By Ken Mondschein
So, the Battle of Winterfell is won and lost, and the experts have voiced their opinion. Much like William Marshall biding his time before launching into the melee to steal everyone’s horses, here’s the post-game, Monday-morning quarterback explanation of everything that went wrong with the Battle of Winterfell from the guy who brought you Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War.
Worst use of cavalry since the Charge of the Light Brigade
Over at Slate, Robert Farley explains away what was perhaps the worst error of the battle as an intersection of the fog of war and Dothraki culture (even if watching their flaming swords go out was a sweet, if terrifying, visual). But the real purpose of light infantry is to harass the adversary, and the Dothraki knew that. You knew the Dead were on their way, and the Dothraki are the best horse-archers around. Give them some dragonglass arrows and have them harass the enemy column until they draw out a White Walker or undead giant… and hit it with a dragon.
Deny aid and comfort to the enemy
As Paul Sturtevant pointed out at The Public Medievalist (incidentally making every joke I thought of while watching the episode, so sorry if I repeat them), the Army of the Dead isn’t subject to the rules of Vegetian warfare since they don’t catch diseases and don’t need to resupply… unless replenishing their numbers from your own fallen. But dragonglass kills wights permanently. The question foremost in Jon Snow’s mind should have been, “Hey, how come Uncle Benjen wasn’t under the Night King’s command?” Answer: The Children of the Forest shoved a piece of dragonglass into him… as Bran knew well! A splinter of dragonglass under every living fighter’s skin might have kept them from being resurrected. Do the same to the Stark dead and avoid the whole Tales from the Crypt episode. Speaking of Bran…
Failure of intelligence
Why was Westros’ collective memory not supplying up-to-the minute info on the Night King’s whereabouts? Was he too busy being creepy and weird? Spying on his sister and Gendry? Also, Tormund and Beric were at Eastwatch when the Dead broke through. You knew they had an ice dragon. Plan for luring it in with your own dragons and hit it with dragonglass-tipped ballista bolts. Speaking of which…
Who the hell puts their artillery in front of their walls? As Sturtevant at Public Medievalist points out, those are pretty much your all-in-one solution to both White Walkers and undead monsters.
Don’t take the field
Sturtevant also points out that the defenders of Winterfell should have done the things real medieval people did in sieges: stay within the castle walls. (Meghan O’Keefe said the same thing over at Decider two weeks ago.) However, Farley asserts that the zombies could storm the battlements by making an (in)human pyramid, World War Z-style—as they indeed did. With Bran’s supposed foreknowledge of how the Dead fight, a better strategy—as anyone who’s ever played Boxhead: The Zombie Wars knows—would have been concentric rings of fire-trenches, with caltrops tipped by dragon glass in between. The living fall back as each circle is overwhelmed—but not before taking a heavy toll of the dead. Meanwhile, the Dothraki harass their flanks and rear and the dragon-riders pick off high-value targets. But, as O’Keefer points out, they ever bothered to form a coherent aerial combat strategy other than “strafe the dead.” But instead, they followed the Stark school of strategy: Do the most obvious and predictable thing.
But don’t despair, True Believers! George R.R. Martin has yet to write his version of the Battle of Winterfell… and he wouldn’t make these mistakes… or would he?
Grey Worm, for being the only protagonist to wear a freaking helmet; Lyanna Mormont for her Attack on Titan moment; Ser Friendzone for defending an area with a two-handed sword like the 17th century books say to; Arya for being a badass, though Summer Glau called and said she wanted her River-Tam-Killing-the-Reavers schtick back.
Theon fights like Naruto and then switches into pissed-off Forrest Gump mode with a charge at the Night King; that White Walker who didn’t notice Arya running by; the showrunners for not giving Joss Whedon writing credit for said River-Tam-Killing-the-Reavers schtick.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jamie Lannister (left) and Gwendoline Christie as Ser Brienne of Tarth, at the Battle of Winterfell. Photo: HBO / Helen Sloan.