“He will not understand that. He is a king now, and kings are not like other men. If you refuse to serve him, he will wonder why, and sooner or later he will begin to suspect that you oppose him. Can’t you see the danger the danger that would put us in?”
“You must be Robert’s Hand. You must go south with him and learn the truth…the Hand of the King has power, my lord. Power to find the truth of Lord Arryn’s death, to bring his killers to the king’s justice.”
Synopsis: Eddard and Catelyn Stark enjoy the afterglow, and discuss Robert‘s political and marital offers. Maester Luwin arrives with a message from Lysa Arryn informing them that Jon Arryn was murdered by Cersei Lannister. All three discuss whether Ned should now take up the Handship – and decide that he will go south, as well as which children will go with him. Jon Snow‘s offer to take the black is discussed and agreed to.
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.
One of my favorite things about this chapter is that we get to see Catelyn Stark as a political analyst. For all that she seems to have a vocal hatedom, she’s actually quite astute in this scene. In warning Ned that refusing an offer of friendship and patronage from the King, he risks alienating King Robert (which is historically accurate), Catelyn anticipates Robert Baratheon’s later reaction when Eddard Stark refuses to go along with the assassination of Daenerys and shows a keen judge of character when it comes to seeing that the King is motivated by his ego. She shows a good understanding of dynastic politics, as we’d expect a highborn lady to do – making a marriage alliance with the royal household, such that the next heir to the throne might be half a Stark, makes sense if you want to strengthen the Stark family’s political position. It’s something of a pity that so many fans overlook her acumen here.
The major political question in this chapter is whether Eddard should stay in Winterfell or accept Robert’s offer to become the Hand of the King. As I’ve suggested before, I think there’s a choice that Ned doesn’t take, the choice to not merely be the Hand, but use the powers of the Hand to accomplish his goals – namely, to uncover the truth of Jon Arryn’s death and shore up Robert’s government. The Hand has a broad portfolio of powers that we don’t really see Eddard Stark using that much:
- Lawmaking – if Eddard Stark is unhappy that the Capitol is so mired in corruption, he has the power to introduce reforms through royal decrees in the King’s name. For example, given his frustration with the King’s finances, he certainly could have introduced new taxes to balance the budget, he could have established a Westerosi reserve bank to provide the King with an alternative to borrowing from the Lannisters, or he could have cut Robert’s spending in areas where the King wasn’t looking. For all that Robert dislikes “counting coppers” and likes throwing tourneys, one does get the sense that Eddard could have pushed the King to clean up his act (I get the sense that Robert would do better with a minder telling him what he can’t do than someone trying to offer him good advice) – after all, he succeeds in getting Robert to forgo the melee even when the King wanted to fight. He could have pursued legal reforms to bolster the Crown’s ability to see justice done (which would have helped him with his investigations), given that Westeros seems to lack the royal courts that were so crucial to the success of the Plantagenet dynasty.
- Appointments – I think this may be Eddard’s first and most consequential mistakes. As essentially a new Prime Minister, he makes the decision to retain the cabinet of the previous incumbent (always a mistake), even though there’s no one on the Small Council that is loyal to Eddard Stark. Replacing some combination of Littlefinger, Pycelle, and Varys with Stark loyalists would have greatly strengthened his hand – Wyman Manderly, for example has some financial savvy that could substitute for Littlefinger’s dubious loyalty, and Pycelle could have been quietly retired. Bringing the Tyrells onto the Council as Wardens of the South would have at least created a more even balance of power. Given Eddard Stark’s pre-existing dislike of Lannister appointees surrounding the King, there’s no reason why Eddard couldn’t have given him some Northern squires. He certainly could have appointed someone better than Janos Slynt to be the Commander of the City Guard. A relatively small number of appointees could have greatly improved Eddard Stark’s position – instead, he tends to disperse his loyalists to the City Guard or to hunt for Gregor Clegane, which further weakens him.
