Are the martial arts used in the fight scenes on Game of Thrones realistic? The short answer is that it depends on what you mean by “real.”
If you want to know whether a person would be able to take the martial arts techniques as performed on an average episode of Game of Thrones and apply them to a real life situation, either in martial arts competition or in self-defense, the answer is mostly likely not. Unless your assailant is unarmed and you happen to have a sword on hand.
If you want to know how well the martial arts techniques work within the context of the Game of Thrones universe, though, the answer is more positive. While the realism and quality of the show’s many fight scenes can vary from episode to episode and character to character, in general terms the fights that you see on screen do make sense for a show set in a world and time like GoT’s. Many of these fight scenes are great and don’t require any more suspension of disbelief than any other aspect of a fantasy series. Some feature attention to detail on the parts of the performers that elevate the fight scenes to a whole other level. And then there are some that are a little harder to buy into, both in terms of the moves themselves and the game plans of the characters executing them.
Let’s look at three famous fight scenes from Game of Thrones and see how their martial arts stack up:
The Mountain vs The Viper
This David and Goliath battle between Oberyn Martell (The Viper) and Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) from season four, episode eight, is flashy and dramatic. But, according to at least one martial arts expert, that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly unrealistic as a proper fight scene. Even the flair has its purpose in actual combat.
“There’s a decent presentation of how to use the spear as a weapon,” historical European martial arts expert Roman Vučajnk told Salon in 2015. “The twirling and showmanship at the beginning has absolutely no battle value; it’s just for show, to intimidate the opponent, perhaps, and nobody would have done it, sober, in real life. In any fight to the death, special attention is given to minimizing the target presented to your opponent. You never turn your back. You don’t want to tire yourself out with dancing around before the fighting starts.”
While Vučajnk argues that knights in armor were likely far more mobile in actual combat than they’re usually portrayed on screen, he does go on to praise the actual spear work employed in this scene.
Brienne of Tarth vs The Hound
Vučajnk took issue with the rationale behind this epic fight scene from season four, episode ten. “They prefer fists to swords, then they start boxing in armor, even though they still have daggers,” he opined.
But if the game plan of these two warriors is questionable, the combat and martial arts techniques they employ during their battle are not. “It was absolutely mammoth—a mammoth task—and one that took an awful lot of preparation,” actress Gwendoline Christie told The Daily Beast about the fight scene in 2014. “Rory [McCann, aka The Hound] and I trained for two months for it, and we’ve seen Brienne sword fighting before like on the bridge with Jaime Lannister, which took two weeks of training, but this was something else entirely. The brilliant C.C. Smiff [GoT swordmaster], who taught me to sword fight, also taught me to fight. I’d done boxing before in preparation for playing Brienne at the Trinity Boxing Club in L.A., but this was something that was entirely out of my comfort zone. I went through several periods wondering if I’d be able to do this incredible fight justice since it wasn’t an organized form of fighting—it was a scrappy, rough-and-tumble form of fighting. But Brienne believes she’s serving a moral cause; that she’s still working to serve her oath to Catelyn Stark.”
Brienne of Tarth vs Arya Stark
This iconic scene between two of Game of Thrones’ finest fighters drew praise not just for its sword work, but also for actress Maisie William’s incredible dedication to detail. While Williams is right-handed, her character, Arya, is a southpaw. So the actress did all of her sword training with her left.
According Williams, this wasn’t necessarily as hard as you’d expect. “I’d never done combat training or fighting or any martial art before. I wasn’t really right-hand or left-hand dominant,” she told Time in 2017. “I used to do gymnastics, and in gymnastics you do everything with both sides of your body — you split with your right leg and your left leg, and you do cartwheels on your right hand and your left hand. You learn to do everything both ways. Because of that, I was just quite eager to get started with my left hand, and now it feels strange to hold the sword in the right hand. And the stunt guys always come in and say ‘We have this routine for you’ and I have to remind them, ‘Can we rechoreograph the whole thing, because I’m not doing it with my right hand.’ It’s quite exciting, and I did a couple of fencing lessons early on in the show just for myself; they said fighting left-handed puts you at a big advantage because people are used to fighting people who are right-handed.”
If you watch closely, you can even see how the differences in stance between the characters plays out in their fight.