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In Defence of Stannis of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.
Spoiler Warning: This post contains a couple (very) mild book spoilers for A Dance with Dragons.
I’ve added a strikethrough for anyone who wants to skip over these lines but still read the rest of the piece.
Stannis gets a lot of hate and I think it’s entirely unjustified. So, to quote one overly-popular royal:
“I will answer injustice with justice.”
Here’s why you should re-examine your views towards the One True King of Westeros.
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends.” – Donal Noye, A Clash of Kings, Jon I
First and foremost, Stannis is a a fascinating character. Or, at least, the situation he’s facing makes him an interesting one. My friend Andrew on Twitter summed it up best: “It’s the complexity of having righteous indignation when no-one else gives a shit, and maybe compromising your integrity to act upon it.” (Andrew is, ironically, a notorious Stannis-hater, but lately he’s started to come around somewhat.)
Stannis being forced to compromise his integrity and to deal with moral greys in a world he has always perceived as black and white is a fascinating inner-conflict. This is why I’ve always wanted to read more about Stannis during Robert’s Rebellion: torn between his duty to his older brother and his duty to his King.
“…The truth is a bitter draught at times. Aerys? If you only knew . . . that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” He grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Oft times I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
This quote leads me onto a second point: some people doubt his sincerity, but I truly believe Stannis doesn’t want the Iron Throne for his own benefit. Everytime he talks about the throne and of ruling, we sense the same reluctance we see in this quote. He’s driven not by a lust for power but by a sense of law and justice. He has the rightful claim, and so he will press it. Even when all hope seems gone, he will fight until the bitter end. As Cenk Uygur comically puts it: “He’s a relentless motherfucker: ‘Oh, my entire army got wiped out? That’s interesting…anyway, how are we going to win?'”
There’s something inherently admirable in his tenacity.
Though his disadvantaged position at times conceals it, Stannis is undoubtedly the best military commander in the Seven Kingdoms. Better than Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark ever were.
During Robert’s Rebellion he held Storm’s End under siege for an entire year when he was (I believe) only 18. During Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion he beat the Ironborn at sea with little to no experience in naval combat, smashing the Iron Fleet off of Fair Isle. At the Battle of the Blackwater he came within an arm’s reach of becoming the first person to ever successfully storm King’s Landing (he was only beaten by wildfire magic). He smashed the wildling army despite it being 10x the size of his own force.
He went all Macbeth on the Ironborn at Deepwood Motte, using trees to mask his approach to the castle. Almost every decision he makes, even the non-military ones, have some larger tactical purpose. Maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive if you don’t know the details of the battles but this essay is a complete analysis of Stannis as a military commander: over 10,000 words long, astoundingly well-researched and detailed, it’s a very interesting read and will convince you of Stannis’s military genuis.
Seduced by Dark Magic?
Okay, I think it’s time to address the fiery red priestess in the room.
“Stannis is controlled by the Red Women!”, I hear the naysays cry.
Firstly, Stannis has too much of an iron will to be ‘controlled’ by anyone. Secondly, Melisandre clearly demonstrated that she has magical powers and can see the future – Stannis would have been a fool NOT to use her to his advantage. And using her is exactly what he’s doing. Despite seeing R’hollor’s power for himself Stannis remains stubbornly unimpressed. How many men – how many Kings – would be firmly wrapped around Melisandre’s finger at this point? When someone who can see the future tells you that you are Azor Ahai reborn that kind of thing is likely to go to your head, but Stannis has never succumbed to that kind of egotism. Melisandre certainly represents the devil on his shoulder, but Stannis will never be a religious zealot and though he may be compromising his integrity, he shows no sign of becoming a slave to Melisandre’s will. Melisandre and her Red God are only tools he means to use to win the Iron Throne.
Ignore the Propaganda: Stannis has the makings of a great King
In the past even I have qualified my love for Stannis with the admission I didn’t think he’d make a good King, but recently I’m not so sure about this. In fact, I’ve come to think Stannis may well be the best King or Queen Westeros could hope for.
Varys once said of Stannis:
“There’s no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” – Varys, A Game of Thrones, Ned XV
Indeed. But (
leaving Danaerys out of it because at this point I doubt she’ll ever leave for Westeros) the options are not between hard justice and gentle forgiveness. The choice is between Stannis’s justice and Cersei’s outright cruelty, and I certainly know which I’d pick. And on a related note; the small council, the court and by extension the realm itself has been thoroughly corrupted by the likes of Cersei, Varys and Littlefinger, the selfish and the power-hungry. Somehow I don’t see them and their ilk prospering under a Stannis administration.
“There must be justice […] I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
Some may counter that his black-and-white sense of right and wrong means Stannis isn’t diplomatic enough to sit the Iron Throne. But there’s evidence to the contrary.
He was diplomatic enough to win over the mountain clans, who Jon admits are a particularly quarrelsome people. If diplomacy is called for Stannis is smart enough to see it.
Now, onto the main portion of my argument. Renly once told Ned Stark:
“He inspires no love nor loyalty. He is not a King.” Renly Baratheon, Game of Thrones, S1E7
This is one of the main criticisms against Stannis – he is unloved and therefore would be unable to command loyalty and respect from his subjects if he were King. But again it is demonstrably untrue. Quite the opposite: Stannis commands a loyalty and even love from his followers that few other leaders could dream of. During the strenuous, agonising, year-long siege of Storm’s End there was only one person who attempted to open the gates to Mace Tyrell’s army. The betrayal failed, but it would have been easy for Stannis’ men to turn on him en masse and open the gates in exchange for food and riches. Instead they starved for him. Much later his men would march to meet Renly’s army on the battlefield knowing they would hopelessly outnumbered, yet they still trusted in their King. Then they burned for Stannis on the Blackwater. Then, even after that crushing defeat when all hope for his cause seemed lost, they rode North with him, braving the cold and the snow to smash Mance Raydar’s wildling army Beyond-the-Wall. And through each hardship Stannis was always right there with his men. He inspires fierce love and loyalty from his subjects because he sufferes everything he asks them to suffer. And of course, that’s not even to mention the most notable example of love and loyalty Stannis elicits from his subjects. (*Cough*, Davos.)
The Onion Knight
Speaking of our Davos, he is living proof that Stannis is much more progressive when it comes to birth than anyone else. Granted, Varys and Littlefinger have risen high, too, but somehow it feels much less wholesome when they’re used exclusively for spying and sabotage. Stannis raised Davos up because he rewards good deeds and leal service. This is a more just way of doing things and the realm itself would be the better for it. And if I had to choose sides in any confict then I feel more than comfortable following the lead of a man like Davos Seaworth, one of the only genuinely good people in the entire series.
Winter is Coming: Protector of the Realm
The fact that Stannis is the only King to actively defend the realm has been mentioned so many times it’s like to lose its significance, but it’s no small thing. The Game of Thrones is meaningless in the face of what Westeros will be facing very soon, and Stannis is the ONLY candidate who takes the threat seriously and is willing to do anything about it.