Category Archives: epic fantasy

Wisdom for Three Emperors

Copyright 2019 Douglas Daniel.

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On a certain summer’s day, in the fourth year of the War of the Kingdoms, Topaz drowsed on a bench before his cottage.  The sun shone through the cedars; it was good to sit there and soak up the warmth.  At his age, Topaz always appreciated a sunny day.

“Master!”  It was Orphan, running up the trail toward the cottage.  “Master!”

“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said, opening his eyes.  “I heard you coming minutes ago.  What’s the trouble?”

Orphan stopped, panting.  “General…Foxglove…he’s coming.  With a…lot of his…soldiers.”

“Of course,” Topaz said.  He sighed; he never seemed to get to enjoy the sunshine very long.  He stood, leaning on his cane, his knees creaking.  “Orphan, listen to me.  Go find Cassia– she’s out by the pond.  Take her up to the hut by the falls.  A young girl like her will be a temptation to soldiers.”  Especially, perhaps, these soldiers, but Topaz did not speak the thought aloud.  “Both of you hide until…well, until you’re sure it’s safe.”

Orphan stared at him.  “What about you, master?  Will you be safe?”

“Well, maybe,” Topaz said.  “I mean, I don’t think very many of the soldiers will be interested in me– I’m rather past my best days, you know….”

“Master!” Orphan sputtered, exasperated.

“We shall see,” Topaz said firmly.  “If I am wrong, well, death is always sitting by the hearth anyway, at my age.  But both you youngsters are in danger.  Get Cassia up to the falls.”  Topaz started to turn away, but stopped.  “You know,” he told Orphan, “it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name.  I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.  Dahlia used to tell me it wasn’t proper and she was right.”

Orphan blinked in surprise.  “Is this the time, master…?”

“There might not be a chance later,” Topaz said.  He studied the younger man for a moment.  “I name you Arrow– for surely you are as swift and true as a good arrow.  Yes, you are Arrow.”

The younger man looked close to tears.  “Master, can’t you come with us?”

“Oh, no, no,” Topaz said.  “Someone has to greet our guests.  Now go.”

Arrow stared at Topaz for another moment, and then ran.

Topaz stepped forward a few yards, so no one coming into the clearing in front of his hut could miss him.  He leaned on his cane and waited.  The sun shifted and warmed him again and he was thankful.

The jingle of harness, the tread of boots– through the trees Topaz glimpsed the riders first and then the foot soldiers coming behind.  The company, perhaps fifty men all told, wound their way up the trail.  Topaz waited, despite his foot starting to ache.  He wished Dahlia were here.

The column entered the clearing.  The riders pulled up short at the sight of him.  At their head was a big man.  He wore armor and carried two swords, as if he had ridden to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage.  Suspicious eyes looked Topaz over, out of a scarred face.

Topaz bowed over his cane.  “I greet you, Lord Foxglove, General of the Five Lands, conqueror of Darran and Sarmania.  You do honor to my humble house.”

If anything, Foxglove looked all the more suspicious.  “Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” he asked, his voice rough.

Topaz bowed again.  “Some call me that.  My name is Topaz.”

“You know my name,” Foxglove said.  “So you probably know how I became Lord General of the Five Lands.”

“Indeed,” Topaz said.  “The fame, and dread, of your name has long preceded you, my lord.  But I greet you in peace, as a guest.  If it please you, there is tea and bread within.”

Foxglove squinted at Topaz.  One of the general’s officers, a thin, sharp man with a livid scar across his forehead, turned in his saddle and gestured.  Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried forward, past Topaz and into the cottage.  Topaz waited.

The two re-emerged in a moment.  “It’s empty, my Lord General,” one of them said.  “Just a poor hut.”

Foxglove grunted and dismounted.  So did his officers.  The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the house– a movement precisely executed, although no order had been given.  Topaz turned and led the way into the cottage.

He was thankful Arrow had built a fire this morning– the kettle was hot and the tea steeping.  Foxglove and his officers crowded in, but no one sat in the two chairs.  Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze immediately falling on the small silver casket on the table, close by the plate of bread.  The casket was old and battered, but it was easily the brightest object in the room.

“I heard you were a man of wisdom,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea for them into chipped cups.  Two of the officers took cups, but Foxglove did not.  Topaz thought that a shame; it was very good tea.  “I heard you live simply.  Yet you have that.”  He pointed to the casket.

“An heirloom of only sentimental value,” Topaz said.  “Believe me, it contains nothing of worth.”

Foxglove loomed up.  A big man outside the house, he seemed even bigger inside.  “They say that no man becomes Emperor of the Five Lands without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”

“People do say that,” Topaz said.  “Considering there has been no Emperor in two hundred years, it’s not really been put to the test lately, has it?  Do you wish to be Emperor?”

Foxglove smiled.  Topaz shuddered.  “I shall be Emperor.  The throne is mine by right of conquest.  There is no other beside me.  I want the Empire and I will take it.  I take everything I want.”

“I have heard that,” Topaz said.

Foxglove stood even taller, drawing himself up.  Topaz began to wonder if they were going to run out of space in the little room.  “You heard right.  I conquered Cisman in a day and burned it to the ground.  I overran Karsara and all the nobility came crawling on their knees to beg for mercy.  I threw down and slew the steward of Venaland and took his rod of office from his bloody hand.  Yes, old man, I take what I want.”

“So it seems,” Topaz said, with a solemn face.

“So, old man,” Foxglove said.  “I am here, speaking to you.  What wisdom do you have that will make me Emperor?  I will reward you well.”

Topaz sighed.  “My lord, I am sorry, but if I have wisdom, it is merely the sort that comes from living a very long time.  I’ve seen folly and pain.  I’ve even caused some of both myself.  If I were to try to impart any wisdom to you, I would say be careful what you want– and to remember that just because we want something, doesn’t mean it is good to have.”

Foxglove glowered at him, half-angry, half-confused.  “What is this?  Why shouldn’t I take what I want?  If I’m strong enough….”

“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”

Foxglove said nothing for a moment.  His officers stirred uneasily.  Topaz merely watched the general and waited.

“This is a waste of my time,” Foxglove said.  “I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful.”

“I have no secrets that would aid conquest,” Topaz said.

“Is there a spell or enchantment…?” Foxglove said.

“None that will give a man that sort of power,” Topaz said.

Foxglove snorted, his face dark.  “You’re nothing but a weak, old man.”

“I am certainly weak and old,” Topaz said.  “Some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”

“Enough,” Foxglove said.  “I have a mind to gut you, hermit, but that would probably set the peasants down in the valley to revolt.  This has been a waste of my time.”  He glanced at the casket, then leaned over, scooped it up, and tucked it under one arm.  He sneered at Topaz.  “A little recompense.  You have anything to say about it, old man?”

Topaz spread his hands.  “You may take anything you want, my lord.  I am not attached enough to anything here to make much of a fuss.  I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace.  But,” he raised a finger, “while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”

“Opening it?” Foxglove said.  “Why shouldn’t I open it?”

“I don’t think you would be very pleased with the contents.”

Foxglove growled.  “I should kill you just for insolence.  Come, let’s leave this old fool.”

He and his officers stepped out, back into the sunshine. The soldiers, with precise movements, folded their perimeter back into a column for marching.  A soldier held the bridal of Foxglove’s horse; some of the officers mounted their own animals.

Topaz stayed where he was, waiting.  Through the open door he watched as Foxglove, still on the ground, stopped.  He fumbled with the latch of the casket and threw it open.

The sun disappeared; ink-thick blackness swirled all around.  Topaz could see nothing, but he could hear screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh.  He felt it— the ravening hunger.  The human screams faded.  Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.

He stood straight.  His walking stick glowed in the darkness, forcing the hunger back.  You have fed, he told it.  Now, back to your prison, thing.  Leave the world of the living to the living.

The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light.  The light grew and grew, while the hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.

The sun shone; the birds sang in the tops of the pines.  Topaz breathed a deep breath.  Leaning on his cane, he went outside.  He stooped, creaking, and picked up the casket.  He shut the lid against the swirling darkness constrained within and snapped the latch shut.  In the clearing there was no sign of Foxglove, nor of his men, nor of their horses, save their footprints.

“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said, sighing.  He went back inside to his tea.

 

Three years later, just days after Cassia and Arrow married– a quiet joining, with a few people come up from the village, at which Topaz had a little too much punch and a few too many almond-cakes– another party came riding up the trail.  These travellers were fifteen splendidly dressed men, splendidly mounted on strong, big horses.  The man who rode at their head was tall, proud and clear-eyed.  He wore a coronet on his brow and rode straight-backed, controlling his mount with nearly negligent movements of the reins.

They rode into the yard.  Sunlight sparkled off the leader’s coronet and the gold thread woven into his robes and those of his companions.  As the leader reined his horse to a stop, one of his followers leapt from his horse to hold the reins of the leader’s mount.  Another hastened to come forward and throw himself down on all fours.  Dismounting, the leader stepped down to the ground, using his follower as a stepstool.  Topaz watched from his doorway; the only change in his expression was his raised eyebrows.

“Old man,” the leader said, looking down his nose at Topaz, “where is the Hermit of Blackfalls?  I have come to receive his blessing, for I am Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands.”

“Oh, I see,” Topaz said.  He bowed.  “Your pardon, lord, for not greeting you with more ceremony.  I am the Hermit of Blackfalls.  Welcome to my home.”

“You?” Birch said, haughtily surprised.  “Surely not.”

Surely not?” Topaz echoed.  He considered this.  “Well, nobody’s ever said surely not.  I mean, I usually don’t call myself that, certainly, but everybody else does, so I just assumed everybody knew what they were talking about….”

“Are you Topaz the Wise?” Birch demanded, glaring.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Topaz said, “that’s what my mother always called me, and I suppose she would have known.  Maybe not the Wise part, but Topaz, yes, indeed.”

Birch looked as if he were restraining a gathering anger.  “I have come,” he said, measuring out his words with great precision, “to seek your blessing on my ascension.”

“Have you indeed?” Topaz said, looking impressed.  “That’s quite an honor.  But, since I am not a priest, and even less a god, I cannot bless you, my lord.”

Birch turned purple.  Topaz, in all his long life, had never seen anyone turn that particular shade.  He found it fascinating.

“They told me,” Birch snarled, “that no man becomes Emperor without the blessing of the Hermit of Blackfalls!”

Topaz sighed.  “‘Blessing’ is the wrong word, my lord.  It is tradition that the prospective Emperor of the Five Lands seek out the Hermit of Blackfalls—whoever that happens to be at the moment—but it is not for a blessing, or even less, validation of their rule.  You rule because you command hosts and the loyalty of powerful lords who bend the knee to you.  You earned that loyalty by winning battles in the War.  You don’t need the approval of some old fellow in the hills of Daran for that.”

If anything, Birch looked more haughtily offended.  “Then I’ve wasted my time!”

“I’m sorry if you think so, my lord,” Topaz said.  “The tradition is that the Emperor-to-be comes seeking the wisdom of the Hermit.  Such wisdom as I have is yours.”

“Wisdom?” Birch said, towering over Topaz.  “What sort of wisdom could you give me?”

“You might be surprised, my lord,” Topaz said.  He hesitated.  “If I may ask, do you usually dismount from your horse in that manner?”

“What do you…Sir Belfore?” Birch said.  He glanced back at the young noble, who stood beside Birch’s horse with a bowed head.  “Ah—his father dared offend me, earning my enmity.  As a lesson to others, I have degraded him and his family in every way and will do so until it pleases me to stop.”

“I see, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And degradation of another human being aids you, how?”

Birch started to turn purple again.  “I am the supreme lord of the Five Lands—I will not allow anyone to forget that!”

“There are better ways to remind people of who you are, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And an honor that touchy is often offended.”

“How dare you!” Birch snarled.

“It is my office to offer such advice to anyone who wishes to be Emperor,” Topaz said.  “You cannot sustain a state by assuaging your hurt feelings, my lord.”

“You dodderer!” Birch said.  “I’ve killed men for less!”.

“You may do as you please here, my lord,” Topaz said.  He waited.  The moment stretched.

“You’re not worth the effort,” Birch said at last, freezing the air between himself and Topaz with his disdain.  “This has been a fool’s errand.”

“I am sorry you feel that way, my lord,” Topaz said.  “But before you go,” he reached into his robes, “I would like to give you a parting gift.”

Birch, already turning away, stopped.  Topaz pulled his hand from his robes and held out to him a trinket— a small, red stone, intricately carved into the shape of a pomegranate, on a silver chain.  It gleamed in the sunshine.

“What is this?” Birch demanded.

“A small charm,” Topaz said.  “Its power is quite subtle, but it will help you to speak the truth and sway multitudes.”

“Hm!” Birch said.  “As if I cannot do that on my own!  Still…”  He turned and snatched the stone and chain from Topaz’s palm.  “A small enough reward for my trouble, old man.”

He turned and strode away.  Remounting his horse with the renewed aid of Sir Belfore, Birch rode away from Topaz’s cottage, with all his splendid followers in tow.  Topaz never saw him again.

Months later, however, Topaz did hear of Birch, one more time.  Apparently it came to pass that, after a victorious battle, Birch had cause to address the citizens of the city of White Cloud in their great square; and because he happened that day to be carrying the stone pomegranate in his purse, he told the citizens everything he actually thought about them, in the most honest and forthright terms.  He kept on telling them, despite trying to stuff his mouth with his own gloves and to choke off his voice with his own hands, until the citizens rose up in a mass and stormed the dais on which he stood.  When the mob receded, or so Topaz was told, all that was left of Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands, was a stain on the stone.

“Hm,” Topaz said to Arrow and Cassia.  “You have to be careful with the truth.  Should have mentioned that, I suppose.”

 

Four more years passed.  Even in the valley the people heard the tales of the wider world and how the War went on and on.  With each passing month the tales grew darker.  The distant suffering seemed to echo along the valley itself.

One sunny morning a man came riding up the hill.  He came unarmed, with but one companion, a young man with haunted eyes.  Neither wore armor– just old uniforms of the Venaland Guards.  The leader was as dark-haired as Foxglove had been, but lean and tall.

Topaz was seated beside the cottage’s front door when the man rode into the yard.  He had taken to dozing in the sun more and more lately; Arrow, who had built a hut for himself and Cassia behind Topaz’, had hired a hand from the village to help with the chores.  He and Cassia themselves kept busy with their own child.

Topaz woke with a start when the man’s horse clopped to a stop.  He looked up and met a gaze that seemed at once weary and curious and frightened.  It was so many emotions tied up in one bundle that Topaz was worried the fellow might split open.  “I’m sorry, grandfather, but– are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” the man asked.

“Well, people call me that,” Topaz said.  “Considering that I am the only hermit in the neighborhood of Blackfalls, I suppose that qualifies me.”

The man smiled.  “Oh, good.  I was worried.”

“You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid,” Topaz said, arching his eyebrows.

“Ah– your pardon.”  The man dismounted.  “I am Hart.  This is Galagan.”  The young man with the haunted eyes bowed, hesitantly, over his saddlebow.

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “I’ve been expecting you, my lord.  You are both welcome.”

He tried to stand, but had trouble getting up.  That was happening more and more these days.  Hart quickly stepped forward and took Topaz by the elbow and helped him stand.  “Oh, thank you,” Topaz said.  “Not quite as quick on my feet as I was seventy years ago, so it’s good to have a little help now and then.”

“Don’t you have anyone here to help you?” Hart asked

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “They’re around, but busy with other things, I suppose.”

He led them into the cottage.  Once again there was tea and bread ready.  Topaz and the two soldiers sat at the table.  Topaz served them with his own hands.  Galagan, at first, seemed suspicious and fearful.  He peered about, as if expecting to spy ambushers in every corner of the cottage.  “You needn’t worry, young fellow,” Topaz told him.  “You and your master are quite safe here.”

“Yes, please stop, Galagan,” Hart said, irritated.  “You’re embarrassing me and offending our host.”

Topaz held up a hand.  “I am not offended, my lord.  I understand the young man’s caution.  You have both been through some hard times.”

“It’s nothing,” Hart said, “to what the Five Lands have suffered.”

“Yes,” Topaz said, “although this valley is a sanctuary, even here we have heard of all the troubles.”

“Forgive me, grandfather,” Galagan said, “but it’s not just that.  We know what happened to Foxglove and Birch when they came calling.”

