WARNING – THIS ARTICLE FEATURES SPOILERS
A complete click bait piece, I’ll be the first to admit, but let’s be honest everyone is doing it. With the end of the epic that was Game of Thrones, we can now judge who the best military commander throughout the series was.
Note: this is just going off the TV show, not the books. For this reason I’m not examining characters like Ned Stark or Robert Baratheon as their conquests predate the time frame.
Also, this article judges generalship in the field as well as strategy, not in the wider manoeuvrings. Therefore important characters like Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger are excluded. Trying to evaluate someone’s contribution to a military effort though Machiavellian means is just a little too much. Having said that, a generals broader strategic successes/failures will be considered.
And yes, I’ve deliberately ranked them in descending order just to irritate people.
Not Ranked –
Grey Worm and Khal Drogo:
While both are without doubt fine generals in their own right, with Drogo actually being a strong contender to being number one, there isn’t actually enough evidence to rank them properly. Grey Worm is basically the infantry commander for Daenerys Targaryen, and therefore is subordinate to her plans as supreme commander, while Drogo, though apparently a leader and commander of great repute, just doesn’t have enough of a part for the viewer to judge fairly.
The Rankings –
- Edmure Tully
Edmure Tully, notionally commander of the Tully Army, Lord of Riverrun and uncle to the Stark children, is quite frankly pretty pathetic. He lost the first battle of the Golden Tooth and was besieged at Riverrun. After his relief by Robb Stark, his one cited “victory” was Stone Mill, where he ignored his instructions, lost more men than the Lannister’s and managed to screw up Robb Stark’s strategy.
He then gave up Riverrun after his capture, ensuring the death of his uncle, the Blackfish (see later).
Basically, he is the Game of Thrones general equivalent of Italy in World War Two.
- Theon Greyjoy
Theon’s one real foray into conquest, the taking of large areas of the North, including Winterfell, could have looked like the work of a genius strategist, if he had been able to think more than one move ahead. Certainly the stupidity of this was appreciated by his sister and father.
Instead, Theon’s conquest was completely beyond his ability to hold, a failing that would ultimately result in the death of pretty much his entire command and severe….personal….loss to Theon.
- Daenerys Targaryen
Now this could prove controversial.
Daenerys Targaryen is an awful general.
This may seem surprising, considering the lists of her military exploits. The sack of Astapor. The conquest of Meeren. Raising her own Khalasar. The participating in the Battle of Ice and Fire at Winterfell against the Night King. She was personally responsible for the route of the Lannister army at the Loot Train ambush. And, of course, she again personally broke the defences at Kings Landing, leading to the city’s fall and the end of the War of the Five Kings.
Surely she can’t be that bad a general, with all these victories?
The reason for Daenerys success was down to one factor; her dragons (oh, and being made of asbestos, apparently). And quite frankly, she used them poorly. She had the fantasy equivalent of nuclear weapons and she still dithered about. Because let’s be honest, Hodor could win battles if he had a dragon to ride on!
The fact is that if Daenerys had more conviction and ability and used her dragons better (not as in the final episode) there would have been no war! She could have conquered Westeros just as her ancestors did. Hardly a lack of precedent here.
And for the naysayers out there, consider this fact.
What if Ramsey Bolton had dragons?
He’d have conquered the whole world in six months, let alone Westeros!
- Mance Rayder
Mance is a bad general, with an equally bad army. No doubt a skilled warrior and astute politician for binding all the free folk to his command, he’s complete lack of tactical acumen was demonstrated by the one battle we see him lead – the Battle of Castle Black.
Basically, Mance throws pretty much his entire force against the wall, and gets bled for it. Considering he was once a member of the Nights Watch, and therefore knows about the whole defensive scheme, this is stupid.
On top of that he then has his entire army routed by the sudden appearance of Stannis Baratheon. Apparently he’d never heard of sending out scouts or securing his flanks. As his army was encamped, and not actually committed, this is inexcusable.
- Jon Snow
Again, Jon is a very capable warrior, besting multiple foes in combat. He is also able to rally men in desperate circumstance, as he did when he took command during the Battle of Castle Black and leading the retreat from Hardhome in the face of the Night King and the hordes of the dead.
But the Battle of the Bastards showed his limitations.
Basically he got his entire army (including a giant. A freaking giant!) completely “kettled” and slowly crushed to death. But for Sansa Stark asking for aid from Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale, it was all over for little Jonny.
Now, I understand the argument for his breaking his original plan and rushing out to try and save his brother. But it’s not like he succeeded. Or that no one else had a horse available. Instead he threw away his army and was saved by a last minute arrival of the cavalry (anyone else notice this being a theme throughout the program?).
The final nail in Jon’s generalship coffin is the plan for the defence of Winterfell during the Night King’s assault. I’m assuming that it was his plan, though that may not be entirely fair as Daenerys was a major contributor. But it was Jon’s keep, so I guess he is responsible for the battle plan and what happened.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to watch it.
I believe the consensus opinion of the tactics employed is “WTF!!!”
- Bryden Tully, AKA “the Blackfish”
Tully is, again, obviously a competent commander and leader but lacks strategic vision. He flees into the wilderness after the Red Wedding, manages to rally the Tully forces, kicks the Fray’s out of the Riverlands…and then sits in Riverrun besieged, basically unsure what to do next and waiting to get squashed. Hardly the smart choice.
If Theon is Italy in World War Two, Bryden is Egypt in 1973.
- Stannis Baratheon
Stannis is a reasonably competent commander, though blighted with bad luck and bad advisors (thanks Melisandre!).
Admittedly, the Battle of the Blackwater could have gone either way until Tywin intervened. But Stannis had an overwhelming advantage in numbers (hence his attack) and was outthought and out-generalled by Tyrion, whose defence plan was excellent.
In fact Stannis greatest success was the routing the Wildling army after the Battle of Castle Black which, as pointed out, was as much due to their inadequacies as to any great ability by Stannis. However, it was a comprehensive victory, so there’s that.
But Stannis then comes apart on his drive on Winterfell, where he is outmatched by the Bolton’s and allows his pride to drive his army to being utterly butchered.
- Jaime Lannister
Jaime Lannister is a middling, competent general. He is the primary Lannister commander early in the war where he proved better than the Lords of the RIverlands and later proved competent in taking Riverrun from the Blackfish and Highgarden from the Tyrell’s.
He only suffered two major defeats in the field, both admittedly disastrous, but that shows his limitations and personal strengths.
Firstly, there was the Ambush of the Loot Party. Jaime actually shows capability here by getting his troops into position in short order ready to defend themselves. I’m sure there are people who will say “Oh, but the Dothraki would have overrun them”. Personally, I think that’s nonsense. Light cavalry don’t charge through spearmen who are prepared for them. The “Ambush” would have been catastrophic for the Dothraki (again, watch the Battle for Ice and Fire. Different tactics from the dead, admittedly, but same result).
But what was demonstrated was the correct use of a dragon in a combined arms operation (that’s right, I went there). And against that no conventional army is going to stand. It’s the one battle which showed Daenerys doing things completely correctly in the field.
(Yes, yes, using the slaves to undermine the slave cities, I know. That’s why I said “in the field”. Plus she got it right conquering King’s Landing. Before she went bat shit crazy.)
The one real time we see Jaime’s limitations as a commander are at the Battle of Whispering Wood, where he is beaten by Robb Stark and captured (and which, alas, we couldn’t watch as the shows budget wouldn’t allow for it. Any chance of a special being made? A directors cut addition, sort of thing? That’d be cool!).
This encapsulates Jaime’s generalship perfectly. Good, but not great.
- Euron Greyjoy
More an admiral than a general, Euron displays great abilities in his part in the war on behalf of Cersei Lannister. He comprehensively sweeps his rivals from the seas, knocks Dorn and the Iron Island rebels out of the war with pretty much one strike, uses his fleet to keep the initiative with the Lannister armies by allowing them to move around quicker than their enemies, brings critical reinforcements into the fight and even personally kills a dragon.
He’d probably win this war for Cersei, but for that one factor – Dragons.
(Again, to reiterate. Daenerys….only one with dragons….takes ages to achieve anything….)
- Robb Stark
Bit tricky this, as Robb’s abilities are more hinted at than demonstrated (again, no budget for battles early on). But fact is that “the Young Wolf” constantly outmanoeuvred his opposition, beating them at the places he chose and was only let down by traitorous underlings. Would he have won? Impossible to say (and we are discussing fiction here, after all) but it’s noticeable that the Lannister’s feared him enough to procure his end by subterfuge rather than continue to face him in the field.
- Tyrion Lannister
Probably the least militant of the candidates but certainly one of the most successful, Tyrion’s real gifts as a general came from his cerebral prowess rather his martial ones. Able to plan intricate schemes, plus possessed of great personal courage (though he’d deny that) his plan for the Battle of the Blackwater was a masterpiece that utilised every asset to hand.
It’s possible that the battle would have been lost except for the timely intervention of the Tyrell’s, but that would probably be due to the attempt on his life by Cersei that badly injured him. Bar that, I suspect he would have been able to martial his troops again and driven Stannis back, even without the Tyrell’s.
He was to come slightly unstuck in his planning, by his own admission, when advising Daenerys later. His urging to show restraint so early was a mistake. But with family involved, that’s understandable. The fault lies with the Dragon Queen for not acting sooner and overreacting later (well, that and the script writers – but they had a job to do).
- Tywin Lannister
Tywin is without doubt one of the most formidable generals in Game of Thrones. He seamlessly integrates his strategy with the broader political picture, all with a final goal in mind – securing his family’s position.
He was responsible for the assassination of Robb Stark and for the victory of Royalist forces over Stannis at the Battle of the Blackwater. Though it could be argued that it was Littlefinger’s offices that made the alliance with the Tyrell’s possible, and that it was Tyrion’s defence plan that bought time for the intervention, it was Tywin’s ability to manoeuvre, delegate and use alternative methods to get the result he wanted that made him a formidable opponent.
But I still think he would have met his match in…
- Ramsey Bolton
Ramsey displayed all the cunning of Tywin with an even greater ruthlessness and a direct ability to command in the field, both in small scale operations such as the raid on Stannis camp that wrecked his army, or in large engagements, such as the Battle of the Bastards.
His ability to understand the thinking of his opponents, and then use it against them, made him the most dangerous general in Westeros. With no compunction himself on disposing of those close to him – the guys a complete psycho, let’s face facts – he would have no similar constraints.
Admittedly, he was defeated (again, by Littlefinger’s conniving – oh, and a giant) but the fact is that as a general he outmanoeuvred every opponent until the very end where he was unstuck – ironically – by his own viciousness.
Honestly, if it wasn’t for the ever-saving cavalry, he’d be the best living general. As pointed out, if he’d had dragons, Westeros would have fallen in a week and the rest of the world soon thereafter. He was swift, decisive and bold – though not foolish (Theon!) – and completely ruthless. Think people like that don’t rise to the top? Read some real history.
But wait, I hear you say, why is Ramsey number 2?
Because the best general in Game of Thrones isn’t living….
- The Night King
Perhaps you will argue that he should be disqualified for being an undead magic ice zombie (or whatever he is), but if we argue that then Daenerys and Jon Snow are definitely out as they also use supernatural powers.
The fact is, the Night King (or NK to his friends….if he had any friends) planned his campaign to a tee. For thousands of years.
Without effort he conquered beyond the wall, causing the inhabitants to flee or join his army (in a manner of speaking) and proceeded to crush all opposition against him with practically zero effort.
His ability to choose the points of attack, keeping his enemy permanently on the back foot, whilst utilising every asset available to the best result was exemplary. Nothing could stop him.
The only mistake it could be argued he made was in personally leading his troops himself, ultimately exposing himself to attack and resulting in his demise (and the biggest anti-climax in television history).
But let’s be honest. He was an UNDEAD MAGIC ICE ZOMBIE! A freaking dragon couldn’t kill him! A bit of over confidence is probably justified, in those circumstances.
I guess he never thought that the writers might be making a gallop for the finish…