Realpolitik in Westeros: The Sworn Sword

I love the Dunk and Egg novellas for many reasons, but I had always preferred the first and third novellas to the second, The Sworn Sword. But now I’m listening to the Harry Lloyd read audiobook via Audible.


Dunk and Egg by arthatake

I read really fast, so sometimes I think I unintentionally skip over things. Listening to the story being told brings on a new way of experiencing the story, and for shorter stories like this that I devoured so quickly, makes me slow down and appreciate it.

It’s really struck me how important this novella is to understanding the game of thrones as it plays out in ASOIAF. We learn that power is in the eye of the beholder, not necessarily where bloodlines and law say it is. We also learn the impact of the first Blackfyre Rebellion, played out on a small stage in the conflict between Ser Eustace Osgrey of Standfast and Lady Rohane Webber, the “Red Widow” of Coldmoat in the Reach in the days of King Aerys I, when men said the king read books and scrolls of prophecy while bastard born Bloodraven, Hand of the King, ran the kingdom.

In amongst this we have the lessons learned by Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, Egg, also known as Aegon Targaryen, son of Prince Maekar Targaryen of Summerhall, who would one day go on to be King Aegon, Fifth of His Name….

If you’ve not read the novellas as ahem leaked onto the net in PDF form, or in the original books of collected short stories, GRRM recently published the first three Dunk and Egg books as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Also, the graphic novels are available through Marvel 🙂 If you’re on Audible, or otherwise like audiobooks, I highly recommend Harry Lloyd’s version. He really brings it all to life!

In the second volume, Dunk has taken service with Ser Eustace Osgrey, the last of the chequy lions of House Osgrey, a morose and miserable old landed knight who laments the loss of his sons and daughter. He tells the lowborn Ser Duncan who has the true chivalry of a knight that his sons all died in ‘the war’ (the First Blackfyre Rebellion) and spends most of his time looking at the former glory of his House, who were once northern wardens of the Reach, a house long bereft of glory and now full of chickens.

But over the course of the story, Dunk discovers the truth, unfortunately only after he has rode to Ser Eustace’s foe, Lady Rohane, to declare she is stealing the “chequy water” by damning the river than runs through the shared boundaries of their lands to fuel her own moat and crops. Ser Eustace fought for the Black Dragon, not the Red. He supported the claim of Daemon Blackfyre, whereas Egg’s family comes from the trueborn Red line of Daeron II, son of Aegon IV, Aegon the Unworthy.

What I like about the sections where Dunk finds out this, and his ride home and subsequent confrontation with Ser Eustace, is that Egg gets a few harsh truths about his family and what the smallfolk really think when the great lords play their games of thrones. Egg is still pretty young in this story, a boy of 10, who still believes that those who supported the Black Dragon were traitors to the realm, whose motivations could never have been pure. He’s young enough that the world is still black and white to him, and he’s outraged to find out that his master has taken service with one who fought for the enemy. Dunk and Egg make to leave Ser Eustace’s service, but end up stuck in the conflict because Dunk feels responsible for making things worse. (Again, showing that Ser Duncan has much, much greater adherence to a knight’s vows of honour, courage and chivalry than many of the more highborn knights we come across in Westeros.)

Dunk learns a lot about the way history can be remembered, and misremembered, and how to try to handle diplomacy. Dunk the Lunk might think he is as thick as a castle wall, but he has the sense to use Egg’s boot (or more importantly, the royal crest ring that confirms Egg is a Prince of the Blood, son of Prince Maekar of Summerhall, that Egg keeps for safekeeping in the toe of his boot) to solve the dispute with minimal blood letting.

But the biggest thing is that Egg has to learn that not everyone in the Seven Kingdoms think all of his family are untouchable from criticism, and that if he is going to live amongst the smallfolk, he needs to develop a thicker skin, lest he get a few more clouts to the head for speaking out of turn. When he’s Egg, he’s just a squire, not a Prince. That is the whole point of Ser Duncan’s experiment as proposed to Prince Maekar: Maekar’s older sons, Aerion Brightflame and Daeron the Drunk, have turned out to be disappointments for very different reasons, that Dunk suggests boldly to the prince that perhaps Egg would benefit from a very different upbringing.

That exchange concludes the first novella, The Hedge Knight, and in The Sworn Sword we get to see what kind of lessons Egg is learning apart from those any squire would learn (although I dunno if any other squire would learn how to chase chickens….)

