“Cersei set a tasty table, that could not be denied…Tyrion was exceedingly courteous; he offered his sister the choice portions of every dish, and made certain he ate only what she did. Not that he truly thought she’d poison him, but it never hurt to be careful.”
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 XII is an odd chapter, in that while it’s clearly in the opening stages of the Battle of Blackwater and involves a good deal of talking through the Lannisters’ streategy, it’s really a bottle episode about Tyrion and Cersei’s relationship. For reasons I’ll go into a bit later, it’s absolutely necessary that this chapter now, but it is a slightly awkward tonal shift.
Tyrion’s Belated Investigation
The setup for this chapter is Tyrion making the really inadvisable decision to go to dinner at his sister, for all that she’s serving “creamy chestnut soup, crusty hot bread, and greens dressed with apples and pine nuts. Then came lamprey pie, honeyed ham, buttered carrots, white beans and bacon, and roast swan stuffed with mushrooms and oysters.” (GRRM can only go so long without some good food porn, and it’s been a while.) The first topic for discussion, Cersei’s putative love of child-murder:
“I trust you’re pleased,” he said as she read. “You wanted the Stark boy dead, I believe.”
Cersei made a sour face. “It was Jaime who threw him from that window, not me. For love, he said, as if that would please me. It was a stupid thing to do, and dangerous besides, but when did our sweet brother ever stop to think?”
“The boy saw you,” Tyrion pointed out.
“He was a child. I could have frightened him into silence.” She looked at the letter thoughtfully. “Why must I suffer accusations every time some Stark stubs his toe? This was Greyjoy’s work, I had nothing to do with it.”
“Let us hope Lady Catelyn believes that.”
Her eyes widened. “She wouldn’t-“
“-kill Jaime? Why not? What would you do if Joffrey and Tommen were murdered?”
To begin with, it’s kind of bizarre that this long after Tyrion’s pledge to “do justice”, he’s finally getting around to trying to figure out who ordered the assassination attempt on Bran that he got blamed for. As noir detectives go, Tyrion’s no Ned Stark. This exchange is quite revealing as to Cersei’s thought patterns (or at least how she portrays her thinking to Tyrion). I don’t buy for a minute Cersei’s claim that she had nothing to do with Bran falling from the tower and didn’t want it to happen; at the time, her actions were nothing like this calm calculation of whether Bran’s death would be politically ideal, nor does this story fit her response when she heard Bran hadn’t died. It might well be that this is what Cersei might have thought later, as her weakness when it comes to reacting to unexpected circumstances might have left her silent in the moment, only to recapture logic in l’esprit d’escalier. However, I will say that Cersei’s slapdash inaction in the face of Bran’s appearance is absolutely in keeping with her usual approach to conspiracy.
It is interesting, though, that despite having a very similar circumstance as a widowed mother from an elite family who struggles with the limitations imposed on her political power by the patriarchy, Cersei has so little understanding of Catelyn Stark and indeed so little to do with her. Not only does she seem baffled by the idea that anyone else might feel the same righteous mother’s wrath that Cersei displays in this chapter, but it doesn’t seem likely that the two women’s paths will cross in future books. Lady Stoneheart’s arc is far more bound up with Jaime Lannister and Riverrun, whereas Cersei seems likely to live out her days in King’s Landing. And while I very much enjoy both of their arcs, I do wish we could have seen the two insane vengeful matriarchs clashing.
Strategy Over the Dinner Table
Moving on from one mutually suspicious conversation to another, Tyrion and Cersei next discuss military strategy in the upcoming battle. Despite their mutual incomprehension, there’s a lot we can learn from this dialogue:
“I’d sooner [Lady Stokeworth] remain. If she wants to feel safe, tell her to bring down her garrison from Stokeworth. As many men as she has.”
“If we need men so badly, why did you send away your savages?” A certain testiness crept into Cersei’s voice.
“It was the best use I could have made of them,” he told her truthfully. “They’re fierce warriors, but not soldiers. In formal battle, discipline is more important than courage. They’ve already done us more good in the kingswood than they would ever have done us on the city walls.”
As the swan was being served, the queen questioned him about the conspiracy of the Antler Men. She seemed more annoyed than afraid. “Why are we plagued with so many treasons? What injury has House Lannister ever done these wretches?”
“None,” said Tyrion, “but they think to be on the winning side…which makes them fools as well as traitors.”
First, we get clear evidence that the Crownlands have not answered their king’s calling the banners, despite being many of the Crownlands families being physically present in the capitol. It is interesting that neither Cersei nor Tyrion could compel Lady Tanda Stokeworth or Lord Gyles Rosby, let alone the absent lords of Duskendale, Antlers, Dyre Den, Brownhollow, Hayford, Sow’s Horn, or Rook’s Rest, to produce men for the city’s defenses. Upon re-reading, this may suggest that these houses are still Targaryen loyalists, and may rise for Aegon VI, further easing his way to power.
Second, we see that Cersei doesn’t particularly grasp guerilla tactics, or military strategy for that matter. Tyrions’ 150 clansmen are unlikely to be the determining factor in the defense of the city, but as with earlier, Cersei seems to think of battles as purely a matter of numbers. Remember, it was her proposal to triple the size of the Gold Cloaks, even though this may well have lowered their effectiveness as a fighting unit due to the sudden and unmanageable influx of raw recruits.
Third, Cersei is rather startlingly naive about about how her actions have been perceived. After the violence of the King’s Landing riot, I am amazed that she can’t see how Joffrey’s actions have been perceived by the common people. The lack of awareness extends to House Lannister’s recent history – her father sacked King’s Landing in living memory, leading to the deaths of thousands – showing the extreme limits of the idea that “the lion does not fear the sparrow.”
However, the real conflict over Tyrion’s strategy is about Joffrey’s place in the battle:
“I need Balon Swann and the Hound to lead sorties, to make certain Stannis gets no toehold on our side of the Blackwater…. I don’t intend to put him in the thick of the fighting, but he needs to be seen. Men fight more fiercely for a king who shares their peril than one who hides behind his mother’s skirts.”
“He’s thirteen, Tyrion.”
“Remember Jaime at thirteen? If you want the boy to be his father’s son, let him play the part. Joff wears the finest armor gold can buy, and he’ll have a dozen gold cloaks around him at all times. If the city looks to be in the least danger of falling, I’ll have him escorted back to the Red Keep at once.”
For Tyrion, this is a discussion about tactics and leadership – with such low quality soldiers, he needs quality small-unit commanders to lead sorties against Stannis’ landing parties, because if Stannis can get a toehold on the north side, he can safely ferry men across and get them formed up into a single fighting unit that will eventually outnumber Tyrion’s forces. Moreover, as long as Tyrion can keep the landing parties from uniting and consolidating their position, he can use his local superiority of numbers on the north bank to defeat each party in detail rather than having to face them all at once. And one of the ironies of the Kingsguard is that some of the best soldiers in the kingdom are tasked both with leading the king’s armies and defending his person.
As for Joffrey, in a world in which battlefield commanders are almost always within eyeshot of their entire army, and where the relationship between the king and his subjects is rooted in the body, having the king present is genuinely useful for morale. During the Wars of the Roses, for example, Richard Duke of York’s army simply refused to fight the King in person at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, even though the Yorkists had previously fought battles against the Lancastrians at St. Albans and Blore Heath, because the idea of attacking the king was unthinkable. As I’ve already discussed, Edward IV’s personal presence on the battlefield was absolutely key to his victories at Mortimer’s Cross, Towton, Tewksbury, and Barnet Heath, both because of his personal fighting prowess but also because his presence signified to the common soldier that their commander would not abandon them. Indeed, so useful was that kind of symbolism that the Kingmaker famously killed his own horse in front of his troops at the outbreak of the Battle of Towton to show that he would not retreat under any circumstance.
For Cersei, however, this conflict is all about prophecy. In her mind, the man destined to be her nemesis is putting her oldest and dearest son, the image of Jaime and her ultimate vengeance against Robert Baratheon, on the firing line so that he can be killed in battle. Hence:
“I have your little whore.”
Tyrion reached for his wine cup, buying a moment to gather his thoughts. “I thought men were more to your taste.”
“You’re such a droll little fellow. Tell me, have you married this one yet?” When he gave her no answer she laughed and said, “Father will be ever so relieved.”
His belly felt as if it were full of eels. How had she found Shae? Had Varys betrayed him? Or had all his precautions been undone by his impatience the night he rode directly to the manse? “Why should you care who I choose to warm my bed?”
“A Lannister always pays his debts,” she said. “You’ve been scheming against me since the day you came to King’s Landing. You sold Myrcella, stole Tommen, and now you plot to have Joff killed. You want him dead so you can rule through Tommen.”
…”This is madness, Cersei. Stannis will be here in days. You need me.”
Without the benefit of hindsight or access to Tyrion’s POV, Cersei interprets normal dynastic politics as a conspiracy against her, momentarily forgetting that Tyrion only “stole” Tommen because Cersei had smuggled him out of the city – a running theme for Cersei. And so consumed is she by the prophecy that she’ll put her pre-emptive revenge over military necessity, just as she will do in the battle with her disastrous order to recall Joffrey. In the moment, however, Cersei finally vents her true feelings about her sibling in an attempt to cow him (much as she has sought to cow Sansa):
“… I won’t say I haven’t thought of slitting your throat from time to time, but Jaime would never forgive me if I did.”
“And the whore?” He would not call her by name. If I can convince her Shae means nothing to me, perhaps…
“She’ll be treated gently enough, so long as no harm comes to my sons. If Joff should be killed, however, or if Tommen should fall into the hands of our enemies, your little cunt will die more painfully than you can possibly imagine.”
She truly believes I mean to kill my own nephew. “The boys are safe,” he promised her wearily. “Gods be good, Cersei, they’re my own blood!”
For all that this is deeply morally twisted – once again, Cersei lashes out at her enemies by using women – there is something impressive about what she’s doing, from her own perspective. This is a woman trying to blackmail Nemesis itself and threaten destiny into changing through sheer force of will. Unfortunately for Cersei, there’s really no way for her to come back from this threat, especially now that Tyrion learns that Cersei wants him dead. This last detail explains why this chapter has to happen now as opposed to earlier – GRRM has the assassination attempt o Tyrion planned out and needs to establish motive. A final note – in hindsight, it’s ironic to see Tyrion so appalled at the thought of kinslaying, given his future.
However, there is something about this conflict that comes straight out of Greek tragedy; the way that Cersei’s mis-perceptions and false conclusions drive her to create the monster she fears the most as Cersei’s incessant hatred drives Tyrion to desperate lengths out of a desire both for survival and victory. In that at least, Tyrion and Cersei are quite similar:
What sort of man do you take me for?”
“A small and twisted one.”
…Tyrion did not have a golden sword, nor the skill to wield one. He loved his brother’s reckless wrath, but it was their lord father he must try and emulate. Stone, I must be stone, I must be Casterly Rock, hard and unmovable. If I fail this test, I had as lief seek out the nearest grotesquerie. “For all I know, you’ve killed her already,” he said.
… “Keep her then, but keep her safe. If these animals think they can use her…well, sweet sister, let me point out that a scale tips two ways.” His tone was calm, flat, uncaring; he’d reached for his father’s voice, and found it. “Whatever happens to her happens to Tommen as well, and that includes the beatings and rapes.” If she thinks me such a monster, I’ll play the part for her.
Cersei had not expected that. “You would not dare.”
