Hey, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and who better to talk about than the incorrigible romantic, Robb Stark?
Before we get started, anyone who hasn’t seen the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, or hasn’t read the equivalent amount from the book series (or hasn’t read all the season recaps that came during and after Season Three) I really don’t want you reading this post. Because it’s going to be spoilery, and I’d rather you watch the show and experience Robb Stark’s storyline fresh.
I’m serious as a heart attack. I don’t want to spoil you.
Okay, so no one here but us Sullied? Good.
In Defense of Robb Stark
Robb’s a tough character to defend. On paper though, he’s awesome. Good looking eldest son of Lord Eddard Stark. Confident, courageous. Smart in the battlefield.
He was decent and gracious to Jon Snow, his brother from another mother. In other dynastic stories, these two would have been at each other’s throats.
Unfortunately, he was cut down in his prime through treachery. And to a certain extent, his missteps as king.
I think he did mess up, but I think he didn’t mess up as badly as some people have maintained. So I’d like to lawyer up and see if I can put a more positive spin on the short rule of Robb Stark, the King in the North.
Before we begin, I’d like to suggest two quick polls. Taking them is entirely optional, and you won’t be graded.
In general, Robb is criticized for two situations: breaking the marriage promise with Walder Frey, and his insistence on executing Lord Rickard Karstark. I’ll tackle both issues.
Love is the Death of Duty
Old Maester Aemon Targaryen had this to say about Love:
Maester Aemon: Jon, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night’s Watch take no wives and father no children?
Jon Snow: No.
Maester Aemon: So they will not love, for love is the bane of honor, the death of duty.
In my polls above, I laid that out as a choice involving both Jon Snow and Robb Stark.
Jon Snow is occasionally given heat for abandoning his love, the fiery Ygritte, in order to warn the anti-immigration Night’s Watch of an impending Wildling attack. I don’t agree with busting on Jon for that (see In Defense of Bad Boyfriend Jon Snow) but the curious thing is that the same voices complaining about Jon choosing duty over love often also complain about Robb choosing love over duty.
I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic at heart, so I’m inclined to sympathize with Robb, but he probably needed to do his duty as his childhood friend Jon did. (This point is less of a defense for Robb and more of a continuation of my endless defense of Jon Snow. I can’t stop defending that bastard.)
But I also think there are extenuating circumstances that should be considered.
Duty to One’s Liege, Duty to One’s People
Upon Ned Stark’s capture, Robb mobilized the North and started marching south. Ned was a really good reason to activate the northern levies, but there were other reasons. The Lannisters had invaded the Riverlands and were rampaging across the land.
The ill and dying Lord of the Riverlands, Hoster Tully, was trapped in his ancestral castle Riverrun, besieged by the Kingslayer himself, Jaime Lannister.
Hoster Tully was Robb’s grandfather. If anything happened to Hoster and his son Edmure, Robb would have a strong claim to the Riverlands. With this claim comes great responsibility. It was his duty to defend the lands of his mother’s birth.
On leaving the North, Robb’s army came to the Trident river and the Twins, the bridge-like castle of the Lord of the Crossing, Walder Frey.
Walder Frey also happened to be a bannerman of Hoster Tully, so it’s rather uncool all around that:
- he wasn’t mobilizing to defend his liege lord or the Riverlands
- he wasn’t more helpful to his liege lord’s grandson and daughter.
Regardless of Robb’s actions in defiance of orders from the crown, Frey had a duty to the Tully family. He could let Robb’s army pass unhindered with no real risk to himself. Should Robb and the northmen be routed in the Riverlands, it wouldn’t be worth the Lannisters’ time to come so far north to punish Frey. Lord Walder could merely make excuses for following directives as a good vassal should, pledge fealty to whomever was running the Riverlands now and that would be that.
Instead, he used the opportunity to extort political alliances into two powerful families, the Starks of Winterfell and the Tullys (since Robb could theoretically inherit both, but more than just Robb was promised to marry a Frey, Arya was likewise part of the package.)
With nearly zero risk and great rewards, Walder Frey hit the jackpot.
But then things happened.
The Changing Political Landscape
Robb was elected King in the North by his men. By virtue of rescuing the Riverlands from the invading Lannisters (and being of the Tully bloodline), the river-lords likewise pledged allegiance to Robb. Suddenly Walder Frey, by shirking his duty to his liege, was receiving an order of magnitude more benefit. It wasn’t that one of his daughters would one day be Lady Stark of Winterfell, one of his daughters would be Queen in the North.
In my opinion, Walder Frey needed to then bring something else to the table, to match the windfall that had suddenly befell him. But instead, ratlike Frey expected that his minimum effort would reap maximum rewards.
So, I’m not that heartbroken for Frey that things didn’t work out that way.
It’s not the first time in the history of Game of Thrones that a monarch got out of an arranged marriage. Although I’m not so sure I want to use Joffrey as an example for Robb’s behavior.
But it’s good to be the king.
The Beheading of Lord Rickard Karstark
Understanding Robb’s decision to behead Lord Karstark requires a re-examination of the events leading up to the execution. (Book readers, I’m working entirely from the Television Show here.)
- Robb Stark surprised Jaime Lannister’s forces after sending a smaller group to engage Lord Tywin’s main host. In capturing Jaime, one of Lord Rickard Karstark’s sons died honorably in battle. He was killed by Jaime who was trying to cut his way to Robb.
- After holding Jaime Lannister in ridiculously bad conditions for months and months, Jaime attempts to escape. The escape attempt takes the life of Lord Karstark’s remaining son.
- Jaime is recaptured, Robb is away from camp, and Catelyn fears that the Karstarks will kill Jaime, regardless of their fealty to Robb. Jaime is Catelyn’s only thing to trade for her daughters’ release. To save Jaime’s life, Catelyn surreptitiously frees Jaime, putting him into the custody of Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is tasked with safely delivering the Kingslayer to his family as a debt that the Lannisters would be honor bound to pay.
- The furious Lord Karstark gets more incensed that Robb is hesitant to punish his own mother harshly. When Robb’s host relocates to Riverrun for the funeral of old Lord Hoster and the elevation of Edmure Tully to lord of the Riverlands, Lord Karstark takes the opportunity to murder the Lannister hostages Edmure has in his care, the squires Willem and Martyn.
Karstark’s only real attempt to justify his actions is to correlate his murdering of the innocent squires with Catelyn releasing Jaime Lannister against Robb’s wishes. (Interesting, since Catelyn saved a life and Karstark took two.)
Robb hears counsel to spare Karstark’s life but to keep him in chains, as a hostage to ensure good behavior from the Karstark troops.
Instead, Robb orders the man’s execution and in the northern tradition, carries out the sentence himself.
This led to the desertion of the Karstark troops, forcing Robb to seek peace with Walder Frey. An alternative match of marriage is offered: Edmure Tully, the lord of the Riverlands, would marry one of Frey’s daughters.
And that led to the Red Wedding, and this:
The Reason Lord Karstark Had to Die
Before we get into that, here’s two more optional non-graded polls. I have my reasons.
Right before Lord Karstark decided to murder his king’s prisoners, Robb got word from Roose Bolton that Winterfell had been burned and his brothers were either captive or dead. If captive, Robb’s actions could endanger their lives. If dead, then Theon had egregiously violated his responsibilities as their captor.
Through Karstark’s actions, Robb found himself in a very similar position to Theon. It doesn’t really matter that it was Karstark acting without royal command, the Lannister boys were killed on Robb’s watch.
Since Robb had no other Lannister family member as hostage, there was no reason for Sansa and Arya to be left unharmed (remember, no one knew that Arya was not a captive), and if the Stark boys were still alive as captives and not dead, Tywin could theoretically exert influence over the Greyjoys (gold, yo) to have them summarily punished for Willem and Martyn’s murder.
Robb needed to act immediately and unequivocably to distance himself from the murder of the Lannister boys. And that meant executing Lord Karstark.
Keeping Karstark alive and in prison *might* have kept the Karstark men in check, but they had already been willing to murder innocent prisoners, and might do something equally stupid to free their Lord. Regardless of the Karstark troop compliance, it would do nothing to protect Robb’s captive family.
Killing Karstark was not only justice, it was a rational move.
As always, these are my opinions, and I’d be interested in hearing anyone else’s thoughts, either in support or against my position.
I don’t want to just be a knee-jerk apologist for the Starks. Even if I love them so.
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved