Monsters of Ice and Fire: Robert Strong and his Precursors

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

In the final paragraph of his groundbreaking 1996 essay Monster Culture (which would go a long way toward establishing monsters as a popular topic for literary scholars, historians and social scientists), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes:

"Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. And when they come back, they bring not just fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge – and a discourse all the more sacred as it arises from the Outside. These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them.i"

If we want to talk about monsters in a fictional universe as complex and extensive as the one A Song of Ice and Fire is set in, we can add another layer. The monsters we are confronted with – sometimes directly and sometimes through stories inside the story proper – are our children, which means they are born from our ideas and our mindsets. They are also the children of the societies of the world they are set in, and therefore born from their ideas and mindsets. So, maybe they are also something like our grandchildren?

Cohen’s words ring true if we apply them to A Song of Ice and Fire. A lot of the monsters that appear in this story are quite literally “hidden away at the edges of the world” by the author, like the Others or the giants. Other, more personal “monsters” are hidden in different ways, like Tyrion never getting the same attention or recognition by his father that his brother Jaime receives. But creatures like the Others, the Children of the Forest, and the dragons are more remote; they are transferred by the people of Westeros into the realm of fairytales and make-believe.

In short, it is not always clear what a monster even is. Most readers would probably agree that the Others are monsters, and certainly a vast majority of the inhabitants of Westeros would, especially those who have come into contact with them. But there are plenty of Westerosi who see Tyrion as a monster (or a demon monkey), whereas a majority of readers would surely beg to differ. There may be less unity when to comes to the likes of giants, dragons or wargs.

With all that in mind, I want to take a closer look at a specific kind of monster, and try to shed some light on the monster as a concept and an anthropological constant.

Ser Robert Strong as a Monster

While certainly not the most important monster in “the world of Ice and Fire,” as Maester Yandel calls it in his book of the same name,ii Ser Robert Strong is a good starting point, in part because he’s not overly important to the mythology in the way the dragons and the Others are. And, in contrast to a lot of other monsters in Martinʼs story, Ser Robert Strong has a clear parallel in popular literature from our own world: Frankensteinʼs monster.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the story of a young German scientist named Victor Frankenstein who becomes obsessed with the secrets of life and proceeds to create a new creature, later to be considered a monster, from parts of dead human and animal bodies. The creature later kills Victor’s brother and others and tries to kill Victor himself when he breaks his promise to make a female companion for the creature.

The linkages between Frankenstein’s monster and Robert Strong are obvious. Although not explicitly confirmed by Martin, it’s long been accepted by fans that Strong is actually Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane brought back from the brink of death by Qyburn. The fandom has given him names like “Frankenmountain” and “Gregorstein,” drawing direct lines back to Shelley’s work. (True, both of these names conflate the scientist with his monster. This is mostly due to the sizable number of plays and movie adaptions of the original story and the pop culture phenomenon they created.)

Frankensteinʼs Actual Monster

So, what is Frankensteinʼs monster actually like in the original story? First of all, he is not “Frankensteinʼs monster,” but “the wretch”. The word “monster” appears a grand total of 32 times in the uncensored 1818 edition, which is considered the most important version of the novel. And for two of those times, the word refers to Victor Frankenstein himself or the people around him. In comparison, the word “wretch” is used 27 times, but comes much closer to functioning as a substitute for an actual name for the creature. Both words first occur in the text in short succession in a scene so iconic that we immediately think of it when we think of Frankenstein: the infusion of the creature “with a spark of being”, which Hollywood has consistently interpreted as lightning. In the book, Victor Frankenstein does not favor the reader with a classic mad scientist laugh, but instead watches in horror as the creature he was prepared to love suddenly appears ugly and terrible in the instant it comes alive:iii

"How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.iv"

Frankestein’s (rather) original monster/wretch.

One page later, Frankenstein dreams of the wretch and, for the first time, thinks of him as “the miserable monster whom I had created.” Frankensteinʼs hubris manifests itself in the wretchʼs rather under-explained ugliness, which Frankenstein deals with by abandoning his creature. The wretch then wanders the world in an infant-like state, with neither father nor mother figure. This world sees him as his creator sees him: as ugly and therefore a monster. The next time Frankenstein meets the wretch, it is already too late for reconciliation. Having only received hate from his creator, as well as the world as a whole, the wretch has killed Victorʼs brother William out of a mixture of jealousy and revenge, yet his words show us that he is a thinking and feeling person in every sense of the word. Here’s what he says when he pleads with Frankenstein:

"“Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion. By the virtues that I once possessed, I demand this from you. Hear my tale; it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut upon the mountain. The sun is yet high in the heavens; before it descends to hide itself behind yon snowy precipices, and illuminate another world, you will have heard my story, and can decide. On you it rests, whether I quit for ever the neighbourhood of man, and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow-creatures, and the author of your own speedy ruin.”v"

While it is clear that the wretch has now indeed become something we rightfully could call a monster, it is equally clear that it all could have turned out very different. The wretch is not a mindless horror, but mentally just as human as his creator.

This, however, can hardly be said about Ser Robert Strong. Robert Strong is not as eloquent as the wretch, but rather mute. From what we have seen up to this point, there is no indication that Robert Strong could have the same intense emotions the wretch tells us about. The wretch most likely is emotionally much deeper than Gregor Clegane, even when Gregor was still properly alive. Robert Strong therefore reminds us of a different monster: the golem.

The Golem

The story of the Golem of Prague probably cobbles together earlier narratives about golems from other places. There are several versions of the story. It is the story of a humanoid creature made from clay that becomes alive through cabbalistic ritual. His creator is the well-known Rabbi Judah Loew, who creates him as a defender of the Jewish people of Prague in a time of resurgent anti-Judaism.

Rabbi Loew and his Golem.

Much like the Golem of Prague, Ser Robert Strong seems to be a mute, mindless tool of his handler…at least in the novel. The show cast a shadow of doubt on that idea when he tortured Septa Unella in “The Winds of Winter.” Was it Cerseiʼs will, communicated by Qyburn, for Strong to rape Unella? Is Robert Strong only acting out the revenge fantasies Cersei has come up with? Or does he have some kind of agency in this? Since we don’t even know if Gregor actually died before he became Ser Robert Strong, we don’t know how much personal identity he has left. Still, the golem comparison works as well as any.

But in contrast to both the Golem of Prague and the wretch, Robert Strong can arguably be said to have had a monstrous past. The wretch consists of parts of bodies of humans and animals gathered from different places, while the Golem merely consists of clay. Robert Strong is, of course, an undead version of Gregor Clegane. Is he more monstrous now as Robert Strong than he used to be as Gregor Clegane? That depends on what we mean when we say “monster” or “monstrous.” But I would argue that he has become a whole different kind of monster when he became Robert Strong. Robert Strong is rather easy to grasp. Robert Strong, just as the Golem of Prague or Frankensteinʼs monster, is a monster that inhabits the threshold between alive and dead – or animate and inanimate in the case of the Golem – whose dissolution threatens our view of life, the world and existence. Robert Strong doesn’t differ in this from your usual zombie or vampire. Gregor Clegane is a completely different matter.

Hubris and Human Monsters

If we find Gregor Clegane monstrous – and not only in a metaphorical sense – before Qyburn gets his hands on him, it is because he seems to exceed the level of cruelty we would normally consider plausible in a human being who has not been subject to excessive levels of cruelty him or herself, and who has therefore been left severely traumatized. To our knowledge, this does not hold true in the Mountainʼs case. From an undead creature we are prepared to expect unspeakable cruelty. From a human being we are not. A case could probably even be made that Gregor has become less monstrous by becoming a mindless torture zombie.

If we compare all three stories, we see that they are all about individuals from an intellectual elite — the creators of the monsters — pushing the limits of their social milieu and ultimately becoming guilty of hubris. But how they come by this hubris, and their fates afterwards, are vastly different. While Rabbi Loew, who creates the Golem of Prague, remains a revered figure throughout the tale, Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with the secrets of life leads to a final act of hubris that destroys his life and reputation. Qyburn’s reputation is, in contrast to both, already ruined when his defining act of his hubris takes place. Qyburn is a highly skilled Citadel outcast who joined a mercenary company, and an infamous one at that, to have more freedom in his study of the living human body.

The hubris of all three creators results in a flawed creature. All three creatures carry defects that mark them as less then perfect. Ser Robert Strong and the Golem are mute, while the wretch, as we have seen, becomes ugly in the exact moment he comes alive. Human life created by humans outside of the natural chain of sexual reproduction proves to be not quite on par with human life as we know it, whoever we believe to be its creator. This is most clear in the case of Victor Frankenstein and his wretch. In the case of the Golem of Prague, we see it as a lack of common sense that leads to the Golem running amok, eerily resembling an artificial intelligence out of control. Robert Strong is as flawed as the other two, yet there is an important difference. Unlike Rabbi Loew or Victor Frankenstein, Qyburn embraces the flaws and embraces his hubris. Qyburn never set out to imitate human life perfectly. He set out to experiment. At some point, he set out to create a human-shaped tool, not unlike the Golem, but minus the lofty ideals. He not only accepted but embraced the possibility that he was creating a monster — a broken, dangerous creature. With Qyburn, there are no delusions, and there is no affection for his creature.

Can we imagine Qyburn looking at his creature and being shocked when he realized what he had done? Can we imagine him running and hiding from the presence of it? No, we cannot, I think. Qyburn surely would have been prepared to destroy his creature, shrugging his shoulders and starting anew without so much as losing a single night’s sleep.

One could argue that this gives us a clue as to what we can expect from Ser Robert Strong and Qyburn in the future. Qyburn is probably in a position to avoid what happened to Victor Frankenstein, who dies while hunting his creature in the Arctic. Rabbi Loew also comes close to catastrophe when his Golem starts to run through the city destroying everything in his way. Qyburn should be able to steer clear of any kind of disaster happening due to his creature getting out of control, because he has shown no scruples. We don’t exactly know how he created Ser Robert Strong as he appears at the end of A Dance with Dragons, but we can assume that Qyburn has either broken his will or that he does not have a will of his own anymore at all. While we do not know how Qyburn makes sure that he and nobody else is in control of his creature, his control seems rather absolute, and I don’t doubt that the man has a backup plan in place to destroy Ser Robert Strong if somebody should ever wrench control from him.

In the end, all three monsters show us not an unspeakable evil or horror beyond human comprehension, but rather a horror whose evilness is confined to what humans are capable of. The Golem is a blank slate, an automaton that executes whatever task it is given. When the Golem runs amok, he can’t be considered evil. It is simply the result of human beings creating something they can’t fully control. Like with an AI gone rogue, the only ones to blame are the creators and their hubris.

It is even clearer with Frankensteinʼs wretch, whose mind is exactly like that of a human. The only thing “monstrous” about him in the beginning is his perceived ugliness. Because he looks “like a monster,” people treat him like a monster and subsequently turn him into one by rejecting and even attacking him. Frankenstein is a study in what happens to a human being if it looks sufficiently different to be singled out. Gentleness, eloquence and humanity do the creature no good once people behold his appearance. We find a tale of horror resulting from superficiality as much as one of horror resulting from hubris.

The story of Ser Robert Strong, which is just a small part of the much bigger story we all know and love, comes with a slight twist to the formula. Robert Strong has many of the automaton-like traits of the Golem, but we don’t know if he shares all of them. As of now, it seems reasonable to assume that whatever evil things he does are actually Qyburnʼs doing. If we are shocked by Ser Robert Strongʼs cruelty, we are shocked by choices a fully human person is making.

Also striking is that Gregor Clegane becomes arguably less evil and probably even less of a monster when he becomes Ser Robert Strong. Gregor Clegane, the human being, is worse than Ser Robert Strong, the undead abomination.

Hell is … the Others?

One of the better known plays by Jean-Paul Sartre is called Huis clos, or No exit in English. The play culminates when its essential message is spelled out: “L’enfer c’est les autres.”vi In English that is “Hell is other people”, very roughly, or, if we want to imitate the French flavor, “Hell, that’s the others.” The translation by Bowles renders it as “Hell is just – other people.” While Sartreʼs idea has often been interpreted in a stronger way than the author intended,vii it seems quite fitting to apply it to our three stories. We could tweak it a little to fit even better: “Le monstrueux c’est les autres,” or “The monstrous is other people.” If you are looking for a monster, don’t look any further than your fellow human beings. What people do to their like in a society rivals any horror the human mind can dream up, which is, I think, one of the important messages of Martinʼs story. These monsters are indeed our children, as we are ourselves capable of monstrosity.

Next: Monsters of Ice and Fire: Daenerys’ Children and the Medieval European Dragon

i Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Idem: Monster Theory. Reading Culture, Minneapolis 1996, p. 20.

ii Yandel calls it “this world of Ice and Fire” (with an uppercase “I” and an uppercase “F”, but a lowercase “w”). Martin, George R. R.: A World of Ice and Fire, p. 131.

iii We never actually see Gregor’s dead body. What we do get is the information that he is dying of poison very slowly and later that his head was sent to Dorne in the books. We do not know for sure, if Qyburn speaks the truth or if the head is the real thing. In the show, the head is still in place.

iv Wollstonecroft Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, p. 33.

v Wollstonecroft Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, p. 66.

vi Sartre, Jean-Paul: Huis clos suivi de Les Mouches, p. 93.

vii Cf. Goldthorpe, Rhiannon: Huis Clos: Distance and Ambiguity. In: Howells, Christina: Sartre.

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