Suicidal Tendencies


While Stannis may be victorious in his battle at the crofter’s village he still faces an impossible task: taking Winterfell from the Boltons.

It seems ludicrous to think that Stannis, himself a veteran of several sieges, would willingly march towards a castle while outnumbered, beset by storms and lacking provisions. To suggest that he did it on faith alone is beyond reason.

Stannis has a very strict belief concerning the use of chance or fate to guide strategy:

If is a word for fools.”

Even with Mance wreaking havoc inside the walls of Winterfell, Stannis specifically needs a way to make taking Winterfell plausible –a way that doesn’t involve destroying his own army in the process.

Remember that Stannis also wants the north to rally to his cause. This means that he also wants to defeat the Boltons in a manner that does not damage his ability to negotiate with northern bannermen. He does not want to kill northmen if it can be avoided.

Now before I continue and reveal Stannis’s plans, I must stop and realize a false premise that many readers have assumed:

Stannis must defeat the Boltons in order to take Winterfell.

This is a falsehood.

To take the castle, Stannis only needs for there to be no resistance at Winterfell. Indeed, removing that resistance can be accomplished with combat (consistent with the flawed assumption). But there are other ways: guile, strategic maneuvering, and so forth.

There is subtle, but compelling evidence that Stannis is indeed engaged in such clever sleights. In particular:

Stannis will take Winterfell through multiple uses of guile and strategic maneuver.

These efforts are happening in parallel: Stannis has agents operating elsewhere in the north.

The Night Lamp theory shows that Stannis has developed a brilliant tactic for dealing with the oncoming Freys. Even if it is true and Stannis completely annihilates the Freys, we are left with a quandary.

What happens next?

How does Stannis plan to actually take the impenetrable Winterfell?

Taking Winterfell is a multifactorial effort. What we need to know right now is what role Stannis has yet to play after his victory.

Fortunately, we have sufficient evidence and implications in the books to identify his plans, with great certainty. Specifically, it would appear that Stannis plans to do the following:

Stannis will fake his own defeat and death.

He will arrange for this farce to be “proven” to the Boltons.

This sham will be used to allow Stannis to march unseen to the walls of Winterfell, in preparation for entering it.


  1. A Death Wish. The motivation for faking death, and how Stannis benefits.
  2. Playing Dead. How Stannis plans to convincingly fake his death.
  3. Fair Game. Drawing Bolton allies from Winterfell with proxy threats.
  4. Conclusions.

*   *   *



Why would Stannis want to fake his own death?

What evidence is there of his desire to do so?

To answer these questions requires that we discuss Stannis’s apparent insanity in A Dance with Dragons, and in particular, the death wish he seems to have. He seems obsessed with taking Winterfell (or the Dreadfort), to the point of being foolish.

Certain Death

Throughout A Dance with Dragons, Stannis declares that he will ‘die trying’ to take Winterfell or defeat the Boltons:

Jon realized that his words were wasted. Stannis would take the Dreadfort or die in the attempt.

“But we will march, and we will free Winterfell … or die in the attempt.”

“It may be that we shall lose this battle,” the king said grimly. “In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless.”

The third passage in particular suggests that Stannis very well could end up on a position where he appears to be dead, but in fact is not.

Why would Stannis say that ‘it may even be true’ if not to indicate that it very well could be false?

The subtext here further implies that any rumor of his death is indeed more likely to be untrue.

*   *   *

Death Benefits

What is the benefit of faking his death?

There is one major reason to fake his own death. Simple arithmetic shows that Stannis has no chance in hell to defeat Bolton’s forces while they occupy Winterfell.

What Stannis needs is a way to render Winterfell ‘ripe for the taking’. And given his military insufficiency, Stannis has but one recourse:

In order to take Winterfell, Stannis needs to reduce the effective manpower inside the castle.

One of the most obvious benefits of appearing to be dead is that the Boltons will lower their guard. They will not necessarily be foolish, but at the very least it reduces concerns for an imminent threat and allows the Boltons and their allies to focus on other demands.

Now if you recall, Ramsay’s wedding to Arya occurred some time before the events in Theon’s last two chapters in A Dance with Dragons (A Ghost in Winterfell and Theon). This was the principal reason that the lords of the north were summoned to Winterfell.

