“…the queen would not have waited long in any case. Robert was becoming unruly, and she needed to be rid of him to free her hands to deal with his brothers. They are quite a pair, Stannis and Renly. The iron gauntlet and the silk glove.”
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 XV may well be the best argument that Ned Stark’s plot-line in A Game of Thrones is essentially one long noir detective story. Here, our fearless detective hits the end of the road: he’s got a bad wound that’s not going to heal (if this was 30’s noir, he would be gut-shot at this point), he’s cracked the case, but is at the mercy of his enemies; and he’s going to be forced into an impossible, morally compromised choice by a seemingly omnipotent conspiracy between exposing the treason and corruption at the heart of the power structure and saving his family. As he puts it himself: “he damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his goldcloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly…yet in the end he blamed himself.”
A Discourse on Honor, Truth, and Mercy
And thus it’s entirely fitting that so much of Eddard XV revolves around a dialogue on honor, truth, and mercy – both before and after Varys arrives, Eddard is contemplating the decision he’s going to have to make, as if he somehow knows it’s coming. And what’s interesting about this dialogue is how complicated the situation is from the standard “honor is stupid” narrative that much of the fandom seems to have bought into. While Robert’s ghost does mockingly ask “Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor shield your children?” the fact that Robert’s face turns into Littlefinger suggests that this statement shouldn’t be read straightforwardly, especially when as Ned points out, his major mistake with Robert wasn’t that he was too honorable but rather that “I lied to you, hid the truth.”
This is why Ned’s discussion with Varys has a quality like two ships passing in the night: on the one hand, Eddard says that “the madness of mercy” led him to “tell the queen that you had learned the truth of Joffrey’s birth?” with Varys arguing that “It was not wine that killed the king, it was your mercy…” (which he’s doing for his own reasons as I’ll discuss a bit later). On the other hand, Varys also tells Ned that “You are an honest and honorable man…Oftimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life…when I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.” The fundamental tension in his life, the reason why Ned’s in this dungeon, is that ultimately he is torn between the dictates of honor and the dictates of humanity in ways that can’t be easily resolved in favor of either side.
After all, it could be argued that, had Ned been as straightforwardly, unbendingly, just and righteous as Stannis is described, Ned would be safe but Cersei and her children would be dead. Instead, his humane desire to protect both his friend’s feelings and the life of three innocent children impels him to break his own code of conduct. Likewise, I think the fact that Ned chooses this chapter to go into full-blown flashback mode about the Tourney of Harrenhal, especially focusing on the crown of winter roses that symbolizes the promise he made to Lyanna, is no accident. The other major defining moment in his life when Ned has been forced to choose between his honor and mercy, he chose the latter and paid for it with permanent damage done to his reputation, his marriage, and his nephew’s happiness. So when it comes to his decision in this chapter, the outcome is almost pre-ordained.
Which brings me back around to noir and especially the existential nature of the genre – namely, that for the detective, the search for truth is ultimately not about outcomes or consequences, bringing the bad guy to justice. Think about the end of Chinatown, where Jake Gittes watches Noah Cross get away with murder, rape, fraud and theft across the whole of the San Fernando Valley, and has to walk away. What matters is that the detective chooses to find the truth.
An Interview With the Spider
Eddard XV also gives us the most extensive (and putatively honest dialogue) by Varys the Master of Whisperers this side of the Epilogue to A Dance With Dragons, and it’s not an accident that in both cases Varys is unburdening himself to a dead man. The Spider is extremely cautious. At the same time, though, as much as I think we learn about Varys, he’s not being totally frank here and I think some of the confusion people have about this character is that they’re taking him at his word here.
George R.R Martin foregrounds this fact by having Varys announce at the outset, “each man has a role to play, in life as in mummery. So it is at court. The King’s Justice must be fearsome, the master of coin must be frugal, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard must be valiant…and the master of whisperers must be sly and obsequious and without scruple.” His dramatic purpose, in other words, is to be untrustworthy. At the same time, when Eddard presses him on “who do you truly serve?” and “Your own ends. What ends are those, Lord Varys?” there is a level of consistency between his answers here and his dialogue with Kevan Lannister that suggests he’s not lying outright or trying to get Eddard to trust him (as we’ll see later).
Instead, as I have argued in the past, I think Varys genuinely believes that he “serve[s] the realm and the realm needs peace,” but the peace he has in mind is more akin to Thomas Hobbes’ conception of the peace that is the purpose of a sovereign power with complete power to prevent a war of all against all, so something of a lie by omission. Consider that Varys came to Westeros as the twenty years of peace and prosperity of Tywin Lannister’s first term were starting to curdle into the paranoid reign of a King who used wildfire to burn suspected traitors, and has since lived through a civil war marked with betrayal and the bloody Sack of King’s Landing, and Jon Arryn’s fifteen-year truce marked by corruption, intrigue, and murder. His objective is not a “thin” peace, but a lasting and profound peace enforced by his enlightened absolute monarch, Aegon VI (more on this in Hollow Crowns, Deadly Thrones Part V). And in order to achieve this peace, as the arch-utilitarian he is, Varys is willing to wade through oceans of blood- as in the case of his actions with Tyrion and Tywin in A Storm of Swords (can’t wait for this chapter!), or his assassination of half the Small Council to plunge King’s Landing into chaos.
However, there’s an extremely precise timing at work, because Varys declines to destabilize the monarchy by helping Eddard escape here, and suggests that “If there was one soul in King’s Landing who was truly desperate to keep King Robert alive, it was me.” This might be dismissed as self-serving double-talk – after all, Varys informed Ned of the assassination attempts against King Robert after the fact and we haven’t seen him actively preventing them – except for the fact that, as we saw in Arya III, Varys really did view Robert’s death and the conflict between the Starks and Lannisters as complicating his schedule for a Targaryen restoration. So clearly, Varys is telling the truth in so far that he didn’t want Robert to die while the Targaryen restoration wasn’t ready, and if it meant the Lannisters being installed on the Iron Throne without questions as to his
So how does Eddard Stark’s confession or escape fit in the plans of the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy? I think our first clue comes with Varys’ description of Stannis as a terrifying force of justice, the “iron hand” to Renly’s “silk glove.” Varys’ primary intention at this point must be to prevent Stannis from taking the Iron Throne, since he’d be too formidable as a general to guarantee Aegon’s victory, whereas the Lannisters could be easily pushed off the Iron Throne by a strategic revelation of Cersei’s misdeeds (once Tywin’s out of the way…). Hence his alliance with Tyrion in A Clash of Kings and his actions in A Storm of Swords. Given what he’s learned of Eddard’s intentions, Varys knows that freeing Ned Stark would lead to the Starks supporting Stannis, which he doesn’t want. By contrast, having Ned Stark take the black keeps the truth about Cersei’s children hidden for the meantime while the Lannisters deal with Stannis, and gives Varys leverage with House Stark.
Indeed, one could say that overall, Varys consistently acts to remove any political figure of the generation of the Rebellion who would presumably be adamant against the return of the Targaryens – he does nothing when Jon Arryn’s death is plotted, allows Ned Stark to fall from grace, works to keep Renly and Stannis off the Throne, then pivots to eliminate Tywin Lannister – all of which works to reduce any resistance to a Targaryen restoration. After all, Ned Stark might be adamantly opposed to a Targaryen returning to the Throne given what happened to his brother and father, but Robb would be far less so, especially if the Targaryens promised him revenge against the Lannisters.
Varys on Cersei
In Eddard XV, we also get Varys’ cogent analysis of Cersei’s political actions, which makes them somewhat more understandable. What I had completely forgotten here is that Varys emphasizes the role of fear in her motivations, that:
“Cersei is frightened of you, my lord…but she has other enemies she fears even more. Her beloved Jaime is fighting the river lords even now. Lysa Arryn sits in the Eyrie, ringed in stone and steel…in Dorne, the Martells still brood on the murder of Princess Elia…and now your son marches down the Neck with a northern host at his back.”
“…the king’s brothers are the ones giving Cersei sleepless nights…Lord Stannis in particular. His claim is the true one, he is known for his prowess as a battle commander, and he is utterly without mercy. There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man….so here is Cersei’s nightmare: while her father and brother spend their power battling Starks and Tullys, Lord Stannis will land, proclaim himself king, and lop of her son’s curly blond head…and her own in the bargain.”
This begins to make more sense – Cersei definitely saw Eddard Stark as the primary threat, given his position as Hand of the King, but the reason she hasn’t done anything about Eddard Stark since she deposed him, and the reason why both with Sansa’s letter and this offer she is (however ineffectually) trying to push the Starks into momentary quiescence, is that her attention is focused on Stannis and Renly and she wants to free up her father and brother to come save her. This would fit with her actions later in AGOT and in ACOK, when she attempts to summon her father to defend King’s Landing despite the strategic danger this would offer in allowing Robb free reign in the Westerlands and the possibility that all of the Lannisters’ enemies could converge on King’s Landing, surrounding Tywin and the capitol. And it would also explain why she’s choosing now to act – Renly’s gotten away, Stannis is marshaling his forces, but Tywin and Jaime have been drawn west and north away from King’s Landing, just as she’d feared.
At the same time, Cersei’s actions don’t look particularly good even in this light. Given the importance of Ned Stark at this moment, the fact that she’s left him in the black cells, where he could easily die of infection, gone for him taking the black (which would potentially scotch a trade, since Robb wouldn’t really consider his father being exiled to the Wall a fair exchange for Jaime being returned to Cersei), and outsourced it to Varys and Littlefinger, suggests a level of inattention and lack of forethought that’s really inexcusable.
Varys on Littlefinger
Which brings us to this tantalizing little morsel: in Cersei II, we learn that “Joff was supposed to spare his life and send him to the Wall. Stark’s eldest son would have followed him as Lord of Winterfell, but Sansa woulf have stayed at court, a hostage. Varys and Littlefinger had worked out the terms.” This rarest of all collaborations, between the two greatest conspirators and manipulators in all of Westeros is a tantalizing little detail, especially since we don’t see Littlefinger’s hand here.
In fact, when Eddard questions whether Varys and Littlefinger are working together, the Master of Whisperers responds that “I would sooner wed the Black Goat of Qohor [than be in league with LF]. Littlefinger is the second most devious man in the Seven Kingdoms. Oh, I feed him choice whispers, sufficient so that he thinks I am his.” To me, this points to a few critically important things: firstly, one important way in that Varys has had the upper hand on Littlefinger for a loooong time is that he’s been a major source of Littlefinger’s intelligence and that he’s gotten Littlefinger not to trust him, but to underestimate him, which is even better. Secondly, it suggests that Varys is more aware of Littlefinger’s skills than vice-versa, especially given Baelish’s comments about the eunuch. Thirdly, that both men had a deep interest in the outcome of this situation.
Varys I think genuinely wanted Ned to go to the Night’s Watch, as I’ve suggested. And Littlefinger may well have too, at first – after all, it’s a lot easier to get Catelyn and/or Sansa to marry you if they’re not grieving over the death of an immediate loved one you caused, and so much more satisfying to force Ned to spend the rest of his life knowing Littlefinger has either/both of them in his clutches and there’s nothing he can do about it. However (and this is where I think I need to revise my statement from Sansa IV), Cersei also tells us in the same paragraph that she had planned to break the engagement between Sansa and Joffrey, but that “I would have made Sansa a good marriage. A Lannister marriage. Petyr Baelish had offered to wed the girl himself, she recalled, but of course that was impossible; he was much too lowborn.” It may well have been during these negotiations that Baelish decided to persuade Joffrey to execute Ned Stark instead, which would fit with his improvisational, impulse style (consider that it would mean he got literally nothing out of the deal, and even if he had succeeded in his marriage plans he still would have been a long way from inheriting Winterfell), an impulse that dramatically reshaped Westerosi history.
Varys’ Offer: Honor vs. Family
Finally, we come to the crux of the chapter: Varys tells Ned that “I want you to serve the realm…tell the queen you will confess your vile treason, command your son to lay down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey the true heir. Offer to denounce Stannis and Renly as faithless usurpers…if you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to the grave, I believe she will allow you to take the black.” And in order to get Eddard to agree, Varys appeals to his sense of self-preservation and then to his sense of proto-nationalism, both of which fail.
Ultimately, Eddard insists on placing his personal values of truth and honor above the “greater good,” as all good noir detectives must do. And indeed, it’s what he should do – because what Varys is offering is a terrible deal. He’s just been informed that Cersei is in a terrible situation and wants to make a deal, and that House Stark is beginning to bring resources into the field that can only improve his current position. Taking this deal gives the Lannisters everything they want, while giving Stark himself only the merest semblance of life, and leaving his daughter in harm’s way. It’s the definition of a one-sided exchange.
The best possible advice would be for Eddard to hang back and wait, see if the Stark army can’t improve his negotiating position. And I think both Eddard and Varys realize that Varys is peddling bad advice here, because Varys sidesteps to a completely different tack to break his resistance: “and your daughter’s life, my lord? How precious is that?…the next visitor who calls on you…could bring you Sansa’s head.” What I think much of the fandom don’t realize is that Varys is lying here: Eddard himself and Sansa are far too important as hostages to be killed now, in complete opposition to what Varys tells him. It’s especially the case that having Sansa killed at this point could only harm the Lannisters, not help them; killing Sansa isn’t going to stop Robb if having his father imprisoned didn’t. Only Joffrey’s complete lack of sense and Cersei’s inability to react quickly changes that fact.
On a symbolic level, Eddard is choosing family over honor. On a practical level, he’s being lied to, coerced, and rushed into making the last mistake of his life.
When we last left Richard, Duke of York, he had put his hand on the throne of England and claimed it as his by right, only to be met by stunned silence. A few days later, on October 16th, York went to the House of Lords and formally presented his demand to be recognized as the rightful King of England, presenting them with a document detailing the succession of the Kings of England, and specifically how as the descendant (on his mother’s side) of Edward III’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence (in addition to being the direct descendant of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund, Duke of York), his claim to the throne trumped that of Henry VI, whose grandfather had usurped the throne from Richard II, despite being the son of the third son of Edward III. If you’ve ever wondered why GRRM spent so much of AGOT describing lines of descent, it’s because this stuff really mattered, and people died in their thousands because of it.
However, unlike the Great Council of 233, which was willing to act to decide a contested line of succession, the House of Lords responded with a (polite) campaign of resistance through delay: first, they inquired as to why he hadn’t put forward this claim before but instead claimed to be acting only in the cause of good government, he responded “thought right for a time rest and be put for silence, yet it rotteth not, nor shall it perish.” Second, they went to King Henry VI to ask for his opinion; after that, they canvassed judicial experts. Finally, they engaged in a lengthy debate over whether, even if Richard was the rightful king by law, they could abrogate the oath of loyalty to Henry VI and his son (which Richard also sworn, a further embarrassment). York left Westminster with a declaration that he would be heir apparent to Henry VI, and the sentence of attainder on himself and his followers revoked, but without the declaration he had wanted, and with his political reputation in tatters.
Meanwhile, Queen Margaret d’Anjou was marching on York with an army of Lancastrian loyalists and Scottish allies, some 20,000 strong. Knowing that he had to meet this threat or lose everything, York and his ally Salisbury marched north with an army of 9,000 men that swelled to 12,000 on the march, fortifying himself at Sandal Castle where he awaited the arrival of reinforcements from his son Edward of March and Salisbury’s son the Earl of Warwick, as the Lancastrian host descended upon him.
On Dec 3oth, falsely believing himself to be reinforced by Lancastrian soldiers under Andrew Trollope masquerading as Yorkist men (shades of Janos Slynt and the Goldclaoks), York marched out of Sandal Castle to meet the center of the Lancastrian army. When the two hosts clashed, the hidden Lancastrian right and left (which together with the center amounted to an army twice the size of his own) emerged from the woods to smash into both of his flanks (and here we see the inspiration for the Battle of the Whispering Woods) at the same time. This disastrous decision, which gave rise to the mnemonic “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain” for the colors of the visible spectrum, ended the Yorkist army there and then. Richard, Duke of York, died on the field of battle, his army either fleeing in panic or surrounded and being chopped to pieces, with 2,500 men dead on the field. His seventeen year old son was murdered after his surrender by Lord Clifford, who cried “by God’s blood, thy father killed mine. So will I slay the accursed blood of York.”
After his death, York’s body was propped up on an ant-hill by Lancastrian soldiers, who crowned him with a paper crown, hailing him as the “king without a kingdom.” When Clifford escorted Queen Margaret to view the heads of York, his son Rutland, and his ally Salisbury (who also was executed following the battle), she ordered that the heads be placed on pikes on Micklegate Bar atop the walls of York so that “York shall overlook the town of York.”
1. Weir, Alison. Wars of the Roses, loc. 4650.
In William Shakespeare’s version (a highlight of Henry VI, Part 3), the horror of Wakefield is magnified by flipping the order of events: Rutland is murdered before the Duke of York, who is in turned denied the dignity of death in battle so that he and his nemesis Queen Margaret can have one final confrontation:
It is a scene of grotesque indignity, the unnatural inversion of the ceremony of installing a new king (complete with paper crown, a mole-hill for a throne, and blood to anoint him), the cruelty of a mother waving the death of her enemy’s son in his face, a great warrior forced to weep and dance before his tormentors like a bear being baited. It’s not an accident that it’s this image of a Northern Lord brought down by a vengeful, bloody queen that inspired Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister, or for that matter Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts (“off with his head, off with his head!”).
In history, Richard Duke of York’s death, however horrific it might seem, ended nothing and solved nothing. As discussed earlier, Richard’s death at Wakefield made his son Edward the largest landholder in England and the Yorkist claimant to the throne; the simultaneous death of Salisbury made his son Warwick the wealthiest man in England. The two men would unite their forces at London, and the war would continue.
- Varys had smuggled out Eddard? This counterfactual goes a long way towards revealing Varys’ motives at this moment. If Eddard is released, then not only does Robb Stark gain a major advantage (no need to bargain over Jaime and a much clearer exit strategy), but also the Stark forces learn of the truth of Joffrey’s parentage before they irrevocably decide for independence. This most likely means not only that House Stark sides with Stannis, but also that Stannis’ public letter is corroborated by the Hand of the King. This could well have a cascading effect on Westerosi politics: the Lords of the Stormlands would at the least split rather than only side with Renly; the Vale might be pulled into the war against Lysa’s wishes due to Stark/Royce influence and the cover of King Robert’s Hand’s command. While at that point a two-stage war, first Stannis and the Stark/Tully army against the Lannisters and then the Stannis/Starks/Tullys against Renly and the Tyrells (a great motown band name, btw) is most likely, it’s possible that the War of Five Kings might have been forestalled then and there in favor of a recapitulation of Robert’s Rebellion with Tywin playing the role of Rhaegar.
- On the other hand, it’s possible that Varys could have secured Eddard’s support for a restoration of the Targareyns…if only he had known that Eddard was protecting another Targaryen claimant to the Iron throne. Although perhaps he did know, and he was worried about a potential rival to Aegon…/tinfoil
- Eddard said no? Ironically, if Eddard has just thought a little bit longer about the offer and played for time, things would have worked out better for almost everyone: if Eddard is alive when news of the Whispering Woods arrives in King’s Landing, there’s no way that Cersei jeopardizes her precious Jaime with a public confession. A straightforward trade of Eddard for Jaime is worked out, which is great for Eddard, Cersei, Jaime, Robb, Tywin, and maybe even Varys (who could ensure Stannis’ defeat and the Starks owing him a favor). I doubt that this ends the Stark/Lannister conflict; the Lannisters have repeatedly attacked both the Starks and the Tullys and would still be holding Sansa and Arya (putatively) hostage and Eddard would probably be pushing for a declaration in favor of Stannis. However, it would probably be the best possible chance for a peace on that side of the conflict for a time, in that the Lannisters have more important crises to deal with and the Starks have their primary war aim accomplished.
Book vs. Show:
With the significant exception of the omission of the hallucinations/flashbacks, this scene is otherwise played pretty straight in the TV show (with the exception of playing up Eddard’s willingness to die as a soldier, which is omitted in the text in favor of a sharper focus on the question of truth and honor). On the other hand, I do worry that the initial decision to avoid flashbacks and prophecies (fools too, come to think of it) will cause problems later on – how are the show-runners going to get to R+L=J and still have the same impact if the idea hasn’t been planted in the audience’s head?
Their only go-to at the moment, as far as I can tell, is Meera’s story about the crannogman and the Knight of the Laughing Tree, but that’s a hard one to go on without context.