The Redemption of Jaime Lannister


At first, A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be the saga of the Stark clan. That impression is smashed by the end of the first book: the patriarch Ned is dead, the adorable son Bran is paralyzed in his legs after being flung from a tower. The Starks are not direwolves but dodos, and George R.R. Martin turns out to enjoy toying with the assumptions of readers. Jaime Lannister is an object lesson in Martin’s brand of misdirection.

Fans celebrate the series’ moral ambiguity, and I roll my eyes. They talk about how “Martin doesn’t write black and white fantasy – he writes with shades of grade,” suggesting there are no heroes or villains, just people. But there are plenty of villains. It’s just these are villains you can psychoanalyze.

That’s not even possible to do with Jaime in books one and two. Jaime is the one who flings Bran from the tower, and while he doesn’t kill Ned personally, he does order Ned’s friends murdered in the street in a real mustache-twirler of a scene. He is a manifest villain: the golden boy of the rich and scheming Lannisters, paramour to his own sister, an infamous regicide. He is violent, cruel, haughty, smug, and slightly sociopathic. Even his virtues have been amplified into flaws: he is too handsome, too glib, and all his skill at arms is used in service of the wrong king.

Jaime doesn’t wreak so much havoc in book two, since he’s imprisoned for the duration. Book three springs Jaime from his chains, makes him a POV character, and inaugurates George R.R. Martin’s reclamation project of the Kingslayer. This face turn is prime evidence for that celebrated moral ambiguity, and I was curious about its mechanics, as well as intrigued by its degree of difficulty. It’s not easy to redeem a sisterfucker, kingkiller, and kidcrippler. But over the course of Jaime’s chapters, totaling 47,000 words, Martin accomplishes the feat. He does so by delving into Jaime’s head and past, maiming him, and pairing him up with Brienne, a female knight.

Let’s start with interiority, which is a huge deal for a character like Jaime, whose actions have been grievously misinterpreted in the past. Though not all of them – Jaime misbehaves constantly. Yet point of view makes an accomplice of the reader, and in fiction we can forgive things we never would in reality. In fact, readers love cheering the antihero, so paradoxically each bad action makes the forthcoming decent actions seem all the better.

As the wry action hero type – Indiana Jones in plate mail – Jaime’s inner monologue is much more lively than the very confused Sansa Stark, or plodding Ned. Martin’s writing trundles, so a smattering of zingers and barbs can accelerate proceedings, as well as escalate potential conflicts. There is a reason the asshole is such a well-represented archetype: they generate drama and get all the good lines.

With access to Jaime’s thoughts, the reader can be pleasantly surprised to find that he’s on their team. He loves Tyrion, develops a respect and fondness for Brienne, and comes to hate Cersei/Tywin. Reader identification/alienation is the writer’s second tool in casting a hero or a villain, and the most efficient. Once you’ve managed the hard job of creating a beloved/hated character, just stick another character next to him or her, and a halo effect will get you close.

This is an interesting method of triangulating a character, and it seems to work best when the reference point is unambiguous. I don’t know if Joffrey is a great character, but he is incredibly functional; he’s so loathsome that Martin can boost a character’s stock just by having this character hate Joffrey as much as we do. Peter Dinklage is a good actor, and Tyrion gets to be funny, but I think a big reason why he’s a fan favorite is that he’s slapped Joffrey half a dozen times.

But, plot circumstances as they are, Jaime can’t spend all his time high-fiving Tyrion or slapping Joffrey. Therefore, Martin lets us judge Jaime based on his treatment of Brienne.

Brienne is an uncomplicatedly heroic figure. She’s strong, competent, and a genuine knight; her character tension is that none of these patriarchal idiots can accept this. So while Westeros has plenty of reasons to shun her, the readership sees no real faults. She becomes a litmus test for Jaime; once he respects Brienne like we do, he’s cleared the books and is now an antihero in good standing.This is the narratological problem with Brienne: she’s really more of an instrument or foil than a character. Brienne gets a POV in AFFC, but she’s nowhere near as interesting as Jaime, or Arya, who is a closer comparison.

It takes awhile, and there is a fair amount of friction to start with, but Brienne finally draws out some decency in Jaime. This culminates in a bear pit rescue, which, out of context, sounds ridiculous, like a set piece from a much cheesier fantasy. But in the book, it actually works great. Here is how Martin builds to that, using the tools of the buddy comedy.

Writing a Buddy Comedy

Fiction’s lousy with mismatched pairs. Most of the examples that jump to mind are on TV or in films, probably because the buddy comedy showcases chemistry, and chemistry is more easily seen than read. But, as Wikipedia reminds me, one of the first modern novels, Don Quixote, has an odd couple in it. Something about the dynamic just works. Sherlock Holmes has been done twice in the past five years, as a BBC television series and as a big Hollywood movie. Two Holmes, two Watsons: all four parts filled by charismatic actors who become much more charismatic within this dynamic.

What makes this dynamic so effective? Powering every buddy comedy is the concept of the foil, which is powered in turn by the great artistic principle of Contrast. Contrast works with color, flavors, and sound, and the odd couple is what you get when you apply it to character.

The art of the foil

Here’s how you build one. You begin with a character. In our case study it is Jaime Lannister. He is a corrupt Golden Boy, maybe the Gilded Boy: attractive and talented, but dishonored, ironic, and rude.

Jaime’s first description, as seen by Jon Snow:

Ser Jaime Lannister was twin to Queen Cersei; tall and golden, with flashing green eyes and a smile that cut like a knife. He wore crimson silk, high black boots, a black satin cloak. On the breast of his tunic, the lion of his House was embroidered in gold thread, roaring its defiance. They called him the Lion of Lannister to his face and whispered “Kingslayer” behind his back.

Jon found it hard to look away from him. This is what a king should look like, he thought to himself as the man passed.

The Kingslayer reference in the quote points to Jaime’s dishonor. He was secret service for the mad king Aerys, and killed him. This act confirmed for the world that Jaime was a hollow knight, utterly without honor. We discover in A Storm of Swords that Jaime is keenly ashamed of that infamy, and feels it is unfair, though most everything he does is unchivalrous.

He’s frequently cruel, sometimes to provoke, and sometimes out of simple contempt. Brienne absorbs most of the verbal abuse, though no one is particularly safe:

That last quote is what passes for advice with Jaime. He is hard-bitten and completely disillusioned. When his cousin Cleos dies he has no qualms about looting the corpse. And while Brienne is horrified by the sight of lynched tavern girls, the campaigner in Jaime is unmoved.

“True knights see worse every time they ride to war, wench,” said Jaime.

Once you have established one character, take out the Bizarro mirror.

If the first thing Jon notices about Jaime is his good looks, the first, second, third, and twenty-ninth thing Jaime notices about Brienne is her ugliness. It comes up 29 times across the Jaime chapters. This is communicated to her with different varying of nastiness, depending on who’s speaking. Jaime is cruel, but restricts himself to middle-school type bullying:

“The wench is as strong as Gregor Clegane, though not so pretty.”

More offensive, still Jaime:

Most offensive, this from one of Hoat’s henchmen:

Brienne does have nice eyes, if nothing else:

Pretty eyes, he thought, and calm.

Eyes are the window to the soul, and as Jaime’s inverse, it’s natural that Brienne’s ugliness conceals an inner goodness in the same way that Jaime’s handsomeness conceals his hollow core. Brienne is a knight, maybe the purest knight in the story. This is a loaded term. Knightliness isn’t one trait, but many: knights are honorable, they defend the weak, etc. Interestingly, a story’s politics and philosophy will shade and expand certain characteristics, developing them like main characters.This is another caps-worthy principle: Focus. What makes paintings more interesting than photos, sometimes, is how they can tightly render the central point of the image but leave the margins loose, expressionistic. These big principles can be applied to every level and aspect of writing. So it’s actually somewhat necessary to secondary characters be less fleshed-out that the main. And character traits don’t have to be analyzed and unpacked all the time.

Knightliness is not an unmitigated positive in Westeros. Honor binds you and makes you inflexible, which is exceptionally risky when the game’s best players play dirty. Brienne’s inflexibility is double-jointed, too: not only is she honorable, but she’s stubborn. Jaime sees her stubbornness as a major liability, though praiseworthy in the abstract:

Stupid stubborn brave bitch.

Still, Brienne is easy to root for. That stubbornness means she keeps promises, and if that makes her tedious in her endless quest for Sansa, at least she’s doing what she said she would.

That quality feeds into her self-righteousness, which Jaime’s presence inflames. Brienne chides the Kingslayer constantly, which irritates him and strikes the reader as naïve. Ned’s death announced the story’s attitude towards the honorable: nice in theory, but impractical and, most of the time, foolish. By book four the reader has learned that heroes look different in this story, and so we now put our bets on the machiavellians and the remorseless killers, who have the awareness and courage to do what’s necessary.

Here’s the tricky part: you need some similarity to heighten the differences; this is contrast within contrast. If the characters are utterly opposed, then you have an Self-Other/Alien relationship, which is a different thing altogether. Odd couples should be easy to express in a Venn diagram.

Here is what Jaime and Brienne share in that middle lens: both are good fighters, and cool under pressure. Jaime can remember being a naïve and idealistic knight like Brienne. Their pride makes them prickly. Like all knights, they have sworn themselves to someone: Renly for Brienne, Cersei for Jaime. (Whatever romantic notions Jaime has left about true love and knightly ideals, they all revolve around Cersei.) Both are highborn, though Brienne not so high as Jaime. Most importantly, both failed as bodyguards to their respective sovereigns, and now suffer scorn for it. Credit Martin for that tidy mirroring: it is so nice that I doubt it came up organically. Perhaps Martin decided to introduce a Bizarro or shadow Jaime into the ecosystem, and Brienne was the result. Considering the demand for characters in a story so big, this seems a brilliant shortcut. Invert a working character. If nothing else, this inversion will have good chemistry with the original.

Jaime and Brienne have a third wheel, at least for a few chapters. That is Cleos, a cousin from a limp offshoot of the Lannister family tree. Cleos’s only function is to be a wuss, then die. Martin, as always, is using his most one dimensional characters for foils.

Ser Cleos looked like a weasel, fought like a goose, and had the courage of an especially brave ewe.

As a foil he is meant to highlight Jaime’s manliness and contempt for his inferiors. There’s a run in The Other Guys (a buddy comedy) in which Mark Wahlberg’s character is ranting about Will Ferrell’s. He finds everything about him odious, and when his outrage outlasts his complaints, he starts reaching for some absurd and weirdly specific flaws: “the sound of your piss hitting the urinal? It sounds feminine.”

Cleos gets the same treatment, as “his snores sounded like ducks mating.”

Early dislike

Now that our trio is defined, we can start following them down the river.

Jaime’s plot in A Storm of Swords starts in a boat. Brienne has been tasked with trading Jaime for the Stark girls. Jaime tests her boundaries almost immediately, and their first exchange is contentious. Martin packs in character traits and physical details, some seen through Jaime’s eyes and some through the narrator. I’ve heard this chunk of character introduction be called block characterization.

I think these are difficult to do properly, and I also think Martin does fairly well with this one:

An east wind blew through his tangled hair, as soft and fragrant as Cersei’s fingers. He could hear birds singing, and feel the river moving beneath the boat as the sweep of the oars sent them toward the pale pink dawn. After so long in darkness, the world was so sweet that Jaime Lannister felt dizzy. I am alive, and drunk on sunlight. A laugh burst from his lips, sudden as a quail flushed from cover.

“Quiet,” the wench grumbled, scowling. Scowls suited her broad homely face better than a smile. Not that Jaime had ever seen her smiling. He amused himself by picturing her in one of Cersei’s silken gowns in place of her studded leather jerkin. As well dress a cow in silk as this one. But the cow could row. Beneath her roughspun brown breeches were calves like cords of wood, and the long muscles of her arms stretched and tightened with each stroke of the oars. Even after rowing half the night, she showed no signs of tiring, which was more than could be said for his cousin Ser Cleos, laboring on the other oar. A big strong peasant wench to look at her, yet she speaks like one highborn and wears longsword and dagger. Ah, but can she use them? Jaime meant to find out, as soon as he rid himself of these fetters. He wore iron manacles on his wrists and a matching pair about his ankles, joined by a length of heavy chain no more than a foot long.

“You’d think my word as a Lannister was not good enough,” he’d japed as they bound him. He’d been very drunk by then, thanks to Catelyn Stark. Of their escape from Riverrun, he recalled only bits and pieces. There had been some trouble with the gaoler, but the big wench had overcome him. After that they had climbed an endless stair, around and around. His legs were weak as grass, and he’d stumbled twice or thrice, until the wench lent him an arm to lean on.

