Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Eddard XV

“…the queen would not have waited long in any case. Robert was becoming unruly, and she needed to be rid of him to free her hands to deal with his brothers. They are quite a pair, Stannis and Renly. The iron gauntlet and the silk glove.”

Synopsis: Ned Stark gets a prison visit from Varys, and the two have a civilized discourse on the nature of honor, honesty, and mercy as they contemplate an offer of clemency.

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.

Political Analysis:

Eddard XV may well be the best argument that Ned Stark’s plot-line in A Game of Thrones is essentially one long noir detective story. Here, our fearless detective hits the end of the road: he’s got a bad wound that’s not going to heal (if this was 30’s noir, he would be gut-shot at this point), he’s cracked the case, but is at the mercy of his enemies; and he’s going to be forced into an impossible, morally compromised choice by a seemingly omnipotent conspiracy between exposing the treason and corruption at the heart of the power structure and saving his family. As he puts it himself: “he damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his goldcloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly…yet in the end he blamed himself.”

A Discourse on Honor, Truth, and Mercy

And thus it’s entirely fitting that so much of Eddard XV revolves around a dialogue on honor, truth, and mercy – both before and after Varys arrives, Eddard is contemplating the decision he’s going to have to make, as if he somehow knows it’s coming. And what’s interesting about this dialogue is how complicated the situation is from the standard “honor is stupid” narrative that much of the fandom seems to have bought into. While Robert’s ghost does mockingly ask “Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor shield your children?” the fact that Robert’s face turns into Littlefinger suggests that this statement shouldn’t be read straightforwardly, especially when as Ned points out, his major mistake with Robert wasn’t that he was too honorable but rather that “I lied to you, hid the truth.” 

This is why Ned’s discussion with Varys has a quality like two ships passing in the night: on the one hand, Eddard says that “the madness of mercy” led him to tell the queen that you had learned the truth of Joffrey’s birth?” with Varys arguing that “It was not wine that killed the king, it was your mercy…” (which he’s doing for his own reasons as I’ll discuss a bit later). On the other hand, Varys also tells Ned that “You are an honest and honorable man…Oftimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life…when I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.” The fundamental tension in his life, the reason why Ned’s in this dungeon, is that ultimately he is torn between the dictates of honor and the dictates of humanity in ways that can’t be easily resolved in favor of either side.

After all, it could be argued that, had Ned been as straightforwardly, unbendingly, just and righteous as Stannis is described, Ned would be safe but Cersei and her children would be dead. Instead, his humane desire to protect both his friend’s feelings and the life of three innocent children impels him to break his own code of conduct. Likewise, I think the fact that Ned chooses this chapter to go into full-blown flashback mode about the Tourney of Harrenhal, especially focusing on the crown of winter roses that symbolizes the promise he made to Lyanna, is no accident. The other major defining moment in his life when Ned has been forced to choose between his honor and mercy, he chose the latter and paid for it with permanent damage done to his reputation, his marriage, and his nephew’s happiness. So when it comes to his decision in this chapter, the outcome is almost pre-ordained.

Which brings me back around to noir and especially the existential nature of the genre – namely, that for the detective, the search for truth is ultimately not about outcomes or consequences, bringing the bad guy to justice. Think about the end of Chinatown, where Jake Gittes watches Noah Cross get away with murder, rape, fraud and theft across the whole of the San Fernando Valley, and has to walk away. What matters is that the detective chooses to find the truth.

An Interview With the Spider

Eddard XV also gives us the most extensive (and putatively honest dialogue) by Varys the Master of Whisperers this side of the Epilogue to A Dance With Dragons, and it’s not an accident that in both cases Varys is unburdening himself to a dead man. The Spider is extremely cautious. At the same time, though, as much as I think we learn about Varys, he’s not being totally frank here and I think some of the confusion people have about this character is that they’re taking him at his word here.

George R.R Martin foregrounds this fact by having Varys announce at the outset, “each man has a role to play, in life as in mummery. So it is at court. The King’s Justice must be fearsome, the master of coin must be frugal, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard must be valiant…and the master of whisperers must be sly and obsequious and without scruple.” His dramatic purpose, in other words, is to be untrustworthy. At the same time, when Eddard presses him on “who do you truly serve?” and “Your own ends. What ends are those, Lord Varys?” there is a level of consistency between his answers here and his dialogue with Kevan Lannister that suggests he’s not lying outright or trying to get Eddard to trust him (as we’ll see later).

Instead, as I have argued in the past, I think Varys genuinely believes that he “serve[s] the realm and the realm needs peace,” but the peace he has in mind is more akin to Thomas Hobbes’ conception of the peace that is the purpose of a sovereign power with complete power to prevent a war of all against all, so something of a lie by omission.  Consider that Varys came to Westeros as the twenty years of peace and prosperity of Tywin Lannister’s first term were starting to curdle into the paranoid reign of a King who used wildfire to burn suspected traitors, and has since lived through a civil war marked with betrayal and the bloody Sack of King’s Landing, and Jon Arryn’s fifteen-year truce marked by corruption, intrigue, and murder. His objective is not a “thin” peace, but a lasting and profound peace enforced by his enlightened absolute monarch, Aegon VI (more on this in Hollow Crowns, Deadly Thrones Part V). And in order to achieve this peace, as the arch-utilitarian he is, Varys is willing to wade through oceans of blood- as in the case of his actions with Tyrion and Tywin in A Storm of Swords (can’t wait for this chapter!), or his assassination of half the Small Council to plunge King’s Landing into chaos.

However, there’s an extremely precise timing at work, because Varys declines to destabilize the monarchy by helping Eddard escape here, and suggests that “If there was one soul in King’s Landing who was truly desperate to keep King Robert alive, it was me.” This might be dismissed as self-serving double-talk – after all, Varys informed Ned of the assassination attempts against King Robert after the fact and we haven’t seen him actively preventing them – except for the fact that, as we saw in Arya III, Varys really did view Robert’s death and the conflict between the Starks and Lannisters as complicating his schedule for a Targaryen restoration. So clearly, Varys is telling the truth in so far that he didn’t want Robert to die while the Targaryen restoration wasn’t ready, and if it meant the Lannisters being installed on the Iron Throne without questions as to his 

So how does Eddard Stark’s confession or escape fit in the plans of the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy? I think our first clue comes with Varys’ description of Stannis as a terrifying force of justice, the “iron hand” to Renly’s “silk glove.” Varys’ primary intention at this point must be to prevent Stannis from taking the Iron Throne, since he’d be too formidable as a general to guarantee Aegon’s victory, whereas the Lannisters could be easily pushed off the Iron Throne by a strategic revelation of Cersei’s misdeeds (once Tywin’s out of the way…). Hence his alliance with Tyrion in A Clash of Kings and his actions in A Storm of Swords. Given what he’s learned of Eddard’s intentions, Varys knows that freeing Ned Stark would lead to the Starks supporting Stannis, which he doesn’t want. By contrast, having Ned Stark take the black keeps the truth about Cersei’s children hidden for the meantime while the Lannisters deal with Stannis, and gives Varys leverage with House Stark.

Indeed, one could say that overall, Varys consistently acts to remove any political figure of the generation of the Rebellion who would presumably be adamant against the return of the Targaryens – he does nothing when Jon Arryn’s death is plotted, allows Ned Stark to fall from grace, works to keep Renly and Stannis off the Throne, then pivots to eliminate Tywin Lannister – all of which works to reduce any resistance to a Targaryen restoration. After all, Ned Stark might be adamantly opposed to a Targaryen returning to the Throne given what happened to his brother and father, but Robb would be far less so, especially if the Targaryens promised him revenge against the Lannisters.

Epic side-eye.

Varys on Cersei

In Eddard XV, we also get Varys’ cogent analysis of Cersei’s political actions, which makes them somewhat more understandable. What I had completely forgotten here is that Varys emphasizes the role of fear in her motivations, that:

“Cersei is frightened of you, my lord…but she has other enemies she fears even more. Her beloved Jaime is fighting the river lords even now. Lysa Arryn sits in the Eyrie, ringed in stone and steel…in Dorne, the Martells still brood on the murder of Princess Elia…and now your son marches down the Neck with a northern host at his back.”

“…the king’s brothers are the ones giving Cersei sleepless nights…Lord Stannis in particular. His claim is the true one, he is known for his prowess as a battle commander, and he is utterly without mercy. There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man….so here is Cersei’s nightmare: while her father and brother spend their power battling Starks and Tullys, Lord Stannis will land, proclaim himself king, and lop of her son’s curly blond head…and her own in the bargain.”

This begins to make more sense – Cersei definitely saw Eddard Stark as the primary threat, given his position as Hand of the King, but the reason she hasn’t done anything about Eddard Stark since she deposed him, and the reason why both with Sansa’s letter and this offer she is (however ineffectually) trying to push the Starks into momentary quiescence, is that her attention is focused on Stannis and Renly and she wants to free up her father and brother to come save her. This would fit with her actions later in AGOT and in ACOK, when she attempts to summon her father to defend King’s Landing despite the strategic danger this would offer in allowing Robb free reign in the Westerlands and the possibility that all of the Lannisters’ enemies could converge on King’s Landing, surrounding Tywin and the capitol.  And it would also explain why she’s choosing now to act – Renly’s gotten away, Stannis is marshaling his forces, but Tywin and Jaime have been drawn west and north away from King’s Landing, just as she’d feared.

At the same time, Cersei’s actions don’t look particularly good even in this light. Given the importance of Ned Stark at this moment, the fact that she’s left him in the black cells, where he could easily die of infection, gone for him taking the black (which would potentially scotch a trade, since Robb wouldn’t really consider his father being exiled to the Wall a fair exchange for Jaime being returned to Cersei), and outsourced it to Varys and Littlefinger, suggests a level of inattention and lack of forethought that’s really inexcusable.

Varys on Littlefinger

Which brings us to this tantalizing little morsel: in Cersei II, we learn that “Joff was supposed to spare his life and send him to the Wall. Stark’s eldest son would have followed him as Lord of Winterfell, but Sansa woulf have stayed at court, a hostage. Varys and Littlefinger had worked out the terms.” This rarest of all collaborations, between the two greatest conspirators and manipulators in all of Westeros is a tantalizing little detail, especially since we don’t see Littlefinger’s hand here.

In fact, when Eddard questions whether Varys and Littlefinger are working together, the Master of Whisperers responds that “I would sooner wed the Black Goat of Qohor [than be in league with LF]. Littlefinger is the second most devious man in the Seven Kingdoms. Oh, I feed him choice whispers, sufficient so that he thinks I am his.” To me, this points to a few critically important things: firstly, one important way in that Varys has had the upper hand on Littlefinger for a loooong time is that he’s been a major source of Littlefinger’s intelligence and that he’s gotten Littlefinger not to trust him, but to underestimate him, which is even better. Secondly, it suggests that Varys is more aware of Littlefinger’s skills than vice-versa, especially given Baelish’s comments about the eunuch. Thirdly, that both men had a deep interest in the outcome of this situation.

Varys I think genuinely wanted Ned to go to the Night’s Watch, as I’ve suggested. And Littlefinger may well have too, at first – after all, it’s a lot easier to get Catelyn and/or Sansa to marry you if they’re not grieving over the death of an immediate loved one you caused, and so much more satisfying to force Ned to spend the rest of his life knowing Littlefinger has either/both of them in his clutches and there’s nothing he can do about it. However (and this is where I think I need to revise my statement from Sansa IV), Cersei also tells us in the same paragraph that she had planned to break the engagement between Sansa and Joffrey, but that “I would have made Sansa a good marriage. A Lannister marriage. Petyr Baelish had offered to wed the girl himself, she recalled, but of course that was impossible; he was much too lowborn.” It may well have been during these negotiations that Baelish decided to persuade Joffrey to execute Ned Stark instead, which would fit with his improvisational, impulse style (consider that it would mean he got literally nothing out of the deal, and even if he had succeeded in his marriage plans he still would have been a long way from inheriting Winterfell), an impulse that dramatically reshaped Westerosi history.

