“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.
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.
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!
- 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.