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During Season 2 Episode 9, the "Blackwater" episode of Game of Thrones:

Sandor Clegane (The Hound) promptly quit the battlefield in the middle of the battle.

I thought he was the kind of brute who would enjoy such battle. Why does he do that?

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You may have noticed the scarring on The Hound's face, they talk about it in season 1 of the series and in the first book as well. He was burned by his brother (The Mountain) after taking a toy. Ever since the only thing he has feared is fire.

The reason he abandons the battlefield is due to the fires; he is afraid.

Here is the quote when The Hound talks to Sansa about his face from Game of Thrones(emphasis mine):

"I'll tell you what it was, girl," he said, a voice from the night, a shadow leaning so close now that she could smell the sour stench of wine on his breath. "I was younger than you, six, maybe seven. A woodcarver set up shop in the village under my father's keep, and to buy favor he sent us gifts. The old man made marvelous toys. I don't remember what I got, but it was Gregor's gift I wanted. A wooden knight, all painted up, every joint pegged separate and fixed with strings, so you could make him fight. Gregor is five years older than me, the toy was nothing to him, he was already a squire, near six foot tall and muscled like an ox. So I took his knight, but there was no joy to it, I tell you. I was scared all the while, and true enough, he found me. There was a brazier in the room. Gregor never said a word, just picked me up under his arm and shoved the side of my face down in the burning coals and held me there while I screamed and screamed. You saw how strong he is. Even then, it took three grown men to drag him off me. The septons preach about the seven hells. What do they know? Only a man who's been burned knows what hell is truly like.

Here is the quote from A Clash of Kings that discusses his fear before his desertion:

He is afraid, Tyrion realized, shocked... He is dead on his feet. Tyrion could see it now. The wound, the fire . . . he's done...

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My memory may be failing me, but I'm pretty sure the reason why Clegane is afraid of fire (his brother burning him as a child) isn't covered in the books until after he deserts, so well after the first book. –  Anthony Grist Jun 7 '12 at 17:55
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@AnthonyGrist I updated my answer with the relevant quotes from Game of Thrones when Clegane talks to Sansa about his scars and the quotes from A Clash of Kings that talks about his fear before the desertion. –  NominSim Jun 7 '12 at 18:04
    
Great quote. Nice. –  WOPR Jun 8 '12 at 13:53
    
It's a minor point, but worth noting that Sandor didn't break the toy, he just touched it. It reveals a little more about the character of Gregor I think. –  JNK Jun 8 '12 at 17:26
    
@JNK Thanks, I couldn't remember originally, and forgot to update it after I added the quote. –  NominSim Jun 8 '12 at 17:28
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Sandor Clegane AKA The Hound is deathly afraid of fire. When he was a child Sandor stole his older brother Gregor's toy. Being the loveable psychopath that he is, Gregor punished his little brother by burning half his face off. This, understandably, was a very traumatic experience for Sandor and shaped who he is today; scared by fire, and loathes his older brother.

During the battle of Blackwater, just before his sortie, he warns the archers not to get any of those flaming arrows near to him. When the Wild Fire explosion happened, you could see him looking on with horror in his face, and this from a man who admits that he enjoys killing.

At the culmination of the battle, all the fires around him (and other pent up emotions) got the best of him and finally broke him.

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Sandor fled because of the massive wildfire during the Battle of the Blackwater Rush, as others have already answered, but I don't think that's all there is to it. That was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

I believe Sandor is sick of serving Joffrey at this point. He has seen what he has done to Sansa and what kind of King he is. Also, he goes to Sansa before he leaves and offers to take her away and protect her. There is, as I recall, a rather tender scene between them before he leaves. I believe that he is in love with Sansa.

Like Sandor tells Tyrion:

Bugger that. Bugger him. Bugger you.

Sandor's story is very compelling and very intriguing, and does not stop there. There are many spoilers for the TV-show I could share, but I won't. A very nice mystery spoiler for the books is the following, though:

In AFFC, Brienne visits the Quiet Isle she sees a gravedigger. That person is Sandor. There are many clues, but it is never explained. He is huge, he likes Dog (Meribald's dog), his horse is a mean spirited stallion that the priests renamed Driftwood, and also the brother tells Brienne that he found The Hound, but that he "died". By which the man means that persona "The Hound" died, while Sandor Clegane still lives. It is even reflected in the brother's own story, of how he died and was washed up on the Quiet Isle.

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+1 The wildfire certainly was the proverbial straw, but definitely there is more to it. Sandor despises Joffrey, and despises knighthood in general. He realizes most people just want an excuse to kill, and he is not deluded about it. So while the Cleganes are bannermen to House Lannister, Sandor in particular does not work for "honor" or "loyalty" or other knightly concepts. –  Andres F. Jun 8 '12 at 13:48
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