Red Wedding / Herring
I read A Storm of Swords in winter of 2008, as rumors of an A Song of Ice and Fire TV adaptation were circulating. The Red Wedding still fresh on my mind, I can recall thinking, "Even if the books never get finished, I'll be satisfied if the show can just last through Season 3."
Finally experiencing the Red Wedding in live-action form got me in the mood to try to understand why that would be the case.
Intro / hypothesis
The Red Wedding is the terminus of one of the most beautifully constructed red herrings in fiction. It's a particularly traumatizing event because the story has, by that point, lured the viewer into a false sense of safety: Following the shocking death of Eddard Stark, a POV character, the viewer instinctively re-calibrates their understanding of Eddard's execution as being the inciting incident of the story -- the plot point after which the real adventure, the real story being told, begins.
However, this assumption is violated (horrifically) when two protagonists, Catelyn and Robb Stark, are betrayed and murdered as well. Although much discussion and exposure around this awesome series revolves around the premise that "no one is safe", that isn't strictly true. The Red Wedding reveals that some characters are safe after all, and that underneath Westeros' grit and uncertainty, we can find the mechanics of a classic story.
A definition to work with
Let me try to define a term. This will be the kind of definition you might read on TV Tropes (a la "jumped the shark"). The term is "a Red Wedding." So, what is a Red Wedding?
A Red Wedding is a dramatic event that upsets the audience's expectations severely enough that they must re-build their conception of what the narrative is about from the ground up. It's a kind of twist -- one that might rule out substantial shock value from further twists, through a desensitizing effect. Said twist might, if handled improperly, even come at the expense of the audience's investment in the rest of the story.
A concrete example
One example of a Red Wedding is The Red Wedding. The Red Wedding chapter in A Storm of Swords marks the end of the story we all thought we were reading.
Prior to the Red Wedding, A Song of Ice and Fire gave the appearance of an egalitarian character layout: any secondary character might be elevated to the temporarily heroic; and any POV character might be demoted to incidental -- or dead. And despite the series' focus on generally highborn (or high-gotten) characters, in the fictional world of Westeros, at least in the time before the Red Wedding, you might say relevance is indiscriminate: There are no clear protagonists.
That story, the story in which every character has equal chance to matter in the overarching plot, is the story I thought I was reading -- at first. The Red Wedding changed that.
The Red Wedding reveals that the vicissitudes of Westeros behave according to much more traditional storytelling laws. That is, certain POV characters are classic protagonists: destined to survive, or to die in glory. Certain other POV characters wear red shirts. A Song of Ice and Fire is actually grounded in the Hero's Journey.
The central heroes in Westeros are the mostly honorable folk (enumerated below) who will end up defending the realm against the Others, despite the liars and opportunists who seek to benefit from general chaos and ruin. The prime villains are the Others. The secondary villains are more like roadblocks who will either sow the seeds of that ruin, stand in the way of its vanquishment, or attempt to profit from it at the expense of the heroes.
Just like in conventional heroic tales, in A Song of Ice and Fire, only three types of people can really die: extras, pawns and false protagonists.
Robb and Catelyn were false protagonists. Ned's death, devastating though it was, was merely an initial motivator leading to the story's true inciting incident. And with that in mind, here are a few observations and predictions that follow from my hypothesis:
- The four real protagonists of A Song of Ice and Fire are: Danaerys, Tyrion, Jon Snow and the four youngest Stark children. (I consider Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon to be a sort of single unit that happens to be scattered geographically and temperamentally.)
- All of these protagonists will live to see "winter". These characters are safe, though one or two may turn their coat as the story evolves.
- The core question of A Song of Ice and Fire is not "can the Starks get revenge against those who have wronged them?" but rather: Can the four protagonists (see above) survive outrageous ordeals, overcome differences, give up seeking revenge, and band together (figuratively) such that they can defeat the snow zombies and restore peace and order to Westeros? The answer will be yes, of course, but it will not be clean and easy.
- The combined page length of The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring -- or the equivalent set of books, in the case that these two are split into installments -- will exceed 4,000. (If the Red Wedding is only the end of the beginning, which I am saying it is, then right now we're somewhere in the middle. And assuming the beginning, middle and end should be roughly equal in size and scope, there's a lot more to pack into those last two installments.)