“They say I’m half a man…what does that make the lot of you?”
Synopsis: Tyrion observes his works and doesn’t quite despair before rushing off to the defense of the King’s Gate, where Sandor is refusing to lead another sortie against Stannis’ landing parties. Tyrion steps into the breach.
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.
Picking up almost exactly from where Davos III left off, here we see George R.R Martin taking our sympathies and spinning them around like a top. After all, we just saw what amounts to a Westerosi war crime (and certainly, if Stannis had won the war, Tyrion might well have been put on trial for it), and here we are put into the head of the architect of that atrocity, and by the end of the chapter we’re cheering for him
A Half Victory for the Halfman
GRRM starts the chapter with a truly cinematic shot, sweeping the camera of Tyrion’s eyes from the walls of King’s Landing down to the river and all the way along the banks, then pulling back to the sky:
Motionless as a gargoyle, Tyrion Lannister hunched on one knee atop a merlon. Beyond the Mud Gate and the desolation that had once been the fishmarket and wharves, the river itself seemed to have taken fire. Half of Stannis’s fleet was ablaze, along with most of Joffrey’s. The kiss of wildfire turned proud ships into funeral pyres and men into living torches. The air was full of smoke and arrows and screams.
Downstream, commoners and highborn captains alike could see the hot green death swirling toward their rafts and carracks and ferries, borne on the current of the Blackwater. The long white oars of the Myrish galleys flashed like the legs of maddened centipedes as they fought to come about, but it was no good. The centipedes had no place to run.
A dozen great fires raged under the city walls, where casks of burning pitch had exploded, but the wildfire reduced them to no more than candles in a burning house, their orange and scarlet pennons fluttering insignificantly against the jade holocaust. The low clouds caught the color of the burning river and roofed the sky in shades of shifting green, eerily beautiful. A terrible beauty. Like dragonfire. Tyrion wondered if Aegon the Conqueror had felt like this as he flew above his Field of Fire.
This should be Tyrion’s big moment – after all, he’s the one whose tactical genius turned an entire river into a “jade holocaust,” virtually impossible to cross and thoroughly wrecking Stannis’ plans – and he does get a little moment to compare himself to Aegon the Conqueror. (And certainly, when you consider the scale of the devastation that Tyrion has caused, we haven’t really seen anything like this since the Dance of the Dragons) At the same time, the mingling of the human horror and the “terrible beauty” speaks to GRRM’s complicated perspective on war. While ultimately GRRM leans to the horror more than the beauty, there’s an essentially honesty of approach here that explains better why human beings would seek out war, rather than assuming an inherently good human nature that only turns to war when corrupted by outside forces.
Speaking of the cost of Tyrion’s actions, both to the enemy and to his own forces, Tyrion would be completely unsympathetic if he stopped at glorying in his Big (Anti)Hero Moment. So instead, Tyrion has to grapple with what he’s done:
…it was a half victory. It will not be enough.
…Do you hear them shrieking, Stannis? Do you see them burning? This is your work as much as mine. Somewhere in that seething mass of men south of the Blackwater, Stannis was watching too, Tyrion knew. He’d never had his brother Robert’s thirst for battle. He would command from the rear, from the reserve, much as Lord Tywin Lannister was wont to do.
…there no other way. If we had not come forth to meet them, Stannis would have sensed the trap. An arrow could be aimed, and a spear, even the stone from a catapult, but wildfire had a will of its own. Once loosed, it was beyond the control of mere men. “It could not be helped,” he told his nephew. “Our fleet was doomed in any case.”
I didn’t say he successfully grappled with it. (But given how many d20 rolls that involves, who can blame him?) To be fair, Tyrion does recognize the practical limits of his actions – half of Stannis’ fleet remains, which means that ships will still land on the north bank even if the bulk of Stannis’ army can only be drip-fed across the river.
