“Enough, Ser Vardis!” Lady Lysa called down. “Finish him now, my baby is growing tired.”
Synopsis: after learning of Edmure’s military preparations for the coming Lannister assault on the Riverlands, Catelyn observes the judicial duel between Ser Vardis Egen and Bronn the sellsword. Bronn defeats the older knight and Tyrion Lannister is set free on the high road.
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.
In political terms, three interesting things happen in this chapter: first, we get an update on the beginning of the War of Five Kings; second, we get a confrontation between Catelyn and Lysa and Catelyn’s political assessment of the Vale; and third, we get the judicial duel between Ser Vardis Egen and Bronn.
The War of Five Kings, Part I
Catelyn belatedly receives a letter which explains that the War of Five Kings is about to start, as “the Kingslayer is massing a host at Casterly Rock,” and Edmure Tully has “sent riders to the Rock, demanding that Lord Tywin proclaim his intent.” Right away, we get a major clue that the Riverlands are in deep trouble, as Edmure shows precisely zero military sense, starting with the ridiculous notion that wars only start with a formal declaration and getting even worse when we learn that “Edmure has commanded Lord Vance and Lord Piper to guard the pass below the Golden Tooth. He vows to you that he will yield no foot of Tully land without first watering it with Lannister blood.”
This is a terrible, terrible strategy.
To begin with, we know that Lord Vance and Lord Piper have only 4,000 men; Jaime Lannister’s force numbers 15,000 and Tywin Lannister also has an army of 20,000 in the vicinity. You’d need a Thermopylae to even begin to offset the numerical disadvantage, and it’s clear that no such defensive feature exists (given how handily Jaime defeats this army), and even if it did, nothing stops the Lannisters from taking the Gold Road to the south and completely bypassing these defenders (as Tywin Lannister will do shortly). To the extent that any defensive feature exists, it’s the castle of Golden Tooth – which is a Lannister stronghold.
The bigger problem is that Edmure is defending a region that lacks genuine defensive barriers other than the rivers against a numerically superior foe – concentrating what forces you have in a single defensive line at the edge of your territory is a great way to lose your army. Rather, the Riverlands are perfect terrain for a defense in depth; if Edmure had instead used Vance and Piper to delay the Lannisters while he raised his forces*, and had made his stand on the east bank of the Red Fork to use the river as a defensive force multiplier, he would have in all likelihood stopped Jaime’s army cold (as he does with Tywin facing the other direction in the Battle of the Fords). At the same time, by making Jaime advance, he would have extended the Lannisters’ supply lines while creating the possibility of using the Red Fork or the Tumblestone to land forces in Jaime’s rear. Finally, by sticking close to the Red Fork, he creates the possibility of shipping his forces down the Red Fork to Pinkmaiden, where they can more easily march to block Tywin’s army.
*which I estimate to be around 14,000, given that Robb’s force almost reaches 40,000 when the Northern army of 18,000 men plus the 4,000 Freys are momentarily united with the Riverlords prior to Edmure releasing them.
Unfortunately, as we’ll find out, Edmure approaches war with his heart, not his head.
Catelyn and Lysa
Catelyn’s receipt of the letter prompts a confrontation and contrast with her sister Lysa. As Catelyn correctly assesses, Lysa is no fit ruler of the Vale and a source of political disorder: “Lysa’s policies varied with her moods, and her moods changed hourly…a woman who was by turns proud, fearful, cruel, dreamy, reckless, timid, stubborn, and, above all inconsistent.” Cat points out that by allowing Tyrion to make a public confession as opposed to “hav[ing] the dwarf brought to them privately,” Lysa has lost control of the process, allowing him to make a public claim of his innocence in the deaths of Jon Arryn and Bran. This is especially strange behavior, given that Lysa knows Tyrion didn’t murder Jon Arryn since she did, which makes his public statement all the more dangerous to her (unless she’s sufficiently lost touch with reality that she’s suppressed her own guilt or sufficiently confident of the sky cell’s ability to break minds), and a private denial could have easily allowed her to return him to the sky cells without risking discovery.
Lysa’s erratic nature is especially dangerous when it comes to her son. Robert is “utterly without discipline. He will never be strong enough to rule,” because she can’t deny him anything since in her mind he is the perfect child who is the reward for all her years of suffering, the stillbirths and miscarriages and the abortion. She will keep him as a child forever if she could, not that differently from Cersei and Tommen, but motivated rather by trauma and fear of loss, rather than thwarted ambition. As people keep saying, something is rotten in the state of the Vale and like a fish, rot sets in head first.
Given this instability, we see from this chapter that Lysa is absolutely crucial to the success of the Littlefinger Conspiracy – above and beyond murdering Jon Arryn and luring Eddard Stark to King’s Landing. In part by withholding information from Catelyn and more critically by preventing Blackfish from taking “a thousand seasoned men and rid[ing] for Riverrun with all haste,” Lysa keeps the Vale out of the War of Five Kings. In order for the civil war to last long enough for Littlefinger to rise by acting as the only mediator with the Vale, the Vale can’t enter on the side of the Starks which it would otherwise do: with the Vale on his side, Robb would go from outnumbered by the Lannisters nearly 2-1 (18,000 to 35,000 at this point in time) to outnumbering the Lannisters by 50% (18,000 + 35,000 = 53,000 vs. 35,000), threatening Tywin’s eastern flank and rear as Robb descends the neck, and providing Robb with a strong naval presence on the east coast of Westeros. Even a thousand seasoned men plus Blackfish in command could have completely changed the outcome of the Battle of Riverrun to at least an evenly-matched siege (rather than a desperate last stand), which in turn would have freed up Robb Stark to go after Tywin’s army head-on with a slight numerical advantage.
Yet another thing that has to go just wrong for Robb Stark to lose the War of Five Kings – keep an eye on these, there’s going to be a bunch more.
By contrast, Catelyn in this chapter is a very sharp political observer and actor. To begin with, she responds to her sister’s isolationism by recruiting her uncle the Blackfish, one of the finest generals in Westeros (given Jaime’s esteem, his experience in the War of Ninepenny Kings, and his actions in the War of Five Kings, definitely one of the better field commanders, and at least on par with Randyll Tarly). Second, Catelyn understands that “Alive the Imp has value. Dead, he is only food for crows…what will we gain by the dwarf’s death? Do you imagine that Jaime will care a fig that we gave his brother a trial before we flung him off a mountain?” For all that she takes the blame for losing Tyrion once she’s kidnapped him, it’s important to note that the trial wasn’t her idea and certainly she had no part in releasing him.
Indeed, her read of her sister is so astute that Cateyn almost cracks the mystery right then and there: “Lysa had named Cersei in the letter she had sent to Winterfell, but now she seemed certain that Tyrion was the killer…perhaps because the dwarf was here, while the queen was safe;” she can see her sister’s story doesn’t add up, but can’t quite bring herself to believe that the letter might have been a deliberate lie intended to bring Eddard to King’s Landing. Similarly, when Catelyn hears that Jon Arryn was planning to have Robert fostered at Dragonstone while knowing that the Lannisters were going to have him fostered at Casterly Rock, she nearly hits on Lysa’s motive for killing Jon Arryn.
When the duel begins, Lysa Arryn mismanages it completely: startin with the fact that she chooses Ser Vardis when “the sellsword stood half a hand taller than his foe, with a longer reach…and Bronn was fiften years younger,” and making Ser Vardis fight with a blade he’s not familiar with (and which will fail him in a crticial moment). She seems completely unaware that Bronn is winning when she orders Ser Vardis back on the attack, so sure is she of victory. When instead Bronn kills Ser Vardis, she at least has the presence of mind to order Tyrion and Bronn sent home via the high road where there’s an excellent chance for him to be slain by the hill tribes (honestly, the fact that Tyrion actually survived his brush with them, let alone recruited them to fight for the Lannisters, is quite incredible).
At the same time, the more interesting thing we learn is the facts behind Petyr Baelish’s duel with Brandon Stark – Baelish seems to have tried a similar tactic to Bronn in choosing mobility over armor, but faced an opponent intelligent enough to match his opponent rather than give any advantage however slim; we see the intensity of Baelish’s desire for Catelyn, begging her for a favor, refusing to give in until he’s virtually on the point of death, and even calling out her name when he thinks he was dying. Most importantly, we see the origins of a deep enmity – forbidden Catelyn’s presence, Baelish refuses Edmure’s friendship as “her brother had acted as Brandon’s squire at the duel and Littlefinger would not forgive that,” and following that “Lord Hoster Tully sent Petyr Baelish away in a closed litter” back home, which would have been a torturous experience for someone half-healed from such a wound. When we combine this knowledge with the fact that this must have coincided with Hoster Tully forcing Lysa to abort Petyr’s child, then we can see the roots of an obsessive hatred of Houses Stark and Tully that has lead to the virtual extinction of both Houses as a result of Petyr’s actions.
For someone so well versed in the historical literature, this chapter contains one of George R.R Martin’s few mistakes – namely, that he makes use of the old cliche that plate armor was so heavy that it heavily restricted knights in battle. This is a really old trope in historical fiction and fantasy, going back to early and inaccurate stories about the Hundred Years War in which, for example, knights at the Battle of Agincourt were said to have died because they fell off their horses and couldn’t get back up to their fight. This percolated into Dungeons & Dragons which decided that plate armor should be heavier and more restrictive in movement than chain mail (despite the opposite being true), and from there into the genre as a whole.
The reality is that full plate armor is, in fact, some of the easiest armor to move in, far less encumbering than chainmail. Plate armor is designed to distribute the weight evenly across the body as opposed to hanging straight down off the shoulders like chainmail does, and is thus much, much easier to move about in and less tiring than the ringmail Bronn’s wearing. That’s one of the reasons why it was incredibly expensive.
As you can see from this clip, you can move about quite easily in plate armor, doing jumping jacks, pull-ups, etc. You can find even more video evidence here. Simply put, Ser Vardis shouldn’t have tired out faster than Bronn on account of his armor – the difference in their ages and the massive shield might have had something to do with it, but not the armor. However, the size and weight of his shield is also really out of whack: the kite shield Ser Vardis is using was used in the early Middle Ages prior to the invention of plate armor and would have weighed about 6-12 pounds, which isn’t great but it’s not that heavy; by the time that full plate came around, knights were using the smaller and lighter heater shields (in part because the invention of full plate meant that you didn’t need to rely on your shield as much and could instead use a smaller shield to deflect swords rather than to absorb blows) which weighed 4-7 pounds or bucklers, which weighed between 1-3 pounds.
Ultimately, I think GRRM is simply going with the inaccurate picture of armor because it works better thematically, contrasting the pomp and pride of the nobles of the Eyrie with the crude practicality of Bronn the sellsword.
There a couple possibilities suggested in this chapter for hypothetical scenarios, often offered by the characters themselves, which I have to say I appreciate as it makes my job much easier:
- Bronn loses? Despite his cunning and mobility, there’s a moment in the duel where Bronn almost loses his life to Ser Vardis Egen. Had this happened, Tyrion Lannister would have been found guilty and executed. This almost certainly would have escalated the war faster than OTL, but it’s unclear whether anyone would have found out before Ned’s arrest and execution, so it might not have changed much until the siege of King’s Landing, which would have resulted in Stannis’ victory and a political catastrophe for House Lannister. So all hail King Stannis. On the other hand, if the Vale takes the formal legal position that a Lannister murdered Jon Arryn and executes Tyrion, they definitely enter the war on the Starks’ side, which means that Tywin will face a dangerous situation after the Battle of the Green Fork. Under the command of a canny commander like the Blackfish, there’s no way the knights of the Vale don’t come pouring out of the Bloody Gate and beat Tywin to Lord Harroway’s Town and/or Harrenhal, trapping his army between themselves and Robb Stark’s foot under Roose Bolton, which might lead to the total destruction of Tywin’s army.
- Blackfish had gotten military support from the Vale? To an extent, this one is similar to the previous scenario, but had Blackfish gotten 1,000 men or more from the Vale (certainly quite a few of the Lords of the Vale would have joined him on their own initiative, especially the Royces), as I said above, it’s quite possible that Jaime’s army is stopped at the Red Fork and doesn’t succeed in smashing Edmure’s army. This changes the strategic situation immensely; as I’ve said, it frees Robb up to hit Tywin directly, but it also means that the Riverlords don’t suffer a nigh-total defeat, which in turn requires regathering the Tully army and then the issue with allowing the Riverlords to splinter in defense of their homes. It could well mean that Tywin acts more cautiously and Robb is free to march all the way down the Kingsroad and join up with his uncle and grand-uncle, backed by the full might of the Riverlands and the North.
- Littlefinger had died in the duel? I’ve speculated on similar scenarios before, but the reality is that if Littlefinger had died over fifteen years ago, most of the plot of AGOT doesn’t happen: Jon Arryn isn’t murdered, Eddard isn’t made Hand of the King, Bran isn’t thrown out of a tower, etc. Instead, Jon Arryn and Stannis expose Cersei, she and Jaime and the children are likely executed, Robert remarries Margaery Tyrell, and Tywin faces a united Stark/Baratheon/Tully/Tyrell/Arryn force that he can’t possibly beat.
Book vs. Show:
The duel between Ser Vardis and Bronn is actually substantially different in the show, even leaving aside the more flamboyant elements of the Moon Door in the floor, etc. In the book, after Ser Vardis takes a beating from Bronn on his helm, and arm, Ser Vardis hits Bronn in the face with his shield, knocking him off balance and nearly off his feet, which would have led to his death, and again a second later when Ser Vardis goes for a two-hand cut to Bronn’s exposed chest as Bronn’s leaning on the statue for support.
In the book, this is reduced to one moment where Ser Vardis momentarily backs up Bronn to the lip of the Moon Door, but otherwise Bronn is far more in control of the duel. I find this a bit surprising, in that the showrunners missed out on the opportunity to raise the dramatic stakes somewhat.