(This article contains spoilers to A Song of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdomsnovella series. Some references are from The World of Ice and Firebook.)
What is a knight? Is it a person who rides in armor astride a horse with a sword in hand (Don Quixote)? Was it a group of trained fighters who get accepted into a troupe of warriors, and thus must follow a code of honor? Couldn’t samurais be considered knights as well?
In all, knights serve a monarch, or a lord, from the feudal era. Many tales and lore tell us that knights served the kingdom and the king. Some knights remain legend, like Sir Lancelot, and many others have been forgotten. Knights were believed to be role models for all to see. However, as fans of fantasy and history, life is not that simple.
In Westeros, the tales and the history of many knights are known, and the songs are more popular than the actual events. We see this issue in regards to Sansa in A Game of Thrones. In the same book, we learn about Ser Arthur Dayne, and we meet Ser Barristan Selmy. Plus, we become acquainted with both Ser Jamie Lannister and Sandor Clegane. These two men are often asked about the “honor of knighthood” of themselves and others. So, what makes a knight? Chivalry? Alms? Prowess? Prince Aemon the Dragonknight was so chivalrous he died protecting his king and brother, Aegon IV, the Unworthy. Ser Arthur Dayne was so honorable that Lord Eddard Stark returned his family’s sword, Dawn, back to the family after killing him.
However, what of the other knights of Westeros, particularly the ones who we meet throughout the events in A Song of Ice and Fire? Legends like Ser Barristan Selmy have some regrets of their past actions. Ser Jamie Lannister broke several vows for “good” reasons. Sandor Clegane is disgusted by the traits and the behaviors of “knights.” And, Brienne of Tarth fights against Westeros’ views of what makes a knight. These characters question their actions and the actions of those around them. So, are any of these Westerosi knights “true” knights?
Ser Barristan Selmy: “The Bold”
- knighthood, 16; Kingsguard, 23 (replaced Ser Duncan the Tall)
- entered a tourney as a mystery knight at age 10
- unhorsed both Prince Duncan and Lord Commander Duncan at 16
- slew Maelys I Blackfyre, the Monstrous during the War of the Ninepenny Kings
- rescued King Aerys II, the Mad King, during the Defiance of Duskendale
- rescued Lady Jeyne Swann and her septa from the Kingswood Brotherhood
Looking at the achievements of Ser Barristan Selmy from the “White Book,” you will see a living knight who has performed deeds expected from a knight. Yet, three events continue to haunt this knight throughout the series. They make him question his actions as a knight.
First, the Defiance of Duskendale, the event in which King Aerys II Targaryen was held captive by Lord Darklyn for half a year. Not even Tywin Lannister, then the Hand of the King, could negotiate his release. Ser Barristan asked for a chance to break into the castle to rescue him, which he did. However, and unsurprisingly, King Aerys II’s madness and paranoia increased and became more noticeable. Several years later, Ser Barristan wonders whether or not rescuing his king, as per his vows as a Kingsguard, was the best thing for the realm.
Next, the Tourney at Harrenhall, the event that led to Robert’s Rebellion, also known as the War of the Usurper. Even though Ser Barristan was unable to “unmask the Knight of the Laughing Tree,” he did make it to the final round of the joust against Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Barristan lost the final tilt, which led to the Prince crowning Lyanna Stark as the “Queen of Love and Beauty” over his wife, Princess Elia Martell of Dorne. Of course, more happened at the tourney that Ser Barristan does NOT know about, but he wonders if Robert’s Rebellion would have happened if he had managed to defeat Prince Rhaegar. At the same time, Ser Barristan was aware that the Prince NEVER confined in him about anything. It is safe to say that Ser Barristan was jealous of Ser Arthur Dayne and Ser Oswell Whent because Prince Rhaegar chose them as confidants over him.
Last, Ser Barristan’s tenure in King Robert Baratheon’s Kingsguard. After Robert’s Rebellion, Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Jamie Lannister were all that remained of the previous Kingsguard. Ser Barristan was wounded at the Trident—where he witnessed the death of Prince Rhaegar by Robert Baratheon—and, he accepted the latter’s pardon and served in his Kingsguard. All the while knowing that Prince Viserys and Princess Daenrys were alive and living in Essos, but he expressed his fear of “the (potential) madness” in the Mad King’s children. At the same time, Ser Barristan witnessed the slow decline of affairs in King’s Landing due to King Robert’s follies. After King Robert’s death and Ned Stark’s execution, King Joffrey “dismisses” Ser Barristan for “being too old” and for “failing his duty” in protecting King Robert. Of course, Ser Barristan was acting on King Robert’s orders when the boar cut him, but that didn’t seem to matter. When he realizes that he’s been used for his skills and nothing more, Ser Barristan leaves King’s Landing for his “true king” and “to die a knight” (AGoT).
Ser Barristan Selmy is a living legend that has regrets of his deeds. He realizes that he should have probably left the Mad King to die in Duskendale and to reject King Robert Baratheon’s pardon to become a hedge knight. He decides that he must serve Queen Daenrys Targaryen in order to remain a “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (ASoS). However, isn’t Ser Barristan a “true knight” because of his past deeds, regardless of their outcomes?
Ser Jamie Lannister: “The Kingslayer”
- knighted, 15; Kingsguard, 16 (replaced Ser Harlan Grandison)
- was knighted by Ser Arthur Dayne after helping to defeat the Kingswood Brotherhood and the Smiling Knight
- wanted to stop the King Aerys II, the Mad King’s violent tendencies against his sister-wife, Queen Rhaella, and his subjects
- slew the Mad King and his pyromancers in order to prevent the destruction of the city
- has broken several laws and vows; is now crippled (lost sword hand)
To say the least, Ser Jamie Lannister is a complex man. With all of his privileges, talents, and “achievements” Jamie Lannister remains dissatisfied with his life. Strangely, he does not regret killing the Mad King, but he does regret that that incident lowered the standards for the Kingsguard. Ser Jamie wants a change to the vows and the laws surrounding the Kingsguard and the King’s service, Westeros’ version of the Magna Carta.
First, the Kingsguard acknowledged Jamie’s talent as a swordsman. Jamie Lannister was a prodigy knight; another gifted knight, Ser Arthur Dayne, knighted him at 15. For the most part, all Jamie wanted was to participate in tourneys and to meet legendary knights. Remember, joining the Kingsguard was Cersei’s idea. After Jamie’s indoctrination, he is quickly disappointed, but remains one of the best knights in the Kingsguard, until he kills the Mad King, and again after losing his sword hand. However, Jamie is determined to continue his role as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. After his father, Tywin, tries (and fails) to get Jamie to resign from the Kingsguard and to return to Casterly Rock, Jamie trains to fight with his other hand.
Next, killing the Mad King. One of the common vows of a knight is “protect the people when they cannot protect themselves.” The Mad King had harmed everyone from the lowborn, the lords and the high lords, to even his wife. Throughout the time Jamie served in King Aerys II’s Kingsguard, he has questioned the extent of his vows and wondered whether or not the King abused his power through his bodyguards. The other Kingsguard members address Jamie’s concerns by telling him that he is in the King’s service and MUST obey HIS commands (ACoK). Luckily, the rest of the Kingsguard were not around when Jamie killed the Mad King, but unlucky that no one ever knew the reason why. Unlike Ser Barristan Selmy, Jamie does not question whether or not his actions were justified (in the long run). And yet, Jamie questions the vows and the meanings they hold. The Mad King did “order” Jamie to kill his father, Tywin, during the Sack of King’s Landing. Which vow was he supposed to uphold: the vow to his father, or the vow to his king?
Last, serving Robert Baratheon. Like Ser Barristan Selmy, Ser Jamie took King Robert’s pardon; and, like Ser Barristan, Jamie questioned whether or not Robert Baratheon was really the best choice for the Iron Throne. And, he wasn’t; even though Westeros had “peace,” it overshadowed the debts and the plans for vengeance within the Seven Kingdoms. When Joffrey becomes king, both Jamie and Barristan know that things will get worse. Jamie tells Brienne that Joffrey—his son—deserved his death because he was already behaving like the Mad King (ASoS).
Ser Jamie Lannister is a great knight with no mannerisms of one, from the surface. Jamie is a person who goes by, “if it was you, then what would you have done?” Jamie realizes that many of the vows he took had no meaning, which is one of the reasons he continued to break them. However, after losing his sword hand, Jamie recognizes that he should have set an example and decides to uphold his remaining vows. Jamie, who is now the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, has the chance to alter the meaning to the vows of the Kingsguard take and when the laws of knights should overrule the laws of kings. Will he make those changes?
Sandor Clegane: “The Hound”
- is NOT a knight; was never anointed, and is NOT interested
- was promoted to the Kingsguard, but abandoned his post
- loathes knighthood and its hypocrisy
- is vicious, honest, caring: traits of a knight
Sandor Clegane is a knight without the knighthood and the vows. His experiences with his brother, Gregor, and the Kingsguard leave him with no expectations from knights. He believes that Gregor never deserved to be knighted due to his violent personality, and he is correct. In addition, he is aware that the songs and the tales of knights are exaggerated for the bard’s audiences. Sandor believes that not being a knight allows him more freedom in his actions.
First, the experiences and the traumas with knights, and how they affected Sandor. Just like other boys from families of lords, Sandor wanted to be a knight. He wanted it so much that he played with a knight figurine that belonged to his older brother, Gregor. Of course, this would lead to Sandor getting his faced burned, a first of many family atrocities caused by Gregor and covered up by their father. When Gregor was anointed as a knight, Sandor realized the hypocrisy surrounding knighthood. Knights are supposed to protect the weak and to save people from harm. Gregor is a harbinger of death and destruction. In addition, Sandor experienced what several of the Kingsguard had done to other people “as ordered by the King.” Sandor is neither impressed, nor honored to be part of the Kingsguard (AGoT). The hypocrisy of the current King’s bodyguards is one of many reasons he leaves his post; and, he’s not an anointed knight, so he broke no vows, technically (ACoK).
Next, Sandor’s version of chivalry and the ways he displays it. Sandor—also known as “The Hound”—is known for his brutality in battle and in tourneys. He “enjoys killing people,” but is unwilling to harm an innocent person—with the exception of Micah, the butcher’s boy (AGoT). He defends Ser Loras Tyrell when Gregor attacks him after losing to him in a tourney, and he displays his caring said to both Sansa and Arya Stark. Yes, his honesty in life lessons to the Stark girls are harsh, but he is both gentle and protective of them when they need it the most—Sansa when she’s a hostage in King’s Landing, and Arya when she’s traveling in the Riverlands attempting to reunite with her family. Ironically, Sandor is called, “The Hound,” and “dog” as an insult, but Sandor presents a canine’s loyalty, obedience (to the right person), and protective nature. These are all traits of chivalry.
Last, motivation as a “knight.” Readers are aware that Sandor Clegane could be the “novice gravedigger” seen by Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne (AFfC). Of course, this would mean Sandor has recovered from his wounds and “died” by leaving his “Hound” persona behind. Now, if Sandor is alive, then why did he allow himself to “die”? My theory is it’s because Sandor lacks motivation to continue as a warrior/fighter/knight. He’s left his home, the Lannisters, the Kingsguard; and, was rejected of serving both Sansa and Arya Stark. The wars are ending, so his services as a fighter are no longer needed, too. And, Sandor believes his brother is dead (he isn’t). Sandor now lacks any reason to continue his way of life, so when he recovers from his injuries, he decides to live a “quiet life.” Maybe Sandor’s “code of honor” will return if her ever finds out about either Gregor, or the Stark girls.
Strangely, Sandor is a knight in all but the anointing. He is violent and brutal, but so are most of the knights in Westeros. Since he knows the hypocrisy of knighthood, Sandor is willing to carry out his actions in his own way. However, unlike his brother, Sandor defends those who cannot defend themselves and “questions” the orders given to him. Ironically, this makes Sandor a knight, because he does what a knight is supposed to do: fight “monsters,” protect the weak, and kill people.
Brienne of Tarth: “The Maid of Tarth”
- a female warrior with a knight’s training and conviction
- earns the respect of Ser Duncan the Tall
- a descendant of Ser Duncan the Tall
Like Sandor Clegane, Brienne of Tarth is a knight in all aspects, but for the anointing. However, the reason Brienne is not a knight is because of her sex. Westeros has a history of female warriors—Nymeria of the Rhoyne, Danny Flint, and Visenya and Rhaenys Targaryen—but none of them were anointed knights. Yet, tales of their deeds and prowess are known throughout the Seven Kingdoms. Yes, Maege and Dacey Mormont, Asha Greyjoy, and the Sand Snakes are known warriors, but none of them are knights. Brienne was taught how to fight by Evenfall Hall’s Master-at-Arms, Ser Goodwin. Brienne follows the notions of a “true knight” to the point of idealism (it is Westeros after all) because she believes it is what a knight is supposed to be.
