In many great stories there is a character that fans will go to war over. Someone about whom everyone has an opinion. A character that rends the fan base in two, creating new battle lines where they’ve never existed before. Fans typically aligned with their favorite houses: Stark, Targaryen, Baratheon, Lannister, etc. But over the past few years, a new theatre of war has emerged with only two sides: Stannis Baratheon, and everyone else, a perspective dictated by the man himself. I have been guilty of standing by the One True King of Westeros, and I must admit I am just as perplexed at others’ hatred for the man as they are for my admiration. Indulge me if you will, as I try to understand the loathing directed at the King Who Cared.
“I have felt from the beginning that Stannis was a greater danger than all the others combined.”
Tywin Lannister, AGOT 70: Tyrion IX
“You will never get a second chance to create a first impression,” said Harlan Hogan. Unfortunately, for Stannis, his first impression is indelibly etched on the minds of many of us. Whispers of him in A Game of Thrones paint Stannis as a man not to be trifled with. Donal Noye, who made his first sword, calls him the iron to Robert‘s steel and Renly‘s copper. Varys acknowledges his claim to the throne, his prowess in battle, lack of mercy and calls him terrifying and truly just in the same breath. Littlefingerclaims that Stannis as king will mean war. Ned Stark found it hard to imagine what could frighten him. Tywin Lannister considers him the most dangerous of their enemies, even before Stannis had entered the war. Clearly, this is a man you do not cross.
“If he takes this meager host to King’s Landing, it will be only to die. He does not have the numbers. I told him as much, but you know his pride.” Davos held up his gloved hand. “My fingers will grow back before that man bends to sense.”
ACOK 1: Prologue
His eyes were open wounds beneath his heavy brows, a blue as dark as the sea by night. His mouth would have given despair to even the drollest of fools; it was a mouth made for frowns and scowls and sharply worded commands, all thin pale lips and clenched muscles, a mouth that had forgotten how to smile and had never known how to laugh.
ACOK 1: Prologue
In his first chapter, Stannis lives up to many of these claims. Two advisors who love him dearly, Maester Cressen and Davos Seaworth, acknowledge his pride and tenacity, even in the face of reason. Stannis is preparing for war despite lacking the numbers, nursing grievances against the brothers who’ve slighted him and the lords who by rights should have flocked to him. His shadow looms over the Blackwater and King’s Landing on the Painted Table. Cressen laments that the boy he considered a son was never loved. He is shocked when Stannis’ wife suggests assassinating his brother Renly, counsel that Stannis appears to listen to. He considers Melisandre at the heart of his king’s corruption and the rest as you know is history.
There he stood, brooding over the realm he sought to claim, so near at hand and yet so far away.
ACOK 1: Prologue
It seems like Stannis is set up to be the Evil Lord of the series. He lives in a volcano doom fortress, is cruel to his underlings, burns people, complains about his rights, listens to none of his “good” advisors, kills his brother and practices black magic. He bends the law to suit himself, wants to burn his nephew, is a religious fanatic, listens to an evil sorceress, wants the Iron Throne, is alien to laughter, devours fun, and has a problem against brothels.
“King Stannis is my god. He made me and blessed me with his trust.”
Davos, ACOK 11: Davos I
Except… There are caveats. No one in the series has risen faster than Davos of House Seaworth, Lord of Rainwood, Admiral of the Narrow Sea, and Hand of the King, thanks to Stannis. He schools his daughter as though she were a boy. His men followed him through the hell of the Blackwater, across a bridge of burning ships, fought against the wildlings and giants beyond the Wall, braved the blizzards of the north, all for a king who doesn’t inspire love or loyalty? The king’s followers denounced Joffrey while in the throne room of King’s Landing. Stannis rallied the northern mountain clans to fight for him and secured the loyalties of Houses Glover and Mormont. When told to go across the narrow sea to Braavos, Justin Massey protests, claiming that he ought to remain at Stannis’ side. Clearly, there is something about this man that inspires loyalty, if not love.
Stannis views the world through a lens of absolute justice. He expects the world and its people to conform to this. He expects bad deeds to be punished and good deeds rewarded, even if done by the same person in the same act. When his subjects defy him, even those whom he values like Ser Davos, he will give due punishment. One fan will argue that he is cruel to all, even his allies and those who love him. Another will point out that his treatment of Maester Cressen was in keeping with his queen’s command, and directed to Patchface, nonetheless:
“Fool,” he growled at last, “my lady wife commands. Give Cressen your helm.”
ACOK 1: Prologue
One will say he murdered his brother in cold blood, another will point out that his brother intended the same, committed treason and that Stannis could not have known of shadow babies and dreamt it as it happened, even showing remorse immediately and long after the deed:
“Only Renly could vex me so with a piece of fruit. He brought his doom on himself with his treason, but I did love him, Davos. I know that now. I swear, I will go to my grave thinking of my brother’s peach.”
