Don’t Look Away

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV

We should start back. 

Beginnings are important. The stage is set: endless trees, wilderness, summer snows. A Game of Thrones opens with a prologue from the perspective of Will, a man of the Night’s Watch, whose party confronts the mythical Others. It then follows with Bran Stark’s first chapter, in which he is witness to one of said Watch men’s execution for the crime of desertion. 

These chapters function as the reader’s introduction to the series and its world, and what we find is a highly patriarchal and feudalistic society with a culture of violence and war. There is something deeply wrong, here; old powers wake, and even the seasons are troubled. Fools are placed in power. Children are brought to watch executions. Honourable men dismiss urgent warnings as lunacy. And yet all push on forward, blind.

These first two chapters are not ostensibly ‘about’ gender— it’s not like any of the characters ever make any overt aphoristic comment on their masculinity— yet they manage to richly illuminate the series’ perspective and framework concerning gender, setting the stage for the rest of the books. (Notably, every single character in these chapters is male— besides the dead direwolf mother, I guess.) These chapters are also paramount in understanding the series’ handling of themes of war and violence. AGOT’s prologue and Bran I both encapsulate the series in microcosm. They set the foundations of a world whose wrongness and violence is endemic, ever-present, and seldom interrogated. This violence is predicated on the enforcing of a masculinist and classist paradigm of war that results in a thoroughly gendered horror. 

There’s a world in which we start back, maybe, but this isn’t it. 

The Bloody Hand opened in a lichyard.

“We should start back,” Gared says, already dead, as the men ride forward. “The wildlings are dead.”

It’s a darkening forest, and it’s too cold. (Pardon this particular usage of pathetic fallacy for being obvious about it.) We are thrust into a recognizable environment of horror, the woods an “endless dark wilderness” closing in— unnatural, cold, and implacable. Instantly we know there’s something wrong with this picture. Will notes the feeling of being watched. Voices echo, too loud. There’s a sense of inevitability here, Gared’s urging falling flat as soon as it’s spoken, the act of its suggestion engendering its futility. 

And what of these dead wildlings? Unlike in this scene’s screen adaptation, we never see the free folk the men are searching for. Here’s what we know: Mormont commands the party only to track them, and Gared states that, “they shan’t trouble us no more.” The wildlings are identified as ‘raiders’, but we are not made aware of what crime these people may have committed— or whether they committed any crimes at all. We later learn that most men of the Watch consider all free folk as implicitly criminal. The party travels nine days north without looking to retrieve anything from them that might have been stolen, and without any stated reason for seeking ‘justice’. It’s simply implied that their movements, as wildlings, must be policed. And even if they did commit some unspecified crime, we are later made aware of the complex sociopolitical reasons for this; the raising of the Wall was a violence in itself, and the free folk suffer from a lack of resources. It may even have been the threat of the Others that drove them to raid to survive. This is not to say that they could not have done wrong, but that this point is intentionally obscured; there is no justice to be found in this mission.

The wildlings are obscured from us, but so too are the real monsters. As in most horror, knowledge of the supernatural wrongness and danger is somewhat more heightened for the audience than for the characters, but we are not privy to their appearance before the characters, either. The fear is all we have. Unlike the attack detailed so viscerally in the fractured point of view of Sam Tarly in his first chapter in ASOS, we aren’t in the action. Even when we witness the Others, it is from afar. Will is our audience stand-in, but in the end, only we can read the signs.

Waymar’s retort is automatic and taunting, said with a smile: “Do the dead frighten you?” It is this question that locks their fate. Here we are introduced to the politics of fear in this society; for these men, it would be incredibly grave and demeaning to be thought of in any way as craven, a label to be avoided at all costs. Will is indeed deeply frightened, as is Gared, but neither can admit it— it is “not a feeling to share with your commander. Especially not a commander like this one.”

With the description of Waymar comes the element of class divide, drawing out a deeper tension; Waymar is ill-prepared and inexperienced, thrust forward by his noble status and endangering Gared and Will, who are much more capable— and much more fearful. Both understand well enough that it is not too late to turn home, to start back, to flee; cowardice could have saved them. And it is Waymar’s position of privilege that allows him to override the others’ concerns, dooming them all. 

