Warning: This article contains spoilers and speculation for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.
Winter is still coming—it’s just going to take more time than George R.R. Martin originally planned.
Martin told fans and readers in an emotional and revealing LiveJournal post that The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in A Song of Ice and Fire, would not be published before the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Throughout the post, Martin was frank about his writing process, his issues with deadlines, and how there’s no one else to blame but him. Although it means we’ll have to wait even longer for that book, fans are largely supportive of Martin and lashing out at other fans with entitlement issues.
I always consider it a public service to writers when a master of the craft admits how fucking hard it can be https://t.co/Jhplcu165b
— Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers) January 3, 2016
But within the post, he tackled a topic many of his readers are anxious to know: Will Game of Thrones spoil the books?
It’s a fear that book fans have had for some time. The most recent book in ASOIAF, A Dance of Dragons, was published in 2011—shortly after Game of Thrones’s first season ended—and fans have been waiting for the next installment for more than four years. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss said in March that the show may one day overtake the books, but fans had held onto hope that The Winds of Winter would come out before season 6; a minor conspiracy theory even suggested that Game of Thrones was delayed a week or two in order for Martin to publish his book.
Martin’s response to that often-asked query is a little less concrete.
Having said all that, I know what the next question will be, because hundreds of you have already asked it of me. Will the show ‘spoil’ the novels?
Maybe. Yes and no. Look, I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has. The show moved faster than I anticipated and I moved more slowly. There were other factors too, but that was the main one. Given where we are, inevitably, there will be certain plot twists and reveals in season six of GAME OF THRONES that have not yet happened in the books. For years my readers have been ahead of the viewers. This year, for some things, the reverse will be true. How you want to handle that… hey, that’s up to you.
For years, Martin has talked about the “butterfly effect,” with smaller changes in an adaptation eventually lead to bigger changes. Characters who are dead on the show are still alive in the books. Certain characters have yet to meet in the books, and for some of them, a TV version of a particular scene is no longer possible. Many characters are so entrenched in the butterfly effect that we have no idea what will happen to them. Some, as Martin mentioned, such as Stannis, Selyse, and Shireen Baratheon, Ser Barristan Selmy, Mance Rayder, and Myrcella Baratheon, are dead in the show but their book characters still live. And others have yet to make an appearance. Some of them might still have a large role to play in Martin’s books.
So what does that mean for our show favorites? Although some fans may stop watching Game of Thrones until The Winds of Winter is published to continue the story the way Martin intended it to be told, we may end up less spoiled than we originally thought. We’ve pinned down where the big characters may end up and how likely it is the show will spoil their fates.
Is Jon Snow dead or alive? That’s the main question that’s been on the tip of fans’ tongues ever since “Mother’s Mercy,” the season 5 finale, aired nearly six months ago. A wave of fan theories hit the Internet, fans obsessed over Kit Harington’s hair, paparazzi sightings fueled the speculation, and some grainy photos eventually revealed what might’ve been the greatest TV twist to happen in years. It’s no longer a question of whether it will happen but how.
And we’re almost certainly going to see it happen on TV, and not within the pages of Martin’s saga. Many fans believe he’s too important a character to just fade away or occasionally show up to get revenge on those who wronged him like Lady Stoneheart.
Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson speculated that Game of Thrones and HBO had wanted to let Martin have the Jon Snow reveal since the show will likely end before A Dream of Spring is published. But, because Martin missed his deadlines and isn’t finished writing The Winds of Winter, that is no longer possible.
Around November, approximately the time that Martin started to become discouraged, Game of Thrones released its first poster, more or less revealing what we had already figured out.
— Game of Thrones (@GameOfThrones) November 23, 2015
Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few show characters to end season 5 exactly the way she does in the books: surrounded by a khalasar of Dothraki riders after she and Drogon made their great escape from Meereen.
From the few hints we’ve been given from season 6, it looks like we’ll find out what will happen to Daenerys and Drogon right away. And while she isn’t a living cliffhanger like Jon, she has nearly as many theories and prophecies swarming around her.
Cersei Lannister is also at the same point as her book counterpart. She just did her walk of atonement and met Ser Robert Strong, the newest member of the Kingsguard who took a vow of silence until all of Tommen’s enemies are dead.
It’s presumed that Cersei will undergo a trial for the other accusations against her, which include regicide, incest, and high treason. (In the books, she’s also accused of plotting the murder of the previous High Septon before the High Sparrow.) In A Dance of Dragons, Cersei sees a trial by combat as the only way she will be able to escape a death sentence, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Cersei made the same choice in the show.
As far as who will fight for her? A tinfoil theory might give us an answer.
Bran Stark was noticeably missing throughout season 5, which was an intentional move by Benioff and Weiss. They compared Bran to Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi and said he would receive his training from the Three-Eyed Raven off-screen.
But Bran is coming back in a big way next season. He will be able to see the past, present, and future, and he’ll be giving us glimpses of important events in Westerosi history. Will those also happen in The Winds of Winter? That seems to be likely.
“Previously Bran’s seen tiny glimpses of future or past but never has he been very much in control in the situation,” Isaac Hempstead-Wright told Entertainment Weekly. “Now we’re given looks into very important events in the past, present and future of this world and Bran is beginning to piece them together like a detective, almost as if he’s watching the show. Equally, he’s now discovering how crucial he could be in the Great War. It’s quite Inception-y.”
The characters under the butterfly effect
Most of Game of Thrones’s characters are already far enough removed from their book counterparts that it’s unlikely they’ll tread the same path in a book after season 6 is over.
Sansa Stark: In the books, Sansa is still in the Vale with Littlefinger, who’s trying to arrange a marriage between her and her cousin Robert (Robin) Arryn’s heir, in a long game con that would eventually get her the Vale and the North. In the show, she just escaped Winterfell with Theon Greyjoy as the show’s stand-in for Jeyne Poole, one of the more controversial show changes.
Tyrion Lannister: Tyrion is not one of Daenerys’s advisers (nor has he met her yet in the books), but instead a member of the sellsword company the Second Sons, which is about to fight in the Second Siege of Meereen.
Theon Greyjoy: Newly escaped from Winterfell, it’s impossible for him to be captured by Stannis Baratheon’s army because as we saw last season, Stannis is dead.
Jaime Lannister: Instead of ending up in the Riverlands to squash the last remaining dregs of Robb Stark’s army, Jaime is sent to Dorne to bring Myrcella back to King’s Landing. (Which doesn’t turn out so well.)
Davos Seaworth: Davos is sent to search for Rickon Stark to gain support from Northern families, but Stannis is no longer alive to give him those orders in the show.
Melisandre: The Red Priestess is a lot less dejected in the books without Stannis’s defeat at Winterfell, but she’s still just as fascinated with Jon Snow.
The characters whose book plots haven’t fully played out yet
As much as we hear about the characters whose plots have run out of pages in the books, there is still some published book material that has yet to be filmed.
The entire Greyjoy clan: Balon Greyjoy, Theon’s father, has yet to die, but once he does there is the matter of who takes their throne.
Samwell Tarly: Samwell Tarly, Gilly, and her son are all on their way to Oldtown so he can become a maester, although how they get there will be different after the death of Aemon Targaryen last season.
Arya Stark: Her season 5 plot ends the same way it does in A Feast for Crows: she’s left blind by the Faceless Men. She still has a whole book of plot left.
No matter what happens next season, for the first time in the show’s history, book fans will be in the same place as the show viewers: in the dark about what’s about to happen.
Illustration by Max Fleishman