“A sweet dream, Shae. Now put it aside, I beg you. It can never be.”
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 X is probably my least favorite Tyrion chapters in ACOK – especially compared to what’s coming next, it lacks the emotional fireworks of his confrontation with Cersei or the sheer spectacle of the Battle of Blackwater. However, there are still some things going on in this chapter that bear investigation.
The Taking of Tommen One-Two-Three
The major event of the chapter is the clandestine conflict between Tyrion and Cersei over control of Tommen, a conflict that looks very different in light of AFFC’s revelations. In hindsight, Cersei’s actions seem less motivated by a petty desire to undermine Tyrion and more an attempt to avoid destiny by “send[ing] Prince Tommen away…Lord Gyles will take him to Rosby, and conceal him there in the guise of a page. They plan to darken his hair and tell everyone that he is the son of a hedge knight.” What other inducement, other than the thought that without his golden crown of hair and royal status Tommen might live, would get Cersei to approve of Tommen being made to look like anything than a Lannister?
But without this knowledge, Tyrion sees this as a power play against him and reacts accordingly by coopting the plan:
“Take this to Ser Jacelyn Bywater…He’s to lay a trap along the Rosby road….Removing the boy from the city was one of his sister’s better notions, Tyrion had decided. At Rosby, Tommen would be safe from the mob, and keeping him apart from his brother also made things more difficult for Stannis; even if he took King’s Landing and executed Joffrey, he’d still have a Lannister claimant to contend with. “Lord Gyles is too sickly to run and too craven to fight. He’ll command his castellan to open the gates. Once inside the walls, Bywater is to expel the garrison and hold Tommen there safe. Ask him how he likes the sound of Lord Bywater.”
This is where mistaken interpretation of other people’s motivations – something that human being are notoriously bad at, yet insist otherwise – kicks in. To Tyrion, his actions here are nothing different than what he’s already done with Myrcella. But to Cersei, they appear as an existential threat to her life and that of her children – which provokes her into attempting to abduct Shae. This in turn will provoke Tyrion into threatening Tommen, confirming the suspicions she’s had all along. Once again, we have an example of how attempting to circumvent prophecy helps bring it about – Cersei gradually helps to turn Tyrion into the vengeful spectre she has always believed him to be, through these moments of mutual misunderstanding.
At the same time, I really wonder how successful this plan would have been for either side. In OTL, Stannis never makes it through the gates of the city and wouldn’t have gotten his hands on Tommen whether the boy had stayed or gone. And if he had made it through into the city, chances are that Stannis would have sent a force to take Rosby, given the city’s pressing need for supplies, which probably would have meant that Tommen would have captured by Stannis. Or it might have worked.
Tyrion and Shae
However, the bulk of this chapter revolves around Tyrion and Shae’s relationship, or lack thereof. Notably, this is where we are first introduced to Symon Silvertongue. This character is my least favorite and (in my opinion) Tyrion’s weakest plot. His conflict with Symon doesn’t particularly raise the stakes, the outcome between the Halfman and a singer is never really in question, and the whole affair doesn’t really have any lasting consequences. Thus, I’m not going to cover it, either here or in forthcoming chapters.
At the same time, however, this chapter gives us an in-depth exploration of Tyrion and Shae’s relationship, which bears almost no relationship to the one seen in the show. And the best that can be said about this relationship is that it’s toxic.
To begin with, the two of them want diametrically opposite things from the relationship. Shae is clearly seeing Tyrion as her chance to make her way up in the world, to change from being “the Hand’s whore” to being “your lady...I’d dress in all the beautiful things you gave me, in satin and samite and cloth-of-gold, and I’d wear your jewels and hold your hand and sit by you at feasts. I could give you sons, I know I could . . . and I vow I’d never shame you.” While most in the fandom have focused on the material rewards, it’s important to note that Shae places equal importance on status and position and (at least at this point) is looking for more than money. Unfortunately for her, this is the worst possible suggestion she could make, because it directly recapitulates the same “error” that Tyrion made with Tysha (to say nothing of paralleling the actions of Tytos’ mistress), and would bring down the harshest punishment imaginable for a father who does not like to repeat himself:
“Shae, you do not understand.” Words he had never meant to speak came tumbling out of him like mummers from a hollow horse. “When I was thirteen, I wed a crofter’s daughter. Or so I thought her. I was blind with love for her, and thought she felt the same for me, but my father rubbed my face in the truth. My bride was a whore Jaime had hired to give me my first taste of manhood.” And I believed all of it, fool that I was. “To drive the lesson home, Lord Tywin gave my wife to a barracks of his guardsmen to use as they pleased, and commanded me to watch.” And to take her one last time, after the rest were done. One last time, with no trace of love or tenderness remaining. “So you will remember her as she truly is,” he said, and I should have defied him, but my cock betrayed me, and I did as I was bid. “After he was done with her, my father had the marriage undone. It was as if we had never been wed, the septons said.”
