A few weeks ago I wrote a surprisingly controversial article that asked if Ned Stark was the worst thing that ever happened to Westeros: Ned’s Honor: Was Ned Stark the Villain? Some people were not amused. Somebody posted my Ned article to Reddit, and people there had quite a few things to say. Between the comments on this website and the comments on Reddit, people had quite a few interesting things to say. The purpose of this article is to share some of the best comments I read, including the ones that slammed the article.
Like many bloggers, I love traffic, but I didn’t write a deliberately provocative article for traffic. I wrote the article because I find the philosophical strains in Game of Thrones (and ASOIAF) fascinating and I like to spur critical thought if I can. I believe George RR Martin deliberately inserts competing philosophies or perspectives into his work to make us reflect on the nature of war and ponder related moral issues. In many ways, the article picks up on themes I’ve explored in other articles: Is Chivalry Death? and George RR Martin and the Futility of War: Famine, War, and The Little Ice Age.
Many people objected to the underlying utilitarian philosophy in the article. Others denounced the idea of blaming Ned for everything (not the intention of the article). One point I overlooked is that, at the end, Ned gave up his honor for his girls.
Many Reddit commentators noted that Ned’s desire to protect children motivated him. A few commentators questioned if Renly, not Ned, was the villain.
Here are a few highlights from the comments on the article. Don’t get me wrong – just because I’m quoting comments that are highly critical of my article it doesn’t mean my original opinion has changed. But, even though I disagree with some comments, I thought many were brilliant. (I’ve edited some comments that I included below for brevity, which was a little tricky. I realize that this may decontextualize some of them so my apologies in advance.)
Ultimately, if George RR Martin knew this thread existed, I believe he’d be thrilled to see people debating these issues surrounding war and honor. And, that makes me really happy. So, thanks to everyone who commented below the article and on Reddit — your comments were a great read.
A few favorites…
“this is one of the themes Martin tries to explore throughout the novels — What does it mean to have power? How does one best use it?” — Jun
“Stannis looked disgusted. “Your father was a stubborn man as well. Honor, he called it. Well, honor has its costs, as Lord Eddard learned to his sorrow.”” — Mojohito
“Ned’s fall could partially be attributed to some pretty underhanded actions. He never tells Robert about Cersei, secretly changes Robert’s will, and then tries to bribe the city guard to stage a coup. None of those actions could be considered honorable. Ned tried to get the person on the throne who rightfully belonged there, but he went about it dishonorably.” — Robert_L0blaw
“You know, I never thought about this in the context of Game of Thrones before, but there is a really interesting clash of ethics displayed in this series.
On the one hand, you have the consequentialists like Robert who (when sober, anyway) measures right from wrong in the context of how much wellbeing is preserved/created/destroyed.
On the other hand, you have the deontologists like Ned who believes doing right is right, and the consequences should be considered… but never over the righteousness of the act itself.”— XAce90
“Is Ned honorable or living in a dream?”
“The article takes these as mutually exclusive, I don’t know that they are. Ned Stark was honourable. Ned Stark was valiant. And Ned Stark died.” – rookie mistake
“While some of these consequences are perhaps exaggerated, I stand by my age-old opinion that Ned made some very stupid decisions all because of his honour.” — Drshriv
Game of Thrones is Grey
“Is anyone really a good person in ASOIAF?” — Calderweiss
“GRRM humanizes his villains and gives his heroes flaws. He shows that sometimes the monsters win, at least in the short run. In ASOIAF there is no “happily ever after,” the struggle against evil must be constantly fought and repeated, as mirrored by the changing of the seasons.”
“I find Ned a much lighter shade of grey than, say, Cersei…” – Watcher on the Couch. Watcher, I wholeheartedly agree.
“One of the main themes of ASOIAF is moral ambiguity. No one character or side is completely a moral/ethical or immoral/unethical character.
When Varys asks Ned “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”, he’s hitting a major theme right on the head; Even if the Targaryen dynasty under Arys was one of problems, the Baratheon-Arryn-Stark alliance in the Rebellion was not one without major flaws, and there were assuredly many people who were far worse off after the rebellion than before.
Even in the timeline of the books, Robert’s rule has not been kind to Westeros, causing a debt crisis and a famine that hadn’t been seen since Targaryen rule, and Ned Stark was a major player in making that happen, even if he had no direct influence in King’s Landing for the 15 years in between.
A common thread pointed out by many repeat readers is GRRM’s use of unreliable narration. Ned Stark may be all that is good and holy to Northern lords, but he’s had a very different legacy to a lot of people. In the same way, the Lannisters may be seen as all that is wrong with power in Westeros, but those in the Westerlands see them as a family which created an almost-unrivaled prosperity for their province.
