Hellooo and welcome to the book club. Like each book club story on this blog, the reading and commenting is done at your own pace- no rush, no deadlines, all puns intended. Have fun and enjoy!
I have started a book club re-read for the older works of George R.R. Martin for purposes such as research, scholarship, and teaching. I own all copies of material that is used for this book club. If you have not yet a story listed, please check with your local bookstore for your own reading material to purchase. (Indie Bookstore Finder) The full list of GRRM stories outside of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that I have read can be found on this page here.
Reminder: Open discussion includes everything in Martinworld, so spoilers could be anywhere.
This time we are reading the George R.R. Martin (GRRM) story This Tower of Ashes as we go line-by-line to compare to A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and other stories by Martin, as noted.
It is hard to read this story and not think of the nursery rhyme Itsy Bitsy Spider in all of its tenacious, yet creepy, goodness. This could easily be a tale (or nursery song) sung to Bran by Old Nan warning Bran of staying too long in the woods; Don’t eat the faerie food or you will be trapped forever!
Part of the Thousand Worlds Universe, This Tower of Ashes was published in 1976 between stories such as Starlady and Patrick Henry, Jupiter, and the Little Red Spaceship, then proceeded by Bitterblooms and The Stone City.
Like Martin’s very personal story Meathouse Man, this story explores personal relationships… not just with a significant other, but of master and slave… and that is significant! What is real, what is induced? Under the sea times goes up? This Tower of Ashes explores the fine line between lies and truth, repeating Martin’s recurring contention about the difference between reality and fantasy of relationships. You will see a lot of the “discarded knight” theme here, and especially with Ser Jorah Mormont and his feelings toward Daenerys (who is a spider-queen, among other titles). This story adds a twist to Martin’s regular theme of towers=trees=libraries=knowledge & history. That theme is still here, just delivered in a darker, more inverted way than usual; a key clue that this is a rather personal story.
I have made a few notes along the way, per usual, but they are easy enough to bypass if you prefer. I have underlined common phrases found throughout near all of Martin’s work that have various meanings, but wanted to highlight a few “pet phrases” to see how they work in this story.
Updating to add that after reading this story, poster ShatteredJack made the correct associations between a black obsidian ‘tower of ashes’ with Theon and Stannis in The Winds of Winter at the Crofter’s Village. Read the TWOW Theon/The Sacrifice chapter here (*with note that all unpublished works are subject to editing and changes).
This Tower of Ashes by George R.R. Martin
My tower is built of bricks, small soot-gray bricks mortared together with a shiny black substance that looks strangely like obsidian to my untrained eye, though it clearly cannot be obsidian. It sits by an arm of the Skinny Sea, twenty feet tall and sagging, the edge of the forest only a few feet away.
- Already we have ASOIAF motifs such as obsidian but not obsidian (ASOIAF= obsidian, frozen fire, or dragonglass?), the Skinny Sea like the Narrow Sea, aged buildings that are sagging into oblivion at the edge of a forest (Castle Black, Nightfort, Night’s Watch in general).
- This also stands out to me as a very Craster’s Keep type of situation. More on this as we go along.
I found the tower nearly four years ago, when Squirrel and I left Port Jamison in the silver aircar that now lies gutted and overgrown in the weeds outside my doorstep. To this day I know almost nothing about the structure, but I have my theories.
- Squirrel is a nickname used for Bran and Arya, as well as being a nod to Norse myth in troublemaking squirrel Ratatoskr who causes mischief between the dragon and the eagle.
- The line, “the silver aircar that now lies gutted and overgrown in the weeds outside my doorstep,” is very similar to how the coveted (and sinister) Iron Throne/coveted ships of power are handled in other stories that I have detailed on this page here. Basically, a throne will convert to nature one way or another as a new regime takes over.
I do not think it was built by men, for one. It clearly predates Port Jamison, and I often suspect it predates human spaceflight. The bricks (which are curiously small, less than a quarter the size of normal bricks) are tired and weathered and old, and they crumble visibly beneath my feet. Dust is everywhere and I know its source, for more than once I have pried loose a brick from the parapet on the roof and crushed it idly to fine dark powder in my naked fist. When the salt wind blows from the east, the tower flies a plume of ashes.
- This last line sounds a lot like Selyse and Melisandre (both fire people) and their knowledge/prophetic visions of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and/or the Hightower crumbling from devastation.
- ADWD/Jon IX: “Eastwatch is not safe.” The queen [Selyse] put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
- ADWD?Melsisandre I: “Visions danced before her, gold and scarlet, flickering, forming and melting and dissolving into one another, shapes strange and terrifying and seductive. She saw the eyeless faces again, staring out at her from sockets weeping blood. Then the towers by the sea, crumbling as the dark tide came sweeping over them, rising from the depths. Shadows in the shape of skulls, skulls that turned to mist, bodies locked together in lust, writhing and rolling and clawing. Through curtains of fire great winged shadows wheeled against a hard blue sky.
Inside, the bricks are in better condition, since the wind and the rain have not touched them quite so much, but the tower is still far from pleasant. The interior is a single room full of dust and echoes, without windows; the only light comes from the circular opening in the center of the roof. A spiral stair, built of the same ancient brick as the rest, is part of the wall; around and around it circles, like the threading on a screw, before it reaches roof level. Squirrel, who is quite small as cats go, finds the stairs easy climbing, but for human feet they are narrow and awkward.
- Theon I – The Winds of Winter: The air reeked of burning peat. The floor was hard-packed dirt. Wooden steps spiraled up inside the walls to the roof. He saw no windows. The tower was dank, dark, and comfortless, its only furnishings a high-backed chair and a scarred table resting on three trestles. No privy was in evidence, though Theon saw a champerpot in one shadowed alcove. The only light came from the candles on the table. His feet dangled six feet off the floor.
- Many, many GRRM buildings across his career have this circular opening (a moon roof). Another story that has a moon roof and is filled with a mirror wall for sacrifices (as the wall in ASOIAF is the largest mirror in Westeros), is the story The Skin Trade.
- ASOS/Bran IV: There were trees growing where the stables had been, and a twisted white weirwood pushing up through the gaping hole in the roof of the domed kitchen. Even Summer was not at ease here.
But I still climb them. Each night I return from the cool forests, my arrows black with the caked blood of the dream-spiders and my bag heavy with their poison sacs, and I set aside my bow and wash my hands and then climb up to the roof to spend the last few hours before dawn. Across the narrow salt channel, the lights of Port Jamison burn on the island, and from up there it is not the city I remember. The square black buildings wear a bright romantic glow at night; the lights, all smoky orange and muted blue, speak of mystery and silent song and more than a little loneliness, while the starships rise and fall against the stars like the tireless wandering fireflies of my boyhood on Old Earth.
- This description is used in similar ways in a few Martin stories, including The Stone City. When you read the Dreamsongs anthologies, or listen to various interviews, this is how George described growing up as a poor child in Bayonne, NJ. In this current story, Crystal can be viewed as the loosing of family and future, a depressing trigger for George.
“There are stories over there,” I told Korbec once, before I had learned better. “There are people behind every light, and each person has a life, a story. Only they lead those fives without ever touching us, so we’ll never know the stories.” I think I gestured then; I was, of course, quite drunk.
- Again, personal statements here and this time ones also shared by Thomas Tudbury, aka, The Great and Powerful Turtle of the Wildcards series.
Korbec answered with a toothy smile and a shake of his head. He was a great dark fleshy man, with a beard like knotted wire. Each month he came out from the city in his pitted black aircar to drop off my supplies and take the venom I had collected, and each month we went up to the roof and got drunk together. A track driver, that was all Korbec was, a seller of cut-rate dreams and secondhand rainbows. But he fancied himself a philosopher and a student of man.
- Korbec is the ever-story present “wise fool”. He is also a lot like Keith from the GRRM story For A Single Yesterday, which is also a Bran (Bloodraven) and Jon archetype heavy story.
“Don’t fool yourself,” he said to me then, his face flush with wine and darkness, “you’re not missing nothin’. Lives are rotten stories, y’know. Real stories, now, they usually got a plot to ‘em. They start and they go on a bit and when they end they’re over, unless the guy’s got a series goin’. People’s lives don’t do that nohow, they just kinda wander around and ramble and go on and on. Nothin’ ever finishes.”
“People die,” I said. “That’s enough of a finish, I’d think.”
Korbec made a loud noise. “Sure, but have you ever known anybody to die at the right time? No, don’t happen that way. Some guys fall over before their lives have properly gotten started, some right in the middle of the best part. Others kinda linger on after everything is really over.”
- Greenseer-ish type dialoging going on here.
Often when I sit up there alone, with Squirrel warm in my lap and a glass of wine by my side, I remember Korbec’s words and the heavy way he said them, his coarse voice oddly gentle.He is not a smart man, Korbec, but that night I think he spoke the truth, maybe never realizing it himself. But the weary realism that he offered me then is the only antidote there is for the dreams that spiders weave.
But I am not Korbec, nor can I be, and while I recognize his truth, I cannot live it.
I was outside taking target practice in the late afternoon, wearing nothing but my quiver and a pair of cutoffs, when they came. It was closing on dusk and I was loosening up for my nightly foray into the forest – even in those early days I lived from twilight to dawn, as the dream-spiders do. The grass felt good under my bare feet, the double-curved silverwood bow felt even better in my hand, and I was shooting well.
- Starting to sound a little like the A Game of Thrones prologue… but from the other point of view.
Then I heard them coming. I glanced over my shoulder toward the beach, and saw the dark blue aircar swelling rapidly against the eastern sky. Gerry, of course, I knew that from the sound; his aircar had been making noises as long as I had known him.
I turned my back on them, drew another arrow – quite steady -and notched my first bull’s-eye of the day.
Gerry set his aircar down in the weeds near the base of the tower, just a few feet from my own. Crystal was with him, slim and grave, her long gold hair full of red glints from the afternoon sun. They climbed out and started toward me.
- The name Crystal is important as it could be like the glass flower in the story The Glass Flower (also a story where nature takes over the throne at the end), making John Bowen a fiery type of mind-game character as Cyrain of Ash is. This could also be a symbol of the whisperjewel to John, as mentioned above, Crystal is a resonant lover in his mind.
“Don’t stand near the target,” I told them, as I slipped another arrow into place and bent the bow. “How did you find me?’ The twang of the arrow vibrating in the target punctuated my question.
They circled well around my line of fire. “You’d mentioned spotting this place from the air once,” Gerry said, “and we knew you weren’t anywhere in Port Jamison. Figured it was worth a chance.” He stopped a few feet from me, with his hands on his hips, looking just as I remembered him: big, darkhaired and very fit. Crystal came up beside him and put one hand lightly on his arm.
I lowered my bow and turned to face them. “So. Well, you found me. Why?”
“I was worried about you, Johnny,” Crystal said softly. But she avoided my eyes when I looked at her.
Gerry put a hand around her waist, very possessively, and something flared within me. “Running away never solves anything,” he told me, his voice full of the strange mixture of friendly concern and patronizing arrogance he had been using on me for months.
“I did not run away,” I said, my voice strained. “Damn it. You should never have come.”
Crystal glanced at Gerry, looking very sad, and it was clear that suddenly she was thinking the same thing. Gerry just frowned. I don’t think he ever once understood why I said the things I said, or did the things I did; whenever we discussed the subject, which was infrequently, he would only tell me with vague puzzlement what he would have done if our roles had been reversed. It seemed infinitely strange to him that anyone could possibly do anything differently in the same position.
His frown did not touch me, but he’d already done his damage. For the month I’d been in my self-imposed exile at the tower, I had been trying to come to terms with my actions and my moods, and it had been far from easy. Crystal and I had been together for a long time – nearly four years – when we came to Jamison’s World, trying to track down some unique silver and obsidian artifacts that we’d picked up on Baldur. I had loved her all that time, and I still loved her, even now, after she had left me for Gerry. When I was feeling good about myself, it seemed to me that the impulse that had driven me out of Port Jamison was a noble and unselfish one. I wanted Crys to be happy, simply, and she could not be happy with me there. My wounds were too deep, and I wasn’t good at hiding them; my presence put the damper of guilt on the newborn joy she’d found with Gerry. And since she could not bear to cut me off completely, I felt compelled to cut myself off. For them. For her.
Or so I liked to tell myself. But there were hours when that bright rationalization broke down, dark hours of self-loathing. Were those the real reasons? Or was I simply out to hurt myself in a fit of angry immaturity, and by doing so, punish them – like a willful child who plays with thoughts of suicide as a form of revenge?
- Here George is using his concept of the “darkling plain”, as he does in many stories, most notably A Song For Lya, which comes from the poem Dover Beach.
- This, again, is also like Ser Jorah Mormont after Daenerys put him into exile.
I honestly didn’t know. For a month I’d fluctuated from one belief to the other while I tried to understand myself and decide what I’d do next. I wanted to think myself a hero, willing to make a sacrifice for the happiness of the woman I loved. But Gerry’s words made it clear that he didn’t see it that way at all.
“Why do you have to be so damned dramatic about everything?” he said, looking stubborn. He had been determined all along to be very civilized, and seemed perpetually annoyed at me because I wouldn’t shape up and heal my wounds so that everybody could be friends. Nothing annoyed me quite so much as his annoyance; I thought I was handling the situation pretty well, all things considered, and I resented the inference that I wasn’t.
But Gerry was determined to convert me, and my best withering look was wasted on him. “We’re going to stay here and talk things out until you agree to fly back to Port Jamison with us,” he told me, in his most forceful now-I’m-getting-tough tone.
“Like shit,” I said, turning sharply away from them and yanking an arrow from my quiver. I slid it into place, pulled, and released, all too quickly. The arrow missed the target by a good foot and buried itself in the soft dark brick of my crumbling tower.
- Keep this in mind… just sayin’.
“What is this place, anyway?’ Crys asked, looking at the tower as if she’d just seen it for the first time. It’s possible that she had – that it took the incongruous sight of my arrow lodging in stone to make her notice the ancient structure. More likely, though, it was a premeditated change of subject, designed to cool the argument that was building between Gerry and me.
I lowered my bow again and walked up to the target to recover the arrows I’d expended. “I’m really not sure,” I said, somewhat mollified and anxious to pick up the cue she’d thrown me. “A watchtower, I think, of nonhuman origin. Jamison’s World has never been thoroughly explored. It may have had a sentient race once.” I walked around the target to the tower, and yanked loose the final arrow from the crumbling brick. “It still may, actually. We know very little of what goes on on the mainland.”
- Towers of non-human origin? Like the Hightower, the Tower of (not) Joy? The wall? The Five Forts? Anything with oily black stone? Basically, the same theme of we just don’t know because history has been lost to time (also like the Night’s Watch vows).
- It is said in ASOIAF that the Night’s Watch is always the last to know of the news of the realm (mainland).
“A damn gloomy place to live, if you ask me,” Gerry put in, looking over the tower. “Could fall in any moment, from the way it looks.” I gave him a bemused smile. “The thought had occurred to me. But when I first came out here, I was past caring.” As soon as the words were out, I regretted saying them; Crys winced visibly. That had been the whole story of my final weeks in Port Jamison. Try as I might, it had seemed that I had only two choices; I could lie, or I could hurt her. Neither appealed to me, so here I was. But here they were too, so the whole impossible situation was back.
Gerry had another comment ready, but he never got to say it. Just then Squirrel came bounding out from between the weeds, straight at Crystal.
- A similar scene such as this one that parallels Ghost naturally likes Val, as opposed to Ghost being tricked by Melisandre to appear to like her. One is a natural relationship, the other is powders and mind games.
A Dance with Dragons – Jon XI
“Did you follow me as well?” Jon reached to shoo the bird away but ended up stroking its feathers. The raven cocked its eye at him. “Snow,” it muttered, bobbing its head knowingly. Then Ghost emerged from between two trees, with Val beside him.
They look as though they belong together. Val was clad all in white; white woolen breeches tucked into high boots of bleached white leather, white bearskin cloak pinned at the shoulder with a carved weirwood face, white tunic with bone fastenings. Her breath was white as well … but her eyes were blue, her long braid the color of dark honey, her cheeks flushed red from the cold. It had been a long while since Jon Snow had seen a sight so lovely.
“Have you been trying to steal my wolf?” he asked her.
She smiled at him and knelt, and an instant later he was at her feet, licking her hand and chewing on her fingers. Squirrel was in a good mood, clearly. He liked life near the tower. Back in Port Jamison, his life had been constrained by Crystal’s fears that he’d be eaten by alleysnarls or chased by dogs or strung up by local children. Out here I let him run free, which was much more to his liking. The brush around the tower was overrun by whipping-mice, a native rodent with a hairless tail three times its own body length. The tail packed a mild sting, but Squirrel didn’t care, even though he swelled up and got grouchy every time a tail connected. He liked stalking whipping-mice all day. Squirrel always fancied himself a great hunter, and there’s no skill involved in chasing down a bowl of catfood.
- Just want to mention that alleysnarls are also mentioned in Men of Greywater Station.
He’d been with me even longer than Crys had, but she’d become suitably fond of him during our time together. I often suspected that Crystal would have gone with Gerry even sooner than she did, except that she was upset at the idea of leaving Squirrel. Not that he was any great beauty. He was a small, thin, scuffy-looking cat, with ears like a fox and fur a scroungy gray-brown color, and a big bushy tail two sizes too big for him. The friend who gave him to me back on Avalon informed me gravely that Squirrel was the illegitimate offspring of a genetically-engineered psicat and a mangy alley torn. But if Squirrel could read his owner’s mind, he didn’t pay much attention. When he wanted affection, he’d do things like climb right up on the book I was reading and knock it away and begin biting my chin: when he wanted to be let alone, it was dangerous folly to try to pet him.
- Ok, this genetically engineered psi-cat is used in the Tuf Voyaging series, as well as the mixed-class breeding being just what Jon-archetype Willie Flambeaux from The Skin Trade is, as well as Jon Snow himself.
As Crystal knelt by him and stroked him and Squirrel nuzzled up to her hand, she seemed very much the woman I’d traveled with and loved and talked to at endless length and slept with every night, and I suddenly realized how I’d missed her. I think I smiled; the sight of her, even under these conditions, still gave me a cloud-shadowed joy. Maybe I was being silly and stupid and vindictive to send them away, I thought, after they had come so far to see me. Crys was still Crys, and Gerry could hardly be so bad, since she loved him.
Watching her, wordless, I made a sudden decision; I would let them stay. And we could see what happened. “It’s close to dusk,’ I heard myself saying. ‘Are you folks hungry?”
Crys looked up, still petting Squirrel, and smiled. Gerry nodded. “Sure.”
“All right,” I said. I walked past them, turned and paused in the doorway, and gestured them inside. “Welcome to my ruin.”
- As Fairy Taboo’s explains, “Human food is what keeps life going in a human body; fairy food is what keeps life going in a fairy body; and since what a man eats makes him what he is physically, so eating the food of Fairyland or of the land of the dead will make the eater partake of the bodily nature of the beings it nourishes. Hence … the eater cannot re-enter the world of the living.
I turned on the electric torches and set about making dinner. My lockers were well stocked back in those days; I had not yet started living off the forests. I thawed three big sandragons, the silver-shelled crustacean that Jamie fishermen dragged for relentlessly, and served them up with bread and cheese and white wine.
Mealtime conversation was polite and guarded. We talked of mutual friends in Port Jamison, Crystal told me about a letter she’d received from a couple we had known on Baldur, Gerry held forth on politics and the efforts of the Port police to crack down on the traffic in dreaming venom. The Council is sponsoring research on some sort of super-pesticide that would wipe out the dream-spiders, he told me. “A saturation spraying of the near coast would cut off most of the supply, I’d think”
- Again, the same biological warfare concept that drives the plot in Men of Greywater Station. In that story, the humans are trying to create biological weapons, and in doing so they are wiping out native life. A strange fungus seems to be controlling plants and animals to defend themselves, or at least just get rid of the men with weapons. This Tower of Ashes seems to be using that theme, but inverting as with the rest of the plot details… maybe?
“Certainly,” I said, a bit high on the wine and a bit piqued at Gerry’s stupidity. Once again, listening to him, I had found myself questioning Crystal’s taste. “Never mind what other effects it might have on the ecology, right?”
Gerry shrugged, “Mainland,” he said simply. He was Jamie through-and-through, and the comment translated to, ‘Who cares?’ The accidents of history had given the residents of Jamison’s World a singularly cavalier attitude toward their planet’s one large continent. Most of the original settlers had come from Old Poseidon, where the sea had been a way of life for generations. The rich, teeming oceans and peaceful archipelagoes of their new world had attracted them far more than the dark forests of the mainland. Their children grew up to the same attitudes, except for a handful who found an illegal profit selling dreams.
“Don’t shrug it all off so easy,” I said.
“Be realistic,” he replied. “The mainland’s no use to anyone, except the spider-men. Who would it hurt?”
“Damn it, Gerry, look at this tower! Where did it come from, tell me that! I tell you, there might be intelligence out there, in those forests. The Jamies have never even been bothered to look.”
Crystal was nodding over her wine. “Johnny could be right,” she said, glancing at Gerry. That was why I came here, remember. The artifacts. The shop on Baldur said they were shipped out of Port Jamison. He couldn’t trace them back any farther than that. And the workmanship – I’ve handled alien art for years, Gerry. I know Fyndii work, and Damoosh, and I’ve seen all the others. This was different!
- Handling alien art is a key plot detail in the GRRM story And Seven Times Never Kill Man, where we are introduced to the Steel Angels (Andal/Targ combo’s) and their god, Bakkalon the Pale Child. This is a mind control story that involves pyramids and religious zealotry.
Gerry only smiled. “Proves nothing. There are other races, millions of them, further in toward the core. The distances are too great, so we don’t hear of them very often, except maybe third-hand, but it isn’t impossible that every so often a piece of their art would trickle through.” He shook his head. “No, I’d bet this tower was put up by some early settler. Who knows? Could be there was another discoverer, before Jamison, who never reported his find. Maybe he built the place. But I’m not going to buy mainland sentients.”
“At least not until you fumigate the damned forests and they all come out waving their spears,” I said sourly. Gerry laughed and Crystal smiled at me. And suddenly, suddenly, I had an overpowering desire to win this argument. My thoughts had the hazy clarity that only wine can give, and it seemed so logical. I was so clearly right, and here was my chance to show up Gerry like the provincial he was and make points with Crys.
I leaned forward. “If you Jamies would ever look, you might find sentients,” I said. “I’ve only been on the mainland a month, and already I’ve found a great deal. You’ve no damned concept of the kind of beauty you talk so blithely of wiping out. A whole ecology is out there, different from the islands, species upon species, a lot probably not even discovered yet. But what do you know about it? Any of you?”
- Free Folk, Children of the Forest, Direwolves, Giants, wargs, skinchangers, ‘unicorns’, etc…
Gerry nodded. “So, show me.” He stood up suddenly. “I’m always willing to learn, Bowen. Why don’t you take us out and show us all the wonders of the mainland?”
I think Gerry was trying to make points, too. He probably never thought I’d take up his offer, but it was exactly what I’d wanted. It was dark outside now, and we had been talking by the light of my torches. Above, stars shone through the hole in my roof. The forest would be alive now, eerie and beautiful, and I was suddenly eager to be out there, bow in hand, in a world where I was a force and a friend, Gerry a bumbling tourist.
“Crystal?” I said.
She looked interested. ‘Sounds like fun. If it’s safe.”
“It will be,” I said. “I’ll take my bow. We both rose, and Crys looked happy. I remembered the times we tackled Baldurian wilderness together, and suddenly I felt very happy, certain that everything would work out well. Gerry was just part of a bad dream. She couldn’t possibly be in love with him.
