“You have no choice…our best hope, our only true hope, is that you can defeat the foe in the field.”
Synopsis: Catelyn Stark and Brynden Tully arrive at Moat Cailin accompanied by the forces of House Manderly, where Catelyn is reunited with her son Robb, now in command of the Northern army. The two of them have a difficult conversation, but come to an understanding about which path the Starks will take.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Catelyn VIII is a crossroads for Robb and Catelyn Stark’s relationship, as Robb Stark completes his transformation from a 14-year old boy to the commander in chief of the Northern forces in the War of Five Kings and Catelyn Stark has to come to terms with that relationship. And in light of how significant parts of the fandom view these characters through polarized lenses (a trend that existed before the HBO show, but increasingly more so after Seasons 2 and 3), I think it’s important to take a moment to step back and analyze these two characters and their relationship before we plunge headlong (and we’re going to plunge deep) into the War of Five Kings.
It’s important because I think the contending Robb and Catelyn partisans have often resorted to caricature in debate, and I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary to characterize Robb as a bland cookie-cutter fantasy protagonist without an intelligent thought in his head (who should have listened to his mother at every turn) or Catelyn as an eternally-depressed killjoy single-handedly responsible for the destruction of her house. Rather, I would argue that both characters are interesting, complex, and flawed people, but whose strengths and flaws are so often mutually connected, paralleled, and reinforcing that it doesn’t make sense to choose one over the other.
Robb Stark, Playing the Man’s Part:
I have to admit that in my first few reads through this chapter, I found the portrayal of Robb Stark in this chapter to be an annoying reversion to the StupidRobb of old, especially in his display of childish indecision (especially when compared to his self-confidence and directionality seen in Bran VI). However, when I came back to the chapter with fresh eyes for this essay, I realized that I had misunderstood what Robb was actually thinking and how that was affecting his behavior in this chapter.
To begin with, I had misunderstood that Rob’s uncertainty isn’t actually about the war (although things are not going well and he has reasons for concern, as I’ll discuss later), but rather about his family: “I brought this whole army together…but I don’t…I’m not certain…if we march…even if we win…the Lannisters hold Sansa and Father. They’ll kill them, won’t they?” When it comes to his military strategy, Robb knows what he wants to do – which I’ll discuss in a bit. However, the political side of this and the key question about what will happen to the Starks held prisoner is completely out of his control, and is thus the source of his dilemma.
Likewise, Robb is not politically ignorant. To begin with, he understands the meaning of Sansa’s letter, and he notes the absence of any mention of Arya. More significantly, he’s thinking in geostrategic terms: his immediate aim is to link the Starks and the Tullys together, and one of his first comments to his mother about the political situation is that “I wrote to Aunt Lysa, asking for help. Has she called Lord Arryn’s banners, do you know? Will the knights of the Vale come join us?” In other words, Robb’s immediate political objective is a quite sound one: to re-assemble the power bloc of the Stark/Tully/Arryn alliance that was the key to victory in Robert’s Rebellion. (on a side note: it’s quite simply impossible for anyone to have predicted that Lysa Arryn would decisively block the Lords of the Vale from going to war against the Lannisters as they wanted, and is one of the two most influential of Littlefinger’s moves in the entirety of the War of Five Kings to date)
Most importantly, Robb is clearly thinking about a way to end the war by “a trade of hostages,” Tyrion for Eddard and Sansa. Again, it’s impossible for Robb to have predicted that his mother (or more accurately, his aunt) would have let Tyrion escape right when the outbreak of war made him the most valuable. Indeed, it’s probable that Robb chooses to attack Jaime at Riverrun (and especially to plan out the Whispering Woods) in order to capture Jaime for an exchange of prisoners. In the case of both Tyrion and Jaime, outside forces (aka GRRM’s sense of dramatic timing) interfere at just the right moment in ways that are outside the norms of feudal warfare to prevent any exchange of prisoners.
