Saturday, July 13, 2024

My Fave is Problematic: Oberyn Nymeros Martell

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Trigger Warning for mentions of physical abuse.

Here at Fandom Following, we talk a lot about problematic faves, and the trouble in differentiating them from the Personal Favourite White Boy. The difference, to summarize, is that you like a problematic fave despite their flaws, but you bend over backwards to pretend that a PFWB doesn’t have any.

Well, I sometimes fear that Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell is my Personal Favourite White Boy. I can see him acting like a jerk on page, I read the stories that are very problematic, yet I have said, on more than one occasion, that I think that he’s fundamentally a good person.

What the hell, me?

There’s something that’s very satisfying about reading characters who are funny, insightful, and intelligent, and Oberyn is all of these. Although his humour is generally against others, and his insight and intelligence is not always used constructively.

Just look at the behaviour we see in A Storm of Swords. The very first thing he does is be more than moderately ableist at Tyrion, implying that being greeted by a dwarf was an insult. Then he spends the entire conversation trying to make Tyrion miserable and uncomfortable, including a charming story about how Tyrion’s sister liked to torture him when he was an infant. Any political point he’s trying to make doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s making Tyrion upset on purpose, and seems to be enjoying it.

“We have met before,” the Dornish prince said lightly to Tyrion as they rode side by side along the kingsroad, past ashen fields and the skeletons of trees. “I would not expect you to remember, though. You were even smaller than you are now.”

There was a mocking edge to his voice that Tyrion misliked, but he was not about to let the Dornishman provoke him. “When was this, my lord?” he asked in tones of polite interest.

“Oh, many and many a year ago, when my mother ruled in Dorne and your lord father was Hand to a different king.”

And Tyrion, in this context, is a damn easy target. No one will be offended if you make fun of the ‘Twisted Demon Monkey.’ Even people who are “on his side” will laugh at him. More or less the next time we see him in the book, he’s picking on another easy target; Sansa. To the extent that Ellaria had to be all “dude, stop making fun of the political prisoner/child bride”.

Sansa was shocked. “But Baelor the Blessed was a great king. He walked the Boneway barefoot to make peace with Dorne, and rescued the Dragonknight from a snakepit. The vipers refused to strike him because he was so pure and holy.”

Prince Oberyn smiled. “If you were a viper, my lady, would you want to bite a bloodless stick like Baelor the Blessed? I’d sooner save my fangs for someone juicier…”

“My prince is playing with you, Lady Sansa,” said the woman Ellaria Sand. “The septons and singers like to say that the snakes did not bite Baelor, but the truth is very different. He was bitten half a hundred times, and should have died from it.”

“If he had, Viserys would have reigned a dozen years,” said Tyrion, “and the Seven Kingdoms might have been better served. Some believe Baelor was deranged by all that venom.”

“Yes,” said Prince Oberyn, “but I’ve seen no snakes in this Red Keep of yours. So how do you account for Joffrey?”

And you can’t help but notice that in all the reported meetings he has with Cersei and Tywin, and even Mace Tyrell, there are no reports of him being a total dillweed. Maybe he was and no one mentioned it, I guess, but Tywin seems to think that the prince is a reasonable person he can deal with, even if his brother would have been more cooperative. (Really, the extent to which Tywin is just not all that fussed about Oberyn is slightly… odd.) It’s only Tyrion who Oberyn seems to hound mercilessly. About shit he couldn’t possibly have the authority to deal with.

“Every time he chanced to see Oberyn Martell the prince asked when the justice would be served.”


Oberyn earns a few points by being the only judge at Tyrion’s trial to actual ask questions, even if it’s probably just because he finds the obvious kangaroo court hilarious. But then he had a private conversation with our pov character, one that is admittedly rather coloured by that character’s own prejudices and assumptions.

There is really no way that Oberyn strolling in, literally on the basis of his massive, overwhelming privilege, to be a jerk to Tyrion, even as he’s offering to risk his life for him, can be explained by unreliable narrator, though. He’s just a bit of toad throughout, except when he swerves into asshole territory:

The man took a sip, sloshed it about in his mouth, and swallowed. “It will serve, for the moment. I will send you up some strong Dornish wine on the morrow.” He took another sip. “I have turned up that golden-haired whore I was hoping for.”

“So you found Chataya’s?”

“At Chataya’s I bedded the black-skinned girl. Alayaya, I believe she is called. Exquisite, despite the stripes on her back. But the whore I referred to is your sister.”

Super classy, my prince.

And again, I somehow doubt he was saying this to Cersei’s face; just behind her back to her brother. I’m also not thrilled that he called the mother of four of his children a “randy wench”, but I guess it’s nice that they’re still so into each other?

A Storm of Swords is tough when it comes to judging Oberyn, because we see him almost entirely from Tyrion’s point of view, and he has prejudices of his own, as I’ve said. And, of course, it’s a performance. He came to King’s Landing for a reason, and he’s damn aware of the impression he’s making on everyone.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to discuss Oberyn’s motives for coming to King’s Landing; his sister Elia and the obvious fridge she was stuffed in.

And this is the first time I will actually defend him, because for all Oberyn’s faults, going on about his manpain is not one of them. Elia and her children are the ones who suffered, not him. I suppose you can say she was stuffed in a Doylist fridge, but not necessarily a Watsonian one.

But then there’s the way he chose to seek this sincerely sought justice. He got himself involved in a trial by combat that had little to do with him. Again, it’s possible to defend him, that he waited seventeen years and he was desperate, but we later find out that he thought, at the least, that this eventuality was possible, maybe even probable. This despite the fact that his brother apparently told him not to do exactly this. This despite the fact that, win or lose, it would mean Trouble. Maybe even war.

