Thursday, July 30, 2015

Rereading ASOIAF: How Book 1, Chapter 1 Sets the Stage

     "We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.
     "The wildlings are dead."
     "Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
These are the opening lines of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The first chapter of this book is one of the best that has ever been written. GRRM captures your attention with the opening lines, and holds it until . . . well, I don't know when. He hasn't finished writing the books.


The biggest reason the first chapter of AGOT is so successful is the amount of information it reveals without telling the reader "HEY! THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT!"

Let me explain.

1. "We should start back."
Image: HBO

These very first words put the reader at alert and cause the reader to start questioning the scenario in which Gared, the speaker, finds himself. Right out of the gate, GRRM gives us a sense of the danger that can be expected north of the Wall.

2. The wildlings are introduced.

Image: HBO

As you know from either reading the books or watching the HBO series, the wildlings play a substantial role in both the overall worldview of Westeros and specific characters' storylines (like Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, and Bran Stark). By beginning this chapter with men of the Night's Watch searching for a band of wildlings, GRRM is showing his readers there is a clear social and cultural barrier between the Watch and the wildlings (a barrier which we later find out causes a great amount of tension).

3. The reader finds out that "old" in this world means over fifty.

Image: HBO

While a very minor point, GRRM's establishment of the various levels of age early on in the book helps us understand, to some degree, the motives and actions of a wide range of characters. For example, we know from Ser Waymar Royce's words and actions that he views Gared as inferior because of Gared's age and station (or, rather, Royce views himself as superior because, though young, he had a noble upbringing and so must naturally be a better ranger). This is by no means to say that the elderly are completely disregarded in GoT; instead, it is meant to point out how valuable such a reference point can be (afterall, without knowing "old" is around fifty, we couldn't appreciate the normalcy of seventeen-year-old's like Robb Stark leading a rebellion against the crown).

4. The class system is firmly established.

Image: HBO

As mentioned in points 3 and 4, the Prologue of A Game of Thrones firmly establishes for the reader an intricate class system: Wildlings are primitive and inferior to Night's Watchmen, but even certain Crows see themselves as superior to some of their other Black Brothers (paging Ser Waymar).

5. "Never believe anything you hear at a woman's tit."
Image: Carrie Slager from carrieslager.wordpress.com
(And, yes, #9 is Loras Tyrell.)

Uttered by Ser Waymar Royce as a jab at Gared, these words summarize the entire ASOIAF worldview on women: women spread falsehoods (thereby making them inconsequential sources of knowledge), and any man who trusts in the words of a woman is a fool (a sentiment often repeated by multiple characters throughout the series). Good thing GRRM often proves this notion false; many of his female characters, though oppressed by their world, are strong and intelligent (read The Mad Reviewer writer Carrie Slager's opinions on women and ASOIAF here).

6. The Wall protects Westeros.

Image: HBO

The Wall has played a major role in ASOIAF so far, and will no doubt play an even larger one in the coming books. Presenting the Will, Gared, and Ser Waymar as agents of the Wall hunting down known threats and encountering unknown ones, GRRM conveys to the reader the importance aspect the Wall plays in protecting Westeros from that which lies north of the Wall. Which brings me to my final and most important point:

7. The Others.

Image: HBO

At the end of this first chapter, Will, Gared, and Ser Waymar discover that the wildlings they were searching for had become wights, perambulating, possessed creatures fueled by the power of the Others. As the rangers of the Wall soon find out, the Others are back after an 8,000 year absence and are here to wreak havoc on those who lie south of the Wall.

If you don't feel compelled to finish the ASOIAF series after reading the first chapter of this book, I would be interested to see what books you find worth finishing.

So, reader, tell me: Have you read A Game of Thrones? What did you think of it?

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