Did you ever notice that the White Walkers and their wights are opposed by the people who “take the black” and live in Castle Black? We can learn plenty about A Song of Ice and Fire from that simple starting point.
II. The Other and the Last Hero
The first book begins with a fight between white and black: A White Walker duels a Night’s Watch brother named Waymar Royce. Here’s how Waymar is described: “He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather.”
Beginnings are important, and the color symbolism is emphasized heavily, so I believe that George R.R. Martin is using it to tell us something. Fortunately, George gives us a way to decode his message: In duels throughout the books, he gives one combatant a consistent set of traits (ones George associates with the color white and with the Others) and the opposing combatant a consistent set of conflicting traits (ones George associates with the color black and with those who oppose the Others). My guess is that this is George’s way of expressing negative and positive value judgments, respectively, about those traits; but you can judge for yourself when I show you the patterns.
As I go through the examples, I’m going to label the anti-Other archetype — the one associated with the color black — the Last Hero archetype. The Last Hero is the ancient character who fights the Others to end the Long Night.
III. The fights
Let me call your attention to six fights. There are many, many more examples, but these six are more than enough to make the point. They are:
- Ser Vardis Egen vs. Bronn (A Game of Thrones, Catelyn VII)
- This fight takes place in the Eyrie and is Tyrion’s first trial by combat.
- Ser Gregor Clegane vs. Oberyn Martell (A Storm of Swords, Tyrion X)
- This fight takes place in King’s Landing and is Tyrion’s second trial by combat.
- Ser Meryn Trant vs. Syrio Forel (A Game of Thrones, Arya IV)
- This fight takes place in the Red Keep, as the Lannister men hunt down Arya when Joffrey takes the Iron Throne after Robert’s death.
- Ser Jorah Mormont vs. Qotho (A Game of Thrones, Daenerys VIII)
- This fight takes place in the Dothraki Sea, while Mirri Maz Duur is performing her blood-magic ritual to “save” Khal Drogo’s life.
- Oznak zo Pahl vs. Strong Belwas (A Storm of Swords, Daenerys V)
- This fight takes place outside the city of Meereen, just after Dany’s forces arrive at the gates and before those forces infiltrate and take the city.
- Knights vs. Broken Man (A Feast for Crows, Brienne V)
- This is described by Septon Meribald in his famous Broken Man speech.
IV. The first category: colors themselves
When Bronn fights Ser Vardis, Bronn is described this way: “coal-black hair,” “coarse black beard,” “a shirt of black oiled ringmail,” and “discs of black iron [that] were sewn into the fingers of his gloves.” Bronn is unambiguously embodying the black-color archetype — the Last Hero archetype that Waymar also embodied.
That means Ser Vardis, who is fighting Bronn — just as the Other fought Waymar — should embody the white-color archetype of the Others. And indeed, Ser Vardis is wearing “cream-and-blue.” The Others famously have very blue eyes as well as blue blood, so blue is second only to white itself as the color most associated with them. Since Bronn’s black symbolism is laid on so thick, George eases up slightly on the color symbolism with Vardis, using “cream” as a more subtle way of representing white. Still, the point is clear: By giving Bronn the color black four times over and then giving Vardis the colors cream and blue, George leaves no doubt that Bronn is the Last Hero figure and Vardis is the Other figure.
When Ser Meryn Trant fights Syrio Forel, Ser Meryn gets called a “white knight.” This marks Meryn as the Other archetype and marks Syrio, by virtue of being Meryn’s opponent, as the Last Hero archetype. Similarly, Ser Jorah Mormont — like his fellow knights Ser Vardis and Ser Meryn in their fights — gets associated with the color white by being called a “milk man” while fighting Qotho. And Oznak zo Pahl, while fighting Belwas, gets called “Meereen’s pink and white hero.” In Septon Meribald’s Broken Man speech, neither side in the fight is given a color; but for what it’s worth, the first thing Meribald’s protagonist does after becoming a Broken Man is to “steal away in the black of night.”
So, characters in these fights are marked either as Other figures by being associated with the color white, or else as Last Hero figures by being associated with the color black. But I hope you don’t believe me yet, because the evidence I just gave isn’t conclusive. Think of how obvious it would be if one fighter always wore black and their opponent always wore white! Starting with the next section, you’ll see how clear George makes this when he moves to non-color symbols.
V. The second category: knighthood
None of the Last Hero figures are knights at the time of these fights: not Bronn, not Oberyn, not Syrio, not Qotho, not Belwas, and not the Broken Man. By contrast, virtually all of the Other figures are knights: Ser Vardis, Ser Gregor, Ser Meryn, Ser Jorah, and the attacking “knights” in Meribald’s Broken Man speech. The only exception is Oznak zo Pahl, who is an Other figure like the knights but can’t literally be a knight himself because he’s Meereeneese rather than Westerosi. George solves that problem niftily by saying this during Oznak’s fight: “Oznak zo Pahl charged … the way a Westerosi knight might ride at an opponent in a tilt.” So this line of symbolism is as clear as it could possibly be: The Other figures are knights, and the Last Hero figures aren’t.
VI. The third category: armor
Let’s review. The Other types are Ser Vardis, Ser Meryn, Ser Gregor, Ser Jorah, Oznak zo Pahl, and the knights in the Broken Man speech. The Last Hero types are Bronn, Syrio, Oberyn, Qotho, Belwas, and the Broken Man. In almost every case, the Other type is associated with the color white and/or the Last Hero type is associated with the color black. And in every case, the Other type is a knight (or expressly analogized to a knight during the fight) and the Last Hero type isn’t.
Now consider the armor that each type wears. We’ll start with the Other figures, who are heavily armored. “Ser Vardis Egen was steel from head to heel, encased in heavy plate armor over mail and padded surcoat.” Ser Meryn wore “armor head to foot, legs, throat, and hands sheathed in metal.” Ser Gregor “wore heavy plate over chainmail,” “a flat-topped greathelm was bolted to his gorget,” and even his hands were “clad in gauntlets of lobstered steel.” Ser Jorah “was clad in chainmail, with gauntlets and greaves of lobstered steel and a heavy gorget around his throat.” Oznak was “armored” (unlike his opponent, as we’ll see below). And finally, the knights in the Broken Man speech were “clad all in steel.”
The Last Hero figures are, as usual, exactly the opposite. “Bronn was so lightly armored he looked almost naked beside the knight.” Syrio wore only “a leather vest” with just “a wooden sword in his hand.” Belwas similarly “wore no armor but his studded leather vest.” Oberyn too “was lightly armored” and “clad in supple leather.” We don’t get a description of Qotho during the fight, but we don’t need one because we know the Dothraki don’t wear armor. And the Broken Men are famously poorly armed: They are “poorly shod and poorly clad, . . . ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made for themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide”; and “their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting.”
So once again, the symbols line up very clearly: Every single one of the Other figures is heavily armored, whereas every single one of the Last Hero figures is not.
VII. The fourth category: charging vs. evading
The Other figures charge forward at their foes, whereas the Last Hero figures evade those charges, often by moving backward or spinning to the side.
Oznak “charged”; Gregor “charged headlong” and “made a ponderous charge”; one of Meryn’s helpers “charged” at Syrio; and when the knights attack the Broken Man, “the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world.” Similarly, Ser Vardis “drove forward” and “pressed forward”; “Gregor stumbled forward”; “Ser Meryn advanced”; and three of Meryn’s men “started forward.” To find yet more words to express the same theme, George tells us: “Ser Vardis was coming hard at Bronn”; “the knight came after” Bronn; Ser Gregor “came on”; the knights “come down” on the Broken Man; and Ser Jorah “came on.”
