“It was the moment she had dreamt of and dreaded. Have I lost two sons, or three?”
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.
I have to admit that I was somewhat daunted at the thought of writing this essay, because Catelyn II is such a huge chapter in the broader story of ASOIAF. While it’s true that the plan was in the works long before news of the events at the Crag were known, this is the chapter where the Red Wedding becomes a part of the POV of the character who will be the witness to that horrific event.
Laying the Foundations for Tragedy
As a result, the undertones and symbolism of tragedy that have been in the background of Catelyn’s POV ever since Ned’s death surge to the fore. This begins with the weather, which will become an ever-present, oppressive presence in her chapters:
“It had been raining for days now, a cold grey downpour that well suited Catelyn’s mood. Her father was growing weaker and more delirious with every passing day, waking only to mutter, “Tansy,” and beg forgiveness. Edmure shunned her, and Ser Desmond Grell still denied her freedom of the castle, however unhappy it seemed to make him. Only the return of Ser Robin Ryger and his men, footweary and drenched to the bone, served to lighten her spirits.”
This idea that weather and the larger environment is a reflected of the tragic protagonist’s state of mind is a pretty well-established trope in the genre: Macbeth’s “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” is meant both to call back to the Three Witches’ earlier prophesying, but also to speak to Macbeth’s state of mental and physical exhaustion; likewise, the apocalyptic storm that rages across King Lear from Act III onward is meant to suggest something of the Fisher King’s link between the disordered mind of the king and his disordered kingdom.
However, it’s more than weather that picks out the chapter as the opening act of a tragedy. While Catelyn has had elements of the tragic heroine present for some time, it’s really starting in this chapter that she acquires the gift of foresight so familiar to Greek tragedy. As in those plays, however, this gift isn’t the same thing as superior intellectual but rather a random premonition – Catelyn fixates on details that will be significant without knowing why she’s doing that:
“…A boy she did not know seemed to be acting as Robb’s squire. Behind him stood a young knight in a sand-colored surcoat blazoned with seashells, and an older one who wore three black pepperpots on a saffron bend, across a field of green and silver stripes. Between them were a handsome older lady and a pretty maid who looked to be her daughter. There was another girl as well, near Sansa’s age. The seashells were the sigil of some lesser house…”
There’s no particular reason for Catelyn to focus on these people as opposed to anyone else in the audience room, but one of the benefits of tragic foresight is that you only focus on plot-relevant details. (Which makes it handy for GRRM, because it allows him to play his three-fold revelation games by using Catelyn to draw the eyes of his audience where he wants them to go). For a further example, think about how Catelyn reacts to something that isn’t there:
“It was only then that Catelyn realized what was amiss. The wolf. The wolf is not here. Where is Grey Wind? She knew the direwolf had returned with Robb, she had heard the dogs, but he was not in the hall, not at her son’s side where he belonged.”
“…Grey Wind doesn’t like her uncle either. He bares his teeth every time Ser Rolph comes near him.”
A chill went through her. “Send Ser Rolph away. At once.”
As she herself admits, Catelyn has no rational basis for mistrusting Ser Rolph Spicer. (Likewise, Robb will make some fairly practical, if unknowingly inaccurate, points about Bran and Rickon not being protected by their wolves.) And even if you’re re-reading the books, Rolph Spicer is hardly a driving force behind the Red Wedding, so his being sent away is ultimately inconsequential. This is because foresight was originally seen as an unbidden (and usually unwelcome) gift from the gods, which showed the recipient their fate but never gave them the ability to escape it.
Part of what makes Catelyn’s prophetic impulses work is the way that GRRM plays with information in this chapter: by having Edmure withhold information from the POV character (out of anger for her freeing Jaime), he withholds information from the reader as well:
“Something else was wrong as well. On the day her brother returned, a few hours after their argument, she had heard angry voices from the yard below. When she climbed to the roof to see, there were knots of men gathered across the castle beside the main gate. Horses were being led from the stables, saddled and bridled, and there was shouting, though Catelyn was too far away to make out the words. One of Robb’s white banners lay on the ground, and one of the knights turned his horse and trampled over the direwolf as he spurred toward the gate… Close to forty men poured out through the castle gates, to what end she did not know.”
In sharp contrast to her flashes of insight, Catelyn here is seeing the Freys react to the news of Robb’s marriage without understanding. It nicely leavens her moments of impossible anticipation, preventing her from becoming insufferable or removed from the normal constraints of humanity. At the same time, by letting the reader know that something’s up but withholding the full significance until the end of the chapter, GRRM ensures that the reader shares Catelyn’s sense of tension and unease, which builds and builds until the moment of release when Robb finally explains what the hell is going on.
Trapped by Forgiveness
As I’ve said in the past, I don’t like it when Robb Stark is portrayed as StupidRobb either in the book or the show (because it reinforces the tendency to dismiss him as a feckless adolescent whose death is less a tragedy and more of a necessary clearing of the stage for our real heroes) and I don’t like it when Catelyn is unnecessarily hatred on by the fandom or stripped of her political nous in the show in order to make Robb look better. And no small part of that is because their relationship in the books (when it’s done well) is a complicated thing between two intelligent people who don’t need to be made less to make the other look good.
The complex nature of their relationship makes itself known in their reconciliation. Initially, Catelyn is desperate for forgiveness from Robb. In part, this is because he is the one child left to her:
“Robb, she knew, the moment she heard the kennels erupt.”
“Her son had returned to Riverrun, and Grey Wind with him. Only the scent of the great grey direwolf could send the hounds into such a frenzy of baying and barking. He will come to me, she knew. Edmure had not returned after his first visit, preferring to spend his days with Marq Piper and Patrek Mallister, listening to Rymund the Rhymer’s verses about the battle at the Stone Mill. Robb is not Edmure, though. Robb will see me.”
