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Dueling Book Clubs Review Mr. Fox

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A Flash Of Light, The Crackle Of Electricity, The Smell Of Metal Shavings, And Taste Of Magic In The Air Sweet And Powerful And Sharp As A Razor. DaVinci Had His Machines And Merlin His Spells, But The Techno Wizards Have Both In Perfect Unison, A Mystery Even Mecha Dragons Cannot Understand. We Know The Magics Of Ink And Of Oil, And If You Seek Us, You Will Find Us In Our Workshops, Crafting A Masterpiece.

Cast

  • Jeremiah
  • Andrea*
  • Gretchen
  • Mehek
  • Michał

*Sadly, Andrea was unable to join the rest of us this time due to a family emergency.

Book 3: Mr. Fox

Author of Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi

Mr. Fox is the fourth published novel from award winning author Helen Oyeyemi, listed as one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. Published in 2011, Mr. Fox is the story of slasher novelist Mr. Fox, who has a penchant for killing off the women in his novels in gruesome ways. His witty, sly muse Mary Foxe comes to life and challenges Mr. Fox to become the subject of his own and her stories in a complex game of fairy-tale hide and seek. In a series of interconnected vignettes, Mary, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Fox’s wife Daphne get swept up in a larger narrative about relationships, jealousy, romance, and the ways people hurt each other in intimate ways. In the end, Mr. Fox is faced with the choice between restoring the strained relationship with his wife or succumbing to the fantastical picture of romance that Mary Foxe offers.

Round Robin

What did you think of the book’s setting?

Jeremiah: There’s no real setting per se. It’s all in Mr. Fox’s mind/study for most of it. That’s kind of what I liked about it. It always took me a few sentences to figure out if what I was reading was really happening or if it was in his or Mary’s head.

Michał: I was never sure what is real and what isn’t.

Gretchen: There was a vivid element of the fantastical about it, especially the first third of the book. It was never quite clear whose perspective was dominant or in control of the story. I liked the puzzle of it all.

Mehek: That was the part that really vexed me, the puzzling nature of the timeline/setting. I consistently felt like I had to go back, re-read, and never quite knew what was happening.

Michał: I feel like I still don’t know what really did happen.

Gretchen: Yeah. The setting shift from 1930’s to modern halfway through was a bit jarring. One second you’re reading about typewriters and then a new story starts with Mary on an airplane. I’m still not quite sure how that vignette fits in with the rest in terms of setting in time.

Jeremiah: For me, the overall narrative was Mary showing Mr. Fox the women didn’t have to die or fight each other for there to be drama. That there was another way to tell a story without killing every woman.

Michał: So was it a story told by Mary?

Jeremiah: That was my take.

Mehek: Mine as well, which felt kind of odd. I feel like we lost Mr. Fox along the way.

Jeremiah: Well that’s thing though. I felt like it was meant to have us try and suss out how much of Fox and how much of Mary was in each story. Some had more of one than the other.

Michał: Now that I think about it, the various stories did feature common elements and roles they fell into. Like the young soldier in the story of a Middle-Eastern woman had a Mr. Fox feel to him.

Gretchen: True. Oyeyemi did a good job tying the various small stories together with one or two subtle similarities. Like the use of foxgloves or the color blue. After a while, you could start to see each of the ‘real life’ characters in the various stories.

Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?

Michał: It’s kind of arguable how many characters there actually are, considering how the cast of the various story branches seemed to be variations of Mr. Fox, Mary and Daphne.

Jeremiah: I really loved Daphne, St. John’s actual wife. A man probably wouldn’t have fleshed her out as well, but Oyeyemi does an amazing job giving her full dimensions for a character that really doesn’t come into fruition until the last act.

Mehek: I loved the bits with Mary, especially closer to the beginning of the book. She felt the most fleshed out through the different ways the novel went.

Gretchen: I agree. But, I’ll be honest, I didn’t connect strongly with any of the characters. I enjoyed Mary, especially at the beginning during the power struggle over telling the story. But Daphne reminded me too much of my mother, and not in a positive way. I had a strong negative reaction to St. John in the opening scene, and he never quite improved for me.

