“Catelyn watched them rise and draw their blades, bending their knees and shouting the old words that had not been heard in the realm for more than three hundred years…
“The King in the North!”
“The King in the North!”
“THE KING IN THE NORTH!”
Synopsis: Catelyn Stark is reunited with her father Hoster Tully for the first time in fifteen years. Afterwards, she joins her son Robb for a contentious council of war and peace, before the Greatjon provides a solution.
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.
Oh….how I have been waiting for this chapter, savoring it like a treat you keep for a special occasion and save the leftovers of to enjoy later. It’s one of my absolute favorites in the books, and possibly the political turning point of A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s also a tremendously complicated chapter that is frequently misunderstood. So let’s get into it.
(Note: I had planned to discuss Catelyn and guilt, Hoster Tully’s illness, and the way in which family shapes the rise and fall of House Tully, but this essay is already running over-time and I might as well save that discussion for later Catelyn chapters.)
War of Five Kings: Phase Two
If for House Lannister, the end of the first phase of the War of Five Kings saw them surrounded by enemies and with few good options, House Stark is faced with a bewildering array of options of contenders to ally with or locations to attack – but it can only choose once, it has a limited amount of resources to distribute between fronts, and the stakes of all of its choices are incredibly high. And yet, people who argue the Starks were doomed from the start (or that there was a clear, easy option to win the war) are dead wrong, and using the worst kind of presentist, over-determined logic.
One thing that is frequently forgotten, and which I have gone to pains to emphasize, is the delicate balance of feudal politics. As Catelyn observes of the council of war, “each lord had a right to speak, and speak they did…and bargain…and threaten…and walk out.” Robb Stark does not have an absolute claim on the loyalties of his subordinates; even when he becomes King in the North, his subjects’ duty to him is embedded in a reciprocal system of obligations that requires him to look after the interests of his followers, lest they cease to follow him. His victory at the Whispering Woods and the Camps have ironically increased the difficulty of this endeavor by adding the Riverlords into the mix: “Edmure sat in the high seat of the Tullys…word of the victory at Riverrun had spread to the fugitive lords of the Trident, drawing them back…Karl Vance came in, a lord now…Ser Marq Piper was with them, and they brought a Darry…Lord Jonos Bracken arrived from the ruins of Stone Hedge…and took a seat as far away from Tytos Blackwood.” For Robb just to keep his army functioning at around 40,000 men, he must balance their interests with the interests of the “Northern lords [who] sat opposite…the Greatjon sat at Robb’s left hand…Galbart Glover and Lady Mormont were to the right of Catelyn…Lord Rickard Karstark…took his seat hike a man in a nightmare.” And on both political and military tracks, these lords have profoundly different interests at stake and ideas about how accomplish their aims.
War of Five Kings: The Starks’ Political Options
It’s appropriate that the beginning of the political conversation starts with the news that “Renly Baratheon has claimed his brother’s crown,” because of how thoroughly this scrambles the larger question. On the one hand, the Starks cannot bend the knee to Joffrey because of his murder of Eddard, but “that makes him evil…I do not know that makes Renly king. Joffrey is still Robert’s eldest trueborn son, so the throne is rightfully his by all the laws of the realm. Were he to die, and I mean to see that he does, he has a younger brother…but if Joffrey is the lawful king and we fight against him, we will be traitors.” Without the truth Eddard died for, the Starks are rebels without a candidate to place on the Iron Throne, and in order to make a political settlement that allows them to stop being rebels as was the case during Robert’s Rebellion, they have to have one.
The difficulty is that Renly “is crowned…Highgarden and Storm’s End support his claim…if Winterfell and Riverrun add their strength to his, he will have five of the seven great houses behind him.” The short-term political logic (advocated for by Lord Bracken and Ser Marq Piper, take note) points to Renly over Joffrey – but the long-term logic of Renly’s crowning is deeply destabilizing, as Lady Mormont implicitly notes. As Robb notes, “if their one is king, still, how could it be lord Renly? He’s Robert’s younger brother. Bran can’t be Lord of Winterfell before me, and Renly can’t be king before Stannis.” As I have argued in longer form over at Tower of the Hand, Renly’s attack on the principle of primogeniture is deeply destabilizing – he has the most troops now, but there’s no guarantee that his son, or his grandson, or his great-grandson would, turning every single turnover of the crown into a civil war since under Renly armed strength would be the only legitimating force. And as Robb’s example of Winterfell shows (and indeed as we see born out among the Freys later on), the same principle holds true for all lesser lordships – if a younger son can preempt an older son, then every lordship in Westeros is under the same threat.
