Friday, June 7, 2013

A communication error or just throwing blame around? - The Riverrun decision

I have repeatedly made the point that when Robb Stark and Brynden Tully gang up on Edmure Tully about his “stupid decision” to fight Lord Tywin at Stone Mill and the other places along the Red Fork, they are both in the wrong. Edmure had no way of knowing what the plan of Robb and Brynden could have been, and it is their fault for not telling him. I also assumed – a much more contested theory – that Robb and Brynden didn’t know of this “plan” themselves until after the fact and merely brought the hammer down on Edmure because he was a convenient scapegoat. Having seen the scenes playing out in the HBO adaption as well (with lower stakes, because Riverrun’s importance is downplayed and the engagement at Stone Mill aimed only at Gregor Clegane), I revisited my original thoughts and came to slightly different conclusions about why Robb und Brynden are basically talking bullshit.
I wear a T-Shirt with "Fuck Edmure" written on it.

At first, we have to understand what they obviously seem to forget all the time: Edmure is the lord of Riverrun. He is also Lord Paramount of the Trident, which means that he is the overlord of all the Riverlands. I mention this because from the treatment he gets from all his relatives, you would never know. Catelyn, his older sister, constantly attacks him for running the business instead of letting it to their demented, comatose father. Robb, his nephew, only half his age, commands an authority that Edmure clearly lacks. Brynden, his uncle, is the confidante of Robb, but has nothing but disdain and scorn for him. The war councils, which are basically made up of the northern lords, Catelyn and Brynden, don’t include Edmure to a meaningful degree. Instead, he gets told that he lost against Jaime Lannister with an army of 4000 against the Lannister’s 15.000 men.
Plus, he stabbed Caesar.
So it’s small wonder that Edmure keeps the company of other riverlords or their heirs, especially Piper and Mallister, and that’s also not the dumbest choice for him, despite what Catelyn thinks. He is the lord of the Riverlands, after all, and he needs to cultivate relationships. The drinking and whoring aside, this is exactly what Ned Stark did – he talks frequently to his vassals, includes them in his own councils and generally is on good terms with them. Imagine if there was no war to be fought – aside from the Freys, the most important lords of the Riverlands are buddies with Edmure, so I’d say that’s good politics.
A quiet land, a quiet people.
But to get to the point of why all this is important, let’s get back to the phrase that Robb and Edmure (presumably) left Edmure with: “Defend Riverrun while we campaign west.” It doesn’t seem to have been any more specific than that. I will later make the point that the order was stupid even with the presumed intent of luring Tywin into the west, but for now, let’s consider what “defend Riverrun” means. Spoiler alert: it’s not the castle. The reason behind this is that Westeros is a feudal world. So let’s look at this from a feudal lord’s perspective, in that case, Edmure’s. His overlord, Robb Stark, left the Riverlands to fight a war, and he left him behind with most of the Riverland’s forces to “defend Riverrun”. There is simply no way a commander in a feudal society could interpret this order as “defend the castle and nothing else”.
Depicted: Riverrun
For Edmure, “Riverrun” is the Riverlands, as “Winterfell” is the North for the Starks. When you tell Edmure “defend Riverrun while I’m gone”, you could as well say “defend the Riverlands”, but that territorial thinking is anachronistic and has nothing to do with feudal realities. A lord is sworn to defend all his subjects, and in contrast to some (hi there, Brynden), Edmure takes his oath seriously. He can be no lord if he hides behind the castle walls, a point that is made through the series time and time again, because he would violate his oath and be seen as a coward, which is nothing a lord could stand for if he ever wants to command respect and obedience among his vassals. And Edmure is, what, 30? He can expect to be lord of Riverrun and the Riverlands for quite some time, which means that he cannot afford to hide. And that’s why the thought of doing so never even crosses his mind. Now you might attribute that to a lack of military foresight and tactical blindness, but that would be grossly unfair. Rodrik Cassel is merely a castellan when he is charged by Catelyn to take care of, wait for it, “Winterfell”, and he doesn’t hesitate a second when Torrhen’s Square gets under attack, because it’s his duty as quasi-liege lord to defend Winterfell’s vassals. Winterfell is more than the castle, Winterfell is the North. And Riverrun is more than the castle, too, it’s the Riverlands.
Twice the mistake, none of the blame.
The reason why we as readers can’t see it that way is that we only get so see this stuff through Catelyn’s point-of-view, and Catelyn is deeply biased where her family is concerned, and on top of it consumed by grief, which has made her a bitter person that constantly lashes out. And Edmure gets the trout’s share of this lashing out, because he is there, he’s her younger brother, and he’s simply a nice guy who doesn’t fight back. He and Robb would both have been better off if he had smacked Catelyn and Brynden both over the mouth and told them who calls the shots in Riverrun: himself. Because one has to admit, he does a pretty decent job at it. Not only does he cultivate cordial relations with his principal vassals (apart from the Freys, but they are scorned by everyone due to their low social status, so Edmure’s no exception), he also proves himself to be a decent military commander given reasonable odds. After all, he defeats the Strongboar (who’s taken captive), Addam Marbrand (twice), Flement Brax and the Mountain himself, with a force that the Riverlanders claim is about half as strong as Tywin’s troops (in reality, I’d guess it’s more in the vicinity of two-thirds, especially when you take into account how swiftly the Riverlanders can move their reserves between the fords).
Better with swords than bows.
Despite what you may think about the battle at the fords and Stone Mill, Edmure wins it, and he wins it decisively. The Lannisters lose way more troops than they do, and the fords are held. The preparation that Edmure invests into the defense (fortifying the fords and keeping armored riders in reserve to destroy any foothold the enemy might gain) pay off, and at the end of the day, it is a resounding victory that denies Tywin access to his homeland and pins him at Harrenhal.

Of course, strategically, that’s pretty bad, since the Tyrells have joined the Lannisters in the meantime and Tywin learned of this just in time to throw his army around and fight Stannis on the Blackwater. So, Edmure really botched it, didn’t he? Had he just sat there on the walls of Riverrun like he was ordered to and winked at Tywin as he marched by, Stannis would have won the day and everything would have been well, right?
Because you totally want this guy to win the war.
No. And that’s the second part of my argument that makes Robb’s and Brynden’s claim that Edmure singlehandedly botched it when he didn’t stick to his orders so preposterous. The Battle of the Fords lasts about one week, give or take. Had Edmure not fought it, the Lannister army would have been too far away to reach King’s Landing in time (seven days with an estimated fifteen to twenty miles marching a day make all the difference here). But there’s a big caveat, because the plan that Robb and Brynden claim simply doesn’t add up. Let’s recapitulate it: Tywin marches past Riverrun and is then trapped between a rock (Robb’s army) and a hard place (Riverrun), while King’s Landing falls. Only, it isn’t. Because if Edmure did what Robb and Brynden claim that he should have done – taking his orders literally, which is as I showed a preposterous assumption to begin with – there would be nothing at all to prevent Tywin from marching back. You know why? Because Edmure would still sit on the walls of Riverrun, winking at Tywin again as he marched by. Because his orders are still the same: defend Riverrun. Now, how on earth was Edmure to know that he is to let Tywin pass in the one direction, but not in the other?

Of course, he could have looked at a map on his own and deciphered what Robb’s plan might be. But that’s a certain way into disaster. To assume what his liege might do, and to act in a way that might supplement this strategy but also might lead into a big calamity isn’t exactly prudent leadership. Let’s again look at this from Edmure’s perspective. Robb and Brynden told him that they were raiding the West to hurt the Lannister power base, as retaliation for the invasion of the Riverlands and to get stuff for the impending winter (which they did; they send whole convoys of blundered goods and cattle to Riverrun). There was no reason at all for Edmure to doubt that this was the plan. So what is the greatest danger to Robb raiding the West? Tywin returning and trapping him, destroying his entire army (which is precisely what Tywin intends when he recruits a new army at Oxcross). So, Edmure does the sensible thing: preventing Tywin from ever being able to reach Robb, allowing his king to beat both armies separately (as Robb does, defeating the army at Oxcross and continuing to disrupt Tywin’s power base by capturing mines and castles). It’s a strategy that makes perfect sense, and none of the news from Robb’s warring that reach Riverrun indicate anything other than that. The “brilliant plan” Robb and Brynden presumably devised comes as a total surprise not only to the Edmure, but also to the reader. And blinded by the biased POV structure, we take it at face value (like Edmure does, because why would his liege and uncle lie to him?).
Honorable and handsome!
A caveat: I’m not saying that Robb lies to Edmure’s face, that wouldn’t really be in character for him. But he is angry that is plans fail (due to external circumstances, most importantly the deaths of Renly and Cortnay Penrose), and in an all too human reaction, he searches for a scapegoat. And since Edmure’s been a tested Tully punching bag for his mother and his uncle, he comes naturally. So when, receiving all the bad news, Robb and Brynden sat at their table somewhere in the Westerlands, they may have had this conversation:

