A while back, my editor Marc Kleinhenz asked me to write a bonus essay in case some of the Hymn for Spring essays didn’t come in on time and we needed to bulk out the book. I decided to write an essay elaborating on some of my ideas about smallfolk agency in Westerosi history, and wrote about 3/4ths of it when the late-breaking essays came in and we didn’t need it.
And then I forgot I had written it for about two years…
So here’s a bonus essay!
Revolt From Below – The Impact of the Smallfolk on the Game of Thrones
I have a complicated relationship with the fantasy genre, and specifically it’s rather uncomplicated relationship with medievalism – in fact, one of the first blog posts I ever wrote was on this subject. Fantasy novels are almost always about princes (and princesses), kings (and queens), and brave knights and fair maidens (who are sometimes the same people). However, in medieval Europe (the source of the overwhelming majority of fantasy novels, which is a whole other topic for discussion), the nobility were almost never more than 10% of the population and usually 5% or below.
In other words, 90% or more of the people one would encounter in a fantasy world would be peasants, and yet they tend to fall somewhere between background extra and scenery. If there’s a protagonist who’s a commoner, chances are they’re actually a secret royal; if they grew up in a peasant village, it’s destined to be destroyed to give the hero a tragic past; if peasants actually do something, they’re either a pitchfork-wielding mob of bigoted provincials or plucky rebels standing up against the Evil King. Even even when peasants rebel in fantasy literature, they are doing so in favor of the Rightful King, and usually under the leadership of a non-peasant – that trope goes all the way back to Ivanhoe in 1820, but you could see it in the theaters just a few years ago when The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies was showing. At no point do the peasants question the social order that makes them peasants and others nobles; they’re either happy with their lot or working to restore the status quo.
One of the things that made George R.R Martin so ground-breaking as a fantasy novelist is that he doesn’t do that. For him, the social order must be interrogated, examined, deconstructed so that its basic principles can be interrogated and the gap between ideal and practice measured:
“This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?” (GRRM, Rolling Stone, 4/23/2014)
One can see this focus from the very beginning of Game of Thrones – even before the POV characters from the Great Houses step onto the stage, we are introduced to the world of Westeros through the eyes of Will and Gared, two smallfolk soldiers looking askance at their “lordling” commander, put over them by blood and not by merit. Will himself is only present north of the Wall because he’s a poacher – because some lord has established a private right to hunt in the forests that were once “a common treasury for everyone to share,” in the words of the 16th century Diggers, Will is branded a criminal for what wouldn’t be illegal for someone of a higher social caste. And while Jon Snow learns that the ranks of the Night’s Watch are made up by rapists and murderers, before his enlightenment, we learn that some black brothers have been forced into a life of servitude as a punishment for being debtors.
And as I’ll argue in this essay, the smallfolk have a powerful and indeed growing influence in the Game of Thrones, like tectonic plates grinding and grinding until the pressure grows too great. Even in a world dominated by kings and queens, princes and princesses, lords and knights, the commoners are able to develop ideologies that call into question the justice of the social order and institutions to try to overthrow it.
Smallfolk Agency Through History:
One of the most common words used in the ASOIAF fandom to describe Westerosi fandom is “stasis,” that it seems like Westerosi society has been stuck in the Middle Ages for an eternity – a detail which often leads people to conclude that the smallfolk play little role in the Game of Thrones, since feudalism (and thus, the political domination of a feudal nobility) has seemingly lasted for about eight thousand years. However, the World of Ice and Fire reminds us that much of this impression rests on somewhat faulty evidence:
“The tales we have now are the work of septons and maesters writing thousands of years after the fact…the names of the kings of these earliest realms are caught up in legend, and the tales that claim their individual rules lasted hundreds of years are to be understood as errors and fantasies introduced by others in later days…when the singers number Serwyn of the Mirror Shield as one of the Kingsguard – an institution that was only formed during the reign of Aegon the Conqueror – we can see why it is that few of these tales can ever be trusted. The septons who first wrote them down took what details suited them and added others and the singers changed them…in such a way does some long-dead First Men become a knight who follows the Seven and guards the Targaryen Kings thousands of years after he lived…”(WOIAF, p. 10)
That there were once men called kings is not the same thing as proof of the existence of feudalism. After all, in our present world today, we have constitutional monarchies which are essentially republics in all but name, and a small number of absolute monarchies which couldn’t be more different So, if a First Man in pre-history as called a king, we still don’t know exactly what their social structure looked like.
