This post will be talking about Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, from the HBO television show Game of Thrones (and prominent in the source material, George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.) If you don’t know who Ned Stark is, just know that he’s awesome and a big damn hero. Then go read the books and/or watch the show.Hopefully, anyone not familiar with my man Ned will be gone now, so I can begin to talk plot details.
Although I’ve referred to Ned on and off during my blogging about the show, I’ve not had a blog post solely dedicated to him since my very first Game of Thrones post, back in 2013. Enough time has passed, with some new information (and possibly new perspectives) coming to light about Ned, one of the central figures whose actions formed the axis on which much of the story in A Song of Ice and Fire revolves.
So it seems a second look at Lord Eddard is in order.
Time continues to not be kind to Ned Stark. With the show’s popularity, more and more people are coming in fresh and tend to evaluate Ned as a fool whose honor propelled him to the headsman’s block.
I’ve already fought that battle and will die on that hill defending Ned’s good name, but I’ll take a look at some of the newer side issues. The three I’ll tackle at the moment are these:
- Ned keeping secrets from Cat and Jon.
- Ned killing Ser Arthur Dayne
- Ned’s overreach of power as Hand while Robert was off a-hunting boars.
Now it begins…
Secrets, Lies, and Ned Stark
His acknowledged bastard is not the product of some random woman he met during the war, but is his nephew. We assume Ned promised his dying sister Lyanna that he’d keep the identity of the boy secret from Robert Baratheon, for fear of what might happen to the child. (Since Robert was all about killing Targaryens.)
I’m not actually going to talk about if it was dishonorable for Ned to have lied or not. I mean, that’s silly. He was protecting his nephew and respecting his dying sister’s wish. (People who claim Ned is too honorable also seem to insist that he has to be 100% honorable, or whatever.)
Instead I’ll talk to the criticism that Ned, as a reasonable and fully-developed character in an otherwise reasonable story with realistic people and understandable motivations, just wouldn’t keep this news a secret from Catelyn and Jon.
Or at least from Catelyn, who nearly immediately developed a dislike for Jon and that dislike just grew and grew over the years, with Ned not doing anything to mediate it.
The claim is made that even though he would be breaking some kind of absolute promise to Lyanna (if we assume the actual promise was “don’t tell anybody, Ned, promise me”) even Lyanna would understand if her otherwise well-meaning brother smoothed the troubled waters of Jon’s childhood by reassuring Catelyn that her husband had not been unfaithful.
By keeping Jon’s identity from Catelyn, he was betraying the love he had for his wife and nephew. He was rather mechanically valuing abstract honor as more important than their very real feelings. The takeaway is that Ned kept the secret so soundly not from reasonable character motivations, but solely because Martin’s plot twist about Jon’s parentage depended on Ned to do so. This weakens his status as a well-written character in a book series filled with well-written and complex characters.
That’s all very thought-provoking, but it assumes some facts that I’m willing to question.
- That Ned really cared all that much about Cat’s feelings.
- That Ned really cared all that much about Jon’s feelings.
I don’t think it’s out of the realm of all-things-Ned that he held his relationship with Catelyn and Jon at a lesser level than he did his reasons for keeping Jon’s identity a secret. He kept the secret, not necessarily for hard-and-fast-plot-reasons, but possibly because he was simply more than comfortable in doing so. Must we assume Ned was all that worried about Cat and Jon’s strained relationship?
Was Ned in love with Catelyn? Probably, I mean, they certainly appeared to be in love.
But she originally wasn’t the woman he had been planning on marrying; Catelyn was the woman he’d expected to have as a sister-in-law. But the execution of Brandon Stark by the Targaryen king changed that.
Whatever romantic notions young Ned Stark might have had for some other noblewoman (one we book readers have rumors about) had to be abruptly put aside so he could honor the alliance-through-marriage of House Tully and House Stark, and get busy on producing an heir since he was bound for battle and there needed to be a new Stark, waiting in the wings.
Benjen: Wait? Couldn’t I just be the Lord of Winterfell if Ned bit it?
Me: Dude, ease up. Zombies aren’t allowed to have opinions.
Ned wasn’t required to be in love with Catelyn, but he was duty-bound to be her husband and duty-bound to be a good husband. He wasn’t necessarily duty-bound to confide in her with all of his secrets. They say happy-wife, happy-life, but I don’t know if Ned was necessarily one to pursue happiness over duty.
But what about Jon? Well, what about him?
Ned had a duty to keep Jon safe but was not duty bound to ensure that the boy had no hardships or even that he’d have a positive mothering experience. Ned himself had been shipped off to the Eyrie at a young age to be fostered in Jon Arryn’s court. If he even thought about it at all, Ned might have considered Jon’s experience not that unusual or maybe preferable to his own.
