Saturday, July 20, 2013

Robb Stark and The Red Wedding: All his fault??

Robb Stark's Mistakes
Whenever author George R.R. Martin is asked about the Red Wedding he cackles evilly and rants that he won't stop his reign of literary terror until every last Stark is dead dead dead  calmly points out that the normal myth cycle has often featured a boy becoming a man by rising up after his father's death and leading his family to prominence/revenge/justice. But Martin had zero interest in writing that story. So by Word of God Robb Stark had to die. Martin has said art is not a democracy. If you don't like his writing ,read something else. He's certainly not changing his story because of your preferences. I might have something to write on that later as some fans have a bone to pick with Martin and Benioff and Weiss about representation and stereotyping. A really nasty controversy broke out about 3 weeks ago concerning some Season 4 casting news from HBO. But I digress. Anyway the Red Wedding was gruesome to watch on screen. It was horrible to read and according to Martin it was extremely painful to write. That is why he saved it for last (although chronologically it occurs a little past halfway through book 3).

But temporarily putting Martin's decision aside, I'd like to step inside the creation and examine if Robb could have avoided certain mistakes and/or the costs that he paid for those errors. 

Hindsight is 20/20. Robb should have realized that Lord Walder Frey was EXTREMELY upset about the broken betrothal. I would not blame anyone for not anticipating Frey's actions at a wedding. People forget that Robb took over family leadership at a very young age and lacked any older trusted male advisor on his father's side. Robb was my favorite character. I strongly identified with him. The North Remembers! With that in mind let's review Robb's biggest mistakes.*

  • Not marrying Roslin Frey immediately. If Robb had married Roslin Frey immediately he couldn't have spurned the Freys for Talisa. The Freys being the Freys, backstabbing b******s that they are, likely still would have tried to switch sides if/when events turned against Robb, but they wouldn't have been able to get him isolated and alone at a wedding. The HBO series changed the reasoning for Robb's decision, making
    it something more romantic and understandable to show viewers. In the book Robb married someone else (she had a different name and background) as much out of obligation as out of love.
    He took her virginity and thus found himself, as he saw it, trapped between two clashing concepts of honor. Book!Robb is more sympathetic to me than Show!Robb. Show!Robb marries for love and is rebellious. But in either book or show Robb should have known that he could not break the Frey betrothal. His honor (in book) and his love and happiness (in show) are simply not as important as his obligations to the Freys and his need to protect his people. So I think it's fair to blame Robb for this mistake. In the book the Freys are already fighting for Robb and have lost loved ones when they learn of Robb's decision. 

  • Not detailing his strategy to Edmure. The show handles this a little differently than the book does but the bottom line is that Robb intended to draw Tywin's armies west and then trap and destroy them through superior speed. This required that Edmure hold his position at Riverrun and not engage with Tywin's forces. Unfortunately Edmure was unclear on the "not engage with Tywin's forces" part, perhaps because Robb did not explicitly tell him not to do that. So Edmure attacks the Lannisters while Tywin and associated Lannister forces are not far enough west. When Tywin learns of Stannis' impending attack on King's Landing, he's still close enough to the capital to rush back and with the assistance of the Tyrell forces, defeat Stannis.
    In the book, although it's revealed afterwards that he's been quietly hedging his bets all along, it's at this point that Roose Bolton decides that now is the right time to secretly switch sides. Stannis' defeat was disastrous for the North. Robb could have bent the knee to Stannis. He could not have done so to the Lannisters. They killed his father. But by taking (temporarily?) Stannis off the board, the Lannisters convinced the Freys and Boltons that their victory was inevitable. I don't blame Robb for all of this as no one could have seen all the various dominoes that would fall. A leader needs disciplined subordinates who follow his orders, even if they don't fully understand them. Robb's plan may not have worked even if Edmure had done as directed. But with Edmure changing the script it had no chance. Given Edmure's capabilities, Robb should have explained his plan further. If you are expecting someone to do something against their every instinct, explain it to them.




  • Sending Theon to treat with Balon Greyjoy. Robb and Theon are close in age and grew up together. Robb took no part in the suppression of the Greyjoy Rebellion (he would have only been 10 years old or younger when it took place). Therefore he has no personal animosity towards Theon or full understanding of the Iron Islands/Greyjoy violent culture. However people who do remember the Greyjoy Rebellion are not so trusting of the Greyjoys. IIRC in show Jaime says seeing Theon at Winterfell was like seeing a shark on a mountaintop.
    Catelyn knows what the Iron Islanders are like and begs Robb not to trust either Theon or Balon Greyjoy. In the book I believe she reminds Robb that Ned would not have sent Theon back. She is stridently against sending Theon as an envoy. Catelyn suggests that if Robb wants Balon Greyjoy's aid he send someone else. Robb doesn't listen, perhaps because he wants to show he's a big boy who's not afraid of Mommy and sends Theon anyway. Theon switches sides and through a toxic combination of shame, guilt, sibling rivalry and resentment attacks and seizes Winterfell, something his father did not order. Then via guile, Ramsay Snow is able to take and burn Winterfell and slaughter its inhabitants. The small garrison which Robb left is also killed while Brandon and Rickon Stark are believed to be dead (in books) or either dead or missing(in show). Symbols matter. You can't be King of the North if you can't protect your own castle/town. This was a serious blow to Robb's authority, legitimacy and reputation. Although Robb could not have known that Balon Greyjoy was already planning to attack the North, this is another instance where listening to Catelyn (even in private) would have yielded better results. Keeping Theon close would not have prevented a Greyjoy attack as Balon makes it clear repeatedly that he thinks nothing of Theon. But it would have prevented the sacking of Winterfell and Catelyn's subsequent release of Jaime Lannister in the belief that Robb and Sansa were the only children she had left. If there is no release of Jaime, there is no retaliation by Karstark, no execution of Karstark, no attempt to make amends with Freys, no Red Wedding. So yes I blame Robb for this.

  • Accepting the King in the North title. While it was a serious bada$$ moment in both book and show to have the big bad GreatJon Umber spit at the mention of southern kings and declare that the Starks were the only kings he would accept, Robb should not have accepted this title. It didn't really gain him any alliances among the other Great Houses and immediately made a rival/enemy of the Baratheons, who were the only other people considering action against the Lannisters.
    If, after Renly's death, Robb had been able to coordinate action with Stannis, Tywin wouldn't have been able to get back to King's Landing in time. Stannis takes King's Landing and the Tyrells are suddenly not so interested in the Lannisters. In fact they might be trying to marry Loras to Shireen Baratheon and Margaery to Robb. Arya makes it to Riverrun. The Freys want everyone to know how they were on Robb and Stannis' side all along. If Stannis had been allied with Robb he might well have shared his experience of fighting the Ironborn and had the necessary gravitas to steer Robb away from the idea of sending Theon back to Pyke. Heck, if Robb accepted Stannis as King, Stannis could have ordered Robb not to do it. Unfortunately Robb had no way of knowing this. Stannis declared his intentions after Robb had accepted the title. But a man trying to fight his way from almost one end of a continent to the other needs flexibility and allies. Declaring premature independence isn't the way to gain either. Robb already had formidable enemies in the Lannisters. 

  • Defending The Riverlands and The North The unfortunate fact about The Riverlands is that, as we discussed before, they are centrally located and not particularly defensible. Still that's Catelyn's homeland. Just as Ned before him, Robb had to act. Once The Riverlands joined his secessionist cause and recognized him as king it wasn't just a question of blood. A king must defend his people. The smart move would have been to stay north of The Neck and send the Westeros equivalent of Seal Team Six to find and rescue Arya and Sansa. Then there is no betrothal or alliance with The Freys or need to send Theon home. But if Robb did send Theon home Winterfell and the North are still strongly protected. Though this was the smart move, it would have been politically and personally impossible for Robb to stay north as his mother's people are attacked, his father is murdered, other Northerners are slaughtered and his sisters are placed in peril. He HAD to go to war. This was a mistake but I don't blame Robb for it.

  • Executing Karstark. Karstark has clearly lost motivation after his sons are killed. The only thing he's living for is revenge. He doesn't seem impressed with his king chasing Talisa and we can only presume he's not too thrilled with the broken betrothal either. He wants to kill Jaime Lannister. He's temporarily prevented from doing so by Catelyn's command and then permanently prevented from doing so by Catelyn's release of Jaime for her selfish (albeit understandable) reasons.
    Seeing Catelyn escape what he views as meaningful punishment combined with Lannister children nearby is too much for Karstark to take. He murders the children. Not only does he do this (and thus as far as Robb knows put Sansa's and Arya's lives at risk) he also shows no remorse for it. Indeed he berates Robb and dares him to respond. I am torn on this because no military leader, particularly not one as young as Robb is, can tolerate subordinates disobeying orders and insulting him. If you are fighting for justice you can't have your people killing kids. Robb had a strict moral code and thus had no doubts on what Karstark's fate would be. But Robb leads a feudal army. "His" soldiers are primarily loyal to their local lords, not to Robb personally. Since he needed Karstark's people to reach his larger goal (rescuing his sisters and taking King's Landing), executing Karstark then, no matter how justified was a mistake. Send him to the Wall or imprison him but don't kill him.
So to summarize although I am a Stark bannerman and want the surviving Starks to reunite and destroy their enemies, at this point that looks unlikely. Though I will tease those of you who haven't read the books (which you should) and remind you all that Ned Stark said that when the snow falls and the white winds blow the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. The Stark wolfpack may be scattered but it's not yet destroyed. So we'll see. Robb Stark made many mistakes. They weren't all obvious at the time but I think Martin did a great job of showing how wars aren't just won on battlefields. They're also won by any other means. Like his father, Robb assumed that other people would try to be as honorable as he would be. Robb was a heck of a warrior and battle strategist but lacked cunning and political experience. And he paid for it.

*As usual, if you've read the books please don't detail anything that's yet to happen in show..
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