“But now Robb was returned from the west, returned in triumph. He will forgive me, Catelyn told herself. He must forgive me, he is my own son, and Arya and Sansa are as much his blood as mine. He will free me from these rooms and then I will know what has happened.”
Beyond an emotional need for connection and catharsis, it’s telling that Catelyn also sees forgiveness as a means to escape the bonds of ignorance and inactivity, a means to get back into the political world that she’s been exiled from since the end of ACOK. It might not be the most admirable reaction, but it’s a deeply human one: GRRM has spoken repeatedly that his decision to make Catelyn Stark a POV character was his interest in exploring an Eleanor of Acquitaine-type – in other words, a political figure and not just an capital-M mother figure, and we see that here.
Indeed, you can see a lot of this side of Catelyn in the way that Robb approaches the question of forgiveness:
“If Robb looks at me as Edmure did, I do not know what I will do. But it seemed to her that it was not anger she saw in her son’s eyes, but something else…apprehension, perhaps? No, that made no sense. What should he fear? He was the Young Wolf, King of the Trident and the North.”
“…The gods are good, then.” Catelyn took a deep breath. Say it. It cannot be avoided. “They will have told you what I did. Did they tell you my reasons?”
“For the girls…”
“…Enough.” For just an instant Robb sounded more like Brandon than his father. “No man calls my lady of Winterfell a traitor in my hearing, Lord Rickard.” When he turned to Catelyn, his voice softened. “If I could wish the Kingslayer back in chains I would. You freed him without my knowledge or consent…but what you did, I know you did for love. For Arya and Sansa, and out of grief for Bran and Rickon. Love’s not always wise, I’ve learned. It can lead us to great folly, but we follow our hearts…wherever they take us….I know what it is to love so greatly you can think of nothing else.”
On a public relations level, Robb walks a careful line, quite protective of – because no one respects a king who lets his bannermen badmouth his female relations – and empathetic towards his mother’s motives, while being very clear that he doesn’t approve of the results of her actions. And for all that Robb often gets labelled as a political dullard; look at how cleverly he traps his mother into forgiving him by framing the discussion in terms of the excesses of love (while at the same time using that framing to give his bannermen a narrative to explain his mother’s actions that they’ll accept). It takes some political sangfroid (to say the least) to box someone in this way when you’re in a weak position yourself.
Likewise, if we’re putting Robb Stark’s political skills to the acid test, one of the things that struck me on this re-read is how cunning Robb’s use of language is here. When Robb tells his mother “I know what it is to love so greatly you can think of nothing else,” or when he tells her that “I took an arrow through the arm while storming the Crag…I had the best of care” without explaining who that care came from or what form that care took, he is in essence confessing without actually explaining what he’s done, winning forgiveness without having to make a full account of his misdeeds. Again, it may not be the most admirable quality, but it is a quality that is most useful to kings and other political figures. (After all, would it benefit the Northern cause if Robb was to baldly state before the entire audience hall that he schtupped and then quickie-married Jeyne Westerling, or would it just inflame public opinion?)
Just as Robb’s reaction to his mother freeing Jaime Lannister is lightyears different from his rather harsh (and hypocritical) response on the show, so too is the reaction of the political community of the North and the Riverlands a more complicated spectrum. Yes, it’s true that Rickard Karstark is deeply embittered and resentful of Catelyn’s actions:
“Aye, my lady.” Lord Rickard Karstark pushed past the Greatjon, like some grim specter with his black mail and long ragged grey beard, his narrow face pinched and cold. “And I have one son, who once had three. You have robbed me of my vengeance.”
Catelyn faced him calmly. “Lord Rickard, the Kingslayer’s dying would not have bought life for your children. His living may buy life for mine.”
The lord was unappeased. “Jaime Lannister has played you for a fool. You’ve bought a bag of empty words, no more. My Torrhen and my Eddard deserved better of you.”
It’s also true, however, that Rickard Karstark was deeply embittered and resentful long before Catelyn did anything – and was probably spiraling down into a suicidal depression ever since the Whispering Wood – and represents a pretty extreme reaction. He has some sympathizers – “Galbart Glover and Lord Jason Mallister were cooler, and Jonos Bracken almost icy” – but no one else is willing to openly antagonize the king by openly accusing his mother of treason, so even those who disapprove make sure that “their words were courteous enough.” At the same time, however, there’s a good deal of Robb’s followers who sympathize with Catelyn:
Her uncle was the first to greet her. As black a fish as ever, Ser Brynden had no care for what others might think. He leapt off the dais and pulled Catelyn into his arms. When he said, “It is good to see you home, Cat,” she had to struggle to keep her composure. “And you,” she whispered.
“…Leave off, Karstark,” rumbled the Greatjon, crossing his huge arms against his chest. “It was a mother’s folly. Women are made that way.”
“… she found herself surrounded by a circle of well-wishers. Lady Mormont took her hand and said, “My lady, if Cersei Lannister held two of my daughters, I would have done the same.” The Greatjon, no respecter of proprieties, lifted her off her feet and squeezed her arms with his huge hairy hands.”
While the Blackfish’s support comes from a place of unconditional familial love (remember this for later) that doesn’t characterize most of Robb’s bannermen, it’s interesting to note the contrasting reasons for Catelyn’s support: the Greatjon buys into Robb’s framing completely, while I doubt that Maege Mormont bought into it for a second. Instead, she supports Catelyn’s actions on their own terms, making quite clear that at least on Bear Island, daughters are not considered lesser than sons.
After the Audience
The narrative of Catelyn II becomes even more complicated when you consider that everything that’s come before – from Robb’s praise of Edmure that “Lord Tywin…had his fill of northmen and rivermen both,” to his forgiveness of his mother – was all intended for public consumption. Once the hall has been cleared, both Catelyn and the reader are made privy to a second layer of truth, which recontextualizes what’s come before going back to ACOK. Even here, though, GRRM uses the slow burn to delay full revelation:
“My lady, sers, are you new to my son’s cause?”
“”New,” said the younger knight, him of the seashells, “but fierce in our courage and firm in our loyalties, as I hope to prove to you, my lady.”
Robb looked uncomfortable. “Mother,” he said, “may I present the Lady Sybell, the wife of Lord Gawen Westerling of the Crag.” The older woman came forward with solemn mien. “Her husband was one of those we took captive in the Whispering Wood…Ser Rolph Spicer, Lady Sybell’s brother…the children of Lord Gawen and Lady Sybell. Ser Raynald Westerling…Eleyna…Rollam Westerling, my squire…”
On a re-read, it’s almost comical how much Robb (and GRRM) are slow-rolling things here, introducing Catelyn to seemingly every single member of the extended Westerling-Spicer clan before getting to the actual point. But it does work to raise the reader’s tension along with Catelyn’s as she proceeds in a state of incomprehension. And then just when the tension couldn’t be worse, GRRM drops the bombshell:
The maid came forward last, and very shy. Robb took her hand. “Mother,” he said, “I have the great honor to present you the Lady Jeyne Westerling. Lord Gawen’s elder daughter, and my…ah…to my lady wife.”
The first thought that flew across Catelyn’s mind was, No, that cannot be, you are only a child.
The second was, And besides, you have pledged another.
The third was, Mother have mercy, Robb, what have you done?
Only then came her belated remembrance. Follies done for love? He has bagged me neat as a hare in a snare. I seem to have already forgiven him. Mixed with her annoyance was a rueful admiration; the scene had been staged with the cunning worthy of a master mummer…or a king. Catelyn saw no choice but to take Jeyne Westerling’s hands.
Just as with Robb’s moment of forgiveness, Catelyn’s reaction is a complicated one: her first reaction is a simple emotional response common to pretty much any parent who hears that their child has gotten married, had a kid, graduated college, and so on. Her second and third reactions are the responses of a seasoned politician, recognizing the implications of Robb’s actions (more on this when we get to the Freys). At the same time, Catelyn doesn’t wax censorious about the dishonorable nature of Robb’s actions – indeed, later on Catelyn will wish that Robb had simply been more effectively dishonorable, thinking “if you had to fall into a woman’s arms, my son, why couldn’t they have been Margaery Tyrell’s? The wealth and power of Highgarden could have made all the difference in the fighting yet to come.”
More importantly, Catelyn’s reaction to the news doesn’t begin or end with her horror at a broken engagement. While it’s often overlooked by the fandom, she does have a fourth reaction, which is to realize that Robb has completely outplayed her by publicly forgiving her for rash actions taken out of love, which she takes as a sign that he’s actually rather good at being king, and not a political naïf as he’s often reduced to. Moreover, the fact that Catelyn responds to his move with “rueful admiration” shows both the strength of her emotional connection to her son (just as he doesn’t reject her because of Jaime, neither will she reject him because of Jeyne) and how much she values political skill – however mad she might be about Robb’s actions, game has to recognize game.
A Side-Note: The Hips Do Lie
A slight digression: I have to admit that, back in the day, I was a believer in the theory that, given the difference between the description of Jeyne in this chapter as being “slender, but with good hips, Catelyn noted. She should have no trouble bearing children, at least” and the description of Jeyne in Jaime VII of AFFC as having “narrow hips” meant that the second Jeyne was an imposter, and that the real Jeyne had been spirited away from Riverrun by the Blackfish. Since then, it’s been confirmed that the latter description was a mistake on GRRM’s part – which makes it one of the most significant error in all of ASOIAF, save perhaps for the annoyingly persistent “controversy” about the house with the red door and the lemon tree.
With that in mind, the business with Jeyne’s “good hips” seems instead like a foreshadowing of Sybell Spicer’s efforts to prevent Jeyne from giving Robb an heir – part of the cruel joke that GRRM the Fates have turned poor Jeyne’s life into. That being said, I think my attachment to that theory was a big part of the reason why I initially bought into the Talisa-is-a-spy theory during Season 3 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Because I was expecting some sort of twist or unexpected reversal to occur, and in part because Talisa’s character was otherwise such a non-entity, I was convinced that there had to be something there. Just goes to show that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
What Really Happened At the Crag
Speaking of layers of truth, once Catelyn is finally privy to Robb’s big secret, we start to get the inside story about how and why Robb came to marry Jeyne:
“Tell me how this came to be.”
“I took her castle and she took my heart.” Robb smiled. “The Crag was weakly garrisoned, so we took it by storm one night. Black Walder and the Smalljon led scaling parties over the walls, while I broke the main gate with a ram. I took an arrow in the arm just before Ser Rolph yielded us the castle. It seemed nothing at first, but it festered. Jeyne had me taken to her own bed, and she nursed me until the fever passed. And she was with me when the Greatjon brought me the news of…of Winterfell. Bran and Rickon.” He seemed to have trouble saying his brothers’ names. “That night, she…she comforted me, Mother.”
Catelyn did not need to be told what sort of comfort Jeyne Westerling had offered her son. “And you wed her the next day.”
He looked her in the eyes, proud and miserable all at once. “It was the only honorable thing to do.”
