Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Catelyn X


“Grey Wind threw back his head and howled…it was a terrible sound, a frightening sound, yet there was music in it too. For a second she felt something like pity for the Lannisters below. So this is what death sounds like.”

Synopsis: Catelyn Stark watches and waits as her son Robb rides off to face Ser Jaime Lannister at the Whispering Woods. The result is a total rout for the Lannisters, the capture of the Kingslayer, and an open road to Riverrun.

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.

Political Analysis:

Catelyn X catches George R.R Martin at his most lyrical, in his description of the Battle of the Whispering Woods. You can really see why he wanted to use (and keep using) Catelyn Stark as a POV, so that (in contrast to Tyrion VIII, which emphasized the chaos and confusion of being in the thick of battle) he could overlook the battle from such a majestic aerial position, while still using the limitations of first-person narration to keep up the tension until the final reveal.* It’s not an accident that GRRM chooses the moment when Robb rides off with all the hopes of House Stark on his shoulders to tell us that “no one was safe. No life was certain.” The basic rule of thumb that goes all the way to the Red Wedding and beyond is right there in the first book.

* Having Catelyn be the POV also allows for a really impressive discussion of the way in which gender roles have restricted her life into one of the dutiful daughter, fiancee, wife, and mother. I don’t really have a lot to say about this that hasn’t already been said much better elsewhere, but I am genuinely impressed how much GRRM puts into to three paragraphs.

 The War of Five Kings: The Battle of the Whispering Wood

The Battle of the Whispering Wood is an interesting contrast with the Green Fork, in that it’s also a trap being sprung – but unlike Tywin’s trap which was based on a fundamental misconception of his opponent’s psychology, here Brynden Tully and Robb Stark perfectly read “the gilded knight who men said had never learned to wait at all…restless, and quick to anger” and totally lacking in “patience.” As a result, whereas Tywin’s trap fails to spring and Bolton pulls back most of his army, here Jaime’s force is wiped out.

The Battle and indeed Robb’s entire Riverlands campaign is a great example of the use of force concentration to achieve local superiority of numbers: the Lannisters have “twelve thousand foot, scattered around the castle in three separate camps…[and] two or three thousand horse,” whereas the Starks have six thousand horse, but the Stark force is all in one place, allowing it to outnumber the Lannisters at each separate point. While surprise is important, and Brynden’s work in screening the Stark force is vital, there’s more than surprise going on here (as opposed to at Oxcross, where it’s the only important factor) – the geography of Riverrun nullifies the numerical superiority of the Lannisters, prevents them from concentrating their forces, and opens them up to being defeated in detail. Indeed, it’s quite probable that Riverrun’s placement was intended in part to create just such a situation.

At the same time, the degree to which the odds are uneven here seems to be exaggerated. Either GRRM has made a math mistake (not unlikely, it’s not his strong suit), or Galbart Glover is unusually wrong in screwing up his count. The Starks are not outnumbered “three to one” (i.e, 6,000 to 15,000) – indeed, it’s quite likely that they’re not even outnumbered two to one. After all, “Lord Jason Mallister had brought his power out from Seagard to join them” along with “hedge knights and small lords and masterless men-at-arms who had fled south when her brother Edmure’s army was shattered beneath the walls of Riverrun” (another detail that suggests a surprise attack).

Now, we don’t know precisely how many men House Mallister has, but we can extrapolate from some details in the text. First, House Mallister is one of the larger houses in the Riverlands, commanding a major castle in a strategically vital location guarding against the Ironborn; as a result, it’s one of the few lesser Houses we know has its own navy. Second, it commands both a sea-port and the headwaters of the Blue Fork of the Trident, making it a natural conduit for trade – and thus increasing its financial resources. Third, the Mallisters held off a major assault by the Ironborn by itself – as the Ironborn have around 15,000 men, assuming a defensive advantage of 3:1, a figure of around 5,000 makes sense. Fourth, at the Battle of the Fords, the Mallisters are put in charge of defending four fords, which suggests they have enough men to keep a viable force at each ford.

Putting all of these factors together, I can’t see the Mallisters having less than 4,000 men. Which would mean that Robb’s total forces here are at least 10,000 men – and given the hedge knights, small lords, and men-at-arms mentioned, it’s probably closer to 11,000. It’s still an overall disadvantage against the full Lannister force, but much less so, and one that explains why Jaime’s force of 2-3,000 horse is so completely wiped out here: Robb had enough men present to completely encircle Jaime’s force with a force larger than Jaime’s at each flank.

credit to AWOIAF

Jaime makes it much easier for them by responding perfectly to their bait by chasing a small party of Tully outriders led by Brynden Tully into a trap (as they knew he would having observed him “rid[ing] out with his knights thrice already” for no good reason out of boredom), and critically ignoring the loss of his outriders when entering a heavily-wooded valley with sharply slanted ridges on either side. As he rushes up the valley, the Mormonts, Umbers, and Mallisters charge in from the east (likely circling around the Lannister rear, given their signal that “the last of Jaime’s riders had entered the trap”), while Robb and the Freys charge from the west, and the Karstarks hit the Lannisters from the front, all the while with archers shower the Lannisters from the heights.

Thus, Robb achieves that rarest of all military prizes, the encirclement in full, which has been the sine qua non of military strategy since Cannae. And it’s notable that it’s very much a collaboration between Robb and Brynden – Brynden brings the local knowledge about how the rivers would divide the enemy, the intelligence on Jaime, and screen’s Robb’s forces, but it’s Robb who “had studied the map his uncle had drawn him. Ned had taught him to read maps,” and designs the stratagem for Brynden to “raid him here…a hundred men, no more…when he comes after you, we will be waiting here” ready to surround the Lannister force.  Rather than an old soldier using an inexperienced boy as a figurehead, this is much closer to an experienced coach developing a prodigy.

I’ll get to Jaime’s capture in a second, but consider the implications of the total destruction of the Lannister host (at the cost of around 300 men)  for the Battle of the Camps.  Now the follow-up battle is 11,000 Northmen and Riverlanders against three forces of 4,000 Westerlanders that entirely consist of foot, allowing Robb to replicate his strategy of force concentration to achieve another total victory. One battle sets up the next, with the objective being to in one stroke eliminate Jaime’s army, liberate the Riverlands to add them to his own forces, and put Tywin in a bad position where Robb can extract the necessary concessions to accomplish his primary war aims or potentially destroy his army outright.* Only Joffrey’s bloodlust (aided and abetted by Littlefinger’s desire for maximal chaos) prevents this campaign from achieving nigh-perfect success.

* This is another case where GRRM’s tight plotting shows itself: if Roose doesn’t force-march or fights a smarter Battle of the Green Fork that gives him a chance to harry Tywin’s army as it marches south rather than choosing to retreat up to Moat Cailin (which would put him closest to Winterfell if Robb falls…), Tywin might not have gotten across the river in time and might have been trapped against Moat Cailin to the north, the Green Fork to the west, the Mountains of the Moon to the east, and the Trident to the south.

Which brings us to the political consequences of Jaime’s capture. As Robb notes straight off, “he’s more use alive than dead.” Jaime is a sufficiently important enough prisoner to exchange for his father and his sisters, especially since he’s got three additional Lannisters to add to the pot. Where the North goes from there is unclear: even if Tywin’s immediate impulse is to fight the Baratheons first, there’s the reality that he can’t allow a hostile Riverlands to stand in between the Westerlands and the Crownlands over the long run, or allow the North to openly defy the Throne. But potentially, Jaime is a big enough deal to end the war then and there; something I’ll discuss much more when I get into ACOK and the impact that Catelyn’s decision there has on Robb’s decision-making in ASOS. At the same time, Jaime as a prisoner isn’t a total blessing. It raises major political problems from the jump: “lord Karstark will want his head on a pike” because the Kingslayer killed his sons, which will make the Karstarks a barrier to any peace settlement short of the complete destruction of House Lannister, and Rickard Karstark’s grief will make this lord impossible to control by the normal political means open to Robb (even as Robb shows little difficulty keeping the other Northern lords with him happy). It also sets up the Karstarks to be double-agents of the Boltons in ADWD, when they might well not have had if the Karstark lads had survived. At the same time, the death of Daryn Hornwood (at Jaime’s hand) combined with his father’s death at the Green Fork) sets up the Hornwood crisis of ACOK. More on that later.

Robb’s Bodyguard

The other political detail that I find interesting is the creation of Robb’s quasi-Kingsguard: “many of their sons had clamored for the honor of riding with the Young Wolf…Torrhen Karstark and his brother Eddard were among his thirty, and Patrek Mallister, Smalljon Umber, Daryn Hornwood, Theon Greyjoy, no less than five of Walder Frey’s vast brood, along with older men like Ser Wendel Manderly and Robin Flint. One of his companions was even a woman: Dacey Mormont.” In addition to ensuring Robb’s survival when Ser Jaime makes his last-ditch charge, the creation of these bodyguards (which never get a collective name, but I like the term “the Wolfguard”) has some interesting political implications. Like the custom of fostering, this builds close relationships between Robb and many of the heirs of his bannermen (Houses Karstark, Umber, Mormont, Hornwood, Manderly, and Flint are a good coalition to have) and sets up Robb to have a much easier time of reigning over the North when these young men come into their inheritances. It’s also notable that we’re already seeing signs of political ties forming between the North and the Riverlands with the presence of the Mallisters and the Freys.

It’s a custom that seems to have some precedent in the North: Brandon Stark rode with Ethan Glover, Kyle Royce, Elbert Arryn, and Jeffory Mallister, a selection that’s quite reminiscent of his father Rickard’s plan to unite the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands into a political coalition. When Eddard rides to the Tower of Joy, he does so again with Ethan Glover (who no doubt felt a special responsibility to deal with the Lyanna situation given his involvement with Brandon), Howland Reed, William Dustin, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and Mark Ryswell. Again, look at the selection: the Wulls are from the mountain clans at the far north of the Stark’s territory, the Reeds from the far south, the Dustins and the Ryswells from the western shore, and House Cassel from the center.

I would guess that this custom goes back to the Kings of Winter – having a lordly bodyguard is both carrot and stick, holding out the hope of close relationships (and thus political influence) with the ruler, while requiring the various Lesser Houses to give up a hostage in the event of rebellion. It’s just strange they don’t have a formal title or iconography in the same way that the Kingsguard do.

Historical Analysis:

Militarily, the Whispering Wood is something of a mishmash: the outriders drawing out an outnumbered force and the use of the woods to hide a devastating two-flank assault resembles nothing so much as a reverse Wakefield, with Ser Jaime playing the part of “Richard of York Sally[ing] Forth In Vain.” The Kingslayer’s desperate last-minute charge to cut down the opposing leader and destroy the political hopes of the opposing dynasty is clearly taken from the Battle of Bosworth Field, when King Richard III, seeing himself outnumbered and betrayed, led 1,000 knights on a desperate charge into Henry Tudor’s command group. No mean fighter, King Richard personally cut down two of Henry’s standard-bearers, but was unable to break through Henry’s bodyguards. At which point the perfidious Stanleys chose this moment to change sides and attack the Yorkist rear.

