Greetings, my Lords and Ladies. It seems like ages since we last talked Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire theories together. Our last discussion revolved around the Grand Northern Conspiracy, and how the Lords of the Noble Northern Houses planned on reinstating a Stark in Winterfell and as King in the North. Today I want to take a new direction, as this theory has really nothing to do with the show, and more to do with the books.
Warning: Spoilers follow for A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. Also there will be speculation about how events from the books may or may not correlate to Game of Thrones. Consider yourself warned.
The Mystery of the Bastard Letter
Who actually wrote the Pink Letter
The Bastard Letter, more commonly called the Pink Letter due to the color of wax used to seal it, is a letter received by Lord Commander Jon Snow in A Dance with Dragons. Addressed to “Bastard,” meaning Jon, it contained a menacing threat from Ramsay Bolton.
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want this wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
Ramsay Bolton, Trueborn Lord of Winterfell.
Pretty straight forward, yes? This is a letter from the now legitimized Ramsay Bolton to the former Bastard of Winterfell, Lord Commander Jon Snow, demanding the return of his bride and his Reek, along with Stannis’ family, sword, and his “Red Witch.” But is it really that straight forward? Did Ramsay really pen this letter? If not Ramsay, then who? These are the questions that we will do our best to suss out, in today’s edition of Game of Thrones Theorycrafting.
First of all, let’s look at some evidence that seems to indicate that Ramsay Bolton did not actually write the Pink Letter. One must look at the contextual clues from Ramsay’s previous letters, which he’s been known to send to various people in Westeros in the past. Here are some examples.
- After Ramsay took Winterfell from Theon, he sent a scrap of skin to Robb Stark to show that he’d gotten revenge on King in the North’s behalf for the murder of Robb’s brothers, even though he knew Theon did not kill Bran and Rickon. This happened right before the events of the Red Wedding, in A Storm of Swords.
- Lord Balon Greyjoy received a box with a letter, stamped with the sigil of House Bolton into pink wax, with Theon’s member in it. (This is a slight change from the show to the books.)
“Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands and invader of the North. I give you until the full moon to order all Ironborn scum out of the North and back to those shit-stained rocks you call a home. On the first night of the full moon, I will hunt down every islander still in our lands and flay them living the way I flayed the 20 Ironborn scum I found at Winterfell. In the box you’ll find a special gift: Theon’s favorite toy. He cried when I took it away from him. Leave the North now or more boxes will follow with more Theon. Signed Ramsay Snow, natural-born son of Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort and Warden of the North.”
- The Bastard Letter did not contain the House Bolton button imprinted in the pink wax. Instead it is described as a pink smear.
- During the siege of Moat Cailin, Ramsay sends Reek, in the guise of Theon Greyjoy, to treat with the Ironborn fortified there. Theon convinces them to surrender under the promise that they would be allowed to return home to the Iron Islands, but in true Ramsay fashion, he betrayed them and flayed/killed them all, placed their bodies on spikes, then wrote a letter in their blood.
- Ramsay’s handwriting is often described as spiky and written in flaky brown ink, which turns out to be dried blood.
These are all established examples of Ramsay’s correspondence with various other characters in Westeros. He is unusually cruel and sadistic, and seems to never miss an opportunity to attach a piece of human skin or a body part to his letters, which are almost always written in the blood of his victims. Now let’s dissect that Bastard Letter.
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
- The wording here is what sends up the first red flag. First of all, as we all know, Ramsay utterly despises the word “Bastard.” Now, he could be using the term to rile up Jon Snow, but both the books and the show go to great lengths to explain that “Bastard” is off limits to Ramsay.
- “Your false King“ is an odd phrase. How does Ramsay, who is busy with the chaos in Winterfell, know that Jon may or may not consider Stannis the true king?
- “Smashed in seven days of battle” is also odd. We know from Theon 1, a released chapter from The Winds of Winter, that Stannis is at stationed at the Crofter’s Village near a frozen lake. His men have punched many holes in the ice, so any mounted cavalry charging into that village will most certainly fall under the water to their deaths.
As we determined in our look at The Great Northern Conspiracy, House Manderly is not loyal to the Boltons and hates the Freys, and therefore would probably not help the Frey cavalry attack Stannis. Any battle that were to happen at the Crofter’s Village would mean a quick and decisive win for Stannis. It’s also very important to note here that Stannis has no sellswords with him at this point in the book, and his men are loyal unto death…they will not abandon their King.
We also know that Asha/Yara has some of her finest warriors returned to her when the banker from Braavos finds Stannis’ camp, thus bolstering his army with some badass Dickheads from Asshole Island. So a seven day battle seems highly unlikely at this point.
Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
- Did Jon actually tell “the world” that he burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall? The answer is no, because Jon was not the one who burned Mance (actually Rattleshirt with a glamour). Melisandre set this particular event in motion.
- Jon eventually found out that Melisandre had glamoured Mance to look like Rattleshirt, but it came as a shock to him. He was not in on it.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him.
- The author of the letter is assuming that False Arya (really Jeyne Poole) is at Castle Black, and not with Stannis. This seems to me like a ruse to get Jon to leave the confines of the Wall and break his oaths to march on Winterfell…something that Melisandre and Stannis both desperately want. Jon had learned that Ramsay was going to marry his sister Arya before, and doesn’t know that she’s a fake, so this might inspire him to action.
- “If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him.” Ramsay is not the kind of person to keep a traitor to his cause alive. As book readers know, Mance is parading around Winterfell under the guise of Abel with six spearwives posing as washerwomen. If in fact Ramsay had captured Mance and his women, there is contextual evidence that they would not and could not be broken by Ramsay’s torture. That means they wouldn’t divulge this kind of important information to Ramsay. (See Mance choosing burning in Game of Thrones Season 5 over bending his knee to Stannis.) These wildlings do not yield.
The letter also refers to the women Mance brought with him as “the six whores.” How does Ramsay know there were six women involved with the conspiracy to spring false Arya? This continues to serve as proof that Ramsay had nothing to do with the Bastard Letter.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want this wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe.
- How does Ramsay know about the “false king’s queen?” How does he know about Shireen and Melisandre? Moreover, how does he know about Val—the wildling princess—and his little prince?
Even if Roose Bolton, Ramsay’s father, were to tell him of Stannis’ family, there is no contextual evidence that Ramsay would know anything about Val or Mance’s child. Also, there are two words to look closely at here. The use of “this” in reference to wildling princess, and “his” in reference to the little prince.
And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
- Here is where we get some major clues as to the real author of the letter. In a a released chapter from The Winds of Winter, Theon talks to Stannis. Here’s what he says:
“The north remembers. The Red Wedding, Lady Hornwood’s fingers, the sack of Winterfell, Deepwood Motte and Torrhen’s Square, they remember all of it…Frey and Manderly will never combine their strengths. They will come for you, but separately. Lord Ramsay will not be far behind them. He wants his bride back. He wants his Reek.” Theon’s laugh was half a titter, half a whimper. “Lord Ramsay is the one Your Grace should fear.”
- “He wants his Bride back. He wants his Reek.” Now compare these words to the Bastard Letter. “I want my bride back….And I want my Reek.” It’s quite a coincidence that Theon’s words are repeated almost verbatim in the letter. Odd, no?
There’s one more clue as to why Ramsay is not the author of the Bastard Letter. Tormund Giantsbane is present when Jon reads the letter…and he immediately calls its validity into question. Although claiming to be an illiterate man, Tormund recognizes that the ink used was “Maester’s black” and that he could write a better letter with his member—HAR! So we have a letter that:
- Is not sealed with a House Bolton button but rather with a pink “smear” of wax.
- The handwriting does not warrant comment from Jon, who has seen other letters from Ramsay, describing the handwriting as large and spiky.
- The ink is not brown or dried blood, which is the usual method of writing for Ramsay, but rather is it Maester’s black ink.
- There is no skin attached to the letter, skin being Ramsay’ call sign, if you will. If the letter were in fact from Ramsay, then he could have and more than likely would have used the skin he flayed from the spearwives that he claimed to made into a cloak for Mance.
Assuming that this evidence is pointing us toward the conclusion that Ramsay is not the author of the Bastard Letter, the question becomes: who is? There are several candidates. Let’s list them here.
- Mance. He is now in Winterfell and going by the name Abel. Many point out that this name is an anagram of Bael. Bael the Bard was a man who stole a Stark King’s daughter from her bed and got her with child before returning her. He was a King Beyond the Wall, and when he brought his wildling army to bear on the North, his own son slew him in battle—not knowing Bael was his father—and returned his head to his mother, who committed suicide out of grief for the death of her son’s father by his own hands.
Mance certainly knows all the logistics mentioned in the letter. He knows about Stannis, Melisandre, Val, and “his prince.” There’s also the use of the phrases like “False King” and “Black Crows,” which are part of the wildling vernacular.
- Melisandre. Melisandre has been seeing Jon Snow in her fires of late. However, she is still loyal to Stannis, and what does Stannis want? He wants Jon and the wildlings to bolster his army, so that he can take Winterfell, eradicate House Bolton, and legitimize Jon as Lord Stark of Winterfell, thus rallying the noble Houses of the North behind his claim for the Iron Throne.
Jon’s death at the hands of the traitorous brothers of The Night’s Watch was unexpected…despite Melisandre warning Jon of daggers in the dark. If Melisandre is in on the Bastard Letter, whether by directly writing it, or in cahoots with someone else like Stannis, then Jon’s death would be an unfortunate outcome for both her and Stannis.
- Stannis, Melisandre and Theon. From “seven days of battle,” to “I want my Reek and bride back,” the information in this letter points to these two men as the co-authors of the Bastard Letter.
But how would Stannis send a raven from the Crofter’s Village to Castle Black? In The Winds of Winter, Stannis uncovers a traitor in his midst: Maester Tybald, the former maester of the Dreadfort. Stannis interrogates the maester and finds that he has two ravens: one to send to Winterfell, and the other to an unspecified location. During this chapter, Stannis is constantly annoyed by the squawking of a particular raven that seems highly intelligent.
The raven repeats many words and even calls Theon by name. What other highly intelligent raven have we been introduced to in this story? That’s right, the late Lord Commander Jeor Mormont’s raven. The last time we see this raven, he is locked up in Jon’s Lord Commander’s quarters, and Jon opens a window to set the raven free.
Here’s the stretch: it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Melisandre sent Mormont’s raven to Stannis at the Crofter’s Village. It’s also not too far of a stretch to think that, once encamped at the Crofter’s village, Stannis would begin correspondence with Melisandre at Castle Black.
It is my theory—and I hope I have conveyed it clearly enough to you—that Stannis and Theon worked through ravenmail to conspire to get Jon Snow and his wildling army to march on Winterfell. By the time Jon’s army would have arrived at his former home, the Umbers outside the walls, who are digging pitfalls and blowing horns, would point Jon in the direction of Stannis’ location. From there, they would march on Winterfell and unseat House Bolton.
There’s just one problem. Neither Stannis nor Melisandre counted on the men of the Night’s Watch killing their Lord Commander (or at least trying to kill him).
The mystery of the Bastard letter remains just that…a mystery, at least until George R.R. Martin publishes The Winds of Winter. I welcome and await your thoughtful responses, below.