Tower of the Hand

A Commentary of Spring

Tags: Essay
May 9, 2015, 12:00 PM ET

It's finally out!

Well, sort of.

Tower of the Hand: A Hymn for Spring released a day early, on the night of May 7, 2015. Comprised of 11 original, in-depth essays - although, on the surface, that's only three more than in our previous ebook, A Flight of Sorrows, it's actually quite a bit more, considering that the word requirement skyrocketed for this release - it's the biggest book yet to be published by Blue Buddha Press, my super-micro-indie publishing company that's run from my unfinished office in the upstairs of my house. That's a major reason why the book was delayed, and then delayed again, and then delayed once more (so I guess saying it hit electronic shelves "early" is a bit of a stretch, given that we're nearly a year out from the originally announced publication date of June 19, 2014).

And, yes, there's still more to come - which is where the "sort of" comes into play. In order to meet our release deadline, I had to send the main body of the book over to Amazon early, to give them time to process and then publish it. What's missing - as of right now - is all the bonus material, which will be comprised of two different sections and which will contain some nice little surprises for the TOTH faithful (it's practically a novella unto itself!). The plan is to finalize all that content as soon as humanly possible, upload it to Amazon, and then allow everyone to update their books accordingly. It's a less-than-ideal solution, I freely admit, but it beats the alternative of having everyone - especially the authors themselves, who have been more than incredibly patient and understanding - wait even longer for anything at all. Consider it like getting The Winds of Winter a month early, without the lengthy appendix (although nowhere near as cool as Martin's work, but of course).

Despite the extreme delays, there is a lot, quite truthfully, to be proud of in here, a lot that will challenge a great number of people's preconceptions of A Song of Ice and Fire and its many characters and narrative threads; in fact, nearly every single essay will make readers walk away with a different understanding of or relation to the text, whether it be a slight reappraisal of what can be, or a fundamentally different interpretation of key events and characters. As I've mentioned before, I made this very precept a challenge to each and every one of the nine authors, to make each essay a game-changer to the fandom. I daresay they succeeded - wildly.

As I continue to put the finishing touches on the last grouping of material, I wanted to offer a type of "director's commentary" on the main section of the book, quickly touching on important - or, quite simply, anecdotal - facets of each of the 11 essays while it's still fresh in my mind and before the vast majority of you will have devoured the whole thing and continue the next impatient wait for the real object of all our desires, The Winds of Winter.

Let us begin.


Machiavellianism for a Purpose

The logic of revolution applied to rulers, reformers, and "noble fools"

Steven Attewell, PhD

The single most striking thing about our introductory essay - and, indeed, this is one of the main reasons that it was placed first in the book, acting as our type of call to arms - is its conclusion: the characters who are the most "ruthlessly pragmatic," to quote Netflix's House of Cards, are not the ones who are the most successful in the game of the thrones (a theme that gets repeated several times throughout the subsequent essays, most notably in Stefan Sasse's "The Patriarchs of Westeros"). If that doesn't cause an immediate and automatic reassessing of the entire series, I don't know what will.

Equally impressive, however, is Steven's handling of real-world history, and how seamlessly he weaves it into this decidedly different reading of Martin's text. Readers not only get treated to having their carefully constructed assumptions from the past 17 years get smashed to smithereens, they also get a history lesson that only a doctorate in the field can provide. Oh - and all those guilty admirers of Eddard Stark can finally feel less foolish for enjoying the series's most (foolishly?) idealistic protagonist, allowing them to come out of their solars' closets in droves.

What better way to kick off a companion analytical book?

Discuss "Machiavellianism for a Purpose" with fellow TOTH readers here.

The Patriarchs of Westeros

Examining the toll the great lords exact from their families, their smallfolk, and from progress

Stefan Sasse

Stefan has two predominant facets of his personality that cannot help but make themselves known throughout the large bulk of his work, as anyone who has been following the amiable German professor's essays here at the Tower over the past five years will be able to easily attest to: his overriding concern with politics, both local and international, and his being a loving father.

It's easy to see how the two strands can easily collate, and it's hard not to see their influence in "The Patriarchs of Westeros." Eschewing the realms of the historical or the martial for an honest and unblinking look at the psychological and sociological, Stefan traces how the three father figures that loom the largest in the entire series - Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Randyll Tarly - affect their children's personalities and worldviews, and how these, in turn, impact the world around them. It is, in many ways, the flip side of Steven's "Machiavellianism," and though it's only three-quarters the length of its predecessor, it's just as effective in making its point: no matter how harsh or loving the patriarchs of Westeros's houses are, they are hopelessly chained to a worldview that will only perpetuate violence, repression, and regression. Taken in this light, the continent's only saving grace may be Dorne - if only it can remain unscathed from the coming battles.

Discuss "The Patriarchs of Westeros" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Songs and Singers of Ice and Fire

The fine line between music, history, and culture in Westerosi societies

Amin Javadi

An essay doesn't have to be provocative with either its central argument or its sweeping conclusion to provide a hitherto unconsidered look at extraordinarily familiar subject matters; sometimes, simply providing an alternative premise is enough to get readers' neurons firing in different combinations to produce fresh insights into well-trodden material.

Amin does precisely this by pulling one important-but-typically-overlooked strand out of the dense tapestry that is A Song of Ice and Fire: at nearly every turn in the narrative, a singer is there, whether as a plot device (as in Lord Petyr Baelish's ongoing machinations at the Eyrie), simply as background detail (arguably what Tom o' Sevenstreams oftentimes is, whether in Arya Stark's or Jaime Lannister's chapters), or as fodder for continued character growth (such as Tyrion Lannister's run-in with Symon Silver Tongue and Shae).

Then the Podcast of Ice and Fire co-host takes things one step further and expands his explorations of singers into meditations on songs, generally, and what role they play in a greater society's (whether fictitious or historical) oral tradition. It's just enough scholarly ruminations without becoming a full academic treatise, giving the reader enough to chew on specifically in relation to the wonderfully rich world that Martin has created.

But you don't have to take my word for it - we offered his full essay as a free sample a month-and-a-half ago. Read to your musical heart's content.

Discuss "Songs and Singers of Ice and Fire" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Making History - The Battle of the Redgrass Field

The realities and lingering effects of civil war as told through Martin's literary prism

Stefan Sasse

On the one hand, this is a "simple" retelling of a key historical event that did much to influence Westerosi society forever after ("simple" being in quotation marks due to Martin's refusal to directly or chronologically spell out the Battle of the Redgrass Field in his various ASOIAF installments). On the other hand, however, Stefan rolls out his trademark emphasis on real-world political and societal extensions to quickly - but effectively - frame Redgrass Field as a parallel to and cautionary tale for our really real world.

But the main draw, of course, is in the battle itself, the turning point of the first Blackfyre Rebellion (and, if certain fandom theories are true, the direct progenitor of the would-be Aegon VI from A Dance with Dragons). Overwhelmed with editing duties while also attempting to maintain my professional and personal obligations, I enlisted the help of Aziz, the co-host of the History of Westeros podcast and one of our Hymn for Spring collaborators, to provide feedback from a purely historical perspective. His input was not only invaluable, it was also, with its very first sentence, surprising:

Really brilliant. I love the way he details the likely thought processes of the different parties, and how he breaks down the opposing ideologies - both Daemon vs. Daeron and Dorne vs. the anti-Dornish elements under the domain of the Iron Throne.

That was more than enough to seal my approval of and satisfaction with this essay - should one of the authors, who is, I think, engaged in a healthy bit of competition to produce the most polished and insightful essay in the entire book, speak so freely and openly about the value of another's work (particularly when the writer in question has no idea that we're talking about him in the first place), then I'd be a fool not to see it, myself.

Discuss "Making History - The Battle of the Redgrass Field" with fellow TOTH readers here.

How to Win Thrones and Rule People

A military and political analysis of Robert's Rebellion

Jim McGeehin

Stefan's piecing together of the Battle of the Redgrass Field may kick off our little sub-section on historical explorations, but it's Jim's masterful recounting of Robert's Rebellion that immediately kicks it up a notch (or two). At 10,600 words, it is easily the longest essay in the book, and the wealth of military analysis - replete with comparisons to historical engagements, ranging from the Battle of the Upper Baetis (in 211 BC) to the Sekigahara campaign (AD 1600) - is truly second-to-none; this will automatically become the definitive accounting of the fall of the Targaryen dynasty across the fandom, no questions asked.

Needless to say, Jim also does a fantastic job of making such material not only enjoyable to dig into, but also easy to understand; his writing flows at a crisp, even pace, which makes the essay seem deceptively short. And when coupled with insights from both the characters (taken from the novels) and from George Martin himself (taken from published interviews), it becomes an engrossing tale beyond a fantastic piece of military analysis.

Discuss "How to Win Thrones and Rule People" with fellow TOTH readers here.

The Curse of Harren the Black

The nature of legend, pride, and real-world history in the construction of Harrenhal's - and A Song of Ice and Fire's - identity

Aziz and Ashaya

What Jim does to Robert's Rebellion is precisely what Aziz and Ashaya from History of Westeros do to the most infamous of all of the Seven Kingdoms' castles, Harrenhal - they provide the most exhaustive and authoritative recounting of its history, from its very first doomed days three hundred years before A Game of Thrones to its current status as a bargaining chip in Littlefinger's ever-escalating climb to power. (It doesn't hurt that the essay clocks in at some 9,700 words, easily making it the second-longest in the anthology.)

There is also one thing that "The Curse of Harren the Black" manages to pull off that all of the other essays either shirked away from or didn't even consider attempting in the first place: it's humorous, thanks in no small part, presumably, to the two authors' quirky personalities. Such lightheartedness makes not only for a nice variation on the theme for me, as the editor, it also helps to keep such a lengthy book engaging for you, the reader. (There's also nothing quite like reading about gruesome murders and dragon duels while chuckling to oneself.)

The frame that the Ashaya and Aziz employ for such a lengthy history is also something of an interesting flourish - an investigation into whether the curse of Harrenhal is real, and, if not, what just might account for all the calamities that have befallen those who call the place home. Their conclusions are sure to engender some conversations after everyone has put his electronic copy down and hops online.

Discuss "The Curse of Harren the Black" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Who Stole Westeros?

Using both modern and medieval economics to expose Littlefinger's original master plan

Steven Attewell, PhD

There are two small but terribly important nuggets in Steven's second essay that immediately made me fall in love with it.

The first is his employment of both medieval and modern mathematics and models of economics to attempt to get very specific figures as to what, exactly, the Iron Throne's incomes and debts are under Robert Baratheon's rule (which is precisely why I opted to include it in the strapline, but of course). Bringing real numbers that exist within real financial frameworks makes the consideration of just how Robert could bankrupt the realm come alive with an immediacy and a relevance that it was otherwise sorely lacking - at least, for me.

The second? Once again bringing a nuts-and-bolts understanding to what Lord Baelish was up to before he set off the War of the Five Kings in the specific way that he did in the novels; it turns out his alternatives to Joffrey's dagger and murder attempts on Tyrion are just as fascinating, if not more so (well, to a nerd, that is).

More than anything, however, the understanding that Martin's world really does operate on the tenets of Middle Ages societal and economic realities makes it all the more engrossing; not only does the world seem so real, with its three-dimensional characters and ever-changing political alliances and copious descriptions of food and sex (in that order), it turns out that it really does function in a realistic way, as well.

That's an insight that's worth reading any companion book for.

Discuss "Who Stole Westeros?" with fellow TOTH readers here.

The Word Is Groleo

Retracing Barristan the Bold's steps to deconstruct his psychology - and divine his fate

Stefan Sasse

Stefan superbly finishes the transition that Steven started with the previous essay - moving the focus from historical events or locations and to individual characters - offering a short-but-sweet recounting of Ser Barristan Selmy's past and an accounting of what his future looks likely to hold, particularly in the very short term. While such a topic may not have the instant nerd glamor or sizzle of, say, decoding the tactics and strategies of Robert's Rebellion, it is a fascinating look into a character that has only recently been dragged into the POV spotlight, attempting to puzzle the secrets of his personality and - here comes Stefan's forte again - drawing out the conclusions on a larger political and societal scale.

What's so intriguing about his conclusions regarding Selmy and Meereen both is just how the reader won't be able to look at the "queenmaker" situation quite the same ever again, nailing my unofficial dictate for each of these essays. Indeed, it is so insightful, it's even worth getting a little into spoiler territory and directly quoting from the final paragraph:

finally realize that, sometimes, not playing the game of thrones is just as deadly as doing so.

There is a small-but-resolute contingent of the fandom that is quite distraught over Daenerys Targaryen's storyline not meeting up with all the other characters' yet - and certainly not doing so on Westeros, the land of her birth - after nearly 5,000 pages of story. What Stefan does so adroitly here is remind us all that, yes, Dany's arc does, indeed, conjoin with all the others, and its being predominately on a thematic level actually is pretty appropriate, given Martin's tendency to work so heavily in that particular space.

Discuss "The Word Is Groleo" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Iron Bends

The surprising flexibility - and ultimate goals - of A Song of Ice and Fire's most controversial character

Jeff Hartline

This is easily the essay that I was the most interested in when fielding topics from authorial candidates way back when (seriously, it was probably two years ago now. My, how Martin's writing wormhole sucks us all in!), and it all had to do with Jeff's rather eyebrow-raising premise: rather than being the least adaptable or otherwise flexible character playing the game of thrones, Stannis Baratheon is actually the most dynamic.

It takes a goodly chunk of the pretty substantial essay to get readers to the point where they can buy into the assertion, but once they finally do, Jeff grabs hold of them and never lets go. From switching his religion to being consistently open to the advice and input of his closest advisors, Stannis does, indeed, show a remarkable tendency to roll with the punches, no matter how unjust they may be, and to keep on keeping on - this is, in fact, the only reason why King Baratheon is the only contender from the War of the Five Kings to still be alive, Jeff posits, and it's extremely difficult to deny the validity of the point.

The icing on the cake is that the essay doesn't stop there. Once Jeff is done reworking his reader's mind, he then proceeds to expand it to the immediate future, when a certain Mother of Dragons will make landfall on Westeros and will, more than likely, come face-to-face with the dogged claimant to the Iron Throne. Will Stannis continue to adapt to the situation in surprising ways, or will he have finally reached the point where he'll break before he bends? It's an extremely worthy question, producing an even better answer.

Discuss "Iron Bends" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Unconditional Victory

What other games can tell us about winning the game of thrones

John Jasmin

If "Iron Bends" was the most intriguing of all the essay proposals, then "Unconditional Victory" was easily the most worrisome. Using board games to give commentary on the titular game of thrones? It seemed risky, at best, but what can one say to his boss? Certainly not no. Tower of the Hand is Johnny and Alex's sandbox - they just let me build castles in it (until they're knocked down by Aziz and Ashaya pretending to be dragons).

Within just a few paragraphs, however, my concern had not only completely dissipated, it had turned into utter joy. The gaming journey Johnny takes us all on can only be described as delightful - it is as fresh a take on the extraordinarily well-trodden ground as one can possibly hope to make, delivering some interesting comparisons and even better insights along the way.

Does it fundamentally make one reappraise her take on Martin's magnum opus upon completion? The answer is no, not necessarily (unless a more complete understanding of cyvasse counts - and it certainly can, it turns out), but it's filled with so much fun history on everything from the surprising origins of The Game of Life and Clue to the peculiarities of Targaryen succession, you won't give a damn.

Although the flow of subjects had already dictated that this essay go in the penultimate slot, I would've absolutely placed it here after finish reading it, anyway - it's an incredibly hard act to follow, for this book or any other self-proclaimed companion collection.

(Oh, and that Survivor reference in the intro? That absolutely came from my suggestion. Fire away!)

Discuss "Unconditional Victory" with fellow TOTH readers here.

A Game of Adaptation

Using six characters as a case study for how the HBO series both improves and degrades Martin's original narrative

Alexander Smith

Fortunately for Alex, he not only has a subject worthy of stepping into the wake of "Unconditional Victory," he also expertly - if not superbly - handles it.

And this is, in many ways, the distinguishing factor between it and the countless other articles and essays and treatises that swirl about HBO's Game of Thrones - its professionalism and its unwavering ability to be objective, which is, of course, one of Alex's personal hallmarks. There is a frank quality to the discussion at hand that is refreshing, and its honesty is inviting, helping to make Alex's sketch of the deficiencies and strengths of David Benioff's and Dan Weiss's version of Martin's story exciting and pleasurable instead of divisive and frustrating.

The characters that he selected as his case study are perfectly picked and even more flawlessly explored, resulting in a consideration of the storytelling process, generally, and the adaptation process, specifically, that is beneficial to any viewer, book reader or not, fan of the series or not.

It's certainly a grace note to go out on, and I couldn't be happier about the strong finish.

Discuss "A Game of Adaptations" with fellow TOTH readers here.

Tower of the Hand: A Hymn for Spring is available right now. Order the ebook from Amazon for only $7.99.

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