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What if Trials by Combat really do prove guilt or innocence?

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On another thread, @DominusNovus picked up on something I had written about Ser Gregor winning the trial-by-combat over Oberyn Martell. Technically, as Cersei's champion, he was proving Tyrion's guilt as the murderer of Joffrey. But Oberyn had made the fight a referendum on Ser Gregor's treatment of Princess Elia and her children. So did Gregor "prove" his own innocence by winning the fight, even though he confessed to raping and murdering Elia?

Does GRRM want us to draw a conclusion about trials by combat, and whether they are accurate methods for determining guilt or innocence?

Which other examples do we have?

Tyrion is championed by Bronn at the Eyrie, where he defeats Ser Vardis Egen.

Sandor Clegane vs. Beric Dondarrion leads to exoneration for The Hound in the death of Mycah, the Butcher's Boy.

Ser Robert Strong is in line to represent Cersei in her upcoming trial.

We also have the Dunk & Egg trials as examples, although one is a Trial of Seven.

And DominusNovus pointed out that King Aerys subjected Rickard Stark to trial by combat with the Targaryen champion, fire.

We have reason to believe that Tyrion had nothing to do with the catspaw who brought the dagger to Bran's chamber at Winterfell. So the outcome of that trial seems valid.

The reader never "saw" Sandor kill Mycah. Is it possible he didn't do it but claimed he did? We were later told that the butcher thought he had been given a bag with pieces of a slaughtered pig in it.

Is it also possible that Gregor didn't abuse and kill Elia? Or does the combat and Clegane's victory have nothing to do with Oberyn's insistence on reframing the trial to focus on Clegane?

 

Edited by Seams

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15 minutes ago, Seams said:

On another thread, @DominusNovus picked up on something I had written about Ser Gregor winning the trial-by-combat over Oberyn Martell. Technically, as Cersei's champion, he was proving Tyrion's guilt as the murderer of Joffrey. But Oberyn had made the fight a referendum on Ser Gregor's treatment of Princess Elia and her children. So did Gregor "prove" his own innocence by winning the fight, even though he confessed to raping and murdering Elia?

Does GRRM want us to draw a conclusion about trials by combat, and whether they are accurate methods for determining guilt or innocence?

I think the evidence is that trials by combat are no more reflective of the truth than random chance would be. Tyrion's second trial came to the wrong conclusion whether it was about Tyrion or about the Mountain, and it's not because the Gods weren't paying attention, it's because Oberyn, who wasn't involved in either alleged crime, was too cocky.

But I don't think showing that trials by combat are nonsense is the point of them in the books. Maybe the first trial that was partially about trial by combat—Tyrion was correctly exonerated, but obviously entirely because he was rich, not at all because he was innocent—but that's enough to show that his world is just like ours in that way.

The main reason the trials are in the story is the secondary purposes they serve—moving along the plot or the character's internal story along, but also sometimes thematically reflecting something else in the story.

For example, look at Sandor's trial. The result was almost certainly wrong—Sandor confessed, and there's no reason to believe he was lying. He was ordered to kill Mycah, he wasn't questioning any of his other orders until much later in his story, Mycah never returned home to his father… Sandor was guilty. But the trial wasn't there to prove that trial by combat is bullshit. It wasn't even about demonstrating that to Arya.

But it did serve many purposes. It was a way to show us Beric's resurrection. It got Arya and Sandor together. It marked a turning point to Sandor's life, as he's should rightfully have died but didn't, and now had to figure out a purpose (much as Beric had to after his literal resurrection). Maybe it also hinted that, when his story arc is complete, overall we may not judge him as someone who deserved to die early. And it highlighted that morality is tricky in a crapsack world—any BwB member would kill an innocent Lannister conscript if ordered to do so, so how is that any different from what they're judging Sandor for? And so on.

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What if Trials by Combat really do prove guilt or innocence?

Then I would hazard a guess that they prove guilt or innocence.

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I think if we're to find thematic consistency we have to zoom out further than the characters and their champions. 

The champions don't represent the accuser and the accused, but dueling concepts of justice. The fights tell us little of factual culpability (because we already know that part), but do tell us the prevailing state of justice (righteousness, honor, etc) within the plots where they appear. 

In Tyrion's first trial, the champions are a sellsword and an old knight. As many characters remark throughout the series, sellswords are reputed to lack honor and act opportunistically, which Bronn does as he defeats Ser Vardis. In this defeat, we can see an allegory of the old world that is falling away as the story opens. Considering that the Vale was source of the Jon Arryn's murder and the message that started the whole chain of events, the Eyrie seems like a very appropriate place to show the triumph of opportunism and self interest over honor. 

