WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE SERIES FINALE EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES, “THE IRON THRONE,” FOLLOW.
After eight seasons, HBO’s Game of Thrones answered the question some fans have been waiting decades to know: who will win the game and sit on the Iron Throne? It turned out the answer was technically no one, as the dragon Drogon melted the throne into scrap in a fit of grief and rage over the death of his mother, Queen Daenerys Targaryen. But the business of the Realm must go on. After an electoral college vote, the remaining great houses of Westeros chose Bran Stark — the living repository of the entire history of the continent — as their new king. One wouldn’t be remiss to think that means Bran Stark won the game of thrones. But the true winners are in the deep woodlands and secret places of the Six Kingdoms (plus the North): the Children of the Forest.
Humanity has been bamboozled.
JUST WHO, OR WHAT, IS BRAN STARK?
When Bran Stark is asked if he will accept the position of king in the series finale of Game of Thrones, he replies “Why do you think I came all this way?” No one in the semi-circle of nobles and war veterans blinks twice at this statement. But maybe they should have. After all, Bran has made it very clear since his “escape” from the Night King in Season 6 that everything is going according to plan, everyone is where they should be on the chessboard of life in order for events to unfurl in the way they are meant to. Occam’s Razor indicates whatever is left of Brandon Stark, the fourth child and second son of Lord Eddard Stark and Lady Catelyn Tully, has been working towards coronation for years.
Recall that Bran Stark was chosen by the Children of the Forest via the previous Three-Eyed Raven. For years before Bran discovered the massive weirwood north of The Wall he was receiving visions urging him to abandon his life at Winterfell and become part of the greater tapestry of history. From the moment Bran was thrown from the tower by Jaime Lannister, he was being prodded down a path that would eventually lead to the throne. As his powers of warging into animals (and humans) and ability to “greensee” the past, present, and future grew, Bran Stark lost his humanity. The transformation was so unsettling that Meera Reed, a woman who sacrificed everything to get Bran to the Three-Eyed Raven and then back to Winterfell, abandoned the cause. Her reasoning? She believed the real Bran Stark died in the cave under that tree. Whatever fuels the youngest surviving Stark’s body now, it is barely human.
THOSE WEIR(D) TREES ARE UP TO SOMETHING
If Bran Stark is no longer entirely human though, it raises a lot of questions. Questions that can be answered by looking at the long and bloody history of weirwood trees. The ominous topiaries once covered Westeros from the Lands of Always Winter to the edge of the deserts of Dorne. Since before recorded history, the Children of the Forest were able to tap into a weirwood in one location and see anything past or present that had happened within a certain radius of any weirwood. That knowledge combined with the extensive root system the previous Three-Eyed Raven was literally plugged into indicates the weirwoods are all connected.
This makes George R.R. Martin’s ghostly trees similar to the real-life “Pando Aspen Grove” at Fishlake National Forest. Also known as the “trembling giant,” the Pando grove is one of the largest single organisms on Earth, spreading over 106 acres and weighing in at 6,600 tons. At over 80,000 years old, the Pando root system sprouts into over 40,000 individual aspen trees that are all connected. Now imbue those trees with magic, give them sentience of a type, have them worshipped as gods, and you have an approximation of weirwood trees.
The greater game within the A Song of Ice and Fire series is not between petty lords but an ancient battle happening between gods (or god-like creatures) at the periphery of human memory. Within Martin’s source materials, including A World of Ice & Fire, scraps of mythology reveal the First Men may have been correct to fear the all-seeing eyes of the weirwoods and their guardians, the Children of the Forest. Though only the island of Skagos still performs the ancient rituals, it was once common to execute criminals beneath weirwoods, letting blood seep into the ground while hanging the victim’s entrails from the branches. Old tales from the Iron Islands — one of the few places weirwoods will not grow — focus on Ygg, a demonic ghostly tree that fed on human blood. Even during current events, people still subconsciously gravitate to weirwoods in pale imitations of blood magic. Be it Ned Stark cleaning his sword in the godswood or Maester Luwin dying in the shade of the weirwood, something about these blood-tinged trees calls out for blood and humanity still answers.
Then there’s the unsettling vision Melisandre has in A Dance with Dragons. The priestess looks into the flames and she sees a “wooden face, corpse white” with a thousand red eyes next to a boy with a wolf’s head and thinks that it the avatar of the Great Other. Within the religion of R’hllor, the Great Other is the enemy, meaning if Bran truly was subsumed by the weirwoods, it’s entirely possible the Lord of Light won the battle but lost the war.
THESE CHILDREN WERE PLAYING THE LONG GAME
George R.R. Martin likes to play with fantasy tropes. So it seems odd that most people take the Children of the Forest at face value. Centuries of storytelling have cultivated the belief that “child-like” magical species are to be trusted, especially if they have some kind of higher connection to nature. But everything we know about the Children of the Forest indicates they are not our friends.
Take Leaf. Introduced in the Season 4 episode “The Children,” Leaf rescues Bran and Meera from the undead as the humans finally reach the ancient cave where the Three-Eyed Raven lives. She assists Bran in taking his place as the new Three-Eyed Raven and reveals it was her people who created the Night King all those centuries ago. She even goes so far as to sacrifice her life in the Season 6 episode “The Door” in order for Bran and Meera to escape back to Winterfell. But were her intentions as altruistic as she made them appear?
If the Children were truly waiting to help Bran, why wouldn’t they clear out the undead before the Stark boy arrived? Seems suspicious that the only fatality was that of Jojen Reed, the other person with the ability to use “greensight.” A second look at the scene almost makes it appear the undead are simply scaring Bran and Meera, herding them towards the cave. Odder still is Leaf’s admission that they created the Night King to help them win the war against men. Never once during her speech does she state the Children of the Forest lost control of their creation, which makes one wonder why no one has ever seen a Child of the Forest as a wight. If the Night King can transform giants and ice bears and dragons, surely he would seek to control those who gave him life… unless they’re still on the same side.
NIGHT KING? MORE LIKE RED HERRING
Then there is Leaf’s sacrifice when the Night King’s forces overrun the cave after Bran’s visions go awry. If the goal of the Children is to once again rule over their ancestral homeland, a plan millennia in the making, sacrificing one person to sell the lie that the Night King is the enemy is a perfect way to trick Meera Reed into returning to the realms of men with a magical Trojan horse. It does seem serendipitous that Meera and Bran were able to outrun the Night King and his officers, even with a timely assist from a half-undead Benjen Stark.
But then what is the purpose of the Night King in the final battle during “The Long Night” if he and Bran are working to the same end? Simple, the Night King makes an easy scapegoat. Knowing he’ll be defeated at Bran Stark’s feet, in a godswood beneath the sight of the ancient weirwood is powerful blood magic. It also makes Bran Stark look like a big damn hero to the remaining human forces. Big damn heroes tend to get rewards…like a crown. Especially if said heroes just happen to drop divisive news such as the revelation of new Targaryen, effectively pitting the depleted human armies against each other.
So yes, Bran Stark won the game of thrones, but it wasn’t done for the good of humanity. How long until the rest of the realm realizes they’ve raised up a nigh-omnipotent, potentially immortal demigod? Based on past actions, not until it is way too late. Enjoy your victory, Children of the Forest. You earned it.