This page is no longer current. I have revised the “Night Lamp” theory in a new essay that you can read here.
Jon turned to Melisandre. “My lady, fair warning. The old gods are strong in those mountains. The clansmen will not suffer insults to their heart trees.”
That seemed to amuse her. “Have no fear, Jon Snow, I will not trouble your mountain savages and their dark gods.”
First and foremost, this post would not be possible without the fantastic original analysis work done by /u/BryndenBFish at his blog, Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire. He wrote a two-part analysis of the battle for Winterfell coming in The Winds of Winter and derived very interesting predictions. I highly recommend reading them before continuing with this post (read part 1 here, part 2 here).
BryndenBFish put forth a great theory that Stannis plans to fight the approaching Freys at the crofter’s village. I wholeheartedly agree, and was floored by his analysis.
However, in researching other issues I stumbled across some overlooked information that puts a radical spin on Stannis’s strategy. This information does not drastically alter the larger campaign that BryndenBFish’s essays propose, but rather modifies the fight at the crofter’s village to give an overwhelming tactical advantage to Stannis.
Specifically I want to hit the following points:
- How land, maps and weather conspire to modify tactics.
- A trick Stannis knows from his years as the Master of Ships.
- Using this trick to crush the approaching Freys.
- The sacrifice Stannis has to make in order to secure this winning strategy against the Freys.
- Further subterfuge engineered by Stannis to secure Torrhen’s Square.
I’d like to repeat what BryndenBFish says on his posts, this data is entirely speculative. Although I think the ideas here are completely logical and well-suited to the information we have, I am not GRRM. The release of The Winds of Winter could prove these speculations entirely wrong.
However, if I may be so bold, I do believe this is probably one of the most exciting possibilities, especially if you are a fan of Stannis Baratheon.
NOTE: This essay includes many passages and facts derived from the released excerpts from The Winds of Winter. If you do not wish to be potentially spoiled, then I advise you to avoid reading further.
On Defense: Stannis Baratheon
Stannis is currently at the crofter’s village, a small abandoned hamlet somewhere in the Wolfswood. Here is a simplified map of the village layout:
The passages shown in the map are from Asha’s chapters (“The King’s Prize and “The Sacrifice”), and give a basic concept of the village. I do not claim to know the exact layout of the village, however the map is helpful at showing the relationships between some of the various landmarks. In particular the islands, the lakes, the village proper and the watchtower.
We can also assume that this basic information is part of the map that maester Tybald covertly sends to Roose Bolton. Thus we know that Bolton’s forces also know about these various landmarks.
This information forms the basis for both the strategies that will be used by both sides.
On Offense: Hosteen Frey
The strategy to be used by the Freys is best encapsulated by the following image:
As noted in the image, if Hosteen wants to press the attack, he is coerced into taking a rather direct approach. He cannot attempt to flank the village, unless he wants to waste significant time attempting to move his forces around the lakes.
The fact that Hosteen is limited to a direct approach is crucial to Stannis’s defenses.
How the Weather Affects the Strategy
To get a grasp for the significance of the blizzards affecting the north in A Dance with Dragons, lets look at the map again, modified to accommodate the descriptions we get from Asha Greyjoy:
This is a drastic reduction in visibility. What’s most notable is that almost all of the landmarks have disappeared. Notice that the lakes, forests, and so on are all hidden under piles of snow or obscured by low visibility. This really only leaves one visible landmark: the beacon fire from the watchtower.
This is important because it easily causes problems for the approaching Frey forces:
Mired in a blizzard and lacking for any other landmarks, Hosteen has only the beacon fire to guide him. Recall that the map showed that only a direct approach would allow him to reach the village, or risk the lakes.
In the absence of other navigational aids, heading for the beacon fire seems the most appropriate course of action.
As the text in the image shows, there are several reasons why Hosteen might be driven to advance in an unwisely aggressive fashion. A trait for aggressiveness, a lack of familiarity with the weather, struggling horses, assumptions about Stannis’s vulnerability, the time delay of bringing up the baggage train; all of these are incentives for Hosteen to make his attack quickly.
