WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8’S SECOND EPISODE.
The battle between the living and the dead is nigh on Game of Thrones. The coming episode will see what’s said to be the longest single battle sequence in film or television history, with an episode that is clocking in at over 80 minutes. But while the brave souls fight the Night King’s forces outside the gates of Winterfell, the smallfolk and the non-fighters will be hiding in the castle’s crypts. As has been pointed out many times by now on social media, that might be a big mistake. After all, the enemy is the dead themselves. But just how likely is it that the women and children are about to be slaughtered in a surprise attack, whether from those buried within the crypt already, or those seeking to get inside?
Looking at the history and geography of the area, pretty likely.
Winterfell is as old as the First Men, having been built during the Age of Heroes. Centered around a godswood that hasn’t been touched in 10,000 years, the castle is steeped in history. While the current layout spreads out over many acres, that wasn’t always the case. The original structures of Winterfell include the godswood, the First Keep, and the Broken Tower (from which Bran was thrown in the first episode of the series). Outside the First Keep stands the lichyard, where the servants of Starks since time immemorial are buried. Meanwhile, the Starks themselves are buried in the crypts, which are simply natural caves formed near the hot spring that feeds into the godswood.
Where the smallfolk are hiding is merely the top level of the caves. In the novels, the spiral staircase that leads below surface level continues downward to levels that house ancient forgotten Kings of the North. One has to wonder if Winterfell was built where it was for strategic purposes. In the aftermath of the Long Night, the magma that surely warms the entirety of Winterfell may have been seen as a deterrent against the dead. Stark tradition revealed by Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones, the first novel, requires each tomb to be fitted with an iron sword to keep the dead from wandering restlessly. But it doesn’t take much of a squint to see that tradition as a bastardization of burying the dead with dragonglass. The presence of hot springs not only at Winterfell but also the Dreadfort, along with basalt deposits in the Moat Cailin and the mysterious “explosion” at Hardhome 600 years ago (according to A Dance with Dragons) that rained down ash for half a year indicated the North houses plenty of volcanic activity that could spawn dragonglass.
UNMAPPED AND UNKNOWN
The crypt of Winterfell is massive and, as a natural cave system, pre-dates the castle itself. The complete depth and breadth are unknown but it definitely stretches beyond the confines of Winterfell itself and out into the surrounding lands. It may go so far as the mysterious wolfswood. A Dance with Dragons mentions the lowest levels are so old that they have partially collapsed. Since it is considered unsafe, no one ventures in the lower levels, not even the adventurous Bran before he is pushed from that window.
As with any natural cave system, it’s likely there are plenty of hiding places and secret entrances. In A Clash of Kings, Ygritte regales Jon with a Free Folk legend about Bael the Bard. Once King-Beyond-The-Wall, Bael infiltrated Winterfell under the guise of being a singer and asked to be paid for his work with “the most beautiful flower” blooming in the castle. The next morning, Bael had absconded with the Stark’s only heir, a daughter. Though ranging parties were sent out to find them, none succeeded. It wasn’t until the daughter appeared in her old bedroom with an infant boy that the truth came out: she and Bael had never left Winterfell. They had been hiding in the crypt the entire time. Since the legend doesn’t mention how Bael escaped — only that he did — one can surmise he found another way out. Which means the Night King’s forces could find another way in.
NIGHT KING POWERS
Even though the coalition at Winterfell is about to face down the Night King, they still have no real grasp on his power set. Yes, Jon watched the Night King raise all the fallen dead at Hardhome with a single gesture. At this point, it’s not 100% clear that they’ve been told Viserion has been resurrected to serve in the undead army, though one would presume Tormund or Beric would have told them off-camera. Still, they have no idea how far the Night King’s power extends, though the books give a few hints. None of them good.
The most telling is the tale of Tormund’s son, Torwynd the Tame. In the battle beneath the Wall, Tormund son is injured. As Tormund tells Jon in A Dance with Dragons, Torwynd died in the chill of the night. Before anyone even knew he was dead, the younger Giantsbane has risen as a wight and Tormund had to put him down. Even as far back as the first novel, Osha admits she was fleeing South because the dead were rising everywhere.
At both these points, the Night King is still a rumor. He is probably nowhere near the Wall when Tormund’s son returns as a wight. This leaves open the distinct possibility that the only thing that was keeping the Night King’s reach at bay was The Wall. Which is now gone. Besides that, no one knows if there comes a point when a corpse is too far gone for the Night King to manipulate. Do wights not decompose because of the cold or because of magic? Can the Night King stitch sinew and flesh back onto the ancient bones of Stark kings of old? If he can resurrect a dragon at a touch, if he can control tens of thousands of wights through sheer will alone, what else can he do?
Any way you slice it, the innocents huddling in the crypt of Winterfell for safety are in big trouble. If the Night King can turn wights from a distance, the crypt is a death trap. If the Night King’s forces find another way into the caves, the crypt is a death trap. If the wights break through to the castle courtyard, there is only one known entrance to the sepulchral. Which means, you guessed it, the crypt is a death trap.