Ned’s Honor: Was Ned Stark the Villain?

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.

armagnac-burgundy-game-of-thrones

This drawing symbolizes the deady conflict between the The Armagnac and Burgundian parties. The Armagnac party, as symbolized by the wolf, fought the Burgudians, as symbolized using the lion.

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.

733px-Henry5

Henry V

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.]

viserys-targaryen

Viserys

“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.)

 

robert-baratheon-one-armyCersei responds to Robert’s speech: “We still outnumber them.”

“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.

ned-honor

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.

Eddard_and_Cersei_1x07

Ned and Cersei during their pivotal confrontation in the garden.

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.

  1. See Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal. Course No. 863 The Teaching Company. []
  2. Martin, George R.R. (2003-01-01). A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One (p. 470). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

62 Comments

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Lionel

    Classic utilitarian philosophy. Of course if actions that save thousands were always “good”, then killing innocents for their organs to give to the sick would always be “kind”. Treating people as a means to an end is always immoral. IMO, the guilt still lies with those who play the game, and not with those who play it incorrectly.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      That’s fair. Killing innocents for organs is kind of an extreme extension of my argument. But, my argument is deliberately provocative, if not irritating. (I think the idea that there could be another way to look at Ned fascinating. Is GRRM playing with narrative perspective to make us think? Do the ends justify the means?)

      Like you and Craig say below, there has to be a line somewhere that you don’t cross. Well, I say there has to be – but I’m sure the opposite argument could be made.

      >> IMO, the guilt still lies with those who play the game, and not with those who play it incorrectly.
      Does Ned Stark play the game? I’d say he does not – or he opted out of it. (Although, given his birthright as a lord, it is inevitable he would get sucked in to the game.)

      So, by the way, I don’t blame Ned for the actions he took. Despite what I argued, I don’t have a definitive judgment either way. But, I do have lots of questions. I know utilitarians get a bad rap, but there can also be degrees. I think would trade honor (or words) for lives — although if I lived in Westeros or the Middle Ages, I might not think the way I do now. But, perhaps, I’m underrating honor and the role it played in the social contract like Craig says below.

      • Reply August 20, 2014

        Ray

        I think you fundamentally misunderstand the series. Ned’s mistake was not that he didn’t go along with the farce of putting Joffrey on the throne until it was too late, it was underestimating Cersei. Nobody could think she’d be able to kill Robert off while he was off hunting.

        The fact that he was outmaneuvered by a psychopath doesn’t make him any less “good.” Ned (and Robb for that matter) saw power as an obligaton and responsibility, while the Lannisters saw it as a means to fame and fortune. Obsessed with his Legacy, Tywin had thousands of innocents murdered and raped in the Riverlands. That legacy is now crumbling as the Boltons, Freys, and Lannisters must lay in the bed of thorns they made for themselves. The expedience of evil has had dire consequences that some would call delayed justice.

        Let’s not get too far in the series though, as it this article makes me question if you have even given the first book a critical reading. Ned was right not to attempt the assassination of Daenerys yet, since doing so led to Drogo getting on the warpath in the first place. By treating Dany’s son as a threat, Robert legitimized her claim in the eyes of the Dothraki. That screenshot of Robert with the open hand and closed fist is pretty cool though, so I dunno.

        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. The justifications I see for the Lannisters and the takedowns of Ned as being ineffectual (like this article) are edgy and cute, but are logically indefensible. I bet you got a ton of views though.

        • Reply August 20, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Lol. The article isn’t deliberately meant to be edgy. It is meant to make people think. The entire ASOIAF series is very gray. GRRM wants people to think critically about war and issues of leadership; he’s said as much in his interviews.

          It isn’t that I’m trying to take down Ned: he’s one of my favorite characters. I also don’t think he’s ineffectual. As Grant noted above, he is fantastic in certain contexts like leadership in the North. Ned does a lot of great stuff — notably taking in Jon S and probably humbling himself by pretending J is the product of his adultery, being a good husband, swinging the sword himself, etc. I *like* Ned and I think we are supposed to like him. What GRRM is doing is quite sophisticated.

          As a medieval history buff, what bothers me is the disregard for human life, especially the lives of peasants. Cersei says forget the illegitimacy and we can avoid war. Sure her motive is self-interest, but there are thousands of lives hanging in that moment. Sure, we can second guess it and say that war would have broken out anyway, but that’s irrelevant. Of course, the Lannisters are the villains – at least superficially and because they don’t get many point-of-view chapters until later in the series (which affect our perception – think Dexter). I certainly tend to think of the Lannisters as villains.

          But for me, the *chance* of avoiding war – forget the outcome – trumps loyalty to a friend (Robert) and I think even honor. Thousands of people will die in the war.

          Ned is not so naive as not to understand this. He’s fought wars. He knowingly chooses courses twice that risk the lives of thousands of peasants. For me, it is all too close to the appalling events during the 100 Years War when Edward III attacked the French King by killing thousands of innocent peasants. Nobody seemed to care about their lives. Worse, many history books and biographies treat their deaths and suffering as mere footnotes. These were real people that died.

          I don’t believe in judging medieval kings by the values of their day. Medieval history was written by the nobility and most saw peasant deaths as normal business in war. History was not written by peasants – aka the 95%. If peasants wrote history, I doubt they would value the noble behaviors that cost so many peasants their lives. I doubt the French peasants would have ever have deemed Edward III the perfect king. Perfect for whom? Surely not the French peasants – whom he claimed to want to be his subjects.

          For me, human life is paramount. When I think about medieval kings, I don’t evaluate them using the criteria of the day – eg strong military leader is good. I think of their affect on the people.

          I think GRRM wants us to think about these issues – war, chivalry, kingship, etc. In general, many novels have rewards of some sort stem from honorable actions. Eg the knight who doesn’t cheat in the quest gets the girl after all. GRRM doesn’t reward Ned. I don’t think that’s GRRM’s style anyway, but it’s worth noting the bigger picture.

          I think GRRM the pacificist would be critical, but not completely condemnatory, of Ned putting honor before war avoidance. I think he deliberately put this problematic behavior in a point of view character so we’d normalize and internalize it. (He is playing with the unreliable narrator thing a bit.) It avoids being preachy. He wants us to think.

          I didn’t write the article to be edgy for edgy’s sake. But I did write a contrarian article because if my theory is right — or even wrong — I believe thinking critically about all of these issues is interesting, fun, and important.

          I read the reddit thread about this article. http://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/2e2y5s/spoilers_all_neds_honor_was_ned_stark_the_good_guy/

          On the thread, some people agreed with this article, many didn’t. However, lots of people were debating this stuff and I loved every sentence of that thread — even when I was being trashed.

          • August 21, 2014

            Ray

            I hope you don’t take the criticisms (including mine) personally, but this article does feel contrary for its own sake without much else going for it. Ned *did* try to save lives when his gambit to depose Cersei and Joffrey failed. It was Joffrey chopping off his head that led to the death of all those peasants, and if you want to trace it further back, it would be Jamie and Cersei’s fault for conceiving the little abominable bastard in the first place. I don’t see any argument here, even a utilitarian one (if we’re going to count those.)

          • December 19, 2014

            Ioana

            I don’t think Ned was consistent in keeping his “honor code”, but even if he had been, war would have still started anyway. Let me explain: at the beginning of the first book/episode we see Ned chopping off the head of a traitor who fled from the Wall. It’s not a character we have to care about, but I think that part features in the story for one reason and one reason only – to establish that Ned is an honorable man and that, despite not wanting to kill the poor sod, he does it because that is the law. He doesn’t even listen to his story and has no interest in finding out the reason behind his actions. Oh and also it’s the whole wielding of the sword bit.
            Later on, while in King’s Landing, upon finding out that the royal offspring are not so royal after all, what he should have done, straight off, considering his previous behavior, was go and tell Robert. That would have been the right thing to do for a man who abides by the laws and codes of conduct so much. Of course, he showed mercy and we’re supposed to like him even more because he gave Cersei and her children the right to flee – but that wasn’t a proper thing to do for a man in his position. It meant lying to his king and covering up (for a short while at least) adultery and incest, both of them crimes which had to be punished by the king himself. And also, if he was such a merciful man, why didn’t he show mercy to the guy at the beginning?

            Anyway, let’s say he didn’t tell Cersei and went straight to the king ->
            1. Robert would have been furious, he would have imprisoned both Cersei and Jaime and probably killed the children although we don’t know that for sure.
            2. Does anyone think that Tywin would have allowed that without going to war? To be robbed of both his favorite heirs leaving the future of house Lannister in the hands of Tyrion would have been out of the question.
            3. Robert, as it’s hinted ever so slightly in the books, isn’t exactly in his prime and because of the heavy drinking the quality of his seed was not very good so it may very well be that even if he remarried, there was a very big possibility that he could not impregnate his new wife. (I know that in the show there’s a scene where they kill the bastard baby daughter of a whore who claims it’s Robert’s child but from what i remember in the books all of the children he fathered were slightly older, not babies. I may very well be wrong about this, it’s been a while since i opened GOT).
            4. If Robert had no legitimate heirs, the choice between Stannis and Renly was still a big problem. While Stannis would have indeed been the rightful heir, everyone knows no one liked him that much – including Robert. So how do we know that Renly wouldn’t have done the exact same thing he did in the books which is gather a huge army and fight for the throne?

            Now let’s say he told Cersei, she fled King’s Landing as Ned wanted her to and then he told Robert. Pretty much what i wrote above, because i am sure Robert would have sent people after them.

            Third case scenario: he tells Cersei that he knows about the incest, she convinces him to stay silent for the sake of …well, everyone basically and they continue the charade. Later on, presumably after Robert’s death (so as not to raise the king’s suspicion) Cersei kills Ned because he knows too much and also she *is* Cersei. Even if it would be poison or an “accident” the North would suspect foul play -> the Young Wolf scenario all over again. Also, let us not forget Stannis also knew about the incest so it was bound to come up sooner or later anyway.

        • Olga Hughes
          Reply August 21, 2014

          Olga Hughes

          “I bet you got a ton of views though” isn’t a jab? LOL as you like it.

          Jamie has already discussed this previously in Is Chivalry Death? http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/historical-periods/is-chivalry-death

          Chivalry is an idea that has been examined by many, many historians and how we apply our modern perceptions to it will always cause debate. It is an incredibly important theme in A Song of Ice and Fire. Look at Jamie Lannister. He essentially helped save thousands of civilians from a fiery death yet he can’t shake the stigma of oathbreaking. Dozens of George’s characters have their honour and moral boundaries tested in many ways.
          Ned is always going to cause debate, that’s why George created him. He’s bound to drive fans crazy in a generation where we all enjoy our anti-heroes.