However, this class tension does not come without some nuance. There’s a certain tragedy to Waymar’s situation, as a third son with no solid place in a feudal society based around primogeniture, “the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs.” We aren’t sure of all the reasons why he joined the Watch, but we can speculate based on this line— was he pressured into it by family? Were the Royces struggling financially to support all their sons? Did he really choose this, or did he see no other future? Albeit to a much lesser extent, he can be seen as a victim of feudalism too. And by the end of the chapter, we see what he really is, stripped of all divides but life and death: a child, doomed to die. Waymar is victim and perpetrator both, stuck in the crushing social systems of Westeros. With his upbringing, he would have always turned out like this. The villain is not truly Waymar, then, but instead the oppressive and deterministic social structures of his society.

“Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”

In a culture of war like Westeros, the politics of fear are intensely gendered. ASOIAF’s approach to social structures portrays them as incredibly (though not totally) deterministic, and as such its perspective on gender is that it is performative and constructed. As we’ve discussed, cowardice is a gendered concept. Men who refuse to participate in violence are seen as cowards, but also as failed in their masculinity. Indeed, violence and war are intrinsic parts of Westerosi conceptions of manhood. And so Waymar insults his rangers as insufficient and failed men for floating the idea of starting back, and it works. The idea of being ‘unmanned’, repeated several times, is so terrible that Gared and Will drop their complaints.

“Will could feel it. Four years in the Night’s Watch, and he had never been so afraid. What was it?

“Wind. Trees rustling. A wolf. Which sound is it than unmans you so, Gared?””

Why go on? Why not turn back? Honour is another factor. “The order had been given,” Will thinks, “and honor bound them to obey.” Honour is such a nebulous, difficult to define term. Does it mean goodness? Fairness? Loyalty, mercy, law, or adherence to vows? Who writes the vows, then? (So many, they make you swear and swear…) How can it be honour that binds them to obey? This mission, and Waymar’s insistence on fulfilling it, is predicated on a police state, itself predicated on the positioning of wildlings as an inferior, savage people. 

Masculinity, class, honour, and cowardice are wholly constructed concepts— and often structures of violence— but these mere constructs are so powerful that they cast doom upon these men’s lives. They’re shadows on a wall, certainly, but white shadows, shadows that kill. These constructs are, of course, later complicated and interrogated in ASOIAF, and ultimately collapse into themselves. Honour… is a horse. 

It’s crucial to understand here that ‘cowardice’ isn’t wrong. It would be the right move for these men. To go forward, you must go back. Hiding almost saves Will, and fleeing does save Gared— for a time, anyway. In his final moments, Waymar’s bravery feels so heroic, but what does it get him? Only the silence of death. 

The Others make no sound. 

Waymar finds the vanished wildlings funny: “He looked down at the empty clearing and laughed.” The Others laugh, too. “His voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.” Waymar sets out to stalk the wildlings; the Others get there first. Waymar draws his sword first. He does it thoughtlessly, before any hint of an encounter. He is met by the Others’ blades. Met by, specifically. They follow him, like a dance. None of this is out of nowhere. The signs are always there. The men know something’s wrong, and they might even know what’s wrong, but they can’t say it. Can’t even think it.

“Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow…

The Other is Waymar’s pale shadow, his own reflection: tall, mocking, violent. Waymar strikes for the wildlings first, he laughs first, he draws steel first. He’s the aggressor. He makes the first move. The Others are just mirroring him.

(For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.)

The Others act as dark mirrors of Waymar, of the Watch, of Westeros and its culture of war. All they are is their war. They are living swords, rippling. Beautiful, elegant, dangerous. Reflective. White shadows, Will thinks.

The shadows come to stay, my lord. The shadows come to dance. 

“Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.”

