“We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by meeting Lord Tywin in the field.”
“The plan’s a good one…when did Blackwood and Bracken agree about anything?”
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 V is a bit of an odd chapter – on the one hand, it’s something of a beginning to Catelyn’s passive phase, when rather than being a sleuth or a kidnapper or a diplomat, she sits in Riverrun and acts as a rather depressed camerawoman. On the other, it’s a critically important chapter, where the Battle of the Fords gets mapped out – a subject I’ve been meaning to address since I penned my defense of Robb Stark. In fact, the major theme of this essay will be nailing down my argument that Edmure definitely exceeded orders in his command of the Battle of the Fords, and that in so doing forestalled Robb’s strategy (which was not invented out of whole cloth after the fact).
War of the Five Kings: The Western Campaign
In the flip-side of Arya VIII, we start out with the Stark/Tully perspective on the Battle of Oxcross and the subsequent Scouring of the Westerlands:
“His Grace won a great victory at Oxcross. Ser Stafford Lannister is dead, his host scattered…”
“He never took [the Tooth]. He slipped around it in the night. It’s said the direwolf showed him the way, that Grey Wolf of his. The beast sniffed out a goat track that wound down a defile and up along beneath a ridge, a crooked and stony way, yet wide enough for men riding single file. The Lannisters in their watchtowers got not so much a glimpse of them.”
…He went on to tell how the remnants of Ser Stafford’s host had fallen back on Lannisport. Without siege engines there was no way to storm Casterly Rock, so the Young Wolf was paying back the Lannisters in kind for the devastation they’d inflicted on the riverlands. Lords Karstark and Glover were raiding all along the coast, Lady Mormont had captured thousands of cattle and was driving them back toward Riverrun, while the Greatjon had seized the gold mines at Castamere, Nunn’s Deep, and the Pendric Hills…”Nothing’s more like to bring a Lannister running than a threat to his gold.”
To conclude our discussion of the Battle of Oxcross, here’s where we get the explanation for how it came about and what it meant for Robb Stark’s campaign. This information is significant for three reasons:
- Firstly, the role of Grey Wind reinforces the importance of Robb’s direwolf and its mystic connection with the King in the North, which will be central for foreshadowing in ASOS and an important factor in the Red Wedding.
- Secondly, the goat track is clearly intended to put Robb Stark in the company of military prodigies like Daeron I, Alexander the Great (who found a goat path that helped his 300 “men with wings” ascend the Sogdian Rock), and Manius Acilius Glabrio and Cato the Elder at Thermopylae. Which ought to be a hint to people who consider Robb a mere puppet at the end of the Blackfish’s strings that they’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
- Thirdly, it also gives us a sense of Robb’s style as a commander. As with the Whispering Woods and the Battle of the Camps, you see an emphasis on the maintenance of the element of surprise, a preference for lateral thinking and creating a third option rather than accepting Hob’s choice (in this case, either besieging the Gold Tooth or Harrenhal), a gift for cavalry assaults that allows for the complete destruction of the enemy force, and an emphasis on the enemy’s army rather than territory. It’s a potent combination.
Moreover, for the first time, we learn how Robb followed up that initial victory. Having completely removed the threat of an attack from two flanks, and destroyed any effective military opposition, and (in a stroke of fortune) also completely disrupted the Lannisters’ chain of command, Robb engages in a classic chevauchée (with the added bonus that the Lannisters’ communications problems mean that they don’t know that he can’t put Casterly Rock under siege).
This campaign serves many purposes: first and foremost, it’s clearly designed to draw Tywin Lannister out of Harrenhal in defense of his lands. This is why the Greatjon is sent after the West’s gold mines, as opposed to attacking Feastfires or Kayce or Tarbeck Hall or Clegane Hall or Crakehall, because Robb knows that “nothing’s more like to bring a Lannister running than a threat to his gold.” Second, it’s designed to provide badly needed supplies for carrying on the war, given the devastation to the Riverlands: depending on how many thousands of cattle Maege’s raid swept up, Robb could easily feed his army for at least six months; likewise, the seized gold from the Greatjon’s raids could be used to keep soldiers fighting after their normal feudal service, pay for additional supplies and equipment, or to hire mercenaries. Third, it’s a political sop for his Riverlords – given that their fealty is implicitly tied to Robb’s ability to protect them, showing that he can punish the hated Lannisters for attacking and occupying the Riverlands is a great way to maintain his support there.