“Nothing happened to them they didn’t bring on themselves,” Topaz said.  He meant it as a reassurance, but Galagan turned pale, his eyes wide.

“Galagan,” Hart said, “please stop making faces, or I’ll have you go out and stand by the horses.”

“Sorry, my lord,” Galagan said, hanging his head.

“Forgive him,” Hart told Topaz.  “We have seen a lot.  We both have to learn to trust people again.”

Topaz studied Hart.  “If I were to ask you why it was important to trust people, what would you say?”

Hart gave him a sharp look.  “How else can you build a society, except on trust?  This war has gone on so long no one trusts anyone anymore.”

“Ah,” Topaz said.

A shriek; both soldiers sat up straight with surprise.  Galagan half rose from his chair, almost as if he were about to fling himself between Hart and whatever danger was about to appear.

Instead of a monster or a horde of assassins, however, what appeared was Cassia’s daughter, Cowslip, bursting into the cottage through the back door.  “No, no!” she cried, making Topaz’ ears ring, “I don’t wanna take a bath!”  She tried to flee through the front door, with her grubby shift, muddy feet and begrimed face all unaltered– but her mother, wise to her tricks, had circled around the cottage and caught her in the doorway. Cassia scooped the struggling child up in her arms.

“Nooo!” the child wailed, as if facing her ultimate doom.

Topaz glanced at Hart and Galagan.  The younger soldier looked relieved beyond words.  Hart, though, wore a smile, first of relief, but then of genuine pleasure.  Something in his look told Topaz Hart was more than a little sympathetic to the little girl’s plight.

Cassia, holding the squirming child, looked chagrined.  “Master, my lord, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed.  “We didn’t mean to interrupt!”

“It’s alright,” Hart said, still smiling.

Topaz looked from him to Cowslip.  “Cowslip,” he said, “listen to me.”

“Gran Topaz, I don’t wanna a bath!” the girl cried.

“Listen to me, sweetling,” Topaz persisted.

The little girl stopped struggling in her mother’s arms.  Instead, she regarded Topaz with suddenly solemn eyes, although her mouth was still threatening a pout.

“Be good for your mother,” he said, “and accept your bath without complaining.  Even I have to take baths.”

“But you’re old,” Cowslip said.

“Cowslip!” Cassia cried.

Topaz merely smiled; and, in the corner of his eye, he caught Hart’s smile broadening.  “Young or old, dear little girl,” he told Cowslip, “we all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.  Now, be good for your mother and we’ll see if there aren’t sparklies after dinner.”

“Yes, sparklies, yes!” Cowslip cried, her mood changed in a moment.  Cassia bowed to Hart and carried her mollified daughter away.

Topaz faced his guests with a bemused look.  “I probably shouldn’t bribe her like that,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Hart said, “you can’t avoid it.  It takes some coaxing to get my son Brand to do his lessons, at times.”

Topaz, pleased, hid his pleasure with a sip of tea.  “So, my lord,” he said, “you want to be Emperor?”

Hart looked startled.  “No,” he said at once.  “Who would?”

“You’d be surprised,” Topaz murmured.  “So why are you here?”

Hart did not answer immediately.  He seemed to be studying some internal map only he could see.  “Everyone tells me,” he said slowly, “that I’m the only hope for the Five Lands.  The one person who can unite all the factions and end the War.  I have the loyalty of the Army and I have the right blood, although I was raised the son of a glassblower, and had to earn everything.  It’s just…it’s so much, much more than leading an army.  Where do I begin?”

“Here,” Topaz said, “at the beginning.  Or a new beginning, perhaps.  As I told that little girl,” he smiled at Hart, “sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do.”

 

They talked through supper and into the night.  They talked after everyone else, even Galagan, had fallen asleep.  They talked of many things, of rulership and peace, of hunger and harvests, of fears and hopes.  By morning Topaz was satisfied.

“I have a parting gift for you, my lord,” Topaz told Hart, as he and Galagan prepared to leave in the middle morning.  “Three, in fact, if you will have them from my hand.”

“What are they, sir?” Hart asked.

Topaz stepped into the cottage and led Arrow, Cassia and Cowslip, in Cassia’s arms, out into the sunshine.  All three were dressed for traveling and Arrow carried a backpack.

Hart looked at them with interest, and then at Topaz.  “Gifts?”

Topaz placed his hand on Arrow’s shoulder.  “This is my apprentice, Arrow, who has studied under me for many years.  His knowledge and powers are yours to command.”

Topaz took Cassia’s hand.  “You’ve met his wife, Cassia.  She has made her own studies and is deep into the lore of the Maranonians.  This is only proper, as she descends directly from the ancient priestesses of that race.”

“Ah!” Hart said in surprise, for the Maranonians were widely supposed to be extinct.

“You’ve also met Cowslip,” Topaz said.  He laid a hand on the little girl’s head and she giggled.  “It is yet to be revealed what her skills may be, except in the accumulation of mud on her feet.”  Cowslip giggled again.  “But I sense in her great potentialities.”  He faced Hart.  “They stand ready to serve you, my lord, in your great labor.”

“They…they are welcome, if they wish to serve,” Hart said.  He sounded a little overwhelmed.  “But…”

“What troubles my lord?” Topaz said.

“I had thought…I mean, to come here from time to time….”

Topaz stepped close.  “My lord,” he whispered to Hart, “I am nearly a hundred years old.  My time is very short.  I waited a long time for a new Emperor and had to go through some notable scrubs to get to you.  Please the gods, may the years be long before your son needs the wisdom of the Hermit of Blackfalls, but, long or short as the time may be, I will not be here.  There will doubtless be some other hermit by then.  In the interim, my lord,” Topaz took a breath, “you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

 

Topaz said farewell to Arrow and Cassia and kissed Cowslip goodbye.  He bowed to Hart and watched them all go down the trail.  Somehow, leaning on his walking stick, he managed the trick of feeling all at once the loss of his young friends and the consolation of having completed an important task.  It was an odd sensation.

“I think he’ll do,” said the elderly woman beside him.

“I think so, too,” Topaz said.  He turned toward her, smiling.  “I was hoping you would come, Dahlia.”

“Beloved, how could I not?” Dahlia said.  “Are you ready?”

“Almost,” Topaz said.  “One good cup of tea for the journey and we can be off.”

They took one another’s hand and walked to the cottage.

 

 

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Game of Thrones– Final thoughts (well, maybe….)

Just in case–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS

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Well, I hope so…the one shot I desperately wanted to see in the final episode was him (?) brooding a clutch of eggs….

Time to put this puppy to bed.  Game of Thrones, the television show, for better or worse, is over.  For a lot of people it’s for the worse, and the online rage is astounding.  The petition to have Season 8 remade is out there, and is a measure of some people’s disappointment.  It is, of course, a bigger fantasy than Game of Thrones itself.  Folks need to find a more productive way to express their disappointment.

For me, the final episode was a mixed bag.  In a previous post I outlined how the sketchy, truncated natures of both Season Seven and Eight had negative consequences for both story-lines and characters, and, without tooting my own horn, this seems to be the emerging consensus among thoughtful critics of the show, such Chuck Wendig and Curnblog.  All of those problems came home to roost in the finale.  Just one example, and perhaps the most important– Dany goes all Mad Queen, but while it had been hinted at in previous episodes, the way it was written still seemed abrupt.  The groundwork just had not been laid in a satisfactory manner, as far as I’m concerned.

The odd thing is, I generally like where the (surviving) characters ended up.  Their individual ending points made sense to me, for the most part.  But again, it wasn’t where the characters ended that mattered, but whether we believed the path they took to get there.  For the most part, for my taste, the answer for most of them would be ‘no’.

There is an important lesson for all writers of fiction here, whatever your medium.  If you want your readers/viewers to reach the end of your story and say, “That makes sense; this is how it had to be,” then you cannot avoid doing the work you need to do to build up the story and the characters in a believable fashion.  There are no shortcuts.  You have to do the work.

In light of that truth, it very much appears that the show-runners of Game of Thrones, in the end, didn’t have the energy or chops to carry the narrative the full distance to a more complete resolution.  Tired of the business, or without the skill to resolve the admittedly complicated narrative and characters satisfactorily, they slapped on an ending and called it a day.  Or so it appears.

And so one of the greatest TV shows ever– perhaps the greatest– ends with a whisper rather than a shout.  To those who rage about how it all played out, I would recommend taking a deep breath and letting it go.  It is done.  The practicalities of film and television production militate against any quick solution.  Perhaps in another generation someone will undertake a remake, especially when they have the entire series of completed books available.  It is unlikely, however, that any future production will be able to call upon the acting and production talent that this show called upon, and for the most part utilized quite fully.  You can never get the stars to align quite the same way, nor lightning to strike twice, and so it is with great TV shows.  Be happy for all the good parts, which will endure, and which will set the standard for this sort of storytelling for a long time to come.

And, yes, there are two books yet to come, which I expect will give us fuller resolutions all around.  Someone online suggested that the show is fanfiction, and the books canon.  As attractive as that gloss may be, I think prefer to think that the show is one creature, and the books another, although related.  Each operates under their own constraints and imperatives.  And, fortunately, the disappointments of one do not necessarily foreshadow the success or failure of the other.

And, of course, there is my personal solution to narrative disappointment– writing my own stuff.  With which, at the moment, I am fully engaged, and to which I am trying to apply the lessons of Game of Thrones, both the good and the bad.  Hopefully we can all learn from this experience.

Later.

 

 

A few thoughts before the end…Game of Thrones

MASSIVE AND HAIRY SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES, SEASON EIGHT.

REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING.

DON’T BLAME ME FOR ANY SUBSEQUENT SPOILAGE AND/OR HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS.

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In the unlikely event anyone noticed, I have been holding back about commenting so far on Season Eight of Game of Thrones. Partly this has been because I have been heavily engaged with other projects, and partly because I didn’t want to judge a product before it is fully…well, produced, but now, hovering on the edge of the last episode, and whatever resolution it provides, I wanted to record some thoughts.  Or feelings.  Or emotionally-laden thoughts that are probably idiosyncratic to one aging nerd who has some pretty curmudgeonly ideas about stories and how they should work.  So here goes, in no particular order–

  1. I was disappointed in the rushed nature of Season Seven, and I am at least as disappointed in the rushed nature of Season Eight.  Really, both seasons needed those extra episodes to lay things out properly, both in terms of plot and characters.
  2. Even more than that, though, it seems obvious, from the way things have played out in Season Eight, that the show-runners, at the moment when they need to bring all the disparate elements of this massive story together, had no clue how to do it.  Now, I’ve said this before, but ending an epic storyline in a way that satisfactorily resolves all the threads and themes is very, very hard.  Tolkien did it, but Lost (which had story issues from the get-go) utterly failed, The Sopranos ended in a black screen, and even Hayao Miyazaki’s manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind  seemed to lose its energy toward the end.  By that standard perhaps I should cut the show-runners a little slack.
  3. On the other hand, they had years to develop the story and characters arcs, and at the end it still seems as if they didn’t quite know what to do with all the bits and pieces.  They’ve killed off characters– Rickon, Littlefinger, Jamie and Cersei– important characters, in peremptory fashion that hardly served the story at all.  They killed off the Night King in a fashion that was not only peremptory, but which ended one of the two major story-lines of the series in wholly unsatisfactory way that left more questions than it resolved.  Supposedly important elements (e.g. the Golden Company) are introduced and then disposed of in a summary manner that makes you wonder why they were brought into the story in the first place.  Again, a full slate of episodes would have allowed more time to properly resolved these issues.
  4. The show-runners, in their comments on episodes, talk a great deal about subverting watcher expectations.  Well and good, because otherwise the story would grow predictable.  But you can’t subvert expectations and make the characters you’ve spent years building up look like useless puppets in the process., not if you want the story to be worth anything.  E.G., Jon confronting the Night King– it would be one thing for Jon to engage the Night King, proceed to get his behind kicked, and then have Arya save the day.  It’s wholly another, and immensely unsatisfying, to have Jon blocked and impotent, while Arya comes out of nowhere (literally and story-wise) to do the deed.  Also, take the manner of Jamie and Cersei’s (apparent) deaths– after years of build-up, it is immensely unsatisfying, from the perspective of a viewer, as well as the perspective of story resolution, to have them die in a rain of masonry.  Yes, bad guys die all the time in mundane ways, but viewers were rightfully expecting a resolution to these characters in a story that spoke to all the build-up and repeated themes around them.
  5. By contrast, Clegane Bowl (for me, at least) seemed to at least minimally do the job, although it still felt truncated.  The hate between these two men, the unstoppable nature of (undead?) Gregor, and the final mutual end in fire seemed to wrap everything up as far as the characters went.
  6. To put it another way, if you are going to subvert expectations, you have to subvert them in a way that makes the viewer (or reader) say, “Oh! I didn’t see that coming, but, yeah, it makes sense!”  Too often the twists in the last two seasons seem to have left the viewers scratching their heads, instead.

How to sum this all up?  One of things I keep telling myself is that, as an adaptation, and, more than that, an adaptation of a series of books that have yet to be completed, Game of Thrones, in some way or another, was always going to fall short of expectations.  Adaptations generally do.  Having said that, it appears, from the extreme distance at which I sit from the writing effort that finished off the series (a distance, admittedly, to be measured in parsecs), that no one seemed to know how to achieve even a minimally satisfying resolution to many of the arcs, and sorta kinda cobbled it all together, threw it out the door, and said, “Whew!  Glad that’s over with.”

And that’s the way it is. Having expressed my dissatisfaction, I am not going to be joining the online chorus of fan-folk raging at how GoT failed and was destroyed by SJW’s or feminazis or hipsters or whatever other strawman they wish to concoct to vent their spleen upon.  GoT is hardly the first television show to end weaker than it initially promised (hell, even Downton Abbey was pretty worn out by its finale).  If the show-runners failed to bring proper resolution to the story, then they are hardly alone.  Their failure perhaps looms larger precisely because expectations were larger in proportion to the epic scope of the tale.

Now, I am reserving complete and final judgment on the series, since there is one episode left.  Even so, I don’t expect one episode to afford enough room to redeem every sin committed in Seasons Seven and Eight.  The writers and show-runners would have to do something pretty spectacular to come close to ending the whole series on a fitting note.  Maybe–

  1. Bran becomes the new Night King (actually a fan-theory that’s already out there).
  2. The wildfire reservoirs under King’s Landing go off while Dany, the Unsullied and the Dothraki celebrate their victory, thus solving the problem of the Mad Queen (perhaps already hinted at in the eruptions of wildfire seen in Episode Eight).
  3. Jon steps in and prevents Dany from executing Tyrion, possibly at the cost of his own life.  Dany, grief-stricken, goes back to Meereen and leaves Sansa Stark to rule in her stead.
  4. Dany executes Tyrion for freeing Jaime, Jon assassinates Dany, the Unsullied and Dothraki kill Jon and the Northmen, and then turn on each other, and when everyone is dead, Jaime and Cersei emerge unharmed from the rubble and walk off, hand-in-hand, into the sunset…. (actually, if the writers had the stones to do that I would stand up and cheer.  Then start crying).

Sorry, I was starting to trail off into the silly there.  Still, the point is that the writers could still have come up with some pretty interesting twists, and, even if the series as a whole has not lived up to expectations, I still want to see how the individual characters are resolved.  Having come this far, I want to follow through to the end.

Later.

 

Again

I was thinking
of that day
again
when the sky
boiled black
and the dark elves came
athirst for blood
my friends falling, falling
my arms, blood-washed,
too weary to make
one more stroke
and you came
descending in light
a fire of vengeance

The skalds sing the song
of that day
again
they make it pretty
the young men
laugh and say,
“this dry stick
did these deeds?”
I pay them no heed
how can you listen
to children
who never had to see
the face of the world
crack open, and bleed.

Winter has come
the north wind is sharp,
again
I sit closer
to the fire,
someone else’s bearskin
about my shoulders
all I have now
is someone else’s
my food, my bed
my fire
only my memories
are truly mine

There will be no
Valhalla for me
a straw death is my doom.
Still…
for the sake of that
one hour, that one day
perhaps a grace
will be extended
I will see my friends
I will see you
kiss your lips
and walk with you,
hand-in-hand,
again

Okay, one more– some predictions for Season 8 of Game of Thrones

I said I was going to put Game of Throne to rest for the hiatus, and now here I am again.  I wouldn’t quite use the word “obsession”, but I’m close, really close….

Naturally–

Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

I realized today that I didn’t get around to making any predictions for Season 8 in my last post.  Now, it has been proven that my ability to actually prognosticate the direction of the show, even in the short term, is pretty much crap, but my hubris, acknowledging no restraint, will not allow me to sleep tonight until I’ve scribbled down at least a few.  I can come back in a year or a year and a half (or two years, God forbid) and see how far off the mark I actually flung the predictive darts.  Hopefully nobody gets punctured in the volley….

  1. Dany and Jon will have perhaps one episode, perhaps less, of happiness, and then Bran and Sam are going to drop their bomb, and I-cannot-tell-a-lie Aegon Targaryen will tell Dany, and the two of them will breakup in sorrow and remorse.
  2. Not before Jon knocks Dany up, however.  It is known.
  3. Not sure how Dany will handle finding out that Jon has a better claim to the Iron Throne than she does, even though I am sure Jon will repudiate any interest in it.  Dany’s self-identified for so long as the one legitimate heir that finding out who Jon really is may send her spinning off in dangerous directions.
  4. Clegane Bowl will happen.  Count on it.  There is no way the two of them are going to settle their hatred any other way but with a knock-down, drag-out blood-match, not after their face-off the in the Dragonpit.  Anything less would be anti-climactic.
  5. You can also count on a showdown between Euron and Theon.  Theon’s redemptive arc demands it, and if he dies saving Yara, it will be with Theon having found himself at last.
  6. Drogon vs. Viserion– it’s coming.  There’s no way the showrunners can refuse to give us that spectacle. Just no way.
  7. Poor Rhaegal, though– something dire is going to happen to him in the Great War before we get to the climax, if only to even the odds for DvV.
  8. The writers appear to be positioning Tyrion to do something stupid/traitorous.  I hope I am wrong, and I think it would be a horrifying mistake with his character, but hey, I’m just a watcher, not a writer.  Otherwise the good guys would have fuel-air bombs to use on the wights.
  9. Wait a minute– wildfire?  High altitude bombing?  Hmmm….
  10. How Tyrion’s retrograde character development will play into the Jaime-Cersei dynamic is unclear, but that’s another face-off that will resolve itself, probably in blood.
  11. And talking about showdowns the story arc demands– how about the biggest of them all, Jon going mano-a-mano with the Night King?  This was set up right in front of us in Episode Six, when Beric pointed his sword at the Night King and suggested that killing him would destroy all the wights.  Even without that setup, how could we wrap this tale up without the lead good guy, Jon, facing off against the lead bad guy, the Night King?  Three thousand years of Western literary tradition insists on this climactic confrontation, from the Odyssey to Star Wars.
  12. Jon, of course, will die heroically in this fight, after vanquishing the Night King.  For extra points he’ll die in Dany’s arms (crap, this is writing itself).
  13. Which brings us to the subject of who will die.  Actually, it’s easier to say who I think will live.  Personally, I feel fairly secure in saying that the survivors will include–
    • Dany
    • Arya
    • Yara (if only because Theon has to rescue her)
    • Drogon
    • Sam
    • Gilly
    • Little Sam

And that’s about all I feel sure of.  Every other character in this show has at least the potential of supplying a really gripping death scene to the story.  Every other one.  I’m sure there will be other survivors, but my instinct cannot predict with certainty who they may be.  Brace for a blood-bath.

Thinking about what may happen in Season Eight actually sharpens for me an insight other people have shared, that Season Seven really was about getting all the pieces in place, and establishing the inevitable, climactic confrontations that have to play out so this epic can have a halfway satisfying resolution.  From that perspective, despite the haste that typified Season Seven, the show-runners did their job, and I applaud them.

And, now, for sure, I need to put GoT aside for a while.  It’s going to be a long wait, no doubt filled with frustration and spoilerish temptations.  Fortunately, I know, if not a remedy, then at least a means of distracting myself.

Write my own epic.  ‘Nuff said.

Later.

Okay, now that I’ve caught my breath, my take on Game of Thrones, Season Seven, Episode Seven. Woof….

One more time–

Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****

Wow.  Huh.  Sheer dumbfoundedness and gobsmackery.

In my last post I explicitly held off making a judgement about Season 7 in general, because Episode Seven had yet to air.  I am very, very happy I did, because this episode righted a lot of wrongs.

Until Sunday evening, for the most part, I was disappointed with Season Seven.  Not with the acting– it was generally superb.  Not with the writing– it was about as brilliant as ever.

It was the sketchy and rushed feeling of the season to which I objected.

Frankly, the writers, and show-runners Benioff and Weiss, were quite obviously trying to tie up too many loose-ends, connect too many characters,  and lay too much foundation for Season Eight in too little time.  From Jon and Dany’s rushed romance to the cockamamie raid beyond the Wall to grab a wight, it was a season sketched out in suggestive lines rather than painted with full-bodied shapes and colors.  The line-drawings are well-done, but inevitably they lacked the depth we’re used to.

I have no insight into why HBO decreed that Season Seven have only seven episodes (for some strange reason, I was never invited to the story-planning meetings).  Perhaps it was budgetary, even though that’s hard to imagine, considering the show’s success.  I hope that the haste in Season Seven has solid plot imperatives driving it, and that now we’re set for a balanced Season Eight (with only six, albeit longer, episodes).  I hope.

What I fear, however, is that six episodes will not be enough.  I tremble at the thought that GoT will suffer a fate similar to Lost, the poster child of brilliant shows that lose their way and fall flat in their last season. I would kill me, and probably a lot of other people, if Game of Thrones, brilliant as it has been, somehow just peters out and loses all its narrative power as it concludes.

Having said that, I take comfort from the fact that GoT has an distinct over-arching narrative structure passed to the show-runners by George R. R. Martin.  They at least have a general idea where they are headed, and how things will end, something that Lost never seemed to have.  Lost had so many elements thrown into a mix that never quite gelled into a distinct story-line, and so many threads that were never satisfactorily resolved, all coupled to an ending that was like drinking flat beer when you were promised sparkling champagne.  I think, and I believe with some justification, that GoT can avoid that fate because, ultimately, it has the brilliance of Martin behind it, and skilled show-runners in Benioff and Weiss (unlike a certain other popular producer/director, but J. J. is a topic for another rant, at another time).

Having said all that, however, Episode Seven went a long, long way to redeeming the season.  It was not entirely without sin– the whole interaction between Samwell and Bran seemed particularly to gallop past– but on the whole the episode seemed better paced, laced with tension and conflict in the right places, and it brought everybody to where they needed to be, not only to wrap up Season Seven, but to lay the groundwork for Season Eight.  The characters and their interactions felt right, and the action kept you riveted.  And the ending, which for me includes Bran and Sam talking about Jon’s true heritage, Dany and Jon acting on their feelings, and the destruction of the Wall, tied it all together.

So, even though we may have to wait until 2019 for Season Eight, I’m okay with that.  Naw, not really, it’s going to be hell, but it gives me something to look forward to in my lonely old age.  I have hope that Benioff and Weiss may actually pull off something that is, in truth, quite difficult– giving an tale of epic fantasy a truly satisfying ending that resolves the various threads and conflicts in a way that makes you say, “that’s the way it should have ended.”  No pressure, guys….

