Knight of the Laughing Tree/Theories
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Fans have speculated a lot about the possible identity of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. Below a summary of the major candidates including the arguments for each candidate.
Facts from Meera's story
- The mystery knight must have been someone who knew about Howland Reed's experience with the squires and was motivated to avenge him.
- His height was below average, or else it would not be noted in the first place.
- The mismatched armor would point to the Knight not having access to regular armor, or having regular armor with tell-tale markings on it.
- The booming voice was most likely not the regular voice of the Knight.
- The weirwood image implies a connection to the old gods and the North.   
- He was competent enough at the joust to defeat three knights who had made it through the first day of the tourney, but as none of them were particularly well-known, he need not have been unusually skilled.
- Meera Reed was surprised that Bran had never heard the story before, which suggests that the Knight may have been either a Stark, or someone close to the family. 
- Lyanna Stark. Eddard compares his tomboyish daughter Arya to Lyanna in both appearance and personality, adding that Lyanna probably would have carried a sword if their father had allowed it.  Lyanna is consistently noted to have been an extremely skilled rider.    She also seems to have had an interest in swordfighting.   Horsemanship skills are necessary for jousting and "riding at rings" is standard training for squires, preparing them for actual jousting. Lyanna using the same exercise in her horse-riding training would not be impossible. Benjen could provide armor for her, as he offered to do for Reed. As an underage girl, she could be shorter than the average man. Provided she had the necessary skill and some luck, Lyanna could defeat three knights of uncertain ability. (The best jousters don't seem to have competed prior to the final day of the Tourney at Harrenhal.) In jousting, "the speed of the horse provides the force of the attack", not the physical strength of the rider. The theory would also explain how she met Rhaegar Targaryen, the man charged with finding the Knight. And the same man who crowned Lyanna as his Queen of Love and Beauty. They had no known previous interactions.   
- Negative points of this theory would be doubts concerning the skill and youth of Lyanna. The existence of swordfighting skills, doesn't confirm the existence of jousting skills. In her fight with the squires, there would be other factors on her side. There is no mention the squires were armed. There was likely an element of surprise at work, when they found themselves under attack. If they recognized their assailant as a noble girl, they may have consciously avoided hurting her. Afraid of risking the wrath of her House. None of these factors would be present on the jousting field. Even if she had actual training, this would be the first real test for her skills. As a novice in the sport, her victory would be far from guaranteed. Lyanna would have logically tried to sound like a man. But the helm would not be enough to produce a powerful, stentorian voice. 
- Howland Reed himself. According to Meera, Reed "was small like all crannogmen". She even calls crannogmen "small people", in comparison to the "big people" around them. Therefore he would be shorter than average. He had the strongest reasons to defend his honor, so the best motive. He was no knight, but his tale notes the man was "brave and smart and strong". "Bolder than most" crannogmen. His hesitation to fight may have been only a temporary obstacle. The text seems to pay attention to his prayer to the old gods, said while focusing at the direction of the Isle of Faces. Earlier the tale has him knowing "the magic of the crannogs" and spending an entire winter with the Green Men. His prayer may have been answered with supernatural assistance. Bran himself, the listener of the story, strongly suspects that "the little crannogman" and the Knight were the same person. That the crannogman could have been turned into a knight, "even if it was only for a day". Or that the Knight could be a Green Man, with "dark green skin and leaves instead of hair". Someone sent by the old gods. Meera does not confirm or deny any of Bran's theories. Simply narrating "the old gods gave strength to his arm".    
- Negative points for this theory would be that Howland goes from the victim of the story to its hero in minimal time. He would suddenly display skills that Meera claimed the crannogmen do not have. The theory relies on Reed having beginner's luck, justice, or the supernatural on his side. If the Green Men, the children of the forest, or the old gods intervened on this relatively minor occassion, one would expect them to also intervene in major events. While their lack of intervention is what makes the people of Westeros doubt their continued existence. The story might also undermine the loyalty of Reed to House Stark. He avenged himself, therefore he would not be bonded to the Starks by a debt of gratitude. 
- Benjen Stark. As a son of House Stark, he certainly would have been a trained fighter. Noble boys seem to start training in the martial arts at an early age, and the Starks seem to take their training seriously. He was even younger than Lyanna and probably shorter. He was the one who suggested the idea of seeking vengeance to Reed in the first place, and claimed that he could find a horse and some armor for the crannogman. He could have used this horse and armor himself. He also would not be the first underage participant in a jousting match. Bran recalls that Barristan the Bold served as the mystery knight in a tourney when only ten-years-old.   
- Negative points for this theory would the voice of Benjen and his incomplete training. The voice break from the vocal pitch of a boy to the deeper pitch of a man typically takes place in mid-to-late adolescence. The voice of a younger Benjen would still sound like a child, far from being powerful or stentorian.  Barristan Selmy himself recalls his first jousting match with details. He was still ten and was inexperienced even as a squire. He borrowed a warhorse and found his "ill-fitting" armor in the armory of Lord Dondarrion. He had trouble keeping his lance straight, and was easily defeated in the first tilt by Duncan Targaryen. 
- Eddard Stark. Jojen Reed insists that Bran must have heard the tale of the Knight "a hundred times". He later specifically asks "You never heard this tale from your father?" Later still, Jojen keeps insisting: "Are you certain you never heard this tale before, Bran? Your lord father never told it to you?"  The implication would be that Eddard knew this story well, even though he never passed it to his children. Raising the question if this was Eddard's own tale. While Brandon was the best swordsman and lancer in the family, Eddard would also have received combat training. He was not an impressive physical specimen, as Catelyn Tully describes him as shorter than Brandon. He was still in his late teens and might not have reached his full physical height and frame. This theory would also explain Reed's personal loyalty to Eddard. He would go on to serve as one of Ned's closest companions during Robert's Rebellion, even serving as one of the few men who followed Lord Stark to the Tower of Joy.     
- The main problem with the theory would be that there is no indication of Eddard being notably short. It would be possible for him to have a late growth spurt following the Tourney, gaining the last few inches of his height. But no character seems to describe or hint at such a change.   Also the image of a laughing weirwood seems at odds with Ned's somber personality. 
- Brandon Stark. While known to be taller than Eddard, it has not been confirmed that Brandon was particularly tall either. There have been consistent descriptions that members of Houses Baratheon, Clegane, and Umber tend to be tall, even towering above their contemporaries. But there is no such description for the Starks. Starks seem to tend on the short side. A grown Robb Stark was shorter than his mother. Brandon (and Eddard) could then be taller than Petyr Baelish and still be shorter than the average knight. Brandon is the only Stark with confirmed jousting skills. He was one of the last men standing in the final day of the Tourney, only defeated by Rhaegar Targaryen. The same man who would go on to win against all other challengers.  
- Negative points of this theory would be the unconfirmed height of Brandon and his seeming lack of motivation. Catelyn seemed notably disappointed that Eddard was not as tall as his brother. Which could mean that Brandon was a relatively tall man. She never complains about Brandon being too short for her taste. On the other hand, mystery knights tend to be people otherwise banned from a Tourney. Underage entrants, wanted men, and people acting without permission from their current employer or head of house. Brandon was already formally competing in the Tourney, and even Eddard could probably get permission to compete from their father.  
- Ashara Dayne. The tale Meera narrates seems to pay attention to the movements of Ashara, and that she did have interaction with the Starks. The theory goes that as a Dornishwoman, Ashara could have received formal training in sword and lance. Giving her an advantage over Lyanna. Competing in the Tourney could then be her unusual way to court Eddard Stark. Wearing a weirwood sigil as a tribute to him. Her "laughing eyes" would explain the choice of a laughing sigil.  
- Negative points of this theory is that there is no confirmation that all Dornishwomen receive military training. The Sand Snakes did receive such training, but they might be atypical for their culture. Ashara could have been raised to act "lady-like". Also the motivation of the storyteller, Meera, would be in question. Other theories read the story as establishing the loyalty of House Reed to House Stark. If instead the tale establishes a link between the Reeds and House Dayne, Meera would have little reason to narrate the tale to Bran. 
References and Notes
- "The Citadel: FAQ, entry 6.2.7- Who was the Knight of the Laughing Tree?" (2011)
- Conversation topic: Knight of the Laughing Tree on Westeros Forum Cite error: Invalid
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- Conversation topic: Howland Reed=Knight of the Laughing Tree? on Westeros Forum
- Conversation topic: Who was the Knight of the Laughing Tree? on asoiaf.yuku.com
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 22, Arya II.
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 17, Arya III.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 32, Reek III.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 41, The Turncloak.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 34, Bran III.
- Beyond the Wall, Chapter: "History on a Personal Scale" Commenting on the uncertainties of the text in the novels: "Even what appear to be straightforward elements of backstory turn out to be more complex, more shrouded in doubt, than they first appear. ... We have also seen through the heart tree that Lyanna Stark was a skilled swordswoman, capable of besting her younger brother-the future First Ranger of the Night's Watch and a very capable soldier- in mock combat. This fuels speculation that Lyanna was the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree... and gives another reason for why she and Rhaegar may have met and developed a connection."
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 24, Bran II.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 59, The Discarded Knight.
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 45, Catelyn V.
- "The Citadel: So Spake Marttin: About Benjen Stark" (2000): "Brandon was the best of the Starks with sword in hand, and the best jouster as well. But Benjen has other skills that serve him well as a ranger... and Ned was likely the best battle commander."
- Conversation topic: Some Questions About Knight of the Laughing Tree on Westeros Forum
- Boys tend to complete their puberty developments by ages 16-18. Increases in height past this age are uncommon, but not impossible. Teenage and early adult males may continue to gain natural muscle growth even after puberty. Further adding to their weight and frame.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 58, Eddard XV.