It has been eight days since the King’s party went south. Maester Luwin comes to Catelyn in Bran’s room to go over the cost of the King’s visit, but Catelyn refuses to. He also says that they must name a new steward, captain of the guard, and master of horse, as Vayon Poole, Jory Cassel, and Hullen have all gone south with Eddard. She gets nasty then until Robb comes in and says he will take care of things. Robb chastises her for never leaving Bran’s room. Rickon has been following Robb and crying because he thinks everyone has abandoned him, and Robb needs her help too. Outside, Bran’s direwolf begins to howl, followed by Grey Wind and Shaggydog. Catelyn tells Robb to make them stop, but he says Bran needs to hear them. Catelyn collapses, but refuses to go to sleep in case Bran should die before she wakes.
Robb and Catelyn notice that the library tower is on fire. Robb rushes off, and Catelyn only feels relief that the fire is not near Bran. She turns and sees a small man in filthy clothing with a knife who has come to kill Bran. They struggle, and Catelyn cuts her hand badly. Suddenly Bran’s direwolf1 is in the room and kills the assassin. When Robb returns with Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik, they find Catelyn laughing hysterically. Old Nan helps her to bed, and she sleeps for four days.
Catelyn wakes feeling weak, but no longer mad from grief and holds a council with Robb, Theon, Maester Luwin, Ser Rodrik and Hallis Mollen, the new captain of the guard. The assassin had been hiding in the stables and had a bag with ninety silver stags. He was obviously hired to kill Bran, but the question is by whom. They figure someone wanted him dead because he saw something he should not have. The assassin had a Valyrian steel dagger with a dragonbone hilt. Hallis leaves to put more guards on Bran’s room, and the others continue to confer. Catelyn tells the others about Lysa’s accusation that the Lannisters killed Lord Jon. Furthermore, she deduces that Bran did not fall, but was pushed, and guesses that it was Jaime Lannister that did it since he remained at Winterfell that day. Robb draws his sword in his anger, receiving a rebuke from Ser Rodrik. Catelyn is surprised to see him wearing steel now, and Ser Rodrik explains he felt it was time. She decides she must go to King’s Landing with the dagger to discover its origin. Ser Rodrik asks to accompany her, and she agrees. They will follow the White Knife to White Harbor and take a ship from there to King’s Landing.
The reader is shown both sides of Catelyn’s character in this chapter – the loving mother and the politically adroit Southron lady. As re-readers know, the internal conflict Catelyn feels and the external conflict that she causes can both be traced back to these two fundamental aspects of her character continually engaging her in an intense tug-of-war. These two sides of her character however, are not innately incompatible though they do clash more often than not. This chapter offers us our first real glimpse into her character and motivations.
That Catelyn risks her life to try to protect Bran should come as a surprise to no one. If there is one thing that Martin is consistently soft about it’s the sacred bond of motherhood – even Cersei, as twisted and delusional as she is, cares unconditionally for her children, though the less said about her parenting the better. However, I’m not quite sure how to respond to Catelyn’s extended depression and obsession over Bran’s condition. On one hand, I can’t even come close to imagining the trauma of having a child, let alone a favorite, in a life-threatening coma while simultaneously losing 2 other children and my spouse but on the other hand, Catelyn does have a responsibility to her other children, especially Rickon. Without being too judgmental, I feel that more could have been expected of Catelyn in that position; her children needed her and Rickon, especially, can be forgiven for forgetting he even had a mother in the first place given that he never sees her again after she leaves Winterfell.
We see little of Robb throughout the series and part of that is intentional – Martin seems adamant that the reader not be particularly attached to any one of the five Kings. While it is only natural that we side with Robb given our alignment with the Stark family, making Robb a POV character would tip the scales too much in his favor and make certain scenes in ASoS all the more agonizing to read. In this chapter however, we see a certain vulnerability to Robb. This is something that others, especially his liege lords, never really see but is especially clear to his mother, who will soon become our only means of seeing Robb at all. His confession to needing his mother here serves as a pointed reminder, one that Martin may come to regret ere the end, that Robb is not that old. He still needs mentoring as Ser Rodrick points out and his youth will reveal itself in some of the choices he makes down the road.
I am a big fan of how this chapter is crafted – Catelyn’s distraction is masterfully captured with how her thoughts always wander to Bran even when Luwin is attempting to direct her attention towards more pressing, practical matters. Martin is able to create an atmosphere that feels almost surreal yet anguished at the beginning, before making it more panicked and nightmarish during the attack. The tone by the time Catelyn wakes up is one of determined practicality and captures the character’s state of mind perfectly. It also interesting to see how other characters, who unlike the readers, are not privy to Catelyn’s thoughts, react to her lashing out. A particularly good example was the reaction that Catelyn’s relieved gasp of “Thank the Gods!” got when Robb said the library tower was on fire. It is a realistic reaction on both parties’ side and creates an interesting effect for the reader to see from Catelyn’s point of view. It gives the reader some grasp of how close to the edge of madness she is but what makes it interesting is seeing it from her point of view as opposed to Robb’s.
On a more plot-related note, I find Catelyn’s decision to go to King’s Landing a little forced – there is no reason that Rodrick Cassel could not have just as easily in her place. That he does go anyway only serves to highlight how little he is needed in Winterfell at this point. Catelyn’s departure is of little importance in and of itself – however, the events of her return journey, particularly her capture of Tyrion mean that her departure here takes on a huge significance in the overall scheme of things. The link between the wolves and the children is reinforced here though nothing is made explicit. Martin at this stage is employing a very Tolkien-like technique of hiding what would otherwise be magic behind a veil of ambiguity. Tolkien favored the use of terms like ‘as though’ or ‘like’ to indicate that magic may be at hand but never explicitly stated it. For example, ‘the host faltered as though burned by the light from Gandalf’s staff’ – to the reader, it would seem that Gandalf’s light is physically harming the creatures but the ‘as though’ makes it a little ambiguous. Similarly, here, there is no physical sign that Bran is being assisted by the wolves howling but the reader gets an instinctive sense that that is the case.
Let me end by pointing out what at first seems like an incongruity – Theon’s seemingly genuine statement that his house owes the Starks a great debt. I do not doubt that Theon does actually believe that his house owes the Starks nor is he fully lying when he says that Ned was like a second father to him. However, his delusions here give the first-time reader completely the wrong idea as to the nature of the relationship between the Greyjoys and the Starks, Theon and the Starks and Theon and the Greyjoys. From Theon’s incredibly naïve statements here, all three parties get along perfectly and everything is just peachy. ACoK, of course paints a very different, and truer, picture.