And now, to sum up, a few final random observations and thoughts on Season Seven–

  1. My personal predictions about the course of the show over the last few weeks have often been off the mark, but, man, did I miss it with Dany and Jon.  Maybe I’m an old romantic who thinks you should build slooowwwlllyyy to the mojo, but I admit it worked out okay– aside from the incest part, that is.  Despite the hurried nature of their romance in previous episodes, this moment felt as if it were a logical– if you will pardon the expression– consummation of how these two people have interacted down to this moment.
  2. From here on out, of course, nothing but heartbreak lies ahead for D&J, especially if Sam and Bran don’t keep their flapping mouths shut.  Does Jon really need to know this bit of family history, especially as it is really doubtful he will want any part of the Iron Throne for himself?  I don’t think so, but I didn’t set up this particular bomb in the story-line, and if you plant a bomb in Season Seven, it has to go off in Season Eight….
  3. One of the big question marks I do have about the characters is, what the hell is going on with Tyrion (or, more precisely, what are the writers doing to Tyrion)?  Working backwards from that look of anger and seeming jealousy he throws at Dany’s door while she and Jon are doing the naughty, to his interview with Cersei in which he seems willing to take the blame for the disasters the Lannisters have suffered, to what appears to be a deteriorating relationship with Dany, I wonder if he is being set up to do something foolish, drastic, or (gulp) treasonous in Season Eight?  I hope not, because that would seem to be the negation of much of his character arc through the whole show, which is why I find it puzzling.
  4. Note also, we seem not to be presented with the whole discussion between Cersei and Tyrion– it cut off right after Tyrion realizes Cersei is (allegedly) pregnant.  Did the two of them talk about something else?  Did the potential of a new nephew and/or niece change something in Tyrion’s attitude and– gasp!– loyalties?  Did he cut some sort of deal with Cersei to get her to come back out and mouth the words of truce and united purpose for Dany and Jon?  I fear we’re going to get an unpleasant surprise on this point in Season Eight.
  5. Littlefinger– yes.  It’s a wonder the collective shout of joy from fans didn’t set off seismometers around the world.  It was worth being played by the writers to be surprised along with Baelish.  Pleasantly for us, badly for him.  An excellent portrayal by Aidan Gillen of a schemer who realizes, too late, that if you plot against everyone, eventually you will find yourself in a cold room, surrounded by hard faces, confronted with the sharp edge of a knife, and with no friends to save you.  Oak-leaf clusters on Gillen’s medal for this scene in how he makes Littlefingers’ self-assurance crumble into whimpering on his knees.  It seemed a fitting way for this bastard to go out.
  6. I also applaud the writers for navigating what I perceived to be a particularly treacherous channel– if you convince Cersei of the reality of the Night King, how does that work with her self-centered take on everything?  But, of course, with utter consistency, Cersei says one thing and does another, still attempting to turn a situation that should be beyond political calculations to her advantage.  Jon would not lie, but of course Cersei did.
  7. For a moment I, and probably a lot of other people, really thought Jaime was going to die when he called Cersei on her BS.  With this open break with his sister Jaime is very close to completing a redemptive arc, possibly the greatest and most profound of the whole show, from an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who shoved a child out a window to someone who is willing to stand up for other people and not think of his political advantage– and who wants to live up to his word.  He sets out alone for the north (and I wonder if he tried to talk Bronn into going with him?), just maybe finally free from Cersei’s vampirism.  He’s probably going to die, but it looks very much as if he will die a man, and not a self-important little asshat.
  8. Also, Brienne is in the north.  I wonder….???
  9. But then, so is Tormund.  Oh, now we talking a serious triangle….
  10. Regarding Tormund (and Beric, for that matter) it took me looking at the scene a couple of times and reading some internet comments to realize that the two of them have mostly likely survived the destruction of the Wall at Eastwatch.  As people have pointed out, they fled westward along the top of the wall (the guys going down the stairs didn’t have a snowball’s chance, which is kinda ironic), and were past the point where the collapse began– and the collapse went from west to east, which means, almost certainly, the two of them are standing on what is now the sharp eastern edge of the wall, looking down on the army of the dead as it advances south.  This realization gave me a sense of relief, because 1). I didn’t want either one of them to die (yet), and 2). I didn’t want the writers to have to engage in some bogus hand-waving to allow them to survive the fall.  They live, without writerly fakery, to fight another day.
  11. The Wall’s destruction was just cinematic gold.  Most movies don’t do it this well….
  12. It’s snowing in King’s Landing.  Where Gendry, in a life of more-or-less twenty years, has never seen it snow.  The bad mojo is rising fast…..
  13. I mentioned heartbreak for Dany and Jon.  The truth is, in Season Eight, if the writers fulfill the promise of this last episode, sorrow and loss are going to spread over Westeros as thick as the winter snows beyond the Wall.  We still have death and betrayal and sorrow ahead.  And now no one– no one— is safe.  We should brace ourselves.

I think that’s all the observations I have at the moment.  Perhaps with GoT on hiatus I can spare some of the energy I’ve expended talking about it for my own writing.  There’s nothing more inspiring than watching good writing at work.

Farewell, Season Seven.  You ended strong.  Tell Season Eight to move its butt.

Later.

 

 

 

Still more random and wild-eyed thoughts on Season Seven of Game of Thrones

As always–

Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

And, as what follows is based, to a certain extent, on what I deem fairly reliable internet rumors, be doubly wary!

So, one more episode for this season, and it promises a great deal.  The meeting of the Lannisters, Dany, and Jon, plus all their assorted allies, followers and twisted mad scientists (I’m looking at you, Qyburn).  The final full revelation of Jon’s parentage.  Dany and Jon’s first smooch (probably, although I doubt they’ll get as far as second base in this season).  Arya turning Littlefinger into a throw rug (I admit, that’s just wishful thinking).  The continuing advance of the Night King’s army, now complete with its own undead air force.  And whatever stunning surprise the show-runners have in store for the season cliffhanger (although I don’t think it’s actually going to be that much of a surprise, as I shall explain below).

A few random predictions–

  1. I am definitely thinking just “first kiss”.  No mojo, no bedroom rodeo, no makin’ bacon.  If Dany and Jon do get down-and-dirty, I’ll actually be kind of disappointed– it’s still much too soon.  I have no patience for those fans who have been panting to see these two get it on.  C’mon, guys, take a cold shower or something.
  2. All the competing factions of Westeros– or, at least, the surviving ones– meet to under a flag of truce to see Jon and Dany’s evidence of the fact of the Night King and his army.  It’s the pay-off of Episode Six’s intense raid beyond the wall.  Unfortunately, for me the whole plan, concocted by Tyrion, has never made any sense.  It seems more than a little contrived, and I doubt it would have the intended effect, if the characters involved are true to their own arcs.  Cersei, in particular, with her superb ability to see only what she wants to see, will doubtless view it as some sort of trick.  If the writers suddenly turn her into someone amenable to logical argument, then I will be sorely disappointed.
  3. On the other hand, I can see from a story-perspective why the writers would want to somehow fashion an alliance out of all these enemies– it would be a logical course of action in the face of the Night King.  Of course, this would be the ultimate alliance of convenience, and if everyone survives then it will fall apart once the immediate danger is past.  That would lead to the end-game for the Game of Thrones being played out in the last moments of Season Eight.  That could be good, or it could be really bad….
  4. Tyrion’s deteriorating relationship with Dany– I don’t know where the writers are going with this.  I know the essence of drama is conflict, but this one feels not only contrived, but also like a major character is being marginalized prior to being…eliminated.  I hope I’m wrong….
  5. Just for the heck of it, I’m shipping Bronn and Arya.  It sure ain’t going to be Bronn and Sansa.
  6. Unless…he’s always wanted a high-born wife and a castle…no, no, no, I can’t go there….
  7. Brienne and Tormund have to have a scene in this last episode, one in which Brienne either starts to warm to Tormund a little bit, or slices him open to get at his liver, just as the Hound suggested.  It could go either way, but we need resolution.
  8. We also need to see Yara and Ellaria, at least just a brief scene each.  Doubtless Tyene is dead by now, so that’s a bit of inevitable heartbreak.  If a genuine truce is established between the Lannisters and Dany, it would be logical to me for Dany to demand Yara and Ellaria’s release as part of the truce.  Whether Cersei can be convinced to do so is another question.
  9. I predict the whole scary/weird interaction between Arya and Sansa is actually a ploy, at least by Arya and maybe by both of them, to wrong-foot Littlefinger and set him up for a fall.  Again, this may be wishful thinking.
  10. Actually, he’d make a pretty poor throw-rug.  Turn him into a drum-head instead.
  11. I am increasingly in the camp of those who think the Night King laid a trap for the Magnificent Seven so he could get a wight-dragon.
  12. Of course, one of the huge gaps in the story-line itself has been the motivation of the Night King.  What does Mr. Freeze want, anyway?  Aside from wiping out humanity and turning the world into a snow-cone.  At this point you got me.
  13. They’re probably going to hold off on killing off any major characters in the season finale.  Because they’ve never done that before, right?
  14. I think it’s obvious that the season cliffhanger is going to be Viserion destroying the Wall.  What else is the Night King going to use him for, aerial advertising?

