Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis – Tyrion II

“The Night’s Watch is a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm. I’ve seen you looking at Yoren and his boys. These are your new brothers, Jon Snow, how do you like them? Sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves, and bastards like you all wind up on the Wall, watching for grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about.”

Synopsis: Jon Snow, Tyrion and Benjen Stark travel towards the Wall, where they encounter Yoren and two imprisoned “recruits” for the Nights Watch. Snow and Tyrion have a heart-to-heart about literacy, disability, the true nature of the Night’s Watch, although Tyrion gets knocked down by Ghost when he angers the nascent warg.

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.

EDIT: Finally finished. Sorry about the mix-up folks; won’t happen again.

Political Analysis:

Tyrion II is another short chapter where we learn a lot about the politics of Westeros, here through one conversation between the outcasts of two Great Houses. Interestingly, despite the parallels made between bastards and dwarfs in Jon I, here it’s made clear that Jon has a clear advantage over Tyrion in his physical ableness (in part because Tyrion’s unlikely tumbling skills abruptly vanish), and what makes them equals is that they share a common envy of their older siblings (although we don’t get confirmation on Jon’s side until Storm of Swords). Another interesting aspect of their conversation is that we get a much richer view of how the Lannisters view themselves – more so than virtually any Westerosi Great House, the Lannisters see themselves as a common enterprise where Tywin the Hand, Jaime the Kingslayer, Cersei the Queen, Joffrey the Prince, and Tyrion all do their “part for the honor of [their] house.”

Tyrion both understands and embodies the endless grasping ambition of his House – as he puts it, “the Lannisters never declined, graciously or otherwise. The Lannisters took what is offered” even as he takes Benjen’s cloak to spite the Stark’s anti-Lannister prejudice. This ambition springs, I think, from the fact that the Lorens remember not only that they were Kings before the Targaryens, but also that King Loren Lannister of the Rock came inches away from carrying the day at the Field of Fire, whereas the Starks knelt and were largely left alone.

However, the real topic of Jon and Tyrion’s conversation is the virtue of realism – whether Jon Snow will become a man who “sees the hard truth” – through their conversation on the Night’s Watch. In previous chapters, we’ve seen the typical Northern view through the eyes of the Starks that the Night’s Watch is an honorable vocation, a necessary defense of their realm from the wildlings (if not from the White Walkers), and now we get a rather harsher view from Tyrion. The Prologue shows us something in between: the Watch may be “a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm,” but in the face of supernatural evil, Ser Waymar Royce fights to the death and even the former poacher Will risks his life to bring proof of the Others back to the Wall.

While it takes Jon Snow a good deal of time to get there (and personally, I find Jon Snow a much more interesting character when he jettisons the hero’s journey and settles down to work), I think a good bit of Jon Snow’s successes as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch stem from his taking this advice to see the Night’s Watch as it really is. His decision to focus the Night’s Watch on archery rather than swordplay is a good innovation, given the reality of a relatively small force defending a 700-foot-tall wall; likewise, his decision to  settle the wildlings on the Wall and the Gift comes from his experience that the men of the Watch and the wildlings are basically the same despite their cultural differences. And yet, at the same time, I think Jon Snow ends up seeing even further than Tyrion – he is perhaps one of the only men in the world to understand that the Night’s Watch was never meant to fight wildlings.

And what is Tyrion’s scabrous view of the black brothers of the Wall? Chiefly, and not without reason, he sees the Night’s Watch as basically a gigantic penal colony, with two rapers standing as evidence. Not only that, but the first three categories of criminals Tyrion names – sullen (i.e, uppity) peasants, debtors, and poachers – paint the Night’s Watch as complicit in an unequal and unjust legal system meant to oppress the vast majority of the population into submission. As I discussed way back in the Prologue, poaching was a heavily politicized crime as peasants sought to defend customary privileges to game, firewood, and grazing land in the face of the encroachments of their overlords. Likewise, the practice of debtor’s prison was a constant catalyst for class conflict between the rich and the poor going back to classical Athens and the Roman Republic. Finally, the label “sullen” was historically applied to a particular form of resistance among the peasantry, a kind of silent work-to-rule where peasants simply ignored their feudal obligations without making any affirmative steps towards rebellion. The Night’s Watch therefore protects the landowner against the landless rural laborer, the moneylender against the debtor, and the lord against the unruly vassal.

However, we can learn two important things from this list – first, it’s unlikely that the peasants of Westeros are fully serfs (which is also indicated by the prohibition against slavery and the fact that peasants tend to move about quite often throughout Martin’s oeuvre). We also learn that the Night’s Watch is a place for bastards (and later, for second and third sons of the nobility). While incompletely egalitarian at best, the Night’s Watch does at least offer a hope for social mobility in that virtually everyone there is an outcast and most of them are low birth.

Historical Analysis:

This irony – that a place meant to keep down the lowly becomes a place where the lowly can rise, however difficult the rise – parallels nicely with the historical policy pursued by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th century of using penal colonies, chiefly to deal with a rise in property crimes brought on by the completion of the enclosure of the commons and the first true recessions under a wage-based labor market. For those looking for a good popular account of this period, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore lays out in some really inspired writing how the British turned to Australia both out of fear of the discontented lower classes and a fear of the larger state required to imprison them on British soil. And yet despite their initial enslavement and use as unfree agricultural laborers, the former convicts rose unstoppably – thanks in large part to the availability of virtually free land – to claim equal status to the so-called “Bunyip aristocracy” of soldiers and officials.

The Night’s Watch is quite different in two respects: instead of enslaving the Night’s Watch, the government of Westeros arms and feeds them as a military force (granted, much of the British military of this period was also forcibly recruited from the jails, so there’s a parallel there), and at the same time, it limits their potential rise by forbidding them the right to hold land or start families. Why this doesn’t lead to rebellion or desertion isn’t entirely clear – in part, it may be that the Gift allows the members of the Night’s Watch to enjoy the benefits of land-holding without the work, and it may be that the enmity of the Wildlings and the privations of life beyond the Wall are sufficient to prevent most from escaping into the North (historically, convicts in Australia managed some pretty dramatic escapes despite equally foreboding surroundings).

And yet in Jon Snow’s tenure, this distinction is beginning to blur. The marriage of the Magnar of Thenn to Alys Karstark, the tentative relationships forming between brothers of the Night’s Watch and wildling spearwives, the transplantation of Stannis Baratheon’s Stormlander lords, the building of beacon towers along the Wall, the settling of new peoples along the Gift – change is coming to the Night’s Watch, sooner or later.

Finally, this chapter gives us a good glimpse into the Field of Fire, the climactic battle at which the Targaryen ascendancy over Westeros can truly said to have begun. At this battle, the foot soldiers of Targaryen broke and ran before the charge of a force ten times their size, as two Andal kings sought to drive out this invader. Unfortunately for the Andals, three dragons are worth more than 45,000 soldiers, as the sheer shock of losing 4,000 men and the last Gardener King brought the heart of the Seven Kingdoms under Targaryen rule. I’m not the first to have said this, but there is an eerie similarity between the Field of Fire and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the death of Harold Godwinson brought about the end of Saxon Britain and the beginning of Norman rule, with all of the political, economic, social, and cultural consequences this brought. In both cases, a relatively small force (William the Conqueror’s army numbered only 20,000) won the battle despite an initial rout due to the sudden death of a king on the field of battle.

What’s a little frustrating about Martin’s work is that for all the thought he’s put into the series, we don’t get as clear of a sense about the consequences of the Targaryen invasion beyond the political. We know that seven kingdoms were united, we can see the creation of a royal bureaucracy, and so forth, but there isn’t much of a sense of cultural change. Unlike the Normans, who brought their own language, legal system, and culture to England, and who imposed it by force on the country for hundreds of years until they finally assimilated as English, the Valyrian heritage seems to be much thinner on the ground than that of the Andals. Surely, when Aegon conquered a continent with 1,500 men, more than just  Orys Baratheon must have gained from it. And yet, most of the Great Houses – Starks, Tullys, Lannisters, Arryns, and Martells – are either First Men, Andals, or Rhoynish in origin. There seems to be relatively in the way of Valyrian names to distinguish the new arrivals from their Andal subjects, the legal system seems to have remained largely Andal in origin, written records seem to have remained largely in the Andal tongue, and so forth.

It may well have been that the smaller invasion force compared to the conquered population, and the lack of a Valyria to drive immigration to the new lands, blunted this cultural effect, but it would be nice to see some exploration of how the conquest of Westeros shaped more than the Targaryens themselves.

What If?

Sadly, because this chapter is more about a conversation that reveals the character’s personality rather than decisions being made or actions being taken, I don’t really see much scope for hypotheticals in Tyrion II.

TV vs. Book:

This scene in the TV show is actually almost identical to that in the books, although we don’t quite get the political side of Tyrion’s perspective on the Night’s Watch, although I understand that that’s an incredibly minor detail. The main loss is unfortunately driven by the change in format – without Tyrion’s interior dialogue, we can’t learn about his fascination with dragons or get any of the info dump on dragonbone and the like.

On the other hand, as much as I like reading about that, I can only imagine how dull it would be to watch on the tv screen.

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20 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis – Tyrion II

  1. AussieChris says:

    Yeah, when I read the book some time ago my initial impressions was that it was a little like Botany Bay or other such penal colony at the time. The Wildlings trying to break into ‘south of the wall’ also remind me of Irish immigration fleeing famine and political conflict; even those that arrived here unwillingly would attempt to break out of British custody such as the 1804 Caste Hill rebellion etc (i.e. like Mormont’s murder).

  2. Koby Itzhak says:

    Firstly two corrections: ‘rapists’, not ‘rapers’. Secondly, as an amateur military historian, your statement the William the Conqueror had 20,00 men at Hastings is a gross exaggeration. Modern estimate assure us he could have had no more than 10,000, and it was likely closer to 8,000, with Godwin having about the same number. I also think the battle is rather dissimilar, since neither side was very superior to the other – Godwin may have had slightly more men and the better position, but his army was exhausted, while William had a far better variety of troops.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Rapers is the Westerosi term.

      I make no claims to accuracy as to the numbers, but I was going on the Lawson article cited on the wiki page. The military parallels are rough – the side that broke first won, the death of a king on the field – it’s more the political and cultural parallels that I see as strong.

      • Koby Itzhak says:

        Maybe. The Normans never really broke… they merely retreated. I think a better example would be something like the Battle of Crecy, where a new kind of weapon (cannon) contributed to the decisive defeat of the other side despite being outnumbered. I think it would be very hard to actually find a good parallel to the Field of Fire – there are too many details needed (heavily outnumbered, breaking, king dying), and for all the new weapons introduced, I can’t think of any battle where a weapon was as powerful and decisive as a dragon.
        Frankly, I’m much more interested in Redgrass Field, because the more I read, the less it makes any kind of sense tactically.

  3. Brett says:

    Why this doesn’t lead to rebellion or desertion isn’t entirely clear – in part, it may be that the Gift allows the members of the Night’s Watch to enjoy the benefits of land-holding without the work, and it may be that the enmity of the Wildlings and the privations of life beyond the Wall are sufficient to prevent most from escaping into the North (historically, convicts in Australia managed some pretty dramatic escapes despite equally foreboding surroundings).

    There probably would be a few who would desert and run off, but it’s not easy. The southron “recruits” in particular would stand out like sore thumbs in any villages they tried to hide in, and the North is pretty low in population density (meaning that there are no “cities” that deserters could vanish into).

    We know that seven kingdoms were united, we can see the creation of a royal bureaucracy, and so forth, but there isn’t much of a sense of cultural change.

    I don’t think there was a significant cultural change from the conquest to go with the political changes. If anything, the Targaryens from Jaeherys I onward generally tried to tie themselves into the local Andal politics and culture, even while they also tried to keep their House “above the others”. They embraced the Seven while abandoning the Valyrian gods, and installed their few favorites in a way that worked with existing customs.

    Sadly, because this chapter is more about a conversation that reveals the character’s personality rather than decisions being made or actions being taken, I don’t really see much scope for hypotheticals in Tyrion II.

    One thing that makes this chapter interesting is that it’s one of the few chapters where we see Jon from another character’s perspective. There are only a handful of those throughout the whole series, such as this Tyrion chapter, the Arya chapter, and one or two Sam chapters. Since Martin really does make an effort to show how differing perspectives on characters can shape how we see them (versus they see themselves), it’s interesting to see how someone like Tyrion sees someone like Jon.

  4. Sean C. says:

    I think that, like you say, the tiny size of Aegon’s force really would have prevented large-scale cultural change in most of the realm. Especially notable because he appears to have mostly left the old administrative structures of the Seven Kingdoms in tact, with the proviso that all the old kings (now Lords Paramount) forward some of their tax revenues to the central monarchy. The Lannisters, the Arryns, the Starks, and (eventually) the Martells were all left in place. and the Tullys, the Greyjoys, and the Tyrells were all basically coopted locals. Notably, even Orys Baratheon, the one Valyrian we know for sure to been seriously elevated by the new regime, went out of his way to cloak himself in all the symbols of Argilac, the Andal King he replaced (he took his motto, his banner, and his daughter).

  5. philbertz says:

    The main reason why black brothers don’t revolt or desert, I think, is that they are spat out by society but subsequently adopted as brothers by the men of the Night’s Watch. Group bonding is a really strong emotion, especially when you share an important and arduous goal as protecting the known world.

  6. John says:

    Another interesting aspect of their conversation is that we get a much richer view of how the Lannisters view themselves – more so than virtually any Westerosi Great House, the Lannisters see themselves as a common enterprise where Tywin the Hand, Jaime the Kingslayer, Cersei the Queen, Joffrey the Prince, and Tyrion all do their “part for the honor of [their] house.”

    This doesn’t seem quite right to me. This is how Tywin and his generation of Lannisters (Kevan and Genna, particularly; we don’t really get a good sense of Tywin’s deceased brothers, but they both seem to have been less satisfied with this model) view things, and Tywin certainly tried to instill this into his children – they all meditate on this stuff in their POVs. But I think we can definitively say that none of Tywin’s children’s really internalized this.

    Tyrion and Cersei spend the whole of the second book plotting against each other, instead of realizing that they were on the same side and should work together. Thus, most of Tyrion’s exploits as Hand involve marginalizing people who ought to be his own allies, and most of Cersei’s involve plotting against a brother who ought to be her most trusted ally. From the very beginning, Tyrion is suspicious of everyone who is loyal to his father or his sister, and determined to put in place people loyal to him, personally. He refuses various offers his father makes to give him independent commands, instead attempting to insist on leading his hill tribes back to attack the Vale, and then on fighting with them, and taking them to King’s Landing with him. In the third book, Cersei chafes at the role assigned to her by her father, and after his death she almost purposefully alienates both Kevan and Jaime, largely out of jealousy and paranoia. Jaime increasingly comes to feel that he must strike out on his own, and not take the path his father had intended for him.

