Like most Northern houses, the Starks are a traditionalist family. Honor comes before all else, to the extent that treasonous truth-telling is sometimes prioritized over keeping one’s head on one’s shoulders.
But there’s much more to the Wardens of the North than honesty; with tradition comes rituals and perennial praxes. These customs are most prominently seen in the crypts beneath Winterfell, which stretch far beyond the castle walls, and are home to over 8,000 years of Stark history. They’re also a side of Game of Thrones explored in greater depth by George R.R. Martin’s books. The author’s emotional mythology makes the season 8 premiere’s big moment between Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow, aka Aegon Targaryen, all the more shattering. The HBO series may have blown past the source material in terms of literal adaptation, but Martin’s writing is still informing every frame of the series.
The crypts are a mysterious place, juxtaposing a pervasive sense of dread and gloom with an aura of regal majesty. Here lie the ancestors of House Stark, the most prominent of whom have been immortalized in spectacular busts. In Martin’s inaugural Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones, the following exchange occurs between Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon:
“Ah, damn it, Ned, did you have to bury her in a place like this? She deserves more than darkness…”
“She was a Stark of Winterfell. This is her place.”
“She should be on a hill somewhere, under a fruit tree, with the sun and clouds above her and the rain to wash her clean.”
“I was with her when she died. She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.”
The “she” is Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister and Robert’s betrothed. This conversation actually made it into HBO’s Game of Thrones pilot, despite being about a deceased character we don’t see until a flashback in season 6. From the very beginning, Winterfell’s eerie crypts have been quietly significant, as has this particular bust of Lyanna, which technically shouldn’t have been built. Ned actually broke Stark tradition when he commissioned statues for Brandon and Lyanna Stark, as this was a tribute usually reserved for Heads of House.
This exchange between old friends directly ties into Jon’s relationship with the crypts. In A Game of Thrones, Jon says to Samwell Tarly:
“Somehow I know I have to go down there, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid of what might be waiting for me.”
This sentiment is echoed again in the series’ third novel, A Storm of Swords. Here, Jon dreams of walking through the crypts and being rejected by the Stark busts. This is remarkably similar to a dream of Ned’s in A Game of Thrones, during which the stone lords glare at him while their direwolves growl; perhaps they are unhappy with him for having raised a Targaryen boy. In spite of this, Lyanna whispers to him amid the chaos: “Promise me, Ned,” referring to the secret Ned kept until his untimely death at the executioner’s block.
Later in A Storm of Swords, Jon reiterates his dream, this time confiding his fears in Sam:
“All my dreams are of the crypts, of the stone kings on their thrones. Sometimes I hear Robb’s voice, and my father’s, as if they were at a feast. But there’s a wall between us, and I know that no place has been set for me.”
The irony here is that Jon usually attributed this sense of detachment to the fact that he was a bastard. Despite his subconscious gravitation toward the crypts, he always imagined his family at rest and there being no place for him. On the contrary, Jon’s isolation from the crypts stems from his position as rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
In the first episode of season 8, Sam tells Jon about his birth parents under the watchful eyes of Ned, the man who raised him as his own, tainting his reputation in order to honor a dying wish, and Lyanna, Jon’s true mother.
It’s dramatic irony, of course. Fans already knew about Jon’s parentage, and many suspected it long before the show revealed it. But thanks to John Bradley’s breathtaking performance as Samwell Tarly, the revelation causes Jon’s entire reality to splinter. Before this moment he was a bastard. He was hated by Cat Stark, the closest thing he ever had to a mother, and taunted, at least early on, by Sansa, his highborn half-sister. Jon was close to his older brother, Robb, and young Bran, Arya, and Rickon naively didn’t see him as anything other than an ordinary brother. He was Ned Stark’s bastard, the singular shame of Westeros’ most honorable man. While all along, he was, as Sam puts it in the most recent episode, “Aegon Targaryen, sixth of his name, Protector of the Realm, all of it.”
But he’s not a bastard, and it’s vital that he found out in the crypts. So many tales have been spun about them that it’s unlikely anybody knows what’s below the uppermost floor. Old Nan told Arya that they were filled with spiders and rats the size of dogs, and it’s rumored that the lowest layers of its tiered structure have crumbled into decrepitude. However, there’s something vaguely and powerfully magical about the crypts. They emit an eerie sense of ancient power, something that manifests itself constantly by influencing the dreams of the Starks.
Most magical of all, though, is the following passage from The World of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s historical companion to the book series:
Mushroom’s claim in his Testimony that the dragon Vermax left a clutch of eggs somewhere in the depths of Winterfell’s crypts, where the waters of the hot springs run close to the walls, while his rider treated with Cregan Stark at the start of the Dance of the Dragons.
It is a bit unlikely that Mushroom, who was a court fool during several Targaryen reigns, was correct about there being dragon eggs beneath Winterfell — although this would tie in nicely with the revelation of Jon’s true parentage. Despite this, it’s highly probable that there’s at least a degree of significance attached to either Ned’s, Jon’s, or Lyanna’s tomb. Although Sam has a High Septon’s diary that mentions the annulment of Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage to Elia Martell, as well as the subsequent marriage of Rhaegar and Lyanna, all anyone has to go on in relation to Jon’s birth is Bran’s greensight. For some people, this might be enough. For others, the revelation that Jon was a Targaryen all along, coupled with his alliance with Daenerys, could cause a rift between Jon and the Stark bannermen.
However, it seems this won’t be the only rift set to form this season. In a thread over at r/asoiaf, one commenter pointed out that Bran likely sent Sam into the crypts immediately after he learned of his father and brother’s deaths. Despite his nonchalance, Bran’s language has become meticulously deliberate where time is concerned. In an instant, the Three-Eyed Raven can go from “it’s not the time” to “there is no time.” In our previous piece on Bran’s significance, we toyed with the possibility of Bran actually being the most essential character in Game of Thrones. Perhaps he knows of something that will prove Jon’s Stark/Targaryen lineage. Some people think Rhaegar’s harp is buried in the crypts; others are of the opinion that Howland Reed will ride north to confirm the Tower of Joy series of events. Regardless of what happens, Bran’s claim that “now is the time” for Jon to know was anything but idle.
That’s why the long-awaited crypt scene is perhaps one of the most important takeaways from season 8’s first episode. Jon found out in what Bran deemed to be the right place at the right time, from none other than his best friend, who had just learned of his father’s and brother’s deaths at the hands of Daenerys. Pair this with the Dragon Queen’s unfinished threat concerning Sansa’s allegiance, and you’ll get a very conflicted and confused Jon — or, we should say, Aegon. This season we’ll see the Battle of Winterfell between the living and the walking dead, but there may be more pressing concerns to tend to in relation to leadership, just rule, and the Iron Throne.
Cian Maher is a freelance writer who sometimes spends more time replaying games than playing new ones, which is obviously problematic, but also very fun. If he could talk about Pokémon and Overwatch forever, he probably would.