Thus, the weather doesn’t change Hosteen’s strategy that much. The knights in the vanguard strike first, followed by the main forces; with the baggage train and rear guard lagging behind.
The only thing that does change is that the beacon fire is Hosteen’s only method of navigating to the village. Which is precisely what Stannis uses to defeat him.
The Night Lamp: A Trick from the Pirate Kings
Early on in A Dance with Dragons, Davos meets with Godric Borrell. During this meeting Davos reflects on wrecking, the primary vice of the Sistermen:
The beacons that burned along the shores of the Three Sisters were supposed to warn of shoals and reefs and rocks and lead the way to safety, but on stormy nights and foggy ones, some Sistermen would use false lights to draw unwary captains to their doom.
DAVOS I – ADWD
Shortly thereafter Godric relates a threat he once received from Stannis himself:
He went so far as to threaten to hang me if it should happen that some ship went aground because the Night Lamp had gone black.
DAVOS I – ADWD
The night lamp is one of those beacons around the Sisters that are supposed to be used to aid in navigation, but are in truth sometimes used to deliberately wreck ships upon the many hazards near shore.
One could dismiss this as simple world-building. However the passages show that Stannis is fully aware that a false (or missing) beacon can be used as a weapon of sorts. This also wouldn’t a one-off encounter for Stannis either, he was the Master of Ships, so if the wrecking phenomenon got to the point that he needed to intervene, it was occurring on a regular basis.
Creating an effective ‘false beacon’ requires two elements: dependency and belief.
- Dependency – The desired target must not be able to invalidate your beacon; your beacon must be the only source of navigational information. This is most readily achieved by using the beacon when visibility is extremely limited. The beacons around the sisters are used on dark or rainy nights, in thick fogs or when the land and stars cannot be seen. A beacon on land could be used in the same conditions. It’s well within reason that a beacon would work the same in heavy snow as well.
- Belief – The target must believe that your signal is authentic. In a lot of ways this is dictated by knowledge of the beacon’s owner. Are they usually deceptive? For instance, a knowledgeable sailor might be more careful around the Sisters.
Or more simply, it might be the fallacy that because a watchtower is supposed to be ‘around here’ that whatever beacon fire is found nearby is assumed to be from that watchtower. You’ll note that this is specifically how the Sistermen are successful, by dousing the official Night Lamp and erecting ‘false lights’ to mislead the unsuspecting.
Given what we know about the weather as well as Hosteen’s temperament and incentives as a leader, we have every reason to believe that he would readily fall for a false beacon. This leads me to the central statement of this essay:
Stannis will douse the watchtower beacon and set the island weirwood on fire, to create a ‘false beacon’.
I believe that Stannis will borrow the ‘Night Lamp’ trick from the Sistermen. Look at the image below:
By using the weirwood tree as a beacon fire, Stannis takes advantage of the Frey dependency and belief in the beacon’s authenticity. This means that the Frey’s must traverse the lake to get to the beacon: the beacon is now in the middle of the lake!
This returns us to the observations about the many ice holes dug on the lake. One of the northmen specifically points out that the southrons have been digging too many ice holes, and especially nearest the island:
“I know them lakes. You been on them like maggots on a corpse, hundreds o’ you. Cut so many holes in the ice it’s a bloody wonder more haven’t fallen through. Out by the island, there’s places look like a cheese the rats been at.”
THE SACRIFICE – ADWD
Could this be a part of some strategy devised by Stannis? There is no explicit answer in A Dance with Dragons, but there are some curious passages that imply something is afoot:
“The snow fell heavily for days. So heavily that you could not see the castle walls ten yards away, no more than the men up on the battlements could see what was happening beyond those walls. So Crowfood set his boys to digging pits outside the castle gates, then blew his horn to lure Lord Bolton out. Instead he got the Freys. The snow had covered up the pits, so they rode right into them. Aenys broke his neck, I heard, but Ser Hosteen only lost a horse, more’s the pity. He will be angry now.”
Strangely, Stannis smiled. “Angry foes do not concern me. Anger makes men stupid, and Hosteen Frey was stupid to begin with, if half of what I have heard of him is true. Let him come.”
Stannis smiled. You can probably count the number of times he smiles in the entire series on one of Theon’s maimed hands. By itself that’s conspicuous.
Now consider the context, Stannis betrays his amusement upon hearing that deadfalls have proven effective against the Freys. If the many ice holes surrounding the weirwood isle are a component of his strategy, knowledge of the Frey susceptibility to such traps would certainly be reassuring.
“The ground?” said Theon. “What ground? Here? This misbegotten tower? This wretched little village? You have no high ground here, no walls to hide beyond, no natural defenses.”
Stannis shows no sign of concern regarding how to defend against the oncoming Freys. Indeed, his reply “Yet” suggests instead that he has defensive plans already underway.
One other curiously apropos passage comes when Jon is telling Stannis about the mountain clans:
“The map is not the land, my father often said.”
JON IV – ADWD
This is amusing because it betrays the central concept of Stannis’s strategy: Using an enemy’s reliance on a map (and the corresponding lack of awareness of the true lay-of-the-land) allows him to achieve a tactical advantage.
The Battle at the Crofter’s Village
So if the false beacon and the ice holes are central to Stannis’s strategy, how might the entire battle unfold?
This section is much more speculative that those prior. In earlier sections, I was able to either conclusively prove a point or at least make a deduction based on reasonable interpretations of the text. This section wanders more into “How could the battle be fought?” Since it is speculative, I have attempted to reign in my imagination and hopefully arrive at something most will agree is a fine strategy, one that Stannis would use if he had thought of it. Some basic rules I gave myself:
- Minimize Stannis’s casualties.
- Quickly, decisively defeat high-value targets, demoralize/rout others.
- Prevent escape, word reaching Winterfell.
With that in mind, the following image as quick summary of the strategy in mind:
The ice holes
I speculate that the reason the ice holes are much more prevalent nearer the island is because Stannis doesn’t want anyone falling through the ice until most of the enemy vanguard and/or main body is on the lake. He wants as many Freys on the ice before his trap is sprung.
Eventually as the Frey knights near the false beacon, they will crash through the ice in numbers (particularly if advancing quickly).
There will be lookouts of some kind on the weirwood island. These lookouts will likely consist of archers or similar, using the steep and sheer slopes of the island as a natural defense. Coupled with the ice holes, such archers will be in an ideal place to attack the Frey lines as they break themselves upon the field of ice holes.
These lookouts will have a further, more vital responsibility: As soon as the knights begin falling through the ice, they will sound trumpets. These trumpets are meant to be heard by southrons waiting in the village proper…
Stannis will commission the construction of several catapults.
Several times throughout A Dance with Dragons, we hear southrons (and northmen) stating that siege weapons can be built if necessary. These men also point out that there is plenty of wood available in the surrounding woods with which to build. Thus, Stannis’s forces have the means to build to siege engines if desired.
There are many important reasons for using catapults in lieu of other tactics:
- The catapults wouldn’t even need to be all that accurate, just simply fired into the lake with the hope of breaking large holes in the ice and cracking large sheets into a dangerous quagmire of small broken ice sheets.
- It’s a way to decimate the opposing forces while minimizing the risk to Stannis’s own forces.
- It reduces logistical risk for collateral damage and ‘friendly-fire’; given the weather conditions.
The point of this tactic is to quickly and suddenly kill as many of the vanguard and main body forces as possible. When we consider the lack of visibility as well, the Freys will disoriented for some time trying to discern what is happening. They will be unable to determine where the catapults are firing from. They will not even know which way to retreat in a unified fashion (there’s no beacon in the opposite direction). Even if they wanted to retreat, it’s unlikely that Hosteen and his captains have established any such contingency plans.
The northmen and southrons
The remaining northmen and southrons can used for either of several roles:
- One group will move amid woodland concealment. This could only really begin in earnest when Stannis’s forces learn of the direction of the arriving Freys. Their chief goal is to put themself in a position to flank the enemies and hopefully ‘sever’ the vanguard and main body from the baggage train and rear guard. This would almost certainly be a contingent of northmen.
These men will then attack the rear of the main body and of the vanguard that remain. The hopes here is that most of the army is on the lake and that any of the Freys who successfully return to shore will be weak, disoriented and routed; thus further maximizing effectiveness and minimizing risk.
- Some men, possibly the northmen from the previous group will be used to capture the Frey baggage train. This is important for several reasons: to prevent word of the victory returning to Winterfell and to seize the food and other supplies from the Freys; revitalizing Stannis’s forces.
- One body of men will defend the catapults.
- One for goading Hosteen into attacking. Northmen would be ideal, their garrons and bearpaws give them great mobility, and their superior camouflage allows them to get very close to their targets unawares. They could harry the Freys in a manner that arouses frustration. Another possibility is actually using the northmen to lure the Freys onto the ice. The northerners will be much safer on the ice with their footgear and smaller horses. This helps create the illusion that Stannis is indeed at the false beacon.
A Sacrifice to the Old and the New
Would Stannis be willing to burn a weirwood tree? Of course he would, he’s already done it elsewhere (burning the Storm’s End godswood, and the various weirwood parts that were burned as a part of Mance’s ‘execution’).
Of course, the idea of burning a weirwood tree would not go over well with the North. While it is an insult to their gods, it’s a vital part of his strategy. He would need to appease the northmen as well.
Here we arrive at another key point of this essay:
Stannis will sacrifice Theon as an offering to gods, old and new.
Stannis is nothing if not utilitarian. He does not allow sacrifices simply because he’s a believer (he’s not). He understands the complex task of managing a force of wildly divergent elements:
“A sacrifice will prove our faith still burns true, Sire,” Clayton Suggs had told the king. And Godry the Giantslayer said, “The old gods of the north have sent this storm upon us. Only R’hllor can end it. We must give him an unbeliever.”
“Half my army is made up of unbelievers,” Stannis had replied. “I will have no burnings. Pray harder.”
Despite that, he does recognize that he can make use of people by appealing to their religious natures. In order to justify burning the weirwood, he would need to find a way to appeal to both the northmen and the southrons in his army.
Determining how to appease both groups requires that we understand what constitutes an offering to the gods for each. We already know that burning people alive is considered a sacred offering to R’hllor. What we need is an understanding of what is considered an offering to the old gods:
“The White Knife froze hard, and even the firth was icing up. The winds came howling from the north and drove them slavers inside to huddle round their fires, and whilst they warmed themselves the new king come down on them. Brandon Stark this was, Edrick Snowbeard’s great-grandson, him that men called Ice Eyes. He took the Wolf’s Den back, stripped the slavers naked, and gave them to the slaves he’d found chained up in the dungeons. It’s said they hung their entrails in the branches of the heart tree, as an offering to the gods. The old gods, not these new ones from the south. Your Seven don’t know winter, and winter don’t know them.”
“There’s much and more you southrons do not know about the north,”
DAVOS III, ADWD
So clearly we have knowledge of at least one kind of offering to the old gods: hanging the entrails of a foul person in the branches of a weirwood.
Could Stannis possibly be considering combining both? Hanging someone’s entrails in the weirwood and then setting it on fire?
There is ample evidence to suggest that Stannis is actually considering something along those lines. It doesn’t conclusively connect to the weirwood, but it shows that Stannis is indeed concerned with how to satisfy both factions of his army:
“Your brother’s hands are soaked with blood. Farring is urging me to give him to R’hllor.”
“Clayton Suggs as well, I do not doubt.”
“Him, Corliss Penny, all the rest. Even Ser Richard here, who only loves the Lord of Light when it suits his purposes.”
“The red god’s choir only knows a single song.”
“So long as the song is pleasing in god’s ears, let them sing. Lord Bolton’s men will be here sooner than we would wish. Only Mors Umber stands between us, and your brother tells me his levies are made up entirely of green boys. Men like to know their god is with them when they go to battle.”
“Not all your men worship the same god.”
“I am aware of this. I am not the fool my brother was.”
THEON I, TWOW
“And the grandsons. Lord Wull seeks audience as well. He wants — ”
“I know what he wants.” The king indicated Theon. “Him. Wull wants him dead. Flint, Norrey… all of them will want him dead. For the boys he slew. Vengeance for their precious Ned.”
THEON I, TWOW
So what we see here is that both northmen and southrons want to kill Theon. An offering to R’hllor would consist of burning him in a pyre. An offering to the old gods would consist of hanging his entrails from a weirwood.
He could arbitrate between the northmen and the southrons that doing both would constitute satisfying both parties. Thus getting his ‘false beacon’, satisfying both factions desire for vengeance/sacrifice, and giving their men the knowledge that ‘their god is with them when they go to battle.’
Now, I admit that northmen might not like their tree burning, but consider that at some point Stannis has to start sharing his strategy. If he tells Wull or Artos Flint about his deception, they may concede and allow it to happen.
The important thing here is that Stannis has a tool in Theon, a way of perhaps negotiating acceptable terms with the northerners to burn the weirwood.
A False Sacrifice
So would Stannis actually go so far as to hang a person’s entrails from a tree and then burn them? It certainly seems possible; after all he’s had no problem burning people alive or killing them with shadow magic that most would consider a dirty trick. What’s one more body among the foundations? Particularly Theon’s.
And yet, I do not believe that Stannis will kill Theon or Asha. Why?
Because they have too much utility otherwise.
Consider that Asha and Theon are both heirs to Balon Greyjoy. Further consider that the threat posed by the ironmen to the north has been all but eradicated… save for Torrhen’s square, held by Dagmer Cleftjaw. They have virtually no chance to further their campaign since their retreat was all cut off by the Dustins and Ryswells (Davos II, ADWD). They are more-or-less doomed to the last man. This means its just one more siege for Stannis, one more long fight. What if there was a faster way? A faster way that would earn the loyalty of the Tallharts?
What if Theon or Asha could negotiate the surrender of Torrhen’s Square in exchange for safe passage back to the Iron Islands?
It might be premature to answer that question. First, let’s examine the foreshadowing that suggests retreat and surrender are entirely acceptable to Asha:
“This dream of kingship is a madness in our blood. I told your father so the first time he rose, and it is more true now than it was then. It’s land we need, not crowns. With Stannis Baratheon and Tywin Lannister contending for the Iron Throne, we have a rare chance to improve our lot. Let us take one side or the other, help them to victory with our fleets, and claim the lands we need from a grateful king.”
THE KRAKEN’S DAUGHTER, AFFC
“No man has ever died from bending his knee,” her father had once told her. “He who kneels may rise again, blade in hand. He who will not kneel stays dead, stiff legs and all.
THE KING’S PRIZE, ADWD
“Dagmer Cleftjaw holds Torrhen’s Square. A fierce fighter, and a leal servant of House Greyjoy. I can deliver that castle to you, and its garrison as well.”
THE KING’S PRIZE, ADWD
So we can see that Asha has a personal understanding that surrender is better than annihilation, additionally she has already volunteered to try and reclaim Torrhen’s Square for Stannis.
What value could Theon and Asha possibly add that would make their release more valuable than their sacrifice, execution or continued imprisonment?
Besides reclaiming Torrhen’s Square and reclaiming all of the north west of the kingsroad, without a prolonged siege? This alone is a huge net benefit for Stannis; and more quickly gives the Tallharts the pretext needed to changing loyalties.
There is also the matter of the various noble hostages held at Pyke or Ten Towers. Several of the Glover children are captives, so there is the possibility of a hostage return or exchange as well.
Asha and Theon both have incentive to return to the north and invoke the story of Torgon Greyiron to invalidate the kingsmoot that elected Euron. The act of such invalidation would cause the stagnation of the Greyjoy campaign and hopefully cause much infighting.
If not ending the Greyjoy campaign permanently, the would certainly buy Stannis time to deal with the Boltons and Freys and then return to deal with the Greyjoys afterwards.
It further rids Stannis of the ironmen in his camp, who are presently a wildcard and a useless drain on his campaign.
So who would Asha and/or Theon nominate at a new kingsmoot?
Why, Rodrik, as foreshadowed:
“You are Balon’s daughter, not his son. And you have three uncles.”
“Three kraken uncles. I do not count.”
THE KRAKEN’S DAUGHTER
Recall that Rodrik is the one who counseled Asha to sue for peace with the Iron Throne, and promise to support the throne with their fleets. Thus we know that Rodrik is a peaceable candidate, one whom Stannis could benefit from. The Greyjoy fleets would let him begin to pressure Lannisport and the reaches.
So in total, there is very little Stannis gains by keeping the Greyjoys; some loyalty from his men. But releasing them nets him so much more.
Is there any text to support this idea?
Notice the language Stannis uses when he assigns Justin Massey the task of going to Braavos:
“If there is to be a battle, my place is here with you.”
“Your place is where I say it is. I have five hundred swords as good as you, or better, but you have a pleasing manner and a glib tongue, and those will be of more use to me at Braavos then here.”
THEON I, TWOW
Now compare it to the way Stannis refers to Asha and Theon and their way with words:
The king’s mouth twitched. “You have a bold tongue, my lady. Not unlike your turncloak brother.”
Then consider the subtext here:
“It was not a compliment.” Stannis gave Theon a long look. “The village lacks a dungeon, and I have more prisoners than I anticipated when we halted here.” He waved Asha to her feet. “You may rise.”
This exchange happens immediately after he comments about their tongues. His tone suggests that he desires to have less prisoners, not that he wishes to see Theon executed. In particular, a close reading of the Theon sample chapter shows that he only cares about Theon’s execution insofar as it affects the loyalty of his men.
Also suggestive is the ‘long look’ that he gives Theon. As Melisandre said in A Dance with Dragons, it is not his threats that should be concerning, but his silences. This leads to the speculation that Stannis is planning to use the ‘bold tongues’ of the Greyjoys to secure the release of Torrhen’s Square.
Lastly and most notably, Stannis has sent Asha’s primary bodyguard away. He send Alysane Mormont with Massey. Thus Stannis has weakened whatever security detail was currently assigned to the ironmen.
…and one creepy bit of foreshadowing.
In addition to the more logical and intuitive suggestions, there is a most peculiar moment at the end of Theon I, TWOW:
“Then do the deed yourself, Your Grace.” The chill in Asha’s voice made Theon shiver in his chains. “Take him out across the lake to the islet where the weirwood grows, and strike his head off with that sorcerous sword you bear. That is how Eddard Stark would have done it. Theon slew Lord Eddard’s sons. Give him to Lord Eddard’s gods. The old gods of the north. Give him to the tree.“
And suddenly there came a wild thumping, as the maester’s ravens hopped and flapped inside their cages, their black feathers flying as they beat against the bars with loud and raucous caws. “The tree,” one squawked, “the tree, the tree,” whilst the second screamed only, “Theon, Theon, Theon.”
Now, the ravens scream ‘tree’ a few other times in the chapter as well:
“Yet,” both ravens screamed in unison. Then one quorked, and the other muttered, “Tree, tree, tree.”
The memory left Theon writhing in his chains. “Let me down,” he pleaded. “Just for a little while, then you can hang me up again.” Stannis Baratheon looked up at him, but did not answer. “Tree,” a raven cried. “Tree, tree, tree.”
The ravens are shouting tree three times, in each case. Three trees; the sigil of House Tallhart.
Further, Asha by happenstance tells Stannis to give Theon to the tree. Granted she means it in an entirely different context, but if Stannis had already been planning to use Theon elsewhere then it takes an ironic turn.
So how would this hypothetical scenario unfold?
Asha will remain a captive, to be exchanged for the Glover and other northern hostages at a later date.
Stannis will engineer a false body to be burnt in Theon’s place.
In the mean time, he will allow the ironborn to retreat to Torrhen’s Square with a document bearing his seal, securing the release of the keep in exchange for safe passage back to Pyke.
Theon will be guised as another person and snuck out alongside the other ironmen.
There are many long-term scenarios that might result from this, but most of them are good for Stannis. The ideal case (and one strongly hinted) is that Rodrik will be put forth as the best candidate at a new kingsmoot, and he will negotiate with Stannis for peace and alliance.
So who would Stannis sacrifice in Theon’s stead?
There are a couple of options.
- If we think that Stannis might want a living sacrifice, it’s plausible he could consider using Arnolf Karstark. Both men are clearly similar, both can barely stand, both are haggard, cadaverous and look like shriveled old men. Arnolf’s cane and garb have been pointed out as being visually distinct, so it’s possible that Theon could be disguised as Arnolf and smuggled out.
- If Stannis would rather keep Arnolf alive, and would rather use a dead person, the text had conspicuously informed us of an old knight Ormund Wylde who was predicted to be the next to die from the cold. It’s possible that he could die and be used as a Theon, under the notion that Theon ‘died’ as well.
Point and Counterpoint
So what are some objections we might find to these propositions, and are there reasonable explanations?
Why burn the weirwood tree? Aren’t there plenty of other islands with woods he could burn?
Yes indeed there are. However, the text clearly shows that ice has been specifically weakened around the island with the weirwood. Thus, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to readers, Stannis and company have clearly chosen to make use of the weirwood island.
The weirwood is also implied to be rather large as well.
How could the Freys mistake an island with a burning tree for a watchtower?
The islands in the lake are described as ‘rising from the water, like the fists of some giant’. This suggests islands with a rather steep or sheer sides and tall, blocky silhouette. Seen from the ground, a fire atop one of the larger islands might indeed look like a fire on top of some structure; and it’s especially interesting that the weirwood is noted to be on the largest of these islands.
Where would the catapults get the stones to fire at the lakes?
From the watchtower. We know from Eddard back in A Game of Thrones that very few people are needed to down a tower for stones (he and Howland destroyed the Tower of Joy to gather stones for cairns).
Doesn’t this strategy run the risk that the Freys might see the watchtower, even when it’s unlit, as they approach?
Not if the tower’s been taken down for catapult stones.
Couldn’t Stannis just burn the tree and say ‘screw the northerners!’ instead of trying to satisfy both?
He certainly could, but there are a couple of reasons I don’t think he would. First, the text has amply foreshadowed that Stannis is concerned with how to keep morale for both the northern and southron components in his army. Subsequently, we can infer that conducting a unilateral sacrifice of a religious idol would have long-term ramifications on his campaign.
This seems entirely out of character for Stannis.
This is where I disagree. Stannis uses shadow magic to kill his brother. His hand is a smuggler, his admiral a pirate and his chief counsel a sorceress. Stannis has generally appeared more utilitarian than scrupulous. For instance, he planned on using wildlings (Rattleshirt and Sigorn of Thenn) in his vanguard in exchange for lands among the Gift. The text shows that he burned ‘Mance’ principally because he needed to for political reasons, not personal ones.
The ideas surrounding Stannis as a more utilitarian and less rigid leader are rooted in other topics that merit their own essays; essays that I’m currently writing and hope to post soon.