Chapter-By-Chapter Analysis – Bran I

“In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.”

“Yet our way is the older way…we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

Synopsis: Bran Stark is brought along by his brothers Robb Stark and Jon Snow, as well as the hostage-ward Theon Greyjoy, to witness his father, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, execute Gared the deserter. Bran and his father discuss the nature of capital punishment, bravery and courage; Robb and Jon do the same. Robb and Jon discover a dead female direwolf and five direwolf pups; Robb and Bran claim the pups, and Jon convinces his father to allow the legitimate children of House Stark to keep the symbols of their House alive. As they prepare to return to Winterfell, Jon discovers a sixth direwolf.

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:

As the first chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire written by George R.R. Martin, we can see a key theme being developed in Bran I – the nature of political power as embodied in Lord Eddard Stark and the present-in-name-only King Robert Baratheon and its relation to capital punishment.

First, a note on wildlings. At this point in the series, we know little of the wildlings and what we do know of them is from those who fear and hate them, and the theme of how different perceptions are based on one’s viewpoint is baked into the very structure of the novel from the beginning. From the Prologue, we know only that wildlings live north of the Wall and raid South and that the Night’s Watch tries to stop them. Here we see something more of how the North views those who live Beyond-the-Wall. As far as Bran knows “the wildlings were cruel men…slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.” On first glance, this is a perfect example of how propaganda is used to dehumanize the “other” and justify a permanent state of war against them – when we meet actual wildlings in Clash of Kings, we see that the wildlings are ordinary people who live ordinary lives, who see themselves as the only free people in Westeros. And there’s something to that.

However, Martin is even more complex here; rather than portray the wildlings as “noble savages” done wrong by evil Westerosi, we learn that the wildlings live up to part of the legends. Wildlings historically have raided and warred the South both in armies and smaller groups, and although Mance Rayder romanticizes this with a certain Robin Hood-esque charm, it’s unlikely that the reality of abductions of women are as consensual as he claims. The vaunted freeness of the Free Folk is brought into question by the fact that the wildlings do raise up Kings, and have long before Rayder’s time. There is even an element of truth in the more fantastical elements of Nan’s stories – wildlings do actually mate with giants, although we haven’t met any ghouls, and we know that at least one wildling does have some kind of pact with the Others. And yet for all that, they are still human beings trying to survive in an environment hostile to all life, not the subhuman, purposeless evil of Tolkien imitators; even slavers and slayers have motivations.

But largely this is a sideshow. Gared isn’t a wildling but an oathbreaker and a deserter, and the task at hand is that he must be executed under someone’s law, and someone’s hand – the law is King Robert’s and the hand is Lord Stark’s. There’s an interesting moment where Bran shows his awareness that the position of the ruler is not the same thing as the personality of the man when he sees that “he had taken off Father’s face..and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.”

And in the sentence that the de-personified Lord Stark gives out, we see a theory of politics in miniature. The nature of kingship is never simple and titles tell you a lot; Robert Baratheon claims the throne as the head of a noble household with royal blood, but the nature of his kingship is multifaceted. He is King of three races of men who all surrendered at different times and on different terms – the Andals who populate the realm between the Neck and the Dornish Marches submitted at the Field of Fire with their kings dead around them and saw their swords melted into the Iron Throne, the Rhoynar who maintained their independence in Dorne for a century and a half and who joined the Seven Kingdoms in marriage, and the First Men, the oldest human inhabitants of Westeros who held off Andal invasions and Andal culture, and whose lands were never invaded by the Targaryens. He is also the feudal overlord of Seven Kingdoms who swear personal fealty to the King, and who pointedly swear fealty through their overlords – a sign of weakness in the monarchy to counterbalance the seeming total conquest of Aegon and Dareon. Finally, he is – as were the Kings of England in the time of the Plantagenets – Protector of the Realm (that oft-repeated, ambiguous, and all-important object of Martin’s analysis). This last title is significant as well, because it suggests that there is a unified nation beyond the personal loyalties of vassals to their lord and a nation that a king has responsibilities to; there is a sense of a nascent social contract there.

Ned Stark acts both in his own right as the hereditary lord of Winterfell, a man with a lineage that outstrips his King’s by a factor of twenty-six, but also a royal, military appointee – the Warden of the North. Like the Lord Wardens of the Northern Marches and the Cinque Ports, the Wardens are military commanders, charged with defending a cardinal direction from foreign invasion, and automatically outranking all other lords in any war in that region – a sign that the Targaryen kings did not solely rely on their dragons to hold down trouble areas from threats foreign and domestic.

The space between these roles is as thin as Ice’s edge. Eddard Stark is a man who believes in a public and personal exercise of the ultimate power of the state, and makes a choice to implement the “older ways” instead of the ways of the Baratheons and Targaryens of King’s Landing. There should be no division between the ruler as an entity of power, a “majesty” that exists like godhood, and the man. The North cares whether a man has the physical strength to wield the sword – there’s no idolizing of heritage here, no Joffreys or Viserys tolerated and every Stark has to prove himself in the face of the Umber’s challenge, in the eyes of the hill clans at their feasts, and against the Boltons in battle, and the fact that the Starks have ruled for 8,000 years questioned every step of the way is testament to how strong a lineage Ned has. However, the North also cares about the moral strength of their rulers, whether they can look a man in the eyes, hear his final words, and do the deed without taking pleasure in it.

Ned Stark, for all his detractors who think him a fool or too gentle to be a good Hand or King, is a man who will swing the sword even when it comes to a man who swears he’s seen the White Walkers; his son is a man who will swing the axe on his own lords if he must. The question throughout Game of Thrones isn’t whether Ned is so pure that he’ll walk himself into slaughter, but where and when and on whom he can bear to swing the sword and what that means to him.

Historical Analysis:

As far as I can tell, the “older ways” are without historical precedent in Medieval Europe. Kings did not swing the sword or axe themselves for a reason. As Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish, the medieval execution was a “spectacle of torture,” a kind of carnival of the obliteration of the body meant to instill in every witness a sense of awe at the super-human power of the king. The punishment was supposed to be as savage, if not more so, than the crime – proof that the King was more powerful than any treason, and a symbol of what happened to those who cared damage the sacred body of a monarch. This was before there was such a thing as a state or a nation, only a physical link between humanity and God; a crime was not against a statute but against the person of the monarch either through robbing him off his property (even his human property, in the case of murder) or “compassing and imagining” an attack on his kingliness itself.

The act of execution was to invert this crime, to reveal the utter frailty of the human creature who had rebelled against the will of God. To have the King swing the sword, or extract the bowel, or burn the human heart before the horrified eyes of a still-living victim would be to reduce him in the eyes of his people from a holy object to a mere man tainted with mortal sin. There’s a reason executioners wore masks and received ritual forgiveness and payment from the victim – the sin of murder had to be hidden, de-personalized until only the Majesty and the Condemned stood upon the stage, as if majesty was a kind of shadow cast by the flames.

That Eddard Stark swings the sword himself has to be a critique of this system of justice, to re-insert the human element and remove the divine. Ned Stark doesn’t torture people and he claims no majesty, rather he listens to a man’s last words and gives him a “single sure stroke” in a square in a nameless holdfast, and then recognizing that in killing a man he has himself committed a crime against nature however necessary, goes to cleanse himself and his blade before the faces of his gods.

What If?

There’s only one major what-if in this chapter, and it’s a doozy – what if Eddard had refused to allow his children to adopt the direwolves? On the face of it, it’s a rather pointless hypothetical. The direwolves are a quite obvious deus ex machina, and they’re meant to be so. Their appearance stirs up a sense of omens, fate, and luck whether ill or good in the heart of everyone who sees or hears of the event. The implication is strong that the mother and children were sent by the old gods themselves, acting as they do through nature, as a most ambiguous sign – are the wolves a symbol of protection or death? magic or corruption? As protectors, they are most inconsistent – Bran’s wolf saved his life twice, once mystically and once physically, Arya saved her from Joffrey’s blade. So there we have one answer to our question – with no wolves, Bran, Catelyn, and Arya are all likely dead. But on the other hand, Sansa has lost her protection but seems to have survived as well as any of the Starks, as has Arya who drove away her guardian. And what protection could Grey Wind give his master, in the end?

Differences:

Most of the differences between these two scenes are rather cosmetic. The condemned man is switched, the execution place takes place in a standing stone circle (which if anything is more evocative of the older ways of the North), and so forth.

