Smoke on the Water

An analysis of the prospective Euron vs Redwyne Fleets in “The Winds of Winter”

The fan theorists have spoken; Euron is a diabolical magical third act villain and may be the greatest threat to Westeros. I must admit that when reading Asha’s, Damphair and Victarion’s  A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons  chapters, I found Euron to merely be  a manipulative politician with competent battlefield skills. As Euron sails out to meet the Redwyne fleet in “The Forsaken” I came to the realization that Euron was much more complex than my original conception of him — that Euron’s military strength may be metaphysical instead of conventional. While others have done excellent analysis of the Aeron’s dreams and the Lovecraftian themes that GRRM has tied to Euron; I believe that we can also look at the tactics Euron could use in his showdown with the Redwyne’s to anticipate that Euron is expecting more than a naval battle to occur on the Sunset Sea and that the rest of the Ironborn are in for a surprise.

Details of naval tactics in Planetos are scarce and if I had an opportunity to ask GRRM a question it would be “What are your sources and inspiration of naval warfare?” Naval tactics rely greatly on the ship (referred also as a platform) used and Planetos contains a variety of platforms that all must use specific tactics to guarantee victory. The dromonds of the Redwyne fleet and the longboats of the Iron Islands would use different tactics, and it’s my intent to discuss both the capabilities that these forces would bring to the battle and how the battle might play out.

The Great Dromonds

Both the Redwyne and Cersei’s Royal fleet contain “Great Dromonds” as described by GRRM in “So Spake Martin”

“For what it’s worth, however, [the Redwyne] ships would be larger and more formidable than the longships of the ironmen — cogs, carracks, and war galleys of various sides, up to the great dromonds with scorpions and catapults on deck.” 

While the details are slim on these “Great Dromonds” I expect that GRRM is referring to the Byzantine dromons and medieval war galleys. These ships used a combination of sail and rowing for propulsion which gave them a sprint capability of 10 knots and normal operating speed of around seven knots. Galleys were about 32 meters long with an elevated fighting platform for artillery fire such as long bow, catapults, or scorpion. While galley battle tactics varied over time, a consistent theme was that dromons would envelop the enemy with their superior handling and speed. Once a positional advantage was gained, the galley would use the elevated platform to assault the enemy with fire and artillery until the opponent was weakened to the point that a boarding party would cross to the enemy ship and take it by force. It is important to note that these ships are much smaller than the “ships of the line” that we see in the Game of Thrones “Blackwater” and “Winds of Winter” episodes that appeared to be more similar to 19th century sail and cannon frigates used by the American and British Navy.

The Byzantine dromons that were used up until the 16th century could have a complement of 300 rowers and 100 marines with the marines being a mix of armored boarders and archers. As naval architecture advanced these manning numbers increased as the ships grew in size.

Longships

Longships were the traditional Norse naval platform and describe different ship types that varied in length, width, complement, and mission. They are similar to galleys and in fact had some level of success against coastal defenses during the collapse of the Carolingian Empire but in general are smaller than galleys.

The ships that I expect that Euron is commanding on the Shield Islands would be based of the Skeid version of longships which were the primary Norse warship and measured 30 to 40 meters long with drafts of around 1 to 2 meters that could reach speeds of up to 15 knots. Longship tactics took advantage of their combination of speed and shallow draft; these factors allowed the Norse to raid up rivers such as the Seine and Volga during the 9th century Viking expansion.

We can see the same Norse tactics in the Ironborn’s attacks on the Reach in A Feast for Crows, when the Ironborn begin to raid up the Mander. Longships were built to covertly operate in a littoral (less than 200 feet water depth) environment as a platform for amphibious assaults on poorly defended villages and while the Norse were excellent open ocean explorers they tended to avoid naval warfare due to the longship’s design. In fact, Victarion mentions the Ironborn tactic of staying within the littoral zone when recalling the attack upon the Shield Islands,

“The ironborn had come in on the evening tide, so the glare of the setting sun would kee them hidden from the greybeards in the watchtowers until it was too late. The wind was at their backs, as it had been all the way down from Old Wyk. It was whispered about the fleet that Euron’s wizards had much and more to do with that, that the Crow’s Eye appeased the Storm God with blood sacrifice. How else would he have dared sail so far to the west, instead of following the shoreline as was the custom?” (AFFC, The Reaver)

The danger of operating longships in the open ocean was also demonstrated during the Iron Fleet’s voyage to Essos where storms and conditions sunk Iron Fleet longships that galleys or the frigate-like Swan Ships could easily maneuver in.

When the Norse engaged in open ocean warfare the most common tactic used was to lash the boats together to form a platform for hand-to-hand combat. From the description of Victarion’s assault upon the Shield Islands it appears that the Iron Fleet’s freeboard is higher than a Norse longship allowing the Iron Victory the ability maneuver to ram the Serry ship and easily board it. The token force that remained at the Shield Islands after Euron sent 12 longships up the Mander that drew away the main Shield Island force would have made this tactic a successful one. Victarion does not consider lashing his longboats together and it appears from the Battle of Shield Isle that the Ironborn tactical philosophy is to ram and board their opponent’s ships.

The longship’s limitations in a naval engagement are also seen in during the Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion where the Greyjoys suffered a decisive loss at the Battle off Fair Isle. One can reasonably imagine that the victory was in part because of the tactical and technological advantage that the Royal Fleet had over the Iron Fleet. With a more stable platform to perform artillery attacks and a higher freeboard to deter boardings, the “Great Dromond” of the Royal Fleet would have a significant advantage over the raiding longboats of the Iron Fleet. The success of the Iron Fleet during the Battle of the Shield Islands was in part because of the element of surprise and the military deception caused by sending a vanguard up the Mander. The coastal defense forces in the Shield Islands also appeared to be small ships that could be outmaneuvered by the Ironborn’s longships..

Keys to the Game

For the Ironborn to have success against an opponent like the Redwyne fleet, the tactical advantages of longships must be successfully realized. This would involve:

  • Maneuvering to the fore or aft of the galleys, minimizing the artillery that the galley can bring to bear
  • Rapidly approaching, taking advantage of the longships’ speed advantage
  • An efficient boarding which would involve scaling at least one meter of freeboard

In the meantime, the ideal oceanographic conditions for an Ironborn victory would be calm seas with no wind which would minimize the maneuverability of the Redwyne galleys and maximize the effect of the Ironborn’s speed advantage through rowing. 

Conversely, the best tactics for the Redwynes to use would include:

  • Maneuver to present the Ironborn to the beams to ensure maximum artillery to bear
  • Maintain a standoff circle through maneuvering and artillery to avoid boarders
  • Defeat Ironborn from a distance and board a longship only if its manning has been sufficiently depleted to ensure victory

The ideal oceanographic conditions for the Redwynes would be clear skies and choppy seas with steady wind that would not affect the stability of the top deck artillery while diminishing the Ironborn’s speed advantage.

Another tactic that could be used to attack the Redwyne fleet is referred to as a “swarm attack” in modern military tactics. This involves attacking a stronger target with a large amount of small platforms with the acceptance of high losses. This tactic could be successful with a large amount of fast maneuverable longships against less maneuverable dromond; as long as one or two longships are able to survive the combined artillery assault from the massed dromonds than the Ironborn could board and overcome the marines on board.

Swarm attacks are successful when one has a numerical advantage. Despite Margary’s report to the Small Council in A Feast for Crows that “a thousand ships” are sailing up the Mander, I do not believe that Euron has more than 50 longships. Aeron counts three dozen longships and there could be more that he does not see but not much more. Meanwhile, “Pacter Redwyne owned two hundred warships, and five times as many merchant carricks, wine cogs, trading galleys, and whalers.”

Force Multipliers

Force multipliers are defined in modern military doctrine as a factor that dramatically increases the effectiveness of a unit or weapon. In the modern sense, this could be high morale, training, or stealth. Another force multiplier exists in Planetos, magic.

I have no doubt that Euron has some magical resources to draw upon to defeat the Redwynes. The World of Ice and Fire describes the Rhoynish water wizards that could create “watery walls” and call “up the power of the river.” In A Game of Thrones stormsingers are mentioned,

“Magic had died in the west when the Doom fell on Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer, and neither spell-forged steel nor stormsingers nor dragons could hold it back, but Dany had always heard that the east was different.” (AGOT, Daenerys III)

With such magic, Euron could summon a magical wind, fog, or confusing sea to destabilize the dromons allowing the longships to approach and board them.

A Losing Proposition

The race to sea that is described in “The Forsaken” implies that the Ironborn intend to meet the Redwynes on the open ocean. Using historical tactics, the best chance of victory would be for the Greyjoys would be to encircle their enemy, lash their ships together, and use their longships as fighting platforms. Neither the World of Ice and Fire nor the ASOIAF series describes this as an Ironborn tactic and it may not be a successful one due to the numerical disadvantage that the Ironborn have.

As mentioned before, the modern en vogue “swarm” tactic could be used.  The longship numbers support such a tactic to target one or two dromons which would then be used to assault the other Redwyne platforms. This kind of “island hop” variant could be successful but would result in high Ironborn casualties and could be stopped by the Redwynes immediately concentrating its fire upon any captured dromon.

Unless Euron calls upon a giant kraken to demolish the Redwyne fleet the odds of a Greyjoy victory are low. This assumes though that Euron’s goal is to win the battle in a military sense. Despite the tactics used 50 longships would fall quickly against 200 dromons which implies that the upcoming battle serves a different purpose.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cthulhu

So we have a madman who has proven that he has a degree of military acumen preparing for a battle where he is outnumbered and fighting a foe with a technological and tactical advantage. To succeed, Euron could have a magical force multiplier which would diminish the Redwyne’s advantages but even then the Ironborn face a significant disadvantage. Again, others in the fandom have postulated on Euron’s intentions and I believe that the historical military record supports the case that Euron is preparing for a blood sacrifice or has a magical weapon to unleash upon the Redwynes.

There is another outcome though. We have seen Euron conduct one successful military operation and we know that he is a skilled speaker and politician but this does not mean that he is a military genius. Perhaps he has been drinking too much of his own dreamwine flavored Kool Aid and is boasting of abilities that he does not have. Could Euron be sailing the Ironborn into a sacrifice that becomes just a massacre without any blood magic?

Even without HBO’s help, some educated guesswork leads me to believe that The Winds of Winter has the following prospective plots in some fashion:

  1. The Battle of Ice and the resolution of Stannis’ bid for the Iron Throne
  2. Dany going to Vaes Dothrak, returning to Merreen and setting out for Westeros
  3. Jon’s resurrection and growth as a military leader
  4. Aegon’s conquest
  5. Whatever is happening in Kings Landing
  6. The impending army of the undead and the subsequent fall of the Wall

I recognize that we are talking about GRRM but that is a lot of plot for a single book!

What if Euron is a red herring? We could just get two chapters of the Ironborn in Westeros, “The Forsaken” at the beginning and a final Aeron chapter during the battle at the end of the book. I can see George tricking us into thinking Euron is this great threat with hints of the battle throughout TWOW, only to see a madman with a power he does not fully understand march his people into annihilation. Would not that be a very Martin lesson?

I walked out of that conference room in Baltimore thinking that only the Others were a greater threat to Westeros. I cannot get the growling voice George used when he read “The Forsaken” to us out of my head when I read an Aeron chapter. I also wonder if it is all a trick.

If GRRM follows historical examples of naval warfare, the Ironborn fleet should be destroyed by the Redwynes. That destruction could be avoided with the use of magic but would involve a scope of magic that GRRM has not used before. I am hesitant of Euron’s magical capabilities and wonder if GRRM’s insistence on performing a reading of “The Forsaken” was done to prepare the fandom for a flip where we expect a maniacal magical warlord performing a blood sacrifice to raise Cthulhu and instead we get an egomaniac that destroys his followers.

22 Comments

Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Military Analysis, Military Analysis

22 responses to “Smoke on the Water

  1. Kyle Rooney

    You guys collectively are 0-3 on Euron predictions. You can do better.

  2. Kuruharan

    Interesting perspective and I instinctively agree…but with some hedging.

    I think HBO has shown us that almost everything in the southern half of Westeros is a red herring to some extent. Sam’s storyline seems to be the only one with true endgame potential.

    However, Euron has seemingly been prophetically built up as an antagonist to Dany to some extent so it would be within the realm of possibility for GRRM to do something improbable or even ridiculous to catapult Euron to that level.

  3. matteiffel

    Thanks!

    Even without some help from HBO, I was trying to figure out why GRRM was making Euron a mid-level boss for Dany to beat before the Others. It would make sense narratively, in that it gives Dany her first chance against a metaphysical foe but the extent of Euron’s magic has always made me suspicious of him.

    I see Planetos magic as more practical than magic from other fantasy series. There is blood magic but it has a pseudo-scientific description in TWOIAF. Dragons exist but they are savage animals and not self-aware talking beasts. With the exception of the shadow babys, the Red Priests are tapping into something but it always seems to be at a small scale. The magic that Euron is claiming to tap into seems to be on a completely different level which makes me believe that he is delusional.

    • Kuruharan

      “I was trying to figure out why GRRM was making Euron a mid-level boss for Dany to beat before the Others. It would make sense narratively, in that it gives Dany her first chance against a metaphysical foe but the extent of Euron’s magic has always made me suspicious of him.”

      I suppose it would be uncharitable to suggest that part of the issue may be GRRM’s letting his garden grow a bit out of control…

  4. Steven Xue

    I thoroughly enjoyed this essay especially the parts you talked about naval battle tactics and how each side could win. Although I agree that Euron will no doubt make use of magic to win the battle, I don’t think its going to be super over the top like summoning a Kraken or turn the Redwyne fleet into ashes.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read Romance of the Three Kingdoms or done any research into the Battle of Red Cliffs. Because I think the strategy Euron has planned will be similar to the way Zhuge Liang used magic to summon up a huge gust of wind, allowing the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Qian to send a small fleet of fire ships which completely annihilated not only Cao Cao’s huge fleet but also his entire army that was camped close by.

    I surmise that Euron will pull off his own Battle of Red Cliffs by using the huge blood sacrifice to put the wind in his favor (which you touched upon), he will then capitalize on the advantage he created by sending fire ships directly at the enemy fleet loaded with incendiaries. This will not only burn the Redwyne fleet but also Oldtown to the ground.

    My guess is during the battle the Redwynes will have their fleet arranged in a typical formation. Their artillery ships, be they catapults or scorpions will be place in the rear while the the larger and heavier warships placed in the front row as well as protecting the flanks to prevent the support ships from being rammed and boarded. But given that they have over two hundred ships and counting, the entire fleet will probably be tightly packed against Euron’s armada of only 50 longships. This may give them a good force multiplier for defense against a much smaller enemy, but if the wind is blowing against them and Euron successfully pulls off a fire attack, then it is very likely lord Redwyne will see his entire navy go up in flames just like Cao Cao did during the Battle of Red Cliffs. Also if the battle takes place very close to Oldtown then it may also be likely that the wind will carry the flames into the city and cause an inferno that will burn Oldtown to ashes.

    • matteiffel

      I have not read “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and thank you for the suggestion.

      I like your firestorm idea, it was one that is more practical and uses magic in a way that I have always preferred it in ASOIAF.

      I am not sure how tightly packed the Redwynes would (or at least should) be in formation. That large of an armada should allow for an enveloping attack as seen at the battle of Actium, although the Redwynes would be considered to have a more Antony-like force.

      • Steven Xue

        Thank you.

        It was you who gave me the idea that Euron’s master plan will be something like a Red Cliffs type of battle. I have to admit after reading “The Forsaken” chapter a few times already, I was just as dumbfounded as to what Euron has planned and just how powerful his ritual is going to be.

        But thanks to your analysis and especially your citing of “The Reaver” chapter in AFFC, it made me realize the explanation may be far simpler than any of us have expected. Victarion did mention in AFFC of how Euron has been employing sorcerers to control the winds. My guess is his use of ‘wind magic’ actual comes from sacrificing holymen as tribute by burning them alive (like the charred prisoner brought into Aeron’s cell).

