Tower of the Hand

The Telltale Knight

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10/11/2012 9:00:00 AM ET
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Note from the editor: On October 13, our first essay book, Tower of the Hand: A Flight of Sorrows, goes on sale at Amazon for $5.99. The ebook contains eight original essays about A Song of Ice and Fire, written by Tower of the Hand editors and contributors, and our frequent collaborators. All of us have worked hard these past few months assembling a collection of essays that are original, fun, and revelatory. There's something in this book for everyone, from first time readers to the most hardcore fans of George R. R. Martin. If you enjoy the essays we offer here on Tower of the Hand, we're sure you'll appreciate A Flight of Sorrows just as well. Here's an exclusive look at one of the essays that will be included in the book, written by A Podcast of Ice and Fire's Mimi Hoshut.

The Telltale Knight

The narrative parallels and foreshadowing of the Tales of Dunk and Egg

In late 1998, a few months prior to the UK publication of the hotly anticipated A Clash of Kings, an anthology titled Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy was published. Edited by science fiction author Robert Silverberg, Legends comprised 11 novellas penned by noteworthy fantasy authors, each story's setting unique to its respective author's fictional world. True to its titular promise, the anthology's authors were the biggest names in the SFF kingdom - and George R.R. Martin was certainly no exception.

Although A Game of Thrones, the first step into the massive A Song of Ice and Fire saga, had been published only two years prior, Martin was a well-established author even before the onset of his magnum opus. In 1976, he released a collection of novellas titled A Song for Lya that was honored by the '77 Locus Poll as the best short story collection of the year. By the late '90s, he was a bona fide genre darling, with a smattering of award-winning novels and short stories spanning 20 years of writing. In conjunction with a solid decade of penning teleplays and story editing for television, two conclusions were undeniable: (1) Martin was certainly a SFF legend, and (2) his short writing story skills were Not to Be Fucked With.

The Hedge Knight, Martin's contribution to Legends, stands testament to his strength as a novella writer. When frequently questioned by hoards of excitable fantasy fans on the elusive subject of How to Write Epic Fantasy, he consistently suggests that one begin with penning short stories. Hedge Knight and its sequels, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight, are chief examples of short form writing at its pinnacle. Although readers of the Song of Ice and Fire series associate Martin with the epic scope and size of its constituent novels, it can be argued that these novellas are primary showcases for his storytelling voice and perfect literary pacing.

The three stories, each published in different anthologies over the course of 12 years, fall under the umbrella referred to as the Tales of Dunk and Egg, and beyond their proficiency as excellent standalone examples of Martin's short story prowess, they are deeply relevant to the Ice and Fire novels. Although they are frequently recommended as separate, tangential pieces of canon, the significant contributions they provide to Westerosi lore and the many-layered connections they form to the series proper cannot be denied. In addition to extending and colluding with Martin's rich history of the Seven Kingdoms, the novellas serve to texturize the canvas of the world with an in-depth view of the political, social, and economic climate during a time period predating the opening of A Game of Thrones by 90 years. Furthermore, the connectivity of the novellas to the series provides a new perspective for events occurring or referenced in the novels. And, finally, on a speculative note, the distinct parallels drawn between characters in the two series could potentially represent more than a few nods at continuity; the commonalities are sometimes thought to hint at future plotlines and twists in the upcoming Song of Ice and Fire novels, which would be consistent with Martin's uncanny ability to foreshadow events well before they ever come to fruition.