This packs in most of what we need. We are quickly apprised of how Jaime got here. We see Brienne’s strength, her ugliness, and her chivalry (she gives Jaime an arm to lean on). We also are introduced to the “Brienne as animal” motif, which will recur endlessly. She’s either a cow, a pig, or a mule. As a farmhouse chimera, she’s pretty much mute. Instead of speaking, she will scowl or blush. When she does speak, she might grunt.

In conversation, Jaime calls Brienne by her proper name about 22 times. She is simply “wench” about 40 times. This should be no surprise, but Jaime calls her ‘Brienne’ when he is either being decent, trying to coax her, or mock her formally, and calls her ‘wench’ whenever he is feeling aggressive. By the end ‘Brienne’ wins out and ‘wench’ has become a term of affection, but it is interesting how consistently Martin uses this tag. I’ve always thought of “wench” as an ambiguously offensive word, with a faint aura of obscenity to it. But sometimes you hear it in joking reference to the waitresses at Medieval Times, or a Renaissance Faire. Seeing how Martin employs it erased my doubts: not a nice word.

Brienne “earning” her name from Jaime is the criterion for their friendship. Martin mentions it early on: in fact, it is the second thing Jaime says to her:

“My lady,” he called out, “if you’ll strike off these chains, I’ll spell you at those oars.”

She scowled again, her face all horse teeth and glowering suspicion.

“You’ll wear your chains, Kingslayer.”

“You figure to row all the way to King’s Landing, wench?”

“You will call me Brienne. Not wench.”

“My name is Ser Jaime. Not Kingslayer.”

“Do you deny that you slew a king?”

“No. Do you deny your sex? If so, unlace those breeches and show me.”

Martin has given the reader something to anticipate, an easy marker of emotional progress. Since they begin their relationship by trash talking in a boat, that is a ways off.

Each proves their worth

But this cold war never lasts long. It must be set up decisively, shown to very cold indeed – and then the thaw can begin.

The melting starts whenever one of the buddies earns the first “Not bad” from the other. Once Jaime gets past – as much as he will ever – her ugliness, Brienne impresses him almost immediately.

As they canoe downriver, Brienne proves to be a skilled navigator.

The Red Fork was wide and slow, a meandering river of loops and bends dotted with tiny wooded islets and frequently choked by sandbars and snags that lurked just below the water’s surface. Brienne seemed to have a keen eye for the dangers, though, and always seemed to find the channel. When Jaime complimented her on her knowledge of the river, she looked at him suspiciously and said, “I do not know the river. Tarth is an island. I learned to manage oars and sail before I ever sat a horse.”

During the chase sequence, she turns out to be a bit of an action hero. Heavily influenced by action heroes himself, Jaime appreciates that. When he discovers the pursuing boat is full of archers, Jaime pays homage to one of his prototypes, Indiana Jones: “Archers. He hated archers.” For the first time we see Jaime’s viking mentality: much of his life has been pointing towards a glorious death in battle, and he isn’t hiding from that. With eighteen enemies, Jaime reasons that he, Cleos, and Brienne will just have to kill six men each.

Brienne has other plans, and Jaime sees her resourcefulness.

Jaime watched her eyes. Pretty eyes, he thought, and calm. He knew how to read a man’s eyes. He knew what fear looked like. She is determined, not desperate.

Brienne jumps ship, scales a cliff face, and hurls boulders at the other boat like she’s Donkey Kong. She rejoins them with an “almost graceful” cliff dive. In this gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast, it is Jaime who must learn to see inner beauty, and between her eyes and her athleticism, he is already beginning to.

After the river adventure, the trio take to dry land and find their way to a roadside inn. A man is there, and Martin never calls him the innkeep – if I remember right, he’s just the innkeep’s murderer. This unsettling character sells them some horses – naturally these correspond with each character. “A lumbering brown plow horse” for Brienne, a palfrey for CleosA palfrey is “a saddle horse particularly suitable for a woman.” Cleos exists in this story only to be a silly, flighty asshole., and for Jaime, “an ancient white gelding blind in one eye,” prefiguring his upcoming mutilation. Along with the horses, the not-innkeep gives some travelling advice. Jaime suspects an ambush, and Brienne does too:

One wandered off toward the southeast and soon vanished amidst the trees they could see in the distance, while the other, straighter and stonier, arrowed due south. Brienne considered them briefly, and then swung her horse onto the southern road. Jaime was pleasantly surprised; it was the same choice he would have made.

