This post will be talking about one of the great noble houses of Westeros, in HBO’s Game of Thrones (the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire.) And not just any noble house, I’ll be talking about the beleaguered and bullied Stark family.
I don’t know how super-spoilery this post will be, most of what I’ll be talking about is years-old information. It’s your call to keep reading, if you’re behind on the show or the books.
The Starks! Go Team Go!
The story of Game of Thrones is heavily influenced by the hopes held by the Starks, as well as the horrors that they experience. I don’t think I’m too far out of line when saying that the Stark family is the closest thing we have to “the good guys” in the story.
We have reasons for liking them. Ned seems honorable and decent, the children aren’t monsters (we get examples of monster children pretty quickly from the other families), and the show is mostly from their point-of-view which kind of instills some sympathy. Because when it’s happening to them, it’s sort of happening to us too.
But I think it’s important to keep some of the Stark love in perspective. Maybe it’s not quite right to too-closely identify with them, or to hold them up to a standard that isn’t reasonable.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Starks as much as anybody. But I try to keep that love in check.
Starks: Blue Collar Everymen, right? WRONG.
The Starks have positive qualities, I’m not denying that. But I notice occasionally that people either assign virtues not in evidence to the family, or kind of twist and contort Stark attributes in order to fit a square peg in a round hole.
One of the first instances I recall was in a podcast recapping the first episode, alleging that Tyrion must have been at the whorehouse in Mole’s Town, because there’s no way Ned Stark would have a house of ill-repute operating so close to Winterfell.
Because, you know, maybe they assume Ned’s some kind of stick-in-the-mud asshole like Stannis?
Maybe they meant to imply that Ned was so virtuous and pure and so on, that practically everyone in the North would agree to emulate his behavior and refrain from patronizing the world’s oldest profession?
Look, Mole’s Town is next to Castle Black, weeks away, so it’s crazy to assume that that’s where Tyrion was first encountering show-invented Ros.
And let’s not be weird. Ned’s not a puritanical zealot.
The winter town outside of Winterfell had all kinds of transactions going on, and there’s no reason to believe that that particular type of commerce would be forbidden by Stark decree. The New Gods are the ones with all those kinds of rules, not the Old Gods.
Okay, that’s actually pretty minor, but I wanted to get that out of the way.
Comedian Aamer Rahman is known for being critical of Game of Thrones as a racist fantasy, mostly for the lack of diversity and pigeonholing non-Westerosi cultures into very narrow and negative stereotypes. I’ve mentioned his work before on my post on the Wildlings. I recommend his Art Threat post as fascinating reading, and I think his points are valid and thought-provoking.
I don’t agree with everything that he says. In particular, this passage:
White culture exists as a spectrum in the GOT universe; the Lannisters are the rich, entitled, aristocratic upper-class toffs, the Starks are the honest, hard-working aspiratonal middle class, and the Wildlings (and Hilltribes) are the working class. — Aamer Rahman
I don’t want to misconstrue or misrepresent what Mr. Rahman is saying. His point is that of all the cultures shown on the show, the predominantly white Westerosi culture is given a spectrum and complexity, and the other cultures are treated over-simply as stereotypes. I am not arguing against that point.
I am disagreeing with how he’s characterizing the Starks as the middle class, in relation to the Lannisters.
In nearly every way that matters, the Starks and the Lannisters are identical.
What? I hear you say. The Lannisters are super-rich! Yeah, yeah. Let’s look at the map.
Cash is always great. But in the real-world medieval analog of Westeros, land was extremely valuable. The Lannisters have the gold, but the Starks had tremendous amounts of resources. (Just like the Tyrells have the fertile fields, which translates into wealth and power.)
The Starks have the potential to be an economic powerhouse, whenever they need to be. They just don’t often need to be, because they have everything they need.
The Starks are no less entitled than the Lannisters are. They’re no less noble. Entitlement and nobility kind of goes hand in hand. They rule the North because their ancestors once ruled the North.
They’re not plucky upstarts, I’m not sure where this notion of them being the aspirational middle class comes from. They’re already on top. They’re equally the 1%, along with the Lannisters.
I’ve seen weirder associations attached to the Starks. Like a social anarchy post suggesting that Robb was secretly an anarchist because he told Talisa that he had no plans to be king of the Seven Kingdoms.
Talisa: You’re going to kill Joffrey?
Robb: If the gods give me strength.
Talisa: And then what?
Robb: I don’t know. I’ll go back to Winterfell. I have no desire to sit on the Iron Throne.
Talisa: So who will?
Robb: I don’t know. But I’ll probably call for an end of the privileged few lording it over the downtrodden masses, in favor of anarcho-syndicalist communes.
Talisa: Oh, that’d be lovely! We should totally have sex then.
Hmmm. Maybe I’m misremembering those last few lines.
But I can’t imagine anyone interpreting Robb’s lack of interest in ruling the south as a sign that he’s some kind of enlightened anti-state intellectual.
