Warning: This article contains extensive spoilers from the A Song of Ice and Fire book series and the Game of Thrones TV show.
For the first five seasons of Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy show and pop culture phenomenon based off George R. R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), book readers had the edge over those who only watched the show. They knew where the story would go, how it would happen, who lived and who died (for the most part, anyway). Now that aspects of the show’s plot have gone beyond the books, everyone is pretty much in the dark when it comes to guessing what’ll come next.
In the five years since A Dance with Dragons was released in 2011, we’ve received only a handful of chapters of The Winds of Winter—with no publication date in sight. The release date of A Dream of Spring, the final book in ASOIAF, is even further away. The ultimate fate of the assorted bastards, freaks, and psychopaths of Westeros remains a mystery to us all.
But that hasn’t stopped the fandom from guessing. ASOIAF is incredibly densely plotted, with subterfuge, counter-conspiracy, calamity, and outright war blending to produce a perfect storm in which no-one is safe and no outcome is certain. Left without new material for years at a time, dedicated fans have spun together extraordinarily elaborate theories as to what’s going down, who’s going down, where it’s going down, and why.
Some are distinctly more plausible than others.
Let’s start, as we did in A Game of Thrones, with the Starks. It was all going so well for them, wasn't it? Sure, Ned got his head cut off, but Robb was harrying the Lannisters like a pro, the boys were tucked up safe in Winterfell, and it looked like the whole family would be reunited by autumn.
But then Winterfell burnt down, Sansa was forced to marry Tyrion Lannister, and the King in the North got slaughtered at the Red Wedding, along with just about every over notable Northman. Martin has made it clear that this is not a story of good and evil, in which all of your favorites will eventually prevail—but nonetheless, there’s a sense among fans that the Starks will once more get their time in the sun, especially given Game of Thrones’s reunion between Sansa and her half-brother Jon Snow that has yet to happen in ASOIAF, if at all.
Sansa’s had a particularly rough deal—especially in the show—but in the books she’s still safely living in the Vale under the guise of Alayne Stone, the bastard daughter of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. She’s starting to play the game, which offered a side of the eldest Stark daughter we haven’t seen until now: Elio Garcia, who runs fansite Westeros.org, has read portions of The Winds of Winter—including a Sansa chapter he called “controversial.” (He later revealed that he was referring to the Alayne chapter Martin released in 2015.)
Theories as to her ultimate fate suggest her betrothed Harry the Heir is a misnomer, and she will ultimately be married off to Aegon Targaryen (who might not be dead after all) for strategic reasons, or even Jon. There’s also the idea that Sansa will finally stop playing the victim—by killing Littlefinger.
Presumed dead by the rest of the world, we left young Bran at the end of A Dance With Dragons with the mythical Children of the Forest, training to be a greenseer. There’s still mysteries surrounding the events of Robert’s Rebellion, and with his new ability to look through time Bran may well play a part in any coming exposition. We witnessed a “consistent causal loop” in Game of Thrones’s sixth season when Bran’s warging because the reason Hodor says “Hodor”—an event that always happened and always will—but we’ll have to see if Bran has the same effect in the books as well as what events he interferes with. (While Martin confirmed what Hodor means, he said his reveal will play out differently in the books.)
Martin has previously told us that in The Winds of Winter we will see further into the Land of Always Winter than ever before. Now this could mean that despite the assassination attempt Jon is a-OK (more on this later) and will go back beyond the Wall, but there's also plenty for him to take care of further south, not least the question of his parentage. Many believe it more likely that Bran will make the journey himself, by warging into (telepathically controlling) Hodor. What he’ll find—Benjen Stark? The Great Other?—remains a mystery.
On the other hand, Bran is a powerful warg and greenseer. He can warg into Summer and Hodor and travel through time, but it’s also worth wondering if he’s powerful enough that he could warg into a dragon.
Ned Stark’s brother is a firm fan favorite. Despite there being no sign of him since his disappearance beyond the Wall in A Game of Thrones, some remain convinced that he will return to play a key role in the books to come. Using some impressive knowledge of Westerosi geography, Redditor InflatableNipples argues that he likely made his way to Skagos, from where he will alternately protect his nephew Rickon or return to Castle Black to raise hell following the potentially fatal attack on his other nephew, Jon.
Others argue that as Ned’s brother, he knows the truth about Jon’s parentage—and will be the one to tell him. Alternately, we’ll never see or hear from him again. The hero’s search for a missing mentor/family member is a classic literary trope, and it would be a very Martin-esque subversion of this to just not resolve Benjen’s plotline, never revealing whether he was murdered by the Others, or succumbed to the cold, or eaten by a bear.
Some fans believed that Benjen was Coldhands, a wight-like being who brings Bran, Hodor, and the Reeds to the Three-Eyed Crow, but Martin ruled that out in the manuscript to A Dance With Dragons. Game of Thrones, however, brought back Benjen as Coldhands in a season 6 episode (although the name isn’t used within the episode)—likely as a way to combine the two characters.
Or maybe he’s Daario Naharis in disguise. The idea that he’s masquerading as a prestigious sellsword in Meereen has become a meme in subreddit r/asoiaf, frequently suggested semi-satirically and is a prime example of what the community calls “tinfoil”—wildly outrageous theories, that still have at least a modicum of textual grounding.
Where next for the Lannister queen? Her father, Tywin, and uncle Kevan are both dead, and Cersei is humiliated by the Faith and awaiting her trial by combat. If Maggy the Frog’s prophecy is accurate, then this is a foregone conclusion—her champion Ser Robert Strong must triumph, so she can later be killed by her “little brother”.
Others dispute this interpretation, arguing that Sandor Clegane, AKA the Hound, is still alive (working as a gravedigger), and that he will be the champion of the Faith to fight against Ser Robert Strong, commonly believed to be a resurrected Gregor Clegane—the Hound’s bigger, badder older brother. The name for this much-hyped duel? Cleganebowl. By triumphing, the suddenly pious Hound would fulfil the prophecy, completing Cersei’s downfall by playing the role of “little brother” himself. Of course, that’s if there’s even a trial; King Tommen Baratheon banned trial by combat in the show, and if the Faith is aware of the Mountain’s near-invincibility in the books, they might do the same here.
Cersei is convinced this “valonqar” will be Tyrion—hence her lifelong animosity toward him—but some speculate that Jaime will do the deed himself, completing his arc of repentance and saving King’s Landing once again from an unhinged monarch.
And maybe she’s modeled on the evil queen from Snow White. Didn’t think of that one, did you?
Daenerys is likely to get to Westeros, eventually. In the meantime, there’s speculation she will raise Meereen to the ground with her dragons. She’s often speculatively paired with Jon, reconciling the North with the rightful ruler of Westeros, and she might just be a prophesied hero—or killed to produce one.
She’s the subject of many of the books’ prophecies. Some parts of Mirri Maz Duur’s curse in A Game of Thrones appear to come true, a masked seer in Qarth named Quaithe tells her to go west she must go east, predicts the epidemic that eventually hits Meereen as well as the characters she’ll encounter once she settles there. But it’s the House of the Undying that has proved to be the richest ground for theories, including the many prophecies of three she hears: the dragon has three heads, she’ll ride “three mounts,” and she’ll be betrayed three times. Parts of the scenery described in the sequence also serve as evidence of Jon’s true parentage.
An interesting find that (if not an inconsistency) suggests serious scheming is the house in Braavos with the red door and the lemon tree which she often nostalgically remembers. Martin has told us repeatedly that trees do not grow in Braavos—but Dorne is famed for its lemons. If Dany was secretly raised there (without her knowledge), it adds a whole new level of mystery.
As the sixth season of Game of Thrones progressed, fans have gravitated toward the theory that some book fans have suspected for years: that Daenerys is mad like her father. She doesn’t want to become like her father, but her version of justice over the years has toed the line from time to time.
Many dispute that Aegon Targaryen, miraculously found alive after Varys switched him with another babe during the sack of King’s Landing in Robert’s Rebellion, is who he says he is. A prophecy Dany hears in the House of the Undying in Qarth talks of a “mummer’s dragon”—a mummer is an actor, and in this context implies playing a part, or deceit. If Aegon were a false pretender, then this would fulfil the prophecy perfectly. So who is he?
There’s evidence to suggest that he might be a Blackfyre—a cadet branch of House Targaryen, that rebelled several times before the events of the book, and was thought to be extinct. Or he could be nobody at all—a baby born at an opportune time, manipulated by Varys and Illyrio Mopatis for their own ends, ignorant even himself to the ignoble truth of his identity.
The more imaginative in the community believe in “Secret Targ” theories, in which at least one of the Lannister children—Jaime and Cersei, or perhaps Tyrion, or all of them—are in fact secret Targaryens, fathered by Daenerys’s father, King Aerys II Targaryen.
It’s rumored that King Aerys and Joanna Lannister, Tywin’s wife, slept together as early as King Jaehaerys II Targaryen’s coronation until shortly after her marriage to Tywin, with rumors persisting that Aerys took “unwonted liberties” with Joanna during the bedding ritual. Soon after, she was dismissed by Queen Rhaella as a lady-in-waiting and sent to Casterly Rock. She gave birth to Jaime and Cersei a few years later, according to The World of Ice and Fire.
The setup for Tyrion being a secret Targaryen (as well as one of the dragon’s three heads) is a little more plausible. Joanna was in King’s Landing the year before Tyrion was born to celebrate the 10th year of Aerys’s reign—an occasion that Aerys took to insult Joanna’s breasts. While no rumors had persisted from this interaction, fans could link that visit to when Tyrion was conceived. The following year (specific dates aren’t listed so it’s unclear just how much time has passed), Joanna died while giving birth to Tyrion.
The amount of theorizing that surrounds Jon almost deserves a book of its own. For the alleged bastard of Ned Stark, everything is debatable, from his true parentage to his fulfilment of ancient prophecies—but we’ll deal with that shortly. First, there’s the issue of his parents.
Some theorize that the mother is Ashara Dayne, who loved either Ned or his brother, and who took her own life. Another potential candidate whom Ned mentions by name is Whylla, a wet nurse, and there’s also a fisherman’s daughter in the running. But by far the most common theory is R+L=J.
Rhaegar Targaryen + Lyanna Stark = Jon Snow. Ned Stark is not Jon’s father, but rather he took the child in after his mother—Lyanna, Ned’s sister—died in childbirth at the Tower of Joy, where Rhaegar absconded with her. Game of Thrones confirmed R+L=J in the season 6 finale, and while not everything on the show will occur in the books, remember this: showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss received Martin’s blessing to adapt his books for TV after they correctly guessed the identity of Jon’s mother.
The Targaryens practiced polygamy, so if true, it may well mean that Jon Snow is actually Jon Targaryen, and the true ruler of Westeros. Rhaegar’s famed harp may well be hidden in Winterfell’s crypts, which may be more important than we realize.
Pity Jon got stabbed then, eh?
Of course, most assume he’s not actually dead (or, as the show demonstrated, he may be dead but may be quickly resurrected), despite the events at the end of A Dance With Dragons. Resurrection has been firmly established in the ASOIAF world, so the question now is: what form it will take? Some believe Melisandre will bring him back using the power of R’hllor, or maybe he’ll warg into Ghost, an ability he has but hasn’t practiced nearly as much as Bran. Perhaps Lady Stoneheart will resurrect him, redeeming herself after years of rejecting Jon. Others say he will become a sentient wight, like Coldhands.
Azor Ahai is essentially the Jesus-like figure of the series, a legendary hero who saved mankind from the Others in Westeros thousands of years ago. He’s prophesied to be reborn by the red priests of R’hllor and is sometimes interchangeable with the “Prince That Was Promised,” a similar prophecy about a savior; the term “prince” is gender-neutral in its original Valyrian. He or she will be “born amidst salt and smoke.”
Melisandre believes her prophesied savior to be Stannis Baratheon, but others aren't so sure. Jon and Daenerys (the latter who has faith from Aemon Targaryen on his deathbed) have emerged as two of the stronger candidates both in the books and on the show. On Game of Thrones, Jon was resurrected by the Lord of Light and Daenerys has emerged unburnt from the flames twice now, and they each have a red priestess willing to back that claim, regardless if they believe it themselves.
