“His sister’s ire had led her to overlook the true significance of Stannis Baratheon’s letter. Without proof, his accusations were nothing; what mattered was that he had named himself king.”
Synopsis: Tyrion, Cersei, Littlefinger, and Pycelle discuss Stannis‘ letter. Afterwards, Tyrion has a tense labor-management meeting with the guild of smiths, and then goes to a brothel to meet a eunuch.
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.
Heading into Tyrion III, a chapter absolutely jam-packed with rich political detail (so buckle in, this is going to be a long one), the first thing I noticed is the difference between Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion and the book Tyrion – in this case, the change of interior dialogue to snappy rejoinder. In the books, much of Tyrion’s wittiest one-liners and putdowns are reserved for the safe confines of his own mind, giving Tyrion the aspect, not quite of l’esprit escalier, but of a man whose precarious position has taught him to guard his tongue. Show-Tyrion is a less passive, more confident, and more resilient man willing to give back as good as he gets.
Stannis’ Letter and the Art of Public Relations
The main political event of the chapter is the arrival of Stannis’ public letter. As I discussed then, this letter is an impressive innovation in Westerosi politics, and one that Stannis gets little credit for:
“If Stannis bothered with them, it’s past certain every other lord in the Seven Kingdoms saw a copy as well.”
“I want these letter burned, every one,” Cersei declared. “No hint of this must reach my son’s ears, or my father’s.”
“I imagine Father’s heard more than a hint by now,” Tyrion said dryly. “Doubtless Stannis sent a bird to Casterly Rock, and another to Harrenhal. As for burning the letters, to what point? The song is sung, the wine is spilled, the wench is pregnant. And this is not as dire as it seems, in truth.”
Cersei turned on him in green-eyed fury. “Are you utterly witless? Did you read what he says? The boy Joffrey, he calls him. And he dares to accuse me of incest, adultery, and treason!”
Only because you’re guilty. It was astonishing to see how angry Cersei could wax over accusations she knew perfectly well to be true. If we lose the war, she ought to take up mummery, she has a gift for it. Tyrion waited until she was done and said, “Stannis must have some pretext to justify his rebellion. What did you expect him to write? “Joffrey is my brother’s trueborn son and heir, but I mean to take his throne for all that?”
In one stroke, Stannis establishes his own political legitimacy at the expense of both Joffrey and Renly, much to the consternation of the former in this chapter. While the letter is sometimes seen as at least an initial failure, with the capture of Renly’s army being the real turning point, I think there is evidence to the contrary. For example, we know that Houses Massey (in the person of Ser Justin), Farring (Ser Gilbert and Ser Godry, squire Bryen), Follard (Ser Perkin), and Chyttering (Lord Lucos and Little Lycos), all Lesser Houses of the Crownlands not sworn to Dragonstone, end up in the service of Stannis despite not being present in Renly’s army. Given this, I think the fact that Stannis is targeting Houses Gyles and Stokeworth here points to a broadly successful campaign of recruitment in the the Crownlands, which in turn helps to explain that nagging problem of King’s Landing’s numbers problems. Likewise, as we’ll see later in Tyrion’s chapters, Stannis’ accusations are enough to spur full-scale riots in the capitol (which have brought down regimes in the past) as well as the Antler Men.
We also learn a lot about the Lannister camp’s grasp (or lack thereof) on public relations from how they react to the letter. Cersei goes straight for a hamfisted, tyrannical response, reminiscent of her last time in the throne room, thinking somehow that she can put the genie back into the bottle. By contrast, Tyrion displays a sophisticated understanding of how rumor spreads and the necessities of public relations. However, the situation is more complicated than Cersei = Dumb, Tyrion = Smart. Consider the following passage:
“Done in the Light of the Lord…a queer choice of words that…we can use that against him. Urge the High Septon to reveal how Stannis turned against the gods as well as his rightful king…”
“Yes, yes,” the queen said. “But first, we must stop this filth from spreading further. The council must issue an edict. Any man heard speaking of incest or calling Joff a bastard should lose his tongue for it.”
“A folly,” sighed Tyrion. “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world you fear what he might say…any man with a thimble of sense will see it for a clumsy attempt to justify usurping the crown. Does Stannis offer proof? How could he, when it never happened?”
“Your Grace, your brother has the right of this.” Petyr Baelish steepled his fingers. “If we attempt to silence this talk, we only lend it creedence. Better to treat with contempt, like the pathetic lie it is. And meantime, fight fire with fire…a tale of somewhat the same nature, perhaps. But more easily believed. Lord Stannis has spent most of his marriage apart from his wife…if we put about that her daughter is baseborn and Stannis a cuckold, well…the smallfolk are always eager to believe the worst of their lords, particularly those as stern, sour, and prickly proud as Stannis Baratheon.”
Loath as Tyrion was to admit it, Littlefinger’s scheme had promise.
On the one hand, Cersei’s limitations as a political actor are genuine and profound – not only would her recommended policy lend public credence to Stannis’ story (as Tyrion points out), but it would also further entrench public hatred for the Lannisters as bloody tyrants; indeed, the fact that she orders it as good as confirms the story for anyone sitting on the Small Council (although at this point, everyone on the Small Council already knows). Her later suggestion, that Selyse’s hypothetical partner in adultery, that “she has two brothers, I believe. And one of her uncles has been with her on Dragonstone,” betrays a weird fixation on incest (one she’ll repeat with Margaery) that makes me honestly surprised that she managed to keep anyone in the dark about her brotherlover babydaddy.
On the other hand, Tyrion shows his own limitations in this scene. While he has a good idea about turning Stannis’ religious conversion against him – after all, the people of King’s Landing are generally pious in the Faith of the Seven as we’ve seen from the Revolt of the Faithful to the Dance of the Dragons to the arrival of the sparrows in AFFC – his belief that Stannis’ letter will be assessed logically and on the basis of evidence shows an inability to put himself in the minds of others. Offering silence wouldn’t have been as bad as Cersei’s bloody campaign of tongue-removal, but it would not have stopped the tide of public opinion. Compared to Littlefinger’s keen – if highly cynical – understanding of human psychology and social resentments of the lower orders, Tyrion is clearly a journeyman in the presence of a master.
Who Knew What and When?
A second fascinating political moment comes when Tyrion catches up with Varys, who is interestingly absent for the Small Council meeting. (What he was doing at that meeting I don’t know, although it may have something to do with Tyrek Lannister – more on that later) In this conversation, we learn a lot about who knew what and when during the events of AGOT and before:
“You missed a lively council. Stannis has crowned himself, it seems.”
“He accuses my brother and sister of incest. I wonder how he came by that suspicion.”
“Perhaps he read a book and looked at the color of a bastard’s hair, as Ned Stark did, and Jon Arryn before him. Or perhaps someone whispered it in his ear.”
“Someone like you, perchance?”
“Am I suspected? It was not me.”
“If it had been, would you admit it?”
“No. But why should I betray a secret I have kept so long? It is one thing to deceive a king, and quite another to hide from the cricket in the rushes and the little bird in the chimney. Besides, the bastards were there for all to see…he fathered eight, to the best of my knowing…their mothers were copper and honey, chestnut and butter, yet the babes were all black as ravens…so when Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen slid out between your sister’s thighs, each as golden as the sun, the truth was not hard to glimpse.”
To begin with, we get clear confirmation that Varys knew about Cersei’s incestuous adultery for a long time, and was aware of both Jon and Ned’s discoveries. We also are led to believe that Varys’ knowledge about Cersei stemmed not from his spying on the Hands, but rather from his own observations and his own network of spies observing the queen and her brother (hence the references to the little bird in the chimney).
However, the main subject of controversy here is whether Littlefinger was the one who prompted Stannis to look into the bastardy question, and thus kickstarted Stannis and Jon Arryn’s investigations. On the one hand, Varys seems to be intimating that this is the case, and it would fit Littlefinger’s general pattern of working through others to achieve his ends. Certainly, I could see Littlefinger using Stannis’ distrust of him as a form of reverse psychology. On the other hand, it strains credulity that even Littlefinger could think that he could control the investigation, especially when it might lead to a hostile Stannis as heir to the Iron Throne. Moreover, it’s telling that Stannis never mentions Littlefinger in the context of the bastardy.
Finally, I think we have to consider context. After all, Varys has not yet finalized his alliance with Tyrion – the “one, two, three” moment won’t be until next chapter – so it’s absolutely in his interests to prejudice the new Hand of the King against his main rival. Varys never states outright that Littlefinger did tell Stannis, but rather presents it as one of a number of possibilities and even mentions that it was somewhat obvious just from looking at Cersei’s kids. So I’m leaning against the Littlefinger angle, at least for the moment.
The Chain and Management Strategies
The second major event of note in this chapter is Tyrion meeting with the blacksmiths of King’s Landing about the boom chain. It is impossible to overstate the tactical and strategic importance this chain had for the Battle of Blackwater, And it was Tyrion’s plan, and only Tyrion’s plan. From the beginning, Tyrion makes every effort to maintain secrecy, deliberately underplaying to Cersei what he was having built: “I’m having a gift made for Joffrey. A little chain….and this chain I believe he may one day treasure above all others…” (Incidentally, I’m not sure whether Tyrion’s constant string of short jokes is GRRM following through on Tyrion’s advice to Jon, GRRM indulging his weakness for repeating tropes, or a deep-seated psychological issue on Tyrion’s part.)
The central importance of this chain to Tyrion’s plan can be seen in the depth of his investment in it:
“Tyrion yanked the drawstring and upended the bag. Its contents spilled onto the rug. “I had these made at the castle forge. I want a thousand more just like them…I want every forge in King’s Landing turned to making these links and joining them. All other work is to be set aside…”
“Iron is grown dear,” Ironbelly declared, “and this chain will be needing much of it, and coke beside, for the fires.”
“Lord Baelish will see that you have coin as you need it…I will command the City Watch to help you find iron. Melt down every horseshoe in the city if you must…”
At a time when Tyrion is short on manpower, money, and materiel, he chooses to put all of it into the chain. This is one hell of a risk; it means his meager forces will go into battle poorly-equipped and low on supplies. But Tyrion is a commander with a keen eye for the bigger picture – at the end of the day, his army will always be smaller, greener, and less disciplined than the forces of Renly and Stannis, even if he pours all his resources into it (as Cersei’s strategy would have him do). But the boom chain can prevent those forces from being able to cross the Blackwater, rendering them strategically useless. As I’ll go into in much greater detail later, that boom chain will be the decisive factor that prevented Stannis from winning the Battle of Blackwater.
At the same time, it’s interesting to see how Tyrion’s strategy for managing the smiths of King’s Landing shows us both the strengths and limits of his political style. Tyrion clearly considers that Cersei’s heavy handed tactics – “But what of the mail and swords the queen was wanted…Her Grace said those as didn’t meet their numbers would have their hands crushed…smashed on their own anvils, she said.” – are only helping to antagonize the working people of King’s Landing. And Tyrion knows that morale is absolutely critical in sieges (most sieges, historically, ended when the people inside either surrendered or were betrayed from the inside), so he wants to play the good guy. He declares that “No one will have their hands smashed. You have my word on it.” So far, so good. But when Salloreon the master smith balks at the task of making the chain, Tyrion loses his temper: “It’s links I need, not demon horns. So let me put it to you this way. You will make chains or you will wear them. The choice is yours.“
This is not a sound strategy for managing proud guilded craftsman – Tyrion has offered neither consistent sternness nor consistent smoothness. No wonder that Salloreon will later join the subversive Antler Men faction looking to open the gates to whichever Baratheon makes it the capitol city. And it’s not like Tyrion couldn’t have managed the situation in other ways – he could have played Salloreon’s snootiness against the rest of the craftsmen to isolate and shame Salloreon, or used the crown’s effective monopoly on iron and coke, or bribed him, or accepted the offer of the armor as a face-saving measure but insisted on the chain anyway. The problem is that Tyrion isn’t used to trying to make friends.
Public Politics, Revisited
Which brings us to the issue of Tyrion and public relations. As I mentioned before, morale is not doing well in King’s Landing. Cut off from the Riverlands, Stormlands, and the Reach, and with Tywin’s army consuming much of the resources of the Crownlands, the city is starving. The child-murdering Cersei and the child tyrant Joffrey have not helped matters. To his credit, Tyrion is genuinely trying to make things better, even at the expense of military preparedness:
“He had done all he could to feed the hungry city- he’d set several hundred carpenters to building fishing boats in place of catapults, opened the kingswood to any hunter who dared to cross the river, even sent goldcloaks foraging to the west and south-yet he still saw accusing eyes everywhere he rode.”
Tyrion’s mistake is in how he publicizes his actions, or rather, how he doesn’t. Yes, all of these things are overwhelmingly for show; there’s no way a city of 500,000 increased even further with floods of refugees can be sated by fish, fowl, and forage. But let’s be honest – the few wagon loads of bread the Tyrells distributed to ease the suffering they had created is just a show with better production values. What Tyrion fails to do here is to manage the public perception of his actions: just as Tyrion should have justified removing Janos Slynt by publicizing Slynt’s corruption and Bywater’s courage in the defense of the city, or Pycelle’s arrest by publicizing Pycelle’s corruption and oathbreaking, here he should have organized soup kitchens in his own name, spent a few hours distributing venison or foraged provisions to the poor or publicly announced that he was putting himself and the Red Keep on half-rations, so that a public association was made between Tyrion’s person and his policies.
However, as I said in my larger essay on Tyrion’s Handship, Tyrion simply does not think of himself as someone who can be a hero. And for the want of a few photo-ops, a Hand fell.
Side Note: The Tunnel
Finally – the tunnel in Chataya’s brothel. I’m generally in agreement with those who think that Tywin had the tunnel built so that he could indulge his worldly desires without bending on his public anti-whore stance. Not only does it make logical sense, but it’s beautifully thematic – Tywin’s own hypocrisy provides means, motive, and opportunity for his assassination. One detail that I hadn’t noticed before that lends further credence to this theory is that Varys states that “Chataya has no cause to love the queen.” This probably refers to the murder of Barra and her child, but it would also make sense given that Tywin’s probably an old customer of Chataya’s.
If a leading Yorkist or Lancastrian had been dropped into King’s Landing when Stannis’ letter arrived, they would be utterly nonplussed by the news that Joffrey was being accused of being a bastard (although the incest angle would have raised an eyebrow). Accusations of royal bastardy were quite common during the Wars of the Roses. As one might expect in a political and economic system based on inheritance by primogeniture, the only way for the minority party to claim, well, legitimacy, was to assert the literal illegitimacy of their rivals, thus making them the true heir to the throne.
As we’ve discussed, for supporters of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, the birth of Prince Edward of Lancaster was deeply inconvenient. No one liked King Henry VI’s weak and corrupt government, but no one was willing to unseat an anointed king (especially after the deposing of Richard II had led to so much bloodshed), so the moderate position was to insist that the Duke of York be made heir so that when Henry died (god willing sooner than later), good government could be restored. Prince Edward’s birth threatened a continuation of Margaret’s rule, as so the Earl of Warwick and other Yorkists publicly argued that Prince Edward was actually the son of Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, or James Butler, the Earl of Whiltshire, on the grounds that King Henry VI was too mentally gone to have sex, and pious to a fault even when sane. (Shakespeare added William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk to the list, but that was not claimed at the time) This nicely solved the problem for Yorkists, and had the bonus of bringing dishonor on the hated queen and her two chief allies.
Likewise, when the Earl of Warwick broke with King Edward IV in the late 1460s, he was faced with a problem. He badly needed a king to support, but he was not yet willing to break completely with the Yorkist cause (after all he had been the guy who convinced Parliament to acclaim Edward king, on the grounds that Richard Plantagenet was the true king and Edward his heir), and one of his chief allies and the perfect replacement for Edward was George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence. As Edward’s next-youngest brother, Clarence had a strong claim through the Yorkist line, and was Warwick’s son-in-law to boot. The problem was that Parliament wasn’t going to let Warwick do away with King Edward IV. Warwick’s solution was to claim that Edward was a bastard, that his mother Cecily Neville (Warwick’s own aunt) had cuckolded Richard Plantagenet with a common archer named Blaybourne. Thus, George was the oldest legitimate son of Richard, Duke of York, and rightful king of England. (How Warwick expected that people would accept that Cecily had cheated on her husband the one time and not the other, I’m not so sure). Needless to say, this didn’t work out too well for Warwick, or for George, but it was the only card they could play.
Come the death of Edward IV in 1483, Richard Duke of Gloucester was in a similar position. Queen Elizabeth and her Woodville family were widely hated, Richard himself was a proven Yorkist general and a good administrator, and as the youngest and only surviving son of Richard, Duke of York, had a strong claim. The problem was that his brother King Edward had two healthy sons – Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury – and sons come before uncles. While some of his supporters repeated the old accusations about Blaybourne, this was too close to home for Richard, who instead found a previous engagement between his brother Edward and the Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Duke of Shrewsbury. This neatly solved the problem – his brother Edward was the legitimate King of England, but was a bigamist, and thus the two boys were bastards and Richard of Gloucester was the true King of England. Parliament agreed in 1484, and formally declared them bastards in the statute Titulus Regius.
Ironically, when Henry VII slew Richard III on Bosworth field, he went to great pains to have this repealed by Parliament and then censored completely, ordering every copy burnt unopened. The text of the proclamation was lost for about 100 years, and survived only through being copied into a monastic chronicle that was overlooked. One might think that Henry VII, bedeviled as he was by a number of pretenders claiming to be the vanished Edward V or Richard of Shrewsbury, would want to make it very clear that these boys were bastards and out of the line of succession. But Henry Tudor had an incredibly weak claim to the throne of England – his paternal grandfather had married Henry V’s widow, and his mother was the great-grandaughter of John of Gaunt through his mistress – both from the female side and illegitimate to boot. Only by ensuring that his wife Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter, was considered 100% legitimate, could he rest easy on the throne of England.
Before the internet, before television, and before radio, the public letter was a major device for shaping public opinion. It allowed politicians and public figures of all kinds the ability to get their argument out in front of the public in a definitive, fully worked out, impossible to misquote fashion, so that public opinion could be brought to bear on an issue. Perhaps the last public letter to really shape mass opinion was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, some 51 years ago. But in its time, the public letter was a skill that you needed to cultivate in politics.
And for my money, there is simply no one who did it better than Abraham Lincoln. While perhaps best remembered for his oratory – his Inaugural Addresses, his debate with Stephen Douglas, etc. – Lincoln was a master of the art of the public letter, which he deployed both in domestic and international politics. At home, Lincoln’s public letters were used to navigate the treacherous politics of keeping the whole of the North on board for the war – in August 1862, his public letter responding to Horace Greeley (“if I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that”) was used to straddle the difference between radical and conservative Republicans on the issue of emancipation ahead of his Proclamation; a year later, his public letter responding to Roscoe Conkling (“You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—I think differently. I think the constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?…You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union..I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you?”) was used to stem conservative Republicans’ fears over the Emancipation Proclamation and the enrollment of black troops into the Union army.
Abroad, Lincoln’s public letters were aimed at keeping European governments out of the war, by appealing to the anti-slavery sentiments of the working class. His 1863 letter “To the Working-men of Manchester” was written with an awareness that the “favor or disfavor of foreign nations might have a material influence in enlarging or prolonging the struggle with disloyal men in which the country is engaged.” The Union’s blockade of Southern cotton was causing economic devastation in the textile industry of Great Britain, a possible pretext for British intervention; but a public appeal to the anti-slavery sentiment among those workers most affected by the shortage could, and did, keep public sentiment strongly pro-Union, and prevent the British government from entering the war on behalf of the South.
So in history, as in Westeros, “some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens.”
There’s really only one decision that I think ultimately has a really significant potential for hypotheticals – the decision to go all-in on the boom chain. Yes, the Small Council could have ended up making a different decision about the public letter, but given that Littlefinger’s story didn’t seem to do any real harm to Stannis and the city’s population turned against Cersei anyway, I don’t see it being very consequential.
However, the chain is enormously consequential. Let’s say the chain had not been built but everything else had gone as in OTL – Stannis’ fleet still would have been decimated by Tyrion’s fireships – but his Lysene ships held in reserve would have been able to enter the bay. With those ships, Stannis’ ability to move his army across the river doubles. Instead of 5,000 men making it to the far bank, where Tyrion’s 6,000 men actually outnumbered them locally, now you have at least 10,000 and possibly more over the river, just as Tyrion’s forces break and abandon their posts. While it would still be a close run thing getting them over the undefended walls before Tywin’s 20,000 men crash into their flank, the irony would be that Tyrell’s 60,000 men would likely be stuck on the wrong side of the river, unable to bring their force to bear on Stannis’ army.
While casualties would still have been high, it’s quite possible that, for the lack of a chain, Stannis manages to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat. Tywin and the Tyrells would have him besieged, but until the Redwyne fleet arrives, Stannis can resupply himself from the sea. More importantly, without a Joffrey (and potentially without a Tommen as well), what’s left to hold the alliance together?
Book vs. Show:
The absence of the chain has long been a controversy regarding Tyrion’s Season 2 plotline, which is generally one of the major highlights of a troubled season. While I think you lose the element of Tyrion’s personal investment in this strategy, you lose the building mystery of what the chain is for, and the battle itself loses the bridge of ships, I actually think Benioff and Weis adjusted nicely, while preserving the spirit of the thing.
To me, the bigger loss is actually the tunnel. For one thing, the whole Season 2 arc with Shae and Cersei’s mistake with Ros doesn’t really work; Cersei’s got spies, Shae is in the Tower of the Hand, this mistake shouldn’t have been made. It also raises the difficulty of suspending disbelief when Shae’s hiding as Sansa’s handmaiden in Season 2-4. But most importantly, it eliminates the foreshadowing of Tyrion’s patricide and the reveal of Tywin’s hypocrisy. While still effective from an emotional and thematic perspective, more than a few people questioned A. how Tyrion found his way to Tywin’s bed, and B. why Tyrion was going out of his way to do this sans the reveal from Jaime. And I think the root of the problem can be traced back to decisions made in Season 2.