Bran is excited because today will be the first time he will be old enough to go with his father, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, to carry out the King’s justice. He is riding with his brothers Jon and Robb, who have presumably done this several times before. Accompanying them is a set of household guards and their father’s ward, Theon Greyjoy. The accused is Gared, though his name is not mentioned. He is accused and has been found guilty of being a deserter from the Night’s Watch. After asking Gared a few questions, Lord Stark executes Gared and the group begins their journey back to Winterfell. On the way, Robb, Lord Stark’s firstborn son, and Jon Snow, Lord Stark’s bastard son, come across the corpse of an enormous direwolf bitch. On further inspection, it is discovered that she has been killed by a stag, but not before she whelped. The boys find the litter of pups which, after some persuading, Lord Stark lets them keep. There are 5 pups – 3 male and 2 female, just like the Stark children. They are about to leave, when Jon hears a cry in the snow and discovers a sixth pup, an albino that he keeps for himself.
This is my third re-write of this commentary because the last two got ridiculously long. It’s really difficult to keep this commentary short and sweet since this is the first chapter and introduces some key long term players. In fact, if you think about it, almost everyone in this chapter gets a POV at some point (Ned, Bran, Jon and Theon).
Let’s talk about foreshadowing and call-forwards first. People often pointlessly assign a lot of importance to the first chapter of a book and when the first chapter of a book is also the first chapter of a bigger series, that effect is only exacerbated. I don’t see this chapter as particularly important in the bigger scheme of things, though it is very effective as an introduction to some of our favourite and most despised characters. At the same time, we also get our first look at the North, the biggest of the Seven Kingdoms and one that our fondness for the Starks makes us most emotionally invested in. The main bit of foreshadowing here involves the stag and the direwolf. It is left ambiguous in this chapter whether the stag attacked the direwolf or vice versa (though logic suggests the latter) but either way the meaning we’re supposed to take from this ‘omen’ is that the Baratheons and the Starks will destroy each other. Whether this actually happens or not is debatable. Does Ned kill Robert with his ‘mercy’, as Varys suggests much later in this novel? And indeed, does Robert’s offer to make Ned his Hand lead to Ned’s death? Well, yes – but neither question can be fully answered without including the role the lion played (or both characters’ stupidity). So as far as Ned and Robert (who, as head of their respective Houses can be seen as representatives of the wolf and stag) are concerned, the ‘omens’ show some shade of the truth. However, if we look at the Stark House as a whole, they owe more of their downfall to the Lannisters and the Greyjoys (and of the course the Freys) than to House Baratheon. House Baratheon pretty much caves in on itself after Robert’s death though the Lannisters seem to have finished the job.
I like how omens in Martin’s world are left ambiguous. We are never told if there was a single ‘true’ meaning – just as the dead direwolf in this chapter is not said to definitely, without a shred of doubt, have a meaning. It obviously does, but my point is that Martin doesn’t feel the need to explicitly state that it does (via a narrator, or some other power). Martin’s use of omens feels very organic to the story. Things like a bad drought would be just the kind of thing that would lead the small-folk to believe that a king was cursed, for example. We’ll talk more about this in the future, since there is clearly a lot to say on the topic.
The reason I want to move on is because the most important part of these opening chapters is the insight we quickly gain into the POV characters’ personalities and that is where our attention should be. These chapters provide the anchors for our opinions of these characters – even though they will change and grow, the intrinsic traits that make us love or loathe them first become visible here. So, in Bran’s case, this is the first and pretty much last time we see him as just a child – the next time we’re in his head, he’ll have his life changing fall. Bran here comes across as a typical seven year old. He’s excited that he’s now considered (sort of) grown up and wants to prove to his father and brothers that he’s ready. He wants to impress and keep up with Jon and Robb (both of whom he clearly hero-worships). We also get a look at his sensitive side when he doesn’t want the puppies to die. Mostly importantly, given his role in the later parts of the novel, we get some insight into his intelligence. Remember, after his fall, his warging and his mental agility are pretty much his only weapons, and as Tyrion Lannister shows us, even the latter by itself is a formidable one. Here, Bran isn’t creating quantum mechanics, but all the same he asks questions where others would blindly follow – Ned asks his opinions and Bran replies – “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” where other children would have answered with either one or the other. I know this by itself isn’t much in the way of proof, but it definitely is evidence of a ticking mind. Similarly, we see how he quickly realizes Jon’s sacrifice – it might seem obvious, but most seven year olds would not notice it (or so I believe). I was (and still am) surprised by how nonchalant Bran is about the execution. He doesn’t look away, so he sees Ice cut Gared’s head straight off. Either way, I’m impressed that he didn’t even flinch – I’m pretty sure I would have twitched at least a bit in his position. It’s also interesting how early it is established that Bran is a summer child with all the innocence and playfulness that comes with it, though I’m sure at least part of it is just childhood. I have mixed feelings about whether or not Bran can be considered grown up at 7. Yes, the North is an exceptionally harsh place, but there is a certain discrepancy between Bran believing Old Nan’s tales while simultaneously being deemed old enough to watch a man get beheaded. He’s either too ‘grown up’ to believe in those tales or he’s too young to watch executions, in my book. That said, he could just be at that awkward phase where he’s both.
Bran is more or less a spectator in this chapter – merely reacting to events around him, rather than being the driving force behind them. Indeed, that remains his role for large parts of A Song of Ice and Fire. However, his role as spectator lets us observe the other characters from an external perspective. Bran here notes a difference between “Father’s face” and “Lord Stark(‘s face)” however, we would never have known this from the Ned chapters (not that it’s a major detail, I’m just using it as an example). There’s something touching about how Bran looks up to his father as a giant and the comfort he feels from his presence (it’s touching mainly because Ned will be dead so soon). Also, how fucking strong is Ned anyway? It says that Ice is as tall as Robb who is described as tall to begin with, so I’m thinking that peeps up in the North eat real good, because I don’t think I personally know anyone capable of swinging 6 feet of steel. Valyrian steel, true, but I don’t think they ever mention Valyrian steel being lighter than the regular version.
Let’s move on to Robb – Robb has always struck me as the most generic of the Stark siblings, and I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t have a POV or whether he doesn’t have a POV because he’s relatively boring. Sansa is defined by her dreams, Arya by her down to earth nature, Bran by his warging and disability, Jon by being a bastard and Rickon by being a wild little kid. Robb…is King Robb, sure, but without into a look inside his head, it doesn’t really mean as much to the reader. I have always wondered who was older – Robb or Jon? I believe reading that it would be Robb but that Jon was in Winterfell when Catelyn and Robb reached (this is point of considerable resentment for Catelyn (what isn’t?)). We also see a bit of Theon’s nature – he’s an ass, just like Jon says. Seriously, Gared’s head deserved better than being used for Theon’s NFL try-out. I always found it interesting that Theon is described as always smiling – is he using the smile to hide his true feelings? I don’t really think so; I think he’s genuinely enjoying his time at Winterfell. Sure, he’s a hostage, but the Starks treat him well and he’s gotten close to Robb and his siblings. Isn’t it strange that he and Robb get along so well? Theon is actually 4 to 5 years older, which at the beginning of puberty (like Robb likely is), is a big difference. Lastly, we see Jon. I don’t love Jon as much as the average ASOIAF reader but I do like him. He would be number 4 or 5 on a list of my favourite characters (Tyrion, Arya, The Hound and Jaime would come before). Anyways, he’s a great elder brother here, giving Bran advice and especially sacrificing the possibility of his own pup so that Bran and Robb could get one. I wonder if Jon is speaking from experience when he tells Bran “Don’t look away. Father will know if you do.” Like all eldest siblings, Jon does not have the luxury of elder siblings passing down (mostly unwanted) advice, though he also doesn’t get the totally unwanted mockery that comes with being a younger sibling.
Ok, so this post STILL turned out WAY longer than I expected, so I’ll end with a quick question – If there were maggots in the direwolf’s eyes, then how were the pups still alive? I’m assuming that in the freezing cold, the concentration of flies would be very low. So in the time it took for the flies to get to the direwolf and infect the carcass, how were the pups still surviving? Post in the comments and let me know!