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Theories and non-heroes

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

Literary analysis and the definition of a hero

Unfounded theories and heroes in the story
Art by Chad Lewis

The universe of Ice and Fire is extremely complex and intricately built using all sorts of literary devices and techniques that were put in place to keep the readers “in the dark” about certain aspects of the story, while keeping them engaged by constantly changing style between POVs. The author isn’t just a brilliant storyteller, he also has a precise sense of punch to close his material. Until that final line is written and read, the enormous fandom will continue speculating and coming up with creative solutions to the story they love so much, but it seems that, from time to time, those perceptions are purely incorrect.

The main issue is that the books are written, and they cannot be changed to fit a theory. The theories, then, must fit the books. That is not subject to interpretation. It’s a simple fact. When people create theories explaining why certain characters behave a certain way, but their theories have no literary validity, they disregard the art and the artist. A character who acts selfishly isn’t suddenly magnanimous because a theory wills them to be. The consequence of those interpretations create some truly unbelievable nonsense.

The main premises of literature must always be respected when discussing writers such as GRRM, because he is a stickler for the rules. His shades of grey are deliberately used to create confusion, but those who actually analyze the material and want to know more, can only use the undeniable source readily available - literary analysis, which overtakes speculation and disproves theories. It doesn’t actually matter if characters are considered good or bad. What matters is what they do and what the end result of those actions is. As he is a storyteller, the rules of storytelling must be followed.

Throughout the material, George also amply uses literary devices. Literary devices are techniques that control the narrative flow. When reading the book, a reader develops “favourites”, not simply favourite characters, but favourite POVs that have nothing to do with the character itself. A person might love Lord Eddard Stark, but not necessarily love his chapters or vice-versa. The literary devices are deeply developed. In a Song of Ice and Fire, they are associated to character and set a “tone” per chapter, so when reading ‘EDDARD’, one can expect “flashbacks”. Those devices allow the readers to have a fun and exciting experience that changes by POV, so in the middle of a ‘CERSEI’ chapter, for instance, the readers know it’s Cersei and not ‘THEON’ or ‘SANSA’. There’s a ‘feel’ to the chapter and that is thanks to these devices. Equally, defending a person’s actions due to preference is short-sighted and is often similar to political preferences. Some people’s candidate can do terrible things that have been proven, but the voters still defend that person blindly and may even go so far as to deny the sources. It’s unjustifiably done. I, for example, am a great fan of Ser Jaime. I admire his reasoning and find him very relatable. That, however, cannot justify his actions against Bran. Of course, I can argue that he did that to defend his sister, but arguments are ignorant and feeble when confronted with facts. The fact is that Ser Jaime tossed a young boy from a tower window while being a guest in that same boy’s house and if I defend that action because I am blinded by evidence, then the problem lies in me.

The shades of grey in the books make the fans wish to see things that simply aren’t there.

A clear example is Lord Tyrion Lannister. The little lion of the Rock is a character who shifts in people’s perceptions. Some believe he is wonderful, others believe he is a Targaryen, others believe he is evil, others believe he is a time traveler… The speculations surrounding Lord Tyrion go all the way from the tragic to the sublime and everything in between, but literary analysis is a constant and reliable tool that hides no mysteries.

When the books start, Tyrion is a captivating and endearing character, quick witted and extremely victimized. He is written using the literary devices of “plot”, which is when a sequence of events and happenings follow an intended or unintended pattern that threads the story together. For example, Tyrion visits the Night’s Watch where he is poorly treated by many, then he travels to Winterfell, where he is again mistreated, so he goes to an inn, where he is unjustly accused and brought to the Vale. When he asks for judgement, he claims he is being tried for being a dwarf. He is freed, goes to his father’s camp, is mistreated, continues to King’s Landing, is mistreated again, until he is unjustly accused and brought to court, where he claims his only crime is being a dwarf. He is freed, goes to Griff, is mistreated, is kidnapped by Ser Jorah, is mistreated… See where this is going? The other commonly seeing literary device through his chapters is “Understatement”, which is the practice of drawing attention to something obvious and noticeable, which is a way of sarcasm, irony, wryness or other forms of dry humour. Nobody can deny his chapters have plenty of that.

