“His wits were coming back to him, however slowly. That was good. His wits were all he had.”
Synopsis: Tyrion wakes up to find he’s lost his nose, his job, and the credit for his victory.
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.
It’s hard to remember in the wake of the grand guignol of A Storm of Swords that A Clash of Kings ends with a brutal comedown of its own. Just last chapter, we we saw Theon in the hands of Ramsay. And here we see Tyrion, the main protagonist of this book (going by number of POV chapters), waking up in the aftermath of the Battle of Blackwater to find himself in a living nightmare:
In Tyrion XIII, I chided our protagonist for trying to offload his culpability for the devastation that the wildfire has wreaked on the soldiers on both sides who had to fight in the midst of the inferno. But now that he’s come down off of the battlements, which literally put him above the common soldier, and found himself on the battlefield, he is physically confronted by the human cost of his actions:
He found himself outside the city, walking through a world without color. Ravens soared through a grey sky on wide black wings, while carrion crows rose from their feasts in furious clouds wherever he set his steps. White maggots burrowed through black corruption. The wolves were grey, and so were the silent sisters; together they stripped the flesh from the fallen. There were corpses strewn all over the tourney fields. The sun was a hot white penny, shining down upon the grey river as it rushed around the charred bones of sunken ships. From the pyres of the dead rose black columns of smoke and white-hot ashes. My work, thought Tyrion Lannister. They died at my command.
The scene is deliberately made dreamlike and disorientating through the de-saturation of all color from the world, turning the aftermath of the battle into an eerie mix of blacks (ravens and crows, smoke from the pyres, rotting flesh), whites (maggots, the sun), and grays (probably allegorical wolves or more likely mis-perceived dogs, the Silent Sisters) that all symbolize death. The contrast with Ser Dontos’ description of the Tyrell charge and the Lannister celebrations could not be stronger; the rich colors exposed for the romantic lie that hides the awful reality of death from the knights of summer until it’s too late. One might be forgiven for thinking that Tyrion is dead, and indeed Tyrion himself is not quite sure.
But one thing he is sure of is that this is all his fault. It was Tyrion’s scheme with the wildfire and the boom chain that brought hell to earth, and unlike most noble commanders during the Middle Ages, he actually accepts his responsibility for the cost of his command decisions. Contrast his actions here with the famous scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V where the King goes in disguise among his men as “a little touch of Harry in the night.” In conversation with his soldiers, one of them has the temerity to raise that:
“But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy
reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopp’d
off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all,
“We died at such a place”; some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the
debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard
there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?
Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter
for the King that led them to it; who to disobey were against
all proportion of subjection.”
To our modern eyes and ears, this stands as an indictment of the wealthy and the powerful who have ordered common soldiers to fight and die for bad causes all throughout history, never thinking of the human cost. But the problem is that Shakespeare wasn’t a modern, and so he gives the final word to King Henry’s rebuttal:
“So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do
sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness,
by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him; or
if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of
money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconcil’d
iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of
the servant’s damnation. But this is not so. The King is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father
of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not
their death, when they purpose their services.”
But George R.R Martin isn’t a loyal Elizabethan convinced of the divine right of kings and the great chain of being by which the social hierarchy of the premodern age was legitimized and justified. He’s an American, a native of Bayonne New Jersey, who came of age in the Vietnam War when a democratic people insisted on the right to question the cause for which wars were fought and to hold their leaders accountable. And so Tyrion’s responsibility for the death of thousands cannot be denied, because GRRM writes it into his flesh:
He would have asked one of the silent sisters, but when he tried to speak he found he had no mouth. Smooth seamless skin covered his teeth. The discovery terrified him. How could he live without a mouth? He began to run. The city was not far. He would be safe inside the city, away from all these dead. He did not belong with the dead. He had no mouth, but he was still a living man. No, a lion, a lion, and alive. But when he reached the city walls, the gates were shut against him… He was sweating. Fever, he thought groggily. He felt so weak, and the pain stabbed through him when he struggled to lift his hand. He gave up the effort. His head felt enormous, as big as the bed, too heavy to raise from the pillow. His body he could scarcely feel at all.
…He turned over the glass, and did not know whether he ought to laugh or cry. The gash was long and crooked, starting a hair under his left eye and ending on the right side of his jaw. Three-quarters of his nose was gone, and a chunk of his lip. Someone had sewn the torn flesh together with catgut, and their clumsy stitches were still in place across the seam of raw, red, half-healed flesh. “Pretty,” he croaked, flinging the glass aside.
