“The old woman smelled of rosewater. Why, she’s just the littlest bit of a thing. There was nothing the least bit thorny about her.”
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.
I really don’t know how people can read this chapter and still not enjoy Sansa POV chapters. In this chapter alone, we get our first close-up of the inner workings of House Tyrell, we get the setup of Sansa’s marriage plot and the Purple Wedding. Thematically, there’s both a fascinating juxtaposition of espionage and chivalric romance, and a hugely cathartic moment where Sansa finally gets to call out her tormenters and abusers after an entire book of silence.
It’s also the beginning of Sansa’s best arc in all of ASOIAF – one that will take her all the way from King’s Landing to the Eyrie; from imprisonment to matrimony to accomplice to murder after the fact; and to the revelation of the truth of the major political conspiracy.
There’s Something About Margaery
The chapter starts with Sansa observing Margaery from afar. And while Sansa is sometimes described as a mere camerawoman (a charge also lodged against her mother), there’s more going on than giving GRRM a POV to depict the entry of Margaery Tyrell into King’s Landing. Sansa is not merely observing, she’s also analyzing:
The invitation seemed innocent enough, but every time Sansa read it her tummy tightened into a knot. She’s to be queen now, she’s beautiful and rich and everyone loves her, why would she want to sup with a traitor’s daughter? It could be curiosity, she supposed; perhaps Margaery Tyrell wanted to get the measure of the rival she’d displaced. Does she resent me, I wonder? Does she think I bear her ill will…
Sansa had watched from the castle walls as Margaery Tyrell and her escort made their way up Aegon’s High Hill. Joffrey had met his new bride-to-be at the King’s Gate to welcome her to the city, and they rode side by side through cheering crowds, Joff glittering in gilded armor and the Tyrell girl splendid in green with a cloak of autumn flowers blowing from her shoulders. She was sixteen, brown-haired and brown-eyed, slender and beautiful. The people called out her name as she passed, held up their children for her blessing, and scattered flowers under the hooves of her horse. Her mother and grandmother followed close behind, riding in a tall wheelhouse whose sides were carved into the shape of a hundred twining roses, every one gilded and shining. The smallfolk cheered them as well.
The same smallfolk who pulled me from my horse and would have killed me, if not for the Hound. Sansa had done nothing to make the commons hate her, no more than Margaery Tyrell had done to win their love. Does she want me to love her too? She studied the invitation, which looked to be written in Margaery’s own hand. Does she want my blessing?
Needless to say, this is an entirely different Sansa than the one went to the Hand’s Tourney – she’s constantly questioning people’s intentions and motives, she knows that people act from their own interests, she tries to reason from them, and she is no longer taken in by pageantry and surface appearances. In this case, she’s trying to figure out Margaery from afar before meeting her face-to-face, and while some of her hypotheses are incorrect (Margaery’s interest in Sansa has very little do with with either Sansa’s relationship with Joffrey or her own), I think she ends up on the right track. Margaery wants Sansa to trust Margaery enough to part with her secrets and provide Margaery with valuable information, and she wants Sansa to agree to participate in her plans for the future.
Her observations here are also interesting, because Margaery is in so many ways the woman that Sansa wanted to be: not only beautiful and surrounded by beauty, but able to use that beauty to inspire universal love where all of Sansa’s lessons in courtesty could not spare her beatings. But having experienced that awakening, Sansa is now paying attention to the staged nature of Tyrell glamour, the way that wealth and fashion sense and a key eye towards branding all come together to weave a powerful spell over people – a spell that will soon be directed at Sansa herself. She’s also far more cynicals about the pitfalls of this kind of politics; as she correctly notes, Margaery hasn’t really done anything concrete to earn the love of the people (any more than the Tyrells have by restoring cut-off food supplies to the capitol), which can easily turn into hatred the moment that conditions turn for the worse.
All in all, while Sansa is hardly a political mastermind and still has much to learn, we can see the potential that Petyr Baelish will make use of in the future.
A Tour of the Tyrells
Moving on from this recollection, the first half of Sansa I is essentially a guided tour of House Tyrell, starting with its outward appearance and ending in its political inner circle. And just as Loras was Sansa’s entry to chivalric romance, he performs the same function for his family as he escorts her to dinner:
He was beautiful, though. He seemed taller than he’d been when she’d first met him, but still so lithe and graceful, and Sansa had never seen another boy with such wonderful eyes. He’s no boy, though, he’s a man grown, a knight of the Kingsguard. She thought he looked even finer in white than in the greens and golds of House Tyrell. The only spot of color on him now was the brooch that clasped his cloak; the rose of Highgarden wrought in soft yellow gold, nestled in a bed of delicate green jade leaves.
