Art by Modji-33 on Deviant Art
One of the more interesting tales that Bran Stark hears is that of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. This is the story that Meera and Jojen Reed tell Bran in Chapter 24 of A Storm of Swords. The most interesting aspect about this story is that both Reed children are astounded that Ned Stark never told his children this story, it’s a story that the Reeds heard a hundred times or more from their father Howland.
I propose to explore why Ned didn’t tell the Stark kids this tale. It’s a simple reason: it was too dangerous to tell them. He couldn’t risk them asking inconvenient questions about two fictions that he was desperate for the children to believe.
- He only loved their mother, Catelyn Tully Stark; and
- Their aunt Lyanna was kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen, according to the official Robert Baratheon version of history.
The Tale itself
I think this section is one of GRRM’s best bits of writing. I love the way that GRRM explores the characters we know as younger people, and adds a layer of mystique to it by describing it in Howland Reed’s nature-laden terms. We aren’t told names of knights and figures, but their heraldry and natures. I’ve removed Bran’s interjections from Meera’s telling of the tale, and added some notes.
Once, there was a curious lad who lived in the Neck. He was small like all crannogmen, but brave and smart and strong as well. He grew up hunting and fishing and climbing trees, and learned all the magics of my people…
The lad knew the magics of the crannogs… but he wanted more. Our people seldom travel far from home, you know… this lad was bolder than most, and one day when he had grown to manhood he decided he would leave the crannogs and visit the Isle of Faces…
He passed beneath the Twins by night so that the Freys would not attack him, and when he reached the Trident he climbed from the river and put his boat on his head and began to walk. It took him many a day, but finally he reached the God’s Eye, threw his boat in the lake, and paddled out to the Isle of Faces…
So in this we learn that Howland Reed is basically the Bear Grylls of Westeros. The guy got past the Twins unnoticed, paddled and walked from the Neck to the Isle of Faces. That’s a not insignificant distance! One of Bran’s interjections that I removed was him wanting to know more about the Green Men who guard the Isle of Faces – “a tale for another time” says Meera/GRRM. I suspect that time may be coming in TWOW as Bran explores the weirwood networks and Jon explores his heritage and destiny.
All that winter the crannogman stayed on the isle, but when the spring broke he heard the wide world calling and knew the time had come to leave. His skin boat was just where he had left it, so he said his farewells and paddled off toward shore. He rowed and rowed, and finally saw the distant towers of a castle rising beside the lake. The towers reached ever higher as he neared shore, until he realised that this must be the greatest castle in the world…
Beneath its walls he saw tents of many colours, bright banners cracking in the wind, and knights in mail and plate on barded horses. He smelled roasting meats, and hear the sound of laughter and the blare of heralds’ trumpets. A great tourney was about to commence, and champions from all over the land had come to contest it. The king himself was there, with his son the dragon prince. The White Swords had come, to welcome a new brother to their ranks. The storm lord was on hand, and the rose lord as well. The great lion of the rock had quarreled with the king and stayed away, but many of his bannermen attended all the same. The crannogman had never seen such pageantry, and knew he might never see the like again. Part of him wanted nothing so much as to be part of it.
Robert Baratheon, Mace Tyrell, Mad King Aerys and Rhaegar Targaryen were at the Tourney. Jaime Lannister is being sworn into the Kingsguard and Tywin Lannister has stormed back to Casterly Rock to fume over that.
The daughter of the great castle reigned as queen of love and beauty when the Tourney opened. Five champions had sworn to defend her crown; her four brothers of Harrenhal, and her famous uncle, a white knight of the Kingsguard.
So much like the tourney that Dunk describes to use in the first D&E novella, The Hedge Knight, we learn here the manner of tourney. Oswell Whent is the kingsguard uncle of the maiden of House Whent.
She was [a fair maid]… but there were others fairer still. One was the wife of the dragon prince, who’d brought a dozen lady companions to attend her. The knights all begged them for favours to tie about their lances…
Despite Aerys’ distaste for Rhaegar’s Dornish bride, Elia Martell was one of the most beautiful women in the Seven Kingdoms. And in her retinue of 20 Dornish stunners is one Ashara Dayne, who appears later in this tale.
Sometimes the knights are the monsters, Bran. The little crannogman was walking across the field, enjoying the warm spring day and harming none, when he was set upon by three squires. They were none older than fifteen, yet even so they were bigger than him, all three. This was their world, as they saw it, and he had no right to be there. They snatched away his spear and knocked him to the ground, cursing him for a frogeater…
None offered a name, but he marked their faces well so he could revenge himself upon them later. They shoved him down every time he tried to rise, and kicked him when he curled up on the ground. But then they heard a roar. “That’s my father’s man you’re kicking!” howled the she-wolf…
The she-wolf laid into the squires with a tourney sword, scattering them all. The crannogman was bruised and bloodied, so she took him back to her lair to clean his cuts and bind them up with linen. There he met her pack brothers: the wild wolf who led them, the quiet wolf beside him, and the pup who was the youngest of the four.
That evening there was to be a feast in Harrenhal, to mark the opening of the tourney, and the she-wolf insisted that the lad attend. He was of high birth, with as much right to a place on the bench as any other man. She was not easy to refuse, this wolf maid, so he let the young pup find him garb suitable to a king’s feast, and went up to the great castle.
Under Harren’s roof he ate and drank with the wolves, and many of their sworn swords besides, barrowdown men and moose and bears and mermen. The dragon prince sang a song so sad it made the wolf maid sniffle, but when her pup brother teased her for crying she poured wine over his head. A black brother spoke, asking the knights to join the Night’s Watch. The storm lord drank down the knight of skulls and kisses in a wine-cup war. The crannogman saw a maid with laughing purple eyes dance with a white sword, a red snake, and the lord of griffins, and lastly with the quiet wolf – but only after the wild wolf spoke to her on behalf of a brother too shy to leave his bench.
Here we have our only glimpse of the past generation of young Starks: Brandon, wild and stubborn, Ned, quiet and reserved, Lyanna, full of idealistic rage, and little Benjen following his sister around.
Howland gets to know men from Houses Dustin, Hornwood, Mormont and Manderly – important for the future rebellion armies Ned will command.
Lyanna is still childish enough to dump wine on Benjen’s head, but old enough to appreciate the FULL EMO POWER of Rhaegar and his harp.
BobbyB, true to form, is having a drinking contest with Richard Lonmouth, Rhaegar’s former squire, and winning.
Meanwhile, the lovely Ashara Dayne is dancing the night away with a kingsguard (probably Barristan Selmy, but maybe her brother Arthur), Oberyn Martell, Jon Connington and then finally Ned the quiet wolf.
Amidst all this merriment, the little crannogman spied the three squires who’d attacked him. One served a pitchfork knight, one a porcupine, while the last attended a knight with two towers on his surcoat, a sigil all crannogmen know well…
The wolf maid saw them too, and pointed them out to her brothers. “I could find you a horse, and some armour that might fit,” the pup offered. The little crannogman thanked him, but gave no answer. His heart was torn. Crannogmen are smaller than most, but just as proud. The lad was no knight, no more than any of his people. We sit a boat more often than a horse, and our hands are made for oars, not lances. Much as he wished to have his vengeance, he feared he would only make a fool of himself and shame his people. The quiet wolf had offered the little crannogman a place in his tent that night, but before he slept he knelt on the lakeshore, looking across the water to where the Isle of Faces would be, and said a prayer to the old gods of north and Neck…
So our nasty squires work for House Haigh, House Blount and House Frey. All the Starks are up to speed on the wrongs done to their father’s bannerman, and while Benjen is the one suggesting a route to revenge, there’s no indication that Brandon or Ned, the older voices of reason (in theory) told the younger siblings to chill out. Maybe they encouraged them? Interestingly at this point, Jojen again repeats his surprise that Ned never told Bran and the others this story – it’s an important story to explain the friendship between Howland and Ned, but also the way the Starks worked together as a pack and loyally supported their fellow Northmen. Why did Ned never tell his kids about it?
The daughter of the castle was the queen of love and beauty, with four brothers and an uncle to defend her, but all four sons of Harrenhal were defeated on the first day. Their conquerors reigned briefly as champions, until they were vanquished in turn. As it happened, the end of the first day saw the porcupine knight win a place among the champions, and on the morning of the second day the pitchfork knight and the knight of the two towers were victorious too. But late on the afternoon of the second day, as the shadows grew long, a mystery knight appeared in the lists…
No one knew [who the mystery knight was]… but [he] was short of stature, and clad in ill-fitting armour made up of bits and pieces. The device upon his shield was a heart tree of the old gods, a white weirwood with a laughing red face…
The mystery knight dipped his lance before the king and rode to the end of the lists, where the five champions had their pavilions. You know the three he challenged…
Whoever he was, the gods gave strength to his arm. The porcupine knight fell first, then the pitchfork knight, and lastly the knight of the two towers. None were well loved, so the common folk cheered lustily for the Knight of the Laughing Tree, as the new champion was soon called. When his fallen foes sought to ransom horse and armour, the Knight of the Laughing Tree spoke in a booming voice through his helm, saying “Teach your squires honour, and that shall be ransom enough.” Once the defeated knights chastised their squires sharply, their horses and armour were returned. And so the little crannogman’s prayer was answered – by the green men, or the old gods, or the children of the forest, who can say?
… That night at the castle, the storm lord and the knight of skulls and kisses each swore they would unmask him, and the king himself urged men to challenge him, declaring that the face behind the helm was no friend of his. But the next morning, when the heralds blew their trumpets and the king took his seat, only two champions appeared. The Knight of the Laughing Tree had vanished. The king was wroth, and even sent his son the dragon prince to seek the man, but all they ever found was his painted shield, hanging abandoned in a tree. It was the dragon prince who won that tourney in the end.
After Bran gives Meera his feedback on how the story should have gone (the Knight should have gone on and won, and named the wolf maid Queen of Love and Beauty), Jojen asks for the third time: are you sure your father never told you this story?
Because as Meera points out, the wolf maid was named Queen of Love and Beauty, “but that’s a sadder story”. It’s such a sad story that Meera won’t tell Bran any more.
Jojen still can’t believe Ned never told his kids about this famous tourney. Bran doesn’t think of it any more than just a cool story – but we readers know better.
The Knight’s Identity
Jojen’s incredulity that Bran had never heard this tale before tells us one thing: the Knight was a Stark.
Howland, the little crannogman, has already admitted in the tale that he cannot joust well enough to defend his own honour – but he’s not so proud as to refuse the offer of House Stark to answer his prayer for revenge.
We are also tellingly not told a thing about the audience of nobles during the mystery knights’ tilt, so we have no idea who to rule in or out from our stock of Stark suspects.
Brandon, the wild wolf, is already old enough to have the big brick shithouse build that so enamoured Lady Dustin. That rules him out.
What about Ned? Smaller than his brother and father, could he have been the Knight in ill-fitting armour? The first time I read this, I was convinced Ned was the mystery knight because Jojen kept asking “are you sure your father didn’t tell you this?” – suggesting Ned had a major role in this story. But then over time, I thought about it, and changed my mind. I still agree that Ned is a possible and probable candidate for the mystery Knight, as he fits the description of a smaller man, and we can assume that in his fostered squire-esque period in the Vale, he learned how to do Southron things like jousting.
But thematically, it’s a stronger story if Lyanna was the mystery knight. And it also explains why Ned wouldn’t tell his kids this story.
The description of the small stature of the knight speaks to someone even smaller than Ned, who is about 18 at the time and not a small stick thin weed of a guy, despite lacking his older brother’s figure. Benjen is only about 8-10 at the time of the Tourney at Harrenhal, so it’s just not probable that he could don the armour and beat the other knights. But Lyanna….
What do we know about Lyanna? She’s wild, impetuous, angry about how Howland was treated, a brilliant horsewoman, and loved to play with swords and lances with her brothers at home. Having grown up in surf life saving and been around young women who trained for ironwoman events (though being far from able to match them myself!) I can buy that a 15-16 year old Lyanna could joust to the required standard of “nothing fancy, just win.” She only needed to be strong enough to hold the lance, smart enough to know where to hit her opponent, and a good enough horsewoman (which we know she was) to not lose her seat if hit. Everything we are told about Lyanna from Ned and other sources makes is plausible that Lyanna could pull off a brief stint as a mystery knight.
She is the mystery knight. It’s easy enough for a woman to pitch her voice low enough to sound like a man, especially through the echo and amplification of a greathelm. It’s also in keeping with Lyanna’s character as the wild she-wolf in this tale that she is the one to avenge her new friend’s honour.
And most importantly thematically it fits with Ned’s silence about Lyanna in the present. Bran and his siblings grew up aware that Ned had a younger sister, and her name was Lyanna, and she died after the Rebellion. They know the official Robert Baratheon-approved version of her dalliance with Rhaegar Targaryen, as it would have been taught to them as part of their history lessons with Maester Luwin. They hear little bits and pieces from Winterfell staff and liege lords, like Lyanna was a tomboy like Arya, and Lyanna had the Stark look like Jon and Arya. But they know absolutely nothing about their aunt from their father.
Lessons of the Tale
So what do we learn from the tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree?
- despite Ned being fostered off to the Eyrie for some years, all the Stark siblings are still really close
- Lyanna is headstrong and has the Stark sense of honour – she is the first to tell off the squires, and the first to start plotting revenge
- Howland gets to know the Northern lords and men at arms, which is important for how much Ned trusts him later on during the Rebellion
- Robert Baratheon is already a binge drinking frat boy – vowing to unmask the mystery knight with the guy he was drinking under the table the night before. No wonder Lyanna was less than thrilled about their betrothal, especially when you consider she was moved to tears by Rhaegar’s song – she is attracted to a very different sort of man to the one who has claimed her hand in marriage.
- Ned and Ashara had some sort of intimacy or attraction, even if Brandon had to go and ask her for a dance on behalf of his shy brother
- Aerys is a paranoid mess, who declares the mystery knight to be a conspiracy against him. Which is pretty ironic considering the TWOIAF suggestion that the entire Tourney was a cover to allow the Lords Paramount to meet with Rhaegar as a Great Council to plan a coup d’etat to oust his mad father.
- the tale of TKOTLT is fun, but the tale of Lyanna as Queen of Love and Beauty is sad
- Something about Lyanna catches Rhaegar’s eye, and leads him to crown her QofL&B
So what caught Rhaegar’s eye?
In the more extensive account of the Tourney of Harrenhal told in TWOIAF, it is confirmed that it is Rhaegar who finds the mystery knight’s shield in a tree, and brings it back to the tourney grounds to show his royal father. We have no indication in either account (Meera’s tale or TWOIAF) of where Lyanna and Rhaegar are in the description of the castle feast the night before this search.
Did Rhaegar go looking earlier, and find Lyanna still in her armour? Did she tell him about the wrongs done to the little crannogman, and did they discuss how she succeeded in getting the squires’ butts kicked? Was Rhaegar impressed by the spunk shown by this wild she-wolf of the North?
I think that’s the implication of the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree – and the first reason Ned didn’t tell his kids.
Maybe it was just too painful for Ned to think of his family before they were all killed.
But more likely, he was concerned about people asking questions.
If we are correct, and Lyanna’s mystery knight stint is what led Rhaegar to become attracted to her to begin with, then if Ned tells his kids this story, he risks them starting to enquire more about Lyanna and her wild wolf tendencies. He cannot risk anyone putting the pieces together about Lyanna and Rhaegar, and questioning the official King Robert Baratheon line that Rhaegar “kidnapped” the fair Stark maiden, who was powerless and agency-less in this account of history.
But whether or not the kids make it that far in critical analysis, there’s one big reason Ned doesn’t want anyone thinking too much about Lyanna: even if we go with the BobbyB version of history, Lyanna and Rhaegar had sex. Most likely, lots of it, while Rhaegar had Lyanna “imprisoned” in the Tower of Joy in the Dornish mountains for several months in between their initial disappearance and his reappearance in King’s Landing to answer his father’s summons to lead the royal forces to the Trident.
What happens when you have lots of sex in a world without birth control, people?
Or more specifically, one baby in particular. Jon Snow, who Ned brought back from Dorne, after he retrieved his sister’s body from the Tower of Joy.
No one knows of any bastard of Ned’s prior to him going to Dorne to find his sister’s body. This suggests that if Ned was “playing away” while the battles of Robert’s Rebellion raged, no one knew or suspected it, and there was no pregnant wench in tow behind the Northern armies. Everyone assumes Ned had a fling with some Dornish woman because Jon only enters the picture when Ned went to Dorne to find Lyanna.
The tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree both gives Ned some insurance for the bastard story, and some headaches.
- he was publicly seen dancing and flirting with Ashara Dayne at Harrenhal
- from Barristan Selmy’s later musings on Ashara in ADWD, we know that a Stark (possibly Brandon, possibly Ned) continued on with the schmoozing after the dancing was done (and that Barristan viewed this public love affair as a “dishonour”)
- We also know that Ashara is Dornish, where affairs of the heart and premarital sex are not as feared as in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms (and that it was unlikely that Ashara considered any sexual encounters at the Tourney of Harrenhal or afterwards to be as dishonourable as Barristan Selmy thought it was!)
- Also Ned gave Howland his tent for the night – because he was planning to not be in it, maybe?
This gives Ned the almost perfect cover for Jon – oh look, it’s my bastard with Ashara Dayne. Except Ned’s too honourable for that lie, he won’t besmirch Ashara’s name and reputation like that.
Also, if Jon was conceived at Harrenhal or in the time between the tourney and the outbreak of war, that’s a MAJOR problem for Robb and Catelyn – Jon would then be older than Robb by about 6-8 months. Oops.
All the more reason for Ned to just never discuss Ashara around Cat, lest she start doing the calculations and work this out – that either Jon is small for his age, and a serious risk to Robb’s status as eldest son of Lord Stark, or he cannot possibly be Ned’s son with Ashara from this fling at Harrenhal.
We know that Ashara was in King’s Landing for the first part of the Rebellion with Elia, and then left at some undefined stage for Starfall. Ned was fighting in the Riverlands and then down to the Crownlands, before the Sack of King’s Landing. When exactly was he rendezvousing with Ashara to make Jon after his marriage to Catelyn? It’s unlikely to have happened, without even needing to look at Ned’s famous honour. So sorry anyone who wants to supplant R+L=J with N+A=J – if Ned did knock up Ashara, the outcome isn’t Jon. Jon’s age is not right for him to have been conceived prior to the Rebellion (because we know Catelyn considers Jon and Robb to be similarly aged, and this wouldn’t be plausible if Jon was a much older infant that Robb when she brought Robb home to Winterfell!) and there is no feasible opportunity when Ashara and Ned would have had the opportunity to tango after the outbreak of war. IF Ashara was pregnant to Ned, then that child isn’t Jon (and the stillbirth story can still be true, and be Ned’s.)
So Ashara is a good cover story for those who won’t think too hard about it, and provides Ned with a way to pass off Jon as his bastard. But it all falls to pieces under analysis – so it’s important that Ned doesn’t let anyone in Winterfell, much less his children, poke around in this recent history too much!
Therefore if the tale of this mystery knight is the first time Rhaegar got to know Lyanna, then this is a very dangerous tale to tell around Winterfell or beyond.
Ned cannot risk people putting together that Rhaegar and Lyanna might have had a child. He needs people to believe, however stupidly, that Lyanna had no offspring, so that Jon is safe from Robert Baratheon’s anti-Targaryen wrath. Remember, Ned recalls that Robert lost all reason when it came to Rhaegar’s children – and he still behaves irrationally when faced with Daenerys’ pregnancy news when Ned is his Hand. Robert can’t cope with “dragonspawn” threatening his claim to the Iron Throne, so it’s vital that Jon is never connected to Rhaegar or Lyanna.
The best way to ensure that on the home front? Never talk about Lyanna. Not even her finest moment as a cheeky mystery knight.
Why Ned should have told his kids about Lyanna as the Knight
There’s a lot of things that Ned should have told the Stark kids about the world outside Winterfell, and didn’t.
But maybe this tale would have helped at least one of his children avoid making a mistake that cost them dearly during the events of ASOIAF.
We are constantly told of the similarities between Arya and Lyanna – not just in looks, but also in temperament. Arya is the first to complain when things aren’t fair at the start of the books, and the first to avoid submission to Westerosi gender role expectations for young girls. She wants to play with the boys and learn to use a sword! Not learn to sew with Sansa and Septa Mordane (not helped by the Septa’s insistence that she sew right-handed, when Arya is a leftie. I didn’t pick this up on my first read through until someone pointed it out – but it’s true. Part of Arya’s problems with “the feminine arts” is that she’s being forced to do it all with her non-dominant hand. I sure as hell can’t cross stitch with my left hand, or knit left-handed – my work would look terrible! But with my dominant right hand, I think my sewing would keep the stern Septa happy.)
If Arya had been told more about what happens to tomboy ladies of high birth in the real world, would she have been so pushy with Joffrey in the Riverlands? Yes, Joff is being a total arse, but he’s an arsehole who is the Crown Prince. You can’t hit him, and you certainly can’t get away with your direwolf biting him. (Throwing his sword in the river though, awesome stuff.) Maybe Sansa and Arya would still have Lady and Nymeria by their sides if the girls had understood the unfair lack of consequences for shitty behaviour by the Crown Prince, and modified their actions on that fateful afternoon?
But the more striking example is Robb and his poorly thought out marriage, which I analysed in more depth yesterday. Something I forgot to put in detail, despite alluding to it, is that Robb never learned that Ned had to turn his back on Ashara Dayne to marry Catelyn Tully. If the “Ned + Ashara = sexy times lust” inferences from the tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree are accurate, then Ned had to dump the woman he may have loved and corresponded with for some time before the Rebellion. His brother Brandon was betrothed to Catelyn Tully, but Lord Rickard Stark hadn’t matched off younger Ned with anyone. Ned was free to fall in love with the beautiful Dornish lady – and frankly Rickard’s Southron Ambitions would have been nicely served with his second born marrying into one of the most prominent Dornish families, the Daynes of Starfall.
But he had to put aside the feelings of his heart to follow his family’s duty, and marry Catelyn Tully. Now, those two ended up having a wonderful, beautiful, loving relationship which is AWESOME… but is by far and away the rarity for arranged marriages in Westeros. How did the rest of the marriages of that time period stack up? Lysa Tully hated Jon Arryn so much she eventually poisoned him on the urging of her lover, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Cersei Lannister detested Robert Baratheon so much that she avoided sex with him as much as possible, bore all three of her “royal” children from an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, and eventually arranged to have him so drunk he would be in danger of being gored by a boar, as he was, and thus he died.
It’s fair to say that Ned and Cat are the exception, not the norm!
I don’t think the Stark children adequately understood that Ned and Cat were a political marriage that just happened to turn out to be a love match over time.
Maybe if Robb had heard some of this tale, even if only the bits about Ashara, during whatever passes for a birds and bees chat with his father in Westeros, then maybe he would not have spontaneously married Jeyne Westerling “for honour” – by understanding that some honours are more important, like honouring political agreements over a first love.
The Knight of the Laughing Tree is an important story within ASOIAF, from a plot point (by introducing some questions to the reader via Bran’s POV) and thematically, by being one of the primary pieces of evidence to suggest that Ned is hiding the truth about Jon from the world.
We learn about the past generation of Starks, in their ‘wolf’ guises. We learn about Howland Reed Bear Grylls-ing his way to the Isle of Faces, which leaves a HUGE bookmark to future plot importance as we might well need to learn more about this mysterious order of Green Men who guard the location where the First Men and Children of the Forest made their Pact of Ice and Fire back in the very early days of Westeros. Remember: Meera and Jojen Reed are the only people to include “we swear it by ice and fire” in their pledge of allegiance to Bran when he is acting as the little Lord of Winterfell when Robb is off at war and Ned is in King’s Landing.
This whole series is called THE SONG OF ICE & FIRE. It’s not tinfoil to suggest that somehow, the old Pact is important to the new war against the coming Winter, in the form of the Others.
Magic has re-emerged in the world, best seen in Daenerys’ dragons, and Jon has some kind of pivotal role to play.
Is he the Prince That Was Promised, borne from the line of Aerys & Rhaella Targaryen via his father Rhaegar Targaryen?
Is him being a Stark descended from Lyanna also important?
What does Howland know?
Does Howland owe Lyanna something for her protection of his honour as the Knight of the Laughing Tree back in the day?
Why did Howland send his children Meera and Jojen to help Bran get to the cave of the Last Greenseer, Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers, in the Land of Always Winter?
So many questions arise from this story, that are crucial to the overall plot. Only time will tell if GRRM will answer them all 🙂