by: Chris Thompson
The premier of Game of Thrones, Season Three arrives this Sunday! With that in mind we fondly remember Winterfell’s Lord, Eddard Stark…
“A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.”
The mark of a truly great fictional character is the absence that is felt upon their demise. And the vast gulf that arises following their death, that great rift of sadness that threatens to consume all who cling too strongly to the characters memory, is their legacy. We’ve all experienced it, suffered alongside the characters in our stories as they made their way in altered worlds. And we’ve struggled with them as they attempted to find the courage to carry on, to fill that hole punched in their soul with something, anything that might make their existence more endurable.
But whatever form their loss may take, and whatever power it holds over us, we, as silent1 observers to the lives of these great characters, must wrestle with the longing that washes over us as we hope impossibly for our characters return. Fighting the great battle within, as we labor to square our fondness for this character with the knowledge of their passing.
There is something magical to this clash of the mind over the heart. This eventuality that we all must face. For this profound idea that he or she is gone, never to return again, is a truly remarkable facet of what makes the art of storytelling so magnificent. And as life teaches us: Time is the ultimate healer, the one constant that never dissipates, ensuring that if we wait long enough, everything is eventual, that we will move on. Almost guaranteeing that we’ll all feel the bitter sting of Truth, and face the finality that is the acceptance of our beloved character’s death.
Eddard Stark is one of those truly great character’s that I speak of. His untimely demise at the hands of the King Joffrey and the usurpers to the Iron Throne, House Lannister, is a loss that will haunt all Game of Thrones fans for years to come. For Eddard’s vacancy from the realm of Westeros has ushered us into a bold new reality, one where the comfort of place and home have been swapped out for the harshness of strife and war. Where the sanctity of the status quo, the warmth and prosperity of the seven year summer that has befallen the Seven Kingdoms, has been challenged…..for Winter has arrived in Westeros.
And it is within this newly forged reality, as the Seven Kingdoms grapple with the consequences of Lord Stark’s death, that we, the observer, now find ourselves. We have been primed like a powder keg. Cocked like a bullet loaded into a gun. Strapped to a speeding rocket and ready to be fired headlong and screaming into Season Three of HBO’s A Game of Thrones.
So what better way to inaugurate the latest season of this magnificent adventure than to cast our fiery gaze backwards, to a time before the War of the Five Kings began, and to examine the life of a man whose death, some may say, was the catalyst for the events unfolding now?
Eddard (Ned) Stark, second son of Lord Rickard Stark, was the head of House Stark and the Lord of Winterfell, a title that befell him when he was but a child2, after the deaths of his father and older brother, Brandon. Fostered by Lord John Lynn, Ned grew up alongside his best friend Robert Baratheon. And under the careful tutelage of his mentor Lord Arynn, a man he came to love as a second father, Ned rose to become the Warden of the North, a position of great honor and responsibility.
Ned’s rallying of the banners of the Northern forces under House Stark3 was instrumental in helping his friend Robert Baratheon win back the Iron Throne in what has come to be known as Robert’s Rebellion4. And for fifteen years thereafter, Ned Stark served his people soundly, taking the responsibility of his position to heart and emerging as a respected and well-liked Master. It was only in his later years, when he had settled into a life filled with comfort and family, that he was again called upon by King Robert Baratheon to leave his lands, but this time it was to serve at what was to be his final post, Hand to the King.
Ned was also a family man, and a kind and devoted father to his children Robb, Sansa, Bran, Arya, Rickon and Jon5 and his ward, Theon Greyjoy. He always found the time to teach his children lessons from life, and when they did not fully understand a concept he would draw from his infinite well of patience and carefully explain the notion to them. And even though his marriage was one of arrangement, over time Ned became a loving husband to his wife Catelyn Tully, the former fiancé of his late brother Brandon6.
Choosing to recuse himself from the trivialities of a high born life, Ned in his later years rarely left his Northern lands. He cared little for the pomp and circumstance that so defined the complex lifestyles of the Southern Courts and he avoided the royal tournaments and sports of combat whenever possible, believing that they downplayed the seriousness and ferocity of war. That Ned was high born was a fact. That he understood its intricacies and minituae was not, for Ned was a terrible politician.
A man who repeatedly said what he was thinking, Ned’s downfall began, unbeknownst to him, at the start of Season One, with the death of he and Robert Baratheon’s childhood mentor, Lord Jon Arrynn. Having served loyally as the Hand of the King under Robert, Lord Arrynn died suspiciously, rumors of a poisoning abounding. And King Robert Baratheon, unaware of the wolves hiding within his flock, called his old friend Eddard Stark back to his side, a part of him nostalgic for times long since past and the other part desperate for someone he could trust. Someone who would tell the King what was really going on.
