Thursday, December 28, 2017

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 2.5: "Eye of the Storm"

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here!
The continuing adventures of the Voltron force put the Paladins in increasing peril as Zarkon's threat grows more pervasive and tightly focused.

2.5. "Eye of the Storm"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Steve In Cheng Ahn


A Galra armada, led by Zarkon, attacks, and the Paladins flee. The fatigue of making a fighting retreat swiftly after the completion of the Alcarian mission tells on the Paladins, and mechanical fatigue on the Castle of Lions means that the escape route followed is unstable. It collapses, and Allura follows, while Coran finds himself ill with a disease typical of older Alteans.

Believing themselves away from the threat of Zarkon for a time, the Paladins take the opportunity to rest. Keith and Lance spar a bit over access to a pool. Pidge and Hunk confer as the latter bakes--badly, given ingredients available--and Pidge subsequently makes to study Altean.

As Shiro and Allura themselves confer, Zarkon's armada appears again and renews its attack. The Paladins again scramble to flee, puzzling over how Zarkon manages to continue pursuing them. They are able to escape again, but only haltingly and at the cost of substantial damage to one of the Castle of Lions' main drive systems.

At the end of the most recent escape, the Castle emerges into something of a hellscape and hides amid a cosmic storm to effect repairs. The Paladins give more thought to how Zarkon is able to track them, and a cut-scene displays again how Zarkon manages the trick as the Galra armada emerges and attacks again.

Voltron sallies to face the threat, and Zarkon reaches out to seize control of the Black Lion. The Castle emerges from the storm and breaks Zarkon's hold, and the Lions return to it. The bad products of Hunk's earlier baking find themselves used as makeshift components for the damaged drive system, and the Castle narrowly escapes as Zarkon rages.


It may seem something of a stretch to find the medieval in the current episode, aside from the long-standing tropes of the Paladins already identified. Part of that, though, may come from the relative lopsidedness of depiction; such medieval works as receive substantial attention focus on the deeds and doings of victors rather than those over whom they gain victory. They attend to the hunter far more than the hunted, and, in the present episode, the Paladins are the hunted, with Zarkon--the magic-supported undying lord of an expanding empire, wielding an ancient, magical weapon and seeking to secure another--taking on the role of the hunter.

As such, in other times and places, Zarkon might well be the protagonist of the narrative. Back-story concerns that emerge in later episodes do more to explain it, and they may receive some attention when the episodes are treated, but he is a conqueror who imposes (martial) order over a diverse realm. Many medieval and medievalist works make such figures their heroes--the more so when, like Zarkon, they are seeking to reclaim something that was once theirs and which was taken and hidden away. So it could be that the medievalism that comes about in the episode is an inversion of the usual tropes, with the putative protagonists occupying a role more like the Arthurian Questing Beast and the antagonists serving as the relentless hunters who are lionized and commended. And if that is the case, it forces certain questions about the medieval/ist narratives from which the series (at times) works.

What many of those questions are will have to wait, of course.

What the answers are, I do not yet know.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 2.4: "Greening the Cube"

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

As the second season of Voltron continues, the Paladins unlock new powers--and one of them rings of medieval myth!

2.4. "Greening the Cube"

Written by Lars Kenseth
Directed by Eugene Lee


As the Paladins enact repairs to the Castle of Lions while fleeing from Zarkon, they encounter strange biological constructs. Pidge investigates them, finding them to be a coded message. She proceeds to work to unravel that message, during which time Keith contemplates his strange dagger and asks Coran about the possibility that the Galra had reached Earth at some point in the past. The answer he receives is inconclusive.

Pidge determines that the message is a distress signal from the Alcari, a race of engineers whose work Coran commends. The Paladins proceed thence, finding the Alcari living as refugees in their planet's forests--and having shifted their engineering focus from metal to biology. Much is made of Pidge's paradoxical distaste for and connection to nature. They explicate the circumstances of their oppression under the Galra, noting that they are held in part because their leader, Lubos, is a captive of the Galra.

The purpose of the Galra on the planet is soon noted; the local commander purposes to build a superweapon and return in triumph to main service. The effects of Lubos's captivity on the Alcari is also demonstrated.

