As Ned and Catelyn lie in bed, they have a heated discussion about Robert’s offer to Ned. Ned is reluctant to take the position, but Catelyn feels that the offer is in the family’s best interests as it would mean Sansa would one day be queen and refusing the position may make Robert think that Ned is plotting against him.
They are interrupted by Desmond, who informs them that Maester Luwin has urgent news for them. Luwin’s news turns out to be a secret letter for Catelyn from her sister Lysa, Jon Arryn’s widow. Lysa’s letter accuses the Lannister family in general and Cersei in particular of conspiring to murder Jon Arryn. Catelyn sees this as a strong reason for Ned to go take Robert’s offer and uncover the truth for himself though Ned feels that he is better off not involving himself in the matter. Catelyn and Luwin are able to convince him to take the offer though Ned still has reservations.
Having made his mind up, Ned tells Catelyn to wait behind and tells her she will be in charge of Winterfell in his absence. Robb and Rickon will wait behind in Winterfell with her but the rest of the children will follow him to King’s Landing. Catelyn is reluctant to let Bran, her favourite child, go with Ned but ultimately gives in. However, she is adamant that Jon Snow cannot remain in Winterfell. Luwin informs them of Jon’s desire to join the Night’s Watch and Ned uneasily agrees, saying he will tell Jon the news himself.
I have to admit this was a pretty difficult chapter to read. To me, this was the chapter that really kick started the civil war plotline. Though I can see why others might disagree; Martin has done an excellent job in crafting the historical background of Westeroes – there is enough pent up resentment between the houses and between key individuals that it is truly impossible to the lay responsibility for the civil war catastrophe at any one person’s feet. It took the combined stupidity and scheming of the Starks, Lannisters and Littlefinger to kick start this civil war and despite all that, even as late as Ned’s execution there could have been a relatively bloodless solution to the problem. You might be wondering why I’m trying so hard to find someone to assign blame to. Well, it’s because my primary reaction to this chapter involved screaming at the characters (in my head of course; I’m not crazy) “Why would you do that?!?” but then immediately realizing there was no way they could have thought to do otherwise without either totally disrupting my suspension of disbelief or becoming entirely different characters. I guess the blame game was just a way for me to channel all my frustration at the characters in this chapter to the character who actually ‘deserved’ it – a sense of righteous nerd rage, if you will. Unfortunately no such character exists and while that is a sign of excellent writing, it means that the frustration is pent up and distributed among the characters in this chapter.
First on the hit list, predictably, is Catelyn herself. I hope I’ll never have to be in Catelyn’s situation with regards to Jon. She does have my sympathy because it must hurt having a constant sign of your spouse’s infidelity roaming around your house, eating your food and being treated (almost) equal to your own children (which I’m sure would happen if Ned had his way). At the same time though, I find the fact that she’s still hurt after 14 years a little ridiculous. This was a child who is (and presumably always has been) best friends with her first son, who she has seen grow up since he was an infant and who probably looked up to her (until she taught him better, I suppose) as a mother figure. I know Catelyn gets loads of sympathy from some readers, and I agree to a surprisingly large extent, but the one thing that allows gets under my skin is her treatment of Jon. She hasn’t even bothered to get to know Jon, as evidenced by her relief that his grandchildren won’t compete with Robb’s for Winterfell once he goes to the Wall. This is a realistic flaw for a character like Catelyn to have, but it neither makes her any more endearing to the reader nor does it make her chapters less frustrating. Her insistence that Ned go south despite his reservations is difficult to read through as well. Catelyn definitely has a much, much stronger grasp of politics than Ned (the shit inside a dead horse’s intestines has a better grasp of politics than Ned, but that’s beside the point), so once again, her arguments make perfect sense given what I feel is her limited understanding of the bond between Ned and Robert. This whole chapter, really, is made up of people acting rationally but frustrating the reader thoroughly in the process.
The uncontested master of this, of course, is Ned Stark. Not so much in this chapter, where his instincts are amazingly (for Ned) spot on. Here it’s not so much his own actions that do him in as it is Catelyn and Luwin’s prodding. Ned’s decision to take up the office of Hand here is a huge turning point in the series – after this point, there is no plausible way that things end well for the Starks. The best Ned can expect from this point on (assuming he sticks by his retarded honor code) is a place on the Wall. Ned’s decision to take up the position immediately paints him as a threat to Cersei, whose own world-view is as warped as Ned’s though in a totally different way. Being his usual astute self, Ned does not even know that he has upset the true power in King’s Landing until it’s far too late. Apart from that though, this chapter does a pretty thorough job of showing just how comfortable Ned is in Winterfell. He’s with his loving wife, his family and is effectively the King of the North as none have the power or influence to oppose him short of Robert Baratheon himself, and really, I find it hard to believe any of the senior officers in Winterfell would carry out Robert’s orders if it directly harmed Ned and his family. It helps us, as readers, to better understand exactly what Ned is giving up and gives us an introduction to his sense of loyalty, justice and honor; he will not leave Robert in Lannister hands nor let Jon Arryn’s death go unpunished while he still has the strength to do something about it.
I really liked the description of Winterfell’s inner heating. I’m currently freezing my ass off and Ned and Catelyn’s room sounds too good to be true. I don’t know whether to be skeptical about how ancient Andals or First Men or whoever had the technical know-how to build Winterfell in such a way, but given some of the awesome architecture mankind’s been responsible for, I’m willing to let it slide. I feel like the contrast between the Ned’s need for the cold and Catelyn’s need for the warmth is supposed to signify something, but I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly that is. The most obvious thing I can think of is that it’s supposed to tie-in with the contrasting opinions they have on what course of action to take and on a larger scale is just a reflection on the difference between their upbringing and personalities and by extension the differences between the North and the South. I have absolutely no idea what exactly Ned and Catelyn are thinking letting Sansa marry Joff. They know nothing about the boy and they clearly love Sansa so I can’t really tell if they’re following Sansa’s logic that because he’s a handsome crown prince he’s a good guy or whether they’re just awful judges of character. I get the feeling that Ned suspects that Joff is fucked in the head, but isn’t sure enough to argue the point with Catelyn. Catelyn meanwhile is pragmatically, if a little heartlessly, is thinking about the enormous benefits to the Starks if Sansa becomes queen.
I also noticed that there seems to be some sort of foreshadowing regarding the fate of any Starks that step foot into King’s Landing. (Hint: they fucking die). Of course, Arya and Sansa seem to be exceptions, but I have a theory that Arya and Sansa are dead – not literally of course, but Sansa is Alayne and Arya is…I have no idea anymore, but definitely not Arya Stark. I don’t know if there’s any significance to this but I thought it was an interesting road to go down.
I generally like Maester Luwin – in a series full of conniving characters, it’s good to see someone who’s 100% committed to the good guys. I know Luwin doesn’t get a happy ending (I’m beginning to think no one will) but it’s still nice to see someone just go about their business without trying to jockey ruthlessly for power. Unfortunately, Luwin decides to follow the logical-but-infuriating-for-reader route and gives Ned what in 99% of similar situations would be sound advice. I do wonder whether Luwin’s time in the North has dulled his wits in some ways – does he honestly not realize that Ned is not at all cut out for political office in Weteroes? Or does he just not think in terms of manipulation and scheming but rather in terms of rank and authority (i.e. that since Ned has more rank and therefore more authority, he is better off)? If he does, then that makes him remarkably like Ned; Ned’s a simple man, an unashamedly good guy who just goes about his duty with honour. Ned’s a soldier at heart really and ultimately the perfect contrast to Littlefinger in almost every way (more on this when we get to it).
Despite the length of this chapter, there isn’t much else to talk about here. So, I’ll sign off here and we’ll pick up with Arya’s first chapter. I’ll end with the customary stupid question: if Lysa wrote the letter in a code, what exactly did Catelyn think she risked by sending the letter? Even if it was discovered only Lysa and Catelyn could decipher it, so why does Catelyn think that Lysa put her life on the line to accuse Cersei?