Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.
For a brief moment during Sunday’s Game of Thrones, it seemed like Westeros got a rare bit of good news. “Beyond the Wall” was an episode filled with tragedies, including the shocking death of Dany’s dragon Viserion, but when Benjen Stark appeared out of nowhere to save Jon Snow from the Night King’s army of the dead, it seemed like things might end with a glimmer of hope. Not so: While a half-frozen Jon rode away on his horse, Uncle Benjen sacrificed himself to distract the wights, no more than a minute or two after he gallantly arrived to save the day.
We haven’t seen Benjen since he dropped Bran and Meera off at the Wall in the season-six finale, so even though it seems like he’s gone for good, you might need a little brushing up. If you can’t quite remember the character’s history, or you just want a primer on what made him so unique, here’s everything worth knowing about Benjen Stark.
The youngest brother of Ned Stark, Benjen also had an older brother in Brandon and a sister in Lyanna. He joined the Night’s Watch and became First Ranger, which is why Jon Snow originally thought it would be an honorable calling — he wanted to be like his uncle. But soon after Jon made his trek to the Wall in season one, Benjen went out on an expedition to search for the men who disappeared in the very first scene of the series. Then Benjen also disappeared, only to have his horse return without him and his two companions’ dead bodies later resurface as wights. This led to theories that perhaps Benjen suffered a similar fate.
In George R.R. Martin’s books, we got slightly more information about his whereabouts. When the Night’s Watch sent out rangers in search of Benjen, they found a few blazes in the trees that he had left to mark his way. But the marks stopped abruptly in the stony highlands to the northwest, and all trace of him vanished.
Later in the books, a character allied with the Three-Eyed Raven, wearing black like a member of the Night’s Watch, emerges to help Sam Tarly and Team Bran north of the Wall. He seems both dead and not dead, as pale as a wight but without the trademark blue eyes. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t eat. And he can speak, which wights don’t seem to be able to do. (“They don’t have tongues, or they’ve forgotten how to use them.”) Coldhands, as he is known, obscures his face with a hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf, which muffles his voice, but he explains his appearance thusly: “Once the heart has ceased to beat, a man’s blood runs down into his extremities, where it thickens and congeals. His hands and feet swell up and turn as black as pudding. The rest of him becomes as white as milk.” Sam gave him the name of Coldhands, but readers began wondering if he might really be an undead Benjen: not quite a wight, not quite a White Walker, but not quite human anymore, either.
Unlike most fan theories, however, this one seemed to have been debunked. Martin’s editor Anne Groell wrote a note in his manuscript, asking, “Is this Benjen? I think it’s Benjen,” and the author responded in the margins, “No.” Seemed to be pretty straightforward — unlike the vague, tantalizing answers that Martin usually gives readers when they pose theories, why would he offer misdirection to his own editor? The matter seemed settled.
Until the season-six episode “Blood of My Blood,” that is. In that episode, we learned that Benjen Stark was stabbed in the gut with a sword of ice by a White Walker, but the Children of the Forest intervened by shoving a handy blade of dragonglass into his chest to prevent the magic from taking hold. (Someday, we need a dragonglass 101 tutorial: How can it turn you into a White Walker, prevent you from becoming a wight, and kill a White Walker, all in one. Is there anything it can’t do?) Ever since, Benjen has worked with the Children and the Three-Eyed Raven, although they neglected to mention that during the year or so Bran spent in that cave with them.
When Benjen said his good-byes to Bran and Meera in season six, he explained that he wasn’t able to pass beyond the Wall because “ancient spells” and “strong magic” prevent the dead from crossing. Nevertheless, he left them with a promise: “The great war is coming and I still fight for the living. I’ll do what I can as long as I can.” He may have only reappeared for an instant, but Benjen made good on that vow in “Beyond the Wall.”