The two major changes are that the condemned man’s final words are spoken openly – that the children know he saw the White Walkers – and denied openly, which is a major difference from the book. Would BookNed have denied such a claim from a man who, unlike in the book, died without question a courageous man ready to pay for his crime?

The second is more subtle – in the book, Robb and Jon discover the direwolf first, before Ned does, as they are racing. Throughout this chapter, the two are set up as rivals and complementing mirror images – Jon is slender, dark, graceful and quick, Robb is muscular, fair, strong, and fast; Robb thinks the deserter dies bravely, Jon is more cynical; Robb is first to see the cause of the direwolf’s death, while Jon picks out an albino in the snow. And to my mind, the two are set up throughout the series as contrasting takes on heroism and leadership – and yet here, Robb is backgrounded while Jon is emphasized, something that may be reversed as we head towards Season 2.

29 thoughts on “Chapter-By-Chapter Analysis – Bran I

  1. […] bannermen and march north of the Wall suggests, as befits his title of Warden of the North, that my previous description of Lord Eddard Stark as a Lord Warden of the Marches is quite accurate, but I’m beginning to […]

    • Caligula says:

      You mentioned that medieval times in Europe were “before there was such a thing as a nation”. The bible (old testament), which is at least 2200 years old, and most likely contains texts as old as 3000 years, explicitly mentions nations and the core ideology it is rooted in is nationalistic.
      In fact, in the Iron age Levant, where the bible was written, theology and nationality were intrinsically connected and each nation viewed itself as the “chosen people” of a specific deity from the regional pantheon. So the universal god that has a “physical connection with humanity” is newer than the idea of nations.

      Maybe Europe was different, but it certainly had ties with that region and was influenced by its political system and theology.

      • Ok, let me rephrase – before the arrival of the nation-state. And Europe-wise, really until Rome you don’t get a sense of *national* identity as opposed to tribal or local identities, and after Rome, it’s really not until the early modern period that people start to think of themselves as being French rather than from Picardy or English rather than being a Lancashireman.

  2. baronkohinar says:

    I would argue that the dire wolves are of great importance, that if only there was a way to collate data among the Stark siblings, they never would have let their wolves out of their sight. Sure, Bran and Arya were both saved by their respective wolves (and Catelyn by proxy), and let’s not forget that Summer saved Jon from the Wildlings when he was south of the wall without his own wolf. But what of the Stark children’s fate without them?

    Most obvious is Robb’s death as soon as he’s separated from Grey Wind as well as Jon’s uncertain fate at the end of Dance With Dragons — dead as well, most likely, if we’re honest (though I hold on to hope like many others). Moving on, Sansa and Arya are both captured without their wolves, albeit at slightly different times, in slightly different circumstances. Of course, Arya would go on to escape, traveling through the perilous Riverlands, yet the Riverlands are filled with the tales of a huge she-wolf and her army of followers — almost certainly Nymeria. Isn’t it possible, then, that Nymeria and her wolves have slightly stacked things in Arya’s favor? Certainly there are hints to this effect.

    And then, of course, we have Bran and Rickon, who are captured along with the rest of Winterfell when separated from their wolves, through Theon’s treachery. Luckily, the two are able to escape, due to strategic deployment of the wolves, but are subsequently trapped in the catacombs. It’s only once they extricate themselves that they’re able to regain their wolves, and of course their freedom. In fact, one could argue at this point of the story that Bran and Rickon (the only Starks that still have their dire wolves) are the only free Starks left (Arya has fallen in with the Faceless Men, Jon – if still alive – has sworn an oath to the Night’s Watch, and Littlefinger has Sansa).

    At this point, the audience is filled with a sense of dread whenever the wolves are gone, or at least they should be. Especially when they’re forcibly separated; if some new devilry is afoot, you can be certain from whence it came.

    • John says:

      Jon has been set up as the primary hero of the series. There remains a heavily foreshadowed revelation as to his birth and origins. Basically everything about the structure of the book up to this point ought to lead us to expect that Jon is not really dead.

  3. stevenattewell says:

    I don’t know if I’d say Bran and Rickon are most secure – Bran’s stuck under a hill with White Walkers all around and Rickon’s on an island of cannibals. Whereas Sansa is in place to become Lady of the Vale (and possibly the North), if she can summon up the gumption to marry Harry the Heir and take out Littlefinger. I suspect/hope that we’re going to see Sansa reprising her mother’s scene in the Inn at the Crossroads against Littlefinger. Arya’s learning to be a mystic assassin.

    It’s not that I disagree that the wolves are meant to be protectors, but it’s not a guarantee.

    • Elliot de Vries says:

      My impression is that the protection of the wolves is intentionally spotty in the sense that your wolf’s protection is effectively guaranteed as long as you keep them near, have faith and pay heed, but that responsibilities and events are sometimes fated to prevent this– e.g. Robb got the perfect storm in (a) needing the Freys and trying not to offend them by going against their wishes in keeping Grey Wind with him and (b) losing faith in their protection because of what he believes happened to Bran and Rickon.

      I think this works story-wise because of the pleasant tension between wishing that they would just listen while knowing that they can’t and won’t for good reasons.

      Really enjoying these, by the way.

  4. Exodus says:

    I like what you put in here about how the wildlings aren’t the boogy monsters that they are made out to be, and yet they manage to live up to most of the stories that are said about them. For the most part GRRM, is good about keeping everyone’s perspectives independant and seemingly true to how a person in that situation really would view them. The wildlings are probably the best example of this in all the books. However, there are many other examples of there not being a “universally” accepted view of a person or persons. Rhaegar was hated with a passion by King Robert to the point where it doesn’t think killing him over and over would be enough to sate him. Jaime, and Barristan however both seem to recall Rhaegar with extreme fondness. Or Jaime’s killing of King Aerys. It’s perceived to be this horrible dishonorable act of a man who is simply looking out for his own survival without any regard for anyone around him. We later learn about the kings plan to burn down kingslanding with everyone in it simply to fuel his own delusions about becoming a dragon. So while Jaime dishonored himself in killing his own king, what his did could easily be considered and honorable act in protecting the people of kingslanding. (arguably even more honorable because he didn’t use this to defend his actions, even though people openly judged him for them) The point is that it makes it a lot more believeable when there are multiple views about people or groups of people.

    Now for the protection of the wolves. I always viewed them as just as protective are a soldier’s armor. It helps but is not like they are going to magically become immortal simply because they have their wolf by their side. They can only be as effective as any other body guard. They did seem to have an extra sense about who could be trusted and who couldn’t, but again thats just like a body guard telling you who you should and should not be around. You may take their advise sometimes, but not all the time.

    The condemned man’s final word was an easily acceptable change to me. This character was obviously not a major person in rest of the story and changing him for openly accepting his death to sounding more like a crazy person doesn’t change much. It still had the same effect of, after showing the audience that the others do exist and are a threat, that the realm as a whole disregard this as myth and legend. This is also reinforced by the lack of seeing the others for the rest of the book. Allowing them to forget about the others just like the realm has.

    The parallels between Jon and Robb are pretty obvious. Them being similar should be expected considering their ages and that they were both raise by Ned. In the books you can see this fairly easily. In the show, they can’t really be as obvious about it and it wouldn’t really benefit them much. What principles they both have from being raise by Ned will come out throughout the rest of the show and isn’t particularly important. This is another one of the “streamlining” changes that I was comfortable with because it wouldn’t have a big ripple effect and it saved valuable time.

    • stevenattewell says:

      I agree, GRRM likes to use “Kagemusha”-style fractured, unreliable perspectives on characters and events. Rhaegar is an excellent example, as is Robert’s Rebellion more generally. Regarding the wildlings, one of the things I really liked is how GRRM complicates them as a people with a culture, ideals, and personalities (as opposed to the more monolithic horde favored in much of the genre) without romanticizing them either – the wildlings may have a freewheeling culture, but that allows for Crasters as well as Mance Rayders.

  5. Exodus says:

    Wow… apparently I can ramble like a champ. Sorry, I didn’t realize how far I’d gone.

  6. Haven says:

    “That Eddard Stark swings the sword himself has to be a critique of this system of justice, to re-insert the human element and remove the divine.”

    That is brilliant, and has forced me to reevaluate how I perceived this scene. I believe the sentiment:

    “Yet our way is the older way…we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

    Is profound, however I can’t help fear how such a sentiment, in the mind of a Bolton, can turn it into horrible farce.

    By the way, your choice in torture image, is the result of the intimate relationship between Hugh Despenser and King Edward…I wonder how that association effected Martin’s view of Renly and Loras?

    • stevenattewell says:

      I think Edward II and Hugh Despenser were a major influence on Renly and Loras – Edward II came to a bad end, but he did look like a king.

  7. […] theory of politics. He believes that the person of the rules and the office should be one as the Old Ways dictate, such that the ruler’s conscience is sovereign; he thinks of his subjects and his peers not […]

  8. Raenelle says:

    “A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.” Wow.

    The history of war seems to be a journey from hand-to-hand combat to anonymous killing. What our overlords learned from Vietnam wasn’t that power is limited, or vital interests should be involved, or to have an attainable objective, or to exhaust other avenues fully. No. They learned not to televise the gore, not to dwell on the “collateral damage.” Eddard is held up as the antithesis to the way we kill now–a stark contrast.

    And we’ve gone further than that, of course. We’re way beyond mere anonymity and forgetting what death is. We have a culture that fetishizes violence, cuddles and nurtures it like Bran with his pup. When the day comes to take a life, Eddard says, “you must take no pleasure in the task. . . ” Violence as a task. Violence that should have such weight that the person using it must look it in the eye and assume personal responsibility. I cannot think of a moral standard regarding violence that is further away from American corporate culture that Eddard Stark’s.

    I have a question, though. Why are the adults uneasy that the mother direwolf was killed by antlers?

    • stevenattewell says:

      Because the Stag is the sigil of House Baratheon, and the Direwolf is the sigil of House Stark.

      It’s a bad omen: the House of the King is causing the death of House Stark.

      • Raenelle says:

        I thought of that. But House Stark, or Eddard, isn’t really killed by a Stag. Joffrey is a Lion.

        • stevenattewell says:

          In a larger sense, Robert causes the death of Eddard by making him Hand and exposing him to danger, and Eddard causes Robert’s death by not acting forcefully against Cersei.

  9. Raenelle says:

    And, maybe, the adults seeing an omen only points to something about them (they’re a superstitious lot). Actually, the really bad portent that they blow off whilst worrying about the meaning of some natural event is that creatures confined to the north for hundreds of years have moved south.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Sure, it’s a superstitious society. But they do note that direwolves south of the Wall is a sign of Winter is Coming.

  10. […] Game of Thrones – Bran I (the execution of the Night’s Watch deserter and the direpups, Ned Stark’s theory of personal power) […]

  11. James says:

    “As far as I can tell, the “older ways” are without historical precedent in Medieval Europe. Kings did not swing the sword or axe themselves for a reason.”

    Great posts. Just reading them now. A thought, the regarding the quote above: Ned’s customs and system of justice wouldn’t be a reflection of medieval Europe like the rest of Westeros, they’d be a reflection of Celtic or even pre-Celtic Europe, as the “First Men” precede the “Andals” by some millennia and the Andals never conquered the North. I think Ned’s customs would be more informed by Irish pre-history with all it’s cattle-raiding and nipple cutting and hostage taking. Just a thought.

  12. […] Even when he imagines (in fine teenage romantic outcast fashion) that “he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing int he shadows…where ever he might go through the Seven Kingdoms, he would need to live a lie…He tried to imagine the look on Robb’s face when he revealed himself. His brother would shake his head and smile…he could not see the smile. Hard as he tried, he could not see it.” There’s an entire social structure of symbolism, taboo, and obligation that has been built up in the North over 8,000 years to keep the Night Watch a functional institution. The only way Jon Snow’s escape would end is with him forcing his family to execute him for being an oathbreaker – thus, coming full circle back to Bran I. […]

  13. […] the legends of the Night’s King, the White Walkers have a use for humans – they are willing to mate with them, willing to feed their flesh to the undead, and willing to trade sorcererous power for human […]

  14. […] explanation for this – that Bloodraven is pulling the strings, that he did so when the direwolves first appeared, but that seems altogether too straightforward and frankly uninteresting to be the case. Rather, I […]

  15. […] we see the ongoing influence of Eddard Stark on all of his children, as Jon has inherited his personal conception of power when it comes to execution. On the other hand, Qhorin throws up an interesting challenge to […]

  16. David Remer says:

    So glad you are deconstructing these books to this level of detail. Only two posts in but really stoked I stumbled across this blog. Great work!

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