Varys’ Offer: Honor vs. Family

Finally, we come to the crux of the chapter: Varys tells Ned that “I want you to serve the realm…tell the queen you will confess your vile treason, command your son to lay down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey the true heir. Offer to denounce Stannis and Renly as faithless usurpers…if you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to the grave, I believe she will allow you to take the black.” And in order to get Eddard to agree, Varys appeals to his sense of self-preservation and then to his sense of proto-nationalism, both of which fail.

Ultimately, Eddard insists on placing his personal values of truth and honor above the “greater good,” as all good noir detectives must do. And indeed, it’s what he should do – because what Varys is offering is a terrible deal. He’s just been informed that Cersei is in a terrible situation and wants to make a deal, and that House Stark is beginning to bring resources into the field that can only improve his current position. Taking this deal gives the Lannisters everything they want, while giving Stark himself only the merest semblance of life, and leaving his daughter in harm’s way. It’s the definition of a one-sided exchange.

The best possible advice would be for Eddard to hang back and wait, see if the Stark army can’t improve his negotiating position. And I think both Eddard and Varys realize that Varys is peddling bad advice here, because Varys sidesteps to a completely different tack to break his resistance: “and your daughter’s life, my lord? How precious is that?…the next visitor who calls on you…could bring you Sansa’s head.” What I think much of the fandom don’t realize is that Varys is lying here: Eddard himself and Sansa are far too important as hostages to be killed now, in complete opposition to what Varys tells him. It’s especially the case that having Sansa killed at this point could only harm the Lannisters, not help them; killing Sansa isn’t going to stop Robb if having his father imprisoned didn’t. Only Joffrey’s complete lack of sense and Cersei’s inability to react quickly changes that fact.

On a symbolic level, Eddard is choosing family over honor. On a practical level, he’s being lied to, coerced, and rushed into making the last mistake of his life.

Historical Analysis:

When we last left Richard, Duke of York, he had put his hand on the throne of England and claimed it as his by right, only to be met by stunned silence. A few days later, on October 16th, York went to the House of Lords and formally presented his demanded to be recognized as the rightful King of England, presenting them with a document detailing the succession of the Kings of England, and specifically how as the descendant (on his mother’s side) of Edward III’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence (in addition to being the direct descendant of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund, Duke of York), his claim to the throne trumped that of Henry VI, whose grandfather had usurped the throne from Richard II, despite being the son of the third son of Edward III. If you’ve ever wondered why GRRM spent so much of AGOT describing lines of descent, it’s because this stuff really mattered, and people died in their thousands because of it.

However, unlike the Great Council of 233, which was willing to act to decide a contested line of succession, the House of Lords responded with a (polite) campaign of resistance through delay: first, they inquired as to why he hadn’t put forward this claim before but instead claimed to be acting only in the cause of good government, he responded “thought right for a time rest and be put for silence, yet it rotteth not, nor shall it perish.”[1] Second, they went to King Henry VI to ask for his opinion; after that, they canvassed judicial experts. Finally, they engaged in a lengthy debate over whether, even if Richard was the rightful king by law, they could abrogate the oath of loyalty to Henry VI and his son (which Richard also sworn, a further embarrassment).  York left Westminster with a declaration that he would be heir apparent to Henry VI, and the sentence of attainder on himself and his followers revoked, but without the declaration he had wanted, and with his political reputation in tatters.

Meanwhile, Queen Margaret d’Anjou was marching on York with an army of Lancastrian loyalists and Scottish allies, some 20,000 strong. Knowing that he had to meet this threat or lose everything, York and his ally Salisbury marched north with an army of 9,000 men that swelled to 12,000 on the march, fortifying himself at Sandal Castle where he awaited the arrival of reinforcements from his son Edward of March and Salisbury’s son the Earl of Warwick, as the Lancastrian host descended upon him.

On Dec 3oth, falsely believing himself to be reinforced by Lancastrian soldiers under Andrew Trollope masquerading as Yorkist men (shades of Janos Slynt and the Goldclaoks), York marched out of Sandal Castle to meet the center of the Lancastrian army. When the two hosts clashed, the hidden Lancastrian right and left (which together with the center amounted to an army twice the size of his own) emerged from the woods to smash into both of his flanks (and here we see the inspiration for the Battle of the Whispering Woods) at the same time. This disastrous decision, which gave rise to the mnemonic “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain” for the colors of the visible spectrum, ended the Yorkist army there and then. Richard, Duke of York, died on the field of battle, his army either fleeing in panic or surrounded and being chopped to pieces, with 2,500 men dead on the field. His seventeen year old son was murdered after his surrender by Lord Clifford, who cried “by God’s blood, thy father killed mine. So will I slay the accursed blood of York.”

After his death, York’s body was propped up on an ant-hill by Lancastrian soldiers, who crowned him with a paper crown, hailing him as the “king without a kingdom.” When Clifford escorted Queen Margaret to view the heads of York, his son Rutland, and his ally Salisbury (who also was executed following the battle), she ordered that the heads be placed on pikes on Micklegate Bar atop the walls of York so that “York shall overlook the town of York.”

1. Weir, Alison. Wars of the Roses, loc. 4650.

In William Shakespeare’s version (a highlight of Henry VI, Part 3), the horror of Wakefield is magnified by flipping the order of events: Rutland is murdered before the Duke of York, who is in turned denied the dignity of death in battle so that he and his nemesis Queen Margaret can have one final confrontation: 

It is a scene of grotesque indignity, the unnatural inversion of the ceremony of installing a new king (complete with paper crown, a mole-hill for a throne, and blood to anoint him), the cruelty of a mother waving the death of her enemy’s son in his face, a great warrior forced to weep and dance before his tormentors like a bear being baited. It’s not an accident that it’s this image of a Northern Lord brought down by a vengeful, bloody queen that inspired Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister, or for that matter Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts (“off with his head, off with his head!”).

In history, Richard Duke of York’s death, however horrific it might seem, ended nothing and solved nothing. As discussed earlier, Richard’s death at Wakefield made his son Edward the largest landholder in England and the Yorkist claimant to the throne; the simultaneous death of Salisbury made his son Warwick the wealthiest man in England. The two men would unite their forces at London, and the war would continue.

What If?

  • Varys had smuggled out Eddard? This counterfactual goes a long way towards revealing Varys’ motives at this moment. If Eddard is released, then not only does Robb Stark gain a major advantage (no need to bargain over Jaime and a much clearer exit strategy), but also the Stark forces learn of the truth of Joffrey’s parentage before they irrevocably decide for independence. This most likely means not only that House Stark sides with Stannis, but also that Stannis’ public letter is corroborated by the Hand of the King. This could well have a cascading effect on Westerosi politics: the Lords of the Stormlands would at the least split rather than only side with Renly; the Vale might be pulled into the war against Lysa’s wishes due to Stark/Royce influence and the cover of King Robert’s Hand’s command. While at that point a two-stage war, first Stannis and the Stark/Tully army against the Lannisters and then the Stannis/Starks/Tullys against Renly and the Tyrells (a great motown band name, btw) is most likely, it’s possible that the War of Five Kings might have been forestalled then and there in favor of a recapitulation of Robert’s Rebellion with Tywin playing the role of Rhaegar.
  • On the other hand, it’s possible that Varys could have secured Eddard’s support for a restoration of the Targareyns…if only he had known that Eddard was protecting another Targaryen claimant to the Iron throne. Although perhaps he did know, and he was worried about a potential rival to Aegon…/tinfoil
  • Eddard said no? Ironically, if Eddard has just thought a little bit longer about the offer and played for time, things would have worked out better for almost everyone: if Eddard is alive when news of the Whispering Woods arrives in King’s Landing, there’s no way that Cersei jeopardizes her precious Jaime with a public confession. A straightforward trade of Eddard for Jaime is worked out, which is great for Eddard, Cersei, Jaime, Robb, Tywin, and maybe even Varys (who could ensure Stannis’ defeat and the Starks owing him a favor). I doubt that this ends the Stark/Lannister conflict; the Lannisters have repeatedly attacked both the Starks and the Tullys and would still be holding Sansa and Arya (putatively) hostage and Eddard would probably be pushing for a declaration in favor of Stannis. However, it would probably be the best possible chance for a peace on that side of the conflict for a time, in that the Lannisters have more important crises to deal with and the Starks have their primary war aim accomplished.

Book vs. Show:

With the significant exception of the omission of the hallucinations/flashbacks, this scene is otherwise played pretty straight in the TV show (with the exception of playing up Eddard’s willingness to die as a soldier, which is omitted in the text in favor of a sharper focus on the question of truth and honor). On the other hand, I do worry that the initial decision to avoid flashbacks and prophecies (fools too, come to think of it) will cause problems later on – how are the show-runners going to get to R+L=J and still have the same impact if the idea hasn’t been planted in the audience’s head?

Their only go-to at the moment, as far as I can tell, is Meera’s story about the crannogman and the Knight of the Laughing Tree, but that’s a hard one to go on without context.

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144 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Eddard XV

  1. Matthew says:

    A great name for a mowtown band indeed! I never realized how well the comparisons between the York/Lancaster conflict worked so well to define the early Lannister/Stark feud, though that comparison does seem to fall apart more as the war goes on.

  2. Meereenese Liberation Front says:

    That it was Ned’s mercy that killed Robert is also quite obviously a lie of Varys': Cersei’s decision to let Lancel kill the king with strongwine must surely have been given *before* Ned’s little chat with her in the godswood, especially as a dying Robert is carried back to the Red Keep only one or two days afterwards. Had Ned been in a better state, he would probably have been able to think clearer – but as it was, it drove down the motive of “my honor kills my beloved ones” perfectly, making him accept the dishonorable “confession” in exchange for Sansa’s life. (Even though I guess you’re quite right that that never really was in danger.)

  3. Ivan T. W. says:

    I would say that the show writers are more interested in R+L=J being a sudden, shocking revelation that the audience didn’t see coming. I felt that’s what they did with the Red Wedding too…they seem more interested in bombast than the setup.

  4. Andrew says:

    Good job with another chapter analysis.

    It seems Varys knows how to get to Eddard, by manipulating his fears, mainly the fear for his children. Varys does this deftly by recalling Rhaenys, whose corpse Ned saw, to remind Ned that the Lannisters are not above killing children.

    As for Eddard, if I said there was a guy betrayed one king and then betrayed the new king he picked over the old one, the immediate impression would be that the guy is a untrustworthy, opportunistic scoundrel. Yet Ned had good reasons for betraying both kings: Aerys killed his father and brother without trial and then demanded Ned’s head, and Ned had made a promise to his sister on her deathbed to protect her son, his nephew.

  5. Sean C. says:

    My read on Littlefinger vs. Varys is that the represent opposite extremes: Littlefinger is conspiring to upend the realm for personal gain, while Varys conspires to do so essentially as a large-scale poli-sci project aimed at producing the ideal king (with the possible side-benefit of installing the Blackfyres on the throne, although that part of the project may be more to please Illyrio).

    • Yeah, that seems right.

      Although I think the Blackfyre thing Varys doesn’t even know about.

      • Winnie says:

        Exactly Jim B. It would have been easier just to get rid of Cersei and Joffrey and train Tommen for the job. Hell, the Tyrrells were actually trying to do just that and it might have worked too if not for Cersei. And you’re right that no matter how great Aegon might be he is just NOT worth all the horror that the civil war has inflicted on Westeros. NOBODY is worth that. If we’re rooting for Dany or Jon its not even because we like them so much, (though, we do,) but because we’re hoping they’ll deal with the Others, NOT so they can put soak the fields with even more blood fighting for their *claims*. Also it’s pretty blind of Varys not to be the least bit concerned with the situation up at the Wall since you know it could be the End of the World and everything.

      • Andrew says:

        I think Varys does know about the Blackfyre angle given that he could be one. This is the guy who lets little get by him, and I doubt he would be ignorant of the entire plan, especially when working closely with Illyrio.

        Serra may have been Varys’s sister. Varys was a slave in Lys, and while he was sold to a mummer’s troupe, Serra was sold to a pillow house. That would make Aegon his nephew.

