“A Great Prince Died So A Hedge Knight Might Live”: Grace in George R.R. Martin’s Dunk and Egg

Nerd Alert! George R.R. Martin is a master of story, and Tales of Dunk and Egg is […]

Will McDavid / 9.9.13

hedgeNerd Alert! George R.R. Martin is a master of story, and Tales of Dunk and Egg is him at (or very near) his best. Good storytellers know that triumph is proper material for fiction, but only so long as it is unearned and at a cost. Good Christian fiction focuses on the final two qualities (e.g. Flannery O’Connor), and good ‘secular’ fiction too. It’s easy to forget how utterly inept Luke Skywalker was when it came to fighting Sith; only his sonship (1 Jn 3:1!) and the fatherly love it evokes saves him. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

To give a quick summary of the first tale (but seriously, if you’re at all a GRRM fan, don’t spoil yourself): a young squire named Dunk watches his old master die, who was a hedge knight – meaning someone of knightly status, but without lands, a drifter, low on the ladder and possessing only the chance to win glory through fighting and tournaments. Young Dunk buries him and claims his title of knight, determined to rise beyond his origins as an orphan boy in the streets of King’s Landing (capitol city). He sets off for a tournament, determined to use his old master’s training, combined with a healthy dose of ambition, to win. He tries to be a respectable, courteous knight, to advance himself, but all of his efforts end in disaster. He loses his temper and attacks a prince, who happened to be beating an innocent woman, which makes his life forfeit to a trial by combat.

It’s not his attempted skills that give Dunk the opportunity to distinguish himself; it’s the virtue of protecting the weak which he didn’t know he had and which sprang forth spontaneously, in spite of himself. And this unexpected, uncontrived following of the code of true knighthood wins him support, people volunteering to stand alongside him in a seven-on-seven trial by combat against the prince Dunk struck and the best warriors there. Dunk thinks he can win by his skill and training; in fact he’s pretty terrible on the field of battle. He misses with his lance on the first joust, takes a wound in the side and a blow to the head. As his accuser (!) is standing over him, about to deliver the coup de grâce, Dunk rolls into him and uses his alley-fighting talent to subdue the prince he’s fighting. Thus again, it’s not the skills and earning and personal development that Dunk hoped had saved him which actually does; instead it’s the specific talents of the alley-grown boy that he is, and that he hates:

[The Prince] finally let go the handle of his useless morningstar and clawed for the poniard at his hip. He got it free of its sheath, but when Dunk whanged his hand with the shield the knife sailed off into the mud. He could vanquish Ser Duncan the Tall, but not Dunk of Flea Bottom. The old man had taught him jousting and swordplay, but this sort of fighting he had learned earlier, in shadowy wynds and crooked alleys behind the city’s winesinks.

And yet even then, Dunk is saved too by an adoption. The very prince he’s fighting has an uncle (Baelor) who is heir to the kingdom, son of the king, who champion’s Dunk’s cause and saves him from death, at the expense of his own life. It is Dunk’s virtue in spite of himself which saves him, but even this is impossible without the sacrificial, intervening death of Baelor, son of the king. One doesn’t have to be a C.S. Lewis reader for this whole “son-of-the-the-king-dying-to-save-us” thing to start bells ringing. And another member of the royal family, Egg, has been his squire, speaking for him when he does not know how to speak as he should (c. Rm 8:26), an ever-present help. The sacrificial son and Egg, Dunk’s comforter and advocate, minister to him the… I know, I know. It’s getting a little absurd.

But the fruit of Baelor’s sacrifice, amidst Dunk’s ineptitude at knightly combat, is that it proves to him he cannot justify himself. So instead of sitting in a castle, training with the royal family’s master-at-arms, building his own power and wealth and prestige, Dunk will hit the road and leave himself vulnerable, open to the gifts and sufferings and defeat which have brought him where he is now. He will not be self-reliant; he cannot be, since only Baelor’s death averted his. No, he must be a dependent on the unpredictable, wild world; he will put himself at the disposal of the unexpected, which brought him squireship and knighthood and his Advocate and Sacrifice. He will remain at the mercy of the world, in every sense, and the legend of Ser Duncan the Tall will be made.

In closing, Martin’s not the only one to put redemption in these terms. Paul Rudd and David Wain did another profound, medieval reflection on sonship and sacrifice: