Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Eddard V

“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon….women, craven, and eunuchs.”

SynopsisEddard 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.

Historical Analysis:

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.

What If?

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.


19 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Eddard V

  1. Brett says:

    Fourth or fifth time through?! I’m tempted to do that again (I did it when Dance of Dragons came out), but I’m afraid I would get to the end of ADWD and just be filled with longing and disappointment that I would be unable to read Winds of Winter.

    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.

    That seems to be a problem with the history for a lot of politically prominent women.

    • stevenattewell says:

      I really recommend doing a thorough re-reading and taking notes for anyone, no matter how many times you’ve read the books. I’ve learned an enormous amount just by going over things with a highlighter that I had simply missed even after three re-reads. And putting things down on paper is another huge step, especially when you try to map out exactly how al the different players are interacting with each other.

  2. axrendale says:

    Great analysis, as always.

    I’m actually somewhat skeptical about whether Pycelle really was a die-hard Lannister lackey, as he is often viewed as. Yes, he claims as much to Tyrion in ACOK, but he did so under circumstances where it was easy to imagine that he might be lying – and this seems to be Tyrion’s conclusion, to the effect that the Grand Maester serves nobody but himself. It strikes me that if the confrontation in the throne room between Ned and Cersei had gone the other way, and Ned had been successful in assuming the regency, Pycelle would have quite cheerfully betrayed the Lannisters in favor of throwing his lot in with the winning side. This may provide an alternative explanation for Pycelle’s casual willingness to divulge crucial (and accurate) information to Ned in this chapter – Lannister pawn though he is, he may have wanted to hedge his bets (which would not be all that surprising – he has, afterall, managed to survive in his position during the reigns of the last six kings). The Lannisters themselves don’t seem to be very confident of his loyalty – in Tyrion’s last chapter in the book, Lord Tywin mentions the Grand Maester as being one of the councillors whose head might need to go on a spike if it turns out that he is “playing us false”.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Pycelle wants to survive, certainly, so he’s not above a spot of treachery. But Ned puts Pycelle under really no threat at all – he asks Pycelle questions that Pycelle is the only one who knows what the answers would be.

      Moreover, I’d point out that both Cersei and Tywin keep Pycelle on – which suggests the Lannisters see him as a valuable asset.

  3. Koby says:

    I can’t wait to see your theory about whether Cersei actually has a plan or not.

    Pycelle is rather pathetic, but there are a few reasons for this I think are worth noting – he’s old, he has no actual power (that we know of), his entire life has been spent in entirely academic pursuits… frankly, I’m surprised he’s managed to survive so long, which makes me believe he’s a reed, blowing with every strong breeze. At that moment, Eddard was the strongest breeze.
    Also, besides Lazy Leo, if Alleras is Sarella that’s another (bastard) noble novice, as is Robert Frey (though being a Frey, that doesn’t say much). But Gormon Tyrell is Mace Tyrell’s uncle and an Archmaester (and was supposed to replace Pycelle), and Theomore Lannister is Maester at White Harbor (though admittedly, from the cadet branch of the Lannisters of Lannisport). Additionally, I have a theory that certain nobles (notably House Hightower, but Oberyn is another example) study at the Citadel, though they do not actually become Maesters.

    As for poison and women, here’s a double-header: It was widely believed Anne Boleyn poisoned Catherine of Aragon because they found a black growth on Catherine’s heart during the embalming, and there were rumors that Anne had made threats about killing Catherine. Nowadays, we believe nothing of the sort happened, and the black growth was cancer.

  4. Aly says:

    Excuse me, but what does “OTL” stand for? Btw, great analysis, as always.

  5. Yannai says:

    There were a few other maesters from noble houses – There was another Tyrell mentioned as a possible successor for Pycelle until Tywin Lannister nixed the idea (can’t remember his name but it’s in the appedices somewhere). And Manderly’s maester is a Lannister from a lesser branch of the family. As for Bran, Luwin offers him the choice of becoming a maester ever if this option never occurs to his own father, and implies he’d even be willing to have recommend Theon Greyjoy had things turned out differently.

    However it does seems that, Tyrells and possibly Hightowers aside, the more the House is more powerful, the less it sees maesterhood as a viable option. Tyrion seems like the perfect candidate for becoming a maester both due to his mental prowess (which he prides himself upon) and the fact that his father wants to get rid of him as the heir apparent to Casterly Rock once Jaime takes the white, but it’s never seriously considered as far as we know. And as for Samwell Tarly… despite Lord Randyll’s desire to kick him out so his younger brother Dickon becomes heir to Horn Hill, when Sam suggested it his father chained him to the dungeon wall for a week. Apparently maesterhood is so abhorrent in his eyes that he prefers his son to spend his life locked in a frozen hell with rapists and murderers rather than have him study and wear a chain.

