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Everything You Need to Know About the History—and Secrets—of Winterfell

The heroes aren’t the only ones who need to prepare for the impending Battle of Winterfell. As the Night King’s army marches on the living, the castle shrouded in mystery is poised to play a pivotal role.

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Battle is coming to Winterfell. In the Season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones, aptly titled “Winterfell,” Jon Snow declared that with the Wall in shambles, the living would make their last stand at the Stark family home. The White Walkers, meanwhile, have already ravaged Last Hearth en route to the eponymous castle, and the teaser for the next episode showed extensive war preparations underway. Whether the fight fully arrives this week or next—the latter is more probable, given that episode’s battle-tested director and extreme length—Winterfell’s defenses are about to be tested, and further exploration of the familiar castle will likely come as well.

So before those crucial scenes hit screens over the coming weeks, it’s worth taking a tour through the series’ already-shared information about Winterfell, from both books and show. What is its history? What are its defensive strengths and weaknesses? What’s up with those tantalizing crypts? And what hidden mysteries might be unveiled this season?

History

Stories in the North say that the legendary Bran the Builder constructed Winterfell, along with the Wall and maybe even Storm’s End, after the Long Night ended. Archaeological evidence suggests that from then on, Winterfell grew in bits and pieces, with different kings of winter adding different elements to the castle until it had grown into the expansive estate it resembles today.

As is George R.R. Martin’s wont with ancient history, though, it’s all a bit fuzzy due to conflicting sources. According to the encyclopedic World of Ice & Fire, one former Winterfell maester concluded that the castle had been “rebuilt so many times that a precise dating could not be made.” Another former maester disputed the Bran the Builder construction story entirely, claiming that the round towers on the First Keep—the oldest standing structure inside Winterfell—“proved that it could not have existed before the arrival of the Andals since the First Men and the early Andals raised square towers and keeps. Round towers came sometime later.” The Andals didn’t arrive until after the Long Night ended, throwing the legend into doubt.

The confusion behind Winterfell’s origins extends to some of its founding logistics, which further color an irregular picture. First is the odd name, which stands out compared to the other great castles in Westeros, which largely feature self-explanatory monikers. Casterly Rock is where the Casterlys built a castle out of rock; Harrenhal is where Harren built his hall; Storm’s End is where the Narrow Sea’s storms ended; and so on. Winterfell isn’t so obvious, though. It seems to represent a compound of Winter—the force that ushered in the Long Nightand fell, but neither the books nor show have thus far explained what that phrase might mean. (Hold that thought.)

Another of Winterfell’s foundational puzzles is its location. Many prominent castles in this story are coastal, from Casterly Rock on the west to King’s Landing, Storm’s End, and Sunspear on the east. On the continent’s interior, most castles were still built on or near bodies of water: Highgarden sits on the Mander, the Twins and Riverrun on separate branches of the Trident, and Harrenhal atop the Gods Eye lake. Even in the North, most settlements arose near water, from the Dreadfort and Barrowtown (rivers) to Torrhen’s Square (lake) to White Harbor (where the White Knife river trickles out to sea).

This patterned placement makes sense; as in the real world, settlers would have wanted prime access to water for reasons of trade, travel, and sustenance—for the water itself, and for the presence of other creatures the humans could hunt and fish for food. But look at where Winterfell sits in the North. It’s well south of Long Lake, sandwiched between—but not all that close to—two branches of the White Knife, and nowhere near any other body of water. Moreover, while other castles were built with an eye on advantageous natural defenses (like the impregnable mountains of the Eyrie), Winterfell isn’t blessed with anything of the sort.

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Geographically speaking, this part of the map was a blank space before the castle’s construction (the line that intersects Winterfell on this map is the Kingsroad, which wasn’t developed until after the castle rose). One wonders, then, why Bran the Builder or whichever Stark actually raised the castle chose that spot for his home.

Defenses

Just because Winterfell doesn’t come with natural defenses doesn’t mean that the castle is unprepared for attack. As Theon says in Season 2 after seizing the castle, “Ned Stark always said 500 men could hold Winterfell again 10,000.” And as Tyrion thinks in A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series, Winterfell was “not as grotesquely huge as Harrenhal, nor as solid and impregnable to look at as Storm’s End, yet there had been a great strength in those stones, a sense that within those walls a man might feel safe.”

Sound defensive architecture is the first reason for such claims. If any aggressors sought to storm Winterfell, the books say, they’d first have to penetrate an 80-foot-high outer wall that encircles the castle. Then they’d have to traverse a moat. And then they’d still have to make it through a 100-foot-high inner wall to enter the castle proper. Defensive turrets dot the walls, and this concentric system allows for overlapping levels of defense. As World notes in its entry on the castle, “Any attacker who succeeded in capturing the outer wall would still find defenders on the inner walls loosing spears and stones and arrows down at him.”

The show has yet to explore the specifics of this defensive setup. No pitched battle has occurred at Winterfell’s direct perimeter or inside the castle. That opens the possibility that the structure isn’t quite as robust in the show—or that Jon, Sansa, and friends have even further measures in store to combat the invading forces.

Against almost any opposing army, moreover, Winterfell’s weather would give the defenders a disparate advantage. The castle’s interior is, if not pleasantly warm, at least palatable thanks to the hot springs that warm the grounds; as Sansa says in A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, “It was always warm, even when it snowed. Water from the hot springs is piped through the walls to warm them.” An attacking force, meanwhile, would have to contend with the frigid elements outdoors—think about how Stannis fared when trying to take on the Boltons. For this reason, too, Ramsay would have likely held the castle had he forced Jon into a lengthy siege effort instead of engaging his challenger on the battlefield.

The current makeup of Winterfell’s defenders theoretically affords its battle commanders more options than just waiting out a siege, and the Season 8 trailer shows the fight underway both inside and outside the walls. Dany’s Dothraki followers are better suited to fight in open ground than the close confines of a castle—though it’s unclear how their style will transfer to the wintry climate—and her Unsullied could prove even more useful in this battle. Roughly 100 years before Aegon’s invasion, in the Essosi city of Qohor, a unit of 3,000 Unsullied soldiers famously stood before the city gates and successfully repelled a 50,000-person strong Dothraki khalasar over the course of 18 charges and three archer attacks. The army of the dead numbers at least twice as many as 50,000 and poses different challenges than Dothraki warriors, but Dany’s Unsullied number at least twice as many as 3,000 and the general principle might work the same way now. With their weapons and training, the Unsullied are uniquely suited to this kind of structured defense—and given how poorly a chaotic, every-person-for-himself strategy worked against the dead at Hardhome, precise formations from a seasoned army would give the current Winterfell defenders even more support beyond the castle’s structural armor.

Weaknesses

Despite those defensive strengths, however, Winterfell is far from invincible. As Tyrion thinks in that same passage in Clash, “Massive walls and tall towers had not saved Storm’s End, nor Harrenhal, nor even Winterfell.” Ruin can befall any castle, and Winterfell is no exception.

The castle has already fallen several times throughout history, and to regular human attackers to boot. According to World, two self-styled Bolton kings—Royce II and Royce IV—captured and burned the castle during the long-lasting Stark-Bolton feud thousands of years before the events of the show. Closer to the present, Theon wrested control of the castle away from the Starks back in Season 2. He was aided by a nearly unmanned defense, with the bulk of Robb Stark’s men waging his campaign against the Lannisters in the South and the rest leaving to defend Torrhen’s Square against the Ironborn, and he was also aided by his own intimate knowledge of the castle’s layout—as he brags to Yara, “I took the great castle of Winterfell with 20 men.” The Night King has more than a hundred thousand, according to Dany’s estimate at Season 7’s Dragonpit summit.

Some of Winterfell’s designed defenses might provide feeble protection against this particular army. The weather wouldn’t pose an issue for the dead, for one, and for another, what good is a hundred-foot wall against a dragon that blasted through a 700-foot wall bolstered by magical enchantments? It’s hard not to think about Ned’s 10,000-men claim in light of Tywin Lannister’s assessment of Harrenhal, which he says could have stood against an assault of a million men but proved defenseless against an aerial attack.

It’s also possible—and here’s where the theorizing begins—that the Night King, like Theon, possesses particular knowledge of the castle. In Season 2, as Maester Luwin advised Theon to flee the castle before Northern troops attacked to regain control, he revealed, “There are ways—hidden passageways built so the Lords of Winterfell could escape.” These passageways might help the defenders escape if the Battle of Winterfell goes awry—but if they represent secret ways out, they might represent secret ways in as well.

Might the Night King know of their existence and opt to infiltrate the castle by stealth rather than—or at least in addition to—a full-frontal assault on the fortified walls? If the Night King is a Stark, he very well might, and if he is in some way connected to Bran, he almost definitely would have that intel. As a young boy, Bran explored every available inch of the castle; according to his thoughts in the first book, this sense of adventure “made him feel like he was lord of the castle” and “taught him Winterfell’s secrets too. … Even Maester Luwin didn’t know [some of the secrets], Bran was convinced.” The Night King’s exhibiting knowledge of Winterfell’s secrets would provide even more evidence to the burgeoning theory that he and Bran are one and the same.

Crypts

Why does the Night King want to come for Winterfell? The obvious answer comports with the notion that—in showrunner D.B. Weiss’s words—he is “just death, coming for everyone in the story.” Of course such a figure would attack the flood of figures now massing at the Northern stronghold. But could there be something more to the villain’s plan?

This possibility requires the Night King to want, and represent, something more than just death. That’s far from guaranteed, and taking Weiss’s comments at face value suggests that it won’t manifest at all. But one set of Winterfell-centric theories—commonly known as the “Great Other” theories—could both help answer this question and tie up some of the loose ends surrounding the castle’s founding.

The Great Other is the name given to the Lord of Light’s polar opposite—the conglomerated forces of darkness and evil in the world. And, this notion holds, the Great Other is magically imprisoned beneath Winterfell because the castle was built where Winter literally fell. That’s why the castle is named as such, and that’s why the castle is situated with such odd geography. If Winterfell represents not just the Starks’ home but also the site where the Battle for the Dawn concluded to end the Long Night, many of these pieces would fall neatly into place.

If Winterfell was originally constructed to keep the Great Other contained, the crypts would be the logical location for the prisoner. The crypts are among the oldest structures in the castle and extend deep underground, with numerous levels—including one that is “partly collapsed,” according to the books—and a massive square footage. In the first book, Bran thinks that the topmost level is “longer than Winterfell itself,” and that size makes sense: Thousands of years’ worth of dead Stark kings allegedly reside in the crypts, as well as the more recent skeletons of every warden of the North since Aegon the Conqueror’s arrival on the Westerosi mainland.

Throughout the books, further clues arise for this possible surprise: Despite the hot springs helping the rest of the castle, the crypts are always cold; characters have strange dreams about ghostly encounters in the crypts; family custom holds that an iron sword is laid on each statue’s lap to “to keep the vengeful spirits in their crypts.”

And in the show, it’s clear from both the Season 8 preview material and the new credits that the crypts will play an enormous role in the remaining five episodes. Conceivably all of these swirling hints could converge on the crypts: They could be the location of a prison that the Night King wants to break; they could also be the location of the secret passageways Maester Luwin referenced, and thereby permit the Walkers unopposed entry to the castle; they could reveal further secrets still, in their unexplored depths. Something must cause Arya to sprint through their halls in the Season 8 trailer, after all.

More broadly, fans have theorized that the crypts contain all manner of treasures, though many of these possibilities are far more likely in the books than the show at this point. There could be a secret stash of dragon eggs, deposited more than a century prior during the Dance of the Dragons civil war, or even a dragon lying beneath the castle, whose existence is the reason for Winterfell’s warmth during winter. Those are fun options, but rather far-fetched.

A more realistic scenario is that the crypts are home to Rhaegar Targaryen’s famed harp, a silver-stringed instrument that the silver-haired crown prince played with aplomb. Typically, only the kings and lords of Winterfell received statues in the crypts, but Ned broke that tradition by installing likenesses of Lyanna (Ned’s sister and Jon’s mother) and Brandon (Ned and Lyanna’s older brother who died at the hands of the Mad King ... Lyanna’s secret father-in-law!). This theory claims that Ned ordered construction of a Lyanna statue in part to be able to hide Rhaegar’s harp, connecting the lovers in death. Such a revelation would be crucial at this stage, as Jon’s true parentage trickles into the wider consciousness, as it would support Sam’s septon scrolls to show that Lyanna went willingly with the Targaryen prince, not via abduction, and that Jon was born of a loving partnership.

If the harp appears, it would generate powerful symbolic resonance for Daenerys as well. Her advisers remain ever-concerned about her possible descent into Mad Queen territory, following in her father’s pyromaniacal footsteps, and she is likely to react unkindly to the insinuation that Jon—not she—is the true heir to the Iron Throne. Amid that turmoil, she could use a reminder of the brother she never met who, nonetheless, proved a wise and thoughtful prince, and who by all accounts would have served as a better king than his and Dany’s father.

That so many fascinating options remain is reason enough to anticipate the coming reveals, even beyond the much-hyped fight scenes that are sure to arrive on screen as well. That they all involve Winterfell—the central location of the first episode in the series and the first episode of the final season, home to many of the story’s central protagonists and the family Martin focused on most intently in his original pitch a quarter-century ago—is only fitting at this juncture.

As Theon says in Season 2, “First time I saw Winterfell, it looked like something that had been here for thousands of years and would be here for thousands of years after I was dead.” That first part is true, with enough enticing storytelling material to make that history pop, but the second claim might yet go unfulfilled, if the upcoming battle swings to the dead. The clash will pit the living against the dead, myth against reality, possible secrets against the cold light of truth. The new credits took viewers into the interior of the castle partway; the surrounding show is about to do much more.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.