Nothing brings out the snob in me faster than dumb Game of Thrones fan theories. At their best, they get a “huh, maybe.” At their worst, they inspire in me an irrational level of anger: Arya isn’t secretly the Waif! Hot Pie isn’t the key to the battle against the White Walkers! The Night King isn’t using Winterfell as a diversion so he can attack King’s Landing! I feel like anyone on Twitter whenever someone else says a nice thing about a Democratic presidential candidate: Ugh, don’t you know how stupid you look?
However! I have just had the amazing experience of reading a fan theory that I do not hate, and friends, my eyes have been opened. I finally see the appeal in trying to guess ahead of time what will happen on a television show I follow, and I promise this is not sarcasm even though it sounds like it: I get it now. These theories add an additional level of intellectual drama to the proceedings. You’re not just rooting for your favorite characters to survive, you’re also rooting for your favorite hypotheses to come true. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. I have won the victory over myself. I love Game of Thrones fan theories.
In this strange and sudden conversion, a post from Song of Ice and Fire blogger Steven Attewell served as my own road-to-Damascus moment. On Tuesday, a reader posed Attewell (who is also a professor at CUNY; I feel like I need to gas him up in thanks) a question: What did he think of the theory that the Winterfell crypts are actually a terrible place to put the North’s noncombatants, given that they’re full of corpses, which happen to be the raw material for the Night King’s army? His response was to suggest something I had never considered before:
I don’t think the Starks of ages past, so focused on the coming of winter, buried their dead with iron swords because they were stupid men.
In other words: The dead Starks in the crypts won’t rise up and turn against the living; they’ll rise up and protect them.
Why did this theory do it for me, when so many others failed? A few reasons.
To be fair, many terrible Game of Thrones theories are floated for no other reason than Wouldn’t it be awesome if that happened? However, just because other theories never go past that point does not mean we should stop ourselves from recognizing the simple appeal of skeletons swinging swords. They’re cool!
It does not involve viewers outsmarting the characters.
Similarly, a lot of fan theories hinge on the element of surprise, and yes, I know this one does as well. But often those surprises have the whiff of trying to punish the characters for acting according to the beliefs of their fictional world, of proving that we the viewers are smarter than they are. Of course we are — we’re real and they’re fake! Instead, this theory rewards our heroes for putting their trust in Winterfell and the Stark legacy.
It actually fits with the themes of George R.R. Martin’s novels.
Not all of the idea has made it into the show, but Martin laid a lot of ground for the idea that Winterfell has special properties that make it a safe haven during Northern winters. (This is part of what made it so sad when Ramsay Bolton burned it down, and why it means so much that the Starks have reunited there.) The North retains a strong cultural memory of the original fight against the White Walkers, and it would make sense for the specific burial practices of House Stark to tie into their efforts, instead of being the thing that destroys them.
It fits too with Martin’s influences.
As Attewell notes, the dead Starks aiding their descendents in battle is a riff on the Dead Men of Dunharrow from Lord of the Rings, which introduced many of the genre tropes that Martin is revising in his series.
So there you have it, the one good Game of Thrones fan theory. Now I have to wait around like everyone else to see if it comes true. I’m an average theory nerd. I get to live the rest of this season like a schnook.