Catelyn Stark, Mirroring Indecision:
I also changed my mind about Catelyn this re-read. I can certainly see how this chapter would polarize both supporters and detractors of Catelyn, in that Catelyn seems to be on the one hand running rings around her son intellectually (which makes it understandable why people would find her more interesting than her son in this moment), but also relentlessly undermining him (which makes it understandable why other people might find her an unpleasant point of view to read).
However, in her own way, Catelyn is being as indecisive as her son, in that she both wants Robb Stark to be a man and can’t quite bring herself to accept it. From the first moment that she first sees her son for the first time in months, “Catelyn wanted to run to him…and hold him so tightly that he would never come to harm…but here in front of his lords, she dared not. He was playing a man’s part now, and she would not take that away from him.” And yet the first moment she gets Robb alone, she immediately emphasizes his youth and why he shouldn’t be leading the army, saying “You are fifteen now. Fifteen and leading a host to battle,” and when Robb replies that there was no one else who could lead the army, retorts that “who were those men I saw here a moment ago..you might have given the command to any of them…they are men, Robb, seasoned in battle. You were fighting with wooden swords less than a year past.”
When Catelyn sees how she’s damaging her son’s self-confidence with this particular line of argument, she backtracks: “You ought never have left. Yet I dare not, not now. You have come too far. Some day these lords will look to you as their liege. If I pack you off now, like a child being sent to bed…they will remember, and laugh about it in their cups. The day will come when you need them to respect you, even fear you a little. Laughter is poisonous to you, much as I might wish to keep you safe.” And yet she seems to have trouble remembering that the same general principle applies not just to Robb and his bannermen, but also between Robb and herself, such that comments such as “you are my firstborn, Robb. I have only to look at you to remember the day you came into the world, red-faced and squalling,” keep undercutting the confidence she tries to install just a moment later.
Likewise, in trying to bolster Robb’s confidence by reminding him that “You cannot afford to seem indecisive in front of men like Roose Bolton and Rickard Karstark. Make no mistake, Robb – these are your bannermen, not your friends. You named yourself battle commander. Command,” it doesn’t help Catelyn to bring back the earlier topic of his immaturity and youth by saying “Be certain…or go home and take up that wooden sword again,” but she can’t seem to help herself.
Weighing the Two:
Ultimately, I think both Robb and Catelyn have points to make. Robb is quite young and is definitely placing himself in danger; as we see with the Red Wedding, the Stark cause is lost if he should fall. And there are some signs that he’s letting himself get pushed a bit by his bannermen – as we can see from the way he references Galbart Glover or Bolton or the Karstarks – but at the same time this can be over-emphasized. Robb has shown himself capable of ruling his bannermen, as we saw from Bran VI and it may well be that his gesturing in their direction is a consequence of Catelyn’s appeal to adult experience.
At the same time, though, I think Catelyn is wrong about the major question of their exchange – whether Robb had to lead the army himself. As we saw from Bran VI, and as Catelyn Stark herself recognizes, these lords are incredibly fractious even in the presence of a Stark who outranks them – putting Roose Bolton, Rickard Kastark, the Glover brothers, Greatjon, or Helman Tallhart, let alone Theon, would alienate and offend the other Northern lords, and it’s questionable at best whether the lords would be willing to defer to an equal so far away from the eyes of their liege lord. Likewise, the same logic that leads Catelyn to recognize that Robb has to ensure that his men hold him in respect when it comes to the question of whether he should return home or retreat to Winterfell also applies to the question of whether he should have taken command. Despite his age, Robb Stark is the Stark in Winterfell (and in less than a week he’s going to be the Lord of Winterfell) and unfair as it might be, he would have always been looked down upon as a coward and a weakling had he sent another man to command in his stead.
The larger point here is that you don’t need StupidRobb to have SmartCatelyn and vice-versa. RobbStark is an inexperienced young man trying his best, and Catelyn Stark is a woman with political experience and keen wits who can nonetheless make mistakes of her own (her offer to “take Lord Robert [Arryn] with her, to foster him at Winterfell for a few years,” for example permanently alienates her already unstable sister, and although we can’t hold this against her either, appointing Rodrik Cassel castellan of Winterfell was ultimately devastating to the Stark cause). Neither of them are perfect or worthless.
The War of Five Kings, The Lannisters’ Opening Move:
You have to hand it to GRRM; he knows how to stack the deck against his protagonists to raise the stakes, and this is no exception. The Starks enter the War of Five Kings in the worst possible situation: their traditional allies are either incommunicado (the Arryns), politically divided and thousands of miles away (the Baratheons), or almost completely wiped out right at the beginning of the war.
In their opening campaign of the War of Five Kings, the Lannisters have engineered a nigh-total defeat of the Tullys with just three battles. I slightly differ from BryndenBfish (and Westeros.org) in that I think Tywin split the Lannister forces before Golden Tooth and took the Gold Road through the pass at Deep Den before crossing the hills to hit the Mummer’s Ford from the south. My reasoning for this is as follows: to begin with, given how little information the Lannisters could have had about the Tully military situation, a two-pronged assault could have allowed Tywin to respond to a successful Riverland defense at the Golden Tooth by marching west into their rear, trapping them between the two Lannister armies and attacking from a completely unexpected direction. The alternative would open the Lannisters up to the danger of being bottled up in the pass where their superior numbers could less easily be brought to bear, giving the Tullys the time and opportunity to mobilize their forces and for the Starks to make it down the Kingsroad. Secondly, I think this minor change better fits the text: to begin with, the Battle of Golden Tooth* is emphasized as happening at “the pass” that Vance and Piper are attempting to hold, which would make it difficult if not impossible for two armies to have divided just prior; likewise, the description of the battle describes only the “Kingslayer” on the field as opposed to the Kingslayer and Tywin, whereas Tywin is described as “bringing a second Lannister army around from the south” at the same time that “they were battling in the pass,” which suggests that he wasn’t present.
*Side Point: again, a slight disagreement with BryndenBFish. Not that I disagree that speed and mobility was useful, the Battle of Golden Tooth pitted 4,000 Riverlanders against 15,000 Lannister bannermen. Given this disparity in forces, I think Jaime just attacked frontally and overran them with his superior numbers. Indeed, given how Jaime reflects back on his earlier career in AFFC, I think Jaime’s first two battles were simple affairs in which he was able to use superior numbers and then surprise to overwhelm an inexperienced foe, leading him to be overly-confident when facing the Starks.
Instead, Tywin “fell upon” Beric Dondarrion as Beric was crossing the Red Fork, and the element of surprise suggested in that word choice and confirmed later further convinces me that Tywin was not advancing on the Red Fork from the front (and thus likely to be seen by Beric Dondarrion’s force as they crossed the ford), but rather attacked from an unexpected southern flank. Saved from formal attainder by a matter of days, Tywin is then able to bring his army against the southern Riverlands, taking Raventree Hall, Pinkmaiden, Stone Hedge, and Harrenhal, keeping them from reinforcing the main Tully force at Riverrun just as Jaime’s assault on Riverrun prevents the forces there from moving into Tywin’s rear as he marches.
It’s an impressive piece of soldiering: in three battles, Tywin has essentially taken out the Riverlands as a military threat (with the exception of Houses Mallister and Frey) although Robb won’t learn about that for another chapter, and placed himself at a strategic crossroads that allows him to advance north up the Kingsroad to block the Starks, southeast down the Kingsroad to reinforce the capitol should the Baratheons attack, or west on the Riverroad to reinforce Jaime at Riverrun.
