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

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