Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Arya V

“My mother bids me let Lord Eddard take the black, and Lady Sansa has begged mercy for her father…but they have the soft hearts of women.”

Synopsis: Arya Stark, hiding out in Flea Bottom, narrowly avoids a Lannister trap at the riverfront wharf, and becomes a witness to the confession and execution of her father, only to be saved by Yoren.

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.

Political Analysis:

Arya V is primarily concerned with a single act of madness, but before we get to that, I want to spend a bit of time discussing some of the interesting detail in this chapter that sets up a lot for Arya’s plotline through the next two books.

Arya on the Streets

The first thematic element we see is Arya beginning to discover poverty, which sets up her role in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords as a lens into the impact of the War of Five Kings on Team Smallfolk. The picture isn’t very pretty:

  • The lives of the residents of Flea Bottom revolve around a daily struggle to appease hunger by any means necessary, with crime being a common survival strategy: “her lord father had taught her never to steal, but it was growing hard to remember why…the silver bracelet she had hoped to sell had been stolen her first night out of the castle, along with her bundle of good clothes, snatched while she slept…all they left her was the cloak she had been huddled in, the leathers on her back, her wooden practice sword and needle.” Here, GRRM is deconstructing the Hero’s Journey – normally, the hero at the outset of her quest gains talismans or artifacts from their guardian to aid them on their way, in a way that often saps the “point of no return moment” of its dramatic power (how often does Luke actually mention the traumatic loss of his aunt and uncle the moment after it happens?). Here Arya is immediately robbed and thrown into destitution, barely able to survive. Rather than gaining competence or having competence suddenly imbued on her in the form of magical talismans, Arya is helpless until she encounters Yoren – because in real life, children make for lousy Chosen Ones.
  • The poor of King’s Landing experience poor food and sanitation: “in the Bottom there were pot-shops along the alleys where huge tubs of stew had been simmering for years…mostly she tried not to think about the meat…she feared so much pigeon was making her sick.” One of the “realist” elements often left out of High Fantasy is the reality of an agricultural society with high investment in livestock and working animals, no understanding of the germ theory of disease or public health, and a society with high levels of inequality to boot (the wealth of kings doesn’t come from working for a living after all). It’s a running problem I have with fantasy in which the messy and unpleasant factors of pre-industrial society have been buried underneath J.R.R Tolkein’s reflexive anti-modernism.  It’s nice to have GRRM putting it back in.
  • Exploitation and abuse are a constant danger: “Arya could feel them watching. Some of them stared at their boots or their cloak, and she knew what they were thinking. With others, she could almost feel their eyes crawling under her leathers; she didn’t know what they were thinking, and that scared her even more.” Now this gets us into an area where people have genuinely mixed feelings about the world of ASOIAF – some view the ubiquity of sexual threat in Westeros to be a mark against the series and potentially a mark of misogyny on the author’s part, others that it’s a feminist statement that sexual violence is a genuine threat in the world and Martin clearly represents it as an evil to be fought. I’m not sure where I stand on this specific instance, but it is clearly working here as a piece with starvation, crime, and malnutrition as part of a world of danger that class inequality makes women of different castes experience difficulty.
  • There isn’t instant solidarity between the oppressed: “she had tried talking to the children she saw in the street, hoping to make a friend…but she must have talked wrong or something. The little ones only looked at her with quick, wary eyes and ran away if she came too close. Their big brothers and sisters asked questions Arya couldn’t answer, called her names, and tried to steal from her.” If the common folk are actually depicted in mainstream fantasy, they are overwhelmingly depicted as either the Happy Peasants who love their rightful king and their heroic knights (which if the same phenomenon was shifted in setting from Medieval Europe to the Antebellum South would be called out as problematic a lot more often) or the kind of noble, suffering poor united in resistance against their oppressors. Neither depiction really gives the poor agency and human diversity of character that Team Smallfolk deserves. It’s good to see Martin taking a leaf from Terry Pratchett in pointing out that “The common people…they’re nothing special. They’re no different from the rich and powerful except they’ve got no money or power. But the law should be there to balance things up a bit. So I suppose I’ve got to be on their side.”

The overall thrust of this narrative, as we’ll see going forwards is to drum into our heads a realist message: suffering isn’t ennobling, it’s just suffering. The hunger and physical danger that Arya will experience in ACOK and ASOS doesn’t make her stronger, or build character, or make her “closer to the earth” in some New Agey way – it’s trauma that no one should experience, let alone romanticize.

The Power of Rumor

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world.

Prologue, Henry IV, Part II

The second theme introduced in this chapter is the role that rumor plays in structuring what we could call the popular politics of the streets – a power that can help stir a city into riot, turn a king into a legend, or sway great houses one way or another in a civil war. Rumor can be surprisingly accurate (“the talk in Flea Bottom was that the gold cloaks had thrown in with the Lannisters, their commander raised to a lord, with lands on the Trident and a seat on the king’s council” is almost word-for-word what Sansa saw earlier), completely wrong (“Some said her father had murdered King Robert and been slain in turn by Lord Renly. Others insisted that Renly had killed the king in a drunken quarrel between brothers.“), or fanciful and allegorical (“One story said the king…died eating a boar, stuffing himself so full he’d ruptured at the table”).

What all of these rumors have in common is that they sort the confusing, dimly-perceived world of elite politics into simple narratives that fit into tropes ordinary people can make sense of the world with. Lord Stark must be a traitor because being executed is what happens to traitors and to think otherwise transforms the highest institutions of power, endorsed and maintained by tradition, custom, and religion, into terrifying monoliths hurling down death at random. Rumor transforms existential uncertainty into rational cause and effect – as all narrative does.

Thus, in the rumors of Flea Bottom, we can get a glimpse of the construction of popular political ideology. The great anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously turned his “thick description” method to Balinese cockfights to tease out the symbols of status, power, masculinity, and crime that ordinary people used to construct “webs of significance” that explained the world around them. In “Ideology as a Cultural System,” he turned the same method in a political direction, explaining ideology as more than a collection of blind, irrational, prejudices, that instead ideology is a kind of symbolic framework that allows people to “formulate, think about, and react to political problems” especially in a time of chaos when people are trying to react and understand dizzying changes in the political world around them.

This may seem a bit hi-falutin’ and perhaps farfetched, but I promise you, when we see Team Smallfolk chanting “King Bread” even as they raise up cobblestones against royal swords, ideology is at work. For those of you familiar with “The Princess and the Queen,” it takes something more than self-interest to explain why the poor and starving of King’s Landing would take the awe-inspiring step of fighting dragons with their bare hands.

“True Seeing” on the Docks

The third element we see is the way in which Syrio Forel’s teachings have influenced Arya, which we’ll come back to as his mantra becomes a core part of her character development, as she sees through the Lannisters’ disguise:

“when she saw the guardsmen on the third pier, inn grey woolen cloaks trimmed with white satin, her heart almost stopped in her chest. The sight of Winterfell’s colors brought teats to her eyes…the Wind Witch was the ship father had hired to take her home…still waiting! She’d imagined it had sailed ages ago…

Ashamed to let them see her crying like a baby, she stopped to rub at her eyes. Her eyes her eyes her eyes, why did…

Look with your eyes, she heard Syrio whisper.

Arya looked. She knew all of her father’s men. The three in the grey cloaks were strangers.”

This gets to John from the comments’ point about the extent to which GRRM is deconstructing standard fantasy tropes; I disagree somewhat in that deconstruction, properly done, isn’t an attempt to discredit a trope outright but to subject it to critique so that it can be reconstructed better. Here, Martin is using realism to critique the compartmentalized threat facing the lone hero that evinces itself into a single incident (think Luke at the bar of the Mos Eisley Cantina) and then never again. He’s also doing it to raise the stakes for Arya so that when Syrio’s voice pops up in her head like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it feels more earned. He’s also doing it to evoke some interesting parallels – with Yoren as the substitute rescue that emphasizes essence over appearance (because Yoren doesn’t look like rescue in the slightest) , the “true seeing” vindicated once again.

Another detail we learn here is how careful Cersei is being here – “the guards let no one out. Those who were allowed to leave left by the King’s Gate or the Iron Gate, but Lannister men-at-arms in crimson cloaks and lion-crested helms manned the guard posts there…searching wagons and carriages, forcing riders to open their saddlebags, and questioning everyone who tried to pass on foot.” Cersei is desperately trying to ensure that Eddard Stark did not get word out other than by Fat Tom, and is doing everything right when it comes to making sure that Arya Stark can’t flee the city on her own. The comprehensive degree of care she evinces here only makes what comes next all the more damning. 

The Execution of Ned Stark

And so we come to the main event – an event carefully stage-managed to prevent the truth of Ned Stark’s investigation from coming to light, to discredit him specifically if he ever decides to tell anyone, and to establish in the public’s mind that “Joffrey Baratheon is the one true heir” to the Iron Throne. The staging is well-done: Eddard Stark has been “dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn on the front” (to hide the fact that he’s been imprisoned by the Lannisters, and thus might be a subject of pity rather than a figure of hatred), Cersei is in full mourning gear (I love that she can’t bring herself to wear full black and has to sneak some triumphant Lannister red), the Small Council is there to give political legitimacy and the High Septon to lend religious legitimacy to the spectacle. The only tell that this is all choreographed is that “Sansa…looked so happy” at the confession of her father.

There’s an interesting parallel in this moment, as Eddard Stark goes to her perjured death: it’s Arya who witnesses the death of her father’s integrity as “Sansa had hidden her face in her hands;” but it’s Arya who has her face covered by Yoren as Sansa witnesses his physical death (and indeed will be the witness to the reality of his death in her next chapter). It’s something of an interesting inversion of how their character arcs work – Sansa is the one who witnesses symbolic destruction (think Ser Barristan in Sansa V), whereas Arya’s going to become very, very familiar with the physical reality of death. I’m not entirely sure why GRRM chooses to go this way (this blog focuses on history and politics over literary analysis for a reason…) but it’s an interesting choice and I look forward to discussing it in the comment thread below.

However, the choreography falls apart the moment when Joffrey calls out “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” The symbolism of the moment is bizarre. The King is rejecting not just his intended bride (who he takes a second to smile at, in a purely sociopathic move), not just the Queen Regent (who has the actual political power at this moment) but the High Septon on the doorsteps of the holiest place in the Seven Kingdoms; it’s rather surprising that GRRM has the crowd react with wild approval, given the way that the desecration comes up later (perhaps too much gilding on the lily ahead of the whole “demon monkey” twist in ACOK?). Overall, not a great introduction to the boy king.

Speaking of choreography, we learn a great deal about who’s behind this sudden u-turn from how the different actors on stage react: “The High Septon clutched at the king’s cape, and Varys came rushing over waving his arms, and even the queen was saying something to him, but Joffrey shook his head.”

  • The High Septon we can eliminate from our inquiry – he’s clearly a well-meaning if corrupt functionary who’ll be dead in a few months. He’s clearly ineffectual in that one would think the High Septon could physically intercede here on religious grounds and forbid the killing on the steps of the Great Sept, if only to allow a cooling-off period where calmer heads could prevail, but at least he’s trying to save Ned Stark.
  • Varys is clearly not the culprit and seems genuinely moved to act in public in a way he really doesn’t ever again. However, I do want to stress one thing that I’ve seen floating around r/asoiaf and other message boards: to the extent that this event represents a defeat for Varys, it’s an extremely minor one. Clearly, Ned Stark’s survival is not a major objective for him – if it was, he could have smuggled Ned out of the dungeons easily days earlier. Nor is it the case that Varys doesn’t want a civil war or wants it to happen later – go back to Arya III and you’ll see he’s clearly the one acting to *accelerate* the Targaryen invasion because he doesn’t think the civil war can or should be delayed. What Varys wants, for the moment, is to prop up the Lannisters until Stannis Baratheon, who he views as the greater threat to his success (Stannis being both a follower of magic, an uncompromising enemy of Varys, a good battle commander, and as a Baratheon a stalwart of the new regime against a restoration), is beaten and he wants the truth about Cersei kept hidden until he’s ready (which is why everyone should keep their eyes on Tyrek Lannister, more on this later). The death of Ned Stark weakens the Lannister cause, but Robb Stark was unlikely to retreat anyway, and Varys is able to work with Tyrion to accomplish his anti-Stannis move quite handily and without Ned’s story leaking. If it’s a defeat, it’s one that touches none of his core objectives.
  • Cersei is clearly not behind this – not only does she speak to Joffrey to get him to stop, but everything we know about her strategic position says this is the last thing she wants: it gains the Lannisters nothing since Ned Stark is already a beaten man politically, it ensures the Starks are in the war to stay and thus will continue to tie up her father, and as we’ll see shortly, it puts Jaime in mortal danger. However, this moment also shows Cersei’s profound limitations as a conspirator; in addition to being generally slapdash and reactive, she doesn’t think well on her feet. Contrary to what many have argued, I think there are ways around Joffrey’s snafu: she could physically intercede, she could point to the religious defilement issue, she could assert her own authority as queen regent, etc. However, in the moment, she tries to talk Joffrey out of it and then does nothing – which is awfully reminiscent of how she panicked in Bran II and then tried to cover her ass later on.
  • Littlefinger, however, does nothing. He is there, however: “the short man with the silvery cape and pointed bear [who] might be the one who had once fought a duel for Mother.” I had forgotten this detail up until this re-read, in part because of the way he drops out of the narrative the moment things start to happen, in part because Arya’s paying attention to movement and action and not the reverse. And I think this absolutely matches his M.O: firstly, it’s focused entirely on his past relationships – it makes Catelyn a widow and free to wed, while punishing the man who “took her from him.” Secondly, it’s done through several layers of plausible deniability – Joffrey takes responsibility and I doubt he remembers whatever catty comment from Littlefinger that prompted him to go off-script. Thirdly, it directly harms Cersei, who just turned him down for Sansa’s hand in marriage. Fourthly, it ensures that the civil war he wants will not have a swift resolution.

So qui bono indeed.

Historical Analysis:

I’ve covered the death of Richard, Duke of York previously, and I want to talk more about the distaff side of the Yorkist cause in Sansa VI, so see you next chapter!

What If?

  • Eddard takes the black? If Cersei’s crazy plan actually works, the big question is whether Eddard would keep his word. On the one hand, he’s sworn to secrecy and Ned Stark is an honorable man, and there’s the added issue of Sansa’s safety. On the other hand, Ned’s oath is quite specific – he swears to “the High Septon and Baelor the Beloved and the Seven,” all elements of a foreign religion he does not belong to. This might signify that Eddard is planning to revenge himself against Cersei and the Lannisters – while Eddard Stark doesn’t have a fanbase in King’s Landing, an open letter proclaiming Stannis to be the true King and Cersei Lannister as a traitor, adulterer, and murderess would certainly reshape the War of Five Kings. Bringing over the Starks and the Tullys to Stannis’ side at this exact political movement would bump him up from merely 5,000 men to having ~45,000 men and the support of two Great Houses.
  • While Stannis isn’t a popular figure, I do think these facts would lend more weight to his own letter, making it more likely that the Stormlords more evenly divide between the brothers and I do think that the lords of the Vale would begin to act independently of Lysa given such a public justification. This likely moves forward the attack on King’s Landing – which means Tywin would himself have to re-align his forces towards the capitol. At the same time, Renly and the Tyrells would also have to speed up their march to prevent a power bloc from seizing the capitol before they could. So we might be looking at a Battle-of-Five-Armies pileup as every single contestant for the Iron Throne races to the finish line.
  • However, if Eddard doesn’t say anything, I don’t think the plot of the War of Five Kings changes that much; with both of his sisters imprisoned (as far as he knows), Robb Stark isn’t about to go back home – nor can he accept the insult to House Stark’s reputation without weakening his family’s position (especially with House Bolton poised to take advantage), which rather makes Cersei’s plan pointless. However, it would dramatically reshape some other plots: Eddard Stark is travelling with the same Night’s Watch group that Arya escapes with, which would be rather heartwarming in retrospect, which might well mean that Arya and her father go on the run in the Riverlands with a much better chance of Arya getting to her family faster. If Eddard makes it to Castle Black, he’d probably arrive roughly at the same time that Jon leaves for the Great Ranging – which makes him a natural choice for commander of the Wall when Mance Rayder attacks, and for Lord Commander thereafter. And hopefully at some point Jon Snow finds out the truth about his parentage.
  • Eddard speaks the truth? If Eddard had come to similar conclusions as I had in his last chapter and decided that he and his daughter are too valuable to be executed (a rational expectation in an irrational universe), and to use the mass audience to speak his mind – it’s unclear how much this changes things. He’ll die, certainly, as he did in OTL, but Robb’s army probably keeps Sansa alive for the nonce. However, the political impact of his statement is hard to gauge: on: the mob’s not going to turn on Joffrey right away, especially when they see the Lord Hand’s head come off. But as we see in ACOK, the narrative of royal bastardy and incest fits into the allegorical narratives the poor like and is enough to stir them into violent action, especially when hunger puts an edge to discontent. So when Stannis’ letter arrives in King’s Landing, it will probably find a more receptive audience – meaning not just one riot but many, which potentially could keep enough of the Goldcloaks busy or sufficiently demoralize them to cause the city to fall. The larger question is whether the story gets out of the city – Cersei’s certainly trying to control egress from the city, but there just isn’t a way to keep rumor penned it like that. Now a rumor that Ned Stark was executed for upholding Stannis’ right to the Iron Throne isn’t as valuable as an open letter stating the same, but it couldn’t hurt.
  • Arya captured? Arya comes very close to being captured on the steps of the sept of Baelor, had Yoren not taken the time to grab her. I don’t think it’s possible that she could have prevented Eddard’s death or killed Joffrey – there’s just too many men with swords between her and her target – but it could potentially change things down the road. Ultimately, Tyrion’s negotiations with the Starks in ACOK are hamstrung by the fact that he doesn’t have an Arya to trade, and if it’s politically unfeasible to trade Jaime for both girls, it’s even more unfeasible when the Lannisters don’t have both bargaining chips to trade. If Tyrion did have both girls, while it’s not likely, it is possible that the trade between him and Catelyn could have gone through without being horribly botched – which potentially opens up the Stark/Tyrell mid-war alliance that I’ll talk about more later. If the Blackwater goes down the same way at OTL, we might even see a Sansa/Willas proposal thrown out there as a Tyrell move to triangulate vis-a-vis the Lannisters. Indeed, I would argue there’s an outside possibility that, post- the Sack of Winterfell, Robb Stark himself might have been willing to eke out a truce on a Jaime-for-sisters basis (if done right).

