The Starks are Not the Good Guys: Morality and Game of Thrones

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’m a big Game of Thrones fan (both the books and the show), but there’s something that sets me apart from other fans–I hate the Starks. It’s my view that they are without question the most villainous family in Westeros, far worse than the Lannisters. This is a controversial view, but hear me out. I think I have a pretty strong case.

Now, before we begin in earnest, a disclaimer: I am not going to discuss any material from the current season of Thrones, nor am I going to make reference to any material from the books that has not yet been included in the show. I will exclusively reference the first four seasons (or roughly the first three books, if you’re a reader), so if you’re not that far along, you may not wish to proceed further. It’s up to you–I will provide a little bit of background if you’re purely interested in the moral cases.

Let’s start with a brief overview of the history of Westeros (if you’re a Thrones expert and don’t need this, skip to “the case against the Starks” section in bold). Westeros was initially seven independent kingdoms that were united by Aegon I Targaryen:

On the map, we have:

  • The North (grey), ruled by House Stark
  • The Eyrie (white and blue), ruled by House Arryn
  • The Riverlands (light blue), ruled by House Tully
  • The Iron Islands (yellowish orange), ruled by House Grejoy
  • The Westerlands (red and gold), ruled by House Lannister
  • The Reach (green), ruled by House Tyrell
  • The Stormlands (yellow), ruled by House Baratheon
  • Dorne (orange and red), ruled by House Martell
  • The Crownlands (blood red), ruled directly by House Targaryen

Skip ahead a few hundred years, and Westeros is ruled by Aerys II Targaryen, the “Mad King”. Aerys has a son, Prince Rhaegar, who is wed to Elia Martell. Rhaegar grows dissatisfied with Elia and becomes infatuated with Lyanna Stark, who was to wed Robert Baratheon. Rhaegar kidnaps Lyanna and possibly rapes her (accounts seem to differ). This prompts Brandon and Rickard Stark to demand Lyanna’s release. Aerys has both executed. Aerys then demands that Jon Arryn hand over his ward (Ned Stark). Instead, houses Arryn, Baratheon, and Stark revolt against house Targaryen, ultimately defeating Rhaegar and slaying him at the Battle of the Trident. Once the Targaryen army is defeated in the field, Tywin Lannister tricks Aerys into allowing his army to enter the capital, whereupon the Lannisters sack the city, have Aerys executed by Jaime Lannister (a member of Aery’s personal guard), and kill Elia Martell and her children. Two Targaryens survive and go into exile–Viserys and Daenerys. Robert Baratheon is installed as king and married to Tywin’s daughter, Cersei Lannister.

Cersei Lannister engages in an incestuous affair with her brother Jaime, and all three of her children are born of incest–this remains unknown to the public. The first son, Prince Joffrey, is cruel and merciless. The second, Prince Tommen, is kind and a bit soft. In the meantime, Robert Baratheon wastes a great deal of Westeros’ wealth on unnecessary tournaments, feasts, and other entertainments, putting Westeros deep into debt (Aerys, to his credit, had left the treasury overflowing with gold). Robert names Jon Arryn “hand of the king” (essentially prime minister). Jon Arryn eventually discovers that the princes are born of incest, but before he can reveal this knowledge he is killed by the Lannisters. This prompts King Robert to name Ned Stark hand. Ned eventually discovers what Jon had discovered. When Robert dies, Ned exposes Joffrey’s illegitimacy. Ned is arrested and negotiates a plea deal with the Lannisters, but King Joffrey refuses to abide by the terms of this arrangement and has Ned executed anyway. This produces a chain of events:

  • Robb Stark (Ned’s son) revolts against Joffrey and declares the north independent.
  • Stannis Baratheon (Robert’s older brother) declares himself king.
  • Renly Baratheon (Robert’s young brother) declares himself king.
  • Tywin Lannister goes to war against all of these parties on behalf of Joffrey.

Stannis uses dark magic to kill his brother Renly. Stannis attacks the capital and is defeated by Tywin at the Battle of the Blackwater. Stannis goes north to defend the north from an invasion by the wildings, a group of barbarians from beyond the wall. Robb inflicts a series of defeats on the Lannisters, but while he is marching south, the north is invaded by house Greyjoy. The Lannisters conspire with the Freys and the Boltons (lesser houses) to have Robb and his mother Catelyn killed at the infamous Red Wedding, and the Boltons expel the Greyjoys from the north, seizing it for themselves. The Lannisters plan to consolidate their gains by marrying Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell. The Tyrells become aware that Joffrey is cruel, and they have him poisoned. The act is pinned on Tyrion Lannister, Joffrey’s uncle. Jaime does not believe that Tyrion is guilty–he frees Tyrion. Tyrion kills his own father Tywin for imprisoning him (and for a variety of other reasons). He flees.

In the meantime, Viserys Targaryen tries to find a foreign army to help him regain the throne. To that end, he marries his sister Daenerys to Khal Drogo, a barbarian. At their wedding, Daenerys receives dragon eggs as presents. Viserys is culturally insensitive and impudent, and eventually Daenerys and Drogo kill him for it. Drogo is eventually himself killed, and Daenerys has spent the last several seasons and books wandering around using her dragons and her penchant for freeing slaves to acquire armies and followers.

So that’s the broad outline–needless to say, there are many things that are not included here, and if we need them we will reference them.

The Case Against the Starks

In both the show and the books, we learn about what is happening in Westeros from the perspectives of the various noblemen and noblewomen involved in the conflict. This is deeply misleading (and perhaps deliberately so)–in any feudal society, the nobility comprises only a very small portion of the total population of the realm, most of which consists of peasants. George R.R. Martin, the author and master of the world, claims that Westeros is home to 40 million people. In medieval Europe, the nobility comprised somewhere between 1 to 2% of the population, which means that Westeros likely has 680,000 nobles of varying ranks and more than 39 million ordinary people. Consequently, it’s nonsense to talk about the decisions these characters make abstract from the effects those decisions have on the peasants.

In the short-term, the conquest of Westeros by the Targaryens was no doubt bloody and awful, but in the long-term it did something very wonderful for the peasants–by uniting the seven kingdoms, it put a stop to centuries of endemic war between and among them, war that was very destructive to the lives of the population as a whole. Before the Targaryens, the seven kingdoms existed in an anarchic state of nature where the strong took what they could and the weak suffered what they must. By ending that anarchy and creating a unitary sovereign, the Targaryens did the people of Westeros a huge favor.

Every time a lord of Westeros revolts against the king, that lord or group of lords is endangering the entire population by creating conditions where civil strife is once again possible and forcing many thousands of families to send people to war. At the same time, that lord or group of lords is weakening the entire kingdom and making it vulnerable to external threats. This can only be justified if the revolt aims to drastically improve the way Westeros is governed for the entire population as a whole.

Two times the Starks have revolted against the throne. On both of these occasions, the Starks start the rebellion to get even with the reigning house for executing some number of Starks, but these revolts have nothing to do with the interests of the people.

In the first revolt, the Starks fight to replace Aerys with Robert Baratheon. Aerys was paranoid and liked to execute nobles he mistrusted, but the kingdom was well-run by his government–in the books, it is emphasized on numerous occasions that under Aery’s hand the kingdom’s finances were well-managed and its people prosperous. The Starks put Robert on the throne, who squanders the economic gains made under Aerys, wasting all of Westeros’ reserves on lavish events for the entertainment of himself and his fellow wealthy nobles. While all shared in the prosperity under Aerys, Robert shows no concern at all for the people, ignoring the kingdom’s infrastructure  and using the peasants’ tax money for private gain.

In the second revolt, the Starks insist on letting everyone know that the new king is born of incest, inciting a variety of claimants to rise up against the throne. This effectively returns Westeros to the state of nature–no one claimant is strong enough uphold the rule of law throughout Westeros, so all the claimants begin committing or permitting a variety of abominable acts, creating an immense amount of destruction and death (or what Martin calls “a feast for crows”). Much attention is paid to individual acts of cruelty by the Lannisters, but what the Starks do is much worse on a macro-level:

  • They declare independence from the realm–if successful, this would permanently weaken the realm and partially return it to anarchy, permanently increasing the risk of future instability and war.
  • They march tens of thousands of soldiers south, ultimately to their deaths at the hands of the Freys and Boltons.
  • It is implied that the Freys participate in the deception at the Red Wedding (killing the aforementioned soldiers) because they are insulted by Robb Stark’s broken promise to marry a Frey, another case in which the Starks risk the population to serve their own interests.
  • They leave the north defenseless and abandon it to a parade of marauders–first the Greyjoys, then the Boltons, and potentially Stannis or whoever (or whatever) is north of the wall, subjecting those they did not march to their deaths to endless raping and pillaging.
  • By plunging Westeros into endless civil war, the Starks disrupt the harvest and leave Westeros perilously short on food, with winter still coming.

Neither of these revolts have produced any stunning improvement in the way Westeros is run. They have brought the realm only ruin and death. As far as we can tell, none of the remaining living Starks seem to feel any remorse for this–Arya Stark goes so far as to be obsessed with seeking further revenge on those her father needlessly antagonized, repeating their names before bed every night like some kind of crazy person. At every step of the way, the Starks put their own interests ahead of the realm’s and expose the people of Westeros to untold horrors all in service of their bizarre sense of honor and duty. This sense of honor and duty seems to have nothing to do with protecting the interests of Westeros’ little people whatsoever, so what good is it?

What about the other houses? The Lannisters are often pilloried for conspiring with the Freys and Boltons to murder Robb Stark and his mother, but for the realm as a whole, this is a merciful act. By killing Robb, the Lannisters avoid killing many more people in subsequent battles and the resultant raping and pillaging. Aside from this, the Lannisters act primarily to defend the extant king and prevent the realm from collapsing into chaos, ultimately unsuccessfully. We can freely criticize Jaime and Cersei for engaging in the incestuous relationship to begin with, but it was the Starks who chose to publicize this and the lead Lannister (Tywin) was ignorant of this fact and clearly not responsible for it.

As for the Targaryens, while they have a legitimate gripe about having been deposed unjustly, restoring them will likely expose Westeros to even more violence and death, assuming any other claimants remain to resist them. That said, if the civil war has weakened Westeros so severely that the white walkers are able to overrun the country, the Targaryens may be able to unite the realm and rescue everyone with their dragons, which would put them in a heroic light.

If there is a family to be rooted for right now, it’s the Tyrells. Why? The Tyrell strategy has been to attempt to marry Margaery to whichever young king is the strongest and most likely to provide Westeros with the stability and prosperity it needs. Initially they opt for Renly, and after he is killed they show no qualms about switching teams and opting for Joffrey. The only person killed by the Tyrells to this point in the show has been Joffrey, and this act did the entire realm a tremendous mercy. Tommen is a compassionate person, and if the Tyrells can separate Tommen from his mother he may become quite capable with time. Margaery Tyrell has also shown significant generosity toward the people, aiding the poor and the dispossessed. To the extent that there is any true hero in Game of Thrones, it’s her, not the Starks.