Let’s Have Some Fun: Another Approach to Stannis

NOTE: I had wanted to finish work on my other non-Stannis essays, but just when I thought I was out, you guys pull me back in.

Today somebody remarked that they didn’t believe that Stannis could ever do something like the Night Lamp. As a rigorous man of science and obviously smart person, my reaction was predictable.
Specifically, I was told:

That is not how Martin writes or thinks. There is no character driven reason why this should happen, or any relevance to his story arc. Stannis solves his problems with intelligence and steadiness. But he is not someone who uses deception, thinks outside the box or “plays the player”. That is rather something I expect from someone like Tyrion.

I don’t take it personal. First of all, I can forgive people not knowing the greatness that is Stannis. I too resisted …until the evidence was insurmountable. Like, to the point where you have to go out of your way to be obstinate if you want to believe that Stannis isn’t a motherflippin’ genius. Seriously folks. Stannis is so smart he probably has two pairs of underwear on at all times.

But I’ve already written the Mannifesto, which worked for some people but obviously not for everyone. I need a new format that will connect with this younger harder-to-reach crowd of avocado-toast eating Millenials. I’d make a Youtube video but that only means I’d be tempted to start scraping other people’s ideas off of Reddit and hoping to become some sort of devil-worshipping ‘influencer’. Plus I’m not ready to have my face on video, I don’t need that kind of fan mail.

The obvious truth is that I can’t beat some of you over the head with Stannis’s brilliance: some readers want foreplay—a little tickling behind the knee, Wallflowers playing the background and a bottle of the cheap wine with the fancy label. Some people don’t care for the plain old-fashioned truth—they want to be seduced. Nobody wants Atticus Finch when Michael Clayton is available. Poor old man never had the courage to tell Scout that’s why he was a single father.

*   *   *

Sometimes greatness lives in dark, overlooked places—like an alleyway in Chinatown or the back seat of a Volkswagen. Or the mind of a king. Its a fungus that grows between your toes and one day takes over your brain, striking out of nowhere like the tequila in a line of Jell-O shots: a hazy dream of peaks and valleys that leaves you wondering what really happened when it departs. That means sometimes you have to approach greatness the way you approach a spider on the toilet seat: sneakily, in a bomb suit.

In light of this noble truth, let us try something different. I will toss out a couple of potent questions to direct today’s flirtation with the one true king, and then we’ll walk through a few chapters in the so-called life of Stannis Baratheon and see what shakes out. In particular, I want to focus on the first four Jon chapters from A Dance with Dragons:

  • ?
  • What is the earliest point in time that Stannis could have known about a plot to marry Arya Stark?
  • ?
  • What is the earliest point in time that Stannis could have known about the plot for the Karstarks to betray him?

You would think that Stannis only learned about the wedding from the letter he read while at Deepwood Motte, and that he only learned about the Karstark betrayal from Jon’s letter that arrived with Tycho Nestoris. After all that’s how it looks in the book.


But the book is straight-up lying to you. But in order to convince the more ambivalent reader, I feel the need to tackle this in a sort of chronological format—building naturally on smaller, earlier elements until they can be woven into the real answers to these questions.

Pleasantries aside, lets get this pig moving!

*   *   *


stannis_baratheon2At a high level, this is the chapter in which Jon first meets with Stannis to say that he can’t give him any of the castles owned by the Night’s Watch. Jon and Stannis quibble over several things such as the fate of Mance Rayder and Val. Melisandre escorts Jon from Stannis’s quarters and ends their conversation with a mysterious “You knowing nothing, Jon Snow.”

But JON I—ADWD does a lot of leg work establishing some facts that become huge later.

Controlling the Narrative

The first thing that I find interesting is that Karstark is not only the first northern house to declare for Stannis, but that Stannis wants everyone to know it too:

Jon wondered which of his father’s bannermen had refused King Stannis homage this time. He was quick enough to spread the word when Karhold declared for him.

The idea that Stannis wants his men to know about the alliance with Karhold is given special prominence:

“See that you keep these tidings to yourself, Lord Snow. Karhold is with me, that is all the men need know. I will not have your brothers trading tales of how this child spat on me.”

Contrast this with Stannis’s attitude about what he wants his men to know about other houses in the North:

“Not happily, by his face.” Sam dropped his voice to a whisper. “I am not supposed to speak of it.”

“Then don’t.” Jon wondered which of his father’s bannermen had refused King Stannis homage this time.

“See that you keep these tidings to yourself, Lord Snow. Karhold is with me, that is all the men need know. I will not have your brothers trading tales of how this child spat on me.”

“Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse.” The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more. Stannis had commanded Jon not to speak of that one either.

The basic picture that emerges is that Stannis clearly wants to control the ‘narrative’ that people have about his alliances. On its face, this observation isn’t really that exciting: its not too surprising that Stannis wants to have people know that he’s got allies while minimizing any who reject him. The point I want you to remember is that Stannis is overbearing in how much he controls the narrative though. It will become important later.

*   *   *

Watch for Backstabbers

At the end of the meeting between Jon and Stannis, Melisandre escorts Jon back to his quarters. She warns him to be more concerned about those who pretend to be his allies:

“It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back.

As Stannis’s principal adviser besides Davos, don’t you think she’d share the exact same sentiments with Stannis—that is, if he didn’t already know it himself?

Keep in mind that Stannis has never had an easy time rallying banners to his cause. Whether it be southrons that should have recognized him from the start or even people on his own island, the king has had to cajole, buy, threaten and entice virtually every person who has ever sided with him. One could almost find it perfectly reasonable that having someone immediately and unhesitatingly declare for him would catch his eye.

Keep in mind that Stannis knows how lordly politics work, and the family trees for just about every significant house in Westeros. Stannis complains vociferously about how much concern is spent on appeasing the greedy whims of his supporters, but that doesn’t mean he’s ignorant; quite the opposite it shows that, while it frustrates him, Stannis is well aware that he needs to address the self-serving needs of his bannermen in order to have their loyalty.

Again, this might draw attention to Karstark’s declaration of allegiance, because it came so easy. Karstark made no demands. If you know the history of Stannis and his bannermen, this is by itself extremely conspicuous. Especially since Stannis basically expects every lord to be a greedy self-serving asshole.

*   *   *

Loose Lips

This chapter also reveals an important rumor that’s been spreading at Castle Black:

Jon knew better than to press the point. “Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn.”

“Who told you that?”

The talk was all over Castle Black. “If you must know, I had the tale from Gilly.”

“Who is Gilly?”

“The wet nurse,” said Lady Melisandre. “Your Grace gave her freedom of the castle.”

“Not for running tales. She’s wanted for her teats, not for her tongue. I’ll have more milk from her, and fewer messages.

There are two details to derive from this conversation:

Stannis’s first reaction is NOT to deny the rumor, but to demand to know where the rumor is coming from.

Stannis never actually denies the rumor. He just wants whoever is spreading it to shut their mouth.

Remember my earlier observation that Stannis seems to exact precise control over any rumors about alliances he’s made. He’s specifically told Jon and Sam not to talk about the status of any alliance other than the Karstarks.

