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It’s the biggest ‘Game of Thrones’ face-off that has yet to happen.
Amid all of the questions about how Game of Thrones will all end, who will live or die, and who might end up on the Iron Throne, nothing encapsulates those kinds of expectations for the hit HBO series more on a smaller scale than Cleganebowl.
Cleganebowl—which is the name of a theoretical fight between brothers Sandor Clegane (the Hound) and Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain)—could be either momentous or inconsequential outside of the duo involved. It’s also grown much beyond its initial form. What started as a particularly creative A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones tinfoil-hat theory expanded into meme territory by the time it could feasibly happen on the show.
So far, the only teaser that we’ve received for Cleganebowl—assuming that it will happen—arrived in the dragonpit of King’s Landing in the season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” It took up less than a minute of screen time in the super-sized episode, but it had all of the markings of a throw down at a date to be determined. It was the first time the two characters had encountered one another since they engaged in a sword fight in season 1, which featured Rory McCann as the Hound and Conan Stevens as the Mountain. (The latter character has been portrayed by Icelandic actor and strongman Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson since season 4.)
“It’s not how it ends, brother,” the Hound said. “You know who’s coming for you. You’ve always known.”
Fueled by online enthusiasm more than the text itself, Cleganebowl is likely to be a letdown almost no matter how you feel about the theory. If it doesn’t come to pass, many of those who wanted to see them fight will be disappointed. If it does happen, the fight will be scrutinized. And if it does, it might be the epitome of fanservice on season 8—an event designed for fan reactions so far removed from any emotional stakes of the show itself that it ultimately feels like filler, even if it results in the death of one (or both) of the Clegane brothers.
So what is Cleganebowl?
No matter how it happens or any of the motivation behind it, Cleganebowl is first and foremost a fight between brothers. It’s one motivated by blood and vengeance, but it may also be one driven by loyalties.
On one side, we have the Mountain. He’s cruel and brutal, someone who would kill his own horse after losing a jousting match. He’s a serial rapist who gleefully confessed to raping Elia Martell and murdering her and her children before smashing Oberyn Martell’s face in a trial by combat. As a kid, the Mountain pushed the Hound’s face into the fire because he believed the Hound stole his toy. According to Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones, rumors surrounding the Mountain claim that he killed his first two wives, his sister, and his father; servants have also disappeared under suspicious circumstances from his home. He’s a knight, dispelling the idea that all knights in Westeros are good men, but it also demonstrates that bad knights are capable of far worse atrocities than Ser Jaime Lannister killing Aerys II Targaryen to stop the king from burning King’s Landing with wildfire.
On the other side of the fence is the Hound. He starts off the series as a Lannister man who would kill Mycah, the butcher’s boy, without a second thought but abandoned his post during the Battle of the Blackwater in the face of wildfire. He might help the Stark sisters, but he isn’t above threatening them or using Arya to collect a ransom; he eventually ended up on Arya Stark’s kill list. He might have killed Beric Dondarrion in combat, but then Beric came back to life.
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At the end of Game of Thrones season 4 and A Storm of Swords, both Clegane brothers are technically dead; the Mountain was poisoned by Oberyn’s spear while Arya left the Hound after he was wounded in a fight with Brienne of Tarth in the show (and the Tickler and Polliver in the books).
But those reports can be deceiving, something the show spelled out much more explicitly. Qyburn revived the Mountain using unnatural methods so that he’s a sickly looking and silent, vile creature who will fight on behalf of Cersei Lannister without question; he’s sworn an oath of silence until all of Cersei’s enemies are dead. Brother Ray (a show-only character who was a mixture of Septon Meribald and the Elder Brother) healed the Hound; the Hound kept to himself as he and Ray’s followers built septs for the Faith of the Seven. In the books, fans believe that a character working on the Quiet Isle known as the gravedigger is actually the Hound in disguise as he digs graves as penance and hides his more recognizable features with a scarf.
By the time a potential matchup could happen, the brothers have both traveled down different vastly different paths since the last time they drew swords. The Hound has gone beyond the Wall and back and saw a vision in the flames while the Mountain is practically a zombie.
As for how Cleganebowl could happen? That’s where it can get interesting.
How Cleganebowl might happen in Game of Thrones
1) Trial by combat
If there’s only one version of Cleganebowl you’re familiar with, chances are it’s this one. Not only does the format have show precedence, but it’s also the easiest to explain.
A highborn man or woman who’s accused of committing a crime can request a trial by combat either before or in the middle of a trial to let the gods decide their fate. The person on trial and the prosecution (typically the crown or a lord) can either fight themselves or choose someone to fight in their stead. Once chosen, those fighters face off and the fight lasts until one person yields or is killed. The result of the fight immediately determines whether the accused is guilty or innocent.
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Historically on Game of Thrones, the right has been invoked when someone doesn’t believe they would receive a fair trial—like Tyrion Lannister at the Eyrie in season 1 or in King’s Landing in season 4 during his trial for Joffrey Baratheon’s murder. The accused might also invoke it if they believe they can only win with a fight, which appeared to be Cersei’s season 6 game plan. Or, if you take it from King Tommen Baratheon, a trial by combat is “a scheme devised by corrupt rulers in order to avoid true judgment from the gods.”
Sparked by the end of season 5 and A Dance With Dragons, a trial by combat Cleganebowl could occur if Cersei calls one to answer for her crimes instead of a regular trial. In that case, her champion would be a reanimated Mountain, a member of the Kingsguard (and who is called Ser Robert Strong in the books because Westeros is led to believe that the Mountain died after his fight with Oberyn). The Faith would then have to choose their own champion. Some believe that the Hound (who’s digging graves and lives alongside a septon) would be summoned by the Faith to fight.
The outcome would be monumental. If the Mountain wins, that means the Hound will die. If the Hound wins, the Mountain will die, but so will Cersei. It’s hard to see either of these men yielding.
The fight will largely be a political one, but it would have the underlining of the brothers’ violent and bitter history. But it could also have bigger implications. The full version of the prophecy that Cersei heard as a girl from Maggy the Frog included a warning that “the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you,” which was cut from the show; valonqar means “little brother” in High Valyrian. Cersei believes that the valonqar is Tyrion, and while some fans think it might be Jaime Lannister (who is the younger Lannister twin), some fans think it could mean any little brother, not one of her own. And the Hound could certainly fit that bill.
Will it happen in the show? Not anymore: Tommen outlawed the practice of trial by combat, Cersei burned the Faith to a crisp with wildfire, Tommen died by suicide, and Cersei is seemingly untouchable now that she sits on the Iron Throne.
Early in A Game of Thrones, Bran Stark fell into a coma after Jaime pushed him out of a tower and had a number of confusing and ominous dreams. It marked the first time he saw the Three-Eyed Crow (known as the Three-Eyed Raven on the show), and while the show version of Bran’s glimpse of the Three-Eyed Raven is much simpler, Bran sees his family across the Seven Kingdoms. When he looked south and saw the “great blue-green rush of the Trident (where Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar Targaryen toward the end of Robert’s Rebellion), he focused on his father and sisters.
He saw his father pleading with the king, his face etched with grief. He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.
Dreams and visions in A Song of Ice and Fire are often open to interpretation. One version of this places the Hound as the shadow with the face of a hound, Jaime Lannister as the gold-armored shadow, and the Mountain as the giant made of stone, although there’s still wiggle room as to whom the last shadow is. Another version offers a far more interesting matchup.
A few years ago, Reddit user godmademedoit posited that a fight between the Hound and the Mountain could occur in the books outside of Cersei’s trial by combat. In this scenario, Cersei would send the Mountain to kill Sansa, who’s in disguise as Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, as she’s heading to a wedding set up by Littlefinger at Harrenhal (the castle over which he holds lordship). With a fight breaking out, Jaime, Brienne (who would be wearing the Hound’s helmet), and the Brotherhood Without Banners (who had previously captured Brienne) join in to protect Sansa Stark. Instead of the Hound, Brienne would be the initial shadow with the face of a hound up until the Hound shows up to change the tides against his brother with plenty of drama and potential justice to heighten the stakes. It’s dubbed “Harrenbowl” because of the central location of Harrenhal.
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Will it happen in the show? It not only makes Cleganebowl even more of a tinfoil theory than it already is as a concept, but also all of the set pieces are so far removed from the books that it wouldn’t happen. But as a concept, it’s refreshing in that it’s not tied to Cersei’s trial.
3) Trial of Seven
The trial of seven is essentially a trial by combat on steroids. Instead of one champion on each side, there are seven champions on each side (or six plus the accused or accuser, if they wished to fight). The symbolism is meant to invoke each of the seven gods that make up the Faith as a way to further ensure the gods’ will is known.
As far as we know, we’ve only seen it occur twice in Westeros. King Maegor I Targaryen (the son of Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wife Visenya) used it to defend his right to rule Westeros. It’s also invoked more than 150 years later after Aerion and Daeron Targaryen believed that Ser Duncan the Tall had kidnapped their younger brother Aegon in the first Dunk and Egg novella.
In regards to Cersei’s trial, one version of the theory purports that she would use all seven members of the Kingsguard while seven members of the Faith led by Lancel Lannister would fight for the Faith until the Hound shows up to fight the Mountain; another puts the Hound in the lineup. An alternate scenario pitted Cersei against Sansa for murdering Joffrey Baratheon and leans on the same Bran vision as Harrenbowl. That one would feature Jaime, Brienne, and the Hound fighting for Sansa while the Mountain, the living members of the Kingsguard, and Ser Ilyn Payne fight for Cersei, who will have emerged from her first trial victorious.
Will it happen in the show? It wouldn’t shake out for many of the same reasons the regular trial by combat won’t. The book context to make these versions work is no longer there. Although we don’t doubt Cersei’s capacity for cruelty, she knows well by now that Sansa had nothing to do with Joffrey’s death. Plus, with only six episodes left, there’s not really much room to introduce a new version of trial combat along with everything else it has to tackle.
The origins of Cleganebowl and its ascension to meme status
As far as Game of Thrones theories goes, Cleganebowl is one of the newer ones to make major waves, especially in comparison to far more storied and established theories like R+L=J (which is canon in the show). But that doesn’t mean that the fans who believe in it or support the idea of it are any less enthusiastic about it.
Know Your Meme traced the first iteration of Cleganebowl to a March 2013 4chan thread where anonymous users posted two different versions as to how the theory might play out. (Given that the first person references that they “want to elaborate on the whole CLEGANEBOWL” concept, it’s likely that there is a prior discussion of the theory.”)
While the exact origin of the name is unknown, some believe that the name took inspiration from Super Bowl XLVII, which occurred about a month before the 4chan thread appeared online. That year, the San Francisco 49ers faced off against the Baltimore Ravens, but some of the media focus surrounding the matchup was on head coaches (and brothers) Jim and John Harbaugh; in the process, it was dubbed the “Harbowl.” (A few years later, some fans would use Cleganebowl as inspiration to call the Battle of the Bastards “Bastard Bowl.”)
The call-and-response of Cleganebowl—“Get Hype!”—didn’t appear in that initial 4chan thread, but it only took a few months before it popped up in a nine-second video that tells you everything you need to know about the theory.
By 2014, Cleganebowl even had its own subreddit where fans shared memes, rallied together, and drove up the hype, and—when Game of Thrones seemingly shot down the possibility of Cleganebowl in season 6—commiserated together.