The armour picks up the images around it; they are definitionally reflective beings. The Others are graceful, and practiced. They are mocking. It is significant that Martin’s monster is not deformed, ugly, hulking, slavering, or savage, but rather refined, noble, and beautiful. Their closest counterparts? The violence-pilled upper echelons of the Westerosi noble class, at their most comfortable ordering men to slaughter one another in gleaming silvery armour, ideally handsome, ideally cold, ideally violent. The Others raise armies, great hordes of mindless fodder for the Great War ahead, reduced to violent puppets. In essence, the wights are drafted. What’s a zombie if not a broken man?

“Broken men, [Jon] thought. The wights are not the only sort of living dead.”


In HBO’s Game of Thrones, it is revealed that the Others were originally created by the children of the forest, transformed from living men, as a weapon to be used against the invading First Men. Now, this revelation may not be reflected at all in the books. In its television portrayal, it at best comes off as a simplistic depiction of victims turned warmongers, and is never brought up or addressed again after its one flashback. It doesn’t have any plot relevance at all. But it does strike at (or accidentally stumble into) one crucial idea concerning the Others: they’re us. 

The first mirrors to be produced (that weren’t just pools of still water) were made of obsidian, polished to a sheen, dated to around 6000 BCE. In the show, it is obsidian that turns men to Others. It makes sense that it would be a weapon against them, too, refracting the reflection back onto itself. But it is not enough to just see ourselves reflected; that’s not how we change. Obsidian kills Others, not wights; we still have to deal with the resulting baggage, the literal dead bodies in the basement. We are left to face the things we have done. 

The Others are thus named not as a representation of the imagined and constructed Other, and not in tribute to the idea of alterity, but as a parody of it. These creatures are not Other, because they are us. They are our constructed ideals; masculinity, war, and nobility. Power. Control. Violence. (Is it any wonder that many of the more heroically-positioned characters are themselves othered in Westerosi society, by lines of gender, disability, bastardry, class, or otherwise?)

The use of horror and the supernatural elevate the Others’ meaningfulness as symbols of war. In horror, monsters can be total abstractions made manifest. Here, the Others are mirrors; they reflect Waymar’s constructed upper-class masculinity as fragile posturing, made utterly worthless when removed from the social structures it draws power from. Horror allows us to physically confront what we can’t touch— every shadow on the wall. In this case that truth shatters us, like Waymar’s sword. Narcissus sees himself, and dies.

The shadows come to dance, my lord— dance with me, then, he says. 

So Waymar makes his last stand. In a sense, it is a heroic moment. Finally, he is “a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.” But it is not enough. And there’s the rub— it is difficult to see ‘becoming a man of the Night’s Watch’ as something ‘good’ or ‘heroic’. The Watch itself is a dissonant and violent institution, charged to protect humanity, but in its structure only able to persecute it. Waymar fights the Others, but cheers “For Robert!”, a rapist complicit in the death of children. 

I always wonder: what if he had run? What if he had never drawn his sword? This is the central painful understanding— he could always have started back for home. Does it ultimately mean anything, this final outburst of bravery, this meeting of blows? Is Waymar’s futile challenge the proverbial light in the darkness that proves humanity’s shining core of hope? I don’t know that it’s so simple or romantic. It was never good advice to kill the boy and let the man be born.

“Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.”

It is a waste. In death we see Waymar for what he truly is: a child, only ever given a sword to suckle. And in undeath, when he rises again, we see the other inevitability: a slave to an endless war, robbed of all agency, cursed (or programmed) only to kill. What did anyone expect? This is the desired result of Westerosi masculinist culture, reflected back across the snow in scarlet.

Vonnegut: “My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child. I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.

Alternatively, Kait Rokowski: “All that blood was never once beautiful. It was just red.”

In her book Beckett’s Masculinity, Jennifer M. Jeffers speaks of the role of gender in Samuel Beckett’s influential play Waiting for Godot:

“The play’s namesake, the father-figure, the bearer of masculine privilege throughout the entire play, never appears, although the play is structured around and desires his appearance. For decades the curious nature of the play has led critics to ponder the existential and religious ramifications of waiting. In fact, the action, such as it is, is not about waiting at all. The action is all about the return of the masculine, the renewal of masculinity that Godot would bring upon his arrival.”

