Three Hedge Knights: Howland Reed, Elder Brother, and Sandor Clegane
Their Gallantry is Yet to be Demonstrated: The Winds of Winter prediction that a glamor spell disguises the Beast as a Beauty
Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”
“Knights they are,” said Petyr. “Their gallantry has yet to be demonstrated, but we may hope.Allow me to present Ser Byron, Ser Morgarth, and Ser Shadrich. Sers, the Lady Alayne, my natural and very clever daughter . . . with whom I must needs confer, if you will be so good as to excuse us.”
The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.(Alayne II, AFFC)
“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong.” (Sansa III, AGOT)
“He was going to take me back to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight[…]” (Sansa IV, AGOT on her misremembering her father’s words.)
First, the acknowledgements. This essay is possible because of the original post here by the invaluable contributor on the westeros.org forums, bemused in August of 2016. Bemused presented the case for the identities of Ser Shadrich and Ser Morgarth being Howland Reed and Elder Brother respectively. I was inclined to agree and even was able to find evidence to expand upon that idea. The only point of disagreement was on the identity of Ser Byron “the Beautiful,” who I am proposing is Sandor Clegane under a glamor. This essay sets out to show how this is even possible, how these three men work together in the plot, that this is what GRRM actually intends to happen, and to lay out the textual evidence and clues as clearly as possible. Other forum contributors who must be thanked for their astute reading and dogged assistance in building this theory are sweetsunray and Ashes of Westeros.
By Blue-Eyed Wolf
Note: To avoid bogging down an already long essay, I will provide links to smaller, less important quotes if needed for textual support.
- Part I: The Importance of Reading the Three as One
- Part II: Shadrich’s Intentions
- Part III: The Case for Howland Reed
- Part IV: The Quiet Isle, Elder Brother, and Ser Morgarth
- Part V: Sandor Clegane and Ser Byron: The Beast Enchanted into a Beauty
- Part VI: Brienne’s Symbolic Journey Down the Acorn and Ivy Path
- Part VII: Tying Everything Together in Sansa’s POV
PART I: The Importance of Reading the Three as One
Before exploring the individual identities of our hedge knights, we should first look at how GRRM intends for us to view them: as a team. Even though it is Shadrich who we will be introduced to first in Brienne’s AFFC POV, the next two times we see him will be in the company of Morgarth and Byron in Alayne II, AFFC and in Alayne, TWOW sample chapter. It’s written as if we’re supposed to both see them and unsee them as Sansa’s attention is drawn elsewhere. Because the author places the men together in consecutive order we should be considering not just their individual identities, but also considering how they will fit together logically and thematically in the story. They should harmonize well together with each contributing something important for the task at hand.
This makes the name Shadrich all the more a significant choice if we look to the similarities with the biblical Shadrach and his companions Meshach and Abednego from the Book of Daniel. Just as a brief paraphrase of the story, those are the Babylonian names they’ve taken as appointed officials in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. Their real Hebrew names are Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria. The king builds a golden statue and commands that all of his officials must bow down before it on pain of execution in a fiery furnace. Of course the three being Hebrew and godly men refuse to do so. When they are set to burn in the furnace, they are protected by God for their faithfulness (as depicted by a mysterious fourth man in there with them referred to as appearing like “the son of God”). They walk about the flames unharmed and eventually escape. So in this story we have themes of: three “godly” men under assumed names, a king that appoints them to positions in his court, the king will be defied, a fourth “man” who will join them, and an unexpected escape by supernatural means. These themes will become much more clearly fitting as we explore the clues in Brienne and Sansa’s AFFC arcs.
There are a few key points we should keep in mind for the hedge knight team even if they are exactly what they appear to be and only out to kidnap Sansa for a ransom:
- For any plan, rescue or kidnapping, to work Littlefinger must believe they are exactly the hired swords they appear to be for him to be completely at ease and to allow them around “his daughter.”
- Littlefinger must believe that there’s no way the hedge knights could know who Alayne really is.
- Logically, there must be at least one member of the team that can positively ID Sansa through a disguise or physical changes brought on by time and puberty. Even if they are kidnapping her, there’s no reward for bringing the wrong girl back to King’s Landing.
We know by the fact that they were hired, came back with Littlefinger from Gulltown, spent hours in his solar drinking and talking, have been personally introduced to Alayne, and they have by TWOW sample chapter spent months at the Gates of the Moon without any cause for suspicion means all of the above points are true.
If the hedge knights are in fact under false identities, Littlefinger cannot in any way be previously familiar with any one of them or he would be immediately suspicious of their presence and intentions. He cannot be able to identify them as anyone other than the identities they have presented.
Shadrich succeeded in finding Sansa where all others had failed. This means he found the right information that lead him to Sansa. How he got that information is critically important question to answer.
PART II: Shadrich’s Intentions
In this part we’ll be looking at the evidence in favor of Ser Shadrich being an ally and friend to Sansa, no matter if he is Howland Reed, someone else entirely, or simply the Mad Mouse. These clues will also directly connect him to associations with Sandor Clegane, an obvious ally to both Stark girls. But first and as equally important, we need to examine the reasons for Brienne being an unreliable narrator when it comes to analyzing Shadrich through her POV.
Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. “Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her?”
“For love, why else?”
She furrowed her brow. “Love?”
“Aye, love of gold. Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.” (Brienne I, AFFC)
This conversation Brienne has upon meeting Ser Shadrich is often cited as damning proof of him being simply a bounty hunter if we take it at face value. There’s subtle details here that indicate his motivations are not actually greedy, but helpful even to Brienne herself. Shadrich is telling her, actually warning her, that Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer are liars and frauds. This is something Shadrich assesses within moments of meeting them, which should be a confirmation of most readers’ first impressions of the two.
As we shall see from the examples presented, Brienne will show a persistent pattern * in AFFC of reading people wrong; therefore, she is an unreliable narrator in assessing Ser Shadrich and we should not fall into the trap of taking a POV character’s word as accurate without supporting evidence. Here’s a rundown of Brienne’s inability to read others accurately:
- She fails to be suspicious of the grandiose and dubious claims of Creighton Longbough and his partner, Illifer the Penniless. After being with them a short time she refers to them as “decent men,” but their knightly status is likely fake as Brienne admits herself she’s never heard of them or the knights they claim to have slain at the Blackwater. Nor are their sigils recognizable to her. Yet, it never occurs to her to press them with more pointed questions or to even be particularly wary. With so many dead soldiers from the war, it isn’t difficult to find bits of armor to pass oneself off as a hedge knight. They are clearly using her as she pays their way at the inn at the old stone bridge. This is after the innkeeper makes plain that Creighton is a good-for-nothing freeloader. While they don’t appear to be as terrible as most outlaws, they do seem to be looking for the next big score. It would therefore be highly likely they would betray Brienne to get their hands on Sansa. That much should be obvious to the reader as much as it is to Shadrich. Even much later on her journey she will still think back that “perhaps she had made a mistake in abandoning Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer. They had seemed like honest men.” What makes them sohonest to her if she even admits she can’t verify their story? It’s most likely because she sees them as simply “old,” “vain,” and ridiculous, therefore they are harmless. So harmless then translates to seemingly decent and honest for her.
- She tersely notes but immediately forgets the boy on the piebald horse (who turns out to be Podrick Payne) that is mentioned three times across Brienne I & II. It takes a fourth brush with him before it finally dawns on her she’s seen him before and should take an interest.
- She constantly thinks of Nimble Dick Crabb as a murderous type, but he actually turns out to be just a starving petty conman who jumped at the opportunity for a little coin; however, unlike Creighton, he is described as “scrawny and ill-fed.” Nimble Dick is telling her the truth as he knew it about “fooling a fool,” who will turn out to be Shagwell of the Brave Companions, not Dontos Hollard. He only tells her about seeing two girls with the fool because Brienne gave him leading questions with promise of more coin. But what else does he do that warrants so much mistrust from her? Nothing. The worst thing he does is rattle Podrick with colorful stories by the campfire of “squishers” and his ancestor, Ser Clarence Crabb. Brienne will realize after poor Dick’s gruesome death at the hands of Shagwell that she should have trusted him.
- Although she has reason to be doubtful of Ser Hyle Hunt at first for a cruel game at Highgarden, his actions thereafter are those of a helper and someone who wants to improve Brienne’s opinion of him. He carries the stinking, rotting heads of the Bloody Mummers all the way back to Maidenpool, which Brienne believe he plans to claim the credit for himself. Instead he gives Brienne and Podrick full credit for slaying the outlaws, publicly testifying to her bravery and skill. He stands up to Randall Tarly and leaves his service to join her, and seems genuinely attracted to her despite the teasing. The reward for finding Sansa Stark he speaks of is then likely not gold, but earning Brienne’s favor and her accepting him as a suitor. He also makes the auspicious suggestion to seek out Septon Meribald. She continues to think the worst of Hyle throughout, but her opinion begins to change after he helps her defend the orphans against Rorge and Biter. She even defends him before they are about to be hanged by Lady Stoneheart and the BwB.
To sum up, we have good reason to doubt Brienne’s first impressions of Ser Shadrich, because she nearly gets everyone she encounters in AFFC wrong.
* Sweetsunray has noticed Brienne shows a pattern in her internal monologue of being prone to thinking in overly literal terms. She fails to pick up on sarcasm. She has no ear for tone of voice, which is key to understanding others. Unlike most POV characters that do assess the eye movements, facial expressions and body language of others, Brienne focuses on mechanical movement and misinterprets subtle facial expressions if she notices them at all. If she does pick up on social cues, they have to be blatantly obvious. This is not to say she is unintellegent, but there seems to be an impairment there which has an impact on her ability to accurately judge others. She does have a general mistrust (of men especially) based on her life experience, but that is not the same as having good sense of what makes an individual trustworthy or untrustworthy. Sweetsunray goes into more details and examples of these patterns here and has proposed Brienne may have a Pragmatic Language Impairment.
Brienne’s AFFC arc is almost a parody of the knight errant story. The white knight is supposed to be the perfect hero to rescue the maiden. George would seem to have it otherwise. As one of the most honest, noble, pure-intentioned characters in the books as well as an excellent warrior, her skillset could not be worse for going up against the likes of Petyr Baelish. Consider how deftly he outmaneuvered the Lords Declarant who thought to oust him with direct confrontation, noble intentions, and show of military force. Even when she gives her best attempt at playing the deception game, she is painfully transparent. She tries to claim that she isn’t looking for Sansa, but an unnamed sister that looks exactly like Sansa. Shadrich calls her bluff in seconds and this is exactly the reason that he can’t ally himself with her. She places trust in the wrong people and she can’t lie. And again, Shadrich warns her that Creighton is not what he seems. The following quotes are from Brienne I, AFFC.
“I am searching for my sister.” She dared not mention Sansa’s name, with her accused of regicide. “She is a highborn maid and beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair. Perhaps you saw her with a portly knight of forty years, or a drunken fool.”
“The roads are full of drunken fools and despoiled maidens. As to portly knights, it is hard for any honest man to keep his belly round when so many lack for food . . . though your Ser Creighton has not hungered, it would seem.”
Ser Shadrich laughed. “Oh, I doubt that, but it may be that you and I share a quest. A little lost sister, is it? With blue eyes and auburn hair?” He laughed again. “You are not the only hunter in the woods. I seek for Sansa Stark as well.”
Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. “Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her?“
Brienne may keep her face straight and doesn’t mention Sansa by name, but she gave herself away easily. She mentions the description of Dontos: portly knight or drunken fool. Also, if she doesn’t know who Sansa Stark is, why does she care what Shadrich’s intentions are toward her?
“I know no Sansa Stark,” she insisted. “I am searching for my sister, a highborn girl . . .”
“. . . with blue eyes and auburn hair, aye. Pray, who is this knight who travels with your sister? Or did you name him fool?” Ser Shadrich did not wait for her answer, which was good, since she had none. “A certain fool vanished from King’s Landing the night King Joffrey died, a stout fellow with a nose full of broken veins, one Ser Dontos the Red, formerly of Duskendale. I pray your sister and her drunken fool are not mistaken for the Stark girl and Ser Dontos. That could be most unfortunate.” He put his heels into his courser and trotted on ahead.
Indeed, she isn’t fooling anyone. Now that we’ve looked at Brienne’s limitations as an unreliable narrator and complete ineptitude for subterfuge and detective work, we need to look at Shadrich himself for clues to his intentions. Let’s go back to this quote:
“Aye, love of gold. Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.”
Shadrich also claimed that he was on the “losing side” at the Blackwater and that his “ransom ruined [him]” as his reasons for hunting Sansa Stark. It doesn’t quite make sense that a man as shrewd as Shadrich would be so forthcoming with his personal “ruined” situation and offering to split the reward with Brienne, someone he just met only minutes ago. Why would he even think at that point that this stranger would a merit a split of the reward? He also gives no details of who captured him or to whom he paid his ransom to. It’s a seemingly plausible, but unverifiable backstory. This exchange seems to be more about Shadrich sussing out Brienne’s intentions rather than the other way around. Creighton and Illifer he had figured out within seconds. His curiosity must have been piqued when he meets a lady warrior point-blank asking anyone she meets if they have seen her nameless sister who is obviously Sansa Stark. Again, he has to warn Brienne she isn’t “the only hunter in the woods.”
Keep in mind it had not even occurred to Brienne at this point that other people would start their search for Sansa and Dontos at Duskendale, where the Hollards had previously served House Darklyn. Shadrich had to spell this out for her. This will later be confirmed by the maester in Brienne II when she reaches the castle that several have already been there, including the gold cloaks. Duskendale was exactly where Creighton and Illifer said they were headed. Even they had sense enough not to discuss openly their purpose there, yet their destination should have been enough to make someone think they might be going there for the same reason as Brienne. It’s Shadrich she calls “unsavory,” but what has Shadrich actually done that was so unsavory? Has he been threatening? No. He called her a “wench.” Jaime’s done that. He mentions the bounty, but he repeatedly hints to her that her companions are frauds (true) and that the way she is going about her search is hopelessly inept (also true). It seems like the worst the Shadrich actually does is make her feel foolish.
This initial exchange with Shadrich reveals that plainly. He then was most likely mentioning the Blackwater, his financial ruin, and the split of the reward to give himself a plausible backstory and motivation. Also he’s likely trying to bait Brienne with promise of the reward to provoke a response. Although he can see she is not tempted by gold and would genuinely help Sansa, she would be a liability with her other limitations. This becomes even more apparent later when we find out Shadrich manages to enter Littlefinger’s service and spend months at the Gates of the Moon without raising any suspicion. It’s also an early hint that Shadrich is looking for the right allies for a special ops team. As great a warrior and as good a person as she is, she is unfit for a covert mission to find and retrieve the most wanted girl in Westeros. This scene is a perfect example of the recurring theme of ravens versus Baelor’s doves that GRRM often gives us. One seems ideal like a white knight on a noble quest, but it are really the clever and bold that are better equipped for the task… like a Mad Mouse and his crew.
While “love of gold” and “plump bag of gold” may point to avarice, this is also isn’t the first time gold is associated with a Stark girl and it relates directly to the helper, Sandor Clegane. At the tourney of the Hand, the day after Sandor reveals the secret of his scars to Sansa and she responds compassionately, Sandor saves Ser Loras from being killed by Gregor Clegane. In turn, he is declared the winner (which Sansa “knew the Hound would win”) and receives the purse of forty-thousand gold dragons. He also loses that purse when it is taken by the Brotherhood Without Banners. In return Sandor steals Arya from them with the plan of returning her to her family. (Greenbeard who also has the same idea but strictly for a ransom also refers to Arya as a “golden squirrel”). Sandor is firmly established as a character that cares little for gold any more than he does titles, so this bag of dragons is important to him for what it represents and the reasons he won it, not just its monetary value or practical use.
The gold, Stark girls, and Sandor associations continue again in TWOW with this exchange between Shadrich and Alayne Stone. There’s more to their scene than this, but let’s focus on these connections first.
Alayne turned abruptly from the yard…and bumped into a short, sharp-faced man with a brush of orange hair who had come up behind her. His hand shot out and caught her arm before she could fall. “My lady. My pardons if I took you unawares.”
“A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for, unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons. And that’s not likely, is it?”
The only other person who catches Sansa by the arm to stop her from falling is Sandor (especially after she bumps into him). It happens twice in memorable scenes, once on the serpentine steps and once the night before the Blackwater. In the above scene Shadrich appears suddenly behind her after Sansa engages in an increasingly tense conversation with Lyn Cobray, a violent, quick-tempered man. Shadrich seeing the danger approaches and positions himself to “accidently” bump into Sansa, drawing her away from Ser Lyn. As if that wasn’t a clue enough that we should be thinking in terms of linking Shadrich to Sandor, then we also have Shadrich equating Sansa to a “bag of dragons,” which we’ve already established makes a literal and literary connection between Sandor and both Stark girls. Also another tiny detail, Ser Shadrich is described as having a very similar scar beneath his ear, the same as Hyle Hunt.
Using wordplay to simultaneously express honestly and to obscure one’s true thoughts is a hallmark of Sandor’s way of speaking, often termed “Sandorspeak” in the fandom. A few good examples of this are here where he is definitely not referring to Joffrey, but himself. Also here where he is deliberately obscuring if he’s referring to a man needing a woman or both women and men needing wine. Shadrich also does this in his quip to Ser Creighton after listening to him boast in the inn. In this sense, if we look at Shadrich claiming to be searching for Sansa “for love, why else?” it actually can be meant honestly before he pivots to “love of gold” in order to test Brienne’s reaction. From the pattern and Shadrich referring to Sansa as a “bag of dragons,” “love of gold” can just as easily mean “love of Ned’s daughter” too.
We have one last feature of Ser Shadrich that he has in common with other known helpers and Stark allies in the ASOIAF series: he rides specifically a chestnut courser. After saving Sansa from the mob in the bread riot of King’s Landing, Sandor mounts upon Sansa’s chestnut courser to carry her back to safety. Brynden “the Blackfish” Tully also rides one. So does Brienne’s helper Hyle Hunt, who rides with her on her quest to find Sansa. It’s established many times over that GRRM uses horses to reflect traits of the rider, named or unnamed. If we can prove three of these four are helpers and these are the only times a chestnut courser is ridden, it stands to reason that Ser Shadrich will also fit this pattern.
Other possible hints at his solidarity with Sansa Stark are in his “shock of orange hair” and in the sigil upon his shield.
[…]Ser Shadrich was a wiry, fox-faced man with a sharp nose and a shock of orange hair[…]”Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen. Some call me the Mad Mouse.” He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. “The brown is for the lands I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve crossed. The mouse is me.” (Brienne I, AFFC)
While it is possible that someone could naturally have a very bright shade of copper that would appear orange, this may actually be from hair dye. Hair dye is something that is well known in the series. Tyroshi men use it for flamboyant decoration, but in Westeros it is most commonly used by characters for a disguise in numerous examples. Sansa’s hair is dyed “chestnut” brown (possibly drawing a connection to the chestnut coursers) to hide her true identity. Sansa will note Shadrich’s face is aged, so it’s very likely his natural hair color may have at least some gray. When a person with a significant amount of gray tries to dye their hair a pure red or copper shade, the white hairs appear much brighter and less natural. Reds can appear even pinkish and copper could appear a shocking orange. While the orange may seem overly conspicuous a choice, it may be sign of solidarity with Sansa’s natural hair that is lighter and more coppery than her mother’s.
The “orange” connection to helpfulness will turn up again repeatedly in Brienne’s arc in the form of Septon Meribald’s “rare and costly” oranges. Brienne also purchases an orange for Podrick, a rare treat gifted as an act of kindness toward him. These are not the blood oranges of Littlefinger or Prince Doran. The septon gives them away out of kindness and charity to the common people of the Riverlands. Their monetary value means nothing to him. This is purely a loving act. This connection to Shadrich’s hair may reinforce the idea he is indeed there “for love” and Sansa’s ransom actually means nothing to him. So Shadrich as a shocking orange may mean help is coming in the most unlikely and surprising of ways.
Whether naturally or unnaturally orange, Shadrich’s hair color seems symbolically significant when we look at the shield connection. The “white mouse with the fierce red eyes” upon Shadrich’s shield is a blatant weirwood face and color reference. This demands our attention that he has some affiliation with Northern First Men culture, which is very strange if Shadrich is passing himself off a knight, even a hedge knight. Knighthood is mainly part of Southron and Andal culture and a rarity in the North. Such an unusual sigil in this context should provoke many questions of Shadrich’s backstory. Tying that to his hair color, there is also a connection to being “kissed by fire and weirwood leaves have been compared to flames like this example here. GRRM makes a connection to specifically copper hair and a burning tree here with Addam Marbrand. Addam is one of the three people in the books described as having specifically “copper” hair along with Sansa (who has a weirwood connection by heritage and all the Stark children being wargs as confirmed by GRRM) and Melisandre (who is definitely connected to burning weirwoods as well as statues of the Seven and human sacrifice). Fire in real world mythology and in the books appears many times over as divine knowledge of the gods or “fire of the gods.” Biblical Shadrach, as already mentioned, has a connection to fire by being directly protected by God in the fiery furnace.
There will be closer examination of Shadrich’s sigil when we look at Howland Reed, but for now we can safely say there’s enough evidence here to start considering Shadrich an ally to Sansa, no matter if he has another identity or not. But this begs a very important question…
If Ser Shadrich is a helper and ally, then why is he a helper and ally? What does Sansa Stark mean to him? Why would a mere hedge knight nobody do this “for love” if he doesn’t have some pre-existing association with House Stark? To reveal Shadrich’s identity we need to look for someone deeply emotionally connected to House Stark and who has connections to the Old Gods.
In the next few parts we’ll be focusing on the cases for the individuals, but we will definitely not be leaving it there. Some physical descriptions and some parallels are simply not enough evidence to rely on. If the three are a team, it is equally important to present evidence for the team as a whole working towards a common objective.
PART III: The Case for Howland Reed
There is a temptation to look at the physical descriptions of Meera and Jojen as a basis for Howland’s appearance to disqualify him being Shadich outright. Meera and Jojen are described as having brown hair and green eyes. There’s no mention of either of having fox-like features on their faces. Keep in mind they do also have a mother, who they may favor over their father. She is listed in the AFFC appendix as being Jyana Reed, Howland’s wife. It is perfectly reasonable that Howland could actually look completely different than his children.
This is Meera Reed’s telling of the little crannogman story that is obviously her father from Bran II, ASOS and note Howland’s traits:
He was small like all crannogmen, but brave and smart and strong as well. He grew up hunting and fishing and climbing trees, and learned all the magics of my people.
Bran was almost certain he had never heard this story. “Did he have green dreams like Jojen?”
“No,” said Meera, “but he could breathe mud and run on leaves, and change earth to water and water to earth with no more than a whispered word. He could talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear.”
“The lad knew the magics of the crannogs,” she continued, “but he wanted more. Our people seldom travel far from home, you know. We’re a small folk, and our ways seem queer to some, so the big people do not always treat us kindly. But this lad was bolder than most, and one day when he had grown to manhood he decided he would leave the crannogs and visit the Isle of Faces.
“No one visits the Isle of Faces,” objected Bran. “That’s where the green men live.”
“It was the green men he meant to find…”
All that winter the crannogman stayed on the isle, but when the spring broke he heard the wide world calling and knew the time had come to leave. His skin boat was just where he’d left it, so he said his farewells and paddled off toward shore.
Howland Reed is set apart from the average crannogman. He knows all the hunting and survival skills of the crannog as well as all their magic. He does not have Jojen’s greendreams, but he has an impressive magical repertoire and this is prior to his time on the Isle of Faces. He does not stay close to home like other crannog out of fear of larger people as he is “bolder than most.” He has ambition to learn even more magic. Upon manhood, he travels to stay a whole winter season with the greenmen on the Isle of Faces in the center of the lake called the God’s Eye to learn their secrets. Howland must have been exceptional to have been allowed this privilege, because as Bran says no one visits the Isle of Faces *. The isle is one of the few last known places in southern Westeros to have a living weirwood grove, not just individual trees.
* As a quick review of some Dawn Age history, it is said that the Isle of Faces is the site of the children calling down “the hammer of the waters” to break the arm of Dorne to stop further invasion of First Men from Essos. There’s some speculation that this particular form of magic involved blood sacrifice. While stopping the tide of First Men was too late, the demonstration of power apparently brought about “The Pact” for peace made on the Isle of Faces between the children and the First Men. This starts the beginning of the Age of Heroes. This same magic is probably the cause of the flooding of the Neck, where the crannogmen currently live. This caused a natural barrier to invasion from south. There is legend of crannogmen being small stature because of possible past intermarriage with the children of the forest.
We should also note that young Howland was able to travel alone, through hostile Frey territory, unseen.
“He passed beneath the Twins by night so the Freys would not attack him, and when he reached the Trident he climbed from the river and put his boat on his head and began to walk. It took him many a day, but finally he reached the Gods Eye, threw his boat in the lake, and paddled out to the Isle of Faces.” (Bran II, ASOS)
Even lugging a boat around over land for several days, this is testimony to the skill level of the crannog in stealthy movement and living off the land. Meera and Jojen’s skillsets would appear to confirm this. Her hunting has kept Bran and company living off the land as they move North in search of the three-eyed raven. They also haven’t been found out by any hostile parties along the way. Looking at what Jojen says about Meera and what Meera says about the little crannogman, we see many overlaps:
The gods give many gifts, Bran. My sister is a hunter. It is given to her to run swiftly, and stand so still she seems to vanish. She has sharp ears, keen eyes, a steady hand with net and spear. She can breathe mud and fly through trees. I could not do these things, no more than you could. To me the gods gave the green dreams, and to you . . . you could be more than me, Bran. You are the winged wolf, and there is no saying how far and high you might fly. . . if you had someone to teach you. How can I help you master a gift I do not understand? We remember the First Men in the Neck, and the children of the forest who were their friends . . . but so much is forgotten, and so much we never knew. (Bran I, ASOS)
Again the “breathing mud” and “flying through trees” (and what those things may actually mean we will be exploring later) is mentioned again. Meera has clearly inherited the survival and hunting skills of her father and Jojen has inherited a more mystical gift, even if Howland does not possess the power of prophetic dreams.
We also know of Howland Reed’s involvement of the events of the tourney at Harrenhal where he first met and befriended Brandon, Ned, Lyanna, and Benjen Stark. He was beaten and bullied by dishonorable squires for being a small-statured crannogman. It was Lyanna Stark in particular that drove off the offending squires, who insisted that he attend the tourney feast, and gave him a place among the Starks on the dais. It is also Lyanna that is widely believed to be the Knight of the Laughing Tree that avenged Howland and earned his undying loyalty to House Stark and Lyanna in particular. Meera explains as a crannog, he would not have the skillset needed to joust to avenge himself. That Howland Reed cannot compete as a tourney knight is a very important fact that the author makes very clear. Howland’s loyalty to House Stark will be demonstrated in his service to Ned Stark in Robert’s Rebellion and attempting to rescue Lyanna from the Tower of Joy. They failed to reach Lyanna in time to save her. I believe Howland would be particularly motivated to save her niece. Especially at the Vale tourney, where it would be the inverse of Harrenhal: a crannogman disguised as a knight saves a Stark girl.
Now let us take a pause before continuing to compare this to what we know of Ser Shadrich and compare him to Howland Reed. They are both small-statured, but proportional. Sansa says Shadrich is so short he might have been “taken for a squire.” So he could be mistaken for a youth if you didn’t see his aged face. Even sixteen-year-old Meera is described as being “scarcely taller than [almost nine-year-old] Bran.” Shadrich is then consistent with typical crannog body type.
The Mad Mouse is so named not because he is literally mentally ill as Brienne asks, but because he is a contradiction. He’s not a typical mouse. “Your common mouse will run from blood and battle. The mad mouse seeks them out.” he tells her. So like the little crannogman, he is “bold” and “brave.” They both are not typical of their own kind, whether it be mice or the shy crannog people. They are both unafraid of danger and experienced fighters. We don’t know exact details, but we do know that Howland Reed played a key role in Ned Stark surviving the Tower of Joy and in the death of Arthur Dayne, noted as one of the greatest warriors of his day.
They are both well-travelled, even through hostile enemy territory. Howland Reed travelling alone and undetected through Frey lands at about sixteen-years-old. He’s also travelled over great distances in his service to Eddard Stark during Robert’s Rebellion. Ser Shadrich references the device on his shield to point to his travels:
“Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen *. Some call me the Mad Mouse.” He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. “The brown is for the lands I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve crossed. The mouse is me.” (Brienne I, AFFC.)
* The name Shady Glen is an interesting choice to claim to hail from as well. Shady Glen appears to be a play on Dusken and dale, both roughly meaning a darkened or shaded valley. Duskendale is also the location of the historic, daring one-man rescue operation of Ser Barristan Selmy the Bold who infiltrated the castle to rescue King Aerys from Lord Darklyn’s dungeons. Lord Tywin Lannister gave Barristan a day to execute his rescue mission before sacking the city. Selmy recalls he left at the “hour of the wolf” and returned at the “hour of the wolf’,” successfully saving his king. He refers to this event as “his finest hour.”
Ser Shadrich is obviously not alone when Brienne first meets him. He’s with the merchant, Hibald, and his servants but says he’s only travelling with them as far as Duskendale. Why not alone? Because he’s travelling to a large town, not an off-the-grid island. For practical reasons there is not only some safety in numbers when travelling on main roads, but also there’s news and gossip to be found by fellow travellers passing by or at inns. By the time we meet Shadrich again at the Gates of the Moon, we know he’s travelled and tracked quite a distance to exactly the right place. This is very much like how Howland Reed left the Isle of Faces at the most auspicious time to arrive at Harrenhal for the historically significant tourney. And now in TWOW, we have the tourney of the Winged Knights on the horizon. Exactly how Shadrich finds his way to Sansa will be explored in the timeline of events.
The “breathing mud” ability attributed to Howland Reed is most likely referring to how well-adapted the crannog are in the harsh environment of the Neck. Anyone else would easily get hopelessly lost. Knights have drowned in the bogs and there are poisonous plants and lizard lions. They are disparaged for seeming to live in a primitive manner in an uncivilized place, but they have made this place home for thousands of years. This is what Theon describes of the Neck and how dangerous it is:
The swampy ground beyond the causeway was impassable, an endless morass of suckholes, quicksands, and glistening green swards that looked solid to the unwary eye but turned to water the instant you trod upon them, the whole of it infested with venomous serpents and poisonous flowers and monstrous lizard lions with teeth like daggers. Just as dangerous were its people, seldom seen but always lurking, the swamp-dwellers, the frog-eaters, the mud-men. (Reek II, ADWD)
This is precisely the talent one needs for navigating the mud and sinkholes that surround the Quiet Isle at low tide. In Brienne V, Meribald warns Podrick to stay off the mud as “it will open up and swallow you” if you step in the wrong place. Meribald is experienced with coming to the isle for many years, so he knows how to get to the isle on foot safely. It’s a long, winding path guided by “feeling” around the mud with his staff first. This should be nothing for Howland Reed, who has been navigating through more dangerous mud his entire life. No ferry to the isle necessary.
We should also be drawing a connection between Shadrich’s weirwood-colored mouse sigil and to The Knight of the Laughing Tree’s weirwood sigil shield. Both the Mad Mouse and the Laughing Tree sigils are contradictions. Actual weirwoods are not depicted as smiling or laughing. Their carved out expressions are supposed to look pained or frightening. The events of the mystery knight avenging Howland also remind us that he cannot avenge himself because he is not a tourney knight. Now look at Ser Shadrich’s statements about himself:
“…’Tis true, I am no tourney knight. I save my valor for the battlefield, woman.” (Brienne I, AFFC)
In TWOW Alayne sample chapter, Myranda Royce asks him if he will be competing in the joust for a position in Robert Arryn’s Winged Knights:
“Will you be seeking wings?” the Royce girl said.
“A mouse with wings would be a silly sight.”
“Perhaps you will try the melee instead?” Alayne suggested. The melee was an afterthought, a sop for all the brothers, uncles, fathers, and friends who had accompanied the competitors to the Gates of the Moon to see them win their silver wings, but there would be prizes for the champions, and a chance to win ransoms.
“A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for, unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons. And that’s not likely, is it?”
So again, no jousting for Ser Shadrich. His skillset is for the battlefield or a melee. We’ll also be exploring the importance and parallels between tourneys later, but this exchange between Shadrich and Sansa has some very interesting word play. “A mouse with wings” being a “silly sight” seems to be a twist on the connections to bats in Sansa’s arc and her Whent grandmother on Catelyn’s side. A bat is often humorously albeit inaccurately called a “flying mouse,” especially in the Old German word for bat, fledermaus. Sansa has compared a fluttering inside her to swallowing a bat and she was rumored to escape the Purple Wedding by turning herself into a wolf with bat wings. Bats are also on the sigil of House Whent, who hosted the aforementioned tourney at Harrenhal. Also the bat is the sigil of the much-maligned House Lothston *, previous owners of Harrenhal before the Whents, who once served them. This has led many to reasonably speculate that Sansa’s future arc may somehow intersect with Harrenhal owing to these connections as well as the fact that Littlefinger is the current Lord of Harrenhal.
* The last Lothston, red-haired “Mad” Danelle was mysteriously brought down by (most likely false or grossly over-exaggerated) accusations of dark sorcery, child kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism. This is not unlike Sansa being rumored to use sorcery to kill Joffrey and escape the Red Keep. Danelle is also connected to Bloodraven, known sorcerer and greenseer, in The Mystery Knight novella. So there’s a kissed-by-fire, magic, bats, and Harrenhal connection with the “Mad” moniker as well.
The importance of this cannot be overstated: Ser Shadrich’s shield is a direct reference to the Old Gods, weirwoods, the Harrenhal tourney and the Knight of the Laughing Tree. It’s the pivotal moment that earns Howland Reed’s fierce loyalty to the Starks. That generation of Starks stood up for him, befriended him, and treated him as an equal. Except for a brief mention of being at the Tower of Joy, GRRM has not featured Howland Reed in any other story except the tourney at Harrenhal. When Howland Reed re-enters the story, it makes literary sense for the author to establish him with Harrenhal and Old Gods references.
The “flying mouse” motif may point to a larger idea connected to weirwoods and magic. Children of the Forest have been described as squirrels by the giants. Arya herself has been called a squirrel many times. Bran draws comparisons to Arya in both Meera Reed and one of the children who he will call Leaf. Squirrels do fit that motif if we consider the way they can flit among tree branches with ease (as well at there being a species called a flying squirrel). This comes full circle with Meera and Howland being able to “fly through trees” and “run on leaves.” Also note that Shadrich’s sigil colors are on a bendy, the same as House Lothston and both with a “mouse” related to magic at it’s center. It’s well-known that GRRM has drawn upon Yggdrasil from Norse mythology with his weirwood concept. There is a squirrel related to Yggdrasil named Ratatoskr who acts as a messenger running up and down the tree between an unnamed eagle at the top and the wyrm>, Níðhǫggr, at the roots (very much like the dragon, Bloodraven, seated at the weirwood’s roots).
We can also make magical associations to another animal Ser Shadrich is connected to: the fox. Shadrich has a fox-like face and fox orange hair. He also comes across as being sly and cunning. Foxes in real world folklore have been connected to magic, illusion, and deception such as in the Japanese kitsune. There’s also the very popular medieval folk tales of Reynard the Fox, which GRRM is familiar with. They were so popular, renard came to replace the old French word for fox. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox character and trickster figure whose stories usually involve him deceiving or cunningly escaping other anthropomorphic animal characters. His character was often used in parodies of medieval courtly love and chanson de geste, or songs of heroic deeds (think Shadrich’s meeting Brienne on her hapless quest to rescue Sansa) as well as satire of political and religious institutions.
There are some very interesting parallels between Reynard and Howland Reed. Reynard’s castle home is called Maleperduis, which is described as having hidden tunnels, entrances and exits, and confusing pathways to elude his enemies from finding him *. This is strikingly similar to descriptions of Greywater Watch, Howland’s seat, which is built to move elusively (“he can make castles appear and disappear”) and cannot be found by outsiders or ravens. The name Reynard is theorized to have derived from the old Germanic man’s name, Reginhard. The word regin meaning “divine powers of the Old Germanic religion” plus hard meaning “made hard by the Gods.” It could also mean regin + harti or “strong counsel,” denoting someone wise and clever.
* There is solid proof GRRM is familiar with the Reynard stories. In the story of Tywin Lannister obliterating House Reyne, Tywin drives Ser Reynard Reyne and his people into the mining tunnels of Castamere, very much like Maleperduis, but with a tragic end:
One Reynard story that has parallels with Shadrich’s role in Sansa’s arc and has that familiar feature of clever word play is in one where he tricks Bruin the Bear, a likely Lothor Brune connection. Brune is made captain of the guards by Petyr, so he is in command over the hedge knights. In this story, Reynard steals Bruin’s honey (which calls back to the Bear and the Maiden Fair) or butter depending on the telling. First, Reynard comes to live with Bruin (like entering service at the Gates of the Moon) and pretends to leave to attend a christening. He’s really going to sneak back into the house to eat some honey. When Bruin asks him what the baby’s christened name was, he replies “Just Begun.” A second time he says he needs to attend a christening, he does the same thing and tells Bruin the baby’s name was “Half-Eaten.” This same scenario happens a third time with the baby’s name being “All Gone,” at which point Bruin realizes his honey (as a symbol of Sansa) that he was supposed to be guarding is now gone.
And even more importantly to note, one of Reynard’s primary adversaries in his stories is a wolf character dressed up in monks robes named Ysengrim, who is not particularly pious and is used as a parody of the Church. This has some obvious parallels to Sandor as the gravedigger and the strange bedfellow relationship between the two will make even more sense when we explore Brienne’s journey through the Riverlands on a symbolic level in Part VI.
If there’s any doubt about Howland Reed’s continued deeply personal devotion to House Stark, consider this: Howland Reed sent his only children, his only heirs, alone to aid Bran and Rickon after Ned was executed. This is more than the loyalty of vassal to liege lord. This decision was based on a greendream of Jojen’s, which shows not only their commitment to Ned’s children and also their faith in the mystical for guidance. That the Reeds’ role in the story is not only to protect, but also offer their knowledge of the Old Gods’ magic and mysticism. Jojen and Meera get Bran to the three-eyed raven, so that he can fully realize his power as a greenseer and a warg. Robb has his army, his mother, and Greywind. Jon has Ghost and his own arc in the North. Bran has Meera, Jojen, Hodor, and Summer. Rickon has Osha and Shaggydog. Arya is lost and presumed dead after Ned’s execution. Sansa is the one Stark child that is alone in enemy hands and who desperately needs allies.
We don’t know the details of Jojen’s greendream that he shared with his father, but it does not make sense that Howland Reed would send his children to Winterfell and he would stay in the Neck. His wife, Jyana, would still be at Greywater Watch during the War of the Five Kings. Recall that Shadrich said he was at the Blackwater and was on the “losing side” of the battle. Does that mean Howland Reed had fought for Stannis? Perhaps, as Ned believed Stannis was Robert’s rightful heir. Yet, there is no indication in our comparison of Howland and Shadrich that his motives are remotely political. Sansa is imprisoned in Maegor’s Holdfast, the castle within a castle, where the royal family and Hand of the King have their chambers. Even if there was a way for Ser Shadrich to enter the castle, it is highly unlikely he could get so far inside the Red Keep and get Sansa out undetected. If Stannis had succeeded in sacking King’s Landing, Sansa would likely then be moved from from the Red Keep to Stannis’s camp, potentially presenting the opportunity to rescue her. This did not happen. Hence being on the “losing side” for the lost opportunity, forcing him to wait patiently for another to arise.
It won’t be until the Purple Wedding on the first day of the year 300 that Sansa finally escapes and disappears, but she is headed for her next prison, not freedom. There is a hint to how her prayers will be answered when Sansa is changing clothes in the godswood to escape King’s Landing:
“Sansa felt as though she were in a dream. “Joffrey is dead,” she told the trees, to see if that would wake her.” (Sansa V, ACOK)
Dontos is not the real Florian and this is no true rescue. The true answer to her prayers and her freedom will be connected to the Old Gods and tree-talker, as Meera says her father is. The greendream, Ned’s death, the bonds of friendship forged at the Harrenhal tourney, and the failure to save Lyanna in time at the Tower of Joy are more than enough reason for Howland Reed to head to King’s Landing.
Shadrich and Howland’s Timeline of Events
While using the ASOIAF timeline, we should keep in mind this is a fairly accurate but still an approximation as to the order of events in the series. There is a margin of time that cannot be exactly accounted for. Certainly GRRM never intended to follow timeframes rigidly for a story with this many moving parts. This is only to illustrate how in general the timeline would allow for Howland Reed and / or Ser Shadrich to find Sansa Stark. There is nothing that grossly falls outside of possible time and distance limits that we would have to disqualify the theory. Real world names of months are used simply to help conceptualized the passage of time.
Ned Stark is executed around early January of 299 and Winterfell learns of his death about two weeks later. Approximately two months after that, Jojen and Meera arrive in Winterfell during the harvest feast in Bran III, ACOK to re-pledge themselves to House Stark. Note that the Reeds knew to come to Winterfell without use of ravens as none can find Greywater Watch. There’s no exact distance from Greywater Watch to Winterfell; however, using Moat Cailin as a rough half-way point (about 590 miles to Winterfell) it would take about two months on horseback. This is using the distance and travel time calculators on said timeline. So Meera and Jojen (after the greendream) must have left home about the time Winterfell receives word of Ned’s death.
The battle of the Blackwater was between late August and early September in 299. As a single rider travelling from Greywater Watch to King’s Landing, there’s still approximately six months of leeway for Howland Reed to arrive in King’s Landing in time for the battle even if he left much later than Jojen and Meera.
New Year’s Day of the year 300 is the Purple Wedding. Ten days later Sansa arrives at the Baelish holdings on the Fingers. Eight days after that Lysa will arrive and marry Petyr that night. Around that same time, Jaime sends Brienne to find Sansa Stark. About early February, we find Brienne’s first chapter in AFFC opens in Rosby (to the southwest of Duskendale). That day she meets Creighton and Illifer. The next day they catch up to Ser Shadrich and the merchant Hibald’s party farther up the the road near the old stone bridge inn, also heading to Duskendale. By their conversation, it is now widely public knowledge at this point that Sansa Stark is a wanted fugitive for regicide and there is a bounty on her. Brienne will leave the old stone bridge inn in the late hours of the night, abandoning Creighton and Illifer. One of Hibald’s serving men in the stables sees Brienne leaving.
I propose that Ser Shadrich may have been curious of Brienne leaving so abruptly in the middle of the night considering their conversation over Sansa Stark and may have decided to track her. He reasonably may have thought she had found a lead that caused her to suddenly abandon her companions and go it alone. If we are being honest, Brienne would not be that difficult to track. Podrick did it pretty easily. She’s as big as the Hound and a lady knight. Up until she has her shield repainted in Duskendale like Ser Duncan the Tall’s sigil, she’s obliviously carrying the reviled Lothston device on her shield. She’s extremely memorable everywhere she goes.
At this point, events take place in closer succession and the following will show when relevant information from the Vale reaches the Riverlands.
- In Sansa VII, ASOS, Lysa will be murdered by Littlefinger around 2/9/300.
- In Brienne II, AFFC at around 2/11/300, Brienne will get the lead from the pious dwarf at the Seven Swords in Duskendale to find Nimble Dick Crabb at the Stinking Goose in Maidenpool.
- At around 2/17 and in Brienne III, she will learn of Lysa Arryn’s death from Randall Tarly at Maidenpool.
- Although Brienne had considered going to Sansa’s aunt, it’s precisely the news of Lysa’s death that makes her reject the idea of going to the Vale. This is probably true of other bounty hunters as well except for Ser Shadrich, since his team is the only one that actually arrives in the Vale.
- Brienne goes on her wild goose chase tour of Crackclaw Point with Nimble Dick in Brienne IV, returning to Maidenpool around 4/9 in Brienne V.
- Brienne will mistakenly believe from Timeon that the Hound has Sansa (actually Arya) and from reports of the massacre they will find the Hound near the Saltpans.
- The group seeks to travel with Septon Meribald to the Saltpans as he has detailed knowledge of the region and lesser-known locales where they may find the Hound hiding. They will take a very slow, meandering path off the main roads along the Bay of Crabs seeking out smallfolk for Meribald to serve.
- Sometime after 3/23 and after the failed Lords Declarant meeting to oust the Lord Protector of Alayne I, AFFC, Littlefinger will leave the Eyrie for Gulltown for the wedding of Lyonel Corbray.
- As an ancient, noble house of the Vale and with many other prestigious Vale lords as guests, the Corbray wedding would be a widely-known impending event around the region.
- The marriage to a Gulltown merchant’s daughter was brokered by Littlefinger likely sometime well before Alayne I in anticipation of the Vale lords opposition to him. By land (~450 miles), that would be approximately a 18 – 21 day journey.
- This means the wedding probably takes place somewhere in a window between 4/10 and the party leaving Gulltown around 4/26.
- Brienne will reach the Quiet Isle in Brienne VI, AFFC around 4/20/300 then leave the next morning. Ser Shadrich could find the isle as early as that day or the next following Brienne without being seen. We’ll see the clues he did indeed follow her in Part VI.
- The very next time we see Ser Shadrich will be in Alayne II, when Sansa descends from the Eyrie to the Gates of the Moon. This will be around 5/14/300.
So, even if Shadrich follows Brienne to the Quiet Isle to meet Elder Brother and Sandor Clegane as early as the next day (4/21/300), they can still board a ship (which I will describe in greater detail in Part IV) and arrive in Gulltown in couple of days. Brienne confirms the voyage to Gulltown from Maidenpool is very short. It took Sansa only 10 days to reach the Fingers from King’s Landing by ship and that is a much, much greater distance. That’s still a safe window of a few days to enter Littlefinger’s service and follow his party back to the Gates of the Moon. In Part IV, the importance of meeting Littlefinger in Gulltown rather than going directly to the Vale will be discussed in more detail. Again, the timeframes are approximations. This is only to show that there’s nothing that is so outside the limits of time and distance that it couldn’t work, disproving any part of this theory on that basis.
Keep in mind, GRRM always intended for Brienne to sync up with people from Arya’s arc: Gendry, the Brotherhood Without Banners, and unCat. Her skillset, vow to Catelyn, knowledge of Gendry’s parentage, and her reunion with Jaime are far more valuable and relevant there. It makes sense then that when Arya eventually returns to Westeros, her path will also intersect with Brienne’s. So the Quiet Isle visit, meeting Elder Brother and seeing the gravedigger is not truly intended for Brienne’s purpose in the story. Aside from limited word of Arya’s last known sighting months prior and the Hound being “dead,” she doesn’t come away from the isle with anything truly useful to her. So none of this extensive set up is meant for Brienne to act upon. It has to be meant for someone else entirely…
PART IV: The Quiet Isle, Elder Brother, and Ser Morgarth
The Elder Brother was not what Brienne had expected. He could hardly be called elder, for a start; whereas the brothers weeding in the garden had had the stooped shoulders and bent backs of old men, he stood straight and tall, and moved with the vigor of a man in the prime of his years. Nor did he have the gentle, kindly face she expected of a healer. His head was large and square, his eyes shrewd, his nose veined and red. Though he wore a tonsure, his scalp was as stubbly as his heavy jaw. He looks more like a man made to break bones than to heal one, thought the Maid of Tarth. […]
[..]He leaned forward, his big hands on his knees. (Brienne VI, AFFC)
“Aye,” said [Ser Morgarth], a burly fellow with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, a red nose bulbous with broken veins, and gnarled hands as large as hams.” (Alayne II, AFFC.)
