Will the Battle of the Bastards Occur in THE WINDS OF WINTER?
GAME OF THRONES, Season Six's "Battle of the Bastards" was one of the show's most elaborate, complex battles. But will it happen in the books?
This post contains spoilers for The Winds of Winter, Game of Thrones, anything and everything
At the end of George RR Martin’s 2011 novel A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay Bolton sent Lord Commander Jon Snow a threatening text, revealing that he knew that Jon conspired against him and demanded that Jon remand Selyse and Shireen Baratheon, Melisandre of Asshai along with Reek and his bride Arya Stark to him or face his wroth.
In response, Jon read Ramsay Bolton’s letter aloud in the Shieldhall, and then he announced some winter vacation plans:
"I ride to Winterfell alone, unless …" Jon paused. "… is there any man here who will come stand with me?"
The roar was all he could have hoped for, the tumult so loud that the two old shields tumbled from the walls. Soren Shieldbreaker was on his feet, the Wanderer as well. Toregg the Tall, Brogg, Harle the Huntsman and Harle the Handsome both, Ygon Oldfather, Blind Doss, even the Great Walrus. I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard. (ADWD, Jon XIII)
What followed, of course, was that Jon Snow took his swords south to Winterfell where he triumphed over Ramsay Bolton in battle, took Winterfell through Wun-Wun’s best knock-knock joke and was acclaimed King in the North by Lyanna Mormont who sassed Lord Glover and Manderly that they were sniveling cowards and …
Wait. I’m getting confused. That didn’t happen (in the books anyways). Instead, if I’m remembering events from the end of A Dance with Dragons correctly, Jon Snow was stabbed to death by his fellow Night’s Watchmen and the book closed with Jon never feeling the fourth knife. Only the cold.
Jon Snow’s story failed to bend towards a confrontation with Ramsay Bolton in A Dance with Dragons. But in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton engaged in a massive battle outside of Winterfell in Season Six in which Jon emerged victorious, and Ramsay died. Was the Battle of the Bastards a major Winds of Winter plot point that Game of Thrones spoiled? Or was it NotASpoiler?
As we know, Game of Thrones, Season Six covered some material that will be published in George RR Martin’s forthcoming The Winds of Winter, but some of what we saw on-screen will not never be seen in The Winds of Winter as George RR Martin explained in his 2016 mea culpa:
So when you ask me, "will the show spoil the books," all I can do is say, "yes and no," and mumble once again about the butterfly effect. Those pretty little butterflies have grown into mighty dragons. Some of the 'spoilers' you may encounter in season six may not be spoilers at all... because the show and the books have diverged, and will continue to do so.
Today, we sift the evidence to determine whether the Battle of the Bastards we saw in Game of Thrones is a spoiler for The Winds of Winter or not. The answer: It’s complicated.
Bastard Background: The Framing of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton
Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton are two characters who have yet to share a scene in A Song of Ice and Fire. For much of the series, they are unaware of each other. Yet while these characters operated in different parts of the story, George RR Martin subtly crafted narratives for Jon and Ramsay which demonstrated some striking and intentional similarities. Both are ostensible bastards of noble northern lords. Both had difficult relationships with their fathers and half-siblings. And both aspired to more than their bastard surnames.
Jon Snow’s official backstory comes early in A Song of Ice and Fire when Catelyn Stark thinks about Jon’s background after Robert Baratheon’s feast at Winterfell:
Many men fathered bastards. Catelyn had grown up with that knowledge. It came as no surprise to her, in the first year of her marriage, to learn that Ned had fathered a child on some girl chance met on campaign. He had a man's needs, after all, and they had spent that year apart, Ned off at war in the south while she remained safe in her father's castle at Riverrun. Her thoughts were more of Robb, the infant at her breast, than of the husband she scarcely knew. He was welcome to whatever solace he might find between battles. And if his seed quickened, she expected he would see to the child's needs. (AGOT, Catelyn II)
In contrast, Ramsay Snow was fathered by Lord Roose Bolton via Roose’s rape of a smallfolk woman as Roose Bolton explained in A Dance with Dragons:
"This miller's marriage had been performed without my leave or knowledge. The man had cheated me. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying. If truth be told, the wench was hardly worth the rope. The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day.
A year later this same wench had the impudence to turn up at the Dreadfort with a squalling, red-faced monster that she claimed was my own get. I should've had the mother whipped and thrown her child down a well … but the babe did have my eyes.” (ADWD, Reek III)
So, Roose Bolton fathered Ramsay via raping his mother but spared his bastard son probably due to the societal prohibition against kinslaying. Interestingly, Cersei Lannister accused Ned Stark of fathering Jon Snow by rape as well:
"How dare you play the noble lord with me! What do you take me for? You've a bastard of your own, I've seen him. Who was the mother, I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I'm told. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole?" (AGOT, Eddard XII)
Of course, Jon Snow was not conceived via Ned’s rape of a peasant woman or an affair with Lady Ashara Dayne. In fact, Ned Stark was not the father at all. But he claimed Jon as his son, and he went much further than societal custom:
The Starks were not like other men. Ned brought his bastard home with him, and called him "son" for all the north to see. When the wars were over at last, and Catelyn rode to Winterfell, Jon and his wet nurse had already taken up residence. (AGOT, Catelyn II)
Ned, of course, claimed Jon Snow as his own and brought him to Winterfell to protect Jon from Robert Baratheon as Jon was the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
In contrast, Roose Bolton hid Ramsay away from the world as was reported by Lady Donella Hornwood in A Clash of Kings:
"Lord Bolton has never acknowledged the boy, so far as I know," Ser Rodrik said. "I confess, I do not know him."
"Few do," [Donella Hornwood] replied. (ACOK, Bran II)
The reason why Roose Bolton hid Ramsay away from the world is that he knew if word got out about his rape of a smallfolk woman, Ned Stark would likely bring him to justice. “A peaceful land, a quiet people” were both Roose Bolton’s personal words and the structure which allowed Roose to operate villainously and with impunity.
Moving on from fathers to siblings, Jon Snow had close relationships with two of his ostensible half-siblings (Robb and Arya), warmly saying goodbye to Robb before riding north to join the Night’s Watch and gifting Arya the sword Needle.
In contrast, Ramsay had a shall-we-politely-say murderous relationship with his half-brother Domeric:
"Ramsay killed him. A sickness of the bowels, Maester Uthor says, but I say poison. In the Vale, Domeric had enjoyed the company of Redfort's sons. He wanted a brother by his side, so he rode up the Weeping Water to seek my bastard out. I forbade it, but Domeric was a man grown and thought that he knew better than his father. Now his bones lie beneath the Dreadfort with the bones of his brothers, who died still in the cradle, and I am left with Ramsay.” (ADWD, Reek III)
George RR Martin talked about the Jon/Ramsay contrast in the Game of Thrones Season Four commentary “Bastards of Westeros”, saying:
The relationship between Roose and Ramsay is, in some ways, a dark counterpoint to the relation between Ned Stark and Jon Snow. In both cases, a noble father with a bastard son. Jon and Ramsay are literally the opposite to each other. Jon is very noble and honorable. (LAUGHING) And Ramsay is none of those things. Roose himself is a cold and calculating man. A dispassionate man. I placed far too much trust in you. But their treatment of the bastard son is very different. Ned keeps Jon Snow at Winterfell and he's raised with Robb and Bran. For all practical purposes, he is one of Ned's sons. Ramsay gets nothing from Roose.
Finally, both Jon and Ramsay aspired to more than their bastard surnames and the associated stigma associated with bastardy. For Ramsay, this was an explicit and unrestrained desire to become a Bolton as he tells Theon at the end of Theon’s arc in A Clash of Kings:
"Snow, my wife called me before she ate her fingers, but I say Bolton." (ACOK, Theon VI)
Thanks to Roose Bolton’s planning and execution of the Red Wedding, Ramsay’s desire to become a Bolton became reality by the end of A Storm of Swords:
Ser Kevan presented another sheaf of parchments to the king. Tommen dipped and signed. "This is a decree of legitimacy for a natural son of Lord Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort. And this names Lord Bolton your Warden of the North." (ASOS, Jaime IX)
Jon Snow’s desire to become a Stark was more subtle but no less a powerful feeling for Jon. Constantly reminded of the outsider status that he was a Snow, not a Stark, Jon had dreamed of more than being a bastard:
When Jon had been very young, too young to understand what it meant to be a bastard, he used to dream that one day Winterfell might be his. Later, when he was older, he had been ashamed of those dreams. Winterfell would go to Robb and then his sons, or to Bran or Rickon should Robb die childless. And after them came Sansa and Arya. Even to dream otherwise seemed disloyal, as if he were betraying them in his heart, wishing for their deaths. (ASOS, Jon XI)
Even so, Jon remained a Snow, but others conspired to give Jon the Stark name. First, his brother Robb Stark planned to name Jon his heir and planned to legitimize him as a Stark:
Catelyn knew how stubborn her son could be. “A bastard cannot inherit.”
“Not unless he’s legitimized by a royal decree,” said Robb. “There is more precedent for that than for releasing a Sworn Brother from his oath.” (ACOK, Catelyn V)
At chapter’s end, Robb asked his lords to bear witness to his choice for his succession, but as of the end of A Dance with Dragons, Jon has not found out about Robb’s decision.
The second tempting of Jon came when Stannis Baratheon offered the legitimize Jon Snow as Jon Stark and Lord of Winterfell/Warden of the North in exchange for Jon swearing fealty to Stannis:
Stannis put a thin, fleshless hand on Jon's shoulder. "Say nothing of what we've discussed here today. To anyone. But when you return, you need only bend your knee, lay your sword at my feet, and pledge yourself to my service, and you shall rise again as Jon Stark, the Lord of Winterfell." (ASOS, Jon XI)
Jon eventually decided against Stannis’ offer after he reunites with Ghost and then he finds out that his name was put forward as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. He won the election, and A Storm of Swords closes with Jon facing his duties as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and Stannis.
Finally, there’s marrying into Winterfell. Both Jon and Ramsay were presented with marriage options to marry their way into the lordship of Winterfell with Stannis offering Jon a marriage to Val and Ramsay marrying Arya Stark (in reality: Jeyne Poole, the daughter of Winterfell’s deceased steward Veyon Poole) to solidify the Bolton hold on Winterfell.
Ultimately, George RR Martin did a brilliant job paralleling Jon and Ramsay’s backstories, but the ways that these characters reacted to similar internal and external stimuli created polar opposites. Jon Snow has a noble heart and a desire to do good for those less fortunate because of his background. Meanwhile, Ramsay Bolton is an unequivocal villain, transgressing social norms and operating as a murderer, rapist and torturer, reacting against his bastard background.
Consider how Ramsay reacts when people remind him of being a bastard:
His lordship was not a bastard anymore. Bolton, not Snow. The boy king on the Iron Throne had made Lord Ramsay legitimate, giving him the right to use his lord father's name. Calling him Snow reminded him of his bastardy and sent him into a black rage. (ADWD, Reek I)
Meanwhile, Jon had initially hated being called Lord Snow by his fellow Night’s Watch recruits on the Wall, but then he received some sage advice from Tyrion Lannister:
"Don't call me Lord Snow."
The dwarf lifted an eyebrow. "Would you rather be called the Imp? Let them see that their words can cut you, and you'll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it, make it your own. Then they can't hurt you with it anymore." (AGOT, Jon III)
Thereafter, Jon embraced the moniker of “Lord Snow”, and though Jon often struggled against his bastardy, secretly yearning to have the Stark name and even the lordship of Winterfell, he maintained his decency, his honor and his inner nobility and helped people. And that helping people stemmed from Jon Snow’s relative (as opposed to his trueborn siblings) under-privileged background as Ned Stark’s bastard
The point of noting these parallels between Jon and Ramsay is that looked at from a certain angle, there’s a potential that George RR Martin seeded the potential confrontation between Jon and Ramsay through a shared background. Polar opposite characters sometimes do not create the same level of dramatic tension that characters with similar backgrounds do. And I believe this is the case with Jon and Ramsay, and this background features prominently as the two characters become aware of each other, and tension escalates in A Dance with Dragons.