          • August 21, 2014

            Ray

            Yes, the comment about getting views was a jab. I see almost no merit in the entire body of the article other than stirring up controversy. Points like “Ned should have gone along with Robert killing Dany” are half baked and cherry picked.

          • May 12, 2016

            Martin McEvoy

            A point I think we probably don’t consider on enough is the dawning reality that Robert himself was emphatically not a good king. Nor was he a trustworthy narrator. And Ned Stark, his friend, knew it. This season of the TV show suggests we’re about to examine that idea. From the very beginning we remember Robert was frustrated that Ned, the natural for the role, refused his original offer to be Hand after the Usurption. We know there are ‘personal’ reasons for this on which the ply pivots, but there’s also, behind that, the possibility that it’s not just humanity and chivalry that make Ned all but exile himself; perhaps he’s aware that the entire business of Robert’s War was, in a sense, a terrible mistake founded on a lie.

            In which case of course, the only arguably ‘noble’ act in the sense of public service was Jaime’s

    • Reply August 21, 2014

      medusa little

      how is killing innocent, presumably healthy, people to save sick people even in the same universe? to twist your argument a little, you could say what about killing people in jail with life sentences, or on death row, and harvest their organs for sick people. that seems like more of a grey question about killing some to save others. but your initial question just seems silly imo.

      you could also analyze what dany has done since not being killed by robert and weigh how that works out. she hasnt invaded westeros yet, so we dont know how that will end (probably lots of blood shed on an already war torn continent though, with winter having arrived no less) but we can see what shes done in essos. hatching dragons? possibly not good…already killed innocent people/livestock. sure she freed a lot of slaves, which from our prospective is just and moral, but in the context of essos she changed ways of life hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. she destabilized an entire continent (ie leaving power vacuums everywhere she freed, ruining the economy) and when the crap starts to hit the fan she is nowhere to be found. also by her actions of drogo dying she ended up consolidating much of the dothraki under jhaqo, presumably causing even more damage outside of her sphere of influence. her death wouldve prevented all of that, AND whatever damage she causes if she crossed the narrow sea.

      • Reply August 21, 2014

        medusa little

        ray – dont forget that ned couldve worked with renly too and helped avoid the war of 5 kings. sure there was some risk with some guards, and possibly the “heirs”, being killed – but it had a more likely chance of succeeding than not, imo. and couldve avoided many, many problems. but again, just the mere risk of kids lifes in jeopardy had ned nix that plan…and also possibly the risk of supporting renly as opposed to stannis – but in defense of that, stannis chose to be on dragonstone. and with the kids in neds control i dont think renly wouldve posed a threat to ned while they waited for stannis to get to KL

        • Reply August 21, 2014

          Ray

          Renly had no claim. It’s amazing how people project the crimes of others and their results onto Ned’s unwillingness to cooperate with them. What if Renly had agreed to be Stannis’ heir, maybe negotiated to the point where he was Hand? Renly would have the real power and could have bumped off Stannis at the earliest available opportunity. I’m not that well versed in medieval history, but I don’t know offhand of an instance where a second son was named king just because people liked him better.

          • August 21, 2014

            medusa little

            ray, renlys claim was that he was the better ruler than stannis. however, since that breaks succession (and stannis wants to rule) that causes an issue. BUT an issue never needs to arise since ned would be holding the kids ‘hostage’ waiting for stannis to come, and therefore would have all the leverage as reagent and renly would not become ruler.

            if neds actions caused domino effects – whether he could predict that or not (which is obviously not) – how is that amazing? people do that all the time looking back on history.

          • August 24, 2014

            Linda j. Holland-Toll

            Ray,
            I am somewhat versed in medieval history and I can think of more popular second sons, but none that got the throne for popularity. Over their elder brother’s body was a lot more likely.

    • Reply May 22, 2016

      Anonymous

      You make a solid point, but a very dangerous one… Forget the term HONOR, and just replace it with “Doing the right thing”… If a man tells someone about their house catching fire, and helps them evacuate, he has done the right thing. If the man he rescued goes about and becomes a murderer, that does not put the fault on the head of the man who saved his life. Ned has always tried to do the right thing.

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Grant

    I’d say that it’s true that honor was a problem for Ned, but not so much as it might seem.

    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. Sure it would have been politically dangerous, but nowhere near as blatant as Joffrey having Ned’s head chopped off and Cersei’s been fully willing to do dangerous things in the series. Of course in my opinion his best option at the time, declaring for Renly, was rejected for reasons of honor as well.

    With Dany, obviously Robert couldn’t have known this but if he hadn’t ordered her assassination it probably would have been fine. Drogo wasn’t at all interested in taking his people across the ocean. Now maybe Dany could have eventually convinced him, but there’s no guarantee of that.

    Lastly, a reputation of great honor, such as Westeros considers it, might be of far more value in the North where martial skill, dedication to duty and the ability to command respect is vital for a region that’s sparsely populated, poorer than the south and facing constant threat of raids and invasions.

    So I don’t think that Ned was a good choice for the Hand, but in a more stark (if you’ll forgive the pun) environment he could be a good choice for a leader.

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Craig

    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.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      fluffywarthog

      I agree completely. Honor is a commodity and reputation is essentially a credit rating in medieval/Westerosi society.

      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.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Your point about the social contract is very true. It is the foundation of medieval society.

      But, just to play devil’s advocate, is that an extreme example? Does the dam break if there is just one chink in it? Meaning if just one person violates his honor to save thousands that doesn’t mean everyone will violate there honor and the whole society will change.

      Walder Frey, Roose Bolton, and others broke their oaths and society didn’t end. It didn’t create a butterfly effect or some kind of ripple where everything changes.

      • Reply August 20, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        I wouldn’t say there is only ‘one chink’ in the dam Jamie. Each action that goes unpunished allows another to go unpunished. Once everything descends into lawlessness then it descends into chaos.

        Eliminating enemies doesn’t necessarily strengthen your position in the end. Joffrey weakened the Lannister’s position by murdering Ned, leaving them more vulnerable to their enemies. Robert alienated people for not punishing the murderers of Rhaegar’s wife and children.
        Even Robert saw his error and told Ned not to kill Daeny when he was dying. He thought he was being punished, probably for the murder of Elia and her infants. So yes even Robert is afraid for his immortal soul.

        I really don’t like that meme of Ned by the way. Robert wasn’t drunk, Arya attacked the prince, which is illegal and Ned has to obey his sovereign.

        • Reply August 20, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Lol. Well, the memes aren’t the best in the world, but I put them in because to me they are evidence that other people have noticed “Ned’s honor problem” — and also because I just like memes.

          I don’t think you can say that not punishing one crime (or action) allows another to go unpunished. IMO, that’s too theoretical. There are plenty of people in our world who commit crimes, but this does not affect the prosecution of another criminal.

          Sure, Robert saw the error of his ways (re: killing Daenerys) when he was dying, but that doesn’t mean his original plan was wrong. (The more I think about this the more I think Robert’s recant was a mistake.) Historically speaking, when pretenders lived abroad they often invaded and tried to claim their throne. In fact, the history of England from William the Conqueror on is a near never-ending saga of rival lines seizing the throne from each through warfare.

          The alternative is to wait until Daenerys invades and then — after people have died during the initial invasion — have more people die in battle. How does this fulfill Robert’s obligation to protect his people? Robert owes Daenerys nothing and he is right to fear her. His duty is to his people, not an abstract principle of gallantry.

          The other thing is that many medieval kings in our world are arguably damned or near damned anyway — not that this means they don’t care for their souls. War was a sin. But, to be a successful king, you pretty much had to be a warrior. Consequently, you might come to believe or accept that your pretty much doomed to spend a lot of time in purgatory.

          • August 20, 2014

            Olga Hughes

            If you argue that enemies need to be murdered rather than restricted in other ways to avoid wars then you champion what Henry VIII did in the alleged Exeter conspiracy, and I know you don’t want to be championing Henry VIII. Henry VII was forced to murder the Earl of Warwick (thanks to the Spanish) but Margaret Pole lived for decades under Tudor rule without posing any real threat to them. In fact I would say Henry VIII murdering a frail old woman is about equal to the idea of murdering a young pregnant girl. Henry VIII would not have been able to get away with murdering women had he not opened the floodgates with the murder of his first wife while everyone stood by twiddling their thumbs, another example of chaos leading to more chaos.

            Had Robert had some foresight he would have been forming alliances – such as Tyrion realising the need to form an alliance with Dorne, Tyrion saw the breach that the unpunished murder of Elia had caused. The Tyrells were also loyal to the Targaryens, yet that marriage was arranged after Robert’s death. Truth be told he was wasting his eldest on Sansa and should have had a more advantageous marriage planned for Joffrey considering he knew the northerners were already loyal. Anyone who had been loyal to the Targeryens should have been brought over to his side long before, instead Robert thought ruling with the sword was enough, when it will prove that it wasn’t.

            I don’t agree the alternative was to wait until Daenerys invaded, the alternative would have been to try and do something about those two claimants (Viserys included) much earlier. True Viserys was a loose canon but allowing them to live in exile rather than keeping them close from a young age and trying to make them loyal to him was Robert’s first error. I don’t agree you had to be a warrior to be a good king. Henry VII, despite earlier rebellions, went on massing wealth by avoiding wars and forming alliances through the marriages of his children, and he was a very successful king.

        • Reply August 21, 2014

          medusa little

          olga
          robert might have had other options, but seeking out the young targs, and bringing them to KL is not one of them imo. first of all, how would he know? i doubt varys would tell him if he thought they would be in danger. then you have proof with theon that you cant trust wards…viserys was too old to love robert and not be a threat, and dany wouldve learned from him still unless she was taken elsewhere (but she still probably wouldve learn about her heritage and the injustices done to her family). on top of that then robert opens himself to be betrayed. varys could easily poison/kill the entire baratheon family because they were all in KL for periods of time. then roberts rule by conquest disappears as fast as it came, and its back to the prior 300 years of targ rule. you could argue thats another case of few dying to save many though. if robert and his line are dead that probably gives viserys (provided he isnt another mad king) and/or dany support of high garden again, and dorne. comes down to if ned challenges it (which he probably wouldnt, because he doesnt want to rule) and gets the support of the remaining major houses/kingdoms. lannisters probably buddy up to the targs and try to get into power again too, which is one less house to rebel and establish a new ruler by conquest.
          i also dont think the assassination of dany wouldve led to floodgates opening. who would even know outside the small council?? and i doubt drogo wouldve taken up in arms had dany been successfully killed…he was in no rush to cross the sea, and without her there to keep him on track, he might have decided it was not worth it invading a foreign land in her memory.

          also im no history buff, but going off what you said i would not equate killing a frail old woman to killing pregnant dany. danys husband is a warlord of 40k+ of the best warriors in essos; dany is the blood of the dragon. and their son was going to be ‘the stallion that mounts the world’, raised by two warlord parents intent on taking danys birthright. dany is a FAR bigger threat than a frail old woman.

          i do agree in hindsight robert shouldve built stronger alliances. he probably just had a false sense of confidence in his standing with other houses, he was known for making friends of enemies and all. and im sure doran (the grass that hides the snake) made it seem like they were buddy, buddy. all the other houses/kingdoms were friends with robert imo, even high garden…they were targ loyalists, but not really. they stayed out of the fight by laying siege to storms end (effectively feasting outside while starving stannis and his garrison). ned lifted the siege with no blood shed afaik, so their targ loyality could certainly be called into question. he definitely shouldve used joffs marriage to build better alliances though…ned and him were already bff as you said. but all minor things imo, and hindsight is always 20/20

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Jun

    Great analysis, Jamie! This is so thought provoking that I feel my head swim.

