“Did she dare take the risk? There was no time to think it through, only the moment and the sound of her own voice ringing in her ears.”
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.
Here we go – Catelyn V, the kidnapping of Tyrion, and the moment at which open war between the Starks and the Lannisters becomes inevitable. It’s also, next to Catelyn freeing Jaime at the end of A Clash of Kings, one of the major pieces of evidence used by those in the fandom who hate Catelyn as to why she should be held responsible for most of the things that go wrong in the entire series. I’ve talked before about the problem of presentism (i.e, judging people on the basis of future events that they had no knowledge of, also known as hindsight bias), and we get that in spades in discussions of this chapter, although one also finds a good deal of people judging Lady Stark on the basis of knowledge they have gained from other POVs, in other words blaming her for her lack of omniscience. One example will suffice – Catelyn has no way of knowing, at the time that she arrests Tyrion, that when the news of this hits King’s Landing Ned will have resigned the Handship, leaving himself vulnerable to Jaime’s assault.
If we’re going to judge her fairly, we need to pay close attention to Catelyn’s intent and thought process when she orders Tyrion’s arrest, and luckily George R.R Martin has given us an entire chapter of her thoughts. The first thing we see is that Catelyn is thinking very clearly about the larger strategic picture even before she meets Tyrion:
“The crossroads gave her pause. If they turned west from here, it was an easy ride down to Riverrun…If Winterfell needed to brace for war, how much more so Riverrun, so much closer to King’s Landing, with the power of Casterly Rock looming to the west…Above the Vale, the Eyrie stood high and impregnable…there she would find her sister, and, perhaps, some of the answers Ned sought. Surely Lysa knew more than she had dared to put in her letter. SHe might have the very proof that Ned needed to bring the Lannisters to ruin, and if it came to war, they would need the Arryns and the eastern lords who owed them service.”
It’s not that Catelyn doesn’t see that her actions will lead to war; rather, given Ned’s instructions to her during their last meeting, she fully expects a war to come and shows a rather good strategic understanding of the Stark’s need to bring the Tullys and Arryns into alliance . She also is thinking about helping her husband uncover an immanent threat to the King and their own House (which puts a rather different light on Eddard’s resignation), by gathering evidence to bolster their case. Finally, it should be noted that Catelyn tries to avoid being recognized or having to confront Tyrion.
At the moment she is revealed, Catelyn makes a major decision on the spot, but she’s fully aware that she’s taking a major risk. She attempts to mitigate this risk in two ways – first, rather than simply kidnapping Tyrion by force of arms, she calls upon the crowd to “seize him and help me return him to Winterfell to await the king’s justice…in the name of King Robert,” making it a citizen’s arrest. As a Lady of rank in a world without a formal police force or public prosecutors, she has every right to make this arrest – indeed, private prosecutions is how criminal justice works in Westeros. Secondly, she shows her strong grasp on feudal politics by summoning the bannermen of House Whent (so the might of Harrenhal is involved), House Bracken, and House Frey to her aid (which she needs if she’s going to actually effect arrest and transport her prisoner to the Eyrie); this follows a rather interesting passage where Catelyn ruminates that the loyalty of many of her father’s bannermen (both those who fought for House Targaryen and the Late Lord Frey) are so uncertain.
These are not the actions of a stupid woman, and self-evidently from the text not the actions of a woman who’s ignorant or uncaring of the risks she’s taking.
The warp and weft of historical thought is the interplay between historical forces, those subterranean pressures of economics, society, culture, thought, and environment that build up over centuries and unseen and unawares guide the actions of entire civilizations, and historical contingency, the stubborn resistance of individual agency and human free will to the concept of “inevitability” or “destiny.” The rebuke of “for the want of a nail” reminds us that the smallest of actions, the humblest of people, can shape the course of events.
And this is one of those moments of contingency. There simply was no way to predict that Catelyn Stark would arrive at the Inn of the Crossroads in time to run across Tyrion Lannister, nor was it at all likely that Littlefinger accused him with this in mind. Likewise, Catelyn has no way to know that her husband has resigned the Handship just long enough that Jaime Lannister can cripple him with legal impunity, which in turn will delay Eddard Stark’s investigation long enough that, rather than the Lannisters being exposed as incestuous traitors and brought down by an alliance of Houses Stark, Tully, Baratheon, Tyrell, and possibly Arryn, Lord Stark will be executed at the command of King Joffrey.
Indeed, as people have noted, GRRM has to do some rather fancy footwork to make their intersection work: Catelyn Stark arrives in King’s Landing roughly at the same time that Tyrion leaves the Wall and both of them are riding horses that can travel Tyrion then travels roughly 2,000 miles from the Wall to the Inn whereas Catelyn travels 400 miles from King’s Landing to the Inn and yet arrives there at the same time. Now, mounted knights of the period could travel upwards of 50-60 miles in a day, so you’d expect Tyrion to be four days from Winterfell when Catelyn hits the Inn of the Crossroads. Realistically, they should have intersected somewhere around Moat Cailin – but Martin clearly needed them to meet at a place on neutral territory so that word can get out and so that Catelyn makes for the Eyrie, since at Moat Cailin, Catelyn could have thrown him into the Stark dungeons then and there, with no way for word to get out.
This gets us to not a historical but a literary principle – the demands of classical Greek tragedy. Developing out of the ceremonies of Dynosian worship in ancient Attic Greece, and given the key elements of the form (multiple actors so that dramatic conflict can occur, a chorus to both act as minor characters but also to provide the commentary that reinforces the key themes of the drama, and attention paid to psychology as well as circumstance), one absolute necessity is an act of tragic hubris that brings on the nemesis or destruction of the hero. Think Oedipus murdering a stranger in a fit of rage, unaware that his rash action will bring about the prophecy he’s fled his home to avoid; Agamemnon stepping across royal purple to return to his home where his murder is committed or Orestes who is commanded by the gods to murder his mother, despite the torment that must result; or Jason, whose desire for a new family destroys his own. Critical to the act of hubris is the ignorance of what will come:
There may be many shapes of mystery,
And many things God makes to be,
Past hope or fear.
And the end men looked for cometh not,
And a path is there where no man thought.
So hath it fallen here. (Euripedes, The Bacchae)
As I have argued before, Catelyn Stark is a Greek tragic heroine, a woman dedicated to family by her House and her character, who in her second chapter hopes for another child, who nonetheless helps to bring about the downfall of her family. George R.R Martin literally bends space and time in order to make her fateful meeting with Tyrion happen, just recently plants in her mind from a trusted childhood friend that Tyrion is responsible for the attempted assassination of her son. If you want to condemn Catelyn Stark for “starting the war,” you might as well blame Oedipus for murdering his father and marrying his mother, or George R.R Martin for writing her tragedy.
Note – this is not to say Catelyn is blameless. She can, and does, make some rather enormous mistakes with tragic consequences that she should have known better, but this isn’t one of them. What is an act of omission that Catelyn can be blamed for is that she doesn’t immediately send word to Riverrun and to Winterfell, if not to her husband in King’s Landing, that she’s captured Tyrion and that they need to prepare for war with the Lannisters. Her failure to communicate is that contingent “wanted nail.”
As I’ve been re-reading A Game of Thrones, I’ve been thinking about what the crucial turning points are, those moments of maximum contingency where the course of events could have changed so drastically as to re-orient the entire future of Westeros. Eddard Stark becoming Hand of the King is definitely one of them, Bran’s fall and especially the second assassination attempt against them, and Eddard’s fateful cluster of choices once he learns the truth of the parentage of Cersei’s children. Whatever the final list is, Catelyn and Tyrion meeting at the Inn at the Crossroads will be on the list of the most contingent moments:
- What if Tyrion and Catelyn never meet each other? This hypothetical shows in reverse how vital this meeting is for GRRM’s plot: if the two ships pass in the night on their way north and south, the rest of the plot careens wildly off its tracks. First of all, war between the Starks and Lannisters is delayed – which means that the Riverlands aren’t burnt before the start of the war, which means Eddard doesn’t send out Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, and Tywin doesn’t start the war right in the middle between the West, Riverrun, and King’s Landing. Second, and this is where you see the cost of Catelyn’s actions, Eddard Stark’s orders to fortify Moat Cailin and White Harbor, and keep Theon Greyjoy under close watch are carried out. In other words, the North mobilizes for war before the Lannisters do – now, instead of a hastily-assembled scratch force being sent out to fight two Lannister hosts who have already reduced much of the Riverlands, the Starks potentially have as many as 45,000 men of the North mobilized for war and potentially the capacity for a naval strike on King’s Landing. Third, as I have already written, Eddard isn’t wounded by Jaime, therefore Jaime’s not on hand to lead an army against Riverrun, Eddard isn’t delayed in his investigations, and it’s quite likely that Cersei and Jaime are arrested as traitors by order of King Robert, which changes everything.
- What if they’d met at Moat Cailin? Had the two travelers moved at a realistic pace on their intersecting journeys, as I have said, they would have met at Moat Cailin. This would likely have meant Tyrion’s arrest under circumstances in which Catelyn has no need to head to the Eyrie, can control the movement of news south, and where Catelyn has immediate access to ravens. This means that Eddard knows ahead of his resignation (and before the Lannisters) that Tyrion is under arrest and thus the Lannisters will act against him. It also means that Catelyn is also in a position to find out that Littlefinger has lied to them about the dagger used in the assassination attempt (as she will on the mountain roads to the Eyrie), and can inform Eddard of that as well. Since Eddard can easily confirm this fact with anyone who attended that tourney, he now knows that Littlefinger is lying to him and trying to falsely implicate the Lannisters on the attack on his son. Potentially, this brings about the discovery of the entire Littlefinger Conspiracy if Littlefinger breaks under torture, and certainly means that Eddard won’t rely on the Master of Coin when it comes to securing the Goldcloaks, which in turn potentially means that the Regent Queen and Prince Joffrey are successfully arrested – hail King Stannis!
- What if Catelyn hadn’t arrested Tyrion at the Inn? This is a bit similar to the first case, but it means that Tyrion’s going to arrive in King’s Landing knowing that something really weird is going on with House Stark, which potentially means that Tyrion will be arrested or at the very least contacted first by Eddard instead of his wife. Which again means that Eddard finds out the truth of Littlefinger’s treachery, that the North is mobilized ahead of schedule, and also that one of the sharpest political minds in Westeros is now present to witness what’s about to go down in the capitol. While it probably wouldn’t have happened, an Eddard/Tyrion odd-couple buddy-cop scenario would have been amazing!
- What if Catelyn had headed North? This is essentially similar to the Moat Cailin case, with the added wrinkle of a really fast chase as Catelyn tries to make it to safety before any ambitious sellsword decides to “rescue” Tyrion in exchange for lots of Lannister gold. It also means that Catelyn finds out Littlefinger’s lies well before she gets to the dungeons but without Lysa’s interference. Which holds out the possibility that once they get to Moat Cailin, Catelyn sends a raven to King’s Landing informing Ned what’s going on, and Tyrion sends a raven to Casterly Rock telling his father that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the real enemy is Littlefinger who tried to set up a civil war.
- What if Catelyn had headed West? The major difference here is that, with Tyrion behind Riverrun’s walls, Jaime (and to a lesser extent, Tywin) might act more cautiously in attacking the Tullys if they knew that the potential cost of an assault on Riverrun might mean Tyrion’s death.
Book vs. Show:
Unfortunately, this scene was pretty much lifted, word-for-word, from the book. Nothing to report here.