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Water Gardens and Blood Oranges, Part IV: It Ends in Blood

“Would that a council seat were all Martell came to claim,” Lord Tywin said. “You promised him vengeance as well.”

“I promised him justice.”

“Call it what you will. It still comes down to blood.” (ASOS TYRION I)

As A Dance With Dragons closes, Doran Martell’s master plan has already failed. His son is dead and the chance for a Targaryen alliance has slipped through his fingers. But Doran doesn’t yet know this, and he and his family hurtle toward war regardless.

This final essay in this series will speculate on what the Dornish arc is building up to. It will necessarily be more speculative than previous installments, but I’ll focus heavily on textual foreshadowing and thematic setup that I see pointing in a certain way.

Where does the desire for vengeance lead? Overall, I think the Dornish arc is heading toward two tragedies — first a moral tragedy, as they will be responsible for the deaths of Tommen and Myrcella, and then a larger bloody horror for the Dornish people when they end up at war against Dany.

(Spoiler note: This essay will discuss the first two Arianne chapters from The Winds of Winter.)

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Water Gardens and Blood Oranges, Part III: Quentyn’s Duty and Destiny

“Vengeance.” His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. “Justice.” Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, “Fire and blood.” (AFFC ARIANNE II)

When he raised his whip, he saw that the lash was burning. His hand as well. All of him, all of him was burning.

Oh, he thought. Then he began to scream. (ADWD QUENTYN IV)

Martin has said that part of his project in ASOIAF is to portray both sides of war — the glorious stirrings one may feel in the moment, and the bloody and awful aftermath. He excels at presenting awesome, feel-good moments of vengeful badassery — Robb’s crowning, Dany’s “Dracarys” in Astapor — and then undercutting them by showing the sad reality and horrific results of those decisions. With Doran’s exhilarating speech about “fire and blood,” he does it again.

Many readers wonder what the point of Quentyn’s arc is. One common interpretation is that Martin is deconstructing the hero’s journey or the idea of “adventure,” and that is absolutely a major theme to the arc that I will explore. But we should also consider how Quentyn’s story fits into the larger Dornish arc. Considered in that context, Quentyn’s POV is meant shows us what Doran’s cool-sounding desire for vengeance really means and feels like to the son he foists it on. It shows the logical endpoint of a desire for “fire and blood.”

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Water Gardens and Blood Oranges, Part II: Arianne’s Ambitions

As A Feast for Crows opens, the Sand Snakes openly press for war, and Doran Martell secretly plans for it. Both want vengeance, and both are fixated on King’s Landing. Arianne Martell has different aims. This essay will discuss her motivations, her main character traits, and her disastrous first attempt to play the game of thrones — and its thematic importance for the larger Dornish arc. Through Myrcella’s fate, we see that it truly is the children who pay the price, when nobles play the game of thrones.

(Spoiler note: This essay will focus on AFFC, but I’ll briefly quote Arianne’s preview chapter from The Winds of Winter toward the end.)

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Water Gardens and Blood Oranges, Part I: The Viper and the Grass

By the start of A Storm of Swords, much of Westeros has experienced horrors. Civilians have been raped and murdered, soldiers have been stabbed and burned, prominent noblemen have been maimed and killed, and families have been destroyed. The kingdom of Dorne, however, is at peace. It has stayed out of the War of Five Kings, and out of the series entirely. Then, one prince journeys to King’s Landing while another voyages east — and Dorne begins to drift toward war.

In this essay series, I’ll analyze the Dornish arc as a whole, and argue that it showcases themes that are crucial to Martin’s overall project. The late introduction of the Dornish, and the expanded emphasis on them in books 4-5, have been controversial among some readers. The addition of several new minor POVs and the seemingly “pointless” Quentyn arc have come in for particular criticism.

But this is a plotline that’s not about one particular character — it’s about a family, and a nation. I believe Oberyn’s errand, Doran’s secret plan, Arianne’s scheme, Quentyn’s voyage, the Sand Snakes’ warmongering and Ellaria’s fears should all be considered together, as part of a thematically coherent larger story that Martin is telling. We haven’t spent more than a few chapters in the head of any particular Dornish character, but in this arc Martin has created a multifaceted portrayal of a ruling family facing terribly weighty moral dilemmas about justice, vengeance, war — and most of all, about the potential deaths of innocents.

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Paying His Debts, Part III: Tyrion and Penny

In the first half of A Dance with Dragons, Tyrion becomes more vengeful, crueler, and more manipulative. But at about the book’s midpoint, his arc takes a bit of a turn when he is sidelined from the game of thrones for a while, and meets the dwarf girl Penny. Tyrion’s reactions to Penny are layered and complex. He rediscovers empathy through her, comes to care for her, and works to protect her. Yet some of her traits make him disturbed, angry, and even contemptuous. And ahead looms the game, and the specter of Tyrion’s father. Can there be any place for Penny there?

I don’t believe Tyrion’s ADWD arc builds to a neat conclusion or turning point, as Dany’s and Jon’s do. Perhaps the Battle of Meereen, which Martin originally intended to include in ADWD, will resolve some of the issues I explore here. The Penny plotline in particular could be wrapped up early in TWOW, or not. For now, I will focus on the thematic importance of the Penny/Tyrion relationship — how their interaction changes Tyrion, what it reveals about him, and what it could mean for his future.

(Spoiler note: This essay briefly discusses one scene from an early Winds of Winter chapter that Martin has read at a convention — not a big spoiler, but be warned.)

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Paying His Debts, Part II: Sorrows, Whores, and a Game of Cyvasse

In the first half of A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion goes to some very dark places. He obsesses with his own traumas, and begins to think all good things are lost for him. He responds by treating others cruelly, and fantasizing about vengeance — starting to take on more of his father’s worst traits in very disconcerting ways. And, as he begins to play the game of thrones with more skill than ever before, he starts to resemble two of Westeros’s most infamous schemers as well.

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Paying His Debts, Part I: Tyrion in King’s Landing

As A Song of Ice and Fire opens, Tyrion Lannister is in a good place. He reads his books, goes sightseeing at Winterfell and the Wall, and basically enjoys life without any real responsibilities. He attempts to do good deeds and offer wise advice — counseling Jon about being a bastard, chastising Joffrey to pay his respects to the Starks, consulting with the Night’s Watch on their needs, and building the saddle for Bran. Then, when Tyrion walks into the Inn at the Crossroads, his life changes suddenly and irrevocably. His abduction by Catelyn Stark effectively drags him into the game of thrones, against his will, and forces him to play or die. But Tyrion proves to have a knack for the game, and some luck in battle, so he finishes Book 1 as the newly-appointed Hand of the King. That’s when things get interesting.

As Hand, Tyrion at first vows to do justice, but quickly settles on a course of pragmatism and self-preservation. He tries to rule well, mostly does a fine job of it, and comes to greatly enjoy having power. But the game of thrones is dangerous, and its darker side eventually becomes clear. The traumas of his childhood reemerge. People he cares about are put in danger. And Tyrion tells himself he must be cruel and ruthless, because it is the only way to win. Eventually, he is rejected by those whose approval he sought, and he experiences a shocking set of betrayals from those he loves most.  All the while, the looming, terrible figure of his father both awes and haunts him.

This essay series will analyze Tyrion’s character arc, paying special attention to his values, morality, and mental state — his struggle within his heart. I’ll explore how he’s played the game of thrones so far, how the game has changed him, and how he might play it in the future, along with Martin’s design of his arc as a whole. This first part will focus on Tyrion’s tenure in King’s Landing, as Hand and afterward — specifically, his journey from seeking justice, to seeking vengeance.

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Other Wars, Part VI: Three Questions about Jon’s Future

The previous parts of this essay sought to analyze Martin’s construction of Jon’s arc in ADWD. This concluding installment of “Other Wars” will shift gears a bit to explore the future of Jon’s “war within his own heart.” With several massively traumatic and important events now taking place, it seems quite possible that Jon’s biggest transformations are yet to come, and that his war within his heart is not yet over. But rather than inventing possible scenarios, or getting into the nitty-gritty mechanics of potential resurrections, I will pose what I see as three very important ways Jon could change, that have all been set up by ADWD. First, how will the fallout at the Wall change Jon? Second, how will Jon’s approach to magic and prophecy change? And third, will Ghost change Jon? The answers to these will have a great deal of bearing on Jon’s values, his future leadership, his noble heart, his greater duty, his identity, and the future of his arc. 

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Other Wars, Part V: The Peace, the Pink Letter, and the Shieldhall Speech

“The men who formed the Night’s Watch knew that only their courage shielded the realm from the darkness to the north… We all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose… “It hurts, boy,” he said softly. “Oh, yes. Choosing . . . it has always hurt. And always will. I know.” (AGOT JON VIII)

In the first three books, Martin repeatedly tested Jon’s commitment to his greater duty of protecting the realm from threats outside it. In nearly every instance, Jon chose to commit to the Watch, and to this duty. There was but one instance where he put something above his duty — when he refused the wildlings’ demand that he kill the old man, in ASOS — but Summer saved him from the likely implications of his choice.

Then, in ADWD, Jon begins to achieve great and unprecedented things as Lord Commander. But Martin continues to test his commitment to his duty, and these new tests are different in two important ways. First, many of Jon’s choices involve risking the greater duty, rather than straightforwardly running away from it:

Every choice had its risks, every choice its consequences. He would play the game to its conclusion. (ADWD JON XII)

The proper management of risk is very important in a ruler. For the good of the people he rules, a ruler must be very careful about the risks he takes on. The cost of doing otherwise is potentially quite dire, for a great many. Jon is charged with defending all humanity against the Others, so in a sense his responsibility is greatest and most difficult of any ruler in the series. He must take great care.

Second, many of Martin’s new tests for Jon are his cruelest yet — because they pit Jon’s “noble heart” against these potential risks to the greater duty. And in several of his choices, Jon displayed a “hero’s instinct” that entails:

  • a desire to help individuals in danger
  • and an anger at evil and injustice
  • which lead him to take on great risks
  • And often lose perspective on how these risks could endanger his larger purpose of defending humanity against the Others.

This leads directly to Jon’s downfall. A casual reading suggests that the Ramsay Bolton-signed letter, and Bowen Marsh, were the malicious and treacherous malefactors bringing down our hero. But a closer look at the arc suggests that Martin designed it quite carefully to make a very different point. Yes, the letter-writer and Marsh take Jon down — but only after Jon has given them ample cause to do so.

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Other Wars, Part IV: People Wanting Help

Jon’s arc has an interesting structure. At its midpoint, he makes the decision to send Mance Rayder to save his sister, at enormous risk to the Watch. Only at the arc’s end does Martin reveal the consequence of this decision — the Pink Letter, which causes Jon’s downfall.

But between the Mance Mission and its consequence, we have an extended interim where Jon runs the Wall as he sees fit. Overall, Jon demonstrates extraordinarily competent and downright visionary leadership. He shows himself willing to modernize the Watch by granting favored positions to the wildling Leathers and the former boy whore Satin. He fortifies many of the Watch’s abandoned castles and makes various other important practical preparations to face the Others. He wins a crucial loan from the Iron Banker. Most importantly, he seeks out and achieves a peace with Tormund’s wildlings, both removing a dangerous threat and multiplying the Watch’s strength severalfold. The chapter where the 3,000 wildlings cross, to be integrated in the community on this side of the Wall, is a remarkable achievement that marks the pinnacle of Jon’s leadership. It will surely be a difficult adjustment, with much work remaining to be done, but compared to the Watch’s position in ASOS, Jon has clearly made enormous gains.

The catch is that, as he’s doing all this, he is increasingly choosing to risk all those gains, because of his heroic desire to help individuals in danger.

Interspersed with the above, Jon faces two new thorny moral dilemmas about whether he should use his power to protect innocent life. First, Alys Karstark arrives at the Wall seeking to be saved from her uncle. Second, the situation of the Hardhome refugees becomes increasingly dire. In both of these cases, rather than stand aside and accept that he cannot jeopardize the larger struggle with these interventions, Jon chooses to take on immense risks to help these individuals.

The Pink Letter cuts off Jon’s arc before these new gambles of Jon’s fully play out. But I believe Martin has included them for a reason — to show how Jon is still driven by the hero’s instinct — his “noble heart” — to take great risks, and that this is very much his Achilles’ heel as a leader.  When an innocent is in danger, and Jon thinks he might have the power to save that person, he will use it, even if doing so could be very dangerous for the Watch. And, as he piles risk upon risk, he makes his eventual demise and failure more and more certain.

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