In the first episode of Game of Thrones, young Brandon Stark climbed to the top of Winterfell’s walls with a specific purpose: the retinue of King Robert Baratheon was nearing Bran’s home and the young Stark wanted to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the approaching southern royal host.
Years later, Bran Stark is back at Winterfell, literally watching through the eyes of birds as the undead retinue of a decidely non-southron king shambles into the kingdom through a breach in the ancient Wall.
Much has changed for Bran. Where he once was the privileged second-son of a mighty lord able to roam care-free about the massive playground that was Castle Winterfell – now he spends his days never far from Winterfell’s gloomy heart tree and with the heavy weight of destiny on him. Bran now has great power, with the responsibilities that accompany it.
Bran’s story first picked up speed when he unexpectedly discovered the queen and her brother Jaime Lannister having an affair. This information was so dangerous that Jaime, breaking the rules of what is expected of welcomed guests, tossed Bran from Winterfell’s heights, putting him into a coma.
Jaime: Unfortunately, these Starks are hard to kill.
Soon after his fall, Bran began to experience mysterious dreams that featured a black-feathered, three-eyed bird. Surviving an assassination attempt and escaping from a captured-then-razed Winterfell, Bran’s dreams were interpreted for him by Jojen Reed, the young son of Ned Stark’s stalwart bannerman Howland Reed.
With Jojen’s guidance, Bran traveled into the far north, where he finally met face-to-face with the old tree-bound wizard who had been sending these dreams.
(Max Von Sydow played a less-creepy version of the character in the sixth season.)
Bran: You’re the Three Eyed Raven.
Old Guy in Root System: I’ve been many things. Now, I am what you see.
Meera: My brother – he led us to you, and now –
Old Guy: He knew what would happen. From the moment he left, he knew. And he went anyway.
Meera: How do you know?
Old Guy: I’ve been watching you. All of you. All of your lives, with a thousand eyes and one. Now you’ve come to me at last, Brandon Stark. Though the hour is late.
Bran: I didn’t want anyone to die for me.
Old Guy: He died, so you could find what you have lost.
Bran: You’re going to help me walk again?
Old Guy: You’ll never walk again. But you will fly.
There’s a fair amount to unpack from Bran’s first meeting with the Three Eyed Raven, and honestly not much of it is reassuring on examination.
The Three Eyed Raven’s language is particularly fast-and-loose, not to mention defensive. He doesn’t give Bran a straight answer on who he is, although I don’t think he isn’t the person behind the mystical bird that had come to Bran in dreams.
When Meera brings up her brother Jojen, the old man cuts her off as if to not dwell on or be accountable to any personal cost that she’d paid. And then he directs the focus onto Bran.
“Now you’ve come to me at last, Brandon Stark. Though the hour is late.”
As if Bran is at fault for the tight timetable. It almost sounds as if the Three Eyed Raven is saying that lazy, procrastinating Bran should have made his way up the continent to the weirwood cave, starving and trudging through the wilderness, much earlier than he had.
Bran seemed to sense some of this blame falling on him, but he was a few notes behind in the measure, still tracking along with what Meera had been about to say about Jojen Reed’s death.
“I didn’t want anyone to die for me.”
And then the Three Eyed Raven pulls off a bait-and-switch.
“He died, so you could find what you have lost.”
Whoa, Nelly! This is great news! Since Bran lost his ability to walk, that’s the only thing that could be meant, right? Wrong. When Bran (who has leapt to that exact conclusion about his lost mobility) specifically asks if he’ll walk again…
“You will never walk again. But you will fly.”
Bran never had the ability to fly, so it’s not like that’s what he’s lost. Doesn’t quite jibe properly with what was said before. I’m not trying to dismiss the value of what the Three Eyed Raven is offering: to train Bran in magic. But it feels like the old wizard lured Bran up to his cave under false pretenses and possibly hollow promises.
It’s not like Bran, now essentially trapped in the cave, will refuse whatever Faustian bargain is being presented. What choice did he have?
Three Eyed Raven: Sure would be too bad if you decided to leave, and walked over another squad of the undead, waiting under the ice. Sure would be unfortunate.
Bran: Fine. But this is beginning to sound like Skullcrusher Mountain by Jonathan Coulton.
And so, Bran began a crash course in expanding his consciousness: connecting to the weirwood-based network of information available to the Three Eyed Raven, as well as distributing his perception across the raven-based surveillance network.
A reasonable question might be: what’s the tuition fee at Westeros Hogwarts?
Magic Has A Price
Okay, Game of Thrones isn’t ABC’s Once Upon a Time, where the Rumpelstiltskin character is contractually obligated to say “All magic has a price, dearie” at least once every other episode. But magic requiring some kind of sacrifice has been touched on before in the show.
Mirri Maz Duur: Only death can pay for life.
Jaqen H’ghar: The Red God takes what is his, little girl. Only death can pay for life.
Melisandre: Hear us now, my Lord. To you, we offer up this girl. That you may cleanse her with your fire and that its light may lead our way.
Mirri Maz Duur: Wow. I thought I was the scary witch on this show.
Jaqen H’ghar: A woman in red is the worst.
So, what sacrifices will Bran be expected to make, in exchange for power?
Maybe nothing. In a sense, it’s possible that he’s already paid a price. It seems rather significant that the Three Eyed Raven started coming to Bran in his dreams after Bran suffered terrible injuries in his fall. Why would that be? Coincidence?
Let’s consisder that there might have been no way for the old wizard to contact Bran, until Bran’s sleeping mind was awakened as a result of the fall and Bran’s coma.
Bran did already have a connection to the supernatural – in some ways all of Ned’s children (and Jon Snow) had a touch from the Old Gods by virtue of their direwolves. Bran’s comatose state and latent mystical potential might have been what was needed to bring Bran more into the spiritual realm, to bring down the barriers to communication. In that case, we might think that Bran’s injuries were a down-payment on magical teaching. Bran paid the price already.
The other Stark kids (to greater or lesser degree) have mystical connections with their wolves, and although Jon and Arya (in the books) have had wolf-dreams like Bran experienced in Season Two – only broken Bran has had the vivid dreams that appear to be sent by the Three Eyed Raven.
Rickon: Don’t forget about me! I had prophetic dreams!
Me: Whoa, that’s right. I almost forgot about you.
Rickon: Story of my life…
Rickon Stark makes it a harder sell that Bran absolutely could not have been a recipient of magical telegrams before his fall. And Jojen Reed seemed to have been given much more information from the Three Eyed Raven, enough to act as the wizard’s go-between and the travel agent for Bran.
Is it more likely that the Three Eyed Raven chose to spam a child’s dreaming mind with unsolicited offers because this particular broken child was vulnerable? Vulnerable and desperate?
“It was just a lie,” he said bitterly, remembering the crow from his dream. “I can’t fly. I can’t even run.”
“Crows are all liars,” Old Nan agreed, from the chair where she sat doing her needlework. “I know a story about a crow.”
— Bran IV, A Game of Thrones
Dark Wings, Dark Words, Dark Warnings
Being a vulnerable and sad child, unable to block out messages from the Three Eyed Raven, it’s no wonder Bran was receptive. Despite all the warnings he received from the women in his life.
Old Nan: Crows are all liars.
Old Nan didn’t necessarily have all of the context with Bran, but she had opinions about crows, real or in dreams. Don’t trust them.
Bran began to have more raven dreams on the road, before meeting up with Meera and Jojen Reed. Jojen joining Bran’s group provided the young Stark with a confidante with whom he could share his dreams (figuratively and literally – since Jojen also had been appearing in Bran’s dreams.) These were conversations that he could not have with his wildling protector, Osha.
Osha: Were you inside the wolf again, little lord?
Bran: No. It was the three-eyed raven. It’s back. I tried to kill it, but I couldn’t. And there was a boy –
Osha: I don’t want to hear about it.
Bran: But you asked.
Osha: We’ve got plenty worries. No need calling black magic onto us.
Bran: I didn’t ask for black magic dreams.
Osha might be superstitious and generally wary of the mysterious and unexplained, but in the Season Three dialogue above, we can see that she makes a distinction among Bran’s mystical situations. Bran warging into Summer is something that she’d talk to Bran about, but she wouldn’t discuss dream-visitations from a dark bird with the wrong number of eyes. That was too much for her, and her reluctance wasn’t something Bran heeded.
After Bran and his companions meet Jojen and Meera Reed, Bran receives another warning. In a dream.
In Bran’s familiar dream forest, he and Jojen are observing a raven with three eyes, up in a tree.
Jojen: You have to go after him.
Jojen: You know how.
Bran climbs the tree, to a thick branch where the raven rests. Then things get complicated. A dream version of Catelyn Stark appears behind Bran.
