I’d wager that most people reading this article think of Ned Stark as one of Game of Thrones‘ heroes. Ned has integrity and principles – he won’t stand for a wrongful claimant on the throne, especially not the product of his best friend’s two-timing wife’s incest. Ned has a code. He refuses to be an accessory to killing Cersei’s children or the innocent Targaryen princess across the sea. This articles argues that the very reason George RR Martin created Ned is to make us reflect our Disney-esque conceptions of nobility, gallantry, chivalry and honor in the medieval world.
George RR Martin has noted in interviews that “ruling is hard.” In his Rolling Stone interview, he states that he doesn’t completely agree with Tolkein’s conception of who is best suited to rule: “Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple.”
Ned may have been a good man, but his “good” actions unleashed terrible consequences: the destruction of his family, fractured rule, war, and thousands of deaths. And what for? Ned’s precious honor.
Assassinating Daenerys: How did Robert Baratheon become the bad guy?
The tiny window in time when everything goes wrong – and turns the Stark-Lannister feud into war – occurs in Season 1/A Game of Thrones when Ned and Robert fall out over the king’s command to assassinate the Daenerys Targaryen. This rift leads Ned to go with Little Finger to his brothel which presents Jaime’s men with the opportunity to ambush the no-longer protected former Hand. After a wounded Ned and belligerent Cersei bicker, Robert goes hunting to clear his head. Cersei commands the young Lancel to get Robert deadly drunk, the boar gores him, and the rest is history.
But Robert’s fear – the reason he wanted Daenerys assassinated – is legitimate. He’s terrified that a pregnant Daenerys will birth a boy who, one day, will lead his father’s 40,000 man Dothraki horde across the Narrow Sea to invade the Seven Kingdoms and claim his birthright.
Robert’s fears evoke the real historical catastrophe — an invasion from an English claimant from across the “Narrow Sea” — that occurred during the Hundred Years War. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, while the feuding Armagnac Wolf (party) and Burgundian Lion (party) plunged France into civil war, the English invaded from across the Narrow Sea — known as the “English Channel” in the real world – and unleashed terrible devastation on the French people.
Later on, Cersei and Robert debate the likelihood of a Dothraki invasion and it is a compelling meditation on the Hundred Years’ War. When Cersei points out that the Westerosi would outnumber the Dothraki, Robert asks a question that evokes the tragic English “lightning raids” (chevauchée) or scorched earth tactics on the French peasants that followed the English Henry V’s repeated invasions from 1415-1422.
“If the Targaryen girl convinces her horselord husband to invade and the Dothraki horde crosses the Narrow Sea… we won’t be able to stop them.”
Cersei remains skeptical and reminds her husband that the Dothraki don’t sail and they aren’t a disciplined force with siege weapons. [Comparisons to the Hundred Years’ War in brackets.]
“Let’s say Viserys Targaryen lands with 40,000 Dothraki screamers at his back. We hole up in our castles — a wise move — only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field. [The French tried to avoid pitched (or formal) battle with the English.] They leave us in our castles. They go from town to town, looting and burning, killing every man who can’t hide behind a stone wall, stealing all our crops and our livestock, enslaving all our women and children. [Like the English chevauchées.] How long do the people of the seven kingdoms stand behind their absentee king, their cowardly king, hiding behind high walls? [The reason the English attacked French peasants was to make the king cave.] When do the people decide that Viserys Targaryen is the rightful monarch after all? [The English attacked because Edward III of England was, arguably, the rightful king of France.]”
This fascinating exchange also alludes to the reason the mighty French lost against against tiny England, a country a fraction of its size: disorganization and lack of common purpose. (Joan of Arc would fix this problem seven years later when she galvanized the French forces at the Siege of Orléans in 1429.)
“Which is the bigger number – five or one?”
Cersei replies, “Five.”
Robert holds up five separate fingers — and then one fist. “One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose.”