Moreover, the existence of Stannis again complicates the situation. He’s got “the better claim,” and thus doesn’t threaten to destabilize the entire sociopolitical structure of Westeros, but “the right” has no bannermen to answer its call. At the same time, declaring for Renly makes an enemy of Stannis as well as Joffrey and the size of Stannis’ army could change quickly; declaring for Stannis means making an enemy of Renly – there’s no single candidate for a coalition to form around as there was in Robert’s Rebellion.
Even the seemingly safe path offered by Ser Stevron Frey has its dangers: “wait, let these two kings play their game of thrones. When they are done fighting, we can bend our knees to the victor, or oppose him as we choose.” The downside of this is that not all these options are equal and peace and a political settlement is still not guaranteed: Joffrey has declared all of the people at this table to be traitors and rebels, and if he wins they may not get a chance to bend the knee. Renly might allow for a political settlement after the fact, or he could choose to steamroll over them so that the Tyrells could expand their lands to the North. If Stannis wins, he’s unlikely to let bygones be bygones…and any winner, while certainly weakened by fighting for the Iron Throne, would by virtue of being King have most of the Seven Kingdoms to call on to subdue the rebels while the Starks and Tullys stand isolated.
Above all, the problem is uncertainty – no one knows who’s going to be on top at the end of the war, and picking the winner can be the difference between prosperity and destruction for a noble House.
War of Five Kings: The Starks’ Military Options
The Starks’ military position is equally as complicated as their political situation – as you can see below, the Starks have local superiority of numbers, but just barely and their forces are divided by rivers, and they face enemies to their southwest and southeast (and for 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 Stark/Tully armies facing two Lannister armies in two different places. And now he has the added wrinkle of the immense defensive multiplier provided by the fortress of Harrenhal.
The council of war is split between mutually-exclusive courses of action. “Many of the lords bannermen wanted to march on Harrenhal at once, to meet Lord Tywin and end Lannister power for all time. Young, hot-tempered Marq Piper urged a strike west at Casterly Rock. Still others counseled patience. Riverrun sat athwart the Lannister supply lines…let them bide their time, denying Lord Tywin fresh levies and provisions while they strengthened their defenses and rested their weary troops…[or] march to Harrenhal and bring Roose Bolton’s army down as well…[or] move south to join their might to [Renly].” All of these options have their advantages and disadvantages:
- Harrenhal – the advantage of attacking Harrenhal is that it takes out the largest enemy army facing them, and fully liberates the Riverlands, whereas other strategies will leave the southern Riverlands at the mercy of Lord Tywin (I would guess that the “many of the lords bannermen” in favor, in addition to Tyros Blackwood, are heavily weighted in the southern Riverlands). Moreover, with Tywin taken out, the political unity of House Lannister collapses for generations, and King’s Landing will likely fall without the Starks having to intervene. At the same time, attacking Harrenhal with only a 2-1 advantage is an extremely risky option that’s quite likely to end in failure…and if the initial assault fails, they run the risk of a new Lannister army of 14,000 descending on their undefended rear and catching them against the walls.
- Casterly Rock – ultimately the choice that Robb Stark goes with, attacking the Westerlands has a number of advantages. It removes the threat of a 14,000-man army appearing on the Stark/Tully western flank at the same time that Tywin menaces their eastern flank, keeping their most dangerous enemy at a 1:2 disadvantage. Moreover, as we’ll see, threatening the West is the only thing other than moving on King’s Landing itself (interestingly an option no one mentions; I could easily imagine Robb swinging down between Tywin and King’s Landing) that would actually lure out Tywin from the defenses of Harrenhal. And with the Casterly Rock army, rather than having King’s Landing at their back, now Tywin is the one surrounded by his enemies.
- Wait – Jason Mallister, a lord of the northern Riverlands whose lands are protected by all three forks of the Trident, urges waiting and building up their own forces, while (implicitly) holding Harrenhal in a loose siege to prevent it from reinforcing or resupplying itself. This isn’t a bad idea – taking estimates from the Roman legions, an army of 18-20,000 men eat 40 tonnes of food a month, so it’s quite possible to starve out an army of that size over time. Indeed, the difficulty of feeding so many men in one place is one of the reasons why medieval castle garrisons tended to range from 30-40 men to around 200 (which is yet another reason why Harren the Black’s great architectural achievement is a white elephant). On the other hand, this leaves the southern Riverlands exposed to Tywin’s raiders, and runs the risk that a new Lannister army of 14,000 will be raised and trained
- South – realistically, this is more of a political strategy than a military one. Moving Robb Stark’s army down to Highgarden or Bitterbridge (even leaving Roose Bolton’s 10-12,000 in place to keep watch on the Riverlands), leaves the Riverlands completely open. While a Stark/Tyrell/Baratheon host of 120-130,000 would no doubt crush everything in its wake, the amount of damage Tywin could do in the meantime is terrifying to think of. More on this in the “What If?” section.
The Question of Peace
At this point, Catelyn Stark stands up and makes an eloquent plea for peace:
“Why not a peace?…[Ned] is gone, and Daryn Hornwood, and Lord Karstark’s valiant son, and many other good men besides, and none of them will return to us. Must we have more deaths still?…I understand futility. We went to war when Lannister armies were ravaging the riverlands, and Ned was a prisoner…we fought to defend ourselves, and to win my lord’s freedom. Well, the one is done, and the other forever beyond our reach…I want my daughters back…if I must trade our four Lannisters for their two Starks, I will call that a bargain and thank the gods.”
For many fans of Catelyn Stark, this is a crucial moment, where a woman takes a clear-sighted stand against war in the face of short-sighted, misogynistic, macho militarism, and also a moment in which George R.R. Martin’s anti-war sentiments are made plain. Unfortunately, it’s also seen as a moment where StupidRobb dooms himself, his family, and the North with his hot-headed pursuit of vengeance – and I think that misses the point.
Instead, I think this is a case in which George R.R Martin has constructed an unavoidable tragedy in which, however good in principle and hindsight peace might be, it was entirely impossible in the moment. And we can see this in some of the shortcomings of Catelyn Stark’s arguments. In her speech, Catelyn Stark defines the terms of war and peace in such personal terms – the liberation of Ned Stark and the return of her daughters – that her appeal doesn’t reach very far outside her family. After all, the Riverlands did not fight to free Ned Stark and don’t care if Catelyn’s daughters are ransomed, and contrary to her argument that “the one is done,” the Riverlands are still being ravaged by Tywin Lannister’s marauders and there are 20,000 Lannistermen entrenched in Harrenhal, the historical seat of power.
If peace is going to come, it’s going to take a far greater settlement than the return of the two Stark daughters and a truce of uncertain duration. As Brynden Tully points out, “peace is sweet…but on what terms? It is no good hammering your sword into a plowshare if you must forge it again on the morrow.” While Catelyn can “go home…and weep for my husband,” while watching “Robb, ruling at Winterfell from your father’s seat…live your life, to kiss a girl and wed a woman and father a son,” the Riverlands cannot. At the end of the day, they’re still sitting between the Westerlands and the Crownlands and with nothing but Tywin Lannister’s word to protect them should the Starks accept a truce and march home. As Jonos Bracken points out, “Gregor Clegane laid waste to my fields, slaughtered my smallfolk, and left Stone Hedge a smoking ruin. Am I now to bend the knee to the ones who sent him?”
Moreover, the same political uncertainties that have bedeviled this council of war also hold in peace. As Tytos Blackwood correctly points out, “if we do make peace with King Joffrey, are we not then traitors to King Renly? What if the stag should prevail against the lion, where would that leave us?” While we know from hindsight that Renly is going to be murdered and Stannis defeated, the lords of the North and the Riverlands don’t have that knowledge, and at the time, it was much more likely that either Renly or Stannis would triumph over the Lannisters than the opposite. Even making peace could threaten war, with the Riverlands once again bearing the brunt of the fallout from House Stark’s political choices.
Ultimately, I think there is right on both sides: in the argument that further slaughter when the North’s initial war aims were concluded would be pointless, but also the argument that from this position there really wasn’t a way to go backwards without concluding that the sons of the North and the Riverlands had died for nothing. And if there is one thing that Catelyn Stark’s fellow grieving parents demand, the one war aim that unites Brackens and Karstarks, it’s that the deaths of their sons have some meaning, so that some order is retrieved from chaos. It is absolutely an irrational desire, but also an inescapably human desire.
The Question of Independence
Amid all of this fractious debate, it’s ironically the Greatjon who comes up with a political solution to their common dilemma:
“Renly Baratheon is nothing to me, nor Stannis neither. Why should they rule over me and mine, from some flowery seat in Highgarden or Dorne? What do they know of the Wall or the wolfswood or the barrows of the First Men? Even their gods are wrong. The Others take the Lannisters too…why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again?”
However, it should be noted that this is entirely an argument about Northern independence, based on Northern historical, cultural, and religious differences from the South (after all, outside the Blackwoods, “their gods” applies to the Riverlords as much as it does to the Baratheons or the Lannisters). And it’s made possible by Northern geographic distance from the rest of Westeros. And notably, it’s the Northern lords who rise to second Greatjon Umber’s motion and make their pledge of fealty to King Robb, First of His Name. This is a political objective that has deep historical roots that Northern houses can respect, that gives Lord Karstark and all the other grievers out there a larger meaning to their loss.
And once it’s done, the Riverlords have little choice in the matter. Half of the army just declared independence, and unless they swear fealty to Robb Stark and become his vassals with a claim to his protection, then they’re going to be left to fend for themselves, still living next door to the “red castle and [the] iron chair.” Without allies, eventually the Riverlands will fall to either the Lannisters or the Baratheons or the Tyrells or the Greyjoys, as they did before the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror.
Robb cannot refuse this offer. I want to emphasize this, because I feel far too many of his critics fail to recognize this. As the liege lord of the North, he owes protection to his vassals – as they have just made themselves rebels to every claimant in the field, turning them down flat is tantamount to saying that he views them as rebels and won’t protect them from whichever King is king, which would forfeit their military support for him in the field. Likewise, turning down the freely-offered fealty of the Riverlords means turning down the 11-20,000 men they command in the field, which means trying to fight a war for independence against the rest of Westeros with only the North’s manpower.
Moreover, and this is the point that I think gets overlooked far too often: assuming that independence will fail is completely presentist. Save for the last three hundred years out of a history 8,000 years long, the North has been an independent kingdom; even after the arrival of the dragons, Dorne maintained its independence against an otherwise-united Westeros for a hundred and fifty years. Given the political divisions of the War of Five Kings preventing the united power of Westeros being sent against them, the North had a good shot at establishing its independence, and as I’ll explain in my discussion on ACOK and ASOS, it took a very specific set of dominos falling for Robb Stark to be defeated. Even then, the North is rising up against their Lannister-allied overlords and has a good chance of overthrowing the Iron Throne for a second time.
Moreover, it’s also historically common for an independent Westerosi kingdom to hold the Riverlands in addition to its home territory: the Stormlands held the Riverlands for three hundred years before losing them to the Ironborn (which probably in turn helps to explain how the Stormlands avoided being conquered by the Reach), who in turn held them for three generations as part of the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers. As much as the southern Riverlands (or the Hills as they might also be described) represent a potential quagmire, holding the Trident offers a number of potential advantages: it controls the Kingsroad approach to the North, preventing any approach on Moat Cailin; it’s much more fertile than the North, so there’s a possibility for a productive grain-for-wool trade; the 20,000 men of the Riverlands (and the Riverlands potentially could raise more if it was better governed) would be invaluable in keeping an independent kingdom at fighting weight against the Lannisters; having a base near King’s Landing is strategically important in terms of forestalling any attempt to reunite the Seven Kingdoms.
A good example of the possibilities of an independent Kingdom in the North comes from the history of Scottish independence. While in its orientation to the Wall and the wildlings and House Stark’s similarities to the House of York, the North resembles the North of England, with its great capitol city of York standing in for Winterfell, in its history of self-rule the North bears a strong political resemblance to medieval Scotland, which managed to keep itself independent of a much larger and richer neighbor for several hundreds of years.
To begin with, we have to recognize that the history of Scottish independence is far more nuanced than the stark romantic and nationalist lines that are drawn in the public memory. To begin with, there’s the complicated reality that many medieval Scottish lords held lands in both England and Scotland and married back and forth: Robert the Bruce was the Lord of Annandale and the Earl of Carrick, but his family also had land in both Yorkshire and Normandy and could trace his lineage back to Henry I of England; the Stewarts who would succeed from the Bruces were originally Bretons; and from 1113 on, the Kings of Scotland were also held the English title of Earl of Huntington, and frequently claimed the Earldom of Northumbria (and if they could get their hands on it as was attempted by King David I during “the anarchy”, Westmorland and Cumberland as well). Just as holding the title of Duke of Normandy made the Kings of England both technically vassals and realistically independent monarchs, the Kings of Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries occupied both positions vis-a-vis their English landholdings.
Moreover, the Wars of Independence that lasted from 1296 to 1357 were a dizzyingly complex affair that could equally be described as a civil war between two rival claimants, the Bruces and the Balliols, both of whom at various times were either allies of or enemies of the English and who both held lands in both England and Scotland. King John Balliol usually gets labelled as a quisling of King Edward I of England (the so-called “Hammer of the Scots”) in large part because he had the bad luck to be in charge when Edward I invaded Scotland (with the Bruces’ support), but he was also the originator of the “Auld Alliance” with France that gave Scotland a continental European ally and became a mainstay of Scottish politics from 1295-1560 (more on this topic later). Likewise, while Robert the Bruce is seen as a nationalist hero striving against lapdogs of the English, he flipped sides repeatedly especially between 1302 and 1306, and many of his enemies were the clans Comyn and MacDougall who fought Robert the Bruce because he’d murdered Jon Comyn, the Lord of Badenoch and Lochabe and a potential rival for the throne, or the Balliols whose throne the Bruce had usurped.
However, the point has to be granted that despite coming up against some of the strongest warrior Kings of England, both Edward I the Hammer of the Scots, and Edward III of Crécy and Poitiers, Scotland proved itself impossible to govern from England. Despite the failure of the Bruces’ dynasty and ongoing challenges from the Balliols, the Stewart dynasty of Scotland ruled an independent nation from 1371 through to 1603. Even after the “Union of the Crown” with the accession of James of Scotland to the throne of England, Scotland remained an independent and frequently decisive force in British politics throughout the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms” of the 17th century through to the Act of Union in 1707.
At least from the historical evidence, Northern independence over the long term is absolutely possible.
This chapter is absolutely chock-full with hypothetical scenarios, so let’s dive straight into them:
- Robb declares for Stannis? Let’s say Robb declares for Stannis, then gets the letter and Catelyn and he connect the dots about Bran and Eddard and Jon Arryn. Well, this gives the North and the Riverlands (and potentially the Vale) a pretty good cause to fight for – Eddard Stark and Jon Arryn were murdered trying to defend the lawful succession to the Iron Throne. Militarily, Stannis probably sets sail for Saltpans or Lord Harroway’s Town to link up with the Starks and Lannisters. With a combined total of 45,000, they could either take out Harrenhal right there before marching on King’s Landing, or split the army 20,000 to 25,000 to keep Harrenhal under siege while they march on King’s Landing, while Stannis’ navy blockades the Bay. Approaching from the North completely obviates the wildfire strategy, and the city likely falls. And then things get complicated as Renly finally shows up with an army at least twice their size and two of the Seven Kingdoms stares down another two (unless Melisandre has Renly killed anyway).
