Wednesday, December 18, 2013

AGOT Commentary: Prologue

Warning: I’m about to try something incredibly hard. There’s even a chance I’ll end up diving headlong into an empty pool. So at least if I screw up, you’ll get a good laugh out of it. No need to thank me.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a chapter-by-chapter commentary of A Song of Ice and Fire for a long time now. The inspirations behind this project are Goose-Goose’s Half-Life 2 commentaries, and MrBtongue’s hitherto unfulfilled project of doing the same for the Mass Effect series. If you don’t know who these YouTubers are, I suggest you stop reading and go check out their work right now. (Note to myself: delete last line before posting).

So how am I going to stand out from the dozen other people who are doing something similar? This would be the part where I waste everybody’s time with a self-important tirade, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, I’ll skip the talk and go straight for the walk. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my A Song of Ice and Fire commentary. Hope you know how to swim, because we’re jumping in choppy waters. God help me; I’m really doing this.


Character: In future installments I’m going to dedicate this space to sharing my impressions on character development for the people featured in the chapter. Since all characters in the prologue die less than twenty pages into the book, I can’t do that now. (By the by, did I mention there’d be spoilers in these commentaries?) 

What I can do is tip my hat to George R.R. Martin. All the prologue POV characters (with maybe the exception of infodump Varamyr) are as interesting as any of the full-time characters, which is no small feat.

Having said that, Will in the prologue is somewhat overshadowed by Waymar Royce and Gared. Will does little more than watch for most of the sequence, letting Royce and Gared create most of the conflict.

The argument between Royce and Gared--greenhorn and veteran, lord and commoner--is impeccably constructed. Enough that it’s a bit hard to take sides. Gared fears the weather is worsening and that they might get caught in an ice storm, so he urges his commander to ride back. Royce is determined to fulfill his mission for reasons of pride, but arrogant and bullying as he is, he’s not stupid. He puts paid to Gared’s theory of the wildlings dying from exposure by pointing out it hasn’t been cold enough for that. He takes Will’s observations with a grain of salt because his tale of dead wildlings doesn’t add up, but he does ask for a full account before making a decision when he could’ve just flown blind.

He’s also right when he warns Gared not to build a fire that might give away their location to the enemy. Gared’s idea of making a fire is not without merit, however, since temperatures are guaranteed to be really low at night. I’m guessing the previous nights they survived by making Dakota fire holes (or firepits, as Will calls them in his rundown of the wildling camp). Gared’s intention was to make a larger, more visible fire to ward off animals, though, which would be a bad idea on enemy turf.

On the other hand, Royce makes his points by ridiculing his subordinates (mocking Gared for losing his ears to frostbite, for instance), he brings the wrong kind of horse to the expedition, wears clothing that’s liable to catch on branches or bushes, and wields a sword in an environment where there isn’t enough room to swing it.   
The key for creating first-rate conflict is to give both sides of the discussion sensible arguments, and I believe Martin hit the nail on the head with these two.

Despite his foibles, Royce does get his moment in the sun when, rather than be cowed by an enemy who is clearly supernatural, he gives battle. There are several ways to read this. For one Royce is courageous and seems to truly believe in his vows, enough that he is willing to die for them and country (remember his “For Robert!” warcry). On the other hand, the wisest course of action in the face of something utterly unknown might be to flee to fight another day. You fight only when they back you into a corner, but Royce had a chance to escape before he was surrounded.

Did he stay because he was a fool for glory? Did he sincerely believe that a knight should put his duty above fear? Or did he simply fail to realize he was way out of his league until it was too late? There are many ways to approach these questions, which is one hallmark of a tridimensional character. Their intentions aren’t always clear-cut, and thus are applicable to our own distinct worldviews.

If there’s one thing I’m sad about is that Martin killed Royce off so early in the story; he could’ve made a remarkable foil for Jon Snow at the Wall. But if nothing else at least he and Gared served as good indicators of Martin’s gift for writing strong characters.    

Plot: Not the most original piece of work, but gripping by a long mile. It’s apparent that the Others will play the role of “long-forgotten evil that rises after millennia of slumber.” That’s not bad when the villains are intriguing, and the Others are certainly that. Their voices like the cracking of ice, color-shifting armor, inhuman patience, and magical swords give the Others a distinct identity and aura, promising much excitement for later in the story.
That they have yet to be the focus of the series as this prologue suggests is another issue. By itself, the prologue is the promise of a terrific if not particularly original story. After five books, though, I can’t help but also think of it as a forgotten footnote in a story that’s gone in an entirely different direction.

