Tower of the Hand

Telling yourself, ADWD

Tags: ADWD, Essay
Jan 25, 2021, 6:00 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, continuing with A Dance with Dragons.


"Before their hearts could beat again he had passed on, searching for his own, for One Eye, Sly, and Stalker, for his pack. His wolves would save him, he told himself."

Varamyr is pretty much beyond saving. Beyond that, it hinges on the definition of "saving". In the end, as he tells us himself, the personality of the man vanishes over time, leaving nothing but the wolf. So he will gradually fade away. On the other hand, the meaning here is also foreshadowing Bran's story: Varamyr is all about domination, basically a right-wing extremist in that regard. Summer will later dominate the whole pack, One Eye, Sly and Stalker - and Varamyr with them. Ironic, in a sense.

Tyrion I

No, he thought. I despise riddles, myself. "I will tell you nothing. Do me the same favor." The only part of you that interests me is the part between your legs, he almost said. The words were on his tongue, but somehow never passed his lips. She is not Shae, the dwarf told himself, only some little fool who thinks I play at riddles. If truth be told, even her cunt did not interest him much. I must be sick, or dead. "You mentioned a bath? We must not keep the great cheesemonger waiting."

Obviously it's not Shae, so Tyrion isn't exactly lying to himself here. However, he's starting his descent into nihilism and self-loathing and, worse, misoginy and loathing all of the world, which makes his character arc so unbearable at times. That's why he's "telling himself" things about the nature of women and whores (how interchangible they are to men, often).

Daenerys II

If I look back, I am doomed, Dany told herself ... but how could she not look back? I should have seen it coming. Was I so blind, or did I close my eyes willfully, so I would not have to see the price of power?

The question of looking back is defining a lot of Dany's arc in ADWD. She will close the book but thoroughly rejecting to look back, and instead embrace the "fire and blood" of her house words.

Tyrion II

When the magister drifted off to sleep with the wine jar at his elbow, Tyrion crept across the pillows to work it loose from its fleshy prison and pour himself a cup. He drained it down, and yawned, and filled it once again. If I drink enough fire wine, he told himself, perhaps I'll dream of dragons.

Another thing that really starts in these early Tyrion chapters is his giant alcoholism, ironically mirroring his sister's, and like with Cersei, he's telling himself it will somehow help him and isn't as worse as it really is.

Daenerys III

Her face was warm. The wine, she told herself. Yet somehow she found herself thinking of Daario Naharis. His messenger had come that morning. The Stormcrows were returning from Lhazar.

Daenerys trying to fight her inner urge to embrace death and destruction, fire and blood, which is personified in her struggle between Daario and Hizdahr.

The Merchant's Man

The most beautiful woman in the world, thought Quentyn. My bride-to-be, if the gods are good. Sometimes at night he lay awake imagining her face and form, and wondering why such a woman would ever want to marry him, of all the princes in the world. I am Dorne, he told himself. She will want Dorne.

But Quentyn is not Dorne, unfortunately. He is the frog prince with two other guys. This is the whole crux. Had he brought the part of Dorne Dany would want - 20.000 spears - he would really be Dorne. But like this, he's just...The Spurned Suitor. Oh, how apt these chapter titles are.

Tyrion III

His grey kiss. The thought made his flesh crawl. Death had lost its terror for Tyrion Lannister, but greyscale was another matter. The Shrouded Lord is just a legend, he told himself, no more real than the ghost of Lann the Clever that some claim haunts Casterly Rock. Even so, he held his tongue.

A little clue by Martin that the Shrouded Lord, like so many menaces of the metaphysical plot, may be real in truth. We'll never know for sure, but the hint of Tyrion "telling himself" despite no access to better knowledge kind of gives the game away.

Daenerys IV

He is not hard to look at, Dany told herself, and he has a king's tongue. "Kiss me," she commanded.

Dany tries to find Hizdahr attractive somehow, because she's determined to see the salvation for her rule of Dorne in this marriage. But he is "of the tepid kisses", and he's not the answer.

The girl in her wanted to kiss him so much it hurt. His kisses would be hard and cruel, she told herself, and he would not care if I cried out or commanded him to stop. But the queen in her knew that would be folly. "Tell me of your journey."

On the other hand, the path that Daario offers is no real solution, either. Martin frames BOTH approaches in "telling herself", which is why Dany needs to find a third way, as she often has throughout the books. One may wonder whether it's a strapping northern boy that provides the ultimate closure for this problem.