Tyrion made himself smile, slow and cold. Green and black, his eyes laughed at her. “Dare? I’ll do it myself.”
That Tyrion’s response to this specific threat is to emulate Tywin Lannister is simultaneously cosmically ironic and absolutely inevitable, especially given the past and future relationship between Tyrion and Tywin that has and will revolve around their relationships with working-class women labelled as prostitutes. One must think that, for Tyrion in this moment, the historical parallels are so strong that he cannot help but think of Shae as Tysha (which, when you come down to it, is a big part of the problem). But for him to summon up Tywin as a model in this moment is a defiant and subversive statement of how he will repurpose his own past – that he will take that same willingness to commit atrocity that made and sustained his father’s public and private reputation against his family. At the same time, in both Tywin’s actions in his youth and Tyrion’s actions here, the fact that these two men share the same audacity and drive to achieve victory through the deliberate violation of every custom and taboo meant to limit violence demonstrates a kinship that goes beyond blood that will never be acknowledged. Genna was more right than she knew.
At the same time, when we re-read this passage in light of ASOS and ADWD, we can also see the roots of Tyrion’s tragedy here. Because of everything he’s suffered in the past and will suffer in the future, because of the way that Cersei’s hatred mirrors that of the people, the only card that Tyrion can think to play here is to play the monster. As with any habitual pretense, the longer one continues down this path, the less it becomes a pretense, so that by ADWD Tyrion is not simply playing a monster but acting as a monster. It remains to be seen in TWOW whether he will choose to act as a man again. In the meantime, however, Tyrion’s defense wins him the day, but ultimately dooms him in the future:
His sister’s hand flashed at his face, but he caught her wrist and bent it back until she cried out. Osfryd moved to her rescue. “One more step and I’ll break her arm,” the dwarf warned him. The man stopped. “You remember when I said you’d never hit me again, Cersei?”
…””I have never liked you, Cersei, but you were my own sister, so I never did you harm. You’ve ended that. I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”
In war, his father had told him once, the battle is over in the instant one army breaks and flees. No matter that they’re as numerous as they were a moment before, still armed and armored; once they had run before you they would not turn to fight again. So it was with Cersei.
It is quite possible that, regardless of what Tyrion might have said here, Cersei was always going to react to Joffrey’s assassination by accusing him (especially given the stage management of the Purple Wedding). However, Tyrion’s speech here unwittingly touches too close on Maggy’s prophecy for Cersei to take it as anything other than confirmation of her worst nightmares. In her position, it’s impossible for her to interpret in any other way.
Which is one of the reasons why I don’t reject out of hand that Ser Mandon Moore attempted to assassinate Tyrion on Cersei’s orders. After all, there are some striking similarities to Cersei’s modus operandi: like both of her attempts on Robert Baratheon’s life at the tourney and in the Kingswood, the assassination is meant to appear like an accident, with Tyrion “dying bravely on the battlefield”; like both of those previous attempts, it’s sloppy and relies far too much on chance – Mandon Moore openly attacks Tyrion in front of quite a few witnesses and dies for his rashness. But even more than these similarities, it’s the proximity of the assassination attempt to this moment that makes me think Cersei is a leading suspect – while Cersei has historically been shockingly passive when it comes to conspiracies, she does act boldly when it comes to immediate threats to her children.
And in this, too, Cersei and Tyrion are tragically similar – two children trying as desperately to emulate their father’s ruthlessness as they strive for his affection and approval, tearing one another and their family to pieces in the process.
A Last Thought On Shae and Alayaya
Before we move on to the Historical Analysis section, I wanted to stop and talk for a bit about the two women who are the unwilling pawns in this struggle between Cersei and Tyrion:
“Sweetling,” he said, “you must be brave. I am sorry they hurt you.”
“I know you’ll free me, my lord.”
