Apr 14 2011 6:00pm

The Women in Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister

Cersei LannisterBeware: This post has as many spoilers as Cersei has men thinking she's gorgeous...

Cersei Lannister from George R.R. Martin's A Game Of Thrones is a strong, beautiful, powerful woman who will do anything to—well, she'll do anything.

This Sunday, HBO premieres its Game Of Thrones miniseries, and Cersei's actions and motivations inspire much of the plot. Her diabolicalness is legend (for readers of the books, at least), and it's not until the fourth book in the series, A Feast For Crows, that we actually get events told from her point of view.

His lord father had come first, escorting the queen. She was as beautiful as men said. A jeweled tiara gleamed amidst her long golden hair, its emeralds a perfect match for her eyes. His father helped her up the steps to the dais and led her to her seat, but the queen never so much as looked at him. Even at fourteen, Jon could see through her smile.

On the HBO series, the rehabilitation of Cersei Lannister begins prior to her introduction. As I watch the preview for House Lannister, put together by HBO, it is mostly about how poor Cersei was wounded on her wedding night and so behaves badly. How poor Cersei would do anything to keep the family together.


Her marriage was arranged, much like everyone’s marriage in Game of Thrones. The woman Robert Baratheon was supposed to marry, Lyanna Stark, is dead at the end of the war. Robert loved her, that much is clear from the moment he appears on the page, but she certainly is no threat to Cersei. Yet, that is one of the reasons presented for a lifetime of Cersei’s misdeeds.

Closer to the truth, in my opinion, is that she is a politically astute, power-consolidating, power-wielding female in a world that doesn’t leave her many acceptable options. Yes, she may be married to a man she has grown to despise, but that is certainly no obstacle for her. She believes she would run the kingdom better than Robert Baratheon, and she may indeed by right about that. There is no doubt that Robert has become fat, lazy and less...attentive to matters than is good for the realm. There is also no doubt that a lifetime of Lannisters has done much to contribute to his current state.

Cataloging her misdeeds starts (in the book) with killing the former hand of the King, which precipates the need to travel to Winterfell where Robert plans to recruit Ned Stark to fill the role. She also has a hand in injuring a young child who sees too much, attempted murder when the child doesn’t have the good sense to die of said injuries, having a beloved Stark pet killed, and oh yeah, about that incest thing…

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” (A Game of Thrones, 408)

A Game of Thrones turns part murder mystery as Ned tries to find out what happened to his predecessor, and also why the Lannisters tried to kill one of his sons. He gets his answers but, as usual, Cersei Lannister has set events in motion so that even when she loses, she ends up winning.

But…do you really know Cersei Lannister? For a major player in A Game of Thrones, readers do not get to see her from her own perspective. Everything we know about her comes through the eyes of other characters. Readers are initially led to distrust Cersei, which grows quickly to dislike, if not outright hate. The redeeming factors, if you choose to take her explanations at face value, don’t come until more than midway through the book. So, I understand why the Cersei Lannister lobby is doing some preemptive redemption before the series starts for people who may not have read the books. That is both probably a necessity, and a shame.

This article and its ensuing discussion originally appeared on our sister romance site Heroes & Heartbreakers.

Robin Bradford is a lawyer, a librarian and, most importantly, a longtime lover of words. You can check her out on Twitter @tuphlos, On Unpaged, or read the backlist at Obiter Dictum.

Ben Frey
1. BenPatient
Cataloging her misdeeds starts (in the book) with killing the former hand of the King, which precipates the need to travel to Winterfell where Robert plans to recruit Ned Stark to fill the role.

You should change that to "(apparently) killing the former hand of the King," you know. Or maybe you don't?
Patrick C
2. Patrick C

Agree that Cersei is bad news, but wanted to point out she had nothing to do with the Hand's death, nor the attempt to murder Bran in his bed. I think Jon Arryn's death actually worked against her plans as it got Ned Stark involved.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM

- I do have some sympathy in the books for Cercei - marriage to Robert is no picnic.
- She didn't poison Jon Arryn. (I'll hold off on naming who did)
- She didn't have a role in getting Bran pushed from Tower (she told Jaime later it was unnecessary - she could have convinced Bran nothing was going on.)
- But... she becomes an obvious villain when she punishes his son's fiancee by killing off Lady.
- Then the it all really begins - conspiring to kill her hubby, sleeping with other men (and wonen, for that matter), and allowing Joff to do all sorts of stupid things that endanger their grip on the throne (getting rid of Selby, etc.) And the Feast for Crows debacle ... Yikes.

