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Throughout the whole story of Game of Thrones, there have been many rulers and kings, with intrigue and war plaguing each of their rules. The power dynamic is constantly shifting and changing, with no official ruler staying on the throne for long, especially in the turbulent times following Ned’s assignment as Hand of the King. There is the perceived ruler with which all the power is supposed to lie, but he is usually not the only one who is in charge – behind the scenes, many other players of the game of thrones are vying for power and influencing events as they please, through intrigue, whispers, and secrets. To fully cover all the power changes in the 5 books and 7 seasons would take a lot more pages than there are assigned for this project – in fact, it could be a whole thesis. Therefore, this paper will focus only on the powerful figures of season 1, drawing both from the book and the show, and sometimes venturing into further seasons and books for evidence. The person holding all the official power changes several times in season 1, starting with Robert Baratheon being the sole king, then introducing Ned Stark as Hand of the King while Robert is away, and finally ending with Joffrey Baratheon inheriting the throne. However, the actual, unofficial power also lies with other individuals, namely, Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister, who both have a lot of influence on the realm while not having a claim to the throne.
At the very start of the show, it is clear who is in absolute power – Robert Baratheon, the man with all the titles, an intimidating presence, the one who does whatever he pleases. Robert is the king, though having obtained his title by winning a rebellion has left him with less trust and respect than a Targaryen would have had in the same position. However, people were generally happy with Robert’s rule, as it has resulted in years of peace and prosperity, with no major conflicts or uprisings. He let Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, and the rest of the small council to rule in his stead, while the king himself drank and whored: “The King shits, and the Hand wipes” (“Lord Snow”) So, while Robert might have always possessed the official power, he never truly had any working power – everything was handled by his advisors and the Hand.
His negligence might have led to the rise of other prominent holders of power in Westeros, especially Littlefinger, who was appointed to his first truly powerful position of Master of Coin by Robert himself. This allowed Petyr to begin his plotting and launch the realm into chaos, a state from which he would most benefit from and have the possibility to gain the most power and maybe even the throne from. Littlefinger is arguably the person with the most power in the realm, the one who orchestrated the death of Jon Arryn and started the events that led to Ned’s execution – the attack on Bran, the incrimination of Tyrion, fostering Ned’s interest in Robert’s bastards and subsequent delays in leaving King’s Landing, and finally the betrayal of Ned when buying out the Goldcloaks. Petyr Baelish, “a man with great ambition and no morals” (“Fire and Blood”), planned to pit the Lannisters and Starks against each other from the very beginning, as he foresaw the endless opportunities a war could offer him. Because of this, Littlefinger managed to convince Lysa Arryn, who was in love with him, to poison her husband Jon Arryn, and send a letter incriminating the Lannisters to Catelyn Stark, planting the seeds of suspicion and resentment from the very start. After the attempt of Bran’s life, when Catelyn travels to King’s Landing with the assassin’s dagger, Petyr reveals that Tyrion Lannister was the owner of the dagger and sent the killer after Bran, which is revealed to be a lie in the later seasons. In fact, Baelish was the true owner of the knife and set the plot up to incriminate Tyrion, knowing that the Starks would seek revenge, and Tywin would seek to defend his family’s honor, leading to a war between the two houses. With this one lie, Littlefinger started the War of the Five Kings, influencing all the major families in Westeros and outmaneuvering everyone involved.
Additionally, Baelish slowly earned Ned’s cautious trust by helping him uncover the secrets about Joffrey’s lineage and Jon Arryn’s fate. Petyr also advised Ned on how to behave when Robert died and how best to take the throne away from Joffrey. He offered to get the City Watch on Ned’s side to help defeat Lannister men, to ensure a less bloody transition of power, appealing to Ned’s sense of honor, duty, and mercy. By betraying Ned and being on Joffrey’s side helped Baelish ensure that he would retain his seat on the council and still be considered loyal to the royal family, and removed Ned from the picture, all according to Littlefinger’s plan. Because of his cunningness, lack of scruples, immense ambition, and smarts, as well as an extensive spy network and powers of manipulation, Petyr Baelish has proven himself to be one of the most powerful men in the realm, working in the shadows and ensuring things fall into place according to whatever he wishes.
