The Best Swordsmen of Game of Thrones
More often than not, fight scenes are designed to be as fantastic, flashy, and entertaining as possible. This means that the characters will often try extravagant moves that may look cool but don’t actually help them in combat. Whether it’s Jack Sparrow swinging haphazardly across a pirate ship or Obi Wan and Anakin taking a break from fighting to inexplicably spin their lightsabers around in front of each other, this trend has infiltrated countless action sequences. However, to the trained eye, these flashy and excessive battles only make it look like the fighters simply have no idea how to defeat their opponents. I remember sitting in the theater watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie and having friends ask me if I was a better swordfighter than the characters. Could I, some fencing-obsessed, dweeby middle schooler take down Jack Sparrow? Well yeah, it would have been easy. The actors were just flailing around on top of a giant wheel.
While many shows and movies follow suit and make their heroes thrash about in an entertaining but impractical way, Game of Thrones provided an interesting mix of the two approaches. Some characters were dramatic and won only because it was in the script, while others displayed practical mastery in combat. Intrigued by the mixture of useless but flashy theatrics and believable combat, I decided to rate the best fifteen fighters from the Game of Thrones universe.
Before I begin, let me describe the ground rules that helped me reach a definitive tier list. I’ve listed the rules elsewhere but because this is the first post on this site, I’ll go into some detail here as well. First off, I made the obvious choice to only include humans. Drogon could kill a giant, and that giant could take out any single human fighter. I’m not sure where the children of the forest would fit in, but thankfully I don’t need to worry about it. Also, I won’t include white walkers who would have an advantage over anyone not equipped with valyrian steel. Reliance on a dire wolf in battle (I’m looking at you, Jon) is a liability rather than an advantage because it takes away from the ability of the fighter himself. Secondly, I only included characters who were adept at fighting in close quarters because let’s be real, Ygritte would easily beat anyone on this list if she was allowed to use a bow. Hell, even Joffrey would be among the best if he could use his fancy crossbow. Perhaps most importantly, I only rated fighters based on the battles as portrayed in the HBO show.
Essentially, I will not count the reputation of a character towards or against their ranking, and any description of them in the books is irrelevant for my purposes. Unfortunately, that means Barristan Selmy, who only fights once while portrayed by a sixty-seven year old Ian McElhinney, didn’t make the cut.
Also, if we only see a character fight while old or injured, I will not assume that they would have fared better if healthy. Finally, I should note that these rankings are based on the first five seasons of Game of Thrones. I will provide updates after season six airs.
Essentially, I am evaluating how well a character fights as depicted in battles from the show, fully understanding that these depictions may not represent the existing lore. I look for characters to do things like make good strategic choices, learn and adapt from past experiences, and make a convincing effort to win rather than wildly swing a sword, just as if they were really attempting to win an unscripted duel. Battles against a horde of extras can sometimes be telling based on how the character handles themselves, but they don’t hold as much weight since the opponents are given the stage direction: “okay, look like you’re trying but make sure that you, you know, die.” I care more about choreography than reputation or canonical lore. I care more about skill, technique, and strategy than flashiness or entertainment value. Without further ado, here’s how the fighters of Westeros (and some from Essos) stacked up.
The characters who reached the highest tiers on my ranking display a technical mastery and innate understanding of strategy and logistics that is not seen in the other contenders. But before I get into who placed where, I should announce that I excluded some important characters from the list. Some key figures, such as Barristan Selmy, Khal Drogo, and the Clegane brothers are undoubtedly better fighters than some of the people I included. However, I left them out because it would be silly for someone to argue that they are the best. The Mountain’s fight against Oberyn Martell portrayed him as a slow, hulking target who failed to make a single convincing attack. The Hound had some impressive battles, but his fear of fire is easily exploited and caused him to refuse medical treatment, weakening him for his fight against Brienne. Barristan Selmy only had one battle in the show, in which he, before flopping over and dying, lazily and slowly pressed his sword into several extras who stood there and let it happen. Khal Drogo had one battle in which he severely wounded himself out of pride. While the battle itself was intended to demonstrate the agility, strength, and prowess of Drogo, it is also clear to the trained eye that the fight was choreographed such that Mago very deliberately missed Drogo with a bunch of attacks that all followed the same tempo. This means that Mago fought according to a steady, easily-exploited rhythm. Again, because this is my first post, I’ll note that tempo and other terms that I use are defined here. Essentially, this means that Mago is wasting time with big, predictable actions. This is why I advocate the fighters who are direct instead of showy – they don’t waste tempos and therefore give fewer opportunities for their opponents to attack when they’re vulnerable. So when Drogo and Mago fought at an identical tempo with zero variation, it is clear that both opponents had a good sense of the other person’s timing but actively chose not to capitalize. Either of them could have claimed an easy victory by picking up the pace and attacking when they knew that the other would be in the middle of an action and thus unable to respond.
With that being said it might be easier to start at the bottom and explain what I’m not looking for and list some things that counted against everyone else. We start with:
So why did Jorah make the cut when Drogo didn’t? Because I can easily see people arguing in favor of Mormont. And I need to convince them of how horribly wrong they are. Jorah made the cut, but only to be placed explicitly at the bottom of the pack. First let’s look at what Jorah does right. I will concede that Jorah engages in one of the most favorable strategies among all of the fighters on the list, a strategy particularly well exemplified by the water dancers. Jorah knows that the best way to win a fight is not to immediately try and hack off the opponent’s head a la Brienne and the Cleganes but to injure the opponent. In fencing, the best points are scored from as far away as possible. I pride myself on being able to readily hit the opponent on their weapon hand rather than getting closer and hitting their torso. Because I’m farther away, it becomes hard for them to hit me in turn. Sure, if we were really dueling I wouldn’t have dealt a fatal blow, but it would be much easier and safer to do so after stabbing them through the hand and disarming them. Jorah knows this, and he often chooses to punch or otherwise harm his opponents whenever he has the opportunity, ultimately giving him the upper hand against an injured foe. Many of the top-tier fighters earned their spots because of how readily they engaged in this “little-by-little” strategy.
Unfortunately for Jorah, the only fight he really won was in the opening fight for the Great Games, in which he beat up a bunch of extras, the first two of which were facing the other way when he attacked them. Bravo. Aside from that, Jorah tends to survive battles that he otherwise lost. Yes, he killed some Sons of the Harpy and he killed some guards at Yunkai, but those were all extras. It’s also notable that of the three champions sent to Yunkai, Jorah struggled the most and expressed downright fear regarding the number of guards they would have to kill. Jorah killed off the stone men but he also contracted greyscale, making that battle another failure.
Sure, he killed Bloodrider Qotho in single combat, but only because of a technicality. During the fight, Jorah demonstrated that he was well trained, strong, and relatively agile. But he was making huge, sweeping attacks that were way too big considering how close he was to his opponent. If he wanted to win convincingly, he would have needed to make smaller, more concise attacks. As they were, Jorah’s attacks were so big that Qotho, if he were an unscripted combatant, would have readily been able to get inside of Jorah’s tempo and kill him. When Jorah draws his sword back, any opponent would know exactly how long he had before the sword would come back down in an attack. After that attack misses and continues past its target due to Jorah’s excessive momentum, the opponent would know how long it would take for Jorah to stop his sword from moving and get it moving in the opposite direction. Newton’s First Law is very important for sword fighting – If you swing and miss, your sword is going to keep swinging away from the opponent until you exert enough force to stop it and then accelerate it in the opposite direction. This takes time, slows down your tempo, and gives an astute opponent, such as the water dancer from the Great Games, plenty of time to kill you. Because of this, Jorah was getting beaten pretty badly, but he won because Qotho’s sword got stuck in Jorah’s armor. Chalk up a point for breastplates, not for Mormont.
Perhaps Jorah’s and even Game of Thrones’ biggest, most laughable combat sin occurred during the Great Games after the spear-wielding Champion of Meereen killed the water dancer who, again, easily moved within the tempo of Mormont’s attacks, all of which were too big for how close he was to the water dancer, and used that same strategy of cutting away at Mormont rather than immediately trying to kill him. Mormont is saved and now has to fight the Meereenese champion. Mormont does make one good decision – he recognizes that the spear has a longer range than his sword, but also that if he can get inside of the Meereenese fighter’s effective distance – that means to position himself close enough to his opponent such that he’s too close to be stabbed by the spear– then he will have an advantage. So how does he do this? Mormont moves rapidly towards his opponent because otherwise the Meereenese fighter will respond by attacking or simply backing up. So far so good. Except Jorah decides that the best way to close the distance between him and a dangerous fighter is to do a forward roll and stab his opponent in the gut.
This forward roll, as far as I’m concerned, is enough to put Jorah at the bottom of the tier list. He’s relying on a lot of external factors here. If the Meereenese fighter reacts to Jorah’s abrupt movement, as he would have, all he has to do is drop the point of his spear and oops! Jorah gets stabbed in the asshole. If the Meereenese fighter responds by stepping away from the suddenly-approaching opponent, he now has enough time to launch a proper attack, and Jorah gets stabbed in the asshole. Hell, even if the Meereenese fighter’s arms get tired and he lowers his spear, Jorah gets stabbed in the asshole. Now, if you watch this scene carefully you will see something that seems to justify Jorah’s choice – The Meereenese fighter actually pulls his spear away from Jorah right when he begins to roll. As per Newton’s First Law, this means that Jorah has time to quickly close in because the spear now has to be stopped and then moved back towards its intended target. If this had been a tactical decision on Jorah’s part, then it would have scored him major points. However, I went back and noticed something about the timing that was more offensive than Han shooting second – Jorah actually begins to leap forward before the spear is pulled back. That means that Jorah got away with a silly feat of acrobatics and won only because the script told the Champion of Meereen to make a horrible choice at a crucial moment. Jorah Mormont should have died countless times.
Now that I’ve used examples of what fighters ought not to do to explain in nauseating detail some key concepts such as the manipulation of tempo and distance, let’s move up a tier. In the next post, I’ll look at three gifted fighters and explain how they all share one fatal flaw.