What do Jaime Lannister and Sirius Black have in common? A lot, it turns out. They’re both very rich, from proud, aristocratic families (which are very powerful in their respective worlds), firstborn sons with great talent and wit, and, of course, wonderfully handsome. They also turn out to be parental disappointments, trust the wrong people and suffer terrible trials that cause them to question the very foundation of their worth. And yes, they have ‘sons’ who know nothing about them for a very, very long time.
Jaime and Sirius are shining examples of that up and coming trope, the Poor Little Rich Boy (or PLRB, for short). Shae defines the trope better than I ever could; in Episode 10 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, she snaps at Tyrion: ‘I’m a poor little rich boy and no one loves me so I say funny things and pay people to laugh at my jokes’, she mocks. Tyrion looks appropriately chastened.*
The PLRB, in my opinion, is popular culture’s response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, painting a picture that few ‘real’ men could ever hope to live up to. Movies, books, TV shows are rife with this character- just sit in thought for a few moments and you’ll be reeling off a string of names: Chuck Bass, Christian Grey, Gawyn Trakand, Evan Chambers … While the details of their insecurity and weakness might differ, they share some traits including the notion that they have and will always continue to disappoint someone in the course of their (seemingly) empty, worthless lives.
Of course, this is remedied in the case of Chuck and Christian, but poor Gawyn damns himself and Egwene because (spoiler) he can’t get over his Rand-inflected inferiority complex. As for Evan, he was left alone at the end of GREEK, the only character who had nothing specific to look forward to.
In this post, I will examine what makes the PLRB such a compelling character, especially its manifestation in the form of Jaime and Sirius. Certainly a great deal of their allure comes from the fact that they have all that is normally associated with a ‘successful’ person: they’re rich, handsome, smart and very good at what they do, whether it’s swinging a sword or firing spells and planning pranks. At the same time, they are enormously vulnerable, whether because of love, lack of it, or their spotted, not entirely deserved reputations.
Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Sorely Wound Me
Let’s begin with Jaime. When we meet him in A Game of Thrones, there seems little to like about him. He’s ‘golden’ and handsome, true, but he’s also the treacherous ‘Kingslayer’, the man who slew the ruler he was sworn to defend. A few pages after he rides onto the scene, he throws a six year old boy out of a tower and cripples him for life. After this he disappears, returns to wound honourable Ned Stark, and then is only seen again when in chains before the righteous Young Wolf.
If you came to A Song of Ice and Fire as I did, fresh from a world where characters in fantasy books were good or evil, no doubt your head spun when you reached A Storm of Swords and found yourself listening to a man you had decided to hate two books ago. When I first read ASoIaF, the TV series wasn’t even a whisper on the horizon, and so my experience of Jaime (in those first two books) was in no way as well-rounded as that of readers who came to him through the show. In A Game of Thrones , producers and scriptwriters don’t stay inside a few chosen characters the way Martin does—they present a more omniscient perspective, and so we get to see a less than wholly evil Jaime right from the start.
Instead, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a man who wears his spotted reputation with a mixture of pride, resignation and a careful layering of carelessness. He ends the famous declaration ‘There are no men like me. Only me.’ with a half-grimace, underlining the character’s peculiar solitude and consequent loneliness. Coster-Waldeau presents a Jaime never entirely certain of his father’s regard for him, the scene in Tywin’s tent is Season 1, episode 7 (‘You Win or You Die’) being a great example. This scene does not take place in the books (at least, we are never witness to it), but serves, in the show, to begin building the figure of a man who is not entirely inhuman, even if he does do some monstrous ‘things’ for ‘love’.
It’s this lingering sense of honour, of idealism that sets Jaime apart from his twin and his father and makes him similar to Tyrion. For all his devil-may-care swagger, Jaime does set some store by what others think of him—how else does one explain the bitterness that coats his words every time he speaks of ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark and his quicksilver judgments? The strange ‘honor’ that Jaime possesses, that he slowly builds upon in the course of the books, emerges when he is divorced from his family and forced to confront the seamier, less than gilded side of Westeros. Once he is disowned by his father and heads into the riverlands and back to the warfront, the transformation of Ser Jaime is nearly complete.
Black as He’s Bred
Just like Jaime, Sirius too is brought up as the firstborn son and heir of a rich and powerful house, one that holds certain beliefs that often seem to put it at odds (at least, in the years the Potter books are set in and make extensive reference to) with the rest of the wizarding world. To the Blacks, duty to family and bloodline is above all, as enshrined in their motto, ‘Toujours Pur’. Sirius’s breaking of Black family tradition via Sorting into Gryffindor house only marks the beginning of his stated (and canon-supported) rebellion. At the age of fifteen, he famously runs away to join another family (though he never formally changes his name), marking his clear emergence on the ‘right’ side.
Like Jaime, however, the stain of Sirius’ blood/actions never quite leaves him in the text. Misapprehended as the Secret Keeper for the Potters, Sirius is jailed for twelve long, harrowing years and publicly maligned as a traitor of the worst kind. He is never exonerated during his lifetime, forced to hide and ‘escape justice’ for three years on the run for a crime he never committed. The chief reasons for the easy tarnishing of Sirius’s reputation lie, I believe, both in his family’s reputation and his own actions in Hogwarts. As Severus Snape bites out, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at sixteen’. Though it’s never stated in the books outright, I believe this was a reason, however slight, for Dumbledore, McGonagall, indeed, most clear-thinking characters’ easy acceptance of his ‘guilt’.
O Brother, Where Art thou?
Another factor that constitutes a large part of both characters’ portrayals is their relationship with their younger brothers. Both Jaime and Sirius ‘abandon’ their forebears’ definition of family duty to pursue their own goals: Jaime as a member of the Kingsguard and Sirius as a fighter for the ‘blood-traitors’’ side. As stated earlier, at the start of the books, Jaime does not come across as anything other than a dutiful son (chiefly because we do not actually get to look into his head in this section of Martin’s saga). He loves his brother, his worry for him driving him to recklessness and sparking off violence in the heart of King’s Landing. Tyrion himself often thinks of Jaime fondly in the first three books. The regard comes crashing down only when Jaime reveals his own part in the tragic tale of Tysha. At this point, Jaime has already broken from Tywin; this act leads to a schism in his relationship with his brother, one that I am not sure they will ever be able to repair.
Though barely glanced at in the text, it is implied that Sirius too failed Regulus, abandoning him to the manipulations and overbearing nature of his parents. Sirius speaks of his brother with bitterness in The Order of the Phoenix, implying that he was a low-ranking coward who didn’t even have the sort of twisted bravery that would carry him through his chosen service with the Dark Lord. We have no way of knowing whether he ever tried to persuade his brother to abandon the Black beliefs after he ran away from home, but given the Marauders’ general attitude to Slytherins and Sirius’s overwhelming bitterness towards his family, we can assume that whatever attempts he might have made were feeble and, above all, unsuccessful. At least as far as Sirius knew.
‘There are no men like me, only me’
Yes, I’ve already referenced this quote earlier, but I think it’s a perfect summation of the presentation of both Jaime and Sirius in their respective universes. Is there anyone quite as handsome, as well-bred, as good with a weapon or as misunderstood? James Potter may have stood in close competition with Sirius, but the former’s early removal from the series ensures that all we have of him is hearsay (and the occasional jaunt down Pensieve-lane). Besides, the ‘Potter’ name doesn’t seem to have quite the power and dark magic that ‘Black’ has attached to it, the same way ‘Lannister’ sounds a deal more heavyweight than ‘Tyrell’ in Westeros.
Jaime and Sirius’s life choices ensure that they do not follow the ‘conventional’ paths, i.e., marry and settle down to produce equally wonderful children. However, they both do have ‘sons’ (and in Jaime’s case, a daughter as well): Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella for Jaime, and a godson, Harry, for Sirius. Neither of them is there for their children for much of their lives. For Jaime, this is a safety issue, where his very life, his sister’s and the children’s depends on the continued belief of the masses (and the king) that the children are Robert’s. For Sirius, this is because of his being locked away in Azkaban. Even later, however, Harry reflects rather ungratefully (in a throwaway line in Deathly Hallows) upon how ‘reckless’ a godfather Sirius was, hoping that he himself will not be such to Teddy Lupin. Personally, I found this reflection rather astonishing, given Harry’s immediate reaction to Sirius’s death was to blame himself for his own hastiness and willingness to succumb to Voldemort’s trap. The reading of his death as a result of his own recklessness was something I would have assumed Dumbledore would make, not Sirius’s beloved and adoring godson.