What do the Last Hero types do? Bronn “scrambled backward,” “jerked back,” and “backed off”; Oberyn “backstepped,” and “kept … darting back,” and his “retreat became a headlong backward flight”; Syrio “backed away” and then “backed away” again; and the Broken Man “turns and runs.” (Note also the black-color-associated Night’s Watch brother Gared who says the very first line of the whole story: “We should start back.”) But there is more than one alternative to going forward: The Last Hero types also move to the side. Bronn “sidestepped”; Belwas “spun sideways”; Oberyn “slid sideways,” “threw himself sideways,” “skipped aside,” and his spear “slid aside”; and Syrio presented “only his side to the foe.” Along the same lines, Bronn slammed “aside” Vardis’s weapon, just as Belwas “knocked the point of the lance aside.”
The Last Hero types also move quickly. Bronn “was quicker” and was “quick as a cat”; Oberyn made “good use of … his quickness”; Qotho’s “arakh moved so fast” and his “slashes came so fast”; and Syrio was so “blindingly fast” — “his stick a blur” — that “Arya had never seen a man move as fast.”
These guys also slide, spin, and move so gracefully as to look like dancers. Bronn “slid around him”; Oberyn “slid” and “spun away”; Belwas “spun”; Qotho “spun graceful as a dancer” and “danced backward”; and Syrio “danced away.”
VIII. Supplemental category #1: vision
By now, I hope you’ll agree with me that George has set up two archetypes that he pits against each other in these fights: a white-color-associated “Other” archetype in the form of a heavily armored knight who charges forward, and a black-color associated Last Hero archetype in the form of a lightly armored non-knight who moves lithely backward and sideways. There really isn’t any ambiguity about it.
Before I say what I think this all means, let me note two additional features of these archetypes that don’t come up quite as uniformly but that I think are definitely present and important.
The first involves vision. We are told once that Ser Vardis’s visor had only “a narrow slit for vision,” and then again that in the fight with Bronn, “the slit visor of his helm narrowed his vision.” Similarly, we are told once that the Mountain’s greathelm had “a narrow slit for vision,” and then again that in the fight with Oberyn, “the Mountain’s helm had a narrow eyeslit, severely limiting his vision,” such that “Clegane is losing sight of him.” The knights who attack the Broken Man are “faceless,” suggesting their armor covers their faces. And Ser Meryn had “eyes hidden behind his high white helm” (notice the color white) after he had “lowered the visor of his helm.”
To bolster this point, I’ll go beyond the fights to mention a line that I believe to be a pun from elsewhere in the books. Jaime tells Brienne: “True knights see worse every time they ride to war” (A Storm of Swords, Jaime I). On the surface, Jaime is saying that the knights encounter acts that are even more immoral than the one Brienne has just witnessed, but I believe that George is using wordplay to make a point. Since Jaime is invoking several words associated with the Other archetype — knights, war, and riding (as we’ll see in the next section) — it stands to reason that his sentence here would also invoke the repeated symbolism of the Other archetype’s bad vision (as detailed in the previous paragraph of this essay). The more these knights go to war, the more Other-ish they become, and the “worse” they “see.”
IX. Supplemental category #2: looking down on people
Although the Last Hero figures are sometimes naturally taller than the Other figures — Bronn “stood half a hand taller than his foe” and Belwas is gigantic — there’s a repeated theme of the Other figures being artificially higher up, such that they look down on their Last Hero opponents, usually because they’re on horseback.
“As massive as he was, the eunuch [Belwas] looked small beside the hero [Oznak zo Pahl] on his horse.” In the Broken Man speech, the knights “come down” on the Broken Man. Ser Meryn was “in his high white helm.” And early in the Prologue, Waymar Royce — when he is still referred to as a “knight” and has not yet transformed, by virtue of fighting the Other, into “a man of the Night’s Watch” (and is therefore still exhibiting characteristics of the Others and not yet those of the Last Hero) — is described like this: “the knight towered above Will and Gared” due to the size of his warhorse.
X. What does it all mean?
George creates two archetypes — one white, one black — and gives them each a set of traits. Why? My guess is that it lets George tell us his views about those traits. He links Other figures with characteristics he wants to criticize, while linking Last Hero figures with characteristics he wants to applaud.
The hard part is knowing which good and bad traits are being symbolized by things like knighthood, armor, charging forward, gracefully moving backward or sideways, etc. Here we can only guess from what we know about George and from the apparent themes of the story, and your guess is as good as mine. Still, in this last section of my essay, I’ll tell you what I think.
Let’s start with knighthood. Think of Brienne of Tarth, who is famously not a knight but who embodies all the virtues that knights are supposed to have. The point is that the virtues themselves are the important thing, not the title. As Maester Luwin says, “A man’s worth is not marked by a ser before his name” (AGOT, Bran VI). That’s why Sandor Clegane chose not to be a knight: He rejected the hypocrisy of all the people who were supposed to be honorable but actually behaved dishonorably — the most extreme example of all being his brother, the monstrously evil knight Gregor Clegane.
What about the traits associated with armor and movement? Taken together, they paint a fairly clear picture. The Other types are rigid in their armor, seeing only straight ahead and moving only forward. They are powerful but inflexible. By contrast, the Last Hero figures are freed by their lack of armor to move gracefully in multiple directions, spinning and dancing backward and to the side. I have to think George is endorsing flexibility.
Consider the dialogue between Jaime Lannister and Meryn Trant, where Jaime criticizes Meryn for brutalizing Sansa Stark (A Storm of Swords, Jaime VIII). Meryn replies that he did as Joffrey ordered, and Jaime says, “Henceforth you will temper that obedience.” When Meryn replies, “Are you telling us not to obey the king?”, Jaime says this: “The king is eight. Our first duty is to protect him, which includes protecting him from himself. Use that ugly thing you keep inside your helm. If Tommen wants you to saddle his horse, obey him. If he tells you to kill his horse, come to me.” In my opinion, George is strongly endorsing Jaime’s approach here and rejecting Meryn’s. Rigid, inflexible obedience to a ruler is being criticized, just as George negatively depicts the white knights of the Kingsguard (definite Other figures, as many have said) standing idly by while the Mad King once burned two Starks alive. By contrast, thinking — using that ugly thing inside your helm — is praised. George wants us to use common sense and wisdom rather than to rely on rote rules or to defer automatically to authority.
George also seems to prize vision in the sense that it lets people see the truth. Recall one of the first things we ever learn about Jon Snow, from the first chapter of A Game of Thrones (Bran I): “Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see.” Just as the Other archetypes get linked with narrow and poor vision, Jon here gets linked with the anti-Other color of black and the anti-Other quality of good vision. And of course the point is not literal — who cares if Jon can spot a rabbit at fifty yards? — but rather concerns seeing things as they really are and separating truth from falsehood. This same theme gets repeated with another Last Hero figure, Syrio Forel, who tells Arya that he became the First Sword of Braavos because he “saw what was there” rather than what he expected to see or wanted to see or was told to see: “The seeing, the true seeing, that is the heart of it…. The eyes see true. Look with your eyes.… Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.” So seeing things as they truly are, and then thinking with judgment and common sense and open-mindedness, is being praised in contrast with rigid, blind obedience to rules or dogma or superiors’ commands.
Finally, it’s not hard to imagine why looking down on people — as the Other figures tend to do as they ride arrogantly on their (literal and figurative) high horses — would be a negative trait in George’s view. George’s story seems to reject hierarchy, especially hierarchy based on birth and other irrelevant characteristics. Characters who think they’re better than their peers are usually depicted unsympathetically, although they sometimes learn from that mistake and expunge that flaw, as Jon Snow did after he joined the Night’s Watch and initially looked down on his brothers before befriending and helping them.
* * *
It’s remarkable that in so many different scenes from different books, one combatant is a heavily armored knight who charges forward from on high with narrow vision and is associated with the color white; whereas his opponent is a lithe, fast, lightly armored non-knight who retreats and spins aside and is associated with the color black. All of that happens again, and again, and again. I’ve told you my guess as to why that is — George is endorsing a set of character traits represented by the latter group of symbols — but I encourage you to reach your own conclusions and share them with the fandom and with me in the comments below or on Twitter at @bronst6. As always, the joy in analyzing these books is doing it together.