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The Kings of Winter

[1]2,493 words

In the first part [2], we examined the concept of the Kali Yuga and its parallel in A Song of Ice and Fire, The Long Night. In this part, we will cover the Stark family, who sits at the core of the fantasy saga.

The fledgling Night’s Watch and Bran the Builder win the Battle for the Dawn and civilization is spared an early grave. The Starks gradually gain ascendancy in the North through a mixture of virility and clemency. Time and again, the Starks defeat petty kings, such as the Red Kings (House Bolton) of the Dreadfort and the Barrow Kings (House Dustin) across the North. With the Boltons as an exception, the Stark victors seem to marry daughters of vanquished foes. Sometimes it is in war, other times in single combat. The Starks of old made blood bonds to ensure reconciliation. As we will see, this clemency goes a long way for the Starks.

From Winterfell, they reign for millennia putting down disparate rebellions, mostly from the Dreadfort. Aside from the Boltons and a wayward cadet branch called the Greystarks, no House bears a grudge with the Starks. They are kings, and they hold onto it with respect, piety, and honor. Even Ned, who grew up in the Vale amongst the Andals is found contemplating under the heart tree in Winterfell when he hears the news of Jon Arryn’s death in A Game of Thrones. The Old Gods appear to be fond of the Starks, and, even if the religion of the Old Gods is vague, we have seen plenty of evidence for its efficacy.

There are only a few ways to anger these gods. We covered the three principles in the first part, to which we can add a fourth:

  1. No slavery. They respect human freedom. The Wildlings still call themselves the freefolk.[1] [3]
  2. No kinslaying.
  3. Dole out capital punishment yourself.
  4. Do not violate the guest right.

The guest right goes back to the bread and salt on the Reed oath and the Liddle quote. The guest right is an assurance that a traveler can find food, heat, and shelter in the North, a quintessential understanding of human interaction, especially in harsh climates.

One of Old Nan’s tales is of the Rat Cook. Briefly, a cook at the Night’s Watch hosts an Andal king and his son at the Wall. The cook killed the son out of revenge for a perceived wrong and fed him to the king whom asked for seconds. The old gods were angered, though. Old Nan explains to him, “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him, nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.”[2] [4]

Kinslaying and violation of guest right are the worst for the First Men.

Throughout the saga, we see exchanges amongst characters that slowly tell the story that the Starks keep a serious piety to the Old Gods, which is reciprocated by both the gods themselves and descends down to the people the Starks rule over.

In fact, the Starks held a regality akin to the cakravartin [sic]. The cakravartin’s fundamental attributes are: glory, centrality/polarity, stability, and peace. Evola mentions this several times, especially in his chapter titled, “Polar Symbolism”: “Dante talked about the imperator pacificus … Obviously this is not the profane and social peace pursued by a political government but rather an inner and positive peace which should not be divorced from the ‘triumphal’ element.”[3] [5]

This inner peace resonates through the kingdom to bannermen and commoner alike to a point where there must only be a Stark in Winterfell for there to be true peace in the North. They are the axle with which the wheel rotates around, they are the pole star with which the other stars circle. If they go, things fall apart.

When Bran and the Reed siblings are on their journey beyond the Wall, a minor noble helps them along the way, feigning ignorance of who they are, but helping them nonetheless. Despite Theon having taken Winterfell, and Ramsey Bolton having taken it from him, and Robb headed to South “to play the game of thrones,” the Liddle (his House name) extol the virtue of the Starks and their effect on the North saying, “When there was a Stark in Winterfell, a maiden girl could walk down the kingsroad in her name-day gown and still go unmolested, and travelers could find fire, bread, and salt at many an inn and holdfast. But the nights are colder now, and doors are closed.”[4] [6] Bread and salt are important, as they symbolize the guest right, an assurance of safety under another’s roof.

Our own present-day society is so far removed from these basic principles that we truly cannot imagine a world where there was so much intrinsic trust amongst a community. Men were clearly in control of their passions and happy to generously help strangers.

This effect can only occur when there is a ruler that bears in mind the metaphysical aspect of life on the physical realm.

Similarly, the Houses reciprocate their liege lord’s gravity with their own seriousness in swearing loyalty and keeping loyalty.

A great example of this is with House Reed of Greywater Watch. The crannogmen, as they’re called, are a smaller folk that are looked down upon by most of Westeros for being poor and small of stature. Yet, Howland Reed, their current lord, was one of Ned’s best friends, and when Robb is crowned king, his children, Jojen and Meera, come to pay homage. Their oath is filled with symbolism and more importantly, the reciprocity of the feudal arrangement: “To Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater. Hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you. I swear it by earth and water. I swear it by bronze and iron. We swear it by ice and fire.”[5] [7]

The Reeds are not alone in this zeal for House Stark.

In fact, the Starks are the only family that garners loyalty through love over fear. In a witenagemot, the Northern lords are deciding what to do about Ned’s death and Robb’s invitation to come to King’s Landing to “bend the knee.” Jon Umber, a burly and boisterous bannermen stands up, inspired and declares:

“MY LORDS! Here is what I say to these two kings! Renly Baratheon is nothing to me, nor Stannis neither. Why should they rule over me and mine from some flowery seat in Highgarden or Dorne? What do they know of the Wall or the wolfswood or the barrows of the First Men? Even their gods are wrong. The Others take the Lannisters too, I’ve had a bellyful of them. Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we married, and the dragons are all dead! There sits the only king I mean to bow my knee to, m’lords. The King in the North!”[6] [8]

Thus, Robb, is elected king by the moot — and to cheers, no less.[7] [9]

Even after the Red Wedding, and despite an ostensible loyalty to the new regime, the Northern lords seem to be plotting to get a Stark back in Winterfell. They have to be covert about such maneuvers, but every now and then the zeal resurfaces.