Indeed, if (like real world anthropologists) we look to those social groups that have changed the least in the last few thousand years – the Free Folk beyond the Wall, the Mountain Clans of the Vale, the hill clans of the North – we don’t see strong caste lines between nobles and serfs. This isn’t modern democracy – after all, there’s a tendency in all these groups to mediate their ideals of individualism and free speech through the rule of the strong. As in our own world though, clan structures tend to be either egalitarian or have a relatively flat social hierarchy, and even in societies with chieftains and more social gradations, the myth of kinship (that all of the families that make up the clan are supposedly all related) often leads to an ethic of reciprocal obligations, in which the clan chief is supposed to provide protection, justice, and sustenance to the clan, and the upward flow of tribute is supposed to be accompanied with redistribution.
All we know is that, at some point between the arrival of the First Men and the creation of the Targaryen monarchy, a social order developed with distinct classes of highborn and smallfolk – but a social order that can and has been changed by smallfolk activism.
The Thralldom Question:
In the main text of ASOIAF, GRRM isn’t exactly forthcoming on the specific legal status of the smallfolk – are they serfs or free peasants? Slaves in all but name, or property-owning free persons with legal rights? However, we can do some reasoning by comparison by using the World of Ice and Fire. For example, we know that the Iron Islands practice thralldom, which is depicted as a much harsher and more degrading practice than exists on the mainland. But we didn’t know exactly what thralldom consisted of before the World of Ice and Fire came out:
“….thralldom should not be conflated with chattel slavery…unlike slaves, thralls retain certain important rights. A thrall belongs to his captor, and owes him service and obedience, but he is still a man, not property. Thralls cannot be bought or sold. They may own property, marry as they wish, have children…the children of thralls are born free.” (WOIAF, p. 177)
Medieval European feudalism was actually more complicated than the popular historical imagination – even under serfdom, there were a number of different castes with different legal and economic statuses, and we can compare them to thralldom to get a sense for the baseline of Westerosi social hierarchy. This list of the restrictions – can’t leave, has to work for free – and rights – can own property, has some free time to work on his own account, and has legal personhood – puts thralls roughly in the position of medieval European “villeins” (the historical origin the word “villain,” which goes to show the hidden classist elements of genre fiction), who formed the majority of serfs, below the freemen who paid cash rent, owed no unpaid labor, and were legally free to marry, move away from their land, and had legal standing in court, but above the slave who was the outright property of the lord and who could be bought and sold as chattel.
However, as the World of Ice and Fire shows, if the Ironborn have to kidnap mainlander peasants by armed force to get them to become thralls, these peasants’ status must be higher than thralldom by a good margin. At the very least, they must be free persons who are rent-paying tenants of their lords. Now there are a variety of potential leases used in Medieval Europe that could describe this situation, all of which had various rights: smallfolk might farm under quit-rent, in which they pay rent plus a tax that frees them of feudal obligations, or under copyhold, in which the rights and obligations of both landlord and tenant are set down on paper, with the tenant usually having rights to wood and pasture as well as their own leased land, and the right to sell their tenancy to the landlord but the local nobleman’s privileges are likewise recorded, or under socage, a fixed rent paid at defined intervals with automatic renewal of leases, or under “fee simple” in which cash rent is paid at market terms and the peasant had no legal obligations whatsoever. Each of these statuses offer different economic and legal rights – copy-hold offers traditional land-use rights, but on the other hand often includes some form of feudal unpaid labor, other forms might offer more personal liberty but with less access to the commons; socage or quit-rent might offer more security of tenure, but possibly at higher rental costs.
One incident might help us narrow this down: in 209 AC, Westeros underwent a drought that lasted a year right after the Great Spring Sickness, and caused the smallfolk to abandon their homes en masse in search of some land where it rained. As we learn in Sworn Sword:
“The realm was full of lawless men these days. The drought showed no signs of ending, and smallfolk by the thousands had taken to the roads, looking for someplace where the rains still fell. Lord Bloodraven had commanded them to return to their own lands and lords, but few obeyed. Many blamed Bloodraven and King Aerys for the drought. It was a judgment from the gods, they said, for the kinslayer is accursed.”
