“The unshaven and the unwashed stared at the riders with dull resentment from behind the line of spears. I like this not one speck, Tyrion thought…”
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 IX holds a special place in my heart, as it is the moment in the main ASOIAF series where the smallfolk of Westeros make themselves known as a political force. It’s not the only moment in the history of Westeros – as I discuss somewhat here and in more detail in my essay “Revolt From Below,” which you can (eventually) read in Hymn for Spring, there are many instances where the smallfolk have been a profoundly political force. But this is where it all started.
The Dornish Alliance
But before we get to all that, let’s discuss some of the things that come up before the riot kicks off. To begin with, Myrcella Baratheon is sent off to Dorne with a heavy naval escort, because:
“If the girl was captured before she reached Sunspear, the Dornish alliance would fall to pieces. So far Doran Martell had done no more than call his banners. Once Myrcella was safe in Braavos, he had pledged to move his strength to the high passes, where the threat might make some of the Marcher lords rethink their loyalties and give Stannis pause about marching north.”
I had honestly forgotten that Doran moving Dornish military forces to the border with the Stormlands had been part of the deal. It’s an interesting detail, because it shows us something about how the Prince of Dorne uses the threat of power to win concessions and influence the strategic behavior of others without actually committing any resources. A very early hint that, despite his outward show of passivity, Doran Martell is actually getting a surprising amount done.
Another little detail that’s worthy of note is the role that Braavos is playing in the Martell/Lannister “alliance.” Tyrion “had engaged the Braavosi to bring her the rest of the way to Sunspear. Even Lord Stannis would hesitate to wake the anger of the greatest and most powerful of the Free Cities.” For a supposedly neutral power, Braavos is surprisingly (if subtly) active in Westerosi politics when you add this to the fact that the Sealord witnessed the pact between Ser Willem Darry and House Martell, to say nothing of the Iron Bank’s actions in AFFC/ADWD.
The War of Five Kings: The Importance of Timing
Another idea that crops up in the pre-riot lull is the critical role that timing plays in the upcoming Battle of Blackwater. To begin with, we see the critical importance of Ser Cortnay Penrose in ensuring that Stannis doesn’t attack until Tyrion has the boom chain ready:
“Tyrion glanced back to where the Rush emptied out into Blackwater Bay and was relieved to see no signs of sails on the wide green horizon. At last report, the Baratheon fleet still lay off Storm’s End, where Ser Cortnay Penrose continued to defy the besiegers in dead Renly’s name. Meanwhile Tyrion’s winch towers stood three-quarters complete. Even now men were hoisting heavy blocks of stone into place, no doubt cursing him for making them work through the festivities. Let them curse. Another fortnight, Stannis, that’s all I require. Another fortnight and it will be done.”
That fortnight is crucial to GRRM’s plotting of the battle, because (as we’ll discuss in full in Davos II) if Stannis had marched directly on King’s Landing, he would have arrived 22 days earlier than in OTL, when Tywin was still fighting at the Fords, far too far away to intervene in time. Speaking of which, their arrival is also very precisely timed:
“He wondered again about Littlefinger. There had been no word from Petyr Baelish since he had ridden off for Bitterbridge. That might mean nothing – or everything. Even Varys could not say. The eunuch had suggested that perhaps Littlefinger had met some misfortune on the roads. He might even be slain…more likely, the Tyrells were balking at the proposed marriage.”
If relief arrives too early, the battle loses its drama; if relief arrives too late, then the battle is lost. And the two parts have to work together – if the chain wan’t finished when Stannis attacked but Tywin got the message in time, then the Bay would have remained open, Salladhor Saan’s fleet could have sailed in to transport Stannis’ army across the river, allowing him to force his way into the city before Tywin and the Tyrells (great band name, btw) could arrive, and denying the Tyrell’s center and vanguard a target on the southern bank. If the chain was finished, but Tywin hadn’t gotten the message in time, Stannis’ forces on the north bank could have secured the city while the remainder could have been portaged across the bay and then marched to the city.
