The more I think about it, the more I realize that, yes, I do want to talk about Brienne’s tale of Renly in Season 5 Episode 3. I adore the way she finally opens up to Podrick and stops being so damn hard on him for what his previous masters didn’t teach him. It’s fabulous and amazing. But I’m going to run a little compare & contrast on that story she tells him about how she met Renly, particularly the part where she tells him of course she knew he was into guys.
Her tone suggests that of course she knew all along that Renly was queer, and that she simply looked up to him as a friend because he made those horrible boys stop laughing at her. It’s possible to be aware that you’re barking up the wrong tree and still be pathetically in love, and it’s also possible to be mistaken about someone’s sexuality while having no romantic feelings for them. In Brienne’s case, though? She was pathetically in love with Renly, and she was apparently the last person in the Seven Kingdoms to find out that he craved cock. Maybe she’s telling herself, now that Renly’s gone, that of course she knew all along that he was queer, and she never liked him romantically, but those who knew her before the Red Wedding can see through that. I’m getting this not just from the books, but from earlier seasons of the show.
She remarks to Catelyn Stark that she only held Renly that one time, as he was dying.
We get confirmation later from Jaime, when he points out that she quite fancied Renly. She insists that it wasn’t like that; she didn’t “fancy” him. Clearly, Jaime picks up something from her tone, because now he knows:
So then he starts telling her about how Renly was all about Loras Tyrell, so Brienne was far too butch for him, and then he starts filling her head with ridiculous pictures of Renly sitting on a throne made of cocks, and she does not appreciate that.
Why is she so angry at Jaime for saying these things, if she already knew that Renly liked men? She didn’t know, or at least she didn’t want to admit it.
She certainly knows it now, in Season 5. And perhaps it now seems so obvious to her that she’s kicking herself for not having seen it earlier, and she feels ridiculous for having spent so many years pining for a man who was not only unattainable but who proved a seriously inadequate husband to Margaery Tyrell. To save herself from having to admit that she made a tremendous mistake, she’s now telling herself that she knew all along that he liked men, and she was so determined to serve him because of that time when he put the smackdown on those nasty little shits.
Now for a little book/show comparison: the story she tells Pod about her first meeting with Renly is a hybrid of two different experiences in Brienne’s backstory as told in the books. The first experience, that of her first making Renly’s acquaintance, was purely sweet and joyful.
Bear with me for a moment and I’ll take you through some more of Brienne’s backstory that hasn’t come up in the show and probably won’t. By age seventeen, Brienne had three betrothals that didn’t work out. She was first betrothed at age 7 to a slightly older boy who died a few years later. Next at age 12 to some asshole landed knight named Ronnet Connington, who basically took one look at her and said: NOPE. He went to her father’s castle and found her waiting to meet him, he handed her a rose, and told her that was all she’d ever get from him. And, you know, if he doesn’t want to marry her, that’s fine, but that could’ve been handled better. She’s hated roses ever since then, and the experience left her feeling especially skittish about meeting boys outside of the practice yard. That was part of the context when Lord Renly did his coming-of-age tour shortly thereafter and Lord Selwyn, a bannerman to the Baratheons, held a ball on Tarth to participate in Renly’s tour. The ball was for Lord Renly’s benefit, not Brienne’s, but Lord Selwyn basically forced his poor awkward daughter to put on a silk gown and go join the ball.
And, bugger me with a spear, Renly behaved like a perfect gentleman to his host’s daughter:
“That is a lie.” Renly Baratheon had been more than a king to her. She had loved him since first he came to Tarth on his leisurely lord’s progress, to mark his coming of age. Her father welcomed him with a feast and commanded her to attend; elsewise she would have hidden in her room like some wounded beast. She had been no older than Sansa, more afraid of sniggers than of swords. They will know about the rose, she told Lord Selwyn, they will laugh at me. But the Evenstar would not relent.
And Renly Baratheon had shown her every courtesy, as if she were a proper maid, and pretty. He even danced with her, and in his arms she’d felt graceful, and her feet had floated across the floor. Later others begged a dance of her, because of his example. From that day forth, she wanted only to be close to Lord Renly, to serve him and protect him. But in the end she failed him. Renly died in my arms, but I did not kill him, she thought, but these hedge knights would never understand. “I would have given my life for King Renly, and died happy,” she said. “I did no harm to him. I swear it by my sword.”
Martin, George R.R. (2005-11-08). A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4) (pp. 68-69). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
There were no “nasty little shits” in attendance, nobody mocked her, because the king’s youngest brother danced with her at the start and set a good example for everyone else. That was a great evening for the Maid of Tarth, so perhaps we shouldn’t be terribly surprised when her third betrothal, at age 16, didn’t end well. Her intended was some presumptuous old castellan named Humfrey Wagstaff, who thought he could push Brienne around. He was mistaken. She put the smackdown on him and effectively called off the wedding.
The second event that’s included in Brienne’s tale to Podrick was after Renly made a claim to the Iron Throne and Brienne went off to serve him. Once again, Renly was perfectly decent and courteous to her. Some of the knights serving in his army, however, were ripe assholes.
Did they laugh and call her names? That’s one thing; she knows what to do about nasty little shits calling her Brienne the Beauty and other charming names. She can handle mockery and scorn.
Did they pretend to like her, and then mock her? It was worse than that. It was SO much worse than that. This is one of those instances where the show makes something considerably less horrible than it is in the books.
Why are you being kind to me? she wanted to scream, every time some strange knight paid her a compliment. What do you want? Randyll Tarly solved the mystery the day he sent two of his men-at-arms to summon her to his pavilion. His young son Dickon had overheard four knights laughing as they saddled up their horses, and had told his lord father what they said. They had a wager. Three of the younger knights had started it, he told her: Ambrose, Bushy, and Hyle Hunt, of his own household. As word spread through the camp, however, others had joined the game. Each man was required to buy into the contest with a golden dragon, the whole sum to go to whoever claimed her maidenhead.
Those fuckers were running a wager to see who could pop her cherry. They were trying to fuck her on a bet. She was a noblewoman, and a known virgin, and it would have been so, so funny to see which one would be the first to get into her smallclothes. She knew something was amiss; she knew all those guys couldn’t actually be interested in her the way they were acting, but a few of them made her smile, and it all turned out to be a game they were playing for a pool of gold dragons. There may be a brief reference to this incident in Season 3, when Jaime asks Brienne about her sexual experiences. “Some boys like a challenge. One or two of them must have tried to get inside Big Brienne.”
Renly didn’t save her from them. Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon put an end to the bet. And then that towering shit-bucket Lord Randyll showed us a fabulous example of rape culture by telling Brienne the wager was all her fault just for being there in the camp rather than at home in her father’s castle and waiting to meet her husband-to-be. This is also the asshole who mistreated his fat nerdy son Samwell all his life and eventually forced him into the Night’s Watch on pain of death. I look forward to reading his obituary.
The tourney melee gave her a chance to show those fuckers what they were: she sought out each of the bettors and smacked them down, then she came across that shit-nugget Ronnet Connington and introduced him to the business end of her morningstar. Last one down was Loras Tyrell, who had never bothered her, but he had roses painted on his shield, and remember: she hates roses, so she jumped off her destrier and handed Ser Loras his own flowery ass. When it was over, her reward was King Renly pinning the rainbow cloak on her shoulders as the newest member of his Kingsguard. And everyone could tell she was madly in love with her king. Yeah, they knew it. They totally knew it.
And yet, when Renly cut away her torn cloak and fastened a rainbow in its place, Brienne of Tarth did not look unfortunate. Her smile lit up her face, and her voice was strong and proud as she said, “My life for yours, Your Grace. From this day on, I am your shield, I swear it by the old gods and the new.” The way she looked at the king— looked down at him, she was a good hand higher, though Renly was near as tall as his brother had been— was painful to see.
Martin, George R.R. (2003-01-01). A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2) (pp. 259-260). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
All that said, I don’t think Brienne ever really expected Renly to love her back. She shed “bitter tears” on the night he wed Margaery Tyrell (A Feast for Crows, p. 532, Kindle edition), but I don’t think she ever believed he might reciprocate Brienne’s feelings. She served him because she knew she couldn’t have him, but she could still be near him. She was jealous of the wrong Tyrell, is all.
That moment when he pinned the rainbow cloak to her shoulders was the proudest of her life, and she threw herself into being the most dedicated Kingsguard in the history of kings and their guards, until Stannis and Melisandre ruined everything. They killed her king, they let her take the blame, they took most of Renly’s army. Loras Tyrell tried to duel with her the next time he saw her, because he was convinced she’d killed Renly. Fortunately Jaime was there and told Loras to knock it off before Brienne was forced to kick his ass all over again. At this stage in the books, Loras has been successfully convinced of Brienne’s innocence, but there are still others out there who think she’s a kingslayer. If that makes her especially eager to kill Stannis in revenge for murdering Renly out from under her, I can understand that. In the end, though, I don’t want her to be the cause of Stannis Baratheon’s death. I won’t shed a tear when he dies, but revenge killing is beneath her. Her value is as a protector of the weak and defender of the innocent. She doesn’t mind telling a Northern innkeeper that she’s still serving Catelyn Stark if that’s what it takes to get the innkeeper to help her in her quest to reach Sansa, but what she’s ultimately doing there is looking after Sansa, very much alive and vulnerable. She serves the living. Catelyn and Renly don’t need her anymore, but Sansa, Podrick and Jaime do.
Loras Tyrell had been the last to face her wroth that day. He’d never courted her, had hardly looked at her at all, but he bore three golden roses on his shield that day, and Brienne hated roses. The sight of them had given her a furious strength. She went to sleep dreaming of the fight they’d had, and of Ser Jaime fastening a rainbow cloak about her shoulders.