Book vs. Show:

In this chapter, GRRM does something really interesting – rather than have Eddard’s death scene be told through his own POV, which at 20.8% of the text is the most dominant perspective of the novel, he chooses instead to have the event take place through the eyes of his children, and takes pains to focus on the *impact* of Eddard Stark’s death on both of his daughters, as if to further jam it into our heads that our expectations about conventional fantasy tropes about main character plot armor should be thrown out the window. (He even has the “camera” turn away to further enhance our confusion and disbelief about what’s going on) It’s a brave, unconventional, and shocking way to stick this most vital of landings…

And the show goes 180 degrees the other way. While we get Arya and Sansa’s perspectives communicated quite clearly with Arya’s scramble up to the statue and Sansa’s hopeful smiling face, the show goes right into Eddard Stark’s head in the final moment, complete with the heavy breathing echoing in our ears as a man goes to his death. And yet…it works. The death of Eddard Stark still hits the audience like a ton of bricks and the critical impact on Arya and Sansa is told through acting, which is really the only way it could be in this medium.

At the same time, the show makes a significant change, that’s actually quite effecting and helps to push back on the “DumbNed” attitude all-too-often present in both the book and show fandoms – rather than delivering Eddard Stark a complete and total abnegation of his life and what it stood for, the same kind that poor Richard of York suffered at Wakefield, the showrunners add a grace note. A single word.


Amidst the wreckage of an entire life, Benioff and Weiss give Eddard Stark a tiny moral victory – he gets to spot his daughter on the statue of Baelor the blessed and direct Yoren’s attention, and the last thing he sees before he dies is her absence on the statue so that he dies knowing that she’s safe. It doesn’t undermine or change his character arc in the slightest – Eddard Stark still chooses family over honor, he still dies horribly and unjustly before the eyes of his children – but it gives a degree of mercy.

Is it less avant-garde? Yes. Less uncompromising in its refusal to give the audience a happy ending? Yes.

I couldn’t care less. Well done, Benioff and Weiss. It doesn’t get you off the hook for sins of commission or omission past, present, or future, but if anyone thinks the showrunners don’t get the material at all – I offer this as Exhibit A in rebuttal.

119 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Arya V

  1. Winnie says:

    Great breakdown as always. I like your theory that LF, influenced Joffrey to do the killing…it certainly fits his goals, and while Joff is a sadist, he wouldn’t necessarily come up with the idea of going off script and killing Ned on his own.

    I also agree that one good thing about this series is that’s it’s a complete antidote, to the romanticized version of medieval society most fantasy series give us.

    • Perhaps I’m just extrapolating on what I’ve read on this blog and others. But in one of the later books don’t we get just the subtlest of comments from LF that almost amount to an admission of whispering the idea in Joffrey’s ear? This ringing any bells for anyone else?

      • It’s possible, but I’m a bit skeptical – he’d hardly say it to Tyrion, and he’d definitely not be saying to Sansa given how much time he’s putting into grooming her.

      • kylelitke says:

        I don’t recall that, but I think Varys hints at it. He implies that this wasn’t a spur of the moment decision (by pointing out that Slynt and Payne acted instantly, as if they already knew it was coming). And then there’s the conversation about the riddle he posed to Tyrion:

        “Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”

        Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”

        Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

        “So power is a mummer’s trick?”

        “A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

        Seperated from the rest, his last comment could be taken as Varys speaking of Tyrion, a small man who can cast a large shadow, but he’s talking about Stark’s death when this comes up. Makes me think he knows (or suspects) that Littlefinger was behind it.

      • lann says:

        What originally made me think that it was LF’s work was what he told Sansa on how he gave Joffrey the idea to hire the jousting dwarves for his wedding. I instantly thought a similar method might have been used to shorten Ned by a head.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it.

  2. Great work here, both on this post and on all previous ones.

    One thing that always occurred to me was that Ned was always meant to die, and that the Lannisters never had any intention of letting him get to the wall. But that the original scheme had been for Yoren and Co to be overtaken on the road and slain by “brigands”, this would have given the Lannisters plausible deniability, whilst at the same time ensuring that Ned kept silent. The Steps of Baelor surprise party merely took that deniability away from them.

    Ned knew too much to live, whether he wore black or not.

    • Nah. That doesn’t work – if Ned dies on the road, that doesn’t do anything to deal with Robb Stark’s army. Maybe they’d try to have him killed later, at Castle Black, but I doubt it. If Ned Stark is honorable enough to do what he’s done that Cersei’s personally witnessed, I think she’d buy he’d keep schtum with his daughter as a hole card.

  3. Sean C. says:

    Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince/
    And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

    As far as what ifs go, an odd one that only became “possible” after reading “A Storm of Swords” is what if Arya had been noticed by Barristan Selmy, who was also in the crowd that day. It’s as likely as her being noticed by Yoren.

    On the issue of Littlefinger’s, in general I agree, but I think widowing Catelyn is unlikely to be much of a consideration at this point. Unlike the show version, I don’t think the book Littlefinger is that hung up on the actual Catelyn — she grew up, his dreams didn’t (hence, Sansa, who’s a much better fit for the vision he had for all those years). Also, after this incident, it’s unlikely that even he imagines he’d realistically have a shot.

    • All true, but as Steve has commented before, for all his scheming on bigger events LF shows a profound willingness to roll the dice on petty personal vendettas.

      I still think that one of the big keys in the next books will be to get any further hint on what does LF actually desire. Say what you will about every other conspirator from Varys all the way down to Pycelle, but at least they all have some sort of goal in mind even if it’s just advancing their team. By the end of ADWD LF has acheived most of his major vengences, has Sansa…yet he just keeps looking for loose strings to pull. What is the Big Win in his mind?

    • That’s a good what if. I don’t know if Selmy would take her to Dany, though. He’d probably want to get her on a ship to Winterfell first.

      My working theory on BookLittlefinger is that he’s hung up on the actualCatelyn but in a weird way where he simultaneously wants to be with her (because in his mind they’re lovers) and punish her (for choosing Brandon over him) – whereas Sansa is less complicated because he can make her the perfect 16-year old Catelyn doll he’s always wanted.

