No True Knight: A Critique of Chivalry in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”
Exchanges between a most unlikely pairing are used, very effectively, by George R.R.Martin to declare a major theme of his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. After a feast at the Hand’s tourney, the idealistic noble girl, Sansa Stark, is escorted to her room by Sandor ‘the Hound’ Clegane, her betrothed’s hulking and fierce bodyguard. Having drunk too much wine, Sandor comes to tell Sansa how he was disfigured as a child by his brother holding his face to a fire, and how that brother was subsequently made a knight. Moved by pity, Sana reaches out to touch the Hound’s shoulder. ‘ “He was no true knight”, she whispered to him.’ For Sansa believes, as she says in a later conversation between the two, that ‘ “True knights protect the weak”’. But Sandor responds to her attempt at comfort by roaring with laughter and ironically agreeing, ‘ “no, little bird, he was no true knight”’. In the later conversation Sandor explains, ‘ “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods…Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”’ Sansa, shocked, blurts out ‘“You’re awful”: ‘ “I’m honest”’, replies Sandor, ‘ “it’s the world that’s awful.”’1
In the context of the novels, Sandor—who obviously has experience of the world which Sansa lacks, and who is given the last word—wins the debate. So it may appear that Martin shares Sandor’s expressed contempt for the knighthood of Westeros. The knighthood of the fantasy world, moreover, is obviously closely related to real world, historical chivalry—with the jousting, armor, heraldry, code of honorable behaviour. So it may appear that Martin is condemning historical knighthood. This is certainly the popular impression. It is an impression shared and articulated by two professional critics. In his book Race for the Iron Throne, Dr. Steven Attewell says that Martin uses Sansa for ‘a deconstruction of romanticism’. ‘Sansa’s own immaturity parallels the immaturity of people who believe that knights and tournaments are glamorous and, by extension, anyone who buys into the myth that war is glorious and romantic’2. Susan Johnston, in her Mythlore article ‘Grief Poignant as Joy’, similarly finds ‘a critique…of the ideal of chivalry’ in A Song of Ice and Fire. And ‘It is through Sansa Stark, of course, that this critique of chivalry is focused’3.
I want now to examine the two places at which the novels seemingly give greatest support to the thesis ‘There are no true knights’. Both these instances have clear historical parallels, and I will be able consider Martin’s depictions in the light of the historical events.
When Catelyn Stark seizes Tyrion Lannister for the attempted murder of her son, Lord Tywin Lannister sends his knights to ravage the riverlands belonging to Catelyn’s family. Later Tywin also employs a band of mercenaries, the Brave Companions, to do more ravaging. This war ordered by a lordly knight, and carried out by many knights, is shown to us largely through the eyes of Arya Stark—noble born and highly intelligent, but still a child. As Arya tries to cross the war zone, she witnesses burnt fields and burnt villages, the bodies of peasants left lying where they have been slaughtered. Where once there was a rich district, now there is a wasteland.
Eventually, as the War of the Five Kings proceeds, parts of the riverlands are recaptured by the Starks, the ‘good’ side. But the knightly vassal of the Starks who does the recapturing, Roose Bolton, is himself far from good. And Arya finds that for ordinary ‘smallfolk’ things don’t get any better. Indeed, smallfolk who were forced to serve the Lannisters are now punished for doing so by the Stark forces. This misery, Martin is clearly arguing, is the reality underneath chivalry’s rhetoric of the glory and honor of war. As the eunuch Varys puts it, ‘ “why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”’4
The fate of the riverlands in Martin’s work has many similarities to the fate of northern France during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Martin has acknowledged that his work draws on the Hundred Years’ War, and even acknowledged the influence of a popular history of the period, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror5. This war has of course received famous literary treatment in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Henry VI, Part One through Three; it is also the setting of the great fictional works of Charles Péguy, being the field of action of his heroine, Joan of Arc.
In the Hundred Years’ War, the invasions of the English, assisted by their allies the Burgundians, were often little more than pillaging expeditions, naturally led by the flower of English chivalry. Companies of mercenaries were hired to help in the task. When the English knights went home with their plunder, the mercenaries stayed on, plundering and ravaging freelance. The little village of Domrémy, where Joan of Arc was born and raised, was in the war zone. At the first sight of marauders, Joan used to help drive the peasants’ cattle onto an island in the middle of the river Meuse, the only way they could be saved from the soldiers. Meanwhile peasants of nearby villages were brutally punished by the ‘good’ French side, for sympathizing with the Burgundians.
There is a vivid contemporary description of the impact of the war by Thomas Basin, Bishop of Lisieux. ‘From the Loire to the Seine, and from there to the Somme’, he wrote, ‘nearly all the fields were left for many years, not merely untended but without people capable of cultivating them…, for the peasants had been killed or put to flight.’ These vast plains were ‘absolutely deserted, uncultivated, abandoned, devoid of all inhabitants, overgrown with brushwood and brambles’6. We can now see the aptness of the renowned cry of the heart Péguy gives to Joan in his Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. ‘It takes months and months, it took work and more work to make the crop grow. And all that is needed to set a crop ablaze is a flint. It takes years and years to make a man grow, it took bread and more bread to feed him, and work and more work, and all kinds of work. And all that is needed to kill him is one blow. One sword thrust and it’s done…Cursed be war, cursed of God; himself; and cursed be those who brought it to the soil of France’7.
An argument can be made that Martin’s relentless detailing of the sufferings in the riverlands ends by de-sensitizing us to them, so that they don’t have the impact they should. But he by no means exaggerates the horrors that can be, and have been, perpetuated by knights sworn to protect the weak.
An aspect of chivalrous war which receives particular attention in Martin’s epic, and which provides our second crucial instance, is conduct following the capture of a city. As King’s Landing is under attack from the army of Stannis Baratheon, the noblewomen take refuge in Maegor’s Holdfast, amongst them Sansa and her prospective mother-in-law, Cersei Lannister. Cersei despises Sansa, and seizes this opportunity to torment her. ‘ “Do you have any notion what happens when a city is sacked, Sansa?”’ Cersei asks. ‘ “No, you wouldn’t, would you? All you know of life you learned from singers, and there’s such a dearth of good sacking songs.”’. Sansa once more trots out her idealistic line: ‘ “True knights would never harm women and children’”. Like the Hound, Cersei finds this understanding of knighthood ‘wonderfully amusing’. But in truth even Sansa knows what really happens after a city is taken. ‘The last time King’s Landing had fallen’, she recalls, ‘the Lannisters looted and raped as they pleased and put hundreds to the sword, even though the city had opened its gates. This time the Imp meant to fight, and a city that fought could expect no mercy at all’8.
The aftermath of the fall of a city in the Middle Ages is, to us, the most strange and shocking feature of historical wars of chivalry. The most notorious example is the taking of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. According to several accounts from crusaders, after capturing the city the knights went on a killing spree, slaughtering unarmed men, women and children. They then proceeded to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to give thanks to God for their victory. But the Hundred Years’ War saw numerous similar massacres. Prominent among those who commanded carnage were that paragon of English chivalry, the Black Prince, and Henry V, Shakespeare’s ideal knightly king. After capturing the city of Caen, Henry V ordered the killing of the entire secular male population. Indeed, the murder of innocents was codified in medieval laws of war, in just the provisions Sansa references. A beseiged town could make terms at any time until the storming of the walls. But if it remained defiant, following its fall rapine was permitted as a legal remedy.
The two crucial examples, then, for the real world as for the fictional, give substance to Sandor Clegane’s claim that ‘ “the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favours”’ of chivalry are just ‘ “silk ribbons tied round a sword”’9. On this conception of chivalry, one largely shared by Attewell, Johnston and Barbara Tuchman, it is an ideology, in the sense derived from Marxism. Chivalry, that is, presents a rosy picture of the knightly noble class, to itself and to the lower classes, a picture which justifies the privileged position of the nobles, and conceals the realities of the established order. These realities are that knights are rich through exploitation of the labour of the common people. And that they maintain their position by their capacity for violence.
Yet despite the force of the critique of chivalry we have found in Martin’s text, I believe it contains a major flaw. We can approach the flaw by way of a dictum of the great social anthropologist, E.E.Evans-Pritchard. In order to understand a complex social phenomenon, Evans-Pritchard maintained, one must consider the phenomenon not just as it appears now, but as it has developed: it must be viewed not just synchronically, but diachronically.
The chivalry of Martin’s fantasy world has been brought to Westeros from Essos, where its origins are not, as far as I can find, specified. But the fictional chivalry certainly does not have the same development as medieval knighthood in Europe. In our real world, chivalry, along with the medieval order generally, was born from the chaos of wave after wave of ravaging Northern tribes. Amidst a breakdown of society, the ‘Dark Ages’, war leaders emerged, with their warrior followers, who resisted the invaders. The peasants were forced to put themselves under the protection of these warriors, in return working the land as tenants. We see here that brutal violence, including the sacking of cities, certainly didn’t begin with, and certainly doesn’t require, an ideology of chivalry. But, more importantly, those who became the knightly class were not just wealthy parasites; rather, they met a desperate social need, and performed an essential social function. The function continued to be essential throughout the Middle Ages, since, though some historians like to pretend otherwise, medieval peasants could never withstand armored cavalry. Doubtless chivalry gave an idealistic expression of the duties of the warrior class; still, it was rooted in social realities.
The historical warrior class, moreover, saw itself as part of a Christian society. Christianity, as preached by the medieval Church, was opposed to violence (with the notable exception of crusades). This is shown in the Church initiative of the Peace of God, whereby people of all classes swore an oath not to attack clergy or peasants. The Peace of God is clearly related to the oath which knights came to take, to defend clergy, women and children; the Christian peace movement sought to promote and spiritualize the chivalric ideal. Here again chivalry does not cause violence—the violence was already there; knighthood attempted through moral, religious and legal means to restrain endemic violence.
A diachronic understanding of chivalry must look not only at its origins, but also at its decline, a fact of considerable import for the real world backing Martin’s critique of chivalry draws from the Hundred Years’ War. One of the most famous books about the period of the war, by Johan Huizinga, is called The Waning of the Middle Ages. The title advertizes that this era saw the breakdown of the medieval order, which included the weakening influence and the decadence of chivalry. It follows that we cannot simply assume that the Hundred Years’ War was a typical chivalrous war, or that a knight of the Hundred Years’ War was a typical knight.
One non-medieval characteristic of the Hundred Years’ War is bigoted nationalism. Though they were attempting to become King of France, the English kings showed little interest in the French people or land, other than as sources of wealth; while the average English soldier viewed the French as an inferior breed. Such attitudes, which brought a nationalist response from the French, undoubtedly contributed to the brutality of the war. Yet they are quite alien to feudalism, and the international institution of knighthood: nationalism is modern, not medieval.
Of more direct relevance for the criticism of chivalry in A Song of Ice and Fire is the mercenary soldier in the Hundred Years’ War. Under the medieval system, military service was a feudal obligation. As such, it was owed to a particular lord; it was for a limited time, usually forty days; it was chiefly owed by one class, the nobility, all sworn knights; there was no direct financial reward. All these factors helped to limit the destructiveness of war, and all are absent with the mercenaries of the Hundred Years’ War, and of Martin’s War of the Five Kings. The mercenaries both historical and fictional have no ties or bonds but that of money. It should come as no surprise that the Brave Companions paid by Lord Tywin, or the Free Companies paid by the English kings, are responsible for many of the atrocities of their wars. But even where some of these mercenaries are knighted, their misdeeds can hardly be blamed on chivalry. A situation where warriors kill for cash is most decidedly capitalist, modern.
Charles Péguy distinguishes two types of war, the chivalrous and the modern. In chivalrous war honorable battle is paramount, so that a dishonorable victory ‘is infinitely worse…than an honorable defeat’10. Whereas in modern war the idea of a victory which is dishonorable doesn’t even arise: success, conquest is all that matters, and paying mercenaries to achieve success makes perfect sense. Such thinking is very familiar to us as Machiavellianism, raison d’Etat, real politik. In my opinion, Peguy idealizes chivalry, perhaps demonizes modern warfare, and overlooks a third critical type of war, the war of passion—of anger, greed, envy. Nevertheless his distinction captures an important truth. Péguy calls the French Dauphin of the Hundred Years’ War, later Charles VII, a political and politic king, a modern king waging modern war. He no doubt considered the English opponents, from Edward III to Henry V, equally modern, as he doubtless would have found Martin’s Tywin and Cersei Lannister, the Tyrells, etc., etc.. Thus a good deal of the criticism of chivalry in Martin’s novels rooted in the Hundred Years’ War fails to connect. For what is criticised doesn’t in fact belong to the world of chivalry, but to a new world coming into being, our modern world.
All these responses to the branding of chivalry as ideology can be seen to be embodied in an historical personage from the Hundred Years’ War. For out of the heart of war-ravaged France, Saint Joan of Arc rides to confound the critics of chivalry. As one of the peasant class, Joan didn’t at all share the wealth of the nobility, associated with knighthood. But she passionately believed in chivalry all the same; and, being called to fight, and being named a war captain, believed she must practice chivalry. Joan sent letters to the English, offering them peace if they would only agree to leave France. She refused to let any of her company engage in that standard, vile practice of pillaging the common people, and refused to eat food that had been looted. She treated English prisoners according to the code of chivalry, and showed concern for the souls of her enemies, lamenting those who died without confessing, For Joan’s chivalry came from her Christianity: ordered to war by the voices of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, chivalry was the realization of Christianity in war.
The chivalry of St. Joan, moreover, was no merely personal, ineffectual, idealism. To the contrary, it is acknowledged by most historians, however grudgingly, that Joan of Arc was the inspiration and fundamental cause of the victory of France in the Hundred Years’ War. Yes, the brutal and hideous conflict was won by chivalry in its purest, most spiritual form. Sharp steel and strong arms directed by Machiavellian logic, on both sides, were defeated by spiritual power. A most uncomfortable conclusion for Martin’s epic, considered as a denunciation of knighthood.
But then, despite the assurances of Attewell and Johnston, is A Song of Ice and Fire really a denunciation of chivalry? Talk about Joan of Arc must prompt readers of the series to notice substantial similarities with a Westeros character, giving us pause for thought. Brienne of Tarth is, like Joan, a female warrior, and, like Joan, she believes passionately in chivalry, and actually practices it. Brienne also inspires that false and mocking knight, Jamie Lannister, to try to live up to the chivalrous ideal. Both Brienne’s chivalry and Jamie’s attempts to emulate it are presented as wholly admirable. There are further positive representations of chivalry with the Starks, particularly Ned Stark. Ned’s rather naïve knightly honor, true, gets him killed amidst the Machiavellian intrigues of King’s Landing. It is arguable, though, that the honor can be separated from the naïveté; and in any case, Ned is portrayed by Martin as a far better person than those who murder him. Yet perhaps most significant of all is the case of chivalry’s chief accuser, the Hound himself.
We get a hint that Sandor’s outspoken scorn for knighthood may not be the whole story when, during the Hand’s tourney, he intervenes to stop his brother Gregor from killing an unarmed Loras Tyrell. Gregor turns his attack on Sandor, aiming savage blows at his helmeted head, however ‘not once did Sandor send a cut at his brother’s unprotected face’11. The Hound acts contrary to common sense, but in accordance with chivalry’s code of honorable combat, very strictly interpreted. What is glimpsed here is revealed in full during the Battle of Blackwater. Having cracked under the horror of wildfire and quit his post, a drunk, despairing Sandor confronts Sansa alone in her bedroom. There is no one to prevent Sandor from doing what he will, or to report his misdeeds. He demands of the terrified Sansa that she fulfill an earlier promise to sing him a song of chivalrous love. In her panic Sansa is unable to remember the words of any romantic songs, but she does recall and manage to sing a hymn to the Mother, one of the Seven Gods.
‘Gentle Mother, font of mercy
save our sons from war, we pray,
stay the swords and stay the arrows,
let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women,
help our daughters through this fray,
soothe the wrath and tame the fury,
teach us all a kinder way.’12
This song clearly has echoes of many Marian hymns; even if the likeness is not conscious, it must come from memories of that cradle Catholic and Catholic schoolboy, George R.R. Martin. But however that may be, we have in Sansa’s song a decidedly Christian spirit. There is concern for victims caught up in war; the virtue of mercy is placed higher than the martial virtues, or martial success; mercy is seen as, ultimately, more powerful than violence. In a medieval context, the spirit is that of the Peace of God movement, which, we have observed, helped shape chivalry, the spirit of Saint Joan of Arc. Now it is highly unlikely that the hymn would have had any effect on a Northern warrior of the Dark Ages, or indeed on any warrior of any time before chivalry. But the words profoundly touch and move the Hound. Whatever he had meant to do, on hearing them he walks away leaving Sansa unharmed. Thus, though full of disgust and disillusion at the way knights usually act, and the way the world usually goes, Sandor Clegane admits the sublimity of the ideas and values at the heart of chivalry: despite his best efforts, he can’t rid himself of belief in chivalry.
Those stern censors of chivalry, Attewell, Johnston, and Barbara Tuchman in her history, speak from a position of assumed superiority. We moderns, they imply, have progressed beyond the unjust privileges of a knightly class and the evils of chivalrous war. With our democracy and our human rights, we enlightened ones can overcome the problem of violence. Yet the entitlement of modernity to such righteousness is far from clear. The devastation of Martin’s riverlands has modern parallels in London during the Blitz, Dresden after fire bombing, North Vietnam after Operation Rolling Thunder. The savagery of knights in sacking a city is matched by mass rapes committed by victorious Nazi Germans in Eastern Europe and Russia, and victorious Soviet Russians in Germany. Twentieth century concentration camps, gulags, gas ovens were filled with civilians; more women and children were killed in seconds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki than in decades of the Hundred Years’ War. The Machiavellian ends-justifies-means of modern thinking has not ended war, but it has taken away the protection which the Peace of God and chivalry sought to give non-combatants. The violent passions of anger and vengeance remain much the same.
George R.R. Martin, though, certainly does not subscribe to any facile optimism about democratic man. When the new High Septon comes into power, preaching justice to smallfolk and backed by the smallfolk, his rule almost immediately becomes totalitarian. When an army of the people, the Brotherhood without Banners, loses its chivalrous leader Lord Beric, they fall into indiscriminate vengeance under Lady Stoneheart. The riot of the smallfolk against Joffrey in King’s Landing is every bit as vicious and merciless as actual mass uprisings like the medieval Jacquerie and those of the Flemish communes, and numerous more recent popular revolutions. For Martin, violence is deeply rooted in human beings. In its darkness his view of humanity is like that of Machiavelli and Hobbes, or again like St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal—or, in our own time, Cormac McCarthy and René Girard.
The World War Two English soldier, Brigadier Desmond Young, writing about chivalrous conduct he encountered, most unexpectedly, in the North African campaign, remarks that ‘even tattered traditions may be worth preserving’13. Martin considers the chivalrous tradition to have always been tattered—as we have seen, sometimes justifiably, sometimes less so. But such critique of chivalry has always been a part of chivalry. Take some literary examples. The whole Arthurian cycle supposes that there are a few good knights, those of the Round Table, surrounded by a host of knights who fail in chivalry—and that the good knights ultimately lose, overwhelmed by human frailty and evil. In the French medieval Quest of the Holy Grail, written under Cistercian influence, Sir Gawain has the earthly chivalric virtues of bravery and magnanimity, and is generally regarded as a paragon of knighthood. However Gawain lacks the further spiritual virtues of humility and charity, and without these his chivalry is shown to be fatally flawed: he fails abysmally in the great quest, blundering about unwittingly killing good knights. Much more recently, J.R.R.Tolkien in ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth’ observes how the thirst for earthly glory, which was often a component of chivalry, could lead a warrior to take unnecessary risks in battle, to the great hurt of his people.
In none of these examples, of course, does criticism of the conduct of knights, or of aspects of chivalry, entail a wholesale rejection of chivalry. Neither does it with Martin. Like these examples, his work offers an internal critique of chivalry. The problem with most knights is that they’re not knightly enough. The problem with some elements of chivalry—especially the rules for captured cities—is that they’re not chivalrous enough. Martin not only wants to preserve the ‘tattered tradition’ of chivalry, he wants to rejuvenate and refine it; like the Quest of the Holy Grail and the Peace of God movement, he would purify chivalry on the basis of its essential principles.
With A Song of Ice and Fire unfinished, the question remains open whether Martin believes the purification of chivalry, on a large scale and for the long term, is likely, or even possible. Yet his epic has already indicated that only the Christian spirit of chivalry, preferring death to dishonor, can offer a real alternative to the creed of worldly success at all costs; only chivalry is committed to the defense of worldly failures, the poor and the weak: only the transcendent mercy of chivalry can enable escape from the violence of the human heart. So, regardless of worldly outcomes, regardless who wins the game of thrones, Martin agrees with Sansa, and the Hound, that the noblest goal and supreme achievement is to be a true knight.
By Andrew Lomas
1. George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (Hammersmith: Harper Voyager, 2011), p.294. George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (Hammersmith: Harper Voyager, 2011), p.684.
2. Steven Attewell, Race for the Iron Throne: Political and Historical Analysis of A Game of Thrones (Blue Buddha Press, 2014), Kindle e-book file, locations 3878, 3885.
3. Susan Johnston, ‘Grief Poignant as Joy: Dyscatastrophe and Eucatastrophe in A Song of Ice and Fire’, Mythlore 31.1/2 Fall,Winter 2012, p.139.
4. Game of Thrones, p.613.
5. See www.georgerrmartin.com, For Fans, FAQ.
6. Quoted in Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), p.34.
7. Charles Péguy, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, trans. Julian Green (London: Hollis and Carter, 1950), pp. 27, 29.
8. Clash of Kings, p.739, p.680.
9. George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords: Part One: Steel and Snow (Hammersmith: Harper Voyager, 2011), p.466.
10. Charles Péguy, Oeuvres en Prose 1901-1914 (Gallimard, Collection Bibliothèque de la Plèiade, 1961), p.1423, my translation.
11. Game of Thrones, p.305.
12. A Clash of Kings, p.783.
13. Desmond Young, Rommel: The Desert Fox (London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1972), p.174.