White Walker and Ned Stark in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones' adage "There must always be a Stark in Winterfell" has never been directly explained, but as HBO's fantasy-drama approaches its end, it feels like it's going to be key to the outcome of the war with the White Walkers.

While fairly prominent in the novels, the line is only heard on the show once, at the end of Season 1, Episode 2, “The Kingsroad.” Catelyn says it to Robb when the latter insists on going to King's Landing after finding out the Lannisters had something to do with Bran’s accident. She goes in his stead and the rest is bloody history. The characters in the story treat the saying like an actual rule, which is indicative of the Stark’s ancestral duty to the North. But the specificity of the phrase and the nature of the Stark family’s close relationship to Winterfell itself have lead audiences and readers to suspect it has mystical implications and origins. After all, both the family and the castle have legacies that stretch back into mythology, it makes sense that there would be some spiritual tie between them.

Related: Game of Thrones Season 8 Trailer Breakdown: Feather, Quotes & Stark Reveals

In-universe Game of Thrones history says that the maybe mythical, maybe not founder of House Stark, Bran the Builder raised Winterfell after the first Long Night. This would’ve been during the Age of Heroes, an era in Westerosi history when the continent was ostensibly flooded with larger-than-life folk heroes. It's also the era that will serve as the basis for the developing HBO prequel, The Long Night. Whether or not that’s exactly how things happened remains to be seen, but it’s important to note that both Winterfell and the Starks nearly predate Westerosi recorded history. The show and the books prove magic exists in Martin’s world, and that there was indeed a big zombie uprising a few thousand years before. While it might be politically necessary for a Stark to always be in Winterfell, there’s more than enough evidence to support that at one time, there was far more to it.

There’s also evidence to suggest that the warning went unheeded sometime before the events of Game of Thrones, and that a Winterfell empty of Starks might have played a part in the second rise of the Night King.

Is Winterfell The Site Of the Battle of the Dawn?

Game of Thrones The Long Night Art

The legends surrounding the First Long night speak of a massive conflict that was decisively ended by the Battle of the Dawn. The myth of the Last Hero tells the story of a warrior and his companions that journeyed north in search of the Children of the Forest to seek their aid in fighting the White Walkers. After he secured the secret of using Dragonglass, the first men of the Night’s Watch are formed and they beat the Others (White Walkers in the Game of Thrones series) back into the North in the Battle of the Dawn. The site of that battle is unknown, but some have theorized that Winterfell might stand on it.

Martin and the show make much of Winterfell’s strategic position, as well as its nature as a hallowed place. It’s age, labyrinthine crypts, weirwood grove and even the hot springs running underneath it contribute to the castle’s ancient and mysterious air. Winterfell is significant in part because of the reverence paid to it by everyone in the series, but reading and watching one gets the sense that there’s more to it than the sum of its parts.

A popular, if prosaic theory posits that Winterfell stands on the site where the original Battle For the Dawn took place and that the castle took its name from the place where “Winter” i.e. the White Walkers “fell." While that seems almost too obvious, it makes sense. And given the Stark's association with myths surrounding the Night King and the first Long Night, it would make sense that they would’ve been the key players in that initial conflict.

Related: Sansa Allying With Dany Betrays A Stark Tradition

Why Must There Always Be A Stark In Winterfell?

Winterfell Exterior Shot

Two major pieces of construction happened after the Long Night – the Wall was raised and the first iteration of Winterfell was constructed. It’s possible neither of these events were related considering there’s no way to tell when either build was undertaken (they could’ve been hundreds of years apart, given the accuracy of the history surrounding them). But the fact that the Wall was clearly built and inlaid with magic for the express purpose of keeping out the White Walkers makes it seem like defense was of primary concern to Northerners after this major conflict. If Winterfell was indeed built on the site of the Battle for the Dawn, it seems likely that it could have been designed with some kind of protective magic in mind.

Theoretically, if the Wall works like it’s supposed to, Winterfell shouldn’t have to be a fortress that defends against the White Walkers. But given how inscrutable and dangerous an enemy they are, it makes sense that the Wall wouldn’t be the only magical barrier or protection against another attack. It’s important to remember that, before the White Walkers were kept out of Westeros by the Wall, they were subdued into some kind of hibernation (you cannot build a wall faster than a wight can climb). How that happened remains a mystery, but it doesn’t change the fact that at some point the Night King and his minions checked out, allowing for the construction of a barrier in the first place.

What does this have to do with there being a Stark in Winterfell? Well, if the Starks were instrumental in the first Long Night, they were probably instrumental in ending it. And given their association with the post-war builds, it stands to reason that Winterfell was imbued with magic in the same way the Wall was; if the Wall keeps them out, maybe a Stark in Winterfell helped keep them sleeping. There’s no way to say what that was, but considering the Last Hero went to entreat with the Children of the Forest to help end the conflict, perhaps they also assisted in protecting the realm once the conflict was over. It could be they helped subdue the White Walkers and left the humans with the ability to maintain that magic – as long as a Stark’s in Winterfell, the spell holds and the White Walkers remain asleep.

That’s total speculation, but if it's taken that the necessity of a Stark in Winterfell has to do with protective magic, the timing of events leading up to the beginning of Game of Thrones provides very compelling evidence that said magic had to do with keeping monsters at bay.

Page 2 of 2: How Ned Stark & Robert's Rebellion Broke The Rule

Did The Tourney At Harrenhal Start The Night King's March?

One of the major public events and contributing causes of Robert's Rebellion was the infamous Tournement at Harrenhal, and everything that happened at what was the biggest tournament of its time had far-reaching implications. Nearly every prominent family in Westeros was represented in the audience as Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen shamelessly flirted with Lyanna Stark in front of everyone (gasp!). When he crowned her Queen of Love and Beauty after winning the joust, he basically made their affair Instagram official in front of his wife Elia and Lyanna's fiancé Robert Baratheon. Slightly less noteworthy, but perhaps just as groundbreaking was the fact that the entire Stark family was in attendance leaving Winterfell empty for a period of at least several weeks. Meera Reed recounts in great detail the Tourney for Bran's benefit, and she clearly mentions all four Stark children, Brandon, Lyanna, Eddard and Benjen. She doesn't specifically mention Rickard Stark, but that doesn't mean the Stark parents weren't in attendance, and it's more than possible they would've attended.

While we only see the first White Walker 15 years later at the top of Game of Thrones, we know from Wildling movements that they’ve been actively moving south for some time. In the books, Martin goes out of his way to point out that it’s around the time of Robert's Rebellion, that Mance Rayder starts uniting the Wildlings in preparation to invade the south, all to escape the Night King.

Related: Game of Thrones Mysteries The Long Night Can Answer

Granted, the awakening of the White Walkers is kind of a big event to hang on a technicality, so it may have more to do with the Starks being so far away from the North rather than their Winterfell itself. Though the idea of White Walkers rising in the North as unwitting humans party and make trouble in the South rings with some nice symmetry... Either way, the idea of a Stark as a watchperson against the night is in line with themes in the show, and it would stand to reason that if a Stark left his spiritual post, something bad would happen. That is literally what happens to Ned’s father, sister and brother, and the following generation of Starks fairs no better in their own diaspora.

Also, it’s important to remember that the White Walkers waking up is just a small piece of why the second Long Night is coming and with such force. It may have been a Stark absence that allowed them to rise, but once the White Walkers started gaining power, there should have been huge contingency plans in place. Unfortunately, too much time had elapsed between confrontations for early defenses to have been maintained and for the populous to remember to fear the Others. This second confrontation seemed destined to happen as the Westerosi population enjoyed years of relative (relative) peace in the wake of the White Walkers’ first invasion, which makes sense given their position as a metaphor for death itself. To quote Berric Dondarrion, “Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last. The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him."

What Does This Mean For Game of Thrones Season 8?

If it was indeed a Stark not being present in Winterfell that somehow contributed to the rise of the Night King, what happens when they’re back? Clearly once Sansa and Jon regained control of the castle, no magic sleep spell overtook the Night King and sent him and his armies back from whence they came. Whatever magic was at work in keeping the White Walker at bay isn’t going to be of any help now that Viserion is an ice dragon - that much was clear from the Game of Thrones season 7 finale. However, that doesn’t mean Starks getting back home won’t make a practical different in the war to come.

Putting aside any magical benefits to a Stark being in Winterfell, the fact that the Stark family is in power and the North is united behind them once more can only mean good things for the human side of the Night King/Human conflict. Sansa and Jon together are not only actively preparing for a long winter, but also for a prolonged war during said winter. The Boltons wouldn’t have prepared for this war, nor would the Umbers or the Karstarks. Sansa’s an able leader who thinks of small details like ensuring armor gets lined with leather so their soldiers don’t freeze. Also, big details like snagging the Knights of the Vale into her service and keeping them there to shore up defenses could make a huge difference in the actual fighting that will occur. There's also Jon, literally a mythical hero come back to life. As the “son” of Ned Stark, he gives the people something to rally around.

The Starks are just as important as beacons of hope, safety and inspiration as they are magical wards against the unknown, and while nobody's expecting a purely happy ending to Game of Thrones, what glad tidings fans will get probably take the form of season 8 concluding with Winterfell remaining in Stark control. It’s the way it should be, both spiritually and pragmatically.

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