Bloodraven’s failed edict is a clear parallel to the impact of the Black Death, which shattered serfdom (by killing off the noblemen whose job it was to keep their tenants bound to the land, and by massively raising labor demand, which gave peasants huge amounts of bargaining power). Just as Bloodraven’s edict was meant to restore the social and economic order by fixing the peasantry in place, King Edward III issued the 1349 Ordinance of Laborers, which set a maximum on wages and forbade workers to leave their masters, in an attempt to roll back the upward social mobility that the peasantry of England had enjoyed in the wake of the worst epidemic in world history. And just like Bloodraven’s decree, Edward’s ordinance was only intermittently enforced – with anywhere between three and four million people dead, no system to check whether the new urban worker was a runaway peasant under a false name, and the enforcers of the law being the same landlords who desperately needed labor, the medieval state simply didn’t have the capacity to make de jure de factor. (At the same time, the attempt to enforce the law increased tensions between the monarchy and the peasantry that would later explode in the Great Revolt of 1381. More on that in a bit…)
To me, this suggests that prior to 209 AC, the smallfolk of Westeros likely held land under a more strict form of feudalism – something not as bad as villainage, but significantly below that of freemanry – under which they still owed some form of obligation of unpaid labor to their lords, and that system broke down in the wake of the Great Spring Sickness and the drought. Thus, in the period of 297-300 that ASOIAF takes place in, it’s more likely that the smallfolk now are covered under a more lenient system – my guess would be copyhold with relatively expansive terms for the less well-off cottagers, socage for the majority of the peasantry, and the better-off smallfolk either renting their land by fee simple or actually owning their own land.
 Jonathan Dewald, The European Nobility, 1400-1800, p. 25.
 Levinson and Christensen, ed. Encylopedia of Community: Volume 2, p. 820.
Thus, the smallfolk of Westeros seem to have won, by “voting with their feet” in a kind of general strike similar to the secession of the plebs during the Roman Republic, a measure of personal freedom and economic and legal rights that put them well above the position of an Ironborn thrall or an Essosi slave. However quietly or subtly, the smallfolk of Westeros have managed to force substantial reform in the social order.
The Revolt of the Faithful:
At the same time, the World of Ice and Fire gives us ample evidence that the smallfolk are also comfortable with more aggressive forms of social protest. The first historical example we have of smallfolk revolutionary activity comes less than fifty years after Aegon’s Conquest. The Targaryens strode onto the stage of Westerosi history like demigods – the burning towers of Harrenhal that brought an empire down in a night, the utter destruction of two kingdoms at the Field of Fire, the bloodless conquest at the Eyrie making castles pointless – and yet, within a generation it isn’t the Great Houses of Westeros that rose up against a weakling king, but nameless peasants. Following the denunciation of “King Abomination” by the High Septon,
“the smallfolk who had once loved Aenys turned against him. Septon Murmison was expelled from the Faith for performing the ceremony, and zealous Poor Fellows took up arms, hacking Murmison to pieces a fortnight later…some Poor Fellows attempted to murder the king and his family in the castle itself, scaling its walls and slipping into the royal apartments…thousands of Poor Fellows prowled the roads, threatening the king’s supporters.” (WOIAF)
This cannot be seen as anything other than a revolution – the Poor Fellows assassinated the Hand of the King, came within a few feet of doing the same to the King and the royal family, and forced the monarchy to abandon the Aegonfort and the Iron Throne itself, while the Poor Fellows occupied the Sept of Remembrance as their rebel headquarters in the capitol. Compared to the random banditry of contemporary highborn rebels like Harren the Red or the Vulture King (more on them in a bit), the Revolt of the Faithful aimed at something higher – overthrowing the government.
Even after “King Abomination” died and Maegor the Cruel assumed the Iron Throne and dispersed the Faithful from King’s Landing with fire and blood, we see the Poor Fellows acting even more boldly by organizing themselves into a revolutionary army. From a section cut from the text of A World of Ice and Fire but read at convention, we learn that: “The King’s first act upon resuming the Iron Throne was to command the Poor Fellows swarming towards the city to lay down their weapons, under penalty of proscription and death. When his decree had no effect, His Grace commanded “all leal subjects” to take to the field and disperse the Faith’s ragged hordes by force.” In response, the High Septon in Oldtown called upon “true and pious children of the gods” to take up arms in defense of the Faith, and put an end to the reign of “dragons and monsters and abominations.”
