“Catelyn had always thought Robb looked like her; like Bran and Rick and Sansa, he had the Tully coloring, the auburn hair, the blue eyes. Yet now for the first time she saw something of Eddard Stark in his face, something as stern and hard as the north.”
“He came for Bran,” Catelyn said. “He kept muttering how I wasn’t supposed to be there. He set the library fire thinking I would rush to put it out…If you are to rule in the north, you must think these things through, Robb. Answer your own question. Why would anyone want to kill a sleeping child?”
Synopsis: Catelyn Stark has an unproductive meeting about appointments with Maester Luwin, talks with Robb about the beginning of Rickon Stark’s inevitable descent into feral madness, fends off an assassination attempt on Bran with the timely assistance of Summer although not without injury, and discusses the Lannister conspiracy with Robb, Luwin, Theon, Ser Rodrick Cassel, and decides to go to King’s Landing herself.
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.
One of the major themes in a rather packed chapter is the interplay between Catelyn Stark’s initial failure to uphold her role as the lady of the manor in the absence of her lord and the halting emergence of Robb Stark as “the master of Winterfell” (more on this later). Her nervous breakdown is critical to the plot in more ways than one; had she not been mentally out of commission after Bran’s injury, it’s quite possible that earlier attention to the Stark household (the hiring of a new stable master, for example) could have uncovered the assassin before the attack.
This is complicated by the almost completely ahistorical idea that “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell.” The often fractured nature of feudal landholding, where lords often held non-contiguous fiefs that were quite widespread and frequently traveled between them, many manors were primarily managed by stewards or vassals and rarely if ever experienced the presence of their liege lord, and highborn ladies were expected to manage households and castles for quite some time if the liege lord was absent. During the Crusades or extended wars, this could be for several years. Having a (male) member of the family in residence at a single castle at all times would be highly unusual.
However, this anachronism might be explained by the relatively unique nature of Winterfell as both a castle, the North’s capitol, and a natural hot-spring area. Ordinarily, a lord of the Stark’s status would directly own many castles and generally move between them; the Starks have opted instead for concentrating their power into a single indomitable fortress. This has several advantages. Winterfell is centrally located in the North and both equidistant from all sub-regions and well removed from outside threats from any direction, so it allows the Starks to operate efficiently without a network of smaller castles. More importantly, as one of the few (possibly the only) holdfast built on top of a natural heat source, it’s the major sanctuary from winter, capable of sheltering and (with its greenhouses) feeding thousands and thousands of people through the long winters. Given these two factors, Winterfell is a strategic resource without exact historical parallel, and it would make sense that the Starks would draw political and symbolic power from being the lords of Winterfell and vice versa.
The other major political theme is the attempted assassination of Bran Stark. The plot itself is an odd mix of accomplished and amateurish – the assassin is relatively skilled, enough to hide undetected for a week, to set a fire and sneak past the guards to get into Bran’s room, and yet at the same time takes an enormous risk both in gambling that he would remain undetected in the stable for eight days and the choice of weapon is quite conspicuous (why send a dagger to kill a comatose child when a pillow over the face would have been equally effective and far less identifiable). While we learn in Game of Thrones that Tyrion isn’t involved in the assassination attempt from his POV chapters, it’s not until Storm of Swords that Cersei is eliminated as a suspect. Interestingly, we never quite get confirmation that it was Joffrey’s doing – Tyrion deduces that it is most likely the case, given Joffrey’s means and opportunity; Cersei offers a potential motive. However, like many political assassinations throughout the year, the truth is never fully known, but rather vanishes into the mists of history.
Catelyn Stark’s political skills are a matter of some dispute within the fandom, both of A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones. We see both sides in this chapter. On the one hand, Catelyn immediately and correctly concludes that Jaime Lannister threw Bran from the tower in order to conceal evidence of some wrongdoing, simply by recalling that Jaime Lannister unusually did not join the King’s hunt (despite being one of only two Kingsguard with the royal party) and without any CSI:Winterfell stunts with long blond hairs. Interestingly, she doesn’t make anything of the fact that Cersei and Jaime were the two Lannisters remaining in Winterfell during the hunt. On the other hand, her decision to go to King’s Landing herself is rather lacking in forethought, given the evident danger that the Lannisters pose to members of the Stark family. Given that Eddard Stark is known for his trust in and even-handed dealings with his staff (as we see from Arya’s chapters), the idea that Eddard wouldn’t trust Ser Cassel, Maester Luwin, or his ward if they came bearing news of the attack rather strains the belief.
