A lot of words have been spent on discussing the tournament in the first episode of House of the Dragon, especially in regards to its incredible levels of violence and how that seems to be received by the audience of spectators in the show. A new video about the tournament scene—focused on the work needed to bring it to the screen—reminded us that we had some thoughts we wanted to share, expanding on some things we said in our “Not a Review”.
When we turn to history of tournaments—the ultimate inspiration for GRRM’s tourneys in the books—the truth is that the picture suggests that the majority of deaths in tournaments were at least believed to be accidental, and most actually did in fact seem to be accidental. This website with a list of eight notable deaths or injuries actually lists only five medieval deaths actually attributable to jousts, and every one of them was an accident. Most notably, being trampled by one’s own horse after being unseated led to the deaths of two men (a sad way to go for a knight). Besides the high-profile accidental deaths of the likes of King Henry II of France, there were certainly many who were killed by various happenstances, a fact that led to papal efforts to ban tournaments and even deny burial to those killed in tourneys. Those efforts eventually subsided as tourneying simply proved too popular.
It’s impossible to say, now, whether there were any deliberately killings that were taken to be accidental, though certainly the records I can find make them seem very rare. The closest I can find, mentioned in passing in the magnificent Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker, is an event in Lübeck in 1261 when Count John of Holstein was preparing to hold a tournament. One of the participants tried to settle an old score with him, leading to that man’s death and John having to take sanctuary in a church; it’s unclear to me if this happened in the tourney proper or in the surrounds, as the source is in rather old-fashioned German script from the 1880s and I can’t quite make it out with the help of Google Translate.)
One of the practices of tournaments that may seem incredible to us now is that in the Middle Ages sometimes tourneys were fought à outrance, that is “to the utmost” and with sharp weapons. The general concept was that the defeated opponent would pay a ransom, and while death was possible, it was not all that likely. In particular, in foot combats à outrance, it was common that marshals would intervene and stop a fight before anyone was too seriously injured. While deaths did happen in these particularly war-like contests, there were clear efforts to avoid them in most cases. They did not always succeed, of course.
This is not to say all tournaments went correctly and few were killed. In the 12th and 13th centuries in particular, there were a number of tournaments with multiple left dead, but even here accident seems to have been the cause. Barker and Barber point us to Neuss in 1241 where a tournament is reported to have gone horribly wrong… due to the heat and dust, not due to its violence. Between sixty and eighty participants were said to have died, suffocated by the dust.
The history of tourneys in George’s works are varied. By the count on our wiki, there have been nearly fifty distinct melees and tournaments described in the books. Described fatalities are, however, quite rare. At Last Hearth, a wild melee left at least eighteen dead and some twenty-seven men maimed, reflecting the notion put forward by GRRM that the rules are looser and tend to be made up as needed in the North; in our mind, this was one of those melees that was more like a battle between teams, roaming over a large area and likely getting out of hand. Besides that, for the most part, when deaths happen they are individual deaths.
No knights are killed at the tourney at Ashford in “The Hedge Knight” (although at an earlier melee Lord Blackwood had been killed), nor the wedding tourney in “The Mystery Knight”, so far as we know (although the Snail had been paid to kill Ser Duncan the Tall in the joust, and make it look like an accident). In fact, between all the melees and tourneys listed, only three combatants have been known to have been killed in any tournament south of the Neck: the aforementioned Lord Blackwood, Ser Hugh of the Vale in A Game of Thrones, and one other knight in Fire and Blood. This is not, of course, an exhaustive compilation. Westeros doubtless had many more tournaments than the near-50 we have information on. But it is illustrative that tourney deaths are very rare in Westeros.
The show’s version of a tourney is clearly inspired by the format shown in “The Hedge Knight”, where champions wait to be challenged by knights who ride up and select their opponent by striking their shield. In “The Hedge Knight”, the rules allowed that if a knight was unhorsed that they could continue on foot, and this seems to be the case here as well. The conduct of the knights fighting on foot, however, is very much at odds with what’s shown in the episode compared to the action in “The Hedge Knight”. In fact, it starts even before then, with Prince Daemon obviously and deliberately tripping his opponent’s horse. That sort of conduct would be considered by many to be cheating and unchivalrous, and in all likelihood would get a knight disqualified.