- Robb announces for Renly? This is why the “Robb should have declared for Renly” theory has problems. Let’s say Robb announces for Renly: on a political level, Robb gets some political favors but not much – he’s got two Kingdoms behind him, but Renly already has two that brings far more troops to the table. And then Renly dies…so where does Robb go from there? He can’t go back to the Lannisters, which means he probably has to side with a grudge-keeping Stannis, and is now locked into the wrong side of a 60,000 vs. 80,000 match-up. Robb Stark probably could protect Stannis’ flank and rear long enough for King’s Landing to fall, but not without heavy casualties and for an uncertain reward. He might be able to ally with the Tyrells himself if he breaks his word with the Freys, but it’s unlikely as a Lord Paramount can’t offer the same long-term political status that a royal marriage can, and even then (as I’ll discuss more in ACOK), it’s not as much of a slam-dunk as it appears.
- Robb sues for peace? Here’s where the hidden costs, as it were, of Catelyn’s proposal kick in: let’s say Robb Stark sues for peace to get his sisters back…and then finds out the Lannisters lost Arya. Either peace gets derailed and we’re back to square one, or he makes the trade and his political position among his own men gets badly weakened. Now it’s possible that Robb can return North before the Ironborn invasion starts – I highly doubt he can get back in time to forestall it – but now he’s facing an invasion with a divided base of supporters who’ve lost respect for his leadership. The Hornwood conflict is going to kick off while Robb’s busy fighting Ironborn minus the 11-20,000 Riverlanders, and now Roose Bolton mightvery well repeat his ancestors’ rebellion, with support from the Karstarks taking the place of the Greystarks. And then he’s going to have to deal with the huge disruption of the wildlings and the threat beyond…all the while as Tywin prepares for an eventual invasion (remember, he only makes peace after he’s beaten people to their knees).
- The bigger problem is the Riverlands, which have now been thoroughly ravaged by the Lannisters and left out to dry by the Starks; while the Starks can at least for the moment forestall a Lannister invasion by fortifying Moat Cailin, the Riverlands have no such protection, the Westerlands to their west and the Crownlands to their east, and only the word of Tywin Lannister that they aren’t going to be ground into the mud. Catelyn’s father, brother, and uncle will pay the price for their loyalty to their kin.
- Robb waits? On a surface level, Ser Stevron’s recommendation looks like good realpolitik: wait out the fighting, and deal with whoever’s left when they’re tired out from fighting. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that fighting necessarily saps the strength of your enemies: if everything apart from the Riverlands stayed the same as in OTL, then Renly would die and Stannis would be beaten at the Blackwater, and Robb Stark would now face a combined Tyrell/Lannister host of as much as 134,000, on top of a likely Greyjoy Rebellion. Except that in this scenario, Robb, the North, and the Riverlands have no political out – because he’s conceded that he is by rights the vassal of whoever the King on the Iron Throne is.
Book vs. Show:
This is one scene where I feel like the show got the heart right but the head wrong – in the show, this sets up the audience to believe in Robb Stark as the symbol of justice for the Starks which is absolutely necessary for the Red Wedding to have the impact it needs to, it foregrounds Robb and Theon’s relationship in order to set up Theon’s betrayal, and it gives a nice, rousing wrap-up to the Stark storyline for Season 1.
However, I think it makes two major errors of omission. Firstly, it completely leaves out the Riverlords, with the exception of a virtually unrecognizable (and unnamed) Jonos Bracken – which as I’ve pointed out, completely obscures the political context for the rest of the War of Five Kings, in that Robb Stark is now politically committed to the defense of the Riverlands and that half of his army is now made up of Riverlanders. While I understand that Edmure and Brynden Tully hadn’t been cast yet, there’s no reason they couldn’t have used a few of the extras in that scene, mentioned who they were, and stated that in thanks for their liberation, the Riverlands pledge their fealty to Robb Stark. It renders a major part of Robb Stark’s plotline for the next two seasons geographically and politically unintelligible.
The second and equally serious omission, is that they leave out Catelyn Stark’s plea for peace. The first warning sign that the show was starting to mishandle her character, this speech is vital for setting out that Catelyn and Robb have different interests, that Catelyn is more than a side character in her son’s story, setting up her freeing Jaime Lannister at the end of Season 2 and their contentious relationship in Season 3. It’s so unnecessary – the speech would take up less than a minute, it doesn’t distract from building up Robb Stark as he has to be built up, and the audience is absolutely capable of dealing with this level of nuance.
Unfortunately, it’s (mostly, but not all) downhill from here as far as the show goes.