Rather, her decision seems to stem more from a personal need to be proactive in dealing with the Lannister Conspiracy.
While there isn’t really a historical equivalent to Winterfell, I do think that there’s a mythological or folkloric equivalent – Corbenic or Caer Bran, as it’s written in Cornish. In the Arthurian saga, Corbenic is the domain of the Fisher King, whose legs and/or groin are eternally wounded (the so-called Dolorous Stroke) so that the King cannot move and is reduced to fishing in the river near his home. The wounding of the king becomes the wounding of the land, such that the land surrounding Corbenic becomes the Wasteland, until a true knight, who has the purity necessary to touch the Holy Grail, can cure him. In the earlier Celtic myth, Bran the Blessed is the prophetic King of the Island of the Mighty, who possesses a cauldron that can bring the dead back to life, who is similarly wounded in the leg and healed by the magic of the cauldron.
The similarity of the name and the parallels between Bran Stark’s wounding and the Fisher King’s is hardly accidental. Dramatically, there is a parallel between the health of the Starks in Winterfell, Winterfell itself, and the North. When all of the Starks are present in Winterfell, the castle is an unconquerable citadel that offers shelter and survival from Winter when all around it is dead and buried in Winter, a warm beating heart that keeps the people of the North alive, and the realm is at peace. When the Starks begin to leave and the Stark in residence is a crippled child, Winterfell is threatened by besiegers and the North is invaded and the people scattered by the Ironborn; when the family is symbolically slain, the castle is destroyed and the North faces existential destruction from within and without at the hands of the Ironborn, the Boltons and Freys, the wildlings, and the Other.
Perhaps this crippled Bran will yet be healed, so that spring can come again, the land restored, and the castle rebuilt. We shall see.
While I’ve already covered several possible counterfactuals already in previous chapters that relate to the basic situation – Bran in a coma, what could appen to him – there are several new ones that are suggested by events in Catelyn III:
- What If Hodor or Someone Else Found the Assassin Before the Attack?
The discovery of the assassin hidden in the stables could potentially change much or little. If the assassin doesn’t know the identity or the appearance of his employer (assuming for a moment that Joffrey was intelligent enough to keep himself hooded during his discussion with the assassin), not much changes – the Starks at Winterfell already know from the dagger and payment that this is a political assassination, as opposed to the typical motiveless lone madman. However, if the assassin did know who paid him, or even remembered enough about his employer’s appearance (there aren’t that many blond young lords of Joffrey’s age in the area at the time), this potentially changes everything.
While the word of a common assassin is nowhere near enough evidence for an accusation against the Prince, the knowledge that Prince Joffrey is responsible would certainly change the behavior of Eddard and Catelyn Stark while complicating the politics – Eddard’s investigation would probably focus more quickly on royal heritage and finding an alternative successor knowing how un-Robertlike the Prince is, and it’s highly likely that Eddard breaks off the engagement at a much earlier point in such a way that Sansa is highly unlikely to inform to the Queen (even Sansa would find the attempted assassination of her brother too much to forgive). Similarly, Catelyn would probably not capture Tyrion if she wasn’t operating in such a vaccuum of information where the only information she’s sure of (thanks to Lysa’s letter) is that the Lannisters are involved as a group in nefarious doings; this likely delays war mobilizations (on the Lannister side especially) by several months.
- What If Catelyn Doesn’t Go?
One of the reasons why I love counterfactuals that they allow us to see the pivot points in historical narratives. In this case, if Catelyn had chosen someone else to go in her place to King’s Landing, it’s much more likely that the message would have gotten directly to Eddard Stark (since a message from Winterfell would be much less conspicuous than the Lady of Winterfell herself), eliminating Littlefinger’s opportunity to throw suspicion onto Tyrion and preventing Eddard from going down a blind alley on that particular investigation.