In Tyrion's second trial, it's a contest between cruelty and vengeance. Neither we'd call particularly just, but that's probably why neither of them wins. And that's worse, because it means that there is simply no justice of any kind. By this point in the story, it's clear that guilt and innocence don't matter any more. The idea that people get what they deserve seems downright quaint by the time of Tyrion's trial. And the Mountain gets un-killed, so maybe dark, senseless cruelty has a leg up.

Of course we could also say that Tyrion and Tywin ultimately acted as their own champions.

For Tyrion's plot, all this shows a degeneration of the political world that he lives in and which his POV serves to bring to the reader. 

And then I guess a lesson we can draw from Beric and the Hound's trial is a bit more complex because of the specific setting. Beric's cave among the weirwood roots strongly references the afterlife realm of Muspelheim in Norse myth, which was a place of fire located among the roots of Yggdrasil. The fact that this trial's setting is soaked in mythology might convey that justice isn't a force that acts upon the world (which is the theory behind combat trial), but rather an invention of people. Beric's need for resurrection by some drunk guy would then mean that justice can die and it takes action by actual people to keep alive, even if real justice only lives in myth.

Arya's unhappiness with this result shows her rejection of justice, and a move toward nihilism. She does not believe in concepts of justice beyond her own. Not even the magical flame and resurrection of a fire worshipper convinces her that universal justice is real. It's only appropriate that her closest personal relationship at this point is with someone famous for being burned and fleeing fire.

Edited by cgrav

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Personally, I say the Hound's victory was earned. He couldn't be guilty of murder because he was acting as an agent of the crown.

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18 minutes ago, DominusNovus said:

Personally, I say the Hound's victory was earned. He couldn't be guilty of murder because he was acting as an agent of the crown.

"Befehl ist Befehl" is not always a valid defense, whether you're Peter von Hagenback in 1474 or Wilhelm Keitel in 1946.

And this whole idea is what kickstarts the Hound's character arc. When Joffrey orders him to beat Sansa, he delays, and then objects when Boros does it. He's realized that following orders that are egregiously wrong is wrong. We don't know whether that's a principle of Westerosi law,* but Sandor wouldn't give a damn about that. Following Joffrey's orders was not the most honorable thing he ever did, but the least—and, worse than dishonorable, it was wrong, and pointlessly so.

So when the BwB tries him, he doesn't expect superior orders to be a defense, and the reader shouldn't either.

---

* it is in English common law, and German—but there are also contradictory precedents. But anyway, that would be for Jaime's arc, not Sandor's.

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I suspect in the Hound's trial, "something" really did affect the result so the Hound would be declared innocent. It could just be chance, but just as the Hound is apparently about to lose the fight, he somehow manages to cut through Beric's sword and win in one stroke. But the Hound is not innocent, so this only makes sense if you believe the "something" that influenced the result believes there is something more important than simple guilt or innocence in this case. Perhaps it believes the Hound had a good excuse, or that if he's given a chance to live he'll end up doing more good than bad.

Perhaps you could make a case that the same force influenced Tyrion's second trial. Although we know Tyrion was innocent, maybe declaring him so would have achieved little. After he escaped, Tyrion descended further into drink and self pity, but came out of it and ended up apparently still able to do something useful. If he had been declared innocent, his name had already been dragged through the mud and his reputation, such as it was, was ruined, so he couldn't take a position of responsibility, and he would have still been depressed. So perhaps if he had been declared innocent he would have just drunk himself to death in King's Landing, or been killed by Cersei anyway. Perhaps losing the trial, killing his father and Shae, then escaping to Essos was the best path for him.

The tiniest bit of "evidence": In the Hedge Knight:

Spoiler

Dunk and Maekar wonder why the gods would allow a good prince to die rather than have Dunk lose his foot. Dunk speculates that maybe there will come a time where his foot is needed more than a good prince. Although Dunk has no special insight into the will of gods, I think the context makes it very likely that Dunk's speculation will turn out to be true. Therefore we might assume there is some precedent for the gods taking the future into account when affecting trials by combat.

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25 minutes ago, Ser Petyr Parker said:

I suspect in the Hound's trial, "something" really did affect the result so the Hound would be declared innocent.

I'm pretty sure that's what Beric and Thoros think—but of course they think it's R'hllor, who doesn't care whether Sandor was guilty or innocent, only that he has a part to play in some inscrutable plan in the struggle against darkness.