First, Brienne demonstrates bravery. Brienne is a lady who fights, dresses, and rides like a man. She participates in melees without hiding her identity, and puts up with the open jests and mockeries made towards her. That is an example of bravery. Also, Brienne did travel from Riverrun to King’s Landing to escort Ser Jamie Lannister with only Ser Cleos Frey, Jamie’s cousin, as an envoy (ASoS). The trio is met with hardships along the way—Cleos Frey is killed—but they survive the journey.
Next, Brienne performs prowess. In spite of Brienne’s appearance, she uses it to her advantage as a warrior. She uses her size—“roughly the same height as Robert (Baratheon)” (GRRM)—and her skills to defeat her opponents (she did defeat Ser Loras Tyrell in hand-to-hand combat). Brienne was allowed to serve in Renly Baratheon’s Rainbow Guard and, later on, Catelyn Stark (ACoK). After arriving at King’s Landing with Ser Jamie Lannister and learning of the death of Catelyn Stark, Jamie gives Brienne the task of finding and protecting Sansa Stark (and Arya, if she can be found). He then gives her armor and weapons for a knight. This means that even Ser Jamie Lannister, a Knight of the Kingsguard, has acknowledged Brienne’s ability and strength of a “true knight.”
Last, Brienne presents her loyalty. Even though her loyalty is questioned a few times, Brienne is loyal to those whom she serves (and those who are courteous to her) even after their deaths. When we’re first introduced to Brienne (through Catelyn Stark’s P.O.V.), she’s won a melee tournament and asks to serve in King Renly Baratheon’s Rainbow Guard, which is granted to her. She becomes “Brienne the Blue.” The color blue represents “loyalty”—in Western culture—and, it’s the color of Brienne’s eyes, which are described as being “beautiful.” After Renly is killed, Brienne wishes to avenge him with his sword. However, Catelyn Stark convinces Brienne to serve her while she waits for her opportunity for revenge. Next, during Brienne’s service to Catelyn, Brienne is tasked with escorting Ser Jamie Lannister to King’s Landing in exchange for her daughters, Sansa and Arya (the latter has escaped King’s Landing unbeknownst to them). During the journey, Brienne defends Jamie with her prowess, and convinces Jamie to live for revenge and his family after he loses his sword hand. In turn, Jamie reveals to Brienne the real reason he killed Mad King Aerys. Brienne carries on her service to Catelyn by helping Jamie, but not forgetting her other loyalties (Renly’s sword gets confiscated by the Brave Companions). Once Jamie and Brienne arrive in King’s Landing, they learn of the death of Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding. Nevertheless, Jamie gives Brienne his task to locate Sansa Stark and to protect her (fake Arya goes to Winterfell). Then, he gives her coin, mail and a shield, a letter with King Tommen I Baratheon’s signature, and a Valyrian steel sword—half of the Stark sword, “Ice”—which, Jamie and Brienne name “Oathkeeper.” It’s obvious that Brienne will use this sword to fulfill her final task, killing King Stannis Baratheon. Thus, Brienne maintains her loyalty to Renly Baratheon, Catelyn (Tully) Stark, and Jamie Lannister, which means that she has already served 4 of the 8 Great Houses of Westeros.
Brienne is a knight in all but the title, not because of her lack of skills, but because of her sex. Yet, Brienne illustrates an issue some hedge knights and sellswords have, pledging to various lords and ladies. Except, Brienne changes her loyalties because those she serves die. And, Brienne continues to act on behalf of those she served even after their deaths. This continuing act of loyalty would make her a “true knight,” but one or two characters question Brienne’s true loyalty as a knight and she is put on trial for it. The question is: who will Brienne remain loyal to in the end?
BONUS: Ser Duncan the Tall: “Dunk”
- started as an orphan in King’s Landing, who becomes a squire and then knighted by hedge knight
- gained a Targaryen prince for a squire, joined the Kingsguard—eventually becoming Lord Commander
- admired by the smallfolk for remembering his vows
- travelled and served throughout the Seven Kingdoms
Ser Duncan the Tall, first introduced to us as “Dunk” in George R.R. Martin’s novellas, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. In A Song of Ice and Fireseries, we learn that Dunk eventually became the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. While George R.R. Martin announced that there would be more novellas, readers question how and when this hedge knight joins the Kingsguard when he is on a quest to find his crush. But, we know why he would qualify for this “royal brotherhood.” As a knight from “humble beginnings” and trained by Ser Arlan of Pennytree, a hedge knight—a wandering knight without a master who travel for gainful employment—Dunk most likely swore the oath of “less formality,” including the vows Ser Arlan made sure Dunk would never forget:
…do you swear before the eyes of gods and men to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to protect all women and children, to obey your captains, your liege lord, and your king, to fight bravely when needed an do such other tasks as are laid upon you, however hard or humble or dangerous they may be? (ASoS).
The components mentioned in this oath are followed by Dunk through his actions. So far (remember there are 3 novellas so far), Dunk has fought bravely, followed orders, and defended the weak. However, these moments almost led to Dunk’s death, but Dunk keeps his vows and does what he believes is right by the standards of a knight.
First, Dunk “defends those who cannot defend themselves.” In The Hedge Knight, we meet Dunk for the first time. His mentor, Ser Arlan of Pennytree, had just died and Dunk decides to continue as a hedge knight and travels to the Tourney at Ashford to make a name for himself. Without revealing too much of the plot, Dunk must defend himself in a “Trial by Seven” because he defended a woman who was attacked by a Targaryen prince. However, he remembers what Ser Arlan said about hedge knights and “protecting the weak,” “A hedge knight is the truest kind of knight…every knight swears to protect the weak and innocent, but we keep the vow the best, I think,” (THK). As readers can see, Dunk does protect the weak that cannot defend themselves.
Next, Dunk “obeys captains, liege lords, and kings.” In The Sworn Sword, we see Dunk (and Egg) in the Reach during a drought. During his service, Dunk learns what caused the dispute between House Osgrey of Standfast, where Dunk is serving, and House Webber of Coldmoat—read either the novella, or the graphic novel to find out. However, since Dunk is serving House Osgrey, he must complete any task on the lord’s behalf without doubt or shame, which he does, and barely escapes with his life, again. Once again, Dunk performs his duties as a “true knight.”
Last, we’ll take a look into the “death” of Ser Duncan the Tall—which, occurs after the novellas. Egg grows up and becomes King Aegon V, and Ser Duncan is initiated into the Kingsguard, and eventually becomes Lord Commander. Throughout his tenure, Ser Duncan defends both the members and the honor of House Targaryen. He fought in the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion, and bested Lord Lyonel Baratheon in a trial by combat that ended the brief rebellion of House Baratheon. These accomplishments mean that Ser Duncan the honored another vow: “to fight bravely when needed” multiple times. Though, it was the “Tragedy at Summerhall” where we learn that Ser Duncan performed the last part of his knightly vows: “do such other tasks as are laid upon you, however hard of humble or dangerous they may be.” In 259 A.C., King Aegon V intended to restore actual dragons into the world through sorcery and pyromancy. Unfortunately, the fire became large and out of control leading to the destruction of Summerhall and the deaths of many people including the king, his eldest son, Prince Duncan, and Ser Duncan himself. There are “hints” of what could have transpired at Summerhall, but an “accidental” spill of ink blots out the information. Yet, there is a line that reads:
…died, but for the valor of the Lord Comman…(TWoIaF, p.110).
We do know that Princess Rhaella gave birth to Prince Rhaegar a safe distance away from the fire. Maybe Ser Duncan managed to rescue the younger generation of the royal family before going back into the fire to save the rest of them, only to perish? Only George R.R. Martin knows what happened at Summerhall. But, Ser Duncan died a knight and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard in service to his king, his former squire, and his friend.
So, there you have it. Four current “knights” of Westeros, and one legendary one! As I mentioned earlier, we know who the “true knights” of the past were, but who would you say is a “true knight” in modern day Westeros, towards the end of the War of the Five Kings, and at the start of the War for the Iron Throne? I am aware there are other “knights” to discuss, but the four mentioned have appeared and influenced the most in A Song of Ice and Fireso far. Let me know what you think.
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