As the books progress and more information is revealed concerning Robert’s Rebellion, you’re going to realize that neither side was completely right or wrong, and that’s going to reflect on all factions when things reach a head in the next two books.” — CptPatches
Divine Justice/“Westerosi karma” vs. Blaming Characters
Can you have it both ways? In some novels, the novels subtly pronounce judgment on the characters through the events that ensue following their actions. I don’t know as ASOIAF is among these novels but it is worth thinking about.
“Characters can’t be blamed for everything that their actions trigger.” — KruegersNightmare
““Ned’s honor isn’t just a personal principle, it’s how he governs, and how he affirms his legitimacy and wins the support of his people… This is because because it is rooted in very deeply held traditions and beliefs of his people (in the North)… As you may have seen from public backlashes against actual public figures: the social contract isn’t that fragile — the thing that breaks isn’t the social contract, it’s you.
… what is happening in the books is that violating the sacred rules and traditions of society causes society to come after you — framed as a form of divine justice.
Violating the Will of the Gods (which in A Song of Ice and Fire often means the will of tradition and social order) brings down indirect wrath on you (from the various social dynamics that are balanced around that social order).
Ned can’t go around breaking the laws of Gods and Men. They are too important to how he maintains power. And there would be grave consequences.” — GyantSpyder
Definitely check out Chas D’s brilliant comment about the social contract and Greek tragedies. To find them, search below this article for “Chas D.”
“What we see as the books progress, as actors care less about their ‘honor’ than results, taboos start to disappear and distrust becomes the norm, even in otherwise-reliable relationships (vassal-lord, guest-host, peasant-gentry). By the time the latest book rolls around, nobody trusts anybody anymore, and whatever kind of social contract existed in Westeros is completely ruined.” — FLUFFYWARTHOG
“With Cersei, let’s say he agreed to back her. Would he have lived long? Given what we know of Cersei I don’t think so.” — Grant
“The point about Ned’s honour is it is not just Ned’s honour, it is part of the social contract that governs the whole society, from the highest lord to the lowest peasant. That’s why Ned beheads oath breakers and Stannis gelds rapers. Killing one person may save a thousand, but it if it destroys your honour, if it breaks the social contract, society descends into might is right, into dog eat dog, and many more than a thousand people die, as events in Westeros attest.” – Craig Hughes
“I understand that Robert’s point of view would probably have been better for the kingdom, but I don’t think that the whole of Ned’s argument was coming from a place of honor. Ned was a man deeply scarred by Robert’s Rebellion. It defined who he was and it set the tone for the rest of his life… the war haunted Ned…” – Brooke Taylor
Renly as a villain
“Why not blame [the Red Wedding on] Renly for not siding with Stannis? Stannis is the actual heir, and the throne would almost certainly have been Renly’s in the end anyway.” — nihil_novi_sub_sole
“… in many respects [Renly] acted more selfishly than anyone else…Renly must have known how Stannis would react, yet was willing to pit himself against his own brother simply for vain ambition… at least Littlefinger had bitterness… wanting to right perceived injustices (the other nobles looking down on you simply because you aren’t truly one of them) is more honourable than Renly’s behaviour.” — AlbrechtVonRoon
Critical — General
“This article goes WAY out of its way to blame the consequences of other people’s actions on Ned’s refusal to budge on principle. If Viserys had come across the sea with 40,000 Dothraki, it wouldn’t be because Ned decided not to have a little girl assassinated. It would be because Viserys decided to take an army and invade. Sorry, but I don’t buy the preemptive strike as a particularly moral action.” – Doctor_Loggins
This is a very good point, and the article isn’t meant to let Viserys, Cersei, Tywin, Walder Frey, or any of the other “real” villains off the hook. Since Ned really isn’t moved exclusively by self-interest, we expect more of him. My point is really that Ned’s behavior may be less than ideal, especially when examined in light of modern (albeit anachronistic values). Is a preemptive strike a moral action? I don’t know, but that has been the cornerstone of much debate among political scientists for decades.
Critique of Utilitarianism
“To Ned, the ends do not justify the means. That’s not a moral failing.” — Doctor_Loggins
“The ironic thing is that the book/show actually demonstrate the flaw (well, one of) in this utilitarian moral attitude. Up until the assassination Dany was getting nowhere with Drogo regarding bringing the army across. The assassination initiated the motivation to invade Westeros for Drogo (although other circumstances put an end to it).
Humans are really bad at judging the utilitarian outcome of individual moral actions, because of limited information as well as cognitive biases. We just plain suck at it, especially outside of the short term consequences, and so in general a moral philosophy like Ned’s actually results in higher utility outcomes.” — Demotruk
“I see justifications of their [the Lannisters] behavior, especially Tywin and Jamie, all over this forum (though it’s worse over in/r/gameofthrones.) People heap praise on Tywin’s maneuvering to protect his “legacy” forgetting he has never done anything for the kingdoms except unleash the likes of Amory Lorch and Gregor Clegane upon them.” — POTATO_SMUGGLER
This response below to my point (quoted in italics) is an excellent point:
“The Red Wedding treachery was a relatively quick tactical stroke that resulted in less death than a continuing series of pitched battles.”
“Tywin Lannister said something to this effect in the series, however customs/traditions such as guest rights exist for a reason. If Westrosy nobility lose faith in such customs by repeated treacheries I would imagine relations among nobility in Westeros growing increasingly hostile and chaotic.” —Menoku
And, even better:
“People completely miss [chaotic Westerosi customs] this in the discussion of “honor.” You could probably “save lives” by murdering your enemy’s leaders at a parley. However, if this becomes the norm no one parleys any more and wars rage on forever.” — BSRussell
This is a brilliant point. Awesome. Coincidentally, this is the treachery Ralph Neville (a possible Walder Frey progenitor) committed at a parley between Thomas Mowbray and Archbishop Scrope (as described in this article: Historical Basis of Lord Frey).
“…the Red Wedding did not really save any lives. In the show Tywin has a point that the entire notion of “honor” is set up in a way that protects lords (from assassination) and sacrifices the lives of peasants, however at least as many people as would have died on a battlefield. Tywin had the Frey forces literally slaughter the vast majority of the Robb’s army. He did not only kill the commanders/those in the bridal hall, which he could have easily done.” — sleepercar
I’m not sure if Robb’s army equals the total death toll if the war continued. For example, as soldiers died, Robb would continue to recruit new men, unaligned lower lords (baron types) might join his ranks, as the war waged on, more bystanders/peasants would die, etc. I’ve never tried to forecast the death toll from the Red Wedding and if it never happened. This estimate also doesn’t include the death toll of Lannister men who would have died had the fighting continued. (Admittedly, half the Lannister men + half the Stark men might equal most of the Norther army. E.g., Net/net.)
“One of the primary dilemmas in this series is to weigh economic gain against moral cost. The argument between the Hand and the King calls to mind another exchange:
“What’s the life of one bastard boy, against a kingdom?”
“Everything.”” — HoffTheDrunkard
In the show, this conversation is between Davos and Stannis after Davos frees the about-to-be-slaughtered Gendry from Melisandre’s clutches. As you read this exchange, you naturally root for Gendry and Davos. I don’t think this feeling is wrong.(Not that a feeling could be wrong anyway.) Maybe it is a subtle difference – and perhaps not even meaningful – but killing one man to let somebody cheat or jump ahead in a war and grab the throne feels different than killing a woman to save thousands of lives. This is a minor point though and, broad strokes, the person who made this comment has a valid argument: the principle is quite similar.
“She seems to be under the impression that people act honorably because they think it is pragmatic. That is not the case. Honor is more about legacy and how your name will live on not immediate strategic goals.” — EonHunter
BTW, I don’t think people act honorably expecting a quid pro quo exchange. But I do think of honor can function as a code of conduct or like a credit system (as some people have pointed out). I think EonHunter’s point about honor being tied to legacy is compelling.
“Ned isn’t just caught between personal honor and the greater good — he’s caught between regional politics and national/international politics — he’s treating the royal court as if it’s the North, and he’s acting the way he has to act to maintain his regional legitimacy. But that knife cuts both ways.” — GyantSpyder
In a way, this is the struggle Richard III went through when he became king: balancing his ties in the North against national interest and his duty as king.
“Of course he wasn’t a good guy. He put his own principles above the welfare and security of the realm. He only had to do two things to prevent all the crap that happened later.
- Say yes to killing Daenerys. Take our a potential threat to the realm. This is a no brainer.
- Don’t tell Cersei he knew about the incest. He wanted to be all noble and junk, but if he just told Robert, it would have all been OK. Failing that, take Cersei up on her offer to continue being the regent. He could have been the father figure Joffrey needed.
But no, he wanted to remain pure and noble. Once you put your own principles above the need the many, you cease being a good guy.” – Decabowl
Although this may be an oversimplification of Ned’s motives, it isn’t far from my original take. Emotionally, I don’t feel that Ned was a bad person, but intellectually I question the morality of supposedly noble actions that lead to so much war and destruction. In many ways, Ned’s adherence to his principals echoes the medieval attitude before the concept of “the good of society” emerged.