“Stannis and Renly are one thing, and Eddard Stark is quite another…My husband grows more restless every day. Having Stark beside him will only make him worse…How long till he decides to put me aside for some new Lyanna.”
“We ought to count ourselves fortunate…Give me honorable enemies rather ambitious ones, and I’ll sleep more easily by night.”
Synopsis: King Robert, Prince Joffrey, Lord Eddard Stark, Robb Stark, Benjen Stark, Ser Rodrik and Jory Cassel, Theon Greyjoy, and for some reason Tyrion Lannister go out on their last hunt before leaving for King’s Landing. A knight-crazy Bran is left in the castle, but feels somewhat ambivalent about leaving his home or naming his direwolf. Bran goes climbing around some very significant Winterfell landmarks, until he overhears a very significant conversation between Queen Cersei and Jaime Lannister until he is discovered and the best swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms decides to attempt murder on a seven-year-old.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels (and this time, including a preview chapter of Winds of Winter) and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
For my purposes, this chapter is one of the most invaluable in the entire novel, because it’s one of the few times in which we see participants in a political conspiracy talking openly about what they are doing and how they perceive the other political actors in Westeros as opposed to trying to convince someone with their acting, because they think they’re totally unobserved (which is a bit of an obvious literary ploy, but given that the two people in the conversation are reacting to new developments, it’s certainly plausible) – which happens really only once again in the novel.
And we learn a lot in this conversation. We learn that the Lannisters are contemplating the death of the King, that they attempted to take Robert Arryn hostage in order to buy Lysa Arryn’s silence, that they consider Renly, Stannis, and Littlefinger to be their enemies, and that they see Stark as dangerous because Robert trusts him, because Stark has no loyalty to Joffrey, and because Stark may reinvigorate the King to the point where he replaces the Queen with a Lyanna look-alike (and we find out later that Renly and Loras are trying to inveigle Margaery Tyrell into the King’s bed).
This gives us a fairly good overview of what I’ll be referring to as the Lannister Conspiracy. The purpose of the conspiracy is quite simple – to place a Lannister on the Iron Throne as quickly as possible before the truth of Joffrey’s birth can be exposed, and then thereafter to make the Lannister bloc hegemonic by appointing Tywin as Hand and Jaime Lannister as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. I think the element to have the King killed is a recent addition – after all, Cersei had a lot of opportunity to poison Robert, but she knew that it would have to happen at a time when she could deal with the Hand, who would be the most likely candidate to stand in as Regent rather than Cersei. It’s also likely that Cersei would have preferred to wait for Joffrey to come of age before killing the King to avoid the danger of a non-Lannister Regent.
This conspiracy shows clear signs of being put together rapidly once it became clear that Jon Arryn was investigating Joffrey’s paternity – there doesn’t seem to have been a plan on how to deal with Jon Arryn until after his death (unless the Lannisters contracted his assassination with Petyr Baelish, which seems unlikely as I’ll discuss in a second) or how to deal with the Renly/Tyrell threat, they let Lysa Arryn and Stannis Baratheon slip out of the capitol, and there’s very poor information control within the conspiracy (in part because Cersei can’t risk daddy finding out about her and Jaime’s little indiscretions), which leaves Maester Pycelle dangerously out of the loop given how much incriminating information he has on hand. Cersei’s limited skills in covert conspiracy show in her incredibly risky decision to continue her affair in Winterfell and then to throw Bran from the Tower – while the two chose an unused tower and most of the men were absent at the hunt the entire female population of the castle as well as various guards and servants were still present and could have discovered them instead of Bran, and Cersei and Jaime were conspicuously nowhere to be seen at the time of the “accident.”
We also learn a lot about what the Lannister Conspiracy knows about the other political actors. They know that Jon Arryn and Stannis Baratheon were investigating Joffrey’s birth, but they don’t know whether either of them have any proof or what to do about it – and this point is very important. At the end of the day, we’re not dealing with a constitutional monarchy; if Robert wants to violate custom and have Cersei killed for adultery, incest, and treason, no one can stop him, and Cersei knows it (this is something that the audience and even Ned Stark seem to forget). They know that Renly is trying to oust the Lannisters by planting a Tyrell in Robert’s bed, which is a major threat, because their main hold on power comes through Cersei’s ability to nag Robert into appointing Lannisters. Given that Cersei doesn’t really have a hold on Robert’s emotions or appetites, which is really a weakness on Cersei’s part in terms of their control over the monarchy, their passivity here seems to be a signature of the Conspiracy – Cersei tends to react rather than act, which is something of a double-edged sword. It’s extremely interesting that they consider Littlefinger to be an enemy or rival of some sort, although unfortunately we don’t learn anything about why they may think that; whatever it may have been, it wasn’t enough to prevent them from working with Littlefinger to capture the Goldcloaks before Ned’s abortive coup. Critically, they don’t seem to know anything about what Varys is up to – and it’s this intelligence failure which is the most dangerous.
Finally, we get to the issue of how the Lannisters view Eddard Stark as Hand. There’s three things that worry them – first, Eddard Stark is someone who’s loyal to Robert personally, not the Iron Throne, and has been known to overthrow kings he believes to be beyond the pale of acceptability. The Lannisters are basically right about this; while Eddard Stark’s rebellion against King Aerys II was prompted by the Targaryen’s attack on his family and himself, when push came to shove, he made the choice to oust Joffrey and replace him with Stannis. Second, they fear Robert will listen to Eddard Stark. This turns out to be more ambiguous; Eddard is unable to get Robert to cancel the Hand’s Tourney or to shift him on the Wardenship of the East, although he ultimately does get Robert to listen to him about Daenerys’ assassination, albeit too late. The tricky thing here is that it’s extremely unlikely that there three things are the only issues that Eddard Stark dealt with as Hand, but they’re the only plot-essential issues that we get to see in our few scenes of Eddard Stark’s interaction with the Small Council or the King. Third, they fear that Robert will get restless and invigorated by the presences of his childhood companion, which might prompt him to welcome Margaery Tyrell into his bed. This may well have been a genuine longer-term fear, but there just wasn’t enough time for us to see this play out.
The Renly/Tyrell plot to inveigle Margaery Tyrell into the bed of Robert Baratheon, along with her later trial for adultery, is the main reason I think the best historical parallel for Magaery Tyrell is Anne Boleyn. Both were dark-haired beauties who had been schooled in courtly arts and manners in the very heart of chivalry (in Anne’s case in France, in Margaery’s the Reach, which closely resembles late Medieval France), both were used as political pawns by ambitious relatives (Renly, Loras, and Mace standing in for Thomas Cranmer, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, and Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Whiltshire), and both showed an aptitude for influencing monarchs quietly to their political ends (although Margaery had the easier task in Tommen than Anne did in Henry). Both were accused of adultery in virtually identical indictments – Anne was accused of adultery with a Flemish musician, Mark Smeaton, a number of courtiers, and her brother George Boleyn, Margaery was accused of adultery with the Blue Bard, a number of knights, and Cersei considers naming Loras and Garlan first of all before she realizes that bringing up incest is perhaps not a wise course of action for a woman living in an extremely fragile glass house.
Like Episode 2, Season 2 of Game of Thrones, Anne Boleyn’s historical example points to the extremely gendered nature of political power in the Medieval world; not only was the patriarchy explicitly held out as the ideal of government, religion, society, and family, but queens’ political power was ultimately dependent on their sexuality (not merely their physical beauty, but also their skill with the rhetoric and movements of courtly love, especially their facility with witty repartee) and their fertility (the paramount importance of a male heir, but also the reality that queens could best exercise political power through their children). As a result, a queen’s position was never safe if she was seen to fall short on either of those qualities. While the divorce that Anne Boleyn prompted was unique, annulments, the legitimization of royal bastards, even bigamy was known throughout the courts of Europe (the position of royal mistress was formalized at several), a constant sword of Damocles over the heads of many a queen. At the same time, a mistress’ life offered equal risk – as the case of Anne Boleyn shows, becoming the king’s mistress offered landed wealth and titles to one’s entire family despite the hint of scandal (and even then, it was not uncommon for a king to find a wealthy and compliant husband for his mistress), but at the same time, it also put a major target on one’s back. A mistress only held power as long as she held the king’s interest (although in the case of royal mistresses like Diane de Poitiers, this could be for a long time and with more than one king), and kings are notoriously fickle when it comes to women.
