“Outside the thunder crashed and boomed, so loud it sounded as if the castle were coming down about their ears. Is this the sound of a kingdom falling?”
Synopsis: Rickard Karstark commits suicide in an extremely elaborate fashion.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Catelyn III is something of a tragedy in miniature – not the peak of the grand guignol which will come later (although one could possibly argue that it is the loss of innocence necessary for the tragedy to occur), but rather a thematic foreshadowing of what will come later. We start right away with a ghastly scene of murdered children, harkening back both to the supposed deaths of Bran and Rick in ACOK but also in many ways presaging the Red Wedding:
“They carried the corpses in upon their shoulders and laid them beneath the dais. A silence fell across the torchlit hall, and in the quiet Catelyn could hear Grey Wind howling half a castle away. He smells the blood, she thought, through stone walls and wooden doors, through night and rain, he still knows the scent of death and ruin.
She stood at Robb’s left hand beside the high seat, and for a moment felt almost as if she were looking down at her own dead, at Bran and Rickon. These boys had been much older, but death had shrunken them. Naked and wet, they seemed such little things, so still it was hard to remember them living.
The blond boy had been trying to grow a beard. Pale yellow peach fuzz covered his cheeks and jaw above the red ruin the knife had made of his throat. His long golden hair was still wet, as if he had been pulled from a bath. By the look of him, he had died peacefully, perhaps in sleep, but his brown-haired cousin had fought for life. His arms bore slashes where he’d tried to block the blades, and red still trickled slowly from the stab wounds that covered his chest and belly and back like so many tongueless mouths, though the rain had washed him almost clean.”
The thematic parallels to the Red Wedding are written into the very environment: it’s night-time, it’s raining, and a direwolf is howling. However, they’re also very much written into the bodies of the untimely Lannister and Frey dead, with Willem Lannister’s “red ruin…of his throat” paralleling Catelyn’s wounds and the idea of wounds acting as “tongueless mouths” paralleling the way that Lady Stoneheart pronounces her judgements through a slit throat. And this is not the last time we’ll see these parallels at work in this chapter, so keep your eyes on this thread.
Rickard Karstark’s Suicide Run
At the same time, Catelyn III is also a chapter that is widely misunderstood by much of the fandom. Robb’s decision to execute Lord Rickard Karstark is often thought of as one of “StupidRobb’s” key mistakes, bleeding him of fighting men by privileging personal honor over political expediency. However, this conclusion misses the extent to which in this chapter Rickard Karstark carefully constructs a scenario in which there is no escape, a nihilistic death spiral which will draw in hundreds (if not thousands) of young men in a pointless quest for vengeance, like Immortan Joe promising eternal life to his war boys.
Rather than lingering overlong on the spectacle of murdered children, Catelyn III barrels straight into the central argument between Robb Stark and Rickard Karstark. This is a debate that is easily misunderstood as the sheer intensity of Rickard Karstark’s final performance can easily obscure the logics at work:
It seemed a very long time before Robb lifted his eyes from the bloody dead. “Smalljon,” he said, “tell your father to bring them in.” Wordless, Smalljon Umber turned to obey, his steps echoing in the great stone hall.
As the Greatjon marched his prisoners through the doors, Catelyn made note of how some other men stepped back to give them room, as if treason could somehow be passed by a touch, a glance, a cough. The captors and the captives looked much alike; big men, every one, with thick beards and long hair. Two of the Greatjon’s men were wounded, and three of their prisoners. Only the fact that some had spears and others empty scabbards served to set them apart. All were clad in mail hauberks or shirts of sewn rings, with heavy boots and thick cloaks, some of wool and some of fur. The north is hard and cold, and has no mercy, Ned had told her when she first came to Winterfell a thousand years ago.
“Five,” said Robb when the prisoners stood before him, wet and silent. “Is that all of them?”
“There were eight,” rumbled the Greatjon. “We killed two taking them, and a third is dying now.”
Robb studied the faces of the captives. “It required eight of you to kill two unarmed squires.”
Edmure Tully spoke up. “They murdered two of my men as well, to get into the tower. Delp and Elwood.”
This passage is essentially the bill of indictment against Lord Rickard Karstark, that not only has his reckless action led to the murder of two child prisoners (which by itself violates several taboos) but also several casualties among King Robb’s Northern and Riverlander subjects, to whom Lord Karstark owed a duty of loyalty and to whom Robb also owes a royal duty of protection. (Thus, already we’re seeing the motif that vengeance will lead not to satisfaction but an ever-widening gyre of ruin which will come to dominate the second half of ASOS and the whole of AFFC.) This obligation should also be kept in mind when we consider Robb’s decision to execute Lord Karstark, but I’ll get into that more later.
Catelyn’s somewhat outsider perspective lends an interesting aspect to this passage as well. To begin with, her impression that there is an inherent similarity between the men who stayed loyal to Robb Stark (even at the cost of several injuries) and those who betrayed him speaks to why there is this fear that treason could be contagious. If the Karstark men are no different from any other Northman, than any other Northman might also prove themselves traitors (looking at you, Roose Bolton and co.), and this collective paranoia is poison to morale. This also is a factor in Robb’s decision to execute Lord Karstark. Finally, there’s also the ironic intersection between the idea that the North is “hard and cold, and has no mercy” and the idea that it took eight Northmen to kill two children – one that suggests either an underlying cowardice that belies the “hardness” of the Karstarks, or that Northern culture might lean more towards the cold and cruel and less to the courageous than we might like to think.
Regardless of which implication one agrees with, this indictment is answered first by the defense, who decides to throw into contention the meaning of the deaths of Tion and Willem, essentially stipulating to the underlying facts of the case:
“It was no murder, ser,” said Lord Rickard Karstark, no more discomfited by the ropes about his wrists than by the blood that trickled down his face. “Any man who steps between a father and his vengeance asks for death.”
“…I saw your sons die, that night in the Whispering Wood,” Robb told Lord Karstark. “Tion Frey did not kill Torrhen. Willem Lannister did not slay Eddard. How then can you call this vengeance? This was folly, and bloody murder. Your sons died honorably on a battlefield, with swords in their hands.”
“They died,” said Rickard Karstark, yielding no inch of ground. “The Kingslayer cut them down. These two were of his ilk. Only blood can pay for blood.”
“The blood of children?” Robb pointed at the corpses. “How old were they? Twelve, thirteen? Squires.”
“Squires die in every battle.”
“Die fighting, yes. Tion Frey and Willem Lannister gave up their swords in the Whispering Wood. They were captives, locked in a cell, asleep, unarmed…boys. Look at them!”
Here, Karstark is trying to argue that his actions fit within the framework of revenge killing and thus are at least sanctioned by custom. This argument requires a good deal of disingenuous redefinition: his night-time assault on his fellow soldiers is described as acceptable collateral damage, and the murder of children is recast as legitimized through a theory of blood guilt. Needless to say, Karstark’s theory of vengeance is quite broad and rather dubious, given that legends of the Rat King make it quite clear that there are in fact red lines that one cannot cross in the pursuit of vengeance. Guest-right is one of them, but who’s to say that treason and the murder of tangential child relatives aren’t as well?
Robb Stark’s counter-argument rests instead on military jurisprudence (to the extent that exists among a feudal military caste): Tion Frey and Willem Lannister did not kill Torrhen and Eddard Karstark, so they are not proper targets of vengeance; Torrhen and Eddard died fighting Jaime Lannister with swords in their hands on the battlefield, which is not considered murder requiring of vengeance (above and beyond the necessity to defeat one’s enemy); and finally, that Tyion and Willem’s surrender of their arms means that they cannot be lawfully killed without the permission of their captor (among other circumstances).
Needless to say, Robb has the stronger argument, and we can tell that this is the case because Rickard Karstark immediately abandons his initial approach in favor of an emotionally charged tu quoque argument:
Lord Karstark looked instead at Catelyn. “Tell your mother to look at them,” he said. “She slew them, as much as I.”
“My mother had naught to do with this,” Robb said angrily. “This was your work. Your murder. Your treason.”
