“What had Jon Arryn wanted with a king’s bastard, and why was it worth his life?”
Synopsis: in a Small Council meeting, Eddard Stark deals with increasing disorder in King’s Landing due to the Hand’s Tourney by ordering the hiring of fifty new Gold Cloaks rather than firing Janos Slynt. When the meeting is over, Eddard goes back to his investigations; the book yields little answers, receives a dispiriting update from Jory Cassel, but has better luck when he travels to the Street of Steel and discovers Gendry Waters, a royal bastard (although actually a nice guy).
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.
Eddard VI is yet another juicy chapter, full of politics and intrigue. The roller-coaster is heading downhill and beginning to pick up some real speed, which means we need to talk about such varied topics as public order, the economy of King’s Landing, Eddard’s investigations, Renly’s conspiracy, and the mystery that is Gendry Waters.
We begin, unusually, in a meeting of the Small Council, discussing an issue of public policy. The city’s population has swollen with the arrival of knights, freeriders, craftsmen, men-at-arms, merchants, whores, and thieves getting ready to fight, steal, and profit from the Hand’s Tourney. The result is a a decline in law and order: “last night we had a drowning, a tavern riot, three knife fights, a rape, two fires, robberies beyond count…a drunken horse race…the night before a woman’s head was found in the Great Sept.” The categories of crime described here – violence, disorder, drunkenness, robbery, disrespect to religion, and fire – sum up very much the medieval fear of disorder and riot. Violence is dangerous because it means that people’s persons aren’t safe, but also because violence gives rise to vendettas and, depending on how highborn the murderers and murdered are, local wars. Disorder is dangerous, not just because it results in damage to taverns, but also because it suggests that the King can’t maintain his own peace, and part of the King’s oath to his people (his constitutional quid-pro-quo for sovereignty is that he’s powerful enough to prevent disorder. Drunkenness is bad not so much in itself (confined to its proper place within taverns), but because people’s excessive desires are causing disorder to spill over into the religious districts, culminating in the specter of death contaminating the holiest of holies. And standing as sign and signifier of all of these – the existential threat of fire in a city of wooden buildings, thatched roofs, no public water system, and no fire company.
All of this points to the very timely question posed by Renly Baratheon, who’s supposedly the Master of Laws (but who shows little evidence of actually doing his job outside of court politics): why not replace Janos Slynt? As I have suggested before, Eddard has it within his power to replace Janos Slynt with Jory Cassel or any other loyal man, putting the Gold Cloaks under Stark control. Now, to be fair, he doesn’t know that Slynt is a corrupt murder and Littlefinger’s henchman from early in Robert’s reign, but the fact that Eddard doesn’t reach out to Renly to find out more is a bad sign. And here’s where Eddard makes a major political mistake: he disempowers himself by taking 20 men out of his own guard (incidentally, I don’t think we ever find out what happened to these men when Eddard is deposed, but they’re probably dead). His sense of duty leads him to take the right actions for the realm – his addition of 70 men to the City Guard increases their ranks by 3.5% which is a good idea when you need more crowd control – but in ways that dis-empowers himself.
Now on to the tourney and the economy of King’s Landing. The easy political joke – ha ha, Eddard Stark is a conservative who’s not down with Keynesian stimulus – I think misses what’s going on here. Robert Baratheon isn’t spending 90,000 gold dragons on public works, or relief for the poor, or anything that would benefit the smallfolk of Westeros; rather, the money’s going to less than ten noblemen who’ll fight and win in the tourney. In other words, Eddard Stark is opposed to trickle-down economics. Pycelle outright admits that the tourney is mere “bread and circuses:” “they bring the great the chance of glory, and the respite from their woes.” To the extent that non-nobility in the city benefit, it’s largely the hospitality, brewing, and prostitution industries, which means to people like Littlefinger himself (notably, these are industries that are capital, rather than labor intensive, and in the case of prostitution, use essentially unfree labor). Notably, far less in the way of benefits goes to the residents of Fishmonger’s and Cobbler’s Squares, or the Street of Looms or Copper-smiths, or the Streets of Steel or Flour, let alone the destitute of Flea Bottom.
Which points to a split in the city’s economy between those industries that cater to the appetites of the wealthy, those industries that produce goods, and a vast underclass. In an excellent essay on the economics of Westeros, Ken Mondschein reminds us that Dunk remarks in the reign of Dareon II that a man can live well on three dragons a year (or one stag and 43 copper a day) – adjusting for inflation, we’re talking about 5 dragons a year (or a shade under 3 stags a day) by 298 AL. In other words, Robert Baratheon is giving away the equivalent of a comfortable yearly income for 18,000 people (or 4.5% of the population of King’s Landing). Team Smallfolk is living in the land of the 1%.
But enough of the suffering masses, let’s get back to the real story: Eddard Stark’s investigations. The first thing that’s worthy of note is how quickly Eddard hits on Stannis as a critical angle of investigation: even during the Small Council meeting, Ned “wonder[s] when he intends to end his visit to Dragonstone and resume his seat on this council,” immediately realizes that Stannis and Jon Arryn going to a brothel is a sign of something else going, and questions the meaning of Stannis’ departure:
“Why did Stannis leave? Had he played some part in Jon Arryn’s murder? Or was he afraid? Ned found it hard to imagine what could fighten Stannis Baratheon, who had once held Storm’s End through a year of siege, surviving on rats and boot leather…”
On the one hand, GRRM is clearly foreshadowing Stannis’ future importance and character by having Eddard focus on the topic for most of the chapter, but it’s also interesting to see Eddard’s admiration of Stannis’ stoicism. This is especially so in comparison to Renly, who “Ned was not sure what to make of…with all his friendly ways and his easy smiles.” There is a great irony, that of the two Baratheon brothers, it is the least likely conspirator and the closest to Eddard’s own personality who hits at the heart of the conspiracy and then flees the capitol, whereas the brother who stays who could perhaps have lent much needed skills and knowledge to Eddard’s cause fails to do so because of Eddard’s distrust.
The second thing that pops up in Eddard’s investigation is the ambiguity of the available evidence. Lord Stark now has a copy of Malleon’s Lineages and Histories, but it’s not clear how one is to interpret the “lists of weddings, births, and deaths” inside. Eddard not unreasonably decides to research House Lannister (given that he thinks they’re the arch-conspirators at the heart of everything) instead of House Baratheon; Martin throws in a telling factoid that Lann the Clever “stole gold from the sun to brighten his curly hair,” but it would be implausible in the extreme for Eddard to recognize the significance of blond Lannisters. (Indeed, if blond hair genes operate in Westeros anything like they do in our world, Eddard would have read a list of Lannisters that includes quite a few non-blond Lannisters, since quite a few Lannisters didn’t follow Tywin’s practice of cousin marriage)
Likewise, the testimony Eddard gets is vague and rather unhelpful, because it’s mostly coming from low-level Arryn householders: the stableboy only knows that the Hand preferred to give apples to his horse, the serving girl knows only that Jon was unhappy, and the potboy knows mostly kitchen gossip. It’s my belief that this is a deliberate part of Petyr Baelish’s strategy as the mastermind of the Littlefinger Conspiracy: Ned notes that “Lady Lysa, Maester Colemon,” and most of the household were “carried off to the Vale,” on Lysa’s instructions, and we know that Lysa is taking orders from Littlefinger. In this fashion, Littlefinger is able to steer Eddard’s investigation and modulate the speed at which the Hand acquires significant information – Colemon could confirm poisoning and was probably consulted by Lord Arryn on questions of the inheritance of physical traits; the household guards could have led Eddard to the brothel where Robert’s bastard is living (giving him another data point); and Lysa potentially could have cracked under interrogation, spilling the truth of Littlefinger’s murderous plot. Finally, by advising Eddard to send Jory rather than summon Ser Hugh directly, he ensures that that testimony is delayed just long enough for another part of his plan that I’ll discuss in a future post to come into fruition.
A quick sidenote: while I’ve talked in the past about how evil Lysa is being when she sends her letter to Catelyn, roping the Starks into Littlefinger’s conspiracy to destroy their House, let’s pause for a second to note the immorality of Petyr Baelish. Here is a man who murdered the man who was responsible for raising him up from nothing, who stole and then murdered his wife (and who may have cuckolded him as well, it’s not particularly clear), who is en route to murdering his son, and for whom gross fraud and embezzlement, the sale of offices in exchange for kickbacks, and the assassination of anyone who complained is probably the least of his sins. All of this done for the pettiest of motives: he wanted to marry Catelyn Tully and challenged the wrong man to a fight. While he may lack Joffrey’s sadism or lack of impulse control, Littlefinger certainly displays the “Machiavellian egocentricity,” “Coldheartedness,” and “blame externalization” of the classic psychopath.