The person standing in the way of those wishes was Eddard Stark. He too, wielded a similar type of power like Robert did – he had the power to pass laws and influence the realm, yet could not contend with the ones who ruled from the shadows. Even though Ned was the Hand, he still could not do what he wanted, as all of the other members of the council had their own allegiances and ambitions. Yet Ned slowly learned how to gather some of that unofficial power – he found out the Lannister siblings’ secret, he tried conspiring with Littlefinger to keep the throne away from Joffrey, and finally agreed to confess as a traitor to save his family’s life. However, even though Ned had the relevant knowledge, he could not use it effectively, as he was too honest of a person. He did not realize Baelish’s deception, he directly threatened Cersei about revealing her secret to Robert without realizing what consequences this decision might have, in order to protect her and her children, and he failed to see what kind of monstrous leader Joffrey was growing up to be. Because of his honesty and unfamiliarity of southern standards and social rules, as well as the distaste for intrigue and disregard for the value of covertness, Ned does not wield the power that he has been given effectively and does not have much authority over anyone.
However, Ned is a significant hurdle for anyone who is trying to secure the throne illegitimately, as he still has a lot of Robert’s trust. Therefore, people like Petyrn Baelish have to work together and get involved with one of the other powerful players who do not have official power – Cersei Lannister. She has even more authority than Littlefinger, yet lacks his smarts and manipulation – Cersei is a lot less subtle and is not considered trustworthy by any who compete for power. Yet Cersei is the daughter of Tywin Lannister, and has taken up a lot of his personality traits, like his obsession with family and ruthlessness. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Lannisters in power and protect her children, which leads to her plotting against Robert and Ned. She knows how to play the game of thrones and has become good at it, which allows her to arrange Robert’s death by giving Lancel strongwine, instead of the normal wine Robert is used to, leading to an unexpected, yet unsurprising death of the King. Additionally, she plots with Littlefinger to keep Ned from seizing power and driving her and her children out of King’s Landing, ensuring that Joffrey becomes the new king. She has conditioned Joffrey, teaching him how to rule once Robert’s dead: “A good king knows when to save his strength and when to destroy his enemies […] Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy” (“Lord Snow”) and still wields a lot of power over him, staying in power as the queen regent. Through her conspiracies and manipulation of Joffrey, Cersei ensures that she is one of the most powerful figures in Westeros and can exert her authority over almost everyone.
However, even though his mother truly influenced him a lot, Joffrey is a completely different person than anyone thought he would be. At the end of season 1, he is truly the most powerful person in the realm, destroying everyone’s carefully thought out plans and cementing his power as the new king. Joffrey is completely unpredictable and refuses to acknowledge anyone else’s authority but his own, and despises anyone telling him what to do. Yet, he is also shortsighted and does not consider the consequences of his actions. Joffrey’s rule would quickly doom the realm to ruin, as he would behead people with no trials, be cruel and unjust, and quickly become hated by everyone in Westeros, leading to an uprising. In order to keep his official power, Joffrey has to leave the actual ruling of the realm to Tyrion and Cersei, thus giving them power over him.
It’s extremely hard to determine who the most powerful person is at a given time in Westeros, as the dynamic is always changing and players are coming in and out of the game. However, it can be determined that it is almost never the person who is sitting on the throne and wielding power that they legitimately are entitled to – it is always the people who plot and work through spies and secrets that actually control what is happening in the realm. After examining everyone’s actions in season 1 and keeping in mind the later events, it can be seen that the two most powerful people in Westeros are Cersei and Baelish, as they have the most consistent influence over events in the realm and continue to rise in the game of thrones. Yet it is not certain that any of them will emerge victorious, because the game is unpredictable and constanly shifting. As Cersei said, “when you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die” (“You Win or You Die”), and there are no guaranteed winners.
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