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?