Put on a boat: An analysis of Samwell Tarley’s storyline

Since this is the part of the year when people gather every week to watch Game of Thrones and talk about A Song of Ice and Fire in general, I thought I might go ahead and re-read some parts of the books. I decided to begin with Samwell Tarley’s chapters in A Feast for Crows, the fourth book of the series. The following are my thoughts about the what main points about Sam’s story seem to be, as they occurred to me when I re-read his chapters a few days ago. 

WARNING! There are all kinds of spoiler below, if you care about that sort of thing and haven’t read the first five books of A Song Ice and Fire I’d recommend staying away.

Sam gets five chapters in A Feast for Crows, covering his journey from the Wall to the Citadel. Along the way all kinds of interesting things happen, among them interactions with other characters having both major and minor roles, that may not seem significant at first but that convey a lot of subtle meaning. No chapter is really a flash-point of action, in line with much of the rest of A Feast for Crows we get more character building than dramatic twists of the Red Wedding or Steps of Baelor kind.

Sam1

Sam’s entire arc in AFFC is one big journey to Oldtown.

Early on in his journey a lot of Sam’s arc revolves around his friendship with Jon, and how being Lord Commander has changed Jon. This is a clever way by George R.R: Martin of mirroring Jon’s chapters in the first couple of books. Back then we watched from Jon’s perspective how joining the watch turned Sam from a coward and an eternal victim of bullies into a man capable of standing up for something (sort of). Sam is still a wimp by the start of book four, but he has definitively changed. Now in the fourth book we likewise get to see, from Sam’s perspective, Jon change from a friendly guy into a ruthless (a bit at least) officer.

Sam’s first chapter in A Feast for Crows ends with Jon sending him on his way to Oldtown to study to become a maester. This is the part when he get’s “put on a boat”, at the time of writing this article he has barely been seen in the show since and in the books this also leads to him disappearing for a while in the sense that he is not seen in the later part of A Dance with Dragons, where other AFFC characters like Jamie and Cersei make an reappearance. When Sam hears that he is to be sent off to the Citadel, he panics because he knows his father would disapprove of it. He tries pleading with Jon, but realize that Jon is too far gone to be moved by such displays. Here is a small segment from that conversation:

Jon, I cannot disobey my father.”

Jon, he’d said, but Jon was gone. It was Lord Snow who faced him now, gray eyes as hard as ice. “You have no father,” said lord Snow. “Only brothers. Only us.”

The same point keeps being made again in the next two chapter when Sam discusses Jon’s transformation with Aemon. Note that both Sam and Aemon refer to Jon as “Lord Snow”, previously a slur used by Jon’s enemies when mocking him. Sure, it’s a logical name considering his position and origin, but there is also symbolic meaning to be found in the fact that Jon is now called this even by his friends.

From the second chapter:

Gilly did not leave the child willingly, I am certain. What threats the lord commander made, what promises, I can only guess…but threats and promises there surely were.”

No, that’s wrong, Jon would never…”

Jon would never. Lord Snow did. Sometimes there is no happy choice, Sam, only one less grievous than the others.”

In Sam’s third chapter in AFFC, when Sam, Gilly and Aemon are having a rough time in Braavos, the same shows goes on:

He could not blame Gilly for her grief. Instead he blamed Jon Snow and wondered when Jon’s heart had turned to stone. Once he asked maester Amon that very question, when Gilly was down at the canal, fetching water for them. “When you raised him up to be the lord commander,” the old man had answered.

assume that any readers still with me this far have read A Dance with Dragons and know that Jon is eventually murdered, and that you have also taken part in the speculations about how he will be brought back to life. It has been suggested that the resurrected Jon will be a significantly changed person, Melisandre at one point has a vision of what may or may not be a icy version of him at the Wall. Sam’s chapters may, if the theory of his resurrection holds, be interpreted as Jon taking the small step before he dies and then takes the big step.

Later on in A Dance with Dragons this picture of Jon is slightly negated when we get to see his actions from his own perspective. But from Sam’s perspective, his best friend Jon has changed a lot. Sam will probably grow to accept this as a necessity of the times, Sam’s story just like many other stories in A Song of Ice and Fire is a story of growing up. The theme of “growing up”is in these books often brought up in the form of people’s priorities changing. The most important thing in Sam’s life at the start of the fourth book is the Night’s Watch. His relationship with Gilly is of course also important, but he is trying not to let this  interfere with his oaths. It used to be that bullying and how to handle the situation with his father were his main issues, but at this point in his life loyalty to the Watch is the center of his attention, and he thinks a lot about the wows he has taken.

This was clearly displayed when Sam, Aemon, Gilly and Daeron were hunkered down in Braavos in the second chapter of AFFC. Sam and Daeron quarreled about how Daeron, instead of helping Sam and the rest, spendt his time boozing and whoring. At one point Sam complained that Daeron was only out chasing kisses, and that kisses won’t help them, they need money to buy food and firewood.

But the singer only smiled. “Some kisses are worth more than yellow gold, Slayer.”

That made him angry too. Daeron was not supposed to be making up songs about courtesans. He was supposed to be singing about the Wall and the valor of the Night’s Watch.

Sam here got angry at Daeron for failing the Watch, rather than just being worried that he himself won’t get help from Daeron in acquiring the provisions he and Gilly need. I.e his primary motivation has come to be loyalty to the Watch, at least when he is not controlled by either fear or something else short-circuiting his rational faculties. When Daeron declares loudly and proudly that he is deserting from the Watch, Sam hands out an ass whopping:

“I’ll go,” said Sam, “but you’ll come with me”

“No. I’m done with you. I’m done with black.” Dareon tore his cloak off his naked bride and tossed it in Sam’s face. “Here. Throw that rag on the old man, it may keep him a little warmer. I shan’t be needing it: I’ll be clad in velvet soon. Next year, I’ll be wearing furs and eating-”

Sam hit him. He did not think about it.His hand came up, curled into a fist, and crashed into the singer’s mouth.

This happened in part, of course, because Sam was getting frustrated with how shitty their situation in Braavos was,  he was cold and hungry and worried about Aemon and Gilly and so on. But in part he reacted on pure instinct at how Daeron was failing in his duties to the Watch, duties that Sam keeps taking seriously despite the Wall being far away and not related to their current circumstances in any tangible manner.

Furthermore, on the ship from Braavos to Oldtown the summer islanders threaten to throw Sam into the sea if he doesn’t agree to keep having sex with Gilly. After he has done it a first time he is haunted by shame, and thinks (casually, admittedly) about how he should kill himself for what he has done and how before he did stuff with Gilly he was perhaps a craven but at least not an oathbreaker. Despite being a young man with raging hormones and so on he decideed to not engage in sex again, for the explicit reason of upholding his oath to the Nightswatch. He would probably have stuck to that decision if the summer islanders hadn’t forced him to do otherwise.

This is, incidentally, a very odd scene. The sexual part is cringe-worthy, quite frankly, with regards to certain metaphors used, and it is technically a rape scene. The summer islanders say that they will murder Sam unless he engages in sexual activities, thought those activities are to be with a  third, innocent party. Gilly is not guilty of this and doesn’t know that it is being done of course, it’s all the summer islanders’ work. But I’ve not yet seen this scene described in this manner before and thought I might point it out.

The ending of Sam’s last chapter in AFFC leaves him in a very difficult position with regards to how the rest of his story is to be told. Sam is left by Marwyn at the Citadel, where he is supposed to study to become a maester. Supposedly, this takes several years. So either we will have a number of Hogwarts-like chapters in one of the coming books, or we won’t see much more of Sam anymore or there will be  a great jump in time between the sixth and seventh books after which Sam returns to the Wall. I haven’t yet figured out on which of these three I would put my money (if any), but the first option would be a nice way to round his story off, giving this character one of the few happy endings in these books. Much like Bronn got to retire to his ill-gotten castle and spend the rest of his days as a lord, so to Sam becoming a maester at the citadel and not being heard from again would be a case of a character ending up where he belongs, his part in the greater story being over.

A fourth, crazier, option exists, Sam could at some point team up with Daenerys. In Sam’s third chapter i AFFC, Aemon tells him that Daenerys will have use of a maester in the future, but he doesn’t specify which one. These are his exact words:

Daenerys is our hope. Tell them that, at the Citadel. Make them listen. They must send her a maester.

Marwyn is already on his way to Mereen, but on his own accord and not by order of the other archmaesters. He could also run afoul of the Iron Fleet or something like that. Meanwhile, the bosses at the Citadel might eventually get so tired of Sam that they decide, just to be rid of him, to send him east.

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