Help me, [Sansa] prayed, send me a friend, a true knight to champion me…
He could have tried, Brienne thought. He could have died. Old or young, a true knight is sworn to protect those who are weaker than himself, or die in the attempt.
As I was rereading A Storm of Swords the other day, it struck me that the phrase “true knight” is only ever used unironically by two characters—Brienne and Sansa (and they use it frequently). In a world where the monsters win, most people think of knights with only practicality. But these two women, who on the surface could not seem more different, continue to believe in a chivalry that seems dead.
And not for dissimilar reasons. Brienne is, in a way, an AU Sansa. Had Sansa been born without a loving family and without beauty, might she not also have striven to bring to life the songs she so dearly loved? Sansa wants to be Jonquil because she can. She’s beautiful and young and desirable. Brienne in her way tries to be Florian, because that’s all she can do. Sansa and Brienne both dreamed dreams of chivalrous knights, but Brienne is older and undesirable and so she cannot believe that those dreams will come true for her. Instead, she devotes her life to embodying that which she admires.
What is it about these characters that makes knighthood so appealing? Sansa’s interest in songs is attributed by fandom to her being “young and dumb”, and Brienne while not quite as young has certainly also been called “dumb”.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what dumb means. In the context of fandom, dumb means that a character is not shrewd, not adept at playing the game of thrones, not analytical or even thoroughly logical. But lest we fall into the trap that there is only one kind of intelligence, let’s also talk about why Brienne and Sansa don’t have the political or verbal acumen that fandom so gushes over in other characters.
Sansa and Brienne both fit the Nurturing Leader archetype, personality-wise. They are quick to sympathy and pity, no matter the peer pressure against them, and prone to self-sacrifice if it will benefit the weak and needy. Though not desirous of power, both characters take the mantle of leadership when called upon, for the sake of duty and honor. They have emotional intelligence, and their honest hearts give them many an outlet for courtesy, support, and sympathy. Which is, when you add in prowess of arms and raw courage, exactly what a “true knight” should be.
Since they are so naturally drawn to being a “true knight”, it is no wonder that this is what they find appealing. And yes, even though Brienne is no lady fantasizing of being rescued, she and Sansa share a similar style of hopes and dreams. See these two passages:
Perhaps [Sansa] ought to have remained beside her husband, but she wanted to dance so badly… and Ser Garlan was brother to Margaery, to Willas, to her Knight of Flowers. “I see why they name you Garlan the Gallant, ser,” she said, as she took his hand.
“My lady is gracious to say so. My brother Willas gave me that name, as it happens. To protect me.”
“To protect you?” She gave him a puzzled look. Ser Garlan laughed. “I was a plump little boy, I fear, and we do have an uncle called Garth the Gross. So Willas
struck first, though not before threatening me with Garlan the Greensick, Garlan the Galling, and Garlan the Gargoyle.”
It was so sweet and silly that Sansa had to laugh, despite everything. Afterward she was absurdly grateful. Somehow the laughter made her hopeful again, if only for a little while. Smiling, she let the music take her, losing herself in the steps, in the sound of flute and pipes and harp, in the rhythm of the drum… and from time to time in Ser Garlan’s arms, when the dance brought them together.
Renly Baratheon had been more than a king to [Brienne]. She had loved him since first he came to Tarth on his leisurely lord’s progress, to mark his coming of age. Her father welcomed him with a feast and commanded her to attend; elsewise she would have hidden in her room like some wounded beast. She had been no older than Sansa, more afraid of sniggers than of swords. They will know about the rose, she told Lord Selwyn, they will laugh at me. But the Evenstar would not relent.And Renly Baratheon had shown her every courtesy, as if she were a proper maid, and pretty. He even danced with her, and in his arms she’d felt graceful, and her feet had floated across the floor. Later others begged a dance of her, because of his example.
No matter how the world crushes these young women, attempting to tear them apart and turn them as cynical and practical as everyone else, they stick doggedly to their ideals. Is that “dumb”? Or is it simply a desire to better the world. Sansa and Brienne both know, deep in their hearts, that life is not a song. They’ve learned that lesson over and over. Yet they still dream of a less broken world, with an idealism that is much needed in Westeros. These women don’t give up. They won’t give up. And if Westeros is ever going to climb out of the shithole it’s currently in, people like Sansa and Brienne are needed.
They can’t play the game of thrones very well, that’s true enough. But that’s not the only thing worthwhile for a character to do.
And GRRM sets up quite a parallel in AFFC with these two women. Sansa, still needing a true knight. Brienne, trying desperately to fulfill that role. One can only imagine—and hope—that the two can come together someday and work together. They need each other in this dark universe.