The Writing On the Wall: The Wizard Who Wept

Oldtown

Valar Morghulis! This weekly column will analyze a particular scene or two from each episode that highlight the importance of writing within storytelling. The scenes will be discussed at length and analyzed with character and overall narrative beats for the television show and the books when appropriate.


One of the greatest strengths of George R. R. Martin as a writer is his ability to understand the inherent conflicts that are born out of universal human desires. It is perhaps a bit presumptuous to assume that everyone has a desire that is comparable to that of Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) becoming a maester, but there is a universality to individuals having dreams and desires they want to see fulfilled and become a tangible reality. It does not matter if your dreams in question are more practical or fanciful (my personal list includes becoming a published novelist and marrying Oscar Isaac). It does not matter if your dreams have been imbued within your psyche for years or mere days. What ultimately matters is that those dreams exist, that they become intertwined with who we are as human beings, and they inform more of our decisions than we would perhaps like to admit.

A prominent thematic motif in Game Of Thrones is characters discovering that their dreams may not be all they had envisioned them to be and the simplicity behind that heartbreak makes it all the more profound and ruinous. When Samwell first arrived at the Citadel, it was for the expressed purpose that he would become a Maester and in the process learn valuable information that would help Jon (Kit Harington) defeat the White Walkers. But a significant part of him was truly happy that he was going to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming one of the men who had the privilege and honor of upholding all of Westerosi knowledge. That Gilly (Hannah Murray) and Little Sam were with him made his happiness all the more profound. That profound joy he expressed in “The Winds Of Winter” makes his heartbreak in “Eastwatch” that much more devastating.

GOT_MP_091715_EP606-2805[1]

Samwell’s childhood was cloaked in the privilege of wealth but was scarred by psychological and emotional abuse. His father Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner) was a traditional patriarch through and through and his behavior towards his children exemplified that position perfectly. A bigoted man, Randyll was raised in the feudal hierarchy and believed that it was natural for men like himself to occupy the zenith of his family structure. Men like himself were supposed to be physically strong, capable of carrying a sword into battle, and ready to sacrifice themselves for the honor of their house. In Randyll’s eyes, Samwell was incapable of achieving any of those markers of manhood and he gave him a choice: he could take the black and join the Night’s Watch or he would die. Sam accepted the former, departing the grasses of the Reach for the frigid ice of Castle Black.

When he arrived at the imposing, frigid landscape surrounding Castle Black, Sam was in an even more isolating situation than he was at Horn Hill. There at least he had his sister Talla Tarly (Rebecca Benson) and mother Melessa Tarly (Samantha Spiro) for comfort. Here, he was alone amidst a motley collection of the unlucky and actual criminals. He had no fighting skills and the way some of the Night’s Watch crew looked at him, he likely didn’t imagine himself lasting much longer in that environment.

He made a friend in Jon, a man who was everything he was not. He was more of whom Randyll would have wanted as a son: a fighter, a man who could carry a sword, and who had deeply seated notions of honor and justice on account of his father Eddard (Sean Bean). Jon was handsome and beautiful in a way Samwell could not see himself and that could have easily added towards a fermenting resentment and an antagonistic relationship between the two. The two, however, found some much-needed solace in each other’s company and forged a deep friendship that is one of the series’s strongest.

GOT507_110314_HS__DSC3725[1]

Samwell had never had the confidence that he would find himself in the midst of a loving relationship. He felt that no one would look at him the way they looked at Jon or Dickon (Tom Hopper). When he was at Craster’s Keep and met Gilly, a part of him felt that longing but with her he felt more than an attraction that would lead to love, sex, and parenthood. In Gilly he found a woman of truly formidable strength, a woman who had endured countless horrors inflicted by her own unflinching father. She lacked the privilege of wealth and warmth Sam had been provided at Horn Hill and yet she persevered in circumstances whose difficulty and horror Randyll and even Sam could never comprehend.

When Samwell arrived at the Citadel, he arrived having been raised with the storied history of the great Maesters of Oldtown. When Randyll dreamed of his eldest son cutting across men with a broadsword, Samwell had dreamed of the thousands of books whispering their learned secrets into the air. He had dreamed of becoming one of the Maesters, the men who had the grave responsibility of harboring the vast knowledge of Westeros. He had dreamed of adding links onto his chain of learning and perhaps using what he would learn in the Citadel’s fabled halls for a greater good. He had never dreamed that the Maesters would be so thoroughly engrossed with hoarding their knowledge and keeping it alive as memory that they had closed their mind off to anything that would dare threaten their autonomy.

Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) personified the austere preservation of aristocratic academic autonomy the Citadel is truly suffering from. He was on one hand a man who appreciated Samwell’s dogmatic insistences on the White Walkers, his dedication to learning, and his curing of Ser Jorah’s (Iain Glen) greyscale. On the other hand, while he appreciated that Samwell would be insistent about the White Walkers, he never was able to grasp the severity of the situation. He could never truly do so as Samwell’s words inadvertently threatened the academic authority that men such as he had. As long as something was tangible, scientific, and recordable, it was understandable. When anything went beyond that realm of understanding, it was a threat and had to be shut down.

Sam Ebrose

To a certain extent, Samwell could understand that it was difficult for anyone in the South to truly understand the catastrophe that awaited them all, but the Maesters were supposed to be men of great knowledge and capability. Samwell had grown admiring these men who had dedicated their entire lives to garnering and deepening their knowledge of the world. The archaic orthodoxy of shutting down the expansion of knowledge if it crossed certain parameters of thought to Samwell was an undemocratic process. It threatened not just the authority of a group of elderly white men (the privilege rings far too true for the world of today) but the safety of all of Westeros.

Bran Stark came out of his acid trip to send ravens with the warning that the Army of the Dead was on the march near Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. The moment the Maesters received the raven, however, the discussion around the seriousness of Bran’s inquiry lasted about five minutes. Samwell jumped in with an interjection to vouch on Bran’s behalf, but the Maesters continued to be largely dismissive. When one of the Maesters decided to latch onto the dark internet theory that Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) had invented Bran’s letter to empty the South for easier conquest, everyone around the table roared their heads in immediate agreement. No one questioned why Daenerys would employ such a stupid strategy to empty the South when she had three grown dragons, but the eagerness with which they grasped onto that theory revealed an unfortunate truth about the Maesters of Oldtown.

Samwell realized that the Maesters were not nearly as concerned with the true implementation and expansion of knowledge as they were about keeping their power over it. It was at that moment when he came to understand that the dream that had kept him going for his entire life was not what he had expected it to be, far from it in fact. He knew that in that moment he faced a difficult choice: he could either continue to have his faith crumble in the service of men blinded by their arrogance and privilege or he could snap his chains from the Citadel and take the knowledge he needed for the greater good.

When Samwell charged into the Restricted Section and stole the scrolls and books he needed, there was a note of triumph in the air and in Ramin Djawadi’s score. When he approached the luminous center of the library, however, the tone quietly shifted into a morose sequence of uninhibited heartbreak. When Sam gazed upon the beauty of the Citadel, I felt his heart shatter and its vestiges drift across the air beneath the golden astrolabes. When his eyes widened in sorrow, I felt the weight of his story, his character, and of Martin’s themes all bearing down upon his shoulders. Samwell had tired of learning about the achievements of better men and he left the Citadel to achieve something of his own.

Sam and Gilly

P.S. Just remember to listen to Gilly, Samwell.

Valar Dohaeris

Akash Of the Andals

19 responses

Jump to (and Always Support) the Bottom

    1. I was much less impressed by the scene. Is he just grabbing a random assortment of books or is there some criteria by which he selects the ones to bring along? And why did Sam not talk about his own experiences with the army of the dead, which the Nights Watch have reported earlier? One child may be deluded, but many more sworn Brothers are harder to ignore.

      I also have much less of a problem believing that Danaerys would want her enemies to believe in such a threat even if it didn’t exist. She has three dragons, but has been reluctant to use them. Distracting her opponents would indeed only make it easier.

        Quote  Reply

    2. FictionIsntReal:
      I was much less impressed by the scene. Is he just grabbing a random assortment of books or is there some criteria by which he selects the ones to bring along?

      Don’t you think if they should us the topics or titles of what he grabbed it would have been too spoilery? They are writing a TV show here, so an element of mystery makes sense. If we zoomed in on everything Sam grabbed and it was like: “Killing White Walkers for Dummies!” or “How to End the Long Night” by Azor Ahai, then we would know exactly what to expect in upcoming episodes. Which wouldn’t make for great TV.

        Quote  Reply

    3. I just kind of assumed that since he’s been in there before, he made a mental inventory of the books he thought would be useful. Or maybe even a written inventory.

        Quote  Reply

    4. Ser Jon: Don’t you think if they should us the topics or titles of what he grabbed it would have been too spoilery?They are writing a TV show here, so an element of mystery makes sense.If we zoomed in on everything Sam grabbed and it was like: “Killing White Walkers for Dummies!” or “How to End the Long Night” by Azor Ahai, then we would know exactly what to expect in upcoming episodes.Which wouldn’t make for great TV.

      That’s not what FictionIsntReal meant. We don’t need to see the titles of the books. It was how Sam grabbed them that seemed to random. He didn’t carefully go find books and scrolls that he knew might help. He walked in and just started grabbing here and there. In other words, they don’t need to show we the viewers the titles, but if Sam wasn’t grabbing randomly they should have showed us that he was reading the titles to make sure he was grabbing the items he wanted. But that’s not what happened. He made a random grab with the hopes that whatever he stole will have the magic key (which it probably will, but that seems somewhat gimmicky because there were probably thousands of books in the secret area alone).

        Quote  Reply

    5. Your Artical really portray Sam’s disappointments, as his dream is turned to ashes because of the maesters hoarding of knowledge.

      I wonder if he’ll ever return to Oldtown, to return the overdue library scrolls and books.

        Quote  Reply

    6. He knew that in that moment he faced a difficult choice: he could either continue to have his faith crumble in the service of men blinded by their arrogance and privilege or he could snap his chains from the Citadel and take the knowledge he needed for the greater good.

      Hopefully, it’s a wise choice. Heck, I’m pissed that Sam didn’t get at least one link in a maester’s chain for completing a most harrowing and ambitious medical procedure!

      I’m also slightly disappointed in the misguided assumption regarding Bran’s letter. A ploy by Dany? What sort of follow-up did they request from Maester Wolkan? Could they verify that the raven had come from WF or DS? I guess skepticism is all part of their mode of operation but they recently released the white ravens so I would assume that they would be somewhat more inclined to accept info from the north. Where’s the obsidian candle??? 🙂

      Oh well, go Sam…and listen to Gilly, goofball!

        Quote  Reply

    7. Nothing deflates dreams like the pinprick of reality. I commiserated with Sam during these scenes. I also understand his sentiments regarding the achievements of better men; however, I hope he comes to the realization that he’s already a “better” man, himself.

        Quote  Reply

    8. Silent Sister:
      I hope he comes to the realization that he’s already a “better” man, himself.

      Agree. He most certainly is a better man, himself. This self-proclaimed coward is committed to help save the world. I adore Sam.

        Quote  Reply

    9. Another wonderful piece, thank you Akash of the Andals! 🙂

      I totally agree about this scene, it was a very emotional moment for Sam, for many reasons. I think that even by the fact he leaves the Citadel and his Maester dream, in order to get involved into the action and to be as helpful as possible to Jon, shows how much he has grown as a person, and how brave – in his own bookish way – he is. And a loyal friend to Jon, a friend we’d all like to have by our side – especially if you happen to live in Westeros!
      Sam is one of my favourite characters 🙂

        Quote  Reply

    10. Interesting essay, Akash of the Andals. I look forward to similar in-depth pieces during the off-season, when we will all be going wild awaiting the last episodes to come. When did they say we could expect Season 8? 2019? Arrrrggghhh.

      I was sad for Sam feeling so frustrated, and sad for myself because I can’t imagine another scenario in the episodes to come when we will be able to hear the lovely Citadel theme again. It’s such a lovely, noble, uplifting piece of music; it makes you feel all Sam’s hope and excitement.

      Having re-watched the episode more times than I care to admit, I paid close attention to the volume that he actually handed Little Sam. My concern was that he had taken from Gilly the volume she was reading and handed it to the toddler, which would then get gleefully torn to bits. In that case, the record of Maester Maynard and the an-null-ment and remarriage that she was so curious about, would turn to toddler fodder and be swept away for all time. In the picture above, you can see that there is an open volume between Sam and Gilly. THAT’s the one he handed Little Sam. Whew. So, it’s safe for her to inquire again whether annulment is a common practice in Westeros. Does anyone else think she may have marriage on her mind?

      You are right, all of you who said that he already IS a better man. I was yelling that at him every time I watched him pull away in their little wagon. Yet, I was happy to see him leave the Citadel. He will be reunited, I hope, with his true friend, Jon. Or maybe find a home at Winterfell.

      I love both the characters, Sam and Gilly. She is written as a young girl raised totally unaware of the customs of the rest of the world, to the point where in the beginning episodes, she was amazed that Sam could learn anything from what seemed to her as scribbles on paper. She has embraced learning and her new life with a thorough, unrelenting joy. It’s charming.

        Quote  Reply

    11. I’m not too worried about the use of the volumes he pulled randomly from the shelves. I’m putting great faith in what he blurted out in frustration at the table, while Gilly was trying to tell him about “Ragger. ” He said the clue to wiping out the White Walkers was probably in some dusty book on the shelves. Because of this, my optimism is such that I figure the clue is there in one of the books right in front of them, he just hasn’t read it yet. But he will. I can’t wait to see him get together with Bran again. Between the two of them, and Gilly, of course, there are a lot of mysteries that will be solved. I hope.

        Quote  Reply

    12. Tamwell Sarly,

      On no. He clearly knew what he wanted and was getting the specific ones. CLEARLY. He doesn’t need to read each word, he just needs to see it. If you ever spent a lot of time in one library that’s just how it is. As a former grad student this scene read so true to me. Imagine YOUR bookshelf of novels. Would you need to stop and read each title if you wanted suddenly to grab all of novels with dragons for a friend? No, you’d just get it.

        Quote  Reply

    13. Elizabethe:
      Tamwell Sarly,

      On no. He clearly knew what he wanted and was getting the specific ones. CLEARLY. He doesn’t need to read each word, he just needs to see it. If you ever spent a lot of time in one library that’s just how it is. As a former grad student this scene read so true to me. Imagine YOUR bookshelf of novels. Would you need to stop and read each title if you wanted suddenly to grab all of novels with dragons for a friend? No, you’d just get it.

      I disagree, but that’s ok. Sam was moving quite hurriedly, it was dimly lit, and he didn’t bother to even make a quick glance to see if he was grabbing the right ones among books that all looked nearly the same. He’s been reading book after countless book from the secret area, you think he memorized the exact spot where they all were on the shelves? Like 19 spots from the right on a shelf of 50 books? For multiple books? Without even doing quick double check? I don’t. I mean, take the part where he reached up to the top of the shelf for a scroll. He couldn’t see which one he was grabbing in a large collection of scrolls that were shifting around. It was a random grab, CLEARLY.

      It’s a trivial matter though, because either way I’m sure he’ll find what he needs to find in the books he grabbed (randomly or not).

        Quote  Reply

    14. Elizabethe:
      Tamwell Sarly,

      On no. He clearly knew what he wanted and was getting the specific ones. CLEARLY. He doesn’t need to read each word, he just needs to see it. If you ever spent a lot of time in one library that’s just how it is. As a former grad student this scene read so true to me. Imagine YOUR bookshelf of novels. Would you need to stop and read each title if you wanted suddenly to grab all of novels with dragons for a friend? No, you’d just get it.

      I so agree. My room in grad school was a chaotic mess, but I knew exactly where a specific book or paper was practically without looking. He knew; they were probably books he’d already read or browsed through several times and knew exactly where he shelved them. So that seemed perfectly fine. Only problem I have is how he could still pass up all those other books and scrolls before leaving! I know if it were me I’d be frozen in front of the shelves, frustrated that I couldn’t just take them all

        Quote  Reply

    Jump to the Top

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *