(Warning, SPOILERS for the first book in a well known series that’s been out for a long while, and has been made into a cable television event.)
People love to bash on Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark. I get that. But I don’t have to stand around like Barristan Selmy and let it happen. Let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time, there was a nobleman who lived with his loving family and loyal retainers in their ancestral seat of power. Things were good.
Then, by royal request, the nobleman was forced to leave the security of his home for an allegedly better position (a request that was not to be refused.) Despite his misgivings the nobleman relocated, left security behind and entered a dangerous situation.
He did what he could, tried to provide for the security of his family, tried to make allies, dealt with threats, but in the end was betrayed, dying while captive of a jealous, noble house that had been in bed with his liege.
I’m talking of course, about Duke Leto Atreides, the father of Paul Muad’Dib from the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert. (Oh, SPOILER ALERT for Dune, a book that’s been in print for 48 years.)
Oh, you thought I was describing Ned Stark, from A Game of Thrones? That sounds like him too. If you didn’t think I was describing Ned Stark, I apologize for assuming you thought that. Or for spoiling A Game of Thrones. D’oh.
(SPOILER ALERT: The following will be referring to plot points in Season One and Season Two Game of Thrones. Fair Warning.)
Now, I’m not saying that Dune and the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire are super similar (both are epic) but I do want to point out that although Ned Stark is often seen as the butt of Internet jokes for failing to deal appropriately with Queen Cersei, (we’ve all seen various stupid Ned Stark meme entries, right? I included one at the very top of this post. Even if it is Boromir) Duke Leto tends to be given a pass, despite ending up a similar tragic character.
I guess in some ways, it’s fair to be more charitable to the Red Duke. Leto does seem to be the guy with his finger on the pulse: he knows Arrakeen will be a Harkonnen trap, he plans accordingly. But we’re not surprised especially when the trusted Dr. Yueh single-handedly drops the Atreides’ defenses to allow in the Harkonnen troops. And more importantly, the Imperial Sardaukar (disguised in Harkonnen livery.)
So, in some ways, Leto gets screwed, and isn’t the architect of his own destruction. Or, is he? The Emperor wiped Leto out because the duke had a dangerous combination of ideals, good leadership, decency, and a cadre of fighters who (if not stepped on) could have gone on to form an army equal to the Sardaukar. Duke Leto became a nail sticking up, and had to be hammered down. Leto, don’t be so awesome! It’s totally his fault.
(And no, Duke Leto was NOT creating some stupid sonic weapon that made the Emperor nervous. Don’t believe the lies of the 80s movie. LIES.)
It was a slightly different situation for Ned Stark, relocating to King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King. It wasn’t necessarily a trap, and with King Robert’s support, Ned was relatively safe. Ned’s discovery of Jaime and Cersei’s incest and his laying the cards on the table in front of Cersei, although not extremely wise, was not actually his undoing. Ned was still operating from a position of strength. King Robert’s return was all that was required for him to see justice done.
Unfortunately, Cersei had already arranged a hunting accident for King Robert.
Ned’s pivotal moment of defeat was not so much in trusting Littlefinger, but in trusting in the legitimacy of King Robert’s rule. Littlefinger had it only partly right in saying that the city guard would follow who pays them. That’s one option. Varys was more insightful when asking Tyrion the riddle of the three men and the sell-sword. You know the riddle I’m talking about.
VARYS: Three men are in a room. A king, a septon, and a rich man. Each of the three bids a sell-sword to slay the other two. Whom does the sell-sword obey?
TYRION: You’re telling this ALL WRONG. The charming yet fun-sized Hand of the King strolls into a tavern. Inside are three beautiful women, a queen of an exotic land, a high priestess of the Summer Island’s multi-teated Love Goddess, and the richest woman in Westeros who happens to be so rich that she can pay handsomely for men to forget that she’s only slightly less stunningly beautiful than the queen or the well-trained high priestess of love.
VARYS: I was not telling a joke, my lord.
TYRION: ON THAT WE AGREE!
Back to Varys’ legitimate (if not necessarily salacious) riddle about power: Who would the sell-sword obey? The king, the septon, or the rich man? In truth, the sell-sword would obey whom he has loyalty to: the crown, the gods, or to gold.
Had King Robert inspired sufficient loyalty in his men, King Robert’s last wish in granting Ned the regency would have been enough. Ned’s experience with Robert was largely informed by the military campaigns he shared with Robert, and he knew that the men of Robert’s army loved him. Sadly, Kings Landing’s City Guards were not King Robert’s men.
Ned had two decision points when facing the death of King Robert, either accept Renly’s offer of Highgarden men in exchange for supporting Renly as King, or follow Littlefinger’s suggestion to not challenge Joffrey’s birthright but seize control by force, putting Joffrey in “protective custody”, to deny the unpleasant and unpopular Stannis an ascension to the throne.
Neither would necessarily be the wisest move. Ned knew that Renly had no legitimate claim to the throne, and supporting him would make Ned a traitor in the eyes of the rightful king Stannis. Although Stannis had no love for Ned (seeing him as someone who robbed him of Robert’s fraternal attention) Ned had deep respect for Stannis, and saw no benefit in betraying him. I can respect that. Kings Landing would be at war with at least the Stormlands (those not backing Renly) and the Lannisters (unhappy with Joffrey being put aside.)
(And we can imagine Ned being on the losing side when Renly still gets assassinated by shadow-Stannis.)
(What? I hear you say… Pat, you can’t factor in Stannis and Melisandre‘s magic into Ned’s decision process! That’s true, but since everyone is condemning Ned mostly with 20/20 hindsight, I feel it’s fair to consider some of these factors.)
Doing a shadow coup-d’etat as Littlefinger suggested actually requires even more trust of Littlefinger by Ned. Let’s examine the coup scenario in relation to what Ned actually does.
Coup: Ned needs Littlefinger to bribe the city guard to back him up as he siezes power.
Actual: Ned needs Littlefinger to incentivize economically the city guard to back him up if the Lannisters refuse to obey Robert’s dying wishes.
Either way, Littlefinger can either help Ned or screw Ned.
Ideally, for Littlefinger, if Ned sticks his neck out for a coup, he gets the extra advantage of Ned dishonoring himself and being thrown in the black cells.
NED: Littlefinger, I totally need you to guarantee that Janos Slynt’s men will back me when I legally assert my right as regent, in case Cersei flips out.
BAELISH: You got it man!
BAELISH: Hah! Loser!
SELMY: Egad, I’m not all that comfortable about this, but am not willing to back up decent Ned.
NED: Littlefinger, I totally need you to guarantee that Janos Slynt’s men will back me when I do as you suggest and take Joffrey and Cersei prisoner “for their own protection” even though it’s a Richard III level act of skeeviness.
BAELISH: You got it man!
BAELISH: Hah! TRAITOR!
SELMY: Egad, Ned Stark you villain!
So, although Ned might not have considered this aspect, his instinct for preserving his honor might have served him well in at least not having the absolutely worse thing possible happening. Things don’t go well for Ned, but they could have been worse.
I have a lot of sympathy for Ned. Clearly, the Peter Principle (or is that the PEYTR PRINCIPLE???) of “People Will Eventually Rise to their Level of Incompetence” was in effect for Ned. He was an awesome warrior, and great Warden of the North, a righteous Lord of Winterfell, and a pretty decent Hand of the King (in that he wasn’t a tool and didn’t want to screw over the smallfolk like an ass). The one thing he wasn’t was a treacherous horrible creep.
Maybe people get all negative emotional about Ned and not Duke Leto, because Leto was clearly not the hero, his son Paul was. But Ned was in many ways perceived as the big hero of the story. And when he died, we have to justify his death. To establish that his fall wasn’t random, or that it wasn’t simply that bad things happen to good people. So I guess it makes sense that the more we pile on Ned’s “stupidity”, the better we feel.
I don’t necessarily want to feel better about Ned’s death. I want some recognition of him being a great guy.
I guess I came not bury him, but to praise him. (I sense Shakespeare preparing lawyers…)
Okay, I’m done. If you want to bash on Ned, I won’t stop you. JOFFREY LOVERS!
© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved