The Song of Ice and Fire series is full of all sorts of mysteries and plots and misdirection, and the first we get is the death of Jon Arryn — was he murdered, and if so, by whom, and most importantly, for what reason? These are the questions that motivate Ned and set the wheels of A Game of Thrones in motion. In this post, I want to examine not the clues about Jon’s murder, but rather the specific writing techniques which GRRM uses to direct the reader’s attention towards those clues.
At the surface level in A Game of Thrones, we think that Jon Arryn was murdered to hide the truth about Robert Baratheon’s children actually being Jaime Lannister’s. Then, Lysa Arryn reveals the truth in A Storm of Swords while trying to throw Sansa out the Moon Door:
“Tears, tears, tears,” she sobbed hysterically. “No need for tears . . . but that’s not what you said in King’s Landing. You told me to put the tears in Jon’s wine, and I did. For Robert, and for us!
Sure sounds like Littlefinger convinced Lysa to kill Jon Arryn, lying to her about his love for her. But, A Game of Thrones actually points us in a different direction, towards… Dragonstone and Stannis Baratheon. Dun DUN DUUUNNN!
Using Contradictory Information To Guide The Reader
One way to draw a reader’s attention is to tell them one thing, then tell them something completely different. In the hands of a less competent writer, the reader thinks “ugh, they forgot what they just wrote.” But, GRRM is so meticulous with his details that the reader is assured he has a masterful command of the story. So when we get conflicting information, we know something is amiss and we pay more attention to it.
Early in AGOT, Robert tells Ned that Sweetrobin was going to be fostered at Casterly Rock after Jon Arryn died:
Robert’s mouth gave a bitter twist. “Not well, in truth,” he admitted. “I think losing Jon has driven the woman mad, Ned. She has taken the boy back to the Eyrie. Against my wishes. I had hoped to foster him with Tywin Lannister at Casterly Rock. Jon had no brothers, no other sons. Was I supposed to leave him to be raised by women?”
And we learn the plan had gone so far as a formal request and acceptance:
“I will take him as ward, if you wish,” Ned said. “Lysa should consent to that. She and Catelyn were close as girls, and she would be welcome here as well.”
“A generous offer, my friend,” the king said, “but too late. Lord Tywin has already given his consent. Fostering the boy elsewhere would be a grievous affront to him.”
But then when Ned is investigating whatever Jon Arryn had gotten himself into, we get this nugget:
Ser Hugh had been brusque and uninformative, and arrogant as only a new-made knight can be. If the Hand wished to talk to him, he should be pleased to receive him, but he would not be questioned by a mere captain of guards … even if said captain was ten years older and a hundred times the swordsman. The serving girl had at least been pleasant. She said Lord Jon had been reading more than was good for him, that he was troubled and melancholy over his young son’s frailty, and gruff with his lady wife. The potboy, now cordwainer, had never exchanged so much as a word with Lord Jon, but he was full of oddments of kitchen gossip: the lord had been quarreling with the king, the lord only picked at his food, the lord was sending his boy to be fostered on Dragonstone, the lord had taken a great interest in the breeding of hunting hounds, the lord had visited a master armorer to commission a new suit of plate, wrought all in pale silver with a blue jasper falcon and a mother-of-pearl moon on the breast. The king’s own brother had gone with him to help choose the design, the potboy said. No, not Lord Renly, the other one, Lord Stannis.
When Catelyn is negotiating passage over the Twins:
Well, whoever he was, Lord Arryn wouldn’t have him, or the other one, and I blame your lady sister for that. She frosted up as if I’d suggested selling her boy to a mummer’s show or making a eunuch out of him, and when Lord Arryn said the child was going to Dragonstone to foster with Stannis Baratheon, she stormed off without a word of regrets and all the Hand could give me was apologies. What good are apologies? I ask you.”
Catelyn frowned, disquieted. “I had understood that Lysa’s boy was to be fostered with Lord Tywin at Casterly Rock.”
“No, it was Lord Stannis,” Walder Frey said irritably. “Do you think I can’t tell Lord Stannis from Lord Tywin? They’re both bungholes who think they’re too noble to shit, but never mind about that, I know the difference. Or do you think I’m so old I can’t remember? I’m ninety and I remember very well.
Both Catelyn and Walder are correct. Jon Arryn’s intent was to have Sweetrobin fostered at Dragonstone with Stannis, but after Jon’s death, Robert made arrangement to have him fostered at Casterly Rock, only Lysa fled the city with him before it could be done.
GRRM doesn’t put these kinds of things in for no reason. So why would Robert plan to foster the child with Tywin when Jon wanted to send him to Dragonstone? The in-book explanation of course is that Cersei likely planted the idea in order to increase Lannister influence, and Robert needs to keep Tywin happy. But, it serves a second purposes which is to have the reader pay more attention to the fostering. If Robert had say “Jon planned to send him to Dragonstone, and I intended to do the same” you just gloss over it, and there’s no argument between Walder and Cat about it to begin with. But, the contradicting stories tells to the reader, “Oy! You! Pay attention here!”
Now with our attention drawn to the issue of fostering Sweetrobin, we can figure out part of the mystery. Obviously reading A Storm of Swords makes things a lot easier, but enough clues exist just within A Game of Thrones: Jon Arryn was killed by Tears of Lys (at least this is the theory advanced by Varys). Poison, we’re told, is a weapon for women, cravens, and eunuchs (we’re made to suspect Cersei, of course). When we see Lysa Arryn in the Vale we learn just how madly protective of Sweetrobin she is. And then we learn Jon Arryn had planned to send Sweetrobin away to live at Dragonstone.
Lysa Arryn poisoned her husband Jon not to run away and live with Petyr Baelish, but to prevent her son from being sent away. At least, just from the clues we get from AGOT, that sure seems like what happened.
In ASOS, Lysa’s line quoted at the top of this post sounds like it was Petyr’s idea and that she did it to be with him, but most likely when she learned of Jon’s plan, she went to Petyr for help, and then the poisoning plan was hatched between the two of them. The opportunity for them to be together was likely what emboldened her to actually kill Jon, but her initial motivation is preventing Sweetrobin from being sent away. Indeed, she seems to confirm this:
“I knew that boy Joffrey. He used to call my Robert cruel names, and once he slapped him with a wooden sword. A man will tell you poison is dishonorable, but a woman’s honor is different. The Mother shaped us to protect our children, and our only dishonor is in failure. You’ll know that, when you have a child.”
Lysa used poison to (from her point of view) protect her child.
Hey Reader, Pay Attention To Jon’s Mother
We see this same technique used with the issue of Jon’s mother:
“You were never the boy you were,” Robert grumbled. “More’s the pity. And yet there was that one time … what was her name, that common girl of yours? Becca? No, she was one of mine, gods love her, black hair and these sweet big eyes, you could drown in them. Yours was … Aleena? No. You told me once. Was it Merryl? You know the one I mean, your bastard’s mother?”
“Her name was Wylla,” Ned replied with cool courtesy, “and I would sooner not speak of her.”
But yet, in a Catelyn chapter we’re led to believe it’s not some commoner named Wylla, but rather Ashara Dayne:
Ned would not speak of the mother, not so much as a word, but a castle has no secrets, and Catelyn heard her maids repeating tales they heard from the lips of her husband’s soldiers. They whispered of Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, deadliest of the seven knights of Aerys’s Kingsguard, and of how their young lord had slain him in single combat. And they told how afterward Ned had carried Ser Arthur’s sword back to the beautiful young sister who awaited him in a castle called Starfall on the shores of the Summer Sea. The Lady Ashara Dayne, tall and fair, with haunting violet eyes. It had taken her a fortnight to marshal her courage, but finally, in bed one night, Catelyn had asked her husband the truth of it, asked him to his face.
That was the only time in all their years that Ned had ever frightened her. “Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know. And now I will learn where you heard that name, my lady.” She had pledged to obey; she told him; and from that day on, the whispering had stopped, and Ashara Dayne’s name was never heard in Winterfell again.
Ashara Dayne would seem a reasonable enough mother, though it’s unclear why Ned would refuse to tell Jon the truth about her, and why he would lie to Robert about it and say it was this Wylla girl. But if it’s not Ashara and is Wylla, why is Ned so insistent that Catelyn and everyone in Winterfell never mention Ashara again? Hey! Reader! Something is wrong here! Pay attention!
We get this contradiction reinforced by a second contradiction about Lord Eddard:
“Lord Eddard Stark was not a man to sleep with whores,” Jon said icily. “His honor—”
“—did not prevent him from fathering a bastard. Did it?”
And again, in another Jon chapter after Robert’s death and Ned’s imprisonment:
“But it’s a lie,” Jon insisted. How could they think his father was a traitor, had they all gone mad? Lord Eddard Stark would never dishonor himself … would he?
He fathered a bastard, a small voice whispered inside him. Where was the honor in that? And your mother, what of her? He will not even speak her name.
Of course it’s reasonable that even an honorable man would falter, and it would be easy enough to accept this if it weren’t for the contradiction about Jon’s mother, and him constantly repeating that he never knew who his mother was. The Wylla/Ashara contradiction tells the reader there’s a mystery to investigate here, and the honor/bastard contradiction provides another clue to the truth.
Why The Contradictions Work
We know this is one of GRRM’s techniques for directing the reader’s attention and sleuthing skills, but why is it effective? I believe it’s because this technique turns the reader’s brain on.
There’s plenty of people who watch TV shows and movies and will say something like “I just want to turn my brain off for a couple hours.” Not my preference, but whatever. …If you’re reading A Song of Ice and Fire though, you’re not looking for mindless entertainment, you’re looking to be engaged. That means GRRM can’t hit you over the head with the clues and spoon feed every answers. The clues need to be subtle and leave enough work for the reader.
And yet here we seem to have another contradiction. How can the clues be subtle when GRRM is signalling to the reader where the clues are? One thing that makes giving clues challenging in ASOIAF is the sheer volume of detail. Something has to make some details stand out more than others or else we’re tracking down conspiracies about how Dany’s favorite sausage vendor from Pentos somehow made it out to the Western Market in Vaes Dothrak.
The clues, along with their signals, work because the text does not directly tell you that they are clues. Instead, the text presents a contradiction, and leaves the reader to figure out what that contradiction means. Is Walder just a senile old man? Is Ned simply less honorable than we think — perhaps putting on a front of honor to hide his shame about fathering a bastard? Or, is there more to it? Figuring out what to do with clues can be fun and engaging and there’s a whole genre of whodunits based around this. GRRM takes things one step further, making the reader first figure out what is and isn’t a clue, and ask whether a mystery even exists to begin with.