        Clearly Euron has been experimenting with this type of blood magic for a long time now and will be using it on a massive scale for the battle to come.

  5. Tywin of the Hill

    Fantastic essay. Thanks for the info on naval warfare.
    But I have to disagree on some things.
    1. There are no longships on the Iron Fleet. Aurane Waters says they’re equal to the Crowns’s war galleys.
    2. I don’t think Euron’s going to be a red herring.
    “Have you seen these others in your fires?” he asked, warily.
    “Only their shadows,” Moqorro said. “One most of all. A tall and twisted thing with one black eye and ten long arms, sailing on a sea of blood.”

    • matteiffel

      Thanks!

      The Victarion took the Iron Fleet to Essos and so Euron is in Westeros with the Silence and other longships and looted ships from the Shield Islands.

      • RobL

        Great essay again!
        I can see GRRM bringing back those “lost” Iron Fleet ships from the Iron Fleet and smashing the Redwyne fleet in the rear as they double back to Westeros. So that is approximately another 50 ships that Euron has and with a surprise element.

        Also, please remember when GRRM struggled in a Spanish interview event when asked if Kraken’s will be making an appearance – he was taken unawares and basically said it could happen. This could be the escalation of “magic” that he has hinted out for a while.

        Also, consider foreshadowing. It’s likely that Euron has similar abilities to Bran (i.e. dreaming of jumping from some tall tower…) and the vision that his brother has of a tall shadowy figure standing behind Euron on the Iron Throne suggests The Others already have their southern commander to enable them to take Westeros from the North and the South. Remember 1) Marwyn’s discussion of him and Oberyn being interested in “older powers” and 2) Euron using the word “him” when discussing a worthy heir….not himself….”him”. Who could be the scariest “him” that needs a worthy heir? The Night’s King.

        Most of the above are crackpot theories – but if we go with the logical analysis as you have brilliantly done above, we end up with a very boring and uneventful story line for Euron.

        Best case he is the crazed idiot dooming his followers to a quick death. Worst case is he has the support of The Others, knows magic, has greenseer abilities and 50 extra ships that nobody knows about and maybe a Kraken. I mean, the guy has Valyrian armour!! Hopefully GRRM hasn’t wasted such a good reveal on a poorly thought out military campaign. I think Euron will sit the Iron Throne after Aegon dies from the plague (that Euron is conveniently immune to due to being exposed to greyscale as a child….call that a red herring? The guy can literally walk into a plague infested King’s Landing looking like a god and sit the Iron Throne.)

        How does this work with your well thought out plot structure? When the wall falls in the North, Euron will already have control of the South. Dany will still be busy burning Volantis (per your brilliant analysis). She won’t arrive until it is too late…otherwise, where is the plot complication?

      • matteiffel

        Thanks! It was a pleasure to join the team.

        The return of the “lost” Iron Fleet would be a twist on the return of Gandalf at the Hornburg, with the exception of the element of surprise I am not sure if it would matter though.

        Euron sweeping up after Aegon is a compelling plot and provides for even more challenges for Dany.

      • RobL

        A good quote to consider, prior to the vision in Aeron’s chapter in TWOW, is from AFFC:

        “I swore to give you Westeros,” the Crow’s Eye said when the tumult died away, “and here is your first taste. A morsel, nothing more . . . but we shall feast before the fall of night!”

        …before the fall of night.

        Seems at the very least probable that Euron is aligned with The Others.

      • yeah euron only has his own ship and vassal ships. Balon’s central navy originally 100 ships but approx halved getting to essos in storm. Naval discipline and combined tactics means as part of dany fleet very strong plus they know how the brethren fight at sea. Euron ships are the ironborn traders/raiders used to fighting alone or in small flotilla. Only magic can help Euron against Redwyne Fleet or Dany’s Essos & Ironborn ships.Kraken cometh!

  6. Mike Target

    Regarding kraken summoning possibility, there was a report of a kraken sighting in ASoS, along with a report of Dany’s dragons, which Tywin dismisses (in the show it’s Tywin making the report to Joffrey), so he may have been wrong on both counts there.

  7. WHY Euron left the Dragonhorn “Dragonbinder” “Hellhorn” W/E with Victarion sucks because first seeing his vision and understanding the outcome of an eventual battle with the Redwyne’s I thought he would go super EURON and summon a kraken which has some magical bond to the Ironborn/descendants of the Grey King like dragons to Valyrians/Targaryens. And there is MORE than enough significant text that Krakens DO EXIST in Planetos so don’t be surprised, it is on their banner for a reason. But without the Hellhorn and without most of his fleet I have no conceivable way of Euron defeating the Redwyne’s who are fighting for their homes back with 10x the amount of ships. No doubt Euron has some plan that involves dark magic or some insane naval tactic plan, I mean he was the ONLY one of the Ironborn to DO anything during the Greyjoy Rebellion by burning Tywin’s fleet at anchor at Lannisport.

  8. Sam Singh

    I always read your analysis and though I agree 90% with your analysis, I keep thinking about last line ofTyrion Chapter in “DwD” while on Ship with Moqorro.
    “Only their shadows,” Moqorro said. “One most of all. A tall and twisted thing with one black eye and ten long arms, sailing on a sea of blood.”

    • matteiffel

      That is a good and ominous tipper from Moqorro about Euron. While I think that Moqorro is a much better source than Melisandre, I think this could be something that GRRM put in for plot insurance. It will be exciting to find out!

  9. How did you arrived at 50 ships for the ironborn? The text repeatedly mentions a 1000 ships, a thousand captains, etc… to me, it makes no sense to pick a battle agains a foe, vastly more numerous, powerful in an environment that favours them. Also, Euron simply can’t be a mid-level boss in my opinion, seems to me xour early dismissal might linger in your judgement of him.
    About krakens, though, how impossibly powerful a warg you must be to control enough to make a dent on a fleet of 200 warships? If he just summons them somehow, without controlling them, wouldn’t that make them an even bigger threat to his own forces? And if he wants to turn the weather against them, which he probably will, then he could just as easily do that in a more advantegous place as well.
    I wager he either means to throw his full strength, the entire ironborn fleet sans vic’s forces at the Redwine fleet and create a thin place sort of temporay phenomenon to conjure up a gamechanger magic/Cthulhu/whatever, or he does have a design to win the battle soundly, but I can’t imagine he can accomplish either of that with 50 ships, and 2000ish sailors.
    It is also a possibility, that Martin don’t really knows his stuffregarding naval warfare, and we will see a literarily satisfying, but utterly impossible (in military sense) outcome.

    • matteiffel

      The numbers are difficult to come by and I came to 50 through the following:
      – Aeron sees “dozens” of ships going to sea in “The Forsaken” I take this to be 24 – 40
      – Aeron probably does not see all of the ships so we add 10 more
      – The Iron Fleet, the Iron Islands main fleet was only 100 ships and those left with Victarion

      The “thousands” of ships comes from reports from the Reach to the Tyrells in Kings Landing. Cersei points out that it is an exaggeration and I agree with her.

  10. Nice essay, I really enjoyed it. I particularly side with your final assessment that there are essentially two possible outcomes for this impending naval battle:
    1. All the Lovecraftian imagery and hints Martin has placed throughout Planetos (the Deep Ones, black oily stones, ancient and insanity-inducing horrors, the Drowned God, ect.) is real, and Euron has figured out how to call forth a terrible power for destruction. This would line up with both Aeron and Moqorro’s visions, Patchface’s ramblings, as well as the “reports” Arianne hears in a TWOW sample chapter about “krakens” spotted attacking off the coast of the Stormlands. At first I thought this might be referring to the Greyjoy banner, but it may be a literal kraken-monster rampaging around.
    2. That Euron is a delusional fool, and he’s sailing towards an utter disaster for him and his crew. That would be kind of cool, since the Ironborn suck

  11. I think Euron is going to join with the Others and become basically the antichrist of Planetos. The shadow in the form of a woman whose hands were alive with a pale white fire – has to be the Night’s Queen in my opinion, and Euron, her King. I guess I agree with Poor Quentyn that Euron has been brought into the story to hijack the whole villain role from the Others – and I have to say he is certainly evil enough to pull it off.

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