When introduced to Tyrion, the reader feels for him. When facing injustice after injustice, Tyrion maintains great attitude about himself, not to mention, cunning and sense of humour. The reader’s heart goes out to him when he shares the tragic tale of his first marriage, admires him for his lessons, laughs at his jokes, defends him when he is unjustly arrested and feels the outrage for when he has to take the vanguard for battle. Tyrion is painted as an unlikely hero and an underdog. His voice was not heard, but out of prejudice and it stings. When a Clash of Kings rolls in, he proves to be a valuable Hand of the King, even though that king was absolute rubbish. Tyrion was a good player at the game. He defends Sansa, belittles Cersei, slaps Joffrey, threatens Ser Boros and is the true hero protecting King’s Landing… He is unstoppable! But while Tyrion is doing great things, he also shows a different face. He takes satisfaction in crushing Marillion’s hands, brings Shae to King’s Landing, ignores Ser Alliser to spite him, has a singer murdered and that singer’s body used to make a stew, rapes his wife and pays her for it, allows Alayaya to pay for Shae, asks for a trial by combat, but then loses and kills his father (no, I am not defending his father, I’m simply pointing out that it’s not an honourable thing to do), supports a mad and tyrannical king because it benefits him, keeps Sansa in King’s Landing when he could have released her, then rapes a woman who has been tortured into serving men sexually, recognizes that it is wrong, then vomits and rapes her again, all the while considering the despicable person he has become, promises riches to the Second Sons, kills Nurse with poisonous mushrooms, and despite his desperate need to be loved, once he is, by Penny, he just can’t recognize it, appreciate it or share it, because she simply wasn’t pretty enough for his taste.

So how to judge Tyrion as good or bad? Of course, George has clearly specified that he writes them all grey, so what makes Jon a hero and Cersei a villain? The answer is simple: In storytelling, which is the format of our saga, a hero is the character who does what is right, even if that action is detrimental to their person. Jon opened the gates for the Wildlings because that was the right thing to do. It divided the men of the Night’s Watch and he was judged for it, but he did it anyway. A villain is the character who may or may not do what is right, but the actions are always dictated by personal gain, so Cersei allowed the Poor Fellows to reform, so she would gain power and recognition. That action, by the way, was against the law, because no king or queen is the law unto themselves. The return of the Poor Fellows wasn’t even done by Baelor the Blessed. It was simply not right and now, it has the country filled with armed fanatics imposing their faith, which will continue hurting the poor and the weak. Under those premises, is Tyrion a hero? Absolutely not!

Another character that gets plenty of second chances is Lord Stannis Baratheon. He claims that the crown is his duty, but in reality, it isn’t, and I’m not even talking about the fact that Robert was never a legal king, I’m considering facts as they were taken by the people of Westeros. Stannis’s crown is not his duty because if Robert’s children are his or not, is entirely irrelevant to the country. They are recognized as such by the laws of the land. Unless Cersei admitted to her crimes, the princes’ father is Robert Baratheon and Cersei would rather do the walk of atonement once again than admit to the contrary. But Stannis’s desperate plea to get the crown and demands to be called “king” aren’t for the good of the realm. He is a dangerous man, definitely a brave warrior and unafraid of consequence, but also a fanatic absolutist who would be burning people alive left, right and center in order to gain more power or control.

Lord Stannis was written with “Foil”. Foil is a literary device used to highlight contrasting characteristics between characters. Stannis is his brothers’ foil. Where they were open, funny, loved, pleasant and revered, he was closed, boring, ignored, stiff and unpleasant. Those differences are essential to the character and recognized throughout his arc. Another literary device often associated to Stannis is paradox. Paradox refers to the use of concepts or ideas that are contradictory to one another. Stannis’s paradox are simple and evident: He wanted to close the brothels in King’s Landing because they promoted infidelity in marriage, but he himself was unfaithful to his wife. He murdered his brother Renly for treason, while he was treasonous to his brother Robert both by abandoning his position in the council without his leave and then by trying to usurp the position of Robert’s sons by law. He claimed to be the one who would protect Westeros and make it a fair and just country, but he killed a castellan to attain a child of his own blood to sacrifice for a god, which isn’t fair or just. He promoted loyalty to his religion but obliged the wildlings to abandon theirs in order to grant them safety. He understood the wall must be manned but tried to push Jon to abandon it, so he would gain that northerner alliance.

Despite countless fans claiming that Stannis is the “one true king”, that statement is false under every rule in the country. When Stannis finds out that Robert was never the rightful king, will he drop his claim and obey the law? No! The law, contrary to what he claims, is not his goal. Stannis is an ambitious man and one who will do anything in order to reach his objectives. None of his great actions were done without personal gain and that, in literature, is what counts. Is Stannis a hero? Absolutely not!

Using the same literary principle, lady Sansa can be defined. Her story is so sad, though. She was written as a terrible girl in a Game of Thrones, then went through hell in a Clash of Kings and a Storm of Swords and her suffering really makes some readers’ hearts go out to her. Her character is hidden behind the literary device “conflict”, which is when a character finds every resistance in achieving his or her own dreams and aims and Sansa’s dreams do find every resistance and then some Conflict is also a device for then the character is in conflict with other characters or in some cases, themselves. Sansa plays the "lady", but she is judgmental of anyone who doesn't fit her expectations of what is 'the right behavirour'. She is also linked to the literary device “tragedy”, which is when a series of unfortunate events culminates into a disaster. It usually has five stages: 1- Happy times, 2-The introduction of a problem, 3-The problem worsens into a crisis or dilemma, 4-The character is unable to prevent the problem from taking over, 5-catastrophic, grave, tragic ending.

  1. She goes to King’s Landing

  2. On the way she lies and loses Lady

  3. Issues intensify until her father tells her she has to return to the North

  4. To protect her self-interests, she tattles to the queen who is smarter than her father, and he is consequently king-less and arrested, she pleads for mercy

  5. Her father is murdered before her eyes

Not convinced?

  1. The Tyrells arrange an engagement for her with their own

  2. Knowing she won’t be freed, she trusts Margaery will manage to convince Joffrey, despite every evidence she has to the contrary

  3. Littelfinger finds out

  4. He tattles to the council and it decides behind her back to unite the houses Lannister and Stark. Tyrion in vain tries to prevent that from happening

  5. She is married to Tyrion

One more time

  1. She arrives in the Vale

  2. Littlefinger kisses her and her aunt witnesses it

  3. Her aunt attacks her, Littlefinger interferes and pushed Lysa from the Moon Door before her eyes

  4. She is brought to testify and reveals her true identity, somehow, she ends up engaged for the third time, this time to someone else who is arrogant and presumptuous.

  5. Yet to come some form of pain and humiliation

But the thing with Sansa, is that she is so focused on her own problems, that nobody else is visible or valuable. While lady Arya can go on the story and remember Sansa as a romantic girl with stupid dreams, she does long for her sister and when she considers Sansa to be dead alongside the rest of the family, she groups Sansa on the side of loved ones. “Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell's grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan's stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow's smile. He used to mess my hair and call me "little sister," she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.” Sansa, on the other hand, is always negative and vicious towards Arya. Her innermost thoughts well into a Storm of Swords are that Arya was an unsatisfactory sister. Through Feast, Sansa doesn’t have one single thought of Arya and as time elapses, she seems to have memories of her childhood, which unequivocally include Arya, but no love or affection is ever shown.

She is definitely a survivor, one who doesn’t waste time with stupid things such as remorse or guilt. Sansa never considers how she wronged her father. She had someone else to blame and that was all that mattered. She never feels ashamed for lying about Arya and getting Lady killed. She could simply blame Arya and her guilt would vanish like magic. She doesn’t seem to dwell in the past. Evidently, the tragic events in her life are bound to make or break a person, but Arya had tragic events, feels the weight of her actions and thinks of her family. Jon had tragic events, feels guilt and thinks of his family. Sansa ends an issue and moves into the next one, ready to marry the next fancy lord who will grant her 'dream come true'. Sure, she is growing smarter as she learns she is the heir to a great house, but her considerations are never about saving her house, her region, her people. As a matter of fact, her entire dismissal of Jeyne Poole who was her dearest friend, is the strongest statement about her that can be made. Is she evil? No. But is she a hero? Absolutely not!

Another character that seems to yield an incredible amount of contradictory responses is Lady Catelyn herself. Her chapters are the most fascinating ones, as she hides behind a literary device called “allegory”, which is when the surface narrative carries a second – symbolic or metaphorical meaning. Lady Catelyn’s chapters give the readers the sense of Lady Stoneheart’s development right from a Game of Thrones. She also “feels” the Old Gods and the new, as well as she is riddled with “sixth sense”, and the other device is “verisimilitude”, which is when something is a lie, but gives the appearance of being the truth.

Lady Catelyn starts the story knowing the royal family will go to Winterfell. When they are there, and Robert asks Ned to be Hand of the King and proposes the union of their houses, Ned considers refusing it. It is interesting how the very same night the king arrived, Catelyn has Ned in her room for some fun, which seems out of place, but she is described as very beautiful and I imagine it must be hard to refuse something that offers itself so willingly. Catelyn gives it to her husband while trying to convince him to take a job he doesn’t want. I believe there is a name to women who use those tools to get what they want, but I digress.

She then ignores her toddler to sit by the bedside her favourite son, but just until the opportunity to go to the capital presents itself. When that opportunity arrives, she forgets both toddler and infirm and leaves in a haste. Couldn’t Ser Rodrick have gone to King’s Landing alone to give that message to Ned? Yes! Yes, he could.

On the way back, she has a job given to her by her husband. Mind you, her house words are: FAMILY, DUTY, HONOR! Her duty and honour were to her family. Instead, she ignored her husband’s orders, arrested Tyrion, and went to the Vale. Not home to her family, but to the Vale. Through the trip, she considers several times that Tyrion is innocent, but pride was more valuable than honour. Tyrion saved her life, and yet, she kept on going. Once that was done at the Vale, she joined Robb. Again, she didn’t go home, to her duty. Once her whole family was dead, or so she thought, she was brought back as Lady Stoneheart and GRRM has said that the undead lose their details and keep only their main characteristic, their sense of purpose. Lady Stoneheart shows the readers just who Catelyn Tully was – and as lady Stoneheart, family, duty and honour are not part of her drive. She doesn’t try to save her brother, she doesn’t go towards her sister, who died after her, so she shouldn’t know her to be dead, she doesn’t care about protecting her nephew. All she does is become jury, judge and executioner of any given character. Her vindictiveness is not for her family either, contrary to the argument of some fans. There are no arguments she listens to. Condemning Brienne and Podrick without any regard for their ongoing quest to find Sansa and for the simple fact that they have nothing to do with the Red Wedding is incredible! Was Catelyn hurt? Sure. But was Catelyn a hero? Absolutely not!

The countless fans and supporters of Lord Tywin know he wasn’t a hero, and although he does get defended as someone who knew how to run the country, he was an indecent and infamous man and his lack of honour isn’t subject to interpretation. The comment: “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner” suggests that he believed himself to be in the right, but his request for an explanation does merit a reply. First, Lord Tywin didn’t want his children to concern themselves with other people’s opinions, but he was an absolute slave of judgement. His own father was a weak man who caused him to distaste laughter, which affected him his entire life. Thanks to that distaste, he destroyed the Reynes and Tarbecks. When King Aerys humiliated him, he sacked King’s Landing and put an end to the Targaryen dynasty. When Robb, a teenage kid, won battle after battle against him and all Tywin could do still didn’t defeat the boy, he stopped playing by the rules. Murdering women and children was not beneath him, so why would he mind planning murder when he couldn’t win a war? He was a horrendous man with absolutely no ethics. If he couldn’t win fair and square, he cheated. “Why is it more noble”? Simple. Because ‘noble’ is a synonym for ‘honourable’, ‘virtuous’, ‘upright’, ‘decent’ and ‘moral’. War is war and killed in combat is just a consequence of it, but the Red Wedding was murder and it didn’t qualify as any of the words that describe nobility. Can Tywin be, under any circumstance, a hero? Absolutely not!

Using the literary premise, Robert Baratheon was not a hero. Ser Jorah Mormont is not a hero. Oberyn Martell was not a hero. Heroes are hard to come by. Twisting people into heroes in order to fit a theory or wishful thinking doesn’t make them so. The essence of the story is very simple: to be virtuous for the sake of virtue, to be honourable for the sake of honour, to be decent for the sake of decency - are the characteristics of a hero, no gain involved. Those who seek personal gain might not be villains, but only heroes understand that some things are more important than playing the game of thrones.

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This is such a great post I have no proper words to describe it. Like @jcarsonccr said, it made me realise I’m partial to a few characters. The first time you mentioned “the theory must fit the books” I have tried my very best to keep that in mind when reading these books, to avoid tinfoil as much as possible. Hopefully, I’ll learn to perfect that art someday.

Cannot thank you enough for giving us a glimpse into this thing called literary device. This post is full of so much information!!! George is truly a master story teller, and if I may be honest, I think you are a master at unveiling his little literary secrets.



What an amazing post! It really makes it clear that I have a bias towards certain characters. I love Tyrion, and still do, but I feel that after reading this I can accept that he is not a hero. Sansa and Cat I'm with you 100% haha


Dan Carroll
Dan Carroll

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