Without a doubt Rodrick Harlaw of Harlaw is one of the most well-read people on Terros. He has one of the greatest libraries in the Seven Kingdoms, which he likely built wholly from scratch over the course of several decades. For this he gets no respect from his people, who find his love of reading both “unmanly and perverse” (FfC Asha). We’d like to explore the basis for this prejudice, what it reveals about him, and what it might foreshadow for the story to come.
The World Book indicates that the Ironborn’s suspicion of literacy has very deep roots, ultimately originating in the Iron Isle’s unique religious history. The ancient First Men had writing in the form of runes, but the early Ironborn were a completely oral culture. The Drowned God and the Grey King gave their people many things, but letters were not among them, and the Ironborn scorned to learn the ways of their impious enemies and despised slaves. Reading and writing only arrived with the steel wielding Andals and their septons, who tried very hard to convert the Islanders to worship of the Seven. Writing is therefore associated with deviation from the Old Ways, foreign invasions, foreign faiths, foreign brides and tainted Kings.
Lord Rodrick’s library would confirm every one of those hostile associations. The Harlaw of Harlaw acquired his books through the paying of the gold price. Between Balon’s Rebellion and the War of Five Kings he also supported a small group of septons at Ten Towers for the exclusive purpose of maintaining his vast library. Book Tower therefore vividly symbolizes every change that has come to the Iron Islands since the Andal invasion, and its owner is resented accordingly.
Bu the menace of literacy does not stop with cultural contamination, impiety and decadence. By the time the Hoare Kings brought the Iron Islands into the world system through iron trading and Stepstone raiding, the Valyrian empire was growing into the hegemonic power of Near and Central Essos. At some point, books of sorcery and sorcerers (real and pretended) would have begun trickling into the Iron Islands by Oldtown and Lannisport. This likely ensured that, soon after the introduction of Andal letters, the already dubious reputation of literacy was further blackened by an association with dangerous foreign magic. As a long term consequence of this, thoise Ironborn who become known for their skills with letters are “oft mocked as weaklings or feared as sorcerers” (World Book 177).
Weakling and sorcerer are not mutually exclusive designations. A sorcerer could be a weak warrior but truly fearsome enemy. The magical power potentially wielded by a physically weak but literate sorcerer would therefore be very threatening to a social order that ultimately rests on the mundane physical power of its warrior aristocracy. In Westerosi history, when magic works, powerful professional warriors are often among the losers. All of Renly’s swords did him little good against Melisandre’s shadow baby. Daemon Blackfyre fought like the Warrior himself, but this availed him not at all against Bloodraven’s enchanted arrows. Skinchanging abilities allowed the small, weak Lump to grow into the terrifying Varamyr Sixskins, killing many a better warrior in the process. And of course dragons allowed a single family of Valyrian dragonlords to conquer and rule nearly all of Westeros despite being badly outnumbered.
