There’s a pretty convincing fan theory that Game of Thrones’ most iconic patriarch might still be creeping around Westeros.
We know, we know. Ned Stark is dead.
We all saw it. At the end of the first season of Game of Thrones Ned Stark – good, dependable, honourable Ned Stark – was executed after he uncovered the truth about the extent of Cersei and Jaime’s incestuous relationship.
We saw Littlefinger collude with Cersei to capture Ned and we saw Arya’s daring escape from King’s Landing. We saw Sansa desperately pleading for mercy for her father, and we saw Cersei double cross Ned, asking him to confess to a treason he did not commit in return for a life’s sentence at the Night’s Watch.
And then we saw Joffrey call for Ned’s execution. The sword was raised, the blow was felled, and Ned was dead. His head was put on a pike for all to see, a fact that Joffrey took great pleasure in pointing out to Sansa, his betrothed. Vale Ned Stark.
But to paraphrase The Royal Tenenbaums, everyone knows that Ned Stark died in season one of Game of Thrones. What this article presupposes is… Maybe he didn’t?
Firstly, it has to be recognised that there’s nothing Game of Thrones loves more than a double bluff. Remember when Jon Snow died at the end of season five? And remember how distinctly not dead he actually was when it came down to it? (See also: The Hound and, um, zombie Catelyn Stark.)
Sure, there have been lots of devastating (and devastatingly final) deaths on Game of Thrones, from everyone at the Red Wedding to Oberyn Martell. But if there’s one thing we know about Game of Thrones, it’s that literally anything is possible.
The fan theory that Ned Stark might still be alive is one that is closely related to the characters of Varys and Arya. Varys has long been Westeros’ puppet master extraordinaire, pulling the strings to make everyone dance to his own tune. For instance, there are some theories that suggest that, if Samwell Tarly is a secret Targaryen (and, maybe Azor Ahai) that it was Varys who placed him in the care of the Tarlys in the first place.
And it might be Varys who saved Ned Stark. The theory goes something like this: while Ned Stark was imprisoned in the Red Keep, so too was Jaqen H’ghar of the Faceless Men. We know this because Arya meets Jaqen outside the prison, kickstarting her journey to become No One.
What if Jaqen was at the Red Keep for the specific purpose of saving Ned? What if he was there, orchestrated by Varys, to use the Faceless Men’s faceless technology to mask Ned’s identity, replace him with another man, and smuggle Ned out of the Red Keep and to safety?
Book readers have been picking up clues, breadcrumb style, on this subject for eons. In the first book, both Sansa and Catelyn make comments that Ned’s dead body doesn’t entirely resemble Ned’s alive one, and Arya, who watches the execution from the crowds, confesses that her father appears to be so injured on the executioner’s block that he barely looks alive. And what about that thing that Ned mutters under his breath right before he dies? Might it have been: Valar Morghulis, the motto of the Braavosi Faceless Men?
It’s a neat theory, especially for those hoping for something grand and shocking to take place in the final season of Game of Thrones. But it begs the question: if Ned is alive, then what has he been doing all this time? The fans have an answer for that too, but it’s not a good one. Maybe he’s been in the Free Cities somewhere, or hiding out in Westeros paying off his life debt to Varys. Maybe.
We have to confess that around here the theory starts to sound pretty weak, and Ned Stark himself agrees. Of the rumours, Sean Bean has said: “I’ve heard [them], but not from very good sources that I might be back. But I think I’ve done my time there, and I created a good character. It’d be rather strange to see him resurrected.”
Indeed. And yet, the posters for the final season of Game of Thrones show Jon sitting on the Iron Throne in a manner entirely too similar to Ned’s character poster from season one for it to be a coincidence. Could it hint at the return of his foster father?
Trust us, we want nothing more than Ned Stark to return spectacularly from the dead in the final season of Game of Thrones. He is one of the show’s most memorable characters, and a reunion between him and his remaining progeny would be a truly emotional moment that would be hard to top.
If this fan theory turns out to be true, we’ll be the first to celebrate in the streets. But it might prove to be just a little bit too far-fetched. Even for Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones returns to HBO in the US on 14 April and Sky Atlantic and Now TV in the UK on 15 April.