“The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.”
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.
Reading Tyrion II is a bit like “taking a healthy gulp” of a rich Dornish red, a multi-layered drink that shows George R.R Martin bringing some of his best work to bear, both on the level of plot (as we see Tyrion taking to his new position as Hand of the King in a way that Eddard Stark never could have dreamed of, character (as Tyrion begins to find out how difficult it is to “do justice” in an unjust world and makes choices about how to carry it out), and theme (as Martin uses the swinish figure of Janos Slynt to echo and ground the later dialogue on the nature of justice and loyalty and the nature of power and belief).
So let’s get right into it.
Tyrion Dismantles Janos Slynt
A good part of why this chapter is so enjoyable to read is the anticipation of comeuppance – unlike Janos Slynt, we know that Tyrion Lannister is way too smart to fall for the same trap that Eddard did, so we can bask in our superior foreknowledge and concentrate on how and why Tyrion takes the Lord Commander of the City Watch apart. However, a canny observer can also learn a lot about Tyrion’s strengths and weaknesses as a political actor from this scene.
To begin with, Tyrion’s use and control of information is impeccable here. Under the guise of getting Janos Slynt’s recommendations for who should replace him as Lord Commander when Slynt hypothetically takes over as Lord of Harrenhal, he manages to learn everything he needs to know to dismantle Slynt’s (and Littlefinger’s – more on this in a second) control over the City Watch simply by withholding his intentions. Moreover, Tyrion’s information-gathering here is buttressed by an unseen earlier conversation with Varys about the City Watch that gave him the information he needed to know in order to seize command over six thousand men with seven men, by bringing Janos Slynt to the Red Keep away from his barracks – and Tyrion is cautious enough to double-check what Varys told him by running it past Janos Slynt:
“I have been glancing over the names you put forward to take your place as Commander of the City Watch.”
“…I’d choose Allar Deem. My right arm. Good good man. Loyal…Allar Deem’s the man for you…Doing for a babe, and her still on the tit, that takes a certain sort. Not every man’d do it…A hard man for a hard job, is Deem. Does as he’s told, and never a word afterward.”
“Bywater. Well. Brave man, to be sure, yet…he’s rigid, that one. A queer dog. The men don’t like him…Ser Jacelyn thinks overmuch of himself and his honor, as I see it.”
This gift for information-gathering and interpretation stands Tyrion in very good stead as he pries open Janos Slynt in reference to two major questions – firstly, who was responsible for the murder of Robert’s bastards, and secondly, who was responsible for the execution of Eddard Stark.
On the first question, it initially seems that Tyrion has failed to get Janos to open up: “You’re a sly one, Tyrion. Thought you could trick me, did you? It takes more than wine and cheese to make Janos Slynt tell more than he should…Never a question, and never a word afterward, not with me.” This suggests that Tyrion’s later statement that “it was my sister. That was what the oh-so-loyal Lord Janos refused to say. Cersei sent the gold cloaks to that brothel” is the kind of jumping to conclusions that we’ll see later with other mysteries that is less conclusive than it first appears.
However, if we look closer, Tyrion’s actually got more of a handle on this. By making his initial threat to have Janos sent to the Wall without any visible backing, Tyrion gets Janos Slynt’s back up and as he bristles, he reveals his backers: “I am the king’s friend, you know. We shall see what Joffrey has to say about this. And Littlefinger and the queen, oh, yes. Janos Slynt has a good many friends.” Now, we know why Joffrey is counted among Slynt’s friends – Slynt carried out the execution of Ned Stark on his instigation. We know why Littlefinger is his friend – Littlefinger sold Slynt the office and recieved kickbacks from Slynt’s system of corruption, protected him from Jon Arryn and Stannis Baratheon, and negotiated Slynt’s promotion for betraying Ned Stark. But the mention of the queen, so shortly after the issue of the “whore’s bastard” is raised, suggests that Tyrion’s conclusion is on point. Varys confirmation later that “your own sweet sister…it is a hard thing to tell a man, my lord,” puts more weight behind this. Moreover, we can also see it in Varys’ probing question to Tyrion of “what threat could she pose,” trying to see if Tyrion knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s child and thus Robert’s bastards genuinely are a threat to Cersei.
At the same time, Tyrion’s skill with information is imperfect when it comes to the second qeustion. While he successfully teases out that the execution of Ned Stark was Joffrey’s work (a major part of his mission from Tywin – and one wonders why Tyrion never sent back dispatches to Harrenhal to show his father the progress he was making), he misses something more important:
“Consider Eddard Stark, my lord. I don’t suppose he ever imagined his life would end on the steps of Baelor’s Sept..they say even Varys was surprised.”
Lord Janos laughed so hard his gut shook. “The Spider…knows everything, they say. Well, he didn’t know that.”
“How could he?…he had helped persuade my sister that Stark should be pardoned, on the condition that he take the black.”
“It does seem my sister was telling the truth about Starks’ death. We have my nephew to thank for that madness.”
“King Joffrey gave the command. Janos Slynt and Ser Ilyn Payne carried it out, swiftly, without hesitation…”
“…almost as if they had expected it. Yes, we have been over this ground before, without profit. A folly.”
I’ll talk about this more when I get to the second discussion of Varys’ riddle in a bit, but Tyrion misses the hidden hand of Littlefinger here. If Cersei wasn’t involved in having Ned Stark executed, and Joffrey was, Tyrion doesn’t think to ask who put the idea in Joffrey’s head (even when Varys brings it up later) – which might have led him to the question of who benefited from committing the Starks and Lannisters to an all-out war.
As we’ll see in a bit, this characterizes Tyrion’s storyline – as a gifted first-timer, Tyrion has a firm grasp on the fundamentals of political power, but not quite the higher subtleties, and those subtletiesare where the danger will come from.
A Question of Mercy
Another interesting aspect of Tyrion’s style as a political actor is that he tries to combine Machiavellian methodology (for more on which, see my essay in Hymn for Spring) with a sense of (if not morality and decency) a sense of proportion or mercy. Thus, he exiles Janos Slynt rather than going to “head on pike”; thus he’ll imprison Pycelle but not murder him. Some might say that Tyrion’s sense of mercy is ultimately what brings him down – but I think the situation is more complicated than that. After all, Tyrion is willing to use violence when necessary (something that Eddard was not willing to do):
“The carrack Summer’s Dream sails on the morning tide. Her master tells me she will call at…Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. When you see Lord Commander Mormont, give him my fond regards, and tell him that I have not forgotten the needs of the Night’s Watch.”
“It’s a long voyage, and Lord Slynt will want for company. See that these six join him…tell the captain it would not be taken amiss if that one should happen to be swept overboard before they reach Eastwatch.”
However, I think Tyrion’s ultimate downfall comes from somewhere else – his disregard for symbols and the public face of power. For example, Tyrion’s decision later in this chapter with regards to the “sudden plague of holy men” to “let them rant” will have devastating political consequences later on in terms of helping to stimulate the King’s Landing riot and devastating personal consequences in spreading the meme of the “twisted monkey demon” rather than the heroic “Halfman” meme. As much as Tyrion is not “interested in treasonous table talk,” he needs to be interested in what the people think and feel about him. As I have argued, in part because he believes himself deep down to be unlovable and thus unloved, Tyrion neglects this part of politics to his disadvantage, allowing the conditions of his downfall to form around him.
Practical Power and the Riddle
Tyrion’s focus in the meantime is on the practical foundations of power. And to give him credit, he does a far better job than Eddard of understanding the critical importance of a monopoly on violence. Tyrion’s focus on Janos Slynt as his first target is quite rational: “with the City Watch in hand, my lord, you are well placed to see it it that his Grace commits no further…follies” by depriving Joffrey of the ability to enforce his rule with force (beyond the minor resource of the Kingsguard) and ensures that Cersei cannot act against him with much hope of success. As Tyrion puts it: “he did not see what Cersei could hope to do about it. Tyrion had the City Watch now, plus a hundred-and-a-half fierce clansmen and a growing force of sellswords recruited by Bronn…Vylarr’s loyalty is to Casterly Rock. He knows I am here with my father’s authority. Cersei would find it hard to use his men against me….”
At the same time, though, Cersei’s motto from the show that “power is power” is wildly mistaken – military force is ultimately less important than the source of military force. Tyrion commands the City Guard because Tywin has the authority to name him Hand (and because Varys chooses to help him against Littlefinger), and he commands the clansmen and sellswords because he can promise them payment in the name of the family. If he loses that imprimatur from the patriarch of the Lannister family, as he does at the end of ACOK, his military strength can vanish over night.
Which brings us to the riddle, and the question of its import for Tyrion and for the reader. I’ll reproduce the riddle in full below so I can refer to it in some detail:
“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or to,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, two many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
“Just so…yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, who do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or…another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
To begin with, it should be noted that Varys points directly to the question of military power vs. authority by noting that swordsmen obey kings even when the kings are Joffrey. This in turn echoes the earlier discussion of Janos Slynt’s role in the execution of Ned Stark – Janos Slynt argued that the King had the ultimate call whether or not to execute Eddard; however, both Tyrion and Varys point to the technical authority of Cersei and the moral authority of the High Septon as alternative sources of power. Moreover, this very chapter is another argument against that crude theory – on paper, Janos Slynt has 6,000 men to Tyrion’s 150, but Tyrion has the leverage to get Janos to a vulnerable position and the symbolic authority to remove him from office.
While on the surface, this seems to suggest that the power in Baelor’s Sept rested in the image of the monarchy as an uncontestable source of authority, we have to remember that the execution was pre-arranged before Joffrey gave the supposedly unavoidable order to take off Ned’s head. And it was arranged not by Joffrey or Ilyn Payne, but another – namely, Littlefinger, who exercised power by hiding behind where men believe it resides” and executing a “mummer’s trick” of misdirection. Despite having every motive to distrust Littlefinger, despite knowing that Littlefinger betrayed Ned Stark through Janos Slynt, and despite the hint from Janos Slynt in this chapter, Tyrion doesn’t solve that part of the riddle and draw the connection between Littlefinger and the execution of Ned Stark (despite having a mandate from Tywin to kill him for his involvement in that folly).
On another level, however, Tyrion doesn’t solve the riddle of people’s belief in where power resides in that he continues to ignore the importance of public opinion. As much as “it rankled, to sit here and make a mummer’s show of justice by punishing the sorry likes of Janos Slynt and Allar Deem,” Tyrion badly needed to make a mummer’s show that could swing the people of King’s Landing around to his side – instead he acted without explanation. It would have been quite easy to have spread the word of Janos Slynt’s corruption and brutality (indirectly damaging Cersei and feeding into Tywin’s dislike of the man) and thus gained favor from the common folk who Slynt either brutalized or shook down for money. His failure to do so allows a counter-narrative to form that Tyrion was the source of corruption and Janos Slynt the whistleblower. The same thing will happen with Pycelle – it would have been quite easy for Tyrion to spread the word that Pycelle had broken his maester’s vows and that was why he was jailed, given how apt the population are to believe the worst about people in power. Instead, the story gets out that Pycelle is an unjustly imprisoned man – and Tyrion a tyrant.
On a meta level, this quote is quite important for understanding GRRM”s political argument in this book – the idea of kingship has power, but there are other sources of power out there in the world that can act through the idea of kingship which people neglect or ignore at their peril. We’ll see this with Renly’s shortsighted embrace of might makes right, we’ll definitely see this in Stannis’ embrace of Melisandre’s religious and mystical power (which so often works through the power of kings), and we’ll see this in the invisible net of words and wings that are forming around Robb Stark.
As I’ve discussed before, the kind of large police force we see in King’s Landing was not found in medieval England – or indeed anywhere in Europe until the Renaissance, simply because the feudal state didn’t have the organizational capacity to keep so many men on the payroll in times of peace. We do find police systems in the ancient Empires – China’s model of local prefects (appointed by local magistrates appointed by regional governors appointed by the emperor) who investigated crimes and then brought their findings to the local magistrate was influential throughout East Asia; the Emperor Augustus created a system of wards for the city of Rome that were patrolled by 7,000 “vigiles” (or watchmen) who were primarily responsible for apprehending thieves and robbers and fighting fires (the investigation of capital crimes was traditionally a duty of the quaestors), who were backed up by the Urban Cohorts during times of urban unrest.
After the publication of the “Princess and the Queen” and “Rogues,” the historical parallel to the Goldcloaks seems much closer to the Praetorian Guard in that Janos Slynt’s use of the City Watch in a counter-coup echoes the revolt of the City Watch in favor of Queen Rhaenrya during the Dance of the Dragons. Interestingly, we also learn in “Rogues” that the semi-professionalization of the institution, at least as far as the state providing equipment and a standard uniform and some limited training, only goes back about 180 years to Daemon Targaryen’s reforms.
What’s interesting is that the medieval English policing model – a Norman adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon system, the Assize of Arms of 1252 authorized the appointment of local constables to oversee local watchmen, summon men to arms in times of breaches of the peace, and bring lawbreakers to the royal sheriffs, who would then be responsible for bringing the accused in front of a judge and/or jury, which was followed up by the Statute of Winchester of 1285 which required localities to establish a system of watchmen and required all freemen witnessing a crime to raise a “hue and cry” informing localities of the suspect and assisting in the pursuit of the syspect – doesn’t exist in Westeros. In our history, the decentralized system was an attempt to get around the fiscal and organizational limits of the feudal state by offloading unpaid responsibilities on the locality and on the individual subject, and within the context of a rural agricultural society, functioned more or less adequately. Only when the rapid urbanization of England began to kick in when the anonymity of the city and the rich and poor living shoulder-to-shoulder caused a massive wave of property crime did the authorities gradually move in the direction of a modern professional police force in the 19th century.
However, this kind of institutional compromise between a central police force and local responsibility doesn’t seem to have happened in Westeros, where every local lord has the right of “pit and gallows” but seems not to have created any more comprehensive measures for policing outside of deploying his own personal guards – perhaps due to the Targaryen dynasty’s neglect of institution-building during the period in which royal power rested securely on the backs of dragons. Instead, we have this strange situation in which prefeudal “kin policing” seems to be in effect throughout much of the countryside with an imperial police force in the capitol city and in the City Watches of Oldtown and Lannisport (and one presumes likewise in Gulltown, Plankytown, and White Harbor) and some kind of gate guards in the smaller ports.
There’s not a huge scope for hypotheticals here, but I’ve identified a few interesting little possibilities here. I’m sure the commenters will have some more to throw in:
- Tyrion has Janos Slynt killed? If Tyrion was not quite so intent on being a kindler, gentler Machiavellian, it’s quite possible that Slynt would have fallen off the boat as well as Allar Deem. His death would have the most impact in ASOS – without Slynt, it’s quite possible Jon Snow never gets thrown in a dungeon cell on Rattleshirt’s word, or sent out to assassinate Mance Rayder, which means that Jon Snow’s position commanding the Wall is not disturbed. On the other hand, this means that Jon Snow is not on hand to grab the Horn of Winter or defend Mance’s child when Stannis attacks; gods only know what happens to either in that scenario. Moreover, there is the question of where Slynt’s support goes during the election – it’s quite possible that Bowen Marsh and Ser Alliser might have had to throw their weight behind either Cotter Pyke or Denys Mallister without a candidate of their own, potentially butterflying away Jon’s election and his rapprochement with the wildlings.
- Tyrion makes the connection to Littlefinger? I’ll develop this in more detail when I get to Tyrion’s meeting with the Master of Coins in Tyrion IV, but I’ve always been curious why a character as smart as Tyrion doesn’t make the connection between Littlefinger, Janos, and Ned Stark’s death. After all, Tyrion’s been sent down to King’s Landing to find out the source of misgovernment within the royal court, and the chiefest of follies, the reason why Tywin can’t pivot to fighting Renly and Stannis, is the work of Littlefinger conspiring behind Cersei’s back. You’d think Tywin and Cersei would be interested to know of his disloyalty – and it could have very easily led to Littlefinger’s downfall. However, you can really see the dominoes falling in that instance – with no Littlefinger at this point, Sansa ends up in Highgarden rather than the Vale, which has the possibility to really throw the War of Five Kings on its ear, but also means little possibility of northward movement as the Stark children gradually begin to reunite in ADWD.
- Tyrion publicizes Slynt’s corruption? Now, this is a more modest change, but I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Tyrion had spread the word that Slynt was sent to the Night’s Watch for manifest corruption and murder as part of a campaign to get the public thinking of Tyrion as the hard-but-fair reformer trying to save King’s Landing. While he’s not going to escape public opprobrium entirely, I do think Tyrion could have begun to build a power base among the artisan and merchant classes who would have been the targets of Slynt’s protection rackets and used that to make the “Halfman” image something closer to that of an unlikely hero, which potentially could have aided him when Joffrey died.
Book vs. Show:
For all that Benioff and Weiss come in for criticism here and amongst the fandom generally, I would say that their writing is somewhat underrated. While it’s true that you get the occasional clunker, I do think they have a gift for concentrating Martin’s work into more resonant scenes as opposed to the slower pace that he likes to do – I’m thinking here of the way that Tyrion and Varys’ riddle conversation is deftly handled in one scene in Season 2 instead of being spread out over two chapters and rather overexplained. Likewise, take this conversation between Tyrion and Janos Slynt:
“Are you drunk? If you think I will sit here and have my honor questioned…”
“What honor is that?”
Is it really better than this? I think not.