Plans to rescue Lubos are made and enacted--but it is revealed that Lubos is a collaborator, working with the Galra not to protect his people, but to protect himself. The Paladins exfiltrate under Galra fire, taking Lubos with them to face the censure of his people--and the Galra activate the superweapon the Alcari have built. Voltron engages the weapon, faring badly until Pidge is able to identify and activate the Green Lion's special weapon, a bio-generative cannon.

With the Paladin's weapon activated, the Alcari revolt, and the Galra flee. The new Alcari leader pledges aid to Voltron and reminds Pidge of the interconnectedness of things--and Zarkon attacks as the Paladins depart.


It comes off as a somewhat wry turn of phrase that I ended my previous entry in the series with a comment about weeding when the current episode makes so much of sudden, unchecked growth. That the episode does so also connects it with some ideas noted in relation to earlier episodes, such as the correspondence between Pidge and forests (bespoken here and on the official series website). Of more immediate relevance is the association of Voltron and SGGK, noted here--and seeing some concepts expanded upon in "Greening the Cube."

The Green Knight in SGGK is evocative of not outright derivative of the Green Man figure in church-carvings that has since become typical in depictions of British and Celtic mythoi. In those medievalist constructions, the Green Man is an avatar of the forces of nature--with nature generally envisioned as forests rather than plains, swamps, the riparian, or most other biomes. Pidge, being the green-clad Paladin of the Green Lion--which, incidentally, supports Voltron's shield--is the character most obviously connected to the Green Knight and thence to the Green Man,* the more so due to the series website's description of her as the "Guardian Spirit of Forest."

In retrospect, I honestly should have seen something like this coming. Aside from the website's description--which, as an external item, can be set aside when reading the series as an artistic object in itself, although having the additional contextual materials is always helpful--the color imagery and the fact that the Green Lion is found entombed by vegetation should signal that the character will be connected to the natural world. That Pidge emerges as able to generate explosions of plant life is thus not a surprise (and resonates in part with her femaleness, although she has demonstrated no drive towards motherhood as yet). And that Pidge's mindset enables the kind of connectivity that drives such generation seems foreshadowed in retrospect, as well. But that it ought to have been obvious does not mean it does not resonate with the medieval or its perception, as much else in the series so far has.

*Yes, I know Pidge is female. My claim about proximity stands.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Martin Re-Read: "The Mystery Knight"

Read the previous entry in the series here.

“The Mystery Knight”
Warriors, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, 2010

(Important announcement follows the post.)

Anyone who thought that Martin was just writing random stories about these two people wandering around Westeros hasn’t been paying attention to the way he writes A Song of Ice and Fire. Throughout the three stories, he’s been planting the seeds for this one, in which a bunch of nobles and a would-be prince attempt the Second Blackfyre Rebellion—and it fizzles badly.

Dunk, being Dunk—“thick as a castle wall,” as Ser Arlan always said—stumbles into the would-be rebellion completely by accident. He decides to attend a wedding feast and tourney in hopes of winning a bit of money so he and Egg can continue their trip north. Egg, probably approaching puberty, is beginning to get frustrated about hiding his identity and mouths off a lot more than he used to, so Dunk has to tell him to shut it often enough that when Egg tries to tell him that “this is a traitor’s tourney,” he doesn’t listen.

On the way, they come across some lords and a hedge knight calling himself Ser John the Fiddler. Everything’s going pretty normally until after the bedding (during which Dunk finds himself holding the one single woman in this story while she’s completely stark naked, of course). Dunk gets really really super drunk and overhears a conversation he doesn’t understand (lords plotting), then has a conversation with Ser John. The Fiddler tells him that he’s had dreams of Dunk in Kingsguard white and a dragon “bursting” from an egg here at the tourney. He drunkenly rambles a bit about taking Dunk into his service, none of which Dunk remembers clearly in the morning. As becomes pretty clear to anyone who isn’t “thick as a castle wall,” Ser John is really Daemon II Blackfyre and nearly everyone here is plotting with him, so of course he expects Dunk to enter his service and rebel against King Aerys.

Dunk, thinking he’s cute, enters the lists as “the Gallows Knight” for the sigil on his new shield (which he hasn’t had time/money to get repainted yet), deciding that everyone loves a mystery knight. Of course, he doesn’t immediately realize that the true mystery knight here is Ser John. Subverting the trope of “fair unknown” a bit, Martin has Dunk knocked out in his first tilt, and it turns out that Lord Gormon Peake has been bribing all those who face “Ser John” to lose. Usually in a “fair unknown” tale, the unknown knight in question is a) noble (check for “John,” not for Dunk) and naturally has the prowess of a knight (clearly no check for either).

Everything goes completely chaotic for a bit—Egg goes missing; the dragon egg meant to serve as a prize for the tourney (and probably pretext for Daemon beginning his rebellion) disappears; a hedge knight who refused to take a fall for Daemon is accused of theft and tortured; and Lord Alyn Cockshaw decides that Dunk is a threat to his influence with Daemon (because of Daemon’s dreams) and tries to kill him by shoving him into a well. But Dunk shoves him down the well, locates Egg (who’s been unmasked as a Targaryen), and kills a lord who attempts to kill Egg. Egg has told everyone holding him prisoner that his father, King Maekar, is aware of the rebellion and on his way to put it down, not realizing that Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers is aware of it. An army shows up at the gates, and Daemon tries to demand single combat with Brynden, who says no way and has him taken prisoner.

The reader, of course, is aware that Daemon’s first dream comes true later; Dunk does indeed serve as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard under Egg when he becomes Aegon V. The second part seems to pretty clearly refer to Egg revealing his identity toward the end of the story, as he stops being the little boy hiding a signet ring in his boot and becomes a Targaryen with the signet ring on his finger. Daemon just wildly misinterpreted the dream.

A couple of other interesting side notes: Walder Frey shows up in this story as a snot-nosed four-year-old who totally narced on his sister (the one getting married in the story) for having premarital sex with a scullery boy. Also, Martin includes an ubi sunt early in the story:

Where is our young prince now? Where is his brother, sweet Matarys? Where has Good King Daeron gone, and fearless Baelor Breakspear? The grave has claimed them, every one[.]

Readers of Tolkien will, of course, recognize this structure from Aragorn’s “Lament for the Rohirrim” in The Two Towers—“where now the horse and the rider?” Tolkien, of course, borrowed this from Anglo-Saxon poetry, specifically “The Wanderer.” This was a common poetic structure in Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially poems that examined the transitory nature of life and society (so, you know, all of them). It’s likely that Martin borrowed it from Tolkien rather than from medieval literature, because I haven’t been able to find any evidence that he’s read medieval literature extensively. (I mean, he’s probably read Beowulf and Le Morte Darthur, but beyond that nobody knows. If anyone sees him at a con or something and wants to ask about his familiarity with medieval lit for me, I will make you cookies.)

This is the last “Dunk and Egg” story to date, though Martin always plans more. The stories are fun, with a bit of bittersweetness (which is typical for Martin) because we know how the story ends, and it isn’t pretty. But getting to know these characters and some of the history just prior to A Song of Ice and Fire is nice. There are three more stories I really hope he writes: Dunk escorting Aemon and Brynden north to the Wall; whatever will give us a clear explanation as to how Dunk and Brienne are related; and the Tragedy of Summerhall (though that one might break me).

So, announcement time. I’m stepping back from the blog a bit; this will be the last of my regular posts. I’ll pop in occasionally when warranted, and I’ll definitely be back for Game of Thrones season 8 (which I hear isn’t coming until 2019? Darn). But other projects have started crowding my headspace, and it’s time to let someone else have the biggest voice here. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Art by Gary Gianni from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 2.3: "Shiro's Escape"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here!

The second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender continues--and it seems to engage (inadvertently?) with some of what is happening in the medievalist world.

2.3. "Shiro's Escape"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Chris Palmer


After the Paladins and the Castle of Lions are reunited, Shiro convalesces while his comrades look on with concern. As he heals, he dreams of his torment at the hands of the Galra and his escape from their capture--aided by a saboteur, Ulaz, who warns him of Zarkon's plans and offers him information, including a call to meet with the Blade of Marmora. Shiro wakes from the dream and reports its content to his comrades.

Meanwhile, the commander who was framed by Thrace in an earlier episode, Prorok, finds himself being tormented by the witch Haggar. He protests his innocence to no avail, and he is bound to a new Robeast.

