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

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