Why did Benjen take the black?

At least once a month, if not more on /r/asoiaf someone asks…

Hey guys – does anyone know why Benjen Stark took the black?

I mean, House Stark had just been decimated and sure, Ned was married but he only had one (legitimate) son and his wife was pretty pissed with him for bringing home a bastard… wouldn’t it be more prudent for Benjen to hang around, get married and supply some spare Starks?

Without fail. Every few weeks.

YES THIS IS A GOOD QUESTION. But from now on, I’m just going to copy/paste a link to this blog as my response.

Reason as per the books

Well, books and app.

The official, canon reason that Benjen Stark went to the Wall and said his vows as a man of the Night’s Watch is that he was inspired to do so for many months, as long back as the Harrenhal tourney. Remember, the spare-spare third son who isn’t required for political marriage alliances needs to find something to do, and the North consider the Night’s Watch an honourable calling for such a man (remember Waymar Royce in the prologue to AGOT.) Unlike the Southron families, where a third son like Ser Loras Tyrell can ponce around knocking blokes off their horses with a stick as a “job,” the North want their sons to do something useful – like guard the Wall and protect them from the Others wildlings.

See, it says so, right here in the World of Ice and Fire app: (screenshot thanks to someone on /r/asoiaf.)

s3gCKm5

But… no one (including myself) seems happy with that.

Not least because GRRM has said on several occasions that we will find out WHY Benjen took the black – i.e. there is a story to it that bears relevance on the story in the future.

Proof:

6) When, specifically, did Benjen join the NW? Was it a couple of years after Ned returned, or immediately?

It was within a few months of Ned’s returning. The reason being that there always was a Stark at Winterfell, so he had to stay there until Ned returned. GRRM refused to say the reason why Benjen had to join the NW.

SSM 27 May 2005

And the more direct:

[Why did Benjen join the Night’s Watch?]

Good question. One day you will get an answer. But it will not be today.

SSM 27 July 2008

What’s the problem?

Simple: House Stark has just lost it’s Lord (Rickard), it’s heir (Brandon) and it’s daughter/sister (Lyanna.) The potential for House Stark to build alliances in the near future, as well as provide ANY future for the House, rests on Ned and Benjen and their breeding potential.

Yes, Ned has two sons (sorry…. “two” “sons”) but he also now has a very unhappy wife who might not be wanting to produce any more heirs for a while, and an unmarried brother who is or is about to be of marriageable age.

Remember, Robb is born in 283, as a result of a couple of weeks of post-marriage shagging in Riverrun.

Sansa is born in 286 AC. A three year gap. Even accounting for ~15 months for Cat to have Robb, let him age to ~6 months and travel to Winterfell in 284 AC, that’s a long gap between kids so early in a marriage where House Stark has an URGENT need for heirs and spares. Especially when you consider that by the time of Arya’s birth (and the Greyjoy Rebellion!) in 289 AC, Ned and Cat are in love and have quite a lot of kids – Arya 289, Bran 290, Rickon 295. The gap between Bran and Rickon can be explained away as Cat being busy and stressed raising 4/5 poor Jon kids, including 3 of them under the age of 5. But the gap between Robb and Sansa can’t be explained away like that – the most obvious answer, that fits with what we know about Ned and Cat’s relationship, is that she withheld the wifely goodies out of anger for quite a while after she came to Winterfell.

… and there’s more complex stuff that goes into fertility and menstrual cycles and maybe Cat would only go to Ned’s bed when she suspected she wasn’t fertile as a way of getting back at him for having a bastard… one thing’s fairly clear, she wasn’t using moon tea, because she has no fucking idea what that is for quite a while in ASOS. Thus, she’s aware of it, but she’s not familiar with it. Presumably, she doesn’t use it. Also, as Cat is portrayed as quite religious as well as a little sheltered from the facts of life, due to having to be the Lady of the Household after her mother’s death, she would arguably see using moon tea as an affront to the Mother, in much the same way that Catholics are told not to use the pill or other contraceptives.

Anyway.

Remember, until Bran’s birth in 290 AC, Robb is the sole heir to Winterfell. There’s no spare, because Jon is a bastard, and Benjen is a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch. Say Robb dies young(er than he does in the end)…. House Stark’s dynastic future is suddenly in peril.

So why is Ned cool with Benjen taking himself off the marriage market? Does Ned think that Benjen deserves to take the black as a punishment, either under Benjen’s own definition of it, or as agreed between the brothers?

What’s the alternative?

It’s very simple: Benjen and Lyanna were close. Very close. While Brandon was off being fostered at Barrowtown, and Ned was fostered in the Vale, Lyanna and Benjen were at home, together.

We know they played together: Bran sees them in his first weirwood vision, pretending to fight with sticks in the godswood. Bran thinks this is him and Arya at first, and GRRM rams home over and over again in ASOIAF that Arya is Lyanna’s doppelgänger (or as good as.)

(and why is that important? Because Arya looks like Jon. i.e. Jon looks like Lyanna. i.e. Jon looks like his mother, for those who haven’t yet figured it out.)

Did Benjen play a role in helping Lyanna be the Knight of the Laughing Tree? It’s a pretty safe bet he did.

Did Benjen know that Lyanna loved Rhaegar? Also a safe bet.

Did Benjen know that Lyanna went willingly with Rhaegar? Very safe!

Did Benjen help Lyanna run away with Rhaegar? MAYBE. 

Even if Benjen only helped at Harrenhal and knew that Lyanna loved Rhaegar, that might be enough for him to feel guilty about the deaths of his father, brother and sister. He could have dobbed her in. He could have told Rickard about his sister’s crush on the married Crown Prince. He could have told Ned, and Ned could’ve tried to talk his sister out of mooning over the married Crown Prince when he was trying to convince her that she’d be happy married to Robert Baratheon (which seems to have taken place some time between Harrenhal and all hell breaking loose, because Lyanna had time at Harrenhal to see her betrothed in his full, drunken, frat boy best worst.)

But if Benjen helped Lyanna run away too? I think even Ned might be angry with him over that – angry enough to agree that his brother ought to take the black and pay for his sins.

Yeah but hang on… when and where was Benjen helping Lyanna run off??

This is where we come to one of the most vexed issues in the fandom: exactly when did the events of Harrenhal tourney and Robert’s Rebellion take place?

GRRM is not great with specifics, and keeps his dates fuzzy. We have years of events, but not months or seasons.

We know that the tourney at Harrenhal was held in 281 AC, the Year of the False Spring. We know it came after a period of winter (because Howland Reed stayed with the Green Men on the Isle of Faces for the winter, and when the seasons turned he knew it was time to leave.)

We also know that the tourney was announced the year prior, suggesting that the tourney itself was held in the first part of 281. A tourney this big needs time for word of mouth to spread and ensure that everyone turned up. (Plus, y’know, Southron Ambitions took time to build up as well.)

We also know that Rhaegar married Elia Martell in early 280 AC – i.e. around the time he was plotting with the Whents to stage a grand tourney as a cover for a Great Council. Princess Rhaenys was born in late 280. It took Elia Martell ~6 months to recover from Rhaenys’ birth, and she gave birth to Aegon at the start of 282 AC.

We know that Lyanna was travelling south from Winterfell when she met Rhaegar and his companions, Ser Oswell Whent and Ser Arthur Dayne, “ten leagues from Harrenhal” near the Isle of Faces in 282 AC. We presume that she was travelling south in order to get to Riverrun for Brandon Stark and Catelyn Tully’s wedding.

We know that Brandon had himself been in Riverrun some months prior, during which time he had a duel with Littlefinger for Cat’s hand. We know that Brandon went somewhere away from Riverrun (on a diplomatic mission from Rickard Stark and Hoster Tully to shore up Southron Ambitions with another noble family perhaps?) and was on his way back to Riverrun himself when he was informed of Lyanna’s “capture.”

This SSM is interesting:

3) Catelyn recalls that at Riverrun, Brandon told her that he would return soon for their wedding. Where was he going?

GRRM refused to answer where Brandon was going.

Make of that what you will.

Brandon went from the Riverlands to King’s Landing, despite the fact that Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell had been living on Dragonstone for most of their marriage to get away from his father. For whatever reason, Brandon assumed that the prince would be in the capital, and rode up to the Red Keep screaming for Rhaegar to come out and explain his conduct with their sister.

We know how that ended.

We know that after Brandon and his mates were arrested by Aerys’ guards, Lord Rickard Stark was summoned to the capital to answer for his son’s folly.

Now, this is where we need to pay attention: where was Benjen? 

For some reason, my recollection of the books (i.e. all of Ned and Cat’s memories of this time + TWOIAF) is that Benjen was with Lyanna’s party travelling to Riverrun. I could be wrong on this – and if someone has evidence that Benjen was never on the road, that’s cool. But until then, let’s play with the idea that Benjen was travelling to Riverrun with his sister…

Brandon is somewhere in the vicinity of the Riverlands. Rickard is being The Stark In Winterfell. Ned is in the Vale.

Now, admittedly, my theory that Benjen was travelling to Riverrun with Lyanna is based on the idea that Benjen and Rickard planned to swap places in the future – Lyanna and Benjen were travelling ahead of Rickard and co so that Cat could meet her future sister/brother in law for a while before the wedding, and Benjen would be expected to travel home prior to the wedding so he could be the Stark in Winterfell while Rickard was at Riverrun. This makes my theory a little messy, in all fairness!

Rickard is summoned to King’s Landing. Benjen has travelled back to Winterfell after Brandon rode off in a huff to King’s Landing. Benjen then becomes The Stark In Winterfell and doesn’t leave there until after the Rebellion when Ned gets home. Much like Bran holds down the fort for Robb in ACOK, Benjen was the acting lord of Winterfell in name only, holding things together symbolically while his castellan/maester ran the household. Because there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, for reasons that haven’t yet been explained but probably have something to do with the Others?

The rest of the original post I’ve trimmed and turned into a separate post because frankly, figuring out the when and wheres of the Rebellion deserves its own post!

 

So what?

OK, well I’ve successfully blogged the shit out of some procrastination, and finally got down a timeline for the Rebellion, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

My point is… there’s a few things that Benjen could feel guilty about: 

  1. He was with Lyanna on that journey through the Riverlands and actively helped her run off with Rhaegar; then he couldn’t stop Brandon from going troppo, or convince his father that Lyanna was actually OK. 

    OR

  2. Sadly, even if Lyanna wanted to run off with Rhaegar, in the medieval context she’s not a free and liberated individual able to make her own choices – as a woman, she’s her father’s property. Rhaegar “stole” Lyanna from Rickard Stark and, arguably, from Robert Baratheon, as much as I really hate that terminology. It wouldn’t matter if Benjen knew Lyanna went willingly, although maybe he still feels guilty that Brandon went off so half-cocked, which led to his and Rickard’s deaths. 

    OR

  3. Benjen was always in Winterfell, and wasn’t with Lyanna, but he knew that Lyanna loved Rhaegar and feels guilty that he didn’t dob her in sooner. I mean, would Rickard Stark have let his daughter travel through the Riverlands if he was aware that she was planning to run off to be the Prince’s mistress? Unlikely. If Lyanna hadn’t run, Brandon wouldn’t have charged off to King’s Landing, and Brandon and Rickard (and everyone else who died in the Rebellion) wouldn’t have died. Lyanna would still have been ‘shamed’ and ‘soiled,’ and it would have been a huge political and social scandal. But it might not have led to war so soon.

Benjen took the black because he felt he deserved it for failing to stop Lyanna from following her heart instead of her head.

Ned didn’t stop him because deep down, he was angry that his little brother didn’t speak up sooner. Everyone might have been saved if Benjen hadn’t kept his sister’s secrets.

None of this is particularly rational, but that’s not how guilt and emotions work. Benjen might have dobbed in Lyanna and she might have found another way to flee Winterfell. Same result – Brandon goes apeshit, the Mad King roasts the Starks, war breaks out. But that wouldn’t stop Benjen from feeling guilty, like it’s his fault.

Like he should pay with a lifetime of service on the Wall.

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