Game of Thrones' adage "There must always be a Stark in Winterfell" has never been directly explained, but as HBO's fantasy-drama approaches its end, it feels like it's going to be key to the outcome of the war with the White Walkers.
While fairly prominent in the novels, the line is only heard on the show once, at the end of Season 1, Episode 2, “The Kingsroad.” Catelyn says it to Robb when the latter insists on going to King's Landing after finding out the Lannisters had something to do with Bran’s accident. She goes in his stead and the rest is bloody history. The characters in the story treat the saying like an actual rule, which is indicative of the Stark’s ancestral duty to the North. But the specificity of the phrase and the nature of the Stark family’s close relationship to Winterfell itself have lead audiences and readers to suspect it has mystical implications and origins. After all, both the family and the castle have legacies that stretch back into mythology, it makes sense that there would be some spiritual tie between them.
In-universe Game of Thrones history says that the maybe mythical, maybe not founder of House Stark, Bran the Builder raised Winterfell after the first Long Night. This would’ve been during the Age of Heroes, an era in Westerosi history when the continent was ostensibly flooded with larger-than-life folk heroes. It's also the era that will serve as the basis for the developing HBO prequel, The Long Night. Whether or not that’s exactly how things happened remains to be seen, but it’s important to note that both Winterfell and the Starks nearly predate Westerosi recorded history. The show and the books prove magic exists in Martin’s world, and that there was indeed a big zombie uprising a few thousand years before. While it might be politically necessary for a Stark to always be in Winterfell, there’s more than enough evidence to support that at one time, there was far more to it.
There’s also evidence to suggest that the warning went unheeded sometime before the events of Game of Thrones, and that a Winterfell empty of Starks might have played a part in the second rise of the Night King.
- This Page: Why Must There Always Be A Stark In Winterfell?
- Page 2: How The Starks Broke The Rule Before Game of Thrones
Is Winterfell The Site Of the Battle of the Dawn?
The legends surrounding the First Long night speak of a massive conflict that was decisively ended by the Battle of the Dawn. The myth of the Last Hero tells the story of a warrior and his companions that journeyed north in search of the Children of the Forest to seek their aid in fighting the White Walkers. After he secured the secret of using Dragonglass, the first men of the Night’s Watch are formed and they beat the Others (White Walkers in the Game of Thrones series) back into the North in the Battle of the Dawn. The site of that battle is unknown, but some have theorized that Winterfell might stand on it.
Martin and the show make much of Winterfell’s strategic position, as well as its nature as a hallowed place. It’s age, labyrinthine crypts, weirwood grove and even the hot springs running underneath it contribute to the castle’s ancient and mysterious air. Winterfell is significant in part because of the reverence paid to it by everyone in the series, but reading and watching one gets the sense that there’s more to it than the sum of its parts.
A popular, if prosaic theory posits that Winterfell stands on the site where the original Battle For the Dawn took place and that the castle took its name from the place where “Winter” i.e. the White Walkers “fell." While that seems almost too obvious, it makes sense. And given the Stark's association with myths surrounding the Night King and the first Long Night, it would make sense that they would’ve been the key players in that initial conflict.
Why Must There Always Be A Stark In Winterfell?
Two major pieces of construction happened after the Long Night – the Wall was raised and the first iteration of Winterfell was constructed. It’s possible neither of these events were related considering there’s no way to tell when either build was undertaken (they could’ve been hundreds of years apart, given the accuracy of the history surrounding them). But the fact that the Wall was clearly built and inlaid with magic for the express purpose of keeping out the White Walkers makes it seem like defense was of primary concern to Northerners after this major conflict. If Winterfell was indeed built on the site of the Battle for the Dawn, it seems likely that it could have been designed with some kind of protective magic in mind.
Theoretically, if the Wall works like it’s supposed to, Winterfell shouldn’t have to be a fortress that defends against the White Walkers. But given how inscrutable and dangerous an enemy they are, it makes sense that the Wall wouldn’t be the only magical barrier or protection against another attack. It’s important to remember that, before the White Walkers were kept out of Westeros by the Wall, they were subdued into some kind of hibernation (you cannot build a wall faster than a wight can climb). How that happened remains a mystery, but it doesn’t change the fact that at some point the Night King and his minions checked out, allowing for the construction of a barrier in the first place.
What does this have to do with there being a Stark in Winterfell? Well, if the Starks were instrumental in the first Long Night, they were probably instrumental in ending it. And given their association with the post-war builds, it stands to reason that Winterfell was imbued with magic in the same way the Wall was; if the Wall keeps them out, maybe a Stark in Winterfell helped keep them sleeping. There’s no way to say what that was, but considering the Last Hero went to entreat with the Children of the Forest to help end the conflict, perhaps they also assisted in protecting the realm once the conflict was over. It could be they helped subdue the White Walkers and left the humans with the ability to maintain that magic – as long as a Stark’s in Winterfell, the spell holds and the White Walkers remain asleep.
That’s total speculation, but if it's taken that the necessity of a Stark in Winterfell has to do with protective magic, the timing of events leading up to the beginning of Game of Thrones provides very compelling evidence that said magic had to do with keeping monsters at bay.