Friday, October 21, 2016

The Iron Throne: Myths, Superstitions & Cersei

The songs said it had taken a thousand blades to make it, heated white-hot in the furnace breath of Balerion the Black Dread. The hammering had taken fifty-nine days. The end of it was this hunched black beast made of razor edges and barbs and ribbons of sharp metal; a chair that could kill a man, and had, if the stories could be believed.
- A Game of Thrones, Eddard XI

[Spoilers: to A Dance with Dragons and Season 6 of A Game of Thrones]
They say the Iron Throne can be perilous cruel to those who were not meant to sit it.
My DIY Iron Throne - check out step-by-step photos here.
One aspect of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that I love is the murky borders between myths, magic and superstition. While there is indisputably magic in the ASOIAF world, the magic is interpreted by people in different ways and extra legends and embellishments have been woven in ways that make it unclear what the actual magic is.

I think the Iron Throne is a rather interesting example of this phenomenon. Because of its symbolic representation of the actions and power of the monarch [ see Note 1] and because of its unique construction, it seems inevitable that a mythos would arise around the Iron Throne. The Iron Throne has been attributed with the death of at least one man [see Note 2], and is also thought to mistreat inadequate rulers:

Joffrey lurched to his feet. "I'm king! Kill him! Kill him now! I command it." He chopped down with his hand, a furious, angry gesture . . . and screeched in pain when his arm brushed against one of the sharp metal fangs that surrounded him. The bright crimson samite of his sleeve turned a darker shade of red as his blood soaked through it. "Mother!" he wailed.

With every eye on the king, somehow the man on the floor wrested a spear away from one of the gold cloaks, and used it to push himself back to his feet. "The throne denies him!" he cried. "He is no king!"

(...) [Sansa] wondered how badly Joffrey had cut himself. They say the Iron Throne can be perilous cruel to those who were not meant to sit it.
- A Clash of Kings, Sansa VIII

Joffrey was quite clearly an inadequate ruler [see Note 3], and the iron throne treats him poorly. The Mad King’s rule was also full of paranoia and injustice, and he too was ripped apart by the throne.

By the end the Mad King had become so fearful that he would allow no blade in his presence, save for the swords his Kingsguard wore. His beard was matted and unwashed, his hair a silver-gold tangle that reached his waist, his fingernails cracked yellow claws nine inches long. Yet still the blades tormented him, the ones he could never escape, the blades of the Iron Throne. His arms and legs were always covered with scabs and half-healed cuts. 
A Feast for Crows, Jaime II

So is the throne cruel to those not meant to sit it? Robert funded his hedonism by racking up huge debts to the Iron Bank, the Faith and to wealthy westerosi families, putting the throne into a difficult financial position. His leadership was also responsible for the cold-blooded killings of Rhaegar’s heirs, complicating relationships with Dorne. Despite these obvious flaws in his leadership abilities, Robert never describes the chair as anything but uncomfortable.

It was, as Robert had warned him, a hellishly uncomfortable chair. 
A Game of Thrones, Eddard XI

I sit on that damnable iron chair and listen to them complain until my mind is numb and my ass is raw. 
Robert to Ned in A Game of Thrones, Eddard I. [see Note 4]

Perhaps instead of kingship, the phrase “not meant to sit it” refers to illegitimacy. However, while Joffrey’s true parentage might make him “not meant to sit” the throne, the Mad King was Targaryen on both sides. Alternatively, the Iron Throne has a higher threshold for being an unjust king, with running up large debts and murdering innocent babies not deserving of scratching the royal rump.

An alternative interpretation is that the Throne feeds upon the ruler’s sense of their own capabilities. While Robert doesn’t seem to question his own kingliness, Joffrey is cut by the throne while overreacting to someone’s claims of his own illegitimacy. Aerys lives in constant paranoia that others are trying to assassinate him to remove him from his throne, and is continuously cutting himself on the throne.

Or perhaps the cruel intentions of the throne are just superstitions, with the accidental cuts being the expected result of a chair intended to make the ruler think carefully about the decisions made from this chair.
A king should never sit easy, Aegon the Conqueror had said, when he commanded his armorers to forge a great seat from the swords laid down by his enemies. 
A Game of Thrones, Eddard XI

Cersei & The Iron Throne

Queen Cersei on the Iron Throne
Cersei’s relationship with the Iron Throne fascinates me, particularly in light of the events of the finale of Season 6 of Game of Thrones. She fancies herself to be a great ruler and a deserving ruler [see Note 5]. and (at least while awake) is largely unquestioning of her own leadership abilities. But when sleeping, she has a rather prescient dream of the Iron Throne cutting her as she realizes she is naked in front of her subjects.

She dreamt she sat the Iron Throne, high above them all. The courtiers were brightly colored mice below. Great lords and proud ladies knelt before her. Bold young knights laid their swords at her feet and pleaded for her favors, and the queen smiled down at them. Until the dwarf appeared as if from nowhere, pointing at her and howling with laughter. The lords and ladies began to chuckle too, hiding their smiles behind their hands. Only then did the queen realize she was naked.

Horrified, she tried to cover herself with her hands. The barbs and blades of the Iron Throne bit into her flesh as she crouched to hide her shame. Blood ran red down her legs, as steel teeth gnawed at her buttocks. When she tried to stand, her foot slipped through a gap in the twisted metal. The more she struggled the more the throne engulfed her, tearing chunks of flesh from her breasts and belly, slicing at her arms and legs until they were slick and red, glistening.
- A Feast For Crows, Cersei I, [see Note 6]

At least subconsciously, she feels the Throne closing in on her as she becomes increasingly mired in her own plotting.

The torches on the back wall threw the long, barbed shadow of the Iron Throne halfway to the doors. The far end of the hall was lost in darkness, and Cersei could not but feel that the shadows were closing around her too. 
A Feast for Crows, Cersei VII

As Queen Regent, and not the Hand or the Queen, Cersei by tradition cannot sit the Iron Throne. And so she constructs her own seating in front of the throne from which she presides over her court.

Behind her loomed the Iron Throne, its barbs and blades throwing twisted shadows across the floor. Only the king or his Hand could sit upon the throne itself. Cersei sat by its foot, in a seat of gilded wood piled with crimson cushions.  
A Feast for Crows, Cersei V

This throne Cersei constructs for herself is representative of her rule. She relinquishes any pretence of ruling as a Baratheon, decking out her chair in Lannister colors. But more importantly, her chair is lavishly cushioned, in stark contrast with the intentional discomfort of the Iron Throne. Whereas a prudent ruler might surround themselves by knowledgeable advisors that may provide alternative viewpoints so that the ruler may make well-informed and well-reasoned decisions, Cersei instead surrounds herself with “yes men,” and connives to remove everyone who disagrees with her or who will not carry out her commands.

So now at least in the HBO series, Cersei sits the Iron Throne. Will it shred her in a literal sense? In a figurative sense, Cersei’s thirst for the power of the Iron Throne has already cut from her at least two of her own children. What parts of Cersei remain to be damaged by the Throne?

Like analysis posts like this? Check out my other analysis posts on A Song of Ice and Fire and other topics!


1. For example: "The Old Bear begged the Iron Throne for help a hundred times. They sent him Janos Slynt. No letter will make the Lannisters love us better. Not once they hear that we've been helping Stannis." A Feast For Crows, Sam I.
2. “A chair that could kill a man, and had, if the stories could be believed.” - A Game of Thrones, Eddard XI
“Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it.” - A Storm of Swords, Davos IV.
3. “Sansa stood with her head bowed, fighting to hold back her tears, while below Joffrey sat on his Iron Throne and dispensed what it pleased him to call justice. Nine cases out of ten seemed to bore him; those he allowed his council to handle, squirming restlessly while Lord Baelish, Grand Maester Pycelle, or Queen Cersei resolved the matter. When he did choose to make a ruling, though, not even his queen mother could sway him.” - A Game of Thrones, Sansa VI.
4. I interpret this remark as referring to the normal amount of “raw ass” expected from sitting on an uncomfortable chair for hours, not a supernatural amount of ass pain expected from a throne with malicious intentions.
5. "The rule was hers; Cersei did not mean to give it up until Tommen came of age. I waited, so can he. I waited half my life. She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife. She had suffered Robert's drunken groping, Jaime's jealousy, Renly's mockery, Varys with his titters, Stannis endlessly grinding his teeth. She had contended with Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and her vile, treacherous, murderous dwarf brother, all the while promising herself that one day it would be her turn. If Margaery Tyrell thinks to cheat me of my hour in the sun, she had bloody well think again." A Feast For Crows, Cersei V.
6. This passage is also notable for being our introduction into Cersei’s mind. Although I didn’t appreciate it on my first read through, I like that Cersei’s entire character arc in A Feast For Crows is laid out for us in the very first paragraphs of her first Point Of View chapter.

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