    The unity of purpose that Tytos’s weakness inspired in his children is totally falling apart in the next generation. The most prominent expression of such unity in the younger generation is a twisted, monstrous parody of it, in Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous union (a union which Tywin fails or refuses to allow himself to see). The second most prominent expression of that unity if Tyrion and Jaime’s friendship, which is based on a lie that ultimately leads to Tywin’s own destruction, and which seriously distorts Tywin’s plans when Jaime attacks Ned in King’s Landing.

    So I guess – yes, there is that attitude among the older generation of Lannisters, inspired, most likely, by their sense that they had to work together to undo the results of Tytos’s laxness. But for the younger generation these are merely words that they don’t really internalize, and for Joffrey (to the extent that he sees himself as a Lannister, which is only somewhat) they don’t exist at all – he’s a pure sociopath (and Cersei comes close to being the same).

  7. Devaki Khanna says:

    Re: the lack of Valryan influence–especially in the North. If you recall, the Norman Conquest of 1066 also included an attack on the North of England (the Harrying of the the North), wherein the Normans attempted to stamp their authority on this (for that time) distant part of the country they had conquered. I don’t think anything of that sort happens when Aegon I and his sisters take over Westeros. In fact, they begin by conquering Dragonstone (rather like the Romans taking the Isle of Wight) and then begin their conquest a hundred years later.

  8. tequila says:

    IIRC, there is some cultural change – the Faith is severely restricted when the uprising of the Faith Militant is crushed. This was a major war/insurgency that went on for years and wasn’t fully stamped out, despite Maegor the Cruel’s methods, until Jaeherys I, despite the presence of dragons on the Targaryen side.

    One thing I would like to get more clarity on is how Dorne managed to resist Targaryen invasion given the presence of dragons. There’s no way they could have stood in the open field against Targaryen forces, so how?

    • stevenattewell says:

      I see that as more of a political than cultural change.

      Dorne resisted by not standing in the open field, but through relentless guerrilla warfare. Much like Spain did when facing similar odds.

  9. zireael07 says:

    This is some quite brilliant commentary!

  10. OsRavan says:

    hmmm interesting point on the lack of valyrian appointments (other than in the stormlands). Could it be because most of the targ valyrian followers (the nobles at least?) already had lands and titles in the narrow sea?

    I also wonder how much of it just has to do with the sheer size of westros. Hasnt martin said its roughly the size of south america? That means forget the lords paramount…. even lords like Tarly or Rowan or Frey or Karstark (and on and on) are ruling areas roughly the size of small countries. Far larger than lords back in europe. I mean hell, thats like what, 5 times the size of the roman empire? It could be that this makes it harder to have a massive on the ground over-haul of the nobility. Its easy to co-opt the feudal system sure (defeat the guy at the top and he swears to you) but you would probably spend decades investing every little flea pot castle to truly overhaul the culture and the local lords. I imagine thats why aegon co-opted more than he conquered.

    So I think you might be on to something with the lack of numbers/reinforcements from valyria. I mean when the Andals took over it seems like it took generations and vast numbers to slowly overwhelm the local first man nobilities.

    The sheer size of things might also be why westeros is decentralized or has the odd client king thing. Even with a competent buracracy…. how well could a king project power?

    • I lean more to the numbers thing – especially when your ruling class is also your military class, you need tens of thousands to make a genuine transformation of the ruling class work. And Aegon landed with ~3,000.

  11. Aegon’s methods of conquest were interesting. He truly was a conqueror and not an annihilator insofar as he’d raise up any who submitted as a lord, but he claimed sole kingship of the Seven Kingdoms. It could’ve been this that kept the Valyrian ways from spreading across his taken realm. Also since the Targs practiced incest, their blood not being wide spread seems understandable as well. I’m trying to recall the stories about Orys from TWOIAF, but I can’t quite. I’m sure that volume explains how dragon blood was mixed with stag.

  12. […] of a higher social caste. And while Jon Snow learns that the ranks of the Night’s Watch are made up by rapists and murderers, before his enlightenment, we learn that some black brothers have been forced into a life of […]

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