One of the most popular theories floating around about the Battle of Winterfell, which is set to comprise the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, is that the dead Starks who lie in the Winterfell crypts are going to rise when the White Walkers attack.
This idea is based around a few things. For one, the White Walkers do definitely raise the dead, so that checks out. The other idea is that in episode 2, just about everyone mentioned at one point or another that “the crypts will be the safest place during the battle.” It definitely seemed important that we have that idea in our heads. And if it’s important, it can only be because it isn’t true.
So the chances are good that the people in the crypts are in danger, but could it really be because the Stark ancestors are going to rise from their tombs? We might get a clever hint at it when Dany says, “the dead are already here,” in the episode 3 teaser, but the show doesn’t exactly give us a lot of concrete information to go on. So, we took a look at the books to answer some questions about the White Walkers’ powers and who might rise as a wight when the dead finally arrive at Winterfell.
Can White Walkers animate corpses they haven’t seen?
For the most part, wights seem to be raised when White Walkers are around, but that isn’t strictly necessary. Multiple wildings in the books say that they have to burn all of their dead, or they risk them coming back as wights. And it doesn’t matter how the person died. For instance, in A Dance with Dragons, Tormund Giantsbane’s son Torwynd dies of a chill one night. As Tormund tells it, “Before we ever knew he’d died he rose pale with them blue eyes. Had to see to him m’self.” All without any White Walkers around.
Before the White Walkers marched south, this ability was impeded by the powerful magic of the Wall, which may still be preventing them from raising the dead en masse now that they’ve broken through. It’s also worth noting that Bran the Builder built both the Wall and Winterfell, so it’s possible that they could have similar magic protecting them from the dead rising beneath their feet.
How dead is too dead?
This is the hardest question to answer about the White Walkers. In the books, we don’t get a lot of descriptions about them, other than that they’re dead and look dead. We don’t get any examples of long-dead people returning to life, either, which makes the idea of the Walkers raising an army from Winterfell’s crypts a little more unlikely. But we certainly aren’t told that it can’t happen. On a related point, it doesn’t appear that just bones can make up a wight. The bones have to be connected together somehow; they can’t just float together and animate themselves like a skeleton, at least from what we’ve seen. That is to say, we probably aren’t getting a wight version of Ned Stark, supposing his bones ever made it to Winterfell’s crypts to begin with.
So, if we’re limited to recent additions to the crypts that are ... more or less intact, that really just means Rickon Stark. The most recently deceased member of the Stark clan is probably in pretty good shape. It’s also possible that we could get a reappearance of Catelyn Stark in the form of a wight, which would be both haunting, and a nice little nod to the Lady Stoneheart character from the books. The only problem with that is that we really have no idea what happened to her body after the Red Wedding.
So are the people in the crypts really in any danger?
The people in the crypts are definitely in danger. The Winterfell crypts are a creepy and mysterious place in both the books and the show, though it doesn’t seem very likely that an army of the dead will rise from the crypts themselves. But one thing we know for sure about the crypts is that they have a lot of secrets. Including secret, seldom-used entrances to the crypts that were originally designed by the ancient Starks to escape Winterfell, should such a thing ever prove necessary. It’s already proven necessary once in the show: It was the escape route that Bran, Rickon, and their allies took when Theon attacked. There may even be hidden tunnels there, such as the ones that Maester Luwin suggests Theon use to escape the castle as well.
While these secret entrances and tunnels would be great at letting people get out of Winterfell, they work both ways. If the wights find a way into the poorly defended crypts, then there won’t be many escape routes. At best, the huddled masses will be forced to run out through a cramped door and directly into the open battle. At worst, they won’t be able to escape at all.
If Game of Thrones plans to send a horde of wights shambling out of the crypts, this is probably how it happens: with some surprise reinforcements for the army of the dead. Everyone looking for safety only to be ambushed is just the kind of twist that the show is known for.