The novellas read like a standard Martin POV chapter - written in third person, but so rife with conscious narrative and so emotionally charged that they may as well be firsthand perspectives. The reader is instantly transported to Dunk's oversized, clumsily self-conscious shoes. Despite perpetuating a continuous thread that stresses Dunk's impressive height while underscoring a self-deprecating characterization of being slow-witted, Martin writes a character who betrays the formula for a simple-minded giant. Dunk's character mimics the reader's introduction to the canon of Westeros, a learning process that endears him as an accomplice to the experience. The events and pacing of the short stories stand apart from the norm established by the Ice and Fire novels. While the series is noted for its gray characters and apparent moral relativism, the Dunk and Egg stories stand apart by being underpinnings of a parable. Dunk's nobility of spirit represents the concept of a true knight and is lauded by the smallfolk as "a knight who remembered his vows." His lowly stature and humble beginnings free him of the vanity, entitlement, and self-serving grandeur that color the behaviors of the rich, noble, and properly knighted. The characterization establishes a framework for all three novellas: a hedge knight who stays true to vows he never actually took and who always chooses the chivalrous high ground in a world that is normally dominated by a pervasive moral ambiguity.

Egg, on the other hand, brings humor and verve to a story that could otherwise feel didactic in its plotline. In stark contrast to the knight he serves, Egg is quick-witted and brash, prone to occasional bouts of princely opinions and precocity. The relationship he forms with Dunk is integral to the growth of both characters. Despite the stark difference in their backgrounds, he becomes a little brother to the hedge knight and demonstrates the respect and camaraderie that can be achieved between a knight and his squire. Through their misadventures and close calls, Egg gains valuable insight into the everyday life and frequently miserable plights of the smallfolk under his family's rule. Like Dunk's character, Egg's lessons mirror those of the reader's, ever enhancing the feeling of being complicit in the deepening understanding of the Seven Kingdoms and the reality of daily life in the realm.

The novellas serve to do far more than establish parables about chivalry and the meaning of knighthood, however. They introduce and build on the knowledge that a reader obtains from the novels alone, with a level of depth and scrutiny that serves as an important foundation for an understanding of Westeros history. Chief among the expository elements is a firsthand account of the Targaryen lineage. As A Game of Thrones opens, the line of dragonkings had been overthrown by Robert's Rebellion roughly 15 years prior. As a result, the reader's grasp of Targaryen history is presented through the filter of multiple POVs, slowly and sedately through the evolution of several more books. The rudimentary facts are presented: Aegon the Conqueror invaded Westeros and subdued six of the seven kingdoms under his rule with the might of his three dragons. His bloodline continued to sit upon the Iron Throne he established over the course of nearly 300 years, until Robert Baratheon raised a rebellion and usurped the kingship for his own. The remaining Targaryen children were either murdered or exiled across the narrow sea, which leads to Daenerys Targaryen's ascent to reclaiming her birthright in the series proper. This much is familiar, from the context of the novels - a portrait of the last Mad King, the famous Targaryen trait of insanity or glory, the bloodline's obsessions with dragons and wildfire. Through nearly every character's POV, the fall of the Targaryens is remarked upon as a history lesson, an extinguished family tree well-removed from its former grandeur.

The Dunk and Egg tales, however, resurrect it. Taking place roughly 80 years prior to the downfall of House Targaryen, the climate of the Seven Kingdoms is very much ensconced in the height of the royal family's power. At the opening of The Hedge Knight, Daeron II, the 12th Targaryen king, is enthroned. Dunk cites the common belief that Daeron and his sons had left the line of dragonkings secure for all time, thanks to a proliferation of princes that left no foreseeable shortage of male heirs - one of many instances of ironic narrative present in the stories. (The truth is that even in Good King Daeron's time, the heirs are severely reduced by a series of tragic happenstances, some of which the reader gets to experience firsthand.)

But the Dunk and Egg novellas reveal the reign for what it is, viewpoints offered from both the lowly hedge knight and his hidden princeling's sometimes conflicting opinions. Hedge Knight brings Dunk in direct contact with the most prolific members of the royal house - pitted against one prince and aided by another - so the reader is given the opportunity to judge the famous bloodline accordingly. And his interactions bring to mind Jaehaerys II's quote: "Madness and greatness were two sides of the same coin, and every time a new Targaryen was born, the gods would toss the coin in the air and the world would hold its breath to see how it would land." It is unsurprising, then, that the reader can easily identify which Targaryen princes held to either side of the coin. It is more interesting, still, to see flashes of Daenerys's and Viserys's nature in their predecessors. Certainly there are elements of Baelor Breakspear's humanity and concern for a lowly hedge knight that echoes Dany's regard for the less fortunate population of Slaver's Bay. But the haughty entitlement witnessed in Valarr and Aerion Targaryen exists in her demeanor as well, and more certainly in her hapless brother's. The stark parallel between Viserys and Aerion, especially, is a notable correlation that leads to horrific deaths across the narrow sea for both, wrought purely by hubris.

This firsthand perspective of the male Targaryens also serves to humanize their house; the personality traits and characteristics of individual Targaryens prove to be greater than just the sum of madness and greatness throughout one famous family tree. Although House Targaryen is remembered in current Westeros as a historical figurehead for fire, blood, insanity, and power, the Dunk and Egg novellas refine the broad brushstrokes of reputation and remind readers that the Targaryen men were real people with much more nuanced dispositions. The Song of Ice and Fire novels certainly don't commemorate Daeron, the sardonic Targaryen characterized in The Hedge Knight by his rampant alcoholism and self-professed cowardice. Nor did they reveal that Maester Aemon of the Night's Watch was reputedly sent to the Citadel for training because he proved to be an "unpromising" prince. Maekar, their father, was especially interesting in his characterization, for despite being described as sulky and less capable than his brother Baelor, his irritability is tempered by his better judgment in the agreement to foster Egg to Dunk as squire. After the events of Ashford Meadow, we see Maekar struggle internally with the weight of responsibility for Baelor's death. "Some men will say I meant to kill my brother," he says to Dunk. "The gods know it is a lie, but I will hear the whispers till the day I die." This moment of grief is heavier still with his very real assessment of the situation. Maekar knows - and the readers know - that history is written in shades of rumors and half-truths, and that a Targaryen's reputation can be a disconnected premise.

In addition to introducing readers to Targaryen nobility at the height of their power, the novellas also increasingly focus on the events of the Blackfyre Rebellion. Fourteen years prior to Dunk's beginnings as a hedge knight, the realm erupted in a war prompted by the rift between Aegon IV's heirs. Infamous for his lechery and indiscriminate taste in paramours, Aegon the Unworthy sent his kingdom into a tailspin by legitimizing his multitudes of bastards, both lowborn and noble, upon his deathbed. He was also responsible for bequeathing the Valyrian steel of House Targaryen, Blackfyre, to his bastard son Daemon instead of his immediate heir, Daeron. The fallout escalated to civil war, as Daemon Blackfyre cast aspersions upon his half-brother's claim to the throne. Half the realm declared for the rebellious Daemon (the black dragon), while the other half remained loyal to Daeron (the red). The war culminated upon the Battle of the Redgrass Field, a legendary clash that lead to Daemon's end and cemented the reputations of key loyalist fighters. Chief among them were Baelor Breakspear, Maekar, and Brynden Rivers, better known as Bloodraven.

The wounds and grief caused by the Blackfyre Rebellion ran deep in the realm, and throughout his travels, Dunk draws ever closer to the tension left behind. In The Sworn Sword, he enters into the service of Ser Eustace Osgrey, whom he believed to be a loyalist. Upon discovering that the man he served once fought for the black dragon, Dunk is shocked and considers breaking his commitment to the minor lordling. But as the stories develop and Dunk's understanding of the realm deepens, the moral ambiguity of the civil war becomes ever clearer. Dunk - and the readers, by association - realize that good men fought and died for both sides, and that history is always rewritten by the victor. Daemon Blackfyre's reasons for rebellion were no less noble or important than Robert Baratheon's, but he lost while Robert triumphed. With this distinction, Daemon became infamous as a usurper and harbinger of chaos across the kingdoms. By stark contrast, Robert was lauded for ending the tyrannical reign of Mad King Aerys and celebrated for his destruction of the Targaryen lineage. Reality, it seems, is significantly less black-and-white than the books will allow.

