Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Tower of Joy Turned to Ashes

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The GoT crew here on Fandom Following spend a lot of time navel gazing about our self-appointed position as “book snobs,” that is, as people who criticize Game of Thrones specifically from the perspective of fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series. We often wonder if we’re being “fair”.

This worry is especially true for me as I sit down to write about last Sunday’s scene at the Tower of Joy. (Not that they called it that, but I’ll give them that one. It’s not super important.) I recognize two things. Firstly, that it would take a great deal to please me in any visual adaptation of this scene. It’s one of the most iconic, and most discussed, passages in the entire series.

It’s certainly one of the most important, for many, many reasons.

Secondly, as much as we’ve made the decision to focus on criticizing the show on its own merits, rather than strictly as an adaptation, it’s almost impossible to ignore the adaptational issues here. Not only because it makes this peice’s failure as an adaptation obvious, but also because, like I said, this is arguably the most important sequence in A Song of Ice and Fire. If they can’t get this right, there is very little hope.

I say this because I fully expect to be told that I should be grateful for this scene. Shouldn’t I be happy to see this on screen? Am I just determined to poke holes in this because I’m a hardened, bitter woman?

Well, I think it would be most useful to really break down these two scenes (book and show), to discuss the functions they play in the two narratives, to answer the questions; Did I see the Tower of Joy on my screen? What about this sequence is important? Why is it iconic?

So first, let’s take this scene by these Emmy award winning writers on this universally lauded show and consider it on its own, in its own context.

We begin with six riders approaching a tower. At the tower, a knight is polishing a sword with a wetstone. He’s never named but we figured he was Oswell Whent. He’s certainly not Gerold Hightower, who actually gets a namedrop later in this episode. Another knight approaches and picks up a helm. The camera work makes it obvious that he’s Important™.

We cut to Bran and Blood Raven The Three Eyed Raven (3ER) watching the scene as the riders arrive. Bran exposits that one of the riders is his father, Eddard Stark, who famously died in the first season. 3ER tells us that the man with him is Howland Reed.

The two knights grab their sword and make their way down to the riders. Bran states in amazement that the second of the knights is Arthur Dayne. “The Sword of the Morning,” 3ER agrees. Apparently a swordsman of some reputation.

Dayne acknowledges Ned after planting one of his swords in the ground. They then have a short conversation.

Ned: I looked for you on the Trident.

Dayne:  We weren’t there.

Whent: Your friend the usurper would lie beneath the ground if we had been.

Ned: The Mad King is dead.

Rhaegar lies beneath the ground.

Why weren’t you there to protect your prince?

Dayne: Our prince wanted us here.

Ned: Where’s my sister?

Dayne: I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.

And now it begins.

Ned: No. Now it ends.

They begin to fight. In the course of the combat, everyone but Dayne, Ned, and Howland Reed are killed. Bran expresses confusion. Dayne is clearly a much better swordsman than his father, yet he knows that Ned was ultimately victorious, he’s heard this story a thousand times.

Just as Dayne is about to give the killing blow, Howland Reed stabs him through the back of the neck. Bran is shocked. Ned picks up a sword and kills Dayne.

Then, they hear a woman’s scream from the tower. Ned runs towards it.

Bran asks what’s in there, but 3ER tells him it’s time to go. Bran objects, he calls out to his father, who stops and turns around, but sees nothing.

3ER pulls Bran out of the vision.

It wasn’t a very long sequence—about five minutes. Its function within the episode is rather straightforward, and its function within the season can be quite comfortably speculated upon.

Like the flashback in the previous episode, which also featured a younger Ned and Lyanna (sorry… spoilers), it was meant to characterize Bran and his longing for home. He’s not willing to commit to this whole becoming a tree thing, or give up his identity as a Stark. He’s using his newfound abilities as a way to connect to his family.

The Doylist function of the scene within the season is clearly a continuation of the seeding for the reveal about the identity of Jon’s parents. These clues are coming hard and fast now. After a good four seasons of silence, Lyanna and Rhaegar are getting name dropped all the time. Bran and his visions are a convenient way to do this.

However, I can’t say it’s a very elegant way to do it. Bran’s dialogue feels like it should be in a textbook under the heading “how not to write exposition” and the dialogue between the men, even pretending I didn’t know where it came from was unnatural and contrived. People simply don’t speak like that.

The fight itself was… well, I’m no expert in fighting with edged weapons, but Dayne’s style of fighting, with two swords both clearly meant to be used with both hands, seems a little improbable to me. It was all very flashy, but not especially memorable. In my limited experience, the best combat in film tends to be quite restrained. Every shot or stroke of the sword counting.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the character of Eddard Stark and how his actions in this scene may or may not be consistent with that character in a show-only context. The Ned of the show was portrayed as honourable to a fault, he would not look kindly on stabbing his foe in the back, nor killing him while he’s down. That is exactly the kind of behaviour he criticized Jaime Lannister for. However, Bran’s reaction of shock that his father would behave this way suggest that the writers are aware of this discrepancy, and meant to imply that this was the event that made Ned that way in the first place.

