Ever since I read A Game of Thrones (book 1 of the Game of Thrones series), I have had a rather uneasy relation to the way that other fellow readers have understood the ethics of the various characters. Part of this unease, undoubtedly, comes from my own focus on ethics – especially war ethics and history. The other factor is that, for the most part, readers (and then viewers) have a rather Manichean perspective – i.e. a purely black and white, good vs. evil reading of conflicts, which fails to grasp the nuance of the rather well-developed characters.
Here, I want to consider a character most commonly understood to be “good,” and throw a bit of a wrench into those gears. I am talking, of course, about Ned Stark.
Spoiler warning (rather obviously)!
Let’s start with the perception that the general viewership/readership seems to have.
Ned Stark is a good guy. How do we know? Well, he’s very much by the book, by the law, kind of character. We are introduced to him using a trial and execution of a runaway Night’s Watch member as a teachable moment, while out with his boys. He gives a speech about the importance of not being swayed by emotion, about the rule of law, and about why the one passing the sentence should be willing, ready, and able to carry it out. He takes no pleasure in chopping off a head, but duty above all.
We see that he is a good father – taking care to encourage all his children, giving them room to explore their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, he even treats Theon Greyjoy – a political prisoner – as one of his own children. By his interactions with Catelyn, he also appears to be a good husband. By his interactions with the various people at his keep, he also appears to be a good ruler. Through his interactions with King Robert, we see him uncomfortable in the limelight, humble about his great military achievements, and at the same time, willing to put away his own preferences in favor of loyalty to the throne – uprooting his family to King’s Landing to take a job others would kill for, but he does not want.
He is, by all accounts, respectful and respectable, honorable, humble, conscientious, and loyal.
The only black mark on his character is Jon. Jon is a child he brought back from the war and claimed as his own illegitimate child – i.e. conceived out of wedlock. Jon’s mother is unknown, and Ned refuses any information about her – insisting only that Jon is his child and should be treated as such – within the limits of the law regarding illegitimate children. The black mark is, therefore, an act of adultery by Ned. Yet, the story, from very early on, makes it seem that Jon is likely not Ned’s child (from the perspective of the reader, though not the other characters in the world), and that Ned is willing to take a blow to his reputation, in order to protect the child.
The great feats of military prowess are later explained to be Ned’s role in the rebellion against the Mad King. That rebellion began when Ned’s sister, Lyanna Stark, was kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen, the oldest son of the Mad King. As it turns out later, Lyanna was in love with Rhaegar, the two married, and she died giving birth to Jon. In her last moments, she charged Ned with protecting Jon – a duty that Ned took rather seriously, willingly taking a blow to his honor and reputation, compromising his own marriage, to protect his nephew.
When he takes on the task as the Hand of the King, Ned is highly dedicated and conscientious. He dedicates all his efforts to the job and manages to discover the secret that had killed his predecessor. The secret? None of King Robert’s children are his own blood. In fact, all four of them are the product of incest between the queen Cersei and her twin brother Jamie. Since the king is away, Ned confronts Cersei, and counsels her to take the children and flee, because he will report the findings to King Robert – who will surely have her and the children killed. Being new in the capitol, he also strikes a behind-the-scenes deal to ensure that the guards will be on his side should he need them.
Then, everything goes sideways. King Robert comes back from the hunt gravely injured; the “trusted” guards turn on him and he is arrested and thrown into the dungeon, as King Joffrey ascends the throne. With his family’s life on the line, he sacrifices his honor and publicly confesses to treason – in exchange for a pardon and return to the north. But, plot twist again, King Joffrey takes the confession and beheads him with it – starting the wars for the throne.
So, we have a good guy, by the book, who always places the duty and responsibility to others above his own desires. He died doing the right thing, at the hands of a tyrant-in-the-making who had reneged on his word.
But that assessment never quite sat well with me. And so, I tried to lay out the ethical structure that defines Ned Stark, and the results are not pretty.
To begin with, Ned Stark belongs to a royal house that had sworn allegiance to King Aerys II Targaryen. By the language of the GoT universe, such allegiance is unconditional. That is, it is not a contract made between equals, it is the submission to the God-like will of an absolute monarch. For reference, consider the kinds of “knee-bending” required of Jon by Daenerys Targaryen, etc. If the King orders you to battle, you hear and obey – you do not question. In fact, questioning orders – never mind disobeying them – is treason. If you are sent to die, then die. The contract is also not conditional on some governance ideology of the ruler – i.e. it is a permanent, binding position of subservience, given for life.
Yet, when Ned hears that the God-like ruler has done something to his family (namely, killing his father and brother as traitors, and his sister being kidnapped), he rejects those oaths for personal vengeance and revenge. In fact, he (along with others) plunges the entire realm into chaos, war, death, and destruction not because the king is mad, or because the king is inept, or even evil. No. He engages in a full-on war, aimed at destroying the only (human) dynasty that has ever ruled Westeros, to avenge 3 people. The lives of thousands be damned, he is getting his revenge on. Yes, Jon Arryn is the one who officially raised the banners against the king, but Ned and Robert were his wards. They could have walked off to their deaths at the hands of the Mad King. They could have honored their oaths. Instead, they caused a continent-wide civil war. If that sounds a bit strange, consider that commanders regularly give such “go to your death” commands in battle, and expect soldiers to follow through.
But, it gets worse. The process of destroying the Targaryen dynasty inherently necessitates infanticide, because a number of Targaryen house members are children. That’s fine too. In fact, the person known to be responsible for the death of those children is given fairly high status by the new king, and is never prosecuted for his crimes – and of course not, since he only carried out the ideas of Ned and friends to their logical conclusion. Yes, Ned had objected to those deaths, after the fact, but also did nothing to bring justice, not even after the war had settled. Not even when he became the hand of the King and was in a position of authority. Why not? Because the Clegane house, to which the murderer belongs, is a vassal of the Lannisters, who are bankrolling the kingdom. So, in effect, you have a compromise to not prosecute murderers, so long as they are powerful.
And then, in the aftermath of the whole bloody rebellion business, Ned steps aside so that the most inept of his friends can take over the job of the king. Right there is the best argument against anything resembling noble motives about the rebellion on Ned’s behalf: if the rebellion is about the aptitude to rule well and justly, you cannot replace the old king with a more inept (inepter?) new king. And you certainly can’t just skulk off and leave the ruins of the kingdom for others to pick up, after you broke the damn thing.
Then we have the issue of Jon. Ned knows that his sister was not kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Granted, he learns of this a bit late, but there is no apparent self-reproach or regret for the tens of thousands of deaths the rebellion caused. His sister, on the other hand, is buried with full honors at Winterfell, and the false story is propagated – the story that makes Ned and Robert into heroes, their rebellion justified, and the deaths (infanticide included) worth it.
But let’s fast forward to the part that’s in the show. Once he is made the hand, and learns of Cersei’s… activities, Ned has three legitimate options:
- Act according to the laws of the king he serves.
- This would mean carrying out the arrest, trial, and punishment necessary against the queen. The charges, by the way, are: treason, incest, murder, murder of state appointed high officer, conspiracy to steal the throne from the ruling family, etc.)
- Act as king in the absence of the king.
- If he is unhappy following the laws (which he claims are the highest moral value), then he can act as the king in the king’s absence – which is part of the job description. He can execute, exile, or even pardon Cersei
- Pass the buck.
- This would mean that Ned would do nothing but wait for the King to return, report the findings to him, and leave him to make the call.
However, Ned takes none of the above. Instead, he opts to keep the information a secret from the public; then reveals his knowledge to Cersei, advising her to flee with the children – threatening to expose her is she fails to do so. Of course, he also reveals part of his plan to Littlefinger, in order to get his support (financial and otherwise).
Remember Ned’s speech from his introduction? The one about the importance of not being swayed by emotion, about the rule of law, and about why the one passing the sentence should be willing, ready, and able to carry it out? Remember that he takes no pleasure in chopping off a head, but duty above all? You may notice a distinct lack of those ideas when Ned is confronted with a powerful criminal (Cersei is a Lannister, and they bankroll the kingdom). You will also find a lack of such morals when his own desires are on the line – namely, causing his friend grief and having to dispatch children.
When Robert returns from the hunt gravely wounded, Ned fails to inform him of the Cersei issue – choosing to spare his friend any additional pain. That means, as even a child would guess, that Joffrey succeeds the throne. Ned is imprisoned. He is threatened, and instead of holding fast to the truth, he gives up the realm to save himself and his children. He publicly confesses to treason.
Now, looking at the behavior in that light, Ned does not act by the book. In fact, he throws out the book as soon as the consequences become personal. First because he does not want to kill children (presumably), then because he does not want to hurt his friend’s feelings, then because he lacks the fortitude to stand up and do the right thing. Second, he lacks the loyalty to uphold his oath to the king, to the realm, and to the office of the hand. The loyalty is gone, because a desire of his is actually in play. His conscientiousness is gone as well. There is no honor in his actions, there is no integrity to his actions.
Surely, we can excuse his actions because he is protecting his children, right? Well, no. While his actions are understandable, they are not justified. Just as with the rebellion, Ned’s desires (revenge and safety of his family) lead him to disregard the law, the oaths, the… everything and everyone else. The rebellion led to tens of thousands of deaths; his false confession means that the supremely unqualified and illegitimate tyrant of a ruler is about to ascend unopposed. That same tyrant, as experience has already shown, is the kind of cruel and petty schmuck who will make the mad king look rather pleasant by comparison. And that tyrant is surrounded by advisers who are loyal to the Cersei – who has already shown herself to be a treasonous and corrupt snake. But, for the sake of protecting his kids, Ned is willing to leave the rest of the realm in their psychotic hands.
So, looking back on the introduction of Ned – via decapitation of a law breaker – we can conclude that Ned is full of it when he gives that little speech. The law is not uniformly applied, it is not the last word. Instead, the law is to be applied on the people who cannot stand up for themselves, whose value is at the “lowly peasant” level. When that same law calls for a noble or powerful head to roll, suddenly, there is a context to consider. The Night’s Watch soldier will be killed for failing to do his duty; but Ned can knowingly and willingly fail in far more spectacular ways without consequences.
You may be tempted to justify his actions on the basis of kids (Cersei’s), and his kids, and love for his friend, etc. But, this is the same straight-laced Ned who insists on the letter of the law punishments, regardless of context.
Perhaps, if he was not pitched as such a good guy, we could forgive his mistakes. But Ned is pitched as the paragon of right. He’s something of an embodiment of the Kantian principles. Yet, as soon as we dig a bit deeper, as soon as desires actually enter the equation, he is as hypocritical as the next bad guy. We don’t expect much from Tyrion Lannister, which is why his transformation into a dedicated hand of the king, and later a dedicated advisor to Daenerys, is so powerful. But Ned comes in with a lot of expectations, which he himself encourages. Thus, his failures are far more problematic. Because we hold him to the stated elevated standard, his betrayal of that standard is what makes Ned such an ethical failure. And to top it off, his self-justification along every step of that road is no different than the methods employed by some of the meaner moral monsters of the Game of Thrones world.
Ultimately, the notion of Ned as a good guy is something of a cautionary tale. He could not commit to actually being good, yet he was unwilling to take the position sufficiently ethically compromised to be an effective bad guy. If he had remained ethically sound, he would not have died. If he had crossed over entirely into the underhanded dealings camp, he would not have died. But the dithering between the good and bad, and the unwillingness to commit to fully to either side is what created incompetence in his actions. In the end, it is precisely because Ned Stark is not a good guy that he died such a pathetic death.