“He swept a hand across the campfires that burned from horizon to horizon. “Well, there is my claim, as good as Robert’s ever was.”
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.
Every now and again, I’ve come across people who say they hate reading Catelyn chapters, but it’s chapters like this that make me unable to see how or why anyone could come to that conclusion. Because Catelyn II is an amazing chapter, full of political and military significe, some key thematic arguments, and it sets up one of the major turning points in the entire series. A word of warning before I begin: a lot of what I think about Renly Baratheon has already been done in Hollow Crowns Part IV, and rather than repeat what I have to say here, you might want to read that essay before you read this.
War of Five Kings – Stark Strategy
One of the things that I noticed in this chapter that I hadn’t really noticed before is that we get a key – if fleeting- glimpse into Robb Stark’s military strategy. As we’ve discussed in Catelyn I, the Starks are in a difficult situation, with Tywin to their east and Ser Stafford to their west and a desperate need to regain the momentum in the Riverlands. In this chapter, we learn that Robb is sending Catelyn to Renly Baratheon because:
“There is no one else. I cannot go myself. Your father’s too ill. The Blackfish is my eyes and ears, I dare not lose him. Your brother I need to hold Riverrun when we march-“
“March?” No one had said a word to her of marching.
“I cannot sit at Riverrun waiting for peace. it makes me look as if I were afraid to take the field again. When there are no battles to fight, men start to think of hearth and harvest, Father told me that. Even my northmen grow restless.”
My northmen, she thought. He is even beginning to talk like a king. “No one has ever died of restlessness, but rashness is another matter. We’ve planted seeds, let them grow.”
Robb shook his head stubbornly. “We’ve tossed some seeds in the wind, that’s all. If your sister Lysa was coming to aid us, we would have heard by now. How many birds have we sent to the Eyrie, four? I want peace too, but why should the Lannisters give me anything if all I do is sit here while my army melts away around me swift as summer snow?”
“So rather than look craven, you will dance to Lord Tywin’s pipes?” she threw back. “He wants you to march on Harrenhal, ask your uncle Brynden if-“
“I said nothing of Harrenhal,” Robb said. “Now, will you go to Renly for me, or must I send the Greatjon?”
There’s a lot we can learn from this brief exchange. First, we can see that, contrary to a lot of conventional fan wisdom, the Starks are actively engaged in diplomacy to achieve their political ends – Robb’s already sent to the Greyjoys, here we learn that he’s also sent to the Vale, and intends to treat with Renly. In other words, Robb is unlucky, not incompetent – it’s impossible to predict that Balon Greyjoy would write off his only son (link), and that his aunt is so enraptured by Littlefinger that he can’t expect the normal support he would otherwise get from the Vale, or that Renly Barathon would suddenly die.
Second, we see that Robb intends for the “seeds” of the peace offer to mature, but is intending to use his army to act as a stick to make the carrot more palatable. This is a not inaccurate view of the situation: as we know, the Lannisters have no intention of engaging in good faith with the peace process, but are stalling for time to regain the military initiative. If Robb wants to make them engage with him, he’ll need to give them a more compelling reason than Jaime and Willem Lannister – and as we’ll see, an invasion of the west definitely has the power to move Tywin Lannister.
Third, this lends evidence to my argument here that Robb’s plan was very much to lure Tywin out west, prevent him from reinforcing King’s Landing, and defeat his army in detail. In so far as much as the argument that Robb’s plan never existed and was made up post-hoc goes, I think this quote is fairly conclusive: it was absolutely the case that Edmure holding Riverrun was linked to Robb marching into the west at this point in time. And while this isn’t quite the time for an exhaustive discussion of the Western campaign (time for that later, and if you want to know what I think you can read the hyperlink above), I will say that Robb’s plan is actually quite well-geared toward solving his current problems: it gives him a military mission to keep his forces together so that his army doesn’t bleed away into nothingness, it gives him a way to hammer the Lannisters without having to attack Harrenhal, and it forces Tywin to abandon his position in the Riverlands and his proximity to King’s Landing. In one move, Robb reshapes two theaters of war.
The Tourney and the Southron Alliance
However, the major political event of this chapter is that Catelyn arrives at Bitterbridge and encounters King Renly finishing up his tourney:
A field had been cleared off, fences and galleries and tilting barriers thrown up. Hundreds had gathered to watch, perhaps thousands. From the looks of the grounds, torn and muddy and littered with bits of dinted armor and broken lances, they had been at it a day or more, but now the end was near….”a tourney,” Hall Mollen declared.