It’s also established that show!Ned is a competent swordsman who has some confidence in his abilities. So I think I’m willing to give this particular element a pass. If I were a show-only watcher I don’t think I would have a problem with it.

I would have a problem with how people keep saying “The Sword of the Morning” as though it’s supposed to mean something to me, though. I would have no clue what that is supposed to mean.

Apparently it’s not this sword

To contrast this scene with its source material in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are several major and important differences to consider.

Firstly, this sequences was not in A Feast for Crow or A Dance with Dragons, the two volumes that this season is still partly in, but it is, in fact, in the very first volume of the series, A Game of Thrones. It is told from the point of view on Eddard Stark, after he’d been recently injured and was high as a kite on opium.

In fact, the passage is short enough that I will quote it in full:

“He dreamt an old dream, of three knights in white cloaks, and a tower long fallen, and Lyanna in her bed of blood.

In the dream his friends rode with him, as they had in life. Proud Martyn Cassel, Jory’s father; faithful Theo Wull; Ethan Glover, who had been Brandon’s squire; Ser Mark Ryswell, soft of speech and gentle of heart; the crannogman, Howland Reed; Lord Dustin on his great red stallion. Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, grey wraiths on horses made of mist.

“They were seven, facing three. In the dream as it had been in life. Yet these were no ordinary three. They waited before the round tower, the red mountains of Dorne at their backs, their white cloaks blowing in the wind. And these were no shadows; their faces burned clear, even now. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, had a sad smile on his lips. The hilt of the greatsword Dawn poked up over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent was on one knee, sharpening his blade with a whetstone. Across his white-enameled helm, the black bat of his House spread its wings. Between them stood fierce old Ser Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

“I looked for you on the Trident,” Ned said to them.

“We were not there,” Ser Gerold answered.

“Woe to the Usurper if we had been,” said Ser Oswell.

“When King’s Landing fell, Ser Jaime slew your king with a golden sword, and I wondered where you were.”

“Far away,” Ser Gerold said, “or Aerys would yet sit the Iron Throne, and our false brother would burn in seven hells.”

“I came down on Storm’s End to lift the siege,” Ned told them, “and the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne dipped their banners, and all their knights bent the knee to pledge us fealty. I was certain you would be among them.”

“Our knees do not bend easily,” said Ser Arthur Dayne.

“Ser Willem Darry is fled to Dragonstone, with your queen and Prince Viserys. I thought you might have sailed with him.”

“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” said Ser Oswell.

“But not of the Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold pointed out. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”

“Then or now,” said Ser Arthur. He donned his helm.

“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.

Ned’s wraiths moved up beside him, with shadow swords in hand. They were seven against three.

“And now it begins,” said Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. He unsheathed Dawn and held it with both hands. The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light.”

“No,” Ned said with sadness in his voice. “Now it ends.” As they came together in a rush of steel and shadow, he could hear Lyanna screaming. “Eddard!” she called. A storm of rose petals blew across a blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.”

– A Game of Thrones

The most striking thing stylistically about this scene is that it’s a dream. A fever dream. The imagery and the dialogue are surreal and dream-like for that reason. I doubt we were supposed to presume that this is an actual conversation that Ned had with these three Kingsguard. It’s more about Ned’s regret that this fight had to happen at all. “You don’t have to be here,” he seems to be saying. “We don’t have to do this.”

To provide context for this event, this took place at the end of Robert’s Rebellion, when King Aerys and Rhaegar are already dead. Ned (somehow) gets the information that his sister Lyanna, whose kidnapping by Rhaegar was the proximate cause of this whole war, was in a tower in the red mountains that Rhaegar called “the Tower of Joy”. But when he arrives, he finds that three of the Kingsguard, the most prestigious order of knighthood in Westeros, are there. Presumably to keep Lyanna there.

We don’t know much about the fight itself, only that Ned and Howland Reed were the only survivors. And Lyanna died as well.

The dream makes the fight a tragedy. The dream version of Ned seems desperate to give these three men an out. He’s not proud of what happened. His “No, now it ends,” is not a statement of smug certainty, or even confidence. It’s simply a statement of fact. Ned knows this is the end. Because he’s had this dream before.

As I mentioned, this scene is the most discussed passage in the entire series, so I won’t claim to speak for the entire fandom, but my own interpretation of this scene is that this was some version of honourable suicide. The three knights knew that their position was futile, maybe they were even convinced that it was wrong, but they had “swore a vow.”

I find it quite hard to believe that three of the most experienced and skilled warriors in the realm wouldn’t be able to take on seven kids (Ned was no more than nineteen) no matter how battle hardened they had become.

Ned always thinks of these me with respect, and sadness. Especially Arthur Dayne.

