Tower of the Hand

So Many Vows: Oaths in Conflict

5/21/2014 11:00:00 AM ET

Wilier to wrangle than a kraken and crueler than Ramsay Snow, hard choosings plague the men and women of Westeros worse than the Pale Mare. Within A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many examples of characters who face the unenviable dilemma of having two duties or oaths that conflict with each other. From kings to knights to common-born men of the Night's Watch, oaths and duties frequently come into conflict. The end decision often ends up being some of the most well-written chapters in the series, with palpable drama that grips at the reader's heart.

Kingsguard sigil (via AWOIAF)Kingsguard sigil (via AWOIAF)

"That was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king."

Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV

This is a favored literary device of George R.R. Martin, who professes to a love of telling a story of "the human heart in conflict with itself." This technique produces tangible moments of crisis, murky and difficult ethical decisions that weigh heavily upon the character, as well as vicariously affecting the reader. It's in these moments that we see the true character of each of Martin's fictional personas. Unfortunately for many characters, the picture it paints is often not very pretty. Whether due to the brutal nature of the world Mr. Martin wished to craft or the author's natural cynicism, many of the characters, in their moments of crisis, neglect the honorable, difficult path for the easier route. In this, we examine how true character holds up when his oaths come into conflict.

"Once a man puts on that cloak, it changes him."

Jaime Lannister, A Feast for Crows, Cersei III

Many members of the Kingsguard are held up to a true knightly ideal, even beyond the mere fact that knighthood is a basic requirement for service in the Kingsguard. The Kingsguard are sworn to defend the king and to lead his armies when he requires them. By necessity, this means that the Kingsguard are supposed to be great fighters and peerless strategists. In essence, the Kingsguard are charged with defending the Targaryen dynasty in a way that no one else within the Seven Kingdoms has been similarly charged.

Over the course of the institution, there have been members of the Kingsguard who emphasized both the ideals of the Kingsguard and the ideals of knighthood, and many more who had fallen short of that lofty perch. Conventional wisdom holds that while the Kingsguard under Robert I was largely full of Lannister toadies, crude thugs who sullied the institution, and the Kingsguard under the previous king, Aerys II, were better knights. Given that the Kingsguard beat an underaged woman for the king's pleasure, it's hard to see how any could be worse.

However, to counter the perception held by fans and perhaps the in-universe characters, the Kingsguard under Aerys II were, by and large, moral reprobates hiding behind their oaths to prevent them from finding the courage to do the right thing. From Gerold Hightower to Arthur Dayne, the seven greatest knights of the realm stood idly by while Aerys raped his wife and murdered innocent people with reckless abandon, all to uphold their Kingsguard oaths.

Ser Barristan Selmy (Artist: Gabrielle Portal)Ser Barristan Selmy (Artist: Gabrielle Portal)

"Ser Barristan is as valiant and honorable as any man in King's Landing."

Eddard Stark, A Game of Thrones, Eddard VI

Of special note is Ser Barristan Selmy, Kingsguard to five rulers and Lord Commander to two, as his journey through the novels gives the readers a full view of his character, especially in his own personal POV chapters in A Dance with Dragons. Ser Barristan understands honorable behavior, and there are many examples in the text of Barristan acting with high honor. During the Defiance of Duskendale, for example, a small tax dispute turned into a full-blown revolution. After being rescued, Aerys wasted no time in ordering the execution of every member of House Darklyn and House Hollard. Begging for clemency, Ser Barristan asked that young Dontos Hollard, a mere child, be spared from the executioner's block, as a child could not possibly have been complicit in treason.

"No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or the other."

Jaime Lannister, A Clash of Kings, Catelyn VII

The mere notion that Aerys was willing to murder a child for the actions of his parents should have set warning bells off in every Kingsguard's ears, but the senior members of the Kingsguard were willing to ignore any and all of Aerys II's moral lapses. Gerold Hightower cautioned Jaime Lannister, "You swore a vow to guard your king, not to judge him," (A Clash of Kings, Catelyn VII) after Jaime bore witness to Aerys's murder of Rickard Stark when he demanded a trial by combat. Indeed, Aerys openly mocked the lordly right of trial by combat by turning the idea into a war crime and horrific spectacle, burning Rickard Stark alive in his own armor facing the Targaryen champion of "fire."

This mantra, uttered by Gerold Hightower and echoed by Jonothor Darry, speaks of a notion that a King is not held accountable for his actions, and this is backed by other historical events in the texts, such as Aegon IV's mistresses or Maegor's wanton cruelty. However, the notion of councilors taking stands against their king when they order unjust acts, or to violate an oath, has precedent in Westeros. Eddard Stark chose to resign his Handship rather than condone the assassination of an innocent girl. Simiarly, Qarlton Chelsted resigned his Handship in protest over King Aerys's wildfire plot, ultimately paying with his life. Lyman Beesbury famously protested the crowning of Aegon II over the wishes of King Viserys I. This notion, that a king's actions must comport to some standard, is not a foreign concept. Stannis Baratheon espouses the notion that personal desires are subservient to the law, and Eddard Stark spoke largely about how the king had no right to order the murder of innocent children, even feuding with his childhood friend Robert Baratheon over the notion. Even Davos Seaworth, a lowborn commoner counsels Stannis to "save the kingdom to win the throne" (A Storm of Swords, Jon XI).

Barristan served his king by marching against the rebels in battle, ultimately failing, but following his orders. Pardoned by Robert Baratheon, Barristan retained his position and was elevated to Lord Commander of the Kingsguard by virtue of being the longest-serving member still alive after Robert's Rebellion. During Robert's reign, he continued to serve loyally despite his reservations, leading troops on Old Wyk to subdue Balon Greyjoy's rebellion. His reservation stemmed from the deaths of Aegon and Rhaenys, two children killed by Tywin Lannister's bannermen during the sack of King's Landing.

Barristan Selmy (Artist: Mike Capprotti)Barristan Selmy (Artist: Mike Capprotti)

If I had seen him smile over the red ruins of Rhaegar's children, no army on this earth could have stopped me from killing him. "I will not suffer the murder of children. Accept that, or I'll have no part of this."

Barristan Selmy, A Dance with Dragons, The Kingbreaker

Many times, Barristan's tenet of not suffering the murder of children is tested. Aerys ordered the death of Dontos Hollard until Barristan intervened. During Robert's reign, Barristan and Eddard Stark both counseled against ordering the assassination of Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, but only Ned took a stand for their lives, by resigning his Handship rather than be party to dishonorable conduct, whilst Barristan meekly accepted the assassination order. Barristan, ultimately, cannot disobey even dishonorable orders, following the model of the White Bull and Jonothor Darry. Instead, the "honorable" Barristan permits his chosen monarch unlimited power to pursue any tyranny they desire, squeaking out mere disapproval as opposed to following the path of more honorable men despite the danger.

"We all do our duty when there is no cost to it."

Maester Aemon, Game of Thrones, "Baelor"

Barristan holds himself to a high standard of honor, of this there is no question. When there is no conflict, Barristan will hold himself up as a true knight. However, when his oaths as a knight come into conflict with his oaths as a Kingsguard, the latter take precedence over the former, and it shows his true character: Barristan is a Kingsguard first, and a knight second. While Barristan is unafraid to face any foe on the battlefield, he lacks the courage to face down his monarch from a dishonorable path.

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