There are two main reasons that have kept most of the lords at Winterfell:

  • The threat of Stannis Baratheon
  • The massive blizzard

These same lords of varying loyalty have their own issues as well: in particular caring for their own holdings and people now that winter has arrived. With Stannis out of the way, the bannermen are much more empowered. Some might seek leave to return home.

Of course, there are various unknown factors that could affect this outcome, the blizzard and/or unforeseen political factors could keep some lords at Winterfell still.

Nevertheless, we can see one clear benefit for Stannis if he fakes his death:

By faking his own death, he encourages complacency.

The Boltons and allies will then focus on other pressing matters.

Further, the Bolton allies would be much more likely to return home.

By convincing the world that he is dead, we can see the emerging possibility:

If Stannis fakes his death, he becomes capable of possibly compelling Bolton allies to leave Winterfell.

This is an interesting observation. Compelling the Boltons or their allies to leave Winterfell would certainly reduce the manpower of the castle and make it easier to take. It’s further in-line with my observation that taking the castle does not necessarily require the defeat of Roose Bolton.

But how would Stannis compel the Boltons and/or their allies to depart Winterfell?

The answer is simple:

Threaten their holdings (lands, castles, harvests, people, etc).

Simply put, he needs to send for men to raid or capture targets of great value to the Boltons and their allies.

Were Stannis alive, any tricks he makes to draw allies from Winterfell would fail: Bolton is too smart for that (aside from sending the quarrelsome Freys and Manderlys). At the very least Bolton would not sacrifice his advantageous position to what he would know are likely feints.

But if Stannis is dead, the game is changed. Those attempts to draw allies from Winterfell can no longer be perceived as feints, because Stannis is no more. Thus, if the Boltons fail to address these attempts they undermine their own authority because it will be seen as ignoring the concerns of their bannermen.

The only requirement for these attempts is that they must not appear to be coming from Stannis.

Any whisper of a lingering Stannis force ruins the effect.

*   *   *

So you can see, playing dead allows Stannis to completely mess with the Boltons. By sending ‘proxy forces’ to draw allies from Winterfell, he directly profits by reducing the manpower in the castle.

Additionally, by playing dead, Stannis is able to march under the cover of the blizzard to a position virtually in the shadow of Winterfell’s great walls.

He’s perfectly positioned to seize the castle at an opportune moment.

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*   *   *



So how does Stannis actually implement playing dead?

It is hard to gauge just how Stannis’s farce would be carried out, only that his faked death is indeed foreshadowed.

That said, I believe that there is one hypothesis that emerges as being more technically and thematically appropriate than any alternative.


How does “Ramsay” find out about his apparent victory at the village?

This is a good place to start.

The most simplistic answer would be that some person informed Ramsay in person.

However, I don’t like that possibility, for the following reasons.

The Karstarks were secretly serving Roose Bolton and sending him messages regarding Stannis’s situation. The Karstarks also had two ravens remaining with which to contact Winterfell. If Stannis was indeed defeated, the Karstarks would almost certainly send one of these ravens to Winterfell announcing glorious victory. At least that seems like a most reasonable expectation.

Thus, if Roose Bolton did not receive such a letter, it risks alerting him. He might suspect that the Karstark betrayal was revealed, and that he could not trust the Karstark ravens, either.

If there was any implication that the Karstark plot was revealed it would undermine Boltons trust in anything purported arriving from the Karstarks.


If Stannis wanted to establish the ruse that he was dead, the best way to do so would be to send word to the Boltons via one of the Karstark ravens.

Perhaps this is the very reason that he does not sentence the Karstark maester to death, but rather to a ‘cell’ to await Stannis’s judgment. Compare that to his dealing with the Karstarks, where he immediately sentences them to death.

The king leaned back in his chair. “Get him out of here,” he commanded. “Leave the ravens.” A vein was throbbing in his neck. “Confine this grey wretch to one of the huts until I decide what is to be done with him.”

Notice that Stannis also keeps the ravens with him as well.

The king leaned back in his chair. “Get him out of here,” he commanded. “Leave the ravens.” A vein was throbbing in his neck. “Confine this grey wretch to one of the huts until I decide what is to be done with him.”

