I finally watched the Game of Throne episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” and even though I knew what was coming it was still painful to see it happen again. I’ve read A Storm of Swords three times, so I was prepared for what was to come. I’d seen this horror before in my mind’s eye. But watching it play out on the screen was a surprisingly emotional experience. I think this is interesting, because I was never particularly emotionally attached to the characters who suffered the most during the Red Wedding. So why should it be such an emotional experience to read or watch it unfold? I think it has to do with George R.R. Martin’s genius.
First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Red Wedding is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga. Major characters die, the balance of power in the ongoing struggle for Westeros shifts tremendously. The King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are murdered, as are many Stark and Tully bannermen and soldiers. It’s a disaster.
When I first red that chapter ten years ago, I was shattered. But why? I was never particularly attached to Catelyn Stark, who had been a primary “point of view” character in the first three books. She hated one of my favorite characters (Jon Snow). She undermined her son’s authority by freeing Jaime Lannister. She sparked a war by kidnapping Tyrion Lannister. Cat and I weren’t close.
And Robb? Readers of the books know that Robb is a much more distant character than he was in the show. Martin never writes from his point of view. When he goes off to war, falls in love, and gets married, there are no point of view characters with him. Martin always maintains a narrative distance between Robb and his readers. We are much more emotionally attached to characters like Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, and even Bran Stark, despite that silly, three-eyed crow business. And everyone loves Tyrion, But I never loved Robb and I never loved Catelyn. So why did it hurt so much when they died?
Here are the reasons:
- The Red Wedding is a major violation of the cultural norms that Martin created in his world. Martin’s world building is fantastic. His readers are well-versed in the laws of hospitality and honor in Westeros. Before Walder Frey and his co-conspirators murdered the Starks, he offered them guest rights. This is the formal act of offering bread and salt to your guests. If they accept it, then you are both bound by the old gods and the new to do no harm to each other. Frey violates that sacred right when he kills Catelyn and Robb and so many others (Umbers, Mormonts, Mallisters, etc.)
- The fall of Stark also boosts the Lannisters. Martin has done a wonderful job of crafting a villainous family in the form of the Lannisters. Even though readers love Tyrion from the outset and grow to like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand and learns humility, we still hate House Lannister. Cersei is a witch. Tywin is jerk. And Joffrey. Ugh! Joffrey. Worst. King. Ever. Robb and Catelyn’s deaths seem to let the Lannisters off the hook for cuckolding King Robert, murdering Ned Stark and everything else. The Starks won’t be able to take their revenge, which we’ve been craving for thousands of pages. Now, someone else might come along and teach them a lesson (If you’ve read all the books, don’t spoil it for the TV-only folks. We know something is coming). Still, we wanted to see Joffrey and his kin answer to Robb for their crimes. Now it isn’t going to happen.
- We don’t love Robb, but we do love House Stark. We care about House Stark and what it stands for. We love Arya. We grow to like Sansa as she gets over being a brat. We love Bran. We love the wolves! These characters are complex. They have flaws, but they are also fundamentally interesting and sympathetic. And we want to see things turn out well for them. We want them to get home to Winterfell safe and sound. The best hope for that was Robb Stark. He was winning the war, until he screwed up and broke off his betrothal to House Frey (cursed be that name). When Robb dies, our hope for a happy ending for the Starks dies, too. The north is shattered. Bran is the next in line and he’s paralyzed. In the medieval world of Westeros, a pre-teen boy who can’t walk won’t be able to lead. Rickon is a toddler. Jon Snow is a bastard. Our hope to see some measure of peace for this family is gone. Martin has chosen his key characters and we readers have invested emotionally in them. We love Robb Stark’s kin, but we don’t love him. But we hoped Robb would redeem and protect his house and restore order in this world. Alas, it will fall to someone else to fulfill that. Dany Targaryen and her dragons are still on the loose, so… we’ll see.
Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love. But Martin knew that Robb wasn’t the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed. The order that Robb was supposed to restore was thrown even deeper into chaos. Readers like me were hooked forever. I will never give up on these books until I see someone set things right in Westeros. Let’s hope Martin’s endgame gets us there.