And even that limited victory has come at a terrible price, the destruction of his own navy and the thousands of sailors and marines who crewed those ships. There is a terrifying pragmatism and strategic brilliance in the way that Tyrion has turned his weakness (that his fleet is outnumbered 4:1 and would be crushed in a standup fight) into a strength, performing the medieval equivalent of calling in an artillery strike on your own position when it’s in danger of being overrun. that is reminiscent of no one so much as Tywin Lannister. But unlike Tywin, Tyrion’s basic humanity means that he feels guilty for what he’s done and projects that guilt onto Stannis. “Look at what you made me do” isn’t the most mature moral reaction, but it still points to a basic understanding that it is wrong to murder essentially helpless people.
The Antler Men
Another thing that brings up qualms about whether Tyrion’s victory is worth it is the fact that he’s doing this on behalf of someone who could only be described as a monster:
Joff had the Antler Men trussed up naked in the square below, antlers nailed to their heads. When they’d been brought before the Iron Throne for justice, he had promised to send them to Stannis. A man was not as heavy as a boulder or a cask of burning pitch, and could be thrown a deal farther. Some of the gold cloaks had been wagering on whether the traitors would fly all the way across the Blackwater.
This is the kind of baroque sadism that is the province of the worst kinds of tyrants and despots, and one gets the sense especially in this moment that, even though Joffrey is supposed to be only a distant relative of Aerys II or Maegor the Cruel (and in fact shares none of their blood), he is their kindred spirit indeed. And this raises in the minds of the reader an important question: do we want Tyrion to win, if winning means that someone completely unfit to be king retains the Iron Throne? Is it a mercy to save King’s Landing from a sack if it means the Defiance of Duskendale is repeated again and again when Joffrey full comes of age and/or Tywin dies?
And so our sympathies turn once again.
The Landings Continue
Speaking of half a victory, Tyrion now learns that some of the survivors of his wildfire bomb have landed on the north bank, and thus we see how much of half of a victory this is:
Even so, some were getting away. A river’s current was a tricky thing, and the wildfire was not spreading as evenly as he had hoped. The main channel was all aflame, but a good many of the Myrmen had made for the south bank and looked to escape unscathed, and at least eight ships had landed under the city walls. Landed or wrecked, but it comes to the same thing, they’ve put men ashore. Worse, a good part of the south wing of the enemy’s first two battle lines had been well upstream of the inferno when the hulks went up. Stannis would be left with thirty or forty galleys, at a guess; more than enough to bring his whole host across, once they had regained their courage.
Again, this points to how GRRM is carefully calibrating his threats – eight ships is enough that the danger feels urgent and real, but not so much that it’s unmanageable for his forces to deal with; the 30-40 galleys that remain represent the long-term threat that keeps the tempo ratcheting up. And the calibration leads to a very specific problem that Tyrion has to deal with, a whack-a-mole situation in which he has the numbers to respond to a landing party, but where he has to defeat every landing party because one left unattended can cost him the battle:
No sooner was Joff off than a runner came panting up the steps. “My lord, hurry!” He threw himself to one knee. “They’ve landed men on the tourney grounds, hundreds! They’re bringing a ram up to the King’s Gate.”
Tyrion cursed and made for the steps with a rolling waddle. Podrick Payne waited below with their horses. They galloped off down River Row, Pod and Ser Mandon Moore coming hard behind him. The shuttered houses were steeped in green shadow, but there was no traffic to get in their way; Tyrion had commanded that the street be kept clear, so the defenders could move quickly from one gate to the next. Even so, by the time they reached the King’s Gate, he could hear a booming crash of wood on wood that told him the battering ram had been brought into play. The groaning of the great hinges sounded like the moans of a dying giant. The gatehouse square was littered with the wounded, but he saw lines of horses as well, not all of them hurt, and sellswords and gold cloaks enough to form a strong column. “Form up,” he shouted as he leapt to the ground. The gate moved under the impact of another blow.
Now, there’s a certain problem about geography here – given that the tourney grounds are significantly up-river of the city, the ships that landed there must have been in some of the first couple of lines of Stannis’ army but those ships don’t seem to have been transport ships according to Davos III, and the surviving ships in those lines are all from the south wing and more likely to land on the south bank than the north bank. But besides that one issues, the first thing we see in the response to this landing is the critical importance of leadership in this stage of the battle. Given his limited manpower and that he has to spread it out across a wide swathe of the city, Tyrion has to carefully gauge which assault is the most dangerous and move his resources accordingly. At the same time, though, since information only moves at human land speed, a huge amount of responsibility falls to the local commanders at each gate, as we see when that leadership breaks down:
“Who commands here? You’re going out.”
