Bodies are Essence

“He is an evil man,” she announced that evening when she returned to the House of Black and White. “His lips are cruel, his eyes are mean, and he has a villain’s beard.”

Arya Stark

I am fat, and many think that makes me weak and foolish.

Lord Wyman Manderly


Literature does terribly at depicting bodies. To take a current example that will probably be forgotten by the time I publish this study, Hermione Granger will be played by a black woman in an forthcoming stage production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The backlash and counter-backlash is bog standard to anyone who’s been on the internet in this decade, but JK Rowling did weigh in:

Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione

Which seems… slightly off the mark, leaning on such a technicality when the last sentence is really all that needs to be said – but that technicality makes a very interesting point for our purposes: Hermione’s ethnicity is ultimately ambiguous. Seven books and we can’t say for sure what color her skin is, something you’d notice within one second of meeting her on the street.

When Shakespeare wonders, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I think he’s distracting us from the fact that he must compare his beloved, to a summer’s day or something else. You can give me height, weight, eye color, hair color, distinguishing marks, scars, if their ears stick out, if their nose crooks, but pretty soon you have to reach for summer days, and after all that I still do not know what they look like, not really. Which applies to any verbal description – of a tree, ship, or sunset – in the end the reader visualizes it for themself. The difference is that the specifics of trees, ships, and sunsets do not interest us nearly as much as human bodies; big chunks of our brain are not specialized to recognize thousands and thousands of individual trees.

Many authors, perhaps uninterested in ultimately schematic descriptions of human bodies, simply dispense with them. I’m one: many of my characters exist for me only as a name. Not the case for George R.R. Martin and ASOIAF, which has plenty of these sketches, for even the most minor characters:

Emmon Frey was a fretful man with nervous hands. He might have weighed ten stone… but only wet, and clad in mail. He was a weed in wool, with no chin to speak of, a flaw that the prominence of the apple in his throat made even more absurd. Half his hair had been gone before he turned thirty. Now he was sixty and only a few white wisps remained.

Bad as books are at rendering bodies, big books tend to go for it anyway: they need all the help they can get in differentiating the cast. Martin uses typecasting to efficiently charactize bit players, as you can see above; with major characters, their bodies are one more angle for him to explore the gap between persona and personality.

The stereotypes can make you wonder about Martin’s body politics. Emmon Frey is a coward and chinless. His son, Cleos, has thin courage and thinner hair. Selyse Baratheon is awful and has a mustache. Chett is mean and has boils. Illyrio is unctuous and has an oily beard. Reek is evil and reeks. You start to hear a “therefore”: Emmon is a coward, and therefore has no chin. But there’s no connection between meanness and boils, cruelty and lisps, body odor and sadism. Do you believe that? Does Martin?

Chett had a wen on his neck the size of a pigeon’s egg, and a face red with boils and pimples. Perhaps that was why he always seemed so angry.

In fact this is the source of Chett’s rage:

The only women Chett had ever known were the whores he’d bought in Mole’s Town. When he’d been younger, the village girls took one look at his face, with its boils and its wen, and turned away sickened. The worst was that slattern Bessa. She’d spread her legs for every boy in Hag’s Mire so he’d figured why not him too? He even spent a morning picking wildflowers when he heard she liked them, but she’d just laughed in his face and told him she’d crawl in a bed with his father’s leeches before she’d crawl in one with him. She stopped laughing when he put his knife in her.


If you want a woman to wife you take her, and none of this giving her flowers so that maybe she don’t notice your bloody boils. Chett didn’t mean to make that mistake again.

Here I think Martin is working backwards from the skin condition. By my count, Jon converses with 41 separate brothers of the Night’s Watch, including such immortals as Jace, Mully, Kedge, and Ottyn Wythers. All men, all drawn from a narrow (albeit bimodal) demographic: these are either the dregs of society or the forgotten children of minor nobility. That’s a tall order, distinguishing that bunch. You can’t even dress them up in different colors! Martin wrings as much character as he can from the names – Wick Whittlestick, Fulk the Flea, Deaf Dick Follard, Dolorous Edd Tollett, Hairy Hal, Satin, Horse, Toad – but then must turn to bodies. Some are small (Bedwyck the Giant) and some are huge (Small Paul); some have blinded eyes (Kedge Whiteye) and some have half a hand (Qhorin… well, you get it). Chett has boils. And if, as an author, that is the only other fact you know about him, besides his belonging to the Night’s Watch, perhaps the two can be combined, and the boils are somehow responsible for sending Chett up to the Wall.

