“They shall not cross, Cat,” Edmure scrawled, “Lord Tywin is marching to the southeast. A feint perhaps, or full retreat, it matters not. They shall not cross.”
“But if we are winning, why am I so afraid?”
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 VI is a sleeper hit of a chapter – on first read, it seems to be just another account of Catelyn observing a battle, and for that matter a much less dramatic battle than those she’s seen before. However, on the second read-through, you realize how consequential this chapter is, that course of the War of the Five Kings, and the destiny of Catelyn, Robb, Jaime, Brienne, and many other characters are decided in a completely unexpected fashion.
A Further Note on Edmure
To follow up from last Catelyn chapter, the very opening of the chapter lends even more evidence to my argument that Edmure’s actions at the Battle of the Fords are being driven by ego rather than by practical considerations:
“Tell Father I have gone to make him proud.” Her brother swung up into his saddle, every inch the lord in his bright mail and flowing mud-and-water cloak. A silver trout ornamented the crest of his greathelm, twin to the one painted on his shield.
“He was always proud of you, Edmure. And he loves you fiercely. Believe that.”
“I meant to give him better reason than mere birth.”
Nothing about this exchange speaks to a man who’s simply following orders out of a selfless desire to protect Robb Stark; rather, everything points to someone who’s trying to exorcise some personal demons through victory on the battlefield. After all, as I think Edmure realizes, he’s been something of a privileged man-child, who up until the War of Five Kings never had to shoulder any real responsibilities, and who now faces the daunting prospect of suddenly having to replace his father as Lord Paramount of the Riverlands.
Family, Duty, Honor
At the same time, in the actions of Edmure and the thoughts of Catelyn, I think we can see the damage that Tully family ideology has done, however more subtle that was compared to say, Tywin’s efforts to mold his children into the Lannister legacy. As we’ve seen, Edmure’s insecurities have led him to play up to what he thinks the Lord of Riverrun should be. Here, we see how Catelyn has experienced a similar phenomenon.
“What shall we do now, my lady?”
“Our duty.” Catelyn’s face was drawn as she started across the yard. I have always done my duty, she thought. Perhaps that was why her lord father had always cherished her best of all his children...I gave Brandon my favor to wear, and never comforted Petyr once after he was wounded, nor bid him farewell when Father sent him off. And when Brandon was murdered and Father told me I must wed his brother, I did so gladly, though I never saw Ned’s face until our wedding day. I gave my maidenhood to this solemn stranger and sent him off to his war and his king and the woman who bore him his bastard, because I always did my duty…Osmynd, my father, uncle Brynden, old Maester Kym, they always seemed to know everything, but now there is only me, and it seems I know nothing, not even my duty. How can I do my duty if I do not know where it lies?”
When it comes to how the female characters of ASOIAF have been shaped by the patriarchical system of Westeros, Catelyn sometimes fades into the background compared to characters like Arya or Brienne or Asha who reject outright the limitations placed upon the by their gender, or even compared to characters like Cersei who so loudly rail against the injustices done to them. And while certainly the damage done to Catelyn is less severe than that done to her sister Lysa, we can see that the influence is no less profound. Repeatedly, Catelyn’s choices have been made for her by that system – she sided with Brandon over Petyr because that was what was expected of her, she married a substitute and stood by the marriage even when her husband supposedly cheated on her, and now once again she has to accept the decisions of another Lord Paramount of the Riverlands that could redefine her entire life.
In re-reading this section, I am struck here by the parallels between Catelyn and Jaime. Just as Jaime feels constrained by the contradictory oaths required of a Kingsguard, Catelyn feels as if her entire life has been structured by her duty, but no longer feels that her duty points in a single direction, as now she is both a daughter and sister of House Tully but also a mother of House Stark, and even then she is both the adviser to the King in the North and mother to Arya and Sansa. A sense of her divisions on this topic can be seen in how she reacts to Tyrion’s proposals for peace:
“…she could not even say that Robb was wrong. Arya and Sansa were children. The Kingslayer, alive and free, was as dangerous as any man in the realm…Sansa but not Arya. That might mean anything…they might have her locked safely out of sight. Or they might have killed her.”
