Who is the ultimate warrior of the Seven Kingdoms? Brian Staveley ranks the warriors of Game of Thrones, but do you agree?

The Game of Thrones warriors are a fearsome bunch, from mighty Gregor, an eight feet tall guy with a six-foot sword, to the poisonous Red Viper. But who is the ultimate warrior of the Seven Kingdoms? Fantasy author Brian Staveley shares his list . . .

In what is sure to be as divisive as that final episode, here fantasy fiction author Brian Staveley shares his opinions on the ultimate warriors of the Seven Kingdoms; though before he begins, a disclaimer: as befits a novelist, Brian's list refers to the books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, not the HBO adaptation. 

Brian lays out his ground rules for his ‘which is the best warrior’ game (no magic allowed!), and gives us the lowdown on his own combatant rankings. Over to you readers. Will you opt for Barristan Selmy, Oberyn Martell or Arya Stark? The choice is yours . . .

Now that coronavirus restrictions are finally lifting in many places, you may find yourself at a party. Hopefully it is a good party, with a slip-and-slide and one of those three-person water balloon launchers and a hollow watermelon filled with some kind adult beverage, but in the event it’s a more boring party, one thing you can do to liven things up is walk up to pretty much any random person and ask, ‘who do you think is the best fighter in Game of Thrones?’

I will warn you: this question can devolve alarmingly quickly into shouting and recriminations, so here are some ground rules I like to specify.

  1. We’re only talking about the books here. (For your purposes, you might choose to only talk about the movies, but mingling the two will inevitably lead to confusion, anger, and spilled drinks.)
  2. The characters in question must be alive at some point in the series (no figures of legend and lore).
  3. Consider the character in their prime, even if that falls outside the scope of the series (e.g. Ser Barristan Selmy).

Now, I’m not foolish enough to actually get into the argument with you, but here’s a short list of potential contenders, presented in no particular order, followed by some observations that might help to kick off discussion.

  1. Jaime Lannister
  2. Arya Stark
  3. Robert Baratheon
  4. Strong Belwas
  5. Barristan Selmy
  6. Quorin Halfhand
  7. Loras Tyrell
  8. Brienne of Tarth
  9. Khal Drogo
  10. Oberyn Martell
  11. Gregor Clegane
  12. Sandor Clegane
  13. Syrio Forel
  14. Bron

I mean, look, Gregor looks strong straight out of the gate. All of these people kick ass, and when it comes to an ass-kicking contest, the guy who’s almost eight feet tall and can wield a six-foot sword with a single hand has an undeniable advantage. Witness: weight classes in basically every modern martial art. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Red Viper almost kills Gregor – arguably does kill him. On the other hand, the Red Viper uses poison. And he dies. Loras bests Gregor in a joust, but Loras cheated and Gregor was going to chop off his head. Maybe Sandor could get him, but Sandor knows his weaknesses… 

Or, maybe there’s a better way to think about it. Gregor is obviously tough, but, given that there has been peace in Westeros for a good long while at the start of the books, most of Gregor’s ‘fighting’ hasn’t been fighting at all. He seems to have been mostly roaming around killing potters and fishers and millers and such – terrible practice for fighting actual strong warriors to the actual death.

You know who has been doing that? Drogo. Belwas. Quorin. Possibly Bron. Here things get tricky, because in the books we only see Drogo fight once (although he does have that braid). Same with Belwas (although he does have those scars). Same with Qorin (who dies, but on purpose). There’s a lot of extrapolation to be done here. What is the experience and training of a Dothraki warlord versus a ranger of the Night’s Watch? I’d put my money on the Dothraki, but they, too, seem to spend a lot of time just terrorizing the meeker peoples of the steppe.

On this front, Arya and Syrio Forel are even more vexing. We barely get to see Syrio in mortal combat at all – one unarmored dancing master against multiple armored knights – and the outcome isn’t clear. In the books, Arya is obviously on her way to becoming a major contender (as she is in the show), but she’s not there yet. Speaking of Arya, there’s always Jaqen H’Ghar to consider, but I’m willing to rule out the use of magic for the purposes of this debate.

Whatever your conclusions, I think one thing is clear: fights to the death are not tennis. To be sure, the tennis world has its upsets, but it also has a reliable ladder. If we pitted Serena Williams against a high school player, the high school player would win approximately never. The business of battle, however, is more complex. While some novels would allow us to compile a ranking of fighters fairly easily, Martin understands that there’s not a ladder, but a morass of shifting and unpredictable variables: personal style, the type of battle, the degree of preparation, the type of weapons and armor, weather, morale, confusion. Philosophers like to elide these variables with the simple phrase, ‘all other things being equal…' but a novelist of Martin’s stature understands that the exogenous variables are never equal. That’s what makes the books so great and this argument so fun. 

Now go liven up that party. I’m sure that eventually you’ll come to the only possible correct conclusion: Barristan Selmy.

If you loved A Song of Ice and Fire or the critically acclaimed HBO adaptation, you'll find even more inspiration in our edit of the best books like Game of Thrones.

The Empire's Ruin

by Brian Staveley

Book cover for The Empire's Ruin

In the first book in Brian Staveley's epic fantasy trilogy, Ashes of the Unhewn, the great Annurian Empire is on its last legs, and its elite soldiers – the Kettral – are dwindling. Kettral soldier Gwenna Sharpe is given a quest, in order to restore the hawk-riding battalion. She must travel beyond the known world, to the place where the mighty war hawks nest. She will face obstacles along the way, from poisoned land to a monk turned conman to sinister forces massing against the empire. Gwenna's quest to save it is fraught with danger, but full of potential for recovery and renewal.