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If GRRM is playing with trials then it is a question of if it is in the eyes of the gods or morally or lawfully. I don't see how it could be argued that Sandor's actions were unlawful, he had it from royal lips that Micah attacked the crown prince. And that he acted lawfully doesn't absolve him personally or in the chivalrous sense, and so doesn't ruin his character arc. Indeed in future, we will probably see Sandor refuse a lawful order on the basis that it is immoral or unchivalrous.

In considering if GRRM is playing possum with trials one should look closely at how he manoeuvres the Sworn Sword trial. It would be the most natural thing for Dunk to defend Eustace against the allegations set before him, which would put Dunk on the false side. However GRRM twists it and makes the trial about Rohanne's guilt, and thus Dunk on the true side. If you doubt the original Lady Lannister is lying then you need a reread and rethink.

For Tyrion's guilt, that which seemingly can not be because he has contrary POV thoughts (one actually, Sansa must have done it), the false narration of that is seeded in the very start of the series.

Quote

Tyrion grinned at him. "That's good, bastard. Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it."

That Shae doesn't love him is the obvious realisation of this line. That he killed Joffrey is another. However when it suits him, that is he wants to hurt Jaime, he admits to it. And from there admits to it more and never denies it again.

Added into the bargain is GRRM got Tyrion well and truly drunk for the occasion, making a point of it, starting him drinking in the morning. Temporary memory loss from alcohol.

For some foreshadowing.

Quote

"Men are seldom as they appear. You look so very guilty that I am convinced of your innocence. Still, you will likely be condemned. Justice is in short supply this side of the mountains. There has been none for Elia, Aegon, or Rhaenys. Why should there be any for you? Perhaps Joffrey's real killer was eaten by a bear. That seems to happen quite often in King's Landing. Oh, wait, the bear was at Harrenhal, now I remember."

Tyrion doesn't get eaten by a bear, just kidnapped by one in Selhorys.

Finally he tipped the wine, and there's not a reasonable explanation for him to have done so. And GRRM just let that sit.

If it is the case Tyrion poisoned Joff, it would be in keeping with the kinslaying way of things if he is to die by poisoning. He was not ready to go when he sat before Illyrio and was offered what he believed were poison mushrooms. He was on the brink but decided no. Wait for that scene to repeat, and for Tyrion to be ready the next time.

That Gregor murdered Elia, Aegon and Rhaenys is immaterial, he isn't on trial.

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I don't think GRRM intends us to see trials by combat as a positive thing, but rather a method of deciding guilt that again favours the powerful - as shown by Aerys choosing fire as his champion. In the main series (rather than the tonally different Dunk and Egg books) I'd look for evidence that trials by combat always produce the wrong result. So far Tyrion being found not guilty of ordering Bran's death seems the only time justice has been served.

 

5 hours ago, cgrav said:

Arya's unhappiness with this result shows her rejection of justice, and a move toward nihilism. She does not believe in concepts of justice beyond her own.

Opposing the release of a self-confessed murderer just cause he won a fight hardly strikes me as a rejection of justice. In fact she is one of few who genuinely desires it for all, regardless of their social status. She hasn't quite grasped its complexity yet. Only when she gets to know Sandor better does she come to realise that he can both be a murderer and a decent enough person underneath that he does not deserve an immediate death sentence for it, but still her dedication to the ideal is pretty unmatched.

Sandor knew what he was doing was wrong - it hardly takes a genius to work out that Mycah was hardly capable of assaulting a prince and he was perfectly aware of how much of a shit Joffrey was. He may not reach breaking point until the Blackwater, but Sandor was jaded with serving the Lannisters, as shown when escorting Sansa at the Tourney of the Hand. Killing Mycah even reduced him to tears, though Ned was too set in his impression of him to notice - but that did not stop him from carrying the orders out anyway. 

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3 hours ago, falcotron said:

"Befehl ist Befehl" is not always a valid defense, whether you're Peter von Hagenback in 1474 or Wilhelm Keitel in 1946.

And this whole idea is what kickstarts the Hound's character arc. When Joffrey orders him to beat Sansa, he delays, and then objects when Boros does it. He's realized that following orders that are egregiously wrong is wrong. We don't know whether that's a principle of Westerosi law,* but Sandor wouldn't give a damn about that. Following Joffrey's orders was not the most honorable thing he ever did, but the least—and, worse than dishonorable, it was wrong, and pointlessly so.

So when the BwB tries him, he doesn't expect superior orders to be a defense, and the reader shouldn't either.

---

* it is in English common law, and German—but there are also contradictory precedents. But anyway, that would be for Jaime's arc, not Sandor's.

