Last week, I finally got caught up on this season of Game of Thrones, though not without having been mercilessly spoilered by the internet. “Spoilers?” one of the MOP writers asked me. “Didn’t you read the books?” I did, fervently, in college and a few times since, usually whenever a new installment was released. (George Martin even signed my A Feast For Crows with “Sappireth.”) But the HBO show is so off the rails that spoilers are a real threat now. Jaime, Brienne, Sansa, Petyr, Sam, Mance, Loras, Varys, Ellaria, and Arianne — nevermind Ser Barristan and Uncat — are not at all who and where they’re meant to be (to the chagrin of no less than Martin’s own editor).
In having been spoiled about this past week’s show, I was able to watch it without fear and free my brain to pay attention to the details, and what I saw reminded me of the core reason I became so frustrated with the whole series many years ago: The world’s history is far more interesting than the story being spun on the page on and on film.
Spoiler warning: If you don’t know what R+L=J means, stop reading now. If you do, carry on.
This past episode, the HBO showrunners suddenly remembered that history and bashed viewers over the head with it. They pointedly allow Stannis to dismiss the assertion that Jon Snow was just a bastard born of a whore (“that wasn’t Ned Stark’s way,” he tells Selyse, perhaps too deliberately). They allow Petyr a knowing smirk when Sansa, standing before her Aunt Lyanna’s cairn, insists — as Robert once did before a similarly mute Ned — that Rhaegar raped and kidnapped Lyanna, leading to the war that dislodged the Targaryens’ hold on the throne. And before sending Barristan Selmy to his cheap-ass, plot-contrivance death, the writers allow him to regale Daenarys with yet another tale of how gentle and kind her big brother Rhaegar was, how he loved to sing with the commonfolk and hated killing.
I don’t know whether these contradictions and hints are enough for non-book readers to have figured out that there’s a lot more to the story of the Tourney at Harrenhal in the Year of the False Spring than anyone’s letting on, that Rhaegar and Lyanna were lovers who’d run off together and that Jon is their son, not Ned’s (i.e., R+L=J). But what I do know that those are the stories I’d rather be hearing.
Of course, I don’t really expect the writers to come right out and spoil the central mystery of the series, a mystery that many watchers might still have missed. And for all we readers know, John Snow’s parentage won’t matter in the end. We’ve assumed it does because Martin wrapped it in so much secrecy, because Ned and Cat and Jon suffered so much for that secret, because we hope that Rhaegar and Lyanna’s trysts weren’t for nothing — that their song of ice and fire actually has a part to play in saving the world. It wouldn’t be unlike Martin to dash all of those assumptions against a very tall wall of ice, however, and keep Jon as dead as he appears in book five, surrounded by enemies who really don’t care that his claim to the throne of Westeros tops Tommen’s and might rival Dany’s (not so much little Aegon’s, but the show has written him away).
Nevertheless, the Year of the False Spring makes for a far better story than what we’re watching onscreen. I came away from this last episode scowling at the incompetent handling of Jon’s, Barristan’s, and Loras’ character direction, yes yes, but it was the Tourney at Harrenhall — only referred to, never shown — that Paul and I stayed up until 1 in the morning discussing. With Barristan now dead, Varys across the sea, Howland Reed nowhere to be found, and the Reed children sitting out the season, only Petyr (and I suppose Maester Aemon, whose death has been foreshadowed as well) know enough about the big players in that time period to put any of the pieces together into a whole. Even book-readers learn the story in bits and pieces and out of order, beginning with Ned’s flashbacks about Lyanna’s bed of blood and roses and his haunting promise, Robert’s claims about the rape of his betrothed, Selmy’s bedtime stories about Rhaegar the warrior poet, Petyr’s hints to Sansa at Ned’s Tourney of the Hand, and finally and most completely in the story Jojen and Meera tell Bran to keep his spirits up.
It’s Jojen and Meera’s telling in A Storm of Swords that I love the most, with their sidelong looks to each other as they decide what Bran should know and what they will hold back or sanitize for his young ears (and Jon’s safety). Their telling is magical, storybook-like, with epithets and colorful descriptions for the larger-than-life characters: their father, the crannogman, Lord Howland Reed of Greywater Watch. The dragon prince — Rhaegar, of course — alongside the white swords of the Kingsguard. The storm lord and the rose lord. The great lion of the rock and the red snake. The Stark children of that era were in attendance as well: the wolf maid, the wild wolf, the quiet wolf, and the pup — Lyanna, Brandon, Ned, and Benjen, not one older than 20 years of age. And of course, there was the maid with laughing purple eyes.
Told with those epithets and not names, the story seems even more distant — and even sadder. We’re left to read between the lines of the children’s solemn tale to realize that it was 16-year-old Lyanna, probably with Benjen’s help, who dressed up as the mystery knight, the Knight of the Laughing Tree, to defend the honor of a bullied Howland Reed at that tourney, and she won her tilts against his bullies, too, as a skilled horsewoman and fighter, only to vanish before she could be unmasked. Rhaegar figured out her noble scheme, however, and in so doing apparently fell in love with her, crowning her the queen of love and beauty quite publicly after his own joust and offending both the Baratheons (Lyanna was engaged to Robert, and while she was indifferent, he was enraptured) and the Dornish (Rhaegar was married to Princess Elia, the sister of Oberyn and Doran Martell).
