In Defense of Ned Stark

Posted: September 4, 2013 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
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(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…

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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.)

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You Were Expecting Someone Else?

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.

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If Smug was a Cake, I’d be the Icing. And the Actual Cake Part Also. I’m All Smug.

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.

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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.)

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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!

[Later]

BAELISH: Hah! Loser!

SELMY: Egad, I’m not all that comfortable about this, but am not willing to back up decent Ned.

vs.

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!

[Later]

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!

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Wait! I Thought I was Duke Leto! (You were, Hurt. The boring one. In the better adaptation though…)

© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved

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Comments
  1. onlyblake says:

    I never disliked Ned… but I remember wishing he’d kept more to himself for longer than he did…

    Like

    • Hey, thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I don’t think people disliked Ned, and I hope that wasn’t what I was implying when I say people bash him. People just kind of perceived him as blundering around with honor-blinders, which I took some issue with.

      I completely understand your wish that he’d not have put of the warning flag to Cersei.

      Like

      • picard578 says:

        Him giving warning to the Queen of B****es is actually his action I cannot understand. He did not have money to bribe guards, so he had to trust Baelish. He could not have siezed Joffrey by force, as you pointed out, though I’m not sure why he did not give proof of Joffrey’s lack of legitimancy to Ser Barristan (I’m not sure it would have changed anything, but even so).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think my point is that at the moment Ned told Cersei, he was in a much stronger position. Once Robert returned it would be curtains for Cersei, if she didn’t flee, since her moving against Ned prior to Robert’s return would have ended badly for her.

          Cersei: Robert! You’re back. An interesting accident happened to Ned. Quite tragic, really. And to his entire household.

          Robert: Don’t think twice about it. Hey, I wonder if I can still swing my warhammer.

          Ser Barristan: Whoa!

          Robert: Ooops. Another accident.

          Anyway, once Robert returned dying, that was Ned’s last chance to take care of business, really. After that, he was doomed.

          Like

          • picard578 says:

            Yes, I think it could be said that Ned died because he was too decent to bother a man on his deathbed or organize anything until Robert was dead. That being said, while I can see why Ned didn’t want to see Cersei and her children killed, he should have understood that warning her will likely result in a war regardless.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Nivekious says:

        I realize that I’m quite late to the party here, but given that Lancel had the strongwine with him when they left on the hunting trip, ready to give to Robert, I think he was dead whether Ned warned Cersei or not. She’d already decided to kill him because she was sick of putting up with him. The fact that it happened just before Ned could reveal here secret was a bonus for her.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I completely agree that Robert was dead regardless, although it’s so weird that Varys insisted otherwise. “It was your mercy that killed the king…”

          I know ravens are magic in Westeros, but it seems a stretch that Cersei could have gotten a message to Lancel in the hunting party.

          And hey, you’re not late to the party. I’m always delighted when people comment on my older posts, it’s much appreciated!

          Like

  2. Kelly Eckert says:

    Great article, Pat! Sadly, I think part of what is saying–through all of his characters–is that bad things DO happen to good people. I know nobody likes to believe that, and we definitely don’t like to see that moral meted out on our heroes. But, really, we wouldn’t have a story at all if it didn’t happen–at least not past book 1!

    Like

  3. Sarah says:

    Well, it took me a week longer than I meant to, but I finally got to read this post today. And I really enjoyed it, Pat! I totally thought you were talking about Ned in the beginning. Haha 🙂

    You did a nice job summing up the situation. I completely agree with your assessment at the end about people trying to justify his death somehow. I felt like he was the hero of the story too and I had a hard time accepting that he was really dead. I was waiting for the next episode to reveal that it all was just a dream or something. I had a hard time letting go of his death. In fact, I may still be a little bitter about it… 😉

    Thank you for pointing me in direction of this post. I look forward to read more once I’m caught up on the show!

    Like

    • Thank you so much, Sarah, I appreciate the feedback! (Hope I didn’t spoil Frank Herbert’s Dune that much…)

      The rest of my GoT-centric blogs are best read after seeing Season Three, so I hope you enjoy getting caught up on your show watching. 🙂

      Thanks again and best regards!

      Like

  4. Adrianne says:

    Hello again Pat!
    I feel that Ned knew he was in a no win situation and when that happens, the only thing he can do is stay true to himself so he chose that path that felt right for him (because that is what Northmen do right?). However, I feel that Ned’s undoing comes in the form of Catelyn Stark. Firstly, I think that had she not captured Tyrion, Ned would not have been so distracted with trying to keep her safe from that backlash and he could have concentrated his efforts on more pressing matters (not that getting so-called justice for Bran wasn’t important). Plus, that was more ammunition for the Lannisters and the reason for Ned’s injury and loss of loyal men. Secondly, even though this is not really her fault, I think that Littlefinger’s love for her had a lot to do with his motivation to betray Ned in the end… Just a thought, what do you think?

    Like

    • Oh, you’re very right that Catelyn made things very tough for Ned, starting a war, making him stick his neck out and send off troops.

      Catelyn and Lysa, in some ways, were pretty similar. Both paranoid. But vulnerable to Baelish’s charms.

      Like

  5. rizlatnar says:

    Another great post!
    Ned Stark’s the kind of guy you want to be friends with, not the type of man to play the Game of Thrones, right?
    Well, that’s fair enough, but being a decent guy in Westeros (as in real life) burns, and when it comes down to it, people like Ramsay Snow or Littlefinger (the guys you don’t want to get within a kilometer of in real life) often win.
    It’s less about Ned’s stupidity, and more about his lack of flexibility. He can’t break his honor, even to protect his own family (at least from my point of view).
    Actually, I’d like a POV of Ramsay Snow. Sure, he’s a dick to Theon, but he’s a bastard, and that probably messed him up.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought I commented on this before…but it may have ended up in the ether. Your observation that Ned realized that taking the iron throne by right of residence would not have held, and he’d be turfed out after an extended fight for succession was a good one. Cersei should have realized that. So should have I but now I realize I’ve been a lazy reader. I’ve got to up my game 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You did make a mention of Ned and the Throne on my Legitimacy of power essay (didn’t want you thinking the ether had sucked that up.)

      Thanks for the feedback! I’m always glad when people come across my Ned Stark defense, it was my very first Game of Thrones article.

      Like

  7. picard578 says:

    I’m thinking… what if Ned did a bit of backstabbing there? Use Renly for an immediate support, and once throne was mostly secure and he could get more Stark troops local, plant Stannis on the throne (oh, Renly, I thought you just wanted to be a king regent until Stannis arrived)? I don’t like it either, any more than Ned would, and it could easily end badly, but it might have been the best of bad options. Legitimacy claims aside, Renly would not have been a good king – nobody who wants to be a king that much could ever be a good king, plus he’s got no experience. Relying on somebody else’s money to pay for mercenaries is never a good idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nivekious says:

      Ned would never do it. It’s dishonorable on three fronts: acting before Robert is dead, acting against children in the dead of night, and betraying Renly (we know from Ned’s views on Jaime that he considers an oath sacred, even if it’s to do something wrong). Honestly, his best bet would have been to just leave. When he sees Cersei has already moved to make Joffrey king and refuses to accept Ned as Lord Protector, he could have just said “Ok, well I guess you don’t need me then, I’ll just go home” and then sent a Raven to Stannis from Winterfell, making it his problem to deal with. If Tywin tries to come after him there Moat Cailin is in the way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree that Ned would never have went in on some backstabbing, particularly because he’d be playing their game even more. Ned would be a crappy conspirator, they’d see that coming, and he’d end up looking like the villain.

        I don’t know if he would have been allowed to smoothly exit after he would be compelled to swear fealty to the new king. One reason he wanted the girls to leave would be so they couldn’t be held hostage. Cersei could have insisted that Sansa remain to marry Joffrey (or remain a hostage in reality.)

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        • I recently started re-watching the series. I quite enjoyed it and the books. I think your analysis is mostly fair, but I think in a way there’s a point you’re missing.

          In most fantasy novels, Eddard Stark would simply have been a fine regent. He isn’t actually stupid; his investigation for instance demonstrates that very well. It’s not even that he’s too honourable–arguably he’s about normal honourable for the average fantasy setting.

          The issue is that in most fantasy settings and in most action movies and thrillers, the only really intelligent people who are good are basically nerds. In fantasy movies they are all versions of Sam tarly–secondary characters with their nose in a book who support the hero. Only villains are cunning, and villainly in most fantasy novels is defeated by the strong will, honour, courage and destiny of the hero. One of the best examples is the original Star Wars, another good one is Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t matter how clever, how powerful, how strategically far sighted the villains are–the pure heart and nobility of the hero will defeat them.

          GRRM turns this on its head in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. The villains think far more like actual Medieval power gamers than like fantasy villains; they are ruthless and determined and well prepared.

          So the real issue then is Ned Stark vs. Cersei Lannister. Cersei is clearly not that brilliant, but she is ruthless, determined and crafty. So why doesn’t Stark win against her?