You can argue that these people would mostly agree that his motives were worth going to war for, but this book was published in 2000, so I can’t call it anything but problematic.

There seems to be quite little redeeming about his youth, either. The young Oberyn was clearly groaning under the weight of his privilege. He flited from place to place, leaving devastation and baby girls in his wake.

The most obvious example of this is the time he maybe, possibly, potentially poisoned his mother’s most important, and truculent, bannerman. This kid was trouble.

Then we get into A Feast for Crows and we learn more about Oberyn’s past and his relationships. In particular, we learn about his relationship with his niece and his daughters.

I would say his relationship with Arianne must have been rather complicated. He gets points for the fact that he seems to have been there for her during her adolescence, when her own father wasn’t. But the truth was that he was complicit is keeping a secret from Arianne. And that ended up causing her a lot of pain. Sure, he was obligated to obey Doran in this, but he was part of the problem, not the solution. And there’s more than enough problematic things to talk about with his own daughters.

So, Obara, Nymeria, Tyene, Sarella, Elia, Obella, Dorea, and Loreza. The Sand Snakes.

We don’t know much about the youngest three, except that they’re the “terror of the pools.” If you’ll allow some venturing into The Winds of Winter material, we only know a slight amount more about Elia Sand. That being that she’s a bit of a spoiled brat. It’s hard to tell if it’s just because she’s very, very fourteen, but it’s obvious that she got away with shit for a very long time.

Oberyn’s elder daughters, however, are not exactly well-adjusted young women. Well, Serella’s okay. She may have joined a bit of a cult, but she seems nice.

Let’s take them in order, shall we?

Repressed, Reckless, and Ruthless

First there is Obara, and this woman’s “origin story” is Exhibit A when it comes to problematic Oberyn behaviour.

“The day my father came to claim me, my mother did not wish for me to go. ‘She is a girl,’ she said, ‘and I do not think that she is yours. I had a thousand other men.’ He tossed his spear at my feet and gave my mother the back of his hand across the face, so she began to weep. ‘Girl or boy, we fight our battles,’ he said, ‘but the gods let us choose our weapons.’ He pointed to the spear, then to my mother’s tears, and I picked up the spear. ‘I told you she was mine,’ my father said, and took me. My mother drank herself to death within the year. They say that she was weeping as she died.”

I’m going to leave off the question of what a twelve or thirteen-year-old Oberyn was doing in a brothel knocking up a sex worker in the first place because, like, I can’t even, but nothing about this makes Oberyn look good at all.

First off, if wherever Obara and her mother were living was so horrible, why did Oberyn let his daughter stay there for so long? I suppose you can give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he didn’t know she existed until soon before this happened, but it kind of makes you looks sideways at any suggestion that he got her out of there because he cared so much about her.

As for assaulting his daughter’s mother in front of her, I really hope I don’t have to waste words talking how that is unacceptable under any circumstance. And their relative social positions just make it so much worse.

Then there is the undeniable negative effect this has clearly had on Obara, even some twenty years later. She is a woman who clearly has so many emotions that she will not allow herself to express. Because that would be a sign of weakness, and Father hated weakness. And tears. And when she does boil over, it’s behaviour you would expect from a fourteen-year old.

We don’t know much about his next daughter, Nymeria, except that she occasionally advocates murder. Of children no less, though she never stoops to suggesting the murder of a child who is in her uncle’s care. Though one wonders if this is only because she happens to know Myrcella personally.

But the fact is that her “plan” is rather reckless. And she herself is rather rude. You can call it grief, but it didn’t seem to improve even months later in “The Watcher.”

As for Tyene, am I the only one who finds her legitimately terrifying? Areo Hotah and Maester Cressen seem to think she’s actually capable of harm, even to Doran. And the obviously performance of her piety and sweetness makes her entire persona, just, creepy.

That being said, Tyene Sand is rather a problematic fave for me herself. In all honestly, I find it hard to hate her, just because Arianne clearly loves her so much.

None of these three women are “good”. And the way Oberyn raised them has to be part of that. The very limited contact they had with their mothers doesn’t really allow for any other explanation. But it’s not all black and white. On the one hand, he empowered them, and he encouraged their gifts and interests, even if they didn’t conform to the narrow roles prescribed to their gender (even in Dorne). He made sure they could defend themselves.

But he also clearly encouraged the more violent aspects of their personalities. He’s a man that prizes decisive, even reckless, action over compromise or patience, and that’s a flaw he passed onto his daughters. And, yes, he taught them to defend themselves, but does anyone else get a victim-blamey vibe from this:

“If you would wed, wed,” the Red Viper had told his own daughters. “If not, take your pleasure where you find it. There’s little enough of it in this world. Choose well, though. If you saddle yourself with a fool or a brute, don’t look to me to rid you of him. I gave you the tools to do that for yourself.”

So why do I like him? Why do I even occasionally defend him?

He’s complicated?

Yeah, I know, that’s pathetic. But the fact is that, for every story we have of him being a violent asshole, there’s one about how he loved history, or telling stories to children. We hear about how close he was to his sister, and how he wrote Ellaria songs and nursed her when she was sick.

And Ellaria clearly loved him. So did his brother. And his children. And that’s not worth nothing, it can’t be.

There are things that happened to Oberyn that affected him deeply, and made him a better person, even if they didn’t stop him from being a bit of a dillweed. Okay, a lot of a dillweed. His family, especially Ellaria and his children, seemed to have brought out the best in him. He at least was a marked improvement from the guy who was such a problem that his own mother exiled him.

Is Oberyn a problematic fave? Absolutely. Is he a Personal Favourite White Boy? Well, he certainly could be. I kind of feel like making sure he doesn’t will be a constant, never-ceasing struggle.

Images courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games

Images by Elia Mervi, used with permission

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