This article includes major Game of Thrones spoilers pertaining to all seasons.
Eight years in and Game of Thrones can still surprise us to heartbreaking effect. For example, we learned just in season 6 why Hodor is called Hodor, and suddenly the jokes about the character came to a screeching halt as fans realized that from the very beginning, George R.R. Martin (and thus David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) had introduced this hapless servant with the intention of reveling in how his master and lord of the manner ruined his life via time travel.
And it still hurts.
Like the War of the Five Kings, which similarly hangs over all of Westeros, even if all said five kings are dead, belated revelations continue to cast things in a new light every season. Consider it wasn’t until season 4 that we learned the real origin of a conflict that went all the way back to the inaugural year. And it wasn’t revealed with a dragonfire blast or the clang of swords, but rather a whisper:
“What wife would trust you with the way I’ve trusted you,” Lady Lysa Arryn of the Vale rhetorically asked Petyr Baelish, the man known as Littlefinger. “When you gave me those drops and told me to pour them into Jon’s wine, my husband’s wine; when you told me to write a letter to Cat, telling her that it was the Lannisters—“
This reveal about Littlefinger and Lysa’s conniving schemes that predates even the series premiere (all the way from 2011!) is another example of putting an entirely new spin on matters that used to seem as settled as Hodor’s simplicity. After all, this was the central war that has claimed the lives of nearly every beloved character on the show—Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and even a few non-Starks like Theon Greyjoy’s mojo. It also raised an interesting question:
Who exactly is responsible for this war? Despite being the driving monster for all of the non-zombie and dragon related storylines in Game of Thrones, it is still a tangled web we are only now fully unraveling. So join us as we unpack it all by examining the nine characters most responsible for starting the war.
10. Robb Stark, The King in the North
Aye, we have to begin where the truth hurts the most: the valiant and gallant boy king Robb Stark—written in the George R.R. Martin novels to be the virtuous doppelgänger of Joffrey Baratheon and embodied by uber-dreamy Richard Madden on the show—played a hand in the forging of this historic war. To be sure, most of the groundwork was already laid prior to Robb even setting out from Winterfell to march south, and his low placement on this list is indicative of the fact that he more escalated and exacerbated this war, as opposed to throwing the first wildfire canister. Nonetheless, Robb played a decisive role in turning what could have been a swift, successful rebellion into a protracted conflict that cost him his life, his mother’s life, the lives of thousands of bannermen, and even the loss of a wife and unborn child…
Ignoring the numerous missteps Robb took as a tactician in this war, which will undoubtedly fill a ponderous tome in Oldtown one day, the one non-Frey related error Robb made that most precipitated his fate was declaring himself King in the North by proudly accepting that mantle at Great Jon Umber’s insistence. Despite being a great warrior with a noble and just cause to fight after his father was accused of treason (never mind unfairly beheaded), Robb still gave into a vanity hidden within most Starks’ unspoken dreams: to be the king who un-knelt.
Unfortunately, the political realities of declaring himself king meant that he could not side with either Baratheon when the banners were raised from Dragonstone to Storm’s End. The show softens this mistake by presenting Renly as open to the idea of Robb calling himself king, as long as kneels before Renly, but I have my doubts that Catelyn could convince Robb’s newfound ego in season 2 that this would have been a wise course of action, even if Renly were not slain.
Furthermore, if Robb simply demanded justice for Ned’s beheading and the return of his sister(s), Stannis would have gladly taken this Northern ally who did not attempt to usurp a kingdom that was his by rights. In which case, it would not have been simply Stannis’ forces sailing on King’s Landing from the east; it would have also been a coordinated attack of 18,000 Northmen crashing down on a barely-protected capital’s northern gates too. Tyrion’s fire trick could only work once and only on the sea. Instead of being overtaken by the united forces of Highgarden and Casterly Rock, Stannis would have had ally Robb deal with those forces on land, which the Young Wolf could have scouted the presence of, while Stannis took the Red Keep from the water. Joffrey, Cersei, Tyrion, and probably Sansa would all be dead, but the war would have been won, and Robb would have had his revenge. Instead, it now rests on his sisters to avenge the removal of his pretty, pretty crown.
9. Tywin Lannister, Warden of the West
At first attempt of writing this list, I did not include Tywin Lannister, because he was primarily not an instigator; he simply reacted to the poor decisions of those around him, including his children. However, even if he did not offer the first public challenge to another’s household (that would be Catelyn Stark who took his son Tyrion hostage on the King’s Road), his unsurprising retaliation escalated the situation to wholesale slaughter. Escalation might have been inevitable at that point, but Tywin still played his part to a tee by enthusiastically ordering a needlessly cruel response by commanding Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain) to “set the riverlands on fire.”
This event occurs in the first season after Casterly Rock learns of the Starks’ kidnapping of Tyrion Lannister. In retrospect, this attack was unprompted as for all their sins, the Lannisters were innocent of the murder attempt on Bran Stark’s life which Catelyn mistakenly accused Tyrion of, but there was nothing so guileless about Tywin’s reply. Sending a dead trout to Lord Eddard Stark in King’s Landing, Tywin publicly threatened Ned and his wife’s ancestral family in Riverrun while having smallfolk not just burned out of their homes in the riverlands, but tortured and mutilated by a sadist. Perhaps war was inescapable, and Tywin simply elected brutal effiency to expedite its end, but it was also an aggressively violent response that portended how Tywin would run the Lannister’s side throughout the rest of his life, right down to the Red Wedding. Less a starter than a finisher, this Machiavellian genius still has plenty of blood on his hands.
8. Renly Baratheon, The King of Storm’s End
Of course Catelyn and Robb could have had an easier time figuring out which Baratheon brother to entreat if the two had stood united. This is not to say that Renly was in the wrong for declaring himself king. Despite what Stannis’ rather vocal internet fan community will attest, the history of their family proves Varys’ season 2 words true: Power resides where men believe it resides. And Renly was a much more powerful man in the eyes of Westerosi lords, from Winterfell to the Reach. Stannis had the best claim on the throne since Joffrey and Tommen are incest-babies not of Robert’s seed, and Renly was his younger brother. However, Stannis is actually quite bad at the game of thrones that all these characters play. It’s why the only lords he could initially convince of his kinghood were either his wife’s family’s bannermen or upstart smugglers he had knighted.
Still, Renly did not anticipate that if Stannis couldn’t win the game, he’d knock the board over and declare himself victorious at his brother’s expense. Which is more or less what Stannis did when he cheated by bringing magic into the equation. Using Melisandre’s womb as his greatest weapon, a shadow baby was born that committed the ultimate sin of fratricide. Yet Stannis would not have had to damn himself in the eyes of the old gods and the new if Renly had not tried to jump the line of succession and declared himself king. Even more importantly, if Renly and Stannis had stood united, then Highgarden would have never strayed to the Lannister’s war encampment.
Without Highgarden, Tywin Lannister’s surprise attack on the Blackwater may not have been so surprising… or decisive. Beyond that, even if King’s Landing survived this first siege, it would still starve without grain shipments from the Reach, and the first mob attack on Joffrey in season 2 would become one of many. If Renly had stayed the course with his brother, the Lannisters would probably have not lasted much longer, even if they had somehow improbably survived the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
7. Balon Greyjoy, King of the Iron Islands
Nobody cares much for the Greyjoys or the Ironborn as a whole. That is probably because they’re the backwoods rednecks of Westeros. Oh sure, they fashion themselves as what we imagine Vikings were like, but they’d be more akin to if Belgium or Luxembourg decided tomorrow that they should conquer the entirety of continental Europe. Multiple times. Every generation, the Ironborn from a few sparse, under-populated islands think that they can call themselves kings, and every generation they have to earn another rude awakening.
The stupidest of these proud knuckle-draggers is Balon Greyjoy. The equivalent of a good old boy from Myrtle Beach who paints a Confederate flag on his pick-up truck, Balon seems to think the Ironborn shall rise again, even though the last time he led his countrymen to Westeros proper by burning Lannisport into the sea, the combined forces of King’s Landing, Storm’s End, and Winterfell descended on his home, which resulted in the deaths of two of his sons and the kidnapping of a third. Honestly, Robert and Ned should have slit Balon’s throat and been done with it.
When Theon Greyjoy returns home to tell Balon of a potential alliance with Robb Stark, Balon wisely treats this with some suspicion. But not because Robb’s chances of winning seemed dubious at best, but because he had a far more asinine idea: He will take the North while the Young Wolf is fighting in the South. Of course whether Robb lived or died, the North’s armies would come back one day, and they were not about to bend the knee to a couple of boot-soaked inbreds who proudly admit that they do not know how to ride horses or farm the land. They’re morons. All Balon did was throw the North into complete disarray, creating a power vacuum for monsters like Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton, to feed on the chaos. But it will never end for them in anything less than complete and utter defeat. Is there anything worse than a people who keep fighting a war they’ve already lost generation after generation?
