Category Archives: broken-symbolism

Outlaws and broken men

Broken men, she realized, dregs from a dozen armies, the leavings of the lords.

[…] Swollen in death, with faces gnawed and rotten, they all looked the same. On the gallows tree, all men are brothers. (AFFC, Brienne VII)

Hello everyone and welcome again to Red Mice at Play. I’m here with the next instalment of the Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things series, and we’re continuing our exploration of broken men.

Before we begin, a lot of real-world has been happening (and is finally gaining traction in the media and online) so I wanted to take this time to encourage any readers to support the Black Lives Matter movement wherever they are based – learn more about anti-racism, sign as many petitions as possible, email or call your representatives on a local and national level (and supra-national where possible, e.g. if you’re an EU citizen) and donate if you can and/or watch this video with adverts if you don’t have the finances to donate right now (comments are on the video for instructions on how to maximise the ad revenue from that video). There’s a lot of primarily US Black Lives Matter resources out there (this is one of the more comprehensive ones, and further petitions and resources are still all over Twitter) but please also make sure to research your local area too, to promote Black Lives Matter and police accountability in your region – the Black Lives Matters carrd includes BLM materials for the UK, Canada and Australia. For instance, organisations in the UK you may want to support include Black Lives Matter UK, UK Black Pride (supporting Black LGBTQIA+ folx), Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (who offer legal advice to immigrants and campaign for a fairer and more humane immigration system), the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (which supports young BPOC in the community) and Stop Watch UK (promoting police accountability in the UK); petitions you may want to support include Justice for Belly Mujinga, Justice for Shukri Abdi, Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums, Include Black British history on the national curriculum, Improve maternal mortality rates and health care for black women. Please note that any petition you sign on the Government petitions website is only open to UK citizens and is a two step process – you will need to give them your email address and then click the link in the email you get, otherwise your signature won’t be counted. Any petition with over 10,000 signatures gets a response from the government and over 100,000 is debated in parliament. Last but definitely not least, support BIPOC artists, writers and content creators in whatever fandoms or genres you love. In the A Song of Ice and Fire community, this includes (but again, is definitely not limited to) The Hype’s Watch, A Don of Ice and Fire, Alicia Kingston, Teflon TV, Quinn’s Ideas, Chrissy of Oldstones, AquaVenatus, A Thousand Eyes and One podcast and Lady Diligence.

Before you continue reading the essay, it would be amazing if you could do just one thing to support anti-racism in your community – sign a petition, write to your MP or senator, subscribe to BIPOC content creators, download an anti-racism e-book, whatever you want.

Now that you have done a thing for today, it’s time to dive in to the essay.

As I stated earlier, we’re going to continue our investigation into the broken motif. So far, we have noticed that there are lots of overlapping motifs between broken swords and broken men, namely that these all appear to be associated with the Last Hero, Lightbringer and greenseeing. We also found that broken men appear to be “broken” by the Others (or their symbolic counterparts), which causes the Last Hero to undergo some kind of ice-to-fire kind of transformation. With that in mind, we concluded the last essay by noting that the Others are associated with dawn, and that the Last Hero appears to have come from the Others while also being a broken man – this suggests that the Last Hero is the dawn that brokewhich absolutely fits with the idea of the Last Hero ending the Long Night. After all, night only ends when dawn breaks.

Today, we’ll be building on those conclusions, focussing on outlaws and broken men. That means the Brotherhood without Banners, the Kingswood Brotherhood, the Night’s Watch deserters and finally (finally!) that Septon Meribald speech.

Now before we dive into that, thanks as usual to George RR Martin for writing this series, to all of the myth and symbolism friends I’ve made, to the wonderful Bronsterys for all of his comments and suggestions and to you, dear reader, for spending your time with me today.


That fearsome outlaw band
The Last Hero and his merry men
The leavings of lords
Jon Snow and the seventy-nine sentinels
And the man breaks…

That fearsome outlaw band

Throughout our analysis of the cripples, bastards and broken things motif, the Brotherhood without Banners have been reappearing frequently, firstly with the creation of a broken sword:

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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Then with a broken man as their leader:

“He’s our god too, and you owe us for your bloody lives. And what’s false about him? Might be your Smith can mend a broken sword, but can he heal a broken man?” (ASOS, Arya VII)

Throughout this analysis, we noticed that the Brotherhood Without Banners shares a ton of overlapping symbolism with all of the broken motifs: in particular, greenseeing and resurrection, embodied spectacularly in the undead Beric Dondarrion seated in his weirwood throne:

The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Rather obviously, the band of outlaws stars in this essay as well:

“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.” (ASOS, Arya VI)

Importantly, this quote directly equates outlaws to broken men, which would suggest that outlaws are also folded into this cripples, bastards and broken things motif. Indeed, outlaws and broken men are mentioned in the same breath pretty frequently:

“‘Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough,” one man told her, “but past Duskendale there’s outlaws, and broken men in the woods.(AFFC, Brienne I)

“Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”

“More or less,” Brienne answered. (AFFC, Brienne V)

If outlaws do fit into the broken man motif, we should see similar imagery and symbolism in other descriptions of outlaws. Notably, Jorah Mormont’s speech to the men about to take the Night’s Watch vows places outlaws as the foremost description of the people joining:

Mormont stood before the altar, the rainbow shining on his broad bald head. “You came to us outlaws,” he began, “poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others have only bastards’ names, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.” (AGOT, Jon IV)

This statement is even broken off from the rest of the speech, as if emphasising the importance of outlaws to the Night’s Watch, and thus the Last Hero archetype. This would suggest that we can expect to see the Last Hero “cripples, bastards and broken things” symbolism throughout the outlaws of the series, such as the Kingswood Brotherhood. Notably, the Brotherhood without Banners is compared to the Kingswood Brotherhood on a couple of occasions:

Sometimes she thought she might go back to Sharna’s inn, if the floods hadn’t washed it away. She could stay with Hot Pie, or maybe Lord Beric would find her there. Anguy would teach her to use a bow, and she could ride with Gendry and be an outlaw, like Wenda the White Fawn in the songs. (ASOS, Arya XII)

“The peasants denied seeing them, but when questioned sharply they sang a different song. They spoke of a one-eyed man and another who wore a yellow cloak . . . and a woman, cloaked and hooded.

“A woman?” He would have thought that the White Fawn would have taught Merrett to stay clear of outlaw wenches. “There was a woman in the Kingswood Brotherhood as well.” (AFFC, Jaime IV)

While this could just be due to the fact that they are two outlaw bands, it could also indicate some deeper shared symbolism – I feel that the latter option is quite likely, especially as we’ve already come across the Kingswood Brotherhood before:

What a fight that was, and what a foe. The Smiling Knight was a madman, cruelty and chivalry all jumbled up together, but he did not know the meaning of fear. And Dayne, with Dawn in hand . . . The outlaw’s longsword had so many notches by the end that Ser Arthur had stopped to let him fetch a new one. “It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)

As you may recall, we analysed this scene in a lot of detail in the broken swords essay, and found a bunch of interesting Last Hero vs. Others duelling symbolism. For starters, we see the Smiling Knight’s sword is so notched that it needs to be replaced, indicating that he is the wielder of the broken sword i.e. an archetypal Last Hero figure. This places Ser Arthur Dayne in the role of the symbolic Other, which fits with all of the icy symbolism of the Kingsguard. Moreover, this duel is framed as a fight over Ser Arthur Dayne’s sword, called Dawn… A War for the Dawn, if you will… (I know I’m repeating myself, but I love that pun too much!) We also saw that there were parallels between this duel and the Ser Waymar Royce vs. the actual literal Others duel, in that the Smiling Knight and Ser Waymar Royce both end up with broken swords and a dozen wounds. Again, this places the Smiling Knight in the role of the symbolic Last Hero. 

Given these parallels, it suggests that the Smiling Knight – and, by extension, the Kingswood Brotherhood and outlaws more generally – are symbolically acting as Last Hero figures in the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. Similarly, key leaders of the Kingswood Brotherhood end up in the Night’s Watch, the institution supposedly established by the Last Hero:

Every man at Castle Black had heard Ulmer’s tales of the great outlaw band of yore; of Simon Toyne and the Smiling Knight, Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged, Wenda the White Fawn, Fletcher Dick, Big Belly Ben, and all the rest. (ASOS, Samwell II)

Ulmer was thought to be one of the best archers in the land (for what it’s worth, this is another point of comparison with the Brotherhood Without Banners’ Anguy, another incredible archer). Importantly, Ulmer was one of the few who stayed true to the Watch after the mutiny at Craster’s:

“I saw the Fist,” he said, after a long swallow. “The blood, and the dead horses . . . Noye said a dozen made it back . . . who?”

“Dywen did. Giant, Dolorous Edd, Sweet Donnel Hill, Ulmer, Left Hand Lew, Garth Greyfeather. Four or five more. Me.” (ASOS, Jon VI)

This may suggest another link between the Kingswood Brotherhood (and thus, outlaws) and the loyal members of the Night’s Watch, which would in turn suggest a connection to the archetypal Last Hero.

The Kingswood Brotherhood also has some greenseeing connections, which is to be expected from the symbolism we have been seeing throughout these essays. Most obviously, the Kingswood Brotherhood are literally named after a forest – the Kingswood. This self-evidently associates them with trees and thus greenseeing. Indeed, in the song about the Brotherhood, their relationship to the forest is one of the aspects notable enough to be worth mentioning:

The brothers of the Kingswood,
they were an outlaw band.
The forest was their castle,
but they roamed across the land.
No man’s gold was safe from them,
nor any maiden’s hand.
Oh, the brothers of the Kingswood,
that fearsome outlaw band … (ASOS, Arya III)

In addition, there is some evidence that weirwoods are connected with royalty – for instance there are a ton of implications of greenseer kings historically, such as Garth Greenhand, and it seems that the burning tree created by the Grey King of Ironborn myth is likely a reference to the weirwood trees, thus making it a king’s wood. 

This connection with trees and woods appears to be relatively common throughout the outlaw motif:

“The man took too great an interest in our choice of route, and those woods . . . such places are notorious haunts of outlaws. He may have been urging us into a trap.” (ASOS, Jaime II)

He could send Podrick Payne questing after Shagga, he supposed, but there were so many hiding places in the deep of the kingswood that outlaws often evaded capture for decades. (ASOS, Tyrion IX)

“’Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough,” one man told her, “but past Duskendale there’s outlaws, and broken men in the woods.(AFFC, Brienne I)

“Stay quiet, Podrick. There may still be outlaws in these woods.(AFFC, Brienne III)

Symbolically, this would suggest to me that the outlaw motif is quite closely connected with trees, which in turn suggests a link to forests and greenseeing. Of particular note is that the woods are the “haunts” of outlaws, implying that the outlaws are ghosts. Ghosts appears to be a clear symbol of skinchanging and/or greenseeing – think for instance of the Ghost of High Heart who receives visions from the weirwoods or of Jon’s wolf, Ghost, who is red and white like a weirwood tree. In addition to this, it suggests that the outlaws themselves are some form of undead, if they are “haunting” the woods, implying resurrection.

Which brings us back to the members of the Kingswood Brotherhood for clues, where we see a mention of Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged. As has been covered by others in great detail, hanging is a core motif of greenseeing as it is a reference to Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil. This also implies the idea of resurrection, as Oswyn is hanged three times, which is comparable to Beric Dondarrion’s multiple deaths. As such, it would seem to indicate that the outlaw band has some connections to greenseeing, as would be anticipated from the symbolism we see associated with the cripples, bastards and broken things motif.

In addition, hanging seems to be the typical treatment for outlaws:

“I was hanging outlaws and robber knights when you were still shitting in your swaddling clothes.” (AFFC, Jaime II)

We’ve hanged dozens of outlaws, but the leaders still elude us. Clegane, Dondarrion, the red priest, and now this woman Stoneheart . . .” (AFFC, Brienne V)

“It could be they were in some outlaw band.” At Dosk, they’d heard a harper sing “The Day They Hanged Black Robin.” Ever since, Egg had been seeing gallant outlaws behind every bush. (D&E, The Sworn Sword)

This would suggest that the outlaw motif is quite tightly linked to hanging which itself appears to be linked to greenseeing. As a slight aside, the song mentioned by Dunk indicates outlaws may be associated with black, given the name of the song: the Day they Hanged Black Robin. This could imply some further Night’s Watch symbolism for the outlaw, given that the Night’s Watch are renowned for wearing black, thus tying the outlaw motif to the Last Hero archetype.

So there are clear parallels between the two Brotherhoods and that this (and other outlaw quotes) appear to be closely linked to some of the main symbolic motifs we’ve been seeing – but what of the real world influences? The song quotes above, “The Day they Hanged Black Robin” I think gives us our main clue…

The Last Hero and his merry men

The most archetypal “real-world” outlaw hero in a medieval setting is Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. As with most legends from several hundred years ago, the myth and legend of Robin Hood varies massively and changes over time.

The comparison between the Brotherhood Without Banners and Robin Hood has been made by others. For instance, both groups contain skilled archers (Robin and Anguy), religious figures (Friar Tuck and Thoros of Myr), bard fighters (Alan-a-Dale and Tom O’ Sevenstreams) and prominent women (Maid Marian and Lady Stoneheart), indicating that these groups are probably meant to be compared. From our symbolic perspective, this may mean that there are themes and features of the Robin Hood mythology that may shed light on our interpretation of the outlaws in the “cripples, bastards and broken things” motif, and thus the archetypal Last Hero.

Rhead, Louis. “Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest“. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1912. Public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons 6th May 2020.

For our analysis here, it is important to note that Robin Hood is tightly linked to Sherwood Forest, with him and his band of Merry Men inhabiting the forest. This is very reminiscent of the Kingswood Brotherhood in particular, who are self-evidently associated with a forest, and which we outlined as a metaphor for greenseeing earlier. Similarly, Beric Dondarrion is associated with weirwood trees, as he is introduced to us sitting in a weirwood throne:

The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. (ASOS, Arya VI)

This ties in with our exploration of the broken motif so far, with greenseeing being one of the more frequent associations.

Importantly for the Last Hero archetype, Robin Hood is renowned for stealing and it seems that this is being applied to the outlaws in A Song of Ice and Fire. For instance, Beric Dondarrion is called a robber knight:

“It wasn’t for the pleasure of looking at your face, Dondarrion, I’ll tell you that. You’re uglier than me now. And a robber knight besides, it seems.”

“I gave you a note for your gold,” Lord Beric said calmly. “A promise to pay, when the war’s done.” (ASOS, Arya VII)

This occurs as Beric Dondarrion steals Sandor Clegane’s money and, notably, he has also ‘stolen’ Arya in order to obtain ransom money. Ransoming rich prisoners also appears to be connected enough to outlaws in Westeros that this is used to threaten Bran into behaving:

“The wolfswood is full of danger; your last ride should have taught you that. Would you want some outlaw to take you captive and sell you to the Lannisters?” (ACOK, Bran I)

Again, note that the outlaws are linked to a forest, this time the wolfswood, and kidnapping (i.e. stealing a person). This is much like Robin Hood in the early ballads, kidnapping and ransoming rich knights in Sherwood Forest.

The Smiling Knight, who we’ve been considering as a part of the Last Hero archetype, is also named a robber knight:

The outlaw’s longsword had so many notches by the end that Ser Arthur had stopped to let him fetch a new one. “It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)

Similarly, a prominent part of the ballad about the Kingswood Brotherhood is that they are thieves:

No man’s gold was safe from them,
nor any maiden’s hand.
Oh, the brothers of the Kingswood,
that fearsome outlaw band … (ASOS, Arya III)

Moreover, robber knights are equated with outlaws and broken men as well:

“I was hanging outlaws and robber knights when you were still shitting in your swaddling clothes. I am not like to go off and face Clegane and Dondarrion by myself, if that is what you fear, ser.” (AFFC, Jaime II)

Five hundred knights, blooded and seasoned veterans of the Stepstones, were formed into a new company under the command of Ser Tywin’s brother Ser Kevan, and charged with ridding the west of robber knights and outlaws. (TWOIAF, The Westerlands: House Lannister Under the Dragons)


Shunned and forgotten since Daemon Targaryen and his nephew Aemond had met there for their final flight, Black Harren’s accursed seat had become a haunt of outlaws, robber knights and broken men, who sallied forth from behind its walls to prey upon travelers, fisherfolk and farmers. (F&B Vol. I, Under the Regents: the Hooded Hand)

The suggestion of the Last Hero as a thief of some kind is not a new one, but it seems important to note this theme as it appears in relation to Robin Hood. 

Some of the other Robin Hood parallels that we can draw with the various brotherhoods speak to the somewhat paradoxical nature of the symbolism of the Last Hero. We touched on this ‘paradoxical’ symbolism a little with the broken sword essay, in that the breaking of the sword and the forging of the sword appear to be the same event, such as Ice being broken and re-forged into Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail. Similarly, the ‘breaking’ of the man appeared to be the catalyst for their Last Hero transformation, as in the case of Bran’s fall or Jaime’s maiming. 

Building on this, we see that the outlaws are frequently the ones dispensing true justice, while those who are acting within the law and with the power of the law are also depicted as unjust. For example, Robin Hood is renowned for stealing from the rich to give to the poor, in contrast to the avaricious Sheriff of Nottingham; Beric Dondarrion gives a trial to the Brave Companions and Sandor Clegane and protects the smallfolk of the riverlands from the occupying armies of Stark and Lannister where possible; and the Kingswood Brotherhood begin by protecting the smallfolk as well, as is implied by the following quote:

“If you want [the smallfolk’s] help, you need to make them love you. That was how Arthur Dayne did it, when we rode against the Kingswood Brotherhood. He paid the smallfolk for the food we ate, brought their grievances to King Aerys, expanded the grazing lands around their villages, even won them the right to fell a certain number of trees each year and take a few of the king’s deer during the autumn. The forest folk had looked to Toyne to defend them, but Ser Arthur did more for them than the Brotherhood could ever hope to do, and won them to our side.” (AFFC, Jaime V)

This suggests that the Last Hero could be someone thought of as an outlaw, but who actually tries to uphold justice and protect the population in some way. The Night’s Watch as an organisation would seem to embody this – they operate outside of the normal feudal system of Westeros (and thus its laws) and currently operate as a penal colony (and thus is full of people who have always operated outside of Westerosi law); however, they are also a defensive, protective force for the Seven Kingdoms.

In a similar vein, Robin Hood is also associated with supporting the true king, King Richard I, against the usurper, King John. This is quite similar to Beric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood without Banners, who assert that they remain King Robert’s men, despite the (many and various) other claimants to the throne:

“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.” (ASOS, Arya VI)

This could be considered paradoxical symbolism, in that the Brotherhood remain loyal to the king, whilst being named traitors; meanwhile the Lannisters (who name the Brotherhood traitors) are busy fighting on behalf of King Joffrey, who is illegitimate. This appears to be tied to the Last Hero motif, in that the Lannisters name the Brotherhood traitors and rebels when they are, in fact, talking to Yoren of the Night’s Watch:

“And who are you, old man? One of Lord Beric’s cravens?” called the knight in the spiked helm. “If that fat fool Thoros is in there, ask him how he likes these fires.”

“Got no such man here,” Yoren shouted back. “Only some lads for the Watch. Got no part o’ your war.” He hoisted up the staff, so they could all see the color of his cloak. “Have a look. That’s black, for the Night’s Watch.”

Or black for House Dondarrion,” called the man who bore the enemy banner. 

[…] “Open, or we’ll know you for outlaws in league with the king’s enemies.

[…] “If you are no traitors, open your gates,” Ser Amory called. “We’ll make certain you’re telling it true and be on our way.”

[…] “So be it. You defy the king’s command, and so proclaim yourselves rebels, black cloaks or no.” (ACOK, Arya IV)

As the Night’s Watch are being mistaken for Beric Dondarrion’s brotherhood, this reinforces the already prominent symbolic connections we have seen between the two groups previously, as well as directly connecting the outlaw motif to the Night’s Watch and thus the Last Hero archetype. Importantly for our Robin Hood comparisons, we see that the Last Hero analogues are proclaimed as the traitors, despite not being involved in the war; whereas the Lannister forces are naming others as traitors, despite fighting for a usurper. Indeed, I think there are a number of Last Hero figures who stand accused of being traitors and turncloaks at points in the series (stares at Theon), but I’ll save that for another essay. However, it seems to fit in quite well with our discussion of Robin Hood and outlaws, so I thought it was worth mentioning.

I think this covers the Robin Hood parallels that are applicable to the cripples, bastards and broken things motif that I wanted to mention. But, where do these broken men and outlaws come from?

The leavings of lords

One of the quotes I briefly mentioned above linked robber knights, outlaws and broken men:

Shunned and forgotten since Daemon Targaryen and his nephew Aemond had met there for their final flight, Black Harren’s accursed seat had become a haunt of outlaws, robber knights and broken men, who sallied forth from behind its walls to prey upon travelers, fisherfolk and farmers. (F&B Vol I, Under the Regents: The Hooded Hand)

Again we see that these men are “haunting” Harrenhal and the surrounding area, implicating ghosts and thus greenseeing again, tying us back to the themes and motifs we’ve been covering throughout. 

For this section, though, it is important to note that these men are the broken men from the remnants of the Dance of the Dragons. This suggests that the defeated armies or deserters from armies can be considered a part of the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. This is something that we also saw as a part of the broken swords essay when the Blackfyre army was routed by a pincer movement from the Targaryens, called the Hammer and the Anvil. We use that event to support the idea that, symbolically, the event that causes the “breaking” is also the event that “forges” something new – the Hammer and Anvil used to forge a sword also breaks the army named after a sword. Now, we can tie this event into the broken men motif, as well as the broken sword motif, because they are a defeated army.

Another key example of defeated armies as broken men is King Stannis Baratheon’s defeat during the Battle of the Blackwater. Building upon the ice-to-fire transformation we discussed in the last essay, Stannis appears to have a number of clear Night’s King symbols in the run up to the Battle of the Blackwater, such as kinslaying, (apparent!) usurpation of a relative, and the creation of shadows, to name a few; however, he and his army are broken upon the Blackwater:

“It’s done! Done! Done! The city is saved. Lord Stannis is dead, Lord Stannis is fled, no one knows, no one cares, his host is broken, the danger’s done. Slaughtered, scattered, or gone over, they say.” (ACOK, Sansa VII)

With Stannis broken and Renly dead, only a Stark victory can save [Vargo Hoat] from Lord Tywin’s vengeance, but the chances of that grow perishingly slim.” (ASOS, Jaime V)

Importantly, Stannis is described as “dead” and “broken” here: once again, this ties the idea of death (and resurrection) to the breaking event, as we have seen throughout the broken series. Nessie, aka @1QuestingBeast on Twitter and The Unspun Yarn on YouTube, has suggested that the term “host” in A Song of Ice and Fire could be a reference to the host as in the body of Christ during the Eucharist. As the Last Hero is a kind of saviour figure, we have been tracking a fair amount of Christian imagery throughout these essays and I thought it was important to note its use here, given that the breaking event appears to be Stannis’ transformation into a Last Hero archetype. After all, once Stannis’ army is broken, Stannis then heads north to defend the Night’s Watch from the wildling invasion – suggesting that Stannis is now (at least in this part) fulfilling the archetypal role of the Last Hero, protecting the Wall from an invasion from the north. We also know that the breaking of a body is a euphemism for the greenseer transformation, most explicitly with Bran the broken – we covered more examples of physical disability as the “breaking” event in the previous essay. As such, the breaking of Stannis’ host could be an allusion to the symbolic “breaking” of his body and this could be acting as a code for his (at least partial) Last Hero transformation.

We also see that this symbolism can apply to broken men as individuals from armies, in addition to the broken armies as a whole:

After that, hardly a hundred yards went by without a corpse. They dangled under ash and alder, beech and birch, larch and elm, hoary old willows and stately chestnut trees. Each man wore a noose around his neck, and swung from a length of hempen rope, and each man’s mouth was packed with salt. Some wore cloaks of grey or blue or crimson, though rain and sun had faded them so badly that it was hard to tell one color from another. Others had badges sewn on their breasts. Brienne spied axes, arrows, several salmon, a pine tree, an oak leaf, beetles, bantams, a boar’s head, half a dozen tridents. Broken men, she realized, dregs from a dozen armies, the leavings of the lords.

Some of the dead men had been bald and some bearded, some young and some old, some short, some tall, some fat, some thin. Swollen in death, with faces gnawed and rotten, they all looked the same. On the gallows tree, all men are brothers. (AFFC, Brienne VII)

These men are called broken men and are clearly from multiple armies, given the variety of cloak colors and sigils. Importantly, as they have been hanged, these broken men have undergone a death transformation, which has been a consistent part of the motif we have explored so far. As has been explained elsewhere, death by hanging can be considered an allusion to greenseeing as it is an allusion to Odin hanging on Yggdrasil and greenseer symbolism frequently draws from this aspect of Norse myth. Indeed, these broken men share symbolism with Bloodraven, a literal greenseer, as both are depicted as corpses amongst the trees, again suggesting that these broken men are being depicted as symbolic greenseers.

Importantly, Brienne thinks that “on the gallows tree, all men are brothers” – one translation of Yggdrasil refers to this as the gallows horse, again referring to Odin hanging on Yggdrasil so this acts as another reference to greenseeing. More importantly, these men are referred to as brothers, which reminds us of the Brotherhood without Banners or the Kingswood Brotherhood. This suggests that these broken men are likely symbolic outlaws as well. Another brotherhood we’ve tied into the broken man motif is the Night’s Watch, who refer to the members of their organisation as brothers. Indeed, these broken men are described as “improved by death”

The sun will soon be setting, and corpses make poor company by night. These were dark and dangerous men, alive. I doubt that death will have improved them.

“There we disagree,” said Ser Hyle. “These are just the sort of fellows who are most improved by death.(AFFC, Brienne VII)

This quote has been used elsewhere to suggest that the improvement is likely a reference to the undead Night’s Watch – an implication that is supported by the sunset, i.e. the start of the (Long) night.

So, how exactly are these men improved by becoming corpses? This, I think, goes back to our discussion of ice-to-fire transformations, as we covered in the last essay. These men were hanged for their role in the raid on Saltpans, the description of which sounds like an archetypal Others attack: 

He [the Hound] was seen,” Ser Arwood said. “That helm of his is not easily mistaken, nor forgotten, and there were a few who survived to tell the tale. The girl he raped, some boys who hid, a woman we found trapped beneath a blackened beam, the fisherfolk who watched the butchery from their boats . . .”

“Do not call it butchery,” Lady Mariya said softly. “That gives insult to honest butchers everywhere. Saltpans was the work of some fell beast in human skin.” (AFFC, Jaime IV)

The word butchery is closely related to the actions of the Others (the killing of Ser Waymar Royce is called “cold butchery”, for instance). Moreover, “some fell beast in human skin” sounds a lot like human skinchanging. In fact, the blame falls on the Hound, but at this point of the story Brienne and company have been told that the Hound is dead. We know those facts aren’t true, but facts don’t matter in 2020 with symbolism. As such, this suggests that wighting a corpse is being symbolised, something that is most associated with the Others. We later learn that it is Rorge who is wearing the helm of the Hound, again suggesting this kind of wighting and therefore Others symbolism. It also suggests that Rorge is using “The Hound” or the image of the Hound as a scapegoat for his own crimes – as Bronsterys is alluding to in his excellent essay about the Others. In case that wasn’t enough Others symbolism, we know that Rorge and company are remnants of the Brave Companions, the sellsword company formerly led by Vargo Hoat. We have done a mini-dive into the Brave Companions with reference to their symbolism when they maimed Jaime, and again we found a ton of Others symbolism with the Brave Companions, such as the lazy slap imitating the lazy parry of the Others (AGOT Prologue) or the arakh “shivering” down to cut off Jaime’s hand. As such, it seems likely that the company as a whole may continue to have Others symbolism as they raid Saltpans.

Altogether, this suggests that these broken men acted like Others during the raid on Saltpans and became Last Hero archetypes, as symbolised by their hanging on the gallows tree. Importantly, with their faded cloaks of many colours and sigils from many houses, these broken men who are now symbolically Night’s Watch men are implied as deserters, which leads us on to our next section.

Jon Snow and the seventy-nine sentinels

We find that the Night’s Watch as an organisation is consistently associated with desertion. For instance, we see Gared executed for desertion in the very first main chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire:

The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. (AGOT, Bran I)

Given that desertion appears to be one aspect of the broken man motif, it seems important to note that the first deserter we hear of is a deserter from the Night’s Watch who faced the Others. Moreover, we are told time and time again that desertion from the Night’s Watch means death:

“In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile.” (AGOT, Bran I)

“You have learned the words of the vow. Think carefully before you say them, for once you have taken the black, there is no turning back. The penalty for desertion is death.(AGOT, Jon VI)

And how does Gared die? Well, he dies very much like a sacrifice to a tree:

Finally his lord father gave a command, and two of his guardsmen dragged the ragged man to the ironwood stump in the center of the square. They forced his head down onto the hard black wood.


His father took off the man’s head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched. (AGOT, Bran I)

This implies that deserters are sacrificed to the tree as a part of their punishment for desertion, with the blood presented as a sacrifice to the weirwood trees. Hey, doesn’t that sound a lot like our Last Hero’s death transformation? Like when Waymar Royce was killed in a grove of trees with blood in the snow (AGOT, Prologue)? And when Beric Dondarrion died in the trial by combat in a hollow hill with weirwood roots and the dirt drank his blood (ASOS, Arya VII)? And when the unnamed captive is sacrificed to the weirwood tree in Bran’s vision and Bran thinks he could taste the blood (ADWD, Bran III)? I think this shows that the execution of the deserter symbolises their return to (or transformation into) the Last Hero.

One of the more famous examples of Night’s Watch deserters is the story of the seventy-nine sentinels:

“There are ghosts here,” Bran said. Hodor had heard all the stories before, but Jojen might not have. “Old ghosts, from before the Old King, even before Aegon the Dragon, seventy-nine deserters who went south to be outlaws. One was Lord Ryswell’s youngest son, so when they reached the barrowlands they sought shelter at his castle, but Lord Ryswell took them captive and returned them to the Nightfort. The Lord Commander had holes hewn in the top of the Wall and he put the deserters in them and sealed them up alive in the ice. They have spears and horns and they all face north. The seventy-nine sentinels, they’re called. They left their posts in life, so in death their watch goes on forever. Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.” (ASOS, Bran IV)

These are Night’s Watch men who desert the Wall to go south, indicating that the motif of desertion is so important to the Watch symbolism that it gets its own mythology. These deserters end up in the barrowlands, which implies that these characters symbolically die when they go south – after all, the barrowlands are so named for the number of graves in the region, giving it huge symbolic underworld vibes. After this symbolic death, the deserters are returned to the Wall and literally are transformed into guards for the Night’s Watch forever. This fits with the idea of the undead Night’s Watch, that has been proposed elsewhere. They also get their own greenseer symbolism, being linked to ghosts and to sentinels i.e. sentinel trees. This suggests that their death transformation is also a symbolic greenseer transformation, which we have been tracking as a part of the broken series. 

Now, the eagle-eyed amongst you (like my good friend, Bronsterys, noted when he proof-read the essay) will have spotted that these Night’s Watch men are called outlaws when they go south. This isn’t quite in line with the outlaw symbolism we looked at earlier in the essay – after all, deserting the Watch is not a particularly Last Hero thing to do. I have some ideas as to why this may be, building on the idea of usurping or corrupting a protective force but those will take us on a very long tangent so we’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, I think the main take-home point is that the seventy-nine sentinels are deserters, who are returned to the Wall and act like undead greenseer Night’s Watch figures, just like our Last Hero.

Speaking of undead greenseer folks, Bloodraven is a greenseer who looks like a corpse:

Seated on his throne of roots in the great cavern, half-corpse and half-tree, Lord Brynden seemed less a man than some ghastly statue made of twisted wood, old bone, and rotted wool. The only thing that looked alive in the pale ruin that was his face was his one red eye, burning like the last coal in a dead fire, surrounded by twisted roots and tatters of leathery white skin hanging off a yellowed skull. (ADWD, Bran III)

This is important to mention here, because Bloodraven appears to be one of the few people aware of the imminent Long Night 2.0 and is working against that by working with Coldhands, the children of the forest and Bran. It’s important to mention Bloodraven here because he is a Night’s Watch deserter.

Bloodraven would rise to become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in 239 AC, serving until his disappearance during a ranging beyond the Wall in 252 AC. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon V)

This again pits a true Last Hero greenseer type figure, Bloodraven, as a Night’s Watch deserter.

This desertion symbolism is also reinforced by prime Last Hero figure Jon Snow, who just will not stop deserting. First, he starts to ride south to be with Robb in A Game of Thrones; then he joins the wildlings in Storm; and then he decides to march on Winterfell in Dance – and each of these desertions includes a symbolic breaking event. To date, two of three result in him returning to the Watch (I presume we’ll be three for three at some point in Winds or Dream, when we see the resolution of events after Jon’s death). 

We have already analysed one of Jon’s breaking events; that of Jon’s thigh wound:

Long hours later, the rain stopped. Jon found himself alone in a sea of tall black grass. There was a deep throbbing ache in his right thigh. When he looked down, he was surprised to see an arrow jutting out the back of it. When did that happen?  (ASOS, Jon V)

In the previous essay, we noted that this was a symbolic castration as per the Fisher King mythology, with the Fisher King receiving a thigh wound as a santised symbol of their castration. As you may recall, the Fisher King mythology appears to be a piece of real-world mythology being utilised as a part of the greenseer collection of symbols. This arrow wound to the thigh therefore suggests that Jon has acquired some greenseer symbolism here as a part of his symbolic Last Hero transformation.

More importantly for our essay, Jon acquires this wound when deciding to return to the Watch, after playing the deserter with the wildlings:

“You’ve been charged with oathbreaking, cowardice, and desertion, Jon Snow. Do you deny that you abandoned your brothers to die on the Fist of the First Men and joined the wildling Mance Rayder, this self-styled King-beyond-the-Wall?” (ASOS, Jon IX)

As has been noted elsewhere, the wildlings frequently symbolise the Others  and, as such, Jon’s fake desertion from the Watch is a symbolic transformation into an Other. His return to the Watch is therefore his transformation (back?) into the Last Hero archetype, and is accompanied by the breaking event, i.e. his symbolic castration. As you may recall from the last essay, the healing of Jon’s symbolic castration is described in language a lot like the forging of Lightbringer, suggesting some Azor Ahai-as-hero vibes. In addition, Aemon defends Jon by saying he took the Wall, and held it, against all the fury of the north (ASOS, Jon IX), which again sounds like a very Last Hero thing to do. Altogether then, this faux-desertion and real-return to the Watch is very reminiscent of the seventy-nine sentinels who, upon being returned to the Wall, symbolically become the very best Night’s Watch men – eternally guarding the Walls, facing North to defend the Wall.

Similarly, although we haven’t seen the full ramifications of this play out yet, Jon Snow was all set to desert at the end of his final ADWD chapter:

Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. The Night’s Watch takes no part. He closed his fist and opened it again. What you propose is nothing less than treason. 


“No. I ride south.


“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words … but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.

“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless …” Jon paused. “… is there any man here who will come stand with me?” (ADWD, Jon XII)

As a result of his desertion (in word if not yet in deed), Jon is killed by his own men at the Wall. Importantly, the very first wound is a neck wound, very much like a sacrifice – for instance, the sacrifice of animals as a part of real-world religious rituals – and occurs just after Jon Snow, the Lord Commander, thinks that he needs a horn. The sacrificed horned lord imagery depicted here is a huge part of A Song of Ice and Fire symbolism, and so it seems very important to note that this imagery appears right as our traditional Last Hero figure forswears their vows. To me, it seems highly reminiscent of Gared, the deserter executed on the stump of a tree which then drank his blood – again, we’re seeing similar death and sacrifice imagery around the deserters.

The last Jon Snow desertion we’ll cover today (although the first chronologically) occurs in A Game of Thrones, Jon IX, shortly after Ned’s execution and it’s a doozy so we’ll be covering it in a lot of detail. (Huge thanks to Bronsterys for pointing this chapter out to me!!)

We start the chapter with one of the clearest symbols of the Long Night:

Wind whispered through the stable, a cold dead breath on his face, but Jon paid it no mind. (AGOT, Jon IX)

The “cold winds” are a clear indication of the Others, as is mentioned in the common phrase “the cold winds are rising” alluding to the return of the Others. Moreover, the Others are depicted as being the avatars of death in a sense, as the antithesis to the warmth of life (ACOK, Jon VII). This should therefore give us a clue that much of what is happening in this chapter pertains to symbolism surrounding the Long Night.

The first thing that happens is that deserter, Jon Snow, rides down Sam Tarly:

For an instant Sam stood his ground, his face as round and pale as the moon behind him, his mouth a widening O of surprise. At the last moment, when they were almost on him, he jumped aside as Jon had known he would, stumbled, and fell. The mare leapt over him, out into the night. (AGOT, Jon IX)

Sam accrues some hella Last Hero vibes during the series, like being the only member of the Night’s Watch to kill an Other and being the last of 13 to arrive back from Craster’s Keep, reminding us of the Last Hero and his twelve companions. Moreover, Jon thinks soon after that Sam may have broken his wrist in the fall:

He hoped Sam hadn’t hurt himself, falling like that. He was so heavy and so ungainly, it would be just like him to break a wrist or twist his ankle getting out of the way. (AGOT, Jon IX)

This suggests that Sam is acting like the Night’s Watch/Last Hero figure, as he is being broken by Jon (yes, this does place Jon as an archetypal Other/Night’s King character in this particular exchange). In addition, Sam is described as a moon figure here (“his face as round and pale as the moon behind him”), so Jon thinking that Sam may have broken his wrist makes Sam a symbolic broken moon, a huge signifier of Long Night symbolism.

As Jon rides south, he muses on the potential consequences of his actions and, as with any deserter from the Night’s Watch, he thinks that he will die:

He was clad in black from head to heel […] Any bit of it could mean his death if he were taken. (AGOT, Jon IX)

He found himself thinking of the deserter his father had beheaded the day they’d found the direwolves. “You said the words,” Lord Eddard had told him. “You took a vow, before your brothers, before the old gods and the new.” Desmond and Fat Tom had dragged the man to the stump. Bran’s eyes had been wide as saucers, and Jon had to remind him to keep his pony in hand. He remembered the look on Father’s face when Theon Greyjoy brought forth Ice, the spray of blood on the snow, the way Theon had kicked the head when it came rolling at his feet. (AGOT Jon IX)

This symbolically reminds us of the sacrificial imagery around Gared’s execution. As such, we can see that Jon (kind of) symbolically died the moment he chose to desert the Watch. Importantly, Jon thinks he would prefer not to die “trussed and bound and beheaded like a common brigand” – again, this ties the deserter imagery to the outlaw imagery, and thus to the “cripples, bastards and broken things” motif as we have seen throughout this essay so far.

Unsurprisingly (if you’ve read been reading any of the broken essays), we also see a ton of greenseer imagery. For starters, Jon has Ghost the wolf with him throughout this scene, who has white fur and red eyes exactly like a weirwood tree, and whose name appears to be a symbolic reference to greenseers. In another example, Jon takes a break from his ride to sit under a tree and eat an apple:

Jon sat under the trees and ate his biscuit and cheese while his mare grazed along the kingsroad. He kept the apple for last. It had gone a little soft, but the flesh was still tart and juicy. He was down to the core when he heard the sounds: horses, and from the north. (AGOT, Jon IX)

As has been outlined in this Twitter thread, people sitting under trees frequently appears to be a greenseer reference. We saw one example of this in the previous essay, when Lommy Greenhands was sat underneath the oak tree with a leg wound and killed, very much like a sacrifice to the tree. More obviously, Bloodraven, an actual literal greenseer, sits underneath a weirwood tree entangled in its roots, so Jon sitting under the tree would appear to be a representation of him symbolically becoming a greenseer. Importantly, Jon sits under the tree to eat an apple, which is likely a reference to the Garden of Eden myth – the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is often depicted as an apple, thus associating apples with the fire of the gods (aka the knowledge and power of the gods). In A Song of Ice and Fire, the knowledge and power of the gods is greenseeing and is acquired by eating the seeds of the weirwood tree (and potentially a good friend *coughJojenPastecough*, but that bit is less important here). As such, symbolically, Jon sitting beneath a tree and eating an apple can be considered as him becoming a greenseer.

Similarly, Jon uses the trees to hide himself from his black brother friends who’ve come to find him:

He led the mare off the road, behind a thick stand of grey-green sentinels. “Quiet now,” he said in a hushed voice, crouching down to peer through the branches. (AGOT, Jon IX)

Jon is hiding behind some sentinel trees, reminding us of the seventy-nine sentinels who deserted from the Nightfort, and he is peering through the branches, which sounds like he is using the tree to see, again providing us with some of those greenseer vibes. 

Despite his best efforts, Jon’s friends find him (thanks in no small part to Ghost having none of Jon’s shit). This leads to a confrontation between Jon and his friends, where we get this interesting description:

“Stay back,” Jon warned him, brandishing his sword. “I mean it, Pyp.” They weren’t even wearing armor, he could cut them to pieces if he had to. (AGOT, Jon IX)

As Bronsterys has brilliantly described in this essay, the lack of armour is a clear Last Hero reference. Again, we can see this as Jon-Night’s King confronting a group of Night’s Watch-Last Hero figures – unlike the start of this chapter, where Jon-Night’s King rides down Sam-Last Hero, the Last Hero figures manage to surround and subdue Jon. They do this by reciting the vows of the Night’s Watch at Jon, which is kind of like they are re-inducting him to the order. I noted in the previous essay that broken oaths and broken words  At the end of the passage, Ghost emerges:

Ghost moved out from under the trees and Jon glared at him. “Small help you were,” he said. The deep red eyes looked at him knowingly. (AGOT, Jon IX)

While there is not a literal weirwood tree for Jon to say his oath to, Ghost symbolically acts like the weirwood tree, via his coloring, his name and his appearance from “under the trees”. This “re-induction” is a lot like what we see with the seventy-nine sentinels, who are returned to the Wall and become eternal watchmen, buried in the ice, and suggests that Jon is (for the time being) an archetypal Last Hero figure. This is in line with the Other-to-Last Hero transformation which we saw in the previous essay.

Honor is another point of comparison between the seventy nine sentinels and Jon’s desertion in this chapter:

The Old Bear snorted. “Do you think they chose me Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch because I’m dumb as a stump, Snow? Aemon told me you’d go. I told him you’d be back. I know my men … and my boys too. Honor set you on the kingsroad … and honor brought you back.”

My friends brought me back, Jon said.

Did I say it was your honor?” (AGOT, Jon IX)

“Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.” (ASOS, Bran IV)

Here, we see that honour returns the deserters to the Night’s Watch but, importantly, it is someone else’s honour; Jon’s friends’ honour in the first case and Lord Ryswell’s honour in the second. Indeed, throughout this chapter, Jon is obsessed with his honour, and doing the honourable thing, and leaving Longclaw behind because he isn’t “lost to honour” and trying to work out whether Aemon’s choice to stay at the Wall in the face of the complete destruction of his family was honourable. It’s almost like honour is a theme George is exploring or something. I don’t have any firm conclusions on honour symbolism as yet (it’s on the very long to-do list), but I wanted to note that the Night’s Watch pledge their life and honour to the Night’s Watch, and Qhorin tells Jon that our honor means no more than our lives, so long as the realm is safe (ACOK, Jon VIII). In context, this is Qhorin telling Jon to fake his desertion to the wildlings, meaning that Jon will be considered as a traitor and an oathbreaker by many, thus sacrificing his honour by all appearances (even though he’s actually keeping his vows). In contrast, Jon as intended true deserter here (and thus symbolic Night’s King) is obsessed with keeping his honour, even as the acts he engages in are dishonourable. Again, it seems like we could be dealing with that same paradoxical symbolism we have seen throughout these essays – the breaking event is also the (re-)forging event; the outlaws dispense justice, while the lawful rulers act unjustly (link section); the Night’s Watch men most willing to sacrifice the outward appearance of their own honour are actually the most honorable (side eyes Jaime, the sometime Last Hero with “shit for honour”).

Altogether, this would appear to depict Jon Snow deserting the Watch at the start of the (Long) night, in a kind of Night’s King transformation, and then being transformed into the Last Hero at the end of the (Long) night. This is exactly the kind of ice-to-fire transformation we discussed in the previous essay. This is reinforced by the language around dawn:

When day broke, Jon walked to the kitchens as he did every dawn. (AGOT, Jon IX)

Importantly, we see daybreak. As we discussed in the broken swords essay, the sword Dawn does not break in the duel between Ser Arthur Dayne (symbolic Other) and the Smiling Knight (symbolic Last Hero), which we interpreted as a metaphor for the Long Night – the night is long because dawn never breaks. So Jon’s return to the Wall being accompanied with daybreak would, symbolically, appear to be a good sign. Indeed, after a brief chat with Jeor Mormont, Jon re-affirms his commitment to the Watch because he is reminded of the wights and the true war:

The cold winds are rising, Snow. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen.” 

[…] “When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”

[…] “All I know is that the blood of the First Men flows in the veins of the Starks. The First Men built the Wall, and it’s said they remember things otherwise forgotten. And that beast of yours … he led us to the wights, warned you of the dead man on the steps. Ser Jaremy would doubtless call that happenstance, yet Ser Jaremy is dead and I’m not.” 

[…] “So I will have an answer from you, Lord Snow, and I will have it now. Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or only a bastard boy who wants to play at war?”

Jon Snow straightened himself and took a long deep breath. Forgive me, Father. Robb, Arya, Bran … forgive me, I cannot help you. He has the truth of it. This is my place.I am … yours, my lord. Your man. I swear it. I will not run again.” (AGOT, Jon IX)

This again reinforces the idea of Jon as an archetypal Last Hero, heading north into the deadlands to face the Others. 

And it wouldn’t be a good chapter of Long Night symbolism without an allusion to Lightbringer, of course:

“Your brother is in the field with all the power of the north behind him. Any one of his lords bannermen commands more swords than you’ll find in all the Night’s Watch. Why do you imagine that they need your help? Are you such a mighty warrior, or do you carry a grumkin in your pocket to magic up your sword?” (AGOT, Jon IX)

The term “magic sword” is used almost exclusively to refer to Stannis’ Lightbringer or the myth of Lightbringer’s forging, so Jon having a grumkin in his pocket to “magic up his sword” is likely an allusion to Lightbringer.

So, I think that about does it for Jon’s desertions, and I think this demonstrates that a core part of the archetypal Last Hero’s transformation is that they are a deserter at some point, and their return to the Wall sees them executed (or symbolically sacrificed) to turn them into the best defense against the Others

And now, it’s the broken man moment we’ve all been waiting for…

And the man breaks…

The arch-desertion story is Septon Meribald’s broken man speech (and S/O to the fabulous Scad for his performance of this speech at Ice and Fire Con a few years ago). As you may recall the prelude to this speech is another reference equating outlaws and broken men:

“Lord Randyll has better ways to deal with broken mensteel and hempen rope.”

“Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. Is a broken man an outlaw?”

“More or less,” Brienne answered. (AFFC, Brienne V)

Again, we see this link between broken men and outlaws, with the death-by-hanging greenseer metaphor as a core part of the cripples, bastards and broken men motif. This segues into Septon Meribald’s description of broken men, which I just cannot cut:

Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.

“Then they get a taste of battle.

“For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.

“They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now.”(AFFC, Brienne V)

We see that the smallfolk being mentioned by Septon Meribald are very much like green boys when they begin the war; notably, they begin the war by seeking “glory”. This should give us an early heads-up that the man before he breaks does not fit into the Night’s Watch/Last Hero archetype, as the Night’s Watch specifically swear to “win no glory”. Importantly, the men who have tasted battle and not broken also have subtle Other or ice-wight symbolism – they are described as “Others [who] go on for years” and serve “some other lord”, which seems like it could be another “other”/Others double entendre. This symbolism would seem to be reinforced by the “fathers los[ing] their sons”, which is very reminiscent of Craster sacrificing his sons to the Others. Sons dying before fathers would also seem to imply an upturning of the natural order of the world, which is a motif that recurs a lot around symbolic Long Night events.

The pre-broken men also appear to engage in acts that seem very similar to the raid on Saltpans:

“If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too.” (AFFC, Brienne V)

Again, we see the Others symbolism here in the slaughtering of sheep again reminds us of Craster, sacrificing his sheep to the Others once he has run out of sons. In addition, these pre-broken men carry off daughters, which is a signature move of the wildling raiders, who frequently appear to represent the Others themselves. I’m sure some of you are pointing out the apparently contradictory thief symbolism here – these pre-broken men that I’m pitching as Others are stealing, but I previously indicated that was a Last Hero thing (link section). However, I think there is an important distinction here: these pre-broken men are stealing from the smallfolk, which is the opposite of Robin Hood-esque outlaws stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Septon Meribald and Co (part of Jaime and Brienne AFFC) by pojypojy (retrieved from A Wiki of Ice and Fire, 6 May 2020)

And then we get the all-important breaking event:

“And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . .

“And the man breaks.” (AFFC, Brienne V)

The knights themselves are the ones who cause the man to break, and they have a ton of Others symbolism which has been described by Bronsterys: they are knights, charging forward, heavily armoured and so on. As we have discussed in a couple of places so far in this series, the Others figure appears to be the one who breaks the sword, so it seems fitting that the Others archetype is the one who breaks the man.

He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.” (AFFC, Brienne V)

The broken man is depicted here as a deserter and a coward, motifs that both appear to be related to the Night’s Watch and Last Hero archetype – I have a number of ideas about cowardice and bravery as it pertains to the Last Hero and Others, but those will take some extra essays to explain, so I’m afraid you’ll have to take me on trust here. Importantly, after the breaking event, the broken man lives “more beast than man”, which is suggestive of a skinchanger and potentially a symbolic second life within their animal. This is likely to parallel Jon Snow’s death at the hands of the Night’s Watch, one of Jon’s breaking events. In addition, the broken man forgets about his home, which appears to parallel the resurrected Beric Dondarrion’s loss of memory:

“Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair.” (ASOS, Arya VII)

Returning to Septon Meribald’s speech, we then learn that he speaks so powerfully and eloquently of broken men because he fought in the War of the Ninepenny Kings and likely was a broken man himself:

“The War of the Ninepenny Kings?” asked Hyle Hunt.

“So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny. It was a war, though. That it was.” (AFFC, Brienne V)

*shiver* ooh, I get chills every time, it’s so good.

Anyway, with the idea of Septon Meribald as a broken man, we can use what we know of the rest of his life to work out more about the Last Hero motif. Notably, Septon Meribald is a lone wanderer with animal companions (his donkey and his dog), which sounds a lot like a skinchanger type – the Last Hero of course setting out in his travels with his dozen companions, his horse and his dog. It is also highly reminiscent of Coldhands (an undead Night’s Watch man and probable skinchanger), wandering alone north of the Wall with his elk and ravens as companions. Septon Meribald indicates that his wandering is a penance for his sins earlier in life, reminding us of the Night’s Watch’s purpose as a penal colony and the truest of the Night’s Watch characters (symbolically) being those who were punished for desertion. Moreover, when Septon Meribald and company encounter the Brotherhood without Banners, Septon Meribald is allowed to travel onwards in his circuit of the Riverlands, which suggests (at least symbolically) a level of collaboration between the Brotherhood and the septon. Given the seemingly never-ending connections between the Brotherhood without Banners and the cripples, bastards and broken things motif, this symbolism may also transfer onto Septon Meribald, himself a likely broken man. It also ties the outlaws to the broken man motif once more, in case you hadn’t .

Overall, Septon Meribald and the broken man speech appears to show, quite clearly, a transformation process – from naïve green boy, to an Other soldier, and then the breaking event catalysing the Last Hero transformation. 

As we covered in the last essay, the Last Hero appears to have come from the Others and symbolically is a broken man, as we covered in the last essay. Septon Meribald’s speech gives us a clear indication of one of the Last Hero’s breaking events – they deserted the Others.


Wow, I feel like we have covered a lot in this essay, so let’s recap.

We started off by discussing the Brotherhood without Banners and the Kingswood Brotherhood, and worked out that the outlaw motif is connected to the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. In turn, we (re-)discovered that the outlaws are connected to the Night’s Watch and Last Hero archetype, via the many references to greenseeing and death/resurrection. We also noted that there are many parallels between the legends of Robin Hood and some of the patterns we’re seeing around our outlaw Last Hero archetypes. 

We saw that many of the “outlaws and broken men” quotes refer to defeated armies or deserters. With that in mind, we found that the Night’s Watch as an organisation is renowned for desertion, given that we are introduced to a deserter of the Night’s Watch in the first main chapter of the series and we see Jon Snow deserting constantly. Importantly, the execution of the Night’s Watch men often represent a symbolic sacrifice and a transformation into the Last Hero, as is demonstrated by the execution of Gared and the seventy-nine sentinels.

This led to our discussion of the broken man speech from Septon Meribald, which recounts the hypothetical smallfolk deserting their armies. In this speech, we see a clear transformation into an Other-like ravenous figure of destruction, the breaking event and the transformation in to the Last Hero archetype.

Together, the analysis of Jon Snow’s desertions, the seventy-nine sentinels and the broken man speech suggests another way that the Last Hero could have broken – the Last Hero may have deserted from the Others.

So where to next?

I think this essay has opened up a couple of avenues of research within the Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things series. Firstly, the outlaws and desertion motifs introduces the idea that turncloaks, traitors and rebels may also be involved in this constellation of symbolism – think here of Theon Turncloak, or the outlaw groups and Night’s Watch men being accused of being traitors and rebels. Secondly, this suggests that oathbreakers and broken words may be closely tied to this symbolism – Jon stands accused of oathbreaking, for instance, and we saw last time that oathbreaking is very associated with Jaime. I’m not sure which of these analyses I’ll do first, but they’re coming (hopefully) soon.

In addition, I want to compare bravery and cowardice in the series, as I believe there is some of that great paradoxical Others/Last Hero symbolism buried in there. I might use what we’ve learned about the Brave Companions over the past couple of essays to dive a little bit into that and take a break (lol) from some of this broken symbolism.

Thanks as always for your time in reading this essay! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this essay – you can add a comment on the essay below, or say hi to me over on Twitter @elsmith1994. If you enjoyed this essay and would like to check out more like it, a list of my essays can be found here and my good friend, Bronsterys, has some amazing essays which can be found here.

See you soon and continue supporting Black Lives Matter!

Archmaester Emma x


Broken Swords

“The bleeding star bespoke the end […] These are the last days, when the world shall be broken and remade. A new god shall be born from the graves and charnel pits.” (TWOW, The Forsaken)

Hello everyone, and welcome once again to the Red Mice At Play blog, where we dissect the symbolism of A Song of Ice and Fire. I know I haven’t written much recently, but I hope my  Game of Thrones content (here and here) provided something of an oasis in this drought of writer’s block I’m having.

Since the show season, I have become really interested in some symbolism other than fire stuff: in particular, the motif of the broken sword. Indeed, that has led me to some (in my opinion) rather interesting parallels, some slightly paradoxical fun and has birthed a new series – Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things. NB: I may mention some spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 in this series, but I’ll try to keep those for the very end of each essay and will give a heads-up before I start going into all of that to those of you who are trying to avoid spoilers – you venture into the comments at your own risk! Oh, and there are some bloody long quotes in this essay, so… yeah… sorry about that…

Before we dive in, the usual thanks to George RR Martin for creating this world which we so adore, to all of the myth and symbolism friends I’ve made on the Twitteros and to you, dear reader, for choosing to read this analysis by lil’ ol’ me.


The Sword that was Broken
The (Last) Hero’s Sword
The Sword in the Stone Tree
The Sword Without a Hilt
The Sword that was Not Broken

The Sword that was Broken

Before we begin with the ASOIAF analysis proper, we should explore a few examples of the motif of broken sword as it appears in real world mythology and legend. Indeed, the broken sword is a motif that appears quite frequently, so I’ll pick a few of the more pertinent examples. In Arthurian legend, for instance, Arthur breaks the Sword from the Stone in combat and is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake to replace the broken sword. (Obviously, there are many different versions of this tale, it is Arthurian legend after all, but I believe this version is from Morte D’Arthur so it’s a pretty prominent one.) 

In a similar fashion, Norse mythology tells the tale of the sword, Gram. Odin thrusts the sword into the Barnstokkr tree and challenges men to pull the sword from the tree; most fail until Sigmund, who receives the sword as a gift having pulled it from the tree successfully. Then, after many vengeful hijinks with his son (who incidentally is also his nephew because incest isn’t just for ASOIAF), Sigmund ends up battling a disguised Odin, who breaks Gram. The pieces of the sword are saved for another of Sigmund’s sons, Sigurd. Once Sigurd is all growed up, a dwarven smith asks him to slay the dragon, Fafnir, and Sigurd agrees – on the condition that the smith forges him a mighty sword to kill the dragon. And so, Gram is reforged, notably on the third attempt to forge the mighty sword (*cough* Lightbringer *cough*).

Sigurd and Gram, Bengt A Lundberg / Riksantikvarieämbetet (CC-BY 2.5  )

This trope was picked up on by Tolkien, which Blue Tiger has expounded upon at length here. The most obvious broken sword in Lord of the Rings is Narsil, which broke in battle against Sauron and the broken shards were then used by Isildur to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. The shards of Narsil were then retrieved from the battlefield and kept until such a time as Isildur’s heir could wield them. Eventually, Narsil was reforged into Andúril and wielded by Aragorn in the battles against Sauron’s minions in the Lord of the Rings. That probably sounds awfully similar to the story of Gram, which is no surprise given the well-documented influence of Norse and other Germanic/Scandinavian mythology on Tolkien.

In each of these cases, a broken sword is replaced, typically reforged, into an even more magical sword whose bearer goes on to do great deeds, and there is evidence that GRRM may be playing with this motif in A Song of Ice and Fire. Crowfood’s Daughter has an excellent video on this motif, in which she discusses the broken sword as one of the many symbolic markers of Azor Ahai. You should definitely check this out (as well as subscribing to her awesome channel) because it is superb analysis, but I’ll just pull a couple of examples from her video that demonstrate how closely the broken sword is tied to the Azor Ahai saviour figure. 

Firstly, we have the tale of the Last Hero, the guy who fought the Others and won (eventually, we assume). Here he is, wandering the hinterlands, searching for the children of the forest:

“Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—” (AGOT, Bran IV)

Check one for the hero’s broken sword. Similarly, we see that Azor Ahai himself is associated with multiple broken swords before he forges Lightbringer on the third attempt:

“And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fires. Heat and hammer and fold, heat and hammer and fold, oh, yes, until the sword was done. Yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder. … Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it through the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered and split. Great was his woe and great was his sorrow then, for he knew what he must do.

“A hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his wife. ‘Nissa Nissa,’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.’ She did this thing, why I cannot say, and Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes.” (ACOK, Davos I)

Another key example that we’ll be returning to throughout this essay is from the Prologue of A Game of Thrones:

The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.

Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.

The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope.

Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy.

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles.

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. (AGOT, Prologue)

This duel between the Others and the Night’s Watch offers a clear parallel to the Last Hero which we’ll explore in more detail later, so it’s quite telling that we also get a broken sword in this passage – and to open the books, no less. As such, it seems like George RR Martin may be playing with this mythological/fantasy trope in a few places. 

However, in each of these examples from A Song of Ice and Fire, we don’t really see the re-forging of these particular broken swords. Contrast that with the new sword given to King Arthur, or the reforging of Gram and Narsil into the hero’s swords and it indicates that we should see reforged swords somewhere in A Song of Ice and Fire.

In fact, we do. One such example is Ice: by splitting Ice into two swords, Tywin has created a broken sword in a sense; however, in being broken, the steel was also re-forged into Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper. This is a clear example of the broken and reforged sword motif, but with a twist: the event that breaks the sword is also the event in which it is forged. Yay for paradox fun! These broken/re-forged swords are then bestowed on Jaime Lannister and King Joffrey Baratheon – keep that in mind for later.

We also see this somewhat paradoxical duality in the Battle of the Redgrass Field – this sounds odd but bear with me. For those of you less familiar with the Blackfyre Rebellions, this was a civil war between Aegon IV’s (supposedly) legitimate son, Daeron II Targaryen, and his bastard son, Daemon. When Aegon IV issued his deathbed decree legitimising all of his bastards, Daemon Waters chose a new house name derived from the Targaryen sword he had been given: Blackfyre. As such, Daemon’s forces and the Blackfyre rebels generally can be symbolically considered as a sword. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that in the decisive final battle of the First Blackfyre Rebellion, the Battle of the Redgrass Field, the Blackfyres were defeated by a pincer movement called “the hammer and anvil”. To say that another way, the Blackfyre army was broken by the hammer and the anvil. Given the sword symbolism behind the surname, this implies a sword broken by a hammer and anvil, the very items that are supposed to forge it – the breaking event as the forging event.

Daemon Blackfyre
The King Who Bore The Sword by naomimakesart

This may sound convoluted, but exactly the same type of imagery is also employed elsewhere in the series. The following quote from A Storm of Swords is during the battle at the Wall, in which the defenders of Castle Black are desperately trying to fortify the southern side of the castle against the wildling raiders Jon crossed with: 

Only now those foes have gotten past the Wall to come up from the south, Jon reflected, and the lords and kings of the Seven Kingdoms have forgotten us. We are caught between the hammer and the anvil. (ASOS, Jon VII)

Here, Jon is musing on the dire situation of the Night’s Watch, aka “the swords in the darkness”, and again we see the implication that swords are being broken by the very items that should forge them – the hammer (the wildling raiders to the south) and the anvil (the Wall/the massive wildling army to the north). The breaking/forging event itself doesn’t actually happen thanks to some ingenuity from the defenders and, eventually, the arrival of the One True King Stannis Baratheon, First of His Name, titles titles – nevertheless, the presence of this musing injects the broken/forged sword symbolism into this scene.

We see another load of broken swords in King’s Landing:

When the ashes had cooled enough to allow men to enter the castle safely, the swords of the fallen, many shattered or melted or twisted into ribbons of steel by dragonfire, were gathered up and sent back to the Aegonfort in wagons. (TWOIAF, The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest)

King Joffrey leaned forward, hands grasping the arms of the throne. Broken sword points fanned out between his fingers. (AGOT, Sansa V)

Here the broken swords are reforged into the Iron Throne, one of the more obvious symbols of kingship in A Song of Ice and Fire. Indeed, a few of the above examples carry this kingly symbolism: the Battle of Redgrass Field decided whether the Blackfyres or the Targaryens would be king, and Widow’s Wail is delivered to Joffrey with Kevan Lannister calling it “a king’s sword” and Tywin stating “a king should bear a kingly weapon”. This ties the idea of the broken and reforged sword together with legitimising the monarchy, which invokes similar ideas in other fantasy, namely Narsil being reforged into Andúril in Lord of the Rings. 

Another hugely important motif associated with the broken and reforged sword is that of heroism. We see this in the legend of King Arthur, the man who will supposedly save England when she is in dire need, and in the legend of Sigurd, who uses the reforged Gram to kill the dragon Fafnir. We haven’t really touched on this aspect in A Song of Ice and Fire, but before we do, this probably calls for a section break.

The (Last) Hero’s Sword

Earlier in the essay, I pulled a couple of quotes which showed the Last Hero and Azor Ahai both associated with broken swords. While we mentioned these quotes briefly earlier, I’ve pulled everything related to the Last Hero, for context and as a little refresher before we dive into other analyses:

“Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—” (AGOT, Bran IV)

“Well,” said Yoren, “maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Good men have gone into those woods before, and never come out.”

All Bran could think of was Old Nan’s story of the Others and the last hero, hounded through the white woods by dead men and spiders big as hounds. He was afraid for a moment, until he remembered how that story ended. “The children will help him,” he blurted, “the children of the forest!” (AGOT, Bran IV)

How the Long Night came to an end is a matter of legend, as all such matters of the distant past have become. In the North, they tell of a last hero who sought out the intercession of the children of the forest, his companions abandoning him or dying one by one as they faced ravenous giants, cold servants, and the Others themselves. Alone he finally reached the children, despite the efforts of the white walkers, and all the tales agree this was a turning point. Thanks to the children, the first men of the Night’s Watch banded together and were able to fight—and win—the Battle for the Dawn: the last battle that broke the endless winter and sent the Others fleeing to the icy north. (TWOIAF, Ancient History: The Long Night)

White Walkers by moni158

In the Prologue of A Game of Thrones, we see a number of similarities to this tale. Firstly, we see men of the Night’s Watch ranging north of the Wall:

The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness that the southron called the haunted forest had no more terrors for him.

Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of Wildling raiders. Each day had been worse than the day that had come before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. (AGOT, Prologue)

The haunted forest north of the Wall evokes strong dead lands vibe, not least because it is… well, haunted and full of the undead. Besides those more literal examples of the dead lands, we see that the rangers have been riding for nine days; this is reminiscent of the nine days that Hesiod says it would take for a bronze anvil (ahem) to drop from earth to Tartarus, a place in Hades reserved for those who sinned against the gods. If this is the case, this could be another reference to the dead lands, given that this imagery evokes the Underworld itself, in addition to potentially introducing some hammer/anvil forgery symbolism. We also see that the forest is described as an “endless dark wilderness” which leapt out to me as a sly Long Night reference – the Last Hero wandering the dead lands in the endless dark, anyone?

Moreover, Will’s statement that “something were watching him” would seem to suggest that the Others are hunting the rangers through the forest. It has been suggested that the scenario had been engineered by the Others themselves in order to catch Waymar Royce, who they may believe to be a Last Hero type. This would line up with the tale of the Last Hero, as the Last Hero and companions were hunted through the dead lands by the Others.

While the Night’s Watch men have not literally set out in search of the children of the forest and magic, they are on a quest north of the Wall “where the children went, and the giants, and the other old races”, as Osha tells Bran later in the book. In essence, the rangers have symbolically entered the magical realm and they find magical beings when they’re there – the Other old races. *cough*

Taking all of this imagery together, we can see some really strong parallels to the tale of the Last Hero immediately set up in a couple of paragraphs; we have the Night’s Watch on a quest in a magical land of the undead, in the endless dark, hunted by the Others. While the tale of the Last Hero kind of stops there, missing out on all of the helpful information about actually stopping the Long Night, I think that the strong initial parallels suggest that the rest of the Prologue could tell us a lot about what happens next.

And what happens next is the appearance of the Others and the duel itself. Notably, the sounds of the duel are described throughout as screaming:

The pale sword came shivering through the air.

Ser Waymar met it with steel. When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal; only a high, thin sound at the edge of hearing, like an animal screaming in pain. …

Again and again the swords met, until Will wanted to cover his ears against the strange anguished keening of their clash. …

Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy.

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. (AGOT, Prologue)

Here, we have a frost-covered sword breaking with a scream. This is highly evocative of another broken sword we discussed earlier: Widow’s Wail, forged from breaking of Ice. Screaming frost-covered broken sword and an Ice-y Widow’s Wail, geddit? “HAR!” as Tormund would say. This imagery also evokes the forging of Lightbringer, with the “anguished keening” evoking Nissa Nissa’s cry of “anguish” and ecstasy (for what it’s worth, so does the name of the broken/reforged sword, Widow’s Wail). It also seems notable that King Robert’s name is invoked right before the sword breaks – this may symbolise Waymar Royce as a king’s man and thus be a circumspect way of him acquiring king symbolism by proxy, just in time for him to acquire the symbol of a broken sword.

Interestingly, we also get some religious imagery running throughout the chapter:

[Will] went to the tree, a vaulting grey-green sentinel, and began to climb. Soon his hands were sticky with sap, and he was lost among the needles. Fear filled his gut like a meal he could not digest. He whispered a prayer to the nameless gods of the wood, and slipped his dirk free of its sheath. (AGOT, Prologue)

While in the tree, Will prays to the gods, almost like he is calling the gods to watch over the duel like we see in trial by combat. This religious imagery is then continued throughout the chapter. One involves Will praying again when Waymar is resurrected, which I think is pretty understandable by anyone’s measure. The other instance occurs during the duel itself:

Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red. (AGOT, Prologue)

This side wound could be an allusion to the fifth of the Holy Wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, when Jesus was pierced in his side by a lance or spear (supposedly the Lance of Longinus) to ascertain whether he was dead. Given the strong parallels between Ser Waymar in this scene and the tale of the Last Hero (the saviour of mankind, according to northern legend), it would make sense to give Waymar some symbolism related to Christ.

In addition to the side wound, Waymar also acquires an eye wound as the sword breaks:

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye(AGOT, Prologue)

This is highly reminiscent of Odin, who sacrifices his eye in order to gain wisdom of Mimir’s well. In fact, the side wound could also be an allusion to Odin: in another tale, Odin pierces himself with a spear to hang on the famous world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, in order to spy some magical runes in another well. In line with the mystical powers that Odin acquires and the Christ symbolism of the Prologue so far, Waymar is magically resurrected in defiance of mortal existence. This indicates some kind of magical transcendence through sacrifice, as though Waymar has acquired the fire of the gods, that is, the knowledge and power of the gods – immortality. That the broken sword symbol is tied to this sacrificial imagery – i.e. by causing the eye wound – means that we could interpret the broken sword as a symbol of acquiring mystical knowledge or the fire of the gods.

Dance with me then by sanrixian (available to pre-order here)

We’ll explore this idea a little more in a moment, but it’s important to note that this rather extravagant collection of symbolism is not limited to the Prologue of A Game of Thrones. In fact, we see many shared symbols of this with the duel between Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane. Firstly, we see very similar Underworld imagery:

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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Here, we are literally underground, a chthonic space which invokes the idea of the dead, especially with the maggot like description of the weirwood trees. Moreover, it is described as a “hollow hill”, the mystical places that are heavily associated with the children of the forest, as described in Wizz-the-Smith’s excellent essay – much like the Night’s Watch men ending up north of the Wall, “where all the old stories came rushing back” and “where the children of the forest, and the giants and the other old races” went. 

The Brotherhood Without Banners itself has a lot of similarities to the Night’s Watch, too. They call one another brothers throughout, sworn to each other, the realm and their god – much like the brotherhood of the Watch, whose vows are said in front of their preferred gods and in which they dedicate themselves to the realm. Furthermore, during the duel itself, Beric dons his surcoat, which is described as “a long black surcoat”; by not drawing attention to the sigil in this initial description, the black clothing evokes the uniform of the Night’s Watch. 

This mystical underworld space is even presided over by the (un)dead, Lord Beric Dondarrion, on behalf of the dead King Robert:

 “With their help, we fight on as best we can, for Robert and the realm.”

“Robert?” rasped Sandor Clegane, incredulous.

“Ned Stark sent us out,” said pothelmed Jack-Be-Lucky, “but he was sitting the Iron Throne when he gave us our commands, so we were never truly his men, but Robert’s.”

“Robert is the king of the worms now. Is that why you’re down in the earth, to keep his court for him?” (ASOS, Arya VI)

Later, as Arya accuses Sandor of murdering Mycah, Sandor asks Arya “Don’t you know you’re dead?” to which Arya replies, “No, you’re dead!” Symbolically, this gives us yet more dead characters in the underworld of the hollow hill. All of this imagery again layers on the chthonic underworld/dead lands imagery that is so prevalent throughout the chapter, which in turn parallels the imagery of the A Game of Thrones Prologue and of the tale of the Last Hero. In addition to this, the Brotherhood are proclaiming themselves as King’s men prior to this duel, just as Waymar did.

So, with those strong parallels between the duels in mind, let’s return to the actual reason for this essay and take a look at the broken sword:

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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Beric Dondarrion with his burning sword is highly reminiscent of Azor Ahai and his burning sword, Lightbringer, which pegs Beric as the archetypal hero in this scene. Against that, we see the “cold steel” of the Hound break that burning sword – very much like the Others ice-sword breaking Waymar’s sword. Both swords break with a scream, as Sandor gives a “rasping scream” and Arya shrieks right as the sword “snap[s] in two”. Here, we are reminded of the broken/reforged sword called Widow’s Wail, strengthening the shared symbolism of these broken swords, and Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish and ecstasy during the forging of Lightbringer.

Beric Dondarrion vs. The Hound by Joel Chaim Holtzman (with profuse thanks to Joel for giving permission to reproduce the image here)

Further parallels between the two scenes include the religious motifs running through the chapters. Most explicitly, we have a priest of R’hllor presiding over the trial by combat:

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.” (ASOS, Arya VI)

This is a more extended version of the imagery we saw in the Prologue of A Game of Thrones, with Will “whisper[ing] a prayer to the nameless gods of the wood” before the duel between Waymar and the Others. This religious imagery is reinforced by the injuries that Beric Dondarrion has acquired during his various deaths – a lance through the chest (a reference to the Lance of Longinus), an eye wound (Odin sacrificing his eye to drink from Mimir’s well) and a bruised neck (Odin sacrificing himself by hanging on Yggdrasil). All of these injuries allude to the idea of sacrifice to transcend the physical world and gain more magical knowledge. Again, these wounds are extremely similar to those received by Waymar Royce, so I think that the parallels between these scenes (and therefore the tale of the Last Hero) are quite clear. 

That mystical knowledge/fire of the gods becomes evident when Beric Dondarrion appears after being (re-re-re-re-re-)resurrected:

“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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Much like Waymar Royce, Beric Dondarrion returns from the dead in spectacular fashion. This transcendence of death again indicates the acquisition of mystical knowledge, a defiance of the material fact of mortality. Once again, this death is accompanied by the broken sword, potentially alluding to the broken sword as a marker of sacrifice prior to acquiring god-like powers i.e. the resurrection/immortality. 

While both of these scenes include a broken sword, neither has been reforged. However, we do get this interesting image:

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. (AGOT, Prologue)

This is an extremely specific image that is going to need a new section to explore so, awaaaay we go…

The Sword In The Stone Tree

Lightning struck tree

Earlier, we discussed the idea that the event that broke the sword could also be considered the event that forged the sword. As part of that analysis, we discussed the idea that the Stark sword, Ice, was broken – but it was also reforged into Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail. We then touched on the broken sword in the Prologue, which was not reforged, but did look like this:

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. (AGOT, Prologue)

This might not look like much on the surface, but the lightning struck tree is actually a specific image from the mythology of A Song of Ice and Fire:

The deeds attributed to the Grey King by the priests and singers of the Iron Islands are many and marvelous. It was the Grey King who brought fire to the earth by taunting the Storm God until he lashed down with a thunderbolt, setting a tree ablaze. (TWOIAF, The Iron Islands: Driftwood Crowns)

We see that a lightning struck tree is a burning tree, which evokes the image of the burning bush of Moses as an avatar of the voice of God. This ties into some of the imagery we touched on earlier, with the broken sword being bestowed upon the hero archetype at the moment of their death (and rebirth). 

Another prominent example of a burning tree is this:

The red leaves of the weirwood were a blaze of flame among the green. (ACOK, Theon V)

If you have read any of my previous essays, then you won’t be surprised at this appearance of the weirwood trees because literally every essay about symbolism I’ve ever written seems to lead back to these goddamn trees. If you haven’t read my other essays, well, spoilers for them, I guess 😛 

By uniting these pieces of symbolism, it’s almost as if the broken sword in the Prologue of A Game of Thrones is depicting the image of a weirwood tree, making Waymar a symbolic greenseer. ‘Say what now?’ I hear you cry. I am stressing he’s symbolising a greenseer here, he isn’t literally becoming one – however, there are a couple of interesting markers that show him as a greenseer, in a symbolic sense. 

In the first instance, as we noted in the previous section, Waymar acquires a couple of key Odin symbols – the one eye and the side wound, as an allusion to the spear piercing Odin so he can hang on the Norse world tree, Yggdrasil. Odin’s magical transcendence through some sort of self sacrifice is kind of a theme, and a lot of the time that self-sacrifice is mediated through Yggdrasil. As many in the fandom have noted, the relationship between the greenseers and the weirwood trees is very reminiscent of Odin’s relationship to Yggdrasil, with the greenseers themselves effectively being the old gods of the weirwood – much like Odin is a god closely tied to Yggdrasil – and acquiring their powers by effectively sacrificing themselves to the trees – think of the room of the really old greenseers who are neither dead nor alive in A Dance With Dragons, Bran III.

With that in mind, the following quotes are quite revealing:

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold. (AGOT, Prologue)

I have highlighted here that Waymar is described as having bloody eyes and bloody hands, much like the weirwood trees:

The weirwood’s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. (AGOT, Catelyn I)

He turned back to the weirwood and studied the carved face a moment. It is not the face we saw, he admitted to himself. The tree’s not half as big as the one at Whitetree. The red eyes wept blood, and he didn’t remember that either. …  The dusk was deepening, the leaves of the weirwood rustling softly, waving like a thousand blood-red hands. (ASOS, Samwell I)

The heart tree stood before him, a pale giant with a carved face and leaves like bloody hands. (ADWD, The Turncloak)

The crofter’s village stood between two lakes, the larger dotted with small wooded islands that punched up through the ice like the frozen fists of some drowned giant. From one such island rose a weirwood gnarled and ancient, its bole and branches white as the surrounding snows. Eight days ago Asha had walked out with Aly Mormont to have a closer look at its slitted red eyes and bloody mouth. It is only sap, she’d told herself, the red sap that flows inside these weirwoods. But her eyes were unconvinced; seeing was believing, and what they saw was frozen blood. (ADWD, The Sacrifice)

Waymar acquiring the bloody eyes and the bloody hands of the weirwood tree could be an indication that he is symbolically becoming a greenseer here, as he has effectively “become the tree” – the exact description that Bran gives of his first experience as a greenseer (ADWD, Bran III). 

As with the rest of the imagery in the Prologue and the Beric/Sandor scene, there is a huge amount of greenseer imagery surrounding Beric Dondarrion. Firstly, we meet Beric Dondarrion seated in a weirwood throne which is a clear allusion to greenseers, as we see in The World of Ice and Fire and in Bran III, A Dance with Dragons. In addition to this, Beric also has the Odin-esque missing eye, hanging wound and the lance through the torso (which may also be an allusion to the Crucifixion, as we covered in the last section); given the relationship between Odin and the tree Yggdrasil, being draped in the same symbolism suggests a close relationship to the Yggdrasil analogues of A Song of Ice and Fire, the weirwood trees. 

Old Gods Can Hear You by Hoshiko91

As well as these symbols, Beric’s death has some “becoming the weirwood tree” imagery too:

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.

When Arya turned, Lord Beric Dondarrion was standing behind her, his bloody hand clutching Thoros by the shoulder. (ASOS, Arya VI)

While Beric doesn’t have bloody eyes here, we know that he has already lost an eye as part of his Odin/greenseer symbolism package. He does, however, have a bloody mouth – this is also a description of the weirwood tree (as shown in the ADWD, The Sacrifice quote above). Upon his resurrection, Beric now has bloody hand imagery which evokes the bloody hands of the weirwood leaves and completes his weirwood transformation. 

This may seem like a bit of a stretch to connect all of this to lightning struck trees (and thus broken swords), except many of these symbolic images also occur next to another lightning struck tree:

He swung beneath the limb of a dead tree whose blackened trunk still bore the scars of the lightning that had killed it. The carrion crows had been at work on his face, and wolves had feasted on his lower legs where they dangled near the ground. Only bones and rags remained below his knees . . . along with one well-chewed shoe, half-covered by mud and mold. (AFFC, Brienne VII)

Here we see the hanged man on a lightning struck tree, which pairs the image of Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil to gain magical powers with that of the tree struck by the Storm God’s lightning bolt. In essence, the hanged man has become a symbolic greenseer and this is supported by a few other images in the paragraph. 

Firstly, the lightning struck tree is described as dead so it can be thought of as a wight, um white tree. White trees are of course the weirwoods – think of the village called Whitetree north of the Wall, so called because of its huge weirwood tree. Moreover, as we touched on a little earlier, the hollow hill in the riverlands carries a huge amount of underworld symbolism as well as containing a weirwood throne inhabited by the walking dead. Indeed, the other actual greenseer we’ve seen in any detail, Bloodraven, is described as “half-corpse and half-tree” which sounds like a pretty close match to the wight tree and is self-evidently related to weirwood trees.

The hanged man also shares some symbolism with Bran Stark; namely, that “the carrion crows has been at work on [the hanged man’s] face”. This could be an allusion to one of Bran Stark’s earlier dreams, in which the three-eyed crow pecks at Bran’s forehead to open Bran’s third eye. If so, that implies that (symbolically) this man’s hanging on the lightning struck tree has been equivalent to the opening of his third eye. All in all, this hanged man and this lightning struck tree seem to be an extraordinarily good device to represent a shitton of greenseer symbolism.

If you want to take it even further, we may see a lot more lightning struck trees in this chapter:

After that, hardly a hundred yards went by without a corpse. They dangled under ash and alder, beech and birch, larch and elm, hoary old willows and stately chestnut trees. Each man wore a noose around his neck, and swung from a length of hempen rope, and each man’s mouth was packed with salt.

The noose was the preferred method of execution for Beric Dondarrion and his band of outlaws, it was said. If so, the so-called lightning lord might well be near. (AFFC, Brienne VII)

Because the lightning lord “Beric Dondarrion” has hanged each of these men on trees, you might say that these trees have been … struck by lightning. *ba dun tss.gif*

finger gun snek
Thanks, I’m here all week

Ok, that one is pushing the boat out, but it’s fun to speculate and would fit with the other symbolism in the chapter, so I thought I’d throw it out there for you guys.

So that has been a pretty deep tangent into related imagery and symbols about weirwoods, loosely tied to broken swords because of Waymar’s broken sword looking like a lightning struck tree. This may sound roundabout symbolism so far, but we do see some further indications that broken swords are related to the trees and greenseeing in Arya’s later Harrenhal chapters in A Clash of Kings.

In these scenes, we see Arya retrieving and wielding her “sword”, a broken broomstick. The description of it as having a jagged splintery end is very reminiscent of Waymar’s broken sword from the A Game of Thrones Prologue: Arya’s ‘sword’ is wooden, making it a “splintered tree”, like Waymar’s broken sword. Arya even retrieves her sword from a stack of “twisted splintered branches”, which matches the description of Waymar’s “splintered and twisted” sword (and thus the lightning struck tree). As this imagery is associated with weirwoods, this implies that Arya’s broken broomstick sword may be drawn from the weirwood trees, in a sense.  Even the description of the “rotting wood” may be an allusion to the weirwoods: that the wood is rotting suggests that it is dead, thus making it a wight tree, taking us right back to the wight/white tree wordplay that symbolically represents the weirwoods. Yay for punning!

This line of analysis is very reminiscent of the tale of Gram in Norse mythology that we recounted earlier. In this tale, Gram is placed in the Barnstokkr tree by Odin – he of the many greenseer symbols – and is drawn forth by Sigmund. Given that this sword is placed in the tree by Odin, drawing forth that godly tree-sword could be considered as acquiring greenseer status (symbolically). Moreover, some scholars have noted that the Barnstokkr tree shares many of the Norse symbols of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and may derive from a corruption of “Branstokkr” with its root in “brandr” (meaning fire). As the representation of the weirwoods in A Song of Ice and Fire appears to be associated with fire and is heavily influenced by Yggdrasil, this makes the weirwoods symbolic burning world trees, like Barn- (or Bran-)stokkr. Taken together, this would reinforce the parallel between Arya’s stick sword and Gram, the broken sword of Norse myth, in addition to further implicating greenseeing in this broken sword motif.

In a potentially similar scenario, King Arthur draws forth the sword from the stone and this sword later breaks. Given that weirwood trees turn to stone after a (very long) time, Arya drawing forth a broken sword from a symbolic weirwood tree could be a parallel to drawing forth the sword from the stone. (No, I’m not saying Arya will be queen, although I’m here for it if it happens.)

Arya Stark with Needle by oozn

In addition, Arya only wields this broken sword in the godswood at Harrenhal:

Sometimes she even climbed the trees and danced among the upper branches, her toes gripping the limbs as she moved back and forth, teetering a little less every day as her balance returned to her.

Up in the kingdom of the leaves, she unsheathed and for a time forgot them all, Ser Amory and the Mummers and her father’s men alike, losing herself in the feel of rough wood beneath the soles of her feet and the swish of sword through air. (ACOK, Arya IX)

In these quotes, it sounds like Arya is inhabiting the world of trees, symbolically entering the weirwoods like a greenseer. This is reinforced by Arya seemingly presenting her broken stick sword to the heart tree as an offering, having killed some imaginary folks:

A broken branch became Joffrey. She struck at it until it fell away. The queen and Ser Ilyn and Ser Meryn and the Hound were only leaves, but she killed them all as well, slashing them to wet green ribbons. When her arm grew weary, she sat with her legs over a high limb to catch her breath in the cool dark air, listening to the squeak of bats as they hunted. Through the leafy canopy she could see the bone-white branches of the heart tree. It looks just like the one in Winterfell from here. If only it had been . . . then when she climbed down she would have been home again, and maybe find her father sitting under the weirwood where he always sat.

Shoving her sword through her belt, she slipped down branch to branch until she was back on the ground. The light of the moon painted the limbs of the weirwood silvery white as she made her way toward it, but the five-pointed red leaves turned black by night. Arya stared at the face carved into its trunk. It was a terrible face, its mouth twisted, its eyes flaring and full of hate. Is that what a god looked like? Could gods be hurt, the same as people? I should pray, she thought suddenly. (ACOK, Arya IX)

She slashed at birch leaves till the splintery point of the broken broomstick was green and sticky. “Ser Gregor,” she breathed. “Dunsen, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling.” She spun and leapt and balanced on the balls of her feet, darting this way and that, knocking pinecones flying. “The Tickler,” she called out one time, “the Hound,” the next. “Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei.” The bole of an oak loomed before her, and she lunged to drive her point through it, grunting “Joffrey, Joffrey, Joffrey.” Her arms and legs were dappled by sunlight and the shadows of leaves. A sheen of sweat covered her skin by the time she paused. The heel of her right foot was bloody where she’d skinned it, so she stood one-legged before the heart tree and raised her sword in salute. “Valar morghulis,” she told the old gods of the north. She liked how the words sounded when she said them. (ACOK, Arya X)

By “killing” some of the names on her list in the godswood, it’s like Arya is offering a symbolic sacrifice to the weirwoods. Indeed, by slashing the leaf people and making her broken sword sticky with leaf sap, there is the implication that Arya’s broken sword is now bloody as she presents it to the weirwood. This reminds us of the broken and reforged swords, Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper, which are now blood red in colour, as well as Ned cleaning Ice in the pool in front of the Winterfell heart tree.The blood here is green rather than red, but this only helps to add to the greenseer symbolism of Arya’s broken sword – as I mentioned in a previous essay, green blood is used as a description for certain other items that share greenseer symbolism, such as wildfire.

This symbolic blood sacrifice is then backed up with some actual killings, as Jaqen emerges from the trees and demands a third name:

Jaqen H’ghar stood so still in the darkness that he seemed one of the trees. “A man comes to hear a name. One and two and then comes three. A man would have done.”

“Three lives were snatched from a god. Three lives must be repaid. The gods are not mocked.”

The hungry gods will feast on blood tonight, if a man would do this thing,” Jaqen said.

“A girl is greedy.” Jaqen touched one of the dead guards and showed her his bloody fingers. “Here is three and there is four and eight more lie dead below. The debt is paid.”

“The debt is paid,” Arya agreed reluctantly. She felt a little sad. Now she was just a mouse again.

A god has his due. And now a man must die.” (ACOK, Arya IX)

By framing these deaths as for the gods, these deaths are being presented as some kind of blood sacrifice or blood debt, which would line up with the bloody, broken sword that Arya presents to the heart tree. Moreover, Jaqen is described as “one of the trees” at the start of this passage making him a symbolic greenseer; in line with this symbolism, he acquires the bloody hands of the weirwood tree while killing the guards, in addition to his red and white (hair) colour symbolism.

This blood sacrifice imagery also ties into some of the religious imagery that we see in this scene. Specifically:

In the godswood she found her broomstick sword where she had left it, and carried it to the heart tree. There she knelt. Red leaves rustled. Red eyes peered inside her. The eyes of the gods. “Tell me what to do, you gods,” she prayed. (ACOK, Arya X)

This would parallel some of the imagery that we saw in the death of Beric Dondarrion in his broken sword duel against Sandor Clegane:

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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

The description of Beric’s knees folding introduces very similar religious imagery and, given he is in the hollow hill with its walls woven with weirwood roots, it’s akin to him praying to the weirwoods having presented a broken sword to them. Similarly, the dirt drinking his blood matches the description of another blood sacrifice in front of the weirwoods in a Bran vision (ADWD, Bran III). As such, Beric Dondarrion’s death is presented as him being sacrificed (or sacrificing himself) to the trees – the result of this is actual magical resurrection.

The Arya scene in Harrenhal has some similarities to this, as the passage subsequently takes on some magical elements – it reads as though the old gods are replying to her request: 

In the godswood she found her broomstick sword where she had left it, and carried it to the heart tree. There she knelt. Red leaves rustled. Red eyes peered inside her. The eyes of the gods. Tell me what to do, you gods,” she prayed. 

For a long moment there was no sound but the wind and the water and the creak of leaf and limb. And then, far far off, beyond the godswood and the haunted towers and the immense stone walls of Harrenhal, from somewhere out in the world, came the long lonely howl of a wolf. Gooseprickles rose on Arya’s skin, and for an instant she felt dizzy. Then, so faintly, it seemed as if she heard her father’s voice. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” he said.

“But there is no pack,” she whispered to the weirwood. Bran and Rickon were dead, the Lannisters had Sansa, Jon had gone to the Wall. “I’m not even me now, I’m Nan.”

“You are Arya of Winterfell, daughter of the north. You told me you could be strong. You have the wolf blood in you.”

“The wolf blood.” Arya remembered now. “I’ll be as strong as Robb. I said I would.” She took a deep breath, then lifted the broomstick in both hands and brought it down across her knee. It broke with a loud crack, and she threw the pieces aside. I am a direwolf, and done with wooden teeth. 

That night she lay in her narrow bed upon the scratchy straw, listening to the voices of the living and the dead whisper and argue as she waited for the moon to rise. They were the only voices she trusted anymore. She could hear the sound of her own breath, and the wolves as well, a great pack of them now. They are closer than the one I heard in the godswood, she thought. They are calling to me. (ACOK, Arya X)

At this point, Arya determines that she should escape from Harrenhal and later kills a guard by cutting his throat, giving herself bloody hands in a mirror image of the guard killed by Jaqen H’ghar in her previous chapter. In the passage quoted above, there is a very real possibility that this could be real magic, given how little we know of the magic of the weirwoods. Even if it isn’t ‘real’ magic, the writing of this passage and subsequent blood sacrifice imagery is clearly meant to symbolise it – the animation of the weirwood tree, the howling of the wolves, a conversation with Ned, hearing the voices of the dead and being called by her pack (likely Nymeria, thus implicating Arya’s actual warging abilities) all speak to this idea. The presence of this magic (either literal or symbolic) is accompanied with the broomstick being broken again – which could imply that part of the symbolism of the broken sword is magic itself. 

Which neatly leads us to the next section….

The Sword Without a Hilt

So far, we have seen how the broken sword motif is very closely linked to greenseeing and its magic, capped off with Arya presenting her broken broomstick sword to the weirwoods regularly. Now would probably be an appropriate time to emphasise one aspect of this ‘sword’:

Her blade was much too light and had no proper grip, but she liked the sharp jagged splintery end. (ACOK, Arya IX)

Arya is wielding the proverbial “sword without a hilt” here –

“The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.” (ASOS, Jon X)

 – and let’s be realistic, if your sword doesn’t have a hilt, then it’s broken (and you should probably see your smith asap). Importantly, each time that Arya wields this broken “sword without a hilt”, the passages are steeped in imagery of greenseer magic and accompanied by blood sacrifice, which would seem to reinforce the link between the broken sword and the sword without a hilt (magic). Heck, even the fact that this sword was originally a broomstick evokes the image of a witch and, thus, magic. 

Halloween Black Cats Moon Brushes Witch
Basically Arya (CC0)

We see a similar argument presented by Maester Luwin way back in A Game of Thrones:

“Take a lesson, Bran. The man who trusts in spells is dueling with a glass sword.” (AGOT, Bran VII) 

This is a very similar metaphor to sorcery being “a sword without a hilt”, which suggests that a glass sword could be considered as part of this broken sword pattern of symbolism. It is made clear over the next couple of paragraphs that these “glass swords” are made of dragonglass:

 “Have a look at these,” he said as he pulled the stopper and shook out a handful of shiny black arrowheads. 

Bran picked one up. “It’s made of glass.” Curious, Rickon drifted closer to peer over the table.

Dragonglass,” Osha named it as she sat down beside Luwin, bandagings in hand. (AGOT, Bran VII)

We do see what happens in duels with (dragon)glass swords in A Storm of Swords:

Samwell Tarly threw himself forward and plunged the dagger down into Small Paul’s back. Half-turned, the wight never saw him coming. The raven gave a shriek and took to the air. “You’re dead!” Sam screamed as he stabbed. “You’re dead, you’re dead.” He stabbed and screamed, again and again, tearing huge rents in Paul’s heavy black cloak. Shards of dragonglass flew everywhere as the blade shattered on the iron mail beneath the wool. (ASOS, Samwell III)

The dragonglass sword breaks. Notably, this sword (well, dagger, same difference) breaks with a scream, just like Beric’s sword and Waymar’s sword. The shards of dragonglass flying everywhere are also very reminiscent of the breaking of Waymar’s sword, where “shards scatter[ed] like a rain of needles” (AGOT, Prologue). Moreover, this passage precedes the appearance of Coldhands, a resurrected Night’s Watchman; so again we are seeing the broken sword preceding resurrection (ish).

Samwell the Brave by Kaleadora

Importantly, the forging of dragonglass is described as follows:

“Obsidian,” Maester Luwin insisted, holding out his wounded arm. “Forged in the fires of the gods, far below the earth.” (AGOT, Bran VII)

This brings in the fire of the gods language that we noticed earlier with broken swords – the lightning struck tree imagery of Waymar’s broken sword and the Storm God’s thunderbolt, specifically – and this would reinforce the association with magic and resurrection that we have been coming across throughout the essays.