Richard’s charge by Graham Turner

But in its political impact, the Whispering Woods and the Battle of the Camps, taken together, had the same impact as the bloody field of Towton. When we last left Edward IV, he had just been crowned in London after triumphing at St. Mortimer’s Cross. However, Queen Margaret D’Anjou was marching south and now had her husband by her side. If Edward was to prove himself King of England in more than name, he’d have to do something that his father had struggled so often to pull off – attack and defeat a sitting King of England on the field.

For this battle Edward would pull out all the stops – sending men to muster men in his and Warwick’s lands throughout the Midlands, and collecting more men along the way until he had a host to match the Lancastrian army – sources differ on how many men exactly fought at Towton, but estimates range from around 60,000 (with the Lancastrians outnumbering the Yorkists by 5-10,000) to 100,000. While these numbers don’t seem that big to veterans of GRRM’s novels, consider that they represented 2% of the entire population of England, and far more of its military age male population.

Towton started, as I’ve discussed earlier, with Edward IV and Warwick forcing a crossing over the River Aire in the face of stubborn opposition from Lord Clifford (who had murdered Edward IV’s brother Edmund of Rutland). So important was this crossing that Warwick killed his horse in front of the whole vanguard to show that he would “die with his men than yield another inch,” and that Edward IV personally led his vanguard to force the crossing; Lord Clifford fought to the very end of his strength, but unexpectedly died when he loosened his gorget to catch his breath and caught a stray arrow (likely GRRM’s inspiration for Quentyn “Fire” Ball).

With Edward refusing a Palm Sunday truce, the two armies proper met on a plateau with each side claiming one of two facing ridges – both sides with a river to their back that could prove fatal to an army that attempted to retreat. As I mentioned earlier, a blizzard and driving wind hampered the Lancastrian archers while giving both fresh arrows and added impetus to the Yorkists under Lord Fauconberg that wreaked havok on the Lancastrian ranks. This deadly barrage forced the Lancastrians off their high ground and into a charge on the Yorkists, who eagerly moved forward to meet him.

The Yorkist archers at Towton, by Graham Turner

The Yorkist left was unexpectedly charge by a force of Lancastrian cavalry hidden in a woods on their flank and had to be personally reinforced by Edward of York while Warwick held the center. The battle collapsed into a grueling pushing match as both sides fighting on fought contended for the meadow, with the Lancastrians slowly pushed back to the west. At this point, reinforcements from the Duke of Norfolk arrived and drove into the Lancastrian left flank, breaking it. The Lancastrian army turned and ran – at which point the Yorkists mounted their horses and rode them down, shouting “spare the commons! Kill the lords!” (the first time those enlightened words had been said on an English battlefield).

In their flight, the Lancastrians ran straight into the freezing waters of the Cock Beck river, overloading the single makeshift bridge, which collapsed. In the chaos, York and Warwick’s orders were ignored completely such that no quarter was given as men were hacked down on the run, drowned in the river, or simply trampled underfoot by their own comrades in their haste to get away. The affair had lasted ten hours, and the result was that one percent of the population of England, anywhere from a third to a half of those fighting, lay dead, tossed into a mass grave. It remains to his day the bloodiest battle in English history, with casualties outstripping those of the Battle of the Somme in WWI when considered proportionally.

But politically, the battle was “Edward’s bloody coronation.” The Lancastrians were broken, losing Clifford, Northumberland, Scrope, Dacre, and the turncoat Andrew Trollope. The Lancastrian army was nonexistent, and Margaret and King Henry VI were forced into headlong flight. Virtually every Lancastrian lord remaining (the Percys, the Rivers, etc.) bent the knee then and there, no doubt prompted by the executions of some 42 knights Edward deemed too obstinate to be trusted. John Neville was raised to the rank of Lord Montague; Fauconberg the archer was made Earl of Kent; and Warwick gained much lands from the Cliffords and the Percys of Northumberland, making him the King’s lieutenant in the North in fact as well as in title.

Not until Edward’s break with Warwick would the Yorkist hold on England be shaken.

What If?

As I have said, battles always give rise to many hypotheticals, but the Whispering Woods more than most, given the nature and object of Jaime’s charge:

  • Robb dies? If Jaime kills Robb, it doesn’t stop his army from being crushed on the field and then again at Riverrun as the North seeks to avenge their fallen leader. However, it almost certainly means that the Starks pull out of the war once Riverrun is retaken, probably with Jaime being traded for Sansa and peace by Catelyn – which probably means that the Greyjoy invasion is butterflied away and that the North declares for Brandon Stark, King in the North, with its whole army mustered above the Neck. The Riverlands would be placed in a difficult situation but probably left alone by the Lannisters until the Baratheons were dealt with – the tricky thing being how Tywin gets Ser Stafford’s 10,000 around the Riverlands to reinforce his men. With the Lannisters focusing on the east, Renly’s strategy of slow-rolling his way to the Iron Throne likely has to go by the wayside in favor of a direct assault on Tywin’s army and King’s Landing at the same time (since he easily has the numbers to do both). Quite possibly, Renly wins and then mysteriously dies, leading to Stannis being enthroned.
  • Jaime dies? If Jaime takes an arrow or a spear or a sword in his desperate charge, this has some interesting long-term impacts. First, it means that the Karstarks don’t ever rebel, which leaves Robb in a much better political situation in ASOS. Second, it means that the Starks don’t bother with negotiations with the Lannisters, which frees up their attention to focus on the Vale, the Reach, and Stannis, and butterflies away Tyrion’s escape attempt and the dispatch of Ned Stark’s corpse. Third, it may well mean that Cersei loses it completely and becomes a much more unstable entity in ACOK, possibly leading to Sansa’s death and a much more difficult time for Tyrion in trying to hold the city against his sister and Stannis both. Fourth, it means that no one’s left to take control of the Riverlands, ensuring that they remain much more of a bleeding ulcer for the Lannisters to deal with after Tywin’s death.
  • Theon dies? As I’ll discuss in the opening chapters of ACOK, it’s entirely unclear that Theon remaining with the Starks would have prevented the invasion. However, if Theon dies, a couple things change – first, the Starks no longer hope for Balon Greyjoys assistance and might prepare better for an attack from the sea. Second, Winterfell doesn’t fall, ensuring that there is a central rallying point for the Starks in mobilizing the 17,000 men of the North to repel the Ironborn invaders. Which as I’ll discuss in ACOK was pretty much bound to happen – the Ironborn don’t have enough troops to hold the North and the North just doesn’t have enough inland rivers on the west coast to allow for easy penetration into the interior. Even with Victarion taking Moat Cailin, eventually enough troops will be rallied to retake it from the north. Which changes things dramatically from Robb’s perspective in ASOS – with Moat Cailin recleared and the Ironborn repelled, he’s got much less incentive to drop everything in the south and rush back to the North. Which in turn means he doesn’t need the Freys nearly as much, especially when he can bring some of his 17,000 men south to reinforce his army – let’s say he leaves 7,000 on the western shore to guard against the Ironborn, that brings Robb back up to as many as 37,000 men with a solid defensive position on the Trident. Even with the Tyrells added to the Lannisters, that’s enough men that a few victories could even the odds. Finally, if Winterfell is intact and Moat Cailin is retaken, Roose Bolton might think twice about betraying Robb, potentially butterflying away the Red Wedding.
  • Karstarks don’t die? I’ve sort of covered this with Jaime dying, but this butterflies away Rickard Karstark’s rebellion and execution, and the loss of the Karstark forces. In the longer term, this potentially changes the Northern campaign in ADWD – with the Karstarks a going concern and Arnolf Karstark no longer in a position to stir up trouble, the Karstarks might well decide to take on the Boltons themselves rather than allying with the Boltons and forcibly being allied to Stannis. After all, they’ve got Stark blood and as far as they know the Starks are all dead – they would be the natural heirs to Winterfell.
  • Denys Hornwood doesn’t die? With a Hornwood heir, we don’t get political chaos in the North on the eve of an Ironborn invasion. This means that the eastern Houses, especially the Manderlys and Boltons, can be much more easily mobilized to repel the Ironborn, with consequences as suggested above. More on this in ACOK.

Book vs. Show:

This is where the show and the book really start to diverge, and in my opinion is where Benioff and Weiss lose the plot when it comes to the war effort, despite doing a rather good job explaining the military and spatial logic of the opening act of the War of Five Kings in Season 1.

Now, I don’t blame them for how they shot this scene: having Catelyn waiting on a hill to find out what happens is taken straight out of the book, and I think Robb’s return and the scene with Jaime works quite well. I am a bit annoyed that all of the strategy behind the battle is stripped out when all it would have taken was a few quick lines from Ser Rodrick Cassel and some DVRed horn blowing to get enough in to mollify the fans. I don’t think much of Robb’s anti-inspirational speech, given that it’s parroting Catelyn’s pessimistic outlook rather than Robb’s own thoughts at the time, but it’s not a huge issue.

What I really mind is completely dropping the ball on Riverrun and failing to explain the political ramifications of the battle, as I’ve hinted at earlier. It would have been incredibly easy for the showrunners to tease Edmure and Brynden Tully without having to cast them or scout locations for Riverrun: all they’d have to do is replace Robb’s downer speech with Catelyn’s speech from the chapter about “you have lopped the head off the snake, but three quarters of the body is still coiled around my father’s castle at Riverrun. If we want to rescue your father…” and have Robb say “-we’ll need Riverrun and the Riverlords. Don’t worry mother, I have a plan for the Lannister army there” and have him ride off again. Then in the King in the North scene in the next episode, have one of the extras say “Lord Edmure Tully thanks you for his rescue and pledges his sword and those of the Riverlords to you” early on.

Then in Season 2, you use the same repeated mentioning of an off-screen presence that they pulled with Stannis in Season 1: have Robb mention in his first scene that Brynden has sent word that there’s a new Lannister army threatening Riverrun from the west, or have Bolton or Karstark complain that Edmure let the Riverlords go and how they could have used those troops, and then at the end of the season some extra comes in and says “Lord Edmure reports that Tywin is marching west from Harrenhal!”, Catelyn responds with a worried look, but Robb smiles and says “just as I planned. Tell lord Edmure to hold Riverrun.”

And that sets up the reveal at the beginning of Season 3 at Riverrun without any need for the transposition of Tywin and the Mountain or the weirdness with Harrenhal that completely butchered the logic of the Northern war effort.


89 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Catelyn X

  1. John says:

    Surely the weirdness with Harrenhal has a lot more to do with the changes made to Arya’s plot, and with the decision to only leave a token force east of the Green Fork, instead of Bolton with half the army, than it does with the admittedly vexing absence of Riverrun in the first two seasons.

    • Let me clarify: the weirdness is that Season 2 ends with the Mountain being left in charge of Harrenhal with a skeleton crew, and yet somehow having the manpower to assault an unknown force of Northmen and Riverlanders and the Stone Mill, why Robb would march his whole army to assault a castle with a skeleton crew, yet consider trapping the Mountain on the west side of the Red Fork as a valuable prize, why then Karstark would describe the Riverrun garrison as having not enough troops to matter when Edmure’s army assembled for the Stone Mill was 11,000 strong, etc etc.

      • Matthew says:

        I didn’t like the muckup of the military situation, but I don’t think it was actually important for the viewers. For dramatic effect, they have to have Robb winning until he doesn’t and the rebellion of the Karstarks. Books are very good for detailing broad strategic movement, series less so unless you use the opening credits map to illustrate battle movements. Essentially, the locations don’t matter since we wouldn’t really be able to keep track of the exact distances as non book readers so instead the battles were changed so that they hit all of the dramatic beats and kicked all the necessary pebbles to start major avalanches.

        They talk about trading space for time, and they did that with the series except it was trading the space necessary to properly world build the military situation for time for character building.

        • It mattered in that it didn’t explain why Robb went from winning the war in Season 2 to suddenly losing and needing the Freys support.

          Plenty of people at the time mentioned how confusing they found this part of the plot, and I would argue that without any major alterations – new characters, new locations, new scenes – they could have presented a clearer narrative.

      • Kim says:

        The show makes Robb into Robert E. Lee, doesn’t it?
        Bold, daring, flashy — but every blow he strikes bleeds more for him than for the enemy.

        • I can see why the parallel hits you, but Robb actually does succeed in causing many more casualties than he takes, and he outnumbers his opponent from this point through to the Battle of Blackwater. We can’t discount the role of treachery either.

  2. Sean C. says:

    Minor what if: What if Lord Gawen Westerling (a member of Jaime’s escort, subsequently captured) dies? Jeyne wouldn’t likely have been so friendly under those circumstances (unless you buy the “love potion” theory, which I don’t).

    • I don’t buy the love potion story, but I do buy Sybelle Spicer shoving her daughter into Robb’s bed then insisting on a shotgun wedding.

      • Winnie says:

        That’s what I think happened too. Poor Jeyne, didn’t know, but was just swept away by the handsome young King in the North-to the misfortune of both of them.

        Sad thing is, if once the conniving Sybelle, had gotten Jeyne married to Robb, it would have been far better not to betray Robb and let her daughter get pregnant-and then have a grandchild who would inherit the North. Instead, her eldest son is dead, her brother’s master of a ruined castle, her name is mud, the promised bride from CR is base born, (and they might not even get that,) and the way things are going its HIGHLY unlikely the marriages to young lords that Tywin promised for her daughters will actually take place.

        Love your take on everything here-and why it might well have been better if they hadn’t taken Jaime alive.

        • To be fair…it wasn’t possible for Sybelle to predict that Tywin would be murdered by his own son. If he hadn’t, Tywin probably would have kept his word – as he did with the Freys and Boltons.

          I think Sybelle’s calculus was this: get her daughter hooked up with the Stark king to protect them if the Lannisters go down, while offering her services to Tywin as his woman on the inside the protect them if the Starks go down.

          And it almost worked. But yeah, she’s morally reprehensible.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        Its a triple cross. Eleyna Westerling is still missing. I don’t think the show changed this at all because the Jeyne is pregnant theory never would have delivered an heir old enough to be relevant.

        But I still think Sybell Spicer triple crossed House Lannister because she knew they were doomed, that’s to her prophetic granny, Maegi the Frog.

        Jeyne Westerling is with the Blackfish.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        I just never thought the baby mattered. Its like does it matter than Robert’s daughter is riding mules in the Vale or Gendry or Edric Storm. None of them really matter but they’re out there in the ether.

        Anyway its Jeyne that’s interesting, because of what it implies about Sybell Spicer and what might potentially come after this whole set of wars is over.

        • It matters in the sense that GRRM is deliberately setting up conflicting claimants for the North: Sansa backed by Littlefinger on the grounds that all her male relatives are dead, Jon by Robb’s decree backed by the Mormonts, RIckon backed by the Mormonts, etc.

          It adds another wrinkle, especially if it’s a baby boy.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        oh. I guess I don’t take those seriously. I don’t believe Littlefinger has any interest in the North and is just telling Sansa what she wants to hear, the same way he told her he’d take her “home”. Jon is in the Night’s Watch and already had the opportunity to the Lord of Winterfell from Stannis and turned it down. Bran is crippled and a tree.

        Its Rickon to my mind, he’s the only viable candidate at this point.

      • Andrew says:

        Then after all she put Jeyne through, Sybelle tries to slap Jeyne when Jeyne sobs and says that she loved Robb and that the crown was made for her. Not exactly aiming for mother of the year.

        If the BwB comes upon the Spicers on their way back to the riverlands with Edmure, then I wouldn’t be surprised to find Sybelle hanging somewhere.

  3. WPA says:

    Though doesn’t the “Wolfsguard” unit pose an additional problem (as displayed in Whispering Wood and maybe even the Red Wedding to an extent) for a battlefield commander who “leads from the front”: the casualty issue?

    Like Volunteer Units from the same county in the US Civil War, or Pals Battalions in the First World War, doesn’t having a close unit of high ranking bannermen and bannerman’s heirs significantly increase the risk of catastrophic losses among your closest supporters if it gets in a tight spot? I mean Karstark loses not one, but two of his three heirs in one encounter- and so on. For all the benefit of keeping allies/trained nobles close to you, you have a huge risk of destabilizing Northern politics/multiple centuries old dynasties in an afternoon than if you had spread them out among constituent units and relied on your own (presumably well trained) household guard of experienced soldiers for personal protection. I suppose there’s a difference between using one or two as a squire or dining with them before/after battle. But concentrating them at the point of maximum danger could (imo) outweigh benefits of trust- particularly with younger lords eager for glory for their House rather than older experienced Winterfell men who know their jobs.

  4. Sean C. says:

    Everything to do with the Riverlands and Robb’s kingdom is a complete hash on the show. Their not being mentioned is one thing, but even when the Tullys were on the show in season 3 the writers couldn’t keep straight what exactly their relationship to the cause was, with the Blackfish telling Edmure that Robb is his king in one episode, and then in another Robb rather rudely brush aside Edmure’s issue with giving the Freys Harrenhal by saying that “we’re fighting for the North”.

  5. beto2702 says:

    You try to keep the what if’s to be faithful to characters and yes it might be very unlikely to suggest that Jaime didn’t follow Brynden…. but what if… Jaime was at one of the other 2 camps around Riverrun? Could he escaped without a trade for Sansa or is that out of character too?

    • Sean C. says:

      I don’t think they would have sprung the trap without Jaime being present. That was kind of the point.

    • Oh…hmm. See, I think this is a bit out of character. Jaime desperately wants a fight and isn’t really paying attention to the risks, as he mentions himself in retrospect in AFFC.

      It’s not really plausible that an incredibly bored Jaime that’s sortied three times for meaningless incidents wouldn’t jump at the bait and would send all his horse with someone else at the head.

  6. beto2702 says:

    Here goes another one to show how important are lesser houses in comparisson to the show: What if the Greatjon dies? I think he was the one to suggest the whole King in the North thing right?

  7. Ben Richardson says:

    I find the Wars of the Roses material in your recent posts super-fascinating. Any chance you could recommend some books on the subject? I’d love a comprehensive (but not over-academic) history, though I’m open to pretty much anything.

    So glad this blog continues to flourish!

  8. Matthew says:

    That is one exhausting list of what-ifs, all great though. I’m sincerely looking forward to your analysis of the Ironborn invasion of the North (mind you I personally am of the opinion that Balon probably would have done it the first chance he got anyways, its clear to me he was planning something along those lines).

    I couldn’t agree more with the screwed up plotting of the war arc in the show though. The phenomenally weird changes they made just screwed the pooch on getting us to really feel where the war story was going.

    Season 2 was a number of poor decisions one after the other though and they only really did the Tyrion arc justice.

    • I’m looking forward to doing the Ironborn.

      Regarding Season 2: I think the Stannis and Renly plotlines worked generally quite well, the Tyrion arc was excellent, as was pretty much all the King’s Landing stuff. And the Robb Stark stuff (besides the Yalisa weirdness) actually worked for most of the season before falling apart in the end. Theon’s plotline was damn near perfect, with the exception of the thing with the Bran/Rickon reveal that could be easily fixed with a judicious cut. But that’s a discussion if I ever do the fan-edit thing. Really the biggest screwups were Jon Snow and Dany, and even there there were diamonds in the muck.

      • Matthew says:

        They seemed to have concentrated so hard on the Kings Landing storyline at the expense of others. Jon’s was done alright in the first few episodes while they completely dropped the ball on Dany’s.

      • Chad says:

        I thought season two was a little short on action. There were things I liked but it really seemed to dragged after episode 3 building to Blackwater.

        I could of used more of warrior king Robb Stark. He was only in 6 of the episodes and probably should have been in 8 or 9. Needed to find some cheap yet flashy ways of showing Robb being a feared warlord. Like a one vs one fight were Robb just wrecks some Knight or the climb a wall and open a side gate at night of some town or castle. Think they did a poor job of using the TV visual medium to show his story because they were so concerned with saving money for the Battle of Blackwater episode.

        • Personally, I would have preferred to see more Robb the strategist. Seriously, one scene where he explains to Talisa that he’s wrecking the Westerlands because Tywin is in Harrenhal but can’t let Robb despoil his homeland without a fight – which sets up a nice parallel with Theon and Winterfell.

  9. I totally agree with you about the show really messing up the strategy of the books. I get that they don’t want to make it too complicated for the viewer, and not casting Edmure and Brynden until season 3 makes sense, but you can still mention Riverrun. I’m still annoyed by how they really took away a lot of Catelyn’s political agency in general, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    • Yeah, and that’s a discussion that starts with Catelyn XI and then resumes in Catelyn I of ACOK.

      Brief preview: I think there could have been a happy medium between AdultRobb and PoliticalCatelyn.

      • Yep – definitely didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s kind of bizarre that from the show you would never know that Catelyn is a major POV character. I know that the show obviously isn’t constrained by that structure, and Catelyn is difficult to translate on screen because she’s quite an ‘interior’ character in a lot of ways, but still. Michelle Fairley does a great job, but the RW would have been even more tragic if she had been allowed to do more than be a concerned mother in the background of scenes, especially in season 3. I know she gets lots of hate from the fandom, but she’s really underrated as a complex female character. Anyway, looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this in the future.

        • Agreed, although I think they did a fine job in Season 1 putting bookCatelyn on the screen with a few notable errors (Episode 1 especially).

          Season 2 is where it goes wrong, but it’s generally salvageable for up until the end where it goes haywire. And to be fair, I think a lot of fans forget that Catelyn doesn’t *do* much in ASOS.

      • Sean C. says:

        @Madeline: I had a long discussion with a non-reader friend about the show, and she was quite surprised when I told her that Catelyn is a POV character in the books and Robb isn’t. It’s interesting how the adaptation choices of the show affect that — said same friend thinks Sansa is only a minor character ancillary to the Lannisters and Tyrells; Bran she knows must be a POV since there’s nobody else around who conceivably could be telling his story, but she once asked me whether Bran was interesting in the novels.

    • WPA says:

      I wonder how much of that is a by-product of scriptwriters assuming (presumably) that viewers find military strategy to be boring, or too complex to understand. They have a habit of insulting the audience’s intelligence. So it basically becomes, “We’re in the Riverlands because we’re in the Riverlands because we’re in the Riverlands” Hence they leave out Duskendale and then have half the army be Karhold men and the Riverlords forces being irrelevantly small except for Walder Frey for some reason, which makes no sense.

