SPOILERS AHEAD – IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK OR SEEN ALL OF SEASON 1 OF THE TELEVISION SERIES YOU MAY NOT WISH TO READ FURTHER. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.
I recognize this post doesn’t necessarily fit my nostalgia theme, but I could probably say that about nearly half of my entries. In truth, I’ve always had a love for epic fantasy set in a medieval setting since I was young. I’m not sure when I was first introduced to the setting, if it as a movie, video game, or book, but it seems only natural that I have found enjoyment in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books.
I will shamelessly admit that I had no knowledge of the series until HBO began airing its show, Game of Thrones, this past winter. And even then, it was thru word of mouth and encouragement from friends and co-workers that I check it out for I’m too cheap to spring for HBO as part of my cable package.
It turns out it was with good reason I was encouraged to partake of the series for I’ve enjoyed my time in the fictitious Westeros and parts beyond thus far. I decided I’d rather experience the book before viewing the show and purchased the four volume set off of amazon.com with due haste. I plowed through the first book, A Game of Thrones, in a weekend and have since completed reading A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. To say I’m hooked would be an understatement. I have also viewed most of the first season for GOT with the exception of the final two episodes. I’m in no hurry to see them, since I know what happens, and I have enjoyed reading the reactions viewers had to a certain even that took place in episode 9.
Veterans of the series no doubt know exactly what scene I speak of. That would be the be-heading of the likable Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, the perceived main character of the first book and television show. Those caught unaware have reacted with a range of emotions, mostly shock and disbelief, with a vocal minority expressing outrage and refusing to watch another minute (an empty threat, as it turns out, for the following episode was the most watched episode of the season).
I admit, I was pretty shocked when I read that fateful chapter myself. The book strongly hinted at it early on when the characters encountered a dead dire wolf, the sigil of House Stark, slain when the antlers of a stag caught it in the throat. The stag is the sigil of House Baratheon, the house of King Robert, who summons Ned to court to take on the responsibilities as hand of the king. Ned helped Robert win the crown and as an act of friendship accepts the offer, for he fears the king’s life is in danger. This would prove true when Robert would end up skewered by a boar on a hunting expedition. It looked like an accident, but the devious House Lannister was behind a plot to get the king so drunk he’d never stand a chance against a wild boar.
No matter, the issue of Stark’s death is the one I want to focus on. I noted the obvious piece of foreshadowing, one even the characters note for the reader, and still the act of Ned’s death is a shock. Before Ned is executed he is lead to believe he will be spared if he begs the newly crowned King Joffrey for mercy and admits his crime (of which he committed no crime when speaking out against Joffrey, for Joffrey was not the true heir to the throne). Before that though, we were shown how cruel and merciless Joffrey is, a truly wretched child with no redeeming qualities. There was no way he would spare poor old Ned, and predictably, after Ned confessed to false crimes Joffrey ordered the be-heading take place.
There’s more though! Shortly before Ned is arrested a conversation takes place between Ned and the queen Cersei in which the fateful line is spoken by the queen, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.” By now we have seen what is needed to win: treachery, deceit, dishonor, cunning – all traits not possessed by Ned Stark. In fact, all of the things he stands against. When Robert’s youngest brother Renly approaches him shortly after the king’s death about supporting his claim to the throne, Ned refuses instead telling him that the next in line is Renly’s older brother, Stannis, thus losing a valuable ally. Stannis had long since fled King’s Landing and was of no use to Ned at that moment. Had he accepted Renly’s offer much would have been averted. Had he the stomach to tell Robert while he was on his death-bed that Joffrey was not his true son (all of Robert’s children were the product of incest between his queen and her twin brother Jaime, a fact which Ned had recently uncovered) Cersei and her children would have been executed or banished. Ned would not dishonor his friend on his deathbed, instead choosing to record the king’s last will and testament and putting in the phrase “rightful heir” in place of Joffrey’s name.
In an environment such as King’s Landing, a piece of paper is only useful to wipe one’s ass with. It did Ned little good and he found himself arrested for treason when he proclaimed Joffrey was not the rightful heir. So why then, are we as readers and viewers shocked when Ned dies?
It’s strictly a case of blind faith. Martin, up to this point, has portrayed Ned as the central figure of the story even though several other characters are granted their own chapters. Ned doesn’t even get the first chapter of the book to himself, but his presence soon dominated the story. HBO also used the likeness of Ned’s actor Sean Bean, in virtually all of its promotion for the series. No author would kill off the story’s main character, especially not in the first book.
It’s this devotion that kept me wondering how Ned was going to get out of it even as his head separated from his body. It’s a harsh lesson for all as we quickly realize honor and decency will get you no where in this fictitious world and that no man (or woman) is safe.
The following books remind us of that again and again. Though nothing is quite as impactful as the death of Ned, there are moments that come close. I won’t spoil them, but I will say there are also moments of triumph to follow as well. Martin successfully puts doubt into the mind of the reader that their favorite character will make it out alive making each turn of the page both exciting and dreadful. Ned’s death was necessary to set the tone for the series and those hooked before his death should not abandon the series (and as I mentioned earlier, it appears few have). Digest what happened, take some time to cool off if need be, and return when ready. There are many months before season 2 begins where a great many characters will experience victory and death. Such is the way of the world.