Stannis in AGoT: The invisible player
There is no creature half so terrifying as a truly just man. - Varys
Stannis never appears in A Game of Thrones. All we hear are second-hand accounts by nobles. We can see the family dynamics of the Baratheon family, but we never get Stannis' perspective on them. Instead, we hear rumours of a harsh man, shunned by his brothers and feared by the schemers at the royal court.
Still, even if he never appears in person, Stannis is a very influential figure from the get-go. He was the man who pointed out to Jon Arryn that Cersei's children couldn't be Robert's, and when Arryn was murdered, Stannis escaped to Dragonstone, fearing for his life. Over the course of AGoT, we learn that Stannis is Robert's rightful heir and that he is gathering sellswords on Dragonstone, while many Small Council members try to dissuade Ned Stark from proclaiming Stannis king. Ned does his duty, but in doing so loses his life.
This post, by its very nature, is quite different from the other posts of this reread. There is no single chapter to read, no perspective to consider. Instead, I want to focus on the various mentions of Stannis by different people over the course of the book, and the image of Stannis we are presented with by his enemies.
King Robert and his younger brother Stannis have a deep-seated rivalry, and we are introduced to it very early on. Bran II shows us Cersei and Jaime discussing politics, and Jaime characterises Stannis as an ambitious figure, someone who could threaten the Lannisters' hold on the throne. Only a few chapters later, during Eddard II, Ned and Robert discuss the vacancy in the office of the Warden of the East. Robert doesn't want to appoint Jon Arryn's son Robert because he is too young and sickly, and wants to appoint Jaime Lannister instead. Ned fears an increase in Lannister power and suggests another path:
"Yet we still must have a Warden of the East. If Robert Arryn will not do, name one of your brothers. Stannis proved himself at the siege of Storm's End, surely."
[Ned] let the name hang there for a moment. The king frowned and said nothing. He looked uncomfortable.
Stannis is a celebrated military commander, both for holding Storm's End during Robert's Rebellion and for smashing the Ironborn Fleet during Balon's Rebellion. But Robert is uncomfortable with the idea of Stannis becoming Warden of the East, a purely military office. It seems pretty clear that Robert would prefer to just ignore his younger brother, if in any way possible. Robert would rather give the Lannisters free reign than hand Stannis any position of power beyond that of a minor Lord. He might fear his younger brother's ambition, but he is utterly unconcerned about the Lannister's ambitions, or Renly's, for that matter. Rather, I believe Robert sees this as personal, and doesn't want to give credit to Stannis for anything. This is furthered by Robert's disregard of Stannis' wedding, for example. More generally, though, I still don't think I really understand Robert's seeming resentment of Stannis. Anyone has any good ideas?
While Robert lies dying, Ned writes a letter to Stannis (the letter will never arrive, but it isn't telling Stannis anything new. Still, having a letter from Ned would have strengthened Stannis' position towards the Starks early on). Directly afterwards, he is visited by Littlefinger. The two discuss the situation, and the talk turns towards the fact that Stannis is Robert's heir. Ned wants Baelish's support, but Petyr argues for supporting Joffrey instead, based on the following rationale:
"Stannis is no friend of yours, nor of mine. Even his brothers can scarcely stomach him. The man is iron, hard and unyielding. He'll give us a new hand and a new council, for a certainty. No doubt he'll thank you for handing him the crown, but he won't love you for it. And his ascent will mean war. Stannis cannot rest easy until Cersei and her bastards are dead."
I admit I found it always interesting that Petyr's story is seen as meritocratic. Stannis seems to be the most meritocratic of all the contenders for the throne, far more so than Joffrey, but Baelish seems to regard Joffrey's rule as superior to Stannis'. Basically, I think there are two ways to look at this: Either Stannis isn't just, and doesn't reward merit. Or Baelish isn't actually thriving on merit, but rather on corruption. I feel that the latter explanation is more convincing, and indeed Littlefinger's rejection of Stannis' rule is the reason that I find the 'Baelish has earned his position' stance myopic. Baelish is corrupt, not the best man at his job.
It's also interesting to see Littlefinger comparing Stannis to iron; Donal Noye makes the same comparison when talking to Jon.
After his counter-coup failed, Ned finds himself in the Black Cells. Here, he is visited by Varys in the disguise of Rugen. The two men discuss the situation after Cersei has seized power, and after discussing Robb, Lysa and the Martells, the talk turns to Stannis:
"The king's brothers are the ones giving Cersei sleepless nights... Lord Stannis in particular. His claim is the true one, he is known for his prowess as a battle commander, and he is utterly without mercy. There is no creature on earth half as terrifying as a truly just man. No one knows what Stannis has been doing on Dragonstone, but I will wager you that he has gathered more swords than seashells."
Here, Stannis' lack of mercy is mentioned for the first time. It will not be the last time, though.
Just as his judgement of Stannis is, for me, a test of Baelish's true character, the same holds for Varys here. Neither Varys nor Baelish want Stannis on the Iron Throne, and in both cases their stance towards Stannis belies their official positions. Varys says, in the very same talk, that he 'serves the realm', and many seem to believe him. But the problem with this is that handing power to Joffrey the Sociopath and his mother means less stability for the realm than handing the reigns to Stannis. Of course, Varys isn't interested in stability, but that is precisely the point: 'For the Realm' would mean supporting Stannis both from a legalistic and from a stability-seeking position. Varys doesn't care either way.
Everybody in AGoT seems to regard Stannis as a bad choice as king. Only Ned supports him, more out of duty than anything else, but Ned is also the only one to have good words for Stannis from the beginning. But noone doubts Stannis' competence: The reasons against him lie more in the fact that he is too hard, too uncompromising and uncorruptible. That the men spouting these opinions - Robert, Baelish and Varys - are the most corrupt men in King's Landing, coupled with Ned's support, conversely paints Stannis in a way more favorable light. It's easy to root for Ned and Stannis here - but that's also because Ned is drawn in an extremely sympathetic light, and because we haven't seen Stannis yet. If we knew what Stannis is like in ACoK, I think it would have been much harder to unequivocally root for Ned to succeed in enthronign Stannis.