      • To be fair, if I was writing the script I’d tone it down, but I think there’s a lot you can do to keep things straight with just a few lines of dialogue.

        And we lost a lot from swapping Roose for Tywin, but we also gained a lot character-wise that’s important for this upcoming season, so I understand what they’re up to.

        Having half the army be Karhold men is a clumsy way to set up Robb needing the Freys which I think they did because they forgot to show the Freys leaving Robb’s army over the marriage. Which they should have done at the end of Season 2.

      • Sean C. says:

        I don’t think they “forgot” to show the Freys leaving Robb’s army. There’s a pretty deliberate writing choice in Season 2 to minimize Lord Frey’s contribution to Robb’s cause, down to “crossing a bridge”, most likely because they changed the nature of Robb’s relationship so that he willingly breaks his obligation for no reason other than he feels like it, and that would be even worse if Frey soldiers were actively dying for his cause.

  10. somethinglikealawyer says:

    Very nice analysis. One thing though. I thought the Freys had more men than the Mallisters, and if I remember correctly, the Freys had ~4,500 men at their disposal. Would House Mallister have more troops than the Freys? I had thought that House Frey was one of the most numerous and powerful houses given the large stretch of land and vitally important crossing that they control.

    I would have thought a powerful house like House Mallister would be able to field maybe 3,000 troops or so. I know 3:1 is the preferred ratio, but the Ironborn are raiders, and if the massed power of Seagard blunted their momentum enough, the battle would have been a slog instead of the lightning raid that the Ironborn prefer.

    I like the term Wolfsguard, and it seems to make sense culturally given what we see of Eddard and Robb. Just like Eddard listening to different men in his home every night, and Robb riding with a different Lord every day, there seems to be a strong cultural idea of personal interaction and relationships in the North. Could this have been one of the main reasons for Eddard viewing his appointment as Hand of the King as Robert’s consigliere instead of the number 2 man of Westeros?

    • We’re never told their relative numbers. The Freys have 4,000 men, but the Mallisters have just as compelling reasons to have around that number of men.

      And yes, I agree. I think there was a culture of personal politics in the North that didn’t jibe with the Handship.

      • somethinglikealawyer says:

        The personal politics would fit in nicely with the ‘man who passes the sword swings the sentence’ idea that the North has. I noticed something like you’ve mentioned before, but I’ve never heard it articulated so succinctly and clearly. Kudos.

        I’d rather have A World of Ice and Fire to back me up, but alas i don’t, but aren’t Walder Frey’s holdings larger than Jason Mallister’s? I remember that Frey has at least four knightly houses sworn to him, I’m not trying to be argumentative; I just always thought that the Freys relative position geographically, with large stretches of land along the Green Fork, would be able to command more levies than House Mallister? I don’t know who operates the towns in between the Green and Blue Forks, like Fairmarket. Is that stretch of land administered by House Mallister, House Blackwood, or a knightly house sworn to either of the two?

        As far as the strategy notes in the show, a thing that bothered me was that the show producers never seemed to establish how close the War of the Five Kings was from Robb’s position. Robb is never shown as being close to winning the war because his tactics are done away with, and this hurts his character significantly. From Robb’s ‘gloom’ speech after the Whispering Woods on, it seemed like they wanted to impress upon the viewer that Robb’s cause is doomed. Ultimately, I’d even say that Robb’s storyline was butchered given the focus on the Talisa romance arc in lieu of the brilliant tactician betrayed by Bolton. It’s a shame, because I’d have rather watched Robb’s western campaign (or more Tywin/Arya) than Grand Theft Draco in season 2. But I’m an anti-Daenerys strategy geek, so I hardly think I count as the typical viewer.

        • It wouldn’t be House Blackwood – they’re on the south bank of the Red Fork, so too far away.

          It’s never said who has more, but I’ve given my reasons why I think they should have about the same.

          I think that’s going a bit too far – they clearly show in the first half of Season 2 Robb winning from the season opener through Oxcross and taking the Crag.

  11. Winnie says:

    OT, Steve-when are you going to have part VI of your Hands of the King series up?

    I’m waiting breathlessly.

  12. Kim says:

    the bodyguards not being named is of a piece with Northern characterization in general — more practical, less set on ceremony. Functioning more like Borderlanders than English.

  13. Leee says:

    “spare the commons! Kill the lords!” (the first time those enlightened words had been said on an English battlefield).

    Curious about what motivated this “up with the 99%” mindset, and how it developed! (Short version, plz.)

    • It kind of didn’t develop – basically, they just started killing everyone.

      So normal medieval rules are you capture the nobles and ransom them back. But in part because Henry VI kept pardoning his wife’s friends every time York captured them, they started to shift on that – and then once you’ve killed one family member, a Hatfield/McCoy thing starts up. Add onto that that killing people opens up their lands to be parceled out without worrying about rival claimants. Moreover, once Richard Duke of York claims the throne, both sides now have to eliminate a rival dynasty.

  14. If only Jaime had killed Theon … I still don’t understand why Robb thinks that Balon Greyjoy would ally with him, but I guess that’s for a future chapter to look at.

    • Sean C. says:

      Attributing rationality to an irrational figure (Balon Greyjoy is easily the most incompetent grand strategist of the entire series so far).

    • David Hunt says:

      I think that Theon convinced him that Balon would be swayed by his only remaining son, but I think Theon was wrong for two reasons.

      First, he hadn’t seen Balon since he was nine, had a child’s memeory of his father, and I think that he had mixed up memories of Ned Stark with him. So he predicted Balon’s actions using the wrong model.

      Second, he didn’t realize that he was no longer Balon’s only son as Asha was now his “son” as well, and IIRC, she was older than him too.

      • Well, this is a topic more for Theon I, but the larger problem from the Stark perspective is that both Robb and Catelyn let a prisoner in the hopes that they will persuade someone else to do something for the Starks without thinking about who has ultimate authority to make those decisions.

  15. Chris says:

    One interesting line from this chapter: “When he’d forced Catelyn to accept her protectors, she had insisted that he be guarded as well, and the lords bannermen had agreed.” This seems to imply that not only is Catelyn present at all of Robb’s war councils, but she and Robb are able to openly debate each other without his bannermen losing respect — a point in your favor for arguing that you don’t need StupidRobb to have SmartCatelyn or vice versa.

    On a similar note, when some of the lords balked at having a woman on the Wolfsguard: “but Catelyn would not listen to their complaints. ‘This is not about the honor of your houses,’ she told them. ‘This is about keeping my son alive and whole.'” It’s obvious why people see Catelyn as a feminist character, but does Robb deserve some credit for allowing gender politics to be consistently subverted even on the eve of battle?

  16. Sokket says:

    Great desconstruction of the chapter, as always.

    I actually wanted to comment on Catelyn IX (but the comments are closed) with something not pertaining to the Red Wedding.

    Thank you for making Robb/Asha replace Tyrion/Sansa as my hypothetical Westerosi top power couple.

  17. Good analysis, as usual. Agree with the underdeveloped river lords, even just a setup for future appearance. The other half of the problem are the underdeveloped northern lords in season 2/3, only the traitors got any spotlight

  18. Roger says:

    It’s interesting to note that Eddard Stark also had a lifeguard group formed by young lords: a Reed, a Ryswell, a Dustin, etc. Like happened with Robb’s guard, many died. And it still had polytical consecuences (read: Barbrey Dunstin). Having green boys doing Kingsguard’s work has this problems.
    The analysis is perfect, I think.

    I only wonder if the real merit belongs to the Young Wolf or the Blackfisch. The first deserve is share as supreme commander and ultimate decider, of course. But Brynden is clearly the man who set all in motion. Robb is indeed intelligent, but not even Alexander won battles before learning the tricks and having a good teacher (his father).

    About the What ifs: Jaime’s death would have other consecuences. For example, Tywin would have had to trust much more in Tyrion (or search another heir). Also perhaps a demoralised Cersei could have been persuaded to marry Lord Greyjoy or even the Red Viper.

    PErhaps if the Karstarks remained alive (and loyal), Roose would have done things different. With Karstark at Robb’s side, perhaps a Red Wedding could have more complications.
    Theon’s dead would have prevented Winterfell sack. And perhaps Ramsay would have been hanged by Ser Rodrick.

    • Look at the text – Brynden is in charge of screening Robb’s army, but the plan to lure out Jaime and attack him on all three sides is Robb’s. It’s very much a shared victory.

  19. […] of the Red Fork, and a third between the rivers, west of the moat.” As I’ve discussed earlier, this feature of the Tully defenses allowed Robb Stark to achieve local superiority of numbers and […]

  20. […] the sake of clarity I’m leaving out the Ironborn for the moment). Despite Robb Stark’s manifest successes in his Riverlands campaign, he faces an eerily similar situation to how he started: two […]

  21. […] but I’ve made a rough estimate based on the fact that the combined forces were around 40,000, my estimate of Robb having 10-11,000 at the Whispering Woods and only having 6,000 at Oxcross once the […]

  22. […] I’ve discussed a bit before, the Hornwood lands become the object of a Northern game of thrones as an unintended consequence […]

  23. […] Catelyn X (The Battle of the Whispering Woods and its political consequences) […]

  24. […] because this wasn’t a heroic battle that could be described in poetic terms, like the Battle of the Whispering Woods. There’s not a lot of poetry in hiding in a bush, shooting a group of teenagers less than […]

  25. […] it also gives us a sense of Robb’s style as a commander. As with the Whispering Woods and the Battle of the Camps, you see an emphasis on the maintenance of the element of surprise, a […]

  26. […] and vice-versa. Thus, when Edward IV was acclaimed as king and achieved his victory at Towton, in his first […]

  27. […] 600 men vs. 2,000 is within the bounds of reason if we compare it to similar ambushes like the Whispering Wood, the Battle of the Camps, or Oxcross, and if you pay attention, you’ll note that […]

  28. […] Jaime Lannister who flung Bran from the tower, who attacked Ned in King’s Landing, and whose defeat by Robb is the major Stark victory to date. And here GRRM drops us inside his head and keeps us there for […]

  29. beto2702 says:

    I know this is only possible if the Lannisters are informed of Robb plans before the attack, but, what if the Lannister repel Robb’s forces? In other words, what if they win the Whispering Woods?

    I know Jaime’s character would jump at the trap, but he’s not stupid. If he’s informed before hand he could have made a better plan.

    He might end up getting a prisoner or two… maybe even Robb?

  30. […] the bigger question is whether Arya would have been included in the Red Wedding as per the original deal, which would likely mean either her death or captivity. On the one hand, it was part of the […]

  31. […] addition to the irony that Jaime was the one foolish enough to get himself captured and will soon be suffering his own disability due to his recklessness in throwing down with Brienne […]

  32. […] did anything – and was probably spiraling down into a suicidal depression ever since the Whispering Wood – and represents a pretty extreme reaction. He has some sympathizers – “Galbart Glover and […]

  33. […] seen before, GRRM likes to vary how he writes battles: he’s shown them from the position of a non-participant observer, or a combatant who can’t see the whole battle from their own part of the battle, or from the […]

  34. […] to draw lines of cause and effect between his (and his father’s actions). Jaime’s reckless prosecution of the early Riverlands campaign and his father’s decision to unleash unrestricted warfare against civilians have eroded the […]

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