All of this together adds up to a strong case that Robb’s strategy as discussed in Catelyn II of ASOS was genuine, rather than a post-hoc self-justification. It disrupts the Lannisters’ strategy too neatly, there’s too many textual hints (as above, with “bring a Lannister running“), it fits too well with his prior campaign, and it works too well as tragedy. If Robb Stark was a military prodigy brought down by his upbringing, well-meaning subordinates, and rank treason, that’s a tragedy. If Robb Stark was just a glory-seeking teenager who eloped to Vegas, that’s an asshole getting hit by a bus.
War of the Five Kings: the Battle of the Fords
So let’s talk about the Battle of the Fords, the most consequential off-screen battle of the War of Five Kings, with the possible exception of the massacre at Bitterbridge. As is well-known among ASOIAF fans, the Battle of the Fords is a tactical victory and a strategic defeat, imploding Robb’s western campaign and allowing Tywin Lannister to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I’ll leave it at that for now and discuss it more when I get to Catelyn II of ASOS, and instead focus here on the merits of the battle.
The first question that has to be dealt with is whether Edmure was acting within the scope of his orders – in other words, what does it mean for “Ser Edmure to hold Riverrun and guard [Robb]s] rear“? (Whether those orders were sufficiently clear is a topic I’ll address in Catelyn II) In the first place, it’s clear that Edmure is exceeding the first part of his orders by attempting to hold the entirety of the Red Fork and the Tumblestone:
They forded the Red Fork late the next day, upstream of Riverrun where the river made a wide loop and the waters grew muddy and shallow. The crossing was guarded by a mixed force of archers and pikemen wearing the eagle badge of the Mallisters…they emerged from behind their sharpened stakes…”we’ve planted iron spikes under the water, y’see, and there’s caltrops scattered among them rocks there. It’s the same on all the fords, by your brother’s command.”
“Half a mile from the castle, she passed through a large encampment where the scarlet banner of the Blackwoods waved above the lord’s tent…Catelyn spied a second camp strung out along the bank north of the Tumblestone, familiar standards flapping in the wind – Marq Piper’s dancing maiden, Darry’s plowman, the twining red-and-white snakes of the Paeges.
This is a battle-front stretching around 250 miles (given that we’re talking about all of the fords on both rivers, that means all the way down the Red Fork to the Mummer’s Ford), as opposed to defending the castle itself. Moreover, the text makes it clear that Edmure “thinks to fight here…he means to offer battle to Lord Tywin.” It is beyond clear that Edmure is exceeding his orders to hold Riverrun, intending a much larger conflict – how much larger I’ll explain in a bit.
What about the second half – “guarding his rear“? It’s questionable whether that was actually a part of Edmure’s orders – in Catelyn II of ASOS, the Blackfish states “you were commanded to hold Riverrun, Edmure, no more,” and Robb’s plan hinged on his rear being left open for Tywin to chase, so if the plan existed, it wouldn’t have been part of his orders. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that Robb’s plan didn’t exist, there’s a couple bits of textual evidence from this chapter that calls it into question. When Robb left for the west, Edmure didn’t have the manpower to fulfill that role – as Catelyn says, “you do not have the strength to meet the Lannisters in the field,” and that’s after Edmure has mustered his troops, “her father’s bannermen, lords of the Trident…if they were here again, it could only mean that Edmure had called them back.” Simply put, when Robb was around to give that order, that order would not have made sense.
The nail in the coffin of the argument that Edmure might have plausibly been interpreting the disputed second half of his orders comes from examining the broader aims of Edmure’s battle. Far from only offering battle at the Fords (which was in excess of his orders to begin with), Edmure assumed command of all forces in the Riverlands theater (which is a huge feudal faux pas – Edmure has no authority to issue orders to Roose Bolton or Helman Tallhart, Northern lords in command of Northern troops):
“…I have a plan…Bolton took the ruby ford and the crossroads. He has ten thousand men. I’ve sent word to Helman Tallhart to join him with the garrison Robb left at the Twins-“
“…I’ve commanded [Bolton] to take retake Harrenhal…once the castle falls, Lord Tywin will have no safe retreat. My own levies will defend the fords of Red Fork against his crossing. If he attacks across the river, he’ll end as Rhaegar did when he tried to cross the Trident. If he holds back, he’ll be caught between Riverrun and Harrenhal, and when Robb returns from the west we can finish him for good and all.”
