“Robb would someday inherit Winterfell, would command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name. His sisters Arya and Sansa would marry the heirs of other great houses and go south as mistress of castles of their own. But what place could a bastard hope to earn?”
“Let me give you some counsel, bastard…Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
Synopsis: Jon Snow gets drunk for the first time at the feast, where he observes the principals of two Great Houses from his obscure position. He discusses going the Night’s Watch and fathering children with Benjen Stark before he gets ferklempt and has to leave. Outside, he meets Tyrion Lannister, who displays improbable acrobatics skills and the two have a further discussion about bastardy and social conventions. Tyrion returns to the feast.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Not much in the way of political events per se happen in this episode; instead, we are given more of an insight into some of our characters as political thinkers. Jon Snow is presented (or presents himself) as a highly observant person, since “a bastard had to learn to notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes,” and claims to notice how the King, Queen, and his father really feels under their courtesies. However, this seems like one of those character details that George RR Martin started out with, then dropped, a bit like Tyrion’s acrobatics between the rest of Book 1 and the end of Book 4. Snow’s gift for observing human emotions seems to desert him thereafter, especially during Dance of Dragons; as a developing leader of the Night’s Watch, Snow seems to rely more on a close circle of allies and his own heroic example as opposed to any ability to empathize with other Brothers of the Night’s Watch.
We do see a little bit more of the parallels beginning to be drawn between Theon, Robb, and Jon as different kinds of future leaders. Robb is the rightful heir and hereditary leader, someone who “would inherit Winterfell, [and] command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name.” He’s later shown as a natural military strategist, and someone who’s quite good at impressing in his feudal vassals, but who lacks Bran’s gifts at conciliating competing claims among them and in compromising more generally. Jon is later shown as an elected leader, a dark horse candidate who emerges only because two more established candidates split the vote, and yet not someone who’s naturally good at working with subordinates outside of a small group of friends that he has to be reminded to create. Rather, he tends to lead by example, using his Valyrian sword, his direwolf, and personal prowess and mystique. Nevertheless we do see that he’s actually quite good at compromising when it comes to the wildlings, although less adept at gauging the effect this has on his men (so much for Jon the observant). Theon is neither fish nor fowl; a rightful heir to a nation that has a nasty tendency to elect their kings, but without any gifts of rulership, who inspires no loyalty in his subordinates nor can set any great example in himself. Theon, who has an extremely complicated relationship with Robb Stark, is set up as an instant antagonist to Jon Snow – in part I think because Jon Snow is a dark mirror to Theon. Both are half-way exiles who have no true native home, but whereas Theon masks a sense of frustrated entitlement behind aloof mockery, Jon turns inwards. We’ll see more later about how their respective leadership styles work out.
The second political theme we have is Tyrion’s advice about the nature of public face and image versus truth, a theme that will follow Tyrion throughout the series. His recommendation is sound – “know thyself” was Socretes’ guiding rule, the foundation of his search for truth; Sun Tzu saw it as the first step to victory, as “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Certainly, by learning not to treat his bastardy as a scarlet letter, Jon does much better than, say, Ramsey Snow, who can be provoked into berserk fury by the mere word. Ultimately, he is but the mere student to Tyrion’s master – as Tyrion’s triumphant nickname of “Halfman” proves, he can use his stature to beguile his enemies into underestimating him, and goad his followers into acts of suicidal bravery. And yet…we’ll see later that there is a limit to how far Tyrion’s strategy can go.
George R.R Martin’s decision to make bastardy an absolute barrier to social advancement in Westeros is actually something of a departure from history, which was often more complicated. William the Conqueror was widely known as “William the Bastard” before his invasion of England in 1066, and yet he inherited the Duchy of Normandy and laid claim to the throne of England. Beginning with the Normans, royal and noble bastards often were granted quite extensive lands and titles – Robert Fitzroy, the son of Henry I, became the First Earl of Gloucester and a powerful enough noble to lead the armies of the Empress Matilda against Stephen I in the civil war known as “the Anarchy” (and indeed was mentioned as a rival candidate to Stephen I as the successor to Henry I); Henry I’s daughters became Duchesses of Brittany, Countesses of Perche, and Abbesses of Montvilliers. Royal and noble bastards played the same role that legitimate siblings did in the feudal system: they were ways to play the feudal game of distributing lands and titles while still keeping land in the family, just as Bran and Rickon would be as rulers of holdfasts for Robb.
Why Jon can’t do the same is a bit unclear, although it’s possible that the fallout from Aegon IV’s legitimization of the Great Bastards – Daemon Blackfyre, Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers, Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers, and Shiera Seastar – has created a general taboo against legitimization. We do see it being used – Stannis offers it to Jon Snow, Bran proposes it to deal with the Hornwood crisis, Robb turns to it to guarantee a succession, but we get the sense that it’s only used in crises. Nevertheless, the fact that Eddard Stark doesn’t even consider asking Robert Baratheon to issue a proclamation, however discretely, is significant.
Tyrion’s in a more difficult position; there isn’t a decree that can make him appear differently to those who would judge him based on his appearance. Another, more specific strike against him is perhaps the tradition of court dwarfs (which we see in action in Essos, if not in Westeros). Historically, they “were such an integral part of imperial activities — serving, entertaining, and present at royal celebrations — they are almost never depicted as autonomous beings; rather, they are shown as decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves.” This combination of being able to observe the most intimate secrets of royalty but still being treated as an object, a possession of the King or Queen, gives us a sense of where George R.R Martin was drawing on in constructing Tyrion’s character. But as we’ll see later in Clash of Kings, Tyrion’s inconspicuousness becomes a double-edged sword once he becomes a more public figure.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of hypotheticals for this chapter – but check back in Catelyn II, where there are some really interesting What Ifs to talk about.
This is one scene where I think it’s actually better in the show than in the book, distilled down to its essence. Jon Snow’s teenage angst is pared down to tolerable levels (I think showing Kit Harrington crying his way out of a feast would have gone too far), Tyrion’s inconsistent athleticism is removed as it will be by the second Tyrion chapter anyway, and we get straight into the heart of the matter – Jon Snow’s decision to join the Night’s Watch and his conversation with Tyrion.