The Night Lamp: How Stannis will wreck the Freys in TWOW

This page is no longer current.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:

(Click to view full-size)

(Click to view full-size)

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:

(click to view full-size)

(click to view full-size)

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:

(click to view full-size)

(click to view full-size)

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:

(click to view full-size)

(click to view full-size)

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.

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.

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:

(click to view full-size)

(click to view full-size)

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.”

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.”

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:

(click to view full-size)

(click to view full-size)

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).

The signal

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…

The catapults

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,”

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.”

“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.”

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.”

“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.

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

17 thoughts on “The Night Lamp: How Stannis will wreck the Freys in TWOW

  1. Always right

    He burned Mance because he broke the oath given to Nights Watch.
    If he burns the weirwood tree Northmen will leave him.
    Also you can sacrifie to Old gods how you want there doesnt need to be entrails on the tree.
    He will not let theon go half of the north woudn’t side with him if he did that.

  2. Tom H.

    I like this essay! I find it very plausible, except for one detail. The tree won’t burn for long (even a few hours seems a little too long to be realistic), so Stannis will need to know when to begin the burning with some precision, which may be difficult with the weather conditions being as they are. Maybe some exquisite scouting work by some of the northern tribes could accomplish this.

  3. Kuruharan

    I think you are spot on with most of your analysis, especially your catch that Stannis is aware from his dealings with the Sistermen of the concept of false beacons and the use that can be made of the knowledge.

    However, I don’t agree that the false beacon necessarily has to be made from burning the weirwood tree. I agree with Tom H. that the tree itself will not burn for that long and he will need more wood than just the tree. That being the case…why burn the tree at all?

    1. cantuse Post author

      You’re definitely right (and I admitted on the reddit thread) that the tree itself doesn’t need to be burned.

      Perhaps there was a bit of an overreach on my part when I wrote this, but I noticed that Stannis’s need to placate both religious factions became a very prominent element at the end of Theon’s sample chapter. Most especially when Stannis rebukes Asha’s provocation that his men worship more than one god, he says (paraphrasing) “Yes I know. I am not the fool my brother was.”

      Given that we know that the northerners sometimes hang entrails from weirwoods was a plus one for that idea, as a general way to placate Artos Flint, Big Bucket Wull and the rest of the northmen. It seems like a solid, foreshadowed way to provide an ‘offering’ to the old gods.

      Simultaneously, (and something I could have added to the original essay) is the notion that weirwoods burn especially bright. This can be seen by the intense burning of Mance and the many weirwood branches the wildlings have to toss into the firepit in Jon IV, ADWD; the intense shadows cast on the Wall. We already know that burning people alive is how followers of R’hllor appeal to their god.

      The reason I combined them is because of the line Stannis utters “Men like to know their god is with them when they go to battle.” It strongly suggests that he wants to appeal to both factions. The burning weirwood was rooted in an appeal to both, since I cannot fathom another way that might remotely do so. I also found Melisandre’s line to Jon (that I quoted at the beginning of the essay) rather ironic in an “you’ll know why I’m amused when you reread” sort of way:

      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.”

      It seems to me that she’s saying, ‘sure I’ll stay back… because I already know that someone else (Stannis) will trouble your mountain gods’.

      If you’re of the general opinion that Stannis will eventually alienate the northmen and possibly lose his campaign, then it’s interesting to recall Stannis from ASOS, when he says that he’s seen a vision that foreshadows his doom:

      Last night, gazing into that hearth, I saw things in the flames as well. I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning . . . burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash.

      As I said, I can’t think of another way to remotely ‘try’ to appeal to both factions… so if he burns the weirwood as part of some strategy, it could be the burning that symbolizes his doom in his vision.

      An interesting variant on all of this consists of pointing out that Stannis’s Lightbringer was blindingly bright when he drew it after the burning of ‘Mance’. It’s possible that the execution of Rattleshirt (or the weirwood-mix cage) empowered the glamor on the sword. It’s possible that the false beacon doesn’t consist of a burning tree itself, but rather an empowered Lightbringer.

      1. Kuruharan

        I agree that Stannis needs to do something to appeal to the religious feelings of his followers, and that someone is probably going to be sacrificed. As you lay out in one of your other essays (or perhaps “allude to” is a better way to put it), I think Karstark is a pretty likely candidate.

        I just don’t think that Stannis, being the pragmatist he is, would do something (burning the weirwood tree) that would deliberately antagonize his Northern followers, not just at that time, but also going forward should he win. I think his position is insecure and he knows it.

        I think he might burn the tree on general principle if he were operating from a position of strength, but he is not presently.

  4. northman

    The only reason I can see Stannis burning the Weirwood is if he thinks a) he won’t need the Northern Clans after this battle (i.e. for a siege/open battle) or b) grossly underestimates the religious fervour of the north men. Regardless, IMO if Stannis burns the tree the GNC will come to fruition

    1. cantuse Post author

      One thing to consider is that Stannis once told Davos that he saw a king who wore a crown of fire, and the crown consumed him and turned him to ashes. In a way, if Stannis burned the weirwood and thereafter lost the northmen, it would be consistent with that vision; in a manner of speaking.

  5. BarberBen

    This theory is absolutely brilliant. When I read the chapter, I knew that Stannis had something in mind that had to do with “natural defenses” and guessed he might use one of the iced over lakes to drown Frey’s army. I had no idea beyond that how he might put that into practice, and I never put together the stolen map, the weirwood tree, or the positioning of the town between two lakes. Well done!

    When I read your theory I immediately thought of the Battle of Agincourt, the only battle I know much about because I’m a Shakespeare buff. Google it if you don’t know about it. I just looked it up. The terrain of the battle was so similar to your map it was mind boggling, only at Agincourt the battle took place between two forests, forcing the French into a narrow alley. And the mud was one of the decisive factors. Armoured men falling in the mud and not able to get up, slaughtred by English longbows. So the vastly outnumbered English of 2000 men beat the 10,000 or so French. Yay Henry V. Or not, if you’re French.

    Only in this case the men will be falling on the snow and ice of the lake, ringed in by Stannis.

    Doesn’t it strike you that this would be a real “song of ice and fire” with the fire leading the Freys to their destruction, the ice and holes keeping them there, and no doubt makeshift catapults and arrows finishing them off?

    I’ve never liked Stannis much but if Martin has given him your plan, I like him much better – very smart.

    And then maybe Stannis’s men can dress up in Frey clothing, pretend to be the victorious returning army to Winterfell, open the gates to the rest of the Northerners, and take the castle.

    1. cantuse Post author

      I don’t much like Stannis either. He’s definitely got issues (Renly’s death). I stumbled across this idea while researching a completely different hypothesis.

      I totally agree that if this plan or a similar variation comes to fruition, it goes a long way toward showing that Stannis has what it takes to be a king.

      The connection to Agincourt is amazing. I’m not as familiar as medieval history as other readers are, so this escaped me. Some huge connections there!

      I recently stumbled across the story of the Battle of Bosworth which also seems to have some notable similarities as well.

      I honestly can’t believe I never thought of how the beacon and ice lake are a manifestation of “ice and fire”. Hodor.

      I’ve come to the belief that Arnolf Karstark’s son will be used in the gambit to gain entry to Winterfell. This is because his sons and his father are both prisoners of Stannis, and because he’s described as oafish – which I take to suggest a certain malleability. Stannis could provide him with his Lightbringer and a small force of men in disguise. Perhaps even the Manderlys would return to Winterfell in this party. But first they would send a raven to Winterfell under the guise that it was from Arnolf (or his maester), telling that Stannis was defeated. This would perhaps allow some of the other Bolton bannermen to leave the castle for their homes, thus weakening Winterfell while Stannis approaches it under the illusion of being dead.

      Just some thoughts that have come to me since posting the essay.

      1. ....

        Mel will burn Shireen thinking the blizzard will help Stannis and this plan will be fucked

  6. Not_on_porpoise


    I was led here from /r/asoiaf and I’ve just read through your source material and theory, and found a different strategy Stannis could use, one that does not anger the old gods and frankly indulges them. I’m on my phone do I cannot properly source but bear with me.

    The original article mentioned that Stannis had battle experiences at sea, one of them trapping an enemy fleet in a narrow sound, surrounding them and and defeating Victarions fleet crushingly.

    At first, considering the irony GRRM is fond of, my thought was that the Frey and Manderly (and Ramsay) armies may surround Stannis in the village, giving them no escape but fleeing over the ice they themselves weakened.

    Secondly, as I read on about Stannis and his constant fire beacon at the watchtower, I imagine the Freys and Manderlys attacking from the east, drawn to the beacon, only to find an empty town. As the front Frey forces rummage through the empty town and reach the other side, they finally stumble upon an army, which They Frey men engage with full force. This army is Stannis’ forces minus Stannis and his own personal men, 1500 strong… Their purpose is to stay the large enemy force in the village while Stannis and his men ride around the lake to launch a two-front attack, riding in on the large Manderly group and smaller Ramsay force. Here, I think the Manderlys will swiftly switch sides and join forces with Stannis. Together they break the Frey forces against the men on the opposite side. As Frey forces panic, they flee over the lakes and those who do not fall through the ice will be killed off by the mountain clans waiting in the woods on the shores of the lakes, woods being their comfort zone.

    The reason I don’t think the weirwood will burn is that the northerners want their old gods with them in war, and as you know killing weirwoods in the south is believed to have blinded the old gods in those areas – the old gods are strongly tied to weirwoods, their sacred trees. The weirwood will stand in lake, on its fist island, watching the Freys who angered the old gods by their breach of guest rights be slaughtered. Further, if the plan all along was to break down the watchtower for siege material and light the weirwood, I doubt Stannis would have take residence in the tower. The tower beacon is referred to as Stannis’, possessive, and continues to burn even after the map with description of the town and watchtower had been sent by the dreadfort maestre. This makes no sense if their strategy was to not fight in the village. He would have the beacon fire put out and dark rather than risk having the enemies drawn to his camp if they approached his army unobserved.

    As for the burning sacrifice I agree it must happen, but it’ll be in the village as the sight of burnt bodies is likely to scare Frey men and invigorate Stannis’ men. I will not speculate on who will be burnt as you’ve done a good job there.

  7. Frankint

    Holy fuck that was way too long. You could have just said “Stannis is going to trick the Frey’s onto a frozen lake” and I’d be like “yup, makes sense”. Not this verbal masturbation.

    1. cantuse Post author

      You should have read the newer version I linked to at the beginning of the essay. The newer version includes a “five-minute” synopsis that provides exactly what you want. Plus… it’s just plain better written and thought out.

      Cheerio for the good-natured feedback!

  8. nadafinga

    Psst! It’s a fictional book and I doubt Martin put this much thought into it while banging out 3k pages of text that had to be edited down to 1.2k pages each time he wrote one.

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  10. Pingback: King Broken-Smile: Theon’s Path to the Seastone Chair – Part 2: Landlubbers | Off My Bookshelf

  11. Li Laura

    The book says Ramsey would follow the Frays to fight Stannis. Maybe after defeating the Frays Stannis had to face Ramsey. I would like to hear your thoughts on that. Do you think Stannis will use some strategy against Ramsey?Or will this be the end of Stannis? Or Ramsey won’t come at all?


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