The Pink Letter
One of the greatest pleasures in reading A Song of Ice and Fire comes from the beautiful balance between contemporary writing and a literary piece. Beyond the advantage of a rich imagination to guide the readers into the fantastic, the author is also a brilliant writer who spares no technique in his unique masterpiece. The books are filled with literary devices that vary from the ordinary alliteration to rich meta-text, he mixes history and fantasy, adult themes, history, sex, politics, intrigue, and then adds something childish, like marchen and maxim, and throughout the chapters and the characters, veil, mysteries, and unfinished stories to keep the readers engaged.
A device that is often found is verisimilitude and it’s through it that a song from a Storm of Swords come full circle in a Dance with Dragons. Verisimilitude is a literary device that is used when something gives the appearance or proximity to the truth – the term comes from the Latin verisimilis “veri” (truth) and similis (similar). It’s used to hide a lie.
In a Storm of Swords, Yggrite shares with Jon the song of Bael the Bard. That offers many foreshadows to the reader. Jon had heard countless songs from Old Nan and Maester Luwin, and he had even heard of Bael the Bard, but that specific song was unknown to him. << “Bael the Bard made it,” said Yggrite. He was King-beyond-the-Wall a long time back. All the free folk know his songs, but might be you don’t sing them in the south”
“Winterfell’s no the south.” Jon objected
"Yes it is. Everything below the Wall's south to us."
He had never thought of it that way. "I suppose it's all in where you're standing."
"Aye," Ygritte agreed. "It always is."
"Tell me," Jon urged her. It would be hours before Qhorin came up, and a story would help keep him awake. "I want to hear this tale of yours."
"Might be you won't like it much."
"I'll hear it all the same."
"Brave black crow," she mocked. "Well, long before he was king over the free folk, Bael was a great raider."
- - -
"The Stark in Winterfell wanted Bael's head, but never could take him, and the taste o' failure galled him. One day in his bitterness he called Bael a craven who preyed only on the weak. When word o' that got back, Bael vowed to teach the lord a lesson. So he scaled the Wall, skipped down the kingsroad, and walked into Winterfell one winter's night with harp in hand, naming himself Sygerrik of Skagos. Sygerrik means 'deceiver' in the Old Tongue, that the First Men spoke, and the giants still speak."
"North or south, singers always find a ready welcome, so Bael ate at Lord Stark's own table, and played for the lord in his high seat until half the night was gone. The old songs he played, and new ones he'd made himself, and he played and sang so well that when he was done, the lord offered to let him name his own reward. 'All I ask is a flower,' Bael answered, 'the fairest flower that blooms in the gardens o' Winterfell.'"
"Now as it happened the winter roses had only then come into bloom, and no flower is so rare nor precious. So the Stark sent to his glass gardens and commanded that the most beautiful o' the winter roses be plucked for the singer's payment. And so it was done. But when morning come, the singer had vanished . . . and so had Lord Brandon's maiden daughter. Her bed they found empty, but for the pale blue rose that Bael had left on the pillow where her head had lain."
Jon had never heard this tale before. "Which Brandon was this supposed to be? Brandon the Builder lived in the Age of Heroes, thousands of years before Bael. There was Brandon the Burner and his father Brandon the Shipwright, but—"
"This was Brandon the Daughterless," Ygritte said sharply. "Would you hear the tale, or no?"
He scowled. "Go on."
"Lord Brandon had no other children. At his behest, the black crows flew forth from their castles in the hundreds, but nowhere could they find any sign o' Bael or this maid. For most a year they searched, till the lord lost heart and took to his bed, and it seemed as though the line o' Starks was at its end. But one night as he lay waiting to die, Lord Brandon heard a child's cry. He followed the sound and found his daughter back in her bedchamber, asleep with a babe at her breast."
"Bael had brought her back?"
"No. They had been in Winterfell all the time, hiding with the dead beneath the castle. The maid loved Bael so dearly she bore him a son, the song says . . . though if truth be told, all the maids love Bael in them songs he wrote. Be that as it may, what's certain is that Bael left the child in payment for the rose he'd plucked unasked, and that the boy grew to be the next Lord Stark. So there it is—you have Bael's blood in you, same as me."
"It never happened," Jon said.
She shrugged. "Might be it did, might be it didn't. It is a good song, though. My mother used to sing it to me. She was a woman too, Jon Snow. Like yours." She rubbed her throat where his dirk had cut her. "The song ends when they find the babe, but there is a darker end to the story. Thirty years later, when Bael was King-beyond-the-Wall and led the free folk south, it was young Lord Stark who met him at the Frozen Ford . . . and killed him, for Bael would not harm his own son when they met sword to sword."
"So the son slew the father instead," said Jon.
"Aye," she said, "but the gods hate kinslayers, even when they kill unknowing. When Lord Stark returned from the battle and his mother saw Bael's head upon his spear, she threw herself from a tower in her grief. Her son did not long outlive her. One o' his lords peeled the skin off him and wore him for a cloak.">>
There are so many parts of that story that need to be dissected. The story takes place “a long time back”, but the kingsroad already existed, so that story is at most 236 years old. Bael’s son was killed by a Bolton, and the Bolton’s stopped flaying people “a thousand years ago” when they swore fealty to the Starks. It’s possible that they lied – they are all cunning liars but flaying someone that important has significant consequence. If it’s true, then did that flayed Stark have heirs? If so, then were those children living with a Bolton (and survived)? Or if the entire Stark line died without heirs, then how did it survive to a Game of Thrones? Through that time, there is a short gap in Stark history between Benjen Stark born in 84 AC and the construction of the kingsroad in 62 AC when we don’t know for certain the name of the lord of Winterfell, but that gap eventually had a son seeing how Benjen was lord and the one who gave origin to the Stark line as we know it. It’s certainly impossible that the Starks are actually Boltons as the latter would have pressed their claim the second the opportunity knocked, and the Stark history, which is so rich, would have died with them seeing how the Boltons would have made their own history the only one that mattered.
But the song has other important aspects that go way beyond the logic of what happened or not. The story brings forth the idea of a king being teased into action. Bael risked everything to go south of the Wall just because a lord he doesn’t recognize called him craven. If he didn’t care about a lord that didn’t affect his lands, why should that lord’s opinion matter to him? Yet, being called craven gets him worked up enough to do something that goes way beyond an offensive word. The Wildlings reinforce the idea time and time again that a woman wants to be “stolen”. To their culture, that was the way. The story of Bael the Bard to the wildlings was pure romance, but it was also extremely popular, akin to “Mary had a little lamb” and essential to culture. We all know that stories are generated from people’s knowledge. I write about the stories of Westeros because that is my country, and they are my people. But I cannot write about the Unknown World as it is… well… unknown. But one cannot dismiss the similarities between the song of Bael the Bard and the so-called “Pink Letter”. It was surely written to bring about the same results and that means, to irritate someone into action.
<<Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king's friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard.
Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king's queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want his wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard's heart and eat it.
It was signed,
Trueborn Lord of Winterfell>>
The idea of sending Mance, a bard after his own right, to go to Winterfell steal a bride is just one of many parallels. Having him in a cold cage rings close to home in regard to living in the crypts, the cloak from skins compares to the Bolton lord wearing a Stark’s skin and it evokes the idea of a disguise. The whole letter, finally, talks about matters Ramsay couldn’t have known and it is sealed differently from how Ramsay meticulously seals his letters, which is described by GRRM twice previously, making it inconceivable that Ramsay wrote that letter himself. “Your false king is dead” suggests Jon made Stannis his king. Stannis could have written the letter if he were not such stickler for the truth, a man with absolutely no sense of humour and who would never joke about calling himself a “false king” for a reaction. Theon could not have been behind that letter either. He would rather die than betray a Stark again. Also, he is a broken man with vast knowledge of how the Night’s Watch operates and who would never expect Jon to break his vows. Mance on the other hand, is nothing but creative. He knows Jon has broken his vows before. Saying that Jon claimed he had burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall is something that was written with a smirk. Jon simply isn’t the sort of person who goes about saying anything to anyone and if he had to announce, that announcement would have been a true account of the actions. A reference to Stannis’s “magic sword”, however, feels like a message to Melisandre. Mance is the one who would want the wildling princess and the wildling babe. Mance is the one who needs the Red Woman.
And of all considerations, the main one goes hand in hand with the fact that the wildlings would never mix themselves in the affairs of the south. That wouldn’t be a wildling thing to do. Yet, they want to go and the only way to have them do that is if they are somehow evoked by the idea of doing something “wildlingy”, like stealing a maid. No doubt that message was sent by someone who would know exactly what to write to make them move.
The song of Bael the Bard is compared to the story of Lyanna and it even foreshadows Bran hiding in the crypts, and it has yet more hidden meanings, but at this point, that song is well known by the free folk almost exclusively and considering their culture, joining Jon in that case would mean they wouldn’t lose their way of living and be forced to forget who they are.
Art by Cabepfir