As far as physical description similarities, both Elder Brother and Ser Morgarth are heavily built. Both have noticeably large, strong hands. They both have a highly distinguishing noses that are veined and red. Elder Brother says he is forty-four years old, which would be consistent with the salt-and-pepper hair in Ser Morgarth’s beard. With a few minor changes of shaving his head to hide the tonsure and letting the stubble on his face grow in thicker, the Elder Brother could easily become Ser Morgarth. Notice, the beard mentioned is thick, not long, so not much time is required for the growth. Of course, we won’t be relying on the physical descriptions to rest our case on, but the features mentioned are quite distinguishing and GRRM makes sure we are supposed to notice them.
If there’s one thing Brienne is detailed about, it’s the markings of a fellow warrior. She notes almost immediately that Elder Brother looks like “a man made to break bones” rather than a “gentle,” “kindly” faced healer. Like the Mad Mouse, he is a contradiction. Indeed, he was formerly a knight, a third son from a knightly house. We will also see from his backstory that GRRM tailor-made the Elder Brother to rehabilitate Sandor Clegane physically and psychologically. He had a girl he would have liked to marry, but as a third son he had nothing to offer her. He describes himself as a “sad man” and self-medicated with alcohol abuse (hence the veiny red nose). He also admits he had raped women to his shame. His entire sense of self was defined by being a warrior. He’s a veteran of Robert’s Rebellion and fought on the Targaryen side at the Trident where he was “killed,” stripped of his armor and washed up on the Quiet Isle. He was healed by the Elder Brother before him, spent the next ten years in silence, before he took up the role of the current Elder Brother.
“Instead I woke here, upon the Quiet Isle. The Elder Brother told me I had washed up on the tide, naked as my name day… We are all born naked, so I suppose it was only fitting that I come into my second life the same way. I spent the next ten years in silence.” (Brienne VI, AFFC)
This passage describes a very important concept about the Elder Brother, making the name “Morgarth” very significant, and connecting him to the biblical Shadrach’s “godly men.” Elder Brother is surrounded by real world pagan greenman symbolism which GRRM translated into his in-book mythology of Garth Greenhand *. This is only one of many Garth-type names and greenman themes that appear repeatedly in the series. This is all about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, sacrifice to ensure life continues, and the god acting as the gatekeeper between the living and the Underworld. GRRM hammers this association home between literal in-book greenmen on the otherworldly Isle of Faces.
* Garth Greenhand is the legendary High King of the First Men. Some legends say he didn’t just lead the original First Men from Essos into Westeros, but he actually predated this and was the first and only human in Westeros and that he interacted with the Children of the Forest and the giants. Other legends make him a green god of fertility and harvest who demanded blood sacrifice or sometimes the green god himself is the sacrifice in autumn needed to ensure the renewal of life in the spring. He not only brings about fertility in the land, but also increases fertility in women leading to maids flowering, crones regaining their moonblood, and mothers giving birth to twins and triplets.
The Quiet Isle is a perfect metaphor for the Underworld or afterlife. It’s a place of life, death, and rebirth. The isle is an idyllic self-sustaining place of food and drink. They have abundant varieties of fruits and vegetables grown there. They have sheep, ponds of fish, and shellfish from the bay. They make their own butter and have a windmill to grind their own grain to make bread. They even brew quite a few alcoholic beverages: ale, mead, cider, and wine. Brewing alcohol is an important theme of green gods like Dionysus making Elder Brother’s red nose from alcohol abuse symbolic of this concept. The honey bees and beehive shapes of the women’s cottages have mythological associations with goddesses and the underworld. It is noted women come there too to be healed and to give birth.
The role of a symbolic Garth fits Elder Brother like a glove. His hands are described as “healing hands” and he is credited with being able to heal people that maesters cannot. His (green) hands restore life. He resides in the Hermit’s Hole, a cave over two-thousand years old next to a chestnut tree where the first holy man to live there “worked wonders” and established the monastic order. It’s also very possible the cave is pre-Andal invasion and was a place of mystical power for the First Men (again, look at the parallels to the Isle of Faces) before it was Andal-ized and adopted by the Faith of the Seven. So the Elder Brothers of the isle inherit their healing abilities, which are widely regarded as being somewhat miraculous.
The Quiet Isle is also a place to cross over into the afterlife in more than one way. Sometimes the dead and dying wash up on the shores, as did the Elder Brother. Sometimes they are brought there like the Hound or the people of the Saltpans after the massacre to die or be healed. The metaphoric and most common way is for penitents to abandon their old lives to be reborn in a new monastic life. In a sense, the brothers on the isle are dead to the outside world. They don’t speak with few exceptions. Many cover their faces as well, obscuring their past identity. Their brown robes and cowls are like the dead driftwood that washes up there, but even driftwood gets reborn as beautiful polished furniture and cups. If you want to come on the Quiet Isle, you need Elder Brother’s or one of his proctor’s permission. There’s a ferry to the isle which is evocative of Charon. So that makes Elder Brother, like Garth Greenhand, a psychopomp. He’s a gatekeeper between life and death, literal and metaphoric, and can also return people to the world of the living. The imagery is evocative of the Elysian Fields and especially Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to recover from wounds sustained against Mordred at the Battle of Camlann and is destined to return from. By that alone we should expect to see Sandor restored and renewed to something closer to a “true knight.” It’s also important to know that Elder Brother also has ravens and is a gatekeeper of news of the outside world, but he largely withholds that information from the other brothers.
If the Elder Brother has abandoned his old life as a knight and has such a clearly defined purpose on the Quiet Isle, why would he then join Shadrich’s hedge knight team to rescue Sansa? There are actually three major reasons for this that he speaks extensively about: a debt he owes to Sandor Clegane, the inaction of Ser Quincy Cox during the Saltpans massacre, and the effect that Brienne has upon him.
“I buried him myself. I can tell you where his grave lies, if you wish. I covered him with stones to keep the carrion eaters from digging up his flesh, and set his helm atop the cairn to mark his final resting place. That was a grievous error. Some other wayfarer found my marker and claimed it for himself. The man who raped and killed at Saltpans was not Sandor Clegane” (Brienne VI, AFFC)
Before the massacre, Sandor Clegane only stood accused of turning craven and deserting. With some time passing and a regime change in King’s Landing, this might have been forgiven and he could have possibly moved forward with his life. Because of Elder Brother’s mistake with the helm, the Hound is wanted for horrific mass murder, burning and pillaging, and the mutilation and rape of children. Both Frey and Tarly men are hunting him and well as Brienne and her party. At this point Sandor cannot show his face outside the isle without risking being killed on the spot. He is then a novice not by choice and indefinitely trapped. This is something Elder Brother did attempt to correct by sending a raven out to try to explain the mistaken identity, but that has proven weak and ineffective. Writing well-meaning letters has done nothing to rectify the injustice of Sandor being falsely accused of heinous crimes and being condemned for it.
It was Elder Brother that directly dealt with the aftermath of the massacre. He personally witnessed the horrors Rorge and Biter inflicted on the people. He talks in explicit detail of the burning and screaming, the graphic violence done to women and children, and the last words of the dying. There is no doubt Elder Brother was deeply affected by this event (as he still feels guilt over raping women). The last building standing in the Saltpans is the castle of Ser Quincy Cox, who barred his doors while his people sought his protection.
The smile vanished. “They burned everything at Saltpans, save the castle… It fell to me to treat some of the survivors. The fisherfolk brought them across the bay to me after the flames had gone out and they deemed it safe to land. One poor woman had been raped a dozen times, and her breasts… her breasts had been torn and chewed and eaten, as if by some . . . cruel beast… As she lay dying, her worst curses were not for the men who had raped her, nor the monster who devoured her living flesh, but for Ser Quincy Cox, who barred his gates when the outlaws entered the town and sat safe behind stone walls as his people screamed and died.”
“Ser Quincy is an old man,” said Septon Meribald gently. “His sons and good-sons are far away or dead, his grandsons are still boys, and he has two daughters. What could he have done, one man against so many?”
He could have tried, Brienne thought. He could have died. Old or young, a true knight is sworn to protect those who are weaker than himself, or die in the attempt.
“True words, and wise,” the Elder Brother said to Septon Meribald. “When you cross to Saltpans, no doubt Ser Quincy will ask you for forgiveness. I am glad that you are here to give it. I could not.” (Brienne VI, AFFC)
This is a story about someone who had the power to do something and did nothing. GRRM didn’t write this story to motivate Brienne to action, because she already knows what a true knight should do. It’s what she will do when she defends the orphans from Rorge and Biter, preventing another Saltpans. Elder Brother knows this too, yet he has his own moment of denial and self-comforting lies to avoid action, that someone else will deal with the ills of the world and all will be well.
“If so, give up this quest of yours. The Hound is dead, and in any case he never had your Sansa Stark. As for this beast who wears his helm, he will be found and hanged. The wars are ending, and these outlaws cannot survive the peace. Randyll Tarly is hunting them from Maidenpool and Walder Frey from the Twins, and there is a new young lord in Darry, a pious man who will surely set his lands to rights. Go home, child.”
This is all utter nonsense. The wars are not even close to ending. The murderers are still out there murdering people and have yet to be caught. It’s Brienne taking action herself who will kill them. The “new young lord” is Lancel Lannister, who even his father says is not the one to deal with these problems in his physical and psychological condition after the Blackwater. Brienne responds to his urging for her to give up and go home to her father by tearfully telling him the story of her journey and ending with:
“I have to find her,” she finished. “There are others looking, all wanting to capture her and sell her to the queen. I have to find her first. I promised Jaime. Oathkeeper, he named the sword. I have to try to save her . . . or die in the attempt.“
So, in a short period of time two people have come to the Quiet Isle who are emotionally connected to Sansa Stark, who have tried or are trying to save her. He’s also been a warrior himself who fell very short of knightly virtues and was himself a “broken man.” The terrible things he did still haunt him. By healing and mentoring Sandor he is healing himself; however, by being unable to forgive Quincy Cox indicates he has also been unable to fully forgive himself even years later. As a person of faith and a believer in what knights should do, he is at a tipping point between action and inaction. He’s primed for a little nudge in the form of a third person coming to the isle with the same purpose. Might he then take this as some sort of sign from his gods and that saving Sansa is also part of his own redemption?
What he contributes as Ser Morgarth is very important. His skillset is not only martial experience, but as gatekeeper of information he can help connect some important dots. Getting these three men together to compare notes, they could very quickly deduce they should start looking in the Vale. They don’t have to know Sansa is there for a fact to be suspicious enough to go there first. First they have the news of Lysa’s marriage to Littlefinger, her death about a month later, and him becoming the new Lord Protector. This all happening very shortly after the Purple Wedding when Sansa disappeared. Recall that news of Lysa’s death is what made Brienne decide against the Vale and everyone else too apparently. Sandor, being so close to the royal family, would have known Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn for many years at court and would have probably thought the exact opposite. Littlefinger bragging that he deflowered Sansa’s mother (openly disparaging of her honor) was also well-known court gossip. Then later he is directly involved in the downfall and death of her father, which Sandor witnessed. They don’t have to know anything for certain, but these dubious and unsavory connections to Tully women should be enough to make anyone suspicious.
The Elder Brother would then also know about the upcoming marriage of Lyonel Corbray to the Gulltown merchant’s daughter. Sandor would also know that Littlefinger was in charge of customs in Gulltown and his success there was the reason he was brought to court and eventually made master of coin. It is then likely he will be in attendance at the wedding with ties to both parties and as Lord Protector. The importance of the hedge knights meeting Littlefinger in Gulltown (rather than travelling directly to the Gates of the Moon) cannot be stressed enough. Unlike anyone else who made connections between Sansa and Lysa, this team of men made a connection between Littlefinger and Sansa. You wouldn’t be able to do that if you didn’t have relevant information on Littlefinger’s history at court. Remember it’s widely accepted Lysa was murdered by Marillion and without Lysa no one else sees a reason to search in the Vale. Shadrich, Morgarth, and Byron clearly didn’t buy that.
The most important thing that Elder Brother could contribute is access to a ship. Travelling by ship to is the only way to make it in time to Gulltown while Littlefinger is there. There would appear to be a problem with this as the nearest port at the Saltpans is completely destroyed and abandoned. The Elder Brother says it himself:
“Only the castle remains. Even the fisherfolk are gone, the fortunate few who were out on the water when the raiders came. They watched their houses burn and listened to screams and cries float across the harbor, too fearful to land their boats. When at last they came ashore, it was to bury friends and kin. What is there for them at Saltpans now but bones and bitter memories? They have moved to Maidenpool or other towns.”
But the fishermen’s boats are still out there on the Bay of Crabs and Elder Brother has built relationships with the people of the Saltpans for many years. They’ve traded goods from the island in town. He’s tended to their sick and pregnant women. He cared for their wounded and dying after the massacre. The brothers helped bury their kin. At least one of those survivors would take them to Gulltown if he asked for their help. This would be even faster than going to a port and trying to find a ship headed there. No port is even necessary as they can easily be ferried out to a ship from the island as Sansa was taken by a small boat out to the Merling King during her escape. Such a ship may even be used later for their own escape. Most importantly, the captain and crew of that ship would be highly unlikely to betray them.
In fact, this calls back to what Ned did to return home from the Vale to call his banners during Robert’s Rebellion. Just like her father, Sansa is wanted by crown to be brought to King’s Landing to be beheaded. Gulltown seemed to remain loyal to the Targaryens, so Ned crossed the Vale from the Eyrie to the Fingers to hire a fishing boat to take him across the Bite. The reverse happens during Sansa’s escape of King’s Landing: Sansa thought she would be taken home, but instead the Merling King took her to the Fingers, and then they travelled by land to the Eyrie. It makes perfect literary sense for a fishing boat to be involved in Sansa’s escape from the Vale, just like her father.
Part V: Sandor Clegane and Ser Byron: The Beast Enchanted Into a Beauty
Off to Gulltown to see the fair maid, heigh-ho, heigh-ho. I’ll steal a sweet kiss with the point of my blade, heigh-ho, heigh-ho. (“Off to Gulltown”)
The most glaring issue readers may have with this idea is the gravedigger having such a pronounced limp when Brienne sees him. She notes he “walked with the awkward lurching gait of one half-crippled.” When we see Byron in Sansa’s POV, there’s no such limp. It would then seem doubtful that Sandor is even physically up to the task of a rescue mission and would disqualify him as Ser Byron. Arya abandoned Sandor by the Trident at around 1/31/300 in Arya XIII, ASOS. Brienne sees him as the gravedigger at around 4/20/300. So roughly three months later after being near dead from blood loss and infected wounds, Sandor has a noticeable limp, but he’s also digging graves all day long. That’s very hard, physically taxing labor. So this shows a very rapid rate of healing and is testimony to Elder Brother’s exceptional healing hands *. When Byron is introduced three weeks later, it is plausible that Sandor has recovered even further in that time to make the limp unnoticeable or non-existent.
* Just to drive home the point as to how seriously ill Sandor was, he most likely would be diagnosed in the real world with having sepsis with the symptoms Arya describes. He would have been at higher risk of developing sepsis due to a depressed immune system from alcohol abuse, lack of sleep and proper nutrition. Every patient is different, but some people even take a year to fully recover from sepsis with the advantage of modern medicine. Still, 50% of survivors may have continued health issues post-sepsis like severe fatigue, disabling pain, and decreased mental functioning. Of course, we’re talking about GRRM’s fantasy world medical care, but it’s interesting that he leaves Elder Brother’s the treatment methods somewhat vague adding to the mystery of it. It’s the results that are clear from what we can glean from the details. It is an extraordinary rate of recovery.
Before we explore glamoring, we should look at why the idea of Sandor as Ser Byron actually makes quite a bit of sense in context. His motivation for jumping at a second chance to save Sansa considering his “dying” regrets should need no further explanation. Since I’ve shown that the names our other hedge knights have significant meaning to their real identities, Byron is no different. In character analyses of Sandor Clegane, he often regarded as quite Byronesque with his brooding, arrogant, passionate and self-destructive traits. The term coming from the dark romantic themes and antiheroes in the works of English poet, Lord George Gordon Byron. A passage from Byron’s The Corsair (1814) could easily be describing Sandor Clegane and compare that to his own defiant speech to the Brotherhood Without Banners:
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt. (The Corsair, Lord Byron)
“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just as dead. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses. I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other that your shit don’t stink. You hear me?” (aSoS, Arya VI)
As if that weren’t enough of a perfect connection to the name, sweetsunray found another little gem. “The poet Byron had a favourite dog who died of rabies. He treated him personally without any fear of being bitten or attacked, and afterwards wrote a poem for his dog, Boatswain (a Newfoundland dog), called Epitaph to a Dog. The poem is engraved on the dog’s grave and the grave is larger than Byron’s. The first two introductory paragraphs were written by his friend.” Original post here.
Near this Spot are deposited the Remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery if inscribed over human Ashes, is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boatswain, a Dog who was born in Newfoundland May 1803 and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.
“It puts the idea of the Hound declared dead and buried, becoming a gravedigger in quite another light all by itself. And he “died” a mad dog, with biting words wanting to be killed in mercy. But then a Byron appears near Sansa’s side.” (sweetsunray). It also fits well with the better nature of Sandor Clegane: the protector, his loyalty to his master, the honest one in a court of liars, and the one whose worth also goes unnoticed and unappreciated. So as we can see “Byron” could not be a more fitting alias for Sandor.
How does Sandor fit into Shadrich’s “godly” men? There are greenman associations with Sandor just as much as with Howland Reed and Elder Brother. A variant on greenman depictions is that he has the head of a beast, much like the Hound’s helm. Despite being a Westerman, Sandor in appearance and values seem much more aligned with being of First Men stock so much that he is mistaken for Arya’s father. He’s also one of many Odin-archetypal characters by “dying” against a tree (like Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil to gain wisdom and knowledge). He’s crossed over to the Underworld (the Quiet Isle) and has been reborn symbolically (the Hound persona having “died”). His steed is named after the Seven’s god of death. He is also of the “wickerman” variety of greenman being literally a burned man. It should be no coincidence either that one of the most mentioned First Men clans of in the Vale are called the Burned Men, led by Timett son of Timett (who also sacrificed an eye like Odin). The Burned Men prove their worth in a trial of self-mutilation by fire. Similarly, Sandor faced a trial by combat against Beric Dondarrion (another Odin and greenman figure), burning his arm and “proving” his worth, or at least that he didn’t deserve execution.
There are other Norse mythology parallels * to the Vale arc, but there are a few themes that GRRM seems to be cherry-picking into an amalgamation. Sansa is very much like Idunn, the Norse goddess who possesses apples that grant immortality and youth (she is Catelyn reborn to Petyr). She is kidnapped by the giant, Thjazi (disguised as an eagle, mirroring the original titan sigil of House Baelish to the new unassuming mockingbird sigil but also his commandeering of House Arryn, the falcons), with the help of Loki (in this case, the trickster is Dontos). When the gods begin to grow old, Loki (the trickster now as a hero) is tasked with retrieving Idunn by using Freya’s falcon-feather cloak that turns him into a falcon (shape-shifting for the rescue of Idunn). Loki (in falcon form) turns Idunn into a nut (the chestnut-haired Alayne) and carries her off in a daring escape from the giant. Loki playing both roles of the kidnapper’s agent and the rescuer of Idunn is not unlike the two versions of “Florian the Fool” in Sansa’s arc: Dontos and Sandor.
* There’s another interesting story of Thor’s prized possession, the hammer Mjollnir being stolen by giants which would only be returned if Freya married the giant, Thrym. Thor using Freya’s falcon-feather cloak disguised himself as the bride Freya and with Loki’s help infiltrated the giant’s home of Jotunheim to retrieve his hammer. There are themes of a false bride, a thieving giant, a trickster, and using shape-shifting Full story here.
Just as there are many Odin figures, there are many Loki-trickster figures, especially in the wildling concept of wife-stealing such as Bael the Bard. As Ygritte explains to Jon, in wife-stealing it’s the quick, cunning, and brave that earn the favor of the prospective wife. Sandor had once attempted symbolic wife-stealing with Sansa “at the point of his blade” the night of the Blackwater, but he was in no state to win her consent and she refused him. This brings us back to the aforementioned song of “Off to Gulltown,” from where the bastard Alayne hails and where the hedge knights meet Littlefinger.
The description of Ser Byron would appear to be at odds with Sandor’s values, however. On the surface, he seems like a “puffed up” noble that Sandor would disdain.
“Dutiful and beautiful,” said an elegant young knight whose thick blond mane cascaded down well past his shoulders.” […] the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.” (Alayne II, AFFC)
There are no physical similarities (aside from being tall) between Ser Byron and Sandor Clegane obviously. The two could not seem more different in every possible way. Sansa calls Byron “elegant.” How does Sansa define “elegant” when she sees it? She only uses the word two other times in AFFC to describe Marillion and Symond Templeton. She uses it to describe mostly clothing that is refined and fashionable with some luxurious embellishments and when someone’s appearance is sleek and sharply styled. We can then deduce that Ser Byron stands out from the other two (a sign we should pay attention to him) because he is likely more refined and stylishly dressed rather than just being merely handsome. Add to that his mannerism of kissing her hand like a courtier.
Assuming this is a glamor, why would Sandor choose to look like Ser Byron? The last time Sandor saw Sansa was the night of the Blackwater in Sansa VII, ACOK. He left her ashamed of his actions, but also believing she wouldn’t leave with him because she was still afraid of his appearance. Choosing an identity that is more aligned with the gallantry and physical ideal of Loras Tyrell would seem to be a way to gain her trust, especially if they want her to leave with them willingly. Now is a good time to remind ourselves that no matter who the hedge knights are, friends or villains, there still needs to be one person on the team that can positively ID Sansa Stark. Gaining her trust and identifying Sansa through a disguise would be Sandor’s contribution to the team. The kiss on the hand then may not be mere gallantry, but a signal to the other two men confirming her real identity.
Sandor as Ser Byron is also quite in line with GRRM’s worst kept secret of being a dark fairytale fan, particularly Beauty and the Beast. Even more specifically his favorite film version is La Belle et la Bête (1946) written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Actor Jean Marais portrays the Beast and another of Beauty’s suitors, the handsome and blonde Avenant (meaning “pleasant”). At the end of this version and as the Beast is transformed back into a Prince Ardent (meaning “passionate”), Avenant is transformed into a Beast. It then may be that GRRM is playing with the idea of Sandor as Jean Marais in three roles: the tormented Byronic Hound, Ser Byron, and the reclaimed identity of Sandor Clegane divorced from the overly negative aspects of the Hound. It’s a very George-like twist to rebuild the fairytale better with the handsome prince as the enchantment and the Beast as the true form. We will be examining other evidence in favor of a beast disguised as a beauty later in Part VI when we look at the symbols and signposts along the way in Brienne’s arc and in Alayne II leading right up to meeting the hedge knights.
I would also think it’s fair to say there would be a touch of wish-fulfillment * here on Sandor’s part of becoming more ideal in her eyes. He would not know since then how her opinions have evolved. She’s more wary that a pretty face can conceal a bad character and is gravitating more towards the good qualities of honest and plain people, like Ser Lothor. The irony in their introduction is that Sansa is only brusquely acknowledging Ser Byron’s presence. She isn’t swooning or flattered at all as she might have been in AGOT. Because of Joffrey and Marillion, she may have internalized the association of superficial charms with abuse and sexual threat. She pays more attention to details about Shadrich and Morgarth if we look at the full exchange:
“You are never an intrusion, sweetling. I was just now telling these good knights what a dutiful daughter I had.”
“Dutiful and beautiful,” said an elegant young knight whose thick blond mane cascaded down well past his shoulders.
“Aye,” said the second knight, a burly fellow with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, a red nose bulbous with broken veins, and gnarled hands as large as hams. “You left out that part, m’lord.”
“I would do the same if she were my daughter,” said the last knight, a short, wiry man with a wry smile, pointed nose, and bristly orange hair. “Particularly around louts like us.”
Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”
“Knights they are,” said Petyr. “Their gallantry has yet to be demonstrated, but we may hope. Allow me to present Ser Byron, Ser Morgarth, and Ser Shadrich. Sers, the Lady Alayne, my natural and very clever daughter . . . with whom I must needs confer, if you will be so good as to excuse us.”
The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.
“Hedge knights?” said Alayne, when the door had closed.
* Sandor romanticizes what he probably regards as his finest hour of saving Sansa from the mob in the bread riots. He misrepresents the story to Arya and tells her she sang a song for him after this event, which is completely re-writing history to reflect a more idealistic fantasy.
From the above scene, the hedge knights have been in Littlefinger’s solar for hours, drinking and talking into the predawn since they arrived at “evenfall.” Littlefinger is clearly at ease around them and apparently has been doing a little bragging about his “daughter.” They were able to lower his inhibitions with alcohol, broach the subject without suspicion and get him to summon Alayne to the solar (very late at night and immediately following the long ride down) so that her father could do a bit of showing off, exploiting a weakness in his character that would be familiar to Sandor. It took several re-reads before I caught this due to the POV trap. Sansa doesn’t necessarily regard certain details as important, so the reader doesn’t either. The hedge knights need to meet Alayne ASAP to confirm her identity. If she isn’t Sansa, they need to leave and keep looking elsewhere. But is Sandor capable of this level of deception around Littlefinger who is also familiar with him especially over a long period of time?
We actually do have quite a bit of evidence for Sandor being a highly effective actor when necessary, being able to exploit other’s expectations, and even do things that seem to be out of character. Even to the Lannisters who he has served closely for many years, they consider him little more than a loyal dog and a weapon with personal aspirations no greater than wine or killing his brother. Being seen as such has granted him privileges denied to others and a wide berth of trust from his masters, such as the kingsguard position that is normally only reserved for anointed knights and without requiring him to swear vows. Unlike Brienne, he’s shown he can lie believably and “sniff out” falsehoods. He is often described as almost appearing out of nowhere, so even for such a large and easily noticeable person, he’s quite capable of making himself unassuming, almost invisible, in public.
In Arya X, ASOS, we see Sandor’s abilities on full display when they successfully infiltrate the Twins just before the Red Wedding. With only a hood over his scars, he adjusts his manner of speaking and acting, gives plausible explanations, and effectively fools a knight that is well-acquainted with him because he understands how others think.
“Salt pork for the wedding feast, if it please you, ser.” The Hound mumbled his reply, his eyes down, his face hidden.
“Salt pork never pleases me.” The pitchfork knight gave Clegane only the most cursory glance, and paid no attention at all to Arya, but he looked long and hard at Stranger. The stallion was no plow horse, that was plain at a glance… “How did you come by this beast?” the pitchfork knight demanded.
“M’lady told me to bring him, ser,” Clegane said humbly. “He’s a wedding gift for young Lord Tully.”
“What lady? Who is it you serve?”
“Old Lady Whent, ser.“
“Does she think she can buy Harrenhal back with a horse?” the knight asked. “Gods, is there any fool like an old fool?” Yet he waved them down the road. “Go on with you, then.”
“Aye, m’lord.” The Hound snapped his whip again, and the old drays resumed their weary trek… Clegane gave them one last look and snorted. “Ser Donnel Haigh,” he said. “I’ve taken more horses off him than I can count. Armor as well. Once I near killed him in a mêlée.”
“How come he didn’t know you, then?” Arya asked.
“Because knights are fools, and it would have been beneath him to look twice at some poxy peasant.” He gave the horses a lick with the whip. “Keep your eyes down and your tone respectful and say ser a lot, and most knights will never see you. They pay more mind to horses than to smallfolk. He might have known Stranger if he’d ever seen me ride him.”
Even though he despises knights and normally lashes out when someone calls him “ser,” he doesn’t mind being misidentified as a knight when the need arises. In Arya IX, ASOS, when Sandor needs a ferry to cross a flooded river with Arya, he becomes a knight to the ferryman and uses “knight’s honor” as credit. He’s capable of suppressing his usual reactions, seeming to behave out of character, to accomplish a goal. As Sandor is well aware of how to adjust his speech and behavior to convincingly become a peasant and has allowed himself to be thought of as a knight, becoming Ser Byron is not such a stretch.
As a Lannister man and “sworn” shield, Sandor has been exposed to proper courtly conduct his entire life. He may not choose to behave with flowery courtesy, but he does not act or speak crudely when he is in his professional role. He can be courteous to a lady as when he dabbed Sansa’s lip with a handkerchief, the difference being it’s sincere act and not for show. As his position is close to the royal family, he needs to be trusted to act properly. He is not Gregor. Unlike the tv adaptation, Sandor is depicted as having a care with his appearance, usually neat and plain or lightly adorned.
In TWOW sample chapter, the next time we see all three hedge knights again, they will also be dancing with Sansa. Again, this isn’t that strange a thing for Sandor to do even if we haven’t seen him do that on page. Like all courtly protocols, dancing was a required part of real medieval knightly training (even done in full armor), Andal chivalric culture, not to mention being a primary form of entertainment found everywhere. Courtesy is not just a part of a medieval girl’s education. It was expected of all nobility to know the rules of etiquette and chivalry to advance family interests. Sandor is not so anti-knight or lives so outside Andal culture that it ever made him refuse to learn how to compete in a tourney joust, which was normally reserved only for anointed knights. It’s the title and vows he takes issue with, not the skillset. Sandor is from an Andal knightly house with some formal education from a maester, served in an Andal highlord’s house and then at the royal court. It would be more shocking if he didn’t know at least one dance.
If the hedge knights are following a pattern of being contradictions, I would expect Ser Byron not to conform to expectations, but to turn out to defy them. On one final note, it shouldn’t be mere coincidence that GRRM has already placed a Sandor in the Vale in the form of Sandor Frey, squire to Donnel Waynwood, Knight of the Gate after Brynden Tully. Sandor Frey is not seen on page, only mentioned in the ACOK appendix as existing. The name Sandor is only used twice in the entire series. His mention then is likely a hint by the author of what is to come. Now we will look at glamoring and the plausibility of a glamor being used in this context.
Glamoring and the Precedents Set For It In ASOIAF
Melisandre I, ADWD, tells us quite a bit of good information on glamoring:
“The bones help,” said Melisandre. “The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man’s shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak. The wearer’s essence does not change, only his seeming.”
“The glamor, aye.” In the black iron fetter about his wrist, the ruby seemed to pulse. He tapped it with the edge of his blade. The steel made a faint click against the stone.
“The spell is made of shadow and suggestion. Men see what they expect to see. The bones are part of that.”
Glamoring magic is not something restricted to R’hllor and can be something any magician can do of any discipline or religion. The Faceless Men also teach glamoring, but take it to the final level of donning a dead person’s face.
Mummers change their faces with artifice,” the kindly man was saying, “and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye. These arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as that face you were born with.(The Ugly Little Girl, ADWD)
Howland Reed can “change earth to water and water to earth with no more than a whispered word. He [can] talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear.” His words can create magic the same as Melisandre. There is no reason that glamoring would be beyond him, especially when it seems to be a very basic form of illusion. The raw materials for a good glamor are readily available on the Quiet Isle. They have countless bones of long dead, anonymous people that have washed up on their shores and GRRM really emphasizes that the Quiet Isle has rubies and Meribald couples them with bones:
“…many strange and wondrous things are pushed toward us, to wash up on our shores. Driftwood is the least of it. We have found silver cups and iron pots, sacks of wool and bolts of silk, rusted helms and shining swords . . . aye, and rubies.”
