“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.