This series of articles takes a close look at George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series from the perspective of a Ph.D. in Medieval history and literature. Each book in the series will be analyzed against actual historical events in the Dark and Middle Ages along with literature, factual or fictional, from that time. This is the first time the author is reading the novels, so keep in mind that she’s unaware of major spoilers but that spoilers will be revealed as she progresses through the material.
By Catherine Smith-Akel, Ph.D.
Wea byð wundrum clibbor.
Survival of the Least Fit
George Martin incorporates quite a few characters who are the least fit to survive and yet are central to the story. The three most significant, up to this point in the book, are Lord Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Bran Stark.
Tyrion is the most obvious, of course, because he is a dwarf--a permanent physical disability from birth unlike Jon Snow and Bran Stark. The parents—who already have healthy twins—might be inclined to expose the abnormal baby to the elements. Infanticide of abnormal and deformed children was not that unusual. The Christian Church forbade infanticide and it was punished (but not by secular authorities, interestingly), but Martin’s story provides no such Christian overtones.
In life and in the literature, dwarfs were treasured creatures. Medieval dwarfs were often endowed with various magical powers. They were also supposed to be excellent craftsmen, particularly in sword-making; such swords made by dwarfs were also endowed with magical powers. The most famous sword said to be made by an elf from Avalon is Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword.
One of the most famous dwarfs in literature comes from the Arthurian legend of Sir Gareth. In Malory’s The Tale of Sir Gareth, Gareth’s servant-dwarf is the vehicle for Gareth’s various adventures. The unnamed dwarf also has a comic role in the tale, as he is physically picked up and carried around by another knight and by a lady.
The traditional role of a jester is also an anomaly rather than the norm. It is true that the nobility liked to have a dwarf at court—they were considered almost as the court “pet”—but dwarfs were hard to come by. If a noble were lucky enough to have a dwarf, the noble would care well for him. However, several plates in medieval texts show court jesters as full-grown men. So, the dwarf jester must have been a more unusual creature.
But the dwarf characteristic of wisdom seems to be the one in which Tyrion excels. Tyrion prides himself on his mental capability—telling Jon Snow that in order to be a productive member of his family he feels obliged to develop a sharp mind as his brother Jamie has developed a sharp sword. Tyrion studies books and so develops his wit. Up to this point in the text, Tyrion removes himself from difficult situations through the clever use of language. He baits and manipulates, sometimes getting himself into a lot of trouble when he can’t keep his mouth shut—such as in the Eyrie when he winds up asking for a challenge from one of Lady Lysa’s knights in order to obtain his freedom. Again, he uses his language to get the sellsword, Bronn, to fight for him. After Tyrion and Bronn are thrown out of the Eyrie—something Tyrion had not thought of in advance—he had to extricate himself from the Stone Crows, the outlaws who want to kill them. He does so through quick talking and promises the Stone Crows the Vale of Arryn.
Unlike Tyrion, Jon Snow’s “deformity” is cultural—he is the bastard son of Eddard Stark and a yet unnamed mother. Interestingly, in the book Martin gives bastard children surnames such as Snow or Flower (depending on the region in which they are born). The surname signifies them as illegitimate, the children of nature.
It was not common for nobility to recognize their illegitimate children, but some nobility did. Probably the most famous, or infamous, is King Henry I of England who had around 25 illegitimate children (depending on who’s counting). What is unusual about Henry is that he recognized his illegitimate sons and daughters, giving the boys positions at court and marrying the girls to well-off or noble families. However, poor Henry had only two legitimate children who lived to adulthood, a boy and a girl. The boy drowned when he was about 19 and the girl, the Empress Matilda (she had married a German monarch), was named to succeed Henry. However, after Henry’s death, the nobles turned on Matilda and refused to acknowledge her as queen, thus causing a horrible and prolonged civil war.
The middle class had a tendency to acknowledge illegitimate children because the infant mortality rate was so high. Fifty percent of children died before the age of two, and of those surviving past two, about fifty percent died before the age of five. The average number of live births for a merchant class wife living in London was fourteen, yet she could expect only two to live to adulthood. If you needed your children to care for you in old age, you would not be about to sacrifice any of them.
Eddard Stark’s decision, however, to bring Jon into the Stark household is, indeed, an unusual one. It is clear that for Catelyn he is a constant reminder of her husband’s infidelity. She does not seem to recognize any benefit in having Jon near, even though he looks after Arya and the other Stark children and gets along with Robb. Jon’s “banishment” to the Wall is the perfect solution for bastard offspring that have outgrown their usefulness—particularly their oath not to marry and have children—well, legitimate children anyway.
Jon’s loss to the Stark household at the same time Bran has been injured is an unfortunate one for the Stark family, even though Catelyn may not agree. If Bran had been born crippled, the likelihood is that he may have been killed or exposed, the same as Tyrion, that is, if he had lived at all. Bran had not been destined to marry and raise a family; he would have become a member of the Kingsguard. What a great “out” for the younger sons of royal blood! They can’t hold land, they can’t marry, they can’t sire children—thus, they are less likely to be a threat to their brother who is the heir to their House. Note that the bastards and ill-suited get a black cloak as members of the Night’s Watch, while the Kingsguard, the relatives in good standing, get white cloaks.
It is unlikely that Bran will be able to take his position as a member of the Kingsguard. Neither would Bran be likely to go to battle (one always has to hedge one’s bets with Martin). The Stark family, however, is portrayed as a close and loving family—although right now I wouldn’t place bets on the relationship between Sansa and Arya, but they are still young girls.
The least fit have survived and have survived fairly well. Even though Jon is sent to the Wall, he has the capability to find his own place there. The men who are in charge of the Night’s Watch are still men of honor and valor. So there is a chance for Jon to grow into a prestigious position and perhaps restore the honor and glory of this brotherhood. Tyrion is too smart to die, at least for a while. He will use his language and his wits to survive. Bran, too, could possibly take his place as a major character as the story evolves. After all, the dwarf’s “magic” saddle provided Bran the means to negotiate his environment. From one cripple to the next…
Grief is extrodinarily clinging.
Clouds glide [by].
About the Author
Catherine Smith-Akel studied medieval history at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Stony Brook University. Her dissertation was on the early fifteenth century The Book of Margery Kempe and master’s thesis on the late fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She has published articles on The Book of Margery Kempe, the tales of Robin Hood, and other medieval pieces. She has been presenting at medieval conferences for over twenty-five years, including the prestigious International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, England, and the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI.