“My son may be a king, but I am no queen … only a mother who would keep her children safe, however she could.”
– Catelyn V, A Clash of Kings
As discussed in Radio Westeros E10 - A Mother's Madness
The first things we learn about Catelyn Stark are that she was born in the South and is uncomfortable in the Winterfell godswood. The first line of her first PoV chapter tells us that “Catelyn had never liked this godswood” and then goes on to relate that she was raised with the Seven. We get the strong sense early on that she is not entirely comfortable with the North and its gods. In fact, the Stark words give her a chill and she reflects, not for the first time, on “what a strange people these northerners were.”
On the other hand, we are given a picture of a close and caring marriage between two people who know and respect each other. Ned and Cat evidently share a deep love of family and each other, as illustrated by the empathy she shows Ned when delivering the news of Jon Arryn’s death. Then in spite of Ned’s apparent joy at the news of Robert’s visit, Cat’s distinct lack of it proves early on her sensitivity to foreshadowing, a quality we’ll see time and again in her, as she thinks of the story she has lately heard: “a direwolf dead in the snow, a broken antler in its throat.” The passage goes on: “Dread coiled within her like a snake, but she forced herself to smile at this man she loved, this man who put no faith in signs.” So we see both the bond Ned and Cat share in spite of their arranged marriage and the contrast between Ned’s rational and measured perspective and Cat’s more intuitive and visceral one.
As Cat’s story progresses we learn more about her upbringing in the Riverlands. The eldest of three children, she seems to have taken on both the eldest son’s role and the female duties in her family after her mother’s death, including traveling with her father to visit bannermen and watching for his return whenever he was away. She is presented as the dutiful daughter, accepting her early betrothal to Brandon Stark of Winterfell as a “splendid match.” We learn that the Tully words are “Family, Duty, Honor,” and Cat thinks to herself, “I have always done my duty,” specifically recalling when she accepted Ned in Brandon’s place.
Family is also very important to Cat. Her eventual identification of herself as a Stark is a progression that is shown throughout her arc, culminating in the final scene of her mortal life. But the ideals of Family and Duty can be in conflict, while Honor can mean different things to different people, as shown by the events leading up to the Red Wedding. In fact, it turns out the Tully words are very difficult to live up to fully. While Cat clearly tries to do so, the conflicts she encounters as the mother of Robb the King are often at odds with the ideals of Catelyn as a Tully and as the mother of the other Stark children.
As mentioned, Cat and Ned have a loving family relationship. This is obvious in their thoughts, as they both constantly think of the well-being of their children and of each other. En route to King’s Landing with Robert, Ned thinks, “He belonged with Catelyn in her grief,” and later, having arrived in King’s Landing, “He yearned for the comfort of Catelyn’s arms.”
Cat’s thoughts also often turn to Ned, initially seeking comfort and guidance, and later out of grief. Her feelings for him, as her grief at his loss makes plain, are profound. She reminisces about the connection she made with the “solemn stranger” that she wed, thinking, “I had love enough for any woman, once I found the good sweet heart beneath [his] face.”
At the same time it’s clear that Cat’s children are her priority. In fact her roles — as mother, nurturer, protector, advocate and avenger — singularly define her role in the story. From the beginning of AGoT we learn that she is her children’s first and best advocate. She tells Ned in the godswood, “I am always proud of Bran,” and later when Ned thinks to refuse Robert’s offer, she is firm on one point: “You cannot. You must not. . . . He is a king now, and kings are not like other men. If you refuse to serve him, he will wonder why, and sooner or later he will begin to suspect that you oppose him. Can’t you see the danger that would put us in?”
It’s probably no accident that in that one brief exchange with Ned about Robert’s offer, the Tully ideals of Family, Duty and Honor are all referenced. Ned mentions his duties in the north, while Cat makes clear the danger refusal would bring to their family. They also disagree about the nature of the honors being offered. Cat is certain that Robert’s offer of the Handship and Joffrey for Sansa is meant as an honor. Ned sees it as a trap, and this minor discord leads to some bitterness as his dead brother’s shadow falls across their conversation. This conversation perfectly highlights the dilemma Cat will continue to face as the ideals of her House come into conflict with each other.
We see that Cat is resolved that Ned must go to King’s Landing, and the letter from her sister Lysa helps her make her case. With Maester Luwin’s help she is able to convince him that he must go south, cutting through his reservations based on his father’s and brother’s fates. She feels his pain but her children come first: “Catelyn’s heart went out to him, but she knew she could not take him in her arms just then. First the victory must be won, for her children’s sake.”
Ultimately her victory comes at a price when Ned tells her that he will take the girls and Bran with him. She has secured the future but has lost the present. In her loss she will not yield to Ned’s plea that Jon Snow be allowed to remain at Winterfell: “‘He cannot stay here,’ Catelyn said, cutting him off. ‘He is your son, not mine. I will not have him.’ It was hard, she knew, but no less the truth. Ned would do the boy no kindness by leaving him here at Winterfell.”
Cat is convinced that Jon must go, even at the expense of Ned’s heartache. For the first time we see Cat’s heart described as hard: “Catelyn armored her heart against the mute appeal in her husband’s eyes.” While Cat is recalled as “hard” by Jon on more than one occasion, some empathy on this score is due her. She has been placed in a seemingly impossible situation by her husband in the early days of their marriage, with his installation in their family of an infant more or less of an age with their own firstborn without a satisfactory explanation. We know from GRRM that Cat’s relationship with Jon is both tense and complicated. When asked about Cat’s perceived mistreatment of her husband’s bastard son, he replied:
“Mistreatment” is a loaded word. Did Catelyn beat Jon bloody? No. Did she distance herself from him? Yes. Did she verbally abuse and attack him? No. (The instance in Bran’s bedroom was obviously a very special case). But I am sure she was very protective of the rights of her own children, and in that sense always drew the line sharply between bastard and trueborn where issues like seating on the high table for the king’s visit were at issue. And Jon surely knew that she would have preferred to have him elsewhere.
Yet it’s important to recognize that months later she thinks back on this scene with mixed emotions. Upon meeting Mya Stone in the Vale “she could not help but think of Ned’s bastard on the Wall, and the thought made her angry and guilty, both at once.” It seems that Cat realizes her position with regard to Jon is uncharacteristically hard. She is pragmatically aware that it would not be in Jon’s best interest for Ned to leave him in her care, but she cannot help feeling anger (probably towards Ned for placing her in this position) and guilt.
In spite of their disagreement over Jon Snow, Ned ultimately leaves in her hands Winterfell and the shepherding of their eldest son into adulthood. But Bran’s fall from the tower answers Cat’s prayer that Bran remain at Winterfell. Her subsequent descent into despair can only have been fueled by the guilt she feels about her prayer being answered in such a way. When at long last, the attack on Bran’s life by the catspaw assassin brings her out of her despair and anger she finds herself ashamed at her behavior, thinking, “She had let them all down, her children, her husband, her House. It would not happen again. She would show these northerners how strong a Tully of Riverrun could be.”
She is still identifying as a Tully, a southerner, but we see glimmers of a desire to identify with the North. For now, it’s clear that first and foremost in her mind is her Family, and the Duty that comes along with that commitment.
Cat’s encounter with the catspaw not only underlines her role as protective mother but also offers some key foreshadowing of her arc to come. Cat learns the lesson of the direwolf as protector here, something that will haunt her later on as her children face dangers without these valuable guardians at their sides. Her inability to speak and hysterical laughter prefigure both her final scene and descent into madness at the Twins and her inability to speak as Lady Stoneheart.
Most significantly Cat nearly has her throat cut by the assassin, beginning an association with her and throats. From this scene to her defense of herself in the face of attack by the mountain clansmen en route to the Vale to the sad fate of Jinglebell Frey, we see a progression of Cat, throats and violence that will culminate with Lady Stoneheart. Cat will actually recall this moment during the dark climax of the Red Wedding, drawing a clear line back to this event as the beginning of a dramatically different type of motherhood.
Catelyn’s decisions after this event also move her into a more active role in northern politics and place her on the agonizing path she will follow for the rest of her natural life. She keeps her children’s best interests in her heart but will henceforth be faced with a series of dilemmas in which her only options frequently leave her in a double bind. She resolves to travel to King’s Landing to bring word personally to Ned, but in so doing she must leave her sons behind. Even upon arriving in the city, her faint hopes of seeing her girls are dashed by the need for secrecy, and she departs back to the North having had only the briefest of visits with her husband.
Ned proves his continued faith in her when he gives her instructions for the defense of the North:
Once you are home, send word to Helman Tallhart and Galbart Glover under my seal. They are to raise a hundred bowmen each and fortify Moat Cailin. Two hundred determined archers can hold the Neck against an army. Instruct Lord Manderly that he is to strengthen and repair all his defenses at White Harbor, and see that they are well manned. And from this day on, I want a careful watch kept over Theon Greyjoy. If there is war, we shall have sore need of his father’s fleet.
During her return journey, Cat makes what is possibly the most fateful decision of the series when she takes Tyrion Lannister into custody at the Inn at the Crossroads. Much has been said about her actions here. Certainly she fails to heed the counsel of both her husband, who urged her to return to Winterfell posthaste and gave her instructions to deliver to his bannermen, and Petyr Baelish, who reminded Ned and Cat that “The Imp will no doubt swear the blade was lost or stolen while he was at Winterfell, and with his hireling dead, who is there to give him the lie?” Littlefinger went on to advise them to toss the dagger into the river and forget it.
But, as noted, Catelyn Stark is first and foremost a mother. Recent events have also led her to identify more with the north than she seems to have in the prior fifteen years of her marriage. A classic example of how a Stark would choose to deal with the Imp is seen in Ned’s line to Littlefinger: “I am a Stark of Winterfell. My son lies crippled, perhaps dying. He would be dead, and Catelyn with him, but for a wolf pup we found in the snow. If you truly believe I could forget that, you are as big a fool now as when you took up sword against my brother.” Perhaps, when she is confronted with Tyrion at the Inn, her maternal instincts to protect and avenge her children leads her to choose a path that seems like what Ned would do. Certainly she has only a split second to decide, as she thinks here: “There was no time to think it through, only the moment and the sound of her own voice ringing in her ears.” That her actions are in keeping with her increasingly northern identity is borne out by Tyrion’s thoughts when he finds himself on the High Road to the Vale: “All his life Tyrion had prided himself on his cunning, the only gift the gods had seen fit to give him, and yet this seven-times-damned she-wolf Catelyn Stark had outwitted him at every turn.”
While it’s really impossible to predict what might have happened if Cat hadn’t encountered Tyrion at the inn, we cannot ignore the fact that the seizure of Tyrion Lannister has dire consequences for all those Cat holds dear. Whatever conclusions the reader draws about her actions, it seems clear that she ultimately draws the blame upon herself. The early stirrings of Cat’s cognitive dissonance are seen by Tyrion himself when he notes “a flicker of doubt” in her eyes in the face of his protestations of innocence. Cat begins to doubt herself in other ways too, following her departure from the Vale: “Catelyn had fought to keep herself strong, for Ned’s sake and for this stubborn brave son of theirs. She had put despair and fear aside, as if they were garments she did not choose to wear . . . but now she saw that she had donned them after all.” Later her fears are clearly spelled out, along with a renewed determination to become a northerner once and for all:
“She feared for her lord father, and wondered at his ominous silence. She feared for her brother Edmure, and prayed that the gods would watch over him if he must face the Kingslayer in battle. She feared for Ned and her girls, and for the sweet sons she had left behind at Winterfell. And yet there was nothing she could do for any of them, and so she made herself put all thought of them aside. You must save your strength for Robb, she told herself. He is the only one you can help. You must be as fierce and hard as the north, Catelyn Tully. You must be a Stark for true now, like your son.”
Following Whispering Wood, when word reaches them of Ned’s execution, her fears coalesce into true despair. She blames herself for her husband’s death and the mortal peril her daughters are now in: “It was your doing, yours, a voice whispered inside her. If you had not taken it upon yourself to seize the dwarf . . .”.
In the meantime, Cat has taken on the role of adviser to her son. While she tries to give him the space to make his own decisions, it is she who impresses upon him the importance of acceding to Lord Walder’s demands. Her thoughts reveal that she seeks wisdom from her husband’s example. When she volunteers to parley with Lord Walder alone in the Twins, there is chilling foreshadowing of her fate to come: “‘Lord Walder is my father’s bannerman. I have known him since I was a girl. He would never offer me any harm.’ Unless he saw some profit in it, she added silently, but some truths did not bear saying, and some lies were necessary.”
In that final phrase we see an echo of Ned’s thoughts in King’s Landing: “Some secrets are too dangerous to share, even with those you love and trust.” Much has been said about Ned Stark’s honor. His eldest daughter declares to herself, “My father always told the truth,” and Robert Baratheon mocks his friend with “You never could lie for love nor honor, Ned Stark.” But in his arc, and now in Catelyn’s as well, we see the idea that lying can be necessary. This seems at odds with ideals of northern honor, but we see time and again the theme of protecting children at any cost in Ned’s arc. This is clearly a philosophy that both Ned and Cat deploy with the best interest of their family in mind, illustrating again the difficulty of negotiating the Tully words.
As we saw with Ned when he was willing to deliver a false confession to the Lannisters to save his daughter, Cat reveals herself willing to go to any lengths to get her daughters back during the council with Robb’s bannermen: “I will mourn for Ned until the end of my days, but I must think of the living. I want my daughters back, and the queen holds them still. If I must trade our four Lannisters for their two Starks, I will call that a bargain and thank the gods.”
When the lords of the North and the Riverlands fail to heed her plea for peace, Cat finds herself despairing. She is wondering if she will be able to save her girls at the point when Greatjon Umber, swiftly followed by all the other lords, declares her son the King in the North. What follows must seem the death of hope, as every lord in the room rejects the Lannisters and the Iron Throne and vows to fight on in Robb’s name for honor, for revenge, and for independence.
When Robb, newly made King, sends Cleos Frey as an envoy to King’s Landing, a behind-the-scenes exchange reveals that Robb has begun to move away from his mother’s advice. He refuses to offer Jaime Lannister in exchange for his sisters, making the much less attractive offer of Willem Lannister and Tion Frey. Cat knows that Cersei will not agree and there is a bitter disagreement. Her harsh words wound Robb, and in her guilt she thinks, “Gods be good, what is to become of me? He is doing his best, trying so hard, I know it, I see it, and yet . . . I have lost my Ned, the rock my life was built on, I could not bear to lose the girls as well . . .”
Despair and self-doubt are clearly replacing Cat’s earlier confidence and conviction. When she thinks about Ned’s bones returning to the north, her thoughts make it clear: “Living men had gone south, and cold bones would return. Ned had the truth of it, she thought. His place was at Winterfell, he said as much, but would I hear him? No. Go, I told him, you must be Robert’s Hand, for the good of our House, for the sake of our children . . . my doing, mine, no other . . .”.
She tries to reassert herself as adviser but perhaps due to their persistent disagreement over the hostage exchange, fails to make it clear that Ned’s final orders were to keep a close eye on Theon Greyjoy. Rather than firmly reminding her son that it was his father’s wish that Theon be kept close, she argues from her own perspective:
“I’ll say again, I would sooner you sent someone else to Pyke, and kept Theon close to you.”
“Who better to treat with Balon Greyjoy than his son?”
“Jason Mallister,” offered Catelyn. “Tytos Blackwood. Stevron Frey. Anyone . . . but not Theon.”
Her son squatted beside Grey Wind, ruffling the wolf’s fur and incidentally avoiding her eyes. “Theon’s fought bravely for us. I told you how he saved Bran from those wildlings in the wolfswood. If the Lannisters won’t make peace, I’ll have need of Lord Greyjoy’s longships.”
“You’ll have them sooner if you keep his son as hostage.”
“He’s been a hostage half his life.”
“For good reason,” Catelyn said. “Balon Greyjoy is not a man to be trusted. He wore a crown himself, remember, if only for a season. He may aspire to wear one again.”
Robb’s insistence on Theon’s loyalty, even to the point of forgetting his own righteous anger over the scene with the wildlings in the wolfswood, seems a stubborn reaction to an interfering mother. The reader is left to wonder if Catelyn has done her duty in relaying Ned’s message clearly, or if the fraught situation has led to a breakdown of communication between mother and son.
Nonetheless, it is Cat who Robb chooses to send as an emissary to Renly Baratheon — perhaps because he cannot spare anyone else, but also because there are so few people who he can trust. Here we see the genesis of the northern plan to lure Tywin Lannister from the fastness of Harrenhal. While the plan would ultimately fail, it should be noted that it is Cat herself who originally suggested the means of drawing Lord Tywin into the field to her uncle.
As a reluctant emissary to Renly’s host in the south, Cat’s weariness with conflict shows clearly when she thinks, “I want to weep . . . . I want to be comforted. I’m so tired of being strong. I want to be foolish and frightened for once. Just for a small while, that’s all . . . a day . . . an hour . . .”. Furthermore, her frustration with the southron chivalry she encounters highlights her increasingly northern identity. In a reversal of her earlier aversion to the Stark words, she tells Lord Rowan and Brienne that she pities the young knights of Renly’s army “[b]ecause they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”
After failing in her diplomatic mission and witnessing the breakdown of relations between Renly and Stannis, she seeks the comfort of her gods on the eve of their battle. She prays for her family, but her despair is once again plain: “I have come so many thousands of leagues, and for what? Who have I served? I have lost my daughters, Robb does not want me, and Bran and Rickon must surely think me a cold and unnatural mother. I was not even with Ned when he died . . .”.
Following Renly’s death, she has what may be a premonition of the danger her son is facing when she recalls the words of Stannis Baratheon: “I am the rightful king . . . and your son no less a traitor than my brother here. His day will come as well.” Given what she witnessed in Renly’s tent, it’s probably not surprising that “a chill [goes] through her” when she recalls the naked threat. En route back to Riverrun, she tells Brienne, “My son may be a king, but I am no queen . . . only a mother who would keep her children safe, however she could.” This crystallizes everything Cat has done in her arc so far. Faced with dilemmas and impossible choices, she attempts to do her duty, to choose the path that Ned would take or that honor would dictate. What she has found, to her sorrow, is that these ideals can be impossible to live up to fully. As in that scene with Ned when she convinced him to accept Robert’s offer, she has learned that keeping family first can come at a price. Not unlike Jaime Lannister, whose passionate speech about conflicting vows is delivered to Cat herself, she finds herself torn: “[w]ould that there were five of me, one for each child, so I might keep them all safe.”
Here is the root of Cat’s dilemma: she is continually forced to choose between actions that might benefit one child at the expense of another. Her long exposure to this type of double bind wears ever more heavily upon her. Her inner doubts become more pronounced, as do her weariness and grief. Up until now, in spite of her weariness and doubt, she has maintained what Brienne identifies as “ . . . courage. Not battle courage perhaps but . . . a kind of woman’s courage.” Now, the contrast between her reactions to Bran’s fall, the attack by the catspaw, and her time with Robb could not be more stark. We begin to see her despair in nearly every thought.
She recalls Sansa’s excitement at court life: “I told her there would be singers at the king’s court, though. I told her she would hear music of all sorts, that her father could find some master to help her learn the high harp. Oh, gods forgive me . . .”. In the face of military victories, she thinks, “But if we are winning, why am I so afraid?”
But it is the news from Winterfell of the deaths of her youngest sons that drives her to her knees: “I am become a sour woman . . . . I take no joy in mead nor meat, and song and laughter have become suspicious strangers to me. I am a creature of grief and dust and bitter longings. There is an empty place within me where my heart was once.” Besides being a possible allusion to her future as Lady Stoneheart, this statement captures Cat’s inner viewpoint for the rest of her arc. From here onward, nearly all of her inner musings are tinged with grief, remorse and self doubt. She tells Brienne: “I was certain the boys would be safe so long as the direwolves were with them. Like Robb with his Grey Wind. But my daughters have no wolves now.” It seems clear from her tone that she blames herself for this, as she feels personally responsible for their being in King’s Landing. She reminisces about the girls to Brienne — Sansa, who is with the Lannisters, and Arya, who she thinks is dead. It is this that leads her to tell Brienne, in both a chilling foreshadowing of her deeds as Lady Stoneheart and a poignant mirror of Arya’s “prayers”, “I want them all dead, Brienne. Theon Greyjoy first, then Jaime Lannister and Cersei and the Imp, every one, every one.”
When Cat releases Jaime Lannister and sends him to King’s Landing to procure the release of her daughters, the more sympathetic of Robb’s bannermen deem her act “a mother’s madness.” While this may indeed be true, Cat refuses to shy away from responsibility for the massive gamble she took with Robb’s only bargaining chip: “I understood what I was doing and knew it was treasonous.” Yet as her own brother takes steps to retrieve the Kingslayer, numerous others offer words of sympathy. In fact the storm might have blown over if not for two critical events. When Robb returns from the Crag with his new wife in tow, events are already in motion to bring about his downfall. But it is the rage-filled act of revenge by Rickard Karstark, precipitated by Cat’s release of Jaime, that ultimately seals the fate of the northern army. If the Karstarks had not abandoned Robb, the fracturing of his army would not have left him in such a weak position that he has no choice but to humble himself to Lord Walder and offer his uncle Edmure in his place.
When the dead squires Tion Frey and Willem Lannister are laid in front of Robb, Catelyn wonders: “Does he see Bran and Rickon as well? She might have wept, but there were no tears left in her. . . . Will they lay Sansa down naked beneath the Iron Throne after they have killed her?” When an unmoved Rickard Karstark speaks of a father’s vengeance, her fears and horror merge into one thought: “I did this. These two boys died so my daughters might live.”
Following her father’s death and the grievous news of the burning of Winterfell, Cat’s and Robb’s thoughts turn again to the north. Once more Robb finds himself in need of Lord Walder’s crossing, and plans are laid for the retaking of the north. Cat is resolved to be a northerner, realizing that her example will be critical to her son’s success: “The northmen did not lack for courage, but they were far from home, with little enough to sustain them but for their faith in their young king. That faith must be protected, at all costs. I must be stronger, she told herself. I must be strong for Robb. If I despair, my grief will consume me.”
Yet her grief and guilt persist as she reflects back upon her discussion with Lynesse Hightower, the erstwhile wife of Jorah Mormont, about being a southron lady married into the north:
One night, after several cups of wine, she had confessed to Catelyn that the north was no place for a Hightower of Oldtown. “There was a Tully of Riverrun who felt the same once,” she had answered gently, trying to console, “but in time she found much here she could love.”
All lost now, she reflected. Winterfell and Ned, Bran and Rickon, Sansa, Arya, all gone. Only Robb remains. Had there been too much of Lynesse Hightower in her after all, and too little of the Starks? Would that I had known how to wield an axe, perhaps I might have been able to protect them better.
As her fears threaten to overwhelm her and her sense of dread mounts, when Robb raises the issue of his succession, she tells him: “Nothing will happen to you. Nothing. I could not stand it. They took Ned, and your sweet brothers. Sansa is married, Arya is lost, my father’s dead . . . if anything befell you, I would go mad, Robb [emphasis mine]. You are all I have left. You are all the north has left.”
Throughout her arc, Cat has displayed remarkable fortitude in the face of tragedy: her father and husband dead, her sons thought to be dead, her sister lost to her, and her daughters as well. She has attempted to embody the words of her House, though they are often at odds with one another, given a mother’s priorities. She has despaired at her failures and mistakes and lamented that she could not defend each and every one of her children with her bare hands, as she had once done for Bran. She has in fact embodied the quest of the writer to explore the human heart in conflict with itself. But in the face of it all, she has moved ever closer to being a northerner for true, and maintained a stoic face and steady bravery — all for the sake of her eldest son, the King in the North. When it finally came to a mortal threat to his life, the last of her family, her thoughts are exactly what one might expect of her at this point: “Catelyn did not care. They could do as they wished with her; imprison her, rape her, kill her, it made no matter. She had lived too long, and Ned was waiting. It was Robb she feared for.” In that final scene she proclaims not only her Tully honor but also her Stark honor as well, the honor that would do anything to protect a child.
As we see in that most emotional scene in the series, the Red Wedding, her thoughts in the end are all for Robb and for the others already lost to her. Only when all is truly lost does Cat give herself over to the “madness of grief, a mother’s madness,” that has been foreshadowed in her arc.