Ser Arthur Dayne is probably known best to reader of A Song of Ice and Fire, apart from his death at the Tower of Joy, as the mentor and childhood hero of Jaime Lannister. He considers being knighted by Dayne to be one of his greatest achievements, because he is the go-to example for a perfect, honourable knight in this text. He is fierce but merciful, and he holds his word to be sacrosanct. He is called “the finest knight in the world” by more than one person.

“Something his father had told him once when he was little came back to him suddenly. He had asked Lord Eddard if the Kingsguard were truly the finest knights in the Seven Kingdoms. “No longer,” he answered, “but once they were a marvel, a shining lesson to the world.”

“Was there one who was best of all?”

“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. They called him the Sword of the Morning, and he would have killed me but for Howland Reed.” Father had gotten sad then, and he would say no more. Bran wished he had asked him what he meant.”

– A Clash of Kings

His sword, Dawn, is even more famous than he is.

Image credit: Fantasy Flight Games

Dawn is the ancestral sword of House Dayne, passed down in the family for thousands of years. The bearer of the sword is give the title “The Sword of the Morning”.

This sword is important. We’re not entirely sure why, in the grand scheme of the story, but it’s iconic, both in universe and out of it. And it and its bearer are rather inseparable.

I’m at a loss to explain why they thought the dual-wielding sword thing was a good idea. There was some emphasis on the sword, we even had a closeup of the a sword (made of ordinary steel) that had a sun on its hilt.

Was that supposed to be Dawn? I’ll try not to nitpick and point out thing like how Dawn is a great sword, that must use used with two hands, but honestly… one of the greatest swords in the history of Westeros isn’t enough to make this man impressive, he needs a second sword too? Is it also iconic?

But the sword issue is rather a microcosm for two things. Benioff and Weiss consistently go out of their way to change or omit iconic lines, scenes, and objects from the source material. And when they do include it, they tend to miss the point.

To take the second point first, it was quite entirely backwards that the focus of this sequence was on the fight. The fight is arguably the least important part of the Tower of Joy sequence. There may be a reason that the actually fighting was absent from the passage in the book.

Apart from the obvious plot implications vis a vis Jon, the importance of this sequence is to Ned. This was the formative experience of his life. This was when he chose his internal honour over his external honour. He chose to keep a promise to his sister, even though it meant betraying his king, lying to his wife, and placing his children in possible danger, not to mention letting people think that he had fathered a bastard, because he thought it was the right thing to do. And this is a rather tragic foil to the Kingsguard, and how they made the opposite choice. They chose to honour their vow, and die for a doomed caused.

It seems a little unproductive to say this now, but this scene is five seasons too late. If this sequence is not situated in the context of Ned’s arc, it simply doesn’t have a chance to have any of the same significance. Because it’s more important to Ned’s character and arc than it ever will be to R+L=J. And even that is at least as much about Ned as it is about Jon, if not more.

The stylistic changes bear this truth out even more. Perhaps writers of higher caliber that Benioff and Weiss could have turned that surrealist dialogue into natural conversation, but obviously they weren’t up to it.

Naturally, adaptations need to make changes. I’m not so much complaining about changes to to source material as much as I am pointing out a pattern of unnecessary changes to iconic elements of the source material. To the extent that I’m not entirely sure it’s not malicious.

Dawn was clearly the most egregious example in this particular case. The latest one in a long lines of “Your sisters” and  “Olly fetch me my swords” not to mention Sansa kneelings and non-direwolf-related last words. None of these are especially insulting on their own, but they’ve been adding up for several seasons, and they don’t exactly paint a picture of adaptors with a deep respect and understanding of the source material.

And this is without going for the actual nitpicks, which also add up and become nontrivial. Is Arthur Dayne no longer Dornish, or is this just the only time they decided not to other them with cartoon accents? Why are none of the Kingsguard wearing white cloaks? Why is it six against two instead of seven against three? It isn’t an entirely big deal, but why change it? Sure they’re decided not to go with Blood Raven’s canon backstory, but why add a comment about him being a thousand years old?

And, most importantly, why is there a random Dornishman, complete with stylish yellow turban, in Ned’s party? We know who the member of Ned’s party were, and unless Theo Wull decided to dress local all of a sudden, there is no reason for a Dornish coded person to be there. Like, they had to go through the trouble of getting that costume a dressing the actor in it. It didn’t happen by accident. So why did they do it?

The only reason I can think of for any of this, apart from the clumsy seeding, is that they were desperate for an action sequence in an episode that was otherwise just people sitting in rooms talking. But seeing the Tower of Joy sequence as an action scene is perhaps the most stunning “missing the point” of them all.

I recognize, by the way, that this show doesn’t really owe me anything. We book snobs aren’t really entitled to a faithful adaptation. But that doesn’t mean that they’re entitled to call this an adaptation without comment. If you claim to be adapting something, that is how I will approach it. If you tell me that a scene I love from my favourite book is “finally” on screen, and all I see is half-hearted depiction of the most superficial aspects of it, I think I’m entitled to point that out if I wish.

Images courtesy of HBO

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