Yes, there is a broader conflict of good against evil (humanity vs. supernatural forces), but the main thrust of the story has always been about the interactions between flawed human beings who often fall prey to their own imperfections. Even the most morally upright heroes have their weaknesses, and the most villainous villains have redeeming qualities — except for Roose and Ramsay Bolton.
The father-and-bastard-son lords of the Dreadfort in the far North are the closest the series ever gets to irredeemably evil human beings. And there’s a popular fan theory that explains why the Boltons, unlike almost any other characters, are so purely evil: They aren’t human at all. As the so-called Bolt-On theory goes, Roose and Ramsay Bolton are actually a single skinchanging immortal being that wears human skin and has kept itself alive for centuries. And Winds of Winter could prove it.
Fans have been waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish Winds of Winter for almost a decade, and while the book still doesn’t have a release date, the author seems to be making some progress as of late (even if he missed his own self-imposed due date). So while we wait for Winds of Winter to finally arrive, he’s one of the most fascinating fan theories that could still happen in the books.
The Bolton Way
The Bolt-On theory itself is pretty simple. It argues, first, that Roose Bolton is not a normal man but an immortal skinchanger; quite possibly one of the Others, or related to them. Second, this creature or spirit has likely inhabited members of the Bolton family for centuries, and will eventually pass from Roose to Ramsay — who has been groomed for the task. This explains in part why Roose had King Tommen legitimize Ramsay even though Roose has openly stated that he believes Ramsay killed his trueborn heir, Domeric Bolton.
The evidence for the Bolt-On theory is by necessity somewhat circumstantial, but it’s still a compelling and creative take. Much of it depends on the Boltons’ appearances, which are repeatedly described as being somewhat strange. Roose Bolton in particular is often referred to as appearing ‘ageless.’ As Theon/Reek describes him in A Dance with Dragons:
“Though past forty, [Roose] was as yet unwrinkled, with scarce a line to tell the passage of time...there was an agelessness about him, a stillness.”
Characters also routinely comment on Roose’s unusually cold and piercing blue eyes (a trait shared by the Others) and otherwise very pallid look, described in Dance as “a pale grey mask.” Roose is also known for other unusual proclivities, including using leeches to drain himself of “bad blood” and prolong his life. At the same time, though young, he thinks he is too old to have children who will reach adulthood. In Dance, he comments that if he had children with his new wife Walda Frey, “Ramsay [would] kill them all, of course. That's for the best. I will not live long enough to see new sons to manhood, and boy lords are the bane of any House.” Why would an early middle-aged lord who looks ageless and practices life-extension techniques be worried about dying so young?
Ramsay Bolton, formerly Ramsay Snow, is much more violent and cruel than his father (who is no saint himself). More importantly, Ramsay has the same cold blue eyes that Roose does. In fact, it was those eyes that convinced Roose to spare Ramsay’s life and eventually adopt him into his household. When Ramsay’s mother, a millers’ wife, showed up in the Dreadfort with an infant Ramsay, Roose was prepared to kill them both until he saw Ramsay’s eyes.
He said this was because he didn’t believe in kinslaying, but that’s coming from a man who happily broke the sacred pact of guest right at the Red Wedding. Roose doesn’t stand much on traditions. Indeed, when Ramsay poisons Roose’s trueborn heir Domeric Bolton, Roose’s response is to have King Tommen legitimize him. So much for getting worked up about kinslaying.
The Bolt-On theory explains these odd events as more than just the machinations of a particularly violent and cruel family. There’s a bit of a conceptual leap from pale skin, blue eyes and leeching to quasi-demonic skinchanger possession, but when you consider Bolton family history, it may not be such a stretch.
The Boltons are descended from the First Men, making them one of the oldest houses in Westeros. They have had a dark history since long before Roose and Ramsay’s time (unlike, say, the Lannisters, who were mostly rich layabouts until Tywin took over). Throughout all of recorded history, House Bolton has been notorious for flaying their enemies alive. That’s why the Bolton sigil is a flayed man, why the House words are “Our Knives are Sharp,” and why they were once called the Red Kings. In ages past, the Boltons supposedly wore their flayed enemies’ skin as cloaks. It’s even rumored that the legendary Night’s King, who married an Other, was a Bolton (although Old Nan, the ultimate keeper of Northern Westerosi folklore, insists he was actually a Stark). And, although the Boltons nominally stopped flaying people a thousand years ago when they submitted to Stark rule, nobody really believes they have given up the practice. The commonfolk fear that there are hidden chambers beneath the Dreadfort that the Boltons still use for flaying. Of course, Theon Greyjoy finds out that these rumors are true. The Boltons, safe to say, are not widely loved.
Taking the Bolt-On theory any further requires some assumptions about House Bolton’s role on the northern frontier. As an ancient house that is relatively close to the Wall and generally located in uncivilized, wild lands, the Boltons have probably had their share of interactions with the wildlings over the years. Over the many thousands of years since the Long Night, the Boltons may have become familiar with the wildling practice of skinchanging. Although wildlings with that uncommon gift generally use it to see through the eyes of dogs, wolves, and birds, skinchanging can also be used to take over the body of another human. This is considered a nearly unspeakable abomination, but it has happened at least twice in the books: Varamyr Sixskins attempted it unsuccessfully just before he died, driving a woman to madness in the attempt, and Bran Stark has done it multiple times — first accidentally and then on purpose — with Hodor. If a Stark can do it, why not a Bolton?
Skinchangers can live on after their own death as long as the creatures they warg into survive. However, skinchangers who survive in this way slowly lose their memory of being human until they are fully animal, taking on the characteristics of whatever creature they are trapped in. But a skinchanger who defied ancient laws by warging into humans would not lose the memory of its humanity after death. It might even retain its powers, and thus be able to warg from one human after another, down through the generations, centuries after its original body died.
The Bolt-On theory argues that this is exactly what has happened with House Bolton. At some point in the distant past, a Bolton was either born a skinchanger or was taken over by one. Because of the House’s general disregard for norms, it is no great leap to suspect they would test the prohibition against inhabiting humans. And that skinchanger spirit has continued to pass itself down through the family. Boltons with cold, blue eyes and pale skin, the theory goes, are the easiest (or only) vessels the spirit can take over — which is why Roose had to make sure Ramsay became his true heir.
Someday, he will die, but not before passing his spirit into Ramsay.
Why Outlandish Fan Theories matter
Is it outlandish? Okay, maybe a little bit. The evidence is circumstantial, but there’s nothing in the text to explicitly contradict it either. Let’s face it: Even when The Winds of Winter release date finally arrives, we probably won’t get hard confirmation that the Bolton family is actually an immortal superbeing… or that they aren’t one. It’s not really that kind of theory. Someday, we’ll know without question who the third head of the dragon is (as long as GRRM actually finishes Winds of Winter!), and whether Stannis will survive the Battle of Winterfell, possibly killing Ramsay Bolton in the process. The Bolt-On theory is a little more whimsical.
But that’s all part of the fun. Coming up with interesting, slightly off-the-wall explanations for some under-examined aspect of a story is a cornerstone of modern fandom. In the end, does it really matter whether we get official, indisputable confirmation that the Boltons are skinchangers, or that Jar Jar Binks is actually a secret Sith lord, or that Ginny Weasley slipped Harry Potter a love potion, or that Dumbledore is a time-traveling Ron Weasley (alright, that one was mostly debunked)? Probably not. These kinds of theories let us, as fans, add even more richness and depth to stories that we deeply care about.
It’s simply another layer. Just like the layers of human skin the Boltons wear around the Dreadfort!