FaceofMoe recently posted to Reddit about Tyrion Lannister, a character in the book series A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
“A dwarf’s perspective on Tyrion Lannister” by FaceofMoe
Tyrion is easily one of the best representations of the dwarf experience precisely because he acknowledges the roles others would place on him. His life becomes in essence a performance, transcending and transforming the tired tropes forced upon him by the ignorant.
A few years ago I was out to coffee with my mother. We each brought a book as we usually do, and I was diving into a fantasy novel recommended by a friend. I read for a while, thoroughly engaged until I stopped abruptly. Well Shit A dwarf character. This did not bode well. I’m a dwarf, to be more specific I’m a picky, cantankerous dwarf. I’ve read dozens of books that tackle disabled characters, most of which were laughably terrible at capturing our experience. Some chose to fetishize the disability, contorting the character into some barely recognizable stereotype. Others deemphasize the disability to the point that it may as well be hair color, some irrelevant trait of little interest. Neither does justice to the dwarf experience. So, when I discovered Tyrion I proceeded with trepidation, a hesitancy which lasted all of half a chapter. After only a few pages I realized I was reading perhaps the greatest, and most realistic disabled character I’ve ever read.
Tyrion’s experience, his language, his perspective was so shockingly true that I was taken aback. Throughout the book, Tyrion deals with issues intimately familiar to dwarfs. He struggles with self-hate, frustration, humiliation, an intense desire to be loved, prevailing feelings of otherness. Tyrion demonstrates traits so often cultivated by the dwarf experience, wit and self-deprecation, an insatiable desire to fill a space with one’s personality. More than anything else, one line of advice in the series speaks to the most frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking aspect of life as a dwarf:
Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you. Game of Thrones-Jon (I)
*The truth of it is this: To be a dwarf is to be burdened with certain preconceived cultural conceptions of dwarfism, making it in some ways a continual performance. * This performance is in my experience unavoidable. The dwarf as a source of tragedy or comedy is a very, very old idea. Going back to the origins of modern drama with Commedia Dell Arte, the dwarf has served as a source of either comedic relief or poignant tragedy. The Italian play Les Gobbi in the 1500’s utilized a variety of dwarf actors, each serving as absurd caricatures of difference preconceived elements of the dwarf. The tropes are many and enduring.
The dwarf as the sexual deviant, a conniving Imp driven by lusts and a gross desire to possess and destroy the beautiful. The dwarf as a tragic figure, god’s cruel jest, a pitiful creature who may find some semblance of revenge in the third act. The comic dwarf, the happy sprite who spreads cheer and lightens dramatic tensions, magical and sexless, perhaps offering some encouragement and inspiration as needed. These shallow dramatic conventions endure, and have seeped into the zeitgeist. In fact, these dramatic conventions are so well established people seem to expect to see them exhibited in real dwarfs, both in RL (Real Life) and in ASOIF. A dwarf can never just buy some socks, no act is neutral. A dwarf must either comically struggle in a mis-sized world, or buy socks as a heartbreaking testament to the unbreakable nature of the human spirit. The first seems more popular in Westeros, the latter the narrative of choice in RL. Dwarfs, disabled people in general are never allowed an act of banality. Everything is either comic, tragic, or an inspiration, we are perpetual actors in narrative not of our making. We are continually cast in these roles, and in modern life we all seem to cope in different ways. (As opposed to what dwarfs did for most of history IE. Get eaten or thrown down a well.)
Tyrion knows his lot. He understands what being a dwarf means in his world. He has decided to embody these tropes, to accentuate the very real elements of comedy, tragedy and perversity which are inherent to the disable experience. He has adopted these roles, as protection in a world full to the brim with inhumanity. He becomes what others believe him to be, thus protecting the most vulnerable parts of himself. Tyrion is heart-breakingly lonely, profoundly unsatisfied with life, desperate to be seen as a full person. Yet as a kind of consolation, he has come to find some enjoyment in playing the motley fool, the perverse and lustful Imp, a fearless half-man of infinite wit. I think he even performs for himself, indulging in melodrama within his own internal monologue. (Ask “Where do whores go?” one more goddamned time…)
Now I’m no Tyrion. I’m obviously far less intelligent, if not slightly redeemed by my having a nose. We do share a great deal however. I too have found a kind of peace in embracing the roles others would force on me. If I am to be cast as the jester, then I shall play the role as best I can. There is a kind of refuge in embracing and transforming expectations, filling a role that is larger and older then yourself. Public attention and gawking is just a part of being a dwarf. It is far better than to yell “Look at me!”, command a room, and seize control of the moment. I’m intrinsically tragic, intrinsically comic, these are true element my life extended to their greatest extent. I can no more escape these roles then escape my disability. I’ve tried to explore these expectations, and turn them to my advantage. Learning to play with this narrative, to inhabit all that comes with this role is deeply satisfying. It is appropriation of a sort. That I imagine is a part of the appeal for Tyrion.
There is a form of liberation to be found in performance, even if it is in a role forced upon us. It is better to make people laugh then be laughed at, to attract attention by our words then our form. Agency is an infinitely valuable commodity, an all too rare thing for people with disabilities during any time. It allows for a transformation, a special kind of magic unique to being a dwarf. The world is our audience, paradoxically quick to listen intently to what we have to say, and just as quick to dismiss it.
Every dwarf may be a bastard, but we are all equally the clown, the tragic foil, the monster, and yes the Imp. I feel as if I’ve inherited a unique role, passed down for centuries. An odd sort of inheritance I’ll grant you, but one that can be absurdly fun. So when I saw George R.R Martin’s take on the dwarf experience, I immediately placed him as one of the greatest writers of our time, possessing a unique creative empathy so central to this series.
Tyrion as a character has made me better understand being a dwarf, and come to more fully appreciate its unique value as an experience. He has taught me to better appreciate my gifts, and cultivate them. For better or worse, my disability dominates who I am. I am a dwarf. I’ll play the role as best as I am able, enjoy every capricious minute, and ride my dog into the sunset.
I thought this was incredibly relevant, The Original Lion of Lannister: Dwarf sitting on the floor by Diego Velazquez (1645) http://i.imgur.com/0TWowPH.jpg