“…the Eyrie is impregnable. You saw for yourself. No enemy could ever reach us up here….”
“No castle is impregnable.”
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 VI is a nice little chapter that shows how a lot of political nuance can still be found in a segment that concerns itself mostly with someone climbing a mountain.
First, I mentioned back in Tyrion IV, one of the side-effects of Lysa’s paranoid call for all of the knights of the Vale to “kept close at home, to defend the Vale…against what, no one is certain,” has been to destabilize the military-political status quo in the Vale, freeing up the clansmen from the threat of reprisal, hence attacking a band of armed men repeatedly. Given Ser Donnel’s comment that he could take “a hundred men into the mountains, root them out of their fastnesses, and teach them some sharp lessons.” the disruption to the Vale seems truly needless* and a sign, like ghosts walking on the battlements of Dulsinore or the eternal wound on the thigh of the Fisher King, that there is something rotten in the House of Arryn.
* Incidentally, one potential explanation might be that Littlefinger wants the Vale mobilized for an invasion of the North down the road, but that’s a bit tinfoil-hatted for me.
Second, we get a good picture of the military defenses of the Vale and why it’s considered so difficult to attack: the Arryns clearly believe in the virtues of defense in depth. To conquer the Eyrie, an invader would have to beat their way through no less than six castles, each of which is well-constructed and its own way using the native terrain of the Vale to its best advantage:
- The Bloody Gate – defended by the Knight of the Gate, the Bloody Gate is a massive wall “built into the very stone of the mountains..where the pass shrank to a narrow defile scare wide enough for four men,” with “twin watchtowers…joined by a covered bridge of weathered grey stone.” It’s a defensive dream and an attacker’s nightmare – the defile itself prevents armies from using their size to overpower the defenders; the high slopes on either side make knocking out either tower incredibly difficult (since the covered bridge allows mutual support and reinforcement); and attacking head on means that you’re taking fire from the front (the battlements), both flanks (the towers), and directly above (the bridge overhead). No wonder it has been the death of so many armies.
- The Gates of the Moon – if an army could get through the Bloody Gate, it then stands at the mouth of the Vale and all its agricultural wealth, except that you’re standing at the point where “the Vale was narrow here, no more than a half day’s ride across,” with the Giant’s Lance right in front of you. Militarily speaking, if you try to bypass the Giant’s Lance, you’re going to be cut off from the rear and get attacked from the front and rear simultaneously, and bottling up the defenders and starving them out would require an enormous amount of manpower to encircle the entire mountain (because the natives don’t have to get off the mountain via just the Gates) and interdict resupply while giving the Vale time to mobilize and crush you against the mountain. So you have to confront the threat right on, which means you have to get through the Gates of the Moon. The Gates of the Moon are formidable: a “stout castle” with a moat, drawbridge, portcullis and defensive towers, can hold several thousand defenders – and it can be reinforced from Stone, Snow, Sky, and the Eyrie above.
- Stone – after having to assault two major defensive fortifications in a row, you now have to climb up the mountain and get past the first of three way-castles After several hours of climbing, you get to a keep with “a massive ironbound gate” with “iron spikes set along the tops of formidable stone walls and two fat round towers.” The narrow path means once again you can’t bring numbers to bear, or siege engines, and once again, the defenders can be reinforced and resupplied from above.
- Snow – the ascent gets even steeper and more narrow at this point. Snow may be “smaller than Stone, a single fortified tower and a timber keep…hidden behind a low wall of unmortared rock,” but it can’t be bypassed, and the engineers who built it used the landscape to give Snow the ability to fire on any army getting past Stone for the entire distance, and Snow can still be reinforced and resupplied from above.
- Sky – at this point, the path is less than three feet wide, which means that even though “the waycastle called Sky was no more than a high, crescent-shaped wall of unmortared stone raised against the side of a mountain,” you can’t avoid anything being thrown your way, and if anything connects and you fall, you’re dead. Even if you get past the wall, the defenders can retreat to a cave inside the mountains and force yet another head-on assault, and once again, your opponent can be reinforced and resupplied from above.
- The Eyrie – if Sky is breached, the basket can be reeled up, meaning that you have to climb “more like a stone ladder than proper steps” for six hundred feet straight up. The Eyrie itself might be small, but seven towers means you’re absorbing a lot of punishment from five-hundred well-supplied men with their backs to the proverbial wall, who can furthermore use the winch in the cellars to cut you off from behind by recapturing Sky, or to slip out the back way and imprison you in the empty keep.
However, what this list doesn’t really explain is the iterative nature of all of this – at each step, if an invader was able to overwhelm each line of defenses, they would take huge casualties while the defenders can easily retreat to a new set of defenses and augment the garrison there, so that the attacker is continually decreasing in numbers while the defender keeps losing manpower; the castles further down the line can send forward supplies and reinforcements easily, while the attacker has to haul everything up three vertical miles under conditions of punishing exposure; several of the castles offer vantage points where they can provide supporting fire from above. Between the casualties, the repetition of perilous frontal assaults, and extreme conditions, any army short of the Unsullied would likely break under the strain. In essence, the whole of the Giant’s Lance is one big castle.
