So. What is the greatest feat in the history of writing? It’s ‘Beowulf’ or ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ right? No. Something more contemporary… Hmmm, Dickens? Or Virginia Wolfe. No—wait, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ That’s the novel every best novel list lists as the greatest novel ever. It has to be. The only problem is, no one has ever read it. Not even James Joyce.
I’m playing with you. The greatest feat isn’t by one of those hacks. The greatest writing feat in history was clearly perpetrated by George R.R. Martin and here’s why in two words: Jaime Lannister.
Yes. That’s right. Him.
Let me explain.
Jaime Lannister is introduced in ‘A Game of Thrones,’ book one of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ as a bad guy. No, wait. Not a bad guy. He’s set up as the worst guy. He’s a dick. Right off the bat. A spoiled golden boy who’s handsome, entitled, and awful in his gleaming perfection. And he only gets worse.
His subsequent relations with his sister Cersei, the queen, clearly don’t raise our opinion of him. The coup de grace is of course when he catches Bran catching him and Cersei in flagrante delicto. Jaime snatches the startled lad by the scruff and saves him from falling to his death. Whew! That was close. Maybe Jaime’s not such a bad guy…? Maybe our instincts were wrong? Nope. After a dramatic pause and semi-witty rejoinder, “The things I do for love,” he hucks the ten-year-old boy out the window.
Now, he doesn’t do it in a fit of rage or passion. He does it coldly. He does it thoughtfully. Premeditatedly(this is an actual word but it sounds terrible).
Later, we find Jaime Lannister butting heads with Ned Stark, the obvious hero of ‘A Game of Thrones.’ Which makes Jaime the obvious villain. The two have an exchange in the streets of King’s Landing which ends with Ned in chains and in a shitty dungeon(not a nice one), and nursing a broken leg and dented spirit.
So. We are clearly meant to hate Jaime Lannister from the get go.
However, an interesting thing happens when you continue on through the saga. Jaime Lannister is laid low by Rob Stark at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. The reader is elated! The foul dog has been defeated, taken prisoner, and his treatment is a mirror of Ned’s. He’s tarnished. Caged. Mistreated. And like Ned, he defiant. He’s unbent. Unbroken.
Justice has reared its head at last.
But in his imprisonment, he has an exchange with Catelyn Stark in which, as a reader, you gain a grudging respect for him in his haughty verve. “There are no men like me. There’s only me.” And with that sliver respect, the hatred is fractured.
And on his river trip downstream with Brienne of Tarth, holes begin to form in the hatred as shards of it fall. The two of them battle, and despite his malnourishment, sickness, and chains, he gives nearly as good as he gets.
The seed of grudging respect has sprouted, grown. Here is a worthy adversary.
When he loses his hand to the villainous Vargo Hoat, his sword hand, mind you, there is a sense of loss greater than a mere appendage. It’s who he is. His strength. His power. His soul.“It was one thing to slay a lion, another to hack his paw off and leave him broken and bewildered.”
Vargo Hoat is clearly a worse example of humanity than Jaime… So maybe Jaime’s not as bad as we thought… Thoughts like this begin to materialize from the ether.
Despite being maimed, shattered as a human being, Jaime still manages to, if not triumph, at the very least, survive (with help from Brienne).
The grudging respect that sprouted blossoms fully when Jaime is safely on the road to King’s Landing. He knows he has left Brienne behind and at the mercy of the merciless Hoat. He turns back to save her. At the eleventh hour, he risks life and limb to shield her from doom. He has nothing to gain by doing so. Nothing but the respect of someone no one but he respects. And he succeeds.
With this act, Jaime has proven himself a dynamic character capable of change. Good change. The tough kind of change. And he goes on further to prove himself a capable and compassionate leader in King’s Landing. He does what’s right, or as close as he can to what’s right, which is about all any of us can do. He has run the gamut from blackguard to hero. He has crawled up from the darkness and into the light.
(Jaime does have sex with his sister in front of his dead son’s casket on his arrival at King’s Landing, but hey, no one’s perfect. And this actually goes some length to further softening our view of Jaime as it shows him as something of a puppet to the Svengali-like Cersei. Jaime didn’t hurl Bran out the window because he wanted to. He did it because she wanted him to! So everything’s okay. He’s a good guy. And later when Cersei reaches out to him via letter, begging him to come back and save her from the clutches of the High Sparrow, he cuts those puppet strings once and for all by burning the letter and leaving his Cersei to her fate. He is his own man for once.)
So why is this the greatest feat in the history of writing? Because in Jaime Lannister, Martin began by building an odious character bereft of morality, slathered in entitlement and prurient desire, a character whose very deeds were unforgivable. And yet somewhere on this journey, at some undefinable moment, we do just that. Forgive him. The man who tossed a child out a window. Somehow. Martin has conducted a magic trick by turning Jaime into someone admirable. His story arc is an incremental about face that, to me, is one of the great joys of reading and re-reading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire.’
Even at Jaime’s worst, he’s at least a man you would want on your side in the thick of battle. And at his best? I’m still waiting and hoping to see.
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