Who says Game of Thrones has gone off-book? On Sunday night’s episode, “Book of the Stranger,” fans were treated to a version of a scene many had simply assumed the show would skip over: Ramsay Bolton’s chilling letter to Jon Snow demanding the return of his bride, Sansa Stark. In the books, that letter is known simply as “the Pink Letter” — named after the color of the Boltons’ sigil in the novels — and its true nature has been subject to fierce debate in the Song of Ice and Fire fandom. Though the books and the show are different beasts at this point, it’s still possible to glean certain hints about the series’ endgame from what the TV version chooses to keep. (See: Greyjoy, Euron.) What can we learn about the Pink Letter from the show’s handling of it?
To discuss it, we’re going to have to go deep into the weeds of the book for a little bit. Part of the reason fans had assumed the letter wouldn’t make it into the show comes from its timing, as it arrives at a very specific moment, at the very end of A Dance With Dragons. Stannis is on the march to take back Winterfell from the Boltons. Ramsay’s bride (a girl disguised as Arya) and Theon have both fled the castle with an assist from Mance Rayder. Lord Commander Jon Snow has been making peace with the wildlings, giving aid to Stannis, and generally doing a bunch of things his comrades don’t approve of. But the tensions at Castle Black don’t come to a head until Jon receives a letter stamped with the wax seal of the Boltons. Here’s what it says:
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want this wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
Ramsay Bolton, Trueborn Lord of Winterfell
Unlike his muted reaction in the show, in the books the arrival of this letter spurs an energetic response from Jon: He immediately begins planning to take an army of wildlings south to battle the Boltons, and it’s this — the image of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch leading a band of wildling raiders against the Warden of the North — that spurs his assassins into action. He’s stabbed to death shortly after informing his brothers of his plans.
Unlike the show, where the letter seems to be easily taken at face value, the book version of the letter has spurred various fan theories about who actually wrote it and why. Some things just don’t add up! For instance, Theon ends Dance as Stannis’s prisoner; if Ramsay really defeated Stannis, wouldn’t he already have “his Reek” back? And if the battle was so important, why didn’t we see it from the perspective of anyone who was with Stannis? And why would Ramsay care so much about Melisandre, or Mance’s queen, anyway?
The inconsistencies have led to two major fan theories about the letter’s provenance. The first says that Stannis, having defeated Ramsay’s forces outside Winterfell, sent the letter in an attempt to trick Jon to bringing him reinforcements that will help him capture it outright. The second says that Mance Rayder himself wrote it, since no one else in Winterfell knows that he’s there, and the letter shows some indication (“black crows”) that it was written by a wildling.
In the show, of course, both Stannis and Mance are dead, which would seem to cross them off the list of suspects. Does this mean that Ramsay really did write the letter? It wouldn’t be the first time a bunch of fan theories were wrong: Ramsay’s certainly a valid suspect, even if Stannis didn’t lose the battle of Winterfell, as happened in the show. In a Winds preview chapter, Stannis makes mention of faking his own death — could Ramsay have bought into the ruse long enough to brag to Jon about killing him?
The answer to this question, as it is for almost every question about things that will be revealed in The Winds of Winter, is a resounding “Maybe!” But the show’s version of the letter does seem to be leading the Northern plot to the place we can expect Winds to begin: a massive battle for Winterfell, with Jon Snow and Sansa taking the place of Stannis’s army. In this light, the reason the show rushed through the battle in the season-five finale starts to become clear: Why have Stannis take back Winterfell when you can have Jon do it? Instead of spurring Jon to his death, it seems likely the threat of the Pink Letter will be the thing that leads him to get over it: By joining with his sister and reclaiming Winterfell, Jon will reconcile himself to his heritage and become the Stark he was always meant to be.