“I’ve half a mind to leave them all behind and just keep going.”
A smile touched Ned’s lips. “I do believe you mean it.”
“I do, I do,” the king said. “What do you say, Ned? Just you and me, two vagabond knights on the kingsroad, our swords at our sides and the gods know what in front of us, and maybe a farmer’s daughter or a tavern wench to warm our beds tonight.”
“Would that we could,” Ned said. “but we have duties now, my liege…”
Synopsis: Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon go for a ride to the barrows of the First Men and discuss matters of state, including the marriage of Daenerys Targaryen, the moral and ethical question of assassination, the threat of the Dothraki, the Wardenship of the East, and the Sack of King’s Landing.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Eddard II is another short chapter that nevertheless packs in an enormous amount of political information about “matters of state” in Westeros. The subject of conversation: Daenerys’ marriage to Khal Drogo as revealed by Lord Varys, the Tallyrand of Westeros, through his spy Jorah Mormont. Like his Francophone spiritual counterpart, Varys shows the complicated nature of post-revolutionary consolidation. We often think of revolutions as events that sharply delineate the boundaries between eras, with the ancien regime thrown out completely. The reality is always more complicated; Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord survived the fall of Louis XVI, supported the French Revolution in its Girondist, Jacobin, and Thermidorean phases, served the Directorate, the Consulate, and Napeolon’s Empire, and survived to serve the restored Louis XVIII. Likewise, important elements of the old Targaryen regime (in the persons of Varys and Pycelle) survived the Rebellion through Jon Arryn’s clemency.
Varys’ mention in this chapter does show us something more about the Illyrio/Varys Conspiracy - clearly, the two of them intended for the Drogo/Daenerys marriage to be a visible threat to get King Robert to react to, since Varys could have very easily kept this information tucked up his sleeves. Instead, like the stage magician that he is, Varys is holding up one hand for the realm to focus on, while keeping the hand with Aegon and the Gold Company out of sight. And given that he also is in charge of assassinations, Varys can also modulate how effective Robert’s response will be, which allows the Conspiracy to avoid taking an early loss (given what we learn from the Dunk and Egg stories, three dragon eggs are not merely a staggeringly large investment, but a huge symbolic statement of Targaryen heritage) while still keeping Aegon unseen. As we’ll learn later, this use of misdirection is an absolute hallmark of the Illyrio/Vary Conspiracy, ever since Illyrio and Varys would “steal” and “return” sensitive information to their owners back during their youths in Pentos.
The news also brings up the major split between two men who are otherwise brothers in all but name – the murder of children, specifically the assassination of Daenerys. However, I think Ned’s position here is more nuanced than just the honor-above-all that he often gets tagged with. Keep in mind that unlike Robert, who rode to avenge a personal insult to his manhood, Ned rose up against a king because the king murdered children and in doing so violated the unwritten customs (which also include the guest-right, the right to trial, prohibitions on kin-slaying, the upholding of oaths, and other maxims) that pass for human rights law in Westeros. During the Rebellion, this was enough to cause Ned to break with Robert, which might have been a permanent division had not Lyanna’s death and the Greyjoy Rebellion brought them back together. For Eddard then, his support for Robert’s regime is conditioned on a certain standard of government that goes above and beyond personal standards of behavior.
Eddard’s position on this issue has often been held up as evidence that he’s simply not suited to the Machiavellian power politics of King’s Landing. However, I think we also have to consider the question of whether Ned, who was about Robb’s age when the Rebellion happened, has some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that triggers specifically off of the death of children. Eddard begins to hear Lyanna’s voice in the middle of this conversation, as he did back in the crypts of Winterfell and as he does in other moments of high stress throughout the book – and while his fever dream might be chalked off to delirium and the effects of opiates, I think his monologue while in the dungeons of the Red Keep is something closer to a nervous breakdown. Perhaps as he mused to himself, “some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word.” To my mind this should inform our judgement as to Eddard Stark’s skills as a politician; an Eddard Stark who never experienced the traumas of Robert’s Rebellion might have acted very differently.
