Storytelling and Worldbuilding in Westeros

The following essay was presented as a panel at Ice and Fire Con in April 2019

Worldbuilding is a concept familiar to many of us as the process of fleshing out an imaginary world for fictional characters to live in. It’s a term that’s actually been around for two hundred years and has been widely applied to criticism of sci-fi and fantasy for about the past fifty. The constructed world has geography (in the form of maps), ecology (the environment) and physics (how objects in the world behave alone and in relationship to each other), and often history, and character backstory. As far as process goes, building a world can happen either in a “top down” or “bottom up” fashion, or some combination of the two. Those are systems terms that are applied to the writing process to help untangle the complexities authors face when constructing a functional world.

GRRM uses the terms “architect” and “gardener” to describe the same processes, noting that he himself identifies *primarily* as a gardener. So, in his words “gardeners […] dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.” But at the same time he’s very careful to note that he does have broad outlines worked out, which makes perfect sense to everyone who’s ever planted a garden. You start with a plan, the architecture of your landscape and a blueprint for your plants, but perhaps the things you plant don’t behave as you thought they would. Maybe one variety gets outrageously large, while another fails to thrive. Some gardeners adjust, transplant, divide, try new varieties and generally nurture until getting an outcome they’re satisfied with. Others might feel the need to start over until they can wrangle their garden into its predestined shape. GRRM, in his own words, is the former type, to whom the growth of the characters (representing the plants in his garden) is of primary importance. As he’s said “my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.” But this inclination isn’t without its problems, since sometimes his characters can lead him into blind alleys (like Tyrion at the Bridge of Dream in Chroyane) or get him tangled up in knots (Oh, Daenerys…)

At the same time, the foundation of the garden remains extremely important. The underlying structure can provide everything from nourishment to support to visual enhancements. In the same way, worldbuilding supports the narrative. Whether it happens from the top down, following a careful blueprint, or takes a more organic, bottom up approach, the work put into building the world pays dividends in texture and realism. And as GRRM has said about his penchant for turning to real world history for inspiration “I [want] to get the feel right, the details right, and give it as much verisimilitude as possible.”

In 2018 when announcing his endowment of a Worldbuilders Scholarship at Clarion West Writers Workshop, GRRM noted that:

Every great story requires interesting characters, an engrossing plot, evocative prose, an important theme… but epic fantasy also requires a memorable setting […] a world both like and unlike our own, with its own rich history and geography and customs, its own beauties and terrors […] The best fantasy carries us far from the fields we know, to worlds beyond the hill, worlds that, once visited, live on in our imaginations for the rest of our lives. They assume their own reality, these imaginary worlds. Millions of people have never visited Rome or Paris, yet they know the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower by sight. Rivendell, the Shire, and the Mines of Moria are instantly recognizable in much the same way to countless readers around the world. The history of fantasy is rich with such imagined landscapes.

And A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a particularly rich and well imagined world. Even before the release of The Lands of Ice and Fire map book, the historical novellas, The World of Ice and Fire, and Fire & Blood, the world of Westeros had achieved a level of realism few series rise to. While the organic style of the author can lead to issues with things like timeline and tying together the far flung Seven Kingdoms and even farther flung communities of Essos, the very existence of a detailed history and backstory in Westeros makes the world feel more real, lived in. This sort of thing works even when it’s only hinted at, or referred to in an offhand way, perhaps especially well in those cases. Consider that when I refer to George Washington, I don’t need to explain who he is, because his existence is common knowledge in our culture. In the same way, a similar reference to common knowledge shared by characters in the story gives us a sense that they’re real people, living a reality that makes sense to them. And one of the most effective tools in the author’s toolbox in creating that feeling is the story within a story technique that Martin deploys to great effect when relating the historical legends of Westeros.

So, now I’m going to take a look at a few of those stories to get a sense of how storytelling by secondary characters adds to the tapestry of detail the author uses to construct a fully realized world for his story to unfold in, at the same time as providing a valuable vehicle for advancing the narrative. The first of these secondary characters is Old Nan, who as a caregiver for generations of Starks, spent many hours off page schooling them in the legendary history of their lands and family so as to give several of the primary characters knowledge of significant stories. The fact that this knowledge is shown in many cases to be shared amongst the Stark siblings multiplies the sense of realism these legends add to the story. As a first example of storytelling as worldbuilding, here’s Old Nan’s story of the Last Hero.

Old Nan’s Tale

“Oh, my sweet summer child, what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.”

“Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.”

“In that darkness, the Others came for the first time. They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.”

“Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds-”

So this story forms part of the background knowledge of the Stark siblings, thanks to Old Nan they seem to know as much about the Last Hero and other legends of the north as they do about the written history of Westeros. GRRM does a marvelous job in achieving verisimilitude by creating tension between written history, left in the hands of the maesters, and oral history or legend, relayed by a class of characters that we might call the storytellers. Anyone familiar with the story of A Song of Ice and Fire knows that the Others are growing in significance to the narrative, and in the main narrative MOST characters, those who rely on the “official” histories of the maesters, simply don’t believe in them.But the facts of their existence and their renascence is becoming painfully obvious. This story is absolutely packed with details, about the last hero, the Others, the long night, the timeline of settlement and more, and we expect that crucial bits of information from Old Nan’s tale will turn out to be very useful in the pages and scenes to come—such as the fact that the Others hate “iron and fire and the touch of the sun” and most critically, the fact that Bran Stark knows the ending, as we learn later in same chapter:

All Bran could think of was Old Nan’s story of the Others and the last hero, hounded through the white woods by dead men and spiders big as hounds. He was afraid for a moment, until he remembered how that story ended. “The children will help him,” he blurted, “the children of the forest!”

This story within a story technique (aka hypodiegesis) can hint at the future, disclose background of characters or reveal backstory that influences main plot. So while GRRM has said these events are as remote from characters in the story as we are from Gilgamesh/Noah, this tale turns out to be not only an entertaining way to bring us into a richly imagined past, but is also highly significant to the narrative. And sure enough, three books and nearly ten years later, GRRM made another revelation about the Last Hero which can be paired with the information from AGoT. In AFfC, Samwell Tarly of the Night’s Watch tells Jon Snow, who shares in the same background knowledge Bran has:

“The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed, and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian. I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it.”

So GRRM is playing long game of a slow reveal using backstory that is found in books and legends by his characters in story to hint at the future of his narrative. From these far flung hints, we assemble the knowledge that the Children of the Forest helped the Last Hero to defeat the Others, which he did using a blade of dragonsteel. We learn elsewhere that the Children were the source of the knowledge that the Others are vulnerable to obsidian, we also hear that they did not forge blades of metal, but used obsidian in all their weapons. So while according to Old Nan the Children helped the Last Hero to defeat the Others in some significant way, we have to look elsewhere for the origin of the blade he used since we know from Nan’s tale that the sword he set out with had broken as he sought the Children. And sure enough in ACoK, many leagues to the south and in a character PoV that at the time had nothing to do with the North, the Wall or the Others, another secondary character related a story that seems unrelated on first listen. Here’s the Lysene pirate, Sallador Saan’s telling the Legend of Lightbringer to Ser Davos Seaworth.