      • Winnie – think about it from Varys’ perspective: the Baratheon dynasty has brought two civil wars and a rebellion within 20 years, compared to the Targaryens, who suffered two civil wars across 300 years. If putting a Targaryen on the Throne means you avoid wars for decades or civil wars, then it might be worth it. As for him being blind about the metaphysical side of things, well there’s no reason to be otherwise as far as he knows.

        Andrew – that’s a possibility, but it’s also entirely dramatically appropriate for a man who sees through everyone else being unable to see through those closest to him.

      • John says:

        I’d say the Targaryens brought about at least four civil wars:
        1) War of the Faith; 2) Dance of the Dragons; 3) Blackfyre Rebellion; 4) Robert’s Rebellion, which can hardly be seen as brought about by the Baratheons. Possibly five if we consider the War of the Ninepenny Kings a civil war. The Baratheons have brought about one civil war, much of which is due to Varys’s own scheming.

      • John says:

        I’d be astonished if there haven’t been *numerous* rebellions of about the scale of the Greyjoy Rebellion during the Targaryen period. If you’re going to count that, why not the Defiance of Duskendale?

        • Duskendale is tiny, really only two minor Houses in a tax revolt over certain municipal privileges. Normally, I’d classify them on the same scale as the Kingswood Brotherhood or something. If it wasn’t for Aerys being stupid, no one would remember it at all.

          The Greyjoy Rebellion involved an entire kingdom of Westeros, granted the smallest of them, seeking political independence. To put it down, the crown mobilized the Riverlands, the Reach, the North, and the Stormlands. Fighting stretched from the Iron Islands to the Riverlands to the Westerlands.

          They’re of different magnitudes.

    • Winnie says:

      The thing I don’t get about Varys’s ‘experiment’ is what happens AFTER Aegon’s reign. Yes he’s trained Aegon since birth to be the ‘perfect’ king, but what about Aegon’s heirs?!? How’s he going to replicate the conditions for THEM?!? Or is there going to be a new “rustaganda” for Iron Throne heirs? Also if Aegon *is* legitimate and marries Dany won’t that be perpetuating the traditional Targaryen problem of madness through incest?!? That’s also why I don’t see Jon marrying Dany either-to put it bluntly the family needs fresh blood. Hell sometimes, I think it would make more sense for Jon to marry Sansa or Arya who are in actuality merely his first cousins but I don’t think GRRM is going in that direction either. If Arya ever marries anyone it will be a newly knighted and titled Genry granted legitimacy status, (thus fulfilling both their father’s wishes of a Baratheon/Stark marriage), and Sansa will end up some kind of Queen SOMEWHERE, but god only knows who her eventual husband and/or baby daddy will be.

      • Jim B says:

        Winnie, this bothers me too. There has to be more to Varys’s plans than a scheme to put one “perfect” king on the throne. Varys is too smart not to realize that a great king can’t be followed by a bad one. I guess it’s possible that he figures he’ll be around to shape at least the next generation, too, but if that’s so easy, then why didn’t he try it with the Baratheon-Lannisters? Sure, Cersei’s overprotective and not likely to trust her children to a eunuch master of whisperers, but how hard would it have been for Varys to arrange for a maester, septa, etc. sympathetic to his views? He could have focused his energies on Tommen back when he was the “spare” and then have Joffrey killed when needed. That certainly seems a lot easier than a convoluted, ever-changing scheme to engineer a civil war and then put an overseas (possibly fake) pretender on the throne.

        And even if you’re the most cold-blooded of utilitarian schemers, does the math really add up? Is getting one great king, even a young one who can be expected to reign for a long time, really worth putting the realm through all the pain and suffering of the War of Five Kings, and all the starvation that will happen during the coming winter because crops were dying in the fields or being pillaged?

        I just don’t buy that Aegon and his supposedly fantastic training are the lynchpin of all this work. I think it’s more likely that Varys never had one grand scheme to install Aegon. It was one contingency plan of many, along with Viserys and Daenyrs. (Maybe even Jon Snow, if I can borrow Steven’s tinfoil hat.) He’s playing kingmaker with, as he says, the best interests of the realm at heart, and making decisions on the fly rather than by one predetermined scheme — though Illyrio may believe otherwise.

        So Varys first tries to keep Robert alive while he assesses his choices, while not bothering to save Jon Arryn because doing so would just kick-start the civil war. If Joffrey or Tommen or Myrcella had proven to be good options, then Aegon could be quietly disposed of. Or even if Stannis hadn’t allied himself with Melisandre — with Varys’s hatred of sorcery, he’s not going to help Ned put Stannis on the throne and make her the de facto queen. By the end of aDwD, King Tommen under a Kevan/Tyrell regency/handship is actually, by Varys’s own admission, looking like a decent option, but at this point he’s fairly committed himself to an anti-Lannister position: Aegon has landed troops, and Varys can’t exactly reclaim his seat on the small council with Lannisters in charge.

      • zonaria says:

        The whole ‘perfect prince’ business reminds me of the Roman emperor Nero’s education, and that didn’t turn out too well – if memory serves he ended up executing everyone responsible for his education.

        Alternatively, Aegon may turn out to be a little bit too perfect, and take objection to some of the methods Varys had been using in trying to win him the throne.

      • If you combine the idea of putting someone trained to be the ideal king with the desire to put your best friend’s kid on the throne you can see Varys’ motivation. Even if Varys’ has no inkling of any Blackfyre plotting Westeros must have seemed a good opportunity. A whole continent ruled by a family with a history of mental instability held up by a hand so insecure about his family’s reputation that he’s undermining the confidence of the king with his pathological inability to show even a sliver of humility. It wouldn’t take a genius to see an opportunity to create rifts and gain power.

      • Yeah, there’s always the problem of the Cháodài Xúnhuán, but I think it’s the track record thing I pointed to above – as bad as the Targaryens were, they also made it through three centuries with remarkably few wars.

  6. Celestial says:

    The argument that the best possible advice for Eddard was to hang back and wait is not exactly correct.
    You need to keep in mind that you are using here the benefit of hindsight, which none of the characters possesses. Robb Stark is indeed bringing resources in the field, but we’re talking here about a teenager who is not even 16-years old going against the like of Tywin and Jaime with half their numbers. Any reasonable observer would expect the Lannisters to make mincemeat out of Robb. What’s more, Robb has a tenuous hold over his bannermen, which we have seen in a previous chapter (Umber’s initial defiance, Mormont’s claim that Robb had no business giving orders to her, Bolton and Glover’s request for battle command, etc): while the Lannisters have an iron grip on their forces, a single serback would be sufficient for the Stark camp to blow up under Robb’s ass.

    Without knowing how the movie ends, so to speak, Robb’s chances of victory against Tywin/Jaime looked almost inexistent. Cersei can’t really be blamed that she never considered Jaime losing – very few would. Cat himself has misgivings, despite the fact that she is bound to hope for victory.

    As Eddard sees it, he must put an end to the conflict before the situation goes from bad to worse for the Starks. Stannis and Renly hadn’t mobilized yet and Tywin/Jaime had time for a decisive battle with the Starks and Tullys. Imagine what would had happened if Jaime defeated (captured) Robb Stark while Tywin destroyed Bolton’s army (something which would have happened if Robb Stark hadn’t been the military prodigy which he became). The Starks would have become a poor auxiliary to the Lannisters, who should have felt honored if they were allowed to marry Tywin’s 19th cousins.

    • No, I took those things into account. In comparison to Ned’s present situation, it can’t get worse – right now he’s in jail and his children are hostages. Robb losing wouldn’t make things worse, just more of the same.

      And Eddard doesn’t think in the terms you suggest AT ALL.

      • David Hunt says:

        Plus, if there’s anyone who knows exactly how keen Robb’s military mind is, it’s Ned Stark. If Robb can keep an army in the field to threaten the Lannisters, that gives the lives of Ned and Sansa great value. I think Ned can count of Robb to (at least) not make stupid mistakes and keep his army as viable threat so that he can bargain for Ned’s release and Sansa’ as well if things break his way.

        Also, remember that Ned has no idea just how far gone Lysa Arryn is.Cat is her sister and Jon Arryn was her husband. From Ned’s POV, the whole mess started when she wrote to them that the Lannisters had murdered her husband. Ned has every resson to expect that the Vale is going to come down on his side of the conflict. He’d e wrong, but I don’t think he could be faulted for coming to an erroneous conclusion there.

      • Celestial says:

        I don’t understand your point. According to you Ned in jail + Sansa hostage + Northern Army intact + Robb free and in charge = Ned in jail + Sansa hostage + Northern Army shattered + Robb killed/captured/put to flight. Are you for real?

        With Robb’s army still intact, he has a realistic chance of getting out of jail. If Robb loses, then Cersei can do with him as she wants without any fears of repercussions. Robb and Catelyn had evaluated this situation exactly in these terms when they met in the previous chapter, if you try to recall: the fact that they both agreed on the matter suggests it was true.

        Eddard does not think in these terms because Varys is constantly deflecting his attention, but, during the meeting, Eddard remarked that “Robb is just a boy” and he did not contradict Varys’s assessment that Stannis/Renly are the biggest threat for the Lannister, which points out that Eddard was not exactly holding high hopes for a Stark victory.
        Besides, we were not talking about how Eddard thought, but what was the best advice for Ned. Unless Varys was clairvoyant, the advice he gave it to Ned (to put an end to the war as quick as possible on any acceptable terms) was the most reasonable one. Before Whispering Woods and Battle of the Camps, Robb’s chances could be rated at 20% only if one was feeling generous.

      • David Hunt says:

        Celestial. If I were Ned, I’d expect that Robb’s best strategy is to crush the Lannisters between the armies of the North and Vale. Robb’s chances looked bleak before his victories because Lysa hung him out to dry. I don’t see why Ned wouldn’t expect the Vale to rally to his side. It did before and the blood-ties between them are as strong.

        Also, I find it astonishing that Tywin got so many men moving so fast. It makes me suspect that Tywin was expecting some sort of armed conflict to break out as was rallying his troops on the sly before the War broke out.

      • Celestial says:

        David Hunt. Claiming that Ned knows how keen is Robb’s military mind is a big stretch. It’s a mountain of difference between Robb showing some good insight during discussions with Ned in Winterfell and actually leading a military campaign.

        Agreed with your point about the Vale, though, albeit it seems Varys alludes to Ned that the Vale might not take part (he talks about the Lannisters fighting Starks and Tullys, but makes no similar mention about the Vale, except for a remark regarding the enmity between Lysa and Cersei).

      • 1. Robb’s army in the field is better than the situation before, full stop. Even in the worst case, Eddard is still in prison right where he is now, so it’s not worse.

        2. Mathematically estimating his chances in this fashion is just pulling numbers out of thin air.

  7. Winnie says:

    I agree it would have been better for Eddard to wait, but that would not have been obvious at ALL to a guy lying in the dungeons for days on end whose worried sick about his captive children. Also Cersei’s not maintaining Ned’s safety and well being was under the circumstances a remarkably foolish move on her part. More evidence that Cersei was never all that great a political player-her rise to power was based more on luck, Daddy, and LF’s manipulations than her own initiative and so her performance in FfoC was really not that surprising since there was no one else around to counteract her bad decisions anymore, (namely Tywin and Tyrion,) and save her from herself.

    And yeah, it might have made a HUGE difference if Varys had known about Jon’s heritage.
    What Varys has delibarately been doing with Aegon, Ned and Fate have inadvertently done for Jon and probably more successfully too.

  8. David Hunt says:

    If I may be allowed what I hope is a lighthearted and amusing critique:

    “Varys on Cersei”. O God! what an image. That was cruel.

    “Varys on Littlefinger.” My eyes! My eyes! I’ve gouged out my own eyes!