Jeremiah: St. John has always been, for me, Oyeyemi’s version of the typical male author who thinks he’s artistic and doesn’t realize his own misogyny.

Gretchen: Totally! Maybe he just took too long to change? I have to admit, I couldn’t finish this book due to the way it handled the depiction of domestic abuse, so I may have missed his growth arc.

Michał: I’m not sure if he does improve…

Jeremiah: I don’t think he does. Maybe a little, but not much.

Gretchen: So if he doesn’t improve, what do you think Oyeyemi’s goal is with him as a character?

Jeremiah: I’ve read this book twice and I’ve struggled with that. I think it’s her way of commenting on the nature of change. That a person has to want to change and/or change doesn’t always appear dramatically. It’s the small things.

Michał: Maybe the point is Daphne’s change, not his.

Gretchen: Oooo, that’s interesting. What would you say Daphne’s change is?

Jeremiah: She demands more from St. John and also takes less abuse from him. She realizes she’s worth more than the way he’s treated her. I’m with Michał; I’ve always viewed the book as a sly story about Daphne and Mary rather than about St. John himself.

Gretchen: That’s interesting. I like that idea….especially as Mary seems to be the one who pulls Daphne into the story. That’s a clever little twist.

What didn’t work with the novel?

Mehek: I think ultimately, what didn’t work for me was the non-linear story telling. I comprehend books fairly well, but this just lost me far more often than it pulled me in. I wanted to get into it, to follow what was happening. But I read for the sake of being submerged, and I couldn’t find an “in.” In previous stories we’ve read, there was a pull into the story, a hook. And maybe I didn’t catch it with this book.

Michał: I agree with Mehek; this book sort of outsmarts itself and the reader. It plays with time, place and continuity so much that you lose its thread.

Mehek: I was poking around Goodreads trying to get a little insight, and came across Roxane Gay’s review of it. And she didn’t get it, either. That makes me feel better about not getting it, that if Roxane Gay didn’t understand the story, it might be a little over everyone’s head.

Jeremiah: I didn’t have an issue with the structure. My issue was, like Gretchen, the way abuse was portrayed; it was startling and visceral. And there was no real, sort of…anything in response to that. But again I think that’s because most abusers don’t realize they’re abusers? I don’t know. It was the one thing that has always irked me.

Gretchen: I could see what she was going for with the lack of response, but as someone who lived with a mother who had an explosive, sometimes violent temper like Daphne, the blasé way the narrative treats both that and St. John’s nonchalant physical threats disturbed me. Oyeyemi’s attempts at neutrality or objectivity (if that was her intent) came off as flippant to me.

The mutual domestic abuse also undercut what I thought was one of Oyeyemi’s main themes, that of St. John learning how not to kill off his female characters. I don’t think it’s intentional, but at times, Daphne’s temperament and behavior almost feel like a justification for St. John’s violent storytelling. And I don’t like that implication.

Jeremiah: I always viewed St. Johns and Daphne’s relationship as toxic. The sort of relationship that is often celebrated in ‘great art’.

Michał: St. John was scarily good at gaslighting Daphne.

Gretchen: I can see what you mean, Jeremiah, sort of. I skimmed the end of the book, and it seemed like they renew their relationship at the end, which doesn’t sit right. Part of my reaction may be that several reviews describe this as a book about love, which, reading the toxicity in their relationship, turned my stomach. The dust jacket calls it a “love story like no other”. Calling this a ‘love story’ and given them a happy ending feels like a normalization of abuse as a legitimate expression of love, especially given my history.

Michał: I don’t have as personal a reaction to it, but I definitely wouldn’t describe it as “a book about love”, either. It’s more… about power? And how people can inflict it on others. If I had to nail it down to one thing.

Jeremiah: I think a lot of it has to do with what people tend to think ‘love’ is and how art portrays ‘great love’. For example, people love “The Notebook”, and I’m just like “That’s not healthy.” Then again, I love this book so I don’t know what that says about me.

