Disclaimer: This piece isn’t going to be about Game of Thrones (GoT) and will have absolutely nothing to do with Bran’s portrayal in the television series. It is analysis purely based off of the text of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and the character of Bran Stark as presented therein. General spoiler warning for the series.
Bran Stark is a character that can oftentimes get overlooked in fandom discourse regarding important character arcs and themes. Where Bran is concerned, a lot of the focus seems to be placed on the significance of the larger mythical plot happening around him and the themes of mysticism, sorcery and the approaching apocalypse, leaving a lot unexamined regarding Bran himself.
Before beginning work on this piece, in the course of my reread of the books and doing research to write about this subject, I went back and listened to the UBS podcast episode that was about Bran. And in a completely unrelated but serendipitous turn of events, there was a moment in that podcast where Kylie and Julia expressed their inability to see Bran as a worthwhile character (hopefully I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouths here) and beseeched their audience for evidence to the contrary if they so wished. Well, it may be a bit out of the way and a long time coming, but challenge officially accepted!
In this two part series, I will be looking at Bran’s character and the journey he takes personally over the course of the series to elucidate how Bran is a compelling character in his own right. This first part will look at his identity and relationship to Winterfell.
So who is Bran Stark? At the most basic level, he is the fourth child of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn and serves as one of the major POV characters in the series. After the prologue, A Game of Thrones (AGoT), the first book in the ASOIAF series, begins with a chapter from his perspective; he’s therefore the first main character we meet. The sequence where the Starks find the direwolf pups was also first thing that author George R. R. Martin (GRRM) conceived of for what would become this sprawling epic narrative.
From a Doylist perspective, Bran’s importance is evident due to his prevalence in the story as a major POV, but on a Watsonian level, Bran is hardly anyone important. He’s a second son of a major House and is only eight years old at the beginning of the story. Apart from his family, other characters don’t pay much heed to Bran or think of him as anything other than a child who has no significance outside of his family name and the political standing that name comes with. However, it is through Bran that the gears of the narrative start turning. It is through his insistence on saving the direwolves that they are adopted by the Stark children; his being flung from the tower by Jaime Lannister begins the avalanche of events that lead to the actions taken by his parents following the accident.
It is often said that Bran as a character only really has significance to the magical plotline of the story that seems to exist in the background for a major portion of the series. However, Bran’s significance to the political plotline is undeniable. If not for the attempts on Bran’s life, major events like the arrest of Tyrion, the ravaging of the Riverlands and subsequently the basis for the War of the Five Kings could not have taken place in the way they do without Bran. If Bran is erased from the narrative, a critical piece is removed from play, leading to a much different story than the one we got.
Bran and Identity
One of the early conflicts Bran faces is in trying to decide upon a name for his direwolf pup. He watches as his siblings all seem to chose names for their wolves with relative ease. But he’s stuck, because none of the names he runs over in his head seem to fit. Bran’s incredibly introspective in his chapters, and his inability to settle on a name alludes to his own inner struggle with his identity. Bran is a second son, a spare; someone who’s life isn’t as clearly planned out as his older brother’s, who is the heir to the Stark name and the titles, land, and duties that come with it.
Bran’s dream is to be a knight, someone brave and valiant whose deeds will be sung of long after he’s gone. He has a child’s idea of knighthood and lives for the stories he’s grown up hearing of the valor and glory of knights in legends. Above all else, Bran craves adventure and excitement in his life. Part of the reason he’s unable to resist the urge to climb all over Winterfell is the thrill that comes from doing something risky, something that demonstrates his courage and willingness to engage with danger for the satisfaction of successfully conquering his fear. Rather than a reluctant or unlikely hero arc his struggle with identity seems to be setting up, this thirst for adventure inevitably breaks him.
The incident of Bran being thrown from the tower ruptures his even still unformed notion of his own identity and pushes onto him the mantle of Bran the Broken. He is forced into a position of weakness and reliance on others through no fault of his own, but rather because he was exposed to dangerous information. The trauma Bran went through is something that haunts him long afterwards even though he has no active recollection of the events. This trauma is what frames Bran’s identity following the event.
Bran and Winterfell
Bran has always had a deep connection to his home. In his early chapters in AGoT, Bran spends an inordinate amount of time expositing on the castle itself and all of its secrets that he’s uncovered, secrets unknown to the other denizens of Winterfell. His climbing and the knowledge gained thereby indicate that he has a unique perspective on the Stark’s ancestral home. Bran sees and experiences Winterfell differently than the rest of his family.
“The rooftops of Winterfell were Bran’s second home…. When he got out from under it and scrambled up near the sky, Bran could see all of Winterfell in a glance… It made him feel like he was lord of the castle, in a way even Robb would never know… he liked going places that no one else could go, and seeing the grey sprawl of Winterfell in a way that no one else ever saw it. It made the whole castle Bran’s secret place” (Bran II, AGoT).
Bran has an intimate relationship with Winterfell, a trait none of the other Starks seem to share for all else they have in common. Even before his fall, when Bran was supposed to leave with his father and sisters for King’s Landing, an adventure of sorts, Bran can’t bring himself to say goodbye to his home. Deep inside himself, Bran is reluctant to leave the comfort of the home he’s known his entire life. Ironically, circumstances twist themselves to keep him there a while longer. Because Bran’s true adventure hasn’t called him yet. And so Bran stays home, waiting for the true call from the three eyed crow.
But it’s also more complicated than that. Bran is the Stark in Winterfell after Robb’s campaign south begins and does his duties the best a nine year old boy can. He makes sure the hospitality of Winterfell is open to his vassals and gives them all the courtesy that is due to them in spite of his own emotional turmoil and fatigue. He gets the chance to actually be the Lord of Winterfell, even if only as a representative of Robb.
Bran’s identity is wrapped up in his home. He sees himself as part of Winterfell and that’s what makes his dreams of the weirwood and three eyed crow unnerve him so much. They are drawing him away from his home. This connection comes back later as well, and Bran makes an explicit note between himself and the castle after its destruction at the end of A Clash of Kings (ACoK). Both Bran and Winterfell are broken, but not gone. The stone is strong, and so is Bran. His suffering runs tandem with the state of affairs in Winterfell. They are intrinsically linked and the return of Winterfell to its former glory will likely run parallel to Bran’s coming into his own as well.
Bran is forced to leave his home and venture north in search of the destiny that’s been calling to him since the beginning of his story. Even still, his connection to home ensures that he keeps coming back to it. When he makes his connection with the weirwood, it is visions of Winterfell that Bran is granted. He seeks his home and is drawn to it in spite of all that’s transpired to take him away from it.
Bran’s story will inexorably involve him going back home. It is not for nothing that he shares the name of the founder of House Stark and the architect of Winterfell (and the Wall). Bran’s destiny is not to remain frozen in place in a tree, helpless to do anything, cursed only to be an observer from the sidelines. His fate is one that will lead to him contributing significantly to rebuilding Winterfell and restoring House Stark to its rightful place.
Winter is coming, and Bran knows truly what needs to be done to make sure winter falls. But that’s for part 2. We’ll get into that next time.