In the play, two men named Vladimir and Estragon wait by a tree for a meeting with the titular Godot, a mysterious superior. They attempt to initiate conversation to keep themselves occupied, and are occasionally set upon by cryptic travellers. That’s kind of it. They wait restlessly, but find themselves unable to leave the scene, trapped even by the stage itself. Jeffers goes on to pose that the figure of Godot represents the Western masculine ideal and authority. Naturally, he never shows. The masculine ideal in Beckett’s work is laboured over and worshipped, but is non-existent in reality, and if it ever did exist, it has long since collapsed. The waiting is as much a pointless charade as gender is.

There is no ‘real man’; there are no true knights; the great summer without ending will never be at hand.

In Look Back in Gender, Michelene Wandor also writes of Waiting for Godot

“All the characters are waiting for Godot, who is designated as ‘he’, an absent figure who embodies the values by which these people live, but to whom they do not have access. The nameless Boy, like an innocent Greek messenger, brings the truth that Godot is coming tomorrow. Here the all-male rituals create a non-realistic world, without any recognisable social institution to give them shape. Here is no army, no city; just men trying to find comradeship, but coming up only with rituals which lack meaning and vision […] the terrain is featureless, the meanings controlled by an invisible authority which leaves the men locked in symbolic relationships which they cannot control. […] Only the nameless Boy is free of these ‘sins’, embodying a romantic moment of symbolic hope.”

Godot opens with Estragon saying, “Nothing to be done.” The accompanying stage directions are “(giving up again)”. In short, it is an admission: We should start back

As in Waiting for Godot, the prologue of A Game of Thrones follows a group of men meandering in a charmless, endless wilderness, seeking the fulfilment of a task that is never at hand, fruitless, pointless, and impotent. None can produce an answer as to why they go on, why they must pursue the wildlings, except that not to do so would be ‘unmanly’ and thus wrong. They should start back, but they don’t. Vladimir and Estragon fail to escape the narrative, waiting endlessly for some salvation, some explanation, some change. The Watch men fail to escape the labyrinth too. There is no way off the stage. Somewhat like the Boy of Godot, Gared escapes the horror narrative, only to be dragged right back into it. He finds himself in yet another trap, his truthful words falling on deaf ears, dismissed as the ramblings of a madman, and dies all the same.

(Notably, and discussed elsewhere, the only character so far who does manage to successfully confront the Others is Sam Tarly, a self-admitted coward who abhors violence, and whose inability to conform to gender norms and the masculine ideal (which so often requires violence) is what gets him sent north in the first place.) 

The play ends how it starts, in stillness, in entropy. 

VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?

ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.

(They do not move.)

“And then there was nothing to be done for it,” Will reflects, as he starts on forward.

We should start back, but where? 

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.”

The first paragraph of the first chapter of A Game of Thrones is a masterclass in worldbuilding. It is also one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. 

It’s so succinct, so casual, almost seductive in its utter clarity. Here’s the information: It’s nice out, but it will grow less nice. A party is attending a person’s beheading, and this is clear cause for excitement. The narrator, a lord’s son, has been waiting, even asking to attend a beheading for a very long time. The narrator is also seven. 

That’s four sentences, and yeah, this is already really fucked. This world is one where the common practice is to ritualistically indoctrinate sons into violence, and to encourage them to be excited for their own indoctrination. Which, of course, folds neatly into the rest of the series’ exploration into how the performance of masculinity in Westeros demands the performance of violence. (As well as how this demand is taught and learned, not innate.) 

And so it is that Gared flees beneath the Wall, but finds the scene before him to be no less terrifying than mythological murder-elves who can raise the dead. There is no classical horror in this chapter, no movie monsters like the prologue, but the implicit wrongness of this world persists and becomes clear. Even the seasons are wrong, from the very first mention of summer snows. And we know it is wrong for a boy of seven to be eager to watch a man die. 

(When I became a man, I put away childish things.)

The real horror of Bran I comes from how much of it is dominated by the unconscious, the unquestioned, and the unstated. It’s crucial that through almost all of it, Bran has basically no idea what’s happening. No one really asks. Bran is just too young to comprehend anything going on in front of him— “There were questions asked and answers given there in the chill of morning, but afterward Bran could not recall much of what had been said.” 

