When we first meet Tyrion Lannister in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, he is chugging wine, grinning, and being serviced by a prostitute. She won’t be the last; a long list of women share Tyrion’s bed during the show’s first ten episodes. And most will discover that what Lannister lacks in height, the dwarf makes up for in, um, another kind of stature.
It’s a dirty and fitting introduction. Every fantasy story needs a hedonist or two, and “the imp,” as Peter Dinklage’s character is called by the uncouth, has enough of an appetite to be a roving bacchanalia unto himself. Son of one of the seven kingdoms’ most rich and powerful jerks, Tywin Lannister, Tyrion isn’t exactly knight-in-shining-armor material. What would you do with endless riches, a deficit in the traditional-good-looks department, and a major libido? Even the lands of dragons and magic have playboys.
But the best slow-breaking development in HBO’s blockbuster foray into the realm of fantasy geekdom is that its most devilish and untethered character is also its most sympathetic.
Most of the regular-sized men and women on Game of Thrones whisper, murder, joust, and brawl their way through the intricate plotlines of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels, leaving misery and injury in their wake. Tyrion Lannister’s hunger is neither for scheming nor fighting, and he’s admirably candid with the people he encounters. His distaste for a bratty nephew and heir apparent to the seven kingdoms is no more hidden than his generosity and support offered to a boy who loses the use of his legs.
It helps that Tyrion’s not weighed down by the old fashioned sense of honor of Northern lord Ned Stark, or his brother Jaime’s empty duties (and incestuous relationship with their sister, Cersei). Sure, Tyrion has his struggles too—an ashamed, unimpressed father, for instance. But he deals with them less destructively.
He is also more of a wanderer than the show’s other characters, with a taste for adventure and a quick wit. He’s not a jester, but he does break up the drama and death with thoughtful humor. Tyrion’s that trouble-maker you would happily invite to your royal tent—as long as you had lots of wine to go around.
And there he’d likely surprise you with some unexpected wisdom. Consider his conversation with Ned Stark’s teenaged bastard son Jon Snow, (whom Tyrion offends by addressing him candidly as “bastard”). “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes,” Tyrion tells him. “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
Later, when they’re camping with a small party on a trip to the great northern wall—which separates the human world from a frozen and wild landscape that boasts some truly menacing monsters—Snow asks Tyrion why he’s reading a book. “My brother has a sword, and I have my mind,” answers the imp. “And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”*
More than once in Season 1, the dwarf’s sharp brain gets him past the brawn of others. Tyrion’s also smart enough to identify the deadly games of his incestuous siblings and perceive the relative goodness of the Stark clan—a group that his own family will declare mortal enemies before Season 1 is over. At one point, he chooses to defend his own captor, Catelyn Stark, from certain death, even though an escape is within reach.
Here’s hoping that in Season 2, when Tyrion has been named the right-hand man of his bratty nephew, he again offers up the kind of nuance that shows off Peter Dinklage’s Emmy and Golden Globe-winning acting abilities. In a genre that too often paints its characters with broad brushes (one marked “good,” the other “evil”), Tyrion Lannister is a textured portrait—one you believe and trust despite his vices. Or maybe because of them.
* This post originally mistranscribed a line of dialogue from Game of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister compared books to “a whetstone,” not “a wet stone.”