“My lord father taught me that it was death to bare steel against your liege lord…but doubtless you only meant to cut my meat.”
Synopsis: The Karstarks arrive at Winterfell, joining the Boltons, Cerwyns, Hornwoods, Mormonts, Glovers, Tallharts, and Umbers as the forces of the North prepare for war. Bran and Rickon aren’t dealing well with the situation, with Bran uncomfortable with the attention paid to his disability and Rickon falling further into feral child syndrome with a healthy helping of abandonment issues. Osha gives Bran a warning that Robb’s army is marching the wrong way, but it’s too late. The Young Wolf is entering the War of Five Kings.
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 VI is a rare interesting Bran chapter (to me at least), in no small part because it focuses not on mythic hero’s journeys, dream sequences, or folk tales as per usual, but really gets into the meat of Westerosi politics – and what’s especially rare, the politics of the North. Because if it’s one thing I want to demonstrate in this chapter analysis, it’s that the North has its own game of thrones, equally complex as that in the South.
Robb Stark’s Crash Course in Feudal Politics:
After Robb Stark calls the banners, he rapidly has to deal with the consequences of doing so, consequences that should rapidly disabuse anyone’s notion of the North as a land of tough, honorable people who don’t hold with sneaky Southern ways.
Because the Lords of the North haven’t just come because of their deep sense of honor – they’ve come because they want stuff:
“Roose Bolton and Robett Glover both demanded the honor of battle command…Maege Mormont told Robb…she had a granddaughter she would be willing to have him marry. Soft-spoken Lord Cerwyn had actually brought his daughter with him…Jovial Lord Hornwood…asked [for] a certain holdfast taken from his grandfather, and hunting rights north of a certain ridge, and leave to dam the White Knife.”
As I’ll discuss in the Historical Analysis section, this is pretty typical of feudal politics, and the waters here are deeper than they first appear. To begin with, you’ll notice how often the subject of Robb’s hand in marriage comes up; in a kingdom where power is divided between one Great House and many Lesser Houses and in which political relationships are inherently mixed with personal relationships, the standard pre-Southron Ambitions Conspiracy practice of Lords of Winterfell marrying their vassals is a key part of how power is modulated. For the Great House, a family member eligible for marriage (especially an heir of the House) allows the Lord to make his vassals compete for his favor, keeping them loyal. For the Lesser Houses, getting one of their own married into the Great House means a leg up in internal disputes that the Lord Paramount arbitrates in – and a whole bunch of Houses think they can get their hooks into Robb.
We see quite a few examples of what kinds of disputes I’m talking about right there – the holdfast Lord Hornwood wants belongs to someone else, as do the hunting rights. Damming the White Knife would majorly weaken House Manderly, which relies on that river to dominate Northern commerce. In a feudal society where power comes from the exchange of land for military service, everything belongs to someone, so the distribution of lands and resource rights is the very coinage of influence, but paradoxically also the source of conflict (as we’ll see when Lord Hornwood dies, leaving his lands up for grabs).
At the same time, Bran VI also shows us that the same feuds and divisions we see in the Southern kingdoms (the Brackens vs. the Blackwoods, the Florents vs. the Tyrells, the Yronwoods vs. the Martells) also exist in the North in an equally dangerous format. Even before the war begins, “one of Lord Bolton’s men knifed one of Lord Cerwyn’s,” setting up a conflict that will carry forward into the conflict over the Hornwood lands, the Battles of the Green Fork, the Sack of Winterfell, the Ruby Ford, and the coming Battle of Ice. Likewise, “Roose Bolton and Robett Glover both demanded the honor of battle command,” and we’ll see down that Robb’s choice between the two men have long-running consequences: Glover supports the eventually successful strategy of relieving Riverrun and takes Harrenhal by subterfuge, Bolton orders him to his intended death at Duskendale, and Glover will return the favor by allying House Glover with Stannis against the Boltons.
You really have to admire GRRM’s intricate plotting; minor details that seem like mere window dressing in Book 1 set up major, world-altering political events in Book 3 and are still shaping events in Book 5.
Finally, we can also see that the North has a unique version of the Game of Thrones, one which none of the major schemers are prepared for. Unlike in the South or even in the Vale, the lords of the North don’t respect bloodlines above all else, they require personal authority to back it up. Hence the Greatjon Umber testing Robb’s strength by “threatening to take his forces home if he was placed behind the Hornwoods or the Cerwyns in the order of march,” not because the Umbers have a feud against the Hornwoods or Cerwyns (as we’ll see later in ADWD, the Umbers are happy to work with them), but to see if Robb Stark is really “so green he must piss grass.” This is the Reynes and the Tarbecks in microcosm: the authority of the lord has been challenged from below, and all of his vassals are looking to see whether Robb can save face.
One of the reasons why Bran VI interests me is that we get a rare glimpse of SmartRobb (as opposed to his evil twin StupidRobb) in how the acting Lord of Winterfell deals with all of these pushy lords. To begin with, in the face of all of these demands and requests, Robb “answered each of them with cool courtesy, much as Father would have done, and somehow he bent them to his will,” without giving them what they want. Robb doesn’t choose a battle commander, or marry, or give lands away, which is an impressive political feat for a neophyte. Likewise, when Greatjon Umber openly challenges him, rather than getting angry or drawing his sword, Robb calmly lays out the consequences for the Greatjon’s actions in a way that re-emphasizes the lord-vassal relationship, and then unleashes Grey Wind against him – the symbol of House Stark itself, and a potent indicator that House Stark has been chosen by the Old Gods themselves to be the unquestioned leaders of the North. The result is that Robb instantly quashes Umber’s insubordination in front of all his lords.
It’s an impressive performance, even compared to the mighty Tywin at the same age; Tywin destroyed two houses and turned their castles into ruins, strengthening himself but weakening the Westerlands. Robb converted his upstart vassal into his strongest supporter.
The War of Five Kings, Early Stages:
We get a little bit of detail about how the War of Five Kings begins in the North – in almost total ignorance. “Lord Eddard was a thousand leagues away, a captive in some dungeon, a hunted fugitive running for his life, or even dead. No one seemed to know for certain; every traveler told a different tale.” And yet there are some kernels of truth in these stories: King Robert is dead, Eddard’s guardsmen were slain, the Baratheons are planning to besiege King’s Landing, and Renly did flee south.
When Sansa’s letter arrives, the Starks get a little bit more information – that Robert is dead, Joffrey is on the Iron Throne, and that his father and Sansa are prisoners. And yet, if Cersei thought this would cow the Starks, it has the opposite effect. The Starks remember that “Lady…had gone South, and only her bones had returned. Their grandfather, old Lord Rickard, had gone as well, with his son Brandon who was Father’s brother, and two hundred of his best men. None had ever returned.” There is no trust between Winterfell and the South, and so Robb “meant to go. Not to King’s Landing and not to swear fealty, but to Riverrun, with a sword in his hand.”
That last part is critical – Robb is already beginning to form his strategy in the War of Five Kings. At the moment, the Lannisters are beginning to push into the Riverlands, although the Battle of the Golden Tooth and the first Battle of Riverrun hasn’t happened yet. If Robb Stark wants to rescue Lord Eddard and the two Stark girls, his best bet is to merge his forces with those of House Tully. I estimate that the Tully have somewhere around 10-16,000 men currently under arms (given what Edmure is able to pull together for the Battle of the Fords later, minus the Freys), although most of them are still in the process of mustering and mobilization. If Robb can muster the 18,000 men he can mobilize in time and join them to the Tullys before the Lannisters can eliminate them as a military threat, then their combined forces would just about equal the 35,000 men Tywin has mustered. From a position of equality, and with the Lannisters needing to deal with larger threats to the south, Robb might be able to force a handover of his family members.
And if it hadn’t been for factors completely out of his control, Robb might have succeeded in his limited war aims.
Bran the Cassandra:
The other major theme of this chapter is the idea of a failed intersection between the world of the political and the world of the metaphysical. Early in the chapter, Bran notes that he “had always liked the godwood, even before, but of late, he found drawn to it even more. Even the heart tree no longer scared him the way it used to. The deep red eyes carved into the pale trunk still watched him, yet somehow he took comfort from that now. The gods were looking over him.” One might consider this nothing more than Bran becoming more religious after a major crisis, if it wasn’t for the fact that in the same paragraph Bran thinks he’s been “dreaming, and talking with the gods,” and once he’s done remembering the events of the past day, Osha shows up and explains to him that the Old Gods are actually speaking to him, that “your lord brother will get no help from them, not where he’s going. The old gods have no powers in the south…how can they watch your brother when they have no eyes?”
On one level, this is an alternative Mentor, teaching Bran the secret knowledge that the skeptical, empirical Lewin has denied. However, Osha goes on to emphasize that this information has a purpose – “the cold winds are rising..wights, with blue hands and cold black hands…[Robb]’s bound on marching the wrong way. It’s north he should be taking his swords. North, not south.” Unfortunately for Bran, he never gets a chance to warn Robb, because in tragedies the prophets are always ignored.
Even if he’d gotten a chance, it’s quite probable that no one would have listened, as Bran VI shows us the first time that ableism really kicks in for the otherwise privileged Stark. Repeatedly throughout the chapter, Bran’s disability is the source of frustration (when he can’t climb and run where he wants to), shame (when he’s seen being carried in Hodor’s arms), difficulty (getting knocked in the head when Hodor runs through doors), and mockery. Despite Bran’s brave attempts to ignore their mockery in a Tyrion-like way, Bran is laughed at by Karstark lancers, the “lords bannermen gave him queer hard stares…as if they wondered by what right a green boy should be placed above them, and him a cripple too,” and the two Karstark sons openly (if quietly) talk about how it’s better to be dead than crippled and that Bran is likely broken in mind as well as body.
George R.R Martin’s passion for medieval history really stands out in this chapter, as the depiction of the assembling of a feudal army departs significantly from the de-politicized portrait in most works of fantasy, where honor and duty are unchallenged and traditional obligations between kings and their subjects are seen as sacrosanct – complete with the requisite notions of True Kings, Noble Knights, and other lies that Sansa believed.
Historically, vassals tended to be just as likely to view their liege lord’s call to arms in much the same way as rich people today view an ominous letter from the IRS as they would to see it as an honor, unless there was a good chance at plunder. After all, fighting was expensive – the whole point of a feudal contract exchanging land for military service was that the vassal didn’t need to be paid or supplied while out on campaign because the land would give them the resources to do that themselves – and it took up valuable time that a knight could be using to kill and rob people on their own time when they could retain 100% of the loot. Thus, feudal contracts were written in such a way that spelled out exactly how many days service the vassal owed.
For example, in the last writ of summons to a feudal levy in England in 1385, King Richard II summoned 13,734 men to go fight the Scots. These men, consisting of 1/3 men-at-arms (i.e, knights) to 2/3 archers, signed on for a term of between 20-40 days. And by this point in English history, the traditional methods of feudal obligation had already begin to break down – England had abandoned an exclusive reliance on the general feudal levy in 1327 and monarchs increasingly resorted to charging their vassals a scutage tax in lieu of service and hiring professional soldiers. These last levies required payment to induce them to fight, and the 40 days of campaign scheduled cost the modern equivalent of £10.5 million.
If they didn’t get paid, or if their time ran out, soldiers would (and did quite frequently) turn around and go back home. All of which means that, in addition to being slow to muster, feudal armies had to be monitored and held together continuously or they could easily disintegrate. This meant that the feudal army was a political entity, because the commanders of the largest units were the biggest lords with the most land, and once one got to a certain level of land and military power, lords began to treat the king less as an overlord and more as a primus inter pares. If they didn’t get treated with the necessary respect, or if the king turned them down once too often when they asked for some nice bit of conquered land or some looted treasure, they’d not just desert but might rebel against their lord.
All this is to say, when we talk about the War of the Five Kings, we have to be very, very careful about applying modern military thinking to how we analyze events. As Catelyn Stark reflects later: “this host her son had assembled was not a standing army such as the Free Cities were accustomed to maintain, nor a force of guardsmen paid in coin. Most of them were smallfolk…when their lords called, they came…but not forever.” Greatjon Umber’s threat here was quite significant – if he goes home, anywhere between 2-3,000 men go home with him. It may well be the case that refusing Roose Bolton a command means that his 4,000 men stay home, or that the Hornwoods will leave after doing the bare minimum if they don’t get their holdfast and their hunting rights; at the same time, Robb has to exercise his authority at some point, lest by giving way every time he abandons all control over his subordinates. Robb has to develop a fine-tuned sense of which demands are drop-dead red lines and which are not, which requires a fine-tuned understanding of the personality, character, and interests of each lord.
Thus, none of the leaders in the war, be it Robb Stark or Renly or Stannis or, yes, even Tywin, can treat their sub-commanders and their soldiers as professional soldiers who follow orders or get thrown out of the army and who earn their paycheck year-in, year-out. This is really significant when we think about the degree of command and control any of these leaders have over their armies during the War of Five Kings.
Keep this thought fixed firmly in the front of your mind; we’ll be coming back to it again and again.
Speaking of which, many of the hypotheticals in this chapter revolve around some of these difficult feudal negotiations:
- What if Robb chose Robett Glover over Roose Bolton? While I’ve often seen people pose the hypothetical of Roose vs. the Greatjon, I find this comparison to be far more interesting. In the OTL, Robbett Glover is a not particularly prominent minor character who nonetheless is one of the more competent of Robb’s generals – he made the right call when it came to relieving Riverrun vs. taking Tywin head-on; as best as we can tell he did well at the Battle of the Green Fork, commanding the center and keeping his forces together during the retreat (avoiding capture unlike so many Northern lords); he successfully captures Harrenhal, one of the greatest fortresses in Westeros; and while he was defeated at Duskendale, there’s a limit to what you can do outnumbered and set up for death by your commanding officer. By contrast, Roose Bolton is an outright traitor (although we’ll talk later about why and when he changes side) who even before murdering his king seems to have tried to kill as many of the other Northerners as he could.
- If Robett becomes commander of the Northern foot, a huge cascade of changes occurs. The Battle of the Green Fork could change completely, given that the strategic mission was to delay the Lannisters; it’s quite possible that rather than march all the way down to the Ruby Ford (which is near the crossroads) as in OTL, Robett chooses instead to wait for Tywin up the river (and fight a defensive battle, which is a better move when leading an all-foot army against an army with substantial cavalry), meaning that Tywin is further away from the crossroads and potentially can’t make it across back to Harrenhal. Barring that, one thing that’s definitely butterflied is the pointless loss of 3,000 men at Duskendale and 2,000 men at the Ruby Ford. With 5,000 more men under his command, Robb Stark would have been in a much better position to keep on fighting or to retake the North after the Freys defect. Most importantly, the Red Wedding might be butterflied away altogether; to begin with, Robett might not have heeded Edmure’s command to withdraw the 400 Stark men from the Twins, but it might also be the case that neither Lord Walder or Lord Roose decide to pull the trigger when they’d still be outnumbered 8,000 to 14,000.
- Robb got married at Winterfell? This one’s a bit out there, but if Robb had somehow done poorly in his negotiations with the Northern lords (or just decided to for teenager/not-wanting-to-die-before- reasons), he might have gotten married to Jonella Cerwyn or Dacey, Alysane, Lyra, or Jorelle Mormont. While this wouldn’t have been politically useful, it certainly would have been less damaging than the Westerling marriage – and would have completely butterflied it away, and with it, possibly the Red Wedding. Worst case scenario at the Crag, Robb has the expected wartime affair and feels like a heel about it and maybe damages his marriage. The more interesting consequence is what happens at the Twins. In negotiations, it’s sometimes quite useful to have an external limit placed on you so that you can point to it and say “sorry, I can’t agree to that;” Catelyn couldn’t have agreed to give away Robb’s hand in marriage and Walder probably would have had to ask for something else (probably Edmure) in exchange for his support. However, I would caution people not to assume that Walder put the Red Wedding into action out of spite alone; Lord Frey is a cautious cat, and after the Lannister/Tyrell merger he was probably looking desperately for any rationale to pull out of the Stark/Tully alliance. However, it does mean that Robb’s army doesn’t diminish after the Crag: instead of being whittled down by 4,000 men, Robb potentially can bring together an army of 38,000 men when he gets back to Riverrun. While being outnumbered 2 to 1 by the Lannister/Tyrell alliance isn’t ideal, it certainly is enough men that a few victories against parts of their forces could bring the two forces down to a rough equality of forces, and enough men to mount a successful defense, especially if he can use the Trident and fortifications like Harrenhal to reduce the enemy’s relative strength further below the recommended 3:1 ratio for attackers.
- Robb marches North? See previous Jon chapter; only way this could happen is zombie outbreak at the Wall. Totally butterflies away the North’s involvement in the War of Five Kings.
Book vs. Show:
This scene is foreshortened considerably in the show, which is probably a positive when it comes to the difference between interesting reading and good TV, but it does mean that you don’t get the same sense of these feudal relationships being worked out and it seems more a personal thing between the grizzled veteran and the youngster. (Also, as far as I’m aware, the Umbers don’t have a rivalry with the Glovers in the books; rather, the Greatjon’s beef is with being placed behind the Hornwoods and Cerwyns, who seem like lesser Houses than the Umbers).
However, it’s an excellently-done scene. Richard Madden is an older, more confident Robb Stark and comfortable with pushing back at a vassal who’s questioning him; the wolf-work here is really good (although I’d have preferred having the sword come out of the sheath more; it’s less clear that the Greatjon actually pulls steel here). Most of all, Clive Mantle is excellent as Greatjon Umber, managing to project seven feet tall in personality despite being not quite as tall in real life (although 6’6″ is pretty good in acting circles). His presence was much missed in Seasons 2 and 3 of the show, and I really hope the showrunners bring him back for Stannis’ storyline in the North in the future.