SPOILER ALERT: Warning, this article contains spoilers from the Season 7, Episode 7 of Game of Thrones, entitled “The Dragon and The Wolf.” Proceed at your own risk.
To viewers with no knowledge of A Song and Ice and Fire, the book series upon which Game of Thrones is based, Ned Stark appeared to be the series’ main protagonist and hero. He exemplified all the characteristics associated with heroes. He was noble, honest, intelligent, as well as a loving father and husband. Ned also instilled these qualities in his children.
In fact, Ned represented these heroic qualities to his detriment. In the cutthroat Westeros, honesty and nobility are more likely to get you beheaded than praised.
But no one watching the show knew this until the ninth episode of Game of Thrones’ first season, entitled “Baelor,” the episode in which Ned Stark was killed.
Why Ned Stark Was Executed
The man responsible, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish was, taking the Night King from the equation, the true villain of the series. Littlefinger was motivated solely by self-interest. He cared for nothing else but advancing his own nefarious schemes for power. Whereas Ned was noble, honest and kind, Littlefinger was devious, craven, and kind only if it suited his interests.
Baelish was directly responsible for the poisoning of Jon Arryn. He was also behind the attempt on Bran Stark‘s life.
The Starks After Ned’s Death
But it was Ned’s belief that “he who passes the sentence should swing the sword” that led in part to Robb’s downfall. When Robb executed Rickard Karstark, he did so not only to one of his bannermen but also to a member of the extended Stark family. Robb would now be seen as a kinslayer, a taboo in Westeros, weakening his authority as “King In The North.”
Even years after his death, Ned’s noble shadow loomed large over the events of the recently concluded Season 7, impacting several characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Perhaps no two characters better illustrate Ned’s influence than Theon Greyjoy and Jon Snow.
Theon Rids Himself of Reek
Theon is perhaps one of the most complicated characters on Game of Thrones. He’s proven himself capable of truly terrible acts; betraying the Starks by seizing Winterfell, executing Roderick Cassel, ordering the murder of two innocent boys and claiming they’re Bran and Rickon Stark. But even while committing these acts it seemed that he didn’t make these decisions lightly.
Although he was born a Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, a place known for its tough, ruthless and brutal “ironborn” people, Theon was a ward of the Starks and was raised as one of them. Thanks to Ned Stark, a streak of honor and nobility would always be at odds with the qualities for which his family was known.
This became apparent after he was captured then routinely humiliated and tortured by Ramsay Bolton, which is where Theon, broken and dehumanized, acquired the name “Reek”.
Theon eventually breaks free from Ramsay’s clutches and manages to help Sansa escape as well, which is where he begins the path towards redemption.
In the Season 7 finale, during a wrenching talk with Jon Snow, Theon admits that he’s always wanted to do the right thing (a quality directly attributable to Ned Stark) but never knew what that might be. Also in that conversation, he says that he felt he always had to make an “impossible choice — Stark or Greyjoy” to which Jon replies;
“But you never lost him [Ned]. He’s a part of you. Just like he’s a part of me…You don’t need to choose. You’re a Greyjoy, and you’re a Stark.”
Following this interaction, Theon seems to rediscover his identity, shedding himself finally of the “Reek” persona in an altercation with other ironborn and sets off to rescue his sister Yara and, ultimately, find some semblance of absolution.
Jon Snow’s Honor Gets Him Killed
Jon Snow grew up thinking he was the bastard son of Ned. And for the time being at least, still believes this to be the case, despite actually being the legitimate offspring of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister, Lyanna Stark.
During his time as a member of the Night’s Watch, the honor instilled in him by Ned’s influence informed his every decision, for good or ill. It helped him ascend to the rank of Lord Commander, but it also in some ways led to some of his Night’s Watch brothers betraying and killing him (he got better) for allowing wildlings to pass through The Wall.
Also, in Season 7, the unwavering honesty ingrained in Jon almost undoes a truce with Cersei Lannister, when he publically proclaims his fealty to Daenerys Targaryen.
But what Jon does, he does for what he believes to be the good of the realm. He acts out of a selflessness, humility, and concern for the greater good that would truly make Ned Stark proud.
The Legacy of Ned Stark
Ned Stark was a man of integrity, a firm believer in justice and doing the right thing no matter the personal consequences. He imparted these qualities to his children and, with the exception of Robb, each has survived the treachery, brutality, and savagery that Westeros has thrown at them. He also gave them the freedom to pursue their own interests even if those interests clashed with what was expected of them, as with Arya’s desire to train with weapons like her brothers.
It was Ned’s unwillingness to part with his values that got him killed. But it was the freedom and sense of identity he imparted to his children that allowed them to learn from his mistakes while still retaining the honor, honesty, and integrity to essential to Ned’s personality.
Westeros is still a harsh, unforgiving and violent place. But with the living Starks remaining as major players in the politics of the realm (Sansa as the lady of Winterfell, Jon at Daenerys’ side), perhaps Ned’s legacy will change the Seven Kingdoms for the better.
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