“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon….women, craven, and eunuchs.”
Synopsis: Eddard Stark, Hand of the King, meets with Grandmaester Pycelle (the world’s greatest conspirator and secret-keeper) to discuss the death of Jon Arryn and put in a library request for a certain book. On his way back to the office, he runs across Arya and the two of them discuss the intersectionality of gender and disability in terms of social barriers to future careers. Finally, Eddard meets with Littlefinger and makes a huge mistake.
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.
Political Analysis: With Eddard V, we dive right back into the investigation of Jon Arryn’s death and get a good look into the Lannister Conspiracy and the Littlefinger Conspiracy – which I’ll take in chronological order.
First off, the Lannister Conspiracy, or more specifically Grandmaster Pycelle’s role in the conspiracy. For all the crap that Eddard takes for being bad at King’s Landing politics, I feel confident in saying that Pycelle is the most inept political actor in the entirety of the Song of Ice and Fire. Consider what he lets slip in one conversation with Eddard: he lets slip that Jon Arryn was acting strangely before his death, that he asked for a particular book, that his symptoms are incredibly poison-like (“came to me one day…as hale and healthy as ever…the next morning, he was twisted over in pain, too sick to rise from bed”), that he sent away Jon Arryn’s maester, and Jon Arryn’s last words.
Had Pycelle kept any of that information back just by keeping his mouth shut (or had he came up with a plausible natural cause of Arryn’s death, which would have further muddied the water), Eddard’s investigation would have been virtually stillborn and the chance that he would have uncovered the secret of the father of Cersei’s children virtually non-existent. Even had Littlefinger or Varys put the Hand back on the track of Robert’s bastard, there just wasn’t enough evidence out there for them to lead him to the correct conclusion without revealing themselves. Now to be fair, a big part of this has to do with the Lannister Conspiracy’s failure to manage information well – Pycelle doesn’t know exactly what Cersei’s up to, didn’t even get an order to kill Arryn, and I still think there’s a possibility that his comments in Tyrion VI about knowing what Arryn was up to were made with 20-20 hindsight (given Eddard’s statement in the throne room and Stannis’ letter). However, given Pycelle’s loyalty to the Lannister cause and the knowledge he definitely has that Cersei needed Arryn dead, that he himself helped him die, and a high likelihood that he knows why Arryn had to go, it is beyond idiotic for him to transmit any of this information to the Starks.
Then again, it’s clear that tradecraft is not one of Pycelle’s skills, as we then see with his laughably clumsy attempt to finger Varys, which Eddard Stark doesn’t really buy, despite really disliking Varys. So unsuccessful is Pycelle that the Hand leaves the meeting believing that Pycelle has been lying to him and is a spy for some faction. (Note: for those of you who still believe that Eddard Stark is an idiot, let’s acknowledge that Eddard doesn’t trust either Pycelle, Varys, or Littlefinger initially, which puts him on par with Tyrion’s Handship)
On the other hand, as I’ve said, this also points to Cersei’s weakness as a conspirator. Firstly, given the extreme danger of deliberately cuckolding the King and trying to place incestuous Lannister-spawn on the Iron Throne, the list of people who uncovered this deadly secret includes Stannis, Jon Arryn, Varys, Littlefinger, and Pycelle – doesn’t speak very well to her ability to keep things secret. Secondly, despite the fact that she desperately needed Jon Arryn to die when he began investigating her, she seems to have taken no action to make that happen – despite his doctor being in her service, she doesn’t give an order to have him poisoned, or even to let him die when he was poisoned by a third party. That’s suicidally passive unless…more on this later. Thirdly, after doing this, she seems to have given no instructions to Pycelle about what to say to the new Hand of the King she’s made a mortal enemy of just recently.
One little detail I like in this scene is that George R.R Martin gives a tiny hint that Lysa Arryn was responsible for the Hand’s murder and why, when Pycelle says “grief can derange even the strongest and most disciplined of minds, and the Lady Lysa was never that. Since her last stillbirth, she has seen enemies in every shadow.” Depression, paranoia, and stillbirth – all the details are there, and I have to admit that I completely missed the significance of this until I began this project (which is approximately my 4th or 5th trip through the series).
A second quick theme we get here is the question of what Bran can be and what Arya can be in the society of Westeros. Both Stark children are at an interesting position; without his legs, Bran’s ambition to achieve prominence through traditional masculine roles of warriorhood is over just at the time that Arya has begun her first steps in learning to become a warrior. And yet, Bran’s future possibilities are far greater than Arya’s – he can still be a lord, a councilor, a builder (I don’t for a second think that it’s an accident that Eddard mentions Bran building castles like the Bran who built Winterfell), an explorer, or a Septon. (On a side-note, it’s interesting that Eddard doesn’t mention Bran becoming a maester. Outside of Lazy Leo and Aemon Targaryen, I can’t think of a single maester from a major noble house) By contrast, Arya’s future path is that of a wife and a mother; gender discrimination in a nutshell. On the other hand, as I suggested in Arya II, I think that part of Eddard’s backsliding here has to do with his ambivalence about his daughter’s similarity to his doomed, wayward sister. It may well be that Eddard’s rather thoughtless reply is more of an expression of parental fear than patriarchy.
A third political theme in this chapter is a major step forwards for the Littlefinger Conspiracy, in which the Master of Coin succeeds in getting Eddard Stark, who previously “could not find it in him to trust Lord Petyr Baelish who struck him as too clever by half,” to trust him by delivering the locations of the remaining members of Lord Arryn’s staff, including Ser Hugh of the Vale. What Littlefinger is doing here is quite interesting. Given his closeness to Lysa, it’s quite probable that Littlefinger was responsible for removing Arryn’s maester, steward, captain of the guard, knights and retainers from King’s Landing, those who would have the highest chance of having pertinent information about Arryn’s murder and his investigation. In this way, Littlefinger is able to gain Eddard’s trust while dribbling out low-value information, thus gaining the ability to modulate the pace of Eddard’s investigation; crucially, he steers Eddard Stark astray by dissuading him from using his power as Hand to summon witnesses directly, thus ensuring that he can track the Hand’s investigations and slowing it down overall. Most likely, like Varys, Littlefinger wants to make sure that Lord Stark only finds out the truth at a time when the truth will bring about a civil war that Littlefinger has adequately prepared for.
More on this tactic when we get to the death of Ser Hugh of the Vale.
While I first brought up the topic of the genetic detective story back in Arya I, I wanted to return to the topic as we begin Eddard’s investigations in King’s Landing. While it seems obvious to us that Cersei’s children are the products of incest, as readers we have the advantage of having witnessed Cersei and Jaime having sex and having gone to school after the widespread acceptance of Mendelian genetics (and keep in mind, it wasn’t really until 1918 when Mendelian inheritance theory (first developed in 1865) was synthesized together with Darwinian evolutionary theory in 1918, that it became widely accepted). Given that Eddard is working with the intellectual tools available to the fantasy equivalent of a 15th century English nobleman (and given the extreme length of Westerosi history compared to our own, it’s quite possible that Westeros has been intellectually and technologically stagnant for quite some time), I think we have to be very clear about what Eddard knows and when he knows.
At the moment, all Eddard knows is that his crazy sister-in-law thinks the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn, that Jon Arryn might well have been poisoned, that he asked to look at a book regarding lineages, and that he said “the seed is strong.” He doesn’t yet know that Arryn was investigating King Robert’s bastards (which could be explained as having been asked by Robert to see to his children), that all of Robert’s bastards have black hair no matter what the hair color of the mothers, and so on. Given this limited information, Eddard’s limited intuition – that Arryn’s investigation is the reason he was murdered – is a logical conclusion. Going further at this point would be bad practice.
- Poisoned, or bad refrigeration?
Indeed, there are good historical reasons for Eddard Stark to be suspicious that there was a plot against Jon Arryn at all. In the early modern era, a variety of factors (a lack of internal plumbing and other public hygiene measures, a tendency to avoid bathing, etc.) combined to cause a number of deaths that were widely believed to have been due to poisoning that were actually due to a sudden illness. Lucrezia Cosimo de’Medici,, the wife of Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, was widely believed to have been poisoned (possibly by her husband, who promptly remarried a daughter of the Holy Roman Empire), although historians now believe that it’s much more likely that she died of tuberculosis. When Barbara Radizwell, the Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Livonia, died just five months after her coronation, it was likewise believed that she had been murdered by the Queen Mother Bona Sforza (the ultimate case of an evil mother-in-law) despite the lack of any evidence. Modern historians now believe that it’s quite likely that the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, who was rumored to carry a hollow ring filled with poison which she would use to poison her lovers or her family’s enemies over dinner, in fact never killed anyone and was simply tarred with the brush of her father and brother’s cheerfully homicidal politics.
In general, Eddard V is a relatively slowly-paced start to what will become a breakneck roller-coaster ride, but there are two really important turning points in what will become Eddard’s eventual dcom:
- Pycelle keeps his mouth shut? As I’ve already said, Pycelle has in his possession a huge amount of information that simply by holding back he could greatly shape Eddard’s interactions. Simply put, without this information, Eddard lacks the keystone information that links his information about Jon Arryn’s death with Arryn’s activities before his death. This requires either or both Varys or Littlefinger to take more direct action to force a civil war into happening, which in turn would require them to provide much more solid evidence that they did in OTL. However, given their extreme reluctance to do that (showing good tradecraft there), and the extreme difficulty in any situation of threading the needle such that Eddard’s discovery ends up with a civil war rather than the decisive elimination of either the Starks (if Joffrey’s control of the Throne is decisive) or the Lannisters (if Eddard is able to move against Cersei before Robert’s death or more decisively than OTL after), it’s possible that they might have to give Eddard a pass and find some other method.
- Eddard decides not to trust Littlefinger? To give him credit, Eddard at least goes into the chapter not trusting Littlefinger and only changes his mind once Littlefinger “proves” himself by providing him genuine information. If he had maintained that position despite Littlefinger’s feigned helpfulness, the plot changes dramatically. If Eddard uses his powers as Hand to summon Ser Hugh or any of the other members of Jon Arryn’s household (let alone summon Stannis), or if he sends investigators to the Eyrie or Dragonstone, his investigation would have sped up in comparison to OTL, which in turn means that it’s quite likely that he finds out the truth when he’s in a position to unmask Cersei, possibly before Robert dies, thus saving the Baratheon dynasty. At the very least, had Eddard directly assumed control over the Goldcloaks (not trusting Littlefinger to do so for him), he could have either succeeded in deposing Joffrey and installing Stannis as King. Which might have warded off a civil war (given that Stannis would have the North, the Riverlands, and the Crownlands to muster against the Lannisters and that it’s even money that Renly and the Tyrells might decide to bide their time as the direct heir to the monarchy), or even if it hadn’t would have placed the North in a far superior position to win said war (with the legitimacy of the Iron Throne denied to the Lannisters).
Book vs. Show:
There’s not much difference between the HBO show and the book in these few scenes, at least on the level of dialogue or visuals. However, as I’ve said before, what we lose somewhat is Eddard’s interior voice. While I won’t say a bad word about Sean Bean’s performance as Ned, without a seriously clumsy voiceover or dramatic monologuing, we can’t really tell that Eddard believes that Pycelle is an obvious pawn, or that he wisely distrusts Varys and Littlefinger both.