Character: First chapter of the book…and it centers on a seven-year-old boy. That raised some flags at first. I’m not the biggest fan of children in literature or any other medium for that matter, which is why it surprised me how quickly I hit it off with this character.
It must be because the chapter starts with a rite of passage that introduces young Bran to death in all its prosaic bloodiness, and sets it off against his hearth tales of ghouls, giants, and the Others. As a kid I was always interested in adult stuff, because even at seven I could tell that the stuff we kids were allowed to see, read, etc. wasn’t the whole tale. There was a wealth of mystery screened off by the curtain of childhood, and I always wanted to get a peek behind it. Makes sense why Bran grew on me so quickly. At his age, I also would’ve loved to be there for the execution, not out of morbidity, but from the “nervous excitement” of being deemed old enough to partake in an adult activity.
After the deed, Bran and his father, Ned Stark, have what I call a morally exciting conversation. Any such conversation involves questions and answers that tax our moral compass and makes us reconsider our beliefs with emotional or logical arguments, or both. The whole situation, the execution of a man whom the reader knows has a good reason to be insane, is consequential enough that it touches every character one way or the other. Let’s look at them one by one.
Martin does an excellent job contrasting Jon Snow and Robb Stark, both physically and mentally, and he does it through dialogue and action. Jon understands pressure and the need to please others, so he counsels Bran how to act in order to please their father. There’s the ostensible message of Jon caring about his younger brother, and his underlying need to spare others unnecessary discomfort. He may come off as cynical when he and Robb argue over how Gared faced death (scared out of his wits or with courage respectively), but we soon learn this is simply Jon’s acute observation skills at work. No one who goes out of his way to counsel his younger brother and willingly separates himself from the trueborn Stark children to save the pups can be considered cynical.
By contrast, Robb is a more starry-eyed, carefree character, which is nothing to sneer at, but does make him less astute and caring than Jon. Robb is not mean; he’s just too comfortable in his enviable station as Heir of Winterfell to have a need for Jon’s well-developed empathy. That’s a trait Robb shares with Sansa, his sister.
Ned Stark gets a spotlight shined on his psyche, as well. He wishes to make all his sons understand what it means to take the life of another man, to make sure they don’t become too far removed from the act of murder and its implications, even when it becomes necessary. Later in the series, we get to see his teaching wasn’t in vain.
After all, Ned is very well acquainted with the consequences of powerful men killing for the pettiest of reasons. His father and older brother were murdered by the Mad King Aerys II, a man who hid behind executioners and took obvious pleasure in the suffering of his victims. Remember that Bran said King Robert had a paid executioner? Ned immediately links the position with the Targaryen kings, a blatant condemnation. Not something you may appreciate on a first read, but it’s the kind of tidbit that makes these characters feel real.
It’d be wrong not to say a few words about Theon Greyjoy. If there’s a true cynic in this party, it has to be him. He kicks Gared’s chopped-off head away like a football and laughs about it, he’s quick to draw his sword to kill the direwolves, and mocks Jon’s albino pup. Considering he’s a very secondary character in Book I, his characterization is still vividly drawn, and proof that Martin’s work in the prologue wasn’t a fluke.
The only downside is that Bran is given a short shrift after the dead direwolf is found. From that point on, Bran is relegated to witness status, there mainly to convey what everybody feels and does, with little indication of how the events are affecting him emotionally, except for his reaction to Jon’s selfless (and ultimately subverted) sacrifice.
Plot: As to the larger picture, the showpiece of this chapter is the discovery of the dead direwolf and her pups. If you’re into omens, prophecies, and what have you, it’d be worth mentioning the stag’s antler that killed the direwolf as prefiguring the Stark’s grim future. But I’m not into omens or symbolic foreshadowing. If I wanted that I’d read religious texts, thank you very much. Maybe in future books we’ll get confirmation of whether someone (Bloodraven, I presume) sent the direwolf to the Starks and why. I can’t say that I’m dying to find out, but I do appreciate how this discovery brings out certain traits from the characters: Ned’s severity, Robb’s gung-ho approach to everything, Jon’s solidarity and proneness to self-sacrifice, and Theon’s irreverence.
Setting: Kudos to Martin for accomplishing so much in so few pages. In the first paragraph there’s mention of the lengthy nature of seasons in Westeros, later there’s the direwolf banner of the Starks. Almost in the same breath there’s our introduction to Valyrian steel in the context of the upcoming execution. All of which is deftly handled, but my favorite is Ned’s pronouncing the sentence of death, when he lists not only his formal title and King Robert’s, but the three ethnic groups that make up Westerosi culture. This knowledge doesn’t come into play right away, but it’s another subtle and effective method of injecting life into a fictitious world. And again, it doesn’t mess with the rhythm of the story.
Conclusion: Bear in mind this chapter started with Bran undergoing a rite of passage, an initiation into adulthood. That’s the first half of the chapter. The second half sets that aside in favor of the direwolf and its pups. One approach is about venturing into the uncertainty of life; the other is about retreating to the safety of fantasy. Here’s the first indication of Bran’s arc branching off in a completely different direction from the main storyline, embracing a more fantastical avenue after an attempt at something different. As we’ll see in future chapters, Bran’s arc vacillates between the fantastical and the down-to-earth, but these pages make it clear which one is going to win in the long run.