Character Analysis: Jaime Lannister and the ambiguity of his redemption
We all love a good redemption arc. To see a character transform from an antihero or even a villain into a compassionate and relatable human being gives us hope and shows us that there is still good in this world, no matter how dark it may seem. When Jaime Lannister, one of the main characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, went on his quest from being a child-from-a-tower-pushing, sister-fucking kingslayer into a seemingly wise leader, tactician and man of honour, many considered it to be a fine example of a redemption arc, of a ‘bad’ character becoming a ‘good’ one. However, the reality might not be as simple as that. Jaime Lannister is, to my mind, one of, if not the most complex character in the book series. In this article, I am attempting to look at Jaime’s journey from the beginning of the series (and earlier) up until the present, and see what might await him in the future.
Upon meeting Jaime for the first time, the reader is shown an image of a typical ‘knight in shining armour’: golden hair waving in the wind, white plate on his chest and a white cloak on his shoulders, Jaime is all chivalry and valiance. Jon Snow looks upon him and thinks to himself that this is what a king should look like. But despite great Lannister genes and shining kingsguard armour, we are soon pushed off into reality (quite literally) when Jaime is caught in the middle of a sexual act with his sister and shoves Bran off a tower. In this moment, Martin uses Jaime’s character to introduce one of the main overlapping themes of the series – being a knight does not mean being chivalrous, and thinking that beautiful soldiers in shining armour are kind and valiant is naive. Fucking your sister AND pushing a child off a tower in a single chapter? That rings more bells than Hector Salamanca before blowing Gus Fring’s face off.
That is mostly how the reader is forced to see Jaime throughout the first two books – through the eyes of other characters. Ned Stark remembers him as an honorless man that killed his king and then sat on the Iron Throne afterwards, which is also how the general Westerosi public know him – as a kingslayer and an oathbreaker. People shun him and despise him; how can you love a man that killed his king? The emerging rumours of his relationship with his sister just adds more salt to the already gaping wound of Jaime’s public image. Martin deliberately makes us see Jaime through the eyes of characters that despise him: Ned, Catelyn, the other northmen, the Stannis’ company all see him as a vile man, and rightly so. There is not a lot of reason for them to love him. The reader is pretty much made to see Jaime the same way. Only Tyrion seems to hold some love for his older brother, but we barely see him and Jaime together until the third book. Whether you see Jaime as completely unrelatable and easily hated or as an interesting case of a morally ambiguous character is completely up to you.
One chapter in A Clash of Kings brings us closer to Jaime’s consciousness than before, when Catelyn comes to visit a weary and drunk Kingslayer in the dungeons of Riverrun. It is an extremely vulnerable state to find oneself in – imprisoned for months, starved and tired, and drunk on a bottle of wine on top of that. It is the recipe for a loose tongue, and that is why Catelyn and the readers are treated to Jaime showing a deeper, less obvious part of himself. He confesses to pushing Bran off the tower and fathering Cersei’s children. He’s vulnerable and chained, and Catelyn is at an advantage, and we can see Jaime trying to turn the conversation to the one deed that he’s proud of even if the rest of Westeros hate him for it – the killing of the Mad King. This memory is Jaime’s crutch, something he always goes back to as a means to prove to himself and the world that there is honour in him. It can be seen in later books as well, the memory always staying at the front of his mind, and when he confesses what really happened that day to Brienne as well. In the conversation with Catelyn he drunkenly rants to Catelyn about it, saying that the act that earned him the title of the Kingslayer was his finest one. “There are no men like me. Only me.” Is that arrogance or self-loathing? We might want to debate it and provide arguments for both sides, but with Jaime the answer is always that it’s a little bit of both.
It is only with the beginning of the third book that we finally get to truly see the world of Westeros through Jaime’s eyes, however, and the complexity of the character blossoms at its fullest then. In fact, the very first chapter (apart from the prologue) belongs to Jaime. It is brave of Martin to suddenly throw us into the mind of a character who spent most of the time in the sidelines before, but never does it fit more than in this case. Jaime’s character development was slowly brewing throughout the first two books, only heard about from the mouths of others and small pieces of dialogue that he himself provided, and peaking the readers’ interest up to the point where it made perfect sense to for Jaime’s story to be told through his own eyes. As a result, Jaime’s story arc in A Storm of Swords is one of the most profound, fascinating and memorable ones in the series so far.
