A Storm of Swords: Femininity, Betrayal, and Olenna Tyrell

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

Once againspoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).

Yes, I’m still thinking about A Storm of Swords.  I’ve finished The Second Sex and will be getting to it in a post or two, really! But I have more to say here.

I’d really wanted to write about Olenna Tyrell, Margaery’s grandmother, the Queen of Thorns.  I’m beginning to suspect that my posts on this book do even more than my other posts to show the peculiarities of my attention; I have a strong tendency to focus on things that are very small and maybe don’t even matter to anyone else.  I’ll admit I had to look up her name myself.  But there are a couple interesting things about her.  When she first appeared, she reminded me strongly of Walder Frey—old, grouchy, socially uninhibited and mostly important because she is the head of a significant family.   She’s humorous for reasons similar to those that Lord Frey was humorous when he first appeared (you know, before he was presiding over horrific murders).  And ultimately, she’s behind a fairly significant murder herself, and for arguably similar reasons—although in her case, she is protecting her granddaughter rather than setting an example and revenging wounded pride, as Frey was.

That’s a sidenote, though.  The first place my attention really rested was in her assertion that none of these lords listened to their mothers, but they should, and if they did, things would be much better.   But, in fact, they do.  Robb listens to Catelyn (mostly); Joffrey listens to Cersei (until he doesn’t).

Catelyn seems to give Robb a lot of good advice, actually. She helps him to manage the lords he’s recruited and seems to mastermind a lot of his strategy behind the scenes.  She is the one who initially arranges his marriage to an unspecified daughter of Lord Frey.  As for the eventual disaster of the Red Wedding… Well, he doesn’t listen to Catelyn when he decides to marry Jayne Westerling, but he does listen when she urges him to respond to Lord Frey’s treacherous invitation. So did this happen because he listened to her, or because he didn’t?  Both?

It’s much more ambiguous with Cersei and Joffrey, because neither of them has been a narrator thus far.  It does seem that Joffrey has gotten a little out of control; the execution of Ned was pretty clearly against Cersei’s wishes.  But it’s also pretty clearly implied that Cersei has had a lot to do with making Joffrey who he was, and this is more explicit in the TV series.  So: when he listens to her, he acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk, and when he doesn’t listen to her, he also acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk.  Since Joffrey is basically an evil character from beginning to end, he acts like one whether he listens to his mother or not.  It will be interesting to see how this works with Tommen.

So Olenna is wrong about that, and it’s actually a little reassuring that the mothers in the series are human beings who try to do stuff and have their own agendas and sometimes screw up and sometimes do make things better and sometimes make them worse, and are generally allowed to be human beings.  And of course, it is also very clear that her critique is also attacking the problem from the wrong angle—she is wishing that women had more control over powerful men, rather than wishing that women had some legitimate institutional power of their own.

But that was just the first thing about the conversation that struck me. The second thing is this: while expressing a sort of solidarity for the mothers of kings (which is, I suppose, a very specific part of the population), she demonstrates very little compassion for other women in practice. Specifically, this conversation is about her quizzing Sansa for information about Joffrey and the danger that he poses to her granddaughter.  Although she hesitates out of self-preservation, Sansa responds to her questions in good faith. She’s survived Joffrey’s abuse and she genuinely doesn’t want another woman to be subjected to it.

Olenna, having received this information, acts on it and has Joffrey assassinated in order to protect Margaery, and it’s pretty difficult to condemn her for doing so. But… she uses Sansa to do it, and allows suspicion to fall on her (and, of course, she knows that this suspicion will be more credible because of the information that Sansa has provided).  This betrayal is a lot more troubling than the assassination.

Because, really, when you come to consider the relationships among women in this series, well, there aren’t any.  Or at least, none that are positive.  Most of the interactions among women are incidental, like the untrustworthy abuse counseling I’ve just been describing, or Shae’s disturbing antipathy for rape survivors, which I’ve discussed in a previous post.  There are a few more important relationships, but they’re all bad. I’ve always been bothered by the competition between Sansa and Arya and the way it seems to be based in Sansa’s femininity.  Daenerys and Mirri Maz Duur (whom I loved, if only because she maintained her own point of view and refused to comply with the Nice White Lady Rescues Everyone narrative).  Catelyn and Lysa? Um.  Meanwhile, the men love each other—we have Ned and Robert (with whom there are all sorts of obvious problems, but they do have a genuine close friendship), Samwell and Jon, Bran and Jojen Reed, who is a sort of spiritual guide to him, etc, etc.  Obviously there are enmities and rivalries too, but there’s much more scope in the book for men to have positive relationships.

The relationship between Catelyn and Brienne is the one that’s closest to mirroring some of the male relationships, but it’s also the most frustrating to me.  We initially saw Brienne only through Catelyn’s eyes, and Catelyn was all snotty and condescending about it.  So we get a lot of stuff about oh noes Brienne is so ugly (sure, why wouldn’t that be Brienne’s leading concern?) and also a lot of stuff about she must obviously be in love with Renly because seriously why else would she want to be a knight? Clearly there are no other possible reasons and that would definitely constitute sufficient motivation to train and train and become one of the best knights in the country and go so far as to fight in an actual freaking war and stuff. So I read all this stuff as revealing a lot more about Catelyn than about Brienne, and I don’t really buy either of these things (sure, Renly is important to her. He’s also important to the rest of his entire army, which seems to be based primarily on his charisma and good looks).  But that side of their relationship is based on Catelyn’s misguided attempt to identify with Brienne. The other side is Brienne’s loyalty to Catelyn, which I’m assuming is at least partly based on her inability to read Catelyn’s mind.  Other than that, it’s hard to say why she is so loyal. Perhaps it’s because she likes the idea of working for a woman—which makes Catelyn’s condescension another betrayal of sorts.  I don’t know. I really want Book Four to be about how everyone’s perceptions of Brienne are totally based on nothing but their own prejudices and she does what she does just because she’s good at it and she likes being able to do stuff and be in charge of her own life.  Oh, and also Sansa kicking Littlefinger’s ass.  Please let these two things be what Book Four is about, because there doesn’t seem to be much else of interest left here now that everyone is dead.

Oh, while I was thinking about this post, but before I could write it, these two posts happened: Sady Doyle’s (…but I only read the part about the first three books) and a response to it (and probably a lot of other posts, but I don’t want to read the entire internet).  They’re both worth a read, and there are things I agree with in both of them (and other things I don’t agree with), but this is a conversation that I’m not going to engage it at this time, except for three things I want to say.

1)      A lot depends on whether the rape scenes are being used for legitimate narrative reasons or just shock value. At this point… I have to admit I’m not sure.  Is that a cop out? Maybe.

2)      I’m not actually convinced that the Daenerys-as-savior thing is really meant to be taken at face value. It seems to me to be mostly doomed to failure precisely because Dany is fairly clueless about the respective cultures in which she moves (see: Mirri Maz Duur). But I agree they are excessively exoticized.

3)      Interestingly, Sady’s critique of sexist portrayals of female characters avoided the most obvious misogynistic characters in the series: Melisandre (so, this woman wields mysterious magic powers and secretly controls men from behind the throne with her religious beliefs and also gives birth to evil spells… yes, this is not new) and Lysa.  Instead, she focuses on what isn’t quite as obvious, and this is valuable.


Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “A Storm of Swords: Femininity, Betrayal, and Olenna Tyrell

  1. Hellequin

    You forget that Olenna’s original plan was to marry Sansa to her grandson, Willas. If you take that at face value, that means that Olenna did want to protect Sansa but found herself blocked by the Lannisters. People suspect Sansa of murdering Joffrey because she was married to Tyrion. Only Loras seemed to think that Sansa acted alone, but then he’s a hotheaded teenager. Furthermore, Oberyn indicates that he, not Tyrion, might have been the fall guy under different circumstances.

    Robb’s marrying of Jeyne Westerling was not the only time when he didn’t listen to Catelyn. He also didn’t listen to her when she told him to keep Theon Greyjoy at his side and that cost him Winterfell and Bran and Rickon’s lives (or so Catelyn and Robb believe).

  2. Given Olenna’s later behavior, I’m inclined to see the proposed marriage to Willas as a (rather shrewd) political move rather than a personal one. After all, at the time, Robb was very successful in the war, so it could be a useful thing to have Sansa in their family in case he managed to win. In case he didn’t, well, Sansa had tried to distance herself from the family and Willas wasn’t that valuable anyway.

    As for where the suspicion for the assassination actually fell–well. People suspected Tyrion because of the random circumstance that he happened to be holding the the chalice, which was pretty difficult to predict as it was Joffrey who ordered him to do that. In the meantime, everyone *should* have suspected Sansa; after all, she is wearing the poisoned hairnet, even if she doesn’t know it. Olenna knows it, though. Was that her idea or Littlefinger’s? Unclear, but it doesn’t seem that she objected to it. It isn’t a stretch from there to say that Olenna expected Sansa to be accused. At best, this was an acceptable price to her.

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