A final point that I think sometimes escapes fans of the series – while we inhabitants of the 21st century are used to thinking of adultery as a personal transgression, in the Medieval era it was very much still a criminal offense punishable by whipping, mutilation (often of the nose or ears, symbolically attacking the source of vanity and lust), and death. This went doubly for royal adulterers; in law, crimes were not acts committed in violation of a statute as much as they were an attack on the sacred body of the king, whose “majesty” from which laws derived their force was deemed to be a physical quality. To commit adultery was to attack the king’s person in the most egregious form possible, given the implications for the line of succession – the fear was that someone would do what Cersei did deliberately, to change the succession by cuckolding the king and denying him legitimate heirs. Cersei’s plot certainly did not lack for ambition – in one generation, she was trying to bring a purely Lannister dynasty to the Iron Throne, and so far, she’s succeeded.
There are two main counterfactuals that Bran II suggests.
- What If Bran Isn’t Thrown from the Tower? This is perhaps the most obvious divergence from the major consequence of the chapter, and it has some interesting longer-term consequences. Firstly, it means that Bran doesn’t get crippled, and likely obviates Joffrey’s assassination attempt – this makes the Stark-Lannister feud much more long-term, since it means that Catelyn Stark has no reason to go to King’s Landing, which means that in all likelihood Tyrion never gets captured, and it means that Bran likely goes to King’s Landing with dreams of knighthood in his eyes (I like to think that Eddard might have arranged for Bran to squire with Ser Barristan, which would possibly have led to a Stark in Daenerys’ retinue). It may also mean that Bran’s greenseer abilities lay dormant, although it’s unclear how important the trauma of his injury was in the awakening process or whether Brynden Bloodraven would have been able to open Bran’s third eye regardless. It also means that Eddard starts his investigation knowing much earlier what’s going on with Cersei and Jaime (since Bran’s inability to keep promises is foreshadowed in this chapter, and I don’t see a seven year old boy being able to keep this under wraps) and is thus less likely to be led up blind alleys by Littlefinger – instead of pursuing a mystery, he’s collecting evidence for a formal charge of treason. I think this last issue lays to rest Cersei’s protestations of innocence in his maiming; at the end of the day she and Jaime are too exposed to leave it up to chance that knowledge of her incestuous adultery can further spread, which means it probably was never going to happen that Bran actually makes it down unharmed.
- What If Renly’s Plan Paid Off? Had Renly managed to place Margaery Tyrell in Robert’s bed, this would have been a quite potent threat to the Lannisters’ position in King’s Landing. Margaery is very skilled at the arts of courtly love, and Robert is known to be rather lavish with those she loves – it’s likely that several Tyrells make their way onto the Small Council and the Tyrells replace the Lannisters as the King’s “bank.” This political power would have been quite tenuous given the presence of Joffrey – had Robert installed Margaery as the King’s mistress/second-wife-to-be, it’s likely that Cersei would have accelerated her assassination attempts in order to get Joffrey on the Iron Throne as soon as possible. In this situation, it’s absolutely in the interest of the Tyrells to displace Cersei’s children in place of a Baratheon/Tyrell heir, which brings in the question as to whether Renly actually knows about Cersei’s adultery (given his constant sarcasm in Clash of Kings, it’s a bit hard to say. While Eddard would have likely viewed Renly’s plot with a very cool eye, especially if Renly had brought up the memory of Lyanna, he would ultimately back a legitimate heir over Joffrey, and with Tyrell military assistance, his coup might well have succeeded.
Book vs. TV:
Ultimately, Benioff and Weiss decided against explicit exposition, which is understandable in an episode heavy with the same, although I do think something is lost when we don’t see the Lannisters not just an inexplicably unnatural force of malice but as political actors in a political environment with real enemies around them.
Another thing we lose is some key foreshadowing moments – Bran is frightened of the heart tree, since “trees ought not have eyes…or leaves that looked like hands,” which calls to mind his eventual use of that very tree in Dance With Dragons; he prefers to go barefoot when climbing because “it made him feel as if he had four hands instead of two,” which is reminiscent of his warging into Summer beginning in Clash of Kings; and he describes the secret tunnels of Winterfell in great detail, which makes me think that a key part of the “Battle of Ice” in Winds of Winter will involve Bran giving Stannis a way past Winterfell’s walls when Stannis comes to the godswood to execute Theon.