War is not Tennis: George RR Martin’s Most Wanted

So. This morning I was feeling less than excellent because the small humanoid for whose care and feeding I am responsible was yowling at 5 AM and I’d been up until 2:30 the night before drinking whiskey and arguing with my friend Colin. To paraphrase the knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: we chose poorly. We are sane men.  We had not forgotten the fact that we both have children. But the emotions involved in this debate were just too powerful.

The subject of debate: Who is the best fighter in the George R.R. Martin universe? Stipulations: 1) Characters must be alive at some point in the series, 2) Consider the character as his or her prime, even if it falls outside the scope of the series (e.g. Ser Barristan Selmy), and 3) Only the books are a valid source of evidence (despite that ass-kicking scene with Drogo in the first season of the HBO series).

We came up with a short list easily.  In no particular order:

  1. Jaime Lannister
  2. Robert Baratheon
  3. Strong Belwas
  4. Barristan Selmy
  5. Quorin Halfhand
  6. Loras Tyrell
  7. Brienne of Tarth
  8. Khal Drogo
  9. Oberyn Martell
  10. Gregor Clegane
  11. Sandor Clegane
  12. Syrio Forel
  13. Bron

Then the shouting began. In a nutshell, Colin was arguing for Gregor Clegane and I was arguing for Khal Drogo. Colin’s argument hinged on the following principle: all these people kick ass, and when it comes to an ass-kicking contest, the guy who’s almost eight feet tall and can wield a six foot sword with a single hand has an overwhelming, undeniable advantage. He cited as corroborating evidence the importance of weight in boxing, UFC, and wrestling, pointing out that a featherweight will never beat a heavyweight, and all these guys (and Brienne) are featherweights compared to Gregor.

Our discussion went like this (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW):

Me: The Red Viper almost killed Gregor.

Colin: But he used poison. And he didn’t kill him. And the Red Viper died.

Me: Sandor Clegane seems to think he can kill his brother at will.

Colin: Not fair. Sandor knows Gregor’s weaknesses.

Me: Loras beats Gregor in a joust.

Colin: Loras cheated, and Gregor was still going to chop his head off before Sandor intervened.

Me: But Gregor is stupid.

Colin: So fucking what?

I like to think my argument was more nuanced, hinging, as it did, on the idea that we should be considering first those characters who have fought the most people to the death. Experience trumps. This axiom immediately moved Belwas, Quorin, Drogo, and Bron to the top of my list. Unfortunately, very little is known about Belwas (but he does have all those scars) and Bron (but he does seem very confident that he could kill just about anyone). On Drogo, however, although we only see one fight, we have some very good information: among a warlike people he has been fighting nearly constantly his whole life without ever losing. Colin pointed out that Westerosi knights have done their share of fighting, but I countered that there has been peace in Westeros for a while now, and that a knight like Gregor mostly goes around killing potters and millers and fishermen and such – bad practice for fighting actual fights.

Although the argument kept us up half the night and led to some seriously questionable parenting the following day, the fact that we were able to have an argument at all suggests something important, something that fantasy novelists sometimes forget, but that Martin remembers: war is not tennis. To be sure, the tennis world has its upsets, but it also has a reliable ladder. The leading players tend to sit near the top because they win a hell of a lot more than they lose. If we pitted Federer against a high school tennis player, the high school player would win approximately never.

The business of battle, however, is more complex. While some novels would allow us to compile a ranking of fighters easily, Martin understands that there’s not a ladder, but a morass of shifting and unpredictable variables: personal style, the type of battle, the degree of preparation, the type of weapons and armor, weather, morale, confusion. Philosophers like to elide these variables with the simple phrase, “All other things being equal…” but a novelist of Martin’s stature understands that the exogenous variables are never equal. They are, in fact, what gives the work its richness and texture. The uncertainty is what keeps us guessing and reading. It’s what makes us (only temporarily, I hope) less than ideal fathers.

Ok, great. I said my piece. Now… out of the thirteen characters listed above, who’s the best?

19 thoughts on “War is not Tennis: George RR Martin’s Most Wanted

  1. I honestly have no idea why Loras is so high in your ranking. In the books he LOST against Brienne, so why is he better than her?
    Loras should be near the bottom, most of this list would have his pretty little butt for breakfast.

  2. Syrio Forel he was the best swordsman from a city-state famous for hot blooded men who would fight with the slightest provocation. Give him a real sword and with his speed and training he can take on anyone. The others may be bigger and have more brute strength, but they’ll tire themselves out well before Syrio does and startmaking mistakes.

  3. Not sure if these qualify as fighters but how about Victarion Greyjoy, Asha Greyjoy, Beric Dondarrion or Coldhands? (though he cheats to some extent.)

    • An interesting slate of additional contenders! I’m not sure we see (or hear) quite enough about these folks to be sure just where they’d fit into the rankings. Your mention of Victarion, though, makes me think of Euron. Although we really don’t know much about him, he seems to have the requisite combination of brains, skill, and ruthlessness to make him a serious threat to just about anyone…

      • 1Barry Boldstan Selmy(prime)
        2 Syrio
        3 Oberyn
        4 Mountain that rides
        5 Sando Clando
        6 Eddy Stark (Should be on list, fought sword of morning>survived + J lannistr n was on the verge)
        7 Rob Barathy
        8 Bron
        9 Brienn
        10 Kingslay
        11 Strong Belweez(No armor)
        12 Drogo (No armor)
        13 Loras the flower
        14 Qourin

  4. I am going to have to got with

    1Barry Boldstan Selmy(prime)
    2 Syrio
    3 Oberyn
    4 Mountain that rides
    5 Sando Clando
    6 Eddy Stark (Should be on list, fought sword of morning>survived + J lannistr n was on the verge)
    7 Rob Barathy
    8 Bron
    9 Brienn
    10 Kingslay
    11 Strong Belweez(No armor)
    12 Drogo (No armor)
    13 Loras the flower
    14 Qourin

    • Interesting discussion but it seems wrong to include assassins like Arya. Are we debating who is the best fighter or who is the best murderer? If the latter, what about Jaqen H’Ghar? If the former, I would agree with Selmy at the top though a strong contender (shocked he is not mentioned) would also be Grey Worm or, for that matter, any of the Unsullied! Sure they fight in light armor and prefer fighting in phalanx but that is just optimal for them – I’d still bet on them even in sub-optimal conditions. (As for MMA – there are plenty of instances where the lighter but better trained fighter won in the early years – heck there would not even be a UFC if the relatively diminutive Gracies didn’t wipe the floor with much bigger dudes. Now that training regimens and styles have converged it is I agree much harder for a smaller guy to win but not impossible – some guys just hit hard, big or no: take Dan Henderson for example. And just as a reminder: Brock Lesnar outweighed Cain Velasquez by about 50-60 pounds on the night he lost the heavyweight title to him. Plus he was beaten like a rented mule, wasn’t even close.)

      LOVE YOUR STUFF – keep it coming!

      • THE UNSULLIED! This is a great point. Anyone who can have his nipple cut off without flinching and has a spent a lifetime of self-abnegation in his training as a fighter ought to at least be on the list. That said, phalanx fighting is an entirely different ballgame. I’m not arguing that these guys couldn’t go toe-to-toe with most brawlers (hence the fact that we should have included them on the list), but I’m not sure they’d rise to the top against fighters trained in single combat. What do you think?

        • I understand the point about the Unsullied being somewhat hamstrung (in a one-on-one fight) by their close order phalanx training but I’m not sure this is a significant handicap given the way Martin describes their training and skills. The closest historical antecedent would of course be the Spartans and they were trained intensively in single-combat unarmed techniques (see the Pankration) as things could always go south in the middle of a scrum. I only mention these since I know you are s fellow historian and can appreciate the example.

          • I agree that the Spartans are probably the best real-world historical analogue to the Unsullied. Have you read Gates of Fire, btw? It’s a novel about Spartan training and the battle of Thermopylae…

          • I have indeed read Gates of Fire! It is my favorite of the current works of historical fiction dealing with the Greeks. Almost up there with the Mary Renault classics in my opinion!

  5. Also to explain my picks Barry boldstan is clearly the best sword fighter drogo and belweez would have been picked higher but like I said no armor they would be picked and nicked easily by most of this list and slowed due to premature blood loss. Oberyn is so high becuz he killed the mountain idk if any of the other fighters would have had the patience/guile to effectively fight heem. The fact that he killed him with a poisoned blade is irrelevant I believe he stabbed him through the chest also, which would have probable caused death. The poison only worked as an insurance policy it is also a particular to his fighting style making him so deadly. You cant say, “Oh but he wouldn’t have won without a poisoned blade” bc HE ALWAYS USES A POISONED BLADE. This has caused me to place him at # 2 now. Only bc Barry wouldn’t have been chasing oberyn around like the mountain did and in his prime 40+ yrs ago he would have dealt with him with ease. Syrio is clearly a G , but I think I based that on the show where he was schooling fools with a kendo stick. So based on the book I would then have to switch him with Sando at #3. then id pull up Bron to #4 for his systematic honorless 2 handed by any means style. Syrio relegated to #8.
    1 Barry Bold
    2 Ob the OG
    3 Sando
    4 Bron
    5 Montana
    6 Eddy stahk
    7 Rob b
    8 Syrio
    9 Brienne
    10 Kingslay
    11 Strong Bel
    12 Drogo
    13 Loras
    14 Quorin

    • Love the list and the thinking behind it. I have to go with you on Barry. If anything like a consensus has come out of this discussion, it’s that he’s at the top of the list. Of course, I have to wonder if he gets to be there because we never see him in his prime: it’s easy to imagine him doing kickass things, but maybe if we saw those things they wouldn’t be so kickass…

      I don’t think so, but it’s a possibility…

  6. I have to add the name of Ned Stark, and upon the one’s you have mentioned I am going for Jaime. Jaime Lannister if he has his right hand that is will kick major ass. He can fight off Gregor Clegane, any day. Jaime is more agile, and energetic, and above all he uses his head, and cool when in fighting. He’ll not go out for revenge, like the Red Viper, and he’s cunning and shrewd unlike Ned Stark, and Drogo (who’s a bit hot-headed according to me). So, Jaime Lannister is it for me. And hey, even if he dies, “A Lannister always pays his debts.”

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