I don't disagree from a moral sense, but from a legal sense, its not as though the crown ordered him to torch a village with no warning. If retribution after a violent encountercwith the crown prince doesn't merit swift response, little does.

Edited by DominusNovus

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1 hour ago, Horse of Kent said:

Sandor ... 

Killing Mycah even reduced him to tears, though Ned was too set in his impression of him to notice - but that did not stop him from carrying the orders out anyway. 

Where was that part about tears ? If finding an exact quote is too much work - it might be - where do you rememember reading it approximately ?

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2 hours ago, beauty6 said:

Where was that part about tears ? If finding an exact quote is too much work - it might be - where do you rememember reading it approximately ?

I'm going to put this all in a spoiler box, just because it's very long and off-topic, but everything here is from the five published ASOIAF books:

Spoiler
Quote

"You rode him down," Ned said.
The Hound's eyes seemed to glitter through the steel of that hideous dog's-head helm. "He ran." He looked at Ned's face and laughed. "But not very fast."

 

Of course, the Hound also says:

Quote

"Your father lied. Killing is the sweetest thing there is."

 

And we also have these examples of glittering indicating amusement:

Quote

"Oh?" Littlefinger's grey-green eyes glittered with amusement.

 

Quote

She knew the answer, though; she could see it in the glitter of their eyes and the smiles they tried so hard to hide.

 

Quote

His face darkened. "I am. I'm your father, and I can marry you to whoever I like. To anyone. You'll marry the pig boy if I say so, and bed down with him in the sty." His green eyes glittered with amusement. "Or maybe I should give you to Ilyn Payne, would you like him better?"

 

Quote

Euron glanced about the tent. "As it happens I have oft sat upon the Seastone Chair of late. It raises no objections." His smiling eye was glittering. 

 

Quote

The fat man's eyes glittered like the gemstones on his fingers. "There are those in Westeros who would say that killing Lord Lannister was merely a good beginning."

 

Quote

"A rat?" Ramsay's pale eyes glittered in the torchlight. "All the rats in the Dreadfort belong to my lord father. How dare you make a meal of one without my leave."

 

Quote

His father's pale eyes glittered. "Did I give you that impression? Still. His lordship is most distraught."

 

The same for "sparkling":

Quote

And the girls, Ned!" he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling. "I swear, women lose all modesty in the heat. 

 

Quote

That amused her; he could see the sparkle in her dark eyes. "And you said you'd name her after me," she said in a voice of wounded reproach.

 

Quote

Mischief sparkled in Taena's big dark eyes. 

 

Quote

Taena's black eyes sparkled with mischief. 

 

Quote

That pleased her. She took a sip of wine, her dark eyes sparkling

 

It can suggest malevolence:

Quote

Afterward, Catelyn would remember the clatter of countless hooves on the drawbridge, the sight of Lord Walder Frey in his litter watching them pass, the glitter of eyes peering down through the slats of the murder holes in the ceiling as they rode through the Water Tower.

 

But also sadness:

Quote

The eunuch's smile never flickered, but his eyes glittered with something that was not laughter. "You are kind to ask, my lord, but my tale is long and sad, and we have treasons to discuss."

 

Or even false sadness:

Quote

Xaro's eyes had glittered as brightly as the jewels in his nose. "I am a trader, Khaleesi. So perhaps we should speak no more of giving, but rather of trade. For one of your dragons, you shall have ten of the finest ships in my fleet. You need only say that one sweet word."

 

There are also examples of eyes glittering or sparkling just because it's cold.

 

So most of us will originally take the Hounds glittering eyes to be a sign of malevolence, amusement, or pleasure, especially given his statement about killing and his laugh in Ned's face. Later we might look at the Hound and wonder if a lot of this is a defence mechanism. Like Jaime, he may feel he doesn't have to or can't explain himself and so just plays up the "evil" persona as a kind of armour against others' judgements. But "glittering" eyes seem to show amusement far more than anything else in the series.

 

Edited by Ser Petyr Parker

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12 hours ago, Seams said:

The reader never "saw" Sandor kill Mycah. Is it possible he didn't do it but claimed he did? We were later told that the butcher thought he had been given a bag with pieces of a slaughtered pig in it.

I think we're meant to consider Sandor innocent not because he didn't kill him (he did) but because it wasn't a crime. In effect, a warrant for his arrest was issued by the ruling authority, and he fled, and died as a result. Under such circumstances, the government agent who killed the fleeing suspect isn't guilty of murder.

If Mycah had surrendered and the Hound killed him anyway, it would be a crime under these circumstances.

