“Do it yourself, Robert. The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword…you owe her that much at least.”
Synopsis: Eddard Stark quarrels with King Robert over the assassination of Daenerys Targaryen; only he and Ser Barristan Selmy vote against it, while the rest of the Small Council votes for it. Stark resigns over the issue and is preparing to leave King’s Landing at once when Littlefinger distracts him with one last clue from Jon Arryn‘s investigation.
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.
There’s a tipping point in every tragedy where inevitability locks the exit doors on free will and you know that after this, there is no turning back. Eddard VIII is that moment; from the point where Eddard decides to follow one last lead instead of getting on the boat right that moment, he has only one way forward and bloodshed is the only destination. Whether he had succeeded in his quest or not, Eddard was going to be right on the front lines of a Stark/Lannister War with no way to escape. GRRM will even go so far as to literally hobble our putative protagonist so he can’t flee.
But before that, we get an incredibly momentous political moment: the decision before the Small Council whether or not to assassinate Daenerys Targaryen and Eddard’s decision to resign over the issue. This has often been portrayed as the second-biggest example of why Eddard was completely incapable of playing the Game of Thrones, a patsy who put honor above reason. However, I think this overlooks the complicated factors going into Eddard’s decision, because it’s more than a question of morality – arguably there are 4 different reasons apart from that:
1. Doctrine of Necessity – next to the concept of truces, treaties, the white flag, and the idea that you don’t touch envoys, the concept of “just war” is probably the oldest in international relations. It appears in the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata (where it includes provisions like proportionality of violence, just means (no poison, you guys!), just cause, and fair treatment of wounded soldiers and prisoners); Cicero wrote about it; as did the two intellectual heavyweights of Christian theology, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. One of the chief elements of a just war is the doctrine of military necessity – violence has to be intended to have a military effect on the enemy, it has to be directed at a military target, and the harm caused to civilians has to be proportional to the military effect the attack is supposed to have. There’s also the concept of a necessary war (i.e, defense of oneself or others) versus a war of choice.
As Ned Stark has made repeatedly clear, he sees no threat from the Targaryens that necessitates assassination: “there is no axe,” he argues with his king, “only the shadow of a shadow.” He doesn’t see the Targaryens as a threat that rises to the level of military necessity, given Daenerys’ age and the relative naval dominance of Westeros versus the Dothraki. Ironically, Eddard is unknowingly right about this – until such time as Westeros threatens his wife, Drogo makes no move to cross the Narrow Sea. From the perspective of military necessity, the assassination attempt on Daenerys Targaryen was completely counter-productive.
2. Different Motives for Rebellion, Different Causes for Revolution – it’s a short exchange, but this back-and-forth between Eddard and Robert is quite telling:
“Robert, I ask you, what did we rise against Aerys Targaryen for, if not to put an end to the murder of children?”
“To put an end to Targaryens!”
Something the two old comrades-in-arms have forgotten is that, from the very beginning of Robert’s Rebellions, the two men had very different motives: Eddard’s sister had been kidnapped, but compounding that was the fact that King Aerys murdered his father and brother without a fair trial, violating the common law of Westeros; Robert was acting purely from an insult to his honor and a direct threat to his life, and continues to hold personal grudges. Ned is something of a Kantian when it comes to situations of honor, and drew from the deaths of Rickard and Brandon the precept that monarchs who summarily execute unarmed people without due process lose their right to govern. For him to acknowledge that Robert has the right to assassinate Dany would be to accept that Aerys had the right to slay his family. By contrast, Robert is a man who ascended to the Iron Throne in part thanks to Tywin’s murder of most of the Targaryen family and drew a very different lesson from that experience – as we shall see later.
3. Eddard’s Theory of Politics – as I’ve discussed a few times before, Eddard Stark has a very idiosyncratic theory of politics. He believes that the person of the rules and the office should be one as the Old Ways dictate, such that the ruler’s conscience is sovereign; he thinks of his subjects and his peers not through the lens of powers and duties but personal relationships; and at the end of the day, he sees his role as Hand to be the King’s friend and ultimately, his conscience. These aren’t bad ideas necessarily; indeed, one could argue that the power of his name after his death to move the North into rebellion against the Boltons (who at the time are Lords Paramount and Wardens of the North) at a time when very few people in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms cares who Tywin or Hoster or Balon or Renly were is evidence of the advantages of this theory.