Data from Shiro's mechanical arm is analyzed and yields coordinates--to which the group travels despite Allura's objections that no Galra can be trusted. Shiro questions her earlier decision not to reveal to them that Zarkon had been the Black Paladin previously, and she attempts to defend it--although without much success--and he urges them all to look for a promised ally. When they arrive at the coordinates, though, they find it a natural minefield, space strewn with explosive minerals.

Zarkon, empowered by Haggar's magic, also finds the coordinates. He dispatches the Robeast Prorok thence.

An intruder arrives on the Castle of Lions, and Allura proclaims it a trap. The intruder manages to evade capture until confronted by Shiro, with whom a standoff ensues--but only briefly. The intruder reveals himself as Ulaz and accepts capture, leading the Paladins into a hidden pocket in space where an outpost of the Blade of Marmora is hidden. As they confer about matters, the Robeast attacks, and Voltron is hard put to defend itself and the Castle of Lions. Ultimately, Ulaz sacrifices himself so that Voltron can escape; in the aftermath of it, tension driven by Allura's hatred of the Galra reemerges, but Shiro determines that they will press on--and Keith finds himself considering intently the strange knife he has long carried.


In this episode, the bigotry's the thing. Allura's barely-temperate hatred for the Galra, although justified in the milieu, rings oddly not only to the other Paladins, but also to viewers; she is supposed to be on the side of good, and the good are not supposed to be bigoted. (This will be an issue later.) There are medieval antecedents, to be sure; the Arthurian Sir Palimodes comes to mind as an example of a member of a perceived enemy population who nonetheless aligns with the "good guys" (yes, I know the Round Table Knights are hardly "good", but they are the usual protagonists), and his membership in that population is a point of contention about him. But, given the cultural moment surrounding this writing--and that of the episode's initial release--I have to think of the broader context and to note that Allura's fantastic racism echoes the all-too-real racism embedded in far too many places--including in medievalist communities, as recent events have starkly shown. She is one of the protagonists, and she should be above such attitudes, but she is not. That she is not frustrates the portrayal of "good" usually expected in children's programming and reminds the viewers that the pernicious evil of racism can be found growing even in the most blessed of soils.

We need to weed our gardens more thoroughly.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Sworn Sword"

Read the previous entry in this series here!
Read the next entry here!

“The Sworn Sword”
Legends II, edited by Robert Silverberg, 2004

Almost 10 years after “The Hedge Knight,” Martin released a second Dunk and Egg story, this one taking place about a year and a half later.

Dunk and Egg have been travelling all over, spending some time down in Dorne chasing puppet shows, likely trying to find Tanselle, the girl Dunk has a crush on from “The Hedge Knight.” Now, Dunk is sworn to Ser Eustace Osgrey, a very very minor knight in the Reach. Sometime in the last year and a half, a massive plague rolled through the Seven Kingdoms, killing thousands throughout the kingdoms but nearly 40% of the populace in King’s Landing. Now, there’s a drought and terrible summer heat, and a feud starts between Ser Eustace and the neighboring Lady Rohanne Webber over rights to a stream.

Pride is the main theme in “The Sworn Sword,” though echoes of the chivalry/selfishness theme can be seen here, as well. Ser Eustace remembers when Osgrey was a more prominent house, before the Blackfyre Rebellion. Lady Webber is young and tiny and holding onto her lands with teeth and toenails, hampered by her father’s dying order that she marry within two years Or Else. Egg sometimes has trouble not acting like a Targaryen (he is only about 10 years old). Even Dunk shows a measure of pride when he discovers that Ser Eustace fought for the black dragon (the losing and therefore traitorous side) in the Blackfyre Rebellion; he leaves Ser Eustace’s service immediately.

And yet Dunk’s chivalrous side still stands up, and he protects Ser Eustace’s land and people despite having left his service because it’s the right thing to do. This gets him into yet another trial by combat, fighting Ser Lucas (who’s been out for Lady Webber’s hand in marriage for a while) to prove whether Lady Webber did or did not set fire (or send someone to set fire) to Ser Eustace’s drought-ridden forest.

The conflict begins with the stream, but it’s exacerbated by Ser Bennis, another hedge knight sworn to Ser Eustace, who’s Dunk’s foil in this story. He’s rude, slovenly, and quick-tempered. When he and Dunk confront the smallfolk workers who are building the dam that stops the water from entering Ser Eustace’s lands, he uses force to intimidate them and ultimately cuts one of them on the cheek. Up to that point, Ser Eustace had a beef with Lady Webber, but when Ser Bennis attacks one of Lady Webber’s smallfolk, Lady Webber now has an even more legitimate beef with Ser Eustace (since it turns out Ser Eustace has no legal claim to the stream anyway).

Ser Eustace puts Dunk and Bennis in charge of training the few smallfolk he has (and they actually get names this time!) to fight in case Lady Webber attacks. Watching this upsets Egg because he knows the farmers have no chance against knights like Ser Lucas. Part of why he’s out here, of course, is to learn that smallfolk have names and lives and are people, not cannon-fodder. He still shows some difficulty with this, throwing Dunk’s remark about knights not naming their horses because it makes it harder when they die back at him; they shouldn’t have given the smallfolk their own names (all of them are named some variation of Wat or Willis) because it will make it harder when they die. That he’s concerned about the fate of the smallfolk is good; that he’s talking about them like they’re pets isn’t. Egg wants to stop the whole fight by using the Targaryen signet ring he keeps in his boot, but Dunk won’t let him, partially because it could put Egg’s life in danger and partially because this sort of thing is exactly why he’s squired to a hedge knight.

In order to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, Eustace sends Dunk to offer Lady Webber a blood price for the injury to her peasant man. Rohanne isn’t interested, instead insisting that Eustace turn over Bennis. Eustace isn’t willing to do that, so Rohanne comes to get him—though she denies burning down the forest. Dunk puts himself in the place of the smallfolk they’ve been training, despite having left Eustace’s service by this point, and goes to treat with Rohanne. He sacrifices his own pride by slicing open his cheek as repayment for the injured smallfolk, then letting her in on Egg’s identity and what will happen if Dunk dies here. Rohanne takes that, but she also objects to Eustace accusing her of burning the forest, at which point she demands trial by combat. In the middle of the stream. Dunk wins, but gets beaten half to death in the process.

While he’s recuperating, Rohanne and Eustace put aside their pride enough to talk to each other, and decide the best way to handle their mutual issues is to get married. Rohanne needs a husband, Eustace wants the prestige of his house back. Eustace lost all his children in the Rebellion; Rohanne was in love with one of those children, who’s now buried on Eustace’s land. Marrying means Eustace’s smallfolk can have some of the water because the lands are joined. In other words, all of this could have been avoided if it weren’t for the pride of the lords and ladies. Given that they’re very minor lords and ladies, the amount of pride they have is rather outsized, as well.

Poor Dunk is the only one who comes out of this without his pride salved. He manages to develop a pretty major crush on Rohanne, as well, and she says at one point that if he weren’t just a hedge knight, she’d marry him. While he’s unconscious from the fight, Rohanne and Eustace get married, so he wakes up to discover that any chance he had for any kind of relationship with Rohanne is gone. So he leaves, but not before Rohanne gives him a new horse and he steals a kiss and a lock of hair.

Martin’s issues with the common folk are much less pronounced in this story than they are in A Song of Ice and Fire and “The Hedge Knight.” They’re not just a faceless mob here; they have names and personalities. The nobility still treat them like trash (Rohanne, for example, turns down Dunk’s offer of a blood price knowing that the injured peasant—Wolmer—would probably have liked the money and refers to him as “some peasant”), but at least the narrative shows that this is a really bad attitude instead of subtly (and probably accidentally) reinforcing it.

His issues with women are also less here; Rohanne is a well-developed, strong character and the only time her breasts are mentioned is when Dunk has a dream about her being naked. There are still far more male characters than female ones, even in Rohanne’s court. Rohanne’s insistence on being “strong” in a male fashion is explicitly addressed; Rohanne says if she can’t hold the land the way a man would, she’d be summarily removed from power.

There’s one really interesting side mention that comes up several times in “The Sworn Sword,” and that’s Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers’ position as Hand of the King. Those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire and paid close attention will recognize Brynden as the Targaryen bastard who served Aerys I through three Blackfyre Rebellions but was imprisoned for murder when Aegon V took the throne. He swore to the Night’s Watch, was escorted north by Dunk himself (along with Maester Aemon), became Lord Commander of the Watch, then disappeared while ranging north of the Wall, reappearing in the narrative when Bran Stark encounters him in a cave far north, calling himself the three-eyed raven. (On a very side note, this is why I’m confused that Game of Thrones calls Bran “the three-eyed crow” like it’s a title; there’s all sorts of reasons to call Brynden a raven or a crow, but zero reason to refer to Bran that way.)

