Scratch a Karstark, Find a Stark

Posted: January 31, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , , ,

If you don’t know who Karstarks or Starks are, you’ve somehow stumbled across a post about Game of Thrones, which is a show on HBO based on an unfinished series of books by this excellent author, George RR Martin. If you’ve not watched the show (or read the books, I guess) then this post will be spoilery.


Ptui! Southerrrn Softie Spoilerrrs!

Starks, Karstarks. What’s in a name?

The Karstarks have quite a deal in common with the Stark family, the once and recently re-established rulers of the North (or rather, the Kingdom of the North.)

Rickard Karstark, the impressively bearded patriarch of House Karstark, warned King in the North Robb Stark that carrying out his execution would curse Robb as a kinslayer. Although there are probably distant relations between all of the noble houses in any given region of Westeros, the Starks and Karstarks are more closely related than random political marriages would produce.

The Karstarks are an offshoot branch of the Starks, when a young Stark not in line for the honors of Winterfell put down a rebel lord and was therefore granted lordship of the fallen’s lands. This Stark’s seat was called Karhold (originally Karl’s Hold, since he was Karlon Stark) and the branch of Starks were known as the Karhold Starks. Over the years and years, the Karhold Starks shortened their name into Karstarks, forging their own identity.

(The splitting of families into more than one house is seen elsewhere in the books. Whenever someone named Fossaway is mentioned in the story, often it’s made clear that they’re a Green-Apple Fossaway, as opposed to the related but separate Red-Apple Fossaways.)

Despite the Karstarks distinguishing themselves as different from the ruling house in the North, the relationship between Stark and Karstark remained. There’s a phrase that illustrates this: “Scratch a Karstark and you’ll find a Stark.”

In happier times, this was a reference to the strong loyalty that the Karstarks had for their overlord Starks, as well as the fact that they were descended directly from the Lords of Winterfell.


Unfortunately, that relationship was soured during the War of the Five Kings, when Robb Stark felt forced to severely punish Rickard Karstark. Severely, as in severing his head.

The Karstark bannermen abandoned Robb and his war against the Lannister-aligned crown, to make their own way back to the North. Eventually, with the secession of the North short-circuited by the Red Wedding, the new lord of the Karstarks was quick to offer support to the Boltons who had been granted the wardenship of the North.


One day, I’ll have a bearrrd like me da’s!

This turned out to not be as politically rewarding for the Karstarks as the newly lorded Harald Karstark might have wanted. Jon Snow lured the Bolton-Umber-Karstark host out onto the field, and Sansa Stark’s secret allies from the Vale destroyed Ramsay Bolton’s axis-of-evil army.

Harald Karstark was not explicitly seen perishing on the battlefield (the same can’t be said for Smalljon Umber) nor was he shown after the battle as a captive. So I assume he’s still alive and managed to flee back to the Karhold.

This allows us to speculate on what will be happening in the North in regards to this off-shoot branch of the Starks.

Summer is the time for squabbles

Now that Jon Snow is the new King in the North, what should he do with the rebellious houses? Clearly, the hammer needs to come down on them in some fashion. But there’s a hay-yuge army of the dead about to rush into the kingdom, unless they can be stopped at the currently and woefully undermanned Wall. (Okay, we know the Wall’s not going to stop them. That’s just screenwriting science, right?)

Sending the Karstark fighting men to reinforce the Wall, might be the right thing to do. And give those guys the chance to die honorably, or earn a pardon through extreme heroism once the nascent Long Night 2.0 is downgraded to the Long Evening, and the White Walkers sent home earlier than last time.

I admit that I am advocating for House Karstark, not because I am a fan of Harald or his dead father Rickard, but because of the symbolism of their House. The house words of the Karstarks are “The Sun in Winter.” The show meaningfully presented the white sun sigil of the Karstarks as a sunrise on their dark kite-shaped shields.


Alright, those dingy sunbursts might have started out white. Look, war is dirty and messy.

It’s all very can-do. The Starks are the vigilant harbingers of the Long Night, sure, but the Karstarks get busy on ending that night when it comes, and imply that they’ll see it through until morning. I can’t help but like that.

If I can sneak in some book knowledge, although House Karstark in A Song of Ice and Fire does suffer from leadership willing to ambitiously align with the Bolton cause, not all Karstarks are unworthy. (I don’t want to give away too many details, in case the show tries to roll in some of these seemingly abandoned plot points.)

Regardless if Jon Snow allows an appropriately penitent Harald to bend the knee (he’d better bend it like no Northman has bent a knee before), installs a lesser Karstark as head of household, or grants some other lord supremacy in the Karhold lands, the rank and file fighting levies who served the Karstarks need to be preserved for the upcoming war effort.

This isn’t an unusual situation in Westeros. There are references in the books where otherwise ruthless victors don’t treat the common rank and file men of their enemies harshly. The smallfolk are expected to adapt to new leadership accordingly.

This isn’t always the case, obviously.


We’re all loyal king’s men here. Loyal to King Robert. Don’t bother telling me he’s dead. I’ve died eight times.

Scratch off a few Karstarks, for the Starks

How to deal with the Karstarks won’t just be up to Jon Snow; Sansa Stark will rightfully have her say and she didn’t seem that eager to offer an olive branch to the Karstarks or Umbers during the planning sessions of our good guys. And that was before Rickon Stark was arrowed by Ramsay.


Jon: Thanks for retrieving the arrows, little man.
Rickon: I like helping with archery practice, Jon. I’m good at it!
Me: Nooooo! *sobs*

So, at the very least, things aren’t looking good for Harald Karstark. Sansa might decide that since he loved Ramsay Bolton so much, that he should really demonstrate his loyalty and solidarity to the Flayed Man, if you know what I mean.

Harry, if I were you, I’d leave Westeros far behind you.


Harald Karstark: No no, I’ve got this. With Ramsay Bolton dead, the widow Sansa will need to remarry to establish stability for the continuance of House Stark. Since I’m a Karstark, it’s not a big deal for me just change my name to Stark, and our kid will be a union of the two ancient Stark bloodlines.
Me: Good luck with that.
Harald Karstark: You have to admit, it’s a very Game of Thrones-sounding proposition.
Me: I … I can’t really argue against that point.
Jaime Lannister: Unless Sansa marries her brother Jon Snow! That’s even more Game of Thrones!
Me: Get out of here! Besides, Jon isn’t her bro-
Ned’s Ghost: Keep yer mouth shut, you!
Petyr Baelish: No need to argue, gentlemen. I’ll marry Sansa and everything will be just peachy.
Me: Harald, I’d support you over Baelish.
Ned’s Ghost: Errr… I’ll have to think about that.
Arya: SEVEN HELLS! I’ll just marry Gendry and short-circuit all this nonsense.
Gendry: What? A lot’s been happening while I’ve been rowing.

Okay, I doubt any unusual Karstark business will be happening, since the show only has around 130% of one season left to show us over two years. There are enough loose threads to handle already without wrapping in some complicated Northern politics.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. Anyone want to chime in on the pros and cons of razing the Karhold and salting the earth? Feel free to lecture me in the comment section. There are no wrong answers. Just wrong statements (like the one that preceded this one.)

(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 claim to the images, 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 2017 Some Rights Reserved

  1. writingjems says:

    I wouldn’t blame the Starks for wanting to punish the Karstark’s betrayal (though I don’t exactly blame the Karstarks either for packing up after the former Lord Karstark parted ways with his head), but I hope they’re more sensible than that. The Starks are going to need all the help they can get to take on the Walkers, and hurting the Karstarks is only hurting their own chances. Considering Jon was willing to let bygones be bygones with the Wildlings, I’m hoping he’ll do the same here. It would be nice to have reconciliation between the two houses that were supposed to be so close.

    I’m not expecting much for Harald though. I expect the death of Smalljon Umber was publicized because his betrayal of the Starks was in a more visceral way by offering up Rickon and Shaggydog to their doom. Considering three seasons passed since the Red Wedding passed, I doubt most viewers remembered the Karstarks and their abandonment. If Harald is alive, I hope Jon and Sansa learn from Robb’s mistakes and send Harald to the Wall instead of an early grave. Petty squabbles are for the Summer. Winter is here.

    Liked by 1 person

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