King Robert Baratheon finally arrives at Winterfell but much changed from the man Ned remembers. Ned welcomes the King to Winterfell after which Robert asks to see Ned’s sister’s grave to pay his respects. As they climb down to the crypts, Robert tells Ned of the manner of Jon Arryn’s death and they talk about the realm. Robert claims that his is surrounded by ‘flatterers and fools’ and can’t tell them apart. He needs good men to help him rule and offers Ned the position of Hand of the King. Ned believes his place is in the North but does not decline Robert’s offer, instead asking for time to think about it.
As far as I’m concerned, this is where ‘A Game of Thrones’ begins, though not necessarily where ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ begins, if that makes sense? In this chapter, we’re introduced to the two of the major pieces (but, as we’ll see, not players) in the titular Game. And boy, would they suck at playing it. As Robert says, “Half of them don’t dare tell me the truth, and the other half can’t find it.” As the story goes on, we realize how far from the truth he is – ‘they’ (whoever he’s referring to) most certainly know the truth, they have found it and their finding it is going to send him to that early grave he was hoping for. Interestingly, the quoted sentence could apply entirely to Ned – for most of the book he can’t find the truth and then once he finds it, he can’t get himself to tell Robert.
While some major characters get their first mentions here, this chapter is all about Robert and Ned. The friendship between them seems pretty strong despite not seeing each other for so long, though there definitely are some cracks that are already visible which will only widen as time goes on. It’s one of the more heart-warming things about this series that despite their differences, Ned is still the one Robert trusts more than anyone else to carry out his will when he’s on his deathbed. I think this chapter captures the awkwardness of meeting a friend after a very, very long time – what do you talk about, how much has the other party changed, are they still the same person on the inside? Ned’s facing the problem all dudes face at some point or the other –you’ve done well for yourself, you’ve settled down and you’re happy but then along comes this old friend who you’re seeing after ages who’s still the same college kid you knew all those years ago. He’s still getting piss drunk at any and every opportunity and he’s still fooling around with every willing woman. I guess Ned was expecting/hoping that Robert had matured, but now he has to deal with the same immature, stubborn Robert from way back, except now he has the additional problem of Robert being in a position of authority.
Robert himself is actually a lot of fun to read about – you never know what new levels of incompetence he’ll reach. He’s got a LOT of flaws but there’s something about him that allows us (me?) to forgive him all the same. I think it’s the fact that like Davos and Ned, Robert is one of the few truly open adult characters in ASOIAF. Sure, he approves of killing kids, rebellions and general bloodshed, but he doesn’t make any apologies for it and he’s definitely not involved in any conspiracies. The only problem is that too often he does things that are morally wrong or unforgivable (like killing kids, walking away from his duties or outright domestic abuse). I think it’s his friendship with Ned that gives him most of his relatively few popularity points. I’ve always wondered whether Robert is truly just oblivious to the politicking around him (i.e. does he really believe that Renly, Littlefinger, Pycelle & co are “fools and flatterers” ) or whether he gets it but doesn’t do anything about it.
I wonder what, if anything, became of the whole Warden of the East thing. As far as I can tell, Jaime never became the Warden of the East since there is no reference to it in any of his chapters. At the same time though, I seem to remember Lysa introducing Robert is the ‘true’ Warden of the East, which seems a funny title to use unless there was a false version roaming around somewhere. Now, far be it from me to question any of Robert’s decisions (LOL, JK), but it seems like a singularly stupid decision to let Jaime Lannister (someone who is widely reviled as being honorless) take over the armies of a place he’s not from, possibly never been to and is in no way affiliated to. This is of course, ignoring the fact that the Kingsguard can’t possess any titles of offices. This whole thing smells of Cersei since I assume Tywin would have been smart enough to see the flaws I’ve raised above. So, if Robert acceded to her, the question becomes one of why? Is it that Cersei just nagged until he caved (thereby making Robert weak and stupid) or did he realize that he owes her Daddy lots and lots of money and therefore he should probably listen to her (thereby making him weak and broke)? Neither is a winning combination, but I think it’s more likely to be the former. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for taking away as much of Robert Arryn’s power as possible, but giving it to Jaime seems so…random. Like, what justification could Robert possibly give to all the more deserving knights of the Vale?
We also get some glimpses of Robert’s personality flaws – for one he doesn’t seem to like being corrected. Ned disagreeing with him on the issue of the Warden of the East bodes poorly for their ‘working’ relationship. It also begs the question of what exactly Robert expects Ned to achieve if Robert himself refuses to listen to any advice he doesn’t like/agree with. This chapter mentions that Ned will be the second most powerful man around, but I can’t remember getting that impression throughout ‘A Game of Thrones’ and I think part of the reason for that is because Ned gets no real support from Robert. There’s also the line, “Times are difficult”, which convinced me that Robert has absolutely no fucking idea what he’s talking about. First he talks about everyone down south being fat, drunk and rich but then suddenly times are hard? What’s so hard about them? There seems to be plenty of food and drink, there’s no plague as far as anyone can tell and there’s no war (for once). Which part of the ‘times’ is hard right now? I noticed on this read-through that Robert mentions war and battles a few times despite there being no indication that there will be any need for either anytime soon. I don’t think that Robert knew of the Dany situation so early, so I’m inclined to think that mentally, Robert’s just a brute. Think about it – his primary pleasures are food, drink and women and when he’s not doing any of those, he’s probably out killing things. I guess at the end of everything, he’s kind of a man’s man. He’s living every high-school jock’s dream; married to a hot wife, plenty of good food, lots of alcohol and extra women anytime he wants. To the rest of us, he’s just a pathetic, fat, irresponsible man who can’t let go of the past and its glories. Also, think how utterly out of shape must you need to be to run out of breath climbing down some stairs? These are the same stairs Rickon had no trouble with.
Ok, enough of Robert, let’s move on to the next major character of the chapter: Ned. There’s not a lot to say about Ned here largely because Robert dominated the chapter. Still, it’s interesting to note my different attitude towards Ned on this read-through. When I first read this book, I remember being rather fond of Ned and his honorable ways. Knowing how that ends, I now feel a lot less sympathetic towards him because it’s now so easy to see how he gets it all wrong. On a first read, we tend to see events in Ned’s chapters with a decidedly Ned-colored tint. Now, after reading the rest of the series so far, we have enough evidence to argue with Ned’s own opinion and ideals. For example, he says he “would sooner entrust a child to a pit viper than to Lord Tywin” but by all evidence, Robert Arryn would have been safe at Casterly Rock. He would have been under the Lannisters’ personal protection and Tywin is way too smart to kill the Lord of the Eyrie unless someone did something stupid (like kidnap his son. But what kind of utter imbicile would do that?). Robert, as it turns out, was safest at the Eyrie, because at Casterly Rock he would be a hostage to the Lannisters (assuming Catelyn still caught Tyrion and dragged him to the Eyrie) and at Winterfell he would probably have become Reek 2 (assuming he remained there with Bran and Rickon). It’s clear here that Ned is more concerned about Robert Arryn’s physical safety rather than the political implications of having one of the Great Houses sympathetic to the Lannisters; so we know, right from the get go that Ned still sees things like a soldier. He sees the direct implications of a situation rather than the subtler long term implications and this is perhaps his greatest short-coming as a player in the Game.
That’s it from me – I’ll end with an interesting fact: do you realize that apart from Tyrion and Robert Arryn, all the characters mentioned in this chapter are either dead or presumed dead. Ouch…