Mothers in ASOIAF 1: Cersei & Catelyn

Mothers in A Song of Ice and Fire range from the overly loving to the point of smothering Lysa Tully Arryn, to the total narcissism of Cersei Lannister.

According to the Faith (itself representative of medieval Catholicism) and the medieval style gender-based roles for society, being a mother is the sole purpose of noble ladies. Breed and get out those heirs and spares, and raise them to be great lords and supple brides for other lords.

But what can we see in various mothers in ASOIAF? I might come back to this line of analysis in the future, but for now, have some thoughts on Cersei and Catelyn. Cersei’s is truncated a bit as I later adapted some of this for a more complex and nuanced analysis of Cersei herself, so bear with it…


Mother of Madness. Ah yes….

I think the question of when exactly Cersei really lost the plot is interesting. As awful as Joffrey was and as nasty as Cersei is, no mother deserves to have their child die in agony in their arms.

I’ve long held to the notion that Cersei has, or is meant to be representative of, narcissistic personality disorder. Using a quick google to find the list of DSM symptoms (probably taken from DSM-IV, not sure if DSM-V has updated these)

Stay tuned for a longer and more detailed analysis of how Cersei’s mental health impacts on her functioning in Westeros. For now, let’s focus on her mothering skills – or lack thereof!

Is she a good mother? Now, for this I’m ignoring show Cersei. The show has, for whatever reason, taken significant steps in Cersei’s characterisation to whitewash her character and make her more sympathetic, by inserting the firstborn boy that was Robert’s, and her behaviour to Tommen, Myrcella etc.

Book Cersei barely refers to her younger children except to ensure that they are accorded their appropriate honour in Winterfell, or to keep them away from Uncle Tyrion’s corrupting influence. Her whole focus is on Joffrey and his eventual succession to the Iron Throne as king. Her children are only as good as they are an extension of her: her role as Queen, her efforts to ensure that they were only Jaime’s children and as such the next generation of House Lannister etc.

So Tommen and Myrcella turned out pretty decent in spite of Cersei, not because of her. Thus the best reflection of Cersei’s parenting is Joffrey. Which… speaks volumes. Not very complimentary volumes!

She encourages Joffrey to be the spoilt brat king he becomes. And in the books, it is Cersei and not Joffrey who takes the steps of eliminating all of Robert’s known-bastards in King’s Landing with the infanticide carried out by the Gold Cloaks. We later discover in AFFC that this has much to do with her paranoia about an old prophecy delivered by a local witch in Lannisport, Maggy the Frog (or Maegi?)

As a child, Cersei was obsessed already with her delusions of grandeur. Encouraged by her father’s negotiations to present her as a future bride for Crown Prince Rhaegar, she firmly believes she should be Queen. Maggy confirmed she would be queen…. but was vague as to whose queen she would be! Maggy also confirmed in prophecy that her king would leave bastards everywhere, while she would bear three children – whose crowns would be gold, but so would be their shrouds. And then when Cersei has drowned herself in tears, a valonquar would wrap his hands around her throat and kill her himself.

Cersei being Cersei assumes that this “little brother”/valonquar will be Tyrion. Many fans, myself included, suspect that it will actually be Jaime – the father of her children, and her own younger twin.

Cersei tried to beat this prophecy by making golden Lannister lions to place upon the Baratheon-claimed Iron Throne, but has already lost her beloved Joffrey to poison. If the TV show is right, the odds are not looking good for Myrcella either. How much longer will Tommen, Slayer of Beets, last before he too gets a golden shroud?

So all up: Cersei is a terrible mother. A nasty person. An unwell person. The last one is not connected to the second, but influences her ability to be a good parent when she lacks treatment or support from others (or lacks the ability to take on board feedback from others!) Much like Lysa Tully Arryn, Cersei Lannister shielded her beloved heir and ensured that he turned out just like she wanted him to…. unfortunately for Westeros, that didn’t really equate to being the great King Cersei supposed Joffrey could be!


Catelyn is the opposite of Cersei. She takes huge steps to integrate with her husband’s family and customs, despite holding onto some Southron things, like her religion. She clearly and undeniably loves her children and is a good mother.

The only blemish on Catelyn’s record is a mother is her treatment of Jon.

Now, I am in the camp that Jon had a shit emotional time growing up, but not just because of Cat’s treatment. It’s mostly because of Westerosi society and norms around bastards. Plain version? Cat treated Jon as she was expected to treat him. That doesn’t make it nice, it doesn’t make it acceptable, but it does mean that the blame is not entirely on her. She is a creature of Westerosi norms and understanding about bastards.

I do think that there is evidence in the text of Cat fretting too much about Jon and his potential to rob Robb of his due as trueborn heir. To go through some examples and thrash things out…

Jon not being allowed to sit with the rest of the family when Robert is at Winterfell and the feast is on.

Yeah, I can see why Jon is put out by this, particularly as he ordinarily dines with the family even on feasts, and Theon (who is a hostage, remember!) is allowed to dine with the family. Particularly grating to Jon is that Theon, the hostage, is not only allowed on the royal dais but he is allowed to dress the part and effectively be a noble representative or envoy of House Greyjoy and the Iron Islands to the royal guests, despite his hostage status. I can see why that burns Jon. Technically, Theon is lower down the pecking order within Winterfell than Jon (loved although bastard son beats hostage) but within the broader context of Westerosi society… not so much.

However, this is not just Cat not wanting Jon near the king for personal reasons. It’s logical and justifiable within Westerosi social norms to not want to offend royal visitors, especially in times of absolute power, with bastard children at the high table. Also, assuming R+L=J, the last thing that Ned would want is to put Rhaegar and Lyanna’s son near Robert who is steadily getting shitfaced drunk.

So while Jon is entitled to be angry about his place in the world at this instance, it isn’t about Cat abusing him. She’s merely insisting upon an unfair social standard, as is expected of a lady of a Great House trained in social arts and standards.

Cat’s outburst at Jon when he comes to say farewell to Bran, and his subsequent discussion with Robb

This is often brought up by those who believe that Cat abused Jon as evidence of that fact. It is and it isn’t.

This is a tense scene. Cat is finally getting what she wants (Jon is leaving Winterfell for good, and will never again pose a threat to Robb and his role as Ned Stark’s heir) but at the same time she is dealing with an awful tragedy – Bran’s fall, paraplegia and current coma. Jon is upset about his role in society as a bastard, and rightly feels that Cat has pushed him out of his home (remember: Cat and Ned’s discussion about the children, all of them, when deciding Ned will go to King’s Landing as Hand of the King. She makes it clear: Jon does not go south and he does not stay in Winterfell. She forces Ned to either find alternate accommodations for Jon, or to assent to his request to join the Night’s Watch despite only being 14.)

Is Cat being a total and unreasonable bitch here? Yes and no.

Yes, it’s unreasonable and bitchy to force a young man from the only home he’s ever known at the age of 14. And it’s particularly unreasonable to do that because of an unsubstantiated belief that he poses a threat to your children despite all of his behaviour to the contrary.

But no, in a medieval setting where 15/16 is more or less adulthood, it’s not unreasonable to demand that the bastard be sent off to learn a trade or something that will enable him to make his own way in the world.

Cat doesn’t demand that Jon go to the Night’s Watch. She just demands that he does not get the privilege of going to live in the royal palace (something Ned is unlikely to want anyway assuming R+L=J is true!) and demands that he does not stay in Winterfell. The first bit is reasonable, in the context of nobility and all that crap, but the last bit is less reasonable. She’s being emotional and manipulative here – she doesn’t want Jon around, even though there could be legitimate options for him there in Winterfell that don’t involve him being the threat she supposes he is to Robb’s future.

What were Jon’s options in Winterfell? He never showed any desires on Robb’s role as heir to Winterfell and all its titles, except his childhood slip of the tongue during a game that had been played many times. Since he has been old enough to understand what it means to be a bastard, he has known that his role in life is to support his siblings and be part of the Winterfell household staff in some way. We see this in the way Jon conducts himself when he, Robb, Theon and Bran accompany Ned to the execution of Will, the Night’s Watch deserter from the AGOT prologue. Jon, like Theon, acts like a member of the Stark household guard, protecting Robb and Bran, and acting as their steward. He doesn’t advertise that he is family, except to quietly whisper some encouragement to Bran during the latter’s first experience of an execution (not unreasonable.) And when they find the direwolves, Jon explicitly doesn’t count himself as a Stark child so that the initial wolves make the correct number. While he later finds Ghost, the albino runt of the litter, which I’m sure Cat interpreted as Jon being included in the Stark kids, Jon very clearly differentiates himself from the Starks during the direwolf encounter. He knows his place – and it is not as a Stark.

So Jon could have been part of Winterfell’s guard, along with Jory Cassell etc. Robb and Ned would have most likely been delighted at this option (unless Ned always wanted Jon to go to the Night’s Watch in order to keep him “safe” from any claims to the Iron Throne as Rhaegar’s son…) Imagine Robb’s war if he had his trusted bastard brother beside him, two direwolves instead of just one leaping onto the throats of their enemies?

Where Cat is unreasonable is that this quite reasonable option, where Jon clearly and demonstrably has no pathway to any lordship in Winterfell or the North, is not enough for her. She needs Jon out of Winterfell altogether. She needs Jon gone to where she cannot see him again.

This is all about her emotions and her underlying concerns about what Jon represents. She verbalises this as fearing that Jon will try to usurp his trueborn siblings, and refers to historical examples of this occurring to justify that belief. However, Jon himself shows no ambition to anything but being part of Winterfell’s guard as far as I can tell from Jon’s early chapters, or even his later reflections on his life after he joins the Night’s Watch. He daydreams of maybe being given some lands somewhere in the North and being allowed to start a cadet branch of House Stark, much like the Karstarks did, but acknowledges that this vague hope is only possible because Ned shows an unusual level of affection for him compared to other bastards in Westeros. There’s no evidence that Jon has ever voiced that daydream, or expects it to come true. It’s a daydream, nothing more. As far as we can tell, growing up in Winterfell Jon expected to either join the Night’s Watch or Winterfell’s guard. That was the extent of his aspirations within Winterfell.

Cat has no evidence from Jon’s behaviour to suspect that he aims “higher” than he should. But she maintains irrationally that he is a threat, and behaves accordingly. Jon is basically her blind spot, because he represents Ned being unfaithful. This isn’t just about an emotional reaction to Ned’s supposed cheating, it’s about prestige and social position too. Cat feels ashamed that Ned cheated, based on her teachings about the role of a wife and woman in the Faith (which are pretty awful and misogynistic – a husband cheats and it’s the wife’s fault? Ugh.)

These unpleasant aspects of Cat’s character are more about her religious and cultural upbringing than they are about her personality per se.

And now we get to the famous freak out by Cat at Jon over Bran’s bed…. I think it’s fair to say that this is where Cat’s true thoughts about Jon revealed through the horrible mix of grief, stress and no sleep. All her filters are off and she lashes out. I also think it’s not indicative of what Cat would normally say to Jon – we can see throughout Cat’s POV chapters that there is a big gulf between the diplomatic and calm things she says to people compared to her inner thoughts, which are less edited or often more emotional. So this outburst is what she often thinks, but not what she would say or do.

However… that underlying attitude is concerning and no matter how it was filtered out in her behaviour as the children grew, Jon and his siblings know all too well that Catelyn does not like Jon, does not want Jon at Winterfell and would be much happier if he was far, far away and out of mind, given that she can’t hope to have him not born at all! Anyone can think that they are being fair and balanced, but still have evidence of their inner biases be displayed in their non verbal cues – their tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and so on. These are all still clear communication to others about what you think about the person you are trying to ignore. Even ignoring Jon is a telltale sign to the other children: don’t engage with him. Don’t think of him as your brother. He is not one of us. He is not a Stark.

But what was telling for me in Jon II when Jon and Robb say their farewells in the yard was the boys’ reaction to Cat’s outburst. Jon doesn’t trust himself to speak (because he’s justifiably angry, but doesn’t want to bitch about the Lady of the house to her son, or within the hearing of household staff), and Robb infers from his brother’s silence and strained look at Cat wasn’t that diplomatic, and then tries to come up with excuses for his mother’s behaviour. It’s that last bit that makes me go “hmmm….” and consider what this means for their childhood.

I work in criminal and community law, so have seen a lot of dysfunctional families and people in a professional context. To me, the fact that Robb immediately tries to come up with excuses for Cat’s behaviour and reassure his brother that she didn’t really mean it raises some pretty big red flags.

It suggests to me that this is not the first time Cat has lost her shit at Jon, nor is it the first time that Jon has been made to feel unwelcome at Winterfell in general (by people other than just Cat I mean – but they would take their lead from their social framework, which condemns bastards, and their Lady’s reactions, and she clearly hates the kid)

Robb is all too quick to make excuses for his mother’s behaviour, which suggests he has done this a lot in the past. This suggests that no matter how much less emotional or loud Cat’s disapproval of Jon might have been, it was always there. That’s a significant factor on a growing psyche!

Emotional or psychological abuse is recognised as family violence. So yes, to me Cat’s behaviour is abusive. Is it at the scale of the mother who pours boiling water over a child, causing burns, or whips them? No. But it is still abuse. It still has an effect on Jon – and we see that effect throughout the books. He has a chip on his shoulder about being a bastard. This comes partly from society, but who has been the vocalisation of society’s disapproval of bastards in his formative years? Cat. So it’s personal too.

Does that mean that Cat is an evil person comparable with Cersei? No.

But she isn’t a saint either. She a conflicted person. She is a loving mother to her trueborn children who also displays some horrible behaviour to Ned’s bastard son. She’s complicated. And her complication is not just about her personal views on Jon, but more about her religious views about husbands/wives/bastards and her social norm framework about bastards.

I really need to come back to those points about misogyny in ASOIAF and the Faith later on… future blog post there!

11 thoughts on “Mothers in ASOIAF 1: Cersei & Catelyn

  1. I blame Ned a lot more than Cat… How damn hard would it be to say, “look, his mother died, and I promised to take care of him, but it’s been a rough year, so please don’t ask me to talk about it.”

    And he could have easily said something like that to Jon too.

    But here’s another link between Ned and Sansa: serious repression about unpleasant thoughts…


  2. JJ says:

    I just checked Jon || and honestly I don’t see what you’re talking about in your last point. Robb doesn’t make any excuses, much less quickly. On the contrary, he BELIEVES Jon that his mother was very kind.


    1. LadyKnitsALot says:

      My interpretation of that scene is that Robb realises that his mother has not been kind, and instantly leaps to find excuses as to her behaviour. This kind of behaviour is sadly typical of children who have experienced family violence to some extent or another – abusive behaviour becomes normalised, and part of the normalisation process is finding ways to explain and contextualise the behaviour.

      but YMMV. I acknowledge that Cat’s treatment of Jon is a contentious issue – mainly, I think, because our community doesn’t understand that family violence is more than just physical or sexual abuse.


      1. JJ says:

        Alright, here’s the passage:

        “Uncle Benjen is looking for you,” he told Jon. “He wanted to be gone an hour ago.”
        “I know,” Jon said. “Soon.” He looked around at all the noise and confusion. “Leaving is harder
        than I thought.”
        “For me too,” Robb said. He had snow in his hair, melting from the heat of his body. “Did you
        see him?”
        Jon nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
        “He’s not going to die,” Robb said. “I know it.”
        “You Starks are hard to kill,” Jon agreed. His voice was flat and tired. The visit had taken all
        the strength from him.
        Robb knew something was wrong. “My mother… “
        “She was… very kind,” Jon told him.
        Robb looked relieved. “Good.” He smiled. “The next time I see you, you’ll be all in black.”
        Jon forced himself to smile back. “It was always my color. How long do you think it will be?”
        “Soon enough,” Robb promised. He pulled Jon to him and embraced him fiercely. “Farewell,
        Jon hugged him back. “And you, Stark. Take care of Bran.”
        “I will.” They broke apart and looked at each other awkwardly. “Uncle Benjen said to send you
        to the stables if I saw you,” Robb finally said.
        “I have one more farewell to make,” Jon told him.
        “Then I haven’t seen you,” Robb replied.

        Jon says she was very kind, and Robb looks relieved. Neither of them mentions her again. Where’re the excuses?


      2. LadyKnitsALot says:

        Thanks for that. Obviously I misremembered – definitely time for a re-read. (Hard to find the time for it with postgrad study…)

        But the fact that Robb is relieved that his mother was “… very kind” still proves my point. He was expecting something else. He was expecting what we know to be the truth – he knew that Cat disliked Jon to the point of being emotionally abusive.


      3. JJ says:

        Robb asks if there was a problem, which means there have been instances of tension before, but then believes Jon’s lie, which means there haven’t been that many. Even if there were, I doubt Robb would go for defending his mother, because Robb would know that Jon knows what she truly feels, and that he can’t BS Jon into believing she doesn’t hate him that much or that things are going to get better eventually. Just wanted to clear that up.

        And indeed family violence is not just physical, but then again, what parent hasn’t caused any psychological damage on their kid unwillingly, be it insecurities, fears, anxieties about success in life, relationships and whathaveyou? Neglecting them because of work, spoiling them, it’s easy to do harm even when you mean good. Though in this case, I’d argue that it can’t even be called family violence because Jon would and should not consider her his mother – she’s just a person closely related to his siblings and hates him. He doesn’t need to associate himself with her or think about her that much, just don’t get in her way, and for the most part, that’s what he seems to be doing – he spends time with the people in the castle that don’t treat him as human trash, which thankfully are the majority in Winterfell. To my knowledge he also understands most of the reasons she hates him – she perceives him as a threat to her children in the line of succession, but given that he shows no interest in inheriting anything, he can see how misguided her reasons are. Sure it hurts to be treated badly, but I think he understands that he’s not to blame for anything, therefore he’s not as hurt as he could be by her bad treatment.


      4. LadyKnitsALot says:

        Speaking as a criminal lawyer who has spent many years working with cases involving family violence (both in criminal cases where the accused’s offences related to family violence, and in civil cases under the intervention order system appearing for applicants seeking protection and respondents objecting to the orders) Cat’s treatment of Jon **that we see on paper** amounts to abuse.


  3. Jade says:

    Awesome article, and I’m glad you recognize that abuse doesn’t have to be physical or overt to be abuse. Would you class Theon’s treatment as abuse too?


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