Game of Thrones Symbolism: Brotherhood Without Banners


“So what are you fighting for?” “Life.” 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.” 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. “Ser Gregor will head out with 500 riders and set the Riverland on fire
from God’s Eye to the Red Fork.” In any war between big powers, it’s the regular citizens
who are the casualties. Everyone in this tale
preys on the common folk. The people endure
scorched earth tactics, constant pillaging, “Raiders come plundering, steal our food,
steal our silver.” and the attacks of violent,
opportunistic individuals who take advantage of the chaos. “Who were they?” “I stopped asking a while ago.” There’s a food shortage due to the war
and, lest we forget, winter is here. “He’s weak. He can’t protect himself. They’ll both be dead come winter.” 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. “There’s no story so good
a drink won’t make better.” 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. “I charge you to bring the King’s justice
to the false knight Gregor Clegane.” 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.” 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. “You and I won’t find
much joy while we’re here. But we can keep others alive. We can defend those who
can’t defend themselves.” Before we go on,
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some man or woman I barely know can sit in
a throne made of swords.” 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 “Who do you fight for?” “The Brotherhood Without Banners.” 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.” 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. “You just said you were
serving Lord Beric.” “He may be their leader,
but they chose him.” The Brotherhood’s similarities to
Robin Hood and his Merry Men are uncanny. “Tell the sheriff for every
harm he does these people, I will visit it back on him tenfold.” The Brotherhood is led
by a disgraced nobleman with a decorated veteran for
a second-in-command, and they have a marksman who
only misses when he means to. 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. “I thought you were
the bravest man I ever saw.” “Just the drunkest.” Both groups fight tyranny “The Brotherhood Without Banners
is rallying the commoners against us.” and they have a larger-than-life,
almost magical aura about them. “So I advise you move,
because I’m done talking.” At their core, these are
mostly good people with a generosity of spirit,
a rarity in Westeros. “You can finish your
meals before you go. It may be awhile before
you see another.” 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.” “Because, sire, the poor, you see. He gives them what he takes, So, well sire,
they love him.” 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, “They’re just foot-soldiers
in the Great War.” often more an annoyance than
a real threat to the powers that be. “We think it was an infiltrator from
the Brotherhood Without Banners.” “Pretentious name for
a band of outlaws.” 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 “You’re selling me.” “Don’t think of it that way.” “But it is that way.” “It is. And it isn’t.” “More is than isn’t.” 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. “These men are brothers. They’re a family. I’ve never had a family.” But they sell him to Melisandre
to pay for their efforts. “We can’t defend the people
without weapons and horses and food. And we can’t get weapons and
horses and food without gold.” When Gendry later meets
the Brotherhood’s leadership again, they stand by using and
betraying him for the greater good “You sold me to a witch.” “We’re fighting a great war. Wars cost money.” 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. “You look like a bunch of swineherds.” “Some of us were swineherds. And some of us tanners and masons.” 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, “Food, then. Protecting the people is hungry work.” “I’m sure it is. You’re welcome to stay for supper.” 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. “It’s the Brotherhood’s good name
they’ve dragged through the dirt.” 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. “Letting him go was the right thing. I have more reason than
most to want him hanged.” “It’s just my [bleep] luck that I end
up with a
band of fire-worshippers.” The Brotherhood isn’t
just a political group, it’s also a religious one. “Once we sought to bring
the King’s justice to the realm, now we bring the Lord’s.” 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. “Strike this man down
if he is guilty. Give strength to his
sword if he is true.” 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. “Every time a Targaryen
is born, the Gods flip a coin.” 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. “Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” The Lord of Light is also known
as the God of Flame and Shadow. “For the night is dark
and full of terrors.” [In unison] “For the night is dark
and full of terrors.” 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. “The other side? There is no other side.” Members of the Brotherhood
fully expect to die for their cause (maybe more than once.) “How many times have
you brought me back?” “This makes six.” 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.” 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. “The Lord of Light is keeping
Beric alive for a reason. He gave a failed, drunk priest
the power to bring him back for a reason.” Before Beric was brought back, Thoros was a lustful drunk
who was a priest only in name. “I cared more about
the King’s cellars, but I joined Lord Beric
for the adventure.” and Beric was a glory-hunting
tourney knight who got outwitted by,
of all people, the Mountain. “Ser Gregor isn’t called the Mountain
because of his subtlety, yet he took us by surprise
at the Mummer’s Ford.” And then there is the Mountain’s
brother Sandor Clegane. “You’re the worst [bleep]
in the Seven Kingdoms!” who is also potentially
brought back from death. “Thought you were dead.” “Not yet.” While it’s left unclear, the Hound is at least thought
to be dead before he wakes up. “I was about to give
you a proper burial. Then you coughed.” 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. “We are part of something
larger than ourselves.” Yet that doesn’t mean they
KNOW what that cause is. “We serve the Lord of Light. The Lord of Light needs this boy.” For Melisandre, faith is all about finding
and empowering the promised one. “He’s the Lord’s chosen,
born amidst salt and smoke.” And that’s also true for
other worshippers we meet: “Daenerys has been sent
to lead the people against the darkness in this war and
in the Great War still to come.” But for Beric and Thoros, it’s about… “I don’t know. I don’t understand our Lord.” They accept what they don’t know. [In High Valyrian] “I ask the Lord for
His favor, and He responds as he will.” 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.) “Burn in hell!” “He will. But not today.” 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.” 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. “You’ve lost your priest. This is your last life.” “I’ve been waiting for
the end for a long time. Maybe the Lord brought
me here to find it.” 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. “Winter came for House Frey.” And the Brotherhood sees that
the deepest threat to the people is coming from the North. “Good and bad,
young and old, the things we’re fighting
will destroy them all alike.” The R’hllor faith speaks of
the cosmic struggle between the Lord of Light
and the Great Other. “There are but two –
a god of light and love and joy, and a god of darkness,
evil, and fear. Eternally at war.” 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. “The enemy always wins. And we still need to fight him.” 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.” 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. “From now on,
we’re going to take care of you. All of you.” 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. “You can’t see us,
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