by SeannieWan Kenobi,
for The Princes That Were Promised (#TPTWP)
When I consider the patriarch of the Stark family, his first-born son and his base-born son, the first thing I think of is beheadings…
Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and the Warden of the North when A Song of Ice and Fire begins, is introduced to us through his third-born son-Brandon Stark- in his first point of view chapter and the first chapter of A Game of Thrones, proper. Eddard Stark is introduced to us delivering the King’s justice to a deserter of The Night’s Watch as Bran, his older brother Robb, and his bastard brother Jon Snow watch on in solemn silence. There is a reason Eddard brings his sons along with him and his retinue to watch the man be executed at his hands. It is an important lesson for them and the lesson is simple enough- if you are to rule and you sentence a man to death, it is not only honorable but necessary for you to look the man in his eyes and hear his final words. More importantly, it is you that must swing the sword that kills him, lest you remove yourself too far from the death your sentence brings.
Most every great House of Westeros keeps a headsman to dole out justice in the King’s name, the Starks of Winterfell keep it real. They worship the old gods of the North and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Life in the always rugged and sometimes brutal North is in many ways simpler and cleaner than living in the snake pits of politics and betrayal that comes with the warm weather and comfort of the South. There are no stations above nobility nor titles that protect a person of power, great or small, from knowing what it means and what it feels like to take a life away from another man. Death must always mean something and killing must mean a deal more.
Eddard, Ned, cannot be much different from his father in the way he rules as his father’s rule would have had a strong impression on him. Concurrently, Ned fostered in the Eyrie with his friend Robert Baratheon under Lord Jon Arryn’s protection and tutelage. Ned’s methods of ruling the North are based on what he learned from these two men, one of which we know to value honor above all else (“As High As Honor” being his House’s words) and the other we can only assume held the honor of both himself as a ruler and his family by extension of his own actions. There is no proof positive that Ned’s father, Rickard Stark was as wise, judicial and in-touch a ruler as Ned becomes but it is safe to assume that the man wasn’t a maniac that placed no value on life. If I had to guess, I would say that Rickard Stark looked in a man’s eyes before sentencing him to death and carrying out that sentence himself.
Ned is to behead Gared of The Night’s Watch for desertion. Gared seems to take the sentence well enough, offering very little in his defense but the truth. He was running from The Others, the supernatural monsters of ice and death that wet-nurses tell young boys about to make them behave. It doesn’t help that Gared appears to have lost his mind despite his calm demeanor but deserting The Night’s Watch is an unforgivable crime in Westeros and especially in the North. Perhaps oaths are taken a little more seriously in Winterfell.
Jon Snow tells Bran to keep his pony in check and to be sure he doesn’t look away as the Valyrian steel greatsword Ice is swung. If he does, their father will know and the purpose of Bran being there for the first time will be lost. One day the boys will be men, they will be Lords and Masters and they will rule keeps and castles in Robb’s name and they will need to know what it is to take a man’s life away with their word.
It is implied that Jon and Robb have seen a beheading before. For Bran, he sees the execution through a child’s eyes- the head falling to the ground, the blood spraying onto the snow, his father’s ward Theon kicking the head across the ground like a ball. He sees the details, the many moving parts, but not yet does he see the bigger picture. Bran doesn’t understand what it is that Gared lost that day and what it took for his father to swing Ice.
It is a cruel twist of fate that brings Eddard Stark South to King’s Landing and crueler still to the steps of The Great Sept of Baelor as a traitor to the Iron Throne. His execution was planned by a very small circle- the newly crowned boy King Joffrey Baratheon, Lord Commander of the City Watch Janos Slynt and the Royal Executioner Ser Ilyn Payne. The story ends for Ned the way it began with him for the reader: a beheading. However, it is Ned beheaded in the name of the King’s justice in front of the same people that he came South to rule and protect.
Tragic that he is sentenced to death after betraying his honor for the sake of his daughters, and more tragic is that he is beheaded in full view of his daughters. Most tragic is that he is beheaded with Ice, the great sword of the Starks for thousands of years, a sword that had no business being away from Winterfell.
Ned’s eldest son and heir is later crowned as the King in the North by his vassal Lords and people. During A Storm of Swords, The War of the Five Kings is nearing the final movements. Robb has come South with all his Bannerman first to save his father and then to avenge his father. Sitting at Riverrun, the noble seat of his mother’s House, a horrible war crime is committed in Robb’s court, beneath Robb’s nose. Making it more horrible still is that the perpetrator of this crime is the Lord of Karhold and a man with the same Stark blood flowing in his veins as Robb. Lord Rickard Karstark sought vengeance for his grown son’s deaths on the battlefield through the murder of Tywin Lannister’s captured nephews, children in their beds.
A prisoner of noble birth is more of a bargaining chip than an actual prisoner. More importantly, Robb had the responsibility of protecting these boys while they were ‘prisoners’ under his roof. The Lannisters hold Robb’s sister Sansa at Kings Landing and any harm done to prisoners of nobility under Robb’s charge can be reciprocated on Sansa.
The murders are justified in Karstark’s mind. They are at war with the Lannisters and the boys were Lannisters. Robb’s mother Catelyn had released the prisoner that had slew Karstark’s sons in Jaime Lannister. That action pushed an already angry man passed the realm of reasoning. Karstark curses the King and the King’s mother and calls her the real traitor. Robb is put in a terrible position and must choose between the honor of his name and rule and loyalty to the Bannerman that fought alongside him when they were summoned.
Robb makes the right decision, though it does not feel that way to anyone involved. It is decision that his father would have made and one that Robb fully realizes the consequences of. The choice is the honorable one and a true son of Eddard Stark wouldn’t have chosen any other way. A rainy and dreary morning it is when Robb passes the sentence of death upon the Lord of Karhold and the Lord of Karhold tells him that he will be accursed as a kinslayer. Robb swings the executioner’s axe himself, as his father’s son, removing Rickard Karstark’s head after too many swings.
Ruling and doling out justice were no strange concepts to Robb Stark but the emotional weight of his responsibilities took too great a toll on the boy. Ned taught him all he could about ruling the North but no man could have prepared him for the treachery of Southerners who do not swing the sword when they pass a sentence and to whom passing a sentence is as simple as uttering a few words.
Robb’s rule and his life come to an end in the South, much like his father’s, and at the hands of those that he had ruled, much like his fathers. At the Red Wedding, Houses sworn to the Starks and the Tulleys betrayed their oaths, the laws of gods and men in guest-right, and committed kingslaying. Though not beheaded, Robb’s corpse, full of arrows and stab wounds, was decapitated and replaced with his direwolf’s head- sown on and paraded around on Robb’s body in mockery of the King in the North.
Jon Snow, a Stark by blood but not by name, traveled North to join The Night’s Watch when his father traveled South to become the Hand to the King. Like his father and his brother Robb, Jon is put into a position to rule perhaps before he is ready for it. Jon rules The Night’s Watch as Lord Commander after showing intelligence and bravery, and as far as the remaining Black Brothers are concerned, proving himself to be worthy of the office. Much like Ned and Robb, Jon struggles with the weight of his new office and his charges as a ruler of men in crisis.
Unlike the men ruled by the Starks, the Night’s Watch is not a Great House but a group of ragtag commoners, criminals, rapists, murderers and fallen nobility that are patchworked together to defend The Wall that separates the Realm from the threats of Wilding raiders and warriors from the beyond.
Jon receives the first test to his rule almost immediately.
Lord Janos Slynt, the fallen Lord Commander of the City Watch at King’s Landing, and former, albeit very brief, patriarch of the newly raised noble House Slynt, was sent to The Wall by Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion, acting as Hand to the King for his father Tywin Lannister, and following Ned in the office, charges Slynt with this punishment for carrying out an execution that greatly intensified an already brutal war. Despite his protests, Slynt is sent as punishment and told by Tyrion to consider himself lucky that he wasn’t dealing with Tywin.
At The Wall, Lord Janos Slynt attempts to charge Jon Snow, who is not yet Lord Commander, with treason against The Night’s Watch. He uses this charge to his advantage and gives Jon a chance to prove himself loyal by executing Mance Rayder. The snag for Jon Snow’s opportunity to prove himself loyal is that this execution must be done in Rayder’s tent, surrounded by thousands of Rayder’s men. Jon is to get close to Mance under the guise of treating for peace with the King Beyond The Wall. Lord Janos knows full well that this course of action would lead to Jon’s death.
Jon survives both obstacles through honesty, luck, and coincidence. Later he wins the majority vote of the Black Brothers to become the new Lord Commander, beating out Janos Slynt, who was the early and odds-on favorite. Janos Slynt protests and detests this twist of fate and the Bastard of Winterfell for winning the election as Slynt still believes him a traitor to The Watch and a Wilding at heart.
Having put great thought and planning into his agenda as Lord Commander, one of Jon Snow’s first commands is for Janos Slynt to ride from Castle Black, the largest and centrally located fortress along The Wall and where the majority of The Night’s Watch resides, to an abandoned fort far from the comforts of Castle Black. There, Janos Slynt is charged to repair and retool the smaller fortress under his command. There is no doubt that Jon Snow knew that Slynt had played a large part in his father’s betrayal and execution. Jon makes note to himself when Slynt is bucking his command that he is giving the former City Watch Lord Commander a chance, which was a lot more than Slynt gave Ned. Jon is also aware that Janos Slynt will continue to plot his downfall no matter which Fort or Castle he is assigned to.
Jon Snow gives this command to Slynt in the view and hearing of a great many Brothers. As Jon thought he would, Slynt refuses the command in front of a great many Brothers and also insults his Lord Commander. Jon asks Janos to confirm that he is refusing a direct order from his Lord Commander, to which Slynt confirms his refusal with flair and commits further insubordination. Jon seems relieved in the way the situation played out and calls for his men to take Slynt in hand.
Lord Janos is dragged out to the main yard and a crowd begins to gather. Jon runs through the possible scenarios- putting Slynt in an ice cell until he sees the light, confining Slynt to his quarters until his wisdom prevails, tying Slynt to a horse and forcing him to ride to his new fortress and hope that Lord Janos gets the new lay of the land – but Jon knows that Slynt will never stop conspiring against his rule and any of the scenarios he considered were quick fixes that would never solve the problem permanently.
In a surprising command to not just Lord Janos but the Brothers watcing on, Jon calls for Slynt to be hanged. Janos begins to bluster that Jon would never dare hang one such as him, a man with a great many friends in high places. Jon considers his command a moment and tells his men to stop. Janos is relieved for a very brief clip of time before Jon calls for Edd Tollet to fetch him a block.
Jon is sentencing this man to deathm there is no doubt to that. There is no other solution for Lord Janos’ insubordination or the strong possibility of dangerous ideas of revenge. Lord Janos Slynt has to die. However, as Jon realizes, it is he that must carry out the sentence.
Slynt swears to Jon that he will follow orders and do as he is told. Unfortunately for the former Lord Commander of The City Watch, the time has long passed for that. Jon tells Janos to kneel and with the Valyrian Steel bastard sword Longclaw, Jon executes the man who played a huge part in executing his father. If they had heads, Ned and Robb would have been smiling from their graves. There is justice for Ned and it is passed in perfect Ned fashion. But this is justice beyond justice- this is meta justice. This is Stannis Baratheon approved justice and the be-heading even earns Jon Snow a curt nod from The King at The Wall.
Eddard Stark’s sentencing and execution of Gared, The Night’s Watch deserter, seems a textbook beheading. It is the norm for justice in the North and a common necessity for Eddard to maintain the King’s Peace in his region.
Further South, Robb’s execution of Lord Karstark was far more complicated and frankly, an ugly, tangled mess. The simplicity of a Warden of the King keeping the King’s Peace by doling out the King’s Justice is Night and Day in comparison to the decision that Robb had to make. The lines between honor and politics were too blurred for the execution to be righteous.
Robb was at war, and justice is a most difficult ideal to enforce in such a chaotic time. Muddying the beheading further is the detail that Robb isn’t dispensing justice for his King, he is the King. He isn’t enforcing justice for his overlord but for himself. This execution is more about honor than it is justice, and honor in war is far more difficult to hold on to and defend than justice is.
Honor doesn’t work the same way in the South that it does in the North. In the South, honor will get a man killed. The honor that Robb thought so important was a large part of his downfall and death. In that sense, the beheading of Lord Rickard feels a bit forced on Robb’s end. The boy wanted to do the right thing. He did what he thought his father would have done and, most likely, Ned would have made the same decision. But the right decision for Robb’s honor, and the right decision for Robb’s rule were two different things. Ultimately, what King Robb justified as the right decision for his mental well-being was the wrong choice for the well-being of his Kingdom.
The Night’s Watch has its fair share of politics and without a doubt, The Night’s Watch has experienced more than a betrayal or two, but these politics and betrayals are nothing like the jockeying for position among the Great Houses of the Realm. In sentencing Janos Slynt to death, there is no gray area. By using his own steel and swinging the sword himself, Jon Snow is absolutely righteous, absolutely honorable, and absolutely justified. The be-heading is justice for the honor of the office of Lord Commander, and justice for the Night’s Watch. Though not justice served purposely, and though it is justice served completely unrelated to the crime Lord Janos commits, it is also served justice that is far more rewarding than that for Slynt’s crimes at The Wall. The be-heading of Lord Janos Slynt is justice served for Jon’s father Eddard and for House Stark.
Jon was elected to rule these men- criminals, rapists and murders the majority of them-and if he is to rule as he has been charged, he cannot allow any amount of insubordination or any refusal of command. The Night’s Watch will not function the way it is required to if a direct order cannot be backed up with force or an execution if the direct order is not followed. There is no safe passage at The Wall for nobility. There are no parles or backroom deals. There is only The Wall, the small number of Black Brothers that defend it, the ever-increasing dangers beyond it, and the strength of the Lord Commander, elected by his Brothers, that holds the entire system together.
The realization of what may happen when he gives Slynt a direct order and the repercussions of Slynt’s refusal is the metaphor of Jon Snow embracing his office and his new charge. More so, it is Jon Snow accepting and embracing his role in the defense of the Realm, embracing his manhood and the great many responsibilities that come along with it.
If Bran had been watching, as he very well may have been, I’m sure he did not look away and kept his raven in check.