“Lannister…all I’ve done has been for Lannister…”
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.
Tyrion VI is an incredibly rich source of material to work with, and some of the most consistently interesting political material in the series to date. (Hardly surprising; look at how frequently Tyrion appears as a POV and you can see that ACOK is his book in the same way that AGOT was Ned’s book) In this chapter alone, we get to see Tyrion as a political actor in a myriad of contexts – fencing with his sister the Queen Regent, organizing a peace offer and a jailbreak, dealing with Ser Alliser Thorne and the problems of the Night’s Watch, chatting with Varys and Littlefinger, and then putting the kibosh on the mole inside the Small Council and it’s an impressive performance.
Tyrion’s encounter with Cersei is a multifaceted little gem, as the Hand of the King operates on many levels. First, we can see him (and GRRM) sizing up Lancel before his fall next chapter:
It seemed to Tyrion that the lad had grown three inches since being knighted….At sixteen he was cursed with all the certainty of youth, unleavened by any trace of humor or self-doubt, and wed to the arrogance that came so naturally to those born blond and strong and handsome. His recent elevation had only made him worse.”
It’s a nice portrait in miniature of the character flaws of a born patsy, but also drawn in such a way that, especially if you know what’s going to happen to him, you feel slightly bad for this teenager who’s too high on newfound social importance and his first sexual partner to think. Lancel may have murdered a king and slept with his cousin, but at the same time there’s something pitiable about the way in which he doesn’t realize how everyone around him is using him, that neither Cersei nor really anyone other than his father care about him, and the potentially horrific consequences of his actions.
“If you are here about those begging brothers, Tyrion, spare me your reproaches. I won’t have them spreading their filthy treasons in the streets. They can preach to each other in the dungeons…one even dared to say that the gods were punishing us because Jaime murdered the rightful king…I commanded Vylarr to attend to the matter.
…Tyrion had been annoyed when the red cloaks had dragged a half dozen of the scabrous prophets down the dungeons without consulting him…
I have to admit that I had completely forgotten this little incident, but it definitely fits the pattern of gradual escalation. First, it was street preachers in the streets; then it was mobs begging for bread being shot by the king; now we have a group of militant preachers who are going to be hardened by their stay in prison and a following who now have a grievance against the Lannister tyrants who jail the Faithful. Soon, it will be riots in the streets. All of this is to show that the Sparrows hardly emerge out of nowhere in AFFC; rather, they’re the logical conclusion of social pressures running underneath the day-to-day events of the War of Five Kings. Thus it makes perfect sense that they showed such disdain for Cersei in AFFC when it was Lannister red cloaks jailing their own in ACOK. And by the way, if I’m right that the High Septon is going to back Aegon VI “Targaryen,” note the foreshadowing here that the preachers consider the Targaryens to be the rightful king.
On a third level, we see Tyrion providing some exposition on the current state of play in the War of Five Kings:
“Lord Stannis has sailed from Dragonstone.”
Cersei bolted to her feet. “And yet you sit there grinning like a harvest-day pumpkin? Has Bywater called out the City Watch? We must send a bird to Harrenhal at once…”
It was all he could do to get out the words. “I can’t…it’s too…gods, too funny…Stannis…he hasn’t sailed against us,” Tyrion managed. “He’s laid siege to Storm’s End. Renly is riding to meet him.”
His sister’s nails dug painfully into his arms. For a moment she stared incredulous…”Stannis and Renly are fighting each other?” When he nodded, Cersei began to chuckle. “Gods be good,” she gasped, “I’m beginning to believe that Robert was the clever one.”
I love how Tyrion does this. On the one hand, Tyrion is playing this completely straight: this really is good news for the Lannisters, a lucky break which they’ll use to their advantage with the Starks as we’ll see later. On the other, Tyrion is using this news and his knowledge of Cersei’s psychology to get under her guard and temporarily incapacitate her:
…I loved a maid as fair as summer, with sunlight in her hair. He almost felt sorry for poisoning her…the queen was indisposed and would not be able to leave her chambers….Tyrion made the proper sympathetic noises and sent word to Cersei to rest easy, he would treat with Ser Cleos as they’d planned.
What is interesting (and revealing) about Tyrion here is that he’s using this opportunity to simultaneously undermine Cersei and try to free Jaime – fighting for House Lannister’s interests but fighting against its worst tendencies – and yet his move against Cersei is so childishly harmless. If Tyrion really was the valonqar Cersei believes him to be, she’d be dead then and there; instead, he approaches the situation as a mischievous younger brother. And this really is so much of Tyrion’s arc in ACOK and ASOS – a man caught between his love of his family and his individual sense of right and wrong (especially once Sansa enters the picture), who longs for acceptance but who fate forces to confront his family’s hatred for him until it breaks him.
The War of Five Kings: The Lannister’s Peace Offer
The big political event of Tyrion VI is the peace offer the Hand of the King makes, the counterpart to Robb Stark’s offer from Catelyn I. And like that offer, this is a decidedly lopsided proposal, a maximalist bargaining position that should remind everyone that negotiations do not begin, but rather end, with reasonable compromises:
“The Queen Regent, the King’s Hand, and the small council have considered the terms offered by this self-styled King in the North. Sad to say, they will not do…”
“Here are our terms…Robb Stark must lay down his sword, swear fealty, and return to Winterfell. He must free my brother unharmed, and place his host under Jaime’s command, to march against the rebels Renly and Stannis Baratheon. Each of Stark’s bannermen must send us a son as hostage…”
“Lord Stark will never consent to these terms.”
We never expected he would, Cleos. “Tell him that we have raised another great host at Casterly Rock, that soon it will march on him from the west while my lord father advances from the east. Tell him that he stands alone, without hope of allies. Stannis and Renly Baratheon war against each other, and the Prince of Dorne has consented to wed his son Trystane to the Princess Myrcella…we offer Harrion Karstark and Ser Wylis Manderly for Willem Lannister, and Lord Cerwun and Ser Donnel Locke for your brother Tion…his father’s bones, he will have, as a gesture of Joffrey’s good faith.”
“Lord Stark asked for his sister and his father’s sword as well.”
“Ice…he’ll have that when he makes his peace with us, not before…until such time as he frees my brother Jaime, unharmed, they shall remain here as hostages. How well they are treated depends on him.”
However, there are a few things to note here. Tyrion’s offer reveals a tension within his character – Tyrion feels bad about how his family has treated the Starks, hence offering a prisoner exchange on good terms, the proffer of Ned Stark’s bones (more on this later), the “offer” of Robb’s sister and his father’s sword. At the same time, despite how he feels, he’s still a Lannister who will fight for his House first and foremost. We know from last chapter that Tyrion’s offer is being made entirely in bad faith, in the hope that Robb Stark will be distracted by negotiations while the Lannisters ready themselves to crush him. And we learn in this chapter that Tyrion intends to abuse the very peace process to achieve his House’s goals at the Starks’ expense, putting “a thief, a poisoner, a mummer, and a murderer…in crimson cloaks and lion helms,” where they can hide beneath a banner of peace to murder Tully men and free Jaime Lannister. Note here the interesting parallel between Tyrion and Tywin; both men willing to breach inviolate customs (guest right and the sacrosanctity of ambassadors) in order to achieve their goals.
And this is where I start to disagree with some Catelyn supporters in the fandom who argue that Catelyn was a Cassandraic figure whose desire for peace was justified. I can see where this idea has some grounding in the text, but it can be taken too far. But while Catelyn couldn’t have known Tyrion’s plans from last chapter, she absolutely should have analyzed his “offer” to release Sansa (note he doesn’t actually say he’ll free them, only that he’ll hold them while Jaime is held) in the light of the fact that Tyrion’s embassy turns out to be a cover story for a covert escape attempt. The tragedy of the War of Five Kings is not that the North chose war over peace, but that there was never anyone to make peace with; even the best of the Lannisters chose victory over compromise.
By the way, keep your eye on this prisoner transfer as a through-line that echoes throughout ACOK and ASOS. Harrion Karstark, Wylis Manderly, Lord Cerwyn and Donnel Locke won’t be freed by Tyrion’s good offices, but through Roose Bolton and Robett Glover’s cunning, Vargo Hoat’s treachery, and Arya’s soup. Tion Frey and William Lannister will die at the hands of Rickard Karstark specifically because of the consequences of Tyrion’s offer. Doomed are the peace-makers.
Also at the same time, Tyrion removes Cersei’s bodyguards – “Vylarr…Ser Cleos is the queen’s cousin, and mine. We shall sleep more easily if you would see him safely back to Riverrun” – and makes himself the undisputed military hegemon of King’s Landing. From a Machiavellian perspective, he’s is firing on all cylinders and will be able to conduct the defense of King’s Landing his own way.
Ser Alliser Thorne and the Big Picture
At the same time, we have to acknowledge Tyrion’s limitations as a political leader. Somewhat understandably given the situation, he has a tendency to focus on his short-term objectives to the exclusion of all else, including long-term, big picture problems:
“I am sent to tell you that we found two rangers…they were dead, yet when we brought the corpses back to the Wall they rose again in the night. One slew Ser Jaremy Rykker, while the second tried to murder the lord commander.”
Distantly, Tyrion heard someone snigger…a dwarf enjoyed at best a tenuous hold on dignity. Once the court and kingdom started to laugh at him, he was doomed. And yet…Tyrion remembered a cold night under the stars…atop the Wall at the end of the world…he had felt -what?- something, to be sure, a dread…Don’t be a fool…a wolf, a wind, a dark forest, it meant nothing.
If there is evidence that George R.R Martin is making an argument that the political story is a distraction from the real, supernatural threat, this is some of your best evidence (along with the Tyrion chapter in ASOS when the letter from Bowen Marsh arrives). Once again, as with the peace offer, the best of the political leadership that King’s Landing has to offer might sympathize with the Night’s Watch but isn’t willing to break with orthodoxy. Although to be fair, he does “give that black brother the men he seeks, rid the city of some hungry mouths, yet make it all seem mockery.” (Which, by the way, keep your eye on Night’s Watch reinforcements and what they mean for the overall strength of the Watch post-Great Ranging.)
Littlefinger and Varys
I don’t want to spend too much time on this little interaction, because I want to get to the meat of the chapter, but I did find Tyrion’s repartee with the two grand conspirators of ASOIAF interesting. In the first place, for those who argue that Littlefinger is a criminal mastermind cruelly under-served by Aiden Gillin’s performance and/or Benioff and Weiss’ writing, let’s take a gander at how Petyr Baelish reacts after being duped by the Hand of the King:
“Lord Petyr, I sense that you are unhappy with me.”
“I love you as much as I ever have, my lord. Though I do not relish being played for a fool. If Myrcella weds Trystane Martell, she can scarcely wed Robert Arryn…I do not like being lied to, my lord. Leave me out of your next deception.”
Only if you’ll do the same for me, Tyrion thought, glancing at the dagger sheathed at Littlefinger’s hip. “If I have given offense, I am deeply sorry. All men know how much we love you, my lord. And how much we need you.”
“Try and remember that.” With that Littlefinger left them.
Subtle, always-in-control schemer this isn’t – this is a petulant whiner whose best response to being played for a fool is to say that he doesn’t like being played for a fool. This is sub-Bond villain level villainy, lacking the wit and verbal acuity of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. And once again, Littlefinger is swanning around the royal court of King’s Landing carrying an attempted-murder weapon at his waist because it makes him feel smarter than everyone else, a totally unnecessary risk.
At the same time, while Varys statement that “I grow ever more admiring of you my lord…you appease the Stark boy with his father’s bones and strip your sister of her protectors in one swift stroke…oh, deftly done,” could be taken as insincere flattery, when placed in the context of their collaboration in the Janos Slynt matter and their future collaboration during the siege, I think it’s actually genuine. Game recognize game, after all, and I think Varys actually enjoys working for a Hand who understands power.
And it may go further than that. I think we can view their collaboration – especially given the way it ends up with Tyrion working in loose affiliation with the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy – as part of a gradual, cautious recruitment effort by Varys to bring a skilled, intelligent asset into his fold. If we think of the political meta-plot of ASOIAF as consisting in a contest between two master conspiracies, as people often do, this is part of the reason why I think giving the victory to Littlefinger over Varys is mistaken (in fact the whole thing is probably a waste of time, given that both Littlefinger and Varys are likely to be due for a comeuppance because the best laid plans, etc.). If in AGOT, Littlefinger scored a point by kicking off the Stark/Lannister conflict in such a way that put the Vale in his pocket and got him an in with the Lannisters (although one that hasn’t paid off yet), furthering his own conspiracy, here in ACOK I would argue Varys scores several goals by replacing Littlefinger’s man as Commander of the City Watch with one of his own and by building a political alliance with the new Hand of the King to keep Stannis off the Iron Throne. Yes, Littlefinger will answer by building the Lannister/Tyrell alliance, getting Harrenhal, and bringing down Tyrion, but Varys will answer by destabilizing that alliance, bringing down Tywin and Kevan, and landing the Golden Company in Westeros. Between the two of them, Varys is much closer to the Iron Throne.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Maester
But if we’re talking conspiracies, the real meat of Tyrion VI is the uncovering of Pycelle as the traitor on the Small Council, set up by the “one, two, three” plan, and the great window this gives us into the inner workings of the Lannister Conspiracy:
Tyrion dragged the soft blanket off the bed, uncovering Grand Maester Pycelle beneath. “Tell me, does the Citadel approve of you bedding the serving wenches, Maester?”
…”W-what is the meaning of this? I am an old man, your loyal servant…”
Tyrion hoisted himself onto the bed. “So loyal that you sent only one of my letters to Doran Martell. The other you gave to my sister.”
“N-no,” squealed Pycelle. “No, a falsehood, I swear it, it was not me. Varys, it was Varys, the Spider, I warned you-“
“Do all maesters lie so poorly? I told Varys that I was giving Prince Doran my nephew Tommen to foster. I told Littlefinger that I planned to send Myrcella to Lord Robert of the Eyrie. I told no one that I had offered Myrcella to the Dornish…the truth was only in the letter I entrusted to you…”
Pycelle’s breathing was rapid and shallow. “All I did, I did for House Lannister…always…for years…your lord father, ask him, I was ever his true servant…’twas I who bid Aerys open his gates…”
“So the Sack of King’s Landing was your work as well?”
“For the realm! Once Rhaegar died, the war was done. Aerys was mad, Viserys too young, Prince Aegon a babe at the breast, but the realm needed a king…I prayed it should be your good father, but Robert was too strong, and Lord Stark moved too swiftly….He was a wretched king…vain, drunken, lecherous…he would have set your sister aside, his own queen…please…Renly was plotting to bring the Highgarden maid to court, to entice his brother…”
“And what was Lord Arryn plotting?”
“He knew…he was sending his wife back to the Eyrie, and his son to be fostered on Dragonstone…he meant to act…Colemon was purging, so I sent him away. The queen needed Lord Arryn dead, she did not say so, could not, Varys was listening, always listening, but when I looked at her I knew.”
There’s a lot to unpack here:
- first, there is Pycelle’s own human wretchedness. He has systematically violated every aspect of his vow as a maester – he has been disloyal to every single King and all but one Hand he has ever served, he routinely violates his oath of celibacy, and he’s violated the principle of primum no nocere. He’s also just personally unpleasant, a liar, a letch, a sniveling coward, a suckup, and a massive hypocrite (regarding Varys).
- second, there is a lot of insight into the Lannister Conspiracy and especially the way in which the decentralized nature of its organization makes it highly unstable and unpredictable. Pycelle is a Lannister mole on the Small Council, it’s overwhelmingly likely that Cersei was told this by her father, but there’s no communication between Pycelle and Cersei to allow for coordination. We also see the remarkable passivity of the conspiracy – they knew that Renly and Loras were planning to replace Cersei with Margaery, knew about Jon Arryn’s plans, and yet did nothing to prevent either outcome from coming to place outside of a few half-assed assassination attempts. And how damn stupid is Pycelle when he allows Jon Arryn to die of poison and knows that Arryn was investigating Cersei’s infidelity and still tells Eddard Stark about his final words and the book?
- third, there is something interesting with the way that Pycelle interprets loyalty to the Lannisters. On the one hand, his devotion to Tywin is genuine and all-encompassing; we learn here that he hoped that Tywin would be able to make himself King (dream on, there was no way that the Lannisters could have ever claimed the Iron Throne with literally every other Great House either part of the Northern Alliance or viewing Tywin as a murderous traitor). On the other hand, Pycelle seems to have also become personally loyal to Cersei – note his public objection to Tyrion sending away Cersei’s guard, on top of informing against Tyrion for her – over the Lannisters as a whole, despite the fact that Tyrion was appointed by Tywin himself.
More on this in the next Tyrion chapter.
There’s not a good historical parallel in this chapter, so check back next time.
There’s a huge scope for hypothetical scenarios in this chapter, so let’s get into it:
- What if there was a different traitor? I’ve already talked about the impact of the different offers, but here I want to focus on the impact of the arrest, because there’s some real changes here. If Littlefinger is in prison, then he’s got no opportunity to make the Lannister/Tyrell alliance (although someone will be sent), which may well butterfly away the Purple Wedding, or at least the part of the Purple Wedding that involves fingering Tyrion and kidnapping/liberating Sansa. If Varys is in prison – if in fact you can successfully imprison Varys – then things also change again. Tyrek Lannister probably never disappears; the Antler Men possibly open the gates to Stannis’ army; Tyrion doesn’t manage to escape King’s Landing and doesn’t have the opportunity to kill Tywin.
- What if a different peace offer? I highly doubt that the Lannisters would ever have accepted the Stark’s terms (or if a peace was possible sans Arya), but had the Baratheon brothers not been distracted at this moment, they might have accepted a temporary peace with the full intention of betraying the Starks later. So it’s possible that Sansa might have been traded as part of a larger peace, which dramatically changes Sansa’s plot (although it possibly places her in the way of the Red Wedding), and possibly spares Jaime’s hand and keeps Brienne at Catelyn’s side. Likewise, Tion Frey and Willem Lannister might well survive. Also, while it’s hard to quantify these things, Robb Stark with Ice in his hands and his sister by his side would have been a more potent symbol of a successful Northern war effort, especially if Robb is able to trade Sansa to the Tyrells for their support – more of which in the future.
- No clandestine rescue? Now here’s an interesting question. If the Lannisters don’t try to screw over the Starks and Tullys with this underhanded play, it’s possible that Ser Jaime doesn’t lose his form due to being chained to a wall for six months, and might win his duel with Brienne, which possibly means he escapes both her and the Bloody Mummers. Likewise, if Tion Frey and Willem Lannister are freed before Rickard Karstark kills them. Moreover, one has to wonder if the prisoners from Harrenhal had been sent to Riverrun rather than freed by Roose Bolton, whether Rickard Karstark would have been mollified by his son’s presence, which keeps Robb Stark’s army at peak non-Frey strength. Likewise, if Ser Wylis Manderly isn’t with Roose Bolton’s men at the Ruby Ford, it’s possible he either dies at the Twins or escapes, which definitely means that Wyman Manderly has a much freer hand in ADWD.
Book vs. Show:
In terms of the show’s adaptation of this chapter, I think we can point to some good things – Tyrion’s interrogation of Pycelle is one of my favorite season 2 scenes, a lovely bit of dark comedy, and any scene with Conleth Hill is amazing. I do think it’s strange that they drop the whole poisoning Cersei scene after setting it up with his earlier scene with Pycelle, and arguably they do the same thing with Ser Alliser. Now on one level, I understand that if you’re not going to do Tyrion’s clandestine mission, you don’t need Cersei being given laxatives, and that it’s a waste of money to hire Owen Teale for one scene in Season 2. On the other hand, if you’re not going to do either of those things, why set them up in the first place?