“I will,” he promised, and Alayaya bent over and kissed him on the brow. Her broken lips left a smear of blood on his forehead. A bloody kiss is more than I deserve, Tyrion thought. She would never have been hurt but for me…
All the sweet innocence of the world was written there in the lines of her young face.
Innocence? Fool, she’s a whore, Cersei was right, you think with your cock, fool, fool.
There’s an interesting parallel between these two women that goes beyond the fact that Cersei mis-apprehends (in both senses of the word) which of them is Tyrion’s mistress because of the tunnel. Their social statuses are similar although not identical – both are smallfolk and work as prostitutes, although the fact that Alayaya’s mother owns the brothel in which she works and Shae is a former camp-follower (showing that there are class and occupational distinctions all the way up and all the way down the social hierarchy) is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that Alayaya is an immigrant and Shae is not.
But most critically, both women are victims of physical violence from virtually the whole of the Lannister family. Alayaya will be the victim both of Cersei and Tywin, more human collateral damage of Tywin enforcing the reputation and legacy of House Lannister by oppressing sex workers. Shae, the intended target of this violence, will become Tyrion’s victim. And in both cases, we see the cycle that began with Tysha (although for Tywin this all began with his father’s mistress) replicate itself – Tyrion cannot despite his best intentions protect Alayaya from his family any more than he could protect his wife (and his gift of jewels to make up for the abuse makes another eerie parallel to that event), Tyrion will not protect Shae from himself because of what happened with his wife.
And in both cases we have the performance of love. Alayaya’s one-time pretense that she is Tyrion’s lover is a surprising gesture because there’s no coordination and Alayaya owes literally nothing to Tyrion – although it’s arguable that since Alayaya didn’t know who Tyrion’s lover was, telling Cersei’s guards the truth wouldn’t really have protected her, whereas pretending to be Tyrion’s lover at least kept her alive. Shae’s longer-term performance of love, on the other hand, is inextricable from the toxicity underlying their arrangement – Tyrion is trying to recapture the “innocence” and love he had with Tysha while still wrestling with the trauma he experienced in the destruction of that relationship that has left him believing he is fundamentally unworthy of love and ready to violently lash out at any mockery that threatens to re-enact his humiliation (another way in which Tyrion is his father’s son).
Thus, both women are ultimately trapped. There is no clever trick that will get Alayaya out of her confinement. And for Shae, she will always be one slip away from Tyrion losing it.
In the last Tyrion chapter, I began my discussion of Constantinople as the historical parallel for King’s Landing. Today, I’m going to continue that discussion, with a specific focus on Constantinople’s military defenses. Once again, I’d like to recommend listening to the History of Byzantium podcast, especially Episode 10 which gives an auditory walking tour of Constantinople that’s incredibly useful for understanding the city as a political, economic, and military entity.
To start with the land defenses, let us discuss the great walls of the city. Throughout much of premodern history, walls were practically part of the definition of what it meant to be a city, as walls were necessary to defend the grain surpluses that allowed for non-agricultural labor to be done. Because of its location on a peninsula, Constantinople could only be approached by land from the west, so that is where walls would be built. Constantine ordered the construction of a new set of walls, complete with defensive towers, even before he re-dedicated the city to himself in 330 CE, although they wouldn’t be complete until after his death. However, the city expanded westward and soon much of the city was outside the Constantian Walls, requiring them to be replaced by the Theodosian Walls.
The Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 CE) ordered the construction of an enormous set of double walls some 3.5 miles long, with the outer walls 30 feet tall with over 100 towers that reached 40 feet tall and the inner walls 40 feet tall with some 96 towers reaching 65 tall. In between these walls was an open terrace some 50-64 feet wide that formed a perfect killing field for any besieger lucky enough to get past the outer walls, and outside the outer walls was a moat some 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep that besiegers would have to cross to assault the first lines of defense. All in all, it was an awe-inspiring instrument of war – albeit one that required constant repairs due to the frequent earthquakes that hit the region.
The walls of King’s Landing bear many similarities – they were ordered to be built by Aegon the Conqueror around the time when the city was founded, they’re similarly tall and have many defensive towers built into them, but they also the many gates. The Theodosian Walls had many gates with specific purposes or associations: the Golden Gate was the main ceremonial entrance and was used for triumphal processions and overawing foreign embassies; the Gate of Rhegion was associated by the Red demos of the chariot races; the Gate of St. Romanus was named after a nearby Church and was where the last Byzantine Emperor died in defense of his city; the Gate of Charisius sat on top of the hills and led to the Mese, one of the two major avenues of the city; and so on.
But neither King’s Landing nor Constantinople relied entirely upon their walls, for both cities turned the waters into a great wall of its own – although Constantinople also built sea walls along the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn as well, to ensure that there would be no easy landing on the city, their main defense as I have said were the strong and unpredictable currents and winds on the Sea of Marmora that wrecked so many enemy fleets. To protect their own fleet, the Byzantines looked to the Golden Horn, an estuary of two rivers feeding into the Bosphorus that offered deep natural harbors sheltered from the currents. And to protect the Golden Horn, the Byzantines built a great boom chain that stretched from the easternmost point of the city across the estuary to the Tower of Galata, a great fortress on the northern bank of the Horn.
With this great chain, the Byzantine navy could sail forth to attack and then retreat to safety to repair, resupply, and reinforce themselves in safety, while preventing any would-be invader from attacking the city’s northern walls or the fleet’s harbor itself. Moreover, as long as the chain held, the enemy fleet had no safe harbor and would be exposed to the treacherous currents and winds, making a well-organized blockade of the city almost impossible to carry off.
As we’ll see, this chain could spell the difference between victory and defeat.
There’s really only one hypothetical for this chapter, so let’s jump into this:
- Cersei had found Shae? There are two key questions here – the first is whether Tyrion can keep his cool if Cersei had produced Shae. While his near panic looking for Shae later in the chapter suggests no, that is after an extended period of tension where he’s had a chance to think about the worst-case scenario, so it’s possible that in the moment where he’s braced, he might be able to hold out longer.
- If no, the likely consequence is that Joffrey is kept from the battlefield. While Tyrion’s still going to find someone to lead his sorties, I wonder if a weaker morale means that the Goldcloaks break quicker, allowing Stannis’ last-ditch effort to take the city. On the other hand, it means that Sandor Clegane doesn’t break under the strain of the battle, changing his interactions with Sansa greatly.
- If yes, then I think the major change is that Tyrion goes HAM on Cersei well before his trial and is much more on his guard than in OTL. This might allow Tyrion to escape King’s Landing during the Purple Wedding, rather than being caught flat-footed. Or it might mean that Tyrion actively tries to bring down the Lannisters from the beginning ASOS, so that he’d actually be guilty of something when he’s brought to trial.
- In either scenario, one of the major changes would be how Shae’s character changes in reaction to trauma. Possibly she might leave Tyrion rather than remain in danger from Tywin and Cersei; possibly she might become an active spy against him well before she is captured following the Purple Wedding; possibly after the abuse she’d refuse to testify (given that she was initially offered a reward). And the first and last possibilities might mean that Tyrion does not in fact murder her.
Book vs. Show:
I have pretty much no critiques to make of Tyrion’s Season 2 storyline, which cleaves to the books for the most part and even when it doesn’t is graced with excellent writing and acting. The only real change from the book in this scene is that Alayaya is replaced by Ros, the show’s first original character and someone that Benioff & Weiss liked so much that they kept her around for another season.
At the time, I liked the choice – for all that Ros was a sexposition vehicle in Season 1, having her experience this event as opposed to a brand-new Alayaya character made the event have more impact for the audience. In retrospect, however, I find myself troubled by the fact that this character seems to have existed for the purpose of repeatedly experiencing gendered violence (this and her two encounters with Joffrey).