For years, we’ve wondered what’s going to happen to the benighted denizens of Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire. But after season six of Game of Thrones, we’re left with a different question: Just how much did the TV show spoil the books it’s based on?
We won’t know for sure until Martin gets around to publishing The Winds of Winter, the sixth and penultimate book in the series. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make some educated guesses. In some cases, it’s clear the producers are working from a playbook that George R.R. Martin gave them a few years ago at a fabled meeting in Santa Fe; in others, they’re probably winging it. To figure out just how much of Martin’s endgame we now know, I talked to a few Westeros experts, and did my own deep dive into everything we know about the state of the Iron Throne, both on the page and on the screen.
Warning: What follows is full of spoilers for Game of Thrones‘ most recent season, and also for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, including the sample chapters he’s posted online. There’s also a healthy dose of speculation and a pinch of rumor-mongering, so take this as you will.
As Martin himself pointed out in a blog post last spring, it’s increasingly impossible for Game of Thrones to spoil his as-yet-unpublished books. “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,” Martin wrote.
In other words, “the show and the books are heading for the same basic endpoints–at least for the major characters and for the endgame as a whole–but they will take very different paths to get there,” says Linda Antonsson, webmistress of the semi-official fansite Westeros.org. Already, the show has made some pretty bold changes from the events of Martin’s fourth and fifth books. So here are all of the storylines we can think of where the show might have spoiled the books.
Is Rickon a Redshirt?
Let’s start with an easy one. Rickon is the youngest son of Ned Stark, and on television he never gets the chance to show much personality before Ramsay “Psycho Killer” Bolton uses him for target practice. Would Martin really treat a member of the beloved Stark family (who might be the heir to Winterfell, depending on the status of a few other characters) that way?
In the books, Rickon’s situation is more complicated, mostly by dint of being alive: He’s fled to the isle of Skagos, which is inhabited by savage cannibals who may or may not ride around on unicorns. (Here’s a lot more of what we know about Skagos.) Ser Davos Seaworth has gone to Skagos to fetch the young Stark. (On TV, you’ll remember, Davos is hanging around Winterfell with Jon Snow.)
This storyline may have been streamlined for television, but might end up in the same place, suggests Adam Whitehead, who blogs about Martin’s books at The Wertzone. So Davos could still end up by Jon Snow’s side, and Rickon will end up being a part of the battle.
One possibility, Antonsson says, is that Rickon’s bond with his direwolf Shaggydog impresses the Skagosi so much that they join Jon Snow’s army. So don’t count Rickon out just yet. He could still show up with his own army of cannibals… and unicorns.
Does Lady Stoneheart even matter?
As ASOIAF readers know, there are a few major storylines from the books that the TV show chose to skip over altogether. Case in point: In A Storm of Swords, Catelyn Stark comes back from the dead as a vengeful zombie, leading the Brotherhood Without Banners. But on television, Cat is dead for good, and the Brotherhood is still led by its original zombie mastermind, Lord Beric Dondarrion (pictured above–in the book, Dondarrion traded his life for Stark’s).
Since the showrunners deemed Stoneheart a nonessential part of the story, Whitehead says, it’s certainly looking like she’ll “turn out not be quite as important as we all thought.” After all, the books left off with Zombie Cat capturing Ser Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, and preparing to execute them–which makes Whitehead wonders if her main job was simply to bring those two together again. His speculation: something could happen to Lady Stoneheart, and Brienne might be forced to take over leadership of the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Jaime’s encounter with Lady Stoneheart might help put hit in a frame of mind to stop his sister Cersei’s insanity once and for all–something the TV show is clearly hinting he’ll have to do.
But if you can get to the same endgame without Stoneheart, then why would Martin bother? It would be a huge letdown if the books had brought the matri-Stark back from the dead, only to have it wind up being a red herring, says Leigh Butler, who writes about Martin’s books for Tor.com. “If you’d killed her off for good at the Red Wedding like we all thought, then fine–but you don’t resurrect a character in such a dramatic fashion only to have her drop off the face of the planet,” she says.
The Griffs That (Maybe) Keep on Giving
The biggest surprise in Martin’s last book, 2011’s A Dance WIth Dragons, came in the form of travelers “Big Griff” and “Little Griff “–the latter of whom turned out to be Aegon Targaryen, a long-lost heir to the Iron Throne who’s already invading Westeros with the help of some mercenaries, the Golden Company. But the television show is apparently going to be Griff-less. And if you assume the books and the TV show will ultimately re-converge, then it’s tempting to assume Aegon doesn’t matter that much in the books, either.
It does seem likely that Aegon and “Big Griff” (aka Lord Jon Connington) will reach “tragic ends” long before the conclusion of the book saga, says Antonsson. (In the books it’s Jon Connington, not Jorah Mormont, who contracts greyscale rescuing Tyrion–so he can’t be long for the world.) However, they may still have an indirect impact on the ending of the series, including which other characters survive. And since the land of Dorne has chosen to support Aegon’s claim to the throne (more on Dorne in a minute), the Griffs could prove pivotal to Dorne’s storyline. Then there’s the Tyrell family, which is likely to prove more troublesome in the books–the Griffs will keep the Tyrells distracted, and allow Cersei to seize power in King’s Landing.
“These are things that the TV show will gloss over, given its much more relaxed attitude to realism and logistics,” says Whitehead.
What’s going Dorne?
So, yeah. Dorne. It’s this weird land in Westeros that’s sort of Mediterranean-ish, where everyone is sexy and hot-blooded and languorously half-drunk thanks to their famously delicious wine. The Dornish storyline takes up major real estate in the books, but was streamlined on television to the point where it made no sense at all. The whole shebang ended up with a cohort of women known as the Sand Snakes assassinating their prince, Doran Martell, and then making a pact with Daenerys.
If there’s one part of the books the TV show hasn’t spoiled, it’s Dorne. There, Doran is still alive, the Sand Snakes have sworn on their father’s bones to work with him, and the Dornish have already tried to make an alliance with Daenerys. (Their emissary got killed by dragonfire.) Now the Dornish are working with the Griffs–but Whitehead says we’ll probably see them back on Daenerys’ team eventually.
The crux of the Dorne storyline will involve the decisions of a character who isn’t even in the books: Doran’s daughter Arianne Martell. In a sample chapter from The Winds of Winter that Martin posted online, she’s on her way to hook up with the Griffs.
Is Daenerys finally coming home?
The most important role of the Griffs in the books may be creating a beachhead where Daenerys Targaryen can land her forces in Westeros. On television, Daenerys has finally–finally!–gotten (almost) all of her followers onto boats, and has set sail for her homeland.
In the books, though, there’s a problem: Daenerys doesn’t have enough ships to take all her followers home–especially if she converts a horde of Dothraki warriors to her cause as she did on television. She may get some ships from Victarion Greyjoy, Theon’s uncle, who seems to be fulfilling the same role in the books as Theon and his sister Yara are on HBO. But you shouldn’t expect the alliance with Victarion to be as friendly as the one we’ve seen on television with Yara, notes Antonsson.
Daenerys could also capture the five hundred-plus ships coming from Volantis to attack her on behalf of the slavers, Whitehead says, but he still doubts that Daenerys will sail to Westeros directly from Meereen, because she probably still won’t have enough ships for such a long crossing. Instead, she’ll likely travel north across the Dothraki Sea, then head west and cross over from the Free Cities. Whitehead believes it’s been “heavily foreshadowed” that Daenerys will liberate the slaves of Volantis, so one way or another she’s probably going to pass through that city.
Ser Barristan Selmy: harpooned by Harpies?
Speaking of Daenerys, her friend and confidant, Ser Barristan Selmy, is one of the coolest characters who’s alive in the books but dead on television–killed ignominiously in a street ambush. And Martin gave Selmy a big role, as a point-of-view character, in A Dance With Dragons. Is Barristan really going out like that?
Probably not exactly like that, says Antonsson–in the books, the threat to Meereen is more external than internal. The Sons of the Harpy are a problem, but so are the massive armies of slavers outside Daenerys’ gates. Now that Barristan has become a viewpoint character, his story will need to be wrapped up in some dramatic fashion, and yes, that could mean his death. Antonsson worries that he might be one of the people who is destined to betray Daenerys, according to the prophecy she heard back in Qarth. Selmy might decide that Daenerys is becoming too much like her father, the Mad King.
What about Euron’s magic horn?
Euron Greyjoy, who took over as leader of the Iron Islands in both the books and the TV series, has a much more complicated plot in the books. In particular, the book version seems to have a lot of sorcerous powers–which Whitehead expects him to use to destroy a massive fleet sent by House Redwyne to attack the Iron Islanders.
Euron also has a magic horn that can control dragons, which he sent with his brother Victarion on his mission to Daenerys. You can see how the ability to control dragons would come in handy if you have three of them flying around eating people — so is Daenerys going to need this horn? Or will it be used against her? Whitehead says that no matter what, Euron is shaping up to be a much bigger threat in the books than on television, because of his powerful magic.
Is “Coldhands” really Benjen Stark?
This is one of the longstanding mysteries in the books, which the TV show just blew past. Benjen Stark is Ned Stark’s brother, who joined the Night’s Watch and then went missing beyond the Wall. Coldhands is a mysterious figure who’s been helping Bran Stark. Are they the same guy? On TV, apparently so–although we only met Coldhands for a few minutes toward the end of season six.
But in the books, it’s not so clear. Martin has been adamant that Benjen is not Coldhands, even saying so in a note on one of his manuscripts (which an eagle-eyed reader found in the library.) Also, the book version of Coldhands is ancient and has been working for “many, many years,” while Benjen has been missing for between 18 months and two years, says Whitehead.
What about Jon Snow’s resurrection and parentage?
Book fans have been in suspense for years to find out if Jon Snow would come back after being stabbed at the end of A Dance With Dragons, and also whether their guesses about his parentage are correct. Thanks to the TV show, we can now be pretty sure that the answers are yes and…yes. Jon got resurrected by Melisandre, and we learned via Bran Stark’s Tower of Joy vision that Snow’s real parents were Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark–which makes him Daenerys’ nephew.
Both Whitehead and Antonsson expect Jon’s resurrection to be more complicated in the books. Stannis’ daughter Shireen might get sacrificed to bring Jon back (rather than to help Stannis’ army, as the TV show depicted in Season 5). That would make Jon feel a lot more ambivalent about returning from the dead.
And if Jon’s spirit has jumped into his direwolf, Ghost, as Antonsson suspects, then Bran Stark or some other force north of the Wall might need to help him come back.
But meanwhile, it’s basically official: Jon is not Ned Stark’s bastard son, but rather his nephew.
Is Stannis doomed?
Stannis seemed like a major character in the saga, at least until Brienne cut him down on television. But in the books, he’s still alive–and both Whitehead and Antonsson believe he might be more successful in his battles against the evil Ramsay Bolton. The TV show may have broken up the so-called “Battle of the Ice” into two separate battles: one at the end of Season 5, and one at the end of season six.
In that case, Whitehead says, Stannis may defeat Ramsay, but die in the process. So Jon Snow may no longer have to worry about Ramsay by the time he comes back from the dead.
As for Stannis’ daughter Shireen, according to Martin and the show’s producers she will definitely get burnt alive in the books, just as she was on television. Whether it’s to resurrect Jon Snow (as Whitehead believes) or to help Stannis out of a far more desperate situation than the one he faces on television, Shireen’s death is apparently inevitable.
What’s Sansa up to?
One of the biggest changes from the books to TV is Sansa Stark’s storyline. In the books, she’s still hanging out at the Eyrie with Littlefinger, and pretending to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter. But on television, she married Ramsay Bolton and was in the middle of the action at Winterfell.
So is there any point to Sansa’s long stay at the Eyrie? Antonsson says that the TV show seems to be leading towards Sansa and Littlefinger teaming up to do something — because at the end of season six, Sansa is noticeably upset that Jon Snow was named the new leader of the North, instead of her. And there were hints that her anger will make her reunite with Littlefinger. Either way, Sansa’s endgame seems to involve helping Littlefinger to do something–likely the same something that her Eyrie storyline in the books might be building towards.
Will Arya leave the Faceless Men so easily?
Remember my wild theory about Arya Stark? In part, it came from the fact that Arya got away from her assassin trainers, the Faceless Men, way more easily than I’d expect. So what are the chances she’ll be able to make such a clean break in the books?
Almost none, say our panel of experts. She will almost certainly be going back to Westeros, but it will probably be on a mission from the Faceless Men–maybe to kill someone important, like Jon Snow or Daenerys, suggests Whitehead. And then Arya will have to decide whether to follow her orders.
One thing to watch out for: a possible reunion between Arya and her assassin friend Jaqen Hg’har. In the books, he’s hanging out at the Citadel, where Samwell Tarly just became a student.
Will Cersei use the nuclear option?
Another big shock at the end of season six was Cersei nuking the religious extremist Sparrows using wildfire. This has been foreshadowed in the books: in A Feast For Crows, Cersei watches the Tower of the Hand burn and is overjoyed, Whitehead points out. But it probably won’t be as clean or easy as on television, and she might end up destroying a lot of King’s Landing–the same conflagration that Jaime killed the Mad King to prevent.
Martin already put a similar incident into his giant volume of the history of Westeros, The World of Ice and Fire: back in the day, Maegor the Cruel burned the Sept of Remembrance. So he may not want to have the exact same thing happen in the books, Antonsson says– but on the other hand, Cersei might be inspired by this historical atrocity.
As for Cersei’s son, King Tommen, Antonsson says, he probably won’t kill himself the way he did on television, because the book version is much younger and more sheltered. But we know from a witch’s prophecy that Tommen will die before Cersei, and then she’ll almost certainly take the Iron Throne.
And finally… Hodor
In season six, we learned how Hodor got his name, and why that’s the only thing he can ever say: Bran was time-warping and warging, and warged everything right the hell on up. It’s been confirmed that Martin plans to do something similar in the books, although the circumstances will be different.
One thing that emerges, after you start listing all the book-only storylines that have to be factored in, is how much more complicated Martin’s storyline is on paper. Based on what we know about The Winds of Winter, it seems that chaos is a major theme, especially as winter makes travel and communication more difficult. All of Westeros has fallen apart and civil war has been replaced by confusion and death.
When you think about it like that, Martin’s fiendish complexity seems to be aimed at dramatizing the existential horror of life in postwar Westeros. And maybe the clutter, for Martin, is increasingly the point of the story.
Tor.com’s Butler says that the central philosophy of these books “seems to be based on the Yeatsian conviction that the center cannot hold.” No matter how screwed up things are, they can always get more screwed up. With that in mind, in the books you increasingly have to expect an ending that’s nasty, brutish and horrifyingly insane.
“I’m really rather unclear on how he intends to wrap up the series at all,” Butler says, “unless it’s going to be literally a ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ kind of scenario. Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him.”