A Game of Thrones Review: One Dead Direwolf and a Whole Cast of Unlikable Characters

After looking at the first chapter of George R. R. Martin’s abhorrent A Song of Ice and Fire series, it almost goes without saying that we should, without warning, jump fifteen chapters ahead to one of the very worst this series has to offer, doesn’t it? Therefore I will jump straight to reviewing the chapter that should have made me quit reading this awful series.

Chapter 16

Context?

“What about context?” you may ask. Well, you don’t need context. A Game of Thrones doesn’t have a plot so even if you’ve read the previous chapters this won’t make any more sense. All the same, I will try to explain the few things you might need to know. As we saw in the first of these asinine chapters, Lord Ned decided not to kill the direwolf pups, instead giving one to each of his children to raise. The king’s family comes to Ned’s home, followed by many chapters’ worth of nothing, and we learn that Ned and the king are best friends. Right, so Ned’s friends with someone who lets child murderers off the hook, cheats on and abuses his wife, and who knows how many other bloody awful things. Our hero, everyone! Just bloody brilliant!

Ned’s eldest daughter Sansa’s fallen for Prince Joffrey, who would probably be a great villain if he weren’t surrounded by an entire cast of characters just as villainous as he is. Ned’s younger daughter Arya is going to be one of the story’s very few excuses for a shieldmaiden, which means in Martin’s world that she has to be described as ugly and have the nickname “Horseface.” Then Arya’s direwolf attacks Joffrey while defending Arya and her friend. Since we know who’s writing this, it should come as no shock that all the characters I’ve mentioned are—and will remain—entirely unlikeable. That should be more than enough context for you.

Why This chapter?

I chose this chapter out of all the awful chapters in this thing because it culminates so many of A Song of Ice and Fire’s worst traits with the added bonus of being among the most clichéd and manipulative in at least the first volume. This is because it takes the bait and gets the reader to feel sad by killing off one of the direwolves. Just as authors such as J. K. Rowling and Robin Hobb have done, George R. R. Martin uses this to get various emotions out of the reader, and of course it works.

I tend to lose respect for modern authors who employ the tired device of killing a main character’s pet. This is because it is too easy; just like killing off a small child, it cannot fail to get an emotional response and is arguably far worse than the former. Of the two other authors I mentioned, Robin Hobb is by far the worse in this respect; I’ve read one of her books (it was quite boring if you’d like to know what I thought of it), and I think I counted at least three times she killed the main character’s successive pets in that book alone. Obviously this succeeds in getting an emotional response, just as with Hedwig in Rowling’s books. It cannot fail no matter how poorly it’s done, which has led me to think that in most cases a good rule of thumb is to omit pets from one’s story entirely. It has come to be expected that if a character has a pet, that pet is going to meet a sticky end. It would be revolutionary, at this point, for someone to write a story where the hero’s pet actually survived, but we all know that’s never going to happen.

A Song of Ice and Filler

In explaining what happens in the chapter itself there really isn’t much to the “plot” other than what I’ve already said. There’s so much filler throughout A Song of Ice and Fire that it becomes very difficult to sort that out from anything that even remotely resembles a plot. The chapter begins with Lord Ned being informed that his daughter Arya has been found, but that her direwolf and the butcher’s son Mycah are still missing. Arya’s been brought before the king—who I want you to remember is ned’s friend—to answer for a crime of which she’s been falsely accused. Apparently, Prince Joffrey told his mother that Arya and her friend beat the prince with clubs and that Arya set her wolf on him. Sansa, who’s still infatuated with Joffrey, refuses to tell the queen that the prince is lying, but all of the characters are already so unlikeable that none of this really matters, does it?

The queen demands that Arya’s wolf be killed. Since the wolf who actually bit her son can’t be found, the queen suggests they kill Sansa’s wolf instead. The king—and remember, he’s Ned’s best friend—agrees to this without hesitation, followed by yet more of the horrendous punctuation we saw in the prologue. And yes, the punctuation does get worse as the story goes on.

“Stop them,” Sansa pleaded, “don’t let them do it, please, please, it wasn’t Lady, it was Nymeria, Arya did it, you can’t, it wasn’t Lady, don’t let them hurt Lady, I’ll make her be good, I promise, I promise …” She started to cry.

This… This is the worst punctuation I’ve ever seen. This has got to be the “I did not hit her! I did NOT! Oh hi, Mark!” of punctuation. Not a single part of it is even remotely correct!

“But Ned tries to save Lady, doesn’t he?”

Of course, were I to not mention this bit, I’d have Game of Thrones fans insisting that I “left out the part that makes Ned likeable.” The fact is, however, that it doesn’t. All it does is reference a line I’ve already discussed from the first chapter. Ned beseeches King Robert not to have the wolf killed, but of course Robert would rather side with his wife whom he hates than with his best friend. Then Ned references his only good line in the whole stinking story.

“Do it yourself, then, Robert,” he said in a voice cold and sharp as steel. “At least have the courage to do it yourself.”

Obviously King Robert refuses to grant his best friend even this, calling instead for his executioner. If you’re not a sociopath, it may surprise you to learn that they’re still thick as thieves after this. Now, I couldn’t help but think that some blackmail or even just some rule-breaking might be in order; the king is intent on having Ned as his adviser, and Ned could likely have saved the wolf by threatening to resign from the position, but he gives in almost immediately. Instead Ned does something that makes him somehow even less likeable than he’s been since the beginning; he volunteers to kill his daughter’s dog himself. Any non sociopaths would be forgiven for thinking that he’s going to pull a fast one like anyone in his position would in any other story. But no. He actually does kill the dog—yes, I know it’s technically a wolf, but it’s his daughter’s dog; deal with it—and then Joffrey’s psychopath of a bodyguard rides into the camp and reveals that he has killed Mycah, Arya’s friend. Then the chapter ends. That’s it.

Why Did Ned Kill the Direwolf?

Alright, so Ned volunteers to kill his daughter’s wolf himself, and of course the queen initially thinks it’s some sort of trick. This just makes me wonder even more—why isn’t it? It seemed like the only witnesses to the execution itself were Ned’s own men, and he ordered them to take the wolf’s remains back to his hold to be buried, and he explained this by saying that he didn’t want the queen to have her pelt. In other words, he is never made to present the wolf to his liege as proof of the deed. One would think that if anyone loyal to the king and queen were present, they’d have seen to it that the corpse should go straight to her. This raises the question of why he didn’t just have his men take the wolf out into the wild and leave it there. To answer this, I’ll have to go right back to where the queen asks if offering to kill the wolf himself is a trick, because she has every reason to believe it is—I still don’t understand why he was allowed to do so when it could have so easily been a trick. In Ned’s shoes, virtually any protagonist in any story ever written would have used this glaring opportunity to pull a fast one. However, my best guess is that George R. R. Martin intended for this to show Ned as being honest, honourable, and true to his word. He’s basically trying to make a character likeable by having that character kill his daughter’s dog in cold blood.

Investment and the Lack Thereof

What makes even less sense than anything else is that Ned and Robert are still best friends after the fact, and they remain best friends until Robert’s death. Let me clarify; Ned’s best friend “forced” him to kill his daughter’s pet dog, and he’s still his best friend. This is a reflection of how none of the characters are affected in the slightest by all the atrocities that surround them. This is shown even more by the fact that Sansa is still madly infatuated with Joffrey, who—may I remind everyone—just had her dog killed. Not only that, but she later falls head-over-heels for Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, the psychopath who killed her sister’s friend Mycah. Arya herself follows suit before long and becomes fast friends with him, a man who gets a kick out of killing children (including her friend).

No matter what horrible things happen around them, you never get anything more than a furrowed brow from any of the characters. Real people are affected by everything, but Martin’s characters are affected by nothing. They do horrible things, and they often grimace as they do so, but that’s about it. They aren’t affected in any meaningful way by anything. If the characters don’t care about anything then how can I be expected to care about them? It’s impossible to be invested in a story where none of the characters are invested in anything. This is one of the most fundamental rules of storytelling, and George R. R. Martin fails here in spectacular fashion.

Lady the Direwolf is Almost Never Mentioned Again

To further illustrate the lack of investment among the characters themselves, the direwolf’s slaughter is thenceforth mentioned only in passing. Even Sansa, whose father just killed her dog, seems almost never to give a second thought to Lady. When attending a tournament, we are given this astoundingly insensitive piece of narration:

“The splendor of it all took Sansa’s breath away; the shining armor, the great chargers caparisoned in silver and gold, the shouts of the crowd, the banners snapping in the wind … and the knights themselves, the knights most of all.”

I’ve already gone on at length about the horrid punctuation so I’ll skip that. However, while reading this passage, I found myself screaming, “Your dog just died!” I’ve no choice but to take the fact she’s not inconsolable as a sign that Sansa, like all the other characters, is a bloody sociopath.

The Emotional Response

I said earlier that Martin uses the direwolf’s execution to get various emotions out of the reader, but even after spending far too much time trying, I can’t figure out what emotions he was going for. In fact, I don’t think it’d make much more sense even if I knew what emotions he’s trying to evoke. Sadness and grief are the obvious choices, but even then it’s anyone’s guess which parts of the chapter are meant to evoke these feelings, and knowing his writing, they probably don’t coincide with real human, non-sociopath responses. Even after reading and watching considerably further, I have no clue what the author is trying to accomplish.

6 thoughts on “A Game of Thrones Review: One Dead Direwolf and a Whole Cast of Unlikable Characters

  1. The girl’s reactions make me think about modern US superficial culture. People being concerned about the comings and goings of rich teenagers and reality shows rather than whether everyone has enough to eat and can go to the doctor when they need to.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree it likely has a great deal to do with American culture in particular, but I think it goes beyond stereotypical Yank shallowness. I mean, it is her dog, after all. Even if someone is selfish and doesn’t care about strangers, these characters don’t even care about the people closest to them. If someone even looked at my cat funny, I’d be at that person’s throat in a second, and I think if someone continues to be infatuated with the person who had their dog killed, that probably makes them a sociopath.

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