“Oh, splendid,” Ser Wendel Manderly said…
This is madness, Catelyn thought. Real enemies on every side and half the realm in flames, and Renly sits here playing at war like a boy with his first wooden sword.
This divergent reaction – Catelyn’s incredulity and Ser Wendel’s delight – speaks to the double-edged nature of Renly’s political tactic. As Catelyn notes, this is a real distraction that slows Renly down by several days in a war that has already seen multiple reversals of fortune in short order. Speed is a real advantage that Renly is throwing away; indeed, if Renly kept going at his current pace of around eight miles a day, it would take him over two months to get from Bitterbridge to King’s Landing, easily enough time for the course of the war to radically reshape itself. And if Renly had settled down for a lengthy siege as his siege engines suggest, it might well have been the case that the Ironborn attack on the Reach would have fractured his host long before his war was won.
On the other hand, the tourney is a necessary part of Renly’s strategy of using public relations and the symbolism of chivalry to gain political support:
Small wonder the lords gather around him with such fervor, she thought, he is Robert come again. Renly was handsome as Robert had been handsome; long of limb and broad of shoulder, with the same coal-black hair, fine and straight, the same deep blue eyes, the same easy smile. The slender circlet around his brows seemed to suit him well. It was soft gold, a ring of roses exquisitely wrought; at the front lifted a stag’s head of dark green jade, adorned with golden eyes and golden antlers.
As we have seen before, the person of the king is no small part of his political influence – “Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked. Daemon stood straight and broad, and his stomach was flat and hard as an oaken shield And he could fight…with the sword he was the Warrior himself…all the great knights of the realm gathered to him…because Daemon was the better man.” (Sworn Sword) A king who wishes to remain popular with the nobility must combine the warrior archetype with magnificence, which symbolizes his wealth and openhandedness (critical qualities in a feudal monarch), and grace. And Renly has all these qualities.
Especially in a civil war where legitimacy is very much up in the air, the fact that Renly looks like a young Robert (whose personal charisma and magnetism played a large part in bringing the Rebellion together, especially in the Stormlands, and in winning over ex-Targaryens after the war), is one of his strongest cards to play. And it works – especially with the “chivalry of the south” who he has no direct claim over, these men many of whose grandfathers supported the black dragon over the red entirely because of their romantic ideals. The Tourney at Bitterbridge and the Rainbow Guard are both parts of a campaign to distract the “knights of summer” from the political dangers of supporting a rebel claimant in a civil war, the legal impossibilities of his claim to power, and the long-term implications of his vision of monarchy (see Hollow Crowns, Part IV). La gloire must be everything, obscure anything else.
However, Renly also has a political logic on his side that doesn’t rest on his own attractiveness, but rather on the realities of Southern power:
The crowned stag decorated the king’s green velvet tunic as well, worked in gold thread upon his chest; the Baratheon sigil in the colors of Highgarden. The girl who shared the high seat with him was also of Highgarden: his young queen, Margaery, daughter to Lord Mace Tyrell. Their marriage was the mortar that held the great southron alliance together…
The Tyrells have never before been particularly active in a civil war – the canny stewards of Highgarden sat out the Dance of the Dragons, and allowed their “overmighty” bannermen the Hightowers batter themselves into exhaustion; Leo Longthorn conveniently was late to the Battle of Redgrass Field (but just in time to attack his own bannermen as they fled back into the Reach); and Mace spent Robert’s Rebellion protecting his own lands or camped out safely outside Storm’s End. This time, the writing is on the clothing – Highgarden is emphatically behind Renly, will benefit if Renly wins, and that which is good for Highgarden is good for the Reach (or else). Thus, the rest of the Reach has to choose between defying their liege lord or defying their king, and most decided that it’s easier to defy a besieged boy king who’s a long way off than fight the Tyrells.
On the other hand, I think this raises the question of whether Renly offered the realm much more than a swap of the Lannisters for the Tyrells. Yes, Renly was much more intelligent and politically savvy than Robert, and more engaged in the business of governing. However, had he won, he would have been even more dependent on his wife’s family than Robert. After all, his older brother’s monarchy rested on a broad foundation of Houses Stark, Arryn, and Tully – the Lannisters’ gold was useful, but not necessary for him to remain in power. Renly at this moment in time has no support outside of his own territory and the Reach – hence why he’s willing to meet with the Starks.
The Audience and the Offer
Now that the stage has been set, Catelyn finally gets to meet with the King in Highdarden, one of the few moments in the series in which we get direct diplomacy in the entire series. Diplomacy is not exactly an easy business, however. As we see, the interactions between the two camps are fraught with a tension over status and position:
“I have the honor to bring to you the Lady Catelyn Stark, sent as envoy by her son Robb, Lord of Winterfell.”
