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Howland’s Great Lie: The Myth of the Laughing Tree

“Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.”
— ALAN MOORE, V FOR VENDETTA

I’m quite certain that readers of A Song of Ice and Fire have been misled regarding one of the central mysteries of the entire series: the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. The misdirection was intentionally executed by our dear author George R.R. Martin and willfully consumed by his audience.

In particular I believe in the following ideas:

There was no Knight of the Laughing Tree.

Instead there was a mystery knight, adorned with a shield from House Lothston.

This is the same shield of Lothston that was taken by Jaime Lannister and thereafter by Brienne of Tarth.

Thus the tale of the Knight was coupled with a single great lie that concealed its greatest truth.

BONUS: The armor worn by this mystery knight may have actually been the armor that belonged to Mad Danelle Lothston.

Contents

  1. The Shield of the Laughing Tree. A review of facts surrounding the shield used by the Knight of the Laughing Tree, including some simple deductions.
  2. The Lothston Shield. A similar review of the shield found at Harrenhal by Jaime, also including some important deductions.
  3. Genesis of a Theory. The intersection of the Knight of the Laughing Tree’s shield with the Lothston shield, a hypothesis is born.
  4. Lies that Tell the Truth. Why would there be lies surrounding the story of the Laughing Tree? A detailed examination of the role lies play in ASOIAF and storytelling in general.
  5. Circumstantial Evidence. Findings that bolster the hypothesis, but might otherwise seem insufficient otherwise.
  6. Implications. What are some conclusions we can draw from the findings in the previous sections. What does this knowledge tell us about future events in the books?
  7. A Final Thought. Book-ending the essay with some key observations.

First, lets look at some factual observations about the two shields that factor prominently into my assertions: the shield of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, and the shield of Lothston.

MiniAubierrieur*   *   *

THE SHIELD OF THE LAUGHING TREE


Here is the brief description given to the KotLT’s garb and armament in A Storm of Swords:

“No one knew,” said Meera, “but the mystery knight was short of stature, and clad in ill-fitting armor 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.”
— BRAN II, A STORM OF SWORDS

It’s also interesting to note that the shield factors greatly into the mystery knight’s vanishing act subsequent to the jousting:

“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.”
— BRAN II, A STORM OF SWORDS

Now let’s make some observations regarding this shield:

Significance and Prominence

It’s interesting to note that the shield figures prominently into the tale of the KotLT. What this suggests is that the shield is the primary focus of attention; the biggest clue to the mystery knight’s identity. Readers are tantalized with the possibility that if we could only decrypt the symbolism of the shield, we might know the identity of our rider. It’s especially emphasized with the shield’s final resting place, dangling in a tree like some great ominous banner.

The reason I dwell on this notion is because it highlights the importance of the shield to the tale’s narrative, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

*   *   *

Only Thing Left Behind

As directly noted in the excerpts, the shield is the only evidence left behind that the KotLT ever existed at all.

By itself, this further highlights that the shield is the only clue to the knight’s identity. Once again, readers are tantalized with the possibilities of what the shield’s heraldry says about the knight. Once again, the shield is our focal point.

*   *   *

The Only Remaining Relic

Given these observations about the shield, it seems fair to draw the following conclusion:

If the shield was indeed the only thing found of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, it could still be lingering somewhere in Westeros.

Indeed, there’s no mention of the shield being destroyed or where it ended up. It’s entirely plausible to argue that the shield might still be out there somewhere. Of course, this is only a plausible deduction, and not confirmed.

*   *   *

Where is it Now?

An interesting question to consider is “What happened to the shield? Where did it go?”

I strongly believe that, if the shield exists, it was left at Harrenhal.

Why?

First of all the shield was associated with a noted enemy of Aerys II Targaryen, the ruling king:

“That night at the great 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 that 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…”
— BRAN II, A STORM OF SWORDS

Thus every person attending the Tourney at Harrenhal has a substantial motive to not take the shield, an action that might imply an association with the KotLT. Even Rhaegar, the king’s own son, was deeply suspected of betrayal (it was the whole reason Aerys attended the tourney).

This is in addition to the logistical difficulty that would have been incurred if someone had desired to smuggle the shield away from Harrenhal or somehow repaint or disguise it.

Further, what’s the point in bothering to take the shield once the investigation into its owner was complete? Surely there were plenty of other shields at the tourney; there’s no reason for a character to bother trying to repossess such a notorious item when so many untainted equivalents are around.

*   *   *

Collectively, these observations suggest the following conclusions:

The shield of the Knight of the Laughing Tree was a major focal point of the tale.

In being the sole remaining evidence of the mystery knight, it serves as the main barrier to unraveling the knight’s true identity.

If the shield still exists at all, it was most likely left at Harrenhal. There is no valid motive for anyone to have undertaken the risk of removing it.

One important weakness in all of this is the notion that if the shield was at Harrenhal, it could have been destroyed or taken at any point after the great Tourney. I explore and present my rebuttal to this critique momentarily.

House_Lothston*   *   *

THE LOTHSTON SHIELD


The ‘Lothston shield’ refers to the shield that Jaime first acquires in A Storm of Swords when Roose Bolton permits him to return to King’s Landing. Jaime finds the shield in the Harrenhal armory:

Lord Bolton had accoutred him as a knight, preferring to ignore the missing hand that made such warlike garb a travesty. Jaime rode with sword and dagger on his belt, shield and helm hung from his saddle, chainmail under a dark brown surcoat. He was not such a fool as to show the lion of Lannister on his arms, though, nor the plain white blazon that was his right as a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard. He found an old shield in the armory, battered and splintered, the chipped paint still showing most of the great black bat of House Lothston upon a field of silver and gold. The Lothstons held Harrenhal before the Whents and had been a powerful family in their day, but they had died out ages ago, so no one was likely to object to him bearing their arms. He would be no one’s cousin, no one’s enemy, no one’s sworn sword . . . in sum, no one.
— JAIME VI, A STORM OF SWORDS

As with the shield of the KotLT, I would like to take a moment to highlight some important findings regarding the Lothston shield.

Prominence

Unlike the mystery knight’s shield, the significance of the Lothston shield is uncertain. Clearly from Jaime’s excerpt above and others from Brienne’s chapters in A Feast for Crows, we know that the shield is associated with an extinct house long rumored to dabble with dark, evil forces. Other than that, the shield seems completely innocuous.

Despite the possible lack of significance, the shield has however been quite prominent in the text. We have a fairly detailed accounting of the shield’s description per the above excerpt. Additionally, we have a very detailed knowledge of the shield’s movements: first from Harrenhal to King’s Landing in the possession of Jaime, and then throughout the Riverlands in the possession of Brienne. We further have a detailed account of how Brienne eventually has the shield repainted, thus readers are left with the knowledge that while the shield may look different, it is in truth the shield from Harrenhal.

I think it’s entirely fair to conclude that this is a conspicuous amount of attention to give to a rudimentary shield. Of course, that means absolutely nothing by itself.

*   *   *

Unique Among Items from Harrenhal

Much like the KotLT’s shield, the Lothston shield is also the only piece of Jaime’s garb that is given a hefty amount of attention. Whereas his garb and weaponry are given a cursory mention, we have a very detailed account of the shield’s appearance. This description even lingers heavily on the amount of damage the shield has sustained and in particular on the symbolism of the giant bat covering it’s surface.

Of course, this focus on the shield may in truth indicate nothing. However, as the next point argues I don’t believe that to be a reasonable explanation.

*   *   *

What the Damage Tells Us

The shield is noteworthy for having taken extensive damage, as Jaime mentions that it is battered from heavy use, and that the paint for the shield’s heraldry is heavily chipped.

If this shield was used during the era when the Lothston’s occupied Harrenhal, why was the shield allowed to fall into such a state of disarray?

Surely such a damaged shield would have been disposed of or repaired by the Lothstons. At the very least one would figure that the heraldry would have been repainted. Marching to battle or tourney with unrecognizable heraldry and battered shields would undermine the elevated status of being one of the greater houses in the Riverlands.

Doesn’t it stand to reason then to derive the following conclusion?

The damage Jaime observes on the Lothston shield happened subsequent to the fall of House Lothston.

According to the ASOIAF wiki, House Lothston purportedly died out some time after 212 AL. Given the present year of around 299/300 AL, this leaves up to almost ninety years in which the shield could have been repainted.

How did such a shield linger in such a great castle for at least ninety years without being repainted or repurposed, especially if it was lingering in an armory for that entire time? Even more so since the shield was associated with a house with a dark history? This leads to a clarification of the previous point:

The damage to the Lothston shield happened subsequent to when Harrenhal began to fall into ruin, and parts of the castle left abandoned.

This narrows the time frame down to some time after the Whents began their occupation of the castle, whence we are told the castle began to fall into disuse and several of the towers being abandoned.

Since it’s odd that the shield was not repaired or disposed of in the ninety years it was likely at Harrenhal, it’s fair to believe that it was at some point not stored in the armory.

This is consistent with the observation that the armory was never identified as being abandoned. It’s entirely possible that the shield was originally in one of those abandoned towers.

What I’m essentially suggesting is this:

Someone decided to use the Lothston shield, after the fall of the Lothstons and perhaps even after the Whents began occupying Harrenhal.

This person may have retrieved the shield from an abandoned part of the castle, perhaps one of the towers.

*   *   *

What about that Curse?

There’s something very intriguing about the points I just made:

If the Lothstons were associated with dark, evil powers and viewed with deep suspicion throughout Westeros, why on earth would anyone want to use a Lothston shield after the fall of that tainted house?

The most likely answer to that very question is quite literally explained at the end of the excerpt at the beginning of this section:

The Lothstons held Harrenhal before the Whents and had been a powerful family in their day, but they had died out ages ago, so no one was likely to object to him bearing their arms. He would be no one’s cousin, no one’s enemy, no one’s sworn sword . . . in sum, no one.
— JAIME VI, A STORM OF SWORDS

This certainly implies that the principal benefit of using the Lothston shield is that it is curiously neutral in allegiance, implying loyalty to no one.

There is a massive-but-subtle series of implications in this excerpt:

If Jaime wanted to appear not to have any loyalties (per his excerpt), why didn’t he simply take an unpainted shield?

The only conceivable answer is that all of the shields in the Harrenhal armory were painted.

If they were all painted shields, why didn’t Jaime select a different, more reliable and less damaged Lothston shield to use?

Because there were no other Lothston shields in the armory.

It makes no sense to think that Jaime just casually selected a heavily damaged shield over other viable candidates. This strongly confirms the assertion that there were no other Lothston shields available, and it strengthens the belief that the shield was originally in a different part of the castle.

