Synopsis

Bran is taken to observe the execution of Gared, who deserted the Night's Watch after the events of the prologue. On the way back to Winterfell, while his father Lord Eddard Stark teaches him about their old traditions of justice, his brothers discover a new litter of the frightening direwolves that grace their house banner. The mother, being killed by a stag, cannot care for the pups, and Eddard reluctantly lets his children raise them after Jon's explanation that the five pups, three male and two female, match not just his banner but his trueborn children – excluding himself, of course, until the bastard finds the strange albino runt that had wandered off, which he takes for himself.

Theme: Childhood

There are very few things that capture the quintessential adult experience than this piece of dialogue from the chapter:

"When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away."

He isn't talking about taxes (although you might say that executing people is a taxing experience, and the true cost of leadership). But he could be talking about anything. The nature of adulthood is facing tasks you take no pleasure in and not turn away. And I think the nature of childhood is to be worried and excited about that.  

Another way to view childhood is naivete, which I saw inside this description:

It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

In a world with obviously messed up seasons, we are introduced with a perspective that doesn't understand those seasons either. He's lived a charmed life, without suffering true hardship. He's innocent in the ways of winter, despite it being such a critical part of his house's identity. The summer snows represent his waning innocence, which was, of course, the whole point of the trip.

I also notice that Bran gets a pet – a classic element of childhood. But it isn't a normal pet, it's a monster they thought they'd never see in the quazi-civilized world south of the wall. Getting the responsibility over something dangerous is a great way to force the transition to adulthood, and we see all of the Starks face their maturation through the direwolves as time goes on.

The wolves themselves represent childhood in a strange way. They have a failing reliance on their mother – they still need their mother, but she died, and that's deemed a death sentence. Until Robb mentions that another dog that could support the direwolves, it's not entirely clear there's anything they can do. Sometimes the transition to adulthood is too fast, and there is simply no way to make it successfully.

Reading Practice - Lectio Divina

For this chapter we're using Lectio Divina (an old practice adapted and explained in Read It Four Ways). The passage selected (randomly selected, I assure you) this week is:

They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.
But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb.

The first step of Lectio Divina is to ask what's happening on a narrative level in the passage. These are Bran's thoughts, reflecting on Robb's guess that Gared had become a member of Mance Rayder's wildling army. Bran is remembering the horrible stories Old Nan used to tell him about wildlings – what makes them terrifying instead of just their friendly northern neighbors. And the description is truly terrifying, of course, and not totally accurate (but, for some wildlings, there's definitely something to the stories). Eventually, he interrupts his memories by returning to the task in front of them: justice for the man who turns out to be a Night's Watch deserter.

The second step of Lectio Divina is to think about the connections in the passage to other works. This section makes me think of how common truly terrible stories used to be. To teach kids not to wander off into the woods, they would be told of horrors beyond the realm of reality, because the more mundane and simple dangers of the world wouldn't grip their mind. Even as adults people don't understand the danger of driving and the safety of flying in a plane – forget the instinctual terrors of heights, which are essentially completely safe now. So we'd hear stories, and eventually we'd grow older and wiser, and stop believing them. The only other similar thing still done in America today is, weirdly, Santa Claus. There's an expectation that people are never directly told the truth, and the story is told anyway, by people who know it's a lie.

But, of course, you've got to imagine, in the more dangerous world, those stories probably did a lot of good.

And the connections here to fairy tales are pretty obvious. Giants and ghouls, stealing girls in the dead of night. Drinking blood is so well attached to vampires that it contrasts really well with the polished horns (for people not familiar with the books, horns show up as strangely powerful ancient magical objects, although that didn't quite make the television adaptation). Grotesqueries born of monsters and men? Classic. The horror of having a human soul while being inescapably monstrous is, perhaps, the first sub-genre of horror stories designed to build empathy rather than fear.

And binding someone hand and foot to the wall is, frankly, a torture technique. It's not perfectly clear they have cells available at the holdfast, but there are ways of guarding men without crucifying them. And considering he's the only man with knowledge they deeply need, and was precisely correct in the last chapter, there's something weirdly prophetic about him and his potential role here. In a strange horrible way, it's worth mentioning that their salvation (from the near-unstoppable threat of the Others) might come by taking Gared seriously, and this veteran / coward is playing a very Jesus-like role at his execution.

The third step of Lectio Divina is to ask us to contemplate how the text connects to our own lives. Do I ever imagine someone as a monster? Is it possible they are worthy of humanity and respect even if the terrible things I've heard are true? And when do I imagine a terrible threat, but when I face the person who is receiving the justice I worry so much about, it turns out they are scrawny, small, and haggard? Even if that doesn't mean they are excused from justice, we ought to have a moment of pause about how the terrible things we imagined are represented by, frequently fairly pathetic people. Take the political analogy you might like, but for me, I feel this is essentially how post-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts have turned out. We imagined the worst threat you could imagine. And it turned out to be, pretty much universally, super pathetic losers.

The fourth step is to ask what the text calls us to do, and for me, it might be a more serious consideration of mercy. There's no need to essentially crucify this guy, no matter how dangerous he is. You can stop them, and that's enough. I feel like there's too much glee in justice these days, just like Ned warned against. And it's so easy, particularly these days, to be fascinated with news that all adds up to the simple point that someone who does something bad should get in trouble. Enjoying the process is macabre, and making it more painful doesn't offset the terrors you can't stop or catch (like those beyond the wall).

Blessing

I'd like to bless Jon Snow. He's not there for justice, Eddard doesn't need his help for that, and Robb is the one getting training. He's not there to delight in the execution like Theon seems to. He uses his time to help Bran. Not help him carry the burden – to train his strength in carrying these burdens is Bran's purpose here. But Jon helps him face his responsibilities – watch as the deserter dies, and help him to begin to care for the animal he's so fascinated by. I'd like to bless him for swallowing his pride and helping a small child and small animals.