Next week: the last of the Dunk and Egg novellas (so far) sees the duo embroiled in intrigue at a tourney again.

Art by Gary Gianni from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 2.2: "The Depths"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here!

The second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender continues--and it continues to make medievalist motions as it does.

2.2. "The Depths"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee


Occurring contemporaneously with the previous episode, "Across the Universe," "The Depths" opens with Lance and Hunk, the pilots of the Blue and Yellow Lions--Voltron's legs--falling out of the destabilized wormhole generated by the Castle of Lions. The two crash through a sheet of ice and into an ocean planet, sinking in their inoperable Lions. Lance chastises Hunk for his reaction to events, needling him somewhat as his Lion, elementally attuned to water, reactivates.

As it does, Lance espies a mermaid, Florona, and makes to pursue her. Hunk is drawn along reluctantly, and the two soon catch up to Florona--at the entrance to a magnificent underwater kingdom fueled by the Baku Garden, the source of warmth and life for the area. They are introduced to the ruling Queen Luxia, who welcomes them warmly and hosts them at a dinner where they soon find themselves ensorcelled by fine food and pleasing entertainment.

That night, Lance is abducted; Hunk, due to his greater bulk, cannot be taken, and while Lance is away, he sees Luxia and Florella confer about retaking the Blue Lion's pilot from forces they describe as terroristic. Luxia also punishes Florella for her perceived failure, bidding her return to the Baku. As this happens, Lance is awakened and released from his ensorcellment; his presumed captors reveal themselves as the last remnant of an opposition force fighting against the mind-controlling tyranny of Luxia, and they enlist Lance's help in overthrowing her.

As Lance advances to retrieve his Lion, part of the plan the opposition forces have made around him, he is captured--and he is forced to fight the still-controlled Hunk. After some time of the two being reasonably evenly matched, Lance is able to break the mental hold on Hunk, and the two Paladins capture Queen Luxia. In her captivity, she reveals that she has also been mind-controlled--by the Baku itself, an eldritch horror that Lance, with some assistance, defeats.

In the wake of the battle, with the undersea civilization beginning to stabilize, Lance and Hunk are able to make contact with Pidge and, presumably, to rejoin the other Paladins and the Castle of Lions.


As I watched the episode again--admittedly, after far too long a time--I was struck by two major medievalist threads. The first is that Lance seems to partake not only of Lancelot--obvious from the name and obvious from his being driven by lust--but also of Kay. Like Arthur's Seneschal, he is a braggart whose mouth promises far more than his body can deliver, but he does display substantial martial prowess from time to time. (Lance, however, spreads his moments of excellence out further than Kay does his, and his antics are funnier than Kay's usually mean-spirited attacks.)

The other is more an invocation of medievalism than an instantiation of it, for the manner in which the undersea kingdom under control of the Baku presents itself suggested Spenser's Faerie Queene to me more than anything. As I watched, I kept finding myself in mind of the Bower of Bliss and the corrupting pleasures there to be found. While it is likely that the cartoon is responding to the deeper trope of the poisoned flower that Spenser himself responds to, the heavily chivalric overtones of the series as a whole invite comparisons to other chivalric works, and Spenser's Faerie Queene is explicitly Arthurian, neo-chivalric, and ostentatiously medievalist in itself. More careful viewing and a return to Spenser's cantos (for which I should apologize to some of my graduate professors) suggest themselves as needed to confirm the comparison, but I have to think that there is something there to which I or others might attend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Hedge Knight"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here!

“The Hedge Knight”
Legends I, edited by Robert Silverberg, 1998
(reprinted in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms)

So I know I said I was going to work through Dreamsongs Volume 2 starting this week but I lied. Who wants to go back to Westeros?

