“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
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
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
“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.
“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.