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Official poster by the artist Bubug for the Rereading Sandor project 

In 2015, Pawn to Player embarked on another major reread project, this time centred on Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, who plays a prominent role in the narrative and character development of the two Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya. The project was conducted at the Westeros.org forum, and led by our resident Sandor expert Milady of York, whose essay we are featuring below.  Joining in the project as co-hosts were myself and PTP member Doglover. As outlined in the introduction to our examination of the Hound’s character:

In starting this reread, our central preoccupation is with discussing Sandor on his own terms and for his own sake. By this we mean to establish the authority of Sandor’s viewpoint: delving inside the man’s unique characteristics, the conflicts, the controversies and, of course, the connections he is able to foster with others. We fundamentally believe that while the Hound may be dead, Sandor Clegane is still alive, and still has a significant part to play in how the rest of the drama unfolds in Martin’s fantasy epic. The Will to Change is concerned with his personal journey, with looking at the experiences that have defined the man we meet, but also at the ones that eventually challenge and transform him.

It’s taken a while, but we’ve finally uploaded our Sandor reread summaries and analyses here at the blog for readers to easily access (see top menu). There’s a wealth of valuable insight contained in this material, pertaining to the central POV characters that Sandor interacts with, and crucially, for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the man himself, who occupies pride of place as one of Martin’s most vivid and memorable secondary character portrayals. An examination of the infamous non-knight elucidates core themes of the ASOIAF universe and challenges readers to reassess our first impressions and biases, leading to a greater appreciation for the complexity of human nature and interaction that make the series such a hallmark of the fantasy genre.

The following essay was completed as part of the Rereading Sandor project, written as a “Featured Commentary” in the A Game of Thrones section.  It offers very relevant insight into how child murder functions as a mechanism to elicit varying reactions and degrees of empathy from readers, via our identification with the victims of the crime, and how it factors into the redemptive arcs of the perpetrators of these violent acts in different ways. We hope you enjoy reading it and welcome your feedback.



Murder as a plot device and its impact on bias

To the extent that I’ve been able to make the characters real, people invest in them emotionally, they identify with them, and they like or dislike other of the characters. They argue about them—I find that very gratifying. It’s one of the things that suggests to me that what I’m doing with the characters is working. When I hear from different fans who have varying opinions about a character, about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, and who they’d like to live and who they’d like to die—it’s not always the expected ones, and they disagree sharply with each other. That’s a good sign. In real life, people don’t always like the same people. People make moral judgments that differ sharply with each other—witness some of the arguments we see going on about the current election. People should respond to fictional characters in the same way. If you introduce a character who everybody loves, or who everybody hates, that’s probably a sign that that character’s a little too one-dimensional, because in real life there’s no one that everybody loves, and there’s no one that everybody hates.

—— George R. R. Martin, in an interview

by Milady of York

When discussing personal change-based arcs in ASOIAF like those of Sandor, Jaime and Theon, the most divisive topic is probably that of child-killing. In broad strokes, the diverging sides will argue either in favour of discernment through attenuating surrounding circumstances and contextual liability, or will argue based on questions of morality and justice that provide cause for impeaching and judging them. However, there’s one factor that doesn’t get discussed as much yet does have considerable influence on the matter on a meta-conscious level, and that does mould people’s opinion to variable extents, wheresoever they may stand.

This factor carries the name of Identifiable Victim Effect that psychologists have given it, and is really more comprehensible than its scholarly-sounding classification tag implies. In fact, some might already know of it from somewhere by name or by description.

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

This phrase mistakenly fastened onto Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin, but likely from earlier and by someone else, condenses quite well what the Identifiable Victim Effect is and also gives the phenomenon its pop-culture denominator of A Million is a Statistic: it refers to the natural tendency of individuals to sympathise with, defend and offer greater aid when a specific, visible and identifiable person—the “victim”—is observed under hardship, as contrasted to a large, vaguely defined and unseen group of several people undergoing the same hardship, as clinical therapist Rebecca Collins explained it, because of proximity, for these “vivid, flesh and blood-victims are often more powerful sources of persuasion than abstract statistic.”

The same researcher also points out that this doesn’t end at simply empathising with and helping the victim, but is furthermore a two-pronged effect: its other spearpoint is directed at the perpetrator. There’s greater motivation towards doing something to them in the name of the victim, towards defensive attack and punishing, be it verbal or physical, and when the opportunity for punishment appears, then we’re more likely to dispense it, and often more harshly, if/when punishing the specific and identifiable victimiser of an specific and identifiable victim.