Enough of that.  I was going to express some opinions about the overall course of Season Seven in general, but I decided to wait until after Episode Seven.  That’s because 1).  the season is not over and I want to be fair, and 2).  my opinion may just get me chased around the countryside with pitch-forks and torches.  I’ll wait.

Later.

Thoughts, questions and “OMG, Why did she do that?!”- Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5

More a review than previous posts, but I’m saving some space for the wild-eyed rants at the end.

SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS*****

Okay, a slower-paced episode than last week, which could be like saying a 747 is slower than an SR-71.  Almost anything would feel slow after the Battle of the Loot Train, so it’s a relative thing.

At the same time, the narrative seemed, ironically, sort of rushed.  Look how many high points the story hits– the aftermath of the battle, Randyll and Dickon Tarly are executed (more about that later), Jon gets to pet Drogon, Jorah returns, the plan to snatch a wight and bring it south is hatched (more about that later, too), Gendry is found (after what appears to be a fifteen minute search), Jaime and Tyrion meet, Gendry meets Jon, Jon and company head north to connect up with Tormund, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound join the party, and they all head out into the north.  That’s leaving out Arya’s spying on Littlefinger (and his disinformation campaign against her) and the fact that bat-fuck crazy Cersei is going to be a mother again.  If I left anything out it’s because it all went by really fast.

Oh, yeah, Samwell missing the secret of Jon’s birth because he wasn’t listening closely enough to Gilly.  Listen, son, if you’re going to be in a long-term relationship with a woman, you need to work on your listening skills….

Basically, I have the sense that the writers felt they had to cram a lot of sausage into the casing of one episode, in order to set up the climax of this season, and to properly lay the groundwork for Season Eight, which will have to be about the Great War, lots of major characters going down for the count, and that bittersweet ending GRRM has been promising us.  Because this particular kielbasa link is tightly packed, we spent mere minutes on reunions, plans, spying, dragon-petting (don’t try this at home, folks), executions, plotting and Avengers assembling that could have occupied two or three or even more episodes in previous seasons.  It’s not nearly as satisfying presented in this warp-speed manner, but I can’t fault the writers too much.  They are running out of time (to be precise, scheduled air-time), and I suspect that they felt it necessary to cover this much ground quickly so as to make sure the climax of the season, and the beginning of Season Eight, work the way their supposed to.  Hopefully the remainder of the season, and the remainder of the show, will be better paced.

Re: the execution of Randyll and Dickon– I agree with Tyrion, Dany shouldn’t have done it.  At the very least Cersei will use it against her.  Serious political mistake.  More than that, though, it reminds us that Dany does have a dark side, a willful insistence on her way that sometimes leads to unnecessary deaths.  It doesn’t make her mad, it makes her a frail, fallible human being who sometimes does things out of frustration and spite.  Also, as I feared, she has arrived at the point of demanding fealty she has not earned.  “Bend the knee, or die” is a threat as heavy as chains.  As Varys put it, someone indeed needs to make her listen.

And then there’s the plan to capture a wight and bring it south to convince Cersei the threat from the Night King is real.  Leaving aside the fact that Cersei will use any truce to her advantage, and that she will see anything Dany and Jon come up with as some sort of trick, the whole thing just sounds cockamamie to me.  Capturing a wight, transporting a wight, displaying a wight– I’d almost say its a waste of time, considering how oblivious Cersei is to anything but the agenda spooling out in her head.  I love the idea of a desperate raid into the North, but couldn’t the writers have come up with a better mcguffin than this for its object– a wonderblatt horn of the First Men, perhaps, or a pool of magic volcanic fire that would make effective ammunition against the Night King’s army?  I do wonder, but then, I’ve never had to write for TV show, nor have I ever been under the kind of pressure the writers for GoT are under.  The whole world, and probably a significant portion of the heavenly host, are watching, so I hesitate to criticize them too much.

But, as much as I quibble, it was a pretty good episode, and got us, however imperfectly, to where we needed to go.  Along the way, I should mention that I like how the writers are handling Dany and Jon’s growing affection for one another– again, a piece of business that would best have been developed over a whole season, but, again, the clock is ticking.  Instead they are doing it by expressions and looks and a few words spoken in just the right way.  If you have only so much time to work in, this is the way to do it.

I think I can refine a few of my first predictions now–

  1. Jon and Dany will share one romantic kiss before Season Seven ends.
  2. The real hanky-panky will start after about the five minute mark of Season Eight.
  3. Then Jon’s true parentage will be revealed, and the two will break up with tears and heartbreak and disappointment.
  4. Jon will then die heroically saving the world of men,
  5. Just about the time Dany discovers she’s pregnant.
  6. At some point Arya will slice Littlefinger open like a seven-layer red velvet cake.
  7. And the Night King will end Season Seven by blowing up all three hundred miles of the Wall.  Now that will be a season cliffhanger.

Later.

Game of Thrones and the Worrisome, Awkward, No-Good Topic

If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about…..

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Okay, let’s tackle this puppy– Dany and Jon.  Such a cute couple.  I mean, these guys are obviously made for each other. Two dynamic leaders meeting after both have struggled and suffered and lost, and then triumphed, but who need each other.  Two youngsters with oodles and gobs of chemistry and probably lots of compatible psychological profile stuff and major inter-fertility and all the jazz that Make Relationships Work.

Except that she’s his aunt.

By most modern standards, we have entered serious no-no, uh-huh, hands off the girl-or-boy territory.  This is despite the fact that the Dany and Jon are about the same age, and have no idea, at least at this point in the show’s story arc, that they share anything other than leadership qualities and hormones.  In 21st Century American society we have been conditioned to consider anything that smacks of incest to be taboo, to be universally rejected and and even criminalized.  In my lifetime there has been a growing recognition of the terrible price incest and child-abuse exacts from its victims, and we rightly reject attempts to normalize it.

Except….

Well, here’s the deal.  We’re talking about a television show.  We’re talking about television show set in a fantasy world.  We’re talking about a television show set in a fantasy world with distinctly different rules about sexuality, consent and what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.  That has to alter the way we talk about this.

Allow me to digress for a moment to talk about the show’s source material– George R. R. Martin’s five (and counting– c’mon, George, Rome was built faster than this) books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Admittedly the show long ago diverged from the precise story- line of the books, but the universe Martin created, and the general story arc, remain its guidance system.  It is well known that Martin has drunk deeply from the well of history to inform his work, and particularly the history of Medieval Britain.  And part of that historical understanding is that the rules about sexuality, consent and incest that nowadays we think are set in stone were often very, very different in ancient or medieval societies.

Take, for example, age of consent.  In Martin’s universe, girls who have their first menses are immediately considered marriage material, which means thirteen year-olds are getting married.  In the books, Dany is, in fact, thirteen when she marries Khal Drogo (this was changed in the show to sixteen, for obvious legal reasons).   This attitude is distinctly at odds with modern sensibilities, but was actually common in previous eras, and is still prevalent in certain non-Western societies.  And the shift in Western attitudes is actually a comparatively recent phenomenon– the age of consent in Texas was ten– ten—  as recently as 1880, and that was not unusual among American states in that period.

Even what has been considered incest has varied from time to time and place to place.  Before the American Civil War it was legal in every state for first cousins to wed.  It still is in some states (e.g. California) while it is restricted in some and outright illegal in others (Texas– go figure).

Bear in mind, as well, the cross-cultural weirdness of how elites and nobles in different eras and cultures determined who could get hitched to who.  It’s well-known that the rulers of Ancient Egypt and Pre-Conquest Peru both permitted brothers and sisters of royal lineages to marry, to keep bloodlines “royal”.  Martin drew on this history directly when he created the Targaryens, whose kings often wed their own sisters.

And then there is the startling institution of “avunculate marriage“, which was a piece of history unknown to me before I started thinking about this subject.  Apparently this custom had a heyday among European royals in the Middle Ages and afterwards, in which uncles and nieces, and occasionally aunts and nephews (ding!) were wed to one another, again in the interest of keep bloodlines pure, and wealth and power in the family.  Unfortunately, it had the at least occasional effect of producing children with major mental and physical defects, such as Carlos II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain–

Rey_Carlos_II
Poor guy…not his fault his parents were uncle and niece….

Rather more startling, avunculate marriage is actually legal, sometimes with restrictions, in several modern countries, including Russia, Argentina, and the Netherlands.

