“In his youth, Ned had fostered at the Eyrie, and the childless Lord Arryn had become a second father to him and his fellow ward, Robert Baratheon. When the Mad King Aerys II Targaryen had demanded their heads, the Lord of the Eyrie had raised his moon-and-falcon banners in revolt rather than give up those he had pledged to protect.”
Synopsis: Catelyn Stark goes to the godswood in Winterfell to speak with her husband, Lord Eddard Stark. The two discuss the children and the potential threat of Mance Rayder before Catelyn breaks the news that Jon Arryn, Hand of the King and Lord of the Eyrie, has died. Catelyn and Ned discuss Jon’s widow Lysa Arryn and Catelyn informs her husband that King Robert Baratheon and his court is coming to Winterfell.
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.
This chapter is a short one, very much a literary message to the reader that an event – the King coming to Winterfell – will happen, but there are some interesting political themes – the threat of Mance Rayder, the nature of fosterage in the feudal system of Westeros, the issue of Jon Arryn (who we know so little about given his importance in the overall plot) as the Hand, and the question of why Ned hates the Lannisters.
Ned brings up Mance Rayder almost immediately after discussing the execution of the deserter, who we learn was the fourth in the current year, an ominous sign of the weakness of the spirit as well as the body of the Night’s Watch. In Eddard’s eyes, the loss of rangers is the work of Mance Rayder, who is well-known as the King Beyond the Wall, which suggests that he’s very well established as wildling kings know – although he presumably heard from the deserter about the fate of Ser Waymar Royce’s party, Eddard Stark is responding to the familiar threat. Wildling kings coming around or over the Wall have happened many times before: Raymun Redbeard scaled the Wall 150 years ago, threw down rope ladders behind him, and brought over an army that took King Willam Stark by surprise at the Long Lake and killed the King, only to be killed in turn by the King’s brother, Artos the Implacable. 300 years ago, Bael the Bard seduced and impregnated the only daughter of Brandon Stark the Daughterless, only to be slain and defeated by his own son – showing that the Starks have both Northern and wildling blood in them, and which is the wolf blood? Before that it was Gorne and Gendel, the Horned King, and Joramun.
Which I think tells us a lot about the character of Eddard Stark – as his wife says, he’s not a man to “put faith in signs.” He’s a practical man, one who believes in what he can see with his own eyes, yet unlike in the show, he’s actually fairly attuned to the threat to the North. He believes that he will have to call his banners and march north. It’s a choice he’ll never have the opportunity to make.
The news of Jon Arryn’s death completely derails this line of thought for reasons personal and political. Jon Arryn raised Ned Stark, and that’s more important than people realize; Eddard’s sense of honor, his intense idealism, his willingness to suffer for the sake of principle comes as much from the Vale as it does from the North. And while we don’t really get a chance to see the positive of the Vale in the novels rather than the xenophobic arrogance and elitism displayed by Lysa’s court, Lord Arryn must have had a huge impact on Ned’s development. We get the sense that Eddard’s “second father” was closer to him than Lord Rickard Stark, and the TV show at least suggests that Ned was the star pupil and Robert Baratheon the rebel. And the lessons learned at the Eyrie were all about principle – Jon Arryn went to war alone, before Eddard could raise the North or Robert conquer the Stormlands, rather than be forsworn even by royal command.
At the same time, there is always political advantage at stake. As will be discussed more in the historical section, the oath to foster was absolutely sacred and a critical part of the feudal order. What Jon Arryn was being asked to do was to destroy his own reputation in a world in which all political ties ran on reputation and not only would his rulership over the Vale be forever thrown in doubt in the eyes of his vassals, but it would also mean blood feud with two of the seven Kingdoms. To be given the heir of the Baratheons and the second son of the Starks was an enormous honor, but it was also a political advantage, tying three Great Houses into an abiding sense of loyalty and kinship. This may very well have been part of what the learned Stefan calls the “Southron ambitions” of Lord Rickard Stark. In Stefan’s telling, the lords of Stark, Tully, Baratheon, and Arryn had been comrades in arms in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, a War in which an unlikely King died suddenly and was replaced by a weak King, and had made some sort of pact to bind enough Great Houses together into a power bloc that could fill the power vaccuum left by a weakened monarchy. Starks were engaged to Tullys, Baratheons were engaged to Starks, and childless Arryn was given two foster children. Given Robert’s position as heir to the Stormlands, Ned Stark might well have become Arryn’s heir had Jon chosen the son of his heart rather than his nephew by blood.
This in turn brings up a question we will continue to examine throughout the series – was Jon Arryn a good Hand? Most people in the ASoIaF assume not, but I think the case is more difficult than people think. After all, Jon Arryn pulled off something that no one had ever pulled off in three hundred years: a successful rebellion against the Targaryean monarchy. Despite losing Rickard and Brandon Stark, which potentially eliminated the Tully alliance, and despite having to wage a war on three fronts and against their own vassals, Arryn held together an alliance that conquered the loyalists areas of the Stormlands, saw off the armies of four separate Hands, reforged an alliance with House Tully, and then took the Throne. Once the war was over, Arryn successfully reintegrated the Lannisters and Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms, and served as Hand for fourteen years, longer than any Hand in living memory other than Tywin Lannister. For all but one of those years, the Seven Kingdoms were at peace and generally prosperous thanks to the weather. Arryn uncovered Cersei Lannister’s infidelity and was preparing to act against the Targaryens when he was struck down by a force he could not have seen coming. In the end, I think we have to say that Jon Arryn, while certainly imperfect in terms of fiscal policy and dealing with the Lannisters, was certainly one of the better Hands we’ve seen in the series.
Finally a point on Eddard Stark’s dislike of the Lannisters. Part of this comes when the “Lannisters of Casterly Rock had come late to Robert’s cause, when victory was all but certain;” part of this certainly comes from Eddard’s furious row over the murder of Elia and her children and finding the Kingslayer sitting on the Iron Throne, which for a man who’d fought the war for murdered relatives and whose putative leader was badly injured at the Trident must have seemed like a coup in the making. However, if we accept the R+L=J thesis, there may be another reason for Stark’s fear and hatred – the Lannisters killed Targaryen children, and now they have a Lannister heir to the throne to kill for. While Jon Snow faces a certain amount of threat from Robert Baratheon, although it’s uncertain if Robert could actually murder Lyanna’s only child, the greatest threat to Jon’s life certainly comes from the Lannisters.
Trying to figure out the feudal system of Westeros is rather complicated; on the one hand, we’re talking about formerly independent kingdoms, and certainly a system in which local vassals swear loyalty to a lord paramount, who in turn pledges loyalty to the King. However, as we see from the Freys, the local lords also swear loyalty to the King himself, an adaptation of the feudal order notably put in place by the Norman kings of England following the Conquest in 1066, which is a good parallel for the Targaryens. The reason I bring this up is that Stark’s proposal to call his 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 think there’s an element of Welsh as well as Scottish Marches.
Like the Scottish Wardens, the Anglo-Norman marcher lords were military men sent to hold down rebellious and disputed territories. However, the Marcher lords “ruled their lands by their own law—sicut regale (“like unto a king”) as Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, stated (Nelson 1966), whereas in England fief-holders were directly accountable to the king. Marcher lords could build castles, a jealously guarded and easily-revoked Royal privilege in England. Marcher lords administered laws, waged war, established markets in towns, and maintained their own chanceries that kept their records, which have been completely lost. They had their own deputies, or sheriffs. Sitting in their own courts they had jurisdiction over all cases at law save high treason. “They could establish forests and forest laws declare and wage war, establish boroughs, and grant extensive charters of liberties. They could confiscate the estates of traitors and felons, and regrant these at will. They could establish and preside over their own petty parliaments and county courts.” This seems quite similar to Eddard Stark’s powers – he administers the law, he declared Jorah Mormont traitor, and he’s proposing to start a war against the wildling King on his own initiative. Which if true, makes Eddard Stark virtually a king in his own country – virtually.
Historically, fostering was an absolutely vital part of the feudal system on the same level as dynastic marriages and the oath of homage between lord and vassal, one that many historians have spent a great deal of time studying. As with marriages and oaths, the point was to build relationships that were both political and personal at a time when the abstract entity of the State didn’t exist. Scholars believe that fostering was intended to spread the idea of “familial sense,” that at a time in which bonds of loyalty were incredibly fragile and the pursuit of the family’s interest was everything, having people identify a second family as part of their own was a way to build trust between families, especially at a time when most people didn’t travel that much and so didn’t have many opportunities to get to know their neighbors as more than that bastard who stole my cattle because I sacked his abbey. The major departure in the case of Ned and Robert Baratheon is that it tended to happen between lords and their vassals, to cement those vertical relationships – here we have Lords Paramount exchanging children. This I think is a point in favor of Stefan’s thesis – this seems like more than just building a dynastic alliance, but rather the medieval equivalent of a merger.
Finally, a point about Robert’s procession to the North. Many have tended to see Robert’s huge entourage, with all the ostentatious carriage houses and the extremely slow movement, as a sign of the decadence of the court, and that’s not completely wrong. However, this kind of traveling court was absolutely standard in the early Middle Ages. Traveling courts were enormous affairs, as the King was essentially hauling around his justice system and his treasury from place to place. They were a way for the King to see and be seen by the different parts of his kingdom, a vital task for securing the monarchy at a time when royal infrastructure linking the capitol to the provinces was non-existent. On procession, the king would assess taxes on the spot, settle court cases, grant charters for fairs and towns, and generally make himself known as the ruler.
They were also a way to cut down on the costs of administration by foisting them on local lords, and one weapon that a king had to deal with an unruly vassal was to give him an extended visit and eat and drink him into near-bankruptcy. There is something of an anachronism here – King’s Landing has a permanent infrastructure more associated with the Late Middle Ages – a permanent court, office buildings (the Tower of the Hand), and a permanent sitting Small Council with well-defined ministries (the Hand, the Justicar, the Lord Treasurer, the Grand Admiral, the Spymaster, the Grand Maester, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, and the Wardens Cardinal). So perhaps it does speak to Robert’s decadence after all.
There’s three interesting what if moments in this chapter:
- What if Lord Stark called his banners and went North? Let’s say that Will actually got that shattered sword to the Wall or to Eddard himself, and he acted (even if he had thought simply that Rayder was on the move) – a lot of things change. To begin with, it’s highly unlikely that he accepts the position of Hand of the King since he’s busy as Warden of the North. That more or less short-circuits much of the plot right there. However, it also might change some other things – 18,000 men rather than 300 go on the Great Ranging, which means a disciplined force survives the Fist of the First Men. It’s also likely that Mance Rayder is confronted, not by 600 men at the Wall, but by an entire army – and perhaps a deal gets worked, or the old enmity between Starks and Wildling Kings continues. It also guarantees that credible warning of the White Walkers makes it out before the War of Five Kings, which might drastically change Robert Baratheon’s final months as King. Targaryen children seem less consequential when there’s a war at hand up North.
- What if Catelyn took the younger children to the Vale? This is a subtler, but equally important change. Catelyn in the Vale perhaps means that Bran never witnesses the Queen’s incest, which avoids an immediate catalyst for Stark/Lannister conflict; regardless, it means that Catelyn is twigged to her sister’s incapacity much earlier – would Catelyn in that position with her children at stake, depose her sister as Regent if, perhaps, war were to break out between Starks and Lannisters? It also means that Tyrion likely never gets arrested/kidnapped, which means that Stark is likely in good health when the clash comes and doesn’t lose that vital week out of his mind on opium, and that Tyrion is there to witness what happens at court. Does Tyrion go with his sister’s plans? Without a Hand’s chain around his neck, does he even have the power to stop her?
- What if Ned was adopted by Jon Arryn? Let’s say that Jon Arryn decides to go with a carefully-groomed heir over a distant relative. This means that when Brandon Stark dies, Eddard Stark falls heir to two kingdoms. This has, as far as I’m aware, never happened before in Westerosi history, and would likely have increased tensions enormously. No way Tywin feels that easy about a man who either controls or is married into three contiguous northerly kingdoms, or Renly and the Tyrells for that matter. It’s questionable whether even the strong friendship between Ned and Robert could have survived the tensions between a king and a vassal strong enough to overthrow the king.
This scene is fairly faithful to the book, except for the narrative economy that limits Eddard and Catelyn’s discussion to the news of Arryn’s death and what that means for the Starks. However, for a rare change, ShowNed is smarter than BookNed – he realizes right away that Robert’s visit means he’s going to be asked to be the Hand of the King. For all those viewers and reviewers who complained about how Eddard Stark looked like an idiot in the show (a topic I’ll be addressing later), here’s a case of the reverse. Eddard Stark is canny enough to read an entire political situation into a sentence on paper. Secondly, and I’ll also get into this later, Catelyn Stark’s position is reversed; in the book, she convinces Eddard that he cannot refuse the King, here she speaks solely as a mother. I understand to an extent the desire on the part of Benioff and Weiss to drive for narrative economy, to present Catelyn from the outset as a mother first and then reveal her more political side, but at the same time I think they did miss a chance to show the particularly medieval strong female character of the highborn lady. Medieval ladies did not always spend their time sewing; they were expected to manage households and estates, and if necessary to conduct a siege defense if their castle was attacked while their lord was away. This was Catelyn Stark’s political training, and it would have been nice to see it.