“Man, wouldn’t it have been great if Tywin would have been trapped here instead of marching back?”
“Yeah, man. If not for Stone Mill…”
“Yeah! Stupid shit.”
“If only Edmure had not fought Tywin…”
“Yeah, it’s entirely his fault!”

Had Robb and Brynden really intended to do this, the order to Edmure should have been the following: “Let Tywin pass by Riverrun and then secure the Red Fork to prevent him to get east again.” Then, the whole plan would have worked, a plan that to devise it required knowledge that none of the participants had at the time, to emphasize this point again. There is no way this could have been the plan when Robb und Brynden left at the beginning of “A Clash of Kings”.
No amount of staring at a map helps you with that.
The last argument they can bring forth is that Edmure isn’t exactly trust-worthy, because he frequents whores and talks in his cups. That may very well be. But it can’t be helped. Edmure is the lord of Riverrun, so Robb and Brynden have to deal with it. It’s startling what bad judgment in character Robb displays here, especially taking into account how well he handles his northern vassals. My guess is that he relies on his mother and his uncle for counsel on how to work with the riverlords because, well, they’re riverlanders. But Robb fails to see that both are very biased towards Edmure and that their advice here is bad. Even more grave is the lack of respect he offers to his primary vassal, the lord of half his kingdom. He respects even great louts like Greatjon Umber and gains their unwavering loyalty for it. If he had brought only a fraction of that respect to Edmure and included him in his war councils like it would befit him, then, knowing Edmure’s open-hearted and submissive persona, he would have gained a loyal and eager follower in him. Please keep in mind that Edmure and his riverlords swore allegiance to him and made him their king although no one required them to! Instead, he leaves him nothing and forces Edmure to search for glory and status elsewhere.
Like authoring a book.
And this is why Robb loses the war. He may be a capable military commander and know how to handle his northeners, because his father taught him both and he feels a deep connection to the North. There is nothing comparable for the Riverlands and its lords (and Robb’s main advisors both don’t feel strong ties to them), and it’s telling that Robb almost always takes his northmen and leaves the riverlords where they are if he can afford it. They’re an afterthought to him, because he has no clue of how to govern his realm and what to do with it. He’s a warlord, and it’s safe to assume that once the war had been won, he would have gone back to Winterfell and left the Riverlands pretty much to their own affairs. A blind man could see that, and Edmure certainly did. And being much better at politics than Robb, he prepared accordingly. It’s not his fault his liege lost the war.

1 comment:

  1. As I read I found myself agreeing with a lot of what you've formulated here after first opening this post with initial disgust. Robb should have given him more clear commands, but it seemed Edmure believed he was protecting Robb's flank instead of Riverrun which would be a slight violation of his orders. It's semantics though as Robb could have fixed it with better commands like "Let them pass."

    I don't think the last paragraph is necessarily a bad thing. Robb leaving the riverlands to be governed on its own once the war was won doesn't seem like a negative to me. Further, leaving the river Lords where they were while moving his army about was probably partially predicated upon those men defending their own lands which were being ravaged by bandits and Gregor alike.

    I'm not sure I'm with you on Edmure being a better pol than Robb, but that is more the lack of evidence of Edmure's abilities to compare to Robb.

    Having said all that, I find myself coming to your point of view and it jibes with the way I viewed Edmure as he was portrayed in the books. I've felt he's been harshly criticized for actions that would seem reflexive to almost every other character in the books. The Edmure in the show is a cross between Gomer Pyle and Polly Walnuts and I just don't think the screen time he received did him justice. Perhaps this is how GRRM views him though if he signed off on it? I hope not.