“Only a Stark would be fool enough to threaten where other men might beg.”
Synopsis: Bran, Robb, Theon, and Maester Luwin go out riding in the Wolfswood. On the way, they discuss recent news about their mother and father. When Bran is momentarily left alone, he’s mugged by a group of wildling and deserter raiders. Robb returns and, with the help of the direwolves, leaves four of them dead in the blink of an eye. Theon’s indifference to the principle of the Dornish standoff ends the conflict, and Osha is brought back to Winterfell as a captive.
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.
Bran V is a nice change from previous Bran chapters, as we get a nice burst of action and something for me to sink my teeth into when it comes to the politics of Westeros. In this recap, I’ll discuss primarily Winter Town and what it tells us about the political economy of the North, make a brief correction regarding Catelyn and talk about Robb’s path to becoming a lord, and then get into the meeting with the wildlings.
As Bran and the hunting party pass through the outer walls of Winterfell, they ride through the winter town, one of the stranger urban environments of Westeros. Unlike most castle towns, Winter Town (as one might guess from the name) is a seasonal settlement: despite the “rows of small neat houses of log and undressed stone…less than one and five were occupied.” Unlike the South, where we see more of the classical blurred lines between rural farmstead, village, market town, suburban estates, and cities, the North is rural until winter comes. Then, the political economy of the North shifts, and the rural becomes urban again, as “farmers left their frozen fields and distant holdfasts, loaded up their wagons and then the winter town came alive.” This means that, despite their low population density, the North is actually very sensible about their human capital, maximizing agricultural production during the Spring, Summer, and Autumn, and then turning their population towards manufacturing in the long Winters.
Winter Town is the most profound explanation for why Winterfell is the heart of the North more so than any other regional capital in relation to their own territory: because of its warm springs, its greenhouses, and its vast storehouses, Winterfell is the one place in the North where complete safety from the winter can be found, and in winter, warmth means life and cold death. This goes a long way to explaining why House Stark is the longest dynasty in Westeros (and is 2-3 times longer than any historical dynasty, the longest of which stretch to a mere three thousand years): as long as there is a Stark in Winterfell and Winter can last for years, the North will need to bow the need to the Starks eventually or die.
A Brief Correction
In this chapter, we see that “a message had arrived from the Eyrie, from mother. She did not say when she meant to return, only that she had taken the Imp as prisoner.” I had previously argued that Catelyn didn’t send word of her actions and had thereby damaged the war effort, and this was incorrect at least in part. Granted, the letter doesn’t definitely contain the orders Eddard Stark gave for his bannermen, but Robb Stark’s reaction points to something of the kind being included. At the same time, it’s clear that there was a significant delay in terms of information getting to Riverrun (Edmure only mobilizes once word comes of Tywin’s mobilizations) and Winterfell, and it’s also clear that no information about what Tyrion said about the dragonbone dagger made it to Eddard at King’s Landing.
All the same, my previous comments were unfair to Catelyn Stark, so I’ll eat my words for the sake of accuracy.
The other thing that we learn from mention of the letter is that we a further step in Robb’s transition into becoming Lord of Winterfell and leader of the Northern war effort – he’s graduated to taking preliminary steps toward calling the bannermen and reinforcing Moat Cailin. Moreover, Robb seems to have learned some of Ned’s theory of lordship in establishing a policy of listening to all of his advisers to help him sort through the difficult problem of how to react to violent provocations, although his indecision in the face of what to do with Osha shows it’s very much a work in progress. At the same time, as we’ll see when the widlings show up, he shows no such hesitation when it comes to battle – a trait he’ll carry forward through the rest of his life.
Meeting the Raiders
The meeting with the raiders is an interesting moment where two groups of very different cultural and class backgrounds suddenly and violently intersect. Bran begins the conversation thinking that they are the same as the “foresters [and] farmers” who “bent the knee when they saw the boys” and were “greeted…with a lordly nod.” Suddenly, he realizes his mistake and his peculiar mix of privilege and vulnerability: “suddenly conscious of how richly he was dressed,” Bran tries and fails to ward of these deserters with a declaration of his rank and a threat of death, but the reality is that his disability undercuts his class position. When Bran is cut down from his horse, the truth is made clear, he’s completely exposed and likely to die.
From the raiders’ point of view, they are confronted with a rare opportunity and danger all rolled up into one. The silver pin on Bran’s shoulder, a mere bagatelle to the young man, represents a year’s income easily; the horse means the possibility of getting out of the North where they will be hunted down by a population vigilant against wildling raiders and Nights Watch deserters. The boy’s person itself means much more: “think what Mance would give to have Benjen Stark’s own blood to hostage?” On the other hand, when Rob appears, the discrepancy in strength is notable; even outnumbered and a mere boy, Robb’s castle-forged sword and his horse and his wolves allow him to cut through four opponents in the blink of an eye. Even threatening a child’s life can’t save them from a disastrous conclusion.
GRRM leaves this incident somewhat ambivalent. On one level, this is the story of a group of rich people who respond to an attempted mugging by murdering a bunch of poor people, who are driven by the most human of motives: the desire for life. Osha’s comrades just want to get the hell out of the North (“as far south as south goes”) before the White Walkers show up, and they probably desperately need the resources that Bran’s silver and horse represent, and everyone in the North wants them dead because one of them is an escapee from a penal legion and the rest are foreigners.
At the same time though, GRRM doesn’t truck with simplistic notions of wholly evil aristocrats and an innocent proletariat. The sad and illiberal truth is that suffering does not necessarily ennoble; sometimes it just grinds down consciences. As Ned Stark says of deserters, “no man is more dangerous…the desert knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile or cruel.” These raiders attempt to rob and kidnap a child, they threaten to sexually mutilate said child, and wind up threatening his life; when Robb cuts them down, they’ve got weapons in their hands and are just as eager to end his life as he is to save his brother.
In an agricultural society based on fixed tenancies, and extremely localized communities wary of strangers, vagrants and “able-bodied beggars” posed an almost existential threat to the medieval social order, and it’s not an accident that the concept of outlawry has such a close association to the vagrant from the “Merry Men” of Sherwood Forest on down.
The first vagrancy laws emerged in the wake of the Black Death, where the vast loss of life (modern estimates suggest that 45-50% of Europe’s population died in the 1348-1350 pandemic) had disrupted the system of serfdom by which peasants were bound to the land as quasi-property of their feudal overlords. With so many lords dead and unable to keep them on the land, and with the plague having greatly increased demand for labor and thus wages, millions of peasants fled their masters in search of a better deal – and thus creating the figure of the “sturdy beggar” who was seen as a thief, a con-man, and a potential murderer, unrestrained by the normal relationships of serfdom and feudalism. The response was the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349 (which capped wages at pre-plague levels, banned employers from “enticing” other men’s servants to leave their jobs, and made it illegal to be unemployed), and the Statute of Cambridge of 1388 (which made it illegal for any laborer to leave their home without papers of leave granted by local magistrates). By this method, the danger of peasants becoming free men who demanded wage increases was supposedly restrained.
It didn’t work, of course. Laws designed to prevent workers from leaving their manors in search of employment instead sparked rebellions – the Great Revolt of 1381 in England, the Jacquerie in France, revolts in Hungary and Estonia, etc. Moreover, the feudal state simply lacked the capacity to prevent peasants from slipping away from their farms and making their way to the city, which meant that the “sturdy beggar” remained an object of fear for hundreds of years. Little separated the “vagabond” from bandits, and as late as the 18th century, bands of roving beggars (who were just as often rural laborers migrating from one seasonal crop to the next) were seen as violent drunks who had to be fobbed off with alms lest they begin stealing, damaging property, or beating people.
Which I think gets us closer to understanding the mindset of the people of the North in how they see wildlings and deserters. Life in the North is hard enough, with the constant pressing need to harvest enough food to make it through a winter that might last a decade. But however romantic the wildlings’ belief in freedom might sound to our 21st century ears, what the people of the North are most concerned with is that the wildlings’ belief in freedom extends to the idea that the wildlings are free to rob them, and to kill anyone who tries to stop them.
Any clash of arms, no matter how small, brings with it the risk of death and therefore major changes in the plot. Some hypotheticals that are suggested by the encounter with the wildlings are:
- Osha dies? Either in the fight, when she’s in serious danger of being torn apart by a direwolf, or after when Theon recommends executing the wildlings, Osha comes very close to death. If she had died, then Bran and Rickon lack an able-bodied adult to help them hide when Winterfell is taken by the Greyjoys, which might mean their “escape” is foiled, leading to their genuine death. Even assuming that they make it out of Winterfell, we now have the problem that there’s no one to look after Rickon when Bran, Hodor, and the Reeds (Westeros’ #1 rock band north of the Wall) split off heading for the Wall. Which, let’s face it, is kind of par for the course with Rickon.
- Bran dies? Robb dying at this point is extremely unlikely, given how handily he cuts through the wildlings. But Bran comes quite close to death three times in this chapter: first, the leg wound that could have easily opened up a major artery; second, the wildling who puts a knife to this throat; and third, Theon’s extremely risky bow-shot. Now, the direction of the Bran storyline is the most opaque at the moment – GRRM hasn’t really written much of Bran’s stories in comparison to other plotlines, and the metaphysical nature of his particular story-arc shrouds much of what’s to come in mystical vagueness. However, there are some concrete things we can point to: first, with Bran dead, he’s not around to give the fatal order that left Winterfell defenseless, which means Winterfell perhaps doesn’t fall which in turn perhaps forestalls the Red Wedding. Second, Bran doesn’t awaken Jon Snow’s warging abilities, which might mean that Jon doesn’t make it back from his brush with death.
- Theon kills him? I doubt Robb would kill Theon for an accidental death, but there’s no way in hell Theon’s getting leave to go to Balon with his offer of alliance. In turn, this potentially means that Balon is forestalled from invading the North lest his son pay for it with his life, which in turn might obviate the Red Wedding and allow Robb to be reinforced by the 17,000 or so Northmen left unmobilized when he departed South. So a potentially very different War of the Five Kings from this rather gruesome hypothetical.
Book vs. Show:
The main difference here is that we don’t get the direwolves acting so dramatically to protect their Stark charges. I understand from the showrunners that the animal actors in Season 1 were incredibly difficult to work with, doubling shooting times and causing great expense, but some of the thematics of the direwolves is lost.
What people often forget about the direwolves is that they’re not sweet and cuddly, and they’re definitely not safe. They’re terrifying and dangerous, and we see that this chapter both in their attack on the wildlings and the genuine fear that peasants and guardsmen alike feel when they see them. The direwolves will kill people – sometimes real threats (Joffrey, the assassin, various Freys that Nymeria is busy killing), and sometimes people who are no danger at all (Shaggydog attacks Winterfell guards pretty indiscriminately, the various attacks on Tyrion). Like all magic in ASOIAF, the direwolves are a “blade without a hilt,” performing acts of a quasi-supernatural nature (Ghost finding the wight corpses, Grey Wind finding the goat path, Nymeria pulling Catelyn’s body out of the river where it can be found by Beric Dondarrion, etc.), but not in a way that’s predictable or consistent.
The Old Gods are not fuzzy New Age conceptions of paganism with the edges sanded off. The First Men used to string up corpses in the godswood as a human sacrifice; the Faith of the Seven believed in exterminating other religions in war. For all that the fandom often looks askance at Rh’llorism, it’s not that unusual for a religion in ASOIAF.