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In Defense of Catelyn Stark

Catelyn Stark is one of the few voices of reason in A Song of Ice and Fire, but she is repeatedly ignored, because she is a mother, and because she is a woman. Although, like every other character in the series, she is fallible (trusting Littlefinger, for example), her advice is generally sound. She has lived through one bloody war and lost people she cared about as a result. She does not want to live through another one and lose all her family. And so she alone, out of all the main characters, speaks out against war and vengeance. She understands that further death and destruction will not bring back the people they have lost. More than anything, she wants peace. She warns Renly that his men are the “knights of summer,” playing at war with no understanding of its reality. She combines experience with wisdom, and many of the terrible situations in the books could have been avoided if people listened to warnings.

But they don’t. Because she is a woman, and because she is a mother. Because, as a mother, she is dismissed as too soft-hearted, too concerned with protecting her children to understand the true nature of war. Because, as Robb‘s mother, heeding her words would be seen as weakness.

 And I think many readers have a similar reaction to her. Catelyn Stark, like everyone else in the series, is imperfect. Unlike any other “good” character, however, she is an imperfect mother, and it is this flaw that inspires so much vitriol against her. Catelyn is too much of a stereotypical mother, putting the welfare of her children above other concerns. Yet she is also not enough of a stereotypical mother figure, as she has her own prejudices and weakness. She is not always nurturing and accepting of others, and she chooses to involve herself in the war instead of waiting at home with her youngest children. And that, it seems, is unacceptable.

Some readers criticize Catelyn for involving herself in the war instead of returning to Winterfell to care for Bran and the increasingly feral Rickon. They argue that Catelyn should have hurried back home as soon as she learned that Bran was awake. They blame the disaster at Winterfell on Catelyn, even though Catelyn explicitly warned Robb against sending Theon as his envoy, because she should have been present to nurture and protect her children.

Except Catelyn did dedicate herself entirely to Bran, for two weeks. She sat by his bedside, refusing to eat or sleep, completely lost in grief as she willed him to recover. And her presence saved his life from the assassin. But the assassin attack also wakes Catelyn up from her grief and makes her realize that she cannot help Bran by grieving at his bedside. She must warn Ned about the attack, and later, she must help Robb succeed in his war. As far as Catelyn knows, Bran and Rickon are safe in Winterfell under the care of Maester Luwin. They will not be attacked or put at risk unless Robb loses the war. And so her biggest concern is offering Robb, the young king with no experience of leadership or war, her advice and support. By staying by Robb’s side, by working as envoy to Renly, she is actively protecting all of her family. And through her efforts to end the war, she is actively trying to protect everyone she encounters.

Catelyn is also despised for her treatment of Jon, for telling him that he should have fallen from the tower instead of Bran. It’s a shocking thing to say, but Catelyn is lost in grief for her son at the time. As a general rule, she is not cruel to Jon. She allows him to live in Winterfell, allows him to form close friendships with her own children, and generally allows him to be treated like any of the Starks in the castle. She resents him, because he is living, breathing proof of her husband’s infidelity, walking around right under her nose, looking more like her husband than any of her own children, but she does not treat him with anything worse than indifference, except after two weeks of sleeplessness and grief.

The strongest and strangest criticism of Catelyn, however, is what she does after she leaves Bran and travels to King’s Landing. Although the above instances criticize Catelyn for not being enough of a caring mother, Catelyn’s dealings with Tyrion Lannister are criticized because Catelyn is too much of a mother, putting concern for her family above reason. Despite the fact that one of the series’ major themes is that all events are interconnected, and no single action or individual is completely responsible for anything as complicated as a war, many people claim that Catelyn is responsible for the start of the war because she believes Littlefinger’s lies and captured Tyrion.

But Catelyn does not choose to capture Tyrion. She aims to return to Winterfell unnoticed and attempts to hide from him when he enters the inn where she is staying. But once he does spot her, she has no choice but to take action. She believes that Tyrion is part of a plot against her family, and that if the Lannisters find out she visited King’s Landing, her husband and children will be at risk. What other choice does she have? She takes him to the Eyrie because she believes that her sister is trustworthy and has good reasons for suspecting the Lannisters of murder. Once she finds out how unhinged Lysa has become, she attempts to act as the voice of reason and protect Tyrion from Lysa’s bloodthirsty reaction, but it is too late for her to make a difference. Catelyn’s actions do prompt Jaime Lannister to attack Ned in the street and for Lannister men to start attacking the Riverlands. But the Lannisters were already spoiling for a fight. Lysa Arryn is partly responsible for lying to her sister. Littlefinger is definitely responsible by making Catelyn believe Tyrion attempted to murder her son. It is a complicated web, and Catelyn is only one imperfect actor inside it.