      • Sean C. says:

        Selmy hadn’t decided to go to Dany at this point in the story (as he tells it, anyway, he made that decision praying after Ned’s death). If he’d met Arya, he might have focused on an entirely different mission in the short-term — which would have had pretty significant consequences for Dany.

      • kylelitke says:

        I agree on BookLittlefinger. I think that’s also why sometimes he seems like he wants Sansa to be his daughter (because, you know, her mother was his lover) and the rest of the time he obviously wants HER to be his lover (almost as a “replacement” for Catelyn, who as you said, he seems to want to punish her).

  4. Maybe this is far more commonplace and I’m just not reading the right stuff, but I find Martin’s use of misinformation as a plot device very effective and refreshing.

    I’ve certainly seen it used in various doses throughout literature. The entire genre of Mystery dosn’t exist without it, but that genre depends on a large portion of the “Truth” being eventually revealed to at least our protagonist and the reader. However Martin seems to be very effective at recognizing how much of the events of the world (ours or Westeros, past or present) are shaped by what we *don’t* know or by what we *think* we know.

    This chapter is just the first of many where we get a view of how the Small Folk piece together scraps of ‘news’ and try to peirce through the approved messages of those in power. I believe we’ve already had a couple references in recent chapters to the wildly fluctating numbers of armies in the field. And we’ve already had a few scenes, but ACOK has some of my favorite examples of Varys showing how powerful rumor and half-truths can be. Several of his scenes in the next book remind me of the line from Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, “I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”

    Random Thought: Can anyone think of another scene where we have this many POV characters [Arya, Ned, Sansa, later on Cersi], yet as best I can tell not one of them communicates with any of the others the entire time?

  5. Littlefinger is actually the worst, even worse than Joffrey. I don’t think we learnt until ADWD that he asked to marry Sansa (because of course he did), although for some reason I thought he did this after Ned died. I guess I forgot about how he was already creeping on Sansa back when Ned was alive and well. I don’t know that Cersei really could have done anything to prevent this in the moment though – it all seemed to happen pretty quickly. At least she’s smart enough to know how stupid this was.

    It’s obviously awful for Arya, but at least someone covered her eyes. No one did that for Sansa – she just had to watch her dad’s head get chopped off. I never thought about it as an inversion of their character arcs before though.

    Because this chapter was always so much about Ned’s death, I never really appreciated how this chapter introduces Arya’s POV as a means to see the plight of the smallfolk. Or that Arya was ALREADY being sexually threatened.

    • I think both Joffrey and Littlefinger have signs of psychopathic personalities – the difference is that Littlefinger is intelligent and organized, whereas Joffrey is undisciplined and not bright.

    • David Hunt says:

      “I don’t know that Cersei really could have done anything to prevent this in the moment though”

      She could have walked up to Ser Ilyn and said “As Queen Regent, I command you to stand down.” I think the fact that she didn’t do this may have something to do with the way that she’s internalized the role of women in patriarchal Westeros. She still thinks that her role is to rule through others even though she now has formal authority.

      • Agreed. Although it very much goes against her actions in ACOK and AFFC, I can see how her internalized misogyny would impede her at that moment, before the shocks of losing the major male figures in her life shake her out of it.

      • Winnie says:

        Good point, David…legally she had the power to stop it, but it just didn’t occur to her she could.

        Then, there’s Tywin, who legally wouldn’t have had the power, but in practice, would have just said, “The King is overheated, and speaking out of turn,-headsman put away your sword,” and nobody would have dared contradict him.

      • beto2702 says:

        Not sure Joffrey would have liked that either… wonder how would he he had reacted if defied like that in public by her mother.

      • beto2702 says:

        Joffrey can act outside. Remember that we suspect of him as trying to kill Bran and trying to kill Tyrion. What if Joffrey sends someone to kill Ned after the audience, in private.

      • Meereenese Liberation Front says:

        Openly using her authority would mean a massive public humiliation of the king. I think it’s pretty much in character for Cersei not to undermine her son’s rule in that way.

      • kylelitke says:

        I agree that Cersei openly stopping Joffrey undermines his rule, which is not a good thing. However, I think there were plenty of ways to stop this without completely undermining Joffrey. Here’s one…order Payne and Slynt to take Ned away and announce that he won’t be killed on the steps of the Great Sept, implying he’ll be killed elsewhere so as not to make Joffrey look bad; then, once she has time to convince Joffrey otherwise (or not, if she wants to leave him out of it), she can announce they have decided to show mercy and he will take the Black. It’s far from an ideal situation, but it allows Joffrey to save face while not killing Ned.

        Or she could have just flat out ordered it stopped and worried about fixing the situation for Joffrey later. He has a ways to go before he’s actually in power.

      • Agreed – I feel like this is an easy criticism to make in hindsight though. Yes, Cersei could have prevented it, but I feel like sometimes crazy shit happens and things get away from you. Killing Ned really is super dumb on so many levels, and not just because I really wanted him to go to the Wall and see Jon again and have awesome father-son bonding time 😦

      • MightyIsobel says:

        Great observation. I like that ASoIaF is full of moments where the rigid gender roles of Westerosi society drive people into actions and inactions that bring globally terrible results. It’s not that misogyny is bad for women, it’s that objectified women and violent men are bad for everybody.

  6. Sean C. says:

    Also, in light of the next two books, it’s really weird to remember that Arya has only five chapters here (partly this can be accounted for by her still be present in other POVs, but not nearly all).

  7. priddy says:

    Dear Steven,

    I have been expecting the analysis of chapter ARYA V for some time now, and I haven’t been dissapointed. Special Thanks that you didn’t focus entirely on Ned’s execution and analysied Arya’s time in King’s Landing. Many fans hate Sansa for her naivety, but overlook that while Arya may be more independent and rebellious than her older sister, she too has only limited experience about the real world.
    The theory that Littlefinger planted the idea of Stark’s death into Joffrey is very interessting. Your argumentation has been flawless. Unfortunatley, untill we get confirmation by Martin, it will remain speculation, because this impulsive act would fit Joffrey’s character. Not only is he a textbook-perfect sociopath with a taste for cruelty, he is at the same time a young boy who is trying to live up to the twisted notion he has about the man, whom he believes was his father. In Joffrey’s mind, having a confessed traitor executed in front of all of King’s Landing – on the steps of the Great Sept none the less – might be excatly what Robert Baratheon would have done. Of course, Lord Baelish could have easily put the idea in Joffrey’s head. It would have probably been very easy, no more than a sentence like “Your father would never have allowed a traitor to live”, but untill we know for sure … speculation.

    • Celestial says:

      Yes, but Steve is right when pointing out that there are strong hints that LF suggested it to Joffrey. You have to consider that all the other power players, the HS, Cersei and Varys, are trying to stop Joff and, anyway, are in complete shock at this sudden turn of events. Only LF seems unaffected. Having in mind that Cersei mentioned later in ACOK that LF had been involved in the negotiations to have Ned take the black, LF’s calm behaviour points out that he likely instrumented this “coup”.

      • Scott Trotter says:

        The only reference to Littlefinger is this chapter is this: “[…] she thought the short man with the silvery cape and pointed beard might be the one who had once fought a duel for Mother.” Nowhere in this chapter does it say that Littlefinger seems unaffected. Nowhere in this chapter does it say that Littlefinger is behaving calmly. Perhaps these statements are made in some later chapter which looks back on the execution. If so, I would appreciate it if someone could provide a reference. Thx.

        • It’s more an absence than anything else – everyone else on the dias freaks out; Cersei, Varys, the High Septon, etc. But not LF.

          • Scott Trotter says:

            It occurred to me late last night what it is that sets off my alarm bell: conclusions based on speculation. In this case, the facts are that various members of the Small Council are reacting to Joffrey’s proclamation, but nothing at all is said about what Littlefinger is doing. The speculation is that because Littlefinger isn’t described as reacting the same way everyone else is, he therefore must be calm and unaffected. The conclusion is that because he is calm and unaffected, Littlefinger must be behind the execution, having suggested it to Joffrey sometime earlier. That conclusion is certainly plausible, its just not supported by the text.

          • It’s supported by other textual elements as well – Janos Slynt clearly knew ahead of time, and he’s LF’s man.

          • Scott Trotter says:

            So Varys would have us believe (ACOK, Tyrion II).

          • Slynt himself confirms that he knew ahead of time.

  8. lastofthegiants says:

    “Clearly, Ned Stark’s survival is not a major objective for him – if it was, he could have smuggled Ned out of the dungeons easily days earlier”

    No way. Varys is immediately suspected after Tyrion escapes, Littlefinger especially would have known it was him. Freeing Ned would have perhaps completely undermined Varys position at court and definitely revealed his moves to at least Littlefinger.

  9. WPA says:

    “Forget it, Jake. It’s King’s Landing”

    Love the mention of Clifford the Anthropologist- Martin seems to be very good at constructing folk ideology in the midst of his writing, really fleshes out his worlds and societies.

    The “Ned Takes the Black” has to be one of the most far-reaching “What Ifs” of the entire series (particularly if you believe the Wall plot is the crucial one). I agree that Ned almost certainly arrives at the Wall either in the aftermath of the “Great Ranging” or during its progress- almost Providentially from the perspective of the surviving Brothers. Arguably the most qualified Lord Commander candidate in centuries, and an honest-to-Old Gods Stark to boot, shows up with the watch in a jam and all. From there, who knows how he handles the politics of the watch, Wildlings, possibility of Stannis showing up, etc? How does he utilize Jon,, Sam, Aemon et al? I’d presume if nothing else his Lord Paramount experience would allow him greater credibility with the Watch for pretty much anything, and he’d handle the “public relations” element of his leadership better than his….um…blood relative? Jon. Fun thought experiment anyway.

    Though I never considered that Ned swears by the Seven here, does that mean the Old-Gods-holding Eddard had given himself an out once North?

    • Sean C. says:

      Slynt would have been thrilled to arrive at the Wall to find Ned waiting for him, I’m sure.

    • Yeah – I think Eddard easily holds the Wall. I think he uses Jon as his number 2, Sam as research man, Aemon he tells about Jon’s heritage, etc.

      But I think the religious thing is a tell.

      • Sean C. says:

        I don’t think Ned is the kind of guy who would use that kind of weasel-word approach.

        And if he made this deal to save Sansa’s life, breaking it would just get her killed anyway, since she’s not going with him.

      • WPA says:

        Presumably if he heads North he does so with Yoren’s bunch- including, improbably, Arya. Odds are word of the Whispering Wood reaches and now Ned knows that the Starks have Jamie while the Lannisters have only one daughter.

        That makes a favorable Stark deal more doable. Either a one to one swap or even getting Tywin/ Cersai to reinstate Ned as part of a truce once Stannis/Renly take the field. I assume Ned’s not officially in The Black till he takes the official oath.

      • Sean C. says:

        There’s no way the Lannisters would have just let him trundle his way up to the Wall with Yoren. They’d have sent him by boat under guard, like Tyrion later does with Slynt.

    • lann says:

      A question about this What if?. If Ned Stark was to go to the wall, would they have sent him on a ship or would he have gone with Yoren? I think the former more likely (possibly Yoren and his crew would be invited along) but if its the latter it is very likely that Ned is killed in Amory Loach’s attack.

  10. Ben Richardson says:

    Per your recommendation, I am now reading Alison Weir’s “The Wars of the Roses.” This incident, shortly after the Battle of St. Alban’s, must surely have influenced GRRM when conceiving Ned Stark’s demise. Bonville and Kyriell, mentioned below, had been guarding Henry VI when he was hostage to the Yorkists.

    “There then followed a more macabre ceremony. Bonville and Kyriell were brought before the King, Queen, and Prince to be sentence. In view of Henry’s promise of mercy they expected to be dealt with leniently, for they had behaved honorably towards him throughout. But the Queen, intervening before her husband could say anything, turned to the Prince and said ‘Fair son, what death shall these two knights die?’ There was a shocked hush as the child answered, ‘Let them have their heads taken off.’ Bonville, appalled, retorted ‘May God destroy those who taught thee this manner of speech!.'”

    • Winnie says:

      And of course Margaret Anjou outlived her, (allegedly bloodthirsty bastard) son only to die in exile, in a state of relative poverty, having lost all influence. Yep, definitely some counterpoints there.

      • Yeah…I wouldn’t go betting on Cersei any time soon.

      • Andrew says:

        I think Cersei will find herself in a similar state at the end with her children dead, much of her sanity lost, destitute after the fall of CR (likely to Tyrion and Dany), and her beauty having been damaged by all the drinking and the effects of madness, and no friends left like Urragon Badbrother.

    • Yeah. Prince Edward of Lancaster is very much a starting point for Joffrey. Throw in a bit of Caligula and I think you’re good to go.

      • John says:

        Great post, as usual. Thanks for the reference to my earlier comment. Just to clarify, I wasn’t arguing that Martin doesn’t deconstruct fantasy tropes at all. I just think there’s a lot of fans who think he’s much more radical than he actually is. I was particularly reacting to the idea that “nobody is safe” or that “Martin never does what you expect him to do,” expressed by a lot of fans, usually as a way of explaining why normal dramatic logic doesn’t apply in ASOIAF, which I don’t think is really true at all.

        That’s not to say that Martin doesn’t play around with the conventions of high fantasy – he obviously does.

        In terms of specific content here, what happens if things go according to Cersei’s plan and Ned *is* with Yoren’s group is actually pretty fascinating. Assuming that things basically go the same in terms of them being attacked by Amory Lorch, does Ned escape with Arya and the boys? Does he get killed in the fight? Does Lorch recognize him and capture him? Does this affect what happens to Arya and Gendry (and Hot Pie)? Obviously Ned knows who Gendry is – does that change anything? Does Ned end up Tywin’s prisoner in Harrenhal?

      • I gotcha. And yeah, there are a HUGE number of directions for this to go if Ned lives. But art is about making choices.

  11. beto2702 says:

    What if… Arya died… but not only died but killed by Joffrey’s orders too like her father… with Ned still alive…

    It is possible, if she had acted sooner and reached them. If she had attempted on Joffrey’s life publicly then is quite possible.

  12. Andrew says:

    Another excellent job.

    I guess the smallfolk showing wild approval for Ned’s death helps with the deconstruction of the tropes of peasants in fantasy and fiction; in a way showing that they are fallible human beings subject to things like ignorance.

    Ned has only been to KL once before, and didn’t venture south often except in the Greyjoy Rebellion, so the smallfolk of KL didn’t have much opportunity to form much of a public image of Ned like Renly, etc.

    As for LF’s behavior during the execution, even Sansa notices his lack of reaction later on, and Slynt moved to push Eddard down as if he had been expecting it, although Slynt probably could have been eager in acting as the loyal lackey to the king. He nods in approval to every harsh punishment Joffrey delivers.

    As for Sansa, this pretty much signals the destruction of the dream world she had been living in, and the beginning of her nightmare world.

  13. ericd19 says:

    Well done on the analysis, I really like it, however I just have one comment to make:

    As a devoted fan and perhaps amateur literary scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien, I have to object to the comment about the “reflexive anti-modernism” being a problem of Tolkien or a problem that Tolkien caused. Tolkien was a dedicated medievalist who was well aware of the nitty gritty uncomfortable details of history. In his works, he provides a deliberate contrast between the modern (The hobbits) and the ancient (The rest of Middle-earth), and he consistently shows the modern to be safer, more comfortable, more peaceful and preferable in many ways. The hobbits represent modernity as Tolkien knew it, and they and their life style is the closest thing to a utopia in any Tolkien writings.

    What Tolkien was against was over-industrialization and the degradations and destruction brought with it. Given his life experiences, can you really blame him? Industry never brought Tolkien any joy. It ate up the English countrysides he loved, it killed all of his friends in the trenches of the Great War, it nearly killed him and left him in trauma.

    And I would further object to the unspoken idea that Tolkien glosses over the uncomfortable and the unpleasant. I agree that G.R.R.M. focuses a lot more on the commoners and their lot in lofe, but G.R.R.M. is also telling a very different story than Tolkien. Tolkien certainly features suffering, the whole of Frodo and Sam’s story from the breaking of the Fellowship onwards is an extended incident of the sufferings and depredations of war.

    “But EricD!” you might say, “What about Aragorn’s story? With the shining of the mail and the blowing of the horns and the bright banners?”

    Yes that’s all there, but it’s ultimately a distraction in the narrative. Frodo and Sam do the real work that defeats Sauron, and their story is not a glorious one. They go through misery and fear and horror to defeat Sauron. Aragorn gets all the “glorious” parts of war, but even in those chapters there are always extended sections about the death and the loss and the sorrow. Both the Battle of the Hornburg and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields end with the victors burying their dead and mourning.

    And for all of Aragorn’s glory, it is the little hobbits that suffer the most and do the real heroism. Something that many critiques of Tolkien often miss, in my opinion. Just because Tolkien didn’t include long chapters on the daily struggles of commoners doesn’t mean he was blind to the uncomfortable, unpleasant or awful facts of life in that world. The type of story he was telling was just a different one than what G.R.R.M. is telling.

    Anyways, this blog is amazing, it’s one of my favourites on the Internet. I just wanted to put my two cents in about the differences of Tolkien and Martin 🙂

    • Tom Willcox says:

      Flipping brilliant post. Tolkien kicks ass. I take it you have read J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey?

      • ericd19 says:

        I am actually reading it right now, haha, it’s an excellent examination of Tolkien’s works. I do like GRRM a lot, and Attwell’s analysis of him is what keeps me coming back to this awesome blog, but I still think Tolkien is the greatest talent fantasy literature has yet seen.

    • Mmmmm…I don’t agree. I don’t think the Hobbits represent modernity as J.R.R Tolkein would have thought of it. The Shire is an idealized Home Counties countryside populated by the propertied middle class- that’s England’s past, not England’s present. It’s not the cities where working people lived, it’s sure as hell not the world of the rural poor.

      And it’s not the “uncomfortable and the unpleasant” that I’m taxing Tolkein with ignoring, it’s the realities of historical backwardness. The stink of people who don’t wash because they didn’t have running water, and the public health crises that comes with the lack of indoor plumbing or modern medicine, animal waste all over the place because we hadn’t yet invented machines to replace working animals, etc. And behind it all, systematized human inequality that Tolkein and Walter Scott and the rest of those romantics were desperately pretending didn’t exist or if it did, was ordained by nature.

      I give Martin a hell of a lot of credit for pointing out in his narrative that the idea of a Rightful King is abhorrent.

      • ericd19 says:

        The Home Counties countryside populated by the propertied middle class WAS England’s present though, for Tolkien anyways. The man was born in 1892 and his formative years were a product of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. If you look at the speech patterns, behaviours, and attitudes of hobbits, they’re very obviously English middle class people of the 1890s-1940s, the twilight of the Victorian age you might say. Compare that to the rest of Middle-earth, which is very clearly a very ancient world based upon the European “Dark Ages”, a world that would not have been unfamiliar to the Beowulf-poet or the writers of the Norse sagas. The Shire is obviously an anachronism, a pocket of modernity amongst the ancientness of the rest of Middle-earth, and the Shire is consistently a safer, more comfortable, more homely, more friendly, nicer place than the rest of its world. Indeed the Shire has to be SAVED from the rest of the ancient world when Saruman invades it at the end, a force from the ancient world turning the pleasant modernity of the Shire into a modernity far more alike to a 1930s dictatorship than the transplanted 1930s England which the Shire originally was.

        Secondly, look at the literary tradition which Tolkien tries to create with the Lord of the Rings. The conceit he was working under was that his stories were in fact translations from actual ancient stories, recorded in the Red Book of Westmarch, much like one today might read a translation of Beowulf. Does the Beowulf-poet remark upon the lack of running water or the stink of people or the omnipresent animal waste? No, those were simply the facts of life as he knew it. I don’t doubt a man with the scholarly chops of Tolkien was ignorant of the basic facts, but rather that those facts were not necessary for the story he was telling. If the Lord of the Rings and other Middle-earth stories were intended to replicate a real tradition from a real ancient world, would they talk about the things you mention? Probably not. Beowulf, the Arthurian cycles, the Song of Roland, none of these things mention the stink and the sickness and the inequalities, because that was just the life they lived in. Since Tolkien was trying to emulate such stories and trying to make his own version of them, I don’t exactly discredit him for failing to make a Marxist critique of feudal power structures or some damn thing. That was not the type of story he was telling. His story was about good, evil, corruption, courage, loss and sorrow, not about social inequalities. And that’s okay, not every story set in a medieval world needs to be a Martin-esque social critique of a medieval world.

        And furthermore, I don’t think Martin is really saying that the idea of a Rightful King is abhorrent, or indeed that Tolkien was all for it either. It especially doesn’t hold up when one looks at the whole corpus of Middle-earth stories. Thorin Oakenshield was the rightful heir of the Dwarf-kingdom, yet he was proud, greedy, stubborn and avaricious, nearly causes a needless war with the Wood-elves and the men of Dale and in the end only admits on his deathbed that his ways have been wrong. Feanor was rightful King of the Noldor Elves, yet his pride and wrath would in the end bring the Elves into an endless war with no hope of victory and caused the ruin of countless lives of elves and men. Turin Turambar was rightful heir to his lands of Dor-lomin, yet he never restores his lordship and he too brings ruin to Nargothrond and Brethil and his whole house through his deep personal flaws. Numenor and Gondor both had many kings with rightful claims to the throne who were weak, ill-fitted, wicked, proud or false. The kings and lords that are truly good in Middle-earth are the ones with the strength of character to choose goodness over greatness, and they are rare indeed. There is an Old English proverb about how power reveals character, and that is the point Tolkien was working from. His Good Kings, like Aragorn, are not good because they are kings, they hold on to their goodness despite being kings. On the other hand, there are many, many, many monarchs in Middle-earth who become proud and cruel and very awful indeed, one might even say Sauron himself was such a monarch. Tolkien’s political ideal, if he has one, tends to be more like the Shire: Voluntary orderliness with a minimum of coercive force.

        I mean I appreciate what Martin is doing with his extended critique of the tropes and cliches of the genre, and his more more in-depth, socially-minded vision of an ancient world. He’s doing something different and it’s great in a lot of ways. I think the fantasy genre needs more writers like Martin, more willing to engage with such things and take more risks. But I also love Tolkien. I wish fantasy writers would stop reflexively ripping off Tolkien, because they never manage to emulate the same depth, thoughtfulness or effort that Tolkien brought to his world. They rip off the surface dressings without grasping the deeper material and process that made it the way that it is.Tolkien is wonderful, Tolkienesque is awful.

        • I really don’t think it’s “modernity” – the whole point of the aesthetic of the Home Counties in that period is that basically their look hadn’t changed in hundreds of years compared to the rapidly changing industrial cities of England. And I think the fact that the Shires have to be saved from industrialization speaks to an anti-modernism, a fear of technology and change.

          I really disagree that ancient sources don’t speak of inequalities and discontent with their own societies. Take Hesiod – one of the oldest known writers in the Western canon. He wrote at length about class inequality, especially as it related to the administration of justice.

          I would argue that a lot of the subtext of ACOK is an extended critique on the idea of a Rightful King, or that elite “good guys” are actually good. Hence “they lay with lions,” hence Roose Bolton as Lord of Harrenhal. I would point out that Tolkein’s good kings are Destined to be kings, have the right of descent, etc.

          While we’re on the topic, I just want to throw out Terry Pratchett’s corpus as doing the great demolition job on the reactionary politics of the fantasy genre.

      • ericd19 says:

        Wow, I just realized how that was way, way, way too many words on this subject, haha.

        I suppose what I am saying is that Tolkien and Martin are apples and oranges, who do different literary things for different reasons and for different purposes, but both are ultimately quite worthwhile to read in their own ways.

      • blacky says:

        Strange how people turn a blithe eye towards all things royal even here in the US. Thanks for this fantastic point. Funny that people think they’ll find freedom by giving away their agency to their ‘betters’. (See political campaigns and the yearning for the strongman.)

  14. Tom Willcox says:

    @EricD Yes, this blog is amazing, it has really got me into the Wars of the Roses as well. I think Tolkien is doing different things in some aspects, and tries to make points about the nature of evil in a different manner, whereas GRRM tries other stuff.

    • ericd19 says:

      Well I think Tolkien is more interested in the nature of evil in the metaphysical sense. Tolkien is more interested in where evil comes from and how good people can be tempted into evil and how evil can be resisted by good without good becoming evil in turn. Like many of the authors of the 20th century, we went through a traumatic experience that gave him a brutal and direct look into the evil of the hearts of men when he fought in the Great War, and so his literature was very concerned with evil.

      Martin, I think, isn’t so interested in the nature of evil as Tolkien is. Martin is more about the effects of evil. He doesn’t spend much time wondering why Joffrey or Littlefinger or Aerys or Gregor Clegane are the way that they are, he’s more about what they do to others and how others endure that suffering. Tolkien is interested in good people being drawn into evil (Boromir, Saruman, even Gollum was a humble hobbit before the Ring), whereas Martin is more interested in evil things happening to good people.

      At least that’s the principal thematic difference I think.

  15. kylelitke says:

    Great stuff as usual.

    I’ve always felt Littlefinger was behind Ned’s death. Varys implies that someone else besides Joffrey may have been behind it to Tyrion, and Littlefinger seems to have the most to gain. Didn’t GRRM imply once (outside of the books) that there was something between Littlefinger and Joffrey as well? I forget, but I seem to remember seeing that somewhere.

    Good catch on what Ned swore to. My gut is honorable Ned wouldn’t have broken his word, not just because of who he is, but because I do think he would have taken the Black…even if he felt he could get around revealing Joffrey’s true parentage based on the way he swore his vow (which I’m not sure he would have done), but I don’t think he would agree to take the Black and then bail out, even if he tried to justify it. And if he does take the Black, well, he’s not supposed to get involved with the Realm anymore (although, of course, he could send a letter before he officially takes the Black). There are ways for Ned to justify it, but I’m not sure Ned would have done that. Of course, all that said, as you correctly pointed out, he heads north with Yoren’s group. That might actually change the outcome of the Yoren storyline, though. I wonder if, knowing what Ned knows, Cersei would have just handed Ned over to Yoren and sent them off. I have to imagine she’d either commission a ship to send them north with her people on it, or send guards with them to ensure Ned makes it north without trying to flee (or to ensure he doesn’t stop somewhere to send some letters about what he knows). This would mean Yoren likely doesn’t get killed at all, and the whole group (perhaps with Arya, perhaps not, since it’s much more dangerous hiding her if there are guards all around) makes it to the Wall.

    Couldn’t agree more on the Baelor change. I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the changes in the show (although it hasn’t stopped me from loving the show), but I thought this one was fantastic.

    • Oh, I think he probably would have taken the Black anyway, out of guilt and shame over having failed Robert.

      But I think he would have spoken out about what he knew before he took the oath.

  16. David Hunt says:


    I greatly enjoy reading this blog, so I’m quite happy that you are at it more regularly. Odd how the pace picked up almost immediately after that PhD announcement….

    But seriously, it’s been my impression that you enjoy writing about it at least as much as I enjoy reading it, so I’m glad you have the time for it again. I especially enjoy your interpretation of the political conspiracies that are hidden in the background, being executed by players that whose heads we are not allowed to look into. It is usually not my nature to see these things in my own reading, so I like getting the benefit of your insights as well as the other commenters here. Even those that I strongly disagree with. Thanks for doing this.

    p.s. Yes, giving Ned the moral victory that even going to his death, he managed, with one word, to exercise agency and have a direct hand in the saving of his daughter means a lot. It’s a change that I am quite content with. Of course, I saw the first season of the show before I ever picked up the books, so that feels like the “original” version in my guts, but I still think the reasoning holds.

    • scarlett45 says:

      I am late to the party, BUT I have to state- David I agree with everything you have said. Thank you Steven for all of your hard work on the blog. I too was a “watcher” before I was a “reader” and hearing Ned state “Baelor” to Yoren damn near made me cry. He was able to know his daughter was safe, I have to think that made his death a little easier.

  17. Abbey Battle says:

    Please allow me to compliment you on an analysis as fascinating as ever Maester Steven; for a chapter that didn’t quite have the same impact on me as it’s Moving Picture adaption it’s still very easy to see the events depicted therein as the point where the pebbles hit the point of no return and the avalanche REALLY starts thundering beyond the snow line.

    I would also like to say that while I’m a bit on the fence when it comes to ‘Rightful Kings’ I do believe that in a pre-Modern society there WAS such a thing as the Right King – as in ‘The Right Man for the Job’ such as Henry VII or Charles II (if the latter strikes you as a peculiar choice, consider what might have befallen Old England if James II and VII has ascended to the throne of his father, rather than his brother … ).

    I must also say that while I remain quite fond of Sir Terry Pratchett’s work I remain more fond of Professor Tolkien’s (I’d argue The Hobbit has almost as much satire in it as any work of Sir Pterry’s and a good deal more FUN than many), especially since the esteem in which I held the former was cooled almost to freezing point by his depiction of a librarian who fully intended to place The Bible in the ‘Fantasy’ section.

    I can only consider this a joke in extremely poor taste, albeit entirely in keeping with what I understand of his own philosophy; in all courtesy and as someone who works part-time as guard-dog for a local library I would have suggested ‘Folklore and Mythology’ as a somewhat less crude jab at the more literal-minded of my fellow Christians.

    Ahem, my apologies for raising the topic; I am willing to let it drop.

    • ericd19 says:

      Well one of the things about “Rightful Kings” in Tolkien that people always seem to forget is that their bloodlines don’t make them righteous kings. Their bloodlines might give a legitimate claim to kingship, but its moral character that makes you a good king in Tolkien’s world, and a lack of moral character that makes you a bad one. It was legally rightful kings with wholly legitimate claims in Numenor that turned the Numenoreans towards pride and wickedness and began to persecute the Faithful and oppress the peoples of Middle-earth. Aragorn might have been able to become King of Gondor because he was Elendil’s heir, but it was his moral strength of character, his will to goodness, that made him a morally good king.

  18. Petyr Patter says:

    I can’t find a source for it, but the quote is “Better to look strong and stupid than weak, smart, and divided.” I think a better explanation for Cersei’s failure to act is not wanting to embarrass herself and the king in front of a very large audience. A lack of confidence in her authority might also explain this, but she later appears to have no lack of confidence once Tywin dies and she once again assumes full power of the Regency over Tommen.

    So, once the command for an execution went out, it was “we have always been at war with Eastasia.” To do otherwise, would have gotten a crowd, which also included some of the nobility in King’s Landing wondering what the heck was going on.

  19. Abbey Battle says:

    That is actually a fairly cogent point and at least partly explains The Queen Regents’ somewhat uncharacteristically mild reaction to seeing a major pillar of her policy cut down, head severed from the neck, after a fit of enthusiasm from her own beloved son whom one can only suspect had endured repeated bouts of affection from his mother intended to smother anything approaching individual initiative in that golden head of his.

    On the other hand it just shows how fragile The Queen’s grip on power (not to mention her own SON) is even at this high point of her independence, also how little influence she exercises over those that should be loyal agents of The Crown.

  20. empire25 says:

    “suffering isn’t ennobling, it’s just suffering. The hunger and physical danger that Arya will experience in ACOK and ASOS doesn’t make her stronger, or build character, or make her “closer to the earth” in some New Agey way – it’s trauma that no one should experience, let alone romanticize.”

    Agreed!! I am not really adding anything with this comment, but this consistent theme of the books cuts against far too much of popular culture and even to some extant actual real life conventional wisdom. The fact that Martin takes this on is what turned me from someone who just enjoyed the books into a genuine fan.

  21. hertolo says:

    Being late to the party, I just have one small little tidbit to add. It’s “cui bono”, not “qui bono”, I’m quite sure of that. (And now I hate myself for being so nitpicky to having to correct latin grammar ;))

    You’re really picking up pace if you can write those blog entries faster than I can read them. Good job.

  22. Roger says:

    I liked this chapter and I liked the series. The only thing I disliked is Ser Illyn puting a mask. The mask is due to hide the executer’s face. But doing it in front of everybody? Kind of reveling your “secret id”. Also being the King’s Justice means being a PUBLIC servant. Like being the Shogun’s executer in Lone wold and cub. A source of pride, not something to conceil.

    • It very much depends on cultural attitudes about death – for example, the tradition in England is for the Executioner to be a public office, indeed more than a few royal executioners have become celebrities (Jack Ketch, for example). However, there was still the sensibility that there was something wrong about it – hence the wearing of a mask, of ceremonially asking to be forgiven before the act, and of being paid by the victim, to make the act less personal and less like a murder. Likewise, it used to be customary for a judge handing down a death sentence to put a black cloth over their wig, as a token of the hood they once would have worn.

  23. Roger says:

    Eddard believes in the Old Gods. But being raised in the Eyre and married to a devout woman, he probably believes the new Gods exists, too. He even build a sept inside Winterfell (with Septon Chayle). So swearing for the Seven is something serious for him.

  24. […] that will carry through Arya’s story from now to TWOW. Following on from Arya’s last chapter in AGOT, there is the theme of the constant danger that faces anyone who falls on the less powerful side of […]

  25. […] Arya V (Arya encounters poverty, the power of rumor, the execution of Ned Stark) […]

  26. […] the death of Ned Stark is the major shock of A Game of Thrones,  and the Red Wedding is the major shock of A Storm of […]

  27. […] the same time, we’re also learning a lot about the power and limitations of rumor as a factor in intelligence work. On the one hand, Varys’ intelligence is incredibly […]

  28. […] interesting to see the breakdown of loyalty – even after Joffrey’s thoughtless execution of Eddard Stark plunged the kingdom into war, even after Joffrey’s wanton murder of their neighbors, there […]

  29. […] variously died, were captured, and simply disappeared. Especially for a child who has just recently lost her father, we get the sense of a developing abandonment complex. To free these prisoners, to exert her will […]

  30. […] Third and finally, this is also another instance where we see Sansa getting to be angry, which is good to see and yet again proof that she remains a Stark. However, it also complicates Sansa’s relationship with the Faith of the Seven. On the one hand, as we’ll see in Sansa V, she participates in and seems to believe in the Faith although not without some questions and misgivings, something else she shares with her mother. On the other hand, as we’ll see in ASOS, Sansa also has a strong connection to the Old Gods, and spends far more time praying in the godswood than she ever does in the sept – even if she doesn’t go to this extent of wanting Westeros’ equivalent of St. Paul’s Cathedral to burn to the ground. Given the association between the Great Sept and her father’s death, it’s not surprising that her feelings are somewhat more complicated than your typical child of a mixed-religion marriage, but it is something to keep an eye on if and when Sansa makes oaths to the Seven given her family’s history. […]

  31. […] be that this is what Cersei might have thought later, as her weakness when it comes to reacting to unexpected circumstances might have left her silent in the moment, only to recapture logic in l’esprit […]

  32. […] is the second time that Arya has lost family members to a violent death (or at least so she believes), and it won’t be the last. And while the […]

  33. John says:

    Please don’t take what I’m about to say as an argument for the ‘Ned Stark is really alive’ theory. That outcome would be cheesy and no sane reader would want to ruin GRRM’s fiction with cheesiness. But I do think that Yoren’s exhortation ‘Don’t look!’ is significant coming so soon after Arya’s recollection (just a page before) of Syrio’s advice to see what is really there. ‘Don’t look’ does not just connect with Syrio’s advice in ‘Arya 4’ but links right back to chapter one and that other beheading when Jon told Bran NOT to avert his eyes, since Lord Eddard would want him to look and will know if he doesn’t. Yoren’s exhortation to ‘don’t look’ is entirely understandable but it contradicts both Jon’s (and Ned’s) advice to Bran and Syrio’s advice to Arya. So I am wondering just what Arya might have seen if she had looked. Let me reiterate: I am not making a loony argument for Ned’s magical escape (even though his severed head looks nothing like him in the next Sansa chapter). But I am saying there was something to be seen for someone (like Arya) who has the eyes to see it.

  34. […] far more than any defect of character) trying to survive by any means necessary. As I’ve said before one of the best moves that GRRM makes is that he doesn’t romanticize the smallfolk as […]

  35. […] Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie will shortly emerge from their sojourn in the wilderness of anarchy and abandonment by adults into some kind of society again, the chapter opens with a semi-feral group of […]

  36. […] his normal majority in order to deal with Ned Stark, and then completely failed to establish her authority as Regent in the aftermath. Second, it’s also vital that Sansa be married off before the Tyrells know […]

  37. Stephen says:

    Here’s an interesting “what if” scenario regarding Ned joining the Night’s Watch: Cersei probably wouldn’t have allowed Ned to go to Castle Black by land, because that would take him through the vast territory of the North and give him an infinity of opportunities to break his word. So, Ned would likely go by sea from King’s Landing straight to Eastwatch into the custody of the Watch.

    This probably means Yoren and his whole party would go in the same boat rather than taking the Kingsroad, because Yoren has Arya and would want to reunite her with Ned, and if a ship is going to Eastwatch anyway Yoren would likely take it rather than going on the Kingsroad and strolling straight through the war on his way to the Wall (which honestly always annoyed me; he should have taken a ship regardless, because it was just stupid to go walking into that). Also going on that boat, then, would be Gendry, Hot Pie, Lommy Greenhands, Jaqen, Rorge and Biter. Arya could reveal herself immediately to Ned (well, once they’re safely out to sea, I think; before that, Yoren would probably keep her concealed somehow so the Lannisters don’t discover her at the last minute). Yoren’s party wouldn’t travel through the war-torn Riverlands, Yoren and the recruits don’t get killed by Amory Lorch and his forces, Jaqen, Rorge and Biter don’t get released and would probably be made to join the Watch (though I don’t know how Biter would say the vows as he never does anything but hiss).

    Jaqen is crafty enough that I think he would be able to successfully desert at some point (and with his Faceless Man abilities, wouldn’t be recognized and caught), and would make his way to Oldtown as per his evident original plan. If anyone could successfully escape the Watch and get south, it would be Jaqen. And I honestly can’t imagine him staying at the Wall for any length of time.

    Arya would go with Ned from Eastwatch to Castle Black, and then perhaps be sent on to Winterfell with an escort. Arya would never get captured by Gregor Clegane, wouldn’t get stuck in Harrenhaal, would never meet Roose Bolton, wouldn’t kill those Bolton guards and escape into the wilderness, would never meet the Brotherhood Without Banners, would never be captured by the Hound, and would never go to Braavos and join the Faceless Men. She would likely escape Winterfell with Bran and Rickon. Perhaps she would go with Osha and Rickon to Skagos? With Arya being a POV character, that would be extremely interesting.

    With the Hound never meeting Arya, I have no idea what would happen to him or where he would go.

    Beric wouldn’t raise Catelyn from the dead after the Red Wedding, as I think his main motivation for doing that was out of pity for Arya. More Freys would live longer lives, and the Brotherhood wouldn’t take its dark turn under Lady Stoneheart (though they may take another dark turn anyway because that’s just what the life of outlaws would do to them; see the Broken Man speech in AFFC).

    Rorge and Biter wouldn’t join the Bloody Mummers, wouldn’t become brigands after the Mummers are disbanded and scattered, the massacre at Saltpans would never happen, and Biter would never bite Brienne’s face. Rorge and Biter might be sent on the Great Ranging and get killed by the Others, or participate in the mutiny at Craster’s Keep because that’s just the sort of thing they would do, especially without Jaqen around to keep them under control. If, on the other hand, they attempt to desert with Jaqen before the Great Ranging, they’re too conspicuous and vicious to go undetected, and without being part of a larger group like the Bloody Mummers they wouldn’t last long in the North before being hunted down by troops of the Umbers or Boltons or someone else and executed for desertion.

    Hot Pie I imagine would become a steward and, due to his cooking skills, would probably be put to work in the kitchen of one of the castles, as his character doesn’t exactly scream “warrior”.

    Gendry, as a blacksmith’s apprentice, could replace Donal Noye after his death as Castle Black’s smith. I initially thought that he would probably become a ranger, but smiths are extremely valuable for their skills and I’m sure the Watch doesn’t receive one very often, so making him a ranger might be considered a waste, especially after Donal Noye dies.

    I can’t imagine Lommy as a ranger (though after sufficient training, who knows), but he could join the builders or the stewards.

    As Yoren’s whole party consisted of about 30 people, the induction of them all (except Arya of course) into the Watch would be a fairly decent injection of manpower considering the Watch’s painfully low numbers, and would ever so slightly offset the damage done by the massacre at the Fist of the First Men and the mutiny at Craster’s Keep. The defense of Castle Black from the wildling assault would be bolstered slightly as well by Yoren’s other unnamed recruits (though I’m sure some would also be distributed to Eastwatch and the Shadow Tower).

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