George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the source material for HBO's Game of Thrones, sits at 1.8 million words right now by most estimates. The wealth of writing around and about it on Reddit, mainstream content outlets, tiny blogs, and Tumblr undoubtedly has surpassed that number. Brynden B Fish, one of the web's foremost ASOIAF theorists, has alone written dozens of essays with word counts numbering in the five digits. Most famously, he's penned a treatise on the yet-untold-in-the-books battle between Stannis Baratheon and the Bolton army, which he calls "the Battle of Ice."
Fans of the series regard his encyclopedic knowledge of the epic, his real-world military strategy expertise, and his audacious plot speculation the way a freshman college student regards the warnings of a cornershop tarot card reader five stops into a campus pub crawl: with a hesitant suspicion that these prophecies are, somehow, true.
I spoke with him about the enormity of what Martin has created, the future of the series, the hits and misses of its adaptation, and his favorite "tinfoil" theory.
Spoiler warning: this interview makes reference to plot points from all six seasons of Game of Thrones, as well as all five A Song of Ice and Fire books, and contains predictions about future events.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: How did you come to Game of Thrones? What's your love story?
BryndenBFish: I came back from deployment to Afghanistan in late 2010 and I'd heard about this new HBO show which was pitched as The Sopranos meets Middle-earth. Being a Lord of the Rings fan and a Sopranos fan I thought, "Oh, okay that sounds interesting." So I started watching Game of Thrones probably mid-season, May 2011. It was only after the second season that I actually read the books.
How did you decide you were going to start contributing to Reddit communities or start writing your own blog?
That came in late 2012. I finished the last published book, A Dance With Dragons, and I had dinner with my brother the night after. I was like, "Wow this is a great book series and I really enjoy it but there are so many things left open from the last book as well as a bunch of plotlines from previous books, I'm not sure how I'm going to get through until the next book comes out. The next book's coming out soon right?" Which, turned out not to be the case as I'm sure you know.
"by the way, do you know who jon snow's mother is?"
[He said,] "I've gotten involved in Reddit, especially the Song of Ice and Fire subreddit, you might find a lot of stuff there, a lot of good theories, and by the way do you know who Jon Snow's mother is?" And I said I have no idea, having read through all five books and having watched both of the seasons of Game of Thrones that were out at that point. I really didn't know and I just figured it was a mystery that would be revealed later on. Little did I know that there was this massive theory behind it that had really taken on a life of its own.
So, R+L=J is the first theory you heard about. Do you have a favorite? A super zany one, or one that you think has been overlooked?
One that I really have enjoyed thinking about and wrote a little bit about [is] the idea that Varys is descended from Aerion Brightflame, who was a Targaryen prince and also known as Aerion the Monstrous. It makes me think a little bit about how the Spider's mission and goals might be a bit more personal than we [assume]. He's not necessarily in it for the Realm, so to speak. He has a quest to restore Westeros to the Targaryens — in the show it would be through Daenerys, but in the books it's through the legendary son of Rhaegar Targaryen who survived — but the motivations aren't super clear.
That's a little bit zany, it's a little bit out there, or in fan parlance it's "tinfoil." But it's something that I enjoy and I think it adds a bit to the story. Whether it will actually be revealed or not that's something that I guess we'll have to wait for in the next two books. I won't necessarily be disappointed if it's not explicitly revealed but rather referenced and hinted at.
Obviously it's very hotly debated how well the books have been adapted into the show, so I wanted to ask you specifically about a couple of things that you've written about. The big one would be the battle between Stannis and the Boltons — I'd love to hear what you think about how they did it on the show because I know you have a much bigger vision for the books in mind.
I wrote this piece about the Battle of Ice — about how it's going to be this very involved thing, picking up on some hints that I thought George had left, before season five even started. I based it on some of the Asha chapters from Dance With Dragons and a Theon sample chapter from Winds of Winter. Basically, I thought that Stannis Baratheon would defeat the Freys, who are in Winterfell in the books but not in the show, and the Boltons.
I'll admit that I [was] fairly disappointed to see the way that things transpired on the show. There were some masterful scenes — the burning of Shireen being one of the scenes that I thought was especially poignant — but as to whether it's going to relate to how the book opens, I don't think you're going to see a whole lot of parallels there.
