After the disastrous events of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, in which Hodor and several other of Bran Stark’s allies died tragically at the White Walkers‘ hands, this Sunday’s installment finally gave poor Bran some good news… well, sorta good news.
Just as all looked lost for Bran and Meera Reed, the two were dramatically saved from attacking wights by a mysterious figure — and that figure turned out to be Bran’s long-lost uncle, Benjen Stark.
You can be forgiven for asking, Wait, who is that again? We haven’t seen Benjen since the third episode of the show’s very first season (or, for book readers, midway through George R. R. Martin’s first book in the series), when he rode north of the Wall and disappeared.
But his absence has long been a dangling plot thread, and fans have speculated about where he might have gone, and whether we’d ever see him again.
And, of course, since nothing can be straightforwardly good news in the Game of Thrones world, we get the added reveal that Benjen is… well, not exactly alive.
Benjen is Ned Stark’s little brother and was a high-ranking member of the Night’s Watch… until he vanished
Benjen Stark is Ned Stark’s younger brother, and the last surviving member of that previous generation of the Stark family. (We’ve seen a much younger version of him in some of Bran’s visions of Winterfell’s past this year.)
The books establish that it’s relatively common for a younger son of a noble family — who wouldn’t inherit the family’s castle — to go off and join the Night’s Watch. And, after Ned inherited Winterfell, that’s what Benjen did, soon rising swiftly through the Watch’s ranks and becoming First Ranger.
We were introduced to Benjen in the very first episode of Game of Thrones, when he showed up to the Stark family’s feast welcoming King Robert to Winterfell. At that point, the character seemed mainly to be a plot device to get Jon Snow to leave his family and join the Night’s Watch.
But shortly after the two arrived there and Jon began his training, Benjen departed on a ranging north of the Wall, to investigate rumors of wildling and White Walker activity. Again, this served a plot purpose — to keep Jon from getting too comfortable in his new surroundings.
Benjen never returned. Later in season one, his horse turned back up at Castle Black, but it was riderless. So, at the end of the season, Lord Commander Mormont took Jon and a large group of Night’s Watch men north to, among other things, look for Benjen. Still, Benjen remained stubbornly missing.
Benjen makes his entrance similarly to the book character Coldhands
The nature of Benjen’s sudden, dramatic appearance will remind book readers of a similar scene that took place in the books, albeit much earlier in the story.
Back in Martin’s third book, A Storm of Swords, when Sam and Gilly were fleeing from wights, a mysterious character allied with the Three-Eyed Raven showed up to rescue them at the last minute. This character wore a Night’s Watch cloak, but he didn’t reveal his name, and he was eventually dubbed “Coldhands” because… er… his hands were icy cold.
Soon, Coldhands ends up guiding Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor north of the wall to meet the Three-Eyed-Raven. On the way, though, Bran notices that Coldhands won’t show his face, never eats, and doesn’t seem to be breathing. And figures out that, well, he’s dead.
“Who are you? Why are your hands black?”
The ranger studied his hands as if he had never noticed them before. “Once the heart has ceased to beat, a man’s blood runs down into his extremities, where it thickens and congeals.” His voice rattled in his throat, as thin and gaunt as he was. “His hands and feet swell up and turn as black as pudding. The rest of him becomes as white as milk.”
…”He’s dead.” Bran could taste the bile in his throat. “Meera, he’s some dead thing.”
Still, they seem to get along fine despite that little detail, and Coldhands successfully brings Bran to that cave.
You see the similarity here, with this episode’s reveal that Benjen himself was killed by the White Walkers, and reanimated via the Children of the Forest’s dragonglass-aided magic as… not quite a wight, not quite a White Walker, but something that’s not straightforwardly alive.
Additionally, ever since Coldhands first appeared in A Storm of Swords, fans have speculated that the character is an undead Benjen. And in the “Inside the Episode” segment, showrunner Dan Weiss refers to the character as “Coldhands Benjen.”
Interestingly, though, Martin appears to have privately debunked this theory, so far as it related to his books. A manuscript of the most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, stored at Texas A&M’s Cushing Library contains some handwritten margin notes between Martin and his editor Anne Groell. And when Groell wrote a comment asking, “Is this Benjen? I think it’s Benjen,” Martin responded to her with a simple “NO.”
However, showrunners David Benioff and Weiss have increasingly proven willing to remix various aspects of Martin’s books, or to invent material entirely. This reveal of undead Benjen could well be in that tradition.
Did Benjen bury the dragonglass daggers?
Now, we didn’t get any light shed on it in this episode, but there’s been some fan speculation that Benjen was quite busy during his long absence. Back in season two, Samwell Tarly and his friends discovered a mysterious package buried north of the Wall — a stash of dragonglass daggers and a mysterious horn, wrapped in a Night’s Watch cloak.
This was tremendously lucky for Sam, since he later discovers that dragonglass is one of the few things that can kill a White Walker. And because of that Night’s Watch cloak, fans have long theorized that Benjen left those weapons for his allies to find.
Indeed, Benjen’s sudden reappearance to help Bran indicates that he has indeed been engaged in some top-secret anti-White Walker activities with the late Three-Eyed Raven.
As for that horn found alongside the dragonglass daggers? Well, in the books, it’s still in Sam’s possession, and there are lots of fan theories about its significance. It hasn’t been mentioned again in the show, though, and the adaptation generally seems to be downplaying some of Martin’s plot elements involving magical horns.