Ramsay vs Jon or Jon vs Ramsay in A Dance with Dragons
In Jon Snow’s final that chapter, Jon deals with Queen Selyse Baratheon, Melisandre and Bowen Marsh, but the chapter makes a hard turn when Jon receives the Pink Letter from Ramsay Bolton (trueborn lord of Winterfell). That letter serves as the spark which ends Jon Snow’s arc in A Dance with Dragons with a bang … and his death. But Ramsay didn’t just decide one day to pick on Jon Snow. While evil, Ramsay Bolton had his reasons to want to wrassle with Jon Snow, and that build-up can be found throughout A Dance with Dragons. In fact, the instigator for the conflict between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton was … Jon.
Other writers in ASOIAF such Adam Feldman of the Meereenese Blot and Maester Merry from Up From Winterfell have traced Jon Snow’s character arc in A Dance with Dragons in excellent detail. Here, we’re going to look at the escalating plot tensions and actions between Jon and Ramsay that resulted in the Pink Letter coming to Castle Black to set up the conflict or NotAConflict.
A Storm of Swords closes Jon Snow’s arc with his election as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the final words of Jon’s arc in Storm set up the early part of his story in Dance:
The Wall was his, the night was dark, and he had a king to face. (ASOS, Jon XII)
The king Jon had to face was, of course, Stannis Baratheon. Stannis arrived at Castle Black in the form of a relief army which smashed Mance Rayder’s attack on the Wall. But Stannis wanted to do more than disrupt the wildling attack. Davos Seaworth advised Stannis to come north to aid the Watch, but Stannis also came at the behest of Melisandre of Asshai who warned him of the coming threat from the Others. But to defeat the Others, Stannis looked to practical, pragmatic means of attaining temporal power to defeat the ethereal threat. Enter Jon Snow.
As we talked about earlier, one of Stannis’ first temptations to Jon was to offer him the lordship of Winterfell and the Stark name in exchange for serving Stannis. Jon had resisted that temptation, but Stannis remained tenacious, continuing to neg Jon into accepting the Stark name and the lordship of Winterfell. Jon, though, refused. However, even as he refused, Jon began to bend towards the iron king.
One of the most crucial scenes that displayed the relationship between Stannis and Jon was the one where Jon gave Stannis his entire campaign plan for the North. Prior to Jon’s intervention, Stannis planned to make a straight shot to the Dreadfort to take the castle while Roose Bolton was still in and around Moat Cailin.
Jon realized that his words were wasted. Stannis would take the Dreadfort or die in the attempt. The Night’s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. “Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how.” (ADWD, Jon IV)
This is a crucial story turn, because Jon couched his support for Stannis not on Ramsay, Roose or the overall Bolton dominance of the North. Rather, he framed it as Stannis: good/ironborn bad. Still, Stannis’ ultimate objective was to seize Winterfell and defeat the Boltons. So, why did Jon aid Stannis in this? The Stannis fights for the realm thought Jon has is the text for Jon’s decision over Jon. The subtext is that Jon knows that Roose Bolton betrayed his brother Robb at the Red Wedding as Stannis revealed it to Jon during the timeline of A Storm of Swords:
Stannis studied him with those dark blue eyes. "Tywin Lannister has named Roose Bolton his Warden of the North, to reward him for betraying your brother.” (ASOS, Jon XI)
That’s the subtext for why Jon is acting against House Bolton: they betrayed Robb. Jon doesn’t explicit cite this in his reasoning for helping Stannis defeat the Boltons in Dance, because it’s established in Storm. In Dance, George RR Martin layered on a positive reason for Jon to back Stannis: he thinks Stannis’ cause is just as he’s fighting for the realm.
Consequently, Jon gives Stannis the battle plan and the means of getting more men for the attack (the northern mountain clansmen) which results in Stannis Baratheon defeating Asha Greyjoy at Deepwood Motte and embarking on his winter march to Winterfell.
On the Bolton side of the conflict, Roose Bolton’s not-so-silent partner in Stannis’ camp was Arnolf Karstark — the only northerner who initially supported Stannis. In reality, Arnolf was working for Roose Bolton and trying to guide Stannis into a foolish attack on the Dreadfort. And he reported back to Roose on what was occurring with Stannis as we find out in Theon’s third Dance chapter:
"There are tidings that you need to hear. Lord Stannis has finally left the Wall."
That got Ramsay halfway to his feet, a smile glistening on his wide, wet lips. "Is he marching on the Dreadfort?"
"He is not, alas. Arnolf does not understand it. He swears that he did all he could to bait the trap." (ADWD, Reek III)
This is the first seed for the Pink Letter. Roose baited a trap for Stannis in the form of Arnolf Karstark’s treacherous advice and was on the verge of having Stannis take the bait until Stannis unexpectedly went the other way. This was an indication that Stannis had a not-so-silent partner, and it wouldn’t take long for the Boltons to deduce the identity of Stannis’ partner as Theon thinks about later in A Dance with Dragons:
Stannis had made common cause with Jon Snow at the Wall, and Jon would take his head off in a heartbeat. (ADWD, A Ghost in Winterfell)
How the Boltons determined that Jon was working with Stannis before the Jeyne rescue mission is left off-page, but I’d speculate that since Stannis marched on Deepwood from Castle Black — a Castle Black commanded by Jon Snow — that the Boltons figured it out. Still, Jon’s aiding and abetting of Stannis wasn’t enough for Ramsay to dispatch his letter. That would take something else: stealing his bride.
As mentioned previously, Ramsay Bolton married Arya Stark to cement the Bolton hold over Winterfell. Jon Snow found out about Ramsay’s planned marriage of Arya Stark in his sixth chapter in A Dance with Dragons:
"He's to marry Arya Stark. My little sister." Jon could almost see her in that moment, long-faced and gawky, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, with her dirty face and tangled hair. They would wash the one and comb the other, he did not doubt, but he could not imagine Arya in a wedding gown, nor Ramsay Bolton's bed. No matter how afraid she is, she will not show it. If he tries to lay a hand on her, she'll fight him. (ADWD, Jon VI)
The next chapter set at the Wall is Melisandre’s solitary chapter in A Dance with Dragons in which Melisandre reveals that Mance Rayder is alive. To try to win Jon Snow’s favor, Melisandre proposed sending Mance Rayder to Winterfell to rescue Arya Stark.
Jon agreed to Melisandre’s proposal, and the stage was set for the dramatic rescue of Arya Stark by Mance Rayder, six spearwives and Theon Greyjoy in Theon’s final chapter in A Dance with Dragons.
I haven’t gone into enormous depth on these crucial plot-points which set the Pink Letter into motion, because others have already done good work on this. Adam Feldman’s essays on Jon’s relationship to Stannis and the Mance mission are two such essays I recommend to get in-depth on Jon’s emotional reasoning for backing Stannis and sending Mance to rescue Arya.
This section of the essay is only intended to highlight the plot reasons why Jon acted against the Boltons and to demonstrate that Jon Snow was the one who fomented the conflict between himself and Ramsay. The Boltons only became aware of Jon as Jon eschewed the Night’s Watch neutrality and set himself up in an oppositional role to the Boltons.
But when Mance Rayder was allegedly captured by Bolton men after he helped get Arya Stark free of Winterfell, this was proof that Jon Snow was conspiring against the Boltons. Thus, the Pink Letter arrived at Castle Black, and Ramsay declared that he wanted Arya and Theon returned to him. He also demanded Selyse, Shireen and Melisandre to be turned over to his “custody.” If his demands were met, he would spare Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch.
Instead, Jon read the Pink Letter aloud to an assembled crowd of Stannis loyalists, Night’s Watchmen and wildlings before stating that he would march on Winterfell and Ramsay. But before Jon Snow could undertake this mission, he was assassinated by his fellow Night’s Watchmen for betraying his vows and endangering the Night’s Watch to Ramsay Bolton.
A Dance with Dragons closes with Jon Snow’s death before he could mount an attack on Ramsay Bolton. Will Jon follow through with his stated desire to march on Ramsay in The Winds of Winter? There’s no confirmation one way or another, but Game of Thrones did have that episode in Season Six called “The Battle of the Bastards” in which Jon and Ramsay squared off against each other. Will we see something similar in The Winds of Winter? Perhaps! But let’s talk about why it may be an invention by Game of Thrones first.
The Counter-Argument: Adapting Stannis Baratheon
Now that we’ve set up the conflict between Jon and Ramsay, we turn next to speculation — particularly, speculation about the adaptation of The Winds of Winter in Game of Thrones, Seasons Five and Six. Before we move into the evidence for a Battle of the Bastards, let’s talk about the evidence against it in the form of the best counterargument — namely that Game of Thrones adapted Stannis Baratheon’s future story from The Winds of Winter into Jon Snow’s Season Six storyline.
There are a number of strengths to this argument. The most prominent being that the show killed off Stannis Baratheon in Season Five outside of Winterfell whereas Stannis is still alive in A Song of Ice and Fire.
In his 2016 update on The Winds of Winter, George commented directly on characters dead on the show but alive in the books saying:
Just consider. Mago, Irri, Rakharo, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Pyat Pree, Pyp, Grenn, Ser Barristan Selmy, Queen Selyse, Princess Shireen, Princess Myrcella, Mance Rayder, and King Stannis are all dead in the show, alive in the books. Some of them will die in the books as well, yes… but not all of them, and some may die at different times in different ways.
Asked specifically about Stannis being alive or dead in 2015, George said:
In my books? Alive, beyond a doubt.
Moreover, the Stannis in the books has not sacrificed Shireen to the fires yet (though he will, according to George). And unlike in the show where a defeated Stannis marched up to Winterfell without a plan and was promptly defeated by Ramsay Bolton, Stannis seemingly has a plan to defeat the army moving in to attack him and kept Theon Greyjoy alive for a reason:
“Just now, the turncloak is more use to me alive. He has knowledge we may need.” (TWOW, Theon I)
The knowledge that Stannis needs from Theon is left unsaid, but one thought is that Stannis intends to glean information from Theon on how he gained entry into Winterfell to effect a similar entry into the castle after he defeats the armies riding for him at the Crofter’s Village.
As for the first part of conflict and the Freys riding for Stannis, the most common theory is that Stannis will defeat the Freys coming for him at Winterfell. Less certain but commonly-believed is that Stannis will then liberate Winterfell. In this, Stannis’ potential story from Winds resembles what occurs in Jon Snow’s Game of Thrones, Season Six arc. At the parlay between Jon and Ramsay, the numbers in the army are similar with Ramsay claiming to have six thousand men with Jon having half of that. In the Theon Winds chapter, we get this:
Stannis Baratheon paced the floor. The tower was a small one, dank and cramped. A few steps brought the king around to Theon. "How many men does Bolton have at Winterfell?"
"Five thousand. Six. More." He gave the king a ghastly grin, all shattered teeth and splinters. "More than you."
As for the order of battle of those numbers, it can be read similar to the coming Bolton/Baratheon battle with Stannis down to just a few horses and the Boltons having at least a few thousand horses surging out to meet Stannis at the Crofters’ Village.
Moreover, some of the dialogue between Jon and Sansa after the parlay in which Sansa warns Jon that he doesn’t know Ramsay, and that Ramsay is more cunning than Jon realizes has striking similarities with the dialogue between Stannis and Theon as the king interrogates Theon:
“Tell me, turncloak, what battles has the Bastard of Bolton ever won that I should fear him?"
You must not call him that! A wave of pain washed over Theon Greyjoy. He closed his eyes and grimaced. When he opened them again, he said, "You do not know him."