“Better rubies than bones.” Septon Meribald was rubbing his foot, the mud flaking off beneath his finger. “Not all the river’s gifts are pleasant. The good brothers collect the dead as well<. Drowned cows, drowned deer, dead pigs swollen up to half the size of horses. Aye, and corpses.”
Note how the items listed appear to a dichotomy between the beautiful and elegant and the rough and practical with the wording pairing them together. Each item in the pairing has similar or related functions, but it’s their appearances that are different. It would not be such a stretch then if there is at least one ruby somewhere on Ser Byron’s “elegant” person even if Sansa hasn’t seen it as she barely pays any note to him.
There are two major precedents for glamoring being used in the series that are highly significant this theory. In ADWD, glamoring is being used by Melisandre and Mance Rayder as a plot device in a situation that has many parallels and inverses to the Vale. Mance Rayder is glamored by Mel to look like Rattleshirt, while the real Rattleshirt is glamored to look like Mance. It is the latter that will face execution freeing the other for his mission. The glamor is to allow Mance to leave Castle Black while I propose a glamor is used to infiltrate the Gates of the Moon. Mance takes on the alias of Abel (not insignificantly an anagram of Bael the Bard, wife stealer) to go to Winterfell and rescue a “Stark” girl, Jeyne Poole as (f)Arya. In the Vale, a Stark girl needs to be rescued from Petyr Bael-ish, the false Bael.
Both arcs in Winterfell and the Vale involve usurpers using scheming, murder, and a puppet to give themselves an air of legitimacy. For the Boltons, it’s using the marriage of (f)Arya to Ramsay Bolton. For Littlefinger, it’s using his marriage to Lysa to become Lord Protector over Robert, murdering her, then marrying his “daughter” to the next heir, Harrold Hardyng. In both situations there is something false about the bride’s identity. There’s an inversion in that an imposter, Jeyne Poole is playing a legitimate Stark and a real Stark, Sansa, is a fake bastard daughter. Petyr hovers over both Winterfell and Vale arcs, responsible for the false brides’ respective situations and for at least some involvement in the deaths of the heads of those houses: Ned, Catelyn, Jon Arryn, and Lysa. There’s another layer of inversion in the brides and grooms. The legitimate offspring Sansa Stark has become a bastard and the groom, Ramsay Bolton, born the bastard Ramsey Snow, was legitimized. Harrold Hardyng, the potential groom, is Sweetrobin’s unlikely heir through an accident of fate. Arya, being the youngest female Stark, would be the least likely to inherit Winterfell, yet here “Arya” is the heir and solidifying the Bolton’s hold on Winterfell. With so many twists on the same themes in both regions, it is safe then to seriously consider a glamor being used in both.
The other major precedent that parallels with the upcoming tourney in TWOW is from the tournament at Whitewalls in The Mystery Knight which was pointed out by Ashes of Westeros. Ser Duncan the Tall attends a tourney at Whitewalls, which was built from stone quarried in the Vale. The host is Lord Ambrose Butterwell, a former master of coin (as was Littlefinger) in celebration of his second marriage, not so unlike the Vale tourney to secure Harry and Alayne’s betrothal, which would be Sansa’s second marriage. Butterwell has other motives as the event is also a ruse for others who support the Second Blackfyre Rebellion to gather. The tourney is rigged so Daemon II Blackfyre (under the alias “Ser John the Fiddler”) will win a red dragon egg (as Sansa is associated with a bag of dragons) as a prize. Dunk meets and befriends three hedge knights, one of whom was Maynard Plumm (possibly a play on the name Reynard), who is Bloodraven under a glamor there to squash the Blackfyre plot. In this case a moonstone is used instead of a ruby, but it’s also further proof that glamors can be done by a greenseer magician too:
Dunk whirled. Through the rain, all he could make out was a hooded shape and a single pale white eye. It was only when the man came forward that the shadowed face beneath the cowl took on the familiar features of Ser Maynard Plumm, the pale eye no more than the moonstone brooch that pinned his cloak at the shoulder.
It’s an agent of Bloodraven that actually stole the red dragon egg by the privy shaft in Lord Butterwell’s chamber. The only one small enough (specifically child-sized) to fit is a dwarf. Ser Shadrich is not a dwarf, but Sansa says he is “wiry” and could be mistaken for a squire. After the plot is dismantled, Butterwell is attained and Whitewalls is torn down to the ground and the earth salted. The destruction of Whitewalls speaks to a probable and massive upheaval in the Vale in TWOW (again, see the avalanche theory).
There’s also a strong possibility that the tourney of the Winged Knights will also be rigged by Littlefinger. By comments made here and here, no one seems to have a high opinion of Harrold Hardyng’s jousting skills and he’s up against far more experienced tourney knights. He was only just knighted by Yohn Royce in a tourney for squires and according to Myranda Royce it was set up so Harry would win. With Sweetrobin’s health uncertain, both men are jockeying for influence over the heir. Littlefinger arranging for Harry to do well in the tourney is another way to woo him away from Bronze Yohn, further isolating and diminishing the Lord of Runestone’s power to oppose him. It also encourages him to view the betrothal to Alayne more favorably. At Whitewalls, the master of games was being bribed to fix the listings of matches between competitors for a favorable outcome. In the TWOW sample, Alayne visits Petyr’s solar and finds a window open and a stack of papers on the floor, one of which was the list of competitors. We shouldn’t fall into the POV trap again and think these details are unimportant as her attention is drawn elsewhere. Someone child-sized and good at climbing could have easily been in that room to get a look at the list of competitors in advance.
As we can see there are numerous parallels in the Northern arc and in precedents for glamors being used in the series with the current Vale arc. So many that we can safely say that the theory can work with the established canon. Now we need to look for other clues that this is what GRRM actually intends to do.
Part VI: Brienne’s Symbolic Journey Down the Acorn and Ivy Paths
By acorn and ivy paths, I’m referring to the two parallel dresses both Sansa and Arya have worn. Sansa’s is embroidered with ivy and Arya’s is embroidered with acorns, both on the bodices and over their hearts. This is about their true identities inside despite their outward appearances. Arya who has struggled with issues of acceptance and seeing herself as beautiful is admired by Gendry and called pretty by Lady Smallwood while wearing her acorn dress. By her likeness to Lyanna and her association with swans, she will grow into a beauty all her own. Sansa is dressing modestly for her bastard status, but the vines and leaves are embroidered in gold (again, Sansa equated with gold) thread. She also chooses to wear as her only adornment an “autumn gold” ribbon with her practical wool dress when she cannot wear Stark or Tully colors. So she chooses her own colors and styling that are reminiscent of Sandor telling her the story of his house sigil, the only other time “autumn” is used as a descriptive of gold or yellow in the series. Ivy and acorn symbolism will repeatedly show up in Brienne’s path and it will be important to examine the context we find them in.
Brienne will start her AFFC arc believing herself on Sansa’s trail as Arya is presumed dead, but actually finds herself in the end meeting significant people from Arya’s arc. GRRM then has always intended the acorn path for Brienne, so the ivy path is meant for another to follow. Though Brienne’s AFFC arc has been panned by many readers as mostly a long, meaningless road trip, I would say the colorful people she meets and sights she sees are a symbolic journey pointing us to what the author actually intends for the real ivy path to Sansa. The signposts were never for Brienne to read, they were for the reader.
Food symbolism and animal descriptives will be particularly important. It starts right from the jump and tells us exactly where Brienne will end. In Brienne I, when she chances upon the con men, Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer, they offer her to share their meal of grilled trout. As if grilling trout weren’t enough of a bad sign in the Tully Riverlands, it’s a reference to the “dead trout” Lady Stoneheart that Brienne will meet. The next morning, Brienne sees Illifer skinning a squirrel and Creighton pissing on a tree. They break their fast on squirrel, acorn paste, and pickles. With the tree, those are clearly symbols related to Arya and the pickles likely being a euphemism for her very difficult position with Lady Stoneheart. The next meal she shares is the “goat on the spit” at the inn at the old stone bridge after she crosses paths with Ser Shadrich and he warns her of the company she is keeping. Brienne will later be encountering the slobbering Goat’s, aka Vargo Hoat’s men, Shagwell, Timeon and Pyg, but we’ll go into more detail with that later. It’s leaving the inn and going to Duskendale alone where Brienne will find the first major clue (for the reader) of the ivy and acorn path.
In Brienne II, when she is seeking to have her Lothston shield repainted by the captain’s sister, she has a good look at the mural upon the doors of the Seven Swords inn which has very interesting features:
They showed a castle in an autumn wood, the trees done up in shades of gold and russet.Ivy crawled up the trunks of ancient oaks, and even the acorns had been done with loving care. When Brienne peered more closely, she saw creatures in the foliage: a sly red fox, two sparrows on a branch, and behind those leaves the shadow of a boar.
At the time of TWOW chapter, it is autumn and winter wheat is ripening. The timing is ripe for harvesting the seeds of winter sown at the Gates of the Moon. Gold is paired with reddish-brown (as in Sansa’s red hair covered by brown). We have the ivy and the acorns featured. By looking closely, Brienne sees the hidden animal figures in a particularly significant order. The crossing of paths between Team Brienne and Team Shadrich is for mutual benefit, serving to spur each party toward their respective paths. The “sly red fox” is “fox-faced” Ser Shadrich, who Brienne meets first. We will see another fox again later. The two sparrows being a euphemism for the sparrows, the humblest members of the Faith of the Seven. She meets Septon Meribald and then is led to the Elder Brother, who redirects her from her pursuit of the Hound and reveals she’s actually been chasing Arya, not Sansa. The boar is not actually seen, only its shadow (as glamors are made of “shadow and suggestion”) and it hidden behind the leaves. A face covered in leaves is a classic green god depiction (also as hunters in the wood like Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos). The most significant appearance of a boar in the series is the mortal wounding of Robert Baratheon, the instrument for upheaval and sudden regime change *. Recall that while Robert was plied with strong wine while hunting, it was Cersei exploiting his natural tendencies to ensure his death — the very same tactics we saw in Petyr’s solar at the first meeting of the hedge knights. Regime change is hidden and it’s coming for the Lord Protector.
* Another significance of the boar is Norse mythology is the Hildisvíni or “battle swine” that belongs to Freya, whose name means “Lady.” The boar is actually her devotee, Óttar. His name is believed to be a version of Freya’s husband, Óðr, which is also a version of Odin.
It should also be no coincidence that right after leaving her shield to be painted, Brienne hears the story of Barristan Selmy’s one-man daring rescue of King Aerys at Duskendale, but more important than that is her next meal and meeting with the pious dwarf at the Seven Swords inn. A meal of hot crab stew is shared between them and Brienne gets her next lead to the Stinking Goose to find the man that “fooled a fool.” Pay attention to the dwarfs features and his story.
Not until he hopped off the bench did Brienne realize that the speaker was a dwarf. The little man was not quite five feet tall. His nose was veined and bulbous, his teeth red from sourleaf, and he was dressed in the brown roughspun robes of a holy brother, with the iron hammer of the Smith dangling down about his thick neck.
“Do you serve some holy house in Duskendale, brother?”
“‘Twas nearer Maidenpool, m’lady, but the wolves burned us out,” the man replied, gnawing on a heel of bread. “We rebuilt as best we could, until some sellswords come. I could not say whose men they were, but they took our pigs and killed the brothers. I squeezed inside a hollow log and hid, but t’others were too big. It took me a long time to bury them all, but the Smith, he gave me strength. When that was done I dug up a few coins the elder brother had hid by and set off by myself.”
His detailed features are a perfect amalgamation of Shadrich, Elder Brother, Septon Meribald, and the gravedigger. He’s about Shadrich’s height, he has Elder Brother’s veiny, bulbous nose, he wears the roughspun of a holy brother, he favors the smith like Septon Meribald, he hid in a tree like a crannogman, he dug graves like the gravedigger and has a burly, thick neck. The outlaws that attacked his septry were looking for coins (like gold dragons) that their elder brother had hidden before he was killed. With the feature of sourleaf and the “red smile” this does not bode well for particularly our Elder Brother as Morgarth — a dead Garth. This particular dwarf is also beheaded and taken to KL to claim the reward for Tyrion, Sansa’s supposed accomplice in regicide. The most important thing here is that Elder Brother, Septon Meribald, and Sandor are helpers and are twice symbolically grouped together with Ser Shadrich / Howland Reed in the mural and in this dwarf.
The hot crab stew obviously points to her next significant part of the journey with Nimble Dick Crabb from the lead she received from the pious dwarf. (Note also he doesn’t want any monetary reward for his help, only the bowl of crab stew). Following Nimble Dick Crabb, she will hear the tale of Ser Clarence Crabb as they travel up Crackclaw Point. We are supposed to draw parallels between Brienne and the legendary knight in her battle with the Bloody Mummers. Clarence Crabb is extremely tall, wields a “magic sword”, takes the heads of his foes back to his woodswitch wife to bring them back to life and elicit their “good counsel.” At the ruins of Crabb’s ancestral castle called the Whispers which is covered in ivy, they will finally meet Shagwell, Timeon, and Pyg. Nimble Dick will be killed after comparing himself to Clarence Crabb, and Brienne will slay the outlaws with her “magic sword” Oathkeeper. Before that they will give her “good counsel” of reporting that the Hound has the Stark girl she is seeking at the Saltpans. Hyle Hunt takes the heads of the outlaws back to Maidenpool to “speak” to Brienne’s bravery and skill. So Nimble Dick was not the real crab here, it was the maiden Brienne. And with Nimble Dick’s death at the Whispers the ivy path has literally reached a dead end for Brienne. She’s now unknowingly on the acorn path to Arya when they meet Septon Meribald back at Maidenpool.
The association of crabs with maidens makes even more sense when we consider they are tidal creatures, which are related to the Moon and goddess symbolism. Think of the crab as the astrological sign Cancer which is associated with the Moon. “Moon is god, woman wife of sun. It is known.” Other tidal shellfish that have feminine associations are clams for their comparison to female genitalia. Arya also has her associations with shellfish as Cat of the Canals in her arc, but Sansa is the only maiden at the Gates of the Moon (also a female genitalia metaphor). As Ygritte explained to Jon, the ideal time for stealing a wife is when the Thief is in the Moonmaiden. The astrological mythology is important. The Stallion (like Stranger) is called the Horned Lord by the Freefolk, connecting more greenman symbolism to Sandor. “The red wanderer” (as an analog to Mars the planet and god of war) is sacred to the Smith (the laborer, such as the gravedigger) and is also called the Thief. Sansa is the Moonmaiden (as she is also associated with moonstone jewelry) and the crab. We will soon see who really finds the crab on Brienne’s path.
In Brienne V, Brienne, Podrick, and Hyle Hunt join with Septon Meribald and Dog (who has not revealed his true name, is a huge beast, and like Sandor he is his own dog) to use his knowledge of the region to find the Hound that supposedly has Sansa. Podrick also tells of his own dog named Hero, who wasn’t actually a hero, but he died a “good dog.” The terrain they are travelling has descriptive features that we should take note of:
The lands they traveled through were low and wet, a wilderness of sandy dunes and salt marshes beneath a vast blue-grey vault of sky. The road was prone to vanishing amongst the reeds and tidal pools, only to appear again a mile farther on; without Meribald, Brienne knew, they surely would have lost their way. The ground was often soft, so in places the septon would walk ahead, tapping with his quarterstaff to make certain of the footing. There were no trees for leagues around, just sea and sky and sand.
No land could have been more different from Tarth, with its mountains and waterfalls, its high meadows and shadowed vales, yet this place had its own beauty, Brienne thought. They crossed a dozen slow-flowing streams alive with frogs and crickets, watched terns floating high above the bay, heard the sandpipers calling from amongst the dunes. Once a fox crossed their path, and set Meribald’s dog to barking wildly.