Also, I’m having a hard time understanding the exact nature of the three rangers’ mission. Why are they tracking down this band of wildlings? And what are they supposed to do after they find the raiders? Three rangers can’t be a match for eight well-armed wildlings, even less when you consider the Haunted Forest is wildling territory and the odds are stacked in the raiders’ favor. Maybe Royce is reckless enough to go through with this, but I find it hard to believe Jeor Mormont would dispatch anyone on a goose chase.

One chapter in A Clash of Kings may hold the answer. Remember when the Night’s Watch expedition finds the abandoned wildling village? I don’t believe the village was that far from the Wall, yet the empty dwellings surprise them. Perhaps the Watch’s knowledge of the Haunted Forest isn’t as up-to-date as it should be, and Royce’s mission is an attempt to rectify that. It’s an idea, at least.

Setting: Worldbuilding is essential to any fantasy novel, and I’m happy to say Martin has a talent for it that can only be measured in tons. He brings the Haunted Forest to life with simple but evocative language that would make a turtle race sound epic. Much of the Haunted Forest is described in ways that convey its eeriness and the difficulties of traversing it, but don’t disrupt the flow of the story. Setting must blend in with the action; it should never stick out like a sore thumb. Martin has definitely mastered this.    

Speaking of killing two birds with one stone, keep in mind a setting is only as effective as its culture is extensive. Notice Will referring to Waymar Royce as a “southron.” This stacks a cultural divide on top of their class conflict, and inserts the first hint that North and South in Westeros are two different cultures. Will’s past as a poacher insinuates that the Night’s Watch acts as a penal colony of sorts, and it reveals Westeros’ feudal culture in a passage that ties character development with world building. The submission of two seasoned rangers to a rookie by dint of his station is another marker of feudalism, and it’s all brought up in service of the story, not as filler.  

Conclusion: Was the prologue immersive, thrilling, and unforgettable? Absolutely. Was it necessary? I don’t think so. I started thinking this way ever since I read Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for good writing, one of which is to omit prologues on the grounds that they’re backstory.

I can see his point. There’s nothing in these opening pages that is not touched upon later in the book: the decadence of the Night’s Watch, the wildling threat, the cultural divisions, and the Others’ undead minions.

True, the Others themselves don’t show up again until A Storm of Swords, but I’ll argue that it would’ve been more constructive to reveal the Others in Book III. Think about it, without the prologue we’re introduced to the idea of something dangerous lurking beyond the Wall first by the disappearance of Benjen Stark, then by Tyrion and Jon looking over the dark forest from high atop the Wall, by the zombie attacking Mormont, by Craster’s sacrifices, by the attack on the Fist of the First Men, and finally by Sam killing an Other. There’s a sense of natural progression this way.

Remember the Monster from Lost? Regardless of what you think of it, there’s no denying that the writers paced the reveal of its true nature masterfully, taking their time but giving the viewers enough tantalizing pieces to keep the puzzle fresh and exciting. Revealing the truth in the first five minutes would’ve ruined it right there at the start (instead of six years down the line like it happened).    

There’d still be the disproportion of pages given to the War of the Five Kings storyline and the Others’ plotline, but that’s another problem altogether. As it stands, this prologue is a teaser in all the wrong ways, setting up a conflict that, five books into the series, has yet to move into high gear. Maybe when the saga was in its embryonic stages it was a good idea to insert this prologue. Now, I wonder if the story wouldn’t be better served with its omission.         
Addendum: I’m beginning to realize that the whole purpose of this commentary is not to praise A Song of Ice and Fire or take it to task depending on the situation, though I’ll be doing that. I simply want to share my thoughts on what I think makes a story work. This exercise in pinpointing will hopefully make readers more demanding for quality material and prospective writers more invested in meeting those demands. I hope you’ll tag along on my journey to find out how to raise the bar of storytelling. It’ll be a surprise as much for me as it’ll be for you. 

Thank you, and God save the Queen.    


  1. Good luck, man. It's very much a marathon rather than a sprint: my advice is to work up a buffer so you can ride out the waves of disinterest/fatigue that will hit from time to time.

    1. That's a great way of putting it, actually. Reading the chapters is easy, but when I start writing I hit on these ideas that come out of nowhere, which is the thrilling part. I'll see how many more I can write over the weekend.