          1. Catelyn undermines his position. Not only does she unjustly arrest Tyrion without actual proof beyond the dagger, but she bungles it by bringing him to the Vale and failing to control the situation. It doesn’t matter why, those are details. It was an unnecessary act of provocation that forced Ned’s hand. (in most fantasy settings following your heart always works)

          2. Ned doesn’t actually build any allies in King’s Landing but presumes upon his position. He doesn’t heed the warnings given to him by Varys, Littlefinger or the Queen. His own men are naive and are just straightforward good soldiers; he has no cunning advisers, he has no powerfu supporters. (in most fantasy settings this is not necessary; good people naturally flock to support good leaders)

          3. He warns Cersei of his intent. It is clear in this conversation that he doesn’t really grasp how dangerous she can be. He feels sorry for her because Robert hits her. He just sees her as a vulnerable woman who will be defeated when he brings charges against her. In his earlier conversation with her, he warned her. (in fairness, in most such stories, only the most insane women are actually dangerous to good people.)

          4. He doesn’t make either of the choices that you mentioned above. However the key issue is not really Littlefinger and the Gold Cloaks; it’s striking fast. It doesn’t matter who helped him do it; all he needed to do was get rid of Cersei’s guards while they were divided up and before they had a chance to act; the key thing being grabbing Cersei and Joffrey and separating them. This could have been accomplished quite readily. It is made clear in both the show and in the books that stark’s men are higher quality man for man; all they needed to do was a concentrated action with either Renly or Littlefinger or both running interference. Using both (taking a page from Tyrion’s book) would have worked. Then with the heir and queen in his position, Ned could have done what he liked. The key thing was to deal with his men personally.

          Because after that, establishing whoever he wanted as king would have been fine. This was not about honour and more about tactics. He didn’t need to murder anyone to do this. So why didn’t he?

          (in most fantasy novels, declarations of rightful rulership WORKS. Look at Lord of the Rings, look at the Hobbit, look at the legends of King Arthur. In most popular stories the villain gets their comeuppance in the end, and rarely through cunning and craft but usually through a few passionate actions that show how nobility will always win.)

          So the big difference between Eddard Stark and Leto Atreides to me is simply this: the settings. Science Fiction has always been a genre in which anything could happen, including things that were unsatisfying or disturbing, so when we are presented with the idea that there is a dog eat dog world of intrigue and powerful groups vying for power, we get it and accept it. We’re more used to science fiction dystopias or grim endings. Also Leto is not hte hero in the same sense–he isn’t trying to uncover a dark secret or doing anything that we get involved with, he’s just trying to rule wisely and justly.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Wow, that’s a bigass comment. I appreciate that!

            I tend to agree with your assessments, although I think Ned was not in that good a position to strike fast. Most of his men had gone with Beric Dondarrion to interdict the Mountain in the Riverlands (where they ran into a Lannister army, which was a bold move from Tywin.)

            Ned’s issue was, as you pointed out, that he had few allies. Renly would help him but on condition that Ned support him as king. And I do feel that had Ned tried to do a similar move against the Queen with Littlefinger’s aid, Littlefinger would have betrayed him as well.

            Catelyn completely undermined Ned’s position, and arguably Ned could have condemned the action, but I doubt much would have changed.

            I think it’s clear in hindsight that Ned erred in confronting Cersei, and I doubt I can convince anyone that it was a good move, but there are points to consider. I’ve already mentioned that Ned was in a strong position, if only Robert returned safely. But Cersei had that already taken care of. But I can throw out a few other factors.

            Ned had already made up his mind to take his leave from service as the Hand, that was clear when he made arrangements to ship his family north, and had sent orders for Moat Cailin to be supplied, to shut out any southern forces. He was planning to get home as well.

            Robert’s inaction against Jaime attacking Ned was disheartening to Ned, Jaime’s flight from the city should have been admission of guilt, regardless how Cersei was framing it. So Nec’s follow up actions were to shake things up to force Robert to deal, leading to his demand that Tywin come to court to answer for Clegane.

            In warning Cersei, Ned expected a rational person to flee the city with their children, which would further undermine the Lannisters whom Ned felt were behind Arryn’s death, take the heat off of Catelyn, and force Robert to deal with Tywin.

            And distract Robert by giving him a fleeing target so Ned could roll out. (And maybe distract Robert from hunting Targaryens, since Jon was one.)

            But Cersei stayed and Robert came back dying. This worked out badly for Ned, but arguably worse for Cersei, since the Stark name lives on, but Cersei’s branch of the Lannister family is looking rather pruned.

            This might sound like I’m arguing with you, but I hope not, I think you have a great take on Ned, but particularly your observations on fantasy tropes. I hadn’t considered the fundamental difference between Leto and Ned to be setting. And of course, Leto had a much better grasp of the dangers and sought to make allies (chiefly with the Fremen) whereas Ned operated under assumed entitlement, and weakened his position by committing his strength around, which unfortunately is a northern tenet.

            “In winter, we share our strength.”

            Thank you again, it was an honor to get such feedback, it’s much appreciated.

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