However, Prince Daemon has a unique position and it would likely be the case that no one but his own brother King Viserys could or would dare to punish him for such behavior… and Viserys obviously did not. That’s not always the case, though, in the texts. In “The Hedge Knight”, when Prince Aerion Targaryen deliberately kills Ser Humfrey Hardyng’s horse (resulting in serious injury to Hardyng as well), there is no question that the host Lord Ashford is comfortable with disqualifying the prince. Much later, when a nameless hedge knight disgraces himself by accidentally killing Lord Beric Dondarrion’s horse, he’s disqualified as well.
Finally, in this tourney format as shown in “The Hedge Knight”, men who fight on foot will do so until their opponent yields to them. However, it’s notable that in a number of these events men appear to fight with weapons that are sharp. For example, the melee in which Ser Criston Cole disarms Prince Daemon Targaryen, where it’s expressly stated that Daemon was wielding Dark Sister, a weapon that was certainly more deadly than most. Yet, that aside, no one is ever described as particularly seriously injured. The worst we can think of is Thoros of Myr having been “brained” by Bronze Yohn Royce, but he seemed no worse for wear when we meet him. Deliberately killing an incapacitated opponent, as shown at the end of the montage, would certainly be beyond the pale.
Even when jousting, aiming a lance deliberately at an unhelmeted head would be seen as lacking chivalry, as we learn when Lord Leo Tyrell, known as Longthorn, rides multiple passes against the stubborn Ser Robyn Rhysling who keeps riding even after his helm has been knocked off. While Ser Gregor Clegane kills Ser Hugh of the Vale, that at least has the appearance of an accident—the lance slipping through a gap of armor by “chance”, though the Hound insists his brother did it deliberately. Whether true or not, it seems most of those watching seemed to think an accident plausible.
This leaves us with what, exactly, is on the screen and how it fits into the context of the series. And we think the opening title for the video giving a behind-the-scenes look at the tournament tells us everything we need to know: “decadence”. If the erotic murals in bedrooms and public halls aren’t enough to convince you that this is a decadent court, the reception of the violence surely will.
“Decadence” is a word often repeated by the show runners in connection to King Viserys’s reign. The violence depicted on the screen, men raging at one another and doing their best to murder one another—the killing of the man on the ground cannot be called anything but a murder—is met not with the screams and shouts of shock and outrage with which similar events are met in the novels. Instead, they feel like what you’d expect at a Roman gladiatorial combat, with the men being egged on to do more and more mortal violence against one another. It tells us in no uncertain terms that this decadent court has lost some sense of propriety, has pushed further and further to find some excitement. This wanton, seemingly consequenceless ultra-violence where members of a number of notable houses (including a Stark and a Lannister, by the looks of it) are seriously or mortally injured without offer of quarter is as decadent as it can get.
Of course, this hyper-real violence also serves another purpose: to juxtapose the crowd’s eagerness for bloodshed (and that of the television audience) with the horror that took place in Queen Aemma’s bed chamber as she was held down and surgically opened to deliver an heir, knowing it would hasten her own death. That was a tough, tough scene to sit through, and made the violence of the tournament all the more lurid given how cheaply men took the lives of others in the name of sport and glory. It’s an effective juxtaposition, thematically and cinematically… but in the end, as seen above, the actual violence at the tournament was simply too exaggerated to feel like they fit neatly within the canon of the books.
But how about Game of Thrones? The Hand’s Tourney plays out much as in the books (just much less grand), with shock at Ser Gregor attempting to kill Loras and the king intervening. But as a weak king, Robert lets the Mountain get away unpunished for his transgression. We have only two more tourneys and melees—both melees, in fact—after this in the whole of Game of Thrones. The first opens season 2, as King Joffrey presides over a series of single combats on the castle walls. The Hound fights and defeats a nameless knight, who apparently falls to his death as the crowd cheers and applauds. This sudden shift in reactions appears to signal a new element at court: the sadism of the king has affected his people.
Sadism on the one hand, decadent indolence on the other. The violence carries a message from the writers of the two shows, although one hopes that House of the Dragon will be warier about just how its applied.