When I consider the patriarch of House Stark and his first-born son and his baseborn son, I think of the beheadings. Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and the Warden of the North is introduced to us through Bran’s point of view i A Game of Thrones. He is introduced to us delivering the King’s justice to a deserter from the Night’s Watch as Bran, his older brother Robb, and his bastard brother Jon Snow look on. Eddard’s lesson is simple enough: if you are to sentence a man to death, it is honorable that you hear his final words and you swing the sword.
While most all the major Houses of Westeros keep headsmen to deal out their justice, the Starks keep it real. They worship the old gods. They aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. They are honorable… or at least Lord Eddard is honorable. It seems that the Starks haven’t always been the holier than thou, driven by honor, never lie, never cheat, never steal family that they are when the events o ASOIA pick up, but that is a topic for a different post. As far as Ned Stark and his family go, they will look a man in his eyes before they kill him, no matter what the crime.
Eddard beheads Gared for the crime of deserting the Night’s Watch. The man explains why he did it- he and his fellow Rangers were attacked by White Walkers beyond beyond The Wall. The White Walkers, The Others, are supposed to be scary bedtime stories told to the children of the realm or a curse used upon people that are really irritating or frustrating you. i.e. “The Others take my wife and her credit card!” Gared didn’t sign up for that. The Others slew his asshole commander, Ser Waymar Royce, and his good buddy. Ser Waymar Royce even rose from the dead as a wight to come at the poor bastard Gared. Gared was just running for his life and wound up in Stark territory. “That sucks,” Eddard says, “but I still have to take off your head for deserting the Night’s Watch.”
And take off Gared’s head he does. Jon Snow tells Bran to not look away because his father will know. It is a right of passage for the Stark boys to see their father deliver the King’s justice. It is reality and it is something that the boys very well may have to do as they become men and Lords in their own right. Bran may be young but noble children grow up fast, especially in the North and it is important to Eddard that his sons know what it is to pass sentence on a man’s life. It is implied that Robb and Jon Snow have seen a beheading before. For Bran, he sees it through a child’s eyes- the head falling to the ground, the blood spraying out onto the snow, the jackass Theon Greyjoy kicking the head as though he were Pele. Bran doesn’t yet quite understand how fragile life is and what was truly lost to Gared that day and what it took for his father to swing the great Valyrian sword, Ice.
It is a cruel twist of fate that brings Eddard Stark south to King’s Landing and an even crueler twist that brings him to The Great Sept of Baelor as a traitor to the Iron Throne. The story ends for Ned Stark how it began with him for the reader, except Ned is beheaded in front of the same people he came south to rule and protect. Crueler still is that Eddard is beheaded by Ice, his own Valyrian sword and the sword of House Stark for thousands of years.
We fast forward to A Storm of Swords and Robb Stark’s reign as the King in the North. The War of The Five Kings is in stride and a terrible crime has occured amid King Robb’s court. Lord Rickard Karstark, bannerman of Robb, Lord of Karhold, and going back far enough, a man that has the same Stark blood flowing in his veins, has brutally murdered two Lannister boys that were prisoners of Robb. Being a noble prisoner entitles a person to certain comforts and protection. A prisoner of noble birth is more of a bargaining chip than a criminal and Robb has the responsibility of protection of the prisoner. Not to mention, the Lannisters hold his sister Sansa as a prisoner and any act of cruelty committed against the boys can easily be reciprocated upon her.
The murder, though justified by Lord Rickard due to his sons death at the hands of the Lannisters, puts Robb in a very awkward position. The man that killed Lord Rickard’s sons had been released by Catelyn Stark, Robb’s mother and Eddard’s wife and the Lady of Winterfell. Rickard Karstark takes great offense to this and is absolutely teeming with anger at his King and his King’s mother. His desire for vengeance for his sons leads to this tragic event. But now, King Robb must make the choice between the honor of his rule and loyalty to his bannerman who had fought alongside him in many a battle. Robb Stark makes the right decision, the decision his father would have made- honor. To make amends for the dishonor that Rickard Karstark brought upon his rule, Robb passes the sentence of treason on Karstark. He must die. And Robb, being his father’s son, must swing the sword.
Robb asks Lord Karstark to say what last words he has and swings his sword. This beheading does not go as smoothly for Robb as the last Eddard did. The grey area is too prevalent and it is difficult for Robb to do what needs be done. But he does it, much like his father would have. Afterward, Robb has difficulty dealing with the emotional toll of beheading his bannerman. Ruling is not so easy for Robb as it was for his father.
We move forward again, to The Red Wedding. Robb’s rule and kingdom has come to an end. He won every battle that he fought but it was the politics and the game of thrones that did him in. The honor that Eddard taught him was no match for the snake-like ways of the southernors. Robb was betrayed by his own bannermen. But his downfall was well underway by the time he took Rickard Karstark’s head. Robb is killed in The Twins by Freys and Boltons. He is fettered with arrows and killed with a dagger by Roose Bolton, the Lord of the Dreadfort. Though not beheaded, upon Robb’s death, the Freys decapitate Robb and his direwolf, Greywind. They sow Greywind’s head onto Robb’s body as the ultimate show of disrespect for the honor of House Stark.
Moving forward still through the series to A Dance With Dragons, we come to Jon Snow on The Wall having been voted to be the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Though bastard born (the reality of that a topic for another post), Jon Snow has climbed to a position of rule much like his father and his brother. The Night’s Watch is not a Great House but a ragtag group of criminals and outcasts that defend the realm from dangers beyond The Wall. As Lord Commander, Jon receives his first tests almost immediately after being voted into the office.
One of his first tests is Lord Janos Slynt, the fallen from grace former Lord Commander of the City Watch in Kings Landing. Slynt was an integral part in the betrayal and beheading of Eddard Stark. For that crime, and many others, Tyrion Lannister, having taken the office of Hand to the King for his father Lord Tywin Lannister, and succeeding Lord Eddard, has sent Slynt to The Wall. Slynt made his own bid for Lord Commander of the Watch but was beaten out by Jon Snow. This wounds his pride and does not sit well with him at all. He had already plotted to have Jon Snow killed for treason, and to respect him now as his commander is something that he cannot abide.
Jon Snow is well aware that Janos Slynt had much and more to do with his father’s beheading. He is also aware that Slynt will continue to plot his downfall. Jon Snow’s plan is to send Slynt to an abandoned fortress beside The Wall far away from Castle Black, where the main strength of The Watch call home. Mayhaps he already knows that Slynt will not comply with the command, but Jon Snow gives him the chance regardless. Which is more than Slynt gave Lord Eddard. As he foresaw, Janos Slynt refuses the order. He refuses the order and is subordinate in front of the whole of the Watch at Castle Black. Jon Snow is left with no choice but to execute Slynt for this. He has Slynt dragged out onto the main yard of the keep and as Slynt realizes that not one of his brothers will step in to save him, he recants his initial stance and says he will follow the order. Too late for Slynt. Jon Snow orders him to be hung until he dies. As his men make to tie Slynt up, Jon Snow has a change of heart. He remembers his father and the honor of being a Stark of Winterfell. No, he will not have Janos Slynt hung. He will execute Janos Slynt himself.
Slynt is lay down in front of Jon Snow and Jon Snow unsheathes Longclaw, his own Valyrian sword. He asks Slynt if he has any last words and beheads him in one even strike. The execution is so poetic and so exhilarating to both Jon Snow and the reader. The bastard son of Eddard Stark has become a ruler in his own right and has passed a sentence onto a man and did the deed himself. Eddard Stark would be smiling from his grave if he still had his head. Robb Stark would have been proud as well. There is justice for Eddard, finally. And it was justice passed in Eddard fashion. Even Stannis Baratheon has to respect what Lord Commander Snow has just done.
Eddard beheading the deserter seems textbook, it seems the norm. Robb beheading Lord Rickard Karstark was a complicated and ugly mess. Was it honor? It was, but honor doesn’t work in the south the same way it does in Winterfell. Honor can get a man killed… and it does. The honor that Robb thought so important was in fact a large part of his downfall and subsequent death. In that sense, the beheading of Karstark feels a bit forced on Robb’s end. He wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to be like his father so bad that perhaps he made the wrong decision for his kingdom, though it could be the right decision for his own honor.
It is Jon Snow that passes the test. His decision to execute Janos Slynt with his own sword is absolutely righteous and absolutely necessary. It is necessary for the honor of House Stark, for Jon Snow’s honor and for the honor of the office of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. It is necessary because only Slynt’s death would stop him from sabotaging Jon Snow’s rule and the success of the Night’s Watch’s fight. There is no grey area in the beheading. There is right and there is wrong. There is just and there is unjust. There is no in-between area. So the sudden realization of what he must do is Jon Snow accepting his role, accepting his office and most importantly, grasping his manhood and accepting the responsibilities that come along with it. I just hope that Bran did not look away.