Jaime’s journey in ASoS opens up entirely new parts of the character to the reader, but doesn’t take away what we already know about him. It is almost spiritual, delving deep into the heart of the man who is known for pushing kids off towers and having “shit for honor”. This is the book where many readers change their minds about Jaime and consider him to be on a redemption quest. And one can easily see why it’s a common perception: Jaime’s travels with Brienne reveal his past in the kingsguard, his Romeo and Juliet-esque history with Cersei and his inner struggles of being labelled the Kingslayer. On top of that, we can see signs of Jaime’s lighter side shining through all that darkness, especially following the one thing that defines everything that happens afterwards – the loss of his sword hand. This single event is what puts Jaime into an existential crisis which forces Jaime’s unforeseen qualities to be brought to surface.
Jaime Lannister’s right hand was the one thing that he thought defined him; the hand that held his sword, the hand that slayed King Aerys, the hand that made him on of the finest fighters and tourney jousters of his time, and the hand that made love to Cersei, too. This identity loss feels like the end of Jaime’s entire life to him, and he spends the better half of the book sulking over it. However, it also means that Jaime has to reconsider who he is in the first place. That is when we get some of the finest moments of character development – his confession to Brienne in the baths of Harrenhal, his selfless act of heroism when he saves her from the bear pit, and the quest of finding Sansa Stark he eventually gives her. To put it simply, while the loss of his hand feels like the loss of identity for Jaime, it also means that he has to discover what he is without that hand.
It is not surprising, then, that many readers see all of it as a quest for redemption. After all, we see man that seemed ‘evil’ before committing honorable acts. But then it is useful to remember something that George R.R. Martin himself always repeats in interviews – he sees people as capable of both good and evil, and this inner struggle of individuals is what he tries to portray in his books. To my mind, Jaime is the purest example of this kind of duality. This is a man that is capable of doing both what seems ‘good’ and ‘evil’ at the same time – he pushes a child off a tower but he does that in order to protect his family. He has relations with his sister but he also has no choice in it. One one hand, we would definitely condemn a person like that in reality, but on the other, this kind of complexity on page allows for some unforgettable character development and presents a realistic, complex and engaging person.
The proof that redemption is not exactly Jaime’s thing comes in the next two books, where we can see that while he comes forward as a fairly experienced tactician and military leader, his past as a vile person has not exactly gone away. First of all, he is still treated as an honorless kingslayer, which puts into his mind that that is the persona he has to embrace. That is clearly portrayed in the scene where he negotiates with Edmure Tully over Riverrun, where his gives Edmure a rundown on what would happen if he did not surrender the castle:
“When the castle falls, all those inside will be put to the sword. Your herds will be butchered, your godswood will be felled, your keeps and towers will burn. I’ll pull your walls down, and divert the Tumblestone over the ruins. By the time I’m done no man will ever know that a castle once stood here.”[…]”You’ll want your child, I expect. I’ll send him to you when he’s born. With a trebuchet.”
Evidently, Jaime’s knack for sending children flying is still there, and whether it is just a threat or something he would actually go through with doesn’t matter, as just the fact he says this shows that he is not exactly moving towards redemption – he is still the same Jaime Lannister, only now we know more about him and he about himself.
So what does this mean for the future, when winter comes to Westeros? The last we see of Jaime is him going away with Brienne to meet the Lady Stoneheart. One possible theory is that the next book will feature everything that Jaime’s done or said in the past coming back to bite him in the ass, in large part due to other people’s perception of him. The trebuchet baby speech, the famous “Jaime Lannister sends his regards”, all will return in the form of retribution for better or for worse. On top of that, it is important to remember the prophecy Cersei received as a child from Maggy the Frog:
“when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”
The valonqar (“little brother” in Valyrian) can very easily be Jaime Lannister, especially because Cersei dreads it to be Tyrion, and because Jaime was, in fact, born after Cersei. It would be very symbolic and mirror Jaime’s killing of the Mad King, where Aerys was about to raze King’s Landing to the ground. Cersei has been showing an increasing liking of wildfire lately, and Jaime killing a royalty to save King’s Landing once again would wrap up the entire character in a way that’d make the inventor of the wheel jealous of the full circle that would be made. And if Jaime happened to die right after Cersei, that would put their entire relationship into a full circle, too. We can only see if that or something else will come to be.
In the end, Jaime Lannister continues to be a brilliant example of character development, and an exemplary case of the duality of man, and that is why he remains my favorite character in A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s honorable and he’s immoral, he’s stupid and he’s clever, he’s loving and he’s spiteful. His story is full of mirror imagery, including his relationship with his twin sister, his golden hand and his real one, and hell, even his hair is parted in the middle if that adds anything to it. Therefore, his story is not one of redemption, but rather one of conflicting choices that he continually has to make and the consequences that will inevitably follow.
Image credit: HBO