The Legend of Lightbringer

“Do you know the tale of the forging of Lightbringer? I shall tell it to you. It was a time when darkness lay heavy on the world. To oppose it, the hero must have a hero’s blade, oh, like none that had ever been. And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fires. Heat and hammer and fold, heat and hammer and fold, oh, yes, until the sword was done. Yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder.

“Being a hero […] again he began. The second time it took him fifty days and fifty nights, and this sword seemed even finer than the first. Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it through the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered and split. Great was his woe and great was his sorrow then, for he knew what he must do.

“A hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his wife. ‘Nissa Nissa’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.’ She did this thing, why I cannot say, and Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes.”

So, this story tells us of a magical blade, which we learn elsewhere was instrumental in defeating the “Great Other” and ending a period of catastrophic darkness. Within the narrative of ASoIaF, Saan is telling Davos Seaworth about the original Lightbringer, so that he can judge the authenticity of the one Stannis had pulled from the chest of the statue of the mother in the burning sept on Dragonstone. For the close reader though, there are connections to be made between this story and Old Nan’s tale of the last hero which serve another function to the narrative. GRRM is laying clues to his end game. He does this using thematic references in character arcs that refer back to these legends that exist in the background.

Now, the very existence of a diverse pantheon of legends that are related both orally and in texts within the narrative is a marvelous piece of worldbuilding. You could almost view this as an example of internal intertextuality, the process of a text shaping the meaning of another text, in this case tales of the Long Night are used as a device inside the narrative to weave a complex web of backstory that not only builds the world through a series of connections, but also holds great significance to the narrative arc.

And speaking of connections, the Legend of Lightbringer ends with a reference to the moon cracking. Well, back in a AGoT we hear a story in Daenerys Targaryen’s PoV about the moon that just might be connected to the Lightbringer mythos.

Doreah’s Story

“A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. […]

Silvery-wet hair tumbled across her eyes as Dany turned her head, curious. “The moon?”

“He told me the moon was an egg […] Once there were two moons in the sky, but one wandered too close to the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand dragons poured forth, and drank the fire of the sun. That is why dragons breathe flame. One day the other moon will kiss the sun too, and then it will crack and the dragons will return.”

So this brief tale from the Far East of the world, introduced a multi cultural element to the narrative and added texture to the story. Many years later, TWoIaF confirmed the Qartheen origin:

“in Qarth the tales state that there was once a second moon in the sky. One day this moon was scalded by the sun and cracked like an egg, and a million dragons poured forth.”

Doreah’s story suggests that fire might be involved in hatching dragon eggs, which becomes significant to the narrative very shortly after she relates it. But perhaps more significantly, with the publication of the next book we saw that it contains a point of intersection with the Lightbringer story that suggests that there might be a connection between the two. The cracked moon in the former story was a result of Azor Ahai’s wife Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish as he sacrificed her in the forging of his magical blade. In the latter story the crack is explained by the moon wandering “too close to the sun”, and the result was the birth of dragons. Both stories contain elements of sacrifice, fire, and creation and the one may in fact simply be an alternate or symbolic rendering of the other, each informed by the culture they took root in. That all these elements might be part of a larger, cyclical tale is a rather compelling idea and a lot of fun for the engaged reader to consider.

The impact of using storytelling as a worldbuilding technique is reflected in the complexity of the narrative. At the same time a diversity of stories adds to the realism of the tale. Stories from the North like Brave Danny Flint, Mad Axe, 79 Sentinels, Arson Iceaxe, and the ‘Prentice boys are mentioned to add depth to the portrayal of a cultural history that directly impacts the main story. The story of the Rat Cook, which derives from the same pantheon, has a specific relevance as it’s used to elaborate on a precept that has huge significance to the narrative. The interesting thing about this story is that it’s only mentioned in passing, so we don’t have a left to right narrative as we do with the Last Hero and Lightbringer stories. But it’s possible to compile the references from several places to tell a coherent tale:

The Tale of the Rat Cook

In the North, they tell the tale of the Rat Cook, who served an Andal king —identified by some as King Tywell II of the Rock, and by others as King Oswell I of the Vale and Mountain— the flesh of the king’s own son, baked into a pie.

The Rat Cook “chopped the prince to pieces” and cooked the son of the Andal king in a big pie with onions, carrots, mushrooms, lots of pepper and salt, a rasher of bacon, and a dark red Dornish wine. Then he served him to his father, who praised the taste and had a second slice. Afterward the gods transformed the cook into a monstrous white rat who could only eat his own young. He had roamed the Nightfort ever since, devouring his children, but still his hunger was not sated. [But] “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him,” Old Nan said, “nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.”

The concept of guest right is hugely significant to the narrative of ASoIaF and GoT, most notably in the Red Wedding and its aftermath. The story of The Rat King helps explain characters’ reactions to that and other events, and as a parallel to a specific event that occurs later in the story (*spoiler– Manderly’s pies) it helps the reader to apprehend what’s really going on in the main story, while allowing the author and his characters to continue obscuring the action. It’s really a masterful device, which again serves the dual purpose of advancing the narrative and providing a foundation for it.

And then there are the stories that appear at first glance seem to do little to advance the narrative. But setting mood is a valuable part of narrative and worldbuilding both, so the final story is Nimble Dick Crabb’s Squishers.

Squishers

“Best we keep a watch tonight, m’lady,” Crabb told her, as she was struggling to get a driftwood fire lit. “A place like this, there might be squishers.”

“Squishers?” Brienne gave him a suspicious look.

“Monsters,” Nimble Dick said, with relish. “They look like men till you get close, but their heads is too big, and they got scales where a proper man’s got hair. Fish-belly white they are, with webs between their fingers. They’re always damp and fishy-smelling, but behind these blubbery lips they got rows of green teeth sharp as needles. Some say the first men killed them all, but don’t you believe it. They come by night and steal bad little children, padding along on them webbed feet with a little squish-squish sound. The girls they keep to breed with, but the boys they eat, tearing at them with those sharp green teeth.” He grinned at Podrick. “They’d eat you, boy. They’d eat you raw.”

“If they try, I’ll kill them.” Podrick touched his sword.

“You try that. You just try. Squishers don’t die easy.”

