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Cersei Lannister: An Icon of Thrones

While dragon fire burns away ancient forests and cultures, while white walkers and mindless zombies keep marching on to destroy what democracy has built in the White House and Downing Street over the last decades, people of the 21st century like to escape into fascinating worlds of dragon fire that cannot harm us and watch how eloquent tyrants dressed in silk kill innocent people by the thousands. It is a world just like ours, full of conflicting politics leading to death and destruction, only it is much more fun because it is not real. Welcome to the merry world of Game of Thrones.

Now that it’s all over, the dragons are gone, the people burned to ashes, a white, male, privileged boy sits on the throne while the North got its Brexit it really wanted which pretty much all sounds like 21st Western politics to me, we are left with the sweet memory of exciting days gone by. And whether you liked the ending or not does not matter because the petition to remake season 8 is as much as going to happen as the UK decides to remain in the European Union. Still, as a die hard Game of Thrones and fantasy fan one cannot resist but revisit some of the finest moments on Thrones.

Let’s be honest, these blissful times always somehow included a blond smirking evil Queen named Cersei of House Lannister. Whenever she appeared on screen you knew you did not have to take up with pretentious moral talking of Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow gazing into the winds of winter uttering his too often spoken line: “ Winter is coming! “ No, with Cersei Lannister you always knew you were about to laugh as she would say something mean about some peasant or surprise us with a well played move resulting in someone’s death.

As an expert on Thrones and fantasy literature you cannot help but wonder why so many fans (including me) have grown so fond of Cersei Lannister over the years. After all, she is directly and indirectly responsible for many character deaths including Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, Margery Tyrell, Lady Olenna Tyrell, the Sandsnakes, the two dragons Viserion and Rheagal (the list goes on…) The thing is, in a fantasy story that breaks all the fantasy rules, which surprised you with characters dying or changing their behaviour, Cersei Lannister has remained a constant evil Queen until the bitter end which makes her so appalling and at the same time so appealing. To sum her up in one sentence: A woman full of self interest, eager to destroy everything and everyone in her way no matter the cost. That makes her an archetype we are all well familiar with: The fairytale version of the evil Queen. One of Cersei’s habits that is a frequent image on the show is her drinking wine, smirking malevolently while something horrible is happening to one or more of her enemies. But this image is old news and has been created in the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in which the evil Queen drinks wine and concocts some new plan to murder her young rival who has done nothing wrong but looking more beautiful than she does. Let’s be honest, Cersei and the Disney evil Queen are one and the same person.

This image though, a wine drinking Queen (or beautiful woman) has not been invented by Disney but Disney did their research and found their inspiration in the visual arts of  Renaissance and Baroque times. Adam Gopnik points out this very same aspect in his article from the New Yorker (An Art- Historical Analysis of Cersei Lannister sipping wine):

“ In Renaissance and Baroque painting, when a woman is pictured drinking wine, it is certainly an event—but the event is the violation of the norm on women’s sobriety. When, in Vermeer, a virginal-looking Dutch woman is shown with a glass in her hand, it’s what’s in the glass and what might happen later that really carries; the drink is a prelude to seduction. “ (March 7th, 2019)

Seduction in a man’s world is something dangerous for the male sex, as so many men on Game of Thrones like Stannis Baratheon learn sooner rather than later and it is Cersei herself who points out that the strongest weapon of a woman in her condition is the one between her legs. The drinking of wine signals seduction and temptation but this is where Cersei tries to turn it around and makes it her own. A woman was not supposed to drink wine for simple pleasure but this is exactly what Cersei is doing. Drinking wine is a man’s pleasure but Cersei claims exactly this for herself and while drinking, she is doing what all white men in power have done before her, whether in Westeros or in our world: She causes death and destruction and takes a sip of her sweet wine. To put it simple: She is a woman of medieval times searching for her place to be taken seriously.

Another interesting parallel between the two lives of Cersei and the evil Queen in Snow White is the constant fear to be replaced by another Queen. And not just any Queen, in Disney it is the magic mirror that tells the Queen of the beautiful young princess who is the fairest of them all and more beautiful than the Queen herself. Of course the evil Queen is triggered immediately and wants the young princess to be killed no matter the cost.

In Thrones Cersei is being told her future by an old hag who lives in the forests of Casterly Rock. Her exact words are:

 “ In time you will be overthrown by another, younger and more beautiful Queen who will cast you down and take all you hold dear. “

In the course of the series there are three potential Queens that could do that: The first one is Margery Tyrell, but Cersei manages to dispose of her by blowing her up. Second comes Daenerys Targaryen, who is the very reason for Cersei’s death but she did not take what Cersei held most dear, as she was killed just a day later. It was Sansa of House Stark who fulfilled this prophecy. She was the one spreading the truth about Jon Snow’s heritage leading to Daenerys’s rush actions to burn down King’s Landing and in the process killing Cersei. Sansa is one of the view characters to come out as a victor of the story and she did get everything Cersei always missed and always wanted: Playing the Game of Thrones and coming out as an unquestioned Queen and winner. Moreover, considering the fact that Cersei always saw Sansa as a little plaything to be mentally tormented the parallels between the evil Queen of Disney and Cersei round up nicely.

This leads us on to the very essence of Cersei’s character and the reason why the viewers or readers of this story can relate to her, despite her actions. It is about that infamous quote:

“ In the Game of Thrones you either win or you die. There is no middle ground.“

This, Cersei tells Ned Stark, who, not long after, learns the horrible truth of this very statement and so do most of Cersei’s enemies.

Cersei’s most human and therefore most relatable character trait is to survive and to guarantee the survival of her children. Every loving mother would do anything for her children even if it means to blow up a cathedral full of people, slaughter a wedding party or be responsible for the burning of an entire city when it comes to choosing between survival and death. Everything’s fair in love and war and in Cersei’s case it is the love for her children and the will to survive in a war. One simply has to admire her determination of survival where some other characters in the story gave up and made stupid mistakes by trusting the wrong people or anyone at all. To name only a few: Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, Daenerys Targaryen.

The reason why Cersei is so mistrusting and therefore surviving for so long are her early years of marriage. She was a princess who fell in love with a prince who turned out to be an abusive, violent drunk. First loving and then loathing this man she aspires to become the very character she was never allowed to be: A woman in power.

Women in power are very often just like men in power. They are corrupted by it and crave for more no matter the cost. Exactly this happens to Cersei Lannister in eight seasons of Game of Thrones. Despite the very tragic human moments where she grieves for her dead children she finds herself as the only one left in power to play the Game of Thrones. She likes the taste of wine, the taste of power and the same thing happens to her as to all the evil Queens, depending on whether you still want to see her as evil or just as an abused and broken woman who did what she had to do in order to survive. But even after all her battles she learns that life is just as brutal as when she was a young princess. Her greatest strength within the course of Game of Thrones not to trust anyone becomes in the end, like with all tyrants, her greatest weakness. In not trusting her brother Tyrion Lannister, who was her only chance of survival, all hope for her and her unborn child was lost. Do we pity her? Not really. Do we applaud her for making it till the end of eight very deadly seasons of A Game of Thrones? Yes, we do. Cersei, I will miss seeing you drinking wine and smirk.

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