- Judicial Powers – This is one of the few areas that Ned actually does make use of his power, by attainting Gregor Clegane (and in the show, by summoning Tywin Lannister to court – more of which later). I’ll discuss the wisdom of his actions later, but it’s frustrating how Eddard Stark makes no use of his powers when he’s investigating Jon Arryn’s murder. He had the power to summon Hugh of the Vale to his presence (indeed, Littlefinger’s suggestion to not do so may have been in order to delay his giving testimony – more on which later), to arrest him if necessary. Similarly, he could have issued a public arrest warrant for Tyrion Lannister – which would have made the actions of Jaime and Tyrion Lannister open treason.
- Military Powers – Finally, there was nothing stopping the Hand from recruiting more troops than the 50 he brought to King’s Landing so that he wasn’t outnumbered ten-to-one by the Lannisters, so that he didn’t have to rely on the Goldcloaks for his final move. Given the disorders in the Riverlands and the threat of a Dothraki invasion, he had every pretext for doing so.
The strange thing about Stark’s choices is how vulnerable the various conspiracies were to an active Hand – for whatever reason, Ser Hugh of the Vale had been left in place in King’s Landing. It’s possible that he knew nothing of Jon Arryn’s investigations or had no part in his murder, but it’s extremely unlikely; he was Hugh’s squire and would have been in constant contact with him during his time as Hand. While Pycelle’s suspicions aren’t really worth much, given his…lack of skill at intrigue, Varys’ suspicions are more credible – and he didn’t have a motive to lie about that particular conspiracy. Similarly, Petyr’s lie that he had lost the knife to Tyrion Lannister was easily verifiable – more on why he did so later on. Finally, most of Arryn’s loose ends were still floating around – the book was easily available, so are all the royal bastards he visited.
Indeed, as I’ll discuss when I get to Clash of Kings, Tyrion’s reign as Hand shows how effective a Hand can be in uncovering conspiracies and in dealing with conspirators, and it’s highly significant how his choices differ from those of his predecessor.
Lysa’s message that Queen Cersei murdered Jon Arryn is one of the first truly significant political events in Game of Thrones, the first move in Littlefinger’s conspiracy to turn the Starks against the Lannisters. It shows Baelish’s characteristic style, always working at a step or two removed, through easily deniable and disposable cats-paws, and making use of personal feelings and attachments. Think about how this phase of his plan works and how long it must have been in the planning – he had been cultivating Jon Arryn’s trust for years, ever since he became Controller of Customs at Gulltown and began to move up the ranks under his patronage. That trust in turn was built on his skillful manipulation of Lysa Tully’s obsessive love, ever since he deflowered her and impregnated her – the event that likely caused her emotional and mental breakdown.
It’s quite astonishing the degree of control he has over Lysa – think about what she’s doing in this letter. She’s intentionally putting her sister and her entire family in mortal danger, driven by her own displaced guilt over the murder of her husband, which in turn was prompted by her built-up hatred and resentment over the abortion she was forced to have to marry an old man who gave her repeated miscarriages and one sickly child.
Two small points:
- Using Bran as a bridge between Robb and Joffrey was doomed from the start, given Joffrey’s sociopathic tendencies.
- Ned’s use of the phrase “he is of my blood” is one of the stronger pieces of evidence of the R+L = J theory, given that he doesn’t ever call Jon his son. At the same time, it does make you wonder why Ned Stark doesn’t encourage the Ashara Dayne story. Emotional trauma might explain it, but at the same time, it would give a credible explanation for Jon Snow’s birth, obscuring the truth under a widely believed and believable story. Unless there’s something about the Tower of Joy he wanted to obscure.
Ned Stark had good reasons to fear royal favor. Jon Arryn had been murdered, the four Hands before him ended badly, and even Tywin Lannister saw his son and heir stolen from him. Historically, royal favors could very much be a double-edged sword. Henry VIII made Thomas Wolsey the King’s almoner, Archbishop of York, and Lord Chancellor – as well as one of the richest men in England, but just as quickly, he stripped him of his offices and properties and had him accused of treason; Thomas Cromwell started as a commoner, became Chancellor of the Exchequer and the king’s principle secretary, and rose as high as to become Earl of Essex, but was attainted by the House of Lords for treason, heresy, corruption, and other sins, and lost his head.
Equally, conspiracy was very much a part of court life in the Middle Ages and beyond. In just the Tudor dynasty, we can find the supposed treason of Anne Boleyn, who was accused of adultery and incest with five men including her brother (which Cersei’s accusations towards Margaery Tyrell are based on), prompted by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer’s successful plot to bring down Catherine Howard, the Regent Edward Seymour (Duke of Somerset)’s successful domination of Edward VI’s Council, and his brother’s plot to secretly marry the future Elizabeth I, Wyatt’s rebellion against Mary I, the possible murder of Robert Dudley’s wife by Dudley to free himself up for the queen, multiple assassination attempts, the Ridolfi and Babington plots to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as other assorted conspiracies that brought down Raleigh, the Duke of Essex, and so many other court favorites.
In my eyes, this puts Eddard Stark in better context. In the end, he lost the game of thrones and ended up with his head on a spike. But he’s hardly the only one, and many great lords who were far better politicians and courtiers than he was ended up dead. Which I think is something that people fail to comprehend about George R.R Martin’s work – he’s not an advocate of Machiavellian statecraft. Ned Stark does the honorable thing and loses, but master schemers like Tywin or Tyrion wind up betrayed and either murdered or attempted murdered and exiled, Cersei’s more second-string efforts result in the realm being misgoverned by loyal incompetents and herself arrested for adultery, treason, and conspiracy.
If anything, what George R.R Martin is saying is that there are no winners in the Game of Thrones. The good die unluckily, the bad die deservedly, and honest efforts and clever schemes all end in disarray.
I see two interesting hypothetical possibilities in this chapter:
- What if Ned had refused the King? As discussed before, a lot of the plot hinges on Ned’s decision to go south with the King. However, it’s quite interesting to ask what might happen if he had said no – because Robert Baratheon is going to die, Stannis Baratheon already knows about Joffrey’s bastardy, and Renly is going to make a move on the throne no matter what happens. In that situation, it’s all but certain that Ned Stark would be one of the few men honorable enough to respond to Stannis Baratheon’s letter and declare for the least popular candidate, which means that Stannis starts with an entirely different strategic picture. Instead of having only 5,000 men and a fleet, Stannis would have the North marching on King’s Landing and potentially the Riverlands (this time not having been burnt and invaded by the Lannisters prior to the war) as well. It’s still a tricky situation; Stannis’ two armies are separated by the Lannisters, after all. However, he now has the option to race Renly directly to King’s Landing – perhaps arriving before Tyrion can get the boom chain and wildfire completed. On a side note, when Eddard Stark gets Jeor Mormont’s letter that the White Walkers are coming, the Night’s Watch is getting substantial reinforcements from the North.
- What if Jon stayed in the North? I find it strange that Ned can think of so few options for Jon Snow; you certainly don’t get the feeling that any of the other Northern houses would really care about his bastard status. Why not send Snow to foster with the Umbers, or the Karstarks, or the Manderlys? I think Jon would really have shined in a context in which he was outside of Catelyn Stark’s eyes, and once the war started, he certainly would have been an excellent bannerman for Robb. On the other hand, this does likely mean that Jeor Mormont gets murdered by a wight, which leaves the Night’s Watch in a difficult situation (although they do avoid losing a third of their manpower in the Great Ranging) in terms of leadership.
Book vs. TV:
The major difference between the book and the tv show is that Catelyn’s position is completely reversed, with her arguing for Ned to stay in the North and refuse the King. While I understand the dramatic choice, in that it emphasizes her identity as a mother (which is something that book readers tend to be harshly critical of), I think in the end it serves to diminish her character because we lose an opportunity to see right at the beginning that Catelyn Stark understands the game of thrones better than her husband.