The cursed souls of Eddard and Robert

As I have shown in Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts, George has Lyanna tied and surrounded with basically every possible symbol and feature of the mythical Persephone who was abducted by Hades and made Queen of the Underworld. Persephone’s task as Queen of the Underworld was to ensure that a soul’s curses were visited upon. Already during the visit of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon we learn both men are haunted by the past, and one of the major plot arcs in aGoT is how both men are sick in their souls, each in their own way, and eventually come to their doom when they join hands again as the theoretical two most powerful men in all of Westeros.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Kingmonkey for his great essay “Eddard in Wonderland” which inspired me to approach the books from a chthonic angle.

Melinoe’s nightmare

Eddard Stark is regularly visited with nightmarish, strange dreams ever since Lyanna’s death, all involving the Underworld.

Sansa cried herself to sleep, Arya brooded silently all day long, and Eddard Stark dreamed of a frozen hell reserved for the Starks of Winterfell.(aGoT, Eddard IV)

This frozen hell cannot but be a reference to the crypts of Winterfell. Hell is another name for the Underworld. It is up in the North, cold, and related to winter. And it is the sole place we know of that is reserved for the Starks of Winterfell, with already assigned empty tombs for whichever time they die.

It would be good to return to Winterfell. He ought never have left. His sons were waiting there. Perhaps he and Catelyn would make a new son together when he returned, they were not so old yet. And of late he had often found himself dreaming of snow, of the deep quiet of the wolfswood at night. (aGoT, Eddard VIII)

While Ned interpretes these as dreams of longing for Winterfell, the dream contains five chthonic references we are already acquainted with since his visit to the crypts: snow, silence, wolves, forest, darkness. In other words, the dream is reminding Ned there is no way back, only the Underworld awaits him.

His most famous and most analyzed dream is the one about his confrontation with the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy. A most excellent analysis (must read!) of this dream as a Celtic porter scene was done by Kingmonkey at Westeros.org: Eddard in Wonderland. But the same dream can also be analyzed from a chthonic lens, and complement Kingmonkey’s. I mentioned how Persephone has a daughter called Melinoe. She was a chthonic moon goddess who visited mortals with night terrors (nightmares) by taking strange forms.

She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,
As she appears in weird shapes and forms,
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,
And all this in hostile encounters in the gloom of night. (fragment of Orphic Hymn of Melinoe)

This Orphic Hymn is an excellent description of Ned’s portal dream of the Kingsguard:

  • His own bannermen appear as shadows, grey wraiths on misty horses with shadow swords  = weird shapes, forms, now shadowy
  • But the three Kingsguard’s faces burn clear = now plain to the eye
  • Arthur Dayne’s Dawn is pale as milkglass, alive with light = now shining in the darkness
  • Ned and his men come together with the three Kingsguard in a rush of steel and shadow, Lyanna screaming his name, and a storm of rose petals blowing = hostile encounter
  • He wakes to moonlight = gloom of night
  • 3 x “now” appears in the dream: “Then or now“, “Now it begins,” and “Now it ends.” (Keep the last two phrases in the back of your mind, and recall how “almost at the end” appeared in Bran’s paragraph in the crypts after Ned’s death)

George included every shape and form that is typical for Melinoe related nightmares. The dream is not just a portal scene, but a nightmarish chthonic curse born from Lyanna beyond the grave upon his very soul.

In the dream his friends rode with him, as they had in life…Lord Dustin on his great red stallion. Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, grey wraiths on horses made of mist.
They were seven, facing three. In the dream as it had been in life. Yet these were no ordinary three. They waited before the round tower, the red mountains of Dorne at their backs, their white cloaks blowing in the wind. And these were no shadows; their faces burned clear, even now.
[…]
“The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.
Ned’s wraiths moved up behind him, with shadow swords in hand. They were seven against three.
“And now it begins,” said Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. He unsheathed Dawn and held it with both hands. The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light.
“No,” Ned said with sadness in his voice. “Now it ends.” As they came together in a rush of steel and shadow, he could hear Lyanna screaming, “Eddard!”. A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.
[…]
Groaning, Eddard Stark opened his eyes. Moonlight streamed through the tall windows of the Tower of the Hand. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Though Ned wakes from the dream, the rest of that chapter repeats several features of the dream, revealing that in fact the waking life is a repeat of Melinoe nightmare. It is still night and Persephone’s moon daughter is still hard at work. It starts with only seeing shadows, then light being brought and conflict between Ned, Robert and Cersei.

“Lord Eddard?” a shadow stood over the bed […] “Six days and seven nights.” The voice was Vayon Poole’s. […]”The King left orders,” Vayon Poole told him when the cup was empty. “He would speak with you, my lord.”
“On the morrow,” Ned said. “When I am stronger.” He could not face Robert now. The dream had left him weak as a kitten
“My lord,” Poole said, “he commanded us to send you to him the moment you opened your eyes.” The steward busied himself lighting a bedside candle.
[…]
“Whatever happens,” Ned said, “I want my daughters kept safe. I fear this is only the beginning.”
[…]
“I gave them to the silent sisters, to be sent north to Winterfell. Jory would want to lie beside his grandfather.”
It would have to be his grandfather, for Jory’s father was buried far to the South… Ned had pulled the tower down afterward, and used its bloody stones to build eight cairns upon the ridge. It was said that Rhaegar had named that place the tower of joy, but for Ned it was a bitter memory. They had been seven against three, yet only two had lived to ride away; Eddard Stark himself and the little crannogman, Howland Reed. He did not think it omened well that he should dream that dream again after so many years.
[…]
“Keep the king’s peace, you say. Is this how you keep my peace, Ned? Seven men are dead…”
Eight,” the queen corrected. “Tregar died this morning, of the blow Lord Stark gave him.”
Abductions on the kingsroad and drunken slaughter in my streets,” the king said. “I will not have it, Ned.”
[…]
Three of my men were butchered before my eyes, because Jaime Lannister wished to chasten me. Am I to forget that?”
[…]
“Some whorehouse? Damn your eyes, Robert, I went there to have a look at your daughter! Her mother has named her Barra. She looks like that girl you fathered, when we were boys together in the Vale.”[…]
[…] Robert flushed. “Barra,” he grumbled. “Is that supposed to please me? Damn the girl. I thought she had more sense.”
“She cannot be more than fifteen, and a whore, and you thought she had sense?” Ned said, incredulous. His leg was beginning to pain him sorely. It was hard to keep his temper. “The fool child is in love with you, Robert.”
[…]
The king swirled the wine in his cup, brooding. He took a swallow. “No,” he said. “I want no more of this. Jaime slew three of your men, and you five of his. Now it ends.”
[…]
Purple with rage, the king lashed out, a vicious backhand blow to the side of the head. She stumbled against the table and fell hard, yet Cersei did not cry out. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Not only is the structure of the dream paralleled with the events in Ned’s room, the same numbers of are repeated too: seven and three. The present (now) parallels the past (then), and actually may give us clues about the past. Ned, Robert and Cersei discuss the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in the streets of King’s Landing, both its causes and results. At times you are left wondering whether Ned is talking of the girl Ned visited at the whorehouse or his dead sister. While it involves other characters, the events of then and now are strikingly similar.

Parallel event Tower of Joy GoT present
Abduction in the Riverlands Ned’s sister, Lyanna Jaime’s brother, Tyrion
Now it begins Arthur Dayne to Ned Ned to Alyn: This is the beginning
Now it ends Ned to Arthur Dayne Robert to Ned
8 dead =  3 + 5 3 KG + 5 of Ned’s men 3 of Ned’s men + 5 of Jaime’s men ( reversed)
2 men walk away alive Ned and Howland Reed Ned and Jaime Lannister
A red stallion5 Lord Dustin’s Jaime’s blood bay
Death of a Cassel Martyn Cassel his son Jory Cassel
Burrial of a Cassel South North (reversal)
Buried beside ancestar at Winterfell Lyanna beside her father Jory beside his grandfather
Visiting the sick Ned and Howland Reed with Lyanna Robert and Cersei with Ned
Weakened Lyanna from fever Ned from the dream (and fever)
A child-woman of fifteen to sixteen Lyanna Barra’s mother
Promises, including empty/broken to Lyanna to Barra’s mother
Dangerous secrets result from Lyanna’s abduction result in Tyrion’s abduction (a reversal)

It is thus little surprise that Ned dreams the old dream about his confrontation with the Kingsguard again, shortly after a similar confrontation with Jaime, also involving an abduction. The parallel is more than a gimmick. We can use it to figure out some of the mysteries, such as

  • Did Lyanna have a child?
  • Was Lyanna in love with the father of her child?
  • How long after giving birth did she die?
  • What did Ned and the Kingsguard fight about?
  • What did Ned promise Lyanna? What promise did he break?
  • What secret is too dangerous to even tell your loved ones?

