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Denethor Despairs at the Siege of Gondor

Katie

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J.R.R. Tolkien, as he would like you to keep in mind, was not a fan of allegory. He states in his letters, on twelve or thirteen different occasions, that he does not like allegory and that he is not allegorically-minded. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings he bluntly states, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations… I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability.” There’s a rote-ness to his objections, and they are asserted every time the subject of allegory is even obliquely mentioned. It’s an argument that Tolkien seems used to countering.

“The Siege of Gondor” is one of the better examples of why Tolkien’s work can feel so allegorical, and why it ultimately is not. The siege, as it unfolds, is filled with tension and violence. Fiery projectiles smash into people and walls, a magicked wolf-demon battering-ram smashes through the front gate, severed heads get launched into the city. A siege is never pretty. But in “The Siege of Gondor,” the battle often feels existential more than physical. The tension between light and darkness, hope and despair is ubiquitous: it culminates with face-off between the Witch-King, a dark despair-monster, and Gandalf, decked out in white and radiating hopeful light. The momentum of the siege is largely measured in how much despair the Nazgul are able to inject into the men of Gondor lining the battlements. It’s an obvious, rather tropey vision of a fantasy battle, echoes of which can be seen trailing down the decades of subsequent fantasy epics.

But this sort of battle, and this sort of conflict, is not necessarily the focus of “The Siege of Gondor.” There is a battle happening, of course, that is drenched in morally-coded language. One that could easily be extrapolated into allegory. But before it’s simply written off as such, it’s helpful to take a look at what Tolkien actually thought it meant, and how it fit into storytelling. And the best place to do this is probably Tolkien’s letter to Stanley Unwin, after Unwin’s son Rayner read Tolkien’s manuscript and passed on his impressions.

Do not let Rayner suspect “allegory.” There is a moral, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals–they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.

And that brings us around to the real focus of “The Siege of Gondor”: Denethor.

Hope, Despair, and Denethor

denethorI was pretty taken by the second half of that letter excerpt. Tolkien’s story is fixed in time, even an imagined time. It is the result of specific events rather than universal principles (though an echo of the latter can always be dug up). And Tolkien’s characters are people. Their actions resonate with universals (there’s that Neoplatonism again!) but are not embodiments of them. It’s a story of people and their context. Universal principles are present, but incidental.

Denethor is the best instance of this. Of course, he’s a case study in despair. The chapter’s climax features him marching off to his mausoleum, scaring all his guards, and flamboyantly declaring:

Better to burn sooner than later, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.

It would be easy to cast Denethor as the anti-Aragorn or anti-Faramir, falling into a despairing madness as the other two face grim fates with quiet and stoic resolve. He would function as a type or a counter, a foil for the protagonists who matter more in the long run.

But Denethor never manages to be—in Tolkien’s terms—quite representative of that sort of universal. He is too much a person of his moment, driven by a complex web of insecurities both political and personal. Throughout the chapter he flickers between cruelty, despair, pettiness, and arrogance. His fall, here and over the next few chapters, is not an abstract symbol. Denethor is a messy entirety of a person, his despair a statement of itself rather than a reference to something more abstract.

Denethor as Steward

Denethor’s despair is intrinsically rooted in his position as steward.  He comes from an impossibly old house, handed down from son to son, ancient and illustrious even when Gondor’s origins and history had started to become brittle. He sees Gondor both as the only beacon of light in the world and as teetering on the edge of utter failure. He sees himself as a bulwark against evil and as the dimming conclusion to a fading house. And he sees himself as tied to the fate of Gondor intrinsically, a position that fills him with fear and pride that often burst out in fits of cruelty, arrogance, and astonishing levels of pettiness.

This myopic view of the world was apparent from Denethor’s first appearance, when Gandalf chided him for being a steward only to those immediately around him (a criticism he levels again here in “The Siege of Gondor”). The arrogance and fear this engenders is apparent throughout the chapter. When mentioning to Pippin that all great lords use other men as their weapons—drawing a direct, concerning parallel between himself and Sauron—Denethor feels the need to insist that this is not due to necessity but choice:

He stood up now and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! He was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great hilted in a sheath of black and silver. “Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,” he said, “lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.”

There is a flamboyant, performative element to Denethor’s leadership. He is utterly disengaged from his people (once again, it’s difficult not to hold Théoden in contrast). He asserts an abstract sort of leadership, decked out in secret clothes of austerity that affect only his own perception of himself. And he spends too much time inside his own head, to the extent that, in his position as steward, he increasingly sees the fate of himself and his whole society as intertwined. When Faramir returns, injured and on the edge of death, Denethor seems to imply that the end of his own line and the end of Gondor are linked.

Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.

As his line extinguishes, so does Gondor. And later in the chapter, as he prepares to burn himself and Faramir, the reverse seems to be true as well. “We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West,” he states. “The West has failed.

Denethor as Father

Beyond his role as steward, Denthor’s despair is also rooted in his role as a father – particularly as a bereaved one. He is abjectly terrible to Faramir in this chapter. He’s routinely petty and dismissive, snapping back abuse at innocuous questions.

“I hope I have not done ill?” He looked at his father.
“Ill?” cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. “Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skillfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.”

 It seems like a baffling response to a deferential question, until the end. Denethor spends “The Siege of Gondor” both jealous and in mourning, grieving for Boromir and resenting Faramir for his relationship with Gandalf. He even—continuing on from “Minas Tirith”— seems to despise Faramir because of the similarities that they share.

 “If what I have done displeases you, father,” said Faramir quietly, “I wish had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.”
“Would that have availed you to change your judgement?” said Denethor. “You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”
“So be it,” said Faramir.
“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”

There is the sense that Denethor is not only grieving the death of one son and the perceived estrangement of the other, but also grieving that Faramir embodies the sort of leadership that his own time and position seemed to deny him. It is a luxury, Denethor seems to think, to be generous and gentle. To see his son practice it while he believes he cannot only seems to accelerate his resentment. And this, of course, leads to Denethor’s twofold denunciation of Faramir: telling him that he wished he had died in Boromir’s place, and then sending him out, “unthanked and unblessed,” to die in Osgiliath.