“But this is the road the innkeep warned us against,” Ser Cleos objected.

“He was no innkeep.” She hunched gracelessly in the saddle, but seemed to have a sure seat nonetheless. “The man took too great an interest in our choice of route, and those woods… such places are notorious haunts of outlaws. He may have been urging us into a trap.”

“Clever wench.” [Jaime speaking]

This saves them some trouble, but when they cannot avoid a fight at Maidenpool, Brienne acquits herself well. They are ambushed by a handful of bowman deployed by the author-DM himself. While Cleos loses his saddle, catches his foot in the stirrup, and gets dragged to death, Jaime and Brienne team up to charge the archers. They flee, but not before plugging Brienne with two arrows in the back and leg. In a truly egregious piece of editing, Martin entirely forgets about these arrows, which would be pretty inconvenient since she then has a swordfight with Jaime.

In this fight, which doubles as a sex scene, the prose turns to the unintentionally mock-epic:

His cousin’s sword was long enough to write an end to this Brienne of Tarth. High, low, overhand, he rained down steel upon her […] It might have been minutes or it might have been hours; time slept when swords woke. […] Left, right, backslash, swinging so hard that sparks flew when the swords came together, upswing, sideslash, overhand, always attacking, moving into her, step and slide, strike and step, step and strike, hacking, slashing, faster, faster, faster… […] Steel rang, steel sang, steel screamed and sparked and scraped, and the woman started grunting like a sow at every crash, yet somehow he could not reach her.

At first Jaime gives her the “Not bad… for a girl” treatment. (Literally – though he says ‘wench’ instead of girl.) Then Brienne begins to overpower him, and finally beats him. Jaime has a realization: “She is stronger than I am.” Jaime’s stunned epiphany that a girl could be strong is interrupted by Vargo Hoat and his Brave Companions, who promptly capture them.The archer ambush is ridiculously contrived – you can practically see Martin shoving these guys out of the wings – but it does trigger a great, high-tempo sequence. Cleos is killed, Jaime is humbled, and they’re taken hostage. It’s out of the pan, into a different pan, and finally into the fire, all within 2,500 words. Buddy comedies at their most satisfying are learning exercises, each buddy’s foibles inspiring development and new realizations much like Jaime’s. Without Brienne, he might have stayed cocky forever. Well, not forever – Hoat would have taught him quickly enough.

The first half of their journey is a Brienne showcase, but Jaime starts showing something once they’re taken captive. First, he tells a lie. Brienne is threatened with rape (as are half the women in ASOIAF), and Jaime tells the oafish mercenaries that Brienne’s hometown of Tarth is called the “Sapphire Isle” for its stones and not its waters. The promise of gems compels Hoat to declare Brienne off-limits. Jaime takes credit in a pretty crude way.

“A good thing for you I’m such a liar. An honorable man would have told the truth about the Sapphire Isle.”

His logic is absurd – even Ned would tell a white lie to stop sexual assault –- but this is still important for their buddy comedy symbiosis. Both parties must learn to respect the others’ qualities. Usually this leads to both characters channeling the other: the by-the-book cop gets a little renegade, the brute demonstrates some smarts.

Brienne is spared, but Jaime is not. Hoat unceremoniously chops off his hand. I’ll get to the implications of that later.

For now we will jump forward to their destination, Harrenhal. When they have been delivered into the dubious hospitality of Roose Bolton, Jaime and Brienne meet in the baths. I’m not sure a blushing, insecure woman like Brienne would opt for semi-public bathing; but it does “activate” Brienne as female in Jaime’s eyes, and I suppose there would be little other reason for them to bump into each other.

The heat and Jaime’s dope haze extract from him a long soliloquy about his service to Aerys. The HBO series has no idea what to do with these backstory dumps, but in the books, these chunks of autobiography are an uncommon treat. I’m not sure how Martin manages this: maybe it’s because Westeros had an interesting/romantic past, or because the reader shares his focus on character, or because these usually provide some key revelation. (I’m betting on the third. Many secrets in this series.)