A lot of ink has spilled analyzing this passage, and there’s not a lot of room for novel insight left. However, for the purposes of this essay, it’s important to note two main things. First, Tyrion’s belief that he cannot be loved is rooted in this moment, where he believes he was duped into believing that he was loved. Second, Tyrion remains deeply traumatized by a mixture of guilt for his participation in Tysha’s (and his own) rape, and a deep sense that “There were some secrets that should never be spoken, some shames a man should take to his grave.” All of this makes his relationship with Shae ultimately impossible – on the one hand, he deeply desires her love while feeling that “my love for you shames me enough;” on the other, he clearly thinks that “Fool of a dwarf, it is only the gold and jewels the whore loves.”
So Shae’s ambitions were never going to be realized in that direction. However, one of the things I genuinely hadn’t remembered is how unscrupulous Shae becomes in trying to accomplish them suggesting that Tyrion should “kill [the queen] and be done with it. It’s not as if there was any love between you.” Ominously foreshadowing Tyrion’s foray into kinslaying, Tyrion tries to beg off by saying that “the man who kills his own blood is cursed forever in the sight of gods and men.” At the sahme time, it doesn’t seem like Shae (underneath her “girlfriend experience” mask) really respects Tyrion, as we can see from the fact that she responds to the fact that Tyrion was “expressly forbidden to take you to court,” by saying that “You’re old enough to keep all the whores you want. Does he take you for a beardless boy? What could he do, spank you?”
For his part, Tyrion reacts with instant violence: “He slapped her. Not hard, but hard enough.” And Tyrion knows exactly why he’s doing this, because he cannot stand the idea that Shae should “mock me. Not you.” For all that Tyrion is almost immediately regretful, the basic fact is that Tyrion is so messed up by his experience with Tysha that what he wants at a bone-deep level is not a relationship but a carefully-constructed illusion – one built from equal parts guilt, shame, and regret – of an relationship. Shae isn’t even really a partner in that illusion – she’s there to play Tysha 2.0, but the actress isn’t allowed to question the director.
In addition to setting up the disastrous breakdown in Tyrion’s relationship that will be so influential in his storyline in ASOS, Tyrion X also gives us a crucial element of its violent conclusion:
“I might be able to slip the child into your bedchamber unseen. Chataya’s is not the only house to boast a secret door.”
“A secret access? To my chambers?” Tyrion was more annoyed than surprised. Why else would Maegor the Cruel have ordered death for all the builders who had worked on his castle, except to preserve such secrets? “Yes, I suppose there would be. Where will I find the door? In my solar? My bedchamber?”
“My friend, you would not force me to reveal all my little secrets, would you?”
This is something of a preview of Race for the Iron Throne Volume 3, but I’m firmly of the belief that Varys absolutely set up Tyrion to assassinate his father. To that end, both Varys and GRRM are drawing Tyrion’s (and the reader’s) attention to the fact that there is a secret door into the Hand’s chambers – without which information Tyrion would never have accomplished his mission. As a bit of Chekovian interior decorating, it’s a neat trick that really pays off on the second read-through.
The Implications of Cortnay Penrose
As Tyrion is experiencing personal turmoil, the political news isn’t much better, as he learns that “Ser Cortnay Penrose is dead. Storm’s End has opened its gates to Stannis Baratheon…it is said that he threw himself from a tower…his guards saw no man enter his chambers, nor did they find any within afterward.” While we’ll discuss the metaphysical implications a bit later, the political implications are bad enough on their own:
“Regardless of how Ser Cortnay died…he is dead, the castle fallen. Stannis is free to march.”
“Any chance we might convince the Dornishmen to descend on the Marches?”
“A pity. Well, the threat may serve to keep the Marcher lords close to their castles, at least. What news of my father?”
“If Lord Tywin has won across the Red Fork, no word has reached me yet. If he does not hasten, he may be trapped between his foes. The Oakheart leaf and the Rowan tree have been seen north of the Mander.”
“No word from Littlefinger?”
“Perhaps he never reached Bitterbridge. Or perhaps he’s died there. Lord Tarly has seized Renly’s stores and put a great many to the sword; Florents chiefly. Lord Caswell has shut himself up in his castle.”
In retrospect, this is a bit of expectations management – GRRM is trying to make sure that we think that the cavalry is too far away to ride to the rescue, while carefully signposting that they are just close enough to get there in the nick of time. Hence “the Oakheart leaf and the Rowan tree have been seen north of the Mander” – we know that this means the Tyrell army is gathered at Tumbler’s Falls at the very headwaters of the Mander, waiting for their rendezvous with Tywin’s army, but the first-time reader doesn’t. However, it does raise a few questions – to begin with, these Marcher lords who remain out of pocket (there have to be more Marcher Lords than the Carons, Dondarrions, Selmy, and Swanns, given the way that they’re described as a group, but those are the only names we’re given) and whether they’re still around in ADWD. And as we’ve discussed before, what happened to the survivors of Bitterbridge.
But now that we’ve covered the mundane implications of the news about Cortnay Penrose, let’s talk about the far more entertaining metaphysical implications:
“For a long moment Varys said nothing. The only sound was the stately clack of horseshoes on cobbles. Finally the eunuch cleared his throat. “My lord, do you believe in the old powers?”
“Magic, you mean?” Tyrion said impatiently. “Bloodspells, curses, shapeshifting, those sorts of things?” He snorted.
“Do you mean to suggest that Ser Cortnay was magicked to his death?”
“Ser Cortnay had challenged Lord Stannis to single combat on the morning he died. I ask you, is this the act of a man lost to despair? Then there is the matter of Lord Renly’s mysterious and most fortuitous murder, even as his battle lines were forming up to sweep his brother from the field.”
As before with Alliser Thorne and the undead hand, it’s interesting that Tyrion (alone out of the main three protagonists) is not only completely outside of the magical plot, but also the lone skeptic in the bunch. By this point, Jon Snow has seen the dead walk and Dany has participated in a blood magic ritual to awaken dragon eggs – and yet Tyrion remains mystically virgo intactica. It’s an odd break in the pattern of threes. I’m not sure why GRRM went in this direction – whether it’s supposed to be some kind of hint about Tyrion’s background, an intentional grounding to make sure that the whole book doesn’t fly off into the realm of the ‘cult and the ‘canny, or what – but it’s a very noticeable choice.
Regardless, this chapter also gives us Varys’ backstory and how it relates to the question of magic:
The eunuch paused a moment. “My lord, you once asked me how it was that I was cut.”
“I recall,” said Tyrion. “You did not want to talk of it.”
“Nor do I, but . . .” This pause was longer than the one before, and when Varys spoke again his voice was different somehow. “I was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly. Our master owned a fat little cog and we sailed up and down the narrow sea performing in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King’s Landing.”
“One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. I was in terror. I feared the man meant to use me as I had heard men used small boys, but in truth the only part of me he had need of was my manhood. He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while. I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.”
“The mummers had sailed by the time he was done with me. Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die. To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse.”
“Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.”
This is one of my favorite, all-time monologues in the whole series. And I might as well show my cards right now – I’m absolutely convinced that this account is true. To begin with, from a Doylist position, it’s a waste of time for GRRM to think up, write, and polish this much background text, fill it with arresting imagery and convincing detail, only for it all to be a lie which will have to be upstaged later on. It’s so much easier to let his history remain a secret until the reveal. Likewise, it doesn’t make much sense to set up false motivations – after all, we already knew from AGOT that Varys is politically opposed to Stannis, so we don’t need a particular reason for him to help Tyrion fight the siege unless it has greater significance.
From a Watsonian perspective, too much fits for this to be fiction. We’ve already seen that magic works through blood sacrifice and sex (link), and as we’ll learn later on, divination is also a common magical practice; we’ve even seen dark spirits conjured before. Moreover, Varys’ description of his youth – “I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse” – tracks too well with Illyrio’s description of the same events in ADWD. Before you bring up secret origins, let me raise the point that the best test of this kind of argument is the “silence test.” I.E, unless a false story would have an effect other than simply staying silent, you should assume that the story is true, because otherwise you’d just keep schtum. Even if Varys is a secret Blackfyre – which I doubt – how would this story better conceal the truth than simply not bringing up the subject to Tyrion?
The combination of these two threads – his relationship with Shae and the coming siege – in the chapter gives a grounding to one of his best expressions of how he sees himself:
“Storm’s End is fallen and Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods along know what dark powers, and the good folk don’t have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert not Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate…the dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I’m all that stands between them and chaos.”
As I’ve mentioned before, this identity as an anti-hero, a man who literally fights for a world that hates and fears him, is absolutely central to Tyrion’s self-image. And yet, one of the things we see in this chapter is that anti-heroism, far from the longcoat-wearing, stubble-heaving, voice-overing coolness of our teen years, is actually grounded in self-hatred and the damage that bigotry has done. Tyrion’s belief that, despite everything he’s made of himself and done for others, he cannot be loved is not a healthy perspective; it’s literally dooming him to a life of utterly bankrupt and poisonous relationships with everyone around him.