    Seriously, I’m impressed by your ability/ambition to divine what parts of Varyss statements true. It seems that he wants Ned to live, so everything he says is suspect on some level as Ned could exert influence even from the Wall should he choose to. The only moment when I fully trust what Varys is saying is when he’s talking to Kevan Lannister in DwD. He had just given the Lord a mortal wound and had no reason to lie to him. As to why he’d talk to him at all, I think that Varys actually respected Kevan. He was working to doing his best to do the job he’d be given as Hand/regent and glue to pieces of their shattered political position pack together. He was serving the Realm as he saw it.

    • Yeah, this was one of the hardest chapters to write because of how much thinking I had to do about the context for each line and what each character knows and what’s the likelihood of him telling the truth.

    • ajay says:

      “Ned could exert influence even from the Wall should he choose to.”

      Oh, surely not. Once he’s taken the oath, he’s officially debarred from taking any part in the Kingdoms’ politics (see Master Aegon) – and Ned is the last person to try to weasel his way round that sort of commitment.

      • David Hunt says:

        And yet when the Watch needed some specific piece of aid, I’m sure that Benjen Stark found some excuse to visit his brother. Jon will eventually be dancing along that line as he exerts influence on Stannis by just telling him useful things about the politics and environment of the North

      • And Varys says explicitly he’d have to swear an oath never to speak of Joffrey’s birth.

    • John says:

      Varys is not alone with Kevan.

  9. lastofthegiants says:

    great job as always, I read through the backlog of these over break as soon as I found them. Do you think HBO/ Dave and Dan are keeping the flashbacks to Roberts Rebellion in their back pocket, in case the show outpaces the books?

    • That’s a possibility. Or a possible post-finale way to keep the gravy train running.

    • Sean C. says:

      When the show outpaces the books (and it’s almost certainly a question of when, not if, unless Martin drastically increases his writing pace), having a collection of excised flashbacks isn’t going to be a magic bullet. They’ve said as much; they’re not going to wait on Martin. And the rebellion flashbacks wouldn’t even address the show’s production problems, since it couldn’t use any of the actors, who would just be sitting around while under contract.

      • Winnie says:

        Well I know for a fact that Martin made a point of telling the show’s creators about the main points of his final trajectory in case he died before the series was completed so I’m thinking there’s an excellent chance that the show could wrap up the storyline before book 7 comes out. Instead of the books being spoilers for the show in other words, the show would now be the ultimate spoiler for the books.

        Alternatively Martin could get some of the show’s writers to ‘help’ him with some of the chapters in the next 2 volumes thus speeding things up a bit. Or maybe stop introducing 500 new characters in every freaking book and just concentrate on the storylines involving the ones we care about and obliquely do some quick exposition on what the hell happened to everyone else.

        I think about this WAY too much.

  10. Celestial says:

    Steve, with all due respect, while I greatly appreciate your pieces and your blog is one of my favorite readings, spitting in the eye of logic just so that you can stuck to your arguments out of stubborness does you no favors.
    The worst case scenario is not just Eddard remaining in the prison. The worst case scenario is Robb joining him in the dungeon or being dead. Out of the five major battles between Lannisters and Stark/Tullys (Battles of Riverrun, Whispering Woods/Camps, Green Fork, Fords, Oxcross), three of them ended with the defeated commanders dead or captured (Edmure, Jaime, Stafford Lannister).
    Claiming that “it’s not worse” is nothing else but being obstinate – and that is not a commendable trait in a historian.

    As for the numbers being “pulled out of thin air”, of course they are! All prognostics and estimations of one’s chances in a future conflict can be said to be “pulled out of thin air”, so your point is moot.
    Basically, the Lannisters outnumber Robb 2 to 1, so, based on this, Robb can have one chance out of 3. Does Robb have force multipliers to nullify this disadvantage? No, he does not. In fact, he has further disadvantages. His enemies are more experienced than him. Also, Robb’s control over his own army is debatable (remember: Bolton undermined Robb’s war efforts from the very beginning by choosing a tactic which caused his political rivals unnecessary casualties). Both factors decrease Robb’s chances even further.
    Now imagine you are Varys and get to meet Ned Stark, to give him an honest advice. There are just 2 options here:
    – refuse Cersei, which would precipitate a clash between Robb and Tywin/Jaime where all the advantages seem to be on the Lannister side;
    – accept and thus postpone a confrontation until the situation gets clearer and Stannis/Renly/Lysa make their intentions open, while preserving the Stark strength and getting out of prison as well.
    The second is a no brainer. Ned going to the wall isn’t that much of a catastrophe anyway. Even from the wall, Ned is going to wield great influence. Tons of Stark had joined the NW in the past and the NW is seen as a kind of honorable retirement in the North. Even without the crisis of the Wot5K, Ned could have retired to the Wall in the future, leaving his son in his place, like Jeor Mormont did, especially if Cat died. Benjen, for instance, kept a close touch with his family, so the Wall is nothing to be scared of.
    The deal was pretty reasonable, thus, and it went sour only because Joff was a lunatic and Cersei was incompetent.

    • Allow me to clarify:

      From Eddard’s perspective, he’s completely defeated. He’s in the black cells, not that far from death, and his children are hostage. Having an army in the field can’t put Eddard in a worse position than being in the black cells on the verge of death, so it can only help. Indeed, it’s already helping because it’s prompting Cersei to make her opening bid.

      You’re leaving a bunch out of the equation, re Robb:
      1. The Lannisters are divided so their whole strength isn’t being brought to bear against Robb.
      2. Robb also has experienced bannermen to help guide him; you can’t have it both ways here by arguing his inexperience AND overweening bannermen.
      3. The Lannisters also have to worry about the Baratheons.

      I also think you’re not presenting what the options are here OR what Varys’ intentions are – he’s not here to give honest advice, but to push his own personal interests. Regarding the options, keep in mind that refusing Cersei doesn’t precipitate the conflict; the conflict has already started and Cersei has shown that she doesn’t want to fight the Starks. Holding back to see how much she doesn’t want to fight them could only improve the terms of her offer. Likewise, Varys’ information makes their intentions clear – Lysa and Renly and Stannis are Cersei’s enemies and Cersei fears them more than the Starks.

      Going to the Wall AND swearing an oath to keep the truth hidden is a complete defeat from Ned’s perspective: it means the rightful king is denied the Throne and a bastard born of incest becomes King, that the murder of Robert and Jon Arryn go unavenged, that his honor is destroyed, and that his daughter remains a captive.

      • Celestial says:

        I disagree. First of all, let’s make something clear. We are not discussing from Ned’s perspective, because Ned cannot think clearly at the current moment, for reasons already mentioned. We are discussing the best advice a third party (Varys) could give Ned. You claimed that Varys is deceiving Ned and it was better for him to have waited. I dispute that, because I believe that Varys’ advice, while self-interested, was still sound. Now, to your points:

        1. Yes, Eddard, as an individual, was completely defeated. The North and the Stark clan was not. The North and the Stark dynasty did not mean just Eddard Stark. Delaying entails the risk of turning Eddard’s personal defeat into a complete extinction of his entire family. Which, btw, is exactly what happened in the OTL and it’s not clear how exchanging Eddard for Jaime in ACOK would have prevented that. Renly would have still been assassinated, the Tyrell/Lannister merging would have still occurred, the Ironborn would have still attacked the North, Walder Frey would have still looked for a pretext to change sides (something confirmed by GRRM). The only thing which Eddard could have prevented was the fall of Winterfell and that alone is very debatable whether it would have saved the Stark power from collapse.

        2. Regarding having an army in the field. Eddard has that army NOW, when he is talking with Varys. In one week time or more, he might have NO ARMY anymore.

        3. Cersei makes her opening bid NOW when the strengths of the Starks and all her other enemies is still intact. Robb still had an army in the field during ACOK. Do you care to recall what lousy deal offered Tyrion, after he managed to secure Dorne’s neutrality and it became clear the Vale was not going to step in? And after Blackwater, the Lannister don’t even bother anymore. With Robb’s army still in the field.

        4. The Lannisters are divided, but each of their armies is roughly equal to Robb’s. And it’s irrelevant anyway, because it was a circumstantial situation. Jaime and Tywin were divided THEN. They might rejoin. Tywin tried to do just that, even, if not for Robb’s miraculous victory against victory (made possible only by Blackfish’s extraordinary scouting talents), he would have succeeded.

        5. Yes, Robb has experienced bannermen to aid him… which provide different and even conflicting opinions and each has his own agenda.

        6. The fact that the Lannisters have to worry about the Baratheons is the whole point. Because, due to this, Tywin is going to seek a decisive battle with Robb as soon as possible. As long as Ned is in prison, Robb is compelled to accept a battle in order to free his father, while his interest is to wait for the Baratheons to declare themselves and take the field.

        7. Regarding Ned being sent in disgrace to the Wall, while Sansa stays a hostage. Sansa IS going to remain a hostage anyway. Even after Jaime’s defeat, Tywin is never going to accept to trade both Eddard AND Sansa for Jaime, because that would mean an immediate alliance between the North and Stannis and the exposing of the Lannisters as traitors/conspirators against Robert. If a trade is considered, Sansa will be the guarantee for Eddard’s silence. If Robb asks for Eddard/Sansa, it will only stall the negotiations and the events will unfold just as they did in the OTL, with the only difference that Eddard remains alive in a dungeon and will witness the Red Wedding and the downfall of his family, only to be killed afterwards.

        8. Regarding Ned not knowing any of this, he actually does as I used only information which was available at that time.
        Ned knows from Varys that Stannis/Renly have not taken the field yet, while Robb did. In this case, one does not even have to be a brilliant strategist to figure out that Robb will have to face the first (and thus the heaviest) blow of the Lannisters, because Tywin’s only viable strategy is to defeat his enemies before they could coordinate their efforts.
        Ned does not know of LF’s influence on Lysa. But, even without LF, there is a distinct possibility that Lysa will not support Robb, because Lysa is a coward. Cat knows this, so probably Ned does to. Even without that, Lysa is also an inept ruler, which probably everyone at court knows. So, a clear-thinking Ned would have to consider removing Lysa from control.
        Ned knows the Royces are his friends.
        What else does not Ned know?

        With the greatest respect, your argument that Ned’s best option was to wait is unsound.

      • 1. We absolutely are talking about matters from Ned’s point of view. I explicitly say in my post that “if Eddard has just thought a little bit longer,” things might have been differently. In your initial comment, you state “You need to keep in mind that you are using here the benefit of hindsight, which none of the characters possesses…As Eddard sees it, he must put an end to the conflict before the situation goes from bad to worse for the Starks.”

        2. My whole argument was focused around what would happen to Ned specifically – that as a hostage, he should know he and his daughter are too valuable to be killed, so it’s better to wait and see if Robb can’t capture some prisoners and make an exchange. That exchange potentially could have ended the war for the Starks since they’d accomplished their primary objective, they could have gone home, and then the Ironborn wouldn’t have attacked because they’d be too badly outnumbered.

        3. Eddard doesn’t have an army, but Robb does. Having that army in the field is better than not having it in the field; it creates possibilities of improving his situation and without having fought a battle prompts Cersei into making an offer that she didn’t have to prior. It’s all upside.

        4. Not roughly equal – outnumbered. By the time he passes the Twins, Robb has 22,000 men to Tywin’s 20,000 and Jaime’s 15,000. Rejoining would have been impossible to accomplish in time – the Ruby Ford is 275 miles from Riverrun and once Tywin is north of that, the Green Fork acts as a natural barrier. Blackfish’s scouts, while useful, were not wholly responsible for Robb’s victory at either battle.

        5. None of which Ned knows…and you yourself said we have to avoid 20/20 hindsight.

        6. I think the dynamic works the other way; the Baratheons in the field forces Tywin to abandon a superior defensive position in order to attempt a quick resolution to the war. It almost completely causes him to lose the war then and there.

        7. Tywin might have to if Robb picks up additional Lannisters – after all, Robb is going to grab two of Kevan’s sons. And Tywin doesn’t know about the incest.

        8. Ned knows that Lysa and Stannis have armies ready to go and that Renly has gotten away to the Tyrells. A competent strategist is going to realize that the Lannisters now have reasons to want peace with the Starks, especially WHEN VARYS TELLS HIM.