Speaking of recklessness, can we forget Jaime’s impetuous wounding of Ned Stark? Or indeed his shoving of Bran out the window? Both are the result of his ‘unthinking’ quickness, a characteristic that Cersei laments and Tyrion cannot afford. Jaime is ‘reckless’, he stabs first and thinks about it later, he cannot be ‘serious’ about anything precisely because, up until his maiming, things come so easy to him. In the world he inhabits, he does not have to wonder about his ability to succeed. Neither does Sirius. This is why they are able to treat combat and perilous situations the way they do: with a laugh, a jest and a casual grace that others cannot hope to achieve.
And yet, we still love them
They have everything, as I’ve no doubt underlined multiple times. They have everything that would make for unparalleled success in any context. And yet, they don’t find it. And that’s why they work.
I had the misfortune to brush through a terrible ‘fantasy’ novel some months ago, where the protagonist was a well-toned, intelligent, handsome man who ‘fought’ to find release. Within a few sentences, I hated him. He was too self-confident (even while being presented very obviously as a flawed and under-confident being), too successful, too together. No one wants a hero you can’t sympathize with, especially in a fantasy novel, where everything else is supposed to be sort of alien anyway.
So what makes these particular near-perfect characters, Jaime and Sirius, work? One reason, I think, is because they are not the main characters. Though Jaime is a viewpoint in A Storm of Swords and the books that come after, he is one among many voices and, he is not one we have been with from the start, as in the case of Jon Snow, Danaerys, or Tyrion. The Harry Potter books, of course, are written primarily from Harry’s point of view, and Sirius ranks far below characters like Ron and Hermione and Neville in terms of screen-time. We don’t see too much of either of these figures, a fact which, I think, makes them more attractive and less jealousy/cringe-inducing as was the case with the earlier mentioned character.
Besides, Martin and Rowling are far better writers than that guy was.
Second, I believe the manner of their introduction has a huge part to play. Both Jaime and Sirius are presented first as ‘bad guys’, and it’s only later that we learn the stories behind their supposed crimes. The readers’ initial dislike or negative impression of them is slowly corrected only after surprising and thought-provoking revelations, which raise complicated questions about duty and loyalty. It turns out, surprisingly, that these guys were placed in hellish situations (especially in Jaime’s case) and tried to make the best of what they were offered. I think our surprise at their ‘good guy-ness’ and the revelation that we, the judging readers, have also condemned them without hearing the whole story, does a lot to help us forgive them their Rich Boy angst. We are now eager to make them understand that we are different from their dense, unmoved peers. We hear them, we see their ordeals, we appreciate what they’ve been through. We are now there for them, heart and soul.
This finally, is what makes characters like Darcy, Christian Gray, Jaime and Sirius tick—the readers’ desire to be forgiving and benevolent, to hand out comfort to those who are otherwise misunderstood by their own society. We are all a little bit like Sansa Stark in that way—these ‘monsters’ won’t hurt us because we know their weaknesses and unlike the rest of the mileu, we understand them. We know the real Jaime Lannister, we see past the glamorous exterior of Sirius Black, we really have the power to forgive them their stupidities and mistakes.
I think it’s that, really, that makes these characters so seductive. The idea that, no matter how perfect they are, they have weaknesses that only we as readers are privy to and can forgive. It’s hard, if not impossible, to exert the same kind of power in real life—all the glamorous, powerful people are not waiting for you to come to them and assure them that everything is okay. Neither would they be supremely grateful for it. But these guys—they’re all ours to forgive and love. And everyone knows that in fantasy, it’s the forgiver who’s the real hero at the end of the day.
* I haven’t included Tyrion in this definition because he does not have the same physical and social advantages that these Rich Boys have. He’s a Poor Little Rich Boy with a lot more problems than these guys could ever dream of.