The War of Five Kings, Robb’s Choice:
This defeat complicates Robb’s initial strategy to link up with the Tullys, bring himself up to numerical parity with the Lannisters, and then force a battle in which he could seize enough prisoners to make an exchange of prisoners possible. Instead, he’s faced with a difficult choice: either “take the battle to Lord Tywin and surprise him” (as the Umbers argue for) or to “go around his army and join up with Uncle Ser Edmure against the Kingslayer” (As the Glovers and Karstarks recommend).
While presentism might make this seem like a very straightforward choice, the reality is that both carried huge risks. “If we try to swing around Lord Tywin’s host, we take he risk of being caught between him and the Kingslayer,” while outnumbered by 2:1 and without hope of reinforcements from the Tullys. Likewise, “if we attack him…he has more men than I do, and a lot more armored horse.” 18,000 men versus 20,000 men is a narrow enough margin to call it an even fight, but it’s just as risky – given the difficulty of destroying an army in the field, the danger is that even if Robb succeeds, Riverrun falls and Jaime is freed up to advance and link up with his father.
It is at this moment that we see the beginnings of Robb Stark as a military prodigy. At this moment, Robb Stark characteristically sees a third option that none of his bannermen have seen – “split our host in two,” prevent the two Lannister forces from uniting by putting the Green Fork “between Jaime and Lord Tywin” (given that there’s no ford on the Green Fork between the Ruby Ford and the heavily-fortified Twins, if Tywin takes his army over the bridge over the Trident, he either has to go all the way up or all the way back), and then march “down the west bank to Riverrun” which allows him to reinforce on the way to attacking Jaime’s army. If this attack succeeds, Robb could double back east on the Riverroad and take Lord Harroway’s Town, trapping Tywin between Moat Cailin, the Green Fork, and the bridge over the Trident, potentially knocking out the Lannisters in one campaign.
At the same time, Robb perfectly reads his opponent, realizing that “when Lord Tywin gets word that we’ve come south, he’ll march north to engage our main host,” putting more distance between his force and Jaime’s. Indeed, when it comes to military strategy, Robb will consistently predict Lord Tywin’s actions throughout the War in such a way that Robb can dictate Tywin’s responses to his actions, whereas Tywin repeatedly misreads his opponent and has to find a political solution.
Ironically, it may have been Robb’s decision (prompted by Catelyn, so they both share responsibility) to choose Roose Bolton that prevented his initial Riverlands campaign from ending with the Lannisters’ total destruction on the east bank of the Green Fork…more on this in Tyrion VII.
It’s at this point that we should discuss the historical analogue to Robb Stark, one Edward of York, later known to history as Edward IV (although as we’ll see in A Storm of Swords, Robb’s also got strong parallels to William Douglas, the 6th Earl of Douglas, that unhappy lord of the Black Douglases). Edward took command of the Yorkist cause in the worst of all possible circumstances: the Yorkist army had been crushed at Wakefield (more on this in Eddard XV), with his father Richard Duke of York, his brother Edmund the Earl of Rutland, and Richard Neville the Earl of Salisbury (the father of the “Kingmaker,” Richard Neville of Warwick…see where GRRM gets his repeating names from?), and 2,500 Yorkist men dead on the field, with the rest scattered to the winds.
Edward heard about the defeat while celebrating Christmas at Shrewsbury. Nineteen at the time, Edward IV was now the Earl of March, Chester, Cambridge, and Ulster and Duke of York, the largest landholder in England and a wanted fugitive. Safely in the midst of his Marcher territories, York raised an army at Ludlow to meet Margaret D’Anjou as she marched south into England at the head of a Scottish army to meet her Welsh supporters who were marching east to link up with her and catch the Yorkist upstart before he could link up with Warwick at London.
Acting with instinctive speed and decision, Edward turned his army to meet the Welshmen head-on on his own home ground. On the morning of Candlemas (February 2nd) 1461, his army arrived in Mortimer’s Cross, where in the sky above the Yorkist army a parhelion of three suns appeared in the sky. As his soldiers stood in bewilderment at this ominous sign, the young lord rode out among his men, persuading them that the astrological marvel indicated a special blessing from the Holy Trinity and a prophecy that the three sons of York (himself, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard Duke of Gloucester) were favored by God.
Believing they were fighting for the Lord, his army marched out to meet a Welsh force that outnumbered them and routed them, driving Owen and Jasper Tudor and their forces across seventeen miles, leaving 4,000 of their men dead on the field.
The legend of Edward IV, the “Sun in Splendour,” began that day.
Catelyn VIII gives us some interesting hypotheticals, mostly regarding to the military situation:
- Robb had chosen Greatjon Umber or Robbett Glover instead of Roose? As I suggested back in Bran VI, Robett Glover is an interesting potential candidate for command who seems to have fallen under the radar in this chapter despite being put on part with Roose the previous chapter. It’s hard to tell why this happens, but I think Robett would have done much better than Roose (what with the whole rampant disloyalty thing…more on this in a bit). Now, Greatjon Umber might have fallen for Tywin’s planned rout of his vanguard, but as I’ll discuss more in the next Tyrion chapter, I think he might have succeeded beyond where Bolton did just by not engaging in a failed night march. Again, keep this in the back of your mind when considering next chapter.
- Robb goes straight at Tywin? Assuming for the moment that Robb was able to grab the 4,000 Freys at the Twins as in OTL, that would have put his army at 22,000 to Tywin’s 20,000. Moreover, Robb being an unusually perceptive commander, it’s unlikely that he would have fallen for Tywin’s trap and it’s especially likely that he would have picked a more advantageous place for the battle to take place – probably right next to the Twins, using the sight of his army crossing the bridge to lure Tywin into an attack (intended to prevent Robb crossing and attacking Jaime) and then using the Twins themselves as an anvil against which to pound Tywin Lannister’s head. While Riverrun may have fallen in the meantime (unlikely, given how long it holds out in worse circumstances later in the War of Five Kings), taking out Tywin effectively ends the War of Five Kings for the Lannisters and the Starks. On the other hand, Robb might have been badly beaten and forced up the causeway as Jaime reinforces his father from the South.
- Catelyn goes to Winterfell/Rodrik Cassel doesn’t become castellan? On the one hand, I can see why GRRM wanted Catelyn to stay in the main theater of the war so that he could continue to use her as a main POV in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords; however, at the same time Catelyn doesn’t really get to accomplish much at Riverrun. Her family is either incoherent or remains at odds with her, her diplomatic mission to Bitterbridge fails due to author fiat/the will of R’hllor, and then she dies. However, had she gone north to Winterfell, she probably would have been a better organizer of the North’s defenses against the Ironborn than an eight-year old child, which probably would have butterflied away the fall of Winterfell and thus in all likelihood the Red Wedding. Alternatively, had anyone more cautious than Rodrik Cassel been chosen by Catelyn Stark as castellan of Winterfell, she could have had it both ways.
Book vs. Show:
This scene is substantially different in “The Pointy End,” George R.R Martin’s episode for Season 1 of the HBO show. The Robb Stark of the show is more mature and more confident, but still in need of emotional reassurance. Catelyn Stark still argued against Robb leading the army, but Robb pushes back from a more equal position. The two of them discuss both politics and war on level terms, but Catelyn Stark remains a formidable political wife, rather than a pushover. George R.R Martin is able to take the heart of this chapter and make it work despite the change in age, and Michelle Fairley and Richard Madden turn what was in the books a rather unequal exchange between a 14 year old boy and his somewhat overbearing mother into a strong working relationship.
My larger point here is that I think an older, smarter Robb could have worked in the show without diminishing Catelyn Stark’s role in the ways that disappointed many of her fans. I would argue the problem really doesn’t start until Season 2, and can still be fixed with some judicious fan-editing, but more on that later.