It’s no secret to anyone who follows me on Twitter that I am a huge Song of Ice and Fire fan. I’ve never gone to a convention, nor role-played as my favorite Knight of the Vale, but my love of the series is only marginally on the sane side of “obsession.” In that spirit, last Sunday (before the Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones), I tweeted the following:
This led to a bit of a Twitter discussion, which I feel like expounding on for the non-book-readers, or just the casual readers. Why? Because I am a dork. I’m a pretty cute dork, no doubt, but a dork nonetheless.
The greatest strength of A Song of Ice and Fire, in my opinion, is its absolutely staggering creative scope (and, incidentally, this is likely also why the books take so long to write). The narrative detail around names, places and history is incredibly intricate. I’m not sure if anyone has ever counted, but there have to be somewhere near 1,000 characters who have been given a name, description and some kind of backstory. The geography is similar: there are two continents that total somewhere on the order of 8 million square miles, each meticulously laid out with cities and towns, rivers and lakes, mountains, forests, roads, bridges, swamps, harbors and nearly every other geographical feature you can imagine.
There is also a remarkable realism written into this fantasy world. An army of frozen zombies rises to conquer, inbred teenagers ride dragons, ravens work like the postal system and red priests can raise the dead, but men and women are still governed by the laws of human urges and character flaws. People are motivated by fear of whichever God they pray to, by greed for wealth, land, sex and power — and political alliances shift continuously. There is also a remarkably detailed and interesting backstory that unfolds slowly throughout the book, oftentimes with extraordinarily subtle subtext. To get the real history, you have to read between the lines, and those lines often seem like throwaway lines.
All of which finally brings me to the point of this post: the most important event in the backstory, Robert’s Rebellion, was not Robert’s war at all. It was Jon Arryn’s war and it was retroactively recast by the victors to fit a narrative that made more sense for the new King.
At first reading, it seems like Rhaegar Targaryen (the crown prince) kidnapped Lyanna Stark (Robert’s betrothed), and Robert raised an army in protest. It seems natural that Robert’s best friend and future brother-in-law Ned Stark would join him, along with Ned’s wife’s family (the Tully’s) and Ned and Robert’s foster father, Jon Arryn. After winning the war, the leader of the rebels would naturally be King. Hence “Robert’s Rebellion”
Only that’s not the way it happened…
When Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped* Lyanna Stark, Robert and Ned were at the Eyrie, in the care and custody of Jon Arryn. It was Brandon Stark (Ned and Lyanna’s brother and the heir to Winterfell) who rode to King’s Landing to confront Rhaegar Targaryen. Upon his arrival, King Aerys had him arrested and ordered the fathers of Stark and his companions to appear before him, ostensibly to pledge fealty, apologize and be on their way. Aerys, of course, murdered them all and then sent to Jon Arryn for Ned Stark (now the heir to Winterfell) and Robert Baratheon.
It was then Jon Arryn that defied his King and declared a rebellion. He refused to turn over his fostered sons and instead elected to raise the Vale’s armies and wage war to overthrow Aerys. He also facilitated the passage of Robert Baratheon back to Storm’s End (by retaking Gulltown) and Ned Stark back to Winterfell so that they could raise the armies of the Stormlands and the North. After that, he facilitated the arrangement with Hoster Tully whereby he agreed to marry Lysa, and Ned Stark fulfilled the marriage pact with Catelyn that had been made for his brother Brandon. That brought the Tully’s into the war on the rebels’ side. I’m also going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb and suggest that Jon Arryn made the deal with Tywin Lannister that ultimately won the war.
It was Jon Arryn’s war all along, and most likely Jon Arryn’s decision that Robert should take the throne after the war based on a loose tie to the Targaryen family that would help to justify his seat. Recall, Jon Arryn had no heirs, so his taking of the throne would have been a tenuous arrangement from the start. Robert was young, vibrant and, importantly, capable of making Tywin Lannister’s daughter Queen. The folklore around Robert rising in defense of his love, then leading his armies to victory was concocted after the fact by the victors in order to validate their new King.
This, to me, highlights George RR Martin’s strengths as a writer. He has managed to wrap an entire backstory up into the story he is telling, but do so in a way that leaves just enough breadcrumbs to figure out that the backstory isn’t exactly as it seems.
Now, go back to being less of a dork than I am.
* I'll bet you $4 that she wasn't kidnapped at all, but rather ran away with Rhaegar
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