Egg’s first trial: sulking and bastards

First, we get to watch with amusement (for the reader) and infuriating nervousness (for Dunk) as Egg gets more and more unimpressed with farty fat Septon Sefton’s views on the current crop of Targaryen royals.

“As for Aerys, His Grace cares more for old scrolls and dusty prophecies than for lords and laws. He will not even bestir himself to sire an heir. Queen Aelinor prays daily at the Great Sept, beseeching the Mother Above to bless her with a child, yet she remains a maid. Aerys keeps his own apartments, and it is said that he would sooner take a book to bed than any woman.” He filled his cup again.

“Make no mistake, ’tis Lord Rivers who rules us, with his spells and spies. There is no one to oppose him. Prince Maekar sulks at Summerhall, nursing his grievances against his royal brother. Prince Rhaegal is as meek as he is mad, and his children are . . . well, children. Friends and favorites of Lord Rivers fill every office, the lords of the small council lick his hand, and this new Grand Maester is as steeped in sorcery as he is. The Red Keep is garrisoned by Raven’s Teeth, and no man sees the king without his leave.”

Why is Maekar sulking, or “being wroth” as Egg prefers to think of it? Because King Aerys I, son of Daeron, brother to Maekar and the dead Baelor, named Lord Brynden Rivers, called Bloodraven, bastard son of Aegon IV, to the role of Hand of the King instead of Maekar himself. Egg learns a lesson he doesn’t want to learn: his father is sulking. The smallfolk can see what the boy princeling cannot.

Perhaps the realm did need Bloodraven and his network of spies after the First Blackfyre Rebellion, rather than the unloved Maekar who inadvertently caused the death of his brother Baelor in Ser Duncan’s Trial of the Seven at the Tourney of Ashford (details: The Hedge Knight.) Bloodraven might have been one of Aegon IV’s Great Bastards, like Bittersteel and Daemon Blackfyre, but he is one who has the best interests of the realm and House Targaryen at the heart of his motivations.

But the realm doesn’t like or trust Bloodraven. Not just because he’s a bastard, but because he is rumoured to be a sorcerer. Given that we later meet Bloodraven as the Three Eyed Crow in a cave of the Children of the Forest in the Land of Always Winter, there might be something to that!

Egg is so very sure that bastards cannot be trusted. It is known across the lands. Just ask Catelyn Tully Stark (in a hundred years or so…) what she thinks of bastards…

“King Aegon washed Bloodraven clean of bastardy,” he reminded Egg, “the same as he did the rest of them.”

“The old High Septon told my father that king’s laws are one thing, and the laws of the gods another,” the boy said stubbornly. “Trueborn children are made in a marriage bed and blessed by the Father and the Mother, but bastards are born of lust and weakness, he said. King Aegon decreed that his bastards were not bastards, but he could not change their nature. The High Septon said all bastards are born to betrayal . . . Daemon Blackfyre, Bittersteel, even Bloodraven. Lord Rivers was more cunning than the other two, he said, but in the end he would prove himself a traitor, too. The High Septon counseled my father never to put any trust in him, nor in any other bastards, great or small.

This is the way that the condemnation of bastards for the weaknesses of their parents is justified. These children are born of base desires, not the duty of the marriage bed, therefore they must be untrustworthy. Of course, it couldn’t possibly be that these bastards turn to such actions because they’ve been shunned and cast out by a judgemental and hypocritical society. No, one couldn’t possibly doubt the wisdom of the Faith on such matters…. End sarcasm.

But Dunk educates young Egg not to be so hasty on the subject of bastards and their tendency to betrayal.

Born to betrayal,Dunk thought.Born of lust and weakness. Never to be trusted, great or small. “Egg,” he said, “didn’t you ever think that I might be a bastard?”

“You, ser?” That took the boy aback. “You are not.”

“I might be. I never knew my mother, or what became of her. Maybe I was born too big and killed her. Most like she was some whore or tavern girl. You don’t find highborn ladies down in Flea Bottom. And if she ever wed my father . . . well, what became of him , then?”

… “The long and short of it is, most like you’re squiring for a bastard.”

“For once Egg had nothing to say” – as he processes this information that challenges what his Faith has told him to believe. We don’t have any further information about what Egg thinks about during their quiet ride back to Standfast, but perhaps he starts to mull over questioning the assumptions he has been told about the disloyalty of bastards. We know that he thinks highly of Ser Duncan, so much so that in the future when he becomes King, Ser Duncan becomes Lord Commander of his Kingsguard. This is one bastard at least that he comes to trust with his life.

