Reader, sit down: It’s time I told you a story. It’s a tale about a bunch of fantasy fans who were granted their greatest wish, and a smaller number of haters who grumbled through the whole thing.
Yes, that’s right — I’m talking about Cleganebowl, the Game of Thrones fan theory that got a boost Sunday night when Sandor Clegane made his triumphant return to the show for the first time in two years. When last we left the artist formerly known as the Hound, he was licking his ostensibly mortal wounds after a duel with Brienne; now, it seems, he’s been nursed back to health. It was enough to make Cleganebowl, in the parlance of the theory’s proponents, “fucking confirmed.”
Let’s back up a bit and explain what Cleganebowl actually is. As you’ll remember, one of the first things we learn about Sandor is his fraught relationship with his older brother, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. When they were children, Gregor was the one who thrust Sandor’s face into burning coals, giving him distinctive scars and a lifelong fear of fire. Later, Gregor became a knight and committed a whole bunch of war crimes, which gave Sandor a deep distrust of the entire concept of knighthood. Though they’ve technically been on the same side throughout all the wars of the realm, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of brothers who hate each other more. Remember the tournament from season one?
Since then, both Clegane brothers have changed a lot, and not just because one of them’s now being played by a completely different actor. The Mountain got killed in a trial by combat, then got turned into a Frankenstein monster, and is now acting as Cersei’s personal bodyguard. The Hound joined the kingsguard, quit the kingsguard, wandered around the Riverlands for a bit, got captured, escaped, made a friend, got whupped by Brienne, and is now part of a wandering holy order led by Septon Meribald (Ian McShane).
The dream of Cleganebowl goes something like this: We know that Cersei still has to stand trial for her crimes. We also know she’s planning on having a trial-by-combat, and is going to use zombie-Gregor as her champion. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Faith called up Sandor freaking Clegane to fight on their side, making the two brothers have to face each other, mano a mano? Would that be enough to get you hyped? If you’re not sure, why not try watching this video?
Popular opinion on Cleganebowl in Song of Ice and Fire fandom is split between three separate camps. The first thinks that Cleganebowl is super-awesome and sincerely can’t wait for it to happen. The second doesn’t really care much either way, but likes to pretend to be really into it for the lolz. (Naturally, it can be hard to distinguish between these two.) And the third, the one that I’m in, hates it.
To understand why, you’ve got to look at where we left the Hound in George R.R. Martin’s novels. At the end of A Storm of Swords, Sandor was in the same basic spot he was at the end of season four, bleeding out in the middle of the Riverlands. However, in the next book, A Feast for Crows, Martin drops hints that he survived. While searching the Riverlands for the Stark sisters, Brienne comes upon a quiet monastery, one of the few places in Westeros that hasn’t been ravaged by the war. There she meets a healer called the Elder Brother, who tells her, “The Hound is dead. Sandor Clegane is at rest.” From a distance, she also sees a lonely gravedigger, who just happens to have an injury similar to the Hound’s, a horse that looks exactly like the Hound’s, and a scarf that conveniently covers his face. Oh, and he’s got an affinity for dogs. Add it all up, and it seems likely the Elder Brother was speaking metaphorically: Sandor has retired his Hound identity for good, taking up a life of quiet contemplation. For Game of Thrones, that’s pretty much the happiest ending you can hope for.
To take Sandor away from this, just so he can fight his brother again, seems to those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction like a fundamental misunderstanding of the Hound’s character arc. His whole thing has been learning how to get away from a life of violence, not leaning into it. Cleganebowl is emblematic of one of my least-favorite aspects of modern fandom, fan theories that emphasize spectacle and surprise instead of character and theme. Game of Thrones fandom is particularly attracted to these, and many of them seem driven more by the culture of message-board one-upmanship than any actual analysis. (Of course, thinking you know more about what characters would do than their creators is also a defining trope of modern fandom, so those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction are hardly in the clear either.)
But now, with the Hound’s return, it looks like Cleganebowl is actually going to be canon in the show. But those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction are still holding out hope that George R.R. Martin’s got a better arc in store for the brothers in the books. Theorists have thrown out a number of minor characters who might be sacrificed at the altar of FrankenGregor in Cersei’s trial, while the blogger Made in Myr presents a compelling case that book-Sandor will actually be brought out of hiding to serve as a judge at Margaery’s trial. If that happens, it will be a hundred times more interesting than Cleganebowl would be, I guarantee it. And if you disagree, what are you gonna do, fight me about it?