“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Synopsis: Now that he’s solved the mystery of Jon Arryn’s murder, Eddard speaks briefly with Pycelle and Littlefinger, and then has a meeting with Cersei Lannister. The two speak frankly, but fail to reach common ground.
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.
To continue my roller-coaster analogy, Eddard XII is where you hit top speed and you’re zooming down the incline, and you can see that something’s not quite right (loose screws, a supporting strut that’s not quite in the right position), but you’re going way too fast to stop.
Eddard’s Investigation Completed
For all that we tend to focus on the end of the chapter, the beginning of the chapter belies Eddard’s reputation as a political naïf. As we discussed last time, his gambit of sending out Beric Dondarrion as a royal representative is basically working: “Lord Tywin is greatly wroth about the men you sent after Ser Gregor Clegane,” Pycelle informs Ned, but as Eddard points out, “Lord Beric rides beneath the king’s own banner. If Lord Tywin attempts to interfere with the king’s justice, he will have Robert to answer to. The only thing his Grace enjoys more than hunting is making war on lords who defy him.” Given Robert’s actions at Summerhall and the Greyjoy Rebellion, Eddard is likely right about the King’s reaction to any attack on his banner. And at the end of the day, Tywin does in fact attack the King’s banner, so that Eddard’s trap is sprung. How many people in ASOIAF can claim they actually politically outmaneuvered?
Secondly, as we can see, Eddard is hardly fooled when it comes to the machinations of the royal court: he can see plainly that Pycelle is the queen’s spy, “bound straight for the royal apartments, to whisper at the queen,” and as for LIttlefinger, “the man was too clever by half…there was scarcely a man in this city he trusted.” Likewise he puts little trust in Varys, who “for all his protestations of loyalty…knew too much and did too little.” Eddard’s downfall has many causes, but that he blindly trusted is not one of them – it is far more accurate to say that he gambled on which way Littlefinger would jump and guessed wrong, but more on that later.
Thirdly, Eddard has now succeeded in his initial task, to solve the mystery of “the sword that killed Jon Arryn.” He knows that at every time the Lannisters and Baratheons have inter-married (and it’s quite frequent, with two marriages inside thirty years, which is otherwise unusual in Westeros, “always he found the gold yielding before the coal.” And Eddard is fully aware of how dangerous this knowledge is, “he asked himself what Jon Arryn might have done, had he lived long enough to act on what he’d learned. Or perhaps he had acted, and died for it.” Ned Stark knows that this knowledge might be his death and Robert’s.
The White Hart and the Recall
One of the interesting things that one notices on a careful re-read is the critical importance of timing when it comes to how long King Robert will be hunting, and Joffrey’s return back to court. In the first place, we learn that “they found the white hart…or rather what remained of it. Some wolves found it first, and left his Grace scarcely more than a hoof and a horn. Robert was in a fury, until he heard talk of some monstrous boar deeper in the forest.” On the level of dramatic timing, this turn of events is crucial – Robert has to be kept away long enough that Eddard cannot have an opportunity to tell him the truth about Joffrey’s true parentage, but not so long that Eddard has an opportunity to send Cersei away before Robert’s death can allow her to put Joffrey on the Iron Throne and seize power through him. As I have said many times, attention must be paid to how intricately GRRM times this – a matter of a day or even a few hours one way or the other, and Eddard’s story might not have been a tragic one.
Likewise, Joffrey’s return is highly significant. Regardless of whether she learns about Eddard’s knowledge and his actions, Cersei has clearly acted by this point to bring about her husband’s death and seize the monarchy itself. In order for her mission to succeed, she must have the crown prince on hand to enthrone.
On a symbolic level, it is highly significant that, just as at the beginning of this story, the sigil of House Stark was found having caused the death of the sigil of House Baratheon and vice verse, here we see that wolves have devoured the symbol of the King. In omens, repetitions and reversals are always significant, indicating a pattern being weaved by the fates that sends ahead of the event ripples through time – and so here, Starks and Baratheons are found brought together by death. And just as Eddard thinks that his actions will prove to be “Robert’s death” (in the sense that they will mortally wound his pride, his trust in others, and the tranquility of his country), he is preparing to act in a fashion that Varys will argue brings about his best friend’s death.