So we have a conspiracy of three notable factors:

  • The shield’s damage must have happened after the fall of Lothstons and/or the fall of Harrenhal into partial disuse, but before Jaime acquired it.
  • The shield’s symbolism and the attached notoriety would discourage general use, except in the case of someone who felt a need to disguise their affiliations.
  • Given the shield was found at Harrenhal, it suggests that the shield was last used in proximity to the castle or to any armies that once traveled to or from the castle.

Collectively we arrive at a set of major observations:

There was once someone who used the Lothston shield in battle.

This use occurred some time after the fall of the Lothstons but before Jaime found it, suggesting a range between 212 AL and the present.

This person was someone who was not discouraged by the implications of the Lothston heraldry.

This person may have retrieved the shield, not from the castle armory, but from an abandoned part of Harrenhal.

Thus we would be most interested in any persons in that time frame who wanted to conceal their identity and allegiances and used the shield in heavy battle. These battles would most likely have been in close proximity to Harrenhal itself. It would be further interesting to find someone at Harrenhal who didn’t have a shield and needed to covertly reappropriate one.

Naturally, there one candidate that springs immediately to mind, fitting all of these criteria: the Knight of the Laughing Tree.

*   *   *

GENESIS OF A THEORY


At this point it probably seems obvious what I’m saying:

The Lothston shield was the actual shield used by the Knight of the Laughing Tree.

Of course, this implies one very obvious thing:

The tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree is false about its titular character.

The mere suggestion that Howland Reed lied or fabricated elements of the story may immediately cause the bile to build up in your throat: how could the most trusted friend of Eddard Stark lie to his children about one of the central events in the recent history of Westeros?

If you’ll indulge me the opportunity to continue, I would like to tell you exactly why Howland would lie about such a thing, why it is consistent with some of the major themes in A Song of Ice and Fire, and why there is substantial precedence for precisely that same lie.

*   *   *

LIES THAT TELL THE TRUTH


One of the many themes present in A Song of Ice and Fire concerns access to the truth and the necessity of lies, falsehood and mystery. I’ve previously written about the conflict between truth and mystery previously, in my analysis of Martin’s old short story With Morning Comes Mistfall.

However, I’m not talking about mysteries right now. I’m concerned with lies and the notion that they serve an important purpose in storytelling.

Exploring this idea leads us to some very potent observations…

Existing Precedence

It seems that a prudent first question to ask is “Does Martin actually demonstrate or articulate the necessity of lies, particularly how they complement the truth, and vice versa?”

See for yourself:

“It was right,” her father said. “And even the lie was … not without honor.”
— EDDARD VI, A GAME OF THRONES

“And the best lies contain within them nuggets of truth, enough to give a listener pause.”
— TYRION III, A CLASH OF KINGS

Maester Luwin always said that Old Nan’s stories shouldn’t be swallowed whole.
— BRAN III, A STORM OF SWORDS

Her love for him had been pretense, and yet he had believed, and found joy in that belief. Give me sweet lies, and keep your bitter truths.
— TYRION VIII, A STORM OF SWORDS

Half-truths are worth more than outright lies.
— TYRION IX, A STORM OF SWORDS

He is serving me lies as well, Sansa realized. They were comforting lies, though, and she thought them kindly meant. A lie is not so bad if it is kindly meant.
— SANSA, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Some lies you have to tell. Lies had been all that kept her alive in King’s Landing. If she had not lied to Joffrey, his Kingsguard would have beat her bloody.
— SANSA, A FEAST FOR CROWS

But this way . . . the man is not utterly stupid, but the lies I served him were sweeter than the truth. He wants to believe that Lysa valued him above her other bannermen.
— SANSA, A FEAST FOR CROWS

“All men lie when they are afraid. Some tell many lies, some but a few. Some have only one great lie they tell so often that they almost come to believe it . . . though some small part of them will always know that it is still a lie, and that will show upon their faces.”
— ARYA I, A FEAST FOR CROWS

“…we all deceive ourselves, when we want to believe.”
— SAMWELL III, A FEAST FOR CROWS

They bought clams and cockles from her, told her true tales of Braavos and lies about their lives, and laughed at the way she talked when she tried to speak Braavosi.
— CAT OF THE CANALS, A FEAST FOR CROWS

“The thing is, the best lies have some truth in ’em . . . to give ’em flavor, as it were.”
— CERSEI IX, A FEAST FOR CROWS

The best lies are seasoned with a bit of truth.
— TYRION IV, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

My perfect woman, Tyrion thought bitterly. One still young enough to believe such blatant lies.
— TYRION IX, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

So indeed we see that there is a lot of power attributed to lying. What’s especially notable based on this sample of passages is that most observations suggest that lies are best when paired with the truth, because they sell us something sweeter, they sell us what we want to hear rather than what is real.

*   *   *

Nuggets of Truth

Continuing, isn’t it odd that so many of Old Nan’s tales turn out to have small elements of applicability to them? Likewise, even though the knowledge of the maesters is often shown to be incomplete, it too often contains important elements of truth.

The tales of the giants, the horn of Joramun, Gendel’s children, the children of the forest… the list goes on. There are so many ‘nuggets’ of truth in each tale that it cannot be denied that truth and lie seem almost interwoven.

Most interestingly, it should be further noted that many of the lies and exaggerations in these tales seem to be completely innocuous: no storyteller seems to be lying out of malice or gainful deception.

