George RR Martin has earned a reputation for being modern fantasy’s serial killer. Personally I don’t view it as a negative. After all, the passion and grief that his readers experience at the death of a beloved character is a testament to his skill. Furthermore, I would argue against the accusations of random or unjustified deaths, especially for the major characters. Though fate may be cruel in Martin’s world, most of the major characters’ deaths are a direct result of their own mistakes or the agency of another character.
The death of Eddard Stark at the end of the first book/season is a great example. Ned is introduced to us as the obvious good guy of the series. Quite possibly the only one. He is characterized by his sense of nobility, duty, and kindness in a world filled with the cruel and vindictive. Additionally, his storyline centers on finding truth and justice. In Martin’s grimdark world, is it any wonder that we bond with such an obviously good man?
However, Eddard has a fatal flaw. Hubris. He trusts that others will act with honor, even when they are demonstrably dishonorable. My God man! Little Finger has admitted to you, explicitly, that he is a power hungry schemer, that he still has the hots for your wife, and that he is not to be trusted. And you are surprised when he betrays you? You find out that Cersei Lannister orchestrated the assassination of the last Hand of the King when he found out the secret of Joffrey’s birth, and yet you tell her that you know? How do you expect her to react to the news that you are going to put her children at risk? Ultimately, it wasn’t chance, fate, or even Joffrey’s cruelty that lead to Ed Stark’s execution. It was his own fatal flaw that got him killed.
So now that I’ve shown that Eddard Stark’s death wasn’t random, was it unjustified? I think not. For one, it was a direct product of character agency. Secondly, it increased the agency of many of the other characters. Ned’s death launched each of the Stark children into their own story lines, propelling them from idleness to action. Finally, Ned’s death was a legitimately good twist. I, like most everyone else, had expected Ned to be the main character for the series. In fact, George RR Martin has gone on the record stating that was his intent. However, Martin didn’t want to tell that kind of story, so he killed Ned. Ned’s death was surprising, story appropriate, and the obvious conclusion in hind sight. Hence, a good twist.
Despite his reputation, I don’t think that Martin kills major characters on a whim. Nor does he do so simply for shock value. He has good story reasons for his choices, something that I think too few recognize. So next time you feel righteous nerd rage at the death of your favorite GoT character, check to see if they brought it on themselves.Tags: Sequence 08: Stories I Love