Patrick C
4. cranscape
I think that they are benefiting (or not, depending on your perspective) on some revelations in later books. I'm recalling specifically her advice to Sansa and the insight we get about Cersei's childhood, ambitions, and marginalization (not to mention more about her marriage). She's still horrible on most accounts and very hard to like, but I came to at least get her better by the last book. She wasn't created in a vacuum. I actually really liked the Cersei/Sansa parallels that play out. That actually managed to make Sansa more interesting to me. Cersei is about as cuddly as a lioness, but much like real lions once you know her nature her actions make sense. When she starts to make missteps I felt a little bad for her. Then again I am a big fan of stories that deal in the grey. Cersei would have done well on The Wire.
Patrick C
5. soru
I don't think you can talk about Cersei without mentioning how heavily (perhaps more than any other GoT character ) she is based on a historical figure: Margaret of Anjou.

That links practically constitutes spoilers for events in the first two books, though things diverge more later.
Robin Bradford
6. RobinBradford
@BenPatient You're right, it should say "apparently" or, since i'm a lawyer, "allegedly". These are all inherenly flawed because they are based only on what we know (or think we know, or are led to believe) in Game of Thrones.

They were also commissioned for the H&H site, which is an audience that, more likely than not, haven't read the books and are just prepping for the show. They're meant to encourage/entice people to not just watch the show, but to read the books as well. They would have been written differently (with a lot of text examples & support for instance) if I'd thought the audience would be engaging in deeper discussions. :-)

@cranscape I wish I would have thought about a Cersei/Sansa comparison! Now I can't stop thinking about it. Too bad the Arya/Sansa post is already written.
Patrick C
7. peachy
The tragedy of Cersei is that...


...she has based her actions upon a glimpse of the future that she totally misinterpreted. She's still a vile wretch, though.
Patrick C
8. Megaduck
Cranscape @4

Sansa/Cersei? I always through it was more Arya/Cersei myself. They're both women who do not fit into the Seven Kingdoms idea of what a women should be. The difference is that Cersei was pounded into her roll and Edderd was willing to let Arya be more of herself.

I also always thought Cersei's main flaw is that she wants power for powers sake, not to DO anything with it. This is why when she doesn't have much power she does well but as soon as she gets it she starts screwing up. She litterally doesn't know what to do with it.

In that way Her and Robert are very similer. Neither of them knew what to do with the power they'd gotten.
Patrick C
9. Edgewalker
Don't forget that Robert, her husband, was cheating on her constantly. You seem to forget quite a bit about what caused her actions.
Robin Bradford
10. RobinBradford
@Edgewalker Um.....I think the cheating thing was a wash. I mean, she WAS sleeping with her brother, and had three of his children. She gets no sympathy points for having a cheating husband when she's a cheating wife (and with her brother!)
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
Robin - hmmm, I disagree. I believe from the set up of the story (without express text support, of course) that Cersei did love Robert (the handsome, most powerful warrior in the land) but then he called out Lyanna's name on their wedding night and kept wenching and carousing his way through Westeros. Understandable that she would turn to her twin and closest friend for love and support. So not a wash - Robert's sin is far greater. Her anger at Robert - initial hopes of love that turned to hate and disgust - is a big part of what makes her what she is. So I do have sympathy for her at some level even though it doesn't excuse her awful actions later (including but not limited to cheating on Jaime too).
Joseph Kingsmill
12. JFKingsmill16

Cersei is the single most vile character in the book next to Lord Walder Frey. And my opinion is only comfirmed when we get her point of view in Feast. It shows that she has essentially bumbled her way through things and only has managed to keep herself ahead of things because:

1: Ned is a trusting honorable fool
2: Tryion saved Kings Landing and all their lives
3: Her father is in the field fighting the battles

And because she is so vile, she has become the perfect villian is this series. I know far too many people who are looking forward to seeing her start to get a taste of her own medicine.
Patrick C
13. cranscape

To me Cersei/Sansa is how things have actually played out for Cersei though. In spirit Cersei could have been more like Arya, but Cersei did not get that opportunity. Perhaps she would have with a dad like Ned and early life in Winterfell, but no one gave her a sword and her dad certainly was not like Ned. She had to steel herself for other kinds of battles -- like Sansa. Cersei's advice to Sansa is one of her most honest moments outside of those with Jaime. Couldas and wouldas aside, she has more to say to Sansa than she would to Arya. I think Ayra and Daenerys would have more in common because of their exile.
Maiane Bakroeva
14. Isilel
Well, I had some sympathy for Cersei in AGOT, though her confession to Ned was undeniably stupid, but she lost all her points with me in ACoK and it went downhill from there.

Robert got no more than he deserved from Cersei - his love for Lyanna was never believable, given how much he enjoyed fighting and wenching while she was being a raped captive (as he thought), and Cersei was abandoning somebody she loved too, when she was marrying him.


BTW, IMHO the notion that it was possible to know for sure that none of Cersei's children could be Robert's was one of the weaker features of ASOIAF. Completely unrealistic and far too black-and-white for the series that prides itself on it's shades of gray...
Marcus W
15. toryx
Ah, Cersei. How I love to loathe thee...

RobM @ 3:
She didn't have a role in getting Bran pushed from Tower (she told Jaime later it was unnecessary - she could have convinced Bran nothing was going on.)

Personally, I don't buy that one. When she tells Jaime this, she's just shunting the responsibility for it off on him the way she does with everything that she doesn't like. It's a large part of her personality to blame everything on other people's failings without ever recognizing any of her own.

Megaduck @ 8:

I think your Cersei and Arya comparison is a pretty good one. Who knows what would have happened to Arya if things hadn't gone batshit crazy and her mother had not been separated from her?

RobM @ 11:

I've never seen any indication in my readings that Cersei ever loved Robert. It's the same sort of attitude as the one I indicated before. She could have been a good wife to him if he hadn't blurted out another's name on their wedding bed! Always blaming everyone else for her own choices.

(Not that Robert is excused from an inexcusable action, either. Seriously what were people thinking when they made him King, anyway?)

I don't think Cersei ever truly intended to stop sleeping with Jaime, just because she'd married Robert. And if he hadn't had his Lyanna fixation, I'm sure she'd have found other reasons to hate him. She despises anyone who has any authority over her.

There are a lot of things I could find sympathy in for Cersai, particularly in being raised by Tywin and in a world that is so fervently against women. But none of it excuses her actions. That's one of the great things about the character though. You can understand why she's so messed up and still despise her for her choices.
Robin Bradford
16. RobinBradford
@RobM And this is exactly why I love these books. Even though I see things more the way @toryx does, the very fact that the truth *COULD* be either of these choices, or a mix of the two, or a different option altogether, is what makes it so compelling.
Patrick C
17. Lsana
I have to disagree that either the Cersei/Sansa or Cersei/Arya parallels are paramount. If you want to look for a real parallel to Cersei, the place to look is Catelyn. Both of them are mothers of Kings involved in the conflict. Both of them are put in many of the same situations, and it is interesting to compare the way they choose to handle them. How does each handle it when her son is in danger? How much power does each give her son over the decisions that must be made? What does she do if she thinks that he has chosen wrong? How does she balance her role as his mother, someone who knows better than he does and has a duty to guide and protect him, with her role as his subject, someone who has a duty to obey him? Cersei and Catelyn each have their own ways of answering these questions, and the similarities and differences tell us a lot about both of them.

Another parallel that might have been interesting to see, had the fourth volume actually been one book, would have been Dany/Cersei? How does each woman deal with the challenges of ruling? Alas, the split prevented that, at least for now.

That's not to say that Cersei has nothing in common with Sansa or Arya. Like Sansa, she was told she was going to be a queen, and she gives some interesting advice to Sansa based on that shared destiny. Like Arya, she envied her brother and wanted to play a man's role in the world. However, there aren't any directly parallel situations, which in my mind makes the comparisions less interesting.


I have to say that I think Theon beats out Cersei in terms of the worst PoV character (morality wise, that is; I love Cersei's chapters). Cersei, for all that her actions are evil, is acting in what she sees as the best interests of her children. She genuinely loves them. Theon, on the other hand, does everything he does only to gratify his own ego and pride.

And both of them are pretty tame as compared to people like Qyburn, Gregor Clegane, Ramsay Bolton, and of course, Walder Frey.
Patrick C
18. cranscape


Theon does what he does because from his POV he grew up a terrified kid living as a hostage in hostile territory. He never accepted the culture he was forced to grow up among and tried to be what he thought would prove his worthiness of being of House Greyjoy. Instead he does a lot of stupid things, yes, but as far as morality goes there are worse killers in these books. I think people mistake him as being loyal to the Starks and because of that a betrayer...which he never was nor should be expected to be. If you remove the notion of Theon as a free and content resident of Winterfell and remember he was a hostage his turn isn't that surprising. Theon was one of Ned's mistakes come back to roost.
Patrick C
19. Megaduck
I do agree that the Arya/Cersei comparison only really works because they are both people who don't like the role society is shoving them into. It would have been interesting though what Cersei's reaction would have been to Needle. One of things she's bitter about is that she never got a sword and Arya does get one.

I do think the relationship between Sansa and Cersei is interesting and a little twisted. One one hand, Cersei does NOT like Sansa for reasons I sort of understand. Cersei is in a lot of ways against the system but Sansa is most definitely for it. So when Cersei looks at Sansa she sees everything socioty wants her to be but that she hates. (Sweet, obedient, subservient, ect.)

On the other hand Cersei often falls into the roll of big sister for Sansa. A bitter, spitefull, big sister but a big sister none the less. At times it almost seems that Cersei enjoys her roll as big sister and I'm mostly thinking of them during the battle of the blackwater. In Feast of Crows Cersei even feels betrayed that Sansa left. (Angry and Enraged would make sense, but... betrayed? That one is a little odd.)
Sean Vivier
20. SeanVivier
Isilel @14: Dominant and recessive genes are unrealistic? Medieval scholars didn't understand genotype, but they understood phenotype!
Rob Munnelly
21. RobMRobM
"That's one of the great things about the character though. You can understand why she's so messed up and still despise her for her choices. "

Well said.
Maiane Bakroeva
22. Isilel
Megaduck @19:

I do agree that the Arya/Cersei comparison only really works because
they are both people who don't like the role society is shoving them

OTOH, Cersei never seems to be interested in "manly" things for their own sake, for her they are just symbols of status denied to her. She hates riding, hunting, etc. stuff that Arya loves and even Catelyn, who was never a tomboy, liked well enough.
I do wonder how much of Cersei's spitefulness to Sansa and desire to crush Sansa's spirit was due to certain thing we found out in book 4, though?

I have to say, that I always wanted to hear a bit more about Lady Joanna, as apparently she somehow managed to dominate Tywin without alienating him. I can't help but think that she must have been very different from her daughter.

SeanVivier @20:

Dominant and recessive genes are unrealistic?


On the contrary, which is why it realistically shouldn't have been out of question for Baratheons in general and Robert in particular to have blond kids. Recessives and all. His own grandmother was a Targaryen, after all and there must have been other blonde wives in the genealogical treee. Yes, 3 blonds would be pushing statistical possibilities, but still not a proof that _none_ of them were Robert's.

Not to mention that it should have been quite impossible for Cersei to be sure of her pregnancies by Jaime early enough to cover them by sleeping with Robert or during the times when she slept with both men within several hours or even days, etc.

IMHO, it would have been much more realistic and interesting if Ned could have been almost sure, but never completely.
Joff being a monster because he was the queen's bastard (while the king's bastards are all decent and likeable) is just such a terrible cliché, too...
Patrick C
23. Patrick C
Isilel - While Ned was 100% sure that the children were not Robert's, that doesn't mean that they weren't. We obviously never get a DNA test, and I even when the truth comes out there are those that don't believe it (or nobody would recognize Joffrey/Tommen as King). I don't think it is unrealistic at all for Ned Stark to believe it without a shadow of a doubt, as his life is run in absolutes. And besides all that, Cersei actually admitted it to him after he confronted her!

And I don't think Joff was a monster because he was the queen's bastard (while the king's bastards are decent and likeable), he was a monster because Cersei raised him! The decent and likeable bastards had the benefit of not being raised by Cersei.

@RobM - I think you are being too kind to Cersei by far. I never saw any indication that she loved Robert, and I think that was one of the biggest problems Robert had. He never dealt with a woman who wasn't madly in love with him before, and he had no clue how to handle it. And Cersei was sleeping with Jaime before the marriage, I doubt she would have stopped even if Robert wasn't hung up on Lyanna.
jon meltzer
24. jmeltzer
Ned may have been sure the kids weren't Robert's, but I suspect there were plenty of others (such as Robert's brothers) who were willing to believe the kids were illegitimate because it was politically convenient for them.

Historical counterpart: Margaret of Anjou, again. The Yorkists disbelieved that her son Edward was also Henry VI's, because the passive, depressed and likely schizophrenic Henry wasn't imaginable as a father (though Margaret was ambitious and aggressive enough that she'd have made sure Henry would do what was necessary to get the needed heir).
Patrick C
25. Hungryturnip
I'm amused at the points made above (paraphrasing) that Cersei's actions were caused by Robert always cheating on her. Understand that I'm writing this having read the whole series, but I believe that Cersei would have done what she's done, no matter if she were married to a perfect husband.

The only man she wanted was Jaime, so anyone else was purely to be used however she could. Even her dabbling in homosexual affairs are meant to ensare/manipulate, not for any feeling of affection/love.

She has an inferiority complex (don't want to address feminist roles in this, those are obvious), seems overly paranoid to the point of psychosis, a conscience seems non-existent and arrogance out the patootey.

So yes, Robert was a terrible husband to her. But my belief is that she is just a bad person, period. I feel that equivocation on that is disregarding all she's done, and what we find out about her and her thinking in later books.

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