Thus began the love affair that started a bloody civil war, but Rhaegar didn’t kidnap Lyanna; she ran away with him, and we’re still not quite sure why — love, Barristan Selmy thinks; prophecy, Varys hints — but regardless, their selfishness was cruel to Elia Martell and the children, who were all murdered in the ensuing events (sort of). They grossly misjudged how badly the North would react and how mad Aerys really was. Lyanna’s abduction prompted Brandon Stark — betrothed then to Catelyn Tully! — to rush to King’s Landing, demanding that Mad King Aerys (later murdered by Jaime for trying to incinerate the whole city) and Aerys’ heir release his sister. When Aerys instead arrested Brandon for treason, Lord Rickard Stark rode south to ransom him, but instead both Stark men were tortured and executed by the Mad King, making Ned the new Lord Stark, forcing Ned and Cat to wed, and prompting Robert and Ned to commence Robert’s Rebellion against the crown.
This is not the part of the story that Jojen and Meera tell, and it’s not really the story the show is telling either, but it’s all there between the cracks of the pages in Martin’s books. That depth, that multilayered attention to historical detail, to past events mattering both thematically and contemporaneously, is why the books are so beloved.
Rhaegar and Lyanna’s doomed love affair ended with Robert’s bloody victory over Rhaegar at the Stones and the tragedy at the Tower of Joy, too, another story we may never hear if Howland Reed is left forever offscreen, since only Ned and he survived it (I assume and hope we’ll be meeting him soon as events churn in the Neck). We know Ned, Howland, and their companions approached the Tower of Joy to attempt to liberate Lyanna, who was hidden away there, already dying after Jon’s birth. Ned’s crew was forced to fight the men Rhaegar had left to protect her; Ned and Howland emerged victorious, defeating all three Kingsguard, including Arthur Dayne — the brother of the maid with laughing purple eyes.
That would be Ashara Dayne, to date unmentioned in the show (I believe?), and she’s another tragic tale. Most book readers infer that Ashara and Ned fell in love at the same doomed Tourney at Harrenhall. They may even have slept together; she suffered a devastating stillbirth afterward, Barristan Selmy recalls jealously in his ADWD chapters. But thanks to Lyanna and Rhaegar’s recklessness, Ned was swept into Robert’s Rebellion, required to marry Catelyn in Brandon’s place, and forced to kill his beloved Ashara’s brother. He brings Arthur’s sword home to Ashara’s castle to admit what’s happened and beg her forgiveness, whereupon she throws herself off a cliff, and Ned is left to ride home in grief with Howland, baby Jon, a nursemaid, and Lyanna’s body in tow, having lost a father, brother, sister, lover, possibly a daughter, and oh yeah, vowing on his little sister’s deathbed to permanently tarnish his reputation and his innocent bride by pretending Jon is his bastard lest his best friend Robert murder the baby for being Targaryen.
Those are the stories that give me goosebumps. I hurt for those characters in this tale from 17 years before the very first page in the book or the first shot in the movie. I care far more about Howland Reed and Ashara Dayne than Jon or Dany. The most gripping stories in ASOIF happen offscreen, in the past — in flashbacks and whispers. I am not a book purist in general; I consider, for example, many of the additions Peter Jackson made to The Lord of the Rings to be intelligent, necessary changes from what are frequently scattered novels (particularly where Faramir is concerned). I’m not even a movie snob; I don’t completely loathe the Star Wars prequels. My complaint is not about purity but about quality. I really just do not care to see a legendary knight like Barristan Selmy die to masked thugs in an alley, Brienne trudging around confusedly minus an archenemy in Uncat, badass Loras transformed into exactly the foppishly gay stereotype Martin was intentionally subverting, Jaime and Bronn’s slapstick routine in Dorne, the horrifically written and acted Sand Snakes girl power scenes, or what will apparently be another tedious year of fetish rape in Ramsay’s dungeon, this time with Sansa, a character who should never even have met him and whom by all logic Petyr never, ever would have sacrificed, not the way he plays the game of thrones (but then the showrunners have been failing to grok Petyr since season one). And that’s just this last episode! Let’s not even forget the rush job that was Jon’s election, the wasteful death of Mance Rayder, the apparent elimination of the entire Sam plot, Aegon plot, Arianne plot, and on and on. Even Cersei’s bungling couldn’t be less fun to actually watch. The more the show deviates from the source material, the more threadbare it becomes.
And I am not sure that shoehorning in a few nods to Rhaegar and Lyanna is enough to salvage it. Oh, someday I’d like to see Lord Whent’s tourney played out in flashback. It’s perfectly structured for a full flashback episode and would fill in the holes in the story as it’s been told onscreen. I’d slip it in as the last episode of the year and show it through Bran’s greensight. But I almost fear to see it in the show that we’re getting. The current showrunners are obsessed with minor characters, gruesome torture, and gratuitous T&A for ratings. They neglect important characters (Bran), slay them when convenient (Selmy), age them up to better strip them down (Dany), display no understanding of their motivations (Petyr, Jaime), and stoop to blatant fanservice (pick one; there are dozens). This season has been wretched so far, whether we’re in Dorne or at the Wall. No, these are not the writers to bring us the Year of the False Spring. HBO is now writing a show that is equal parts soap opera and sitcom, not a Brontë romance or Tudor tragedy. Whatever epic there was to mine here is spent.