However, it’s also a theory that makes this impasse with Robert inevitable – notably, Eddard doesn’t use his office to act as a gatekeeper between the King and the rest of the Small Council, like any good chief of staff does, to decide what the king will hear and see. This prevents him from heading off the news of Dany’s pregnancy until he’s got his political ducks in a row. He doesn’t meet with the Small Council individually to use the office to secure their support on the Small Council. This prevents him from potentially winning Renly’s vote by persuading him or making a deal with him ahead of time, or to try to persuade Varys to wait on sending the assassination order. It also means that he doesn’t try to massage his disagreement with Robert – rather than making a reasoned argument that an assassination attempt might spark retaliation, or an appeal to Robert’s vanity and self-image, he calls him out as a coward and a tyrant, when Eddard knows exactly how Robert reacts to being told he can’t do something. Finally, it means that Eddard doesn’t think of himself as a policymaker – hence, he doesn’t try to preempt the assassination debate by proposing expansion of the navy to dominate the Narrow Sea, or to negotiate with the Free Cities to deny Dany their ships.
4. The Other, Other, Other Targaryen – we also have to keep in mind that Eddard Stark is a man who for fifteen years has (most likely) been hiding a Targaryen from Robert’s furious vengeance. Given how much his promise to Lyanna has cost him in terms of honor, reputation, and the happiness of his marriage, watching Robert salivate over the thought of butchering Targaryen children has to be the closest thing to a living nightmare. I’m absolutely convinced that on a subconscious level Eddard is thinking about Jon Snow during the entire meeting, imagining what might happen if the truth of his nephew’s birth got out and he had to stand in between Robert and the child of Rhaegar and Lyanna.
Just as the memory of his dead kin means that Eddard cannot accept the legitimacy of Dany’s assassination without retroactively absolving Aerys Targaryen, the knowledge of his living kin means that for Eddard Stark to endorse the death of his “good-sister” is also to accept as legitimate the idea that the child he has been protecting for all of his life could be murdered by royal command, in secret, and without the color of law. That is not something Eddard Stark is going to accept.
Political Thought in King Robert’s Council
Thanks to GRRM’s choice of point-of-view characters, we can see into Eddard’s head and judge his actions based on both his thoughts and words at the time as well as what we’ve learned on him from earlier chapters. However, Eddard isn’t the only political thinker in the room and there’s a lot we can learn by examining the rationalizations offered by King Robert and the Small Council.
- Robert – there’s a tendency among the fandom to reduce Robert Baratheon to a caricature, to stop at the drinking and the wenching (and the wifebeating…) and dismiss him as a mindless jock, the very reason why warriors don’t make good kings. But GRRM has stated again and again, he doesn’t believe in black and white characters, and Robert shows a moment of surprising depth here. Yes, there is an unrelenting hatred of all things Targaryen, but Robert also says “let be in on my head, so long as it is done. I am not so blind that I cannot see the shadow of the axe when it is hanging over my own neck.” Robert understands that what he’s doing here is dishonorable, immoral; but he is also an intelligent enough monarch to know that heirs to an overthrown bloodline are a danger to a new dynasty (witness the Blackfyres). As a realpolitikian, Robert’s more on the money than he realizes: there are Targaryen loyalists in Westeros working against him, both in his Small Council and in Dorne, they are gathering military and political power against him and his heir, and a successful assassination of the Targaryens would short-circuit much of their planning.
- Varys – Varys’ motives here are quite interesting, given that he’s the guiding force behind this decision (having informed the King about Dany’s pregnancy). My working hypothesis is that, subsequent to his discussion with Illyrio , Varys is using this assassination attempt he can control to accelerate the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy by provoking Drogo into action; he may also trying to remove Eddard Stark from the Handship short of murder. The interesting question is whether he’s acting with Illyrio here or separately; how much unity is there in this conspiracy? Two other things of note:
- “we who presume to rule must do vile things for the good of the realm, howevermuch it pains us.” Leaving aside the possibility that Varys is always lying and has no motive other than to place a puppet monarch on the Iron Throne, which I think flies in the face of the evidence about Varys’ nature and rather under-serves one of the best schemers in ASOIAF, I think this quote sums up Varys’ pragmatic political philosophy. He may have ventured to Westeros as part of a scheme to take his and Illyrio’s steal-and-replace act on the road, but I think he was genuinely disgusted by a monarch as fundamentally unworthy as Aerys II and resolved to put the perfect monarch on the Throne no matter the cost. If Littlefinger is prepared to start a civil war for his own personal benefit, Varys is far more dangerous because he will keep one going for as long as it takes to reform Westeros. And there is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a pragmatist with an idealist’s heart.
- The other interesting thing Varys does here is to bring up the tears of Lys, the same poison that ended Jon Arryn’s life. I think he does this in order to provoke a reaction and draw out Jon Arryn’s assassin – ironically, he succeeds in drawing out Maester Pycelle, who recognized the poison and prevented effective counter-measures from being taken against it, but who didn’t administer the poison himself. Littlefinger remains circumspect.
- Pycelle – the false counselor naturally offers false counsel in this scenario, claiming “once I counseled King Aerys as loyally as I counsel King Robert now,” given that he has always been Tywin Lannister’s man in King’s Landing, and far from being concerned about the “wiser, even kinder” nature of assassination over war was directly responsible for the death of soldiers, the burning of towns, and the murder of children when he persuaded the King to let Tywin’s army into the city they promptly sacked (interesting that Varys was on the other side of that debate, possibly fearing a Lannister dynasty?). Ironically, he suspects Varys of the murder of Jon Arryn (as he did when he met with Eddard and as he will later when interrogated by Tyrion), in part out of his guilty conscience over what is essentially a life devoted to the forswearing of his maester’s oath.
- Littlefinger – Littlefinger likewise urges death for Daenerys Targaryen, although he claims later that his complaints about the price tag were designed to ensure the assassination attempt would fail (likely as a way to keep himself just enough on Eddard’s side; however, he has no idea that the money he’s handing over is going to a man who has no intention in successfully killing a Targaryen. However, it’s worth noting for those Littlefinger fanboys who railed against the “Middlefinger” of Season 2 the crude sexual metaphor he’s using. Littlefinger is many things, but a perfectly controlled man he’s not. This kind of uncouth sexual banter is something the hedge lord can’t really stop himself from doing (hence his constant talk about bedding the Tully sisters prior to AGOT and his dick jokes in ACOK), even when it clearly alienates the rest of the Small Council. It’s part of the reason why as high as Littlefinger climbs, he’s never going to be truly accepted as one of the nobility.
- Renly – also urges death, which would fit with his plans to uproot the Lannisters and install a Baratheon/Tyrell dynasty on the Iron Throne, and his general habit of sucking up to Robert by playing to his brother’s worser angels, both alcohol and murder. Just wanted to point this out to the Renly fans – Renly is charming and charismatic, but he’s not a nice person.
- Selmy – moved by Eddard’s mention of the fact that he owes his own life to royal mercy, Selmy reacts to the suggestion like the warrior he is, drawing a strict procedural line between “facing an enemy on the battlefield” versus “killing him in his mother’s womb.” This is important for two reasons: first, this is probably the moment where the impetus for joining Daenerys as opposed to either Stannis or Renly is generated. If Robert shows himself to be no true king by ordering the murder of children, then it doesn’t matter who his heirs are. Second, it means Eddard isn’t alone on the vote – more on this in a bit.
I’ve argued that Eddard’s decision to oppose Daenerys Targaryen’s murder isn’t reason enough to count him out as a political actor. He’s not a perfect strategist either, and he makes a huge mistake (arguably one of the top 5 he makes in AGOT) by resigning from the Handship over the issue. Given that he knows “the business with Catelyn and the dwarf…would come to light soon” and poses him a direct danger from Robert and Cersei both, he needs the office to protect him and his family – as Hand of the King, he could put the kidnapping of Tyrion under color of royal authority and make any move to stop him an attack against the crown; as Eddard Stark, he’s a lord engaged in blood feud and vulnerable to assault.
A big part of this decision is a feeling of frustration that:
…the truth of Jon Arryn’s death still eluded him. Oh, he had found a few pieces, enough to convince him that Jon had indeed been murdered…Stannis shared the secret Jon Arryn had died for, he was certain of it…The Imp’s knife. Why would the dwarf want Bran dead? To silence him surely. Another secret, or only a different strand of the same web? Could Robert be part of it?
Ironically, Eddard is much closer to the truth (he knows about Jon’s investigation, he’s got the book and Jon’s final words, he’s seen that Robert’s bastards bear the Baratheon look) than he thinks and just needs a good mental jog to help him put the pieces together. However, as I’ve said (link), he could know a lot more about what’s going on if he knew that the knife didn’t belong to Littlefinger, and that Littlefinger is lying to him. Moreover, Eddar’s thought to sail to Dragonstone and directly confront Stannis is a good one.
However, if Eddard truly wants to, leaving right then and get himself and his family clear of King’s Landing is a smart move, as it brings them out of immediate harm’s way and back to the North, where Eddard comprehends the direct authority he has and can muster the North’s military strength against the coming threat. Hence why Littlefinger comes in right at that moment to delay Ned Stark’s departure and get him into a place where he can be attacked by Jaime Lannister and further increase hostilities.
This chapter analysis is running long and I don’t have anything that particularly concrete in the way of historical analysis that I wanted to talk about beyond some thoughts about assasssinations, which I’ll save for a future chapter.
As you might expect from my initial discussion of the theme of fate and free will, Eddard VIII is absolutely rife with hypotheticals that could have dramatically changed the course of history:
- Eddard had left rather than talk to Littlefinger – thanks to the kidnapping of Tyrion, hostilities are going to commence whether or not Eddard hangs around King’s Landing long enough to order royal retaliation against Gregor Clegane. However, if Eddard had left right then and there, the War of Five Kings would change dramatically. First and foremost, the North begins the war with Eddard Stark, an experienced military campaigner who would have mobilized the North immediately and fully; Robb Stark’s tactical and strategic genius would still make themselves known, but in a context where his father was around to keep his eye on logistics, manpower, and political maneuvering (Eddard Stark is canny enough to know that Theon has to be kept close to keep Balon out of the War). Second, the Lannisters have no Stark hostages to use; this means that the Starks aren’t distracted by a clearly disingenuous peace process and have a larger strategic flexibility to enter and leave the war when it suits them. Third, being a more experienced hand at rebellions, Eddard is unlikely to declare independence for the North, especially when a letter arrives confirming what he’s suspected all along about Prince Joffrey.
- Eddard had visited Dragonstone? If Eddard visits Stannis on the way to King’s Landing, there’s a very good choice he learns the truth about Joffrey’s parentage and Jon Arryn’s murder, which he will no doubt tie to the assassination attempt on his son. At this point, one of two things happens: either Eddard’s loyalty to Robert takes precedence, and he returns to King’s Landing with Stannis and his army behind him, either to confront Robert directly if he’s in time or to launch a coup against Cersei and Joffrey (which Renly would probably join, given that he’s Stannis’ heir by the laws of succession). And Stannis would temper Eddard’s idealism – no telling Cersei ahead of time what they’re going to do, no trusting Littlefinger with the Goldcloaks (which raises an interesting point: as Master of Laws, the Goldcloaks technically would report to Renly; why didn’t he try to take over this force?). The alternative is that Eddard pulls a Stannis and keeps going North, preps the North to war, and Stannis starts the War of Five Kings with the North and the Riverlands on his side, which probably means all hail King Stannis.
- Eddard had won the vote? If there’s no assassination attempt against Daenerys, things start to change very quickly for that storyline. With no assassination attempt, Drogo doesn’t make an oath to win his son the Iron Throne then and there – and will probably wait until Rhaego has grown a bit so he’s viable as an heir to the Iron Throne. This means the Lhazarene aren’t raided for slaves to buy boats, Drogo doesn’t take his wound and isn’t poisoned by Mirri Maz Dur, and Dany doesn’t go in for the blood magic that will kill her son and led her down the path to becoming the Mother of Dragons. Which might have doomed the world once the Others came…so mercy really would have been a killer there.
- Eddard didn’t resign? This one’s a bit tricky, given that Eddard did get the Handship back really quickly after he was attacked by Jaime, but if he was Hand of the King, Jaime’s attack would play very differently – rather than a brawl in the street that can be swept under the rug, this is an act of open outlawry and lèse-majesté. Jaime would flee the capitol as before, but now does so as a condemned man, which could very well have put House Lannister under legal sanction at the outset of the war. This would complicate Tywin’s mobilization and stiffen resistence against him; the Greyjoys and Tyrells would certainly have enjoyed the freedom to attack Lannister holdings at will.
Book vs. Show:
The big change from book to show here is that Benioff and Weiss leave out Ser Barristan Selmy, making Eddard the lone dissenting voice within the Small Council. I’m not sure how I feel about this change – on the one hand, I can see how it intensifies the drama by isolating Eddard and sharpening the distinctions between the corrupt South and the noble North. On the other hand, it also contributes to the “Ned is dumb” meme by making him completely isolated from the political world whereas in the book he was able to persuade at least one member of the Small Council to see things his way. In addition, I think it removes a certain complexity from Ser Barristan’s character arc – he wasn’t just a man who tore off his armor because of the evil King Joffrey, he came to a moral decision gradually through a considered evaluation of the world around him.