Why Daenerys, Ned, and Robb are jerks, and George R. R. Martin is awesome

SPOILER ALERT: I’ve read all the Song of Ice and Fire books, but only seen the first season of the Game of Thrones TV series based on them. I know roughly where in the plot of the books the TV show is, and I’ll try not to spoil anything past that point, but I haven’t actually seen the last two seasons of the show so I might screw that up slightly.

From what I can tell, most people who’ve been exposed to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, or the HBO show based on it, have loved it. A few hate it. And funnily, it seems to me that most of the criticism and a lot of the love comes from rather missing the point of the series. In particular, a lot of people seem to be under the misapprehension that Daenerys Targaryen and the Stark family are heroes.

One particularly confused critique of the show (which I wish I could find now, but can’t) actually claimed that, to make them more sympathetic, the creators of the show gave both Daenerys and the Starks modern values. How anyone could get this idea, I’ll never know.

It’s true that Daenerys and the Starks are relatively sympathetic, compared to many of the other characters in the series, because they’re more or less true to their professed values, as opposed to being backstabbing hypocrites like the other characters in the series. The problem is that their values are profoundly messed up, and Martin goes to some lengths to show us that.

For starters, when we first meet Ned Stark (both in the books and the show), he’s literally playing judge, jury, and executioner in the trial of an accused deserter of the Night Watch, the military force that guards the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms (the fictional country that’s the focus of the series, which takes up most of the continent of Westros).

Said accused deserter tries to give everybody a perfectly accurate report of the big supernatural threat that looms over the entire series, but Ned dismisses him as a madman and cuts his head off. It’s a nice little advertisement for the benefits of the jury system, needing proof beyond a reasonable doubt and all that.

Then there’s Daenerys. She’s the exiled daughter of the previous king, Mad Aerys, who was overthrown for being murderously insane. She thinks this means she has a right to be queen, and spends the entire series (so far) plotting an invasion of the Westros to get “her” throne back.

Having grown up in exile, she knows very little about the land she’s planning to conquer, but she’s under the impression that the common folk of Westros are praying for her return. Early in the first book/season, her companion Ser Jorah corrects her: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” Daenerys doesn’t listen and continues planning her conquest.

After killing the guy who was trying to warn him about the big supernatural threat, Ned goes to the capital, King’s Landing, to serve as the Hand (chief adviser) to the current king, Robert Baratheon. It’s important that Ned take this position, because Robert doesn’t actually want to do the hard work of ruling, Robert just wants to eat, drink, hold tournaments, and fuck prostitutes (seriously).

Once in King’s Landing, Ned investigates the possibility that the previous Hand, Jon Arryn, was murdered, and eventually comes to the conclusion that he was–to conceal the fact that all of the children Robert supposedly had with his wife Cersei Lannister were actually fathered by her brother Jaime (ick).

Ned confronts Cersei, hoping she’ll take the hint to flee with her children. Instead, she responds by arranging a hunting “accident” for Robert. As Robert lays dying, Ned can’t bring himself to tell Robert the truth, but Robert’s brother Renly (who also knows the truth about Cersei’s children) comes to Ned with a proposal to hold Cersei and her children hostage and then put himself (Renly) on the throne.

Ned refuses because he thinks this would be dishonorable. Partly because Renly is the youngest of the three Baratheon brothers, so Cersei’s children being illegitimate would, by Westrosi law, mean middle brother Stannis should get the throne. Ned doesn’t care that Stannis is a colossal dick, whereas people actually like Renly. Renly leaves, everything goes to hell, and Ned ends up getting executed on the orders of Cersei’s psychopathic even year old son Joffrey, who’s now king.

This is followed by a five-way civil war, the with each faction supporting a different king: Joffrey, Renly, Stannis, Ned’s eldest son Robb, and a fifth guy who hadn’t been important previously.

And yeah, Ned’s son ends up crowning himself king. Unlike everybody else in the story, Robb isn’t trying to rule over all of Westros, he just crowns himself “King in the North,” the North being the region the Starks had already ruled as vassals to Robert (and Aerys before him). Why does Robb do that?

Well, if you pay close attention the key scene, it turns out to be not Robb’s idea at all. Robb was reluctant to even fight against Joffrey. It was Robb’s bannermen (i.e. his dad’s friends) who most wanted to fight, and they who came up with the idea of declaring Robb king.

So to recap: Daenerys thinks she has the right to try to conquer a continent because her dad was a murderously insane king. Ned plays a major role in throwing the same continent into civil war. A civil war that could not have happened without the system of hereditary monarchy which Ned felt honor-bound to follow. And Robb gets involved in the fighting because it’s what his dad’s friends wanted.

Lest you think I’m reading too much into this, and Martin clearly intended Daenerys and Ned and Robb to be the heroes, Martin goes to great lengths in following books to show how incredibly destructive the war ends up being, with both both sides committing plenty of atrocities.

Robb’s military campaign includes burning and pillaging. I’m not sure if we’re ever explicitly told that there’s raping going on alongside the pillaging, but in the setting there seems to be a general attitude that rape is normal part of war and the leaders make little effort to prevent it, so raping being included with the pillaging seems like a foreseeable consequence of Robb’s actions. At one point, Robb’s men kill some women just because they believe the women had slept with Lannister soldiers.

In the third book/season, Tywin (Cersei’s father) arranges to have Robb murdered in the infamous Red Wedding. If you’d been paying attention up to that point (at least reading the books), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Tywin had a point when he defended his actions by arguing the alternative would have meant another year of war: “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.”

So yes, Ned and Daenerys gain a lot of sympathy for being true to their professed values, and not engaging in any conniving like the Lannisters do. But their values are still pretty much to blame for everything that goes wrong in the series. A Song of Ice and Fire is practically a treatise on why hereditary monarchy is a bad idea: it gets you kings who are incompetent (Robert), murderously insane (Aerys, Joffrey), eleven years old (Joffrey again), or just dicks (Stannis).

And it turns what would’ve been just a squicky sex scandal into a horribly destructive civil war.

I said at the beginning of this post that much of the criticism I’ve read of the series seems to miss the point. But I can certainly understand some people not liking it just because it’s so goddamn dark. As Martin himself once said:

People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times.

Most times, though, I’ll take Martin’s version. It sure as hell beats Tolkien telling me how the King Aragorn is the greatest guy ever and all the battles he leads are noble and glorious. Yuck.

  • Noelle

    As long as we can agree that Arya Stark is kick-ass, I think we’re good.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      I don’t know. She gets kinda crazy as the series wears on.

      • Noelle

        Her story line in the book is great. I love her supernatural assassin transformation. She’s the anti-Stark.

        Tyrion’s my favorite too.

        • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

          “anti-Stark” – lol! But yeah, she’s awesome as a tomboy, and then she’s awesome as a girl who is going kickass, but now she’s kinda scary. I’m eager to see what GRRM does with her in the next two books, but at the same time… yikes!

          And everyone loves Tyrion. Even when he’s terrible, who can’t sympathize with the guy?

  • Vanzetti

    Me, I’m rooting for the White Walkers.

    • ituri

      Pssssht. The dragons have so totally got the White Walkers.

      By the end, my guess (I don’t know, and don’t tell me if I’m right/wrong), I’m pretty sure the only ones that will be alive are the dragons, maybe Dany, and that giant warrior woman (her name escapes me).

      • ZenDruid

        I can see Bran Stark becoming a Dragonmaster.

    • Kyungmi Nam

      Me too; they’re badass.

  • Vanzetti

    >>>Most times, though, I’ll take Martin’s version. It sure as hell beats
    Tolkien telling me how the King Aragorn is the greatest guy ever and all
    the battles he leads are noble and glorious. Yuck.

    Ignore Aragorn, concentrate on the Hobbits. :-)

  • staircaseghost

    He was not executed for lying about zombies, he was executed for running away from the Watch. Which he confessed to. And since when do atheists and skeptics demand that a single person’s eyewitness report is sufficient to establish the existence of the supernatural?

    Dany believes she is the heir to the throne because she is, in fact, literally the heir to throne.

    And, regardless of who is whispering is whose ear, one does not generally owe continued vassalage to a lord who whimsically murders your king/father on false charges, and whom you have good reason to suspect is not the heir to the throne in any case.

    • Jayn

      “Dany believes she is the heir to the throne because she is, in fact, literally the heir to throne.”

      Which kind of begs the question, what determines who is a legitimate heir? She was heir to the previous king, but not Robert, and while her family ruled for a long time, they were originally conquerors as well–if their rule had begun more recently, perhaps there’d be another player claiming to be the ‘true heir’ as well. While she seems to be better suited to ruling than most of the others, her claim throws into light just how arbitrary the whole idea is in the first place.

      • Erp

        Not that long ago. One of the previous kings legitimatized his bastards which led to one claiming the throne and having several generations of attempts (the last of which is only 40 years previous to the current books). That line is suppose to be extinct in the male line but the throne has to now go through the female line if one requires blood connection so they may come back (Robert’s claim along with Stannis’s is through a royal princess ancestor, Daenerys is herself female, the third claimant does claim male line but is he who he thinks he is).

        I believe one of the Pratchett stories ends with a new king who supposedly is of royal blood but actually isn’t (and is almost certainly better than any of the other possibilities).

      • PhoenicianRomans

        While she seems to be better suited to ruling than most of the others, her claim throws into light just how arbitrary the whole idea is in the first place.

        Especially given that her lineage is noted for producing both geniuses and madmen. Yes, she may be better suited to ruling than the other claimants – but if she rules, might her offspring be psychopathic pyromaniacs?

        • John Alexander Harman

          Apparently, she’s not going to have any offspring, at least if Mirri Maz Duur was telling the truth about her being sterile after her miscarriage.

      • John Alexander Harman

        The thing about the original Targaryen conquest was that it put an end to thousands of years of incessant warfare between the kingdoms, uniting them as a single realm for the first time in their history. That was originally possible because nobody could successfully oppose the Targaryens while they controlled dragons; by the time the dragons died out, House Targaryen had enough legitimacy derived from the decades of peace and unity under their rule that few of the lords of Westeros really wanted to oppose them, and those who did recognized that their fellow lords wouldn’t support them if they tried to overthrow whatever Targaryen king sat on the Iron Throne at the time they thought of it.

        The only two major wars between the conquest and Robert’s Rebellion stemmed from disputes over the succession within House Targaryen; it took a Targaryen king who was a psychotic sadist, and behaved as such toward the kingdom’s highest nobility, not just the peasants, to spark a widespread rebellion aimed at ending their dynasty altogether. Even then, quite a few noble houses remained on the Targaryen side, in part because the Mad King’s heir looked to be not only a vast improvement on his father, but one of the finest men the Targaryen line had ever produced.

        Part of Daenerys’ motivation as the story progresses is to reestablish the Pax Targaryana, which the War of Five Kings suggests really is the only way to keep the Seven Kingdoms from more-or-less constant warfare. That’s certainly why Ser Barristan Selmy supports her claim; he originally supported Robert after he took the throne in the interest of holding the realm together, and he defected to Daenerys after Joffrey dismissed him for the same reason.

        • holmez

          It really seems to me like there’s very little appreciable difference in quantity of war pre-and-post Aegon, considering that there’s obviously going to be more total conflict over four thousand years than over 300.

          Not to mention, it’s explicitly stated that there’s about a 50% chance ANY Targ is insane, not just Aerys — a Rhaegar every once in a while doesn’t really make that okay. Also, the best king is one who’s going to rule wisely, imho, and whether or not Rhaegar would have is unclear, no matter how good of a man he was. The only really “wise” Targ king was Jaehaerys I.

          I’m inclined to agree with Chris — one of Martin’s themes seems to be that the system the Seven Kingdoms have for ruling is just terrible, and exchanging one dynasty for the other isn’t going to fix it (although one with a genetic predisposition to lunacy would be among the worst dynasties to pick).

    • eric

      “Dany believes she is the heir to the throne because she is, in fact, literally the heir to throne”

      How is that “modern values?” Isn’t that the complaint? Like Kubricks, I suspect one big complaint about her ‘modernity’ is her position on slavery. But wanting to dictatorially rule via inherited title over a country of free peoples is barely “more modern” than wanting to dictactorially rule via inherited title over a country of mixed free people and slaves.

    • John Alexander Harman

      He was not executed for lying about zombies, he was executed for running away from the Watch.

      Exactly; desertion from the Watch is a capital crime because joining the Watch automatically excuses a man from punishment for any crimes he may have committed beforehand, no matter how severe. To be accepted as an automatic “get out of jail, amputation, hanging, beheading, drowning, flaying, crow caging, and other inventively nasty punishments free” card, exile to the Wall has to be a one-way trip — but in order for the Watch to be a unified brotherhood, the penalty for desertion cannot take into account the reasons a man joined the Watch in the first place, and must thus be the same even for non-criminal volunteers like Jon Snow.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Here’s a Martin quote that gets at why the books are special:

    And there is always this presumption that if you are a good man, you will be a good king. [Like] Tolkien — in Return of the King, Aragorn comes back and becomes king, and then [we read that] “he ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Okay, fine. It is easy to write that sentence, “He ruled wisely”.

    What does that mean, he ruled wisely? What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs? I mean did he just pursue a genocidal policy, “Let’s kill all these fucking Orcs who are still left over”? Or did he try to redeem them? You never actually see the nitty-gritty of ruling.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Great quote. I googled it, and found the source here. While it’s a good example if you’re making a point about “happily ever after” endings, I also think Martin is pretty clearly wrong about the point he’s making in context. A Feast For Crows is almost entirely skipable, though experiencing Cersei as a POV character is fun.

      • Kubricks_Rube

        I think Martin was talking about Daenerys’s arc in ADWD, which, touche, that’s probably been the most frustrating arc in the whole series.

        But I like most of AFFC. There’s too much Dorne, sure, and the Kingsmoot is ultimately underwhelming, but I mostly enjoyed Brienne’s Westeros travelogue and the depiction of Cersei’s loss of sanity and control.

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

          I liked ADWD just fine. I agree with you on disliking the Dorne and Kingsmoot, and on liking the Cersei chapters, but (rot13 for spoiler): V jnf hanoyr gb pner nobhg Oevraar, fvapr lbh xabj fur’f ybbxvat va gur jebat cynpr sbe Neln naq Fnafn.

    • Speedwell

      What does that mean, he ruled wisely?

      It means his policies and practices were in accordance with mid-twentieth-century British middle class ideas of virtue and nobility as practiced in the fifteenth century.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Write like the wind by Paul and Storm with a guest appearance by George R.R. Martin

    • John Alexander Harman

      Whether that’s a funny way of making a point or a total dick move depends on whether he bought them a replacement guitar afterward. I suspect he did; I also suspect that the stunt was arranged before hand and Paul and Storm’s surprise was feigned.

  • MNb

    It’s a bit weird to read how a fan of American Superheroes criticizes King Aragorn as both are based on the simple Good versus Evil scheme. At least Tolkien explores the theme of decline, something I don’t find back in superhero movies. What’s more, Tolkien does present two ambiguous characters: Boromir and my favourite Turin Turambar (in the Silmarillion). That’s of course a rewrite of the Oedipus tale.
    No doubt you are aware that many European countries are doing fine without the Anglo-Saxon jury system – thus Ned Stark cutting someone’s head off is not really an advertisement for its benefit.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      I’ve got a blog post coming up about the superhero thing…

  • Jakeithus

    Good post, although I disagree about Stannis, who I not only love as a character, but I think would make a great king. I don’t think he’s a “dick”, but his overwhelming devotion to the rules certainly doesn’t inspire love from most people. While we might like rules, or appreciate rules, very few of us “love” them, because we know they can be used against us. Stannis’ devotion to the rules would be just what Westeros needs, considering the number of Kings who just use the rules for how they can benefit them.

    Of course, Stannis is used by GRR as a critique on the very nature of laws in the first place, given that his claim, while completely legitimate, is only possible due to the fact his brother changed the rules and established his claim by force.

    • John Alexander Harman

      The really interesting question is whether Stannis would give up his claim in favor of Daenerys and/or that other claimant from ADWD, if he perceives either of them to be who they claim to be, and not to be incompetent to rule as Aerys was. Zryvfnaqer cebonoyl unf gur cebcurpl jebat, naljnl; vs Nmbe Nunv vf vaqrrq erobea, vg’f va gur sbez bs Qnrarelf, naq ure qentbaf ner gur “svrel fjbeq” gung jvyy qevir onpx gur qnexarff.

  • PNW

    This will probably contain SPOILERS! (I’ve only seen about 3 episodes).

    I agree with you that these characters aren’t all good but I do think that they are the ‘heroes’ of the story. I’ve always felt that Martin writes very complex characters. The good aren’t all good and the bad aren’t all bad. I enjoy hating Cersei but I can only pity her now I know how paranoid she really is. You want to cheer for the Starks because they are striving to be good (or perhaps just what they think is good).

    I’m sure plenty of characters don’t fit this idea but I truly think Martin wants us to struggle to dislike a bad character that does something purely good and to like a good character that does something reprehensible. I don’t this this makes Dany, Robb, or Ned not the heroes of the story. (If that last sentence made sense)

  • John Alexander Harman

    I think the character who comes closest to qualifying as a “hero” in “A Song of Ice and Fire” is Jon Snow; he’s so painfully Lawful Good that if he were a character in a D&D-based setting he’d be a paladin. He’s probably also the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark (not a spoiler, the evidence pointing at that conclusion is all in the first novel). Naq qrfcvgr ubj guvatf nccrnerq ng gur raq bs N Qnapr jvgu Qentbaf, V qba’g oryvrir ur’f qrnq, ng yrnfg abg creznaragyl. Gubebf bs Zle jnf noyr gb erfheerpg Ybeq Orevp frira gvzrf, va fbzr pnfrf nsgre ur’q orra qrnq sbe ubhef, naq Gubebf jnf n zhpu jrnxre cevrfg bs E’uyybe guna Zryvfnaqer rira orsber ure cbjref jrer raunaprq ol cebkvzvgl gb gur Jnyy.

    Zry oryvrirf (nyzbfg pregnvayl pbeerpgyl) gung Wba vf vzcbegnag gb ure fvqr va gur fgehttyr orgjrra Yvtug naq Qnexarff, naq fur’yy cebonoyl ernpu uvz rira orsber ur npghnyyl qvrf; gurer’f ab jnl fur’q jvyyvatyl yrg uvz qvr, be fgnl qrnq vs fur qvqa’g znxr vg va gvzr gb urny uvz juvyr ur’f fgvyy oernguvat. Nyfb, vs fur qbrf oevat uvz onpx sebz gur qrnq, uvf jnet obaq jvgu Tubfg jvyy cebonoyl xrrc uvf fcvevg sebz qrgrevbengvat gur jnl Ybeq Orevp’f qvq, xrrcvat vg napuberq va gur jbeyq bs gur yvivat.

  • Kaiser

    The Tolkien-bashing that often seems to accompany posts and threads where ASoIaF’s moral ambiguity and violent ‘realism’ are praised tend to neglect the point that Tolkien had far more direct experience of violence and moral ambiguity than Martin ever will (as a WWI veteran) and made a conscious decision to take his fantasy in a different direction. I say this because these posters tend to criticize Tolkien on the basis of naivete or childishness, and that Martin is for hard-headed realists.

    Also, ASoIaF is hardly original or ‘special’ anymore to longtime fans of fantasy. The Dark and Gritty genre has been around for some time. Greatly influenced by Martin, yes, but GoT came out 18 years ago. Numerous authors and have solidified its conventions and even, by now, cliches. Some, like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence, have even managed to finish their series. Some have been praised for surpassing Martin in quality of writing and pacing.