Tower of the Hand

Cripples and Broken Things

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Mar 11, 2016, 9:00 AM ET
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The Physical Transformations of Ice and Fire

There is a well-documented series of investigations into George R.R. Martin's handling of personalities, or, more specifically, his handling of their transformations and deviations over time; the "middle" two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, after all, famously change their chapter headings depending upon whatever stage of identity their characters are at, with Sansa Stark becoming Alayne, Theon Greyjoy moving back and forth between Reek, and Arya Stark hitting a veritable parade of names and faces, becoming Cat of the Canals and The Blind Girl before finishing as The Ugly Little Girl.

A blind girl (Artist: Matt Jordan)A blind girl (Artist: Matt Jordan)

Given the complexities involved in these various characters' developments over the course of some five thousand pages, it's not at all surprising that such a subtle narrative device would need to be employed; the progression of Sansa from delusional vapidity to growing self-awareness is, arguably, one of the cornerstone character arcs of the entire series, and Theon's existential ramblings from one moniker to another - and from one battered self-insight to the next - perfectly mirrors a country that is beset by domineering egos and the constant bouts of war and acts of terror that they unleash.

What, perhaps, has gone more unnoticed is how, in many more cases, Martin pairs such ontological, internal transformations with physical, external ones. Bran Stark loses the ability to walk - and will probably be rendered into a completely motionless tree-man. Jon Snow, on his path towards leadership and authority, permanently damages his hand, receives a scar on his face, and then, of course, is killed (even if temporarily). Tyrion Lannister is inflicted with his own scar, but also loses his nose in the process. His brother, Jaime, loses his hand and the sole basis of his own sense of authority and place in the world, but he receives the emotional nuance and intellectual objectivity required for the leadership position that has already - and, at the time, unjustifiably - been placed upon him.

There are, of course, scores more. Catelyn Stark loses her life, and even when she gets that returned to her, she still loses the ability to speak - or feel. Brienne of Tarth has her face ravaged in battle, and then nearly has her neck broken by a noose for her troubles. Cersei Lannister's physical transformation is far more temporary than the others, as her hair will grow back and the many cuts on her feet and knee will heal, but the emotional devastation it denotes may well prove to be irrevocable. And Theon, of course and obviously, bears the single biggest collection of bodily changes, which is only appropriate, as it triggers the gaggle of psychological fluctuations already mentioned.

Meek Reek (Artist: LynxSphinx)Meek Reek (Artist: LynxSphinx)

(Okay, yes - it must be said that Sansa does, indeed, have her own physical metamorphosis, with her hair color and manner of dress and bearing being altered, and Arya arguably has an even bigger transformation, given her ability to change faces [not to mention her blindness, no matter how fleeting]. But these are more minor in scope and intensity than, say, contracting greyscale or being murdered, and they are more effect than cause.)

Given the breadth and depth of these outward changes, the question must be asked: why pair the external with the internal for most, though certainly not all, characters?

First, there are the more obvious, writerly answers. Action sequences, like with Brienne's "duel" against Biter, provide a whopping dose of viscera (literally) in a narrative that is already overwhelming visceral. And for an author who prefers to employ a strategy of shock and awe on his readership, chopping off limbs or flinging children from turret windows is a no-brainer - particularly if they help substantiate a penchant for ending chapters on cliffhangers.

Then there's the little fact that many an individual, particularly the ones extremely well-established in various strata of dogma and complacency, all but requires a trauma of one sort or another to destroy (sometimes literally) old existential patterns and build newer, hopefully more insightful ones - and since this is literature, generally, and fantasy, specifically, dramatic flourishes are the order of the day; if a non-lethal car crash or the death of a loved one can serve this function in the really real world, why not crank it up to 11 and tear off one's genitalia, fingers, and teeth? (This is precisely the reason why Martin made his Wall some 700 feet tall and built with the aid of magic, after all.)

(It's interesting to pause a moment here and point out that Sansa, for all her oblivion and self-absorption, doesn't actually come out that badly at all when compared to the panoply of others who required one specific ailment or handicap or another in order to have a life-averting and eye-opening epiphany. Then again, this is meant in no way to belittle the huge swath of emotional damage that she is forced to endure from her treatment at the hands of Joffrey Baratheon and Petyr Baelish - it's just that it's figurative scarring instead of literal, and that, for the purposes of this essay, makes all the difference.)

Jon Snow Beyond the Wall (Artist: Evolvana)Jon Snow Beyond the Wall (Artist: Evolvana)

But arguably the most fundamental reason for such a wide-ranging inclusion of physical transformations is the fact that it ties into both the overarching plot and theme of all of A Song of Ice and Fire. It just so happens that both are manifested in the supernatural menace of the Others, who operate on the basis of first killing and then reanimating their enemies' bodies; their slow-but-inexorable march towards the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is the ultimate Damocles sword, after all, and they provide the perfect thematic counterpoint to the resurrected likes of Catelyn Stark and Jon Snow (the lack of sentience being the main point of differentiation, of course). And based upon the many hints by George Martin over the years, it's more than likely the White Walkers are responsible for the final, oftentimes most brutal physical transformation witnessed in the novels: the years-long changing of the seasons, which heralds the Others' return and which, in turn, can cause legions of further bodily disruptions and dispositions.

It's a never-ending cycle of pain, disfigurement, and awakening in Martin's worldview, and it's one that, presumably, will need - at long last - to find some level of closure as the song of ice and fire finally comes to a close.


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