Jun 30 2011 6:13pm

The Flower of Chivalry in the Seven Kingdoms

One of the things that, early on, really drew me to A Song of Ice and Fire was the veneer of courtly chivalry that George R.R. Martin placed in the setting. I had a double major at the time when I first read the series, and one of the two subjects was medieval history, so that quite perked my ears up. I had read fantasy novels with knights and the like before, but generally chivalry was taken at face-value: derring-do, knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, and so on. But not A Game of Thrones. Oh, the pageantry, the heraldry, the bynames that promised puissance on the field (“The Knight of Flowers,” “The Mountain that Rides,” “The Sword of the Morning”), those were all there. But beneath it all lies a sense that it really is a veneer, that the culture of chivalry is something added on top of the underlying society rather than being integral to it. Some knights — Barristan the Bold is a fine example — appear to live their life by this (arbitrary) chivalric ideal, while others show a remarkable pragmatism. To my eye, Martin captured the reality of chivalric culture in the Middle Ages with his approach.

In the novels, knighthood is a custom of the Faith, the analogue to Christianity in the setting. The traditions of it are very much borrowed from our real-world traditions, so it’s familiar for anyone who’s watched a film or two, or read a few books. Martin has a way of making it all sparkle, though, with his sumptuous descriptions. Using Sansa as the predominant point of view for the Hand’s tourney certainly helped: it’s clear she was starstruck. What young girl wouldn’t be, in Westeros? (Don’t say Arya!) And so we see all the beautiful things of it, the celebration of men “strong of body, brave and noble” (to borrow from Bouchard), the show of wealth and breeding that it entails. The ritualized violence of the tourney ground is the place where most knights win renown and fame in Westeros in times of peace. Despite the evidence of the novels, peace and not war is at least marginally the normal state of affairs in the Seven Kingdoms.

As Catelyn notes in A Clash of Kings, there’s many young, bold knights — “the knights of summer” — who’ve never known war... and so when the opportunity to join a war comes, it’s something that’s appealing. When you’re raised with stories of the deeds of men like the Greatheart, Barristan the Bold, or Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, presented with them as the model of martial prowess and the gold standard for manhood, it’s not surprising that the desire to emulate them can run deep. Nor is it a surprise when it all becomes focused on one particular aspect — fighting skill — over everything else. Much as modern, professional sports focuses increasingly on excelling in physical skill and ability over more nebulous notions of “sportsmanship” (always nebulous, I don’t doubt), men in the Seven Kingdoms often see their skill as their most important quality. The arrogance of Loras Tyrell is driven by “being too good, too young,” and one can certainly read in it an echo of Martin’s familiarity with modern sports and sports culture.

With chivalric culture comes also courtly culture, which is another aspect of the series that’s attracted some readers. Sansa, once again, has her head full of notions of what the courtly romance should be like, and finds to her sorrow that the reality is very different. When she informs one man that he is “no true knight,” she thinks some men would be angry or remorseful... but this particular man doesn’t seem to care, and the truth is, there’s many knights in Westeros who don’t really care, either. The “ser” they carry is a title not so much earned as expected as a right. The singers make much of the courtly deeds of knights and their courtesy, but it’s again on the surface for many. The knight who’s true to his vows is rare — rare enough that when one such knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, is forced to defend himself with his life, half-a-dozen great knights and champions who believe in their calling come to his defense (if you’ve not read The Hedge Knight, do so now — think A Knight’s Tale, but much better and without anachronistic music). Martin has a way of making these few moments of knights fulfilling the ideal quite stirring... but then quickly shows the dark side of it, the culture of violence that a martial order such as knighthood must entail.

It’s not like the songs at all. This is what the Hound tells Sansa, taking the cynics view that knighthood is all a sham, a canard to pretty up what knights are for: killing. He has a point, to a degree, and yet it’s hard not to think that a prettied-up killer such as Ser Barristan the Bold is simply much more capable of integrating into society (and doing so without having to resort to violence) than a stone-cold killer such as Sandor Clegane. Violence certainly has its place in the Seven Kingdoms — it’s practically enshrined as one of the pillars of rule — but is it as clear cut as all knights being false, as the Hound would have it? Clearly that’s not true.

One of my pet interests has always been that foremost example of knighthood in the setting, the Kingsguard. Robert’s Kingsguard, of course, is nothing to write about — only Barristan Selmy is “the true steel,” the rest are a paper shield. Martin has explained this as the result of several factors: the rare situation of needing to fill five openings, political horse-trading at the beginning of a brand new dynasty, and the blow to the order’s reputation thanks to Jaime Lannister’s kingslaying and subsequent retention as a White Sword. If you look at the Kingsguard just before, however, the seven knights of it do seem to have truly been regarded as being among the best and finest that the Seven Kingdoms had to offer. Eddard Stark — who had more cause than most to resent them, you’d think — certainly thought so, going so far as to call them and the previous generations of Kingsguard as “a shining example to the world.” Ned may follow the old gods, but his strong sense of what nobility means makes him sympathetic to the ideal, and the Kingsguard clearly struck him as that ideal.

The ideal and the truth, even in the Kingsguard, were different things. As we learn, part of upholding their oaths meant that at certain times they’d stand by silently as kings visited injustice and cruelty on others. A man like Eddard Stark seems able to accept that their special relationship to the king would suspend, to some degree, their vows as knights to protect the weak and the innocent; others might be less forgiving. Did Jaime Lannister do the right thing when he killed the Mad King? To borrow from Martin, some would say that the answer is yes and no. It’s a paradox, and it’s a central quandary of the novels in a society where oaths and vows and your word of honor are highly regarded things... even when they occasionally trap a person in ethically-questionable acts and circumstances. The complexity that this provides to the concept of chivalry, where knights might be “true” or “false” without necessarily being “good” or “bad” as circumstances change, is one of the reasons that fans keep reading.

Have a favorite example of chivalry? Or, perhaps more saliently, an example of chivalry being undercut by the darker side of life in the Seven Kingdoms?

[Note: While I’ve tried to keep spoilers quite minimal — no really important plot beats above, I think! — it seems only reasonable to look at examples from across the series, as well as the Dunk & Egg stories... so beware when going into comments.]

Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.

Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio Garcia crossed an ocean to join Linda Antonsson in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.

1. Baramos
Jaime is an interesting case, since it is revealed that he had good reason to kill Aerys, probably saving thousands of lives in King's Landing during the siege, but he doesn't tell people like Ned because explaining himself to others is beneath him, especially since everyone had already judged him guilty of dishonor based on their preconceptions of his motivations (to aid Tywin in taking the city). So because of both pride and disdain (and stubborness) he refuses to set the record straight. Jaime is a case of someone who actually upheld the cause of protecting the innocent civilians from a tyrant, but is labeled as being unchivalric because of his second vow. But which vow is more important, his first vow as a knight or his second vow as one of the Kingsguard? It's hard to say.

On the other hand, you have someone like Barristan the Bold who also abandoned his vow to the Targaryen royal family and joined Robert's kingsguard. While it's true that it was a much less active betrayal (he didn't actually kill any of theTargaryens and probably only quit fighting Robert after Rhaegar and Aerys were both killed and King's Landing had been sacked), he still willingly joins Robert's kingsguard as opposed to helping Daenarys. It is only after Joffrey rejects him that he goes into exile and finds Daenarys. But if his true motivations were examined, he seems to have far worse reasons for betraying the Targaryens than Jaime, who had both moral reasons (saving thousands of lives) and familial reasons (helping his father's betrayal). And yet Barristan is considered a "true knight" by the people at large, whereas Jaime is forever stained with the name "Kingslayer".
Gabby Jagoriles
2. _GabeKarl
I like your input about the knighthood in ASOIF series, I am almost halfway done reading Game of Thrones and I am agreeing at your point of view. It is more realistic of not caring at all about honor and romance in the book. The knights are more like modern day soldiers than what it is in the romance. Now I am looking forward to more posts and finishing the books before the 5th installation comes out.
3. John R. Ellis
I think Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books prepared me in my youth for the content I'd later encounter in series like ASoI&F.

Alexander went at some length, exploring the difference between the ideals of knights and the unromantic, often disturbing reality. And this in a series aimed at children.
4. DarrenJL
It's not that Martin thinks chivalry and nobility are paint on the whore, it's that he's writing a world in apogee. One of the central themes of the Ice & Fire novels is corruption; the central theme, I think. The wall against the wild is melting, its ramparts and bulwarks falling into disuse and disrepair. That's not just a plot point.
5. Lurking Canadian
I recently re-read, after about fifteen years since the first time, Pillars of the Earth. I think Martin must have been heavily influenced by the Anarchy period. The striking thing for me, reading about the historical period, was that these guys broke their "sacred, solemn oaths" like it was their job. Roose Bolton would have fit right in. (Of course, he put something very Anarchy-like into the Targs' backstory).

Then, of course, there's the 100 years war period, which Shakespeare presents as the noble kings of England pressing their valid claims to the throne of France, but can also be read as a bunch of English thugs stealing everything that wasn't nailed down and burning the rest.

I don't doubt that there were knights who believed their own press and actually were valiant defenders of the weak, but probably Sandor Clegane was right about most of them.
Joe Vondracek
7. joev
Is Sandor a "stone-cold killer"? Gregor, certainly, but Sandor? Hmm.
Sara H
8. LadyBelaine
Elio, Linda,

I love how Mr. Martin makes all these great and legendary knights glitter and thrum with chivalry to match the Knights of Camelot or the Companions of Roland, and he has a great gift with the names: I love Aemon the Dragonknight, or Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, Symon Star-Eyes, etc... Even Brienne the Blue, a Warrior-Maid on a Quest has an awesome quality to it.

Of course, they are just all gussied up killers, but with their gleaming armor and stylized helms, flowing silken banners and their horses tricked out in barding and caparisons... with rock star reputations.... I can swoon even now.

Lurking Canadian,

Indeed, it seems to me that the tumult between King Stephen and Queen Maude seems to have been Mr. Martin's inspiration for "The Dance of the Dragons" when Queen Rhaenyra and King Aegon fought a massive civil war. Indeed, Maude and Stephen were a generaton or two down from William the Conqueror; Aegon and Rhaenyra were a step or two away from Aegon the Conqueror :)
9. Cork
@7 - Arya at least doesn't seem to believe there is any question about it.

But the most moving act of chivalry in the series that I can recall is Jaime's leap into the bear pit. It was certainly the pivotal moment in what I have to say is the most outstanding character arc I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
10. Patrick C
I have a pet theory that the only "true knights" are the ones that were never knighted. Have we seen a truly virtuous and honorable "Ser?"

I'm sure everyone would immediately argue Barristan the Bold, but as mentioned above he did betray the Targaryens and join the Usurper. And if Robert remained King, Barristan wouldn't have gone pursuing Dany.

But as for the men that don't have Sers. The Hound may have killed poor Mycah, but everything else we've seen him do has a kind of honor to it. Never swinging at his brother's unprotected head during the melee, never beating Sansa, saving Sansa during the riot.

As for our favorite honorable men, the Starks, none of them were knighted. Rhaegar Targaryen was never referred to as "Ser Rhaegar."

And as the Hedge Knight was referenced, I can't leave Ser Duncan the Tall out of the conversation, as he is surely the knightly ideal. But there is that nagging suspicion that he was never actually knighted at all.
Sky Thibedeau
11. SkylarkThibedeau
SOFAI is more akin to The Wars of the Roses than the time When Christ and His Saints Slept. The Lannister/Barantheons are akin to the Lancasters (though Tyrion is a type of Richard III ), the Targayens the Plantagenets, and the Starks are the Yorks.
12. ryamano
The Targaryens seem more like the Stuarts/Jacobite Movement to me, with the name Queen across the water given to Daenerys, etc. GRRM picked up lots of references from lots of historical periods and put into lots of his own to come up with a brilliant story.
Sara H
13. LadyBelaine

Naw.... the Targaryens are a fantasy composite mish-mosh of all the best episodes and nuggets of European monarchy smashed together and bedazzled with gems and left to anneal into one glorious fictional dynasty.

For example, Maegor the Cruel is a nightmare combination of Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII; Baelor the Blessed has elements of the extremely weak Henry VI, mixed up with a distaff version of the Princes in the Tower, etc...

I am disappointed that we have no blazingly awesome Targaryen Queen like Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great, though :) Daenerys might count, though....
Roland of Gilead
14. pKp
@7: remember Mycah ? Sandor might have shown us/Sansa a softer side, but he's a killer all right.
Kevin Maroney
15. womzilla
A question that didn't really occur to me until very late in the first novel: In England, the chivalric orders evolved as a response to constant raids from the Norsemen, and wars with continental European powers, the Scots, and the Welsh. (In mainland Europe, of course, there was constant warfare among the descendent states of Charlemagne's empire.)

Westros, in contrast to England, has been united under a single king for 300 years, is geographically isolated from the other continents, and there's no sign, at least in Game of Thrones, of any significant raiding presence. Are we to believe that the huge and expensive military order shown has evolved purely for internicine warfare among the 7 Kingdoms? If so, the Targaryans were pretty terrible kings even before Aerys went mad.
16. Lurking Canadian
I think knighthood significantly predated the Targs. The conquest was only a few hundred years before, but they claim a history thousands of years older. As for raiders, well the ironborn are still there. Anyway, knighthood as an institution may have evolved among the Andals wherever they came from since the tradition never really took in the North, among the First Men.

@11: I was referring to the Aegon vs Rhaenrya fight referenced by LadyBelaine. I know Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to look like the wars of the roses, though I think the parallels are not perfect. The wicked hunchbacked uncle is onthe wrong side, for one thing.
Sara H
17. LadyBelaine
Lurking Canadian,

Yes, aSoIaF does seem informed by the War of the Roses (York/Stark vs. Lancaster/Lannister), but aside from the hunchback uncle on the wrong side, the wrong side won! (for now)

Of the course the real question is whether the analogy extends to House Tyrell being the Tudors of the piece and ultimately if House Tyrell is ascendant at the end.....

Recall how Henry Tudor came to secure his realm ... he married the heiress of the previous dynasty: Willas Tyrell and Danaerys, perhaps?
Sydo Zandstra
18. Fiddler
Patrick C@10:

Rhaegar Targaryen was never referred to as "Ser Rhaegar."

I think that was because Rhaegar was heir to the Iron Throne. I am sure he has been knighted at some point though.

What I think we are seeing here is that big names/personalities do not need to press the 'Ser' title to get respect, because it's known they are knights, while smaller names need or use the title to get some respect.

On your theory, where does Ser Arthur Dayne fit in? ;-)
19. DarrenJL
No one called Tywin Lannister "Ser" Tywin, or Renly Baratheon "Ser" Renly. Lord trumps Ser. Prince trumps Lord.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
20. tnh
RobMRobM, you're a great commenter and I appreciate your enthusiasm, but please don't post links to illegal uploads.

(As a rule of thumb, when you find a "free e-book version" of a highly commercial recent bestseller, and it doesn't have a Creative Commons license from the author, it's safe to assume it's there illegally.)
21. ollonois
according to a sword and sorcery spanish forum, the Targaryens with the dothrakis are the turks invaders of Europe in late middle-age early modern- age, but I think more of the jacobitism since I read it on wikipedia and on the comment of ryamano

by the way, it isn't Targaryen a kind of armenian name?

sorry for my poor english

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