The who? In a world populated by dragons, 8-foot knights with a penchant for rape, and 100,000-strong armies, it's easy to forget about the diminutive and enigmatic House Reed. But it's likely that they play a central role in coming exposition: Howland Reed was one of the few to accompany Ned Stark to the Tower of Joy, and thus to know the truth about Lyanna's death. If R + L does equal J, and in the absence of Benjen, then it might necessitate his reemergence to explain it—he's yet to make an appearance in the books.
Or so we think. Some theorize the new High Septon is in fact Howland Reed. His dirty appearance, small stature and bare feet are all in keeping with descriptions of Crannogmen (Reed's people), and he also seems to have a fondness for Ned. Leading the peasant army, the Faith Militant, it would be a remarkable turn of fortune for the North, after their wholesale butchering by the Freys at the Red Wedding.
Two Reeds we have met are Jojen and Meera, Howland's offspring, as they accompany Bran on his journey beyond the Wall. Theories surround both of them. One theory that, while outlandish, has gained significant traction is “Jojen paste”—that Jojen, a greenseer himself, has been killed, made into a paste, and fed to Bran by the Children of the Forest to awaken his psychic abilities. If true, the implication is that the Children are not as friendly as they seem, and may not be working in Bran’s best interests. Whether or not the Children helped create the greatest threat to Westeros, however, is yet to be seen.
If Aegon is indeed a pretender (and assuming R+L=J), and discounting any secret Targaryen status on the part of the Lannisters, then this leaves at least one space open in the prophecy that “the dragon has three heads”—commonly interpreted as three riders for Dany’s three dragons. Step forward, Meera Reed. It’s very farfetched, but given Howland accompanied Ned to the Tower of Joy, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Lyanna birthed not one child but twins. For safe-keeping, these were split—Jon to Ned, Meera to Howland. They’re the same age, after all.
No one’s sure of the wight’s identity, but Benjen Stark as a possibility was already been struck down by Martin himself. However, the Night’s King has been suggested, along with the possibility that it’s just the greenseer Bloodraven warging into a random wight.
...And the rest
Now, let’s run through a few more, separated by region:
The Starks and the North
- It’s very strongly implied that Wyman Manderly secretly killed three Freys and baked them into enormous pies to serve to Freys and Boltons, in revenge for the Red Wedding. (Game of Thrones alluded to this by giving Arya Stark that particular plot thread in her murder of Walder Frey.)
- Lyanna Stark may be the Knight of the Laughing Tree, a mysterious knight who avenged a younger Howland Reed at the Tourney of Harrenhal—the same tourney where Lyanna and Rhaegar first met.
- The Pink Letter is the catalyst that leads to the mutiny against Jon in A Dance With Dragons, and it’s signed by Ramsay. It slightly differs from the show version, but the sentiment is the same: Return Ramsay’s wife (Sansa in the show; a childhood friend of Sansa’s pretending to be Arya in the books) or he’ll torture and kill everyone he has hostaged and worse. And while it’s definitely from Ramsay in the show, Stannis, Mance Rayder, and even Wyman Manderly have emerged as other possible writers of the Pink Letter in order to trick Jon or send a message.
- Northern lords are involved in a “Grand Northern Conspiracy” to restore the only kings they recognize—the Starks. Roose Bolton is universally despised, and Stannis is an outsider; if Robb Stark’s will legitimizing Jon is found, then he could end up becoming lord of Winterfell and King in the North (assuming he survived the attack). Alternately, and as Bran’s not going anywhere fast, young Rickon could take the throne.
- The Wall is full of magic and protections, but it might not hold forever.
- Roose Bolton is an immortal vampire. Getting very “tinfoil-y” here, but the man rarely sleeps or eats, enjoys a leeching, seems unconcerned with succession and might just be raising his bastard Ramsay so he can steal his face when the time is right to avoid raising suspicion over his longevity.
- Mance Rayder is Rhaegar Targaryen in disguise. Never mind the fact that thousands saw him die on the Trident—he somehow survived, snuck north, and built a wildling army.
King’s Landing and Westerosi politics
- Littlefinger is responsible for Ned Stark’s death. Sure, Joffrey gave the order, but was Petyr Baelish whispering in his ear? It plunged the realm into chaos, Littlefinger’s element, so it seems believable. It could also provide the motivation for Sansa to kill him if she ever found out.
- Oberyn Martell poisoned Tywin Lannister. Sure, his death was hastened by Tyrion’s crossbow bolt, but the stench of his corpse, Oberyn’s propensity for poison, and other textual clues suggest the Red Viper poisoned the Lannister patriarch before his own demise at the hands of the Mountain.
- “Southron ambitions”—Robert’s Rebellion wasn’t (just) a spontaneous response to Lyanna’s apparent abduction, but the product of a carefully constructed conspiracy by Rickard Stark and Jon Arryn to overthrow or reform Targaryen rule.
- “The Grand Tyrell Conspiracy” basically surmises that the Tyrells manipulated Cersei into trying to take down Margaery, which ultimately led to her own downfall.
- Did Tywin know about the Purple Wedding? Possibly!
- The black cat prowling round the Red Keep is called Balerion, and formerly belonged to the murdered Princess Rhaenys Targaryen.
- Nobody knows what occurred at the Tragedy at Summerhall, which killed King Aegon V Targaryen, Ser Duncan the Tall, the commander of the Kingsguard (and the duo known as Dunk and Egg), as well as Aegon’s son Duncan Targaryen when the Dornish castle caught on fire the same day that Rhaegar Targaryen was born. Some believe the Ghost of High Heart told Aegon about the Prince That Was Promised prophecy.
- King’s Landing will be destroyed by wildfire (and if so, what a beautifully explosive destruction it will be). Martin has promised a “bittersweet” ending, and the destruction of the Iron Throne—along with the deaths of half a million people—would certainly fit the bill. Some say an increasingly mad Cersei will give the order.
- A plague will hit Westeros. Jon Connington is secretly suffering from the deadly greyscale, it is revealed, and in the books he’s heading straight for King’s Landing with an army. Aegon’s quest for the iron throne may be halted not by military defeat but by ravaging illness.
The Iron Islands
- Victarion Greyjoy will help bring Daenerys back to Westeros. The exiled Targaryen queen has been languishing in Essos for five books now, and if she intends to march overland all the way to the Narrow Sea, the going will be painfully slow. More likely once Meereen is wrapped up, she’ll hop on Victarion’s boats and set sail for her throne. Beyond this, the Iron Islanders are unlikely to pose a serious threat to the realm—unless they steal Dany’s dragons.
- Balon Greyjoy was assassinated by a Faceless Man, probably at the behest of Euron Greyjoy. The dragon egg he “tossed overboard”? That was payment, and the Braavosi assassins are now trying to hatch a dragon of their own. This would explain why Jaqen is in the Citadel—he’s seeking books on dragonlore.
The Faceless Men, Oldtown, and Essos
- Jaqen H’ghar is probably masquerading as Pate at Oldtown. The Maesters have something the Faceless Men (or their clients) want, and he’s been tasked with getting it.
- The maesters are secretly working to rid the world of magic, and were responsible for dragons dying out last time around.
- The Faceless Men started out as slaves of Valyria before killing their masters, but they may have been behind the destruction of Hardhome and the Doom of Valyria—the former being a practice test for the latter.
- - R+L=S. Samwell Tarly is a secret Targaryen. Yu-huh.
- Varys is a woman. And not just any woman—Illyrio Mopatis’s wife. Why? So their son can sit on the Iron Throne. Who’s the son? Aegon Targaryen.
- ASOIAF is based on the Book of Revelations. Yeah. There’s actually some surprisingly accurate parallels, but we’ll let you make up your own mind on that one.
So what are we looking at overall? A magical, medieval clusterfuck, basically. Beloved characters will die wholesale, the realm will be wrecked by calamities, the iron throne probably won’t survive, and the Starks might just make it in the end.
And it’s going to be incredible.
Photo by Steven Guzzardi/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)