“No.” A shadow detached itself from the shadow of the wall, to become a tall man in dark grey armor. Sandor Clegane wrenched off his helm with both hands and let it fall to the ground. The steel was scorched and dented, the left ear of the snarling hound sheared off. A gash above one eye had sent a wash of blood down across the Hound’s old burn scars, masking half his face.
“Yes.” Tyrion faced him.
Clegane’s breath came ragged. “Bugger that. And you.”
A sellsword stepped up beside him. “We been out. Three times. Half our men are killed or hurt. Wildfire bursting all around us, horses screaming like men and men like horses—”
…The blood on Clegane’s face glistened red, but his eyes showed white. He drew his longsword. He is afraid, Tyrion realized, shocked. The Hound is frightened. He tried to explain their need…
“I’ve lost half my men. Horse as well. I’m not taking more into the fire…”
“The King’s Hand commands you.”
“Bugger the King’s Hand.” Where the Hound’s face was not sticky with blood, it was pale as milk. “Someone bring me a drink.” A gold cloak officer handed him a cup. Clegane took a swallow, spit it out, flung the cup away. “Water? Fuck your water. Bring me wine.”
This is the moment where the Hound breaks, and it’s hard to say whether it’s the fire or the fighting that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in no small part because GRRM has the wound that Clegane’s taken mimic the wound that his brother gave him. There’s a symbolic equation, therefore, between the horrific, inescapable, but also private and intimate violence done by one child to another and the experience of the men who’ve born the battle. And that’s the thing that’s often forgotten about the Battle of Blackwater on the Lannister side, that there is a vast gulf in experience between the men up on the walls manning the siege engines in relative safety and the men in the sortie battles who have to leave the protection of the city walls again and again and endure the hellish environment that their own commander has created.
But back to Sandor, who treats as equal horrors the loss of half of his men and horses and the fire itself. It’s interesting how much GRRM underplays the moment where he refuses a direct order. The Hound’s insubordination happens, but Tyrion doesn’t particularly press the point (certainly not to the point of threatening charges) and he stays around, drinking and kibitzing in a state of nervous exhaustion. Unlike in the show, where his “fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the king” speech is an open and quite political statement of resignation, Sandor’s motives here don’t seem to be related to his feelings about the Lannister regime. Rather, it comes across as if a man who’s previously has made much of his love of killing simply has had his fill of murder. At the same time, I think the fact that Sandor has taken a wound is significant; a big part of Sandor’s former bravado was based on a sense of his own invulnerability (in this way, Sandor is quite similar to Jaime), and both the existence and location of his wound, coupled with the fire, is a rude reminder that he is no safer now than when he was a child.
Regardless of why Sandor is refusing to obey orders, this creates a massive problem for Tyrion. As we’ve discussed before, the quality of Tyrions’ soldiers is not great, and while a lot of that has to do with their lack of experience, the role of talented and experienced small-unit commanders and NCOs is absolutely crucial in whether inexperienced soldiers will function effectively in combat:
He is dead on his feet. Tyrion could see it now. The wound, the fire…he’s done, I need to find someone else, but who? Ser Mandon? He looked at the men and knew it would not do. Clegane’s fear had shaken them. Without a leader, they would refuse as well, and Ser Mandon…a dangerous man, Jaime said, yes, but not a man other men would follow.
This is madness, he thought, but sooner madness than defeat. Defeat is death and shame. “Very well, I’ll lead the sortie.”
If he thought that would shame the Hound back to valor, he was wrong. Clegane only laughed. “You?”
…Only a handful had responded to his command, no more than twenty. They sat their horses with eyes as white as the Hound’s. He looked contemptuously at the others, the knights and sellswords who had ridden with Clegane. “They say I’m half a man,” he said. “What does that make the lot of you?”