Gretchen: I like the idea of it, especially Mary taking Mr. Fox into his own stories to live out the implication of violence against women. It felt to me like a young writer who had two different themes that didn’t quite coalesce well in the final product.

What Did Work in the Novel?

Gretchen: That being said, Oyeyemi has an excellent command of language and metaphor. She’s an evocative storyteller, and I love her word pictures.

Mehek: The writing was really stunning. I feel like I want to read other books by her because of the language and the way she wrote. This may just not have been the plot/story for me.

Michał: Helen Oyeyemi does have a powerful way with words. The story jumped from one “setting” to another, but each of them was defined and colored very quickly and distinctively.

Jeremiah: Her word magic is strong. Her other books are also amazing. Although stay away from “Boy, Snow Bird”. But, she has an unique ability to get the feeling of the setting through in just a few words. And the atmosphere and mood is so complete. The story on the plane is this odd psychological thriller/ghost story while another one is this bizarre fantastical love story rooted in Yoruba lore and set in Paris.

Gretchen: “The Training at Madame de Silentio’s” was such a good story. The tone and subversion of the traditional female “school to become a good wife” narrative gripped me. I would read an entire book based on that vignette alone.

Michał: I kept expecting the Reynardine character to become relevant, or even central, but it never happened. In the end, it was just another story, probably Mary’s.

Jeremiah: I really loved how the inner process of writing in some ways is laid bare. Most stories start out as these little nuggets. Most writers will lay claim to arguing with non existent characters about how they are behaving. But here she flips it. A non-existent character starts chastising the creator for how he’s behaving. While at the same time the different stories had similar themes. A lot of authors tend to have themes or obsessions that pop up in their books. Sometimes it means something and sometimes it’s just because they love the color red.

Michał: I think that might be what this book is really about. It’s a story about stories. With several tiny narrative seeds that might have become stories.

Gretchen: I do typically enjoy a good meta-narrative where writers talk about writing. The Yoruba story especially touched on the writing process and one’s allegiance to past and history in telling stories. It approaches storytelling in a much less Western, individualistic, “singular artistic vision” kind of way, and I find that compelling.

Closing/Overall Thoughts

Michał: I’m glad I read this book, even though I spend most of my time reading in a state of acute confusion. I felt like it showed me some places and ideas I wouldn’t have got to know otherwise, and that’s something I appreciate.

Jeremiah: As I’ve said before, this is my second time reading this book. It’s stayed with me ever since I first read it. Oyeyemi’s way with the language is up there with Gaiman and Diemer in terms of how it just seems to flow effortlessly. Plus, every time I read the book I’m reminded just how cruel men can be in everyday situations because we’ve normalized it so much.

Gretchen: Oyeyemi is a creative, evocative writer with a gift for language, no doubt about that. For me, however, her youth really showed in the inelegant way she handled heavy themes such as abuse and toxic relationships. So much so that I had to put the book down as it was hitting too close to some very personal, very difficult experiences in my life. I also think that she may have outsmarted herself and tried to tackle some subjects she wasn’t entirely prepared to fully tease out in an effective way. While I can’t recommend this specific book of hers to everyone, she’s a clever and gifted writer. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Mehek: I’m glad to have been introduced to this writer through this book. I echo Gretchen though, that this really isn’t for everyone. I think that with regards to how the book is marketed, there should be some indication of the abuse/toxicity within the book, but beyond that, I look forward to reading other books by Oyeyemi.

Tune in next month for our review of Sara Diemer’s The Dark Wife, a sapphic retelling of the Hades and Persephony story from Greek mythology!


Images Courtesy of Riverhead Books

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Nancy Drew Update Gets New Home And More Dramatic Premise

Dan

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Nancy Drew is leaving the dusty shelves of your mom’s old bedroom and coming to a prime-time drama. Deadline has announced that a shelved CBS adaptation would be moving to NBC, keeping producers Tom Phelan and Joan Rater but forcing a significant retooling. This comes after CBS passed on the series in 2016, opting instead to pick up the Nancy Drew producers’ other pilot, Doubt. Both series were developed as a part of Phelan and Rater’s 2 year deal with CBS TV Studios.