6. Catelyn Stark
Catelyn Stark gets a lot of unfair hate on the internet from many, many male fans. A large part of this is due to her irrational disdain and cruelty toward Jon Snow. But then again, they only shared a few chapters together in the first “A Song of Ice and Fire” novel and never saw each other again after the second episode of season 1. It’s more probable that a lot of this vitriol is a result of her being the mother at the war council table. In the books, Martin intentionally subverts readers’ expectations by never writing a single chapter from Robb’s point-of-view, preferring instead to present him through the eyes of his grieving and highly protective mom.
However, it should be noted that Catelyn actually gave Robb more sound counsel than any of his other bannermen in regards to not sending Theon Greyjoy home to Pyke, successfully entreating with Renly (on the show, at least), and pointing out time-and-again that executing Karstarks or breaking your oath to the Freys could have dire consequences. As for her decision in regards to the Kingslayer, the release of Jaime Lannister likely saved the oathbreaker’s life since Karstark wanted blood that night, and later demonstrated Cat’s fears were not unfounded when he murdered two innocent children of distant relation to Jaime. And if the Kingslayer died, Sansa’s head would now rot on a spike above the Red Keep.
But in spite of my defense of her character, there is no denying that she still made two grievous errors in season 1. The first was that she trusted Littlefinger due to his boyhood crush on her, and by extension she convinced Ned Stark to trust the smiling mockingbird. The second was that she believed Lord Petyr Baelish when he said that the knife belonged to the Imp.
When Catelyn Stark took Tyrion Lannister hostage, it ignited a fuse that had been set for her after a not-so-shadowy hand even lit the match in her own. While the action did not start the full-scale war that would follow Ned’s execution, it caused whispered Stark grievances to become open accusations. Tyrion, as we the audience knew, was innocent. But the bigger problem is that it put the Starks and Lannisters on a collision course, resulting in Jaime Lannister crippling her husband on the streets of King’s Landing. But even after this injury that resulted in the death of two Stark men, the war could have been averted if the map were not already on fire. It’s a shame that cooler heads failed to put it out before it engulfed the whole continent.
5. Jaime and Cersei Lannister
Whether intentional or not, two of the most incredibly guilty of sowing the seeds for war are Jaime and Cersei Lannister, simply because of their sibling affection. In other words, if Jaime didn’t sleep with his married sister again and again, begetting three children of incest, then chances are the unseen forces would not have taken hold of them for political convenience.
Besides stating the obvious—incest is gross—these two should have known the dangerous game their lovemaking was playing, particularly after Cersei became queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead of having children by her admittedly slothful and repugnant husband, Cersei made it a point that Jaime sired all three of her children, golden haired Lannisters in Baratheon clothing. Unfortunately, this was not just a treasonous act; it put three imposters in line for the throne.
It also meant they could have a family savings group decapitation discount if Robert ever found out. Hence Jaime knocking Bran Stark out a window to protect his family. This action, more than Cat’s arrest of Tyrion Lannister, put their families on an unavoidable path toward violence and accusation.
And when you factor in the parentage of Jofrrey, Tommen, and Myrcella, it placed the whole realm in a graver danger. Because Jaime and Cersei must have each other and no other, from a legal technicality point-of-view, the Iron Throne was Stannis’ by rights. And from a Machiavellian POV, it was thus Renly’s for the taking. And to protect this secret, they inadvertently made an enemy out of the Stark family for a lifetime. Kill as many Starks as you can, the North remembers, and the North does not forgive. Indeed, there could be an entire argument made that Jaime and Cersei’s unholy love/lust is the biggest culprit in starting the war…
4. Robert Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms
But then again, Jaime and Cersei Lannister weren’t in charge. Robert was king, and Robert never noticed that a member of his Kingsguard was making him a cuckold fool every night in his wife’s bed.
Robert was the right man to lead a rebellion against the Mad King, but history has more than shown he was the wrong person to govern a kingdom, much less seven of them. Whether Ned Stark would have been a better king is an interesting point of dispute, however Robert in the end made for a lousy monarch. His early decision to forgo the Lannister waffling between implicit support of the Targaryen dynasty and then last minute fair-weather aid of the rebellion is understandable. Tywin Lannister may have visited war crimes upon the Targaryen family (not like Robert would have spared them execution) and is as trustworthy as a sellsword with wine in his belly, but Tywin was also rich, powerful, and a necessary evil in maintaining a peace in the tumultuous days following the sacking of King’s Landing. It is also why Robert shrewdly allowed Jaime Lannister to continue being a Kingsguard knight after breaking his oath to Aerys II.
No, the problem is that Robert delegated all kingly duties to Jon Arryn and lost himself in a sea of wine and whores. While Robert spent the last 17-plus years of his life out to lunch, his small council became encroached with Lannister tools like Pycelle and self-serving vipers, such as Petyr Baelish.
Then there is the fact that he missed his wife sleeping with her brother, ensuring that Robert’s three children were that in name only. If Robert had been sober and cognizant for more than the first few minutes of consciousness he enjoyed every morning, he might have been able to sniff out how Tywin Lannister and his children surrounded him with enemies that would work against his interests. Perhaps he would not have had to rely on too-honest-for-his-own-good Ned Stark to figure out these conspiracies, and perhaps he wouldn’t have been murdered by a boar, leaving the affairs of his kingdoms in complete disarray without a strong claim to the throne. Robert was king, and the Silver Stag stops with him.
3. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King
Let it be said that never was there a more honorable or righteous man on a Baratheon small council than Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, and Hand of the King. Also, let it be said that there was never a more foolish and boneheaded player in the game of thrones. To be sure, Ned Stark is a good person which, in George R.R. Martin’s world, is an increasing rarity. However, his first instinct about being unfit to serve as Hand of the King should have been the one he took to heart, because when Ned rode south, he rightfully predicted that he’d never return north.
The entire first season (and volume of Martin’s opus) is dedicated to understanding why a thoroughly great guy like Ned could never survive in a world of political intrigue with even a passing resemblance to true human behavior. And in Game of Thrones’ case, this meant planting many seeds for the coming of an apocalyptic war that would desolate the countryside, not to mention Ned’s own family. Eddard made many mistakes during his brief stint at King’s Landing, so let’s boil it down to the essentials.
a) When he learned that Catelyn had taken Tyrion Lannister hostage, he should not have declared open war on the Lannisters by stripping Ser Gregor Clegane of all titles, declaring him a traitor, and summoning Tywin Lannister to court in the way that Ned’s father and brother were once called upon by Aerys Targaryen. This decision turned a family quarrel (which Tywin admittedly was cruelly and sadistically taking to the smallfolk near Riverrun) into an actual war of attrition in the ruling class where someone of power and political importance would need to die or be banished. This in turn likely accelerated the Lannister timetable.
b) When Ned had his smoking gun in the color of a Lannister hair, he should not have made the biggest mistake of his life by telling Cersei Lannister that he knew of her incestuous treason. If he had waited for Robert’s return, even that drunkard could have had her and the children arrested, and Tywin Lannister would stand alone as his offspring were declared incestuous betrayers of the crown, just as all the rest of the Seven Kingdoms would fall behind Robert. The war would never have started, because Tywin would have had to let them die or see the entire Lannister House sink beneath the crown’s fury. Ned would have had Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella’s blood on his hands… but better than the blood his own children ended up shedding.
c) After forcing the decision that made war inevitable (telling Cersei), he should have shorn up allies in the immediate aftermath of the “accidental” death of Robert. The first choice would be obviously Robert himself. If he had told Robert on his deathbed what had happened, Robert would have at the very least stricken Joffrey from the will. Of course words are wind, so Ned aligning himself with Renly or Littlefinger would have also saved his neck, at least in the short-term. Littlefinger proves he is untrustworthy time and again, so perhaps trying to work with him in manipulating Joffrey seems dubious. But an immediate alliance with Renly and the arrest of the Lannisters would have kept his head on long enough as the forces of the North, Storm’s End, Highgarden, and the Riverlands united against the coming Lannister storm…
But Ned opted for none of the above. By warning Cersei, he cemented that there would be a clash of swords between their houses. And by refusing any friends, he assured that he’d be in chains before the end of the day.
2. Joffrey “Baratheon,” King of the Seven Kingdoms
Still, it could have been a short and relatively bloodless war if not for the actions of this complete and utter moron. Even before Season 4’s revelations of the (blessedly) departed Joffrey Baratheon, the fact that this war has lasted years is due in large part to the fact that the stupidest character in the series was given the most unchecked power.
Following the arrest of Eddard Stark, Cersei held the most powerful and respected man of the North in her grasp. The mummer’s farce she enacted with Littlefinger, Pycelle, and Varys worked beautifully too. Sansa Stark would publicly plead before the Red Keep for mercy, and Ned would be “spared” to a life of exile in the Night’s Watch, taking the truth of Joffrey’s parentage with him. Alas, Joffrey had to be the one to carry out the sentence.
Like a petulant child craving attention, Joffrey overreached when he had Ned Stark executed to the surprise of everyone, including his mother. The sudden beheading threw away any chance of diplomacy with the Starks, who had yet to declare Robb king. In exchange for Ned’s life and the presumable return of at least Sansa Stark to her family, the North bannermen would return home, if still frustrated with the Lannisters’ crimes. It would not have turned into a war that set the riverlands on further fire, and Tywin would only have to contend with Stannis and/or Renly under such pretenses.
This childish outburst of death was only compounded when Cersei received word that Jaime Lannister was captured by Robb Stark at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. If Joffrey still had a living Ned Stark in his dungeons, he could have traded Ned for Jaime and likely used this as a diplomatic overture to end aggression on both sides. Instead Joffrey threw the Starks and Lannisters into a generational conflict that even after the Red Wedding continues in the shadow pockets with enemies that Joffrey’s heirs still know nothing about.
But then there is the additional revelation in the books, which the show opted to ignore… it was Joffrey who paid the assassin with a Valyrian knife to murder a comatose Bran Stark in season 1’s counterpoint, A Game of Thrones. Again, this was not done out of anything but malicious idiocy and lack of forethought on Joffrey’s part. He heard distant Robert say that he’d put the boy out of his misery, and the little sociopathic king-to-be used a weapon from Robert’s own armory to see the deed done. This inadvertently placed the blame directly at his mother and uncle-dad’s feet. Tyrion figures out as much during the wedding feast in the book A Storm of Swords when Joffrey is still alive (a sequence cut from this show). This is the kind of vicious arrogance and stupidity that few can predict. Only a precious few…
1. Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
Yet, above all others, it should be apparent by now that Petyr Baelish is more responsible for the War of Five Kings than any man who has ever worn a crown.
When Game of Thrones starts, viewers are immediately keyed in much quicker than Ned Stark to Littlefinger’s duplicity. Rounded off often with Varys for some hilarious banter as scheming courtiers, Littlefinger is always in the background as the smiling fiend and not-so-secretive pervert (right, Sansa?). However, he is so much worse than that. While Varys has proven interested in serving the realm in the least bloody way possible, Littlefinger is only interested in serving himself at the expense of all others. Be it even a desired lover like Catelyn Stark or her husband and sons, Petyr would watch an entire realm burn if it meant advancement in power.
This has never been more crystallized than in the cascading revelations in season 4: It was Littlefinger who had Jon Arryn murdered, by his wife’s own hand no less, and not the constantly presumed guilty Cersei Lannister and her puppet Pycelle; it was Littlefinger, who apparently sent a knife for Bran Stark’s throat and then pointed Catelyn and Ned toward Tyrion Lannister; it was also Littlefinger who schemed with the Tyrells within moments of Renly’s death to send King Joffrey to his grave too. Sure, the last bit wasn’t war related, but it was certainly cathartic and reveals no such loyalties existed for the man newly named Lord of Harrenhal by the Lannisters.
In retrospect, it would appear that Littlefinger wholly engineered a conflict between the Starks and Lannisters because he knew of the Lannisters’ weakness of character through incest, arrogance, and treachery, and he knew of the Starks’ strength of action in honor, duty, and loyalty. It is safe to assume Petyr Baelish considers all of these traits burdensome flaws worthy only of exploitation. By having Jon Arryn murdered, and then forcing Lysa Arryn to tell Eddard and Cat that it was the Lannisters who did it, he set Ned out on a not-so-secret mystery that inevitably ended with Winterfell in direct confrontation with Casterly Rock. The bloodshed in the middle was the opening he needed to jump from Master of Coin to the man who kept the Vale out of the war by consulting and marrying Lysa Arryn, becoming a lord with an army in the process.
Many Starks and Lannisters are now dead, Lysa Arryn too, but it was not until the supernaturally aided Starks trapped Littlefinger in their own web of lies did his reign as Lord of Harrenhal, and the implicit ruler of one of the only two kingdoms that stayed blissfully free of war, end. If not for the perverse love he held for his child protégé, Sansa, it is easy to speculate that he might never have gone down.
As Varys recognized in the season 1 finale, “A man with great ambition and no morals, I wouldn’t bet against you.” Chillingly, those words were said before Littlefinger enjoyed having his own unused and unexhausted army of men at his back. In the wake of weddings both purple and red, a new board was set, and Littlefinger’s pieces were moving. Perhaps if he had only left his own grotesque weaknesses alone and never marched North, they would be moving still.
A version of this article was first published on May 7, 2014.