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We've seen several instances of Trial by Combat in both the Game of Thrones TV series and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Trial by Combat is said to allow the gods themselves to determine the innocence of the accused party by having them win the fight if they are innocent and lose the fight if they are guilty.

But does it actually work?

In the Trial by Combat that takes place when Tyrion is accused of killing King Joffrey, his Champion (Oberyn Martell) is killed by the accuser's champion (Ser Gregor Clegane AKA The Mountain that Rides) even though we know that Tyrion didn't kill King Joffrey. That being said, Ser Gregor Clegane had already been poisoned by that point and his death was practically guaranteed - it could be argued that the gods stopped intervening at that point which led to the sudden reversal.

However,

In the Trial by Combat that sees Lord Beric Dondarrion battle Ser Sandor Clegane AKA The Hound, Lord Dondarrion puts his defeat down to the intervention of the Lord of Light, talking about a whip of fire that shattered his sword.

Is Trial by Combat only ever determined by the abilities of the combatants, rather than the gods as people believe?

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    You kinda answer your own question? Anyway, the important thing is that the people THINK it works. – Jakob Jul 6 '15 at 11:47
  • @Jakob Edited the question to include a different trial that hints that the gods may be involved after all. – Dr R Dizzle Jul 6 '15 at 11:51
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    You forgot about the trial by combat in the Eyrie, where Bronn defeated Ser Vardis Egen. It could also be said of Tyrion's trial that he was in fact guilty, because Sansa delivered the poison that killed Joffrey, and husband and wife share such liability according to the gods. – TLP Jul 6 '15 at 13:21
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    @DrRDizzle: Haha, yeah, at some point Tyrion has to actually do it himself. And as he raises his axe, the sun turns red, and his axe lights up on fire. And a booming voice thunders: "DWARF POWER!" And suddenly Tyrion turns into a giant dwarf, three times the size of a regular man, and for some reason gets a purely decorative cape. – Misha R Jul 6 '15 at 14:36
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    If it wasn't the ability of the people, then no one would need to choose the likes of Gregor or Jamie or Oberyn or even The Laughing Storm (Dunk and Egg novels). Tyrion knew he was innocent at the Eyrie, so if he had any belief that the Trial By Battle "works" as reputed, then he would have fought his own Battle (so to speak). – Möoz Jul 8 '15 at 22:39
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Trial by combat "works" in the sense that it quickly determines guilt, as opposed to a long trial that is often rigged (EG: both of Tyrion's trials). And for the reader/viewer it is more fun than slogging through long, drawn-out trials.

As to whether the outcome is determined by the abilities of the combatants, rather than the gods, there is no evidence one way or the other. You could think of it as another case of

Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.

This article explains some of the historical context and why historically it was a poor choice to determine the innocence of an accused party:

The most popular, yet least used and least defensible trial by battle option was in the criminal context. That's how it's portrayed on Game of Thrones. A man stands accused of something, a show trial is convened, the man has the option to fight to the truth in the absence of a formal trial.

You can see why this wasn't the preferred method of criminal justice, even in medieval England. Why would a king go through the trouble of setting up a show trial only to have it thwarted by the vagaries of hand to hand combat? We're talking about kings here, divine-right monarchs. Trial by combat doesn't put the decision in the hands of God, the king IS God. Nobody was getting out of a state criminal proceeding by hiring a good fighter.

However, in their book History of Criminal Justice, Mark Jones and Peter Johnstone explain that trial by battle was used when the accuser and criminal defendant were both private parties. Again, this looks more like the land disputes we talked about earlier. "He killed my friend." "No I didn't." "LIAR [draws sword]."

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    I always thought that this has been used historically when there is no possibility to proof either's right or not. So when there are no proofs for criminal intend, but they have to solve it. So they drew their sword and punched their faces until one "confessed". It's like Salomon's bloody answer. – Trollwut Jul 6 '15 at 14:53
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    @Trollwut - In those cases, a trial by ordeal would probably have been used instead of a trial by combat. – Justin Ethier Jul 6 '15 at 15:16
  • As interesting as this answer is, it doesn't really answer my question of the legitimacy of the claim that the gods judge those that partake in a trial by combat. – Dr R Dizzle Jul 7 '15 at 7:49
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    @DrRDizzle - I answered the question of "does it actually work". As to the legitimacy of the claim, there is no evidence one way or the other. You could think of it as another case of "Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less." – Justin Ethier Jul 7 '15 at 13:45
  • I'm going to mark this as the answer for now, but I am hoping that at some point in the future of either the books or the TV show, a more definite answer will be given. – Dr R Dizzle Jul 8 '15 at 14:48
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One thing is sure, it certainly resolves the dispute. My guess is that it's "enough" for the survivors to say that the gods have handed down the judgement, and leave it at that. Most other types of trial (trial by ordeal or trial by fire) of this type often involved the victim of the trial not surviving the judgement. It would be miraculous if they did of course, but that's the whole point of the trial. Everyone believed in miracles, and if their god(s) allowed the accused to survive by handing down a miracle, clearly the accused has that god on their side.

In our post-enlightenment world, this is clearly and demonstratably an extreme miscarriage of justice, and we wouldn't stand for it, but in the Medieval era, it was entirely believable and just. It's all about what the common people will believe.

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I think in the ASOIAF universe trial by combat is just an old tradition in the jurisdiction of Westeros. It gets "abused" by Tyrion in both cases where he was charged with something he didn't do, but the accuser wanted him to be guilty in any case. They had some prove against him, so his only chance to get away was to call for trial by combat and have some mighty warrior defeat the champion of the accuser. Lysa and Cersei chose the best fighter in their command so they should win. It would have worked for the Imp in both cases until the stupid Viper was too self sure and wanted the Mountains confession to be heard by everyone.

In Tyrions case I don't think he believes in the judgment of god(s), but in the prowess of his champions. I also had the same feeling with Lysa and Cersei. In general the highborns aren't that pious in general. Even Stannis isn't really fully convinced that he is Azor Ahai, but just follows it as it seems his only chance to win the Iron Throne.

In the Hounds case they only had testimonies from Arya and the Hound. So no hard evidence and as a godly group they had to go by trial by combat. But again even though Sandor killed the butcher boy he won the trial, because he is one of the best swordsmen.

So my conclusion is, the champion decides and not the god(s).

  • It could be argued that Sandor was judged innocent because he was ordered to kill the Butchers Boy by a Price, soon to be King. We don't know how the gods would decide the responsibility for murder - is it the one who gave the word or the one who swung the sword? – Dr R Dizzle Jul 9 '15 at 7:47
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    @DrRDizzle True, but he didn't have to ride him over so cruely that he wasn't almsot unrecognizable. So even if prince Joff ordered him some guilt lies with Sandor. But you are right as there is no prove theat god(s) care or even exist, we can't know how they would judge. – Thomas Jul 9 '15 at 7:56

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