Despite Littlefinger’s hindrance, Eddard does pick up a good amount of information: he learns about both the brothel and the armorer’s shop, both vital clues, and that Arryn and Stannis were clearly cooperating in some investigation. While he doesn’t realize the import of two minor details of gossip – that Jon was sending his son to be fostered on Dragonstone (because he was planning to move against Cersei), and that he was studying the breeding of hunting hounds (a sign of some pre-Mendelian genetic studies) – he actually does a fairly good job of detective work in this chapter.
A third theme that’s developed in this chapter is the Renly/Tyrell Conspiracy. I’ve talked about this briefly in the past, to note that Cersei and Jaime are aware of this conspiracy (although they seem to have taken no action against it), but it’s interesting to note that Renly subtly is reaching out to Eddard to enlist him in the effort to replace Cersei with Margaery (whether that signifies that Renly knows or suspects Cersei’s infidelity is something I’ve never been able to make my mind up on). In a moment of humor in hindsight, Ned completely misunderstands Renly’s overture, doesn’t understand why Renly’s disappointed (although Robert probably would have been more than happy to bed Margaery regardless), and thinks that Renly’s in love with the girl (despite being a “passing queer“). But again, it’s a sign that Renly, for all his political gifts, doesn’t really know how to reach out to Eddard in a way the man is likely to respond to – and while we’re used to condemning Eddard for his failure to agree to Renly’s coup proposal, it’s also true that Renly contributed to his own death by making a distasteful (to Ned) approach without considering the personality of his potential ally.
Finally, we get the discovery of Gendry, a young man who looks the spitting image of Robert Baratheon, and who has inherited no small amount of Baratheon stubbornness, despite having a mother with “yellow hair.” Eddard sees his parentage immediately, and realizes that the reason Jon Arryn was murdered was that he was looking into royal bastards – not half bad for an amateur detective (and for those of you keeping track, this is three correct conclusions to two political mistakes).
The question I have is what exactly Varys was doing in regards to Gendry: now, it’s certainly to Varys’ interests to have potential proof of Joffrey’s illegitimacy on hand, and it’s quite possible that Robert had asked Varys to discretely see to his bastard children, but Varys takes a lot of effort here. Indeed, his acting to smuggle Gendry out of the capitol is one of the best pieces of evidence we have that argues that Aegon VI really is a Targaryen. However, if Varys is scheming to restore a “Targaryen” to the Iron Throne, why go to the effort of saving his life? Potentially, this speaks to Varys’ relatively humanistic nature; if he can afford to (Ned, Gendry, Tyrion, etc.) he’ll save someone’s life even if there’s no immediate political gain to himself. On the other hand, it may be that Gendry is a Plan C: if the Targaryen invasion falls through, Varys could potentially have Robert’s oldest natural son under his thumb; even if it doesn’t, if Varys had planned for Khal Drogo to die, marrying Daenerys to the last remaining Baratheon is a good way of reconciling the former rebels to the Targaryen restoration (hey, it worked for Henry VII).
I’ll try to keep this section short, because that was a lot of political analysis, but I’d like to highlight three themes: the medieval urban economy, pre-modern law and order, and royal bastards. On the first topic, it’s curious to me that GRRM doesn’t really feature the guilds as political actors in their own right, especially when there becomes a tug of war between Tyrion and Cersei over the Guild of Alchemists and the Guild of Smiths during Clash of Kings. Instead, the rebels against authority in King’s Landing tend to be either the underclass (as in the case of the riots) or the merchant class (in the case of the potentially invented Antler Men). This doesn’t track well with history: the guilds of medieval Europe were quite powerful, often becoming the organs of city government (as in the case with the City of London).
By the 14th century, the guilds controlled access to skilled trades, prices and wages, maintained early welfare funds, and determined market shares. Trade guilds were heavily involved in the popular uprisings of the middle ages: the guilds of London were some of the fiercest partisans of Simon de Montfort in his attempt to establish Parliamentary government in the 13th century (de Monfort’s Parliament was the first time that commoners were admitted to Parliament, or that any member of Parliament had been elected); the Great Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 in England reached its peak of influence thanks in no small part to the artisans of London who opened the gates to Wat Tyler and John Ball. The Franco-Flemish War, which was very much a revolt of commoners against French noble rule, saw one of the rare victories of commonfolk over knights at the Battle of Golden Spurs in 1302, where well-armed town militias organized by the guilds of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres smashed the French cavalry with well-disciplined infantry wielding the fearsome goedendag.
Regarding pre-modern law and order, it should be noted that the Gold Cloaks would be highly anachronistic if they were to have appeared in England during the Wars of the Roses. After the fall of the Roman Empire, formal police forces didn’t really exist in most of Europe (Spain being an odd exception), even in the more urbanized areas, throughout the medieval period. It wasn’t until 1667, when Louis XIV established a police force to keep the unruly mob of Paris in heck, that we get the first semblance of a modern police force, and for a long while thereafter, they were rather rare.
Indeed, England was a notorious laggard on this front, relying on a local force of constables appointed by local lords and justices to act on behalf of the sheriffs, and more often then not defaulting to the services of private thief-takers. It wasn’t until the Bow Street Runners of 1749 and then the Metropolitan Police of 1829 that a true professional, public, police force was established in Britain. As a result, cities could be incredibly dangerous places to live in the medieval, renaissance, and early modern periods – hence the genuine concern if a force of 2,000 armed men can’t keep order in King’s Landing.
Finally, the topic of royal bastards. I’ve discussed this before a bit, but it is highly unusual for a royal bastard to be raised as a mere artisan, even for a king with a legitimate heir. Much more commonly, kings gave out rich lands and titles to their bastard children in order to keep power and wealth within the family (and to keep them on hand as potential “backup heirs” should the trueborn heir die). For example, when Henry VIII, Robert Baratheon’s spiritual and corporeal counterpart in our world, had the good fortune to get Lady Elizabeth Blount (his wife Catherine’s Maid of Honour) pregnant, he made Cardinal Wolsey the boy’s godfather, exhibited his son to the court with celebratory banquets, had him made the Duke of Richmond and Somerset (and one of the wealthiest young men in England), and married him to the daughter of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk.
There are three interesting and plot-critical hypothetical situations that emerge out of Eddard VI:
- Eddard had used his office? As I have suggested before, had Lord Stark used his authority as Hand of the King to summon witnesses to him rather than acting through Jory Cassel, he certainly could have gotten most of Jon Arryn’s retinue to testify as to what they knew, greatly speeding up his investigation. He would have known far earlier that Jon Arryn was definitely poisoned, that he was looking at all of Robert’s bastards, that he was investigating questions of heredity, and so on and so forth. The interesting question is what he would have learned from Ser Hugh – my suspicion, which I’ll expand on later, is that Ser Hugh at the very least knew the whole of Lord Arryn’s investigation (since as his squire he would have accompanied him to most places), and may even have been privy to Lysa and Littlefinger’s assassination. The larger point is that a faster investigation is absolutely critical for the plot: if Eddard finds out the truth before he is wounded and before Catelyn’s abduction of Tyrion happens, then he’s in a position to act before the Lannisters have mobilized for war, and doesn’t get delayed by his injury (which would also mean that Arya and Sansa don’t become hostages); quite possibly, this means that he finds out before Robert’s death and averts Robert’s assisted hunting accident. Robert not dying means that the Renly/Tyrell Conspiracy probably happens, and now we’re talking about a united Stark-Tully-Baratheon-Tyrell-(maybe)Arryn force against just Casterly Rock. Long live King Robert, and congratulations on his new bride.
- Eddard had summoned Stannis to King’s Landing? Now, it’s possible that a pragmatist like Stannis would have kept his head down rather than to risk assassination, but given Stannis’ dedication to the law, I doubt he would have ignored a summons from the Hand of the King. This would have meant that Eddard would have known that Stannis and Arryn were investigating the possibility that Robert’s children with Cersei were not legitimate far ahead of when he found out in OTL, giving him the chance to act against Cersei well before Robert’s death. Indeed, even if Robert had died anyway, Stannis’ swords could have made the difference in Eddard’s potential coup, bringing down Cersei and Joffrey. In that scenario, Renly would likely have married Margaery and become Prince of Dragonstone, and the Lannisters would have had to face a united Stark-Tully-Baratheon-Tyrell-(maybe)Arryn force against just the forces of Casterly Rock – and long live King Stannis.
- What if Eddard had taken Gendry with him? In OTL, Eddard extends an offer of service to Gendry, but he could have easily just ordered his master to render over the young man. This could have some potentially interesting consequences: firstly, Gendry might have learned of his parentage (which he still hasn’t, despite the news about Joffrey’s bastardy); secondly, Gendry could have been legitimized as a potential heir should Stannis and Renly fall; thirdly, Gendry could have met Arya Stark earlier, which would have been interesting to see.
Book vs. Show
Nothing significant to report. Check back next time.