There Must Always be a Stark in Winterfell – The Paradoxical Thing About Stark Rule in Game of Thrones


House Stark. The quintessential good house in the popular show Game of Thrones. The staunch, long-faced wardens of the North. The only family that doesn’t resort to scheming and believes in honour and justice! And also one of the dumbest great families there is in a country of backscheming bastards and power-hungry tyrants. Yet, somehow house Stark has survived for thousands of years. How is this possible, considering that the male leaders tend to lose their heads?

The show Game of Thrones and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire are at its essence deconstructions of the High Fantasy genre, which was created by J.R.R Tolkien in the previous century. Lord of the Rings was a fight between “good and evil”, where Tolkien made it very clear that good is gorgeous and evil is uglier than a troll guarding a bridge. And in the movie series from Peter Jackson we see a few lovable and potentially homosexual hobbits brave the dangers of Mordor to rid the world of evil, while the humans and Orcs shower us with that righteous and awesome war we pissed in our pants for when we saw it in 2002. And I have to say, those graphics and CGI still look good today. But Lord of the Rings was also a glorification of war. We only saw the “good sides” of war, which is against the entire character of George R.R. Martin and the story we’re discussing in this article. Martin is very careful to show that war is bad. That feudalism is bad. Entire groups of untrained farmers get slaughtered, families are ripped apart and sons are sent away to die at the whims of their feudalistic lord. And let’s be honest here: the entire story is nothing more than a big dick contest between the different lords and their houses.

Honourable Leaders Still Want to Show Their Big Dicks!

Eddard Stark; proud scion of the house

The Patriarch of house Stark. Also the origin of the memes!

But then we have house Stark. The lovable chaps who rule with compassion, honour and justice. Except for that tiny detail that both Eddard, Robb and Jon have no problems whatsoever sending thousands of farmers to their deaths because other lords are shoving their big dicks down their throats and the Stark lords want to prove they have the biggest dick! And don’t forget that fun little side-story where Robb is stupid enough to break his marriage pact out of love for a Volantine who happens to talk back to him. I’ve always wondered if he fell for her because Talisa acted like his mother, scolding the young wolf for trying to show his big dick to Tywin Lannister.

Romantic penises aside, this already shows the contradiction in house Stark. They are presented as the good guys for the entire show. And while they are definitely more honourable and moral than most of the noble houses; they’re really not that much better. They’re just as likely to go to war as any other slighted house and they also believe in the concept of vengeance, a theme that is very relevant in the show.

But maybe I’m a tad too harsh on the family members themselves. All the Stark characters, man and woman, have shown themselves to be relatively good guys. And that is the point. House Stark is essentially a representation of why being good and honourable makes for lousy rulers and idiots. In a world where everyone schemes and tries to destroy the other houses being the kind lord really isn’t the smartest thing to do. After all; Eddard gets killed because of his mercy. Robb gets killed because of love and his sense for justice. And Jon gets stabbed because he looks at the bigger picture and doesn’t want to see the wildlings suffer. And I will note that the three characters get betrayed by people they trust. Eddard by Littlefinger (though he kinda deserves that one), Robb by Roose and Jon by Ollie. The child who spawned a thousand memes and changed the views of the fanbase from “aww, such a nice kid” to “BURN HIM AT THE STAKE!”.

But the Starks are well-loved in-universe. Everyone knows their reputation of honour and nobility and their bannermen are remarkably loyal in a system where everyone schemes. Let’s start with Eddard Stark. Before the show begins he’s ruled the North (the Southern North if you don’t fancy a wildling pike up your ass) for seventeen years and the show’s demonstrated that he was a well-loved character. Every bannerman instantly unites to save him from the Lannisters in season 1. This might be a “normal” thing, but you have to remember that season 2 shows that bannermen don’t always follow their liege lord. Stannis and Renly spent the first half of the season fighting over the Storm and Reach lords. Robb manages to effectively unite the entire North because of his father. And even when he and Robb are long dead several houses remain loyal. House Mormont is fiercely loyal to house Stark even under Bolton occupation. It really does say something that fan favourite Lyanna Mormont is willing to say stuff like that, even when other lords are shitting their pants at the thought of the Boltons flaying them. But Bear Lyanna isn’t the only one loyal to house Stark. Even house Glover has loyalty to Eddard, as Robett Glover cites his respect for the former lord Stark as the sole reason he even decided to speak with Jon and Sansa.

But isn’t this weird? Eddard demonstrates that his way of ruling is worthless in a place where everyone schemes. He goes to King’s Landing and gets killed within the year. So how did he manage to effectively rule the North for such a long time? His character journey goes to show that honour has no place in ruling. And yet he does a pretty good job at it for a long time. Of course you can say that the North is far less scheming than King’s Landing and that’s definitely true. In the show at least. In the book series… Far less so. But even in the show house Bolton, Glover and Mormont have shown that they scheme and Roose was constantly worried that the other houses would unite against him. Of course, house Bolton has shown a lot more cruelty than the Starks, but several lords were bitter over Robb’s loss. So one could argue that the North is more loyal to men than actual houses, as every other place in Westeros.

Marriage Is Not a Game!