Given these parallels, it appears that both glass swords and swords without hilts can be considered as broken swords, therefore drawing sorcery and spells into the collection of “broken sword” symbolism we’ve identified so far. Indeed, many of the broken swords we’ve mentioned so far in this essay appear to share this magical symbolism, so I’ll rattle through these quickly. 

Firstly, Ice is a Valyrian steel sword, the forging of which is thought to involve blood sacrifice and dragonfire – this suggests that the steel of Ice/Oathkeeper/Widow’s Wail is imbued with some kind of magical properties and echoes the blood sacrifice we saw around other broken swords. In addition, the use of spells in the (re)forging of Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail is made explicit by Tobho Mott:

“Your lord father had asked for the crimson of your House, and it was that color I set out to infuse into the metal. But Valyrian steel is stubborn. These old swords remember, it is said, and they do not change easily. I worked half a hundred spells and brightened the red time and time again, but always the color would darken, as if the blade was drinking the sun from it. And some folds would not take the red at all, as you can see.” (ASOS, Tyrion IV)

Similarly, the Iron Throne is made of broken swords, was forged with dragonfire and regularly receives a ‘sacrifice’ of kingsblood, from the various monarchs who cut themselves on it:

Joffrey lurched to his feet. I’m king! Kill him! Kill him now! I command it.” He chopped down with his hand, a furious, angry gesture . . . and screeched in pain when his arm brushed against one of the sharp metal fangs that surrounded him. The bright crimson samite of his sleeve turned a darker shade of red as his blood soaked through it. (ACOK, Sansa VIII)

“Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

Symbolically, the Iron Throne is has received the blood and fire treatment, bringing to mind the description of the magics of Valyria. 

During the Battle of Redgrass Field, Daemon Targaryen was said to be slain by an arrow from Bloodraven:

“I’d always heard that it was Baelor Breakspear who won the battle,” said Dunk. “Him and Prince Maekar.”

The hammer and the anvil?” The old man’s mustache gave a twitch. “The singers leave out much and more. Daemon was the Warrior himself that day. No man could stand before him. … Daemon dismounted to see that his fallen foe was not trampled, and commanded Redtusk to carry him back to the maesters in the rear. And there was his mortal error, for the Raven’s Teeth had gained the top of Weeping Ridge, and Bloodraven saw his half brother’s royal standard three hundred yards away, and Daemon and his sons beneath it. He slew Aegon first, the elder of the twins, for he knew that Daemon would never leave the boy whilst warmth lingered in his body, though white shafts fell like rain. Nor did he, though seven arrows pierced him, driven as much by sorcery as by Bloodraven’s bow.

The war was done when Daemon died.” (The Sworn Sword)

As I mentioned earlier, this battle can be considered as ‘forging’ a broken sword, as the Hammer and Anvil broke the Blackfyre rebels (with ‘Blackfyre’ being taken from the Targaryen ancestral sword of the same name). Importantly, we see the idea of sorcery being involved in that, with Bloodraven implied to be using sorcery to direct arrows against his half-brother Daemon. Bloodraven and his Raven’s Teeth – i.e. his archers – notably use weirwood arrows and bows, which is emphasised in the above quote as “white shafts [falling] like rain”. As such, this potentially suggests blood sacrifice (of king’s blood, no less) to the weirwoods, a motif that we came across quite often in the previous section.

We have analysed the Beric Dondarrion vs. Sandor Clegane duel nearly to death now; however, I feel like it is important to note exactly how many symbols of magic we see in that chapter. Firstly, the chapter takes place in a hollow hill, notably a place of the children of the forest and their magics – and hollow hills throughout the series have been demonstrably shown to be places of strong magic. Moreover, this cave is woven through with weirwood roots and is inhabited by Beric, with all of Beric’s Odin and greenseer symbolism that we outlined previously. Beric then creates a burning sword with just his blood and is literally resurrected, as overt an example of magic as you can get. This is even pointed out explicitly in the text, so it feels like something we should pay attention to:

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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr by taka081

Speaking of burning swords, the mother of all of them is Lightbringer:

A true sword of fire, now, that would be a wonder to behold. Yet at such a cost . . . When he thought of Nissa Nissa, it was his own Marya he pictured, a good-natured plump woman with sagging breasts and a kindly smile, the best woman in the world. He tried to picture himself driving a sword through her, and shuddered. I am not made of the stuff of heroes, he decided. If that was the price of a magic sword, it was more than he cared to pay. (ACOK, Davos I)

As we saw in Beric’s scene, though, a fiery sword is magic and it breaks; extrapolating from that, Lightbringer, “a true sword of fire” and “a magic sword”, could be considered a broken sword. After all, sorcery is explicitly named a sword without a hilt; a sword without a hilt is a broken sword; and, as we saw with Arya’s broomstick, a broken sword is a magic sword  and so we circle back to sorcery.

Similarly, the forging of Stannis’s version of Lightbringer carries some of the hallmarks of broken swords that we’ve touched on so far. For instance, he draws forth the burning sword from the statue of the Mother, whilst it is on fire:

The Mother seemed almost to shudder as the flames came licking up her face. A longsword had been thrust through her heart, and its leather grip was alive with flame.

The king plunged into the fire with his teeth clenched, holding the leather cloak before him to keep off the flames. He went straight to the Mother, grasped the sword with his gloved hand, and wrenched it free of the burning wood with a single hard jerk. Then he was retreating, the sword held high, jade-green flames swirling around cherry-red steel. (ACOK, Davos I) 

The Mother is a carved wooden statue of a god – which sounds a lot like a weirwood, what with it being a carved tree and all. Importantly, this wooden god is on fire like the lightning struck tree which launched us deep into the realms of greenseeing magic this essay, with the lightning struck tree being our first description of a broken sword (AGOT, Prologue). In addition to that, the sword is embedded in the chest of the Mother, a callout to the blood sacrifice of Nissa Nissa to forge Lightbringer. It also reminds us of the dragonglass blades that Maester Luwin shows to Bran (AGOT, Bran VII), “forged in the fires of the gods”. As such, Stannis bringing forth Lightbringer from this collection of symbolism, the very same symbolism that has been present throughout our exploration of broken swords, reinforces the idea of Lightbringer as a broken sword.

Indeed, Stannis’s Lightbringer is described as a “magic sword” several more times throughout the series:

“A washerwoman claims Stannis stole through the heart of his brother’s army with his magic sword.(ACOK, Tyrion VIII)

“Last I heard, King Stannis was outside the city walls. They say he has a hundred thousand men and a magic sword.”

Jaime’s hands wrapped around the chain that bound his wrists, and he twisted it taut, wishing for the strength to snap it in two. Then I’d show Stannis where to sheathe his magic sword. (ASOS, Jaime II)

“With this fool’s jabber of Stannis and his magic sword, it seemed to me that we had best give Joffrey something extraordinary as well. A king should bear a kingly weapon.” (ASOS, Tyrion IV)

This latter quote in particular reinforces the link between broken/reforged swords, magic and Lightbringer as it refers to Widow’s Wail. As we touched on, by being half of the broken sword, Ice, Widow’s Wail is a broken and reforged sword and it is reforged with spells making it as much a “magic sword” as Stannis’s Lightbringer. That Widow’s Wail, a broken sword, shares so much of this ‘magic sword’ symbolism with Stannis’s Lightbringer and is being directly compared to Lightbringer reinforces the common symbolism between Lightbringer and the broken sword motifs we’ve identified so far.

In line with this, Azor Ahai’s forging of Lightbringer involved the creation of other swords that broke:

And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fires. Heat and hammer and fold, heat and hammer and fold, oh, yes, until the sword was done. Yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder.

 Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it through the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered and split. Great was his woe and great was his sorrow then, for he knew what he must do.

A hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his wife. ‘Nissa Nissa,’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.’ She did this thing, why I cannot say, and Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel. (ACOK, Davos I)

Again we see a reference to sacred fires, and since the word “sacred” literally refers to religion or gods, this brings to mind the fires of the gods which forge dragonglass (i.e. the glass swords) and the Storm God’s thunderbolt which created the burning/lightning struck tree imagery. Note here how Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish and ecstasy accompanies the forging of the sword Lightbringer and how, throughout this essay, we’ve noticed that the breaking of swords has been accompanied with screams:

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers. (AGOT, Prologue)

He stabbed and screamed, again and again, tearing huge rents in Paul’s heavy black cloak. Shards of dragonglass flew everywhere as the blade shattered on the iron mail beneath the wool. (ASOS, Samwell III)

 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. (ASOS, Arya VI)

This then ties into the idea that we opened the essay with: the breaking event is also the forging event.

Stannis Baratheon by omarito

So, what does this mean? Well, there appears to be a paradoxical bit of symbolic fun happening with the breaking and forging of swords occuring in the same event; this breaking and forging event is associated with a scream; and the resulting broken sword appears to be associated with magic and the fire of the gods. As I’ve alluded to in the previous paragraphs, these are all hallmarks surrounding the forging of Lightbringer: Lightbringer was finally forged after multiple swords broke during tempering, it was forged with Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish and ecstasy, it was forged with blood magic and it was forged in those sacred (i.e. godly) fires. Symbolically, Lightbringer is the ultimate broken sword – as such, it makes sense that our hero, Azor Ahai, would carry that sword (thinking all the way back to the very first section of this essay).

And if Lightbringer is a broken sword, this may have some interesting implications for the onset of the Long Night. Consider this: if the breaking event and the forging event are the same, then perhaps the item that ended the Long Night was also what started it? That item being Lightbringer. Indeed, this may be exactly what is being suggested in the quote I used to open this essay:

“The bleeding star bespoke the end […] These are the last days, when the world shall be broken and remade. A new god shall be born from the graves and charnel pits.” (TWOW, The Forsaken)

This explicitly links the idea of the Long Night 2.0 to the idea of the breaking and forging event. This is far from an original idea and has been hypothesised by many members of the fandom, with lots of plot and symbolic evidence that this may have been the case – but it is nice to see that our exploration of broken swords ties in so nicely with this idea. 

Any sensible person would stop their essay here, but I have one final section to cover: what about the other sword?

The Sword that was Not Broken

In each of the fights we’ve analysed, there has been the broken sword wielded by the hero but there has also been an unbroken sword. To explore some of the associations of the unbroken sword, I’m going to introduce another duel between Ser Arthur Dayne of the Kingsguard and the Smiling Knight of the Kingswood Brotherhood, recounted to us by Jaime Lannister: 

And Ser Gerold might have written a few more words about the deeds he’d performed when Ser Arthur Dayne broke the Kingswood Brotherhood. He had saved Lord Sumner’s life as Big Belly Ben was about to smash his head in, though the outlaw had escaped him. And he’d held his own against the Smiling Knight, though it was Ser Arthur who slew him. What a fight that was, and what a foe. The Smiling Knight was a madman, cruelty and chivalry all jumbled up together, but he did not know the meaning of fear. And Dayne, with Dawn in hand . . . The outlaw’s longsword had so many notches by the end that Ser Arthur had stopped to let him fetch a new one. “It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)

Notably, the Smiling Knight’s sword it so notched that Arthur allows him a replacement sword – indicating that the Smiling Knight’s sword fits into the “broken sword” motif. This would suggest that this scene may fit the pattern of duels we have explored so far and, indeed, there are other parallels in this situation which suggest this. 

the smiling knight sir heartsalot
The Smiling Knight by Sir-Heartsalot

Firstly, the Kingswood Brotherhood and the Brotherhood without Banners share some commonalities. For instance, Merrett Frey compares the two Brotherhoods in the Epilogue of A Storm of Swords, suggesting that the two organisations of outlaws may share some common symbolic motifs. Moreover, the Smiling Knight is one of the leaders of the Kingswood Brotherhood, much like Beric Dondarrion leads the Brotherhood without Banners in the parallel Beric vs. Sandor duel. In addition to that, the Smiling Knight is called a robber knight in the above quote, a label that is also bestowed upon Beric Dondarrion:

“What else? It wasn’t for the pleasure of looking at your face, Dondarrion, I’ll tell you that. You’re uglier than me now. And a robber knight besides, it seems.” (ASOS, Arya VII)

As we covered earlier, Beric Dondarrion has some really strong parallels to the last hero archetype, so the symbolic parallels between Beric and the Smiling Knight would suggest that the Smiling Knight also plays into the Last Hero archetype. And, speaking of the Last Hero, the Smiling Knight is described as “bleeding from a dozen wounds”, which echoes the following description of Waymar Royce after his Last Hero duel:

Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. (AGOT, Prologue)

Again, this parallel reinforces the interpretation of the Smiling Knight as the archetypal Last Hero, in a sense, given that Royce is playing this role in the Prologue. In addition to this, Ulmer of the Kingswood was a member of the Kingswood Brotherhood and is a member of the Night’s Watch in the main series. Indeed, Ulmer is one of the few rangers who returns to the Castle Black after the mutiny at Craster’s. This suggests that the Kingswood Brotherhood may be acting as a symbolic Night’s Watch, given the Smiling Knight and Ulmer have (symbolic or literal) ties to the Watch.

As with the other duels we have discussed, the Smiling Knight also gets some resurrection symbolism:

And me, that boy I was . . . when did he die, I wonder? When I donned the white cloak? When I opened Aerys’s throat? That boy had wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne, but someplace along the way he had become the Smiling Knight instead. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)

Here, Jaime is declaring himself as dead and the new Smiling Knight – implying the Smiling Knight as dead and resurrected (symbolically). This parallels Waymar and Beric who are both resurrected after they die in their duels.

So, we’ve established that there are strong parallels between this duel and the previous duels we analysed, concluding that the Smiling Knight is playing the role of the Last Hero in this scene. As we have established in the previous duels, the counterpart of the Last Hero in this duel is the symbolic Other – in this case, Ser Arthur Dayne.

“Wait, what?” I can hear you cry. “Ser Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, wielder of Dawn, Kingsguard to the fiery Targaryens – he symbolises the Others?!

Yes, I believe so, for a few reasons. For starters, the phrasing of the duel has some potentially interesting connotations:

It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)

It is made explicit here that the Smiling Knight and Ser Arthur Dayne are fighting over Dawn. A Battle for the Dawn, if you will. Hehe! Well, I thought it was funny. In any case, a War for the Dawn setup heavily implies the involvement of an archetypal Night’s Watch man and an archetypal Other. We have already identified the Smiling Knight as the Night’s Watch figure in this scene, meaning Ser Arthur Dayne must be the symbolic Other.

Ser Arthur Dayne Mike Hallstein
Ser Arthur Dayne by Mike Hallstein, in all his Other-like glory

In addition, the Kingsguard themselves have a fair amount of Other-y symbolism, which therefore applies to Ser Arthur Dayne. This has been outlined in detail elsewhere, but here’s a quick overview of the ice associations of the Kingsguard:

Yet the huge man at the head of the column, flanked by two knights in the snow-white cloaks of the Kingsguard, seemed almost a stranger to Ned … (AGOT,  Eddard I)

One knight wore an intricate suit of white enameled scales, brilliant as a field of new-fallen snow, with silver chasings and clasps that glittered in the sun. (AGOT, Sansa I)

 The seven knights of the Kingsguard took the field, all but Jaime Lannister in scaled armor the color of milk, their cloaks as white as fresh-fallen snow. (AGOT, Sansa II)

 Ser Mandon Moore rode at his side, white steel icy bright. (ACOK, Sansa V) 

The water, when it came, was only lukewarm, but Selmy lingered in the bath until it had grown cold and scrubbed his skin till it was raw. Clean as he had ever been, he rose, dried himself, and clad himself in whites. Stockings, smallclothes, silken tunic, padded jerkin, all fresh-washed and bleached. Over that he donned the armor that the queen had given him as a token of her esteem. The mail was gilded, finely wrought, the links as supple as good leather, the plate enameled, hard as ice and bright as new-fallen snow. (ADWD, The Kingbreaker)

And these are just a few select quotes, there are far more out there. This symbolism suggests the Kingsguard as armoured in ice, symbolically, which sounds a lot like the Others to me. We also see the Kingsguard referred to as white shadows on occasion:

Joffrey was galloping at his side, whey-faced, with Ser Mandon Moore a white shadow on his left. (ACOK, Tyrion IX)

His two white shadows were always with him; Balon Swann and Mandon Moore, beautiful in their pale plate.  (ACOK, Tyrion XIV)

Dany glimpsed Ser Barristan sliding closer, a white shadow at her side. (ADWD, Daenerys I)

“White shadow” is another one of those key phrases used to callout the Others:

The Others made no sound.

Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. (AGOT, Prologue)

“We have white shadows in the woods and unquiet dead stalking our halls, and a boy sits the Iron Throne,” he said in disgust. (AGOT, Jon VIII)

“We do not ride for the Wall. We ride north, after Mance Rayder and these Others, these white shadows and their wights.” (ACOK, Jon III)

This again suggests that Kingsguard shares a lot of icy symbolic motifs with the Others themselves. In addition to these, we see that they share some “white sword” symbolism:

“I am a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, the White Swords.” (AGOT, Arya IV)

Ser Barristan Selmy, resplendent in white plate, led them in. Ser Arys Oakheart escorted the queen, while Ser Boros Blount walked beside Joffrey, so six of the Kingsguard were now in the hall, all the White Swords save Jaime Lannister alone. (AGOT, Sansa V)

Now they came forward dressed in shifts of undyed wool to receive their knighthoods from the Kingsguard. It took a long time, since only three of the Brothers of the White Sword were on hand to dub them. (ACOK, Sansa VIII)

The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white. Its armor rippled and shifted as it moved, and its feet did not break the crust of the new-fallen snow. (ASOS, Samwell I)

This reinforces the overlapping Others-Kingsguard symbolism. The white sword, Dawn, is even described similarly to the Others’ swords. (I’m colour-coding the shared characteristics and I’ve tried to make it colour-blind friendly but let me know if it’s not!) Here’s the description of the Other’s blade in the Prologue duel:

No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor. (AGOT, Prologue)

And here are the parallel descriptions of Dawn:

The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light. (AGOT, Eddard X)

“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star.” (ACOK, Bran III)

With Dawn he tapped him on the shoulder; the pale blade was so sharp that even that light touch cut through Jaime’s tunic, so he bled anew. (AFFC, Jaime I)

Both are forged from metal that isn’t human – explicitly in the case of the Others, and implied in the case of the meteor used to forge Dawn. Both are alive with some form of light. Both appear as crystal or glass. And both are incredibly sharp, sharper than any non-magical sword could be.

So, to summarise, Ser Arthur Dayne has a lot of icy symbolism going for him. As a Kingsguard he is armoured in ice and a white shadow. He also goes way overboard on “white sword” motif: as a Dayne, he comes from a castle with a tower called “the Palestone Sword”; he is a White Sword of the Kingsguard, therefore living in the White Sword Tower; he is literally called a sword in his title, the Sword of the Morning; and he wields a white sword (Dawn). That sword also shares a lot of (symbolic) similarities to the swords of the Others. This symbolism also goes the other way (heh, Other, lol) – the Others are associated with Ser Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, and wielder of Dawn.

This does produce a rather interesting conundrum: why are the Others (and the people who symbolise them) associated with morning, dawn and light given that the Others are icy, wintry and cold creatures of the Long Night?

And this conundrum, this core paradoxical symbolism in the narrative, is why I think the duel between Ser Arthur Dayne and the Smiling Knight is informative. Because, in thus duel, we see the Smiling Knight’s sword break, but not Dawn.

Dawn does not break.

I’ll say that again for those of you at the back of the class.

Dawn does not break.


This is a pun of epic proportions hidden in plain sight. The Long Night isn’t the Long Night because it’s pitch black the entire time, with the moon and stars out all the time as though Planetos stopped spinning on its axis — no, it’s the Long Night because dawn arrives, day after day, but never breaks. This is a working idea that I’ve had for a little while now, and that I’m in the process of investigating for another essay but it was impossible to avoid here and an important point to raise. 

To avoid diverting the essay too much, I just want to point to a couple of quick symbolic examples in support of this idea: firstly, the period of the Dance of the Dragons known as the False Dawn. This was the brief period of ostensible peace after the death murder of Aegon II and the crowning of Aegon III, with one side summarily defeated and letters suing for peace being sent by raven across the continent – only for Lord Cregan Stark to arrive in King’s Landing for the Hour of the Wolf. Notably, the hour of the wolf is thought to be the blackest part of night in the ASOIAF world – so here we have a False Dawn, leading into the Hour of the Wolf. Subtle… Moreover, during the Hour of the Wolf (Dance of the Dragons version, not the time), Cregan passed judgement on twenty-two men accused of poisoning King Aegon II, executing two and sending 19 men to the Wall (Aegon III stepped in to save Corlys Velaryon, the 22nd person in this line-up). In effect, the False Dawn leads to the blackest part of night and a ton of men join the Night’s Watch, which sounds like Long Night symbolism to me. Specifically, 19 men were sent to the Watch, like the 19 castles on the Wall. This therefore suggests that the False Dawn is tied into the idea of a dawn that does not break: as a false dawn, it leads only to the blackest part of night and the creation of the Night’s Watch. If that isn’t some symbolism for the Long Night, I don’t know what is.

Secondly, we see another dawn heavily tied to ice and cold imagery in the final Sansa chapter of A Storm of Swords. We’ll run through the ice symbolism first:

Snow was falling on the Eyrie.

Outside the flakes drifted down as soft and silent as memory. Was this what woke me? (ASOS, Sansa VII)

The Eyrie is a white marble castle on top of a mountain, which itself implies an ice castle of some description, and now it is also being covered in snow. The implication that the snow has woken Sansa suggests she is connected to the snow in some way, an idea reinforced by her entering the godswood:

Yet she stepped out all the same. Her boots tore ankle-deep holes into the smooth white surface of the snow, yet made no sound. Sansa drifted past frosted shrubs and thin dark trees, and wondered if she were still dreaming. Drifting snowflakes brushed her face as light as lover’s kisses, and melted on her cheeks. At the center of the garden, beside the statue of the weeping woman that lay broken and half-buried on the ground, she turned her face up to the sky and closed her eyes. She could feel the snow on her lashes, taste it on her lips. It was the taste of Winterfell. The taste of innocence. The taste of dreams.

When Sansa opened her eyes again, she was on her knees. She did not remember falling. It seemed to her that the sky was a lighter shade of grey. Dawn, she thought. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

The description of the snow is very reminiscent of the description of the transformative power of fire as described by Melisandre in A Dance with Dragons (“The fire was inside her, an agony, an ecstasy, filling her, searing her, transforming her. Shimmers of heat traced patterns on her skin, insistent as a lover’s hand.), so this could be read as some kind of ice transformation for Sansa. In addition, as Sansa falls to the ground, it appears that she may be being paralleled to the fallen statue of Alyssa Arryn. Given that Alyssa Arryn has a ton of ice symbolism herself (such as Alyssa’s tears becoming frozen), this adds to Sansa’s icy symbolism in this scene. Sansa also begins to craft a very detailed representation of Winterfell in snow and ice amongst the godswood:

The snow fell and the castle rose. Two walls ankle-high, the inner taller than the outer. Towers and turrets, keeps and stairs, a round kitchen, a square armory, the stables along the inside of the west wall. It was only a castle when she began, but before very long Sansa knew it was Winterfell. She found twigs and fallen branches beneath the snow and broke off the ends to make the trees for the godswood. For the gravestones in the lichyard she used bits of bark. Soon her gloves and her boots were crusty white, her hands were tingling, and her feet were soaked and cold, but she did not care. The castle was all that mattered. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

Sansa’s recreation of Winterfell reminds me of GRRM’s quote that “the Others can do things with ice we can’t imagine” and I wonder if that is being referenced here. In any case, we do see that the snow is transforming her here, in a sense, which carries on the themes and comparisons we mentioned above. Similarly, later in the chapter, she is called a “snow maid” by Petyr Baelish and Marillion states she has a “frozen heart” in the following quote:

“I am composing a new song, you should know. A song so sweet and sad it will melt even your frozen heart. ‘The Roadside Rose,’ I mean to call it.” (ASOS, Sansa VII)

And if that doesn’t give you Lyanna of the blue winter rose vibes, the wolf-maid who sniffled at a sad song, I don’t know what else could. 

Sansa print
Sansa Stark by Sanrixian

I think that covers the Sansa-ice transformation symbolism pretty comprehensively; importantly, the mentions of dawn are also woven throughout the chapter but it never appears to break. Firstly, Sansa wakes before dawn:

The room was cold and black, though she was warm beneath the blankets. Dawn had not yet come. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

Then, as Sansa symbolically mirrors the statue of Alyssa Arryn, dawn arrives:

When Sansa opened her eyes again, she was on her knees. She did not remember falling. It seemed to her that the sky was a lighter shade of grey. Dawn, she thought. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

Then she begins to build her snow Winterfell:

Dawn stole into her garden like a thief. The grey of the sky grew lighter still, and the trees and shrubs turned a dark green beneath their stoles of snow. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

The dawn as thief thing is interesting, given the Others propensity for baby stealing, but that’s its own essay. Importantly, dawn has not broken here and instead we are seeing a sky that is just a differing shade of grey. That is the last mention of dawn in this chapter, but we do get one last mention of the sunlight:

The floors and walls of the High Hall were made of milk-white marble veined with blue. Shafts of pale daylight slanted down through narrow arched windows along the eastern wall. Between the windows were torches, mounted in high iron sconces, but none of them was lit. Her footsteps fell softly on the carpet. Outside the wind blew cold and lonely.

Amidst so much white marble even the sunlight looked chilly, somehow . . . though not half so chilly as her aunt. (ASOS, Sansa VII)

But wait? Daylight means dawn has broken, right? Well, not exactly – take a look at the colours that are associated with the Others: they white shadows, with flesh pale as milk and burning blue eyes. Much like the milk-white marble, veined with blue here in the Eyrie. Consider, too, Ser Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, and how he is symbolically associated with the Others. Moreover, the daylight that we see is a weak and chillycold type of light, the implication being that this is not a true dawn in any sense. In Sansa’s first chapter of A Feast for Crows, we see a continuation of this imagery:

No matter where she went in the castle, Sansa could not escape the music. It floated up the winding tower steps, found her naked in her bath, supped with her at dusk, and stole into her bedchamber even when she latched the shutters tight. It came in on the cold thin air, and like the air, it chilled her. Though it had not snowed upon the Eyrie since the day that Lady Lysa fell, the nights had all been bitter cold. (AFFC, Sansa I)

This continues the cold transformation imagery from earlier, although notably it is the nights that are colder – a Long Night reference, perhaps? This is also the infamous “We shall serve him lies and Arbor gold” chapter, so I wonder if there is a parallel here to the false bit of the “False Dawn” idea.

So, what does this mean for our broken swords essay?

The most obvious implication is that dawn has to break in order to end the Long Night. I wonder if this means we will get another duel involving the Last Hero archetype and the Others, with the Other’s sword breaking rather than the Last Hero’s. Will the sword Dawn break to symbolise this? I think that might be a fun parallel, but perhaps a touch heavy handed, but I guess we’ll find out in A Dream of Spring.

I also think this idea of the False Dawn ties into Stannis’s fake Lightbringer. We covered that the forging of Lightbringer as being a collection of symbols that perfectly coincide with all the other symbols of broken swords we’ve investigated. However, this symbolism is undercut by events that happen in the scene itself, such as the slapstick comedy of Stannis swearing as he sets himself on fire and the slightly ominous description of the sword as “burnt”, not burning, as Salladhor Saan says. This important distinction is emphasised by Maester Aemon: 

The description of the sword as a “false light” and being “without heat” implies that idea of the False Dawn again, especially a dawn tied to cold and the Others.

Finally, I have what I think is one of the weirdest conclusions I’ve come to (not to hype it excessively or anything). From what we’ve seen this essay, it seems that the breaking of the sword is also the forging of the sword and that broken swords are closely tied to all the symbolism of Lightbringer; given this, does this mean that the Others forged Lightbringer by breaking the Last Hero’s sword? This sounds patently ridiculous – why would the icy Others even want to forge fiery Lightbringer? – but this conclusion does follow on pretty logically from the symbolism we covered in this essay. 

This is also backed up by one of my previous essays, The Extraordinary Symbolism of Tobho Mott. Those of you who have read this one may recall that Tobho Mott has a fuckton of ice symbolism – he has a massive sapphire necklace dangling from his neck and lives on Visenya’s hill (which has a bunch of icy symbolism), for instance. However, he is also in possession of a forge as hot as dragon’s fire and consistently forges items that do Lightbringer things. The breaking of Ice and forging Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail, which we have discussed prominently in this essay, is a huge example of this and again suggests the Other-y dude breaking swords and forging Lightbringer(s). 

Which is batshit crazy.


So, as usual, this essay grew in the telling, but I hope you’ve enjoyed part 1 of this new series, Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things. So what have we learned about broken swords?

As is usually the case with these in-depth meanderings, we see the broken sword motif has a huge number of symbolic connotations:

  • The broken sword appears to be tied to the idea of the monarchy e.g. the broken sword Widow’s Wail being described as a kingly sword and the Iron Throne being made of broken swords.
  • The broken sword is also typically wielded by someone playing the Last Hero role, such as Ser Waymar Royce, Ser Beric Dondarrion and the Smiling Knight, and the unbroken sword is wielded either by the Others or by someone playing the role of the Others.
  • The description of Ser Waymar’s broken sword as a “lightning struck tree” suggests that the broken sword can also be seen as a metaphor for acquiring greenseer powers.
  • Relatedly, the broken sword can be seen as a symbol of magic, tying into the idea of a sword without a hilt (e.g. Arya’s broken broomstick which “has no proper grip”).
  • As an extension of this idea, many of the “forging” a broken sword descriptions are shared with the forging of Lightbringer, suggesting Lightbringer itself may be a broken sword. These shared symbols are:
    • Being broken/forged with a scream;
    • Being broken/forged in the sight of the gods;
    • Both broken swords and Lightbringer are related to magic;
    • The breaking/forging of the swords is accompanied by some (symbolic or literal) blood sacrifice.

In addition to these symbolic connotations, we have seen that, unlike many of the myths and legends that may have served as inspiration for this motif, the sword that is broken is also the sword that is re-forged. This is depicted most clearly with the breaking of Ice into two new swords, Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail, but it has cropped up throughout the essay. We then extended this idea to the idea that, if forging Lightbringer ended the Long Night, it may also have been the thing that caused the Long Night too.

the sword that was broken brian boudreau
Lightbri- er, wait, wrong franchise… (Brian Boudreau)

Lastly, we discussed the unbroken swords that appeared in each duel, introducing the duel between the Smiling Knight and Ser Arthur Dayne. This duel contained the key piece of information we needed – namely that, during the Long Night, Dawn does not break

This information does introduce a new puzzle though: if the breaking event is the forging event, and the Others are the ones who break the sword, does that mean the Others forged Lightbringer? Hopefully we’ll uncover more information about that as this essay series progresses because, quite honestly, I don’t have a clue what the fuck is happening there.

In any case, I hope this (massive) essay has shown that there is a lot of potential symbolism to explore in this cripples, bastards and broken things motif. In the next couple of essays, I want to investigate a couple of topics which we skirted around in this essay. 

Firstly, I want to have a look at the broken men of the series, as this moniker is given to the Brotherhood without Banners, and I want to see how that ties into this overall motif – and, yes, we will be talking about *that* monologue, so have your tissues at the ready! 

Then I hope to take a look at broken words, broken vows, broken promises and the like – the sword/words pun that has been very well-documented and one of the prime examples of a broken sword is Ice which becomes Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper. With that in mind, I believe this would quite neatly complement the broken swords idea we’ve explored so far.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed the essay and, if you have any questions or comments, I’d love to read them in the comments section below. To get notifications when I post a new essay, you can subscribe to my blog – there’s an option to do this down below the comments or on the menu to the right near the top of the page.