    The dialog between Cersei and Robert is specific to the TV series and not in the book because neither of them is a viewpoint character (yet). Also Cersei’s position might not fit the book Cersei’s character, which the TV series revised substantially.

    Anyway, before I think deep and hard about the issues raised in this post, briefly, 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?

    (Side note: In a democratic society, we prefer to believe that leaders do not have that much power and we the people have a lot of power, and therefore we don’t like thinking about how the minority of powerful people wield their power. But we would be wrong. Precisely because people under democracy have some power, we should think even more about how power is wielded in public policies — think Iraq and Vietnam Wars. We might despise politicians, but we have to care about politics.)

    Kindness and mercy and other humanist ideals present problems ruling a mass of people with conflicting interests. This is argued even more explicitly in A Dance With Dragons in the parallel plots of how Jon Snow and Daenerys rule their respective factions. Daenerys wants to be a merciful and kind queen for the people of Meereen and create a country in which all people prosper without slavery. But without violent punishments (including the death penalty), peace is not possible. As much as Martin is by nature a humanist (if not a pure pacifist), he does not make it easy for us or himself!

    Throughout the novels we get many different ways of how power goes wrong. Ned Stark is a great dad. He’s a perfect leader for his family and friends. As a king or hand, eh, not so much. Also, as Grant pointed out, whether he is a good ruler/politician depends a lot on the circumstance he is in. A Game of Thrones emphasized repeatedly how he feels completely out of place in King’s Landing among the Southerners. Ned could be a pretty good ruler of the North in a period of relative peace and few conflicts, but his judgment sucks in a more complex situation. Similarly, Robert was a great warrior, best friend and buddy, and ladies’ man. Everyone loved him. He was the most popular guy in the Seven Kingdoms. If there had been an election, he would have won with a landslide. But he is a terrible king. Reminds me of Louis XVI, who would have been so much happier and better as a mechanic or blacksmith.

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    I have to make a point on Tolkien because it really irritates me when George does this, there is not a scrap of ‘simple’ philosophy or ideals in LOTR. Aragon spent scores of years hiding as a ranger before he was practically forced to return to Gondor and face Sauron. Nobody really succeeded in the quest to destroy the Ring. Sam failed to compel Frodo to destroy the ring and Gollum fell into the fires of Mount Doom by accident.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Speaking out against George! Olga!! You know that is *not* the place for this. Lol. Just kidding… I am no LOTR expert so I can’t comment, but I thought the Great One’s point was a good one. (George, if you’re listening, note the suck up. 😉 )

      To me, Tolkien seems to drive his heroes through their moral purity. E.g., they receive their elevated positions because they are morally worthy. Granted, however, they wrestle with temptation (e.g., the ring). Feel free to quibble – I haven’t read LOTR in years so I’m talking out of my hat.

      • Reply August 20, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        I think people apply too much religion to LOTR because they know Tolkien was devout. He uses a lot of very stock-standard mythological themes that are certainly based in religion but I don’t think all of his ‘victories’ are based on the heroes gaining the higher moral ground. Saruman is murdered by Grima, for instance, another strange accident of a villain inadvertently giving the ‘good guys’ a victory, just like Gollum destroyed the ring when Frodo could not. Tolkien’s only perfect character is Samwise, and rather than Sam being deeply moralistic it is more a case of Sam being single-minded in his love and loyalty for Frodo, and quite frankly being a less complicated being.

        George blames LOTR for a lot of the crappy heroic fantasy that followed. I agree on his ‘good king’ point in a way but I think he is over-simplifying it, and I know that he knows he is over-simplifying it. Tolkien paved the way for books like George’s, where characters are multi-faceted and heroes are not perfect. The perfect hero is not Tolkien’s creation and Tolkien didn’t use magic to solve everything – another thing George has employed. Tolkien’s was deply affected by his experiences in WWI, George was a conscientious objector – both men use those experiences in their anti-war themes that pervade the books, because A Song of Ice and Fire shows the horrors and futilities of war as much as LOTR does. George has more licence to write it in a graphic fashion, Tolkien was writing in a different time.

        • Reply August 28, 2014

          fantasywind

          Except in Tolkien stories not always a good man makes a good ruler sometimes total jerk can be a ruler of prosperous realm like Caranthir, the elf who as a son of Feanor is basically obliged to be total jerk 🙂 🙂 he’s a racist against the dwarves, adn yet he makes alliance with the mand controls traffic from dwarf mines and through this ”great riches came to him”, he was ”the harshest of the brothers and the most quick to anger”, he participated in genocidal massacres adn yet he had moments when he did something right (like saving people of Haleth). Castamir the Usurper was said to be cruel tyrant and as the name signifies usurper of the throne and killer of his relatives, yet his rule was popular and beneficial to the people of the coast as he put resources into navy (though in time people of inland felt neglected and supported the return of usurped previously Eldacar) he was also a racist since the whole affair of inciting the bloody civil war in Gondor called Kinstrife was caused by rise of ”pure blood supremacist” (the king Eldacar was only of half-numenorean blood which met with consternation in the kingdom), king Fengel of Rohan was spoiled brat, he was greedy and quarrelsome man and conflicted with his son (he was grandfather of Theoden, who also succumbed to weakness and though was manipulated by his advisor, and some ‘magical’ influence of Saruman was implied, he was rather weak ruler if in the end better man).

          Also Aragorn wasn’t that perfect he had moments of weakness, made mistakes, showed rashness, pride and anger at times, and despite being in essence a benevolent man he had many problems in his reign (about which George Martin seems to forget, surely he oversimplifies things so why he would look at the matter in right angle). And this is what Tolkien himself wrote about his work:

          ”Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain
          fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad
          just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been
          overlooked) in people in a hurry and with only a fragment to read and
          of course without the earlier-written but unpublished Elvish histories
          [The Silmarillion]. The Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not
          so much because they had flirted with Sauron, as because with or
          without his assistance they were ’embalmers’. In their way the Men of
          Gondor were similar: a withering people whose only ‘hallows’ were their
          tombs. But in any case this is a tale about a war, and if war is
          allowed (at least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good
          complaining that all the people on one side are against those on the
          other. Not that I have made even this issue quite so simple: there are
          Saruman, and Denethor, and Boromir; and there are treacheries and
          strife even among the Orcs. [Besides], in this ‘mythology’ all the
          ‘angelic’ powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees
          of error and failing, between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil
          of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron, and the fainéance of some
          of the
          other higher powers or ‘gods’. The ‘wizards’ were not exempt. Indeed,
          being incarnate, they were more likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone
          fully passes the tests, on a moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of
          judgement). Since in the view of this tale and mythology, Power, when
          it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the
          assent of their reason) is evil, these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the
          life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and
          body.’

          ‘So I feel that the fiddle-faddle in reviews, and correspondence about
          them, as to whether my ‘good people’ were kind and merciful and gave
          quarter (in fact they do), or not, is quite beside the point. Some
          critics seem determined to represent me as a simple-minded adolescent,
          inspired with, say, a ‘With-the-flag-to-Pretoria’ spirit, and wilfully
          distort what is said in my tale. I have not that spirit, and it does
          not appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show
          this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the ‘right’ side,
          Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have
          been or are, or can be. Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an
          imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’ – which is our
          habitation.”

          Tolkien works have also many of those ”grey morality” issues too, realpolitic or logistics of ruling, armies and travel and mundane elements mixed with mythical and those are addressed by an elf of all people who are often viewed as too ”magical” for that matters!! 🙂 (Beleg talking to his friend human Turin who lead band of outlaws and had great ambitions):

          ”The lord of a great host has many needs. He must have a secure refuge; and he must have wealth, and many whose work is not in war. With numbers comes the need of food, more than the wild will furnish; and there comes the passing of secrecy…”

          Now I think Tolkien knew what he was doing, (if he even felt necessary to write abotu currency of Gondor, which was supposed to fit in appendices but didn’t due to lack of space and the economics of various places and factions are references often). 🙂 Also the details of the reign of Aragorn are numerous for those who know where to look (but they were not in centre of focus for Tolkien).

          • Olga Hughes
            August 28, 2014

            Olga Hughes

            ^^Take that George!

            “as a son of Feanor is basically obliged to be total jerk” 🙂 Agreed.

            Thanks Fantasywind. The Silmarillion does have a lot more examples and a lot more characters. Even the Hobbit has a small share of “grey” characters.
            I think the problem is people gloss over the fact that a lot of the characters become corrupted by evil and not all of them make it back, they’re probably giving to much credence to the ‘magical powers’ of Sauron. Tolkien points out men like Boromir, Denethor (a really wonderful character) and Saruman as obvious examples, and they are. It doesn’t matter that Sauron is an unseen foe or ‘magical being’, the whole point is that ‘evil’ is used to show men corrupted by greed and the lure of power.

  • Reply August 21, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Not really a SPOILER as I have not heard this theory mentioned anywhere but just in case if you haven’t read all the books you might like to skip the next paragraph.

    In my interior universe I wondered if Dany might eventually decide she doesn’t want the seven kingdoms. Ideally I’d like there to be a republic, a sort of united states of Westeros at the end of it all, (even the “Others” don’t kill everybody).

    END OF NOT REALLY A SPOILER

    As for Ned, I do not think he is a bad person. Of course he has feet of clay as is witnessed by his killing of the Night’s Watch deserter. Now I am a person who usually dislikes judging people from times past by the morals and values we hold in the 21st century, but I don’t think I could ever condone the killing of children (though I’m going to contradict myself in one way and admit I was glad to see the end of Joffrey). There’s a quote which I can’t recall 100% or the person who said it, but it is to the effect that all it needs for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing about the evil.

    Now the issue of everybody in the ASOIAF being “grey”. If I remember this was commented on in an earlier thread. Nobody is above criticism, not even GRRM (in my opinion at least). Somebody took me to task about the premise made in the series that all people are grey and said they could see little to redeem Ramsay or Joffrey. Now, my understanding is that GRRM had a Christian upbringing albeit he moved away from it in adult life. I was raised Christian and a principle in the Christian religion is that NOBODY is wholly good except God alone. Many, many years ago the BBC Radio put on a long dramatisation based on the Legend of the Holy Grail where the narrator said something like “none of us are wholly good or wholly bad”. Surely Billy Tremblealance liked flawed heroes in his tragedies. I don’t think GRRM is the only person in the history of literature to have written about people with flaws though when it was discussed before I seem to recall Jun said something about believing the allusion to grey characters on Mr Martin’s part was pertaining to the fantasy genre rather than literature in general. Mind you, in Celtic myth dear old King Arthur has a fling with Morgause, one of his half-sisters, not realising who she is so he was hardly 100% goody-goody. (It was Morgause in the version I read, not Morgana).

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this when “greyness” was discussed on the earlier thread, but in kids’ comics and books it’s often the naughty children who are beloved by the readers. Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx were always popular and more recently young girls have liked the “Tracey Beaker” books and TV series.

    • Reply August 23, 2014

      Jun

      Since Westeros is based on the British Isle, one could imagine a United Kingdom of Great Westeros and the North. Nevertheless I don’t think the ending would be too realistic. As the books progress, we are getting more and more magical elements, it seems.

  • Reply August 21, 2014

    Brooke Taylor

    This was an interesting read. 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.

    Ned was barely more than a child when he went to war after the murders of his father and brother. The war concluded with the death of his sister, who was barely two years older than Dany at the time of the assassination discussion. This is a man repulsed by the killing of the Targaryen children. If there’s one thing to know about Ned, it’s that he has strong feelings against the killing of children in politics or war.

    You can also see evidence of how much the war haunted Ned in his parenting practices. Instead of sending his children to be fostered by important vassals or allies, he keeps them ensconced in Winterfell, close to him. He probably doesn’t realize it, but this is a considerable political cost for him and his family since he’s losing the chance to renew his ties to other families.

    Another thing to consider is that these discussions typically lead to an all-or-nothing approach to honor. There’s no doubt that Ned’s dedication to honor restricted his choices. In Westeros, honor isn’t exactly the same as morality, which is usually what we think of when discussing whether someone is honorable.

    Westerosi honor is both a code of conduct and a social currency. An honorable man is one who is trustworthy, predictable, and comforting to have as a lord or a neighbor. This makes Ned a very good man to sign a treaty with or to foster your son with, but not always a good one to engage in politics with or fight a war with. Sure, the actions of the Lannisters, Freys, and Boltons win them victories in the short term, but their choices have also isolated them. Others will think long and hard about throwing in their lot with someone they’ve seen willing to operate so brazenly outside the code of honor, because next time, the knife could be in their back.

    • Reply August 22, 2014

      Yoel Arnon

      Brooke – note that breaking Ned’s practice of keeping his children close is the main factor that brought destruction on his family. Promising Sansa to Joffrey tied Ned to KL and limited his options when king Robert died. However the real blow, of course, was Catelyn Start promising Rob to one of Frey’s daughters, without thinking of the terrible consequences of not being able to keep that promise.
      In real history, arranged marriage used to cement alliances, but sometimes did the exact opposite. For example Henry VIII marriage to Catherine of Spain may had been helpful to Spain / England relationship as long as the marriage went well, but could have brought disaster on England after the marriage failed.

      • Reply February 28, 2017

        Anonymous

        Uh, that marriage did fail. And she was Catherine of Aragon.

  • Reply August 22, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Well, this thread certainly has provoked thought. I have been visiting the site for some months now and I don’t think Jaime would write something controversial for controversy’s sake. I believe she genuinely does want readers to exercise their brains. Mr Martin claims to write about grey characters. Mind you, for myself, I find Ned a much lighter shade of grey than, say, Cersei – and Joffrey and Ramsay are only the slightest portion of a shade off whatever colour out and out “baddies” are.

    I can’t remember whether the plan to assassinate Dany was hatched before or after Viserys received his “golden crown”. Though I suppose if anything happened to Dany, even if Viserys were still alive, without thetie through marriage to his sister to Viserys, Drogo would have no reason to give Viserys an army. I have some concerns about Dany’s (both book and show version) mental stability but that is not for this thread.

    Yoel, I’m interested to read your observation regarding Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. An aunt and uncle of mine (no longer with us, sadly, so I can’t ask for the reference) told me many years ago that while Henry was in the process of breaking with the Church of Rome, there was a messenger from the Pope travelling across Europe with a dispensation to annul Henry’s first marriage. I’ve never been able to verify this. In any case, by that time Henry had realised that he (and his cronies) would be better off if he closed the monasteries and seized their lands and other assets…in other words he wanted the loot. It seems (and this was told to me by a Protestant, not a Catholic) that at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries lots of illustrated manuscripts were destroyed – such a pity. Of course things weren’t all hunky-dory with all the monasteries before the reformation in England though it seems a shame that many of the buildings were allowed to become ruins. Some monks and nuns did used to care for people with mental health issues up until the reformation. I went to a talk on “Christianity and Mental Health – an uneasy alliance” a couple of years ago, given by a lecturer in mental health at the local university. He said that the reformation was a “desperate” time for people with mental health problems. Sorry for diverging from the topic to some extent.

    Though continuing off topic, though as this is a site for people who are interested in history (and GRRM’s ASOIAF books and the corresponding TV show) will be aware that it was this day in 1485 that the Battle of Bosworth took place.

    • Reply August 23, 2014

      Jun

      Indeed Ramsey Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon are probably the closest to “black” characters in the series, although Martin took care to explain the parental origins of their nature: Joffrey has been spoiled rotten by his mother and neglected by his father, and his mother has also been spoiled rotten and neglected by her father and never had the chance to learn good parenting from anyone. As evil as Joffrey is, privileged spoiled brats like him are in fact quite common in life; it’s his position of power that makes him worse than most brats. Ramsey OTOHis a character straight out of the horror genre. His story reminds me of the legend about the evil lord in The Hound of the Baskervilles, another Gothic/horror classic.

      I have also heard the theory that wealth transfer was an important motive behind Henry VIII’s reformation efforts. Well, as least the Catholic-Protestant conflicts in England was not as bad as what happened in France.

  • Reply August 22, 2014

    Yoel Arnon

    Watcher, thanks for the wonderful story on the pope’s messenger. I never heard that, but I did suspect that the breakup of Henry with Rome was not only because he wanted to get Anne Boleyn into bed, or even his desire to have an heir. I think it had much more to do with seeking an opportunity to get the church’ wealth in order to finance his court and his wars (BTW I am not even Christian, but don’t know if that makes me objective on these matters or not :-)).
    And yes – today is the 529th anniversary of the battle of Bosworth! Actually I think it has a lot to do with the topic of this thread. In another thread we discussed the similarities and differences of Ned Stark and Richard III – well, given the same situation (King Richard / Edward IV death), Richard III was ruthless and effective, attacked his enemies (the queen’s family), locked the princes in the tower and set on the throne. Ned’s honor did not let him do any of that – he was too proud and honest to shed blood in the palace and drag children from their bed – and so he lost the throne and his life. However the battle of Bosworth remind us that Richard’s victory was short term, and only helped to blacken his name for centuries and end the Yorkish claim to the throne for good. Ned, on the other hand, will be remembered for his honesty and integrity for years to come. So maybe Ned was right after all.

  • Reply August 30, 2014

    Chas D.

    Adding on to what Craig mentioned about the Social Contract, most classical societies have origin myths about how they were stuck in an unending cycle of blood vengeance killings that went on generation after generation, until at long last someone came up with the concept of justice, honor, or the Social Contract as Craig puts it.

    The most prominent being the Greek Tragedy Trilogy The Oresteia by Aeschylus–which starts with the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra in order to avenge Agamemnon’s killing of their daughter Iphigenia, who was sacrificed at the demand of the Gods so that Agamemnon and Menalous could get the winds they needed to sail & siege Troy in vengeance for Paris stealing Helen. Agamemnon’s death by Clytemnestra is also of course in the Oresteia is spurred on by Aegyptus whose become Clytemnestra’s lover while Agamemnon was away at Troy, and Aegyptus has his own vengeance plans in place since his father was screwed over by Agamemnon’s father–the two fathers being brothers IIRC. And for good measure, Clytemnestra kills the hapless Cassandra who Agamemnon brought home bound in chains as a spoil of war (and who foretells of the entire event to take place while no one believes her of course, and is being punished by Apollo with this “gift” for refusing to sleep with him).

    And thus in The Libation Bearers, Orestes is obligated (much like Robb is in AGOT, or Hamlet in Hamlet) to avenge the murder of his father, but in order to do so he has to commit matricide (a crime intolerable to the gods), and yet at the same time he cannot not avenge his father’s death (another thing the gods don’t like and would punish him for) so Orestes is put into a situation where he’s damned if he does anything and he’s damned if he doesn’t. He chooses to avenge his father and kills his mother and her lover for killing his father (spurred on to do so by his sister Electra). And then the Gods being dicks send the Furies after him to punish him for killing his mother.

    In the final play of the tragedy, The Eumenides, Orestes seeks advice from Apollo, who tells him to go to Athens & seek Athena’s justice, while Apollo keeps the Furies distracted. Orestes does this and pleads his case before Athena who then calls forth a jury of Athenian men to essentially try him. What follows is the basis for every courtroom trial that has ever been written since then, with Athena as the judge, Apollo for the defense, and the Furies as the procecution. Athena declares that if the jury is tied that Orestes should be acquitted. The jury ends up hung, with thus Athena clearing Orestes free of the charge. Thus ending the blood vengeance cycle. The Furies cry and bemoan that now they’re being prevented their due and that they have no purpose anymore. Athena then sells them on transforming into “the Eumenides” (which means the “kindly ones”) or changing their role in society to be no longer purveyors and callers for blood vengeance but instead to be symbols of good fortune and niceties who will be honored by the citizens of Athens. Athena then declares that all tied , stating that mercy should always take precedence over harshness.

    Essentially all this set up goes back to the argument that is made in the Oresteia, is that killing only begets more killing in an endless cycle as more and more people call for vengeance. The only way to end it is through a social contract where people agree to a set of principles.

    And considering the events of the story that follow, GRRM for the large part follows this line as what does killing do in ASOIAF? Beget more killing and death and bloodshed. It’s Joffrey’s killing of Ned which sets Robb off. It’s the death of Jon Arryn which eventually leads to the . It’s the attempted murder of Danaerys which sets her off on her journey to try and be Queen–before that she was more interested in integrating more into the Khalesaar.