Given the fact that Stannis does not deny the rumor and instead demands that Gilly stop talking, this would imply that the rumor is truthful—or at least damaging in some way to Stannis. It hearkens back to the sage words of Tyrion:

“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

Stannis’s surprise at the existence of the rumor suggests that he thought he had control over the spread of any such deal with the wildling chieftains. Let’s examine the chain of logic here:

  1. The key point is that Stannis seems shocked that such a secret “got loose”.
    • Thus the obvious reason Stannis wants to know about the origin of the rumor is so that he can trace it back to one of the people he knows had the secret.
    • A secondary point is that Stannis would only ask this question if he felt reasonably assured that the rumor could be followed to its source.
    • This implies that very few people were in on the secret, which makes me lean toward the idea that none or very few of his bannermen would know it.
    • And finally, it implies that Stannis thought had control over the spread of the rumor.
  2. If such a deal exists but was intended to be secret, there are probably only a few people who would know about it. I imagine the list as follows:
    • Stannis himself.
    • Melisandre, his closest confidant at Castle Black
    • Possibly some of Stannis’s most trustworthy bannermen or knights. Emphasis on possibly given my observation that Stannis thinks he can just find the leaker through conversation.
    • Rattleshirt and Sigorn of Thenn, the beneficiaries. After all, it sounds like these castles were promised in exchange for their aid on his campaign.
  3. If it is true that Stannis thought he had control over the spread of such a rumor it has to be because the king thought the people in on the conspiracy were either wholly trustworthy or literally incapable of spreading such a rumor.
    • This has the effect of eliminating the likelihood that any of his bannermen knew the secret, given that Stannis hardly trusts any of them to do anything beyond acting in their own self-interests.
    • Melisandre has continuously proven herself to be totally loyal and thus she could be trusted with the secret.
    • As for Rattleshirt and Sigorn, they are both prisoners. So its entirely plausible that they knew about the castles-for-wildlings plot, but Stannis felt that his control over their freedom would prevent the spread of a rumor.
  4. But, Gilly does not have special access to Stannis, Melisandre, Rattleshirt or Sigorn of Thenn.
  5. Thus, you have to wonder… what makes Gilly special in terms of knowing this information?
    • As Melisandre notes, it is Gilly’s freedom as a wet-nurse that makes her unique.
    • This freedom specifically manifests itself as Gilly’s unique access to Val and Mance’s son.
    • Thus this means that Gilly is almost certainly hearing the rumor from Val.
    • Notice that Stannis ceases to inquire about the rumor’s source after hearing about Gilly’s role at Castle Black. This all but confirms that he knows source of the leak as soon as can connect the dots regarding who Gilly is talking to.
  6. But… why would Val know about this rumor? She’s not on the list I started out with, and for good reasons:
    • Stannis only talks about her in terms of her value as a prop in a political marriage to bind the wildlings to the northerners.
    • She has no inherent reason to need-to-know about details involving Rattleshirt or Sigorn of Thenn, and especially any deals to grant them lands or titles.
  7. The implications are clear: someone who is actually on the list of involved conspirators actually told Val, who in turn blurted it out to Gilly, who then spread the rumor.
    • Stannis or Melisandre. Why would they tell Val about deals promised to Rattleshirt and Sigorn? Especially as her principal value is as a political pawn.
    • Rattleshirt or Sigorn: They are both presumed to be locked up until JON III, when Stannis burns Mance and welcomes the wildlings officially. It seems incredulous that they are visiting Val and informing her (remember that Val’s quarters are directly above Stannis’s in the King’s Tower). Never mind the fact that after they tell hypothetically tell Val they are returning to their cells with no one the wiser.
  8. Clearly something is missing; Val seems to know about the castles-for-wildlings plot, but there’s no clear explanation for why she knows or who is telling her.
    • Stannis or Melisandre actually told Val, but for a reason we are not told.
    • Rattleshirt or Sigorn somehow escaped custody and told Val and then snuck back into their cells so that know one would know.
    • Some other party told Val, someone that Stannis also either trusted or though had significant leverage or control over.

We’ll leave this mystery here for now. I believe there is only one real answer, but I’ll allow it to bubble to the surface naturally as we proceed.

*   *   *

The Castle Rewards Program

Along with the rumor about castles for wildlings, one of the central arguments in JON I—ADWD is over a demand from Stannis: he wants the unoccupied castles along the Wall so that he can reward the loyalty of his men.

“I know that. It makes no matter. They are all we have. There are nineteen forts along the Wall, and you have men in only three of them. I mean to have every one of them garrisoned again before the year is out.”

“I have no quarrel with that, Sire, but it is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace.”

“Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?

This goes to my earlier point that Stannis is well aware that he needs to serve the interests of his bannermen in order to secure their loyalty, and that if he does not serve their interests it becomes unrealistic to expect their continued loyalty.

Tied into the rumor about castles-for-wildlings, this suggests that the castles aren’t merely designed to placate Rattleshirt or Sigorn, but as rewards for loyalty and service to the crown. Keep in mind that there are only sixteen forts that Stannis could possibly acquire and distribute to his followers. You would expect the middling southron lords who fail to get a castle purely because Stannis gave a few to wildlings to be extremely angry. Surely Stannis would be aware of that dynamic when he offered any such castles to wildlings, indicating that whatever Rattleshirt or Sigorn were going to do would actually merit a castle over one of Stannis’s bannermen.

Again this is a detail that rises to prominence later on.

*   *   *

A Reluctance to Kill

Between the end of A Storm of Swords and JON I—ADWD, Stannis’s desire to keep Mance alive is made explicit and implicit:

“Whilst your brothers have been struggling to decide who shall lead them, I have been speaking with this Mance Rayder.” He ground his teeth. “A stubborn man, that one, and prideful. He will leave me no choice but to give him to the flames.”

“The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”

“I know that,” Stannis said, unhappily. “I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I’ll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder’s life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms.”

The picture that emerges is that Stannis feels that Mance is of far more use to him alive than dead, but that he must still kill him out of duty. Heck, even Melisandre openly ponders the value of Mance:

The red priestess brushed the black wool aside and slipped her arm through his. “It may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance.”

Again, this is a useful snippet that will show its value later. Put it in your back pocket for now.

*   *   *

So as you can see JON I—ADWD introduces a lot of compelling topics that seem to go nowhere. But let’s get back to those topical questions that are supposed to be driving this entire essay:

  • ?
  • What is the earliest point in time that Stannis could have known about a plot to marry Arya Stark?

The plot to marry Ramsay and Arya isn’t even introduced until REEK I—ADWD, which happens between JON III and JON IV—ADWD.

Thus its basically impossible for Stannis to have known at this point about a wedding plot.

  • ?
  • What is the earliest point in time that Stannis could have known about the plot for the Karstarks to betray him?

I feel like your attitude regarding any possible discovery of the Karstark plot will largely depend on how suspicious or paranoid you think Stannis is. Although we can quibble on the actual likelihood, I would say that its entirely plausible that Stannis suspects something amiss with the Karstarks at this point, if not outright betrayal. Stannis basically assumes every lord who does anything for him is doing it to benefit himself and would be betray him in a heartbeat if they had a better offer somewhere else. So, the ease with which he acquired the Karstark allegiance might itself drawn suspicion. I feel like readers could have a variety of opinions on whether or not Stannis has it figured out already in JON I—ADWD, but that we can all agree that it is at least plausible, if unlikely.

Keep in mind that it is also conspicuous that Stannis goes out of his way to make sure everyone knows how proud he is to have Karstark as an ally, while clamping down on virtually every other rumored alliance or lack of an alliance. Of course, it seems like its perfectly natural that he’d want to brag about having northern allies, but it could mean something else.

At the very least, it is just interesting that Stannis seems to so tightly embrace the Karstarks in the very same chapter that his closest advisor warns Jon to specifically distrust the people who pretend to be allies and stab you in the back.

