[Re-Read] A Clash of Kings – Prologue


Welcome one, welcome all to the re-read of A Clash of Kings, the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire. We recently wrapped up A Game of Thrones and we’ll be looking at the Prologue today. As always feedback and comments are welcome. Before I start with the prologue, I’m just going to do a very short introductory post to ACOK which is actually one of my favourite books in ASOIAF. The order currently goes ASOS, ACOK, AGOT, ADWD and AFFC in case anyone was wondering. Anyway, I remember ACOK being mostly about Tyrion – of course, when I think a little more, I remember reading about Arya’s misadventures in the Riverlands and Catelyn’s woes as Robb’s kingdom falls apart before it even really comes together. Oh and Theon, I remember that ACOK is what makes everyone hate Theon, so there’s that to look forward to, not.

Clearly, as you can see from my ranking above, I consider ACOK and ASOS to be the strongest books in ASOIAF not just because things actually happen but because the pacing, the character development and the plot advances so much and so fast that the whole thing just seems like a roller-coaster ride. Anyway, enough small talk on to the post:

Summary:

a-clash-of-kings

Maester Cressen watches the terrible red comet in the sky from a tower of Dragonstone. He is worried by the comet and by the official confirmation from the Citadel that summer is ending. Maester Pylos interrupts his ruminations to inform him that Shireen and her fool, Patchface, have come to see the white raven. Cressen broke his hip two years ago and fell seriously ill last year, at which time Pylos was sent to be his eventual replacement. Cressen has been the maester at Dragonstone for twelve years, arriving with Stannis when he was made lord of the castle. Shireen has been troubled by dreams of dragons coming to eat her. Cressen tells her that the dragons are gone, but she overheard Dalla and Matrice saying that the red woman claims the comet in the sky is dragonsbreath, and Shireen thinks they are coming back to life. She asks if summer is over, and Cressen replies in the affirmative. It had been the longest summer on record, ten years, two turns, and sixteen days.

Pylos returns with the raven then leaves to get Cressen’s breakfast, and Patchface starts to sing a song about shadows coming, a song he has been singing frequently in recent days that is bothering Shireen. Patchface was a boy when he came into the service of House Baratheon. Lord Steffon had been sent to the Free Cities by King Aerys II to find a bride for Rhaegar since he had no sisters to marry. The trip was a failure, but Steffon found a brilliant fool in Volantis to bring home with him. Lord Steffon never made it home; his ship, Windproud, broke up in Shipbreaker Bay as Robert and Stannis watched from Storm’s End. Lord Steffon, his wife Cassana, and a hundred men died in the wreck. Patchface washed ashore on the third day apparently dead, but when a man named Jommy grabbed his ankles, he coughed water and sat up. His mind was gone, and the castellan, Ser Harbert, told Cressen it would be best to put him out of his misery, but Cressen demurred. Pylos returns and reports that Ser Davos Seaworth returned last night and has been closeted with Stannis most of the night. Cressen decides to go see Stannis and offer his counsel.

Stannis has declared himself king and called his banners. He has gathered three thousand men on Dragonstone and closed the port, forcing any ships that have come within sight of Dragonstone within the last year to remain there. Cressen meets Ser Davos on his way up. Ser Davos had been sent to meet with the great lords of the Stormlands. He met with Lord Gulian Swann, Lord Selwyn Tarth, and Lord Penrose, but none would declare for Stannis. Lord Beric Dondarrion is missing and feared dead, and Lord Bryce Caron is with Renly and a member of his new Rainbow Guard, a new order of knighthood commanded by Ser Loras that is like the Kingsguard except that each knight wears a different color. Cressen asks if Davos brought no hope, and the knight replies that he only could if he lied, and he would never do so to Stannis.

Cressen remembers when Davos was knighted after the siege of Storm’s End. The siege had lasted almost a year and the castle was completely blockaded by land and sea by Lord Mace’s army and Lord Paxter’s galleys. The horses, dogs, and cats were long gone and only roots and rats remained when Davos, an infamous smuggler in those days, brought a single ship into the castle under cover of darkness bearing onions and salt fish. The food allowed the castle to hold out until Lord Eddard broke the siege. As a reward for his service, Stannis gave Davos choice lands on Cape Wrath, a small keep, and a knighthood. For his crimes as a smuggler, Stannis chopped off the last joint of the four fingers on Davos’s left hand.

Cressen completes the climb and enters Stannis’s presence. Stannis is gloomy and bitter at Davos’s news. The fact that the Stormlords have declared for Renly exacerbates Stannis’s bitterness that Robert granted Storm’s End to Renly instead of him. He took Dragonstone because Robert’s enemies were there, but he never wanted to be named lord of the castle when his work was done. Stannis is also fed up with his lords and captains, Lord Ardrian Celtigar, Lord Monford Velaryon, Lord Duram Bar Emmon, Lord Guncer Sunglass, and the sellsword admirals Salladhor Saan and Morosh the Myrman. Cressen says he should treat with Renly, but Stannis refuses while Renly maintains he is a king. Cressen next suggests Robb Stark, but he is just another usurper in Stannis’s eyes, and a green boy at that. He is also envious of Eddard, upon whom Robert always lavished so much praise. Stannis sat on Robert’s small council for fifteen years helping Lord Jon rule, and was not happy that Eddard was named Hand instead of him on Jon’s death. Cressen finally suggests betrothing Shireen to Robert Arryn in return for aid from Lysa. Stannis does not like this idea because Robert is weak and sickly. Stannis says Robert was going to be a page for him, but Cersei had Jon killed before the arrangements could be finalized. Stannis still thinks it might be worth a try until his wife, Selyse, comes in and disdains treating with anyone for what belongs to Stannis by right. She promises that House Florent will rally to him, but Stannis is not so sure they will risk Lord Mace Tyrell’s wrath, and they will still not be able to provide enough men. Selyse then tells him to embrace the Lord of Light. She says Melisandre has looked into the flames and seen Renly dead. She says the comet is a sign that Stannis must sail and the banners of the Reach and the stormlands will flock to him. Cressen dissents vigorously, stating that fratricide is not the answer, but Stannis dismisses him. Cressen returns to his chambers and resolves that he must not allow this fratricide to occur. He goes into his stores and takes some strangler crystals to use at a banquet that night. He decides to take a nap, but oversleeps.

Cressen hobbles to the great hall, where the feast has already commenced, but crashes into Patchface on his way in. Melisandre comes to help him up and warns him that there are some truths not taught in Oldtown. He is surprised to find Pylos seated in his place, and Stannis informs him that Pylos will advise from now on. Cressen takes a seat by Ser Davos, who is on the dais along with King Stannis, Queen Selyse, Pylos, Melisandre, Lord Ardrian, Lord Duram, Lord Guncer, Lord Monford, and Salladhor Saan. Ser Davos tells Cressen that Stannis has chosen to trust Melisandre’s visions and press his claim. Cressen tries once more to sway Stannis and claims that R’hllor has no power in Westeros. Melisandre warns him again, and Lady Selyse makes him wear Patchface’s bucket helmet as mockery. He decides he must act and places the strangler in a cup of wine and offers to share the cup with Melisandre and drink to the Lord of Light. She agrees, but as he approaches, she says it is not too late to pour out the wine. They drink. Melisandre is unaffected by the poison; Maester Cressen dies from the poison.

Source

Commentary:

Ah Maester Cressen, continuing the fine ASOIAF tradition of doomed prologue characters. The one thing I kept thinking to myself throughout this chapter was just how awfully, uncompromisingly depressing it was. I don’t just mean that it was sad that a good man like Cressen had to die for no real reason but everything about this chapter was just so unbelievably negative. There are some consequences to this negativity that I’ll talk about in a while as well as some larger thematic concerns. Beyond that however, this prologue serves as an introduction not only to A Clash of Kings (notice how this chapter neatly summarizes the Iron Throne plot so far – Robb, Joffrey, Renly and Stannis and their situations) but also to the characters of Stannis, Davos and to a much smaller extent Mel. The way this chapter is constructed is something I have a little problem with but again, we’ll take about in due time.

First let’s talk about why I think this chapter is so utterly gloomy. Let’s start with the setting – you’re on Dragonstone, a smoking rock in the middle of the ocean, decorated by what has to be Targaryen going through his/her goth phase because there are gargoyles all over the place. Now, on the surface, this description, I’ll admit sounds fairly badass. I mean, fortress on a volcano, ancient Targaryen stronghold, gargoyles and mysteries and all, who wouldn’t want to live there? Yet, that’s not quite the impression of Dragonstone you get is it? Note that a big part of our impressions of anything this chapter is because of Cressen’s narration which is itself really negative. He himself doesn’t like Dragonstone, says he’s never felt at home there, and suddenly when the reader, who has also not ‘been’ to Dragonstone, or I should say, has never seen Dragonstone through any other character’s eyes, suddenly is made especially aware of its unfamiliarity which is a feeling that’s commonly close to discomfort. Then there’s Cressen himself. He’s by all means a wise man who can see the obvious – Stannis has some issues and those issues are getting in the way of him making proper decisions. At this stage, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Mel is anything more than a hack (the end of the chapter notwithstanding of course) – so Stannis’ plan of attack, or rather the fact that he even has a plan of attack, is insane. He has neither political allies nor numerical superiority on the field. The most he has going for him, is that he believes himself the rightful heir, and if this were a more traditional series, that might be a point in his favour but as things stand, he has nothing going for him and it is thus only natural that Davos and Cressen want to knock some sense into him. Still, Cressen’s narrative is heavy – his tone when he speaks of Stannis and Renly (and Robert) is one of a powerless parent. He sees his charges quarrel and tear their lives apart and can only watch helplessly from the sidelines. I don’t know about you but I find something about that to be powerfully strong, especially in light of how much he clearly loves them despite their personalities. Now throw into this particularly delightful stew a mentally handicapped fool with a tendency to make ominous proclamations (in verse no less) and a sweet, disfigured princess and the whole set-up is not only sad it is also creepy and it makes want to hug a puppy.