The disorientation explained by a combination of fever and drugs (more on which later), GRRM adds Cronenbergian body horror (and just a touch of Tim Burton’s Joker) to the mix to torment Tyrion. The threatened loss of his mouth, as with the loss of wits, terrifies Tyrion out of consciousness because it threatens the loss of the foundation of his identity, the one thing he can be proud of. (In that, he is very much like his brother Jaime, whose sword hand is core to his identity and sense of pride.) No wonder, then, that he escapes into a dream in which he flees the battlefield where the price of victory was paid, for the city that was the battle’s prize.
Whether fortunate or unfortunate, the price that Tyrion has paid for his command at the Battle of Blackwater doesn’t strike at his inner self but rather at his outer self. The loss of his nose is a fundamental injury to his dignity – as battlefield wounds go, it would be regarded as minor compared to the loss of a hand and a foot (in terms of purely physical disabilities) while still being utterly debilitating socially, given how keyed in humans are to facial symmetry. And it only further confirms his public reputation as the “Imp,” whose hideous appearance is but the outward sign of his inner evil. As we’ll see shortly, this injury confirms every fear that Tyrion has that he is so ugly that no one would ever love him, which has driven his desperate, half-aware drive for unconditional love, and which will continue to drive him through to the tragic conclusion of his relationship with Shae. Thus begins the gradual process of internalization that, over the course of ASOS, will convince Tyrion that he should begin to act as others believe him to be, since no one believes that his character might not match his appearance.
Visitors, But No Grapes
Another indignity, although less noticeable at the moment, is the fact that Tyrion’s injuries have left him physically at the mercy of his enemies, who get to see him at his worst, when he is incapable of fighting back, reduced to a mere object rather than a subject:
He dreamed his sister was standing over his bed, with their lord father beside her, frowning. It had to be a dream, since Lord Tywin was a thousand leagues away, fighting Robb Stark in the west. Others came and went as well. Varys looked down on him and sighed, but Littlefinger made a quip. Bloody treacherous bastard, Tyrion thought venomously, we sent you to Bitterbridge and you never came back. Sometimes he could hear them talking to one another, but he did not understand the words. Their voices buzzed in his ears like wasps muffled in thick felt.
Unbeknownst to Tyrion, this is the critical moment where the narrative of the Battle of Blackwater is established by Cersei to Tywin – and as we’ll see in Tyrion I of ASOS, it’s a narrative that paints him in the worst light imaginable while carefully painting over all of Cersei’s misdeeds. One certainly gets the idea that Tywin, Cersei, et al. are there not so much out of any concern for his well-being, but to see whether or not Tyrion will die. And while there was a good deal of debate in the comment threads about my argument that Cersei is a leading suspect for the attempt on Tyrion’s life, one thing that appears beyond debate is that, once wounded, Cersei wanted to ensure that Tyrion would not wake from his sick-bed:
As the man leaned close, Tyrion’s fingers slid underneath his chain of many metals, grabbed, pulled. The maester dropped the flask, spilling milk of the poppy all over the blanket. Tyrion twisted until he could feel the links digging into the flesh of the man’s fat neck. “No. More,” he croaked, so hoarse he was not certain he had even spoken. But he must have, for the maester choked out a reply. “Unhand, please, my lord…need your milk, the pain…the chain, don’t, unhand, no…”
“You are not yet healed, the queen would…”
The mention of his sister made Tyrion growl. Are you one of hers, then? He pointed a finger at the maester, then coiled his hand into a fist. Crushing, choking, a promise, unless the fool did as he was bid.
“You are in Maegor’s Holdfast, my lord. A chamber over the Queen’s Ballroom. Her Grace wanted you kept close, so that she might watch over you herself.”
Whether Cersei trying to keep Tyrion drugged to the gills (speaks to her culpability on the attempt on his life, Tyrion certainly believes that to be the case: “If I had not pulled back, that cut would have taken off the top of my head…I should never have trusted any of them. He’d known that Ser Meryn and Ser Boros were his sister’s, and Ser Osmund later, but he had let himself believe that the others were not wholly lost to honor. Cersei must have paid him to see that I never came back from the battle. Why else? I never did Ser Mandon any harm that I know of.” Between this, their earlier conversation, and the fact that he describes the wound as “another gift from my sweet sister,” I’m actually surprised that Tyrion wasn’t more pro-active about trying to get revenge against his sister.
Dreaming of Tysha
Thanks to copious amounts of painkillers, Tyrion spends much of the rest of the chapter lost in drug-fueled dreams. And due to the law of conservation of detail, these dreams aren’t just random psychedelica but highly meaningful revelations about his past and his desires. The first of which involves his history with Tysha:
He dreamed of a better place, a snug little cottage by the sunset sea. The walls were lopsided and cracked and the floor had been made of packed earth, but he had always been warm there, even when they let the fire go out. She used to tease me about that, he remembered. I never thought to feed the fire, that had always been a servant’s task. “We have no servants,” she would remind me, and I would say, “You have me, I’m your servant,” and she would say, “A lazy servant. What do they do with lazy servants in Casterly Rock, my lord?” and he would tell her, “They kiss them.” That would always make her giggle. “They do not neither. They beat them, I bet,” she would say, but he would insist, “No, they kiss them, just like this.” He would show her how. “They kiss their fingers first, every one, and they kiss their wrists, yes, and inside their elbows. Then they kiss their funny ears, all our servants have funny ears. Stop laughing! And they kiss their cheeks and they kiss their noses with the little bump in them, there, so, like that, and they kiss their sweet brows and their hair and their lips, their…mmmm…mouths…so…”
They would kiss for hours, and spend whole days doing no more than lolling in bed, listening to the waves, and touching each other. Her body was a wonder to him, and she seemed to find delight in his. Sometimes she would sing to him. I loved a maid as fair as summer, with sunlight in her hair. “I love you, Tyrion,” she would whisper before they went to sleep at night. “I love your lips. I love your voice, and the words you say to me, and how you treat me gentle. I love your face.”
…Lies, he thought, all feigned, all for gold, she was a whore, Jaime’s whore, Jaime’s gift, my lady of the lie.”
We already knew the details of his relationship with Tysha, but what this dream gives us in far more detail is the emotional content of the relationship, which helps to explain its potency in shaping Tyrion’s reactions in the future. It’s interesting to see how important class was to their relationship – that Tysha didn’t let him forget that he was a nobleman used to the comforts of his station, and that clearly part of the allure of the relationship for Tyrion was that he got to pretend he wasn’t a Lannister and got a little Carnival-esque thrill out of acting like a servant to his wife. Indeed, the game he and Tysha play about “what do they do with lazy servants in Casterly Rock” reads as Tyrion re-writing the harsh discipline that his father imposed on all he surveyed, inventing a fantasy world in which love and not violence was the rule.
Equally importantly, Tysha loved Tyrion’s body. Given his father’s attitudes to both sexuality and disability, for Tyrion not only to love someone else but to be loved in return was an enormously liberatory moment. The destruction of that moment by his father (and to an extent, by Jaime’s lie) has contributed to an enormous amount of self-loathing that his injury has and will raise to new heights. This is why I have argued that Tyrion’s relationship with Shae is a bomb just waiting for the right spark to go off, because it’s constructed out of such contradictory elements – he desperately wants unconditional love, but he believes he is fundamentally unworthy of it, but if his fears are confirmed he will lash out violently. Leaving aside the Purple Wedding and his trial, the moment that Tywin decided to enact his Atreus-like sexual drama with Shae, bloody murder was inevitable.
Waking Up from the Dream
While Tyrion’s dream of Tysha is definitely more important in the long run, Tyrion’s second dream speaks more directly to his immediate ideas and concerns:
This time he dreamed he was at a feast, a victory feast in some great hall. He had a high seat on the dais, and men were lifting their goblets and hailing him as hero. Marillion was there, the singer who’d journeyed with them through the Mountains of the Moon. He played his woodharp and sang of the Imp’s daring deeds. Even his father was smiling with approval. When the song was over, Jaime rose from his place, commanded Tyrion to kneel, and touched him first on one shoulder and then on the other with his golden sword, and he rose up a knight. Shae was waiting to embrace him. She took him by the hand, laughing and teasing, calling him her giant of Lannister.
In one paragraph, here is Tyrion’s desire for acceptance and recognition in all its myriad forms: the man who believes himself to be incapable of being loved transformed into a popular hero admired by all and the singer who insulted Tyrion by playing songs of his father’s victories and of his own defeat now sings of Tyrion’s victory. More importantly, we see Tywin expressing love and approval in a fashion that he has only ever done for Tyrion’s mother; Jaime himself inducts Tyrion into knighthood, the Westerosi stamp of approval for performance of masculinity. And then at the end, there is Shae, genuinely in love with him and using the pet name that symbolizes for him the unwriting of his disability, completing the fatal trinity that will spur Tyrion on to enact his tragedy.
This is the dream that Tyrion wakes from to find himself literally evicted from his position, unceremoniously moved from his quarters in the Hand’s Tower to a glorified cell under Cersei’s thumb. As a fall from grace grows, this is shockingly swift and complete:
“I. Am. King’s Hand…”
“No, my lord, I…you were wounded, near death. Your lord father has taken up those duties now. Lord Tywin he… Lord Tywin saved us all. The smallfolk say it was King Renly’s ghost, but wiser men know better. It was your father and Lord Tyrell, with the Knight of Flowers and Lord Littlefinger. They rode through the ashes and took the usurper Stannis in the rear. It was a great victory, and now Lord Tywin has settled into the Tower of the Hand to help His Grace set the realm to rights, gods be praised.”
One of the things I had genuinely forgotten about this chapter is how much of the reveal of the extent of Tyrion’s fall from power is kept hidden – Bronn’s elevation to knighthood is mentioned but largely in passing, the news about Jacelyn Bywater is held back, as is the fact that he’s been stripped of his hill-clan allies. GRRM focuses on the heart of the matter – that Tyrion has lost the office of Hand of the King that gave him the first political power he has ever enjoyed in his life, that his father has taken it back (along with his rooms, which will be the center of their Atreus-like psycho-sexual drama) showing that Tyrion only ever was a temporary substitute, and (worst of all?) that all of the credit for the victory of the Battle of Blackwater, everything that he bought with the bodies of thousands as well as his own, has gone to his father.
And with that, there is only one place that Tyrion can turn to for validation…as we’ll see in Tyrion I of ASOS.
If you thought the Byzantine history would end with the end of the Battle of Blackwater, I’m afraid to tell you that is not the case. Because there is really no better way to discuss Tyrion’s mutilation than a discussion of the Byzantines and their practice of nose-slitting. Like many premodern cultures, the Byzantines believed that only those without bodily flaws (by which they meant major deformities or injuries; keep in mind we’re talking about a world without plastic surgery or modern dermatology, so standards were different) could become the Emperor – after all, as God’s vicar on earth, the Emperor’s bodily purity was a synecdoche for the spiritual purity necessary for the task. Thus rather than kill their enemies, one of the ways that usurpers and Emperors dealt with former Emperors and/or usurpers was to mutilate their bodies so that they could never don the purple again. Blinding was common, but so was cutting off or slitting the nose, because it was impossible to hide.
This brings us to the example of Justinian II, last emperor of the Heraclian dynasty, and son of the great Emperor Constantine IV, who had beat back the Arabs during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople.Taking the purple in 681 and ruling alone by 685 CE, Justinian II saw initial success – he defeated the Arabs in Cyprus, got the Umayyads to pay him a tribute, retook part of Cyprus, and retook the Balkans from the Bulgars and the Slavs, the latter of whom he resettled in Anatolia to serve in his armies. However, Justinian II’s defeat at the Battle of Sebastopolis (where the Arabs bribed his Slavic troops to switch sides) lead to the loss of Armenia. His Quinisext Council at Constantinople, meant to highlight his Orthodox credentials, lead to an embarrassing split with Pope Sergius I, and when Justinian II ordered the Pope arrested, Rome and Ravenna both revolted against him. Defeat in war, religious conflict, and the higher taxes caused by losing wars and his taste for the good life lead to a rebellion, where the strategos Leontios rose up against him in 695 CE. Justinian’s nose was cut off to prevent him from ever returning to power.
But however unlucky or unwise he had been, Justinian II was too strong-willed to let it end there. Exiled to Crimea, he escaped to the lands of the Khazars, where he married the khagan’s sister and began to plot his rise to power. When his plans were complete, he and his small band of followers sailed west across the Black Sea in search of followers. The story goes that the ships were caught in a storm as they crossed, and one of his men hit upon the idea that if Justinian swore an oath to God that he would not seek revenge on his enemies when he returned to Consantinople, God would spare them. Instead, Justinian vowed that “if I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here.” The storm passed, and Justinian took that as a sign that the Divine approved of his plans.