So many of Denethor’s problems are problems of his own making. He feels perpetually trapped inside his own head, old habits and conceptions grinding deeper into furrows from which he’s trying to climb out. This only grows with the revelations coming up in “The Pyre of Denethor.” Yet despite this, I always find there to be something very pitiable about Denethor, despite his coldness and his cruelty. He feels trapped in a cycle of poor decisions, powered by his place in the world and his fears and insecurities. He contains universals, as Tolkien would say. But he doesn’t stand in place of them.

 denethor

Final Points

  • While I spend most of my time here on Denethor, the siege elements worked very well for me. The first fires springing up on the distance and a low rumbling, the utter rout of Faramir’s host at Osgiliath, the unrestrained unpleasantness of the siege itself. It is dark, relentless, and distressing, and Tolkien does well in conveying the weight of the army swelling in like a wave and the chaos of Minas Tirith’s desperate and apparently insufficient response.
  • I also quite liked this line, when the walls of the Pelennor first came down. Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard. “They have taken the wall!” men cried. “They are blasting breaches in it! They are coming!” It’s a nice echo of the final lines in the Book of Mazerbul in Moria.
  • The fact that Gandalf, often more austere and implacable after his Balrog fight and makeover, trembles during Faramir’s story is a nice and subtle indicator of how intense Frodo’s mission is, even though he’s been off-screen a while. His distress over hearing that they are passing through the Morgul Vale does the same, especially since we’re about halfway through Book V.
  • I enjoyed that, near the chapter’s start, Denethor is once again compared to a spider. I am unsure if there is a higher comparative purpose to it or if Tolkien just likes/hates spiders.
  • Pippin’s description of Faramir is nice as well: “the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and is now quiet… here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of the Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race.” There’s a hopefulness in that description that’s touching, the depiction of Faramir as something old and new at the same time.
  • Prose Prize: At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate. It seemed to Pippin that a pale light was spread about it and the heavy shadows gave way before it. It’s a chapter of conversation more than pretty prose, but I did enjoy the “small star down on the dusky fields.” I am also probably slightly biased because I remember being very fond of Peter Jackson’s depiction of this moment; it’s one of my favorite shots of the trilogy.
  • Contemporary to this chapter: While reading this, I hadn’t realized that quite so many days were passing! We’re covering March 10th to the very early hours of March 15th. This is largely concurrent with “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” coming up next. Rohan musters and rides out of Dunharrow, meets the Wild Men in Druadan Forest, and arrives at Pelennor Fields at dawn on the 15th. Frodo and Sam go from the Crossroads all the way through their encounter with Shelob. And as Minas Tirith is being besieged, Sam is making his way to rescue Frodo in Cirith Ungol. A busy couple of days in Middle-earth!

Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King(2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. Other images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Lorenzo Daniele and Ted Nasmith

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Books

Top 7 Takeaways From Fire and Blood

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Right before Thanksgiving last year, George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (ASOIAF), released a new book. No, not Winds of Winter, but rather Fire and Blood, part one of a (currently projected) two part history of the Targaryen Dynasty from Aegon’s conquest down through the reign of Mad King Aerys, father of Daenerys Targaryen and grandfather of Jon Snow. Part one covers Aegon the Conqueror through Aegon III. It’s…long. At 700 pages, many fans of the book series proper (and show adaptation, Game of Thrones) might not find it worth investing in. Especially since the style of writing is different, it’s less action oriented, and many of the major plot events have already been covered—albeit in brief—in The World of Ice and Fire (TWOIAF).

Maybe you love the books but lack time and energy to read so much in-universe history. Or maybe you don’t like the historical prose style. Maybe you just don’t really like Targaryens so you think it’s not worth your time. Either way, you don’t want to read it, but you don’t want to miss out on anything that could be cool, be it new characters, new theories, or new events that may be foreshadowing character arcs or events to come in the rest of ASOAIF. I read all of it, and loved it, so I’m here to give you the lowdown on what I think are the most interesting bits: Fire and Blood the ‘good parts’ version.

1. So Many Awesome Female Characters

Let’s just say you could retitle Fire and Blood as Martin’s Book of Fascinating Female Characters and you wouldn’t be wrong. For those of us in the fandom who have been, shall we say, disappointed in the way women have often been written out of Westerosi histories, Fire and Blood more than makes up for it. The Targaryen dynasty may have been ruled by men (more on this below), but the true stars of this book are the women.

Though a self-styled history of the reigning Targaryens, Fire and Blood might better be styled a family history. These are the stories left out of TWOIAF. The way characters in the ASOIAF talk, you’d think only the Targaryen men mattered, except for perhaps a handful of women like Visenya, Rhaenys, Rhaenyra (from the Dance of Dragons), and Good Queen Alysanne. But as I read, the impression grew that the ‘silent history’ of the Targaryen women did more to influence the historical and political history than they’ve been given credit for…much like real world history.

Incidentally, this is one of the things I love most about Martin’s choice of an in-universe bias. It showcases just how our own history is written and recorded. Fire and Blood highlights how women are written out of history despite being major players and influences themselves, and that despite being repeatedly and consistently shut out of positions of powers purely on the basis of their gender. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s just say that Martin offers a plethora of stories about Targaryen women. Powerful women, jealous women, cold and bitter women, fiery and feisty women, lady-like women, timid women, fearless women, dragonriding women, courtly women, scheming women, charming women. Targaryen women come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities, just like the Targaryen men/kings do. Gee, it’s almost like Martin understands that female characters can be…well…people.

Can all of the Targaryen women be my favorites? No? Oh well. I’ll content myself with naming a few standouts. Alyssa Targaryen nee Velaryon, wife of Aenys I and later Rogar Baratheon, fast became one of the most interesting and tragic female characters in the first third of the book. She’s graceful, sorrowful, dutiful but strong, and endures hell for the sake of her children during the reign of Maegor. Her daughter Rhaena—one of Maegor’s Black Brides and elder sister to both Jaehaerys the Conciliator and Good Queen Alysanne—drew me from the first. She’s a disempowered heir with a childhood marked by beauty as well as tragedy. Plus, she’s queer (and not the only canonically queer woman!), and it’s possible Jaehaerys had something to do with the death of her favorites to secure his own line of succession. Rhaena’s twin daughters Aerea and Rhaella, barely more than a footnote in TWOIAF get fleshed out, Aerea in an objectively horrifying but thoroughly fascinating way that I’ll talk more about in a bit.

Queen Alysanne at one of her many ‘women’s courts’, held throughout Westeros, where she listened to the complaints of nobleborn and smallfolk women. From these courts, she influenced Jaehaerys to institute many reforms.

Good Queen Alysanne is truly the star of the middle third of the book. In fact, I couldn’t fault anyone for coming away with the impression that the reason Jaehaerys the Conciliator was so successful and his reign so peaceful and prosperous was due almost entirely to Alysanne. Though of course the ‘official’ histories give the credit to Jaehaerys, a scathing commentary on the silent but powerful role women play in real world history. The worst decisions he made were those done against Alysanne’s better judgment, to the detriment of Westeros. Fire and Blood shows us more than the dutiful, feminine ideal of Alysanne. We see her charm, her feistiness, her wit, her intelligence. She’s a powerhouse of a woman, and I love her.

 

Alysanne’s daughter Alyssa is delightfully ribald and sex positive. (Dorne would be proud of her.) Seara reminds me of Max and Elinor from Black Sails, and her story showcases what a dick Jaehaerys could be (and how bullshit the Westerosi sexual double standards are). I have so much to say about the Queen Who Never Was Rhaenys and the Half Year Queen Rhaenyra of the Dance of Dragons, but I’ll have to save that for another day. Seriously, I could write full essays on each of these women. Plus, there’s the twins Baela and Rhaena, Rhaenys’ granddaughters, each of whom is compelling though they’re as different as sun and moon (like Sansa and Arya…).

Seriously, I could keep going.

Nor is Fire and Blood dominated by Targaryen women alone. Elinor Costayne, another of Maegor I’s Black Brides, surprised me with how intriguing she was despite being a tertiary character at best. Even Alicent Hightower, mother of Aegon II who schemed her son into usurping rightful heir Rhaenyra and thus starting the Dance, gets fleshing out. Martin managed to make her more human, and there’s even a note of tragedy to her seeing all her children and grandchildren die.

There are several entirely new characters to adore. I need Dunk and Egg style novellas about Alysanne’s sworn shield Jonquil Darke, aka the Scarlet Shadow, stat. She reminds me of Brienne, which makes me hopeful for Brienne as sworn shield to Sansa Stark. That gives me all the feelings. Alys Rivers, witchy woman and lover of Aemond One-Eye during the Dance, is mysterious and powerful. Alysanne Blackwood (Black Aly) does her namesake credit in the charm and wit department. That she woos the cold-hearted and stony Cregan Stark (as Good Queen Alysanne once charmed and, may or may not have slept with, Alaric Stark) only makes me love her all the more. Also, she’s very likely bisexual so…yeah. Badass all around.

Then there’s Elissa Farman. Good god we deserve an entire book about Elissa Farman. Also known as Alys Waters (Martin does love his Aly-/Alys- names huh?), Elissa is an adventurer, explorer, and sailor. The story of her sailing west to seek out what was beyond the Sunset Sea bears all the horrifying marks of Lovecraft, but with a happy ending (at least for her). We learn that the famed seafarer Corlys “Sea Snake” Velaryon, supposedly the first the reach Asshai from Westeros might not have been. Chances are, Elissa got there first. Did I mention she was one of Rhaena Targaryen’s ‘favorites’? Oh yeah, she’s queer too. Both of them are.

Then we have the women who ended the Dance. According to Mushroom,

“The great lords would have given us another two years of war…it was the women who made the peace. Black Aly, the Maiden of the Vale, The Three Widows, the Dragon Twins, ’twas them who brought the bloodshed to an end, and not with swords or poison, but with ravens, words, and kisses.” (Fire and Blood, p. 580)

That’s right, women ended the Dance and with diplomacy and love rather than more violence. It’s almost like there’s a theme here… Anyway, Martin further exposits the role women played in healing the wounds left from the Dance and bringing Westeros back to health when he mentions a tome called The Winter of the Widows. Which I need. Immediately. In it, the roles played by the surviving widows of the Dance are chronicled. While we don’t get that full text, we do get tidbits about the most important four widows in Fire and Blood. They’re all pretty neat.

Anyway, I’ve probably talked your ear off by now and this is only the first point. But it’s an important one given how much flak Martin has taken for the lack of exposition of women in history in ASOIAF proper. To my mind, it speaks to how much the sexism we see evinced in the story is a matter of in-universe culture and bias rather than the bias of the author himself.

2. Canonically Queer Female Characters

One of the biggest criticisms Martin has faced in the past several years has been his dearth of canonically queer female characters. Dany and Cersei each have issues associated with their queer interactions in the story, and Lady Nym being queer only if you look in the appendices hardly counts for ‘good’ and ‘clear’ representation. To my mind, Fire and Blood shows that Martin has been listening to fans because boy did he ever make up for the lack of queer women.

Queen of the seas and my heart Elissa Farman.

I mentioned a couple of queer female characters in the preceding section. Rhaena Targaryen, daughter of Alyssa and Aenys I Targaryen is the first mentioned. She has multiple female ‘favorites’ and her second husband, Androw Farman, is obviously a beard (aka, a spouse of a different gender designed to ‘hide’ a queer person in plain sight). He’s the brother of Elissa Farman, the spirited adventurer also noted above. I love that Martin literally gave us the story of a queer woman who marries a man in order to be close to his sister because it was necessary to keep social conventions. “Oops, wrong sibling” is one of my favorite tropes.

Then there’s Sylvanna Sand and Essie, the mother of Gaemon Palehair (pretender to the throne after the death of Aegon II and dear friend of Aegon III). Both Sylvanna and Essie are sex workers and they anoint Essie’s son Gaemon as king after Aegon II’s death (claiming he’s one of Aegon’s bastards). What I love about them is that through the four-year-old boy king, they attempt to enact some of the most progressive and egalitarian reforms to Westeros. It’s pretty damn cool that two queer ladies get that role.

The “Maiden of the Vale” Jeyne Arryn, noted champion of Queen Rhaenyra’s blacks during the Dance and one of Aegon III’s regents, is also queer. She exclusively prefers the company of women and even dies in the arms of one of her favorites after a long tenure as a fair, honest, and strong ruler of the Vale. She has a lot of Queen Elizabeth I vibes as well as reminding me of Sansa so…fingers crossed for queer Sansa? (I doubt it, but a queer girl can dream).

Another of Queen Rhaenyra’s most vocal defenders, Sabitha Frey, is also queer. She’s,

“a sharp-featured, sharp-tongued harridan of House Vypren, who would sooner ride than dance, wore mail instead of silk, and was fond of killing men and kissing women.” (Fire and Blood, p. 572)

Be still my heart! Also likely queer, as noted, is Black Aly, who was seen much in the company of Sabitha Frey. She even shared Sabitha’s tent when they were campaigning, so to my mind, Black Aly is bisexual.

There are plenty of rumors of queer women amongst minor characters, too, including some interesting gender transgessiveness. Some of this could be slander along the lines of them being witches or bathing in the blood of children. Even so, that Martin bothers to include such lines shows that he’s learning that queerness amongst female characters shouldn’t be ignored. More than anything, what I appreciate most is that he doesn’t type-cast his queer women. Yes, characters like Elissa Farman, Sabitha Frey, and Black Aly have a bit of boyishness to them and are noted ‘warrior women.’ But then there’s the Maiden of the Vale Jeyne Arryn and Rhaena Targaryen, both of whom present as more traditionally feminine.

It’s refreshing and delightful to see such an array of queer women, especially from an author who has been criticized on just this point before. Thank you for listening, Martin, I’m quite pleased. (Now give me queer Sansa and Brienne please and thank you.)

3. Martin Throws Pretty Epic Shade

One of the best moments in the book, hands down, is when Martin throws shade at Game of Thrones and the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Under the guise of the discussion of a book called A Caution for Young Girls, Martin makes his opinion of certain decisions made in the adaptation process of his own books very clear. He begins by calling the book “distasteful,” a book found in brothels and catering to those of low morals. He then mentions that parts of the book “strain credulity” given how ridiculous the tales are, and increasingly so as the story continues.

“We have no way to ascertain the veracity of her story, nor even whether she was in truth the author of this infamous book (some argue plausibly that the text is the product of several hands, for the style of the prose varies greatly from episode to episode).” (Fire and Blood, p. 157)

I mean…good lord. The use of “episode to episode” makes the true object of his ridicule pretty clear. But he doesn’t stop there. Continuing with his mockery of the writers of the tales, he writes,

“[T]he scribes responsible were most likely septons expelled from the Faith for drunkenness, theft, or fornication, failed students who left the Citadel without a chain, hired quills from the Free Cities, or mummers (the worst of all). Lacking the rigor of maesters, such scribes oft feel free to “improve” on the texts they are copying. (Mummers in particular are prone to this.)

In the case of A Caution for Young Girls, such “improvements” largely consisted of adding ever more episodes of depravity and changing the existing episodes to make them even more disturbing and lascivious. As alteration followed alteration over the years, it became ever more difficult to ascertain which was the original text, to the extent that even maesters at the Citadel cannot agree as to the title of the book, as has been noted.” (Fire and Blood, p.158-9)

I can’t stop cackling. This is the best shade I’ve ever seen.

It’s not really shade, but Martin does include pop culture easter eggs in the book as well. There’s the men of Sesame Street House Tully during the dance: Grover, Elmo, Kermit, and Oscar. One of the dragons in the Dance is named Morghul, a name from Lord of the Rings. The Maiden’s Day Ball of Aegon III has Cinderella vibes, and Ser Tyland Lannister gives me Phantom of the Opera vibes (though maybe that’s just because I was relistening to the original Broadway cast recording). I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a big book, and I can only take in so much at once. The Tully men win the prize, though. I can’t stop imagining a large, red-bearded man talking like Kermit the Frog.

4. Theories and Prophecies: Bastards, Incest, Valyria, Literal Dragon Blood, and The Hammer

As many of you know, I’m a part of the Twitteros crew that call themselves the Myth Heads. We’re a group ofASOIAF fans interested in mythological and symbolic analysis and we discuss it on Twitter and in both written and video essays on our various websites and channels. For us, Fire and Blood was like catnip. There’s so much symbolism going on, especially when it comes to Nissa Nissa and Azor Ahai, what we call the “monomyth.” But rather than focus on about that, since it would take tens of thousands of words, I’m going to discuss my favorite theories to arise from the book. I’m sure there are more—and you can check out various Fire and Blood themed livestreams and YouTube videos for what other people found compelling—but these are my favorite few.

First, the idea that Aegon I may have been sterile. This theory may have floated after TWOIAF, but the first in depth discussion I’ve seen has been after Fire and Blood. The theory comes from the fact that Visenya is mentioned as using “dark arts” to get pregnant with Maegor and Rhaenys had many lovers outside of Aegon, any one of whom could have fathered Aenys.

Why does this matter? Well, if true, it would make all Targaryens bastards, quite literally. If Aegon fathered no trueborn heirs, any and all Targaryens to rule after him were not truly his heirs by body, which, given how much stigma against bastards there is in Westeros, calls into question the succession of the entire dynasty. That seems kind of the point to me, if Martin is indeed hinting in this direction. We all know that the Targaryen rule is purely a matter of whim and aggressive conquest rather than ‘legitimate’ authority. They’re imperialist colonialists. What better way to highlight how illegitimate their rule is over Westeros than to have no trueborn heirs of Aegon I?

Relatedly, Fire and Blood draws a strong correlation between the so-called ‘monster babies’ born to certain Targaryens and incest. Again, discussion of incest and monster babies dates back to TWOIAF, but Fire and Blood lends even more credence to the idea that monstrous babies are a direct result of genetic manipulation and incest rather than pure chance. Maegor fathers no living children. His only offspring are both stillborn and monstrous. If Maegor is Aegon’s child, the monstrous children make sense as the result of incest. If Visenya somehow managed to use ‘dark arts’ to create Maegor, the correlation to genetic manipulation is even more direct. Meddling in fertility to produce ‘blood of the dragon’ only leads to one thing: monsters.

Most of the other monstrous babies born to Targaryen women are the result of incest as well. To my mind this points directly to the way Martin wants us to think about incest. According to one of my fellow Twitteros writers The Fattest Leech, Martin clearly thinks of incest negatively in both ASOIAF and his other writings. It’s a form of oppressive control, both of women and their fertility, and only ever leads to monstrous ends. Eugenics is self-destructive and destructive to society. It may give us the dragon bond and dragons, but dragons are the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction in this universe. Should we really be cheering incest as a way of creating them, especially when it subordinates women and only propagates violence and destruction? That, more than anything, is one of my major takeaways from Fire and Blood thematically.

Also, it serves as pretty good evidence that the Targaryens are quite literally dragon people. Valyria likely manipulated human genetics and found a way to splice them with dragons, which is where we get the dragon bond and ‘blood of the dragon.’ Again, these theories have been around for a while, but Fire and Blood gave us more direct evidence of their veracity.

In terms of prophecy, the supposedly ancient prophecy of a hammer that will slay a dragon has drawn a lot of attention in the fandom since the book’s release.

“And talk was heard in camp of a prophecy of ancient days that said, ‘When the hammer shall fall upon the dragon, a new king shall arise, and none shall stand before him.’” (Fire and Blood, p. 496)

Who is the hammer? Is it Robert and the dragon Rhaegar? Is this about something that’s already happened in history or is it about something that will happen in The Winds of Winter or A Dream of Spring? Is this even an ancient prophecy at all or did Hugh Hammer (or one of his cronies) make it up to legitimate his bid for kingship during the Dance? The question really is one of whether this so-called prophecy is merely an anecdote or if it has any bearing on the current story. I, for one, tend to think that it’s symbolic more than literal and if it has bearing at all on the current story, it does because it’s an echo of something that’s already happened in the past.

I really, really dislike Aegon II and his brother, Aemond One-Eye. Like, so much. Maegor I and Unwin Peake come in a close third and fourth.

I’m far more fascinated by the ‘ravings’ of the Shepherd during the Dance. He pronounces several prophecies of doom against specific individuals that turn out to be true (including Aegon II). Martin frequently uses specific members of the Faith to pronounce judgments against the Targaryens. While in-universe they’re deemed mad, treasonous, or overly bombastic, when you look closely at them, there’s truth embedded in the thunderous preachings of doom and destruction. The Shepherd, like Septon Moon and the High Septon when Aegon conquered, denounces the sin of incest as an abomination and calls the dragons demons whose only end is destruction and violence. He further proclaims that Westeros will only know peace once the dragons—both Targaryens and their mounts—are expelled from Westeros.

Sounds like typical doom and gloom stuff, but he’s not wrong. The literal dragons are monstrous and bring only sorrow and death. The Targaryens are colonialist imperialist conquerors, and given how negatively Martin frames incest and its use in eugenics and control of women…well, it’s hard to fault the Shepherd for calling it an abomination. The official history would have us dismiss such preachings and prophecies as mad ravings of religious freaks, but I think that’s most likely Martin hiding clues in plain sight. Westeros will only have peace when the dragons are gone. Dany, her dragons, and Jon Snow may save Westeros from the Others, but I have a strong feeling that their heroic tale will be the true and final dying of the dragons.

Finally, the tale of Aerea and Balerion lends credence to the possibility that Euron may have actually sailed to Valyria. Others have discussed this episode at length, but suffice to say, it’s one of the most intriguing of the novel. Aerea and Balerion very likely flew to Valyria. Someone, or something still lives there. Something big enough and fierce enough to attack Balerion the Black Dread and wound him grievously. Something capable of infesting a human being with horrible parasites that look suspiciously like pre-genetically modified dragons or fire wyrms and kill Aerea in a graphic and horrifying way. (Seriously, it’s gross.)

And if Area was able to travel to Valyria and return—though I won’t say she ‘survived’—then maybe Euron isn’t so full of shit when he says he sailed there. I’ve always assumed that was bluster, but now…I’m not so sure. Honestly, I hope he dies the way Aerea did. He deserves it far more than she did.

5. Targaryen Exceptionalism is (Almost) Entirely A Matter of Propaganda

Ever since Daenerys Targaryen survived the miraculous birth of her dragons in Drogo’s fire, rumors and theories have abounded about so-called magical Targaryen blood and Targaryen exceptionalism. Targaryens are closer to gods than humans. Targaryens cannot die in fire and are immune to all disease. Targaryens are above human morals and laws and can get away with things non-Targaryens cannot. Martin has put certain elements of this mentality to rest—he famously called Dany’s survival a ‘miracle’ and has proven via other characters that Viserys is wrong when he believes Targaryens are immune to fire.

Fire and Blood goes further. Via Jaehaerys and Alysanne, Martin clarifies that the idea of Targaryen exceptionalism is a matter of propaganda rather than fact. Yes, Targaryens do seem to have resistance to certain diseases and may have a higher than average heat tolerance (perhaps a result of genetic manipulation with dragon DNA in Valyria). However, when it comes to morality, Targaryen exceptionalism is a creation of Jaehaerys and his propaganda machine. The Targaryens aren’t above the law except in their own minds. The only reason Westeros accepted this as fact is because Jaehaerys managed to have it codified in the laws of the Faith. (And at what cost? My friend and fellow Twitteros denizen Joe Magician and I have ideas that we may discuss in a YouTube video, so stay tuned if you’re interested.) Targaryens should be subject to human rules, but they have good publicists and convinced the right people to make their exceptionalism the law of the land.

It’s as ingenious as it is insidious, and we best not miss the lesson: we, as readers, must not be deceived into accepting Targaryen exceptionalism the way Westeros was. They’re men and women like anyone else. Just because they think of themselves as above the law doesn’t mean we should excuse their behavior. Martin is showing his hand: the story may seem to promote Targaryen exceptionalism (or the exceptionalism of others in the elite class), but it’s just hype. Astute readers should be able to see it for what it is.

6. Sympathizing With The Invaders: The Ambiguity of House Targaryen

Many may disagree with me on this point, but this was one of my major thematic takeaways. However sympathetic individuals are, Targaryens as a group are invaders and conquerors, just with good publicists. Fire and Blood makes the Targaryen invasion purely a matter of whim and aggression. Storm King Argilac Durrandon felt threatened by King Harren the Black and petitioned Aegon to help him beat back the King of Harrenhal, offering his maiden daughter and heir as a wife in return for aid. Aegon spurned the offer and offered instead to marry Argilac’s daughter to his baseborn half-brother Orys Baratheon. When Argilac refused, offended at the idea of his daughter marrying a bastard, Aegon decided to invade. No grand holy destiny, no mystical purpose. Just pure and simple offended pride and ambition for power. That’s why Aegon invaded Westeros.

He succeeded because he had dragons.

To my mind, the havoc, devastation, death, destruction, and horrors inflicted because of dragons (both literal and metaphorical) far outweigh any magical destiny. Yet such a magical destiny doesn’t exist, which only highlights just how utterly pointless and empty Targaryen invasion and rule is at its core. Dragons make it seem cool, but it’s imperialism and colonialism at its heart.

I happen to think this is part of a point Martin is making and have thought so since before the release of Fire and Blood. To my mind, this book only furthers my case even as it muddies the waters. Liking and sympathizing with certain Targaryen family members obfuscates the point, making it harder to see dragons as weapons of mass destruction and Targaryens as invasive forces in Westeros, but it does not make that point moot.

Likewise, Martin uses propaganda—such as the doctrine of Targaryen exceptionalism—both in-universe and with the reader as a second war front. More than once he speaks of the “war with words” that is the Targaryen propaganda machine. It may be polite invasion, but it’s invasion nonetheless in the form of tolerance for Targaryen imperialism. Rather than use violence or force, some Targaryens use persuasive arguments to convince the Westerosi (and the audience) of their legitimacy and right to rule Westeros.

Let’s not forget point of view bias, the literary device Martin is most famous for. The maesters who write the in-universe histories, including Fire and Blood, have themselves been convinced of Targaryen legitimacy or appear to have been. At the very least they are unable to be outspoken of any doubts they may have of Targaryen rule as a whole even if they have biases for or against any one particular Targaryen king.

But just as we’re meant to question point of view bias in ASOIAF proper, we’re meant to do the same with the histories. Most importantly, I believe we’re meant to think long and hard about Targaryen rule and legitimacy. While many fans bicker over who is the ‘true heir’ to Aerys—be it Dany, Jon Snow, or Aegon—we should be asking if any of them ought to be sitting a throne founded on naked ambition and violent conquest. Like the lords we see in Fire and Blood, we’re bickering over which child of which invader should sit a throne founded on death and devastation instead of questioning the entire system.

Martin clearly isn’t a fan of feudalism or imperialism. I feel like that shouldn’t have to be said, but it may need to be given certain discussions I’ve seen in the fandom. To my mind, all the horrors of the Dance in particular and Targaryen rule in general are meant to force us to question Targaryen rule. Much as we enjoy certain characters, I know I certainly do, it can’t get in the way of asking the broader questions. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about Martin as a writer. He finds ways to nuance even his critiques. Life isn’t clear cut, and even interesting, compelling, and empathic characters/people participate in messed up systems. We can both love and identify with these characters/people and challenge the system they exist in.

7. The Systematic Disempowerment of Targaryen Women: More Evidence of Martin’s Feminist Agenda

I have so many feelings about Rhaenyra Targaryen and many, many things to say. I’ll never shut up about her.

Speaking of challenging systems, Martin shows his hand when it comes to the disempowerment of women in Westeros, especially Targaryen female heirs. I’ve written an essay about disempowered women, the first of a multi-part series I have planned detailing Martin’s embedded feminist critique of patriarchy and the way it shuts women out of power. I dedicated a huge chunk of that to the Targaryen dynasty; Fire and Blood gave me even more to talk about that I plan to work into my essay series. The number of times Martin goes out of his way to mention that a female heir was passed over “purely out of consideration of her gender” (or something similar) alone…it’s so obvious he thinks this is bullshit.

Rhaenyra may be the most famous and most clear cut example of a Targaryen disempowered female heir, but she’s far from the only one. There’s Rhaenys, her aunt, and Rhaena, eldest child of Aenys I and Alyssa. Each of these women is clearly passed over in favor of a male heir. Archmaester Gyldayn, the in-universe narrator of Fire and Blood, goes of out of his way to delegitimize, villainize, or flat out dismiss each of them, as well as any other Targaryen female heirs. It’s almost comical, and clearly meant to raise our eyebrows.

Most tellingly is one of Martin’s retcons from TWOIAF. In the worldbook, the birth order of Jaehaerys’ and Alysanne’s children differs from what we see in Fire and Blood. Moreover, Martin exchanges a male child who dies in infancy with a daughter, Daenerys. This new second-born child of Jaehaerys and Alysanne lives after the death of their firstborn, baby boy Aegon. The difference between how Jaehaerys and Alysanne think of her is highly significant,

“Jaehaerys loved all three children fiercely, but from the moment Aemon was born, the king began to speak of him as his heir, to Queen Alysanne’s displeasure. ‘Daenerys is older,’ she would remind His Grace. ‘She is the first in line; she should be queen.’ The king would never disagree, except to say, ‘She shall be queen, when she and Aemon marry. They will rule together just as we have.’ But Benifer could see that the king’s words did not entirely please the queen, as he noted in his letters.” (Fire and Blood, p. 256)

Alysanne prefers absolute primogeniture. As eldest child, she believes Daenerys should inherit the throne, period. Jaehaerys thinks somewhat differently. While he acknowledges Daenerys’ queenship, he does so only as she is consort to a male Targaryen ruler, their son Aemon, who, albeit younger than Daenerys, is male. To Jaehaerys, a woman rules only as queen and consort to a man, not in her own right, even if she is the elder.

Jaehaerys’ views are a microcosm of how Targaryens—and Westeros as a whole—view female power. It’s always secondary to and only a consequence of authority wielded by a related male. In my opinion, Alysanne clearly represents what Martin believes should be true of society. She’s consistently depicted as the wiser, more intelligent, and more progressive of the pair. Jaehaerys’ other sexist behavior, though overall ‘benign’, only serves to highlight that he’s in the wrong, as is this entire worldview.

Your mileage may vary, but to my mind Fire and Blood more than proves Martin’s feminist agenda. While he has been critiqued in the past—legitimately to my mind given how subtle his critique can be at times and how blurry the line can be between depicting the problem and propagating it—I believe Fire and Blood should put minds at ease. As I said at the outset, this is a book about women. It’s a book about how women have been shut out from historical records despite being influencers and powerhouses throughout history. It’s a book that takes a direct look at female disempowerment and sharply criticizes it and those who support it. If you’re skeptical about George R. R. Martin, Feminist, Fire and Blood is the book that ought to change your mind.


Images Courtesy of Bantam Books

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Moments of Difference and Improvement in Bloodhound

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This one was slightly difficult for me to get through. Tamora Pierce’s Bloodhound seems like nothing more than a collection of moments and Beka’s reflections. Moments of greed, and injury. Moments that tied the story to the future, and moments that decidedly did not. Despite being published in 2009, this was the first time I finished reading this book. Now, having finished it, I think that was because of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Lets’s get into it.

Spoiler warnings for Bloodhound and all of Pierce’s Previous work.

So, What Happened?

Now a fully fledge Dog, Beka works through partners like wet tissue paper, cycling back with Tunstall and Goodwin in between. She rescues Achoo, a bloodhound, from an abusive handler, and Pounce leaves to deal with something in the stars. With help from her friends, she discovers that coles (false coins) show up more often in their money. From her pigeons and dustspinners, she learns that the rye crop is infected. Bread prices go up because of those two things, and the people riot. The rioters break Tunstall’s legs, and the family of a rogue Beka arrested attack her, so the Provost sends Beka and Goodwin to Port Caynn to investigate the coles.

They befriend Dale, Steen, and Hanse, three gamblers on the ferry to Port Caynn. The three of them invite the two to a gambling house that evening. Beka and Goodwin meet the Dogs of Port Caynn, and Lionel Trebond does not impress them as Watch Commander. They go undercover as ‘Dogs sent to learn about Port Caynn ways of Dogging’ so that no one knows about the cole investigation. Beka arrests a girl stealing purses and replacing them with ones full of silver coles. After that, the Rogue of Port Caynn, Pearl, drags them to her court and threatens them. Nestor, a dog and cousin of the Lord Provost, gets them out.

Beka and Goodwin investigate, asking one of Goodwin’s contacts to discover where the colemongers got their silver. They figure out that Pearl is responsible, the Dogs are corrupt, and that Lionel is too scared to do anything. Goodwin goes back to Corus for reinforcements. Beka intervenes when Goodwin’s contact is falsely arrested and Lionel arrests her. She then finds out where Pearl forges the coles. When help arrives, they chase down Pearl.

Moments of Improvement

Moments with LGBTQ+ Representation

Finally, after eighteen books and twenty-six years, we have LGBTQ+ representation in the Tortall books. Nestor, the sergeant in the Provost’s Guard that guides then in Port Caynn, is in an LGBTQ+ relationship.

Okha is Carthaki and committed to Nestor, smuggling maps of Pearl Skinner’s base out. They are first introduced to Beka and the audience as in a mlm relationship. “Okha bent and kissed Nestor’s mouth, then went inside the other room. … [Okha] filled cups for Goodwin, Nestor, and himself.” (p. 252). They’re an interracial committed couple with years of being partners. It’s an amazing thing in a society where some do not accept LGBTQ+ relationships.

Then, at the Waterlily, a gambling den, Beka meets Amber, a female singer, who she recognizes as Okha. Amber draws Beka aside, and after a discussion of Pearl and her dangers, explains, “Inside I am a beautiful woman’, Okha said. …The Trickster trapped me in my mother’s womb and placed me in this man’s shell. … At least I understand what happened,’ Okha said getting to his feet and smoothing his dress.” (p. 331). Given this discussion, Okha/Amber is meant to be a trans woman of color. Unfortunately, the narration continues to use he/him pronouns for Okha/Amber through the rest of the book, which leads to some confusion. While the speech Okha/Amber gives describes being trandgender—only presenting female during singing and dancing performances—the way the narrative treats Okha/Amber reads almost like stereotypical drag. But it also reads like someone closeted who can’t be out about their gender identity.

I can’t quite pin down how much of the narration is Beka misinterpreting and not knowing how to handle pronouns, and how much is Pierce not knowing how to write a trans character. Either way, it’s a step forward.

Moments of Feminism

Pierce includes many moments of intersectional feminism in Bloodhound. One of the threads of the book is the struggles of the poor and powerless, with the Bread Riot and other moments. Beka constantly worries about what will happen to the poor people, with grain prices rising, and coles infiltrating the market, and no king, guild, or Rogue to support them.

In addition, Bloodhound is satisfyingly sex worker-positive. Beka recommends that Fair Flory, the leader of the ‘flower girls’ or sex workers replace Pearl. Also, the book proves sex positive as well, given that Beka falls in love with Dale, buys a pregnancy charm, and alludes to having sex with him.

Furthermore, Pierce also addresses animal rights in several moments. Beka rescues Achoo from an abusive handler who beat her and starved her. Many moments describe how she feeds her a lot to bring her up to proper weight. Even Pearl won’t stand for animal cruelty. “Pearl’s face darkened. ‘It’s the lowest kind of scummer that will beat a creature who can’t speak of it.” (p. 492).

Pierce also makes up for some of her callousness regarding slavery with moments in Corus. Beka chased down someone who she knows to have coles, to find out where he got them. She finds a female slave in his house, and after Beka figures out he passed the coles on, Urtiz tries to bribe her. “Urtiz was one of those who liked to free slaves. That’s why he’d bought Ashmari. … Not to get me to turn a blind eye while he escaped, but wait until he’d freed her.” (p. 82). It’s a brief moment, and not complete recompense for her backsliding on slavery, but it shows that Tortall moves in a brighter direction sooner rather than later.

Moments of Difference from the Other Books

The Sewer Chase

Sometimes in books, certain moments need to be read in one sit down. Beka’s final chase of Pearl Skinner through the sewers is one such. One of Pearl’s lieutenants killed Slapper, a pigeon that followed Beka from Corus. She and Achoo chase down the lieutenant for hours, only for him to direct her to Pearl. Then she runs halfway across the city through the sewers and almost drowns fighting Pearl to bring her in. It’s visceral. Also, it is tonally distinct from Pierce’s other endings in a way that fits the genre but is still noticeable.

With previous heroines, Pierce went easy on them. Alanna powered through almost anything that her opponents threw at her, physical or emotional. Daine wound up magically exhausted several times, but the gods immediately healed her one major physical injury. With Kel, her wounds at the end of books tended to be emotional in nature. Aly, like her mother, brushed off any wounds she had to continue working. In the last book, Beka was fine. Here though, it’s different. Here we see Beka’s exhaustion, recorded across several days, as she writes down her actions.

But the true terror lies in these moments, “Goodwin and Pearl and I slept while mages worked on us. A scummer bath will kill someone that’s all cut up unless Lord Gershom pours coin into mages’ hands, saying, ‘Don’t you let them die.” (p. 628). Beka almost died because of her chase with Pearl. Maybe I just don’t feel the impact of the other endings anymore because I reread books a dozen times. But this was the first time I finished Bloodhound, and there were moments I could barely breathe because of this ending sequence. Thankfully, everything turns out alright, but this book ended much differently than previous ones have.

Moments of Dissonance Between Past and Present

Aside from nitpicks that I have about little things, Pierce faces challenges regarding writing Beka’s story in the past.

One of those is Lionel of Trebond. Yes, I get the joke going on here. ‘Beka is George’s ancestor, and Lionel is Alanna’s. Alanna’s ancestor did nothing competent in the whole story, imagine what she would think of him.’ His example shows how ostensibly good people can be coerced or intimidated into allowing bad things, yes. He also shows how class affects punishment. “You know how things are, Beka. He belongs to one of the most powerful families in the realm, and the King’s brother is his father-in-law.” (p. 636). But the major failing that I find in including Lionel of Trebond, rather than of anywhere else, is that joke becomes the only significant link between the past and present.

There are so many moments of dissonance between the past and present that at several times I almost felt I wasn’t reading a Tortall book at all. I would return to reading Bloodhound and think, why am I reading this crime novel? Part of it is good use of the genre from Pierce, but more that there were so few connections to previous books. Some of Pierce’s greatest successes in her previous books were showing cameos of previous characters in later series. Alanna shows up in Protector of the Small. Tkaa and the darkings show up in Trickster’s Queen.

But we don’t have anything like that here. There isn’t even a prologue and epilogue from Eleni to ground it, like in Terrier. Pounce gallivants through the stars for most of it, and we’re in a completely different city. Pierce even says she had trouble writing this book because of the plot.  Overall, it’s tonally different, with less to ground it with her other works.

Conclusion

Overall, Bloodhound uses a tightly strung plot to continue Beka’s journey. It also continues Pierce’s improving feminism, with some stumbling blocks. I mentioned in the opening that I couldn’t get through this book previously. I think the reason why is the last two segments.

Beka’s story is part of the police procedural/crime drama genre, blended with Pierce’s Tortallan fantasy setting. But when you blend genres, sometimes one overpowers the other. I think that was the case here.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fabulous book, and I appreciate it much more now than I did five years ago. But it feels different than her other stories, and that feeling drove me, and probably some of her other readers, off. There were moments where Pierce flirted with grim-dark, but, ultimately, there is hope. Beka exhausts herself and almost dies, yes, but she also goes home to the Dancing Dove to a celebration with her friends and co-workers. A hard winter, but still spring.


Image Courtesy of Random House

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