A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
The first time I read these stories, I considered the second one to be the most boring. I now regret that, because it occurs to me that its small scale and seemingly low stakes is rather the point. This isn’t about national politics, it’s about local politics, not about the fate of a nation, but the fate of a stream and the farmlands around it. It’s about ordinary people; even the nobility in this are a landed knight and a minor lady. Rereading it, this is incredibly good in its characterization and slow buildup to its bittersweet conclusion.
It also helps that since then I’ve read A Dance with Dragons and A World of ice and Fire, which makes the events of this story feel a lot more relevant. It both introduces a character who actually shows up in the main books, and has the background for two other characters, and if you thought I was done talking about Jaime and Brienne because I was reading a book that takes place generations before they were born, think again!
The Sworn Sword
One of the benefits of reading these novellas right before aDwD’s release was that when the three-eyed crow was revealed in the cave beneath, I recognized who he was pretty much immediately. Very old, named Brynden, one red eye, the other missing – three is a pretty big drop from “a thousand and one,” but then again Melisandre’s vision of him gave him a thousand back. Brynden Rivers is introduced in the novellas before he shows up in the main series. Martin has sworn you don’t need to read the Dunk and Egg stories to follow the plot of the series, but here’s a case where it helps – although maybe we’ll be getting flashbacks in Bran’s upcoming arc to fill in for the rest of you.
In the meantime, let me give the history behind him and the other bastards of Aegon IV. Known as Aegon the Unworthy, this truly dreadful king decided to legitimate all of his bastards at his death because there were rumors that his son Daeron by his sister-wife Naerys was actually the son of his brother Aemon the Dragonknight, who did love his mistreated sister, though whether romantically as in later songs isn’t clear (I headcanon that Jaime loved those stories as a kid). The most prominent of these bastards was his son by his cousin Daena Targaryen, Baelor the Blessed’s wife who he never slept with because chastity. This was Daemon Blackfyre, who claimed the Iron Throne for himself after his father’s passing, leading to a civil war called the First Blackfyre Rebellion.
Brynden Rivers, known as the Bloodraven, was the son of Aegon and Melissa Blackwood, who also shows up in A Dance with Dragons as the namesake of a set of mountains that Jaime and Hoster discuss. The Blackwoods live at Raventree Hall, which has an enormous weirwood tree where hundreds of ravens have gathered every dusk for a thousand years. Bloodraven had a reputation as a “sorcerer,” and we know for certain is he was a greenseer, and the stories of him being able to communicate with animals and take their shape were definitely true. In the main series, he seems to be able to skinchange into entire flocks of crows and ravens. While Bloodraven is only mentioned in this story, he will be a major character in the final novella, and I’ll be looking for how his powers manifest there.
For this story, though, the kings and queens are just a background. About two years after The Hedge Knight, Dunk and Egg have been traveling the country, visiting Storm’s End, Dorne, and Oldtown. Shortly after the tourney, an epidemic called the Great Spring Sickness swept the country, trimming the Targaryen tree and taking out King Daeron and his next set of heirs. King Aerys is now on the throne, who appointed Bloodraven as his Hand. As summer moved in, a drought hit the country that people blame on their supposedly sorcerous new Hand, and the smallfolk everywhere are suffering.
Dunk has sworn his sword to Ser Eustace, a landed knight in the Reach whose sons died in the Blackfyre Rebellion, and when he discovers that the old man’s neighbor, Lady Rohanne Webber, has dammed up the nearby stream and is blocking the water to Eustace’s land, a local skirmish seems imminent. Dunk is sent to treat with Rohanne, known as the “Red Widow” because she’s lost four husbands, only to discover that all is not as Ser Eustace would have him believe. Also, the Red Widow is only twenty-five and smoking hot and she and Dunk fall in love pretty much immediately.
One of the recurring plot points of the novellas is Dunk’s inability to get laid. Oh sure, he could afford it if he wanted to go that route, but he’s a romantic and wants a woman who actually wants him. He fell for Tanselle in the last story and she’s the reason they went to Dorne, but he never managed to find her. He and Rohanne have enormous sparkage, and she tells him “If you were better born, I’d marry you.” Whenever he sees her freckled face, he thinks “I’ll bet she’s freckled all over,” and she returns the compliment near the end of the novella by saying, “You have large feet (…) Large hands as well. I think you must be large all over,” which is one of the best dick innuendos I have ever read. But they can’t be together because of their different social class, and instead in the end she winds up marrying Ser Eustace to make a peace and keep her lands.
Now, at some point, Duncan obviously got over this problem, since he’s Brienne’s ancestor (something that Martin did finally confirm earlier this year in an interview). But just exactly how he’s related to her is still a question. A World of Ice and Fire does not help, as it doesn’t mention any of this children, and makes things more confusing with a reference that the House of Tarth has ties “recently to House Targaryen,” in spite of no such connections showing up in the family tree in the back of the book. A lot of Targaryen girls, however, are neglected in the family tree, and I suppose it’s possible that Dunk wound up with one of Aegon’s sisters – maybe even his older sister Daella who Egg mentions that he’s supposed to marry. And by “wind up,” I don’t mean marry, because his birth is too low, but hey, love affairs happen, and a female Targaryen bastard might be just about the correct rank to marry a lord of Tarth.