At the same time, there is also an interesting contrast between the white hart and the boar. As I’ve discussed before, the white hart symbolized purity and innocence, especially in the context of medieval Europe; the boar, on the other hand, represented wild anger, uncontrollable rage, virility (hence the unfortunate singer’s link between the king’s supposed emasculation and his defeat at the hands of the boar), and suicide (as wild boars were known and feared for their ability to, even when stabbed with a spear, pull themselves up the spear and kill the hunter). In this chapter, King Robert goes in search of innocence and instead finds violent death as both he and the boar seek to kill even while dying; it’s possible to see this hunt as a kind of symbolic suicide as Robert slays his drive for living.
Ned’s Biggest Mistake?
Finally, we get to the crux of Ned Stark’s story line in Game of Thrones, which is worth quoting extensively:
“I know the truth Jon Arryn died for,” he told her.
“Do you?” The queen watched his face, wary as a cat. “Is that why you called me here, Lord Stark? To pose me riddles? Or is it your intent to seize me, as your wife seized my brother?”
“If you truly believed that, you never would have come.”…
“My brother Jaime is worth a hundred of your friend.”
“Your brother?” Ned said. “Or your lover?”
“Both.” She did not flinch from the truth…
“My son Bran…”
To her credit, Cersei did not look away. “He saw us.”…
“How is it that you have had no children by the king?”
She lifted her head, defiant. “Your Robert got me with child once…my brother found a woman to cleanse me.”…
“You know what I must do.”
“Must!” She put her hand on his good leg, “A true man does what he will, not what he must.” Her fingers brushed lightly against his thigh, the gentlest of promises. “The realm needs a strong Hand. Joff will not come of age for years. No one wants war again, least of all me…if friends can turn to enemies, enemies can become friends.”…
“I shall say this only once. When the king returns from his hunt, I intend to lay the truth before him. You must be gone by then. You and your children, all three, and not to Casterly Rock…no matter where you flee, Robert’s wrath will follow you…”
“And what of my wrath Lord Stark?”
This moment is often seen as Ned Stark’s biggest mistake, a blundering error committed by a man with more honor than sense. And yet, if you look at the context of the conversation, there’s a lot more going on here. To begin with, one has to point out that if Ned Stark lets his honor get the best of him, Cersei Lannister is almost equally inept at intrigue. Ned Stark has proof that Cersei has committed adultery, but no proof that she committed incest – and yet Cersei volunteers this fact, and claims responsibility for the first attempt on his son’s life when she could have very made something up. It’s not surprising that the Lannister Conspiracy was known to virtually everyone at court. It might be argued that Cersei’s admissions here should be offset by the fact that her plan to kill Robert Baratheon and install her son as King was already underway, so that telling the truth to Eddard Stark was ultimately harmless.
However, that wasn’t true at the time and Cersei knew it – while she had already dispatched the order to get Robert drunk, that was no guarantee that he actually would die in the hunt. Likewise, Cersei did not yet have military hegemony within the capitol – at this point in time, Cersei “has a dozen knights and a hundred men at arms,” but that’s not nearly enough, especially given the number of enemies Cersei has collected in King’s Landing. Even minus the twenty men he sends with Beric Dondarrion, Eddard Stark has thirty Winterfell men, Renly has access to over a hundred, there are a substantial but unknown number of Robert’s own soldiers who accompanied him up to Winterfell, and the Gold Cloaks answer to the Hand and the Master of Laws (and have yet to be bought by either side). Even more so, it’s fully within Eddard’s powers as Hand or in his own private capacity to hire a hundred or so mercenaries to bulk up his forces. Cersei’s offer of both sex and a political alliance that would leave Eddard in power as Hand of the King is the best proof that the political situation was still fluid at the time, and that Cersei herself was in a substantial amount of danger.
However, it’s absolutely the case that Eddard had a number of ways of dealing with the situation that he does not avail himself of: there’s no reason why Eddard couldn’t have had multiple witnesses present, or have sent out letters to be opened in the event of his death (after all, he has about two weeks before the dying Robert returns, which gives him plenty of time), in order to prevent himself from being silenced; likewise, there’s no reason why Eddard couldn’t have seized the opportunity to forcibly but non-violently deport the queen and her children on the next ship heading to Essos before Robert’s return; he could have used the time to hire mercenaries and canvass the support of Renly, Robert’s personal bannermen, the Crownlands Houses and so on.
It’s been a while since I did a proper historical parallel about a main character, but starting with this chapter, I intend to do a multi-part series on Eddard Stark’s historical parallel – Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the first major leader of the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses.
In later segments, I’ll go into some of the particular events in Richard Plantagenet’s life that makes me see a parallel, but here I’ll start with the broad outlines. Like Eddard Stark, Richard was a powerful nobleman with huge landholdings in the North of his country, in this case much of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, and Gloustershire. He also had a father who died at the hands of a King – Richard, the 3rd Earl of Cambridge, executed by Henry V for attempting to depose him, which means that Richard Plantagenet would start his career serving the son of the man who killed his father. Also like Eddard Stark, he married the daughter of a great house who would become pivotal players in the Wars of the Roses, Cecily Neville of the Nevilles of Westmorland, Salisbury, Northumberland, and Warwick.
Richard Duke of York was also a career soldier during the final stages of the Hundred Years War in France, put in command of the defense of Normandy, recapturing territory in northern France that had been lost to the resurgent French, then in defense of Gascony, and so on. It was in France that Richard began to dissent against royal policies that he blamed for English losses in the war, especially the preferment of the Beaufort Dukes of Somerset, the first two of whom proved to be inept military leaders. Richard’s later interest in becoming Lord Protector of the Realm while the King was incapacitated, and his conflict with the Queen Margaret d’Anjou (who supported the Beauforts and was alleged to have cuckolded the king with Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset) found their foundation in his accusations of incompetence and corruption within the royal court.
So here we have a great Northern nobleman, son of an executed father, with a sound military reputation, who comes into conflict with a powerful queen over questions of corruption within the royal court.
Next time: it’s not easy being a Protector of the Realm.
In a chapter that ultimately comes down to a single decision, there’s a lot of room for coin-flip hypotheticals. I will probably miss some, but look forward to debating any in the comments.
- Eddard doesn’t talk to Cersei? To many, this is the most obvious change; if Eddard does the smart thing and keeps his mouth shut, he’ll defeat the evil queen and her usurping son, prevent the war, etc. However, and I realize this might be controversial, I’m not sure how much this changes. Leaving aside the question of how much Cersei knows about Eddard’s investigation (she’s probably been spying on him, but how much intel she got is unclear), Cersei is already committed to installing Joffrey on the Iron Throne the moment her husband is dead, and the Queen Regency for her is an existential life goal.
So Cersei was probably intending to make some moves that would make Eddard her enemy even more so than status quo; although (depending on how genuine her offers are in this chapter) she may have originally intended to have Eddard front for her and double down on the Joffrey-Sansa wedding as a way to neutralize the Starks in the coming civil war, although that’s complicated in turn by the fact that her father is in the process of attacking his brother-in-law. Her finding out that he knows Joffrey is illegitimate and isn’t going to stand for his enthronement probably pushed her in the direction of getting rid of the Lord Protector, but she was probably intending to do so anyway. Perhaps the most information Cersei got out of the affair is that Eddard isn’t going to move on her person but is going to oppose her plans, which gives her a sense of how much room she has to maneuver, but is that all that much in the grand scheme of things?
However, the big question here is to what extent Cersei’s plans for what goes down in the Throne Room in OTL were predicated on the need to deal with Lord Eddard (i.e, was she actively looking to make deals to pick up more soldiers when Littlefinger came along, or was buying the Gold Cloaks enough of an obvious play that she would have done it regardless?). It’s possible that if Cersei didn’t know what Eddard was planning, she might not have enough men on hand to, for example, grab Eddard’s daughters and close off the gates and have the docks watched, and it’s possible (although unlikely given what happens between Ned and Littlefinger) that she might have missed the opportunity to buy them altogether. One interesting possibility, assuming that Cersei’s fear that she’s isolated in King’s Landing that is expressed in this chapter, is that Cersei does a runner down the Gold Road to get the royal family into Lannister territory, leaving the capital in Ned’s possession.
- Eddard exiles Cersei before Robert comes back? To me, this would be the most significant diversion from the OTL; if Eddard came to the conclusion that the only way to avoid the bloodshed on the floors scenario he so loathes (more on this next Eddard chapter) is to forcibly remove the Queen from King’s Landing, rationalizing that, however unpleasant it is to arrest the Queen and her children, it’s better than having Robert kill all of them (and Eddard was willing to have them arrested when it came down to it, in OTL). It’s quite possible that Eddard pulls this off – Renly would probably see this as second-best to arresting them, but that’s less crucial when Robert is still alive and the Renly/Tyrell Conspiracy is still his go-to move; Littlefinger might feel differently about Eddard not being down with Joffrey’s Regent if Stannis on the Throne isn’t part of the deal.
This creates an interesting variation on some of my previous “Eddard’s counter-coup works” scenarios. If Cersei and Joffrey are gone when Robert returns mortally wounded, then Stannis is drafted into the will and we get a Stark/Baratheon/Tully/possibly Tyrell alliance against the Lannisters. However, unlike previous iterations, instead of the Baratheon/Lannister claimants being dead, they’re still alive and active in Essos. This could make things rather complicated – while Tywin would probably face a difficult situation on the mainland (his 45,000 against the 55-140,000 the alliance could bring together), he could probably pull back to a defensive position of defending the two mountain passes into the Westerlands while sending money to his daughter and the “rightful heirs” in Essos to hire mercenary armies for an eastern invasion. Then everything turns to a question of allies: Tywin’s going to reach out to the Greyjoys and offer them carte blanche in return for them attacking the North and the Riverlands, and trying to pry the Tyrells (and maybe Renly) away from Stannis and Eddard, since there’s not the prospect of a royal wedding for Margaery. Whether the Tyrells jump is iffy – Renly has good prospects as potentially Stannis’ heir, so they might decide to make their OTL alliance and hope/encourage Stannis to die in battle after he takes out the Lannisters, but it’s 50/50 between that and Joffrey’s hand. The Martells settle back with some popcorn to watch their hated enemies kill each other; Lysa Arryn will stay out as long as Littlefinger tells her to, but it will be harder for her to do so when a King on the Iron Throne with a sensible marriage.
- Eddard has witnesses? Here’s where GRRM’s inattention to public opinion (save for the isolated incidents of the riot and the Antler Men) makes alternate history difficult. Cersei potentially made a huge mistake by admitting everything to Eddard; if Eddard had thought to bring, say, the High Septon and several influential lords within earshot of their conversation, he might have been able to rally public opinion to his side after Robert’s death by publicly outing the queen as an incestuous adulterer and murderer. Here, teasing out the impact is difficult to do: we only get one riot in King’s Landing, but had multiple riots broken out as a result of diminished legitimacy of the royal family, that would be an interesting complicating factor – can a relatively small ersatz army of police offers simultaneously defend a city from siege when the city is at war from within? Alternatively, we might also see Stannis’ open letter being taken more seriously across the Seven Kingdoms if Eddard’s name is attached to the allegation and it’s proceeded by widespread rumors that the Queen killed the Hand because he spoke the truth.
- Cersei doesn’t say anything? While Eddard gets most of the opprobrium for being honest in this scene, we should also keep in mind that Cersei says a lot more than she needed to in this scene. Admitting adultery when your interrogator has the family trees to prove it is one thing, but I’ve always been nonplussed by the way in which Eddard and Stannis both leap to the (correct) conclusion that Cersei is schtupping her brother and, say, not any other blond man in the entire city? (Possibly this is just GRRM cutting a bit of a corner for the sake of narrative convenience) Likewise, I really feel that Cersei would have had a much better chance of managing Eddard Stark has she not, for example, immediately preceded her seduction attempt or her offer of an alliance by admitting that she tried to kill his son (yes, I know Jaime carried it out, but she implicitly admits culpability in this chapter).
Book vs. Show:
Benioff and Weiss made the intelligent decision to play this scene pretty much straight from the book (with the exception of the “I worshiped him” bit, but they have to retcon a bit since they made the change re: Robert and Cersei having a child), given how amazing the dialogue is in the source material. However, they made the decision to omit Cersei’s offer to sleep with Eddard.
This is kind of a big change for the character, emphasizing more Cersei’s confident schemer side and downplaying her use of her sexuality, and it’s one that’s been carried forward in the series with the removal of the Kettleblacks from the series. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this – on the one hand, Game of Thrones has enough problems with gender without making Cersei both a Jezebel-type as well as an Evil Queen type. On the other, I am somewhat worried about the knock-on effects for Seasons 4 and later. For example, how are they going to handle the breach between Jaime and Cersei (unless they throw everything onto Lancel)? Or Cersei’s plan to destroy Margaery via the Kettleblacks, and her own fall from grace?
While her outreach to Eddard is somewhat disposable in the final analysis, the latter are absolutely crucial for both major political plots and character development for Cersei, Jaime, Lancel, Margaery, the Sparrow High Septon, etc.