If you're going to look at how the story progressed from season five to season six, I think what you're actually seeing is Jon Snow taking a lot of Stannis' role from the books. In A Dance With Dragons, Stannis is recruiting different Northern houses and lords into his service and he's marching on Winterfell and he doesn't have much hope of winning the battle of Winterfell but he has a plan in mind. And that's all Jon in season six. It was a really fun story line, don't get me wrong, but I don't know if it's really going to be like that in the next book. So I still stand behind the idea that Stannis will defeat the Boltons and the Freys in The Winds of Winter.
"i still stand behind the idea that stannis will defeat the boltons and the freys"
There's another major thing that the show sort of addressed or maybe just skimmed over, which is the issue of who wrote the Pink Letter. There are a lot of theories, a lot of people who don't think it was really Ramsay, but in your theory about the Battle of Ice you said you think he did write it and has just been fed false information about Stannis' defeat. Is that still how you think it'll play out?
Oh, yes, definitely. It wasn't someone else: it wasn't Mance Rayder in the books or Littlefinger in season six of the show. I don't think there's enough evidence for that. I think Ramsay wrote it, I think that he wrote it with false information in mind, because he mentions all sorts of things about Stannis being dead and "Oh we have his magic sword." That parallels with Theon's sample chapter from The Winds of Winter where Stannis tells one of his knights, "You may hear that I'm dead, it might even be true." It seems to indicate that Stannis has something in mind.
A lot of fans would say that this is a plan to fake his own death and then come back and take Winterfell. You also have a number of Northern houses that are with the Boltons right now that are not necessarily loyal to the Boltons, and in fact they hate the Boltons. At the end of Dance With Dragons the Manderlys are sent out there in the woods with the Freys to attack Stannis, and it seems fairly clear that the Manderlys are looking for an opportunity to cut into the Freys and avenge the Red Wedding. The Battle of Ice might represent that opportunity, and then afterwards if Stannis fakes his death then the Manderlys can return to Winterfell and say, "Yo, we killed Stannis. Here's the sword. Here's his crown," and that would lead to Ramsay writing the letter to Jon Snow saying that Stannis is dead. It would be a very interesting thing to see.
I guess I should backtrack a little from asking you extremely specific plot questions. How many times have you read the books? Do you have a system for remembering all these details? A notebook? A robot?
I've probably read the books about five times in total, however I've read individual story arcs and chapters a lot more times than that. Right now I'm writing a long-term series on Aegon's storyline from A Dance With Dragons and Winds of Winter, and so I've read Arianne Martell and Areo Hotah and Jon Connington's chapters probably 10 to 15 times. I don't really have a system, per se. I just have kind of a long-standing series of resources that myself and others have put together, compiling things that Martin has said about the series and different things he wrote about on his blog. Sometimes I'll ask around for help and bounce ideas off of people if I have an idea that I'm not entirely sure about. That's the cool thing about these online communities like Reddit, is that you have so many people who want to participate and want to have some kind of stake or ownership in analyzing a fantasy book series.
The people on Reddit, do you know any of them in real life or is this exclusively online?
I do! I went to my first ever convention at Balticon in May, and got to meet a number of the people that I've interacted with for years. And I didn't get to meet him, but I did hear George R.R. Martin speak and read a chapter from Winds of Winter as well. A lot of stuff tends to be more digital and I think that's just a facet of our age and generation that so many things are conducted over Reddit or Twitter or any of these other mediums. It's really cool to be able to see some of these people and interact with them in person but for the most part I have no idea of the full extent of how many people there are. Thousands of people I'll never meet. Maybe someday I'll meet some of them but most likely probably not.
You're on two separate communities: the subreddit and your personal Wordpress site. Do you have any way of estimating how many people read your essays?
The blog got started in late 2013 and the first year we got about 300,000 views. And then the next year it went up to 800,000, and then last year it was at 2.7 million or so. This year it's kind of tampered down a bit, we're hovering around 900,000 right now.
This seems like an enormous time commitment. Is keeping up the blog your main job now, or is it still just a hobby that you do in the middle of the night? It seems like a lot of work.
It's just a hobby. Since the blog's inception it has been ad-free and that'll continue. It's a hobby of mine to write about this stuff and I have other writers who write for the blog too and it's a hobby for them. We don't make any money off of the blog, it's just something that we enjoy doing. In a way you just love it for the challenge of writing about it.
"at the end of the day it's [martin]'s world"
For me, I've always felt that I don't want to make money off of someone else's world. I enjoy playing in Martin's world and thinking about it, but at the end of the day it's his world. I enjoy the interactions with everybody, and talking with people who often bring something new to the table that I hadn't thought about. That's a reward in and of itself.
Do you think that you or others will continue theorizing about the books even once they're a complete work or does that kind of ruin the game?
I think it goes back to something that we were talking about earlier, in that there's going to be things that won't be explicitly confirmed. I think Jon Snow's mother being Lyanna Stark and his father being Rhaegar Targaryen will most likely be explicitly confirmed in the books as it has already been on the show, but there's going to be a fair number of things that George is never going to come out and say and it won't be in the books and we won't get a hint of it on the show either.
There are people who are still theorizing on the Lord of the Rings series and that was published in the 1940s. I would not be shocked if we had a similar situation with A Song of Ice and Fire — people thinking and talking and theorizing about it years and years after the books are published. I think it's a fantastic thing and a testament to George R.R. Martin's writing prowess and the depth and complexity of the series.
The draw of the books is so much different from the draw of the show to me, in that the books capture this very human feeling of being adrift in a history that's so complicated that no one person can understand it. When you're reading the first couple of books the story you care about is the war that happened before the books even start so you're just kind of waiting for people to talk about that. And then later, those events are extremely relevant and it's all about who has the information. "Knowledge is power," as Littlefinger would say. And then the show is, for me, basically just House of Cards but with dragons.
In the show they do portray some of the human sides. They portray that more in earlier seasons than in later seasons, but I think it still exists. It is kind of like House of Cards meet dragons, but it is cool in the books when you're waiting for Ned Stark to talk about Robert's Rebellion or in the fourth book you have Victarion and Aeron Greyjoy talking about the Greyjoy rebellion, which happened about 10 years before the start of the main series. And these guys have a completely different perspective about how and why they were defeated by Robert Baratheon. And then before that you have Stannis talking about how he was easily able to crush the Ironborn.
"you start to see how history gets made"
So you have all these different perspectives on history, and George goes beyond that, especially in the last two books. He starts telling the story of different characters through rumors. When Quentyn Martell is in Volantis in Dance With Dragons, he's hearing all of these wild rumors about Daenerys Targaryen, about how she burns her enemies alive and bathes in blood. You start to see how history gets made. We look at historical events and we take primary sources at face value but a lot of them are sensationalized and the events are described as really heroic or really dastardly. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, in the realm of what humans are capable of both emotionally and physically. That's really interesting to think about. You start seeing all these heroic or dastardly people and events in the series and they're coalescing into narratives that contribute to the history of Westeros 50 years or 1,000 years after the events of the main series.
Speaking of perceptions of rumors about Daenerys, I know you do somewhat subscribe to the Mad Queen theory— the idea that Daenerys is going to end up not being a hero but becoming progressively more violent and ending up crazy. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on whether Daenerys might take that course but not to the extremes that some people think. Do you think she could go crazy and still be a hero?
I would not say I 100 percent believe in the idea of the Mad Queen theory, but there are hints that it's possible. For me, it more relates to how Daenerys will be perceived by people around her than objectively whether she will go mad or not. I think that's going to be left up in the air.
In A Dance With Dragons, I think George really pulled the curtain back from Daenerys so you get a really strong view of who she is and what she's struggling with. She's really struggling with whether to be a good ruler and the "mhysa" or mother to her freed slaves, which symbolizes the side of her personality that wants to deal peacefully with political problems, or to be the mother of dragons. That personality is much more violent and warlike and summed up with "I will take what is mine by fire and blood."
When she's out in the wilderness in the Dothraki Sea, she makes the decision to abide by the Targaryen words "fire and blood" and she says "dragons plant no trees," which is a really ominous turn for her. She's saying I'm not here to plant roots and settle down and be peaceful, my words are "fire and blood" and I will go to Westeros. But it would be almost cliche if Daenerys went from being a good person to being an out-and-out villain. I don't think that's the way that George has written characters and I don't think it's the way that he's going to write Daenerys.
it would be almost cliche if daenerys went from being a good person to being an out-and-out villain
The Mad Queen theory comes from the aspects of her psyche where she's making these huge statements and changes. She's doing it based on visions and ghosts of people who aren't actually there, so that's a little bit troublesome. A character like Barristan Selmy who's still alive in the books, might see shades of Aerys Targaryen. He was one of Aerys' Kingsguard so he saw Aerys' madness as he got progressively worse. What if he starts to see the same sort of things in Daenerys?