Egg’s second trial: a man who believed in the Black Dragon

Egg doesn’t do so well at holding his tongue here. He has been fuming all ride home from the Coldmoat that Ser Eustace lied by omission, neglecting to specify in which King’s service his sons died. Dunk and Egg had assumed that Ser Eustace and his sons fought for King Daeron, as did Egg’s family, but we learn he did not. Ser Eustace supported Daemon Blackfyre, the one who was given The Sword. The Sword being Blackfyre, the ancient Valyrian longsword of Aegon the Conqueror, that had been traditionally borne by the eldest son and heir of each King of Westeros since Aegon’s landing. Instead, Aegon IV gave it to his natural son, Daemon Waters, who went on to create his own bastard house, House Blackfyre, inverting the traditional arms of House Targaryen:


When the Blackfyre Rebellions are spoken of in the main series, ASOIAF, its distantish past. The Blackfyre pretenders are thought to be snuffed out, as with the death of Maegor the Monstrous at the hands of Ser Barristan Selmy in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, the male line of House Blackfyre came to an end.

But remember: that was only a generation back. Tywin Lannister, Kevan Lannister, Aerys Targaryen before he was the Mad King, Steffon Baratheon (Father of Robert, Stannis and Renly), Hoster Tully, Jon Arryn – these great lords all fought in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. The threat of a Blackfyre incursion has only just been stopped, yet the younger generation, (Robb, Joffrey, Jon Snow and so on) think of it as being ancient history. (Foolishly, as I have stated.)

Here, in Dunk and Egg, it was only 15 years ago. Yes, it was before Egg’s time (as the boy is only 10), but it happened within Duncan’s lifetime (more or less.) And that was only the first of the Blackfyre Rebellions. There were more to come.

Egg has been raised on the stories of Targaryen truth: Daeron was a good king (which seems to be an uncontroversial opinion, as in The Hedge Knight we have no real mutterings of discontent about his performance as king after the first Blackfyre Rebellion has been quashed). Daemon was a bastard, no matter what Aegon IV might have tried to do to elevate him above his station. Aegon IV only gave Daemon the sword, not the kingship.

But here Egg gets his first real lesson in realpolitik – the truth of Daemon and Daeron’s paternity never really mattered. It’s unlikely anyone really believed that Daeron was the son of Aemon the Dragonknight, who snuck into his sister’s bedchambers when King Aegon IV was off shagging some other mistress. All that mattered was that Daemon appeared more kingly, more capable, than the bookish and chubby Daeron:

“Why were you a traitor? If it wasn’t just the castle.”

Ser Eustace looked at Egg a long time before replying. “You are only a young boy. You would not understand.”

“Well,” said Egg, “I might.”

“Treason . . . is only a word. When two princes fight for a chair where only one may sit, great lords and common men alike must choose. And when the battle’s done, the victors will be hailed as loyal men and true, whilst those who were defeated will be known forevermore as rebels and traitors. That was my fate.”

This is Egg’s first lesson in realpolitik – history is written by the victors. His father and uncles were only a battle’s loss away from being written off as the traitors, rather than the loyalists.

Egg thought about it for a time. “Yes, my lord. Only . . . King Daeron was a good man. Why would you choose Daemon?”

“Daeron . . .” Ser Eustace almost slurred the word, and Dunk realized he was half drunk. “Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked. Daemon stood straight and proud, and his stomach was flat and hard as an oaken shield. And he could fight. With ax or lance or flail, he was as good as any knight I ever saw, but with the sword he was the Warrior himself. When Prince Daemon had Blackfyre in his hand, there was not a man to equal him . . . not Ulrick Dayne with Dawn, no, nor even the Dragonknight with Dark Sister.

“You can know a man by his friends, Egg. Daeron surrounded himself with maesters, septons, and singers. Always there were women whispering in his ear, and his court was full of Dornishmen. How not, when he had taken a Dornishwoman into his bed, and sold his own sweet sister to the prince of Dorne, though it was Daemon that she loved? Daeron bore the same name as the Young Dragon, but when his Dornish wife gave him a son he named the child Baelor, after the feeblest king who ever sat the Iron Throne.

“Daemon, though . . . Daemon was no more pious than a king need be, and all the great knights of the realm gathered to him. It would suit Lord Bloodraven if their names were all forgotten, so he has forbidden us to sing of them, but I remember. Robb Reyne, Gareth the Grey, Ser Aubrey Ambrose, Lord Gormon Peake, Black Byren Flowers, Redtusk, Fireball . . .Bittersteel! I ask you, has there ever been such a noble company, such a roll of heroes?

“Why, lad? You ask me why? Because Daemon was the better man. The old king saw it, too. He gave the sword to Daemon.Blackfyre, the sword of Aegon the Conquerer, the blade that every Targaryen king had wielded since the Conquest . . . he put that sword in Daemon’s hand the day he knighted him, a boy of twelve.”

“My father says that was because Daemon was a swordsman, and Daeron never was,” said Egg. “Why give a horse to a man who cannot ride? The sword was not the kingdom, he says.”

The old knight’s hand jerked so hard that wine spilled from his silver cup. “Your father is a fool.”

Again, Egg has to remember: when he’s out in the world like this, as far as anyone knows his father is just any old minor lord. He cannot speak like a prince. People don’t realise he is talking about his father, Prince Maekar of Summerhall.

But most importantly, here he learns how people in the real world viewed his grandfather: a weak willed, flubby bellied scholar who shacked up with the stinky stinky Dornish, against the marvelous warrior who looked and acted like a true Dragon, despite being born a Waters. (NB: I don’t think the Dornish are stinky, but the men of the Reach and Stormlands are not their biggest fans, and The Sworn Sword is set in the Reach.)

Second lesson in realpolitik: power lies where men thinks it lies, not where they are told it lies. This lesson will be shown again in the main series, as we have Varys (possibly a Blackfyre or Brightflame himself) backing ‘Aegon’, and banking on the fact that power could lie where he tells Westeros it does, regardless of the truth.

Egg is faced here with old Ser Eustace who still believes, despite losing everything because of his support of the Black Dragon, that Daemon was the better king, not Daeron. What is noticeable is that while TWOIAF reminds us of the gossip and innuendo of which Bittersteel stoked the flames to justify his claim that Daemon ought to be king (that Daeron was not the trueborn son of Aegon IV, but instead a cuckolded bastard born of Aemon the Dragonknight,) here Ser Eustace is totally focused on the presentation of the two claimants for the Iron Throne. Egg is forcefully reminded that Westeros is a military absolute monarchy: a king needs to be able to match his knights in battle, at some stage in his life, to earn their respect. His grandfather Daeron, his brother named after the great king, and his uncle Aerys who is currently on the Throne: they all suffer in Westeros’ gossip field because they are not good warriors, as if a man’s strength of arm is all that matters in an assessment of his worth.

It’s a crappy lesson for young Egg to learn, but a vital one for when he will grow up to be King. Unfortunately, it led Egg to think he needed dragons as well as his skills as a warrior, which led to whatever the hell happened at Summerhall, and Aegon V’s death.

Gender in Westeros: Lady Rohanne, the Red Widow


Lady Webber, as depicted by Mike S Miller

One of the great things in this short story is the way we get to see how women in Westeros are screwed by a misogynist society, and can be denied their inheritance by their father’s wills. Also, we get to see what lengths a woman has to go to in order to keep her independence in such a society.

The conclusion of The Sworn Sword really brings this home:

“I had to marry, you know that…. oh don’t be such a fool…”

and then Dunk’s observation…

“Even highborn ladies don’t get all they want.”

Whether or not Lady Rohane was one of Ser Duncan’s conquests that might have led to little baby Dunks being born across Westeros (because we know or strongly suspect that at least one descendent of Duncan makes their way to Tarth, which is in the Reach Stormlands (thanks for the correction!)…) she and Duncan share a moment of some description in the stable.

But more importantly, we also see what women who stand to inherit lands in their own names have to put up with:

  • her father arranges through her will that she must marry within two years of his death or the lands and title will go to a male cousin;
  • a sworn knight, Ser Lucas Longinch, has decided that he should be that husband, despite Lady Rohane’s obvious and repeatedly professed distaste for her castellan appointed to guard her honour by her father before his death;
  • accusations of witchcraft and murder fly around her, because she has had the misfortune to bury four husbands and all her children;
  • and despite being attracted to Ser Duncan the Tall and his open chivalry, she ends up marrying aged, portly and not particularly pleasant (as we’ve spent the rest of the novel putting up with him) Ser Eustace, to avoid losing her lands to that male cousin

It’s a similar situation to that depicted in Pride and Prejudice. In Jane Austen’s work, Mr Bennett is unable to leave his lands to any of his daughters, because of the wishes of Bennetts gone past, who entailed the estate away so that only male heirs could inherit the land. The daughters must all marry, and marry well, in order to be supported (and supported Mrs Bennett in the manner to which she is accustomed!), and the lands of Mr Bennett will, unfortunately, go to his next living male relative: the odious vicar, Mr Collins.

Had Lady Rohane’s brothers survived (if she had any), she would have been sold off to another lord as a chattel. Even as it was, with Lady Rohane ostensibly inheriting the lands and titles of her father, she was expected to marry another lord and the lands would then become his, not hers.

And even when she is respected by her smallfolk and in control of her lands, Lady Rohane knows her position is weaker than any man’s:

“I cannot return to Coldmoat empty-handed. They will say the Red Widow has lost her bite, that she was too weak to do justice, that she could not protect her smallfolk. You do not understand, ser.”

This is the kind of dilemma that female leaders such as Julia Gillard understand only too well. They cannot be compassionate, without being derided as weak. They cannot be strong without being derided as a bitch. The standards applied to the female leader are not applied equally to the male leader, or are applied with more leniency. You cannot make a single mistake without it being “proof” that your entire gender is unfit for leadership. It’s extremely frustrating.

Whatever happened during Lady Rohane and Ser Eustace’s marriage, it did not last long. I presume he joined the ranks of husbands who had passed away. She went on to marry Gerald Lannister, and ultimately became the Lady of Casterly Rock: mother to Tytos, grandmother to Tywin Lannister.

13 thoughts on “Realpolitik in Westeros: The Sworn Sword

  1. LadyKnitsALot says:

    Thanks for the correction – I’ve amended the blog. I was thinking “they’re in the Reach, and Tarth isn’t that far away…” and wrote the wrong area!


  2. I love Bloodraven, but he really is not a good dude. The kinslaying at Redgrass was one thing, but when you see he only averted one Blackfyre rebellion, and murdered another under a peace flag… ugh.


    1. LadyKnitsALot says:

      Bloodraven is ruthless, but for the good of the realm – if we assume that eradicating the Blackfyre rebellion was a good thing. Which I think it was. I was reading a great blog on The War and Politics of Ice and Fire the other day that pointed out that Bittersteel’s pushing of the Blackfyres was more about his own bitterness with being shut out of the royal family and his jealousy of Bloodraven than any real interest in the Throne. Interesting point.


      1. Oh I totally am anti-Blackfyre, but there were still 5 Rebellions, only one of which ended nonviolently. It seems like the police state he created made people more sympathetic to the Blackfyre cause.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. LadyKnitsALot says:

    The other problem is that Bloodraven was easy to hate for many in Westeros – he was a bastard, he was disabled (albino and his eye injury) and he was rumoured to practice magic. (Which we can suspect was true, given that he used a glamour to disguise himself as Maynard Plumm in TMK and we know he went on to become the Last Greenseer with the COTF!)

    It was easier to hate and fear Bloodraven and blame all the ills of the kingdom on him, than to accept that shit happens.

    You have to look at why people were whispering against the Iron Throne and supporting the Blackfyre cause: because of drought. Because successive Targaryen kings (Daeron II, Aerys I) were bookish and not much chop as warriors. Because Baelor Breakspear was killed by his brother Maekar.

    All things that just happened – not because of any one in particular, just shit happened. Well… if Aerion Brightflame hadn’t been a cunt to Dunk, then his uncle Baelor wouldn’t have died in the trial by Seven but it’s not like Aerion planned for his father to kill his uncle!


    1. The biggest reason I love him is that he just Owns his Freak! Like yeah, I’ll show you a magical albino treacherous bastard!

      And yeah that’s part of why he’s a dick. I totally agree, if Maekar was Hand, the droughts and plagues still would happen, and they’d blame him for being a kinslayer. But Rebellion 3-5 happened despite everything BR tried, he didn’t do shit about the Greyjoys, and he murdered the Blackfyres invited to the Great Council. That was way beyond the pale. No pun intended ouch.


      1. LadyKnitsALot says:

        Bloodraven was quite strategic – he trusted the Starks and Lannisters to deal with the Greyjoy reaving, in their roles as Wardens of the North and West. Did it need a crown response when the Stark lord especially had it in hand? Probably not.

        Bloodraven definitely committed war crimes though. Unlike Tywin Lannister who commits war crimes in his mission to prove House Lannister (and he) are better than everyone else, Bloodraven commits war crimes by murdering under a flag of peace arguably for the good of the realm. Chaotic Good, if you will. Do the ends justify the means?


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