“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.