Sep 30 2010 1:56pm

Bad good guys, good bad guys, bad bad guys, no good good guys

“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.

1. SonomaLass
Jason, I think you've really nailed something that makes me like Martin's books so much, and makes them more re-readable than a lot of epic fantasy. All his characters are imperfect, and even the "villains" have believable motivations. You can SEE why they are screwed up, even if you loathe them and their actions.

Tyrion fascinates me; so does Danyris. I badly want them to be a team.
Drew Holton
2. Dholton
I've been listening to the audio books, (I did read them first), and in Feast, what strikes me about Sansa, is that she's actually getting a pretty good education in backstabbing politics from Littlefinger. It makes me wonder if he'll regret it should she ever start to grow up.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
They would make a very impressive team. His mind and experience is pretty much exactly what she'd need. I remember in one scene, one of the Lannisters tells Jaime that Tyrion is more Tywin than Jaime ever was. And given that Tywin was one of the main architects of the Targaryen downfall, who better than Tyrion to bring them back?

Good point. She's shown this more and more in her manipulation of the seriously irritating Robert.
4. Lsana
Just out of curiousity, what "virtuous and merciful things" does Gregor do? How about Joff?

I find it interesting that you like Tyrion better on a re-read. On my first read, Tyrion was easily my favorite character. I loved his wit and snark, and I brightened a bit every time I saw his name at the head of a chapter. On re-reads, however, I'm getting more and more uncomfortable with him. He arms the Mountain Clans and sets them to pillaging the Vale in order to get his vengance on Lysa. Lysa's a bitch, no question, but she's not really the one who suffers here, her smallfolk are. Once Tyrion gets to King's Landing, he let's his men pretty much do as they like and makes it known that they are above the law. Nothing they do, including murder, will be punished. In the third book, we have his murder of Shae. I understand why he did it, but it was still a very nasty moment. And then we have some of the stuff he does in the spoiler chapters of the next book...I won't say anything more, except that it is very hard for me to read that and imagine ever really warming up to this character again.

I still like him, I sympathize with him, and I understand why he's becoming a monster. But no matter how sympathetic, he's still becoming a monster.
Joshua Starr
5. JStarr
@2: Absolutely. I didn't read Sansa as cowardly, I read her as young, vulnerable, and naive. Time cures the first, time with *Littlefinger* cures the third, and once those two are cured, all of a sudden the second is fixed, too. (Arya, by comparison, is more awesome from the start, but probably less realistic)

@op: Also, I think I'd be annoyed if it had seemed to me that "in order to possess or regain honor in Martin’s world, something bad has to happen to you," or that any characteristic was a requirement or signifier for another, unrelated one. I'd hope it was simply that honorable characters were honorable - they're just also rare, and "honor" does not translate into political acumen.

In some way, actually, that's what the books are about to me: a really extended, in-depth investigation of the three-way clash between feudal notions of honor, genre conventions of fantasy, and the nasty realities of politics and economics. One could probably turn that into a good long essay, if one had the wherewithal.

More re: Littlefinger: He's reprehensible, yes, on a personal level. But he's fascinating, and I wonder how he'd compare to some of the other characters if you took a wide-view, utilitarian-style view of things. It seems like a *realm* under his rule would do pretty well for itself; he wouldn't be likely to bleed the serfs dry, etc. Compare him to a Robert or a Cersei. On both the antagonist and the protagonist sides, I think the characters who incite my readerly rage the most are the ones who are *incompetent*. (It's better to have my rage incited this way than to have everyone be brilliant, though, of course.)

(Also, none of this stops me from desperately wanting Littlefinger to get his comeuppance. And I deeply hope Sansa will be the one to give it to him. I wouldn't totally count on it though - if there's anything *THAT* moment in book one (you know the one) signaled, it's that this is not a story where people get what they deserve. They get only the consequences of their actions.
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
Hmmm. ya got me, there. Gregor and Joff are repulsive all around.
The last paragraph of your reply pretty much sums up why Tyrion impresses me as a character. All the bad stuff he did that you mentioned...all that and more is all part of him, no denying it. He's done, or condoned, terrible acts. And yet there is still sympathy and understanding for him, even at his worst, as you point out. I think that's indicative of Martin's serious skill as a writer.

The three-way clash you mention is a fascinating idea. I definitely think you're on to something there and I'd love to hear more about that, if you have the inclination.
7. Megaduck
@ 2 and 5
What strikes me about Sansa is that she always chooses the path of least resistance. So, yes, I would call her cowardly.

She is in a rather bad situation and I might be more charitable if we didn't have a view into her head.

This might change but I don't see her doing anything to littlefinger, it's to risky.
8. tayyabsaeed
Well i was fascinated by the world of ASOIAF at first but after multiple cover to cover re-reads and no "dance" in sight the sheen has started to come off a bit.. I still grade them amongst the top fantasy series but i feel that sheer magnificence of scope has rendered the project a bit beyond the reach of GRRM, no doubt he is one of the best writers around but i don't know man. It as been too long since the feast and i dont know how much more wait i can endure before giving up on it.
Fake Name
9. ThePendragon
I agree that Sansa is a coward. I've been wishing for her to die since the first book when she got her father killed. I blame her almost entirely for that. She's done nothing IMO to redeem herself.
10. annoyed
I have to agree with @8. As revolutionary as the first books were, the series has started to wander around a bit aimlessly. I would trust GRRM to bring it home if he were 20 years younger, but given the time it's taking to complete Dances, this series will not be brought to a conclusion. The legacy of what could have been the greatest fantasy ever will suffer for it.
Fake Name
11. ThePendragon
Yeah, unless he quadruples his current pace, this series will never reach it's end.
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
Interesting post. A few thoughts.

"The first time I read it, I found Jon 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."

Tyrion had me from his first conversation with Jon in GOT. Jon and Arya are cool, but the "giant" as referred to by Aemon is the coolest.

"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."

Nah - there are some other examples in the books. Barristan Selmy for one. Ned Stark, for all his flaws, is another. The Blackfish is a third.

Sansa is "a coward above all else." Strongly disagree. Her romantic notions of courtly love and behavior overwhelmed her common sense early in GoT, especially after she lost her wolf (and her way) but she's been pretty tough in the midst of Lannister and Littlefinger machinations since then. She lived through almost dying in the Kings Landing fracas without blubbering, she pursued an escape plan, she kept her head while the Hound was in her room and interested in taking the fruit he had long desired, and she hasn't broken down while in hiding in the Vale. Her bad judgment at the outset has made her a puppet, but she's a brave puppet. I'm looking forward to her on the comeback trail and surprising her former "patrons" in the next few books. When you refer to "the unwavering will to survive is the same in the most intriguing characters," it can easily refer to Sansa.

Ellen B. Wright
13. ellenw
GRRM does have a knack for turning reprehensible characters sympathetic, Jaime being a prime example. I remember that my reaction to the first Cersei POV chapter was along the lines of, "No! You have to leave me someone to hate!"
Joshua Starr
14. JStarr
@12: I'm on board with everything in this post, which expresses much of what I wanted to in a more concise way. (except that I suppose Tyrion's never quite been my tip-top favorite viewpoint character.)

It is continually amazing to me how willing I am to discuss these books whenever they come up. I remember, back in college, having a weekly ping-pong game with a friend, where we'd hit the ball back and forth for two hours and talk about GRRM the whole time, each time. And apparently I'm still willing to talk aSoIaF at the drop of a hat. Fertile ground, these books.
Tony Zbaraschuk
15. tonyz
I still hate Cersei after all her POV chapters, so don't worry :)
john mullen
16. johntheirishmongol
I have pretty much given up on GRRM ever finishing the series. i think he lost control of the storyline and was trying to outJordan Jordan. While I found it fascinating and well characterized, it seemed like every character that you began to identify with got killed off, often senselessly. But he ran too many storylines, and too many characters, and never figured out a way to bring them together. It's a shame because the first books were great.
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
John@16. I have a lot of hope that GRRM will wrap up the series. The problems he's been having with book 5 is that he has to line up the characters in the right places and the right times so that he can bring Dany to Westeros and undertake associated conquests, battles with the Others, and bring about the resurrection of the to outside eyes killed off Stark family. GRRM says he has virtually all the text for Book 5 drafted, he is almost through the so-called Meerene Knot (where various people have to get to Merene to see Dany), and even has shifted over a 100 pages of drafted text into Book 6. So, I am optimistic of submission to editors within the next 3-6 months and of publication before this time next year. In sum, I have faith. With the Knot unraveled, my assumption is that his envisioned wrapping up of plots will flow much faster than we have seen since 2005.

18. SonomaLass
I have to say that even if GRRM didn't finish this series, I would still love the books. Much as I want to know what else he's got in store for these characters, and as much as I would like to see some resolution in certain plot threads (not least Littlefinger's comeuppance!), I have had many hours of pleasure from reading them, regardless of what happens (or doesn't).
20. Lsana
On Sansa: I'm surprised that so many people see her as a coward. Because she tries to please her captors? I guess she could mouth off to them the way that Tyrion does, but remember that Tyrion's mouth usually gets him into a lot of trouble. If Sansa were to be as defiant with Joff as Tyrion was with, say Lysa, she'd be dead. Perhaps she could try to stab them the way that Arya would, but again that would result in her being dead or at least kept in a dungeon.

Truth is that Sansa is in a situation where bravery rarely does her any good. She's had several situations, though, where she has shown plenty of courage. Off the top of my head:

1) Her Esther act where she pleads for her father's life. She's been told that her own position depends on renouncing her "traitor's blood," but she begs for her father anyway.

2) At Joff's Name Day tournament, she first convinces him not to kill Ser Dontos, then stands up for Tommen. Bear in mind, this is after Joff has just threatened to kill her.

3) The Battle of the Blackwater. Cersei falls apart. The other ladies of the court are on the verge of panic. Sansa holds it together, calms down women twice and three times her age, and hides her own fear until she's in private.

Yeah, she has plenty of moments that are less than noble, especially from the perspective of those who know more than she does. But it doesn't seem to me a coward could have done any of those things.
Matthew B
21. MatthewB
@16 This series does seem to be suffering the Wheel of Time curse, but if worse comes to worst we can just let Sanderson loose on it. He's shown through his own books and his work on WoT that he knows how to bring everything together and tie it up with a satisfying bow.
Nancy Lebovitz
22. NancyLebovitz
It's been a while since I've read the books, but iirc, Tyrion's character changed when the woman he loved was used to humiliate him.

I suspect that Sansa looks worse because she's Arya's sister-- I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who's hoping for better for her, but I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up as an Evil Queen-- spiteful and calculating, rather than stupid like Cersei. I also have a small hope that her knowledge of heraldry will come in handy.

I agree that it looks as though Martin has lost control of the material, which is a damned shame.
23. lampwick
I disagree with everyone who says Martin's lost control of the material. I think his grasp of all the plot-threads has been masterful so far, and judging from that I'm pretty sure he knows where it's going and can get there -- though it'll take a long time.
Greg Lincoln
24. glshade
I have been a fan of the series since the first volume that I picked up in the first paperbak printing...

I have to admit to being originally a fan of Jon Snow and the bastards of the families and their plight. I also really liked Tyrion from the start mainly because I like the set upon characters and to some extant I still like him quite a bit and hope that he survives the series and keeps his honor in tact as far as he is concerned.

As the series has progressed and I have come to know Jamie in his chapters I grew to care about the one character I destested from the start. I liked even the Hound... in him I saw a kind of honor to at least his own ideals but till I saw the story from Jamie's eyes I did not like him. Now he is the one I am anxious to see better himself... it is as if to me the tale is really his hero's journey. He has made the longest journey character wise so far in my opinion.... he is the most changed.

I still miss Ned and his deah still hangs on me but.... I cant wait to see then finish for some of the mainstays of the story. I miss hoping for a Jon chapter but I kind of no longer care about his journey eventhough its the one I would expect I would still look forward to...

anyway just my thoughts tonight,...
25. formerly Underhill
I don't see Sansa as a coward. As Lsana says in 20, she has shown more than once that she can be courageous. She started the series as a fatally clueless person: very young and full of dreamy idealistic notions that do not equip a character well for life in a GRRM novel. (However, she is also self-centered and greedy, which perhaps gives her a chance.) As others have pointed out, exposure to Littlefinger may cure the cluelessness, and exposure to all the suffering she has lived through may cure the shallow self-centeredness. I think she might end up being quite impressive. And I'd love to see her get the better of Littlefinger, who may not figure out that she has the grit to become more than his pliant and decorative tool.

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