It is left utterly ambiguous what Gared says in his last moments— if he tried warning them of the Others, or explained why he deserted. But afterward, Ned only states that he was a deserter, so it is clear he committed no other crimes, else he would cite them as well. We as readers know that if Gared’s testimony is dismissed as “half mad”, he was more than likely trying to warn them about the Others. All we have here is a man who has hurt no one, who has done no wrong, only fled from a broken institution he was probably coerced into joining anyway, one which more than likely would only use him as wight fodder in the Great War sure to come. Could it really have been wrong of him to flee that? 

The first act of the protagonist of A Game of Thrones, therefore, is to behead an innocent man. (After all, those are the laws of this society, and as we know, laws and political structures can never be wrong or bad and are never called into question or overtly challenged by this narrative. Right?) This chapter, like the last, is deeply concerned with complicating and interrogating notions of bravery and cowardice. Bravery as a construct is not uncomplicated, and not apolitical.

“Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.”

Even as Ned touches lightly on the false dichotomy of bravery and cowardice— he still has to kill the coward. He is ultimately still affirming the politics of fear in Westeros, one that derides and criminalizes those unwilling to participate in violence. (It’s worth mentioning that the Others never kill Gared, but it’s Ned who does. With a sword of Ice, no less!) This is not a personal failing, but a deeply societal one. Ned clings to these structures, even when they betray him. He starts the book beheading someone, and ends it beheaded. The wheel turns. Ned becomes Gared, the wrongly accused, bloody on a slab. It’s like a curse.

Before the execution, Bran says of Ned: “He had taken off Father’s face […] and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.” 

This, too, is a beheading.

“There was something in [Tywin’s] face that reminded Arya of her own father, even though they looked nothing alike. He has a lord’s face, that’s all, she told herself. She remembered hearing her lady mother tell Father to put on his lord’s face and go deal with some matter.”


To be a lord in Westeros is to sacrifice your selfhood. Adherence to the broken codes of honour and law is something very much of the body. (This is because the enforcing of these codes requires violence, but I digress.) It is arguably even an expression of body horror. This is a common theme for the Starks, Ned’s lessons escalating, repeating, mutating until they manifest physically. Arya quite literally learns to take off her face. Ned is executed in front of her, and so in turn she becomes the executioner, sworn to kill for an inscrutable code of honour, in a world where everything is black and white. Sansa’s skin turns from porcelain, to ivory, to steel, also a horror image, as she meticulously arranges her face so as to best bear the abuse. Robb is beheaded in his death, and Catelyn tries to claw off her own face during the Red Wedding, for what eyes can bear this? Bran changes skins, wears new faces, this practice turning to violation and aberration as he tries to escape his state of disability. The Boltons skinned Starks, but now they do it to themselves. 

It all goes back and back. Ned’s actions are rooted in the culture of violence he was raised in. He himself was traumatized by war as a youth, and like his children will be taught, he was not allowed to look away from it. He clings to his structures, to his honour, even in the face of clear absurdity and dissonance, because they are all he has. 

“He found himself thinking of the deserter his father had beheaded the day they’d found the direwolves. “You said the words,” Lord Eddard had told him. “You took a vow, before your brothers, before the old gods and the new.” Desmond and Fat Tom had dragged the man to the stump. Bran’s eyes had been wide as saucers, and Jon had to remind him to keep his pony in hand. He remembered the look on Father’s face when Theon Greyjoy brought forth Ice, the spray of blood on the snow, the way Theon had kicked the head when it came rolling at his feet.”


Theon sticks out in this scene because he encapsulates said dissonance perfectly. It’s significant that Jon mentions Theon’s presence there specifically later on— holding the sword that may have one day been used for his own execution, watching the blow fall, on some level waiting to die. Theon complicates the narrative everywhere he goes, the walking stain on Ned’s character-defining desire to ‘protect the children’. Theon certainly did not feel protected as a child. (“The noose I wore was not made of hempen rope, that’s true enough, but I felt it all the same. And it chafed, Ser Rodrik. It chafed me raw.”) Notably, he is much derided for kicking Gared’s head around, but is that really any more ‘disrespectful’ or cruel than actually killing an innocent man? Theon has to kick the head, has to laugh at it, because otherwise he would have to acknowledge how easily it could be his head on the block.