Disappointing many, CBS’s Sarah Shahi-led reboot was DOA last year despite positive screenings. According to Deadline, the modern retelling of the intrepid girl detective tested well, but skewed “too feminine” for their lineup…which is, of course, horse shit but that’s the business. CBS needs to make room for six NCIS spinoffs, four shows about shlubby suburban dads, and of course, Young Sheldon.

Once the pilot for Nancy Drew was rejected, CBS TV Studios and producers Tom Phelan and Joan Rater were determined the get the show picked up on another network. Apparently, it took a significant retool for NBC to bite, as the pair of producers changed the premise radically. No longer focused on a 30-something Drew contending with cases in a modern day police force, the show will be a sort of female Castle, where Nancy Drew is a real person who based the Nancy Drew series on her own life. Brought in to an ongoing murder mystery, she decides she needs the help of two childhood friends. Still mad at her for making them simple sidekicks, the three women, all in their 40s and 50s, must pull together and solve the modern day mysteries they have found themselves involved in.

The Nancy Drew book series began in 1930 when Hardy Boys creator Edward Stratemeyer thought the boys needed a female counterpart. After the publisher rejected such names as “Diana Dare,” “Helen Hale,” and “Nan Nelson,” they finally settled on Nancy Drew to be the new heroine’s name. Like all books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the books were written by various ghostwriters under the collective pen name “Carolyn Keene.” Since her debut, Drew has appeared in 175 volumes of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series, as well as 124 volumes of the more middle-grade Nancy Drew Files series.

She has also appeared in multiple modern spins, graphic novels, and crossovers with the Hardy Boys. Four adaptations of her adventures were put to film between 1938 and 1939, with a fifth adaptation starring Emma Roberts coming out in 2007. She has not been so lucky on the small screen, with most attempts marred by bad luck or lack of interest, save a 1977 series The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. While the series helped make actress Pamela Sue Martin (later of Dynasty) a teen idol, Nancy never got the full spotlight and by the second season had become little more than a guest star. The new series from NBC will mark her first television appearance since an abortive ABC effort in 2002.

The husband-and-wife duo of Phelan and Rater creating the new series are best known for their work as writers and producers on Grey’s Anatomy, where they served as writers and eventually showrunners in their final three seasons there. Their show Doubt starred Grey’s Anatomy star, Katherine Heigl. Facing mixed reviews and bad ratings, CBS nixed the show after the second episode, with the rest of the series burned off in July of this year.


Images courtesy of Stratemeyer Syndicate

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GRRM’s And Death His Legacy is uncomfortably contemporary

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project

For the next step in our exploration of the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM), we’ll take a look at And Death His Legacy. Martin wrote this short story for his creative writing class in 1968, but it took until Dreamsongs (2003) for it to be finally published. It’s the last sample of GRRM’s amateur writing in Dreamsongs, so it will be the last of his amateur stories for us.

GRRM defines And Death His Legacy as a “mainstream story with a political slant.” According to him, the main character grew from his enthusiasm with James Bond stories:

Maximilian de Laurier was intended to be an ‘elegant assassin,’ who would jaunt about the world killing evil dictators in exotic locations. His big gimmick would be a pipe that doubled as a blowgun. By the time I got around to putting him on paper, only the name remained. My politics had changed, and assassination no longer seemed so sexy after 1968.

So let’s see how that turned out.

The Prophet and the Dead Man

And Death his Legacy is very short, and follows two distinct figures. On one side, we see the political rise of a presidential candidate known as “the Prophet” (no, not Aeron Greyjoy). His real name is Norvel Arlington Beauregard, and:

The Prophet came out of the South with a flag in his right hand and an axe handle in his left, to preach the creed of Americanism. He spoke to the poor and the angry, to the confused and to the fearful, and in them he woke a new determination. For his words were like a fire in the land, and wherever he stopped to speak, there the multitudes arose to march behind him.