And that’s what I love about GRRM’s writing, the way in which he both deconstructs a well-worn trope, but also complicates it. As much as Tyrion’s mental image is a defensive posture, meant to keep out the slings and arrows of the outside world, it’s also literally true. Just as the truest knights are the ones who aren’t knights or who wear black cloaks instead of white, and just as the only true lord in Westeros is a commoner, so too is the hero of A Clash of Kings the very image of a Shakespearean villain.
In this historical section, I’m going to start my discussion of the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, because as with many of his historical allusions, GRRM is remixing rather than playing one-to-one, so it’s good to get a foundation out there before we start running into more analogues in future chapters. As we’ll see in the next couple of Bran and Theon chapters, Bran and Rickon will be exemplifying the side of the Princes which revolves around captives undergoing a disappearance and potential gruesome death; Tommen here takes up the alternative of a prince being smuggled out under a false identity (another key part of the Princes myth) and being a prince whose paternity is called into question; his brother Joffrey will play the role of the king murdered by his uncle and made into a victim character for a tragic play; GRRM went back to this well again to explore the idea of pretenders popping up after the fact with the false Princes Daeron the Daring. And indeed, with Arya and Sansa both in hiding, having fake versions of themselves popping up either in Westeros or in Braavosi theaters, we also have a gender-flipped version.
So a brief biography to make sure that we know who these famous Princes in the Tower were. Edward, the Prince of Wales, and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were the two sons of King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. When Edward IV died at the untimely age of 41 in 1483 due to a spate of Robert-Baratheon-like riotous living, it set off a conflict over the guardianship of his heirs between the family of the Queen Mother and that of the king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester. Edward IV had been a very open-handed king, and while that policy had helped him take and re-take the English throne and seemingly end the Wars of the Roses for ever, it also created some dangerous rivalries. Edward IV had lavished his Woodville in-laws with titles (Earldoms, royal offices, bishoprics), lands, and valuable marriage contracts (marrying into the Duchies of Buckinghamshire, Essex, and Kent). At the same time, his brother had been given so many lands and titles that he was undisputed ruler of Northern England and the second-most powerful man next to the king. This same policy of even distribution extended after the King’s own death, with the Queen’s brother Anthony being the Prince’s guardian and the King’s brother Richard named as Lord Protector.
Given the longstanding grudges between these two factions, this divided rule could not last. In a lightning march from Yorkshire to London, Richard overtook the Woodvilles escorting the Prince of Wales to the capitol. Despite being outnumbered by the Woodville escort, Richard had Anthony Woodville and his party arrested for treason against the Lord Protector, jailed, and later executed. With the princes in his possession, Richard continued the tour down to London at a more leisurely pace, and had the two princes installed in the Tower of London. A word about this – it’s a common mistake to assume that the Tower of London was a prison, and therefore that something was obviously wrong. Rather, the Tower was a royal palace that happened to have dungeons in it, and the two princes were not kept in them. Rather, as was befitting their rank, they were kept in the royal apartments, where the Kings of England customarily stay before their coronations.
Honestly, their lodgings were the least of their concerns…but that’s a story for next time.
There aren’t any real hypothetical scenarios in this chapter, as Tommen’s storyline wouldn’t really change regardless of who had temporary custody of him during the Battle of Blackwater. Check back next time!
Book vs. Show:
And now a few complaints about an otherwise great storyline in Season 2. Unlike many of the fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I didn’t have much of a problem with Sibel Kekilli’s performance as Shae – ultimately, I think the problems with her character came down to not getting good material from the scripts. For example, while I don’t necessarily think it was a bad idea to have Shae be genuinely in love with Tyrion – completely avoiding the events of this chapter – the writers should have realized that this would cause huge problems in Season 4 when Tyrion is put on trial and when he escapes. Given that this gave them two whole years to come up with a solution, the results speak of a significant failure of imagination – if you’re going to depart from the text, and the show has done so well and poorly, you need to know where you’re going.
Likewise, while I have nothing but praise for Conleth Hill’s performance as Varys – he’s one of those actors who is the character in my mind now when I read the books – I find it very strange that the show decided to push his monologue from Season 2, where it belonged, into Season 3. While I liked the revelation of the sorcerer in the box as much as the next aficionado of human boxification, the speech is really about why Varys is choosing Tyrion over Stannis and it needs to be before the Battle of Blackwater, not after.