Despite what some legendary TV actors might have you believe, Game of Thrones wasn’t all just “tits and dragons.” The eight-season HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire saga was far more sophisticated than the sum of its most prurient parts.
The series was an honest and in-depth exploration of political dysfunction. There were no easy decisions to be made and even the best deeds from the most pure at heart rarely went unpunished. Even factoring in its…less than superb final season, Game of Thrones was refreshingly complex pop entertainment for adults.
Now, this is all not to say that some of Game of Thrones more base elements weren’t appealing. In fact, all of the dragon-stomping, bone-crunching, sword-swinging radness was a major part of the rich tapestry that was the fantasy series. As Thrones reaches the 10th anniversary of its April 17, 2011 premiere (which HBO has dubbed the Iron Anniversary), there will be plenty of opportunities to examine all the high-minded literary features that made the show a phenomenon. But let’s make sure the blood and guts get their proper due as well.
Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos continents are positively fit-to-bursting with capable warriors – whether their main instrument of war be a sword, warhammer, bow, or arakh. Naturally, one of the Internet’s favorite pastimes is dreaming up which Thrones warrior is the best…because we’re all schoolyard children arguing amongst one another at heart. To honor this very important Iron Anniversary, we’ve decided to add our choices for best Game of Thrones warriors to the Internet canon as well.
Here are some important rules to consider. First, no animals. Sorry, Drogon and Ghost! Next, each warrior is judged by their skill at the height of their ability within the series’ run. This means that Jaime Lannister gets to fight with both hands, but Ser Barristan the Bold remains Ser Barristan the Old. Speaking of Jaime and Barristan, dead characters are eligible for the list because if they weren’t, it would be pretty short. Finally, only characters who spent the majority of their time within the series main timeline can be included. This restricts characters who appear only in flashback from making the list. That’s why you won’t see Ser Arthur Dayne among the combatants.
Without further ado…
15. Tormund Giantsbane
Discipline and skill may be prized in warriors throughout the Seven Kingdoms but north of The Wall, strength is key. And there are very few Free Folk stronger than Tormund Giantsbane. Sure, his given name is a bit of a misnomer. He doesn’t kill giants so much as he *checks notes*…suckles on giantess milk?
Well, however Tormund gets his calcium, it certainly does his body good. The kissed-by-fire wildling is the only man skilled and strong enough to serve as the most trusted lieutenant of both Mance Rayder and Jon Snow. He could certainly hold his own in a battle against either.
14. Beric Dondarrion
Strangely enough, Lord Beric Dondarrion’s biggest strength is also his greatest weakness. His ability to be constantly revived by his fighting partner Thoros of Myr is certainly useful in the long run, but it also robs him of an important trait any warrior must have: fear.
Beric may fear the metaphorical death encroaching from Beyond the Wall, but in a fight against any other mortal he is probably a bit less likely to properly protect himself. After all, why keep an eye on one’s heart when it can just be jump started by the Red God at will? Beyond his supernatural hook, however, Beric is a capable soldier. It was he who Ned Stark trusted to track down Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and bring him to justice. He failed in that mission, of course, but it’s still impressive he ever agreed to it!
13. Qhorin Halfhand
Who needs all 10 fingers when you’ve got the skill and constitution of one Qhorin Halfhand? Qhorin brings one of the most important traits to the table when talking about a Westerosi warrior: passion. He absolutely lives for this shit…and in fact, he happily dies for this shit as well.
Qhorin is the most capable and dangerous ranger The Night’s Watch has. He is equal parts feared and respected by his Wildling foes, which is particularly impressive given they neither fear nor respect just about anything. Qhorin’s injury to his right hand also turned out to be a bit of a martial blessing, as it meant he learned to wield a sword just as capably with his. Ambidexterity is a very useful trait in combat.
12. Brynden “Blackfish” Tully
By the time the events of Game of Thrones begin, the Tully family’s “Blackfish”, Brynden, is long in the tooth and has lost a step or two. Still, even at his advanced age he is one of the most fearsome fighters in The Riverlands, and the Realm at large.
Since Blackfish was in his prime during both the War of the Ninepenny Kings and Robert’s Rebellion, he participated in dozens of military battles.There may not be a more hardened or battle-tested warrior in Westeros. Then he “retired” to the title of Knight of the Gate in The Vale. They don’t hand that honor to just anyone.
11. Loras Tyrell
See Loras Tyrell may be paradoxically the most overrated and underrated warrior in all of Westeros. The smallfolk and less sophisticated noble men and women see him as perhaps the realm’s greatest fighter, due to his attractive visage and prowess in jousting tournaments. Meanwhile, the hardened soldiers view those same soft features and jousting skills with contempt, assuming Loras can’t be a “real” warrior.
Well, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Loras isn’t a top 5 warrior in Westeros, but he’s damn near the top 10. Jousting and melee skills may not apply perfectly to the bloody heat of real battle, but they’re still useful in a combat. Plus, over Loras’s six season run on Thrones he gets plenty of opportunities to prove himself in war and acquits himself with honor each time.
10. Syrio Forel
Syrio Forel is a prime example of just how ill-equipped many of the warriors of Westeros are when they’re confronted with an unfamiliar fighting style. Syrio is far from the biggest or strongest sword fighter in the series. But the First Sword of Braavos and Arya’s “dancing teacher” is both agile and highly, highly skilled with his sword.
Syrio views his sword as an extension of his body. His steadfast dedication to his craft and years spent training in Essos have created a fighter so fearsome that he very nearly survives an encounter with three Kingsguardmen…while wielding a wooden sword. Our time spent with Syrio was brief so it’s unclear just how skilled he really is. That limited time was still enough to lock him into the top 10.
9. Ser Barristan Selmy
Ser Barristan The Bold is the platonic ideal of a chivalric knight. He is honorable, skilled, and widely beloved. As a younger man, he distinguished himself as a soldier in tourneys and in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. At his height, he was probably the most capable swordsman and warrior in all the Seven Kingdoms.
During the events of Game of Thrones, however, Barristan is not at his physical peak. He remains a remarkable fighter and warrior but his days as the top dog are likely over. Also, let’s not neglect to mention that, while honor is appreciated, it can be a detriment in a fight against some less than savory characters (which make up a significant portion of Westeros’ populace).
8. Sandor Clegane a.k.a. The Hound
If it weren’t for his taller, scarier brother, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane would be the most terrifying physical force in all of Westeros. This former Lannister loyalist is seven feet (in the books at least. Actor Rory McCann is 6’6’’) of pure rage and contempt. The Hound is profoundly disappointed in the state of the world and his fellow men, and he’s more than happy to take out that disappointment on anyone foolish enough to test him.
The Hound is a supreme mix of both skill and raw power. Put him in a melee and he’ll come out wearing a frown and dozens of enemies’ blood. Pit him one-on-one against just about anyone and he’ll likely survive the encounter as well. The only reason he’s not higher up on this list is that he has a pretty prominent weakness. Any bit of fire will destabilize the pyrophobic behemoth. Granted, the fire method didn’t work for Beric Dondarrion but it might work for someone more skilled.
7. Jon Snow
There’s not much that Jon Snow can’t do. The presumed bastard of Ned Stark, but the true son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Jon Snow is as close to a traditional hero that this tale has. He’s imperfect, but honest and likeable. He’s a natural leader who hesitantly takes on the responsibility of shepherding The Night’s Watch, the Free Folk, and eventually the entire North. Jon Snow is such an impressive historical figure that it can sometimes get lost in the shuffle that he’s a tremendously capable warrior as well.
Jon put his childhood training in Winterfell to good use and immediately became one of the Night’s Watch’s most useful swordsmen upon arrival at The Wall. Then, over the span of eight seasons, Jon’s martial prowess only grew. He has participated in more major battles than any other Game of Thrones character and has (mostly) survived them all. Jon’s place in the middle of the pack on this list isn’t an indictment of his abilities but rather an endorsement of all the great warriors above him.
6. Grey Worm
Look, the Unsullied are just not to be trifled with. The warrior-eunuchs of Astapor are bred, born, and trained for only two things: war and obedience. When Daenerys Targaryen purchased the Good Masters’ entire lot of Unsullied soldiers, she decided to free them and remove “obedience” from the equation. That gave her an army that was trained for war, but now had the agency to decide whether they wanted to pursue it. Turns out they did…for the right cause.
As the chosen leader of the Unsullied, Grey Worm is a prime example of just how effective a dedicated, well-trained soldier can be. Dany’s rare act of mercy and humanity unlocked Grey Worm’s true potential. Not only does he remain a truly great fighter, but he is a master tactician, and is now burdened with glorious purpose to bring freedom to the rest of the continent. Skills make a great fighter, but it takes a cause to make a great warrior. And that’s exactly what Grey Worm is.
5. Brienne of Tarth
In the Game of Thrones world, you can often judge a warrior’s skill by who they’ve defeated. With that in mind, very few characters have a more impressive resume than Brienne of Tarth…excuse us: Ser Brienne of Tarth. Brienne begins her journey by taking down all of Renly’s men in a tournament. Sure, they may be Knights of Summer, but they are well-trained and it’s a hell of a feat, nonetheless. After that opening salvo, Brienne goes on to defeat: Jaime Lannister, The Hound, and seemingly half the population of sellswords and hedge knights in the Riverlands.
Brienne is absolutely a top five warrior in all of Westeros. The only reason she’s not higher is that her opponents often come to a fight disadvantaged. Both Jaime and The Hound were exhausted and compromised in their respective fights. That’s not Brienne’s fault, as she can only fight the warriors the show places in front of her. It does hurt her “strength of schedule” a bit though.
Most of the great warriors in the Seven Kingdoms are highborn. That makes sense as the noble Houses have money and therefore have access to training, equipment, and proper high-protein dies. But being highborn isn’t the only route to being a great warrior in Game of Thrones. Just ask Ser (eventually Lord) Bronn.
Bronn, son of no one in particular, is one of the best fighters in Westeros because his whole life has been one long fight for survival. He came from nowhere of importance and soon found that the best way to make money was with a sword. While the lords and knights of the country view battle as an exercise in glory, Bronn sees it as for what it is: dangerous, bloody, but necessary work. This mindset and a lifetime of training in Westeros’ back roads and alleys has created one hell of a warrior. Just ask Ser Vardis Egan…that is if his lifeless body can still hear you from the bottom of the Giant’s Lance.
3. Jaime Lannister
At his height, Jaime Lannister was quite simply the LeBron James of Westeros warriors (with Ser Arthur Dayne being the Michael Jordan, of course). Tywin’s eldest son was a tournament and war prodigy, reaching the knighthood at age 16 (he was even younger in the books). He came to prominence at an absurdly young age and then established a commitment to combat excellence well into his adult years.
While The Mad King’s decision to appoint Jaime to his Kingsguard was designed to spite Lord Tywin and leave him without a suitable heir, it must be said that Jaime was still a fine choice for the job. Jaime continued to distinguish himself in the early days of The War of the Five Kings before Robb Stark successfully captured him. Of course, shortly thereafter, Jaime lost his right hand to Locke. Though Jaime will still prove to be capable enough in later seasons without his sword hand, he’s obviously never the same fighter. And that’s a shame for this list as it would be interesting to see how a chastened, more mature Jaime would fare as a warrior.
2. Gregor Clegane a.k.a. The Mountain
The “gentle giant” is a popular trope both in the world of fantasy and reality. Game of Thrones even has a couple of its own gentle giants with characters like Hodor and even Wun Wun. It makes some intuitive sense to portray very large individuals as gentle because most people, big, small, and in-between, are fundamentally good. If you were enormous, wouldn’t you be extra mindful of how your size affects those around you?
Well, Ser Gregor Clegane a.k.a. “The Mountain That Rides” is the exact opposite of a gentle giant. Ser Gregor Clegane doesn’t have a heart of gold, he has a heart of roiling, volcanic hate. He’s also big…so, so freaking big. The Mountain is somewhere around eight feet and 400 pounds of pure muscle in the books and 6’9’’, 350 pounds in Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson’s depiction in the show. Every inch of him was seemingly built in a lab to be a fearsome warrior, so that’s the vocation he chooses.
When we think of Game of Thrones as a “grittily realistic” world, The Mountain is a prime example of why. Gregor is an unambiguous monster, and due to his sheer size and strength, he almost never loses a fight. The Mountain is a one-man army for the Lannister family, killing countless men, women, and children over the span of two wars, and many more during peacetime.
While it’s nice to think of David beating Goliath, the sad reality is that 99 times out of 100, Goliath is going to smash David into a million bloody pieces and use his little bones as furniture. Of course, The Mountain is eventually defeated by a David in the form of Oberyn Martell. That alone, is enough to keep him out of the top spot…and out of our nightmares.
1. Arya Stark
Perhaps it’s surprising to see Arya Stark at the top of this list in favor of countless other Game of Thrones warriors who are bigger, stronger, and more experienced. Or at least it was surprising to me as I came to the decision. But I would invite you to go on the same journey that I did and match Arya against anyone else in the Thrones canon and ask yourself the question “would Arya lose this fight?”
The answer I came to, time and time again, is a definitive “no”, and that’s not just because of the plot armor afforded to her as one of the story’s most important characters. Arya Stark is quite simply Game of Thrones‘ most effective and efficient killing machines. From a young age, she was proven naturally adept at all different kinds of combat. Recall her hitting a bullseye with a bow and arrow, Robin Hood style, in the series pilot.
From there, the She-Wolf has spent basically her every waking moment honing her fighting skills. This started with Syrio Forel’s “dancing lessons” before culminating with the most intense lethal training regimen anyone can experience with the Faceless Men in the House of Black and White. Arya received instruction from a guild of assassins so powerful in stealth, combat, and magic that their services cost roughly the same as an entire army. Then she left the Faceless Men so she is free to deliver the “gift” of death to whomever she wants, whenever she wants.
Admittedly, in any one-on-one matchup, Arya’s margin for error is incredibly small. She is not particularly strong and she is unlikely to wear cumbersome armor so any good blow from a sword or other bladed weapon is sure to be lethal. But of course, Arya has no plans of letting a blade touch her. She’s quick and elusive. And she knows that men are made of water – all it takes is one prick of a needle and they’ll bleed out.