“When a king dies, fancies sprout like mushrooms in the dark.”
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.
Thematically, Tyrion VIII is a study in political advantage in a world of feudal politics; what’s a bit odd is plot-wise it comes in kind of a relatively slow-paced setup chapter whose importance isn’t immediately apparent to the first time reader, and right before the fireworks of the King’s Landing riot and the Battle of Blackwater.
The Nature of Rumor
One of the real advantages of the limited-third person POV that George R.R Martin uses is that he gets to play around with partial information in interesting ways. Here, we the audience knows what’s really happened to Renly while the Small Council doesn’t, just as we know better than the folks in King’s Landing what’s actually going on north of the Wall, further emphasizing the way in which the political center is getting distracted from what’s really important:
“It would appear Renly was murdered most fearfully in the very midst of his army. His throat was opened from ear to ear by a blade that passed through steel and bone as if they were soft cheese…A groom says that Renly was slain by a knight of his own Rainbow Guard. A washerwoman claims Stannis stole through the heart of his brother’s army with his magic sword. Several men-at-arms believe a woman did the fell deed, but cannot agree on which woman. A maid that Renly had spurned, claims one. A camp follower brought in to serve his pleasure on the eve of battle, says a second. The third ventures that it might have been the Lady Catelyn Stark.”
At the same time, we’re also learning a lot about the power and limitations of rumor as a factor in intelligence work. On the one hand, Varys’ intelligence is incredibly accurate as to the matter of Renly’s death, which suggests he had an agent on hand to see the body before Loras took it. On the other hand, the confusion of events means that even a seasoned professional like the Spider has to parse through contradictory reports (although it’s possible he’s hiding the truth amidst false reports intentionally, as he will do later in ASOS). The groom and the first men at arms fit in with Loras’ version of events, the third man at arms has clearly conflated Catelyn’s proximity for culpability, and only the washerwoman comes anywhere close to the truth, but once again the fantastical is dismissed in favor of the politically plausible.
Another interesting detail here is the relationship between Varys and Littlefinger. Contrary to any supposition that they might secretly be working together, it’s pretty clear that the two of them hate each other:
“Dear dear Petyr,” said Varys, “are you not concerned that yours might be the next name of the Hand’s little list?”
“Before you, Varys? I would never dream of it.”
“Mayhaps we will be brothers on the Wall together, you and I.”
While I don’t think that Varys and Littlefinger are going to wind up in the Night’s Watch any time soon, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they do check out at the same time.
The Creation of a Very Specific Threat
A second key issue that Varys’ intelligence brings up is that Stannis had garnered the support of most of Renly’s army at Storm’s End. One of the things we can see from this is how GRRM’s tight plotting has created Stannis as a carefully calculated threat:
“The greater part of his foot remains at Bitterbridge. Most of the lords who rode with Lord Renly to Storm’s End have gone over banner-and-blade to Stannis with all their chivalry.”
“Led by the Florents, I’d wager.”
“Not Loras Tyrell, nor Randyll Tarly, nor Mathis Rowan…a fifth of Renly’s knights departed with Ser Loras rather than bend the knee to Stannis…Ser Loras is likely making for Bitterbridge…his sister is there, Renly’s queen, as well as a great many soldiers who suddenly find themselves kingless. Which side will they take now? A ticklish question. Many serve the lords who remained at Storm’s End, and those lords now belong to Stannis.”
It’s crucial for the plot that Stannis be genuinely capable of threatening King’s Landing, and so Stannis now has 15,000 knights added to the 5,000 soldiers he had already, which gives him three times as many troops as Tyrion has to hand, just enough to make an assault viable. However, it’s also crucial that Stannis doesn’t become the same kind of war-ending behemoth that Renly was, in order to make the eventual outcome of the Battle of Blackwater plausible and his later conflict with Mance Rayder more dramatic, so the “greater part of his foot” remains at Bitterbridge waiting for Randyll Tarly to remake the military calculations of Westeros with fire and sword.
On a political level, there remains a bit of confusion about which houses (and their attendant military forces) went where. Given the size and power of the Tyrells, Tarlys, and Rowans and those who went with them (a topic I’ll cover more in Davos II), it’s unlikely that 5,000 men represents the whole of their horse. So where are the rest of them?
Another issue that’s crucial here is timing – as I’ll discuss in a second, there are critical timing issues involved with Loras and Mace Tyrell getting to Bittebridge, but it’s also important for the plot that Stannis be somewhat delayed at Storm’s End. After all, it needs to be plausible that Tywin, who’s about to march west to the relief of the Westerlands, should be able to get back in the nick of time before Stannis’ army crushes Tyrion’s defenses. Thus, “we should thank the gods that Ser Cortnay Penrose is as stubborn as he is. Stannis will never march north with Storm’s End untaken in his rear.” This ensures that Stannis will be delayed just long enough – more of which on in Davos II.
The Foundation of the Tyrell/Lannister Alliance
While Tyrion’s resentment of his father in ASOS largely revolves around being robbed of credit for the Battle of Blackwater, I would argue that Tyrion’s more impressive feat is his initiative in seizing the opportunity to redraw the political battlelines of the War of Five Kings by bringing the Tyrells into alliance with House Lannister. It’s very clear in this chapter that, while Varys was involved in bringing the intelligence to Tyrion and mentioning the open question of the loyalty of the Reach, this is very much Tyrion’s call:
Tyrion leaned forward. “There is a chance here, it seems to me. Win Loras Tyrell to our cause and Lord Mace Tyrell and his bannermen might join us as well. They may have sworn their swords to Stannis for the moment, yet they cannot love the man, or they would have been his from the start…they loved Renly, clearly, but Renly is slain. Perhaps we can give them good and sufficient reasons to prefer Joffrey to Stannis…if we move quickly.”
“What sort of reasons do you mean to give them?”
“Gold reasons…honors, lands, castles.”
“Bribes might sway some of the lesser lords,” Tyrion said, “but never Highgarden.”
“It seems to me we should take a lesson from the late Lord Renly. We can win the Tyrell alliance as he did. With a marriage.”
“…You mean to wed King Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell.”
There’s a distinct difference here between Littlefinger and Tyrion’s grasp on the matter (or at least how much of a grasp Littlefinger chooses to display here) – Littlefinger suggests bribery while dismissing the warrior ideology of honor as any kind of a barrier, whereas Tyrion shows a keener grasp of human psychology and is faster to understand that “The Knight of Flowers is the key.” While Littlefinger’s methods do work – look how he’s corrupted so many of the lords of the Vales – there are limitations, as he can’t really manipulate people like Bronze Yohn Royce who aren’t motivated by money, nor can he really bribe a house as rich as the Tyrells. By contrast, Tyrion understands the non-material desires of people around him, in this case Loras’ desire for vengeance and Mace Tyrell’s intense desire for a royal connection that would elevate his house’s social standing above the many houses of the Reach who can boast a stronger connection to the Gardener kings.
Moreover, as with Myrcella, Tyrion has a good eye for the long-term, especially the advantages of dynastic alliances. Littlefinger is far too much of an improviser and too ego-driven to make long-term alliances – if you look at the people who ally or work for him, his relationships are all transactional, and often quite acrimonious.
Cersei’s Reaction and the Prophecy
In light of what we learn about Cersei from her AFFC chapters, Cersei’s reaction to the idea of marrying Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell offers a lot of insight into her psychology and the impact of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy on her motivation:
“Joffrey is betrothed to Sansa Stark…”
“Margaery is said to be lovely . . . and beddable besides…”
“My son is too young to care about such things…Joffrey is made of finer stuff.”
“So fine that he had Ser Boros rip off Sansa’s gown.”
“He was angry with the girl…”
“The Stark girl brings Joffrey nothing but her body, sweet as that may be. Margaery Tyrell brings fifty thousand swords and all the strength of Highgarden.”
“…You would not speak so if you were women. Say what you will, my lords, but Joffrey is too proud to settle for Renly’s leavings. He will never consent.”
This passage is Exhibit A why I firmly believe that Cersei was afraid that Sansa might have been the younger, more beautiful queen, and it explains why she continually declares over and over again that Sansa is dumb, because an unintelligent woman wouldn’t be a threat to Cersei. Cersei doesn’t give a damn whether Sansa is brutalized in open court – in fact, in so far as it shows that Sansa can’t manipulate Joffrey, her abuse makes Cersei feel more secure about her future safety. It’s a chilling example of how suffering does not automatically bring about empathy or morality in those who endure it, and why so often the oppressed seek to elevate themselves by disdaining other individuals or groups who experience the same thing, even if they don’t go to the extent of becoming oppressors themselves.
Politically, it’s a weird inversion of the normal logic of dynastic alliances – as an isolated hostage from a rebel House, Sansa brings no political advantages to her betrothal to Joffrey, but that also means that Sansa can’t possibly develop political influence that might threaten Cersei’s grasp on power. So long as Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey, Cersei can rest easy that the prophecy can never come to pass. However, Margaery has all of the features of the younger queen. Margaery is both physically beautiful and sexually available to Joffrey (which Cersei can’t be), which sends Cersei into immediate denial. Margaery also has access to enormous military and economic power, which would give her enormous influence within the court, and would make it extremely difficult for Cersei to replicate the same level of control over her that she has over Sansa.
This passage also gives us an interesting perspective into Cersei’s relationship with Joffrey. Her attempt to prevent Joffrey from becoming an abuser was clearly doomed from the beginning – her admonitions run completely counter to her need to disparage Sansa as her potential enemy and her twisted understanding of what a strong ruler looks like. Instead of intervening, Cersei goes into denial, because to truly comprehend the situation would be to admit her own complicity in re-creating her own marriage in her son’s betrothal. The same factors seem to be behind Cersei’s belief that Joffrey is not sexual – because Cersei doesn’t believe in male sexuality that’s not grounded in sexual aggression and violence (with the exception of Jaime), if she recognizes that Joffrey has a sexuality (let alone his unique brand of sexual sadism), it means that Joffrey has become like Robert, because all men like Robert.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
The need to send an embassy to the Tyrells creates an opening for the various players on the Small Council to try to remove their rivals from the capitol – in political systems that don’t recognize a distinction between the person and the office, this is the kiss of death (the end of many a political career in the Middle Ages and Renaissance ended with banishment, as opposed to lobbying and speaking gigs). Of course the irony here is that continued proximity to power means keeping one’s self in the path of an oncoming army:
“If we send you, Tyrion, it will be as if Joffrey went himself. And who better? You wield words as skillfully as Jaime wields a sword.”
“You are too kind, sister, but it seems to me that a boy’s mother is better fitted to arrange his marriage than any uncle.”
“Your Grace, my lord Hand,” said Littlefinger, “the king needs both of you here.”
“”You?” What gain does he see in this? Tyrion wondered.
“I am of the king’s council, yet not the king’s blood, so I would make a poor hostage. I knew Ser Loras passing well when he was here at court, and gave him no cause to mislike me. Mace Tyrell bears me no enmity that I know of, and I flatter myself that I am not unskilled in negotiation.”
He has us. Tyrion did not trust Petyr Baelish, nor did he want the man out of his sight, yet what other choice was left him?
Cersei and Tyrion’s fencing is rather obvious, and one gets the sense that it’s all rather half-hearted. Cersei doesn’t have the power to send Tyrion anywhere, and Tyrion doesn’t have the pretext to send Cersei away. Littlefinger’s move is much more interesting.
Now, in the past I’ve tried to correct for what I believe to be a fairly widespread over-estimation of Littlefinger as a conspirator – Littlefinger is not a flawless mastermind, and has some rather glaring weaknesses. However, I do have to give credit where credit is due, because this is a rather brilliant maneuver. At worst, Littlefinger secures his personal safety and gets the hell out of a potentially besieged city; at best, Littlefinger can parlay political carte blanche and 300 soldiers into real political power. And indeed, with the Purple Wedding, we see how much Littlefinger is able to leverage the relatively modest amount of power he’s given here.
However, this is not a Xanatos Gambit, with Littlefinger having pulled the strings for years. Rather it’s an improvisation – Baelish could not have planned for Renly’s death or the Tyrells’ ability to defect and make it to Bitterbridge to become players (imagine if Stannis gets to Bitterbridge first or manages to capture Loras), and there were significant risks that his embassy could have failed. Littlefinger’s embassy could have been attacked, negotiations could have failed, or Littlefinger might have been just a day late to get the details to Tywin.
In the past, I’ve talked a bit about how Littlefinger resembles Thomas Cromwell. But now that Littlefinger has embarked on the mission that most neatly parallels his career and that of the legend of Putney, it feels appropriate to talk about how Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power was bound up by his working relationship with Anne Boleyn. Any suggestion that this is related to me devouring Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, the Broadway play of same, the BBC TV series of same, some recent biographies, and getting a bit obsessed about Cromwell is entirely without merit.
If anything, Cromwell’s rise to power was even more meteoric than his Westerosi counterpart. Baelish started with his feet on the lowest rung of the nobility, but Cromwell started as the son of a Putney blacksmith – a fact that would be used to his advantage and disadvantage throughout his career. After running away from home at an early age, Thomas spent several years as a mercenary, a banker, and a cloth merchant in Italy and the Lowlands before returning to England where he quickly established himself as a lawyer with a gift for land law. As with Littlefinger, his financial and legal acumen and their usefulness to powerful men would be key to his fortunes.
As Jon Arryn was to Littlefinger, Cardinal Wolsey was to Cromwell – he became Wolsey’s lawyer and adviser, and helped the Cardinal dissolve (i.e, seize the land and other arrests of) a number of monasteries in Northern England to pay for the creation of Cardinal (later Christ Church) College at Oxford, another skill that would be highly useful to his later career. But while Cromwell was a tireless loyalist of Wolsey and would never have betrayed him as Littlefinger betrayed Jon Arryn, as long as Wolsey was in power, Cromwell would never be anything but his lawyer.
But within a month of Wolsey falling from power in 1529, Cromwell was an MP in Parliament despite defending the most hated man in England. Within six months, Cromwell was working for Henry, helping to seize the land that Wolsey had seized for his colleges for the king. A month after Wolsey’s death in 1530, Cromwell was a Privy Councilor. What could explain this sudden, phoenix-like political resurrection?
Ultimately it comes down to Cromwell making himself useful to Henry and to Anne, whom Cromwell shared a cosmopolitan gift for languages (both spoke fluent French and had spent much of their lives on the continent), a taste for the finer things in life (Cromwell’s experience in the cloth markets putting him in good stead with the luxury-loving court), and a secret adherence to Protestantism. Where Wolsey had failed to bring about Henry’s divorce within the Catholic Church, Cromwell showed the way to accomplish it outside the Church.
In 1532, Parliament passed several key bills authored by Cromwell through parliamentary maneuvers orchestrated by Cromwell – the Act in Restraint of Annates suspended church taxes paid to Rome and steered the 30,000 pounds a year into Henry’s coffers, while the Supplication Against Ordinaries was a parliamentary petition to the king attacking the Church’s independent legislative and judicial powers (this last part was the crucial issue, as Henry’s divorce was in church courts)and declaring the king “the only head, sovereign, lord, protector, and defender” of the English Church. When the Convocation of Canterbury (the Church’s major legislative body) attempted resistance, they were threatened with legal charges of praemunire unless they paid 100,000 pounds (equal to about 32 million today). The Convocation submitted.
The following February, Cromwell’s crown jewel, the Restraint of Appeals declared that:
“this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.”
Any appeal from English religious courts were forbidden, which allowed Thomas Cromwell’s ally (and Anne Boleyn’s former confessor) (and secret Protestant) Thomas Cranmer to sit in judgement on Henry’s divorce as the Archbishop and declare the union dissolved in May of 1533. June 1st, Henry and Anne were wed. And not so coincidentally, Thomas Cromwell was now Master of the Jewel House and Chancellor of the Exchequer, giving him control of English finances.
What came later…well, you’ll have to wait to find out.
There’s no way that Tyrion or Cersei are leading the embassy, so there’s really only one interesting hypothetical here:
- the embassy fails? Littlefinger’s mission is not an easy one. The timeline is exceedingly tight – in two bare months, Littlefinger has to travel the 520 miles across a warzone to Bitterbridge, the messenger has to get from Bitterbridge to Tywin’s army (roughly 600 miles, depending on where Tywin retreated to), the Tyrells have to march 410 miles from Bitterbridge to Tumbler’s Falls, and then Tywin has to force march 260 miles in time to meet up with Mace before Stannis breaks down the gates of King’s Landing – and everything has to go right in order for GRRM’s plot to work. If anything slips – if Littlefinger or the messenger is captured or attacked or even delayed, even so much as by a few hours, then King’s Landing falls to Stannis.
- And the various stages where things could go wrong lead to very different outcomes – let’s say Littlefinger never makes it to Bitterbridge, either due to bad luck or because he decides to play it safe and head to the Eyrie instead. King’s Landing is going to fall, but Tywin’s in the field, and god only knows what savagery happens when someone like that with an army that’s still above 10,000 men goes bandit. More importantly, the Tyrells are unlikely to bend the knee, given Stannis’ grudges, the internal politics of the Reach, and Loras’ influence – it’s quite possible the Reach breaks away from King’s Landing. In that scenario, you could see Westeros break apart into the North and the Riverlands (and technically the Westerlands) vs. the Iron Islands (and parts of the North) vs. the Crownlands and Stormlands (the Durrendon kingdom restored!) vs. the Reach, with the Vale and Dorne in splendid isolation.
- Let’s say the messenger never makes it to Tywin. I really do not think Mace moves on his own – there’s a reason his army waited at Tumbler’s Falls all that long while – which could lead to the interesting outcome where the city falls despite both Tywin and the Tyrells being on the same side. What happens then? Does Mace back on the deal, since the material basis for the deal is dead? Make a new deal? (Tywin’s not married, after all) I think this one would largely depend on whether Tywin can retake control of the Westerlands or whether Robb can close the net on him.
Book vs. Show:
Littlefinger in Season 2 gets a lot of criticism – this is the season when the term “Middlefinger” gets coined, after all – but I think the picture is a bit more mixed than people give the show credit for. To begin with, Littlefinger being present at Storm’s End to negotiate with Renly and then with the Tyrells is a good innovation, and it’s hardly more teleportational than his flitting about in the books (seriously, look at the miles we’re talking about above, and then add Littlefinger’s jaunt to the Eyrie and back in two weeks in ASOS). And his being there gives us a much better opportunity get Margaery’s character fleshed out more; her mission statement about wanting to be “the queen” vs. “a queen” is key to understanding what comes next.
However, I do agree that Littlefinger’s sidetrip to Harrenhal is rather unnecessary. So it’s not that I think the criticism is completely off-base, it’s more that it’s a bit selectively forgetful. Season 2 has many faults, but Benioff and Weiss are not consistently awful – it would be a lot easier to explain when/where the show goes off the rails if they were.