We are all heroes of our own stories. To that end, we construct the stories of other people in our lives so that they fit our themes. In the third episode of season six of Game of Thrones, “Oathbreaker”, Bran Stark and the Three-Eyed Crow witness the confrontation at the Tower of Joy between Ned Stark and his bannermen, and members of the Kingsguard. What Bran sees does not conform to the story that he “knew” from childhood, from the story he remembers being told. And it makes me wonder if, in the world of Game of Thrones, the old stories matter very much in the current situation.
As Bran recalls what his father told him about what happened at the Tower of Joy, Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, was the finest knight Ned ever saw, and Dayne would have killed him if not for Howland Reed. I don’t remember, and it wouldn’t make sense, Ned bragging about defeating Dayne. In fact, Ned’s attitude towards the war and about the Tower of Joy was one of sadness and regret, and not only because his sister Lyanna died there. While Ned seems to have felt justified in raising his banners and supporting Robert’s Rebellion, he understands that many good people died. Rhaegar Targaryen was, aside from his “abduction” of Lyanna, a decent person. Ned admired Dayne, as well as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Gerold Hightower and Oswell Whent who were also at the Tower of Joy. (In the TV series there is only one other member, and given that it is Dayne that speaks I can only assume it’s meant to be Whent.) Ned Stark always did his duty but he never took joy in killing.
But in Bran’s version Ned Stark defeats Dayne. What Bran sees is that Ned is about to be killed by the far more talented swordsman, only to be saved at the last second by Howland Reed stabbing Dayne in the back. Ned finishes the job by picking up Dayne’s sword (Dawn?) and slicing Dayne’s neck. (The man who passes the sentence…). Bran is stunned, but the truth of the matter says more about Bran than about Ned. Ned was ready to accept his own death and fought with honor. Dayne also fought with honor but, like the knight that Bronn fought in the Eyrie, Dayne died with honor. (Ned would later die with honor. Reed is still alive and sends his children to aid Bran.) Ned and Reed are able to ride away from the Tower of Joy not due to fate or prophecy or honor, but because of pragmatism. The point of war, of the game of thrones, is to win. Too bad Ned forgets this lesson.
Bran’s vision is the latest in a theme that is being developed in season six. While fantasy stories (and fantasies in real life) are often based around fate or prophecy or things happening for a (metaphysical) reason, Game of Thrones seems to be moving away from this idea. Jamie tells Cersei “fuck prophecy”. Davos convinces Melisandre to attempt to revive Jon Snow not because he believes in magic but because it may be possible. Jon is revived and doesn’t feel like the chosen one, only like a failure. Melisandre accepts that Stannis wasn’t Azor Ahai but is not certain who is. In Vaes Dothrak one of the Dosh Khaleen mocks Dany’s idea that she was going bear the Stallion Who Mounts The World. No one seems to be the Prince That Was Promised.
The scene at the Tower of Joy is important not only for what we didn’t (haven’t yet?) seen, Lyanna in a bed of blood, but for the pragmatism. The stories we tell ourselves are important, to be sure, but they do not replace action. Dany isn’t leading a force to Westeros. She isn’t even accepted as the leader of Meereen. Jon Snow was killed by men sworn to follow him. King Tommen can’t get his wife out of prison. At this point in Westeros, power is not handed to you because you have the right name or a prophecy that may fit your circumstances. Robert Baratheon used a distant ancestry with the Targaryens to support his claim to the Iron Throne but his real justification was that he won it by conquest. Ned wasn’t the best sword in Westeros but it was Arthur Dayne who was buried under a cairn at the Tower of Joy.
It’s not that I discount prophecy meaning something before it’s all over. R+L=J has to mean something after all. But I also assume that there’s a reason that most of the Stark children are still alive. Sansa appears to be on her way to meet Jon, Arya’s becoming a Faceless Man can only lead to her returning to Westeros, and the Three-Eyed Crow told Bran that he won’t be underground forever. And whichever Stark children show up at Winterfell will find Rickon (or Rickon’s corpse) when they arrive.
And after all that, there is still the danger on the other side of the Wall, of the Night’s King, of the Heart of Winter. It is a tale so old that even the Night’s Watch has forgotten who their true enemy is, fashioning a more convenient story in which the Wildings are their chief antagonists. The important war is coming, and prophecy and fate alone will not be enough. At some point you have to be willing to do the dirty job of winning a war. At some point you will have to stab someone in the back.
I get why the scene at the Tower of Joy was edited, only two members of the Kingsguard and less dialogue, I still wish they’d done it like in Ned’s fever dream.