Iron Bends: The Surprising Flexibility of Stannis Baratheon

The following essay is used with permission from the Tower of the Hand e-book “A Hymn for Spring” featuring essays by fellow Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire writer SomethingLikeALawyer, Steven Attewell from Race for the Iron Throne, Stefan Sasse from the Boiled Leather Audio Hour, Aziz and Ashaya from the History of Westeros podcast, Amin Javadi  from A Podcast of Ice and Fire,  John Jasmine, Marc Kleinhenz and Alexander Smith from Tower of the Hand.

It’s a real good book if I do say so myself!


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Artwork by HBO

A large part of the success of A Song of Ice and Fire comes through George R.R. Martin’s ability to write compelling characters with complex motives. In the books themselves, the thoughts, words, and actions of the POV characters are windows into the plot, setting, and, most of all, the personality and values of other characters in the series – and easily one of the more controversial of these characters is Stannis Baratheon. He inspires love by some, hatred by others, and fear by most of the other characters in A Song of Ice and Fire.

But if there were a point of agreement between Stannis’s supporters and detractors alike, it would be that he is inflexible. Throughout the narrative, the stern Lord of Dragonstone is spoken of as being an excellent commander but also of being brittle and inflexible.

“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at, but not worth all that much at the end of the day.” – Donal Noye (ACOK, Jon I)

Noye’s sentiment is shared by others.

“The man [Stannis] is iron, hard and unyielding.” – Petyr Baelish (AGOT, Eddard XIII)

“They are quite a pair, Stannis and Renly. The iron gauntlet and the silk glove.” – Varys (AGOT, Eddard XV)

This one will never bend, she thought. – Catelyn Stark (ACOK, Catelyn III)

His eyes were sunk in deep pits, his close-cropped beard no more than a shadow across his hollow cheeks and bony jawbone. Yet there was power in his stare, an iron ferocity that told Asha this man would never, ever turn back from his course. – Asha Greyjoy (ADWD, The King’s Prize)

Even Davos Seaworth, the one character who unconditionally loves Stannis, considered his king and friend to be inflexible.

Davos held up his gloved hand. “My fingers will grow back before that man bends to sense.” (ACOK, Prologue)

Within the Song of Ice and Fire fan community, Noye’s analogy of Stannis Baratheon as iron has gained a lot of traction – even Stannis’s fair share of fan-admirers mainly hold to Noye’s perspective. Readers admire his tactical and strategic acumen and view his actions in saving the Night’s Watch from wildling invasion favorably. But many also hold to the belief that the would-be king is inflexible and stubborn to his cause’s detriment.

Even those who think that Stannis is more flexible don’t see this transformation taking place until sometime in A Storm of Swords. The running theory of this group seems to be that once Davos convinced Stannis to put the horse in front of the cart and rescue the realm from wildling invasion, the would-be king became more willing to bend to make alliances in the north.

But I think that Donal Noye, Catelyn Stark, and the fans who view Stannis as unyielding iron have an incomplete view of the man. While I think that Stannis is, indeed, hard and strong, the brittle and breaking aspect of the metaphor is lacking. I think that he is much more flexible than the characters in – and fans of – Ice and Fire give him credit for. And I hold that this flexibility goes farther back in the timeline than previously thought.

The Problem with Noble POVs

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Artwork by Patrick McEvoy

Stannis had never learned to soften his speech, to dissemble or flatter; he said what he thought, and those that did not like it could be damned. (ACOK, Prologue)

One of the core strengths of A Song of Ice and Fire might be its use of multiple perspectives to relate the events of the story, but even this has its drawbacks, the most prominent being bias – particularly relating to issues of class. Almost every single POV character in the story is a member of the nobility, and the nobility, by and large, despises Stannis Baratheon and considers him to be uniquely stern.
The reason has to do with the way that his personality is perceived. For the Westerosi nobility, flattery is a hallmark of class status. To not engage in this absolutely crucial social custom is seen as an egregious error, at the least, and an affront upon all the other lordings, at the most – a crime which Stannis is guilty of committing time and again.
More than disengaging from social custom, however, the would-be king has a resolute moral code which grates against noble mores and threatens institutions that the elite patronize, particularly legalized prostitution. While the smallfolk in King’s Landing also utilize prostitutes and brothels, the nobility has better access and, more importantly, better means to afford such a service. But Stannis sees prostitution as a moral blight that needs to be stamped out.

Lord Renly laughed. “We’re fortunate my brother Stannis is not with us. Remember the time he proposed to outlaw brothels? The king asked him if perhaps he’d like to outlaw eating, shitting, and breathing while he was at it.” (AGOT, Eddard VI)

Finally – and most importantly – Stannis regards much of the nobility of Westeros deserving not respect or flattery, but the sword.

“Would that all the lords in the Seven Kingdoms had but a single neck…” (TWOW, Theon I)

“I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident. Ser Barristan once told me that the rot in King Aerys’s reign began with Varys.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

In Stannis’s telling, the royal court is corrupt and needs to be purged. It would stand to reason that this perspective was potentially unpopular with the nobility. Other figures, such as Littlefinger, realized the danger that Stannis posed to the lordlings – or, rather, to himself.

“Stannis is less forgiving. He will not have forgotten the siege of Storm’s End, and the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne dare not. Every man who fought beneath the dragon banner or rose with Balon Greyjoy will have good cause to fear. Seat Stannis on the Iron Throne, and, I promise you, the realm will bleed.” (AGOT, Eddard XIII)

So a question arises: if the nobility views Stannis as cold and unwilling to compromise, how did the smallfolk see him? It’s actually difficult to say. The common soldiers who fought for him respected and followed him; however, the smallfolk who heard the rumors of Shireen Baratheon’s parentage by Patchface the fool seemed to view Stannis as worthy of mockery.

One of the few POV characters not to have a noble upbringing in the story is Davos Seaworth, a low-born smuggler who came into the service of Stannis during the Siege of Storm’s End, and his perspective of the man is more than worth considering. Though Stannis was grateful for the rations that Davos delivered to his beleaguered men, the price of justice still had to be met for Davos’s past as a smuggler.

“It was justice,” Stannis said. “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act, the good. Each should have its own reward. You were a hero and a smuggler.” (ACOK, Davos II)

Stannis shortened Davos’s fingers on his left hand and rewarded him with a knighthood, which eventually became a lordship (and which resulted in Davos ultimately being named the Hand of the King) – all part of his unwavering view of justice as “righting wrongs.” Davos not only fully accepted this philosophy, he loves Stannis for it, helping secure his ultimate loyalty to the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms.

And, most importantly, Davos came to believe that this view of justice amended Stannis Baratheon to bending when it would prove just and profitable.

The Metaphor of Proudwing

Davos’s first POV chapter in A Clash of Kings opens with Stannis burning the statues of the Faith of the Seven. Afterwards, he explains his rationale for forsaking the religion in the form of a story from his youth.

“When I was a lad, I found an injured goshawk and nursed her back to health. Proudwing, I named her. She would perch on my shoulder and flutter from room to room after me and take food from my hand, but she would not soar. Time and again I would take her hawking, but she never flew higher than the treetops. Robert called her Weakwing. He owned a gyrfalcon named Thunderclap who never missed her strike. One day, our Great-Uncle Ser Harbert told me to try a different bird. I was making a fool of myself with Proudwing, he said, and he was right.”

Stannis Baratheon turned away from the window, and the ghosts who moved upon the southern sea. “The Seven have never brought me so much as a sparrow. It is time I tried another hawk, Davos. A red hawk.” (ACOK, Davos I)

Stannis comes out here and says that he’s abandoned the Faith of the Seven in favor of R’hllor on account of the Seven’s unprofitability to his own life. However, I think there is something else in what Stannis says that shows a flexibility and willingness to abandon weak or lost causes in favor of those that might bring success or that have evidence showing them to be true – which really doesn’t fit with the picture that most of the characters and fans have of him. Were Stannis as unyielding as many hold, he likely would have remained a nominal follower of the Seven, as his father was before him; instead, after being shown hard, discernable evidence (which Lady Melisandre is more than happy to provide), he makes a drastic change in his family’s and his smallfolk’s lives.

But there’s something else in Stannis’s relationship with religion that opens a window on the fundamental nature of his character. Even after being convinced that the Red God was the correct one, he never became a fanatic – he was a convert that retained a fairly open outlook on faith, generally. Furthermore – and more importantly – even though his newfound allegiance to R’hllor is sometimes portrayed as being self-serving thanks to the fact that Melisandre believes him to be Azor Ahai reborn, it actually does nothing to gain him popular support from lordlings and smallfolk alike, given that most of Westeros still follows the Faith of the Seven. I think the likeliest bet is that Stannis is somewhat convinced of the power of R’hllor and the powerlessness of the Seven and, thus, evidentially abandoned the Faith.

The Counselors

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Artwork by Amok

“Davos, I have missed you sorely,” the king said. “Aye, I have a tail of traitors – your nose does not deceive you. My lords bannermen are inconstant even in their treasons. I need them, but you should know how it sickens me to pardon such as these when I have punished better men for lesser crimes. You have every right to reproach me, Ser Davos.” (ACOK, Davos II)

Stannis Baratheon has two chief counselors from his very first appearance in the series: Davos Seaworth and Melisandre of Asshai, who both frequently present opposing advice for Stannis, and who both are heeded and discarded in turns. Much later, in A Dance with Dragons, Lord Commander Jon Snow joins the mix, serving a vital role in counseling Stannis away from foolhardy military and diplomatic actions.
The presence of all these advisors begs the question: if Stannis is as inflexible as Donal Noye and others believe, why did he have counselors at all? An iron-willed man would simply act as he saw fit. But throughout Ice and Fire, Stannis continually relies on Melisandre and Davos to aid him in his decision-making. I’ll use three under-explored examples from the text to illustrate this point.

Melisandre of Asshai

Melisandre was the primary interlocular between Stannis’s deeply-felt religious skepticism and the faith of R’hllor. But more than simply being a spiritual leader, Melisandre also counseled him on ethical and political matters, one of the most prominent being the case of Renly Baratheon.

After the death of Robert Baratheon, Stannis became heir to the Iron Throne on account of the bastardy of Cersei Lannister’s children. Renly, on the other hand, raised himself to the purple. To Stannis, this was both treason and a personal slight upon his rights. He vowed never to treat with Renly while his younger brother wore what Stannis termed a “traitor’s crown.”

However, in A Clash of Kings, we find Stannis and Renly parlaying outside of Storm’s End on the eve of what all expected to be a great battle. To Stannis, of course, a vow was resolute – yet he had abandoned it. Someone had to have convinced him to bend from his vow for good reason. Who?

“It was Melisandre who urged me to meet with him, and give him one last chance to amend his treason.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

And while Stannis didn’t do himself any favors with his brusque manner at the meeting, Renly was in no mood to give up his claim in any case. Still, for our purposes, it’s important to note that while breaking a vow is a queer thing for a man of iron will, it’s par the course for an adaptable individual.

Davos Seaworth

Davos, a humble man of low birth who had risen high in Stannis’s service, has consistently been a voice for abiding by good ethical practice. So when one of Stannis’s other counselors urged him to commit a morally black act, Davos was the only one calling for the king to abide by his sense of justice.

In A Storm of Swords, Stannis was in a weak political position. Defeated by the Lannisters and Tyrells at King’s Landing, he was down to a few thousand soldiers and a depleted treasury. More than that, Stannis was deprived of good counsel. Davos was missing in action after the Battle of the Blackwater and presumed dead. And while Melisandre remained, Axell Florent had risen to fill Davos’s shoes, and he advised continuing the war and to strike – not at the Lannisters, but at Claw Isle, a small island in the narrow sea whose lord bent the knee to Joffrey Baratheon after the defeat on the Blackwater. By seizing the island, Stannis would be able to start refilling his coffers, a prospect that caught the king’s attention.

