Why ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ Means So Much to Game of Thrones Book Readers

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

It started when Jaime Lannister stood and said, almost to himself, “Any knight can make a knight.” In that moment the butterflies started whirring around my stomach, my throat drew tight, my eyes started swelling. It concluded when Jaime bid his captor turned peer turned hero Brienne of Tarth to arise, “a knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” That’s when I started bawling like a damn baby — big, ugly, snotty honking sobs of compassion and joy. By the time Tormund started applauding and Tyrion started toasting and Brienne started smiling — Brienne! Of Tarth! Smiling! — I lost it completely. Judging from reactions to “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Sunday’s fantastic episode of Game of Thrones, I was far from alone.

But it wasn’t just the inherent meaning of the scene for two of the series’ best characters — misfit woman warrior, Brienne, and her unlikely friend and recovering scumbag, Jaime Lannister — that got me.

Did it mean a lot to see Jaime finally make good on the knightly vows he’d spent most of his life using as a shield to cover for his atrocious behavior? Yes. Did it mean even more to see Brienne — who’s been searching for a place in a society that has no room for her, growing embittered even as she clings to a code most actual knights barely pay lip service to — receive the acceptance she’d earned a million times over? Of course.

But it was the dialogue that truly drove the momentousness of the scene home to me, because it was dialogue I recognized as a reader of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros saga. At a time when the show is operating on its own, “Any knight can make a knight” and “a knight of the Seven Kingdoms” are key phrases from the source material, in this case, a series of prequel novellas commonly known as the Tales of Dunk & Egg. Collected in a volume called A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms — a title shared by the episode itself — they’re Martin’s most sustained look at what knighthood means, both as a way of life and in the hearts of those who wish to adopt it. Hearing those phrases on the show this deep into its run has a talismanic effect for book readers that couldn’t be achieved any other way.

A bit about the source material, not that it matters that much. (Honestly! If you don’t know the short stories in question, that’s fine, you’ll get the drift.) Ninety years or so before the events that kick off Game of Thrones — give or take a few due to the slight timeline variations between books and show — there lived a hedge knight named Ser Duncan the Tall. Hedge knights are basically ronin, masterless swordsmen who supposedly live by the chivalric code that governs even the mightiest and most highborn knights in the land.

In theory, this means they wander from place to place, lending their swords to righteous causes and leal lords in exchange for food, shelter, payment, and a shot at landing an official position within the forces of the lord in question. They’re the freelancers of the knighting world. In practice, this means a life of homelessness and hardship — they’re called “hedge knights” because they’re often forced to sleep rough under hedges and such for shelter — governed as much by finding the next meal and guarding their most precious possessions, their swords and armor and horses, as by defending the innocent. Indeed, some hedge knights are no better than bandits, using their weaponry and combat skills to mug travelers rather than guard them.

Ser Duncan, or Dunk as he’s better known, is different. Though he was born in the King’s Landing slum of Flea Bottom and used his enormous size to bully other kids before being taken under the wing of an aging hedge knight named Ser Arlan of Pennytree, this towering but exceedingly awkward teenager determined to live up to the highest ideals of knighthood. This isn’t easy, especially when you get mixed up in surprisingly high-stakes battles between lords, and even rival claimants to the Iron Throne, as often as Dunk does.

When one such caper ends in tragedy for the royal Targaryen family (this was still during their reign, remember), they are nonetheless so impressed by Dunk’s valor that they give him one of their own — a rebellious little prince way down in the line of succession named Aegon who goes by “Egg” on account of shaving his head to disguise his telltale golden-blond hair after running away from home — to instruct as a squire.

The point is, Dunk is an enormously endearing character. He’s a sweet, book-stupid, occasionally street-smart kid who wants more than anything in the world to be a good knight and a good person, which to him are, or should be, synonymous. Read between the lines and you’ll discover why this is poignant and ironic as well as inspiring: Despite calling himself a knight in order to enter a high-stakes tournament for much-needed cash, it seems pretty clear that Dunk’s old master never knighted him before his untimely death (though he likely meant to). Dunk’s life, virtuous though it both seems and is on the outside, is a lie. Remind you of anyone, Ned Stark fans?

Which brings us back to Jaime and Brienne. When Jaime says, “Any knight can make a knight,” he’s repeating the key phrase in Martin’s first Dunk story, “The Hedge Knight.” It’s the principle by which a homeless old man can turn his large adopted son into one of the guardians of the realm — or could have, had he lived long enough to do so. A great many shitheels have been knighted because of this rule, as there are a lot of shitheels with knighthoods out there — just like Jaime used to be.

But Dunk, we learn from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, became one of the greatest knights in history — Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, trusted friend to his old sidekick turned monarch King Aegon (that long line of succession got way shorter), and personal escort to both the king’s brother Maester Aemon (still alive during Game of Thrones) and Lord Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers (soon to become the Three-Eyed Raven) on their trip to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch. He eventually dies guarding the family during a fire at a castle called Summerhall, a tragedy that’s memorialized in “Jenny’s Song,” the tune Pod sings on the eve of battle and which Florence & the Machine cover over the credits of Sunday’s episode. So yeah, Dunk is all over this episode, even before you take into account fan theories that he’s one of Brienne’s ancestors. (They’re both very tall, you see.)

And the more Dunk means to you, the more the things that mean a lot to him mean to you in turn. Right up there at the top: “Any knight can make a knight,” the principle that changed his life, and “a knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” his greatest hope in life and possibly his darkest secret as well. These phrases, uttered verbatim, carry enormous weight for those of us who know how much weight they carried for Duncan — a kind, tall, often ridiculed, innately noble warrior who wanted more than anything in the world to do the right thing for the right people per the oath all knights swear to uphold. Gee, does that sound like any women we know?

Just as importantly, these phrases are a direct link to George R.R. Martin’s source material on the printed page from a show that has, for obvious reasons, moved far beyond it. After showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss moved past the point Martin’s legendarily delayed books had reached, the show naturally took on the air of … I hate to say fanfiction, since that’s used pejoratively, often by people whose main complaint seems to be that Benioff and Weiss have been feted and rewarded for their fanfic while the rest languish in obscurity. Whatever the case, the show is very much its own animal now, and its tone as well as its story line is not always in tune with Martin’s words.

Whether that bothers you or not is immaterial. In Jaime’s “any knight can make a knight” and the proclamation of Brienne as “a knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” screenwriter Bryan Cogman weds two of the most powerful character arcs in the series — the redemption of Jaime’s sins and the recognition of Brienne’s valor — to two of the most meaningful concepts in one of the source material’s most beloved story lines. It does what all great adaptations must do: use the untapped strengths of the original to enhance the existing strengths of the adaptation. It felt much like the scene itself: One last meeting of old friends, before the end arrives.

What ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ Means to GOT Book Fans