“…as you love me, you do me this kindness, my prince”
Synopsis: Joffrey and Cersei hold court for the first time and announce some turnover in personnel; Ser Barristan is out, and the Hound and Janos Slynt are in. Sansa makes a plea for her father’s life that Cersei really should have paid more attention to.
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.
Sansa V is the last moment of Sansa’s innocence, so we should probably savor it before George R.R Martin destroys it in front of her eyes. But first, let’s take a look at the Dynamic Duo of Westerosi politics, Joffrey and Cersei, as they embark on their first day on the job.
Joffrey and Cersei in (mis)Government:
And what a first day it is. Joffrey and Cersei begin by “read[ing] a long list of names, commanding each in the name of King and Council to present themselves and swear their fealty to Joffrey…[or] be adjudged traitors, their lands and titles forfeit to the throne.” On the face of it, this isn’t a terrible idea – it’s good to make clear who your friends are and your enemies are (although making people choose sometimes moves neutrals over into the enemy camp) and to get the law and legitimacy on your side. However, historical precedent has rather tainted this as a political tactic; the last time a King summoned lords to King’s Landing on pain of attainder, he ended up having everyone who arrived executed without due process of law. Hence, Cersei is immediately inviting comparisons to Mad King Aerys, especially when she includes all of the children of the Houses summoned.
The list itself is rather interesting: in addition to the usual suspects (Stannis although it’s notable he hasn’t actually done anything that could be construed as treasonous yet, Renly, the Tullys, the Starks, all of their associated bannermen, and Beric and Thoros) which is all well and good except for the fact that you can’t really enforce any of this when your enemies have their armies in the field, Cersei goes a bit crazy with naming almost every prominent neutral House in Westeros: the entirety of the Tyrells (“brothers, uncles, sons,”), Doran Martell “and all of his sons,” and the Arryns and their bannermen (although this one falls halfway between the former and latter categories). Given the historical precedent and the reputation of the Lannisters, this action runs the extreme risk of pushing two more of the eight Great Houses into open rebellion. Indeed, the Tyrells will shortly declare themselves for Renly (which was probably going to happen anyway, but Cersei’s actions don’t help).
After Item 1 on the agenda is complete, Cersei moves on to a bit of a cabinet reshuffle: Eddard Stark is out and Tywin Lannister is Hand of the King, and Stannis is out and replaced with Cersei as Queen Regent. In many ways, this is the best political move Cersei makes, consolidating her family’s position in King’s Landing and achieving her life’s ambition of having explicit political authority in her own right, with only “a soft murmuring from the lords around her…quickly stilled.” However, it is amazing how short lived her authority is – by giving Tywin the Handship, she covers his recent treason with the blanket of back-dated legitimacy, but ultimately loses control over her own camp by creating a rival authority within the Baratheon-Lannister court, as we’ll see in A Storm of Swords. At the same time, it’s incredibly obvious that, despite her lifelong ambitions to achieve a position running the Small Council, Cersei really doesn’t have any ideas for what comes next if things don’t go according to plan.
Moreover, while consolidating one’s position is all very well, it’s also true that one critical lesson about feudal politics that Cersei has never gotten is that, in a feudal system, political influence comes from spreading power around, not concentrating it in one’s immediate family. The downside of having so many Lannisters on the Small Council is that you have less bargaining chips with which to expand one’s political coalition (which as I’ve pointed out in Bran VI is also your military coalition). Cersei’s actions here risk alienating potential allies by denying them patronage and constructing an outsider group that’s larger than the insider group.
This is only further confirmed when Cersei has Janos Slynt made a Small Councilor and the Lord of Harrenhal. Immediately, “the muttering was louder and angrier,” as the lords of the court bitterly resent a common being raised to the top of the Lesser Houses as a blatant act of quid pro quo. Moreover, since Slynt is a Lannister creation without any outside power base, it’s another example of the Lannisters keeping all the goodies for themselves. And as Tywin will point out later, this is a major case of Cersei overpaying for a one-time service; she’d have been better off replacing Janos Slynt with some Crownlands lord and keeping Harrenhal open for future political negotiations.
And then there’s the removal of Ser Barristan Selmy – the acme of knighthood, a symbol of honor and virtue, and a signifier of continuity between the two dynasties – and replacing him with Jaime Lannister as the Lord Commander and Sandor Clegane on the Kingsguard. Again and again, Cersei is packing the court with Lannister loyalists, and destroying every element of precedent and stability. While it’s Joffrey’s idea to have him arrested for calling him “boy” and mentioning Stannis (the first sign of Joffrey’s rampant paranoia), the idea of placing him in a glorified cell “north of Lannisport” isn’t much better.
On their own, some of these political moves make sense, and others don’t. But rolling them out all at once sends entirely the wrong message: instead of continuity, we have sudden breaks with precedent; instead of favors being widely doled out in return for loyalty, they’re being hoarded for the Lannister family. And, unlike in the show, Cersei really can’t claim that Joffrey’s at fault – this is her plan.
Sansa’s Plan to Free Her Father
As if to spit in the eye of those who believe that Sansa is a purely passive character, it’s at this point that Sansa steps forward to try to save her father by asking for “mercy” while acknowledging that “he must be punished.” Sansa makes a very clever argument: she relies heavily on Eddard’s relationship with Robert (gesturing in the direction of the old King’s memory and the ideal of continuity), she throws Renly and Stannis under the bus (which, given that Joffrey is paranoid about them and has just attainted them is a good idea), and wraps it up with appealing to the conventional wisdom that “milk of the poppy fills your head with clouds.” And under any other circumstances in Westerosi politics, her argument would work – it is simply insane to execute sitting Lords of Great Houses, as seen by the fact that the only person who’s ever done it was Aerys II.
On the other side of the ledger, however, we have to note that Sansa’s belief in the chances of her plan do show that the transition from innocence to wisdom is coming along rather slowly – as she puts it, “it will all come out well, Joff loves me and the queen does too, she said so.” Obviously, by this point with her father imprisoned and her sister vanished and her entire family attained down to the Rickon level, Sansa should probably not accept everything Cersei tells her on its face. At the same time, we have to consider how a 12-year old child who’s led an extremely sheltered life and has been held prisoner would respond under these conditions.
However, we have to note that her appeal at least initially works. Varys finally starts making some moves – notably, he makes the worst possible pitch to get Ser Barristan to accept his forcible “retirement” by stressing material comforts (an insult to a man who’s observed a lifelong vow of poverty), downplays Ser Barristan’s ostensibly pro-Stannis comments (which is unusual for a man whose trade is in ferreting out treason, but as we learn later was motivated by his desire to win over Ser Barristan for the Targaryens), and argues that “they saw wisdom oft comes from the mouths of babes.” I’ll discuss why Varys wants Ned saved more in the last Eddard chapter, but I did want to note the irony that the man who stoked Aerys II’s paranoia and who offered loyal advice to the king right up to the sack of King’s Landing is arguing for leniency, whereas Pycelle (who seems to have lost his ability to detect his own hypocrisy some time ago) is holding the hard line against treason when he himself betrayed King Aerys in Tywin’s name.
Joffrey seems nonplussed and a little bored – he’s willing to defer to his mother’s wishes as long as Eddard takes it back and everyone admits that he’s the king, he doesn’t seem to care that much (I don’t think Littlefinger’s quite got to him yet, more on this in Eddard XV). Cersei seems somewhat nonplussed by all of this, which is perhaps the best sign of how sloppy and short-sighted she really is as a political actor. Eddard Stark is the best possible hostage she could have in this situation – even before Jaime is taken captive and the Stark/Tully army is about two-and-a-half week’s ride away from King’s Landing, it would be incredibly advantageous for her to swap Eddard for the Starks pulling out of the war and remaining loyal, while keeping Sansa to ensure they keep their promises, so that House Lannister can bring the entirety of its power to bear on the Baratheons. Right now, the Starks have been repeatedly offended and abused by the Lannisters, but it hasn’t gone beyond the point of no return yet.
And yet…as I’ll discuss in the next Sansa chapter, Cersei completely drops the ball on this. For some reason, as I’ll discuss next chapter, she outsources the work to Varys and Littlefinger rather than handling it herself. The eventual plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; having Ned Stark take the black after “confessing” his crimes preserves her cover story…except for the fact that Stannis already knows. It does give her a total victory over Ned, permanently taking him out of the game of thrones, but in the larger scheme that’s not actually in her long-term interests. Eddard is a mature ruler who’s already shown his preference for a peaceful solution, whereas his son has shown that he’s more interested in vengeance given that he’s already marched his armies south while she held both his father and sister; having Eddard take the black keeps him out of power and makes Robb Lord of Winterfell. Does she really think he’s going to turn around once his father’s out of harm’s way without a formal agreement? And even if Robb was willing to make a formal peace treaty or even a truce, taking Eddard’s return to his family off the table to begin with is a poor place to start. It’s a very strange mix of over-ambitious and half-assed.
I intend to get into the last days of Richard, Duke of York, in the next (and last) Eddard chapter, and Joffrey’s historical parallels in the next Sansa chapters, and I already discussed the “Parliament of Devils” in a previous Eddard chapter, so I don’t have anything left for this section. Next chapter, however…
I can really only think of one major hypothetical here:
- Joffrey/Cersei says no? Ironically for all concerned, things might have worked out better for all concerned if Sansa had gotten turned down here. After all, there’s no particular hurry with Ned, as they have him quite securely locked up in the dungeon. And even a slight delay changes things dramatically…in about a week, Renly will crown himself in Highgarden; in about two weeks, Robb will have won his first two battles and Jaime will be his prisoner. In that situation, Eddard is far too important an asset to be sent off to the Night’s Watch or blithely executed. A small delay, and Eddard Stark might actually survive. Sansa probably still remains a captive, however.
Book vs. Show:
The show played this one almost word-for-word, so nothing to report here.