*   *   *


IMG_0015This is the chapter where Jon kicks Gilly, Monster, Sam and Aemon to the curb. He also decrapitates Janos Slynt.

There’s really only a few major details related to Stannis’s campaign that happen here.

Gilly and Val

When Gilly comes to Jon in response to his summons, her first words concern Val:

“Is it Mance? Val begged the king to spare him. She said she’d let some kneeler marry her and never slit his throat if only Mance could live. That Lord o’Bones, he’s to be spared. Craster always swore he’d kill him if he ever showed his face about the keep. Mance never did half the things he done.”

This basically confirms a few key details:

  1. I was right that Val tells Gilly information that is probably supposed to be private.
  2. It confirms that Val does actually speak to the king, in this case begging for Mance’s life.
  3. It also seems to confirm the idea that Val is the one who told Gilly about Rattleshirt being spared and offered a castle.
  4. It also reveals a bargain Val made, to marry in exchange for Mance’s life.

This seems to more or less confirm the idea that Val’s source of information is Stannis himself.

This would imply that when Gilly spread rumors about Rattleshirt and Sigorn of Thenn getting castles, it was because Stannis told that to Val, who in turn told Gilly.

  • ?
  • Why would Stannis tell Val about offers of castles he is going to make to wildling chieftains?
  • ?
  • Why would Stannis disclose the fate of Rattleshirt to Val?

At the very least, it would seem that Val is more than a pawn if Stannis tells her these sorts of details. Several times in ASOS and ADWD Jon asserts to Stannis that Val cannot be forced into marriage and that even if she could it would not guarantee wildling loyalty:

Perhaps Jon had ridden with the free folk too long; he could not help but laugh. “Your Grace,” he said, “captive or no, if you think you can just give Val to me, I fear you have a deal to learn about wildling women. Whoever weds her had best be prepared to climb in her tower window and carry her off at swordpoint . . .”

“I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king’s dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want, she is like to slit his throat on their wedding night. Even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”

And yet Val seems to recognize her opportunity here and be willing to play the part Stannis requires of her, in exchange for Mance’s life.

You have to wonder if her knowledge about Rattleshirt’s fate and promised castle is somehow connected.

On a side note, you can see how this creates a win-win situation for Stannis, provided Mance is allowed to live.

  1. Stannis gets to keep Mance alive, admittedly valuable for his knowledge, skills and ability to unite the wildlings.
  2. Stannis gets his wildling princess that he can marry off and hopefully bind wildlings to the north.

There’s just that prickly matter of needing to execute Mance as a show of force, of law and order. We’ll come back to that.

*   *   *

The Wrong-Way Rangers

Halfway through the chapter, Jon walks the Wall and gathers reports from the sentries and rangers. He learns about the ‘wrong-way rangers’:

Kedge grinned. “A pair of knights. Went riding off an hour ago, south along the kingsroad. When Dywen saw them buggering off, he said the southron fools were riding the wrong way.”

“I see,” said Jon.

He found out more from Dywen himself, as the old forester sucked down a bowl of barley broth in the barracks. “Aye, m’lord, I saw them. Horpe and Massey, it were. Claimed Stannis sent ’em out, but never said where or what for or when they would be back.”

Ser Richard Horpe and Ser Justin Massey were both queen’s men, and high in the king’s councils. A pair of common freeriders would have served if all that Stannis had in mind was scouting, Jon Snow reflected, but knights are better suited to act as messengers or envoys.

Although we learn the purpose of Horpe and Massey’s journey later, its important to point something out about their departure that is of special significance:

Nobody knows where Horpe and Massey are headed.

It makes you wonder.

  • ?
  • Why wasn’t a raven sent instead?
  • ?
  • Further, when they leave, why is no one told of their destination?

Remember that Stannis exerts precise, obsessive control over what rumors he wants people to know… or NOT know. So this emphasis on secrecy is without doubt deliberate.

The only sensible answer is that its because Stannis didn’t want outside, interested parties to know that he was meeting with Mors Umber.

By conducting the mission in total secrecy, no one at Castle Black knows their purpose or heading.

And given that no raven was used, there is no risk concerning untrustworthy maesters or the like.

I am trying to make my larger points occur naturally as we progress, but this is one area where I need to actually articulate something where the ‘proof’ comes later. Specifically, the chief benefit of a secret meeting with Mors Umber is:

It prevents Arnolf Karstark (and anyone else) from knowing what Stannis might hear from Mors Umber, and vice versa.

By divorcing the ability of Arnolf or Mors to communicate with each other, he destroys any ability for them to collaborate on a shared version of the truth (meaning a lie or conspiracy). It’s the realpolitik equivalent of interrogating potential co-conspirators in separate rooms. By sending ravens to Karhold while sneaking off to meet with Mors he makes it impossible for them to have collaborated so well that they both present the same picture of events, unless those events are the truth.

NOTE: It’s easy to think that the real reason for the secrecy of their mission was because Stannis wanted a secret alliance with Mors. Indeed, that’s what looks like actually happened. However, Stannis had absolutely no guarantees of that happening when he sent Horpe and Massey on their mission: Stannis doesn’t even ask Jon about Mors Umber’s character until much later.

Thus, at the time Stannis had no guarantee that any secret meeting he had with Mors would remain a secret from Hother or Ramsay. If Mors had immediately betrayed Stannis, he would profit nothing from having sent the mission in secret. Therefore the real value of the secret mission was not the ensuing relationship but the fact that it disrupted any potential conspiracy that might have involved Mors and other northerners.

Now Stannis doesn’t see the results of this mission for a few chapters, but I’ve laid the groundwork for its real value.

*   *   *

Davos At Sea

In addition to the wrong-way rangers, it is also revealed that Stannis sent Davos to White Harbor:

Cotter Pyke had sent word from Eastwatch that the Onion Lord and Salladhor Saan had set sail for White Harbor to treat with Lord Manderly.

This is interesting because Stannis had already received word from Manderly as of JON I—ADWD:

“For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Oldtown or King’s Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father’s bannermen.”

“Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse.” The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more. Stannis had commanded Jon not to speak of that one either.

Sending Davos to treat with Manderly shows that Stannis feels that if he has someone speak to Wyman in person, it might produce a different result.

This seems to imply a few things:

  1. Stannis doesn’t give up on efforts to recruit bannermen if they seem ambivalent.
  2. Stannis uses envoys for difficult meetings.
  3. These envoy meetings seem to have a specific purpose:
    1. They avoid or bypass spies or subterfuge.
    2. They clarify precisely why a particular lord’s ambivalence.
    3. They allow lords to speak freely, if the need is there.

These points are backed up by the observation that Davos insists more than once that he wants to speak with Wyman Manderly alone:

The gates of the New Castle had been closed, but a postern opened when he shouted, and a guard emerged to ask his business. Davos showed him the black and gold ribbon that bore the royal seals. “I need to see Lord Manderly at once,” he said. “My business is with him, and him alone.”

Davos did not deny it. “If it please my lord, I would request a privy audience.”

Indeed, the eventual meeting that Davos does have with Wyman proves my point. For now its just important to note that Davos is on the same sort of mission as Horpe and Massey, just with less secrecy.

*   *   *

So JON II—ADWD can be seen as more of the same, small revelations that were found in JON I.

Not much has changed regarding our two guiding questions about Stannis’s awareness of a wedding plot or of a Karstark betrayal.

As I said before, the wedding plot isn’t introduced until after JON III, so we’re still a few chapters from it being plausible.

While Stannis might suspect something with Karstark, and that could be the reason for the secrecy of the mission to Mors, I would say that the plausibility of Stannis knowing remains unchanged from JON I.

Now we get to the good stuff.

*   *   *


mance_fighterThis chapter is pretty much all about the execution of Mance and the accepting of the wildling surrender.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here. Obviously in hindsight it is Rattleshirt that is executed and Mance lives, so I’m not aiming to explore that, beyond what people might have known at the time. Rather I want to continue my “Who knew what—and when?” exercise.

Carved of Salt

Val seems to have a particularly muted reaction to Mance’s execution:

Val stood on the platform as still as if she had been carved of salt.

Next came Rattleshirt in clattering armor made of bones and boiled leather, his helm a giant’s skull. Under the bones lurked a ruined and wretched creature with cracked brown teeth and a yellow tinge to the whites of his eyes. A small, malicious, treacherous man, as stupid as he is cruel. Jon did not believe for a moment that he would keep faith. He wondered what Val was feeling as she watched him kneel, forgiven.

And then later Jon sees Val in her tower, and ruminates:

All the same, the wildling princess was not beloved of her gaolers. She scorned them all as “kneelers,” and had thrice attempted to escape. When one man-at-arms grew careless in her presence she had snatched his dagger from its sheath and stabbed him in the neck. Another inch to the left and he might have died.

Its important to note that his observation about her prior violence refers to events that happen before Mance’s execution. Val is never again disobedient or violent.

Although we readers know that Mance is actually alive, it remains unclear whether or not Val does.

But consider that it is extremely interesting that she promised to do everything Stannis wanted and be obedient in JON II and as of JON III she suddenly quiet and obedient, wearing a crown and play the role required of her.

Since she’s the one who leaked the rumor about a castles-for-wildlings to Gilly, you have to wonder why she would be ok with Rattleshirt getting clemency despite being completely worthless. All of the changes are in line with what Val offered Stannis in exchange for Mance’s life.

Thus we are introduced to the plausibility that Val knows Mance is still alive. It makes sense of her abrupt change.

However the only way she would know this would be Stannis or Melisandre told her. Or she somehow figured it out herself.

We’ll address how she might know later.

Note that despite her overall change in behavior, Val retains some element of her fierceness, manifesting as a sort of malicious compliance:

The queen’s men took up the cry, beating the butts of their spears against their shields. “One realm, one god, one king! STANNIS! STANNIS! ONE REALM, ONE GOD, ONE KING!”

Val did not join the chant, he saw.

This suggests that her willingness to play the part has its limits, which is a vital sign of her own autonomy in her actions and suggests that she decided to play the role of wildling princess willingly but not happily.

*   *   *

There are a lot of cool details in this chapter, but this essay was supposed to be focus on just two things: Stannis’s knowledge of a wedding, and his knowledge of a Karstark betrayal.

As such there is very little that plays directly into it. The elements about Val seem unrelated, but will explained in the next section.

*   *   *


Stannis NarrowThis is it people! This is where it all comes together. In this chapter Horpe and Massey return from visiting Mors Umber and Stannis has his final war council before leaving Castle Black.

There is a lot to explain here and this is where all the threads come together and you get your payoff for being patient and bearing with me. So lets get to it!

NOTE: Before we begin, take special note that REEK I—ADWD occurs between this chapter and the one prior (JON II). This means that the ‘Arya wedding plot’ has been introduced in the story. Thus this chapter is the first time that its even *possible* for Stannis to know about a wedding plot.

The Bastard Leaves

One of the biggest things to talk about is the news that has arrived:

The Bastard of Bolton has gone south, taking Hother Umber with him. On that Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark are agreed.

Perhaps you don’t see it yet, but the second sentence is the far more important one.

On that Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark are agreed.

Say it aloud a few times, varying the emphasis if you can’t see it yet. What percolates to the surface like a fart in a bathtub is the notion that Mors and Arnolf actually disagreed on something.

Specifically it sounds like one party said something that the other omitted or directly contradicted. Something related to the movements of Ramsay Bolton. An omission or contradiction that Stannis does not disclose at the council.

And remember from the earlier section on JON II about the benefits of a secret mission to Mors: one of the main benefits of the secret, in-person meeting is that it cripples the ability to collaborate on a lie: since the envoy will probably notice when a lord is stalling for time while waiting for the raven to arrive and inform him of what the ‘story’ is.

So the fact that Stannis caught Mors and Arnolf disagreeing on something related to the movements of Ramsay Bolton should be super-alarming.

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  • But what was the discrepancy?
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  • And which lord was the more truthful?

We’ll come back to this momentarily.

*   *   *


During the war council, Jon Snow expertly explains why northern lords can’t declare for Stannis openly:

“If Whoresbane has joined the Bastard, it can only be because the Lannisters hold the Greatjon captive.”

“The Greatjon has sons and daughters both. In the north the children of a man’s body still come before his uncles, ser.”

“Unless they die. Dead children come last everywhere.”

While Jon is talking about Umbers here, the logic is perfectly applicable to Arnolf Karstark as well: he is the uncle of the late Rickard Karstark. Rickard’s son Harrion is still jailed in Maidenpool. By openly declaring for Stannis, Arnolf hopes that the Iron Throne will kill Harrion and thus the seat of House Karstark would fall to his sister Alys.

So Stannis has the knowledge to decipher why Karstark so eagerly claimed to be his earnest ally. But can Stannis put the facts together himself? It would certainly help if he had a demonstrated knowledge of the Karstark family tree:

“Arnolf Karstark is an old man with a crooked back, and even in his youth he was never the fighter Lord Rickard was. The rigors of the campaign may well kill him.”

“He has heirs,” Stannis snapped. “Two sons, six grandsons, some daughters.”

When you consider that Arnolf isn’t even in the main line of inheritance for House Karstark, it is impossibly impressive that Stannis has this memory at his fingertips. How much do you then suppose Stannis knows about the actual main Karstark bloodline, then? If Stannis can—at will—conjure up a list of descendants for the castellan, do you think he can’t do the same for Rickard Karstark. Do you think he’s forgotten about Alys or Harrion?

Now combine this with the previous fact that Arnolf and Mors disagreed on something in their messages. Who do you think Stannis is more liable to trust?

  • The eager castellan who did not inform Stannis of how they stand to profit from boldly declaring for him?
  • Or the man who meets you in secret because his nephew is held hostage by a mutual enemy?

Stannis is ever a man preoccupied with knowing the motives of his bannermen, not because he doubts their loyalty, but because he knows they will be loyal as long as he advances their motives. Which is exactly why he was angry that Jon wouldn’t give him the castles in JON I.

All of these finding are just more fuel to the fire, increasingly suggestive that Stannis could have figured out the betrayal earlier than it appears. At the very least, the plausibility of Stannis knowing it is going up significantly.

*   *   *

A Curious Appointment

Remember what I said at the beginning of this section: the earliest Stannis could know of a conceivable wedding plot is immediately prior to the war council in JON IV (this chapter).

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  • Isn’t it then conspicuously well-timed that Stannis tells Jon that he’s assigning Rattleshirt to him at the very beginning of that war council?

Furthermore, Stannis ignores all of Jon’s protests: Jon says he has no use whatsoever for Rattleshirt and will not send him ranging or anywhere else. Jon essentially admits that Rattleshirt will do nothing but stay at Castle Black. Stannis doesn’t care. Remember that Jon specifically told Stannis that Rattleshirt had no honor or redeeming qualities whatsoever, going as far back as the end of A Storm of Swords.