As is only appropriate for this kind of exploration, we start with the surface level. Throughout his appearances to date in ASOIAF, Loras Tyrell has cultivated an appearance as a “chevalier sans peur et sans reproche,” the kind of ideal knight who someone like Robert Baratheon would deem “the kind of son you want to have.” And yet this performance of Westerosi masculinity hides a far more complex reality, and this double layer has major implications for Sansa:
“You ride wonderfully, ser.”
“My lady is gracious to say so. When has she seen me ride?”
“At the Hand’s tourney, don’t you remember? You rode a white courser, and your armor was a hundred different kinds of flowers. You gave me a rose. A red rose. You threw white roses to the other girls that day.” It made her flush to speak of it. “You said no victory was half as beautiful as me.”
Ser Loras gave her a modest smile. “I spoke only a simple truth, that any man with eyes could see.”
He doesn’t remember, Sansa realized, startled. He is only being kind to me, he doesn’t remember me or the rose or any of it. She had been so certain that it meant something, that it meant everything. A red rose, not a white. “It was after you unhorsed Ser Robar Royce,” she said, desperately.
While Sansa has been undergoing a process of awakening from chivalric romance, because it came before the horror she had to witness and the abuse she had to endure Sansa will often reach back to some touchstone of her “age of innocence.” (Which may be somewhat frustrating for some readers, but is profoundly human. No real human being completely severs themselves from their pasts.) At every stage, though, she finds that these things are far more complicated than she had thought – for Sansa, the red rose was her personal entry point into the world of chivalric romance, marking her out as a protagonist, somehow more special than all the girls who got white roses. The revelation that it didn’t have that meaning for Loras shocks Sansa deeply, but it’s an interesting moment of a false revelation, because Sansa still doesn’t understand why. Loras doesn’t remember because for him the rose was simply another moment of performing heterosexuality according to the rules set down by the chivalric code.
Furthering this theme of surface appearances vs. hidden depths, Sansa unintentionally makes things worse when she references recent events during the War of Five Kings:
He took his hand from her arm. “I slew Robar at Storm’s End, my lady.” It was not a boast; he sounded sad.
Him, and another of King Renly’s Rainbow Guard as well, yes. Sansa had heard the women talking of it round the well, but for a moment she’d forgotten. “That was when Lord Renly was killed, wasn’t it? How terrible for your poor sister.”
“For Margaery?” His voice was tight. “To be sure. She was at Bitterbridge, though. She did not see…Renly is dead. Robar as well. What use to speak of them?”
The sharpness in his tone took her aback. “I…my lord, I…I didn’t not mean to give offense, ser.”
“Nor could you, Lady Sansa,” Ser Loras replied, but all the warmth had gone from his voice. Nor did he take her arm again.
This second exchange is essentially a recapitulation of the first, but with more emotional intensity. Not knowing the truth of Loras and Renly’s relationship, or for that matter the truth of Margaery and Renly’s marriage, Sansa dredges up a host of grief and regret, and the the case of Renly’s murder of Robar a huge amount of unacknowledged guilt. Thus, even before the thought of marrying Loras enters the story, the reader already knows that their relationship would never work, because Sansa really doesn’t know Loras underneath the image he presents.
Moving closer to the heart of House Tyrell, Sansa next encounters Garlan Tyrell, who is almost a case of Chekov’s Knight:
On the edge of the yard, a lone knight with a pair of golden roses on his shield was holding off three foes. Even as they watched, he caught one of them alongside the head, knocking him senseless. “Is that your brother?” Sansa asked.
“It is, my lady,” said Ser Loras. “Garlan often trains against three men, or even four. In battle it is seldom one against one, he says, so he likes to be prepared.”
In this instance, what we get is an impossible badass (especially compared to the reality of fighting one against three or four that we’ll see in AFFC with Brienne) that GRRM is introducing in the first act so that he can be fired in the third. The fact that Garlan hasn’t ever fought “on-screen” in ASOIAF and is currently in the Reach facing down Euron’s invasion is also one of the reasons why I’m somewhat skeptical that Euron is going to rout the Reach in TWOW.
Garlan also works as synecdoche for House Tyrell as a whole – the outward display of chivalry concealing something more calculating underneath. Given the degree of skill he displays here, Garlan must be one of the greatest swordsmen in all of Westeros, and yet Garlan fights in no melees to gain the reputation that his brother has attained as a tourney knight. In this way, he remains House Tyrell’s hidden weapon. Likewise, as we will see in forthcoming chapters, Garlan is a far more well-educated and intelligent man that his martial appearance might dictate. It should also be noted that he is one of the few genuinely decent people in ASOIAF, someone who goes out of his way to be kind to people without an ulterior motive, so if for no other reason than to push back on the unfortunate tendency to nihilism in the fandom, I hope he prospers.
Among the Ladies
Having passed through these layers, Sansa finally comes to the core of House Tyrell, its brains if not its heart. But before we get to Olenna Tyrell, we get introduced to the ladies of the House, which is really the first time (outside of Maegor’s Holdfast) that we see Sansa in almost entirely female company:
Sansa recognized only Lord Tyrell’s tall, dignified wife, Lady Alerie, whose long silvery braid was bound with jeweled rings. Margaery performed the other introductions. There were three Tyrell cousins, Megga and Alla and Elinor, all close to Sansa’s age. Buxom Lady Janna was Lord Tyrell’s sister, and wed to one of the green-apple Fossoways; dainty, bright-eyed Lady Leonette was a Fossoway as well, and wed to Ser Garlan. Septa Nysterica had a homely pox-scarred face but seemed jolly. Pale, elegant Lady Graceford was with child, and Lady Bulwer was a child, no more than eight. And “Merry” was what she was to call boisterous plump Meredyth Crane, but most definitely not Lady Merryweather, a sultry black-eyed Myrish beauty.
What a rich variety of personality and temperment (as well as age and physical appearance) there is there – Alerie who shares the opulence and aloofness of House Hightower but seemingly none of the fascination with the occult that her father and sister share, the poor unlucky Tyrell cousins whose dreams of romance will lead them only into the dungeons of the Faith, the mysterious and entirely untrustworthy Lady Merryweather, and of course, Margaery and her grandmother.
So what can we say about these Tyrell ladies? I generally agree that describing the Tyrells as a matriarchy is an over-extension; the fact that Loras and Mace repeatedly use Margaery’s hand in marriage as a bargaining chip without consulting the distaff side of the family is pretty resounding evidence to the contrary. (Although for reasons I’ll explain later, analysis is complicated by the untrustworthiness of our main source on this point…) However, given how much the Reach is meant to evoke medieval Acquitaine at the height of its influence, these women are not without influence, and while much of that influence is in traditionally feminine areas of arts, fashion, manners and customs, there is political influence as well.
Indeed, much of the strength of the Tyrells comes from these women. First, they are all the basis for dynastic alliances – Olenna and Alerie representing the Redwynes and Hightowers (the two most powerful houses of the Reach) respectively; the formerly rebellious (link) Fossoways’ loyalties were clearly important to secure, hence the double marriage of Janna and Leonette; mid-range families like the Meadows, Beesburys, and Serrys are all tied back into the Tyrells through Margaery’s cousins; important heiresses like Lady Bulwer and potential hostages like Meredyth Crane are kept close to hand. But at the same time, these alliances could not exist without the fertility of these women (mirroring the Reach’s own abundance in both soil and population) to produce the raw materials for these marriages, and so we see young children, eager maidens, happy wives, expectant or experienced mothers, and aged crones, all in the business of keeping the business of family booming.
The Queen of Thorns
And so at long last, we come to Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, who despite being a secondary character so thoroughly steals the chapter that it is incredibly difficult to miss what’s going on under the surface. This is made even more difficult when you consider that almost all of Olenna’s presentation as a hilariously rude old woman is another Tyrell performance, and that you can’t necessarily trust anything she’s saying:
Last of all, Margaery brought her before the wizened white-haired doll of a woman at the head of the table. “I am honored to present my grandmother the Lady Olenna, widow to the late Luthor Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden, whose memory is a comfort to us all.”
The old woman smelled of rosewater. Why, she’s just the littlest bit of a thing. There was nothing the least bit thorny about her. “Kiss me, child,” Lady Olenna said, tugging at Sansa’s wrist with a soft spotted hand. “It is so kind of you to sup with me and my foolish flock of hens.”
Dutifully, Sansa kissed the old woman on the cheek. “It is kind of you to have me, my lady.”
“I knew your grandfather, Lord Rickard, though not well.”
“He died before I was born.”
“I am aware of that, child. It’s said that your Tully grandfather is dying too. Lord Hoster, surely they told you? An old man, though not so old as me. Still, night falls for all of us in the end, and too soon for some. You would know that more than most, poor child. You’ve had your share of grief, I know. We are sorry for your losses.”
As re-readers (and anyone who’s spent much time around her) know, this is an act. Olenne Tyrell didn’t get the nick-name of “Queen of Thorns” for being a sweet (if slightly more direct) senior citizen who’s reaching out to Sansa purely out of empathy for her suffering. Rather, what we’re seeing is Olenna’s outermost layer and her default role when dealing with strangers, which allows her to get away with mild rudeness while she sees whether the person she’s dealing with is smart enough to look past the surface. In this case, she’s laying the groundwork for the later part of the conversation (and her far more morally ambiguous plans for by positioning herself as a sympathetic figure.
And to me, this opening sally raises a whole host of questions: when did Olenna Tyrell get to know Lord Rickard Stark? Was it before or after his trip to King’s Landing in 264 AC, and did it have any connection to the Southron Ambitions conspiracy? Is she bringing up this connection solely to imply familiarity and trustworthiness, or is she probing for something from Sansa? (And why bring up Hoster Tully? Did she know him as well?) How sincere is she about what’s happened to the Starks; is it just to get Sansa on side, or does Olenna have a craftwoman’s disdain for crude and clumsy methods that lead to unnecessary loss of life? Given that she’s in the process of arranging the cold-blooded murder of Joffrey Baratheon, it’s hardly likely to be a blanket moral objection to killing.
Once she’s had some time to assess how Sansa is reacting to her first performance, Olenna takes off the breaks and exposes her to the full Queen of Thorns persona:
…Her grandmother snorted. “Gallant, yes, and charming, and very clean. He knew how to dress and he knew how to smile and he knew how to bathe, and somehow he got the notion that this made him fit to be king. The Baratheons have always had some queer notions, to be sure. It comes from their Targaryen blood, I should think.” She sniffed. “They tried to marry me to a Targaryen once, but I soon put an end to that.”
“Renly was brave and gentle, Grandmother,” said Margaery. “Father liked him as well, and so did Loras.”
“Loras is young,” Lady Olenna said crisply, “and very good at knocking men off horses with a stick. That does not make him wise. As to your father, would that I’d been born a peasant woman with a big wooden spoon, I might have been able to beat some sense into his fat head.”
“Mother,” Lady Alerie scolded.
“Hush, Alerie, don’t take that tone with me. And don’t call me Mother. If I’d given birth to you, I’m sure I’d remember. I’m only to blame for your husband, the lord oaf of Highgarden.”
“Grandmother,” Margaery said, “mind your words, or what will Sansa think of us?”
“She might think we have some wits about us. One of us, at any rate.”
This turn is a sudden and complete subversion of the culture we’ve come to know over the past several books, with Olenna shrugging off the mores of Westerosi society (both the warrior ethos and the patriarchy) and calling everyone out on their bullshit (even her own family; I’m still kind of amazed that she can so easily walk all over a Hightower). However, it’s also clearly meant to be shocking – on a Doylist level, the unexpected is a core element of comedy, and GRRM wants Olenna to be a memorable character; on a Watsonian level, Olenna is looking to see how Sansa reacts to this irreverant challenge, whether she approves or disapproves.
On a side note, I find Olenna’s past (and the way she interprets it here) fascinating. Firstly, her comment about the“queer notions” of the Baratheons would in context probably point to the rebellion of Lyonel Baratheon (although she must have been 12-16 when that happened), and suggests that she sees the whole Baratheon dynasty from Robert to Renly as all part of the same family tendency to claim a crown at the drop of a hat. Secondly, the World of Ice and Fire now creates an entirely different context for her claim that “they tried to marry me to a Targaryen once, but I soon put an end to that” and that Baratheon eccentricity “comes from their Targaryen blood.” Olenna’s position (butressed by the story from the show about her seducing Luthor Tyrell away from her younger sister) is that she was the active party in scotching the engagement, but the maesters claim that Prince Daeron called it off and strongly suggest that he was gay. Is this a case of her trying to save face, or were both betrothed acting to end their engagement, or did she force Daeron’s hand (by sleeping with Luthor)?
While Olenna’s Dowager Countess-like performance is funny, it’s more than just a stand-up routine, as we see when Olenna pivots to make the same kind of acid-tongued commentary about the politics of her family:
The old woman turned back to Sansa. “It’s treason, I warned them, Robert has two sons, and Renly has an older brother, how can he possibly have any claim to that ugly iron chair? Tut-tut, says my son, don’t you want your sweetling to be queen? You Starks were kings once, the Arryns and the Lannisters as well, and even the Baratheons through the female line, but the Tyrells were no more than stewards until Aegon the Dragon came along and cooked the rightful King of the Reach on the Field of Fire. If truth be told, even our claim to Highgarden is a bit dodgy, just as those dreadful Florents are always whining. ‘What does it matter?’ you ask, and of course it doesn’t, except to oafs like my son. The thought that one day he may see his grandson with his arse on the Iron Throne makes Mace puff up like…now, what do you call it? Margaery, you’re clever, be a dear and tell your poor old half-daft grandmother the name of that queer fish from the Summer Isles that puffs up to ten times its own size when you poke it…”
“My son ought to take the puff fish for his sigil, if truth be told. He could put a crown on it, the way the Baratheons do their stag, mayhap that would make him happy. We should have stayed well out of all this bloody foolishness if you ask me, but once the cow’s been milked there’s no squirting the cream back up her udder. After Lord Puff Fish put that crown on Renly’s head, we were into the pudding up to our knees, so here we are to see things through. And what do you say to that, Sansa?”
“…A great oaf,” said the Queen of Thorns. “His father was an oaf as well. My husband, the late Lord Luthor. Oh, I loved him well enough, don’t mistake me. A kind man, and not unskilled in the bedchamber, but an appalling oaf all the same. He managed to ride off a cliff whilst hawking. They say he was looking up at the sky and paying no mind to where his horse was taking him.”
“And now my oaf son is doing the same, only he’s riding a lion instead of a palfrey. It is easy to mount a lion and not so easy to get off, I warned him, but he only chuckles. Should you ever have a son, Sansa, beat him frequently so he learns to mind you. I only had the one boy and I hardly beat him at all, so now he pays more heed to Butterbumps than he does to me. A lion is not a lap cat, I told him, and he gives me a ‘tut-tut-Mother.’ There is entirely too much tut-tutting in this realm, if you ask me. All these kings would do a deal better if they would put down their swords and listen to their mothers.”
This is another moment where I found myself on a re-read looking at Olenna in a completely different light. After two books of pompous arrogant lords and ladies starting wars that lead thousands and thousands of smallfolk to their deaths, that last line especially is such a air-punching moment that it’s very easy to take her speech at surface level. And yet…as will be stated explicitly, Olenna is making this speech when she knows that there are spies everywhere in the Red Keep listening in. Looking at how much of this speech is about disawoving her involvement in treason against the current king, I wonder how honest the Queen of Thorns is being about her objection to Mace’s support for Renly. (Especially since we see in the Purple Wedding that when she puts her foot down about another one of his political alliances, it’s a lot more final than ineffectual chiding.)
This is where I come back to the idea of performance, because Olenna’s Queen of Thornes monologue is also very much directed at Sansa. As with the first volley, she’s probing to learn more about Sansa – is she going to react conventionally or unconventionally? What kind of a political mind or political opinions does she have? (I also think that part of the Queen of Thorns persona is that by being so “honest” about her own family, she prompts others to be more forthcoming about themselves than they might otherwise.) And while it might be frustrating from a long-term character perspective to see Sansa react rather conventionally, that’s kind of what Olenna is looking for; if you’re trying to get someone to agree to a marriage sight unseen and carry the murder weapon to the scene of an assassination, you do not want them to be a political genius.
Two final thoughts on this passage: the first is about how much Olenna’s speech ties together the idea of a Tyrell matriarchy and the intersection between feminism and pacifism. It’s a really well-written argument that arrogance and pride of literal patriarchs is the cause of war and that a matriarchy (or just the enfranchisement of women in Westerosi politics) would promote peace. But the very fact that Mace can simply overrule Olenna on such an important question of war and peace (to say nothing of Margaery’s control over her own hand in marriage) suggests that a Tyrell matriarchy doesn’t exist.
The second thought is about the Tyrells’ political position in light of Olenna’s statement about “our claim to Highgarden is a bit dodgy, just as those dreadful Florents are always whining. ‘What does it matter?’ you ask, and of course it doesn’t, except to oafs like my son.” One of the things I’m going to be looking at in my Politics of the Seven Kingdom essasy is the way in which House Tyrell’s political position seems to fluctuate wildly, with them being unable to control their own bannermen in the Dance of the Dragons or the Blackfyre Rebellions, but at other times bringing the entire Reach to bear. (And especially at the moment, with their dynastic alliances so firmly entrenched, how “dodgy” is their claim?) To an extent, I think the problem is that the Tyrells’ main antagonists, the Florents, are too weak (link) to really serve as an effective opposition. I’m also skeptical, given how much attention the Tyrells pay to the power of political symbolism, that Olenna really thinks that perceptions of legitimacy don’t matter.
After this intense investigation, we get a great break in the mood when we are introduced to the Tyrell’s jester, one of the best tertiary characters in ASOIAF, the one and only Butterbumps:
Butterbumps arrived before the food, dressed in a jester’s suit of green and yellow feathers with a floppy coxcomb. An immense round fat man, as big as three Moon Boys, he came cartwheeling into the hall, vaulted onto the table, and laid a gigantic egg right in front of Sansa. “Break it, my lady,” he commanded. When she did, a dozen yellow chicks escaped and began running in all directions. “Catch them!” Butterbumps exclaimed. Little Lady Bulwer snagged one and handed it to him, whereby he tilted back his head, popped it into his huge rubbery mouth, and seemed to swallow it whole. When he belched, tiny yellow feathers flew out his nose. Lady Bulwer began to wail in distress, but her tears turned into a sudden squeal of delight when the chick came squirming out of the sleeve of her gown and ran down her arm.
One of the interesting little meta-mysteries in not just ASOIAF but also WOIAF is the unseen role that jesters and fools play in Westeros: Mushroom was a historian and chronicler, Moon Boy is a spy, and Patchface is the chosen prophet of the Drowned God. I wonder if the same thing is true for our man Butterbumps; while his skill in prestidigitation is used merely to entertain, it’s a highly useful skill for poisoners and spymasters alike. And as we see later in the chapter, he’s accustomed to being used to shield Olenna’s conversations from being spied on – is Butterbumps perhaps employed in counter-intelligence as well as prop comedy?
“They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait”
And so at long last, we come to the heart of the chapter, where after softening up the Stark prisoner with lemon cakes and witty repartee, the Tyrells press Sansa to give up what she knows:
“I want you to tell me the truth about this royal boy,” said Lady Olenna abruptly. “This Joffrey.”
Sansa’s fingers tightened round her spoon. The truth? I can’t. Don’t ask it, please, I can’t. “I…I…I…”
“You, yes. Who would know better? The lad seems kingly enough, I’ll grant you. A bit full of himself, but that would be his Lannister blood. We have heard some troubling tales, however. Is there any truth to them? Has this boy mistreated you?”
…Ser Dontos had warned her to speak freely only in the godswood. “Joff…King Joffrey, he’s…His Grace is very fair and handsome, and…and as brave as a lion.”
“Yes, all the Lannisters are lions, and when a Tyrell breaks wind it smells just like a rose,” the old woman snapped. “But how kind is he? How clever? Has he a good heart, a gentle hand? Is he chivalrous as befits a king? Will he cherish Margaery and treat her tenderly, protect her honor as he would his own?”
For all that we attribute an impossible degree of foresight of future events and percpetion of character to Littlefinger and his ilk, the reality is that all conspiracy has at its heart irreducible contingency and uncertainty. With all of his cutouts and hands-off, long-distance manuevering, Littlefinger’s plans for the Purple Wedding hinge on unforseeable interactions between complex people. In this case, the Queen of Thorns is not about to jeopardize House Tyrell’s alliance and risk being caught as a regicide without some proof of Joffrey’s character – but at the same time, his own agent (link) has been pressuring Sansa to mistrust and lie to everyone other than himself, which jeopardizes the Tyrells’ participation and Sansa’s willingness to carry the murder weapon (link) to the scene fo the crime.
At the same time, I think we also get a sense of Olenna as a conspirator here – she’s far more cautious than Littlefinger, and takes time to corroborate the intelligence she gets from potentially suspect third parties (a good practice in spycraft, which few people in ASOIAF practice). Moreover, I think we can see a hint in her comment that “that would be his Lannister blood” (and later on that Joffrey “calls himself Baratheon but looks so very Lannister“) that Olenna knows full well that Joffrey is the spawn of incest and thus has no more legitimate claim to the Iron Throne than the Tyrells do to Highgarden. Whether she simply believes Stannis’ open letter (link) or she had the same information that Littlefinger, Varys, Stannis, and Jon Arryn did before the events of AGOT, is unclear.
For Sansa, this moment is a huge crux in her character arc – all of the horrors she witnessed in AGOT, all of the violence she endured in ACOK, she has been unable to speak about up until this point. Anywhere that Cersei might hear, she must appear loyal; anywhere Joffrey might hear, she must be silent to avoid beatings. So the character question is – will she speak? Her first answer is telling:
“…Are you frightened, child? No need for that, we’re only women here. Tell me the truth, no harm will come to you.”
“My father always told the truth.” Sansa spoke quietly, but even so, it was hard to get the words out.
“Lord Eddard, yes, he had that reputation, but they named him traitor and took his head off even so.” The old woman’s eyes bore into her, sharp and bright as the points of swords.
Despite all of the Tyrells’ efforts to put Sansa at her ease (and off her guard), Sansa is someone who has learned the value of survival over candor at a high cost. And yet we can see in her rejoinder both realism – that honesty can lead to harm, so Sansa’s recitience is self-preservation despite Olenna’s promises – and continual, if quiet resistance – the implication, which Olenna agrees with, is that Eddard Stark was unjustly executed, and that Sansa remains a loyal daughter of House Stark despite any rote phrases to the contrary. What gets Sansa to move on from this cautious defiance and finally speak is Olenna’s sympathetic affirmation of the injustice done to her House, but also her honesty about the price one can pay for honesty:
“Joffrey,” Sansa said. “Joffrey did that. He promised me he would be merciful, and cut my father’s head off. He said that was mercy, and he took me up on the walls and made me look at it. The head. He wanted me to weep, but…” She stopped abruptly, and covered her mouth. I’ve said too much, oh gods be good, they’ll know, they’ll hear, someone will tell on me.
“Go on.” It was Margaery who urged. Joffrey’s own queen-to-be…”She’s terrfied, Grandmother, just look at her.”
The old woman called to Butterbumps. “Fool, give us a song. A long one, I should think…even when I was a girl younger than you, it was well known that in the Red Keep the very walls have ears. Well, they will be all the better for a song, and meanwhile we girls shall speak freely…at Highgarden we have many spiders amongst the flowers. So long as they keep to themselves we let them spin their little webs, but if they get underfoot we step on them.”
