Saturday, March 10, 2012

Think Like a Villain: An Apologia for Roose Bolton (ASOIAF SPOILERS)

In one of the writing books I've read, there's the maxim, "everyone is the hero of their own story."  That's a good thing to keep in mind, especially in our day and age of moral ambiguity being the "in thing."

So here's the side of the story of one Roose Bolton as a lesson in writing things from the villain's perspective.  Epic spoilers for the later books of A Song of Ice and Fire abound.  I've only read the first two books, but I have hung around the forums and the ASOIAF Wiki alot, so I know what generally happens.  All the errors are my own.

In ASOIAF, Roose Bolton is one of Robb Stark's nobles and the commander of his infantry forces in the War of the Five Kings.  However, despite Robb's early victories over the Lannisters, things start to go wrong.

*Robb sends his friend (and diplomatic hostage) Theon Greyjoy home to the Iron Islands to negotiate an alliance with the Ironborn to attack Lannisport and the Lannister capital of Casterly Rock.  The Ironmen instead invade the North, cutting the northern armies' supply lines.  This culminates in the occupation of the Northern capital of Winterfell by the Ironborn and the apparent death of the younger Stark sons Bran and Rickon.  Rather than "King of the North," Robb becomes known as "the king who lost the North."

*Robb breaks a promise to marry the daughter of Lord Walder Frey to marry Jeyne Westerling, who "comforted" him (with sex) after he learned of his younger brothers' apparent deaths resulting from his own folly.  Lord Frey, who is a tad bit PO'd about the whole situation, withdraws his 4,000 soldiers back to his own lands.

*The Lannisters form an alliance with the Tyrells, who had previously supported another claimant to the Iron Throne, and the combined Lannister-Tyrell armies break the armies of Stannis Baratheon when he invades the capital of King's Landing.  The combined Lannister-Tyrell host outnumbers the North-Riverlands host substantially.

*Lady Catelyn Stark unilaterally frees Jaime Lannister, Lord Tywin Lannister's son and the Northern host's biggest diplomatic hostage.  Lord Karstark, whose sons Jaime had killed in battle, proceeds to kill two Lannister POWs in revenge.  Robb forgives his mother, but cuts off the head of Lord Karstark with his own hands.  The Karstark army abandons Robb's.

Roose Bolton now finds himself in a pickle.  Retaking the North either involves forcing Ironborn-held Moat Cailin, which would be a bloodbath, or slogging back through the dangerous swamps of the Neck, which also will be problematic.  And if returning North isn't possible, the combined army will be trapped south of the Neck with the huge Lannister-Tyrell host heading their way.

Luckily Tywin Lannister has a philosophy of destroying those who will not kneel, but if a man does kneel, help him up.  After making a secret deal with the Lannisters, Bolton begins subtly sabotaging the war effort, deliberately expending the troops of nobles he knows will never support him while husbanding his own forces.  Meanwhile, his bastard son Ramsay and soldiers from his home castle attack Stark soldiers and the Ironborn both at Winterfell and sack the castle, with him successfully casting the blame on the Ironborn.  His treachery ultimately culminates in the atrocity known as The Red Wedding in which he personally kills Robb.

Afterward, Bolton is named Warden of the North, the honor formerly held by the Starks.  Ramsay Bolton approaches Moat Cailin from the less-defendable northern side and forces the Ironborn garrison (which he proceeds to flay alive en masse) to surrender, allowing the forces of the Boltons and some of the Northern nobles who have gone over to him (such as the Karstarks) to return home.  Bolton also has a false Arya Stark, whom he marries to Ramsay in order to secure his hold over Winterfell.

Based on what I've heard about events in A Dance With Dragons, it seems his hold over the North is rather shaky and a lot of people on the ASOIAF forums are convinced he's doomed.

However, based on events in the story, one can make a good case in Bolton's defense.

*Robb Stark went to war to rescue his father and sisters from the Lannisters, but Ned Stark was ultimately executed and he refused to trade Jaime Lannister for his sisters in an arrangement that could end the war immediately.  Instead, pushed  by his nobles, he attempted to create a new secessionist state that, due to the inclusion of the Riverlands, would be extremely hard to defend. 

Some people online have said he should not have dragged the commoners off to war to save a few members of his own family.  Although one could claim moral imperative for rescuing Ned, who has given the people of the North justice for many years, continuing the fighting when it could be ended quickly is not good for the ordinary people.  Furthermore, at the end of A Game of Thrones, the whole "King in the North" thing is driven by the Northern nobles' pride and xenophobia--they refuse to bow to the vicious boy-king who murdered Ned and said king's Lannister backers and declare the people of the south, ignorant of the North, should no longer rule them.

*Robb, though victorious in every battle, makes some very bad decisions that when combined with the Lannister-Tyrell alliance appear to doom the northern cause.  As far as the Northern common-folk are concerned, the worst of these is the Ironborn situation.  The Ironborn culture denigrates doing honest work and glorifies raiding and conquering/ruling others, and (I've heard) King Balon Greyjoy declares he's going to make all the commoners in the North thralls and saltwives (forced laborers and concubines).  Although some Ironborn commanders are less cruel than others (Asha Greyjoy being one of the better ones), something tells me their occupation isn't going to be a kind one.

*Thus, one can defend Roose's actions by saying he attempted to put an end to the war and the stupid "Kingdom of the North and the Trident" adventure as quickly and decisively as possible and bring the troops home to deal with more immediate problems (the Ironborn) rather than foreign adventures.  And although Roose is nasty when he needs to be, his maxim of "a quiet land, a quiet people" means that his rule is for the most part not abusive and cruel.

(I say "for the most part" because the reason Ramsay exists is that Roose claimed the right of First Night with his mother.  That, and he allows Ramsay to terrorize people.  However, Ramsay's cruelty is likely restricted to the area around the Dreadfort and most people in the North would have little reason to fear a Roose-Ramsay regime.  And then there's the theory Roose tolerates Ramsay only to use him as a deniable weapon and will dispose of him when his children with his new Frey wife are old enough or Ramsay has impregnated the fake Arya, which means the Westerosi version of Uday Hussein is not going to be a problem in the long run.)

Okay, now I'm done reciting the plot of ASOIAF.  My point is that if you want a complex story, the best villainous actions are ones that make sense and are even morally defensible, even if they're done for the wrong reasons.

(Roose is more concerned with saving his own skin and advancing his own position--I doubt he's seriously that concerned about Northern peasants being preyed on by the Ironborn.)


  1. your 95% right about roose bolton. he try to to follow robb but king robb kept making mistakes. if ned stark was ask by his nobles to become king he would've said no that by right it was stannis that has to be king but robb being young jump at the first chance to be king. the 5% that you're wrong is that bolton didnt have to go out his way and personally kill robb himself. if he stood back from the red wedding and let frey do all the dirty work he could've control the north more by blaming the freys for being traitors and he had no choice but to join tywin to save the north from ironborn.

  2. Thank you for your comment. About killing Robb himself, I've seen someone online saying that Roose is following the customs of the First Men/North here--he's doing his own killing, like Ned with the deserter. That actually makes him look *better.*

    ("Jaime Lannister sends his regards" seems to be a bit too gleeful, but on the other hand, someone online said he was deliberately implicating Jaime in the Red Wedding for political reasons.)

    Fair point that overmuch association with the Freys is going to cost him, especially if someone spills the beans that Roose was there and he did it.