“The Lord of Casterly Rock made such an impressive figure that it was a shock when his destrier dropped a load of dung right at the base of the throne.”
Synopsis: the Battle of Blackwater is over, so it’s time to spit up the goods. Tywin is back as Hand of the King, Mace Tyrell is on the Small Council, Loras Tyrell is on the Kingsguard, and Margaery Tyrell is Joffrey’s new betrothed. And Sansa gets a hairnet.
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.
As I said last time, Sansa VIII is a bit of a weird chapter in that the main arcs of plot and theme that Sansa has been involved with throughout A Clash of Kings are essentially over, and this chapter is largely concerned with describing the new status quo post-Battle of Blackwater and setting up Sansa’s plot for ASOS – which you think would be the job that Sansa I of ASOS would have, especially if you compare it to Sansa I of ACOK. However, there’s so much fascinating political stuff going on here that I don’t begrudge this chapter’s location here, because it means I get to cover it sooner than would be the case otherwise.
So let’s get into it.
Ain’t No Party Like a Lannister Party
The tone for this chapter is set right at the outset as the royal court at the Red Keep assembles for its self-congratulation parade:
The denizens of Joffrey’s court had striven to outdo each other today. Jalabhar Xho was all in feathers, a plumage so fantastic and extravagant that he seemed like to take flight. The High Septon’s crystal crown fired rainbows through the air every time he moved his head. At the council table, Queen Cersei shimmered in a cloth-of-gold gown slashed in burgundy velvet, while beside her Varys fussed and simpered in a lilac brocade. Moon Boy and Ser Dontos wore new suits of motley, clean as a spring morning. Even Lady Tanda and her daughters looked pretty in matching gowns of turquoise silk and vair, and Lord Gyles was coughing into a square of scarlet silk trimmed with golden lace. King Joffrey sat above them all, amongst the blades and barbs of the Iron Throne. He was in crimson samite, his black mantle studded with rubies, on his head his heavy golden crown.
It’s as if the paranoia, back-biting and betrayal, and incompetence of the past year has been swept under the rug and everyone is pretending that the King’s Landing riot never happened. And so the whole court, from King Joffrey and Queen-Regent Cersei and the High Septon, down through court fixtures like the Rosbys and the Stokeworths, even down to the court jesters, get together to put their collective blessings on a lie, while the actual architect of victory lies dying in some horrific field hospital.
At the same time, there is a marked difference between this pageantry and how things were carried on when Cersei or Joffrey, because now Tywin’s running the show. And if there is a grand political statement that all of the pomp and symbolism is meant to get across, it’s that Tywin is back in charge and things will run the way he wants them to:
Squirming through a press of knights, squires, and rich townfolk, Sansa reached the front of the gallery just as a blast of trumpets announced the entry of Lord Tywin Lannister.
He rode his warhorse down the length of the hall and dismounted before the Iron Throne. Sansa had never seen such armor; all burnished red steel, inlaid with golden scrollwork and ornamentation. His rondels were sunbursts, the roaring lion that crowned his helm had ruby eyes, and a lioness on each shoulder fastened a cloth-of-gold cloak so long and heavy that it draped the hindquarters of his charger. Even the horse’s armor was gilded, and his bardings were shimmering crimson silk emblazoned with the lion of Lannister.
The Lord of Casterly Rock made such an impressive figure that it was a shock when his destrier dropped a load of dung right at the base of the throne. Joffrey had to step gingerly around it as he descended to embrace his grandfather and proclaim him Savior of the City. Sansa covered her mouth to hide a nervous smile.
Joff made a show of asking his grandfather to assume governance of the realm, and Lord Tywin solemnly accepted the responsibility, “until Your Grace does come of age.”
Words cannot express adequately how much I love this scene. All of this smug self-congratulation, all of the unearned praise being heaped on a psychotic boy-king, all of Tywin Lannister’s obsession with image and reputation, brought back down to reality and shown for what it really is: a giant pile of horseshit. So kudos to Tywin Lannister’s horse, who plays the same role as, during triumphs in Ancient Rome, slaves who held the laurels of victory over the head of the conquering general while whispering in their ears “remember that thou art mortal.” It’s unfortunately a lesson that Tywin isn’t going to learn before he meets his own inevitable death, with all of his attempts to wind up the War of Five Kings left unfinished upon his death and promptly undone by his squabbling and paranoid children.
Getting What’s Coming to You
The second major political statement of the day is that Joffrey’s regime now rests on an alliance between House Lannister and House Tyrell (note that no one’s even pretending any more that Joffrey is a Baratheon):
Pride of place was given to Mace Tyrell, the Lord of Highgarden, a once-powerful man gone to fat, yet still handsome. His sons followed him in; Ser Loras and his older brother Ser Garlan the Gallant. The three dressed alike, in green velvet trimmed with sable.
The king descended the throne once more to greet them, a great honor. He fastened about the throat of each a chain of roses wrought in soft yellow gold, from which hung a golden disc with the lion of Lannister picked out in rubies. “The roses support the lion, as the might of Highgarden supports the realm,” proclaimed Joffrey. “If there is any boon you would ask of me, ask and it shall be yours.”
And now it comes, thought Sansa.
“Your Grace,” said Ser Loras, “I beg the honor of serving in your Kingsguard, to defend you against your enemies.”
…Lord Tyrell bowed his head. “There is no greater pleasure than to serve the King’s Grace. If I was deemed worthy to join your royal council, you would find none more loyal or true.”
Your Grace,” Garlan said when the king approached him, “I have a maiden sister, Margaery, the delight of our House. She was wed to Renly Baratheon, as you know, but Lord Renly went to war before the marriage could be consummated, so she remains innocent. Margaery has heard tales of your wisdom, courage, and chivalry, and has come to love you from afar. I beseech you to send for her, to take her hand in marriage, and to wed your House to mine for all time.”
This is the first time since Catelyn II that we’ve seen House Tyrell’s political style on display, and it’s notably the first time that Garlan and Mace Tyrell make an appearance. And already, we can see some important differences in style between the Tyrells and their new partners: first, as we could see from Renly’s campaign for the Iron Throne, the Tyrells have much better public relations skills than the Lannisters do, and are especially good at presenting a united front (although anyone looks good when compared to the Lannisters on that score). Second, the Tyrells understand feudal politics at a bone-deep level, getting their people on the Small Council, the Kingsguard, and in the royal bed – just like the Lannisters did with the Baratheon dynasty. All of which makes Cersei’s hatred of them all the more explicable – after all, they’re doing exactly what she did, but better, and Cersei’s paranoia and sociopathic tendencies mean that she can only interpret those moves as hostile, even when Tywin tries to explain that this is how dynastic alliances work. More on that in ASOS.
The Tyrells’ good fortune, however, is only the tip of the iceberg of a reordering of political and economic power throughout Westeros:
“It is His Grace’s wish that these good men be rewarded for their valor. By his decree, Ser Philip shall henceforth be Lord Philip of House Foote, and to him shall go all the lands, rights, and incomes of House Caron. Lothor Brune to be raised to the estate of knighthood, and granted land and keep in the riverlands at war’s end…
A more significant lordship by far was granted to Ser Lancel Lannister. Joffrey awarded him the lands, castle, and rights of House Darry, whose last child lord had perished during the fighting in the riverlands, “leaving no trueborn heirs of lawful Darry blood, but only a bastard cousin.”
One of the advantages of a civil war is that, providing you win, you can disinherit the losers and take their lands to rebuild a strong feudal constituency behind the new regime. And Tywin Lannister is familiar enough with Machiavelli’s maxim that “of what does not belong to you or to your subjects you should, therefore, be a lavish giver, as were Cyrus, Cæsar, and Alexander; for to be liberal with the property of others does not take from your reputation, but adds to it. What injures you is to give away what is your own,” to ensure that the rewards for winning the Battle of Blackwater isn’t coming out of his own treasury or his own lands – by contrast, he’s planting Lannister loyalists in the Stormlands and the Riverlands, which in the future will ensure that those provinces will find rebellion more difficult, but also means that someone else bears the cost of actually bringing these provinces back into line rather than having to leave Lannister garrisons scattered across the continent.
