“We were king’s men, knights, and heroes…but some knights are dark and full of terror, my lady. War makes monsters of us all.”
“Are you saying you are monsters?”
“I am saying we are human.”
—A Feast for Crows
I’ve been re-reading George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (please be forewarned that this post contains spoilers for the whole series). The first time I read it, I found John Snow and Arya Stark the most interesting characters. They are still great, but this time around, my attention is drawn most of all to Tyrion Lannister.
These books don’t exactly overflow with heroes. There are plenty of brave and capable characters, but very few morally upstanding, honorable and chivalrous types. The characters are not polar in terms of good and evil. Even the most reprehensible characters do virtuous or merciful things some times, and some of the most sympathetic characters can be vicious.
Whenever I read a fantasy like “A Song of Ice and Fire,” or Joe Abercrombie’s books, or other stories full of less-than-lovely people, I can’t help but think about how the author creates and maintains sympathy for morally messed up characters.
It seemed to me, at first, that in order to possess or regain honor in Martin’s world, something bad has to happen to you. You have to be born a bastard, or an outcast, or physically unusual (and mocked for it) or mutilated. None of these are guarantees of any virtue, though. As I read it this time I see that what’s required is a strong sense of identity and mutilation or ostracism. Hey, it’s not called “A Song of Puppies and Lemonade,” after all.
Tyrion is a dwarf (not in the mythological sense but in the person of short stature sense). He’s also unattractive, eventually losing a chunk of his face, but comes from a family of pretty much perfect physical specimens. His siblings are known for their beauty and grace, despite being self-serving, evil and icky otherwise. Tyrion’s father finds him embarrassing, and few others take him seriously. People call him “The Imp” to his face. And yet, though he’s certainly not without his faults, he’s repeatedly shown to be the kindest and most honorable member of his family (though it should be said, it’s a family of pretty hyenas).
His greatest challenges come from less from his height itself than from how others dismiss him. His development as a character exemplifies his struggle to defy expectation and define himself. Compare this to Sansa Stark, for example, who scarcely has a clue how to define herself and spends much of the story worrying about how to please several completely wretched people. I’m not without sympathy for her—she found herself in very perilous situations. But she’s a coward above all else. Tyrion’s pragmatism may seem cowardly at times, but he’s a far stronger character than Sansa. And contrast both of them to Petyr Baelish, AKA Littlefinger, who is possibly the most reprehensible major character in the series, over all. He has no loyalties to anything but money and power, and for all that he seems kind to his allies, he’d just as soon stab them in the back or push them off a cliff. He doesn’t change much in the course of the story; rather his nasty nature becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on.
The first time I read the books I felt certain that Jaime and Cersei were the very worst characters—and they’re certainly the most awful in the beginning—but in re-reading I see that while they’re both monumentally screwed up, Jaime is not as consistently horrid as his sister, especially after he loses his hand. He becomes more sympathetic, especially toward Tyrion, after the mutilation. Cersei, however, stays pretty terrible the whole way through.
Tyrion and Jaime both survive incredible hardship through force of will. The difference between them is that Jaime lost something that Tyrion never really had: physical prowess and the ability to intimidate. The fall from power is not as far for Tyrion, and in general he handles it better than his brother.
There’s a scene in Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimbo that has always stayed with me. The unnamed ronin, beaten near to death, recovers in a tiny shack. The wind blows a leaf around and the ronin, who can barely move more than his hand, flings a knife at the leaf, maintaining his accuracy and recovering his strength through this act. His resolve to recover is incredible. He can only do one thing, at first, but he does it. The ronin is more honorable than many characters in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” but the unwavering will to survive is the same in the most intriguing characters.
I’m going to avoid lamenting about how much I want the next book to come out, but I am very curious to know what will happen. Will Sansa grow a spine? Now that the world has pretty much taken a well-deserved dump on Cersei, will she face the difficulties and develop even a single likable trait? And Littlefinger…everything’s gone well for him so far. I can’t imagine that will last.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking, or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.