Over the last almost 20 years, Martin has released three novellas set in Westeros about ninety years before A Song of Ice and Fire, each following the continued adventures of Ser Duncan “Dunk” the Tall and Aegon “Egg” Targaryen, who would later be king with Dunk serving in his Kingsguard. Clear links to A Song of Ice and Fire beyond the historical exist: Egg mentions that his brother Aemon is at the Citadel studying to be a maester, while Dunk has his shield painted in a fashion that anyone familiar with Brienne’s story will recognize.

The first of these stories, “The Hedge Knight,” shows how Dunk and Egg meet and how Egg ultimately becomes the squire to a lowly hedge knight. It also contains many of the same themes of A Song of Ice and Fire, from the tension between chivalry and “reality” (read: people being selfish buttheads), to borrowing tropes from medieval romance (particularly the Fair Unknown), to the dual nature of the Targaryens.

The story begins with Dunk’s knight master, Ser Arlan of Pennytree, dying, leaving Dunk unknighted. In order to make sure he doesn’t starve to death and/or turn outlaw, Dunk goes to the tourney at Ashford and claims to be a knight in order to fight in the lists and earn some money. While Martin never comes right out and says that Dunk’s lying, the clues are many and obvious. “Ser” Dunk is no such thing. However, as Maester Luwin says, “a man’s worth is not marked by a ser before his name,” and Dunk shows that he’s just as much a knight as the rest of them—perhaps even more so. Dunk encounters a bald eight-year-old boy who starts following him around and squiring for him at the tourney. When he sees Prince Aerion beating a young Dornish girl (who Dunk was already attracted to), he beats up Aerion, which of course gets him in a peck of trouble. He asks for trial by combat, and Aerion takes that up to eleven by demanding a “Trial of Seven,” or melee with seven knights against seven knights (rather than a one-on-one trial by combat). The nature of the knights on each side is a clear chivalry-and-honor versus selfishness-and-evil split. Of course Dunk’s side wins, though at horrible cost, and Egg is given permission to continue squiring with Dunk as a hedge knight.

At this point in history, Targaryens are everywhere, unlike in A Song of Ice and Fire where there are maybe three (I say maybe because I’m not convinced of Young Griff’s identity). This gives Martin the chance to illustrate the madness/greatness dichotomy he voiced through Ser Barristan in A Storm of Swords. Aerion, for example, believes he is a dragon. Daeron has visions (he may be a greenseer, though the Targaryens call them “dragon dreams”) and self-medicates with wine to stave them off. Maekar is just cruel. But Baelor is a good an honorable man and Egg is decent, too, though young and a tad innocent (which causes all sorts of trouble in the story, but he doesn’t mean to). It’s no wonder that Aerion, Daeron, and Maekar end up on one side of the conflict with Baelor on the other, and it’s symbolic that the only Targaryen to die is Baelor.


A hedge knight is the truest kind of knight[. . . .] Other knights serve the lords who keep them, or from whom they hold their lands, but we serve where we will, for men whose causes we believe in. Every knight swears to protect the weak and innocent, but we keep the vow best.


The main thematic conflict in “The Hedge Knight” is the tension between chivalry/honor and selfishness/pride, and this, too, is most clearly symbolized by which side of the Trial of Seven each character ends up on. Aerion is the main antagonist, dragging Daeron into it (because Daeron lies about how he lost Egg, casting Dunk as a monster knight who kidnapped the young prince). Maekar stands with his sons, of course, though he knows them and could just as easily have not taken a side. While Daeron and Maekar can almost be excused—they have to stand with their family, after all—the true treachery comes at the hands of Ser Steffon Fossoway, who first promises to help Dunk, then switches sides for the promise of being elevated to lord, very nearly leaving Dunk in the lurch. Aerion’s side is rounded out by three members of the Kingsguard, who really don’t have a choice here because they’ve vowed to protect the royal family. But it serves to further exemplify Jaime’s statements about conflicting oaths; these three men are knights, sworn to protect women and the weak. They’re also sworn to protect Aerion. So when Aerion attacks a woman, their vows come into conflict. This isn’t dwelt on a lot in the story; they’re just the three Kingsguard filling up the ranks of Aerion’s seven. But the subtext is still there.

On Dunk’s side are the honorable knights—and a few who have reason to oppose the dishonorable ones. Two knights join him immediately: Ser Robyn Rhysling as a favor to Egg and Ser Humfry Hardyng, who faced Aerion in a joust and wound up with a dead horse and a broken leg due to Aerion’s treachery. Lyonel Baratheon, called “the Laughing Storm,” joins because it seems like it’ll be good fun (Baratheons, amirite?). Raymun Fossoway, Steffon’s cousin, demands to be knighted on the spot to join Dunk out of disgust for his cousin’s treachery. He even repaints his shield so his apple is green instead of red, both to differentiate himself on the battlefield and to separate himself from Steffon (thus beginning the split between the red-apple Fossoways and the green-apple Fossoways). Baelor joins last because he recognizes that Dunk was doing exactly as he should—protecting the weak.


“Why?” he asked Pate. “What am I to them?”

“A knight who remembered his vows,” the smith said.


Many other knights refuse to join either side, even the face of Dunk’s begging, reminding them that he and Ser Arlan served many of them, even taking wounds in their service. This mass refusal leads him to shout, “Are there no true knights among you?” Clearly, this phrasing echoes Sansa’s frequent lament that there are no true knights. Dunk has a similar idea of the duty and honor of a knight that Sansa does, and while they both know (though it takes Sansa a bit to get there) that it’s at least partly an illusion, they’re both still upset when knights and lords fail to meet their expectations. They both hold themselves to the standards of nobility and chivalry, though, despite the disillusionment and Dunk really not being a knight.

It’s Dunk’s honorable streak that leads Maekar to allow Egg to squire with him, even though Dunk refuses a place in a household. Instead, he insists that Egg squire to him as a hedge knight because, as he puts it, “Daeron never slept in a ditch, I’ll wager [. . .] and all the beef that Aerion ever ate was thick and rare and bloody, like as not.” The princes have never known hardship, and thus they are ruined; Daeron is a drunk and Aerion is insanely cruel. Dunk’s offer should keep Aegon from having the same fate. And we know that it does; The World of Ice and Fire tells us that when he becomes Aegon V Targaryen, “Aegon the Unlikely” due to the circumstances of his rise to the throne, he sends aid to the North during a harsh winter, puts down the last of the Blackfyre rebellion, and attempts to put in place several reforms to protect the smallfolk from their lords. Unfortunately, he gets just enough of the dragon madness to wind up dying, along with his son and Dunk, in a fire while trying to hatch dragon eggs.

Martin also throws in the romance trope of the fair unknown, which continues through the Dunk and Egg stories, since telling people Egg’s true identity could be fatal for him. In the early part of the story, before Egg has to reveal himself to save Dunk’s life, Dunk has no idea that the cheeky eight-year-old following him around and sassing him is a prince. Later, of course, he realizes that he should have recognized the signs—Egg doesn’t want to go into the castle, he speaks familiarly of the various knights and princes kicking around the tourney grounds, he seems to take Aerion’s treachery in the joust personally—but until then, he treats Egg like he would any other small boy. Of course, once Egg is his squire and they’re headed out on the road, he does the same, because teaching Egg humility is half the point of squiring him to a hedge knight.

Unfortunately, “The Hedge Knight” has some of the same problems as A Song of Ice and Fire, as well. The smallfolk, despite being the kind of people Dunk usually deals with and who he’s protecting, are generally a faceless mob. Only the Dornish puppet girl (Tanselle) and the smith (Steely Pate) get names. At least this faceless mob is generally less bloodthirsty than, say, the faceless mob in the King’s Landing riot that kills the High Septon. Like A Song of Ice and Fire (and the medieval romances Martin’s emulating, whether he knows it or not), the primary focus is the nobility and their hijinks.

There’s also the small but extremely irritating issue that Martin has of introducing women with their breast size, and I promise once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere. It would be one thing if it just showed up in situations like this—Dunk is a 17- or 18-year-old man who’s attracted to Tanselle, so noticing her boob size might be expected—but he does it constantly in A Song of Ice and Fire. Men notice boob sizes. Women notice other women’s boob sizes. Women are hyperaware of their own boobs. At least there’s no rape or attempted rape in “The Hedge Knight,” which is a nice change, though it is unfortunate that the one named female character feels so incidental to the whole plot. She’s practically a MacGuffin—she’s there to give Dunk a reason to act to drive the plot forward, not to act herself.

Next week, we’ll look at “The Sworn Sword,” wherein Dunk spends some time sworn to service under another knight.

Art by Gary Gianni from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms