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 Westeros.org 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. Westeros.org 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.