Team Stannis, don’t despair.
In Game of Thrones Season 5, Stannis Baratheon, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, met his ignominious end as he fought to take Winterfell back from House Bolton. A rigid and righteous man with “the personality of a lobster,” Stannis has always been a polarizing character. To some, he is a zealous ideologue deluded by visions of glory. But to many, Stannis “the Mannis” Baratheon is the only truly just man in the Seven Kingdoms, and the rightful king. That’s why his final disgrace and death in the show was so devastating.
But Stannis getting smoked in Game of Thrones doesn’t mean he’s also doomed in Winds of Winter. In fact, some of the most devoted "A Song of Ice and Fire" fans have made a convincing case that Stannis will not only survive the coming battles, he’ll win them — setting the stage for the Starks to reclaim the North.
(Winds of Winter doesn’t have an official release date, but it’s currently expected in 2021. Fans of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books have been waiting nine long years, though author George R.R. Martin seems to be writing more than ever under quarantine, so perhaps there’s hope the book will actually arrive next year. In the meantime, we’re here to speculate over how the book could diverge from Game of Thrones.)
The Situation on the Eve of Winds of Winter
Up until Game of Thrones Season 5, show-Stannis and book-Stannis generally followed the same path. The younger brother to King Robert, Stannis uncovered that Queen Cersei’s children were bastards — not Robert’s trueborn heirs — making Stannis himself next in line for the throne. Following Robert’s death, Stannis declared his claim and narrowly failed to defeat the Lannisters in the Battle of the Blackwater. After losing and sulking for a while, Stannis roused himself to face a greater threat: he answered the Night’s Watch call, sailed to the Wall, and arrived just in time to stop Mance Rayder’s invasion. After chilling out with Jon Snow for a while, Stannis decides to liberate Winterfell from Ramsay Bolton, who captured it for the Lannisters, in order to rally the northern lords to his cause.
Stannis begins his march but encounters numerous setbacks along the way: Bolton raids, a loss of food supplies, and a blizzard that lasts for weeks and stops him in his tracks. That’s the situation at the end of A Dance with Dragons, and his prospects look quite dire.
How it Went Down in the Show
In Game of Thrones season 5, Stannis responds to his setbacks in the North in the worst way possible: by burning his own daughter Shireen alive as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. Unfortunately for him, although the Lord of Light does have real power, he still lives in a world of living, breathing men, men who aren’t happy to see their commander murder his own daughter for good luck.
Most of Stannis’ army abandons him on the eve of battle, and the Boltons annihilate those who remain. Brienne of Tarth finds a wounded Stannis afterward, sentences him to die for killing his brother Renly, and carries out the judgment. It was truly a disgraceful end for a once honorable man.
The Night Lamp: How Stannis Will Defeat The Freys With This One Weird Trick
But it doesn’t have to go that way in Winds of Winter, and indeed it probably won’t.
Most importantly, Stannis isn’t going to sacrifice Shireen. At the end of Dance, she’s squirreled away with her mother in Castle Black, not traveling with Stannis and his army. Melisandre isn’t around either. So Shireen is safe, at least for now.
Still, his situation isn’t great. The long blizzard has slowed his progress to a halt, and he’s holed up in a small crofters’ village three days from Winterfell. An army, led by Hosteen Frey in service of the Boltons, is on its way to defeat him, but Stannis seems strangely confident. That’s where the Night Lamp theory comes in.
The Night Lamp theory, put forth most convincingly and in greatest detail on the blog “Meditations on A Song of Ice and Fire,” explains how Stannis will pull off a victory in the coming battle by using a ruse he learned as Robert’s Master of Ships.
Several of Stannis’s bannermen question his decision to hold his ground at the crofters’ village. Theon Greyjoy explicitly notes that it offers no high ground, yet Stannis demurs and declines to explain his decision to make his stand there. The village itself has little in it but a small watchtower with a fiery beacon that Stannis has kept lit day after day. The village is on a narrow land bridge between two frozen lakes, one of which contains a few small, wooded islands (one with a large weirwood tree on it). At the end of Dance, his men have been cutting holes in the ice to go ice-fishing (without much success). Bolton spies have given the Frey army information on the village and a map of the area, and they are advancing through the seemingly unending northern blizzard.
The Frey army, led by the impulsive and angry Hosteen Frey, has one clear approach to the coming battle: take on Stannis directly from the front, trapping his army between the lakes so he can’t flank them, and destroy him before he can retreat into the woods. It’s an obvious approach, and doesn’t take a tactical genius to figure out.
Unfortunately for the Freys, Stannis is a tactical genius and expects them to attack head-on. He also realizes that, even while the blizzard continues, the village watchtower is still visible from quite a distance away, while everything else is hidden in a world of white. Asha Greyjoy acknowledged in Dance that visibility in the snow has been very poor:
She was lost before she had gone ten yards. Asha could see the beacon fire burning atop the watchtower… Elsewise the village was gone.
And that’s where Stannis’s experience as Master of Ships comes in.
How To Succeed in Piracy Without Really Trying
The Night Lamp isn’t just a figurative name for this theory. It’s actually in the books. More specifically, the Night Lamp is a lighthouse on the Three Sisters, a small island chain north of the Vale that is infamous for piracy and smuggling. One piece of subterfuge had become especially popular in the area, as Davos notes in Dance:
The beacons that burned along the shores of the Three Sisters were supposed to warn of shoals and reefs and rocks and lead the way to safety, but on stormy nights and foggy ones, some Sistermen would use false lights to draw unwary captains to their doom.
While on the islands, Davos even has a brief conversation with Godric Borrell, lord of one of the Three Sisters... and Keeper of the Night Lamp. Godric recalls that Stannis himself once warned him not to try that technique:
He went so far as to threaten to hang me if it should happen that some ship went aground because the Night Lamp had gone black.
It’s a pretty good trick if you’re a pirate: wait for dark and stormy conditions, extinguish the flame from a lighthouse that sailors expect to see in a certain place, build a different pyre on a dangerous and rocky shore nearby, and wait patiently for ships to crash against the rocks thinking they’re approaching the safe and familiar lighthouse, and then loot and pillage accordingly. Unfortunately for them, Stannis Baratheon figured out such tricks, and wasn’t a merciful man.
Last One Here’s On Rotten Ice
The Night Lamp theory states that Stannis will adapt this tactic for use on land. He knows that the Freys are in a hurry to defeat him, and have been marching for days through the blizzard, which shows no sign of stopping. He knows that Bolton spies told the Freys that his encampment has a watchtower. And he knows that, as long as the snow continues, that watchtower will be the only way for the Freys to find him.
So Stannis is going to act like a pirate. His men will build a false beacon on the large island in one of the lakes. They’ll light it, and extinguish the fire on the actual watchtower in the village. The Freys will advance head-on toward the beacon, straight onto the lake, which is covered in such deep snows that they won’t even realize they’re walking on ice.
And that’s where those ice-fishing holes come in. Because they aren’t actually ice-fishing holes, at least not anymore. Stannis’s men are making them to create what’s known in the Seven Kingdoms as “rotten ice.” As one of the northmen says in Dance:
I know them lakes. You been on them like maggots on a corpse, hundreds o’ you. Cut so many holes in the ice it’s a bloody wonder more haven’t fallen through. Out by the island, there’s places look like a cheese the rats been at.
That’s more than just a few ice-fishing holes, and a lot more than Stannis’s men needed to cut when they weren’t catching many fish anyway. That’s a methodical process to weaken the structure of the ice just enough that, when an army of over a thousand men stands on it… the ice will collapse, sending most of the Frey army to an icy, watery grave.
To Winterfell and Beyond
The Night Lamp theory can go a lot deeper. Ardent fans have had over nine years to flesh out this theory while they wait for the Winds of Winter release date. There are answers for how Stannis will create the false beacon (by burning the weirwood tree? By burning Theon Greyjoy alive?), how he will lure the Freys to attack him on his terms, how he will signal his men to attack at the right moment, and more. Fans have even made extensive diagrams of the village and the coming battle. But when it comes down to it, the Night Lamp is simple: Stannis will lure the Freys to their doom, and then advance toward Winterfell.
What will happen when Stannis actually gets to Winterfell is much more ambiguous. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop the armchair tacticians, who have devoted tens of thousands of words to the subject. The most convincing case involves the Pink Letter, a note that Ramsay Bolton sends to Jon Snow just before the end of Dance, crowing about a supposed victory over Stannis. This could be a feint on Ramsay’s part… or it could be the best information Ramsay has. According to one compelling version of how Stannis will win Winterfell, he’ll defeat the Frey army at the village and then partner up with a second approaching army, under House Manderly, to convince Ramsay that Stannis has been killed. After all, the Manderlys might be working with the Boltons, but their true loyalties lie with the Starks (proof: they baked a bunch of Frey boys into pies, and served the pies to their family members).
With Ramsay thinking him dead, Stannis’s remaining northern allies will launch a feint attack on the Dreadfort to lure the Bolton army away. That will give Stannis and a few loyal warriors the chance to sneak into Winterfell (possibly with the help of Mance Rayder) and take the castle from within.
Is this exactly what will happen? It seems compelling, but we won’t know for sure until the Winds of Winter release date. The most important point is simply that Stannis is not doomed in Winds of Winter, even though he died in the show. It is entirely and eminently reasonable for him to survive. And beyond Winterfell? Who knows. Perhaps he’ll burn his daughter alive some other time. Or he’ll take the black, be named the 1,000th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and lead the fight against the Others. Or maybe he’ll even become the Night King and turn against humanity. But those are theories for another day. For now, rest easy knowing that Stannis “the Mannis” Baratheon’s