The following post contains spoilers! Continue only if you wish to see discussion of plot points from season four of Game of Thrones.
Last week, I wrote about some of the significant themes that worked to tie “Two Swords,” the premiere episode of season four, into a cohesive whole. I focused mainly on the events that occurred in that episode, but this, instead of focusing exclusively on “The Lion and the Rose,” I’d like to discuss the importance of the so-called Lannister song, “The Rains of Castamere,” which has a significant role to play in this episode.
You can listen to this song on YouTube: here is the version recorded by the band The National, but the new version for season four was made by the group Sigur Ros. There is also a grand and haunting instrumental version. All these are official versions, but you can find many covers as well, such as this one.
Here are the lyrics, if you’d like to take a look:
And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that Lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.
Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,
and not a soul to hear.
Context of the Song
The first major instance of this song occurs right before the Battle of the Blackwater, when Bronn and a group of Lannister men sing it, to demonstrate their solidarity before a major battle. There’s not much thematic significance here, except for the song being a point of pride for Lannisters. The context of the song is unexplained.
In the middle of season three, Cersei explains the context of the song to Margaery, in an attempt to threaten her. The Lord of Castamere and his family, the Reynes, refused to support the Lannisters. In response to their rebellion, Tywin Lannister marched in with his men and wiped out every single one of them. “The Rains of Castamere” commemorates this major victory for the Lannister family.
The Reyne family sigil was a red lion, while the Lannisters are represented by a golden lion. In the song, the Lord of Castamere claims that the only difference between his red lions and the Lannister gold lions is the color of their coat. No matter what color a lion is, its claws are still quite deadly: we are both equally powerful, says the proud lord, so why should I bend my knee to you?
But this lord and his arrogant words did not deter the cruelty of the Lannisters: no one, not a soul, remains within his halls to mourn him. The only ones left to weep are the rains… or the Reynes, the family killed off by Tywin: only the dead are left to mourn. So deadly is the power of the Lannisters, so deep their cruelty and desire for power, that their enemies are inevitably crushed.
The Red Wedding
This same song plays at the Red Wedding, as a signal for the Freys and Boltons to turn against the Starks. As the treacherous Roose Bolton stabs Robb Stark, he says, “The Lannisters send their regards.” The failure of the Starks is a key victory for Tywin Lannister and his family; the use of this song solidifies the cruel power of the Lannisters over their enemies.
Imagine what the Lords Bolton and Frey must be thinking, in the context of this song: Frey is thinking that Robb Stark has arrogantly refused (that is, he is a “proud lord”) to honor his betrothal promise, while Bolton sees that Robb is proudly continuing to fight a losing battle, just like the Lord of Castamere; thus, seeking power and vengeance, these two men would say that it is fitting for them to wipe out the Starks in this cruel and treacherous way, just like the Lannisters.
But, let’s flip things around. What has Roose Bolton done? He has decided that Robb is not worthy of his support. He has asked himself the very same question posed in the song by the arrogant Lord of Castamere: if my lord’s claws are not sharp enough for him to remain in charge, why should I bend my knee to him? Why should I continue to support him? And, just remember, the asking of this question brings devastation upon the Reynes.
To achieve his goals, Roose Bolton had to make an alliance with the Lannisters in King’s Landing: he, for all the power he has gained, is not as strong as House Lannister, which controls the throne. Symbolically, the use of “The Rains of Castamere” at the wedding indicates who is really in charge, for this is a song confirming the power of the Lannisters, not the Boltons or Freys. Roose is still not the man in charge.
If Bolton is such an ambitious and treacherous man that he would turn against his liege lord, imagine what might happen when he gets an itch for more power: might he be wiped out, just like the Lord of Castamere?
In any event, this represents a massive win for the Lannisters. The symbolic use of this song to champion Lannister authority continues into season four, with that powerful scene in which Ice is melted down to produce two Valyrian steel blades for the Lannister family. “The Rains of Castamere” plays hauntingly in the background as a symbolic remnant of a Lannister foe, the Starks, is destroyed.
The Purple Wedding
All this changes in “The Lion and the Rose.” At first, “The Rains of Castamere” seems to be played in celebration of the king’s wedding: once again a confirmation of Lannister power over the throne, as well as the powerful alliance they have made with the Tyrells.
Notice how it plays in the background as Lady Olenna talks to Sansa about her brother’s murder: the use of this song reminds us again of the events of the Red Wedding. Joffrey, in all his arrogance, does not seem to care for this performance, not realizing how much it means symbolically to his family; he rudely tosses coins at the performers and basically tells them to get out of there.
Shortly after, Joffrey is poisoned and dies a terrible death; Tyrion is arrested, and we go to credits, where the “The Rains of Castamere” plays once more. But its symbolic meaning is now utterly reversed. Originally, it conveyed a supreme confidence on the part of the Lannisters: any foe who dares to face them will inevitably be crushed. Now, it takes on an ironic significance: the one who is killed in a cruel manner is Joffrey, the centerpiece of the Lannisters’ hold over the Iron Throne.
The lyrics celebrating the violent deaths of Lannister enemies have lost their original meaning. Rather than proclaiming the Lannisters as a retributive force that punishes proud lords who refuse to bow to their power, this song now puts forth a different message: that they, those who are ambitious enough to play in this game of thrones, may very well face a miserable death, even the Lannisters.
Once, there existed a victor in this game: the Lannisters, who were victorious over the Reynes, but now, there is no winner. All these proud and ambitious lords and political players, striving for power: they are all like that arrogant Lord of Castamere, seeking to prove that their claws are sharp enough to put them in charge, but there is no victory to be attained, even for the Lannisters.
If you act as cruelly and arrogantly as Joffrey does, someone will want you dead, but someone else will seek vengeance, as Cersei will demand that Tyrion be punished. Inevitably, in this back-and-forth cycle of retribution, backstabbing, and political intrigue that is the game of thrones, more and more people will wind up dead or worse.
In the end, just as “The Rains of Castamere” tells us, only the dead will remain to mourn.