Then there’s the array of players in the field. In Game of Thrones, Jon assembled a mixed force of minor northern lords, wildlings under Tormund Giantsbane and a few Baratheon leftovers (Davos and Melisandre) for his army. Meanwhile, Ramsay had Karstarks and Umbers fighting alongside of his own men. This somewhat-mirrors the composition of the two armies at the start of The Winds of Winter with Stannis commanding a mixed force of northern mountain clansmen, northern lords and his own southron knights and lords facing off against a Bolton force comprised of northern Bolton loyalists (to include half of House Umber) and Freys.
Meanwhile, in A Dance with Dragons, the Pink Letter arrives after Ramsay allegedly defeated Stannis in battle. In the show, the Pink Letter also arrived but after Ramsay has actually beaten Stannis in battle. The major difference here being that regardless of the Pink Letter’s authorship in the books, many fans hold a similar opinion about the letter as our erstwhile friend Tormund Giantsbane:
"Might be all a skin o' lies." Tormund scratched under his beard. "If I had me a nice goose quill and a pot o' maester's ink, I could write down that me member was long and thick as me arm, wouldn't make it so." (ADWD, Jon XIII)
If the Pink Letter is a “skin o’ lies” as many fans believe, that would mean that Stannis is alive, well and has a plan to defeat the Boltons. As Stannis told Justin Massey:
"It may be that we shall lose this battle," the king said grimly. "In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless." (TWOW, Theon I)
The running theory is that Stannis’ wording of you may hear I am dead indicates that Stannis plans to fake his death, leave behind some totems to make it believable (like his sword Lightbringer that the Pink Letter writer claims to have) and then make a move on Winterfell, taking it and putting the Bolton cause into the ground.
But in the show, Stannis is truly dead, defeated by the Boltons outside of Winterfell and then killed by Brienne after the battle. And then the Pink Letter arrives at Castle Black after Sansa has shown up seeking Jon’s protection. So, there’s no deception by Stannis or Ramsay (or the letter-writer) at work on the show. It was simply a threat to Jon to spur him into action.
Of course, the tactics, geography and events in Battle of Ice will certainly diverge from Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards, but the outcome will be similar in that the Boltons will be put down. However, there is a notable difference in outcome. Games of Thrones has Jon casting down Bolton banners and residing in Winterfell while book fan-theories for The Winds of Winter would have Stannis and his northern/southron army holding Winterfell.
And that’s where the theory that the showrunners adapted the Battle of the Bastards from the Battle of Ice and Battle of Winterfell from The Winds of Winter becomes problematic. How would Jon Snow become King in the North with Stannis as the one who defeated the Boltons and holding Winterfell? Most fans and proponents of the theory that Stannis will be victorious also think Jon Snow will be crowned King in the North in The Winds of Winter. So in this scenario, why would the northmen rally around Jon Snow — a person whose only army source would be wildlings who are broadly hated in the North and who hasn’t done anything of political significance to garner the loyalty of the northmen?
Many point to Robb Stark’s last will and testament which named Jon as Robb’s heir as a potential solution to this dilemma. But when asked about this in 2015, George RR Martin had an interesting response:
Question: “Will Jon Snow ever find out that Robb made him a Stark?”
GRRM: “Well, we don’t know that that actually happened, but you know, I hope to tie up most of the loose ends.”
Still, while I think that if Robb’s will names Jon as his heir (and I think it does), it would probably only inspire a few Stark loyalists houses in the North to acclaim Jon as King in the North, with many ostensibly holding neutrality or loyalty to Stannis.
There would have to be some sort of event which would inspire northern houses to acclaim Jon as King in the North, and while the idea that Jon’s Season Six storyline was adapted from Stannis’ forthcoming Winds arc is defensible and plausible, I think something else will be at work for Jon Snow’s rise to power in The Winds of Winter.
The Battle of the Bastards in THE WINDS OF WINTER
Let me lay my cards out on the table now. I believe that a Battle of the Bastards will occur in The Winds of Winter.
For several years, I believed the above theory that there would be no Battle of the Bastards, that Game of Thrones adapted Jon’s Season Six arc from George’s plans for Stannis’ story. But several things present in the story still niggled at me. For instance, why would the northmen abandon Stannis for Jon even with a royal writ of legitimization — especially as Jon was a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and eventual Lord Commander of the Watch? Moreover, part of the Night’s Watch vow has this inconvenient wording:
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
These vows are for life, and even if Jon claims the technicality that he satisfied the requirement of those vows in his life, his first life, that is, many northmen would look askance at Jon wearing a crown and claiming the lands of his father Ned Stark due to his prior-known status as a brother of the Night’s Watch. There would have to be a compelling reason for the North to back Jon. That compelling reason would be him ending the Bolton cause for good.
As I talked about earlier, there has been a subtle paralleling of the narrative between Jon and Ramsay. And then when the two became more and more aware of each other, they moved decisively towards conflict (with the onus for the conflict falling on Jon). That Jon was stabbed before that conflict could materialize is George intentionally short-circuiting the plot before it could be resolved. But those circuits will be reconnected with both Jon’s resurrection and Ramsay’s survival of the Battle of Ice and Winterfell (that we’ll discuss later in the essay).
Before we chart a potential course George might set for a Battle of the Bastards, there are important extra-textual things which have come out in the years since “The Battle of the Bastards” aired. First, there was a small but significant discovery made for a script from Game of Thrones, Season Four, and then there was a potential major revelation from a recently-published book.
Direwolves vs Hounds in THE WINDS OF WINTER
From Season One to Four, George RR Martin wrote one episode per season for Game of Thrones. Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair and Kim Renfro of Insider went through the archive of scripts for Game of Thrones, and when they came to Season Four’s “The Lion and the Rose”, they found something seemingly mundane but potentially very interesting that George RR Martin wrote as a script note:
A note for future reference. A season or two down the line Ramsay’s pack of wolfhounds are going to be sent against the Stark direwolves, so we should build up the dogs as much as possible in this and subsequent episodes. - George RR Martin, script note for Game of Thrones, Season Four, Episode Two: “The Lion and the Rose”
What is a script note? It’s usually a small note to highlight something in the script, giving the director and editor something worth emphasizing in the episode. Why is this significant? In the episode itself, Ramsay hunts down a woman with his hounds, feeding her to them. George wanted to build up the dogs as much as possible for “a season or two down the line”. And it was all leading to a confrontation with Stark direwolves.
As happened in the show, there was no confrontation between the Stark direwolves and Ramsay’s hounds in Game of Thrones. Moreover, no such confrontation occurred in A Dance with Dragons. The speculation, then, is that this potentially encompasses material from The Winds of Winter. Author of the piece, Joanna Robinson, thought as much, saying:
Martin wrote this note while he was still working on the early stages of The Winds of Winter. As of the end of the previous book, A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay was still at or near Winterfell, preparing for battle with Stannis. (Remember that, show-watchers?) So, at what point would his dogs have a chance to attack multiple Stark direwolves when in the books the animals are all separated and in the show, they’re mostly dead? Does this indicate that Ramsay’s fate in the book diverges wildly from his fate on the show?
Joanna concludes with “Undoubtedly” and then goes on to talk about Martin’s original scripting of the Bolton storyline from “The Lion and the Rose”, which falls more in line with the books’ version of Ramsay marrying Arya Stark rather than the show’s version which has Littlefinger arrange Sansa to marry Ramsay.
This reads as a potent clue for plot points regarding Ramsay Bolton in The Winds of Winter. At a surface level, the script note only indicates that Stark direwolves will face off against Ramsay’s hounds potentially in The Winds of Winter. But why would the hounds fight Stark direwolves if Ramsay still wasn’t exerting control over them? Remember: Even as Benioff and Weiss went sideways on George and had Ramsay marry Sansa, George’s screenplay had the Bolton storyline in Game of Thrones mirroring the Bolton storyline from A Song of Ice and Fire. And if that’s the case, the note about the direwolves fighting the hounds serves as evidence that Ramsay and his hounds survive the battles around Winterfell and will face the Starks and their direwolves.
Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon
In 2020, Entertainment Weekly writer James Hibberd published Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon in which he detailed the history of Game of Thrones from conceptualization to Season Eight. For readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the most interesting chapter in the book is “The Forks in the Road” which details events surrounding the 2014-2016 time period when plot-points from Game of Thrones began to surpass the published material for A Song of Ice and Fire. The framing device of the chapter is a conversation James Hibberd had with George RR Martin in Santa Fe in (I believe) 2019.
The chapter features George’s musings on how he wished he wrote faster, how he wanted Lady Stoneheart, Young Griff and Quentyn Martell to be featured on the show. And at the very end of the chapter, Hibberd wrote this note:
But for Martin, being creatively involved with Game of Thrones—and commenting on it publicly became increasingly difficult after season five. How can an author talk about, for instance, the Battle of the Bastards when he likely has his own very different, yet still unpublished version of the same battle in his mind? (Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, Chapter Seventeen, “The Forks in the Road”)
Reading this in Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon stopped me cold. Was James Hibberd alluding to George RR Martin telling him that a Battle of the Bastards would occur in The Winds of Winter? The wording, of course, is a bit tricky in that it’s not 100% clear that Hibberd is quoting GRRM here. In fact, a plain reading of the text would have Hibberd speculating and theorizing, much as I’m doing in this essay. However, the framing device for the chapter and this specific paragraph is Hibberd’s conversations with Martin.
“Martin’s interview in Santa Fe was my favorite among the new reporting. Whenever you hit a Martin quote in the book, you’re never quite sure if he’s going to love something or make a criticism. Also, his emotional journey with the show is a complicated one, and he’s candid about expressing that, as well. It’s particularly difficult for him to discuss the show’s latter seasons because he has his own very different versions of certain events coming in the books. He surprised me by giving one example on the record that I included in the book (how Hodor’s death will be different) . He also told me a few things coming that were off the record, and let’s just say… I cannot wait to read The Winds of Winter!”
Here’s my thinking: Hibberd let the cat out of the bag in Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon. He inadvertently revealed one of those off-the-record things that George told him was that the Battle of the Bastards is going to happen in The Winds of Winter and papered over the reveal by saying George “likely has his own very different, yet still unpublished version of the same battle in his mind”. Likely. Sure.
But if such a likely battle were to occur in The Winds of Winter and if it was to be a very different version of the Battle of the Bastards than was seen in Game of Thrones, how might it come about in The Winds of Winter?
A Possible Pathway for a Battle of the Bastards in THE WINDS OF WINTER
One of the most daunting tasks in theory-crafting is when you actually have to do the crafting part. Yes. It’s fun, but it’s also intimidating, because it’s much easier to say I think there’s enough evidence available in-text and out-text to think a Battle of the Bastards will occur in The Winds of Winter. It’s much harder to chart an actual course to how this might occur in The Winds of Winter — especially in a plotline as complex as the northern storyline looks to be in The Winds of Winter. But I figure it’ll be fun, and while I have major doubts that this will be the exact way George gets us to the Battle of the Bastards in The Winds of Winter, I hope to show a plausible pathway for a Battle of the Bastards to occur by using some of the foundational character and plot foreshadowing GRRM has placed into A Song of Ice and Fire.
So, let’s start with the players/factions. First, we have Jon Snow, recently-deceased but returning from the dead. Next, there’s Ramsay Bolton. Then there’s Stannis. The amalgamation of Northern Lords arrayed on either side. Wild cards like Bran, Rickon and Sansa, Howland Reed and on and on and on. It’s complex!
So, we’re going to tackle this chronologically starting with Stannis takes Winterfell. Alternatively, he is defeated and falls back to the Nightfort. Although outside of the purview of this essay, Stannis seems to have a plan to defeat the armies riding for him at the Crofters’ Village, and I believe he will take Winterfell. In the podcast that PoorQuentyn and I do, we covered the so-called “Night Lamp” Theory in depth for our patrons (Fair warning, it is behind a paywall, but if you are interested, it’s a way to listen and support us!), and I hold to the viewpoint that Stannis will defeat the Freys and takes Winterfell from the Boltons. Alternatively, Stannis could be defeated in his attempt to take Winterfell, and he could retreat back to the Nightfort. I think this latter idea unlikely as I’d argue the overall point is that Stannis will win one last battle, avenging the Red Wedding and then the northmen will still abandon him for the Starks. In this conceptualization of the storyline, Stannis serves as a narrative device to sweep shit off the board, but it is not enough. It never will be. And I like that as a reason Stannis burns Shireen rather than getting his ass kicked by the Freys: in victory, he still loses and his decision to burn Shireen is within this bitter, tragic context.
But if Stannis takes Winterfell, Ramsay is doomed, right? Not so fast. Ramsay is described as having a low cunning by his father Roose Bolton, and it’s quite plausible he escapes Winterfell. How? Two plausible scenarios. The first is that Ramsay believes Stannis is dead, and he heads back to the Dreadfort under a “Mission Accomplished” banner to assume lordship of the castle. (Again, outside the purview of this essay: I think Ramsay kills Roose. Look only at Theon’s final A Dance with Dragons chapter in which the two are arguing and Fat Walda Frey looks terrified for evidence of this)
The second possible scenario is one I prefer: that Ramsay poses as someone else and slinks away from Winterfell back to the Dreadfort. Impossible you say. Possible, I retort.
Back in A Clash of Kings, Ramsay Snow was presumed dead after Rodrik Cassel and his posse hunted the Boltons down in the Hornwood Forest. But Ramsay escaped by posing as his servant Reek as he “explained” to Theon at the end of A Clash of Kings:
[Ramsay] stepped closer. "The girl's fault. If she had not run so far, his horse would not have lamed, and we might have been able to flee. I gave him mine when I saw the riders from the ridge. I was done with her by then, and he liked to take his turn while they were still warm. I had to pull him off her and shove my clothes into his hands—calfskin boots and velvet doublet, silver-chased swordbelt, even my sable cloak. Ride for the Dreadfort, I told him, bring all the help you can. Take my horse, he's swifter, and here, wear the ring my father gave me, so they'll know you came from me. He'd learned better than to question me. By the time they put that arrow through his back, I'd smeared myself with the girl's filth and dressed in his rags. They might have hanged me anyway, but it was the only chance I saw." (ACOK, Theon VI)
In this scenario, Stannis would take Winterfell but wouldn’t achieve total victory as Ramsay would don a disguise and a nom de guerre and escape, and this would alienate Stannis from his allied northmen who are not fans of Roose Bolton but truly despise Ramsay as seen in A Dance with Dragons:
"The maid tells it true," declared a stocky man in white and purple, whose cloak was fastened with a pair of crossed bronze keys. "Roose Bolton's cold and cunning, aye, but a man can deal with Roose. We've all known worse. But this bastard son of his … they say he's mad and cruel, a monster." (ADWD, Davos III)
Switching over to Jon Snow. Again, Jon’s return is all-but-assured with Beric/Catelyn’s R’hlloric resurrections as fire wights and the second-life idea advanced by Varamyr Sixskins in the A Dance with Dragons Prologue. For more on Jon Snow’s return, I recommend BookShelfStud’s “Return of the White Wolf” essay. When Jon returns, I expect him to receive word of Robb Stark’s writ of legitimization which also names Jon as King in the North. But these will not be enough to gain the allegiance of many lords. Jon will have to earn his kingship, putting the horse in front of the cart, and the best way he can do that is to finish what he vowed to do in his final A Dance with Dragons chapter: defeat and kill Ramsay Bolton.
So, I think Jon marches south with an army of mostly-wildlings with perhaps a few Thenn-Karstark men joining in on the march. Where does he go? Perhaps he shows up to Winterfell first to declare his kingship to Stannis. Perhaps Stannis tells him to get lost, or maybe he tells Jon that he will consider naming Jon Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North if he defeats and kills Ramsay at the Dreadfort. Regardless of what happens if Jon goes or doesn’t go to Winterfell first, I think Jon marches on the Dreadfort.
And now we’re at the Battle of the Bastards in The Winds of Winter. As Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon indicated: the Battle of the Bastards in Winds will be quite different than what was seen in Game of Thrones. What might some of those differences be? For starters: the location. I don’t think a Battle of the Bastards will occur outside of Winterfell. Instead, a more likely location is the Dreadfort. The battle itself may not be a grand set piece battle as seen in Game of Thrones. Instead, as indicated in the Vanity Fair article, the battle may be fought hardest between the Stark direwolves and Ramsay’s hounds.
"He's trained 'em to kill wolves as well," Ben Bones had confided. Reek said nothing. He knew which wolves the girls were meant to kill.
Let them show their ugly faces, and my girls will rip those wolves of theirs to pieces. The sooner they turn up, the sooner I kill them again." (ADWD, Reek III)
The rest of the dogs were close behind, the hounds sniffing and barking, a pair of monstrous mastiffs bringing up the rear. Their size and ferocity might make the difference against a cornered direwolf. (ADWD, Reek III)
I believe the above quotes are set-up for that confrontation between Ramsay’s hounds and the Stark direwolves. That Ramsay trained his hounds to fight direwolves reads as foundation for the fight to occur on a somewhat-level playing field.
That does bring up the fact that George’s note was direwolves. Plural. And if there’s multiple direwolves involved in fighting Ramsay’s hounds, which of the Stark direwolves might be involved? The obvious candidate here is Jon Snow’s direwolf Ghost. Which other direwolves might be involved? Rickon’s direwolf Shaggydog is a good candidate as he’s relatively near the Dreadfort on the island of Skagos. However, I think there’s a potentially more likely candidate: Arya Stark’s direwolf Nymeria. Why Nymeria? Because she’s been tearing a bloody path through the Riverlands, and when Arya last warged Nymeria in the Riverlands, Nymeria and her giant wolfpack were on the march:
The smell of blood was heavy in her nostrils...or was that her nightmare, lingering? She had dreamed of wolves again, of running through some dark pine forest with a great pack at her heels, hard on the scent of prey. (TWOW, Mercy)
And what was it that George RR Martin said about Arya’s giant wolfpack in The Winds of Winter?
Arya's wolf, Nymeria, in particular, will play an important role [in The Winds of Winter].
"You know, I don't like to give things away." says Martin, a grin spreading across his face. "But you don't hang a giant wolf pack on the wall unless you intend to use it."
The most dramatic way that Nymeria’s wolfpack would show up in the narrative would be to have it showing up in The Winds of Winter to aid Jon and Ghost in their battle against Ramsay and his hounds.
As for the actual human forces involved in the battle, it may not hold the same spectacle that Stannis’ battles in the north had. Ramsay may not have many soldiers left under his command beyond a token garrison. For that matter, Jon himself may only have a small force of wildlings willing to march with him to the Dreadfort. Sure, the wildlings were ecstatic about the prospect of rescuing Mance Rayder. But would Jon receive the same excitement for an attack on the Boltons when the fate of Mance Rayder has already been decided? Probably not!
Ultimately, the result of the Battle of the Bastards in The Winds of Winter will mirror events from Game of Thrones. It will probably be a tough fight. There will be a lot of casualties. Perhaps Sansa and Littlefinger show up with Vale cavalry to save the day as seen in Game of Thrones. But the endstate will be Jon triumphant and Ramsay Bolton defeated. And then Ramsay will die. Jon Snow did say after all that he had plans for Ramsay:
“This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words … but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.” (ADWD, Jon XIII)
As to how Jon will make Ramsay answer for those words, he could go for the ol’ Ned Stark chop the head off and hear his last words routine he did with Janos Slynt. Or, Jon could feed Ramsay to his own hounds similar to what we saw with Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, Season Six.
Regardless of how Ramsay meets his end, I think Jon’s victory over Ramsay, along with Robb’s will, Stannis’ probable aggravating behavior with his northern lords and Jon being a magically-resurrected person, will be enough for the northmen to overcome their reluctance in backing a former brother of the Night’s Watch as King in the North. And that will result in Stannis getting ejected from Winterfell (unless, of course, the Boltons already beat him early in Winds) by the northern lords.
Ultimately, we know the Starks will return to Winterfell. Jojen Reed dreamed about it, and the green dreams don’t lie:
“The wolves will come again,” said Jojen solemnly.
“And how would you be knowing, boy?”
“I dreamed it.” (ASOS, Bran II)
So, Jon will be King in the North, the Boltons will be defeated, everyone will be happy, and sadness will be vanquished by George RR Martin. Yeah. No.
Conclusion: Themes: Not Just For Fifth Grade Book Reports
In this essay, I’ve mostly avoided a lot of the thematic work which might underpin a potential Battle of the Bastards in The Winds of Winter. But here at the conclusion of this essay, I think it’s vitally important to talk about how a Battle of the Bastards in The Winds of Winter interacts with Jon Snow and the overall thematic work George RR Martin integrates into A Song of Ice and Fire.
Many other commentators have written about the type of character Jon Snow might return as in The Winds of Winter, and I wouldn’t want to retread excellent work and writing done by others, but it’s clear that both a second life within a direwolf and a R’hlloric resurrection changes those who experience it. Beric and Catelyn became wraiths of their former selves, consumed with thoughts on their final emotions/missions prior to their resurrections. Meanwhile, Varamyr Sixskins’ second life has Varamyr losing more and more of his humanity living in and out of his dogs.
For Jon, the combination of both a second life and a resurrection by the Lord of Light will likely alter the character we have gotten to know in the first five books of A Song of Ice and Fire. The noble-hearted Jon Snow who tried to do good might be replaced by a resurrected Jon Snow obsessed with bringing Ramsay Bolton down. Moreover, the methods Jon might use to affect this end might be affected by his second life in Ghost. Jon may be less concerned with humanity and willing to engage in more wolfish, violent, cold-hearted means to achieve Ramsay’s end.
A violent Jon Snow might appear on first blush as a welcome relief from all of the delicate politicking we saw Jon engage in as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in A Dance with Dragons. Finally, we’ll have a Jon Snow striking down evildoers with Longclaw and warging Ghost to do good.
But George RR Martin’s interest in writing is examining the human heart in conflict with itself. He wants us to interrogate readers’ desire to see evildoers punished. As is often the case, Martin builds up the infamy of bad people, creates an atmosphere where we want to see bad things happen to bad people. And then he makes us sorry we wished for that violent catharsis. We need only look at Theon Greyjoy or Cersei Lannister’s arcs in A Dance with Dragons for examples where Martin has already done that.
Ramsay Bolton may be the biggest colloquial bastard in A Song of Ice and Fire. His crimes are too numerous to count. And Jon might well be in his rights to wage war against him, but how will a Battle of the Bastards change Jon? What might his conduct on the battlefield be like? Game of Thrones had Sansa Stark feed Ramsay to his dogs. I can imagine a scenario where in the books, Jon is the one to do that to Ramsay: feeding a prisoner of war to his own hounds.
Will that feel good to us? Will we experience catharsis in Jon unleashing Ramsay’s hounds on a disarmed prisoner? Perhaps as individual readers we will, but it probably won’t be George RR Martin’s authorial intent. A war against Ramsay might be just. It will at least feel just. But war, like death, like resurrection in ASOIAF changes people.
Jon will emerge triumphant in a Battle of the Bastards. He will don a crown and be proclaimed King in the North. And behind him will be a trail of bodies: corpses which once contained the consciousnesses and souls of people. Good people, bad people, the in-betweens.
Many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire have rationalized the piles of bodies as the price of the iron throne. They had to do it for their family. For honor. For love. Jon was never quite that person in the first five books of A Song of Ice and Fire. But I think he will be that man in The Winds of Winter and beyond.
Jon will choose fire and blood in the form of a Battle of the Bastards. And remember all those dead who will be left on the field of battle? Winter is coming.
Thanks for reading. I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have an ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast where we analyze every chapter in ASOIAF one chapter a week. Come listen to us on Apple Podcasts, podbay, soundcloud, google play, spotify, patreon everywhere you get your podcasts!