This would be due to neurologically imprinted and outwardly nourished cognitive processes shared by all humans. People possess three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, that is to share what the other thinks; then affective empathy, meaning to feel what the other feels too; and finally sympathetic empathy, which is a mix of the former two, conjoined with the impulse to take action and do something. And empathy is a finite quality, it has a limit and a defined breaking point. Such a limit to the ability to empathise is the so-called Dunbar Number effect, explained by anthropologist Robin Dunbar as a psychological phenomenon that restricts the amount of a person’s significant relationships to a certain number (which for him is 150 within a 100-200 range, but others have given different numbers), because the innate ability to handle meaningful and emotionally-fulfilling relationships is less optimal and falters past that limit, as the close network fades into the abstract, crowded mass of people. As a result, the amount of sympathy that death, cruelty, injustice and suffering evoke is inversely proportional to the magnitude of its effects, and it’s our knowledge of the affected person that has the major impact. Paul Slovic, who did some studies to confirm this, calls it “psychic numbing” and declares that the problem with anonymous statistics is that they don’t activate moral emotions, because the mind can’t grasp suffering on such a massive and abstract scale. And so, for example, people can be riveted easily when media show a child suffering, but empathy is turned off when the news talk of thousands of little ones suffering.

Applying this to bias in literature, historically the murder of the innocent and the weak as a vilification method to make the Bad/Evil One out of someone is a very ancient rhetorical technique that seems to have been always there, from the Old Testament to the rousing speeches of Classical playwrights to Shakespeare’s works and the modern examples in any Top Fictional Villains list. Regardless of the evolution of customs and ethics across epochs, victim identification by proximity remains constant for reasons of the stable cognitive traits earlier mentioned, an ages-tested effectiveness that accounts for its extensive employment. To create the perception of a character as a villain—or an anti-hero, depending—in the readership’s mind, or at the very least make a case for interpreting a scene as an indictment of the character as deeply-flawed, the ideal writing device is to have them inflict suffering on and/or kill an innocent. This is quite effective in writing because:

  1. The victim is innocent, an absolutely pivotal component for the effect to be present. Or they must be presumed to be guiltless. And if furthermore they’re defenceless, the intensity of loathing for the perpetrator is higher; which is why little children, women and the crippled are chosen by default.

  2. When the bad act resulting in the death or suffering happens on-page, whether in the perpetrator’s POV or the victim’s, we get to “witness” the act as it unfolds. Generally, this is the best option for maximum emotional impact, both because the character who suffers pain and the character who inflicts it are more memorable, and even when readers don’t necessarily feel what the character feels, the intensity of it intensifies the readers’ own feelings.

  3. Vividness and proximity matter more than magnitude. Due to the victim identification repercussions, how bad the deed is isn’t impactful by itself, for even if it isn’t comparatively as heinous or as sadistic as what happens to other characters in the same story, it will affect the reader nonetheless. For this reason, minor transgressions such as slaps, crude words and the like can matter a lot if directed at the identifiable victim the readers are partial to.

  4. The POV character’s reactions penetrate into the readers and influence their own reactions, often more than the narrative itself. This is especially true in three instances: when the deed is done off-page, because then we only have the POV’s post-facto reaction to build ours on; when the victim is a non-POV, because here it falls on the POV to pass judgement, and whichever path is chosen after the initial shock: vindictiveness, justice, forgiveness, indifference, etc., is likely to be shared by the readers; and finally, when the perpetrator is a non-POV, in which case the possibility of bias is so high as to be a certainty for most cases. Because, as there’s only one version and even when it’s true in essence, not getting to know the perpetrator’s motivations (be it selfish or understandable), essentially creates a deceptive appearance, and we judge the perpetrator’s motives on this apparent “proof.”

The off-stage/non-POV option leaves more room to a writer for subversion than when it happens to be on-stage/POV, which is still possible provided it applies certain counterweight measures. In GRRM’s books, only one of the three cases when a character acquires a villainous reputation through murder of a child occurs in present-time in a POV: the throwing of Bran out the window from the tower at Winterfell in AGOT Bran II:

Bran’s fingers started to slip. He grabbed the ledge with his other hand. Fingernails dug into unyielding stone. The man reached down. “Take my hand,” he said. “Before you fall.”

Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength. The man yanked him up to the ledge. “What are you doing?” the woman demanded.

The man ignored her. He was very strong. He stood Bran up on the sill. “How old are you, boy?”

Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief. His fingers had dug deep gouges in the man’s forearm. He let go sheepishly.

The man looked over at the woman. “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove.

Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air. There was nothing to grab on to. The courtyard rushed up to meet him.

Somewhere off in the distance, a wolf was howling. Crows circled the broken tower, waiting for corn.

From this incident, a couple things stand out: On the pro, it’s Bran’s second POV, we already know a fair bit about this boy and what we know is that he’s a sympathetic sweet boy, and facts like that he’s daydreaming about what a great Kingsguard knight he’d wish to be add to the tragedy of being maimed by a Kingsguard knight. On the contra: we don’t have a POV by Jaime, and what we know of him from others is unflattering; plus he willingly and consciously put himself at risk of discovery for engaging in incestuous adultery in a foreign castle. The knowledge of the reasons Jaime had for throwing Bran out the window that comes later is contrasted with the fact that the woman and children he’d be protecting with this crime are also more crimes of his, which makes this a very complex moral issue. To cement the bias, the first version we hear from the guilty duo comes from Cersei, who claims to have never wanted Bran to be thrown, just intimidated into silence, and blames all on Jaime’s impulsiveness. Thus, by the time we get to read about his version, it’s too late to completely revert this perception: we already know fairly accurately what happened and why, we spent two whole books in the victim’s head reading about the painful post-traumatic mourning of the child, we see the consequences of that action blow off, and Jaime’s initial apparent lack of repentance and attempt at latching blame on Bran by insisting the boy wasn’t innocent as he’d been spying on them in his first chapters in ASOS pre-maiming are damning too. In other words, readers are wholly and deeply identified with the child victim. It appears impossible to modify that somehow. Yet it’s done nevertheless through the humanising of Jaime after he loses the hand that caused the paralysis of Bran.

But there’s a catch: having Jaime lose his hand by itself isn’t as effective a tool for reverting the negative perception. Following the principle that the reaction of the POV or victim counts greatly for the readers, Bran’s side of the tale is annulled by means of depriving him of any memory of who did that to him. The fact that Bran doesn’t remember it was Jaime and his weak clues are quickly shooed away by the Three-Eyed Crow make it possible for Jaime to gain in sympathy through his own POV unhindered by a counterbalance POV of his victim. We don’t get to read what Bran’s reaction would be, we can’t be certain whether he’d react with hate or with forgiveness, no idea on how it’d affect him to know. Therefore, authorial plot reasons for erasing Bran’s memory notwithstanding, the end result is that the beneficiary of this writing method was Jaime at the cost of Bran, as his “redemptive” arc in ASOS wouldn’t have had the same impact with Bran’s memory intact. For this reason, it should be interesting to read the child’s thoughts when he finds out whether by recovering his memory or through use of his powers.

Theon’s murder of the two miller’s boys is another interesting study with unique characteristics the other examples don’t possess, that bring it closer to the A Million is a Statistic analogy than the others, because it’s the only one that actually has anonymous victims. Those two boys are faceless and nameless, never glimpsed on-page and not described in detail or called by their names. This is also the only case in which the perpetrator has a POV that reveals in present-time all his emotions and his motivation for the crime, which are selfish and convey revulsion, and also brings to view in-world reactions like Maester Luwin’s quiet distress and Asha’s scorn:

Well, I’m no great warrior like you, brother,” She quaffed half a horn of ale and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I saw the heads above your gates. Tell me true, which one gave you the fiercest fight, the cripple or the babe?”

Theon could feel the blood rushing to his face. He took no joy from those heads, no more than he had in displaying the headless bodies of the children before the castle. Old Nan stood with her soft toothless mouth opening and closing soundlessly, and Farlen threw himself at Theon, snarling like one of his hounds. Urzen and Cadwyl had to beat him senseless with the butts of their spears. How did I come to this? he remembered thinking as he stood over the fly-speckled bodies.

Only Maester Luwin had the stomach to come near. Stone-faced, the small grey man had begged leave to sew the boys’ heads back onto their shoulders, so they might be laid in the crypts below with the other Stark dead.

No,” Theon had told him. “Not the crypts.”

But why, my lord? Surely they cannot harm you now. It is where they belong. All the bones of the Starks—”

I said no.” He needed the heads for the wall, but he had burned the headless bodies that very day, in all their finery. Afterward he had knelt amongst the bones and ashes to retrieve a slag of melted silver and cracked jet, all that remained of the wolf’s-head brooch that had once been Bran’s. He had it still.

I treated Bran and Rickon generously,” he told his sister. “They brought their fate on themselves.”

Yet the miller’s boys still remain a statistic by virtue of their anonymity that precludes emotional investment in them for themselves. This becomes a scenario in which these boys are overshadowed by the two Starks they are passed off as, given that Greyjoy’s other victims—Bran and Rickon—have had enough time on-page for the readership to form an attachment to them and have already endured enough tragedies to elicit sympathy; more importantly: unlike with Jaime, there’s a counterbalance POV from Bran showing the other side, thereby “broadcasting live” what Brandon thinks and feels about the perpetrator he grew up with. Which would account for why Theon’s actions towards the Stark family are more likely to be judged harsher than towards the peasant boys.

In the third case, Sandor, we again have a distinctive feature: both victim and perpetrator are non-POVs, so both are by necessity filtered through the POVs connected to this murder, and therefore readers will absorb the POVs’ reactions to it in absence of reading at least one of the involved viewpoints. To complicate matters, no POV was near to witness the killing of Mycah; it happens off-page and the victim is a minor enough background extra as to have been tagged as a statistic if not for GRRM’s efficacious use of literary countermeasures. Those were:

  • The butcher’s boy isn’t anonymous. He has a name and a face due to Sansa and Arya respectively. From hearing the younger girl say things like “Mycah and I are going to ride upstream and look for rubies at the ford,” we know that the boy is her friend and that she loved playing with him along the slow-paced trip to King’s Landing; and thanks to the elder girl, we saw him onstage in AGOT Sansa I at the fight by the Trident, wherein we saw him be hurt and be terrified of the Crown Prince.

  • He is killed by and because of unsympathetic non-POVs. Not only have we verified that the boy is innocent of the charges, which heightens our sense of injustice, but we’re also aware already from before that Joffrey and Cersei are horrible people of whom not even the only Lannister POV in the first book thinks highly. So, too, is their Hound perceived as such by association atop of his own acts.

  • His death elicits revulsion from a POV. In the wake of the prescribed technique that a main character’s reactions will influence our opinion, Lord Stark is the one that gets to see first the dead body and gauge the morality of the perpetrator, in AGOT Eddard III:

He was walking back to the tower to give himself up to sleep at last when Sandor Clegane and his riders came pounding through the castle gate, back from their hunt.

There was something slung over the back of his destrier, a heavy shape wrapped in a bloody cloak. “No sign of your daughter, Hand,” the Hound rasped down, “but the day was not wholly wasted. We got her little pet.” He reached back and shoved the burden off, and it fell with a thump in front of Ned.

Bending, Ned pulled back the cloak, dreading the words he would have to find for Arya, but it was not Nymeria after all. It was the butcher’s boy, Mycah, his body covered in dried blood. He had been cut almost in half from shoulder to waist by some terrible blow struck from above.

You rode him down,” Ned said.

The Hound’s eyes seemed to glitter through the steel of that hideous dog’s-head helm. “He ran.” He looked at Ned’s face and laughed. “But not very fast.”

  • The butcher’s boy has a POV champion. The killing could’ve been one more unjudged and unavenged Lannister crime against smallfolk in-universe and easily slid into becoming a statistic if this hadn’t been developed as an expanded plotline, and a way to ameliorate the characterisation of both Sandor and Arya. The latter’s is the reaction following Ned’s, and given her closeness to the victim, it resonates with the readership. We get to read the whole long process towards becoming Mycah’s champion, from her father’s rueful thoughts that she “was lost after she heard what had happened to her butcher’s boy” to her own recounting of the over-exaggerated version she got in AGOT Arya II . . .

They’d let the queen kill Lady, that was horrible enough, but then the Hound found Mycah. Jeyne Poole had told Arya that he’d cut him up in so many pieces that they’d given him back to the butcher in a bag, and at first the poor man had thought it was a pig they’d slaughtered.

From her guilt-ridden talk with her father in the same chapter . . .

