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Ask the Maester: Wait a Second … Who Just Made Bran King?

The council that elected Bran in the ‘Game of Thrones’ finale raises some questions. Plus: What’s west of Westeros?

HBO/The Ringer

And now our watch has ended. Season 8 had many highs; many, many lows; and overall the feel of a waiter trying to rush a late-dining customer out of a restaurant. That said, no matter what, the show’s ending cannot and should not take away from Game of Thrones incredible achievements.

On to your questions.

Janie asks: “Can you identify everyone who was there for the Dragonpit council meeting in Episode 6? I recognized most of the characters, including the new legendary P.O.D. [Prince of Dorne], but who was the white beard on the end near Bronze Yohn? And what about the guy on the other far end near Sam? Please do not tell me that is supposed to be Howland Reed.”

Great question!

In a world where state power is vested in the physical person of a ruler, the question of the succession is crucial as it speaks to the continuity of government. Since Aegon the Conqueror united the Seven Kingdoms, the most destructive of Westeros’s wars—the Blackfyre Rebellions, the Dance of the Dragons, and the War of the Five Kings—have been sparked by crises of succession. Westeros operates under primogeniture—meaning lands, titles, and powers are passed to a lord or king’s first-born legitimate son. If no legitimate male children are available, the eldest brother of the deceased sovereign then inherits the throne and then his first-born son would stand next in line, and so on and so forth. When the succession comports clearly with those rules, generally speaking, there’s no problem. Trouble—i.e., war—occurs when multiple potential heirs strong enough to press their claims vie for the throne. On the rare occasion that there are no obvious heirs and those potential rulers lack the strength to press their claims militarily, the realm has turned to so-called Great Councils.

There have been three Great Councils — in 101 A.C., 136 A.C., and 233 A.C. (an attempt in 37 A.C. to call one had failed). The most important of these is surely the council of 101 A.C., because it was that gathering that, in the minds of many, codified Westeros’s misogyny into law and set the precedent for favoring the male line over the female line. Varys, in his discussion with Tyrion about Jon Snow in “The Last of the Starks,” indirectly references this decision when he says, “He’s a man. Which makes him more appealing to the lords of Westeros whose support we are going to need.”

The seeds of the Great Council of 101 were sown during the reign of King Jaehaerys “The Conciliator” Targaryen, the best and most successful of the Targaryen kings. Jaehaerys unified the legal codes, which ended (until Cersei’s disastrous dalliance with the High Sparrow) the Faith of the Seven’s judicial independence and strengthened the authority of the crown. He oversaw the greatest public works program in Westerosi history, constructing wells and aqueducts, drains and sewers, all to benefit the citizens of King’s Landing. At the urging of Queen Alysanne, he did away with the appalling “first night” tradition, which allowed a lord to sleep with any common woman under his rule on her wedding night.

Jaehaerys was, in fact, too successful. Particularly when it came to successors. As Jaehaerys’s reign wound down, he found himself with numerous possible heirs. As he neared his death in 101 AC, the first Great Council was assembled. Harrenhal, with its great hall large enough to feast an entire army, was selected as the meeting site. In the end, more than 1,000 lords—double what was expected—attended. Jaehaerys promised to abide by whatever decision the council reached.

Eleven claims were heard. Nine were immediately disqualified, leaving the council to decide between Laenor Velaryon and Prince Viserys Targaryen, one of Jaehaerys’s grandchildren.

Laenor was the firstborn son of Princess Rhaenys Targaryen — the eldest daughter of the Old King’s second son, Aemon — and Corlys “The Sea Snake” Velaryon. House Velaryon was an influential seafaring house of Valyrian lineage and a longstanding ally of House Targaryen. Prince Viserys was the eldest son of Baelon the Brave, King Jaehaerys’s third son with Queen Alysanne. Baelon himself was Prince of Dragonstone and heir to the Iron Throne, but his death in 101 A.C. of a burst belly led directly to the current crisis. Both claimants were dragonriders. Laenor rode the young dragon Seasmoke; Prince Viserys was the last rider of Balerion the Black Dread, Aegon the Conqueror’s mount.

