(Over the next weeks, I’m posting excerpts from my recent talks on “Game of Thrones and History”. This is the first.)
Niccolò Machiavelli cautioned against too much reliance on honour when he wrote his advicebook, The Prince. In Game of Thrones, honour is a luxury that few can afford. Certainly not Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, especially after his old friend, the king, makes Ned an offer he can’t refuse: to serve as Robert’s chief advisor or “King’s Hand”. But while Robert Baratheon might implicitly trust Ned Stark, that doesn’t mean that the two men see the world in the same way. Robert is all about vengeance and the utter annihilation of anyone he sees as a potential threat. Ned Stark is patently uncomfortable with the scheme that targets women and children as with Robert’s plan to assassinate Danaerys Targaryen, a representative of the old royal family he has supplanted and against whom he holds a grudge.
Ned Stark is the quintessential honourable man in Martin’s world of intrigue and betrayal. In some respects, he parallels the great English historical councillor, statesman and martyr, Sir Thomas More. More had risen high in the service of Henry VII and VIII, from London lawyer and Speaker of the Commons to Chancellor of the Realm. His great position brought him nothing but grief, however, as Henry’s chief goal in life was the getting of a male heir and his queen, Katherine of Aragon, was past the age of childbearing. Her nephew, Emperor Charles V, blocked Henry’s request for a papal divorce. The English king’s ambition turned to a break with the Roman church and adopting some of the newfangled approaches of Protestantism. More was intensely loyal to the church and would not assist in the endeavour or swear loyalty to the new queen he saw as illegitimately supplanting Katherine. More was, in his own words, “The king’s good servant but God’s first.” His honour and his religious sensibilities alienated the king and left him vulnerable. More was arrested, convicted of treason and executed in 1535.
Was Thomas More’s stand worthwhile? For him, personally, it was clearly the right decision. But for his goals of protecting the faith or serving the good of the realm, that was less clear. Henry VIII plundered the church, overturned the traditions of faith and, according to many critics, oppressed his subjects in pursuit of his goals. Ned Stark reconciles with Robert to take up his position as King’s Hand again, but faces another crisis with Robert on his deathbed. As Protector of the Realm, those around Ned urge him to assert his authority and push the queen’s family out.
Renly’s advice is clearly not indifferent: he seeks to supplant his ‘nephew’, Joffrey, as well as bypass his older brother, Stannis. Ned’s honour extends not only to the protection of women and children, but also the line of succession. If Joffrey is not eligible to be king because of his, erm, parentage, Stannis is the next in line. Ned’s idea of honour is incompatible with cutting deals of any sort. Renly’s offer to join forces and seize the day, for the good of the realm, is patently unwelcome.
In Chapter Eighteen of The Prince, Machiavelli observed “we see that in practice, in these days, those rulers who have not thought it important to keep their word have achieved great things, and have known how to employ cunning to confuse and disorientate other men. In the end, they have been able to overcome those who have placed store in integrity.”
Ned Stark’s honour renders him vulnerable to others’ plots. His offer of mercy to Cersei Lannister, warning to flee the court and save her children from Robert’s revenge, seems laughable given how ruthless we know that Cersei and others at the court are in pursuing their own interests. This clip from their confrontation sums up much of Martin’s and Machiavelli’s perspective on politics.
Ned Stark’s emphasis on honour and honesty made him vulnerable to the plotting of Cersei, Petyr Baelish, Varys and other ambitious individuals at the court.
Marcus Schulzke, “Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” Game of Thrones and Philosophy (New York: Wiley, 2012), 33-48.