The Stormlands is something of an odd duck among the Seven Kingdoms neither one of the powerhouses like the Reach or the Rock, nor a failed state like the Riverlands, it putters around somewhere in the middle. At the same time, it is a kingdom which has enormous hidden potential, if only because something must explain how it managed to temporarily seize control, first of the largest pre-Targaryen empire that Westeros had ever seen, and second of the Iron Throne itself.
Sadly, much of this potential remains hidden. To be frank, the Stormlands is my least favorite chapter of the Seven Kingdoms section of the World of Ice and Fire. For all I’ve complained about the Ironborn chapter playing merry hell with comparative timelines, it cannot be said to lack for imagination or a bloody, grim drama; the Stormlands chapter by comparison feels half-hearted and last-minute and more than a little repetitious.
So part of my project in this essay is to sift through the dross to find the gold underneath, and to try to imagine from there what the Stormlands could have been.
Geography: A Kingdom Divided
“THE STORMS THAT blow up the narrow sea are infamous throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and in the Nine Free Cities as well…More than half continue north by northwest, according to the archives at the Citadel, sweeping over Cape Wrath and the rainwood, gathering strength (and moisture) as they cross the waters of Shipbreaker Bay before slamming into Storm’s End on Durran’s Point. It is from these great gales that the stormlands take their name.” (WOIAF)
While I am normally quite skeptical of arguments that the political destinies of the Seven Kingdom are driven by their geographies, the Stormlands seems to be an exception that proves the rule. Here, three factors seem to have been involved: climate, regionalism, and shifting borders.
As we see in the quote above, the Stormlands’ climate is best known for huge rainstorms – the omnipresent force of nature at the heart of the myth of Durran Godgrief, the cause of Robert, Stannis, and Renly’s orphaning, and so forth. However, there’s a contradiction between the climate and its supposed consequences:
“Yet even at their greatest extent, the realms of the Durrandons and their successors have always been thinly peopled when compared to the Reach, the riverlands, and the west, and thus the might of the lords of Storm’s End was diminished. Those who do choose to make their homes in the stormlands—whether along the stony shores of the narrow sea, amidst the dripping green forests of the rainwood, or on the windswept marches—are a special breed, however. The people of the stormlands are like unto their weather, it has oft been said: tumultuous, violent, implacable, unpredictable.”
There’s no good reason why the Stormlands should be thinly populated, however: while long periods of rain can be bad for some form of crops (especially your less hardy cereals like wheat), in general rainfall is good for agricultural productivity, as the rain-starved Dorne (and the quite rainy but agriculturally productive British Isles) could well attest to. Likewise, the fact that the Stomrlands are known for their natural resources (timber, hardwood, furs can all be found in the Rainwood, but the plains north of Storm’s End are clearly good for cereals (hence Haystack Hall of House Errol), and the waters seem to support many fishing villages) suggests that there’s more than enough food to support human settlements. Thus, there’s no climate-based reason why the Stormlands ought to have a low population density – indeed, given the fact that it can raise 25,000 men suggests a population density not that much less than the Vale…which in turn suggests that it would be more plausible to say that the Stormlands’ modest manpower is due to the relatively limited landmass of the Stormlands, just as the Vale’s limited manpower is due to the limited size of the Vale proper.
More influential in the Stormlands’ political development is the sharp separation between its component regions, each of which has a quite distinct environment. As the WOIAF puts it:
“The heart of this ancient kingdom was Storm’s End, the last and greatest of the castles raised by the hero king Durran Godsgrief in the Age of Heroes, which stands immense and immovable atop the towering cliffs of Durran’s Point. South, beyond Shipbreaker Bay with its wild waters and treacherous rocks, lies Cape Wrath. The moist green tangle of the rainwood dominates the northern two-thirds of the cape. Farther south a broad plain opens up, rolling gently down to the Sea of Dorne, where numerous small fishing villages dot the shoreline. A thriving port and market, the Weeping Town (as it came to be known because it was where the body of the slain hero King Daeron I Targaryen returned to his kingdom after his murder in Dorne), stands here, and much of the region’s trade passes through its harbor.
The great island of Tarth, with its waterfalls and lakes and soaring mountains, is considered part of the stormlands as well, as are Estermont and the myriad lesser isles found off Cape Wrath and the Weeping Town.
To the west the hills rise hard and wild, pushing against the sky until they give way to the Red Mountains, the border between the stormlands and Dorne. Deep dry valleys and great sandstone cliffs dominate the landscape here, and it is true that sometimes at sunset the peaks gleam scarlet and crimson against the clouds … yet there are those who say these mountains were named not for the color of their stone but for all the blood that has soaked into the ground. Farther inland, beyond the foothills, lie the marches—a vast expanse of grasslands, moors, and windswept plains stretching westward and northward for hundreds of leagues.”
Just 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 but also by its superior harbors that ensure that “much of the region’s trade passes through” the Weeping Town as opposed to Storm’s End because of the harsh weather of Shipbreaker Bay. The islands, from Estermont in the south to Tarth (and arguably up to Massey’s Hook), are at a remove from the mainland. The Marches are a unique region, both in terms of their rugged terrain but also the hyper-focus on the geopolitical conflict with the mountain lords of Dorne. And finally, we have this broad region to the north that includes open plains, the Kingswood, and Massey’s Hook, and Storm’s End itself.
But unlike the different kingdoms of the Reach which all shared common ancestry and culture from the beginning, the regions of the Stormlands are both markedly different and sharply separated by geography from one another, promoting separatist identities. The residents of Massey’s Hook, for example, are much closer to the islands of Blackwater Bay than they are to any part of the Stormlands and thus have historically been drawn into the political orbit of the Crownlands to the detriment of the central authority, whereas the residents of Cape Wrath would be more concerned with trade with Essos. Likewise, the Marcher Lords are hyper-focused on their conflict with Dorne and thus have more in common with the Tarlys of Horn Hill or the Peakes of Starpike than they do with the Tarths or the Estermonts, whose concerns about pirates and slavers they would find foreign. And Storm’s End, the seat of the kingdom, sits somewhat uncomfortably in between these regions but not of any of them, trying to hold the whole together.
Speaking of regional differences, I haven’t yet talked about that broad region to the north, because it is here where the Stormlands’ chief problem lies, namely its shifting borders. I titled this section “A Kingdom Divided” because I don’t think we can really understand either the history of or the present conditions of the Stormlands without first understanding that the kingdom currently known as the Stormlands is a shadow of its former self:
“North of Storm’s End, however, the borders of the kingdom have fluctuated greatly over the centuries, as Storm Kings strong and weak gained and lost lands in a succession of wars both great and small. Today, the writ of House Baratheon runs to the south bank of the Wendwater and lower reaches of the kingswood, and along the stony shores of the narrow sea up to the base of Massey’s Hook …but before Aegon’s Conquest, before even the coming of the Andals, the warrior kings of House Durrandon pushed their borders considerably farther.
Massey’s Hook was part of their realm then, and all the kingswood as far as the Blackwater Rush. In certain epochs, the Storm Kings even ruled beyond the Blackwater. Towns as far-flung as Duskendale and Maidenpool once paid homage to Storm’s End, and under the redoubtable warrior king Arlan III Durrandon, the stormlanders took dominion over the entire riverlands.”
Before the coming of Aegon the Conqueror to Westeros, the Stormlands’ borders extended well into the present Crownlands – not just Massey’s Hook (and probably many of the islands in the Bay) but also extending into the rich lands across the Blackwater Rush. In geopolitical terms, this would have meant that the Stormlands would have been able to raise close to 40,000 men, putting it well up there with the Westerlands or the Riverlands or the Vale. It is this factor that I believe explains the Stormlands’ historical ability to punch above their weight, competing for power and influence with the other contenders of the Great Game, and how they were able to conquer and then hold the Riverlands for three hundred years.
Thus, when Aegon first claimed the Crownlands for his own and then divided the Stormlands – taking the Kingswood north of the Wendwater and Masseys Hook beside – as punishment for Argilac’s insult to his envoys, he created a polity much reduced in power and influence.
As I said in the introduction, the WOIAF’s coverage of the Stormlands leaves something to be desired. Especially in the early going, it starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. At the very outset of First Men history, the legend of Durran Godsgrief, crafted to a Wagnerian level of epic drama, can’t help but impress:
“…His friends and brothers and wedding guests were crushed beneath collapsing walls or blown out to sea, but Elenei sheltered Durran within her arms so he took no harm, and when the dawn came at last he declared war upon the gods and vowed to rebuild.
Five more castles he built, each larger and stronger than the last, only to see them smashed asunder when the gale winds came howling up Shipbreaker Bay, driving great walls of water before them. His lords pleaded with him to build inland; his priests told him he must placate the gods by giving Elenei back to the sea; even his smallfolk begged him to relent…” (ACOK)
“The legends surrounding the founder of House Durrandon, Durran Godsgrief, all come to us through the singers. The songs tell us that Durran won the heart of Elenei, daughter of the sea god and the goddess of the wind. By yielding to a mortal’s love, Elenei doomed herself to a mortal’s death, and for this the gods who had given her birth hated the man she had taken for her lord husband. In their wroth, they sent howling winds and lashing rains to knock down every castle Durran dared to build, until a young boy helped him erect one so strong and cunningly made that it could defy their gales. The boy grew to be Brandon the Builder; Durran became the first Storm King. With Elenei at his side, he lived and reigned at Storm’s End for a thousand years, or so the stories claim.”(WOIAF)
Especially in GRRM’s version, it’s a tale of Tragic Love that brings destruction in its wake (with the collapse of the first castle happening during Durran and Elenei’s wedding, no less), an origin story for the legendary stubbornness of the Durrandon bloodline, a direct allusion to the Arthurian legend of Merlin, Vortigern, and the dragons, and a story of a Telemonian Ajax-like defiance of the gods themselves. It also speaks to the interconnection of the Age of Heroes, with Brandon the Builder once again taking up the role of the continent’s only general contractor.
However, when it comes to the early history of the Stormlands, things go down-hill very quickly due to some interesting decisions made by the creators:
“Much of the early history of Westeros is lost in the mists of time, where it becomes ever more difficult to separate fact from legend the further back one goes. This is particularly true of the stormlands…in the stormlands oft as not the First Men carved the tales of their victories and defeats into the trunks of trees, long since rotted away…
Moreover, a tradition developed amongst the Storm Kings of old for naming the king’s firstborn son and heir after Durran Godsgrief, founder of their line, further compounding the difficulties of the historian. The bewildering number of King Durrans has inevitably caused much confusion. The maesters of the Citadel of Oldtown have given numbers to many of these monarchs, in order to distinguish one from the other, but that was not the practice of the singers (unreliable at the best of times) who are our chief source for these times.” (WOIAF)
When one starts with a disclaimer that there’s not going to be very much history because the written records of the First Men was lost and then compound that with a tacit admission that they couldn’t think of any new names so they kept using Durran over and over again, it doesn’t exactly signal that the authors have much confidence in this chapter. It’s also a creative choice that makes the work of analysts and critics far more difficult, so I can’t say that there isn’t a personal frustration involved.
Expansion and Contraction
So once again, we have a legendary founder of a seat of power that becomes the center of a proto-state. The early Durrandons likewise used the same playbook of diplomacy, dynastic marriages, and conquest that we’ve seen the Starks, Arryns, Mudds, Justmans, Teagues, Lannisters, and Gardeners use to build their realms outward:
“Whether he was one man or fifty, we know that in this time the kingdom extended its writ far beyond Storm’s End and its hinterlands, absorbing neighboring kingdoms one by one over the centuries. Some were won by treaty, some by marriage, more by conquest—a process that was continued by Durran’s descendants.
But where in previous cases, this began a process of state formation, in the case of the Durrandons, we actually see a process of continual back-and-forth that resulted in stagnation for the state. The model was established very early on:
The Godsgrief himself was first to claim the rainwood, that wet wilderness that had hitherto belonged only to the children of the forest. His son Durran the Devout returned to the children most of what his father had seized, but a century later Durran Bronze-Axe took it back again, this time for good and all.” (WOIAF)
By expanding his reach over Cape Wrath, Durran Godsgrief gave himself a power base that would allow his nascent kingdom to successfully challenge the other powers of the northern plains or the western marches, similar to how the first Starks’ early alliance with the hill clans allowed them to expand into the wolfswood, or how Benedict I used his support from both the Brackens and Blackwoods to unite the Riverlands. The difference is that Durran’s son gave back most of the territory in question; thus, Durran Bronze-Axe spent his reign retaking it rather than expanding the kingdom further outwards.
And so when we look at a lot of the early history of the Durrandons, there’s a lot of similarities to other early regimes, but with the addition of a consistent undertow seeping away at their accomplishments:
“Maldon Massey built the castle Stonedance and established his lordship over Massey’s Hook under another King Durran, called the Ravenfriend, but his dates and number remain in dispute as well. It was Durran the Young, also known as the Butcher Boy, who dammed the river Slayne with Dornish corpses, after turning back Yoren Yronwood and the warrior maid Wylla of Wyl in the Battle by the Bloody Pool … but was he the same king who became besotted with his own niece in later life and died at the hands of his brother Erich Kin-Killer? These, and many similar questions, will most likely never be resolved.
Somewhat better sources exist for later centuries, however. We can say with fair certainty that the great island kingdom of Tarth fell under the sway of House Durrandon when Durran the Fair took to wife the daughter of its king, Edwyn Evenstar. Their grandson, Erich the Sailmaker (most likely Erich III), was the first to claim Estermont and the lesser isles farther south. It was another Durran (Durran X, most scholars agree) who extended the kingdom northward to the Blackwater Rush, and his son Monfryd I (the Mighty) who first crossed that great river, defeating the petty kings of House Darklyn and House Mooton in a series of wars, and seizing the prosperous port towns of Duskendale and Maidenpool.” (WOIAF)
While the Ravenfriend’s creation of feudal links with the northeastern coast (possibly through diplomacy, since ravens were used to carry messages, and possibly through magic) and the Butcher Boy’s expansion of Durrandon authority to the southwest (probably through a defensive military alliance with the Swanns of Stonehelm, which overlooks the Slayne) are relatively novel, there’s a fair bit of stock characters in this list. You could easily swap Durran the Fair for Alester II Arryn or Garland the Bridegroom, or Erich the Sailmaker for John the Tall or Hugh and Hugo Arryn. However repetitive these figures might be, they do give us important information about the second wave of Durrandon expansion, which incorporated the eastern islands on the one hand and pushed well into the modern-day Crownlands on the other. (This last part is especially important for demonstrating that Durrandon presence in the Crownlands goes all the way back to around three hundred years after the Godsgrief and thus quite early in the Age of Heroes.)
Thus, by the third century post-Durran, the Stormlands had grown and surpassed its modern-day borders. Despite this track record of success, the Durrandons squandered their inheritance due to a succession of weak kings:
“Monfryd’s son Durran XI (the Dim) and his own son Barron (the Beautiful) yielded up all he had gained and more besides. During the long years when Durwald I (the Fat) ruled in Storm’s End, the Masseys broke away, Tarth thrice revolted, and even upon Cape Wrath a challenge arose, from a woods witch known only as the Green Queen, who held the rainwood against Storm’s End for the best part of a generation. For a time it was said Durwald’s rule extended no farther than a man could urinate off the walls of Storm’s End.” (WOIAF)
In two generations, the Storm Kings lost all of their rich territories in the Crownlands, significant territories in the northwest by the Blackwater Rush, “and more besides.” Sensing weakness at the center, the constituent parts of the Stormlands began to rebel, with the northeast (Massey’s Hook), the islands (Tarth), and even Cape Wrath (the Green Queen) not only successfully rebelling but keeping their rebellions going for extended periods of time. Thus, by the reign of Durwald I, all of the work of state-building that had been done since the time of the Godsgrief himself was basically undone.
Thus, however interesting the story of Morden II’s unwise staffing decisions, Ronard the Bastard’s prodigious luck with women and warfare, there is a certain lack of consequence to it all:
“The tide turned again when Morden II named his baseborn half brother Ronard as his castellan. A fearsome warrior, Ronard became the ruler of the stormlands in all but name and took King Morden’s sister to wife. Within five years, he had claimed the kingship as well. It was Morden’s own queen who placed Morden’s crown on Ronard’s head. If the songs be true, she shared his bed as well. Morden himself, deemed harmless, was confined to a cell in the tower.
His usurper ruled for nigh unto thirty years as Ronard the Bastard, smashing rebel bannerman and petty kings alike in battle after battle. Never a man to confine himself to a single woman, he claimed a daughter from every foe who bent the knee. By the time he died, he had supposedly fathered nine-and ninety sons. Most were bastard born (though Ronard had three-and-twenty wives, the songs say) and did not share in their father’s inheritance but had to make their own way in the world. For this reason, thousands of years later, many and more of the smallfolk of the stormlands, even the meanest and humblest amongst them, still boast of royal blood.” (WOIAF)
However great a lover or a fighter he was, ultimately Ronard the Bastard didn’t accomplish anything new – all his conquests in the bedroom or the battlefield did was to restore what previous monarchs had spent their lives doing. Those intervening centuries could not be recovered as easily as the strongholds of the Stormlands, so House Durrandon had lost its opportunities to bank its early victories, to learn something from the Age of Heroes before the Andals came.
And then, like they always do, the Andals came.