Tower of the Hand

Telling yourself, AGOT

Tags: ADWD, Essay
Nov 25, 2020, 5:00 AM ET
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As PoorQuentyn noted, characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are often marked by George R. R. Martin to be wrong when they're "telling themselves" things. So I decided to make a search through the text and record all instances where they're doing this to see if the theory holds up, starting with A Game of Thrones.

AGOT 6: Jon I

His brothers and sisters had not been permitted to bring their wolves to the banquet, but there were more curs than Jon could count at this end of the hall, and no one had said a word about his pup. He told himself he was fortunate in that too.

Yep, Jon is definitely lying to himself there.

AGOT 12: Daenerys II

So she sat in her wedding silks, nursing a cup of honeyed wine, afraid to eat, talking silently to herself. I am blood of the dragon, she told herself.

She's not yet, so this holds true.

AGOT 24: Daenerys III

Stone, she told herself. They are only stone, even Illyrio said so, the dragons are all dead. She put her palm against the black egg, fingers spread gently across the curve of the shell. The stone was warm. Almost hot. "The sun," Dany whispered. "The sun warmed them as they rode."

This is so obvious it doesn't even need mention.

AGOT 30: Sansa II

Jeyne Poole wept so hysterically that Septa Mordane finally took her off to regain her composure, but Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too, she thought, but the tears would not come. Perhaps she had used up all her tears for Lady and Bran. It would be different if it had been Jory or Ser Rodrik or Father, she told herself. The young knight in the blue cloak was nothing to her, some stranger from the Vale of Arryn whose name she had forgotten as soon as she heard it. And now the world would forget his name too, Sansa realized; there would be no songs sung for him. That was sad.

It would be with her father, yes, but not really with Jory.

Sansa and Septa Mordane were given places of high honor, to the left of the raised dais where the king himself sat beside his queen. When Prince Joffrey seated himself to her right, she felt her throat tighten. He had not spoken a word to her since the awful thing had happened, and she had not dared to speak to him. At first she thought she hated him for what they'd done to Lady, but after Sansa had wept her eyes dry, she told herself that it had not been Joffrey's doing, not truly. The queen had done it; she was the one to hate, her and Arya. Nothing bad would have happened except for Arya.

However, here, Sansa is really lying to herself. The first subtle cue that Sansa is deluding herself in regards to the boy.

The Hound snatched up a torch to light their way. Sansa followed close beside him. The ground was rocky and uneven; the flickering light made it seem to shift and move beneath her. She kept her eyes lowered, watching where she placed her feet. They walked among the pavilions, each with its banner and its armor hung outside, the silence weighing heavier with every step. Sansa could not bear the sight of him, he frightened her so, yet she had been raised in all the ways of courtesy. A true lady would not notice his face, she told herself. "You rode gallantly today, Ser Sandor," she made herself say.

This one is actually true, but of course, Sansa cannot adhere to the ideal she espouses and tries to force herself into it, which doesn't work.

Arya III

Arya padded down the alley, balanced lightly on the balls of her bare feet, listening to the flutter of her heart, breathing slow deep breaths. Quiet as a shadow, she told herself, light as a feather. The tomcat watched her come, his eyes wary.

She hunkered down in the dark against a damp stone wall and listened for the pursuit, but the only sound was the beating of her own heart and a distant drip of water. Quiet as a shadow, she told herself.

Calm as still water, she told herself. Strong as a bear. Fierce as a wolverine. She opened her eyes again.

If the room with the monsters had been dark, the hall was the blackest pit in the seven hells. Calm as still water, Arya told herself, but even when she gave her eyes a moment to adjust, there was nothing to see but the vague grey outline of the door she had come through.

"Before is not now, and this Hand is not the other," the scarred man said as they stepped out into the hall. Still as stone, Arya told herself, quiet as a shadow. Blinded by the blaze of their own torch, they did not see her pressed flat against the stone, only a few feet away.

As we know from the House of Black and White and Jaqen H'ghar, Arya is not quite there yet. The sheer mass of herself telling it indicates her growing willpower and abilities, though. She won't need to tell herself all that stuff once her training completes in Feastdance, culminating that arc.

