Welcome once again to the Game of Thrones Book Club, part three. Today Nikki and I discuss, among other this, why it’s a bad idea to underestimate Tyrion, Westrosi architecture, and Ned Stark’s infuriating inability to see things that we as readers are certain we knew the first time we read the book. So without further ado …
Chris: We begin part three with Tyrion’s unexpected journey, and what we will come to realize is a massive gaffe on Catelyn’s part. One might assume that once Ned Stark got the bone in his teeth of the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death, he was probably destined for the chopping block—but his wife certainly hurried things along with her ill-advised abduction of Tyrion. Lannisters have a sense of honour as well, and however unpopular Tyrion is with his father, Tywin could hardly let this affront go unanswered.
Rereading this series of chapters, I had to wrack my brain to try and recall whether I initially wondered if Tyrion was guilty … many years and many re-readings later, I can’t say for certain. Certainly, there’s no evidence for it in his POV chapters, but GRRM wouldn’t be the first writer to leave such things out of a murderer’s narration, only to reveal it all later. I want to say that I never thought Tyrion would have sent the assassin, and I think that’s probably true … not because I liked him and didn’t want to believe he’d do it (though I did, and didn’t), but because it seemed to terribly out of character for him.
One way or another, I do remember reading the bit where he watches Chiggen butcher his horse (a gift from his brother) and silently promises revenge, and thinking “not an enemy you want to make, Catelyn.”
We learned an awful lot about Tyrion in the first part, enough to make him one of the most sympathetic characters right out of the gate—but there he was mostly at his ease, never in danger, protected by his name and his father’s men and possessing the freedom that came with both. Here, we see him in rather grave danger: accused, surrounded by enemies, and traveling one of the most treacherous roads in Westeros. And it is here that we see just how shrewd and smart he is: still witty, to be certain, but with a remarkable tactical mind, which Catelyn notes with unease as they ride up to the gate of the Vale: “The little man was more cunning that she liked. When they had entered the mountains, he had been her captive, bound and helpless. What was he now? Her captive still, yet he rode along with a dirk through his belt and an axe strapped to his saddle, wearing the shadowskin cloak he’d won dicing with the singer and the chainmail hauberk he’d taken off Chiggen’s corpse” (360). Seeing that he showed no fear, in spite of being surrounded by enemies, Catelyn starts to question whether her accusation was wrong.
There is a moment much later in the series when a Lannister aunt tells Jaime that it is Tyrion, not he—not the beloved son—who truly takes after Tywin (in cunning if not in proclivities). This of course is one of the cruel ironies GRRM builds into his characterization of Tyrion and Tywin, with the latter never able to overcome his revulsion at having sired a deformed dwarf and see Tyrion’s brilliance. In the entire sequence in the Vale of Arryn, from Tyrion’s abduction to his triumph over Crazy Lysa to his success in winning his way back along the mountain road, we see a new dimension to this character. Before he was clever and amusing … now we know he’s dangerous.
Nikki: Interesting, as I was reading the book, as with the series, I never thought Tyrion was involved with the assassin at all; his surprise is so genuine when Catelyn attacks him, and even though he continues to act haughty and smug, there’s definitely a sense about him like he’s a wronged man. When he’s in the cell and you’re reading from his point of view, I think it was clear to me that he hadn’t done it. He wonders if his brother might have been the one to do it, and then thinks if he WAS, he was very sloppy by using Tyrion’s knife, since that would have linked it back to the Lannisters. But then he pauses and you can tell there’s a moment in his thinking where he actually allows himself to think… what if Jaime purposely set me up? In that moment, I was convinced Tyrion hadn’t done it.
This week’s segment includes our introduction to the Eyrie. I remember being awed by the building in the HBO series, from the door in the floor that opens to send victims to a long-falling death to the jail cells that are missing a wall and are sloped ever-so-slightly, so the prisoner is unable to sleep. As always, they absolutely nailed these structures on the show, so I picture them exactly the same in the book.
The character of Lysa is different in looks on the show, but pretty similar in mannerisms. In the book, she’s plump and looks old. On the show, she’s extremely thin, but that thinness makes her look older, so they got that part right. Just like on the series, the book Lysa dotes on her feeble-minded, simpering son. On the show he appears to be older than he is in the book, looking more like 10 or 11 rather than the 6 in the book. When they first walk into the gallery and she’s sitting on her throne, breastfeeding him, even the most ardent nursing mothers would probably recoil in horror. In the book, he’s only 6, but still too old to be nursing, and it’s shorthand for how weak he is, more of a mama’s boy than any kind of soldier.
Once again I loved how much of the dialogue in the scenes were right from the show, from Robin Arryn saying they must make the little man fly to Tyrion trying to tempt Mord, his gaoler, take his purse of gold and do him a favour in return. As you say, Chris, this section is told much more from Tyrion’s point of view than any of the previous sections, and in the book as well as the show, we get the idea that he may be small, but you do not mess with Tyrion.
One thing that was in the book at length, but entirely missing from the series, is Catelyn’s treacherous climb up the side of the mountains, in three shifts, to get to the top of the Eyrie. I remember on the show when they opened the floor and you could see that looooong drop between mountains, and I thought wait, how the hell did they get all the way up there? In the book, reading about how the climb gets narrower and narrower and even more dangerous, it not only showed what a formidable stronghold the Eyrie was — and just how isolated from the world Robin Arryn is — but it stands as a metaphor for what Catelyn is doing. With every step she takes forward, she puts herself in more danger, just as capturing Tyrion may have been the worst misstep she’s taken in her life. So far, of course.
Christopher: I think there’s something to be written about the strongholds in A Song of Ice and Fire, about how each distinct castle/walled city reflects the qualities of the province in which we find them (or vice versa). When I first started playing World of Warcraft some years ago, I was always intrigued by the way that game designed its capital cities—all of them are architecturally unique, in often dramatic and startling ways. GRRM does something similar, and it becomes even more obvious as the series goes on and we encounter more and more uniquely imagined cities and castles.
The Eyrie remains one of my favourites. It seems almost impossible that people would have built something like it, until one calls to mind the many precipitous monasteries and castles built in mountainous regions around the world—difficult to get to, but impossible to take by assault. The endless climb up the Eyrie’s ever-narrowing, ever-more-harrowing stairs is wonderfully done: I’m not especially afraid of heights, but whenever I read those sequences I get that slightly queasy feeling in the pit of my gut that I get when I’m too close to the edge of a precipice.
Two weeks ago in my grad seminar we had an extended discussion of dungeons—specifically, as dungeons as imaginative spaces in fantasy, and there was a lot my students had to say about the sky cells. The initial premise I started with was that dungeons loom large in the gothic imagination because they are impenetrable, opaque, dark places where such quaint modern notions of rehabilitation and remuneration are absent, and where torment and torture and madness are the name of the game. The sky cells are a brilliant invention on GRRM’s part: not dark, not opaque, but somehow even more terrifying and maddening. Speaking personally, I have always had a horror of dungeons because I am claustrophobic—but honestly, given the choice between the cells beneath King’s Landing, with their reeking blackness and rats, and the sky cells? I think I might have to go with the former.
The more I get into it, the more I think one of fantasy’s appeals is this fraught relationship it has to notions of justice—and, frequently, to the lack thereof. This episode with Tyrion and Catelyn illustrates the tenuous nature of the law in Westeros. Catelyn’s ill-conceived gambit proceeds from knowing that, once word of Tyrion’s abduction reaches Tywin, being the wife of the King’s Hand will count for little. So she seeks sanctuary somewhere she imagines she will be safe—with her family. By the time she reaches her sister’s protection, she is no longer certain of Tyrion’s guilt, but finds that whatever she now believes is irrelevant. Lysa sees a vulnerable Lannister before her, and high-handedly strips her sister of whatever right she had to the prisoner.
Tyrion, however, makes recourse to the most basic of rights, which not even Lysa can deny him, trial by combat. This is a right that recurs at various points in Ice and Fire, as sacred as the law of hospitality. It’s a reminder of the primal, mythic nature of this world, but also (weirdly) a reminder of why HBO found it amenable. The negotiations of power here are eerily familiar to shows like The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos—shows that similarly depict lawless worlds in which there were nevertheless certain unwritten rules you only ever transgressed at your own peril.
On the other side of the world, the newly-minted khaleesi is slowly coming into her own as an honorary Dothraki. We arrive at the Dothraki “city” of Vaes Dothrak, not a city in the standard understanding of the world so much as a vast space on the plains populated with all of the idols, statues, monuments, and other prizes the Dothraki hordes have claimed in their wars. Daenerys continues to bloom, growing more and more independent of her brother, more and more enamoured of her husband, and, most significantly, more and more enamoured of the Dothraki. Viserys, unsurprisingly, can’t bring himself to get with the program—never able to see the Dothraki as anything more than barbarians, growing enraged with his sister when she attempts to clothe him in their eminently more practical garb, misunderstanding deliberate insults as esteem, and finally bringing about his own horrifying demise when he arrogantly flouts Dothraki custom.
What do you think of where Daenerys is at, Nikki?
Nikki: Daenerys is someone who became a favourite of mine in the second season, and the one I was 100% rooting for to win the game of thrones by the third. So I already have a very soft spot for her in the books, even though I imagine if I were reading them without having seen the series first, I wouldn’t have been as enamoured of her just yet.
If I recall correctly, the moment where Ser Jorah begins talking about his hatred of Ned Stark happens in exactly the same spot on the HBO show, when you see them walking into this dirty town that doesn’t appear to be overly populated, even though it’s full of buildings. Ser Jorah is a sympathetic character to both the viewer and the reader because he’s the one man who helps Daenerys, making sure his khaleesi is aware of what is going on and is kept as safe as he can, yet at the same time, he despises Ned Stark, someone we are also rooting for over in King’s Landing. GRRM has this uncanny way of showing every side to the story, making it difficult to say, “HE is wrong and HE is right,” and instead making it difficult to choose sides wholeheartedly. (Despite the fact I’ve chosen Daenerys’s…) I loved her in this section, where she tries one last time to appease her horrid brother, only to have him spit on her efforts and force her to stand before him and bellow that she is the khaleesi and he will not speak to her that way. I couldn’t help but cheer in that scene (especially knowing it’s but a tiny, tiny peek at the huge presence she will become). He’s as insipid as he was in the beginning, and I’ve pretty much lost that speck of sympathy for what he’s been through due to his extreme arrogance.
Word of Daenerys’s pregnancy has made it over to King’s Landing now, and it’s interesting to see people shifting positions on the matter. Arya, hiding in the tunnels, overhears two men talking about her pregnancy and what must be done, but also talks about the Lannister’s guilt Jon Arryn’s death and the fate that befell Bran (and could befall her father). Unfortunately, Arya’s mind is scattered to begin with, and she’s also a very young girl who is incapable of understand the very difficult maneuverings that are being presented, so by the time she returns to her father to report back what she heard, it sounds entirely fantastical. Ned musses her hair and chucks her on the arm for being such a silly little girl, and the reader can’t help but be frustrated that he’s missing the point again. He doesn’t seem to put it together, either, when the pregnancy his daughter had only hinted at is actually announced at the council meeting, and Ned completely disagrees with their suggestions that they slaughter Daenerys and her unborn child.
Even more frustrating than Ned’s blindness to so much that happens (which finally falls away at the end of this section) is the characterization of Robert as being one of the most useless kings in literature. Sansa calling him the “old drunken king” pretty much hits the nail on the head; even a young girl can see just how ineffectual and terrible he is. It’s probably too long ago to properly remember, Chris, but I was wondering if on a first read, you thought that the king would turn to the side of the Lannisters against the Starks?
Christopher: I was never worried that he would turn against Ned per se—my worry was more that he would end up being wishy-washy and not choose sides at all. Robert Baratheon is apparently fearsome in battle, but as he demonstrated with the incident over Arya and Sansa’s direwolves (and as we see in the scene beside Ned’s sickbed, where he is reluctant to gainsay Cersei until pushed to anger), he’s pretty much spineless as an actual ruler. The only thing he won’t be brooked on is his hatred for the Targaryens—and there, one begins to wonder how much is based in desire for vengeance and how much in fear. Robert has made it obvious that he knows how awful he is as a king, how ill-suited for ruling; he also knows how tenuous is his claim to the throne. The prospect of a Targaryen challenger must freeze his heart. The more I read this section, the more I think that his bluster and rage is as much a smokescreen as genuine hatred, hiding his fear and insecurity behind a façade of righteous anger.
The first time I read this novel, with no appreciation yet for GRRM’s capacity to throw things into greater and greater chaos, this section felt deeply satisfying. The murder-mystery elements felt as though they were reaching a conclusion, and Ned seemed to have all his ducks in a row. His confrontation with Cersei in the Godswood was particularly satisfying. I suppose I’m just naïve, because I did not see anything that follows coming.
Meanwhile, back at Winterfell … Robb has received news of his mother’s abduction of Tyrion and his father’s confrontation with Jaime Lannister, and has to decide how to act. It’s another reminder of how power functions in this world: for all the politicking, such concepts as honour and family can trump pragmatism. The incipient confrontation between the houses of Stark and Lannister proceeds from an affront to Tyrion; Jaime’s attack on Ned escalates things to the point where Robb feels pressure to call his banners. GRRM does a great job of capturing the power balance of medieval Europe, which, whatever the rhetoric about divine right and the inviolability of kings, was rooted in competing feudal fiefdoms and the strength of their loyalty to whomever they called liege.
Bran’s sole chapter in this section also introduces us to Osha, the wildling woman who will come to play a crucial role in events to come. She and her companions, deserters from the Wall, serve as a not-so-subtle reminder of dire things to come: like the deserter executed in the first chapter, these brigands risk coming this close to Winterfell out of desperation—though not the kind of desperation Maester Luwin imagines.
What did you think of your first meeting here with Tonks … I mean, er, Osha?
Nikki: For some reason I thought we wouldn’t see her until the second book. Was she around in the first season or the second? In any case, as soon as they came creeping out of the woods, I knew it was going to be her, and just as on the show, she stands above the rest as being a little savvier, but also more knowledgeable in the woods. If I didn’t know what was going to happen through the show, I’d have pictured her being tortured next for information, regardless of how I feel about the Starks.
Before we end this, I wanted to mention Baelish in this section. Last week I mentioned that with the addition of hindsight in the books (the show doesn’t offer the flashbacks we get through the novels) I really felt a lot of sympathy for Littlefinger, and a bit of contempt for the haughty princess Catelyn thought she was as a child. This week my sympathy for him only heightened when she recalled the time he had to fight Ned’s brother Brandon Stark, and she’d told Brandon ahead of time not to kill Baelish. The recollection of poor Petyr running around trying to get away from Brandon, clearly about as cut out for battle as is Samwell Tarly, was so sad, made worse by him falling and calling for mercy at the end of Brandon’s sword, before whispering, “Cat…” as what he thought might be his final word. Then, according to her, that was the last time she saw him. You want to talk about Robert Baratheon acting out of fear and revenge, I can only imagine the revenge Littlefinger’s been cooking up all this time. The season 3 moment on the HBO series where he asks Sansa if she wants to run away with him makes so much more sense.
Like you, I really enjoyed Cersei’s meeting with Ned. Despite being very clear and unsubtle about other things in the book, GRRM handles the mystery aspect brilliantly, and even when Sansa makes the remark that Joffrey is nothing like his father, the reader isn’t immediately tipped to what Ned gleans from that remark. It’s only as he’s sitting under the tree, and during his conversation with Cersei (not even before it) that we realize what he’s figured out. Reading this now, I felt like I wanted to beat Ned upside the head for not seeing the bleedin’ obvious right in front of him. But it’s easy to take the high road when I’ve already seen the first season and know what the answer to the mystery is. Would I have figured it out before now if I’d just been reading the books? Probably not. But this section was very exciting, and dire, now that I know how Ned’s threat is going to end up.
Next week: Part Four: 489-651 mass market; 409-543 trade paperback (starting with DAENERYS “The heart was steaming in the cool…”)