Trial by Combat: Tyrion’s last chance

Game-of-Thrones-Tywin-trialI tried to comfort my wife as she choked back sobs upon the conclusion of this past Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones. “If they kill Tyrion, I don’t think that I can watch this show anymore.” I didn’t really know what to say, GoT has become an almost comic cultural cliché with its penchant for “red-shirting” many characters. George R.R. Martin has become a meme (think about it, an author has become a meme!) for his gleeful dispatching of characters. And while I do agree with my wife that the loss of Tyrion, our favorite character, would be an unfortunate turn of events, I was also enthralled with the brilliant drama taking place on the show.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion Lannister has been the show’s avatar for righteous intellectualism. A character that hates ignorance and needless violence. Because of this, he has never been seen as a physical character… actually that’s not entirely true.* He doesn’t have the athletic prowess of his brother Jamie or his sell-sword pal Bronn. So when Tyrion evoked the legal recourse of “trial by combat”, we all of course flashed back to two events in the character’s development: his request for trial by combat after being brought to The Eyrie by Cat Stark, and his near death at the hands of Ser Mandon Moore at the Battle of Blackwater.

We know that Tyrion will fight if he has to, but physical combat is not his strong suit. It’s also highly unlikely that his father, Tywin will allow him to call a champion for this current trial, making a repeat of his previous trial a non-starter. It appears that Tyrion is relying on the only two things he has left, his intellect and his giant brass balls.

And as these thoughts were running through my head, I became less curious about the show and more curious about the historical precedents Martin was evoking in this world he has built. In GoT, we have magic and dragons, but we also a have a great deal of verisimilitude hewed from the pages of history. Brienne of Tarth is the character that most readily jumps to mind for her devotion to the warrior code of chivalry**, so it would be no great leap to imagine real cases of trial by combat. America invented the western for Pete’s sake, we’re used to seeing two guys face off to solve a dispute, but where did this idea come from?


Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Thott 290 2, 150 ff. Bayern 1459 – Talhoffer’s “Alte Armatur und Ringkunst”

Judicial duels began as a part of early Germanic tribal law. Early versions of combat trials were primarily used to settle land disputes between families. This ritual included two warriors fighting to touch a piece of cloth or soil with their swords settling the land’s rightful owner. Trial by combat was eventually adopted into Roman and Anglo culture although used rarely. More commonly used was “trial by ordeal” wherein the accused had to survive an event (scalding water, drowning, poison) to prove innocence. Trial by ordeal is perhaps most famous for being used by accusers in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts to root out practitioners of witchcraft. Trial by combat was even invoked as late as 2002 when a man in the U.K. wanted to fight to the death to settle a motor vehicle fine.

The legal system in Game of Thrones however, seems to have its roots in strictly religious belief. Tyrion claims to want to let the gods decide his fate by evoking trial by combat knowing that his father could refuse his request, but in so doing would suffer the political complications of appearing to not believe in the gods. It looks like we’re in the middle of a Lannister Mexican standoff, or would that be a Westerosian standoff? What is the name for a citizen of Westeros? Anyway, who is going to blink first?

I do hope Tyrion wins this one because I really like his character and I also don’t want to see my wife cry anymore.

* Tyrion Lannister loves the ladies and the ladies of Tyrion Lannister.

**And because of this she almost seems like a throwback, starkly opposed to Jaimie Lannister’s cynicism.

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