Saturday, December 21, 2013

AGOT Commentary: Catelyn I

Catelyn I

Character: Everybody knows Catelyn gets a lot of hate. Hell, I wasn’t her biggest fan for the longest time. But if there’s one thing that all my historical readings and literary examinations have taught me is that, if you look deep into a person’s psyche, his/her principles, phobias, expectations, terrors, etc. it is possible to understand anybody. Not necessarily condone, grant you, but the point of such analyses is to understand, never to pass judgment. Literature is a communicative effort, an exercise of empathy. Just when you believe you understand someone, a new bit of information crops up that turns your perspective 180 degrees.

This is a short chapter, and plot-focused at that. There is not much Catelyn does other than deliver a message to her husband and provide some nominal comfort to him.

But there is this one fragment:

“Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him.”

A small bit, almost insignificant on the surface, but that’s the first indication of Catelyn’s core nature, a hint that’ll bear out in chapters to come. Catelyn is a dutiful, family-conscious woman, a traditionalist. The Tully words are Family, Duty, Honor, and she’s made them her mantra. All personal wishes must play second fiddle to her familial obligations.

Put in a different way, she’s Cersei’s antithesis. Whereas Cersei places her selfish desires above the welfare of her family (and pretty much everybody else’s), Catelyn finds the very idea blasphemous. This philosophy guides her every action, but, like many high principles, it can also be a source of great conflict and grief. We’ll see examples of this as the story gets going.

The purpose of tradition is to provide comfort and stability (or our lives would be as shaky as……as…a fiddler on the roof! If you know where that comes from, I love you). It’s not a bad thing of course, but because tradition fixes on the notion that things can be one way and one way only, it can become an albatross around your neck in a time of crisis, and the War of the Five Kings will be one such time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Catelyn is a more instinctive woman than her husband. She takes the direwolf dead by a stag’s antler as an omen, while her husband doesn’t give it a second thought. She’s also superstitiously afraid of what might be found beyond the Wall. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. All her life she’s been taught that her elders (male elders, primarily) know what is best and always have a hand on the tiller; there’s always somebody in control, in other words. Lifelong convictions--like her devotion to family--that have never been undermined cement the belief that everything happens for a purpose. With this in mind, one can guess where George R.R. Martin will be aiming his guns next.

There’s a little more insight into Ned’s mind, as well. It’s evident that he’s a dutiful and selfless husband, if something of a cold fish. But there’s no denying that he’s a loving man. He cares about his children, and is quick to realize Catelyn would like to console her sister in her grief.

He’s a hard man; too, shaped by the difficulties he’s had to endure. Ned had to grow up fast and shoulder responsibilities he never thought should’ve been his. He knows that life doesn’t care how young and inexperienced you may be; when it drops the hammer, it drops it with a vengeance. That’s why he wanted Bran to be present at the execution; that’s why it concerns him to hear Rickon is afraid of something, even though he’s only three.

Winter Is Coming, are the Stark words he’s so fond of repeating. Winter certainly came for him when he lost his father, his brother, and his sister due to the whims of an insane king. Like any good father, all he wants is to prepare his children for life, and for him life has been needlessly cruel. As far as Ned is concerned, the sooner you learn that, the stronger you’ll be, and the harder it’ll be for life to take you down.             

Plot: Chapter is very light in this department. It’s mostly Catelyn delivering the message of Jon Arryn’s death, and giving us a glimpse of hers and Ned’s marital life (how Ned worries first about her instead of himself, for example). Things are being set up for later in the book, like Brynden Tully, the trip to the Eyrie, and the Lannister-Stark enmity.

It is interesting that the King-beyond-the-Wall (Mance Rayder) is mentioned again. Obviously Rayder is not a small-time bandit if even Eddard Stark, the Warden of the North, knows who he is. An interesting thread that wouldn’t be picked up again until Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall a book later. Still, it’s good that he’s mentioned, even in passing, to prove this is an important figure that will merit some attention later on. 
Setting: Two worldbuilding elements stand out. There is another marker of the North-South cultural divide, this time along religious lines. The South is all about organized religion and its attendant rites, a throwback to the Catholic Church in our own Middle Ages, while the North is more animist and therefore pagan. I’m not certain so much exposition was the best way to explain this given that it took up almost two pages. I wish I could remember my first impression of reading the opening pages, before the dialogue started. My enjoyment of these two pages is usually predicated on my mood. If I enjoyed it last week, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will this week. But it’d be foolish to deny Martin’s gift for simple and evocative language to bring a setting to life.

The other element is a crucial bit of backstory. Last chapter indicated there had been a different dynasty in command of the Seven Kingdoms before Robert took over, the Targaryens. Now we get to see there was a good reason for casting Mad King Aerys II out of the saddle…at least from Catelyn’s perspective. We finish this chapter with the subconscious certainty that the Targaryens got their comeuppance. That is the perfect frame of mind before getting to know the last two survivors of that dwindling line: Viserys and Daenerys.

Other minor elements are the first mention that the Starks were once kings, setting things up for Robb’s proclamation at the end of the book, and our introduction to the weirdwood trees and the children of the forest, all of which is brought forth incidentally.

Conclusion: It always disturbed me to find vituperative and typically groundless accusations hurled at characters for the stupidest of reasons. Catelyn gets her share, but she is not the only one. To me that beats the purpose of reading about well-drawn characters. Understanding, if not necessarily sympathy, should be the order of the day. I’ve never been a big believer of the quote “To understand all is to forgive all.” Then again I don’t believe fictional characters are worth getting worked up about, either. The reader needs a degree of connection to the character in order to germinate interest, but I don’t see the point of taking that emotional involvement outside your private reading time.

When discussing characters, I appreciate the more objective and cool-headed discussions than the puerile “x sucks because he/she did this and that.” Getting to know what makes a fictional character tick is a superb exercise that helps you do the same with real people--you know, the kind that is worth getting worked up about. That is literature’s greatest gift. Taking it to sports-fan levels of adoration or disdain is simply a distraction.                   

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