The Hedge Knight
Written By George R.R. Martin
If you watch TV, are a fan of the fantasy genre, or thinking about it, have read this blog, you’re probably familiar with HBO’s frankly enormous show Game of Thrones. And as you’re also probably aware, Thrones is based off of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a series boasting such a terrifyingly gargantuan page-count that it makes The Lord of the Rings look like a light-hearted one-man comedy script. Following the first book, A Game of Thrones (1996), four more titanic volumes were released – A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Two more are on the way, and the vast fanbase that the series has spawned awaits the remaining volumes with all the eagerness and devotion of a rabid dog, slavering over a piece of meat.
In 1998, two years after GRRM graced us all with his debut novel, he published The Hedge Knight in the fantasy anthology Legends. So began the Tales of Dunk and Egg, a series of novellas set around a century before the main series that chronicle the adventures of the wandering knight Ser Duncan ‘Dunk’ The Tall and his squire Egg. Two more novellas, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight, were released subsequently in 2003 and 2010, and in 2015, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was released, compiling the three novellas into one beautifully-illustrated edition. However, I’ll only be reviewing The Hedge Knight here.
So, before I get the ball rolling with this review, I just want to warn you all – FULL SPOILERS FOLLOW. As such, I’d highly recommend reading this story before this review, and as I’ll make abundantly clear, I’d just highly recommend reading this story.
Anyways, without further preamble, here’s my thoughts.
Dunk sc0oped the stags out of his pouch and placed them in the armorer’s callused hand. “You’ll get it all. I mean to be champion here.”
“Do you?” Pate bit one of the coins. “And all these others, I suppose they just came to cheer you on?”
The first novella in the series, The Hedge Knight introduces us all to Dunk, the former squire of a deceased hedge knight – a landless and wandering warrior, generally frowned upon by the people of Westeros – who was dubbed on the last night of his master’s life. With only a sword, a few subpar horses and a general air of downtrodden determination, he decides to try himself at the tourney of Ashford Meadow, where the princes and the finest knights of the realm have gathered in a display of chivalry and martial prowess.
Sounds fairly classic, doesn’t it? Well, that’s one of my favourite things about The Hedge Knight. Looking past GRRM trademarks like the vulgar, lived-in characters, vividly described scenes of violence (I don’t think he likes horses) and impressive world-building skills (which I’m rather a sucker for), this is actually a fairly standard fantasy tale. While a lot of people applaud George R.R. Martin for his habit of subverting genre norms and turning fantasy tropes on their head, and he does still do so here in some ways, The Hedge Knight has all the trappings of an almost fairytale-esque story in its setting. You’ve got;
- The peasant who rose to be a knight (Dunk)
- The good king (Baelor Breakspear, and literally King Daeron the Good in absentia)
- The prince hidden among the commons (Egg/Aegon, though this one has a nice twist to it)
- The cruel prince (Aerion Brightflame)
- The damsel in distress (Tanselle Too-Tall, whom I now realised was rescued from a dragon)
- The realm at peace
- The grand tourney
Don’t let this put you off in the least, though – this isn’t GRRM-gone-soft at all. If you’re looking for dark twists and political shenanigans more akin to the main series, there is still an amount of that here, albeit not as much as the core books. With a simple leading man such as Dunk, there’s just not a place for it. The schemes and conspiracies don’t feel so sparse as to make the story worse in and of itself, but if (like me) you loved Tyrion’s stuff in A Clash of Kings or Cersei’s chapters in Feast and Dance, you might find this tale a little bare. Though the jury’s out on that last one.
While this isn’t exactly GRRM’s most politically-engrossing piece of work in the Ice and Fire saga, there’s still a very strong story to keep you entertained. I feel Martin’s pacing deserves special mention here because although the entire tale effectively takes place over a couple of days in one location (bar the wonderfully sombre burial at the beginning), it never feels boring or needlessly stretched. The plot’s streamlined simplicity combined with some jousting and battles that legitimately had me holding my breath, make it feel like something is always happening, even if that something is essentially just Dunk’s thought process as he watches other people do exciting things.
Despite being fairly snappy, Hedge Knight leaves plenty of time for characters to shine. Quieter moments between Dunk and his young squire Egg are some of the highlights of the entire story, with a personal favourite of mine being Dunk’s confrontation with Egg after his identity as a prince of the realm is revealed.
It’s really quite interesting how his perspective on the young Targaryen changes, and it demonstrates quite well the attitude that the populace of Westeros has to the ‘smallfolk’ class – even though Dunk thinks of himself as the lowest of knights, unworthy of being in the company of the highborn heroes throughout the story, he still pities Egg when he first meets him before the tourney, thinking him a stableboy. Seeing Dunk’s thought process go from pity to protectiveness all the way to awe by the time we learn Egg’s true identity is quite interesting. The writers of the show could learn a thing or two from GRRM about character development here.
On the subject of Egg, he’s another strong point of the story. While the mystery surrounding him for the first half-or-so of the story is easy enough to solve if you pay enough attention (Egg’s unusual squiring skills, his fear of entering Lord Ashford’s castle, his dark, unspecified eye colour), but that doesn’t diminish the payoff any. He also serves as a nice contrast for Dunk, with one being a prince who was never given a worthy knight to squire for despite all his requisite skills, and the other being a pauper who, despite his relative ineptitude and lack of resources, squired all his life for a true and decent knight.
Also, if you believe a certain theory, Dunk and Egg’s squire status might be a little more similar then we’re led to believe… https://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/2s26ig/spoilers_all_dunks_knighthood/
And, after wasting an unseemly amount of your time with my rambling on thought processes and character contrast, let’s address one thing that George R.R. Martin’s works, and most especially the HBO adaption Game of Thrones, are rather renowned for. This is, of course, violence. And although there are some superbly described jousting scenes in this book, the real point of this segue is the Trial of Seven scene at the very end of the book.
After some extremely tense build-up and Steffon Fossoway’s infuriating betrayal (which completely blindsided me on my first read, despite his first scene clearly establishing that he’s a jerk), Dunk is forced to fight with a team of six other knights to prove his innocence via trial by combat, after he rather unwisely but completely justifiably kicked Prince Aerion Targaryen’s teeth in defending a common puppeteer.
Though I am heaping praises upon this story as a whole, I really need to get this across – this scene is excellent. Epic, visceral, climatic, not to mention serving as excellent comeuppance for Aerion and a superb culminating moment of Dunk’s arc in Hedge Knight. The entire sequence is filled with excellent character moments from Dunk – his blind panic at the beginning of the trial (‘I have forgotten all. I will lose everything.’), his dazed agony after Aerion knocks him from his horse (‘He broke my head and I’m dying.’) and his final, cathartic victory (He could vanquish Ser Duncan the Tall, but not Dunk of Flea Bottom). I honestly would put this among my favourites of GRRM’s fight scenes (well, one-on-one fight scenes at the least) in any work he’s done, core series or otherwise.
Whilst I’m nearing the end of my thoughts on this novella, there are a couple of things I’d like to address – the flaws, and yes, there are some. As was recently pointed out to me, there’s one big thing missing from The Hedge Knight that is quite prominently present in the next two instalments of this series, and has every reason to be there – the Blackfyres. For those who only watch the show, the Blackfyres were a line of Targaryen bastards who rose up in multiple rebellions about a hundred years before the main series. Hedge Knight features Baelor Breakspear and Maekar Targaryen, two of the biggest players in those rebellions, and takes place about a decade after the first one.
As we see in the next two stories, this rebellion hugely affected most of Westeros, and while I’ve heard it said that GRRM simply hadn’t come up with them by this point, mention of the Blackfyres would have been worth having this story (maybe that’s another reason why Tanselle’s puppet show was such a bad idea, with the dragon being slain?). Now, to be honest, that is sort of continuity wrangling, but it did leave me scratching my head a little on re-reading this.
As an aside, although I did say that I was reviewing The Hedge Knight here and not A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I would like to give my personal opinion on the latter. Although the Legends anthology in which Hedge Knight was first published contains some great stories from some serious fantasy giants, I’d highly recommend purchasing A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms if you’re just an ASoIaF fan looking to read this one series of novellas.
In addition to the simple convenience and flow of having all three stories in one place, the volume has one other massive advantage – the illustrations. Long story short, they’re bloody excellent. Gary Gianni’s pencils are utterly suited to the stories at hand, and, with maybe a few exceptions, are consistently brilliant throughout all three tales. The pictures I’ve used throughout this review are mostly from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, so if you like those, it’s worth taking into consideration. Also, there was an audiobook produced read by Harry Lloyd (Viserys from the show) and that’s fairly brilliant as well.
Anyway, that’s basically all I’ve got to say on The Hedge Knight. Overall, I’d consider it to be the finest of the three Dunk and Egg stories released so far, though The Mystery Knight does come quite close, and so…
Rating – 9/10
- Excellent prose
- Interesting, well-characterised protagonists
- Sets the scene excellently for future tales
- Lacks GRRM’s usual political scope
- No Blackfyres? None at all?