Was Tywin Lannister an Evil Man?

Game of Thrones
Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO

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Answer by Michael O. Church:

Yes, sort of.

I think that understanding the Game of Thrones world requires separating those who do evil from those who are evil. There are multiple layers to everything. Jon Snow is closest to a hero, but a rule-breaker in a world where the first notable action of the epitome of good (Ned Stark) is to execute a deserter. Daenerys has some noble ideas, but she burned a woman alive in order to birth living war machines (dragons). Catelyn Stark describes smallfolk (peasants) as “useless mouths,” and Jaime Lannister’s most infamous act was one that saved King’s Landing and the lives of everyone in it. Tywin Lannister does quite a lot of evil (he’s far less likable in the books). Is he evil, as opposed to merely being one who does evil? Is that even a useful question? I’m not sure that it is.

The lesson of Ice and Fire, I think, is that the world is evil. I think it’s safe to say that, while magic exists, the gods either don’t or they don’t care about anyone in their world. As for the people, those who stand up for what is morally right don’t live for long. Ned is killed mindlessly and stupidly (on the part of Joffrey; from Martin, it was a master stroke) because he’s just too good to live in a deteriorating world. Arya and Bran are fundamentally good kids at risk of being corrupted by the terrible things that have happened and will continue to happen. I don’t think that the Ice and Fire world has a “cosmic” evil: not the dragons, probably not the Others. (Lesson from Lost: Any tribe called the Others is probably actually not bad.) If there were a primal evil to Ice and Fire, it would be magic itself—and the desire for control that it represents. The world (and especially Westeros) has been stagnant for 8,000 years due to its extreme seasons, and Martin has indicated that some supernatural (magical?) force is the case.

Tywin Lannister is very much a product of an evil world. However, he’s also one of the most powerful men alive and does nothing to prevent the continuation of evil. Rather, he continues it himself. This is more clear in the books, where he orders the gang rape of a young girl in order to teach Tyrion a lesson about the Lannisters’ place in the world relative to that of the smallfolk. If Tywin can be described as evil, it’s because he acquires so much power and does nothing to change the character of the world he rose into.

One of the more disturbing things to come out of Game of Thrones fandom is a sort of (made-up word here) “feudal-philia.” That world is a disgusting, cursed world beset with murderously unpredictable seasons, one that has existed in a medieval state for 8,000 years, and one in which, if there are gods, they clearly give even less of a damn about humans than humans do about the smallfolk. It’s a place where no one would want to live. While the food may be delicious (to the people of Westeros), Martin is only giving these details for a contrast, because (presumably) the coming winter will be horrific and even the rich will starve. Of course, with the stakes to power being so high (“you win or you die”) people will do all sorts of evil things to get it. If, in our real world, we had the risk of 20-year winters and a medieval level of technology, you’d see people doing the same sorts of things to hold and acquire power.

Tywin is an interesting guy, perhaps because the Lannisters are so insecure in spite of their wealth. They’re the Second Family; the “new money” in a world that very much cares about what is old. They’re not Targaryens, and this infuriates them. Much of Tywin’s ambition, and much of his willingness to do evil, comes from a desire to displace the Targaryens as the great family of Westeros. In a world where there is no hope of political or moral progress, and in which the future is (most likely) doomed to be worse than the past, this is a futile although irresistible desire for him.

Tywin also fails the genetic lottery. Of his three children, not one of them is fit to be a great king: Jaime is disgraced and hot-tempered, Cersei is contemptible, and while Tyrion is played by a reasonably good-looking and charismatic actor in the TV series, the books indicate that the Ice and Fire Tyrion is unattractive and misshapen and would not be able to lead for that reason alone.

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