First I found the sober-ups; I was feeling good, but not good enough to head out into the forest when I was still dizzy from wine. Crystal and I flipped ours down immediately, and seconds after my alcoholic glow began to fade. Gerry, however, waved away the pill I offered him.
“I haven’t had that much,” he insisted. “Don’t need it.”
I shrugged, thinking that things were getting better and better. If Gerry went crashing drunkenly through the woods, it couldn’t help but turn Crys away from him. “Suit yourself,” I said.
Neither of them was really dressed for wilderness, but I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem, since I didn’t really plan on taking them very deep in the forest. It would be a quick trip, I thought; wander down my trail a bit, show them the dust pile and the spider-chasm, maybe nail a dream-spider for them. Nothing to it, out and back again.
I put on a dark coverall, heavy trail boots, and my quiver, handed Crystal a flash in case we wandered away from the bluemoss regions, and picked up my bow. “You really need that?” Gerry asked, with sarcasm.
“Protection,” I said.
“Can’t be that dangerous.”
It isn’t, if you know what you’re doing, but I didn’t tell him that. “Then why do you Jamies stay on your islands?”
He smiled. “I’d rather trust a laser.”
“I’m cultivating a deathwish. A bow gives the prey a chance, of sorts.”
Crys gave me a smile of shared memories. “He only hunts predators,” she told Gerry. I bowed.
Squirrel agreed to guard my castle. Steady and very sure of myself, I belted on a knife and led my ex-wife and her lover out into the forests of Jamison’s World.
We walked in single file, close together, me up front with the bow, Crys following, Gerry behind her. Crys used the flashlight when we first set out, playing it over the trail as we wound our way through the thick grove of spikearrows that stood like a wall against the sea. Tall and very straight, crusty gray of bark and some as big around as my tower, they climbed to a ridiculous height before sprouting their meager load of branches. Here and there they crowded together and squeezed the path between them, and more than one seemingly impassable fence of wood confronted us suddenly in the dark. But Crys could always pick out the way, with me a foot ahead of her to point her flash when it paused.
Ten minutes out from the tower, the character of the forest began to change. The ground and the very air were drier here, the wind cool but without the snap of salt; the water-hungry spikearrows had drained most of the moisture from the air. They began to grow smaller and less frequent, the spaces between them larger and easier to find. Other species of plant began to appear: stunted little goblin trees, sprawling mockoaks, graceful ebonfires whose red veins pulsed brilliantly in the dark wood when caught by Crystal’s wandering flash.
- And we are back as rangers in the A Game of Thrones prologue.
Just a little at first; here a ropy web dangling from a goblin’s arm, there a small patch on the ground, frequently chewing its way up the back of an ebonfire or a withering solitary spikearrow. Then more and more; thick carpets underfoot, mossy blankets on the leaves above, heavy trailers that dangled from the branches and danced around in the wind. Crystal sent the flash darting about, finding bigger and better bunches of the soft blue fungus, and peripherally I began to see the glow.
“Enough,” I said, and Crys turned off the light.
Darkness lasted only for a moment, till our eyes adjusted to a dimmer light. Around us, the forest was suffused by a gentle radiance, as the bluemoss drenched us in its ghostly phosphorescence. We were standing near one side of a small clearing, below a shiny black ebonfire, but even the flames of its red-veined wood seemed cool in the faint blue light. The moss had taken over the undergrowth, supplanting all the local grasses and making nearby shrubs into fuzzy blue beachballs. It climbed the sides of most of the trees, and when we looked up through the branches at the stars, we saw that other colonies had set upon the woods a glowing crown.
A Game of Thrones – Prologue
The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope.
They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence.
A Dance with Dragons – Prologue
The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill. The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood. And in the pits where her eyes had been, a pale blue light was flickering, lending her coarse features an eerie beauty they had never known in life.
She sees me.
I laid my bow carefully against the dark flank of the ebonfire, bent, and offered a handful of light to Crystal. When I held it under her chin, she smiled at me again, her features softened by the cool magic in my hand. I remember feeling very good, to have led them to this beauty.
But Gerry only grinned at me. “Is this what we’re going to endanger, Bowen?” he asked. “A forest full of bluemoss?”
I dropped the moss. “You don’t think it’s pretty?”
Gerry shrugged. “Sure, it’s pretty. It is also a fungus, a parasite with a dangerous tendency to overrun and crowd out all other forms of plantlife. Bluemoss was very thick on Jolostar and the Barbis Archipelago once, you know. We rooted it all out; it can eat its way through a good corn crop in a month.” He shook his head.
And Crystal nodded. “He’s right, you know,” she said.
I looked at her for a long time, suddenly feeling very sober indeed, the last memory of the wine long gone. Abruptly it dawned on me that I had, all unthinking, built myself another fantasy. Out here, in a world I had started to make my own, a world of dream-spiders and magic moss, somehow I had thought that I could recapture my own dream long fled, my smiling crystalline soulmate. In the timeless wilderness of the mainland, she would see us both in fresh light and would realize once again that it was me she loved.
So I’d spun a pretty web, bright and alluring as the trap of any dream-spider, and Crys had shattered the flimsy filaments with a word. She was his; mine no longer, not now, not ever. And if Gerry seemed to me stupid or insensitive or overpractical, well, perhaps it was those very qualities that made Crys choose him. And perhaps not – I had no right to second-guess her love, and possibly I would never understand it.
I brushed the last flakes of glowing moss from my hands while Gerry took the heavy flash from Crystal and flicked it on again. My blue fairyland dissolved, burned away by the bright white reality of his flashlight beam. “What now?” he asked, smiling. He was not so very drunk after all.
I lifted my bow from where I’d set it down. “Follow me,” I said, quickly, curtly. Both of them looked eager and interested, but my own mood had shifted dramatically. Suddenly the whole trip seemed pointless. I wished that they were gone, that I was back at my tower with Squirrel. I was down …
… and sinking. Deeper in the moss-heavy woods, we came upon a dark swift stream, and the brilliance of the flashlight speared a solitary ironhorn that had come to drink. It looked up quickly, pale and startled, then bounded away through the trees, for a fleeting instant looking a bit like the unicorn of Old Earth legend. Long habit made me glance at Crystal, but her eyes sought Gerry’s when she laughed.