It’s as much for Martin’s benefit as ours; a noteworthy physical characteristic gives him a hook to hang the narration on. He does it with Tyrion, Bran, and a bunch of characters in the shared-world anthology Wild Cards, which centers around an alien virus that transforms those it doesn’t kill. Some survivors receive superpowers, and these are called Aces. Others become monsters, and these are known as Jokers. It’s a separate text and Martin isn’t its only writer, but it certainly is suggestive of Martin’s stance on the connection between mind and body.

Dr. Tachyona character in the series, not a real doctor has theorized that the forms taken by Jokers are influenced by the subconscious mind through a form of micro-telekinesis during the initial stage of the disease. This could explain why some joker forms are similar to those of animals or fantasy creatures, or often reflect the personal fears or desires of the individuals.

In Chett’s case the direction is reversed, the body is influencing the personality, but the end result is this: an ugly guy has an ugly personality. For some reason that feels transgressive. But why?

Martin didn’t invent typecasting, and neither did Hollywood. It’s human nature. We helplessly conflate our opinion of a person’s character with our opinion of their body, even when it makes little sense. We ascribe high moral character to high cheekbones, and moral crookedness to crooked teeth. That has uncontroversial repercussions on a personality: I find it plausible that Chett would become a reprobate if he was treated like a leper his whole life. As sole possessors of our bodies, we all take blame or receive credit for them – fairly or not as the case may be – and so mutual influence is sensible.

Martin goes further than that. He taps the associations that are baked into our language. After all, you can have a lantern jaw and still be accurately called chinless. And when I call Illyrio unctuous, that’s just a latinate word for oily. So why wouldn’t his beard be oily too?

Well, because this is the slippery slope that leads to physiognomy, schoolyard bullying, self-hatred, and flat-out racism. For working on this slope we might accuse Martin of being simplistic, but when you do a more comprehensive survey you find that these stereotypes are just as frequently undermined as they are corroborated. (Though I do think Martin is a little tough on the heavy.)

Let’s review some other uggos:

Fish-faced Shireen is perfectly sweet despite her deformity (take note, Chett!); horse-faced Arya is plucky; horse-teethed Brienne is a true blue hero. Tyrion, the noseless gargoyle, is frequently the hero of King’s Landing. In fact there’s a whole contingent of homely but good-hearted folk in Westeros. They aren’t getting asked to prom, but they do have the much-discussed “honest face”:

With his squashed nose, square jaw, and nap of woolly grey hair, Brune could not be called comely, but he was not ugly either. It is a common face but an honest one.

Quentyn cut a poor figure by comparison— short-legged and stocky, thickly built, with hair the brown of new-turned earth. His forehead was too high, his jaw too square, his nose too broad. A good honest face, a girl had called it once, but you should smile more.

Hunt laughed. He had a full, rich laugh, though his face was plain. An honest face, she’d thought once, before she learned better; shaggy brown hair, hazel eyes, a little scar by his left ear. His chin had a cleft and his nose was crooked, but he did laugh well, and often.

Ser Jorah watched with a frown on his blunt honest face. Mormont was big and burly, strong of jaw and thick of shoulder. Not a handsome man by any means, but as true a friend as Dany had ever known.

Ugly is somehow trustworthy, and that shouldn’t surprise us. ASOIAF gets a lot of credit for “subverting tropes”, which just means Martin dumped a bucket of cynicism down the wishing well that fantasy draws so much of its material from. Those kinds of fantasy, the daydream fantasy, grants interiority to precisely one subject: the dreamer. Beyond that central ego, solipsism reduces other characters to surfaces, which then distort like funhouse mirrors until the distortions in that central ego appear proportional and beautiful, reality and probability be damned. ASOIAF reminds us constantly that there’s always something going on beneath a character’s surface. As a cynical text, what’s going on is usually unpleasant, so it naturally shows a deep skepticism for anything superficially pretty or gilded. That includes the Lannisters, or the sweet-smelling and foul-intending Illyrio/Reznak.

Reznak cannot be trusted. He smells too sweet and feels too foul.

There’s a fear of corruption hiding beneath the pure. Pretense exhausts a cynic. Trustworthy is sweat, leather, and horse, good honest stinks that don’t pretend to be something they’re not. To cynics, there is no great sin in being disappointing; it’s the default state of humanity. What’s offensive is pretending otherwise, claiming to be pure, sweet, virtuous – anything but a human animal. Most offensive is pretending to be something and doing it poorly.

The neutered in the game of thrones

Which brings us to Varys, who isn’t fooling Ned Stark for a minute:

His hand left powder stains on Ned’s sleeve, and he smelled as foul and sweet as flowers on a grave.

At first Varys seems like the most offensive stereotype yet: a mincing tittering eunuch, no man at all, but a spider, skulking about the Red Keep.

The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet. “Lady Stark,” he said, taking her hand in both of his, “to see you again after so many years is such a joy.” His flesh was soft and moist, and his breath smelled of lilacs.

But in fact Varys is fooling Ned Stark, and everyone else.

“Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands.

The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” he said groggily when it came. He touched the man’s face. “I’m not… not dreaming this. You’re here.” The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. “How did you… what sort of magician are you?”

It turns out that Varys’s “essential” characteristics are actually bits of stagecraft, to be swapped out for a fake beard when necessary, or forgotten in a candid moment:

[Tyrion] “He accuses my brother and sister of incest. I wonder how he came by that suspicion.”

[Varys] “Perhaps he read a book and looked at the color of a bastard’s hair, as Ned Stark did, and Jon Arryn before him. Or perhaps someone whispered it in his ear.” The eunuch’s laugh was not his usual giggle, but deeper and more throaty.

With Varys’s indeterminacy, Martin earns the benefit of the doubt in his unsubtle treatment of minor characters. The very fact that the story contains a self-conscious gender performance (and in fact it contains a few – Arya/Arry, Alleras/Sarella) suggests to me that Martin’s stereotyping is at least intentional; considering it’s done in the name of efficiency and is pretty even-handed, I can’t say I mind too much.

Besides all that, Varys also gives us a window onto that most obvious point of connection between the body and the identity, gender. Martin’s been criticized by feminists for depicting ubiquitous rape, domestic abuse, incest, sex with minors, and misogyny. I think for some readers the presence of these elements drowns out Martin’s critique of gender within a restrictive patriarchy.

The most pragmatic reading tip I ever got in college was this: if a book features a transgender character, anywhere, in however minor a role, that book is about gender. Transgender characters, by crossing the border between male and female, make a typically rigid boundary permeable, thereby destabilizing the concept of gender.

In the macho world of ASOIAF, a eunuch is as good as transgender, because he certainly does not qualify as a man.

“What are you, Varys?” Tyrion found he truly wanted to know. “A spider, they say.”

“Spies and informers are seldom loved, my lord. I am but a loyal servant of the realm.”

“And a eunuch. Let us not forget that.”

“I seldom do.”

“People have called me a halfman too, yet I think the gods have been kinder to me. I am small, my legs are twisted, and women do not look upon me with any great yearning… yet I’m still a man. Shae is not the first to grace my bed, and one day I may take a wife and sire a son. […] You have no such hope to sustain you. Dwarfs are a jape of the gods… but men make eunuchs. Who cut you, Varys? When and why? Who are you, truly?”

The eunuch’s smile never flickered, but his eyes glittered with something that was not laughter.

Listen to that harsh question: who are you, truly?

None of the eunuchs in ASOIAF have firm identities. (Well, except Strong Belwas, who speaks in the third person.) Tyrion doesn’t know who Varys is, and neither do we. Theon Greyjoy loses his manhood and then loses his concept of Theon Greyjoy. The Unsullied pick their names out of a hat every week.

If you are neutered, Westeros simply has no use for you. At best you will be a tool of the nobles, their spymaster, plaything, or weapon. If you cannot make babies, you cannot help your house play the game of thrones. So what good are you, really? As the Queen of Thorns says, “I’ve never been quite sure what the point of a eunuch is, if truth be told. It seems to me they’re only men with the useful bits cut off.” In a society where marriage is primarily a property exchange, gender has economic consequences. And wherever there are economic consequences, you find deadly serious people. So much weight rides on gender that it’s not enough to be a man or woman in biological fact, perfectly capable of reproduction; one must also excel at the performance of gender.

Take someone like Brienne. Because she is ugly, she is not even allowed to attempt the role of an eligible bachelorette, and is driven into a different and dangerous role, that of the knight, which she is also criticized for, this time for being a woman, the very part she could not play as the daughter of a lord. You see how patriarchy gets you coming and going – you’re not enough of a woman, no, now you’re too much of a woman – but at least Brienne, in her role as knight errant, doesn’t have to depend on others’ opinions of her worth. She can prove it with the sword.

For Sam Tarly, a failure to be appropriately masculine gets him banished to the Wall under threat of death.

“You are almost a man grown now, and my heir,” Lord Randyll Tarly had told his eldest son, his long knife laying bare the carcass as he spoke. “You have given me no cause to disown you, but neither will I allow you to inherit the land and title that should be Dickon’s. Heartsbane must go to a man strong enough to wield her, and you are not worthy to touch her hilt. So I have decided that you shall this day announce that you wish to take the black. You will forsake all claim to your brother’s inheritance and start north before evenfall.

“If you do not, then on the morrow we shall have a hunt, and somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble, and you will be thrown from the saddle to die… or so I will tell your mother. She has a woman’s heart and finds it in her to cherish even you, and I have no wish to cause her pain. Please do not imagine that it will truly be that easy, should you think to defy me. Nothing would please me more than to hunt you down like the pig you are.”

The Unsullied are interesting in the way they fail to be men. It’s in their name. In regular use, an unsullied person is morally immaculate, but these men kill babies and puppies as a rite of passage. What they are unsullied by – and what the intact men of Westeros are sullied by – are genitals, representing here desire, passion, temptation: feelings, in short. To be a man in Westeros is to be ruled by passions, often brutal. Purity curdles quickly, paragons of chivalry are proven to be hollow, or mincemeat for pragmatists like Bronn. Moments of decency typically depend on lowered testosterone levels. Tyrion can be kind to Sansa (and Jaime can be kind to Brienne) because he doesn’t want to sleep with her. Tyrion cannot be kind to Shae when she betrays him. Once blood is involved – plain lust, bloodlust, blood bonds – an animal response results. As Jaime sighs, “The things I do for love.”

In the case of Jaime and Cersei, hot-blooded desire is so potent it can even override the incest taboo. For the other inbreeders, the Targaryens, incest is ego defense on a generational scale; by closing off new bloodlines and the mongrelizing threat they represent, the dynastic, platonic Targaryen survives unmolested. (Mad King Aerys is the ironic refutation of that particular immigration policy.) Interestingly, the Lannister incest is similarly motivated, because the appeal is fundamentally narcissistic. What Cersei likes so much about Jaime is that he looks so much like her. That self-lust ultimately brings down a bloodhound from the north, and chaos ensues. Cersei understands the consequences.

Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.

Her little brother Tyrion concurs:

Love is madness, and lust is poison.

Robb Stark gets it too:

Love’s not always wise, I’ve learned. It can lead us to great folly, but we follow our hearts… wherever they take us.

Now was it your heart you were following, Robb?

Even a master operator like Littlefinger, who is conning everyone around him except us readers, is susceptible to the sweet poison. We know what we cares about (“only Cat”), and we have to imagine it’s going to be his downfall. With Varys we’re genuinely unsure what drives him.

“And just as you let me believe that you were mine. Tell me, Lord Varys, who do you truly serve?”

Varys smiled thinly. “Why, the realm, my good lord, how ever could you doubt that? I swear it by my lost manhood.”

Once emasculated, Varys was relieved of the thing that would make him partial, impetuous, cruel. He was insulated from lust, precluded from having his own children: the two things that get you killed in the game of thrones, in other words.


The animal madness of desire extends to women as well, of course. I already mentioned Cersei, and Lysa Arryn is even more blindered by her infatuation with Littlefinger. There’s one extra wrinkle for women: motherhood. All mamas in ASOIAF are mama bears.

“Mothers.” The man made the word sound like a curse. “I think birthing does something to your minds. You are all mad.” (AGOT)

“Leave off, Karstark,” rumbled the Greatjon, crossing his huge arms against his chest. “It was a mother’s folly. Women are made that way.” (ASOS)

This makes sense in light of Martin’s insistence on the iron linkage between body and essence. Cersei, Catelyn, Lysa, these are distributed, decentralized individuals. A very real part of them exists in their children, and their effort to protect their offspring is a prime mover in the plot.

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