Below is a passage from George R. R. Martin’s “A Clash of Kings.” It comes from page 284 of the PDF manuscript. My purpose in posting this passage is not to give you an all-encompassing view of this castle, but instead to analyze the writing devices used to build this place in our minds.
“Sometimes she thought they were all mice within those thick walls, even the knights and the great lords. The size of the castle made even Gregor Clegane seem small. Harrenhal covered thrice as much ground as Winterfell, and its buildings were so much larger they could scarcely be compared. Its stables housed a thousand horses, its godswood covered twenty acres, its kitchens were as large as Winterfell’s Great Hall, and its own great hall, grandly named the Hall of a Hundred Hearths even though it only had thirty and some (Arya had tried to count them, twice, but she came up with thirty-three once and thirty-five the other time) was so cavernous that Lord Tywin could have feasted his entire host, though he never did. Walls, doors, halls, steps, everything was built to an inhuman scale that made Arya remember the stories Old Nan used to tell of the giants who lived beyond the Wall.”
Because this story is told through third-person limited viewpoint, our first step is to understand that setting must be filtered through the eyes of the person telling the story. In this case, little Arya Stark.
Her description begins with a thought. This is useful in that we not only see what the castle looks like, but we get an opinion about it. In one short sentence, we already know the tone of this place. We also get an idea of Harrenhal’s sheer size. In my mind, I picture everyone scurrying about, lurking within the immense walls and shadows of a very intimidating castle.
The “Idea” of Harrenhal
In the next sentence, Arya compares Harrenhal to one of the biggest and meanest people she knows; Gregor Clegane. In my opinion, this description does much more than convey the castle’s size. Comparing anything to the Mountain That Rides is going to taint our view of it a bit. Yes, Harrenhal is large, but it is also a cruel, dark, hard place, as is Clegane.
This may not give us a specific image of the castle, but it helps us sense its most important features. We get the “idea” of Harrenhal.
The third sentence reiterates what has already been said. Arya makes yet another comparison, only this is more of a contrast in my mind (Harrenhal vs. Winterfell). It is also a sum of all things. A thesis statement, if you will, or a better way to say, “Harrenhal is freaking huge.”
The fourth and largest sentence acts in two very important ways.
1) George uses quick, flashing images to give the reader a more specific sense of the whole, by showing us, very briefly, the stables, the godswood, and the Hall of a Hundred Hearths. Here is where we actually get to see the castle. It grounds us and gives our minds enough material to work with.
2) This sentence also does a great job of revealing character. While seeing inside the castle, you get a short glimpse of Arya’s stubborn curiosity (she counted the hearths twice!) as well as a shout-out to Lord Tywin who could have feasted his entire host but chose not to (probably because he’s a mizer).
In the fifth and final sentence, Arya sums up her feelings by relating the castle to the giants beyond the Wall. Again we are comparing Harrenhal to something big and strange and mysterious.
It’s important to note that George had a goal in writing this paragraph. He wanted us to understand the epic size of this place. He could have simply said it was the biggest castle in the realm, but the concept of how terrifying and intimidating this place is would be lost to us. Instead, he gave us the materials to build our own Harrenhal. And while mine probably looks nothing like yours, I’m sure our feelings about it are mutual.