Ask the Maester: The Tale of Brave Ser Barristan, the Faith Militant, and the Fighting HarpiesHBO
Who was Ser Barristan Selmy?
Ah, Ser Barristan the Bold. He was a legendary knight, faithful member of the Kingsguard, and, in his day, the greatest warrior in Westeros. Even in a season of major breaks with book lore, this one was an earthquake. Barristan Selmy had walked shoulder to shoulder with greatness, like an extremely martial and not dimwitted Westerosi Forrest Gump, for basically his entire life. The future Ser Barristan got his sobriquet “The Bold” at the age of 10, when he sneaked onto the lists of a tournament at Blackhaven (seat of House Dondarrion) wearing what was apparently the tiniest set of plate armor on the market and riding a borrowed horse. He even had the temerity to challenge Prince Duncan Targaryen to a joust. He lost.1 But Prince Duncan was impressed by the kid’s moxie and declared him a “bold boy.” At a tournament in King’s Landing, at the age of 16, Barristan was knighted by the hand of King Aegon V Targaryen (“Aegon the Unlikely,” as he is known to fake history), who was Maester Aemon’s younger brother. King Jaehaerys II Targaryen (Aegon V’s son) gave Barristan a white cloak, making him a member of the Kingsguard at the age of 23.
Throughout his life, Ser Barristan found himself, again and again, on the front lines of the realm’s notable conflicts. During the rebellion known as the War of the Ninepenny Kings, Barristan killed the bastard pretender Maelys I Blackfyre (known as Maelys the Monstrous, because he had a non-conscious conjoined-twin head jutting like a bulbous nightmare from his neck), effectively ending the conflict. Barristan was present at Lord Whent’s notorious tournament at Harrenhal during the year of the false spring, where Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen scandalized the realm by picking Lyanna Stark as the tournament’s queen of love and beauty instead of Elia Martell, who was Rhaegar’s wife. Barristan slew the bandit leader Simon Toyne — who was like the Westeros version of Robin Hood — of the Kingswood Brotherhood in single combat.
Ser Barristan’s finest moment as a knight of the Kingsguard came during the reign of the Mad King Aerys II, amid a rebellion known as the Defiance of Duskendale, a seemingly minor tax dispute that spiraled into a profoundly unwise uprising. The details are somewhat sketchy, but one story has it that Lord Denys Darklyn of Duskendale, a port town on Blackwater Bay, perhaps acting under the pernicious influence of his Myrish wife, Lady Serala, demanded increased freedoms for the town on par with the autonomy accorded to Dorne. Lord Denys invited King Aerys to Duskendale to talk about it. Aerys II, though not quite yet the Mad King, had been, for several years, growing increasingly erratic and paranoid. The king’s relationship with his Hand, Lord Tywin Lannister, had been nearly nonexistent ever since Aerys had rebuffed Tywin’s proposal to marry Tywin’s young daughter Cersei to Crown Prince Rhaegar. So when Tywin advised him in no uncertain terms not to go to Duskendale, Aerys was like, “I’m totally going now.” Unfortunately, as a famed admiral once said, it was a trap. The king, who was traveling with a small entourage, was seized. Tywin Lannister, in command of the royal forces, laid siege to Duskendale and threatened to take the city by storm and kill every man, woman, and child within its walls unless the king was released. Typical Tywin. When it was pointed out to Lord Tywin that his strategy might well result in Lord Denys executing the king, Tywin pointed at Prince Rhaegar and said, “If he does, we have a better king right here.”
Ser Barristan proposed another solution. He offered to sneak into the town, alone, to make his way to the fort where the king was being held and spirit the king to safety. By any measure, it was an insane plan, almost as crazy as a one-handed Jaime sneaking into Dorne to rescue Princess Myrcella. Of course, Barristan carried it off. Disguised as a beggar, he scaled the walls of Duskendale, located the king, and then cut their way to safety. It was a moment of legendary heroism that would have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. House Darklyn and its vassals in House Hollard (with the exception of the young Ser Dontos Hollard, whom we later meet as the drunken jester who helps Sansa escape the Purple Wedding) were wiped out. After his imprisonment, King Aerys was never the same, and he descended irrevocably into madness and cruelty, costing the realm untold thousands of lives. And Rhaegar would never be king.
R.I.P., Ser Barristan.
What’s the deal with the Faith Militant?
Give Cersei this — she’s a cunning and dangerous player of the game of thrones. If Tywin was a chess master, his daughter is like a blitz player, aggressive and always in attack mode. Underestimate her at your peril. Her weakness is that she gives few-to-zero fucks about what happens after she wins the game. Arming the Faith Militant is a prime example. On the one hand, there are lots of short-term benefits to using religious fanatics as a power base. Using the Faith Militant as her proxies to strike at the Tyrells gives Cersei a level of plausible deniability: I’m not holding Ser Loras! And, unlike the Gold Cloaks or the Kingsguard or even the Lannister army, the Faith exist outside the realm’s traditional power structures; they answer only to the High Sparrow, who answers only to the gods but theoretically takes suggestions from Cersei. And, hey, it worked! Loras is a prisoner of the Faith. The dimwitted Mace Tyrell is on a slow boat to Braavos. Margaery stands alone.
There are, of course, problems. The Tyrells are currently — whether Cersei realizes this or not — the guarantors of the realm’s security. Their gold keeps the realm afloat and the Iron Bank at bay. Their army is largely untouched by the War of the Five Kings and is the strongest single force in the realm. Who would oppose Stannis if he marched on King’s Landing again? Who would guard the border with Dorne if war broke out? The Tyrells. Without food supplied by the Reach, King’s Landing and much of the south would starve. Alienating them openly is idiotic in the extreme. What happens if Lady Olenna uses Loras’s imprisonment as a pretext to march the Tyrell army on King’s Landing to free him? Well, besides the streets running with blood, the Tyrells would end up in control of the realm, and Cersei would likely end up back at Casterly Rock to live out her days as a very comfortable prisoner.
That’s probably the best-case scenario, because it assumes that Cersei can maintain control over the Faith Militant in a meaningful way. Westerosi history, however, tells us that she can’t.
The Faith Militant is a loose affiliation of religious fanatics who are pledged to protect the Faith. The Faith Militant is organized into two orders: the Poor Fellows, drawn from the peasantry, and the Warrior’s Sons, former nobles and landed knights (like Lancel Lannister) who gave up their worldly possessions to serve the Faith. They are somewhat analogous to the Knights Templar and Hospitaller of the Crusader age, acting as the sword arm for their religion. The Faith Militant first come to the attention of history during the reign of Aenys I Targaryen, son of Aegon the Conqueror and the second Targaryen king of Westeros. The Targaryens famously practiced incest as a means to keep their bloodline pure and consolidate control of the realm within the family. Aenys was the product of the union of Aegon the Conqueror and Aegon’s sister Queen Rhaenys. Somewhat inconveniently — for the Targaryens, and, potentially, for Cersei — the Faith of the Seven (and therefore the Faith Militant) views incest as an abomination. The High Septon was willing to overlook the Faith’s prohibition on interfamily relations with regard to Aegon the Conqueror — despite Aegon being married to not one but two of his siblings (the aforementioned Rhaenys and their sister Visenya) simultaneously. When a guy and his two sister-wives bring the entire continent to its knees on the back of fire-breathing dragons, they’re afforded a few additional perks, I guess. King Aenys I married a half-Targaryen cousin; the Faith let that one go as well. (If marrying cousins were illegal in Westeros, the entire realm would be at the Wall.)
But when Queen Visenya proposed marrying her and Aegon’s son Maegor to Maegor’s niece Rhaena,2 the Faith flipped out and the Westerosi culture wars were ignited. The Targaryens backed down, and in a transparent bid to smooth things over with the Faith, Maegor was married to the High Septon’s niece. No children came of that union, though. So Maegor, perhaps jealous at the rate at which his brother King Aenys and Aenys’s queen Alyssa were pumping out kids, took a second wife in secret. Compounding the scandal: The wedding ceremony was presided over by his mother, Queen Visenya, instead of by a septon. The final straw for the Faith came when King Aenys wed his son and heir, Crown Prince Aegon, to the boy’s sister Rhaena.
Aenys was labeled “King Abomination” by the Faith, and the septon who’d performed Aegon and Rhaena’s wedding was chopped into Tyrion-size pieces a few weeks later by the Faith Militant. The Warrior’s Sons, expecting a Targaryen military response, turned the Sept of Remembrance in King’s Landing into a fortress. Members of the Poor Fellows slipped into the royal castle and came very close to assassinating King Aenys and his family. The king had to flee to Dragonstone, where, shortly thereafter, he died. Aenys’s half brother Maegor ascended to the throne and quickly set about earning the nickname by which history remembers him: “Maegor the Cruel.” Maegor opened his campaign against the Faith Militant with a literal bang, burning the Sept of Remembrance with dragonflame, barbecuing hundreds of Warrior’s Sons in the process. Then he smashed an army of Poor Fellows at Stonebridge on the Mander River. Later, it is said, after a particularly brutal campaign against the Faith Militant, he brought the heads of 2,000 Warrior’s Sons and Poor Fellows back to the newly completed Red Keep as trophies. In the end, it fell to his nephew and successor, King Jaehaerys “The Conciliator” Targaryen — arguably the greatest Targaryen ruler in Westerosi history — to bind up the rift between the crown and the Faith. He offered the tattered remnants of the Faith Militant full amnesty if they would put down their weapons and submit to the King’s Law. Additionally, Jaehaerys pledged that the realm would always protect the Faith, so that the believers would never have cause to take up arms again. The Faith agreed. And a century and a half later, here comes Cersei Lannister, playing with forces she can’t hope to control — forces that, not incidentally, hate her and her children on religious principle.
Austin asks, “Is Mace Tyrell really that dumb?”
Yes. Lady Olenna runs the Reach. Mace is just a happy idiot. In many ways, he’s King Tommen’s looper.
Shivu asks, “How experienced are these Sons of the Harpy at fighting? The show painted the Unsullied as this elite fighting force, but they just got jumped by what seems to be a group of citizens.”
The important thing to remember about the Unsullied is that their primary weapon, the spear, is most effective on an open battlefield, where Grey Worm and his brothers in castration can stand shoulder to shoulder in massed ranks of thousands facing an enemy head-on. They’re like the Greek phalanx of antiquity in that respect. Place the Unsullied on favorable ground, with the walls of a city at their backs and cavalry guarding the flanks, and they’ll roll over just about any opposition like a steadily advancing tide of very sharp sticks. In cramped quarters, against swords and daggers, the length of their spears and their fighting tactics put them at a disadvantage. This is more a failure of leadership than an issue with the Unsullied’s fighting prowess. They should be guarding the gates of Meereen, not monitoring its streets. Surely Ser Barristan realized this — it just may be that there aren’t enough Second Sons to patrol the city.
As for the Sons of the Harpy — one of the main gripes that the Meereenese ruling class has against Dany’s government is the closing of the fighting pits. The pits are both economically and culturally important to the Meereenese, and though the fighters are slaves, they’re slaves who genuinely enjoy killing other slaves for the entertainment of others. Closing the fighting pits put an unknown number of trained warriors on the unemployment line with nothing much to do. Except maybe kill Unsullied in the streets.
Alex asks, “What was with that feather Sansa found by the statue of Lyanna Stark? Was that a raven feather? The hell was it doing down there?”
That was the feather King Robert Baratheon put on Lyanna Stark’s Winterfell crypt statue way back in the first episode of Season 1. The crypts are also where Rickon, Bran, Hodor, and Osha the Wildling hid out from Theon’s Ironborn during the sack of Winterfell. I kept waiting for Sansa to notice the direwolf shit down there.
David asks, “Are there any Dothraki left in Dany’s entourage, or is it just made up of Unsullied and freed slaves plus her inner circle?”
Dany still has an unknown number of her original Dothraki bloodriders, plus a few handmaidens, with her.
John asks, “Geographic question: When Stannis was talking to his daughter, he said people wanted to send her to the ruins of Old Valyria to hang out with the stone men. Where is the ruins of Old Valyria and also who are the stone men? They sound tight.”
The stone men are a group of people suffering from advanced stages of greyscale who, for reasons unknown, gather in significant numbers in ruined cities on the banks of the Rhoyne River. In the bestial throes of the disease, stone men are known to attack ships traveling the river.
Everyone asked, “What’s the deal with Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen? IF R + L = Jon Snow, wouldn’t everyone know?”
Welcome, show watchers, to what many book readers consider to be the central mystery of the show. Here’s what I wrote about this topic last season:
In many ways, the marriage of Elia and Rhaegar is the seed from which the entire narrative structure sprouts. To recap: Elia Martell of Dorne married Rhaegar Targaryen, son of the Mad King and the crown prince of Westeros. She loved him and bore him two children, but … something happened, that something caused a separation, and that separation became a war. In the Season 4 premiere, Oberyn says, flat-out, that Rhaegar left Elia for another woman. Thinking back to Season 1, we know that Ned’s father and brother went south to King’s Landing to protest something involving Rhaegar and Ned’s sister Lyanna, who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon. The death of Ned’s father and brother at the hands of the Mad King sparked Robert’s rebellion, which ended with Robert as king and Elia and her babes murdered. Coincidently, Ned Stark, a.k.a. The Most Honorable Man in the Realm, returned from said war with a bastard child whose mother he refuses to speak of. It all comes back to Rhaegar and Elia.
OK, so, assuming this is true, why would no one know? Without getting too specific about things, after Rhaegar seized — kidnapped, absconded with, whatever — Lyanna Stark, she was not seen again. Rhaegar sent Lyanna to the remote Tower of Joy in the mountains of Dorne, where she was either protected or kept prisoner, depending on how you feel about this theory, by three of the most elite members of the Kingsguard. None of whom survived the war, by the way. Why would you use a handpicked coterie of Kingsguard to watch over a prisoner, albeit a noble prisoner? Great question.
Yechiel asks, “What is the common perception of Rhaegar? By all accounts we’ve heard he sucked, but Barristan keeps praising him absolutely unprovoked.”
With the exception of the Starks and the Baratheons, who had legit beef, he was as universally beloved a figure as you will find in this world. Handsome, intelligent, sensitive, with the soul of an artist, Rhaegar had all of the Targaryen charisma and mystique with none of that pesky incest-induced insanity. The people who followed him practically worshipped the ground he walked on. He would’ve made a great king, IMO.
Scene of the Week
“You forgot the laundry detergent.”
“Did I? I — I guess I did. I was … busy. I guess it slipped my mind … ”
“But you didn’t forget to get another bloody cat toy for Ser Pounce, did you? Are you the king of the Andals or the manager of a pet store? How do you think your clothes get clean? Magic?”
“Listen, I forgot, OK? I’ll go right now and pick some up.”
“Sorry, Your Grace, we’re closed. Renovations.”
“They, uh, were closed. Renovations.”