This post will be talking about Stannis Baratheon, one of the many, many characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Therefore, if you’re not caught up with the show there’s a chance of being exposed to spoilers.
Just under two years ago, I published a post examining Stannis Baratheon, the crabbier and less embraceable of Robert Baratheon’s two younger brothers. At the time, I presented my case that Stannis might not be that bad of a king, if he could just cut loose of the influence of his magical advisor, Melisandre.
A lot can happen in two years. I’m not so sure that I’m ready to recant my old post, I think it’s still relevant, but Stannis’ character deserves a second look. Spoiler alert: I don’t think I’ll be as charitable to Stannis the Mannis as I once was, although I don’t think I condemn him as harshly as others do.
I also think his actions bring up a lot of interesting parallels or comparisons to other fictional kings.
I’ll try to be entertaining as I talk about Stannis, because in general when he’s around there are definitely less laughs.
The Rise of Stannis Baratheon
Last year, Stannis managed to improve on his image as the brother-slaying, Blackwater battle-losing, nephew-sacrifice attempting claimant to the Iron Throne.
- He let his right-hand man Davos do the talking, and scored a necessary loan from the Iron Bank of Braavos.
- He didn’t launch an attack on King’s Landing, but instead responded to the realm’s need and stopped a Wildling invasion at Castle Black.
- Err… these lists usually work better with 3 elements… oh, I know, he spoke highly of Ned Stark when he met Jon Snow. My heart soared and my eyeballs got less dry. (Manfully so.)
This was all great, right? The Lannister-held Iron Throne had less backing from the Iron Bank, Stannis was now in the north and could threaten the new Bolton-led regime (booooo Boltons!) Season 5 held the promise of great stuff from Stannis. It was an exciting time to be on his team!
The Fall of Stannis Baratheon
Then, things didn’t go so well.
- He wasn’t really resistant to letting the Wildlings find refuge south of the Wall, but Stannis couldn’t budge on demanding traditional fealty from the Free Folk.
- Mance Rayder’s refusal to acknowledge Stannis’ authority forced Stannis to execute him, cutting off any avenue of future compromise.
- Stannis tried to woo the northern lords to his side, with zero positive results.
We can only imagine how his messages to the lords went. I assume they were along these lines…
Traitors, time to wake up and acknowledge me as your rightful king. Any troubles you’ve had recently are your own damn fault for supporting the usurper Robb Stark. Bend the knee, and lets get on with booting out the Boltons. Unless you’d prefer having the skin flayed from off that knee. There’s no accounting for northern lack of wits. Best regards, Stannis Baratheon, first of his name, king of the blah blah blah…
- Lady Melisandre assured Stannis that he had the blessings of the Lord of Light and that victory was assured. So off he marched south towards Winterfell…
- … and into a big snowfall that blocked his advance.
- Melisandre kept on wanting Stannis to rise up in the Scientology ranks by sacrificing Shireen to the Volcano God,
XenuR’hllor. Stannis wasn’t into it. But he kept on reading his copy of Dianetics, just in case.
- Mysteriously, Stannis forgot to tell anyone to guard the food and siege weapons. Ramsay Bolton and some snow ninjas set it pretty much all on fire. (Melisandre’s spider-sense kicked in 2 seconds before all this went down. Not all that handy, prophetess.)
- Facing desertions, lack of food, and bad weather, Stannis finally agreed to Melisandre’s suggestion of a Shireen barbecue.
- The good news: the weather improved! The bad news: half the men deserted, Stannis’ wife hung herself, and Melisandre suddenly remembered that thing she had to do, you know, that thing, and was gone gone gone.
- Stannis grimly got the men to march the rest of the way to Winterfell, where Ramsay obliterated them. That Bolton bastard didn’t even bother to let them set up for a siege. That way the Baratheons could at least feel useful while slowly freezing or starving to death. Because that’s the only thing that would have happened.
- Stannis ended up being dispatched by the formidable Brienne of Tarth, who fulfilled her duty to Renly Baratheon whom Stannis killed in Season 2.
Wow, a lot more detail in the “Fall of” section than in the “Rise of” section. Which is probably how Stannis will always be remembered. Screwing up. Let’s have some topics for discussion.
Kid Killing. All the Kool Kings are doing it.
Okay, usually when a monarch goes around murdering minors, it’s someone else’s kid. You know, like Richard III murdering his nephews in the tower (allegedly!) King Herod having children killed, hoping to short circuit any messiah-related threats to his reign. King Arthur pretty much doing the same thing…
THE KING ARTHUR???
Yes, yes… the Excaliber-wielding, Round Table-building, Might for Right-emoting Arthur ordered the drowning of a bunch of babies who were born in the month of May. Because Merlin was extra vague about Mordred.
King Arthur: Wow, my Camelot policies are going beautifully! It’s an anachronistically golden age here in Merry Olde Englande.
Merlin: Yeah, don’t get used to it. Eventually your bastard son will challenge your reign, and it’ll all go to hell. But there will be an awesome musical. Richard Burton plays you on stage, but Richard Harris plays you in the movie.
King Arthur: What? I need details man! Maybe I can kill him as a child and secure the realm.
Merlin: Hey, I’m not going to let you go all Terminator on the kid, that never works.
King Arthur: Well, let me know what month he was born in, so at least I can properly celebrate annually, with a little cake and some wistful “I never had a chance to teach him how to play peasant-ball.”
Merlin: Fair enough. He was born in May.
King Arthur: GAWAIN! Round up all of the May babies and have them taken to the harbor!
King Arthur: I meant to say, the harbour! (Crazy spellings!)
So we have an example of a well regarded fictional king who tried to kill his son…
I mean, at least Stannis didn’t decide to burn a whole bunch of girls just to make sure he sacrificed Shireen.
Okay, if that’s the best I can say about Stannis and Shireen, it’s pretty clear that his action was unforgivable.
Keep Your Enemies Close, and Your Friends/Family Dead
Stannis wasn’t running around killing random kids, like all the other monarchs do, his action was clearly worse. He sacrificed his own daughter, an adorable child who supported him. Hmmm, maybe Shireen was a bit too eager to please when Stannis came by for the pre-burning chat.
Stannis: Hey girl, would you mind doing dad a favor?
Shireen: Sure, I’d be glad to help, in whatever way possible.
Stannis: Great! Whew! That’s a relief, and a load off my conscience.
Shireen: Unless you plan on sacrificing me to R’hllor, then the answer is no.
Stannis: Sorry, I couldn’t hear what you said.
Shireen: I said, anything that doesn’t involve me burning to death!
Stannis: What? You know my hearing is bad, and I’m outside the tent and there’s all this noise, and those guys coming in the tent to escort you are making such a din… but I remember that you said you’d do anything…
Ease up, I’m not seriously trying to blame Shireen.
It’s a low tactic from Stannis to blunt his complicity in having her burned alive by planting the seed of “Hey, sometimes we have to make tough calls, little girl, you understand. Dad’s under a lot of pressure.” Your children don’t really expect things like that. Nor do your friends. (Sorry for saying “your”, I’m not accusing *you* of anything.)
Stannis’ rise and fall, along with the role of prophecy, would make for a great Shakespearean play. Too late! Macbeth kind of stole that spot, but in truth, Macbeth was waaaaaay more competent than Stannis. At least the doomed Scotsman actually became king. And the witches that were prophesying on his behalf pretty much got their details right. Unlike Melisandre.
Macbeth’s problem (other than regicidal ambition and a crazy wife and so on) was that he tried to have it both ways. He’d rely on the beneficial parts of the prophecy (if he’s to be king, he rationalized the need to kill the visiting King Duncan) but then he’d fight against parts of the prophecy that he didn’t like. Such as fearing the witches’ prophecy that Banquo Jr would become king after him. This caused him to put hits out on his friend Banquo and Banquo’s boy. (Hey, Shakespeare Experts! Please correct me if I have the details wrong.)
Stannis had a similar deal to Macbeth, he had his own witch throwing around future visions of him wearing a crown. Unlike Macbeth though, he dragged his feet more when it came to trusting in the prophecy. But eventually he’d commit, and there would be mixed results.
As anyone in Vegas will tell you, intermittent reinforcement is the most compelling way to get someone hooked. Melisandre had been pretty cagey about her visions, able to downplay when things hadn’t turned out as well as Stannis had liked, and really jump on the parts that had seemed to have come true.
I’m not saying that this excuses Stannis’ behavior, I just don’t think that his actions were as inconsistent as some people have said. Look, it’s crazy to burn your kid. Don’t read that any other way. Let me elaborate on what I mean…
Not My Stannis! Nerd Rage!
Show Watchers! If you’re reading this, I’m going to mention some book details. Nothing crazy spoilery, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in Book Six. But I’m going to talk a little bit about book and show differences. Feel free to skip to the next section if you must. But I feel it’s reasonably safe here.
Book readers reacted strongly when Stannis sacrificed his daughter to R’hllor in the hopes that the weather would improve. There were many reasons for their rage.
Shireen is alive at the end of the last book, nowhere near Stannis and his snowbound encampment. With her is Melisandre and crabby Queen Shireen, and there doesn’t *seem* to be any reason that they’d be burning the princess anytime soon.
Stannis in the books hardly has any kind of relationship with Shireen, so I think it might hurt less emotionally if he ends up agreeing to use her death for magical advantages. But book-Stannis seems to have reasons for wanting Shireen alive and unharmed. Before heading south with the goal of raising the North against the Boltons or die trying, Stannis ordered Ser Davos to see that Shireen eventually be placed on the Iron Throne, as would be her right, if the northern campaign goes south. (Everyone understand my colloquialism? Yes? No?)
For show-Stannis to kill his heir and therefore end his lineage seems extreme. This confused some viewers. Fair enough.
Like I implied above, it hurt. It hurt that Stannis and Shireen had been given some sweet (and sweetly awkward) father-daughter screen time, and that made the betrayal all the more painful.
I respect that book readers felt themselves also betrayed by the turn of events, but I’m not in their camp. It’s not like I’m pro-burn-daughters, but neither was I outraged by the way the show played out.
I was unhappy, but it was in my opinion it was the right measure of unhappy. I was unhappy that Shireen died, but not that the plot went in that direction. Like I was unhappy that Ned died, or that the Red Wedding happened, or even that Jaime had his hand amputated. None of those things made me happy, but I recognized the power of the events, that they weren’t random or capricious.
And it seemed consistent with this Stannis. In fact, it even seems consistent with book-Stannis.
I’ve talked about several other kings in this article, and all either did terrible things to become king, or to remain king. I guess I’m used to kings being assholes.
I’ll admit that some of the reasons for Shireen’s death were dictated by the plot. For whatever reason, the show-runners had decided that the end of Season 5 would hit major cliffhangery notes: Jon Snow stabbed, Dany in the wilderness and surrounded by Dothraki, Arya blind, Sansa and Theon committing suicide. Okay, maybe Sansa and Theon were jumping off the Wall hoping that the snow bank wasn’t Rock Hard and expected to escape unharmed. We’ll see how that works out at the beginning of Season 6.
So they had to hit certain benchmarks, and based on a framework that we’re not privy too, had an idea for a confluence of events. To wrap up Stannis’ storyline, to get Melisandre back at the Wall in time for Jon Snow to be stabbed, to provide some payoff for Brienne, etc.
For Stannis to come to the decision to kill his daughter in order to get his starving, demoralized men moving is a hard pill to swallow, but pacing and schedule wise, it couldn’t be helped. The books can have Stannis trapped for months and really sell the desperation. The show doesn’t have that luxury.
I’m not going to defend the storyline and the pacing, I’m just saying that it didn’t not work for me.
As for Stannis killing his heir, unlike book-Stannis, Melisandre promised him sons. Sure, she might have just meant shadow assassin smoke babies, but I don’t think that’s what was on Stannis’ mind. Having an heir without a throne just wasn’t relevant.
And Stannis’ storyline gave us something that we audience members don’t get much of. A bad guy getting his comeuppance.
If You Thought This Would Have a Happy Ending
(Show watchers, I won’t have any more book details, it’s safe.)
I was on Team Stannis for a long time. But I didn’t want him to become king, and I really didn’t think he’d end up on th throne either. I figured that at some point, he’d either be forced to yield to a better claimant (no spoilers on who I want it to be…) or his circumstances would change that he would no longer desire the Iron Throne. And he’d end up being an ally for my pick as ruler.
But then Stannis burned Shireen and I really wanted him dead. I couldn’t see how he’d come back from that. If the show gave him some kind of redemptive, I’d be very surprised.
Maybe it would work. Maybe it could be satisfying for Stannis to serve out the rest of his life at the Wall, after bravely taking on the Others and the army of the dead. Maybe?
As an intellectual exercise, I imagined Stannis ending up with the throne, but living a ruined, guilt-ridden existence over what he’d done. Because I think Stannis is that kind of guy. Earning the throne ultimately wouldn’t justify the methods used in obtaining it, and that would include killing his brother.
Throne or no thrones, I wanted Stannis to at least stay alive long enough to defeat Ramsay. Rescuing Sansa might be a nice bonus.
What I didn’t want was for Stannis to sacrifice his daughter and Ramsay to still come out on top.
Well, I didn’t get what I wanted. Boom.
But Brienne got to dispense some justice that was a long time coming. Stannis had murdered his brother Renly three seasons before, and he had done so after establishing a truce until the dawn. That’s some bad stuff, man. So, in a rare moment, someone dishonorable got what was coming to them.
So I’ll accept it. (Not that my acceptance matters, but I’m establishing where I stand.)
I Come to Bury Stannis, Not Praise Him
But, I’ll praise him a little, I guess.
I still support what I wrote a few years ago, even with the knowledge that Stannis was certainly not the best dad in the show. If Stannis had been supported by Renly and Robb, then things would have turned out dramatically different. (Maybe Ned would still be alive. RENLY!!!!!)
Because with the Seven Kingdoms in a huge mess, it’s vulnerable to what’s coming from the North. With resources, Stannis would have probably done well getting people in line for the White Walker threat, because he wasn’t one for bullshit politics. He’d insist that everyone to set aside their need for maintaining their positions and holding on to grudges, forcing them to tow the line.
Squabbling Noblemen: Your grace, you can’t expect us to put aside our differences and unite just because you demand it!
King Stannis: I’ll be more than happy to let the lot of you murder one another treacherously. Nothing would be more agreeable to me. But it’ll have to wait until we’ve saved the realm from the White Walkers.
Noblemen: You expect us to fear children’s bed time stories?
King Stannis: No. I expect you to fear me. I expect you to defeat bed time stories.
And Stannis clearly knew about the need for sacrifice to get the job done.
On second thought, maybe it’s best that he didn’t become king. We could do with less human sacrifices.
Or fewer. That too.
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) Gameofquotes.blogspot.com provided the Good/Bad quote. Tyrionlannister.net provided the image of stubborn ever-onward Stannis. The image of Richard Harris as King Arthur is from the theatrical version of Camelot (first Arthurian story I remember, I saw it with my dad at the movies), and the image of Michael Fassbender as Macbeth is from the upcoming movie.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text.
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved