This essay contains Winds of Winter spoilers from a George RR Martin interview and a released sample chapter towards the end. So, beware, spoiler-averse!
“I am Hugor Hill, a little monster. Your little monster, if you like. You have my word, all that I desire is to be leal servant of your dragon queen.” (ADWD, Tyrion III)
Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 5 “The Bells” has ushered in a wave of controversy over Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing after its surrender. While much of the controversy has focused on whether the necessary plot foundation and character groundwork for the event exists for Dany or even whether the act will occur in the books (I think it will occur in the books too for reasons I outlined back in 2015), there’s an under-analyzed aspect of the event in need of unpacking: namely, the character and role of Tyrion Lannister in the affair.
Tyrion Lannister is a fan-favorite character and viewed as one of the “good guys” on the show. But in the books, Tyrion is more ambiguous. A Game of Thrones has Tyrion’s darkness emerging at a few points, but it mostly stays in the background. But just prior to the publication of A Clash of Kings, author George RR Martin was interviewed by Amazon.com and stated:
Interviewer: “Do you have a favorite character?”
Martin: “I’ve got to admit I kind of like Tyrion Lannister. He’s the villain of course, but hey, there’s nothing like a good villain.” – Amazon.com Interview with GRRM, 1999
Tyrion’s Clash arc finds more darkness emerging in Tyrion, but it’s not until A Storm of Swords that this darkness comes roaring out. Thereafter, in A Dance with Dragons, we find Tyrion’s darkness festering into nihilism and self-loathing, resulting in monstrous acts and evil desires/thoughts.
But the version of Tyrion found in Game of Thrones is different, changed. The monster who emerges at the end of A Storm of Swords, who may have always been there in the books, is gone.
Tyrion in the show has most of his character flaws and evil deeds airbrushed from the narrative. While his murderous turn at the end of ASOS is retained in the show, there are two major story changes which undercut Tyrion’s plot resolution in Season 4. And when his arc progresses into Essos in Season 5, his character state, plot actions and even his underlying motivations are altered significantly from the source material as a result.
All of these changes have had consequences, undercutting the character of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.
And the fallout from the adaptation of Tyrion Lannister was felt most acutely in the destruction of King’s Landing.
Adaption in Game of Thrones
HBO’s adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire into Game of Thrones has been … interesting. Changes from book to show were made in the very first scene with numerous small adaptation choices appearing throughout the first season.
However, prior to Season 5, the plot adaptation and changes to the source material were generally regarded positively by fans. Though there were complaints about certain Belwas characters not being adapted, how Jeyne Westerling became Talisa Maegyr (at GRRM’s insistence, BTW!) or how Littlefinger said “Your sister” instead of “Only Cat”, fans were, by and large, satisfied with the adaptation/condensing/small-changing of plot points.
But those were the plot elements. What about the adaptation of characters?
Again, the character adaptations mostly worked for book fans. The changes made were in keeping with the established characterization present in the early books. But there was one character introduced in Season 2 that caused consternation about his adaptation. And it’s in this character that we see a prologue for the problems to come for the adaptation of Tyrion Lannister.
A Prologue of Problems: The Adaptation of Stannis Baratheon
Stannis Baratheon has been a controversial characters among fans — even long before Season 2 aired. But Season 2 brought a new wrinkle to the controversy: Stannis’ adaptation as a character in Game of Thrones.
Many felt that Stannis’ worst traits were amplified and his best traits excised/reduced in Game of Thrones. The Inside the Episode segments for Season 2 didn’t help with the showrunners saying:
“Stannis would make a terrible king, most likely, because he lacks a feeling for the common humanity over which he’s supposed to rule.”
Seemingly, the showrunners had a different vision in mind for Stannis than what was present in the books. But at the same time they were making substantial character changes to these characters, they were vaulting ahead with plot foreshadowing to match the endstate that GRRM told them about in 2013: that Stannis would burn his daughter, Shireen Baratheon.
When the event occurred in Season 5, it left a lot of fans cold. Yes, part of this reaction was due to fans of Stannis Baratheon disbelieving that Stannis could or would burn Shireen (Which, similar to Daenerys burning King’s Landing, is a plot event that is going to happen in the books too). But the more important aspect as to why book fans were left cold was the adaptive changes made in to Stannis’ character in Game of Thrones which precipitated this plot point.
But first, let’s briefly touch on the character foundation in the books.
In Storm, Stannis comes to believe that he and only he can save Westeros from the Others and the coming Long Night. But to save Westeros, he believes that he will have to sacrifice his bastard nephew Edric Storm to the flames. And he frames this decision this way:
“If I must sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million from the dark . . . Sacrifice . . . is never easy, Davos. Or it is no true sacrifice.” (ASOS, Davos IV)
That works as character foundation for Stannis’ eventual decision to burn Shireen in the books. He believes he has a duty, a destiny to save the realm. This is a noble motivation, but the horrific twist of it all is that the outcome of Stannis’ noble belief will result the burning of Shireen — an absolute evil.
Game of Thrones, though, frames Stannis’ motivation differently. There’s no “sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million” scene in Season 3 or Season 4 to set the character foundation for his burning of Shireen. Instead, the act is framed, on-screen and by showrunner David Benioff, as flowing from Stannis’ ambition:
“It’s obviously the hardest choice he’s had in his life and what it comes down to is just ambition versus familial love and for Stannis, sadly, that choice is ambition.” Game of Thrones Season 5: Inside the Episode #9
This is a major problem in the adaptation. While the show proceeded forward with the same plot endstate that George had for Stannis in Winds or Dream, adaptive character changes to Stannis made all the way back in Season 2 resulted in a plot act in Season 5 stripped of its character groundwork and re-framed in a way that left both show-watchers and book-readers reeling from whiplash.
The above long aside about the adaptation of Stannis Baratheon might seem irrelevant to a discussion on the adaptation of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, but I think it serves as a prologue for the character adaptation of Tyrion. Stannis was not alone in having many of his foundational character traits rewritten in the show while still retaining similar book endstates.
Our japing Hand of the King and dwarf Tyrion Lannister has also experienced this.
The Adaptation of Tyrion Lannister Seasons 1-3
Seasons 1-3 gave us a similar version of Tyrion as found in the books. He was a cynical, sardonic underdog that we rooted for. He slaps Joffrey. He defends Sansa from being beaten by Joffrey’s Kingsguard goons. He’s smart, pragmatic. Capable even. He’s one of the good guys. These good traits were in keeping with the book version of Tyrion, but that wasn’t all there was to the book-version of Tyrion. He has deep character flaws that were present in the books. Did those flaws make it onto the small screen? In my opinion, no.
In the show, Tyrion’s wielding of political power as Hand of the King in Season 2 is depicted as heroic, with his underlying motivations framed as noble. In the books, though, Tyrion’s use of political power is much more ambiguous with him realize how much he loves the power he was attaining:
It is real, all of it, he thought, the wars, the intrigues, the great bloody game, and me in the center of it . . . me, the dwarf, the monster, the one they scorned and laughed at, but now I hold it all, the power, the city, the girl. This was what I was made for, and gods forgive me, but I do love it . . . (ACOK, Tyrion VII)
Meanwhile, some of his worst acts weren’t featured. Specifically, his threat to Cersei if Alayaya was harmed:
“Whatever happens to her happens to Tommen as well, and that includes the beatings and rapes.” If she thinks me such a monster, I’ll play the part for her. (ACOK, Tyrion XII)
And then when Tyrion finds out that Alayaya was whipped, he says and thinks:
“I promised my sister I would treat Tommen as she treated Alayaya,” he remembered aloud. He felt as though he might retch. “How can I scourge an eight-year-old boy?” But if I don’t, Cersei wins. (ASOS, Tyrion I)
Fortunately, Tyrion can’t carry out his threat against Tommen in the books. But that he was ready and willing to carry it out gets at the early darkness in Tyrion’s book characterization.
In the show, the same scene between Tyrion and Cersei is adapted, but Tyrion’s threat to have Tommen raped and beaten isn’t featured. Instead, Tyrion says that Cersei’s joy will turn to ashes in her mouth, and she will know the debt is paid without specifying what he means by that.
Now, it is entirely understandable why the show wouldn’t want to have Tyrion threatening to have an eight-year old raped and whipped. Additionally, book dialogue has always been condensed in Game of Thrones to make episodes both manageable for length purposes and shorter for cinematic reasons.
But regardless of why Tyrion’s dialogue from the books was edited down and how sympathetic we should be to the showrunners and writers due to the limitations of the TV medium, these dialogue cuts have led to significant impacts in how the character of Tyrion was drawn in the show.
In the books, a parallel sequence of events has Tyrion learning how the smallfolk of King’s Landing view him:
“His Grace is but a boy. In the streets, it is said that he has evil councillors. The queen has never been known as a friend to the commons, nor is Lord Varys called the Spider out of love . . . but it is you they blame most. Your sister and the eunuch were here when times were better under King Robert, but you were not. They say that you’ve filled the city with swaggering sellswords and unwashed savages, brutes who take what they want and follow no laws but their own. They say you exiled Janos Slynt because you found him too bluff and honest for your liking. They say you threw wise and gentle Pycelle into the dungeons when he dared raise his voice against you. Some even claim that you mean to seize the Iron Throne for your own.” (ACOK, Tyrion IX)
A version of this scene is retained in the show with Tyrion learning that the smallfolk of King’s Landing view him as the demon monkey man. But where Tyrion’s response in the books is bitter sarcasm:
“Yes, and I am a monster besides, hideous and misshapen, never forget that.” His hand coiled into a fist. “I’ve heard enough. We both have work to attend to. Leave me.” (ACOK, Tyrion IX)
His response on the show was bemused disbelief. In the books, Tyrion adds an additional character wrinkle to his bitterness: anger that the people in King’s Landing are ungrateful for all he’s doing to protect them from Stannis:
“Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods alone know what dark powers, and the good folk don’t have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert nor Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate.” He laughed again. “The dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I’m all that stands between them and chaos.” (ACOK, Tyrion X)
That tonal shift between Tyrion’s view of how he’s perceived by the city is a vital change that sets basic groundwork for additional changes for Season 4 but also for Season 8.
Tyrion’s darker actions and deeds, his moral ambiguity, his sometime-love for the game of thrones over using political power to help people, his growing anger over how the people of King’s Landing view him in the books were stripped out of the adaptation. And this early airbrushing of Tyrion’s book-character flaws had consequences that would cascade in Season 4.
The Whitewashing of Tyrion Lannister: Season 4
Season 4 found Tyrion Lannister in dire circumstances. His romance with Shae was fraught with danger. His relationship to his father Tywin Lannister grew ever more poisonous. In many ways, this paralleled events from A Storm of Swords.
Tyrion and Shae’s relationship in Storm was one of escalating tension where Tyrion knew that Shae was endangered by their relationship but couldn’t force himself to part ways with her. Meanwhile, Tywin explicitly disinherited Tyrion from Casterly Rock in the books (and show!).
The setup was present for Tyrion’s toxic relationships to both Shae and Tywin to devolve in dramatic and horrific fashion in both the books and show. But it’s in the divergence of Tyrion’s Season 4 endgame versus Tyrion’s closing plot beats in A Storm of Swords where the earlier character adaptation choices coalesced.
After Joffrey was poisoned, Tyrion was imprisoned and then made to stand trial for the crime. After a multitude of false witnesses provide false evidence of Tyrion’s guilt, Tyrion’s former lover Shae takes the stand, adds her voice to the accusation and humiliates Tyrion in front of the gathered crowd, falsely-testifying that Tyrion forced her to call him “my giant of Lannister.” Then Tyrion sees the response to Shae’s testimony:
Oswald Kettleblack was the first to laugh. Boros and Meryn joined in, then Cersei, Ser Loras, and more lords and ladies than he could count. The sudden gale of mirth made the rafters ring and shook the Iron Throne. “It’s true,” Shae protested. “My giant of Lannister.” The laughter swelled twice as loud. Their mouths were twisted in merriment, their bellies shook. Some laughed so hard that snot flew from their nostrils.
I saved you all, Tyrion thought. I saved this vile city and all your worthless lives. There were hundreds in the throne room, every one of them laughing but his father. (ASOS, Tyrion X)
While continuing to declare his innocence over the murder of Joffrey, his black rage against King’s Landing that was building from his earlier bitterness and anger over how the people of the city viewed him boils over:
He turned to face the hall, that sea of pale faces. “I wish I had enough poison for you all. You make me sorry that I am not the monster you would have me be.” (ASOS, Tyrion X)
In the show, this scene was masterfully performed by Peter Dinklage. Watch it. Re-watch it. This is a masterclass in acting by Dinklage, conveying so much in every dialogue delivery, facial tic and body posturing in the scene.
Tyrion in the show communicated everything and more of what George RR Martin attempted to convey in the books. This was the Tyrion that broke. This was Tyrion’s inner darkness roaring to the forefront, and it should have set the foundation for both Tyrion’s brutal, horrific closing moments in Season 4 and Tyrion’s ugly, nihilistic turn in Season 5.
But the landing wasn’t stuck.
In A Storm of Swords and in Season 4, Jaime frees Tyrion from his captivity before he can be executed for his “crime.” But there’s a crucial change. In the books, Jaime reveals that Tyrion’s first wife Tysha, who Tyrion believed all his life was a prostitute that Jaime hired for him, was who she said she was: a crofter’s daughter who had married Tyrion out of love.
Jaime’s disclosure shatters an already-damaged Tyrion. It sends him spiraling towards the abyss with him revealing to Jaime that Tysha was gang-raped by Tywin’s guards. He then slaps Jaime, telling him:
“Oh, you’ve earned more than [that slap], Jaime. You and my sweet sister and our loving father, yes, I can’t begin to tell you what you’ve earned. But you’ll have it, that I swear to you. A Lannister always pays his debts. (ASOS, Tyrion XI)
Tyrion then goes on to falsely implicate himself in Joffrey’s murder before proceeding on to Varys, Shae and Tywin.
In similar fashion, Jaime rescues Tyrion from his cell in the show. But in dissimilar fashion, the brothers embrace and make fond farewells to each other. And then Jaime doesn’t reveal the truth about Tysha. The brothers part as warm, affectionate siblings who still deeply care for each other. Watch the scene!
This is a major deviation from the books that sets a starkly different tone for the scene. The brothers Lannister depart as brothers in Season 4, instead of as bitter enemies at the end of Storm. And the scene closes not with Tyrion declaring that Jaime and Cersei have earned a violent fate he wants to visit on them. It ends with Tyrion thanking Jaime for his life, and Jaime telling Tyrion “Quickly, now” before moving off-stage.
Then we get into the murder of Shae. In the books, Tyrion murders her, after she triggers an enraged (yet conscious!) reaction with her words:
“Did you ever like it?” He cupped her cheek, remembering all the times he had done this before. All the times he’d slid his hands around her waist, squeezed her small firm breasts, stroked her short dark hair, touched her lips, her cheeks, her ears. All the times he had opened her with a finger to probe her secret sweetness and make her moan. “Did you ever like my touch?”
“More than anything,” she said, “my giant of Lannister.”
That was the worst thing you could have said, sweetling.
Tyrion slid a hand under his father’s chain, and twisted. The links tightened, digging into her neck. “For hands of gold are always cold, but a woman’s hands are warm,” he said. He gave cold hands another twist as the warm ones beat away his tears. (ASOS, Tyrion XI)
The brutality of Tyrion strangling Shae to death demonstrates what his words and thoughts proclaimed: Tyrion is broken, and that brokenness leads to sickening, murderous intimate partner violence.
But in Game of Thrones, there’s no conversation which triggers Tyrion’s murderous rage. Instead, Tyrion comes upon Shae lying in Tywin’s bed. When Shae sees him, she reaches for a knife to kill Tyrion and Tyrion jumps on top of Shae, strangling her to death. There’s a strong argument to be made that Tyrion, despite his shock at seeing Shae, acted in self-defense. You can rewatch the scene below if you’d like:
This is not to take anything away from the brutality of the scene. The portrayal is clearly not intended to be anything other than stomach-wrenching. And yet, the differences between the scene in Storm and Season 4 are striking.
In similar fashion to Jaime freeing Tyrion, we get the same Tyrion kills Shae endstate with a wide space of difference between the events and character build-up leading to the plot-point. And that brings us to some overall thoughts about the adaptation of Tyrion’s ASOS story in Season 4.
At the end of Season 4, we’re left with the point of view that Tyrion and Jaime’s relationship is intact, and that he’s innocent of the out-and-out murder of Shae. These two major changes to Tyrion in Season 4 serve as microcosm to what would come in Season 8. In the micro sense, we arrive at the same end in both the books and show, but the narrative pathways charted to those ends are jarringly different, creating different-yet-similar characters.
And these events can’t simply be analyzed in a vacuum as one-off scenes or even as the end of one epoch of Tyrion’s arc. The actions and character moments need to be examined against a wider view of Tyrion’s overall story. And they need to be considered against the wider narrative tapestry of the interweaving storylines and points of view.
Speaking of those intersecting storylines and points of view, that takes us into Seasons 5 and 6 of the show.
The Neutered Lion: Tyrion in Seasons 5 and 6
The adaptation of Season 5 of Game of Thrones was probably an impossible task from the start. Showrunners had to condense A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons – two books worth of material! – as well as wrap up dangling storylines from A Storm of Swords into one season of the show. George RR Martin stated that the adaptation of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons could be “two seasons, maybe three”, but this was never a realistic possibility.
As a result, whole POV characters and their stories were cut, subplots featuring already-existing characters were eliminated and character beats were pared way, way back.
That paring down of character material came at cost for many characters. For Tyrion, though, the cost was felt in the continuation of events from Season 4. But it didn’t start so bad. A Dance with Dragons has Tyrion “drinking his way across the Narrow Sea”, and Tyrion’s open in Season 5 started in similar fashion with Tyrion arriving in Pentos and continuing to overindulge in alcohol as a result of his trauma.
But unfortunately, that is, by and large, where the character similarities between the book and show versions of Tyrion end. The plot beats of Tyrion learning of Daenerys, progressing to Volantis, being taken captive by Jorah Mormont and arriving in Meereen as a slave remain similar. But it’s a hollow version as compared to ADWD Tyrion’s plot-arc.
Others (PoorQuentyn’s “A Defense of Tyrion’s ADWD Storyline” and Adam Feldman’s “Paying His Debts” essays in particular) have done remarkable, groundbreaking work in analyzing the character Tyrion becomes in A Dance with Dragons. So, I won’t retread the magnificently well-trod ground these gentlemen have … trod. Instead, for our purposes, I want to highlight a few thematic areas which demonstrate the difference between our now-separate versions of Tyrion.
First, when Martin was writing A Dance with Dragons, he stated that Tyrion had become a much-harder character to write in ADWD. Tyrion is George’s favorite character, and in the first three books, Martin found Tyrion to be one of the easiest POV characters to write. But in Dance, he found him much more difficult to write, because:
Another tidbit I liked (this I think from Friday night): that while Tyrion was his favorite character and the most like himself, and for those reasons perhaps the easiest for him to write. These chapters have been harder in Dance because of the dark turn Tyrion’s story has taken. – So Spake Martin, 4/16/2010
Tyrion’s dark turn from Storm resulted in a more difficult character to write in Dance. And George spent years writing and rewriting Tyrion’s ADWD chapters. Much of the extra work and effort on Martin’s part was done to craft Tyrion’s dark journey in ADWD in a believable light.
Secondly, Tyrion does indeed travel across Essos in Season 5, arriving in Meereen in Episode 7 and meets the Dragon Queen in the same episode. He then joins up with Daenerys Targaryen to become an adviser to her. The reason why Tyrion meets up with Daenerys only 7 episodes after arriving in Essos was made clear by showrunner David Benioff in a 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview:
“Creatively it made sense to us, because we wanted it to happen. They’re two of the best characters of the show. To have them come so close together this season then have them not meet felt incredibly frustrating. Also, we’re on a relatively fast pace. We don’t want to do a 10-year adaptation of the books, we don’t want to do a nine-year adaptation. We’re not going to spend four seasons in Meereen. It’s time for these two to get together. It’s hard to come up with a more eloquent explanation, but this just felt right. [Varys] puts Tyrion’s mission out there [in the season premiere] and the mission ends in Meereen.”
This is an entirely understandable reason to speed up Tyrion’s plot journey to Meereen and his intersection with Daenerys. The plot beats are fine, but it’s the character foundation that’s lacking. Tyrion, in the show, remains a good person, with all of his most heinous ADWD statements and deeds demonstrating his bleak outlook left on the cutting floor.
But it’s the rationale as to why Tyrion wants to go to Daenerys that diverges most of all. In ADWD, Tyrion had rather unsavory reasons for wanting to go serve at Daenerys’ side:
“—I know who the dwarf is, and what he is.” Her black eyes turned to Tyrion, hard as stone. “Kinslayer, kingslayer, murderer, turncloak. Lannister.” She made the last a curse. “What do you plan to offer the dragon queen, little man?”
My hate, Tyrion wanted to say. Instead he spread his hands as far as the fetters would allow. “Whatever she would have of me. Sage counsel, savage wit, a bit of tumbling. My cock, if she desires it. My tongue, if she does not. I will lead her armies or rub her feet, as she desires. And the only reward I ask is I might be allowed to rape and kill my sister.” (ADWD, Tyrion VII)
In ADWD, Tyrion calculates that Daenerys is the best means by which he can achieve his vengeance against his siblings and Westeros. And it’s his hate that he plans to offer Daenerys when he meets her come The Winds of Winter — with the expected reward that he is able to rape and kill Cersei. And though Tyrion traverses across Essos and arrives in Meereen at the end of ADWD, there’s no indication that his toxic mindset over what he plans to offer Daenerys and what he expects as a reward have changed.
But Tyrion is much different in the show. The plot beats are similar, yes. The character beats are not. Tyrion’s dark nights of the soul that dominate his character journey in ADWD on into TWOW is reduced to increased alcohol consumption and suicidal ideation which he confesses to Daenerys in Season 6, Episode 10.
In that same conversation in Season 6, Episode 10, Tyrion says that he believes in Daenerys Targaryen and wants to serve her.
The implication is that Tyrion has bought into Daenerys Targaryen and her role as liberator of Westeros. He gravitates towards her nobility, because he, himself, is driven by the same noble impulses. Daenerys then names him Hand of the King, and the two take ship for Westeros.
Again, we’re arriving at the likely same plot outcome for Tyrion in books and show with vastly different character arcs to get there. Our two Tyrions have almost entirely diverged over their character makeup and motivations to serve Dany. The Show-Version of Tyrion has him motivated to serve Daenerys, because she’s good, noble, worthy of Tyrion’s service. The book-version sees Dany as means of satiating the candle of hate he burns for his siblings — and the poison he wishes to feed to all of King’s Landing.
Tyrion and the Destruction of King’s Landing
In a 2014 Entertainment Weekly Interview, George RR Martin confirmed that Daenerys and Tyrion would meet. But the wording, in retrospect, now reads quite fascinating:
“Well, Tyrion and Dany will intersect, in a way, but for much of the book they’re still apart,” he says. “They both have quite large roles to play here. Tyrion has decided that he actually would like to live, for one thing, which he wasn’t entirely sure of during the last book, and he’s now working toward that end—if he can survive the battle that’s breaking out all around him. And Dany has embraced her heritage as a Targaryen and embraced the Targaryen words. So they’re both coming home.”
So, they’re both coming home, but with Dany embracing fire and blood, and Tyrion having a new will to live.
However, Tyrion’s new will to live hasn’t erased the explicit dark turn he’s taken since the end of A Storm of Swords. Even in his released Winds of Winter sample chapter, Tyrion is still gripped with a desire to murder his innocent companion Penny after she accidentally repeats the same words Shae once said to him:
“I never meant to make you angry,” Penny said “Forgive me. I’m frightened, is all.” She touched his hand.
Tyrion wrenched away from her. “I’m frightened.” Those were the same words Shae had used. Her eyes were big as eggs, and I swallowed every bit of it. I knew what she was. I told Bronn to find a woman for me and he brought me Shae. His hands curled into fists, and Shae’s face swam before him, grinning. Then the chain was tightening about her throat, the golden hands digging deep into her flesh as her own hands fluttered against his face with all the force of butterflies. If he’d had a chain to hand…if he’d had a crossbow, a dagger, anything, he would have…he might have…he…It was only then that Tyrion heard the shouts. He was lost in a black rage, drowning in a sea of memory. (TWOW, Tyrion II)
Tyrion might now want to live in the midst of the Battle of Fire erupting all around him, but he’s not abandoned his thirst to commit grievous acts of violence against those who wronged him in the past — even people in the present that remind him of people who “wronged” him in the past. And it’s in that narrative turn, that I think Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing makes narrative sense.
There is a lot to unpack about how the destruction of King’s Landing will unfold in the books than the role of Tyrion — especially, how Young Griff, Jon Connington and others will occupy essential narrative roles in the event, but to keep this essay’s scope focused tightly on Tyrion’s role and character state, I’m going to bypass them and urge you all to give PoorQuentyn’s and my NotACast … pod-cast review of Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 5: “The Bells” a listen where PQ explicitly addresses a number of these points — and some additional Tyrion-centric Young Griff context not covered in this essay.
Because, here, I won’t speculate on the exact plot factors that will build towards Tyrion and Daenerys’ intersection in the books and their relationship thereafter. Instead, for our purposes, it’s important to evaluate the thematic roles Daenerys and Tyrion will occupy when they arrive home to Westeros.
Daenerys has embraced fire and blood at the end of A Dance with Dragons. She has abandoned peace in Meereen, and she’s reset her destiny away from Slaver’s Bay and towards war in Westeros. She will take what is hers as is her prophesied destiny. And she will take it with fire and blood. Coming home for her will mean turning all doors red in King’s Landing. It will mean lighting a fire that will burn in every window. Dragons plant no trees.
Tyrion, on the other hand, is not animated by a similar vision of destiny in his desire to come home. Instead, he’s invested in coming home to gain vengeance against his family on a micro-level and the city of King’s Landing on a macro-level. Betrayed by every member of his immediate family (save for Joanna), burned by a society who hated him for being the monkey demon-man, who laughed and humiliated him at him during his trial in King’s Landing, he’s returning home too. And it’s in that context, I believe he will be the one to counsel Daenerys to embrace her reforged fire and blood identity.
The problem is that this drift towards darkness doesn’t exist on the show. Tyrion remains a relatively noble character from soup to nuts, from Season 1 to Season 8. His primary counsel to Daenerys Targaryen is to caution her against violence, to save innocents from death and destruction as Tyrion states in Season 7’s “Stormborn”
“If we turn the dragons loose, tens of thousands will die in the firestorms.”
In that statement and his subsequent counsel to Daenerys, Tyrion consistently advises Daenerys to turn aside from violence. This version of Tyrion stands in contrast to his book-version. His hate for his family, his anger over his treatment by the people of King’s Landing and his family are all gone. And it’s in those pivotal character changes where it all comes crashing down.
The show had GRRM’s endstate of Dany burning of King’s Landing in mind and knew that this was going to be the defining moment in Dany’s plot. And while I’d argue that the showrunners did a better job of setting the plot and character foundation for Daenerys role in the act, they didn’t conduct the parallel character adaptation for Tyrion as a hate-filled man, driven by his venomous desire to visit vengeance on those who wronged him.
In part, this is why the burning of King’s Landing felt empty to many book fans watching the show — in similar ways that Stannis burning Shireen felt empty too. It’s a strange place to be: believing that both events will occur in the books while simultaneously seeing that much of the setup that George integrated into the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire is not present in Game of Thrones.
But it also may be, in part, why people who only watch the show reacted negatively. In the show’s version, Daenerys acts unilaterally, with all of her counselors (save for Grey Worm’s silent, seething fury over the murder of Missandei) advising her not to burn King’s Landing if the bells sound in surrender.
Imagine, instead, a scenario where Tyrion’s book characterization is retained on the show; where Peter Dinklage continued using his masterful acting chops he so ably demonstrated in his trial in Season 4; where Jaime reveals the truth about Tysha to him; where Tyrion brutally murders Shae; where his darkness festers and flows into Seasons 5.
Imagine, then, that Tyrion comes to Dany’s side, not because he believes in her and her noble worldview, but because he sees Daenerys and her dragons as weapons of mass destruction — an outlet to destroy those who wronged him. And then he sees the destructive power that Daenerys can wield in her plot journey across Essos.
Imagine this version of Tyrion as Dany’s Hand of the King, manipulating and playing on Dany’s worst draconic instincts, reminding Daenerys that the people in power in King’s Landing stole her throne, are thwarting Dany’s destiny and built their power on top of the corpses of dead children.
Imagine that Daenerys doesn’t act unilaterally, against the wishes of her counselors. Imagine that Tyrion is the one urging her on; Use fire and blood against King’s Landing, Tyrion might say to Dany. These are your enemies. It is better to be feared than loved. Demonstrate your power, and all will kneel before their rightful queen. You once destroyed the Good Masters of Astapor with dragonfire for their crimes against children. This is the same, the same, the same.
Tyrion Lannister will play a pivotal role in Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing in A Dream of Spring. It will not absolve Daenerys of her moral culpability for the act. Instead, it will overlay the shock of the event with tragedy.
At the conclusion of Game of Thrones, Season 1, George RR Martin was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly and asked about changes he liked in the TV show, he referred to a few and then transitioned to talk about the “butterfly effect”:
“There will be divergences, they’re trying to be faithful and Dan and David are doing a wonderful job. But the books are plotted so intricately that you do step on a butterfly in season one and in season four you’re going to have to deal with that.”
The quote itself was referring to Khal Drogo killing Mago — a Dothraki bloodrider, you’d be forgiven for not remembering. In George’s mind, this minor character’s death in Season 1 would have far-reaching consequences for future seasons. But, while I don’t want to dispute Martin’s idea that Mago’s death in Season 1 would have far-reaching consequences, the key descriptor for Mago is minor.
In the case of adaptive choices for Tyrion Lannister, the changes were major. Core character dynamics have been stripped away from Tyrion. Gone was Tyrion’s brutal murder of Shae. Gone was Jaime’s dramatic reveal of his Tysha lie. Gone was Tyrion’s ADWD nihilism, his hate, his murderous rage against Jaime, his stated desire to rape and murder Cersei.
And those character omissions have consequences — consequences felt on-screen. All of that character groundwork featured in the books but not present in the show was building towards Tyrion’s role in the destruction of King’s Landing. Remember the quote from the introduction from GRRM in 1999, talking about Tyrion being “the villain, of course”? I would bet George was thinking of Tyrion’s future role in destroying King’s Landing.
Ultimately, in the books, the destruction of King’s Landing won’t bring Tyrion the satisfaction that he imagines it will. On his journey from Pentos to the Rhoyne in A Dance with Dragons, Tyrion has a fascinating dream which reveals this at a subconscious level:
That night Tyrion Lannister dreamed of a battle that turned the hills of Westeros as red as blood. He was in the midst of it, dealing death with an axe as big as he was, fighting side by side with Barristan the Bold and Bittersteel as dragons wheeled across the sky above them. In the dream he had two heads, both noseless. His father led the enemy, so he slew him once again. Then he killed his brother, Jaime, hacking at his face until it was a red ruin, laughing every time he struck a blow. Only when the fight was finished did he realize that his second head was weeping. (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Deep in Tyrion’s brain, he knows that only tragedy awaits him if he’s able to kill Jaime, Cersei. Extrapolating out: in Tyrion’s subconscious, him helping to destroy King’s Landing won’t make him happy either. Vengeance never satiates anyone in A Song of Ice and Fire. And the vengeance he’ll get on his family, on King’s Landing will never prove satisfying for Tyrion either.
But the Tyrion in Game of Thrones never displayed that dark side that the Tyrion in A Song of Ice and Fire possesses. The show never gave Tyrion the opportunity to reap the bitter, emotional harvest of his vengeance. Tyrion’s comeuppance in “The Bells” is him witnessing Daenerys commit mass-atrocity in King’s Landing against his explicit counsel. Is that a satisfying narrative endstate? Would it be more satisfying if Tyrion discovers that (to paraphrase Ellaria Sand in ADWD): “the skulls of Jaime, Cersei and the dead of King’s Landing won’t give him comfort in the night; they won’t make him laugh, write songs or care for him when he is old and sick”?
I think the answer is the latter.
To paraphrase George:
You step on Tyrion’s characterization in season four, and in season eight, you’re going to have to deal with that.
Thanks for reading!
I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have an ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast where we analyze every chapter in ASOIAF one chapter a week. Come listen to us on Apple Podcasts, Podbay, Soundcloud, Google Play, Spotify, everywhere you get your podcasts!
Additionally, are you a literary agent looking to represent the book of a generation!? Well, do I ever have an opportunity of a lifetime for you! I am looking for literary representation for my book THE CAUTIONER’S TALE (complete at 80,000 words): the story of a young man’s return from war and what happens after: when this young man is thrust into a modern masculine culture that glorifies meaningless sex, shallow relationships and cheap booze and drugs. Leave a comment here or come DM me on twitter if interested!