And thus set in motion the events that lead to Ned’s untimely death. For it is his uncompromising devotion to the truth, his persistent will to investigate deception and dishonesty, and his inexperience and reluctance to partake of the “Game of Thrones” that ultimately is his downfall. It is one of Ned’s most redeeming qualities, his honesty, second only to his mercy, and the one thing above all else which defines him. Unfortunately for Ned and his family, in the end, it is also the one thing responsible for his unnatural demise.
For Ned is a merciful man. A person who chooses not to blame the children for their parents crimes. A man who would rather confront Queen Cersei about her incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie7, and let her flee with her children rather than destroy her and her brood. A man who ends up losing at the “Game” for putting his compassion before his actions and thus buying Queen Cersei the crucial time necessary to rise up and crush him. Ned quickly learns a harsh lesson from this, one that will haunt him to his grave: that a man with principles has no place in the Southern Lands.
Upon being imprisoned by the child King Joffrey after his father Robert Baratheon’s sudden death8, Ned was executed for treason by the King’s Justicen, Ser Ilyn Payne at the Sept of Baelor with Ned’s own sword, the great Valyrian steel weapon he named “Ice”9. Now it should be noted10 that a man like Ned, so devoted to his morals and honor, did finally capitulate in an attempt to save his life and prevent all-out war by admitting to the crimes11 he was accused of, mainly treason. His agreement to the terms of his punishment, to return to the North, surrender his lands and titles, and join his brother Benjen, his bastard Jon, and the legions of the Night’s Watch in defending the Wall, was the ultimate act of humility.
But the child King Joffrey had other designs for Ned. Had ulterior motives to pursue as he flexed his newly minted regal muscles. King Joffrey had poor Ned’s head thrust upon a spike for all to see and the good name Stark was maligned with treachery and dishonesty. His children were scattered like leaves to the wind and his wife Catelyn Stark, newly widowed, was left to struggle as she valiantly tried to pick up the pieces of her broken family and return honor to her and her beloved husband’s good name.
Eddard and Catelyn’s eldest son Robb, a man so raised in the shadow of Ned that he parallels his father’s many fine attributes, declares himself King of the North upon his father’s death. And with the blessing of Renly Baratheon, brother to Robert Baratheon and a legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne, he fights on in his father’s name, bravely trying to wrest control of the Iron Throne from the clutches of the child-king Joffrey and rescue his innocent sister Sansa from the deceitful clutches of the malevolent House Lannister.
As Season Two came to a close Westeros was in turmoil. The Five Kings pine for the Iron Throne. Ned Stark’s family has been divided and spread to the far corners of the Seven Kingdoms. His son and wife have gone to war in his name and have rallied the banners of the Northern Houses around them. And those loyal to Eddard, whose numbers reach into the tens of thousands, have achieved victory after victory over the forces of House Lannister, the current holders of the Iron Throne. The child King Joffrey has made an enemy of many and sees the people of his Kingdom as pawns in his own “Game”, his to torture or mistreat as he see fit. Hurt and suffering has spread across the lands of Westeros and beyond. Ancient creatures, not seen or heard of for millennia are waking in the frozen lands beyond the Wall. And whispers of a Targaryen Queen of fire and blood are blowing in on the winds from Essos, with tales of dragons taken to the skies alight on their warm breeze. Such is the legacy of Eddard Stark. Such is the power of his pull. So beware dear viewers and take heed. For Winter has come once more to Westeros, and its cold, harsh winds will ensure that the times of joy and good fortune are long since past.
- Or shrieking [↩]
- And a title that he had never expected and did not always feel quite equal to [↩]
- One of the major noble families in Westeros [↩]
- For the victors. For the losers, the members of House Targaryen, it is known as The War of the Usurper [↩]
- Also known as “The Bastard” or “The Bastard Jon Snow” [↩]
- Who was executed along with his father, Lord Rickard Stark when Ned was almost twenty by the Mad King Aerys Targaryen when Brandon challenged his son, the Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, to a duel for kidnapping Ned and Brandon’s sister Lyanna [↩]
- aka, King Slayer [↩]
- And in part because of Ned’s threatening of Queen Cersei Baratheon, a HUGE “No, No” [↩]
- Eddard Stark’s sword is made of a priceless metal known as Valyrian Steel which hailed from the ancient Empire of Valyria. It is an old tradition, the naming of great weapons. [↩]
- And respected [↩]
- Lies [↩]