In this context, there really is a parallel between Robb’s sleeping with Jeyne and Catelyn freeing Jaime, both acts of desperation prompted by the news of the “deaths” of Bran and Rickon and the fall of Winterfell, both actions that once done could not be easily undone – although there is a bit of timeline weirdness in the fact that Robb hears about it first, despite being further away from Winterfell and being in a much more difficult communications situation than Catelyn was at Riverrun.
And a big part of the reason for this parallel, as I have said elsewhere is that Robb’s decision to marry Jeyne after he’d slept with her is very much driven by the fact that he is the oldest son of both Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully. This is sometimes a controversial (and misunderstood) point: when I say that Robb was thinking of his father when he married Jeyne, I don’t mean that it’s what Ned would have done (because in marrying Catelyn despite all other attachments and in supposedly fathering Jon Snow, he clearly did the opposite) but rather it’s what Ned ought to have done. Remember, Robb had grown up believing that the worst thing his father ever did, the one time he ever besmirched his honor, is that he sired a bastard. And even if Ned Stark’s example wasn’t enough, you can be absolutely sure that Catelyn had educated Robb, both explicitly and implicitly (given the way that she insisted on her children maintaining the social distance between themselves and Jon Snow) that siring a bastard was a Bad Thing. (I wonder if Robb ever heard the stories about Ashara Dayne?)
At the same time, while I no longer believe the Jeyne hips/switch theory, I am a firm believer in the theory that Sybell Spicer was more than a little involved in making sure this came to pass. I’m not going to rehash the entire argument, but I’ll boil it down to Means, Motive, and Opportunity. As the granddaughter of Maggy the Frog and the chief prescriber of medicines as we see with Jeyne herself, Sybell absolutely had the means and opportunity to drug either or both parties with an aphrodisiac. (Indeed, narrative economy would suggest that GRRM wouldn’t bother to tell us about the link between Sybell and Maggy if it wasn’t the case; tansy tea has been sufficiently introduced that it wasn’t necessary to explain Jeyne’s lack of a child.) As for motive: with Jeyne in Robb’s bed, not only is Sybell and her family protected if Robb wins the war, but she also has a bargaining chip to use with Tywin which she wouldn’t if she was merely a defeated vassal.
The Political Fallout: The Freys
Now that everything’s out in the open, the next thing to do is to assess the political implications of what we’ve learned. And this can be very easy to get wrong through over-simplification, and very often is. For example, take Robb’s despairing self-critique in this chapter:
“I’ve made a botch of everything but the battles, haven’t I? I thought the battles would be the hard part, but . . . if I had listened to you and kept Theon as my hostage, I’d still rule the north, and Bran and Rickon would be alive and safe in Winterfell.”
For those who argue that Robb was responsible for losing the war or was bad at being king (or that he should have listened to his mother), this quote about his decision to send Theon to Pyke is Exhibit A. What often gets omitted from the record, however, is the fact that Catelyn, who has every reason in this moment to be critical of her son, rejects this analysis: “Perhaps. Or not. Lord Balon might still have chanced war. The last time he reached for a crown, it cost him two sons. He might have thought it a bargain to lose only one this time.” And while Catelyn doesn’t have the first-hand account that we the readers do, she’s absolutely right: Balon had been preparing to go to war long before Theon was sent to Pyke, and he had no commitment to Theon either as kin or as an heir.
This points to something I’ve been saying for a long time: that while the Starks certainly made their fair share of mistakes, their downfall was ultimately the result of a number of different factors, many (if not most) of them completely unforeseeable (to say nothing of unlikely) – like Theon taking or Ramsay burning Winterfell. This in turn means that it can be difficult to sort out the truly consequential mistakes from the ones that turned out not to matter.
This brings us to the question of the Freys. As I have argued for a long time, while Robb marrying Jeyne Westerling was the catalyst and pretext for the Freys withdrawing from Robb’s coalition, the timing of the Red Wedding means that Walder Frey had already been in the process of betraying both his king and his Lord Paramount before Robb arrived at the Crag. This issue of timing makes it difficult to get an accurate perspective of the impact of Robb’s mistakes:
“And you,” she said softly, “have lost the Freys…dare I ask how many swords came with your bride, Robb?”
“Fifty. A dozen knights.” His voice was glum, as well it might be. When the marriage contract had been made at the Twins, old Lord Walder Frey had sent Robb off with a thousand mounted knights and near three thousand foot.”
For example, contrary to much fan opinion, the loss of House Frey’s forces did not doom the war effort. Altogether, House Frey’s 4,000 men make up only 15% of the Northern alliance’s forces, making their defection a significant loss but not a fatal one. (To get a sense of perspective, the North’s casualties from the Battle of Duskendale alone are almost as large as House Frey’s entire manpower.) And this points to the critical importance of Roose Bolton in making the Red Wedding – because by themselves, the Freys simply weren’t large enough to pull off the attack on Robb’s army – and Roose Bolton’s defection had absolutely nothing to do with Jeyne Westerling.
So thus, it is quite true that “you have done House Frey a grievous insult,” but the resolution of the conflict with House Frey is more complicated than that, depending very much on the personalities of the people involved. It matters greatly that Walder Frey “is not reasonable…He is proud, and prickly to a fault.” But Walder Frey isn’t the only player involved, and as a man who’s his nineties, he’s not necessarily the last word on what House Frey’s policy is, both because he might not be around forever and because he needs younger men to set his policies into motion. And this is something that Robb recognizes:
“With Ser Stevron, I might have been able to make amends, but Ser Ryman is dull-witted as a stone, and Black Walder . . . that one was not named for the color of his beard, I promise you. He went so far as to say that his sisters would not be loath to wed a widower. I would have killed him for that if Jeyne had not begged me to be merciful.”
“And I may need to fight the Freys as well, if Black Walder has his way . . .”
Stevron Frey’s death, likely at the hands of Black Walder, is precisely one of those dominoes that had to fall just right in order for the Red Wedding to happen. As the heir to the Twins, Ser Stevron would have both been an influence on the Twins in favor of reconciliation with the Starks, but also would have been extremely difficult to hide the Red Wedding planning from. By contrast, Black Walder is a massively destabilizing influence within the Twins, always Edmund-like pushing for the course of action that might get him one rung closer to lordship. And from the way he’s described in this chapter, it seems like warring against the Starks and their supporters was part of Black Walder’s agenda of advancement – remember, Black Walder becomes de facto Lord of Seagard thanks to the Red Wedding – for some time.
In the end, we’re left with a complicated and difficult-to-parse situation when it comes to the genesis of the Red Wedding. On the one hand, it is true that Walder Frey is somewhat motivated by spite and pride:
“He wanted to be grandfather to a king. You will not appease him with the offer of two hoary old brigands and the second son of the fattest man in the Seven Kingdoms. Not only have you broken your oath, but you’ve slighted the honor of the Twins by choosing a bride from a lesser house…It has always rankled him that older houses look down on the Freys as upstarts. This insult is not the first he’s borne, to hear him tell it. Jon Arryn was disinclined to foster his grandsons, and my father refused the offer of one of his daughters for Edmure.”
On the other hand, we also have Word of Author that Walder Frey would have betrayed Robb Stark even if Robb hadn’t married Jeyne Westerling, and quite a bit of evidence from later in ASOS and AFFC that, however much “the Red Wedding was motivated by his desire to wash out the dishonor that was done him,” his bargaining with Tywin Lannister for castles, titles, and marriages was done very much in cold blood as opposed to hot. To reconcile these two perspectives, I think we have to reject a monocausal explanation – it was politics or it was ressentiment – and to conclude that it was both.
The Battle of the Fords and Edmure Tully: Closing Statement
As if there wasn’t enough to cover in this behemoth of a chapter, we also get the last piece of the story of the Battle of the Fords, one which plays a major part in the ongoing debate within the fandom over whether or not Edmure exceeded his orders, which we last addressed back in Catelyn VI of ACOK. This is a subject that I’ve expended a lot of words on over the years, but this scene in particular is so important that I think it’s worth doing a close reading.
As with the earlier plot lines about the Crag and Robb forgiving his mother for freeing Jaime, this thread starts with a public façade that then gets revealed as false in private:
Edmure stood below the crowded dais, head bowed modestly as Robb praised his victory. “. . . fell at the Stone Mill shall never be forgotten. Small wonder Lord Tywin ran off to fight Stannis. He’d had his fill of northmen and rivermen both.” That brought laughter and approving shouts, but Robb raised a hand for quiet. “Make no mistake, though. The Lannisters will march again, and there will be other battles to win before the kingdom is secure.”
The first thing to note here is that Robb is, once again, doing some rather good political work: as mad as he is about what Edmure has done, he keeps it under control and publicly praises Edmure’s actions in the interests of preserving the North/Riverlands alliance, hence his phrasing of “northmen and riverlands both” balancing out the two halves of “the kingdom” he rules. At the same time, this cuts against the argument that Robb is trying to make Edmure the judas goat for his failures as a commander – if that was the case, especially given the very public nature of his recent marriage, the obvious strategy is to make Edmure’s humiliation as public as possible to provide the biggest distraction form Robb’s actions.
Instead, Edmure gets called onto the carpet in private – to the extent that Brynden Tully waits until no one is present other than Cat and Robb before he reveals the truth:
Edmure was filling his uncle’s ear with the whole story of the fight at the Stone Mill. It was only after the servants had come and gone that the Blackfish cleared his throat and said, “I think we’ve all heard sufficient of your boasting, Nephew.”
Edmure was taken aback. “Boasting?
“I mean,” said the Blackfish, “that you owe His Grace your thanks for his forbearance. He played out that mummer’s farce in the Great Hall so as not to shame you before your own people. Had it been me I would have flayed you for your stupidity rather than praising this folly of the fords.”
Contrary to his rather one-note characterization on the show, Brynden Tully is not habitually belittling or dismissive towards Edmure. Instead, he’s characterized by his fierce love for his kin; hence his desire to rush to Riverrun’s defense back in AGOT, hence his instant forgiveness of Catelyn in this chapter. This would suggest that Brynden’s anger towards Edmure over “this folly of the fords” is quite genuine, as it would have had to overcome a natural instinct towards forgiveness. This brings up a major weakness of the Edmure-was-right theory: it relies on assuming that the Blackfish, who has no reason to lie to Edmure in this moment, would essentially gaslight his nephew for a selfish (and indeed pointless, as I’ll explain in a bit) purpose that is entirely out of character. Meanwhile Edmure’s reaction speaks to the important question of Edmure’s motivations:
“Good men died to defend those fords, Uncle.” Edmure sounded outraged. “What, is no one to win victories but the Young Wolf? Did I steal some glory meant for you, Robb?” What do you mean?”
“Your Grace,” Robb corrected, icy. “You took me for your king, Uncle. Or have you forgotten that as well?”
While Edmure’s solicitousness for his subjects speaks to his characteristic good-heartedness, the fact that his initial reaction to being told that he made a mistake is to focus on the “glory” won or lost rather than the military goals that the battle was meant to accomplish speaks to Edmure’s frequent blind-spot when it comes to the bigger picture of military strategy. And the fact that his immediate assumption (an assumption which many pro-Edmure critics share) is that Robb is doing this out of a jealous desire to hoard all of the credit for the War of Five Kings – which as an analysis of character is flatly contradicted by Robb’s weary and self-deprecating interactions with Catelyn earlier this chapter – speaks to his tendency toward immaturity and his motivations for fighting the battle in the first place.
But all of this is as prologue to the main issue of what Edmure’s orders were, whether he exceeded them, and how this relates to Robb’s larger strategy in the Westerlands:
The Blackfish said, “You were commanded to hold Riverrun, Edmure, no more.”
“I held Riverrun, and I bloodied Lord Tywin’s nose—”
“So you did,” said Robb. “But a bloody nose won’t win the war, will it? Did you ever think to ask yourself why we remained in the west so long after Oxcross? You knew I did not have enough men to threaten Lannisport or Casterly Rock…
“You think we stayed for plunder?” Robb was incredulous. “Uncle, I wanted Lord Tywin to come west.”
“We were all horsed,” Ser Brynden said. “The Lannister host was mainly foot. We planned to run Lord Tywin a merry chase up and down the coast, then slip behind him to take up a strong defensive position athwart the gold road, at a place my scouts had found where the ground would have been greatly in our favor. If he had come at us there, he would have paid a grievous price. But if he did not attack, he would have been trapped in the west, a thousand leagues from where he needed to be. All the while we would have lived off his land, instead of him living off ours.”
“Lord Stannis was about to fall upon King’s Landing,” Robb said. “He might have rid us of Joffrey, the queen, and the Imp in one red stroke. Then we might have been able to make a peace.”
Edmure looked from uncle to nephew. “You never told me.”
“I told you to hold Riverrun,” said Robb. “What part of that command did you fail to comprehend?”
“When you stopped Lord Tywin on the Red Fork,” said the Blackfish, “you delayed him just long enough for riders out of Bitterbridge to reach him with word of what was happening to the east. Lord Tywin turned his host at once, joined up with Matthis Rowan and Randyll Tarly near the headwaters of the Blackwater, and made a forced march to Tumbler’s Falls, where he found Mace Tyrell and two of his sons waiting with a huge host and a fleet of barges. They floated down the river, disembarked half a day’s ride from the city, and took Stannis in the rear.”
Given the importance of this passage, it’s worth breaking it down in detail. The first is the question of what Robb’s orders were: here, Brynden Tully says that he was “commanded to hold Riverrun…no more,” which is confirmed by Robb’s comment about “what part of that command.” This is significantly different from the version of Edmure’s orders that Catelyn heard back in ACOK, and since the news of those orders were coming from a mere scout, either Robb is telling an utterly transparent lie that no one would believe or Edmure was embellishing the content of his orders to his subordinates in order to magnify his own importance to the war effort (and lend legitimacy to the orders he was giving that set up the Battle of the Fords).
The second, and related question, is whether Robb’s orders were sufficiently clear: should he have told Edmure about his intentions to lure Tywin into the Westerlands and prevent him from reinforcing King’s Landing? This is a rather difficult question to answer because of the way that presentism influences our thinking; unlike either Edmure or Robb at the time that the orders were given, we know both how that influenced the Battle of the Blackwater (as they have now discovered) but also the Red Wedding (which they don’t know). So the fairer question to ask is: given the established military traditions of Westeros which Edmure, Robb, and Brynden were raised in, were Robb’s orders to “hold Riverrun” insufficiently specific or insufficiently explanatory of the larger strategic picture?
I would argue not. Whether we’re talking about Ned’s orders to “raise a hundred bowmen each and fortify Moat Cailin,” or Tywin’s orders to set “the riverlands afire from the Gods Eye to the Red Fork,” military orders in Westeros tend to be simple, limited to a single objective, and without reference to the larger strategic picture. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense, given the level of military science in Westeros – we’re not dealing with the rationalized German Army of WWI, with a general staff war-gaming out strategic plans in detail but expecting highly-trained junior officers to exercise discretion in the field, we’re dealing with medieval armies where it is extremely rare for even an overall commander like Tywin or Robb not to be able to see their subordinate officers on the same field and give verbal orders, and where coordination between separate armies in the field is extremely difficult given the limitations of ravenry to a set network of castles. (Consider, for example, Tywin’s total inability to communicate with Jaime’s army at Riverrun after the Battle of the Green Fork revealed that Robb had divided his forces.) And at the end of the day, if as it seems in this chapter Edmure’s orders were only to “hold Riverrun” and not to “guard his rear,” I think we have to conclude that the specificity and simplicity of that order was well within the norm of Westerosi warfare.
The third question is whether Robb’s plan as presented here – to “run Lord Tywin a merry chase up and down the coast, then slip behind him to take up a strong defensive position athwart the gold road” and either force Tywin to fight a battle on their terms or “if he did not attack, he would have been trapped in the west, a thousand leagues from where he needed to be” – is plausible. The second half of the plan I think is pretty uncontroversially sound: Robb was well aware of the threat that Stannis and Renly posed to King’s Landing and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if Tywin is almost a thousand miles away, he’s not going to be there to defend the city.
The first half, where Robb plans to force a setpiece battle between his 6,000 cavalry and Tywin’s 15,000 men, is far more daring. Now it’s possible that Robb and Brynden might have been planning to use the classic cavalry tactic of using superior mobility to attack your enemy in detail – Brynden does mention that “We were all horsed…the Lannister host was mainly foot,” so it’s possible that they were hoping to separate the foot from the horse when they were running “Lord Tywin a merry chase up and down the coast” and just fight Tywin’s cavalry.
On the other hand, Robb and Brynden had previously fought and won battles where they were outnumbered, so it may be that they were (as with the Whispering Wood and the Camps) planning to use geography to overcome any numerical advantage. And it’s here that we have to consider why Robb and Brynden would have wanted to “to take up a strong defensive position athwart the gold road…where the ground would have been greatly in our favor.” It is somewhat unusual, to say the least, for an all-cavalry force to fight a defensive battle: traditionally, cavalry rely on their speed and mobility to constantly be on the attack (and on the move), whereas defensive fights tend to involve defending a fixed position. On the other hand, it’s very common for defensive battles to be conducted in a location where the terrain makes it impossible for the attacker to make use of their advantages: the thick forests at Teutoberg Forest which prevented the Roman legions from getting into formation, or the forests which prevented the French cavalry from flanking the English position at Agincourt.
So here’s how I think the “Battle of the Gold Road” would have worked (many thanks to Something Like A Lawyer @warsofasoiaf for his assistance here): Robb and Brynden, after fighting a series of skirmishes throughout the Westerlands intended to wear down and string out Tywin’s army, take up a position along the Gold Road, threatening to prevent Tywin from leaving the Westerlands to come to the defense of King’s Landing. (Yes, Tywin could take the River Road, but it’s the longer route and it goes straight by the strongly-held Riverrun, and it’s a bad idea to allow yourself to get trapped between two enemy forces.) The “ground” at this position is typified by large hills that prevent Tywin from bringing his superior numbers to bear and funnel his army into the roadway – at the same time, the hills give Robb and Brynden the ability to see all of Tywin’s troop movements while screening all of their own movements. In the center along the roadbed, Robb places a dug-in line of dismounted man-at-arms (similar to Henry V’s tactics at Agincourt) to hold Tywin’s army in place and prevent it from achieving a breakthrough. Once Tywin commits his reserves in an effort to do just that, Robb and Brynden send their hidden cavalry reserve around the hills on either side and into Tywin’s rear, trapping his entire force in the roadbed between the dug-in men-at-arms and the oncoming cavalry.
Needless to say, this is a rather ambitious plan, but it’s hardly outside of the norm of military science. Certainly, I see nothing here that would suggest that the plan is implausible to the point of being an obvious falsehood. As with before, the Edmure-was-right theory has to explain why Robb and Brynden would lie about something so easy to disprove; after all, Brynden’s story states that there were multiple scouts involved in choosing the putative battlefield who would know for certain whether or not they had found such a location and reported on it to their commander.
A last final word on the subject: at the end of the day, Edmure (who more than anyone else at this moment has the greatest motivation to mount a counter-argument against their case, completely accepts that he was in the wrong:
Edmure looked ill. “I never meant . . . never, Robb, you must let me make amends. I will lead the van in the next battle!”
For amends, brother? Or for glory?
And it’s here where I think the Edmure-was-right camp falls between two stools: if Edmure is the kind of easily-manipulated simpleton who would buy such a transparent farrago of lies, he’s hardly likely to also be a strategic mastermind whose plan for the Battle of the Fords was clearly the best course of action; on the other hand, if he’s that good at military strategy, why would he be taken in by an obvious fraud? I would argue a third case, one far more based on Edmure’s character as described in text: Edmure exceeded his orders out of a desire to prove himself, which is consistent with the kind of person who thinks that leading the vanguard (which is normally an honor and reward is how one makes amends for a mistake.
Dilemmas and Fate
And so we are left with the basic setup for the Red Wedding: Robb has to march North to retake his home and his kingdom, in order to do that he has to go by the Twins, which means placating the Freys, which means Edmure has to marry a Frey. (Incidentally, this is another Doylist reason why the Edmure-is-right theory doesn’t work: in order for the Red Wedding to happen, Edmure needs to agree to the Frey marriage he’s previously and subsequently disparaged, which requires him to have done something wrong to atone for. If Edmure’s done nothing wrong, then he has no motive to agree to the wedding.) Right?:
“So long as Theon Greyjoy sits in your father’s seat with your brothers’ blood on his hands, these other foes must wait,” Catelyn told her son. “Your first duty is to defend your own people, win back Winterfell, and hang Theon in a crow’s cage to die slowly. Or else put off that crown for good, Robb, for men will know that you are no true king at all.”
From the way Robb looked at her, she could tell that it had been a long while since anyone had dared speak to him so bluntly. “When they told me Winterfell had fallen, I wanted to go north at once,” he said, with a hint of defensiveness. “I wanted to free Bran and Rickon, but I thought…I never dreamed that Theon could harm them, truly. If I had…”
“The last word we had from the north, Ser Rodrik had defeated a force of ironmen near Torrhen’s Square, and was assembling a host at Castle Cerwyn to retake Winterfell,” said Robb. “By now he may have done it. There has been no news for a long while. And what of the Trident, if I turn north? I can’t ask the river lords to abandon their own people.”
“No,” said Catelyn. “Leave them to guard their own, and win back the north with northmen.”
“How will you get the northmen to the north?”
“We must win back the Freys,” said Robb. “With them, we still have some chance of success, however small. Without them, I see no hope. I am willing to give Lord Walder whatever he requires…apologies, honors, lands, gold… there must be something that would soothe his pride…”
“Not something,” said Catelyn. “Someone.”
On the other hand, this passage suggests a number of strategic and political dilemmas that aren’t necessarily solved by returning north and setting up the Red Wedding. First, even though Catelyn has a point about the need to relieve Winterfell, there are political costs to her strategy of “win[ning] back the north with northmen.” As Robb’s comments suggest, he runs the risk of losing the southern half of his kingdom in order to regain the Northern half, both in a military sense (abandoning the field to the Lannister/Tyrell alliance) and in a political sense (demonstrating to his Riverlord vassals that he isn’t going to protect them and values the North more than the Riverlands). Second, whether it’s necessary or worthwhile to relieve Winterfell relies upon inaccurate information about both the state of Ser Rodrik and Winterfell that won’t be revealed until Catelyn IV – at the end of the day, Robb is marching to relive a ruined castle. And third, Robb doesn’t necessarily need the Freys – they’re not that vital to the war effort as I’ve said above, and if the plan is to abandon the Riverlands to their own fate, then he’d be leaving them behind anyway – as much as he needs their bridge.
At the same time, one of the things we should be getting from the above passage is the way in which the Red Wedding required everything around it to happen just right: Winterfell has to fall (and we talked about in Theon’s chapters in ACOK what an unlikely scenario of events that took to happen) to give Robb a motive to march North, but the timing of the siege and the sack and the news of same have to be just right to prevent him from giving it up as a lost cause; at the Crag, Robb has to sleep with and then marry Jeyne so that Edmure’s marriage at the Twins is necessary to mollify them (and so that Tywin has something with which to goad the cautious Walder into finally signing off on the plan); at Riverrun, Edmure has to win the Battle of the Fords such that Tywin gets to King’s Landing in time to win the Battle of the Blackwater, and Catelyn has to free Jaime to prevent any retaliation in that quarter and to set up the Karstark rebellion; at Harrenhal, Roose has to be put into a position so as to make his plans with Walder and Tywin without being observed, and to be able to make the disasters at Duskendale and the Ruby Ford happen.
Beyond these big picture items, we have the small details like the murder of Stevron Frey as mentioned above, but we can even see the hand of GRRM in the weather. Without the rains that cause the Trident to flood, the bridges at Fairmarket and Oldstones and the ford at Ramsford aren’t made impassible, nor is there a pretext for Robb’s foot to get caught at the Ruby Ford, nor would the ferry crossing at Lord Harroway’s Town (another potential crossing-point for Robb’s army) be flooded out as it was for Arya and the Hound.
Thus, in analyzing Robb and Catelyn’s actions in the past, present, and future, we always have to be cognizant of the shadow of GRRM looming above them, as he carefully cuts off every avenue of escape, drawing them ever closer to their destiny at the Twins.
I don’t want this section to go very long because this is already a record-beater in terms of length. But while we’re on the subject of Greek tragedy, there were certain resonances in this chapter with several Greek tragedies that are worth noting. If Medea is the tragic villain as anti-mother, then Hecuba – the wife of King Priam of Troy, the mother of Hector, and the protagonist of both The Trojan Women and the eponymous Hecuba – is the tragic hero as mother, and an interesting comparison to Catelyn. In both plays, Hecuba is a figure marked by suffering the loss of her children at the hands of men, but also (in the latter play) a figure who manages to revenge herself against her betrayers even after her downfall, a trait that Catelyn will terrifyingly embody after the Red Wedding. (Hecuba is also the mother of Cassandra, whose cursed gift of prophecy Catelyn begins to share in this chapter).
At the same time, Robb’s entry to Riverrun is highly reminiscent of the beginning of Agamemnon – in both cases, we have a conquering king returning home after a long absence, but who in his absence has made an unwise romantic connection to the enemy (by taking Cassandra as his slave-concubine or bymarrying Jeyne Westerling) and committed an act of hubris (by stepping on the carpet of purple that is laid out for him by his treacherous wife Clytemnestra, or breaking his oath to the Freys). And just like the titular King of Mycenae, Robb will die not in battle but in a domestic betrayal (murdered in the bath by his wife and her lover vs. murdered at the Red Wedding despite guest right).
There’s really only one hypothetical I see emerging from this chapter in particular:
- Robb didn’t marry Jeyne Westerling? If Robb’s moral sensitivities were less finely tuned, and he had instead decided to love her and leave her, I’m actually not sure how much changes at this point. Depending on how advanced the Freys plans to betray him were, it’s quite possible that Black Walder could decide that merely sleeping with another woman is enough of an insult to justify the Freys’ departure.
- Alternatively, if there is less of a spur to Walder’s side, it may well be that the plan changes instead to Robb and his bannermen being captured at a feast at the Twins en route to the North, rather than brutally murdered. On the other hand, given that Tywin’s plans for the North very much hinged on there being no male Starks left alive…
Book vs. Show:
As I have said before, I am not a fan of how Benioff and Weiss depicted the Riverlands plot in the show. While Season 3 was generally a huge improvement over the very uneven Season 2, one of the remaining major problems was the way the show handled Robb and Catelyn’s story – which ultimately had far more to do with script-writing problems created by the showrunners by first not casting key characters (in this case, Edmure and Brynden Tully) and then not writing around their absence in such a way that allowed a seamless return to the main storyline (given that Jaime besieging Riverrun could be easily written around without showing the castle back in Season 1, I don’t see why that couldn’t have been done in Season 2). In this case, the war effort suddenly turns on a dime in Season 3 Episode 1, where all of the sudden Robb goes from winning the war to losing the war, with no more explanation than some nonsense about a plan to trap Gregor Clegane that conflicts with earlier writing by Benioff and Weiss.
More importantly, the showrunners really damaged Robb and Catelyn’s relationship by having Robb order his own mother put under house arrest in Episode 1, only to completely reverse himself in Episode 2 – this not only starts their arc in an oddly angry place, but also makes Robb look both hypocritical (he’s made a major fuckup himself) and indecisive. And this is all the more strange, because with a bit of re-ordering– i.e, by having Robb hear about the fall of Winterfell and the loss of his brothers and then marrying Talisa before Catelyn frees Jaime and talks to him about why he shouldn’t marry Talisa, you could set up a situation very similar to the books where Robb forgives Catelyn for her transgressions in order to force her to forgive him for his.