ACOK 43: Davos II
One will say that he saved the Wall; another will say he had nowhere else to go. A fan will say that his fight for the Throne is out of duty (George R. R. Martin even calls him a righteous man); another will say that he’s a liar and has ambitions. A forum thread could be about Arya and Gendry shipping, but a couple of posts in Stannis’ name will pop up and the whole thread gets derailed into a fight between one legion of fans versus the other.
He is a character written in technicalities, both within the story and on the page. He killed his brother, but there is technically no proof of him knowing of an assassination. He was ready to go to battle. He burns people, but technically he’s never issued those orders. We’ve actually only seen him deny his followers a sacrifice in the snow. He raised Davos up to knighthood right after severing fingers for a crime, and similarly raised him to lordship for his good counsel right after releasing him from prison for attempted assassination of his red sorceress. He tolerates some fanaticism from his followers but outwardly tells Davos he refuses to worship any god.
“Is the hand of R’hllor spotted and palsied?” asked Stannis.
ASOS 55: Davos V
“I know little and care less of gods, but the red priestess has power.”
ACOK 11: Davos I
There’s no denying that Melisandre gives Stannis bad publicity. She makes sacrificial burnings to her red god. She birthed two shadow assassins using “dark” magic. Despite Martin saying that she’s perhaps the most misunderstood character, readers just don’t trust her, most likely due to her opposition to Davos. That being said, is she not the only person in the world to bring the threat of the Others to the attention of a king? Is dark magic used on single opponent really worse than other means of mass slaughter that are seen as tolerable in the eyes of readers: the dragon fire from the Targaryens, wildfire from Tyrion, famine from Renly, weddings? Stannis himself only believes in her power, not necessarily her faith.
I know many at the Tower adhere to the books, but there is no denying that we are visual creatures. The TV show has given us memorable performances, and no doubt for many of us, the characters we’ve seen on TV merged with those on the page. I believe that of all the characters that have warped readers’ impressions, the TV depiction of Stannis has done the most damage to the book character. On television he is fanatical, orders burnings, mopes around more often than not, and lets Davos or Melisandre dictate his actions. The character has very little agency in the show and has many contrived moments, one of which is the burning of his daughter, likely done for shock value.
Stannis Baratheon is nonetheless a remarkable dark horse in the books. Before the series he is known for holding against the powers of the Reach for a year under siege. He took Dragonstone for Robert. He smashed Victarion Greyjoy and the Iron Fleet in naval combat. He and Jon Arryn discover the Lannister bastards. He fled for his life after the Hand’s death to gather strength just before A Game of Thrones. He nearly took King’s Landing, only routed because of an unforeseen Lannister-Tyrell alliance. After Stannis falls into depression, his new Hand reminds him of his true duty to the realm: not to merely sit on the throne, but to defend it. He saved the Night’s Watch from falling. After heeding wise counsel from their Lord Commander, he is building a coalition in the north to defeat the Boltons and secure the Wall from both sides in order to defend the realms of men from their true enemies.
So polarizing is this curve ball of a man that he somehow bends reason. His fans can sometimes exaggerate, or downright lie, about his deeds. In response, those who tire of his fans (who can get a bit rowdy) throw conjecture and lies about his character. There is one thing I can agree with about Stannis, he is not an approachable person. I believe this put many off initially and distanced them from his nuance. And I can understand that. I think he is a brilliantly written and likable character, especially when considering the deeds of his past and those after the Blackwater.
But to be honest, if I lived in Westeros or if I met a person of Stannis’ blunt, black and white, tenacious personality, I probably wouldn’t give him the chance I did in the books. I think it’s this aspect of him that can make others gloss over the qualities that his followers see in him. He rewards merit and values the truth. He is a capable battle commander and fights the Others. He is tenacious, firm, fair, blunt, and above all consistent. It is rare in this game (to him, it is not even a game) to find someone whose focus never wavers, whose values rarely change according to what the game throws at them. And yet, this focus on what should have been his comes across as petulant. The man is an elephant, neither forgetting nor failing to remind us what ought to be his (although to be fair, he is right.)
“Are you trained crows, to croak at me in turns? Enough.”
ASOS 55: Davos V
Seeing through Davos and Jon Snow‘s eyes, I have great admiration for the man. I can see the true steel beneath the iron. But I understand if others don’t. As humans, we don’t gravitate towards cold people, much less listen to their interpretations of law and justice. We don’t care if they’re in the right, so long as they have good looks or warmth or charm. If only you smiled in the beginning, Stannis, maybe more would have liked you, or perhaps, you were never meant to be loved to begin with.