A Historical Dissection Of ‘A Game Of Thrones’ Part IV: Ultimate Hunting

This series of articles takes a close look at George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series from the perspective of a Ph.D. in Medieval history and literature.  Each book in the series will be analyzed against actual historical events in the Dark and Middle Ages along with literature, factual or fictional, from that time.  This is the first time the author is reading the novels, so keep in mind that she’s unaware of major spoilers but that spoilers will be revealed as she progresses through the material.

By Catherine Smith-Akel, Ph.D.

Eofor sceal on holte, toðmægenes trum.

Maxims II


Ultimate Hunting: Wild Boar

“Even the truest knight cannot protect a king against himself,” Ned said. “Robert loved to hunt boar. I have seen him take a thousand of them.” He would stand his ground without flinching, his legs braced, the great spear in his hands, and as often as not he would curse the boar as it charged, and wait until the last possible second, until it was almost on him, before he killed it with a single sure and savage thrust. “No one could know this one would be his death.”

(A Game 507)

Wild boar was the ultimate medieval hunt and also the most dangerous. Boars were stupid, easily enraged, and hard to kill. Boar hunts, which usually took place in the winter, began on horseback with packs of dogs. Rarely was the boar caught out in the open; he was usually found under a great deal of ground cover. Men went hunting in groups: “professional” huntsmen, household guests and retainers. According to Frances and Joseph Gies, “A royal hunting party was a small military expedition.” King Robert’s undertaking seems similar. He had his squire, the “Lannister lad,” Lord Renly, Sir Barristan and the Kingsguard with him. Robert must have dismounted to attack the boar with a spear. Spears designed for boar hunting had a lug or wing a few inches below the blade to prevent the boar from charging up the spear and injuring the hunter. That, of course, does not preclude the boar from getting at the hunter. In the 15th century, Edward, duke of York, in his The Master of Game states, “The boar slayeth a man with one stroke, as with a knife. Some have seen him slit a man from knee up to breast. . . .” This sounds similar to what happened to Robert.

In the Middle Ages, several kings, emperors and dukes were killed on hunts. The two most notable were King William II of England and his brother Richard, Duke of Bernay. Both were killed in the New Forest, an area designated by their father, William the Conqueror, set aside specifically in 1079 for royal sport. Some say this was punishment for the Conqueror’s cruelty to the English. His second son, Richard, was killed by a stag in 1081. Although his death did not make The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for the year 1081, Orderic Vitalis noted his death in his Historia Ecclesiastica. Richard was supposed to inherit the kingdom of England, so his death, essentially, was another momentous occasion that changed the history of England.

The brother who did inherit England was the Conqueror’s third son, William Rufus, or William the Red. William II was not beloved by the English. According to the Chronicles, “He was very harsh and fierce with his men, his land and all his neighbours, and very much feared. He was ever agreeable to evil men’s advice, and through his own greed he was ever vexing this nation with force and unjust taxes.” Certainly not Mr. Popularity. No one cried over him when he was killed in the New Forest while hunting. One of his own men shot him with an arrow. Even at the time, people wondered whether there was a conspiracy to kill him. He was buried the next day, and the day after that, his younger brother Henry was named king. Remember Lord Ryndall Tarly’s threat: Samwell would find himself the victim of an “accidental” death while hunting so Sam’s brother would inherit the estate.

The year 1143 was not a good year for emperors to go hunting either. In April of that year, the emperor of the Byzantine empire, John II Comnenus pricked himself with a poison arrow and died. King Fulk of Jerusalem was a vassal to Emperor John II. Ironically, in November of that year, King Fulk was also killed in a hunting accident. His horse stumbled and fell and the saddle crushed Fulk’s head. The poor man took three days to die. Interestingly, Fulk’s son by his first wife was Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, the father of Henry II of England.

Probably one of the most dramatic hunting incidents occurred in Byzantium in August 886. The emperor, Basil I, was deer hunting. He was on horseback riding down a stag. He caught his belt in the stag’s antlers. The stag pulled him from his horse and, supposedly, dragged him for about sixteen miles through the woods. An attendant finally got close enough to cut the belt and free Basil. However, before he died, Basil had a change of heart—he had the man executed because he thought the man tried to assassinate him. So much for loyalty.

A “classic” boar hunt appears in my favorite poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. :Leaving Gawain behind in the castle, Sir Bertilak goes on a great hunt with the retainers and guests of the castle, along with the huntsmen and dogs. Finally, “T’was a boar without rival that burst out upon them.” Three men threw spears at the great beast, but the boar avoided them and ran off. The hunt was on! They chased after the boar, “him with blare and with din to quell.” Although hit with many arrows, the boar kept on coming. Eventually, Sir Bertilak dismounts from his horse and goes after the boar with his sword, which is very unusual. Bertilak pierces the boar in the neck downward into its heart, using the sword as a spear. For easy transportation, the boar is dissected on the spot.

King Robert’s hunt parallels closely real-life hunts and, especially, the boar hunt in Sir Gawain. Robert, like Bertilak, goes after the boar, Robert with a spear and Bertilak with a sword. Even so, the description in A Game, though brief, portrays Robert as daring and aggressive. Robert takes chances, waiting for the boar to get close; Bertilak takes chances, too, using a sword instead of the spear. Probably the biggest difference is that the readers soon find out that Robert had been drinking heavily and the wine may have been “dosed.” Certainly not a good way to face a boar as Robert unfortunately found out.

The boar shall be in the wood,
the strength of his tusks firm.

Maxims II

About the Author

Catherine Smith-Akel studied medieval history at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Stony Brook University. Her dissertation was on the early fifteenth century The Book of Margery Kempe and master’s thesis on the late fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She has published articles on The Book of Margery Kempe, the tales of Robin Hood, and other medieval pieces. She has been presenting at medieval conferences for over twenty-five years, including the prestigious International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, England, and the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI.