Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part I)

credit to ser-other-in-law

credit to ser-other-in-law

Hey folks, so this essay is looking like it’s going to be as long as the Westerlands essay if not longer, so I decided to pre-emptively break it up into pieces so it’s easier to read (and write, to be honest). Part I covers the geography and prehistory of the Reach, Part II will cover the rise of House Gardener and the construction of the Reach as a polity, Part III will cover the arrival of the Andals and the Great Game, Part IV will cover the Reach during the Targaryens and possibly the internal divisions and strengths and weaknesses, although that may get pushed to a Part V.


In this series, it seems like the Reach is something of an inevitability – the Reach is such a prosperous and populous region, controlling literally a fourth of Westeros’ military capacity, that it seems like it would always be first among equals of the Seven Kingdoms. But as we’ve seen with the Riverlands, climate and demography are necessary but not sufficient qualities for a functional state.

Rather, as I’ll argue throughout this essay, the emergence of the Reach as we know it today is the result of generations of peerless statecraft, rather than the outcome of mere geography. More than almost any other House, House Gardener provides us with a master class in medieval and early-modern state-building carried out across thousands of years.


“THE LARGEST AND most populous of the six southern kingdoms (the North, vast in expanse though thinly peopled, being a land apart) is commonly referred to as the Reach…once and always a great realm, the Reach is many things to its inhabitants: the most populous, fertile, and powerful domain in the Seven Kingdoms, its wealth second only to the gold-rich west; a seat of learning; a center of music, culture, and all the arts, bright and dark; the breadbasket of Westeros; a nexus of trade; a home to great seafarers, wise and noble kings, dread sorcerers, and the most beautiful women in all Westeros. On a hill overlooking the Mander rises Highgarden, rightly hailed as the most beautiful castle in the realm. The Mander itself, which flows beneath its walls, is the longest and broadest river in the Seven Kingdoms. The great city of Oldtown is the equal of King’s Landing in size, and it is superior in all other respects, being vastly older and more beautiful, with its cobbled streets, ornate guildhalls, stone houses, and three great monuments: the Starry Sept of the Faith, the Citadel of the Maesters, and the mighty Hightower, with its great beacon, the tallest tower in all the known world.” (WOIAF)

When it comes to natural resources, physical beauty, and cultural refinement, the Reach is indeed “a land for superlatives,” a veritable Garden of Eden. And this is because, unlike many other regions of Westeros, the Reach is not meant to evoke a historically accurate incarnation of medieval France (which had its fair share of disease and famine and filth) as much as it is meant to evoke the idealized France that the troubadours of 12th century Aquitaine burned into our collective cultural imagination so strongly that it is hard for us to conceive of anything else. Thus, the Reach should be counted among such fictional realms of sunny vineyards and Epicureanism untainted by any conception of sin as 7th Sea’s Montaigne, the Witcher’s Touissant, Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange, Warhammer Fantasy’s Bretonnia, or Dragon Age’s Orlais.

But as the WOIAF explains in some detail, the mere fact of the Reach’s magnificence doesn’t mean that we can draw a straight line from natural abundance to national power:

“The domains of House Tyrell, the Lords of Highgarden, now largely correspond with those of the Kingdom of the Reach as it existed for thousands of years before Aegon’s Conquest, but that rich and fertile realm was, in fact, once comprised of four kingdoms: Oldtown and its environs, bounded by the Red Mountains to the east and the headwaters of the Honeywine in the north. The Arbor, the golden island beyond the Redwyne Strait, famed for wine and sunshine. The western marches, from Horn Hill to Nightsong. The Reach proper, a vast expanse of fields and farms, lakes and rivers, hills and woods and fragrant meadows, mills and mines, dotted with small villages, thriving market towns, and ancient castles, stretching from the Shield Islands in the Sunset Sea, up the mouth of the Mander, past Highgarden, to Red Lake, Goldengrove, and Bitterbridge, as far as Tumbleton and the Mander’s headwaters.” (WOIAF)

This historical reminder that there were no less than four kingdoms within the current boundaries of the Reach raises an important rejoinder to any argument about geographic inevitability: the three kingdoms that were rivals to the Gardeners of the Reach enjoyed the same climate, the same fertile soil, and indeed many of the unique features of what we called the Reach and could have parlayed these resources into permanent independence.[1] At the very least, they could have put up such a fierce resistance to unification that the nascent kingdom of the Gardeners could have been pulled down, much as the Justmans and the Teagues were in their own time. Indeed, their very existence meant that the early Gardeners could not have called upon the huge numerical advantages in military manpower and economic might that we associate with the Reach today – they had to build their kingdom with only a fraction of the resources, while facing fierce competition from rivals equally provisioned.


And that only takes into account the Reach’s internal divisions. When we consider the Reach’s geography, it has none of the natural defenses of many of the other Kingdoms: no Neck or Mountains of the Moon, not even the more modest hills of the Westerlands. Instead, it has wide-open borders to its west, its north, its east, and even the Red Mountains to the south have proved dangerously porous throughout its history. As a result, the wealth of the Reach has often proven to be as much a lure for invasion as a cause for celebration.

“The bounty of these green and fertile lands did not make men more peaceful, nor less grasping. Here too the First Men strove against the children of the forest, rooting them out from their sacred groves and hollow hills, hewing down their weirwoods with great bronze axes. Here too kingdoms rose and fell and were forgotten, as petty kings and proud lords contended with one another for land and gold and glory, whilst towns burned and women wailed and sword rang against sword, century after century…”

“…during these dark and bloody centuries, seaborne reavers from the Iron Islands dominated almost all of the western shore, from Bear Island to the Arbor. With their swift longships, the ironborn were able to strike and depart before any response came. Their raiders oft came ashore at unexpected places, taking their enemies unaware. Though the ironmen seldom ventured far inland, they controlled the Sunset Sea and exacted cruel tribute from the fisherfolk along the coasts. Having established themselves upon the Shield Islands by killing all the men they found there and claiming the women as their own, the ironborn even raided up the Mander with impunity.” (WOIAF)

Between internal divisions and external threats therefore, we can see that geography along cannot explain the rise of the Reach, or indeed why the state that formed was centered around Highgarden as opposed to any of its rivals. And to understand that, we have to delve into the historical development of the Reach from its earliest days, and the roles of both symbolic and practical politics in the ascendancy of House Gardener.

Historical Development of the Reach:

“The story of the Reach begins with Garth Greenhand, the legendary progenitor not only of the Tyrells of Highgarden, but of the Gardener kings before them … and all the other great houses and noble families of the Green Realm as well.” (WOIAF)

Compared to many regions of Westeros, we have an unusual degree of information about the prehistory of the Reach – and no small part of that is due to the presence of Garth Greenhand in the mythology of the Reach. As I will demonstrate shortly, Garth Greenhand is key to understanding how House Gardener made themselves ideologically hegemonic in the Reach in a way that no other House save the Starks of Winterfell have managed to do,

Thanks to the World of Ice and Fire, we have far more information about Garth Greenhand, and the outsize role – or more precisely, roles – he played in the culture of the First Men of the Reach:

“A thousand tales are told of Garth, in the Reach and beyond. Most are implausible, and many contradictory. In some he is a contemporary of Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever, Durran Godsgrief, and the other colorful figures of the Age of Heroes. In others he stands as the ancestor of them all. Garth was the High King of the First Men, it is written; it was he who led them out of the east and across the land bridge to Westeros. Yet other tales would have us believe that he preceded the arrival of the First Men by thousands of years, making him not only the First Man in Westeros, but the only man, wandering the length and breadth of the land alone and treating with the giants and the children of the forest. Some even say he was a god.”

In these legends, we see Garth in no less than four distinct and important roles: first, he is “the High King of the First Men,” the indisputable leader of all First Men who (like Moses) “who led them out of the east and across the land bridge to Westeros.” Second, Garth is the ancestor of all the legends of the Age of Heroes – as we saw last time with Lann the Clever. Between these two, we see a semiotic argument for the Manifest Destiny of House Gardener to rule all of Westeros: if Garth Greenhand was acclaimed rightfully as the High King of the First Men, then as his heirs House Gardener can lay claim to the allegiance of all of the First Men. Likewise, as Bran the Builder founded the dynasty that forged the Kingdom of the North, Lann the Clever the Kingdom of the Rock, and Durran Godsgrief the Stormlands, as younger siblings to Garth the Gardener their descendants owe a natural fealty to House Gardener.

Needless to say, these legends are a little bit too politically convenient to be original; I suspect that some savvy Gardener king or queen hired some singers to come up with some useful additions to the canon at some point where they were trying to press some dubious claims to land in the Westerlands or Stormlands.  By contrast, the third and fourth roles that Garth Greenhand plays in the legends feel more authentic to the early First Men culture of the Reach:

“There is disagreement even on his name. Garth Greenhand, we call him, but in the oldest tales he is named Garth Greenhair, or simply Garth the Green. Some stories say he had green hands, green hair, or green skin overall. (A few even give him antlers, like a stag.) Others tell us that he dressed in green from head to foot, and certainly this is how he is most commonly depicted in paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. More likely, his sobriquet derived from his gifts as a gardener and a tiller of the soil—the one trait on which all the tales agree. “Garth made the corn ripen, the trees fruit, and the flowers bloom,” the singers tell us.”

“A few of the very oldest tales of Garth Greenhand present us with a considerably darker deity, one who demanded blood sacrifice from his worshippers to ensure a bountiful harvest. In some stories the green god dies every autumn when the trees lose their leaves, only to be reborn with the coming of spring. This version of Garth is largely forgotten. Many of the more primitive peoples of the earth worship a fertility god or goddess, and Garth Greenhand has much and more in common with these deities. It was Garth who first taught men to farm, it is said. Before him, all men were hunters and gatherers, rootless wanderers forever in search of sustenance, until Garth gave them the gift of seed and showed them how to plant and sow, how to raise crops and reap the harvest. (In some tales, he tried to teach the elder races as well, but the giants roared at him and pelted him with boulders, whilst the children laughed and told him that the gods of the wood provided for all their needs). Where he walked, farms and villages and orchards sprouted up behind him. About his shoulders was slung a canvas bag, heavy with seed, which he scattered as he went along. As befits a god, his bag was inexhaustible; within were seeds for all the world’s trees and grains and fruits and flowers.” (WOIAF)

The oldest and likely the most authentic version of the Greenhand is his role as a pre-Pact of the Isle of Faces fertility god. Similar to the Prince of Pentos, this cult closely resembles the idea of the sacred king cult as theorized by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough and carried forward by writers like Robert Graves and the Cambridge Ritualists: first, Garth who “dies every autumn…only to be reborn with the coming of the spring” is clearly a dying-and-rising god; second, Garth is inextricably associated with the fertility of the natural world, whether we consider his horns (which borrow from historical fertility gods like Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter), his green garb which evokes the Green Man of English folklore (who in his incarnation as the Green Knight of Arthurian myth is also a dying-and-rebirth figure), his teaching of the arts of agriculture and wine-making suggests Dionysus, or even his Johnny Appleseed–like bag of seeds.

Garth’s fourth and final role – as the bringer of human as well as agricultural fertility – allowed Garth to make the transition from the Dawn Age to the Age of Heroes to the adoption of the Faith of the Seven. Whether as man or god, Garth could be venerated as the ancestor-figure of the entire Reach:

“Garth Greenhand brought the gift of fertility with him. Nor was it only the earth that he made fecund, for the legends tell us that he could make barren women fruitful with a touch—even crones whose moon blood no longer flowed. Maidens ripened in his presence, mothers brought forth twins or even triplets when he blessed them, young girls flowered at his smile. Lords and common men alike offered up their virgin daughters to him wherever he went, that their crops might ripen and their trees grow heavy with fruit. There was never a maid that he deflowered who did not deliver a strong son or fair daughter nine moons later, or so the stories say.

…God or man, Garth Greenhand fathered many children in this new land; on this all the tales agree. Many of those offspring grew to be heroes, kings, and great lords in their own right, founding mighty houses that endured for thousands of years.” (WOIAF)

And here we see the one factor that makes the Reach different from all other regions in Westeros: many of the Seven Kingdoms had Houses descended from some great figure of the Age of Heroes, but nowhere else than the Reach could all the Houses of a kingdom trace their ancestry back to the same legend. As a result, from its very earliest days the political class of the Reach shared a common kinship that could provide the basis for a national identity. In Westeros, the only other thing that comes close is much smaller in scale, namely the fictive kinship practiced by the hill clans of the North and the mountain clans of the Vale. In our own history, if we look to something larger-scale than tribal societies, the only thing that would seem to come close is the Athenian myth of autochthony – the belief that the people of Athens literally sprang up from the soil and were thus not only the indisputable original occupants of Attica but also were all equal as “brothers of the soil,” buttressing the institution of Athenian democracy.


In the Reach, however, the common ancestor-veneration of Garth Greenhand provided not for democracy, but rather a stable hierarchy that enjoyed consensus legitimacy throughout the political class:

“Of all these, the greatest was his firstborn, Garth the Gardener, who made his home on the hill atop the Mander that in time became known as Highgarden, and wore a crown of flowers and vines. All of Garth Greenhand’s other children did the Gardener homage as the rightful king of all men, everywhere. From his loins sprang House Gardener, whose kings ruled the Reach beneath the banner of a green hand for many thousands of years, until Aegon the Dragon and his sisters came to Westeros.”

“…And yet there was a difference, in degree if not in kind, for almost all of the noble houses of the Reach shared a common ancestry, deriving as they did from Garth Greenhand and his many children. It was that kinship, many scholars have suggested, that gave House Gardener the primacy in the centuries that followed; no petty king could ever hope to rival the power of Highgarden, where Garth the Gardener’s descendants sat upon a living throne (the Oakenseat) that grew from an oak that Garth Greenhand himself had planted, and wore crowns of vines and flowers when at peace, and crowns of bronze thorns (later iron) when they rode to war. Others might style themselves kings, but the Gardeners were the unquestioned High Kings, and lesser monarchs did them honor, if not obeisance.” (WOIAF)

The ideological hegemony of House Gardener over the various Houses of the Reach had as its foundation the simple principle of primogeniture; having inherited their own fiefs through the same principle, the lords of the Reach could not help but accept. As Garth the Gardener was the firstborn of Garth Greenhand, he was the rightful heir of their common father and his younger half-siblings owed him a natural obligation of fealty. (Think of Stannis’ comment in the Season 2 History and Lore video on Robert’s Rebellion that “there are deeper, older laws; the younger brother bows before the elder.”) At the same time, we can see that House Gardener was tireless in its efforts to emphasize this link to Garth Greenhand: their “banner of a green hand” is a clear heraldic allusion, their use of the Oakenseat as a sign that Garth had blessed the monarchy itself, their custom of wearing a “crown of flowers and vines” to ape the Greenhand’s depiction in visual media.

At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that the prehistory of the Reach was a time of harmony under the benevolent reign of the Gardeners – after all, I’m about to discuss at length how the Gardeners gradually unified four kingdoms into one, and the many difficulties involved in doing so – as much as the troubadours of Highgarden would like us to. Instead, I would like to emphasize that the Reach’s prehistory actually shows a plethora of independent state-building efforts by all of the children of Garth Greenhand, in an atmosphere of profound mystical strangeness:

“JOHN THE OAK, the First Knight, who brought chivalry to Westeros (a huge man, all agree, eight feet tall in some tales, ten or twelve feet tall in others, sired by Garth Greenhand on a giantess). His own descendants became the Oakhearts of Old Oak.

GILBERT OF THE VINES, who taught the men of the Arbor to make sweet wine from the grapes that grew so fat and lush across their island, and who founded House Redwyne.

FLORYS THE FOX, the cleverest of Garth’s children, who kept three husbands, each ignorant of the existence of the others. (From their sons sprang House Florent, House Ball, and House Peake).

MARIS THE MAID, the Most Fair, whose beauty was so renowned that fifty lords vied for her hand at the first tourney ever to be held in Westeros. (The victor was the Grey Giant, Argoth Stone-Skin, but Maris wed King Uthor of the High Tower before he could claim her, and Argoth spent the rest of his days raging outside the walls of Oldtown, roaring for his bride.)

FOSS THE ARCHER, renowned for shooting apples off the head of any maid who took his fancy, from whom both the red apple and green apple Fossoways trace their descent.

BRANDON OF THE BLOODY BLADE, who drove the giants from the Reach and warred against the children of the forest, slaying so many at Blue Lake that it has been known as Red Lake ever since.

OWEN OAKENSHIELD, who conquered the Shield Islands, driving the selkies and merlings back into the sea.

HARLON THE HUNTER and HERNDON OF THE HORN, twin brothers who built their castle atop Horn Hill and took to wife the beautiful woods witch who dwelled there, sharing her favors for a hundred years (for the brothers did not age so long as they embraced her whenever the moon was full).

BORS THE BREAKER, who gained the strength of twenty men by drinking only bull’s blood, and founded House Bulwer of Blackcrown. (Some tales claim Bors drank so much bull’s blood he grew a pair of shiny black horns.)

ROSE OF RED LAKE, a skinchanger, able to transform into a crane at will—a power some say still manifests from time to time in the women of House Crane, her descendants.

ELLYN EVER SWEET, the girl who loved honey so much she sought out the King of the Bees in his vast mountain hive and made a pact with him, to care for his children and his children’s children for all time. She was the first beekeeper, and the mother to House Beesbury.

ROWAN GOLD-TREE, who was so bereft when her lover left her for a rich rival that she wrapped an apple in her golden hair, planted it upon a hill, and grew a tree whose bark and leaves and fruit were gleaming yellow gold, and to whose daughters the Rowans of Goldengrove trace their roots.” (WOIAF)

Now it’s a little hard to see what’s exactly going on here due to the multiple layers of myth-making (right off the bat, we know that there’s no way that John the Oak could have brought chivalry to the Reach since the Andal custom of knighthood didn’t arrive in the Reach until thousands of years later), but we can see land-grabbing in all directions. Gilbert travels to the Arbor and becomes its king as a reward for his wine-making prowess, Owen Oakenshield conquers the Shield Islands, and Florys, Foss, Harlon and Herndon, Bors, Rose, Ellyn, and Rowan all get into the House-founding game.

There’s also some common threads that speak to how weird the early Reach was: first, the pre-historic Reach seems to have been a world characterized by both war and co-existence between the First Men and non-human species. John the Oak is the son of a giantess (which suggests that not all the giants rejected the Greenhand’s offers of friendship), whereas Brandon of the Bloody Blade made war on them 150 miles to the east. Owen Oakenshield makes war on “selkies and merlings” on the Shield Islands (more on this in a bit), while his sister Ellyn is making pacts with the King of Bees at Honeyholt. Second, it seems to have been an era marked by magic, often but not exclusively the realm of powerful sorceresses[2]: Harlon and Herndon (the ancestors of House Tarly) are granted eternal youth by their joint marriage to a woods witch; Rose of Red Lake is a “skinchanger, able to transform into a crane at will,” Ellyn Ever-Sweet can talk to animals, and Rowan grows a magical golden tree from her hair; and Bors the Breaker uses blood-magic to turn himself into a quasi-minotaur complete with “the strength of twenty men.” (WOIAF)

 But perhaps the strangest and most ominous aspect of Reach pre-history has to do with the Deep Ones and Battle Isle, and Uthor of the High Tower and Maris the Maid. According to the legends of the Reach, Maris “the Most Fair, whose beauty was so renowned that fifty lords vied for her hand at the first tourney ever to be held in Westeros,” (a later addition, given that Andals introduced tourneys to Westeros) was supposed to marry “the victor…the Grey Giant, Argoth Stone-Skin,” but instead “Maris wed King Uthor of the High Tower before he could claim her.” Outraged, “Argoth spent the rest of his days raging outside the walls of Oldtown, roaring for his bride.” (WOIAF) On the face of it, this seems like a slightly strange and somewhat anachronistic just-so story to explain how House Hightower fits into the broader family tree (kudzu?) of Garth Greenhand, but there are several details that are puzzling to say the least.

To begin with, giants are uniformly described as hairy and brown, which doesn’t exactly jibe with Argoth’s description. On the other hand, titans are described in ASOIAF as being made of “grey stone” (ASOS, Sansa VI) and in Old Nan’s stories are described as living “giant[s] as tall as a mountain.” (AFFC, Arya I) Likewise, Argoth’s continual “roaring for his bride” is quite similar to the Titan of Braavos, who roars to warn of approaching ships and to count the hours. And while the Titan of Braavos is normally understood as a statue, a human construction, there are stories from Braavosi culture about the Titan of Braavos being “the last Titan,” who “yet stands, astride the stony shoulders of his brothers,” suggesting that there might have been many titans, and that they had an association with the sea.

What makes this incident interesting is how it might link in with the pre-history of Oldtown, House Hightower, and Battle Isle, which goes all the way back into the Dawn Age. We are told of Oldtown itself that “the origins of the city are lost in the mists of time and clouded by legend,” and that “men have lived at the mouth of the Honeywine since the Dawn Age.” Scholars disagree as to whether the settlement was of First Men or a “trading post, where ships from Valyria, Old Ghis, and the Summer Isles” came to conduct commerce, but all sources agree that “the stony island where the Hightower stands is known as Battle Isle even in our oldest records,” that the “great square fortress of black …predates the upper levels of the tower by thousands of years,” and that “at some point we know that Battle Isle and its great stronghold came into the possession of the ancestors of House Hightower….when first glimpsed in the pages of history, the Hightowers are already kings, ruling Oldtown from Battle Isle.” (WOIAF) Indeed, the Uthor of the High Tower who shows up in the legends of Maris the Maid was the first of the Hightowers, who commissioned the construction of the first stone tower on top of that stone fortress from Brandon the Builder.

At the same time, the nature of the High Tower’s foundations speaks to the nature of that unknown Battle which gave the island its name: while some scholars argue that the solid stone suggests the dragonlords of Old Valyria, others point to un-Valyrian features of the interior:

“The fused black stone of which it is made suggests Valyria, but the plain, unadorned style of architecture does not, for the dragonlords loved little more than twisting stone into strange, fanciful, and ornate shapes. Within, the narrow, twisting, windowless passages strike many as being tunnels rather than halls; it is very easy to get lost amongst their turnings. Mayhaps this is no more than a defensive measure designed to confound attackers, but it too is singularly un-Valyrian. The labyrinthine nature of its interior architecture has led Archmaester Quillion to suggest that the fortress might have been the work of the mazemakers, a mysterious people who left remnants of their vanished civilization upon Lorath in the Shivering Sea…”

“An even more fanciful possibility was put forth a century ago by Maester Theron. Born a bastard on the Iron Islands, Theron noted a certain likeness between the black stone of the ancient fortress and that of the Seastone Chair, the high seat of House Greyjoy of Pyke, whose origins are similarly ancient and mysterious. Theron’s rather inchoate manuscript Strange Stone postulates that both fortress and seat might be the work of a queer, misshapen race of half men sired by creatures of the salt seas upon human women. These Deep Ones, as he names them, are the seed from which our legends of merlings have grown, he argues, whilst their terrible fathers are the truth behind the Drowned God of the ironborn.” (WOIAF)

Now, this is a very significant ambivalence, because “Lorathi legend suggests they were destroyed by an enemy from the sea: merlings in some versions of the tale, selkies and walrus-men in others.” Battle Isle could well be a construction either of the Deep Ones, as Maester Theron suggests, given the commonality of the black stone, or of the Mazemakers who warred against the Deep Ones in the Dawn Age, judging form the interior architecture. Moreover,  we know that the Mazemakers were “massively built and larger than men, though not so large as giants. Some have suggested that mayhaps the mazemakers were born of interbreeding between human men and giant women.” (WOIAF) Could the Mazemakers be to the Titans what the squishers and certain Ironborn were to the Deep Ones, creating a link between the Titans and Battle Isle?

To bring all of these threads together: we have a legend that speaks of Uthor of the High Tower, having claimed Battle Isle for his own and having ordered the construction of the High Tower, marrying into the broader clan of the Greenhand and thereby enraging what seems to be a Titan, suggesting a folk-memory of an early siege of Oldtown, perhaps the Battle for which the Isle was named, perhaps provoked by the seizure of one of the Mazemakers’ fortresses. At the same time, Maris’ brothers are described as warring against “merlings and selkies,” themselves likely folk-memories of the Deep Ones and squishers – the marriage between Maris and Uthor could have been part of a broader alliance of men against the non-humans who had dominated coastal Westeros, perhaps in the aftermath of a great war between the Deep Ones and the Mazemakers that had exhausted both empires.[3]

Now, all of this could be nothing more than fevered speculation of an unhealthy mind, but it does suggest that the prehistorical Reach was a wild and dangerous place. To unify the kingdom against internal division and external threat would require not merely a Hero like Uthor or Maris but a line of heroes, pushing a policy with single-mindedness across thousands and thousands of years…

[1] Incidentally, this passage raises an interesting question: was Nightsong once a part of the Reach? After all, Horn Hill is very much part of the Reach, and Nightsong has always stood out to me as remarkably far west to have always been part of the Stormlands. (It’s less than 300 miles away from Highgarden and due south of Ashford, Longtable, and Bitterbridge; compared to at least 900 miles across really rough terrain to Storm’s End) Perhaps at one point, Nightsong was once a part of the “western marches” but quarreled with the Gardeners (likely over their desire to be recognized as undisputed Lords of the Marches) and were snapped up by some Durrandon who was happy enough to grab a strategically vital castle for the price of an empty title.

[2] Incidentally, this period also seems to have been a world of bigamy, whether we’re talking about Florys’ three husbands, Foss’ archery-based seduction technique, or Harlon or Herndon’s polyandrous marriage, suggesting that the Greenhand’s commitment to free love. It does make me wonder how the early septons and septas trying to spread the doctrines of the Faith of the Seven grappled with this ingrained cultural value.

[3] And if we believe that the Ironborn came from the sea, is it possible that the constant warfare between the Ironborn and the Reach over the Shield Isles stemmed from a desire to get revenge for their kinfolk who had been pushed into the sea by the son of the Greenhand?


63 thoughts on “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part I)

  1. They will bend the knee says:

    Have I drunk too much Arbor wine or is there a google map of westeros ?

  2. I find the descent idea fascinating. It reminds me of how various Saxon Kings tried to trace their descent back to Woden. Amusingly enough, Life of Alfred traces Alfred’s descent to Woden and then eventually to Adam.

    In one of my current University courses I am looking at Tudor and Stuart image-making and the founders of both dynasties tried to emphasise their descent, Henry to Cadwaladr, the last of Geoffrey’s King’s of Britain, and James all the way back to Brutus, as he brought Britain under one rule again. I wonder, was there at some point dispute over who was the eldest son of Garth? Did the Gardeners give their ancestor that name to show he was Greenhand’s first son? Or the other way around?

    Its not said in the books but do the Hewetts claim descent from Owen Oakenshield? Were the Shield Islands at some point their own Kingdom ruled over by a House Oakenshield? We know they were once held by the Iron Islands, so was the ruling House mayhaps wiped out and the Hewetts are… either a formerly mainland House or a pre-existing Islands House that claimed that Island due to their descent from Owen?

    If we’re going further with this theory are the Chesters descended from a relative of Garth VII (rather like Karlon Stark being given lands for helping fight the Stark’s enemies), or could they be a pre-existing House? Maybe a Gardener was married into the Chesters as a reward for his service and to make sure there was a Pro-Gardener on the Isles. Him or his children took the Chester name and put the Green Hand on their sigil to show their descent (thus it became Greenshield). Or a female relative of the Goldenhand married a Chester to ensure loyalty, out of fear a pre-existing House might support the Ironborn if they attempted to regain the Isle, or it could have been part of a pact to ensure they helped Garth VII.

    • Excellent points.

      The interesting thing to me is that there doesn’t seem to have been any dispute about A. the birth order of Garth Greenhand’s kids, and B. who was and wasn’t a child of the Greenhand. That’s pretty surprising, given the rivalries between the various domains of the Reach in those early days when House Gardener was starting to expand out from its base at Highgarden.

      I would guess there was a House Oakenshield that got wiped out by the Ironborn.

    • fjallstrom says:

      In light of the our world history, the origin myths could also be seen as invented stories created by the houses to establish a connection with Garth. Different styles could be leftovers from different time periods etc.

      Though that might be less fun because then there’s hardly anything that can be said about reach pre-history.

  3. Steven Xue says:

    The idea that the wealth of the Reach being only surpassed by the Westerland’s gold has always surprised me. Correct me if I’m wrong but shouldn’t farmlands and agricultural production be more valuable in a medieval economy than gold and silver?

    • AzureOwl says:

      Ordinarily, but the mineral wealth of the Westerlands has no parallel that I know off in Medieval Europe in terms of sheer scale.

      The closest real world analogue to Casterly Rock is the Cerro Rico of Potosi and that wasn’t exploited until the Renaissance.

    • Murc says:

      Maester Yandel doesn’t have our view-from-outside perspective, nor training in modern historiography. In his world, gold and silver are immensely valuable; he might not question whether or not the political and actual economy were once different.

    • I think Murc makes a good point – without statistics, it can be hard to “see” the wealth of the Reach, whereas the wealth of the Rock is gleamingly tangible.