That shamed them well enough. A knight mounted, helmetless, and rode to join the others. A pair of sellswords followed. Then more. The King’s Gate shuddered again. In a few moments the size of Tyrion’s command had doubled. He had them trapped. If I fight, they must do the same, or they are less than dwarfs.
“You won’t hear me shout out Joffrey’s name,” he told them. “You won’t hear me yell for Casterly Rock either. This is your city Stannis means to sack, and that’s your gate he’s bringing down. So come with me and kill the son of a bitch!” Tyrion unsheathed his axe, wheeled the stallion around, and trotted toward the sally port. He thought they were following, but never dared to look.
Tyrion’s key problem, the thing that makes him step outside of his normal political sphere and return to the battlefield for the first time in nine months, is that he’s got a shallow bench. After years of Cersei’s cronyism, the ranks of the Lannister regime are made up of men like Mandon Moore and Meryn Trant, hired for their loyalty to House Lannister generally and Cersei specifically and their willingness to carry out immoral orders, and even if they’re skilled swords themselves none of them are gifted in command.
And so Tyrion throws himself into the breach in order to prevent a literal breach in the walls, heading the absolute opposite direction from Sandor (although its interesting how both men end up in much the same place mentally and emotionally). The fact that he does so is almost less interesting than why and how he does it. With the former, Tyrion is eerily reminiscent of Tywin; for very different reasons, both men fear public humiliation at an existential level and are willing to go to any lengths to avoid it. With the latter, however, Tyrion does two things that his father never could. First, he turns his weakness into a weapon – while Tywin rules by sheer force of personality, Tyrion knows that the way society sees him means he has to find other methods, so instead he latches on to that very bigotry as a point of leverage to make people do what he wants. Second, he looks outside of himself to appeal to larger principles; Tywin doesn’t believe in anything beyond House Lannister’s legacy, but Tyrion knows that the men he’s leading don’t give a damn about that. What they care about is their own lives and the people in them, and really for the first time in the entire book, Tyrion is able to reach out to people and explain why his strategy will save them.
Crucially, GRRM doesn’t have Tyrion’s big speech here land the same way it would do in the movies or it did do in the show. Sandor Clegane isn’t swayed by the speech, and while some men join Tyrion (which now that I think about it is an interesting mirror for Theon’s upcoming speech), most do not. And Tyrion’s thinking – “He thought they were following, but never dared to look.” – is self-depricating to the point of gallows humor, another one of GRRM’s existential protagonists who’s attempting a feat beyond them, not because they know it’s going to work but because they believe it to be the right thing to do.
The next siege of Constantinople that I’ll talk about is the Fourth Crusade of 1202-4, which works as something of a reverse mirror image of the Battle of Blackwater. As with the War of Five Kings, the Fourth Crusade ultimately emerged out of a conflict within a larger cultural and political entity known then as “Christendom.” The religious side of it is really too complex to explain, involving both institutional rivalries between the Patriarchy of Constantinople and the Papal See in Rome and how various Byzantine Emperors and Constantinian Patriarchs dealt with the monophysite crisis. The short version is that the recently elected Pope Innocent III viewed the loss of Jerusalem as a punishment from God for the sins of Christendom, and that the reform needed to redeem these sins was the restoration of Papal authority in the face of both secular rulers and heretics and pagans (by which he meant the Cathar movement in Europe, the Muslim Caliphate in the Holy Land, and the Patriarch in Constantinople).
The political side has to do with the legacy of Byzantine foreign and economic policy. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who ruled from 1081-1118, is best known for being the Byzantine Emperor who asked the Pope for aid against the Turks and got the First Crusade instead. For more on this, I highly recommend Extra History’s very entertaining series on this momentous event:
But one of the things that Emperor Alexios also had to deal with in his reign, which complicates the often simplified picture of West vs. East, was the problem of Norman invaders. Around the same time that William of Normandy was making himself King of England, other Norman noblemen had sought power in Southern Italy, Sicily, and Northern Africa, often acting as both mercenaries and conquerors (shades of the Andals there). And this (along with the fact that Southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa had been Byzantine territory) brought them into conflict with the Byzantines as they tried the same policy. For example, Roussel de Bailleul, who was working for the Emperor Romanus IV as a mercenary leading 3,000 Norman knights against the Seljuk Turks, decided that he would like to be King of Asia Minor, with Ankara as his capitol. Alexios Komnenos, then a Byzantine general and soon to become Emperor, was dispatched to defeat him, so even before he became emperor, he had a thing about Normans trying to slice off bits of Byzantine territory for their own.