A World of Ice and Fire is much clearer about what happened to Lady Rohanne Webber after this story ends. Septon Sefton mentions that he thinks the only man she might want to marry is Gerold Lannister, who she has corresponded with in letters, but Rohanne dismisses the idea that he’d want to marry a minor lady. Well, it turns out, she was wrong; after Ser Eustace dies he became her sixth husband, and this time it lasts. They have four sons, two of whom are Tytos and Jason Lannister, who are the parents of, respectively, Tywin and Joanna Lannister, and yes, Dunk is the great-grandfather of Brienne, and Rohanne is the great-grandmother of Jaime.
Whether this was planned all along (this story was published in 2004, only about a year before A Feast for Crows, plus the Gerold references is already here) or decided retroactively, what’s clear is that at some point Martin went, “Hey, you know what would be a great idea? Having Jaime and Brienne’s great-grandparents meet and fall in love and make out.”
And once you’ve realized who their descendants are, suddenly everything gets so much shippier. Rohanne tries to give Dunk a horse to match him just like Jaime did, plus all their snarky banter and Rohanne’s tsundere-esque insults, and of course these passages:
“You just need to find something true to say about her. That’s what my brother Daeron does. Even ugly old whores can have nice hair or well-shaped ears, he says.”
“Well-shaped ears?” Dunk’s doubts were growing.
“Or pretty eyes. Tell her that her gown brings out the color of her eyes.” (…)
My lady, that gown brings out the color of your eye. Dunk had heard knights and lordlings mouth such gallantries at other ladies. [p 167]
“The green becomes you well, m’lady,” he said. “It brings out the color of your eyes.” [p 228]
Which of course bear a great deal of resemblance to another moment from A Clash of Kings:
The wench looked as ugly and awkward as ever, he decided when Tyrell left them. Someone had dressed her in women’s clothes again, but this dress fit much better than that hideous pink rag the goat had made her wear. “Blue is a good color on you, my lady,” Jaime observed. “It goes well with your eyes.” She does have astonishing eyes.
Which means my interpretation of that scene now goes.
Jaime (thinking): Last time I saw Brienne her “big blue eyes were full of hurt,” so I need to give her a compliment to remind her I’m on her side.
[Brienne walks in]
Jaime (thinking): Ugh, she’s still not good looking, um, what do I do…oh, I know, generic courtly compliment number 13!
Jaime (out loud): Blue is a good color on you, my lady. It goes well with your eyes.
Jaime (thinking): Oh crap I picked the one physical part of her I actually find attractive, I should have gone with her well-shaped ears!
Shipping aside, the main point of this novella is that the petty battles between nobles (which Dunk straight-up calls “pissing matches” to Rohanne) can have a serious effect on commoners. It also features Dunk imparting some important lessons to young Egg. The prince is indignant at the thought of having to serve smallfolk, but Duncan sets him straight on treating peasants with respect:
“A man has his pride, no matter how lowborn he may be. You would seem just as lost and stupid in their villages. And if you doubt that, go hoe a row and shear a sheep, and tell me the names of all the weeds and wildflowers in Wat’s Wood.”
Later, when Egg gives formulaic arguments about how Daemon Blackfyre could never have made a good king because “bastards are born for betrayal,” Dunk lays down some truth bombs about his own likely parentage that render the boy silent. This all must have stuck, as Aegon was dismissed as “half a peasant” by his detractors and he enacted reforms to reduce the power of nobles and grant rights to the smallfolk, which proved deeply controversial during his lifetime and were later reversed (I’m also rereading a little of A World of Ice and Fire right now, I haven’t decided yet if I will blog on it or just move on already).
Dunk himself opens this novella thinking of himself as a knight. Which he is. Arlan may not have knighted him (he equivocates when asked point blank if that happened), but knighthood isn’t about saying fancy vows or being anointed with oil. Martin’s made that very clear through Sansa’s storyline, as she considers Sandor Clegane a better “knight” than the men with Sers in from of their names that do nothing to protect her, as well as with Brienne, a truer knight than most who can’t be knighted because of her gender.
A few final notes:
I like to observe how the books have more range on religiosity than the show did, so I liked the description of Duncan’s piety: “He went to sept sometimes, and prayed to the Warrior to lend strength to his arms, but otherwise let the Seven be.” Because religious people come in the extremely casual variety as well.
I also loved how Duncan gives family names to the peasants who sign up for Ser Eustace’s little army, as a way of telling them apart. Apparently smallfolk don’t have family names at all, which I ought to have already noticed from the series itself, but it was never drawn attention to. It reminds me of how peasants in feudal Japan were forbidden to have surnames, something which only changed after the Meiji restoration. Hence why there are so very many Japanese surnames (over 100,000) relative to China or Korea, and why so many of them are derived from rural features like “mountain rice-paddy” (Yamada) or “within rice paddies” (Tanaka) or “original rice paddy” (Honda).