We get a few glimpses of the Prophet’s beliefs, which I’m sure will sound familiar for modern audiences:

“You and me had to work for what we had, so why should they get pampered by the government? Why should you good folks have to pay taxes to support a bunch of lazy, ignorant bums who don’t want to work anyway?”

There’s more where that came from. Much more, in fact: though that isn’t made explicit in his speeches, the Prophet is often compared to a nazi. His opposers certainly think so, and the narrative supports this in subtle hints:

And all the people cheered and cheered, and the noise all but drowned out the faint echo of jackboots in the distance.

The other character we follow closely is Maximilian de Laurier, one of the Prophet’s opposers. An English millionaire dying of cancer, Maximilian is concerned that even with all his money, position, and influence, he didn’t accomplish anything “to show that Maxim de Laurier has lived”. So he has an idea.

Motivated by the horrors that may be averted if the Prophet stops now, de Laurier decides to finish him. He vanishes, fake-his-death style, and rents a hotel room near one of the Prophet’s rallies. De Laurier shoots the Prophet, killing him mid-speech.

De Laurier escapes, but his plan backfired: the Prophet’s vice-presidential candidate says they’ll continue his fight and the Prophet becomes some sort of martyr for his followers. It’s implied that Maximilian de Laurier will continue to gun down his successors.

On Morality and Conflicts

There’s a lot to unpack here. Despite being written in the 1968, a series of unfortunate circumstances make And Death His Legacy quite contemporary.

The Prophet’s speeches could have easily come from several politicians and world leaders still active today. The moniker ‘Prophet’ is an interesting choice, that tells us a lot about the position he occupies for his followers. Dealing with nazis rising in power is sadly contemporary too, though I wonder if GRRM would have expected that to be accurate fifty years later.

Unfortunately, a white man renting a hotel room to shoot people from the window is also quite contemporary. Especially over the past few weeks. This made And Death His Legacy difficult to read. When I announced this would be our next story, I had no idea what real-life events would take place and how much they would affect my reading. Yet they did, and I can’t ignore that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for opposing nazis and I can’t feel sorry for the Prophet or his followers. Killing nazis has been a classic in fiction and for quite obvious reasons. In fact, if GRRM wanted to deconstruct the James Bond perspective of ‘assassination is cool’, he should have picked a different antagonist. Any attempt to explore the morality of killing the Prophet is severely hindered by constantly comparing him to a nazi.

Still, killing nazis is probably Maximilian de Laurier’s only quality. He’s quite a flat character, often unlikable, and if his enemy were different I wouldn’t find anything relatable about him. Given current events, it bothers me deeply to be asked to empathize with a guy that shoots people from a hotel window, as much as I appreciate his intentions.

There’s an attempt to create an internal conflict for Maximilian, but it just doesn’t work for me. I mean, this is how he articulates it:

“So sick,” he whispered hoarsely to himself, “so very, very sick. But do I have the right? If he is what they want, can I have the right, alone, to overrule them in the name of sanity?”

Excuse me, what? There are many possible moral conflicts surrounding the decision of taking another person’s life, but that is your concern? That you don’t want to violate people’s freedom of choosing genocide? What nonsense is that? Dude, just shut up and shoot the nazi already.

I don’t know what to make of And Death his Legacy. Or rather I don’t know what the story is trying to tell me. GRRM clearly doesn’t want to glorify Maximilian’s actions or present them as effective, but then why use somebody as obviously evil as nazis for antagonists? The story implies a certain futility in Maximilian’s actions, since they’re not accomplishing anything, but he’s still fighting nazis so I guess he gets points for at least trying? It’s confusing. Maybe this was an early attempt at the grey morality GRRM is so fond of exploring, but nazis are pitch black morality so anyone in comparison is a good guy.

On Legacies

And Death his Legacy makes me wonder how we should approach potentially problematic content, particularly content that wasn’t produced in our time.

I know very little of GRRM’s influences when he wrote this story, or how elements like a possibly-nazi presidential candidate or a white shooter from a hotel would be read back then. But I know how I read those elements now.

This is a frequent question when analysing media—how do we approach older material? Should we judge them by today’s standards? Even though the writer was a product of their time and operating under a different mentality? Even though the writer couldn’t have predicted how their story would be read nearly half a century later? Even though their intentions were possibly different, but the meaning of the elements in the story changed?

Katie touched a similar issue in her recent analysis on Tolkien and a “higher race” (because of course you’re following her amazing Lord of the Rings re-read), so I’m afraid this happens often in older stories. Ultimately, I don’t think we can hold writers responsible for implications they probably couldn’t have foreseen. Yet, as modern audiences, we can’t divorce our analysis from our own influences and how those elements are perceived today.

To be clear, I don’t think GRRM glorified shooting people from hotels and I can’t hold him responsible for how this can be read today, particularly at the time I read and analysed this story. Perhaps in another moment I could have simply enjoyed the nazi-killing ride and this aspect wouldn’t stand out this much. And perhaps if nazis weren’t rising again I could afford to question the morality of killing some. But those are not the circumstances under which I read this story.

Situations like this remind me why I can’t agree with the “it’s just a story” crowd. Stories have the power to touch people, even long after they’re produced. The takeaway changes as the circumstances change, but they’re never devoid of meaning. They’re never devoid of implications, whether or not the writer controls them. And even the same person reading a story under different circumstances could feel differently.

From a writer’s perspective, I find this effect disturbing and fascinating. The story remains the same, but the wallpaper around it changes in ways we can’t predict. We can’t hold the writer accountable for that, I think, but we also can’t ignore the new meanings and interpretations around a story. 

Closing Thoughts

Implications aside, or as much as we can distance ourselves from them, I feel the story doesn’t work for me on a storytelling level. So, as we close GRRM’s amateur phase, two conclusions come to mind.

One, that if I have to be honest the stories this far weren’t as interesting as I expected them to be. I admire GRRM for his complex worldbuilding, his well-crafted dialogue, and especially for his characters. In his earlier writing, those elements are flawed or absent. 

Of course I don’t demand from a short story the level of complexity that A Song of Ice and Fire has, but size definitely doesn’t matter when it comes to storytelling. Short stories have a lot of potential, and GRRM himself would come to write one of my favorite short stories ever just five years after he wrote And Death His Legacy. So I know the problem is not the medium, but that the writer is still learning his craft.

Fortunately, we know he’ll improve a lot. That’s the second conclusion, and the benefit of approaching his bibliography in chronological order: to see how GRRM started with ordinary and unremarkable stories and made his way into more interesting and relevant ones. We can already see the seeds.

Next time: GRRM’s writing career effectively starts and we’ll be looking at “The Hero”, his first professionally published story.


 

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The Game of Thrones Mystery that Never Was

Kylie

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Game of Thrones has been off our screens for almost two months, and despite running a blog dedicated to the show’s idiocy, I’ve found myself barely able to recall the events of Season 7. “Oh yeah,” I say, pausing to scrape wet food out of a can for Trystane, “Jaime and the Lannisters took Highgarden in an off-screen fight and poisoned Olenna.”

Really, everything leading to the culmination of the season sounds like some kind of incoherent fever dream: there was like, this mission to capture a wight…I think to convince Cersei of something? A truce! And Tormund and Beric and Jorah and Jon and Thoros were there? Gendry too. He had to run really fast!

Though Julia and I have not begun our rewatch of the season yet, I have a hunch we’re going to come to the conclusion that once again, showrunners Benioff and Weiss (D&D) wrote backwards from a bunch of cool moments or shocks. However, it still boggles my mind that they truly believed one of those beautiful, heart-pounding, breath-taking, live changing moments for Season 7 was the “reveal” of Rhaegar and Lyanna’s wedding intercut with sex in the most unearned romance possible. The reason it boggles my mind is two-fold: one, because we already found out Jon’s parentage last year. And secondly, no aspect of this was ever meant to be a reveal.