Much like other characters such as Jaime and the Hound, Theon’s behaviour cracks open the thin veneer of the Westerosi chivalric paradigm, a culture that holds children hostage for the crimes of their fathers. His turn against Winterfell should have been utterly predictable, but Ned sees his hostage-taking as existing within the bounds of honour, and so could not possibly have ever been harmful. (In some ways Theon mirrors Waymar Royce: embarrassing and quick to mock, both victim and perpetrator, trapped by circumstance, taught cruelty from birth.) 

Children are mirrors, too.

“Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. “Keep the pony well in hand,” he whispered. “And don’t look away. Father will know if you look away.”

Bran kept his pony well in hand, and did not look away.”

Don’t look away. This is the crux of the matter, the true inciting incident, and the true horror. Bran’s not allowed to stop watching. The enforcement of the masculine ideal begins here, with blood in the snow: you must be able to bear the violence of this system, and eventually wield it yourself. It’s a rite; it’s ritual. It is almost a blood sacrifice.

The rules of the ritual are imposed by boys who have gone through it before themselves— Jon, only fourteen, is called “an old hand at justice” by Bran. But how can this be justice? We know it isn’t. Or else the ‘justice’ is all wrong. If the boy fails they are theoretically punished by their fathers, who may have felt the same threat from their fathers, and theirs before them. (It calls to mind Sam Tarly, whose father very well did know that he looked away from violence, and so inflicted it on him.) Again, cowardice is being gendered— it is the worst crime of all to be a ‘coward’, to not participate in violence, above all to look away. A real man must bear it. This can be reframed as a horror scene, the cultish practices of gender. ASOIAF proposes gender as horror, a constant performance that is at once cruel to fall victim to and traumatic to participate in.

We again confront Ned’s cultural cognitive dissonance when he and Bran have a conversation about Gared’s ‘crimes’:

“In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile. But you mistake me. The question was not why the man had to die, but why I must do it.”

Ned neatly dodges the matter. Like, bud, I think the question is why the man must die! He executes Gared for crimes he has not done yet. And doing the execution himself in truth has very little to do with the morality of the act. Perhaps to some small measure it discourages him from ordering gratuitous violence, preventing a total disconnect from the weight of his actions, but it does nothing to make him consider that perhaps the laws he abides by are not always right. He’s so wrapped up in honour codes and getting a good grade in doing an execution, but at the end of the day, he’s still just killing a man who hasn’t hurt anybody. His honour is not rooted in ethics or concern for life. We’re watching a tragedy, and our protagonist is fatally stuck in his ways, unable to confront them or himself, unable to break the cycle.

He passes his ways, his codes, down to Bran, who is being taught these things before he can even be aware of what’s happening. The killing he is made to witness is not explained, not unpacked, and he is prevented from questioning it. The question is never why the man had to die. (It’s significant that when Ned asks Bran why he thinks he had to kill Gared, Bran’s first assumption is that he was a wildling, and of course wildlings deserve to die, simply by their nature. He’s been taught that, too.) And Ned has already gone through this process with Jon and Robb as well; all they can argue about afterwards is whether Gared was afraid or not when he died— not who he was, not what he had done or had not done, not whether it was right that he was killed.

The blind direwolf they find, then, is Ned, already dead by the game before the story begins. He never sees a way out, a way to escape the structure of the story, of this world that begs for blood.

And he has to be blind, of course. He might look (you can’t not look), but he does not see. One must become accustomed to violence, but never contemplate its implications. Looking away would be craven. It would unman you. A culture of war is one that requires a disassociation from reality, from life, for those involved to look but not to see— or else they would be confronted fully with the horrors they are inflicting, the horrors visited upon them, the horrors endemic to this world. To exist in this world demands desensitization, demands that you harden from porcelain to ivory to steel, that you kill the boy and let the man be born, that you look, but go away inside. It demands you to stand guard to rape, or to wrap a princess’ body in a cloak to hide the wounds, or to fix your eyes on your father’s rotting head and never see it.

He can make me look at the heads, she told herself, but he can’t make me see them.”

Sansa VI, AGOT

“”A man can bear most anything, if he must,” Jaime told his son. I have smelled a man roasting, as King Aerys cooked him in his own armor. “The world is full of horrors, Tommen. You can fight them, or laugh at them, or look without seeing . . . go away inside.””

Jaime I, AFFC

“Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the young prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.””

Eddard II, AGOT

These instances are in no way morally equivalent, but they are all similarly chilling. We can’t see, it’s too painful. The facade is all we can bear— Plato’s shadows, dancing on the wall. Why else do we tell stories? We can’t handle the truth. Westeros is a culture of cognitive dissonance, of riding two horses, Honor and Glory, of wearing the red cloak and the white, obsessed with dichotomies and utterly unable to sustain them. Are there no true knights among you? Where is Godot? 

There is blood in this book. You only have to scratch at a surface and it comes thundering out. In the veins of the trees, in the bricks of Astapor, in the bricks of the Red Keep, in the dreamscape. In Valyrian steel, and in Lightbringer. There is blood in the ocean, drawing monsters from the deep. Blood for the old gods, blood for the red god, blood for the cold gods that live in the woods.This Wall is made o’ blood, Ygritte spits.

“At the same moment the knight leaned over to his near side and swapped off the lady’s head. When Lancelot looked back again, without seeing any soldiers, he found the lady sitting beside him with no head on. She slowly began to sag to the left, throbbing horribly, and fell in the dust. There was blood all over his horse. […]

But “Mercy, mercy!” was all the knight would say.

Lancelot began to shudder, not at the knight but at the cruelty in himself. He held his sword loathingly, and pushed the knight away.

“Look at all the blood,” he said.

“Don’t kill me,” said the knight. “I yield. I yield. You can’t kill a man at mercy.”

Lancelot put up his sword and went back from the knight, as if he were going back from his own soul. He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind. […]

Lancelot went away and was sick.”

The Once and Future King, T. H. White

In this world children are taught that they must either do the cutting, or the bleeding— the sword, or the noose. The hero or the craven, the man or the woman, the Other or the wight, the living or the dead. Nothing to be done, says Estragon. But though this world is a bloody world, the story does not revel in it; it explores the depth of suffering caused by a culture of war, and then offers another way. All throughout the story, characters chip away at violent dichotomies and structures. Gender norms and binaries can be transgressed and interrogated; cowardice can be an act of bravery in itself; heroes can live in the space between alive and dead; boys can be wolves and boys and wolves again. It’s not easy, of course not, but since when was tradition any easier? It is certainly not natural, if it must be so brutally enforced by violence and ritual. It seems to me, says Davos, most men are grey. In the end, the Wall must fall.

Good. Let it.

At the end of Bran I, the children find a direwolf, her pups crawling out from her, mewling for life. Jory is first to reach them, and before he dismounts, his sword is already out. The party instantly suggests killing them. Even Ned wants to kill them. It’s all they know to do. But Robb and Jon and Bran resist. They want, desperately, for the pups to live. And they win out. Bravery as portrayed in ASOIAF begins with preserving life, not taking it. It requires struggle. It’s hard, and sometimes fruitless. Grey Wind is not saved in the end, nor Lady, nor Robb. 

But for the first time, holding Summer, the air tastes sweet to Bran. History might rhyme a little, but it’s no wheel. It’s already breaking. 

ESTRAGON: The tree?

VLADIMIR: Do you not remember?

ESTRAGON: I’m tired.

VLADIMIR: Look at it.

(They look at the tree.)

ESTRAGON: I see nothing.

VLADIMIR: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.

ESTRAGON: In a single night?

VLADIMIR: It must be the Spring.

You can find me on Twitter at @samanthatarly

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