While Catelyn’s guilty conscience (and tendency to assume personal responsibility for all setbacks) means that she latches on to Karstark’s rejoinder as proof that It’s All Her Fault (“I did this. These two boys died so my daughters might live…”) – I’d like to take a second to point out that Karstark’s argument is pure bullshit. To begin with, Lord Karstark has clearly been on a suicidal spiral ever since his sons died and would have attempted something like this even if Jaime had never been freed by Catelyn, most likely whenever Robb eventually handed over Jaime as part of a general peace. Next, abandoning his responsibility for his actions and throwing it into Catelyn because he’s pissed off at her for a different action is the definition of childish logic. Third, “you also committed treason” is a poor argument that your actions weren’t treason, and it’s an even poorer argument for a pardon, since mercy is a gift at the discretion of the sovereign.
And as if to underline how little conviction he has in this argument, Karstark retreats to a third position, which masquerades as Northern nationalism, but clearly comes from a darker place:
“How can it be treason to kill Lannisters, when it is not treason to free them?” asked Karstark harshly. “Has Your Grace forgotten that we are at war with Casterly Rock? In war you kill your enemies. Didn’t your father teach you that, boy?”
…Lord Karstark spit out a broken tooth. “Yes, Lord Umber, leave me to the king. He means to give me a scolding before he forgives me. That’s how he deals with treason, our King in the North.” He smiled a wet red smile. “Or should I call you the King Who Lost the North, Your Grace?”
Especially in feudal politics, to the extent that the nation exists, it’s founded on reciprocal connections. Karstark cannot claim that he is part of the “we” who are allowed to kill “your enemies” without accepting the obligation to follow the rules set down by the leaderhip of that “we” – in this case, the rule that you’re not allowed to do violence to the king’s captives without his permission. Speaking of which, Rickard’s view of war as an unrestricted tribal affair in which you can do whatever you want to someone with the wrong last name or the wrong livery ignores the fact that in the Westerosi way of war, you don’t kill prisoners out of hand, because the entire political class understand that they have a vested interest in keeping wars relatively limited. And Rickard damn well knows that, because his surviving son Harrion was in the process of being exchanged before Harrenhal was retaken,
This counter-argument somewhat misses the point, however. Lord Karstark isn’t arguing in good faith, because he’s not trying to win an acquittal. (We can see signs of this elsewhere, as I’ll discuss later.) Instead, he’s trying to antagonize Robb Stark as much as possible and as personally as possible to provoke his own execution, a kind of suicide-by-judge if you will. And we can see that this works, because Robb essentially pre-renders his judgment here:
“I will hear Ser Brynden privily, in the audience chamber.” Robb rose to his feet. “Greatjon, keep Lord Karstark here till I return, and hang the other seven.”
The Greatjon lowered the spear. “Even the dead ones?”
“Yes. I will not have such fouling my lord uncle’s rivers. Let them feed the crows.”
One of the captives dropped to his knees. “Mercy, sire. I killed no one, I only stood at the door to watch for guards.”
Robb considered that a moment. “Did you know what Lord Rickard intended? Did you see the knives drawn? Did you hear the shouts, the screams, the cries for mercy?”
“Aye, I did, but I took no part. I was only the watcher, I swear it . . .”
“Lord Umber,” said Robb, “this one was only the watcher. Hang him last, so he may watch the others die. Mother, Uncle, with me, if you please.”
If he’s willing to inflict this kind of punishment on the men who carried out the killings, and even on those who merely stood by and watched, there’s no way in hell that the man who orchestrated and ordered them is going to be let off the hook. Interestingly, Robb’s actions have something of a parallel to the aftermath of the Red Wedding, given the way that hangings become a motif of Lady Stoneheart, who is just as willing to execute the peripherally involved as we see through the eyes of Merrett Frey.
Rickard Karstark’s Desertion
Going back to my argument from the beginning, one of the key ways that Rickard Karstark makes this a no-win scenario for his king, and one of the details that is most often forgotten by the fandom, is that the Karstark men desert the army before Robb ever renders judgment:
The Blackfish shut the door. “The Karstarks are gone.”
“All?” Was it anger or despair that thickened Robb’s voice like that? Even Catelyn was not certain.
“All the fighting men,” Ser Brynden replied. “A few camp followers and serving men were left with their wounded. We questioned as many as we needed, to be certain of the truth. They started leaving at nightfall, stealing off in ones and twos at first, and then in larger groups. The wounded men and servants were told to keep the campfires lit so no one would know they’d gone, but once the rains began it didn’t matter…They’ve scattered, hunting. Lord Karstark has sworn to give the hand of his maiden daughter to any man highborn or low who brings him the head of the Kingslayer.”
We can see from this passage that Lord Karstark carefully orchestrated this desertion ahead of time to make it impossible for Robb to prevent the desertion of his men – he’s not just revenging himself against Jaime Lannister, but also the king (who subconsciously he blames for his sons’ deaths). Moreover, he hasn’t just ordered his men to desert, he’s ordered them to kill Jaime Lannister, which doesn’t just invalidate Catelyn’s illicit prisoner exchange but also any possible peace deal that King Robb might make. This maximizes the damage he’s causing to Robb Stark and the Northern cause, a further sign that his supposed nationalism is not even skin deep. And all of this means that Robb Stark isn’t responsible for the desertion of the Karstark men.
At the same time, the reason I compare Rickard Karstark to Immortal Joe is that, in order to get his men to go along with a blatantly treasonous action, is that he’s promised them “the hand of his maiden daughter to any man highborn or low who brings him the head of the Kingslayer.” This is the weaponization of fairy tales, a mad old man looking to wreak his vengeance from beyond the grave by getting foolish young men drunk on fantasies of chivalric romance and righteous revenge. And it results in not the self-actualization and upward mobility of the Hero’s Journey but total failure. Rather than killing Jaime Lannister (who Roose Bolton takes care to protect via Steelshanks Walton) they run around the Riverlands brutalizing the smallfolk (in the process threatening Arya Stark, I might add). Rather than win the usual hero’s reward from the hand of a grateful patriarch, any Karstark cavalryman lucky enough to make his way back home will find that Alys has chosen a Thenn warlord to uphold her claim to Karhold.
We’ve Got to Talk About Rickard
All of these considerations, then, should guide us when we contemplate the ensuing debate within Robb’s inner circle as to whether principle or practicality should govern the decision of Rickard Karstark’s fate.
“No word of this must leave Riverrun,” her brother Edmure said. “Lord Tywin would…the Lannisters pay their debts, they are always saying that. Mother have mercy, when he hears.”
…Robb gave Edmure a look that chilled. “Would you make me a liar as well as a murderer, Uncle?”
“We need speak no falsehood. Only say nothing. Bury the boys and hold our tongues till the war’s done. Willem was son to Ser Kevan Lannister, and Lord Tywin’s nephew. Tion was Lady Genna’s, and a Frey. We must keep the news from the Twins as well, until…”
“Until we can bring the murdered dead back to life?” said Brynden Blackfish sharply. “The truth escaped with the Karstarks, Edmure. It is too late for such games.”
“I owe their fathers truth,” said Robb. “And justice. I owe them that as well.” He gazed at his crown, the dark gleam of bronze, the circle of iron swords. “Lord Rickard defied me. Betrayed me. I have no choice but to condemn him.”
On the face of it, Edmure’s position seems quite reasonable and the same logic has no doubt undergirded many government cover-ups. The problem with this proposal (and his follow-up that Rickard should be held hostage), is that Rickard Karstark has specifically engineered his scenario so that it can’t be covered up, as hundreds of Karstark cavalrymen blunder around the Riverlands who aren’t going to be lured back without the promised reward. Moreover, as with the Lannister peace negotiations, deception doesn’t help you in the long-run, since the Starks cannot ultimately produce WIllem and Tion any more than the Lannisters could ultimately hand over Arya.
At the same time, one of the reasons that Robb tends to come in for criticism from the fandom at this point, is that his thinking are different from Brynden’s practical thinking. Rather, he focuses on truth and justice on the one hand, and law and authority on the other. Whether Robb’s reaction is a display of good kingship (more on this in a bit) or a foolish attachment to honor in a Machiavellian world rests ultimately on how you analyze the situation. By this point, I hope I’ve adequately shown that there was no way for a Machiavellian solution to work because Lord Karstark had already sent his men away, preventing any compromise or coverup.
At the same time, there are deeper political reasons why Robb Stark “has no choice to condemn him.” As I’ve argued before, Robb’s authority as king rests on ground that Karstark’s actions have undermined. First, a king has to act as a protector (a role especially central to the Starks, and Lord Karstark has both injured and murdered his subjects (as I’ve discussed above) and his captives of war, prisoners, wards, and hostages, all of whom have in some form have been given guarantees (albeit more limited ones) of the king’s protection. Second (and the two are related), the king is also a lawgiver, and in order for decrees and judgments to be generally respected and thus have the force of law, his decisions must be backed up by a monopoly of violence. Karstark’s actions have directly called into question whether Robb Stark’s judgments are final, whether his word is law. If he doesn’t execute Rickard Karstark, he is no longer a king.
Finally, if we want proof that Robb Stark is not politically stupid, I would point to the fact that immediately after he says this, he goes on to demonstrate a firm grasp of Northern political culture:
“Gods know what the Karstark foot with Roose Bolton will do when they hear I’ve executed their liege for a traitor. Bolton must be warned.”
“Lord Karstark’s heir was at Harrenhal as well,” Ser Brynden reminded him. “The eldest son, the one the Lannisters took captive on the Green Fork.”
“Harrion. His name is Harrion.” Robb laughed bitterly. “A king had best know the names of his enemies, don’t you think?”
The Blackfish looked at him shrewdly. “You know that for a certainty? That this will make young Karstark your enemy?”
“What else would he be? I am about to kill his father, he’s not like to thank me.”
“He might. There are sons who hate their fathers, and in a stroke you will make him Lord of Karhold.”
Robb shook his head. “Even if Harrion were that sort, he could never openly forgive his father’s killer. His own men would turn on him. These are northmen, Uncle. The north remembers.”
As we will see in ADWD, Robb Stark is quite right that “the North remembers,” and that Northern political cultural mores mean that Northmen will pursue blood feuds even when personal interest might argue otherwise: consider Wyman Manderly pursuing his vendetta even if it means his own life, consider Crowfood and Whoresbane Umber’s dangerous inside/outside game at Winterfell, consider Big Bucket Wull looking to die with Bolton blood on his tongue. If southerners think they play the Game of Thrones with more finesse, consider that Northerners play it without the limits of self-preservation.
There is also the irony that none of these deliberations will matter. Whether Harrion Karstark would or wouldn’t be Robb’s enemy, Roose Bolton has already sent him and most of the Karstark men to Duskendale – the remaining men will turn against the Starks at the Red Wedding, but because they are loyal to Roose Bolton, not Harrion Karstark. Indeed, this follows that their downfall is ultimately due less to their mistakes as to completely unknown or unlikely threats.
“He Killed My Honor”
At the same time, it’s important to see how and why Robb is thinking in terms of honor. It does play a role in his ultimate decision:
Robb reached down with both hands, lifted the heavy bronze-and-iron crown, and set it back atop his head, and suddenly he was a king again. “Lord Rickard dies.”
“But why?” said Edmure. “You said yourself—”
“I know what I said, Uncle. It does not change what I must do.” The swords in his crown stood stark and black against his brow. “In battle I might have slain Tion and Willem myself, but this was no battle. They were asleep in their beds, naked and unarmed, in a cell where I put them. Rickard Karstark killed more than a Frey and a Lannister. He killed my honor. I shall deal with him at dawn.”
The difficulty is that honor can be interpreted in several ways: given the way that Robb emphasizes dying in battle vs. dying in a cell, we can certainly think of honor as a code of behavior that’s extremely concerned with things being done the right way. On the other hand, given the way Robb emphasizes “a cell where I put them,” Robb could also be talking in terms of his word of honor and the necessity of upholding the king’s promises (something of a theme with Robb).
Whichever way you interpret him, I do see something of a difference between this and Jon Snow’s honor before reason as seen in the finale of Season 7; not only have we clearly demonstrated that there are potentially-civilization-breaking reasons to maintain honor codes when it comes to prisoner exchanges, envoys, and guest-right, but the negative consequences of executing Karstark are much lower than often believed.
At the same time, I do think there is something slightly self-destructive in Robb’s thinking, because I think one could see Robb as beginning to enter something of a depressive spiral that will last arguably until Catelyn VI (when Balon Greyjoy’s death allows him to see a way forward):
“Gods be good, why would any man ever want to be king? When everyone was shouting King in the North, King in the North, I told myself . . . swore to myself . . . that I would be a good king, as honorable as Father, strong, just, loyal to my friends and brave when I faced my enemies . . . now I can’t even tell one from the other. How did it all get so confused? Lord Rickard’s fought at my side in half a dozen battles. His sons died for me in the Whispering Wood. Tion Frey and Willem Lannister were my enemies. Yet now I have to kill my dead friends’ father for their sakes.” He looked at them all. “Will the Lannisters thank me for Lord Rickard’s head? Will the Freys?”
I’ve argued before that much of ACOK is an argument about kingship, but ASOS continues this thread in important ways, as we examine Stannis through Davos, Mance through Jon, and so forth. Here, we see the down-side of kingship, part of GRRM’s argument about the Aragorn model of monarchy: it’s not that Robb is a bad king because he is a good man (that way lies Benioff and Weiss’ belief that being good makes you stupid and being evil makes you smart), but rather that being a good person doesn’t make it any easier to be a good king. Here Robb is doing what a king should and must do, but because he’s a good person, it is profoundly hateful to him in a way that it wouldn’t be for an amoral ruler.
For Hate’s Sake
Everything I’ve been talking about so far comes to a head in the great set-piece of the chapter, Rickard Karstark’s execution. It begins as an echo of the earlier trial, with Rcikard makes what seems (but is not) the case for the defense, and Robb Stark presenting the case for the prosecution:
“The blood of the First Men flows in my veins as much as yours, boy. You would do well to remember that. I was named for your grandfather. I raised my banners against King Aerys for your father, and against King Joffrey for you. At Oxcross and the Whispering Wood and in the Battle of the Camps, I rode beside you, and I stood with Lord Eddard on the Trident. We are kin, Stark and Karstark.”
“This kinship did not stop you from betraying me,” Robb said. “And it will not save you now. Kneel, my lord.”
As Robb Stark points out, kinship goes both ways: Karstark cannot rely on it as a shield against his punishment without accepting that he had violated the custom of kinship by betraying his kin. (I would also note that Karstark continues his pattern of slanted reasoning by listing all of his past loyalty without mentioning his recent disloyalty, as if arguing that the good does in fact wash out the bad.) However, this does raise the issue of kinslaying:
“Old gods or new, it makes no matter,” Lord Rickard told her son, “no man is so accursed as the kinslayer.”
“Kneel, traitor,” Robb said again. “Or must I have them force your head onto the block?”
Lord Karstark knelt. “The gods shall judge you, as you have judged me.” He laid his head upon the block.
“Rickard Karstark, Lord of Karhold.” Robb lifted the heavy axe with both hands. “Here in sight of gods and men, I judge you guilty of murder and high treason. In mine own name I condemn you. With mine own hand I take your life. Would you speak a final word?”
“Kill me, and be cursed. You are no king of mine.”
Needless to say, this is not how kinslaying works. The kinslaying taboo applies to close kin only – hence Robert Baratheon killing his second cousin Rhaegar Targaryen is not considered kinslaying – and it’s limited like that because, given the way that nobility intermarry, if the killing of more distant relatives was taboo war could not take place, and that doesn’t work in a society dominated by a warrior aristocracy. If we examine Robb and Rickard by the example of Robert and Rhaegar, the whole thing falls apart: Robb’s great-granduncles (the sons of Artos the Implacable) were half-Karstark, but their line seems to have petered out; the most recent connection after that is his great-great-great-great grandmother Alys Karstark (the mother of Beron Karstark). At best, they are third cousins once removed.
But then again, Rickard Karstark isn’t making this speech in order to convince Robb Stark to spare his life; he’s doing it to cause the maximum emotional and spiritual damage on his way out. And given that all of this is being instigated by Karstark, that he is making Robb his unwilling execution, it is profoundly spiteful and selfish, as if he is trying to drag the whole world into the grave with him.
I weep no tears for the man.
Poor, Poor Jeyne
Speaking of which, one of the signs that we’re edging into the full-on tragedy section of ASOS is that there’ s one last section involving Jeyne Stark née Westerling that absolutely breaks your heart:
“As you wish. How might I serve you, Jeyne?”
“It’s Robb,” the girl said. “He’s so miserable, so…so angry and disconsolate. I don’t know what to do.”
“…Robb has not eaten all day…He spent all morning writing a letter and told me not to disturb him, but when the letter was done he burned it. Now he is sitting and looking at maps. I asked him what he was looking for, but he never answered. I don’t think he ever heard me. He wouldn’t even change out of his clothes. They were damp all day, and bloody. I want to be a good wife to him, I do, but I don’t know how to help. To cheer him, or comfort him. I don’t know what he needs. Please, my lady, you’re his mother, tell me what I should do.”
“…Sometimes,” Catelyn said slowly, “the best thing you can do is nothing. When I first came to Winterfell, I was hurt whenever Ned went to the godswood to sit beneath his heart tree. Part of his soul was in that tree, I knew, a part I would never share. Yet without that part, I soon realized, he would not have been Ned. Jeyne, child, you have wed the north, as I did…and in the north, the winters will come.” She tried to smile. “Be patient. Be understanding. He loves you and he needs you, and he will come back to you soon enough. This very night, perhaps. Be there when he does. That is all I can tell you.”
One sign of deconstruction done right is that, rather than being done simply to undermine the tropes and themes of a genre for its own sake, the effort leads us to think differently and more deeply about those tropes and the cultural context they came from. In this case, one of the things that GRRM does well with Robb and Jeyne’s brief relationship is to question what a Love At First Sight relationship would actually be like, and to remind us that these tropes often emerged from a cultural context in which marriages were often arranged between people who’d not spent much if any unmediated time together.
What makes Jeyne’s situation poignant, therefore, is that while she cares very much for Robb (even to excess as we’ll see in a bit), she’s only known him for a month or two, and the two don’t have much of a foundation to their relationship. This makes it extremely difficult for her to live up to the standards of a good wife. She’s trying the conventional strategies – making sure her husband has food and clean clothing, trying to be helpful – but that doesn’t help when her husband’s problems are trying to win a war or dealing with the emotional aftermath of carrying out an execution personally (especially when her husband is also a teenager who’s not always good at expressing his emotions). Catelyn’s advice is perhaps the best she has to hand, but “do nothing” is unlikely to be much consolation.
And then GRRM really twists the knife:
“…there’s one more thing Robb needs from you, though he may not know it yet himself. A king must have an heir.”
The girl smiled at that. “My mother says the same. She makes a posset for me, herbs and milk and ale, to help make me fertile. I drink it every morning. I told Robb I’m sure to give him twins. An Eddard and a Brandon. He liked that, I think. We…we try most every day, my lady. Sometimes twice or more.” The girl blushed very prettily. “I’ll be with child soon, I promise. I pray to our Mother Above, every night.”
I think what makes Jeyne’s situation so poignant is that she is being betrayed in the most intimate and invasive fashion imaginable; the only thing that comes close in my mind is Lysa Tully, and even then you have the counter-balancing factors of patriarchy and illicit love. By contrast, Jeyne is in a relationship her mother pushed her into, and gamely trying to work within the role her society has set down for her, and her downfall happens because the one person she ought to be able to trust most in the world when it comes to matters of reproduction has turned her womb into a pawn in the game of thrones.
I will be very sad indeed if what I think happens in the prologue of TWOW happens, but I can at least hope that if it happens, some special act of contrapasso justice is meted out to Sibyl Westerling.
Since I’ve discussed things like ransoms and treatment of prisoners on tumblr quite a bit, I decided not to write a very long historical post, but instead to suggest some historical sources I consulted to make sure that I wasn’t horribly wrong about the issues w/r/t Karstark and the murder of prisoners.
- Jean Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe. What’s handy about this book is that it covers a fairly wide spectrum of conditions – from prisoners being temporarily held until trial or their debts were paid off in the civic prison of Florence in the 14th century to noble hostages taken in private conflicts – and time periods, so you can see how treatment of prisoners changed in the course of the High through Late Middle Ages. Key point I took from Jean’s work: prisoners (whether custodial or coercive) were largely held in order to get something out of them, and imprisonment was seen as a transitory state.
- G Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A Social History. For those of you who prefer history from the bottom up rather than top down, this book is an incredibly vividly-written study of the various meanings and experiences of being imprisoned in the Middle Ages. If you’re unsure, check out the opening narrative of how the jailors of 14th century Florence were far more attentive to the health and well-being of their charges during a natural disaster than most 21st century carceral states during, if only because the “prisoners’ death would translate into an irrevocable loss of the fines and debts they owed” – which is my key takeaway here.
- Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Siege. An excellent source which I’ve used many times in the past, this book has something to say about a surprisingly broad list of topics. On this particular subject, Bradbury helpfully points out that “the treatment of prisoners was, to some extent, part of a recognized code. Chivalry only catered for the capture of knights by knights, when reasonable treatment might be expected, though not always received.” Status and process really mattered to the treatment of prisoners of war.
Some other sources: Jarbel Rodriguez’ Captives and Their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon does a really good job of showing how prisoner ransoms and exchanges were important part of the constitution of Christian Spanish monarchies as they sought to mobilize their citizenry to help reconquer Iberia from the Muslims; Bennett and Weikert Medieval Hostageship is very good at covering a broad range of unfree statuses across a very expansive period of time (700s to 1500s).
This may be a bit controversial, but I’m going to put aside not killing Karstark, because A. the man is so determined to die that he’d probably set himself on fire and jump off the top of Minas Tirith, and B. as I’ve been arguing for several thousand words, it didn’t really change that much. To me, the more interesting question is:
- An heir to the North? So let’s say for some reason Sibyl’s potion doesn’t take and Jeyne becomes pregnant. This really does complicate things down the road, because I don’t think Brynden Blackfish surrenders the heir to the North to the Lannisters whose track record with politically-inconvenient babies is not a good one, Edmure or no Edmure.
Book vs. Show:
On the face of it, the show did this bit not too badly – they set up Rickard’s grudge by having Jaime murder Torrhen Karstark in his (poorly-staged) escape attempt, the child hostages are a bit sickly-sweet in the over-emphasis on their innocence, the death scene is quite gripping (even with the subtle build-up of Robb by giving him the one-chop rather than the more realistic messy affair we see here).
My main complaint comes with the way that Benioff and Weiss handled the thematics, because of the way they conceptualize Honor as synonymous with Stupidity (although bizarrely also with Goodness, which is a terrifying worldview). Crucially, they have Robb execute Karstark BEFORE the desertion of his men, so that Robb voluntarily flings away a good portion of his army in the face of his entire inner circle telling him not to, much in the same way that Jon will torpedo a peace deal (although how sincere it was is another question) just because he will never tell a lie.
Needless to say, this demonstrates a poor grasp on the structure and purpose of tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle coined the term “hamartia” to describe the tragic error that the protagonist commits which leads to the sequence of events which will ruin their good fortune, and that error is supposed to say something more important about the character and about humanity: Oedipus the wise ruler is ignorant of his birth, Othello is at the same time too trusting of Iago and too insecure about his relationship with Desdemona, Agamemnon’s hubris leads him to offend the gods by walking on the purple tapestries which bore their likenesses, Hamlet is too much of an intellectual and his dithering means that everyone dies instead of just Claudius. Being too stupid to live is not a good flaw, because it doesn’t teach us anything.
 Merely the first of many times in which the now-traitorous Karstarks will find themselves betrayed by their would-be allies…
 This may be an outgrowth of the North’s lesser remove from clan-oriented societies. In winter, the individual is dispensable – hence the tradition of voluntary suicide-by-exposure in times of famine – as long as the group survives.