Game of Thrones is one of those rare TV shows over which even the most discerning viewers will vehemently disagree. For many, it is simply silly, poorly acted, and is populated by an unnecessary plethora of characters. For others, it is superb entertainment, and transcends the genre of fantasy to touch, at times, the quintessential subjects that tug at our minds.
For me, mostly, this HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, A Song of Fire and Ice, is just good fun, but on occasion the show can be tormenting. The many stories and subplots that make up the series, whilst fantastical, and whilst corny and exaggerated, are sometimes familiar enough, true enough, to make one feel the power of narrative reflecting inherent emotional reality.
One of the principal characters is Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. Dinklage is perhaps one of the very few actors who is both a ‘dwarf’ – having suffered from achnodoplasia from birth – and who has had leading roles in mainstream motion pictures. Tyrion is smart and savvy and politically astute. He has an empathy that is deliberately arranged as counterpoint to the vile cruelty that is best encapsulated in the young king Joffrey Lannister. Tyrion is also a shameless whore-mongerer and an alcoholic. He is much derided by his powerful father, and in general suffers from perennial sniggers and jokes regarding both his stature and his manhood.
At one point, towards the tail-end of Season Three, after much blood-letting and the demise of many of the main characters from the Stark family, Tyrion is in an argument with his father, Lord Tywin, a brutal pragmatic tyrant of a man who arranged the Stark murders. Lord Tywin’s coldness and relentless devotion to the Lannister banner is driven, we are made to understand, by the loss of his wife during childbirth. This was the moment of Tyrion’s birth, who, in this medieval fantasy, is but half a man.
Tyrion, disgusted by the assassinations, asks his father, who has claimed the sanctity of the Lannister family as rationale enough for the plot in which the Starks are killed, “When have you ever done something that wasn’t in your interests but solely for the benefit of the family?”
Lord Tywin, standing over Tyrion, answers seething, “The day that you were born. I wanted to carry you into the sea and let the waves wash you away. Instead I let you live and I brought you up as my son.”
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a French artist most active in the late 19th century, like Tyrion, was also somewhat of a ‘dwarf’. He is best known for his paintings and sketches that are meant to immortalise the decadent underbelly of Parisian night-life in Montmartre at the time. He was born in 1864 just outside Albi in the Tarn, a region made up of deep gorges, old bridges, forests and medieval fortresses, not dissimilar to the landscape south of The Wall in Game of Thrones.
His sketches and drawings are of whores, and actors and dancers, and some even of Toulouse-Lautrec’s own decrepit self. To be precise, Toulouse-Lautrec did not suffer from dwarfism, but rather from a condition called pycnodysostosis, in which his torso was the size of a normal man’s but his legs never grew further after a young age. He too, like Tyrion Lannister, was an alcoholic, and was for a time institutionalised for the condition.
Like Tyrion, whilst Toulouse-Lautrec’s father was to some extent present – having left the family home in Albi whilst Toulouse-Lautrec was still a young child – his father took no active part in his development. Were it not for his mind, his skill as an artist, and the care of his mother, he would have perished. He died reasonably young in a sanatorium from complications stemming from alcoholism and syphilis. A reprobate of a man, a man who lived without shame for he was already in shame, an artist, a virile man, and surely the inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister.
The parallels are everywhere, but in particular the question of virility and manhood dominate the themes that make up Game of Thrones. The question of manhood itself is not so much a metaphor as it is a kind of central conceit. I would go as far as to say that the series is very concerned with the antithesis between virility in men without apparent power and the emasculation of virility in men who apparently possess power. Tyrion Lannister beds women, albeit whores, without any trouble, and seems to please them to some significant extent. One of them at least falls in love with him.
Jamie Lannister, in contrast, a very handsome elder son of Tywin, represents the very best of the Lannister household. He is a singular swordsman, he speaks elegantly, he is unaffected by violence and horror. He is his father’s son. Yet, as the storyline unfolds, he has his manhood eroded. The deconstruction of his courage and emotional detachment begins with the incestuous relationship he has with his own sister. Later, he is beaten at swordmanship by a giant of a woman – who saves him from depression – after he has his sword hand removed by a lowly bandit.
Another example is that of Theon Greyjoy, the youngest son of the Lord of the Iron Islands, who is literally emasculated by Ramsay Snow, a man whose evil seems without purpose or reason, a sort of banal evil. During the scene, two beautiful young women are brought to Theon, who is holed up in a dungeon of torture. They are made to arouse him physically, at which point Ramsey slices off his manhood.
In a later scene, Ramsey, who himself is small and decrepit in stature, taunts Theon, who is tied up on a wooden cross, and ponders, “People talk about phantom limbs. An amputee might have an itch where his foot used to be. So I’ve always wondered, do eunuchs have a phantom c-ck? Next time you think about naked girls will you feel an itch?”
Martin’s Game of Thrones seems concerned to emasculate the powerful, to provide the less powerful, the stricken, the outcasts, with a kind of virility that is antithetical to their apparent physical stature.
This claim of parallels to the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec may seem somewhat of a stretch until one learns that, with some significant evidence, Toulouse-Lautrec was reported to have hypertrophied genitals. That is, an increase in the volume of an organ due to the enlargement of its component cells. Thus, the ‘dwarf’, the outcast, the physically disabled, takes on a kind of pseudo-sexual fantasy power. This provides some compensation to him in the natural order of things, and is heavily doused with alcohol – perhaps not only to blunt the social stigma associated with his stature but also to enhance the bacchanalian experience.
Tyrion himself knows this. In Season Three, he is heard saying: “Drinking and lust. No man can match me in these things. I am the god of tits and wine.”
by David Buckham – 23 July 2013