Deconstructing the Deconstruction: The True Scope of Northern Honor and Culture

“You are an honest and honourable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life…When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.” Varys to Eddard Stark (A Game of Thrones, Eddard XV)

Many fans of the book series are quick to identify Eddard Stark as a man of singular honor. In the same breath, however, they are quick to identify that the commonly-held notion of “Northern honor,” espoused very often in the show, is not a result of Ned being raised as a northerner, but as a result of Eddard’s fosterage under Jon Arryn, of the Vale. This notion of northern honor, they argue, is a myth. Furthering this notion, they point to the underhanded dealings of House Bolton, Manderly, and even House Umber as further proof that the North are no strangers to deception.

However, Northern honor is a very real concept. Northern honor is not in the chivalry of the Reach, the martial might of the Stormlands, or in the lofty perches of the Vale, and neither is it found in tournaments or jousts. No, Northern honor is the sum of a lord’s personal bravery in all things, the ability to not turn away from matters of grave importance, or defer tasks of difficulty to someone else.

Warm in the Cold – Making Friends in the North

 “The north is hard and cold, and has no mercy.” (A Storm of Swords, Catelyn III)

There are several reasons that cause Northern culture to be so unique, and the first is the North itself. A vast sprawling land, the North makes up almost half of Westeros’s land by area, but is one of the least densely populated regions of Westeros outside of the Iron Islands. Westeros’s irregular seasons punish the entire continent, but the North suffers especially hard, with years of deep snows making agriculture almost impossible.

During winters, the smallfolk gather in towns near the castles of their lords, abandoning their fields under the deep snows, a very practical consideration given that travel during the winter would almost be tantamount to suicide. While the text is sparse on information as to the activity of the smallfolk during the winter, a few things can be guessed based on European medieval history. During winter in the Middle Ages, peasants would repair equipment and clothing worn down during the year, and Westeros’s seasons of multiple harvests mean that a great number of plows would require sharpening, yokes requiring repair, and hand tools needing basic mending during the cold winter months. Livestock required tending and milking, or slaughter during a particularly long winter, and repairs to buildings and fences could be done during the warmer days in early winter. Given the high snows, paths would need to be cleared, especially to areas of grave importance like the godswood and Winterfell’s glass gardens.

Given the close proximity of people during the winter, the lord would have greater visibility among the smallfolk. Since Westerosi seasons were irregular, there could be no guarantee as to the length of winters. This logically infers tight rationing and the need for every individual from lord to peasant to pull their weight and contribute to the survival of the people. This idea hearkens back to the original idea of lords putting service to the realm before their personal desires. In a land where the snows can fall for years at a time to reach heights of 30 or 40 feet high, it’s important for all Northerners to put the collective good before themselves.

This idea of personal politics and personal relationships is emphasized best by Eddard Stark and his son Robb. Eddard notably invites a different member of his household, regardless of class, to dine with the Starks every night, a great honor in the medieval society Westeros is based off of, and there he speaks to them directly about their area of expertise. This helps Eddard take stock of his household by eliminating middle management, this much is true, but also serves as an effective management technique by ensuring that Eddard, while still a superior, remains a man in the eyes of his subordinates. His son Robb follows this tradition in wartime, riding with a different lord each day to discuss their own troops, and taking their children into his service as his personal bodyguard, not discriminating between his bannermen, including between Northmen and Riverlander, Old Gods or Seven-worshipper.

This idea of personal politics comes back to the need for the Lord to be approachable, down in the dirt with his subjects, and the bravery to do what needs to be done. Northern culture has less pomp and circumstance, and Eddard and Robb both emphasize this in their reigns.

Nameless and Faceless – The Old Gods and Their Effect on the North

Godswood

The second, and equally important influence, is the predominant faith of the Northmen: the worship of the Old Gods. An animist, informal religion, worship of the Old Gods is very different from worship of the Faith of the Seven that is so common to the rest of continental Westeros. The Old Gods have no names and few rituals. Neither are there are priests or holy texts in the North’s ancient religion. In fact, the only requirement for most religious actions is to simply be in the presence of the heart tree to allow the Old Gods to bear witness to matters such as oaths, marriages and prayers. The only action that worshipers seem to take is to carve a face into the sacred tree, as if giving the Old Gods eyes with which to see their worshipers and to bear witness to oaths and other religious activity.

The religion is quiet as well. When Eddard Stark received the news that his son had woken from his coma, he offered thanks to the old gods by standing vigil at a heart tree, without song or pomp to disrupt the occasion. Stark simply kneels to offer thanks to the gods and then stands his vigil with his two daughters. All of these aspects paint the religion as deeply informal, quiet and contemplative, very different from the Faith of the Seven, which has trappings like crystals to refract light, incense and sacred oils, and holy orders such as the Silent Sisters or the Contemplative Brothers. Additionally, the Faith has holy men and women in a strict hierarchy, with the High Septon considered the foremost religious authority.

These tools might seem like mere tools of ceremony, but there is intent behind them. Formal ritual enforces hierarchy and structure, and the notion of levels and hierarchy mesh well with the feudal model of government, where vassals swear loyalty to kings and high lords. A highly hierarchical clergy is also a tool of social convenience. A house with many sons might have one of the younger ones enter the Faith, alleviating the need to find a castle for the younger son to manage, and affording the family influence within a highly pervasive social institutions. A family whose younger son becomes a member of the Most Devout (the Faith’s equivalent to the College of Cardinals) have great ability to influence religious matters and appointments, mirroring nobles in medieval Europe joining the clergy to win influence for their family.

Without these trappings, the worship of the Old Gods stresses a personal relationship with the gods that translates into a culture valuing these personal relationships. While not all members of the North place the same value on personal relationships as Eddard Stark (like sociopathic Roose Bolton), the same could be said of some southerners not holding the tenets of the Faith closely, but the values that they impress are present, and over the course of years, have placed a spin on the culture that is uniquely Northern.

Swinging the Sword – Ensuring the Personal Touch

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 Long Lew waited beside the block, but Robb took the poleaxe from his hand and ordered him to step aside. “This is my work,” he said. “He dies at my word. He must die by my hand.” (A Storm of Swords, Catelyn III)

The most striking difference between the North and the southern realms is repeated many times throughout the series by many northerners. “He who passes the sentence swings the sword.” Eddard explains the rationale behind this to his son Brandon, stating that: “A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death looks like.” (A Game of Thrones, Bran I) Eddard cautions Brandon as well, stating: “You must not take enjoyment in the task.” (A Game of Thrones, Bran I)

Eddard indeed does not enjoy this task, as after his execution of Gared as a deserter of the Night’s Watch, he immediately goes to the godswood of Winterfell. According to his wife Catelyn, he “seeks the quiet of the godswood” every time that he must take a man’s life. Clearly, Eddard Stark takes no joy in this grim task, and seeks the somber reflection that he can find in the godswood, a holy place to his religion. His son Robb follows suit; after the execution of Rickard Karstark, Robb goes to the godswood of Riverrun, sullied with the blood of a traitor but unable to avoid such a matter.

Executions are notably unpleasant tasks, and there is an element of self-preservation in place by the First Men. By necessitating the lord to enact this decision himself, the First Men took steps to ensure that lords enacting capital punishment had conviction in their own rulings, as any execution would leave the lord covered in blood, forced to look the condemned in the eye almost at the point where life leaves it.

Not Without Honor – When a Lie is Better Than the Truth

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 “I felt so ‘shamed, but it was right, wasn’t it? The queen would have killed her.”

“It was right,” her father said. “And even the lie was . . . not without honor.” (A Game of Thrones, Arya II)

Conventional morality states that lying is a dishonorable action, that honorable accord means speaking the truth, and only the truth. In the south, lying is seen as a matter of course. In the north, honesty seems the more appropriate action. Eddard’s tongue turns hard in his throat when he needs to speak a lie, and he goes to his grave haunted by the lies he told, but why tell lies if they plague him so? In Eddard’s dilemma with the two most important wolf-blooded girls of his life, Lyanna and Arya, we see a glimpse of Eddard’s turmoil. The solemn lord of Winterfell wrestles with lies and falsehoods to his own psychological torment. Through this, we see a uniquely Northern phenomenon on how lies are regarding in the north, and when it is appropriate and not appropriate to tell a lie, and the reasoning behind it.

On the surface, Northern lies don’t seem that much different from southron lies, someone lies when they want something that necessitates the telling of the lie, but that does a disservice to the culture of the North. Make no mistake, lies are looked down upon in the North. Eddard curses himself for having to lie to uphold his promise to Lyanna, and the language he uses when talking to Arya about Nymeria suggests that the lie contained honor, while still not being the right thing to do.

The lies that Northerners tell are myriad over the course of the story. Wyman Manderly lies to return his firstborn son Wylis and the bones of his second son Wendel, Eddard lies to uphold his promise to Lyanna, and lies again to save the dying Robert the strain of knowing the truth about his son Joffrey, Arya and Jory Cassel lie and say Nymeria ran off, when in truth, they were forced to throw stones at her to chase her away. Hother Umber pretends to swear fealty to Bolton in order to spare the head of his nephew Jon.

All of these lies have one common thread; they are told for the sake of a person (or creature) that the liar has a strong personal relationship with. They are never told for the liar’s own sake, and this ties back into the Northern focus on personal relationships. Actions done for the sake of others are valued more strongly, and viewed as more honorable, than actions taken for the good of the self.

Deception is a stranger beast in the North, and it is no great surprise that the most deceptive of Northmen, Wyman Manderly, is not considered a ‘pure’ Northerner due to his ancestral origin and active practice of the Faith of the Seven. Despite these differences, Wyman possesses several traits that prove that he has ingrained many of the North’s ideas and practices for himself. Wyman, acknowledging his debt to the Starks, pretends to cow to the Boltons to protect his son, but Davos’s chapters in A Dance with Dragons prove that Wyman is actively scheming against Bolton with Davos Seaworth to restore Rickon Stark to Winterfell. During the course of his scheming, he admits to Davos Seaworth that: “When treating with liars, even an honest man must lie (A Dance with Dragons, Davos IV).” It is this concept that reflects how Northerners view deception, and when it is appropriate to use it against an enemy.

