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 dick 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, but 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. Which seems 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.”

So the tree has been speaking to him, but 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. And then in Theon’s TWoW spoiler chapter, when Theon is recalling how he tried to explain his story to Asha when they met in the snow, he 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 we think is important is that neither Roose, nor any of the lords or soldiers who are with him would be expected to recognise him, as they would Glover, Tully or Benjen Stark and even Hal Mollen who was Robb’s standard bearer when the northmen left Winterfell in AGoT. 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 commands a snowy march to meet Stannis Baratheon in battle.

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A Girl in Grey: Rethinking Melisandre’s Vision in ADwD

Warning: The following content contains spoilers for The Winds of Winter


sketch by cabepfir

sketch by cabepfir

“I have seen your sister in my fires, fleeing from this marriage they have made for her. Coming here, to you. A girl in grey on a dying horse, I have seen it plain as day. It has not happened yet, but it will.”

With these words Melisandre of Asshai reassures Jon that his sister Arya will arrive at Castle Black, fleeing from her marriage to Ramsay Snow. Significantly, this first description of the vision makes it clear that the girl she saw was dressed in grey. We have found only one girl in story who meets all the criteria, and it is not Alys Karstark, but another young girl who has good reason to be fleeing from her marriage: Jeyne Poole.

In spite of her self confessed inaccuracies at reading the flames, Mel feels enormous pressure to convince Jon of the truth of her vision:

The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse. Jon Snow would expect that of her, and soon. It would not be enough to say the girl was fleeing. He would want more, he would want the when and where, and she did not have that for him. She had seen the girl only once. A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away.

Desperate to save his little sister, yet fully conscious of his position as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon sends Mance Rayder and a handful of Wildling spearwives on a covert mission to find her:

A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from her marriage. On the strength of those words he had loosed Mance Rayder and six spearwives on the north.

Not long after, on the very day the Queen Selyse arrives with Tycho Nestoris in tow, a girl arrives at the Wall:

“A girl’s been found.”
“A girl?” Jon sat, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands. “Val? Has Val returned?”
“Not Val, m’lord. This side of the Wall, it were.”
Arya. Jon straightened. It had to be her. “Girl,” screamed the raven. “Girl, girl.” “Ty and Donnel came on her two leagues south of Mole’s Town. They were chasing down some wildlings who scampered off down the king-sroad. Brought them back as well, but then they come on the girl. She’s highborn, m’lord, and she’s been asking for you.”
“How many with her?” He moved to his basin, splashed water on his face. Gods, but he was tired.
“None, m’lord. She come alone. Her horse was dying under her. All skin and ribs it was, lame and lathered. They cut it loose and took the girl for questioning.”
A grey girl on a dying horse. Melisandre’s fires had not lied, it would seem.

Notice that Jon leaps to the conclusion that this is Arya, the girl seen in Mel’s flames, on the strength of the dying horse. But we suggest this is a red herring. While Alys Karstark (whom this girl turns out to be) is indeed fleeing from a marriage, nowhere is she associated with grey. In fact, she is dressed in Night’s Watch black on the only two occasions that she is described. When Jon first sees her:

The girl was curled up near the fire, wrapped in a black woolen cloak three times her size and fast asleep.

And then on the occasion of her marriage to Sigorn:

Her maiden’s cloak was the black wool of the Night’s Watch. The Karstark sunburst sewn on its back was made of the same white fur that lined it.

The Karstark colors are black and white. Although Alys is described as having a passing resemblance to Arya, not once is the word grey associated with her. But there is another young girl, also fleeing a marriage, and riding a dying horse who is dressed in grey.

Jeyne Poole, commonly called fArya after her forced imposture of Arya Stark, is heading to the Wall in the company of Ser Justin Massey, as we learned in TWoW Theon chapter:

“You will escort the Braavosi banker back to the Wall. Choose six good men and take twelve horses.”
“To ride or eat?”
[…]
“Oh, and take the Stark girl with you. Deliver her to Lord Commander Snow on your way to Eastwatch.”

Much has been made of the condition of the horses in Stannis’ army in ADwD, we are made aware that there is no fodder for them and that the army has been reduced to eating them. Later in the Theon chapter Stannis makes it plain that his forces must now fight afoot; they simply no longer have the horses to mount their knights. It seems likely then, that the horse bearing fArya to the Wall will be dying.

As for fArya’s garb, we know that when Theon and Abel’s washerwomen stage their rescue, they find her naked:

The wolfskins fell away from her. Underneath them she was naked, her small pale breasts covered with teeth marks. He heard one of the women suck in her breath.

But the plan was to dress her in Squirrel’s clothes, and they proceed as planned:

Rowan thrust a bundle of clothes into his hands. “Get her dressed. It’s cold outside.” Squirrel had stripped down to her smallclothes, and was rooting through a carved cedar chest in search of something warmer.

Squirrel’s clothes, it turns out, are grey:

When Squirrel returned, the other four were with her: gaunt grey-haired Myrtle, Willow Witch-Eye with her long black braid, Frenya of the thick waist and enormous breasts, Holly with her knife. Clad as serving girls in layers of drab grey roughspun, they wore brown woolen cloaks lined with white rabbit fur.

So fArya is dressed in grey, fleeing a marriage, and heading to the Wall on a dying horse. Add the fact that she has been instructed to be Arya Stark and we have a compelling case that she is the girl Mel saw in her flames. One final possible hint in support of fArya as the grey girl is this thought from Mel:

A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away.

Taking the last four words, we could look both at the condition fArya is in after her escape with Theon:

When the tip of her nose turned black from frostbite, and the one of the riders from the Night’s Watch told her she might lose a piece of it, Jeyne had wept over that as well.

It seems as if her nose might indeed crumble from her face. As for blowing away, we need look no further than Jon’s thoughts on what he would do with his sister if she indeed turned up at the Wall:

The best solution he could see would mean dispatching her to Eastwatch and asking Cotter Pyke to put her on a ship to someplace across the sea, beyond the reach of all these quarrelsome kings.

If fArya is placed on a ship bound for Braavos, as Jon had considered, she would indeed be “blown away” across the stormy Narrow Sea.

The significance of fArya being the grey girl is that Jon’s conclusion that Alys Karstark was the girl from the vision led him to mistrust Melisandre’s advice:

“Daggers in the dark. I know. You will forgive my doubts, my lady. A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from a marriage, that was what you said.”
[…]
“A grey girl on a dying horse. Daggers in the dark. A promised prince, born in smoke and salt. It seems to me that you make nothing but mis-takes, my lady.

Mel has cautioned Jon repeatedly about the daggers in the dark, and the skulls around him, and she warned him to keep Ghost close:

“It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold.”

But Jon is disillusioned after her supposed mistake with Alys Karstark, and fails to heed her advice. One might argue that this lapse leads directly to his fate at the end of ADwD. Had Jon more faith in her words, it’s possible the daggers in the dark might have been avoided. One more poignant example, we suggest, of GRRM showing us the fickle nature of fate and the double edge of prophesy.

As discussed on Radio Westeros: Episode 03 — A Red, Red Star