    What I often see in these thought exercises is self-justification: that if I break the Social Contract just this ONE time and kill this ONE person or overlook this ONE thing, everything will work out so easily, so many lives will be saved, etc. It’s a delusion, as we see clearly sending the assassin after Danaerys, sends the message to the Dothraki that Westeros actually considers her a threat and even Danaerys herself. Had Robert left well enough alone, Danaerys might have given birth to Rhaego, but more likely she would have simply assimilated into the Dothraki culture while Viserys gets himself killed screaming for his right, and Danaerys goes native, and given that Rhaego was a half-dragon child, it’s unlikely that whatever the witch did to Danaerys really had any effect anyway–given that half-dragon children have been born to Targs in the past and they never live.

    Heck look at the long play for vengeance that Tywin unleashed in killing Elia and her children. Oberyn & Doran play the long game, but while Tywin assured “peace in the short run” by “securing Robert’s throne”, he ultimately has led to his house’s own doom in the long run–especially after his death. Like with the Red Wedding, again GRRM, while showing that breaking the social contract can gain you peace for a while, in the long run it only brings you unending trouble. Which is why while the justifications are tempting to say the least, it never lasts. Peace bought with blood never lasts as once the social contract is broken it only unravels more and more thereafter.

    The Wars of the Roses were thought of as having a much similar reason for existing–because Henry IV killed Richard II at Pontefret (as you’ve covered before). Because leaving an ex-King alive opened Henry IV up to political instability. We see this act again being committed later by the Yorkist brothers against Henry VI–the irony being that the Lancaster line which ascended through the outright murder of the old King is itself taken out in much the same manner as Henry VI is smothered to death with a pillow by the Yorkist brothers. But of course since the Yorkists found their dynasty on the death of King Henry VI (as well as those inheritance games), they doom their own regime (in Shakespearean History play sense). And it comes down–like the Oresteia–to the field of justice to settle the matter. To a Medieval POV (as I’m sure you’re well aware of) the field of battle was equivalent to the Athenian courtroom of the Oresteia, and so–according to the Shakespearean history plays which are designed to be like the Oresteia–at Bosworth Henry VII ends the long blood vengeance, by showing that God favored his rule by defeating Richard III in battle, and then assured it by marrying Elizabeth of York (as we all know).

    So I agree with Craig, while your post is provocative, it’s provocative while ignoring the greater issue of the social contract, which in the end the writers always end up returning to as having the greater importance.

    While it is tempting and easy to go down the path of “one little death doesn’t matter vs the potential for many more”, in the end it unleashes a long string of chaotic subsequent deaths no one took into consideration and only causes the long string of deaths it sought to prevent.

    Or so argues practically every piece of classic literature in Western Civilization, and thus far GRRM as well. While he might be in to subverting tropes, in the end his subversions only come back to where we started.

    • Reply August 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Chas, this is an amazing comment – thank you – and it could be an article itself. It is erudite, literate, and intelligent. The way you juxtaposed the social contract against revenge is very compelling.

      When you put the social contract in the light of the events in England in the (very late) fourteenth and the fifteenth century, you’re absolutely right. Richard II’s death — a violation of the social contract to be sure — was a watershed that set a precedent for the violent seizures of the crown that followed during the Wars of the Roses. (And, the basis for Richard II’s murder was another violation of the social contract: Richard II screwing Bolingbroke out of his hereditary rights after his father died.)

      But, in regards to killing Daenerys, I’d argue that Robert Baratheon was contractually obliged through his social contract with the people to protect them from a near certain invasion from across the Narrow Sea. At least, I believe that would be the case if you apply medieval values to his kingship. As far as I know, a medieval king would have the same feudal type relationship with his subjects as any lord with have with his sworn retainers and any knight or lord would have with the peasants that worked his land. In exchange for providing their service or fealty, the lord agrees to *protect* his people.

      The Jacquerie — the peasant uprising in France during the 1450s in a period of peace in the Hundred Years War — occurred because the people had been beaten down so much by the roaming marauding free companies (who refused to leave after the English withdrew) that the people revolted against their lords. They felt the lords let them down — broke their social contract — by not protecting them against the mercenary gangs.

      The social contract between ruler and ruled is based on protection. Which is the stronger or more important social contract: that between the ruler and ruled or the contract between the ruler and a foreign rival?

      I might argue that the social contract isn’t an abstract thing. Codes of conduct (behavior) like chivalry (in the true warrior (non-romantic) sense) didn’t hold society together. It was merely courtesy behavior (e.g., ransoming those captured in war rather than death) exchanged between those of a certain class rather than a social contract per se. Now with that said, chivalry gained more and more hold over the psyches of the aristocracy after the church encouraged it. And, chivalry became so influential that knights would rather die than violate its tenants. However, I’m not sure if a code of conduct – which is somewhat (despite a court/judiciary) internally driven and not an exchange of major obligations – is the same as a social contract. An abstract principal like “I won’t hurt the innocent until proven guilty” isn’t the same as an exchange of feudal obligation. I’d argue that medieval society is held together by social contracts like feudal obligations cemented by oaths and not abstract principles like only the innocent will die. (Innocent people were knowingly sent to death all the time in the medieval justice systems. Would we be worried a kingdom would fall apart if a peasant was wrongfully killed?)

      So with all of that said, your comment is truly brilliant. I don’t have all (or even some) of the answers. I think these types of questions – which I really believe GRRM wants us to ask — are really tough. I’m certainly willing to wrestle with them and play devil’s advocate. (It isn’t by that way that I don’t agree with you or many of the points I’ve read on Reddit, here, etc. But, I enjoy questioning our assumptions and engaging with the view point that is less frequently explored.) I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong answer.

  • Reply August 30, 2014

    Jun

    In reality (history = reality x time), there is usually no right answer in most situations, especially without hindsight, but often even with hindsight. More often than not, it is “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” We don’t like to believe that, unless you’re a terminal and merciless pessimist like GRRM.

    ======= Contains Potential Spoiler ===========

    From moment to moment, people have to wing it in decisions large and small, and pray that the consequences do not come back and bite them. Breaking the social contract and kill kill kill may be bad in the long run, but it may be long enough to be after you’re dead. Look at Mao and Stalin who both died in their beds. There is the good of your subjects versus the good of your family and self-interest. Deaths can be intimate enough to demand blood revenge sometimes and mere statistics other times. Everything depends on one’s point of view. From a modern and unrelated observer’s point of view, it is better to prevent the death of millions by killing one person (or in Tywin’s view killing a few thousand Northmen). To Ned, however, killing Daenerys reminds him of the death of his sister and the precarious life of her child. If Robert is going to hunt down Daenerys and kill her, he can also hunt down Jon and kill him. It hits home for Ned.

    We humans are not built to do the calculation of lives saved in a rational, cold and detached way, not even for the good of the realm. This is another universal theme in literature — It’s always about the family. GRRM is pointing out that so is history, even if we don’t always think about historical characters as hot-blooded, irrational people with love and hate. They were also parents, children, spouses, and fully driven by self-interest and the urge for revenge. The cause behind the deaths of millions might often be as irrational or absurd as an insult or revenge.

  • Reply September 30, 2014

    Wat Barleycorn

    I think GRRM’s point that “honor is overrated” is a solid one.

    It always seems to me like many fantasy fans end up as apologists for the feudal order. It’s supposed to be the norm that knights are good and decent and protect the weak, and when someone does terrible things, it’s explained away by them not being a “true knight.” We point to this code of honor, and it’s like the technical rules as written are more real than the actual way that 99% of guys given a sword and a license to kill act. There’s a reason that GRRM has shown us maybe 2 knights in Westeros who are “true knights,” Dunk and Brienne, and neither one of them is actually a knight. But Gregor Clegane is!

    We see that in spite of Westeros’ code of honor, is a code more noted in the breach than the observance. And really, if you have a ruling class that is also your military class, you should not be surprised when political and interpersonal conflicts end in violence. You should also not be surprised when people who are not part of the military caste (eg, women, Team Smallfolk) are routinely brutalized by members of the military caste, either acting on their own or on official orders from their liege. A fearful peasant is a peasant who pays his taxes.

    GRRM pretty openly depicts personal honor as a very weak tool for maintaining social order. Jamie Lannister, of all people, makes this clear when he points out that you can’t possibly keep all the oaths you’ve sworn, so where does that leave you? And everyone betrays their honor. Even Ned, paragon of honor, makes a deliberate decision to betray his honor for love of his daughters (not to mention he betrays his king if R+J=L. Which, again, makes Jamie Lannister’s point: is he honorable for keeping a promise to his sister in spite of great personal cost, or dishonorable for treasonously harboring a rival claimant to his king’s throne?)

  • Reply October 1, 2014

    lindaj1485

    Wat,
    I find your comments on ‘true knights” interesting. I would point out that other semi-honorable characters, Tyrion and The Hound, are not knights, either. And yet the knights are perfectly willing to beat and strip Sansa Stark for the crime of being a Stark and helpless. later Sir Arys Oakheart ( I think) will think how shamed he was by his actions, as well he should have been, but it is Tyrion Lannister and The Hound who put a stop to the abuse. I am a fan of Tolkien, and I wonder whether Martin is not somewhat playing off his idea that under a good king the land prospers. Unfortunately, Westeros does not have any good kings, only venal rulers – the court reflects the king, certainly, the knights he chooses are morally absent, etc. And the land does not prosper.
    I should know this, but R + J =L escapes me. If it were Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon, I can see a betrayal, but on a personal level, not a royal one.

  • Reply February 12, 2015

    Chard

    Interesting article, the problem with it is this is a very simplistic and flawed analysis. Cersei, in trying to persuade Ned to ignore her son is not the rightful heir, is not trying to prevent war, in fact she couldn’t care less about anyone other than her immediate family, so she has no course to worry about the affect of war on the common folk. She is only trying to preserve the power and influence that her family holds at the expense of most of Westeros. In any case, it is likely a war may have started regardless, the Lannister’s are not popular and Joffrey turned out to be a cruel tyrant. The same goes for Tywin, he was only trying to preserve his own families interests, though from an even more selfish standpoint. In contrast, at least Ned genuinely believed he was doing the right thing for the realm, his plan was to remove Joffrey, imprison the Lannister’s and act as regent until Stannis arrived to take the thrones.

    He was only guilty of naivety, he was a soldier with a soldier’s honour. He could never have imagined Robert’s murder by Cersei and his will being completely ignored and certainly could not have predicted Lord Baelishe’s betrayal. He never wanted to be the Hand of the King and never wanted to go south, the ways of the northerners are very different, they are directly descended from the First Men. So they have old fashioned views of honour and integrity. As such Ned only knows the way of the sword and he is out of place in King’s Landing. You can’t blame Ned for starting the war when he never even wanted to be in that position to make those decisions in the first place. Robert should have known a man of the north would refuse to send assassins.