      • Murc says:

        There’s also probably a lot of little things contributing to it. Gold and silver are near-imperishable stores of value and, in Westeros, are strongly liquid; they only actually start to lose value in places like the Riverlands or King’s Landing during the war where people literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from and are like “fuck this shiny metal, I want BREAD.”

        But you can take a chest of gold from the Westerlands to the Reach and convert it into the things the Reach has a lot easier than you can take, say, a lot of fine Arbor wine, or livestock, or even just great stonkin’ piles of grain to the Westerlands and do the same. Gold is gold. It’s heavy but still very portable. It doesn’t go bad in the bottle. It doesn’t get hoof-and-mouth disease and consume fodder every day. It doesn’t attract rats. There’s no spoilage. It doesn’t really have special handling requirements.

        Food also tends to be invisible to people if they have plenty of it on a regular basis. A maester of the Citadel in Oldtown likely eats well and often, in great variety.

        This isn’t to say Maester Yandel is dumb. In fact he’s quite clever; he recognizes that much of the wealth and power of the Reach flow from the fact that it is a metaphorical Big Rock Candy Mountain.

        But that’s just not going to be as impressive as the Lannisters living inside a [em]literal[/em] mountain that is stuffed full of gold they’ve been pulling out of it for like four thousand years and they still aren’t done.

  4. Hedrigal says:

    It seems like overall the integration of the Hightowers into the larger mythical community of the Reach was something that came later than the rest of the stories we hear. So its also possible that the weirdness of their origin story comes because their relation to the Green Hand was invented after the Giants had been driven out of the Reach, and after anything close to accurate memories of the giants had died out.

    Which wouldn’t really be shocking. The Hightower kingdom seems like it was the only potential peer competitor to the Gardener Kingdom in the Reach, and likely tried to maintain its own independent identity long after the other houses had accepted a subordinate position to the Gardeners.

    • Good point. It is interesting that there was never an attempt to change the origin story to have Uthor be a son of the Greenhand, whereas there’s no hesitation to do that for Lann the Clever or Bran the Builder or Durran Godsgrief.

      • Hedrigal says:

        My tentative hypothesis is that it had to do with the politics of this myth as a legitimization of the Gardener right to rule, and their relationship to what is essentially the greatest peer competitor within the Reach. With the version as presented it had a few good points for both sides, for the Gardeners it denigrates the Hightower ability to claim hegemony over the Reach. The Hightowers might be ancient and great, but they are only connected to the common kinship community of all Reacher lords by an unimportant daughter. Which matters because the Hightowers are likely the only house equal to the Gardeners in terms of raw and soft power. At the same time it maintains the pride of the Hightowers and their distinct place in the kingdom. They are alone in having an independent origin justification of their right to rule from the Greenhand, and because of this they can potentially even be argued as equals to the Gardeners in terms of pedigree. While everyone else is descended from second sons or daughters, and thus in an inherently subordinate position, the Hightowers were kings in their own right before they even married into the line of the Greenhand.

        And as for why Lann the Clever, Brandon the Builder, and Durran Godsgrief are integrated in as descendants of the Greenhnd, I think that has a lot to do with what I said above about the Hightower pride. Claiming the founders of other royal houses were also second sons of Garth Greenhand works as a sort of cultural chauvinist way to say that really Gardeners are superior to thede houses and that these lesser children should show fealty. Even in cases where it doesn’t serve to justify actual claims on their lands, it still says that the Gardeners come first.

        Alongside which there’s also the in universe aspect that these mythical ancestries are treated seriously enough to argue about. They are unlikely to nakedly invent shit if it would endanger people taking this hegemonic narrative seriously. The Hightower control of the Citadel and the Starry Sept gives them a unique ability to influence the narrative in their favor and to control some of the bounds of what “nakedly inventing shit” means. The Starks, Lannisters, and Durrandons might fume about the presumptous nature of the Gardeners. But only the Hightowers can push the Citadel to “discover” evidence putting the Gardener claims of supremacy into question, or persuade the high Septon to “receive a vision” from the Father above denouncing the Gardener line as the descendants of an ancient cuckolding of the real Garth Gardener. The Hightowers risk the legitimacy of these bodies if they too overtly use them to target their enemies. But there’s no way the Hightowers haven’t to some extent had their fingers on the scale in a way that benefits them.

  5. Excellent read. However, the link for early-modern state-building doesn’t seem to work for me?

  6. Milk Steak says:

    Good write up.

    It is in no way your fault but god I hate the racist mudpeople Lovecraft stuff.

    • Hedrigal says:

      Yeah, it’s really unfortuante the Deep Ones are one of Lovecrsfts “core” monsters. Because they’re ultimately one of the ones that is most nakedly a racist metaphor for miscegenation. A lot of the others can be separated from Lovecrafts bigotry, it’s an incidental story element that doesn’t impact anything in most storied. But some of them have an essentially impossible to deal with link to it. The deep ones are a group of South Pacific Islanders who seek to pervert the bloodline of good pure white New England, and the offspring of these deep ones and humans are innevitably driven to side with their monstrous kin against wider humanity, with the only sollution being for these spawn to kill themselves.

      Even taking out the fact they’re stated to have already had their impact on the races Lovecraft despised, it’s still hard not to see the implication of what this is getting getting at if you’re in any way clued into the concepts he’s referencing.

  7. Space Oddity says:

    And to add to the weirdness, let’s not forget that the Hightowers and the Daynes–who again, are neighbors–are native Westerosi, and yet possess many curiously Valyrian features, to the point that we’ve had at least two Hightower women noted as looking nearly identical to Targaryens, and the Daynes are carrying around a magical sword that is like a Valyrian steel blade, but not exactly a Valyrian steel blade…

    What the hell happened in the southwest of Westeros?

    • S. Duff says:

      This and the legend that the first Hightowers slew the dragons roosting on Battle Isle makes me think that it was the Valyrians who founded an early outpost in Westeros, and probably got seriously beat up by the Deep Ones.

      It would explain why the Valyrians weren’t fans of going back to Westeros until after the Doom.

    • Two, I thought it was just the one?

    • I should mention that Garmund Hightower married Rhaena Targaryen so that could be where the looks come from. And I know they only had daughters but if Garmund was the heir or something like that one of them might have married a cousin meaning the main Hightower branch would descend from Targs.

  8. Sean C. says:

    It’s interesting to note how many of the quasi-mythical progenitors of the Reach’s noble houses are women, something that’s pretty much unknown elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms outside of Nymeria in Dorne (which is a bit different since she undeniably existed, which isn’t necessarily the case here).

    • Yeah, the early Reach seems to have been more gender-egalitarian.

      • gbajithedeceiver says:

        The myths were likely too deeply entrenched for the Andals to displace. Sort of how all those pagans stubbornly held onto their goddesses and the Catholics had to embrace them as saints.

        • Sean C. says:

          I don’t think it has much to do with the Andals. The First Men aren’t any more gender-equal (indeed, GRRM has been very explicit that the North has never had a female ruler, which hardly speaks to a more egalitarian culture).

          • But the First Men probably weren’t uniform in their culture, as this series has helped make clear. It’s possible in the Reach, but not elsewhere, women were considered more equal.

        • Ioseff says:

          Or to denounce them as demons (which technically they are, Daemon in Ancient Greek was Daimon, meaning only spirit, and of course, if your spirit does not serve the One Divinity… and angels come from angelos which means messenger, so their powers come from being messengers of the one true divinity and it means that the “false divinities” are daimones or daimonoi or however is called in plural)

          Mostly as demons, saints were only as necessary measures when military power would not do.

  9. Gonzalo says:

    And let’s not forget that dragons also roosted on Battle Isle until the first Hightower put an end to them, according to the Oldtown section of TWOIAF

    • S. Duff says:

      Perhaps the “dragons” were the descendants of Valyrians who built the foundation of the Hightower, rather than actual dragons?

      • Hedrigal says:

        Theyd have to travel through time. The hightower structure predates the dragonlords most likely.

        • S. Duff says:

          Ah, too true. Yeah, it looks like there was another culture (probably based in Asshai) that taught the Valyrians dragonriding and built the Mazes and so forth.

          • Space Oddity says:

            More or less what I think, especially when Dawn enters the picture. One possibility is that the Valyrians’ distinctive hair and eyes is what happens when you put a bit of dragon in a human, and the Daynes and Hightowers (and probably a few other noble houses in the region) have just enough of the old blood to let the traits keep popping up, albeit with actual kinship to dragons lessened to next to nothing.

  10. Andrew says:

    1. Garth’s antlers could have referred to the branches of his crown akin to Ineluki’s crown in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn made from branches appearing like antlers.

    2. So the Children, the Others and the giants aren’t the only original sentient inhabitants of Westeros? There were also the Deep Ones and the Mazemakers. According to legend, the race that built Asshai, the Five Forts and Yeen likely taught the Valyrians their arts as well before they died out. It would be interesting to learn how they interacted with one another.

    3.To add to mythological/religious references, the Kings of the Reach wore crowns of thorns akin to Christ, only it was when they went to war.

  11. KrimzonStriker says:

    If you can look past the regular anime cliches I highly recommend playing Nihom Falcom’s JRPG’s franchise Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel series at some point. They have the most expansive world building and politically complicated stories I’ve ever come across in that gaming genre, with almost all the named NPC’s having their own ongoing stories and personalities you can check in on over time. Zemuria itself is a fascinating construct of geo-politics and mythical magic elements as well.

  12. S. Duff says:

    The Titan stuff does seem a bit tinfoily, but I am curious to know how you think Durran Godsgrief fits in to all this. Marrying the daughter of a Sea God, prompting a war between man and the ocean itself? An unimaginably strong fortress bound with magic, with the thickest side facing the ocean? There’s got to be some connection there.

  13. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, I respect your scholarship and in particular your powers of analysis more than most (in fact I will back you against almost any other opinion on the Seven Kingdoms, short of Grand Maester George and his co-authors – who quite literally wrote The Book on The World of Ice and Fire) but I am also an almighty fan of the Old World (Warhammer Fantasy) and your description of Bretonnia as “Untainted by any conception of Sin” can only be called HILARIOUSLY Innocent.

    Just look up the History of Mousillon, BARONY OF THE DAMNED if you don’t believe me! (Please forgive me for jumping from the very start of the article just to post this, but as a man who owns quite a few Bretonnia-related sourcebooks I simply couldn’t let this particular misconception stand unchallenged).

    Alright, I admit it, Knights and Chivalry AND Castles are my Thing when it comes to Fantasy but in mitigation I can only plead that no Setting with quite so much of Monty Python beating at its heart can be ALL Good …

    • I know, I know, I wasn’t sure whether to cut Bretonnia (I mean, the benighted peasants don’t fit at all), but they are so close on so many other factors that I decided to throw them in.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        Fair enough – Hi-Ho Dobbin AWAY, For The LADY! (leaps onto a hobby horse borne aloft by two sturdy rustics and is borne off, with a third and a fourth following behind to provide appropriate equestrian sound effects – coconuts may or may not be involved – one of whom turns to the other and whispers on the quiet).

        Coco – “Well ’tis a living and ye master has promised us each a goat!”

        Nut – “Fool, he has promised us each a GROAT.”

        Coco – “The money is still good but I WAS hoping to have a wife by the end of this.”

      • Hedrigal says:

        The way I see it the goal with Brettonia was a deliberate attempt to subvert the Arthurian setting. On its surface it looks like the noble chivalric fantasy setting, but when you dig deeper into it everything starts to look a little strange and malformed. Because in the end Brettonia is a place that shouldn’t exist or function in the way it does. Within the world it inhabits, it only really makes sense as being consciously manipulated and exploited by outside forces. Especially knowing details like how Grail Knights seem to exert a weird mystical pull on normal people around them, leading them to become their deranged fanatical followers, an effect which doesn’t really end after the death of the knight. Overall it works well as an attempt to create a grimdark version of Arthurian myth that doesn’t fall into the trap of just making every noble a pompous elitist asshole trodding on dirty depraved peasants. Which would be an easy route for them to take. Luckily though they realized that would just be a total rehash of the Vampire Counts. Who that archetype of deranged evil aristocrats works much better on.

        Although this is all undercut because knowing Games Workshop their whole initial design concept probably consisted of quoting Monty Python and The Holy Grail at each other for hours only for them to eventually decide they need to be more serious, thus creating s mess of contradictions and internal inconsistencies that they shrug their shoulders and say “eh, whatever”.

        • Abbey Battle says:

          The only thing you seem to have missed out in this near-perfect ‘Pen Portrait’ of the GW creative process would have to be the dodgy French accents, mon vieux!

          One must admit that half the reason I loved the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy so well was the absolute shamelessness with which Games Workshop et al mixed, matched and mismatched their diverse influences – and one must further admit to perennial appetite for Mad & Beautiful ideas (leavened with lots and LOTS of in-jokes) that probably explains my fondness for Superhero Comics as well.

          • Hedrigal says:

            I think they only decided firmly it would be French after they’d gotten to the scene with the French people in their castle are launching cattle at King Arthur and decided it would be best to imagine everything in that accent.

        • Plus all the Warhammer cultures subtly shift (or sometime not so subtly) between editions of the game, which makes any analysis of the Old World a moving target.

  14. artihcus022 says:

    I wonder if Garth Greenhand was a Child of the Forest…the whole forest and green imagery and his faerie nature does point to that.

    • Abbey Battle says:

      I would be surprised if this were so – the Children of the Forest are explicitly mentioned as something quite different from (and quite indifferent to!) the Greenhand himself, so I’d say that Garth the Green is more likely to have been a Green-seer than one of the Children himself.

      In particular compare descriptions of Garth Greenhand with those rumours concerning the nature of the Green Men on the Isle of Faces and you will find some interesting similarities (association with antlers and the colour green for one).

    • Hedrigal says:

      That seems unlikely given how Garth Greenhand likely predates the accord with the children of the forest and the first men. Alongside which too many stories explicitly center on him being among the literal first humans in Westeros. His being a child of the forest would be a too radical a divergence from the legend for it to be reasonable. Especially because it contradicts other lore, like his status as an agricultural God making no sense if he belonged to a species that never actually cultivated crops.

      Personally, my bet is that there was no single Garth Greenhand. Either as a person or as a god. Given the sheer variety of roles he plays in stories and myths, I think it’s probable that this is a god shared across many of the groups (implying a close connection to one another and likely a shared background) which ended up settling the Reach, that they may well have brought him with them across the arm of Dorne, establishing themselves early on in the most fertile region of the seven kingdoms, and venerating their shared fertility God who has brought them there.

  15. You know its darkly funny that the only other kingdom that has a common ancestor for all their noble houses is the Iron Isles.

  16. thatrabidpotato says:

    Before I read any further in what is undoubtedly going to be another excellent essay (you should write a terrible one, Steven, just for a change), I have to say that comparing the Reach to Warhammer’s Bretonnia is a bad comparison. Bretonnia is FAR from a peaceful or idyllic realm. That’s just how it likes to portray itself. It’s forests hold monsters as bad as those anywhere else in the Old World, and Mousillon is a corrupted vampiric city sitting in its very heart. That’s not even getting into how the Bretonnian peasants are treated- Steven, as Mr. Team Smallfolk, you should’ve been all over that. They aren’t even allowed to worship the same god(dess) as the nobles! For all the shit Westerosi peasants take, the Seven are common to everyone.

    • thatrabidpotato says:

      As a huge video gamer and fan of all three games involved, I LOVE the comparisons though.
      Though I’d say that only Toussaint really comes close to being an idyllic and peaceful realm.

    • Grant says:

      Remember that WH social structures vary from edition to edition and writer to writer. Some have Bretonnia as a gleaming land of chivalry, others as a hypocritical elitist mess of a nation.

  17. Ioseff says:

    Hmmmmmmmmmmm what was that theory of certain Garth the Greenhand’s grandson again? Let’s see:

    Named as one of his children? Checked. (Brandon)
    Badass epithet akin to Northmen? Checked. (Bloody Blade)
    Badass event attributed to him? Checked. (Blue to Red Lake)
    Someone whose spare (female) line comes from that place? Checked. (Rose)
    The ruler of the place of the badass event has something special on his bloodline? Checked. (Skinchanging)
    The progression of epithets is akin to the phases of building a state? Checked. (Greenhand = Laying claim/hands on a land. Bloody Blade = Primitive formation of the state in bloodshed. The BUILDER = Needless to say, and as an aside, Garth’s firstborn directly was Gardener, without the whole primitive but also intermediary bloody phase)

    Well, mystery solved and confirmed, House Stark DOES have a claim on the Reach and separately on Red Lake.

    Your thoughts, Venerable Maester Steven?

  18. […] Last time, we discussed the geography of the Reach, and the pre-history of Garth Greenhand and how it structured the polity that House Gardener would build. In this essay, we’ll look at how House Gardener went from ruling a fortnight’s ride from the walls of Highgarden to the masters of the Reach. […]

  19. […] so the Stormlands campaign spilled out into a “broader war” that was the age-old strategic nightmare of the Reach come to life, with Highgarden facing invasions from the northwest (under Lancel IV […]

  20. […] of the male line perishing in a single conflict.[3] It is hard to explain how momentous this was: House Gardener had created the Reach as an idea and ruled over its ever-expanding borders for the whole of recorded history. The sense […]

  21. […] as the Reach was once made of up of four kingdoms, the Stormlands are made up of distinct regions. Cape Wrath is distinguished both by its Rainwood […]

  22. […] suffered the most from this, and it’s worth recalling the inspiration for the Reach was medieval Aquitaine, where Eleanor ruled and Richard grew to adulthood. Not exactly a place known for its unimpressive […]

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