Fortune’s Reversal: Understanding Elements of Greek Tragedy in Tyrion’s Story

Originally published on reddit. See the discussion here.

Introduction

Tyrion Lannister captures the minds of readers with his wit and elicits their sympathy as they see him undergo hardships for being a dwarf in Westerosi society. But his personality isn’t the only captivating thing about Tyrion. The structure of his storyline draws on centuries’ old literary theory, using tried and true methods of storytelling that have entertained audiences for ages.

The Elements

In Aristotle’s Poetics, the philosopher lays the groundwork for what was expected of plays that aspired to be tragedies. A “Simple” plot, he says, is not a tragedy.

For this essay, it’s important to note that when we speak of “tragedy,” we are not speaking broadly of stories that are sad but rather a set of formal guidelines as outlined in literary theory.

One type of tragedy that Aristotle lays out and praises is called the “Complex” plot, consisting of elements called theperipeteia and anagnorisis.

  • Peripeteia refers to a reversal in a character’s fortune, either from good to bad—or even from bad to good.
  • Anagnorisis means a revelation or recognition, a discovery in which the truth of a situation becomes known to the character.

Aristotle asserted that the best tragedies have these two elements going hand in hand, where the revelation of information leads to a reversal of fortune.

One of the best known examples of this is in the play Oedipus Rex: Oedipus sits atop the world as king of Thebes, believing that he thwarted prophecy by running away from the people who raised him. A series of events brings to light that Oedipus hadn’t escaped prophecy at all: He had murdered his own father and married his mother.

At this point, Oedipus’s fortune changes. He is an abomination, and finds his mother-wife has hung herself because of this revelation. Knowing the true nature of who he is leads to Oedipus blinding and exiling himself.

In blinding himself, Oedipus brings the audience catharsis, another element of Greek tragedy that Aristotle describes as a sort of purging of the emotions on the part of the audience. It is (vaguely described) as the purifying of emotions of the audience through pity and fear.

Anagnorisis

In Tyrion’s last chapter in ASOS, he has been sentenced to death after losing his trial by combat, fought by Oberyn. He has no hope now, with all his options of proving his innocence exhausted.

When he heard noises through the thick wooden door of his cell, Tyrion Lannister prepared to die.

 

Past time, he thought. Come on, come on, make an end to it. He pushed himself to his feet. His legs were asleep from being folded under him. He bent down and rubbed the knives from them. I will not go stumbling and waddling to the headsman’s block. (ASOS, Tyrion XI)

Tyrion has accepted that he will not survive this, but still maintains the will to live.

Tyrion pressed back against the dampness of the wall, wishing for a weapon. I can still bite and kick. I’ll die with the taste of blood in my mouth, that’s something. He wished he’d been able to think of some rousing last words. “Bugger you all” was not like to earn him much of a place in the histories.

Instead of a gaoler, Tyrion sees his brother Jaime for the first time since the war started, at his door and ready to rescue him.

As the Lannister brothers slip away Jaime hesitates to tell Tyrion of a debt he owes his younger brother. Finally, he finds the courage to blurt it out:

His brother looked away. “Tysha,” he said softly.

 

“Tysha?” His stomach tightened. “What of her?”

 

“She was no whore. I never bought her for you. That was a lie that Father commanded me to tell. Tysha was . . . she was what she seemed to be. A crofter’s daughter, chance met on the road…

 

 

“For your gold, Father said. She was lowborn, you were a Lannister of Casterly Rock. All she wanted was the gold, which made her no different from a whore, so . . . so it would not be a lie, not truly, and . . . he said that you required a sharp lesson. That you would learn from it, and thank me later . . .”

Throughout this exchange, the text shows how this discovery begins to change Tyrion’s perception of events and even his own participation in them.

Tyrion could hear the faint sound of his own breath whistling hollowly through the scar of his nose. Jaime could not meet his eyes. Tysha. He tried to remember what she had looked like. A girl, she was only a girl, no older than Sansa. “My wife,” he croaked. “She wed me.”

 

 

“Thank you?” Tyrion’s voice was choked. “He gave her to his guards. A barracks full of guards. He made me . . . watch.” Aye, and more than watch. I took her too . . . my wife . . .

