J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

A Game of Thrones: Knightly honor?

With Season 3 of A Game of Thrones poised to debut in just a few days from now, I figured now would be as good a time as any to discuss parts of the show (and, to a degree, the books they’re based on). Of course, the fact that I just finished watching Season 2 on Blu Ray wasn’t such a bad motivation either.

Fans of the show who’ve kept up with the books know what’s coming: A Storm of Swords, generally regarded as the best entry in the series. For those who just watch the show, just know this: this season has a lot of the best plot twists, character turns, and of course, just jaw dropping moments. If you thought the battle of Blackwater was something, well, you’ve got a lot of surprises coming your way. And for those who just like a lot of violence and nudity in the fantasy they watch, well, there will still be plenty of that, too.

Like a lot of people who love the books and enjoy the show, I’m a pretty big fan of the series. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with knights. I always remembered how awesome they looked, in heavy armor and settling everything with swords.  In middle school, I remember going into my school library on a class trip. The goal was simple: check out a book to do a project on. I got that covered quickly, and then decided to do what any hardcore reader does best: delve into the back shelves. You know, the one that looks like a tomb, and is almost as loud. You can smell the age, and the dust everywhere, but somehow, that just adds to the experience.

…anyway. There I found 3 old leather bound books full of every story about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The stories were old, and written in a lofty kind of english that somehow made the incredible acts of violence written inside seem almost poetic. It wasn’t quite old English, and not quite middle, either. It was a prose all its own. Just look at this excerpt from “The Winning of a Sword” where Arthur breaks his sword and embarks on his quest to find Excalibur:

“At last King Arthur, waxing, as it were, entirely mad, struck so fierce a blow that no armor could have withstood that stroke had it fallen fairly upon it. But it befell with that stroke that his sword broke at the hilt and the blade thereof flew into three several pieces into the air. Yet was the stroke so wonderfully fierce that the Sable Knight groaned, and staggered, and ran about in a circle as though he had gone blind and knew not whither to direct his steps.

But presently he recovered himself again, and perceiving King Arthur standing near by, and not knowing that his enemy had now no sword for to defend himself withal, he cast aside his shield and took his own sword into both hands, and therewith smote so dolorous a stroke that he clave through King Arthur’s shield and through his helmet and even to the bone of his brain-pan.”

Basically, King Arthur hit the Sable Knight so hard that his sword broke, and when his opponent recovered, he hit him back with a stroke that almost split his skull. That’s some brutality. But yet, it doesn’t sound quite so vicious with the way it’s written here. It has such a high, elevated narration to it that hardly seems terrible at all. You see it all through the Arthur tales, honestly. Acts of incredible violence almost seem romantic, and yes, there are also plenty of fair maidens that have sexually explicit liasons with noble knights, if you read between the lines.

Reading the books that make up the series of A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s pretty obvious that George R.R. Martin enjoys reading such books too. The only difference between what he writes today, and those stuffy old books that only English majors and extreme book nerds read (I’m both of those, actually), is that he updates the language, and doesn’t sugarcoat what actually happens at all.

The reality is simple: Nobles almost never actually act noble. They lie, they cheat, they maneuver for power, they use, they abuse, they’ll bite and scratch their way to the top, and once they get there, they’ll do even worse to make sure that they stay there. Just look at the Lannisters for a good example of this. Every single king that Martin has written is not some paragon of virtue that is rightly chosen by god to rule over a country of fawning subjects. Robert Baratheon is a drunken oaf that would rather hunt, drink, and chase skirts all day rather than rule or defend his kingdom. His “son”, Joffrey, is a bastard, and drums up images of the worst despots in human history. He’s like Caligula, Vlad The Impaler, and Bloody Mary rolled into one. And Aerys Targaryen, the king we only get to see in snippets or passing mentions? He was even worse than that.

And, most importantly, those noble knights? The ones that in the Arthur tales, just roam around, doing brave and just deeds to protect the fawning citizens of the kingdom? Here they’re little more than killers, doing whatever they feel like, in most cases, and doing what their liege lords tell them to do otherwise. They’re like armored thugs.

And that’s the point Martin sets out to make. Those lofty days of brave, noble knights, and fair maidens never existed. The human element was always there, to spit on it and make it clear that people were never that perfect.

There are a few characters that mainly exist as Martin’s commentary on knightly honor and virtues, and consequently, are major parts of the series mythos.

Jaime Lannister:

“Her name is Brienne,” Jaime said. “Brienne, the maid of Tarth. You are still maiden, I hope?”

Her broad homely face turned red. “Yes.”

“Oh, good,” Jaime said. “I only rescue maidens.”

Not even going to lie, Jaime has been one of my favorite characters in the series from the start. He made a superb villain and boogeyman in A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, that character everyone loves to hate. I mean, what’s there to like? He’s like a vaudeville villain, pushing children out of windows, sleeping with his sister, and fathering monstrous child kings. Okay, maybe not so much vaudeville, but you get my point.

And, despite all these obvious faults, he’s generally regarded as one of the most formidable and famous knights in the seven kingdoms. Why? Not for his ethical values, that much is obvious. No, he’s got his reputation for two, distinct reasons: one, he’s a badass with a sword and lance, and two, he killed a king. A king he was specifically sworn to protect. It’s like Lancelot deciding to shank King Arthur, and go sleep with Guinevere afterwards (in a twisted way, this is almost exactly what he does).

And yet, to judge him just from those two points is a disservice to the character. Martin is making a pretty big point in his character arc, about knightly vows and swearing oaths. It’s clear and obvious from the get-go, considering that Jaime broke the biggest oath anyone could make, and that’s basically the first thing you ever learn about him, before getting to know him as a character.

His most famous quote, in A Clash of Kings, sums it up succinctly: “So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”

Jaime killed the king, yes. But he killed the king for reason:  to save King’s Landing from burning down by wildfire. The king, beset upon at all sides and losing a war, decided that he’d rather burn down the capital city, and everyone in it, rather than let the rebels have it.  Half a million people would’ve died if he hadn’t slain Aerys. So did he defend the king? No. But did he protect the innocent? Yes, yes he did. You can readily argue that he also did it to save his own skin, but that’s just human nature. And fits right into what Martin does with this series anyway. In the end, people will do what they have to do to protect themselves. And so too, does his characters. And so too does the Kingslayer.

I’ll be interested to see what fans of the show will have to say about him after season 3. Honestly, we’re just about to the point where he really gets interesting.

Sandor Clegane:

“A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he’ll look you straight in the face.”

Sandor Clegane, aka “The Hound”, is an even more cynical view on knighthood. He is a formidable warrior, and his name is known throughout the seven kingdoms. He girds up in armor like a knight, he fights like a knight. He even briefly gets involved in the tournament of the Hand, even though he wasn’t directly entered into it. But he is specifically not an actual knight. He refuses to take any “holy vows” of knighthood. He makes no pretense of being a good, noble warrior that fights for the right side in all things.

And yet, he ends up doing something resembling the right thing much of the time anyway. When his brother, Gregor, breaks the rules after losing a joust, and comes after Loras Tyrell in a rage, intending to kill him for actually beating him, it’s Sandor who steps in to stop him, and protect an innocent man from dying. When Sansa Stark is almost raped and killed by a rioting crowd, it’s Sandor who protects her, and drives them off, thus protecting her from harm. Again, his motivations for each are less than noble; he despises his brother, and would love to see him come to harm for all the abuses that were heaped upon him as a younger brother. And as for Sansa? Well, it’s pretty obvious he likes her, and desires her, but at least is a good enough person to not want to rape her, like his brother doubtlessly would in the same situation.

There’s a compelling story in his actions, even if he’s technically considered one of the villains of the series. His brother is a knight, and a famous one at that. But Gregor is also a horrible person, with a long list of terrible deeds done in the name of knightly honor. Sandor never wanted to be a knight because he recognized this hypocrisy, and on another level, wants to be as different from his brother as he possibly can because he hates him so much. As a result, he can’t help but do a good deed here and there, even if his motivations are, again, wholly selfish.

Eddard Stark:

Bran– “Can a man still be brave when he’s afraid?”

Eddard – “That’s the only time a man can be brave.”

On the flip side, Eddard Stark is everything that I read about in old King Arthur stories. He is good-hearted to his friends and family, just in how he rules his people, honorable, and from what we read of history in the books, a formidable warrior. Whenever there was a chance for innocents to die, Ned always took the approach of protecting them, even if they were technically his enemies. When he found out Cersei had bastard sons with her brother instead of actual heirs, he told her to leave King’s Landing, and no harm would come to her. He was fair, patient, and trusting in his deals with everyone.

And that got him killed, in the first book*. I remember being shocked, reading it the first time. He was such a major character in the first book, and so developed, that you couldn’t help but feel he’d be a major part of the entire series. But when Joffrey had him beheaded, Martin sent a message out to all his readers, and later viewers: No one is safe from death in this series. And it’s no coincidence that the first major death was also one of the most good hearted characters in the entire series, as well. It’s like he was executing not just Ned Stark, but the entire concept of knightly honor as well. He laid it to rest, so readers would know what to expect from then on.

*On a side note, take a moment and try to think of a single time you’ve seen Sean Bean in a movie or TV show, and his character hasn’t died. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

The clues are littered all through the books and show about how being solidly behind a code of conduct and honor does nothing good, and a lot of bad. These are just three examples. I could list off many, many more, but I think I’ve made my point. It’s what makes the series so brutal, and yet, so incredibly interesting. I can’t wait to watch Season 3, and I already know what happens!

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