This latest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones has, for the first time, really put the three Baratheon brothers in some focus, comparing and contrasting them. It seemed worthwhile to us to go into more detail, because these characters play a major part in the series and because their relationships with one another help to illuminate some facets of the setting. We see loving families, like the Starks, and we see dysfunctional ones, like the Lannisters, but with the Baratheons there’s something different going on, a kind of distance that doesn’t really fit dysfunction, but certainly isn’t very happy.
But first, the obligatory spoiler warning: we’ll be discussing all novels of the series, not just the first!
First, a little family history so we’re all up to speed. According to the histories, the Baratheons are descendants of one Orys Baratheon, a commander under Aegon the Conqueror when he and his sisters invaded the Seven Kingdoms. It’s claimed he was actually their bastard half-brother, but we’ve never had any further information to form a real opinion about it. Personally killing the last Storm King, Argilac the Arrogant, Orys was rewarded with Argilac’s seat at Storm’s End, his lands... and his daughter, from whom he took the sigil of the crowned stag and the words, “Ours is the Fury!”
It’s interesting, actually, that he’d do that. It would make political sense since it stressed continuity, that his children would be Argilac’s grandchildren and the like. But it takes a certain lack of overweening pride to be willing to bury your legacy with the trappings of the family you just conquered by force.
From there, the Baratheons have ruled the stormlands and the Dornish Marches, a region that’s... well, not the wealthiest or the most populous in the Seven Kingdoms. Martin has stated, however, that the Marcher lords have very strong castles and a significant martial tradition, due to a thousand years of warfare with the Reach and the Dornishmen, no doubt riffing on the lords of the Welsh marches and Scottish border. Fast forward 283 years later, and that tradition certainly stood Robert in good stead against the forces of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen.
Not all of his lords were loyal, though, and Lords Grandison, Cafferen, and Fell planned to join their forces at Summerhall to take down their rebellious lord in the name of the king. Unfortunately for him, Robert had a gift for swift action. As soon as he learned of their plot, he raced ahead of them, beat them to Summerhall, and then defeated each lord in turn as he approached Summerhall. Three battles won, in a single day! Best of all, though one of the lords died, Robert soon made the other two (and the dead lord’s son) devoted friends and allies who repented any disloyalty. He had that gift.
He ends up leaving Storm’s End behind, in the end, with an army. The time line is hazy, but what we do know is that he leaves Stannis—a bare year younger—behind, as well as little Renly, all of six years old, the baby of the family. Stannis proved himself in that long year, when Lords Tyrell and Redwyne laid siege to Storm’s End. Unyielding, Stannis and his garrison were down to gnawing on shoe leather and keeping the bodies of the dead around “just in case” when a smuggler by the name of Davos snuck past the Redwyne blockade to deliver a load of onions and salt fish, winning a knighthood from Stannis for the deed... and also losing the last knuckle of each finger from a hand, for his past crimes; that’s the sort of man Stannis is.
We know the rest: Robert became king and eventually grew fat, dissolute, and complacent. Stannis became Master of Ships, smashed the Iron Fleet at Fair Isle, and hated every moment of ruling the poor, rocky islands sworn to Dragonstone; Renly grew up, became Lord of Storm’s End, and lived a charmed existence as he served on Robert’s council as Master of Laws. The three brothers had some similarities with one another—in looks, at the very least—but the differences were enormous.
Renly’s perhaps the easiest to pin down. Full of charm and wit, tall and handsome, many characters remark that he looks like young Robert come again... and like Robert, he has a gift for making friends, for winning people over. He thinks well of himself, rattling off his own virtues:
“... strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient-”
“-humble?” Catelyn supplied.
Renly laughed. “You must allow a king some flaws, my lady.”
But there’s a darker side: a schemer, a man with ambitions who’s ready to do what it takes to achieve his aims. In the show, his aim is quite explicit: the crown. He wants to put himself in position to be his brother’s successor (fortunately, we never get a hint he’s maneuvering to actually hurry Robert’s end, and he does look appropriately distraught). In the books... his goals are a little more nebulous. He’s certainly plotting with Loras Tyrell to displace Cersei and put Loras’s sister, Margaery, in Robert’s bed. So, he’s certainly in bed with the Tyrells (*ahem*).
But when he offers Ned Stark his swords, he doesn’t suggest he be made king; he’s explicitly offering them because he’s terrified of the Lannisters, and believes that they won’t let him or Ned live if they get the upper hand. For our part, we always thought that Ned should have taken Renly’s advice. Darkening Robert’s last hours—conked out on milk of the poppy—and frightening children would be a very small price to pay indeed, to ensure that the realm was in peace. How many tens of thousands died for that decision?
But then, Renly goes and decides he’ll just crown himself. The realm was opened to this possibility when Robert took the crown by force, and no one loves Stannis or the Lannisters, so why not? It’s an argument that’s hard to dismiss, but it leads down a dark and dangerous road, one where every new king will climb to the Iron Throne onn the bodies of thousands killed in civil war. Renly was in a very difficult position, certainly, rightfully scared of the intentions of the Lannisters towards him... but there almost certainly was vanity behind his decision to pursue the throne for himself. He didn’t even know the truth of the parentage of Cersei’s children when he did it, and he certainly didn’t give a fig for Stannis’s superior claim by blood, either.
Stannis, on the other hand, is the brother that’s the least likable. Bar none. Whatever Robert’s huge flaws, you could see in him the man who won over enemies and gave people hope that the realm was in good hands. Stannis inspires none of that confidence. In the show, Loras Tyrell uncharitably describes him as having the personality of a lobster, and Renly dismisses him as a good soldier ill-suited to being a good king (as far as that goes, he’s right).
In the books... Stannis has middle-child syndrome writ large. Even as a boy, he rarely laughed or smiled, to the point that his father, Lord Steffon, would refer to it in a letter before his death and that of his wife, Lady Cassana of House Estermont. Watching their ship wreck in Shipbreaker Bay killed what childhood remained for him, and he’s grown into a harsh and bitter man, utterly uncompromising, seeing the world in black and white, where right and wrong is indelible.
That’s an attitude very ill-suited to George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, a world where there’s shades of grey. His dutiful servant, Ser Davos Seaworth, speaks with the “red woman” Melisandre of Asshai, and the two of them illustrate both approaches quite well:
“Aye, I’ve broken laws, but I never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m’lady. Good and bad.”
“A grey man,” she said. “Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?”
“What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey.”
“If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”
Melisandre’s simplistic, Manichean views perfectly suit Stannis, so it’s no surprise that he’s taken to her as he has. He doesn’t believe in gods anymore, not since the day his parents died, but he’ll use whatever tool is given to him to achieve the justice he demands. From Dragonstone, he launches a war that seems mad, far outnumbered by his own brother, disregarded by everyone else... but that’s a mistake, thanks to Melisandre, Stannis’s own “wild card” when his part of the story appears. It leads him pretty far, almost into King’s Landing itself, but bad luck and bad timing puts an end to that dream.
The man we see in A Storm of Swords is almost skeletal, aging years after his defeat (though we can guess that partly has to do with Melisandre’s magic, which feeds on life’s “fire” to create her shadow minions), but he’s indomitable, unyielding. Donal Noye, Castle Black’s one-armed smith and a former man of Storm’s End, once said that of the three brothers, Stannis was iron, hard and strong... but brittle. That’s a pretty accurate.
Of course, he felt he could judge Renly as being like copper, shiny and pretty to look at, but not of much use—and that from an acquaintance with a 6-year-old boy, which isn’t very charitable. It always seemed to us that there was more substance to Renly than that, that you can’t just form such a massive alliance and following on looks and charm alone, there had to be some boldness and some thought in it. GRRM has since remarked that Noye’s remark (and somewhat similar remarks from other characters) should be taken as saying about as much about the character sharing that opinion, as it says about the characters they’re speaking about.
What was Noye’s assessment of Robert, then? He calls him true steel, having all the strengths of his brothers, with few of their weakness, except for the fact that steel’s made for battle; sheath it when there’s peace, put it up to hang on a peg, and soon enough it’s grown rusty. That, too, isn’t a bad assessment, and one imagines Noye knew Robert and Stannis better than he ever knew Renly. The assessment seems pretty spot-on: the young Robert Baratheon was a great warrior, yes, but he won his crown as much for the loyalty he was able to inspire as he was for his personal prowess. Ned Stark, Jon Arryn, the Lords Grandison and Cafferen, Silveraxe, and many more fought in his name against the Targaryens. That takes some special quality, some melding of virtues that’s rare to come by.
Unfortunately, the other part of Noye’s assessment is just as spot-on: for the first nine years, it seems that Robert does all right. How he must have loved it, in his heart of hearts, when Balon Greyjoy rebelled! A chance at a good, clean fight, fighting beside his almost-brother Ned. The growing disappointment and disillusionment didn’t quite overwhelm him. And then, Greyjoy bent the knee, and... Robert was done with the realm, it seems, even as the realm wasn’t done with him. It’d be interesting to know what the catalyst was from the hearty, vital, fit warrior-king Ned saw nine years before, and the bearded, perfumed, fat drunkard that Ned saw riding into Winterfell? The coldness of Cersei Lannister, the constant pressure of judgments and bills, the tedium of it all, must have worn.
And so, too, must the constant sense of loss that he lived with. As he tells Ned, the sad truth was that as far as he was concerned, Rhaegar won that war: Robert may have lived, but it was Rhaegar who had Lyanna at the end. Lyanna Stark, his betrothed, was the catalyst for the war when she was apparently abducted by Rhaegar. So far as we know, Robert barely knew her, but in his mind she had become the great love of his life that he would never have. There’s a certain sense of something very superficial in Robert’s love for her, a sort of idealization that probably would not have lasted an actual marriage (as Ned tries to tell Robert, and Robert doesn’t care to listen). In that, you can see where Robert and Renly share some similarities, as they both have a gift for romanticizing: Robert romanticizes his past while Renly romanticizes his future.
And Stannis? Stannis has no place for romance at all in his life. Just right and wrong.
It makes him rather hard to love. And it means that he has his own illusions about himself and his past, present, and future, that makes him... not an idealist, exactly. Or maybe he should be called a disillusioned idealist, grinding away fruitlessly?
There’s a lot of talk about families in the series: the Starks, the Lannisters, the Tullys and the Targaryens, the Arryns and the Lannisters, the Martells... but it’s always seemed to me that the Baratheon family is more important than most, a family dynamic that shakes an entire realm.
A final question for you all: what do you think would have happened if Ned took Renly’s advice... and then revealed to Renly, once he had secured the throne, that Joffrey was illegitimate and that he meant to pass the crown to Stannis? I can’t quite see Renly disposing of Ned and Joff to seize the throne for himself, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine his relishing the idea of his harsh and unpleasant older brother blundering about on the throne, burning bridges because he’s so inflexible.
Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.