 

 

“Oh, you’ve earned more than that, 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.” Tyrion waddled away, almost stumbling over the turnkey again in his haste. Before he had gone a dozen yards, he bumped up against an iron gate that closed the passage. Oh, gods. It was all he could do not to scream.

Jaime, who a few paragraphs ago had been Tyrion’s beloved brother and savior, transforms into Tyrion’s enemy, even as he holds and turns the key to Tyrion’s freedom.

Peripeteia

In that moment, we see Tyrion re-evaluate everything he had thought about his family, and whether or not he is worthy of love. Rather than be thankful for Jaime’s rescue and admission, Tyrion experiences a reversal of emotions in his interiority, shown by his reaction to Jaime’s question.

“You poor stupid blind crippled fool. Must I spell every little thing out for you? Very well. Cersei is a lying whore, she’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy for all I know. And I am the monster they all say I am. Yes, I killed your vile son.” He made himself grin. It must have been a hideous sight to see, there in the torchlit gloom.

 

Jaime turned without a word and walked away.

 

Tyrion watched him go, striding on his long strong legs, and part of him wanted to call out, to tell him that it wasn’t true, to beg for his forgiveness.But then he thought of Tysha, and he held his silence. He listened to the receding footsteps until he could hear them no longer, then waddled off to look for Varys.

Tyrion lashes out, giving Jaime a revelation of his own. He almost apologizes in an attempt to fix his relationship with his brother, so that they could go back to the way they were.

But the discovery of the true nature of Tysha leads Tyrion to turn his back on his family, hold his silence and continue down a path where he embraces the “hideous” image that everyone else paints of him—and internalizes it.

In ADWD, we see the effect that this revelation has on Tyrion’s psyche—and how his physical state reflects his emotional one:

He drank his way across the narrow sea.

 

The ship was small, his cabin smaller, but the captain would not allow him abovedecks. The rocking of the deck beneath his feet made his stomach heave, and the wretched food tasted even worse when retched back up. But why did he need salt beef, hard cheese, and bread crawling with worms when he had wine to nourish him? It was red and sour, very strong. Sometimes he heaved the wine up too, but there was always more. (ADWD, Tyrion I)

The elegance of this moment, where Tyrion experiences a reversal in his emotional state, lies in its juxtaposition of his situation.

While the chapter began with Tyrion ready to die, now he is on his way to freedom.

The text creates a tension, where Tyrion’s emotions and psyche begin pulling him in a downward spiral that leads to him cementing this reversal when he kills his father, Tywin, as his own actual breathing life pulls in the opposite one, towards survival and escaping the odds.

And even so, Tyrion adds another layer to this change in his fortune with his own perception of how his life in King’s Landing has transpired:

I arrived here a King’s Hand, riding through the gates at the head of my own sworn men, Tyrion reflected, and I leave like a rat scuttling through the dark, holding hands with a spider. (ASOS, Tyrion XI)

Learning about Tysha spurs Tyrion to climb into the Hand’s Tower to confront his father about Tysha. There, Tyrion finds another discovery: Shae is sleeping with Tywin.

This discovery, however, is not like the first in that it does not lead to Tyrion’s peripeteia. Though this discovery leads to Tyrion murdering Shae, it does not cause a reversal in his fortune so much as it leads him further down this path.

Next Tyrion picks up the crossbow to ask his father about Tysha. After threatening Tywin to stop calling Tysha a whore, Tyrion shoots his father:

“Wherever whores go.”

 

Tyrion’s finger clenched. The crossbow whanged just as Lord Tywin started to rise. The bolt slammed into him above the groin and he sat back down with a grunt. The quarrel had sunk deep, right to the fletching. Blood seeped out around the shaft, dripping down into his pubic hair and over his bare thighs. “You shot me,” he said incredulously, his eyes glassy with shock.

 

“You always were quick to grasp a situation, my lord,” Tyrion said. “That must be why you’re the Hand of the King.”

 

“You . . . you are no . . . no son of mine.”

 

“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Father. Why, I believe I’m you writ small. Do me a kindness now, and die quickly. I have a ship to catch.”

In killing his father, Tyrion cements the reversal of his fortune. He has committed one of the gravest sins in Westerosi culture by kinslaying, has taken his first step down the road of vengeance against his family—but perhaps most of all, has forever denied himself the ability to gain one of the things he longed for most: his father’s approval.

Catharsis

Because the audience knows the ruthlessness of Tywin in warfare and in commanding the gang rape of Tyrion’s wife—along with his other emotional abuses towards his own children—Tyrion’s murder of his father does not strike the reader as horrific.

Yet this act along with the murder of Shae elicits a strong, emotional response.

For once, his father did what Tyrion asked him. The proof was the sudden stench, as his bowels loosened in the moment of death. Well, he was in the right place for it, Tyrion thought. But the stink that filled the privy gave ample evidence that the oft-repeated jape about his father was just another lie.

 

Lord Tywin Lannister did not, in the end, shit gold.

On one hand, Shae’s perceived betrayal of Tyrion at the trial and by sleeping with Tywin elicits a feeling of vindication on the part of the audience. The text instills a sense of righteous vengeance as Tywin is brought low and killed by his son whom he mocked and abused.

On the other hand, understanding Shae’s station as lowborn and her own circumstances elicits a feeling of pity and fear—tainting the scene and creating a complex sensation that at first blush feels like catharsis as Tyrion takes revenge on his father but becomes something else as the audience contemplates Shae’s role and station.

Yet even with this complexity at the end of Tyrion’s final ASOS chapter, there’s a playfulness about the idea of catharsis and purging. Just as the reader’s emotions are experiencing a purging, so is Tywin’s body, expelling waste while showing he is only human.

Wherever Whores Go

Following Tyrion throughout ADWD, we see how the events of his final ASOS chapter have changed and haunted him.

Sleep had never come easily to Tyrion Lannister. Aboard that ship it seldom came at all, though from time to time he managed to drink sufficient wine to pass out for a while. At least he did not dream. He had dreamed enough for one small life. And of such follies: love, justice, friendship, glory. As well dream of being tall. It was all beyond his reach, Tyrion knew now. But he did not know where whores go.

 

“Wherever whores go,” his father had said. His last words, and what words they were. The crossbow thrummed, Lord Tywin sat back down, and Tyrion Lannister found himself waddling through the darkness with Varys at his side. He must have clambered back down the shaft, two hundred and thirty rungs to where orange embers glowed in the mouth of an iron dragon. He remembered none of it. Only the sound the crossbow made, and the stink of his father’s bowels opening. Even in his dying, he found a way to shit on me. (ADWD, Tyrion I)

The things that make up good fortune, “love, justice, friendship, glory,” are things that Tyrion sees as lost to him forever. His father’s last words chase him and, as Tyrion says, even in death, Tywin “found a way to shit on [him].”

As stated earlier, what stings about Tyrion’s change in character is how even after Tywin has hurt Tyrion and is gone, Tyrion still looks up to his father and thinks well of his father’s tactics.

The fact that there were any good wells at all within a day’s march of the city only went to prove that Daenerys Targaryen was still an innocent where siegecraft was concerned. She *should have** poisoned every well. Then all the Yunkishmen would be drinking from the river. See how long their siege lasts then.* That was what his lord father would have done, Tyrion did not doubt. (ADWD, Tyrion XI)

The text shows us that Tyrion still thinks well of Tywin’s tactics because Daenerys should have poisoned the wells, as Tywin would have.

And we see how this separation and hatred of his family—especially how Tyrion has hurt his brother—affects him by looking at his dreams:

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)

As with gaining his life back, a superficial gaze shows that Tyrion is better off. The first head in Tyrion’s dream, laughing as Tyrion takes takes revenge on his brother, shows this victorious side.

The second head, only shown afterwards, is “weeping,” mourning all that Tyrion has lost and will never be able to grasp.

When Tyrion constantly repeats “Where do whores go?” it serves as a reminder of the moment that his life became a tragedy. But it also pulls Tyrion as a goal to find all those things he lost—what his character has been striving for his whole story— “love, justice, friendship, glory,” if he can ever find Tysha and attempt to make amends.

Tyrion’s own hope and the repetition of the question, though, poses a question for Tyrion’s storyline: Despite the tragedy of his life and how deep he has dived into the darkness of his soul, can such hope exist for Tyrion?

Peripeteia can occur more than once in a storyline. Will Tyrion’s fortune reverse once more? And if so, will it merely be on that situational, superficial level, returning victorious over a land that had spurned him? Or will he have luck when it comes to his own development and desires for acceptance, intimacy and companionship—or is he too far gone to accept it when it happens?

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