So comic relief for sure, and if you’ve listened to our Brienne episode you know just how amusing we find this passage. But this particular story does more than relieve the tension of a monotonous journey. It actually sets up a feeling of dread that will prevail when, having passed through the dreary pine woods and bogs of Crackclaw Point, the trio arrive at the Whispers, which incidentally is named for another story Dick Crabb told Brienne:

“Ser Clarence Crabb […] was eight foot tall, and so strong he could uproot pine trees with one hand and chuck them half a mile. No horse could bear his weight, so he rode an aurochs […] His wife was a woods witch. Whenever Ser Clarence killed a man, he’d fetch his head back home and his wife would kiss it on the lips and bring it back t’ life. Lords, they were, and wizards, and famous knights and pirates. One was king o’ Duskendale. They gave old Crabb good counsel. Being they was just heads, they couldn’t talk real loud, but they never shut up neither. When you’re a head, talking’s all you got to pass the day. So Crabb’s keep got named the Whispers. Still is, though it’s been a ruin for a thousand years. A lonely place, the Whispers.”

For what it’s worth, Clarence Crabb bears a distinct resemblance to the American folk hero Paul Bunyan, but with a macabre twist. And in case you missed it, the story of the Whispers also contains an offhand reference to a magical kiss that just might be a legendary antecedent of the kiss of life we see in the main story. So Nimble Dick spends the outward journey from Maidenpool telling an apparently never ending series of legends about Crackclaw Point, all of which serve to build up the horror vibe of the chapter. And that’s no accident because the Squishers are almost certainly an homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, described here:

I think their predominant color was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked … They were the blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design – living and horrible.

It’s nothing new to talk about GRRM’s love of Lovecraft and its influence on the story. The ironborn Maester Theron is said to have written a treatise called Strange Stone all about the oily black stone that was mentioned repeatedly in TWoIaF claiming that objects made from the black stone quote “might be the work of a queer, misshapen race of half men sired by creatures of the salt seas upon human women” a race which Theron named The Deep Ones, the source of legends of merlings, while their fathers are quote “the truth behind the Drowned God of the ironborn.”

And while it’s not made clear whether Theron’s Deep Ones are related to Squishers, it doesn’t take a great expertise in the Lovecraftian mythos to see the similarities between the Squishers and Lovecraft’s description of his own Deep Ones. Using an homage to Lovecraft in a setting where he hopes to build horror, such as the Whispers, is a classic tactic of GRRM using what he hopes is the reader’s background knowledge to create expectations. Finally, with the character of Nimble Dick we’re offered a collection of related stories that create a convincing depth to that particular area of Westeros, while allowing the author to draw upon his references later to create a feeling of cohesion with his greater world.

By their nature history and legend provide texture to the world, and all of these stories in the background add tremendous depth, contributing to GRRM’s overall worldbuilding technique. By providing a literary and legendary past to Westeros, Martin imbues his world with realism akin to our own, giving it a relatable structure that enhances the reader’s understanding and enjoyment. In ADwD, Jojen Reed says to Bran Stark:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies […] The man who never reads lives only one.

Similarly, a world with stories is a world with thousands of lives, not just a single thread. The background stories and tales within the main narrative function to support the overall expansive feel GRRM’s multi stream narrative fosters. In other words, ASoIaF gets depth from its history and legendary past, and breadth from its multi PoV structure. That the background information comes to us through both oral and written traditions adds to the world’s verisimilitude, to use Martin’s term. But the Last Hero and Azor Ahai and Lightbringer and the Rat Cook aren’t only window dressing. In A Song of Ice and Fire the past informs the present and the future. GRRM uses worldbuilding in a unique way that presses all the elements into dual service. In so doing, he’s created a world that is both real and fantastical at the same time, which functions on multiple levels. It’s possible to read ASoIaF in an entirely casual way and still enjoy and appreciate the work the author has presented. But the constructed world has so many layers that for the close reader, or the super-fan or fan analyst it’s possible to dive deep and find those hints, allusions, foreshadowings and homages. That’s what draws many of us in and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into some of the minutiae of ASoIaF.

A Crown of Winter Roses

As discussed in Episode 05 of Radio Westeros: A Dragon, a Wolf and a Rose

Ned remembered the moment when all the smiles died, when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen urged his horse past his own wife, the Dornish princess Elia Martell, to lay the queen of beauty’s laurel in Lyanna’s lap. He could see it still: a crown of winter roses, blue as frost…

When Ned Stark is imprisoned in the Black Cells in A Game of Thrones, he has a dream about the great tourney of Harrenhal which highlights the connection between his sister Lyanna Stark and blue roses, and introduces a possible romantic element to the story of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.

In fact, not only are blue roses linked to Lyanna on numerous occasions, but in most cases blood and promises are also associated. Rhaegar Targaryen is also present even in absence, his alleged actions having brought about Lyanna’s death.

The link between Lyanna and blue roses is first hinted at in Ned’s very first chapter in A Game of Thrones when, in the crypts of WInterfell, he recalls his sister’s death:

Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black.

Following this memory explicitly linking blood and roses to his sister, Ned tells King Robert: “I bring her flowers when I can… Lyanna was … fond of flowers.”

In the aftermath of Jaime Lannister’s ambush in King’s Landing, Ned has a fever dream about a certain tower in Dorne wherein the connection is drawn more strongly. The first line (“He dreamt an old dream, of three knights in white cloaks, and a tower long fallen, and Lyanna in her bed of blood“) and the last (“A storm of rose petals blew across a blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death”) work together to connect Lyanna, blue roses and blood.

Ned has another dream, the day King Robert returns from the Kingswood with his fatal wound. He is in the crypts of Winterfell and sees Lyanna’s statue:

“Promise me, Ned.” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood.

And the Black Cell dream we opened with continues with this passage:

Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing at his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke, trembling, in the dark. Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses.

Every mention of blue roses in Ned’s point of view chapters links to Lyanna, and also involves promises, blood, or both.

A final example of the connection between Lyanna and blue roses is in Theon Greyjoy’s dream of the dead in A Clash of Kings, when he sees a “slim, sad girl who wore a crown of pale blue roses and a white gown spattered with gore” who could only be Lyanna.

As Ned Stark’s ward it’s likely Theon would know only the “official” story of Lyanna’s death, that Rhaegar Targaryen carried her away and left her to die in captivity. And yet in Theon’s dream, as in Ned’s thoughts and dreams, there is the connection made to blue roses.

So Lyanna Stark is heavily associated with blue roses, promises, and blood, and it seems like the author is trying to tell us something. What’s really curious is that, chronologically speaking, the association begins with Rhaegar Targaryen giving her blue roses.

Overall the blue roses seem to symbolize the union between Rhaegar and Lyanna. Given that fans assert that Jon Snow is secretly the direct product of that union, the blue rose can be applied as a metaphor for Jon himself, something Rhaegar has given her, as he gave her the original crown.

And in support of the blue rose representing the child, we see another blue rose in Rhaegar’s sister Daenerys’ vision in the House of the Undying:

A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice … 

It’s her sworn shield Jorah Mormont who later clarifies that this blue flower was in fact a blue rose. And that particular blue rose fits Jon Snow very well, with his proximity in the story to the wall of ice that forms the northern border of Westeros.