A word on the importance of religion to the Poor Fellows: throughout the history of medieval Europe, we see examples of peasant revolts that stopped just short of genuine social revolution, because incredibly brave men and women who’d taken up arms against their overlords couldn’t wrap their minds around what their world would look like without a king. Thus, again and again, peasants would revolt against cabals (real or imaginary) of “evil councilors” who had deceived the good and just king, even when it was patently obvious that the king himself was the source of injustice. This didn’t happen in this case, because the smallfolk of Westeros looked to religious ideology to judo-flip the power of monarchical symbolism. With the authority of the Seven behind them, the demigods become monsters who the gods demand be overthrown, and the smallfolk’s inferior social position is obliterated by their equal position as “children of the gods.”
Thus, the Revolt of the Faithful was a revolution of the smallfolk, led by the smallfolk, that used religious rhetoric and ideology to justify and inspire, rather than a puppet of the religious elite. The Hightower High Septon may have started the war, but when he wass replaced by a new High Septon who commanded them to lay down their arms, the Poor Fellows ignored religious hierarchy as well as secular hierarchy and continued the fight. And while some scattered lords allied with the Faithful, the leaders of the Revolt were smallfolk like Septon Moon, the Red Dog of the Hills, and above all, Wat the Hewer, the peasant general who led an army of nine thousand at the Battle of Stonebridge (later Bitterbridge). Again, from a section of WOIAF read at convention:
“The nine thousand Poor Fellows under Wat the Hewer found themselves caught between six lordly hosts as they attempted to cross the Mander. With half his man north of the river and half on the south, Wat’s army was cut to pieces. His untrained and undisciplined followers, clad in boiled leather, roughspun, and scraps of rusted steel, and armed largely with woodmen’s axes, sharpened sticks, and farm implements, proved utterly unable to stand against the charge of armored knights on heavy horses. So grievous was the slaughter that the Mander ran red for twenty leagues, and thereafter the town and castle where the battle had fought became known as Bitterbridge. Wat himself was taken alive, though not before slaying half a dozen knights, amongst them Lord Meadows of Grassy Vale, commander of the king’s host. The giant was delivered to King’s Landing in chains.”
A giant in chains may be the sigil of House Umber, but arguably there is no better symbol for the Revolt of the Faithful. In the worst of all possible circumstances – an army caught mid-crossing a river by six armies, poorly armed and armored, on foot against charging knights – the Poor Fellows under Wat the Hewer fought like giants before being brought down. And yet, they refused to admit defeat. After this battle, there was the Battle at the Great Fork of the Trident, where “thirteen thousand Poor Fellows,” along with Warrior’s Sons and some rebel lords, went down swinging in a hard-fought battle against a royal host led by King Maegor, riding Balerion the Black Dread. Even after that disaster, no matter how many times Maegor and Balerion crushed them, no matter what price Maegor paid out for scalps or how many skulls he piled up, the Poor Fellows wouldn’t give up. As the WOIAF tells us, “in 48 AC, Septon Moon and Ser Joffrey Doggett—also known as the Red Dog of the Hills—led the Poor Fellows against the king, and Riverrun stood with them.” This last uprising inspired the Velaryon Master of Ships and then the Great Houses to rebel against Maegor, ushering in Jaehaerys’ rule…who arguably owed his throne to the smallfolk’s stubborn refusal to surrender.
Once again, Martin’s historical parallels can teach us much about the historical agency of the smallfolk. The obvious inspiration for the Revolt of the Faithful is the Great Peasants Revolt of 1381, in which the common people of England rose up against their feudal overlords. Inspired by the radical preacher John Ball (the inspiration for Septon Moon), whose adage that “when Adam delve and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” used the Book of Genesis to assert legal and political equality between peasant and lord, and led by Wat Tyler (the inspiration for Wat the Hewer), the peasants of England demanded an end to regressive taxation, an end to serfdom, and for redistribution of land to the men who worked the fields. The major difference between the Great Peasants Revolt and the Revolt of the Faithful is that the English peasantry couldn’t quite break with the monarchy and believed the King was being misled by “evil councilors” – despite his army seizing London, Wat Tyler agreed to a parlay with King Richard II where King Richard was to hand over a charter agreeing to the peasants demands. At the parlay, Wat Tyler was murdered by a knight, the revolt fell into disarray and dispersed, and was swiftly put down by force.