Robb Stark forsakes his marriage vow

Robb’s biggest mistake

And now we get to Robb. He doesn’t rule as long as his father does, but his behaviour definitely shows some issues he and his father share. Robb is a good war commander, but a lousy ruler. He marries Talisa Maegyr for love in a system where marriages are all about alliances and power. We consider marrying for love normal, but Robb lost 20% of his army with this stupid move. He was also stupid enough to execute Rickard Karstark to lose half of his then remaining army. This when his mother and uncle give him very sound advice on how to punish Karstark. And Robb ignores it, because of his sense of honour and justice and because he got called “boy” one too many times. A pretty childish thing to do, if you ask for my totally unbiased, mature and not-childish opinion. Robb cares more about doing the “right thing” than honouring alliances. And we get every indication that his father is similar. In King’s Landing Eddard doesn’t scheme, doesn’t care that others scheme against him and doesn’t really seem to make alliances. He has this “unholy” alliance with Littlefinger, but beyond that he hates King’s Landing because everyone’s a backstabber. All of these points once again make me wonder how he managed to rule the North for so long beyond the fact that the plot demanded it. Beyond that beautiful plot armour that is gratuitously given to a main character.

And finally it’s time to talk about Jon. Now before I start criticising him (and boy is there a lot to criticise) I will state that him being a rather weak leader is something I feel is more readily apparent in the show than it is in the book series. That being said; let the criticisims begin.

To start with; Jon is an outcast not only because he’s a bastard, but because he never really suffers any negative consequences from his mistakes. This has caused some in the fanbase to refer to him as Jesus, because he’s such a good sack, yet somehow survives despite living in a world where making one mistake can and will cost you your life. And Jon is every bit as honourable and noble as his adoptive father and brother were. He wants to save the wildlings because he understands they’re humans and he dies because of it. But then he gets magically brought back. He essentially deserts the Night’s Watch because he wants to save his brother and he doesn’t get punished for it. Even though he’s as much of a deserter as that runaway Black Crow was in the very first episode of season 1. He tries to fight Ramsay while severely lacking enough manpower, but gets saved by the Vale lords.

Now the last two plotlines aren’t Martin’s fault. D&D are clearly wrapping the plot up and they are sacrifing decent plot and… well, everything to speed things up to the end within two seasons. But fans also believe that Jon will be brought back in the books, so it seems that even in the books he escapes some of the same mistakes that cost Robb and Eddard their lives.

The Unknown Hero trope Demolished

Jon Snow, half Stark, gets stabbed.

Ollie, NO!

Another odd thing about Jon is that he seems to be both a deconstruction of the unknown hero who rises up to be the messiah and an example of how the trope is played straight. He starts from humble beginnings and makes his way to the position of Night Commander. He shows an innate instinct for leading and can inspire the men around him. He looks at the bigger picture instead of being selfish and is all-round a good guy. Of course there are some deconstructions. One reason he is such a good leader and a good fighter is because he’s been trained for it. He is a bastard, but he’s also been given opportunites very few in his position get: living with his adoptive father, being trained in swordsplay and receiving a maester’s education. Another deconstruction is that he’s still a pretty lousy ruler. He can inspire men in war, but he too doesn’t understand that everyone around him has different plans and goals. That they have their own feelings about the situation they’re in. As a result he gets stabbed by his beloved Ollie and nearly killed by Ramsay. And let’s be honest, even as a war commander he’s lousy. He plans tactics to draw Ramsay into a trap and then falls for that trap himself. Honestly, he’s only really good against unthinking wights and White Walkers.

King Snow and Sansa Stark

King Snow and Sansa Stark

In essence this is the weird thing about house Stark: the fact that Jon became king of the North and most likely will live to see house Stark survive. Ignoring the many, many, MANY flaws in the fan-favourite scene of episode 10 of season 6 (mostly because I’m going to write an article just about that), but this shows that it’s weird that house Stark, the lousy rulers who would easily die if they didn’t have plot armour, is probably one of the few noble houses who will survive season 8. In fact, the only reason why I think it will survive is because of Sansa Stark. She’s been taught by the great Littlefinger himself how to scheme and survive and as a result she’s become quite a bit colder and dangerous than good ol’ loveable Jon. Her role so far seems to be both a foil to and anti-thesis of Jon Snow: a naïve child who leaves Winterfell with bright eyes and soon finds herself in a dangerous position where saying the wrong thing can get her killed. But she doesn’t end up being a ruler. No, she becomes a schemer and arguably more dangerous than Jon himself, even if she didn’t get a fancy Valaryian steel sword out of it.

But house Stark will survive and will probably be the only of the seven noble houses to do so. House Lannister will die out, as they turned into the bad guys. House Tyrell has lost all of its prized flowers and house Martell was killed off with Doran Martell (which is also bullshit). House Baratheon is gone and Robin Arryn is a puppet used by Littlefinger who will probably die in some ridiculous way next season. And we don’t really know what’ll happen to house Greyjoy. Theon and Yara have united with Dany, but I sincerely doubt Euron will just surrender. Actually, scratch that. I hope that won’t happen.

So what I think will happen is that house Stark and Targaryen will end up ruling Westeros, either together or as partners. Rather ironic, considering that George RR Martin demonstrated at every opportunity that being honourable doesn’t get you far in a scheming place like Westeros…

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.

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