“If it must be done, I will do it.” Cersei Lannister regarded him suspiciously. “You, Stark? Is this some trick? Why would you do of such a thing?” They were all staring at him…”She is of the north. She deserves better than a butcher.”
Synopsis: Eddard Stark arrives back at Castle Darry to find his daughter has been taken by Queen Cersei‘s guards before the King. The new Hand clashes with Cersei over the disciplining of his children and the execution of their pets; Sansa and Arya have a breakdown in their normally stable sisterly relations; and Renly finds everything rather amusing.
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.
In this chapter, we see Cersei Lannister for the first time as a political actor (as opposed to as a political observer in Bran II). So what should we make of the woman often considered the worst politician in Westeros? Well, I think we can see in this really brief encounter some of Cersei’s strengths and weaknesses become readily apparent, and she does have both (although that doesn’t prevent her from being a deeply flawed and ultimately doomed ruler).
To begin with, the Queen is actually quite good at using Lannister numbers and an understanding of strategic choke-points to her advantage – here, she uses the placement of Lannister gate guards (rather than Baratheon guards, a sign of how successfully she’s insinuated her independent military power into the royal court) to bring Arya before the King before Eddard could get hold of her, put himself as a parent in between his children and the court, or negotiate with King Robert in a private context. It’s a smart political move, and she makes the most of it, just as she will later when she uses her control over the throne room and the person of her son to preempt Eddard’s installation as Regent.
Cersei also has something of a gift for revisionist history, creating propaganda that puts herself on the moral high ground and demonizes her opponents, but it’s a limited one. Her story, that “this girl of yours attacked my son. Her and her butcher’s boy. That animal of hers tried to tear his arm off,” is clearly not believable. Arya’s story is clearly believed over the Queen of Westeros, and Cersei and her son are exposed to public mockery at the hands of Lord Renly, a major political rival. Likewise, when it comes later in the series to coming up with propaganda to smear Lord Stannis and later Margaery, her instant go-to suggestion of sibling incest is laughably bad. On the other hand, her initial story about the supposed treachery of Eddard Stark does succeed, at least initially – in part because for once, she goes with the simplest story.
I think the reason that her first foray into revisionist history fails is one of Cersei’s major weaknesses: she’s not good at understanding other’s motivations or figuring out their levers. She can rather crudely manipulate Robert – she succeeds in publicly shaming him into executing the wolf, she can use reverse psychology on him to try to get him into the melee at the Hand’s Tourney, and she can wheedle him into making Lannister appointments. However, Robert clearly sides against her in favor of Eddard when it comes to the punishment of Arya, and will do the same when it comes to taking Eddard back as Hand. Likewise, she shows no understanding of Eddard’s motivations at all in this chapter, or any understanding that people might be motivated by impulses other than self-interest, and has no way of dealing with Renly at all.
Secondly, Cersei displays a strangely vindictive, scorched-earth approach without thinking deeply about how her actions are syncing with her long-term motivations. It is simply not worth it to spark a vendetta against the Starks, who Cersei already has reason to fear the enmity of (due to her role in the attempted murder of Bran), over a bitten arm and a pet wolf. In the end, she succeeds in having Lady executed, but gains nothing by it – indeed Cersei potentially undid her endgame by alienating her son’s fiancee (and this is a point where I think George R.R Martin’s normally solid characterization breaks down; I find it odd that Sansa would go running to the woman who had her pet executed).
Finally, I’d say Cersei’s biggest problem as a politician is that, because of the fact that her political gifts and education was completely neglected by her father (who curiously seems to have never really taught any of his children his own political skills) and the way that her own gender constraints have created this curdled resentment inside, she’s really only suited to destroy rather than to build. As a usurper, Cersei is remarkably successful – she manages to thoroughly cuckold her husband, eliminate a formally more powerful enemy in the Hand of the King, and install herself as Queen Regent of Westeros. However, once she finally gets to the position she’s been working for her entire life, she has no idea what to do. She immediately loses control over her son’s actions, turning the relative cold war in the Riverlands into an immediate war with the Starks, and has no plans for dealing with either Baratheon beyond trying to command her father to abandon the war effort against the Starks and allow them to pin his army against the walls of King’s Landing.
The most instructive moment comes when the immediate threat to the Iron Throne is crushed; once Tywin actually establishes an alliance with the Tyrells and Martells (a diplomatic coup of the ages), her immediate instinct is to destroy this coalition, because she has no understanding of allies on an equal footing, again because she can’t conceive of others as either servants or enemies. This quality follows through to her choice of subordinates, where Cersei instinctively avoids competence for fear of competing agendas, and instead somewhat subconsciously appoints incompetents and traitors who she feel won’t question her decisions.
In the end, though, I think the real question is what Cersei would have looked like as a politician if she had grown up in a context where her gender and her political interests weren’t in conflict. Because for all that the medieval society of Westeros is truly oppressive to women, there are survival strategies for women with Cersei’s interests and qualities that she never had access to at the decidedly woman-free Casterly Rock. Margaery and Olenna Tyrell make the cultural proscriptions of gender work in their favor, Arianne Martell and the Sand Snakes show that there are alternative cultural spaces in Westeros, even Catelyn Tully doesn’t let the frustrations she feels with gender-imposed limitations poison her life.
Robert Baratheon was, in his lifetime, a flawed King, although I have argued that not every flaw of his should be blown out of proportion; most medieval monarchs were perpetually in debt, if not chronic bankrupts. However, this chapter does show one of his more egregious shortcomings – Robert has no interest or ability in his role as the chief judicial power in Westeros. To be fair, it’s not the easiest situation to sit in judgement of one’s own son and heir over a domestic matter, but Robert Baratheon completely dithers, swayed first by Eddard and then by Cersei, motivated more by his desire to have the thing over and done than any interest in truth or justice.
This negligence is quite bizarre when you consider how absolutely central the position of king-as-judge was to the centralization of power in the monarchy from the middle ages onward. The best example of this is the case of England: Henry I was known as “Beauclerc” and the “Lion of Justice” for his creation of the Charter of Liberties; Henry II standardized judicial decisions into English Common Law, established itinerant royal justices to tour the country and popularized the use of juries, and the creation of legal handbooks; Edward III created Justices of the Peace to keep the peace; Henry VII spread them to every county, and created the Star Chamber; and so on and so on down the centuries.
They did so not just out of the goodness of their hearts but because exercising judicial power allowed the Kings to intercede between the great lords of their lands and their vassals and create direct connections between king and subject that could be the source of a base of popular support for the monarchy; it allowed the King to interject themselves into conflicts between lords and thus make the lords need to curry favor with the monarch; and finally, it allowed the King to act through the courts against their enemies, and thus use the machinery of the law to force them into outlawry, seize their lands and properties, mobilize other lords against them under the guise of law enforcement, and so forth.
Robert’s consistent neglect of this, avoiding conflicts here at Castle Darry, but also when Eddard and Jaime come to blows and when Tywin Lannister moves against House Tully, is perhaps the worst thing he does as king. By refusing to take action to keep the peace outside of a military situation, he created the environment in which a War of Five Kings could break out.
Overall, I can really only see one major “what if” coming out of this chapter: what if the judgement had gone differently? Now, I find it unlikely that Robert would have ordered any punishment for Arya or that Eddard would have allowed him to do so, but it’s not impossible – and the result would be an early breach of trust between the King and his Hand, which might have made Eddard more likely to reach out to allies if he thought he couldn’t rely on Robert’s judgement at all (as opposed to his rather mixed feelings in OTL).
It’s more likely that Robert reflexively sides with his old comrade and lets the wolf alone. The results of this are rather subtle – namely, that the relationships between Eddard and his daughters (and between Sansa and Arya) aren’t damaged as they are in OTL. Eddard’s failure to prevent the execution of Lady causes a breach between himself and Sansa; removing that may mean that Sansa doesn’t run to inform Cersei. This potentially could butterfly away Cersei’s successful coup against the Stark Regent, or at the very least allow Eddard to successfully smuggle his daughters out of King’s Landing. This in turn has huge effects – Catelyn Stark has no reason to release Jaime from captivity and probably heads to Winterfell with her children; the sack of Winterfell is probably butterflied away, and it’s possible that Jaqen H’ghar dies in the Riverlands.
Book vs. TV:
There are a couple of big changes between the book and the show. In the show, Arya is found first by the Lannisters, as opposed to by Jory and then brought before the King, and likewise in the show, Sansa is brought to the King by Cersei behind Eddard’s back. Both of these changes give a sense of the Lannisters’ ubiquitous power and makes the Starks seem even more hapless or in danger; my own sense is that it over-eggs the pudding a bit, but then again perhaps necessary for first-time viewers.
A big change is the removal of Renly’s presence – in the books, Renly provides the reader with a third perspective outside of the Stark-Lannister conflict, and gives a sense of how ridiculous Cersei’s story is. It also changes how Robert plays out – in the show, Robert is openly contemptuous of his son (which adds another layer of complexity into Joffrey’s abnormal psychology), but in the book, it’s more that he’s embarrassed by his son’s obvious failure especially in the presence of “the young, slim Robert” Renly Baratheon.