So the Ironborn have good reason to fear and despise those who use magic. As it happens, Rodrick the Reader has a well-known interest in supernatural subjects. Prior to the Kingsmoot Hotho Harlaw attempted to win Rodrick’s favor by gifting him a relatively new book by Marwyn, Archmaester of the Higher Mysteries. When Asha comes to the Ten Towers to meet her supporters and consult with her uncle she finds him reading said book in the library:
“Archmaester Marwyn’s Book of Lost Books.” He lifted his gaze from the page to study her. “Hotho brought me a copy from Oldtown. He has a daughter he would have me wed.” Lord Rodrik tapped the book with a long nail. “See here? Marwyn claims to have found three pages of Signs and Portents, visions written down by the maiden daughter of Aenar Targaryen before the Doom came to Valyria.” (FfC Asha)
A marriage to the Harlaw of Harlaw is no small thing to ask, so Hotho must have purchased a book he was absolutely sure the Reader would value. Tellingly, Hotho picked Marwyn’s book. More tellingingly, when Asha pays Rodrick a visit she finds her uncle deep into it. Even more tellingly, when Asha challenges her uncle for not being at the feast table, he makes it clear that he considers the book to be urgent. And most tellingly of all, Rodrick is particularly focused on the section investigating one of the Ur-prophets of the series, Daenys the Dreamer. The possession of other magical texts can easily be inferred from this; if Rodrick enjoys reading about Marwyn’s discoveries and Valyrian prophecy, then he probably enjoys many similar subjects. As it happens, Asha also spies some extremely old scrolls that remind her of Valyria:
She found him hunched over a table by a window, surrounded by parchment scrolls that might have come from Valyria before its Doom, and heavy leather-bound books with bronze-and-iron hasps. (FfC Asha)
Valyrian scrolls are still circulating; Xaro Xhoan Daxos gave some to Dany while courting her (CoK Dany III). Rodrick’s scrolls could very well be Valyrian originals, Free City or Qartheen copies, or non-Valyrian scrolls that simply look Valyrian. However, it doesn’t seem like an accident that the Reader was hunched over Marwyn’s Book of Lost Books, reading about fragments of Signs and Portents, whilst surrounded by Valyrian-looking scrolls. It appears the Reader was in the midst of a long study of Valyrian prophecy and magic.
While obviously not a sorcerer himself, Rodrick is still clearly studying sorcery, and it’s doubtful that the suspicious and superstitious Ironborn would recognize any distinction between studying and practicing. Many Ironborn would likely be a little afraid of the Reader, but not wanting to admit the basis for this fear they would instead seek to take him down a peg by lashing out at his “weak” character, “unmanly” activities, and “perverse” interests.
Another thing to keep in mind — the difference between studying and practicing magic is diminishing. In a world where magic is becoming stronger by the day, a reader who studies magical texts and comprehends them is not far from becoming a wizard. Rodrick is reading Marwyn, and a Marwyn connection has so far gone hand in hand with magical happenings. The elusive and very literate mage has visited Asshai, instructed Mirri Maz Duur, encouraged Qyburn, and shown Samwell Tarly a burning glass candle. It’s unlikely that The Book of Lost Books will continue to be a mere side detail in a story increasingly heavy with ripening prophecies.
Realizing that many of the Ironborn would suspect Lord Rodrick of being a sorcerer, and that he actually has the potential to be a sorcerer, puts a whole new spin on the Reader’s later confrontation with Euron:
A smile played across Euron’s blue lips. “I am the storm, my lord. The first storm, and the last. I have taken the Silence on longer voyages than this, and ones far more hazardous. Have you forgotten? I have sailed the Smoking Sea and seen Valyria.”
Every man there knew that the Doom still ruled Valyria. The very sea there boiled and smoked, and the land was overrun with demons. It was said that any sailor who so much as glimpsed the fiery mountains of Valyria rising above the waves would soon die a dreadful death, yet the Crow’s Eye had been there, and returned.
“Have you?” the Reader asked, so softly.
Euron’s blue smile vanished. “Reader,” he said into the quiet, “you would do well to keep your nose in your books.”
Victarion could feel the unease in the hall. (FfC Victarion II)
Rodrick’s question visibly unsettles Euron because it plays into the Ironborn’s prejudice that readers are sorcerers. Rodrick the Reader is the one person in the Iron Islands who has actually studied lost Valyria and its magic. He is also one of the few people Euron cannot overawe with grandiose speeches, sensory overload and vague occultism. While we credit Rodrick’s realism and abundant common sense, the magically obsessed Euron might find a readier explanation in all those tomes of sorcery stashed away in Book Tower. And Euron might not be far wrong. Who knows what secrets and mysteries the Reader has uncovered or perused, what spells, prophecies, and ancient histories he has knowledge of. Thus, of all the Ironborn under the Crows Eye’s command, Lord Rodrick is the only one he truly has reason to fear. Hence why for one brief moment the Crow’s Eye’s mask slips just a little.