Today in our Game of Thrones series, we turn to Gregor Clegane ("the Mountain"). Watch our take and find out how through the character, the show offers us a study of brutality and its impact on the world.
Game of Thrones - The Mountain: A Study of Violence
“Some lucky boys just born with a talent for violence.” - Littlefinger in S01E04 (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”)
On Game of Thrones, the will to violence is made visible and personified in one man, Sir Gregor Clegane. The Knight who’s Tywin Lannister’s enforcer and then Cersei Lannister’s bodyguard is not a complicated guy -- he’s strong, angry, and loves to torture and kill.
Tyrion Lannister: Does he frighten you so much?
Bronn: I'd be a bloody fool if he didn't frighten me. He's freakish big and freakish strong… - in S04E07 (“Mockingbird”)
The fact that he’s drawn so simply (and even played by three different actors over the course of the series) makes him a walking symbol of violence and brutality. When Cersei utters her most defining line in Season 6, "I choose violence,” that violence is embodied by the man beside her. Through the Mountain’s presence in the story, and the way he transforms from a mad animal to a cold zombie, Game of Thrones offers us a study of brutality and its impact on the world.
The Characteristics of Violence
The defining aspects of Gregor’s personality speak to the question of what violence is and where this impulse comes from.
One of Gregor’s fundamental traits is that he's full of rage. As a child, he stuck his brother Sandor’s face in the fire, just for playing with his toy. His servants have been known to go missing, and his sister and father also had suspicious deaths (there’s an implication Gregor likely killed them and then inherited his father’s estate.) These stories tell us that, emotionally, the Mountain is an overgrown bratty child who can’t handle it when even the tiniest thing doesn’t go his way. So he illustrates the way that violence is born of anger. If we never learn to control or deal with not being able to have everything exactly as we’d like it, then we resort to force to make the world bend to our will.
If we look closer at Cersei (who also chooses violence), we can see that she, too, is driven by rage. Her life has given her a lot to be mad about, but Cersei’s anger is more fundamental -- it stems from her being born a girl, in a world that detests women. And that anger intensifies after she receives the prophecy that traps her in a life of misery she’s powerless to evade. The valid causes for Cersei’s rage make her tragic. But whatever its cause, excessive anger is a kind of insanity. It reorients the entire world around oneself -- she’s framed everything in her head as a question of whether a person perfectly serves her, so even Jaime’s caring about the future of humankind is a betrayal. This total self-centeredness leads ultimately to evil, as it seeks to violently remake the world according to one’s whims or else wills it to nothing.
Despite the fact that he’s a knight, the Mountain is the most dishonorable man in Westeros, which symbolizes that there is no honor in violence.
The Mountain: Who am I fighting?
Cersei: Does it matter?
[The Mountain shakes his head.] - in S04E07 (“Mockingbird”)
When we’re introduced to the Mountain at a joust in Season 1, he angrily tries to kill Loras Tyrell for outsmarting him by distracting his stallion with a mare in heat. So immediately Gregor’s character is established as a mean, sore loser. This is a cynical world that rewards Gregor’s bad behavior with knighthood. But the fact that Gregor himself is so utterly disgraceful underlines that, though people make up falsely noble justifications and titles for their brutality, in reality these dark impulses represent only the worst way any man can behave.
“See that he doesn't get drunk in the evenings. He's poor company when he's sober, but he's better at his work." - Tywin in S0208 (“The Prince of Winterfell”)
The Mountain is also an alcoholic, and this reminds us of the way drinking can bring out rage and violence in people with those tendencies.
4. Enjoys Inflicting Pain
The Mountain doesn’t just inflict harm out of anger. He enjoys torturing and killing, telling us that violence can be addictive and yield a perverse pleasure. He has fun toying with the prisoners of Harrenhal. After he carries out his orders to murder Rhaegar and Elia Martell’s son and daughter, he chooses to rape their mother while he’s covered in the gore of her dead children, before killing her.
This relish for cruelty also reveals something important about the Lannisters. For them, too, brutality is not just a means to the end. Tywin and Cersei take pleasure in hurting others, only for them, psychological violence can sometimes be even more satisfying.