Give me just a second– gotta slow down my brain’s RPMs.  Whew, that makes me dizzy….

Okay, so what does this all mean for Dany and Jon, two fictional characters in a fictional universe with way different rules about sex and marriage and such like?  And how wound up should we get that these two probably related characters may– and it’s still just potential at this point, folks– be doing the mambo sometime in the near future?

In all of this the saving grace is that there is no hint or suggestion of abuse, which, aside from genetic risks, is the most destructive aspect of sex between close kinsfolk.  Dany and Jon are consenting adults, even by American standards, and doubly so by Westerosi.  They have met as equals, however much Dany wants Jon to bend the knee, and the story-line so far gives every indication that their mutual respect and attraction will grow.  If Jon’s little secret never came out they would have nothing to cloud their budding relationship, aside, that is, from civil war, invasion, winter, the Night King and his hordes of White Walkers and undead.  You know, the little things that every couple has to put up with.

I think, in the final analysis, fans of the show (including me), whether pro-Dany-Jon or anti, all need to take a big calm pill and chill out.  This is fiction– moreover, it’s fiction about a time and place with its own rules.  We need to trust Martin and the showrunners Benioff and Weiss to take us where the story needs to go.

Of course, given that this is Game of Thrones, where heartbreak and disappointment are daily meat and drink, this may all be a lot of worrying about a whole lot of not much.  Westeros is not devoid of rules about incest– certainly Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is widely censured.  It may be that Dany and Jon will get really close, only to pull back with the aforementioned heartbreak and disappointment when Jon’s true heritage is revealed.  That’s one way this could go.  Another way, and maybe more likely, is that they establish a relationship, and then one of them (I’m betting Jon) dies heroically/tragically/spectacularly in the show’s finale, or close to it.  Either way, given the nature of this show and its willingness to impose suffering on its characters, the odds are way stacked against Dany and Jon walking hand-in-hand off into the sunset in the closing minutes of Season Eight, Episode Six.

And if, by chance, they do– well, I think I could deal with that.

So….everybody calm down (me, too).  Let the story unfold.  And brace yourself.

Later.

 

 

A few somewhat more focused thoughts on Game of Thrones

I’m going to have to start numbering these puppies or something.

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Episode Four  was so epic that it just keeps on giving.  I’ve already stated my opinion that this sequence is one of the greatest battles ever on TV, and probably one of the greatest in any sort of cinematic presentation, period.  The editing and beats just keep you riveted to the screen, and our prior commitments to characters on both sides leave us in an ambiguous state of wanting everyone to win, or at least survive, simultaneously.

But online controversy about the sequence has sprung up like toxic weeds in a fair garden.  Some people, it seems, accuse Dany of being the “Mad Queen”, as her father was the Mad King Aerys, whose hobby of burning people set off Robert’s Rebellion in the first place, for burning Lannister soldiers in the battle.  Some of the criticism seems somehow tangled up with snarling diatribes against progressives, feminists, “SJWs”, and blab blah blah, as if Dany is somehow some man-hating feminist icon and anybody who roots for her is a limp-wristed, hypocritical “librul” who cheers when manly men are barbecued.

That kind of rant is too deep and convoluted for me to try to refute or even unpack here and now.  I’m going to focus instead on what I think Dany, as a character in the show, was trying to do in the Loot Train Battle, and maybe guess what show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were up to by having her do it.  And the best way I think I can do that is to compare Dany to the real mad Queen in the show, Cersei Lannister.

By now almost everyone hates Cersei.  I mean, holy shit, this is a woman who’s one redeeming feature, often noted by other characters in the show, was her love for her children, and now they’re all dead.  She blew up (with wildfire, note) the Sept of Baelor without batting an eyelash to settle the hash of her political foes, along with that of doubtless thousands of innocent bystanders.  Her treatment of Ellaria Sand and Tyene is not only the action of someone who’s never heard of “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”, but who would have thought it silly clap-trap if she had.  She has usurped a throne to which she has no right by terror and force, and now believes she can do what she wants precisely because she sits on the Iron Throne.  Lastly, her one remaining emotional attachment to the world of human beings is her incestuous relationship with her brother, in which she plays the role of emotional vampire on Jaime’s genuine affection for her– a parasitism to which Jaime’s starting to get wise.

Dany, for her part, is not without sin.  She has at times acted impulsively, even cruelly.  She arbitrarily put to death leading masters of Meereen as an act of vengeance.  She has at times been willing to engage in deception.  She lately has been displaying a distinct tendency toward political theater and intimidation, as well as a rather unpleasant arrogance toward Jon Snow, et. al.,  and she appears to be on the verge of accepting the idea that the ends justify the means.  Perhaps even more critically, her un-examined insistence that she is the rightful queen of the Seven Kingdoms based on her descent comes perilously close to demanding fealty she has not earned.  To put it another way, she needs to rethink the whole ‘bend the knee’ business.

Despite this, there is a qualitative difference between the actions of Cersei and what Dany has done.  Cersei has used terror, torture and outright murder as instruments of state policy.  Most spectacularly of all, she blew up the Sept of Baelor without regard to the cost in lives, an act perpetrated on largely unarmed (if we disregard the Faith Militant bozos) civilians.

For a moment in Episode Four it looked as if Dany were about to embark on the same path, when she says she will take her dragons to King’s Landing and burn her enemies out of the Red Keep (in the process, note, she quite cruelly attacks Tyrion, virtually accusing him of going easy on his relatives).  Critically, however, she does something Cersei has never done– she turns to an outsider, Jon Snow, for honest counsel.  It’s Jon who convinces her not to attack the Red Keep– and, I am convinced, is instrumental in redirecting her frustration into another course of action.

Instead, Dany launches her Dothraki and Drogon against the Lannister army.  Herein lies the qualitative difference– Cersei destroyed civilians in political vengeance, but Dany attacked soldiers as an act of war.  The two actions are not the same at all.  The online Dany haters who are trying to establish an equivalency need to rethink their premises, or perhaps, start thinking in the first place.

Cersei perpetrated a massacre.  Dany attacked soldiers who were, however inadequately, armed and ready.  The two situations are clean different.

Drogon’s attack is horrifying (it does bother me how some people in different reaction videos laugh and cheer when the Lannister soldiers burn.  Death by fire is very bad way to go, even for soldiers in the service of an evil queen).  It looks as terrible as it would be in real life, as terrible as I imagine getting hit by a pod of napalm would be.  As bad as it is, however, it is justifiable.  Because this is what you do in war.

War is the business of compelling your enemy to knuckle-under to your political will.  The mechanism of war is killing the enemy until they can no longer sustain the will to fight.  And killing, whether it’s done with a sword, or dragon-flame, or napalm, or a nuke, is always about turning another human being with feelings and hopes and loved ones into a mangled pile of meat, or, in this case, ashes.  That process is always, and inherently, horrible.

To accomplish the crushing of the enemy’s will to fight you employ every implement you have.  If you have a weapon to which the enemy has no effective reply, all the better.  It could well mean the killing will end sooner.  In effect, Dany ‘weaponized’ Drogon, and he’s a damned powerful weapon that probably sealed her victory at the start.  This is not the cruelty of Cersei, but the act of a leader intent on victory against a powerful foe.  It is not massacring innocents.  That’s Cersei’s path.  I think there’s a clear distinction between Cersei’s way and Dany’s.  I know which one I would pick.

To bring this back to the show as a show, what I believe Benioff and Weiss are doing is, quite simply, being honest about what war is and does.  If you try to pretty it up you’re lying about something that should not lied about.  B&W are too good a pair of storytellers to make that mistake.

I don’t think Dany is going to be the Mad Queen, not because she is sinless, but because she wants to do right, and listens to those who are trying to keep her on that path.  Hopefully Benioff and Weiss agree with me, and will keep on doing so right through the last episode of Season Eight.  If they have any problems, they should call me.  Really.

Later.

PS– I was also going to take on the subject of Dany and Jon, but I spent so much time on acquitting Dany of madness that I don’t think I have the energy to dive into such a fraught topic.  On top of that, I’m trying to digest my discovery of the historical fact of avunculate marriage  (it’s utterly amazing sometimes what you can learn from Wikipedia– or disturbing, depending on your point of view).  I’ll leave D&J as a subject for another post, some other time.

DD