In the end, the realm voted overwhelmingly — some say by as many as a ratio of 20-to-1 — for Prince Viserys.

While the vote set the precedent for favoring the male line, the most important factor in the moment was probably age. Laenor was a child of 7, while Prince Viserys was a man of 24. A child ruler means a regency, which is often an opportunity for shady and ambitious lords to add to their power and influence by launching shadow coups and governing behind the scenes. While that might tempt lords into picking the child, it also undercuts trust in the crown and is yet another situation that can lead to war. Viserys was a choice that could help stabilize the realm.

As for the question of who attended the finale’s paltry version of a Great Council … I have no idea! But let’s make a few guesses based on Tyrion’s description of the attendees as “the most powerful people in Westeros” along with seating position and wardrobe.

Many have surmised that this man is Stark bannerman Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch in the Neck. Reed is the father of Meera and Jojen Reed. During Robert’s Rebellion, at the Tower of Joy in Dorne, Howland saved Ned’s life by helping slay Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, considered by many the greatest swordsman in the realm. The identification is based on the similarity of dress, most notably the rough leather cloak, and the way the two men look.

At the Tower of Joy, however, Reed’s cloak was fastened with a distinctive lizard-lion clasp. The lizard-lion, akin to a crocodile in our world, is the sigil of House Reed. The older man at the Dragonpit does not have a similar clasp, nor, like the other unidentified men, is he wearing anything that might suggest a sigil. Additionally, House Reed, though a strong supporter of the Starks, is nowhere near a powerful enough house to be invited to such a gathering. Still the resemblance is there and seems intentional.

This, I’d guess, is Wyman Manderly of White Harbor in the North. The Manderlys are a powerful house and White Harbor is a major destination for trade. The actor is clearly not the same man who played Manderly in Season 6:

This version also lacks the Manderly merman sigil accoutrement on his gorget. His garb does appear Northern, however, and there’s yet again a seemingly intentional resemblance.

This man is sitting to the left of Gendry, the fresh Lord of Storm’s End and Lord Paramount of the Stormlands, in a group that includes Ser Brienne of Tarth and Ser Davos Seaworth. Gendry, Brienne, and Davos are all from the Stormlands (Davos hails from King’s Landing but House Seaworth was created by Stannis Baratheon as a reward for Davos’s services). My wild and possibly irresponsible guess is that this is Edric Storm. In the books, Edric is another of King Robert’s bastards born from Delena of House Florent and is described as being handsome, with blue eyes and black hair, resembling Robert in his youth.

THE P.O.D.!!!

And, finally, another Northerner, going by his garb. A Karstark, perhaps? If that’s the case, there sure are a lot of Northerners at this gathering.

Sean asks, “Why wouldn’t the Dornish and Ironborn immediately claim independence after the Northerners get theirs?”

Why not, indeed! Very perplexing.

The Dornish, of course, managed to resist numerous invasions launched by the Targaryens and their allies to remain independent for a stunning 187 years after Aegon’s Conquest. When they finally did join the realm, they were able to extract major concessions from the Iron Throne, including the right of the ruling house to style themselves as “princes” and “princesses” of Dorne.

The Dornish have suffered greatly during the recent wars. Elia Martell and her children by Rhaegar were slaughtered by Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Prince Oberyn Martell’s attempt to win justice for that vile crime ended when the Mountain turned his head into apple sauce. And his bastard-born children, the Sand Snakes, and paramour Ellaria Sand were killed by Euron Greyjoy and Cersei Lannister.

Additionally, Dorne has always been a land apart. The Dornish are much more progressive than the wider realm on questions of inheritance, gender equality, bastardy, and sexuality.

The Ironborn live by a creed of theft and pillage. Their culture values most that which is taken by force and they have always chafed at being under the rule of King’s Landing. Balon was frustrated at his father Quellon’s efforts to foster better relations with the Seven Kingdoms, efforts that included the suppression and taxation of certain cultural traditions and allowing maesters to ply their trade on the island. So, six years into Robert’s reign and Quellon’s death, Balon rose up and declared himself king, seeking to regain the freedom to capture thralls and salt wives, and to once again raid the coastlines of Westeros with impunity. The rebellion was swiftly and brutally put down. But surely Iron Islanders still feel the urge to be independent. And this is before mentioning that Yara had managed to extract from Dany a promise of freedom for the Iron Islands, so long as its people refrained from reaving.

We must assume that Dorne and the Iron Islands would follow the North’s example at the earliest opportunity.

Furthermore, why would the rest of the realm remain within the kingdom? King Bran the Broken cannot—as Sansa so helpfully exclaimed in front of the remaining Great Houses of Westeros—have children and he has all the makings of a weak, checked-out ruler. One of the constituent kingdoms of his realm has just broken away without a fight. Other than the fact that Tyrion’s former-mercenary buddy Bronn now runs the region, why would the Reach continue to pay taxes in the form of food and coin and soldiers to King’s Landing? Why would any of the other regions do so? You could make the case that no single ruler or house could successfully hold a continent the size of Westeros together, especially sans dragons that allowed the Targaryens to swiftly visit far-flung areas of their realm.

Luke asks, “What is west of Westeros?”

No one knows! Mainly because everyone who has sailed into the Sunset Sea to try and find out has disappeared, never to return. The map ends at Lonely Light, the last and furthest west of the Iron Islands, eight days’ sail from Great Wyk. House Farwynd, the ruling house of Lonely Light, are considered weirdos by their fellow Iron Islanders, which is really saying something.

Thousands of years ago, a Stark ancestor, King Brandon “The Shipwright” Stark built a great fleet and sailed off to attempt the journey. Later, his son, another King Brandon known to history as “The Burner,” expressed his great grief by setting fire to his father’s remaining ships.

The World of Ice & Fire, George R.R. Martin’s book about the history of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, states, “Many a bold mariner has sailed beyond the light of [the Lonely Light’s] beacon over the centuries, seeking the fabled paradise said to lie over the horizon, but the sailors who return (many do not) speak only of boundless grey oceans stretching on and on forever.”

I wouldn’t bet against Arya, however.

Elissa Farman, who lived during the reign of King Jaehaerys, is mainly remembered as a close—extremely close—companion of Princess Rhaena Targaryen and as the thief who stole away to parts unknown with three dragon eggs, which very likely ended up being gifted to a certain Daenerys Targaryen on the occasion of her wedding to Khal Drogo over two centuries later. Elissa, a member of the seafaring Farman family of Fair Isle, was also a budding adventurer.

Two years after selling the purloined dragon eggs to build a fleet, Elissa appeared in Oldtown, looking for sailors willing to find out just what in fact lies west of Westeros. Three years later, one of Elissa’s captains returned. Elissa, he said, was last seen in the area of three faraway islands, which she named Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenys, before continuing west.

Years later, Corlys Velaryon—father of Laenor, the incredibly well-traveled and fantastically wealthy Sea Snake himself—reached Asshai by the Shadow, the easternmost city of the known world. There, after losing “his love” and most of his crew, Corlys glimpsed, or thought he glimpsed, Elissa’s battered ship Sun Chaser in Asshai’s harbor. If, indeed, Elissa made it around the world, surely Arya can too.

Katie asks: “Why didn’t Bran pardon Jon for killing Dany just as Robert pardoned Jaime for killing King Aerys? We know Jon killed Dany to protect the realm from a mass murderer serving as a monarch. Why would a noble deed go punished, especially knowing the Unsullied and Dothraki are leaving Westeros?”

This one actually makes a lot of sense. Jon is, as we’ve seen over and over again, honorable to a fault. As he once said: “When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers—only better and better lies.” He would likely see going back on the deal with Grey Worm as highly dishonorable. Not to mention, the North, in particular the true north of the Free Folk, is where Jon has always felt he belongs.

Toni asks: “Everyone seemed fixated on the succession issue with Dany, then Bran. What’s the plan for the North with an unwed female queen and no other male siblings?”

At some point, Sansa would surely take a husband, probably from the North, but perhaps, for political reasons, from the Vale or another region. Sansa would remain the Queen in the North and the reigning monarch, while her husband would become, like Prince Philip is to Queen Elizabeth II, her consort, perhaps holding the title of prince or even king, but acknowledged by all to be the lesser partner in the marriage.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.