Friday, September 26, 2014

[Re-read] Tyrion X: Snakes, mountains controversy

When you add the chapter number in Roman to the character names, they become so regal-sounding, I mean, Tyrion X. Regal, or pope-ish, perhaps. I wonder if Bronn's son will be known as Tyrion II, that would be funny. Oh yes, it is time for another re-read, and we are inching ever closer to the finish line of the first of the "original trilogy" of Ice & Fire novels that I still consider to be nothing but amazingly entertaining and interesting. Which is what I also think of Tyrion Lannister up to this point: an amazingly entertaining character, whose sarcasm, wit, scheming & banter makes him probably the most popular in the series. Until A Dance with Dragons, at any rate - the Tyrion we are presented with there is certainly not as entertaining to read about, but is it part of Tyrion's internal changes that he's on such a downer, or is it the somewhat contrived and overlong journey through Essos that takes away something from him? When I begin my somewhat ambitious next re-read project, to read both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons using a suggested order of chapters (known as Feastdance), I will be looking for evidence one way or the other. I want to believe that Martin wrote the changed Tyrion to reflect Tyrion's mental state, and that he will rise again more entertaining and stronger, but somehow I also still hold on to the notion that Tyrion wasn't presented with interesting enough characters and situations to keep him a fun read. In the three first books, Tyrion constantly faces characters and situations that seem to bring out the greatness in his character; think of his friendship with Bronn, his relationship with Cersei (slap!), the way he singlehandedly changed the fortune of King's Landing, The Red Viper and Tyrion's trial, his encounters with his father... in general, Tyrion was always in the midst of exciting plot developments, always actively a part in things, and had to suffer a lot too (the sky cell, captured by Catelyn, his frustrations and love for Shae)....yet in A Dance with Dragons he is traveling, and then traveling some more, on a boat while playing cyvasse without much happening. Okay, that's a bit unfair because there are things happening but these events don't feel as vital or as plot-important, but what do I know, maybe all this setup will get a proper payoff later. Enough about Dance already, we aren't there quite yet, time for Tyrion's tenth chapter in A Storm of Awesome! And it's a highly ranked chapter at Tower of the Hand, so this should be a gleeful devouring of words. Oh, wait. It's that chapter! Ser Gregor Clegane for the [spoiler]win![/spoiler] There will be gnashing of teeth.
I have to say, that episode of Game of Thrones where they went all the way in terms of depicting brutality as written on the page, it still haunts me a little. It really was something else to see Ser Gregor destroy Oberyn's head like an overripe melon. Disgusting and fascinating, and such a gut-wrencher. I wonder what non-readers felt like after having been introduced to this awesome character, played so well by Pedro Pascal, and then he gets totally murdered by the one character in the series who they haven't given enough screen time / exposition. But I'm already at the end of the chapter, so let's dial back guessed it, the beginning. Of the chapter.

We are thrown right into Tyrion's inner turmoil, as he is thinking and wondering what to say when, after today's last witness, it is his turn to get in a few words. Should he accuse Sansa? Ser Dontos? Confess, and hope to be sent to the Wall...or hope that the Red Viper, his champion, can somehow defeat the monstrosity that is Ser Gregor Clegane? It's a poignant little moment, when we see Tyrion scratch at his nose with a knife, where he isn't hungry; small details that help serve the illusion of a character in great distress. He stabs "listlessly" at a sausage, wishing it was Cersei; he thinks more of the Night's Watch (and a first-time reader would maybe be lured into thinking that this is where Tyrion's story will go - back to the far North), but also that if he became a member of the Watch, he will lose what little political power he has left - because his marriage to Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell would have to be annulled, and his claim to Casterly Rock would be annulled as well (however, it is nice to remember that Tyrion does have a claim on the Rock; I bet I am not the only one who is totally ready to see the Rock in an upcoming novel - it does look like maybe Jaime will end up there, in its dungeons, if you interpret one of Jaime's dreams as foretelling the future).

Thinking that he should've just confessed to Tywin, as in, giving up, *does* tell us something about how Tyrion is spiralling down into a very bleak outlook on life, so maybe George R.R. Martin did begin to build a new trajectory for Tyrion's character here, and letting him spiral further downward in his chapters in book five. 

Podrick Payne interrupts Tyrion, tells him that Ser Addam and his gold cloaks have come to pick him up. Tyrion asks Pod if the boy believes Tyrion is guilty - it's such a heartbreaking little question, when Tyrion has no one else to turn to but his slightly dim squire, seeking some confirmation, and not getting it. Even though the boy is unable to answer, Tyrion tells him he has been a good squire, better than he deserved; and so Tyrion is escorted back to the throne room by Ser Addam, but at least Tyrion had the time to tell Pod some nice things. Again I get a feeling, without Martin overstating it, that Tyrion has abandoned hope. 

And then, as if things aren't bad enough, Martin once again, oh so deftly, makes things just a little bit more complicated for Tyrion - Shae is called to the stand. There's a jumble of thoughts as Tyrion sees Shae enter, but he concludes that Shae knows nothing incriminating... but Martin just slaps you (and Tyrion) in the face when the next paragraph opens with Shae's immediate words, "They plotted it together (...) The Imp and Lady Sansa plotted it after the Young Wolf died. Sansa wanted revenge for her brother and Tyrion meant to have the throne."
Nobody said she had to be honest about what she tells the judges. Poor Tyrion. So...infuriating, but also pleasing to read - I love how Martin isn't afraid to do the unexpected, especially because once you see it, it shouldn't have been unexpected or surprising in the first place yet I fall into his traps each and every time, even on re-reads. 

And I also get some immediate hope when Prince Oberyn asks how Shae can know all of this: By having Oberyn seem suspicious of her testimony, the reader can latch on to the hope that this fellow from Dorne will be able to help clear Tyrion. It's just so damn lovely! However, Shae has a seemingly well prepared response ready, and it is just one big irritating lie, but a lie Tyrion has no chance to disprove - and with everyone already having judged him guilty, Shae doesn't even have to sound or look trustworthy for the audience to swallow it up - she tells them what they wanted or hoped to hear. And how I remember reading this the first time, and how angry I was with Shae, and how I wondered if she had ever loved Tyrion at all, and I still love that we can't be quite sure about Shae's motivations (though we learn something about what she was promised for this false testimony, in Feast I believe) - I love how Martin dared to simply not let us know every detail - which is one of the reasons why I, as an example, really didn't like that Martin included chapters from the POVs of Melisandre and Ser Barristan Selmy; not just because getting into these characters' heads reveals too much, but also because the characters have to be written so as not too reveal too much...if that makes sense. There's just too little wriggle room for characters like this; imagine a Shae POV and all the mystery and tension of her relationship with Tyrion would disappear like...I don't know, dew on the nipples of a breastplate?

Perhaps my favorite thing about this chapter is the unabashed curiosity Prince Oberyn shows for the less savory parts of Shae's explanation; I like it because I find it humorous. When Shae says that Tyrion made her do shameful things, I think the comedic timing of Prince Oberyn looking curious and asking, "What sorts of things?" is pitch perfect and I really missed these small interactions in the TV show. Shae goes on to say how she was forced to use all her body parts to please Tyrion, and then she tells the audience and the judges that she was made to call Tyrion her "giant of Lannister" - the shame, the humilation, and the sheer vile untruth of it (after all, she called Tyrion her giant without him ever asking for it) is enough to make me want to tear my hair out. And, of course, to drag Tyrion further through the mud, the whole audience erupts in derisive laughter. I wonder now, is there any character in the series who has faced as much ridicule and unfairness as Tyrion? I don't think so. 

And, understandably, Tyrion can't bear it anymore and shouts, "MY LORDS!" His father raises a hand to silence the crowd, and Tyrion can say, "Get this lying whore out of my sight, and I will give you your confession." That's another point of upping the tension as the reader now thinks, oh no Tyrion, don't do it, don't go that route. He thinks Shae looks either shameful or fearful as she is marched out of the room, and Tyrion wonders what Cersei paid her for this. He turns to his father, and says, "Guilty. So guilty. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

And then of course we see that Tyrion isn't bending after all, instead he uses an old trick (last witnessed in the Eyrie, though I confess I might be remembering the show now and not A Game of Thrones the novel) - he confesses to basically everything but what he is accused for - the murder of his nephew, Joffrey the king. Tyrion wraps it up nicely: "I was born. I lived. I am guilty of being a dwarf, I confess it: And no matter how many times my good father forgave me,  I have persisted in my infamy." That's such a great little speech! However, Tyrion isn't able to stop his mouth once it starts running, and you know he's kind of painting himself into a corner when he tells the audience he wished he had enough poison for the lot of them, and then he demands a trial by battle. Cersei looks pleased at this, reminding us that her champion is Ser Gregor Clegane. Tywin is so angry he can't speak. 

And the uproar when Prince Oberyn tells the room he has been convinced by Tyrion and will be his champion. Such a moment. Love it. Tyrion takes pleasure from seeing Cersei suddenly in doubt, as do I. Wondrous! Those rare moments where you want to high five a character because finally something happens that is nice, I love them.

Later in his tower cell Tyrion seems pleased with himself, having stood up to his father, "not going meekly". Once again there's a nod to his shadow ("...he asked the shadows his candles etched upon the walls") reminding us of Varys' hint that Tyrion might become a great man. He feels strangely at peace because he has taken the power of life and death from his father's hands. He wonders briefly whether the gods exist, but the thing here is that Tyrion is satisfied with disrupting his father's plans (and by extension, but not mentioned, Cersei's); at least Tyrion has caused a lot of trouble now, because there are some serious political implications. If Ser Gregor wins, Dorne will most likely crown Myrcella their Queen and go to war; if Oberyn wins,  Highgarden and the Tyrells will most likely explode in righteous fury. He thinks that it is almost worth dying for, making him sound resigned to his fate by now; he wonders briefly whether Shae will miss him after all, then begins to sing...lustily actually. I wonder how you do that. 
And now I don't wonder anymore because I had to check the translation of the word. I incorrectly believed it to have do with being lustful, but it means loud and noisy. The English language is always confounding, no matter how much I study it.

That night, he notes that uncle Kevan doesn't visit; and he thinks about a song he's been singing (lustily), and we get a little foreshadowing in the form of the lines, For hands of gold are always cold, but a woman's hands are warm referring to a certain chain of gold feat. miniature golden hands...anyway. He sleeps long and deep and it is time for the very next day! And what a day it will turn out to be.

Tyrion is allowed to go see to his champion, and he finds the Red Viper drinking wine and donning his armor, attended by four younger Dornish lordlings. Tyrion shows some concern as he asks whether it is wise to be drinking before battle, but the Viper shrugs it off, saying he always drinks before battle. He says the gods defend the innocent, so there should be no trouble. Whether Oberyn truly is such a zealous man or not, the text doesn't make clear, but I have a feeling Oberyn isn't particularly religious, and so his comment is more meant as sarcasm or some such. Tyrion tries to warn Oberyn about what he is facing, but Oberyn again seems unimpressed, claiming that all you have to do is get Ser Gregor off his feet - then he's easy to kill. You're pretty tough when you don't flinch at a reality such as the fact that Gregor is able to cut men in half on one stroke (that's brutal for you). Tyrion almost buys into Oberyn's confidence, but then he realizes the Dornish prince plans to fight the Mountain with a spear. Oberyn explains that this weapon will counter Ser Gregor's reach; true enough. He warns Tyrion not to touch the blade (hint: the blade is poisoned); the edges glisten black (hint: the blade is coated in poison). Tyrion tells Oberyn he hopes he knows how to use the weapon. The prince, of course, tells Tyrion not to worry. Oberyn suggests that Tyrion join him back to Sunspear in Dorne after the trial, and that he can bring Sansa with him; obviously, then, the prince believes Tyrion is hiding Sansa away somewhere, and he has a reason to want to bring Tyrion before Doran Martell (could Oberyn be trying to save Tyrion only to bring him to justice in Dorne; as his hate for Lannisters seems pretty insistent?). Martin also uses the opportunity to give us some early knowledge about Doran, which is nice once you know you'll meet the man in Feast. It also may sound like Oberyn would like to have Tyrion in Dorne to counsel Myrcella. Tyrion realizes that Oberyn is actually speaking treason, and would like it if Sansa would declare for Myrcella as Queen over Tommen. A union of the North and the South, basically. Love how this banter has this heavy political edge at the same time.

Oberyn further fleshes out some of his background, with the story of Baelor Breakwind the most memorable fart part. Even this deep into the story, Martin manages to weave more backstory into an already rather complex narrative. It works, but, I have to admit, this far into a story it becomes harder to connect "new" history; it's as if we always had this story about the Tullys and Lannisters and Starks and Baratheons and suddenly you're told that House Martell was always involved as well, when you haven't heard much about it before. Still, it works far better here, with a character relating events from his past, than later in the books when things from the past seem to pop up without any reference or solid backstory. Tyrion wonders how many lives had been snuffed out by Baelor's fart; and we are also told that this Baelor, now known as Brightsmile, still lives, so we might just encounter him (in Oldtown). 

There's also this bit about Tyrion and Oberyn's mothers knowing each other, which no doubt has some impact on the story: and it seems that the two of them (the mothers) were planning on marrying Oberyn and his sister, Elia, to Jaime and Cersei. Imagine how different the story would have been; and how good is a story when you can while away time thinking of alternative histories within that story? Now, you might argue that Oberyn's monologue is well heavy on exposition, but it also serves to give us some insight into Elia's life, and her relationship to her brother Oberyn; which helps sell the moment later when Oberyn tilts and demands justice for Elia. We learn that Lord Tywin was ruled at home by his wife (which is all kinds of surprising when you see how authoritative he is, but also nice how Martin gives Tywin contrasting traits, thus making him more realistic), and that he refused to marry Cersei to Oberyn (when Cersei was eight or nine, so this is a while ago) because he expected to marry her to Rhaegar Targaryen. So much goes back to Rhaegar. Oh, and look, Tyrion has a similar thought: "It all goes back and back (...) To our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our children will take up our strings and dance in our steads." It's a poignant thought, and it also sums up much of what A Song of Ice and Fire is about, really; and, of course, it is simply a way of looking at life itself. And it makes me think that Martin could potentially expand the series in both directions - he could sell the property and so another author could pick up the reins and bring us the story of the children of this story. No, it won't happen, but I just recognized the potential of a saga so vast it covered generations, all in the same changing world. How rich would a story set twenty years after this be, what with all that backstory known to us? 

"Elia and her children have waited long for justice," Oberyn says as he gets his helmet on (I missed that helmet in the show, but I agree it was probably for the better that the audience could see his face clearly). And that is really what it all comes down to - the mistakes made by parents now result in blood and vengeance. It's fiercely and intensely cool. The only thing that could have improved this stuff is if some of the backstory had been weaved into the narrative earlier; now it feels like a chunk of exposition thrown before you quickly so that you are more invested in the trial by battle to come. But I'm not complaining, really; the backstory is cool, credible, and of course we need to have established just why and how Oberyn has become such a vengeful, fiery character. The snake is eager, Tyrion thinks for himself as they march off to the outer ward, where the combat is to take place. And he hopes the snake is venomous as well (still wondering if that spear is poisoned?); Tyrion takes in the crowd, including children on their parents' shoulders, a sight that always reminds me of that sad-looking kid in the crowd during William Wallace's execution in Braveheart. We are reminded just how big Ser Gregor is, in two detailed paragraphs, and maybe some first-time reader began to realize that Oberyn might not make it through - not me, though; I was confident this was going to be the Viper's victory, because I knew Tyrion had to live on. You know, because.

"You are going to fight that?" Ellaria asks of her lover, and Oberyn casually replies, "I am going to kill that." That's just legendary dialogue, and I am glad they kept it in the TV episode. Tyrion takes some time to look over the Dornish prince, and wishing he had Bronn or Jaime instead - another nudge from the author in the direction of, you know, he might just die at Gregor's hands. And still I was all convinced the Mountain would go down. Partially because of the poison on the spear. Cheating, yes; cheating to have Tyrion live, hell to the yes.

A fanfare is blown, the High Septon shuffles forward for some useless praying, and Tyrion notices that Ser Gregor has had his shield painted over with the seven-pointed star of the Faith. Very pious of you, Cersei, Tyrion thinks, but I'm thinking this is foreshadowing yet another trial by combat wink nudge. And then IT'S ON. The best thing here to do is of course to quote the entire rest of the chapter because it is so awesome but that's kind of pointless too. Needless to say, I love this duel, with the dialogue, with the Viper's fierceness, the unexpected twists and turns in the fight, the hope when Gregor falls, the terror when he still lives and you begin to realize the Viper is underestimating his's such a thrilling, fantastic moment in a saga already filled to the rim with fantastic moments. It is one of those moments that come up quite early when thinking back on the story. It is...awesome. 
"Do you know who I am?" - "Some dead man."
"Elia Martell, Princess of Dorne. You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children."
Oh, how Martin excels when he writes scenes like this. Every sentence is dripping with tension; or it is just me getting all tensed because Martin draws it out perfectly, keeping me glued to the page with excitement (and glue). 

And when Ellaria states that Oberyn is "playing with Gregor", you're like, YES! He's so awesome he can play with him, and then Tyrion says, Ser Gregor shouldn't be toyed with and I'm like, yeah that's you read, and you read, and then...and then... man, I feel this great rush when I re-read this, it's still as exciting and tense as the first time, perhaps even more...surely it must be a sign of quality that I kind of hope for a different outcome this time. And then Gregor's on his back, head hurting from the Viper's constant, incessant nagging about Elia of Dorne, and I'm basically standing as I read now, and WHOOPSIE-PUSHING-DAISIES Gregor's hand shoots up and grabs Oberyn by the knee, unbalancing him, and suddenly they are wrestling in the dust, and finally Gregor says Oberyn's sister's name, "I killed her screaming whelp," the Mountain adds, "Then I raped her. Then I smashed her fucking head in. Like this." 
(By the way, it's kind of weird that everyone lets this fellow go free after having raped and murdered a princess of the realm but there's probably an explanation for it somewhere - something about Tywin keeping them - Greg and Ser Amory - away from punishment/trials?)

And there it is, the sickening crunch and splatter and gore and Oberyn is no more. Tyrion's breakfast comes back up at the sight, and in case you missed just exactly what he ate, we are given a nice recap: Bacon and sausage and applecakes, and that double helping of fried eggs cooked up with onions and fiery Dornish peppers.

Tyrion is dragged away, but not back to his room - he realizes that his next destination is the black cells, as befits someone guilty of the murder of a king, as decreed by the gods themselves. Why waste your breath on the dead? indeed ... well, ask Qyburn about that. Or Thoros of Myr. Just wondering whether there's a double meaning in that last thought/sentence of the chapter. 

But MAN. The most awesome new character in the book, SPLAT. Gotta love it. I kind of felt like the first time I saw Return of the Jedi, and the badass bounty hunter Boba Fett just randomly, explicitly dies. A cool character with too little time. 

Have a nice weekend, preferably free of trials by combat.


  1. Yeah, Jamie/Elia and Cersei/Oberyn also means that Rhaegar marries... Lysa Tully? At any rate, the Reach is not happy.

  2. I think TV-Oberyn was more neglecting to possible danger from Gregor than book version. Here, he stands on fallen Gregor and is about to use the sword while in the TV show he just didn't finish the deed when he had time.