Everyone loves following the adventures of Danaerys, Tyrion and Arya. But the real strength of A Song of Ice and Fire is the supporting cast of fully-realized characters who bring George R. R. Martin’s world to life. With the fourth season right around the corner, here are my picks for the top ten coolest and most interesting supporting characters in the Game of Thrones universe. In fairness to those who have only seen the HBO series, I won’t reveal any information that hasn’t been on TV yet (but anything from the first three books/seasons is fair game).
[Possible Seasons 1-3 spoilers]
10. Olenna Tyrell
The matriarch of her family and grandmother to Margaery, Joffrey’s betrothed. Is there anything more endearing than an old woman who doesn’t give a feudalism what people think of her? In a world of double-talk and intrigue, Olenna’s brutal honesty has earned the moniker “the Queen of Thorns.” She uses her apparent frailty to her advantage, causing her opponents to constantly underestimate her, even as her machinations bring the Tyrells ever closer to the center of power in Westeros.
9. Ser Barristan Selmy
Knight of the Kingsguard, who spent most of his career protecting kings or, in his words, “serving a drunk or lunatic.” He epitomizes loyalty, honor and duty, everything a “true knight” should be. Despite his age, he is perhaps the most well-respected warrior in the Seven Kingdoms—which makes his dismissal by Joffrey all the more shocking. Rather than accept the embarrassment of retirement, Barristan throws his sword at the boy-king and storms out of King’s Landing. He resurfaces in Slaver’s Bay, where he foils an assassination attempt and pledges loyalty to Daenerys. Though the outcome of the struggle is far from known, it seems likely that the Lannisters will come to regret this insult heaped upon Barristan the Bold.
8. Thoros of Myr
The red priest of R’hllor, the deity also called the Lord of Light and the Red God. At the outset of the series, he is a rather disillusioned holy man who competes in tournaments wielding a cheap sword soaked in flaming wildfire. As the War of Five King rages, his faith is renewed by his newfound ability to raise the dead. Rather than choose sides, Thoros forms a band of outlaws who conduct raids against the belligerents in order to protect the “smallfolk” truly suffering after years of war. He serves as an important symbol of the futility of war and presents a counter to the red witch Melisandre.
Nicknamed “the Spider,” Varys is the Master of Whisperers for Robert Baratheon and, later, Joffrey. In this society where martial skill is everything, Varys has risen to the top through his mastery of information. Moreover, in a series requiring two sex scenes per television episode, he is a eunuch. This disability is likely an asset to the spymaster, for sex and its related complications led to the death of King Robert, the paternity question at the heart of the War of Five Kings, the fall of Robb Stark in the Red Wedding, the conflict between Tyrion and Tywin Lannister, and a host of other complications throughout Westeros and beyond. Freed from these urges, the Spider spins his web, and all of the Seven Kingdoms seems to fall into his trap.
6. Mance Rayder
The King-beyond-the-Wall, the leader of the “wildlings” who live to the north of Westeros. The Wall, a 700-foot-tall ice fortification that puts the Great Wall of China to shame, divides the civilized Seven Kingdoms from Mance’s savage followers. His kingship is very different from those involved in the continent-destroying War of Five Kings—his only claim to power is the support of his followers. This is not so much “the consent of the governed” in a democratic sense as the authority of power exercised by tribal chiefs. Rather than relying merely on strength, Mance rules with cleverness and charisma. It is thus no surprise that he earns the respect of Jon Snow, who infiltrates the wildlings on behalf of the Night’s Watch and faces a sort of fantasy Stockholm syndrome.
5. Aeron Greyjoy
The scion of the family of pirate-lords who rule the Iron Islands. “Damphair” (so named for his devotion to the Drowned God) has a strong following of pious Ironborn, which makes him an important powerbroker in the struggle for his late father’s Seastone Chair. This religion seems inspired (in a bizarre way) by real-world Christianity. Christian baptism is believed to wash away sin and allow a person to be metaphorically reborn into a life of Christ. For the Drowned Men, this rebirth is more literal: devotees are held under water until they stop breathing, at which time they are (usually) revived by Aeron. This ritual forms the basis of the Ironborn war cry, “What is dead shall never die.”
Priestess of R’hllor. Different religions vie for the souls in the Seven Kingdoms. While the majority worship “The Seven” and respectfully acknowledge the worship of the Old Gods still held by the northerners, Melisandre is committed to a militant monotheism. As if to remove all doubt as to the Red God’s power, she wields impressive powers of prophecy, as well as darker magic. She is the power behind the throne of Stannis Baratheon. In one of the saga’s creepiest moments, she gives birth to a shadow monster that assassinates Stannis’ brother. Is she a prophet of the true faith or a diabolical witch? That question remains unanswered.
3. Sandor Clegane
The Hound of the King, a job consisting of murder, mayhem and other duties as assigned. In title-obsessed Westeros, the Hound is one of the few not grubbing for a knighthood, even though his close connection to Joffrey means a “Ser” is his for the asking. At first, he appears as nothing but a bloodthirsty brute, killing the son of a butcher for the crime of witnessing Joffrey’s embarrassment. Like so many of the saga’s characters, though, he grows more complex with time. We learn he is afraid of fire, after his older brother, The Mountain that Rides, burned half his face off in childhood. He shows remarkable kindness to the Stark girls, even as he supports the Lannisters in their schemes against Ned and Robb. A man ruled by a moral code all his own, the Hound is one of Martin’s most compelling characters.
2. Brienne of Tarth
The antithesis of the damsel in distress. Mockingly called “Brienne the Beauty,” the Maid of Tarth is ungainly, unattractive and unfeminine. Instead of pursuing a miserable life as an ill-suited court lady, Brienne donned a suit of armor and threw herself into the War of Five Kings. She was in love with the handsome and charming (and, in the TV version at least, gay) Renly Baratheon. She won a great melee, even defeating the mighty Knight of Flowers, and claimed as her prize the right to serve on Renly’s Rainbow Guard. Westeros is a land of intrigue, betrayal and shifting alliances, but Brienne always maintains her honor, making her perhaps the only “true knight” in the saga. When her unlikely companion Jaime Lannister gives her a sword, he appropriately names it “Oathkeeper.”
The quintessential sellsword (and props to Martin for coining such a cool synonym for “mercenary”). He acts only in self-interest and never hesitates to exploit an advantage. His essential nature is on display when he accompanies Tyrion and Catelyn to the Aerie. After initially helping Catelyn take Tyrion into custody, he turns around and serves as Tyrion’s champion in the trial by combat. Bronn continually backs away during the fight, prompting jeers from the onlookers. Once his opponent, a heavily-armored knight, tires, Bronn moves in for the kill. In the TV version, Lysa Arryn then declares, “You don’t fight with honor.” Bronn looks to the Moon Door through which his opponent’s corpse just fell and says, “No. He did.”
Tell us in the Comments section below: Who are YOUR favorite supporting characters in GoT?