Catelyn: How many times have I told you? No climbing.
Bran: Mother, I need to find it. It’s here. It’s calling me.
Catelyn: I want you to promise me. No more climbing. Promise me!
The scene ends with Bran falling, reminiscent of Bran’s fall from the old tower at Winterfell in the first episode of the show. In that episode, Catelyn Stark had expressed her displeasure with Bran’s hobby of parkouring around the castle; so Catelyn showing up in Bran’s dream to berate him for climbing seems to be consistent with her character.
But why is she in Bran’s dream at all? If we assume that the Three Eyed Raven is architecting these dreams, then he’s deliberately putting in a red flag warning to Bran: his mother implicitly saying to stop going towards the goal that Jojen is urging him towards.
Now, maybe the Three Eyed Raven isn’t completely in control of Bran’s dreaming, and this dream-Catelyn is being generated by Bran’s own subconscious (which means Bran on an instinctual level is not trusting Jojen and the raven), or that some other supernatural entity that’s unfriendly to the Raven is causing this. But this doesn’t seem to be the handiwork of the Night King, or R’hllor, and I’d be very surprised if the New Gods were real and that this was proof of their supernatural presence.
If we return to the idea that Bran’s dreams were being managed by the Raven, then there’s a fairly sinister implication. The Three Eyed Raven has admitted to have been watching Bran all his life. He’d know of Catelyn’s issues with Bran climbing, and with Bran’s habitual breaking of promises to his mother on that topic. He’d know that dream Bran would not take Catelyn’s warnings to heart, and by having Catelyn push Bran from the tree, would cause Bran to distrust any feelings of doubt about trying to find the Raven.
It was fortunate for the Three Eyed Raven that Osha was unwilling to venture north of the Wall, and she and her forbodings could be separated from Bran. (It was unfortunate for Osha that Bran suggested she take Rickon to the Umbers.)
The idea that the Three Eyed Raven might have been manipulating Bran calls Jojen’s participation into question as well. Jojen certainly seemed trustworthy: the direwolves explicitly gave a show of approval when Jojen first met Bran.
But Jojen himself might not have had any ill-will towards Bran to register on the direwolf threat-radar. And the direwolves might not be good at detecting plots from the Three Eyed Raven, to be honest. Like Bran, the Raven was a powerful warg. There are theories that the Raven directed the mother direwolf to travel south of the Wall in the first place.
So Jojen might have Trojan Horsed his way into Bran’s trust, to lend some credentials to the Three Eyed Raven’s overall reputation.
The Old Bran’s Not Here Right Now – He’s Dead
Near the start of the seventh season, Bran Stark had returned to Winterfell, although all but one of his companions who had traveled with him from Winterfell and ventured past the Wall were dead. Osha, Rickon, Summer, Hodor, and Jojen all died before Bran could return to his home.
Only Meera Reed saw Bran through the North, past the Wall, to the cave and back again. With Bran safe at Winterfell, Meera came to an interesting conclusion.
Bran: I’m not really. Not anymore. I remember what it felt like, to be Brandon Stark, but I remember so much else now.
Meera: You died in that cave.
Meera is not all that wrong, although the cave isn’t where Bran died. Bran still largely seemed himself when his undead uncle Benjen saved the pair of them during the escape from the Night King’s forces, and brought them to the Wall safely. At that point, Bran used a nearby weirwood to unpack some of the bundled up experiences that his mentor had apparently prepared for him.
The next time we see Bran, negotiating passage through the Wall at Castle Black, he’s different. Kind of vacant and creepy.
In the show, the Three Eyed Raven says that he’s been waiting for a thousand years for Bran. (Let’s save arguments about his age for the comments, book readers.) If we take that as given, a millennia of experience and knowledge has been poured into the mind of a young boy.
Who we are is largely defined by our memories of who were were. Once Bran’s native memories became outnumbered by the memories of an old man (or possibly the memories of a series of Three Eyed Ravens) – Bran Stark effectively ceased to be. The person staring out through Bran’s eyes was no longer Bran.
In other words, Bran Stark might have been manipulated into venturing into the wilderness on false pretenses, to his doom. And some ancient psychic vampire has come instead to Winterfell, inhabiting Bran’s body and enjoying the privilege of being the Lord of Winterfell. (More or less. At the very least, he’s the brother of the Lady of Winterfell.) A bit better than existing in an ancient body, embedded in tree roots.
Winterfell: Bran’s Last Stand
Regardless if we consider Bran Stark the new Three Eyed Raven, or we consider that he’s the old Three Eyed Raven inhabiting Bran Stark’s hijacked body, it feels like his being at Winterfell will be important in regards to resolving the threat of the Night King.
Although I’ve cast the Three Eyed Raven in a somewhat sketchy light, he appears to be in opposition to the Night King and the North does need all the allies they can muster against the threat of the White Walkers. We don’t know much about the motivations and drives of the White Walkers, but we’ve seen the Night King prioritize an aggressive response to Bran Stark when their enhanced perceptions interacted in Season Six, marking Bran magically and bringing the White Walkers and a horde of wights to the Raven’s weirwood cave refuge.
Although I think it would be strategically smart for the Night King to more or less ignore the North, and just march futher south to where the populations are –
- more densely concentrated,
- not arming themselves with dragonglass
– I don’t think the Night King will be able to avoid dealing with Bran Stark first.
We’ve already witnessed the priority he put on attacking Bran, and other than Melisandre there is no other magical opponent that he might consider an immediate threat to neutralize. Although I can see the Night King putting the land of the North in the rear view mirror, to be conquered after recruiting a million souls from metropolitan King’s Landing, I would wager that the Night King would not leave the North while the Three Eyed Raven was free to act.
But what can Bran do about a huge army of fearless wights? So far, we’ve only seen him look into the past, or use ravens to keep track of the Night King’s troop movements. (There’s some debate if Bran can see into the future – but even if he can, future visions are often spun as “seeing potential futures” instead of absolute destiny.)
But I think it is fair to speculate that Bran can do something. That he has access to magical tools that raises his threat level in the icy blue eyes of the Night King.
The Children of the Forest laid down their lives for Bran. Benjen Stark was convinced that his nephew would uncover what he needed to do. This implies that there was something that Bran could do.
Maybe this was a something that the Three Eyed Raven, alone in a cave at the edge of the world, was unwilling or unable to pull off. In his isolated cave, he was a withered husk bound to a tree – a tree surrounded by bones. (Maybe the old Three Eyed Raven had been trying to get something going, ritually, but the sacrifices at hand were just insufficient.)
At Winterfell, the new Three Eyed Raven has family. One of whom, Bran knows, has the magical blood of kings.
“There is power in a king’s blood,” the old maester had warned, “and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this.”
— Jon I, A Dance With Dragons
Since magic has a price, the price might have to be paid at Winterfell.
Magic, besides being costly, is also hard to control. In the books, GRRM has an excellent visual phrase about magic:
“Sometimes the short road is not the safest, Jon Snow. The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”
— Jon X, A Storm of Swords
We’ve seen time and again magic being used to solve problems but with less-than-ideal results. Khal Drogo’s health was returned, but not with his mind intact. Stannis’s sacrifice of Shireen gave him favorable weather, so he could march to Winterfell to be slaughtered. The Children of the Forest magically created the White Walkers to use as a weapon against their human foes, but found their creation a weapon that cuts both ways.
I’m not trying to say that Bran Stark will be the big bad in Season Eight, but we should be at least somewhat skeptical of his intentions as the Three Eyed Raven.
Alternatively, Bran’s story in Season Eight might feature Bran Stark’s triumph over the Three Eyed Raven. Bran is still in there, just buried under alien memories and experiences. This would be especially relevant, if the Three Eyed Raven is planning to do something big and awful.
Jaime: I could always drop him from a tower again… just sayin’
Me: Hey. No.
Jaime Lannister is on his way into the North. We know that Bran has seen visions of himself falling from the tower, but the memory of how he came to fall has not yet been explicitly replayed in a vision. I think it would be narratively satisfying if Jaime Lannister showing up in Winterfell jogged that memory, and it had the effect of shocking Bran’s personality to emerge more strongly, subverting any plans of the Three Eyed Raven.
Jaime: And … you’re welcome.
Is there enough time in Season Eight, the last six episodes left to us, to reveal a dark and complicated spin on Bran’s magical hero’s journey? Maybe, maybe not. We know he’ll at least have a role politically, with the knowledge that he and Sam Tarly have in regards to Jon Snow’s true lineage.
But there really should be some kind of resolution to the conflict that was initiated between Bran and Jaime Lannister, so long ago. And the more unexpected the resolution, the better.
So I’m hoping we’ll all keep an eye on Bran Stark. With a thousand eyes, and one.