This is interesting because in JON I, Stannis did not deny the rumor that he plans on giving castles to Rattleshirt and Sigorn of Thenn. At the war council, it is revealed that the original plan was for Sigorn to serve in Stannis’s vanguard. You can see why Stannis offered him a castle, he was going to earn it in battle.

This naturally leads to Rattleshirt. Keep in mind that just because you readers know the original Rattleshirt is dead, that doesn’t change things for the people in Westeros. There are probably rumors still going around Rattleshirt’s castle. But if he’s assigned to Jon Snow, how will he get a castle? For what? Being a nuisance?

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  • What is Rattleshirt going to do that merits a castle?

Furthermore, even if Stannis was honest about assigning Rattleshirt to Jon, and truly thought it was Rattleshirt, the dishonorable guttersnipe that he is—there is another major concern:

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  • Why is seven fucking hells does Stannis let Rattleshirt stay and listen to the entire war council?

This is especially noteworthy considering that the entire mission to Mors was a secret and Stannis seems to have an obsession with controlling the public narrative regarding his campaign. Going back to the castles-for-wildlings rumor, it is very interesting that the two named wildlings Rattleshirt and Sigorn are both present at the war council.

Seeing that Sigorn and Rattleshirt were both at the war council, and likely to earn castles because of some involvement in Stannis’s campaign… why does Stannis give Rattleshirt seemingly nothing to do?

Another key point is that RattleMance and Melisandre say nothing at the assignment to Jon, implying they knew Stannis was going to make it. They act as if this was all expected. You would expect a real wildling chieftain that was attending the war council who expected a castle to say something if they were basically assigned nothing to do. But he doesn’t, implying that he’s satisfied with knowing that he’s earning it via some other responsibility.

But all of this seems like belaboring the real point:

Horpe and Massey return with tidings from Mors Umber and Stannis’s first order of business is to assign Rattleshirt to Jon.

Methinks it has to do with that discrepancy between Arnolf and Mors’s messages.

*   *   *

I’ve repeated it several times throughout the essay: Remember that immediately prior to the war council in JON IV—when Stannis gets the report from Horpe and Massey—is the first plausible time that Stannis could know about the wedding (Barring the ludicrous idea that Arnolf actually wrote and told Stannis about it).

NOTE: Since you are probably wondering, Arnolf wouldn’t say anything about the wedding because if he did, Stannis might rush south to actually reinforce Moat Cailin. Arnolf is trying to bait Stannis into attacking the Dreadfort. Knowledge of the wedding doesn’t help that, at all.

Anyways, knowing that this is the earliest possible time Stannis could know about a wedding, consider this:

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  • Isn’t it impossibly serendipitous that Stannis’s very first order is to assign the very person who rescues “Arya” from said wedding to Jon Snow, with nothing to do despite a rumored castle promised to him?

Couple all of that with Val’s newfound obedience and what she said she’d exchange it for.

Come on people. If you can’t see it now, I’m not sure you ever will. Stated directly:

Stannis knew about the wedding plot prior to the war council in JON IV—ADWD.

He was told by Horpe and Massey, who heard it straight from Mors Umber.

I essentially fleshed out the details a few paragraphs back. Karstark omitted the wedding because he’s trying to bait Stannis into attacking the Dreadfort. Mors isn’t trying to bait anyone, he’s probably trying to play the field and at least come out ahead, he probably saw no reason not to tell Stannis.

The alternative that seems to crop up is that Stannis is just trusting Melisandre, and doesn’t actually know what Rattleshirt is up to. I’m ok with that if you can:

  • Explain why Stannis lets him attend the war council…
  • Seems to have offered him the rumored castle and lands as rewards for doing who-knows-what…
  • And does all of this knowing straight from Jon that Rattleshirt is a treacherous shit-stain.
  • Yet assumes Rattleshirt is alive because he has some measure of worthwhile-yet-undocumented-anywhere usefulness.
  • And unquestioningly expects Melisandre’s ‘ruby cuff’ to exert sufficient control on him.

Even then you have to explain the serendipitous timing of assigning Rattleshirt to Jon, just the same as if Stannis did know.

Of course this claim hinges on the idea that Stannis knew that Rattleshirt is going to participate in some sort of plot related to the wedding, if not Rattleshirt’s true identity.

Until such time as The Winds of Winter clears this matter up, it is up to you. However, to say that Stannis doesn’t know about Mance’s survival would mean that Stannis:

  • Fails to see the connection between Val’s newfound obedience and her previous offers.
  • Doesn’t question the purpose of the ruby cuff on Rattleshirt.
  • Doesn’t question Melisandre staying behind with Rattleshirt. Remember that her absence on the Blackwater is sometimes argued to the reason for his failure.
  • Is fine with offering a castle to a wildling for apparently nothing, when he’s surrounded by other hungry lords who want rewards.
  • Is ignorant of the fact that “Rattleshirt” is actually the very man that Stannis himself said he wanted to spare Mance.
  • Has no idea of RattleMance’s true set of talents, but runs with it anyways.

Essentially, to believe that Stannis doesn’t know requires that you believe he ignores all of these things and acts on blind faith, presumably at the direction of Melisandre.

Stannis can be a dumb person on occasion. However, this is isn’t dumb: it’s turbo-dumb. It’s base-jumping without a parachute into a chasm of vacuous stupidity and hoping to hit the bottom with enough force to punch through into Middle-Earth.

Years ago I compared Stannis to the ideal leadership espoused by Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. The comparison still holds true today, and here is a particularly relevant bit:

And it is seen that for Romulus to institute the Senate and to make the other civil and military arrangements, the authority of God was not necessary, but it was very necessary for Numa, who pretended he had met with a Nymph who advised him of that which he should counsel the people; and all this resulted because he wanted to introduce new ordinances and institutions in that City, and was apprehensive that his authority was not enough. And truly there never was any extraordinary institutor of laws among a people who did not have recourse to God, because otherwise he would not have been accepted; for they (these laws) are very well known by prudent men, but which by themselves do not contain evident reasons capable of persuading others. Wise men who want to remove this difficulty, therefore, have recourse to God. Thus did Lycurgus, thus Solon, thus many others who had the same aims as they.

This infamous passage from the Discourses essentially argues that a leader’s invocation of religion is largely pragmatic: with a higher power being invoked as a sort of lubricant to enhance a ruler’s real effectiveness.

And Stannis stated from almost from the outset, that his use of Melisandre and her god was pragmatic in nature:

“When I was a lad I found an injured goshawk and nursed her back to health. Proudwing, I named her. She would perch on my shoulder and flutter from room to room after me and take food from my hand, but she would not soar. Time and again I would take her hawking, but she never flew higher than the treetops. Robert called her Weakwing. He owned a gyrfalcon named Thunderclap who never missed her strike. One day our great-uncle Ser Harbert told me to try a different bird. I was making a fool of myself with Proudwing, he said, and he was right.” Stannis Baratheon turned away from the window, and the ghosts who moved upon the southern sea. “The Seven have never brought me so much as a sparrow. It is time I tried another hawk, Davos. A red hawk.”

I admit that a lot has transpired since Stannis said this, and he seems convinced that he a fated role to play against the Others. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s well-aware of using religion and magic in pragmatic ways. As I plan to write in a further essay in this series, Stannis’s ‘faith’ requires consistent proof.

*   *   *

I seem to have spent a great deal of time answering a question that I did not pose: Does Stannis know about Mance?

The truth is that other than total blind faith and being completely oblivious to even basic facts, there’s no other viable alternative explanation for the timing of Rattleshirt’s assignment to Jon, in relation to his role in Arya’s rescue.

My conclusion therefore is that at the end of JON IV—ADWD, the status of Stannis’s knowledge is as follows:

Stannis is aware of the plot to marry Arya Stark.

Stannis is either already fully aware of a Karstark betrayal or will soon enough, he has all of the information needed to put the puzzle together.

At this point, it becomes interesting to not only wonder who knows about these things, but who *else* might know them.

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  • Who else at Castle Black knows about a prospective marriage plot at the time of the war council (JON IV)?

Aside from Stannis the obvious and likely candidates are:

  • Horpe and Massey, seeing as they delivered any such news to Stannis.
  • Melisandre, since she’s basically a part of every strategy meeting and summons.
  • RattleMance seems highly probable given that he seemed to just go along with his assignment from Stannis. He certainly knows later on in JON VI and MELISANDRE.

It’s plausible that maybe some other bannermen might know, but there’s no real evidence either way.

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  • Who else might know about a supposed Karstark betrayal?

This question is far murkier, and depends on if Mors Umber both:

  1. Was informed about a betrayal by Hother, and…
  2. Told Horpe and Massey about it.

If this happened, then at the very least Stannis, Horpe, Massey, and Melisandre know. Even Mance might not know this, since its not something relevant to him.

The alternative is that the Karstark betrayal is simply deduced by ruminating on all the evidence.

Notice that Horpe and Massey fight in front of the Karstarks later in A Dance with Dragons. Horpe’s behavior makes it clear that he knows something secret about the Karstarks prior to Jon’s letter. Massey’s behavior is less clear—he could have just forgotten or lost his cool in front of Arnolf, or maybe he doesn’t know.

We may never get clarity on this, but there are some good details to keep in mind:

  • Horpe is not a northerner and has no other play other than to back Stannis, we can safely assume that if Horpe knew not to trust the Karstarks, so did Stannis.
  • As of THE SACRIFICE it certainly seems like at least Stannis and Horpe know about a Karstark betrayal. They are seen actively distancing themselves from and controlling the narrative around Arnolf Karstark.

It’s not binary either, Stannis might not have suspected outright betrayal, but he might have known not to trust Karstark either.

If I had to offer my opinion, I honestly think that Stannis actually deduces this one, and Horpe either figures it out himself or Stannis clues him in. Consider a tiny detail from the war council:

“You saw how we went through the wildlings.” Ser Justin pushed back a lock of flaxen hair. “The Karstarks have sworn to join us at the Dreadfort, and we will have our wildlings as well. Three hundred men of fighting age. Lord Harwood made a count as they were passing through the gate. Their women fight as well.”

Stannis gave him a sour look. “Not for me, ser. I want no widows wailing in my wake. The women will remain here, with the old, the wounded, and the children. They will serve as hostages for the loyalty of their husbands and fathers. The wildling men will form my van. The Magnar will command them, with their own chiefs as serjeants. First, though, we must needs arm them.”

Stannis’s facial expressions when other people talk are almost always a dead give-away that he’s thinking of something under the surface. It’s easy to assume that Stannis made the reaction with regards to the proposed use of wildling women. Sure, Stannis wants them to be hostages. But he doesn’t balk or sneer, he just does his duty dispassionately. Dude could burn someone alive and not give a shit and you’re telling me he sneers at women fighting? I mean, honestly, yes Stannis could dislike the idea of women fighting—but it doesn’t rise to the level of meriting an uncontrolled ‘sour look’ from the One True King. You know what probably does trigger Stannis to the point of being unable to conceal/control his expression? Betrayals. Lies. Dishonor. Not doing your duty. When McDonald’s fucks up his order.

While we can quibble about whether or not this is an early sign that Stannis already knows or suspects the Karstarks, what it certainly seems to show is that Massey still views them in the ‘plus’ column, strategically. This would imply that Massey and Horpe were not told of any betrayal plot. Certainly notice that Stannis never talks about the Karstarks again. As such, I’m inclined to believe that Stannis and Horpe may be the only ones who know. It’s plausible that Melisandre and Mance might know, but since it doesn’t affect them, it’s irrelevant.

Stannis lets out another face later in the same chapter, also in close proximity to the topic of the Karstarks:

Stannis looked disgusted. “Your father was a stubborn man as well. Honor, he called it. Well, honor has its costs, as Lord Eddard learned to his sorrow. If it gives you any solace, Horpe and Massey are doomed to disappointment. I am more inclined to bestow Winterfell upon Arnolf Karstark. A good northman.”

Again there’s the initial impression that Stannis is ‘disgusted’ at honor and Jon Snow. But if you go back to other chapters where Jon and Stannis argue or debate, Stannis sound angry a lot, but he only ever smiles or laughs incredulously at Jon’s words. Furthermore, Stannis only ever has praise for Ned’s honor.

*   *   *


comp_blizzardI’m sure you’re wondering what this was all for.

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  • Why was it important to establish that Stannis knew about the betrayal and the wedding, especially back during the war council in JON IV?

It sure seems like I spent a lot of time on something that doesn’t seem all that relevant to the state of things at the end of ADWD. It will. But first I need you to consider something as if you were Stannis, or a least a semi-competent commander. Remember that Stannis originally planned to attack the Dreadfort, and ponder this:

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  • How does taking the Dreadfort help Stannis?
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  • Is it a reasonable expectation that other northmen would flock to Stannis just because he has Bolton’s castle?
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  • Does ending up in a possible siege with Bolton forces help or hurt his momentum?

The Dreadfort has valuable provisions and remains wealthy and untouched by war. It is valuable. That said, taking the Dreadfort may not be the smartest move to make, and for none of the reasons that Jon said.

  • It leaves Bolton in the field, mobile, while Stannis essentially pins himself down.
  • Other northerners, not wanting to be on the losing side (or terrorized by the Boltons) would be more likely to be ambivalent or begrudging Bolton allies.
  • It would be something Bolton could spin into evidence of Stannis’s imperious disrespect for northmen.
  • It does nothing about the various hostages forcing various Houses to pay homage to the Boltons.

As this essay pointed out too, it would be somewhat pointless anyways since Stannis already knows that the Boltons have Arya Stark. This by itself will be a huge blow any dream of winning allies just by taking the Dreadfort.

It seems reasonable to expect that Stannis would know all of this. And yet, even when Stannis has been warned of the fruitlessness of attacking the Dreadfort, Stannis seems to stubbornly insist.

“The Dreadfort will be the proof of that.”

“Then you mean to go ahead with this attack?”

“Despite the counsel of the great Lord Snow? Aye. Horpe and Massey may be ambitious, but they are not wrong. I dare not sit idle whilst Roose Bolton’s star waxes and mine wanes. I must strike and show the north that I am still a man to fear.”

I admit that this passage makes Stannis look like a stubborn fool. But it’s only because he’s not telling Jon the whole truth. There’s also the fact that Stannis can bluster all he wants, he hasn’t committed any serious blunder until he actually does something.

The explanation for Stannis’s belligerence is quite simple really:

Stannis rejects the seemingly straightforward, correct arithmetic provided by Jon, because Jon is unaware of additional variables that affect the outcome.

*   *   *

An over-large portion of this essay was spent establishing that Stannis knew about the wedding plot and that RattleMance was always going to be involved in some rescue of Arya Stark. There’s just one issue:

The location of the wedding was not known at the time of Stannis’s war council in JON IV.

So RattleMance needs to wait until he knows where the wedding is going to be before he can do anything. That’s precisely what happens when Jon opens the wedding invitation on the training yard in JON VI, in Mance’s presence. Exploring the further adventures of Mance is perhaps a subject for another essay in this series (or you can read my thoughts in the Mannifesto).

The details of any Arya rescue are not important at this time. What is important is this:

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  • Under Stannis’s original “Dreadfort Ambush” plan, what was RattleMance’s role?

There’s only one thing that makes sense:

Mance was originally going to perform same wedding rescue, but instead of sending her to the crofter’s village, Arya would have gone to the Stannis at the Dreadfort.

As this essay showed, Stannis almost certainly knew that Arya Stark was in play. There’d be no chance of “winning the north” if she was left in Bolton hands.

Stannis’s stubbornness is now explained by the fact that he knew he had a card up his sleeve. In addition, if he already suspect or knew of the Karstark betrayal that was also something he could have turned on its head.

*   *   *

A Castle for an Idiot?

I’ve made a big deal out of that rumor about a castle for Rattleshirt. But that rumor was in JON I—ADWD, well before Mance’s execution, and even before Melisandre admitted to Jon that he might be right about Mance’s value. So what gives?

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  • Did Stannis actually have some use for the real Rattleshirt back then, and only switched to Mance after being repeatedly begged by Val and Jon for it?

That makes no sense. Jon specifically told Stannis that Rattleshirt was dishonorable, not to be trusted.

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  • You know what does make sense?

Stannis and Melisandre had already planned to switch Mance and Rattleshirt.

Thus, Stannis has been bullshitting from the very beginning of the book about killing Mance.

At this point, I should address a possibility you might be entertaining, or thinking eluded me: that Melisandre did all of this herself. And in all fairness, I’d have to rate that as being *plausible*. Let’s engage in some shitty dialectic:

“Melisandre kept Mance alive without Stannis knowing.”

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  • Why does Val seem to know?

“She deduced it or Melisandre told her.”

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  • Why would Melisandre tell Val and not Stannis?

“Ok, so Val deduced it.”

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  • Couldn’t Stannis also deduce it?

“No, because he’s a big dumb-dumb.”

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  • If he’s dumb, then why is the first thing he does when he could have known about a wedding be to assign the actual wedding rescuer to Jon?

“Because Melisandre told him to. Or luck.”

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  • Why would Stannis trust Rattleshirt on some mystery mission of critical importance, not because of any demonstrated talent but because Melisandre told him?

“Because Melisandre told him to.”

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  • Why would Stannis let Rattleshirt sit at the war council if he’s not part of the actual wartime strategy?

“Because Melisandre told him to.”

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  • Does Stannis ever question Melisandre’s instructions?

“She tells him R’hllor wants him to do what she says.”

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  • Stannis.exe has closed unexpectedly.

“Because Melisandre told him to.”

And so it goes. The idea that Stannis doesn’t know, or that Val doesn’t know, or that its all just eleven secret herbs and spices and we just need to trust the Colonel—is incredibly reductive. It denies character agency that is inconsistent with the top-shelf people involved.

  • On one hand I can appreciate the sensible, measured fan who is concerned about Stannis the Mannis fandom run amok. It’s hard to see all of these people who basically want to live in Latveria with Martin’s take on Dr. Doom and not be jealous.
  • On the other, its to the point where I feel some people have taken a few terse lines from Stannis and extrapolated this character template of a gigantic buffoonish asshole. The idea that Stannis is an oafish moron is just as much a conspiracy as anything I’ve penned.

Getting back on track, it just doesn’t make any real sense that Stannis wouldn’t know. It ceases to be an interesting part of the discussion.

It *is* plausible that Melisandre kept Mance alive with Stannis’s knowledge initially but told him some time prior to JON IV. You’re free to make your own opinion, but before you do, look at these passages.

“Whilst your brothers have been struggling to decide who shall lead them, I have been speaking with this Mance Rayder.” He ground his teeth. “A stubborn man, that one, and prideful. He will leave me no choice but to give him to the flames.”

“The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”

“I know that,” Stannis said, unhappily. “I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I’ll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder’s life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms.”

The first is from the end of A Storm with Swords. The second is from the beginning of A Dance with Dragons. There is a noticeable shift in Stannis’s sense of agency. In the first, Stannis seems committed to keeping Mance alive but Mance himself will force his own execution. Whereas in ADWD, Stannis clearly articulates that he’s killing Mance of his own volition.

I believe that by the second sample, Stannis has already plotted to keep Mance alive. The reason for the change in tone is because he’s projecting the version of the truth he wants everyone to see.

It is no different than his control over rumors around Castle Black, or his secrecy in his mission to Mors. You could almost say he is Melisandre’s best student: knowing that the reality you project can be more useful than reality itself.

You might be quick to think that this tonal shift between books has more to do with the delay between their publication and that Martin had changed the story. But he hadn’t. Martin planted clear allusions to the Mance-as-Rattleshirt plot back in A Storm of Swords:

The captive blinked yellow eyes. “Aye.” Not until that instant did Jon recognize Rattleshirt. He is a different man without his armor, he thought.

“You rode with these wildlings. Is there any honor in them, do you think?”

“Yes,” Jon said, “but their own sort of honor, sire.”

“In Mance Rayder?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“In the Lord of Bones?”

Jon hesitated. “Rattleshirt, we called him. Treacherous and blood-thirsty. If there’s honor in him, he hides it down beneath his suit of bones.”

Indeed, Jon basically lays out the lack of merit in one and the greatness in the other in the span of a few sentences. Indeed, this is the very chapter in which Stannis admits he wants to keep Mance alive.

But this topic is more or less wandering out in the weeds at this point. Its basically up to personal preference whether or not Stannis knew about Mance prior to the war council in JON IV. It changes little materially. I would say that if Stannis knew all along (my belief) it changes your view of him from a principled man with devious, often at-odds counselors, into a conniver of the highest order.

But it literally makes sense: Stannis believes he is destined to fight the Others and ‘save the world’. Why on earth would he throw away somebody with a metric ton of knowledge about the world beyond the wall—and—the ability to unite the wildlings. Faced with choosing between breaking his seeming character and saving the world?

*   *   *

The Fall Guy

This leads to my last major insight. Knowing that Stannis broke his principles in order to do what he thought was right and save Mance, who gets blamed when Mance is revealed?

Melisandre is the red witch who supposedly killed Mance with her magic. She would be the one to take the most heat for this. If Stannis actually pulls off a major victory and wins a major shift in political allegiance, its possible that there might not even be a huge blow to him personally. If Stannis’s plot is shown to be the only way to have achieved some major victory, is it possible that the war-tired north might just say “eh…” and go home?

In any case, the whole setup has afforded Stannis what muggles call plausible deniability. Which I invoke regularly when asked who ate the last doughnut.

Melisandre can involve people like Jon in the conspiracy without them knowing or being able to tell others that its connected to the king.

*   *   *

So I want to close on something fun and provocative. If Stannis could have heard all manner of secrets from Mors, such as a wedding plot or a Karstark betrayal… there looms one more detail that Stannis might have learned.

Stannis could have learned that Theon was a captive at the Dreadfort.

That sounds incendiary, like a game-changer. Big if true, as the Bible says. If it were true, you’d expect it to have factored into his decisions…. like say:

  • His initial attack on the Dreadfort. Could it have been motivated the expectation of finding Theon within? Could Arnolf have attempted to bait the trap using Theon?
  • The decision to take Asha Greyjoy with him from Deepwood Motte. Even more interesting, why does he send “Arya” with Massey back to Castle Black but keep Asha?
  • The fact that Abel and his washerwomen ever involved Theon at all. How would Mance have known he was a valuable target worth rescuing? As smart as Mance is, he doesn’t know the political complexities existing between ironmen, the north, Theon as a ward, etc.
  • The fact that Mors knew immediately it was Theon outside Winterfell? Unless he had actually seen Theon, it would require a good description from someone who had, like his brother Hother.
  • While we’re on the subject, why would Mors not just kill Theon there and then? If there was no political value to him then why let him slip through your fingers to Stannis?
  • It could lend more context to some of the cryptic nonsense in the letter Jon receives from Stannis, about “ironborn knights, captains, notable warriors, and others of high birth” being ransomed. Perhaps some sort of clue for the informed reader.

I won’t say much more, other than to point out that its quite interesting that the ONLY person at Stannis’s camp who is surprised to see Theon is Arnolf Karstark and the Dreadfort maester Tybald. Everyone else is completely non-plussed.

Even more curious is that Stannis’s first words to Theon are:

“Theon. My name is Theon.” He had to remember his name.

“I know your name. I know what you did.


It certainly makes you wonder if Mors knew about the survival of the Stark children, and told Stannis. Because otherwise there’s no significance to what Stannis said: everybody knows what Theon [supposedly] did. Why act like you’ve got the cutting, deep info from the restricted section if its common knowledge?

It’s also curious that JON IV is the first chapter where Stannis *doesn’t* ask/demand Jon to renounce his vows and become Lord of Winterfell. He states numerous times that he needs a Stark to help legitimize his northern affairs. Is it possible that he just learned of an alternative to Jon?

Anyways, just some things to tide people over while I work on my next essay. Hopefully this essay helped some people realize that Stannis is a straight-up schemer, or at the very least that Stannis probably realized certain things a lot sooner than it initially appears.

9 thoughts on “Let’s Have Some Fun: Another Approach to Stannis

  1. Sidhaarth

    Any chance Stan didn’t plan on taking the dreadfort but tested Jons partiality by making him suggest the hill tribes idea in response to having a bad Bolton affirming plan thrown on his face? After all he knows every house in westeros.

  2. Ryan

    Great to see you back at writing, spreading the good word of the Mannis. I really like your parallel of Horpe and Massey’s trip to Last Hearth vs. Davos’s trip to White Harbor. I think one of the reasons why the populace at large is so slow to realize just how dynamic an agent Stannis can be, is how he is presented at the beginning of ACOK, just sitting at the Painted Table and gnashing his teeth that supporters haven’t come out of the woodwork. Throughout ACOK he comes across as tone-deaf to messaging, unrealistically expectant of loyalty, and generally chaffed that the Realm is putting up so much resistance to acknowledging its One True King. The inflection point between this version of Stannis and the crafty SOB that emerges in ASOS/ADWD is unclear to me, maybe during his ruminations after the Blackwater debacle? My hope is that TWOW will show Stannis outmaneuvering proven plotters like Roose and Ramsay and prove to everyone what a devious player Stannis has been all along.

    And to anyone who doubts just how much of a survivor Stannis is, I would point out that he is the only principled member of the small council who survived the schemers.
    King Aerys: Betrayed by Pycelle
    Jon Arryn: Poisoned by Littlefinger, and betrayed by Pycelle
    King Robert: Baited into a drunken mortal pig-fight by the Lannisters
    Ned: Back-stabbed by Littlefinger
    Tyrion: Probably maimed, then framed for murder by Littlefinger
    Pycelle: Back-stabbed by Varys
    Kevan: Crossbowed by Varys
    Renly: Shadowed by Stannis and Mel

    1. cantuse Post author

      I agree. What I think is at issue is that Stannis is not the same person he was in ACOK. You have to remember that when he argued with Penrose, he already knew that Melisandre was gonna kill him. Stannis was trying to get Penrose to knock it off and stop it. This is very much like when Melisandre (obvious in hindsight) predicted that maester Cressen would try to kill her and thus no one invited him to the feast. Yet he showed up and tried to kill her anyway. You have to imagine from his perspective, he’s probably like ‘you people wouldn’t be dead if you’d just take me seriously!’ I think Stannis realized that he underestimated the subterfuge necessary to win: Tyrion’s chain, Littlefinger’s ride to Bitterbridge, etc. Stannis literally watched as magic (wildfire and the ghost of Renly) lost him the Blackwater. He had a decent plan with his diversion in the kings wood but it wasn’t enough. I think he learned not to rely on Melisandre’s sense of destiny, but that he still needs to capitalize on ‘magic’ to win. It is a funny thing, but when I compare Stannis to other fictional characters there’s really only two that come to mind: the magicians from The Prestige. I’m actually writing about that comparison in my essay about what I think will bring Stannis down.

  3. g0ld00

    Great to read you again after you told us about your health issues. As always, a joy to read your well researched essays.

    1. cantuse Post author

      Thanks. I’ve been stuck on a troublesome essay about Gregor Clegane, and then I’ve got a backlog of minor ‘north’ updates (Stannis, Mance, etc) to do.

  4. Bryan Taylor

    Everything that guy said about Stannis not fitting Grrm’s writing style is 100% correct, IF the Stannis story was too culminate with Stannis pulling off the upset as outlined in the Manifesto. For the record I do believe things will play out just as you’ve described, give or take a few minor details, but the end of the Manifesto is not the end of the story for Stannis (unless he actually dies), and that’s why your critic could not be more wrong. The story, in a very Grrm style, is set up for Stannis to pull off the military version of the miracle on ice, only to have the world crash around him. This could happen many ways, but the version I see is one where despite achieving the impossible victory Stannis will still find that absolutely no one in the North will follow him. Stannis will find himself abandoned by everyone including Mel. He’ll then take his seat at the Nightfort, because there’s literally nowhere else to go, and we’ll finally see Stannis break, as we’ve been told time and time again would happen. Long story short Stannis will have only one card left to play, and play it he will. Stannis will embrace the cold magic, become the new Night’s King, and lead an army of Wights and White Walkers south against the Seven Kingdoms culminating in a final battle at the Trident. Obviously this is the condensed version but it’s rather obvious that Grrm has set up Stannis to always lose, even when he wins. He’s a man who will do the unthinkable when no other option remains, and feel justified in doing so. Why bother having him take the NF, or any other fort along the Wall, as his seat unless there’s significance behind it. Seriously, what could be more Grrm than that!

    1. arakchi

      I’m not so sure. Stannis rides with Northern Mountain clans, does win over Glovers and Mormonts, Umber delivered him Theon and Jayne, he was favored by the late Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Manderly delivers his intention to declare for Stannis. The North might not love him as they would a Stark, but they absolutely hate the Boltons.

  5. Bryan

    Wow, anyone that thinks Stannis won’t use deception, play the player, or any of that other drivel likely has only watched the show, but likes to brag about how he “read the books years ago”. It’s just such a ridiculous statement representing a complete lack of understanding of the simplest, uppermost layer, of an incredibly complex story they are simply not intelligent enough to understand. Ironic of course bc Stannis repeatedly demonstrates an awareness and understanding of human nature along with the ability to manipulate others by exploiting their individual nature on a level matched by few others, though even within the story very few would credit him with that ability, much like the author of the comment above. In simplest terms Tywin feared, or at least was extremely concerned about the prospect of Stannis as an opponent. There isn’t another character in the entire story that elicited that level of concern from Tywin, including The Young Wolf at the peak of his success.


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