*   *   *

Return to Winterfell

If Stannis fakes his death, who returns to Winterfell?

Supposing that Stannis has faked his death and means to seal the illusion, Bolton allies must return to Winterfell, alive and well.

Now if you presume, as I have, that it makes the most sense if Stannis sent a letter posing as the Karstarks, there is one obvious answer:

The Karstarks must be among those that return.

But if all of the Karstark nobles (Arnolf and his kin) are traitors and Stannis has sentenced them all to death, how would this be the case?

There is only one possibility that occurs to me:

Stannis sends Arthor Karstark with the Karstark men back to Winterfell.

NOTE: Explaining this argument is a fairly substantial task. It’s not that its elaborate, which I would suspect of being too convoluted to be true. Rather it’s that the evidence suggesting Arthor Karstark’s involvement is substantial and represents a deviation from the true point of this essay.

You will find the arguments and evidence suggesting Arthor’s involvement in the essay The Rising Sun of Winter, located in the appendices.

I believe that Arthor and the Karstarks are the only truly critical piece, the one and only Bolton ally that must return in order for the illusion to work. The disposition of the rest of the forces is highly variable, and unpredictable.

Some observations should be made at this point:

  • Given the promised combat between the Freys and Manderlys upon returning to Winterfell, it would be an easy lie to say that both of them are not returning at all or any time soon.
  • There are indeed indications and implications suggesting that far more men than just the Karstarks return to Winterfell. Those ideas will be further explored in a more relevant essay later in the Mannisto.

To recap this section, only the Karstarks are truly necessary at Winterfell:

They are the forces that the Boltons would expect to appear, and…

They would be commanded by Arthor Karstark, a man over whom Stannis has tremendous leverage.

*   *   *

Proof of Death

Supposing that men returned to Winterfell claiming Stannis was dead, they would almost certainly need to demonstrate proof of this.

The best way to prove Stannis was dead would be to produce his magic sword, Lightbringer.

Lightbringer would be a huge sign to the Boltons and their allies that Stannis was dead. It seems reasonable to believe that Stannis would never willingly give up the blade, only in death would it be released from his grip.

Just as I’ve argued that Stannis’s public persona masks a deception, so too does the sword: the “power” people project onto a supposed magical sword blind them to the deception it conceals.

This also would corroborate the Pink Letter as well, considering “Ramsay” declared that he had Lightbringer.

*   *   *

In Any Case

Setting aside speculations, there is one common theme, one unifying end result that seems entirely likely:

Stannis will have written Winterfell to inform them of his “death” and the glorious victory had by the Karstarks, Freys and Manderlys.

Meanwhile, Stannis will have marched the majority of his forces to Winterfell, under the guise of being dead. Some element of Stannis’s army will then enter Winterfell to attest to Stannis’s defeat, providing the necessary evidence.

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*   *   *


Stannis_Baratheon_by_Alexandre_Dainche,_Fantasy_Flight_Games©As I mentioned before, if Stannis fakes his own death he is thereafter capable of manipulating affairs in the north. By striking the holdings of various lords, he can draw Bolton allies from Winterfell and thereby weaken the castle.

Target Selection

But we need to remember, Stannis does not want to crush the military capabilities of the northern lords. Quite the opposite, he wants to recruit those military capabilities for his own campaign. He wants their loyalty and strength, not distrust and weakness.

After all, what good is their loyalty if they cannot help him secure his crown? What good is their strength if they are distrustful?

This leads us to a big question:

If Stannis intends to threaten the holdings of bannermen (to draw them from Winterfell), which bannermen can he target?

Stannis needs to be careful in choosing targets, so as to not risk his ability to sway allegiances once he has defeated the Boltons.

This means that he should be careful in choosing which northern lords he targets for military action. By this I mean that Stannis should restrict his targets to those that meet either of the following:

  • Any targeted lord should be someone who is bound to the Boltons, by blood or marriage.
  • Anyone who profits greatly from a Bolton victory.

It should also be noted that Stannis would want to minimize damage to common soldiers and the smallfolk, to make them less likely to hate his rule.

This obviously leads us to a further question, and the main point of this section:

Which of the northern lords can Stannis “attack” with relative impunity?

NOTE: By “attack” I mean threaten, to include military action against their forces as well as raiding their lands and castles.

Answering this question is surprisingly easy once you think about it.

*   *   *

Irrevocable and Redeemable Loyalties

Stannis knows that all of the northern lords have reason to secretly hate Bolton, all except two: Dustin and Ryswell.

“The Ryswells and Dustins are tied to House Bolton by marriage,” Jon informed him. “These others have lost their lords in the fighting.”

If any of the lords of the north are going to be impossible to sway, it would be Dustin and Ryswell: bound to the Boltons by blood. This is relevant because it gives Stannis a Bolton ally that he can attack with relative impunity.

Additionally, the Freys have thrown their lot in with Boltons as well.

This means that Stannis has several Houses he can attack without caring too much:

  • House Bolton
  • House Dustin
  • House Ryswell
  • House Frey
  • Possibly House Flint, if their geographical homeland is any indication of loyalty.

NOTE: This is an unrelated point, but notice that all of the Winterfell murders in A Dance with Dragons involve victims from each of these houses.

*   *   *

So you see, Stannis has a healthy list of targets, weak spots he can exploit to draw people from Winterfell.

The only thing we need to do now is prove that he has the means and the opportunity to exploit these bannermen, a subject explored throughout the remainder of the Mannifesto.

<table of contents>

*   *   *


I won’t belabor the point. The key points of this essay:

  1. By faking his own death, Stannis gains the advantage of covert action.

  2. It enables Stannis to weaken the Bolton center with by drawing men from Winterfell with feinted (‘false-flag’) attacks.

  3. The method of establishing Stannis’s death will involve the use of the Karstarks, preferably Arthor. Other factions may vary in usage, but I believe the Karstarks are vital.

  4. This appears to be the most reasonable explanation for how Stannis stood to profit from faking his own death. As such, I judge this to be a clear and convincing conclusion.

I’d like to take a step back and bring up Niccolo Machiavelli again, whom I discussed in Machiavellian Genius. If you recall, I established the notion that Stannis and the famous Italian thinker share a lot of the same political and military principles.

What I find so incredibly amazing about that prior connection is this:

Machiavelli is apocryphally famous for proposing the idea of faking one’s death for political purposes.

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<the mannifesto>

*   *   *

Revision History

12/14/2014: Removed a bunch of the Playing Dead portion of the essay, which has been moved to a new essay The Rising Sun of Winter.

9 thoughts on “Suicidal Tendencies

  1. jaspercresdeehyde

    I think that rather than weakening specific House’s, Stannis will send Karstark men to Winterfell with Lightbringer as proof of his defeat. The part about him writing to Winterfell disguising himself as Arthor(?) saying how Stannis has been killed could also be kept and is a good idea. However, once the Karstark men are there they will be used as a trojan horse to open the gates to Stannis and his men in the dead of night. Or just his own men disguised as Karstarks, since he might be wary of their loyalty. I feel if he threatened different Houses it would get back to Roose that he’s still alive eventually, and it could take weeks if not months more when he really needs to take Winterfell ASAP. Fantastic write-up though, as always.

    1. cantuse Post author

      I wonder if your opinion on this has changed since as a result of the new essays (particularly the Dark Fortress and the appendix “Cinders from Barrow Hall”. Both articulate in detail why Stannis would want to attack other houses.

      You’ll note that I carefully stepped around any prediction of just how Stannis would execute the coup once things were in position. I really couldn’t find any evidence or even hypothetical clues to suggest an answer.

