(Top Image: Brandon the Builder overseeing the construction of the Wall)
“Much of those details are lost in the mists of time and legend. No one can even say for certain if Brandon the Builder ever lived. He is as remote from the time of the novels as Noah and Gilgamesh are from our own time.” (So Spake Martin, The Wall)
This was part of George’s answer when asked to give a brief description on how the Wall was constructed. The details are lost to time and legend, and “no one” can even say with certainty whether Brandon the Builder ever lived. I never naysay a quote from George. But the interpretation of the meaning of the quote and the way it is used amongst the fandom is flawed. It is indeed doubtful whether someone ever exist who was referred to as Brandon the Builder by his peers within his lifetime. Possibly over time several Brandons or their achievements got conflated into one. And it is highly likely that some lord or king wanted to be fashionable and claim his castle or tower was built by Brandon even when it was not.
But someone helped raise the magical ward of the Wall. Someone settled at Winterfell. And house Stark were his descendants. The Wall – magical and physical – exists. Winterfell, the weirwood, and the crypts exist, attested for thousands of years. House Stark is embedded in the North first as petty Kings of Winter and later Kings in the North, also for thousands of years. This differs from Noah, because we do not have remains of an archeological arc that has been known to be Noah’s for thousands of years. Our DNA genesis disputes the notion that the world was populated after a flood by Noah and his descendants alone. In the worst case scenario, Brandon the Builder is more of an in-world pseudohistorical character like King Arthur. We can use what we have as “archeological” remainder in the current timeline that harks back to the era and age that this someone once lived, draw conclusions from or about it and make some proposals. And instead of referring to this person as “someone” we might as well call him Brandon.
With literature and fiction it does not even matter whether the legendary man existed or not. This is literary analysis. If Mance sings about an acknowledged self-invented hero Baloo the Bear, that song and Baloo can still serve as a parallel, foreshadowing, hints and clues. In that sense, analysis of legends and claims about Brandon the Builder are valid.
If you analyse George’s remark you notice that he avoided answering the question directly, a month after aSoS was published. There was no World Book, no warded cave with a backdoor. This was the sole thing we knew about Brandon the Builder, which paints him as an architect. At best, we just had the confirmation that the Wall had a magical ward like Storm’s End.
Furthermore, the quote is incomplete. George also volunteered this.
But one thing I will say, for what it’s worth — more than ice went into the raising of the Wall. Remember, these are =fantasy= novels. (So Spake Martin, The Wall)
So, here is my disclaimer and answer to the quote, in a nutshell: Brandon the Builder may not have existed, but somebody once existed who helped with the Wall and founded House Stark. I refer to this person as Brandon the Builder when I talk about the legend or Brandon (the Greenseer) when I refer to the fantasy historical character. He was called Dean Sand for all I care, but it would be odd and confusing to the reader for me to refer to him as such. We can deconstruct some of the claims, but also draw conclusions, because the legendary Brandon the Builder is still a literary device used by George.
Another argument that pops up when someone tries to propose a theory about the distant past, especially when it includes analysis of the world building relayed in the World Book is that (a) most of these sections were written out by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonson, not George RR Martin, so we should not look into symbolism or wordplay in this and (b) we will never go to those places in the series so how can they be relevant.
To (a) I will remind the reader that this was a close cooperation, with Elio and Linda having notes from George and that he “polished and filled in holes” of their writing. I will answer (b) with a quote from Quaithe.
“To go north, you must journey south, to reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.” (aCoK, Daenerys III)
This was Quaithe’s advice to Dany in Qarth, often taken to imply that Dany would learn and find out the truth and help she needs in Asshai, which is nicknamed beneath the shadow. In my opinon, George had plans for Dany to lead the Dothraki across the Bone Mountains and journey as far as Asshai and for Tyrion to follow the footsteps of Lomas Longstrider. Bran seeing dragons fly in the Shadow near Asshai in his coma dream, Jorah Mormont attempting to persuade Dany to flee the Dothraki and go to Asshai with him, as well as MMD and Marwyn having both studied in Asshai set it up for an intended destination, Dany’s third dream including ghosts with pale swords and different colored eyes that we see again in the named dynasties of the Great Empire of the Dawn: all of these stem from aGoT, where Dany journeyed from Pentos to Vaes Dothrak in less than half a book. Along the way she would see the wonders and hear of tales about a hero with a flaming sword.
Originally, George intended to write the events in Meereen as backstory. Meanwhile all that occurs to Jon in aDwD, would happen as we read it, but 5 years later. And since George has no intention of having Dany arrive in Westeros before aDoS, he intended Dany to have adventures between going to the Dosh Khaleen and beginning her conquest of Essos west of the Bone Mountains beyond Slaver’s Bay (or he may have intended for her to cross the Sunset Sea from Asshai). But he had to scrap the 5 year gap and imo therefore drop Dany’s expansive adventures east of the Bone Mountains.
Hence, the World Book project with Elio and Linda provided a way for George to give us the world and legends east of the Bone Mountains. Quaithe’s advice therefore must now be regarded as a meta-advice to the reader, rather than Dany. And that advice does not just concern “go to Asshai”, nor does it just pertain knowledge that only concerns Dany. It basically tells us that truth and origin stories for the North are to be found in the south, and that knowledge about Westeros is to be found in the east. Since Quaithe gives this advice in Qarth, which is the last big city on the western side of the Bone Mountains, going east implies east of the Bone Mountains. Quaithe’s quote supports the fantasy archeological efforts that History of Westeros and David Lightbringer have attempted to do the last five to six years. George intended to have us see some of these empires and cities and hear the legends within the main series. He had to scrap that entirely, but instead made sure to gift it to us via the World Book and with the help of Elio and Linda, after he published aFfC and started on aDwD. We should not scorn that gift!
Finally, I know that a set of readers will be most reluctant against the idea of “special blood”. And I will propose a bloodline for Brandon the Builder that made him quite a unique and special person in his era, because of it. But my point is not the claim that he therefore could do things what others could not. Quite the opposite. My point is that he realized its uniqueness in Westeros would safeguard the magical ward of the Wall for thousands of years, if not forever. My point is that he used its uniqueness for mankind and the last thing he wanted was there for someone with his blood mixture to come again, let alone anywhere near the Wall. That imo is a subversion of the special blood trope.
What we can uncover about the history of Winterfell, Brandon the Builder and other legends of the age of heroes is actually quite massive. And I actually will rely mostly on main series text via parallels, etymology, wordplay, (symbolic) imagery use. The parallels involve several characters and locations with telling scenes, names, swords, sigils, and surrounding characters: Bloodraven, Bran, his uncle, Rickon, Beric, Edric and Gerold Dayne, the last hero, the Essosi versions, Arya, Ned Stark, Durran(s), Winterfell, Storm’s End, Hightower, Standfast, Dark Sister, Ice, Dawn, Bloody blades and bloodlines… There is so much and it is so intertwined with one another that, yet again, I have to split this up in different parts.
- Part 1- What’s in a Name: I will give an overview establish the most important relevant parallels between characters, their pupils, the swords in their possession, their “blood” and the main sites connected to them, while delving into the etymological meaning of names. This will give you a robust view and is a reference section to wordplay and interpretation I will refer to continiously in the other parts.
- Part 2 – Deconstructing the Legend: I will disprove the picture painted of Brandon the Builder as an architect, and instead use the parallels established in Part 1 to propose a rather obvious conclusion on Brandon’s actual talents and use the text of these parallels to recreate what Winterfell was when Brandon got there, as well as showcase that Brandon was the last hero.
- Part 3 – The Bloody Swords: Though the swords will have been mentioned in the prior two parts, here I will discuss them more in depth, on how they have been used, how they can be used, and the implications if Brandon’s sword was indeed Dawn.
- Part 4 – Wildfire and Blood: In this section I will propose Brandon’s own ancestral lineage which gave him a rather unique blood imprint to create a Blood Seal and the decisions he took in the hope to prevent his Blood Seal from being broken.
I also wish to thank the following people for the hard work they put in the following resources. Here is a list of resources either as background or to become familiar with the quotes and arguments:
- What current book Winterfell would look like (prior to being sacked by Ramsay), by Shadiversity: I have only one caveat to his efforts. He does not seem to be aware of the heating system, of hot water being carried through pipes all through the castle, warmed by the hot springs.
- The caves are timeless – Hollow hills. Magic castles and Greenseers, by Wizz-the-Smith: superb essay that lists several castles having been built above cave systems and hollow hills.
- Brandon the Builder, by History of Westeros
- The Crypts of Winterfell, by History of Westeros
- Great Empire of the Dawn (nearly three hours), by History of Westeros and LmL: I am on board with the proposal and arguments that House Hightower and House Dayne were traders or refugees from the Great Empire of the Dawn and that this empire had dragonriders, long before Valyria. For a shorter summary there is David Lightbringer’s video Great Empire of the Dawn: Westeros:
- The original Ice = Dawn by David Lightbringer I have come to the same conclusion and David sums up the reasons for it nicely and succinctly.