Anyway, I’m sure that I’ve made my point, so we’ll move on – and talk about dreams. Shireens dreams and Patchface’s random singing proclamations go together, if you ask me. Perhaps smarter people out there can make more sense of what exactly either of their prophetic sendings mean because as of right now, my instinct is telling me that there’s some connection, a symbolical link between the events in the book and these dreams but I just can’t see it yet. What I do know however, is that these dreams and the singing make the mood even heavier and much more foreboding. It’s like throughout the chapter you’re just being set-up again and again for some really bad news and here’s my problem with it – all this negativity very heavily influences the reader into assigning characters a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ tag. For example, compare this introduction with the introduction of the Starks. We see them as caring, loving family and we immediately think, ‘Oh, these guys are alright.’ Now look at Stannis and Dragonstone. Short of a session with Joffrey at his worst, is there a stronger way of telling the reader that these characters are not ‘good’? Which is a shame because it means that readers might be giving Stannis and Mel a fair chance as characters. Davos obviously is just too likable a person for anyone to actually think he’s evil but Stannis and Mel are far from charismatic and combine her religious fanaticism and Stannis’ dour nature and it’s almost a given that everyone’s going to dislike them. Still, if you look at their characters independently of their introduction here, they aren’t as bad as they seem. Stannis at least, isn’t – jury’s still out on Mel and her let’s burn them all rhetoric.

“Only the false sort, and I’d not do that,” Davos said. “He had the truth from me.”

I think this line perfectly sums up Davos’ character. He is simple, honest and loyal. I don’t think it would be too much to say that he is only bright spot in this chapter. We get a lot of first impressions in this chapter – Stannis, Mel, Davos and Cressen. Of these, we’ve already heard about Stannis through other characters; Ned thinks of him as a honest, just man (which Cressen confirms here, though with the caveat that he takes it to its extreme, which is certainly not a good thing) while Tywin thinks that Stannis is a bigger threat than Renly and Robb together. What this ends up doing is making the reader wonder just what to make of Stannis – he is a man who has Ned’s seal of approval and that’s a point in his favour and the same time he is clearly a threat to the major antagonists of the series so far, the Lannisters, which is another point in his favour but despite all that, Cressen’s concerns diminish these points because there is this sense that the bad might outweigh the good in Stannis. This theme of justice and the fight between good and bad is one that follows Stannis throughout the series and is absolutely fascinating to watch. It’s also a point against him that he is utterly lacking in charm:

“I knew you would come, old man, whether I summoned you or no.” There was no hint of warmth in his voice; there seldom was.

It’s statements like these that define Stannis in some ways – when he talks like this to characters we like, we want to strangle him but when he’s talking smack to the likes of Janos Slynt, suddenly he’s the hero that Westeros needs and the One True King. Still, I do like the fact that Stannis is able to stay true to himself regardless of the situation though as we will see numerous times in this book itself, he is not above hypocrisy and sin himself.

Stannis had never learned to soften his speech, to dissemble or flatter; he said what he thought, and those that did not like it could be damned.

Stannis in a nutshell. I like the back and forth that Cressen and Stannis have and though it isn’t stated in the text explicitly, a part of me senses concern for Cressen in Stannis’ words. It might just be that I want the man Cressen loves as a son to love him back or it might just be that I want Stannis to not be as cold-hearted and machine-like as he seems from the outside, but either way, I want to believe that Stannis did not invite Cressen to these meetings because he knew that Cressen and Mel would clash. This is probably not the case, and anyway I don’t know why Mel even gets a seat at the table. If you think about it’s basically a foreigner with a strange religion and strange advice and yet she has somehow usurped Cressen’s place. I think we’ll get more details on how exactly that happened as the book continues though.

The grievance of Dragonstone is an interesting topic in and of itself. On one hand, I honestly don’t think Robert thought it all through at all because well, he’s Robert. On the other hand, there is also a certain logic in giving Dragonstone, traditionally the seat of the heir to the throne to Stannis. If you want to be generous to Robert you might say that he didn’t think that it was right for Stannis to hold Storm’s End, a castle in which he almost died, when he was the Crown Prince (at the time) and thus gave him Dragonstone the seat of Targaryen power both as a gesture of gratitude and as a testament to Robert’s faith in Stannis ability to discipline a land filled with Targaryen supporters. A somewhat less generous, and much more likely, version of events is that Robert simply didn’t care and neither did anyone else.

I think a big part of what makes Stannis so very unlikable here is his inability to compromise. All of Cressen’s options are good ones and every single one of them could have led to a happier end to this series but it’s a mixture of pride and self-righteousness that keeps Stannis from taking either of those. In the real world, that’s the kind of thing that keeps you achieving anything but unfortunately in ASOIAF, there is a way out for Stannis – Mel. Mel is able to give him an ‘easy’ way out, one in which he has to sacrifice neither the results nor his pride and that’s exactly why Mel is so dangerous. Her magic is a convenience no matter how you look at it – it offers characters ways out of difficult decisions but what keeps this device interesting is how the magic itself has some major consequences as we will see throughout the series. In any case, I forgot that we also meet Selyse in this chapter. Selyse is one of those characters that I would rather forget existed. I simply cannot stand her – every time she makes an appearance, I just assume that she’s going to be a more obnoxious version of Mel, literally the worst possible combination of religious fanaticism mixed with a noblewoman entitlement.

Had he done so ill that now he must watch one kill the other?

This brings up a fair number of feels yet if I’m being brutally honest, there is no way that a Maester can bring a child up. The power relationship between the two is just so warped that it makes no sense – for example, if Renly or Robert is being a brat, Cressen can hardly send them to their room – Robert is Lord of Storm’s End, if he doesn’t want to go to his fucking room, he’s not going to his fucking room. That aside, I hate to say it, but Cressen’s track record really speaks for itself – Robert, Renly and Stannis all grow in adults with some serious deep-seated personality issues. I don’t know if it’s fair to blame all of that on Cressen and surely at some point these men need to take responsibility for their lives but I’m just saying Cressen would have a much steadier leg to stand on if either Renly or Robert turned out alright. As an aside though, I do think Renly turned out the best of the lot even though that isn’t saying much. He would have been a terrible king but that same can be said of all three Baratheon brothers.

“A crown to match your chain, Lord Maester,” she announced.

Well, that was uncalled for.

“He has an ally,” Lady Selyse said. “R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow.”

I simply cannot be the only one who wants to smack her every time she speaks, I simply can’t. On a more serious note, I remember watching this seen a few weeks ago when I was watching the second season of Game of Thrones and thinking that the show’s version of Stannis seemed rather weak-willed but reading this chapter is making me think that they got it just right. Stannis went from “Hmm, maybe you’re right, maybe going 1v3 against powerful armies is not a great idea” to “Lord of Light’s got this covered” in less than half a chapter. More importantly though, in the last few paragraphs of the chapter, Cressen notes again and again that something is not right with Stannis – that Stannis was hard but never cruel and honestly, that actually sounds about right from everything I remember about the character too. Stannis seems different as well in a way that I can’t put my finger on – before he was uncertain and stressed but suddenly he seems focused and determined like he knows what he has to do, but what’s behind this change? What did Mel tell him/do to him?

Last but not least, and I know this has been a LONG write-up, we come to the topic of Mel’s magic. Apart from Dany’s shenanigans in AGOT, this is our first real look at magic. Mel knows that Cressen has poisoned her. How does she know this? The obvious explanation is that Cressen isn’t as smooth as he thinks he is but the better explanation, in my opinion, is that she saw it in the fire. The reason I don’t hate Mel as much as I do Selyse is because unlike Mel, Selyse is needlessly mean and cruel. Mel tries to avoid killing Cressen, perhaps because she knows Stannis wouldn’t want him to die but I don’t think Selyse would have any such qualms in Mel’s place. Of course, Mel is no angel – the whole crown joke earlier was taking things a little too far. Next though, is the question of how she negated the poison – the shimmering ruby is an indication that magic of some sort is at play but as far as I know Mel doesn’t have healing powers does she?

“I will not have you kill yourself in my service.”

In this, as in all else, Stannis fails.

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