In order to keep the Normans in check, Alexios made an alliance with the Venetians for their military support against the Normans led by Robert Guiscard and Bohemund, who were trying to take Byzantium’s territories in the Balkans. The strategy worked and Alexios was able to retake much of the Balkans, but the Venetians were not about to help their former colonial masters for nothing. What they wanted was a commercial treaty that opened up the Empire’s Aegean and Black Sea territories to Venice, and they got it. This proved to be a double-edged sword – the Venetian fleets proved vital to Byzantine naval success on more than one occasion, but their merchants absolutely slaughtered Byzantine competition, which led to a sharp decline in the economy and critically, tax revenue.
When his son John II Komnenos came to power in 1118, he abrogated the Venetian treaties in a bid to restore Byzantine commerce and finances, which led to a naval war with the Venetians that he lost, and those treaties were then reinstated. Manuel Komnenos, who was Emperor during the Second Crusade, succeeded in alienating both the Venetians and the Normans before being absolutely routed by the Turks. Following Manuel’s children’s overthrow, many of the woes of the Byzantines were blamed on the Venetians, many of whom lived in Byzantine territory, and anti-Venetian riots broke out in Constantinople in 1182. The following year, the new Emperor Andronikos Komnenos won much acclaim from the Byzantines when he seized all Venetian property in the city and had the owners jailed or exiled. And the Emperor Alexios III had sided with Pisa and Genoa as his commercial and naval allies against Venice. So by the time that the Fourth Crusade rolled around in 1202, the Venetians had some major reasons to want the Byzantines dealt with.
And so when Innocent III declared a Fourth Crusade to retake the Holy Land, the Venetians worked out a contract with the Crusaders, led by Count Baldwin of Flanders, Count Louis of Blois, and the Marquess Boniface of Monferrat, to transport and feed 33,500 men and 4,000 horses for 85,000 marks in gold and half of the spoils of war. This was an enormous and expensive undertaking, with all of Venice mobilized to transport such an army…and the Crusaders didn’t have the cash to pay them back.
And just when the bill came due, Alexios Angelos, the son of Emperor Isaac II who the current Emperor Alexios III had overthrown, arrived asking for support in reclaiming his birthright, with Boniface of Monferrat acting as his patron. And so as the Fourth Crusade’s ships stood at anchor in the harbor of Corfu, Doge Enrico Dandelo made the hard sell to the pope’s envoy, Baldwin of Flanders, and Louis of Blois: the Crusaders could pay Venice back with Byzantine gold, the new Emperor would pay for the actual Crusading and would acknowledge Innocent III’s supremacy, ending the schism between the Roman and Greek Churches with a resounding victory for the Pope. And all that Venice was asking for was lots of Byzantium’s cash and all of Byzantium’s territories in the Aegean and the Black Sea.
Thus, a Crusade that was supposed to retake Jerusalem by first conquering Egypt and cutting off the Abbuyid Caliphate from reinforcements and resupply from that critical region, took a detour.
The Crusaders landed in Anatolia in late June of 1203, and marched up the Asiatic coast to make camp across the water from Constantinople. Alexius III offered to pay and supply the Crusaders if they agreed to leave his territory and, you know, go crusade against the Muslims. The Crusaders replied that they would only leave if Alexius III abdicated to Alexios Angelos. When the Emperor refused, the Crusaders boarded the Venetian ships, which pushed past the Byzantine navy (which Alexius III had badly neglected, according to chroniclers) and landed north of the city.
