I’m going to talk about Game of Thrones in this post. For those uninterested or who have yet to see the season 4 finale, this is your warning.
This isn’t about hating on Tyrion. He’s one of my favorite characters. I love the little bastard, in a platonic way and using the term “bastard” figuratively. The title is a response to this article on the Los Angeles Review of Books, We Need to Talk about Tyrion.
This response is late, but I’ve taken some time to formulate it. Ilana Teitelbaum makes the assertion that Tyrion’s actions at the close of season 4 were done “wrong” according to how it was written in the books. I disagree. The problem in this argument is that it rests on two faulty points: That Tyrion’s story as a “Tragic hero” was undermined by the show’s adaptation, and that adaptations of books should not deviate from the source material.
First, Tyrion as a tragic hero. The article calls book-Tyrion tragic because he has been fighting adversity since his birth. His father despises him, his sister despises him, and the general population of Westeros despises him. He faces many challenges, insults, and events that just plain aren’t fair, simply because he’s a dwarf and ugly and everyone despises him. But he remains mostly in good spirits, relying on his strengths to come out on top, or at least in a relatively comfortable position. But this is not what it means to be a tragic hero.
I’ll use a definition set by Aristotle. A tragic hero, as the protagonist of a tragedy, is one who comes into misfortune not because of vice or depravity, or intentional wrongdoings, but because of errors of judgment or unintentional wrongdoing. Oedipus in that classic example of a tragic hero by Sophocles, became a tragic hero. It wasn’t because he set out to do bad things. It wasn’t people heaped bad things on him just because. It was because he made mistakes that eventually caught up with him. It was predicted at his birth that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, and he made a knee-jerk reaction to leave his home and family to avoid that coming true. He impulsively killed the King of Thebes out of anger and pride, and married the Queen. It wasn’t until later that he realized these were his parents, and he fulfilled the very prophecy he set out to avoid. The King and Queen of Thebes made tragic errors that led to their ultimate demise, but they were not the heroes of this particular story.
Where does Tyrion fit in with this? It has to do with the differences between book Tyrion and show Tyrion.
Book Tyrion was loved by no one, and the article asserts that this makes him tragic. Show Tyrion was loved by Shae, altering the relationship considerably.
Show Tyrion broke Shae’s heart by verbally abusing her. Book Tyrion did no such thing, in small part because book Shae had no heart to break.
I would argue that this change makes show Tyrion more of a tragic hero than his literary counterpart. He made an error in judgment, and it led to his downfall. When he broke Shae’s heart, it was an attempt to give her motive to leave King’s Landing for her safety. But it was a poorly hatched plan, and it backfired. As a scorned woman, she now had the motive to switch sides and hammer the final nail in his coffin during the trial. His tragic flaw was an inability to understand the people around him, if nothing else.
Even the book hints at this flaw. In season 2, you had his brilliant scheme to determine which of the three men close to him in King’s Landing was reporting to Queen Cersei. His motivation was to find out which people he can trust. The correct answer was no one, but he put his faith in people anyway. It came back to bite him during his trial, when the exposed informant Grand Maester Pycelle was all too happy to fabricate evidence of his guilt. And one of the people he thought he’d cleared was none other than Littlefinger, whom we know is one of the least trustworthy men in Westeros.
I would argue that not only did the show cement Tyrion’s position as a tragic hero, but improved upon it with that small change. He is more of a tragic hero now than he ever was. As much as we may dislike it when our favorite characters do something wrong, it’s necessary to show all human characters in a human light. And humans are never perfect, especially in A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion should not be an exception to this.