represents her difference from everyone else, as well, and the change she undergoes at the end of the story—becoming warm-blooded, losing her affinity with cold and winter and growing closer to her family—is a physical representation of her growing up after the traumatic experience just before the end of the story. Adara’s affinity with cold also represents her loss—her mother died when she was born, so unlike everyone else in the story who love summer and had Beth in their lives, even if only for a little while, Adara grows up cold, a loner, different than everyone else.


This story also sees Martin developing his ideas about medieval warfare and the plight of the common folk who just want to farm their land and live their lives. Hal brings them news of how the war is going, urging them to leave when it turns bad. At the beginning of winter, he warns them that in the spring, the opposing king is going to break through their lines and they won’t be able to stop him. Then the retreat begins, right past the farm, a steadily degenerating stream of men that lasts a month; one of the last groups through robs a neighboring farm and rapes the woman who lives there. Martin makes a point of remarking on the color of the rapist’s uniform, which marks him as one of “their” people, not the enemy. The enemy, when they arrive, also perpetrates horrors, nailing John to the wall and forcing him to watch them rape Teri. Martin has a slightly disturbing habit of assuming that rape is inevitable, that given the chance and the excuse and the low likelihood of punishment, men will assault women. I understand that he uses it as one of the many horrors of war and believes that depiction of war without rape would be dishonest, but it shows up in too many other contexts in his writing to ignore.

Adara bears striking similarities to both Arya and Sansa. She’s young, different than everyone else, a loner, and a bit selfish in the way little kids can be selfish. This is most evident toward the end of the story, when John decides he’s not leaving the farm, but he can at least save Adara by sending her with Hal. Adara refuses to go with Hal, instead running away into the forest. Her refusal to leave costs Hal his life. She tries to run away with the ice dragon—in the heat of summer—but chooses to go back to save her family. The ice dragon helps, killing the enemy dragons and riders, but it dies, too, both because it’s summer and because it’s fighting fire-dragons. So there are really two ways of looking at the climax of the story: Adara’s a hero, or Adara’s a thoughtless little kid who gets her uncle and a majestic and innocent beast killed because of her thoughtlessness. Not to mention her father’s injuries and her sister’s rape, though it’s doubtful she would have been able to stop that even if she hadn’t run away.

~*~



When the first frost came, all the ice lizards came out, just as they had always done. Adara watched them with a little smile on her face, remembering the way it had been. But she did not try to touch them. They were cold and fragile little things, and the warmth of her hands would hurt them.



~*~

The ending, in true Martin fashion, is bittersweet. The family leaves their farm behind but finds somewhere else to live for three years while the war rages on. It’s eventually won and they get to go home, but Adara has lost her coldness and can’t play with the ice lizards anymore. She also seems happier and closer to her family instead of her only companion being an ice dragon. Her family recovers from their ordeal and goes on to be happy.

Ice and fire, hard winters, war, family—is it any wonder this story is frequently mistaken for part of the Song of Ice and Fire universe? I don’t think so.

Next week, Martin takes on be-careful-what-you-wish-for in “In the Lost Lands.”