  6. […] a link between the Lannister Conspiracy and the Littlefinger Conspiracy. As I’ve suggested before, the strangest aspect of the Lannister Conspiracy is the nigh-suicidal passivity of Cersei in […]

  7. […] Political imperatives impinge on the law almost immediately as Pycelle springs to Tywin’s defense, arguing lamely that “you cannot know that this outlaw was Ser Gregor” because “there are many large men,” even though Ser Gregor is nearly eight-foot fall and almost impossible to mistake, then arguing that Ser Gregor has no need to raid villages because “he holds a stout keep and lands of his own,” retreating to the fact that “Lord Tywin Lannister is the father of our own gracious queen,” then trying to get the case moved to Lord Tywin’s court or to delay judgement until Robert arrives. The naked partisanship coming from a man sworn to be completely neutral in political conflicts is so blatant that Eddard is even moved to crack jokes about it. For all that Eddard has been labelled the worst politician in Westeros, given that even as inexperienced a schemer as Eddard Stark can see right through Pycelle, I really think Pycelle deserves the title. […]

  8. […] Eddard V (Pycelle is the worst conspirator in the series, a major step forward in the Littlefinger Conspiracy, and the history of poison plots) […]

  9. […] someone who’s one of the worst conspirators in King’s Landing and generally out-of-the-loop, Pycelle takes a very prominent role as Cersei’s bad cop […]

  10. Scott Trotter says:

    Pycelle may be a Lannister loyalist, but I’m tending to think that in this case, he’s being (mostly) honest and sincere with Eddard and telling him the truth (as he sees it) simply because he’s not aware that anything’s amiss and no one’s told him not to.

    When we speak about the “Lannister Conspiracy,” at this point in time it’s really just Cersei, no? She confides in Jaime, but all he really cares about is when’s the next time he can f*ck his sister. She hates Tyrion, and as far as her father is concerned, things couldn’t be going any better: his daughter is the Queen, his grandson is the Crown Prince, he’s the Warden of the West, and so on. Tywin isn’t aware of Cercei’s two biggest fears, the prophecy of her downfall and the fact that she’s guilty of High Treason. From Cersei’s point of view, Pycelle is an occasionally useful “old fool,” but not someone she would confide in unless absolutely necessary.

    So winding the clock back to the weeks before his death, Cersei is aware of Jon Arryn’s investigations and Lysa’s paranoia, and she’s probably thinking about ways that he can be sidetracked or eliminated. How does Cersei know? Littlefinger knows because Lysa is telling him. Varys knows because he’s got the Tower of the Hand bugged (birded?). Stannis knows because Jon Arryn is working with him. Cersei may have independent sources, but I think it’s most likely that Littlefinger is the one who’s keeping her informed. In response, she nags Robert the King into arranging to foster Robert the Not-Long-For-This-World at Casterly Rock and under Lannister control.

    Cersei may have had further plans concerning Jon Arryn, but there is no textual evidence of them as far as I’m aware. It doesn’t matter in any case because as we know from the last chapter of ASOS, Lysa killed her husband with Littlefinger’s encouragement and assistance, and then later sent the letter to Catelyn implicating the Lannisters.

    At the time of Jon Arryn’s death, Cersei is hundreds of miles away, either at or on-route to Casterly Rock with her children. She must have thought that the gods had given her a gift with Arryn’s death, and neither she nor Pycelle would have had any inkling that it was due to anything other than what it appeared to be, a sudden and swift illness. The Tears of Lys, according to Varys, is “… a rare and costly thing, clear and sweet as water, and it leaves no trace.”

    Pycelle may well be the most inept political actor in this world, but I think in this case, he told Eddard what he did not out of incompetence, but because he knew of no reason why he shouldn’t.

    • Except that Pycelle knew about the bastards, knew Cersei wanted/needed Jon Arryn dead because he knew. So why tell Eddard Jon Arryn’s last words?

      The reason I call it the Lannister Conspiracy is that while Cersei’s the only one calling the shots right now, Jaime’s involved as the babydaddy and sounding board, and Cersei’s heavily reliant on Lannister assets like Lancel, Pycelle, the Kingsguard, etc.

  11. […] likely that Cersei was told this by her father, but there’s no communication between Pycelle and Cersei to allow for coordination. We also see the remarkable passivity of the conspiracy – they […]

  12. […] will be stated explicitly, Olenna is making this speech when she knows that there are spies everywhere in the Red Keep listening in. Looking at how much of this speech is about disawoving her involvement in treason […]

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