This passage is absolutely fascinating, for several reasons. Firstly, we see Sansa finally getting to tell the truth about Joffrey, despite her fears that Joffrey will find out and punish her. Indeed, throughout the chapter Sansa is completely paranoid that the whole meeting was a setup by Joffrey to catch her out. And yet she speaks out, which is one of those small acts of bravery for which Sansa rarely gets credit; consider by contrast how long it takes Theon to act against Ramsay in ADWD. Secondly, we see Margaery acting as Good Cop, not simply noticing and sympathizing with Sansa’s fears but also urging her to keep talking, working as Olenna’s partner in the interrogation. Consider that as evidence in the debates over how much BookMargaery resembles ShowMargaery. Thirdly, we see that Olenna has some serious chops in counter-intelligence, which she honed when she was at court as a child (probably in the years 237-246 AC when she was the betrothed of Prince Daeron). In addition to more hints about a fascinating past, we also get introduced to the possibility that Varys’ spy network might have some limits, if as important a seat of power as Highgarden has immunized itself from his little birds.
And so we come to the end of the testimony:
She patted Sansa on the back of the hand. “Now, child, the truth. What sort of man is this Joffrey…”
“…A monster,” she whispered, so tremulously she could scarcely hear her own voice. “Joffrey is a monster. He lied about the butcher’s boy and made Father kill my wolf. When I displease him, he has the Kingsguard beat me. He’s evil and cruel, my lady, it’s so. And the queen as well.”
Lady Olenna Tyrell and her granddaughter exchanged a look. “Ah,” said the old woman, “that’s a pity.”
This is the moment where the Purple Wedding goes from being a possibility to an inevitability, and yet the mystery is nicely preserved until you’re doing a re-read. However, thinking about it I’m astonished that it all comes back to Sansa I of AGOT, where Sansa finally tells the truth of what happened along the Kingsroad. Two books later to the chapter, Joffrey finally reaps what he sowed.
D0 You Want to Visit Highgarden?
As a reward for her testimony, Good Cop Margaery offers Sansa a trip to Highgarden, which is an interesting road-not-travelled, both in plot terms but more importantly thematically. Because what Highgarden stands for her is not merely the stronghold of House Tyrell, but also the beating heart of chivalric romance:
“Sansa, would you like to visit Highgarden?” When Margaery Tyrell smiled, she looked very like her brother Loras. “All the autumn flowers are in bloom just now, and there are groves and fountains, shady courtyards, marble colonnades. My lord father always keeps singers at court, sweeter ones than Butters here, and pipers and fiddlers and harpers as well. We have the best horses, and pleasure boats to sail along the Mander. Do you hawk, Sansa?”
“You will love Highgarden as I do, I know it.” Margaery brushed back a loose strand of Sansa’s hair. “Once you see it, you’ll never want to leave. And perhaps you won’t have to…” Higharden sounded like the place she always dreamed of, like the beautiful magical court she had once hoped to find at King’s Landing…
Let’s not prevaricate here – Highgarden is Acquitaine, not so much the historical province but the mythic ideal of a thousand perfume-drunk troubadours, all on the payroll of the Dukes of that land (if not actually the Dukes themselves, since one of the earliest troubadours in Europe was William IX, Duke of Acquitaine). So for Sansa, this offers a deeply threatening temptation to go backwards in search of the dreams of her youth and thus jettison her hard-won realism. And it’s not an accident that in this moment where Margaery is acting as the Tempter, she looks just like Loras who was Sansa’s way in to this romantic fantasy.
And this is where we have to deal with the moral ambiguity of House Tyrell: are they the benevolent and cultured rescuers as they position themselves here, or are they “only Lannisters with flowers“? After all, Olenna and Margaery aren’t promising to take Sansa away from King’s Landing out of the goodness of their hearts, they want Sansa to sign on the dotted line:
“Without Highgarden, the Lannisters have no hope of keeping Joffrey on his throne. If my son the lord oaf asks, she will have no choice but to grant this request…to see you safely wed, child…to my grandson.”
“…would you like that Sansa?” Asked Margaery. “I’ve never had a sister, only brothers. Oh, please say yes, please say that you will consent to marry my brother…Willas has a bad leg but a good heart,” said Margaery. “He used to read to me when I was a little girl, and draw me pictures of the stars. You will love him as much as we do, Sansa.”
In this, as in Margaery’s later performance as a very public philanthropist, I would argue a third position: the Tyrells operate out of enlightened self-interest, “doing well by doing good.” On a personal, individual level, Olenna and Margaery feel for Sansa the same way they would for any abused woman. (I think Olenna particularly would see Joffrey’s behavior as much political malpractice as evil…) But on a political level, they’re only taking this risk because Sansa has a claim to Winterfell, and it’s not like they’re going to give her back to her family. Likewise in the case of Margaery’s good works, I think she genuinely likes helping the unfortunate – but I don’t think it would ever occur to her to give anonymously and sacrifice the good will she could be gaining.