Bran IV

Bran could hear them whispering to each other in soft stone voices terrible to hear. He must not listen, he told himself, he must not hear, so long as he did not hear them he was safe. But when the gargoyles pulled themselves loose from the stone and padded down the side of the tower to where Bran clung, he knew he was not safe after all. "I didn't hear," he wept as they came closer and closer, "I didn't, I didn't."

Holds up. Bloodraven is trying to get Bran to listen here, so he really should.

Tyrion V

At first he had consoled himself that this imprisonment could not last long. Lysa Arryn wanted to humble him, that was all. She would send for him again, and soon. If not her, then Catelyn Stark would want to question him. This time he would guard his tongue more closely. They dare not kill him out of hand; he was still a Lannister of Casterly Rock, and if they shed his blood, it would mean war. Or so he had told himself.

He won't push me over, Tyrion told himself desperately as he crawled away from the edge. Catelyn Stark wants me alive, he doesn't dare kill me. He wiped the blood off his lips with the back of his hand, grinned, and said, "That was a stiff one, Mord."

Lysa would rather kill him on the spot, but Catelyn holds her off, so Tyrion is definitely only telling himself that.

Daenerys V

She must not flinch or look afraid. I am the blood of the dragon, she told herself as she took the stallion's heart in both hands, lifted it to her mouth, and plunged her teeth into the tough, stringy flesh.

Still, she must periodically remind her of the identity that she puts on as a brave face but never quite manages to internalize. Not yet, anyway - that will have to wait for Daenerys X, ADWD.

Arya IV

The wooden blade caught her high in the breast, a sudden stinging blow that hurt all the more because it came from the wrong side. "Ow," she cried out. She would have a fresh bruise there by the time she went to sleep, somewhere out at sea. A bruise is a lesson, she told herself, and each lesson makes us better.

Three of them started forward, chainmail clinking softly with each step. Arya was suddenly afraid. Fear cuts deeper than swords, she told herself, to slow the racing of her heart.

She had to leave now, she told herself, but when the moment came, she was too frightened to move.

Fear cuts deeper than swords, the quiet voice inside her whispered. Suddenly Arya remembered the crypts at Winterfell. They were a lot scarier than this place, she told herself. She'd been just a little girl the first time she saw them.

Arya remains the biggest strain on the theory, as she's actively internalizing the ideology. However, one could make the point that it isn't internalized yet, since it's still a conscious effort.


The dogs liked it least of all. Ghost had led the party here; the pack of hounds had been useless. When Bass the kennelmaster had tried to get them to take the scent from the severed hand, they had gone wild, yowling and barking, fighting to get away. Even now they were snarling and whimpering by turns, pulling at their leashes while Chett cursed them for curs. It is only a wood, Jon told himself, and they're only dead men. He had seen dead men before ...

Yeah, these totally are not ice zombies. Nothing to see there, Jon. Go on.

Jon nodded. He should have come straight from the stable. He climbed the tower steps briskly. He wants wine or a fire in his hearth, that's all, he told himself.

And of course Jon also knows that he's not called for wine or fire.

It can't be, Jon told himself. This is the Lord Commander's Tower, it's guarded day and night, this couldn't happen, it's a dream, I'm having a nightmare.

Three times the charm! Again, ice zombies. Checks out.

Daenerys VI

The Usurper has woken the dragon now, she told herself ... and her eyes went to the dragon's eggs resting in their nest of dark velvet.

He actually hasn't. Dany has to do that yet, and her eyes unconsciously wander exactly where they need to. Again, great foreshadowing.

When the coals were afire, Dany sent Ser Jorah from her. She had to be alone to do what she must do. This is madness, she told herself as she lifted the black-and-scarlet egg from the velvet. It will only crack and burn, and it's so beautiful, Ser Jorah will call me a fool if I ruin it, and yet, and yet...

Again, Dany's obviously right.

Bran VI

Summer lapped at the water and settled down at Bran's side. He rubbed the wolf under the jaw, and for a moment boy and beast both felt at peace. Bran had always liked the godswood, even before, but of late he found himself drawn to it more and more. Even the heart tree no longer scared him the way it used to. The deep red eyes carved into the pale trunk still watched him, yet somehow he took comfort from that now. The gods were looking over him, he told himself; the old gods, gods of the Starks and the First Men and the children of the forest, his father's gods. He felt safe in their sight, and the deep silence of the trees helped him think. Bran had been thinking a lot since his fall; thinking, and dreaming, and talking with the gods.

Half true. It's not the Old Gods, but the greenseers of old and Bloodraven. But this is the first instance where it's not flat out wrong.

Eddard XV

Each time the turnkey brought him water, he told himself another day had passed. At first he would beg the man for some word of his daughters and the world beyond his cell. Grunts and kicks were his only replies. Later, when the stomach cramps began, he begged for food instead. It made no matter; he was not fed. Perhaps the Lannisters meant for him to starve to death. "No," he told himself. If Cersei had wanted him dead, he would have been cut down in the throne room with his men. She wanted him alive. Weak, desperate, yet alive. Catelyn held her brother; she dare not kill him or the Imp's life would be forfeit as well.

Twice in the same paragraph! We don't know about the time for sure, but the Lannisters definitely don't want to starve him to death. However, Joffrey will kill him, so it still checks out for him being wrong about being left alive.


Robb was marching and he was not. No matter how often Jon told himself that his place was here now, with his new brothers on the Wall, he still felt craven.

Another subtle indicator Jon is lying to himself, and indeed, he will take off his ill-conceived flight to Robb soon later.

Sansa V

Grand Maester Pycelle was seated alone at the council table, seemingly asleep, his hands clasped together atop his beard. She saw Lord Varys hurry into the hall, his feet making no sound. A moment later Lord Baelish entered through the tall doors in the rear, smiling. He chatted amiably with Ser Balon and Ser Dontos as he made his way to the front. Butterflies fluttered nervously in Sansa's stomach. I shouldn't be afraid, she told herself. I have nothing to be afraid of, it will all come out well, Joff loves me and the queen does too, she said so.

Sansa is of course absolutely right to be afraid. But we as readers know this by now and can only pity her.

Sansa quailed. Now, she told herself, I must do it now. Gods give me courage. She took one step, then another. Lords and knights stepped aside silently to let her pass, and she felt the weight of their eyes on her. I must be as strong as my lady mother. "Your Grace," she called out in a soft, tremulous voice.

Alas, there is no right moment for this.

Catelyn IX

She feared for her lord father, and wondered at his ominous silence. She feared for her brother Edmure, and prayed that the gods would watch over him if he must face the Kingslayer in battle. She feared for Ned and her girls, and for the sweet sons she had left behind at Winterfell. And yet there was nothing she could do for any of them, and so she made herself put all thought of them aside. You must save your strength for Robb, she told herself. He is the only one you can help. You must be as fierce and hard as the north, Catelyn Tully. You must be a Stark for true now, like your son.

But she can't. The conflict between her duties and her grief will become much more pronounced in ACOK and especially ASOS, subtly indicated here already.

Daenerys VII

Slaves, Dany thought. Khal Drogo would drive them downriver to one of the towns on Slaver's Bay. She wanted to cry, but she told herself that she must be strong. This is war, this is what it looks like, this is the price of the Iron Throne.

Exhibit A that this theory holds.

Daenerys VIII

She undid his braid with anxious fingers, as she had on the night he'd taken her for the first time, beneath the stars. His bells she laid aside carefully, one by one. He would want them again when he was well, she told herself.

Oh, sweet summer child...

"Death?" Dany wrapped her arms around herself protectively, rocked back and forth on her heels. "My death?" She told herself she would die for him, if she must. She was the blood of the dragon, she would not be afraid. Her brother Rhaegar had died for the woman he loved.

She doesn't really feel it, and when she later leaves the Dothraki alternative and the Pentos alternative in the dust for the Red Waste, she finally took her own destiny in hand.

Sansa VI

Perhaps I will die too, she told herself, and the thought did not seem so terrible to her. If she flung herself from the window, she could put an end to her suffering, and in the years to come the singers would write songs of her grief.

The outer parapet came up to her chin, but along the inner edge of the walk was nothing, nothing but a long plunge to the bailey seventy or eighty feet below. All it would take was a shove, she told herself. He was standing right there, right there, smirking at her with those fat wormlips. You could do it, she told herself. You could. Do it right now. It wouldn't even matter if she went over with him. It wouldn't matter at all.

Yet another example; Sansa is simply not really feeling it and instead tries to adhere to the songs.

"You may learn that one day to your sorrow." In life, the monsters win, she told herself, and now it was the Hound's voice she heard, a cold rasp, metal on stone. "Save yourself some pain, girl, and give him what he wants."

Exhibit A for "Martin is a romantic". Contrary for legions of people who proclaimed this to be the true moral of ASOIAF, it's right here in the text, in the first book. This. Is. Not. True. People.

He can make me look at the heads, she told herself, but he can't make me see them.

Here it's used to mark personal growth. Like in Arya's examples, this shows active engagement and willpower.

Daenerys IX

She should weep, she knew, yet her eyes were dry as ash. She had wept in her dream, and the tears had turned to steam on her cheeks. All the grief has been burned out of me, she told herself. She felt sad, and yet ... she could feel Rhaego receding from her, as if he had never been.

Another example of Dany not following the expected route but rather choosing her own destiny, finally.

The memory of their first ride was with her when she led him out into the darkness, for the Dothraki believed that all things of importance in a man's life must be done beneath the open sky. She told herself that there were powers stronger than hatred, and spells older and truer than any the maegi had learned in Asshai. The night was black and moonless, but overhead a million stars burned bright. She took that for an omen.

Another example of someone actively shaping their own identity.

No soft blanket of grass welcomed them here, only the hard dusty ground, bare and strewn with stones. No trees stirred in the wind, and there was no stream to soothe her fears with the gentle music of water. Dany told herself that the stars would be enough. "Remember, Drogo," she whispered. "Remember our first ride together, the day we wed. Remember the night we made Rhaego, with the khalasar all around us and your eyes on my face. Remember how cool and clean the water was in the Womb of the World. Remember, my sun-and-stars. Remember, and come back to me."

Of course, it's not enough, and Drogo will never come back.

Jon IX

Not until he was well beyond the village did Jon slow again. By then both he and the mare were damp with sweat. He dismounted, shivering, his burned hand aching. A bank of melting snow lay under the trees, bright in the moonlight, water trickling off to form small shallow pools. Jon squatted and brought his hands together, cupping the runoff between his fingers. The snowmelt was icy cold. He drank, and splashed some on his face, until his cheeks tingled. His fingers were throbbing worse than they had in days, and his head was pounding too. I am doing the right thing, he told himself, so why do I feel so bad?

They could take him back, Jon told himself, but they could not make him stay. The war would not end on the morrow, or the day after, and his friends could not watch him day and night. He would bide his time, make them think he was content to remain here ... and then, when they had grown lax, he would be off again. Next time he would avoid the kingsroad. He could follow the Wall east, perhaps all the way to the sea, a longer route but a safer one. Or even west, to the mountains, and then south over the high passes. That was the wildling's way, hard and perilous, but at least no one would follow him. He wouldn't stray within a hundred leagues of Winterfell or the kingsroad.

Jon stood tall. He told himself that he would die well; that much he could do, at the least. "I know the penalty for desertion, my lord. I'm not afraid to die."

Speaking of which, Jon instantly knows it's wrong, and with a little help from his brothers, he'll soon not need to tell himself his place is at the Wall, leading to the culmination of this arc in ASOS when he rejects Stannis' offer. Also, again a pattern of threes in this chapter, to really drive the point home. The plotting and writing of these books is a marvel to behold.


What can we conclude from this? One, the theory holds. Looking out for "told himself" or "told herself" indeed is a major signifier that something is either wrong or that the character is actively persuading themselves of something, even if it's right.

It also seems that male characters disproportionately "tell themselves" things that are wrong, while female characters "tell themselves" things they need to hear or adhere to in a given situation in an active act of willpower to overcome obstacles. I need to keep an eye out if this also happens in the later books.

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