  11. Celestial says:

    Here is the relevant passage from Chapter 55:

    “What I do know is that you have no choice. If you go to King’s Landing and swear fealty, you will never be allowed to leave. If you turn your tail and retreat to Winterfell, your lords will lose all respect for you. Some may even go over to the Lannisters. Then the queen, with that much less to fear, can do as she likes with her prisoners. Our best hope, our only true hope, is that you can defeat the foe in the field. If you should chance to take Lord Tywin or the Kingslayer captive, why then a trade might very well be possible, but that is not the heart of it. So long as you have power enough that they must fear you, Ned and your sister should be safe. Cersei is wise enough to know that she may need them to make her peace, should the fighting go against her.

    What if the fighting doesn’t go against her?” Robb asked. “What if it goes against us?

    Catelyn took his hand. “Robb, I will not soften the truth for you. If you lose, there is no hope for any of us. They say there is naught but stone at the heart of Casterly Rock. Remember the fate of Rhaegar’s children.”

    I am sorry, Steve, but your argument that Ned’s situation cannot become worse is totally baseless when Robb and Cat, the very characters who are supposed to negotiate for Ned’s life and freedom, openly admit that, if they lose, they have no bargaining tools any more.

    • MightyIsobel says:

      Celestial, I think the source of your misunderstanding is there isn’t any decision Ned can make that will materially improve the military situation of Robb and his commanders, because he has no leverage in that part of the conflict. In that sense, his situation (as an advocate for House Stark’s interests) can’t get any worse.

      That is not to say that there aren’t possible events in the future that Ned would like even less than the position that Robb and Catelyn are currently in. But his fears about those future contingencies aren’t relevant to the negotiation he is currently in with Varys and Cersei for his life and the life(s) of his daughter(s).

      It’s part of the shock of Ned’s fall, his loss of agency, in going from Lord of Winterfell with supreme military, economic, political, and juridical authority, to being a crippled, ill prisoner and accused traitor whose daughter has pled for his life in open court.

      • Celestial says:

        I respectfully disagree. There isn’t any decision Ned can make which will improve Robb’s situation, but Ned can prevent it from getting worse. Ned is offered the real possibility of negotiating a truce for his camp before the fighting even started, without any further losses for the North except Ned’s own pride. This is what Varys offered and it was a sensible solution, because the North has no interest in plunging headlong into a war against the Lannisters except for Ned’s own scruples regarding the lawfulness of Joffrey’s claim – and that is not a good reason from a realpolitik perspective.

        Besides, Ned has no way to know that Jaime will be captured – which would be the only way his situation could improve. Jaime could just as easily get killed in battle, in which case it was perfectly possible for Cersei to retaliate by executing Ned.
        Delaying a confrontation would allow Robb to properly negotiate an alliance with Stannis and Renly and avoid to do all the heavy lifting of the anti-Lannister war by himself, as it happens in the OTL. In addition, it also gives him time to try to counter Lysa’s douchebaggery by using their connections in the Vale, with Cat and Brynden, to stage a coup against Lysa. The Royces were firmly pro-Stark and Lysa’s bannermen were not stupid not to see that she was mentally unsound – if Cat and Brynden tried to remove her from command, they had a great chance of success.

      • MightyIsobel – Agreed.

    • Again, Ned doesn’t know any of this – you can’t have it both ways of accusing me of presentism and then engaging in it yourself.

      Likewise, this quote points as much in the other direction – if the Starks back down without having fought a battle and Ned is sent in disgrace to the Watch, it damages Robb’s standing amongst his lords and Sansa is still a prisoner of the Lannisters.

  12. scarlett45 says:

    At this point hasn’t Eddard gone several days without food, water or sunlight? Solitary confinement in the most modern of circumstances can mess with ones perception of reality. In those conditions of course Eddard is amenable to Varys’ suggestions regarding confessing for Sansa’s safety. He doesn’t know WHATS going on in the outside world? If Robb has been told yet or anything regarding the mobilization of the North(I believe that’s the case I haven’t read the book in a while). Ned also didn’t expect to be ambushed in the throne room, psychologically the strongest person would be a mess right now from sensory deprivation alone.

    • Winnie says:

      Exactly. Regardless of the merits of confession vs. staying strong, Ned’s just not be gonna be thinking clearly here in any event and would be vulnerable to Varys’s persuasion. Especially given his traumatic memories of poor Lyanna and Elia’s children.

    • Yeah, he’s not in the position to make good decisions here.

  13. I have nothing intelligent to add except that Conleth Hill gives the BEST side eye. His faces in the background of the Small Council scenes are consistently one of my favourite things.

  14. Jim B says:

    “after all, Varys informed Ned of the assassination attempts against King Robert after the fact and we haven’t seen him actively preventing them”

    Ironically, though she had no way of knowing this, Cersei’s chosen methods had the virtue of being very difficult for Varys to thwart. He and his “little birds” might have been able to spot and dispose of an assassin with a knife or a cook or steward with poison, but there’s not a lot you can do about the “lure him into a melee or a drunken hunt where an ‘accident’ can occur,” other than telling Robert he can’t fight in the melee or drink so much when he’s hunting. It’s a low-percentage blunt instrument — she has no way of knowing when it’s going to work — but difficult to counter. I suppose the simple answer is “just have Cersei killed,” but she’s so predictable and easy to manipulate that Varys probably prefers having her around. (Plus, a dead Cersei probably means a homicidal Jaime creating a lot of chaos.)

    • Winnie says:

      Seriously. I mean Varys kills poor Kevan (who he kind of liked and certainly respected) precisely to keep Cersei in power because she’s so much easier for him to manage. And if Cersei died, then that ensures *Tywin* would try to claim the Regency instead, and Tywin would a thousand times more dangerous.

    • I don’t think they’d be that hard to figure out. Keep in mind, there’s someone in the melee out to kill the King – Varys could neutralize that person. There’s someone handing Robert the wine – ditto.

      • Jim B says:

        I think you’re overestimating Varys’s power a little. Mainly he’s an information broker, a cagey politician, and a good observer of others, and in a pinch he has his knowledge of the various secret passages of the Red Keep. But he has very little direct power over anyone other than his “little birds.” He admits to Illyrio that Littlefinger has thrown off the timing of their plans.

        There’s no reason to believe that Varys can just “neutralize” prominent people in King’s Landing with impunity.

        He can’t find a way to set Tyrion free that doesn’t implicate him, so he has to give up his position on the small council and his ability to act openly in the capital — no small assets — just to accomplish that. He seems to handle most of his dirty work himself, personally being the one to release Tyrion and to kill Kevan and Pycelle (albeit with some help).

        I mean, it’s certainly plausible to me that Varys could find out who Cersei’s pawn in the melee is and incapacitate or kill him, but it’s a substantial risk to him. And as to the wine — I don’t think all the powers of Varys, Littlefinger, and everyone else in the capital are sufficient to keep Robert away from his wine. If Varys starts murdering every Lannister youth assigned to Robert’s wineskin duty, he’s taking a massive risk.

      • I think you under-estimate his power: Varys ensured that Tywin would be assassinated, and killed both Kevan and Pycelle with total impunity. Even with every man in King’s Landing tearing up the tunnels, they couldn’t find him. He’s kidnapped Tyrek Lannister and kept him away from Tywin.

        Bumping off a rando knight and a minor Lannister is child’s play in comparison.

      • Andrew says:

        I am curious to know what makes you think Varys planned Tywin’s death in that manner?

        • Because I don’t think it’s an accident that Varys led Tyrion to his father’s chambers where Tyrion found a crossbow on the wall AND ammunition (you don’t normally keep ammunition next to ornaments) where he could reach them, and Shae with Tyrion’s necklace around her neck in his bed?

          I think Tywin wanted a prostitute and arranged to have one sent to his chambers via his old tunnel, but Varys made sure it was Shae who was sent and that there would be a weapon in the room.

      • Andrew says:

        How did he know Tyrion would kill Tywin and that he would know they were under the Tower of the Hand?

        • Tywin had just ordered Tyrion’s execution in the most humiliating fashion possible; and Tyrion more or less promised vengeance in open court.

          Varys knows the tunnels like the back of his hand and simply directed Tyrion to the right ladder.

  15. Brian says:

    Great work as usual!

    I’m not sure if you will address this in a future chapter (possibly in Arya’s chapter with Ned’s confession/execution), but I’ve always wondered what would happen if Ned had confessed and then been allowed to take the Black? Mainly, would he actually do it?

    If Ned is released by the Lannisters, would he feel honor bound to go to the Wall or would he join up with Robb once he was safely away? Even if he got to the Wall, does he have to join the Watch? If I remember correctly, Jon was free to leave anytime before he said his vows, but once you said them, you couldn’t leave. I could see it going either way. Ned’s precious honor may have made him join the watch, especially if it meant his family would be safe. I could also see him joining with his Northmen and supporting Stannis.

    Who knows? I just wondered about your thoughts on this Steven.

    • Winnie says:

      If Ned *did* take the black, I suspect he would also see to it, that more people heard the truth about Joffrey’s heritage. He would feel he owed Stannis that much even if he couldn’t join Stannis’s forces himself though he would have told Robb to. But once he was at the Wall one difference would be that Ned would learn first hand about the threat posed by Mance and the White Walkers and he would definitely try to get Northern support to deal with the threat. Also since Ned could still keep in contact with his family, he would have warned Robb against sending Theon back to the Iron Islands, (which actually would have been much better for Theon himself,) and thus butterfly away the entire Red Wedding. And if Ned takes the black then he’s reunited with Arya AND Gendry pretty quickly and that could have had a huge ripple effect as well. In other words Ned’s taking the black might have saved a lot of lives besides just Ned’s.

      • Jim B says:

        If Ned took the black, he would not tell anyone about Joffrey’s parentage.

        Varys makes it clear that part of the deal for Ned being allowed to take the black is “if you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to the grave.” And while most men might still be inclined to let a discrete word slip here and there notwithstanding such an oath, Ned Stark is not such a man. (Assuming R+L=J, then Ned has been willing to pay a huge price even in his own marriage for the sake of keeping a promise.)

        Plus, Sansa would be a hostage for the Starks’ good behavior. And while killing Sansa ruins their leverage, there’s a point at which you have to carry out your threats, or else the realm will think you can break deals with the Lannisters with impunity.

    • I’m going to discuss him taking the Black in Arya V.

  16. jackkm says:

    “Forget it, Ned. It’s Flea Bottom.”

  17. Evan says:

    Excellent historical comparison of York/Lancaster to Stark/Lannister.

    Both Varys and Littlefinger both come off as excellent manipulators, and both of them are good at Speed Chess, though I will say that that Varys seems better set for the long game, while LF does take better advantage of short-term chaos.

    Also, Varys calls Littlefinger “the second most-devious man in the Seven Kingdoms.” Only the second? Who the hell is in first then? It’s possible that Varys is being self-effacting and slyly stating that he himself is the most devious man, but that doesn’t exactly fit in with his character. Other candidates…..Tywin Lannister, perhaps? Or Doran Martell, for biding his time with revenge for Elia’s murder and likely working with Varys to put Aegon on the Iron Throne? Or, possibly (affix tinfoil headcovering here), even obliquely referring to Ned and the suspicion that his “son” is really Rhaegar’s and a claimant to the Throne (In which case Varys is paying Ned a pretty big compliment)? I think that due to Ned’s injuries, lack of nutrition, and the likelihood of infection setting in, we miss some things in this conversation that someone else in a different mindset/environment might have caught.

    Also, especially since you were talking about both lines of succession and the Great Council which selected Aegon V as King, I thought I would bring up a theory about Varys. It’s a bit out there, but I’ve read some other people who have had the same thought: Varys isn’t a Blackfyre, but rather a Targaryen. Most people seem to think that he would be Aerion Targaryen’s son or grandson, abandoned in Lys as a child, and sold into slavery, forced to rise and return to his natural position of power. Illyrio also gets some consideration for being a Targaryen from a rejected line (and yes, I am aware that this plays into the “Everyone is a secret Targaryen!” meme).

    • Jim B says:

      “Both Varys and Littlefinger both come off as excellent manipulators, and both of them are good at Speed Chess, though I will say that that Varys seems better set for the long game, while LF does take better advantage of short-term chaos. ”

      I would say that Varys is playing on a higher difficulty level, because he’s trying to achieve a particular end result (putting Aegon, or at least a Targaryen, on the throne). Littlefinger doesn’t appear to be trying to place any particular person on the throne, he just wants to (1) promote his own interests; and (2) satisfy his personal desires for Catelyn/Sansa and/or for proving himself to be Ned’s “better.”

      • I don’t disagree that he’s doing both of those things, but he’s also got some kind of plan going to turn the North, Vale, and Riverlands into a power bloc.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        I dunno, It seems to me Littlefinger is trying to accrue power to himself he is Lord Protector of the Vale and Liege Lord of the Riverlands. I think he’s probably trying to put himself on the throne. Both Jamie and Kevan Lannister have mentioned Littlefinger as a potential hand of the king. And Littlefinger tried to take over the Kingdom with Ned, but Ned refused.

        @steven:
        That implies you believe what Littlefinger says to Sansa about restoring her to Winterfell. The North his completely depleted of men and materials and in the middle of a civil war between Stannis and Roose Bolton with Northmen on both sides. In short there’s no advantage to be gained from controlling the North.

        I also think Littlefinger has had the upper hand on Varys thus far. Varys fails prevent Littlefinger from starting the civil war too early fro Varys’ plans, Varys fails to save Ned (presumably from littlefinger), Varys fails to prevent Littlefinger from whisking away Sansa.

        It seems to me every time this two clash, Littlefnger gets the better of Varys.

        • The North is not completely depleted of either. Most of its harvest was gathered and remains intact; likewise, only half of its men were ever mobilized to go south with Robb. My calculations put 17,000 men as available for the North.

          I disagree strongly about Littlefinger vs. Varys – first, the civil war starting early was counter-acted by Varys’ accelerating his plans, saving Ned was never part of his plans, nor was whisking Sansa away. Varys’ plans haven’t been hindered in any way – he aided Tyrion to block Stannis, he then radically destabilized the Lannister/Tyrell/Martell power bloc that Littlefinger had brought together, and now he has an army of 10,000 men less than two weeks away from King’s Landing, with Storm’s End to boo.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Well OK we can go all the way down the rabbit hole.

        First it must be said that we don’t actually know the motivations of any of these people. You postulated that Varys is particularly against Stannis, which I don’t agree with. Stannis isn’t particularly formidable and is nearly as bad as Cersei at making and keeping alliances. Second I find it hard to believe Varys genuinely wants to put Aegon on the throne. I just don’t find his plan a credible threat, Namely, leaving Aegon on a pole boat in a disease and pirate infested river and trying to invade Westeros with the Golden Company seems very weak. So either Varys is incompetent or Aegon is not his real end game.

        That having been said.

        You yourself said Varys wanted to send Ned to the Night’s Watch. He failed to accomplish this as an express result of the actions of Littlefinger, again according to you.
        Varys I think genuinely wanted Ned to go to the Night’s Watch, as I’ve suggested. And Littlefinger may well have too, at first – after all, it’s a lot easier to get Catelyn and/or Sansa to marry you if they’re not grieving over the death of an immediate loved one you caused, and so much more satisfying to force Ned to spend the rest of his life knowing Littlefinger has either/both of them in his clutches and there’s nothing he can do about it.

        Varys specifically states that his plans will suffer if they’re accelerated and that he does not want this to happen.

        “…
        “Too soon, too soon,” the voice with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.”
        “As well bid me stop time. Do you take me for a wizard?”
        The other chuckled. “No less.” Flames licked at the cold air. The tall shadows were almost on top of her. An instant later the man holding the torch climbed into her sight, his companion beside him. Arya crept back away from the well, dropped to her stomach, and flattened herself against the wall. She held her breath as the men reached the top of the steps.
        “What would you have me do?” asked the torchbearer, a stout man in a leather half cape…..“Nonetheless, we must have time. The princess is with child. The khal will not bestir himself until his son is born. You know how they are, these savages.”

        “If he does not bestir himself soon, it may be too late,” the stout man in the steel cap said. “This is no longer a game for two players, if ever it was. Stannis Baratheon and Lysa Arryn have fled beyond my reach, and the whispers say they are gathering swords around them. The Knight of Flowers writes Highgarden, urging his lord father to send his sister to court. The girl is a maid of fourteen, sweet and beautiful and tractable, and Lord Renly and Ser Loras intend that Robert should bed her, wed her, and make a new queen. Littlefinger… the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing.”

        So Varys’ plans have demonstrably been hindered by Vary’s own admission. if Varys were capable of stopping Littlefinger why doesn’t he? Its clearly in his stated interest.

        This further belies your statement that Varys is Littlefinger’s primary source of intelligence. He can’t be. Because Varys has no idea what Littlefinger is up to. As we’ll later see with Dontos the Kettleblacks, Lothar Brune and others Littlefginer has his own agents and his own parallel spy network. Not only does Littlefinger no rely of Varys, he’s managed to find secure locations where he can pass messages without Varys intercepting them.

        Which brings us to Sansa. Littlefinger is powerful player with access to the resources of two of the eight major regions. Littlefinger smuggling out Sansa is an act of treason and could be the end of him. Instead Littlefinger collects a semi-valuable ward. Its Varys’ job sniff out treason and disrupts plots. He fails to catch Littlefinger, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Varys to rid himself of Littlefinger. Again, Varys is bested.

        This if the fourth time Littlefinger has bested Varys, first is the premature death of Jon Arryn (which destabilizes a peace Varys says needs), second is the dagger which pits Stark and Lannister against one another, third is the death of Ned which insures the war will not be a brief affair.

        Lastly both Littlefinger and Varys want to destabilize the Lannister-Tyrell power bloc. (The Martells were never part of this bloc, they hate the lannister and the Tyrells and everyone knows it) Littlefinger helps orchestrate the assassination of Joffrey which is what begins to destabilize the bloc, further Littlefinger has a secret alliance to the Olena Tyrell which undermines the Lannister position before the alliance is ever formed.

        With respect to the North its not clear how many men they are capable of mobilizing. I will point out that Rodrick Cassel lost some 5,000 men fighting Ramsey Bolton. And that Bolton and Stannis both have some 5000 men in the field at present. So presuming Littlefinger was to bid for the North he would still have to fight someone for it, which would take more men and then most of the North’s strength will have been spent. Also the Karstarks, Umbers and Glovers all had harvests which were not collected. I think that’s fairly indicative of the North being very low on food and manpower.

        Hother [Umnber] wanted ships. “There’s wildlings stealing down from the north, more than I’ve ever seen before. They cross the Bay of Seals in little boats and wash up on our shores. The crows in Eastwatch are too few to stop them, and they go to ground quick as weasels. It’s longships we need, aye, and strong men to sail them. The Greatjon took too many. Half our harvest is gone to seed for want of arms to swing the scythes.”

        To east and west [of Deepwood Motte] were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when Asha took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot
        during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks. It was an old castle, but not a strong one. She had taken it from the Glovers, and the Bastard of Bolton would take it from her.

        “My lady, how do things stand at Karhold with your food stores?” “Not well.” Alys [Karstark] sighed. “My father took so many of our men south with him that only the women and young boys were left to bring the harvest in. Them, and the men too old or crippled to go off to war. Crops withered in the fields or were pounded into the mud by autumn rains. And now the snows are come. This winter will be hard. Few of the old people will survive it, and many children will perish as well.”

    • I’m pretty sure he’s referring to himself.

      And I’m of the opinion that Varys is exactly who he believes himself to be – a poor child of Essos who’s transformed himself through an act of will into a major political player across two continents If there is a Targ connection, it’s via Illyrio.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Just a heads up that I replied to you on the post above this one, but there was no “reply button” do I didn’t know if you’d been notified.

  18. lann says:

    I’ve always been confused by this. Assuming R+L=J, Rheagar was still married to Elia when the facts happened. Therefore while Jon would be a Targaryan he would still be a bastard. Shouldn’t that mean he has no claim to the throne?

    • David Hunt says:

      Aegon I married both his sisters. Since Rheagar thought that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Prince That was Promised, he could have decided that it was time to revive that Targaryan tradition. If Dany’s vision at the House of the Undying.accurate, it seems that Rheager believed he needed another (presumably legitimate) child. This the what I understand to be the argument that Jon is Rheagar’s legitimate son: That Rhaegar married Lyanna and figured that the marriage would stick as there was a legal history backing him up and he’d be king and would have the power to armbend/buy off the Church.

    • Winnie says:

      The Targaryens were known to take multiple wives, so I think Rhaegar made Lyanna his second wife which would make Jon legitimate, though, still second to Aegon in the line of succession.

      • If they married, sure.

        Which makes the R+L=J thing even more complicated; now you need a witness to say not only did they go off together freely but that they also got married.

      • Andrew says:

        There is a theory that Septon Meribald was the one who married them. He would fit given he is a traveling septon in the riverlands who performs marriages as part of his duties, and if Lyanna asked to be married before a weirwood, Meribald would likely remember that marriage.

        I think they did marry, otherwise, the vow of the KG would have compelled them to go to Viserys. Members of he KG did guard other members of the royal family, but only if the king had other members of the KG with him, which Viserys didn’t have.

    • Neil says:

      Here’s my counterpoint, Iann: you can legitimize a bastard easily enough. All you need is a bastard, a piece of paper, some ink, some wax, and the royal seal if you’re about to be King (as Crown Prince Rhaegar was). The Bastard would be younger than either of Rhaegar’s children with Elia, so granted there is concern about a hypothetical succession crisis for the throne later on, but you could also argue that it’s merely adding to the Royal depth chart. Legitimizing a bastard would have historical precedent in Westeros in the Targaryen dynasty.

      • Except that legitimated bastards come DEAD last, after all legitimate male and female claimants, ever since the Blackfyre Rebellion.

      • Sean C. says:

        And Rhaegar can change that too, if need be. It’s good to be king.

      • David Hunt says:

        Steven, what would it matter that a legitimized Jon would be last in line to the Iron Throne? It’s my understanding that the current theory is that Rheagar decided that he needed another child (son?) because “the Dragon must have three heads.” If Rheagar publicly stated that Jon came after Aegon and his sister (can’t remember her name), a crisis of inheritance is unlikely to happen after Rheagar’s gone.

        • It would matter in the sense that Jon wouldn’t be the heir to the Iron Throne – Dany would come before him, if Aegon is legit than he comes before him, and technically Stannis might come before Dany. Which is important for the question of what happens when Dany arrives in Westeros.

          Rhaegar hadn’t publicly stated anything, which is the problem.

  19. MightyIsobel says:

    “Varys consistently acts to remove any political figure of the generation of the Rebellion who would presumably be adamant against the return of the Targaryens – he does nothing when Jon Arryn’s death is plotted, allows Ned Stark to fall from grace, works to keep Renly and Stannis off the Throne, then pivots to eliminate Tywin Lannister – all of which works to reduce any resistance to a Targaryen restoration.”

    It’s insights like these that make your blog one of the best ASOIAF analysis sites around.

    And, Aha! This agenda could explain why Varys doesn’t blow up Littlefinger’s lie about the dagger in Catelyn IV. Varys can see that Littlefinger is trying to put Ned Stark into Tywin Lannister’s crosshairs. And he could remove LF by exposing the lie if things get too chaotic.

    What could be more useful to Varys than a bloody squabble between two Rebellion-era Lords, when he can turn them both against Littlefinger in a moment if necessary?

  20. celestial1960 says:

    Steve, regarding the notion that the North might be depleted and your estimation of 17,000 men still available for the North: I’d say it is a mistake to treat the military power of Westeros’ regions in such absolute terms. In medieval times, military power was more a matter of money rather than men. GRRM puts the population of Westeros at 40 millions. If the North has 4 million people, that means hundreds of thousands of able-bodied males still available. The limitations of medieval armies were imposed not by the population, but by the logistics, economy and administration.
    One cannot simply say “that country has that many men, that many are stil available”. For instance, when Napoleon lost 400,000 men in Russia, he was able to come up with a newly recruited army in less than 6 months time.
    Such figures are always extremely flexible and the fact that, before the XXth century, armies in times of war made less 1% of the entire population (sometimes MUCH less) allowed states to regenerate their military power or withstand even apparent catastrophic defeats if their political and economical structure remained intact.

    • “In medieval times, military power was more a matter of money rather than men.” is simply not correct until the late, late medieval period.

      In this case, I’m going from GRRM’s statements about the North’s military strength. He says that the North has a total military strength of 35,000 – Robb marched south with only 18,000 because he was trying to get there in time to save his father.

      • celestial1960 says:

        What do you mean by “not correct until the late, late medieval period”?

        As for GRRM, a lot of what he says has to be taken with a grain of salt. For instance:

        – GRRM also has Sandor spending 30,000 dragons without making any big purchase. 30,000 dragons means 0.5% of Iron Throne’s national debt. The idea that one guy spent in less than a year 0.5 % of the debt of the entire kingdom is ludicrous. There were some very amusing calculations on this done by the people on the ASOIF forums, which pointed out that, for instance, Sandor would have to bang 30,000 of the best whores in the kingdom in order to waste all that money.

        – Or: GRRM put, in the text, several assertions that the Umbers and the Karstark took so many men with Robb that only “green boys and old men” were left on their domains. That is again impossible. A level of mobilization which would deplete a region of all the able-bodied men is nonsensical. Simply put because a medieval society just doesn’t have enough resources to achieve that. Karstark had 300 heavy horse with him. In medieval times, the equipment of a heavy horseman cost as much as all the cattle of a village. Each soldier put into the field needs to be supported by the incomes of many households to buy his weapons and equipment. An area could never sent all its men age 18-45 into battle because it could not provide for all of them. Such mobilization happened only once in history: during WW2, in Germany and USSR between 1943-1945, and it was possible because Germany used forced labor from the conquered territories in order to make up for the men drafted into the armies and USSR was supported by deliveries from US.

        • Because for most of the medieval period, military power was tied directly to landholding and the feudal levy, not on paying soldiers wages.

          Again, GRRM created the world and he says the North has 35,000 soldiers out of a population of ~4 million.

          Now, do these numbers add up? Well, it takes 2-10 hides of land (or 300 acres) to support a knight. So Karstark’s 300 heavy horse represent 90,000 acres of land…but that’s only 140 square miles of land. The Karstark lands I estimate somewhere around 90,000 square miles.

          Does that square with our numbers? Well, the 300 heavy horse came with 2,000 foot, and the Karstarks still had enough left over for 500 men to follow Stannis. So all told, the Karstarks have around 3,000 men, which works out to 900,000 acres or 1,406 square miles worth of land.

          Given that the Karstark lands are heavily forested and the lower population density of the North, that seems a reasonable estimate.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Where did GRRM say the North could field 35,000 men? I actually think the number should probably be higher, but I also think they’ve gone through well over the number Robb Took south, there’s also all the men killed by the Iron Born and the Boltons during the war and all the men currently mobilized under Roose and Stannis, plus however many Wyman Manderly is secretly mobilizing and housing in his mint (which Davos sees).

        @celestial1960: Also I’m not sure that its impossible for North mobilize a large number of its able bodied population. Those men are being supported by the people of the lands they’re living on and there is direct evidence of the North going to ruin due to lack of man power. I think the Mongols mobilized a similarly large percentage of their population long before the Germans.

        • It’s somewhere in the “Thus Spake Martin,” but Elio also mentions conversations in his video.

          We know that King Torrhen marched south with 30,000 men 300 years ago, so they have at least that many.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Well see I tend to think the North has lost population since Torrhen’s day, The Stony shore, and sea dragon point are often spoken of as once having been populous. The decline of the Night’s Watch and the gift also seems to point. It seems odd that the night’s watch now has access to all 7 kingdoms for man power but is at its lowest state. The North in general seems to have suffered a long decline.

        Also, you saw my other post? Sorry it was so long be it seemed necessary to explain the root of the disagreement.

        • I don’t think it has declined particularly.

          Keep in mind, declines in population in some places point to increases in population in other places. The Stony Shore and Sea Dragon Point are rocky areas close to the shore – you’d expect people to move inland and toward more fertile land, especially given the tiny population density of the North.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        OK I’m not sure if you saw this, but I’ll assume you didn’t since you responded else where but to this. So I’ll repost it. Again, sorry its a bit long but it had to be to address your points.

        First it must be said that we don’t actually know the motivations of any of these people. You postulated that Varys is particularly against Stannis, which I don’t agree with. Stannis isn’t particularly formidable and is nearly as bad as Cersei at making and keeping alliances. Second I find it hard to believe Varys genuinely wants to put Aegon on the throne. I just don’t find his plan a credible threat, Namely, leaving Aegon on a pole boat in a disease and pirate infested river and trying to invade Westeros with the Golden Company seems very weak. So either Varys is incompetent or Aegon is not his real end game.

        That having been said.

        You yourself said Varys wanted to send Ned to the Night’s Watch. He failed to accomplish this as an express result of the actions of Littlefinger, again according to you.

        Varys I think genuinely wanted Ned to go to the Night’s Watch, as I’ve suggested. And Littlefinger may well have too, at first – after all, it’s a lot easier to get Catelyn and/or Sansa to marry you if they’re not grieving over the death of an immediate loved one you caused, and so much more satisfying to force Ned to spend the rest of his life knowing Littlefinger has either/both of them in his clutches and there’s nothing he can do about it.

        Varys specifically states that his plans will suffer if they’re accelerated and that he does not want this to happen.

        “…
        “Too soon, too soon,” the voice with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.”
        “As well bid me stop time. Do you take me for a wizard?”
        The other chuckled. “No less.” Flames licked at the cold air. The tall shadows were almost on top of her. An instant later the man holding the torch climbed into her sight, his companion beside him. Arya crept back away from the well, dropped to her stomach, and flattened herself against the wall. She held her breath as the men reached the top of the steps.
        “What would you have me do?” asked the torchbearer, a stout man in a leather half cape…..“Nonetheless, we must have time. The princess is with child. The khal will not bestir himself until his son is born. You know how they are, these savages.”

        “If he does not bestir himself soon, it may be too late,” the stout man in the steel cap said. “This is no longer a game for two players, if ever it was. Stannis Baratheon and Lysa Arryn have fled beyond my reach, and the whispers say they are gathering swords around them. The Knight of Flowers writes Highgarden, urging his lord father to send his sister to court. The girl is a maid of fourteen, sweet and beautiful and tractable, and Lord Renly and Ser Loras intend that Robert should bed her, wed her, and make a new queen. Littlefinger… the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing.”

        So Varys’ plans have demonstrably been hindered by Vary’s own admission. if Varys were capable of stopping Littlefinger why doesn’t he? Its clearly in his stated interest.

        This further belies your statement that Varys is Littlefinger’s primary source of intelligence. He can’t be. Because Varys has no idea what Littlefinger is up to. As we’ll later see with Dontos the Kettleblacks, Lothar Brune and others Littlefginer has his own agents and his own parallel spy network. Not only does Littlefinger no rely of Varys, he’s managed to find secure locations where he can pass messages without Varys intercepting them.

        Which brings us to Sansa. Littlefinger is powerful player with access to the resources of two of the eight major regions. Littlefinger smuggling out Sansa is an act of treason and could be the end of him. Instead Littlefinger collects a semi-valuable ward. Its Varys’ job sniff out treason and disrupts plots. He fails to catch Littlefinger, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Varys to rid himself of Littlefinger. Again, Varys is bested.

        This if the fourth time Littlefinger has bested Varys, first is the premature death of Jon Arryn (which destabilizes a peace Varys says needs), second is the dagger which pits Stark and Lannister against one another, third is the death of Ned which insures the war will not be a brief affair.

        Lastly both Littlefinger and Varys want to destabilize the Lannister-Tyrell power bloc. (The Martells were never part of this bloc, they hate the lannister and the Tyrells and everyone knows it) Littlefinger helps orchestrate the assassination of Joffrey which is what begins to destabilize the bloc, further Littlefinger has a secret alliance to the Olena Tyrell which undermines the Lannister position before the alliance is ever formed.

        With respect to the North its not clear how many men they are capable of mobilizing. I will point out that Rodrick Cassel lost some 5,000 men fighting Ramsey Bolton. And that Bolton and Stannis both have some 5000 men in the field at present. So presuming Littlefinger was to bid for the North he would still have to fight someone for it, which would take more men and then most of the North’s strength will have been spent. Also the Karstarks, Umbers and Glovers all had harvests which were not collected. I think that’s fairly indicative of the North being very low on food and manpower.

        “Hother [Umnber] wanted ships. “There’s wildlings stealing down from the north, more than I’ve ever seen before. They cross the Bay of Seals in little boats and wash up on our shores. The crows in Eastwatch are too few to stop them, and they go to ground quick as weasels. It’s longships we need, aye, and strong men to sail them. The Greatjon took too many. Half our harvest is gone to seed for want of arms to swing the scythes.”

        To east and west [of Deepwood Motte] were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when Asha took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot
        during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks. It was an old castle, but not a strong one. She had taken it from the Glovers, and the Bastard of Bolton would take it from her.

        “My lady, how do things stand at Karhold with your food stores?” “Not well.” Alys [Karstark] sighed. “My father took so many of our men south with him that only the women and young boys were left to bring the harvest in. Them, and the men too old or crippled to go off to war. Crops withered in the fields or were pounded into the mud by autumn rains. And now the snows are come. This winter will be hard. Few of the old people will survive it, and many children will perish as well.”

        • Sorry, I’m replying to a lot of comments rather quickly.

          That Varys is against Stannis primarily we know from the fact that he says so to both Eddard and Tyrion, that he has a strong personal motive in his abhorrence of magic, and aids Tyrion repeatedly even when that involves giving up important secrets (like the tunnels).

          That you don’t find Aegon credible is a matter of opinion; while the plan didn’t go completely as intended, Aegon still has landed in the Stormlands with a significant army, has a good shot at getting support from the Martells, and is facing a divided and incompetent enemy. Further confirmation of Aegon’s centrality comes from Tyrion’s chapters in ADWD.

          Varys would like to get Ned to the Night’s Watch, but he doesn’t need him – to Varys, Eddard is like Gendry, a good person who Varys will spare if he can. It doesn’t harm Varys plans if he doesn’t survive.

          You’re mistaken on who’s who in the dialogue – Varys is the one calling for Illyrio to speed up, not vice versa. And the events that are accelerating are largely Jaime and Joffrey’s doing by this point; LF hasn’t really gotten started yet by that point.

          Again, Varys doesn’t care if LF gets Sansa because he’s not pursuing the interests of the Lannisters at that point. He’s busy performing a much bigger operation – eliminating Tywin.

          Killing Joffrey doesn’t destabilize the bloc, it strengthens it by replacing a wild card with a biddable child. Putting Cersei in charge after Tywin’s death does destabilize the bloc, and LF admits this hurts his position.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        OK but you have to take into account that Varys isn’t trust worthy. So what, he says he doesn’t support Stannis because of magic? He also tells Ned he wants to save Robert, which is a lie. Varys always lies. I agree Stannis is a formidable military commander but he’s a horrible diplomat. If Stannis had been king he would have alienated everyone quickly. The real reason Varys helps Tyrion is because with Stannis on the throne Varys would lose his place at court and a lot of his ability to manipulate the great powers. Littlefinger and Varys both support the Lannisters for the same reason, they’re the most morally flexible and which allows both of them to further their plans.

        I would just say that both Varys and Illyrio are co-conspirators, when Illyrio says its “too soon” he’s referring to Varys’ plan. You cannot separate the two. He’s referring to Dany and Drogo and presumably Aegon and Jon Connington. That is THE plan.

        As for Aegon, I think with the support of the Martells, he’s still worse off than Robb Stark was. 10,000 men (scattered over half the stepstones) just isn’t that many. The Tyrells alone could probably deal with them and the Dornishmen.

        Littlefinger has already orchestrated the assassination of the Hand of the King and framed the Lannisters for it. That is the only reason Joffrey and Jamie are in Winterfell. Then Littlefinger tells Catelyn the dagger she brought to Kingslanding is Tyrions, that is specifically the “game” Varys references. Catelyn has just kidnapped Tyrion as a direct result of this, which leads Jamie to assault Ned and Tywin to invade the riverlands! Littlefinger hasn’t gotten started yet!?!?! He has 4 of the great houses dancing to his toon.

        Yes, Varys isn’t working for the Lannisters, but he is working against Littlefinger. Why not destroy Littlefinger when he’s trying to evacuate Sansa. Again, Littlefinger has resources of two regions already, he is probably the most powerful lord in Westeros maybe second to Olena. It makes no sense for Varys to let Littlefinger continue to accrue power. Unless there’s nothing Varys can do, which is why I say he’s been bested.

  21. celestial1960 says:

    “Again, GRRM created the world and he says the North has 35,000 soldiers out of a population of ~4 million.”

    35,000 soldiers out of 4 millions does not equate with the whole military potential.
    For instance, America has, as of now, 1.5 million soldiers out of a population of 300 million. If America were to lose, say, 750,000 dead, injured, captured in a one-year war with China, that does not mean America automatically becomes depleted of soldiers because the US government would draft a new class of recruits.

    Besides, can you tell me precisely how many soldiers did France have in 1300, for instance? I would love to see GRRM try.

    I agree with your analysis about Karstark capabilities. That was my whole point, albeit it was a poor choice of words to say “money”. It was rather about economic capabilities: basically, the Karstark lands provide one heavy horseman for every 3,000 acres. If they were as fertile and populated as the South, the Karstark could have fielded 3,000 knights. Basically, what I wanted to say is that there were enough men, the problem was how many could an agrarian economy sustain in the army at the same time.

    You also have to count the potential of regeneration of military capabilities. For instance, let’s say that 100 horsemen were killed in battle. But the lands and the labor force which supported them did not go away anywhere! In other words, LF could gain a pretty rich plum if he succeeds to acquire the North.

    Regarding army/population, if the same ratio as for the whole North is maintained, then Karstark land have around 330,000 people. Assuming 150,000 of them were men and a life expectancy of about 50 years old, it would mean the Karstark lands should contain around 35,000 men age 18-30. “Green boys and old men”, my ass. Now, it’s obvious why GRRM did that: to make Stannis situation more dramatic because, in real life, the North would make an exceptionally strong power base for the likes of Stannis or Littlefinger (if he succeeds to assume control). Heck, in real life, English rebels and pretenders had managed to stage comeback even from freaking exile, without having control over a territorial powerbase, like Mortimer in 1326 or Henry Tudor in 1485.

    I commend you for your efforts, though. While ASOIF is very good at analyzing political intrigue, it is extremely hard to write a political analysis with regard to military strategies, logistics and economics because GRRM has literally pissed on military, logistical and economical logic for the sake of dramatic effects – and you can add internal inconsistencies of the ASOIF world as the cherry on the cake.

    • Baelish the Bard says:

      I think Martin is intentionally vague but logically consistent. Its never clear how many men the North has available. But it is clear that they have trouble mobilizing to defeat the Iron Born. Theon is able to pose a major threat with 6 long ships, while Asha has 30 longships and Victarion has 50 larger ships.

      We know Rodrick Cassel lost some 5,000 men fighting Ramsey Bolton. And Bolton and Stannis both have some 5000 men in the field at present. So presuming Littlefinger was to bid for the North he would still have to fight someone for it, which would take more men and then most of the North’s strength will have been spent.

      There’s still the issue of three major lords saying they didn’t have enough man power to bring in their harvests. The Karstarks, Umbers and Glovers all had harvests which were not collected. I think that’s fairly indicative of the North being very low on food and manpower.


      “Hother [Umnber] wanted ships. “There’s wildlings stealing down from the north, more than I’ve ever seen before. They cross the Bay of Seals in little boats and wash up on our shores. The crows in Eastwatch are too few to stop them, and they go to ground quick as weasels. It’s longships we need, aye, and strong men to sail them. The Greatjon took too many. Half our harvest is gone to seed for want of arms to swing the scythes.”

      “To east and west [of Deepwood Motte] were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when Asha took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot
      during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks. It was an old castle, but not a strong one. She had taken it from the Glovers, and the Bastard of Bolton would take it from her.”

      “My lady, how do things stand at Karhold with your food stores?” “Not well.” Alys [Karstark] sighed. “My father took so many of our men south with him that only the women and young boys were left to bring the harvest in. Them, and the men too old or crippled to go off to war. Crops withered in the fields or were pounded into the mud by autumn rains. And now the snows are come. This winter will be hard. Few of the old people will survive it, and many children will perish as well.”

      • Cassel didn’t lose 5,000 men. His army scattered when he got killed, and lots of those soldiers took to the hills and have rejoined Stannis.

        Trouble mobilizing has to do with coordination and the time it takes to get the troops together. The 3,000 hill clansmen have to be gathered in person, for example.

        Those three harvests weren’t totally collected, but they were in large part.

    • 35,000 out of 4 million is pretty close to the 1% rule – it’s even a bit under.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Yeah I’m just not positive on what the population is either. I’m only going based on the statements of the characters of how few men are available. I agree there should be more men somewhere. The Riverlands should by all rights field twice as many men as the north due to compactness have the rivers for transportation and having higher population. But the riverlands don’t seem to be able to. Is that due to Edmure’s poor management or Tywin disrupting the population or what? I can’t tell. But I’d only assume the Riverlands can field the 12,000 men for Littlefinger they had when Rob went back North plus another 20,000 for the vale. Those are the numbers the books seem to give us.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        See I thought Ramsey killed (almost) all of Rodrick’s men because he couldn’t afford for the secret to get out about who actually sacked Winterfell and who killed Rodrick. That only works if Rodricks army is slaughtered.

        • 1. It’s virtually impossible for an army to be completely slaughtered in the field.

          2. We have clear accounts of survivors in numbers joining Stannis’ army.

          3. All Ramsay needs is to get in first with his story and get his father appointed Warden, at which point challenging the Boltons is treason. He’s also not the most thorough of people.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        I think we disagree on reasonable points but you can see why I’d say the North isn’t worth Littlefinger’s time to try to conquer when he already has the Vale and the Riverlands. I just can’t believe he’s really going go up there and contend with the likes of Whore’s Bane Umber to seat Sansa on the high seat of the Starks, when Kingslanding is so much closer, more profitable and warmer.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        I don’t discount every statement or every character. Its just that Littlefinger and Varys lie a lot.

        Littlefinger has everyone reason in the world to lie to Sansa. And his plan doesn’t make sense to me, so it seems like a lie.

        Its like the Illyrio plan with Dany, it never made sense, and later Illyrion admits to Tyrion he thought Dany would die on the Dothraki Sea.

      • Retaking the North would also unify those River and Vale lords most likely to oppose him behind Littelfinger’s leadership.What better way to distance himself from the Lannisters?

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        (@_MilkSteak)

        That’s a point. I don’t know if its worth it, or if the Royce’s can ever be won over by a house that is only two generations old.

      • David Hunt says:

        @Baelish

        It might be better for LF to take King’s Landing and the Iron Throne…or it might not. He’s the son of a jumped up hedge knight and if he tried to put himself on the throne, virtually all the great old families would be his enemy. Not just the Lords Paramount, but the ancient houses that serve under them. I think a bunch of families like the Hightowers and the Florents. It might even get the Blackwoods and the Brackens to work together. He’s better off trying to do what Robb Stark attempted and splitting off a section into an independent kingdom, He might not even call it a kingdom, but a “protectorate” or some such to avoid getting the old families riled up. Taking the North works to his advantage in this case as he wouldn’t have rival kingdoms on both his Northern and Southern borders.

        And all of that might be just be a way that he rationalized his deep emotional need to totally dominate the North as revenge for his humiliations as a child.

  22. celestial1960 says:

    Baelish, the Riverlands became a battlefield very fast. That likely played havoc with the administrative infrastructure which is required to mobilize an army.

    • Baelish the Bard says:

      That seems the most likely answer, that and Edmure not preparing properly for a war that was eminent. Still its quite odd to hear Renly fields 100,000 men and the riverlands is the next most populace area and combine with the North they can only field 30,000.

      • celestial1960 says:

        Renly’s 100,000 are from both the Reach and the Stormlands, Renly had time to mobilize his army and suffered no casualties.
        The North and the Riverlands have constantly taken casualties before they had the time to gather their full strength: if you considere all possible losses from battle or disease, you could easily assume that the North and Riverlands lost 20,000+ men in the Riverlands alone, without even counting the damage caused by the Ironborn invasion or the Northern in-fighting back home.

  23. Petyr Patter says:

    If I may throw out an idea I had elsewhere: Varys wanted a fragile peace, and a saw a double opportunity to turn the North into a second Dorne, e.g. a primarily neutral kingdom which would be very sympathetic to regime change in the future.

    If Eddard goes to the Wall, Robb marches home with his army intact, and a war between Baratheon and Lannister ensues. I think a Lannister on the throne, especially one as capricious and stupid as Joffrey, is a rebellion waiting to happen. Varys probably thought the same. He’s betting (and undoubtedly making his own moves) to keep Joffrey on the throne, BECAUSE he is so easy to hate. The Lannisters doubly so. Without a Lannsiter on the throne, Doran backing Aegon the Maybe becomes less likely.

  24. […] theory of the Night’s Watch (and politics) is a sort of proto-internationalism. More so than Varys, whose conception of the Realm is a kind of proto-nationalism, Aemon sees the Night’s Watch […]

  25. […] to link up with Margaret D’Anjou’s main Lancastrian force that was marching from Wakefield to London. It was Richard Neville, Duke of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, who attempted to bar her […]

  26. […] the use of the woods to hide a devastating two-flank assault resembles nothing so much as a reverse Wakefield, with Ser Jaime playing the part of “Richard of York Sally[ing] Forth In Vain.” The […]

  27. Sokket says:

    While I agree that Varys’ “threat” of killing Sansa holds no weight, can we say with absolute certainty that Joffrey wouldn’t have done something just like this had Eddard said no or waited? Could it be that the Spider understands the psychopathic proclivities of the young King better than we know?

    Or is presentism RE: Ned’s death rearing its head at this point as well?

  28. […] Indeed, one could say that overall, Varys consistently acts to remove any political figure of the generation of the Rebellion who would presumably be adamant against the return of the Targaryens – he does nothing when Jon Arryn’s death is plotted. – Race for the Iron Throne Analysis of AGOT, Eddard XV […]

  29. […] covered the death of Richard, Duke of York previously, and I want to talk more about the distaff side of the Yorkist cause in Sansa VI, so see you next […]

  30. juan manuel says:

    Jaime wasn’t a hostage when Varys had that conversation with Ned. The Lannisters could have sent Robb Sansa’s head and tell him to turn North or his father’s would follow.

    Now, if they actually did that, Robb would have Jaime by then, but the Lannisters would still claim to have two hostages to Robb’s one.

    • The Lannisters wouldn’t do that, because at that time, the Lannisters didn’t want to spend time fighting the Starks – and if they’d killed one of his kin, that guarantees Robb will do the same back. That’s the whole purpose of the custom of hostages and ransoms – it keeps the cost of war down, and makes it easier to make peace. The killing of Ned Stark risks the death of Jaime, and any other Lannister Robb gets his hands on.

  31. […] she knows who her enemies really are and will not give up on that, no matter what. There is an existential victory there, and if you don’t believe me, ask Winston […]

  32. […] just as we’ve seen before, it’s an existential triumph – a momentary victory that buys the Night’s Watch only a head start – but the act of […]

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