It turns out that Jaime’s greatest crime, his regicide, was actually a sacrifice of his honor to save King’s Landing from Aerys’s plan to go out in a blaze of wildfire. In this story, a bad result came from decent intentions, which describes the teller himself. Brienne is surprised and impressed, particularly since Jaime never bothered to try clearing his name – perhaps out of pride.

That revelation is not enough, however. Considering how shitty Jaime’s been to Brienne, it will take a dramatic, boombox-outside-the-window type gesture to win over Brienne and, by extension, us; the bear save qualifies. Roose Bolton, aware of Jaime’s value and eager to weasel back into the good graces of Tywin Lannister, cannot harm him. He is sent off in the care of a soldier named Walton. Jaime’s free and clear, ready to get back to his life:

Jaime was anxious to be gone, to put Harrenhal, the Bloody Mummers, and Brienne of Tarth all behind him. A real woman waited for him in the Red Keep.

But then a guilty dream compels Jaime to turn back. By the time they return to Harrenhal, Brienne is in a pit, wearing a pink gown, and fighting a bear with a wooden sword. Jaime offers Hoat money to take her out of the pit. What follows is the kind of line I can’t help but like: an outright YESSIR moment.

“I’ll pay her bloody ransom. Gold, sapphires, whatever you want. Pull her out of there.”

“You want her? Go get her.”

So he did.

Jaime jumps in – more as a show of solidarity than an actual rescue, since he’s useless without a hand – and Walton’s men end up killing the bear with crossbows. As you might expect, that closes the rift between Jaime and Brienne. Martin caps the scene off like this:

“You thlew my bear!” Vargo Hoat shrieked.

“And I’ll serve you the same if you give me trouble,” Steelshanks threw back. “We’re taking the wench.”

“Her name is Brienne,” Jaime said. “Brienne, the maid of Tarth. You are still maiden, I hope?”

Her broad homely face turned red. “Yes.”

“Oh, good,” Jaime said. “I only rescue maidens.”

There is the payoff on Brienne’s name. It’s all kind of obvious and workmanlike, but that has no bearing on how effective it is. Same goes for all of Martin’s writing. I do think it’s cheap to give Jaime that dream, but a sudden rescue is better than Jaime trying to talk Bolton out of anything, and Martin strives for sensible drama. We almost always know why each character acts the way they do. And we have certain expectations for what they should do. By setting up Brienne’s name as he does, Martin has invited us to be auditors, holding a clipboard, just waiting to tick off that particular box. The surprises are surprising, and the setups are clearly marked: not a bad job.

A Slow Melting

The trick with a buddy comedy is making sure this detente feels earned. A writer does this by answering the question “If they hate each other when they meet, why would these people come to respect each other?” Time is always part of the solution: if the friendship advances in fits and starts, with plenty of backslides and sniping along the way, it feels more believable. Circumstances do the rest of the work.

Jaime does most of the stonewalling, but Brienne does her part. When they’re passing a night in a cold camp, Jaime reaches out in a minor way:

She reminded him of Tyrion in some queer way, though at first blush two people could scarcely be any more dissimilar.

Perhaps it was that thought of his brother that made him say, “I did not intend to give offense, Brienne. Forgive me.”

“Your crimes are past forgiving, Kingslayer.”

Later, when Jaime presents her with a Valyrian steel sword, Brienne misinterprets the gesture. She thinks this is a bribe for some nefarious deed. Jaime bristles at the suggestion, and the reader is pleased: it wouldn’t feel right if this was too much of a lovefest. Grudging respect is about all we expect. This is a satisfying conclusion for Jaime’s plot, and it’s impressive to see just how different he is in chapter 1 and chapter 10. A lot of that is due to the buddy comedy, but the buddy comedy wouldn’t work without a much more literal transformation – Jaime’s lost hand.


I imagine that many intense friendships have formed in foxholes, even between people who don’t really like each other. Extreme circumstances can have that effect. Being captured by the savage Bloody Mummers and their lisping headman, Vargo Hoat, is the extreme circumstance that transforms Jaime and Brienne’s competition into mutualism.

“Jaime, what are you doing?”

“Dying,” he whispered back.

“No,” she said, “no, you must live.”

He wanted to laugh.

“Stop telling me what do, wench. I’ll die if it pleases me.”

“Are you so craven?” The word shocked him. He was Jaime Lannister, a knight of the Kingsguard, he was the Kingslayer. No man had ever called him craven. Other things they called him, yes; oathbreaker, liar, murderer. They said he was cruel, treacherous, reckless. But never craven. “What else can I do, but die?”

“Live,” she said, “live, and fight, and take revenge.”

Brienne, unprompted, offers Jaime hope in his despair. Why does she do this? Jaime did run the bit about the sapphires she is supposedly worth to protect her from abuse. Mostly this is enemy of my enemy stuff, which is old hat, but still important to remember: every single interaction depends on the environment and its circumstances, which is why “Not if you were the last man on earth” is so cutting.

Many difficult narrative problems can be solved by tailoring the environment just right. When we think of ecosystems we focus too much on the actors, and so try to come up with some character-based solution. This is fine, but the environment dictates everything, and this character change may not work unless it’s in the proper environment.

With Jaime, Martin relies on the Mummers. Their happening along is just as random as those bowman, but Jaime must lose a hand, and this is as likely a way as any. The amputation does two things: it makes him pitiable, something he has never been to this point, and it fundamentally changes him. Martin can do a gut remodel of the character, as the handless Jaime has some humility and fear that intact Jaime never did, and these are both endearing qualities. If the reader feels like the narrative gods have thrashed a character sufficiently, they’ll want to extend some compensatory clemency. If it’s a hero who’s been abused, this makes them root even harder. If it’s a heel, like Jaime, this opens the door for that redemption. And if it’s an irredeemable villain, that’s schaudenfreude. It’s win-win-win, which is why you see writing advice like “Put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” (Only time it backfires? When the readers cry foul for unusual cruelty, or get the sense that the writer is getting off on it; both accusations have been made about Martin.) Jaime ingloriously losing his hand is extreme enough to engage the reader’s pity and catalyze some inner progress.

It also qualifies him as a sort of tragic hero. Since Jaime has been a villain for most of his time in the story, if Martin wants the readers to cheer for him, he must be abased. This is doubly satisfying for us because Jaime is obnoxiously proud, and it’s a rule of the readerly (using the term as Barthes did) that all characters must wrestle with their antithesis, every fear must be challenged, etc. So Lannister has his sword hand lopped off, which is perfectly Greek in its logic. Oedipus must lose his eyes as punishment for his blindness, and Jaime needs to lose his hand, his pride.

Martin uses disfigurement/deformity/mutilation in two ways.

The first is inspired by his background in RPGs: it’s an easy way to enrich a character sheet. Varys is a eunuch, Tyrion is a dwarf, Bran is a paraplegic, and these defining traits makes them easier to write for. What’s that have to do with RPGs, where the goal is to tell stories but also “win”? Some RPGs will allow you to take on some kind of handicap in exchange for more points to build your character. In Freedom Force, a superhero RPG, you might take Ponderous, a trait that hurts your agility in combat. But this will give you, say, 300 character points which could then be spent towards the ability to fly.

The second is a milder expression of Martin’s tendency to kill off characters. A mutilation gives us the same benefits: it can upend the plot, create a highlight scene, and remind readers that the plot shield in this story is tiny, and only a few characters can huddle under it, and they aren’t always who you think. But the mutilation leaves the character alive, and therefore can serve as a catalyst for major change. In ADWD, Theon/Reek is the best example.

Mutilation as a tool really only pertains to ASOIAF; Martin has done quite a lot of work to allow himself to reach for it so frequently.And there’s more disfigurement to come. You might not remember, but The Knight of Flowers suffers an ugly wound while storming a castle. In keeping with Martin’s pattern, his injury is ironic: the most beautiful man in the land is gruesomely scalded by hot oil. We will see how this character changes as a result. So it’s specialized, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it outside of a story like ASOIAF, which is so fascinated with bodies. Still it is fun to track how Jaime’s personality regenerates and reforms once his hand is chopped off. And it’s difficult to imagine another punishment which would be so effective. Jaime doesn’t care about his kids (we later see his indifference to Joffrey’s death), and if Cersei were killed off, readers wouldn’t be able to overlook their own satisfaction to empathize with Jaime’s grief. But, as Martin writes,

They took my sword hand. Was that all I was, a sword hand? … What is a swordsman worth without his sword hand? Half the gold in Casterly Rock? Three hundred dragons? Or nothing?

Jaime was his sword hand, and that is gone, so his very identity has been destroyed. By being willing to irrevocably wreck a character, Martin can create new ones.

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