“Are there no true knights among you?”
Dunk, a hedge knight, is burying his former master, Ser Arlan of Pennytree, in the soft spring ground. He has little, besides a sword and a horse. Though he is neither well trained nor especially well educated, Dunk is an unusually large man and he has a good heart. Looking at his former master, buried anonymously in a random hillside, Dunk decides to risk it all at the tourney in Ashford. If he fights well, perhaps some lord will take Dunk into his service and offer him a home in a castle.
Along the way to Ashford, Dunk meets Egg, a skinny bald kid, at an inn. Egg is bright, though a bit cheeky amongst his elders. Dunk, who grew up a child scrounging for food in Flee Bottom before Ser Arlan took him in, looks at Egg and sees his own story. He agrees to take Egg on as his squire, though he often reflects that the child would benefit from a good “clout in the ear.”
Things seem to be going well enough for Dunk and Egg — until they arrive in Ashford. There, they discover that the lords of the Seven Kingdoms rarely worry about what’s right or what’s honorable. Dunk, who has never been lauded for his wits, is forced to fight through the court’s intrigues with little more than courage, his sense of honor, and his great strength.
So begins “The Hedge Knight,” the first of George R. R. Martin’s three novellas collected A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. “The Hedge Knight,” which was first published in 1998, is succeeded by “The Sworn Sword,” first published in 2003, and “The Mystery Knight,” which, finally, was first published in 2010. Now, in 2015, readers can find them all in one volume.
While I’m reluctant to give away what happens in the later volumes, there are a few common elements in each of these stories. Dunk, no matter how well he duels at the end of one novella always seems to end up on the wrong side of life and politics in the Seven Kingdoms when the next story begins. When “The Hedge Knight” begins, Dunk is digging a grave; Dunk and Egg happen upon a corpse in a cage when “The Sworn Sword” starts; and, believe it or not, “The Mystery Knight” begins with a crow eating a man’s head atop a castle gate. Life is hard in the Seven Kingdoms, and it’s harder still to make it through without taking dishonorable short cuts. Each of the stories also either directly or indirectly explores political unrest caused by the Blackfyre Rebellion. Though the rebellion has ended when these stories begin, the realm is still strongly shaped by the conflict.
Though I think these stories are better suited to fans of the established series, new readers could read about Dunk and Egg to see if A Song of Ice and Fire is for them. These novellas stand on their own, and the Blackfyre Rebellion is given just enough detail that it lends an unusual depth to a fantasy novella. These stories are obviously set in the same Seven Kingdoms — full of intrigue and betrayal and bitter politics — that Ned Stark is later born into. Fortunately, there is a more innocent charm in these stories, if only because the friendship between Dunk and Egg grounds them. Dunk is an honorable knight, but unlike Brienne of Tarth, he seems to mostly come out alright in the end, which I for one found a refreshing from the novels.
It’s easy to recommend A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. The stories feature a likeable underdog, a fun friendship, and enough political intrigue to give Dunk’s duels a sharp edge. At the end of the collection, Martin declares that there will be more stories about the adventures of Dunk and Egg. They will certainly be welcome, whenever they do arrive.
I listened to Penguin Random House Audio’s production of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Harry Lloyd, the reader, gives a wonderful performance, though I sometimes found his reading of the arrogant lords a little too snobby.
I also managed to borrow a copy of this book from my library, which was illustrated by Gary Gianni. Though I did not always love Gianni’s illustrations of the more mundane aspects of life in the Seven Kingdoms, the illustrations as a whole are excellent. Although I might not recommend these stories to children, the illustrations give A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms the feel of that favorite illustrated chapter book your parents read to you as a child.