When Stannis, who is desirous of Northern support, asks the ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island for her allegiance, he receives this reply, “Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK.”[8] [10] This is even when it is believed that there are no living male heirs of the Starks.

Another young girl, Wylla Manderly, from the opposite end of the North, can no longer bear her father’s perceived weakness and complaisance with the Freys and Lannisters and blurts out in his court:

“I know about the promise . . . Maester Theomore, tell them! A thousand years before the Conquest, a promise was made, and oaths were sworn in the Wolf’s Den before the old gods and the new. When we were sore beset and friendless, hounded from our homes and in peril of our lives, the wolves took us in and nourished us and protected us against our enemies. The city is built upon the land they gave us. In return we swore that we should always be their men. Stark men!”[9] [11]

The Manderlys were driven away from the southwest of Westeros and are true outsiders to the North, yet, the Starks took them in.

We begin to see the association of the direwolf — or more precisely the wolf pack — as embodied by the Starks. As Ned says to Arya back in A Game of Thrones, “Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm.”[10] [12]

We see two things here.

The first is the overarching philosophy of the Starks.

The second, and more unwittingly on Ned’s part, is that metaphysical aspect of Summer and Winter. Since the Long Night, the Seven Kingdoms have fallen upon aestival squabbles. The Starks, however, always remembering that “Winter is Coming,” on both a physical and metaphysical level, guided the North through it.

But how have things become so bad for the Starks?

I answer: It is because the Starks themselves have forgotten their words: “Winter is Coming.” This is ironic, because another northern quote is, “The North Remembers.” The sad truth is that the Starks have forgotten. The Starks lost the Mandate of Heaven (a Confucian imperial term), and this saga is largely about them remembering the meaning of their words.

For instance, Ned is incredulous at the deserter in Bran’s first chapter. He says, “The poor man was half-mad. Something had put a fear in him so deep that my words could not reach him.” He chalks it up to wildlings. However, Catelyn, who is not a Northern woman by birth, says there are “darker things beyond the Wall.” Ned smiles and says that she has listened to too many of Old Nan’s stories.

Ned’s father, Rickard, is also accused by many in the North of having “southron ambitions,” meaning that he had ambition in the game of thrones. Hence his calculated betrothals with the other Great Houses of Westeros, which, unbelievably, was the first attempt at such an endeavor. After the abovementioned Liddle lauds the Starks, he laments they’re gotten involved in “the game of thrones.”

Now, taking magical creatures with a grain of salt or marrying equally prestigious houses is no indictment in and of itself. However, this is not the duty of the Stark family. “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell,” as the saying goes, and as their direwolf sigil suggests, staying in the south too long ends up in death.

We even find the portentous dead direwolf mother, killed by a stag (House Baratheon’s sigil) and her scattered pups in an early Bran chapter.

There is only one other time that I am aware of that a Stark goes south and does not regret it. This was during the Dance of the Dragons. 157 years after Aegon’s Conquest (AC), Cregan Stark came with a host at the end of the civil war, and despite being on the losing side, sought justice for the poisoned, victorious king. He actually ended up being Hand of the King for one day, and spent only six days in King’s Landing as he presided over executions and trials.

In conclusion, we must go back to the symbolism and significance of the direwolf on the Stark banner. Martin could not have picked a better animal to symbolize the Starks’ role in this saga. We should also bear in mind the German word for “strong” is “stark,” and the same arc can be said for their surname as can be said for their sigil, the wolf. It isn’t just physical strength, but can also mean “powerful, effective.” The Starks lose their “Starkness” by traveling south and forgetting the past.

Evola, again, comes in handy in elaborating on the heroic cycle and the dual meaning of the wolf:

Concerning the “wolf” and the “Age of the Wolf” here portrayed as synonymous with the Bronze Age and with the “Dark Age,” we must keep in mind that this symbolism also has an opposite meaning: the wolf was associated with Apollo and with the (λύκος, ly-kos, lyke), not only among the Hellenes but also among the Celts. The positive meaning of the wolf appears in the Roman Cycle, in which the wolf and the eagle appeared as symbols of the “eternal city”. . . . The wolf — in Nordic tradition — was related to the primordial, warrior element takes on a negative meaning when this element loses control and becomes unleashed.[11] [13]

We see the dual meaning of the wolf associated with the books’ symbolism of Ice, as well, which is always associated with Stark blood, the Others, and Winter. We could also stretch the eagle into a dragon, and again have Ice and Fire both possessing an eternal city (i.e., Winterfell and King’s Landing). Ice and Fire have the tension of the strings on a harp and form a song.

All of this talk of winter is making me cold, so in the next essay we will examine Daenerys Targaryen and how she represents the Platonic tyrant, as described in The Republic. The Targaryens have a very different feel from the Starks for many of reasons, but we cannot doubt that they do possess an imperium (i.e., “power to command”) that may even be more important and universal than the Starks.


[1] [14] The descendants of the First Men bend the knee with great difficulty, unless the person has “it.”

[2] [15] The Rat Cook, A Wiki of Ice and Fire, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Rat_Cook [16]

[3] [17] Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, translated by Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1995), p. 18.

[4] [18] George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), p. 334.

[5] [19] George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (New York: Bantam Books, 1999), p. 329.

[6] [20] George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), p. 796.

[7] [21] NB: Yes, the ironborn also have a more formal kingsmoot, but Euron Greyjoy wins the men over with bullion and booty. Robb does not propose himself, nor actively search for votes.

[8] [22] George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), p. 52.

[9] [23] Martin, A Dance with Dragons, p. 250.

[10] [24] Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 223.

[11] [25] Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger, translated by Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003), p. 221.