I’ll discuss what this means in regards to Tyrion’s peace offer later, but it is interesting to note that, contrary to how she’s often viewed in the fandom, and in contrast to her comments to Robb back in Catelyn I, here she seems genuinely torn between the two perspectives. Once again, we see the ideology of the Tully House in conflict, as the duty she bears to her House(s) and the larger political cause they’ve now come to embody would seem to require her to sacrifice her family.
Following up on the frequent communiques between Riverrun and Storm’s End (a subplot I haven’t always had time to cover, but which is an interesting way for GRRM to prevent that plot thread from dangling while still having Catelyn present to witness the battle), in this chapter Catelyn begins to get closer to the truth about why Edric Storm became such a point of contention during the siege:
“I do not understand why Stannis wanted him so badly.”
“Perhaps he fears the boy’s claim.”
“A bastard’s claim? No, it’s something else…what does this child look like?”
“He is even or eight, comely, with black hair and bright blue eyes. Visitors oft thought him Lord Renly’s own son.”
“And Renly favored Robert…Stannis means to parade his brother’s bastard before the realm, so men might see Robert in his face andd wonder why there is no such likeness in Joffrey.”
“Would that mean so much?”
“Those who favor Stannis will call it proof. Those who support Joffrey will say it means nothing.” Her own children had more Tully about them than Stark…
On the one hand, it’s good to see Catelyn acknowledge that, even in Westeros, some basic aspects of human genetics still applies that demonstrate that inheritance comes from both the father and the mother. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that I agree that the comparison between Edric Storm and the Lannister kids is so inconsequential, any more than I’ve agreed in the past that Stannis’ letter doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, Cersei feared the physical comparison enough to order dozens of babies murdered, and Stannis’ mere accusations were enough to set off a devastating riot that nearly wiped out the royal family.
And as we draw ever so closer to the eventual publication of The Winds of Winter, I fully believe that the truth of Cersei’s incest will come out, so I remain unconvinced that questions of proof and truth ultimately don’t matter.
A Certain Bastard
Oddly, it is at this moment that GRRM sneaks in a sudden mention of Ramsay Snow, which really does seem to come out of nowhere in Catelyn’s stream of consciousness:
Roose Bolton’s bastard had meant less to him than one of his dogs, to judge from the tone of the queer cold letter Edmure had gotten from him not three days past. He had crossed the Trident and was marching on Harrenhal as commanded, he wrote. “A strong castle, and well garrisoned, but His Grace shall have it, if I must kill every living soul within to make it so.” He hoped His Grace would weigh that against the crimes of his bastard son, whom Ser Rodrik Cassel had put to death. “A fate he no doubt earned,” Bolton had written. “Tainted blood is ever treacherous, and Ramsay’s nature was sly, greedy, and cruel. I count myself well rid of him. The trueborn sons my young wife has promised me would never have been safe while he lived.”
There’s really not much of a reason for Catelyn to suddenly recall that, except that (with the fall of Winterfell in the next chapter) Reek is going to take center stage in the unfolding tragedy in the North, and therefore Martin wants us to keep the Bastard of the Dreadfort in our mind.
At the same time, this letter brings up a frequently debated question within the fandom – was Ramsay a loose cannon within the ranks of the Boltons, or was Roose using him as a deniable asset? There’s things that point in both directions. On the one hand, we could say that Ramsay’s actions in the Hornwood Affair are aimed at personally benefiting Ramsay, who as of yet is still an illegitimate child with no rights to lands or titles, as opposed to advancing the interests of House Bolton (indeed, they risk House Bolton being named outlaw). And Roose’s letter brings up a still-salient point – Ramsay is a clear and present danger to Roose’s marriage alliance with the Freys, which he will be relying on to vault to the position of Warden of the North – and indeed, when we see Roose and Ramsay confer in ADWD, the father has a good deal of criticism for his son’s actions.
On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that the Dreadfort’s soldiers would obey an order to attack the castellan of Winterfell, let alone a castellan commanding a much larger army of Northmen, without some sort of orders from Roose himself. And we know that at some point soon, Roose is going to begin the work of orchestrating the Red Wedding, so clearly at some point the decision was made to turn on the Starks – the only question is whether that decision pre- or post-dated the destruction of Winterfell. However, to answer this question, we’re going to have to turn to the next couple Arya chapters.
Tyrion’s Oath, and Tyrion’s Offfer
Before we get to the main event, let’s talk about Catelyn learning the details of Tyrion’s peace offer to the Starks. Given what we know is going to happen in the very next Catelyn chapter, it’s interesting to note how skeptical she’s being in this moment:
Edmure had been right, these were no terms at all, except…”Lannister will exchange Arya and Sansa for her brother?”
“Yes. He sat on the Iron Throne and swore it.”
“Before all the court, my lady. And the gods as well. I said as much to Ser Edmure, but he told me…that his Grace Robb would never consent.”
…”Ser Cleos…you forfeited the protection of your peace banner when your men played us false. Lie to me, and you’ll hang from the walls beside them…I shall ask you once more – did you see my daughters?”
“…I saw Sansa at the court, the day Tyrion told me his terms…”
Sansa, but not Arya. That might mean anything. Arya had always been harder to tame. Perhaps Cersei was reluctant to parade her in open court for fear of what she might say or do. They might have her locked safely out of sight. Or they might have killed her…
…The dwarf is too clever by half…he had no part in Ned’s murder, at the least. And he came to my defense when the clansmen attacked us. If I could trust his word…”He lied…the Lannisters are liars every one, and the dwarf is the worst of them. The killer was armed with his own knife.”
The action that Catelyn is about to take, which I’ll discuss in much greater detail in Catelyn VII, is one she comes in for an enormous amount of criticism for. However, as with seizing Tyrion in AGOT, I’m struck by how much, contrary to the way she portrayed in the fandom, Catelyn really does think through all of the potential downsides. She’s well aware that the Lannisters might not be able (much less willing) to carry out their part of the bargain, and she’s well aware of the fact that they violated the ancient custom of peace envoys. Indeed, one could say that Catelyn is essentially making the argument against her future actions
At the same time, there’s a great irony in that Catelyn deeply distrusts Tyrion for all the wrong reasons – as readers who get to flit between POVs, we know very well that Tyrion had nothing to do with the attempt on Bran’s life. Once again, Tyrion seems to get the blame for the things he doesn’t do, even more so than for the things he does.
Battle of the Fords
And now for the main event, the Battle of the Fords. Now we’ve already discussed the larger strategic implications of Edmure’s actions, but it is interesting to note how GRRM is experimenting here to keep his battles fresh and interesting. As a long-time fan of fantasy and historical fiction, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that, without variation in description, battle sequences can become deadly dull. Indeed, I have an undying love for the work of writers like Dan Abnett, whatever else you might think of their writing, because they can describe battle after battle and make each one stylistically unique and exciting. Here, GRRM does a bit of mixing and matching from his previous work – as with the Whispering Woods, Catelyn is put up on high, so that she can see a broad swathe of the battlefield; but as with the Battle of the Green Fork, her perspective is limited by geography, so that she can only see one of the fords:
“South of the Red Fork the land stretched away open and flat. From the watchtower Catelyn could see for miles. Even so, only the nearest ford was visible. Edmure had entrusted Lord Jason Mallister with its defense, as well as that of three others farther upriver.”
This perspective over one of a dozen fords gives Catelyn and the reader a representative but not comprehensive view of the situation, so that (like Shakespeare loved to do with battles), GRRM can use messengers to tip the emotions of the situation one way and then another. At the same time, GRRM innovates by having Catelyn be attended by Brienne, who as a trained knight can interpret the battlefield in a way that a civilian simply cannot. Most importantly, GRRM innovates by turning a geographical feature of the battlefield into its star character – while highlighting the importance of rivers as defensive multipliers ahead of the major battle of ACOK, which just so happens to not only involve but be named after a river.
Towton by Richard Caton Woodville
To his significant credit, Edmure Tully doesn’t just place his defenses against a river, but also uses every aspect of the river to his advantage, and enhancing those advantages through careful fortification:
“He could have ten times and it would not matter,” Ser Desmond said. “The west bank of the Red Fork is higher than the east, my lady, and well wooded. Our bowmen have good cover, and a clear field for their shafts . . . and should any breach occur, Edmure will have his best knights in reserve, ready to ride wherever they are most sorely needed. The river will hold them.”
As we’ve seen in Cat V, Edmure has built his fortifications around the river, using “mixed force of archers and pikemen” as his main defenders, as archers are ideal for defense against infantry (especially in conditions where the enemy is concentrated into a limited area and provides a massed target, as was the case at Agincourt where two woods turned the battlefield into a funnel) and pikemen provide excellent protection for archers, especially against cavalry. The river multiplies these advantages in a number of ways – the river crossings concentrate the attacker into a few crossing points, providing the archers with good targets and preventing the pikemen from being outflanked. Similarly, Edmure’s use of siege artillery, which is normally too slow to hit troops in movement, is enabled by the way in which the fords create fixed points that can be sighted in on ahead of time. Edmure then enhances those advantages by using “sharpened stakes…iron spikes…[and] caltrops” to further impede movement even more than the rushing water already does, which maximizes the time that the opponent will spend absorbing arrow fire while unable to retaliate, and by creating a mobile reserve that will allow his cavalry to be used at maximum advantage, where their speed and shock can prevent and reverse any breaches in the line.
As a result, it’s not surprising that the first encounter decisively favors the Tullys:
Edmure had entrusted Lord Jason Mallister with its defense, as well as that of three others farther upriver. The Lannister riders were milling about uncertainly near the water, crimson and silver banners flapping in the wind. “No more than fifty, my lady,” Ser Desmond estimated.
…. Lord Jason’s men waited to receive them behind rocks and grass and hillocks. A trumpet blast sent the horsemen forward at a ponderous walk, splashing down into the current. For a moment they made a brave show, all bright armor and streaming banners, the sun flashing off the points of their lances.
“Now,” she heard Brienne mutter.
It was hard to make out what was happening, but the screams of the horses seemed loud even at this remove, and beneath them Catelyn heard the fainter clash of steel on steel. A banner vanished suddenly as its bearer was swept under, and soon after the first dead man drifted past their walls, borne along by the current. By then the Lannisters had pulled back in confusion.
As anyone familiar with military tactics can tell you, fighting your way across a river is never easy, because the crossing naturally divides your forces and disrupts formation. However, it’s especially difficult in premodern warfare, when most soldiers are wearing metal armor. Indeed, in many of the bloodiest battles of the Wars of the Roses, most casualties took place not during the fighting but when retreating armies hit bodies of water – at Towton, the Cock Beck and the Wharfe rivers proved deadly, with bridges collapsing under the weight of panicking soldiers, archers using the steep banks to rain volleys down on struggling swimmers, and a lucky few survivors scrambling to safety on bridges of dead bodies; at Tewksbury, the Rivers Severn, Swilgate, and Avon played the same role to the luckless Lancastrians, leading the approach to the River Severn to be renamed “Bloody Meadow” for the number of men killed attempting the crossing.
For the purposes of this battle, however, we can see that the fords neutralize Tywin’s advantage in cavalry – forcing the normally fast-moving horse into a “ponderous walk,” where they become easy targets. Moreover, such is the nature of the river that, even as Tywin (or more likely his subordinates) adapt their tactics to the new environment, they end up creating new weaknesses that the defenders can exploit:
Ser Flement Brax had tried to force a crossing at a different ford six leagues to the south. This time the Lannisters shortened their lances and advanced across the river behind on foot, but the Mallister bowmen had rained high arcing shots down over their shields, while the scorpions Edmure had mounted on the riverbank sent heavy stones crashing through to break up the formation…
…that night they came again…the defenders had built watchfires along the bank, and perhaps the Lannisters thought to find them night-blind or unwary. If so, it was folly. Darkness was a chancy ally at best. As they waded in to breast their way across, men stepped in hidden pools and went down splashing, while others stumbled over stones or gashed their feet on the hidden caltrops. The Mallister bowmen sent a storm of fire arrows hissing across the river, strangely beautiful from afar. One man, pierced through a dozen times, his clothes afire, danced and whirled in the knee-deep water until at last he fell and was swept downstream. By the time his body came bobbing past Riverrun, the fires and his life had both been extinguished.
Again to his credit, Edmure prepared for changing tactics, using archers and siege engines to combat dismounted men-at-arms and prevent them from bringing their discipline to bear, and using watchfires and fire arrows to turn an attempted night attack into a bloody disaster.
