Happy #GameofThrones Day! Our GOT Series is looking at an underrated group that may have a big part to play in S8 - The Brotherhood Without Banners. Watch to find out what it means to be "for the people" rather than "for the throne" in Westeros.
Game of Thrones Symbolism: Brotherhood Without Banners
The Brotherhood Without Banners is the Game of Thrones answer to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Unlike almost every other group we meet, they don’t believe in hierarchy or noble blood, they could care less who sits on the Iron Throne, and they’re not out for self-gain. The Brotherhood is fighting a losing, but very important, battle -- looking out for the common man.
“The lords of Westeros want to burn the countryside. We’re trying to save it.” - Thoros in S03E02 (Dark Wings, Dark Words)
Ask yourself: Who has suffered the most in Game of Thrones? Could it be Catelyn Stark, who watched her son die in front of her eyes, moments before her throat was slit? Sansa, who’s watched her family be hunted down while she’s held captive by multiple sociopaths? Theon Greyjoy, who grapples with intense PTSD both for the abuse he’s suffered and the wrongs he regrets committing? You might even argue it’s everyone’s favorite rage-filled grieving mother, Cersei. Yet in fact the biggest victim of all in this story is a character without a name -- the people of the Seven Kingdoms.
In any war between big powers, it’s the regular citizens who are the casualties. And in this story, everyone in this tale preys on the common folk. The people endure scorched earth tactics, constant pillaging, and the attacks of violent, opportunistic individuals who take advantage of the chaos. There’s a food shortage due to the war and, lest we forget, winter is here. The Brotherhood is the only organization that takes any interest in helping the people with all of this insane hardship. This scruffy bunch of misfits might not be the champions the people would choose, but they’re all they’ve got. They’re also probably the newest faction we meet on the show. It might seem only yesterday that Ned Stark sends Beric Dondarrion and a small group of men to the Riverlands to apprehend the terror that is the Mountain. So the Brotherhood is born from an honorable man’s orders to stand up to dishonor and injustice. That original cause failed, but its spirit lives on as the Brotherhood remains together, pledging to protect the common folk.
“These were the King's people the lions were savaging. If we could not fight for Robert, we would fight for them.” - Thoros in “Brotherhood Without Banners”, Game of Thrones “History and Lore” (Season 6)
Going into Season 8, what remains of the Brotherhood has relocated to the North, to defend against the White Walkers -- the greatest threat to the people of Westeros. The scenery might have changed, but the fight remains the same.
So let’s take a look at the Brotherhood Without Banners to explore what it means to be “for the people” in Game of Thrones, and why staying true to that cause isn’t always so simple.
Mission: No Banners, Only People
The Brotherhood doesn’t have the sigil of a great house or official words we can read into, but the group’s lack of these things is significant. The fact that it’s “without banners” is so central it’s in the name. The meaning of being “without banners” is that this group doesn’t (and won’t) fight for any Great House. Instead, the Brotherhood stands against banners that hurt the poor. Here’s Beric uttering the closest thing we get to a motto:
“No matter whose cloak you wear -- Lannister, Stark, Baratheon -- you prey on the weak, the Brotherhood without Banners will hunt you down.” - Beric in S03E04 (And Now His Watch is Ended)
Because the nameless regular people of Westeros don’t get a fancy sigil, the Brotherhood rejects the self-importance of a banner, too. They seek no name-recognition, glory or power. The other word in their name holds another key to their identity: they’re a brotherhood. This group is revolutionary in the Seven Kingdoms because it’s democratic.
The Brotherhood’s similarities to Robin Hood and his Merry Men are uncanny. The Brotherhood is led by a disgraced nobleman (Beric), with a decorated veteran for a second-in-command (Thoros), and they have a marksman who only misses when he means to (Anguy). Robin Hood happens to be all of those things, so it’s as if these three together add up to one Robin. Thoros and Friar Tuck are both clergymen with a taste for alcohol. Both groups fight tyranny and they have a larger-than-life, almost magical aura about them. At their core, these are mostly good people with generosity of spirit, a rarity in Westeros.
Most fundamentally, the Brotherhood shares Robin Hood’s central value: justice. The famous idea of “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor” is another way of saying “restoring justice to an unjust world.” Robin Hood may be an outlaw, but that’s because the laws of his government are wrong, corrupt, and inhumane. The same is true for the Brotherhood. Soon after they’re formed by Ned Stark, that honorable man is falsely accused of treason and beheaded. So by continuing to exist they situate themselves outside of (or against) the law.
Still, this is the Westeros version of Robin Hood and that’s far from the Disney one. Game of Thrones is known for finding the complex in what seems simple, and fighting for the honorable cause of the common man can be a murky, even dirty, thing in this world. Whereas Robin and his merry outlaws are incredibly successful in taking down the King of England, here (more realistically) Beric and his men have pretty limited success through guerilla warfare. For the most part they’re powerless against the better-equipped, often more an annoyance than a real threat to the powers that be.
In order to become more effective, they need means, which creates a moral dilemma. The people they’re protecting aren’t in any position to fund them. So the Brotherhood has to compromise a lot to stay afloat. And while Robin Hood’s MO is to steal from the rich and give to the poor, the Brotherhood sometimes has to sacrifice the poor as well. Gendry is enchanted by the Brotherhood’s ethos and sees them as a new family, but they sell him to Melisandre to pay for their efforts. When Gendry later meets the Brotherhood’s leadership again, they stand by using and betraying him for the greater good. They believe it’s a necessary evil to sacrifice and betray individual persons in order to serve “the people” at large.
The Brotherhood has pride in being inclusive of all types --
Sandor: You look like a bunch of swineherds.
Anguy: Some of us were swineherds. And some of us tanners and masons. - in S03E04 (And Now His Watch is Ended)
But, like the Night’s Watch, the Brotherhood casts its net so wide it might bring in some bad fish. In Season 6, members of the Brotherhood bully a religious community for resources before coming back to slaughter them all and take what little they have. These men don’t reflect the Brotherhood’s ethos and are punished, but this episode calls into question the group’s discipline, recruitment model and judgment.
The Brotherhood can appear compromised and amoral as they justify almost any means necessary for their noble ends -- and they sometimes forget that it matters not just why, but also how, you fight.
Elements: Flame and Shadow
The Brotherhood isn’t just a political group. It’s also a religious one. Its members worship R’hllor, the Lord of Light, who’s also known as a “fire god”, and whose names include the Red God and the Heart of Fire. So the Brotherhood is most associated with the element fire. Beric has a flaming sword, and the Brotherhood invokes fire both literally and figuratively in their pursuit of justice and retribution for the guilty.
The Lord of Light is inspired by the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, which considers fire the agent of purity and truth. And fire is seen by multiple religions as representing the divine flame. Just as any individual flame is engulfed by fire as a whole, each member of the Brotherhood sees himself as an indistinguishable part of the collective divine will.
Fire and light can represent enlightenment, truth, or wisdom. And the Brotherhood’s members feel they have seen the truth, both about their Lord and about their world. The element is linked to fervor and zeal, just as the Brotherhood may appear to some in the Seven Kingdoms as fanatical extremists. As we see in the Targaryens with their capacity for both power and madness, fire has a duality to it -- it’s both the spark of life and an unstoppable force of destruction. And we see this duality in the Brotherhood, too, whose enlightened mission is complicated by contradictions and a darker side.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus, in defiance of the gods, stole fire for humanity, enabling progress and civilization. There’s a Promethean aspect to the Brotherhood too. They are taking from the Gods of this society to enable a better life for the people (again echoing Robin Hood, but with a more spiritual bent). Prometheus was punished for his deeds, and the Brotherhood too has been relentlessly hunted, their numbers dwindling while Beric pays with his frequent deaths.
The Lord of Light is also known as the God of Flame and Shadow. And shadow (the inverse of light or fire) is a symbolic element for the Brotherhood, too. These men fight in the shadows -- they use guerrilla warfare to strike far bigger and superior forces. They’re also some of the only people we meet who’ve had firsthand experience of death.
Members of the Brotherhood fully expect to die for their cause (maybe more than once). This capacity for resurrection defines the Brotherhood. While this collection of men came together thanks to Ned Stark's orders, the Brotherhood found their true calling and began in earnest after a faithless priest accidentally revived his best friend.
“I felt his heart thud beneath his breast. His body shuddered as the fire of life rekindled inside it.” - Thoros in “Brotherhood Without Banners”, Game of Thrones “History and Lore” (Season 6)
In fiction, divine resurrection often imbues a character with a renewed or clarified sense of purpose. In the Brotherhood’s case, the revival gives purpose to both the revived and the reviver. Before Beric was brought back, Thoros was a lustful drunk who was a priest only in name, and Beric was a glory-hunting tourney knight who got outwitted by, of all people, the Mountain. And then there is the Mountain’s brother Sandor Clegane, who is also potentially brought back from death. While it’s left unclear, the Hound is at least thought to be dead before he wakes up. Eventually, despite his deep skepticism, the Hound, too, must acknowledge that he shares their mission. These resurrections make the Brothers feel they’re on earth to carry out a higher cause, yet that doesn’t mean they know what that cause is.