The Shepherd and the End of the Dance
When the Princess & the Queen first came out, the case of the Shepherd – the millennial street preacher who “began to preach in the Cobbler’s Square, saying that the dragons were demons, the spawn of godless Valyria, and the doom of men…the city would be saved only when the city was cleansed of dragons…five dragons died that bloody night as the mobs broke into the huge dome and found the dragons chained” – seemed such a random, inexplicable cause of the death of the dragons. Fans argued that surely, he must be a Faceless Man of Braavos, or a spy for the Citadel of Maesters, or some agent of some other great conspiracy. Why? Unspoken here is the underlying assumption that peasants can’t possibly have a grand vision or shape the course of history, any more than (in the minds of the Oxfordians) an ordinary man from Stratford-upon-Avon could have the breadth of soul to write the works of William Shakespeare.
Yet, in the light of what we know about the Revolt of the Faithful, it is more obvious than before that the Shepherd was exactly what he looked like, a populist preacher who turned the Faith of the Seven into a potent revolutionary force, operating in a tradition of smallfolk religious-inflected political agitation. The World of Ice and Fire even speculates that “he might have been one of the Poor Fellows who, though outlawed, still stubbornly haunted the realm.” If true, this means that the Poor Fellows arguably won the Revolt of the Faithful. Even if the Shepherd wasn’t a Poor Fellow, we now know that the movement remained alive for ninety years, operating underground and influencing smallfolk political consciousness.
Thus the most important political change in the last three hundred years – the destruction of the dragons that provided the foundation for the Targaryen monarchy’s power – was caused by the agency of the smallfolk. Moreover, we learn from the World of Ice and Fire that “The Shepherd and his mob ruled much of the city” for a month, and that moreover, a lad named Gaemon Palehair was acclaimed king by “thousands” and issued edicts, edicts we learn later had real political content: “girls would henceforth be equal with boys in matter of inheritance…the poor be given bread and beer in times of famine…men who lost limbs in war must afterward be fed and houses by whichever lord they had been fighting for…husbands who beat their wives should themselves be beaten.” Gender equality, a rudimentary welfare state, and veterans’ pensions – this is evidence of political consciousness among the smallfolk, an agenda that goes beyond mere religious hostility to inbred dragonriders.
The Sparrow Movement:
In this historical context, the rise of the Sparrow Movement seems less of an unexpected phenomenon dependent on the charisma of a single preacher and more of a broad-based social movement tapping into a tradition of resistance and revolution that stretched back more than two hundred years. In general, I think we can understand the Sparrow Movement as being caused by the intersection of the impact of the War of Five Kings on the smallfolk and a religiously-inflected critique of the monarchy that produces an agenda of re-empowering the religious establishment in the name of social and economic solidarity.
First, while in A Song of Ice and Fire we see the majority of the War of Five Kings through the eyes of the Starks and Lannisters, GRRM’s writing always points our eye toward the human cost of the war: Tywin’s strategy following the Battles of the Whispering Woods and the Camps (and the Riverlords’ traditional tactics of scorched earth guerilla warfare in response) directed the full force of the War of Five Kings against the smallfolk of the Riverlands. And throughout Arya’s storyline in ACOK, GRRM unrelentingly accounts for each separate harm suffered by specific smallfolk as a result: a refugee crisis and widespread hunger, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, and executions on a mass scale. The smallfolk of Westeros are not brutes to suffer this kind of treatment in silence; they have an ideology with which to understand their plight and frame their complaint. The Sack of Saltpans provided both a symbol and a catalyst for the Sparrow Movement by linking the war directly to religion:
“…these are the bones of holy men and women, murdered for their faith. Septons, septas, brothers brown and dun and green, sisters white and blue and grey. Some were hanged, some disemboweled. Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers. Even silent sisters have been molested. The Mother Above cries out in her anguish. We have brought their bones here from all over the realm, to bear witness to the agony of the Holy Faith.”