Cersei and the Kettleblacks (another great band name)
Another key pre-riot development is the ongoing struggle of wills and wits between Tyrion and Cersei that we’ll see played out as a game of espionage and counter-espionage
I know your secret, Cersei, he thought…Cersei would don a plain brown traveler’s cloak and steal off to meet a certain hedge knight with the unlikely name of Ser Osmund Kettleblack, and his equally unsavory brothers Osney and Osfryd. Lancel had told him all about them. Cersei meant to use the Kettleblacks to buy her own force of sellswords.Well, let her enjoy her plots. She was much sweeter when she thought she was outwitting him. The Kettleblacks would charm her, take her coin, and promise her anything she asked, and why not, when Bronn was matching every copper penny, coin for coin? Amiable rogues all three, the brothers were in truth much more skilled at deceit than they’d ever been at bloodletting. Cersei had managed to buy herself three hollow drums; they would make all the fierce booming sounds she required, but there was nothing inside. It amused Tyrion no end.
There are a couple things that jump out here: first, Cersei is being unusually active against Tyrion, which on a second read-through we know is partly because of Maggy’s prophecy, but also because whatever else you might say about Cersei as a conspirator, she does understand the critical importance of maintaining a monopoly on violence. Second, we can see that Tyrion really does excel at this kind of tradecraft, planting agents inside Cersei’s camp, and then turning her agents. Third, on the second read-through, knowing that Littlefinger is actually a third party behind the Kettleblacks, you really do have to give him credit as a spy of the first order. Fourth, I do think there’s something to this idea of the Kettleblacks as miles gloriosus – who will inevitably fail anyone who employs them, just as they’ve failed Cersei in her hour of need. Which means Littlefinger is due.
The King’s Landing Riot – Preparations, the Mother, and King Bread
Now that we’ve cleared the decks, let’s get to the main event. As the party sets out, we can already see GRRM starting to layer in foreboding with the silent crowd (see the before-the-jump quote) and Tyrion’s intensive preparations, which will do nothing to prevent the debacle (shades of the best-laid plans of mice and men):
“Ser Jacelyn Bywater went in front, heading a wedge of mounted lancers in black ringmail and golden cloaks. Behind him came Ser Aron Santagar and Ser Balon Swann, bearing the king’s banners, the lion of Lannister and crowned stag of Baratheon…two of the Kingsguard flanked the couple, the Hound on the king’s right hand and Ser Mandon Moore to the left of the Stark girl…Ser Preston Greenfield, and then Cersei, accompanied by Ser Lancel and protected by Meryn Trant and Boros Blount…. a double column of guardsmen brought up the rear.”
While this might seem like mere detail, I think GRRM is actually laying some thematic groundwork. On the one hand, we have an ostentatious show of authority – the twin banners silently pointing out who actually sits on the Iron Throne – backed up by military might. However, all of this knightly power is essentially the military equivalent of the 1% vs. the 99% – all of that armor, all of those weapons, all of those horses, all of those years that these men have spent training in arms without having to work for a living, are funded by feudal taxes extracted by threat of force (or out in the Riverlands, the actual use of force) from the unarmed, unarmored, shoeless mass of civilians who are going to go to war with their masters with their bare hands.
The thematics kick into high gear with the appearance of the mother and her dead baby, a symbolic figure who seems to have come straight out of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (thinking here of the Marquis St.Evrémonde’s carriage running down the peasant child in the streets of Paris, or the broken wine cask set-piece):
“Halfway along the route, a wailing woman forced her way between two watchmen and ran out into the street in front of the king and his companions, holding the corpse of her dead baby above her head. It was blue and swollen, grotesque, but the real horror was the mother’s eyes…the coin bounced off the child and rolled away…the mother never once blinked. Her skinny arms were trembling from the dead weight of her son…the mother heard her. Somehow the queen’s voice cut through the woman’s ravaged wits. Her slack face twisted in loathing. “Whore!” she shrieked. “Kingslayer’s whore! Brotherfucker!” Her dead child dropped from her arms like a sack of flour as she pointed at Cersei.”
This nameless woman and her starved child personifies the toll of hunger and privation that is war in winter – the human cost of the Tyrell’s embargo on grain, the net result of Littlefinger’s entry fees. Here she comes face to face with the woman who arguably started it all, and the contrast is chilling: motherhood twisted, with one woman birthing her own nephews and the other carrying death instead of life; the imbalance between Cersei’s insincere charity and the “sack of flour” that could have saved a baby’s life. The result is a rage that will set the city on fire.