And (this is more my personal speculation), there is an undertone of paternalism (maternalism?) to the Tyrells’ good deeds – the Tyrells seem to believe that their way of doing things is more graceful, subtle, and almost aesthetically superior, and so they go about trying to chivvy people into doing what the Tyrells think they should be doing, whether it’s marrying Sansa to Willas because she “belongs” in Highgarden and couldn’t possibly want to leave – which gives that beautiful castle the forboding air of the Island of the Lotus Eaters – or their efforts to make Tommen a more popular monarch. But what right do the Tyrells have to decide what it best for others?
Way back in AGOT, I argued that Margaery Tyrell’s historical parallel is Anne Boleyn – the beautiful and vivacious second queen to Robert’s aging Henry VIII, her trial for adultery is almost plagiarism it’s so close to the (let’s be honest, show)trial that brought down Anne, and you could see her serial problems with getting a husband to sire a child before he dies as parallel to Anne’s problems with childbirth. If Margaery is Anne, therefore the Tyrells must be the Boleyns, right?
Well, yes and no. While I haven’t backed off my original position, the Tyrells don’t necessarily map onto the Boleyns particularly well. While the Tyrells’ origins as stewards parallel the Boleyns’ descent from a family of wealthy mercers (cloth merchants) who bought their way into the gentry and married into the Howards of Nortfolk, Anne’s father was a brilliant career diplomat and a most adept courtier, who somehow managed to survive the destruction of his children – which couldn’t be more different from Mace’s puffed-up buffoonery. Likewise, George Boleyn was a notorious womanizer, a devout Lutheran, but not much of a warrior – which likewise doesn’t particularly fit Loras.
And this is where GRRM’s penchant for remixing comes in. If we’re looking to examples for Loras, Edward Woodville (youngest brother of Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV) was known as “the last knight errant,” and served with distinction in Brittany and Scotland on behalf of Edward IV, in Spain against the Moors, and died in a rash charge fighting for the Bretons against the French (similar to Loras’ reckless assault on Dragonstone). Likewise, there are arguments that the Tyrells’ penchant for PR better resembles the Seymours (the family of Henry VIII’s third wife) than the Boleyns.
Luckily, with Olenna Tyrell we have a much clearer parallel although it’s one that owes more to Hollywood than to history. While I have many good things to say about Diana Rigg in a bit, it seems to me that the Queen of Thorns was heavily influenced by Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Eleanor of Acquitaine in the classic 1968 film, The Lion in Winter: the acid wit aimed at her own family, the uncoventional attitudes to gender and sexuality, the political mind so accustomed to conspiracies and coups, the undertone of having done deeply unethical things to hold the estate she adorns. Indeed, I would argue even the costuming bears similarities (although the color palette is obviously shifted to avoid the Lannister connotations).
I’m going to move the Willas marriage hypotheticals to the next Sansa chapter where she spills the beans to Ser Dontos, so in this chapter I really only see one hypothetical:
- Sansa didn’t tell them about Joffrey? Here’s where I find myself wondering about the intersections between the marriage plot and the Purple Wedding. Now, I don’t think for a minute that Olenna Tyrell was not going to have Joffrey bumped off whatever Sansa said – it’s not like Joffrey’s monstrosity is a well-kept secret – but it could have delayed the assassination somewhat. That in turn has certain implications for Sansa – she might have been on her way to Winterfell when it happened and thus not a suspect and/or fugitive. And if Brienne wasn’t distracted by trying to find two Stark daughters instead of one, she might have had more luck (as in the TV show) on her search.
Book vs. Show:
As many people have noted, Game of Thrones’ casting director is one of the great strengths of the show, sometimes more so than the writers and directors. And one of Nina Gold’s best coups was getting Diana Rigg – the great British actress first known as the becatsuited Emma Peel on The Avengers (not those Avengers, the other ones) and as one of the best Bond girls ever – to play the Queen of Thorns.
Rigg so thoroughly stole every scene and chewed every available inch of scenery in Season 3 that she was nominated for an Emmy for three seasons running. And here is where I think the show ran into difficulties is that Rigg was so good that they wanted her in as many scenes as possible, but the writers ran out of stuff for her to do – especially since in the books, she leaves King’s Landing after Margaery’s marriage to Tommen and has yet to reappear. And so in later seasons, there have been too many scenes where she’s just on hand to quip, but doesn’t get to do much. (I’m especially thinking about the dropped plotline from Season 5 where she threatens Littlefinger over Margaery and Loras’ imprisonment, but Olyvar disappears from the story altogether.)