We've seen a lot of women move into power in the last season of the show, and to some extent in the books. It's so interesting that they seem to be setting up this matriarchal revolution — do you think this is something that can be sustained, or is even for the best?
I think it's likely. In the books you have the theory of the War of the Five Queens, which is usually said to involve Arianne Martell, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and maybe Margaery Tyrell or Olenna Tyrell.
The question that I have is even if there is a matriarchal revolution, is it actually for the betterment of the people in Westeros? You have Cersei Lannister who just murdered a whole lot of people in her city, you have the Sand Snakes in Dorne who have just murdered a guy who basically just wanted peace and to be left alone, and then you have Daenerys who is also in this weird position of is she or isn't she mad, is she going to pursue violence, or is she a good person? I think it's going to be interesting to see. Right now, Jon and stupid kid Sweet Robyn are the only male leaders left in Westeros that are controlling large parts of the country. That's going to be a fascinating thing to see, but the question I always have is whether they're going to rule well or not.
So, out of curiosity — do you think Azor Ahai is Daenerys or Jon Snow or someone else?
I think Azor Ahai is a bunch of different people. It goes back to the idea of the monomyth, where you have a solitary figure who is viewed differently through different cultures. So someone like Azor Ahai, aka "the Prince that Was Promised" might be a bunch of different characters fulfilling different elements of that myth. But if you asked me to pin it on one person I would say Jon Snow.
Will Dany and Jon fall in love, or kill each other?
I could see it going either way. I think one of the bittersweet ways that the series will end, will be with Jon killing Daenerys. If he is Azor Ahai reborn. Azor Ahai, in the original story, plunged a sword into the heart of his wife, killing her, in order to forge this blade to defeat... probably the Others. Whether they fall in love before that, that's perfectly plausible.
Let's talk about Winds of Winter a little bit more just to wrap things up. People are very frustrated at this point, I would say. When do you think the book is coming, why do you think it's taking so long, what's your feeling about what George is up to, and how people are treating him?
I looked at it by analyzing George's writing speed for Dance With Dragons, and I still tend to see early 2017 as a potential date for when the book might come out. The greater issue for me is not necessarily when the book is going to come out, but whether the book is going to be good. It's not talked about as much now, but five years ago when a Dance With Dragons came out, George was mostly satisfied but he had intended for the Battle of Winterfell and the Battle of Fire to end the book and that's where those two storylines would naturally conclude. He had to push those events back into The Winds of Winter, which led to a lot of fan disappointment.
So for me, if it's 2017 — great. If it's 2018 — great. If it's 2019, that's fine as well. You want the writer to release a story that doesn't feel in any way incomplete to them. So far, from the sample chapters I've read from The Winds of Winter, I think that George's story has continued to be extraordinarily good.
"fans, i'll say controversially, should cut george a little bit of slack"
You and I know as writers, you have a conception of a story or how you're going to write an article but then along the way you come up with ideas of how to make the article something more interesting or a new way to attack a part of it. That's as a writer what George is doing, on a much greater scale than anything you or I would ever write.
George does a lot of rewrites and polishes and he does all sorts of major restructures as well. If you go all the way back to the early ‘90s, he's been this way. A letter that George wrote in 1993 to his agent at the time came out last year, and it basically said, "Here's where I think the story's going to go," and he talks about all of these things that didn't end up happening.
There was a love triangle between Arya and Tyrion and Jon Snow. He talks about Catelyn Stark being killed by the Others and Robb Stark dying in battle. There's no Red Wedding. That's one of the things that we as fans, because we're consumers, don't think about. We look at it as "we want our book now" and that's kind of beside the point. We also want the book to be good, and the books take time to be good. A lot of fans, I'll say controversially, should cut George a bit of slack. The complexity and the politics that we love so much about the story is why it takes so long to write.