For Melisandre, faith is all about finding and empowering the promised one. And that’s also true for other worshippers we meet. But for Beric and Thoros, they accept what they don’t know.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand our Lord.” - Beric in S07E01 (Dragonstone)
And when they get an unexpected sign from the Lord, they listen and change paths, like when the Hound defeats Beric in a trial by combat, and they realize their Lord doesn’t want this man to die just yet (even if they struggle to see his latent potential). This hesitance to kill someone they shouldn’t is the inverse of Melisandre, who rushes to sacrifice people on the off chance that might help her side. The Brotherhood’s trusting in their Lord's unknowable will pays off when the Hound joins them, so this story shows what true faith looks like -- it entails the patience to let the grand design be revealed slowly over time, and perhaps never in full.
By embracing his own limits, Beric embodies one of the Brotherhood’s most compelling virtues, humility. Stannis is driven to the Lord of Light by self-interest, we can see it in the lusty way he looks at Melisandre, turned on by the idea of the power he believes she can give him. The shadow monster she gives birth to, fathered by Stannis to kill his own brother, embodies the dark selfishness at the root of his religiosity. But the Brotherhood’s brand of faith makes no demands of its Lord. And it’s telling that, while both Beric and Stannis die, only one gets to come back and fight another day as only one is truly devoted to their Lord’s will, whatever that turns out to be.
You might see some parallels between the Brotherhood and Communist or Socialist movements in history. Both espouse some degree of equality in a world that's resolutely unequal, and are based on relatively new ideologies that the upper classes view as radical and potentially dangerous. But Communists and Socialists in real-life history tend to be atheistic or agnostic, focused on building a better world on earth, rather than promising paradise in the afterlife. So it's striking that by contrast the Brotherhood is so fiercely religious. Perhaps this speaks to the fact that in this world it’s more or less impossible to achieve any semblance of equality. But it also reveals that the battle being waged here has supernatural, spiritual aspects. The Brotherhood positions itself as for life itself, fighting against death.
“Death is the enemy.” - Beric in S07E06 (Beyond the Wall)
And while there’s a sense of fatalism in the Brotherhood’s death-filled storyline, it’s inspirational how fully they’ve given up control and are willing at any moment to lay down their individual lives in the fight for all life.
By Season 6, the Brotherhood’s job in the Riverlands nearly done -- they’ve weakened the Freys’ hold on the region, giving Arya an opening to finish them off. And the Brotherhood sees that the deepest threat to the people is coming from the North.
The R’hllor faith speaks of the cosmic struggle between the Lord of Light and the Great Other. So in the eyes of the Brotherhood, this battle with the White Walkers is a face-off with the ultimate enemy Death, what all their efforts have been leading up to.
None of the “banners” we see in Game of Thrones truly put the interests of the people first, if they take them into account at all. The Lannister philosophy on this subject is well-known:
“A lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of the sheep.” - Tywin in S01E07 (You Win or You Die)
The more high-minded Stark and Baratheon forces, too, are guilty of hurting the vulnerable. The Tyrells put on a spectacle to be beloved by the people, but it’s mainly for political gain. And Daenerys, who frees countless slaves as she advances toward Westeros, isn’t without self-interest in this enterprise. as each time she tells the slaves to rise up and take their freedom, this enables her army to take each city.
Comparing all of these approaches with the Brotherhood’s philosophy might get us thinking about the kind of rhetoric we hear in our lives, from the powerful expressing concern for everyday citizens. The Brotherhood reminds us that any person who seeks to retain power can’t truly put the people first. Actually serving the common good is a tough, thankless, sometimes ugly job. Despite the flaws in their approach and the limits in their effectiveness, the fact that the Brotherhood exists at all is revolutionary in this world. So we have to give this group its due for staying loyal to the people, valuing actions over words, and always keeping their eyes on the biggest picture of all.
Works Cited & Consulted
Gallagher, Caitlin. “What Is The Brotherhood Without Banners On 'Game Of Thrones'? They've Been Around For A While.” Bustle, 18 Aug. 2017.
Barton, Chris. “Q&A: Beric from 'Game of Thrones' (Richard Dormer) on flaming swords and Sunday's ice lake battle.” The Los Angeles Times, 21 Aug. 2017.
McCluskey, Megan. “Beric Dondarrion's Speech About Death Could Change Jon Snow's Future on Game of Thrones.” Time, 21 Aug. 2017.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’.” The Washington Post, 24 Apr. 2016.
Lipsitz, Jordana. “Is The Lord Of Light Real? The 'Game Of Thrones' God Has Some Interesting Inspiration.” Bustle, 29 May 2016.