The Real History of Game of Thrones: Tyrion Lannister

Game of Thrones might be high fantasy, but Tyrion Lannister is loosely based on a real person of flesh and blood...

The not-so-hidden secret about the fantasies of George R.R. Martin, be they on the page with “A Song of Ice and Fire” or on a television screen in Game of Thrones, is that they’re hardly fantasies at all. Oh sure, they can have dragons and White Walkers, and whatever it is Bran’s supposed to be, but in the end, Martin’s stories about Westeros often serve as a crash course in the worst of humanity. Even in the case of Tyrion Lannister, who might feature the yarn’s biggest heart despite his smaller size. And this all the more ironic since he is based on an English king who has traditonally been cast, even by Shakespeare, in the role of tragic villain.

Aye, like so much else in Game of Thrones, Tyrion finds his roots in the War of the Roses, a 30-year series of small and bloody English civil wars during the mid-15th century that serves as the greatest basis of influence on ASOIAF. To recount everything that those wars were about, and how Martin borrowed from them, is an article unto itself (which you can click on here!), but in the case of Tyrion’s influence, it comes near the very end of the long struggle about who is the rightful heir to the House Plantagenet Dynasty, the House of Lancaster or House of York (sound familiar yet?).

Whenever discussing Richard III, one must take into account that there are many, many versions of the famed king. He is both a villain and a hero. A monster and a reformer on the side of the commoners. The myth has so dwarfed his slight stature that the best way to describe him is to say: Tyrion Lannister. 

Born to Richard of York (who can read about here) as his eighth son, Richard III was always the runt of the litter. While not a Lancaster, this Yorkist king and last visage of the Plantagenet Dynasty shared many of the attributes Tyrion has been given by Martin’s text.

Even prior to being crowned, the most cynical critics will concede Richard did good work as the first Lord President of the Council of the North in Yorkshire, where he helped the north of England operate economically and autonomously from London. As king, Richard III founded what would become known decades later as the Court of Requests. The expedient and low cost court allowed the impoverished, who could not afford legal counsel, to apply for hearings of grievance.

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Richard III also introduced the concept of bail to Britain in 1484 to keep the accused out of prison and from having their property stolen; he likewise banned restrictions on the printing press during his tenure and also chartered the College of Arms, which is still in use today.

Like when Tyrion was appointed to Hand of the King in season 2 of Game of Thrones, Richard III promoted a number of programs for the betterment of the “small folk.” Not bad. And what did he get for his troubles?

If legend and critics are to be believed, this king of short rule (two years) and even slighter stature should be remembered a hideous monster by all measurements. Despite contemporary historian John Rous initially praising Richard during his reign as a “good lord,” he quickly changed his tune in the following years. In History of the Kings of England, published during the successive reign of Richard’s enemy and destroyer, this small in stature Yorkist king is described as having a hunchback, as well as a stunted body and distorted features due to spending two years in his mother’s womb before exiting with fully grown teeth and long hair in tow.

Renowned 16th century historian Thomas More, a man for all seasons, likewise described Richard as being “little of stature” and appearing outwardly grotesque in accordance with a twisted inner-nature. Perhaps most infamously damning is how Shakespeare projected the king in Richard III. While being gifted with great wit and cunning by a bemused Bard, he is written as an unambiguous evil devil who has been left “deformed, unfinish’d” by his maker.

Like Richard III, Tyrion Lannister can do only good for the people of King’s Landing and only be despised for it: He saves them from Stannis Baratheon’s fleet and King Joffrey gets the credit; he tries to save them from starvation and he is declared a “twisted little demon monkey” by mobs; even in Martin’s own writings, Tyrion is far less dashing than Peter Dinklage. With mismatched eyes, curved legs and a misshapen face, all before he loses his nose in a battle that left him only ruggedly scarred on the TV show, Tyrion is the visage of repulsion.

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And despite his cunning mind and great wit, his reputation precedes him as the “Imp,” a bawdy hedonist. This is wonderfully displayed in the show when Diana Rigg expresses severe disappointment by finding only a bureaucrat upon their meeting. A drastic reason for Richard’s supposed villainy stems largely from Tudor propaganda after they supplanted the last Plantagenet monarch. But the crime it is all built upon is one of true infamy that found its mirror in season 4….

Richard III was the second Yorkist king to have a coronation. He had succeeded his brother, Edward IV, in that department. However, he could only do this by stepping over the angelically remembered Boy King Edward V.

After being named Lord Protector of the Realm (Hand) to his young royal nephews, Edward V and an even younger brother, Richard happened to discover within two months a clergyman that conveniently knew the boys’ dead father was supposedly married to another woman when he conceived the children. Thus these kids were illegitimate! Richard III put them in “safe keeping” within the Tower of London while he was crowned two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, the kids vanished without a trace from history. Tudor historians claim that Richard murdered his boy nephews, though there is no evidence other than their damning disappearance.

Similarly on the show, Tyrion underwent a crisis of propaganda and slander when he was wrongfully accused for the murder of his nephew, King Joffrey. While Martin’s Joffrey is one of the most evil sociopaths in literature, he is beloved as a golden haired angel by the masses and his uncle is a deformed freak. After Joffrey is spectacularly poisoned at his own wedding feast, Tyrion is blamed by all around him, including his family. Henceforth, his name is mud in Westerosi history books.

Beyond that unfortunate comparison, Tyrion should be proud of his kinship with the last Medieval British King. Richard III earned that distinction because he was the final English ruler to rather unwisely fight (and die) on a battlefield. During the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard fought valiantly (or cravenly, according to Shakespeare) and fell from a wound to his skull… intriguingly in a war against Henry VII who just so happens to be a real-life inspiration for Daenerys Targaryen. And like Tyrion after Blackwater, Richard’s whereabouts were quickly forgotten. A harbinger of things to come for the Imp Lannister? Perhaps.

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It should also be noted that Richard’s remains were finally discovered in 2012. It turned out he had a curved spine, which can create in some severe cases the appearance of a “hunchback,” but likely even that was an exaggeration. Much like Tyrion Lannister, Richard III always gets a bad reputation.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.