As long as Gulltown can protect the Vale from the sea, the only major threat facing the Val is internal – and the Arryns seem to have dealt with this problem in classic feudal fashion, by creating a series of positions of honor that it can dole out to buy the support of powerful houses of the Vale. The positions of Knight of the Gate, Keeper of the Gates of the Moon, High Steward of the Vale, and the likely but unconfirmed positions of Knight of the Stone, Knight of the Snow, and Knight of the Sky are influential and prestigious positions, not exactly rich in lands but they offer proximity to the Lord Paramount of the Vale, and in politics, the closer to power you can get, the more of it you have.
Third, we get to meet Ser Brynden Tully, fan-favorite, guerilla warrior, and all-around badass. What we see in this chapter, however, is that Brynden is also a perceptive political observer where his brother is not concerned.* Being a good listener is key to picking up political information, and his strategic mind is clearly seen from the fact that he immediately tells Catelyn to tell her father about what she’s done, since “if the Lannisters should march, Winterfell is remote and the Vale walled up behind its mountains, but Riverrun lies right in their path.” More than most of the other men of the Vale Catelyn encounters, Brynden can sense the political tensions building in the Vale – pointing to the unspoken belief that Jon Arryn was murdered, the resentment towards the Lannisters, and the reality that the last remaining Arryn is “six years old, sickly, and prone to weep if you take his dolls away…too weak to sit his father’s seat.”
* incidentally, I do like how Brynden’s backstory points out how dynastic arranged marriages can constrain both men and women’s lives (patriarchy damages everyone, just not in the same way or degree). I don’t know if the Blackfish is gay; I kind of want them to portray that in the show a bit, because they missed the chance with Loras and Renly to subvert traditional depictions of gay characters.
Likewise, it’s telling that Brynden can parse that while “a woman can rule as wisely as a man,” it takes the “right woman…[and] Lysa is not you.” (Catelyn-haters should note that the Blackfish thinks of Catelyn as a woman who can rule) Whether it’s because of his sexuality or totally unrelated, Brynden can see past his culture’s ideology of gender and see how Lysa has been fundamentally damaged by Westerosi gender roles: a “marriage…made from politics, not passion…two babes stillborn, twice as many miscarriages,” and (although he doesn’t know this) a forced abortion on top of it. For all that Lysa is a truly despicable character (murdered her husband, sent her sister and her brother-in-law into harm’s way, attempts to execute an innocent man without trial, attempts to murder her niece), I think there’s an argument to be made that she, more than any other woman in the series including Cersei, has been a victim of the patriarchy.
Indeed, her obvious mental trauma causes her to almost give away the plot (the Littlefinger Conspiracy, that is) by acting in a way that belies her initial story – referring to “your quarrels with the Lannisters,” and later changing her story about who assassinated Jon Arryn. Indeed, given how she snaps later on when Sansa arrives, either Littlefinger can’t or didn’t prep Lysa to keep her story straight, which is a major weakness in his conspiracy (his equivalent of Pycelle?).
Fourth, Catelyn makes two consequential decisions: she chooses to ignore her doubts about Tyrion’s guilt (in part motivated by her guilt over the deaths of the men who rose to her call at the Inn), and she decides to send letters to Riverrun and the North to pass on critical information about preparations for war…which she never does.
One potential historical counterpart to the Vale in our history is Wales during the process of English conquest; then as in the Vale, the population was divided between its “original” inhabitants (considered semi-barbarous by the new overlords) who used guerrilla warfare to stage hit-and-run attacks from mountain strongholds and more recent migrants, who used a network of castles garrisoned by mounted knights to dominate the region. These castles, constructed during the reign of Edward I, acted as military protection for new colonies of English settlers and proved to be the rocks against which the rebellions of Madog ap Llywelyn, Llywelyn Bren, and Owain Glyndŵr would ultimately break.
The Eyrie is something of an exaggerated fantasy castle, but the question remains: could the Eyrie be taken by storm? History offers some examples of mountain-top castles that were taken by storm: during the Great Jewish Revolt in the 1st century AD, the Romans took a number of mountain-top fortresses, most notably at Masada, where they built a 375-foot earth and stone ramp up the side of the mountain to allow them to assault the walls. This tactic would be incredibly difficult with the Eyrie, given it’s 3.5 mile height and the narrow width of the mountain path.
Another siege during Alexander’s conquest of Bactria (modern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan), the capture of the Sogdian rock, offers a better model. The Rock of Sogdia was the last fortress of the King of Bactria, a mountain stronghold “sheer on every side against attack,” and well provisioned and garrisoned. When Alexander sent an envoy to demand surrender, the defenders refused flatly, taunting the Macedonian king that he would need “men with wings” to defeat them.
Alexander offered gold to any volunteer willing to brave the heights and got 300 men experienced in climbing sheer fortress walls in previous sieges. While it’s not known exactly how high the Rock of Sogdia was since the precise location was lost to history, a very similar Sogdian fortress on Mount Mugh stands some 1500 meters (or .93 miles) above sea level). These 300 men made a night climb up an almost completely vertical slope, picking out a route with iron tent-pegs, woven flax ropes, and linen route markers, losing 30 men on the way. When the defenders saw that Alexander had found “men with wings,” they surrendered on the spot.
In the TV show, Bronn was probably exaggerating that a dozen men with climbing spikes could take the Eyrie – but enough determined and skilled men, willing to absorb casualties, could do it.
There’s not much in the way of hypotheticals in this chapter, but I’ll mention a couple for completeness’ sake:
- Catelyn falls – I don’t really give this one credence, because one of the major reasons GRRM has sent Catelyn on this wild-goose chase is to have her meet her transformed sister. However, if it happened at this point, some interesting things happen: Catelyn wouldn’t make the pact with the Freys, so Robb would have had to bargain a pact himself, or to attack Tywin Lannister directly; if Jaime Lannister is captured, he’s not released and possibly is used by Robb to bargain a truce once the war starts to go sour in ASOS. And a lot of Freys live.
- Bronn and/or Morrillon don’t come up the mountain – in the chapter, Catelyn immediately regrets allowing the minstrel Morrillon to come with her to the Eyrie, which means she has to extend an invitation to Bronn as well. Had she chosen not to bring them with her, some interesting things happen: without an introduction to Lysa, Morrillon isn’t on hand to sexually harass Sansa or to take the fall for Littlefinger when Lysa goes completely mad and tries to kill Sansa in ASOS. While Littlefinger could probably have finessed the immediate crisis by claiming she had lost her mind and thrown herself from the Moon Door over her son’s declining health, certainly his prospects for dealing with the Lords Declarant really begin to narrow.
- Catelyn sends either or both of her letters – this is the one that really kills me, as I’ve expressed before. Catelyn is reminded that she needs to pass urgent messages to mobilize for war to her father and brother in Riverrun and to the lords of the North (and really should be passing on what she learned from Tyrion to Ned) and then promptly forgets. According to the Global Timeline, she had seven days between her arrival at the Eyrie and Ned’s resignation to get her messages out – personally I think the alternation of chapters suggests more of a simultaneous or near-simultaneous timing. So it’s possible Ned is forewarned about Littlefinger’s treachery before he’s led to the brothel where he will be injured, but regardless knowledge that Littlefinger is actively lying to him might have changed Ned’s critical decision to leave the Goldcloaks to the Master of Coin. Regardless, the impact on the War of Five Kings is immense: the GT suggests that it takes eight days of news of Catelyn’s capture of Tyrion to reach Robb who in turns sends out riders for a mustering; eight more days could have meant thousands more soldiers mobilized to march south or to defend the North from the Ironborn. Given that two weeks lapse between her arrival to the Eyrie and Gregor’s predations in the Riverlands, prompt warning could have meant the Riverlands were better mobilized to meet the first Lannister attack, possibly preventing the complete collapse of their defenses.
Book vs. Show:
There’s a couple major changes between the book and the show in this chapter. First, we don’t get multiple mountain men attacks (which would have been repetitious and expensive), or have it explained to us that Lysa is deliberately damaging peace and order in the Vale. Second, we don’t get the Blackfish – which they did to save on actor budgets, by shunting the entire Tully family into Season 3, and also to avoid having to explain the dynastic links of Westeros (a common strategy used by the showrunners – hence Cleos Frey becoming Alton Lannister, which I see the merits of). At the time I disliked this change, but if it means we didn’t get an extra and instead get Clive Russell, I’m o.k with it.
Third, we get a very different image of the Eyrie, and this I found to be an unnecessary mistake (since it doesn’t cost more money to do a different matte painting instead of the one they went with). The show version is a rather unbelievable hollow mountain that the castle sits on top of, with a long bridge you ride right up; this lacks something of the size and scope of the sky-scraping Rock of Gibraltar-essence of the book’s castle, and you don’t get the sense of these iterative defenses that are so amazing on the page. I will say that a Moon Door in the floor is actually a substantial improvement, and I can’t wait for it to be used again in Season 4.
Fourth, we get a quite different Lysa Arryn, where they went gaunt instead of corpulent. I like this change, which emphasizes more Lysa’s madness than the fact that she’s let herself go. I quite like Kate Dickie’s performance of a woman who’s clearly living on her very last nerve and I’m glad to see she’s returning in Season 3, although I don’t think the scenes of Littlefinger wooing her are going to be easy on the stomach.