Davos I

I knew the day would come, Davos told himself. I was fond of the old rogue, but never so great a fool as to trust him.

Technically, Davos knew this day would come, but he has always tried not to think about this. If you remember his chapters in ACOK and ASOS, it's not like he ever contemplates the looming betrayal much.

I will see the dawn, at least, Davos told himself. I have eaten of his bread and salt.

Davos tries to will the custom of guest right into existence, but it isn't what it used to be. The Freys' betrayal hangs like a dark cloud over everything, and around the same time in AFFC, Littlefinger also plays politics with the guest right via his catspaw Corbray.

Reek I

The air was cold and damp and full of half-forgotten smells. The world, Reek told himself, this is what the world smells like.

Of course that's not the world, but for brain-washed Theon, the world has shrunken to this dismal image. His whole arc in ADWD will be defined by his gradually widening his perspective and creeping back into the world, until, finally, the chapter title reads "Theon" again.

"Yes, my lord. I was bad, my lord. Insolent and ..." He licked his lip, trying to think of what else he had done. Serve and obey, he told himself, and he'll let you live, and keep the parts that you still have. Serve and obey and remember your name. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with meek. "... bad and ..."

This is the run-of-the-mill Arya technique, bracing himself to suffer through the worst tortures and mind-games.

The Wayward Bride

Tonight the whispering seemed louder than before. A rush of dead brown leaves, Asha told herself, bare branches creaking in the wind. She turned away from the window, away from the woods. I need a deck beneath my feet again. Or failing that, some food in my belly. She'd had too much wine tonight, but too little bread and none of that great bloody roast.

Since the attack of the Hill clans is imminent, this is a pretty obvious hint by Martin here.

Bran II

He had never felt more like a cripple than he did then, watching helplessly as Meera Reed and Coldhands butchered the brave beast who had carried them so far. He told himself he would not eat, that it was better to go hungry than to feast upon a friend, but in the end he'd eaten twice, once in his own skin and once in Summer's.

It's sweet of Bran how he tries to stay brave and not to do bad things to survive, but of course, he has no choice. It's also not exactly clever, but exactly the thing a boy grown up on stories of knightly and lordly values would decide to do.

There were more side passages after that, more chambers, and Bran heard dripping water somewhere to his right. When he looked off that way, he saw eyes looking back at them, slitted eyes that glowed bright, reflecting back the torchlight. More children, he told himself, the girl is not the only one, but Old Nan's tale of Gendel's children came back to him as well.

It's a bit unclear to me what this means, to be honest. It's not more children of the forest, obviously, because Martin gives us the "told himself" signifier, so this point to darker things.

Davos II

One day, he told himself. One day when the war is done and King Stannis sits the Iron Throne and has no more need of onion knights. I'll take Devan with me. Steff and Stanny too if they're old enough. We'll see these dragons and all the wonders of the world.

This paragraph really saddens me. I want for Davos to do all these things, but "valar dohaeris" supercedes practically everything. Here's to hoping, at least.

Jon IV

"A northman." Better a Karstark than a Bolton or a Greyjoy, Jon told himself, but the thought gave him little solace. "The Karstarks abandoned my brother amongst his enemies."

Here, Jon starts his fatal descent into northern politics that will cost his head. He cannot stay as neutral as he needs to as Lord Commander; the old loyalties to his family come back with a vengeance. As a side-note, it's fascinating that Jon never "tells himself" things while his tenure is concentrated on the good parts of his agenda.

Tyrion V

Tyrion saw it too. Kingfisher, or another poleboat, he told himself, but somehow he knew that was not right. His nose itched. He scratched at it savagely. The light grew brighter as the Shy Maid approached it.

Obvious foreshadowing here.

"Aye," said Tyrion, "but I'm small enough to hide behind a duck." He thrust half a dozen torches into the brazier's glowing coals and watched the oiled rags flare up. Don't stare at the fire, he told himself. The flames would leave him night blind.

Preparing himself for battle. Reminds me of the Green Fork.

The King's Prize

Asha's ankle throbbed beneath her weight with every step. The cold will numb it soon enough, she told herself. In an hour I won't feel my feet at all. She was only part wrong; it took less time than that.

Asha is going into full bad-ass mode. She will get the reward for this in a really great fight scene, of course, but in the end, badassery will be subverted when she has to take part in Stannis' gruelling march with a twisted ankle.

Reek II

He did well to send me, Reek told himself as he climbed back onto his stot to lead his ragged column back across the boggy ground to where the northmen were encamped. "Leave your weapons here," he told the prisoners. "Swords, bows, daggers. Armed men will be slain on sight."

Reek is a prime example of the Helsinki phenomenon, where a hostage starts to love their captor.

A cold knife scraped along his spine. Be careful, he told himself, be very, very careful. He did not like his lordship's smile, the way his eyes were shining, the spittle glistening at the corner of his mouth.

Here he's bracing himself, displaying all the virtues of an abuse victim, reading every single facet of his tormentor's psyche in a futile effort to stay unhurt.

Daenerys VII

She drank in the scent of him, savoring the warmth of his flesh, the feel of his skin against her own. Remember, she told herself. Remember how he felt. She kissed him on his shoulder.

Dany really will send Daario away, but in Daenerys X, she doesn't remember a whole lot of stuff, so there is some foreshadowing going on here already. There will be a need to remember, yes, but Hizdahr is not the reason. Of course, a first-time reader doesn't know.

Jon V

Sigorn's father, the old Magnar, had been crushed beneath the falling stair during his attack on Castle Black. I would feel the same if someone asked me to make common cause with the Lannisters, Jon told himself. "Your father tried to kill us all," he reminded Sigorn. "The Magnar was a brave man, yet he failed. And if he had succeeded ... who would hold the Wall?"

Oh Jon. You are actually asked to do so, remember? All living things need to band together against the darkness, yet you support just another doomed pretender.

The Lost Lord

It should not have taken this long, Griff told himself as he paced the deck of the Shy Maid. Had they lost Haldon as they had Tyrion Lannister? Could the Volantenes have taken him? I should have sent Duckfield with him. Haldon alone could not be trusted; he had proved that in Selhorys when he let the dwarf escape.

I'm not sure why it should have taken that long, to be honest. I'm at a loss regarding this one.

The Blind Girl

Listen for his breathing, she told herself, but there was nothing. She gave it another moment, then put her stick aside and resumed her work. If I had my eyes, I could beat him bloody. One day the kindly man would give them back, and she would show them all.

Arya at her game once again, steeling her mind to become the assassin she wants to be.

Tyrion VII

He might have taken some comfort in that if he had not been trussed up like a goose and lashed to a saddle. He had given up squirming. The knots that bound him were too tight. Instead he'd gone as limp as a sack of meal. Saving my strength, he told himself, though for what he could not have said.

The next sentence immediately gives the game away, so this is clear-cut.

Jon VI

It was no easy thing to send men into the wild, knowing that the chances were good that they might never return. They are all seasoned men, Jon told himself ... but his uncle Benjen and his rangers had been seasoned men as well, and the haunted forest had swallowed them up without a trace. When two of them finally came straggling back to the Wall, it had been as wights. Not for the first time, or the last, Jon Snow found himself wondering what had become of Benjen Stark. Perhaps the rangers will come upon some sign of them, he told himself, never truly believing it.

The scouting missions are full of ambiguity in ADWD. Are they a bad idea and a mistake, as Bowen Marsh will have it? Should the gates have been sealed? Or will they turn up something interesting in the end?

Once clad in mail and plate, the Lord of Bones seemed to stand a little straighter. He seemed taller too, his shoulders thicker and more powerful than Jon would have thought. It's the armor, not the man, he told himself. Even Sam could appear almost formidable, clad head to heel in Donal Noye's steel. The wildling waved away the shield Horse offered him. Instead he asked for a two-handed sword. "There's a sweet sound," he said, slashing at the air. "Flap closer, Snow. I mean to make your feathers fly."

Obviously, this is Mance Rayder, but first-time readers do not know this yet.

Iron Emmett's fledglings cheered their lord commander at the start, but the relentless speed of Rattleshirt's attack soon beat them down to silence. He cannot keep this up for long, Jon told himself as he stopped another blow.

But he can. This is the only time we see Mance Rayder fight, and it's important that we see this aspect as well, because it won him the title of King Beyond the Wall with the likes of Tormund or Rattleshirt, who really was a bag of hot air.

Bran III

I am too old for such fancies, he told himself. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. That was as good as being a knight. Almost as good, anyway.

Bran still cannot let go, but that's okay. He's an eight-year-old boy, after all, so I actually like this touch of him still clinging to knighthood.

Daenerys VIII

Dany scarce touched a bite. This is peace, she told herself. This is what I wanted, what I worked for, this is why I married Hizdahr. So why does it taste so much like defeat?

This is obviously Dany trying to rationalize.

No queen has clean hands, Dany told herself. She thought of Doreah, of Quaro, of Eroeh ... of a little girl she had never met, whose name had been Hazzea.

Keep this in mind when you reread the next time. It will be the last time Dany can actually remember all these names. In Daenerys X, when she embraces the dragon, she will have forgotten them. And "no queen has clean hands" is a lame excuse, as Dany well knows, which is why she needs to tell herself the obvious fake-out.

The Prince of Winterfell

Theon drew the dagger. All I need do is turn and stab him. The knife is in my hand. He knew the game by then. Another trap, he told himself, remembering Kyra with her keys. He wants me to try to kill him.

This just shows how warped Theon's mind is. Ramsay looms so large in his sub-conscious that he cannot let go, ever.

Jaime I

Once it yielded, his work along the Trident would be done, and he would be free to return to King's Landing. To the king, he told himself, but another part of him whispered, to Cersei.

Another one where the second half of the sentence already explains it.

Daenerys IX

Irri insisted that Belaquo Bonebreaker's flail would prove the giant's undoing. My handmaids are Dothraki, she told herself. Death rides with every khalasar.

Dany needs to remind herself, force the knowledge she often likes to forget front and center. Again, remembering comes up as a key theme here, forgetting cultural biases, etc.

Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad.

The whole dilemma of her arc in ADWD, summed up in one sentence.

The Queensguard

"She might be flying home," he told himself, aloud.

Barristan never really came around to Dany's idea of ruling Meereen. He wants to go back to Westeros so bad he needs to tell himself it's Dany's first priority, too.

Shadows gathered in the streets and alleys below, making pools and rivers. In the dusk, the city seemed a tranquil place, even beautiful. That is pestilence, not peace, the old knight told himself with his last sip of wine.

Barristan's anti-Essosi biases shine through here, but on the other hand, he's right: it IS pestilence, not peace. I'm a bit torn about the use of "told himself" here, to be honest.

No, the old knight thought. If Hizdahr conspired at my queen's death, I will see to him myself, but his death will be swift and clean. The gods of Westeros were far away, yet Ser Barristan Selmy paused for a moment to say a silent prayer, asking the Crone to light his way to wisdom. For the children, he told himself. For the city. For my queen.

Another one that leaves me baffled. The children are obviously important to him, so I can only go with the explanation that he doesn't really believe in his political machinations as the means to the end, and this is where the "telling himself" comes from.

Victarion I

A scratch from a little kitten, Victarion told himself afterward. He had washed the cut, poured some boiled vinegar over it, bound it up, and thought little more of it, trusting that the pain would fade and the hand heal itself in time.

Well, Victarion is the dumbest piece of shit around, so there's that.

Cersei I

All she knew for certain was that Jaime had not come. Not yet, she told herself. But soon. And once he comes the High Sparrow and his bitches will sing a different song.

Lying to herself, obviously. Cersei really is the queen of telling herself things.

Cersei gave them all the words that she had in her, gave them everything but tears. That they will never have, she told herself.

They will, of course, when she breaks down before the Red Keep in her next chapter.

"Lancel." Cersei hesitated. Careful, she told herself, Lancel will have told him everything. "Lancel loved me. He was half a boy, but I never doubted his devotion to me or my son."

Here she's just steeling herself, Arya-style.

The Discarded Knight

I swore no oath to Dorne, Ser Barristan told himself. But Lewyn Martell had been his Sworn Brother, back in the days when the bonds between the Kingsguard still went deep.

He didn't, of course, but his heart is with the Westerosi, while his duty is with Meereen.

The Griffin Reborn

For years afterward, Jon Connington told himself that he was not to blame, that he had done all that any man could do. His soldiers searched every hole and hovel, he offered pardons and rewards, he took hostages and hung them in crow cages and swore that they would have neither food nor drink until Robert was delivered to him.

Jon Connington of course was to blame, which is not to say that burning down the city was the solution for his problem.

The Sacrifice

Eight days ago Asha had walked out with Aly Mormont to have a closer look at its slitted red eyes and bloody mouth. It is only sap, she'd told herself, the red sap that flows inside these weirwoods. But her eyes were unconvinced; seeing was believing, and what they saw was frozen blood.

Given Bran's vision about blood sacrifices, this is eerie.

Close your eyes, she told herself. Close your ears. Turn away. You do not need to see this. The queen's men were singing some paean of praise for red R'hllor, but she could not hear the words above the shrieks.

Jaime would approve.

The Ugly Little Girl

Smooth and quick, that's the way, no fumbling, she told herself, and she slipped the little blade out of her sleeve, again and again and again.

She's an assassin.

Masks, she told herself, it's only masks, but even as she thought the thought, she knew it wasn't so. They were skins.

The second sentence provides all necessary context.

Cersei II

On the last night of her imprisonment, the queen could not sleep. Each time she closed her eyes, her head filled with forebodings and fantasies of the morrow. I will have guards, she told herself. They will keep the crowds away. No one will be allowed to touch me. The High Sparrow had promised her that much

You know they lie, don't you? Even Cersei, deranged as she is, knows that this is not what she hopes it will be.

The cobbles underfoot were filthy, and there was so little space that the queen could not even walk around the puddles. No one has ever died of wet feet, she told herself. She wanted to believe the puddles were just rainwater, though horse piss was just as likely.

Cersei walked on. I am blind and deaf, and they are worms, she told herself. "Shame, shame," the septas sang. "Chestnuts, hot roast chestnuts," a peddler cried. "Queen Cunt," a drunkard pronounced solemnly from a balcony above, lifting his cup to her in a mocking toast.

True of course, but this is the least of her problems. She's putting on a brave face, but the whole procedure is so throughly humiliating and de-humanizing...

"That can't be the queen," a boy said, "she's saggy as my mum." This is my penance, Cersei told herself. I have sinned most grievously, this is my atonement. It will be over soon, it will be behind me, then I can forget.

Cersei tries to bring herself into a mindset in which the monstrosity she is experiencing makes any sense, which reminds me a bit about Theon. But this doesn't work. She's not punished for being a sinner, and she's not atoning. She's tortured by a band of misogynists because they can, and that's all there is to it.

The Dragontamer

Finally, despairing of rest, Quentyn Martell made his way to his solar, where he poured himself a cup of wine and drank it in the dark. The taste was sweet solace on his tongue, so he lit a candle and poured himself another. Wine will help me sleep, he told himself, but he knew that was a lie.

Well, it's right in the text.

Daenerys X

Jhiqui and Irri would be waiting atop her pyramid back in Meereen, she told herself. Her sweet scribe Missandei as well, and all her little pages.

They actually are, but this gives us a first clue that her arc will not lead her back to Meereen.

Her hats all fell to pieces in her hands. Try again, she told herself. You will do better the next time.

Daenerys, Maker of Hats. This is not her destiny.

No, Dany told herself. If I look back I am lost. She might live for years amongst the sunbaked rocks of Dragonstone, riding Drogon by day and gnawing at his leavings every evenfall as the great grass sea turned from gold to orange, but that was not the life she had been born to.

Again, not where she's headed, and she won't get forward before she admits that to herself.

The wind, she told herself, the wind shakes the stalks and makes them sway. Only no wind was blowing.

The world was green and silent. The world was yellow, dying. I should get up, she told herself. I have to walk. I have to follow the stream.

Dany is forcing herself back from the brink, trying to fight back delusion and illusion. She won't really do that in this chapter, only exchange them for the exhilerating ride on Drogon. That's actually for the next book.


Better to live shamed than die proud, Ser Kevan told himself. "My niece will make no further mischief," he promised Mace Tyrell. "You have my word on that, my lord."

Men's lives have meaning, not their deaths. Didn't you read Quentyn's chapters, Kevan?

I have no reason to feel guilty, Ser Kevan told himself. Tywin would understand that, surely. It was his daughter who brought shame down on our name, not I. What I did I did for the good of House Lannister.

Yes, man, you do. You participated in all the war crimes and atrocities of your brother.

And so, ADWD ends. I found it surprising how little lying to themselves is going on, especially in Jon's and Dany's chapters. I take this as a sign of the characters growing and maturing, settling into their final arcs before The Winds of Winter blow and bring A Dream of Spring.

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