by John Khantzian
for The Princes That Were Promised
“For Love and Duty”- it is a phrase that has appeared and continues to appear throughout dramatic storytelling of any medium: film, serialized television, and countless times in the literature of the West. It is a phrase that functions as the reason a character cannot take the easy road and must face a daunting, possibly unbeatable challenge. More often than not, it also functions as the motivation that propels a protagonist to bring out the best in his or herself and overcome their challenges and obstacles. Hollywood war films and books, for example, use this phrase as the noblest of motivations for their protagonist characters. (The very best storytellers are able to use these as motivation for their antagonist’s actions as well.) In the West, in Hollywood movies, perhaps ‘Love’ is the more familiar of reasons for a character to be better; to change for the better, overcome past failure and develop into a hero. Eastern cinema and fiction may cite ‘Duty’ or ‘honor’ as a simpler and truer motivation for their characters, but it often functions the same as in Hollywood productions (usually with a more realistic, less happy ending). In nearly every story ever told, a character rising to meet a challenge, be it ‘man vs man’ or ‘man vs nature’ or ‘man vs self,’ can look to their motivation as being “For Love and Duty.”
‘Love’ and ‘Duty’ may be two sides of the same coin more often than not, but if they’re not, what is the difference in characters and motivations? Essentially, what happens when love comes into conflict duty?
Sean and I have discussed numerous times the events at The Tower of Joy in the Red Mountains of Dorne. George R. R. Martin is able to masterfully craft a single passage in A Game of Thrones that captures what may be the best example of characters motivated by ‘Love’ in direct conflict with characters motivated by ‘Duty.’ This passage- aptly called ‘The Tower of Joy’ by all familiar with A Song of Ice and Fire– is able to paint a vivid scene set many years before the events of the series. As vivid as this scene is, there are a great many holes purposely left unfilled by one character’s memory of the events via a fever dream. It is the remainder of ASoIaF proper and the narrative throughout the books that fills in these gaps methodically and mysteriously; never betraying or spelling out the battle that occurs, the death and heartache it leaves in its place and the strength and willpower that are called upon from the character remembering the event.
Passionately combing through George’s prose and becoming accustomed to his style and themes, we piece together the truth of what happened at the ToJ. With a television adaptation produced by filmmakers privy to the facts of George’s imagination having created and aired the ToJ events, we know what happened there. It is possible, maybe likely that there will be some differences when George’s version finally graces our eyes, but the adaptation fills nearly all the holes and answers all the questions that readers could only guess at. Lord Eddard Stark, the new Lord of Winterfell, and six of his most trusted and loyal men rode to the Tower where they came to face the last three Kingsguard of Aerys II Targaryen, The Mad King. George R. R. Martin’s writing of Eddard’s fever dream, as well as a few other passages in ASoIaF, inform the reader that only Eddard and Howland Reed, the Crannogman of Greywater Watch, survived the battle that took place. The three White Knights of the Kingsguard were slain outside the ToJ. Eddard rarely spoke of that fight, though it has become a legend throughout Westeros in ASoIaF proper, and just as mythological throughout the fandom of readers. We know, based on Bran Stark recalling his father Eddard admit as much, that if not for Howland Reed, Eddard Stark would not have lived through this duel of 7 against 3. In ‘Oathbreaker,’ episode three of last year’s 6th season of Game of Thrones– the television adaptation of ASoIaF– we learn how Howland Reed saved Lord Eddard in his clash against Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning… a clash in which Eddard was outmatched and should not have survived.
The three White Knights awaiting the Northerner’s arrival at The Tower of Joy were three of the greatest warriors in the Realm. The Kingsguard, in fact, is an order of Knighthood that allows only the greatest to say its vow- a vow of ‘Duty’ to protect the King and his Royal family with their own lives if fate required it. A White Knight must be a warrior unmatched, but must also be the noblest and chivalrous of any in Westeros. The way Eddard dreams the old dream he has had so many times before, The Lord Commander of The Kingsguard Ser Gerold Hightower, called The White Bull, stood fiercely between his brothers. Ser Oswell Whent was down on one knee and sharpening his blade with a whetstone, the wings of the black bat of his House spread across his white-enameled helm. It is Ser Arthur Dayne that stood closest as the Northerners reigned up, with a sad smile on his lips and the hilt of the greatsword Dawn poking up over his right shoulder. Eddard’s dream recalls these three men the same as Eddard remembers them in their death: as the epitome of Westerosi chivalry and battle prowess. His respect for them is overwhelming in his dream and would surely have been greater in life.
In my research and exploration, I have found many readers that wonder why an honorable man, such as Eddard Stark, would do such a dishonorable act as lead his men into battle against The Kingsguard. Through Eddard’s own admission they were the finest knights in the realm, the beacon of light for days long gone, the perfect example of what The Knights of The Kingsguard should be, both in their integrity and their ability with the sword and shield. If we flip the coin of ‘Love and Duty,’ why would The Kingsguard ready themselves to go to battle with Lord Eddard and his men. The mystery increases in intrigue because the Targaryen dynasty had been all but completely eliminated by the time Eddard arrived at The ToJ. Therein the question lies the answer for the greatest Knights in the Realm.
Eddard Stark is a truly honorable man and this is not lost upon The remaining Kingsguard. Eddard’s reputation for truth and honor preceding him by the end of his friend Robert Baratheon’s Rebellion. However, despite the way Eddard fought in the war, he fought against the rightful King of Westeros; Winterfell joined Storm’s End and The Vale of Arryn in rebellion against The Iron Throne of Westeros and House Targaryen. Word of the death of Aerys II Targaryen at the hands of Ser Jaime Lannister the youngest brother of the Kingsguard; the death of the heir to the Iron Throne, the Crown PrinceTargaryen on the Ruby Ford at the hands of Lord Robert Baratheon; and most heinous, the death of Rhaegar’s son and heir: the crushing of the baby Aegon’s skull along with his sister by the false Knight, Ser Gregor Clegane, would have reached The White Knights prior to Eddard’s arrival. Despite the honor that the new Lord of Winterfell is known for, The Kingsguard must come to blows with him and his Northern men. That Eddard Stark would support and fight so honorably for such a man as the Usurper of the Iron Throne, Robert Baratheon- a man that would allow the deaths of defenseless children to win a crown- is a truth that The Kingsguard could not ignore if they wanted to. For Eddard, he faces a mystery along with The White Knights. Despite Aerys II’s death and his heir’s death and his heir’s heir’s death, The Kingsguard seem ready to fight on for the Royal Targaryen Cause.
But… what do they have to gain in fighting a man such as Eddard Stark if their cause is lost with the infant Aegon’s life?
‘For Love,’ Eddard Stark has traveled from King’s Landing to The Red Mountains of Dorne to find his sister Lyanna. Eddard has revelations as to the true nature of the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna. What was reported first as a kidnapping, and cursed as rape by his friend Robert, soon becomes something different to Eddard, something deeper to which his own honor will be tested and forever changed. It seems likely that Eddard knew there had been a bond, an agreement and a love of sorts between his sister and the Crown Prince. Eddard went to war in part to save his sister- his closest sibling- and despite any revelations, he must finish the war for himself at The ToJ. Eddard fights on, not for his love of Robert Baratheon, nor even for his love of his murdered brother and father at the hands of Aerys The Mad, but for his love for his sister.
The Kingsguard fight on ‘For Duty,’ and the source of this ‘Duty’ is deeply entwined with Eddard’s ‘Love’ for Lyanna. The Northerners and The Kingsguard battle for two sides of the same coin, the same way that ‘Love’ and ‘Duty’ often are both motivated by ideals and honor that have shaped their lives up to this moment at The Tower of Joy.
We mentioned in the last part of our series analyzing Lord Eddard Stark, “The Most Promising Promise of all Promises (9.6)” The White Knights responses to Eddard stating facts as he witnessed them works almost as a line of questioning. Eddard is more like a detective measuring their reply to solve a case than a warrior attempting to intimidate another warrior. Eddard is well aware of what The Kingsguard stands for and what their vows are. The three best of The Kingsguard are the only obstacle standing in his way of finally reaching his sister and he has a growing suspicion as to why they are there at all.
Eddard first states that he looked for all three of them on The Trident. As Eddard witnessed, they were not fighting alongside their Prince, Rhaegar Targaryen, and they were protecting him from Robert’s Warhammer. Eddard tells them that he looked for them during the battle but they were not there. Eddard was of the assumption that Rhaegar would bring the Realm’s greatest Knights and warriors with him to the pivotal battle in The Riverlands, at the very least his best friend and the most feared fighter in Westeros, Ser Arthur Dayne; the Sword of the Morning.
The Lord Commander of The Kingsguard, Ser Gerold Hightower answers for them- confirming that they were not there. Ser Oswell Whent adds that if they had been it would have been to the Woe to the Usurper, for they would have struck him dead long before he had an opportunity to slay the Crown Prince.
Eddard, working out in his mind that if they were not with Rhaegar on The Trident, surely it would be because they three were at King’s Landing, defending King Aerys in The Red Keep. But they were not. Ser Jaime Lannister has killed their King, with his golden sword through his back. Eddard knows that not only was the King himself there, but the next in line to the Throne after Rhaegar was there in Aegon VI Targaryen, the infant Prince. There were no other Knights of The Kingsguard at Kings Landing but the arrogant, young Ser Jaime. Eddard implies all of his confusion when he tells the three that he wondered where they were when King’s Landing was sacked by Lord Tywin Lannister and fell, and the King fell to Tywin’s son Jaime’s golden sword.
The Lord Commander responds again, confirming that they were not at King’s Landing either, but at The Tower of Joy where Eddard found them- far away from King’s Landing. If they had been there, Aerys would still sit The Iron Throne and their false brother would burn in seven hells for attempting to slay the King he took an oath to protect.
Eddard’s first two observations were strictly based on The Kingsguard protecting their King or his heir. Eddard is really beginning to shape the truth of the matter at hand. He changes the subject, moving away from the Royal succession. Eddard tells them that he traveled to Storm’s End to aid Robert’s brother Stannis and lift the Tyrell/Redwyne siege. Upon Eddard’s arrival, both Southern Lords dipped their banners and all of their knights bent their knees to pledge fealty to the new King Robert Baratheon through Eddard Stark. He was certain that if the three of them were not with Rhaegar on The Trident, and not with Aerys and Aegon at King’s Landing, then they would surely be there, fighting with the Warden of the South to capture the seat and home of House Baratheon and The Usurper.
The Sword of The Morning replies to Eddard’s digging and his response is clear: their knees do not bend easily. Ser Arthur Dayne is telling Eddard that not only were they not at Storm’s End, but unlike your basic foot soldier or average Knight, The Knights of The Kingsguard don’t bend their knee to anyone but the rightful King that they protect, especially not without a fight. Eddard would not miss the connotations of Dayne’s simple response, while the entire Realm may now accept The Usurper Robert Baratheon as their King, The Kingsguard that stands before him does not, and will not. Eddard will not find a peaceful resolution at The Tower of Joy.
Eddard begins to feel strained and trapped. He knows he has them outnumbered, but it would be his preference not to fight them. Eddard sees it just as likely, or even more likely, that even with a four man advantage, his side will be defeated. He desperately needs to get to his sister but the picture he is arranging in his mind’s eye is even more frightening than doing battle with The Kingsguard. Eddard’s thought process is that if the three White Knights weren’t fighting with Rhaegar and if they weren’t protecting their king and his heir, and if they weren’t fighting alongside Targaryen loyalists, then there really is only one more scenario that would make sense. Though it would make sense, he already knows it is not what has happened. The Kingsguard stands in front of him, ready to defend who Eddard knows to be his sister inside the tower.
The next statement by Eddard and the response given is, in my eyes, the most important and telling of them all. For the remaining people of the fandom that still somehow believe that Jon Snow is a red herring, and just a bastard, and not a legit Targaryen, this exchange supports better than anything else said in this passage that The Bastard of Winterfell is, in fact, the heir to House Targaryen and The Iron Throne.
Ned tells the White Knights that the rebelling alliance knows that Ser Willem Darry, a Targaryen Loyalist, has fled from King’s Landing to Dragonstone- the ancestral seat of House Targaryen. He sailed with their expecting Queen Rhaella and the young Prince Viserys Targaryen. After learning they weren’t on The Trident or at King’s Landing or at Storm’s End, logic told him that surely they would have sailed with Ser Willem Darry to protect Prince Viserys, who, with the deaths of Aerys II, Rhaegar, and Aegon, would be the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Yet, Hightower, Whent, and Dayne did not sail with Ser Willem Darry. They are not on Dragonstone protecting the remaining male of House Targaryen. The response confirms for Eddard what he has feared from the moment he arrived at The Tower of Joy.
“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” Ser Oswell Whent replies.
“But not of The Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold Hightower explains. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” Ser Arthur Dayne adds as he dons his helm for battle.
“We swore a vow,” Hightower explains, reminding Eddard of the most simple truth throughout all that he has witnessed.
The Lord Commander of The Kingsguard is reminding Eddard that their vow is to protect the King and to lay down their own lives if necessary. It is true that they did not accompany Rhaegar into battle on The Trident, though Rhaegar was Aerys’ heir. Nor did they remain at King’s Landing to protect their King and his heir’s only son as the former Hand of the King entered the city on a false pretense and sacked it without mercy. And as the unified rebel forces won victory on The Trident, and Ser Willem Darry was forced to flee King’s Landing to Dragonstone with the last heir to the Iron Throne, they did not accompany him to protect young Viserys. There is a reason for all of this and it is now their solemn ‘Duty’ to protect The Tower of Joy and to keep Eddard from entering.
Both sides understand there is no turning back. The Northerners and The Kingsguard prepare themselves, unsheathing their swords and raising their shields. They were seven against three. On one side a man of honor, trying to get to his sister and driven by his ‘Love’ for her. On the other side, three knights, the greatest in the Realm, that took an oath to protect their King and driven by ‘Duty.’ Neither side is wrong in their motivation for battle. For both sides, what they believe in and what they are fighting for, death is a far easier outcome to accept than surrender.
This isn’t a story of simple conflict and tidy resolution, where one side is motivated by a desire to do good and the other of more evil intentions. It is two parties, two shades of gray, fighting for the ideals and beliefs of the institution they inhabit. This was a battle that could have no real winner. Eddard was remorseful that it had to happen, but it was inevitable. He knew very well the duty that those men stood for, but the love for his sister propelled him forward to fight his way through The Kingsguard. Five of his Northmen fell in battle, and Hightower and Whent as well. Ser Arthur Dayne would have killed Eddard, if not for a very unchivalrously executed move by Howland Reed. The fall of The Kingsguard and Dayne, in particular, is a bitter reality for Eddard. It is Ser Arthur’s sister, the Lady Ashara Dayne of Starfall, that captures Eddard’s heart and who he must forget for the good of Robert’s cause and the Northern alliance with the Tullys of the South. Of all the knights in the Realm, it is Ser Arthur Dayne that Eddard labels as the greatest knight of all to his sons. The respect between the two men and the sorrow of one living with having killed the other is a tragic and poetic layer that adds to the melancholy depth of Eddard Stark’s character.
Eddard and his small, loyal friend alone survive the battle. Eddard rushes into The Tower, by now having a good knowledge of what he will find. It is his sister, as he expected, but not alive and energetic as she had been her entire life. Lyanna lays dying in a bed of blood and blue winter roses. Childbirth in Westeros is its own battlefield, as explained to female characters such as Brienne of Tarth and Cersei Lannister, that do not fit into the standard female character archetype. For a 16, possibly 17-year-old Lyanna Stark, childbirth proves to take too much a toll on her young body. By the grace of the Seven, and the plot device of George R. R. Martin, she is able to hold off the death circling her bed to give her a few moments with her big brother Eddard. True to what we know of Lyanna’s character, she does not ask forgiveness for the trouble she caused nor will she inquire to the fate of those she is wise enough to know are gone. Instead, Lyanna takes advantage of the Love she knows Eddard has for her and asks him to take on the baby she has had with Rhaegar. Eddard’s ‘Love’ for his sister gives him a solemn ‘Duty’ for which he must dedicate the remainder of his own life to raising their son as his own and never allowing the boy’s true heritage to be known, lest The Usurper that allowed Rhaegar’s other children to be mutilated and murdered come seeking the third.
“Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna begs of him.
And Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, Warden of the North, new husband to Lady Catelyn Tully of Riverrun and new father to the baby in her belly says the two words that will drive his remaining life, “I promise.”
In the end, a fight between love and duty, in which Eddard’s beloved sister died anyway, and the three White Knights whose duty it was to defend Lyanna’s child from Lyanna’s brother, also died.
Lord Eddard Stark carried the torch for Rhaegar and Lyanna’s love, though he carried it silently. He took on a tremendous responsibility in keeping his promise to Lyanna. At the same time, though unintentionally, Eddard upheld the duty that the three Kingsguard died for in protecting the baby that would grow to be Jon Snow. The irony of this reality, and the poetic justice that would play out over the next decade and a half would not be lost on the Eddard Stark that we come to know.
For Love and Duty; Lord Eddard Stark, a man of honor…. and very likely, the winner of The Game of Thrones.