Finally, Catelyn is often criticized for releasing Jaime Lannister, again putting her motherly concerns over the practical considerations of war. Diplomatically and strategically, it doesn’t appear to be the best move (although, as the plot progresses, it actually turns out to be the best thing she could have done). But Catelyn was grieving for her children. Jaime’s release is not the move of a cold, calculating leader. But it is the act of a relatable human being, and I, at least, admire her for it.

As Brienne says, Catelyn has “a woman’s courage,” and a woman’s strength. As well as her intelligence and insight, Catelyn’s biggest strength is her ability to endure. Over the course of two books, she loses almost everything. Yet she keeps going. She keeps insisting that vengeance is misguided, that they should all hold on to what they have left, before nothing remains at all. And people keep ignoring her, because she is a mother, because she is too motivated by soft feminine emotions, and because she should stop invading in men’s space and return to her children. And so she stands relatively powerless, like Cassandra, warning everyone of their mistakes and watching, helpless, as they ignore her and she loses everything loves.

And all the while, readers criticize her for her mistakes. For being both too motherly and not motherly enough. For involving herself in events, and for daring to be a full and complex character, instead of simply a “mother.”

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

29 thoughts on “In Defense of Catelyn Stark

  1. Very nice article, I think the main reason I’m not the biggest fan of Catelyn is a chapter in ASOS where she criticises Edmure for expressing doubts about his marriage, then criticises Robb for considering Jon ahead of some far off relation in the Vale to become Lord of Winterfell. With Edmure he felt as though he was being punished for his error in engaging Tywin in battle and could have done without the perhaps uncalled for scolding she gave him. As for the issue of Robb’s will, both believed him to be Ned’s son (which may or may not be true) which would make him much more deserving of Winterfell should the worst happen to Robb before he has a son. Also you say releasing Jaime was the best thing Catelyn could have done as the plot progresses, not sure on that one?

    1. I think it’s important to note that after scolding Edmure, Cat regrets her rebuke. To quote from the book: “She regretted
      her rebuke. There was rain enough falling from the sky without her making more. And was it really such a terrible thing, to want a pretty wife? She remembered her own childish disappointment, the first time she had laid eyes on Eddard Stark.”

      As for the issue of Cat not supporting Robb’s decision to legitimize Jon, that textually has a lot to do with the Blackfyres. I mean, I’m sure her bitterness over how Ned handled the Jon situation factors into it. But there’s also the fact that Cat hasn’t given up hope that Arya and capable of inheriting. And if Jon is legitimized, then he can’t ever be UNlegitimized. And after the Tagaryen king legitimized HIS bastards, their descendants caused problems for generations. So even if Jon would never cause trouble for Robb if he were legitimized, there is no guarantee that in the future, Jon’s descendants wouldn’t create a problem for Robb’s descendants.

    2. She was super depressed at this time and she snapped at her brother for not being a team player, it’s not like she killed someone. Nobody asked Edmure to do anything that they don’t ask women like Catelyn to do without complaint ALL the time.

    3. Well, I don’t like Catelyn, but this passage where she rebukes Edmure is one of a few where I actually enjoyed her. She has listened to Edmure worrying about having an ugly bride for a time, and eventually she gets too annoyed by this and tells him the truth: that he should worry about having a wife that is “strong and healthy, with a good head and a loyal heart”, and reminds him that Cersei is beautiful, but not trustworthy. In a world that values women solely based on their appearance, she stands out by valuing women as individuals with a personality.

      1. She was right to rebuke him, but wrong in the way she did it. In this world, women are frequently married off to old and ugly men like Walder Frey and expected to be 100% faithful; having an extramarital affair with someone who actually arouses them would bring terrible repercussions down upon them if discovered, whereas with a man like Edmure, having a mistress on the side is tolerated as long as it’s discreet. His so-called “plight” was mild, in light of that.

        But Catelyn’s idea of what he should look for in a wife just amounts to qualities that make a good mother as opposed to a good lover. Since one must concede that the world of Westeros does not value women solely based on their appearance, but also on their ability to birth babies, I don’t really consider her thinking to be particularly earth-shattering.

        1. I don’t think those qualities are opposite to what makes a good lover. In fact, they seem quite compatible.

          A good head and loyal heart seem like things that would be excellent in a partner. Being strong and healthy seems valuable in a world where people’s lives are regularly ended prematurely by disease and malnutrition, even in peacetime.