Later, as we climbed a rocky incline, a cave loomed near at hand; from the smell, a woodsnarl lair.
I turned to warn them around it, only to discover that I’d lost my audience. They were ten steps behind me, at the bottom of the rocks, walking very slowly and talking quietly, holding hands.
Dark and angry, wordless, I turned away again and continued on over the hill. We did not speak again until I’d found the dust pile.
I paused on its edge, my boots an inch deep in the fine gray powder, and they came straggling up behind me.
“Go ahead, Gerry,” I said. “Use your flash here.”
The light roamed. The hill was at our back, rocky and lit here and there with the blurred cold fire of bluemoss-choked vegetation. But in front of us was only desolation; a wide vacant plain, black and blasted and lifeless, open to the stars. Back and forth Gerry moved the flashlight, pushing at the borders of the dust nearby, fading as he shone it straight out into the gray distance. The only sound was the wind.
“So?” he said at last.
“Feel the dust,” I told him. I was not going to stoop this time. “And when you’re back at the tower, crush one of my bricks and feel that. It’s the same thing, a sort of powdery ash.” I made an expansive gesture. “I’d guess there was a city here once, but now it’s all crumbled into dust. Maybe my tower was an outpost of the people who built it, you see?”
“The vanished sentients of the forests,” Gerry said, still smiling. “Well, I’ll admit there’s nothing like this on the islands. For a good reason. We don’t let forest fires rage unchecked.”
“Forest fire! Don’t give me that. Forest fires don’t reduce everything to a fine powder, you always get a few blackened stumps or something.”
“Oh? You’re probably right. But all the ruined cities I know have at least a few bricks still piled on top of each other for the tourists to take pictures of,” Gerry said. The flash beam flicked to and fro over the dust pile, dismissing it. “All you have is a mound of rubbish.”
Crystal said nothing.
I began walking back, while they followed in silence. I was losing points every minute; it had been idiocy to bring them out here. At that moment nothing more was on my mind than getting back to my tower as quickly as possible, packing them off to Port Jamison together, and resuming my exile.
Crystal stopped me, after we’d come back over the hill into the bluemoss forest.
“Johnny,” she said. I stopped, they caught up, Crys pointed.
“Turn off the light,” I told Gerry. In the fainter illumination of the moss, it was easier to spot: the intricate iridescent web of a dream-spider, slanting groundward from the low branches of a mockoak. The patches of moss that shone softly all around us were nothing to this; each web strand was as thick as my little finger, oily and brilliant, running with the colors of the rainbow.
Crys took a step toward it, but I took her by the arm and stopped her. “The spiders are around someplace,” I said. “Don’t go too close. Papa spider never leaves the web, and Mama ranges around in the trees at night.”
- ‘Night’s Queen‘ archetype beginnings? At least the backstory portion, as the ASOIAF truth is most probably something much more complicated in nature.
Gerry glanced upward a little apprehensively. His flash was dark, and suddenly he didn’t seem to have all the answers. The dream-spiders are dangerous predators, and I suppose he’d never seen one outside of a display case. They weren’t native to the islands. “Pretty big web,” he said. “Spiders must be a fair size.”
“Fair,” I said, and at once I was inspired. I could discomfort him a lot more if an ordinary web like this got to him. And he had been discomforting me all night. “Follow me. I’ll show you a real dreamspider.” We circled around the web carefully, never seeing either of its guardians. I led them to the spider-chasm.
It was a great V in the sandy earth, once a creekbed perhaps, but dry and overgrown now. The chasm is hardly very deep by daylight, but at night it looks formidable enough, as you stare down into it from the wooded hills on either side. The bottom is a dark tangle of shrubbery, alive with little flickering phantom lights; higher up, trees of all kinds lean into the chasm, almost meeting in the center. One of them, in fact, does cross the gap. An ancient, rotting spikearrow, withered by lack of moisture, had fallen long ago to provide a natural bridge. The bridge hangs with bluemoss, and glows. The three of us walked out on that dim-lit, curving trunk, and I gestured down.
- Possibly this was reinterpreted as the Bridge of Dream in ASOIAF for the Essosian aspect as a B-level plot device.
- I speculate this is for sure has been reworked for A-level ASOIAF plot as the Bridge of Skulls, a connection between the world of death and life. This has to do with the Weeper and the three heads “floating” on ash spikes (one with a curve) as well.
- UPDATED to add and share a link to a few in-the-works ideas that directly relate the three heads on ash spikes in a Jon ADWD chapter to the Others as watchers. Read the posts here.
Yards below us, a glittering multihued net hung from hill to hill, each strand of the web thick as a cable and aglisten with sticky oils. It tied all the lower trees together in a twisting intricate embrace, and it was a shining fairy-roof above the chasm. Very pretty; it made you want to reach out and touch it.
That, of course, was why the dream-spiders spun it. They were nocturnal predators, and the bright colors of their webs afire in the night made a potent lure.
“Look,” Crystal said, ‘the spider.’ She pointed. In one of the darker corners of the web, half-hidden by the tangle of a goblin tree that grew out of the rock, it was sitting. I could see it dimly, by the webfire and moss light, a great eight-legged white thing the size of a large pumpkin. Unmoving. Waiting.
Gerry glanced around uneasily again, up into the branches of a crooked mockoak that hung partially above us. “The mate’s around somewhere, isn’t it?”
I nodded. The dream-spiders of Jamison’s World are not quite twins to the arachnids of Old Earth. The female is indeed the deadlier of the species, but far from eating the male, she takes him for life in a permanent specialized partnership. For it is the sluggish, great-bodied male who wears the spinnerets, who weaves the shining-fire web and makes it sticky with his oils, who binds and ties the prey snared by light and color. Meanwhile, the smaller female roams the dark branches, her poison sac full of the viscous dreaming-venom that grants bright visions and ecstasy and final blackness. Creatures many times her own size she stings, and drags limp back to the web to add to the larder.
