So it begins! Episode one of my Game of Thrones Read-and-Watch ends today! If you don’t know what that is, about two weeks ago I announced that I would be reading the first of The Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, in pieces corresponding to each episode of the TV show and then posting a little discussion about the two. I thought it might be a fun way to occupy time during self-isolation – the book happens to be over 800 pages!
Today I’ll be discussing episode one and the first 9 chapters of the novel. They aren’t exactly numbered, though, so for clarification, it was about page 92 in the mass market paperback.
Firstly, I have to give applause to George R. R. Martin for his writing. I have a massive appreciation for his skills as a writer that I don’t think I appreciated as much as I should have the first time I tried to read this book. It was truly amazing to me how much information he conveyed in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural or info-dumpy. It was only the first one hundred pages or so, but it was incredibly dense. I can understand why he take so long to write these books. Not a single line felt extraneous. That alone has me excited to keep reading!
On top of that, knowing what happens later in the series, the foreshadowing that happens in just the first 10th of the novel is off the charts. When Bran was climbing around the broken tower and felt “that he had four hands instead of two,” my jaw dropped. It was so subtle, and something you’d only be able to understand with a reread.
But let’s cut to the chase. This first introduction to Westeros and it’s people pulls no punches. It’s dark, and it’s gritty. There are a lot of not-so-great people that we meet, and we’re going to be introduced to even more. There’s a palpable history here, and that, along with the strength of the characters is one of the reasons, in my opinion, why the books are so well-loved. But you really get a taste for the sort of journey you are in for in this first chunk of the story.
I’ve watched every episode of the series, and I’ve loved all the political intrigue and scheming and, well, gaming for the Iron Throne. It’s what the book is named after, but even I forgot that the series opens the way it did, with a prologue taking place north of the Wall and giving us the first glimpse of the Others. Or the White Walkers as they’re called in the show. The HBO series is even more vague and cryptic, with bodies assembled in unnatural shapes and the threat distorted by trees and blowing snow. It is a fantasy show, and the fantastical elements are there, but they are definitely not at the center, at least not at this stage. At this point, it is definitely focused on the characters and their own personal motivations. And I think it makes for great reading!
What I love most about this series is how real and relatable the characters and their problems are. There is no dark lord to defeat or some ancient magic to deal with. It’s not about a world-spanning war (yet). It’s about discovering the truth behind one man’s murder. It’s about making a name for yourself and finding your place in a cruel and brutal world.
One of Martin’s strengths is definitely how he writes his characters. They leap off the page with so much personality, and he layers in so much of their history and backstory. I was surprised and how much was explored just in those first nine chapters. From the very beginning, we learn about Robert’s rebellion and the fate of all of Ned’s family members. We learn of his distrust of the Lannisters and his history with Robert Baratheon and Jon Arryn. We learn that Robert was engaged to marry Ned’s sister Lyanna, and Catelyn to Ned’s older brother Brandon. Ned felt duty-bound to take his place after he died and has tried to fill his shoes despite feeling incapable of properly doing so. We learn how Theon ended up as Ned’s ward and prisoner, and how the Targaryen children ended up on the other side of the Narrow Sea.
There is a lot of information being thrown at you, and it can be pretty overwhelming. I’m a fairly fast reader, but even I found I had to take my time, sometimes rereading whole pages. But as I mentioned before, Martin is a great writer, and that definitely helped make it an enjoyable, if lengthy, experience.
The Differences Between Them
The series was praised for how closely it followed the books, and that is very accurate. There are whole chunks of dialogue that have been pulled from those pages, and the changes are slight and done to fit the pace and the narrative, at least for the most part. There were a handful of scenes that were different, and I wanted to discuss them a little more.
The first change is our introduction to Ned. The first chapter of the book involves Ned and his bannermen capturing a deserter of the Watch and passing his sentence. This first look at Ned reveals him as a capable and fair leader, and we learn more about the Northern sense of justice and responsibility. In the show, the first time we see him, he’s watching over his children. A father figure first. And I thought this was a very interesting change to make.
Another change from the books that I thought was worth speaking about was Catelyn and Ned discussing Robert’s offer to be Hand to the King. In the books, she is adamant that Ned go South, despite knowing what it will mean for their family. She is more worried about how it will appear if he should turn it down. Discovering that Jon Arryn was murdered only spurs her on, as she believes her husband can discover the truth of what happened only if he goes south.
But in the show, that is the opposite. She doesn’t want him to go, and when they receive news of Arryn, that only strengthens her resolve – after all, Ned’s brother and father went south and were killed by the previous King.
It’s a small decision, but I thought it was an interesting one. Especially since the sort of political foresight she demonstrates and the potential fallout as a result definitely reveals her Southern upbringing. But then, House Tully is not a great house of the North. It is brought up repeatedly that she is not like the Northmen, and neither are the children that resemble her. She’s even thinking about Jon’s potential children challenging her own for Winterfell when they discuss his joining the Watch. Knowing Jon and his siblings, at least what we’ve seen thus far, we know that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing he’d ever do. But Catelyn isn’t thinking like a woman of the North. At least, that isn’t how she is characterized in the books.
I knew going into this re-watch that Daenerys had been aged up, but a number of characters were considerably older in the show than they were in the books. In the first book, Bran is seven and his older brothers are both 14. In the show, Bran is ten, and his brothers look to be in their late teens, more on par with Theon (who is nineteen in the book). Sansa is thirteen in the show, but only eleven in the novel when they are discussing a potential engagement to King Robert’s son Joffrey.
This change is a result to better suit the actors, of course, but I think it also makes some aspects of the show (child brides, for instance), more palatable for a modern audience. The show is also meant for adults. I think it would be a lot harder to watch a show about a bunch of preteen Stark children than it would be to watch one where they are already considered adults (or are on the cusp of such). Their parents are also considerably older. Ned and Catelyn are in their 30s in the books, with Catelyn still considering herself young enough to bear Ned another child.
It definitely changes the dynamic a little bit – Theon and Robb (and to a lesser extent, Jon) feel more on equal standing in the show, and the camraderie between the three is apparent. It doesn’t exist in quite the same way in the books.
Another scene in the novel sees Jon getting drunk at the festivities for the first time, and after arguing with his Uncle Benjen about joining the Night’s Watch, he stomps off nearly in tears. This scene is very different from what we get in the show – after speaking with his Uncle, Jon takes out his anger on a practice dummy. He’s angry more than upset. A teary-eyed Jon is definitely a younger, more immature version than what we get in the show.
It has been really interesting so far to see how the showrunners interpreted Martin’s material. And there are distinct benefits to watching the series and to reading the books – there is a lot of material that is barely hinted at in the show because we aren’t getting inside of their heads to see things from their perspective. On the other hand, we get to see the world of Westeros come alive on the screen – the Wall is spectacular to look at, and so are those long shots of King’s Landing. The symbolism is more delicately woven into the set rather than foisted upon you on a silver platter.
Because if there was one thing the books did not skimp on, it was the imagery and symbolism. Signs and symbols are given importance even in the world of Westeros. The dead direwolf at the beginning and her six pups were both an omen to the characters and a sign to the reader, a representation of Ned’s children. Not only does the wolf’s death at the hands of stag present an ominious sign with the Baratheon’s on their way, the fact that Jon’s was the only one to wander off foreshadows his leaving his family behind to join the Night’s Watch. The fact that the wolves grow unnaturally quickly is another hint that maybe Ned’s children will soon be forced to do the same. What we are witnessing right now is a peaceful and jovial childhood. But what awaits them after?
Compared to my last attempt to read this book, I’m enjoying this one much more. It might be because I’ve watched the show and grown to know the characters a lot more. But I first tried to read the book almost ten years ago, and I had never read anything quite so gritty before. I’m a more mature reader now, and I think that makes a big difference.
For the unprepared, this series can be a lot. There’s a lot of violence and nudity and some highly questionable content, incest and consent being at the top of that problematic list. And you get a big dose of all of that in this first chunk.
It’s definitely not for everyone. Grimdark is controversial for a reason. Sometimes people like their fantasy with a distinctly optimistic flair. If that’s what you’re looking for, A Song of Ice and Fire is not for you. But this is a compelling world with morally grey characters. Your preconceptions about what a fantasy novel could or should be are going to be challenged. But Martin is a masterful writer, and as hard as this series can be to get through sometimes, it is absolutely worth it. I’m really excited to keep reading. And of course, to keep watching.
Hopefully you’ll join me!
Have you watched Game of Thrones? Have you read the first book? What did you think of the first episode? Do you think Martin did a good job introducing the reader to the series? Let me know in the comments!
And if you have more to add, I’ve got a handy link-up waiting for you!