Apr 4 2011 9:00am

The Women in Game of Thrones: Catelyn Stark

Catelyn Stark in Game of ThronesNo, Game Of Thrones is not a romance. Not in the traditional sense, certainly. But hear me out: George R.R. Martin's series is full of relationships, and the loyalty or treachery associated with each of them propels each and every action occuring within the pages—and will soon do the same on the small screen (for an in-depth read of the books themselves, visit our sister site,, for their Game of Thrones series). HBO debuts its miniseries version of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones on April 17th (and they showed a 15-minute preview last night!), and this seemed like the perfect time to take a look at the women behind the Thrones, so to speak, starting with the driving matriarch of the series, Catelyn Stark.

Eddard Stark had married her in Brandon’s place, as custom decreed, but the shadow of his dead brother still lay between them, as did the other, the shadow of the woman he would not name, the woman who had borne him his bastard son.

Catelyn Tully Stark feels slightly off balance, always slightly out of place, throughout Game of Thrones. She enters the book seeking out her husband in a place that was still unfamiliar to her, even though she has lived there for fifteen years. As she walks, her thoughts are on the differences between where she grew up, and the place she now calls home. The religious differences that separate her from her husband. And, despite all of their differences, their marriage has grown from an arrangement into one of love. And, perhaps more importantly, of respect.

It is that respect that makes Eddard send his bastard son, Jon Snow, to lifelong service on the Wall rather than let him stay with his half-brother at Winterfell. Surely, as Lord of Winterfell, he could have insisted that Jon be allowed to stay with his brother Robb. The two of them were, after all, very close. Robb certainly would not have sent him away. But it was Ned’s respect for Catelyn that ultimately made him agree to her demands that Jon leave.

At the beginning of the book, when one of the younger Stark children is injured, Catelyn’s breakdown is complete and spectacular. She, literally, cannot function other than to sit at her son’s bedside. It is almost stereotypical “motherhood” at its worst. Yes, there are other children who need her. Yes, she has an estate (the stores of which are nearly decimated after a royal visit) to run in her husband’s absence, but none of that matters to her. Her own well being doesn’t even matter to her. It isn’t until things go from bad to unbelievably worse that she snaps out of her reverie, going to nearly the opposite extreme.

Catelyn becomes emphatic about protecting her family from all enemies (foreign and domestic), which sends her out on a quest of her own. The idea of a woman, especially a highborn noble mother, striking out on her own to thwart plots and engaging the political landscape more directly, is very unusual. Catelyn is often contrasted with Cersei Lannister, almost by default. Cersei's political machinations drive much of Martin’s Game of Thrones, without a doubt. But Catelyn’s political astuteness and her own attempt to shape political and military circumstances in her favor, are equally impressive. For all of the men playing the game of thrones, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the women move their share of pieces across the board. By the end of the book, however, time, tiredness and tragedy have taken their toll on Catelyn Tully Stark. The war is only beginning, literally, but she is tired of fighting.

Again, the shouting began. Catelyn sat despairing. She had come so close, she thought. They had almost listened, almost…but the moment was gone. There would be no peace, no chance to heal, no safety. She looked at her son, watching him as he listened to the lords debate, frowning, troubled, yet wedded to his war. He had pledged himself to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, but she saw his true bride plain before her now: the sword he had laid on the table.

What had spurred her to action was her attempt to protect her family and, in the end, she saw it all come apart, her efforts unsuccessful. At the end of the book, Catelyn wants nothing more than to try and gather up the remaining pieces to Winterfell and be done with it. Instead, Winter came—and all too soon.


Robin Bradford is a lawyer, a librarian and, most importantly, a longtime lover of words. You can check her out on Twitter @tuphlos, On Unpaged, or read the backlist at Obiter Dictum.

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Regina Thorne
1. reginathorn
YAY! So exciting to see "Game of Thrones" content here at H&H! I love Catelyn - she's one of my favorite characters in the series, and one of the reasons I love her is because she's not the "warrior" woman that so many of the other female characters are. (I love them too, but they seem a much more common occurrence in fantasy fiction.)

The one thing I'd disagree with is this:

It is that respect that makes Eddard send his bastard son, Jon Snow, to lifelong service on the Wall rather than let him stay with his half-brother at Winterfell.

I think Catelyn (and I) feel that if Ned really respected her, he'd never have raised his bastard son right there at Winterfell, contrary to what every other noble lord with a bastard seems to have done (fostered them out somewhere else, or not cared about them at all.) Ned basically creates a situation that makes Cat and Jon very uncomfortable, and although he has his reasons, I think Cat feels this fundamental disrespect of her (and of her own children, in a way) quite sharply, which is why, when Ned refuses to take Jon with him, she is very much in favor of the Night's Watch solution. But it's clear that no matter what Cat wants in connection with Jon, Ned will do what he thinks is best, regardless of her feelings.
Nita Gill
2. gillnit
Great analysis of Catelyn. She is not my favorite female character from the Game of Thrones series (mine is her daughter Arya), but I look forward to seeing how her loyalty and desperation are portrayed in the tv show.
3. ksb36
Interestingly, Jennifer Ehle was originally supposed to play this part. She even filmed scenes, but somewhere along the process, she and the producers had a parting of the ways. I would love to know the real story. As far as the book...I admit, I am having a hard time getting into it.
Robin Bradford
4. RobinBradford
@reginathorn oh, i can definitely see how she might think that. I'm not much of a Cat fan because of her treatment of Jon, so the author is biased as well. :-) But I think that if Ned were that kind of person (to treat his bastards the way, say, Robert did) then he wouldn't be Ned. And Ned is who she loves.

That mistake already made, I think it is his respect for Cat that makes him send Jon away. After all, he wanted Jon to stay with Robb, but she wasn't having any of that. He abided by her wishes.
Robin Bradford
5. RobinBradford
@ksb36 Where are you in the book? It takes a few chapters to get into it, but once the action starts moving, it moves fast. Once you get through the "getting to know you" stuff. :)
A.J. Wilson
6. AJWilson
I am eager to see the show, but I'm not sure I can wait. I think I'll have to buy the books!!! Mmm, interesting, this bit about Cat and Ned? Eddard, I assume ... Was Jon, the bastard son born before or after their marriage? I suppose that would influence what I'm about to say next. As a parent, I'm not sure I could send my child away - I know, very modern of me, yet already I'm inclined to dislike Cat.

Going to get the book, Robin!
Robin Bradford
7. RobinBradford
@AJWilson I can't believe I'm about to stick up for Catelyn but.....

Jon was "conceived" after they were married, yes. he was away fighting a war or some know how boys are. :-) So, yes, she certainly has every reason to be resentful of not only the fact that Jon exists at all, but of how Ned/Eddard has treated him; as if he were a legitimate son. And Ned is leaving to go serve the King, and Catelyn said your son can't stay here. Time for him to go. So, there were understandable circumstances. wasn't like Jon was done any favors being sent to the Wall. Yeah, I still have Cat bitterness.
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