In 705, Justinian appeared before the walls of Constantinople with an army of 15,000 Bulgars, having made peace with his former enemies. After a daring midnight raid where he and his men snuck into the city through an unused water main, Justinian took the capitol and retook his place. Wearing a golden nose as a prosthetic, he appeared in the Hippodrome along with Leontios and Tiberios (the man who had overthrown Leontios) and stood on their necks as a sign of his triumph. And then he called for their heads, and the heads of their followers, and for the blinding of the Patriarch. Justinian was back, and he would show no mercy to those who had wronged him.
So Tyrion’s hiring of the Second Sons to help him take Casterly Rock is a bad sign indeed…
There’s only really one good hypothetical for this chapter: what if Tyrion had died? To begin with, Sansa gets married to Lancel, which might well mean that her marriage gets dissolved legally when Lancel has his born-again experience and joins the Warrior’s Sons.
More interesting is the question of what happens when Joffrey dies at the Purple Wedding without Tyrion there to take the blame – most likely option is that Cersei interprets the prophecy to mean that Sansa was the culprit, but without a prisoner in hand to put on trial things start to change. Oberyn has no opportunity to put himself forward as a champion during a trial by combat, Jaime has no-one to free from prison (which probably makes him a lot less guilty in AFFC), and Tywin isn’t going to die in the same way. However, it’s quite probable that Varys will have Tywin killed regardless, because he needs to destabilize the Lannister/Tyrell alliance in advance of Aegon’s landing.
The next major change, to me, is what happens with the Golden Company. It’s possible that Aegon might be killed or tainted by a Stone Man, but more likely someone else sacrifices themselves to save him. The major difference, to me, is that without Tyrion, Aegon, Griff, and the Golden Company head to Meereen to win Dany’s hand and break the siege of Meereen (and while the forces of New Ghis and Yunkai would still have the numbers, the superior quality of the Unsullied and the Golden Company would most likely win the day).
What happens next is unclear. I’m of the opinion that Dany would consider Aegon far more attractive a candidate than Quentyn, given both the army in the hand and his personal beauty, but there are others who disagree. I also think it’s unclear whether Dany would regard him as a potential treason to be avoided or a mount to be ridden. Regardless, I do think that Aegon would have enough Targaryen blood to successfully pull off the stunt that Quentyn attempted and failed.
Book vs. Show:
In terms of how the show handled this chapter, I am not so much a purist that I mind the change to Tyrion’s face – a missing nose would mean incredible expense and difficulty of both makeup and CGI, and the long scar does a good enough job of changing Peter Dinklage’s face to have the thematic resonance that it needs to have.
Moreover, I actually think that Varys being present to give the bad news to Tyrion about the comprehensive loss of his power is a good change. His speech to Tyrion that “there are many who know that without you this city faced certain defeat. The king won’t give you any honors, the histories won’t mention you, but we will not forget,” is an excellent coda to both character’s arcs in Season 2, while nicely setting up how Varys will be involved in saving Tyrion’s life in Season 4.
And I’ll even go to bat for the change to Shae’s storyline. Her speech reaffirming their love and begging Tyrion to leave with her and go to Pentos instead is a great change, making their relationship a far more interesting functional adult relationship and there’s precious few of those on Game of Thrones. The problem to me is that, if you’re going to make that change, you need a plan for how to get from there to Tywin’s bedchamber in Season 4 and the writers never developed that plan, despite having a full interstitial season for them to come up with one. When they finally had to pull the trigger, the result was a mess with Shae becoming irrationally jealous of Sansa and then trying to kill Tyrion – all in an unnecessary effort to make Tyrion a more sympathetic character when the audience’s sympathies had been won years earlier.
Rather, I think they should have played up tragic timing instead – have Tyrion send Shae ahead of him to Pentos but have her be intercepted by Cersei and Tywin’s agents, have a scene where she’s alternately threatened with death and bribed with the promise that Tyrion’s life will be spared if she testifies against him. Hell, show that last scene out of order so that the audience has that moment of betrayal along with Tyrion but then the one-sided revelation of what’s going on. Then all you need is a line from Tywin about having Shae brought to his chambers, and you’re set up for a classic tragic moment where Tyrion has every reason to believe he’s been betrayed and kills Shae in a furious rage before she can tell him the truth.