Arise, Brienne of Tarth, a knight - and the truest knight - of the Seven Kingdoms. Here’s our take on how Brienne manages to be “the real thing” in the bleak Game of Thrones world, and how her storyline with Jaime Lannister offers us insights into the true meaning of knighthood.
Brienne of Tarth attracts a lot of mockery in her world. That’s because while she embodies the virtues of knighthood like strength, service and loyalty—she’s a woman.
Game of Thrones is based on subverting the obvious tropes of fantasy and medieval history. So we’re first introduced to the perfect image of the white knight in shining armor in Jaime Lannister, but we’re immediately told he’s anything but. Then in Season Two we meet Brienne, who is a laughingstock for her ‘wrong’ appearance, but underneath that, she is the real thing.
The story brings together Jaime and Brienne to peer deeply into the question of what being a true knight really means, and whether the ideals of noble service and oathkeeping are even possible in a compromising, brutal, grey world.
As the recognized orders of the Seven Kingdoms start to fall apart, Brienne’s authentic knightly qualities become far more important than any superficial name or title. So let’s look at how Brienne reminds us that, even in a world that routinely rewards insincerity and falsehood, there’s unmatchable power in being the real thing.
Jaime and Brienne’s intriguing relationship centers on the identity of the knight and the ideal of honorable service. Today we associate knights with noble behavior, but in medieval times they were not necessarily the most honorable figures—in fact, the chivalric code, or knightly code of honor, was established to rein in aggressive knights who weren’t acting respectably. So in the eyes of history, Jaime is probably the more historically accurate knight. Meanwhile the morally upright Brienne is like an ideal of a knight, taken from a literary fantasy and dropped into this dirty, ugly world. And at first she does come across like a Don Quixote of sorts, just like Quixote wants to be a knight in a world where chivalry has faded out of existence, Brienne’s idealistic conception of knighthood doesn’t really exist for the most part in Westeros, and perhaps never has.
When they first meet, Jaime himself is amused and intrigued by Brienne’s self-seriousness. His role in the early seasons is to challenge the traditional conception of the knight and reveal its contradictions.
“Defend the king, obey the king, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent?” - Jaime Lannister in S2E7 (“A Man Without Honor”)
And he’s such an intriguing character because he’s not a bad knight - he’s a knight living in a complex society. In fact, he has always stayed loyal to one vow he placed above the others. Still, it becomes clear that underneath his shell of arrogance and moral relativism, some part of him relates to Brienne’s simple and earnest faith in these ideals. He, too, once wanted to be a knight because he believed in what it meant. Through his time with Brienne, Jaime reveals that he’s always had the Real Thing inside of him, too.
On some level the purity of Brienne’s commitment to her vow has moved him. We also get hints that, just because Jaime is worldly, that doesn’t mean that deep down he approves of this world. Moreover, with Brienne, we come to realize that he’s actually been a good person all along. It says a lot about the world he’s grown up in that he feels he has to hide this fact—it’s almost like his honor is a dirty secret he covers up with the conceited, careless facade. But his long period of captivity, culminating in the loss of the hand which gives him his warrior identity, chips away at the emotional armor he’s long hidden behind.
While a man like Ned Stark, whose persona is defined by his honor, looks down on Jaime, privately Jaime has looked down on the overly simplistic Ned, too.
Jaime did the harder thing by forgoing the credit for his noble act, and letting himself be the villain.
But over time, Brienne helps Jaime own his honorable side. She tries to get him to honor his promise to Catelyn Stark, even if there’s no earthly upside to doing so.
And when he gives Brienne armor and the Valyrian Steel sword his father meant for him, he is finally agreeing to uphold his end of the bargain.
“Lady Stark’s dead. Arya’s probably dead, too, but there’s still a chance to find Sansa and get her somewhere safe.” - Jaime Lannister in S4E4 (“Oathkeeper”)
She names the sword ‘Oathkeeper, an inversion of Jaime’s nickname, ‘Oathbreaker’. She herself is obviously an Oathkeeper to the extreme. But her sword’s name is really a correction to Jaime’s moniker, sending a message that in her eyes, he’s a man who keeps his promises.
Meanwhile, the ultimate insider Jaime extends to this outsider Brienne the protection, means and legitimacy that his Lannister name and wealth can sometimes provide,like when he uses his leverage to bargain for Brienne’s freedom, outfits her with the right-looking knightly equipment, and finally uses his traditionally authority to bestow on her the title.
“Arise, Brienne of Tarth a knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” - Jaime Lannister in S8E2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”)
And on the personal level, he helps her to expand her black-and-white outlook, to admit a little more complex grey. This broader understanding comes in handy when she’s hit by a confusing crisis of faith after she finds the Stark girls she swore to protect, but both refuse her help.
Her original straightforward understanding of what it means to keep an oath is challenged, and by extension, so is her worldview. Having witnessed the depth of the pain Jaime experienced, she’s more prepared to grapple with the complexity of her situation. Thanks to this inner fortitude, she weathers the test and doubles down on her faith that it still matters to keep a promise, even if no one asks you to. And this pays off when Brienne is there at the right moment to save Sansa and Theon from being recaptured by the Boltons. So these two opposite knights make each other better by believing in the other’s knightly nature. As Jaime says in season eight:
“Any knight can make another knight.” - Jaime Lannister in S8E2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”)
While he’s talking about the formal ceremony, on a deeper level this gets at how these two have made each other the best knights they can be. After he takes Joffrey’s Valyrian steel sword, their twin swords represent that they are two halves of a whole— they complete each other. And the name ‘Oathkeeper’, too, represents their implied oath to each other, which Jaime finally makes explicit. Brienne is the most pure knight we meet, but for most of the story she’s not allowed to be called one.
Tormund: “You’re not a knight?”
Brienne: “Women can’t be knights.” - S8E2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”)
So she’s a reminder that in this messed-up world, the perfect appearance belies a corrupt interior, while the actual thing doesn’t get to go by the authentic name . Once Joffrey becomes king, the other most honorable knight we spend time with—the prestigious Ser Barristan Selmy, for whom Jaime once squired—is kicked out of the Kingsguard, signaling that this rotten world is just getting worse. But in season eight when Jaime finally corrects the tradition that’s kept Brienne from her rightful title, this act is a gesture toward giving things their rightful names, a key step toward repairing the connection between appearances or titles, and the actual nature of the things they signal.
Most characters on Game of Thrones are desperate to rule on the Iron Throne—but Brienne lives to serve. In feudal society, knights served lords in return for land, food and lodging. So this relationship is very much based on an exchange When Brienne makes her vow to Sansa, Sansa tentatively makes the vow back like her mother did before her. It’s a two way relationship, the person the knight serves has to be worthy.
This person who knows in her bones that her purpose is to serve struggles for a while to find that right person to serve. Yet the people she makes vows to share an underlying goodness that moves her. While she may not be aware of it, Brienne serves people who are underestimated or unconventional in some sense.
Renly was not the Baratheon with the best blood claim to the throne. But while people assume she was loyal to him because she was in ‘love’, eventually she shares that it was because of his acceptance and generosity of spirit. Both were an ‘other’ in some form, and accepted that about each other.
After Renly dies and she pledges herself to Catelyn, she’s again inspired by the valor of an individual who’s not the traditional male king in power. Like a classic knight, Brienne has a squire. Just like Brienne, Podrick doesn’t start out with all the trappings of a prestigious squire, yet Podrick becomes the real thing, too. After a rough start, Brienne tries to release him from her service, but he refuses, showing that he takes his oaths as seriously as she does. He gains her respect when he tells her that he killed a man defending his previous lord.
“He tried to kill Lord Tyrion at the Blackwater.” - Podrick Payne in S4E5 (“First of his Name”)
This proof of his loyalty sparks Brienne’s interest because it shows he has this moral code, and for her, the fighting, strength and other skills all come second to the core knightly values. Podrick’s faithful service is a key part of what gets her through her dark period. And while Brienne doesn’t think of herself as a leader, she ends up being a powerful mentor to Podrick.
In an unconventional way, Jaime and Brienne are one of the show’s great love stories.Many of our modern ideas of romance stem from ‘courtly love’—the topic of Medieval literature in which knights demonstrate love through acts of daring and chivalry. So it’s fitting that at his core Jaime Lannister is a lover, defined by the woman whom he serves. For most of his life that woman is Cersei.
Yet as we watch Jaime longingly staring at Brienne in Season 8, we might be reminded of the actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s comments that he believes the two are in love, even if they’d never act on it.
“I think they are soulmates and I think that maybe in a different world they would be able to act on that weird attraction they have, but again there would have to be a different world.” - Nikolaj Coster Waldau
These two lady loves of Jaime’s life represent the two sides of him. When he was devoted to Cersei, he was a haughty, semi-villainous inversion of the traditional Knight in Shining Armor trope. But now that he’s pledged his service to Brienne this underlines that he’s openly embraced his better nature.
Jaime’s two soulmates are inverses of each other. Both have an ‘ugliness’ of sorts—Brienne’s is on the surface, at least as far as her world is concerned,while Cersei is very beautiful on the outside but has an ugliness within. It’s this combination of dark and light, of surpassing excellence mixed with something that is hated, that makes Jaime feel so connected to them. He loves Brienne for embodying the ideals that he felt forced to compromise on, but also relates to the fact that she’s belittled by the world—as he, the Kingslayer, is the ultimate misunderstood type.
While Jaime and Cersei have an intense sexual connection, Brienne has a chaste quality about her and their bond is emotional rather than physical. It’s also interesting that Brienne and Jaime’s friendship grows stronger after he loses his hand—while the loss of his manly power and warrior’s virility is a big turn-off for Cersei.
Jaime and Brienne’s love story also has some classic inspirations. According to actress Gwendoline Christie, George R.R. Martin told her he wanted to, quote:
“Take the traditional format of Beauty and the Beast and change the roles — and also the genders.” - George R. R. Martin in 2014 TVLine interview
The beauty sees through the beast’s fearsome exterior to the kind soul underneath—Is Jaime the beauty seeing past Brienne’s beastly appearance, or Brienne the beauty seeing through Jaime’s beastly persona? Really - it’s both.
Jaime once thought it was his fighting hand that made him a knight—but Brienne shows him it’s steadfastness, humility, and keeping your word even when the entire world is telling you you’re off the hook. If Brienne can transform the ‘Kingslayer’ into the ‘Oathkeeper’, this proves that being the ideal you believe in has the power to win hearts and change the world.