“Lord of Winterfell and King in the North, ser,” Catelyn corrected him. She dismounted and moved to Ser Colen’s side.
King Renly looked surprised. ‘Lady Catelyn? We are most pleased.” He turned to his young queen. “Margaery my sweet, this is the Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell.”
…”Your Grace,” Brienne the Blue correctly sharply. “And you should kneel when you approach the king.”
“The distance between a lord and a grace is a small one, my lady,” Catelyn said. “Lord Renly wears a crown, as does my son. If you wish, we may stand here in the mud and debate what honors and titles are rightly due to each, but it strikes me that we have more pressing matters to consider.”
…”I call it weak.” Lord Randyll Tarly had a short, bristly grey beard and a reputation for blunt speech. “No disrespect to you, Lady Stark, but it would have been more seemly had Lord Robb come to pay homage to the king himself, rather than hiding behind his mother’s skirts.”
“King Robb is warring, my lord,” Catelyn replied with icy courtesy, “not playing at tourney.”
Renly grinned. “Go softly, Lord Randyll, I fear you’re overmatched.”
It’s always fun to come across new things on a re-read, and in this case I noticed for the first time that Renly was genuinely surprised to encounter Catelyn Stark, and in general doesn’t seem to have had a plan for how to deal with the Starks (which honestly fits in well with later statements, more of which in a bit). This lack of preparation enhances the difficulty of mutual recognition – on the one hand, Renly’s primary objective here is to get the Starks to declare for him and recognize his status as king; on the other hand, repeatedly insulting the King in the North would only alienate two of the Seven Kingdoms. Hence why Renly himself stays back from the dispute, so that he can test how committed the Starks are to independence without committing himself personally.
However, given the fact that the Starks are the principal victim of Renly’s enemy, there is a need to appear sympathetic to the Starks. Likewise, the same rules of chivalry that won him the support of the southrons means that he can’t publicly scorn a highborn lady, especially a recent widow. Contra to Lord Randyll Tarly’s peevish complaints, there’s an advantage to Catelyn serving as Robb’s ambassadors:
“You are most welcome here, Lady Stark,” the girl said, all soft courtesy. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“You are kind, said Catelyn.
“My lady, I swear to you, I will see that the Lannisters answer for your husband’s murder,” the king declared. “When I take King’s Landing, I’ll send you Cersei’s head.”
And will that bring my Ned back to me? she thought. “It will be enough to know that justice has been done, my lord.”
As we saw with Ser Duncan the Tall in Hedge Knight, justice has an important symbolic role in chivalry. As Kings Maegor, Aegon IV, and Aerys II found out to their loss, having a reputation as an unjust king increases resistance from the nobility who fear royal injustice being used against them – although as Aegon V found out, what the nobility consider to be justice and the smallfolk consider to be justice are not the same thing. However, punishing the murder of a great lord on behalf of a grieving widow doesn’t challenge the position of the nobility in the same way that Aegon V’s reforms do, so Renly can afford to promise to do something that he was going to do anyway.
In addition to these factors, Renly needs the Starks on-side militarily:“Well said, my lady..tell me, when does your son mean to march against Harrenhal?” Until she knew whether this king was friend or foe, Catelyn was not about to reveal the least part of Robb’s dispositions. “I do not sit on my son’s war councils, my lord.” While I still believe that Renly’s go-slow strategy was incredibly risky, it was done in an unreflexive or unthinking fashion. Clearly, part of Renly’s strategy was for Robb Stark to act as his offensive lineman, preventing Tywin from coming to the defense of King’s Landing so that Renly can take the Iron Throne with a minimum of effort. It’s a rather optimistic strategy that assumes that everyone else will do exactly what’s in Renly’s interest, as seems to be rather typical for Renly. But it at least shows that he’s thinking about the world around him.
As a result of all of these factors, Renly makes an offer to Robb:
“If your son supports me as his father supported Robert, he’ll not find me ungenerous. I will gladly confirm him in all his lands, titles, and honors. He can rule in Winterfell as he pleases. He can even go on calling himself King in the North if he likes, so long as he bends the knee and does me homage as his overlord. King is only a word, but fealty, loyalty, service…those I must have.”
“And if he will not give them to you, my lord?”
“I mean to be king, my lady, and not of a broken kingdom. I cannot say it plainer than that. Three hundred years ago, a Stark king knelt to Aegon the Dragon, when he saw he could not hope to prevail. That was wisdom. Your son must be wise as well. Once he joins me, this war is good as done.”
This offer is extremely tricky because of its judicious phrasing. What does it mean that Robb will be confirmed “in all his lands, titles, and honors“? Does this include the titles and lands associated with “King of the Trident” or “Warden of the Southern Marches” – either of which Robb could claim by right of conquest and right of acclamation? If it does, then Renly is offering Robb a genuinely valuable opportunity to cash out his winnings while he’s ahead, preserving the gains of his Riverlands campaigns, while also getting a permanent solution to the problem of how to deal with the Iron Throne. If it doesn’t, then Renly is essentially requiring Robb’s submission not only for nothing, but at a significant cost with little value in return.
This is made more confusing by the fact that Renly clearly wants Robb’s military aid. Renly emphasizes “fealty” and “service” – two terms which in a feudal society mean providing your own and your bannermen’s soldiers to your liege lord’s army – and states that “once he joins me, this war is as good as done.” After all, Robb has approximately 40,000 seasoned soldiers, whereas Renly’s army is green, and Robb also has proven generals, whereas Renly only has Randyll Tarly and a lot of highborn amateurs.
Further complicating this question is what Renly means when he says that “He can even go on calling himself King in the North” and “can rule in Winterfell as he pleases.” Is this a mere formality, a matter of empty titles, or is Renly offering what I call “The Dornish Option“? After all, there is precedent that states that titles above that of Lord Paramount bring with them substantial rights and powers: “the autonomy to maintain their own laws, the right to assess and gather the taxes due to the Iron Thron with only irregular oversight from the the Red Keep, and other such matters.” Given the already fairly de-centralized nature of the Westerosi monarchy, this would essentially mean Robb would be King in the North in fact as well as in name. Renly asks for fealty and service, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as the current relationship between a Lord Paramount and the King on the Iron Throne. The Kings of England were for much of the Middle Ages technically vassals of the Kings of France due to their landholdings in Normandy et al., but were still considered sovereign in their own right as long as they were in their English territories. And as French Kings for the better part of four hundred years found out, getting them to act like vassals even when they were in France was a heavy lift.
The question here is whether Renly’s offer is a sufficient change from the status quo ante bellum that Robb can sell a settlement to his men as a satisfying win condition. Revenge on the Lannisters, plus overlordship of the Riverlands, plus greater autonomy might well be enough to satisfy the political community of the North, minus irreconcilables like the Karstarks. Anything short of that might not be sufficient.
A final note: one of the interesting things I noted for the first time in this chapter is that Catelyn catches up with Renly on his last night in Bitterbridge: “…I would be honored if you would share our meat and mead at the feast Lord Caswell is giving us tonight. A farewell feast. I fear his lordship is eager to see the heels of my hungry horde.” Keep an eye on that for the What If? section.
Brienne the Beauty
Before I move on to an extended riff on ASOIAF military numbers, I want to take a quick break to talk about the introduction of Brienne of Tarth and the thematic role she plays here. Overall, Brienne’s presence in this chapter is a commentary on chivalry as it’s understood in the south. And as we’ll find out in AFFC, despite Brienne being a lady, the knights of Renly’s army have acted entirely without the honor and gallantry that Renly showed toward her. Moreover, just as is the case with Ser Duncan the Tall, it is the outsider, the outcast, the non-knight who actually exemplifies the ideal of true knighthood. Brienne is not a knight, cannot be a knight, and yet she’s the only one on the tourney field or in Renly’s whole army of shallow, inconsistent and eager to turncloak, gloryhounds who follows Renly out of pure selfless devotion, who takes up arms in defense of women and children, and who goes toe-to-toe with the all-too-human monsters plaguing the smallfolk while the rest of the realm continues to focus on the game of thrones:
A few voices hailed him with cries of “Tarth!” and, oddly, “A Beauty! A Beauty!” but most were silent…
“…who is this man, and why do they mislike him so?”
Ser Colen frowned. “Because he is no man, my lady. That’s Brienne of Tarth, daughter to Lord Selwyn the Evenstar.”
“Daughter?” Catelyn was horrified.
“Brienne the Beauty, they name her…though not to her face, lest they be called upon to defend those words with their bodies…”
Beauty, they called her…mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel’s nest of dirty straw, and her face…Brienne’s eyes were large and very blue, a young girl’s eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest…her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and grow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn’s heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?
“Wars will make them old,” Cat said, “as it did us…I pity them.”
“Why?” Lord Rowan asked her. “Look at them. They’re young and strong, full of life and laughter. And lust, aye, more lust than they know what to do with. There will be many a bastard bred this night, I promise you. Why pity?”
“Because it will not last,” Catelyn answered, sadly. “Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”
“Lady Catelyn, you are wrong.” Brienne regarded her with eyes as blue as her armor. “Winter will never come for the likes of us. Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it’s always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, are maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.”
Two things to note here: first, it’s vitally important to her role in the story that Brienne be a romantic, a true believer in the illusion that Renly is selling to the realm, because without that romanticism her suffering would be mere brutality for brutality’s sake. As I’ve argued, GRRM remains at core something of a romantic, but a romantic in an existentialist vein, someone who is willing to see the gaps between the ideal and the reality clearly but who holds to the importance of the ideal regardless. The point of Brienne’s suffering, therefore, is not to argue that there is nothing but suffering (black and grey morality), but rather to intensify the lowest of the lows to justify and earn the highest of the highs. Fair warning: before we get into the Brienne storyline, I highly recommend reading Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, because I’m going to be coming back to it a lot.
Second, I find it fascinating that, given her central importance to Brienne’s storyline, how off-putting Catelyn’s initial reaction to Brienne is. Rather than reacting as a modern 21st century woman might with some sentiment of sisterhood and solidarity, Catelyn is horrified and then pities Brienne. I bring this up not to condemn Catelyn Stark as some kind of monster – honestly, the number of threads I’ve seen recently accusing her of being an emotional abuser is astonishing – but to say that she’s a woman of her age and her culture. Apart from Sansa, and that’s not an accident, Catelyn is one of the most comfortable in the role that her gender and her class has placed her in of any of the main characters (leaving aside the Tyrell ladies). Not that she never has moments where she bristles at a sexist comment by one of Robb’s bannermen or hates being sidelined in moments of crisis, but she can perform femininity (whereas Brienne and early period Arya can’t, and Asha just chooses not to) without going crazy (like Cersei or Lysa). At the same time, there’s also an interesting thematic conflict, as Catelyn takes up the role of the cynic who challenges Brienne’s idealism, which foreshadows the more…strenuous way that Catelyn will challenge Brienne’s commitment to her beliefs. It’s not an accident that GRRM throws in the line “the face of a drowned woman…can you drown in grief?” into this chapter, a full book before the Scarlet Rehearsal Dinner – there is a resonance at work.
The War of Five Kings: The Numbers Game
While the key event of Catelyn II is the meeting between Catelyn and Renly, I would argue that the main character of this chapter is actually the army of the Southron Alliance:
Thousands of cookfires filled the air with a pale smoky haze. The horse lines stretched out over leagues. A forest had surely been felled to make the tall staffs that held the banners. Great siege engines lined the grassy verge of the roseroad, mangonels and trebuchets and rolling rams mounted on wheels taller than a man on horseback. The steel points of pikes flamed red with sunlight, as if already blooded, while the pavilions of the knights and high lords sprouted from the grass like silken mushrooms. She saw men with spears and men with swords, men in steel caps and mail shirts, camp followers strutting their charms, archers fletching arrows, teamsters driving wagons, swineherds driving pigs, pages running messages, squires honing swords, knights riding palfreys, grooms leading ill-tempered destriers….near all the chivalry of the south had come to Renly’s call, it seemed. The golden rose of Highgarden was seen everywhere: sewn on the right breast of armsmen and servants, flapping and fluttering from the green silk banners that adorned lance and and pike, painted upon the shields hung outside the pavilions of the sons and brothers and cousins and uncles of House Tyrell. As well Catelyn spied the fox-and-flowers of House Florent, Fossoway apples red and green, Lord Tarly’s striding hunstman, oak leaves for Oakheart, cranes for Crane, a cloud of black-and-orange butterflies for the Mullendores.
Across the Mander, the storm lords had raised their standards – Renly’s own bannermen, sworn to House Baratheon and Storm’s End. Catelyn recognized Bryce Caron’s nightingales, the Penrose quills, and Lord Estermont’s sea turtle.
Credit where credit’s due, GRRM can write armies better than almost anyone out there, the way in which they form a microcosm of the larger society but at the same time begin to act as a colonial (in the biological, rather than political sense) organism. And this is especially the case because Renly’s army represents the South in all its glory and its folly. To count Renly’s political supporters, you need only look to the banners – from the Reach, House Tyrell is here in force, with “sons and brothers and cousins and uncles,” (possibly not a wise move if a Field of Fire should come again), as are the principal houses Florent, Fossoway (both branches), Oakheart, Crane, Tarly, Rowan, and Mullendore (although House Mullendore is also a vassal to the Hightowers, more of which in a second). And while Catelyn’s knowledge of heraldry doesn’t extend down to the minor Houses, later in the chapter we get mentions of Houses Willum and Varner. From the Stormlands, we have the Carons, the Penroses, and the Estermonts, and the Tarths and Morrigans also get a mention.
