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A Brother’s Mercy by Allnamesinuse

The present essay is a Feature Commentary corresponding to the AFFC/ADWD portion of “The Will to Change: Rereading Sandor.”


The Hound is dead and Sandor Clegane is at rest, were the words the Elder Brother chose to eulogise our favourite non-knight in what was seemingly the end of the road for him. The interpretation some see here is that this is as close as GRRM can come to a “happy ending” for a character; a retirement to a quiet life at a place where he’s not likely to be disturbed isn’t a bad outcome for someone with a story tragic until the very end, they argue. Another popular interpretation is that reborn Sandor will become a warrior for the Faith of the Seven in some capacity, for which his last scene could be laying out the groundwork to build a Warrior’s Son storyline on later.

But neither fits in with his character growth arc nor with what his potential future role linked to the Starks could be. Sandor doesn’t have it in him to become a Lancel 2.0 and neither does he have it in him to be Elder Brother 2.0. It’s hard to imagine a man who refused all his life to take an oath of knighthood doing a complete U-turn and taking a religious oath. And yet, the imagery for his rebirth being a spiritual one is so overwhelming. How do we interpret this imagery without making it about the possibility of him becoming permanently tied to the Faith Militant?

As they say, the Devil is in the details. Or, in this case, in the details in the Elder Brother’s words. Hound: dead. Sandor: resting. It sounds like the good old Brother is speaking of two different people, and not about the same man with different names. Why this specificity in separating him in two different halves at this precise stage, though? If he wanted finality, he would pronounce both Sandor and the Hound dead instead of engaging in wordplay that allows him to circumvent the Thou Shalt Not Lie commandment and keep plausible deniability if he ever were to be confronted with accusations of playing loose with the truth.

Whilst reading the story of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most celebrated samurai, it caught my attention that there’s another way to look at Sandor’s last appearance, one more fitting into the redemption theme that runs throughout his storyline: forgiveness in the religious sense of the word. Miyamoto Musashi stood out as a larger-than-life figure amongst numerous other famous warriors not just because he had the skills with steel of an Arthur Dayne but also because he saw swordsmanship as a way of life, a path to walk in to achieve one’s best self, improving oneself along the way through combat and hardship. In the Way of the Sword, as he called it, knights are indeed not for killing, an idea Sandor would’ve scoffed at. But there’s a catch: in his beginnings, Musashi is like Sandor. To him, samurai are for killing.

Or at least that’s how the story goes in the most famous novel about him, Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which has one striking parallel that provides a different reading of Sandor’s death. The novel doesn’t cover all of Musashi’s life, only his youth, since he was a feral child with rage issues and suffering from family-related trauma up until his late 20s when he finally becomes the sword-saint of Japanese legend with a myriad duels to this name. The manner in which this change occurs is what caught my eye, because initially it looks so blatantly obvious that Takezo, as he was called then, is destined to be a brute samurai with excessive rage and aggressiveness that stays alive only because he’s too good with a weapon to die. He had no formal training by a sensei, no Martial Arts style, no self-control, no philosophy, nothing. Just plain ol’ fight and kill, all instinct, all impulse, which lands him in several clashes with the villagers and the law. Orphaned at 7, he grew up fostered at a temple, learning the handling of weapons more by himself than with an instructor, killing his first man at 13, slaying a giant in his early teens, going to fight at and lose a big battle, and ending up outlawed for killing his way back to his town from there.

So we have our first parallel with Sandor: highly effective and talented swordsman, big and incredibly strong, temperamental and mouthy, traumatised and in love with a woman he can’t have. An emotionally-damaged ball of destruction. It couldn’t go but from bad to worse from here onwards.

Then enters salvation in the form of eccentric Buddhist monk Takuan Soho, who looks more fit for breaking skulls than healing souls and stops Takezo in his tracks from going even further down this destructive path. Takezo is being hunted down by the local lord’s soldiers for trespassing the barrier set up on the road to catch fugitives from the recent Battle of Sekigahara that decided who would be Japan’s shogun, and for killing soldiers to return to his home village to deliver news to family about his missing best friend that’d gone to Sekigahara with him. The soldiers can’t catch him for dear life, so Takuan strikes a deal with the officer in charge: if he catches Takezo by himself, he’ll earn the right to decide what to do with him, deal? Deal!

The too-clever monk devises a way to use Takezo’s childhood friend, the girl Otsu, as bait to lure the boy into showing himself at the woods he’s hiding in. It works. Takezo is captured, and as per the agreement now Takuan can decide his fate. Ignoring everyone’s bloodthirsty demands for his head, Takuan decides to hang the boy from a tree by the waist:

He took hold of the rope after freeing it from the railing and dragged Takezō, like a dog on a leash, to the tree. The prisoner went meekly, head bowed, uttering not a sound. He seemed so repentant that some of the softer-hearted members of the crowd felt a bit sorry for him. The excitement of capturing the “wild beast” had hardly worn off, however, and with great gusto everyone joined in the fun. Having tied several lengths of rope together, they hoisted him up to a branch about thirty feet from the ground and lashed him tightly. So bound, he looked less like a living man than a big straw doll.

The punishment is to leave him hanging like a Christmas decoration from the monastery’s tall tree until he dies, so everyone thinks. But Takuan has ulterior motives, and whilst Takezo is playing the part of the loudest tree decoration in history, the monk indulges in philosophising and verbal sparring with him:

“I would’ve been better off letting the villagers catch up with me. At least they’re human.”

“Was that your only mistake, Takezō? Hasn’t just about everything you’ve ever done been some kind of mistake? While you’re resting up there, why don’t you try thinking about the past a little.”

“Oh, shut up, you hypocrite! I’m not ashamed! Matahachi’s mother can call me anything she wants, but he is my friend, my best friend. I considered it my responsibility to come and tell the old hag what happened to him and what does she do? She tries to incite that mob to torture me! Bringing her news of her precious son was the only reason I broke through the barrier and came here. Is that a violation of the warrior’s code?”

“That’s not the point, you imbecile! The trouble with you is that you don’t even know how to think. You seem to be under the misconception that if you perform one brave deed, that alone makes you a samurai. Well, it doesn’t! You let that one act of loyalty convince you of your righteousness. The more convinced you became, the more harm you caused yourself and everyone else. And now where are you? Caught in a trap you set for yourself, that’s where!” He paused. “By the way, how’s the view from up there, Takezō?”

“You pig! I won’t forget this!”

“You’ll forget everything soon. Before you turn into dried meat, Takezō, take a good look at the wide world around you. Gaze out onto the world of human beings, and change your selfish way of thinking (…).”

Takezo is too combative for the monk’s lesson to easily penetrate his thick skull, so the back-and-forth continues for a good while:

“Just wait, Takuan, just wait! If I have to chew through this rope with my bare teeth, I will, just to get my hands on you and tear you limb from limb!”

“Is that a promise or a threat? If you really think you can do it, I’ll stay down here and wait. Are you sure you can keep it up without killing yourself before the rope breaks?”

“Shut up!” Takezō screamed hoarsely.

“Say, Takezo, you really are strong! The whole tree is swaying. But I don’t notice the earth shaking, sorry to say. You know, the trouble with you is that, in reality, you’re weak. Your kind of anger is nothing more than personal malice. A real man’s anger is an expression of moral indignation. Anger over petty emotional trifles is for women, not men.”

. . .

“It’s the same with your so-called courage. Your conduct up till now gives no evidence that it’s anything more than animal courage, the kind that has no respect for human values and life. That’s not the kind of courage that makes a samurai. True courage knows fear. It knows how to fear that which should be feared. Honest people value life passionately, they hang on to it like a precious jewel. And they pick the right time and place to surrender it, to die with dignity.”

Still no answer.

“That’s what I meant when I said it’s a pity about you. You were born with physical strength and fortitude, but you lack both knowledge and wisdom. While you managed to master a few of the more unfortunate features of the Way of the Samurai, you made no effort to acquire learning or virtue. People talk about combining the Way of Learning with the Way of the Samurai, but when properly combined, they aren’t two—they’re one. Only one Way, Takezō.”

Then, in pain and fearing that this torture will last much longer, Takezo finally sees the light. He declares to have understood how wrong he was, and begs to be taken down:

“Takuan! Save me!” Takezō’s cry for help was loud and plaintive. The branch began to tremble, as though it, as though the whole tree, were weeping.

“I want to be a better man. I realize now how important it is, what a privilege it is to be born human. I’m almost dead, but I understand what it means to be alive. And now that I know, my whole life will consist of being tied to this tree! I can’t undo what I’ve done.”

“You’re finally coming to your senses. For the first time in your life, you’re talking like a human being.”

“I don’t want to die,” Takezō cried. “I want to live. I want to go out, try again, do everything right this time.” His body convulsed with his sobbing. “Takuan . . . please! Help me . . . help me!”

Takuan refuses. However, he unwittingly makes it possible for Otsu to cut the rope and free Takezo. Boy and girl flee together, but become separated, and Takezo is caught by soldiers of the daimyo and taken before his lordship. Takuan interferes again by telling the daimyo that he was promised he’d decide Takezo’s punishment. Takezo is taken to a dungeon-like haunted room in the castle, where he’ll spend 3 years in solitary confinement, devoted to reading books on worthy subjects, a decision made by Takuan as part of his scheme to reform Takezo from the inside out:

“Think of this room as your mother’s womb and prepare to be born anew. If you look at it only with your eyes, you will see nothing more than an unlit, closed cell. But look again, more closely. Look with your mind and think. This room can be the wellspring of enlightenment, the same fountain of knowledge found and enriched by sages in the past. It is up to you to decide whether this is to be a chamber of darkness or one of light.”

When he reemerges from his confinement, Takezo is truly changed. He’s no longer full of rage and ready to kill anyone on sight, and tells Takuan he finally gets what he was trying to imprint on him when hanging from the tree: he was like a wild beast and now he’s human, and wants to be the best human possible. Takuan decides it’s time to release him:

“Even though you’ve had no one to converse with but yourself, you’ve actually learned to speak like a human being! Good! Today you will leave this place. And as you do so, hug your hard-earned enlightenment to your bosom. You’re going to need it when you go forth into the world to join your fellow men.”

In his solitude, Takezo has acquired a keen sense of self-awareness, recognising he’s still full of rough edges that he needs to smooth out in order to better himself. He declares he will take to wandering through the country to learn the Way of the Sword and reach enlightenment and perfection as a swordsman. Pleased, Takuan and the daimyo tell him he’s been reborn and that, to befit his rebirth, he should leave his old identity behind:

“It’s all right for him to roam about while he’s still young,” said Terumasa. “But now that he’s going out on his own—reborn, as you put it—he should have a new name. Let it be Miyamoto, so that he never forgets his birthplace. From now on, Takezō, call yourself Miyamoto.”

Takezō’s hands went automatically to the floor. Palms down, he bowed deep and long. “Yes, sir, I will do that.”

“You should change your first name too,” Takuan interjected. “Why not read the Chinese characters of your name as ‘Musashi’ instead of ‘Takezō’? You can keep writing your name the same as before. It’s only fitting that everything should begin anew on this day of your rebirth.”

Thus Shinmen Takezo dies and Miyamoto Musashi is born. His is a spiritual rebirth, like Sandor’s, and it’s also very explicitly stated in the novel, with the priest present to pronounce Takezo dead and Musashi born, just like the Elder Brother pronounced The Hound dead and Sandor at rest.

“Now there’s only this sword,” he thought. “The only thing in the world I have to rely on.” He rested his hand on the weapon’s handle and vowed to himself, “I will live by its rule. I will regard it as my soul, and by learning to master it, strive to improve myself, to become a better and wiser human being. Takuan follows the Way of Zen, I will follow the Way of the Sword. I must make of myself an even better man than he is.”

Thenceforward, the new Miyamoto Musashi, once called a wild beast, a raging tiger, a demon, hated and feared by everyone for his viciousness and physical invincibility, travels across Japan following in the steps of a Hero’s Journey quest, dueling the baddies and the goodies, helping distressed damsels, old ladies, and children, learning various arts, carving statuettes of a goddess, opposing worthy and unworthy rivals, saving villagers from bandits, tilling the land… All the things you’d expect of a knight-errant or a lone gunslinger if this were a Western tale. He matures, his temper mellows, he masters his impulses, sheds his selfishness, and becomes a man admired and followed, and envied, too. All of which was only possible because one day a perceptive priest looked into his soul and, like a sword-polisher, took it unto himself to polish the rust off it by teaching him the meaning of compassion, of forgiveness, of second chances. It isn’t merely a symbolical transformation; it’s a literal one and very faith-driven.

Sandor Clegane may not change his name, or at least it doesn’t look likely that he would, but The Hound has been written like a separate identity that no longer belongs to him. There’s already been two Hounds since the original “died”: Rorge and Lem Lemoncloak. Can we interpret that becoming just Sandor Clegane is his “Miyamoto Musashi” moment? Indeed, there are enough clues to contend that the Quiet Isle story for his baptismal-like death & rebirth is meant to be interpreted through the lens of sacramental forgiveness.

The imagery is there, uncharacteristically obvious for an author prone to keeping readers stumbling in the fog through subtlety and writerly sleights of hand. It’s the Catholic rite of pardon for one’s sins whose elements and symbology Martin has borrowed for Sandor, namely: conversion, confession, penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They don’t necessarily follow in this order, as it depends on individuals, but they all are present in whichever order an individual case unfolds, and Martin, a cultural Catholic, is certainly familiar with the rite, not to mention that the Faith of the Seven is just Fantasy Catholicism with fewer bells and whistles.

Let’s start with conversion. Generally, this refers to baptism, a step necessary to become a Christian since the dawn days of the religion, but in terms of purely referring to the act of committing a sin or a crime this is about the realisation that what you have done has unjustly visited harm on others. Essentially, the first step towards forgiveness is acknowledging you did wrong and you are the one that must pay for. Conversion is the will to break the cycle and make amends.

When did Sandor “convert”? Though it came from a longer process of chipping away at his self and not an overnight decision, it was the moment he decided to cut cleanly and irrevocably with his former life as a Lannister strongman at the Battle of Blackwater. He had risen high in his liege’s household, benefitted from it financially and socially, and was allowed the lifestyle of a foster Lannister. In sum, even though he never embraced the Lannister ethos, he was nevertheless part of and participant in their morally-challenged sphere. He had, to use the Biblical phrase, “reaped the wages of sin.” Both his and the sins of his masters’ House. To illustrate this point, just one example: he accepts the cloak of a Kingsguard, a position only made possible because of Jaime and Cersei’s sin in having a bastard child to illegitimately place on the throne with the full backing of their House.

But there’s two major differences between the Foster Lannister and the True Lannisters: participation in the cycle and forgoing the fruits of one’s sins.

On the first point, we have Cersei and Tyrion. Each one has deeply felt personal wounds often viewed as having been inflicted by another Lannister, their father Tywin. But instead of breaking the cycle, seek personal happiness outside Tywin’s sibling rivalry dynamic used to manipulate and control his children, or take any of thousands of other possible paths, the only thing Cersei and Tyrion (and to a lesser extent Jaime) do is perpetuate more of the same in an ever-escalating conflict destined to end in a self-inflicted Rains of Castamere on their own House. If Sandor were to act as a True Lannister, he would be involved in a Cersei/Tyrion-like struggle with Gregor. He’d burn larger villages than Gregor, rape more and younger women than Gregor, etc. He’d do this in an effort to gain Tywin’s favour as a means of destroying his brother just as the Lannister sibling dynamic plays out. But Sandor never entered this spiral of destruction despite his fratricidal hate for Gregor. He never identified with the aggressor and became an instrument of perpetuating the cycle in his heart. He accepted that the world was brutal and unfair, that it wasn’t a song, and did what he had to do to survive. He sinned in service to House Lannister, but there was punishment and suffering for him in those sins for his whole life.

On the second point, not a single True Lannister entertains giving up the spoils of sin. Giving up worldly possessions, paying restitution above and beyond what was stolen, exceeding the threshold of one’s wrongs in repenting—these are the core of every religious form of sin and forgiveness. But what do the Lannisters do? Cersei uses her own children to grab power that doesn’t belong to her or her House and allows the realm to be drowned in blood for the prize of having a Lannister on the throne; Jaime is all “I’ll confess to the incest and then marry Cersei while Tommen rules,” showing a willingness to be originator, enabler, and beneficiary of his family’s machinations; Tyrion the circus clown in exile wants to ravage Westeros with dragonfire, to rape his sister and become Tywin 2.0 in Casterly Rock. There is nothing but pure obsession with the spoils of sin amongst Tywin’s offspring.

On the other hand, the Foster Lannister took the first and mandatory step as well as the second on the Blackwater when he broke away and gave up all claim to Lannister spoils. He gave up a comfortable lifestyle and a plum position, and took nothing with him that he earned through the Lannisters. True, he did have the gold from the Hand’s tournament, but that was his outside of Lannister service and legitimately earned, and even that was taken away, too. His break is thus absolute, he can’t look back.

Confession comes next. We don’t know what Sandor told the Elder Brother, but it’s not that hard to guess the things he may have said in confession at the Quiet Isle. How? By looking at what he tells Arya at the cave after winning his trial by combat against Beric:

“You killed Mycah,” she said once more, daring him to deny it. “Tell them. You did. You did.”

“I did.” His whole face twisted. “I rode him down and cut him in half, and laughed. I watched them beat your sister bloody too, watched them cut your father’s head off.”

It’s curious that, of all horrible things he must have witnessed in his former life, it’s these three specific crimes that torment Sandor: killing an innocent boy, and standing by as an innocent man was executed and an innocent girl was abused. All these three crimes sprout from Lannister sins.

In the Catholic rite, penance is the repudiation of one’s own sin and an acknowledgement that one must satisfy for them. It won’t do to go about it in a spread-out evenly and generalised way but accepting that it’s been you who sinned. Sandor is judged guilty by association by the Brotherhood Without Banners and he rejects the more outrageous attempts by them to make him pay in Gregor’s stead, but he does accept the sins he feels were his, too, not just his former masters’. Killing Mycah wasn’t his idea, but he was the executioner. Beheading Ned wasn’t his doing, but he had a role in the downfall of House Stark. Beating Sansa black and blue he never did, but he witnessed it and couldn’t save her like he thinks he should have. How can he make amends and give satisfaction for them, then?

It’s at this point when the road to redemption becomes even more blatantly religious in-world. For his sin of killing an innocent boy on royal orders, Sandor is judged by the faith of Rh’llor. Note that, in spite of the dozens of charges the BwB hurl at him, it’s Mycah the only accusation that sticks and that Sandor must make amends for with his own life were he to perish in the trial by combat he’s sentenced to. And also note that the accuser who is able to bring him to task where the others have failed is Arya.

Arya is the recipient of Sandor’s confession to his three crimes. Arya is friend, daughter, and sister to all three victims. And so Arya is the one to figuratively throw the gauntlet at Sandor and demand satisfaction. But, for all she tries her damnedest to be his judge, jury, and executioner at once, she ends up becoming Sandor’s act of public penance.

Lem grabbed her wrist and twisted, wrenching the dagger away. She kicked at him, but he would not give it back. “You go to hell, Hound,” she screamed at Sandor Clegane in helpless empty-handed rage. “You just go to hell!

“He has,” said a voice scarce stronger than a whisper.

The trial was meant to punish Sandor for the sins of House Lannister undistinghsably from who committed which. But Sandor had lived his life already under penalty for those very sins. In Catholic theology, the wages of sin are death—as in damnation—and suffering. When Thoros says he’s a man enduring Hell, he’s referring to this suffering. Sandor’s face is a punishment. Serving those who enable Gregor to continue perpetrating the same crimes he’s done to Sandor has been a punishment.

Look at it like this: what’s more important to the three True Lannisters? Beauty, sword, Casterly Rock. Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion each define themselves by these things respectively, which they have by birth or think are theirs by birth. And what happens? GRRM plays God, and Cersei ends up fat, shaven, and walking her sagging naked body through the streets, Jaime ends up a one-handed cripple, and Tyrion ends up a destitute slave in Essos. Some readers see in this a punishment for their sins, Jaime even says at one point that the loss of his hand is retribution for tossing Bran from the tower. But the Lannisters still cling to the spoils earned with the crimes of their House: As of ADWD, Cersei is most likely far from humbled by her experience and may stage a vengeful comeback, the supposedly on a path to redemption Jaime is still serving as (and reaping the benefits of being) Lord Commander of his bastard’s Kingsguard even as he severs ties with Cersei, and Tyrion is most definitely scheming a vengeful comeback. They want to claim the whole kingdom as a reward for confessing their sins, they want others to suffer as a result of their supposedly redeeming confessions.

So it can be said that the Lannisters aren’t being punished so much as suffering the natural consequences of their choices. Unrepentant is the key difference. While one is unrepentant there is no punishment, just suffering. Suffering ought to lead to reflection. Reflection to an understanding of cause and effect and a sense of humility and responsibility. Reflection then leads to being repentant for one’s role. Only afterwards is suffering really punishment from one’s own POV. The only other way it can be punishment is when it is imposed by an authority and proclaimed punishment.

What about Sandor? How does he define himself? Strength. Outwardly, he boasts to Sansa that all he needs is a longsword, that strong arms rule the world, the weak should just give up and go belly up, et cetera. All bravado, but this holds a seed of truth inside for him, given that he was burnt young, innocent, and powerless, and only survived because he grew up tall as a tree and made himself useful to Lord Lannister… and his penance hits him right in the core. How so? Because he’s made to use his strength to serve the purpose of paying back his debt.

In ASOIAF, the ultimate forgiveness mechanism for crimes is the Night’s Watch. The entry fee is giving up all claims to anything of worldly value, all allegiances and connections and riches, and the post entry reward is selfless service. So, following this in-world model, we already have established that Sandor met the first requisite (give up anything of value) when he broke away at Blackwater, so the forgiveness implied by the results of the trial by combat and Arya’s choice there was earned well before their last scene at the Trident plays out. So, what remains is the second requirement to reach forgiven status.

The Hound goes thus to protect Arya to make up for the sin of his role in Ned’s downfall, and by extension his role in Sansa’s abuse as well because House Stark’s downfall left her defenceless under the grip of Sandor’s masters. Granted, it didn’t start as selfless service, because he did kidnap her in retaliation for his gold and had intentions to ransom her to her family, but the pragmatics of that are self-evident: he clearly couldn’t just show up at Robb’s camp to offer his services and expect to be taken seriously without a bargaining chip the Northerners won’t ignore. Arya became truly his penitent service when she lost her bargaining chip value to him courtesy of the Red Wedding and he still continued to protect her until he can’t go on anymore due to the wound to his leg.

On the surface, you could argue his is the same kind of punishment as Jaime’s loss of a hand: cut him at the leg and he’s no longer the Hound. But it goes beyond such a superficial reading, because if for Jaime it’s merely the start of a path he may or mayn’t ultimately walk to completion, for Sandor dispossessing him of the last vestige of his past life at the hands of current liegemen of his former masters inflicting a crippling blow to the physical strength he so much relies on is the end of the road (for now, at least). By the time he is abandoned on the banks of the Trident, he’s been surrounded in the imagery of forgiveness of two of the three main religions in ASOIAF plus one:

  • As per Beric and Thoros, the Lord of Light has given him back his life, which implies forgiveness because the crime he was tried for was of the a life for a life, blood for blood sort.
  • As per Lord Eddard’s beliefs, Arya’s refusal to carry out Northern justice after hearing his confessions and looking him in the eye implicitly lays out that the Old Gods also give him back his life.
  • We could argue there’s a fourth religion involved: the Faceless Men, because by taking him off her prayer, Arya extended forgiveness in the name of the God of the Many Faces.

Now it’s time for the Faith of the Seven to have their turn at placing Sandor’s soul on the measurement scales and deciding whether he’s forgiven or condemned, and here subtlety goes out the window. GRRM lays out the religious imagery of forgiveness and redemption rather thick on the entire Quiet Isle sequence, starting well before we see the place, well before we find out there’s a Gravedigger there. Just look at these lines from the conversations that Brienne and Septon Meribald have on the road:

“Why do they call it the Quiet Isle?” asked Podrick.

Those who dwell here are penitents, who seek to atone for their sins through contemplation, prayer, and silence. Only the Elder Brother and his proctors are permitted to speak, and the proctors only for one day of every seven.”

A vow of silence is an act of contrition, a sacrifice by which we prove our devotion to the Seven Above. For a mute to take a vow of silence would be akin to a legless man giving up the dance.”

. . .

“Faith,” urged Septon Meribald. “Believe, persist, and follow, and we shall find the peace we seek.”

Penitence, atonement, finding peace… All the elements of being granted forgiveness. Martin couldn’t have made it clearer if he had placed a Here Be Redemption neon sign at the entrance to the Quiet Isle.

We can infer that Sandor confessed to the EB, either as he lay dying on the Trident or once he arrived to the QI, for otherwise the EB wouldn’t know all he knows about his life and in such detail. It’s relevant to highlight how the Elder Brother refers to the Hound as he pronounces him dead in contrast to how Brienne refers to him:

“I know a little of this man, Sandor Clegane. He was Prince Joffrey’s sworn shield for many a year, and even here we would hear tell of his deeds, both good and ill. If even half of what we heard was true, this was a bitter, tormented soul, a sinner who mocked both gods and men. He served, but found no pride in service. He fought, but took no joy in victory. He drank, to drown his pain in a sea of wine. He did not love, nor was he loved himself. It was hate that drove him. Though he committed many sins, he never sought forgiveness. Where other men dream of love, or wealth, or glory, this man Sandor Clegane dreamed of slaying his own brother, a sin so terrible it makes me shudder just to speak of it. Yet that was the bread that nourished him, the fuel that kept his fires burning. Ignoble as it was, the hope of seeing his brother’s blood upon his blade was all this sad and angry creature lived for . . . and even that was taken from him, when Prince Oberyn of Dorne stabbed Ser Gregor with a poisoned spear.”

“You sound as if you pity him,” said Brienne.

“I did. You would have pitied him as well, if you had seen him at the end. I came upon him by the Trident, drawn by his cries of pain. He begged me for the gift of mercy, but I am sworn not to kill again. Instead, I bathed his fevered brow with river water, and gave him wine to drink and a poultice for his wound, but my efforts were too little and too late. The Hound died there, in my arms.

“It is true, then,” she said dully. “Sandor Clegane is dead.”

“He is at rest.” The Elder Brother paused.

So here we have a figure of authority from the Faith describe Sandor Clegane (notice that this is how he calls him) as a “sinner who mocked the gods” and therefore in need of repentance and atonement, in contrast to how Brienne calls the Hound (also notice that this is how she calls him) a criminal she must execute, as she explicitly tells Brother Narbert. The law of men (the Crown) that Brienne represents has condemned Sandor, but the law of the gods (the Seven) that the EB represents has declared him “at rest.” And by this pronouncement of peace, we can only conclude that Sandor has met the confession requirement.

And the EB does have the authority to pronounce ego te absolvo. Traditionally, the Father Superior of a Catholic monastery can hear confession and absolve people same as an ordained priest, and the EB is just a Father Superior with a Fantasy name. That alone would give him the authority. The arrival of Septon Meribald to the QI for specific confession purposes is intriguing, because it seems to imply that in-world only Septons can hear confession:

He turned to Septon Meribald. “I hope that you have time to absolve us of our sins. Since the raiders slew old Septon Bennet, we have had no one to hear confession.”

That is true in real-life Catholicism, too, because not every priest has the authority to hear confession. However, Catholic canon law says that although only authorised priests can administer the sacrament of confession & absolution, any priest can hear the confession of a dying person because the danger of dying unconfessed trumps canon law. Sandor was dying (he thought) when the EB found him, so to consider the EB hearing his “final words” a valid confession is reasonable. And in any case, Meribald’s presence in the QI for the specific purpose of absolving the monks of their sins extends to Sandor in his capacity as a novice monk. The wording in the above passage is specific about absolution for this very reason.

Also, although we don’t know if Sandor and Meribald ever talked off-screen, we can’t ignore the symbolism of Meribald’s companion, Dog, being present when the good Septon hears confession:

“I shall make time,” said Meribald, “though I hope you have some better sins than the last time I came through.” Dog barked. “You see? Even Dog was bored.”

We can infer what penitence was imposed on Sandor after confession by looking at what he wears when he reappears on the QI. Would someone like him agree to wear monastic clothes if he’d not been talked into it? It had to be willing. His stay at the monastery itself is, going by my Miyamoto Musashi parallel, like staying secluded in the dungeon to study and reflect. His true penance is what he’s learning to do there: he’s been made a gravedigger.

… and higher still they passed a lichyard where a brother bigger than Brienne was struggling to dig a grave. From the way he moved, it was plain to see that he was lame. As he flung a spadeful of the stony soil over one shoulder, some chanced to spatter against their feet. “Be more watchful there,” chided Brother Narbert. “Septon Meribald might have gotten a mouthful of dirt.” The gravedigger lowered his head. When Dog went to sniff him he dropped his spade and scratched his ear.

“A novice,” explained Narbert.

Sandor Clegane, the man who lived by the sword and who left the dead to be food for dogs and wolves, is taught to give people humane burial. Let’s have a closer look at who the first grave he’s seen digging is for:

“Who is the grave for?” asked Ser Hyle, as they resumed their climb up the wooden steps.

“Brother Clement, may the Father judge him justly.”

“Was he old?” asked Podrick Payne.

“If you consider eight-and-forty old, aye, but it was not the years that killed him. He died of wounds he got at Saltpans. He had taken some of our mead to the market there, on the day the outlaws descended on the town.”

“The Hound?” said Brienne.

“Another, just as brutal. He cut poor Clement’s tongue out when he would not speak. Since he had taken a vow of silence, the raider said he had no need of it.

Sandor Clegane, the old Hound and the first of them all, is burying a victim of the new Hound. This is extremely significant, and from what the EB says, burials are Sandor’s primary occupation at the monastery:

“Too many corpses, these days.” The Elder Brother sighed. “Our gravedigger knows no rest. Rivermen, westermen, northmen, all wash up here. Knights and knaves alike. We bury them side by side, Stark and Lannister, Blackwood and Bracken, Frey and Darry. That is the duty the river asks of us in return for all its gifts, and we do it as best we can. Sometimes we find a woman, though . . . or worse, a little child. Those are the cruelest gifts.”

We don’t know if Sandor participates in the preparation of bodies for burial, but it wouldn’t be out of bounds to assume that it may very well be a part of his duties as gravedigger. If so, then the idea of this being his penance picks up steam. He does have other humble duties, too, like serving at the table:

The last of the food had been cleared away by the novices whose task it was to serve. Most were boys near Podrick’s age, or younger, but there were grown men as well, amongst them the big gravedigger they had encountered on the hill, who walked with the awkward lurching gait of one half-crippled.

He’s counted amongst “the novices whose task it was to serve.” Service is, indeed, what the Seven have imposed on Sandor via the Elder Brother as the way to make up for his sins, and his primary duty is laying to rest all those who this war has taken away, impartially and humanely, regardless of allegiance. Why this specific service, though? The EB’s words summing up Sandor’s former life illustrate the motive:

“I know a little of this man, Sandor Clegane. He was Prince Joffrey’s sworn shield for many a year, and even here we would hear tell of his deeds, both good and ill. If even half of what we heard was true, this was a bitter, tormented soul, a sinner who mocked both gods and men. He served, but found no pride in service. He fought, but took no joy in victory. He drank, to drown his pain in a sea of wine. He did not love, nor was he loved himself. It was hate that drove him. Though he committed many sins, he never sought forgiveness. Where other men dream of love, or wealth, or glory, this man Sandor Clegane dreamed of slaying his own brother, a sin so terrible it makes me shudder just to speak of it. Yet that was the bread that nourished him, the fuel that kept his fires burning. Ignoble as it was, the hope of seeing his brother’s blood upon his blade was all this sad and angry creature lived for . . . and even that was taken from him, when Prince Oberyn of Dorne stabbed Ser Gregor with a poisoned spear.”

Ser Kevan’s snarky words to Cersei about rabid dogs being the fault of their masters is precisely why Sandor felt no pride in serving House Lannister. Thoros and the EB coincide in considering this service his personal Hell, which only prolonged his childhood suffering well into adulthood. But he’d never sought—or found—atonement for his sins by breaking clean with his lieges, settling instead for stubbornly adhering to his own moral code and refusing to give in to the toxic dysfunctionality of Lannister dynamics. The Hound wouldn’t have sought forgiveness, that man had to die, and so he did:

That was another shock. “How did he die?”

“By the sword, as he had lived.”

There’s a very unsubtle baptism imagery wrapped around the Hound’s death: that of rebirth by water. In Catholic theology, the whole point of using water is to signify purification from evil, the cleansing of our outward actions, and the passage to spiritual rebirth:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

(John 3:3-5)

According to the EB himself, this is what he did first when he found a dying Sandor:

“I came upon him by the Trident, drawn by his cries of pain. He begged me for the gift of mercy, but I am sworn not to kill again. Instead, I bathed his fevered brow with river water, and gave him wine to drink and a poultice for his wound, but my efforts were too little and too late. The Hound died there, in my arms.”

The good Brother isn’t lying when he says the Hound died there, he’s simply speaking in religious metaphor. Circling back to Catholicism as our model for understanding the Faith of the Seven, this religion considers the act of baptism the birth of a “new man” to replace the “old man,” and goes as far as actually using death as a metaphor for this transformation, as this Biblical passage shows:

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

(Romans 6:4-6)

Thus, baptism by water is the symbol of the death and burial of the old man who led a past life without forgiveness. Which also explains why the Elder Brother tells Brienne he personally “buried” the Hound:

I buried him myself. I can tell you where his grave lies, if you wish. I covered him with stones to keep the carrion eaters from digging up his flesh, and set his helm atop the cairn to mark his final resting place.”

And it also explains why the EB chose to bury the Hound’s “flesh” (his armour, sword, possessions, probably some of his literal flesh if he cut or cauterised his leg wound) and erect a grave. He wanted to make it as literal and irreversible as humanly possible that the Hound was well and truly dead, and have the fact sink in both into Sandor’s mind as well as the mind of anyone who ever came asking. And to drive across the point that he’s talking about a rebirth, the EB also tells Brienne about his own transformation after he “died in the battle of the Trident” fighting for Rhaegar:

“Instead I woke here, upon the Quiet Isle. The Elder Brother told me I had washed up on the tide, naked as my name day. I can only think that someone found me in the shallows, stripped me of my armor, boots, and breeches, and pushed me back out into the deeper water. The river did the rest. We are all born naked, so I suppose it was only fitting that I come into my second life the same way.”

He underwent the same process of being bathed in river water and ending up half-dead on the same isle where he’d be saved and given a second chance at life. He’s now in a position to give Sandor the same opportunity, and did so doubly, saving both his physical body by healing him from a wound that, as per his reputation, not even maesters would’ve healed, and most likely his soul too, by pushing Sandor towards a path of atonement that would lead to reconciliation. His involvement in the man’s rebirth makes it possible to pronounce Sandor Clegane finally at peace instead of dead like he didn’t hesitate to do for the Hound:

“It is true, then,” she said dully. “Sandor Clegane is dead.”

“He is at rest.”

The Elder Brother is simply following the “old man” vs “new man” religious phraseology when he makes this Sandor vs Hound distinction that Brienne doesn’t grasp. With the inclusion of this scene between the EB and Brienne that serves no other purpose than to let readers know the fate of Sandor Clegane, Martin has written him to be the only character in ASOIAF that is surrounded by the imagery of forgiveness from three major religions, a fact that isn’t accidental but has to serve a plot purpose. You don’t simply have a character be forgiven by Rh’llor, the Old Gods, and the Seven (and the God of Many Faces for additional pathos) for no reason and no future completion at all. We don’t know yet whether Sandor’s story will ultimately have him serve a new master or continue as a freelance non-knight, his own dog as he put it, but one thing this theme of tripartite forgiveness makes clear is that he won’t serve a bad cause ever again. Forgiveness, for Sandor Clegane, means service, specifically service that he can take pride in and pay it forward, just as the Elder Brother has found pride in being a healer famous for saving hopeless cases, making use of an ability he’d not have been able to if not for his second life. Clegane’s redemption arc is one of service and protection, one that makes use of his natural talents, so it makes literary sense that henceforward there’d be a continuation of this pattern but with the inclusion of a worthwhile cause.