There are two tropes I’m generally bothered by, which both seem to sort of fit with the character that I found the most boring in A Game of Thrones. Thanks to the title of this post, it’s pretty obvious that that character is Lord Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark, and it’s pretty clear that the two tropes I’ll be discussing are the Punching Bag and the Clueless Detective.

The Punching Bag is a character that basically never gets a break from anything; they seem to always take the brunt of whatever is happening, rarely (if ever) having something good or helpful happen to them. In some places, it’s also referred to as the Butt-Monkey. I hate this name, so I’m going to refer to it more as the Punching Bag (because, to me, that’s more accurate).

Typically, you can see this in TV sitcoms. One example is Meg Griffin from Family Guy, who can never catch a break from the many misogynistic and fatphobic jokes that are often directed at her. A better example, I think, is Ted Buckland from Scrubs. He’s a generally likeable character who was basically the butt of jokes told by Dr Kelso. You don’t often see it used in ‘more serious’ novels, though it’s still possible.

Eddard never seems to catch that break. Even the one ‘good’ thing that really happens – Robert making him the Hand again after the confrontation with Jaime Lannister – lead him down a chain of humiliation that ultimately ends in his own death. From the very beginning of the novel, Eddard has to deal with a lot of negative events after Robert makes him the Hand, many of which affect and impact his children (more than they do him). Those events that impact him more, in terms of the narrative, are:

  • Robert and Catelyn push for him to be the Hand, setting everything into motion in the first place;
  • In trying to question anyone about Jon Arryn’s death, it’s made obvious that everyone is gone (Stannis in Dragonstone, Lysa and her company in the Eyrie), and the one person who remains (Ser Hugh) is murdered in a joust by Gregor Clegane;
  • He’s ambushed by Jaime Lannister, watching as the men closest to him are murdered and his own leg is broken;
  • He’s made into the regent and a whole slew of connected events take place (the capture of the letter to Stannis to come back and take his rightful place, the betrayal by Littlefinger, his own imprisonment and the continued deaths of the Northern men, and finally his own death);
  • Eddard attempting to do well for his daughters, only to be betrayed by Sansa (who seems to take up her father’s mantle of being a Punching Bag).

With each link in this chain, it becomes more and more frustrating to read any of Eddard’s chapters (or those of Arya and Sansa) because the overwhelming majority of the situations that Eddard finds himself in are ones that could’ve been counteracted if GRRM had maintained his characterisation. Or, to be fair, actually characterised Eddard as more than Honorable, Loyal, and Justice-Seeking before Catelyn had a chance to observe Robb ‘being like Ned.’ (Maybe he should’ve been a Klingon. His fate would’ve probably been more favourably received.)

This leads me to…

The Clueless Detective is a detective, or a character that might act like a detective, who is trying to solve a crime or a sort of mystery. This one appears a little odd in my application for A Game of Thrones, I know. One of my favourite examples of this is the intentionally clueless Dirk Gently, the protagonist of both Douglas Adam’s novels: Dirk Gently’s the Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (courtesy of a horrible BBC reincarnation staring Stephen Mangan that flopped and a mostly entertaining Netflix series staring Elijah Wood, more people are aware of this character).

However, while A Game of Thrones is not a whodunnit novel (as that is the traditional genre for this trope), Eddard really kind of fits in this category because he spends so much time trying to figure out Cersei’s motivations for doing so, since it doesn’t appear to be the more logical thing to do. This is even the primary impetus for him accepting Robert’s proposal to be the King’s Hand, as Catelyn’s pushes him to go and figure out what happened after receiving the letter from her sister Lysa, Jon Arryn’s wife, while also wanting for him to help protect whatever is left to keep the peace.

Now, I want to make something clear: I do not think Lysa’s letter is true, and I feel like it will have a twist in later novels as we progress through this excessively overburdened story. This feels like something that GRRM would do because that’s kind of what he did throughout AGoT. He doesn’t really make his reader question the reality of what’s happening, asking them to look a little deeper into the text; he doesn’t really lead you that far astray from an answer.

He frequently takes the second most obvious turn, as opposed to the most obvious; it’s not the first person or people you’d think who did this Huge Event! It’s the next most obvious. What you expect to happen may not happen when you think they will, but it still happens. I’m pretty sure that, in later novels, it’ll be made into something else; Cersei will be vindicated of one murder because the reader is being intentionally misdirected, though the blood of others will still stain her character’s hands. (The other indication of this, to me, is that Cersei wanted to allow Eddard to take the black in order to decrease political tensions.)

Anyway, as far as we’re aware in this novel, Lysa has sent a letter to Catelyn specifying that King’s Landing is dangerous because Cersei is responsible for murdering her husband. Rather than staying away, as she advises Catelyn to do, Catelyn suggests that Eddard go to King’s Landing in order to find out what’s been happening and to protect Robert (and Winterfell, and the whole kingdom). He essentially is charged with solving a crime and figuring out the mystery, which he does… badly and without finding evidence (or even using good evidence).

The book fails (or intentionally neglects) to answer a lot of questions:

  • Who actually murdered Jon Arryn? What was their motive?
  • Why was Jon Arryn spending time with Stannis when it was made clear that they weren’t really fond of each other?
  • What actual evidence does Eddard have of Gendry being Robert’s bastard?
  • Why does Eddard assume that the father for Cersei’s children (Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen) is Jaime? What actual evidence does he have that they are not Robert’s children prior to talking with Cersei?

These are huge questions to better connect with Eddard’s chapters, which all deal with trying to find information and making connections that better explain the political intrigues taking place in King’s Landing. With regards to the first two points, these are also major questions to answer in order to build a world that makes sense and continues to build a world with cohesive links later in the series, when characters like Stannis (and later Renly) come back. (They have to; it makes no sense if they don’t.) If Cersei killed Jon Arryn, for what purpose? If someone else did it, what were their reasons for doing so? These are simple things to corroborate, and it’s never done.

These questions help build those connections with other characters in the novels, like Littlefinger and Varys. These are two characters that GRRM constantly has insinuating that they know something, while he never really shows that they actually are informed in any meaningful way at all. It would create a more cohesive narrative if, rather than having Littlefinger just show up with a piece of the puzzle or the whole answer, Eddard is forced to interact with him differently. Why not have Eddard figure out where Barra is on his own, realising Littlefinger knew all along, and questioning him about this? That would provide a form of characterisation that both of these men so desperately need.

Instead, Eddard haphazardly obtains information, seemingly bumbling around or doing one small thing that makes someone provide him with the puzzle piece he’s missing. He talks to Pycelle, who mentions that Arryn took a book from him, and he asks for that book so that he can stare at it and obtain no information whatsoever (until Arya says the right thing). He only learns of Gendry because some potboy mentioned that Jon was buying armour from Tobho Mott, who casually mentions that Jon ‘came for the boy’.

He learns so little on his own. He doesn’t find any real answers to Jon Arryn’s death, leaving the reader to presume it was because he ‘figured out the secret’; we have no confirmation of that in this book about anything he learns other than from Eddard going to someone saying, “This is it, right?” and the character he’s talking to going, “Yup, you found that piece!”

But it’s the last two questions that break the immersion and Eddard’s characterisation for me. With more frequency than is necessary, he is said to be insightful and strategic. These are two things that, through his actions, are never really presented well. His one moment of being insightful is realising that Gendry is Robert’s bastard because he “looks like him” and the position he’s obtained at Tobho Mott’s for a mere sum. Meanwhile, he makes the same conclusion about how Robert’s ‘true heirs’ are actually Jaime’s using the same kind of evidence, which is actually worse: “They have blonde hair.”

This is curious because while humans – and other primates – have the ability to recognise patrilineal relatives based on their phenotypes using characteristics such as their facial features, we’re not really sure to what extent we’re able to even detect these familial resemblances. Meanwhile, there are also people who look alike but aren’t related. While yes, there are visual cues that someone might be more curious about, this doesn’t really feel like the drama we’re led to believe.

It is possible, though not very probable, that the Cersei could have children with Robert that were blonde; it is possible that Gendry is the child of another high-born man who wished to remain anonymous. There is so little available in the text to make it obvious before Cersei provides the truth for her own children. The few hints we have are:

  • Robert really likes to party, for lack of a better word; he will drink until he is absurdly drunk, and he has many bastards;
  • In Ned’s fever dream, he remembers his conversation with Lyanna where she appears less than enthusiastic about the marriage to Robert because he’s more likely to be an adulterer, regardless of his feelings for her;
  • Robert states that Cersei ‘guards her cunt’, which indicates that he hasn’t had sex with her in quite some time (if at all) but provides no additional context;
  • While the reader is aware that Cersei and Jaime are sleeping together due to Bran’s second chapter, Eddard has zero information that he’s her lover because this information isn’t made available to any relevant character in the book.

As GRRM loves his historical accuracy argument (at least when it comes to depicting rape), there is not a lot that should even tip Eddard off to the paternity of Cersei’s three children, especially since there were no questions related to time between consummation between her and Robert; no one else would even think otherwise, as she’s married to Robert. It would require more evidence than what Eddard has.

(And, just because it’s interesting to note since this is part of the royal family these characters were based on, we weren’t even aware until 2014 that there’s a chance that the current royal family isn’t descended from Richard III until they ran DNA testing, which Eddard does not have in his world.)

This all feels like it discredits the characterisation Eddard receives. At no point is he being strategic, as Catelyn continually indicates as she watches young Robb lead armies of older men. When he goes to Cersei, he has no evidence of anything. He has no plan to force her hand, nothing. Perhaps that’s part of the Honor Before All (or Honorable Until Dead) characterisation, but he still seems like he would’ve found something that would’ve made her leave and take her children with her. He didn’t, and this really makes him seem weaker than you’re led to believe.

He never seems insightful, especially when it comes to his own children. He never seems to actually listen to characters around him, particularly Littlefinger who continually tells him that he’s not trustworthy (yet Eddard still trusts him, without having a good reason). He gets played by people who, if he were really as insightful (and diplomatic) as he’s made out to be, he’d never get played by.

He doesn’t even put together information from Varys and information from Arya about the same event (Daenerys’s marriage to the Dothraki Khal and her subsequent pregnancy); he has the same information as the reader, and he still misses that completely obvious connection that would’ve made him stop and think for two seconds about what was happening. (And it’s not because “Arya is confused and sounds like she’s making things up” because she’s talking about monsters; GRRM didn’t write her to be nearly as incoherent as he should’ve, if that is the excuse to be made.)

It’s frustrating because Eddard could have been more relatable and interesting character,* but he should’ve been used differently than he was. He should’ve been working at creating a story around Eddard finding things out, it should’ve shown more of Eddard talking to people to figure out what happened and making inquiries, and it should’ve been him doing more of the work toward finding people than the other council members. His chapters should’ve been doing better world-building, showing the intrigues of King’s Landing and the dangers people were really in.

That would’ve made for a better protagonist, even if he were to end up dead. In fact, it would’ve made his death all the more powerful because he had that fulfilled purpose that he ended up dying for.

*Note: I don’t subscribe to the idea that all characters should be likeable, but I do subscribe to the idea that characters should be made in ways that are relatable and make readers empathise with both their personality and their motivations; readers don’t have to agree with their actions, but they need to be able to understand them.

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