It’s not like Ned was known for shielding his own children from the grim reality of the world.
Ser Rodrik: M’lord. There’s a deserter to behead.
Ned: Fine. Hey, get Bran saddled up. He’ll need to see me pop that guy’s head off.
Catelyn: Ned! Bran’s only seven!
Ned: He is? I thought he was ten?
Catelyn: On the show, yes. But in the books he’s seven.
Ned: Oh. He’s still coming to the execution, but I won’t make him kick the head around like a soccer ball.
Theon: Yay! I get to do it!
(Theon totally kicks the head in the books. Because Theon.)
In Ned’s mind, Jon’s boyhood years would be swiftly behind him, and the risk to Jon seemed greater than the comfort he might receive from a sympathetic Catelyn. If she even was all that sympathetic. This is Catelyn, after all.
Jon would still be considered a bastard by Catelyn, and from her point of view Jon would still be in a position that could threaten her children. (I’ve talked about Catelyn and the threats of bastards before.) The difference between Jon being Ned’s bastard and Jon being Ned’s nephew who still thought that he was Ned’s bastard might not mean all that much to Catelyn if she was worried about bastardly skullduggery.
Cat: Ned, for the love of the Seven, send your bastard son away to be raised in some remote holdfast.
Ned: He’s my blood, Cat. Besides, and keep this on the down-low, Jon’s not really my son. He’s the son of my sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. Shhh…
Cat: ARE YOU MAD? Send your Targaryen bastard nephew away to be raised in some remote holdfast!
Ned: What? But…
Cat: Targaryens are all mad, and this one has delusions of a claim to Winterfell, if only Robb, Bran, and Rickon were out of the picture! The only thing more dangerous than an ambitious bastard underfoot is an ambitious Targaryen bastard!
Ned: Wow, you’re kind of paranoid.
Cat: HAVE YOU NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION?
This worst case scenario of telling Catelyn and her not being supportive is super-worse than Jon and Cat having domestic drama for a limited amount of time.
But again, this might not have even occurred to Ned. He might have simply been unmoved by the current drama.
I think that this view of Ned, where we don’t assume he’s so warm-hearted, humanizes him from being some kind of Honor Machine, and that makes him a more interesting character. The possible reality of the relationships between him and Catelyn and Jon ends up more complex. (Especially if we want to imagine that Ned might also have resented being required to take care of Rhaegar Targaryen’s son.)
Obviously, this is just my conjecture. Feel free to challenge me if you wish.
Back in Time, the Tower of Joy
Season Six featured a new look at Ned and a look at Ned when he was a bit newer. Back in the waning days of Robert’s Rebellion, Ned and some northern retainers took on a handful of kingsguard who Rhaegar Targaryen had assigned to protect Lyanna Stark. Although probably in reality to protect his as-yet-unborn son.
The fight was witnessed by Bran Stark and his mentor, the Three Eyed Raven. The old wizard had taken Bran on a warging trip back in time to experience this historical event. (Warging is kind of like having cable television, I guess.)
Bran knew the basics of the battle so some account of the tale had been told to him. He recognized the exemplary knight, Ser Arthur Dayne, referred to by Ned as a great swordsman. Bran was confused when Dayne was easily outclassing his father in the fight, because he knew that his dad defeated Dayne.
Bran was shocked when the little crannogman, Howland Reed, stabbed Ser Arthur through the back of the neck and Ned delivered the coup-de-grace to the knight. (With Dayne’s famous sword Dawn, no less.)
Although Bran was quick to recover from the outcome and wondered what was in the tower that had gotten everyone so worked up, the viewership was interested in lingering on the fight and what implications it had about honorable Ned.
“Ah, Ned isn’t all that honorable, is he?” seemed to be the response.
That’s fair. I mean, Ned did totally stab Ser Arthur Dayne from behind. Oh wait, that was Howland Reed.
Okay, it was pretty low of Ned to challenge Ser Arthur Dayne to single combat, and then keep him engaged long enough for Reed to do his double-damage rogue back-stab critical hit move.
Oh yeah, there was no single combat stipulation. It was six versus two (the books had it seven versus three) so it was kind of a given that it was going to be a free-for-all.
Was it the fact that Ned killed Dayne when he was incapacitated? Rather than letting him surrender? We can argue about interpretations of the scene, but Dayne had been stabbed through the neck. It looked like he was choking on his own blood.
I’m pretty confident that Ser Arthur was a goner, that Dayne knew that and that Ned knew that. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Ned delivered a mercy kill rather than let this famous knight suffer. (I did call it a coup-de-grace.)
Some people allege that Ned must have bragged about killing Ser Arthur Dayne, which is why Bran had expected to see Ned defeat the famous swordsman in single combat. Does that really seem like behavior we’d expect from Ned, based on what we’ve seen on the show? I don’t doubt someone told Bran these stories but I don’t think Ned would be dropping in those details.
This is Ned’s account from the books, in regards to what he might have told Bran:
“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. They called him the Sword of the Morning, and he would have killed me but for Howland Reed.” Father had gotten sad then, and he would say no more. Bran wished he had asked him what he meant.
That doesn’t sound like bragging to me. And specifically mentions that Dayne was the better fighter and that Reed made an assist. Exactly as was shown on the show.
Some people equate Ned and Reed killing Arthur Dayne to Jaime dueling with Ned and having a random Lannister stab Ned through the leg. The comparison is supposed to show that Ned can be just as dishonorable as Jaime… but that analysis doesn’t quite work out. Particularly because Jaime starts the fight a dishonorable cad, but stops the fight when his man took unwelcome advantage of Ned. (Maybe one day I’ll write a post about that, but this post is getting long as it is. Feel free to debate me in the comments.)
One Hand Versus Another
I’ll end this post talking about something that I only recently heard talked about, regarding Ned’s tenure as Hand in the first season. (If anyone is interested, I rated almost all of the Hands we’ve encountered on the show previously.)
While recovering from his injuries from Jaime’s attack at Baelish’s brothel, Ned is called on to serve in King Robert’s stead as the king was off hunting and avoiding responsibility.
Hearing complaints and petitions at court, Ned is told that a large military group has been rampaging through the Riverlands. The murderous outlaw group carries no banner or household insignia but their leader, a giant of a man, is a dead ringer for Ser Gregor Clegane, Tywin Lannister’s bannerman and go-to thug for bad behavior.
Ned takes action as Hand of the King, empowering Lord Beric Dondarrion to take a comparable force of men and interdict Clegane’s chevauchee. Ned further makes a decree that Tywin Lannister, Clegane’s overlord and former Hand of the King during King Aerys’ time, must present himself in court to account for Ser Gregor’s actions or face royal punishment.
The recent anti-Ned allegation I’ve head is this: Eddard responding to the violence in the Riverlands with force rather than with diplomacy precipitated the War of the Five Kings and therefore all the deaths that happened are on his head.
Okay. Let’s discuss this.
If we’re looking for some kind of cassus belli (look at me, throwing around Latin like I know what I’m talking about!) it seems like we have better events that can be weighed than Ned’s action. For starters, Ned was responding to an egregiously unlawful situation.
Tywin claims he took action against the Riverlands because Catelyn Stark abducted his son, Tyrion. Fair enough. We can argue the rightness of Catelyn’s action if need be.
- She had cause to suspect Tyrion in an attack on her son (Bran was nearly assassinated and she had testimony that the weapon used had been in the Imp’s possession.)
- She publicly and formally accused him, so Catelyn was careful to follow some kind of established protocol.
- Cat’s actions were informed by what appeared to be tradition and law: rather than just stringing him up from her own summary judgment.
- Catelyn took pains to take him somewhere where she assumed he’d be safe, to await the king’s justice.
Her arresting Tyrion was an impulsive act that was motivated by fear, but no egregious unlawful line was crossed on her part. (Lysa is another story.)
In response, Tywin could have demanded redress through judicial channels. But he didn’t. Since Ned is being hammered for not being diplomatic, I don’t know why Tywin is being given a pass. Tywin didn’t have to leap right in with violence and violate the King’s Peace by invading the Riverlands.
Tywin could have sent in troops into the Riverlands proudly bearing the lion sigil of Casterly Rock. Such a declaration might have given him some kind of legitimacy, since he’d be following an up-front protocol. But he didn’t. (Not at first.) He sent in a squad of murderers explicitly without any insignia.
Once the Riverlands were chaotically chasing these marauders, Tywin then sent in the troops for war. This included ambushing Lord Beric’s expeditionary force who were operating under royal authority. So Tywin’s forces not only unlawfully violated the sovereignty of the Riverlands without just cause, but also specifically took on troops acting on behalf of the King.
So why is Ned getting hit with the allegation of not being diplomatic? Probably because Tywin succeeded and Ned ended up beheaded. (Tywin eventually does get skewered on the privy by Tyrion, but the War of the Five Kings was nearly over at that point.)
From the standpoint of legitimacy, Ned had the authority to act in the king’s interests and a large band of marauders rampaging would certainly be something legitimate to quell. There was a reasonable suspicion that Tywin was involved (which he was) so it was not out of bounds for the old lion to be called to account.
If Robert hadn’t wanted Ned to be ruling the kingdom, perhaps he should not have asked Ned to rule the kingdom.
There might have been a greater purpose in Ned’s action than just responding to bandits and assigning blame to Tywin Lannister.
We have to set aside the knowledge that Robert was about to be gored by a boar and remember that there was every reasonable expectation that the king would be returning to King’s Landing, safe and sound.
Here are the facts on the ground when Robert went off hunting, leaving Ned Stark in charge in his place, fully vested with royal authority.
- Ned and King Robert had argued over a plan to assassinate the pregnant Daenerys Targaryen. The result of the argument: Robert accepted Ned’s resignation as Hand.
- Jaime Lannister and a large party of his soldiers assaulted Ned in the streets. Jaime felt empowered to do so, since Ned was no longer Hand of the King. Ned’s men, including his guard captain, were murdered. As a reminder, Jaime’s action was driven by Catelyn’s action in arresting Tyrion. Catelyn did this bloodlessly and respected protocol and a vague due process. Jaime was just being a murderous asshole.
- Jaime Lannister fled the capital, which can be interpreted, more or less, as an admission of wrongdoing.
- The king had not wanted to deal with it, told Ned to make peace, and went off to hunt, putting Ned in charge. All in all, that was crazy of Robert to ignore the injustice of Ned’s murdered men and then give Ned full authority to act.
- While serving in court, Ned gets word that Lannister proxy forces are rampaging in the Riverlands. It’s significant that Ned did not go crazy immediately with retributive power the second Robert had gone. Ned was reacting to a legitimate problem.
Lord Stark already suspected that the Lannisters poisoned Jon Arryn (they had not, but that wasn’t an unfounded suspicion), suspected that the Lannisters were behind Bran’s fall (they were), and that they were responsible for the follow-up assassination attempt on Bran (I won’t comment here, that’s why I have a spoiler section) so the steam-roller of Lannister excesses, actual and suspected, was just too much to ignore.
There was every indication that Robert would ignore the situation, and let Tywin rampage in the Riverlands. The king had already refused to act against Jaime, and instead had threatened Ned to drop it or Jaime would be rewarded. Ned’s commitment of a royal response would either give the returning Robert a chance to stand up as a king, or force him to conspicuously shirk his duty.
In the former case, Ned would have been happy to build a coalition of support should Robert need to take extended action against Tywin. The Martells had no love for the Lannisters, Renly had close ties in the Reach, Stannis was a given. It was unlikely that the Vale or the Iron Islands would complain if the crown had to smack some Lannister heads and reassign some of their border holdings to the Riverlands as reparation.
In the latter case where Robert continued to be timid… Ned had already started preparations for his household to leave. Robert could make good on his threat to make the Kingslayer Hand of the King. Ned would have the moral high ground and could call off the marriage of Sansa and Joffrey.
My argument would be that Ned’s actions as Hand was well played. He either brings the heat on the Lannisters, or he gets his girls back north and no longer has attachments to the Baratheon administration. Moat Cailin could keep out southern armies forever, if need be. The Northmen seemed eager to thumb their nose at the south.
Ned gets criticized for not being as good a game player as all the other schemers and treacherous types in King’s Landing. That’s true. So he was playing to his strengths instead in taking decisive action with royal authority (which he had), to facilitate his next move in breaking the grip that the Lannisters seemed to have on King Robert.
If only King Robert had come back alive. I am curious how an ungored Bob Baratheon would have reacted to Tywin flagrantly violating the King’s Peace. Maybe it was lucky for Tywin that Robert had his accident.
In fact, it still seems suspicious to me that Tywin was willing to egregiously violate the sovereignty of the Riverlands. Varys tried to imply that it was Ned’s warning to Cersei that caused the king to die (I assume Cersei then telepathically contacted her cousin Lancel to up the booze dosage on the hunt) but Tywin was simultaneously on the march at that time. Seems suspicious to me.
Regardless, I don’t think a more diplomatic approach would have served the Riverlands at all, since Gregor Clegane’s marauders would have continued his rapacious ways and Jaime’s host, under Tywin’s orders, was still heading to beseige Riverrun with Tywin’s army close behind.
It feels like the right thing to be defending Ned, but as always it’s not easy to defend him, since we tend to look favorably on those that succeed and be dismissive of those that fail.
Feel free to challenge my assumptions, if you must.
If I wanted easy agreement, I’d just write “Ned so dumb. Lulz” on Reddit or something and find many Ned-haters who would agree.
Ned is always a meme-generator button click away from being mocked, but I know where my character loyalties lie. Lord Eddard remains my guy.
(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.)
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.
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