Northerners prefer to carry themselves honestly, but understand that sometimes situations call for dishonesty, and this notion that deception is permissible after they have been deceived, is a curious spin on cunning that is again, uniquely Northern. The idea is that deception is dishonorable is part of Northern culture, evidence that Robb Stark refuses to cover up Rickard Karstark’s murder of Willem Lannister and Tion Frey, despite the fact that it hurts his cause and that Tywin Lannister is his enemy and Walder Frey hostile toward him. However, the notion that, once betrayed, betrayal becomes acceptable, is almost akin to an informal gentleman’s agreement. Certain actions won’t be taken in an attempt to make war civilized, but once the agreement is broken, such actions become acceptable.

Gentleman’s agreements are not foreign in war, there is a long-standing tradition of enemy soldiers making arrangements to gather their dead, or celebrate holidays, without fear of attack by the other side, in an attempt to make war civilized and lend some semblance of honor to the battle, and this idea is alive and well in Westeros. By violating this agreement, Walder Frey and Roose Bolton permitted the full range of warfare for Northern troops, and Wyman Manderly is quick to take advantage, scheming with Davos Seaworth to return Rickon Stark and enact vengeance upon the Boltons.

King in the North – What’s the North to Do?

 “Why should they rule over me and mine, from some flowery seat in Highgarden or Dorne? What do they know of the Wall or the wolfswood or the barrows of the First Men?” (A Game of Thrones, Catelyn XI)

Image by Fantasy Flight Games

Arguably the most important political event of the first novel, Robb Stark was acclaimed King in the North and the King of the Trident by his bannermen, laying claim to titles not seen in Westeros for many centuries. Robb Stark’s crowning demonstrates what happens when Northern virtues are continually and habitually violated, and how much is too much for the North to take.

Many argue that Robb Stark was a fool to accept the crown, and that his campaign was doomed from the start, but when Robb was crowned in Riverrun, his campaign was anything if doomed, and his momentum would only continue during his reign, to the point where it required the manipulations of Littlefinger, Tywin Lannister, and a fortuitous betrayal by Theon Greyjoy to blunt Robb’s campaign.

Many also forget that at this point in the novel, the kings on the Iron Throne had murdered three lords of Winterfell on trumped-up charges within the past fifteen years, and it was increasingly evident to outside observers that King’s Landing had become a hotbed of murder and deceit, both decidedly un-Northern virtues.

With this habitual pattern of injustice and clashing cultures, that the North would rebel was an inevitable thing. What made them crown themselves was that no claimant declared themselves in a way that the Northerners could recognize. Renly had declared himself in Highgarden, but he had upjumped blood succession, and was deeply entrenched in the corrupt politics of King’s Landing, making him no better, to Northern eyes, than the Lannisters that he was campaigning to overthrow. Stannis was a more proven battle commander and had a fixation on justice, but, again to Northern eyes, he was hiding on Dragonstone instead of actively fighting against the injustice suffered in King’s Landing.

Given that neither Baratheon brother was fighting in a way the North agreed with, Robb Stark being crowned made sense to Northern minds.

 “What does Lord Stannis have against that, that we should cast it all aside?”

“The right,” said Robb stubbornly. Catelyn thought he sounded eerily like his father as he said it. (A Game of Thrones, Catelyn XI)

Make no mistake, the fact that Robb was acclaimed by his bannermen, rather than declaring himself a king like Renly Baratheon, stems deeply from Northern culture and values. Renly’s declaration is largely viewed by Robb as illegitimate, a point made none the more legitimate by his massive army. The Stark/Tully host that joined with Renly would command close to 140,000 even without Roose’s northern foot, which dwarfed any and every contender by such a large margin that it was almost laughable to think any would oppose it (though Stannis Baratheon would oppose it on principle, and Tywin Lannister would oppose it as the alternative would be death). Renly had the army, the money, and the food to win a war, but he lacked one thing according to Robb Stark, the right. This right would cause the Northmen to declare Robb king and rally around him, rather than back one brother who was quiet, or the other who was illegitimate.

By not seizing the crown himself, but by accepting it by the grace of his bannermen, there is almost a sense of proto-electivity from the Northern and Riverlander landholders, and it speaks largely to the Northern culture that Stark would be acclaimed, rather than the other way around. The effect remains plain in the text as well. Renly’s bannermen are quick to abandon him for other causes before his corpse goes cold and are willing to treat with multiple sides even beforehand, with Lords Penrose and Tarth meeting with Davos Seaworth as an envoy of Stannis, and Lord Swann treating with three sides as a way of hedging their bets.

By contrast, of the Northern bannermen of Robb Stark, the only that abandon his cause after the Red Wedding are House Dustin, whose head of household despises Eddard Stark for very personal reasons, and House Karstark, whose castellan (Arnolf) despises Robb Stark for executing his nephew as a traitor. The others need to be cowed into submission with hostages and sieges and continue to champion Robb’s cause long after Robb Stark died.

Conclusion

“Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK” (A Dance with Dragons, Jon I)

All of these aspects, taken together, generate an outlook on life and duty that is unique to this region of Westeros. By impressing upon rulers this need for courage, the First Men ensured that the rulers of their kingdoms would put the service of the realm before their own personal desires, and this aspect is pervasive in all facets of Northern life. It is present in war and peace, in battle and politics, and in winter and summer. Twinned with this need for courage is the need for the Northern lords to be personally accessible by their subordinates, to be approachable and ‘dirty,’ to shun the idea of the lord in the ivory tower, making judgments and rulings from on high. These cultural ideas lend new light on certain decision-making processes that northern lords make over the course of the series, and showcase how, right or wrong, the North has a method behind their own philosophies organically derived from the text.

25 Comments

Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis

25 responses to “Deconstructing the Deconstruction: The True Scope of Northern Honor and Culture

  1. kevin Brown

    House Stark its honor and virtue has gained so much over the course of A Song of Ice and Fire. Its funny that I agree with you that the North and house Stark are a great example of what the feudal system was meant to achieve. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Game of Thrones is a fusion of Machiavelli and a morality play.

    Can you write an essay on House Lannister and Tywin’s interpretation of the feudal system.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Have you read my counterpart’s 5-part analysis on Tywin Lannister? It does a remarkable job breaking down Tywin.

  2. FeedTheEagle

    Good analysis. It would be interesting to read a comparison of how effective the different schools of thought are in Westeros regarding leadership. On one hand, the Lannister system is brutally effective but depended entirely on a genius like Tywin running things. On the other, the Stark system (Robb and Ned) was vulnerable to better politicians but could sustain much more loyalty than others. I suppose we won’t know which is the most effective until the end, if ever.

    • Kuruharan

      I don’t think the “Lannister” way of ruling necessarily requires a genius running things to work. The problem with the Lannisters is they had quite a lot of idiots in their stable in addition to the geniuses/competent people. Due to events they ran out of competent people faster than idiots and having an idiot in charge will be debilitating to any system.

  3. Andrew

    I like this evaluation of Northern culture and honor. I think like with the Russians, the Northern climate required more interdependence between farmers, with the the farmers relying on one another.

    A few nitpicks, Hother is the GreatJon’s uncle not his brother. It is the same with Arnolf and Rickard. Although, Arnolf doesn’t seem to care for Rickard given he is working to provoke the Lannisters into taking Harry’s head and marrying Rickard’s remaining child to his son.

  4. While I agree with a lot of what’s been written here, I wonder how much of this dispute comes from the over-extension of the term honor amongst the fandom to mean “good” overall. For example, a lot of disagreements about Stannis founder on people arguing whether he’s an honorable man, when Stannis’ primary virtue is justice not honor, just as Davos’ is loyalty.

  5. Very interesting post, and insightful into Northern culture, beyond anything else i’ve read about it. To me the North is one of the most intriguing areas in Westeros because most of the fandom seems to hold strong opinions about the Starks, who represent most clearly Northern culture. And I think a lot of it is misrepresented in a negative fashion because people seem to go: “See! Look what happened to the Starks! Obviously their values are naive and foolish.” Which is a pretty obtuse way of looking at things, if I may put it so bluntly.

  6. The Broke Howard Hughes

    In the short term Tywin’s way of running a kingdom is effective, but long term it doesn’t breed loyalty. People stay in line out of fear but the moment the super genius Lannister façade falls the house falls apart. Robb’s military campaign fails and ends with his death but it cripples Tywin’s most effective ruling tools. Fear. A boy overlooked and nearly disregarded took on the military might of King’s Landing and gave them more than a run for their money. He proved to be so dangerous he was murdered in a way that brought dishonor to everyone involved, so much so that neither the Lannisters or the Boltons admit to having any role in it. Afterwards every enemy of the Iron Throne and the Lannisters rears their ugly heads and challenges the establishment. The Tyrell’s kill Joffery, The Martells choose then to ask for answers for Elia of Dorne, Vary’s kills Kevan. On the other side of Westeros the lies Illyrio tells Viserys about people secretly praying for his return is shown to be true in regards to the Starks. The mountain man waxing on about the way things used to be when a Stark was in Winterfell to Bran and the Reeds in the cave, Wylla Manderly’s speech, Lyanna Mormont’s letter to Stannis. Clearly Northern honor and tradition means something to Northerners.

  7. rw970

    Interesting article, but I’m not sure you prove your thesis – that there is a coherent concept of Northern honor outside separate and apart from Ned’s personal quirks.

    Most of your data points are things that Ned or Robb (who’s guiding influence is Ned) did. Not sure there’s any reason to extrapolate from those two to anyone else. We don’t really know that Northerners are less profligate liars than anyone else. We just know that Ned prefers not to lie, although ironically two of his lies pretty much drive the events of the series. The Boltons lie, the Karstarks lie, the Manderlys lie, the Dustins lie, the Umbers lie, the Mormonts appear to be up to something, etc. And these are pretty much all the Northern houses we spend any time with! We don’t even know that Ned and Robb’s abhorrence of lies is a Northern trait (or even a Stark trait) and not something he picked up from Jon Arryn or an ethic of Ned’s own invention. We know nothing of previous Starks, really, and what we do know suggests that Rickard and Brandon were not above deception. Additionally, Robb’s probably inherited a twisted form of Ned’s honor that Ned would be reluctant to endorse 100%. (I don’t think Ned would have married Jeyne Westerling and I’m not sold that he would have executed Karstark, for example).

    Additionally, I don’t think there’s any reason to say that Northerners lie only for the benefit of others. I don’t think you can just read the Boltons out of Northern traditions or norms. Certainly the Boltons don’t think they are radically different from the Umbers in terms of ethics. Additionally, for whose benefit is Barbrey Dustin lying? Arnolf Karstark? Jorah Mormont? There’s always room to say the *real* beneficiary of a lie is not the liar but a lot of that is self-serving.

    Outside of Ned, do we have other examples of Northern lords mixing with their smallfolk? This may be idiosyncratic to Ned or the Starks. Winterfell may not be a typical winter society – it’s winter gardens means it is uniquely capable of supporting large populations throughout winter.

    I think really a lot of the “honor” traits you’re identifying here are traits that are both (a) not particularly endemic to the North; and (b) embraced by individual lords throughout Westeros. Where is courage not a virtue?

    • somethinglikealawyer

      We do know that Northerners, on the whole, tend to lie less often than many of their Southern contemporaries, by sheer numbers and averages, even if we discount habitual liars like Littlefinger and Varys. It isn’t to say that they aren’t underhanded at all, but that the preferred tactic of a Northerner is not to use underhanded means as quickly as a Southerner tends to, and we see this largely in how the actors of the North and the South act. Tywin attempts to lure Eddard Stark out of King’s Landing with his ultimately disposable beast-of-war Gregor Clegane, and Doran Martell schemes to restore Targaryen rule for a generation’s length of time. Compare that to Jon Umber or Maege Mormont, who challenge Robb face-to-face, Jon going so far as to state that Robb is “so green he pisses grass.”

      As far as lying is concerned, Dustin really doesn’t lie that much. She’s rather forthright that she despises Ned Stark and wants to feed his bones to the hounds. She also goes so far as to directly threaten Aenys Frey directly, stating that she remembers that her House lost men at the Red Wedding due to Frey treachery.

      As far as the older Starks, we see that Brandon goes straight for Rhaegar at King’s Landing, and Rickard answers promptly when summoned, and immediately moves for a trial by combat. Neither of these two men went for a deceitful option despite going against the awesome power that the Crown had to muster against them.

      I can, and most certainly do, read the Boltons out of traditional Northern morality. Roose is a functional sociopath, Lady Dustin says as much, and Ramsay is much the same, only far less functional. Traditional morality holds no sway over characters like the Boltons.

      As far as Northern lords interacting with the smallfolk, we don’t get to see northern houses with the same detail, but the logic holds up. Conservation of fuel resources would require consolidation of people, not dispersal. Especially in a land of forty-foot snowdrifts, which would limit mobility severely, people would need to be concentrated in a large area so as to have access to stockpiles needed to survive the years-long winters.

      Individual people can certainly embrace Northern customs, even beyond First Men-descended houses like Houses Blackwood or Royce. Davos implores Stannis to shorten his hands personally despite being a Stormlander, as an example. But you miss the point of courage, in that it’s courage to do things personally, and this includes tasks that are unpleasant, as opposed to ‘mere’ battle heroics. It takes courage to fight on a battlefield, but the Northern courage comes from carrying out executions as well, and the philosophy behind it is that courage doesn’t end on the battlefield. Eddard resigns his position as Hand rather than condone the cowardly murder of a child, a conviction that even ‘honorable’ Ser Barristan lacks.

      That, coupled with the personal connections with subjects (more than once, the Northern customs have been mentioned as informal and lacking the pomp and circumstances of southron courts) is what I mean by Northern virtues.

      • I believe the Stark interaction with the hillsmen (even Jon knows the way to do it) is further proof of closer interaction with Bannermen; the examples of Rob’s interactions at war and at council are solid, and there are others of this sort in the texts)

  8. Roger

    I think you are confusing to some point being a Northerner with being a Stark, (or more precisely, being Eddard Stark). For what we know, Ned was an exceptional man. And we have no sign that former Lord Starks were so remarkable.

    Robb Stark accepting Southerners as his vassals shows no “Northerners tolerance”. His mother is a Tully, after all. He has grown with a septon in his castle and tales about Riverrun. Even Jon Snow played at being Ser Ryam Redwyne.

    Bolton’s blood is so North-like as the Starks, and they show no redeeming virtues. So we can not assume all Northeners are sincere and honest.

    Stannis traveled to the North and marched to Winterfell to save “Arya” (well at least partialy), and the clansmen didn’t show any special gratitude or sympathy for his knights.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      I don’t think so. I’ve highlighted several examples of Northern lords following these strictures, not just Eddard and Robb Stark.

      I think you’ve misinterpreted what I mean by tolerance. The act I was referring to was the trumped-up killings of vassal lords, particularly Rickard and Eddard Stark, by the Iron Throne. The North was rebelling against the Iron Throne as an institution, not the south of Westeros.

      As mentioned in the essay, Bolton is a sociopath. I don’t use Joffrey as a litmus test to judge southron culture following the same logic.

      I’ve mentioned that the North isn’t averse to dishonesty, but they tend to use dishonesty in response to having it used against them, a sort of line in the sand that is not broached until it is broken against them. It’s not that it’s an unfamiliar tack, it’s that it’s seen as cowardly and un-Northern.