At the same time, Tywin isn’t about to give up at the first setback – hence, the repeated assaults, the adapted tactics, the night attacks, and the three days of assaults:
…”The Lannisters will come again. Lord Tywin has twice my brother’s numbers.”
…That was the brush of Lord Tywin’s fingertip, my lady,” the girl said. “He is probing, feeling for a weak point, an undefended crossing. If he does not find one, he will curl all his fingers into a fist and try and make one.” Brienne hunched her shoulders. “That’s what I’d do. Were I him.”
However impressive Tywin’s determination – which in turn I think shows how effect Robb Stark’s western campaign was in forcing his enemy to act as the King in the north wished – his repeated assaults neverethless bring about rather high casualties:
“They left a dozen dead in the water, only two reaching the shallows, where we dealt with them briskly,” the rider reported. He also told of fighting farther upstream, where Lord Karyl Vance held the fords. “Those thrusts too were turned aside, at grievous cost to our foes.”
Lord Tywin had tried to force a crossing at a dozen different fords, her brother wrote, but every thrust had been thrown back. Lord Lefford had been drowned, the Crakehall knight called Strongboar taken captive, Ser Addam Marbrand thrice forced to retreat . . . but the fiercest battle had been fought at Stone Mill, where Ser Gregor Clegane had led the assault. So many of his men had fallen that their dead horses threatened to dam the flow. In the end the Mountain and a handful of his best had gained the west bank, but Edmure had thrown his reserve at them, and they had shattered and reeled away bloody and beaten. Ser Gregor himself had lost his horse and staggered back across the Red Fork bleeding from a dozen wounds while a rain of arrows and stones fell all around him.
It’s battle reports like these that make me frustrated by the frequent assumptions that Tywin’s army remained at the level of 20,000 men up until the Battle of the Blackwater, because that really doesn’t seem to be the case. When casualties are described, the Westermen are taking heavy casualties, often losing most or all of the men who make the crossing, and the fact that they’re making repeated assaults on no less than twelve fords means even small numbers begin to add up. Moreover, the Lannisters lose three lords in this battle (Leo Lefford drowns, Strongboar is taken prisoner, and Ser Robert Brax is slain), which is smaller but still significant compared to six at Oxcross and five at the Whispering Woods, both of which saw the complete destruction of the Westerlands army engaged. So all signs point to heavy losses. I would estimate that the Lannisters took at least 2-3,000 casualties during the Battle of the Fords, and by the time that Tywin’s army is demobilized, I think it was more like 12,000 strong than 20,000.
All of which raises the question of why this wasn’t tried before, at the very outset of the war (link). Granted, some of the Tullys’ advantages – the higher bank, the tree cover, the open field of fire – might have been neutralized in a west-to-east attack, but the same kind of preparation done for this battle (cutting down trees on the west back and using the timber to build protected firing platforms on the west) could have maintained the status quo, and regardless of what direction you’re facing, the limited number of crossing-points are going to have the same effect. Indeed, I’m absolutely convinced that the location and structure of Riverrun itself means that ford-based defenses must have been used in the past to defend the Riverlands from attacks from the Westerlands. This is why I’m not convinced that the Riverlands has no natural defenses – rather, I think it’s more accurate to say that the southern Riverlands from Stony Sept to Harrenhal, the “Hills” part of the former “Kingdom of the Rivers and Hills” lacks solid defenses, which in turn helps to explain the density of castles in this region. By contrast, the Trident itself is both a strong “barrie[r] in times of war,” and a “means to transport forces swiftly between far-flung strongholds and battlefields,” as the Ironborn demonstrated.
Something to keep in mind when we consider the viability of an independent Riverlands…
I have to admit that I found myself somewhat stumped initially in looking for historical parallels here. Unlike the Battle of the Fords, the rivers involved in the great Battles of the Wars of the Roses tended to be involved mostly during the aftermath of the main fighting; the one that comes closest is the Battle of Ferrybridge, which took place shortly before the main event at Towton, where the Yorkists and Lancastrians clashed over the Aire River. Even then, the details didn’t really fit – in that case, there was only one crossing point, and that was a bridge rather than a ford.
Indeed, the one battle that seems to come the closest to the Battle of the Fords comes a good deal later than the Wars of the Roses – namely, the famous/infamous Battle of the Boyne during the Williamite-Jacobite War in Ireland in the 17th century. In this battle, the rival Kings William of the House of Orange and James of the House of Stuart faced off across the River Boyne near the town of Drogheda, on the east coast of Ireland not far from Dublin.
As with the Battle of the Fords, this conflict involved a number of contested river crossings that stretched about six miles (which is a lot more reasonable than GRRM’s 250 mile front). Similarly, in both cases the battle revolved around the attacker trying to force a beachhead on the opposing bank and hold it while the defender tried to push them into the water, leading to something of a see-saw affair where William’s forces would cross, get pushed back by James’ cavalry, then get reinforced, then get pushed back, then get reinforced. However, in this case the attacker eventually prevailed and forced the defender into retreat, whereas the opposite happens at the Fords.
I have to admit that I hesitated to use this historical parallel, because the historical memory of the battle has been a major element of sectarian politics in Ireland for hundreds of years. The Battle of the Boyne is one of a handful of victories during the Williamite-Jacobite Wars (along with the Siege of Derry and the Battle of Aughrim) that became part of the iconography of the Orange Order, the Protestant organization whose marches have been a locus of conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland from the late 18th century to the present day.
Ultimately, however, the similarities in terms of the multiple contested river crossings has somewhat forced my hand. However, the very real present conflict that swirls around the historical memory of this battle should serve as a reminder of the potential pitfalls of treating military history as a mere hobby for enthusiasts – in many places and times, the history of armed conflict is, as William Faulkner once said, “never dead. It’s not even past.”
In the previous Catelyn chapter, I explored what might have happened had the Battle of the Fords never happened. However, there’s also an interesting hypothetical in the case of what would have happened if Tywin had managed to force his way across during the Battle of the Fords.
In the main, this scenario works out much as if the Battle hadn’t happened – once across the Red Fork, Tywin is too far away from King’s Landing, so Stannis seizes the capitol and the Iron Throne and the Lannister claimants to the crown are mostly dead, and it’s up in the air as to whether the entire city follows them into the funeral pyre if the wildfire spreads too far.
The major difference is that Tywin’s army in this scenario is badly blooded, making it even more likely that Robb and his various armies will be able to wear down, encircle, and defeat the Westerlands army in detail.
Book vs. Show:
I’ve already discussed my feelings about the “botch in the Riverlands,” but re-reading this chapter really brought it back to me. In the show, after having spent most of the second season having his armies be defeated off-screen and doing some lovely character work with Arya at Harrenhal, Tywin abruptly decides to “ride at nightfall,” although with the complete removal of the Battle of the Fords plotline due to the delay of casting the Tullys, things get weird. The supposed head-fake that he’s going after Robb Stark rather than King’s Landing doesn’t really land, so his arrival at Blackwater is far less of a surprise, especially in comparison to the book we see Tywin engaged in protracted conflict 600 miles away from the city as Stannis nears the city and Tyrion despairs of any reinforcements.
Moreover, and this is where the writing really gets my head in a spin, Tywin tells Gregor Clegane to “maintain a garrison here at Harrenhal, track down this brotherhood down and destroy them.” However, this plot thread is almost immediately abandoned in Season 3, where Robb Stark has suddenly teleported from the Crag to Harrenhal, which Clegane has abandoned, seemingly after some unknown battle (glad to see I wasn’t the only one confused by this) where a number of Northern and Riverlander soldiers (including a “Jaremy” Mallister) were massacred. And somehow at the same time, Gregor Clegane’s small garrison force has somehow fought a major battle with Edmure Tully at the Stone Mill (although we never exactly learn where he retreated to) – a weird case where the show tries to skip and have the Battle of the Fords at the same time, but stripped of its larger significance.
As we can see from this image by r/AbouBenAdhem, this setup badly fractures the logic of the war effort. Rather than understanding how Robb’s victory at Oxcross forces Tywin to take a gamble that almost loses him the war, or setting up the reveal in Catelyn II of ASOS that shows how the seeming victory here has turned into defeat, all sense of sequence, geography, and strategy has been lost. Instead, Robb suddenly goes from winning the war in Season 2 to losing the war in Season 3 without any explanation of why or how.