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. Read More...