When Davos returned to Dragonstone, he sought to right the ship.

“I make it folly… aye, and cowardice. You say we ought show the realm we are not done. Strike a blow. Make war, aye… but on what enemy? You will find no Lannisters on Claw Isle.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

It worked. Once awakened to the plan’s depravity, Stannis even went so far as to call it “evil” when he and Davos spoke alone after the meeting with Ser Axell.

Jon Snow

One of Stannis’s chief strengths is his military acumen on the battlefield. A winner of many conflicts, Stannis was never more himself than when commanding men in battle – and, more than simply winning tactically, he was perhaps the best military strategist in Westeros.

Interestingly enough, this still doesn’t prevent the king from seeking out counsel on his campaigns. After winning his latest battle, against the wildlings at the Wall, Stannis leaned on Jon Snow, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, to inform his decisions in the north, particularly how to best Roose Bolton and an army of Freys, who stood in his way of uniting the north to stand against the impending approach of the Others.

Stannis’s first plan was simple and direct: he would make straightway from Castle Black to the Dreadfort and seize the castle before Bolton could move north. It was counsel that Arnolf Karstark, the castellan of Karhold, had given him. But Stannis was at least open-minded enough to seek out the advice of Lord Commander Snow – and Jon had a different take on the plan.

Jon knew that any march on the Dreadfort would be folly; the Boltons would bring their armies from the south and would smash Stannis’s host under the Dreadfort. But it wasn’t until he was able to provide an alternative course – asking the Mountain Clans for aid and marching for another target – that Stannis was ultimately moved.

Jon glanced down at the map. “Deepwood Motte.” He tapped it with a finger. “If Bolton means to fight the ironmen, so must you. Deepwood is a motte-and-bailey castle in the midst of thick forest, easy to creep up on unawares. A wooden castle, defended by an earthen dike and a palisade of logs. The going will be slower through the mountains, admittedly, but up there your host can move unseen, to emerge almost at the gates of Deepwood.” (ADWD, Jon IV)

And just like that, the campaign in the north was fundamentally turned around. It’s one thing that Stannis would trust Jon; it’s quite another that he was willing to abandon a course that he saw errors in and join one where he had a fighting chance to triumph.

These incidents don’t stand as isolated examples of Stannis changing his mind under the advice of his counselors – they’re indicative of a man willing to bend if convinced of the righteousness or pragmatism of the evidence presented to him. Whether it’s the famous example of Stannis sailing to the Wall to save the kingdoms from wildling invasion or his deciding to attack Deepwood Motte as opposed to the Dreadfort (more on this in a bit), Stannis shows a willingness – even an eagerness – to seek out the counsel of others and change his mind when he believes himself or his course of action to be wrong.

A Pragmatic View of Justice and Morality

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Artwork by Magali Villenueve

“These pardoned lords would do well to reflect on that. Good men and true will fight for Joffrey, wrongly believing him the true king. A northman might even say the same of Robb Stark. But these lords who flocked to my brother’s banners knew him for a usurper. They turned their backs on their rightful king for no better reason than dreams of power and glory, and I have marked them for what they are. Pardoned them, yes. Forgiven. But not forgotten.” (ACOK, Davos II)

Even Stannis Baratheon’s famed absolutist morality has a profound flexibility. In this, we see both good and bad intent, as well as both good and bad outcomes. Moreover, we see Stannis approaching something resembling utilitarianism in matters of both justice and morality.

In Stannis’s stated view, fealty to the king was what was owed by noble and commoner alike. But when his brother, Robert, rose in rebellion against the crown, Stannis was faced with a difficult moral choice.

“Aerys? If you only knew… that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” (ASOS, Davos IV)

If Stannis chose to keep faith with Aerys II Targaryen, he placed himself in opposition to Robert. If he chose his brother over the king, he would violate his oath of loyalty to the crown. It was the true definition of a dilemma, but, in the end, of course, Stannis chose his brother over his king. And, more than simply aligning with Robert in the rebellion, he actively fought (and starved) for his brother’s cause. In this, we see an early example of Stannis’s flexible view of ethics.
It’s actually instructive to reflect on why Stannis chose his brother over his liege. In the text, Stannis talks about the “hard choosing,” but he doesn’t go into any sort of detail on why he proceeded the way he did. I think the answer comes down to justice versus injustice. Aerys II Targaryen was wildly unjust and lawless. He raped his wife numerous times, murdered Rickard and Brandon Stark, and revealed himself to be a man unwilling to adhere to any law – in short, he showed himself unfit for the office. For a man like Stannis, the injustice and lawlessness that Aerys displayed likely was the turning point for why he chose Robert.

Stannis viewed the execution of laws and the dispensing of justice as the king’s priorities; if the king was unjust, he neglected his charge and, thus, wasn’t a true king. If this theory does turn out to be the case, it shows Stannis as exhibiting early hallmarks of being an enlightenment thinker, placing the king under law.

Stannis’s utilitarianism is very much on display later in the story after Renly dies. When the stormlander and some Reacher lords swore fealty to Stannis, he was well within both his rights and his view of treason to execute them. Instead, he pardoned them. Ultimately, this was done on account of pragmatic reasons – he needed the swords under the banners in order to take King’s Landing. However, he goes a step further in saying that he forgave their treachery, which goes beyond the political and military reality and lands squarely on a flexible sense of ethics.

A few years beforehand, there is another telling instance of Stannis’s moral decision-making. As the master of ships on King Robert’s small council, he discovered that Queen Cersei was involved in an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, Jaime Lannister, and that, moreover, all of her children were not of Robert’s blood. But Stannis did something that required him to forgo rigidity: instead of bringing these concerns directly to Robert, he brought his suspicions to Jon Arryn, Hand of the King.

“Lord Stannis,” she asked, “if you knew the queen to be guilty of such monstrous crimes, why did you keep silent?”

“I did not keep silent,” Stannis declared. “I brought my suspicions to Jon Arryn.” (ACOK, Catelyn III)

Stannis knew that he wasn’t much loved by his brother, but he also was aware that Robert did have much love and respect for Lord Arryn. By bringing the Hand in on the information, Stannis was shrewd; he didn’t want to appear self-serving to Robert – since evidence of the bastardy of Cersei’s children would make Stannis heir to the throne – and knew that Jon Arryn could be trusted to be politically neutral if it came to a succession crisis.

Stannis’s Surprisingly Tolerant View of Religion

“Half my army is made up of unbelievers,” Stannis had replied. “I will have no burnings. Pray harder.” (ADWD, The King’s Prize)

Stannis Baratheon, as previously mentioned, abandoned the Faith of the Seven when it showed itself to be false in his eyes. Despite his religious conversion, however, he shows a surprising amount of religious toleration to those who practice other faiths, consistently refusing Melisandre and others’ counseling to adopt decidedly intolerant religious practices.

But the fact remained to Stannis: the Faith of R’hllor was both not practiced widely in Westeros and was viewed with suspicion and fear by those who practiced other religions. This was something that Stannis came to recognize over the course of the books. The biggest stumbling block to winning more swords was the issue of religion.

Though many who came to his side after Renly Baratheon’s death swore fealty both to Stannis and to R’hllor, there were others that did not. Were they treated unequally? Persecuted? Executed? No. Davos Seaworth was elevated to Handship, despite his renewed adherence to the Faith of the Seven. In this, we find a strongly tolerant vision of faiths. Stannis was convinced that the Lord of Light was the one true God, but he was unwilling to force his belief on others. He promoted adherents of any religion who proved themselves useful, such as Davos, and demoted those who proved useless, such as Alester Florent.

And this religious toleration as a means of policy also extended to the old gods of the north. Stannis could have attempted to force a new religion on the northmen, but he resisted that impulse in two key ways. First, he decided to leave Melisandre at Castle Black instead of taking her on campaign with him in the north. (This was crucial, as we’ll see later in Stannis’s diplomatic ability.) It was the northmen’s swords he needed, not their souls.

Second, when those more fervent in their devotion to the Lord of Light advised Stannis to burn unbelievers to stir R’hllor to fight on behalf of their beleaguered host, he told them that he would have no burnings. Granted, he later did execute some of his men through immolation, but it was not as an offering to R’hllor; rather, it was punishment for cannibalism. Another important point: these men were almost certainly southerners and, possibly, adherents to R’hllor.

Of course, to say that Stannis had something of a modern view regarding the freedom of religion would be incorrect; he did, after all, order the godswood burned at Storm’s End as an offering to R’hllor after he seized the castle in A Clash of Kings (though how much of that was at Stannis’s instigation or Melisandre’s is up for debate). Still, his political astuteness in dealing delicately with the faiths of his would-be subjects is yet another example of his adaptability and inventiveness – the exact opposite qualities of mindless rigidity.

Making Allies: The Diplomatic Flexibility of Stannis Baratheon

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Artwork by Bjarne Hansen

“When the cold winds rise, we shall live or die together. It is time we made alliance against our common foe.” (ASOS, Jon XI)

Stannis Baratheon’s ability to make friends and allies is often treated by fans and in-universe characters as poor. And to be fair to this viewpoint, he does himself no favors through his brusque speech and demeanor. However, when examined closely, he shows a less-than-iron-willed approach to diplomacy.

Admittedly, this is part and parcel of Stannis’s character evolution. In A Clash of Kings and early in A Storm of Swords, his approach to diplomacy is one where he demands fealty in exchange for pardons. When Renly died, Stannis sent envoys to the Tyrells demanding their fealty in exchange for clemency for their treason. The response from Highgarden was to imprison Stannis’s envoys and swear to Joffrey. Even well into Storm, Stannis’s outlook on diplomacy had not improved. Following the death of Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy, Stannis grudgingly decided to offer pardons to the Iron Islands and the north in exchange for their loyalty.

“The wolf leaves no heirs, the kraken too many. The lions will devour them unless… Saan, I will require your fastest ships to carry envoys to the Iron islands and White Harbor. I shall offer pardons.” The way he snapped his teeth showed how little he liked that word. “Full pardons, for all those who repent of treason and swear fealty to their rightful king.” (ASOS, Davos V)

This quid pro quo of “pardons in exchange for fealty” did not do Stannis much good on the diplomatic front. However, by the end of that novel, we start to see his thinking evolving considerably (though not fully).

Take the case of Stannis’s offer of legitimizing Jon Snow and giving him Winterfell. Previously, the North had been defended by a Warden, acting as the Iron Throne’s representative in the region. The Starks had been Wardens of the North since the time of Aegon’s Conquest, operating out of the northern capital of Winterfell. With Eddard Stark and his sons dead – or, at least, presumed dead – there remained only one candidate in Stannis’s mind for this position.
Jon Snow was the confirmed bastard son of Eddard Stark, and, as a bastard, he could not inherit Winterfell without a royal legitimization. Furthermore, he had already sworn vows to the Night’s Watch and had been instrumental in the defense of Castle Black from the wildling siege. But Stannis desired a unifying source for his attempts to marshal the north, and Jon became the manifestation of that desire.

The fact that Stannis’s plans fell through when Jon was elected lord commander is irrelevant to the point at hand: the would-be king of the Seven Kingdoms was starting to become more adaptive, specifically to the situation on the ground instead of being mired in the idealized view of the way things should be. As it turns out, this would not be the last time that he showed a diplomatic flexibility.

When Stannis first attempts to recruit the northern lords in his cause by sending out murders of ravens, he was almost uniformly rejected; the Karstarks duplicitously declared for Stannis, but a number of houses, such as the Mormonts, declared they would never swear fealty to anyone whose name was not Stark, and scores more never even responded.
Homage might have been owed to Stannis by these houses and their lords, but his old approach of demanding their loyalty did not amend itself to receiving the pledges of fealty he desperately needed to win in the north. In a way, Stannis’s petulance and brittle behavior when he received lukewarm responses from these lords is a caricature of how he’s perceived by fans and the realm as a whole. Fortunately for Stannis, however, he still had Jon Snow.
Lord Snow counseled Stannis to refrain from demanding fealty and instead offered a different idea for securing their loyalty:

“Ask, I said, not beg.” Jon pulled back his hand. “It is no good sending messages. Your Grace will need to go to them yourself. Eat their bread and salt, drink their ale, listen to their pipers, praise the beauty of their daughters and the courage of their sons, and you’ll have their swords. The clans have not seen a king since Torrhen Stark bent his knee. Your coming does them honor. Command them to fight for you, and they will look at one another and say, ‘Who is this man? He is no king of mine.’” (ADWD, Jon IV)

It was wise counsel. Instead of begging or demanding, asking for help made it more possible for Stannis to win allies. And win them he did, as we find northern clansmen attacking the ironborn at Deepwood Motte at his side.
An important distinction to make here is that most of the northern houses and clans are fighting with Stannis not on behalf of his claim to the Iron Throne, but, rather, to rescue Arya Stark. The king has to be aware of this, and it has to grate on his pride considerably, but he nonetheless allows these men into his ranks and considers them some of his best soldiers in the north, giving them prestigious positions within his army. It’s a turning point in Stannis’s evolution.

Comparing Stannis to His Rivals: The “So What?”

“Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.” (ASOS, Jon XI)

Stannis Baratheon is much more flexible than fans and in-world characters believe, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of the story? How does his pragmatism and adaptability match up against other claimants to the throne, and, more importantly, does it make him a better contender for the crown? In this section, I’ll contrast Stannis’s utilitarian, always-evolving sensibility with two of his four competing monarchs from the War of the Five Kings, and then turn attention towards someone who I imagine will be Stannis’s greatest rival come The Winds of Winter and beyond.

Renly Baratheon

Stannis is most often compared and contrasted with his brother, Renly – not only by readers, but also by Stannis himself. Renly was easygoing; Stannis is not. Renly made friends easily; Stannis declared that kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies. But how does Stannis’s pragmatic sense of ethics and justice match up against Renly’s?

In the parlay between the two from A Clash of Kings, we see two very different views of kingship. Renly knew that Stannis had claim via royal inheritance, but he believed that the swords sworn to him gave him the right to be king. This underlies his flexible morality – which just may be flexible to the point of seeming amoral – which is on display time and again in the series: as his brother, Robert, lay dying in A Game of Thrones, Renly urged Eddard Stark to strike, to take Cersei and her children into captivity, with the implication that he should be king – and this was well before anyone (besides Ned and Stannis) knew of the bastardy of the children. In this, he was doubly usurping the throne, both from Joffrey and from his brother.

Stannis, in contrast, viewed himself as the legitimate heir to Robert, but he refused to make a naked power grab when Jon Arryn brought him evidence of the illegitimacy of Cersei’s children. Instead, he investigated whether Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen were, indeed, bastards. This is the key to understanding the difference between the two brothers: Renly would usurp the throne because he thought he would make a good king and nothing else. Stannis would not make a claim unless he had evidence that would support it.

Robb Stark

The contrast between Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon is a much more interesting one. Though Stannis called him a traitor and rebel, he and Robb possessed some key similarities – but also one fundamental difference.
Robb won the continuing fealty of his bannermen through his deeds on the battlefield; at the Whispering Wood and Riverrun, he defeated Jaime Lannister’s host. After Eddard’s death, Robb was acclaimed king by the north and Riverlands. In this, Robb had the horse before the cart – he saved the soon-to-be kingdom first before gaining the crown.

Stannis’s arc from A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons is similar. In defeating Mance Rayder and the wildlings at Castle Black and then campaigning against both the ironmen at Deepwood Motte and the Boltons and Freys at Winterfell, Stannis was demonstrating value in defending the realm, and thereby demonstrating his value as a king, as well.

However, Robb Stark actually shows himself to be much more morally inflexible than Stannis. When Robb bedded Jeyne Westerling, he refused to simply dishonor her and move on; he married her instead, and, thus, started the sequence of events that brought his reign to a crashing, horrifying conclusion.

Which isn’t to say Stannis hasn’t committed morally questionable acts, as well, since he obviously has: his sexual union with Melisandre was not only cheating on his wife, it also bore out two murderous shadow babies. (And Stannis did flinch from the implication that he was guilty of murder, giving a particularly poor alibi when questioned by Davos.) However, his betrayal of his marriage vows – as well as the consequence of this betrayal – did not turn him aside from pursuing his claim to the Iron Throne.

Daenerys Targaryen

At the end of the War of the Five Kings, Stannis stood alone as the last living king of the original contenders. Despite this minor victory, however, George R.R. Martin seems to be setting the stage for a confrontation between Stannis and another figure that he almost certainly does not know is coming to Westeros: Daenerys Targaryen. And though fans are excited by what this means for some of the nastier characters in King’s Landing and the south, Dany’s imminent arrival puts Stannis and her on a collision course.

So, how does Stannis’s pragmatic approach to justice and morality contrast with Daenerys? The last Targaryen has been openly stating that the Iron Throne is hers by right. She calls those who fought for Robert against her father “the usurper’s dogs,” even after Barristan Selmy, one of her counselors, attempted to caution her against this blanket assertion.