The connection of blue roses with blood would seem to indicate Lyanna’s death is related to the child, as represented by the roses. The promises are assumed to be the ones Ned made to her to protect her son as she lay dying in an abandoned watchtower in Dorne.

But so far, beyond the crown at the tourney, none of these connections presuppose a romantic element. So let’s fast forward now to A Storm of Swords when Meera Reed tells Bran Stark the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree at the tourney of Harrenhal.

On a metatextual level, it’s commonly accepted that Lyanna Stark donned armor and entered the lists as a mystery knight, seeking to teach a trio of bullying squires she had caught tormenting her friend Howland Reed a lesson in honor.

Howland’s daughter Meera goes on to tell Bran the aftermath of the Knight’s victory and subsequent disappearance:

That night at the great castle, the storm lord and the knight of skulls and kisses each swore they would unmask [the knight], and the king himself urged men to challenge him, declaring that the face behind that helm was no friend of his. But the next morning, when the heralds blew their trumpets and the king took his seat, only two champions appeared. The Knight of the Laughing Tree had vanished. The king was wroth, and even sent his son the dragon prince to seek the man, but all they ever found was his painted shield, hanging abandoned in a tree. It was the dragon prince who won that tourney in the end.

This passage supports the idea that Rhaegar might have unmasked Lyanna as the mystery knight. Knowledge of the knight’s identity might have led to a desire to honor Lyanna in some way, and would explain Rhaegar’s otherwise inexplicable action in crowning Lyanna as queen of love and beauty.

A meeting of the two young people before the crowning also opens the possibility that there was a window for a romance to develop. Add to that Bran’s subsequent declaration to Meera Reed that the mystery knight should have won the tourney:

…the mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf maid the queen of love and beauty.

If Lyanna was the mystery knight, in a sense she did win when Rhaegar presented her with the crown of blue roses. Meera goes on to tell Bran that the wolf maid was crowned, but that the end of the story is “rather sad”, indicating that the tale doesn’t end with the tourney.

The symbolic connection between Lyanna Stark and blue roses, along with blood and promises, and Rhaegar Targaryen and Jon Snow, lends much weight to Rhaegar and Lyanna as the parents of Jon Snow.

Much has been written about the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna, Ned Stark’s thoughts on the Targaryen prince, the identity of the knight, the Tourney of Harrenhal, and the connection of it all with Jon Snow. We discuss these things and more in our podcast “A Dragon, a Wolf and a Rose.”

For a more in depth look at the symbolism of blue roses and their connection to Lyanna Stark, a friend of ours has done some writing on the subject at westeros.org, in a thread called Jon Snow and the Blue Winter Rosetta Stone.

 

Jon Snow: Arthur/Galahad, The Prince that was Promised/Azor Ahai Reborn

-Galahad, Arthur Rackham

In ASoIaF we are told about the Prince that was Promised, who may also equate with the eastern legend of Azor Ahai Reborn. The signs of the Prince’s coming are believed to be:

  • The birth of a prince from the line of the dragon (gender may not matter, per Maester Aemon)
  • Born amidst smoke and salt
  • A bleeding star
  • Return of dragons

Of Azor Ahai, we have this, from Melisandre:

“There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.”

and

“When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt…”

The bleeding star and smoke and salt are what connect the two prophecies. To indicate the Prince will also wield a sword, we have Rhaegar’s pronouncement:

“I will require a sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.”

In both cases, we seem to be dealing with a messianic figure.

In Arthurian legend, King Arthur himself stands in the role of Messiah, the King that was and will come again to save his people. In other words: the Prince that was promised to return. This messianic figure occurs frequently in European tradition. Finn Mac Cumhaill in Ireland, Arthur in Britain, Bran the Blessed of Wales, Ogier the Dane, Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, the mighty Charlemagne of France and a host of others are all reputed to be sleeping under a mountain or lost beyond a Wall or sea, waiting for the final need of their people to return for their salvation.

Galahad is the son of Elaine of Corbenic and Sir Lancelot. Elaine is the daughter of King Pelles and the two are closely associated with grail mythology and are often equated with the Fisher King and the Grail Maiden.  Pelles, according to Malory, had reason to believe that his daughter Elaine’s son Galahad would become the greatest knight the world has known and lead “a foreign country… out of danger,” something Jon Snow has already done for the Wildlings. (Bonus: In Welsh tradition Galahad is descended from Bron, one of the original followers of Joseph of Arimathea, whose name is a very close cognate to the name Bran, held by numerous illustrious Stark ancestors.) Galahad himself is closely analogous to Arthur, earning a mystical sword and wide repute as a knight at a young age.

Getting back to the parallels between the messianic figures of tPtwP/AAR and Arthur/Galahad we should first deal with the “bleeding star.” In both traditions in ASoIaF there is a bleeding star which many assume to be a red comet. Indeed, we see a red comet blazing across the Westerosi sky around the time of the birth of Daenerys’ dragons. While the comet has different names and significance in various regions, the most common associations seem to be fire and blood or, as Old Nan puts it “…dragons, boy” undeniably relating it to House Targaryen. Yet on several occasions it is also likened to a sword, including by Septon Chayle of Winterfell “…the sword that slays the seasons.” Meanwhile, in Arthurian legend there is a very important comet, also associated with blood and dragons. Legend has it that Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon took his name from a red, dragon-like comet seen in the sky over Britain as his brother and king lay dying. “Pendragon” literally means “chief dragon” or “war leader” but can also be interpreted as “hanging dragon.” This red comet alternately presaged the death of Aurelius Ambrosius, the rise of Uther and the birth of Arthur. In all instances, it is closely associated with the British version of “dragons.” Incidentally, there are some scientists who believe that a comet’s tail passing over northern Europe in the sixth century caused a bombardment of debris that led to a period of climate change and darkness where crops failed and disease killed people in the tens of thousands. In fact early chronicles are rife with descriptions of sixth century comets, which are most often associated with fire, blood and dragons. One can’t help but notice the similarity to the comet and the impending long winter in ASoIaF. These same scientific discoveries have led to theorists who postulate that the myths of Arthur’s sword, his many battles and his mysterious departure are really expressions of the passing of a large comet over Britain, which brings us to the parallel of the swords. The magical sword is another common theme in northern European legend, with swords made by the legendary Norse blacksmith Wayland Smith found in the possession of everyone from Sigurd and Roland to Ogier the Dane and King Arthur. Both Arthur and Galahad possess magical swords that they retrieved from a stone by a test of worthiness only they could pass. Compare to “Lightbringer”, the legendary sword of AAR and the renowned Stark greatsword “Ice” (the original, not Eddard Stark’s Valyrian steel model) While it is early to tell, it has been predicted that Jon Snow will find himself in possession of one of these swords.

Checking in with the list of PtwP and AAR portents and parallels, we have Jon Snow and Arthur as princes of the line of dragons, predicted to wield or wielding a magical sword, and dragons returning to the world (literally in Westeros, in the form of the descendants of Constantine II in ancient Britain.) We have a long summer ending and a red comet in the sky in both worlds, more or less, and “the cold breath of darkness” is certainly about to hit the world of Westeros like a ton of bricks, while according to chronicles the sixth century saw drought, unusual summer frosts and “failure of bread.” So what of salt and smoke? Those are actually the easiest signs to find as salt can be found in tears (plenty of those in Westeros and Arthurian legend, including Bowen Marsh’s) and smoke is also ever present (witness Jon’s wound “smoking” in his final ADwD chapter and the monk Gildas describing the smoking island of Britain in 540AD) On the other hand, it’s also been suggested that the salt and smoke represent an interpretation of snow and icy breath by someone who had never experienced a cold climate, which certainly prevails in northern Westeros and sixth century Britain. Finally, since R+L have been shown to parallel both Uther and Ygraine (traditional) and Elaine and Lancelot (upon closer inspection), from parentage to comets to swords either Arthur or Galahad works for Jon Snow. Of course, his story has yet to play out upon the page so there will be new depths to explore in the future.

Lord Stark: The Fisher King

 

                                   I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
T.S.Eliot, The Wasteland

The Fisher King is sometimes known as the Wounded King and is nearly always presented with a leg or groin wound. Because the wound causes a loss of fertility, his kingdom becomes barren (as in “The Wasteland”) and he has little to do but fish in the river outside his palace. He is Keeper of the Grail, but must wait for the chosen one to heal him. Only when he is healed is the chosen one (alternately, Peredur, Percival or Galahad) allowed to “achieve” the Grail. The legend of the Fisher King is closely related to the story of Bran the Blessed and his magical cauldron from the Mabinogian, a mythical cycle thought by many to be closely related to the Stark family. Interestingly, the Mabinogian uses a severed head as the motif, rather than a lower body wound. Celtic scholars believe some Celts practiced a cult of head worship, as that is where they believed the soul resided. In fact, Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History, relates: “[Celts] cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses.” We have seen this motif with the story told about the Freys’ treatment of Robb Stark and Grey Wind.

In some versions of the story we are presented with a father and son pair, representing the wounded King and his fishing counterpart. I propose that Ned Stark, whose leg wound precedes his death which leaves his “kingdom” almost literally a wasteland, represents the wounded aspect of the Fisher King. Lord Rickard stands in as the patriarch of the clan in whose keeping the “sangreal” or cauldron has been left, only to be offered to one who has proven himself worthy. Of course, it is Lyanna herself who stands in for the cauldron, as in Celtic mythology the cauldron represents a womb. Robb Stark represents the severed head on the platter (the original “sangreal”), presented to the Welsh hero Peredur, who later recognizes it as his cousin. Jon Snow, as the son of Lyanna Stark and cousin of Robb, ties together the two versions of the Grail: the cauldron/womb and the vessel/platter.

Ashara Dayne: The Lady of Shallott

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse

Under tower and balcony,
By garden wall and gallery,
A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold, between the houses high,
Dead into tower’d Camelot.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Lancelot is closely associated with three women named Elaine, one of many applications of triplism in the Arthurian cycle. As previously mentioned, Elaine of Corbenic becomes the mother of his son, Galahad. His mother is Elaine, the wife of King Ban of Benioc. When they are forced to flee their lands, Lancelot is taken by the Lady of the Lake and raised, as was Arthur, in ignorance of his identity.

Elaine of Astolat, better known to many as the Lady of Shallott, falls in love with Lancelot at a tournament, is rejected by him and later when she dies of a broken heart, her body is floated downstream to Camelot, where the reason for her death becomes known to the court and all mourn the tragedy of her demise. While not completely analogous, this story has strong elements of the Ashara Dayne story as we know it: a noble young woman, a lover at a tourney, death from a broken heart and her body floating away.

As Lancelot was unhorsed by his cousin Bors at the Astolat Tourney, one has to consider  Brandon Stark, a young man who fought in the tourney at Harrenhal and was unhorsed by Prince Rhaegar, in the role of Lancelot here. Barristan Selmy, who loved Lady Ashara from afar, thought about quote “the man who had dishonored her at Harrenhal” in the same thought as someone with the name “Stark.”

In the case of Elaine and Lancelot, she tended the wounds he sustained. If Ashara and Brandon were connected at the tourney, perhaps a situation somewhat parallel to that of Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling may have arisen. Brandon, we have every reason to believe, did not possess the extreme sense of honor that his nephew, as Eddard’s son, would later show. Based on what we know of Brandon, he would leave in the morning, pleading his commitment to Catelyn Stark and leave Ashara to cope with the consequences.

Taking Ashara’s story and its parallels to Elaine of Astolat at face value doesn’t rule out other possibilities, such as a faked death or the child surviving. Rather, the analogy enhances these possible scenarios.

 

Elia Martell: Gwenhwyfar Redux

The Accolade, Edmund Leighton

Earlier, the parallel of Arthur Dayne to Sir Lancelot was explored. Elia was posited in the role of Gwenhwyfar, with Lyanna Stark in the role of Elaine. In keeping with Elaine’s theme of disguise, Lyanna transforms into Gwenhwyfar to Rhaegar’s evolving Lancelot. The offspring of R+L, at once Arthur to their Uther and Ygrain, can thus also be viewed as the embodiment of Galahad, as we will see. Yet this scenario leaves discussions of Elia at unsatisfactory loose ends. Inspired by a thorough re-read of all references, we come back to themes of Gwenhwyfar in the character of Elia Martell.

Gwenhwyfar’s story has earth goddess themes, with links to the early Welsh triple goddess and strong parallels to Persephone. The name Gwenhwyfar can be translated to “White Fay (Spirit)” which supports her supernatural origin. Most of the earliest references to the character come from the Welsh triads where, as the three queens of Arthur indicate, we find a strong association with the triple goddess. In the story of Culhwch and Olwen she is referenced as one of Arthur’s “otherworld” weapons, while several other triads reference her involvement in the battle of Camlann and her “faithlessness” as a wife. Speculation surrounding some of these references is that Gwenhwyfar is representative of Arthur’s sovereignty, which is in keeping with divine origins.

Elia Martell is described by Barristan Selmy as:

a good woman … kind and clever, with a gentle heart and a sweet wit. (ADwD, chapter 23)

Her marriage with Rhaegar was marked by “fondness” rather than passion, most likely the union of a well schooled prince and princess who, while they didn’t choose each other, had no real complaints of each other. Aerys, in his paranoia, may have felt he needed the union with Dorne to keep them faithful, in much the same way a British king may have “needed” to wed a representative of the British earth goddess. The characterization of Gwenhwyfar as a faithless wife in the triads seems to come from nowhere, unless one considers the practice of the representative of sovereign goddess taking an annual mate. While on the one hand this furthers Gwenhwyfar’s association with a divine character, it also opens the door to later tales of Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity with Lancelot and therefore the hinted parallel of Elia and Arthur to Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot.

What makes this parallel fascinating, and even possible, is that there is very little agreement in the sources about the nature of Gwenhyfar and Lancelot’s infidelity (see the variation in ideas of courtly love, for instance) and not much consistency in portrayal of their characters. Gwenhwyfar is alternately strong, passive, assertive, insipid, judgmental, gentle, shrewish, maternal, treacherous and tragic. Similarly, there is a lot of confusion about the character of Elia Martell among the ASoIaF fandom.  Much of the characterization of Elia Martell is highly reminiscent of Gwenhwyfar: she is sweet, gentle, maternal (though of uncertain childbearing ability) and inspires great love and loyalty among those who knew her, but is also assumed to be weak or passive because of her husband’s actions. Some assume she drove Rhaegar away with her feebleness, others suggest she passively accepted being set aside. While on the one hand the parallel supports an earthy, maternal image for both, it also becomes very much about the lack of information and confusion about the motives and character of each woman.

After a thorough examination of the Arthurian source  material pertaining to Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, one is left with the distinct impression that there is much that remains untold, hidden in the mists of time. Similarly, we must reach the same conclusion about Rhaegar and Elia: we don’t have sufficient insight into their private lives to pass character judgments. Even what we know of the outcome remains shrouded in mystery. At the end of the day, there’s room to believe Elia had opinions and a strong identity of her own and to accept that there is much and more we don’t yet know about R+E and suspend judgment, as we indeed must for Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.

 

 

Rhaegar Targaryen: The Many Faced Abductor

In most versions of the Gwenhwyfar abduction story, the abductor is Melwas, also known as Meleagant, or the “Summer King”, whose name means “princely youth.” Melwas holds Gwenhwyfar captive in his tower for nearly a year. In later versions, the kidnapper is Arthur’s own nephew-son Mordred and the end comes with the Battle of Camlann, with Arthur killing Mordred and receiving in turn the grievous wound that leads to his departure for Avalon. It is important to recognize here that in some versions of the Lancelot story, the kidnapper is Lancelot himself and the action is simultaneously a kidnapping and a rescue. In these versions of the story, Gwenhwyfar has been sentenced to be burned to death due to her betrayal of the king and Lancelot transports her to Joyous Gard for her own safety.

This is too strong a parallel to ignore. As we’ve discussed several times elsewhere now, what if Aerys knew of Lyanna’s deception as the Knight of the Laughing Tree? Would his son stand by as he threatened to burn the daughter of a Lord Paramount for an imagined slight? We know from Ser Jaime that the King’s “Justice” in those days, Aerys’ preferred method of dealing with all who displeased him, was fire. We also know that he was paranoid and held a grudge. What if Aerys himself, following the tourney, sent men to seize Lyanna Stark as she travelled to Riverrun for her brother’s wedding, with the intent of bringing her to face “Justice”? Might Rhaegar and the knights closest to him not have staged a rescue? Can we find the logic in shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar?

The Melwas and Mordred versions also have clear parallels to the Rhaegar-Lyanna story. If we once again shift analogies and treat Rhaegar, the “abductor”, as Melwas, the “princely youth”, the captivity is a direct parallel. A parallel also exists between the dramatic Battle of the Trident, where Rhaegar would be killed by his cousin Robert Baratheon, and the Battle of Camlann, where Mordred lost his life to his kinsman Arthur, both deaths coming as revenge for a kidnapping. Incidentally, in the aftermath of Camlann it’s said that Gwenhwyfar went to her deathbed filled with guilt for the lives lost in her name, as I have always imagined Lyanna Stark must have done following the Trident.

So here is the justification for shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar: the reverse path from Mordred/Rhaegar, who perished at Camlann/Trident, to Melwas/Rhaegar, the “princely youth” who held the queen “captive” in his tower, to Lancelot, who rescued the queen from the fire, all playing the same role of “abductor.” Viewing Rhaegar through the lens of Lancelot adds a new dimension to the romantic nature of R+L, since as seen in Chretien de Troyes “Knight of the Cart” the rescue preceded the love affair. Lancelot is at once an archetypal hero and a villain, a dichotomy that becomes highly relevant to the character of Rhaegar Targaryen.

 

Lyanna Stark: Elaine of Corbenic into Gwenhwyfar

Most versions of the stories report that Lancelot has a son called Galahad with a woman named Elaine of Corbenic. The father of Elaine of Corbenic is King Pelles, sometimes called the Fisher King, who is the guardian of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that Pelles is descended from one Bron, a follower of Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Grail to Britain. Bron is also thought to be derived in part from the character of Bran the Blessed in the Welsh Mabinogian. Bran possessed a magic cauldron that could resurrect the dead. Bran and his cauldron bring to mind the North, from the name itself to the resurrected dead of from beyond the Wall.

Additionally, there is a detail in the etymology of Corbenic which I believe ties Corbenic, Elaine and the Fisher King very closely to the Starks. There are a number of possible linguistic connections, among them the Brythonic Caer Bran (literally Fort of Bran, or Fort of the Raven) and the middle French corbin, also meaning Raven, thought by many to be an allusion to Bran the Blessed with whom the Fisher King is closely connected. We’ll get to the larger connection between Pelles, Bran the Blessed and the Starks shortly. But given all of the above, I would assume a Stark connection for the character of Elaine.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory describes Elaine as “passing fair and young.” Compare that to Eddard Stark’s memory of his sister “Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child woman of surpassing loveliness.” After Lancelot rescues Elaine from a “scalding bath” she falls in love with him. If we apply this to Lyanna, we might wonder again if she could have been in trouble with a fiery minded Targaryen. Getting back to the idea of a rescue in the Lyanna and Rhaegar story, isn’t it curious that this theme appears again in the story of Elaine of Corbenic and Lancelot?

In this version of the tale though, Elaine must ultimately resort to a magical disguise to trick Lancelot into lying with her and conceiving Galahad. I propose that, with typical Martinism, the analogy is now given a different twist, but one that remains centered on the Tourney at Harrenhal and Lyanna’s actions there.

Lancelot, it turns out, is closely connected with a traditional folk story that has three main elements: a child raised by a water sidhe, the appearance of a hero at a tournament on three consecutive days in three different disguises, and the rescue of a kidnapped queen.

If we assume that Lyanna Stark is the KotLT and also analogous to Elaine of Corbenic with her Stark connections, we see that both are associated with disguises. As it happens, the disguise Elaine assumes for Lancelot is of Gwenhwyfar.

Now, if we assign the role of sidhe child, with its close association with water, to the “little crannogman” at the tourney and agree that Lyanna’s disguise as the KotLT and defeat of three champions satisfies the second element we have two of the elements of the original topos present. Is it possible to see Lyanna as also fulfilling the role of the captive queen of the third element? Since we’ve already proposed that Lyanna is analogous with Gwenhwyfar in one version of the rescue story, and given that Elaine assumed Gwenhwyfar’s identity to conceive Galahad we might now stop to consider if the young man widely assumed to be Lyanna’s son has any similarities with Galahad.

 

Arthur Dayne as Sir Lancelot

At first glance, it’s hard to ignore the visceral parallel of a knight named Arthur with a fabled sword appearing in each canon. But look again! Who better to fulfill the role of Lancelot du Lac, King Arthur’s First Knight, than Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, almost universally reckoned to be the finest knight who ever lived? Here’s a scholarly description of Lancelot:

In Chretien de Troyes’ work Lancelot is portrayed as not only the bravest of knights, but one that everyone he meets is forced to describe as uniquely perfect

Compare with Ned’s and Jaime’s descriptions of Arthur Dayne

the finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. They called him the Sword of the Morning, and he would have killed me but for Howland Reed

and

I learned from Ser Arthur Dayne , the Sword of the Morning, who could have slain all five of you with his left hand while he was taking a piss with his right

Another detail of note about Lancelot is the name of his castle and the location of his final resting place. Joyous Gard. Formerly called Dolorous Gard, the name was changed to Joyous Gard after Arthur and Gwenhwyfar visited as his guests. Gard is an old english word for yard or garden, used in this instance to describe a castle in the wilderness. If it were a simple watchtower rather than a castle, it might well be called the Tower of Joy. While there’s no indication that the Daynes owned that watchtower in the Red Mountains, it is near to their family holdings and is, without a doubt, the final resting place of Ser Arthur.

Chretien de Troyes is the medieval poet whose tale “The Knight of the Cart” introduced the Lancelot-Gwenhwyfar affair to the medieval world. In his story Lancelot rescues Gwenhwyfar, who has been abducted by Melwas, also known as Meleagant. His quest portrays the struggle to balance his role as King Arthur’s warrior within the framework of courtly love and his love affair with Gwenhwyfar. In order to reach her to effect the rescue, Lancelot must travel in a cart, which the audience understands to be a mode of transport usually reserved for criminals. This foreshadows the consummation of the affair, which occurs after the rescue. Essentially, Lancelot breaks his contract with his king and becomes a criminal or social outcast through his actions. Critically, his role as the King’s First Knight does not change, but has been sullied.

So we have parallels for Rhaegar as Arthur married to Elia as Gwenhwyfar. By all accounts, Rhaegar and Elia, like Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, had a marriage of mutual respect and fondness, if not passion. Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, legendary kingsguard and “bravest of knights” is Lancelot, King Arthur’s First Knight who before he learned his true name was known only as “The White Knight.” Here’s where it gets sticky. It’s hard to see a parallel here with Arthur Dayne and Elia Martell. If there were some previously existing relationship between the two Dornish nobles, it might have been hinted at. And if there was any reason to suspect the fabled White Knight had broken his vows we’d surely have heard of it. So how to resolve the question of Lancelot? And how does Lyanna Stark fit into this equation? As usual, with GRRM things are not so straightforward, as our next installments will show.

 

A Ghost in Winterfell

Winterfell by Lino Drieghe © Fantasy Flight Games
As discussed in Radio Westeros Episode 18

 

In Theon Greyjoy’s chapter “A Ghost in Winterfell” in ADwD, we find one of the great minor mysteries of the ASoIaF fandom.  It begins with a series of deaths. A Ryswell man at arms, Aenys Frey’s old squire, and a Flint crossbowman. Theon does not believe any of the excuses made for these deaths, thinking to himself each time that foul play was a more likely answer.

When Ramsay Bolton’s own man Yellow Dick is found dead, with his actual member cut off and stuffed into his mouth, there can be no doubt that a bad actor is responsible for these deaths. Things are starting to go badly wrong for Roose Bolton, the snow is making the men anxious, the Freys and Manderlys are fighting and the stables have collapsed. It is during this chaos and friction that Theon flees a meal in the great hall and has a curious encounter.

When Theon steps outside he has a moment of peace in the falling snow that is strangely evocative of Sansa’s “snow castle” scene from the Eyrie. Then he walks on and meets a man:

Farther on, he came upon a man striding in the opposite direction, a hooded cloak flapping behind him. When they found themselves face-to-face their eyes met briefly. The man put a hand on his dagger. “Theon Turncloak. Theon Kinslayer.”

“I’m not. I never … I was ironborn.”

“False is all you were. How is it you still breathe?”

“The gods are not done with me,” Theon answered, wondering if this could be the killer, the night walker who had stuffed Yellow Dick’s cock into his mouth and pushed Roger Ryswell’s groom off the battlements. Oddly, he was not afraid. He pulled the glove from his left hand. “Lord Ramsay is not done with me.”

The man looked, and laughed. “I leave you to him, then.”

That short passage has inspired the eternal question — who is the hooded man? Many identity theories have been floated about the fandom, from Benjen Stark to Hal Mollen to Brynden “Blackfish” Tully. And while there is some value in ideas like Robett Glover, the brother of the lord of Deepwood Motte who was last seen trying to raise troops in White Harbor, and an idea which proposes the hooded man is simply in Theon’s imagination, our call is someone much closer to home, someone who would have very good reason to be in Winterfell, who may be much changed from the last time Theon saw him, and who Theon actually thinks is dead, making him a perfect candidate for an alternate interpretation of the chapter title. Harwin, son of Hullen, is both a possible alternate as “A Ghost in Winterfell” and a strong candidate for being the hooded man Theon encounters.

Probably the first question to address is why Harwin? That answer lies with Lady Stoneheart. Starting in ASoS, in the Merrett Frey epilogue, it’s made clear that she and the BwB are searching for her daughter Arya in the Riverlands. Remember that, besides Sandor Clegane, the BwB are the last people to knowingly see Arya Stark alive. The search continues into AFfC, when the BwB question Brienne about Arya, and we also learn that they have been gathering orphans in the Riverlands and housing them at the Inn at the Crossroads. It’s been speculated this is most likely an effort to discover Arya among the orphaned and displaced young people of the Riverlands.

Lady Stoneheart and the BwB would know that Arya was last seen with Sandor Clegane prior to the Red Wedding, and they will have also heard the news that some weeks after the Red Wedding, Roose Bolton set out for the north with a young woman in a closed carriage, reputed to be Arya Stark being taken home to marry his son Ramsay. In that light, it makes perfect sense that Lady Stoneheart would send a spy to Winterfell to see if this was truly her daughter, and if so to effect her rescue. Who better to send than the one member of the BwB who not only knew Arya well, but grew up in Winterfell and was an expert horseman?

Harwin is last mentioned by name in AFfC when Thoros tells Brienne that Harwin begged him to raise Catelyn Stark when they discovered her in the river three days after her death. And while there is a “young northman” in the cave when Brienne is brought before Lady Stoneheart, we think there’s a chance that young man is Hal Mollen, Catelyn’s sworn sword who was last seen heading into the Neck with Ned’s bones in ACoK.

The young man in the Brienne scene, whose voice is “frosted with the accents of the north”, is never identified by name. There has been opportunity for Hal to have rejoined his lady’s service, since Lady Stoneheart is noted to have been in Hag’s Mire and the Neck recently. In addition, it’s interesting that this young man says to Brienne:

“Can it be that my lady has forgotten that you once swore her your service?”

Hal Mollen witnessed Brienne’s oath to Lady Catelyn in ACoK, and since this comment seems to come from personal knowledge rather than something Lady Stoneheart said, we give pretty good odds to this man being Hal Mollen, and to Harwin having been sent on a mission sometime earlier, possibly during that trip into the Neck. But the theory doesn’t hinge upon that being true, since by most reckonings nearly two months pass between Brienne’s trial and the hooded man sighting. This would seem to be more than enough time for an expert horseman who knows the lay of the land well to make his way to Winterfell.

So having established motive and opportunity for Harwin, let’s look at the scene itself. It’s not immediately clear if Theon recognises the man. He wonders if this is the killer who has claimed four victims to that point, and thinks of him only as “the man.” But it’s very obvious the hooded man knows him. He clearly recognises Theon, and calls him “Turncloak” and “Kinslayer” — epithets that one could certainly expect from someone who lived in the Winterfell household. Theon denies being a kinslayer as usual, since he knows he didn’t kill Bran and Rickon. And as usual this is met with disgust and the hooded man says “False is all you were” and wonders “How is it you still breathe?” Now, we know that Theon’s torture by Ramsay was known in the Riverlands,  Roose had made no secret of it. The man doesn’t seem surprised, and even laughs, when he sees Theon’s maimed hand, and seems to take some pleasure in leaving Theon to Ramsay.

These reactions seem to be all in keeping with what one would expect from Harwin. But what about Theon? It’s possible he wouldn’t recognise Harwin whom he hasn’t seen in several years, especially when we recall that Harwin was much changed and Arya barely recognised him when she first met the BwB. But it’s also possible that he does recognise him. And that is the really intriguing possibility because while Theon hasn’t seen Harwin in years, he does think of him.

In ADwD, in the chapter following his encounter with the hooded man, Theon is thinking about the ghosts that inhabit Winterfell and we get this:

That was long ago, though. They were all dead now. Jory, old Ser Rodrik, Lord Eddard, Harwin and Hullen, Cayn and Desmond and Fat Tom, Alyn with his dreams of knighthood, Mikken who had given him his first real sword. Even Old Nan, like as not.

So it seems that Theon assumes that all of the men who went with Ned perished in King’s Landing, but Harwin is the only person in his thoughts that’s actually alive. We think we’re alerted to this mistake on Theon’s part for a reason. Consider that while the chapter title “A Ghost in Winterfell” clearly applies to Theon, it’s made very plain in his thoughts that he thinks of himself as only one of very many ghosts: “there are ghosts in winterfell, and I am one of them.” Now if we consider that these chapter titles sometimes do have alternate meanings, and imagine what Theon would think if he saw Harwin, who he thinks is dead… the alternate meaning for this chapter title becomes very clear. The hooded man would literally appear to be a ghost to Theon, who is already spending a lot of time musing about ghosts and wondering about the voice he is hearing from the weirwood tree. In that light some lines that come immediately after the encounter with the hooded man make a lot of sense. First he thinks “He was trapped here, with the ghosts” and then “Leave Winterfell to me and the ghosts” and finally, when surprised in the godswood by Abel’s women:

“The ghosts,” he blurted. “They whisper to me. They … they know my name.”

While the heart tree has been speaking to him in Bran’s voice, we think he has another ghost in mind as well. Imagine Theon, already haunted by the ghosts he created and hearing a voice speaking to him from the weirwood tree, seeing someone he has thought dead for these last two years. Might be good cause for him to think the ghosts are talking to him. Then in Theon’s TWoW spoiler chapter, when recalling how he tried to explain his story to Asha when they met in the snow, Theon thinks “He told her how he bedded down with Ramsay’s bitches, warned her that Winterfell was full of ghosts.”

Warning his sister “that Winterfell was full of ghosts” is very interesting in light of this theory that Theon had an encounter with a man he would consider a ghost. Let’s now provide some clarity on the other options that have been identified. One good question is why rule out other candidates like Robett Glover, Hal Mollen, the Blackfish and Benjen Stark? The obvious answer is that not only would Theon have recognised all of those men, having seen most of them recently during the fighting in TWot5K, but that he has never been shown to think any of them are dead, as he has Harwin, and so his reaction to seeing them might have been much different. One other thing about Harwin as an option that is important is that neither Roose, nor any of the lords or soldiers who are with him would be expected to recognize him, as they would Glover, Tully or Benjen Stark. Even Hal Mollen, who was Robb’s standard bearer when the northmen left Winterfell in AGoT, would be a familiar face to many. Harwin could thus easily blend in with the grooms, servants and freeriders that Winterfell is noted to be teeming with.

Consider also Theon’s reaction, wondering “if this could be the killer, the night walker who had stuffed Yellow Dick’s cock into his mouth and pushed Roger Ryswell’s groom off the battlements.” There is an almost supernatural feeling to this, and the fact that he feels no fear is appropriate given the fact that he seems so comfortable with his “ghosts.”

Speaking of Theon’s suspicion that the hooded man could be the killer, we think it unlikely. After Theon’s various interactions with Abel’s women it seems pretty clear that they were responsible for the Ryswell man at arms, Ser Aenys Frey’s squire, the Flint crossbowman and Yellow Dick. Since there isn’t anything we know of in the political situation at Winterfell to connect those four men, we surmise that they had some knowledge that made them dangerous. Since all were found outside, we further assume it was something they saw that marked them for death.

But what about Little Walder? Rowan denies that his death was down to Abel’s washerwomen, implying they are responsible for the others. We can’t rule them out because the body was discovered in the vicinity of the tower Abel met Theon in the night of the murder, but we definitely think there could be a second murderer in Winterfell who killed Little Walder. We find it highly suspicious that Big Walder is noted to be spattered in blood, when it’s just been stated that Little Walder’s blood was frozen, due to the body being found in a snowdrift. So while we can’t rule out one of Abel’s women or the hooded man as the killer,  we do think that Big Walder, who was so quick to implicate a knight from White Harbor, is definitely a strong suspect in that murder.

In conclusion,  Harwin as the hooded man makes thematic sense and is well supported by the text, but it appears that it’s probably best to look elsewhere for the perpetrators of the mysterious deaths that take place in Winterfell as tensions rise to the boiling point and Roose Bolton commands a snowy march to meet Stannis Baratheon in battle.