Brienne of Tarth and the role of the Absent Mother on Game of Thrones

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Brienne of Tarth was introduced in season 2, when she became a Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon. She showcased her fighting prowess by defeating Ser Loras Tyrell, the storied Knight of the Flowers, in a mock battle, and it was immediately apparent that Brienne was neither a typical Westerosi warrior nor a typical Westerosi woman.

During a conversation with Catelyn Stark in “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” Brienne reveals that she never knew her mother. Catelyn responds by saying that her own mother died giving birth, and Brienne seems to confirm she lost her mother in the same way, commenting that childbirth is a “bloody business.” This terse characterization, along with her brusque manner, masculine attire and warrior status, indicates that Brienne views herself as somehow separate from other women. The absent mother in Brienne’s life lends insight into both the development of her self-image and her struggles with her female identity.

In her book Motherless Daughters: A Legacy of Loss, Hope Edelman writes, “a mother’s death also means the loss of the consistent, supportive family system that once supplied her [daughter] with a secure home base; she then has to develop her self-confidence and self-esteem through alternate means. Without a mother or mother-figure to guide her, a daughter also has to piece together a female self-image of her own.”

Brienne developed her confidence and self-esteem by training to become a skilled fighter, a traditionally masculine endeavor. In the process, she’s rejected her femininity. Brienne is unique because her absent mother is not the primary reason for this rejection; rather, it can be attributed to a lifetime of shame over her appearance and the cruelty she has endured because of it. Not only was Brienne left to navigate her life as a female without maternal guidance, she has been taunted mercilessly for failing to physically conform to society’s concept of the feminine ideal.

When Brienne has tried to live up to that ideal, she has suffered for it. In season 5’s “The High Sparrow,” she heartbreakingly recalls a scene from her youth after Podrick asks her how she came to serve Renly. She tells of a ball her father threw in her honor in hopes that his only surviving child would make a good marriage. Although she was initially loath to attend, to her surprise, the young lords did not notice how “mulish and tall” she was, but courted and complimented her. She recalls that she’d never felt so happy, and she and her father shared a smile over her seeming success.

But then she heard the boys snickering, referring to her mockingly as “Brienne the Beauty,” and she realized they had been toying with her. Her pain at the memory is palpable as she tells Podrick that was the moment she knew she was “the ugliest girl in the world” and nothing more than a “great, lumbering beast.” She then recounts how Renly took her in his arms and danced with her, telling her that the “nasty little shits weren’t worth crying over.” In her eyes he saved her from being a joke that night, thus earning her fierce and lifelong loyalty. In return she sought to save him from bodily harm in her role as a member of his Kingsguard.

Aside from being one of Gwendoline Christie’s shining moments in the series, Brienne’s conversation with Pod sheds light onto a couple of significant aspects of her character: her tendency to define herself as a physical (masculine) rather than an emotional (feminine) protector, and her relationship with her father.

The Cinderella Model

The dynamic between Brienne and Lord Selwyn Tarth follows what can be called the Cinderella Model, where, in the mother’s absence, the father creates a stable and nurturing environment for his daughter. Cinderella thrived under her father’s care, growing into a paragon of traditional (if myopic) femininity—beautiful, kind and strong in the face of adversity. It was not the absent mother itself that threw Cinderella’s life into chaos; it was the introduction of the evil stepmother—an external circumstance, yet one that would not have come about had it not been for her mother’s death.

Like Cinderella’s father, Lord Selwyn appears to be a benevolent influence in Brienne’s life. There is no indication he has been anything but loving towards his ungainly daughter and accepting of her unorthodox ambitions. He taught her how to fight when he could not dissuade her from sparring with the boys, threw the ill-fated ball to find her a suitable match and was pleased by her genuine—though fleeting—happiness with it, and responded to Locke’s ransom demand with a sum that even the cynical Jaime Lannister deemed appropriate.

The absent mother alone did not shape Cinderella’s or Brienne’s worlds. Both had loving fathers; both their lives became chaotic through external circumstances. For Cinderella it was the tyranny of another; for Brienne it was the tyranny of society’s expectations. Cinderella was able to navigate her circumstances by virtue of her femininity; Brienne navigates hers by eschewing it.

Brienne in her favorite outfit.

Brienne and Femininity

Armor is Brienne’s daily dress, and when she is forced to don traditional female garments, they are shapeless and unadorned, hiding the womanly body beneath them. She rejects feminine monikers for herself, repeatedly telling those who call her “Lady Brienne” that she is not a lady even though, as Cersei points out at in “The Lion and the Rose,” Brienne is the daughter of a lord and technically a lady whether or not she wants to acknowledge it. Her bitterness at not being able to save Renly from the shadow demon is a reflection of her outlook. She derives her self-worth from her ability to physically protect those she loves—a traditionally masculine attitude—rather than providing them with emotional sustenance—a traditionally feminine attitude.

Brienne’s greatest struggle is reconciling her physicality with her female identity. She is resigned to being taunted by the world, as nearly everyone she encounters seems unable to comprehend that size, strength and femininity can coexist. Brienne is fully aware of the effect she has on people and stoically endures their mockery. But sometimes her mask of indifference slips, revealing that such treatment still causes her pain. For her, being female means being vulnerable; subjugating her fragile female identity to her more masculine outward mien is a means of self-preservation.

This is illustrated in season 2’s “Valar Morghulis” when, on their journey to King’s Landing, Brienne and Jaime come upon the hanged bodies of three women. As Brienne attempts to give them a decent burial, the men who killed them approach. When they learn she is a woman, they have a good laugh at her expense. She tolerates the familiar humiliation and attempts to move on, but when the men recognize Jaime, she deftly dispatches them with “two quick deaths” and one slow, agonizing one. Again, the woman is wounded but the warrior prevails.

Brienne earned Jaime’s respect after administering two quick deaths and one slow one

Romantic Love

Speaking of Jaime, the question of whether Brienne, in her conflicted state, is capable of romantic love arises. Cersei seems to think so, since she caught Brienne off guard at Joffrey’s wedding by accusing her of being in love with Jaime. As with so many of her assessments, Cersei is off-base. Brienne may indeed love Jaime, but she is so removed from her womanhood that it would not occur to her that her feelings for him constitute being “in love” with him. She more likely regards him as a comrade-in-arms, given everything they’ve been through together. Their bond is so deep, and so rooted in mutual respect, that it transcends the trappings of romantic love.

Unaccustomed to being a damsel in distress, Brienne follows Jaime out of Locke’s bear pit.

Brienne is the only woman who has seen Jaime’s emotional core laid bare, first following Locke’s amputation of his sword hand and then in the bathtub at Harrenhal, where he confessed the real reason he killed the Mad King. Jaime has twice witnessed Brienne being forced into the role of damsel in distress—when Locke’s men attempted to rape her and again in the bear pit—and rescued her both times. By being vulnerable with each other in ways that are foreign to them—Jaime emotionally and Brienne physically—their respect for each other only grew more solid, and was cemented in the moment she poignantly named the sword he gave her “Oathkeeper.”

I could go on and on about Jaime and Brienne, but the point here is that Jaime has seen the closely guarded female beneath Brienne’s façade, and their relationship was strengthened because of it. Does this mean there is hope that Brienne will be able to harmonize the masculine and feminine sides of her personality?

Perhaps. She has shown signs of becoming more comfortable in her own skin in seasons 6 and 7. She acts repulsed by Tormund Giantsbane’s open admiration of her, but at least she appears to be aware of its lustful nature and thus is forced to entertain the idea that someone sees her as a desirable woman. When Pod congratulated her for upholding her oath to Catelyn by reuniting Sansa and Arya, she stopped herself from admonishing him that she is not a lady and instead accepted his compliment with a simple “thank you.” Her maternal feelings surfaced when she and the Hound bonded over their shared protectiveness for Arya.

Their faces say it all.

In Brienne’s case, the absent mother alone did not thrust her into chaos. Rather, like Edelman writes, the absent mother forced her to piece together a female identity and forge her own path to womanhood without the benefit of maternal guidance. Her path has been a rocky one, plagued by self-doubt and the cruelty of others, but it seems Brienne is beginning to glean that her physical stature does not negate her femininity. She need not conform to a narrow-minded view of womanhood to be a woman, and she need not rely on her skills as a warrior to command respect. As Brienne continues her motherless journey, hopefully she will discover for herself that the woman and the warrior can be one.

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