The Winterfell Huis Clos


Two kind of readers might have reached this point. Those who are reasonably put off by the length of the analysis, and desire to know the conclusions. Those who have suffered through, and occasionally enjoyed, the whole thing. Both types of reader might benefit from the little summary that follows.

However, to discuss these conclusions, I advise the reader to read the details of the analysis. Indeed I have simplified the argumentation, removed all nuances, discarded numerous interesting questions, in the interest of brevity.

Rather than the dryness of this summary, I would advise the reader to read selected part of the analysis.

Those interested in the complexities within the Bolton side may start by reading the following.
  • The Goodmother and her Kin, part 3 and part 6.
  • The Host and the Groom, parts 4-8.
  • The overseeing Widow, part 4, part 8 and part 9.
To understand the events behind the scene in Winterfell, the starting point and key part is:
  • The hooded Man and the Kinslayer
Its most surprising conclusion is useless for the rest of the analysis, which can be complemented by.
  • The Murder
  • The Conspiracy
  • The unhooded Man and the Butcher
My understanding of the final letter:
  • Epistolary Epilogue
It can be supplemented by an analysis of the outlook of the battle of ice.
  • Seven Days of Battle
Mythological foundations and cultural background are examined almost everywhere, but especially there:
  • The Animal Powers
  • The Congresses of Skulls
  • The Immortals
One can laugh with the Flint of Winterfell.
  • The Horn of Winter
Or dream of the arrival of Winter.
  • Winterreise

  1. The insane State of House Bolton
  2. The Kinslayer
  3. The hooded Man, the Conspiracy and the Escape
  4. The Horn of Winter
  5. The Godswood in Danger?
  6. Ramsay's Triumph
  7. The Letter

1. The insane State of House Bolton

The dynamics inside the Bolton camp are far from evident. A major contradiction for House Bolton arose when Roose married Walda at the same time than Ramsay was legitimized by the Crown, thus creating a conflict for inheritance, which has generated intense mistrust, if not hate, between Ramsay and the Freys.

Such a point has been little noticed, but it is a driving force for the Winterfell drama. Indeed, when Ramsay was believed dead, Roose has told the world that Walda's sons would never be safe while he lived. After Ramsay's reappearance, and legitimation, the question of the inheritance of the Dreadfort has remained unsettled. But Ramsay feels entitled to the Dreadfort and would not be satisfied with Winterfell.

The Frey family has put much hope in the marriage of Walda and Roose, since it gained thus a foothold in the north with the perspective of earning more seats with the assistance of the currently prominent House Bolton. The Freys believed that Ramsay would content himself with Winterfell, but Ramsay claimed to be the heir of the Dreadfort in front of the heart tree at the wedding.

Furthermore, Roose needs Barbrey Dustin to impose his rule on the north. The Red Wedding has been carefully prepared by Roose with the alliance with Barbrey in mind. But Barbrey dislikes the Freys and hates Ramsay.

Roose needs Ramsay for the Stark marriage, which provides some insurance against a Stark resurgence. But he seems otherwise ready to get rid of his bastard, even if his attitude towards Ramsay has always been schizophrenic.

In the context of these conflicts, Little Walder had the misfortune of being simultaneously Walda's brother and Ramsay's squire. He knew the role of Ramsay in the Sack of Winterfell, as well as the fact that Ramsay went with Theon to find Bran and Rickon at the mill of the Acorn Water. The antipathy between Ramsay and the Freys has culminated in his murder.

Ramsay knew of Walder's death before the boy's body was brought to the Great Hall. Several hints designate Ramsay as the murderer.

Roose realized that he could not contain the antagonism between Barbrey, Manderly, Ramsay and the Freys and sent the men of the Twins and of White Harbor deliver battle to Stannis.

What Roose's long term aspirations are remains a mystery. He seems closest to Barbrey Dustin and seems prepared to get rid of Ramsay and the Freys if necessary. In the end, either he returned to the Dreadfort, or, if he is dead, Walda secured the inheritance for her unborn child. In either case, Ramsay has no authority anymore over the Dreadfort.

Within the Frey family, antagonism is building in anticipation of the death of the Lord of the Crossing. Lothar Frey is a key player as the Steward of the Twins, one of the masterminds of the Red Wedding. He is among the eldest sons of Walder Frey who did not receive any reward after the Red Wedding. A careful look at the politics at the Twins reveals that Lothar has the means, the motive, the opportunity and the inclination to scheme against his siblings, which is reflected in Big Walder's belief that he will one day rule the Twins, indeed Big Walder is Lothar's heir along the male line (the rule of inheritance that seems to count at the Twins). Big Walder's role in the murder of Little Walder is unclear.

2. The Kinslayer

Three characters thought appropriate to call Theon a kinslayer in Winterfell: the mysterious hooded man, Rowan, and Mors Umber. It is for good reason, not because Theon is rumored to have slaughtered Bran and Rickon. The epithet is not a common insult but the designation, never spoken lightly, of an accursed man.

An examination of the people Theon has murdered leads to only one reason: the millers' sons (or at least one of them) are Theon's offspring born of one of his former mistresses. The story with the Myraham's captain's daughter shows that Theon does not care about fathering bastards. Theon did not recognize Asha at Pyke, prefiguring thus his inability to recognize his own kin. He does not realize his crime mainly because he is struggling with denial and memory suppression during both sojourns in Winterfell, as his internal monologue shows.

One creature has witnessed the whole Winterfell story, has slept beside Theon's bed, has seen Theon haunted by nightmares, and has heard Theon shouting in his sleep. It's Wex, the mute squire, a remarkably smart boy. Wex has never been told directly about the murder of the millers' sons, but knows that Theon and "Reek" went to the mill of the Acorn Water to find Bran and Rickon, and that Bran and Rickon survived after having taken refuge in the crypts.

Wex ended up trying to tell his story to Robett Glover. But his inability to speak, and the time needed for his acquisition of literacy delayed the revelation of the truth to Glover until after we saw both of them in White Harbor. Most likely, Glover inquired after Wex's testimony and found out that the miller's boys have disappeared after a visit of the Ironmen, and perhaps more. From there, the news of the survival of Bran and Rickon as well as the information about the kinslaying have spread.

Hence Theon's curse does not come from the betrayal of the Starks, not from the murders of the people of the Winterfell household who raised him. He was led by Ramsay to kinslaying and punished by this very man.

3. The hooded Man, the Conspiracy and the Escape

Two linked conspiracies have been built against Roose Bolton for the Winterfell Wedding.

Since the return of his son, Manderly has free reign to seek vengeance against the Boltons and the Freys. Moreover, the restoration of Rickon Stark, with the regency and even the marriage that will come with it, is an exceptional opportunity for House Manderly, which is already by far the richest house in the north.

Manderly has raised men in White Harbor, has a fleet up the Whiteknife river, which should logically have been secretly prepared to intervene in the Winterfell area. Robett Glover, and possibly Ondrew Locke, are on Manderly's side. But Manderly didn't dare to use ravens to organize the conspiracy, hence did not coordinate with either Stannis or the mountain clans.

A separate part of the conspiracy was born when Mance Rayder and his spearwives went to the Long Lake area to search for Arya Stark. There, Mance managed to approach Mors Umber, who has informed him that the wedding would take place in Winterfell. Hence the plan for the kidnapping of "Arya" was born. How Mance convinced Mors to act on his behalf is left unsaid. Mance had heard the story of the kidnapping of Mors' daughter by wildling raiders at Stannis' council and could have used this information for his advantage.

Based on the suspicion of Roose, Barbrey and Jon Snow about the loyalty of Whoresbane to the Boltons, it's likely that Whoresbane is complicit, but he hasn't seen his brother for months at the time of the Winterfell wedding. Hence the transmission of information is uneasy among the conspirators.

A contact had been kept continuously between Manderly and the Umbers since both houses collaborated on the building of the White Harbor fleet – as the presence in White Harbor of a White Knife riverman well informed about the current events at the Last Hearth seems to remind us. The absence of singer among the musicians provided by Manderly for the wedding is providential for Abel's acceptance into the castle.

Thus, we have a series of links: Crowfood-Mance-Whoresbane-Manderly.

It would seem the northmen inside the castle are aware that "Arya" is an imposter. The conspirators decided to exfiltrate her nevertheless. The main actors in the conspiration are Abel and his washerwomen, but they have remained as observers for well over a month before starting to make their moves three days before the escape.

Four murders and the collapse of the stables are their work. Three of the dead (a Ryswell, Aenys' Frey squire and the Bastard's boy Yellow Dick) correspond to the three main factions around Roose (The Dustins/Ryswells, the Freys and Ramsay), and have been judiciously chosen to raise the tension around Roose Bolton.

Since the hooded man expressed surprise at the sight of Theon, he had entered the castle shortly before this moment. It seems the hooded man came with Roose's knowledge, but he is careful about hiding his face and his identity. In any case, he brought the news of the kinslaying, which reached Rowan. Since Mors Umber later used the kinslayer epithet, we can infer that Mors, the hooded man and Rowan are coconspirators.

The hooded man, Robett Glover or one of his associates, entered the castle, bringing along the way the kinslaying accusation. He interacted with Rowan, and probably Abel, and probably Manderly and passed the news that Mors Umber was positioned ouside the castle, ready to receive the bride, as well as possible Manderly forces.

Then we heard horns and drums. Manderly, unconcerned for his life, decided to provoke the Freys after the death of Little Walder, and Roose was forced to send the men of White Harbor and the Twins out of the castle to avoid an imminent bloodbath.

The precipitous exit of these men was the condition desired by the washerwomen to accomplish the escape, which happened more or less as planned for Theon and the bride, but not for Abel, Rowan and co. Mors Umber was ready to find the escapees in the blizzard, and organized their transfer to Stannis.

Thus, Bolton forces were forced to leave the castle to find Ramsay's bride, lowering Roose's guard before the battle with Stannis.

Whether one of the Ryswells, who are quarrelsome and in charge of the scouts who bring news from outside, is on the side of the conspirators is the best explanation I could find for a clandestine entrance of the hooded man in Winterfell. However, it doesn't seem the visit is clandestine.

Neither Stannis, who has been ignored largely by Crowfood and totally by Whoresbane (in particular Stannis was not warned of the Karstark betrayal) nor Barbrey Dustin are part of the conspiracy. Barbrey Dustin had curiously disappeared before the final scene in the Great Hall.

The escape is almost entirely the accomplishment of Mance and his washerwomen, but it is not their greatest feat in Winterfell, as we will see.

4. The Horn of Winter

In appearance, Mance Rayder has been sent to Winterfell by Melisandre to fetch "Arya" so that Melisandre could gain Jon Snow to her cause. Whether Mance is under Melisandre's spell or he is constrained by the detention of his "son" at Castle Black is not entirely clear. But Mance is no one's henchman. He is the proud King-beyond-the-Wall, who strives to emulate Bael and Joramun. Furthermore, he is a man of extraordinary audacity. He left Castle Black worried by the dangers faced by the Free Folk, alluding to a certain ploy, and determined to leave the scene through the great door, in a way that will remain forever in the songs.

It is certain that Mance is interested in the crypts of Winterfell, not only in reason of his admiration for Bael the Bard, who has inspired the pseudonym Abel. Indeed, Holly asked Theon to show her the crypts three days before the escape. Abel later visited the crypts, since he didn't ask Theon about the entrance the night before the escape. So whatever business Mance Rayder hoped to accomplish in the crypts had already been done by the time of the escape. There are funny hints that Barbrey Dustin could have led Mance there.

To understand Mance's objective, consider his past behaviour. The King-beyond-the-Wall has spent monthes in the Frostfangs in search of the fabled Horn of Joramun. The use of the horn has only been partly understood. In any case, Mance hoped to use it to facilitate the passage of the Free Folk south of the Wall, not necessarily by destroying the Wall, since Dalla advised against such means.

Mance searched as thoroughly as he could in all the graves north of the Wall, and failed, much to the chagrin of Ygritte. The ancient story of Joramun, who sounded the horn and invaded south, ended when the Stark in Winterfell defeated that king-beyond-the-Wall. By customs, all Starks are buried in the crypts of Winterfell. Why did Mance expect to find the horn in a grave is never said, but that leaves us to guess that the horn has been buried, perhaps as a trophy, deep in the crypts.

Whether Mance made such a guess, or was informed by other means is unclear. In any case, a strange sounding horn has been heard at the hour of the wolf in the night before the escape. A close examination of those events reveal that the horn seems to have been blown inside Winterfell, and its sound does not come from Crowfood, who is making noise outside the castle in the following morning with common warhorns. It rather seems that drums were sounded outside the castle immediately after the sounding of the horn to hide the sound's origin.

We only know two things about the horn: its sound and that it has been sounded twice. The sound makes it comparable to the horn of Euron, because it produced a sound felt in the bones. The comparison with the horn of Euron, which became hellish only on the third blast, suggests that the absence of a third blast dispensed the castle and the Wall of the full effect of the horn. It is suggestive to recall the conventions of the Night's Watch: one blast for the brothers, two blasts for the wildlings, three blasts for the Others. According to this hypothetical logic, a third blowing would bring down the Wall (or at least destroy its magical properties) and allow the arrival of the Others.

The timing of the sounding of the horn coincides with the arrival of Tormund and Val at the Wall, at least in the narration, which leads me to believe that both events are related. Like it might have in the time of Joramun, and like Mance once hoped before he failed to find it north of the Wall, the horn has fulfilled one of its purposes: letting the Free Folk come across the Wall. Hence the King-beyond-the-Wall has saved his people.

However, nothing magical appears to have happened at the Wall. Val found Tormund's people and came back. Tormund negociated with Jon Snow the passage of the Free Folk. However, I suspect that the effect of the horn is to be found in Val, who has changed upon her return. Her eye color has changed from grey to blue, she has taken Dalla's ceremonial clothes, and seems to fulfill now some role with the Free Folk. She recalls the maid of Winter of the songs, one of the three maids Abel sings about in Winterfell. A more thorough examinations of these events is needed to explain the role of the horn, as well as a revisit of the story of Night's King.

I made all this reasoning, and reread the passage of the sounding, and laughed when I read the jape made by a Flint to which I had paid no attention: Mayhaps he thinks he's found the Horn of Joramun, which felt like a nod from GRRM.

5. The Godswood in Danger

The next theme might be off the mark, since it relies on a gathering of disparate hints. But I think the speculation deserves some attention in spite of its utter lack of good justification.

Within the Winterfell story, one might speculatively see another conflict behind the scene. It seems that the rivalry between Bittersteel and Bloodraven has continued up to the present day (and seems to impregnate many aspects of the story to this day).

It is not certain whether Lord Brynden needs Bran to access the Winterfell heart tree, and all its past. (Brynden could already see the events of the present time through the ravens of Westeros.) It seems evident that he is keeping an eye on the events in Winterfell, perhaps influencing them with the help of Bran. So he has made a move in the Cyvasse game he plays against Bittersteel.

The Golden Company is coming back to Westeros. Bittersteel's will is still guiding it, and its cause is still alive among part of the nobility of the Seven Kingdoms. Bittelsteel was a Bracken by his mother. Bloodraven was a Blackwood. The Blackfyre rebellion can be understood, at least in part, as the continuation of the old family feud between the Brackens and the Blackwoods. The feud seems to take root in the ancient history of Westeros: the conflict between the horse-riding First Men and the raven-warging Children of the Forest. Ravens and horses are precisely the totemic animals of the Brackens and the Blackwoods, and their presences and misfortunes are acutely felt in Winterfell.

The Brackens share a passion for horses with the Ryswells. Since Barbrey Dustin, née Ryswell, rules over the Great Barrow, reputedly the grave of the King of the First Men who led his people to Westeros, we are led to believe that there is a cultural continuity between the Ryswells, the Brackens, the First Men… and the Golden Company founded, and perhaps still led in some way, by Bittersteel.

So the Ryswells might be the Golden Company's allies in Winterfell, and their agents in Winterfell against Bloodraven's interest. I would never suggest this if it weren't suggested by a small, but significant detail: the golden horseheads featured on Rodrik Ryswell and Barbrey Dustin's personal banners: gold on the banners like the Fiddler in the Mystery Knight, like the skulls that preside on the Golden Company. Gold is much less common in the north of Westeros than it is in the south (and doesn't appear to circulate as a currency). Putting gold on the banner seems a significant cultural reference.

What is at stakes in this struggle is speculative. But it seems that the Golden Company does not like godswoods and ravens. Lord Brynden has gained access to the Winterfell godswood through Bran.

Inserted in between the Winterfell chapters, we learn that the Brackens have once poisoned the heart tree of Raventree Hall.

The heart tree of the Winterfell godswood seems to be faltering, starting with a laughing face at the time of the wedding and ending with a sad expression just before the escape. Moreover, the cold seems to be taking over the godswood, despite being supposedly resistant to fire and cold.

Such an interpretation of the story is reminiscent of the Mystery Knight, when both Bloodraven and Bittersteel were playing a cyvasse game through their agents. Once again, our evidence is thin.

6. Ramsay's Triumph

We can only guess the outcome of the battle through the letter sent to the Wall. Without making the assumption that the letter is truthful, or at least sincere, a discussion is hardly possible.

Hence, our arbitrary belief in the truth, or at least the sincerity, of the letter.

The letter announces Ramsay's victory in the battle. The outcome is unlikely since Ramsay is one the weakest player in the north. But it is worthwile to look back on Ramsay's life and observe a certain pattern.

All his life, Ramsay has been deprived of friends, of allies, has been handicapped by his psychopathy, and, against all odds, succeeded again and again. It began when Roose decided to spare his bastard against his own judgement as Ramsay's mother brought the baby to the Dreadfort. Then Roose granted Ramsay and his mother protection (against the dead miller's family), means of survival, a servitor (Reek), acceptance into the Dreadfort, pardon for the murder of Domeric (or so says Roose), the position of castellan during the war, the absolution for more crimes (Lady Hornwood, the Sack of Winterfell), the legitimation by the Iron Throne, the Stark bride, Winterfell. But Roose has not given much, if anything, wholeheartedly as his account of Ramsay's early life shows. He seems to consider his bastard as puppet that he can dispose of as he wishes, but persists in giving him more and more.

Ramsay's good fortune does not originate wholly from Roose. Indeed, Ramsay escaped providentially punishment for Lady Hornwood's murder thanks to Theon's conquest of Winterfell. The battle of Winterfell that led to the Sack was won while outnumbered by three to one. The bastard of the Dreadfort has the protection of an invisible hand.

Ramsay's position, especially after the escape of his bride, is weak. Since he decided to betray Robb Stark, Roose's strategy has been to build an alliance with the Ryswells and Dustins. Barbrey Dustin had gathered what remained of the Hornwoods, Cerwyns, Tallharts in Barrowton prior to Roose's return hoping thus to constitute a large enough political block to dominate the north. But all parties are resolutely hostile to Ramsay, while it is not unconceivable that they tolerate the Freys. Indeed, Ramsay is hated by Barbrey Dustin and the Ryswells for the murder of Domeric, a Ryswell by his mother and well-loved by Barbrey. He is hated for the murder of Lady Hornwood, and his responsability in the treacherous killings of Cley Cerwyn and Leobald Tallhart will be exposed at some point.

Political realities all point to the necessity for Roose to get rid of Ramsay, but not as long as Ramsay holds value for Roose. The moment of truth could happen when "Arya" bears a child or after the disappearance of the bride.

All that precedes shows that we shouldn't expect Ramsay to be discarded easily by Roose. Hence, I am not surprised by the success claimed by Ramsay in the letter. Ramsay's personality and behaviour make me wonder about his true nature. The story of his birth leaves open many possibilities, especially in view of the details in him that recall Craster.

Ramsay is now lord of Winterfell, but not lord of the Dreadfort, not even Roose's heir. With the loss of Arya, Ramsay has lost all value to his father. He might have heard news of Robb's will through the Freys, and might see Jon Snow as a rival for the lordship. He rules Winterfell with the men he had when he left the Dreadfort, including some Dreadfort men, Whoresbane, Big Walder.

If Roose is alive, he has returned to the Dreadfort. If he is dead, Walda has secured the inheritance for her unborn child. Since Ramsay doesn't claim to be heir of the Dreadfort.

Mance Rayder is Ramsay's prisoner. Jeyne has escaped with Justin Massey, Alysane Mormont, Tycho Nestoris, a few men of the Night's Watch.

Theon might have been sacrified or has disappeared, perhaps with Asha and her Ironmen. In the latter case, their natural destination might be Torrhen's Square.

Stannis might have earned a partial victory in the battle, perhaps against the Freys. But his army has eventually been crushed. The camouflaging capabilities and the past relationship of the mountain clans with Mance are a wild card, as is the presence Manderly's reserve forces.

Stannis might be dead. In any case, he has no army anymore, and has no power to claim any kingship, at least until Justin Massey's return, which might benefit only Shireen.

7. The Letter

The starting points of our investigation about the letter concerns the hand that penned the letter, the mouth that dictated it, the maester that sent the raven, the provenance of the bird and the mind that conceived it all. Luwin's ravens, so numerous on the wedding day, have practically disappeared from Winterfell on the day of the escape. It's unclear which raven has been used to transport the letter.

The maesters in Winterfell are in Roose's service and have no desire (at least as far as Rhodry and Medrick are concerned, and Henly's whereabouts are unknown at the end of the story), and apparently no obligation, to serve Ramsay. The maester are bound to serve Roose in his quality of Warden of the north, a title that can not pass to Ramsay.

So Roose has played no role in the writing and sending of the letter, which does not fit the Lord of the Dreadfort's motto that power tastes best when sweetened by courtesy.

A man has been working for months to gain Ramsay's trust: Hother Umber. Whoresbane has been educated in Oldtown. The comparison with Pate in Oldtown suggests that he could have learned ravencraft. Hence, he could have sent the letter in Ramsay's behalf. In short, he could play the role of Ramsay's maester. However, it seems that Whoresbane is illiterate, despite his education.

Roose, Barbrey Dustin and Jon Snow all express doubts about the loyalty of Whoresbane to the Bolton cause. A few hints suggest that Whoresbane and Crowfood are on good terms, notably the arrangement that led Whoresbane to bring the old men of the Last Hearth to Winterfell, while the green boys remained with Crowfood.

Hother can have access to Mance while he is Ramsay's prisoner in a cage, and is thus in position to insert Mance's words in the letter, as, by tradition, the maester writes a letter that the lord would approve before the sending. If Whoresbane is illiterate, the scribe might be Big Walder, Ramsay's squire, who has already been allowed by Ramsay to write a letter when he was at the Dreadfort.

The letter's phraseology betrays Mance's agency in the elaboration of the letter. In particular, it seems to refer to a scene at the Wall, where the "Horn of Joramun" has been burned. The false king, the king-beyond-the Wall, the red witch, the wildling princess, the little prince, the whores, the bastard, the black crows, all mentioned in the letter were exactly the people in attendance when "Mance" had been burned in a cage, which is precisely where Mance is in the letter as well. The allusion goes beyond a mere enumeration of people. It involves for most of them their specific denominations at the Wall. Melisandre is called red witch, she called Mance a false king, wildling princess and little prince are the nicknames of Val and Mance's son at the Wall, black crow is rather a wildling term. The letter produces characters in excess though: the false king's queen, his daughter, Reek and the bride.

So our understanding of the letter relies on a few principles : the letter is sincere, if not truthful, and has been given leave to go by Ramsay. The maesters present in Winterfell would not serve Ramsay, which leaves Whoresbane as the sender of the raven. Mance managed to introduce his words in the letter itself, with the complicity of Hother Umber. The problem of Mance's motive remains.

The letter contains a message to Melisandre, to Val, and an attempt to manipulate Jon Snow.

It is entirely possible that Mance coordinated with Val for her mission beyond the Wall to find Tormund. Since Val left the Wall with the announcement of her return date with Tormund, Mance might have expected Tormund's presence at the Wall by the time the letter has been sent. Jon Snow had no difficulty to assemble a wildling host to go to Winterfell. There might a subtler message to Val though.

The message to Melisandre is clear. Since Ramsay had Stannis' sword with a large ruby, he might be vulnerable to Melisandre's sorcery, just like Stannis was under Melisandre's spell because of that ruby. And of course Mance is well placed to know such a thing, since he had been given a ruby by Melisandre as well. Hence, Melisandre might be in position to save Mance. (However, an interesting twist would make Melisandre switch allegiance and see in Ramsay Snow, who holds Lightbringer, her true savior after Stannis' demise.)

Finally, Mance provoked Jon Snow into coming to Winterfell. He realized the extent to which Jon was disturbed by Arya's wedding to Ramsay, after witnessing Jon's reaction to the announcement. The threat of cutting out Jon's heart and eat it might carry a special weight for a warg, and expanded the emotional shock of having to comply with Ramsay's demand over Arya, and thus precipitated the oathbreaking. Mance, an oathbreaker himself, knows better than most how the hearts of his former brothers struggle with themselves.