Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian.

This is one entry in a forthcoming series describing the campaign for the North.

“I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her?”
He ground his teeth.
“We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must . . . we must do our duty, no?
Great or small, we must do our duty.”

Stannis seems to be driven by a sense of duty, of justice.

Everywhere in the the books we are reminded of Stannis’s unyielding persona, his inflexibility. That he will break before he bends.

But is it true?

Absolutely not.*
* – Certain exceptions apply, see end of essay for details.

There are a great number of instances were Stannis has changed course, broken the rules, bent. This essay will give a good accounting of them.

NOTE: What fun would it be if I meekly said, “I think so”? Not much. Do you really want to read an essay that sounds like I’m apologizing for arguing my correctness? I doubt it. I’d rather write an assertive piece that is later proven wrong than some spineless blather that spends as much time on courtesy as it does getting to the point.

Does Stannis think that he’s changing course, breaking rules, or bending?


One of the key ideas behind his utilitarian nature, is that he’s making these choice in service to larger obligations, always derived from his sense of duty and justice. In his mind, he’s serving a larger cause; to others it might appear like he’s changing the definitions of ‘duty’ and ‘justice’ to suit his needs.

Couldn’t it be more complicated than that? In some ways true, in some ways false?


Indeed, Stannis breaks the rules and changes the course because of his obligation to duty and justice at a much higher level.

These factors will be explored and explained in this essay.

This is one of several essays in a series discussing Stannis’s campaign for the north:

  1. Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian
  2. Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself
  3. Stannis and the Covert King
  4. A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

An Inventory of Bent Rules

Here is a brief list of the many ways that Stannis has bent or broken the image of ‘duty and justice’ attributed to him.

In each of these cases, he shows himself more likely to pursue the option that lets him advance his cause rather than stagnate, mired by his own ethics.

Stannis the Cannibal

Stannis considered cannibalism as a possible means to sustain his defense of Storm’s End during Robert’s Rebellion:

“Well I remember.” Renly lifted his chin to allow Brienne to fasten his gorget in place. “Near the end, Ser Gawen Wylde and three of his knights tried to steal out a postern gate to surrender. Stannis caught them and ordered them flung from the walls with catapults. I can still see Gawen’s face as they strapped him down. He had been our master-at-arms.”

Lord Rowan appeared puzzled. “No men were hurled from the walls. I would surely remember that.”

“Maester Cressen told Stannis that we might be forced to eat our dead, and there was no gain in flinging away good meat.” Renly pushed back his hair. Brienne bound it with a velvet tie and pulled a padded cap down over his ears, to cushion the weight of his helm. “Thanks to the Onion Knight we were never reduced to dining on corpses, but it was a close thing. Too close for Ser Gawen, who died in his cell.”

While Stannis never actually resorted to eating the dead, it’s important to note that he did not go through with firing them from catapults. Cressen had indeed changed his mind.

Doubling down on cannibalism

Perhaps this is why Stannis seems so irritated, so frustrated… so reticent at the burning of the Peasebury men for their own cannibalism in A Dance with Dragons.

After all, he did once consider it himself, but now watches as four men are consigned to the fires for it. What would his punishment have been?

The Sacrifice of Edric Storm

If Stannis had actually killed Edric simply because ‘prophecy’, then he would have crossed a line with regards to justice and duty. Even he knew this, which is why he threatens Melisandre in A Storm of Swords:

Stannis rounded on him in a cold fury. “I know his name. Spare me your reproaches. I like this no more than you do, but my duty is to the realm. My duty . . .” He turned back to Melisandre. “You swear there is no other way? Swear it on your life, for I promise, you shall die by inches if you lie.”

Clearly Stannis considers conducting the sacrifice if it is necessary in order for him to fulfill his duties as the king and secure the realm. The moral cost is not lost on him.

Put another way, he’s breaking laws and moral codes in service to his duty as a king. This is a theme that will re-emerge throughout the other examples.

The Fairweather Southron Lords

Stannis had no problem taking Renly’s armies and putting them to work for him, despite the fact that they had all initially sided with a usurper. Not just any usurper, but a usurper who didn’t even have a legitimate claim or even valid pretext. By all the laws they were guilty of treason. But he cares little about that:

He glanced behind at Lord Florent and the others, rainbow knights and turncloaks, who were following at a distance. “These pardoned lords would do well to reflect on that. Good men and true will fight for Joffrey, wrongly believing him the true king. A northman might even say the same of Robb Stark. But these lords who flocked to my brother’s banners knew him for a usurper. They turned their backs on their rightful king for no better reason than dreams of power and glory, and I have marked them for what they are. Pardoned them, yes. Forgiven. But not forgotten.”

“One day I may make you a lord, smuggler. If only to irk Celtigar and Florent. You will not thank me, though. It will mean you must suffer through these councils, and feign interest in the braying of mules.”

“Why do you have them, if they serve no purpose?”

“The mules love the sound of their own braying, why else? And I need them to haul my cart. Oh, to be sure, once in a great while some useful notion is put forth. But not today, I think—ah, here’s your son with our water.”

So you see, he’s willing to forgive one of the highest crimes a person could commit, because he could make use of them in his bid to conquer King’s Landing.

The Prince of the Narrow Sea

Stannis also openly consorts with a Lyseni pirate.

In the days before his knighthood, he had often bought cargoes from Salladhor Saan. The Lyseni was a smuggler himself, as well as a trader, a banker, a notorious pirate, and the self-styled Prince of the Narrow Sea. When a pirate grows rich enough, they make him a prince. It had been Davos who had made the journey to Lys to recruit the old rogue to Lord Stannis’s cause.

Stannis knows that the brigand’s only loyalty is to the gold he is paid, and yet uses him anyways:

“Salladhor Saan thinks only of gold!” Stannis exploded. “His head is full of dreams of the treasure he fancies lies under the Red Keep, so let us hear no more of Salladhor Saan. The day I need military counsel from a Lysene brigand is the day I put off my crown and take the black.” The king made a fist. “Are you here to serve me, smuggler? Or to vex me with arguments?”

Stannis knows that Salladhor is a pirate and a smuggler, and yet implicitly pardons him and recruits him to his service with gold. Consider what Stannis did to Davos, when Davos saved his life by smuggling onions pro bono.

The Wildling Vanguard

Stannis clearly intended to use the Thenns as a part of his vanguard during his campaign in the north.

“The wildling men will form my van. The Magnar will command them, with their own chiefs as serjeants. First, though, we must needs arm them.”

This is despite the fact that they had only immediately prior been among the most loyal and dangerous of Mance Rayder’s wilding army.

Stannis even intends to reward Sigorn of Thenn with lands:

“Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn.”

“Who told you that?”

The talk was all over Castle Black.

Once again we have people who imperiled Stannis, his campaign or the realms he means to rule; and he does not punish — he pardons them and offers them lands in exchange for service.

Why does Stannis do this? Quite clearly, because he finds them useful, they bolster his forces:

“The Karstarks have sworn to join us at the Dreadfort, and we will have our wildlings as well. Three hundred men of fighting age. Lord Harwood made a count as they were passing through the gate. Their women fight as well.”

The Burning of Mance

Stannis actually sees quite a bit of value in Mance. However, he declares that he must burn Rayder:

“I know that,” Stannis said, unhappily. “I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I’ll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder’s life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance.”

“I mean to. I’ll burn him, and the north will see how I deal with turncloaks and traitors.

Mance has done little more than oathbreaking, Jon points out, because Mance was outside the realm of the King’s laws. He suggests that Mance is of great use.

At one point Stannis goes so far as to point out that it is Mance who is going to sentence himself to death, and that Stannis is reluctant to do so:

“Whilst your brothers have been struggling to decide who shall lead them, I have been speaking with this Mance Rayder.” He ground his teeth. “A stubborn man, that one, and prideful. He will leave me no choice but to give him to the flames.”

And yet Stannis, our man who pardons wildlings and treasonous lords and pirates alike, burns Mance.


He burns Mance because he needs to display his authority to the north, the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. He burns Mance because not to do so would condemn his campaign.

…And Yet, a Dutiful King

One thing that emerges when you observe these findings (and the many more I’ve omitted): Stannis is willing to discard the notions of justice and peace as they are conventionally understood, when required.

‘When required’ really means “when bending the normal rules of justice and peace are required in order to fulfill my duties, as lord and king.”

We have no insight into the true workings of Stannis’s mind. However, his actions from the list above have always been shown to further his campaign towards the throne.

His words, temperament and actions all indicate that he does not want the Iron Throne.

More importantly…

What his words, temperament and actions also tell us, is that he views failing to fight for his duty as the king is a disservice to the realm and to his daughter.

So in his own way, he believes that his choices are not only justified… but demanded of him in the pursuit of his duty.

Even his acceptance of the previously alien worship of R’hllor is warranted if it helps him do his duty. We see this reflected in his confession to Davos, that he needed to use a different bird:

“I trusted in his wisdom and your wiles, and what did they avail me, smuggler? The storm lords sent you packing. I went to them a beggar and they laughed at me. Well, there will be no more begging, and no more laughing either. The Iron Throne is mine by rights, but how am I to take it? There are four kings in the realm, and three of them have more men and more gold than I do. I have ships . . . and I have her. The red woman. Half my knights are afraid even to say her name, did you know? If she can do nothing else, a sorceress who can inspire such dread in grown men is not to be despised. A frightened man is a beaten man. And perhaps she can do more. I mean to find out.

“When I was a lad I found an injured goshawk and nursed her back to health. Proudwing, I named her. She would perch on my shoulder and flutter from room to room after me and take food from my hand, but she would not soar. Time and again I would take her hawking, but she never flew higher than the treetops. Robert called her Weakwing. He owned a gyrfalcon named Thunderclap who never missed her strike. One day our great-uncle Ser Harbert told me to try a different bird. I was making a fool of myself with Proudwing, he said, and he was right.” Stannis Baratheon turned away from the window, and the ghosts who moved upon the southern sea. “The Seven have never brought me so much as a sparrow. It is time I tried another hawk, Davos. A red hawk.”

Why does this matter?

It’s vital to know that Stannis will break any rule if it helps him do his duty.

Not because he loves being king.

Not because he loves breaking the rules.

It’s because he’s the king, and doing anything less is a disservice to those whom he rules.

These notions are among the most important foundations for other essays that constitute this series (ETA TBD).

Whether or not all of his bending and breaking will come back to haunt him is a threat for another day. I’m quite sure that he is more concerned with taking the throne first.

1 thought on “Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian.

  1. J Dooling

    I would like to know the author’s thoughts concerning recent developments. Everything written here seems accurate and thoughtful. I have to wonder how the fanaticism of Stannis’ character may have run deeper than originally assumed. Even if GRRM gives Stannis the North for a time, it still looks like he is still going to end up his own worst enemy. His dedication to duty will ruin him.


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