At the same time, this change would also prevent the capture of Tyrion, as a subordinate would lack the authority to call upon Tully bannermen to put a Lannister under arrest. This shows us something of George R.R Martin’s literary choices – he clearly needed a catalyst for Tywin to mobilize the Lannister forces, for Tyrion to become personally involved in the overall plot as opposed to observing from the outwise, for Littlefinger to insinuate himself into the investigation, and for Catelyn Stark to not return to Winterfell.
Consider the cascading consequences of Catelyn remaining in Winterfell. To begin with, the defense of the North when the Ironborn attack will not be resting in the hands of a seven-year old boy; Catelyn would likely be more cautious as a leader, which would likely prevent the fall of Winterfell to Theon (and possibly result in Theon’s earlier capture). Continuing on, with Catelyn in the North, Jaime Lannister isn’t released from Robb’s custody, which prevents Robb from losing the Karstark forces. With more men and without the necessity of returning to the North, and quite possibly with Roose Bolton having less motive to betray a much more successful cause than in OTL, the Red Wedding might be obviated, even had Robb screwed up by marrying Jeyne Westerling.
- What If Both Die?
One possibility I haven’t considered at all is what would happen if both Bran and Catelyn die. In addition to the obvious changes (no Tyrion kidnapping, no Jaime being released), this would probably massively ramp up the nastiness of the resulting War of the Five Kings. A Robb Stark who blames the murder of his father, mother, and younger brother on the Lannisters is a Robb Stark who does not take prisoners; Jaime Lannister probably is executed after the Battle of the Whispering Woods, which might result in retaliation against Sansa, and so on, with Roose Bolton possibly becoming Robb Stark’s right-hand man urging him on to further revenge. Truly a darker timeline.
Book vs. TV:
One of the ongoing controversies about the adaptation from novel to tv show is the way in which Robb Stark’s and Catelyn Stark’s characters have altered, with Robb gaining some of Catelyn’s political nous and becoming more of a conventional heroic figure, while Catelyn is shaped into more of a conventional “mother-first” character who primarily wants to get back to Winterfell to be with her family. There is some merit to this argument; the Catelyn of the books is substantially more politically involved than the Catelyn in the show.
However, I think maintaining BookRobb would have been a huge mistake. While Catelyn sees “something of Eddard Stark in his face” when Robb Stark steps up to take charge of the Winterfell estate, he immediately reverts to immaturity In part this is due to his youth compared to the TV show; Robb’s admission that “I can’t do it all by myself” would be credible coming from a 14 year old boy but wouldn’t have worked for a 17-year old. However, other parts of his behavior in this chapter really make him out to be a complete idiot – Catelyn pointing out the obvious motive for attempting to kill Bran would be bad enough, but waving his sword around (something that Robb repeats when Tyrion and Yoren show up at Winterfell) is not merely idiotic and childish by our standards, but by the standards of everyone around him. And unlike child characters like Arya, Robb’s growth as a character is incredibly halting and inconsistent (although this is probably due to the fact that we only see him through his mother’s eyes), which is dramatically unsatisfying.
Given how close parts of the audience have come to dismissing Eddard Stark for his holding of the idiot ball, I don’t think BookRobb would be a character that the audience would sympathize with and want to succeed – which has to happen for the “Scarlet Reception” to have the necessary dramatic heft.
So the question becomes – does it have to be all or nothing? Is it necessary for Robb Stark to be dim in order for Catelyn to be politically savvy? Edward IV, who Robb Stark is largely based on (more on this later), made political mistakes despite being a rather clever politician as well as a strategic genius. His mother, Cecily Neville, was a formidable political actor who acted as ambassador to kings and parliaments in the interests of her family, who kept the Yorkist cause going when her husband and oldest son were executed after the Battle of Wakefield, and who carried the banner of the Yorkist king in triumph into London. Her skills did not diminish her son’s, and vice versa.