  2. Stargaryen

    I feel like there is a big hole missing in this analysis. You state why Stannis could and should fake his death and that it is smart. You also state that Karstark’s who were aware of the Stannis betrayal would be necessary to prove Stannis is dead. That means one or more would need to head back to Winterfell. It can’t be a nobody Karstark Loyalist because they aren’t aware of the betrayal and therefore can’t send the raven or Roose would be extremely skeptical. Second, who is going back with Karstark betrayers to ensure they don’t betray stannis plans? If the Manderly’s get to Stannis and prove to be on his side (sort of), they can take the karstark’s back to Winterfell and ensure they don’t tell Bolton the truth. Only problem is Bolton has a few thousand men at least 2K I believe and Karstark only has to say it real quick and the 300 Manderly’s are done for. You could send Stannis men back to Winterfell dressed as Frey’s but still not enough men to scare Karstark from keeping the Stannis secret. I don’t trust the karstark’s, they have never given a single reason that they have an inch of loyalty in them, so why would they all of sudden fulfill Stannis’s plan when the numbers still don’t support Stannis. What Stannis will threaten to do is hold hostage an important Karstark so whoever he sends will fulfill the lie. But again I can’t help but go back to that Karstark’s are not to be trusted with anything. I think Karstark is important, but I don’t think they can go back to Winterfell. Stannis can’t control his secret death with the Karstarks. They will FOIL his plans. I don’t think any ranking Karstarks are going back to Winterfell free with plans to support stannis’s death. The only Karstark that Stannis needs is the Maester who wrote the letters for them. Everything in the letter to Jon is going to be information that Bolton’s got from a letter from the Maester that Stannis took captive. SIDENOTE TO prove the letter to Jon is not ramsey is because it mentions the magic sword. The Bolton’s never once mention Stannis’s sword. The letter to Jon mentions having the sword, the Bolton’s “have” the sword back at the crofters village. They don’t physically have it, it is suppose to be on its way to Winterfell. Also, a breakdown on how Stannis and Manderly become in cahoots would be awesome as well, you didn’t mention them at all in breakdown of the upcoming battle, at least I don’t believe so.

    1. Stargaryen

      Oh yeah, I could easily be missing something as well. If so, please point it out. I just don’t see how the Karstark men can be trusted to fulfill Stannis’s plans. Maybe and just maybe, Stannis annihilates the Frey’s dresses his men in Frey clothing, speaks with the Manderly’s and the “Frey’s” and Manderly’s Free the karstarks and take them back with Karstark’s never having knowledge of Stannis’s fake death. They could actually truly believe he is dead instead of being in on a plan.

      1. cantuse Post author

        I also forgot to add that I believe Arthor’s loyalty (especially out of concern for his sons) will be ‘enhanced’ by witnessing the burning of his own father Arnolf, disguised as Theon Greyjoy. See Release the Kraken for details (this is one of those ‘unlisted’ essays at the moment-part of a radical revision/alternative of my original essays on the Pink Letter’s origins).

    2. cantuse Post author

      This essay may need some manner of revision (as that is what I’m currently doing in order for a sort of ‘relaunch’ due to new essays).

      I’m not sure if you’ve already read the companion piece to this essay The Rising Sun of Winter, but in that essay I specify that Stannis will send Arnolf’s son Arthor back to the Boltons.

      Stannis’s trust in Arthor will be compelled on the basis that he holds Arthor’s own sons hostage, thus the slightest betrayal on Arthor’s part will cost him his offspring. The extent to which fathers will go to ensure the safety of their hostage children is a recurring theme in ADWD, especially with regards to Stannis and the north (Davos, Mance, Umbers, the entire north and “Ned’s girl”, etc).

      Also in the companion essay, I point out that Arthor Karstark may not have even known about the planned betrayal. Thus Arthor might actually be very willing to help deceive Bolton, because Arthor had always thought he would be fighting with Stannis. Again, I suggest reading the essay if you haven’t.

      Now you may or may not believe that I’m close to the mark on the idea that Mance will disguise himself as Ramsay (Showdown in the Crypts). If you find that idea compelling, notice that it would mean that Ramsay(Mance) would be one of the first people to receive Arthor when he arrives. Mance would be in a great position to embrace the lie and help sell it to the rest of the castle.

      As an aside, I’m not sure if you’re reading the essays in the order from the Mannifesto main page or the menu, but keep in mind there are some essays that are not yet included in the main Mannifesto. In particular, I highly recommend A Page from History. I consider it perhaps second only to The Night Lamp in terms of presenting the whole campaign strategy.

  3. j

    This line could be seen as foreshadowing of a fake death:
    “This is Stannis Baratheon. The man will fight to the bitter end and then some.”
    Tyrion to Pycelle, A Storm of Swords, Chapter 72, Jaime IX

  4. derikc24

    Stannis cant write a letter to Winterfell… Roose already has a letter from his own Maester and has seen his handwriting on more than one occasion im sure


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