As we saw previously, Stannis also believes that he has the inheritance right to be king, but he’s supplemented that by actually attempting to defend the Seven Kingdoms. This stands in some contrast to Dany’s view – at least, as of A Dance with Dragons – that inheritance is all that is needed and further action is unnecessary. It doesn’t even matter to Daenerys if she hasn’t been in Westeros since early infancy. In this, she almost reflects Stannis’s early psychology, when he had yet to advance his thinking beyond his rights.

Their contrasting views of justice provide even further illumination. Dany’s take on the subject is one that has a fair degree of vengeance inherit within it – when Dany confronts 163 crucified children on the road to Meereen, for instance, she crucifies 163 Meereenese Great Masters, regardless of their guilt or innocence, as punishment.
While Stannis does believe that justice involves repaying injustice with punishment, he attempts to restore social order and execute justice without regard to his own personal feelings. Davos Seaworth’s fingers were shortened for his prior smuggling, even though the man had saved Stannis’s life by smuggling food to Storm’s End. At the same time, Stannis rewarded Davos with a knighthood for this good act. In this, Stannis shows a fairness and flexibility in rewarding and punishing good and bad acts respectively.

Stannis’s pragmatism actually makes him a better monarch than Daenerys. Dany makes almost subconscious efforts to amend her vengeful dealings during her campaign in Slaver’s Bay. She shows a flexibility in dealing with the Meereenese and attempts peace through a distasteful marriage. However, by the end of  A Dance with Dragons, her mentality has returned to one she held when she sacked Astapor and crucified the Great Masters.

In Dany’s last chapter in that book, she is truly done with peace. She comes to believe that dragons plant no trees, and she is taking this to mean that only fire and blood are her recourses – a mentality that will no doubt be brought to Westeros.

Some fans have a hopeful view that Stannis will bend the knee to Daenerys once she returns, but I think that’s a hopelessly romantic view. I doubt that her sudden reappearance will present another hard choosing for him; he will continue to press his claim by demonstrating actual value and simultaneously oppose the queen who will bring only vengeance, fire, and blood to Westeros instead of restoring justice.

Iron Bends

Our final glimpse of Stannis Baratheon comes from the Theon sample chapter from The Winds of Winter that Martin released in December 2011. Here, we find Stannis and his army waiting for the Boltons and Freys to attack him near Winterfell. Stannis’s coalition was as diverse as they come in A Song of Ice and Fire: under his banners were men from the Stormlands, soldiers of the Reach, noble northern houses and gruff mountain clansmen. Freezing and near-starvation, they remained loyal to Stannis and ready to die for the would-be southron king in the battle to come – with the sole exception of the Karstarks, of course, whose disloyalty was quickly discovered and dealt with. The fact that there is such diversity in Stannis’s army speaks volumes to his diplomatic ability. Is this the work of a king who would break before bending? I think not.

What happens to Stannis in The Winds of Winter and beyond has yet to be revealed to the readers, but I think that Stannis’s diplomatic ability will likely see him gain even more new allies in the fight to come. I believe that Stannis will win the Battle of Winterfell  and that, furthermore, he will pardon those lords who fought for the Boltons, provided that they bend the knee.

Stannis Baratheon is and always will be a controversial character in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and the fandom. He is the recipient of legitimate criticism over many of his actions, but the interpretation of him as hard, unyielding, and inflexible is unjust. As we’ve seen, Stannis consistently bent, and this maneuverability would prove time and again to be crucial to his success and continued survival. Donal Noye died fighting against the wildling invasion before Stannis could arrive at the Wall, but I wonder how he would have viewed the king had he survived. Would he still hold to the view that Stannis was iron? Or would he have a more positive appraisal?

I think the latter. In the end, Donal Noye would realize the truth: Stannis, not Robert, was the true steel.

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Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis

31 responses to “Iron Bends: The Surprising Flexibility of Stannis Baratheon

  1. Both Baratheon brothers are steel, Stannis the malleable and ductile steel, Robert was valyrian although he rusted pretty quickly. Both inspire others to fight for them to bitter end though in radically different ways.

  2. Rusty Wallens

    I do wonder…who is the historical parallel to GRRM’s Stannis?

    • Yiğit Ertuğ

      It is usually said to be Julius Ceasar.

      • Teddy

        actually hes a combination of 3 I don’t remember which but GRRM stated it in a interview

      • It’s Tiberius Caesar, Louis XI and Henry VII.

        “And it is important that the individual books refer to the civil wars, but the series title reminds us constantly that the real issue lies in the North beyond the Wall. Stannis becomes one of the few characters fully to understand that, which is why in spite of everything he is a righteous man, and not just a version of Henry VII, Tiberius or Louis XI.” – GRRM, Amazon UK Interview

      • Caesar was more like Robb, bold, creative, willing to fight alongside his men and both had something of a innate genius for battle.

        Stannis is more like Tiberius, a superb general but very sullen, both had disfuntional marriages and both viewed the crown as harsh duty rather than a luxury, neither of them was highly popular, Tiberius was not remembered fondly after his death; both are similar in that they are dutiful and happyness is something that they neither felt nor inspire in others.

      • Mike Target

        The character most comparable to Julius Caesar (in his younger days) would probably be Daenerys Targaryen, though actual comparison leaves Daenerys falling short.

    • Xizer

      I find Stannis reminds me a lot of the Duke of Wellington that beat Napoleon at Waterloo. Both despised flattery and décor, were masters of war and had a certain dry humor most overlooked.

      • zonaria

        I seem to recall GRRM saying that Stannis’ character was sparked by seeing the portrayal of Tiberius in the BBC I, Claudius adaptation – well worth watching for the many points in common with the early part of ASOIAF (as well as being excellent in its own right).

        If there is a Julius Caesar parallel in ASOIAF it has to be Robert Baratheon – a top-class general who relied greatly on speed and mobility, and who was highly promiscuous.

    • zz

      Controversial modern parallel would be Assad. Hold on, bare with me. Caesar slaughtered hundreds of thousands (possibly upto a million) Gauls, yet as ‘pagans’ we let that slide.