A key component of the focus on the Blackfyre Rebellion ties back to exposition of Lord Bloodraven's character. Famed for his dangerous omnipresence via a network of unpredictable spies and agents, Bloodraven's name becomes synonymous with a whispered curse among the smallfolk who question the reach of his powers as King's Hand, and the extent to which he controls the weak-willed Aerys I. Although his name is rarely invoked in the Song of Ice and Fire novels, his character proves just as relevant to the events of current Westeros as it did during his controversial reign. Readers of the novellas will have recognized him instantly in the second Bran chapter of A Dance with Dragons. Suspended as a withering body intertwined in a tree, alive 89 years past his reign, Bloodraven proves to be the last of the greenseers - Bran's mysterious three-eyed crow.

Although the direct exposition of Bloodraven in the short stories is minimal, Dunk speaks to him at the conclusion of The Mystery Knight. It is during this conversation that Bloodraven refers to the uncanny Targaryen trait of experiencing dreams that function as prophecies. "Daemon dreamed that a dragon would be born at Whitewalls, and it was. The fool just got the color wrong." This is interpreted as a commentary on Egg's growth as a Targaryen, and foreshadows his ascent to the Iron Throne - a feat previously thought impossible, as Egg was the fourth son of a fourth son, on the very bottom rung of succession. For this reason, his reign in later life earned him the appellation of "Aegon the Unlikely."

Not only do the novellas lay an explicit historical backbone for the series, they also feature a prominent parallel that hints at a less obvious connection. Prior to the publication of A Feast for Crows, Martin confirmed that a descendent of Dunk's would appear in the fourth book. The most apparent culprit would be that of Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, reputed for her less-than-lovely physical characteristics. She stands out among smallfolk as "freakish big," especially for a woman. Similarly, Dunk dubs himself Ser Dunk the Tall for the same reason - at an inch shy of seven feet by his late teenage years, he towers well above the average man. Colluding with their large, ungainly size, Dunk and Brienne both share the same doubts and self-consciousness regarding their mental prowess. Dunk's mental monologues read closely to Brienne's POV chapters, redolent with the same internal criticisms and awkward self-doubt.

And if the close correlations of their behaviors suggest similar personalities, then their plot trajectories mirror one another even more closely. The three Dunk and Egg tales follow the hedge knight on a journey across the Seven Kingdoms, serving any lord whose cause he believes in, and observing the life of smallfolk along the way. From the start of Brienne's POVs in Feast, she embarks upon a seemingly hopeless quest to find the Stark sisters - a task entrusted to her by Jaime Lannister, whom she has formed begrudging respect for and attraction towards. Brienne's chapters bring the reader closest to the travels of a hedge knight that can be found in the series proper and are replete with the realities of commoners' plights.

It certainly helps the correlation that both would-be knights travel with an endearing squire in tow, although Podrick Payne, perhaps, has significantly less claim to royalty. Both of their squires were acquired by persistent following to forge a close and protective relationship. Dunk and Brienne also possess a very similar moral code, consummately choosing the chivalrous high ground in a manner consistent with a knight's vows. Oddly enough, neither character is an anointed knight. This can be inferred from the context clues of Dunk's sheepish reticence where his knighthood is concerned, as well as Brienne's hapless gender identity. In A Feast for Crows, she observes Pod and thinks, "I am not a knight, no matter how many times he calls me 'ser.'" It is likely that both characters, suffering from a feeling of awkward displacement in their societies, turns to the code of knighthood to carve out a space for themselves. Holding to that moral code, choosing to defend the weak and helpless, eschewing their own self-interests and vanity for a greater cause - these are behaviors that both Dunk and Brienne uphold soundly, sometimes to their detriment.

It is worth noting that their two characters provide a notable contrast in the landscape of knighthood that throws the disparity of a knight's actions from his vows into sharp relief. Though Dunk and Brienne are separated by roughly a hundred years, the general disappointment of the realm's anointed knights remains consistent. The Song of Ice and Fire novels prove time and time again (especially underscored by Sandor Clegane's loathing commentary) that knights are rarely as noble as their vows. It is interesting, then, to see that the situation was clearly the same even in Dunk's era. Among the milieu of self-serving men who are unwilling to defend the weak, Dunk and Brienne stand out with their clumsy strides to honor knightly vows. It's very likely that both characters exemplify the moral code associated with the class because they are unable to join it; as outsiders, they live up to the standards of what is expected of a knight, because they were never allotted the privilege of becoming one. Those who are actually anointed seem to take their knighthood for granted and are less inclined to take their vows seriously.

Another explicit connection between the two characters is made even more apparent in Feast with Brienne's shield. Provided to her by Jaime from the armory at the Red Keep, her shield originally carried the black bat of Lothston. Similarly, Dunk's inherited shield previously displayed Ser Arlan's winged chalice. Both of them commissioned their shields to be repainted. Brienne, unable to bear the arms of Tarth without identifying herself to those who would want her dead, opts for a sigil she remembers from her father's armory. Readers of The Hedge Knight may recognize the description instantly, as Brienne recalls "how she'd run her fingertips across the cracked and fading paint, over the green leaves of the tree, and along the path of the falling star." Tarth, not being referenced in Westerosi history as a particularly old lineage, is presided by her father Lord Selwyn, referred to as the Evenstar. His title could easily be a reference to the falling star of Dunk's own sigil. If Egg became crowned at the age of 33, that implies that Dunk became commander of his Kingsguard at age 40, leaving Ser Duncan plenty of time prior to have quietly fathered children. Given this connection, it is highly plausible that Brienne could be his great grandchild.

The connectivity between the two characters casts questions as to the direction of Brienne's plotline in the remaining novels. Could her future hold accomplishments that mirror Dunk's - chiefly, rising to become lord commander of the Kingsguard? It seems unlikely, given her standing and current plight, and it could also have been previously accomplished by her inclusion in Renly's makeshift Kingsguard. And then there's their squires. Although Egg and Pod bear no resemblance to one another in terms of personality, their relationships to their respective knights are quite similar. It could be argued that Podrick Payne could go forward in future events to play a much more important role than being just a young squire. Finally, there also exists a question of Brienne's eventual fate, given her predecessor's tragic end at Summerhall. Even after her narrow escape from a premature end in A Feast for Crows, would Brienne go on to meet the same devastating death as Dunk?

Although never explicitly described in any canonical text, many contextual clues have been scattered in the Ice and Fire novels regarding the elusive tragedy at Summerhall. Multiple characters have made references to the event, alluding to the destruction of the castle, its connection with dragons, and the melancholy effect it had on Rhaegar Targaryen. At the time of the Dunk and Egg novellas, Summerhall is a royal castle chiefly inhabited by Egg's father, Maekar. Positioned upon the Dornish marches and previously occupied as a summer residence by King Daeron II, it was passed to Maekar while his brother Baelor held Dragonstone. The castle was destroyed by a fire in 259 AL, resulting in the death of both Dunk and Egg. At this time, Egg was better known as King Aegon V, and Dunk had transformed into Ser Duncan the Tall, Lord Commander of Aegon's Kingsguard. Although details of the events are unknown, Alester Florent's comment in A Storm of Swords firmly suggests that the tragedy resulted from an erroneous attempt to hatch dragon eggs. He compares it to the mad wildfire swigging of Aerion Brightfire, as well as the nine mages who crossed the sea to hatch Aegon III's cache of eggs. "Did we learn nothing from Summerhall?" he asks Davos. "No good has ever come from these dreams of dragons." In the same book, Ser Barristan tells Dany about her brother Rhaegar's melancholy connection to the castle, explaining that "he was born in grief." Because Rhaegar was born on the day of the fire, it is commonly believed that his birth was intrinsic to the unknown tragedy.

Although the event is shrouded in mystery, certain conclusions can be drawn regarding those who were involved. Egg, as the reigning king, was roughly 60-years-old at this time, with Dunk at 66 or 67 years. Both were present and perished at Summerhall, along with Egg's heir, Prince Duncan the Small. It is possible that Prince Duncan's wife, Jenny of Oldstones, was also present. Her friend, the dwarf seer who makes an appearance in A Storm of Swords as the Ghost of High Heart, recalls that she "gorged on grief at Summerhall." This phrase, in conjunction with the old crone's tears upon hearing what she calls "my Jenny's song," suggests that she may have lost Jenny in the Summerhall tragedy. On another note, the Ghost is also revealed by Barristan Selmy to be the woods witch who predicted the lineage of the Prince That Was Promised, explaining Egg's decision to marry his grandchildren Aerys II and Rhaella to one another. Barristan mistakenly believes that the old crone also died at Summerhall, even though the reader knows that she is alive by 300 AL and roaming the Riverlands. This does suggest, however, that she may have also been present during the event but somehow survived the fire.

The events in the Dunk and Egg novellas, while many years removed from the tragedy of Summerhall, could shed some light on the mysterious event. In The Hedge Knight and The Mystery Knight, a common thread surfaces in the form of a Targaryen's "dragon dream." Daeron, Egg's brother, reveals that he dreamt of Dunk before the two of them ever met. "I dreamed of you and a dead dragon," he tells Dunk. "It had fallen on top of you, but you were alive and the dragon was dead." Daeron is concerned that the dragon could be himself, so he asks Dunk to make certain that it's his brother Aerion he kills. However, as it transpires, the dragon clearly symbolizes Baelor Breakspear, who died in the defense of Dunk's cause during the Trial of Seven. Years later, during the events of Mystery Knight, Daemon Blackfyre tells Dunk that he dreamed of "this pale white castle, you, [and] a dragon bursting from an egg." Daemon misinterpreted the dragon to be a literal one, hatched from Butterwell's prized egg. However (and as previously discussed), the dragon in this premonition is symbolic of Egg coming into his own as a Targaryen prince and, ultimately, a king. With these two precedents in mind, it is not unlikely that the disastrous attempt to hatch a dragon egg at Summerhall could have been the product of a misread dream or prophecy. Like Daemon's misreading, the dragon in this hypothesized dream or prophecy could actually have symbolized a Targaryen - in this case, Rhaegar. This would explain Rhaegar's birth on the same day his predecessors are attempting to raise a dragon, as well as the melancholy connection he bears to Summerhall that continues to haunt him throughout his life.

By presenting these possible parallels, the novellas bring an extra dimension of understanding to the Seven Kingdoms. Although seemingly disconnected from the series proper as a separate strand of stories, Dunk and Egg's adventures are arguably as important to the history and context of Westeros as the current novels are. They certainly provide Martin a chance to showcase his superior short story writing skills. When a reader becomes distracted from the caliber of Martin's craft by the multitudes of intertwined POVs and barrages of plot twists over several long books, it is important to look to the novellas for examples of his storytelling at its best. With tight pacing and clever, well-defined story arcs, the Dunk and Egg stories are worth reading - and re-reading - for the level of writing alone. Factoring in their weight and contribution to a full understanding of Westeros, they establish themselves as invaluable companions to their partner novels - a must-read and, certainly, must-analyze for every Song of Ice and Fire fan.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider buying Tower of the Hand: A Flight of Sorrows, a new ebook that includes this essay as well as seven other original essays about A Song of Ice and Fire from Tower of the Hand writers and frequent collaborators. A Flight of Sorrows goes on sale October 13, exclusively at Amazon, for $5.99.

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