At the same time, however, we can also see in the riot the power of Stannis’ public letter – the accusation of incest and adultery has clearly stuck in the public imagination. The idea that a king or lord could engage with their subjects through rhetoric and persuasion is often discounted or dismissed in ASOIAF and its fandom. The assumption is that people will believe only what is convenient for them to believe based on their own interests and loyalties, and that the only thing that really matters is the allegiances of the Great Houses that make up the game of thrones. However, this scene shows otherwise – ideas have power, even in Westeros,a dn the beliefs of the masses can be swayed to enormous effect. For all that Stannis is seen as uncharismatic and a poor politician, his public letter is remarkably influential, undermining the legitimacy of Joffrey and Tommen’s monarchy and stirring people to rebellion across a broad swathe of Westerosi society. Did Renly ever accomplish a political feat of that extent?
Of course, one thing that helps to decide how well people respond to Stannis’ arguments is the political environment the common people of King’s Landing find themselves in. In this case, we have King Joffrey opening his mouth at the worst possible time:
“I want the man who threw that!…a hundred gold to the man who gives him up…Bring the man who flung that filth!…he’ll lick it off me or I’ll have his head…Dog, cut through them and bring-“
As I’ve said before, Joffrey’s sadism and hatred of the commons has been steadily wearing down the bonds of allegiance between the king and his subjects to a thread under immense tension. And with this last provocation, issued not from the safety of castle battlements but directly to their face, the people of King’s Landing see that their liege sees them as victims not subjects. The thread breaks.
It as this point that the crowd begins to speak, after a book and a half where the only political voices in this series have spoken in the accents of the powerful. Deciphering their speech isn’t easy, because you’re dealing with an organism made up of a hundred thousand thinking cells:
“A few voices raised a cry of “Joffrey! All hail, all hail!” as the young king rode by, but for every man who picked up the shout, a hundred kept their silence. The Lannisters moved through a sea of ragged men and hungry women, breasting a tide of sullen eyes.”
“A tumult of sound drowned his last words, a rolling thunder of rage and fear and hatred that engulfed them from all sides. “Bastard!” someone screamed at Joffrey, “bastard monster.” Other voices flung calls of “Whore” and “Brotherfucker” at the queen, while Tyrion was pelted with shouts of “Freak” and “Halfman.” Mixed in with the abuse, he heard a few cries of “Justice” and “Robb, King Robb, the Young Wolf,” of “Stannis!” and even “Renly!” From both sides of the street, the crowd surged against the spear shafts while the gold cloaks struggled to hold the line. Stones and dung and fouler things whistled overhead. “Feed us!” a woman shrieked. “Bread!” boomed a man behind her. “We want bread, bastard!” In a heartbeat, a thousand voices took up the chant. King Joffrey and King Robb and King Stannis were forgotten, and King Bread ruled alone. “Bread,” they clamored. “Bread, bread!”
To begin with, it’s interesting to see the breakdown of loyalty – even after Joffrey’s thoughtless execution of Eddard Stark plunged the kingdom into war, even after Joffrey’s wanton murder of their neighbors, there remain some people in the crowd who still maintain their loyalty to the anointed, crowned, enthroned king. At the same time, we can see that Stannis’ letter has poisoned the well – the accusation is omnipresent, swirling in the air held in thousands of lungs like an epidemic virus.
However, what prevents the King’s Landing Riot from being truly revolutionary is that it seems to be genuinely spontaneous, rather than organized, because the crowd can’t get behind a single candidate. Split between Robb, Stannis, and even Renly in an ideological clash of kings mirroring the actual there’s no way to focus the energy of the crowd into a united force. As we’ve seen in the past, the King’s Landing mob can hurl royal families and their court out of the city, but it requires consensus behind an alternative. In the absence of a frontrunner, the mob creates a symbolic figure of their own: King Bread. A perfect synecdoche of the desire for legitimate authority and life-giving sustenance, King Bread fits into the English tradition of fictitious rebel leaders – Robin Hood, Captain Swing, Ned Ludd, all figures that never really existed but gave the common people an invincible hero figure to rally behind and put fear into the hearts of the wealthy.
The King’s Landing Riot – Political Consequences
Riots always bring about consequences, and in this case, among the consequences of the King’s Landing Riot are a marked political shift among the general population:
“We held the city today, my lord, but I make no promises for the morrow. The kettle is close to boiling. So many thieves and murderers are abroad that no man’s house is safe, the bloody flux is spreading in the stews along Pisswater Bend, there’s no food to be had for copper nor silver. Where before you heard only mutterings from the gutter, now there’s open talk of treason in guildhalls and markets.”
“Your eunuch must have told you, there is small love for the Lannisters in King’s Landing. Many still remember how your lord father sacked the city, when Aerys opened the gates to him. They whisper that the gods are punishing us for the sins of your House—for your brother’s murder of King Aerys, for the butchery of Rhaegar’s children, for the execution of Eddard Stark and the savagery of Joffrey’s justice. Some talk openly of how much better things were when Robert was king, and hint that times would be better again with Stannis on the throne. In pot-shops and winesinks and brothels, you hear these things—and in the barracks and guardhalls as well, I fear.”
There’s actually a lot going on here. First, the “open talk of treason in guildhalls and markets” will eventually give rise to the Antler Men – another sign, as I have suggested above, that Stannis is able to generate loyalty in surprising quarters. Second, the mentioning of Aerys and Rhaegar’s children reminds me a lot of the increasing mentions of Targaryen loyalists in AFFC, showing that GRRM is seeding some ideas well ahead of time. Third, this “small love for the Lannisters” is a really persistent force – while the crowd’s dislike for the Lannisters seemed to have been banished by the arrival of Margaery Tyrell in ASOS, the success of the Sparrow movement in AFFC owes a lot to the public’s resentment toward the Lannisters and their perceived lack of legitimacy (as I discuss in my “Revolt from Below” essay). In light of AFFC, the Tyrell’s public relations coup looks a lot more fleeting. Indeed, if we look at the social history of crowd actions and social movements, there is almost never a case where radicalization is permanent and unawavering; it’s much more common for them to have an almost oceanic ebb and flow, where sudden lulls can disguise a gathering storm. Thus, we shouldn’t mistake a temporary regrouping for something more long-term.
At the same time, one of the political consequences of the riot is a similarly long-lasting blot of Tyrion’s reputation among the masses. This moment is critical for Tyrion’s character, to the point that I’d put this chapter up there with his trial and his confrontation with his father in ASOS:
“They hate my family, is that what you are telling me?”
“Aye…and you most of all, my lord.”
“Most of all?” The injustice was like to choke him. “It was Joffrey who told them to eat their dead, Joffrey who set his dog on them. How could they blame me?”
“His Grace is but a boy. In the streets, it is said he has evil councilors… it is you they blame most. Your sister and the eunuch were here when times were better under King Robert, but you were not. They say that you’ve filled the city with swaggering sellswords and unwashed savages, brutes who take what they want and follow no laws but their own. They say you exiled Janos Slynt because you found him too bluff and honest for your liking. They say you threw wise and gentle Pycelle into the dungeons when he dared raise his voice against you. Some even claim that you mean to seize the Iron Throne for your own.”
“Yes, and I am a monster besides, hideous and misshapen, never forget that.” His hand coiled into a fist. “I’ve heard enough. We both have work to attend to. Leave me.”
Tyrion’s self-conception as a Hero With Bad Publicity who is denied his rightful acclaim by the public’s ableism, yet who nonetheless maneuvers to save those who hates and fears him is at the very heart of his arc in ACOK, and will culminate with his sally to the bridge of burning boats during the Battle of Blackwater, and his subsequent betrayal and fall from power (indeed, one can argue that Tyrion’s overall arc goes something like this: Book 1, begins to think he can be something more; Book 2, becomes a hero with bad publicity; Book 3, makes a decision to become the villain the world thinks he is; Book 5, gradually learns he doesn’t have to be).
At the same time, as I have argued, I don’t think this was inevitable. If Tyrion had paid more attention to public relations, he could have used the same tradition of evil councilors to play up Janos Slynt’s brutality and corruption, Pycelle’s oath-breaking, lechery, and treason, and established himself as the Halfman in the public’s imagination. Reformer, war hero, underdog – these are qualities that could have been harnessed, had Tyrion believed that he could have any reputation other than a monster.
The King’s Landing Riot – The Cost
At the same time, we can’t forget that popular uprising always have human costs, no matter how glorious their causes. Whether we’re talking the journées of the French Revolution, the Boston Massacre, the February Revolution, the Keil Mutiny, or the Arab Spring and the color-themed Revolutions in our own time, thousands and thousands of people die in these spasms. In the case of the King’s Landing Riot, the cost was almost apocalyptic:
“Fire!” a voice screamed down from atop the barbican. “My lords, there’s smoke in the city. Flea Bottom’s afire.”
