Greek Myth in Game of Thrones, Part Seven: Brienne as Briseis; Margaery as Helen of Troy


Thalia Sutton is an independent scholar and writer of fiction. She holds a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York, and is delighted every time a form has a box allocated in which to check “Master” as her legal title.

Welcome to the seventh installment of the Greek Myth in A Game of Thrones series. (Caution! Spoilers through book 3! Turn back now if you have not yet done your reading for Season 3!)

Brienne of Tarth as Briseis of the Fair Cheeks

Briseis is the first female war prize captured in the Greek’s assault on Troy. Agamemnon is technically the leader of the conflict, and also a well-known lecher, so when the day’s spoils are divvied up among the assembled fighters, it’s no surprise to the Greek soldiers that his greedy eyes are hoping for a go at claiming her, body and soul. But Achilles, as the best fighter of the day, technically has a claim as well; he makes not the first, but perhaps the largest ripples in the campaign’s solidarity when he steps forward to claim Briseis. He does this on Patroclus’s pleading — not because Achilles will want her at all, but because Patroclus, ever the humanitarian, objects to the fate that would fall upon her.

Of course, they cannot save every woman from this; there are limits to even the best fighter’s influence when it comes to using that agency to keep women away from nine armies’ worth of men. However, for the women that Achilles manages to collect for his camp, he puts out an order: they must be treated fairly.

Briseis is in a peculiar situation: She technically belongs to Achilles, so she must stay with him, or he loses face. However, he has no interest in her; so she follows him around and cooks for him, but the two rarely speak. She deplores him, in fact, because he killed her family. Eventually, she begins to fancy Patroclus.

Briseis is also, arguably, the smartest and most prosaic of the captives. She is the first prize, and the best. She speaks several languages; she is the guide to diplomacy with the other local women; she fears little; she is the first to defend herself via attempted assassinations; and she is an incredible swimmer, by her own words rumored to have swam the straight near Troy.

There are many connections to Brienne here, if ironically. The first and easiest to note is the similarity of both names — like with “Samwell” and “Samwise” — but no argument can be based on that alone. Martin seems to add in tiny clues to help us get the connection, when the obvious ones aren’t enough. Brienne’s watery triumphs — of swimming around Tarth — add a bit of color to the narrative. Tarth itself is a clue; it is a sleepy place that never wanted any trouble, but is rumored to be beautiful beyond compare. Briseis is from a tiny village around Troy, a place also rumored for its beauty. Some of the tragedy of her story is that she and her father were simple farmers who, like Achilles once did, value peace; they never wanted to be caught up in the war of the giants. But when Briseis is swept up into the conflict, she stands tall for the entirety of it, never once complaining.

Brienne feels like Briseis. She is strong, and tall for a woman; she tells Achilles what’s what, even though he brushes her off. In Martin’s typical spate of twisting irony, however, Brienne is not beautiful, but homely. She also is a far better fighter than that whelp Loras, through sheer strength and worldliness: she doesn’t resort to tricks like he does, and wins for it. Yet, just like in The Iliad, she’s strong and devoted, but not strong enough to save the man she loves. She falls for Patroclus’s personality — our dear Renly — and yet is ever the third wheel. Even after Patroclus dies, Briseis is kept around by Achilles. At least in A Song of Ice and Fire, Brienne had the sense to run away from Loras when she had the chance.

At one point, Briseis is famously taken captive by Agamemnon. This is similar to Brienne’s stint with Jaime in book three. The man is stubborn and troublesome, careening off a cliff politically. This time, though, no one comes to save our Briseis.

Briseis eventually meets her end at the hands of Achilles’s son, Neoptolemeus, a cruel man-child who understands exactly nothing about love. The one poetic kindness Homer did for Briseis was to have her die in her beloved sea, though she could not swim fast enough to outrun the senseless New War.

Margaery Tyrell as Helen of Troy

At first, you might think this connection an is odd one: Margaery wasn’t abducted, and she didn’t start a single conflict. Her tale is simply one of being a bad luck bride and the only daughter of a family that really needs political alliances. But upon careful consideration, other facets are revealed: What city is more famously besieged, and sacked, by a love-spawned-war than Troy? And who in A Song of Ice and Fire is a young woman so beautiful it would seem she was crafted by the gods, and thrice-married? Margaery.

Helen is the only mortal daughter of Zeus and the princess of Sparta. If Highgarden doesn’t make the most wonderfully ironic Sparta, I don’t know what could. Surrounded by genteel brothers, and sold off to the brutish but beautiful prince-king Joffery, Margaery in King’s Landing is a perfect flip of Helen in Sparta and Helen with Paris in Troy.

Helen also had at least three “husbands.” The first, Theseus, abducted her when she was young and he was nearly fifty. The second was a more proper marriage: the King of Sparta called together all the kings of Greece to vie for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They presented their gifts, and in the end, she chose the handsome Menaleus, brother of Agamemnon, the King of Crete.

Helen’s marriage to Menaleus was a political move as much as it was an emotional one. He became the king of her lands. This seems to fall in line with Margaery’s marriage to Renly: It started off promising, ended badly, and Renly spent the entire time in the lands controlled by Highgarden.

Helen is again abducted by (or goes willingly with) Paris, who takes her back to his homeland of Troy. In a completely historical context, this makes sense: Sparta was a military society, and lacked culture. Troy, a land rich from trading, was far away and fanciful. Married young, it’d be no surprise that she’d be lured away by a sweet-talking stranger who could show her the world.

Tommen is no Theseus. I’ll admit: there’s not much connection there. Some accounts of The Iliad show Helen as a consort of one of Paris’s younger brothers once he dies; this falls in line with Margaery’s third betrothal, but is barely enough to make an argument for. I’d say it’s simple continuity inside of ASoIaF that Margaery be turned over to the younger brother once the elder is indisposed.

Another counter argument a reader might imagine is that Dorne is a better fit for Sparta than Highgarden, given how up in arms the Sand Snakes get. Dorne is structured like India, but in general, Dorne’s mythos follows historical events more than legends. Just as the North in ASoIaF follows less Greek myth and more folktales of the British Isles, so too does Dorne draw from a different canon.

In summary: Renly has Achilles’s backstory and charm in King’s Landing, but Patroclus’s heart and storyline once he leaves; Loras has Patrcolus’s backstory, but Achilles’s personality and storyline. Margaery is a Helen that never lets herself lose in the end, and Brienne is the most kick-ass Briseis who finally gets to survive the Trojan campaign. Sort of.

This Series comes in 8 parts:
1. Introduction; Robert and Cersei as Zeus and Hera (spoilers through book 1)
2. Cersei, Jaime, as Aphrodite, Ares; Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane as Uranus and a Titan (spoilers through book 3)
3. Joffery, Myrcella, and Tommen as Eros, Harmonia, and Anteros (spoilers through book 3)
4. Tyrion as Odysseus (Spoilers through book 3)
5. Sansa as Psyche; Lysa Arryn and son as Demeter and Persephone; Littlefinger as Hermes (Spoilers through book 3)
6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 1)
7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 3)
8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)