Over on the Tales After Tolkien Society blog, after an entry about a particular Game of Thrones episode, someone asked about placing Tyrion into the context of the appearance of dwarf characters in medieval narratives, in particular Arthuriana. Not long ago, I participated in the Malory Aloud readers’ theater performance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, and one of my brief roles involved kidnapping a dwarf who was the companion of the scene’s protagonist, Sir Gareth.
In current conversation, the preferred term is little person, and we are aware of several physiological reasons for what is commonly referred to as dwarfism. Tyrion, and many of his literary compatriots, have one of a variety of hereditary or genetic syndromes resulting in disproportionate dwarfism, as opposed to proportionate dwarfism. In researching this article, I came across the story of Jeffery Hudson, a 17th century dwarf in the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. He claims to have grown a good deal after being captured by pirates (his is quite a life and worthy of more study!). Such growth is not unheard of in the case of psychogenic or psycho-social dwarfism which can be reversed, allowing for rapid growth when the causes of the psychological and physiological stress are removed. But I digress. .
During the Middle Ages, like many other variances in humanity, dwarfism was perceived as a sign from God, either a judgment upon the parents (in Game of Thrones, Tyrion likens his position to that of being a bastard–the child his father would prefer not to acknowledge) or a reflection of the inner nature of the individual.
Some little people were taken into the courts of nobility, as a reminder that the noble family, with their presumed health and beauty, had been so fortunate as to be blessed by God, while others were not. The dwarf, or another person with a physical or mental difference, would be fed, clothes, feted (we all remember the Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Feast of Fools, do we not?) as an earthly indulgence. They were often the lucky ones, in spite of being treated more like pets than like people, because, like other non-normative individuals outside the court, they would otherwise be reviled. Infants with clear differences were often left, or meant to be left, outside–“exposed” as they called it–to live or die as God willed. The popularity of dwarf entertainers is attested to in documents of Imperial Rome, and more recently in anthropological evidence. (Generally more of the former than the latter–perhaps because Little People were considered such a curiosity that scholars and authors tended to exaggerate their number and presence).
Because they were perceived as outside of the natural hierarchy of humanity, they were often granted greater leeway in what they said and did, immune from the punishment that would ordinarily be imposed. We commonly refer to this role as that of the fool or court jester. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, fools could be sorted into two varieties, the “natural”, an individual born different, and the licensed fool, an individual granted the status of the fool by official notice. Rahere, the founder of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and the church of the same name, was one of the latter.
Tyrion fulfills this role in spades, serving as one can speak truth to power, always saying or doing something outrageous or insulting, but existing in a liminal space which protects him from harm. He provides humor, but also commentary on the “noble” characters around him. His physical stature gives him a unique status in his society. Likewise, the “natural” fool of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance was perceived as touched by God in more ways than one–their remarkable form and their outrageous utterances both having a divine origin implying that they were worthy of consideration.
Such individuals appear in Arthurian legend, historical record, and, of course, the plays of William Shakespeare, where they often perform (like Tyrion) as both comic relief, and vital commentary on the action of the play and on its major players. Another intriguing literary dwarf and jester was Edgar Allan Poe’s Hop-frog, who reveals the perfidy of the court in appearing to coddle an individual they clearly find revolting–and who then exacts his vengeance for their treatment. James Thurber presents a dwarf jester in his fantasy novella, The White Deer: a dwarf much abused by the king and his elder sons, but defended by the younger son, the work’s protagonist, who succeeds on lifting the curse placed on the titular deer and on her brother, the dwarf.
George R. R. Martin, a scholar himself, drew on these ideas to craft a character in alignment with medieval ideas of dwarfism, who both fulfills the role of the jester, and exceeds it. Like the “natural” fools of the Middle Ages, Tyrion excites notice both within the novel, where he is often referred to as “the imp”, and from the readers. His presence at first invites us, like the noble courts of old, to marvel at those different from us, and enjoy his entertainment value, then rebuffs this voyeurism by developing an engaging and remarkable human being, in the end no different at all. Tyrion is someone we can identify with because we have all, to a greater or lesser degree, felt reviled and outcast at some time. We can imagine his state as worse than ours, then surprise ourselves by admiring him, and perhaps even wishing we could be more like him: more bold, more witty, more willing to exceed the roles we have been given.