Certainly, in his own territory, Eddard Stark has little qualms against executing traitors and oathbreakers, making war on the Greyjoys if they were to threaten him, and taking hostages to insure his safety. Given his posthumous reputation throughout the North, he was clearly adept enough at the rough-and-tumble politics of dealing with some rather touchy Northern clans that they are willing to go to war for the Starks even after the virtual extinction of the House. As we see from Robb’s and Bran’s experiences as Lords in Winterfell, the North isn’t just a place of bluff, honest warriors but just as much a place where power politics rule – the Umbers don’t get along with the Glovers; the Manderlys (who like to build public works at Stark expense), Tallharts, Flints, Karstarks and Boltons are interested in expanding their territories at the expense of the Hornwoods; the Boltons have only been relatively recently brought under Stark control, and clearly require a strong hand to keep in check, which Eddard did for seventeen years.
Ned Stark’s political savvy is further shown in his conversation with Robert about the Wardenship of the East (which I have discussed repeatedly, but I think there’s more to say). He clearly can see the broader geopolitical issues that arise from making Lannisters the Wardens of East and West. “No one man should hold both East and West” because “the appointment would put half the armies of the realm into the hands of Lannisters.” This phrase – echoed in Jon I – that the Wardens command great armies in the King’s name shows two things.
First, it shows the danger that Robert’s Cersei-inspired favoritism has created; this goes beyond the Starks’ distrust of the Lannisters, by antagonizing the Arryns and by destabilizing the balance of power between the Great Houses. In the past, there was always an element of balance – the Starks might have been Wardens of the North, but they still had the Greyjoys to their west (who we know have warred with the Starks at least three times) and the Arryns to their southeast (despite the recent good relations, the Starks and Arryns warred over the Sisters for a thousand years) to balance them; the Lannisters as Wardens of the West had to contend with Greyjoys, Tullys, and Tyrells; the Tyrells as Wardens of the South were in turn checked by Lannisters, Baratheons, and especially the Dornish. This move puts the Lannisters in the position of cutting the Seven Kingdoms virtually in half and beginning to encircle the Crownlands. It also antagonizes the rest of the Great Houses, by putting the Lannisters a level of power above them.
Second, it raises the rather perplexing question of how far along the line between early feudal monarchy (which has little direct power apart from the loyalty of its vassals) and Renaissance nation state (with its large standing army and developed bureaucracy) the Seven Kingdoms are. On the one hand, the Crownlands are rather small in comparison to the rest of Westeros and in descriptions of previous wars fought by the kings, their armies are always described as being composed of various nations (Dornish, the Vale, etc.) which suggests a feudal model with a weak king. On the other hand, we have multiple references to the Wardens commanding “armies of the realm” which are described as unusually large, and these armies are repeatedly distinguished from the levies they command as feudal overlords. My best guess is that the Wardens are something in between – they are royal officials who can command all of the vassals of their cardinal direction, including those of neighboring regions, against a threat to the Realm. Thus, a Stark Warden of the North would likely be able to call upon the Iron Islands, the Sisters, and the northern Riverlands in the event of a Wildling assault on the Wall, while an Arryn Warden of the East could command the lords of the Crownlands and the Stormlands in the event of invasion since Essos. This raises a second danger – not only could an ambitious Warden raise large numbers of troops, but they can also disrupt the feudal relationships of their rivals.
Finally, we learn more about the source of Eddard Stark’s antipathy to the Lannisters – which has previously been only intimated. I’ve already discussed how the murder of Elia, Aegon, and Rhaenys could in addition to being driven by Eddard’s own trauma be a reflection of his fear for Jon Snow’s life at the hands of the Lannisters who “helped taint the throne you sit on.” We now learn that Eddard believed that the Lannisters’ treachery against King Aerys and his encounter with Jaime Lannister in the throne room of the Red Keep meant that the Lannisters were making a move to take the Iron Throne for their own house. Ironically, although Robert discounts this threat, Eddard is one of the few in the kingdom who actually believes what is true – that the Lannisters are planning a coup d’êtat.
Eddard’s conversation with Robert about the potential dangers of the Targaryen heirs invading from Essos brings up another similarity between Westeros and the England of the Wars of the Roses – both are island nations, which can be either an advantage (it spared Westeros from the wars between Valyria, Ghis, and the Rhoynar, the doom of Valyria, and the wars between Essos city-states over the disputed lands), or a disadvantage if Essos becomes a springboard for invasion by royal pretenders.
Arguably since the Norman Conquest in 1066, England had always been in danger of invasions from the European continent, especially when said invasions were tied to disputed successions over the English throne. The so-called Anarchy between King Stephen and the Empress Maude saw repeated landings from Normandy as the Empress Maude sought to establish her claim to the throne; Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile overseas to overthrow Richard II and install himself as Henry IV; the Wars of the Roses were especially known for this, with Margaret D’Anjou of Lancaster and Edward IV of York both repeatedly fleeing to the Continent following major defeats, only to return with the tide had shifted. This phenomena of royal pretenders using mainland Europe as a base had real geopolitical implications – at various times, the French (especially following the English Civil War and the Jacobite Wars) and Spaniards (during the time of Elizabeth, for example) sought to place a friendly monarch on the throne of England in order to tip the balance of power in Europe towards themselves and away from their rivals.
We see the same phenomenon in Westeros – even after the Targaryen invasion seem to have put an end to large-scale invasions from the East, the first Blackfyre Rebellion ended not with the complete extinction of the rival Targaryen claimants, but rather with Bittersteel Rivers taking the remnants of the Blackfyre loyalists across the Narrow Sea to Essos where he founded the Golden Company. For sixty years, the Blackfyre loyalists threatened invasion, with the great danger being the confluence of a Blackfyre heir bearing Daemon’s sword arriving from across the sea with an army at his back. This never came to pass, but not without great effort and much luck – the Second Blackfyre Rebellion featured a credible and charismatic heir, but no sword; the War of Ninepenny Kings saw Maelys Blackfyre and the Golden Company consolidate Tyrosh, the Disputed Lands, and the Stepstones into a dagger aimed at the Targaryen throne.
This tradition I think should give us a different impression of Robert’s obsession with wiping out the Targaryen threat; this is not simply the act of an irrationally vengeful man afraid of ghosts, but rather a practical statesmen dealing with a familiar danger to the realm. It also explains the importance of the Wardenship of the East and the Master of Ships to the defense of the Realm – between these two offices control of the Narrow Sea, Westeros’ watery walls, lies. Given the close relationship between Jon Arryn and Stannis (another bit of backstory we unfortunately haven’t seen), the Realm was likely in good hands – until Jon Arryn died.
Eddard II gives us a whole host of interesting alternate histories for us to consider, thanks to the further explanation of Eddard and Robert’s past:
- King Eddard? A number of fanfiction writers have taken the moment when Eddard Stark rides his horse into the Red Keep and forces Jaime Lannister to relinquish his seat on the Iron Throne as their moment of departure. There are two problems that tend to crop up here: first, the Stark/Tully/Arryn/Baratheon allaince had already agreed on Robert as the best claimant to the Throne and Eddard was personally loyal to Robert. The only situation that conceivably could have led to a Stark king on the Iron Throne is if Robert had died of his wounds at the Trident, leaving Eddard as the man on the spot. The second error they make is to railroad Eddard into marrying Cersei, when the reality is that the Lannister marriage was driven by very specific circumstances. In Robert’s case, he was unattached and able to bring the Lannisters into the fold (although they could have just as easily married him to one of Mace Tyrell’s sisters for much the same purpose of bringing a wealthy Great House with uncertain loyalty into the new regime). By contrast, King Eddard’s Tully marriage would have been the lynchpin tying the Starks, Arryns, and Tullys together as the chief supports of the new regime. Marrying Cersei Lannister would have been a strategic mistake for the new King, weakening his base of support; the most likely outcome there is a marriage to Stannis or Edmure to broaden the alliance.
- Eddard Kills Jaime in the Throne Room - the more likely divergence is that Eddard was so enraged by the Lannisters’ treachery and murder that he takes it into his head that the Lannisters are making a play for the Iron Throne and attacks the Lannister forces head-on. This would change the course of future events greatly. Instead of being one of the chief supporters of the new regime, the Lannisters are instead bitter enemies even in defeat, probably combining with the Greyjoys to broaden the later rebellion. The new regime would likely need to reach out to the Tyrells and the Martells (hardly an easy business), but given both Houses’ hatred for the Lannisters, I imagine a modus vivendi could have been worked out, with Robert likely marrying a Tyrell sister. However, the politics would be extremely tricky – the Tyrells are pure opportunists, but the Martells are both Targaryen loyalists (although it’s not like none of those were found in OTL Robert’s government) and would likely work to build alliances against the Tyrells.
- King Stannis - If Robert had made the decision after the Battle of the Trident not to take up the crown and had instead left to become a mercenary lord in Essos (where honestly I think he would have done quite well and been a lot happier) or had died of his wounds without Eddard feeling the need to take the Iron Throne, it’s quite possible that the rebel alliance would have turned to Stannis Baratheon as their claimant, given his bloodline. A King Stannis would have made some interesting changes – for one thing, we know that Stannis opposed Jon Arryn’s policy of clemency, and would likely have had Varys and Pycelle executed as Targaryen loyalists. Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch would probably have been executed as child-murderers and rapists, since the good doesn’t wash out the bad in Stannis’ eyes. The question of his marriage alliance is a tricky one – Stannis would likely be extremely wary of the Lannisters as murderous Johnny-come-latelys (although that might not have precluded a marriage out of duty), while hating the Tyrells as the men who nearly starved him to death. Relations with Dorne would probably improve as a result of Stannis’ unflinching justice. And a certain half-handed Onion Knight might have become Master of Ships…
- Ned and Robert Permanently Split - In OTL, Ned and Robert’s split at King’s Landing likely ended through a combination of their shared grief at Lyanna’s death and the chance to fight together against the Greyjoy Rebellion? But it’s certainly possible for them to have split; if Eddard had let slip that Lyanna had gone willingly with Rhaegar (while still maintaining the fiction of Jon’s birth), if Robert had been more aggressively bloodthirsty regarding the surviving Targaryens, the two might have ended their friendship there. In that case, Eddard Stark never leaves for King’s Landing, and sometime in 299 AL gets the news that Mance Rayder is mustering and the dead are walking – in which case, the banners are called and the North marches to defend the Wall as they have done so many times before. When Jon Arryn dies, Tywin Lannister replaces him as Hand and the need for Robert to be executed so quickly fades. As Hand for a second time, Tywin probably would do a lot to reform the Crown’s finances, and probably coughs up enough cash to hire a couple of Faceless Men to put an end to Daenerys and Viserys at the wedding.
- Stannis Becomes Warden of the East – if Eddard had actually persuaded Robert to make Warden of the East, some really interesting things happen. Firstly, given his immediate access to Lysa Arryn and Jon Arryn’s household staff, it’s quite possible that Stannis teases out the truth of Jon Arryn’s murder, especially once Catelyn Stark shows up with Tyrion in tow. While Stannis is a hard man, I doubt he allows the farce of Tyrion’s trial to go on as OTL and then you have the interesting possibility of the Lannisters, Starks, and Baratheons uniting to quash the perfidious Littlefinger Conspiracy. Regardless, the military situation changes greatly in the War of the Five Kings – with Dragonstone and Gulltown at his command, and the might of the Knights of the Vale as well, Stannis likely takes King’s Landing well before Renly can get there. This raises some rather strange possibilities: a three-or-four-way siege of King’s Landing, with Lannisters, Baratheon/Tyrells, and Starks all outside the walls. On the other hand, Renly might think again about trying for the monarchy if Stannis actually got onto the Iron Throne ahead of him, with three hostile armies in the field – in that circumstance, becoming Stannis’ heir is a good move.
Book vs. TV:
I thought this scene in the book did capture Eddard and Robert’s friendship and their disagreement over the Targaryens, but I thought the loss of Ned’s political savvy unfortunately contributes to the idea that Eddard Stark is honorable to the point of stupidity. On the other hand, given that neither the Wardenship of the East or Stannis had been mentioned by this point, it likely would have undermined the scene’s overall thrust.