Tywin Lannister’s name and reputation in A Song of Ice and Fire is associated with the consequentialist political mantra of “the ends justify the means.” But how true is that sentiment when examined against the text? And if true, does the series’ gray morality give Tywin a wider moral berth for his conduct?
Tywin Lannister is a fascinating character in that his actions result in such differing fan-opinions of the character. For his supporters, he’s viewed as someone willing to do evil to achieve a greater good best seen in his defense of his conduct during the Sack of King’s Landing.
“As stupid as he was, even he knew that Rhaegar’s children had to die if his throne was ever to be secure. Yet he saw himself as a hero, and heroes do not kill children.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
Tywin’s detractors see his actions as dark, evil acts perpetrated by an evil man for politically nefarious reasons. Eddard Stark was firmly in this camp.
I would sooner entrust a child to a pit viper than to Lord Tywin. (AGOT, Eddard II)
But both perspectives miss something fundamental about Tywin’s conduct. He may have shrouded his actions in political terms, but subtext and context shows that Tywin actually couched all of his major evil actions from a deeply personal perspective.
In this analysis, I’ll hope to show Tywin’s deeply personal reasons for his brutalities through 3 seminal events, all of which took place prior to events of the main book series:
- The Reyne/Tarbeck Rebellion
- The Defiance of Duskendale
- The Sack of King’s Landing at the end of Robert’s Rebellion
The Destruction of the Reynes and Tarbecks
Chronologically, the first macro political event that puts Tywin Lannister on the political map was his conduct during the rebellion by the Reynes and Tarbecks. We all know the familiar story of how Tywin crushed the rebellion with utter ruthlessness, but the background and extent of the ruthlessness is worth a little more examination.
We learn that Tywin’s father, Tytos, was a kind yet weak overlord of the Westerlands.
“Our own father was gentle and amiable, but so weak his bannermen mocked him in their cups. Some saw fit to defy him openly. Other lords borrowed our gold and never troubled to repay it. At court they japed of toothless lions.” (ASOS, Tyrion IX)
Tywin apparently found this trait by his father to be infuriating. Some lords took this mockery a bit too far.
Tywin Lannister’s own father Lord Tytos had once imprisoned an unruly bannerman, Lord Tarbeck. The redoubtable Lady Tarbeck responded by capturing three Lannisters, including young Stafford, whose sister was betrothed to cousin Tywin. “Send back my lord and love, or these three shall answer for any harm that comes him,” she had written to Casterly Rock. (ASOS, Jaime VI)
The bannerman who took the Lannisters hostage was none other than Lady Ellyn Tarbeck who we’ll come back to. Tytos. Tywin’s advice was fairly brutal, especially given that Tywin was probably 14-15 at the time.
Young Tywin suggested his father oblige by sending back Lord Tarbeck in three pieces. (ASOS, Jaime V)
However, Tytos Lannister, in defiance of his son’s advice, released Lord Tarbeck to secure the lives of the Lannisters in custody. Here’s where my speculation comes in: given that Tywin was embarrassed by the way his father was treated by his lords and given that Tytos has disregarded his advice, I think it created a personal grudge in Tywin’s mind. GRRM himself juxtaposed Tywin to his father in a So Spake Martin from 1999:
Tywin was not actually lord when he dealt with the Reynes (of Castamere) and the Tarbecks (of Tarbeck Hall). His father was still alive. Lord Tytos was an altogether different character, amiable but ineffectual, and he allowed himself to be pushed around a good deal, by a number of people.. including Lord Walder Frey (ever wonder how Genna came to marry so poorly?) and the Red Lion of Castamere, the richest and most powerful Lannister bannerman, and a formidable soldier/warrior in his own right… So Spake Martin: Tywin & the Reynes
So, here we have Tytos portrayed as ineffectual and weak — things that Tywin despises. So, when the Reynes and Tarbecks rose up against the Lannisters in rebellion and Tywin was put in charge of putting the rebellion down, the vengeance wreaked on the Reyes and Tarbecks went pretty far.
Lord Tywin did not suffer disloyalty in his vassals. He had extinguished the proud Reynes of Castamere and the ancient Tarbecks of Tarbeck Hall root and branch when he was still half a boy. (ASOS, Tyrion IV)
The deaths of the culprits directly responsible for the rebellion seems just as far as Westerosi custom (and ours) is concerned. However, what I find really interesting is that Tywin killed men, women and children — everyone, and this flies directly in the face of his advice to Joffrey later on.
“When your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
Given that there were a number of innocents who probably could have bent the knee to the Lannisters, it seems strange that Tywin would kill them. That is, unless you consider that Tywin was acting from a deeply personal grudge. Genna Lannister relates a short anecdote about Tywin during the rebellion.
“When Tarbeck Hall came crashing down on Lady Ellyn, that scheming bitch, Tyg claimed he smiled then.” (AFFC, Jaime V)
Tywin is famous for not smiling, and yet he felt enough personal satisfaction by the death of Lady Ellyn Tarbeck that he smiled. The only other time he reportedly smiled was when he wed Joanna Lannister. So, there was something deeply personally satisfying for Tywin in killing Lady Ellyn Tarbeck, and in the deaths of every man, woman and child of Houses Reyne and Tarbeck.
It shows a deep grudge that defies his own later statement on how to treat surrendering (or in my extrapolation: innocent) enemies and operating from emotion. It was the first instance where I think this happened, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Tywin’s Deeply Personal Defiance at Duskendale
Tywin’s actions during the rebellion and his strong rule of the Westerlands after the death of Tytos garnered the attention of Aerys II Targaryen who thought that Tywin would make an excellent Hand of the King. And for a while, the partnership was a good one. Tywin was an able Hand of the King and seemed to serve faithfully. Aerys II trusted in Tywin and his ability.
But strains emerged. Aerys II grew jealous of Tywin and his ability. Aerys II ordered Ilyn Payne’s tongue cut out when he boasted that Tywin was the one who really ruled the kingdom. And then the relationship began to tear when Tywin wed Joanna Lannister.
“Prince Aerys … as a youth, he was taken with a certain lady of Casterly Rock, a cousin of Tywin Lannister. When she and Tywin wed, your father drank too much wine at the wedding feast and was heard to say that it was a great pity that the lord’s right to the first night had been abolished. A drunken jape, no more, but Tywin Lannister was not a man to forget such words, or the … the liberties your father took during the bedding.” (ADWD, Daenerys VII)
This seems to have been the first focal tear, but it wasn’t the last. A few years later, Tywin staged a tourney at Lannisport. There, Tywin proposed that Aerys II’s son Rhaegar marry his daughter Cersei. Aerys II’s response couldn’t have been chillier.
You are my most able servant, Tywin, but a man does not marry his heir to his servant’s daughter.” – Aerys II to Tywin (AFFC, Cersei V)
As I’ve hopefully shown, Tywin operated from deep-set emotions. Aerys’ refusal infuriated Tywin, and when Aerys II married Rhaegar to Elia of Dorne, the grudges that Tywin nursed only increased (something we’ll get into below).
When the town of Duskendale and its lords defied Aerys II, Aerys decided to ride out to Duskendale to seize its lords and execute the king’s justice on them and their treason. He did all this without Tywin Lannister. And his actions cost him his own freedom and the life of one of his Kingsguard (Gwayne Gaunt).
With his king imprisoned, Tywin rode out with an army to free the king. However, there’s something a bit off about the whole affair from Tywin’s perspective. Consider the length of the siege.
“For half a year Aerys was held within these very walls, whilst the King’s Hand sat outside Duskendale with a mighty host. Lord Tywin had sufficient strength to storm the town any time he wished, but Lord Denys sent word that at the first sign of assault he’d kill the king.” (AFFC, Brienne II)
Tywin didn’t storm the castle because he thought that they might kill Aerys — at least according to people near Duskendale. However, when Barristan tells his side of the story, it’s a bit different.
He (Tywin) gave me a day to bring out Aerys. Unless I returned with the king by dawn of the following day, he would take the town with steel and fire, he told me. (ADWD, The Kingbreaker)
If he had not gone into Duskendale to rescue Aerys from Lord Darklyn’s dungeons, the king might well have died there as Tywin Lannister sacked the town. (ADWD, The Queensguard)
At first glance, this seems a prudent play on Tywin’s part; he sacks the town while Barristan conducts a rescue mission. But a closer look is a bit mystifying as to why the hell Tywin was sacking Duskendale if he was afraid that the king would be killed by the Darklyns. It doesn’t make sense unless something else was at play. To me, that something was Tywin’s badly bruised ego from his bedding and the Tourney at Lannisport.
But wait, you might say, Tywin sent Barristan in on rescue mission! Tywin was trying to rescue the king! Look closely at what was going on. Tywin was intentionally provoking the Darklyns by sacking Duskendale. And at the same time, he sent Barristan on a one-man rescue mission into the Dun Fort. To me, this is Tywin attempting to get Aerys killed while covering his ass with Barristan’s rescue mission. Barristan’s rescue mission was not meant to the succeed, but it had to be undertaken for appearances to be kept up.
For his part, Aerys II believed that Tywin allowed him to rot in the dungeon at the Dun Fort. And while Aerys isn’t necessarily the best source (y’know with his insanity and so forth), I’m inclined to take it a step further and say that Tywin maintained appearances during the siege with the secret hope that Aerys would be killed by the Darklyns. And furthermore, Tywin did all this due to his wounded pride.
And events from this time period would have an even greater impact come Robert’s Rebellion.
The Sack of King’s Landing
Aerys Targaryen must have thought that his gods had answered his prayers when Lord Tywin Lannister appeared before the gates of King’s Landing with an army twelve thousand strong, professing loyalty. So the mad king had ordered his last mad act. He had opened his city to the lions at the gate. (AGOT, Eddard II)
The final event I want to examine a bit is the Sack of King’s Landing. Having hopefully established Tywin’s emotional basis for his actions at Tarbeck Hall and Duskendale, we turn towards Tywin’s greatest act of brutality.
Following Duskendale, Tywin and Aerys were completely alienated from each other. Whether you think that the theory that Tywin attempted to get Aerys II killed has any merit is beside the point. The relationship between the two was fraught with animosity. The seeming last straw was when Aerys named Jaime to the Kingsguard, thus depriving Tywin of the heir that he so desperately wanted.
Jaime’s investiture freed him from Lysa Tully. Elsewise, nothing went as planned. His father had never been more furious. He could not object openly – Cersei had judged that correctly – but he resigned the Handship on some thin pretext and returned to Casterly Rock, taking his daughter with him. (ASOS, Jaime II)
Thus, Tywin left the Handship and brooded in the West. When Robert’s Rebellion erupted, Tywin stayed out of the war at first, refusing to take a side. However, after rebel victories, Tywin expected to be recalled by Aerys. He was soon disappointed.
The Battle of the Bells had proved the truth of that. Ser Kevan had expected that afterward Aerys would have no choice but to summon Tywin once more … but the Mad King had turned to the Lords Chelsted and Rossart instead, and paid for it with life and crown. (ADWD, Epilogue)
And so, Tywin marched his army to King’s Landing. When he arrived there, he feigned loyalty to the crown. When his soldiers entered the city, the cruelty began.
“Your Grace,” said Jorah Mormont, “I saw King’s Landing after the Sack. Babes were butchered that day as well, and old men, and children at play. More women were raped than you can count.” (ASOS, Daenerys II)
An alert commenter to one of my older essays alerted me to the fact that these Westerlander soldiers were not recently bloodied on the battlefield and did not “have the blood” on them. Rather, they marched into the city and sacked it. This was almost certainly done under orders from Tywin, especially when you consider Tywin’s claim to two specific murders.
“I grant you, it was done too brtually. Elia need not have been harmed at all, that was sheer folly. By herself she was nothing.”
“Then why did the Mountain kill her?”
“Because I did not tell him to spare her. I doubt I mentioned her at all. I had more pressing concerns…The rape…even you will not accuse me of giving that command, I would hope. Ser Amory was almost as bestial with Rhaenys. I asked him afterward why it had required half a hundred thrusts to kill a girl of…two?” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
Tywin had ordered the murders of Rhaenys and Aegon and thus almost certainly ordered the sack of the city. But was Tywin telling the truth about Elia’s murder? I don’t think so. I think that Tywin ordered the murder of Elia, and her murder harkens back to Tywin’s bruised ego. In the final conversation between Tyrion and Oberyn prior to the duel, Oberyn tells Tyrion something interesting.
“What I did not tell you was that my mother waited as long as was decent, and then broached your father about our purpose. Years later, on her deathbed, she told me that Lord Tywin had refused us brusquely. His daughter was meant for Prince Rhaegar, he informed her.” (ASOS, Tyrion IX)
Cersei was to marry Rhaegar, not Oberyn Martell, nor was Jaime to marry Elia. So, when Aerys II married Rhaegar to Elia Martell, it was a double insult to Tywin Lannister. First, Aerys had refused Tywin. Secondly, Aerys had married his son to the woman that Tywin had refused to allow to be married to Jaime.
So, did Tywin order the murder of Elia? Prince Oberyn believes it, and I’m inclined to agree.
“Well, Prince Rhaegar married Elia of Dorne, not Cersei Lannister of Casterly Rock. So it would seem your mother won that tilt.”
“She thought so,” Prince Oberyn agreed, “but your father is not a man to forget such slights. He taught that lesson to Lord and Lady Tarbeck once, and to the Reynes of Castamere. And at King’s Landing, he taught it to my sister.” (ASOS, Tyrion IX)
Tywin as someone not to forget slights shows a different side to Tywin — a side where Tywin isn’t the ruthless consequentialist, but a man who holds deep grudges and moves the politics and warfare of the nation to quench his deep emotional thirsts. It’s in my estimation that Tywin’s evils are only magnified by the personal nature of those evils he committed as they weren’t for any greater good — they were selfish in nature.
Thousands likely died at Castamere, Tarbeck Hall and Duskendale. Tens of thousands (perhaps as high 100,000) died at the Sack of King’s Landing. And for what? They died to satiate the grudges of an evil man.
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