The Hedge Knight (1998) by George R. R. Martin

My first introduction to the writing of George R. R. Martin was nearly ten years ago now, through a copy of Robert Silverberg’s 1998 “Legends” fantasy short story and novella anthology, featuring stories by Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, and some authors I had never read, like George R. R. Martin. I was reading the anthology for the Robert Jordan story, which I enjoyed well enough, but I read the anthology cover to cover too. Most of the stories were quite good, with only one real dud in my view, but among them was a story so fantastic I’d read it again, and again, and again, and never get sick of it. That story was “The Hedge Knight”.

I was vaguely aware of “A Song of Ice and Fire” as a popular fantasy series, but I was more into the likes of Jordan and Tolkien back then. So much of “The Hedge Knight” felt so fresh to me. Even putting aside the actual story itself, the style, the genre specifics, were a compelling way to write fantasy that I hadn’t really seen before. In an introduction to the story in the collection “Dreamsongs”, Martin writes that ’The Hedge Knight’ is high fantasy, nothing could be plainer. Or could it? Doesn’t fantasy require, well…magic? I have dragons in “The Hedge Knight,” yes indeed…on helmet crests and banners. Plus one stuffed with sawdust, dancing on its strings. Oh, and Dunk remembers old Ser Arlan talking about seeing a real live dragon once, perhaps that should suffice. If not, well…you can say “The Hedge Knight” is more of a historical adventure than a true fantasy, except that all history is imaginary. So what does that make it? Don’t ask me, I just wrote it”. My mind back then was full of the convoluted magic systems of Robert Jordan, and the near-religious mythic lore of Tolkien, so a story like “The Hedge Knight”, one so down in the dirt, so much closer to actual history, so human, felt really fresh and exciting to me.

The story itself is extremely charming and likable. Dunk is a relatable, endearing protagonist, and Egg an amusing, but layered sidekick. The story features more than one tragic death coming too soon – in fact, it opens with one – but it never feels truly dark, glum, or depressing the way “A Song of Ice and Fire”, set nearly a century after the events of the story, does. This isn’t some utopian age in Westerosi history, but it does truly feel like a simpler, less depressing one. And unlike the next two stories in the “Tales of Dunk and Egg” series, there is precious little backstory or worldbuilding here, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a simple, strong story, told with brevity and clarity, and succeeding on every level it aimed at.

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There are some minor oddities when reading it in the context of the wider universe Martin created – for example, why is the Blackfyre rebellion, an enormous event in Westerosi history taking place not that long before this story, not mentioned once? You could contort an in-story reason, but the simple fact is these were comparatively early days for Martin’s writings in Westeros, and it seems the Blackfyre rebellions just hadn’t been thought up in Martin’s head yet. I find the simplicity and slight off-kilterness from not meshing as fully into the vast interconnected backstories Martin would develop charming rather than jarring, as there are no contradictions with his later writings, just omissions of detail, which suits Dunk, as he’s a young man, living a simple life, in this simple story.

My enjoyment of this story led to me seeking out its sequel, “The Sworn Sword”, as well as the series it was a prequel for, “A Song of Ice and Fire”. I’d become a great fan of the series, devouring not only the books over and over again, but also participating in the online fandoms, reading the supplementary materials, playing the video games, and when it ended up being developed, watching the television adaptation “Game of Thrones” as well. While “A Game of Thrones” is a great fantasy novel, and the intended entry into the series, I’m much happier with this charming little story being my entry into Martin’s vast world. I give it four puppets, and a shooting star.

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