“She thought she glimpsed movement, but when she turned her head, it was only the king’s shadow shifting against the silken walls. She heard Renly begin a jest, his shadow moving, lifting its sword, black on green, candles guttering, shivering, something was queer, wrong, and then she saw Renly’s sword was still in its scabbard, sheathed still, but the shadowsword…the steel of his gorget parted like cheesecloth beneath the shadow of a blade that was not there.”
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.
If the death of Ned Stark is the major shock of A Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding is the major shock of A Storm of Swords (although I would argue it’s not the climax of the novel), I think Catelyn IV is the major shock of A Clash of Kings. It’s a completely unexpected turning point, altering the entire course of the War of Five Kings (a subject I’ll be addressing in detail in Davos II), made more unexpected by the fact that GRRM carefully avoids all forms of foreshadowing.
A Sidenote About Theology
Before we plunge into the meat of the chapter, I did find Catelyn’s rumination on the Faith of the Seven to be an interesting little bit of world-building:
God is one, Septon Osmynd had taught her when she was a girl, with seven aspects, as the sept is a single building with seven walls…
The Father was bearded, as ever. The Mother smiled, loving and protective. The Warrior had his sword…the Smith his hammer. The Maid was beautiful, the Crone wizened and wise. And the seventh face…the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable…
“Each of the Seven embodies all of the Seven,” Septon Osmynd had told her once. There was as much beauty in the Crone as in the Maiden, and the Mother could be fiercer than the Warrior when her children were in danger.
Here, we learn that the Faith of the Seven – at least as far as it goes with the religious education of the elites – goes in for a version of consubstantiality/hypo-stasis, in which multiple entities are seen as elements of the same being (with the most obvious historical parallel here being to the Trinity in Christian doctrine, which became a dominant philosophy within the Catholic Church although not without enormous controversy during the first four centuries of early Christianity). This is further emphasized by the invocation of the Stranger as a subject of sacred mystery through the repeated pairings of incompatible characteristics.
What’s less clear is the extent to which the smallfolk – who make up the overwhelming majority of the Faith’s congregants see their faith as monotheistic versus polytheistic. Given that none of the prayers or other religious invocations we see in this chapter or any other refer to a general God versus the specific Gods of the Seven, I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.
At the same time it’s rather interesting that this is how George R.R Martin opens this chapter, given that the chapter will end with a shocking demonstration of supernatural power (which Melisandre will attribute to R’hllor), when the Faith of the Seven is the one religion in Westeros that has never shown supernatural power. Not sure what to make of that just yet.
Catelyn’s Conclusion and Her Offer
One of the things I love about this chapter is that we really see Catelyn at her best as a political thinker. For all that her political moves get reduced down to capturing Tyrion and then letting Jaime go, it’s impressive to see how quickly Catelyn puts the pieces together after being confronted with Stannis’ theory:
Ned must have known, and Lord Arryn before him. Small wonder that the queen had killed them both. Would I do any less for my own? Catelyn clenched her hands, feeling the tightness in her scarred fingers where the assassin’s steel had cut to the bone as she fought to save her son. “Bran knows too,” she whispered, lowering her head. Gods be good, he must have seen something, heard something, that was why they tried to kill him in his bed.
“The Lannisters tried to kill my son Bran. A thousand times I have asked myself why. Your brother gave me my answer. There was a hunt the day he fell. Robert and Ned and most of the other men rode out after boar, but Jaime Lannister remained at Winterfell, as did the queen.”
“So you believe the boy caught them at their incest…”
While Catelyn doesn’t get everything right – like Ned and Stannis, she believes that Jon Arryn’s death was caused by the Lannisters, as there’s no evidence of Littlefinger’s hand in the deaths of the last two hands for her to latch onto – it does make you wonder what might have happened if it had been Catelyn doing the investigation in AGOT while Ned Stark went to prep the North for a civil war.
At the same time, I think it’s an important reality check for how we should look at Catelyn and Renly’s characters, because there’s a lot we can learn from how people react to sudden and unexpected information. Catelyn’s reaction to her revelation is to turn on a time and try to reinvent the entire Stark political and diplomatic agenda; Renly, following his behavior in the last Catelyn chapter, decides to discount this information entirely because it confirms an inconvenient truth. Which should throw some cold water on the “Renly would have been a great king” idea.
For more on this point, let’s turn to Catelyn’s proposal to bring the issue of the succession to a Great Council and put the crown to a vote, short-circuiting the War of Five Kings:
“Robb will set aside his crown if you and your brother will do the same,” she said, hoping it was true. She would make it true if she must; Robb would listen to her, even his lords would not. “Let the three of you call for a Great Council, such as the Realm has not seen for a hundred years. We will send to Winterfell, so Bran may tell his tale and all men may know the Lannisters for the true usurpers. Let the assembled lords of the Seven Kingdoms choose who shall rule them.”
It’s an ambitious proposal on Catelyn’s part – it would require Robb and the lords of the North and the Riverlands to back down from their call for independence, and it’s unclear whether the currently neutral Vale and Dorne would participate, let alone the Lannister-controlled Westerlands and Crownlands or the rebellious Iron Islands. Moreover, this would be a huge leap forward for Great Councils – the Councils have traditionally had the authority to decide the succession, but they’ve never claimed the right to decide outright who the next king would be outside of the ruling dynasty. This would be a huge step towards an elective monarchy, and Renly recognizes that.
On the other hand, if the three Kings in question did put their kingdoms into the pot, so to speak, it would be an open signal to the rest of Westeros that whoever won the vote at the Great Council would have the allegiance of four Great Houses, which was decisive enough to win the last civil war. That fact alone might bring the stragglers into the discussion, or at the very least help bring the War of Five Kings to a swift conclusion.
And that what makes Renly’s response so important: “tell me, my lady, do direwolves vote on who should lead the pack?…the time for talk is done. Now we see who is stronger.” Unlike in the show where Renly dies offering an olive branch to the Starks – which lends its own version of tragedy to the event – here Renly goes out deliberately shutting down the idea of any kind of resolution to the War of Five Kings short of absolute victory, which makes him more of a warmonger than he’s remembered as. What makes his response even worse is that, with the Reach and the Stormlands behind him (or at least the better part of both of those), and his own personal charisma, Renly stood a good chance of winning that vote outright. Instead, he chooses violence – this isn’t the action of a “better” king, it’s the actions of a thug with good P.R. Even King Robert, with all his many faults, understood the legitimacy of the support of the Great Houses of Westeros.
Renly’s Battle Plan:
It doesn’t get any better when you see what Renly was rejecting Catelyn’s offer in favor of:
“…our battles are well drawn up. Why wait for daybreak? Sound the advance.”
“And have it said that I won by treachery, with an unchivalrous attack? Dawn was the chosen hour.”
“Chosen by Stannis,” Randyll Tarly pointed out. “He’d have us charge into the teeth of the rising sun. We’ll be half-blind.”
“Only until first shock,” Renly said confidently. “Ser Loras will break them, and after that it will be chaos…when my brother falls, see that no insult is done to his corpse. He is my own blood, I will not have his head paraded about on a spear.”
I’ll discuss the battle-that-might-have been in more detail in the What If? section, but needless to say, ignoring Randyll Tarly’s advice about the terrain, gambling everything on the success of a cavalry charge by a mere portion of his army, and “chaos” is not good military tactics.
However, I think this scene has ramifications for Renly’s character, because this is the moment where the King in Highgarden is struck down by a shadow-assassin. One of the reasons why I’ve never gotten on board the Stannis-hater train is that it’s always seemed to me that, even if we assume Stannis ordered the death of his brother, at the very worst this seems like a case of pre-emptive self-defense. As I’ve suggested in the previous Catelyn chapter Renly is ordering the execution of his brother, although without stating it explicitly – which makes him an attempted kinslayer at the very least.
While I’ll discuss the whole question of Stannis and intentionality in Davos II, I’ve never understood why it’s somehow more moral to kill someone with 20,000 cavalry as opposed to a single shadow-assassin, any more than I’ve ever understood how a drone strike is morally different from a cruise missile or a bombing run or an infantry battalion. Unless we’re making an argument that this form of magic – apart from all other forms of magic in ASOIAF – is somehow ontologically evil, it seems motivated by nothing more than irrational fear and prejudice.
Robar the Witness
In the aftermath of Renly’s assassination, Catelyn’s reaction is interesting. It’s not perfect – Catelyn is conscious of her own state of shock but is unable to overcome it in time to speak before things turn violence – but I had forgotten that in addition to reasoning with Ser Robar Royce, she also manages to disable Ser Emmon Cuy. Regarding the former:
“Robar, no, listen…you do her wrong, it was not her. Help her! Hear me, it was Stannis.” The name was on her lips before she could think how it got there, but as she said it, she knew that it was true. “I swear it, you know me, ti was Stannis killed him….Sorcery, some dark magic, there was a shadow, a shadow…a shadow with a sword, I swear it, I saw. Are you blind, the girl loved him! Help her!…She is innocent, Robar. You have my word, on my husband’s grave and my honor as a Stark!”
“I will hold them,” Ser Robar said.
I don’t think it quite qualifies as a “threefold revelation,” but it is noticeable that in a chapter that’s ultimately all about how sudden violence can disrupt rational discourse, Renly’s death is echoed by Ser Emmon’s jump to conclusions and his fight with Brienne (which prevents Catelyn from explaining the situation or making any alliance with the Tyrells), and Loras’ off-screen murderous rampage, which means that Ser Robar’s message dies with him.
On the other hand, and this is something I’ll discuss more in the What If? section, it’s hard to tell how much his survival would have changed.
Stannis the Villain?
At the end of this chapter, we get Catelyn’s realization of what all of this sudden violence has meant, that it has given Stannis an improbable victory and made him a threat not only to King’s Landing but also to the “heroes,” the Starks:
All the power of Storm’s End and Highgarden, the power that had been Renly’s an hour ago. They belong to Stannis now, she realized, even if they do not know it themselves yet. Where else are they to turn, if not to the last Baratheon? Stannis has won all with a single evil stroke.
I am the rightful king, he had declared, his jaw clenched hard as iron, and your son no less a traitor than my brother here. His day will come as well.
That last part is critical for ensuring that the readers’ sympathies begin to trend against Stannis, who so far has been a rather ambiguous presence, the moment that Stannis acquires an army that makes him a real threat. Indeed, I would argue that in the latter half of ACOK, Stannis becomes the main antagonist – especially as he comes into conflict with a POV protagonist like Tyrion. That’s not the same thing as him being a villain; the purpose of Davos’ POV is to maintain ambiguity about Stannis’ character from now until the sudden reveal in ASOS, when he comes riding to the rescue.
It’s an impressive trick, reminiscent of the way that GRRM pulls a switcheroo on the audience’s expectations about Jaime Lannister by introducing his POV, if something more of a longer con.
There’s not really a good historical topic that’s grabbing me at the moment, so I’ll punt to Davos II, where I’ll address any historical parallels that involve either chapter.
As with other chapters that involve a sudden death, there are a bunch of hypotheticals to consider here, if:
- the battle had had happened? In Catelyn III, I suggested that Stannis might have set up a Crecy-like battle plan, taking advantage of the fact that Renly’s army was all-cavalry and had a pressing need to bring the battle to a conclusion. In this chapter, we learn that Stannis has also set up the battlefield such that Renly’s army would have been charging into the sun, an important advantage in pre-modern combat, and that Renly had absolutely no plan other than to have Loras’ vanguard charge and then “chaos.”
- Thus, I see two options for what could happen here – if Stannis’ army isn’t quite up to par and Renly wins, then Stannis is dead and the Renly train keeps on rolling to King’s Landing. The main question thereafter is how many men Renly loses trying to seize King’s Landing – is it enough that Tywin could make any difference in relieving the capitol, or enough to make the Stark/Tully vs. Baratheon/Tyrell conflict even? Or does Renly march on to victory. On the other hand, if Stannis wins and manages to capture Renly and/or Loras, he might have gained a lot more than 20,000 men if he could parlay Loras’ capture into the Tyrells’ belated support.
- the Great Council had happened? So it seems to me that, assuming for the moment that these are the only Kingdoms who attend, and assuming that the Kingdoms are roughly equivalent in voting power (since we don’t know how apportionment in the Great Council works), you’d start with a 2:2:1 (with 1 being Stannis and the Crownlands) split, where the Starks could have played kingmaker with either faction. On the one hand, Catelyn’s initial mission suggests leaning toward Renly; on the other hand, if Robb and his lords heard and believed Bran’s story (and it’s an open question whether Bran would be able to testify, what with the upcoming Ironborn invasion), I think they’d feel honor-bound to declare for Stannis. Regardless, any of these options would be awful for the Lannisters, who desperately need their enemies to remain divided lest Tywin’s relatively modest army be crushed.
- Robar Royce had lived? Here’s the one where I feel unsure about what would change. The Tyrells aren’t going to ally with Stannis regardless, it’s not clear whether anyone would have believed Ser Robar, etc. It would make a big difference to Bronze Yohn, who’s experienced a surprising amount of tragedy for a minor character. It might make a difference to Brienne, if she’s not arrested in King’s Landing because of Loras. Beyond that, I’m not sure…
Book vs. Show:
To me, the main difference between the book and the show here is a combination of the changing circumstances in which Renly dies, which I’ve already touched on, and the fallout, which eliminates some of the surprise of the Tyrell/Lannister alliance due to Littlefinger’s surprising appearance at Storm’s End (honestly, people need to cool it with the teleportation crack – LF makes some pretty impressive geographical jumps in the books too, so it’s not like the show invented that), and gives Loras a more mellow response to his lover’s death.
More on this in Davos II.