- The antagonist icy Great Other in ASOIAF is probably a female figure, and the “regular” Others are her chameleon cloth wearing hunters she sends out. Just as Daenerys is the fiery Great Other/R’hllor fire-goddess on earth symbol. Both extremes have to be stopped. A song (battle) of ice and fire.
- Melisandre uses Mance to set a trap for Jon, and GRRM has established that Mance wears a black and now red cloak sewn together with (spider?) silk from Asshai.
- Back to the Craster idea, how he is working with the “other gods”, and that his black sausage is most likely long-pig rangers that he adds to his larder.
- This idea of the female holding the poison I discussed with book quotes in regards to Lysa drug inducing Sweetrobin’s seizures with poisoned breastmilk, and the many venom/milk mentions in Daenerys’ arc.
The dream-spiders are soft, merciful hunters for all that. If they prefer live food, no matter; the captive probably enjoys being eaten. Popular Jamie wisdom says a spider’s prey moans with joy as it is consumed. Like all popular wisdoms, it is vastly exaggerated. But the truth is, the captives never struggle.
A Dance with Dragons – Jon XI
Jon considered. “No. Ask them to join me atop the Wall at sunset.” He turned to Val. “My lady. With me, if you please.”
“The crow commands, the captive must obey.” Her tone was playful. “This queen of yours must be fierce if the legs of grown men give out beneath them when they meet her. Should I have dressed in mail instead of wool and fur? These clothes were given to me by Dalla, I would sooner not get bloodstains all over them.”
“If words drew blood, you might have cause to fear. I think your clothes are safe enough, my lady.”
Except that night, something was struggling in the web below us.
“What’s that?” I said, blinking. The iridescent web was not even close to empty – the half-eaten corpse of an ironhorn lay close at hand below us, and some great dark bat was bound in bright strands just slightly farther away – but these were not what I watched. In the corner opposite the male spider, near the western trees, something was caught and fluttering. I remember a brief glimpse of thrashing pale limbs, wide luminous eyes, and something like wings. But I did not see it clearly.
That was when Gerry slipped.
Maybe it was the wine that made him unsteady, or maybe the moss under our feet, or the curve of the trunk on which we stood. Maybe he was just trying to step around me to see whatever it was I was staring at. But, in any case, he slipped and lost his balance, let out a yelp, and suddenly he was five yards below us, caught in the web. The whole thing shook to the impact of his fall, but it didn’t come close to breaking —dream-spider webs are strong enough to catch ironhorns and woodsnarls, after all.
“Damn,” Gerry yelled. He looked ridiculous; one leg plunged right down through the fibers of the web, his arms half-sunk and tangled hopelessly, only his head and shoulders really free of the mess. “This stuff is sticky. I can hardly move.”
“Don’t try,” I told him. “It’ll just get worse. I’ll figure out a way to climb down and cut you loose. I’ve got my knife.” I looked around, searching for a tree limb to shimmy out on.
“John,” Crystal’s voice was tense, on edge.
A Game of Thrones – Prologue
Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss. “Come no farther,” the lordling warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands. The wind had stopped. It was very cold.
The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.
Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.
The male spider had left his lurking place behind the goblin tree. He was moving toward Gerry with a heavy deliberate gait; a gross white shape clamoring over the preternatural beauty of his web.
“Damn,” I said. I wasn’t seriously alarmed, but it was a bother. The great male was the biggest spider I’d ever seen, and it seemed a shame to kill him. But I didn’t see that I had much choice. The male dream-spider has no venom, but he is a carnivore, and his bite can be most final, especially when he’s the size of this one. I couldn’t let him get within biting distance of Gerry.
Steadily, carefully, I drew a long gray arrow out of my quiver and fitted it to my bowstring. It was night, of course, but I wasn’t really worried. I was a good shot, and my target was outlined clearly by the glowing strands of his web.
I stopped briefly, annoyed that she’d panic when everything was under control. But I knew all along that she would not, of course. It was something else. For an instant I couldn’t imagine what it could be.
Then I saw, as I followed Crys’ eyes with my own. A fat white spider the size of a big man’s fist had dropped down from the mockoak to the bridge we were standing on, not ten feet away Crystal, thank God, was safe behind me.
A Game of Thrones – Prologue
Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red.
The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.
I stood there —how long? I don’t know. If I had just acted, without stopping, without thought, I could have handled everything. I should have taken care of the male first, with the arrow I had ready. There would have been plenty of time to pull a second arrow for the female.
But I froze instead, caught in that dark bright moment, for an instant timeless, my bow in my hand yet unable to act.
It was all so complicated, suddenly. The female was scuttling toward me, faster than I would have believed, and it seemed so much quicker and deadlier than the slow white thing below. Perhaps I should take it out first. I might miss, and then I would need time to go for my knife or a second arrow.
Except that would leave Gerry tangled and helpless under the jaws of the male that moved toward him inexorably. He could die. He could die. Crystal could never blame me. I had to save myself, and her, she would understand that. And I’d have her back again.
Crystal was screaming, screaming, and suddenly everything was clear and I knew what it had all meant and why I was here in this forest and what I had to do. There was a moment of glorious transcendence. I had lost the gift of making her happy, my Crystal, but now for a moment suspended in time that power had returned to me, and I could give or withhold happiness forever. With an arrow, I could prove a love that Gerry would never match.
I think I smiled. I’m sure I did.
And my arrow flew darkly through the cool night, and found its mark in the bloated white spider that raced across a web of light.
The female was on me, and I made no move to kick it away or crush it beneath my heel. There was a sharp stabbing pain in my ankle.
Bright and many-colored are the webs the dream-spiders weave.
At night, when I return from the forests, I clean my arrows carefully and open my great knife, with its slim barbed blade, to cut apart the poison sacs I’ve collected. I slit them open, each in turn, as I have earlier cut them from the still white bodies of the dream-spiders, and then I drain the venom off into a bottle, to wait for the day when Korbec flies out to collect it.
