WARNING: A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE AND POTENTIAL GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS AHEAD
On Game of Thrones and in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, it’s often said that no character is truly considered dead unless there’s a firsthand account of their demise. Even then, fans know of a few exceptions to that rule: both Catelyn Stark and Beric Dondarrion have return from the other side, and it’s looking likely something similar will happen with Jon Snow. There are also a multitude of characters who disguise their true identities, from Sansa pretending to be Alayne Stone to Barristan Selmy going by Arstan Whitebeard to Arya posing as a whole host of different people.
Lastly, we have the characters who are missing and presumed dead, characters like Benjen Stark.
Benjen’s disappearance remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the series. The First Ranger of the Night’s Watch was last seen leading a ranging party north of the Wall, never to be heard from again. My tinfoil theory is that Benjen Stark is alive and well in Essos, living in disguise as Daario Naharis (in the books—it’s clear this isn’t happening on the show, on account of the different actors). Let’s take a closer look at some of the parallels between the two characters, and at Benjen’s possible motives for deserting the Night’s Watch, escaping the Wall, and taking on a new identity.
Benjen and Daario: Parallels
For this theory to work both, men have to share some basic physical traits, which they seem to. Both have sharp features: blue eyes, dark hair, and are described as thin. We don’t have much intel on their respective heights or Daario’s age. If Daenerys Targaryen is attracted to him, I’m assuming he’s not too old. Also, interestingly, Daario is described as having smooth skin. This seems an odd trait for a sellsword who’s had a rough life. Could his skin suggest he’s higher born?
In the books Daario, is a Tyroshi and dresses quite flamboyantly. His hair is dyed blue and his mustachios are painted gold. In A Dance with Dragons, he tells Dany his men aren’t smart enough to be spies and says, “I trust all my men just as far as I can spit. One is bald and two have braids and one dyes his beard four different colors. What spy would wear such a beard, I ask you?” This could be an innocuous comment, but you could also make the argument that he’s trying to persuade her that someone in disguise wouldn’t dress so outlandishly an attempt to remove suspicion from himself.
Despite his colorful garb, Dany takes note of his one piece of drab clothing: a heavy black cloak with feathers that’s seen a lot of wear and is fraying. Could the cloak be Benjen’s one remaining relic from the Night’s Watch? In addition to the cloak, both Daario and Benjen wear high leather boots, as do many other characters. What’s interesting about Daario’s boots are that they are heavily stained with salt. From what we know about Daario’s life, there’s nothing to suggest he’s been on ships for extended periods of time. If Benjen is actually Daario, his boots were likely stained from the lengthy voyage from the Bay of Ice to Essos.
Both men have also demonstrated strong fighting abilities, which would be necessary to become either First Ranger or captain of a sellsword company (in the books, Daario commands the Stormcrows; on the show, it’s the Second Sons). If this theory is borne out, an interesting bit of irony is that Benjen is still fighting for a group of “crows,” but unlike the members of the Night’s Watch, the people in the sellsword company are free men. There’s not a ton of information on Benjen’s personality, but Daario is described as reckless and quick to anger. That tracks with how many members of the Stark family have hot temperaments (see Brandon, Lyanna, Arya, Rickon). It’s known as “the wolf’s blood.”
So now on to the most important question. Why would Benjen risk dishonor and a death sentence to start a new life in Essos?
Benjen and the Night’s Watch:
Benjen grew up the third son of Lord Rickard Stark, and third in line to inherit likely got the short end of the stick for most of his life. During Robert’s Rebellion, he served as the Stark in Winterfell, and got a brief taste of what it was like to be a Lord. Once Ned returned from the war and produced an heir in Robb, there was little left for Benjen to do. He joined the Night’s Watch a few months after Ned’s return, for reasons unknown.
When Jon first expresses interest in joining the Night’s Watch, Benjen does a fair amount to discourage him. In A Game of Thrones, he tells Jon, “If you knew what the oath would cost you, you might be less eager to pay the price, son.” When Jon finally joined, he quickly became disillusioned with his new brothers and saw that the Night’s Watch was clearly in decline. Imagine how cynical Benjen was after all those years, rotting away at the edge of the world with a band of criminals.
In A Storm of Swords, even Bran remembers a conversation with his uncle that had bitter undertones. During King Robert’s feast at Winterfell, Bran recited all the names of the castles along the Wall. Benjen replied, “You know them better than I do Bran. Perhaps you should be First Ranger. I’ll stay here in your place.”
When Benjen disappears, there are disturbing reports from the Haunted Forest. At this point in the series, the only ranger who tangled with the White Walkers and lived to tell about it was Gared. Ned thought his ravings made him sound mad, and executed him for desertion. I don’t believe Benjen would have deserted if he was aware that the White Walkers had returned. So instead of killing wildlings and living out his days on the Wall, maybe Benjen decided to take the rest of his life into his own hands and flee to start anew in Essos.
It’s said that nobody knew the Haunted Forest as well as Benjen. It seems like it would be fairly easy for him to slip away from his ranging party in the night undetected. If he did desert, he must have been fairly close to the Wall, since his horse made it back alive. The last traces of him were blazes in the trees northwest of Castle Black. Just to the northwest of Castle Black is the abandoned wildling village of Whitetree, where he could have hidden for a time. Very close to Whitetree is a tributary of the Milkwater river.
Growing up in the north made Benjen privy to the fact that Tyroshi slave ships commonly sailed north of the Wall looking for wildlings to enslave. In fact, when he was on Bear Island, Jorah Mormont sold poachers to a Tyroshi slaver, which led to his exile. Benjen could have bided his time until the next slave ship traveled up the Milkwater and either fought for or bought passage on the ship. The ship would eventually travel down the Milkwater, through the Gorge and under the Bridge of Skulls, and out into the Bay of Ice. The Night’s Watch castle closest to this area is the abandoned Westwatch-by-the-Bridge, so there was little risk of him being caught sailing past the Wall. The Tyroshis not only aided Benjen’s escape from the Wall, but their costume-like clothes and hair also provided him with the perfect disguise. Once he boarded the ship, Benjen Stark was gone and Daario Naharis was born.
Daario/Benjen in Essos:
A job as a sellsword would be a logical choice for someone with Benjen’s fighting skills. It was probably fairly easy for him to join the Stormcrows and quickly rise through the ranks. In the books, Daario gives no information about his backstory or how he ended up in the Stormcrows. He loves to talk, so the fact he’s never discussed his past in the books is interesting, unless of course he has something to hide.
When he meets Dany in A Storm of Swords, the political landscape of Westeros has greatly changed. King Robert is dead, Ned has been executed, and Robb is fighting in the War of the Five Kings. Seeing Daenerys in power may have given him an idea, and it has to do with Jon Snow.
To start, I believe Benjen knows the truth about Jon’s parentage, whether Ned actually told him or not. By that, I mean that Benjen knows Jon is actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Benjen and Lyanna were said to be close, so it’s hard to believe he bought into the Rhaegar kidnapping story, or that his honorable brother fathered a bastard. Knowing this, meeting Daenerys and her dragons could have given him impetus to embark on a new mission: help return the Targaryens to power in Westeros, which in the end will aid his half-Targaryen nephew. So he kills his Stormcrow comrades, tosses their heads at Dany’s feet, and pledges himself to her to prove his loyalty. When asked why he killed them, he doesn’t give a straight answer, and says that only the dead know.
Also interesting to note: for a sellsword, Daario doesn’t seem obsessed with money and plunder, at least outwardly. He also seems to have genuine affection for Dany. On the road to Yunkai, he attempts to woo her by bringing her flowers to help her learn the land, including one called the prickly ben. This is either a funny coincidence or a sly hint from George R.R. Martin.
Another interesting exchange takes place during A Dance with Dragons. Daario is infuriated when he realizes that Quentyn Martell and friends have tricked him regarding their true identities. He snatches the marriage pact they bring and jokes that he can’t read Westerosi scratchings, all the while examining it anyway. It seems possible he was actually reading the document, but literate sellswords are rare.
If Daario is indeed Benjen, it’s unlikely that Jorah and Barristan Selmy would recognize him. Benjen took up residence in Winterfell during Robert’s Rebellion and probably didn’t fight alongside either of them. Even if he had met Jorah prior to his exile, Benjen would have likely been much younger. An interesting test will be if Benjen ever crosses Tyrion’s path. Benjen and Tyrion had a few not-so-pleasant exchanges when they were at the Wall together. Tyrion would likely be able to flush out his true identity pretty quickly, the way he did with Aegon/Young Griff and Jon Connington.
Daario also implores Dany to round up the masters of Meereen at her wedding to Hizdahr zo Loraq and murder them. He tells her, “It’s better to be the butcher than the meat. All kings are butchers. Are queens so different?” It could mean nothing, but it also sounds like he’s speaking from experience. Basically, he’s encouraging Dany to do to the masters what Walder Frey did to Robb and Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding, which he’d likely found out about by this point. He seems to be imploring Dany to kill the Meereenese before they can kill her.
The Tyroshi Accent:
Between dying his hair and dressing outlandishly, Benjen is succeeding at posing as Daario the Tyroshi in all but one regard: the infamous Tyroshi accent. One of the things the Tyroshis are most well-known for is their accents. Their dialect is a corrupted form of High Valyrian.
In the books, nobody remarks about Daario’s accent, which leads me to believe he doesn’t have one. It’s hinted that even Dany herself still has a slight Tyroshi accent from her childhood. A member of the Night’s Watch, Ollo Lophand had a Tyroshi accent and was mocked as sounding “girlie.” Symon Silver Tongue ridicules Tyroshi singer Collio Quaynis and says “With that absurd accent, if you understand one word in three count yourself fortunate.” Tyrion hears Collio sing for himself and also thinks, “the accent is as ludicrous as Symon had promised.” Assuming Daario is who he says he is, if the Tyroshis have such strong accents, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have one worth noting.
Speaking of accents, Daario makes another interesting remark to Dany: he wants her to meet the Westerosi members formerly of the mercenary company the Windblown. In A Dance with Dragons he tells her, “You should hold court. My new men do not believe that you are real. Bred and born in Westeros, most of them, full of tales about Targaryens. They want to see one with their own eyes.” She agrees to meet with them and comments, “It would be nice to hear the Common Tongue from someone besides Ser Barristan.” Right after that he grins, bows, and takes his leave…with his cloak swirling behind him. What is he grinning about? The fact that she’s been hearing the Common Tongue from him and hasn’t put two and two together?
So that’s my version of the Benjen-is-Daario conspiracy theory. Although a lot of the evidence is circumstantial, I think at a minimum there are enough questions to raise some reasonable doubt that Daario may not be who he says he is.
There are several other interesting fan theories regarding these characters, including that Benjen is actually Coldhands, a mysterious hooded figure from beyond the Wall who guides Bran to the Three-Eyed Raven. George R. R. Martin seems to have debunked that one, though. Another theory is that Daario is actually Euron Greyjoy, but I’m not sure the timing works out for that to be true. There’s also the distinct possibility that Benjen is a White Walker or deader than dead in a fifty-foot snow drift, but it’s much more fun to speculate.