Okay, to the first charge, I know that we found out Rhaegar and Lyanna were earnestly in love, rather than Lyanna having been kidnapped against her will and raped, as we’ve heard it described by characters within the show.

Littlefinger: How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?

Sansa: Yes, he chose her. And then he kidnapped her and raped her.

Which, ignoring power dynamics and rather large age differences…okay? I’m chuffed to bits that the clarification about the brutalization of a woman we know literally nothing about and who has been on our screen a grand total of three times is considered so weighty. But forgive me if the framing and importance of the matter seemed to be more about Jon and Dany.

Oh, was it that the wedding proves Jon is the “rightful heir of Westeros” despite us spending three seasons with a Dany who wants to “break the wheel,” and two seasons with the most incomprehensible succession possible? Those intense Watsonian issues aside, that actually might be why D&D wrote to that flashback sequence, especially given Bran’s heavy-handed exposition over top of it.

“[Jon’s] never been a bastard. He’s the heir to the Iron Throne. He needs to know.”

Bran needs to know that the Targaryens were deposed by Robert, though of course, another part of this sequence was about how Robert’s Rebellion was “built on a lie.” I’m quite certain Aerys still violated the social contract expected of a king to his vassals, and that Rickard and Brandon Stark being roasted alive was no lie, but hey…had they just known Rhaegar and Lyanna were in love I guess there was a diplomatic solution in there somehow.

Look, my main point is that this “game changer” isn’t much of one at all. Jon could absolutely end up on the Iron Throne in this series. But it’s not as though Bran will explain this and suddenly everyone vying for the throne in some way will toss up their hands and agree it’s clear who’s meant to rule them. Nor do I see this thrilling the free and independent Northern Lords, unless of course Lyanna Mormont randomly tosses in her approval.

So we’re left with the fact that this ~amazing~ piece of information about Jon took two terrible flashback sequences in two season finales to fully explain, and yet it’s basically just a factoid that Bran thinks is cool. We haven’t even seen Jon react to it, and there’s really no indication why this would be so important to everyone in the story that it would render all current politics moot. It could at least compel Jon to act a certain way, or perhaps to get the Northern Lords to push for something, but the way we learned about it was contextualized by officially nothing. Hell, last year we didn’t even get Bran’s reaction!

In other words, it’s a reveal for the sake of the audience. But…why? So we can get excited about Jon’s legal viability? So we too can plan our own riverside wedding?

The thing is, I’m being rather negative about an aspect of the story that I’m quite fond of in the books. Yes, I speak of “R+L=J,” and everything surrounding this story. There’s a “mystery” aspect to it, in that the characters on our page are unaware. And yeah, Jon’s true parentage could be used in a way that might alter the politics, plus I’m assuming Jon himself will have a lot to think about the matter. However, the best part of it is that there’s no mystery at all. R+L=J is baldly on-page in the first book, and upon reread it makes everything click into place. Click how? By making sense of Ned’s arc, the person for whom this story really mattered.

I don’t want to sound condescending; I didn’t “figure out” Jon’s parentage on my first readthrough. It’s sort of in the realm of subtext, and if you’re not reading closely or really thinking through the emotional state of Ned, it’s very easy to miss. I’d peg it as being about as obvious as Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald. Once I began engaging with A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) online, it was impossible to escape the R+L=J dialogue, so who knows if I even would have had it all click on a second read.

It doesn’t really matter. I suppose for some there might be bragging rights, just like for those who see both the duck and the rabbit on first glance. But what’s important is that it’s impossible to look at the image the same way after it’s mentioned, and it’s that whole image that characterizes Ned Stark.

See, Ned’s arc is perhaps one of Martin’s most “literary.” It’s about his struggle to balance internal vs. external honor as he navigates a particularly difficult political situation and is haunted by some of the similarities to the past. Yes, he tries to do the right thing and ends up with his head on a spike. But knowing about his sister’s death, the choices she made, and the lies he told to protect her, his actions come from an entirely sympathetic place.

Without the scaffolding of R+L=J…he just kind of seems like this stoopid who’s so committed to honor that it gets him killed.

Hell, Jon was the only sore point in his marriage, and yet he went to great lengths to protect him, raise him as his own, and never leave a space for him to be questioned. Why might that be?

“Ned did not feign surprise; Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him. He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannister had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar’s wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the young prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. Eddard Stark had ridden out that very day in a cold rage, to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south. It had taken another death to reconcile them; Lyanna’s death, and the grief they had shared over her passing.”

Rather ironically, it was another “dragonspawn” that allowed for the reconciliation. But then when we think ahead to Ned’s biggest mistake, giving Cersei a heads up that he was going to tell Robert about her infidelity and illegitimate children, it suddenly makes a bit of sense as to why.

“Honor, “ [Cersei] spat. “How dare you play the noble lord with me! What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother, I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I’m told. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from Robert, or me, or Jaime?

“For a start,” said Ned, “I do not kill children.”

Remember when this show was an adaptation?

What’s amazing is the irony of this. Ned’s one most “dishonorable” action in the eyes of Westeros is a lie, told to protect his sister’s baby and keep his promise that he made on her deathbed. At the end of the day, it’s his internal honor he has to content himself with, as well as his sacrifices for his family. We see this attitude reflected throughout his chapters.

“I told [Nymeria] to run, to go be free, that I didn’t want her anymore. There were other wolves for her to play with, we heard them howling, and Jory said the woods were full of game, so she’d have deer to hunt. Only she kept following, and finally we had to throw rocks. I hit her twice. She whined and looked at me and I felt so ‘shamed, but it was right, wasn’t it? The queen would have killed her.”

“It was right,” her father said. “And even the lie was… not without honor.”

His death was brought on by that tension, and his decision to ultimately swallow his pride and “confess his crimes” just before it happened was to protect his daughter. Really, honor didn’t get Ned killed at all. He had tried to avoid causing the hurt and pain that he understood in his own life, he did what was asked of him regardless of the stain on his honor to avoid harm to his family, and his downfall was a newly crowned boy-king with a history of cruelty refusing to play along with the courtly charade.

This isn’t to say Ned’s arc is cheap. There’s an absolutely haunting nature to this deeply-felt sense of guilt and duty—one that’s on just about every page in his chapters.

“Ned rose and paced the length of the room. “If the queen had a role in this or, gods forbid, the king himself… no, I will not believe that.” Yet even as he said the words, he remembered that chill morning on the barrowlands, and Robert’s talk of sending hired knives after the Targaryen princess. He remembered Rhaegar’s infant son, the red ruin of his skull, and the way the king had turned away, as he had turned away in Darry’s audience hall not so long ago. He could still hear Sansa pleading, as Lyanna had pleaded once.”

And of course nothing is more haunting than his recurring dream, which we’re treated to in his feverish state.

It’s just…tragic. It’s tragic that he couldn’t openly communicate about the one thing that’s torn him up for years. That he stays so close-lipped with his daughters despite empathizing entirely. And of course, that he met his end based on the decisions he made as a result of these scars. That’s the power of R+L=J. That’s the story where Jon’s parentage was actually explored.

So of course that’s not at all how Game of Thrones approached it. Instead, D&D were hell-bent on preserving the “mystery” that never was. It was a texture woven into the tale. Had we known Jon was a hidden prince back in Season 1, it wouldn’t have detracted from anything at all. In fact, there might have been interesting parallels to the exiled princess, for instance. You know, the one he’s now supposedly madly in love with? And of course it would have painted Ned in an entirely different light—one where audiences could actually track the amazingly subtle job Sean Bean did at showing this inner guilt and pain.

It’s not as shocking if information isn’t withheld for five seasons, I guess. But the great reveal of Jon’s parentage is now completely ungrounded from the parts of the story that made it significant in the first place. Sure, the “mystery” was preserved, though there’s one small problem: we never were given a reason to want to solve it.


Images courtesy of Elia Mervi & HBO

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