Character: Brienne of Tarth
Text: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
In keeping with the theme of female warriors, let me introduce (or perhaps reintroduce) Brienne of Tarth. Brienne’s character is relatively well known due to the phenomenal success of the HBO series Game of Thrones based upon the best selling series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Her transformation from text to screen has been relatively well received and is for the most part, fairly true to the novels. But, as is the case with any adaption, there has been a lot to Brienne’s backstory that has been missed which is a shame because she is one of the series most fascinating characters.
Brienne is an unusual character, she doesn’t conform the stereotypical image of the fantasy heroine, nor does she represent the typical fantasy knight. Yet Brienne is both, a heroine and a knight. Brienne is unlike the other women in the series, she is not conventionally beautiful like Daenerys, Sansa or Cersei, nor is she content to adhere to traditional gender roles. From an early age, all Brienne has wanted to do was become a knight. She is tall, strong and an exceptional fighter. She is also brave and honest, all traits which would make her an ideal knight. However, due to her gender Brienne is not permitted to join the knighthood, a fact that causes her much distress.Brienne is first introduced in the second novel of the series, A Clash of Kings. Catelyn Stark has just arrived at Renly’s camp and there is a tourney of sorts occurring. Catelyn watches as a large knight, armoured in blue beats the King’s favourite:
“His steel was a deep cobalt, even the blunt Morningstar he wielded with such deadly effect, his mount barded in the quartered sun-and-moon heraldry of House Tarth” (A Clash of Kings).
Through the eyes of Catelyn Stark, Brienne’s character is mistaken as a man. It is not until she asks why the crowd appears to dislike him so much that he is actually revealed to be a she.
“Because he is no man, my lady. That’s Brienne of Tarth, daughter of Lord Selwyn the Evenstar” (A Clash of Kings)
Catelyn’s horror upon realising that Brienne is in fact a woman is slightly hilarious, given that she herself has been around other female warriors (such as the Mormont women) and the concept is not entirely foreign to her. Instead what in actuality is shocking to Catelyn is how little Brienne resembles a woman, at least in the most conventional sense. When Brienne removes her helmet, Catelyn is immediately filled with pity:
“Beauty they called her…mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel’s nest of dirty straw, and her face…Brienne’s eyes were large and very blue, a young girl’s eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest of her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seem swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn’s heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?”
Can we just take a minute to reflect on that last sentence? IS there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?! This is such a problematic statement for so many reasons, but really goes towards expressing the unreasonable expectations we place on appearance. Martin went to painstaking detail to describe Brienne’s appearance, more so than he did many other characters. Just to push the point that Brienne is not like other women. I think it’s important to note that in this passage it is not the author saying, “Hey this woman is ugly”, its through another character (and a female one at that) who recognises those particular characteristics as “ugly”.
Brienne’s appearance is something I find both refreshing and fascinating. I have been tired of reading novel after novel that describes conventionally beautiful women with “perfect” symmetrical features, long luscious hair, sparkling eyes, unbelievable proportioned bodies…you get the idea. What difference does their appearance make on their character? On their ability? Brienne is a tough, crazy strong, bad ass fighter and a sensitive and thoughtful woman. What does it matter if she has straw like hair and a broken nose?
As the novels go on, more of her character is revealed and I really have to commend G.R.R.M on his characterisation for Brienne. We learn her unhappiness and unease in her own body, the taunts she received as a young girl (and continues to do so) but also the strength of her own resolve. Whilst she can never be a knight, she is arguably the one true knight in Westeros, honourable, determined and dedicated to doing the right thing.
I also particularly enjoy her relationship with Jaime. Like her, it is unconventional. It is not a typical love story, nor is there any indication that it will ever eventuate in one, but it is interesting none the less. The two go from extreme dislike to a—begrudging—mutual respect. The television series definitely plays it up more than was evident in the novels, but you do begin to see how Jaime’s opinion of her starts to creep into his own way of thinking. What I wouldn’t give to have the series finish with Brienne carrying Jaime in her arms, walking off into the sunset!
There is so much more to say about Brienne: her character subverts conventional gender expectations and what it means to be a “woman”, she challenges what a “true hero” is, but ultimately she is an incredibly strong, brave, kind, “ordinary” woman. She doesn’t have special powers, magic, or dragons. She is who she is, because she worked hard at it. And I think that is worth applauding.