      Take the Northern lords meeting with Robb for the first time as they march south. All attempt to wheel and deal with Robb, but they all try to face him directly to get his measure. Jon Umber, for example, doesn’t scheme to supplant the young boy lord of Winterfell. He directly challenges his authority, which Robb answers in kind. Robb’s answer, so in-line with Northern virtues, proves his mettle that Jon becomes Robb’s most loyal bannerman, and many of the skeptical Northern lords are won over by his display despite taking two of the Greatjon’s fingers.

      Only Roose tries to scheme and plot to supplant his rivals through skulduggery (at the Green Fork and at Duskendale), but he also engineers the greatest northern victory via subterfuge in the War of the Five Kings: The Harrenhal Caper.

      Robb is excellent on the battlefield by using lightning speed and local force superiority, but even he fights directly. He may take advantage of terrain and isolation, but he does so on a battlefield.

      The Northern tactics change after the Red Wedding, which was such a flagrant violation of almost every Northern virtue (indeed, almost every Westerosi virtue) that subterfuge became legitimate. The Boltons and Freys are now the target of Northern intrigue, which even still has a strange sort of personal touch added to it. Wyman Manderly treats with the three Freys at White Harbor directly and gives them palfreys to signify that they are no longer under guest right. He serves the Frey Pies to Roose Bolton directly. Whereas a southern schemer like Littlefinger uses disposable catspaws, Wyman makes sure he is involved in all the risky business in the vein of a true Northerner. He even gets his throat cut for the trouble.

      The Northerners did join him, particularly the mountain clan, because he dealt with them directly. Glover and Mormont may have joined him in gratitude for liberating Deepwood Motte, but Hugo Wull specifically mentions joining Stannis to free Arya because of his close personal relationship with Eddard Stark. The mountain clansmen don’t show sympathy because that’s not how northerners express themselves. They express themselves through action, like the Greatjon challenging Robb, and that action is marching through high snows to free ‘Arya’ Stark.

  9. Roger

    Sorry to disagree, but Robb Stark didn’t fight “directly”. He used ambushes, traps. At the battle of Oxcross he attacked and killed sleeping people. He NEVER fought an ordinary, arranged battle, like Roose did at the Green Fork. A knight would say thats dishonourable. Of course Robb wasn’t a knight, but an effective commander. But he wasn’t “direct”.

    Rickard Karstark, atypical exponent of Northern nobility, killed Steffon Lannister despite he was almost nude and running (and Karstark armored, armed and at horseback). And killed two 12 year’s old boys to get his vengeance. When Old Nan tells about the Rat Cook, she remarks he was in his right to kill the Andal’ King kids and cook them. The only “wrong” thing was doing it while the King was his host. That’s Northen honor.

    The North’s Lords aren “direct” people. Lord Cerwyn tries to sneak his ugly daughter into Robb’s bed. Lady Mormont simply refuses to follow Robb… unless he marries her daughter. Lord Hornwood wants lands and rights and tries to win his favor with food. Umber is simply a bully.

    Also Joffrey has nothing to do with Aerys crimes (the boy has his own deeds). Robert fought to avenge Rickard and Brandon. Fought at Ned’s side at the Trident and Pyke. But they don’t feel any loyalty to House Baratheon. They don’t like Jeoffrey? Agreed. There is Stannis! Men loyal to the Kingdom would have followed Dragonstone’s Lord. But they prefered following a secessionist Lord (Robb).

    And Wyman Manderly is as sutile and schemer as any Southerner (as you say). And he was Robb’s richer vassal. And Arnolf Karstark is as treacherous as any Bolton.

    In may opinion Northerners are more straightforward, but not better people. Robb’s bannermen weren’t much better than Renly’s. Just more hairy.

    After the Red Wedding, Cerwyns, Hornwoods, Riswells, Lockes, Dustins, some Karstarks and even one Umber bend their knee before Roose Bolton. Nobody likes it, but they do it, indeed.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Robb was on the battlefield. He was covered in the blood from the Battle of the Whispering Wood. Being clever with tactics isn’t the same as sending other people out to die for you while you sit hiding in a castle. That’s direct.

      Rickard Karstark was attempting to avenge his sons’ death in the prior battle.

      Old Nan doesn’t say that he was right to kill the king’s children and cook them. She said that he was punished for violating guest right.

      Joffrey had nothing to do with Aerys’s crimes, but his crimes against the Northern lords were very similar. Once is a fluke, but twice can be seen as a pattern, regardless of whether it is or not.

      I’ve outlined why the Northerners didn’t throw in for Stannis. He wasn’t doing anything, merely sitting on Dragonstone brooding, while Robb was actively campaigning to free his father. Joffrey’s bastardry wasn’t known.

      The fact that they were straightforward was the purpose of the article, not that the North was intrinsically better.

      • Roger

        I think what you mean is Robb was being “direct”, but not being “frontal”.

        Fighting at first line is not always a good idea. It expose the general to being killed (with the risk of routing the army), and to loss a general vision of events. That’s why Caesar only did it once (at Munda, when his front was sunking). That’s why Robb got hurt at the Crag. And that’s where he meet Jeyne and started all his problems. If he had remained a 100 feet away, he would have avoided many disgraces!

        Who stayed in his castle, in this war? Tywin, Stannis even Renly were at the battlefield. Stannis fought among his men at Blackwater and Castle Black. I don’t consider being 100 feet away from combat is cowardy for a general.

        Rickard Karstark killed cowardly an unarmed man, In my opinion. A man unrelated to his sons’ death. A man deserving a worthy ransom, also. In the Northern culture vengeance justifies everything, even the most despictable acts (like the Rat Cook).

        Personaly I was a little sad nobody defended Baratheon’s dynasty in the North and the Trident. Only the Brotherhood without Banners.

        Old Nan was smart, and didn’t aprove the Andal kid’s death… directly. But she didn’t condemn it.

        Stannis wasn’t brooding at Dragonstone. He had suffered an appealing defeat after a heavy fight. He had almost no men. And he had no reason to help the Northerners (who had done anything for him).

        I agree that the Northeners are more straightforward, but they can be as mischevious as Southerners, if they want.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        I meant exactly what I said. Robb fights directly. He’s covered in the blood of the battle. I am not here to split hairs over semantics. He uses clever tactics, but still involves himself in the battlefield.

        I’ve already covered the virtues and flaws of being a front-line commander in my previous writings, I suggest reviewing my piece on Jon Arryn if you want a breakdown.

        The point of the matter insofar as it relates to the North is that Northern notion of the lord taking on the most difficult task for himself, as Catelyn observes when Robb splits his troops for the Green Fork and Whispering Wood. Culturally, Northern lords don’t shirk the hard tasks or give them to someone else.

        Who stayed in his castle? Joffrey. King Aenys I. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what you consider cowardly, it’s what the Northerners consider cowardly.

        Stannis was stationed at the rearguard during the Battle of the Blackwater to better oversee troop positioning.

        Vengeance doesn’t justify everything in Northern culture. There’s no Mormont vengeance for Jorah, after all. Vengeance is very important in the North due to their focus on personal relationships, but far from the only thing.

        Old Nan didn’t condemn the killing of the King’s son during the Rat Cook story because that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was to say no matter what, you do not break guest right.

        Stannis brooding on Dragonstone was before the Blackwater, while Robb and co. were at Riverrun following the Battle of the Camps.

        I know that Northerners can be mischievous. I said as much in the essay. Once betrayed, the North feels free to enact all sorts of cunning plots against the Boltons and Freys with no loss of honor.

      • Maester_Tower

        “Lord Cerwyn tries to sneak his ugly daughter into Robb’s bed.”

        But this is very straightforward compared to the ruses and machinations of the Southerners : Varys, Littlefinger, Doran Martell, Tyrion.

  10. Roger

    Also in the Old Times Northernes disboweled their enemies and tied their bowels in their gods’ branches. Probably they stopped doing it due to Southerner influence.

  11. Roger

    In my opinion, the fact that Robb accepted the Crown was a gross error. An understandable error, becouse he is a boy and becouse he needs his bannermen’s support. But that was treason, pure and simple. His father was Robert’s bannerman, and the North has been part of the Seven Kingdom for 300 years. One thing is being a rebel lord (for good reasons, agreed). But he couldn’t win the war alone. Not with the Riverlands burning. And NOBODY would ally himself with “the King of the North”. Except Renly, and in a mischevious “un-northern” way.

    And Robb had no problem with making Jon broke his oath and become his heir. So the Young Wolf had a curious concept of honor.

    • Dargast

      I think we’ve got your point by now

    • Dargast

      Also, he accepted the crown because it was the will of his bannermen. The Bannermen represent the men of the north, and if the people decide that they want a king, so be it. It doesn’t matter if the North had been part of the kingdom for 300 years, the north still is so vastly different from it in customs, way of living etc that it can be considered a separate entity. and so what that nobody would allywith robb? renly wanted to ally with him. the riverlords allied with him. stannis had NOBODY who wanted to ally with him.and the lannisters, well i dont need to delve into that.

      also what is that about robb? kings legitimized bastards all the time. but where the fuck did he make jon break his oath?! he simply recognized him as a stark of winterfell and his heir. it would be up to jon to decide what he wants. sorry, your arguments are kinda stupid, really.
      But im not even sure if youve read the post by brynden. The way you posted several times makes me think that you are one of those guys whose part of the fandom which despises the starks out of spite.

    • ecr56

      “But that was treason, pure and simple”

      Yes, that was treason. But to use OP’s arguments, he did that because the ones he’s betraying murdered the Northerners at King’s Landing, imprisoned his father and named him a traitor. They crossed a line and he answers in kind. Just like Eddard did when his father and brother were murdered; it was treason pure and simple. He fought the heir to the Iron Throne at the Trident. It doesn’t get much more traitorous than that. (By the way, to the best of my knowledge, neither Ned nor Robb swore an oath to the Iron Throne before their rebellion. I guess that would be more traitorous.)

      About winning the war, my opinion is he could have. Here’s why:

      He doesn’t need to sit the Iron Throne to win the war, he wins the war by freeing his father (or avenging him). The war was against the Lannisters, not Robert’s brothers.

      When his father dies, all he needs is to see his father avenged. That is why he wanted Stannis to win at the Blackwater. Before losing the North and meeting Jeyne, he was winning the war against Tywin. And Stannis or Renly killing the Lannisters at King’s Landing (Joffrey, Cersei, Tyrion, etc.) would suffice.

      At that point he negotiates with Renly/Stannis. If Renly wins, Renly has no good claim, besides maybe right of conquest, so open war would be no problem. If Stannis wins, it gets more tricky, but even if he goes to war, no Southron army has ever got beyond the Neck. So Robb successfully saw his father avenged and chances are (he’s an able commander and has the better terrain while defending) he will be able to keep his title as King in the North.

      It is possible that he loses the Riverlands, but even then he keeps his title in the North. Sure, that is not ideal, but I wouldn’t call it ‘losing the war’.

      Also, about Robb making Jon break his vows, it’s not like Robb is plotting since AGoT to make Jon break his vows, he’s just saying if worst case scenario happens (him dying), go for Jon. Sure, it’s not ideal, but it’s a worst case scenario decision: obviously the King of Winter must be a Stark, yet Arya, Bran and Rickon are dead (as far as he knows). Sansa is captured. If he dies, then what? He doesn’t have any cousins or uncles on his father’s side (as far as he knows). There is pretty much no other choice but Jon. What would you suggest?

  12. I liked the essay and there’s quite a bit of thruth in comparing how the northern regions used to function in medieval times to how the North works. This would produce (smallfolk) subjects very loyal to their lords, and liege lords very conservative about the well-being of their own subjects. But the relative isolation long and heavy winters (and long distances in general) create bewteen the various Lords would make them enormously competitive towards each other.

    Roose Bolton makes a great case study, as he’s very concerend about not putting his own men in harms way, but turns out to be quite eager to put his neighbours men in harms way. I tend to see him as less of a monster than he usually gets painted as, because from his perspecitve it might look like Stark’s son is constantly trying to get him and his men killed. When I first read the books I did not need Roose to turn out to have been a monster all along, what it looked like to me was that everybody else was putting him in harms way while they stayed safely “with the pack”. His neighbour Umber chief among them. And his other neighbour, Manderly, walrusing it up safely out of harms way in White Harbor. He didn’t need to turn out this huge villain at all (or even just a father to one), as a true Northerner he had pretty valid reasons to go “bugger this for a game of soldiers” way before the Red Wedding. Also, had no way out of a war that was bound to get him and his soldiers killed one way or another, except to put an end to the whole thing.
    But he turned out to have been a scheeming bastard all along, just like the rest of them, which is a bit of a shame.

    However, all this sort of might explain why “there must be a Stark in Winterfell”, if there doesn’t turn out to be some mystic reason for that (again, would be a shame). And why Starks were obliged to be “the honorable guys”, and why folks like Lady Dustin would go really mad if a Stark turned out to be a scheemer. The Russian princes were probably the most notorious bunch of scheeming, bickering, blood-feuding backstabbers in Europe. This was what held Russia back historically more than anything. – they were worse than even the Italians, or, well, anyone. The North of Westeros seems to be Russia which at one point had it’s princes (lords) decide that having one dope in the middle of it who would keep everyone else straight was mutually beneficial to them. The Starks’ job, pretty much their only job, IS to be honorable, and enforce this by coming over to whoever was geting overly ambitious and agressive and chopping their head off. The idea of the Honorable Stark is an invention of the Northmen, it’s their myth and guarantee of the world really not being dog-eat-dog.

    It’s also why the various lords try to push Robb around at first – he’s new, has to prove to them he’s really the guy in charge of the beheadings (in his case siccing his wolf on the Greatjon). Once he makes it clear that, yes, he’s the guy in charge of the beheadings, then everyone has to follow him, because he’s also the guy who guarantees them protection from each other – and that’s what they all tolerate “the Stark in Wintefell” for anyway.
    But the Stark isn’t supposed to lead them into any wars. The life in the North is tough enough what with the winters and with all of them being nasty pieces of work, and the wildlings and all that. So when they declare him “The King in the North”, and notice that it’s Umber who’s instigating that, what it means is that the institution of “the Stark” wasn’t meant to get them into trouble, but keep them out of it, locally. The job of the Stark isn’t to call his banners to go teach Southrons manners, who cares about Southron manners? The Southrons duped and murdered someone? How droll, the Notheneres skin people alive, take over beasts, practice first night rights (and according to some theories sacrifice bastard children to the others), they have cannibals, they have warrior women on the Bear isle (gasp! feminism! how barbarous!), and when the King with his entourage shows up everbody stays clear and just lets “the Stark” handle that, as “the Stark” by circumstance always ends up being the most presentable of the bunch. (Robert mentions that the land is huge and that there’s suspiciously noone to be seen anywhere they go).

    So what happens with the whole “King in the North” thing is that the Northmen decide that they bloody well know there’s no honor, but that they need it for their own world to function and the bloody southrons keep killing their Starks. And they can’t trust each other even as far as they can throw each other, so they can’t trust anyone else to be “the Stark”. So they’ll go to war one more time, because if they can’t have their head-chopping werewolf keeing them straight there’s absolutely no guarantee of honor. “The Stark” IS “The King in the North”, because that’s not a title of prestige or entitlement (except to a castle with central heating which is pretty handy), it’s more like being some kind of “grand Sheriff of Medieval Russia”.

    Current head-chopping werewolf gets killed – cue artrocities, blood feuds, canibalism, flaying, complete and utter moral apocalypse in the north. A bunch of it was always going on, and it started escalating as soon as “the Stark” was simply not there.

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