One underlying theme in Game of Thrones is the portrayal of people who are slightly different or people with special needs. And I say it’s about time that a highly successful series shows people of all ranges and abilities. Yes, I know we’ve seen a few series here and there on televsion that usually have one token character who has special needs, whether it be intellectual or physical. I find Game of Thrones to be appealing on many levels – and the very fact that there are several characters that encompass diverse needs across the board – I say, “Bravo, HBO and George R.R. Martin!” (this is something very close to my heart, as I have worked with students with Autism and Cerebral Palsy in the last decade) When watching the series and reading the books, as raw and gritty as they can be, it is so refreshing to see characters in a major series portrayed with special needs: Hodor, who is referred to as the “halfwit,” Bran Stark, who becomes paralyzed after a terrible accident, Tyrion Lannister, who does not have special needs per se, but he is a dwarf and represents a diverse population: people with dwarfism and the young Lord of the Vale, Robert Arryn, who is a very sickly child, prone to fainting and seizures, which could be attributed to mental health issues.
Let’s start with Hodor. We don’t really know too much about him; only that he is Nan’s great grandson and apparently, he has giant’s blood in him, which explains his size and stature. He is viewed as a simpleton, a kind giant who has the disposition of a child and who wouldn’t hurt anyone. I cringe when he is called a ‘halfwit’ – it always bothers me that people who are a little bit different are picked on and bullied. After all, when Theon Greyjoy seizes Winterfell and he says, ‘Go find the halfwit’ – it isn’t used as a term of endearment. Everyone in the Stark household treats Hodor pretty well, as far as viewers see. Hodor doesn’t have what you would call a very developed vocabulary. The only word he knows is his name. He uses it as anyone would use ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘hello.’ Hodor only says, ‘Hodor.’ He performs simple tasks, such as watch over the two youngest Starks, guards them outside their chambers and goes with them on small errands. This changes drastically when Bran is paralyzed from the waist down. Hodor’s strength and size allow for Bran to be carried on his back, with the use of a sling and straps. Hodor also serves as a protector to the young Stark boys, for now the only family they have left is Osha, the wildling woman.
Bran Stark used to be a happy, fun loving young boy in the Stark household. Although he wasn’t quite as steady with a bow and arrow as his older brothers were, he was very agile and sure footed when it came to scaling castle walls. It is in climbing those very walls – the same ones that he promised his mother he wouldn’t – that brings about a tragic set of events and leaves Bran first in a coma like state for a month, then to come out of it, only to understand that he has lost the use of his legs forever. Bran feels completely hopeless and bitter about his predicament, like he can never truly be a normal boy again. I think anyone would feel like that, especially being born normal and then becoming paralyzed from the waist down. For a 10 year old boy, that must have been devastating. When I work with students with special needs, two things are always put into place: accommodations and modifications – to their educational environment. This means that the school board is responsible for making the necessary changes to the classroom environment and to the school curriculum, in order to give students with special needs the best possible learning environment and opportunities that they deserve.
It is interesting to note that several accommodations have been put into place for Bran Stark. The most noticeable one is having Hodor carry Bran around everywhere, by the use of a sling and straps. The next one is we see a pulley strap hanging over his bed, so he can pull himself up, when he wakes up in the morning. Bran used to ride a horse with a normal saddle, but because of his legs, he has leg supports placed onto his calves, to give him additional balance. The best modification that took place was a suggestion from someone who knows all too well what it is like to be picked on, hated, stared at, made fun of and ignored all throughout his years growing up: Tyrion Lannister. Yes, believe it or not, someone from House Lannister actually came up with a very good modification in order to help out a ‘cripple.’ Yet, the Lannister who gave the suggestion is the one who cares the most, because of the years of suffering he himself had to endure, at the hands of his own father and sister. Tyrion comes up with a sketch and a explains how Bran will be able to ride on horses once again, as long as they build him the proper saddle with a few specifications.
“I’m not a cripple,” replies Bran. “Then I’m not a dwarf! My father will rejoice in hearing that,” responds Tyrion. In this pivotal scene, Robb Stark sees the error of his ways at being rude to Tyrion, especially hearing how his suggestion about modifying a horse saddle that will allow Bran to ride again. Tyrion, being the shrewd guy he his, blows Robb Stark’s fake hospitality out of the water. He doesn’t really care for Robb all that much, but genuinely cared about the young Bran and wanted to try and make his life a little more bearable. Something so small as modifying a horse saddle will be able to bring joy to a little boy, who thought his life, was all but over. In this way, you can truly say that Tyrion Lannister empathizes with Bran Stark. It takes one to know one, and Tyrion knows all about enduring pain and suffering over the years. “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.” One of the most powerful quotes I ever heard in the first season. The smile that Bran displays to Tyrion is one of pure delight and was a crucial moment: finally, something to look forward to.
Tyrion learned to mask his pain with indifference and a cunning, wicked wit. All the years of being made fun of, called a monster, an imp, being ignored by his father, being hated by his sister and constantly being reminded that he killed his mother during childbirth hardened his resolve to survive. Tyrion not only survived an awful childhood, but he learned that by being educated, the pen truly is mightier than the sword. Anyone can wield a sword, but when it comes down to it, without the proper education, you’d be useless in trying to wield the damned thing against an enemy. Tyrion Lannister represents the dwarf population and although he does not have special needs, in his own way, he is the underdog, being disadvantaged from birth by his size.
We finally come to the young Lord of the Vale, Robert Arryn. Here is another sort of special need being portrayed: the boy is constantly sick, suffers from seizures and is prone to fits of madness. If I didn’t know better, I would say he has a form of epilepsy and some sort of mental instability. He probably got the latter from his mother, as the Lady Lysa Arryn has shown some signs of instability herself. One could also surmise just how Robert became a sickly and puny child.
Just look at his genetics: his father was the late Lord John Arryn, the previous Hand of the King and almost twenty years older then Lysa Arryn. Sometimes, when the parents of a child are quite a bit older, this could lead to a child being born with health issues. One thing that I found startling, not to mention revolting, was the fact that this child was still being breastfed by his mother. And he is a CHILD, not a BABY! Those are just a few clues to perhaps explain why Robert is the way he is. Time will tell how Robert’s affliction will play out, and to see who will care for him and who will use his condition to their advantage.
When you think of the medieval world of Westeros, only the strong survive. The weak, the outcast and the ones with afflictions are all left behind to cruel fates. In modern day, as a society we try our best to be inclusive and respectful of those with special needs. What the world needs is love, understanding and empathy. In Westeros, there are few that embody those characteristics. However, not every character in Game of Thrones is heartless – but there is something to be said about how a nation can be judged for the way they treat their most vulnerable. And how would we judge Westeros?