The Battle of Blackwater Bay has begun and this chapter tells the tale of the naval component of it. There is considerable overlap between the various characters’ chapters – Sansa, in the last chapter, heard the battle beginning, which technically means that her chapter ended after the events at this chapter’s end, while the next chapter (Tyrion’s) will take place more or less concurrently with this one. The exact chronology of the opening moves of the battle are fairly easy to trace – the opening skirmishes between Stannis’ early troops and the defence forces of King’s Landing have been going on for a while now but the battle only really kicks off when the navy arrives and burns. The naval portion of this battle should have been Stannis’ trump card but Tyrion was able to almost entirely neutralise it. We will spend this chapter analysing just what went wrong and in the process will see that it was a combination of a series of incredibly poor tactical decisions and some misfortune that led to Stannis’ hopes burning with his fleet in Blackwater Bay.
Above her three hundred oars was a deck given over wholly to scorpions, and topside she mounted catapults fore and aft, large enough to fling barrels of burning pitch.
The first section of this chapter establishes Stannis’ overwhelming naval superiority. Descriptions like the above (of Stannis’ flagship, Fury) indicate that Stannis’ navy is just better than Joffrey’s in every sense possible. I don’t really have a good sense of just how big a three hundred oar ship is, in a tangible sense, but I do just enough to know that it is big. Fury would ideally have played the same role in this offensive as a tank – rolling in and lighting buildings and people on fire. This same section, however, also sets off a great many alarm bells in most readers’ minds as we see a string of questionable decisions and an unhealthy attitude amongst key personnel. Essentially, it seems that this naval offensive is well-stocked but poorly planned.
The Onion Knight has become an old woman, he could hear them thinking, still a smuggler at heart.
The placement of Davos and his sons on the dangerous flank was definitely no coincidence. Davos’ family has its envious enemies and there is no shortage of disdain for the onion knights amongst the nobility and plenty others resent the access Davos has to Stannis. Apart from that, we will see a pattern here soon enough where Ser Imry Florent will command one thing, Davos will question it (either in his mind or openly) and Imry’s idea will have turned out to be a bad idea. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, as we will very shortly see, it is clear that Imry Florent doesn’t really know what the fuck he’s doing. There is a mixture of impatience, greed and arrogance in the man would have been damning enough in a commander but when mixed with his inexperience, it ensured that the venture would have been a lost caused had Stannis’ forces had anything less than the overwhelming force they possessed. Yet, all of it makes Davos out to be this amazingly insightful commander and an altogether impressive figure and I’m fine with that since Davos is one of my favourite characters but at the same time, it’s really not very realistic, is it? Davos is no admiral; by his own admission, he hasn’t commanded navies or even fleets and his expertise is in captaining a single ship rather than broad naval tactics. So, when his choices are shown to have been the better ones time and time again, what are we to make of it? Is this Martin being lazy and neglecting to reflect Davos’ own shortcomings or are we instead supposed to recognize Imry’s failings as so blindingly obvious that even someone with limited experience, like Davos, can see the mistake being made? I think there is a mixture of the two but it doesn’t last long. By the time the fleet is in Blackwater Bay, Davos has just as little a clue of what is going on as anyone else.
So having said that, here’s a quick compilation of quotes from the chapter that really showcase Imry’s incompetence:
For a start, he would have sent a few of his swiftest ships to probe upriver and see what awaited them, instead of smashing in headlong.
This is just basic tactics 101. Regardless of the level of technology, regardless of the time period, information is one of the most crucial things in warfare. There is a reason why scouting and reconnaissance are so extremely important and all the more so in this case when there is so much on the line. Imry isn’t charging a small part of big fleet into hostile territory; no, he’s sending everything he has into the city and his grand plan is to just crush everything with sheer brute force.
To be fair, there was reason for Ser Imry’s haste.
They say there was reason for his haste but I’m not sure I agree. I’ve written in the past about how close Tyrion was to losing this battle and it just came down to Stannis’ army taking too long or wasting too much time on certain things. This, obviously, was out of Stannis’ control but at the same time, you have to wonder how much time Imry thought he was saving by not scouting – Stannis had been waiting for days, surely a few extra hours couldn’t have hurt?
Ser Imry and the other highborn captains did not share his view; they glittered as they paced their decks.
Again, this is just common sense. It seems that Imry wasn’t expecting any sort of resistance on the water itself and expected that he would be doing most of his fighting on land. It isn’t an entirely ridiculous idea but I don’t know if anyone would really want to be caught dead wearing heavy armour when fighting any kind of naval battle.
We are fools to meet them on the Blackwater, Davos thought.
We should let Imry off the hook for this one, honestly. Yes, Davos is right (surprise, surprise) that it wasn’t a good idea to negate their numerical advantage by cramping into the bay but the truth is, they didn’t really have any way of drawing the King’s Landing navy out and even I can see that a slower, siege based approach was not going to work.
Salladhor Saan was a resourceful old pirate, and his crews were born seamen, fearless in a fight. They were wasted in the rear.
The same disdain and arrogance that led Imry to dismiss Davos’ advice keeps him from using the resources at his disposal to their fullest. Of course, at the end of the day, it didn’t really end up making too much of a difference but we can still condemn him for this because he didn’t know that it wouldn’t have made a difference. In fairness to the Florent however, Saan and his man are mercenaries and you can’t really blame him for not trusting them.
At this point, we’ll move away from pointing out the mistakes that Stannis’ commanders made in the naval portion of the battle and consider some of the mistakes being made in the greater war effort, on Stannis’ part as well as some other, general points I have about the chapter. You might be wondering why, in all of this, I’m focusing on the mistakes that Stannis made and not so much on all the things Tyrion and his merry men did right, but that’s coming in the next chapter. More than that though, I really feel that this was a battle that Stannis lost more than Tyrion won – not to take anything away from his intelligence or cunning, of course.
We should be flying the crowned stag, he thought. The stag was King Robert’s sigil, the city would rejoice to see it. This stranger’s standard serves only to set men against us.
It’s tempting to put this under the category of tactical mistakes but by this point, Stannis’ insistence of distancing himself from the Baratheon sigil and the legitimacy that it provided has already crossed over from being a simple matter of a missed chance for a psychological advantage to something greater. Stannis, as we discussed last chapter, is being seen an alien king championing a foreign god. Historically, people are not exactly inclined to believe that such men will treat them well and thus are likely to fight all the harder against his soldiers. From Stannis’ point of view, associating with Robert and Renly might not be the best idea – he decried Renly as a usurper and Robert wasn’t exactly a good regal role model, but I think Davos has the right of it here: the traditional Baratheon flag would have done more for Stannis than his current flaming hart.
“Your Grace, if the sorceress is with us, afterward men will say it was her victory, not yours. They will say you owe your crown to her spells.” That had turned the tide.
We don’t really know if Melisandre could really have made a difference but what I’m focusing on here is that Stannis changed his mind when he realized that the glory wouldn’t be given to him. How we fit that in with his character is extremely subjective – a generous interpretation would be that Stannis recognized that he needed to secure the win in a straightforward, open manner, especially after the rumours are flying around about Renly’s death and thus made a rational decision to keep Melisandre out of it. The less generous version, of course, is that he is a petty man obsessed with his own prestige and glory and didn’t want Melisandre’s fancy tricks taking away what was rightfully his. I like Stannis enough that I want to believe it’s the former, but honestly, it seems like there is a good amount of the latter mixed into it. Either way, I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t Davos who spoke out against her, especially given what he had seen but perhaps it’s for the best. It would have been interesting to see how Melisandre would have reacted to the wildfire – it is technically fire and perhaps she could have used its energy for something nifty.
Forty years at sea, and yet this was the first time he’d rammed another ship.
So, two things here: one, we never really think about it, but of course, Davos has never rammed another ship; smugglers spend their time running away from the ships that are trying to ram them, not to mention that most smugglers would never have ships large enough to ram with. The second point is just how old is Davos anyway?! Forty years of experience, assuming he began as a teen would put him comfortably into his fifties. Wouldn’t that make him elder to Stannis? Stannis seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties but it’s messing with my mind that Davos is younger than him. In my head, Davos was this younger man who hero-worshipped Stannis but now, it’s just weird.
Fortunately, there were few true pyromancers left. They will soon run out, Ser Imry had assured them.
I don’t think we should really fault Team Stannis for not knowing that the pyromancers had suddenly become a lot more productive. However, I do think it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t really the wildfire that caught them by surprise but rather that it was the combination of the sheer amounts of wildfire along with the raised chain that took them unawares – to which I say, fair enough. They had no real way knowing about this particular trump card Tyrion had up his sleeve, though perhaps if they hadn’t made as many errors before, this particular turn of events would not have been as debilitating.
The mouth of the Blackwater Rush had turned into the mouth of hell.
I wanted to round off this chapter by noting that this final section of the chapter is one of my favourite bits in the book. The description of the chaos as everything turns to shit is amazing but it is also surprisingly gradual. The wildfire doesn’t just appearing in this huge blaze – there are bits and pieces here and there at first, and the battle gets progressively chaotic instead of everything happening all at once. After that, however, things reach their crescendo when the ships begin ramming each other and the messiness of the entire affair gets worse and worse. The icing (firing?) on the cake was the none other than the one thing that could make the chaos all worse – an unquenchable fire in the middle of a constrained space.