At the same time, civil wars also offer the possibility of social mobility within the nobility. Hence Philip Foote, a complete nobody who we’ve never seen before, becomes the lord of one of the principal Houses of the Stormlands – although if Joffrey falls, he might have to deal with Rolland Storm’s claim. Likewise, Lothor Brune, one of Littlefinger’s men in King’s Landing, gets an unspecified landed knighthood in the Riverlands – although we’ve yet to see what consequences will flow from this bit of social leveling. However, the greatest prize goes to a Lannister because some things don’t change, as Lancel Lannister, the son of a landless younger son, gains a lordship and castle by stepping into dead men’s shoes. (Yet another unforeseen consequence of Gregor Clegane’s approach to non-combatants in warfare.)
However, if we’re talking about social mobility, we have to talk about Petyr Baelish’s big moment:
When the herald called, “Lord Petyr Baelish,” he came forth dressed all in shades of rose and plum, his cloak patterned with mockingbirds. She could see him smiling as he knelt before the Iron Throne. He looks so pleased. Sansa had not heard of Littlefinger doing anything especially heroic during the battle, but it seemed he was to be rewarded all the same.
Ser Kevan got back to his feet. “It is the wish of the King’s Grace that his loyal councillor Petyr Baelish be rewarded for faithful service to crown and realm. Be it known that Lord Baelish is granted the castle of Harrenhal with all its attendant lands and incomes, there to make his seat and rule henceforth as Lord Paramount of the Trident. Petyr Baelish and his sons and grandsons shall hold and enjoy these honors until the end of time, and all the lords of the Trident shall do him homage as their rightful liege. The King’s Hand and the small council consent.”
… She did not understand why that should make him so happy; the honors were as empty as the title granted to Hallyne the Pyromancer. Harrenhal was cursed, everyone knew that, and the Lannisters did not even hold it at present. Besides, the lords of the Trident were sworn to Riverrun and House Tully, and to the King in the North; they would never accept Littlefinger as their liege. Unless they are made to. Unless my brother and my uncle and my grandfather are all cast down and killed. The thought made Sansa anxious, but she told herself she was being silly. Robb has beaten them every time. He’ll beat Lord Baelish too, if he must.
Now, in the past, I’ve made no secret of my belief that Littlefinger is overrated as a conspirator. And while I don’t take any of that back, I do have to say that this is Littlefinger at his best. For undertaking one mission, Baelish gets himself one of the richest fiefs in Westeros, which he will springboard off of to make himself the husband of the Lady Regent of the Vale, and from there the Lord Protector in his own right. And that’s a real strength he has as a conspirator – he always, always, ekes out the maximum profit from his opportunities. At the same time, this is also another case of Tywin playing the Machiavellian game – he’s giving away his enemy’s land, he’s given Littlefinger a cursed castle in a blasted land, and he’s managed to screw over the Freys by giving them Riverrun but not the title that historically comes with it. So kudos to the heartless bastards.
Prisoners of War
Another way that the Lannisters demonstrate that the war is over is to present Stannis’ former bannermen to the court, in the grand old tradition of parading your enemies in chains:
…the captives were ushered in.
There were great lords and noble knights in that company too: sour old Lord Celtigar, the Red Crab; Ser Bonifer the Good; Lord Estermont, more ancient even than Celtigar; Lord Varner, who hobbled the length of the hall on a shattered knee, but would accept no help; Ser Mark Mullendore, grey-faced, his left arm gone to the elbow; fierce Red Ronnet of Griffin Roost; Ser Dermot of the Rainwood; Lord Willum and his sons Josua and Elyas; Ser Jon Fossoway; Ser Timon the Scrapesword; Aurane, the bastard of Driftmark; Lord Staedmon, called Pennylover; hundreds of others.
…Those who had changed their allegiance during the battle needed only to swear fealty to Joffrey, but the ones who had fought for Stannis until the bitter end were compelled to speak. Their words decided their fate. If they begged forgiveness for their treasons and promised to serve loyally henceforth, Joffrey welcomed them back into the king’s peace and restored them to all their lands and rights.
This is not an insignificant political moment – with the exception of Dragonstone itself, the Crownlands are unified under Lannister control; likewise, with the exception of the besieged Florents at Brightwater Keep, the Reach is once again unified under Tyrell control. Moreover, much of the Stormlands, with the exception of the Seaworths, Horpes, Peaseburys, Fells, Wyldes, Morrigens, Wensingtons, and Rolland Storm, is nominally returned to compliance with the Iron Throne – however, I share BryndenBFish’s beliefs that much of the Stormlands (especially those houses who fought for the loyalist side in Robert’s Rebellion) will end up siding with Aegon.
Unfortunately for the Lannisters, this kind of symbolic display breaks down due to an unexpected factor – namely, the incredibly fervent loyalty of some Stannis supporters. Despite the perception that much of the fandom have that Stannis is inherently unqualified to be king because he is popularly disliked, he does have the ability to inspire profound devotion in a few. Likewise, devotion to R’hllor is usually seen by many fans as devotion to an evil religion – but consider how it inspires incredible bravery in these men:
A handful remained defiant, however. “Do not imagine this is done, boy,” warned one, the bastard son of some Florent or other. “The Lord of Light protects King Stannis, now and always. All your swords and all your scheming shall not save you when his hour comes.”
“Your hour is come right now.” Joffrey beckoned to Ser Ilyn Payne to take the man out and strike his head off. But no sooner had that one been dragged away than a knight of solemn mien with a fiery heart on his surcoat shouted out, “Stannis is the true king! A monster sits the Iron Throne, an abomination born of incest!…Joffrey is the black worm eating the heart of the realm! Darkness was his father, and death his mother! Destroy him before he corrupts you all! Destroy them all, queen whore and king worm, vile dwarf and whispering spider, the false flowers. Save yourselves!” One of the gold cloaks knocked the man off his feet, but he continued to shout. “The scouring fire will come! King Stannis will return!”
Speaking of religious allusions, it’s hard to ignore the allusions to the long tradition of martyrdom in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, with the lowly prisoners speaking truth to a tyrant king. At the same time, it’s interesting to note how these nameless soldiers combine the R’hlloric gospel with Stannis’ letter from early in ACOK, showing that as much as the Lannisters attempt to repress it, his de-legitimizing story continues to spread.
Even more troubling for the new Lannister regime, they have a basic problem that Joffrey will always screw up the stage directions:
Joffrey lurched to his feet. “I’m king! Kill him! Kill him now! I command it.” He chopped down with his hand, a furious, angry gesture…and screeched in pain when his arm brushed against one of the sharp metal fangs that surrounded him. The bright crimson samite of his sleeve turned a darker shade of red as his blood soaked through it. “Mother!” he wailed.
With every eye on the king, somehow the man on the floor wrested a spear away from one of the gold cloaks, and used it to push himself back to his feet. “The throne denies him!” he cried. “He is no king!”
It’s bad enough that Joffrey can’t appear in public without acting like a bloodthirsty sadist, undoing everyone’s best efforts to pretend that’s not the case, but here he shows himself to be a coward and a mommy’s boy as well. And in the wake of WOIAF and ASOS, we know that the King being denied by the Iron Throne is one of the worst kinds of political symbolism for the Lannisters – it puts Joffrey in the same category as Maegor the Cruel, Rhaenrya the “Usurper,” and “King Scab,” as an unworthy king who is being denied legitimacy by the monarchy itself. In a political culture where there is little alternative to kingship, this is grounds for legitimate opposition. As we’ll see, the Lannister regime’s legitimacy rests on a shaky foundation that can be shaken to cracking by Faith and the Golden company alike.
Sansa and Freedom
While I’ve argued against a lot of complaints about Sansa’s narrative in ACOK, I do understand the frustration of people when it comes to Sansa’s struggle for freedom, because this chapter leaves the oldest Stark sister in pretty much the same place she started the book, which does seem contrary to best practices of character development:
“I want to go home.”
The queen was irritated by that. “You should have learned by now, none of us get the things we want.”
I have, though, Sansa thought. I am free of Joffrey. I will not have to kiss him, nor give him my maidenhood, nor bear him children. Let Margaery Tyrell have all that, poor girl.
“…The queen will never let you go, never. You are too valuable a hostage. And Joffrey…sweetling, he is still king. If he wants you in his bed, he will have you, only now it will be bastards he plants in your womb instead of trueborn sons….”
While on the surface this does seem like Sansa’s spinning her wheels – she’s still a prisoner in the Red Keep, she’s still in danger of horrific abuse from Joffrey – I would argue that, underneath, there’s an enormous amount of character and thematic growth here. To begin with, I think endurance and resistance can be a form of growth; as we see through Sansa’s interior dialogue here, she has managed to escape her position as Joffrey’s kidnapped-bride and has successfully resisted every attempt to break her will and make her accept said position. Cersei may have “warned her; no matter what she felt inside, the face she showed the world must look distraught,” but inside Sansa remains free to despise Cersei’s darling boy. That’s a level of strength of will and self-knowledge that she simply didn’t have in Sansa I of AGOT.
Moreover, on a thematic level, I think that simply dismissing Sansa’s storyline because it makes the reader feel frustrated is something of a failure of analysis. I would argue that George R.R Martin wrote this chapter not just to set the stage for Sansa’s marriage and escape in ASOS, but also to make the reader feel frustrated just like Sansa (which, along with boredom and loneliness has to be one of the defining emotions of imprisonment). And this brings us to an important point about how media should make us feel – as a fan of Extra Credits, one of the things I’ve learned from them is the danger of assuming that media should be fun, because that’s an incredibly limiting way to think about the uses of art.
I’ve said before that there’s deep value in media that makes us feel sad, and I would also say that there’s value in media that makes us feel frustrated. When we feel frustrated that Sansa can’t escape King’s Landing, we’re empathizing with Sansa’s own feelings, and thus drawing closer to the character. I would argue that if people genuinely didn’t care about Sansa’s character at all, they wouldn’t express themselves as vocally or passionately as they have been doing. It’s something of a dangerous strategy when GRRM has Sansa fall into Littlefinger’s captivity once she’s out of Joffrey’s, akin to narrative auto-asphyxiation, but if I’m right about where Sansa’s going, it’ll make the high when she does finally break free so much higher.
Speaking of Sansa’s issues with freedom, in this chapter she meets with Ser Dontos, who continues to gaslight her on behalf of Petyr Baelish:
“Be brave. I swore to see you home, and now I can. The day has been chosen.”
“When?” Sansa asked. “When will we go?”
“The night of Joffrey’s wedding. After the feast. All the necessary arrangements have been made. The Red Keep will be full of strangers. Half the court will be drunk and the other half will be helping Joffrey bed his bride. For a little while, you will be forgotten, and the confusion will be our friend.”
Looking at this scene from hindsight, Ser Dontos feels even more sketchy. We know that Ser Dontos is somewhat shading the truth in order to get Sansa to feel isolated and under threat and therefore more trusting. (In fact, Joffrey’s treatment of Sansa in ASOS will be arguably more restrained than it has been, because of both Tyrion and Tywin’s influence.)
However, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Ser Dontos characterizes the time for Sansa’s escape as planned for “the night of Joffrey’s wedding. After the feast,” which is much later than what takes place in ASOS. Is this a sign that Littlefinger’s plan changed before it was executed, which is after all a part of his style as a conspirator? Or is Ser Dontos gaslighting her so that she couldn’t give away the Purple Wedding no matter what because she just wouldn’t see it coming? One clue may be found in the introduction of the hairnet here:
Ser Dontos fumbled in his pouch and drew out a silvery spiderweb, dangling it between his thick fingers.
It was a hair net of fine-spun silver, the strands so thin and delicate the net seemed to weigh no more than a breath of air when Sansa took it in her fingers. Small gems were set wherever two strands crossed, so dark they drank the moonlight. “What stones are these?”
“Black amethysts from Asshai…Lovelier than you know, sweet child. It’s magic, you see. It’s justice you hold. It’s vengeance for your father.” Dontos leaned close and kissed her again. “It’s home.”
With foreknowledge of the Purple Wedding and Littlefinger’s later conniving in the Vale in mind, one thing that becomes clear is that that Littlefinger doesn’t want Sansa not as she is now, but as someone whose social position is compromised by being known as a fugitive kingslayer. Not only does this further isolate Sansa and make her more dependent on him, but it means that she can’t use her knowledge of his role in the murder of King Joffrey or Lysa Arryn against him.
One of the historical themes that’s absolutely at the center of this chapter is the way in which political spoils got redistributed during the Wars of the Roses. In part because they had their roots in dynastic claims between the House of York and the House of Lancaster and in local feuds between the House of Neville and the House of Percy, the Wars of the Roses led to unusual degrees of redistribution of land, as whenever Yorkists were in the ascendancy they disinherited Lancastrians, and vice-versa. Thus, when Edward IV was acclaimed as king and achieved his victory at Towton, in his first Parliament:
Acts of Attainder were passed against 150 Lancastrians, including “the usurper” Henry VI, Margaret “late called Queen of England”…Somerset, Exeter, Decon, Wiltshire, Northumberland, Fortescue, Beaumont, Roos, Clifford, Hungerford, Welles, Neville, Dacre, and Trollope. Many of these were dead and beyond human retribution, in which case their relatives would suffer confiscation of all their property…the confiscation of so much Lancastrian property meant that Edward could reward his supporters well, and there followed a large-scale redistribution of lands, titles, offices, and estates among the Yorkist hierarchy. The duchy of Lancaster was also declared forfeit to the crown…
(Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses, p. 308)
These confiscations and redistributions went on and on – when Warwick the Kingmaker rose up against Edward IV, he would redistribute lands once again, taking the Duchy of York from Edward and giving it to Clarence; when Richard III took the crown with support from the Northern aristocracy, he rewarded them with lands and offices that had formerly belonged to the Southern aristocracy. But one of the consequences of all of these redistributions is that, in each round, a little bit more land stuck to the monarchy itself. Thus, when Henry VII was acclaimed King in 1485, he personally owned all of the lands belonging to both the House of York, the House of Lancaster, and the House of Neville, making him far more powerful than had been most kings prior to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. (Which in turn helped to prevent any further outbreak of civil war.)
And arguably, we can see a similar process here. If, for example, King Tommen’s reign were to continue into adulthood, he could by rights claim Casterly Rock, King’s Landing, and Storm’s End by right of inheritance, far more land than any of the Targaryens held in the past. Likewise, if the decisions made here (and soon in Tyrion’s POV in ASOS) hold, House Lannister would have influence in the Riverlands that it never had before, and House Tyrell would have a much greater sway within the Reach with the acquisition of House Florent’s lands.
Something to keep your eye on for the future.
There isn’t really a hypothetical for this chapter, so check back next time!
Book vs. Show:
And so Sansa’s Season 2 plotline comes to an end. And…I have to say, I feel mixed about the outcome. I’ll talk about the royal court scene in a minute, but the shoehorning in of Littlefinger really makes me think of the way in which Littlefinger and Sansa’s Season 3 just does not work at all. Likewise, the decision to completely cut out Ser Dontos’ interactions with Sansa toward the end of Season 2 now seems like a huge mistake – because of Littlefinger’s extensive interactions with Sansa in Season 3, I know very few people who were actually surprised when he turned out to be her abductor in Season 4 or who particularly cared when Ser Dontos got whacked.
However, I can’t be totally condemnatory because, sometimes, the show handles things so right that it becomes genuinely difficult to tell apart the book from the show. For example, the scene where Tywin rides his perfect white horse into the throne room and it drops a giant turd on the floor, is perfectly executed – the way that the horse’s size makes Tywin absolutely loom over everyone else in the room, the offhanded way that Tywin takes the Hand of the King pin from Joffrey as if he’s reclaiming something he owns by right rather than being given royal patronage, and of course, the in-your-face cinematography of the horse’s ass making a mute commentary on the obviously stage-managed conversation between Joffrey, Margaery, Pycelle, and Cersei, etc. I can’t fully hate a show that pulls that off.