“It looks like it’s going to go that way, but who knows? … I haven’t seen it yet in my head how I would kill him, but somehow I would smash his head or kill him like that,” Björnsson told Entertainment Weekly shortly after the end of season 7. “I think the fight would be quick rather than something long. I think people would be expecting a big fight but I would finish him really fast. It would be a surprise to people.”
Whereas McCann told HuffPost shortly after Björnsson’s interview that he was already training for the fight before season 8 started shooting just in case.
“There’s absolutely no chance he’ll win,” McCann said. “It’s 100 percent that I will win. The Hound will win.”
Time to throw down?
How Cleganebowl could play out (and why it might be a disappointment)
Thanks to Tommen’s decree in season 6 and a lot of moving chess pieces across Westeros’ board since then, Cleganebowl, if it happens, will be vastly different than however fans initially imagined it. It might be in Winterfell, where the Hound will likely start season 8, or King’s Landing, where the Mountain currently resides. It might be somewhere in the middle of Westeros with deep historical resonance like the Trident. Swords will likely be drawn. One brother will walk away from that fight, but there’s no guarantee he’ll survive the series.
And yet, season 8 is already stacked even before we throw Cleganebowl into the ring. The Army of the Dead plans to bring hell onto Winterfell’s doorstep. Jon Snow will likely learn about his parentage (and how that will affect his new relationship with Daenerys Targaryen and her very heavily implied pregnancy). Jaime is heading to Winterfell to fulfill a promise he made to Jon and Daenerys. Cersei will attempt to keep the Iron Throne in her control (with help from the Golden Company) while all of that plays out, which might not last if the armies in the North survive the Long Night and attack King’s Landing.
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In a best-case scenario, Game of Thrones will pull off an emotionally satisfying smackdown that fans have been waiting years to see play out on their screens. The Hound could finally get justice for the cruelty that the Mountain inflicted on him all those years ago—and the audience could get it for Oberyn. He could truly find peace before the end, whether it’s his own end or the end of the show. The Mountain has long been a lost cause, so it’s easy for the fans to root for the Hound.
On the other hand, that fight could just as easily turn into a spectacle onto itself. Cleganebowl on Game of Thrones has the capacity to become flagrant fanservice because of the hype that’s risen over the nearly six years since the tinfoil theory first made waves online. The show has already done its fair share of feeding that fanservice in season 7 between embracing some fans’ love over Brienne and Tormund after the characters’ first interactions took off, a Brienne and Arya sword fight, and cracking a Gendry rowing joke when the character appeared for the first time since season 3. Those additions both delighted and annoyed fans, depending on who you asked and the day.
Here’s the thing with Cleganebowl. The show has done a lot to lay the tracks for the Hound’s wish for vengeance, complete with a reminder in the season 7 finale. We heard him tell Arya how his face got burned and why he hates fire so much in season 4. Since being found by Brother Ray, he’s mostly avoided his more violent tendencies, but even the threat of the Army of the Dead couldn’t stop him from offering a promise to his brother in their first on-screen meeting in years. We have every reason to want the Mountain dead even if we have a twinge of sympathy for him for what he’s become.
But it’s been a long time since Game of Thrones gave most of that proper attention. Sure, the show might include a clip in a “Previously On” segment before a Clegane-on-Clegane fight to remind us, and it’ll be fresh on the minds of fans who recently did a rewatch. But apart from their interaction in “The Dragon and the Wolf,” Arya Stark has given more mention to the Mountain than the Hound has in recent seasons.
Without a focus on the motivation, what point is there to the Hound and the Mountain fighting in a sea of ice zombies and bloodshed aside from the spectacle? Or would the show hope that the promise of a fight would be enough on its own to satiate fans? While there’s every chance that Björnsson and McCann will nail it from a technical level and it’ll be beautifully shot, it could still easily fall short of lofty fan expectations.
Michelle Jaworski is a staff writer and the resident Game of Thrones expert at the Daily Dot. She covers entertainment, geek culture, and pop culture and has brought her knowledge to conventions like Con of Thrones. She is based in New Jersey.