    I think the blame lies purely at the door of Robert for appointing a friend as Hand of the King rather than someone better suited to the role, all because he couldn’t be bothered to rule a kingdom he had won. Again Robert was a solider at heart, but he was king and took no responsibility for his people. The difference is Ned was only trying to do what he genuinely believed was right for Westeros. In fact, after the Lannister’s had belatedly joined the rebellion and sacked King’s Landing, Ned wanted them discredited, Jamie sent to the Nights Watch and the Mountain executed. Robert obviously wanted to keep the Lannister’s on side, so if it wasn’t for Robert, Ned could have brought the Lannister’s to their knees and there would not have been any rivalry at all.

    • Reply February 25, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think Cersei was really trying to prevent war. I think she was preserving peace as an argument (feigning that she cared), but I think it is possible that Ned keeping his mouth might have prevented war.

      It is really interesting that you say you blame Robert! 🙂 I’d never thought about that perspective before. On one hand (no pun intended), I’d argue that Robert should have appointed somebody he trusted. On the other hand, the Hand needed to be trustworthy *and* politically savvy. Ned was not hip to the ways of court politics.

      Thanks for the great comment — in spite of calling my article “overly simplistic” 🙂 – you make some good points.

      I’m not sure if I agree about Robert not caring about his people. Granted this is “TV Robert,” but his speech centered on preventing an invasion. I’d like to believe that what drove him was more than concern for his own safety or even a desire to keep his crown, but rather he wanted to prevent the massive death toll a Dothraki invasion would cause.

  • Reply June 9, 2015

    Chris

    Just a quick mention:

    It isn’t correct that the Red Wedding saved thousands of people with a quick stroke. Bolton, Frey and Lannister soldiers raided many villages all over The North, The Neck and The Reach. Also the complete army of Robb got massacred. If Robb just marched to Kings Landing and crushed the Lannister forces, Robbs honorable intentions could have led to an alliance with Stannis (like his father wanted to do). So in the big picture many could have survived, but Tywins selfishness let the war going on.

    • Reply June 9, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Good point.

  • Reply June 28, 2015

    Richard

    Being use to Asian historical dramas where certainly people have strong codes of honor but tend to act smartly (so if they do something because they are compelled to by their code, they at least think through the consequences and try to counter the negative ones; and are on the lookout for plots against them), my wife and I got use to calling GoT “Game of Stupid People” because there were just too many actions that didn’t make sense. For instance, Ned warning Cersei. Ned going unprotected in to a whorehouse. Ned being unaware that betrayals occur. The Lannisters letting Joffrey run amok (when they should be keenly aware that they really need alliances with their gold running out). Catelyn giving up Jaime with no real way of even forcing the Lannisters to give Sansa back and not considering the impact on Northern morale (actually, the Starks had a ton of stupid). And I haven’t even gotten to Sansa deciding to wed a psychopath without bring protection from either the Vale or Northern lords (though maybe the showrunners just want to reinforce the theme of Stark stupidity).

    Really, the only way this all can be explained is if most of these folks had an IQ of 60 due to lead plumbing and so acted on first impulses.

    Also, I see a lot of modern-day moral thinking in the comments. If you’re Bobby B, of course you try to off Dani and wipe out the Targs. Historically, that’s what happened and nobody in that time period would have had any qualms about that; such an action would have been as natural as swallowing when eating food. The Tudors didn’t sit around while any Yorkist claimants to the English throne of any sort were alive; they tried to off as many of them as they could (and succeeded).
    If there’s anything unrealistic, it’s that the Targ kiddies managed to survive for so long running from place to place without any real protector. OK, you can say that Varys is secretly pro-Targ, but in that case, it seems ahistorical for a guy like Bobby B in a place like Westeros (which is more like Mafia-run Sicily than present-day America, where loyalty & blood ties matter a ton) to hire some foreign eunuch as spymaster (which, mind you, would be one of the most important positions in that realm given that he’s a new king with vassals with uncertain loyalties and Targ kiddies running around). Someone like Bobby B/Henry VIII certainly may be the second in the family to become king; they’re very unlikely to be the first. Those tend to be ruthless mofos like Henry VII/Zhu Yuanzhang/Tang Taizhong; and if they are as uninterested in governing as Bobby B, in real life history, they get knocked off really quickly.

    • Reply July 25, 2015

      Annette

      Richard, Ned was not a game player and was unused to playing the game even if he was very polished in the ways of honour. He fought a war, put his friend on the throne, and went home to carry out the rest of his duties as Warden of the North pretty much in isolation and at the top of the local hierarchy that still saw his family as royalty if not in name then in character. Ned was used to seeing women as in need of protection from the aggression of men so he warned Cercei so she and her children might not be killed. That is still the right thing to do.

      As for the rest of it, I can’t defend it. I want some of the Vikings cast to come in and sort them out!

      However, the point is that Westeros is a land in which the social order has broken down and a new one has not yet risen to replace it, and it has been broken in Kings Landing since before the previous war. The Sparrows are now trying to fill that vacuum since the great houses are either crumbling or too self-involved and lacking in honour to do anything about it. There is also a story unfolding about the imposition of order and honour without the moderation of compassion. In fact I see Westeros’s biggest problem is it’s lack of love and respect for life. It despises and abuses all things to do with love: marriage, women, children, sex, charity, hospitality. That is what Ned’s honour stood for. If Cercei wasn’t such a despicable character irrevocably twisted by paranoia then she would have seen that and had made a better choice for herself and the entire seven kingdoms.

      Unfortunately honour tends to lead people to be a bit Utopian, and that’s when psychopathic personalities can take advantage. But as Baelish pointed out with his speech “Chaos is a Ladder”, psychopaths flourish best in chaos.

      Far ranging chaos has reined throughout history in many parts of the world. Due to it’s nature we, records of the details tend not to survive. GoT and ASOIAF is like a long discussion on how to restore order in such overwhelming chaos.

      • Reply August 3, 2015

        Jamie Adair

        Annette, this is a very incisive analysis and I really enjoyed reading it.
        I think that the struggle for order and justice is not only a very important part of history but also ASOIAF. Like you point out, Stannis is really epitomizes that struggle and come to think of it, so does the High Sparrow. It is interesting to me because today we really take our justice system for granted. Yet, the development of an effective justice system and a means of keeping order (no knightly attacks on peasant villages, fewer private wars, and less crime in peasant villages) were integral to the evolution towards a modern society.
        I think biggest that one of the problems in the Middle Ages is the lack of compassion and respect for life.
        So, when I wrote this article, I was being a bit contrarian, but I believe that GRRM created Ned as a complex character deliberately. Although Ned is a very likable character, if this was Shakespeare, you could argue that Ned puts his own pride ahead of the greater good when he chooses honor. This doesn’t let Cersei or Joffrey off the hook. But, theoretically, he could have avoided war, if he had turned a blind eye to Cersei’s adultery. He effectively put his friendship and his need to do right by Robert ahead of tens of thousands of lives.
        While nobody likes this argument, I don’t think it is a coincidence that GRRM wrote this ambiguity in to the character. It’s like Tywin; GRRM wants us to think.

        • Reply August 5, 2015

          Jun

          I’m delighted to see you cite Shakespeare. I was just thinking about similar questions of justice and perspectives lately. By making Jaime and Cersei into viewpoint characters later in the series, GRRM has made the story more complex than the first novel. I am beginning to think that GRRM the historian (not necessarily the novelist) is rather agnostic on “good” and “evil.” At the very least, a person can never be completely sure whether one is doing the right thing at any moment in history. Even with the benefit of hindsight it is not always clear what is good or evil. Is Jaime Lannister bad? He threw a boy off the tower to protect himself and his family. What Ned intended to do was to protect his best friend’s legacy and blood line, and if he had succeeded, he would have caused severe social disgrace, albeit not death, to another family. How much can we judge Cersei for fighting for her own family with any means necessary?

          The fact is that this or that happened at a given time in history. Good or evil is the judgment we as a society or individuals in a particular historical context have made on the event. The latter is not as concrete or factual as the former.

          I know, I am being relativist. I would imagine this type of arguments has been presented and debated in philosophy and history.

    • Reply August 5, 2015

      Jun

      LOL I had not seen Richard’s comment until now. As a Chinese person I can understand a lot of his points. Nevertheless, I want to disagree on the IQ60 thing. 🙂 Asian historical novels and TV series are not necessarily a good source for history though. They tend to overdramatize the cleverness or ruthelessness of historical victors. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s like making up stories about how stupid and weak Richard III was while emphasizing how smart and wise Henry VII was and attributing his eventual victory to his perfect strategy and battlefield heroics.

      I much prefer GRRM’s take on history than the trap in which Chinese historical novels tend to fall into. He shows how messy and ambiguous history can be. The trajectory of history is often full of what appears to be stupidity or bias or accident from our point of view. Without the benefit of hindsight, we would be even more stupid than Ned or Robb, had we been in their shoes.

      I do not think Zhu Yuanzhang or Tang Taizong was really all that smart and won because of their own brilliance. Their history was probably as messy and full of stupidity too, and determined primarily by luck or factors out of their own control. They look brilliant now because Chinese history books, novels, folklore, and TV series make them seem brilliant and correct. It’s a kind of ethnic mythology that people always fall for. I wish someone would approach Chinese history with the same cool objectivity as GRRM did with European history.

      Also we should remember that the Chinese dynastic struggles tend to be more brutal and bloody than European history, although there were spots in European history that were nearly as bad. I have read somewhere that historians estimated that the Chinese population was regularly reduced by 50% to 70% in dynastic wars, which occurred as often as every 300 years or so.

  • Reply August 8, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    Jun, I followed a link through to your own website and tried to post something but unfortunately because of going through the process to prove I was not a robot (which is fair enough – who would want an inbox full of spam?) I could not upload my (now forgotten) comment. There was a page where I had to identify which of certain foods were sandwiches and I couldn’t complete it. Getting more on topic, I am not very familiar with Asian history books (I read Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji” – gosh it must be well nigh on half a century ago now and can’t remember it awfully well). There have been some British radio series taking the basis of the palace life as described by the Japanese Lady Shonagan {sp??} as their inspiration. Lady Shonagan and a fictional (I think) lieutenant solve crimes. The first series which was a few years ago had two (then) not household name actors in the cast:- Richard Madden (Robb Stark) as the Emperor and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as a courtier. Needless to say subsequent series have had different actors playing those roles.

    The above may be slightly off topic but I said my piece about Ned when the article first appeared in 2014.