This is not a plan to guard Robb’s rear or Riverrun, this is a plan to win the war – so I think it’s pretty clear that Edmure was wildly exceeding orders. (We will discuss later how clear those orders were, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered, given how determined Edmure was to carry out his plan.) And to give Edmure credit, it’s not a terrible plan. With the “eight thousand foot and three thousand horse” of the Riverlands anchored behind strong defensive positions on river fords that deny the Lannister the advantage of their superior numbers, Edmure is likely to win at the Fords. Moreover, preventing Tywin from retreating to Harrenhal and instead putting two armies roughly his size on both of Tywin’s flanks would likely have lead to a total Lannister defeat, if it hadn’t been for the Tyrells.
So to an extent, it’s not Edmure’s fault that, just like his sister, GRRM has chosen him to be the unwitting agent of his own cause’s destruction. At the same time, my empathy is somewhat tempered by the fact that Edmure is acting out of deeply selfish motives here:
“Lord Tywin is coming-“
“He is making for the west, to defend his own lands. If we close our gates and shelter behind the walls, we can watch him past with safety.”
“This is Tully land,” Edmure declared. “If Tywin Lannister thinks to cross it unbloodied, I mean to teach him a hard lesson.”
The same lesson you taught his son?
As we’ve seen before, Edmure is thinking with his heart rather than his head and is acting to service his ego as much any strategic consideration. Indeed, similar to how Jaime in AFFC overcompensates in terms of cautious due to his embarrasment over his mishandling of the Whispering Woods, Edmure is overcompensating for his defeat at the Golden Tooth, where he acted to defend every inch of “Tully land” and forgot to use his rivers as defensive multipliers. It’s not a terrible idea tactically, but it’s self-defeating strategically – for all that Edmure talks about Tully soil, Catelyn is right that Tywin is trying to leave the Riverlands. Following his orders means Tywin no longer occupies the Riverlands; victory means that the southern Riverlands continues to suffer at Tywin’s hands.
Moreover, there’s an element of feudal politics here that doesn’t look good for Edmure. The heir to Riverrun knows that he will soon inherit the Lord Paramountcy of the Riverlands, but with a terrible reputation – he’s the floppy fish who can’t handle his liquor or his manhood; he gave the orders to the Vances and the Pipers that left thousands dead, the Riverlands conquered, and himself imprisoned. Given that even a canny politician like Hoster had to make war against his own vassals to keep them in line during Robert’s Rebellion, Edmure knows that his influence with his vassals is going to suffer by comparison. A military victory against no less a figure than Tywin Lannister would give him an enormous amount of political credit, especially with the Mallisters, Blackwoods, Pipers, Darrys, Paeges, Vances, and Brackens.
It’s not a very pretty picture.
Edmure Tully as a Man of His Class
At the same time, we shouldn’t be too harsh in our judgement of Edmure Tully. After all, the essence of his character is that he means well, and tries his best, despite the fact that he’s not suited to the position he was born into:
“Who are all these folk?”
“My people,” Edmure answered. “They were afraid.”
Only my sweet brother would crowd all these useless mouths into a castle that might soon be under siege. Catelyn knew that Edmure had a soft heart, sometimes she thought his head was even softer. She loved him for it, yet still…
I’ll never utterly dismiss someone who actually shows some sense of social responsibility to the smallfolk; in a world where noblesse oblige seems barely extant as an attitude among the nobility, Edmure Tully is on the side of the angels. And it’s not really his fault – he’s been educated to be well-meaning, good-hearted, and completely useless. In another time and place, Edmure would have been one of those sons of privilege who were educated on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow who went over the top at Passachendaele or up the cliffs at Gallipoli, not necessarily because he wanted himself and thousands of his men to die, but rather because he couldn’t conceive of failing to do what others expected him to do.
Another key event in this chapter, one that has a strange influence over the larger conflict, is the news of how Tyrion’s plan has fallen out:
Catelyn was shocked. ‘You’ve killed envoys?”
“False envoys,” Edmure declared. “They pledged me their peace and surrendered their weapons, so I allowed them freedom of the castle, and for three nights they ate my meat and drank my mead whilst I talked with Ser Cleos. On the fourth night, they tried to free the Kingslayer.” He pointed up. “That big brute killed two guards with naught but those ham hands of his, caught them by the throats and smashed their skulls together while that skinny lad beside him was opening Lannister’s cell with a bit of wire, gods curse him. The one on the end was some sort of damned mummer. He used my own voice to command that the River Gate be opened. The guardsmen swear to it, Enger and Delp and Long Lew, all three. If you ask me, the man sounded nothing like me, and yet the oafs were raising the portcullis all the same.”
This was the Imp’s work, Catelyn suspected; it stank of the same sort of cunning he had displayed at the Eyrie. Once, she would have named Tyrion the least dangerous of the Lannisters. Now she was not so certain…
“Jaime got hold of a sword, slew Poul Pernford and Ser Desmond’s squire Myles, and wounded Delp so badly that…he’ll soon die as well.”
This attempted prison-break is consequential for several reasons. First, it plays a significant role in encouraging Edmure on his proposed plan for the Battle of the Fords. After all, he just narrowly avoided utter humiliation (look how close Jaime got to getting clean away) – had Jaime successfully escaped, Edmure would add one more item to his list of debacles, losing Robb Stark’s most valuable hostage. With that close a brush with disaster, Edmure would have been even more eager to find something to bolster his reputation.
Second, it establishes quite clearly that the Lannisters are violating taboo and custom routinely – foreshadowing for the Red Wedding. As I’ll discuss in the historical section below, the inviolate nature of envoys was a nigh-universal tradition in the premodern world, but a big part of that custom was founded on the idea that envoys do not act as spies (who get a very different treatment). Note also that the false envoys also break guest-right in addition to their word of honor. And the strange thing about this event is that Catelyn doesn’t seem to remember it later on, when it comes to releasing Jaime. After all, the person who Catelyn is trusting in keeping his word to make the exchange happen, because he swore in open court that he would, was the same man who sent out this peace envoy in open court and then subverted it completely. The basic problem, indeed the great tragedy for the Starks, is not that the war was needlessly being fought, but that in this case the Lannisters were such bad actors that peace may well have been made impossible.
The inviolability of envoys was, historically, one of those major cultural taboos observed throughout the premodern world. In ancient Greece, for example, envoys were considered as guests, and thus under the protection of Zeus Xenios, as any stranger who might come to your door might be Zeus in disguise. (When the Athenians and Spartans molested the envoys of the Persian emperor Xerxes, the destruction of Athens thereafter was considered by some to be the gods’ punishment for this lapse in conduct) The ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are some of the earliest examples of diplomatic immunity, dating back to the 4th millennium BCE. By the Middle Ages, European monarchs used heralds for this task, and the white staff of the herald became a symbol of their inviolability (supposedly a representation of Mercury’s caduceus, again a sign of divine protection).
Perhaps the greatest example of the monumental importance of envoys was the case of the Mongol destruction of the Khwarezmid Empire in the 13th century (if you want a good account of this event, Dan Carlin of Hardcore History is quite good). Genghis Khan had sent an envoy to the Shah, proposing a treaty of friendship and trade, and along with his envoy sent a 500-wagon caravan stuffed with gifts for the Shah. The governor of Otrar had the envoy arrested and seized the caravan under some pretext. Genghis Khan, surprisingly mild in his response, sent a second group of envoys with a letter demanding the release of his envoys. The Shah, in a move that has gone down in history as one of the most rash decisions ever, had one of the envoys beheaded and the rest shaved (a great insult in Mongol culture) and sent back to the Khan. Genghis responded by invading Persia, claiming to be the “flail of God” sent against the Muslims for their breach of taboo.
I don’t really have the space to describe this campaign, but to make a long story short, Genghis Khan’s retaliation for the insult done to his envoys leveled Persia. Otrar was sacked for its role in the humiliation of his envoys; the population of Samarkand (the capitol of the Khwarezmid) was massacred and their severed heads were piled in pyramids on a hill near the city; at the city of Urgench, as many as 1.2 million civilians were executed by hand; the city of Gurjang had its dams broken so that most of the population drowned. At the siege of Nishapur, one of the Khan’s sons-in-law died in the fighting, so the Khan had every living thing in the city executed before the eyes of his son-in-law’s widow, down to the animals.
The moral of the story is: don’t touch an envoy.
There’s a couple interesting hypotheticals in Catelyn V, so let’s jump into them:
- Jaime had escaped? This one has a lot of uncertainty in it. Jaime’s escaping into an active battle-zone, after all. So it’s possible he might be recaptured by the Riverlanders, picked up by the Westermen (in which case Tywin’s going to be very happy indeed), or might die in the fighting. The first is mostly the same as OTL with added embarrassment for Edmure, but the second and third are quite promising.
- If Jaime successfully escapes without being maimed, he never undergoes the forced character growth that his mutilation and captivity at the hands of the Bloody Mummers inflicted on him. He remains the arrogant, blood-thirsty swordsman with a weird combination of superiority complex and resentment at the world for not knowing what he refuses to tell them. This Jaime might well be Cersei’s perfect partner in power, once Tywin’s out of the picture. Gods help us all.
- If Jaime is killed in the fighting, then chances are Tyrion either is sent to the Wall or executed depending on how forgiving Tywin is feeling, or set free by Varys depending on how proactive the Spider is feeling. Needless to say, I don’t think Cersei’s mental state is going to be much improved by this. So imagine Queen Cersei of AFFC, but even worse.
- Nevertheless, one of the interesting consequences of this is that Brienne would likely be at Catelyn’s side during the Red Wedding. Not enough to prevent regicide – and pity Brienne, who has to be present for the deaths of two different kings – but there’s no way Walder Frey leaves that room alive.
- The Battle of the Fords Hadn’t Happened? To begin with, Tywin marches west, and is too far away for the messenger from Bitterbridge to join him. With Mace Tyrell unwilling to march without Tywin’s sign-off and participation, Stannis seizes King’s Landing by storm, taking significant losses in the process – however, without an enemy army nearby to force him into siege, it is likely that both Joffrey and Tommen will die, leaving no male Lannister/Baratheon heir. (It’s possible that some may look to Myrcella, but the Tyrells aren’t going to fight for a Martell King Consort, and Stannis’ position on the Iron Throne will sway a lot of neutrals to his side)
- I expect a battle or two between Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister in the Westerlands, but my guess is that Robb Stark will not only use the terrain to his best advantage, but will also use his all-cavalry force to harry Tywin’s column on the march and wherever possible, attack a portion of Tywin’s army with the whole of his. However, I don’t think that Robb was looking for a final conflict at that point – “a grievous price” isn’t the same thing as capturing or killing Tywin, and Robb was looking to King’s Landing to be the decisive blow – rather, I think his plan was to use the goat path again to come down out of the West, pull his forces together, and then attack an exhausted, ground-down Tywin with an additional 21,000 fresh troops.
- At which point, I think Robb Stark sues for peace with Stannis, as he says in Catelyn II of ASOS. While Stannis would absolutely insist that Robb Stark bend the knee, Robb would be more than willing to do that (since he needs to get to the North in a hurry). My guess is that, in return for the allegiance of the Riverlands and the North (which would double the size of his kingdom), Stannis would have given Robb the Wardenship of the Trident and sent him on his way.
Book vs. Show:
When I talk about the botch of the war effort, this is the point in the story where this kicks in. While I understand that the tight budgets imposed by the Battle of Blackwater prevented the Battle of the Fords from being shown, there’s no reason why (just as Shakespeare did hundreds of years ago to save on production costs) the information about Tywin’s westward march and Edmure’s defense couldn’t have been conveyed through the use of messengers arriving at Robb’s camp, which would have greatly intensified the tension over in King’s Landing, as the literal cavalry would have been heading in the wrong way, making their surprise appearance at the end of Blackwater all that much more shocking.
This would have greatly improved the Starks’ storyline in Season 3 – Robb’s confrontation with Edmure would have had much greater stakes, and the sense of morale loss in Robb’s army would have made much more sense, if they’d seen a chance to win the war slip between their finger at the same time that they’d just lost the Kingslayer and the Freys.