I want to talk about the Starks’ intelligence for a second now. Since the television series started I’ve seen a lot of online commentary saying that the Starks are pretty dumb. Obliviously stupid might be a better description. I don’t agree with that though and we can see that in what we’ve read so far. The Starks aren’t dumb per se, they’re just crippled by an inclination to trust and honor.
Ned is the epitome of a Stark partially because of these two qualities. From the beginning it’s strongly established that Ned tries to follow a rather strict code of conduct. He insists on killing the deserter brother of the Night’s Watch with his own hands. He tries to honor his words and pledges. He may sometime stray from his straight and narrow path (read: fathering Jon) but not without deeply regretting that for being dishonorable and trying to make amends by raising him like he would one of his “trueborn” sons. These are actually pretty honorable characteristics. They’re what make Ned a protagonist and not an anti-hero or antagonist. The problem is, Ned —and the Starks at large— live in a world that doesn’t actually reward honor. On the surface it does but deep down, dishonorable acts are what the winner do. That’s what makes me want to yell at the book like I would a horror movie. The Starks are just acting foolishly but they’re not foolish.
Same with Catelyn. She doesn’t even think to consider that the dagger the assassin used was put there to throw her off the trail of the person who actually wanted Bran dead. I suppose you could call this foolish but I think it’s more ignorant or a good example of denial.
So when Ned and Catelyn are talking to Littlefinger in his brothel and he says:
“For my part, I always found you Starks a tiresome lot, but Cat seems to have become attached to you, for reasons I cannot comprehend. I shall try to keep you alive for her sake. A fool’s task, admittedly, but I could never refuse your wife anything.”
I cringe because they don’t pick up on the poorly concealed subtext and hints Littlefinger leaves that his motivations are not the same as the Starks’. The problem for Ned and Catelyn is that they aren’t playing the same game as Littlefinger and the others.
I have to admit also, I actually like some of the major players of the Game of Thrones from the first time we meet them. Varys intrigues me and Littlefinger is the character I like to hate. I’m inclined to like Ned and Catelyn less because they refuse to see what’s right in front of them. I’m inclined to like Littlefinger and Varys more than I would because they accept the world they live in.
Erik: I basically agree with Daniel on this. I realize I’ve called Ned Stark and Catelyn stupid a number of times, and when I read (or watch) some of the ridiculously impulsive and impulsively noble things they do I can’t help but say “stupid, stupid, stupid” in my head (or outloud at the TV). But they aren’t stupid. They’re just generally too good for their own good. Too honorable. Too accustomed to the cold north and the straightforward ways of the northern people.
This gets them into a world of trouble, of course, but it’s also what makes Robb a brilliant general and Arya so determined and strong willed. And it’s what makes the family the central family of the story (outside of Dany). I like to hate Littlefinger also. Varys is certainly intriguing. But the Starks we can relate to and empathize with, which is why, I suppose, that I enjoy the Stark chapters (except for Catelyn’s) the most outside of Tyrion.
Update: The spoiler thread for this discussion is here.
SECOND UPDATE 6/10/2011: Ryan B says it better than me:
I take the Starks as a nice illustration of how fragile a certain kind of ethics is. They live in a world where they are trying to universalize their maxims, as it were, but no one else is. And it leaves them extremely vulnerable when they step outside of their power zone.
All of which is somewhat ironic, of course, given (as Renly points out in the TV show, and I cannot remember if he does the same in the book) that Ned was one of the linchpins of a rebellion that put a false (or just “new”, if you want to be generous) king on the throne.