“If there were gods, why didn’t Lord Beric win? She knew the Hound was guilty.” (ASOS)
“How can there be a God if there are feet?” (Idiots Karamazov)
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
For those of you who’ve been complaining about how long Arya has been spending with the Brotherhood Without Banners, this chapter is your long-delayed payoff. At long last, we get the judicial duel between Beric Dondarrion and the Hound, which I would argue is GRRM’s best duel to date and which remains one of his best in ASOS, despite the popularity of the Viper and the Mountain fight.
More that just a fight, though, Arya VI is one of my favorite in all of ASOS because of the way that it combines a deep exploration (arguably on the same level as Catelyn IV of ACOK) of some of the main political themes in ASOIAF with major advancements in both Arya and Sandor’s character arcs and some of GRRM’s most lyrically romantic prose.
The Hollow Hill as Cthonic Space
Speaking of which, GRRM sets the stage for the magical fireworks that will explode later in the chapter by painting the Brotherhood Without Banner’s hideout as a cthonic space:
A huge firepit had been dug in the center of the earthen floor, and its flames rose swirling and crackling toward the smoke-stained ceiling. The walls were equal parts stone and soil, with huge white roots twisting through them like a thousand slow pale snakes. People were emerging from between those roots as she watched; edging out from the shadows for a look at the captives, stepping from the mouths of pitch-black tunnels, popping out of crannies and crevices on all sides. In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood.
There’s a lot of setup in this brief passage: the chapter’s dominant colors of black, red, and white are introduced through the “flames,” the “soil” and the “smoke-stained ceiling,” and the “thousand slow pale snakes” of the weirwood roots questing through the soil. There’s also the sensation that a ritual of some kind is about to take place in the way that the firepit “has been dug in the center of the earthen floor” and the people are “edging out from the shadows for a look at the captives.” Indeed, this passage shows that there’s two kinds of magic at work under the Hollow Hill – the “flames” of R’hllor which will be invoked during the trial by combat, and the “weirwood” which are associated with the Old Gods. (It’s almost like “fire” and “ice” can be compatible rather than oppositional.) In this harmony, we can see that the Hollow Hill is not a thin place powered by human misery, but a “an old place, deep and secret” like the Isle of Faces.
We can even see the foci of these magics before he (finally) emerges on to the page, hidden in plain sight:
In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood.
For re-readers, it’s hard to ignore the strong parallels between what GRRM’s doing here and what he’ll do in Bran III of ADWD: the same primeval ambiguity of the weirwood roots, the “people…emerging from between those roots” like the Children of the Forest, the same red-white-black color scheme (deliberately evocative of Bloodraven in both cases?), and a death-and-rebirth figure hanging out on a throne of living trees.
A Lapsed Catholic Wizard
So complete are the parallels that, in the place of the last greenseer, the Hollow Hill even has its own wizard, one who is both a fraud and not:
“…Here’s the wizard, skinny squirrel. You’ll get your answers now.” He pointed toward the fire, where Tom Sevenstrings stood talking to a tall thin man with oddments of old armor buckled on over his ratty pink robes. That can’t be Thoros of Myr. Arya remembered the red priest as fat, with a smooth face and a shiny bald head. This man had a droopy face and a full head of shaggy grey hair.
With the entrance of Thoros of Myr, GRRM”s writing shifts into a lapsed Catholic register that, as I’ll argue, will come to dominate the chapter. We start with the idea of Thoros as a fat, corrupt priest who’d lost his faith amidst the decadence and worldliness in the capital and who has found it again, along with a new flock (of smallfolk rather than royalty):
The shifting flames painted Sandor Clegane’s burned face with orange shadows, so he looked even more terrible than he did in daylight. When he pulled at the rope that bound his wrists, flakes of dry blood fell off. The Hound’s mouth twitched. “I know you,” he said to Thoros.
“You did. In mêlées, you’d curse my flaming sword, though thrice I overthrew you with it.”
“Thoros of Myr. You used to shave your head.”
“To betoken a humble heart, but in truth my heart was vain. Besides, I lost my razor in the woods.” The priest slapped his belly. “I am less than I was, but more. A year in the wild will melt the flesh off a man. Would that I could find a tailor to take in my skin. I might look young again, and pretty maids would shower me with kisses.”
“Only the blind ones, priest.”
There are few ideas more enduringly Catholic ideas than that of suffering as ultimately redemptive – “I am less than I was, but more” – especially when the suffering in question comes from self-denial. Likewise we can see a tradition going all the way back to St. Benedict (if not all the way back to the stylites) that the best way to achieve spiritual purity is by withdrawing from the material, secular world in Thoros’ explanation that “a year in the wild will melt the flesh off the man.” Combine that with a slap at clerical celibacy and a pivot to transcendal truth, and you’re cooking with lapsed Catholic gas:
The outlaws hooted, none so loud as Thoros. “Just so. Yet I am not the false priest you knew. The Lord of Light has woken in my heart. Many powers long asleep are waking, and there are forces moving in the land. I have seen them in my flames.”
The Hound was unimpressed. “Bugger your flames. And you as well.” He looked around at the others. “You keep queer company for a holy man.”
“These are my brothers,” Thoros said simply.
Although he remains a little bit ambiguous as to what miraculous revelations resulted in the “Lord of Light…woken in my heart,” it’s clear from the outset that Thoros’ transformation is driven by a face-to-face encounter with the kind of eschatological truth that a Red Priest could not ignore. At the risk of getting repetitious, given how often lapsed Catholicism is shaped by a lack of proof for the divine, the fact that Thoros gets slapped in the face by an undeniable sign that the divine exists and that the specific eschatological prophecies is highly significant.
All of this evangelical testifying is, thankfully, brought to earth somewhat by Thoros’ assertion of fraternity with a bunch of armed peasants. Here, Thoros resembles nothing so much as a once politically-ambitious priest who found himself swept up by the tides of liberation theology in the 1970s and now finds himself ministering to a guerrilla army with an AK-47 and a copy of Gustavo Gutiérrez. This is a noticeably different vintage from what we’ve been talking about before, but it’s a nice segue to our next topic…
What is a Brotherhood Worth Without Banners?
In part due to his desire to hold off on the source and content of Thoros’ revelation until the chapter’s climax, he steers into the Hound’s digression by getting into an extended debate about who the Brotherhood really are and what they stand for. Very much playing the role of the cynic – and if you think it’s an accident that Sandor’s moniker and the symbol of his house are the same as the philosophy of Diogenes, you’re fooling yourself – Sandor starts with the rude material facts to puncture the pretenses of the Brotherhood:
Lem Lemoncloak pushed forward. He and Greenbeard were the only men there tall enough to look the Hound in the eye. “Be careful how you bark, dog. We hold your life in our hands.”
“Best wipe the shit off your fingers, then.” The Hound laughed. “How long have you been hiding in this hole?”
Anguy the Archer bristled at the suggestion of cowardice. “Ask the goat if we’ve hidden, Hound. Ask your brother. Ask the lord of leeches. We’ve bloodied them all.”
“You lot? Don’t make me laugh. You look more swineherds than soldiers.”
Buried in these insults is a contrasting truth: in contrast to what thousands of years of hagiography have taught us, suffering is not enlightening, especially if our reaction to that trauma is to cut ourselves off from the outside world. The abuse Sandor Clegane received at the hands of his brother may have made him a cynic about knighthood as a cultural institution (much more on this later), but it didn’t make him any more “woke” about broader issues of class than any other petty nobleman, seeing a sharp distinction between “swineherds” and “soldiers” even as he insists that strength is the only thing that matters.
Beric’s counter-argument directly addresses this class dynamic, and in the process we get an idea of not just what the Brotherhood is but why it is:
“When we left King’s Landing we were men of Winterfell and men of Darry and men of Blackhaven, Mallery men and Wylde men. We were knights and squires and men-at-arms, lords and commoners, bound together only by our purpose.” The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. “Six score of us set out to bring the king’s justice to your brother.” The speaker was descending the tangle of steps toward the floor. “Six score brave men and true, led by a fool in a starry cloak.” A scarecrow of a man, he wore a ragged black cloak speckled with stars and an iron breastplate dinted by a hundred battles. A thicket of red-gold hair hid most of his face, save for a bald spot above his left ear where his head had been smashed in. “More than eighty of our company are dead now, but others have taken up the swords that fell from their hands.” When he reached the floor, the outlaws moved aside to let him pass. One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket scarred and puckered, and he had a dark black ring all around his neck. “With their help, we fight on as best we can, for Robert and the realm.”
Beric’s expansive vision of the Brotherhood has more than a few echoes of Jeor Mormont’s ideal of the Night’s Watch: the Brotherhood are a fraternity that transcends regional loyalties (“men of Winterfell” fighting side-by-side with Riverlanders (“Darry“), Crownlanders (“Mallery“), Stormlanders (“Wylde“), all the way down to the Dornish Marches (“Blackhaven“)), military experience and thus age (“knights and squires and men-at-arms”), and of course class, with “lords and commoners” fighting as equals. In addition to their shared egalitarian structure, there’s a broader thematic resonance, in that both forces are found families whose struggles on behalf of the many, not the few go unnoticed and unremembered by the wealthy and the powerful.
The common glue that binds the disparate elements of the Brotherhood are ideology – Beric describes his band as “bound together only by our purpose” which transforms from an initial goal to “bring the king’s justice to your brother” to a broader mission to bring that same justice to all in the Riverlands, in the name of patriotic monarchism and communitarian nationalism.
At the same time, Arya’s eyes show us the physical transformation of Beric Dondarrion from the “handsome…fool in a starry cloak” to the scarecrow he is today – if there is an element of deconstruction in this chapter, it’s the idea that being a death-defying trickster hero is not without cost, that you don’t always escape without a scratch on you, and that if you keep rolling the dice you’ll eventually come up snake eyes. Well before the reveal of Beric’s immortality, GRRM uses a textual panning shot to show the marks that each death has left on the body:
- The “bald spot above his left ear where his head had been smashed in” comes from the time that Beric used himself as bait to lure the rash Ser Burton Crakehall into an ambush.
- As he’ll explain in the next Arya chapter, “one of his eyes was gone” because Gregor Clegane put a dirk through it. The Mountain is one of the few people in Westeros stupid enough that he didn’t notice he’d personally killed Dondarrion twice.
- The “dark black ring all around his neck” comes from the time that Beric let Amory Lorch hang him to try to save two innocent smallfolk.
- And only later in the chapter do we see the wound that started it all: “a puckered crater scarred his breast just above his left nipple…a matching scar upon his back. The lance went through him.”
While his deaths span the gamut between death in battle and condemned prisoner – “sometimes the otter and sometimes the hound,” to quote Peter Weiss – there is a common thread of willing sacrifice on behalf of the common people against their oppressors. When we look in the physical specifics, we find a rich stew of syncretic symbolism: the missing eye and the hangman’s mark evoke both Odin and the Hanged Man, although the circumstances of the latter death are more deliberately evocative of Jesus being cruxified between the two thieves. More broadly, the focus on the wounds on Beric’s body draws directly from a long tradition of Catholic hagiography and martyrology that draw parallels between the sanctified suffering of saints and martyrs and the Passion. (You can’t say you haven’t been warned about the lapsed Catholic stuff.)
What sets Beric Dondarrion apart from all the other messiah figures in ASOIAF is that, rather than being set apart from or above the group, this passage argues that the entire Brotherhood are as much a death-and-rebirth figure as their leader – “more than eighty of our company are dead now, but others have taken up the swords that fell from their hand” – although their immortality is driven by the more human miracle of inspiration.
Sandor being Sandor, he’s not about to swallow any of this sentiment and he counters with a deliberately provocative counter-argument:
“Robert is the king of the worms now. Is that why you’re down in the earth, to keep his court for him?”
“The king is dead,” the scarecrow knight admitted, “but we are still king’s men, though the royal banner we bore was lost at the Mummer’s Ford when your brother’s butchers fell upon us.” He touched his breast with a fist. “Robert is slain, but his realm remains. And we defend her.”
“Her?” The Hound snorted. “Is she your mother, Dondarrion? Or your whore?”
Dondarrion? Beric Dondarrion had been handsome; Sansa’s friend Jeyne had fallen in love with him. Even Jeyne Poole was not so blind as to think this man was fair. Yet when Arya looked at him again, she saw it; the remains of a forked purple lightning bolt on the cracked enamel of his breastplate.
“Rocks and trees and rivers, that’s what your realm is made of,” the Hound was saying. “Do the rocks need defending? Robert wouldn’t have thought so. If he couldn’t fuck it, fight it, or drink it, it bored him, and so would you…you brave companions.”
Outrage swept the hollow hill. “Call us that name again, dog, and you’ll swallow that tongue.” Lem drew his longsword.
The Hound stared at the blade with contempt. “Here’s a brave man, baring steel on a bound captive. Untie me, why don’t you? We’ll see how brave you are then.”
While Beric ultimately bases his argument on political idealism, Sandor grounds his in trenchant materialism: Robert is a corpse and in a political system based on the transmission of political power from father to son, this means that the royal mandate has passed to Joffrey, which is particularly problematic for the Brotherhood, because Joffrey attained the lot of them. Beric’s counter-argument is that royal sanction, here symbolized through the royal banner, can’t be withdrawn (essentially an argument grounded on the importance of legal precedent), but more generally he pivots to a conception of political power and legitimacy emerging from the realm as a whole – a philosophy not that different from the commonwealthmen of the Tudor era – although his formulation isn’t quite as worked out as that of Marsilius of Padua.
Again, Sandor pursues with the sharpened barb of reality: “good king Robert” was actually a hedonistic absentee monarch who wouldn’t have understood the first thing about Beric’s political philosophy (although he probably would have been down with smashing Gregor’s head in if someone had asked him). Beric’s next rhetorical move would have to be a rather fiddly one based on the concept of the two bodies of the king, except that Sandor doesn’t really press the point…because he doesn’t actually care about this argument.
Among the enormous cast that makes up A Song of Ice and Fire, I find Sandor Clegane one of the slipperiest to write about, not because he’s a bad character, but because he’s a non-POV character who often doesn’t say what he’s thinking and often says the reverse, not because he’s trying to deceive anyone like Varys or Littlefinger, but because he’s got an even worse case of No One Understands Me than Jaime Lannister. In this case, Sandor’s arguments come across less like sincerely held positions and more like deliberate provocations – the use of the term “brave companions” is particularly intentional, given the group’s hatred of “the goat” – intended to provoke suicide-by-cop. Remember, this whole conversation starts with Sandor saying that his life is covered in shit and he’s not far wrong: by deserting at the Battle of the Blackwater, he’s lost both his position and his reputation; he’s been in an alcoholic stupor for several months; and the Brotherhood’s just confiscated the wealth that represents the only time people actually liked him.
As downward spirals go, that’s a pretty bad one.
A Debate on Knighthood
Sandor’s pretense of indifference goes away completely when the topic shifts from abstract topics of justice and nationalism towards an abstract topic he cares about, like knighthood. The irony here is that Sandor Clegane, the greatest critic of knighthood in ASOIAF has come face to face with the greatest challenge to knighthood in Westerosi history and can’t accept it:
“We are brothers here,” Thoros of Myr declared. “Holy brothers, sworn to the realm, to our god, and to each other.”
“The brotherhood without banners.” Tom Sevenstrings plucked a string. “The knights of the hollow hill.”
“Knights?” Clegane made the word a sneer. “Dondarrion’s a knight, but the rest of you are the sorriest lot of outlaws and broken men I’ve ever seen. I shit better men than you.”
“Any knight can make a knight,” said the scarecrow that was Beric Dondarrion, “and every man you see before you has felt a sword upon his shoulder. We are the forgotten fellowship.”
Beric is one of the very few people to ever see the revolutionary potential of knighthood that GRRM writes about so eloquently in The Hedge Knight: to begin with, by describing the whole of the original Brotherhood as “six score brave men and true,” he implicitly argues that character, rather than class, should be the determining factor of worthiness, and that anyone from any rank of life can “tak[e] up the swords that fell from their hands.” Moreover, because “any knight can make a knight,” any knight who is willing to break with the class of his birth – and it’s not an accident that so many revolutionary and progressive leaders have been class traitors – can totally destabilize the class structure, erasing the boundary between peasant and knight through exponential dubbing.
By contrast, Sandor’s lost and soured idealism both holds him back – hence why this man who sneers at the very word insists that “Dondarrion’s a knight” as he’s of the right class, whereas the “rest of you are the sorriest lot of outlaws and broken men I’ve ever seen,” because part of Sandor is still the seven-year-old boy who wanted to play with the wooden knight – and empowers his critique of the institution as a whole:
“Might be you are knights after all. You lie like knights, maybe you murder like knights.”
Lem and Jack-Be-Lucky began to shout at him, but Dondarrion raised a hand for silence. “Say what you mean, Clegane.”
“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just as dead. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses. I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other that your shit don’t stink. You hear me?”
While Sandor has more than a little bit of a point, the fact that his speech is the mirror image of his argument from Sansa IV of ACOK means that it has a lot of the same weaknesses: namely, that Sandor’s insistence that he’s an honest killer and nothing more has more than element of self-hatred about it. Secretly, he’s terrified of those “silk ribbons tied around the sword,” because if these symbols of chivalric womanhood have any real redemptive power – as they do in the hands of Sansa Stark – then the stories might be real, and Sandor might have some responsibility to the innocents of the world. Likewise, the reason why Sandor is shouting at the Brotherhood that “I’m the same as you” is that he’s terrified of the idea that they might be the true knights he’s so insistent don’t exist, because if they do, Sandor might have to live up to their example.
The Trial of Sandor Clegane
Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get right into the revolutionary tribunal we’ve been waiting for. Up until now, we’ve been seeing the Brotherhood’s approach to justice from the outside; now, for the first time, we get to see a trial from beginning to end:
“But if you mean to murder me, then bloody well get on with it. You took my sword, my horse, and my gold, so take my life and be done with it…but spare me this pious bleating.”
“You will die soon enough, dog,” promised Thoros, “but it shan’t be murder, only justice.”
“Aye,” said the Mad Huntsman, “and a kinder fate than you deserve for all your kind have done. Lions, you call yourselves. At Sherrer and the Mummer’s Ford, girls of six and seven years were raped, and babes still on the breast were cut in two while their mothers watched. No lion ever killed so cruel.”
“I was not at Sherrer, nor the Mummer’s Ford,” the Hound told him. “Lay your dead children at some other door.”
The first thing that we see is that justice is central to the Brotherhood’s self-identity, both because the initial members of the group were explicitly tasked with enforcing the law against one particular outlaw, and because the later members were inspired by the clear injustices that emerged from Tywin’s deliberate policy of war crimes. It clearly helped that both groups shared the Lannisters as a common enemy. At the same time, it’s clear from the Huntsman’s presence that the Hound is not the only one dealing with trauma, that the rank-and-file of the Brotherhood care less about abstract ideals of due process and a lot more about seeing someone be punished. (It’s almost like suffering might not be ennobling after all…)
Thus, throughout the trial, we see a tightening circle of collective guilt being constructed around Sandor Clegane. The first ring is easier for him to evade – after all, Sandor was very much at King’s Landing as Joffrey’s sworn sword when his brother brought fire and sword to the Riverlands. The second cuts closer to home:
Thoros answered him. “Do you deny that House Clegane was built upon dead children? I saw them lay Prince Aegon and Princess Rhaenys before the Iron Throne. By rights your arms should bear two bloody infants in place of those ugly dogs.”
The Hound’s mouth twitched. “Do you take me for my brother? Is being born Clegane a crime?”
“Murder is a crime.”
“Who did I murder?”
Thoros’ role as a witness to the Sack comes as something of a surprise, because GRRM has carefully hidden when Thoros came to Westeros; up until now, Thoros has been described entirely as a fixture of Robert’s court, and it’s not until next Arya chapter that we learn about his years failing to convert Aerys II. Nevertheless, it makes sense that Thoros would come to hate House Clegane as a collective, because that was the first impression that Gregor made in King’s Landing. The grand irony here is that Thoros doesn’t know that, far from bearing some sort of blood guilt for Gregor’s actions, Sandor is one of those “bloody infant[s],” his childhood burned up as another part of the origin story of the Mountain. And the reason he doesn’t know is that (unlike on the show) Sandor refuses to tell (almost) anyone the truth, even when his life is on the line.
Sandor’s question is a key moment in the trial, one that GRRM signifies with a change in tempo and rhythm. Up until now, the trial has followed the same back-and-forth Socratic style as the debates over the Brotherhood and knighthood. But now, Sandor’s voice drops out entirely as the Brotherhood break out into an escalating chorus:
“Lord Lothar Mallery and Ser Gladden Wylde,” said Harwin.
“My brothers Lister and Lennocks,” declared Jack-Be-Lucky.
“Goodman Beck and Mudge the miller’s son, from Donnelwood,” an old woman called from the shadows.
“Merriman’s widow, who loved so sweet,” added Greenbeard.
“Them septons at Sludgy Pond.”
“Ser Andrey Charlton. His squire Lucas Roote. Every man, woman, and child in Fieldstone and Mousedown Mill.”
“Lord and Lady Deddings, that was so rich.”
Tom Sevenstrings took up the count. “Alyn of Winterfell, Joth Quick-bow, Little Matt and his sister Randa, Anvil Ryn. Ser Ormond. Ser Dudley. Pate of Mory, Pate of Lancewood, Old Pate, and Pate of Shermer’s Grove. Blind Wyl the Whittler. Goodwife Maerie. Maerie the Whore. Becca the Baker. Ser Raymun Darry, Lord Darry, young Lord Darry. The Bastard of Bracken. Fletcher Will. Harsley. Goodwife Nolla—”
Here, for the first time, the suffering of the Riverlands is disaggregated, transformed from the movement of armies on the map (or even Arya’s more impressionistic worm’s-eye view in ACOK) into specific crimes against victims who are at last given names. And the names really matter: Ned’s man Harwin starts with a pair of noblemen who were part of the original party sent out by the Hand of the King, but Jack-be-Lucky retorts with his lowborn family members who also died at the hands of the Lannisters. And then at last, one of the smallfolk speaks up, naming friends and neighbors we’ve never heard of before, but who were part of that “old woman[‘s]” story. And then things start escalating: the burning of the Riverlands sweeps up holy men and merry widows, the richest of lords and entire communities of peasants, men who shared nothing but common names and entire lineages of noble families, and the names begin to turn into a drum-beat too loud for Sandor to ignore:
“Enough.” The Hound’s face was tight with anger. “You’re making noise. These names mean nothing. Who were they?”
“People,” said Lord Beric. “People great and small, young and old. Good people and bad people, who died on the points of Lannister spears or saw their bellies opened by Lannister swords.”
“It wasn’t my sword in their bellies. Any man who says it was is a bloody liar.”
“You serve the Lannisters of Casterly Rock,” said Thoros.
“Once. Me and thousands more. Is each of us guilty of the crimes of the others?”
Up until now, most readers have been instinctively recoiling at the idea of collective punishment, seeing in the Brotherhood a callback to the baying mobs of sans-culottes of A Tale of Two Cities. If Sandor didn’t kill the people they named – which the reader knows was the case, because he’s been stuck in King’s Landing while the war’s been raging in the Riverlands – than he’s innocent, right?
But in this final exchange, we’re brought up short. Sandor “and thousands more” like him, did fight for the Lannister cause – and GRRM isn’t going to let us ignore the consequences of their actions. Sandor fought in the King’s Landing theater rather than the Riverlands theater, but as a leader of sorties he was directly responsible for keeping in power a king who Sandor knew was not only personally monstrous but wantonly murdering his own subjects, a king who ordered him to “cut through” the smallfolk of the city, the same king who legitimized the actions of the butcher of the Riverlands when he made him Hand of the King.
More broadly, Beric and Thoros’ argument makes us question our own preconceived notions about collective responsibility: if the otherwise blameless actions of Lannister soldiers keep Tywin, Joffrey, and Cersei in power, can they really be held blameless for the atrocities, large and small, that follow?
This is the moment where Arya – who is anything but a camera operator POV in this chapter – steps forward as a Perry Mason-style surprise witness, because she’s the only one who directly witnessed Sandor commit murder:
Arya squirted past Greenbeard so fast he never saw her. “You are a murderer!” she screamed. “You killed Mycah, don’t say you never did. You murdered him!”
The Hound stared at her with no flicker of recognition. “And who was this Mycah, boy?”
“I’m not a boy! But Mycah was. He was a butcher’s boy and you killed him. Jory said you cut him near in half, and he never even had a sword.” She could feel them looking at her now, the women and the children and the men who called themselves the knights of the hollow hill. “Who’s this now?” someone asked.
Arya’s testimony has a good bit of resonance towards the earlier part of the trial, because the killing she witnessed was specifically of one of the smallfolk (“he was a butcher’s boy”), it was clearly an act of murder rather than warfare (“you cut him near in half, and he never even had a sword”), and it was done as part of Sandor’s service to House Lannister:
…Harwin took her arm to draw her back as Lord Beric said, “The girl has named you a murderer. Do you deny killing this butcher’s boy, Mycah?”
The big man shrugged. “I was Joffrey’s sworn shield. The butcher’s boy attacked a prince of the blood.”
“That’s a lie!” Arya squirmed in Harwin’s grip. “It was me. I hit Joffrey and threw Lion’s Paw in the river. Mycah just ran away, like I told him.”
“Did you see the boy attack Prince Joffrey?” Lord Beric Dondarrion asked the Hound.
“I heard it from the royal lips. It’s not my place to question princes.”
This is where Sandor’s moral high ground really starts to erode, because “I was only obeying orders” is a defense that is uniquely odious to modern readers. This suggests a degree of intentionality on Martin’s part that must be kept in mind when we get to the outcome of the trial and what meaning we can draw from it.
Who Knows What Evil Lurks In the Hearts of Men
For all that the Brotherhood tends to get dismissed by much of the fandom as carrying out a kangaroo court, it’s worth noting from what happens next that, despite the Brotherhood’s venting earlier on, Beric probably would have let Sandor go if Arya hadn’t intervened, because he waits until after her testimony before giving sentence:
Beric Dondarrion turned back to the Hound. “You stand accused of murder, but no one here knows the truth or falsehood of the charge, so it is not for us to judge you. Only the Lord of Light may do that now. I sentence you to trial by battle.”
The Hound frowned suspiciously, as if he did not trust his ears. “Are you a fool or a madman?”
“Neither. I am a just lord. Prove your innocence with a blade, and you shall be free to go.”
“…So who will it be?” He looked at Lem Lemoncloak. “The brave man in the piss-yellow cloak? No? How about you, Huntsman? You’ve kicked dogs before, try me.” He saw Greenbeard. “You’re big enough, Tyrosh, step forward. Or do you mean to make the little girl fight me herself?” He laughed again. “Come on, who wants to die?”
“It’s me you’ll face,” said Lord Beric Dondarrion.
While Sandor is understandably suspicious after the Brotherhood’s “indictment,” his confidence surges when it comes down to a fight, because this is something he understands. By contrast, the way in which the religious aspects of the Brotherhood combine with their social mission – that they really believe that Rh’llor decides who wins and who loses these contests – is something that Sandor doesn’t really grok, anymore than he believes in “just lord[s]” like Beric Dondarrion:
Arya remembered all the tales. He can’t be killed, she thought, hoping against hope. The Mad Huntsman sliced apart the ropes that bound Sandor Clegane’s hands together. “I’ll need sword and armor.” The Hound rubbed a torn wrist.
“Your sword you shall have,” declared Lord Beric, “but your innocence must be your armor.”
Clegane’s mouth twitched. “My innocence against your breastplate, is that the way of it?”
“Ned, help me remove my breastplate.”
Lord Beric’s ribs were outlined starkly beneath his skin. A puckered crater scarred his breast just above his left nipple, and when he turned to call for sword and shield, Arya saw a matching scar upon his back. The lance went through him. The Hound had seen it too. Is he scared? Arya wanted him to be scared before he died, as scared as Mycah must have been.
At every turn, Sandor is looking for the trick, the proof that Beric is just as corrupt and self-serving as the rest of the feudal hierarchy, that the trial must be rigged. And each time, Beric wrong-foots him with genuinely selfless behavior: rather than making his followers fight and die in his stead, he steps forward as his own champion; rather than give himself an advantage against the Hound, he takes off his own armor to restore a level playing field.
And this literal revelation returns us to the truth of Beric Dondarrion’s body: here we see the lance wound that caused his first death, and it’s a significant clue about both the fact of his immortality and the cause of it. Beric had at least a foot of wood shoved almost literally through his heart, and yet here he is walking around. And before we can stop to ask why, the plot suddenly stops in its tracks, just like Sandor:
But when the Hound made to step toward his foe, Thoros of Myr stopped him. “First we pray.” He turned toward the fire and lifted his arms. “Lord of Light, look down upon us.”
All around the cave, the brotherhood without banners lifted their own voices in response. “Lord of Light, defend us.”
“Lord of Light, protect us in the darkness.”
“Lord of Light, shine your face upon us.”
“Light your flame among us, R’hllor,” said the red priest. “Show us the truth or falseness of this man. Strike him down if he is guilty, and give strength to his sword if he is true. Lord of Light, give us wisdom.”
“For the night is dark,” the others chanted, Harwin and Anguy loud as all the rest, “and full of terrors.”
Unsmiling, Lord Beric laid the edge of his longsword against the palm of his left hand, and drew it slowly down. Blood ran dark from the gash he made, and washed over the steel.
And then the sword took fire.
Arya heard Gendry whisper a prayer.
This is the first time we’ve seen a Rh’lloric ritual since Davos II of ACOK, and that was in a context in which we were primed to be skeptical (given the distance between Melisandre’s and Sallador’s version of the legend of Azor Ahai), if not outright hostile (given that it comes just after Melisandre has seemingly murdered a sympathetic old man). But here, the context is transformed: the converts are revolutionary smallfolk rather than grasping noblemen, the preacher is a humble and honest man rather than a manipulative sorceress, and the ritual is not an attempt to empower a king as messiah but instead a humble plea for divine justice. And for the first time in ASOIAF, the divine hears their prayer and responds…with an unquestioned miracle, one that speaks so directly to the legend of Azor Ahai that it forces us to re-examine our beliefs, not just about prophecy and Chosen Ones, but the very existence of gods in Westeros.
All of this deeply freaks out Sandor Clegane, because now the trial by combat involves not just facing off against a human opponent but the manifestation of his deepest fear.
“Burn in seven hells,” the Hound cursed. “You, and Thoros too.” He threw a glance at the red priest. “When I’m done with him you’ll be next, Myr.”
“Every word you say proclaims your guilt, dog,” answered Thoros, while Lem and Greenbeard and Jack-Be-Lucky shouted threats and curses. Lord Beric himself waited silent, calm as still water, his shield on his left arm and his sword burning in his right hand. Kill him, Arya thought, please, you have to kill him. Lit from below, his face was a death mask, his missing eye a red and angry wound. The sword was aflame from point to crossguard, but Dondarrion seemed not to feel the heat. He stood so still he might have been carved of stone.
Meanwhile, Beric begins to take on the appearance of the a Cthonic judge of the dead – he’s described as wearing a “death mask” but also as being “carved of stone” (like the funeral statues of Winterfell), not unlike death-and-rebirth gods like Osiris who were associated with the trappings of the dead; at the same time, the red eye suggests both a return to martyrology but also the reverse of the blue eyes of the White Walkers. It is this figure, not the rueful and still very human lightning lord, who will judge Sandor.
Sorcery Is a Sword Without a Hilt
The first sign that this duel between “cold” steel and “flaming sword” is about something more than a prize match is that Arya and Gendry start out less concerned about Sandor’s offensive than they are about what’s going on with the fiery miracle they just witnessed:
But when the Hound charged him, he moved fast enough.
The flaming sword leapt up to meet the cold one, long streamers of fire trailing in its wake like the ribbons the Hound had spoken of. Steel rang on steel. No sooner was his first slash blocked than Clegane made another, but this time Lord Beric’s shield got in the way, and wood chips flew from the force of the blow. Hard and fast the cuts came, from low and high, from right and left, and each one Dondarrion blocked. The flames swirled about his sword and left red and yellow ghosts to mark its passage. Each move Lord Beric made fanned them and made them burn the brighter, until it seemed as though the lightning lord stood within a cage of fire. “Is it wildfire?” Arya asked Gendry.
“No. This is different. This is…”
“..magic?” she finished as the Hound edged back.
Starting out the duel by asking “is magic real” sort of gives the game away: what’s at stake in this trial by combat is whether there is a metaphysic at work in ASOIAF (be it the Old Gods or R’hllor or something even more unknowable) that is interested in justice. To accomplish this, GRRM does a neat bit of three-fold revelation: first, way back in Arya IV, we have the same pair of characters dismissing flaming swords as an “alchemist’s trick” that ruins swords. Second, early in this chapter he brings back Thoros as someone who might be a fraud or might not. Third, he brings in Beric Dondarrion as the real deal, transforming blood into fire without any need for incantations or alchemical formulas.
And with that fact established, the initiative shifts from Sandor to Beric, because Sandor’s fear means that Beric can use the flames to force him to move where he wants him:
Now it was Lord Beric attacking, filling the air with ropes of fire, driving the bigger man back on his heels. Clegane caught one blow high on his shield, and a painted dog lost a head. He countercut, and Dondarrion interposed his own shield and launched a fiery backslash. The outlaw brotherhood shouted on their leader. “He’s yours!” Arya heard, and “At him! At him! At him!” The Hound parried a cut at his head, grimacing as the heat of the flames beat against his face. He grunted and cursed and reeled away.
Lord Beric gave him no respite. Hard on the big man’s heels he followed, his arm never still. The swords clashed and sprang apart and clashed again, splinters flew from the lightning shield while swirling flames kissed the dogs once, and twice, and thrice. The Hound moved to his right, but Dondarrion blocked him with a quick sidestep and drove him back the other way…toward the sullen red blaze of the firepit. Clegane gave ground until he felt the heat at his back. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him what was behind him, and almost cost him his head when Lord Beric attacked anew.
As the crowd (and thus the reader) gets revved up, we see Arya’s hopes beginning to rise, in a fashion not that different from her hopes of reuniting with her family at the Twins. (Does this make the outcome of the duel a tragedy? More on this in a second.) Even still, the Hound finds a last reserve of defiance:
Arya could see the whites of Sandor Clegane’s eyes as he bulled his way forward again. Three steps up and two back, a move to the left that Lord Beric blocked, two more forward and one back, clang and clang, and the big oaken shields took blow after blow after blow. The Hound’s lank dark hair was plastered to his brow in a sheen of sweat. Wine sweat, Arya thought, remembering that he’d been taken drunk. She thought she could see the beginnings of fear wake in his eyes. He’s going to lose, she told herself, exulting, as Lord Beric’s flaming sword whirled and slashed. In one wild flurry, the lightning lord took back all the ground the Hound had gained, sending Clegane staggering to the very edge of the firepit once more. He is, he is, he’s going to die. She stood on her toes for a better look.
“Bloody bastard!” the Hound screamed as he felt the fire licking against the back of his thighs. He charged, swinging the heavy sword harder and harder, trying to smash the smaller man down with brute force, to break blade or shield or arm. But the flames of Dondarrion’s parries snapped at his eyes, and when the Hound jerked away from them, his foot went out from under him and he staggered to one knee. At once Lord Beric closed, his downcut screaming through the air trailing pennons of fire. Panting from exertion, Clegane jerked his shield up over his head just in time, and the cave rang with the loud crack of splintering oak.
“His shield is afire,” Gendry said in a hushed voice. Arya saw it in the same instant. The flames had spread across the chipped yellow paint, and the three black dogs were engulfed.
Sandor Clegane had fought his way back to his feet with a reckless counterattack. Not until Lord Beric retreated a pace did the Hound seem to realize that the fire that roared so near his face was his own shield, burning. With a shout of revulsion, he hacked down savagely on the broken oak, completing its destruction. The shield shattered, one piece of it spinning away, still afire, while the other clung stubbornly to his forearm. His efforts to free himself only fanned the flames. His sleeve caught, and now his whole left arm was ablaze. “Finish him!” Greenbeard urged Lord Beric, and other voices took up the chant of “Guilty!” Arya shouted with the rest. “Guilty, guilty, kill him, guilty!”
But where Sandor can defy Beric the man, he has no defenses against fire. At every turn, we see Sandor tripped up by his childhood fear, which causes him to give ground again and again, flinch from the clash just like the horses of men Thoros faced in the melee, then take him off his feet altogether, and ultimately causes him to attack himself in a “shout of revulsion” when the fire begins to consume his own person.
However, amidst all of the fire imagery in this passage, one of the most telling details is where the Hound shield is set on fire, so that “the three black dogs were engulfed.” Here, fire is not merely destructive but transformative, burning away Sandor’s connections to his very House (and what a telling detail of self-loathing it is that Sandor can’t bring himself to bear any other sigil than that of the House where he was mutilated, where his family covered it up, and where his family was destroyed in their turn).
To Prove His Right Upon the Body
And in this process of transformation, on the very precipe of defeat, a sudden misfortune – or perhaps the subtlest intervention of the Red God – brings Sandor to unexpected victory:
Smooth as summer silk, Lord Beric slid close to make an end of the man before him. The Hound gave a rasping scream, raised his sword in both hands and brought it crashing down with all his strength. Lord Beric blocked the cut easily…
“Noooooo,” Arya shrieked.
…but the burning sword snapped in two, and the Hound’s cold steel plowed into Lord Beric’s flesh where his shoulder joined his neck and clove him clean down to the breastbone. The blood came rushing out in a hot black gush.
We could see this moment as nihilistic subversion, true magic being exposed as just another alchemist’s trick that ruins good steel, or some sort of materialist statement of the supremacy of the mundane over the miraculous. I think this would be taking it too far. Rather, I think we have to see this trial by combat with a flaming sword as something of a trial run for another yet to come, a contest in which the sword/body is as strong as the fire/spirit. After all, GRRM been very clear from Davos I on that it is not enough to harness R’hllor’s fire if you do not have a Red Sword of Heroes that can withstand the flames.
Clever parsing aside, it can’t be denied that it appears that the man we know to be guilty has won his trial, which is enough to drive Arya into a complete loss of faith:
Sandor Clegane jerked backward, still burning. He ripped the remnants of his shield off and flung them away with a curse, then rolled in the dirt to smother the fire running along his arm.
…Lord Beric’s knees folded slowly, as if for prayer. When his mouth opened only blood came out. The Hound’s sword was still in him as he toppled face forward. The dirt drank his blood. Beneath the hollow hill there was no sound but the soft crackling of flames and the whimper the Hound made when he tried to rise. Arya could only think of Mycah and all the stupid prayers she’d prayed for the Hound to die. If there were gods, why didn’t Lord Beric win? She knew the Hound was guilty.
…Harwin sighed. “R’hllor has judged him innocent.”
“Who’s Rulore?” She couldn’t even say it.
“The Lord of Light. Thoros has taught us—”
This where all my rambling about lapsed Catholicism has brought us to: the question of how injustice can exist in a world with an omnipotent and beneficient diety has been an enduring debate since St. Augustine. GRRM’s answer revolves around ambiguity; as @goodqueenaly points out, if we look across not just ASOIAF but Fire & Blood and WOIAF as well, the side of “right” seems to win trials by combat only about half the time. Judicial duels are supposed to provide absolute clarity of justice, with the will of the divine manifested as the ultimate seal…but GRRM constantly upends this paradigm, leaving us in the darkness of uncertainty.
But ambiguity extends to beyond the idea of whether the divine has judged correctly or even if there’s anything up there judging – it extends even to the outcome. If we take the main duels in ASOS, the Hound and the Mountain both “win” despite GRRM making it clear that they are guilty. However, the Mountain’s victory is thrown into question by the fact that he will die of his wounds in a fashion too clearly linked to medieval chroniclers’ descriptions of the deaths of unjust kings to be an accident. Similarly, there is a fundamental ambiguity as to the outcome of this duel:
“Please,” Sandor Clegane rasped, cradling his arm. “I’m burned. Help me. Someone. Help me.” He was crying. “Please.”
Arya looked at him in astonishment. He’s crying like a little baby, she thought…
Tom Sevenstrings and some woman were helping the Hound to his feet. The sight of his arm shocked her speechless. There was a strip of pink where the leather strap had clung, but above and below the flesh was cracked and red and bleeding from elbow to wrist. When his eyes met hers, his mouth twitched. “You want me dead that bad? Then do it, wolf girl. Shove it in. It’s cleaner than fire.” Clegane tried to stand, but as he moved a piece of burned flesh sloughed right off his arm, and his knees went out from under him. Tom caught him by his good arm and held him up.
His arm, Arya thought, and his face. But he was the Hound. He deserved to burn in a fiery hell. The knife felt heavy in her hand. She gripped it tighter. “You killed Mycah,” she said once more, daring him to deny it. “Tell them. You did. You did.”
To begin with, the supposed winner experiences a symbolic death-and-rebirth, regressing back to the very moment where his father’s men were able to pull his brother off him – it’s hard to get more contrapuntal than that. And the result of this regression is that when Arya confronts the intolerable injustice of her friend’s murderer going free (and notice how Arya is caught between empathy and mercy and a desire to enact vengeance with the knife in her hand, foreshadowing the dilemma of her time with the Faceless Men), Sandor is for once able to be more than performatively honest, confessing not merely to the murder he rationalized but also a failure to fully live up to the canons of knighthood that shames him:
“I did.” His whole face twisted. “I rode him down and cut him in half, and laughed. I watched them beat your sister bloody too, watched them cut your father’s head off.”
Lem grabbed her wrist and twisted, wrenching the dagger away. She kicked at him, but he would not give it back. “You go to hell, Hound,” she screamed at Sandor Clegane in helpless empty-handed rage. “You just go to hell!”
“He has,” said a voice scarce stronger than a whisper.
When Arya turned, Lord Beric Dondarrion was standing behind her, his bloody hand clutching Thoros by the shoulder.
And here we get the sting in the tail, the final revelation that upends our entire understanding of what’s happened: if the breaking of the sword made us temporarily doubt the existence of the divine, here we see resurrection with our own eyes. And the message that Lazarus brings back is appropriately ambiguous: should we understand from this laconic utterance that, during the trial, Sandor was sent into an inward hell and thus paid the full penalty owed in a way that we can’t fully perceive, or does he mean that, because of what was done to him as a child and how he’s carried it ever since, Sandor cannot be punished any more than he already is being? Are we meant to think that the suffering of the guilty should be pitied as much as that of the innocent – the Elder Brother on the Quiet Isle would no doubt agree – or that wrath is not bound by time?
Thus, we emerge from the cave, not with enlightenment but mystery.
So originally I was planning to discuss revolutionary tribunals in this section, but it turns out I already did that in Arya V. Likewise, I could talk about trial by combat, but I already did in Tyrion V of AGOT.
So instead I thought I’d talk about another group of people on the religious fringes who met in caves to witness miracles of death and rebirth…mystery cults!
So, first a bit of background. In the Mediterranean world, mystery cults were systems of worship outside of the more “official” temples that were supported by civic elites. However, given the nature of syncretism there was less in the way of competition and more in the way of supplementation: the Eleusinian Mysteries (which focused on Demeter and Persephone) and the Dionysian or Orphic Mysteries were part of the same classic Greco-Roman pantheon, after all. Other mystery cults, like that of Cybele, Isis, Serapis, and Mithras, were imported from the east, albeit sometimes with a healthy dose of appropriation and transformation.
What these groups had in common was that, rather than having public rituals where participation was an obligation of civic life, the mystery cults were open to those normally excluded from civic life (women, slaves and ex-slaves, foreigners, etc.), but required a process of initiation, only after which would worshippers be allowed access to the complete ritual. (This is where the “mystery” comes in.)
Another commonality, and this is where it ties in with this chapter, is they often met in caves or other underground structures (or at the very least behind closed doors): the Eleusian mysteries, for example, involved an underground theater called the Telesterion, where the story of the abduction of Persephone and Demeter’s descent into Hades; similarly, the cult of Mithras held its rituals in “rectangular buildings designed to resemble caves: they lay partly underground with barrel-vaulted ceilings and no windows.” Despite the air of mystery around the beliefs of these groups, it’s clear that there was more than a coincidental link between these structures and the rituals of death-and-rebirth they were re-enacting – the place was meant to make the ritual come to life, to turn statues into living god in the flickering of torchlight.
I would not be surprised, therefore, if Westerosi R’hllorism survives, we would see a similar process whereby worship often took place underground, where rituals not seen in Volantis or elsewhere involving the death and rebirth of a hero wielding a fiery sword were carried out.
So there’s really only one interesting hypothetical I see in this chapter:
- Beric wins/both of them “die”? Here, I see two main divergences.
- The first is that Sandor Clegane dies beneath the Hollow Hill, which means that he doesn’t abduct Arya, and that Tytos Frey, Garse Goodbrook, Polliver, and the Tickler live. The Raid on Saltpans still happens, but without the helm stolen from his “grave” it’s blamed on someone else. This in turn may mean that Brienne’s path doesn’t cross that of Rorge and Biter, which may mean that she is not captured by Lady Stoneheart.
- The second is that Arya probably doesn’t go to the Twins, and instead is ransomed at Riverrun, which is going to give the Blackfish a whole other reason for not backing down when the castle is put under siege. Indeed, if the Blackfish chooses to publicize her presence there, it could really disrupt Lannister/Bolton relations and Roose Bolton’s attempts to legitimize his reign in the North.
Book vs. Show:
One of my little quibbles with Game of Thrones Season 3 that turned out to be something of a canary in the coal mine is that they never really figured out what they wanted the Brotherhood Without Banners to be.
Thus, while the fight scene beneath the Hollow Hill was well-executed, there was no time given to let the atmosphere build up, develop any of the religious themes, etc. Instead, Beric drops dead and then comes back to life in a matter of seconds, with what would become characteristic disinterest in the broader meaning of resurrection following.
The more egregious change is the abrupt tonal whiplash that comes from the resurrection scene then being followed up by the Brotherhood selling Gendry to Melisandre. Just as foreknowledge of later character development tended to over-accelerate changes in various characters, the same thing happened with the Brotherhood, turning them into the corrupted post-Stoneheart Brotherhood without giving any time for them to be the (however flawed) ideal they lapsed from. This became even more of a problem later on when we see Lem Lemoncloak inserted as a villain in Season 6 in order to get the Hound to leave the Quiet Isle, which jars thematically with the Hound then linking back with Beric and Thoros for the Wight Hunt in Season 7.
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