          While Cat’s ideals surrounding motherhood are not “earth-shattering”, they demonstrate an understanding of how in this world, women could come into power and some freedoms through the route of motherhood. Cat noting the quality of Jeyne Westerling’s hips dwelled on the issue of childbirthing, but that’s because Jeyne was a queen; to protect her and to protect Robb was to produce an heir. Blood is an obsession of monarchies.

  2. I think what you’ve said about Catelyn is true. What I love about ASOIAF is what I love about all epics–the depiction of strong, yet falliable, and human, characters.

  3. I agree with all of Catelyn’s actions and I see how wise her decisions were. But I still despise her. I know I shouldn’t and I respect her actions and her counsel but it’s her treatment of Jon that irks me the most. Don’t get me wrong I UNDERSTAND why she acts that way but punishing the child for the parents mistakes is a hideous thing to do in my opinion. Although she is a wise woman and I like many of the things she does, I can not like her as a person because of the way she treats Jon and her coldness toward other bastards ( Mya Stone, after hearing she was a bastard she stiffened and became slightly colder).

    1. I love how you say that you “understand”, but the sad truth is that you do not understand Catelyn. Otherwise you would not be saying the things you say.

      You and many other fans have likened her treatment of Jon to abuse, but even in today’s society, that is better than how many children are treated. (In Westeros, Jon was treated quite well.)

      1. Neglect and indifference can be as damaging as other forms of abuse.
        Also, I’ve only read up to ACOK, but other than Arya, I find that most of the female characters and their chapters to be fairly boring and seem to serve as fillers since the women in them usually don’t DO much and rather are just spectators in a man’s world. Every time a chapter is titled Cat or Sansa this is what I’m thinking “Great…15-20 pages of reading where NOTHING interesting is gonna happen”. I’m honestly open to liking characters of either sex, but it just seems as though Cat and Sansa’s are poorly written or emotionally repetitive.

        1. Have you somehow forgotten that Catelyn was the one who won the alliance with the Freys? Not Robb, not any of his big, beefy bannerman, plain ol’ Catelyn Tully. It’s pretty clear that was a very good and important alliance until Robb shot it all to hell by marrying Jeyne Westerling. Later, in “A Clash of Kings”, Catelyn becomes a diplomat for Robb and tries to win Renly to their cause. So, while Catelyn may not be out there fighting people with a sword, saying she does nothing is one hell of a stretch.

          As for Sansa, she begs Joffrey to spare her father’s life, saves Ser Dontos, and then, during the Battle of the Blackwater, she’s the one who tries to calm all the other noblewomen down while Cersei just gets stinking drunk. Most importantly, though, Sansa manages to stay alive, even though she’s surrounded by her enemies.

        2. I try and skip through boring fight scenes were nobody really does anything but stick each other with sharp things.
          Give me Sansa and Catelyn over most of the male characters any day.

          1. AGREED. I found their chapters the most interesting. I have no problem with anyone being bored by these ladies, but I am getting SO SICK of the notion that their chapters are somehow objectively bad.

    2. Catelyn internally notes that Mya Stone’s dreams of marrying Mychel Redfort are probably just that – dreams. How in the hell does fandom translate that to “CATELYN HATES BASTARDS, OMG!!!”

    3. Let me start off by saying I haven’t read the books… but based on the show, I really really don’t like Catelyn… and before you say it has anything to do with her gender I’ll refer to something Twin said, “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman. I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

      Throughout the deteriorating situation for her family she constantly makes these rushes to judgement despite the fact that people close to her, who she should be considering the advice of, tell her exactly how it will (and inevitably does) go wrong.

      She’s the main reason Ned was ambushed in the streets of King’s Landing, she’s one of the main reasons Robb had dissent in his ranks and the only thing, in my opinion, she ever seems to contribute to her family’s efforts are to do what she wants, even if no one else agrees, simply because she’s convinced she’s right.

      If she behaved that way and it all worked out I would probably not care for her as a character, but wouldn’t dislike her to the degree I do… but if you look at all the Stark actions before, during and after the war i can’t think of any one individual who was more responsible for their overall defeat. Sure, maybe Theon was more directly responsible for the troubles in the north; maybe Robb killing Karstark or breaking his wedding pact were more directly responsible for the course of the war in the south; and maybe Ned telling Cersei he knew about her kids was more directly responsible for the succession crisis in the first place… but overall if you look at all of it I feel she’s been the single biggest contributor to their downfall and with most of it I think she could have or should have known better…

      1. they pretty much changed everything she did or suggested that was wise or the correct course in the books and made her do the opposite on the show. a good example is that in the book she is the one that realises, and argues for, the fact that ned has to accept the position of hand of the king and not just hope it all goes away, whereas in the show they “correct” her into the woman who is ruled by her emotions and politically unaware, because thats their idea of how a female character should have been written. so instead, she tries to get him to stay in winterfell because she will miss him. she also pretty much predicted, frequently if i remember right, the red wedding. or at least SOME form of explosive vengeance because she knew people and she did not believe frey to be honorable. she knew SOMETHING was coming, im surprised she didnt say “TOLD YOU” when it happened. its been a while since i read but i was surprised at her portrayal, because i remembered her being the voice of reason that was too often ignored. it seems like d+d choose their favourites and then actively change everything to make them the good guys and remove flaws (tyrion) or in this case characters they dont understand and dismiss as “nagging mum” stereotype. they dont realise that theyre literally having to change things around to make the truth into what they already think / want it to be. “cat? boring character/ dont like her. change shit around to make her more annoying, less intelligent, and remove likable qualities. also make tyrion best cleverest guy ever who can do no wrong and is just the BEST” “DONE”

  4. The reasons I dislike Catelyn Stark:

    1) You list good examples of her actions here (and I’ll admit, do do take issue with her treatment of Jon) and have good grounds to justify them. However, I always feel that they are forced. Her actions have made a huge difference in the Seven Kingdoms. There just seems to be a domino effect and I just don’t like it. In high school, I learned a complaint about Romeo and Juliet I still quote: It’s a weak tragedy because the character’s downfalls are not brought upon them by their own faults, but by coincidence. I feel like that with Catelyn moving the plot and other people have to deal with the repercussions. Too much coincidence is involved.

    2) Her POV chapters always feel like emotional blackmail to me. I really don’t like them.

    3) She hasn’t really grown as a character in my honest opinion. Sansa, I hated her at the end of the first book because of her actions such as lying about Nymeria and telling Cersei about Ned’s plan. In the second book, she had grown and lost some of that naive optimism she had. While I do seem glimpses of her old character (I’m only halfway done ASoS), I do see maturation in her character. At those times, I even begin to like her.

    Cat really hasn’t had that kind of evolution, focusing more on what is presently happening or on what she has lost. Her actions have hurt others, but she cares not for them. It’s all about her and her wants. Yeah, that’s human, but I don’t have to like a character because they are human.

  5. I love Catelyn but I’m also pretty realistic about her faults. She’s a terrific mother but like Sako said neglect and indifference and just as damaging as abuse. In the case of Jon, the fact that Catelyn could so easily turn off her nurturing and caring side and be so completely cold to boy she had lived with since he was an infant always rubbed me the wrong way. She completely rejected Jon because he didn’t fit into her view of a picturesque view of a family. Fifteen years is a long time to hold a grudge against someone for being born.

  6. Are you serious? Catelyn is one of my favorite characters! I’m male college student and every time I get to her chapters in the book, I start to actually focus. Catelyn is one of the best female characters in any book I’ve read. She reminds me of my own mother. She has more fans than you realize.

  7. I’ve always been intrigued by the hatred for Catelyn for being a poor mother in her “abusive” neglect of Jon. I don’t disagree at all that Catelyn is cold and even hateful to Jon. I’m not at all saying this is OK parenting, ever, much less just today.

    But this is ASOIAF we’re talking about. This is far, far from any of the worst examples of parenting in Westeros. If we can call Catelyn’s relationship with Jon “abuse”, what do we call Randyll Tarly’s dealings with Sam? Tywin Lannister and Tyrion? Balon Greyjoy and Theon? And what sort of father produces a son — even a bastard son — like Ramsay Bolton?

    Randyll, Balon, and Tywin … they all saw their dealings with their sons as rightful, and the prerogative of the father. They didn’t benefit from empathetic POV chapters … we were just told what they did, so we should feel angrier with them, shouldn’t we? They were beyond abuse, as outright monsters. But I seem to rarely hear of them.

    1. I would like to point out that the reason Cathelyn recieves critisism is exactly because she isn’t like Tarly and Tywin. She is a character who clearly states a will to do good, while the other characters you mention doesn’t want to be good parents. Her treatment of Jon is kind of a deviation of her character as a whole. It’s suprising and weird.

      I think Cathelyn is a very strong character, and it also clearly shows how limited a woman, no matter how strong she is, is in a world where women are considered trophies and political set pieces. But that doesn’t shield her for criticism.

  8. I’m re-reading this awesome article of yours, and wondering: do you have any other book to recommend with such interesting and complex characters who happen to be mothers?

    I love your blog because it changed my whole perspective on feminism, as far as fiction is concerned, and beyond that. All my life I wondered what it truly meant to be a “strong woman”, and I guess i was confused because pop culture makes us believe that you must be a tomboy for that (thanks for letting me discover the concept of Strong Female Character (TM)btw!).But I finally understood more thanks to your Sansa Stark articles!

    In my view, another problem is that Pop culture mostly offers stereotypical, bland and spineless mother figures, which I think is damaging, as I do believe that fiction has a huge influence on women’s self-perception.

    So I would have loved to read about interesting and powerful fictional characters who are mothers but still retain their personalities- you know, like Catelyn Stark 😉 Thanks in advance, and can’t wait to read more GOT articles! :)

      1. Thank you so much! <3 No books are coming to mind right now, but I'll peruse my bookshelf and put up a post next week asking if anyone else has any recommendations.

        Oh, I have one suggestion -- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It's about a woman who can't have children who moves to Alaska to start a new life with her husband, and ends up semi-adopting a young girl who lives wild in the forest. It's fairy-tale-esque, and a really pretty read.

  9. I understand why some people do not like Catelyn. If you’re more into the intrigue and violence, her chapters are not going to be too thrilling for you. It all comes down to a matter of personal taste. What I don’t understand is why so many people say that she is a bad character, simply because they don’t like her parts of the story. I feel like I’ve grown to love her more, because of all the negativity about her. In my opinion, she is a good mother but not a perfect one. She is intelligent, but has her own internal biases that sometimes effect her judgement. Catelyn just tries to what she feels is best for her family. And the more she loses that family, the more desperate she becomes which leads to some moments of irrationality. That doesn’t make her a bad person or a bad mother, it just makes her human. The POV chapter right after she learns about Bran and Rickon’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. In some ways it upsets me more than the Red Wedding (which by the way is also only so terrifying emotional because of Cat). Not liking Cat is fine. I just want fandom to stop trying to vilify her.

  10. I just want to say that Catelyn Tully Stark is my favorite character in the books. Although Brienne of Tarth, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen are close seconds, Catelyn reminded me of my mother far too much to not be my favorite. Her loyalty to her family, and her intelligence are hard to ignored. Knowing that she is not perfect, just makes her human. After I read the red wedding, i didn’t read the book for the better part of two weeks. I, however, do not like Lady Stoneheart. Although it is an interesting idea, I think that it is disrespectful to the character that Catelyn was.

  11. I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with this post. Catelyn has many fans, but that doesn’t prove anything. She is absolutely one of the worst players of the Game. People may like her for her motherly instincts, so do I. But that is by no means a defense to her bad decisions. If she hadn’t urged Ned to become the Hand, Stannis would likely have become Hand. Or even Renly. Neither of whom had great love for Lannisters and would be merciless with the truth. Her treatment of Jon was uncalled for. Jon could have been an ideal envoy instead of catelyn herself given his loyalty but no value as a baseborn hostage. Kidnapping tyrion was dumb as well. True, her disguised appearance would’ve derived suspicion in Kings Landing, but her actions ended up getting Ned injured anyway. Would probably have gotten her and tyrion by Shagga and co. It would be far safer to head to Riverrun under protection of Tully outriders. Moat cailin is nigh impenetrable. Especially with the enforced Glover garrison which also got delayed due to her shenanigans. Any able negotiator could’ve forged the Frey alliance. No reason to credit her at all for her work at bitterbridge. She failed there. Then comes truly the worst play in the entire series. Releasing Jaime. In one stroke she undermined her son’s authority, throws away the North’s most valuable hostage and releases one of the deadliest enemies to Robb. All for a promise that Tyrion, a man famed for his cunning and treachery (trying to free Jaime using those mummers and assassins), would return her daughters of no political or military value who may or may not be alive. In hindsight its also notable that holding Jaime hostage wouldn’t have resulted in the red wedding, given that the blackfish would have taken Jaime’s head off if it happened. Her one redeeming quality was telling Robb not to send Theon to Balon. This doesn’t even begin to exonerate her from the ridiculous amount of stupidity she committed and the trouble she made for the Starks and the realm as a whole. All because of her maternal instincts. Also, she simply proceeded to ignore Rick on for nearly a month and left Robb to rule Winterfell by himself. So yes, sorry but that makes her a terrible mother as well.

  12. you lost all credibility with me when you tried to defend her treatment of Jon Snow….she’s absolutely horrible to him, and always has been. It’s written plainly in multiple books. She’s a cruel person to blame Jon for Ned’s infidelity. It’s tantamount to Tywin blaming Tyrion for killing his wife during birth. Lame article

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