Greek Myth in A Game of Thrones, Part Four: Tyrion as Odysseus


Welcome to the fourth installment of the Greek Myth in A Game of Thrones series. (Caution! Spoilers through book 3! Turn back now if you have not yet done your reading for Season 3!)

Tyrion, at first, seems a Hephaestus analog: crippled, underappreciated for it, and a craftsman of many things — sewer systems, defence troops, even finances. Hephaestus’s Egyptian counterpart, Ptah, even has dwarfism in some accounts. However, all of Tyrion’s creations are public works, not art or mechanics, like Hephaestus is so well known for. These are things a king would oversee; Tyrion is not a god: he is our Odysseus.

Tyrion wheels and deals; so too does Odysseus. In fact, favored by Athena, Odysseus’s greatest — and perhaps only — quality is his wiles. With his sharp tongue, he out-logics any fellow king or follower. It keeps him alive through twenty years of monsters and human treachery; it brings him to make allies out of traditional enemies; and he coerces the good to sacrifice to his cause. Odysseus was never particularly religious, as Tyrion keeps asserting of himself, but he was wary enough of the deities’ potential that he stepped carefully to avoid their ire — at least, until the war seemed won and he could take no more injustice, and he told them off. That is how The Odyssey began.

In the Trojan War, Odysseus commanded his own troops, which came from his rocky, out-of-the-way homeland, oddly reminiscent of the wildlings Tyrion conjures up in book two. During the Odyssey, every last one of these men dies, also reminiscent of how the wildlings leave Tyrion (rather vaguely) after he is back in King’s Landing. Odysseus created political alliances among the Greeks for Agamemnon’s cause; he went all over the world to do so, and he was shrewd about it to the point that he got most of the hate by those that weren’t wise enough to hate Agamemnon first. This is also similar to Tyrion’s deals to gather allies for King’s Landing when it was in danger of being sacked. Odysseus survived the war at Troy; he survived even its darkest day, where the Greek army was pushed back to the ships and they were being burned, on account of the withdrawal of Achilles — their best fighter — from combat. Suddenly, with the death of Renly and the removal of Sandor Clegane, Blackwater rings a bell.

Odysseus was one of the lucky to come home from the war. And yet, because he blasphemed against Poseidon at the last minute — remember the article about Tywin here — he was set to lose all of his men and wander the Earth for ten years before being able to return to his loving, pining wife, Penelope.

When Tyrion finally leaves King’s Landing, it’s in a storm of negative popular opinion caused by his deeds to save the city during wartime. He commits one great sin — in A Game of Thrones world, perhaps the only sin, that of kin-killing — and admits to Jaime of a murder he did not commit, just to get his anger out. Tyrion then departs across the sea to lands and sirens unknown. So far, we have a lot of evidence for Tyrion as Odysseus.

Furthermore, the weapon with which Tyrion perpetrates his patricide is also of note: Why the crossbow? Why did Martin choose to place it in the room at all? Sure, Tyrion can’t wield a full longbow, but why not a knife? Or his bare hands? A torch, or a set of stairs? The chain used on Shae is symbolic enough. So why the crossbow? The answer lies in myth. First, it is reminiscent of Joffery: his cruelty, and his inability to understand love. It’s symbolic of the swift vengeance of angry love, but it’s also a symbol of Odysseus and his famous archery trial in beggar’s clothes. The trial, to shoot an arrow cleanly through a long set of iron rings, is set forth by a crafty Penelope herself, knowing that it is something only her husband can accomplish; I say, if Sansa hadn’t been making him jump through hoops by being so pious and, you know, had been proactive at anything, Tyrion might not be shooting people in his prison garb in the first place. At least, not while they were on the perfect ring of the porcelain throne.

Tyrion is also well-accustomed to his prostitutes, some of which he stays with for years. At first, this might seem but a clever, if not shallow, “drawback” for a fantasy character. Yet, further inspection reveals it as a character trait tellingly similar to Odysseus and his various consorts throughout his travels. Here again, we see Martin’s humor, and his brutal honesty: instead of Odysseus having a taste for “consorts,” Tyrion has an unabashed, yet tasteful, appetite for prostitutes. He doesn’t hide it, but he doesn’t demonize it or its actors, either; it simply is what it is. Here, we see Martin beautifully understate things in-world that together create a very sensational series of events upon reading. Tyrion, as a smart man, doesn’t visit women of the night for interest in others’ minds, or the thrill of the chase; he does it because he’s yearning for love and comfort, which his long-lost first wife, a shade of Odysseus’s Penelope, would have provided him.

Tyrion’s first and second wives both fill Penelopean roles, however. His first is surrounded by “suitors” and ravaged, akin to Penelope in the Odyssey. But moreso, his second wife, Sansa, is the epitome of the kind, upstanding, pious wife, waiting always — for years — for his return. Not necessarily because she loves him, but because that’s what she, as his wife, is expected to do in the morality of Ancient Greece. And she does it to the extent of being a shining gem of womanly duty that’s survived for over 2,500 years, but on the flip-side — what is little-talked about in Homer’s work itself — Odysseus’s kingdom is run amok with ladder-climbing suitors who also bankrupt it from their continued, conspicuous presence. Further, Penelope’s son grows up without a father, in a swarm of jeering jocks camped out at his house on a daily basis.

There was always something bitter-sweet to me about Odysseus and Penelope: I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that Odysseus was intelligent to the point that he was bored by such a bastion of duty and honor. But still his crux was the need for love, so on his journey, into the arms of other women he would, inevitably, fall, and so, too, do we see Tyrion ultimately being undone. Where his odyssey will take him, however, is a tale worth telling another time.

This Series comes in 8 parts:

1. Introduction; Robert and Cersei as Zeus and Hera (spoilers through book 1)

2. Cersei, Jaime, as Aphrodite, Ares; Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane as Uranus and a Titan (spoilers through book 3)

3. Joffery, Myrcella, and Tommen as Eros, Harmonia, and Anteros (spoilers through book 3)

4. Tyrion as Odysseus (Spoilers through book 3)

5. Sansa as Psyche; Lysa Arryn and son as Demeter and Persephone; Littlefinger as Hermes (Spoilers through book 3)

6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 1)

7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 3)

8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)