      Assad is a Allawite, a minor branch of Shia, yet he has a broad coalition of Shia, Sunni, Kurd and Christian sects within his forces. From multiple regions, tribal groups and outside (Iran, YPJ, Lebanon). He is fighting against a majority Sunni (the Seven) multitude of larger Kingdoms and proxy smaller groups. The Russians (!!) are the big anomaly who you could compare to the Iron Bank of Braavos.

  3. I have to disagree with the assessment of Robb being morally inflexible because he married Jayne. He was promised to a Frey daughter and broke that promise. He treated his vow lightly, and so then did his bannermen.

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  5. Ibbison

    The Donal Noye quote is an example of a technique GRRM uses repeatedly – an intelligent, perceptive character provides analysis that seems to be true, but isn’t. Others include Tyrion’s description of Jon ( Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son. ) from AGoT Tyrion II, and Tyrion’s analysis of Jaime’s feelings toward Cersei ( “I never understood what Jaime saw in you, apart from his own reflection.”) in ACoK Tyrion I.

    Melisandre actually manipulates Stannis quite easily, although it requires some persistence on her part to succeed. In the end, Stannis not only half-heartedly converts to R’llorism, he allows Mel to burn the statues of the Seven. That’s not religious tolerance. He allows Mel and her followers to use burning at the stake as a method of execution. He was on the verge of handing Edric Storm over to Mel when Davos smuggled the lad away.

    Stannis’ very name belies Noye’s statement. Stannis – homophone of stannous – from stannum, the Latin term for tin. Mel bends Stannis like thin tin.

    • Ser Biffy Clegane

      Yeah, and Stannis falls for a pretty obvious trick with the leeches.

      (Does he know that Mel can see glimpses of the future? Once you know that, Occam’s razor strongly suggests that she predicted the deaths, not caused them).

      • DougL

        He does know that she sees the future, he has been learning to search the flames with her, but he also trusts her, and if she claims she can alter chance to produce results, and then sees those altered results in the flames, who is he to assume she is being coy? She has very obvious power and has displayed it time and time again.

      • Ser jaime

        Yes, he does know. Melisandre also says, that thev leeches “will work and will not work”, and advises against them.

  6. alexn96

    well done

  7. species5618w

    I don’t know. It’s one thing to have an incomplete opinion about somebody (in the case of Prince Rhaegar or Jaime), it’s another to be completed wrong. Stannis is way too “flexible” and immoral to earn his reputation. He mistreated his mentor (for no apparent reason), he attempted to murder an innocent child (Edric Storm), he murdered his brother, he tolerated fanatics and pirates in his ranks (how come he didn’t cut off the fingers of Salladhor?), he forced the wildlings to abandon their faith. What if he did take King’s Landing? Could he have prevented the sack and raping, would he even try? I highly doubt it.

    What bothered me the most was his stupidity. He will never be king since the faith would never tolerate him and common people fear a foreign fanatic. And for what? Several assassinations that he didn’t know he would be able to get. He didn’t get a dragon (or three). He didn’t even get the loyalty of the wildlings (forcing them into a new religion and burn their leader). I don’t even think the northerners like him, they are just using him to get a Stark back into power. Why does he still have so many knights following him is beyond me. Aegon Targaryen was flexible. He converted to the seven because he believed in them, but because he wanted to win over the faith and common folks. Stannis seem to be very shortsighted in comparison. Yet he also doesn’t seem to be very consistent. He was strict in one scene and then tolerate in the next depending who is advising him at the moment.

    I like flawed characters (like Tywin Lannister and Rob Stark). Stannis just seems inconsistent to me as he flops around.

    • B&W Walker

      “He mistreated his mentor (for no apparent reason)”. Melisandre told him that his mentor will try to kill her during the banquet (which is a serius betrayal), so Stannis didn’t tell anything to Cressen about the banquet. And when he appeared anyway, the lack of respect was a way to say “Out of here”. Unfortunately, it was a self-accomplished prophecy because these facts encouraged Cressen to try to kill Melisandre, as she have predicted.

      “he attempted to murder an innocent child (Edric Storm)”. Because Melisandre told him that this decision could give him stone dragons, a decisive super-weapon. The war would be won and the Seven Kingdoms will be unified against the real enemy, the Others, who want to commit a genocide againts all the living beings in the world. And after all, he waited until he received clear evidences about the efectiveness of her magic (although the evidences were false because Melisandre tricked him).

      “he murdered his brother”. A selfish and asshole brother who was trying to usurp his throne and who wanted to kill him because Stannis was an obstacle on his way towards the Iron Throne. Well, with honor o without honor, clearly is a case of self-defense.

      “he tolerated fanatics and pirates in his ranks (how come he didn’t cut off the fingers of Salladhor?)”. He tolerated fanatics because they are serving him and he doesn’t care about the religion of his followers unless it harms his plans. And about the pirate, Stannis knows that he is a criminal but he never caught him infraganti and now Salla is serving him as a mercenary. Nobody in Westeros cares about the curriculum vitae of a mercenary. Moreover, when Stannis met Davos he was 19 years old and when he met Salladhor he was 34 years old. May be the time changed him a bit.

      “he forced the wildlings to abandon their faith”. I think it is not true. I remember that it was not one of the conditions to cross the Wall. However, some wildlings accepted R’hllor as their own god later.

      “What if he did take King’s Landing? Could he have prevented the sack and raping, would he even try?” I don’t know if he could have prevented the sack and raping, but I’m absolutely sure that he would try to do it. Ask to the soldiers who had their penises cut because they raped some wildling women.

    • Eu

      “I don’t know. It’s one thing to have an incomplete opinion about somebody (in the case of Prince Rhaegar or Jaime), it’s another to be completed wrong.”

      You’re telling us.

  8. Retnan

    I think Renly may have known about the incest.
    How does his plan to have Robert marry Margery make any sense otherwise? How is “setting aside” Cersei an option unless she’s guilty of adultery and treason and her children are illegitimate? This is Tywin Lannister’s daughter.

    I think Tywin knew also, why else hire sellswords before there was any trouble? That means Pycelle knew and informed him.

    It seems like the entire small council figured it out, other than Selmy.

  9. Jordan

    Many interesting points. I think not exacting justice on those he needs, even though it grates on him, is the best example of his flexibility! I don’t think ‘breaking before you’ll bend’ means that you can’t ever change your mind though, or listen to people before deciding entirely. I think of it more as, given the choice between bending the knee and living to fight another day, or being executed, I think he’d be executed. (Not saying it’s necessarily wrong, just not very bendy). =) When his mind is made up there’s not a lot you can do to change it. He is willing to sacrifice for his core beliefs though, so he’s not entirely unyielding.

  10. Very interesting article and I agree 100% , I am a total Stannis fan anyways, he is an amazing character!

  11. USD

    I really, really, really have to disagree with your review of Renly vs Stannis. I won’t argue the double usurpation part, but it’s definitely for different reasons. Renly gives absolutely *zero* indication he wants to be king before he runs out of KL with his household. He wants Margaery to be the new queen so Cersei has to go away. He wants Ned to hold the children hostage so that Joffrey is his ward (and still king). He is literally afraid the Lannisters are going to kill him. He tells that to Ned. He says it to Cat after his ascension. Cersei later confirms she wanted/wants to kill both the Baratheon brothers AND Robert.

    Merely escaping KL and going to Storm’s End does little and less for his survival. He holds SE at the largesse of his brother’s careless generosity. The capricious and cruel Joffrey can strip him of his station for no better reason than he’s the legitimate holder of SE. Renly would be isolated and alone with the force behind the throne wanting him dead. He’s more or less forced to take offensive action, and he was smart enough and flexible enough to choose the best allies, in terms of quality and quantity.

    That he double usurps means little and less to him. Jumping up one spot in the line of succession or four spots is still treason. Whether he knows and believes about the illegitimacy is also irrelevant — though I think he doesn’t really believe it anyway. He knows he can’t prove it and Stannis couldn’t provide anything but his own word:

    “Isn’t that a sweet story, my lady?” Renly asked. “I was camped at Horn Hill when Lord Tarly received his letter, and I must say, it took my breath away.” He smiled at his brother. “I had never suspected you were so clever, Stannis. Were it only true, you would indeed be Robert’s heir.”
    “Were it true? Do you name me a liar?”
    “Can you prove any word of this fable?”
    Stannis ground his teeth.”

  12. Very interesting article good sharing, Brilliant work

  13. Bill

    Slight problem, Jon didn’t come to Stannis with news of Cersei’s adultery, Stannis went to Jon, and assisted him on his research (i.e. accompanying him to visit the bastards).

    Also, Stannis wasn’t being intolerant when he burned HIS statues of the gods, or the trees in HIS castle, he was rewarding a productive operative, with things he had the right to give her. They were personal possessions, it was not a public policy decision (like Tyrion’s propaganda hypothetical if Stannis were to burn the Great Sept of Baelor or the High Septon, the way Theon murdered the Starks’ septon/librarian). By “defending” the sept on Dragonstone, his bannermen were interfering in Stannis’ own rights. That’s like a fellow Jew breaking into your house to keep you from getting rid of your Torah & yarmulke & menorah when you decide to convert to Christianity or Mormonism. If they were defending their own septs or godswoods, that would make them heroes and martyrs. Only a fanatic of the Seven would say they were right to forcibly resist Stannis’ own gesture of conversion to his new faith. It would be like bringing swords to his baptism and forcibly dragging Stannis out of the water.

    • The people in his realm don’t all have their own personal God’s Woods and septs though, so it’s less like he’s burning his own yarmulke, and closer to he’s burning down everyone’s synagogue. He can make the case for it being his property to destroy if he cares to, but I’m not at all surprised that not everyone went along with that, and killing them just for not being on his same page is still pretty harsh. There’s also a big difference between them forcing him to keep their religion and him forcing them to foreswear theirs.

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  15. Lazar

    I was a Stannis man myself once. But at some point I had to accept that his arc is bound to be tragic. It astonishes me how few people realise Battle on the Ice near Crofter’s village is not the same as battle or siege of Winterfell. Stannis might win battle on the Ice, but it is questionable how he will manage to take winterfell if he does not to mention he will have to take Dreadfort later on in order to win. Show had to streamline things so when Stannis and later Jon fought, they only had to fight at winterfell, but in the books and in real life that is rarely how it works. If you take the capital war does not automatically end unless the other side surrenders and I doubt Boltons would surrender or pardon them meaning that if Winterfell is taken there would have to be a battle for Dreadfort where anything can happen. If Stannis wins at winterfell he will summon Shireen, Selyse and Melisandre there but once they are together Shireen is doomed. Imagine if Stannis gets besieged in Winterfell as repetition of Storm’s End. It would give him horrible flashbacks and put him in the situation where he would do anything to avoid SE including sacrificing his daughter.

  16. Adam Leander

    I think there is more to the metaphor about the Baratheons and the metals. Stannis may have startet out, almost only, as iron, but after Blackwater (specifically the wildFIRE) he gained additional metals from Davos, Jon Snow and even Melisandre. Now in the cold north he is being cooled off and becoming true steel. Not the same as Robert was though (key word being was). Speaking of Robert, maybe he was a true steel, but after fighting the Targaryans (could also be considered fire?) the opposite happened and his metals were slowly taken from him, save the uncomprimising iron. Robert was compromising in his own way, but again slowly, since he was still sort of formidable during the Greyjoy rebellion. In short: I think, Stannis becoming the true steel is a metaphor for his hero’s journey. What else would you call “The King who cared”. But that’s just my opinion.

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