But on the other hand, if Robert had said "Clegane, the boy Mycah is a traitor. Find him and kill him." then that wouldn't be a crime either, he would be acting legally as an executioner.

I think that's part of the reason the First Men expect "he who passes the sentence must swing the blade"; it prevents this "following orders" moral ambiguity. But then again, trial by combat isn't a First Men idea, it's an idea in the Faith of the Seven and in the faith of R'hollor.

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@Horse of Kent @Damon_Tor

I don't think Sandor's guilt/innocence with regard to the story has anything to do with legal technicalities. He has a redemption story. We can debate the gray area of taking unethical orders, but the bigger point is that he clearly feels remorse for the things he did at Joffrey's behest, atones by offering escape to Sansa (during Blackwater, so atonement by fire), and therefore does not require judgment from others. 

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9 minutes ago, cgrav said:

@Horse of Kent @Damon_Tor

I don't think Sandor's guilt/innocence with regard to the story has anything to do with legal technicalities. He has a redemption story. We can debate the gray area of taking unethical orders, but the bigger point is that he clearly feels remorse for the things he did at Joffrey's behest, atones by offering escape to Sansa (during Blackwater, so atonement by fire), and therefore does not require judgment from others. 

That's not a legal technicality. Murder != killing. Both the Faith of the Seven and the Faith of R'hollor embrace judicial killing. R'hollor is not fluffy kind god, if you haven't noticed. There's no reason to believe that His definition of "murder" excludes a case like Clegane's.

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No. 

If Tyrion didn't poison Joffrey, and his champion lost, proves that trials by combat prove nothing.

And they are allowed only for nobility, so in a way the winner (the accuser or accused) owes the other winner (combatant) a favor, or his life.

And a nobleman can surely return a favor.

So, they are also made to be a chance for people (combatants) like Bronn, who like to step up higher in society, and also a huge risk.

So if they really proved anything they'd be allowed for the smallfolk too, but they aren't, since no one cares about smallfolk, nor the combat by itself is of any type of relevant proof of guilt or innocence.

Edited by The Sunland Lord

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41 minutes ago, Damon_Tor said:

That's not a legal technicality. Murder != killing. Both the Faith of the Seven and the Faith of R'hollor embrace judicial killing. R'hollor is not fluffy kind god, if you haven't noticed. There's no reason to believe that His definition of "murder" excludes a case like Clegane's.

For purposes of this story, we have no reason to think that this distinction matters. You can see the Nuremberg defense rebutted above: Sandor could have at any time, and eventually did, refuse unethical orders. 

This is a gray area quite intentionally, which leads me to believe that we aren't supposed to judge Sandor by whether what he did was legally justifiable, but how he deals with it internally. The medieval setting predates criminal law per se and embraces amoral, capricious exercise of power. This should tell us that legality in the modern sense is almost pure abstraction within the story. The more thematically important and consequential aspect is how Sandor's guilt/innocence is perceived by himself and others. 

If it were a simple matter of black and white culpability then the Hound as a character would be pointless. There is no redemption without guilt, remorse, and atonement. 

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10 minutes ago, The Sunland Lord said:

So if they really proved anything they'd be allowed for the smallfolk too, but they aren't, since no one cares about smallfolk, nor the combat by itself is of any type of relevant proof of guilt or innocence.

But in Westeros, the Faith teaches that the Warrior and/or the Father will intervene in trials by combat to ensure that justice is served. So, I don't think most nobles ever even considered the fact that it was unfairly biased toward the nobility, except for the more cynical ones.

This is almost the exact opposite of real-life 15h century Germany (the heyday of trial by combat,* which happened against the wishes of the Church, and often the Emperor, and which was frequently acknowledged as a way for nobles to get away with whatever they wanted against, say, commoners, or tax men, or priests, or tribal Livonian rulers who'd been given German aristocratic titles but didn't get an lifelong education in German fencing along with them).

I'm not sure if this was an intentional change by GRRM, but I think it weakens any case the story might make against trial by combat—or any larger point about might-makes-right-because-of-divine-backing ideas in fantasy stories or feudalism.

---

* Some of the elements of Westerosi trial by combat seem to be borrowed from the pre-Christian Viking holmgang tradition rather than German trial by combat. But holmgangs were private duels over private matters, not criminal trials, and they had provisions, if not always successful ones, to prevent unnecessary loss of life, dueling for profit, and abuse of commoners, which makes them just as different from Westeros.

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38 minutes ago, cgrav said:

The medieval setting predates criminal law per se and embraces amoral, capricious exercise of power.

That depends entirely on your point of view. And directly relevant to the situation here, there's the concept of Divine Right.

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