Glue that Holds ‘Game of Thrones’ Together: Masculinity and Eddard Stark

With the Iron Anniversary of HBO’s Game of Thrones wrapping up, I finally cracked open the tomes of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series the show is based on, for the first time, just a few months after finishing the show for the first time. Many viewers of the series felt shorted by the show’s ending, often thinking the final two seasons ruined what came before. These conversations, while there may be truths to them, often miss how it all did fit together. Much like canonical criticism in biblical studies, it doesn’t matter if you don’t think it goes together: it just does because that’s how it was made. Through a canonical, holistic approach, themes like masculinity re-emerge, themes that helped hold it all together.

Eddard Stark, or Ned, the Lord of Winterfell and the new Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon, embodies a self-conscious masculinity that helps identify how masculinity holds the show together. When we meet Ned, he’s giving a lesson in executioning to his children, the future heirs of Winterfell. The man he’s beheading deserted Castle Black after taking an oath that bound him there, the father explains. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” he notes as he swings Ice, his Valerian steel sword. This maxim is probably Ned’s most famous quote in the series, and it returns both before and after his death at the conclusion of book one (and season one). The quotability of the maxim, combined with the visual power of the scene, partly clouds the more basic kernel behind the introduction: a lesson in masculinity from a father to his boys. As the first chapter in the saga, this scene sets the stage for themes related to masculinity to run throughout.

Ned’s considered a model of honor by other characters, as the court eunuch and Master of Whisperers, Varys, notes several times. Matt Zoller Seitz, an insightful film critic, provides an apt analysis of Ned that also details his more typical and perhaps conservative approach to masculinity: “Ned Stark’s death was inevitable because Ned was a great soldier, and great soldiers don’t often make great rulers; they’re too attached to duty and tradition, too unwilling to jettison received wisdom and think the unthinkable.” 

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