When it was announced that GRRM would be releasing an original novella set approximately 90 years before A Song of Ice and Fire, there was quite a lot of excitement in the fan community. I recall buying the book on the date of release from my university’s bookstore and reading it even as I made the 45-minute walk home in 90 degree weather (the dustjacket—and the actual cover itself—did not particularly appreciate that). Among all the fine stories in Silverberg’s collection of original tales from various masters of the fantasy genre, this was the best (something which was acknowledged by its being a nominee for the 1999 World Fantasy Awards, along with fellow Legends alumni Ursula K. Le Guin and her Earthsea story, "Dragonfly"). Seven years on and having spawned a gorgeous and successful graphic novel adaption, the story itself seems to be withstanding the test of time quite well.
"The Hedge Knight" tells the tale of Ser Duncan the Tall (more often known as "Dunk"). The story opens as the spring rains fall and Dunk buries his master, the old hedge knight Ser Arlan of Pennytree, who plucked him out of the stews of Flea Bottom to become his squire. Faced with the choice of what to do now that he no longer has Ser Arlan to help him make his way through the world, Dunk chooses to risk all in a tournament at Ashford, where a young man might make a name for himself and, more importantly, find himself a place as some lord’s sworn man if he acquits himself well. Before he gets to Ashford, however, he runs into a boy—apparently an orphan, as himself was—who’s as bald as an egg, which might explain the name he gives for himself: Egg. The interaction between the two is touching, as Egg asks the young knight to take him on as a squire, and Dunk refuses him. As one can guess, however, this will not prove to be the last time Dunk hears from Egg.
While the story does not in any way tie directly to the events of the series, it’s a wonderful glimpse of a peaceful Westeros in the times of the Targaryens. And indeed, quite a few Targaryens appear in the story, ranging from the mad princeling Aerion Brightflame to the beloved Prince of Dragonstone, Baelor Breakspear. There’s a marvelous tourney, written with Martin’s keen eye for color and pagentary, which reveals something about a number of the leading players not only in the story, but in Westeros at large at this time, such as Lord Damon Lannister, the Grey Lion. But this is almost an interlude, because the chief crisis of the story develops here, and it’s not what a reader might have thought when they first read the story. It turns out that "Hedge Knight" isn’t just an adventure story full of gallant knights, but something a bit more complex: a coming of age story, to some degree, as Dunk learns the price of true knighthood.
To say more would be to give away too much, but suffice it to say that there’s real power in what transpires afterwards, as Martin pulls certain threads together and unleashes a revelation or two. The ending itself? There’s tragedy, yes, but there’s also hope, and what more can one ask? From GRRM’s stated plans to write more stories in this period, it’s clear that this particular era of Westeros is a fascinating one, full of events and great men, and as fans we can only wait with bated breath for more.
For those with a sharp eye, you may recall a reference to the titular hero of the story in A Storm of Swords.
The second in GRRM’s "Dunk & Egg" series, "The Sworn Sword", is really equaled only by Neil Gaiman’s entry in the Legends II anthology, "The Monarch of the Glen". Following Dunk and Egg on their progression through life, the story opens a year and a half after the events of "The Hedge Knight" (also reviewed here) and finds the two in the midst of a terrible Summer drought in the Reach (which itself followed the Great Spring Sickness, which slaughtered tens of thousands in Westeros, including King Daeron the Good and his two most immediate heirs). Dunk has sworn his sword to Ser Eustace Osgrey, an old, done knight who dwells on the dual-losses of his family and its ancient honors. Gnawing at the bones of faded glory, Ser Eustace draws Dunk and Egg into a potentially-fatal conflict.
This story is fundamentally different than its predecessor, in that it no longer deals with pagentary and tournaments, but rather focuses on the difficult path of chivalry when taking part in petty feuds and casual injustices are part-and-parcel of what it means to be a sworn man in feudal Westeros. As if to highlight the "low fantasy" quotient, the story opens with Duncan and Egg returning to Standfast—an ancient, humble seat of the Osgreys—from a wine purchasing mission when they come across the rotting, fly-covered bodies of a pair of men hanging in a crow cage. Egg, his head filled with stories of gallant bandits, wonders who they were, and Dunk supposes they might be rapers or murderers, or merely poachers or men who were caught stealing a crust of bread as they and their families starved during the long, hard drought. "There are lords and lords… Some dont need much reason to put a man to death," Dunk tells Egg, before they move on. But when they meet with Ser Eustace’s other sworn sword—a cruel, unpleasant hedge knight called Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield—Dunk comes to learn that the local stream has suddenly dried up while he’s gone. Suspicious, and unheeding of Ser Bennis’s warning to leave it alone, he goes to investigate ... and sets into motion the outbreak of a long-simmering feud.
There’s a parallel story here, as Dunk shuttles between Ser Eustace and the Red Widow of House Webber, a woman who’s sparked a number of unpleasant rumors. Beneath the feud lies an older, much bloodier conflict: the Blackfyre Rebellion, now some dozen years in the past, but whose ghosts still haunt the present day. As the feud unfolds, so too does the tale of Daemon Blackfyre, a legitimized bastard of a King Aegon IV, gifted with a great sword and legendary prowess, who challenged his half-brother for the Iron Throne. The tale culminates with the last battle of that war, the Redgrass Field, named for the tens of thousands who shed their blood there. Between it all, there’s a more subtle thread which is a hint, perhaps, of things to come, as it’s revealed that all is not well in King’s Landing where Lord Bloodraven—another legitimized bastard of Aegon IV—is Hand of the King. It will be interesting to see whether the next story in the series develops this further.
These several different narrative threads are skillfully handled by Martin, using the shadows of past events to influence the present, and setting up a parallel between Ser Eustace and Ser Duncan as two men who must make a choice when their desire for honor conflicts with their sworn duties. Martin’s portrayal of Ser Eustace is pitch-perfect, as the old man blusters and dreams, struggling to carry the weight of his griefs and his losses. Other new characters develop well enough—particularly the surprising Red Widow, who teaches Dunk a lesson or two about what it means to rule in Westeros when one is a woman and ones peers think little of you based on your sex—but it’s sad Ser Eustace and the detestable Ser Bennis who shine best. There’s humor to be had, as well, and suffice it to say there’ll be blood shed before all’s said and done—all hallmarks, it seems, of what we can expect from future Dunk & Egg stories.