  • Reply September 26, 2015

    ZabuzaSama26

    Very interesting, but I do have to disagree with one thing. I do not think Ned’s ‘goodness’ resulted in the cascading evils that befell thousands, including his own family, rather his ‘stupidity’. Ned was a good man, we all know, and he has more ‘kindness’ to him than most other characters in power in GOT. However I feel it is not his goodness that made him commit so many mistakes. Honor and duty are swell but there is a time and place for everything. A good tactical and politically smart man would’ve never done many of what Ned had, regardless of his morals. Ned had the heart, but sadly no brains. He was smart, not in politics. That was his flaw. And yes, I do think he played the game. He played it horribly wrong though. I do not think, any of who might’ve found out the secret he did, would ever confront Cersei of all people with it. He dug his own grave, excuse me. He had a family, a city, and entire realm to run, and instead he gambled it all on that Cersei would stay quiet and tame as he told her husband that her children were the product of incest?
    That streak in the Starks follows through to Catelyn too I believe, who based on very little and not very convincing evidence took Tyrion as prisoner without consulting her husband and enraged an otherwise, then, sleeping Lion. Tywin never liked Tyrion, the problem was Catelyn touched what she shouldn’t have ever touched, and excuse me, for selfish reasons. If a peasent in the riverlands attempted to take revenge on a Lannister soldier he will most probably be killed, one way or another. But because Catelyn deemed herself rightfully worthy of revenge for her son she lead to the killing of many many innocents of her own people and the start of a bloody war. I am not saying she should forget what happened to Bran, but perhaps if she sat and thought and took matters much more slowly and carefully a war could have been avoided.
    Had Ned waited for Robert to return, and when he knew he died started fixing things to his favor discreetly, and then slowly brought to everyone else’s attention that Cersei’s children were illegitimate, and somehow cornered the Lannisters, maybe then Catelyn could’ve attempted to have her revenge, after a proper investigation.
    My point is, our dear Starks, with perhaps Arya being the only exception, are too encompassed in their own ideoligies to bother being smart. Catelyn with her anger and revenge, and Ned with his unwarranted adherence to honor. But it has nothing to do with goodness I believe. I disagree with GRRM, as much as I respect his work, that life should be depicted so very dark to discredit the fantasy within LOTR. LOTR was made to be an escape from reality, but perhaps not all within it is unreachable. In the same dark ages of Europe, other civilizations prospered, under the rule of ‘good’ men. Even the most ruthless and iron fisted rulers of Eurropean countries could not banish poverty or prevent rape. Peasants were still peasants, women were still ravaged, taxes were high, very little beyond nobility lived a ‘good’ life. However, in places like the middle east, to give an ex, people lived remarkably well. Scientists revelled, women had rights way before any western civillization, men lived honest lives, and poverty was kept to a minimum. In the time of the ruler Oman bin Abdulaziz, there was not a single a poor man in the muslim empire, and they did not to whom to give charity because none saw themselves in need of it. I am not saying they were perfect. Politics was still a dangerous game, but at least there is a part of our humanity’s history where the strong did not prey on the weak in the same gruesome fashion as depicted in GOT. And I am sure there are other examples I am unaware of too.
    Armies from the muslim empire were always sent to conquest on conditions; do not kill women, do not kill unarmed men, do not kill children, do not kill the elderly, do not kill animals, do not destroy places of worship, do not kill priests, do not destroy or burn houses, do not burn or chop down trees and plants …
    This was a speech given by the second caliphate Abu Bakr pbuh when he instructed one of his armies to go on conquest in the Arabian Peninsula. And when Richard got sick, Saladin sent him a bowl fruit, a doctor and ice for water, and when he lost his horse, Saladin sent him a horse from his own army.
    Again, I am not saying the history of the muslim empire in the middle ages was clean, but it was much more mild than Europe’s. The simple folk did not live a life of fear, and in the world GRRM writes the simple folk have no chance to live. All they do is survive. I do not think this was true for humanity throughout all of it’s history. Chunks of history were dark, I cannot deny, but I am more inclined to believe that Tolkein’s idea of the fantasy of a good life is not unachievable.
    Robert Baratheon as amoral I think, as amoral can get. He wasn’t ‘hateful’ as other people saw for example, Tywin Lannister, but in Robert’s time most of those who lived in peace were nobles, royalty or rich. I think Tywin, as evil as he was, was much smarter in comparison to both Robert and Ned, and shouldn’t really be hated as much as he is by fans because Tywin did not really do anything Robert, Stannis or any other ‘king’ would’ve done. He was just hated by the Starks and therefore automatically blacklisted, as a character.

    • Reply October 7, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Wow. Thanks for the comment and for reading. You bring up a wide range of points — all compelling.
      Your point about Catelyn is a great one. Although in some ways she was politically astute, she could be reckless and rash. Frankly, she doesn’t get criticized enough come to think of it. I have never really thought of the Starks collectively as a set, but you could argue the whole family is characterized by idealism. Even Jon Snow had (or has) this trait. Contrary to your point I think, you could argue that Arya is driven by revenge.

      I tend to see history as having just as many, if not more, dark points as light. I can’t say whether that is specific to European history or if it extends into other countries and cultures. In general, however, I believe that darkness or “evil” exists in all histories and all histories contain moments of heart-stopping kindness and heroism. There is no Utopia.

      I applaud GRRM’s work because I think it captures the opportunism and real politik of the late medieval world – especially Hundred Years War era. I think too much history white washes the actual harshness of some events or undervalues the complex motives of the players — and assigns too much agency to individuals. The Great Man approach to history should be rethought. Rulers were a part of complex machines — with actions and reactions. They didn’t rule in a vacuum, divorced from influences and societal pressures. Some biographies lead you to believe that everything that happened in a reign was the direct result of the leader’s personality. Not so.

      Re: the medieval Middle East
      I had a conversation a while back with a woman who is doing her Phd in philology at Harvard about why Eastern European (Byzantium) & Middle Eastern cities seemed to be not only more populous but also more learned and sophisticated than W. European cities like London and Paris in the middle ages. She said there are many takes on that ranging from climate (fewer famines) to religion to culture etc. I don’t know enough about Middle Eastern history to really comment. But I do think life could pretty harsh if you were a pauper in Constantinople.

      I was reading a book about Byzantine peasants and if I remember correctly, there were a lot of homeless people in medieval or early medieval Constantnople and they did not get free daily bread (unlike the home owners). There was more to this but it escapes my memory at the moment.

      • Reply October 7, 2015

        Jamie Adair

        I should add to this that I think climate, harvest failures, and food supplies are enormous determiners in human behaviour and history. I don’t think the effect of a half-starving Western European population – particularly after 1300 – can be stressed enough. The Little Ice Age and the ensuing harvest failures created many preconditions for war and brutality. It affected the agrarian-based income of the nobility, which led to jockeying for position through violent means (war, racketeering). It created violent crime among the starving peasant villages.
        I think it basically was the equivalent of turning up the heat on the boiling lobster pot. You take a stressed population and the weather puts it in a pressure cooker.
        I believe that Egypt and other Mediterranean countries escaped some of the famines and food shortages. I would assume they would anyway because I think the LIA mainly affected the Northern countries. Better growing conditions (longer growing seasons) would greatly reduce the need for war, upward pressure, etc.

        Warm climate doesn’t necessarily equal no population stress btw. There are theories the Maya died out because of drought. It seems like as the water supply dwindled human sacrifices may have increased. I suspect blood letting would have increased too and I believe I that I read wars might have increased. But it is past midnight so who knows how clearly I am remembering this?

        • Reply October 11, 2015

          ZabuzaSama26

          I didn’t expect a reply so I was very happy to get one.

          Hmmm, now that you do say it true, a lot of people could argue that Arya is driven by revenge. I think what separates her from the rest of the Starks though is her incredibly ruthless nature and uncanny intelligence and wit. She learns from other people’s mistakes. She knows that not everything Ned did was smart, and that life is not shaped only by blind honor and loyalty. But overall I think the Starks are a clan heavily influenced by ideologies too simplistic for the world they live in, and most are selfish in their own way so to speak. Not that the other great clans of Westeros aren’t, but it is just ironic in the Stark’s case because they often speak of honor, valor, loyalty and taking care of their own people. Frankly, they may have thought they were, but none of their actions from the start of the books have done their people more good than harm. In the past history beyond A Game of Thrones, maybe they have had a glorious time in the North, but from the start of the series it’s just been going downhill for the Starks. And yes, someone has to write some article on Catelyn. Her sad death was perhaps sad, but she should not go without criticism.

          I do agree with you on that history is full of both the evil and the good. I just tend to think GRRM focuses more on the evil than the good. Yes, it makes for great story lines and gut-churning events, but my opinion is though the GOT world is an amazing one, it is perhaps, as far from reality as it is close to it. In a sense, what happens in Westeros seems to follow all the rules except that of Karma. At least, not in the very obvious sense. Many of those who have their way seem to escape with little or no retribution for many years. We all hope the Boltons get a blow to their grand scheme soon; they have been having their way for far too long. People like Margery are getting in ditch after ditch, but even the grand punishments like the Walk of Shame seem to end sort of well for people like Cersei. Ned Stark was never given a chance; he slipped once and that was his end. Cersei on the other hand slipped many times, and after what was supposed to be the mother of all retribution, she gets a prize to start havoc and chaos once more. Jamie was to be sort of hated in the beginning, and then somehow he grows into a hero, and people start to purposefully forget that he was the same man who pushed a little boy off a ledge in the beginning of the series. (I still love Jamie though.)

          As I said, I respect and love GRRM’s work very much. I do feel though that someone must stand up for Tolkein when one of the greatest works in fantasy is criticized. I am not going to say either work is better than the other, but I feel that LOTR is as justified on the image it brings of fantasy as is ASOIAF. Just because it is not as heavy in blood, gore and certain evils does not make any of it’s themes any less realistic.

          Oh, yea, I was just writing off the top of my head too. Reading now though Constantinople was in a much later time frame than of the one I mentioned. My bad. Constantinople was, now that I am reading properly on this, two dynasties away from the ruler that I mentioned. Constantinople was taken under the Ottoman Empire by Mohammad the Conquerer (or as the turks write it, Mehmet the Conquerer) around 1462. The man I spoke of was around 700 years back, Umar II, a ruler of the Ummayad Empire. He ruled in 717 for only four years, after which he was poisoned because of his reforms that angered the nobles who were, in essence, his cousins and uncles. His reforms were so great, that during his very short rule, there was not a single poor man in his empire. But that was only because he gave everyone back what was rightfully their’s, and he was killed for it. So yes, perhaps comparing him to the middle ages was 700 years off, but the point I was trying to make that genuine rulers do come and go every now and then.

          I can perhaps say that Margery Tyrell aspired for the throne but was genuine in her desire to rule as Queen. Unlike Cersei, who sees ruling as a game of power and leeching money and respect from a predominately male-dominant society. And perhaps, Doran Martell, but I do not know much of our Dornish friends so I cannot elaborate much on that. If Margery were to end up on the Iron Throne, which is far-fetched perhaps, I wouldn’t be disappointed …

  • Reply September 26, 2015

    ZabuzaSama26

    Excuse the many spelling mistakes …
    Omar*
    European*
    not know* to whom
    and many others …

  • Reply February 10, 2016

    watermark0n

    I think that’s pretty obvious. In retrospect nearly every decision Ned made before his death was a terrible one. He didn’t only have the choice of supporting Cersei, going with Renly also would’ve been a better move. The choice he made was the most honorable, but had absolutely the worst consequences.

  • Reply February 25, 2016

    Anonymous

    Did you read the books or just skimmed through Wiki articles? This is a terrible essay trying to cast Ned and co as a “bad guys”. You conveniently left out how the Cersei didn’t tossed away Robberts will giving the Bed command of the kingdom. Conveniently left out that Dany at the time who only had Drogo’s undisplend Khalisar which had never crossed the sea and even if they could they had no way of getting to Weseros (and if they did the armies of Westeros would destroy them before they got to the shores of Westeros) eve Robbert asked Ned to save the girl on his death bed. You also left out the deal Ned had with Varys and Cersie to recant his claim of Goff not being the true heir which he only did to protect his daughter’s and prevent a war. There are more examples but I don’t have the time. I also think you missed the point o f GRRM view of good and evil completely. He wanted to show there is no such think as pure good or pure evil, noone is light or dark only grey. No one said Robert was a bad person(like you eluded to)infact it’s the opposite people loved him, but he was a bad king. Next time try not to have an agenda and tell the whole story.

    • Reply February 27, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Okay, the gloves are off. If you’re going to be rude, I make no promises that I will be polite.
      1. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on the books. What’s the name of this website *history* behind *Game of Thrones*? First word *history*. And, its “Game of Thrones” not “A Game of Thrones” or “ASOIAF”. Sure, I’ve read the books, but I haven’t studied them and I don’t have charts on my walls comparing the scenes in the novels and the scenes in the books. The point of this website is to use Game of Thrones to explain history. It doesn’t always work out this way and sometimes it lapses into fandom, but that’s the intent. Why Game of Thrones instead of ASOIAF? Because you can’t take screen captures of a book. Well, you can, but focusing on the show lets me use visual images from its scenes to illustrate historical details and make them more concrete. I wanted people to be able to relate to events that occurred 500 or 1000 years ago by anchoring them in something that is real today (a TV show).
      2. You’re missing the entire point of the article. You are missing the big picture. The title is meant to be provocative to make people think, which is what I believe GRRM is doing. (IMO, the show is following his lead in this case.) The point of the article is to challenge people to think about the bigger picture of how we see “honor”. We romanticize honor and think it is okay to pick war over losing honor. Frankly, it’s not. Historical case in point: After the French king dissed Edward IV by turning his back on his son’s betrothal to Edward’s daughter, Edward threatened war. Not cool.
      3. I believe that GRRM plays with point of view in some cases to make people think. He wants people to think about war. Ned is a point of view character, and as a result, we like him. I love Ned. I do. But, like many point of view characters, we fall in love with him because we see the world through his eyes.
      Think about Dexter. I mean, come on, the guy is gross. But, there is a whole TV show that justifies the heinous actions of this serial killer — who would be a villain if he was on Law & Order — and makes us not only think his actions are okay, but makes us sympathize with him and even fall in love with him. How is Dexter — a lawbreaking serial killer who plays judge and then executes in the most vile way — made lovable? Through point of view. Same with Tony Soprano, any of Quentin Tarantino’s characters, etc. Ned is far more subtle though.
      I’m not necessarily convinced that GRRM wrote Ned as a villain or to mess with our minds, but I definitely think it is possible. The big picture with Ned — if he had just walked away — that is, if he had ignored what he learned about Cersei’s children — she might not have had Ned arrested, which leads to the cascade of events into war. In some respects, it is a slightly counterfactual Wars of the Roses all over again with Cersei as Elizabeth Woodville and Ned as Richard III.

      We admire Ned’s honor, but is that really the best course for leaders? Certainly, like you say, he recanted about Joffrey at the end for his daughters. But, if anything, we see this as a tragedy, because it violates the foundation of his character. But, Ned is a character and not an allegory or a teachable moment. He may have been created as a character equivalent of the philosophy in a Russian novel, but it doesn’t mean that he always is written to be a teachable moment. He is a character too.

      So, I’m not trying to cherry pick. The article is polemical because I am hoping to make people think. But, everyone gets so caught up in the “attack” on beloved Ned, that they forget to think about the big picture. Is going to war (or behaving in a way that leads to war) because of honor a thing we should hold up on high? Why do we continue to romanticize medieval chivalric behavior in movies and film? Human lives are always worth more than honor.

  • Reply December 16, 2016

    castaliareed

    So just coming across this article now. I actually think you might be on to more then just a discussion over honor verse ruling. I have often questioned whether Ned’s intentions are as “good” and “honorable” as we are lead to believe both in regards to his friendship with Robert and what he wants to achieve in Westeros. Bare with me, my thoughts are still really unformed on this and apologies if any of this came up already in comments. I just think there is more going on with our “honorable” Ned then meets the eye.

    1) Stark bias in the books. I have read some theories that suggest ASOIF is written from a Maester’s perspective. This comes from the idea that Maester Yandel wrote the book A World of Ice and Fire. The Maester writing ASOIF could be biased towards the Starks and wants to paint them in the best possible light.

    2) Southron Ambitions. There are some Northerners who believed that Ned’s father Rickard Stark had ambitions to elevate his family and eventually over throw the Targs. Evidence can be seen in the alliances he was forming with the Vale, Riverlands, and Stormlands. In the Vale by fostering Ned with Jon Arryn. In the Riverlands and Stormlands through marriages between Brendan Stark/Catelyn and Robert/Lyanna and also Ned’s friendship with Robert. The Lannisters are not a part of this. Tywin had been Aerys’ hand of the king. The North would’ve wanted to limit the Lannisters power. Ned would’ve been aware of his father’s intentions and may have felt an obligation to see them through.

    Based on no. 2 one would first assume Ned would want to do everything to keep Robert or his House in power. But there are few things that would’ve complicated this for Ned.

    3. Jon’s parentage. Ned liked and respected Rhaegar. Ned also loved Lyanna. Rhaegar may have been motivated to woo Lyanna in order to prevent her marriage to Robert and a Northern alliance with the Stormlands. (Sure, Rhaegar may have also loved her and also been obsessed with the prophecy of the dragon with 3 heads.) Could he have been planning a big reveal after Stannis became king that nobody liked.

    4. Ned has a close relationship with House Dayne in Dorne. By all accounts he at least cared about Ashara Dayne who was from Dorne. House Dayne even names one of their sons after him. By the end of the rebellion Dorne hates the Lannisters and begins secretly plotting revenge and a Targ restoration. Is House Dayne for this or against this? (I’m on the fence with where they fall here…)

    5. Cersei makes a comment in her discussion with Ned saying that he should’ve taken the throne when he arrived in Kings Landing. This is mostly ment to be an insult. Though, it always sticks with me. While he apparently didn’t know it at the time, he could’ve taken the throne in Jon’s name and ruled as regent.

    Other interesting tidbits.
    6. Ned had been working on a plan with Benjen to re-settle the Gift with wildlings and having taxes go to the Wall. (And I’m assuming some to WF…b.c. well something had to be in it for them.) Jon & Stannis are the ones who see this plan through. Did they realized it was what Ned wanted? How would other regions have felt about this? It would have enriched the North making them more powerful eventually.
    7. He starts to see that Robert is a crappy King who has gotten himself into debt with the Lannisters. Revealing Cersei’s betrayal could’ve have gone a long way to getting out from under the Lannisters thumb. Was he eventually going for a “You forgive our debt, we’ll let Cersei and her children live and you can keep Casterly Rock.” type of play.

    All this is to illustrate that Ned’s motivations would be highly complicated and frought. Not that any of it makes him a villian. It does make may him much more of a strategic player then most realize. Ultimately, he was going to go after the Lannisters one way or another. You gotta get out of debt somehow. Oh and he’s not really that “honorable” he’s just kinda quiet which makes him appear honorable.

  • Reply August 10, 2017

    Andrew

    I have to agree with various commenters that Ned’s moral foundation was highly flawed, and that the story is told in a way that makes him appear like a hero. It’s like reading about a modern president in a newspaper that is clearly sympathetic. Let me offer this incremental reasoning:

    1) Ned is offered the job of Hand of the King.
    2) Ned is offered the job primarily because he is the King’s closest, most trusted, friend
    3) Ned agrees, supposedly reluctantly, to take the job.

    Remember, Ned is a “Lord” who rules some region. He inherited that “right”, and this is the accepted social system, supposedly. It never appears to enter Ned’s head that his right to rule is based entirely on heredity, not demonstrated leadership ability.

    4) The King became king by militarily defeating the T army.
    5) Ned was literally right beside the King while they sliced up the enemy.
    6) They physically slaughtered people with swords, together
    7) Then the King got his crown, after the slaughter was over
    8) Then, some related people, smashed babies brains on the walls
    9) This was done to prevent the babies from growing up to take the throne from the King
    10) Ned knew about this
    11) Some other people were also murdered, perhaps dozens, in cold blood, to keep the king in power
    12) Ned knew this too
    13) Ned himself routinely used the sword Ice to behead “oath breakers”

    What kind of a man is Ned? He loves his family, true. But so do the other families. The Lannisters love each other too.

    Ned accepts the Hand job knowing the history behind the King better than practically anyone. He knows how many people were killed, tortured, and murdered to make this King into a King.

    The author offers some bizarre justification like the T administration was corrupt, lazy, cruel, whatever, as a pretext for why Ned and the King killed them. Sure, you could say the actual baby/child murders were perpetrated by others, not the King. And maybe the King disapproved of the murders. Perhaps. But, then again, he didn’t exactly walk away from his throne when he realized how many evil deeds it took to retain it. Murder for hire is still murder.

    Ned took the job, knowing all this. He became consigliere to the mob boss, knowing the mob specializes in murdering innocents. Ned is a bad man, in a bad time. He might have been a grain more honorable than the next man, but it was a small grain.

    By we never hear the story told from the perspective of the other, ostensibly bad, characters. It’s entirely possible that Joffrey never perceived his behavior as wrong. After all beheading a traitor was perfectly acceptable, something that Ned himself had often done.

    Ned chose to serve one of the kings. All of the kings were evil in their own way, and the one Ned chose to serve happened to die, and Ned fell with him. Why not? Ned’s swinging sword gave the King his throne in the first place, why not have him die with the King. I saw it coming when Ned used Ice to cut off the deserter’s head in the very beginning. This punishment is Draconian, and certainly not the behavior of an Aragorn from LOTR. Where was his mercy? His sensitivity? He was another brute lord with a sword, who didn’t care how the deserter felt, or what his reasons for deserting might be. Why does he deserve to be the hero of the story?

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