Arya desperately wanted to explain, to make him see. “I was trying to learn, but . . . ” Her eyes filled with tears. “I asked Mycah to practice with me.” The grief came on her all at once. She turned away, shaking. “I asked him,” she cried. “It was my fault, it was me . . . ”

Suddenly her father’s arms were around her. He held her gently as she turned to him and sobbed against his chest. “No, sweet one,” he murmured. “Grieve for your friend, but never blame yourself. You did not kill the butcher’s boy. That murder lies at the Hound’s door, him and the cruel woman he serves.”

. . . to the spat with her sister in AGOT Sansa III, the point where we see the initial reaction evolved into a desire for retribution:

Arya screwed up her face in a scowl. “Jaime Lannister murdered Jory and Heward and Wyl, and the Hound murdered Mycah. Somebody should have beheaded them.”

It’s not the same,” Sansa said. “The Hound is Joffrey’s sworn shield. Your butcher’s boy attacked the prince.”

And at the end of the road, the culmination of the process is that Arya decides she wants to kill all those who wronged those that matter to her, starting the death prayer in ACOK Arya VI, and including the Hound specifically for Mycah:

Arya watched and listened and polished her hates the way Gendry had once polished his horned helm. Dunsen wore those bull’s horns now, and she hated him for it. She hated Polliver for Needle, and she hated old Chiswyck who thought he was funny. And Raff the Sweetling, who’d driven his spear through Lommy’s throat, she hated even more. She hated Ser Amory Lorch for Yoren, and she hated Ser Meryn Trant for Syrio, the Hound for killing the butcher’s boy Mycah, and Ser Ilyn and Prince Joffrey and the queen for the sake of her father and Fat Tom and Desmond and the rest, and even for Lady, Sansa’s wolf. The Tickler was almost too scary to hate. At times she could almost forget he was still with them; when he was not asking questions, he was just another soldier, quieter than most, with a face like a thousand other men.

Every night Arya would say their names. “Ser Gregor,” she’d whisper to her stone pillow. “Dunsen, Polliver, Chiswyck, Raff the Sweetling. The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Amory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei.”

All four factors contribute in tandem, but the third and fourth are by far the most important when it pertains to bias formation because of the non-witness POVs involved. With regard to this, there can be no doubt that GRRM does consciously use writing methods to evoke certain reactions in his readership, to which he’s alluded in interviews like the opening quote in this write-up, and when he said the following: [http://web.archive.org/web/20001005212114/eventhorizon.com/sfzine/chats/transcripts/031899.html]:

When I write a POV, after all, I am trying to put you in that person’s head so you will presumably empathize with them, at least while reading the chapter.

In view of this, the structure of Eddard’s account is of particular interest to analyse its genesis, not only because it mirrors a similar scene in which he also jumped to hasty conclusions on sight without knowing the circumstances yet (the killing of Aerys), but also because the abrupt ending of the scene right after the Hound’s words is very eye-opening: GRRM puts the full stop after the “‘He ran.” He looked at Ned’s face and laughed. “But not very fast’” line without giving the reader a chance to find out what Eddard said after, or whether he ever did, what Sandor said or did after, etc. So as a direct product of this deliberate cliffhanger, the details that stick are those that shocked the most, like the cleaved-in-half state of the boy’s body, Eddard’s judgemental stance and the Hound’s laughter.

Standing on that foundation, Arya’s reaction keeps it vivid and current throughout her POV from Book I until the Hound “dies,” and because the author doesn’t go point-counterpoint like with the other two child-killer characters, her view of the killing predominates. For a while at least, because Martin didn’t let it lie with any of the three cases and provided with details that would allow moving past initial bias. His intention when writing the “redemptive” arcs was, in his own words, to explore the concept of forgiveness and whether a person can be forgiven [http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/1405], about which he explains:

One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don’t have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he’s apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you’re a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don’t know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what’s the answer then?

We can safely assume that the Hound is amongst those “many of the characters,” and that the road trip across the Riverlands and the Vale with Arya did serve to explore the topic in his own arc as well as hers, using Arya in the triple role of champion of the victim, judge and executioner. And this is why details like her three chances to kill him and hesitating before first stab, thinking of him by his first name after a while in his company, taking him off her death prayer, and needing to resort to childish rationalisation when leaving him to die are of utmost significance in our future analysis, because of their antithetical function when taken into account in conjunction with his actions and words during that period.