Tyrion was inutterably weary, but there was no time for despair. “Bronn, take as many men as you need and see that the water wagons are not molested,” Gods be good, the wildfire, if any blaze should reach that…“we can lose all of Flea Bottom if we must, but on no account must the fire reach the Guildhall of the Alchemists, is that understood?”
Now, I’ll discuss what might have happened if the fire had spread in more detail in the correct section, but it is interesting to note that, shortly after Tyrion complains about being hated by the masses, he shows that he’s perfectly willing to sacrifice the poorest section of the city to save the rest. It points to an irony in Tyrion’s character, that as much as he rails against being called a monster because of his appearance, he actually has a monstrous side of his character that is just as ruthless, vindictive, and uncaring as his father. It’s not the whole of his character, and its usually kept in check by the better angels of his nature – until the end of ASOS when he reaches his limit.
But while we’re talking about casualties, the butcher’s bill from the King’s Landing Riot does not come cheap:
“three gold cloaks went down under the surge, and then the crowd was rushing forward, trampling the fallen man…Tyrion saw Aron Santagar pulled from the saddle, the gold-and-black Baratheon stag torn from his grasp. Ser Balon Swann dropped the Lannister lion to draw his longsword. He slashed right and left as the fallen banner was ripped apart, the thousand ragged pieces swirling away like crimson leaves in a stormwind. In an instant they were gone…Lady Tanda, half crazed with fear for her daughter Lollys…the High Septon spilled from his litter, screeching prayers as the crowds swept over him…Ser Preston Greenfield of the Kingsguard riding back toward the High Septon’s overturned litter…”
“The list of the slain was topped by the High Septon, ripped apart as he squealed to his gods for mercy. Starving men take a hard view of priests too fat to walk, Tyrion reflected.
Ser Preston’s corpse had been overlooked at first; the gold cloaks had been searching for a knight in white armor, and he had been stabbed and hacked so cruelly that he was red-brown from head to heel.
Ser Aron Santagar had been found in a gutter, his head a red pulp inside a crushed helm.
Lady Tanda’s daughter has surrendered her maidenhood to half a hundred shouting men behind a tanner’s shop. The gold cloaks found her wandering naked on Sowbelly Row.
Tyrek was still missing, as was the High Septon’s crystal crown. Nine gold cloaks had been slain, two score wounded. No one had troubled to count how many of the mob had died.”
There’s a lot going on here. First, it’s interesting to note the way that the mob goes after sources of authority – the destruction of the royal banners are a huge sign that (despite the continuation of the “evil councilors” ideology) the mob is attacking the symbolic power of both Church and State, and it’s unclear how far the High Sparrow would have gone had these institutions not been shaken by the riot. Second, the case of Lady Tanda is sadly not that unfamiliar in that the crowds of history rarely act as the morally virtuous capital-letter People or Working Class, and the same impulse that brings down tyranny can also bring about gendered or racial oppression. Third, the vanishing of Tyrek is a great mystery that I will discuss in full later on.
Fourth, there’s also a running theme of the deconstruction of chivalry. It starts with the brutal reality of these warrior-caste elites being pulled down and beaten to death by people with empty hands and empty bellies; it continues with the fact that so many of the Kingsguard show themselves to be completely unworthy of their white cloaks and that the only one who tries to follow the script – Ser Preston Greenfield, who turns his horse around to try to rescue the living avatar of the Seven – is unromantically butchered for his naivete. And of course, it reaches its apogee with the rescue of Sansa:
Sandor Clegane cantered briskly through the gates astride Sansa’s chestnut courser. The girl was seated behind, both arms tight around the Hound’s chest…Blood was trickling down Sansa’s brow from a deep gash on her scalp. “They . . . they were throwing things . . . rocks and filth, eggs . . . I tried to tell them, I had no bread to give them. A man tried to pull me from the saddle. The Hound killed him, I think . . . his arm . . .” Her eyes widened and she put a hand over her mouth. “He cut off his arm.”
Clegane lifted her to the ground. His white cloak was torn and stained, and blood seeped through a jagged tear in his left sleeve. “The little bird’s bleeding. Someone take her back to her cage and see to that cut.” Maester Frenken scurried forward to obey. “They did for Santagar,” the Hound continued. “Four men held him down and took turns bashing at his head with a cobblestone. I gutted one, not that it did Ser Aron much good.”
This is Mallory turned on its head – on the one hand, you have a lone knight saving a fair maiden, with whom he shares a courtly romance; on the other, the only one who actually lives up to the duties of knighthood is the one who refuses to become a knight. Instead of the bloodless Errol-Flynning of Hollywood, here rescue involves mutilation, murder, and the unfairness of a fight between a sword and a cobblestone. And rescue involves not liberation, but continued captivity.
Surveying the damage done, Tyrion finally lashes out at Joffrey and the Kingsguard who have abetted his sadistic bullying:
“Traitors,” Joffrey was babbling excitedly, “I’ll have all their heads, I’ll-“
The dwarf slapped his flushed face so hard the crown flew from Joffrey’s head. Then he shoved him with both hands and knocked him sprawling…
“You set your dog on them! What did you imagine they would do, bend the knee meekly while the Hound lopped off some limbs? You spoiled witless little boy, you’ve killed Clegane and gods now how many more, and yet you come through unscathed. Damn you!” And he kicked him.
…“Ser Mandon, you were her shield.”
Ser Mandon Moore remained untroubled. “When they mobbed the Hound, I thought first of the king…”
“The others take your fucking cloaks! Take them off if you’re afraid to war them, you bloody oaf…but find me Sansa Stark or I swear, I’ll have Shagga split that ugly head of yours in two…”
On a surface level, this is immensely cathartic; someone is finally standing up to Joffrey, really for the first time since Sansa I of AGOT, and calling out the false knights who have shown themselves not only to be abusers, but cowards as well. However, if we look closer, we can see that Tyrion is making a huge mistake, not only because he’s creating the evidence that will be used against him at trial, but also because he doesn’t really accomplish anything by his outburst.
As Machiavelli says, “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.” If Tyrion really believes that Joffrey is a threat to Tyrion himself and the Lannister regime, he should ensure that any action taken against Joffrey is decisive rather than personally satisfying.
Another reason why Tyrion might be making a huge mistake is that it’s quite possible that Tyrion’s physical attack on the King and his verbal attack on the Kingsguard is the catalyst for Ser Mandon Moore’s assassination attempt at the Battle of the Blackwater, whether at Joffrey’s command in revenge for the assault, or possibly simply because he doesn’t like being insulted. More on this later.
Varys and Tyrek
Now that we’ve discussed everything else, let’s talk about Varys and Tyrek. It is noticeable that Varys is nowhere to be seen when the riot kicks off – as we’ve seen with the Purple Wedding, we have to be very careful when a major conspirator is suddenly absent at the same time that someone else disappears. Moreover, Varys’ comment that he was “about the king’s business, my sweet lord,” is incredibly suspicious when we consider his true loyalties.
So the question becomes, not why has Tyrek been kidnapped, but how that kidnapping benefits (f)Aegon. While most speculation has focused on the fact that Tyrek is a potential heir to Casterly Rock (if that was what Varys was after, why not kidnap Sansa at the same time?), or even the fact that Tyrek is betrothed to the heiress of House Hayford. However, at this point, I don’t think that Varys could have foreseen that Tywin, Jaime, and Tyrion (to say nothing of Willem and Martyn, or Cersei) would have been out of the picture – even if he was planning to “winnow the field” somewhat, that’s a lot of assassinations before Tyrek is the heir.
Rather, I think the key here is Tyrek’s role as Robert Baratheon’s squire alongside Lancel – which makes him an unimpeachable witness to Cersei’s adultery, incest, and regicide, all charges she continues to deny prior to her trial by the Faith. If Varys is looking to put Aegon on the throne, Tyrek coming forward at the right time and place could see Tommen toppled or at least publicly discredited, just as Aegon VI lands pushing the Targaryen claim to the throne.
In part because so many medieval sources focus entirely on the actions of royalty, nobility, and the church, and because medieval society was so unequal and hierarchical, there’s often something of a popular conception (one very much present in a lot of fantasy novels) that “the masses” don’t really become a player in politics until the time of the French Revolution.
As I’ve discussed before, the urban crowd was actually quite a potent, if somewhat inconsistent, force in premodern politics. During “the Anarchy,” the London mob balked the Empress Matilda at the height of her power, forcing her to cancel her coronation as Queen of England – the historical basis for GRRM’s storming of the Dragonpit forcing Rhaenrya out of King’s Landing to her fate on Dragonstone. 80-odd years before the Wars of the Roses, the Great Peasants’ Revolt had seen the common people of London in alliance with the rural peasantry occupying the Tower of London, destroying Savoy Palace, and killing the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer of England before they were betrayed and dispersed. Throughout the Wars of the Roses, the London mob was key to control of the capitol, and tended to have Yorkist sympathies due to the popularity of the Earl of Warwick as a pro-merchant, anti-piracy figure. It was the London mob that stopped Margerite D’Anjou after her triumph at Wakefield, and the mob that elevated Edward IV to the throne.
And even if we look to to the era of the French Revolution, we can see a number of premodern features that fit with GRRM’s depiction of the King’s Landing Riot. As George Rudé’s classic The Crowd in the French Revolution points out, the Parisian mob was quite similar to their medieval ancestors – while the guild system was beginning to break down, the vast majority of wage-earners in Paris still participated in the same system of apprentices, journeymen, and masters; while there were occupational districts, there was actually quite a bit of class diversity in the Parisian districts, with apprentices and journeymen living under their master’s roof and the rich and poor often living in startling proximity, just as Flea Bottom abuts the Red Keep.
Most important for our purposes, Rudé’s masterwork shows a crucial connection between the price of bread, crowd actions, and political activism. As anyone who’s studied the French Revolution knows, 1788-9 saw an epicly bad winter that led to the price of a loaf of bread rising to 14 sous at a time when a laborer’s daily wage was around 20-30 sous. As had happened before, this lead to bread riots, where the crowd demanded that the authorities step in and control the price of bread, insisting on the kind of “moral economy” that the great social historian E.P Thompson brought to life in The Making of the English Working Class and his essays in Past & Present. Something had changed, however – this time, when workers rioted against wage cuts at Reveillon in April, they were shouting “vive le tiers état” (long live the third estate). In the July Days, which saw the storming of the Bastille and the Tennis Court Oath, the same sans-culotte who saved the National Assembly also forcibly dismantled internal customs barriers blamed for raising the price of food. In the famous October March on Versailles, in which the working women of Paris heeded the calls of Marat and Danton and Demoulins to bring the King back to Paris to end the royalist veto over legislation, they did so in quid pro quo that the National Assembly would lower the price of bread. As the women marched on Versailles, they sang “allons chercher le boulanger, la boulangère et le petit mitron.” (let’s go find the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy – referring to King Louis, Queen Marie-Antoninette, and their son)
Thus, the King’s Landing Riot – in the way that concerns flow from the material to the political, where the demand for food is also a demand for reciprocal protection from the government, the way that it displays both the most heroic (you try taking on an armed and armored knight with your bare hands) and the most brutal aspects of human character – fits quite well with the social history of the crowd.
One more thing that we can learn from said history: crowd actions involve learning. The people who rioted in 1789 remembered the bread riots of 1775 and how they’d forced the government to cut the price of bread; and the people who would riot in 1792 to establish a republic remembered that it had been them who made the Revolution possible 3 years earlier. Those King’s Landingers who survived the riot and the siege are people with a better conception of their own power than those who came before…
As you might expect from a chapter in which any character who appears could have potentially died, there are a huge number of hypothetical scenarios – I’ve identified ten, but I’m sure my commentators will spot some that I’ve missed.
- Joffrey dies? Let’s start with the cheeriest scenario. If Joffrey dies, there’s some interesting ripple effects. Without Joffrey’s ignominious retreat, the morale of the goldcloaks would be greatly improved, possibly preventing their rout. Moreover, with Margaery marrying Tommen right off the bat, there’s no need for the Purple Wedding. In turn, this means that Tyrion doesn’t get blamed for regicide and that Sansa isn’t kidnapped by Littlefinger (at least not then) – which sets up a weird power struggle in the North between the Boltons and Tyrion and Stannis. In addition, Oberyn lives, which butterflies away the Dorne plot from AFFC.
- Tommen dies? This one is kind of the reverse of the last one in terms of mood, but it does set up the interesting question of whether the Tyrells are cold-blooded enough to keep Joffrey alive (since now Tommen isn’t available as a Plan B) even if it means harm to Margaery, or whether they go through with a post-bedding poisoning and Cersei a pregnancy to make Margaery the Queen Mother, or whether they go through with the Purple Wedding and offer Margaery’s hand to Aegon down the road.
- Joffrey and Tommen die? A more extreme version of the two scenarios, this one creates an immediate crisis of authority within King’s Landing. With no King on the Iron Throne, it’s quite possible Tyrion might lose control of the city before Stannis can get there (especially when the death of two heirs will be perceived as the punishment of the gods). While there are some who might support Myrcella over Stannis in the abstract, far fewer are going to do so that with Myrcella away from the city and Stannis at the gates with an army. At the same time, the Tyrell alliance breaks down completely – the Tyrells aren’t going to back the Lannisters to make a Martell King Consort, and even if Tywin or Littlefinger were to offer to break the betrothal, the Martells have Myrcella in hand, so that’s not going to fly.
- This scenario might lead to a fractured Westeros, with Queen Myrcella (supported by Dorne and hypothetically by the Westerlands, but there’s practical limits to what Tywin can do in this scenario), King Stannis (supported by the Crownlands and the Stormlands), the Reach possibly forming its own kingdom, and then Robb and Balon fighting over the North.
- Tyrion dies? If Tyrion dies with battle preparations half-completed, it’s quite possible Stannis takes the city with relative ease, with the wildfire being used solely in catapults allowing his navy to seize control of the river (which actually might be able to attack Tywin and the Tyrells while they’re barging down), the lack of a boom chain allowing him to move his troops across the bank with ease, and the lack of anyone coordinating sally parties allowing him to breach the gates quickly. On the other hand, Tywin avoids his date with destiny…
- Cersei dies? This one is quite fascinating. With Cersei not around, things change quite dramatically – it’s possible there’s no assassination attempt against Tyrion (which might prevent his fall from grace completely), but it’s also possible that without Cersei to run Tyrion down he might not have as bad a fall from grace. The big changes come with ASOS – without Cersei to level the accusation, it’s quite possible Tyrion doesn’t get arrested during the Purple Wedding, which means Tywin might not die on schedule. However, if and when Tywin dies, there’s little to stop the Tyrells from completely taking over in AFFC. Which might well be better for Westeros.
- Sansa dies? An ugly scenario, but one in which a lot changes – not only is Jaime not released, but it’s quite possible Jaime is executed in revenge, which in turn means the Karstarks don’t leave, Tyrion possibly isn’t rescued after the Purple Wedding, Riverrun doesn’t fall, etc. Also, Littlefinger’s scheme is completely blown out of the water, so gods only know what his plan B is.
- Sandor dies? This one is a bit more subtle; it’s possible that Arya might end up dying or being captured at the Red Wedding (which might make the Freys try to betray Roose Bolton in favor of putting a Frey in as lord of Winterfell). Alternatively, if Arya is recaptured by the Brotherhood Without Banners, it’s possible she gets ransomed back to Brynden Tully, and escape with him after the second siege.
- Ser Preston Greenfield doesn’t die? This one is more focused on the weird chain of Kingsguard replacements that takes place throughout ASOIAF. Without the death of Ser Preston, there’s one less slot – which might well keep Frankengregor out of the Kingsguard, preventing him from being used in Cersei’s trial.
- High Septon doesn’t die? This is another succession one – without the fat High Septon dying, Tyrion doesn’t get to appoint a High Septon, Cersei doesn’t have that one executed, and therefore there might not be an opening for the High Sparrow to be elected. Not that it would stop the High Sparrow, but it would mean a more aggressive anti-heretical effort by the church, limiting the spread of the Sparrow movement.
- the fire reached the wildfire caches? This is a really crazy one, but let’s think through this. If King’s Landing goes up in flames – taking the entire royal family and the religious hierarchy of Westeros with it – just as Stannis is marching on the city, there is no way that everyone doesn’t view this as divine judgement. For the Lannisters, this is basically game over; the alliance is off, and I think even Tywin’s presence won’t be enough to keep his army together when there’s no one left to fight for. For Stannis, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s got to be annoying to lose the capitol one was looking to besiege; on the other, his army is going to be absolutely fanatically devoted to him and R’hllor now. Look at the level of fanaticism Melisandre has been able to achieve with relatively minor effects – now she can take credit for something on the level of the Hammer of the Waters. You might well see R’hllorism spreading quite rapidly in the Stormlands and parts of the Reach…
Book vs. Show:
While the show does a fine job with the riot, given the limitations of not really being able to have a large-scale crowd or horses, I really do have to ding them for not using the mother as the catalyst for the riot – it’s such a potent image that’s it’s a shame not to use it. Likewise, while the crowd does mention hunger and wanting food, it also seems like a waste not to have the crowd chanting “KING BREAD!”