(This is part 6 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. Read prior posts here.)
(Series spoilers ahead!) In my review of Game of Thrones a few months ago, I noted that the series was about the fall of the Stark family, how good intentions can lead to ruin. But in reading the rest of the series, I discovered it’s not about the Starks at all, although members of that family figure prominently in the plot. No, the series is about the need for realistic, sometimes cynical decision-making in a world with no room for error, but the defining moment isn’t when Ned Stark loses his head.
It’s when Robert Baratheon slayed Rhaegar Targaryen.
The Targaryens had ruled Westeros since the Andals arrived centuries before. Like the Caesars in I, Claudius, the Targaryen family tree produces both crabs and apples, both madmen and heroes. The long Targaryen dynasty gave Westeros stability for centuries, as ravaging winters followed long, fertile summers. All that changed with the coronation of King Aerys II, known as “Mad King Aerys” for good reason.
There had been mad Targaryen rulers before Aerys, but he was vulnerable, and rule did not suit him. He cut himself frequently on the immense Iron Throne, bleeding from fresh cuts at all times. Under his rule the Hand of the King wielded great power, a position held by Tywin Lannister for many years. But Aerys grew tired of him and retired Tywin from office, leading to a rapid succession of Hands not nearly so capable as Tywin Lannister had been.
Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard looked on with disgust as Aerys tortured his last Hand as well as the Hand’s son. The Kingsguard’s duty was to any king that sat on the throne, no matter how fit to rule that king was. Yet Jaime couldn’t stand it any longer. As Aerys’s rule collapsed under the rebellion of Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark (pseudo-protagonist of Game of Thrones), and Jon Arryn, Jaime decided to take matters into his own hands: he killed Aerys, soiling his own reputation and honor permanently.
This wouldn’t have mattered, though, if Robert hadn’t killed Rhaegar just prior.
Rhaegar was the king Aerys should have been. He was an intellectual, a renaissance man in a world with no renaissance. But one day Rhaegar read the Azor Ahai prophecy — one that several kings have claimed for their legitimacy in the series — and soon trains as a skilled and courageous knight. It was said that Rhaegar would have made strong, just king. Rhaegar would also have been betrothed to Cersei Lannister, were it not for the events that followed.
The Battle of the Trident changed everything. Robert Baratheon saw Rhaegar’s abduction of his beloved Lyanna Stark as a stain on the family’s honor and began his rebellion in earnest. So when Robert met Rhaegar on the field at the Trident, he held nothing back. He pounded Rhaegar with his warhammer, showing no mercy. After the deaths of Aerys and Rhaegar, the remaining Targaryens were killed or forced into hiding (including Viserys and Daenerys, who fled Westeros altogether), toppling a dynasty that had lasted centuries.
Robert Baratheon’s rule proved too weak to hold Westeros together. He wed Cersei Lannister, an unhappy marriage that led to the events of A Game of Thrones. After Robert’s death, there was no clear line of succession, the waters muddied by accusions of incest between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, the brothers Renly and Stannis too strong and unwilling to yield to the other. Then Renly died and Stannis was defeated at Blackwater; by then the Lannisters had exhausted the gold in King’s Landing, rendering their rule ineffectual. Cersei’s gross mismanagement of the kingships of Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon eliminated nearly all hope of a peaceful Lannister dynasty.
And all this happened as winter arrived in Westeros, leaving the peasant population vulnerable at the worst moment.
It’s little wonder that Varys, master of secrets, former thief and caretaker of orphans, would scheme to keep the Baratheon/Lannister rule in King’s Landing unsettled until a Targaryen, possibly Daenerys, could take her place on the Iron Throne. Varys emerges as the most important character in the entire series, with each book (save A Feast for Crows) revealing another part of his true character. Varys grew up in the harshest circumstances. He was castrated as a young boy by a wizard, then learned to pickpocket to survive. He later became a master thief, then a leader of thieves — and when his prodigies became spies, a master of secrets. Yet his harsh childhood stuck with him, influencing every decision he made. Consider his speech to Ned Stark just prior to the latter’s execution:
Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?
Varys would know the sufferings of innocents well enough. After being recruited as the Master of Spies for Aerys II, he sought out orphans like himself, the smallest children who can climb through narrow tunnels and between walls. Does he feel sympathy for them? He appears to at the end of A Dance with Dragons, as he allows his “little birds” to murder Kevan Lannister to leave the realm in chaos.
But is all this scheming too little, too late? Winter finally arrives in A Dance with Dragons, and a new ruler in King’s Landing will not help the peasants to survive years of brutal cold and no crops. Thus Varys’s statement is doubly-right: not only do the peasants suffer from murder and starvation under war, but the war itself eats the countryside, leaving nothing to survive on in the coming winter.
So, where will the next two books take us? I can easily guess that many characters will starve to death, or die of the cold. They may be POV characters, or one-off minor roles in the prologues. “Valar morghulis” — all men must die — but some will die sooner than others in Westeros. Yet it will be the nobles, who have ample stores of food and armies to guard them, who live the longest, and deserve it the least, if Varys is to be believed.
So the Starks, the stupid, poor Starks who get led astray with notions of honor and duty and glory — Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Jon — aren’t the only ones to die for their folly. It’s not about the fall of the Starks; it’s about the folly of the Starks and the other nobles who get embroiled in the game of thrones. Simply put, it’s not worth it.