“Suffering is everywhere…and grief, and death. Before coming to King’s Landing, I tended to half a hundred little villages too small to have a septon of their own. I walked from each one to the next, performing marriages, absolving sinners of their sins, naming newborn children. Those villages are no more, Your Grace. Weeds and thorns grow where gardens once flourished, and bones litter the roadsides.”
“Some of my sparrows speak of bands of lions who despoiled them…and of the Hound, who was your own sworn man. At Saltpans he slew an aged septon and despoiled a girl of twelve, an innocent child promised to the Faith. He wore his armor as he raped her and her tender flesh was torn and crushed by his iron mail. When he was done he gave her to his men, who cut off her nose and nipples.” (AFFC)
However, while the inner core of the Sparrows seem primarily motivated by the horror of the Saltpans and their demand for the monarchy or the Faith to enforce the social contract and provide law and order is not on its face revolutionary, it seems clear that this demand succeeded because it was transmitted to an audience already radicalized by a religiously-inflected, class-conscious critique of the monarchy:
“Corruption!” the man cried shrilly. “There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge!” He pointed at the fuzzy red wound in the sky. From this vantage, the distant castle on Aegon’s High Hill was directly behind him, with the comet hanging forebodingly over its towers. A clever choice of stage, Tyrion reflected. “We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all…but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting!” He jabbed his bony finger back at comet and castle. “There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK)
Thus, even before the Sparrows from the countryside arrived in King’s Landing, there was a large body of smallfolk in the city, who had already rebelled against the monarchy and survived, a rich recruiting ground for the future High Sparrow. We should therefore look at the High Sparrow’s agenda as something of a compromise between rural and urban, religious and secular: for the urban smallfolk who’ve been struggling with food prices from the war’s outset, he not only provides food but conspicuously does so in a class-conscious manner, “the poor need food in their bellies more than we need gold and crystal on our head. That crown has been sold. So have the others in our vaults, and all our rings, and our robes of cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-silver.” For the rural smallfolk who have suffered from violence in ways that the city-dwellers have not, he offers “knights to walk the roads…men to guard our septas…to defend the meek and humble of the land.” (AFFC) However, achieving those goals by rearming the Faith (as opposed to insisting that “the Iron Throne must defend the Faith,” the original aim of the sparrows) and by regaining the right to try kings and queens – these are the aims of a budding theocrat, and have little relevance to the lives of the poor.
Regardless, it cannot be denied that the Sparrow Movement has not only profoundly shaped the balance of power in royal politics – pulling down first Margaery Tyrell and then Cersei Lannister – but stands on the verge of profoundly overthrowing the political order in a way that we haven’t seen since the Revolt of the Faithful.
The Case of the Merrie “Outlaws”:
If the Sparrow Movement harkens back to the Shepherd and the Poor Fellows, then we can see a similar through-line with the Brotherhood Without Banners looking backward to the Kingswood Brotherhood, and other outlaws of Westerosi history. In our real-world history, bandits and outlaws have been seen as a force of popular resistance – whether we’re talking about Robin Hood who, in his campaign against the Sheriff of Nottingham, “dyde pore men moch god,” or bank-robbers like Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger who channeled popular anger against the bankers who were blamed for the Great Depression. However, they were also something of a limited kind of resistance: later ballads about Robin Hood established the idea of Robin fighting to restore Richard the Lionheart against the usurping King John, which goes back to that trope of the Good King and the Bad King. And at the end of the day, being an outlaw is about personal independence from the status quo, not larger systemic change.
We see a similar ambivalence with regards to Westerosi outlaws. Take the “bandit and outlaw named Harren the Red, who claimed to be a grandson of Harren the Black.” While executing Gargon the Guest was something of a political statement given “his custom of attending every wedding in his domain to exercise his right to First Night,” the fact that “Red Harren proclaimed himself Lord of Harrenhal and King of the Rivers” is somewhat neutral – it’s certainly political, but squarely within the feudal framework. (WOIAF) In the same vein, while the Vulture King’s call to “stand against the Targaryens” might have some political edge to it, we don’t really see the Vulture King doing anything other than self-aggrandizement.
On the other hand, the Kingswood Brotherhood were more openly populist: more of its members were smallfolk (Ulmer, Wend the White Faun, Oswyn Longneck, Big Belly Ben, and Fletcher Dick) as opposed to highborn (Simon Toyne, the Smiling Knight). Moreover, the Brotherhood had a close political relationship with the smallfolk: “the forest folk had looked to Toyne to defend them,” presumably over their “grievances” that had to do with grazing lands, felling rights, and hunting rights in the Kingswood, which was and is a royal demesne. (AFFC) In return, the Brotherhood had received protection and support from the smallfolk, allowing them to “move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”
In the Kingswood outlaws, we can see the intellectual forerunners of the Brotherhood Without Banners, an organization founded with ideological purpose: “we were still king’s men, he said, and these were the king’s people the lions were savaging. If we could not fight for Robert, we could fight for them, until every last one of us was dead.” And while I’ll go into the Brotherhood’s ideology more when I get to them in my coverage of ASOS, Beric’s combination of a democratic approach to knighthood and a Davos-like conception of the realm as a genuine commonwealth has a real potential for radicalizing the smallfolk of the Riverlands to question the hierarchical society they live in…if any aspect of his idealism survives Lady Stoneheart.
The Dornish Case:
Finally, a discussion of smallfolk agency wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of Dorne, where due in no small part to the necessities of forging a single Dornish identity, the smallfolk have always had a larger voice in the politics of their nation. Their shining came in the wake of Daeron’s Submission of Sunspear. Having conquered the Martells and twoscore of their most powerful noble vassals, and taking hostages, Daeron left believing that Dorne had been conquered. However:
“the king had not anticipated the tenacity of Dorne’s smallfolk, over whom he had no hold. Ten thousand men, it is said, died in the battle for Dorne; forty thousand more died over the course of the following three years, as common Dornishmen fought on stubbornly against the king’s men.”
“Lord Tyrell, whom Daeron had left in charge of Dorne, valiantly attempted to quell the rebellion…punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws…but the smallfolk struck back, and each new day found supplies stolen or destroyed, camps burned, horses killed, and slowly the count of dead soldiers and men-at-arms roses – killed in the alleyways of the shadow city, ambushed amidst the dunes, murdered in their camps.” (WOIAF)
Unbowed, unbent, unbroken might be the words of House Martell, but had it been up to them, Dorne might have been conquered in 159 AC; that Dorne remained free for another twenty seven years is entirely due to the common people of Dorne. And this tradition of smallfolk militant nationalism has continued to the present day, as we see in AFFC:
“In Sunspear, on the Broken Arm, along the Green Blood, in the mountains, out in the deep sand, everywhere, everywhere, women tear their hair and men cry out in rage…”
“…the smallfolk shouted out to him as the litter passed…”To spears!” a man bellowed from a balcony.
“Doran!” called some highborn voice. “To the spears”
Hotah gave up looking for the speakers; the press was too thick, and a third of them were shouting, ‘To Spears! Vengeance for the Viper!”
Beyond foreign policy, the smallfolk of Dorne have also had their impact on domestic policy. To the extent that the edicts that Sylvenna Sand wrote on behalf of Gaemon Palehair represents “the differing Dornish laws and attitudes,” we can see in Dorne a kind of rudimentary welfare state, where “the poor [are] given bread and beer in times of famine,” (following the historical example of the cura annonae in ancient Rome, which continued in the form of medieval price controls on bread), and where disabled veterans are provided food and shelter by their former employers.
At the same time, however, it must be noted that even in Dorne, this kind of smallfolk activism is not revolutionary in character – while the people may riot against Martells who fail to uphold the social contract, they don’t question the idea that some should be born nobles and others peasants. Likewise, on the domestic level, the smallfolk of Dorne don’t push for the redistribution of land, but rather the maintenance of what the great social historian E.P Thompson referred to as a “moral economy.”
None of this is to say that Westeros is an egalitarian place. The highborn still own most of the land, have rights of pit and gallows, have privileges in law (trial by combat, the right to execution by the sword rather than by hanging, etc.), and the smallfolk still lack an organized political presence. (However, the existence of town and city charters might well mean that urban smallfolk have the right to elect local officials in those places).
However, the fact remains that even under an unjust and oppressive system, the smallfolk retain agency and power. In the last three hundred years, we have seen three major movements by which the smallfolk have shaken the monarchy to its core, as well as more temporary or limited movements that challenged royal or noble prerogatives. We don’t know what the fourth century AC will hold, but the trend is towards greater agitation from below.