“I wanted him to chase us, as he would have done because he is a mad dog without a strategic thought in his head. I could have had that head on a spike by now." - Robb in S03E03 (“Walk of Punishment”)
Another thing we know about the Mountain is that he’s not particularly smart. So this tells us that pure and simple violence on its own isn’t all that powerful. The Mountain’s force has to be harnessed by the Lannisters’ intelligent strategy, in order to become truly fearsome.
6. Possesses Animal Instinct
While the Mountain is not the sharpest tool in the shed generally, he does have an instinctive understanding of people’s weaknesses, revealing that violence has an animalistic insight to it. One of the character’s biggest moments comes when he fights Oberyn Martell in “The Mountain and the Viper.” At first, Oberyn’s agility and speed make the Mountain look slow and inept. Yet in a stunning surprise Oberyn loses at the last minute, when the Mountain trips him and smashes his head in.
The obvious explanation for why Oberyn loses here is his arrogance. He puts on a show for the crowd, and he assumes the Mountain is incapacitated too soon, underestimating a deadly foe. But the second explanation, and in fact the true reason Oberyn loses, is his grief.
“You raped my sister. You murdered her. You killed her children.” - Oberyn in S04E08 (“The Mountain and the Viper”)
We see him start to get panicked when he thinks that the Mountain may die before admitting his war crimes against Elia Martell. He’s obsessed with getting the Mountain’s confession and bringing down Tywin Lannister. And he starts to feel hysterical when he thinks the Mountain may die before providing this emotional closure.
So the Mountain seizes on Oberyn’s desperation. He withholds what his opponent wants, stirring him into a terror. And then as makes his final move, he delivers that longed-for confession as a taunt to make the violence hurt even more, proving his innate instinct for how to destroy people.
“I killed her children. Then I raped her. Then I smashed her head in like this!” - The Mountain in S04E08 (“The Mountain and the Viper”)
This moment of the Mountain’s victory is so bone-chilling because it reminds us that this is a world where justice is so often not served. Those who seek to right terrible wrongs are crushed, while the brutish, evil violence that the Mountain represents triumphs, time after time.
The Mad Dog of the Lannisters & The Mountain 2.0
The way the Lannisters utilize the Mountain reminds us that this family rules via the implied threat of brutality. In key moments of Lannister victories, the Mountain is there. The figure’s centrality to their regime exposes that, while they claim nobility and legitimacy as rulers, they're essentially thugs. The rule of force is their bottom line.
At first the Mountain is known as “Tywin Lannister’s Mad Dog.” Tywin keeps his own hands clean, but he uses the Mountain for the darkest, most evil acts imaginable, to get his way. At the same time, Tywin is always strategic, so he will hold the Mountain back from totally senseless violence (like when he stops Gregor from continuing to torture and kill the prisoners at Harrenhal for no reason.) Notice Tywin’s logic here -- he objects to these men being killed and tortured only because they have another usefulness to him.
Later, when the Mountain leaves Harrenhal, he executes the remaining prisoners, and we can infer that, as the prisoners have no more use, Tywin either didn’t mind or approved (as he must have assumed his mad dog would do this, even if he didn’t directly order it.)
“If the Mountain committed an atrocity, it was with Tywin's -- at least his permission, and possibly his direct command.” - David Benioff in Game of Thrones Season 4: Inside the Episode #8
After “The Mountain and the Viper” fight, Oberyn manages to get his posthumous revenge through the poison on his spear. As Tywin’s now dead, Cersei gives Qyburn the go-ahead to bring Gregor back to life as a Frankenstein-like monster. The Mountain 2.0 serves as Cersei’s loyal bodyguard. (In the books he has a different name, Ser Robert Strong.)
This zombie-like incarnation of the Mountain represents a new, more virulent version of violence. Whereas before he was the “mad dog” (the animalistic brute fueled by rage and bloodlust), now he’s the quiet zombie -- soulless, obedient, and even stronger than before. This change reflects Cersei's brand of violence compared to her father's -- it’s quieter, more internal, yet even more cold-blooded and dangerous. Cersei’s rage is like the green wildfire she uses to blow up the Holy Sept -- it’s not a hot red fire, but a cooler color. She’s held in and controlled her feeling so it’s less obvious, but thanks to this restraint her rage has warped into something even more explosive and unnatural.
In Season 7, the Mountain becomes an extension of Cersei's inner thoughts and feelings. When she considers killing Tyrion, the Mountain steps forward, visualizing her anger and hate for her brother, while her conflicting emotions hold her back from following through. Then at last when she has Jaime as her only remaining ally, she pushes even him away and keeps just the Mountain by her side. And this symbolizes that she has given in so fully to her will to do violence on the world, that this is the only part of her left.
The Brothers Clegane
The Mountain’s key relationship in the story is with his brother, Sandor (aka the Hound,) and these two brothers are bound by hatred. The wounded Hound illustrates the psychological impact of violence on its victim. He displays symptoms of PTSD. Just as he bears the scars of what his brother did on his face, he carries the emotional scars deep within.
Despite what an awful person his brother is, Sandor has watched Gregor become a Knight. So because he’s seen the worst of humanity in his brother, and seen that worst thing rewarded in society, he believes two basic things: that people are fundamentally bad and that the worse you are, the easier it is to succeed in this world. As a result, the Hound gives up, retreating into hate and cynicism. And as much as he detests everything Gregor stands for, for many years the Hound embraces his own violent impulses and doesn’t concern himself with honor, making him not much different from his brother, just another thug for the Lannisters.
Sansa: Does it give you joy to scare people?
Sandor: No, it gives me joy to kill people. - in S02E07 (“A Man Without Honor”)
He gets the Hound name not only because he’s fierce, but also because he does his master’s bidding without question.
"There's plenty worse than me. I just understand the way things are.” - Sandor in S04E03 (“Breaker of Chains”)
The Hound may believe that he’s just being honest in a terrible world, but he’s become as bad as that world, by not fighting it. So in Sandor we see a profile of the victim of violence who tragically ends up adopting that violence as a result of their trauma.
"Hate's as good a thing as any to keep a person going. Better than most." - Sandor in S04E05 (“First of His Name”)
Over time, though, his cynicism isn’t enough to swallow up his better nature. When he sees good people threatened like Sansa and Arya, he reveals an instinct to do the honorable thing and eventually stops denying that it matters to be on the right side. The Hound’s one great fear is fire, representing the way his childhood trauma continues to define him. Yet in Season 7, he ends up again with the Lord of Light worshippers in the Brotherhood, and Sandor sees a vision in the fire of ice.
So the symbolism here is that while he’s been fleeing the source of his pain, in fact the universe is pushing him to open up and look toward it. By finally facing the fire he’s experienced, he has a breakthrough. He can at last look beyond his hurt, toward a greater purpose.
One of the main fan anticipations when it comes to the Mountain is what’s called the Cleganebowl theory, which is basically just that the Hound and the Mountain will fight. The two men are significant foils to each other, as the abuser versus his victim, and as the unrepentant, dishonorable man versus the reformed, honorable one, who both share an inclination for violence. There’s an interesting parallel in the fact that both brothers have very nearly died (or arguably have died) and come back changed. The Hound was either comatose, or actually did die, before being mysteriously revived. And the Mountain was considered a goner until he was revived by Qyburn’s dark science. Yet while one has been brought back by an unknown higher power, presumably to serve a greater purpose, the other’s revived by unnatural means only to serve Cersei. The old Gregor doesn’t seem to be fully there.
“If it please Your Grace, he’s taken a holy vow of silence. He has sworn that he will not speak until all his Grace’s enemies are dead, and the evil has been driven from the realm.” - Qyburn in S05E10 (“Mother’s Mercy”)
One Reddit user theorized that when Sandor looked into the flames as a young child he actually had a vision then, too. He foresaw that one day he would kill his brother. According this theory, this vision is the true reason Gregor attacked Sandor, and that’s why Sandor says, “It’s not how it ends for you, brother. You know who’s coming for you. You’ve always known.” This would make Gregor much more like Cersei -- his original anger would stem from powerlessness, from the terrible certainty of seeing a hellish future he can’t escape.
Looking into the red, sad-looking eyes of the new Mountain, we might observe that the impulse to do violence betrays a deep inner hurt. We might even feel the slightest bit of pity for the despicable Mountain. Because at his core this man who is violence incarnate must be one big ball of constant, howling pain.
Works Cited & Consulted
u/Askingforafriendta. “‘You’ve always known’ a theory about the Cleganes.” Reddit, 13 Sep. 2017.
McCluskey, Megan. “This Game of Thrones Theory May Confirm a Long-Awaited Fight.” TIME, 14 Sep. 2017.