150 horse-transports hit the beach, allowing 4,500 knights to charge up the beaches and seize the vital town of Galata, where the Tower of Galata guarded the boom chain’s northern anchor. While the town surrendered without a fight, the Venetians rolled their ships up onto the shore to act as mobile siege engines against the Tower’s defenders, who held out bravely against the Crusader knights until they were forced to retreat. The boom chain was severed, and the Venetian fleet sailed into the Golden Horn, ready to assault the city from its vulnerable northern side. (See Stannis? Ya should have attacked the tower on the south bank!)
The assault on the walls of Constantinople could now take place, and we’re about to meet potential historical parallels in the case of Andrew of Urboise and/or Peter of Amiens. But that’s a story for another chapter…
As the plot begins to concentrate down to a single point, there’s really only one crucial hypothetical here:
- Sandor hadn’t cracked? This one has some huge knock-on effects.
- Firstly, Tyrion doesn’t have to lead the sortie and remains in overall control of the battle. On a personal level, this means that he doesn’t get wounded, which means that rather than Cersei having the chance to rewrite history with her father, he has an opportunity to give his own accounting for his time in office. (It also probably slows down Tyrion’s drive to monsterhood, as his mutilation )As only the acting Hand, he was never going to keep that post when Tywin comes back, and we know that Tywin was never going to give Tyrion Casterly Rock. But I could see a scenario where Tyrion’s reward for holding King’s Landing is the command of the Lannister army, and the chance to win himself a seat of power by right of conquest. (Maybe that’s why Tyrion was supposed to burn Winterfell in the Ur-Text?) On a military level, this probably also means that the Goldcloaks don’t break when Joffrey leaves, because they can see the Hand of the King still there leading them, which also changes how Tyrion’s leadership is viewed retroactively.
- Secondly, this also means that both Mandon Moore and Sandor Clegane remain in the Kingsguard, which means that there isn’t a space for Loras Tyrell to join the Kingsguard, and for Boros Blount to be re-appointed by Tywin. (Which, by the way, is a decision that I’ve never understood why GRRM had him make, given his lack of action in the series) It also means that both men are present in King’s Landing for the Purple Wedding. With Mandon Moore, this would be a good opportunity to find out who he’s working for – more on which in next Tyrion chapter. But with Sandor, this means that he’s present when Sansa actually flees the capitol. I’ll bet you dragons to donuts that Sandor Clegane goes after her like a literal bloodhound, which might mean that he’s around to “rescue Alayne Stone,” or possibly come across Brienne of Tarth when she goes looking for a certain redhead. It also means that Sandor’s bad reputation, as both a coward and the Beast of Saltpans, doesn’t happen.
Book vs. Show:
It’s kind of impossible to critique this scene in “Blackwater,” for two main reasons. Firstly, the episode is directed by someone with a keen visual sense and acted by actors who are very much aware that this is their big moment where they get to stand out from the ensemble and take the spotlight for a change. And secondly, it’s written by George R.R Martin himself, so the usual questions about adaptation and divergent authorial intent aren’t there.
So the fact that Sandor’s defection gets politicized into a rejection of the Lannisters themselves and Tyrion’s big speech is greeted with a roaring chorus of “HALF-MAN! HALF-MAN!” can’t be dismissed lightly. In the first case, I think there’s something that was missing in the books – given how much Sandor’s self-conception as the Hound is tied up in the iconography of his House as loyalty embodied, his desertion has to reckon with this (and it kind of doesn’t in Sansa VII). Given everything he’s witnessed as a sworn sword of the Lannisters, given the orders he’s had to obey, a recognition that the king he’s sworn to serve and who he’s protected for years is fundamentally unworthy of him is a huge declaration of independence and I like that it’s given that moment.
In the second, this is a necessity of the changing mediums. It is simply not practical for the show to have the same cavalry riding to the rescue moment from the beginning of Tyrion XIV, where he looks over his shoulder to see the men charging after him shouting his monicker, both for budgetary reasons and the notoriously fractious nature of horses. But at the same time, I don’t think that even a cut away and then back would have the same impact that a chapter break does in terms of setting up the uncertainty and the reveal.
So two cheers for TV!