There is a near-parallel in age between Barra’s mother and Lyanna and Ned making promises to both women. He recalls Rhaegar while visiting the whorehouse and concludes Rhaegar would not have visited one. This visit occurs right before the confrontation with Jaime. The logical conclusion is that Lyanna did have a child.

The reversal in number of people dying on each side, suggest that Jaime takes Ned’s part of the past. Jaime’s attempt to keep the parentage of his sister’s children a secret eventually led to Tyrion’s abduction. Hence, Ned’s secret resulting from Lyanna’s abduction properly ought to be the parentage of his sister’s child. Ned is the sole person who knows both secrets (per Cersei’s confession). After Ned’s death, Howland Reed is the sole person alive as prime witness to confirm the identity of Lyanna’s child, while Jaime is the sole person alive to confirm the identity of Cersei’s children (aside of course from Cersei and she will never confess it). They are at present the sole survivors of the two violent encounters.

Ned wakes from his dream weak as a kitten six days and seven nights after his confrontation with Jaime, like Lyanna was weak from fever related to childbirth complications (most likely puerperal fever). The repetitiveness of other numbers suggests that she died six days and seven nights after giving birth.

Since Barra’s mother was in love with the father of her child (King Robert) – a young girl with little sense and a fool in love – then yes the parallel suggests that Lyanna was in love with the father of her child and must have talked foolish in his eyes.

Barra’s mother prattles on about her baby, and how she’s waiting for Robert to return to her, wanting Ned to promise to tell Robert all of this. And in his own way, Ned does keep his promise, by telling Robert his daughter’s name, how she looks like Mya Stone and that the mother is in love with him. Of course, he relays it in a manner Barra’s mother in no way intended it. Ned also makes promises to Robert on his deathbed, and we can actually see how Ned interpretes Robert’s words in such a way that he can make the promise in a manner it agrees with his own conscious.

“I will,” Ned had promised her. That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them. (aGoT, Eddard, IX)

So, what type of promises did he make to Lyanna and what was the price for them? We know at least one already – to come home and be buried with her brother and father.

“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

Taking her bones from the Tower of Joy to a location where he could have them sent North, like Starfall, might have been a pain, especially since he would have been regarded the killer of Arthur Dayne. Returning Dawn to Starfall to secure the Daynes’ secrecy and the return of Lyanna to the North might have been a price. But it seems like a thing Ned would have done anyway, or even something he promised Arthur Dayne as he lay dying. All in all, it seems but a little price to pay.

The likeliest promise that most people have surmised is to care or guard her child as his own, exactly as he promises Robert on his deathbed. He did so by claiming her child to be his bastard and he paid the price for it in his marriage – Jon1. However, the fact that so often Ned keeps his vows in a manner the other person did not exactly intend it, should make us cautious about the assumption that Lyanna wanted Ned Stark to adopt her son as his bastard. It is very likely, she knew very little of the outcome of Robert’s Rebellion or even Rhaegar’s fate, as the Kingsguard would have not been motivated to distress a woman so close to childbirth, let alone dying. And just like with Barra’s mother and Robert’s deathbed we see Ned’s reluctance to destroy hope. I propose her dying wishes were in the general line of, “Take me home, Ned, to Father and Brandon,” and, “Keep my boy safe, teach him about his heritage.” What safe keeping and heritage means was up to Ned’s own discretion.

This leads us to the Kingsguard and the deadly confrontation Ned had with them. Who are they? Do they have any symbolism that tells us more?

Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, had a sad smile on his lips. The hilt of the greatsword Dawn poked up over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent was on one knee, sharpening his blade with a whetstone. Across his white-enameled helm, the black bat of his House spread its wings. Between them stood fierce old Ser Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

Persephone belonged to both the Underworld as that of the living, never a permanent resident at either one of them. The most prominent carriers of Persephone symbols at the Tower of Joy are the Kingsguard. Oswald Whent’s black bat is a chthonic symbol of Persephone and stands for death and rebirth. In Lyanna’s case – she dies, but a part of her is reborn in her son.

Persephone’s son Dionysus was twice born. First he was born, then he died, and then reborn. This, and other myths about him, make him another chthonic figure. There are several alternative versions, but of relevance is that the jealous Hera2 wanted him dead and asked the Titans to kill him. To escape them Dionysus took several animal forms, including a bull. But the Titans caught him, ripped the bull to pieces and ate him, but for the heart. The heart was saved by either Demeter or Persephone and used to birth Dionysus a second time via the mortal woman Semele. Hence the fertile bull symbol also became a sacrificial symbol. The second-time born Dionysus is called Zagreus. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, would celebrate this rebirth into Zagreus (‘Zagre’ meaning ‘pit trap to catch live animals’) in a mad frenzy by shredding and pulling a bull to pieces in the woods. Gerold Hightower’s moniker “White Bull3 refers to the Dionysus bull.

House Hightower’s sigil is that of a torch or beacon upon a tower and their words are, “We Light the Way”. The torch is a symbol for Demeter’s search for her daughter, but also for the third epiteth of Dionysus – Iacchus, the torch bearing, divine child, a star to bring light to the night. The Hightower sigil basically says, “The torch bearer, the divine child,” is up there on the Tower of Joy, and the House’s words reaffirm this interpretation.

Arthur Dayne is twice referred to as the Sword of the Morning who wields the pale greatsword Dawn, which is alive with light in the darkness. Like, dusk, dawn is the moment that does not belong to either night and day. It heralds the end of the night and the start of the day, and yet belongs to neither – an in between moment. Again this would fit the scheme of Dionysus as Iacchus, who brings light in the night, but belongs to the ‘in between’ world, who can go to and fro. A light in the darkness mostly calls forth the image of moon- and starlight, with the moon and stars being the lanterns that “light the way”. And Dawn’s light is pale, miky white, like a moon or star.

Dionysus-Zagreus was hidden and protected by alternative protectors. George seems to have conflated these into the Kingsguard. In one version it are three aunts (sisters to Dionysus second mortal mother who rebirthed him) or three nymphs. At the Tower of Joy it are three Kingsguard instead. In another Greek version it are the Korybantes. They were an order of nine armored men who worshiped the “Great Mother” Cybele with a ritual armed dance of shields and swords. With all that ruckus the Korybantes prevented Hera from hearing Dionysus’ cries. Twice Ned’s dream mentions seven against three, which adds to ten people. But only nine of those ten actually have a guarding role – the Kingsguard and Ned’s personal bodyguard. So, we have in fact nine Korybantes who dance the dance of swords, clashing and making ruckus, drowning out the cries of George’s secret infant in the tower. From this we can infer that both Kingsguard and Ned’s men all wish to protect Lyanna’s child.

From Lyanna’s and baby Jon’s point of view the Kingsguard fighting Ned and his men is as much an irrelevent in-fight, just as it is for Robert when his brother-in-law Jaime would fight his Hand. Both Hand and Kingsguard are sworn and meant to operate in the King’s interest, not their own, let alone fight each other. So, we have another parallel between the present and past. On the surface, the fight between Ned and Jaime seems to be about the kidnapping, but the deeper conflict arises from Ned wanting to uncover the truth, while Jaime attempts to keep the parentage of Cersei’s children a secret. The death-toll numbers of that fight are the reverse of those at the Tower of Joy. It suggests that the Kingsguard fought for the truth of Jon’s identity, while Ned and his men fought to make it a secret.

“I looked for you on the Trident,” Ned said to them.
We were not there,” Ser Gerold answered.
[…]”When King’s Landing fell, Ser Jaime slew your king with a golden sword, and I wondered where you were.”
Far away,” Ser Gerold said, “or Aerys would yet sit the Iron Throne, and our false brother would burn in seven hells.”
“I came down on Storm’s End to lift the siege,” Ned told them,”… I was certain you would be among them.”
Our knees do not bend easily,” said Ser Arthur Dayne.
“Ser Willem Darry is fled to Dragonstone, with your queen and Prince Viserys. I thought you might have sailed with him.”
“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” said Ser Oswell.
“But not of the Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold pointed out. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.

I have no intention to cuagmire this essay in the debate regarding Jon’s legitimacy and whether Rhaegar and Lyanna were married or not. At the time of writing this essay, there are 158 threads at westeros.org that debate the implications of the above conversation, whether polygamy is legal or not for Targaryen princes, etc. Still, the conversation is part of the dream and thus also subject for (chthonic) symbolic analysis and patterning. And it should be noted that all people and places referred to are either an heir or kings.

  • Trident: crown-prince and heir Rhaegar, who is dead.
  • King’s Landing: King Aerys II, to whom Ser Gerold expresses loyalty, but he’s dead.
  • Storm’s End: King Robert I, whom Arthur Dayne rejects and calls Usurper.
  • Dragonstone: alleged Targaryen heir Viserys and exiled King, but the refusal of the three Kingsguard to join him heavily suggest they do not regard him as their king.

This does reinforce the idea that the Kingsguard and Ned had a discussion about who the Kingsguard regarded as their king. Something similar occurred when Lannister bannermen came upon the scene in the throne room where Jaime killed Aerys and asked him who he elected as king. While Jaime left it to others to work it out, the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy did not.

The locations Ned mentions can be grouped in another symbolic way: mythologically. In Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I already mentioned how Zeus, Hades and Poseidon divided the ‘realm’: the storm god Zeus was king of the gods at Olympus, the seagod Poseidon with his trident ruled the seas, and Hades governed the Underworld. The Trident and Dragonstone can be seen as a reference to Poseidon’s domain, while Storm’s End and King’s Landing are Zeus’s. Hence, Ned is symbolically saying that he looked for the Kingsguard in Zeus’s realm as well as Poseidon’s, but could not find them there. This only leaves the Underworld where the Kingsguard can be found. And their replies reflect this location. They were “unseen”, “far away” and their knees are like the stone statues in the crypts that “do not bend”. From this we can infer that Ser Gerold Hightower, the Sword in the Morning and Oswell of House Whent declare themselves to be chthonic characters.

Curiously, most life and underworld references throughout the dream switch between Ned and his men and the Kingsguard. For instance, Ned’s men appear as wraiths on horses made of mist and wielding shadow swords, like ghosts of the Underworld. Meanwhile the three Kingsguard appear clear and very much alive, with a good wind blowing their white cloaks in the air. And yet, these Kingsguard claim they can only be found in the Underworld and have several symbols tying them to the chthonic Dionysus. So, who represents life and who represents the Underworld? The likeliest answer is that it is set between life and death, neither in the Underworld, nor in the world of the living, an in-between realm, and that would fit exactly with a porter-scene interpretation as in Kingmonkey’s essay “Eddard in Wonderland”. The final image of the dream sky is that one of ‘dusk’ or ‘dawn’, which fits the time of an in-between world.

A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.

Why an in-between world and not an Underworld? A journey into the Underworld heralds a change in the character’s life that cannot be overturned and is beyond the character’s control. But a voyage into an Otherworld that lies in between worlds implies options, choices and thus a great deal of freedom over the hero’s own fate. In other words, when Ned appeared at the Tower of Joy he had the power to shape his own destiny. And the present is a result of that choice then.

Kingmonkey makes a remarkable observation about this scene. If Ned was trying to gain access to the Underworld to retrieve Lyanna-Persephone then the guards would be asking the questions, and Ned would need to answer them with boasts. But strangely enough, we see the reverse in the dream: Ned asks the questions, the Kingsguard boast. So, either the Kingsguard aim to gain access, or this is not about a retrieval of Lyanna at all (which is supported by the other symbolism). In the later case, this would imply Ned had visited with Lyanna prior to the violent confrontation and that she was already dead. Then the mysterious “they” who found Ned holding Lyanna’s dead body were his men as well as the Kingsguard. The description of the sky as they clash alluding to death could support such an interpretation. Lyanna calling out to Eddard in the dream would not be a chronologically correct event4. Perhaps for Ned she calls out to him from beyond the grave.

If this is true then we get an entirely different situation. The Kingsguard are not keeping Ned from seeing his sister and his nephew, but allow him to be with her in her last moments. After her death, only her son remains and how to proceed further becomes the imminent problem. The disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard would then be exclusively about Jon’s future, where the Kingsguard are Jon’s sworn swords and Lord Eddard Stark Jon’s guardian. We know with a certainty what Ned wanted to do – take him home, claim Jon as his own bastard and not challenge Robert’s as the rightful king through conquest. The Kingsguard, who regarded Robert to be a Usurper, would have wished to preserve Jon’s possible claim to the Iron Throne (then or later, in exile in Essos, or in secret at Starfall or Oldtown).

Why would George add a misdirection in the dream by having an already dead Lyanna call out to Ned during the clash? Well, George wishes to keep Jon’s parentage a confusing secret. If Lyanna is confirmed to be dead already when the fight occurs, then the cat’s already out of the bag. The dream’s chronology and only hinted subject of disagreement preserves the theoretical possibility that the Kingsguard intended to prevent Ned from being reunited with his sister.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

The meeting with Robert after the dream of Tower of Joy is the start of the final act for the both of them. The King makes Ned the Hand again and leaves for his fatal hunt the following day. Where before Ned hoped his chthonic dreams about the North were a reminder of happy times, already here their premonition and reminder of “No way back” come into play. Soon, Ned will realize he cannot even change or alter the bethrotal arrangement for Sansa either.

He was walking through the crypts beneath Winterfell, as he had walked a thousand times before. The Kings of Winter watched him pass with eyes of ice, and the direwolves at their feet turned great stone heads and snarled. Last of all, he came to the tomb where his father slept, with Brandon and Lyanna beside him. “Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

Ned descends in the Underworld, with the direwolves snarling like hellhound guards. Lyanna wears her garland of roses, but the Queen of the Underworld has a role to perform – to ensure a soul’s curse are visited upon. Alas for Ned, the night of reckoning has come. It all started with a promise he made, and there were two ways for him to fulfill it. The one he chose leads to his doom. Lyanna’s eyes weep blood. Blood shot eyes reference the Furies, chthonic deities of vengeance and they punish those who swear a false oath. Lyanna may have been his sister, but she too is bound to her Underworld duty, and cannot save her brother from the doom he brought on to himself. And as he wakes from this cursed related dream in the pitch black (no moonlight this time), Ned learns of Robert’s fateful accident. This dream at the start of this chapter heralds the undoing of Robert and Ned.

Ned is not the sole character slowly going mad with nightmares. Robert too dreams every night of killing Rhaegar and yet by the time Ned has his Dionysus-porter dream of the Kingsguard, Robert admits that Rhaegar as Hades has won – Lyanna is with him now in death.

Confused, the king shook his head. “Rhaegar … Rhaegar won, damn him. I killed him, Ned, I drove the spike right through that black armor into his black heart, and he died at my feet. They made up songs about it. Yet somehow he still won. He has Lyanna now, and I have her.” The king drained his cup.(aGoT, Eddard X)

It would appear that Robert pretty much lives and acts like a Dionysus – drinking, eating, feasting, philandering.

Robert groaned with good-humored impatience. “If I wanted to honor you, I’d let you retire. I am planning to make you run the kingdom and fight the wars while I eat and drink and wench myself into an early grave.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

The adult Dionysus is often portrayed as a handsome and clean shaven youth. His moods are extreme in nature, varying from relaxed and pleasant, but then switch to bitterness and fury, reflecting the impact of wine on a person. Used within reason the drinker is amiable, but when alcohol is misused it has aggressive negative effects. That pretty much describes Robert’s mood swings from jolly buddy  –  the young Robert Ned remembers and loved – to a swearing bully or bitter man drowning in self-pity. Meanwhile, Robert traded his young handsome, clean shaven looks for that of the Roman bearded Bacchus (equivalent of Dionysus) who’s too fat for his armor. Does that make Robert take on the adult Dionysus role?

It seems far more likely he portrays a character suffering from a Dionysus curse. Such a curse would inflict a mortal man with drunkenness, varying mood swings, slowly driven mad to finally end up shred to pieces by frenzied maenads in the woods, as they mistake the victim to be an animal.

“Oh, indeed. Cersei gave him wineskins, and told him it was Robert’s favorite vintage.” The eunuch shrugged. “A hunter lives a perilous life. If the boar had not done for Robert, it would have been a fall from a horse, the bite of a wood adder, an arrow gone astray … the forest is the abattoir of the gods….” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Varys mentions several manners in which Robert could have died to Ned later in the dungeons, and how it was inevitable. Many of these ways reference Greek myths. For revenge, Artemis sent a boar to kill Adonis. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was bitten by a snake in the woods, after she ran from a Satyr. A Trojan war related Greek hero, Acamas, dies of a snakebite while hunting. His brother Demophon is so frightened when he looks in the basket given to him by the wife he forgot about that he spurrs on his horse so violently that it stumbles and he falls on his own sword. And of course Achilles dies by Paris’ stray arrow. Even the hunting and a forest being the abode of gods gives it a typical Greek myth feel, rather than a mid-eval forest. So, it is in the abattoir of the gods, the forest where the satyrs live, that Robert meets his fatal doom, stupendously drunk, his guts torn and shredded by a boar’s tusks, like a proper tragic hero.

Three men in white cloaks, he thought, remembering, and a strange chill went through him. Ser Barristan’s face was as pale as his armor. Ned had only to look at him to know something was dreadfully wrongFires blazed in the twin hearths at either end of the bedchamber, filling the room with a sullen red glare. The heat within was suffocating… A green doublet lay on the floor, slashed open and discarded, the cloth crusted with red-brown stains. The room smelled of smoke and blood and death… They had done what they could to close him up, but it was nowhere near enough. The boar must have been a fearsome thing. It had ripped the king from groin to nipple with its tusks. The wine-soaked bandages that Grand Maester Pycelle had applied were already black with blood, and the smell of the wound was hideous. Ned’s stomach turned. He let the blanket fall.
“Stinks,” Robert said. “The stink of death, don’t think I can’t smell it. Bastard did me good, he? But I … I paid him back in kind, Ned.” The King’s smile was as terrible as his wound, his teeth red. “Drove a knife right through his eye. Ask them if I didn’t. Ask them.”… Robert gave a weak nod. “As you will. Gods, why is it so cold in here?”
[…]
“By rights he should be dead already. I have never seen a man cling to life so fiercely.”
“My brother was always strong,” Lord Renly said. “Not wise, perhaps, but strong.”… “He slew the boar. His entrails were sliding from his belly, yet somehow he slew the boar.” His voice was full of wonder. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

At Robert’s death bed almost all the symbols of life used in his celebration-speech on the spiral stairs leading into the crypts of Winterfell have been corrupted or claimed by the nightmare that Ned’s life had become in quick succession after he left his home in the North. The laughter has become a terribly smile that resembles a wound. The heat that made women dress undecent is now suffocating. The blood is black. Wine is used to soak useless bandages. White stands for the paleness of death. And instead of the sweet smell of flowering roses, it is the stench of death. Gradually, George has been converting summer and flower symbols into those of death.

The Damned

Ned’s nightmare is complete in the black cells. Both waking life and dreams are nightmares, slowly turning him mad. The dungeons are deep down below the Red Keep. There is no sun or moon, only darkness, and silence. It is as if Ned is left in the Underworld.

Once the door had slammed shut, he had seen no more. The dark was absolute. He had as well been blind. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

A door has been slammed shut, as if Ned is tombed in. Twice there is a reference to blindness and not seeing. Ned is like one of the Kings of Winterfell in the crypts who watched with blind and unseeing eyes. And indeed, the immediate next sentence in the next paragraph makes Ned think he might as well be dead.

Or dead. Buried with his king. “Ah, Robert,” he murmured as his groping hand touched a cold stone, his leg throbbing with every motion. He remembered the jest the king had shared in the crypts of Winterfell, as the Kings of Winter looked on with cold stone eyes. … Yet he had gotten it wrong. The king dies, Ned Stark thought, and the Hand is buried.

That paragraph is very symmetrically and repetitively written to hammer it home to us. Dead and dying, each followed by ‘buried’. Ned touches cold stone and he remembers the cold stone eyes of the crypt statues. He evokes the name of the Kings of Winter (or Kings of the Underworld) as a central theme surrounded by those words. And finally, George does not just evoke the name ‘Ned’ but the name ‘Ned Stark’. The Kings of Winter are Starks and the crypts of Winterfell are their realm. Ned belongs to them. Down in the depths of the dungeons and the black cells, Ned becomes a King of Winter himself.

When he kept very still, his leg did not hurt so much, so he did his best to lie unmoving. For how long he could not say. There was no sun and no moon. He could not see to mark the walls. Ned closed his eyes and opened them: it made no difference….He blinked as the light vanished , lowered his head to his chest, and curled up on the straw. It no longer stank or urine and shit. It no longer smelled at all.

Apart from being blind in the darkness, his leg troubles him. To avoid pain, he must sit or lie and refrain from moving, like a statue. With no markings of time passing, time becomes always, eternal, and nothing makes a difference anymore. He even loses the sense of smell. To be alive is to sense. By contrast, being dead is to be without the senses: blindness, silence, and even without smell.

The dungeon was under the Red Keep, deeper than he dared imagine. He remembered the old stories about Maegor the Cruel, who murdered all the masons who labored in his castle, so they might never reveal its secrets.

More related Underworld words: under, deeper. Murder is how people end up dead in the Underworld. Secrets are things people are murdered for. Secrets are preserved by the dead, by the Underworld. Secrets are what the Underworld and the Crypts of Winterfell harbor. The dungeon is as much an Underworld as the crypts are. And while Ned lives the life of a crypt statue and becomes a King of Winter, deep down in the belly of the Underworld, he damns a certain list of people.

He damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his gold cloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly, Robert’s own blood, who had run when he was needed most. Yet in the end he blamed himself. “Fool,” he cried to the darkness, “thrice-damned blind fool.”

  • Dead: Renly Baratheon, Janos Slynt, several Gold Cloaks, Pycelle
  • Prophesied to die: Cersei (Maggy the Frog)
  • Possibly prophesied to die: Littlefinger (GoHH), Jaime (doom-dream)
  • In perilous, life-threatening circumstances: Ser Barristan Selmy (disease and battle at Mereen), Jaime (lured away by Brienne in BwB territory, and missing)

It doesn’t bode well for Varys.

This is one of the most overlooked damnations/curses in the series. And yet when we stop to think of it, it is actually one of the most powerful. Ned does not just “pray” for them to die with the gods. He damns them as if he’s a god, while he is in the Underworld and heavily identified as a King of the Underworld. As a Hades his damnation has weight. None of them will survive the series, all of the remaining will die: Littlefinger, Cersei, Jaime, Varys and Barristan.

Last but not least, Ned thrice-damns himself. The kindly man of the order of the Faceless Men would call it Ned’s sacrifice to seal his curse with blood. If the image of the blindness and immobility did not make the reader consider he’s a dead man sitting, his self-damnation seals it. A voyage into the Underworld leads to a path of no return. Though Ned is led to believe there is a chance of life if he confesses his treason, there are hints regarding his leg that tell us that even if Joffrey had not chopped his head off Ned was a dead man.

Hours turned to days, or so it seemed. He could feel a dull ache in his shattered leg, an itch beneath the plaster. When he touched his thigh, the flesh was hot to his fingers.[…]Ned was feverish by then, his leg a dull agony, his lips parched and cracked.
[…]
[Varys] leaned forward intently. “I trust you realize you are a dead man, Lord Eddard?”
[…]
The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him… pain shot through his broken leg, beneath the filthy grey plaster of his cast.

Fever, dull agony, filthy grey plaster, sleeping in straw that does not smell of urine and shit anymore but still contains it. Meanwhile, note how the open break was in Ned’s calf (lower leg), and yet the flesh of his thigh (upper leg) is hot. That must be quite an infection, and with an open bone break germs have easy access to the bone marrow. The fever, skin hot to the touch, his parched lips, confusion and having visions are all signs of sepsis, where his whole body tries to battle an infection from spreading. Untreated with fluids and antibiotics it eventually leads to septic shock. George includes several hints in aCoK how Ned would have fared on the King’s Road on his way to the Wall:

  • Coughing Praed dies on the King’s Road a few days after leaving King’s Landing. One of the primary infections that leads to sepsis to this day are the lungs.
  • Gendry is sure that Lommy will die because of his festering leg wound. Wet gangrene is another cause of sepsis.
  • And in aSoS, the Hound was dying from a wound in the leg that Arya thought smelled funny.

In other words, Varys was correct – Ned was a dead man, showing signs of sepsis caused by wet gangrene that had spread via the bone marrow. He would have died of septic shock, like Lyanna (puerperal infection), Drogo (wet gangrene) and Robert. And in relation to Jon, pain shooting from his leg while he thinks of seeing and talking to Jon inside the Underworld is a sure way to say – nope, you’ll be dead, and there will be no seeing and no talking. So, in his own unintended ironic way, Joffrey did give mercy to Ned. Without antibiotics, Ned was beyond anyone’s help. Chances are high that Varys realized this upon his visit, and even may have reported this to Cersei. Both would have been secure of his fate, and it was politically more expedient for them that Ned died on the King’s Road rather than in a black cell.

While in the black cells, Ned has several visions, visitors and a goaler. Ned communicates with all, except the goaler who refuses to talk to him and only answers with kicks and grunts.

The goaler was a scarecrow of a man with a rat’s face and frayed beard, clad in a mail shirt and a lether half cape. “No talking,” he said, as he wrenched the jug from Ned’s hands. […] At first he would beg the man for some word of his daughters and the world beyond his cell. Grunts and kicks were his only replies.

The visions and visitors are Cersei, young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys – a dead man and three of Ned’s damned. It is as if Ned Stark, who has become a King of Winter, can only truly communicate with the dead and the damned, but not the living (the goaler). The damned may not be dead yet, and very much alive, but there is already a place for them reserved down in the Underworld, in the same way Ned and his children have a tomb reserved for them down in the crypts. So, let us briefly look at each of those visions and communications in the dungeons.

There is Cersei’s floating head.

Cersei Lannister’s face seemed to float before him in the darkness. Her hair was full of sunlight, but there was mockery in her smile. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she whispered.

His next vision is one of a young Robert.

He saw the king as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god. He heard his laughter in the dark, saw his eyes, blue and clear as mountain lakes. “Look at us, Ned,” Robert said. “Gods, how did we come to this? You here, and me killed by a pig. We won a throne together …”

Notice the emphasis on the antlered helm and Ned considering Robert as a horned god. The horned god is revered by the modern day Wiccans and Neopagans. His meaning and significance are based on a combination of early 20th century pseudohistoric origins as well as actual horned deities such as Pan and Cernunnos (often featured in fantasy). Putting aside the question of the actual historicity of there having been a general worhsip of a horned god since the paleolithic, for the Wiccans the Horned God is associated with the wilderness, a personification of the life force in animals and people, of virility and the (wild) hunt. Doreen Valiente also appointed to him the ability to carry souls of the dead to the Underworld, a psychopomp like Hermes. In the essay Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I showed how Robert’s speech about the South and summer is a speech of life, how Robert himself symbolizes life, while Ned Stark and the North appears to symbolize the opposite – Hades and cold, lonely, unsmiling death. Even after gorged by a wild boar, Robert clings fiercely to life. He certainly was a virile man and beside whoring and drinking he spent the majority of his time hunting. Now it seems Robert talks to Ned as if he already carried Ned’s soul to the Underworld. Again George reminds us here that we should regard Ned as one who is already one of the dead himself.

Finally I want to draw the attention that it is not the late Robert he sees, but the young man he used to be, ahorse, with his warhammer, handsome and tall. And there is one young man, amongst Ned’s list of the damned that looks very much like yong Robert, namely Renly Baratheon. In fact, these are Ned’s thoughts about Renly’s appearance.

Renly had been a boy of eight when Robert won the throne, but he had grown into a man so like his brother that Ned found it disconcerting. Whenever he saw him, it was as if the years had slipped away and Robert stood before him, fresh from his victory on the Trident. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

This early passage ties neatly with how the vision of young Robert is portrayed later in the dungeons. In that vision it is as if the years have slipped away and young Robert visits him. So, Ned seeing young Robert is not solely a visitation from dead Robert, but also that of the damned Renly. Meanwhile in Sansa’s first chapter we see Renly for the first time through her eyes with an antlered helm.

His companion was a man near twenty whose armor was steel plate of a deep forest-green. He was the handsomest man Sansa had ever set eyes upon; tall and powerfully made, with jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders and framed a clean-shaven face, and laughing green6 eyes to match his armor. Cradled under one arm was an antlered helm, its magnificent rack shimmering in gold. (aGoT, Sansa I)

Ned Stark’s next vision in the dungeons follows out of the vision of young Robert/Renly. The image of young Robert alters into that of Littlefinger.

Cracks ran down his face, fissures opening in the flesh, and [Ned] reached up and ripped the mask away. It was not Robert at all; it was Littlefinger, grinning, mocking him. When he opened his mouth to speak, his lies turned to pale grey moths and took wing. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Another man hides behind the vision of young Robert, emphasising the double nature of the vision. Of the other council members, Renly Baratheon is most often associated with Littlefinger. Despite their mockery of each other, these two men seem to get along very well. Even upon first arriving at King’s Landing, the two men are already talking quietly.

[Ned] disentangled himself from the eunuch’s grip and crossed the room to where Lord Renly stood by the screen, talking quietly with a short man who could only be Littlefinger. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

At the Hand’s tourney the men bet opposing jousters, but jape good naturedly at one another. Perhaps they mock each other to hide they support each other. Renly proposes to seize Cersei’s children and retain the power and put Joffrey on the throne. He offers his house guard and friends, imagining he could muster one hundred men for Ned Stark. Ned refuses the offer, shying away from waking children in the middle of the night and suggesting they ought to pray that Robert should live. But he at least considers Renly’s words insofar that he considers that Cersei might choose to oppose him and that he should prepare himself with a force. Ned summons Littlefinger, who proposes something similar as Renly, except with the addition that in a few years time, they could still opt to expose Cersei’s children as bastards and put none other than Renly on the throne instead. Again Ned refuses the advice and insists on exposing the parentage of Cersei’s children and put Stannis Baratheon on the throne, the brother whom Renly dislikes greatly and the man who wishes to send Littlefinger back to his modest lands in the Vale (if Stannis does not execute him for embezzling, bribing and corrupting staff). Renly and Littlefinger have each other’s back, and behind Renly’s face – which is young Robert’s face – hides that of Littlefinger.

Ned’s last visitor in the chapter is Varys. While Varys is real enough, he appears to Ned in disguise, and just as much an illusion or ghost as Cersei and Littlefinger. In fact, Ned has to make sure for himself that Varys is truly and physically there, and not some apparition or a dream.

Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands.
The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” he said groggily when it came. He touched the man’s face. “I’m not … not dreaming this. You’re here.” The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. “How did you … what sort of magician are you?”
“A thirsty one,” Varys said. “Drink, my lord.”

All these visions relate to Ned’s guilt and the mistakes he damns himself for:

But usually the damned are also undone by their own preferred tool or trait. Eventually, those who keep playing the game will eventually lose and die. Renly’s bid for the throne and refusal to make way for his older brother Stannis gets him killed by one of Mel’s shadowbabies. At some point the web of lies will make Peter Baelish trip. And Varys’ mummery might very well make him blind to the fact that real life might be bigger and stranger than a staged act, in the form of Daenerys, the Stark children, staunch loyalty of the North and even perhaps the Riverlands.

Broken promises

He slept and woke and slept again. He did not know which was more painful, the waking or the sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke, there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts were worse than nightmares. (aGoT, Eddard XV).

Since, Ned’s first chapter in the books, George has consistently linked promises to Lyanna’s death. Most dreams include or involve her, and her death was tied to a “bed of blood”. So, we are almost bound to suspect that “dark disturbing dreams  of blood and broken promises” implies Ned broke his promises to Lyanna. Ned’s thoughts on promises to Barra’s mother when he visits Chataya’s to see Robert’s bastard girl, however, should assure us that Ned kept every promise he made to Lyanna, albeit not always in the manner that Lyanna intended it.

Using that line about blood and broken promises as evidence that it are dreams involving Lyanna relies on circular reasoning: namely that since Ned dreams of Lyanna and promises, dreams about promises must always be about Lyanna, which is not necessarily true. Before, George included her name and her “Promise me, Ned,” like an echo. George never fails to emphasise the parallel of the present to Lyanna of the past in the paragraph or neighbouring text. So, if that line about broken promises was indeed linked to Lyanna, George would make that clear to us in the same paragraph, or the next, or the previous.

Closer inspection of what comes before and after this paragraph, however, shows that the disturbing dream of blood and broken promises has nothing to do with Lyanna, but an entirely different death scene. It starts with the vision of Cersei’s floating head, and ends with the vision of young Robert. When awake, he thinks of his daughters Sansa and Arya. He thinks of Cat and how she will raise the North, joined by the Riverlands and the Vale. He thinks of his loved ones that are alive. He hopes that Stannis and Renly raise their armies, that Alyn and Harwin return after arresting Ser Gregor. He makes plans. For the first time perhaps, we see Ned link the present with the future, instead of the past.

The only actual dead person that Ned starts to think of more and more is Robert, and that gives an entirely different context to dreams of blood. The “bed of blood” with Lyanna is a typical expression for the birthing bed. But in the line about “blood and broken promises” the word “bed” is curiously absent. We therefore should be thinking of a bloody death scene that is not related to birthing. Robert dies, because a boar ripped him open from groin to nipple. Wine-soaked bandages are black with blood. Even his smile is a death grin of red blood. It is as bloody a death as one can imagine, and Ned makes several promises to the dying Robert:

  • to serve and eat the boar on Robert’s funeral feast;
  • to stop the assassination of Daenerys;
  • to help his son;
  • to guard Robert’s children as if they are his own.

Of course, when Ned promises to take care of Robert’s children, Ned has Robert’s bastards in mind, instead of Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella.

George strongly parallels the death scenes of Robert and Lyanna, when he has Eddard Stark recollect Lyanna’s echo when the dying Robert asks, “Promise me, Ned.” But Lyanna’s deathbed scene of the past involves new life and kept promises, whereas Robert’s scene is one of death claiming personified “Life” and broken promises. In short, Ned was unable to keep any of the promises made to Robert. He did not eat any boar. It was too late to revoke the order on Dany’s assassination. And in a black cell he could neither guard or help any of Robert’s bastard children.

Worse, he fails his own two daughters as well. The vision of young Robert tells him as much.

The king heard him. “You stiff-necked fool,” he muttered, “too proud to listen. Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor shield your children?” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

When next we see Ned, it is on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, confessing to treason for Sansa’s life, and inadvertently Arya’s life who followed the crowd and was spotted by Yoren who recognized her as he waited for Ned to take the black.

Yoren:”Here’s something you don’t know. It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. I was set to leave, wagons bought and loaded, and a man comes with a boy for me, and a purse of coin, and a message, never mind who it’s from. Lord Eddard’s to take the black, he says to me, wait, he’ll be going with you. Why d’you think I was there? Only something went queer.”(aCoK, Arya I)

The “boy” Yoren talks about is Gendry, Robert’s bastard son. Varys later confirms to Tyrion he saved Gendry. It is speculated that Varys did this on his own accord because he wished to preserve Robert’s bastards to expose the truth of Cersei’s children at his own convenience. There is however an issue with this speculation – if Varys supposed Gendry was in enough danger, then why not save Barra and her fair-haired mother?

Varys: “Alas, no. There was another bastard, a boy, older. I took steps to see him removed from harm’s way . . . but I confess, I never dreamed the babe would be at risk. A baseborn girl, less than a year old, with a whore for a mother. What threat could she pose?”  (aCoK, Tyrion II)

The above paragraph is often taken as Varys not expecting Cersei to order the murder of Barra, that he believed Cersei would never harm a baby and her mother. But that would be very naive of Varys, given the fact that he knew Cersei was bold enough to have a king murdered several times, to fuck her twin brother and make them out to be Robert’s. And then Littlefinger mentioned a rumor to Ned Stark about a twins fathered by Robert in Lannisport, and how Cersei had the babies killed and sold the mother to a slaver three years earlier. Now, admittedly Varys cannot always know everything, but surely if there is talk about this in Lannisport, then Varys would know it too.

Consider also that Varys is talking to Tyrion, quite early on in their acquaintance. Tyrion has just sacked Slynt and Allar Deem, condemned the first to the Wall and the second to be tossed overboard for the murder of Barra. Then he tells Varys he ought to do the same thing to him. Does that sound like a situation where Varys could admit that he refrained from saving Barra on purpose, instead of naivity? Varys had not been even sure before this whether he should tell Tyrion about Cersei ordering Slynt to kill Robert’s bastard.

We can only be certain of one motive with Varys – he wants to put Aegon on the Iron Throne. It would still take at least over a year and a half before Aegon is old enough to come when Robert dies. The epilogue of aDwD where Varys kills Kevan and had Pycelle murdered so that Cersei can come into power again, shows that Varys prefers an antagonizing fool such as Joffrey or Cersei ruling Westeros, than a charming but cunning Renly or a strict, righteous, and strategic Stannis. Once the lords war each other, spending their forces, Robert’s bastards become an inconvenience to Varys. Varys cannot really risk black haired bastards with fair haired mothers being produced to prove that Mad Joffrey or Tiny Tommen are not Baratheons. He does not want people to flock around a Baratheon. He wants the people to reject all of the Baratheons – Cersei’s children, Stannis, Shyreen and Renly – and embrace Aegon. That is why he did not do anything to save Barra and her mother.

Then why did he save Gendry? Does he not pose the same danger as Barra, especially since he looks so much like Robert? Well, I doubt that Varys wanted to save him voluntarily. But he is less of a danger than Barra. The issue with the bastards is not whether some look like Robert, but that they have Robert’s black hair while their mother is fair haired. And Gendry’s mother is already dead. Without a living mother it is far easier to deny any claims made about the hair color of his mother.

We know that Ned dreams of broken promises, and that he was completely unable to keep any promise he made to Robert. Ned would feel a moral obligation to save Gendry, because he always tries to keep his promises. And I propose that the letter he wanted Varys to deliver for him was a letter to Tobho Mott to send Gendry North. Then when Varys wants Ned to confess to treason and take the black, Ned made Gendry an extra condition before he would agree to such a plan. Varys allowed it, because he benefited more from Ned confessing his treason and recanting his accusation that Joffrey had no right to the throne, than risking Gendry to be recognized as Robert’s bastard. Without a living mother and just the one bastard he is not that big a risk. And at the Wall, Gendry would foreswear lands, titles and crown.

And that explains why Varys helped Gendry, but not Barra or any other bastard, combined with Ned’s public concession that Joffrey was the rightful king.

If Ned did not break his promises to Lyanna, then why is Ned cursed and haunted by Lyanna? several pages later in the dungeon chapter, Ned does remember how Lyanna was crowned by Rhaegar.

Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke trembling, in the dark.
Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses.
“Gods save me,” Ned wept, “I am going mad.”(aGoT, Eddard XV)

When Lyanna weeps tears of blood it relates to the Furies who avenge false oaths or wrongdoing against kin. Ned’s dreams and visions are repeatedly like Melinoe’s nightmares that drive her victims to madness. The vision of the crown with thorns evokes both again, reaching for Ned from the Underworld – beneath, hidden, unseen – where the blue winter rose and the crown as a symbol of death.

Ned Stark may keep his promises, but what he promised does not always agree with the intent of the person asking for the promises. Strictly speaking, Ned kept all his promises to Barra’s mother: he mentioned the baby’s name and how much the mother loved Robert. But he certainly did not communicate it the way Barra’s mother intended it. Ned promises to keep Robert’s bastards safe, knowing full well that Robert meant for Ned to look after Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella. So, there is a form of duplicity in how Ned keeps his promises. Eddard Stark makes and keeps promises that comply with his own wishes, not the wishes of the people he makes the promises to. It would have been no different with the promises to Lyanna. This brings us back to the dream of the Tower of Joy, where the symbolism and parallels suggests there is a disagreement between the Kingsguard and Ned Stark over Jon’s fate.

The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him … (aGoT, Eddard XV)

No doubt Lyanna asked him to keep her son safe from the king, to bring him up in a manner that he would know his Northern heritage. But it is doubtful that she meant ‘without knowing who his parents are‘, ‘without knowing his Targaryen heritage‘. She may have believed that Jon would be brought up as a Targaryen prince. She may have thought that Mad Aerys was the king still. And within that context, Lyanna would never have wished for her son to be deprived of his Targaryen heritage, let alone his right to the throne if he was an eligible heir. Lyanna’s context is bound to have been a different one than Ned’s. At heart, Ned chose Robert over his sister and over his nephew. As Robert’s (unrequieted) love for Lyanna doomed him to the ending of a tragic hero, so is Ned’s brotherly love for Robert the root cause of Ned’s end.

Now it Ends

Everyone was moving in the same direction, all in a hurry to see what the ringing was all about. The bells seemed louder now, clanging, calling. Arya joined the stream of people. Her thumb hurt so bad where the nail had broken that it was all she could do not to cry. She bit her lip as she limped along, listening to the excited voices around her.
“—the King’s Hand, Lord Stark. They’re carrying him up to Baelor’s Sept.”
“I heard he was dead.”
“Soon enough, soon enough. Here, I got me a silver stag says they lop his head off.” (aGoT, Arya V)

And so, for Sansa’s life and the chance to take the black, Ned agrees to confess to treason at the steps of Baelor’s Sept, which lies on the top of Visenya’s Hill. Even though he’s dressed in finery he looks haggard, his cast for his leg is rotten, and he needs support in order to stand, further confirming the suspected sepsis.

That was when she saw her father.
Lord Eddard stood on the High Septon’s pulpit outside the doors of the sept, supported between two of the gold cloaks. He was dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn on the front in beads, and a grey wool cloak trimmed with fur, but he was thinner than Arya had ever seen him, his long face drawn with pain. He was not standing so much as being held up; the cast over his broken leg was grey and rotten.

Ned Stark confesses his treason, as agreed, in the sight of gods and men at a sacred location where it is sacrilege to behead someone. But Joffrey sabotages the plans of Cersei and Varys, goes against the High Septon’s effort to stop it and orders Ilyn Payne to bring him Ned’s head. The inevitable happens and Joffrey later shows Sansa her father’s head on one of the spikes.

A thick stone parapet protected the outer edge of the rampart, reaching as high as Sansa’s chin, with crenellations cut into it every five feet for archers. The heads were mounted between the crenels, along the top of the wall, impaled on iron spikes so they faced out over the city. Sansa had noted them the moment she’d stepped out onto the wallwalk, but the river and the bustling streets and the setting sun were ever so much prettier. He can make me look at the heads, she told herself, but he can’t make me see them.
This one is your father,” he said. “This one here. Dog, turn it around so she can see him.”
Sandor Clegane took the head by the hair and turned it. The severed head had been dipped in tar to preserve it longer. Sansa looked at it calmly, not seeing it at all. It did not really look like Lord Eddard, she thought; it did not even look real. (aGoT, Sansa VI)

I mentioned how Robert’s death relates to certain mythical deaths as punishment by Dionysus. There is the death of Orpheus and that of Pentheus. Apart from Orpheus’ failed attempt to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice from Hades, he is also known for being a follower of Persephone and as founder of the Dionysus Mysteries, for which he supposedly wrote hymns and poems. But much later in life, he turns heretic and rejects all gods, except the sun-god Apollo. Worse, he climbs the mountain of Dionysus’ oracle one morning to salute Apollo and thus the sun at dawn. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, catch Orpheus during this evident sacrilege and shred him to pieces in a frenzy, until all that is left is his head and his lyre, so he can still sing his bewitching songs.

King Pentheus of Thebes meets an almost similar fate, when he attempts to ban the frenzied worship of Dionysus in the forests, because he denies Dionysus’ divinity. As a retaliation for this ban, Dionysus lures Pentheus’ mother Agave and aunts Ino and Semele8 as well as the women of Thebes into becoming maenads on the mountain nearby. Angered, Pentheus then has a suspected Dionysus follower thrown in jail, not knowing that this is really Dionysus himself. The chains though will not stay on Dionysus, and in the same disguise he tricks Pentheus in spying on the maenads on the mountain. Pentheus expects to witness sexual orgies, but is spotted by the maenads. They mistake him for a boar9 and tear and shred him. His own mother carries his head on a spike back to Thebes. And only upon arriving does Agave realize what she has done. The name Pentheus means “Man of Sorrows”, from the root pénthos, which means grief caused by the loss of a loved one. His name thus marked him a man for tragedy.

So, twice we have characters who deny Dionysus’ divinity and either ban the worship or perform sacrilege against him. In both cases, the men ended up torn to pieces, and only the head remains. One head retains some form of communication, the other head ends up on a spike. And it is as if George has applied this Orphic/Penthean death and split it across both tragic “men of sorrows” – Robert who gets torn up by a boat from groin to nipple in the forests, while Ned Stark loses his head on top of a hill after confessing to denying the rightful king. His head ends up on a spike. More, Joffrey performs a sacrilege himself by demanding for Ned’s head, much like the murder of Pentheus is a crime for which Agave ends up in exile. And though Eddard Stark is dead, he somehow still manages to communicate with Bran and Rickon right after his death, but also much much later with Arya.

The split Orphic death between Robert and Ned is another hint that both performed a type of sacrilege against a lightbringer character that fits the Dionysus concept. Perhaps Robert is right when he suspects the boar was sent by the gods to kill him for his assassination order of Daenerys, and for his irrational hatred against children of the Targaryen bloodline, in so much he welcomes child murder. The dream of the Tower of Joy, his feelings of shame regarding Jon, the haunting dreams of Lyanna and his beheading all hint that Ned Stark wronged Jon by denying his parentage and importance.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

Both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are haunted by the past, by Lyanna. Both gave her a power over their lives from beyond the grave. As Queen of the Underworld it is Lyanna’s responsibility to see that the curses are visited upon souls. Ned is haunted by dreams of Lyanna and the Tower of Joy much in a manner how Melinoe, Persephone’s daughter, operates – strange shifting and violent nightmares that turn the afflicted mad. Robert too suffers from murderous dreams where he never gets what he wants the most. He lives life like a Dionysus, but ends up torn apart while drunk in the abattoir of the gods – the forest – like a Greek character cursed by Dionysus. Meanwhile Ned’s waking life grows more nigthmarish than his dreams.

The chthonic symbolism and the parallelling of the Tower of Joy with the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in King’s Landing, as well as the angry debate between Robert, Cersei and Ned right after the dream, do not only reveal that Lyanna bore a son, but suggest that the fight occurred after Ned saw Lyanna, after she died, and after “they” found him. The irreconcilable disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard seems to be about Jon, rather than Lyanna, with one faction defending the truth, while Ned wishes to keep it a secret. The Kingsguard in particular carry symbols, styles, swords, sigils and house words that relate to Persephone’s son Dionysus, who carries the torch and brings light in the night. This makes them symbolically Jon’s sworn swords, sworn protectors of a lightbringer or light carrier figure.

When Ned and Robert go down into the crypts of Winterfell, Robert starts out representing life and all that is good about life, while Ned is like Hades who lived in the cold, northern Underworld for far too long. But by the end George has almost every symbol of life overturned into a gruesome symbol of death.

The dungeons are as much an Underworld as the crypts were. Here, Ned finally gets back in touch with the Stark power source, when he damns Cersei, Jaime, Janos Slynt, the Gold Cloaks, Pycelle, Barristan Selmy, Renly, Littlefinger and Varys, and finally himself. Several are dead already. Others have been prophesied or foreshadowed to die. And some are in perilous situations. The visions Ned has in the dungeons comprise the foremost damned – Cersei, Renly as young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys. Ned himself would not have survived the dungeons for long, even if Joffrey had not ordered for his head – he has all the signs of sepsis, which indicates a severe infection affecting the whole body, and could only be remedied with antibiotics and fluids.

While Ned feels bound to keep his promises, he makes them with different intentions in mind than the person asking for them. And we should expect that several of Ned’s promises to Lyanna were made in a similar vain. He managed to keep all his promises to Lyanna, but most likely not in the way Lyanna had intended it. They are not so much “broken promises” than that they are “false promises”, because he loved Robert better than his sister, than his nephew and in some respects even more than his own daughters.

I propose that the “broken promises” refer to the promises Ned made to the dying Robert. The dungeon prevents him from keeping them. And I suggest that Ned attempted to recitify this, by writing a letter to Tobho Mott to ask him to send Gendry with Yoren to the Wall. Varys allowed it, because as an orphan Gendry is poor evidence in the hands of anyone attempting to prove that Cersei’s children are not Baratheons, and Gendry would be required to foreswear title, crown and lands when making the Night’s Watch vow. So, with the letter and his confession of treason, Ned saves Sansa, Arya and Gendry. This would make him the character behind Arya meeting Gendry.

Summation of symbols

If we’d expand the compiled list of all the associations we get this:

Life Persephone/Both worlds Underworld
  • the earth, flowers, roses, fruit, melons, peaches, fireplums, green grass, pollen
  • rich harvests, food, wine, fat and drunk
  • seasons: summer, spring, hot, heat
  • elements: breeze, wind, sun, clouds and rain
  • South, towns, cities, castles, Highgarden, inns, hill
  • gold, rich, cheap
  • loud, roar, hug, laughter, smile, sparkling, explosion, bursting
  • the senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling
  • fertility, sex, nakedness, make a new son
  • everywhere, everyone, people, endless, good, sweet
  • light
  • Beginning
  • Sword of the Morning
  • Cling
  • Breath
  • Smile
  • Roses, rose petals, flowers, wreath of (blue) flowers, garland, flowery crown
  • Blood
  • Horse
  • Tower
  • Color: red, white
  • Milkglass, moonlight, moon, star
  • Promises
  • Dawn, dusk
  • Animals: Black bat, white bull
  • Torch, beacon, candle, fire
  • Heat
  • Three men in white cloaks
  • Wine
  • One-eyed
  • Horned God
  • down, subterranean, deep within the earth, under, beneath
  • crypt, vault, tomb, sepulchre, sealed, shut, bury and burrial, holes, cairn
  • wilderness: bogs, forests, Wolfswood, fields, emptiness, no people
  • dungeon
  • hell
  • dreams, nightmares, visions
  • winding, narrow passage or way
  • stone, granite, unbending
  • shadows or wraiths (moving, lurching, shifting, stirring, creeping), mist, smoke
  • ring, echo
  • silent sisters, stranger
  • dead, mortal remains (watching, staring, listening)
  • underfoot, overhead
  • procession
  • pillars, thrones, walls, statue
  • sound and communication: wordless, silence, whisper, deep quiet, only with the dead or damned <>screaming, snarling
  • sight: blind, eyes, dark, darkness, dead of night, night, “unseen” or “far away”, no sun and no moon
  • still, lie, rest, unmoving
  • smell: hideous, stink, no longer smelled
  • shiver, shudder, tremble
  • cold, chill, snow, ice, frozen, winter, Others <> burn, fire in the gut
  • always, eternal, unchanged, absolute, no difference
  • House Stark, Lords of Winterfell, this is his/her place, Stark(s) of Winterfell, Winterfell
  • direwolves, boar, wood adder, moths
  • sadness, sad, weep, sorrow
  • the end
  • North (of the Neck)<> far South
  • hiding, containing, hidden, secret
  • appearance: solemn, older, grim, disapproving, sullen, glare
  • color: black, grey, blue, pale
  • dwindle, stop
  • manner of death: freeze, choke, suffocating, sickness, fever, beheading, blow, butcher, arrow, rip, murder, gangrene, sepsis
  • curse, the cursed, damn, the damned
  • game of thrones, lies, disguise, broken or false promises
  • severed/floating head, on a spike
  • Sword: Ice

Summation of mythological roles

Mythological characters or gods Roles aSoIaF characters
Persephone Queen of the Underworld, seasons, abducted, flowers Lyanna Stark
Despoina horses, animals, dance, conflated with Persephone Lyanna Stark
Demeter Harvest and life, searches and grieves Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hades King of the Underworld, abductor Ned Stark, Rhaegar Targaryen
Dionysus-Iacchus Lightbringer, secret, protected, Persephone’s son Jon Snow
Dionysus-Bacchus wine, drunk, fat, shred to pieces Robert Baratheon
Orpheus Gifted musician, lyre, heretic, shred to pieces, only head remains Rhaegar Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Pentheus “Man of sorrows”, king, heretic, shred to pieces, head on a spike Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hermes messenger, psychopomp Ned Stark, young Robert Baratheon, Varys
Zeus Storm god, lightning bolt, King of the gods on Mount Olympus Robert Baratheon, Lord of the Stormlands and King of Crownlands and Westeros
Poseidon God of the sea, rivers, a trident Stannis Baratheon, lord of Dragonstone
Korybantes armed protectors, guards Kingsguard, Arthur Dayne, Oswald Whent, Gerold Hightower
Hera Queen of the gods, power, jealous, murderous Cersei Lannister
Athena war, pious, intelligence Elia Martell
Aphrodite love, beauty Lyanna Stark
Helen of Troy most beautiful woman, abducted, cause for the War of Troy and downfall of Troy Lyanna Stark
Paris prince of Troy, judge of beauty, abducts Helen Rhaegar Targaryen
Thor Storm god, warhammer Robert Baratheon
Horned god fertility, hunt, psychopomp young Robert Baratheon, Renly Baratheon

Notes

1. George mentioned in an SSM that Brandon died before he had sons. Strictly speaking a case can be made for Jon being Ned’s son, and Aegon Lyanna’s (since Aegon must have very belated low testosterone levels to not have some bulk, is beardless and looking no older than 16 in aDwD in the year 300 AC when he ought to be 18). But that would basically ignore Ilyrio’s sentimental behaviour and Ned paying a price to keep his promise and thinking that some secrets are too dangerous to even tell the wife. The best fitting identities for these boys are Jon being Lyanna’s son by Rhaegar, and Aegon being Ilyrio’s son with his Lyseni wife Serra.
2. In Greek mythology Hera was jealous, because Dionysus was Zeus’ son he begot with Persephone, after he disguised himself in the shape of Persephone’s husband Hades. Other references make him the son of Hades (Pluto), but Zeus wanting to make him his heir.
3. The White Bull is also related to a disguise of Zeus to abduct Europa, while she was picking flowers, or as a disguise of the woman Io – whom Zeus coveted – in order to hide her from Hera’s jealousy. However, Ser Gerold Hightower has not been confirmed to have been present at Lyanna’s abduction by Rhaegar, and only joins the Tower of Joy long after the start of the rebellion, when Aerys commands him to find Rhaegar and send him to King’s Landing. That, as well as his House’s sigil and words fit an interpretation of Lyanna as Persephone and there being a torch bearing child much better.
4. In the following SSM George answers a question regarding Ned’s dream of the Tower of Joy and says the following, “I might mention, though, that Ned’s account, which you refer to, was in the context of a dream… and a fever dream at that. Our dreams are not always literal.” This implies that while the underlying subject of the dream conversation between the Kingsguard and Ned would have been discussed in the real life events as well, but that the actual words and length of the discussion would be different. It is a stylized dream, not a memory relay of events. Nor was there any actual storm of rose petals.
5. For more on red stallions: watch out for “The Trail of the Red Stallion”
6. GRRM has admitted that in this particular passage he mistakenly wrote Renly’s eyes to be green, while they in fact are blue.
7. Chronologically Ned confronted Cersei as dusk fell three days before his daughters would get on the ship. As it took Renly and Selmy two days to carry Robert back to King’s Landing, and Arya and Sansa were to board the ship the next day by noon, this means that actually Robert was already gored by the boar at the time Ned spoke to Cerse. It is likely that she either already had a raven regarding his hunting accident, or learned of it shortly after her confrontation with Ned. Anyway, it was not Ned’s mercy that killed Robert.
8. Semele is Dionysus’ second mother after his heart is saved from the murderous Titans. Zeus uses the heart to have Dionysus reborn again in a human mother, Semele, making her the first surrogate mother.
9. In some versions they mistake King Pentheus for a lion.

4 thoughts on “The cursed souls of Eddard and Robert”

  1. Great work! I always enjoy reading your work. I do have a question for you. As the confrontation between Ned and Jaime appears to be almost a reverse echo of the TOJ battle, have you considered the idea that what Barra’s mother and Lyanna request might also be reversed. Instead of being a fool in love with the child’s father could Lyanna have expressed contempt for him? Instead of asking Ned to tell the father, maybe she requested that the father never find out, or the babe be kept from him or those close to him?

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    1. Thank you Queen Lady Dyanna. A very good question! I do think, however, you run into the issue of secresy reversal. With the number reversals, Ned takes up the role of the KG and truth, while Jaime takes Ned’s role of the past and keeping a secret. Of course, you could argue that Neds past choice of secrecy regarding Jon might be doing exactly what Lyanna has asked of him. But that is in conflict with the Melinoe nightmares and Fury-related symbolism with the dream of Lyanna weeping tears of blood and the painful thorns of her wreath in the dungeon. I doubt that Lyanna’s requests to Ned went into much detail. Take for instance Robert and his death requests. He is only particular about the funeral feast – how the boar is to be served – not his children. Robert doesn’t even name them. This gives the room Ned uses to make promises that reconcile with his own wishes. I also doubt that Lyanna would have shown contempt, if by father you mean Rhaegar, when she clung to the rose petals as she lay dying.

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      1. Thanks, SSR! I will say that even though it is the most textually supported theory, I’m still not 100% convinced that Rhaegar is the daddy. There’s room there for a couple of alternative possibilities, so I’m trying to reserve judgment. There is just so much missing information. It is fun to try to fill in the holes. Surprisingly, and unintentionally, I’m sure, some of the elements in this essay actually made an argument (at least in my mind) that supported Robert as Dad. Lots of issues with that, I know, but some of the symbolism is there. Same for Arthur Dayne.

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  2. You are correct that some of the symbolism can be interpreted that way, if you disregard some of the more direct arguments against it. For example – Dionysus is the son of Persephone by Zeus (disguised as Hades), not Hades. But Robert as father struggles with a lot of issues within the narrative, as does Arthur. Anyway, any other reader can get out of the analysis what they want. It’s obvious that I hold to R + L = J, but the mythological analysis, in both these essays, is not truly dependent on it. It’s not an essay about Jon’s parentage, but about the Robert-Ned and dead-Lyanna-Ned dynamics.

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