They are navigating through the wetlands where they must check their footing, a slightly less dangerous version of the Neck. They would be lost without an experienced guide. They are amongst the reeds and the land is “alive with frogs” pointing to Howland Reed and the derogatory association with crannogmen as “frog-eaters” and “mud-men.” Most telling of all, it is a fox that crosses their path and sets Dog to barking. In Part III, I mentioned the fox association to the kitsune who can create elaborate illusions. It’s dogs that are able to see through a kitsune’s illusions and unmask them, because “a dog can smell a lie.” What’s important here is that we have the fox crossing paths with a dog and holy man. Yes, Ser Shadrich has definitely followed Brienne to the Quiet Isle. Now look at the very next passage:
And there were people too. Some lived amongst the reeds in houses built of mud and straw, whilst others fished the bay in leather coracles and built their homes on rickety wooden stilts above the dunes. Most seemed to live alone, out of sight of any human habitation but their own. They seemed a shy folk for the most part, but near midday the dog began to bark again, and three women emerged from the reeds to give Meribald a woven basket full of clams. He gave each of them an orange in return, though clams were as common as mud in this world, and oranges were rare and costly. One of the women was very old, one was heavy with child, and one was a girl as fresh and pretty as a flower in spring. When Meribald took them off to hear their sins, Ser Hyle chuckled, and said, “It would seem the gods walk with us . . . at least the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.” Podrick looked so astonished that Brienne had to tell him no, they were only three marsh women.
We have the repetition of being among the reeds two more times and now we have even more allusions to crannogmen with their (according to Meera) “little skin boats,” being a “shy folk” living closely among themselves. They were yet untouched by the war here like in the Neck. What Dog barks at should be taken as something we need to pay attention to. Dog’s barking alerts them to the presence of the women. GRRM is very bluntly making sure the reader sees the three women as three incarnations of the goddess, but he doesn’t want you to read it that way literally by Brienne’s response. So who are our symbolic goddesses relevant to the people in this story arc? The Crone is Lady Stoneheart. The Mother is Lyanna Stark. The girl is the Maiden, Sansa *. All of these women in the past needed help and the helper fell short to some degree. Brienne swore to Catelyn to find her daughters and she will find herself held accountable for her failure by Lady Stoneheart. Howland Reed was there with Ned when they failed to reach Lyanna in time to save her. He sent his children to help Bran and Ned’s only other known living child is in danger. Sandor promised he would help take Sansa home and keep her safe, but his mental state was too volatile to even protect himself. It’s too late to save Catelyn and Lyanna, but it isn’t too late for Sansa. This is about renewing old vows and making good on past failures. We’ve already seen the way oranges are used to express help freely given as a loving act. They are exchanged for “common as mud” clams pointing to the bastard-born Alayne with her rare copper hair blotted out by common brown dye.
* As an alternate interpretation that works equally well, The Crone is Lady Stoneheart, The Mother is Sansa (in her surrogate mother role to Sweetrobin), and the Maiden is Arya). At this time, Arya is in her Cat of the Canals persona and she is heavily connected to clams and mussels. Brienne, with Septon Meribald’s guidance, is inadvertently sending help in three directions associated with each goddess aspect. As she is on her way to the Quiet Isle, this represents an intersection of the acorn and ivy path which we will see again on the isle. She leads Shadrich to his special ops team and motivates the Elder Brother to action. Brienne is heading toward Lady Stoneheart, the Brotherhood Without Banners, and Gendry — a convergence of people from Arya’s arc. She still needs to fulfill her oath to Catelyn and she has relevant information on Gendry’s parentage. When Arya returns to Westeros, we should expect to see her reconnect here. The mayhem in the Riverlands still needs to be set right and Brienne is gaining a reputation for putting down outlaws.
Along their path to the Quiet Isle, “Dog [leads] the way, sniffing at every clump of reeds and stopping every now and then to piss on one.” This doesn’t speak well of a liking between Howland and Sandor, more of a strange bedfellow relationship in their common cause. (Can’t you just hear Sandor saying “Piss on that, Reed!”?) From these passages it’s Dog’s job to sniff things out along the path, because “a dog can smell a lie” just as it’s Sandor’s task to see through Littlefinger’s lies and the disguise that is Alayne Stone. Now see what happens when they are navigating the dangerous muddy ground around the isle at low tide.
The soft brown mud squished up between his toes. As he walked he paused from time to time, to probe ahead with his quarterstaff. Dog stayed near his heels, sniffing at every rock, shell, and clump of seaweed. For once he did not bound ahead or stray. Brienne followed, taking care to keep close to the line of prints left by the dog, the donkey, and the holy man. Then came Podrick, and last of all Ser Hyle. A hundred yards out, Meribald turned abruptly toward the south, so his back was almost to the septry. He proceeded in that direction for another hundred yards, leading them between two shallow tidal pools. Dog stuck his nose in one and yelped when a crab pinched it with his claw. A brief but furious struggle ensued before the dog came trotting back, wet and mud-spattered, with the crab between his jaws. (Brienne VI, AFFC)
Dog is forced to trust in the guidance of the holy man while he’s sniffing around. He does not “bound ahead and or stray” in the fervor of the search. The plan in the Vale requires months of patience and avoiding detection. It’s Dog that finds the crab hidden in the low tidal pool (the Gates of the Moon). The pinched nose and the brief struggle before successfully carrying off the crab is highly evocative of wife-stealing. If there was still any uncertainty left about Dog’s association with Sandor, the author drives the point home “when Dog went to sniff [the gravedigger] he dropped his spade and scratched his ear.” Sandor is of course missing an ear and this will come up again when we look at Stranger in the stables.
Ser Hyle gave the big horse an admiring look as he was handing his reins to Brother Gillam. “A handsome beast.”
Brother Narbert sighed. “The Seven send us blessings, and the Seven send us trials. Handsome he may be, but Driftwood was surely whelped in hell. When we sought to harness him to a plow he kicked Brother Rawney and broke his shinbone in two places. We had hoped gelding might improve the beast’s ill temper, but . . . Brother Gillam, will you show them?”
Brother Gillam lowered his cowl. Underneath he had a mop of blond hair, a tonsured scalp, and a bloodstained bandage where he should have had an ear. (Brienne VI, AFFC)
Under the cowl of the holy brother is blonde hair. Under the blonde hair is a missing ear. This is a perfect description of the masks Sandor hides true identity behind. Remember Ysengrim who I mentioned in Part III as a character in Reynard the Fox stories? Here we have the wolf (or beast) in monk’s robes who is not as godly as they would like him to be. Handsome is repeated twice but he is a beast, refusing to be gelded and tamed into a plow horse. They tried to rename him Driftwood and insist that he is a plow horse, turning him into something he is not. What happens to driftwood when it washes up on the Quiet Isle? It gets transformed into something new and is “polished till [it shines] a deep gold.” Or, in other words, it is made blonde and elegant.
The meal they share with the Elder Brother and in the presence of the gravedigger marks the last meeting between the acorn and ivy path travellers. The next day, Brienne will finally head towards her final two chapters, meeting Gendry, Lady Stoneheart and the Brotherhood Without Banners. It will be left to the characters on the isle to resume the ivy path.
Their supper in the septry was as strange a meal as Brienne had ever eaten, though not at all unpleasant. The food was plain, but very good; there were loaves of crusty bread still warm from the ovens, crocks of fresh-churned butter, honey from the septry’s hives, and a thick stew of crabs, mussels, and at least three different kinds of fish. (Brienne VI, AFFC)
Just what exactly are we supposed to find “strange “about this meal? That is a curious word to use and doesn’t appear to make sense at all in context. There’s nothing particularly strange about bread, butter, honey, and locally-fished seafood stew if we take it literally. The stew is the last juncture of the acorn and ivy paths before paths diverge again. We have the crabs and mussels, with mussels featured heavily in Arya’s ADWD arc. Bread and honey have associations with Catelyn. “Strange” can also hint to the presence of the Stranger (the god aspect that Sandor most identifies with, more so than Warrior). The gravedigger is one of those novices tasked with serving and clearing the food. The Stranger has no single depiction of his face: it can be a shadow, an animal, shrouded completely as is the gravedigger’s, or as I am proposing the face of a blonde gallant knight. We’ve already seen how Sandor will play a pivotal role on the hedge knight team as the only one that can ID Sansa. In a stew, the ingredients all retain their own flavors but are together in a common broth. There are also three different kinds of fish, like our three very different hedge knights. I would also expect to see on the acorn team, Arya’s own “different kinds of fish” coming together. It’s not the literal meal that we are supposed to see as strange, but the people the ingredients represent. Our hedge knights might be “strange” but in the end the maiden finds them “very good.”
Part VII: Tying Everything Together in Sansa’s POV
Logically if Brienne’s chapters were full of signs of the author’s intent, we should be able to find those seeds also planted in Alayne II AFFC, the chapter leading up to meeting the hedge knights. While there’s much that could be unpacked from this chapter, we’ll be staying focused on things pertaining to our hedge knight team.
Just a brief aside first before I wrap up my final points. Most readers should already be aware of the romantic and sexual subtext the author has included in the dynamic between Sansa and Sandor, whether they approve of it or not; however, casual readers may have missed many of those themes on their first reading. Delving into that analysis here isn’t necessary for proving the original theory, nor does disagreeing with a romantic interpretation disprove the theory in the least. If you aren’t familiar with this idea already, you may find these links to essays and resources helpful. It paints a clearer picture of why Sandor re-entering Sansa’s arc as presented in this theory is thematically satisfying and consistent with what GRRM has already established.
- Westeros.org contributor Le Cygne’s breakdown of GRRM’s Beauty and the Beast references regarding Sandor and Sansa.
- From Pawn to Player Project: Male Influences: Sandor Clegane
- From Pawn to Player Project: on non-verbal expressions of interest and intimacy
- Sweetsunray’s The Beast’s Kiss — Sansa’s Sexual Maturation
- My tumblr blog where my ask box is always open and I will be posting companion essays related to this one.
More Repetition of Themes and Motifs
As mentioned in Part V, the Norse goddess Idunn is transformed into a nut by Loki as the rescuer to escape the giant’s home. To get a little more specific into this myth, the story actually starts with three Aesir gods Odin, Loki, and Hoenir on a journey far from Asgard in a desolate land where food is scarce. They come upon a herd of oxen and slaughter one, but they find sorcery has made the meat unable to be cooked by fire. The culprit is the giant Thjazi, in disguise as an eagle. He promises to remove the spell in exchange for letting him have his fill of the meat. The eagle flies down and eats the choicest portions of the meat. Loki, finding this unacceptable, challenges the eagle with a tree branch but is snatched up by the eagle and carried high into the air. The eagle coerces Loki to give him Idunn and her fruits that grant everlasting youth. There’s no myth that GRRM utilizes that is an exact one-to-one, but look at this scene of Sansa leaving the Eyrie with Sweetrobin in the bucket attached to a winch chain:
Mord took up his whip and cracked it, and the first pair of oxen began to lumber in a circle, turning the winch. The chain uncoiled, rattling as it scraped across the stone, the oaken bucket swaying as it began its long descent to Sky. Poor oxen, thought Alayne. Mord would cut their throats and butcher them before he left, and leave them for the falcons.
The difference is the order of events and the eagle is switched out for falcons.
Consistent with Norse mythology, Loki is often the cause of problems in the story as well as the one who is tasked with setting things right again. We’ve already shown that this Loki-trickster figure is Dontos, who helps the giant Littlefinger abduct Sansa. Idunn is tricked by Loki into being led away from Asgard and is snatched up by Thjazi in eagle form. She is taken to his home called Thrymheim (“Thunder Home”) which has “icy towers” in the high mountain peaks overlooking a green valley below, as is the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn. When the gods start to rapidly age, Loki was found out to be the last one seen with Idunn as Dontos disappeared at the same time as Sansa. Loki (this time as rescuer) is shape-shifted into a falcon using Freya’s feather cloak and turns Idunn into the nut to carry her off. Lothor Brune, who has acted as a stand-in for Sandor, is in the winch room to see Sansa and Robert into the bucket that will lower them down to Sky. See how the oaken bucket is like the nut, enclosing them on all sides except the top:
Some of the winch chains were fixed to wicker baskets, others to stout oaken buckets. The largest of those was taller than Alayne, with iron bands girding its dark brown staves. Even so, her heart was in her throat as she took Robert’s hand and helped him in. Once the hatch was closed behind them, the wood surrounded them on all sides. Only the top was open. It is best that way, she told herself, we can’t look down. Below them was only Sky and sky. Six hundred feet of sky…”
“AWAY!” came Ser Lothor’s shout.
The next part of the “escape” from the Giant’s Lance is trusting the mules to carry them safely down. While I plan on a companion piece covering this area in more detail, we again have animals representing our rescue team. Mules are hybrids of horses and donkeys signifying the dual identities of our hedge knights and that they are well suited for their task at hand. One mule in particular is of interest.
She turned to Robert Arryn, her black hair blowing. “Which mule will you ride today, my lord?”
“They’re all stinky. I’ll have the grey one, with the ear chewed off. I want Alayne to ride with me. And Myranda too.”
Yet another repetition of the missing ear we saw in Part VI with Sandor and Brother Gillam. As if that weren’t enough, two repeated statements Robert makes about mules calls us back to an earlier quote from Sansa:
“I hate those smelly mules. One tried to bite me once! You tell that Mya that I’m staying here.”
“I hate mules,” he insisted. “Mules are nasty. I told you, one tried to bite me when I was little.”
He is a dog, just as he says. A half-wild, mean-tempered dog that bites any hand that tries to pet him, and yet will savage any man who tries to hurt his masters. (Sansa IV, ACOK)
Like Brienne’s arc, Alayne II is not without its food symbolism. When the party arrives at the waycastle Snow, they share a meal of “stewed goat and onions.” While Brienne had the “goat on the spit” representing Vargo Hoat (or his men rather), the goat here seems to refer to Littlefinger whose often-mentioned feature is his goatee. Goats also are symbolic of male lust as in the god Pan, who was known for chasing nymphs. Depictions of the Devil began to be infused with goat imagery during the medieval period. “Stewed” is also a slang term for being drunk, which is also how we find Petyr in his solar with the hedge knights. As for the onions, the most notable onions in the series are Davos Seaworth’s onions. During Robert’s Rebellion, Davos slips past enemy lines and smuggles onions into Storm’s End to save Stannis from starvation during a siege, an act that earned him a knighthood. Onions are a fairly common enough ingredient mentioned in the series. They are pretty unassuming and what you expect to see in a stew, but peel back the layers…
In relation to earning a knighthood through heroism, we have the conversation between Sansa and Myranda about a squire:
“Saving yourself for Lord Robert?” Lady Myranda teased. “Or is there some ardent squire dreaming of your favors?”
“No,” said Alayne, even as Robert said, “She’s my friend. Terrance and Gyles can’t have her.”
The mystery “squire” in question is as much a tease by the author as it is by Myranda. “Ardent” is a rarely used word in the entire series — only three times to be exact. As discussed in Part V, “Prince Ardent” is the true identity under the Beast in GRRM’s favorite film version of Beauty and the Beast. I would also argue that “squire” is actually a fitting metaphor for Sandor at this point. As the gravedigger and a novice on the Quiet Isle, one of his jobs is serving food. If we compare this to traditional knightly training, food service would be on the page level below squire. The next level of squire means he must stick close to the knight (as Elder Brother was) training him and do as he is told. As we’ve seen in Part VI, Dog sticks close to Meribald’s side, not “bounding ahead,” especially when they are moments away from finding the crab. By using the word “squire” the author implies that Sandor has not yet earned his knighthood. We should expect to see if everything proves correct, some metaphoric dubbing of Sandor by the Elder Brother as a knight in the near future. Plus there is the early hint of her favor that will later prove important in the outcome of the tourney in TWOW as it is the last line of the sample chapter.
[Harrold Hardyng] grinned. “I will hold you to that promise, my lady. Until that day, may I wear your favor in the tourney?”
“You may not. It is promised to…another.” She was not sure who as yet, but she knew she would find someone.
A mystery knight to carry her favor, which calls us back to parallels with the tourney of Harrenhal and the tourney of Whitewalls in The Mystery Knight novella.
Plot, Characterization, and Alternate Theories
Before we conclude with Sansa meeting the hedge knights, we should take a step back to examine how this theory is serving the plot and characterization as well as glance over a few alternate ideas for comparison.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate where Sansa is in all this. She’s at a point in her arc where she’s resigned to the fact that she is indefinitely trapped in the Alayne Stone persona. The rescuer she prayed for (or rather the one she got) in the godswood has turned out to be unwholesome and false to say the least. She’s tormented by being implicated in his unsavory schemes on one hand, but cannot reveal her true identity out of fear of being beheaded on the other. The only option she sees is to bravely move forward and try to make the best out of being Alayne Stone in a day to day existence. As a result, the reader is lulled into anticipating only more of the same: Sansa spending another book treading water in her imprisonment or yet another arranged marriage as a plot point. That would be exceedingly dull writing if it were true and thankfully GRRM is better than that.
Looking through the lens of the original theory, there’s several ironies going on here that solve the above predicament. Sansa spends a great deal of time reminding herself to be vigilant in maintaining her Alayne Stone character as being unmasked means her certain death. Being unmasked in the solar by the hedge knights is precisely what happens despite her efforts, but it means her rescue instead. It means her godswood prayers have actually been answered. The key to her freedom was already in the works, but readers have been looking in all the wrong places. She’s completely unwitting that one of the men she is bantering with is a staunch Stark loyalist and the other is the man she’s been literally dreaming of. Not only are their respective appearances different, but there’s a stunning display of character growth held up side by side between Alayne and Ser Byron. Sansa has become more self-assured, warm, and outspoken. Sandor has learned to be more self-controlled, patient, and respectful. This isn’t entirely a performance, it’s applying what they’ve learned in their parallel humbling stints as a bastard and the gravedigger.
This is not to say that Sansa is a damsel who will be passively rescued. Many readers expect she will play a pivotal role in the downfall of Petyr Baelish, as do I. On the contrary, the hedge knights can give her a place of power to act from. For the first time, she has allies loyal to her and who will fight for her best interests alone.
Finally, the wool is being pulled over the eyes great con artist himself, who at the same time thinks he’s fooling everyone with his “daughter.” It’s a completely appropriate comeuppance. Most of all there’s a way out that doesn’t involve yet another marriage proposal, which has never meant anything good in her story before. The possible betrothal to Harry the Heir makes for great slight-of-hand, because it’s what we’re trained to expect in her arc. While the reader and Sansa are looking toward the young falcon, our attention is drawn away from the hedge knights. Too many Vale arc speculations play up the importance of Harry the Heir (only just mentioned in Alayne II) and completely ignore or downplay the role of Ser Shadrich, who has been lurking around since Brienne I. Not that Harry won’t serve a purpose, but Shadrich is the obvious Chekhov’s gun here.
The original theory solves some very key questions that readers have had. It addresses:
- How Sandor will re-enter Sansa’s arc in a logical, canon-supported, and thematically satisfying way that serves both characters.
- How Howland Reed will help an actual Stark on page in a way that utilizes his established backstory and talents (which is all we are given by the author).
- How to effectively use a character like the Elder Brother that we only meet briefly, but we’re given a wealth of detail concerning his backstory, talents, and capacity to be of service. To leave him just treating the gravedigger off page is a waste.
- How to solve the current Vale arc predicament with plenty of surprise for a majority of readers, that streamlines the good use of existing and important characters, and serves to further the overall plot of the series. It also thwarts one of the biggest villains in the books in a manner that is fitting for his hubris and deceit.
- How to make sense of the frustration with the author for seeming to place Sansa on an endless treadmill of imprisonment and marriage proposals when other POV characters seem to have more to do. For the reader, it ushers us into the third act of the series without having to spend more time watching and waiting for the the conflict to somehow resolve. The process was already happening over the course of months. It was cleverly hinted at all along, but we fell for the author’s use of misdirection and unreliable POV narrators hook, line, and sinker.
It also assimilates well with other well-laid out theories and gives them a new twist. In sweetsunray’s Sansa and the Giants (aka the avalanche theory of the Vale), the presence of Howland Reed and his knowledge of the “hammer of the waters,” provides a magical cause to the cataclysmic avalanche. The hedge knight team can also protect Sansa from that danger and get her to safety. In The Beast’s Kiss, it’s theorized that Harry combines aspects of Loras Tyrell and the blunt, offensive honesty of Sandor Clegane. An older and more experienced Sansa knows how to go toe to toe with him. She’s clever, confident, and flirtatious and may be open to a kiss from Harry. Point taken; however, Ser Byron can be read as the physical ideal of Loras and his gallantry, but with the better part of Sandor’s nature: the loyal protector who is now saving his bite for those who truly deserve it. Plus, I have presented my own interpretation on the use of the Beast, Avenant, and Prince Ardent as Sandor playing all three like the actor, Jean Marais. It’s a great twist on the fairytale for GRRM to make the handsome prince the enchantment and the Beast the true form to be revealed.
The problem with alternative theories and speculations on secret identities is that they often fail to address important issues to plot and characterization.
- That Sandor is still the gravedigger and Sansa will find him?
- For Sansa to somehow find her way to the Quiet Isle with no way of knowing Sandor is there or not having any other cause to go there makes no sense. While most expect them to re-unite, this version doesn’t advance the overall plot or address how Sansa will be freed in the first place.
- Howland Reed as the High Sparrow?
- That makes no use of his magical talents, his backstory, his affiliation to the Old Gods, and helps no Starks at this point. The idea rests on Howland Reed being solely motivated by revenge and pits him against Cersei. That’s not narratively satisfying as she didn’t order either the Red Wedding (Tywin did and he’s dead) or Ned’s beheading (Joffrey did and he’s dead). Besides the High Sparrow’s punishment of Cersei has nothing to do with the injustice toward the Starks.
- Howland Reed as the Hooded Man?
- Most of the same problems as the above, helps no actual Starks, and rests solely on revenge. With the loss of a POV inside Winterfell until Stannis retakes the castle means anything he does will be off page, which would be a very weak use of a pivotal character. There are much stronger candidates for the Hooded Man, such as Harwin sent by the BwB and LS and who can positively ID Arya.
- Ser Shadrich working for Varys?
- Fails to address the weirwood, Old Gods, Harrenhal, and KotLT connections. A supposed agent of Varys just inexplicably asks a stranger (Brienne) if she’d like to hunt Sansa Stark for the Spider’s reward when everyone at Duskendale is doing the same thing and she’s clearly a terrible detective, let alone spy. That makes no sense.
- Ser Byron as Tyrek Lannister or Harry Rivers?
- Tyrek Lannister is proposed on account of the blonde hair and that he could ID Sansa. This can be ruled out immediately by the fact that both Littlefinger and Sansa know exactly who Tyrek is. There’s no way Littlefinger would let a Lannister know he has Sansa or that Sansa would trust a Lannister. I’ve also heard Harry Rivers, the Bastard of Bracken, by the blonde hair but he’s pretty much confirmed dead. Both have zero connection to Sansa’s story.
So we can see, it’s quite easy to not see the forest for the trees when proposing theories. That’s why it’s so important to thoroughly outline how a theory works on the individual level, the affected POV character’s level, and in the big narrative picture.
Meeting the Hedge Knights
The very last passage before they arrive at the Gates and Sansa is summoned to the solar is loaded with important references and foreshadowing.
By the time they finally reached her father’s castle, Lady Myranda was drowsing too, and Alayne was dreaming of her bed. It will be a featherbed, she told herself, soft and warm and deep, piled high with furs. I will dream a sweet dream, and when I wake there will be dogs barking, women gossiping beside the well, swords ringing in the yard. And later there will be a feast, with music and dancing. After the deathly silence of the Eyrie, she yearned for shouts and laughter.
The sweet dream is a veil over her eyes much like the glamor and the false identities that hide her saviors. It’s also the role she must play to create a feeling of safety. Then the author reveals what she will find when her eyes finally open. This part is reality, not the dream.What she imagines are references related to Sandor: dogs, swords, and a reference to a past incident where Sansa hears the Hound mentioned by gossiping washerwomen. There’s also foreshadowing of the tourney feast where our hedge knight team is spotted dancing with her. Waking in the morning to these references is fitting since they arrive in the predawn hours and she is summoned to Petyr’s solar. There the hedge knights, her gallant knights, are revealed to her.
The author isn’t done yet and this ties the beginning and ending of the chapter together: Byron’s kiss. In the opening scene of Alayne II, Sansa recalls her final version of the unkiss, the kiss she misremembers Sandor giving her the last time she saw him. There will be a companion essay that will go into more detail, but essentially she muses on the kiss then she puts the “memory” aside. From her point of view, “that day is done” and she must get on with the business of being Alayne Stone. What’s really important here is what she tells Robert Arryn, who sparked the final version with his own “clumsy” kiss.
Alayne pushed her little lord away. “That’s enough. You can kiss me again when we reach the Gates, if you keep your word.”
Another kiss for a promise kept. Who is it she thinks she has already kissed? Who was it she was just thinking of? Who also made a promise that he initially failed to deliver on? Sandor.
“I could keep you safe,” he rasped. “They’re all afraid of me. No one would hurt you again, or I’d kill them.” (Sansa VII, ACOK)
The one who actually kisses Sansa first at the Gates of the Moon is not Robert Arryn. It’s Ser Bryon and it’s a chaste and respectful kiss on the hand. As I have said before, the kiss on the hand is likely the signal to the other two he’s positively ID’d Sansa, but it’s definitely more than that. It’s chivalrous and indicates the character growth of Sandor Clegane toward true knighthood and being of service to another more worthy than his previous masters. It points to this rescue succeeding where he failed the first time. It’s the irony of Sansa believing the man she wants to kiss her again is gone forever then receives a kiss from that man without realizing it. The chaste kiss is stark contrast to any other kiss she’s received, real or not. It marks a restoration of faith in the existence of true knights for the reader if not Sansa herself (yet). Time and time again she’s been told how naive and foolish the songs are (and many readers have bought into this cynicism as well), but the author is saying on a few rare occasions they are true. Deconstruction and reconstruction complete. Byron’s kiss brings us full circle on themes of knighthood, idealism, and second chances for each of our hedge knights. It combines chivalry and Arthurian romances with the toppling of corrupt power by the trickster underdog themes of Reynard the Fox and Loki. Most of all, it is a ravens versus doves story that GRRM so loves.
“I would do the same if she were my daughter,” said the last knight, a short, wiry man with a wry smile, pointed nose, and bristly orange hair. “Particularly around louts like us.”
Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”
The three knights bowed and withdrew, though the tall one with the blond hair kissed her hand before taking his leave.
The twist on the word “lout” is that when used in the verb form, it means to bow respectfully, exactly what the hedge knights do when they take their leave of Sansa. They are a motley crew of tricksters that slipped in under Littlefinger’s nose, effectively fooling the fooler. One of whom is Sansa’s much prayed for Florian the Fool, the knight in motley armor — or rather the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory disguise for the man beneath it.
GRRM has been quoted that Sansa’s pattern of misremembering things has been purposely built up over time and will eventually “mean something.” One of those instances I believe is specifically relevant to this theory and shows where the author’s intentions have been since AGOT:
“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong.” (Sansa III, AGOT, What her father actually said)
“He was going to take me back to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight…”(Sansa IV, AGOT, What she misremembers her father saying)
- In Part I, we saw the importance of the name Shadrich and it’s biblical relation to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three “godly” men who will defy a king while under assumed identities. No matter friends or foes, there must be at least one person on the hedge knight team that can positively ID Sansa for any plan to work.
- In Part II, Brienne’s limitations on judging Ser Shadrich fairly and accurately were laid out. No matter who Shadrich is or isn’t, there is a substantial amount of evidence that he is a helper if we look past Brienne’s limitations. He has parallels to Sandor Clegane as well as other known helpers and he is surrounded by weirwood, Old Gods, KotLT, and Harrenhal references.
- In Part III, I made the case for Howland Reed based on what we know from Jojen and Meera about their father. Not resting on physical descriptions alone, Ser Shadrich’s claims and skillset are consistent with details we know of Howland Reed. Most importantly Howland Reed has thus far only been featured in the story of the Harrenhal tourney with ties to the KotLT (aside from a brief mention of being at the ToJ). When he re-enters the story it makes sense that he will have those references surrounding him as does Ser Shadrich. We’ve also looked at the importance of the fox representing Ser Shadrich as medieval folk hero, Reynard the Fox, and his parallels to Howland Reed. The timeline of events shows that Howland Reed as Ser Shadrich has likely been searching for a way to get to Sansa since word of Ned’s death reached the North. There’s also plenty of plausible time and the means to find Elder Brother and Sandor Clegane on the Quiet Isle, devise their plan, and meet Littlefinger in Gulltown. Howland’s role is to provide the glamor to disguise Sandor.
- In Part IV, we established that Elder Brother and Ser Morgarth share distinctive physical features. The Quiet Isle represents a metaphoric afterlife or an Avalon where King Arthur (Sandor) will be healed and restored. The Elder Brother’s role is a green god type linked to Garth Greenhand (hence his alias) and he serves as a psychopomp, ushering people between the worlds. He’s also a gatekeeper of information from the outside world and has access to a ship that can take them to Gulltown. He also has a debt to pay to Sandor Clegane for his mistake with the Hound’s helm that led to Sandor’s death warrant. We also looked at how Elder Brother is still searching for his own redemption and the effect that Brienne and the Saltpans massacre has on him. No other bounty hunters make a connection between Sansa and Littlefinger, something that can only be done if you know Littlefinger’s history.
- In Part V, I showed that Sandor could be plausibly healed enough for a rescue mission. Sandor’s character shares a remarkable amount of parallels to the poet Lord Byron and his works, making the name “Byron” extremely appropriate as an alias. Sandor fits the “godly men” motif as a literal burned man or wicker man variety of green god. I made comparisons to Odin as well as Loki in the rescue of Idunn myth. The choice of Sandor become a blonde, handsome knight makes sense in the context of the author’s favorite film adaptation of La Belle et la Bête and with his knowledge of Sansa. We looked at the textual evidence for Sandor being able to pull off the role of Ser Byron as well as the precedents for glamors used in the series and their parallels to the Vale arc. The raw materials for a glamor, bones and rubies, are heavily emphasized as being present on the Quiet Isle. Most importantly, Sandor’s role on the team is to positively ID Sansa through a disguise, which the others cannot do.
- In Part VI, we looked at the symbolic journey of Brienne through the Riverlands and Crackclaw point. The signposts along the way were never meant for Brienne to act upon, because she winds up with people from Arya’s arc (the acorn path). Through animal and food symbolism and colorful side characters, we see who is actually on the ivy path to Sansa. The mural at Duskendale and the pious dwarf link Shadrich as Howland Reed to two holy men, Septon Meribald and Elder Brother, as well as Sandor as the gravedigger. Along the way the fox crosses paths with Dog and we have repeated mention of being “among the reeds.” Sansa is symbolically linked to the Moon Maiden through crabs and clams and it is Dog that finds the crab and steals it from it’s hiding place. The Quiet Isle gives us Stranger (renamed Driftwood), who bit the ear off a brother, hidden under his blonde hair and cowl. Missing ears become an important motif pointing to Sandor. Then we have the symbolism of the “strange” but “very good” stew representing our hedge knight team.
- In Part VII, from Sansa’s POV chapter we see a repetition of previous themes and symbols: the rescue of Idunn, the stewed goat and onions representing the hedge knights with a drunken Petyr, the missing ear of the mule, and the significance of the “ardant squire” and Sansa’s favor that will play a role in the tourney. The theory presented serves all characters involved as well as the Vale arc and the overall plot of the series. It also compliments other well-supported theories and shows were alternate theories fall short. Sansa’s POV ends on references directly related to Sandor and the tourney feast where our hedge knights will most likely make their move if the author is parallelling Whitewalls and Harrenhal. She then meets her saviors and the scene culminates with Byron’s highly significant, chaste kiss that ties major themes together.