However, a keen-eyed observer must look past the surface, especially since Renly is skilled at creating illusions to cover reality and a habit of letting his optimism sway his better judgement. While the political heart of the Reach is undeniably present at Bitterbridge, there are some interesting omissions: while Renly will claim the support of the Hightowers, only the Cuys, Beesburys, and Mullendores actually have empirical verification – the Bulwers and Costaynes don’t show up. More importantly, none of Lord Leyton Hightower’s sons or soldiers carry the banner of the tower argent to Bitterbridge, Storm’s End, or Blackwater Bay, and Oldtown manages to hold off the Ironborn by itself – which to me suggests that the Hightowers offered merely token support, and sent only a token force from a few of their bannermen and none of their own forces. Equally importantly, the Redwynes definitively have not joined Renly, due to Ser Horas and Ser Hobber being taken hostage in King’s Landing.
So the two most important lesser Houses of the Reach are not present in Renly’s army. Of the other significant lesser houses (and I’m only going to count houses with named holdfasts), there’s some substantial omissions as well: the Vrywels (principal house) of Darkdell, the Appletons of Appleton, Ashfords of Ashford, the Chesters, Serrys, Grimms, and Hewetts of the Shield Islands, the Cordwayners of Hammerhal, the Gracefords of Holyhall, Merryweathers of Longtable, and the Peakes of Starpike. Likewise, Renly will claim the support of the Caswells, Shermers, Dunns, Footlys, and Blackbars, but none of them appear in Renly’s army.
The Stormlands are also an interesting case, and perhaps a sign that Renly doesn’t have as much support in his own province as he would like people to think he does (and a sign of the ongoing caution we saw in the Prologue/Davos I). While Renly has the support of the Carons, Penroses, Estermonts, Tarths, Morrigans, and Errols, and claims the support of the Selmys later on, the Trants (principle house) of Gallowsgrey back Joffrey, the Dondarrions (principle house) back the Brotherhood Without Banners, and the Bucklers of Bronzegate, Cafferens of Fawton, Fells of Fellwood, Grandisons of Grandview, Mertyns of Mistwood, Peasburys of Puddingfield, Rogers of Amberly, Staedmons of Broad Arch, and the Wyldes of Rain House are no-shows, and the Swanns of Stonehelm split.
I calculate that Renly has the support of 12-17 (depending on whether you count the 5 houses other than the Hightowers who Renly claims but don’t show up) out of 28 significant Houses of the Reach, or roughly 43-61%. Now, he’s certainly helped by the fact that the houses are not equal in size and he definitely has the support of most of the big ones, but it’s significant. Even more significant is the fact that Renly only seems to have the support of 7 out of 19 (or 37%) of his own bannermen, although he also has his own House behind him. This matters for several reasons: firstly, as I’ll discuss in a moment, it complicates the question of what the military strengths of the Reach and Stormlands are, especially in the wake of the War of Five Kings; secondly, it illustrates how successfully Renly and Mace have mobilized their respective vassals; and thirdly, I think it shows an underlying shakiness to Renly’s bid for power that helps to explain why his coalition falls apart so easily in the aftermath of Catelyn IV.
Regardless, what is certain is that Renly definitely outnumbers both Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister by at least 2:1. I say at least because the numbers get really complicated in Catelyn II:
“Count them if you like, my lady…you will still be counting when dawn breaks in the east. How many fires burn around Riverrun tonight, I wonder?…I’m told your son crossed the Neck with twenty thousand swords…now that the lords of the Trident are with him, perhaps he commands forty thousand.”
No, she thought, not near so many, we have lost men in battle, and others to the harvest.
“I have twice that number here,” Renly said, “and this is only part of my strength. Mace Tyrell remains at Highgarden with another ten thousand, I have a strong garrison holding Storm’s End…”
Let’s begin with the Riverlands, which have always been a tricky area, given that their armies are around half the size they should be, and even if you think that’s a function of poor political mobilization, shouldn’t those men have been showing up in defense of their own homes during Tywin’s marches or fighting off the reavers? Regardless, something strange happens here – by Catelyn’s own admission, the Riverlords at present would add up to around 20,000 men (in addition to the roughly 3-4,000 men who were lost at the Golden Tooth and First Riverrun) when Edmure lets them go, but when Edmure calls for all hands on deck at the Battle of the Fords, only 11,000 show up and never show up later. I highly doubt that the roughly 9,000 men who go missing were killed off by 900 reavers, but it’s possible that GRRM is leaving space for a loyalist rising of the Riverlands in the wake of the Second Red Wedding that seems to be brewing at the end of AFFC/ADWD.
But there’s also some issues with Renly’s own forces. Renly cites that he has 80,000 men here and another 10,000 at Highgarden. However, of the 20,000 cavalry that Renly takes to Storm’s End, the 16,000 or so who switch to Stannis after Renly’s death are mostly Stormlords (with the exception of the Florents and Fossoways). But there’s no way that the Reach, the heart of chivalry, only fields 4,000 knights, so where are the missing cavalry? Well one possibility is that they make up the 10,000 men at Highgarden, although it’s a bit odd that you would keep so much of your heavy cavalry out of the fight. Another possibility is that a large chunk of the Reach’s cavalry is with the 39-57% of the Reach Houses who aren’t in Renly’s army. On the other hand, this raises the question – where are the Stormlands foot? Did Renly’s followers send no infantry with him?
I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions, although with the folks working on the Westeros Military Numbers Project, I hope to get some of them soon. What I can say is that this suggests that there are at least 10,000 and more like 30,000 Reachermen who have managed to stay out of the war (minus losses in the Shield Isles), and that the Stormlands has around 24,000 men who’ve not yet had to fight along with the ~16,000 of Stannis’ army who either turned cloak or bent the knee at Blackwater Bay. This could be very significant for the future when it comes to the Ironborn’s attack on the Reach or “Aegon’s” ability to recruit men in the Stormlands on his way to King’s Landing and his destiny.
This recap is running long and I have a few more chapters to flesh this out, but I thought this might be a good time to introduce Renly Baratheon’s historical counterpart, one George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, third son of Richard, Duke of York. George was handsome, rich, often charming, and had splendid style – and that’s about all the positive things you could say about a man who developed an entirely deserved reputation in his lifetime as treacherous, vaccilating, cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, and weak.
Despite the fact that his brother, King Edward IV, had lavished him with honors – Duke of Clarence and Knight of the Garter and the Bath when he was only twelve, and the position of Lord Lieutenant in Ireland – George never knew how to be content. Against his brother’s wishes, George married Isabelle Neville, the daughter of the Kingmaker, and thus fell into the orbit of the Earl of Warwick. George eagerly joined in Warwick’s plan to oust Edward IV through a series of false-flag rebellions, and fought against his brother at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in 1469. Now that Edward was their prisoner, Warwick and George planned to have Edward removed as king by Parliament, by claiming that Edward and George’s mother had cuckolded their father, making George the oldest rightful heir to the throne. How exactly they planned to persuade Parliament that George’s mother was unfaithful only once is not clear.
Needless to say, Parliament didn’t bite and the two conspirators were eventually forced into letting Edward go, at which point they promptly had to flee the country and escape to France, where Warwick inked an alliance with Margaret d’Anjou the leader of the Lancastrians. While the deal still made George next in line to be king after Prince Edward of Lancaster, George was not happy that his father-in-law was no longer pushing for him to be king, and had married Anne Neville to Prince Edward. So he betrayed him too, and ran back to Edward, who forgave him somehow.
In return for all but literally stabbing his father-in-law in the back, George was rewarded with the title of Earl of Warwick after the Kingmaker died at the Battle of Barnet. George made sure to get back in his brother’s good graces by making sure that his brother-in-law Prince Edward of Lancaster was executed on the spot at the Battle of Tewksbury, but before long he was quarreling with his brother Richard of Gloucester (who having married Anne Neville now claimed half the lands of the Earl of Warwick).
More fun next Catelyn chapter!
To me, there are a few hypotheticals that have merit in this chapter:
- Brienne doesn’t win the Tourney? I want to get this one out of the way quickly, because Brienne’s entire storyline doesn’t work if she doesn’t win the tourney and becomes Renly’s Blue Rainbow Guard (btw, while I know from a Watsonian standpoint that the Rainbow Guard is meant as a sop to the Faith, I’ve always wondered why no one’s ever done a Sentai version of the Rainbow Guard). But it’s interesting to see how much changes – if Brienne doesn’t win, she doesn’t become Renly’s bodyguard and thus escapes blame from Renly’s murder. This leaves her in a difficult position, as a Stormlander who ought to bend the knee to Stannis as the unquestioned head of House Baratheon but who probably would still blame Stannis for Renly’s death – chances are, she leaves with Loras and fights at Blackwater in the Tyrell army. At the same time, this likely butterflies away Jaime Lannister’s “escape” and everything that comes with it, from Jaime’s maiming to their relationship to the ramifications down the road with her quest and Lady Stoneheart’s revenge. Whether that also butterflies away the Red Wedding, I’m not sure.
- Renly and Catelyn sign a deal at Bitterbridge? This is a fascinating little hypothetical, and one of the many different scenarios that potentially could change everything for the Stark cause. If the Tyrells are already committed to a Stark alliance when Renly dies, it’s possible they might turn to the King in the North, hoping to get Margaery wed to Robb (if Robb was ruthless enough to be more efficient in his oathbreaking link) or perhaps to Edmure Tully. In this scenario, it’s hard to imagine Tywin not being utterly crushed by an army that dwarfs his own, and King’s Landing falling to Stannis, wiping out the Lannister cause. At that point, what happens is unclear: would Robb be forced by geopolitics to seize the Iron Throne as a way to unite his now-disjointed coalition? Or would Robb raise up Mace as King of the Reach, forever fracturing the Seven Kingdoms? One thing’s for certain, with the Redwyne fleet on his side, the Ironborn are about to be crushed as never before.
- On the other hand, all of that is a bit optimistic. Mace is a man who never misses the chance to take the easy way out, so it’s quite possible that he’d simply forget his previous commitment in favor of marrying Margaery to Joffrey on the grounds that a king in the hand is worth two in the North. However, it’s quite possible that in that scenario, a marriage alliance between Sansa and Willas or the like might give the Tyrells enough of an interest in the Starks staying around that the Tyrells might force some kind of a truce after the Blackwater, acting as the “swing vote” in the Game of Thrones. What that would look like, I don’t know.
- Renly left Bitterbridge early or the messenger gets there late? This one gets really complex. One of the things I noticed from this re-read is that Renly almost leaves Bitterbridge before the messenger announcing Stannis’ siege of Storm’s End arrives. Potentially, Renly might pick up some speed and outrun this messenger all the way to King’s Landing. Then things get really interesting: could Renly afford to abandon a siege of the capitol once established – he might think that claiming the Iron Throne is worth the risk and that Storm’s End won’t fall in time. In that case, you might get a weird scenario where both Storm’s End and King’s Landing falls, with Renly as King in King’s Landing, Stannis as King in Storm’s End hoovering up the other half of the Stormlords, and Robb and Tywin standing awkwardly on the sidelines figuring out what to do.
Book vs. Show:
Not all changes from the book to HBO’s Game of Thrones involve cutting material or diverging from the plot of the books – and the case of Renly, Loras, and Margaery’s plot is a good example of this. As I’ve said earlier, while I like Gethin Anthony’s work, I feel that something was lost by the decision not to cast someone who had the build of a young Robert. On the other hand, something rather incredible is gained when we get to go inside Renly’s tent and see the complicated emotional and sexual dynamics of his relationship with Loras and Margaery, and how Renly struggles with the expectations that his own image-making has imposed upon him, something that Gethin Anthony does brilliantly.
While Finn Jones was badly served by Seasons 3 and 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, he’s given a lot more to do in this season – we see both a loving relationship between him and Renly and a relationship that’s under strain by the reality is now married to his sister, we see him grieve for his lover and his king (more on that in future recaps), and we see him put on Renly’s armor and save the day. It’s disappointing then, that for the last two years, he’s been largely relegated to an extended gay joke. My hope is that, now that Cersei has risen to power with the deaht of Tywin, in Season 5 we will see Finn Jones join the Kingsguard, attempt to protect his sister and mentor his new king, and try to save his homeland by taking on a dangerous assault on Dragonstone, a much meatier role. My fear is that Loras is going to be thrust into a George Boleyn role and nothing else, which would be a waste.
But the real revelation here was Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell. I have to stop myself from gushing at great length here, but it’s undeniable that Dormer is a revelation as Margaery, bringing a depth and complexity and interiority above all to a character that in the books is a virtual cipher all the way up to the very end of A Feast For Crows. Dormer’s Margaery is a complex woman who combines political calculation with a genuine (although cautious) desire to do good, who transcends the usual “femme fatale” cliches with an insightful and often compassionate understanding of human sexuality and psychology. And I honestly don’t think any other actress could have pulled it off.
Ok, stopping myself there.