*   *   *

The Lying Game

Martin even takes the notion of lying as a component of storytelling to an almost explicit degree during some of the scenes where the ‘waif’ is educating Arya via the ‘lying game':

“I am no one.” She was angry. “Who are you?”

She did not expect the waif to answer, but she did. “I was born the only child of an ancient House, my noble father’s heir,” the waif replied. “My mother died when I was little, I have no memory of her. When I was six my father wed again. His new wife treated me kindly until she gave birth to a daughter of her own. Then it was her wish that I should die, so her own blood might inherit my father’s wealth. She should have sought the favor of the Many-Faced God, but she could not bear the sacrifice he would ask of her. Instead, she thought to poison me herself. It left me as you see me now, but I did not die. When the healers in the House of the Red Hands told my father what she had done, he came here and made sacrifice, offering up all his wealth and me. Him of Many Faces heard his prayer. I was brought to the temple to serve, and my father’s wife received the gift.”

Arya considered her warily. “Is that true?”

“There is truth in it.”

“And lies as well?”

“There is an untruth, and an exaggeration.”
— CAT OF THE CANALS, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Arya and the waif are deliberately playing a game wherein they try to hide lies inside of truths and then see if they can spot each others lies. Further we see that as the game becomes more sophisticated, so too do the efforts taken to try and conceal the lies.

*   *   *

Why We Lie – Why Would Howland Lie?

Returning to the tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, one must wonder why would Howland have lied to his children. What is his motive? What does he gain through lies that he cannot achieve through truth?

Answering this is best achieved with a small exploration of why there are lies and exaggerations in many of the tales throughout Westeros as a whole:

  • Lies make tales more enjoyable

One of the most obvious benefits of lies and exaggerations is that people have more fun listening to stories about feats of the supernatural. People don’t gather around the campfire to hear stories of the mundane; any one who’s ever gone camping with a relative and shared ghost stories in the woods on a dark night knows what I’m talking about.

Quite obviously, a tale about a crannogman who’s prayer is answered in the form of a mystery knight bearing a shield with a laughing weirwood makes for a much more appealing story than the notion of a mere mortal who threw some leftover armor together.

  • Lies help conceal dangerous truths

As we see with the lies Sansa and Littlefinger have to tell in order to win over the Lords Declarant, and the lies Tyrion tells Penny; lies often serve a very protective function, minimizing damage that would be much more extensive if the truth ever came out. Obviously the most striking example of this would be Ned’s great lie about Jon’s parents.

In Howland’s case, lying makes sense because if the tale was told straight and without mystery it becomes obvious that one of the Starks is the most likely candidate for the mystery knight. This runs the risk of exposing them as the ‘enemy’ that Aerys II feared, and possibly changes the popular narrative that Rhaegar abducted Lyanna (due to the fact that the tale might suggest that the Starks may have been ‘discovered’ by Rhaegar during his search for the KotLT). Lying protects the identities, and the secrets, of those involved.

As for the secret, you will find in a later section of this essay that the very nature of detailing the KotLT’s true description would clearly implicate them as being a causal agent in Robert’s Rebellion and undermine virtually everything it stood for.

  • Lies make tales more memorable

At first blush this may seem a lot like the first point. However, what I mean here is that lies help encourage others to remember and retell stories. In societies that existed without writing, oral histories were often the norm and such histories are littered with exaggerated myths.

We may never know the truth behind the legendary figures of real-world myth such as Gilgamesh or William Wallace. However it was due in no small part to exaggeration and lies that their stories have persisted so long. So too do we see that Old Nan’s tales remain entrenched in the minds of the Stark children, most often because of how fantastic they were.

By why lie about something to be remembered? The most logical reason is because you think there is something valuable in the tale that people should be able to appreciate in the future, and that using careful lies make the tale memorable enough to be kept alive.

Similarly, Howland may have done this with the tale of the KotLT in order to ensure that Jojen and Meera would be able to share the tale to others (like Bran) at a later date. Thus a myth is born, which like Gilgamesh and William Wallace may have kernels of truth which a discerning audience can attempt to pierce.

I would also like to add a personal opinion as well. Oral histories are like books, an art form. One large component of appreciating art is knowing that on some level, how you react to a piece often causes as much introspection as it does contemplation of the artwork.

With that in mind, consider not what you think really happened at the Tourney at Harrenhal. Instead, consider how Meera’s tale made you feel. And in case you think I’m being wishy-washy, how would you precisely answer the following questions:

Does the story make you feel good? Is it enjoyable?

This is A Song of Ice and Fire. Any story that makes you feel good should automatically be suspect.

How do you feel about the suggestion that Howland could have lied or exaggerated?

Be honest.

Is your reaction intellectual or instinctive? If it’s the latter, then wouldn’t it be fair to say that you’re precisely the kind of person who enjoys a good ‘tale’ every once in a while (which should be a fairly pedantic point since this whole essay concerns a 5,000 page series of fiction books)?

Just as Nestor Royce wants to believe Littlefinger’s lies, so too do readers want to believe Meera’s tale. It’s reassuring, fulfilling, tantalizing and comforting.

And its that bias right there… the desire for reassurance, fulfillment and comfort; which should instead highlight the fact that we readers are more likely to ignore details that precisely tell us we are experiencing a ‘happy’ lie.