Afterwards I set out the miniature goblet, exquisitely wrought in silver and obsidian and bright with spider motifs, and pour it full of the heavy black wine they bring me from the city. I stir the cup with my knife, around and around until the blade is shiny clean again and the wine a trifle darker than before. And I ascend to the roof.
- Milk of the
PoppyMommy idea again.
Often Korbec’s words will return to me then, and with them my story. Crystal my love, and Gerry, and a night of lights and spiders. It all seemed so very right for that brief moment, when I stood upon the moss-covered bridge with an arrow in my hand, and decided. And it has all gone so very very wrong…
… from the moment I awoke, after a month of fever and visions, to find myself in the tower where Crys and Gerry had taken me to nurse me back to health. My decision, my transcendent choice, was not so final as I would have thought.
At times I wonder if it was a choice. We talked about it, often, while I regained my strength, and the tale that Crystal tells me is not the one that I remember. She says that we never saw the female at all, until it was too late, that it dropped silently onto my neck just as I released the arrow that killed the male. Then, she says, she smashed it with the flashlight that Gerry had given her to hold, and I went tumbling into the web.
In fact, there is a wound on my neck, and none on my ankle. And her story has a ring of truth. For I have come to know the dream-spiders in the slow-flowing years since that night, and I know that the females are stealthy killers that drop down on their prey unawares. They do not charge across fallen trees like berserk ironhorns; it is not the spiders’ way.
A Storm of Swords – Daenerys I
Viserion’s scales were the color of fresh cream, his horns, wing bones, and spinal crest a dark gold that flashed bright as metal in the sun. Rhaegal was made of the green of summer and the bronze of fall. They soared above the ships in wide circles, higher and higher, each trying to climb above the other.
Dragons always preferred to attack from above, Dany had learned. Should either get between the other and the sun, he would fold his wings and dive screaming, and they would tumble from the sky locked together in a tangled scaly ball, jaws snapping and tails lashing.
- The fourth knife at Jon’s mutiny attempt?
And neither Crystal nor Gerry has any memory of a pale winged thing flapping in the web.
Yet I remember it clearly … as I remember the female spider that scuttled toward me during the endless years that I stood frozen … but then … they say the bite of a dream-spider does strange things to your mind.
- Throughout this story there are many elements that seem to be purposed for the character Rohanne Webber, the Red Widow of Cold Moat that we meet in the story The Sword Shield.
That could be it, of course.
Sometimes when Squirrel comes behind me up the stairs, scraping the sooty bricks with his eight white legs, the wrongness of it all hits me, and I know I’ve dwelt with dreams too long.
Yet the dreams are often better than the waking, the stories so much finer than the lives.
Crystal did not come back to me, then or ever. They left when I was healthy. And the happiness I’d brought her with the choice that was not a choice and the sacrifice not a sacrifice, my gift to her forever – it lasted less than a year. Korbec tells me that she and Gerry broke up violently, and that she has since left Jamison’s World.
I suppose that’s truth enough, if you can believe a man like Korbec. I don’t worry about it overmuch.
I just kill dream-spiders, drink wine, pet Squirrel. And each night I climb this tower of ashes to gaze at distant lights.
There is so much packed into this short story that there was no way I was going to attempt to add it all here. The notes above are my basic ideas of the repeated themes and motifs George R.R. Martin uses over and over again across his works, but I await the additional ideas other readers have.
A few lingering questions I have are:
- Is John Bowen a servant to the ice-spider gods like Craster is? I think Craster may be the stringest ASOIAF parallel here. Here are two essays written by SweetSunRay that delve deeper into Craster territory and the snaring of victims like this John Bowen appears to do.
- Is John Bowen dead and being eaten along with Crystal and Gerry?
- Could Martin be borrowing and magicking up the white fungus zombie (ice) spider idea from the real world? I think it is quite possible that John is the ‘zombie’ in this case.
- Squirrel. Lots to say about Squirrel. Squirrel was once real, but did a spider follow John back to the tower and also devour Squirrel? The appearance of the cat changed from brown to white with eight legs. Squirrel was described as bounding around easily in the beginning, but then the “white” squirrel scrapes the sooty bricks as it moves. Sounds more like something being dragged. This parallels a scene in Armageddon Rag where the fire woman Ananda kills the dog of the singer.
- Is Squirrel, or in actuality the spiders, coercing John to behave erratically by means of mind control, or mind suggestion in order to feed them/provide prey?
- The theme of drug/chemical dependency being used to control someone in a weakened state is used again here as in Armageddon Rag, The Stone City, Lysa and Sweetrobin, For A Single Yesterday, and so many other GRRM stories.
- How much of this story is true versus how much is hallucination?
Link to the online Search of Ice and Fire site if needed… search ice and fire here.
So once again, the reading and commenting is done at your own pace- no rush, no deadlines, all puns intended. Have fun and enjoy!
Want to read more transcribed Martin?
- A Peripheral Affair (1973)– When a Terran scout ship on a routine patrol through the Periphery suddenly disappears, a battle-hungry admiral prepares to renew the border war.
- The Stone City– a have-not surviving while stranded on a corporate planet. Practically a GRRM autobiography in itself.
- Slide Show– a story of putting the stars before the children.
- Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark– rubies, fire, blood sacrifice, and Saagael- oh my!
- A Night at the Tarn House– a magical game of life and death played at an inn at a crossroads.
- Men of Greywater Station– Is it the trees, the fungus, or is the real danger humans?
- The Computer Cried Charge!– what are we fighting for and is it worth it?
- The Needle Men– the fiery hand wields itself again, only, why are we looking for men?
- Black and White and Red All Over– a partial take on a partial story.
- Fire & Blood excerpt; Alysanne in the north– not a full story, but transcribed and noted section of the book FIre & Blood, volume 1.
If you want to browse my own analysis and speculations on the ASOIAF world using GRRM’s own work history, use the drop-down menu above for the most content, or click on the page that just shows recent posts -> Recent Posts Page.
Thank you for reading the jambles and jumbles of the Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!