This exchange does not exist in A Game of Thrones (the novel). It was written specifically for the show, which means that either the showrunners wanted to specifically allude to the Hundred Years War or they did so under George RR Martin’s guidance. In either case, it seems likely that George RR Martin wants us to ponder the weighty philosophical issues associated with Ned and Robert Baratheon’s perspectives.
If we look at the big picture, medieval kings are charged with protecting their people: this is a cornerstone duty of all feudal relationships between lord and subject or vassal. To use a modern term, from a risk management perspective, would it be right for Robert or any king to wait to see if Daenerys has dangerous intentions before killing her? Is it better to kill one potentially innocent foreign girl or risk the death of thousands of your own people whom you swore to protect?
What’s interesting is that we, as an audience, don’t feel like Robert Baratheon has the moral high ground over Ned Stark. Our instinct is usually to side with the point-of-view character, in this case Ned, who takes the “honorable” stance that is typically presented in movies as noble: protect the innocent girl who has yet to do wrong.
But, the risk of not assassinating Daenerys — the risk of hundreds of thousands dying in her “just cause” to be queen — far outweighs the nobility of Ned’s stance.
When you look at the late Medieval English (and probably French) kings, often the kings that created the best conditions for the people were the most ruthless. Why? In part, because they could ruthlessly assert law and order and prevent noble feuds from degenerating into private wars in which they unleashed violence on each other’s peasant tenants. In fact, the great American medievalist Teofilo Ruiz has somewhat jokingly noted that the medieval kings who had phrases like “the Good” in their epithets were often the absolute worst kings — they were weak and ineffective –- and the successful kings had phrases that evoked military strength.1
All of this gets back to George RR Martin’s point that “ruling is hard.” George RR Martin does not spoon-feed us his perspective in the consequential clash between Ned and Robert. But, when you look at the big picture – all of the disaster that ensues from Ned’s sacred honor – a different picture emerges.
In some ways, Ned’s adherence to honor is far worse than the Lannister’s ruthless deeds. The Red Wedding treachery was a relatively quick tactical stroke that resulted in less death than a continuing series of pitched battles. If Ned could have just looked the other way about Joffrey’s legitimacy, you could argue thousands of lives might have been spared.
In the novel, when Ned reveals he knows her children’s true parentage, Cersei tries to seduce Ned, brushing her finger against his thigh. Cersei pleads with Ned not to tell Robert; they both know Robert will kill her children.
Cersei urges a pragmatic approach: ““The realm needs a strong Hand. Joff will not come of age for years. No one wants war again, least of all me.” Her hand touched his face, his hair. “If friends can turn to enemies, enemies can become friends.””2
As an audience, the narrative perspective (point of view) is such that it seems unthinkable to us that Ned would keep this disgusting secret from his friend. We see the exchange through Ned’s eyes – and he cannot think beyond his all-consuming need to uphold his honor and his oaths.
Cersei seems like a obsidian serpent. Yet, despite her massive self-interest, she’s the voice of kindness. Her advice for Ned to forget what he knows would have avoided a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, including those of his wife and son.
Admittedly, this article might be a little inflammatory: it is meant to be. Should a pragmatic approach to saving lives win out over honor, promises, and duty? Are those qualities akin to modern-day inviolable principles that we believe we shouldn’t violate or else everything will fall apart? Or, is this concept a fairy-tale/movie trope that we have bought into for far too long.
In Teofilo Ruiz’s lectures on medieval crisis and renewal, he describes the nobles as becoming enamored with chivalry. For Teofilo, with their Ferrari-priced suits of armor, silk colors and banners, and tournaments, many nobles were playing at war. They wanted to live the “beautiful life” — like stepping inside a medieval Ralph Lauren ad — and as a result they lived in a dream world. Is this what George RR Martin is hinting at with Ned? Is Ned honorable or living in a dream?
All images from Game of Thrones are copyright HBO.