*   *   *

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE


I’ve already given a fairly detailed-yet-conventional assessment for both the KotLT’s shield and the Lothston shield, ending with what I thought was a fairly solid assertion that it was plausible that they were one and the same.

In this section I want to go over what I call “circumstantial evidence” in favor of my theory. I call it this because these observations by themselves could simply be dismissed as bunk or idle novelties.

However, since I have provided what I think is a solid logical foundation for the theory, these bits of circumstance help bolster my central point.

The Precedent for Shields

The idea that shields might symbolize some notable action or character from the past has already been indicated in the books. We see that Brienne recalls a shield from Evenfall Hall that is almost certainly Dunk’s shield from the Dunk & Egg tales.

Dunk died decades before Brienne was born, so it would appear that his shield lingered for a time at Evenfall Hall in order for her to know it.

What’s especially ironic is that she uses the arms from that shield when she has the Lothston shield repainted.

If this essay’s theory is correct, then the Lothston shield is humorously a sort of spiritual gestalt of the Laughing Knight’s shield and Dunk’s arms.

*   *   *

Winged Wolves and Towers

It’s interesting to note that at least two (possibly three) of the Starks have been comparatively referred to as flying wolves.

Sansa:

Every time Joffrey looked at her, her tummy got so fluttery that she felt as though she’d swallowed a bat.
— SANSA IV, A STORM OF SWORDS

“I forgot, you’ve been hiding under a rock. The northern girl. Winterfell’s daughter. We heard she killed the king with a spell, and afterward changed into a wolf with big leather wings like a bat, and flew out a tower window. But she left the dwarf behind and Cersei means to have his head.”
— ARYA XII, A STORM OF SWORDS

Bran:

Jojen gave a solemn nod. “I dreamed of a winged wolf bound to earth by chains of stone, and came to Winterfell to free him. The chains are off you now, yet still you do not fly.”
— BRAN I, A STORM OF SWORDS

You are the winged wolf, and there is no saying how far and high you might fly . . . if you had someone to teach you.
— BRAN I, A STORM OF SWORDS

‘Arya’ (Jeyne Poole):

The girl is gone, Theon thought. She has thrown herself out a window in despair.
— THEON, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

“I saved the girl,” he said. “We flew.”
— THEON, THE WINDS OF WINTER

“We flew. Let Abel make a song of that, we flew.”
— THEON, THE WINDS OF WINTER

Now granted Jeyne is truthfully not a Stark, but Theon’s insistence that they flew couples nicely with the idea that he briefly thought she might have jumped from the window.

Not only is this a striking number of ‘winged wolves’, it’s also striking because every single one is somehow affiliated with a tower window.

So what is the importance of winged wolves and towers as it pertains to the Knight of the Laughing Tree?

*   *   *

How the Shield Ends up in a Tree

Simply put, it seems like there are only a handful of ways the KotLT’s shield could have ended up in that tree.

  • Someone climbed the tree and placed it.
  • Someone on horseback simply hung it from a low branch.
  • Someone threw the shield into the tree from the ground.
  • Someone threw (or dropped) the shield into the tree from above.

There are some logistical issues with these choices:

  • First we don’t know what kind of tree it was, all we know is that it had branches enough to hold a heavy joust-worthy shield.
  • We don’t know if the tree was climbable.
  • We don’t know if any branches were low enough for someone on horseback to reach or throw the shield up into the tree.

Sure any of those possibilities may have worked and been used. However, the only truly sure way to conceivably get the shield into a tree would be to drop the shield into the branches from above. This would only have been predicated on the notion of finding a tree close to a building tall enough.

Here we observe that Harrenhal is rife with towers perfect for this purpose. What’s even more striking is that one of the towers has long been abandoned and is said to contain giant bats that fly from the tower windows.

With this in mind, consider the notion of the Lothston shield as the KotLT’s true shield. If the mystery knight was indeed a Stark and they disposed of it by throwing it out a tower window, isn’t that not only a striking repetition of the ‘winged wolf’ motif and eerily consistent with the idea of giant bats flying out of Harrenhal’s Wailing Tower??

It’s almost too conspicuous to simply hand-wave away. Before you discount this idea, definitely read the following two segments.

Note: An additional point of irony is Theon’s desire to see Abel turn his flight into a song. If you’re aware of some of my theories, then you’ll know I believe that “Rhaegar’s song” (which Mance knows) already has a verse concerning a winged wolf that flies from a tower window. Explaining this is a big tangent and part of a separate theory. I don’t want to complicate this essay’s purpose.

*   *   *

The Army Surplus Store

Let’s assume for the nonce that the mystery knight was indeed Lyanna Stark, as she is possibly the most popular candidate.

As previously noted, the KotLT’s armor was made up of mismatched bits:

“No one knew,” said Meera, “but the mystery knight was short of stature, and clad in ill-fitting armor 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.”
— BRAN II, A STORM OF SWORDS

What’s interesting is that we know that Benjen almost certainly procured the armor worn by this mystery knight:

“Then, as now,” she agreed. “The wolf maid saw them too, and pointed them out to her brothers. ‘I could find you a horse, and some armor 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 . . .”
— BRAN II, A STORM OF SWORDS

It’s interesting to note that Ned, Brandon and Benjen are all considerably larger that Howland. It’s entirely likely that their armor (if indeed they brought any) would not fit him and that a piecemeal assembly of armor would needed to have been found. It’s obviously unlikely that Lyanna brought any armor.

Underlying this is the logistical issue that stealing armor bits from any of the other attendees at the Harrenhal tourney would have been perilous if discovered, and worse yet if Aerys had traced it back to the Starks. Every different tent or armory looted for such an armor ‘made of bits and pieces’ represents a another knight or lord that could be potentially offended.

These seem like fairly obvious concerns here, which strongly suggests that when Benjen says he could ‘find armor’ he refers to acquiring something that would not constitute stealing from another House.

Subsequently there is the concern that Benjen would need to find joust-worthy armor that could fit a small man (or woman).

So here is the challenge faced by Benjen (or any other would be procurer of armor):

  • Find armor that can be reasonably reappropriated without risk of being caught or accused of theft. In other words, armor that is otherwise not claimed by anyone would be best.
  • Find sufficient armor to outfit a small, possibly female rider such that she can safely and competently joust.

Now where on earth are you going to find armor meeting those criteria?

*   *   *

Clad in Black Armor

There is one obvious place where Benjen could have gone looking for arms and armor for the Knight of the Laughing Tree: the abandoned sections of Harrenhal.

This might certainly explain the shield of Lothston, perhaps it was procured from one of the abandoned upper levels of the Wailing Tower.

This prospect leads me to a startling discovery:

The ground floor of the Wailing Tower was given over to storerooms and granaries, and two floors above housed part of the garrison, but the upper stories had not been occupied for eighty years. Now Lord Tywin had commanded that they be made fit for habitation again. There were floors to be scrubbed, grime to be washed off windows, broken chairs and rotted beds to be carried off. The topmost story was infested with nests of the huge black bats that House Whent had used for its sigil, and there were rats in the cellars as well . . . and ghosts, some said, the spirits of Harren the Black and his sons.
— ARYA VII, A CLASH OF KINGS

She had a cheerful manner, but when Brienne showed her the shield her face went dark. “My old ma used to say that giant bats flew out from Harrenhal on moonless nights, to carry bad children to Mad Danelle for her cookpots. Sometimes I’d hear them scrabbling at the shutters.”
— BRIENNE II, A FEAST FOR CROWS

There is a strong association with the Lothstons and the giant bats which are said to specifically dwell in the Wailing Tower which we know to be largely abandoned.

I know it might be presumptuous to think to find armor meeting our criteria in an abandoned tower. But it’s a sensible, and more importantly safe place to start looking.

That said, there is a very, very specific reason why searching the Wailing Tower for such armor is specifically appropriate to the exclusion of all other possibilities: the likelihood of finding a well-made suit of female armor.

Mad Danelle Lothston herself rode forth in strength from her haunted towers at Harrenhal, clad in black armor that fit her like an iron glove, her long red hair streaming.
— THE MYSTERY KNIGHT

Given that the top floor of the Wailing Tower is associated with giant bats specifically connected to Danelle Lothston, it seems entirely reasonable to think that her quarters may have been on that floor or close by. Further, since Danelle is shown to have her own combat-ready armor it seems to be a sensible target to search for if you’re in the market for unclaimed, petite/female, joust-ready armor.

You can’t get much more appropriate than that.

Once again, you are forced into choosing between a convenient lie and a more plausible truth. Given all of the factors outlined above, I think the following is an entirely fair conclusion:

The Knight of the Laughing Tree was not armored in ill-fitting pieces, but rather the black armor once worn by Danelle Lothston.

This would generally only be true if one believed that Lyanna (or perhaps Howland) was the mystery knight.

*   *   *

Painter Accessibility

It should be noted that both A Feast for Crows and The Mystery Knight make it clear that finding painters to paint shields is no easy feat.

That’s not to say it’s difficult, but rather that it takes specialized skills and materials.

Both Brienne and Dunk had to ask around in order to find someone to paint their shields, and on top of that there was a delay before their shields were finished.

The point I’m making here is that gaining access to paints would be another obstacle that the mystery knight and his/her accomplices would have needed to overcome. It’s thus another risk, either by theft of the necessary tools or by complicity if they involved another person who had the materials and talents.

These risks lead to my next point.

*   *   *

Discoverability

We know that many men were immediately dispatched to look for the Knight of the Laughing Tree after his/her performance.

One huge concern then would be the risk of discovery.

Given that painting is a somewhat rare talent, one of the first things you would imagine the searchers would do is question any shield painters present at the tourney. Thus, had the Starks involved any painters in their plot it would have endangered them.

If any of the armor bits was recognizable to any of the attendant knights or lords it would have almost certainly led to the discovery of the missing armor from their armories/tents; giving plenty of leads to follow.

As you can see, the more the team involves additional people, the more clues they leave, the more people they put at risk.

This notion of ‘discoverability’ underlies why I think painting the shield would be a big risk, and why ‘gathering’ armor from anywhere other than the abandoned sections of Harrenhal makes little real sense.

Thus discoverability is something of a fundamental criticism of Howland’s tale when taken at face value.

*   *   *

Eluding Capture

Even if I am totally right about the Lothston shield and Danelle’s armor, there would still be people pursuing the Knight of the Laughing Tree. How would they lose their pursuers?

One of the best ways obviously is to leave a false trail, and dispose of evidence as discretely as possible.

Under my hypothetical propositions, doesn’t it then make tremendous sense that Danelle’s armor would have simply been returned to the Wailing Tower?

After all this would put the mystery knight in the prime position to throw the Lothston shield from the tower window in an attempt to mislead pursuers.

Restated:

If the Knight of the Laughing Tree had instead actually been wearing Danelle Lothston’s armor and using a Lothston shield, one of the most discrete ways to dispose of the armor would be to return it to the Wailing Tower.

This would additionally put the mystery knight in the perfect position to toss the Lothston shield out the tower window to leave a false trail for pursuers.

Additionally, tossing the shield strikingly echoes the ‘winged wolf’ motif as well as connotation of giant bats flying from the Wailing Tower.

The very idea I’ve just pitched makes so much sense I almost feel compelled to reject it on that basis alone.

*   *   *

IMPLICATIONS


What is the significance of this (possibly) true version of events?

Well, first recall my tangential speculation that Rhaegar’s music may have already mentioned the idea of a winged wolf flying from a tower window. (It is from this song which the whole ‘winged wolf’ motif originates in my opinion).

We know that virtually no men seem to pay Rhaegar’s music much attention, but women are almost always stricken by it.

So when he sees a shield with a giant bat in it, hanging in a tree beneath the Wailing Tower, he sees a trail where others might see a trail going cold.

It’s entirely plausible that he may have encountered the mystery knight (likely Lyanna) in the Wailing Tower, when everyone else had given up the search at the tree.

Given his obsession with prophecy and song, if he realized that she was a wolf (Stark) who had ‘grown wings like a bat’ and flown from the tower, he might have concluded that some sort of prophetic power was at play.

It’s also notable that a mystery knight clad in black armor might especially draw Rhaegar’s interest since they would appear so much like him aside from the gemstones.

Why are the movements of the Lothston shield important?

I frankly can’t say.

What I can point out is that the shield is now among the Brotherhood without Banners, whom according to some theorists may soon be visiting none other than Howland Reed.

*   *   *

A FINAL THOUGHT


The quote from Alan Moore I opened the essay with reflects on the introspective nature of lies, how we can learn about ourselves in hearing them.

With that in mind, is there no more striking illustration of how blatant Howland’s lie is, and how quickly we ingest it, than the following:

Laughing weirwood trees do not exist.

After all, why would a devout follower of the old gods desire to use iconography that flatly misrepresents their sacred trees?

A reader is compelled to wonder if the shield’s ‘laughing tree’ wasn’t actually an attempt to explicitly lampshade the falsehoods in his tale.

*   *   *

Lastly,

Ser Illifer crooked a bony finger at her shield. Though its paint was cracked and peeling, the device it bore showed plain: a black bat on a field divided bendwise, silver and gold. “You bear a liar’s shield, to which you have no right. My grandfather’s grandfather helped kill the last o’ Lothston. None since has dared to show that bat, black as the deeds of them that bore it.”
— BRIENNE I, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Interesting considering the Lothstons may have been associated with evil power, but never have they been accused of being liars.

13 thoughts on “Howland’s Great Lie: The Myth of the Laughing Tree

  1. starkaddict

    Very interesting analysis. I’m not saying that I am hundred percent sold but there is something about the tourney of Harrenhal. Too big a focal point, too little information. And a whole lot of ambiguity.

    Reply
  2. Mike D

    Thanks for writing this, I can tell you’ve put a lot of time and thought into this essay, I always enjoy reading original theories :-)

    I love to encourage healthy debate when I read great theories, amd whilst your essay is entertaining, I’m certainly not convinced.

    You also suggest that House Lothston ended in 212AC, however I believe that to be unlikely, the wiki itself doesn’t know when they end. It’s mentioned that Shella Whent has an elderly blacksmith, Ben Blackthumb, who worked for House Lothston as a boy, he’s alive at the time of Game of Thrones (298AC).

    I don’t really think your quote of Sansa having tummy-ache is relevant to a Winged Wolf, nor those of Arya (Jayne Poole) jumping out a window.

    I see no reason to believe that Harrenhal wouldn’t have a multitude of shields, especially old and damaged ones, since the castle is in disarray.

    Lord Tywin orders the wailing tower to be restored and repaired while Arya’s his cup-bearer, there’s no mention of anyone finding an armour, which would perhaps be expected as circumstantial evidence if your theory is correct.

    As an aside note, there are a few things in your essay you mention which I’d really like clarification on. I think your theory could hold a lot more water if you could provide clarification with evidence, I’ll list them below.

    1.House Lothston being associated with evil powers?

    2.There are no laughing weirwoods.

    3.The shield being found in a tree under the Wailing Tower.

    4.Did you mention Rhaegar singing about a winged wolf? I can’t seem to find it upon my second read?

    I’m sure I had other points to query, but my haste to write my points in a respectful manner I’m sure I’ve forgotten one or two. Sorry about the length! :-)

    Reply
  3. cantuse Post author

    Thanks for the reply. I certainly don’t mind disagreement and long posts. Here are some thoughts on your concerns:

    1. Mad Danelle was rumored to send her bats out nightly to bring children back for her cookpots. I believe you’ll find this in Brienne II, AFFC when she has the shield repainted in Duskendale.

    2. The ‘no laughing weirwoods’ was just a catchy reddit-compatible title. However, it is true that there really are no laughing weirwoods. The point being that it would be like using a ‘smiling Jesus’, it’s not really representative of the faith itself. Sure it sounds flippant and appropriate to a tale, but that’s precisely the point, readers (and Bran) eagerly accept it because they want to believe the story.

    3. and 4. There’s no evidence of the shield being beneath the wailing tower. Essentially answering these questions leads me to explain why I think “Jenny’s song” was originally written by Rhaegar under the inspiration he received from the Ghost of High Heart/Summerhall. And per the ASOS epilogue we know the song is concerned with ‘ghosts dancing high in the halls of the kings who are gone, Jenny would dance with her ghosts…”.

    The Wailing Tower description is an amazing fit for this verse (as well as other places).

    Then I have a strong argument that Dareon sang this same song to Gilly, thus showing that he knows the song. Later he sings it again in Braavos, which suggests that the song itself is concerned with a woman that jumps from a tower because her prince is dead. Coupled with a strange line from Polliver in ASOS, I believe the verse in question concerns a woman who transforms into a wolf with bat wings and leaps from a tower window in grief.

    What comes of all of this is that Lyanna either deliberately or accidentally replicated this part of the song by tossing the shield out of a tower window.

    Sure this is a lot of conjecture but the congruence with the existing narrative is striking. Explaining this and doing so with clarity and evidence will take more than a comment, it would require another essay to do thoroughly.

    I’m aware of Ben Blackthumb, which in some ways suggests that he should have replaced the shield at some point himself.

    One thing I should point out is that this essay in some ways relies on the concepts I put forth in my other essay about prophecies; that some times the prose in the text is aimed at the reader and not the characters. Specifically, in cases like Sansa’s ‘bat tummyache’ I’m quoting it as a possible reference to a bat-wolf characterization, not one that is tangible in the setting of the story, but one that is textually suggested to readers. It is through this lens that the winged wolf becomes an observable phenomenon.

    This is also why I strongly believe that the ‘Lothston shield’ serves an important story function, because there is an overt interest on the part of the author in the shield’s movements. If we are to argue that simplicity in writing is best, then why does Martin dwell on the shield’s story. Like Rhaegar’s Harp, why have we been consistently reminded of the shield?

    Anyways thanks for the thoughts.

    Reply
  4. Gale

    Cantuse, I am not sure about the song having specifically wolf with wings of could refer to Jenny since I see no reason for her to be referred to as a wolf, but to Lyanna for sure. If you think hard about it, Bran becomes winged wolf after his contact with Bloodraven, a man of Targaryen ancestry, Bittersteel adopts the hybridised sigil of his mother and father: a horse with dragon wings, Sansa is referred to being winged wolf as wife of Tyrion, who some believe to be a Targaryen bastard. So if there was a winged wolf in Rhaegar’s song, it could be seen as an offer to join him or even a thinly veiled marriage proposal.

    Overall, I don’t think that Rhaegar specifically called for a tourney to find himself “a Jenny”. I adhere to the idea of him attempting to call a tourney as a cover to meet in secret with the lords and discuss their plans of political reorganization. But he probably sang his song at any tourney he was attending, since Cersei recalls him reducing her to tears with a song at Lannisport where she expected their betrothal to take place. But still, it worked, and while Aegon was born after the Tourney of Harrenhal, on his birth maesters told Rhaegar of Elia’s poor health, he may have returned to the idea of Lyanna, as “the dragon has three heads”.

    See also wings of bat and wings of dragon reference from Daenerys’ description of Ghiscari Harpy, that’s her chapter in Astapor:
    “She had a woman’s face, with gilded hair, ivory eyes, and pointed ivory teeth. Water gushed yellow from her heavy breasts. But in place of arms she had the wings of a bat or a dragon, her legs were the legs of an eagle, and behind she wore a scorpion’s curled and venomous tail.”

    Reply
  5. GS

    Great analysis, you’re a very diligent researcher. It’s interesting to see your different theories expounding one another. However with this theory I don’t buy and here’s why: it doesn’t explain any other motive for Howland Reed lying to his children about a story that could have such significance as the fundamental precedence for starting Robert’s Rebellion (as you infer if the culprit was Lyanna Stark and Rheagar Targaryen found out) other than for artistic license or exaggeration for effect and memorable-ness. Why tell this story in the first place if the two most damning conjectured details (the mystery knight wearing women’s armor and the true crest of the shield) were omitted? So I suppose what my scepticism comes down to is why would Howland Reed lie to his children?

    Reply
    1. cantuse Post author

      It comes down to that quote I put in from Alan Moore at the beginning. Not only does lying about the tale conceal Lyanna’s identity, it also engenders rumination.

      The idea of the story being altered is practically lampshaded at end of the chapter in which it appears (Bran II ASOS). After hearing the tale Bran immediately begins telling them about how the story should be altered to make it better.

      It clearly articulates the idea that Bran (and the audience) would rather hear a tale that appeals to simple tastes and miss the subtext.

      In particular, the giveaway is when the crannogman reflects that old gods answered his prayers. When have they ever done anything like that? Particularly when you think that Howland told the tale himself, why did he leave it open-ended? He left the mystery on purpose.

      To try and bring this back to what I think is your core issue: I believe that Howland tells an altered version of the tale because:

      1. It is more fun. (Just like Bran wanted to alter it to suit his tastes)
      2. It empowers the listener. (In Howland’s case his children who probably liked to see the old gods actually do something)
      3. To create a mystery. (Leaving ending open-ended? No clarification/speculation on the mystery knight?)

      I hope this helps, comment if you want to continue chatting on this. Anyways, thanks for the comment.

      Reply

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