In fact, Robb’s all about being a king. Just the King in the North. With the Riverlands pledging fealty to Winterfell instead of to King’s Landing. (Since the Riverlands region was never a kingdom, they don’t really care who they pledge fealty to. But since Robb is the grandson of their overlord, Hoster Tully, he’s at least got Riverland blood in him. Instead of being descended from the neighborhood bully, the kingdom of the West.)
It’s as if everyone likes the Starks so much and wants to identify with them, that there’s a push to bring the aristocratic, highborn, and autocratic Starks down to our level. (Since we plebes aren’t going to be elevated up to lordships any time soon.)
Sure, the Starks are appealing because in general they’re decent and we see the story unfold mostly through their eyes. But I can’t help but feel that the Lannister side of the story, properly packaged with the right spin, would cast them in a more protagonistic light. (Even with the incest.)
The Lannisters! Go Team Go!
Forget what we know for a moment, about the Lannisters and their skullduggery, and let’s examine their circumstances.
Tywin Lannister had for years been the Hand of the King, and by all accounts (including Stannis’s experience) had been a competent administer of the realm. Until he had fallen out of favor with Aerys.
Tywin’s favored eldest son, Jaime, was in the Kingsguard, which put Tywin in a difficult position since Jaime could be considered a hostage in some ways, trapped at court. When the rebellion broke out, Tywin dared not rise up and put Jaime at risk. At least he delayed entering the war in support of the Mad King.
Jaime took it upon himself to kill King Aerys and the Targaryen’s pyromantic ally before doomsday wildfire caches could be detonated.
That act saved thousands, but went unrecognized as Jaime faced off against the stern and judgmental Eddard Stark, who would have preferred that Jaime had defended the man who’d killed Stark’s father and older brother. (Those deaths coincidentally enough cleared the way for Ned to become ruler of the North. Just sayin’.)
To insure peace and stability, Jon Arryn, the Hand of the new king, convinced Robert Baratheon to pardon Jaime and marry Cersei Lannister, Jaime’s twin. So Cersei was essentially the spoils of war.
Robert Baratheon was not a good King and not a good husband. Cersei weathered the loveless marriage as best as she could. Despite being queen, she had anxieties in regards to her position, and the safety of her children.
There was a time when she had expected to marry Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, but that betrothal never came to be. Rhaegar married Elia of Dorne, and had two children, Aegon and Rhaenys. The prince died in the rebellion, and his wife and children were brutally murdered when the capital fell. Had Cersei been Rhaegar’s wife instead of Elia, a similar fate might have befell her and any children she would have had with the Targaryen prince.
It’s not surprising that Cersei had a measure of paranoia. Particularly because she and Jaime hold a dangerous secret.
Soon, Cersei found herself in the center of plots as Jon Arryn began to suspect that the very-blond children of Cersei and Robert might not be Robert’s trueborn children after all.
Then, suddenly Jon Arryn died, and the volatile Lysa Arryn fled the capital, sending accusatory letters about Cersei to her sister Catelyn.
Catelyn was the wife of dour Ned Stark, whom Robert had decided to bring to the capital as a replacement Hand. Ned Stark was now armed with wild and wrong ideas about the Lannisters and their alleged involvement in regards to Jon Arryn’s death.
I’m just saying that if we identify the villainous manipulators working behind the scenes, Petyr Baelish and Lysa Arryn, the Lannisters in some ways are innocent pawns. Okay, maybe just pawns. I know I can’t float the “innocent” part seriously. Anyway, the Starks were quick to suspect the Lannisters, without thinking critically about it. Not cool.
Had we been given a window into Westeros through more Lannister eyes than just Tyrion’s, if their family had been the axis that the story revolved around, we might be more likely to root for them. Warts and all.
We don’t have to like Cersei to worry about Myrcella and Tommen, particularly had we got to know them more and could sympathize with Cersei’s fears. We can certainly acknowledge the domestic abuse, and be distrustful of the unpleasant Lady Arryn.
Okay, Joffrey isn’t someone we can easily get behind, but since I’m not sure either Lannisters or Starks will come out on top to write the history books, future historians might have issues keeping Joffrey Baratheon and Robb Stark’s reigns separate.
Had Season Two’s King’s Landing storyline (A Clash of Kings) been presented to us through Cersei’s eyes, or as reports brought to the captive Jaime by his cousin the emissary (Alton Lannister on the show/ Cleon Frey in the books) our view of Joffrey might even be more malleable.
Of course, I even have some friends who dislike the Starks, and think the show is better off with uber-noble Ned, shrewish Catelyn, and reckless Robb all dead dead dead.
I don’t share their views, but I think that it’s great that the show’s storyline is complicated enough to accommodate multiple viewpoints.
People don’t have to be Team Stark.
(But no one should be Team Frey. Screw those guys.)
(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.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there.
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 2016 Some Rights Reserved