(Warning: The following contains potential SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season seven, as well as some discussion of the events of the recently concluded sixth season of the show. Proceed with whatever level of caution your friendly neighborhood Three-Eyed Raven suggests to you is wise...)
Now, of all the huge reveals in Game of Thrones season six, the return of Benjen Stark - Ned's brother, and the Night's Watch's missing First Ranger - was perhaps the least surprising of the lot. After all, Benjen's return has been heavily teased for years now - and, following six seasons of mystery, always seemed unlikely to be discarded entirely. Now that he's back, though, it seems that...
Benjen Stark's Past May Reveal A Harsh Game of Thrones Secret
Or, rather, it seems that a key moment in his life may just redefine his likely role within the show entirely. To understand why, though, we first have to take a look at the man who was to become The First Ranger of the Watch, back when he was simply Ned Stark's kid brother.
Benjen Stark Was Very Much The Original Rickon...And Sansa
Originally the youngest of four Stark children, Benjen found himself the younger of only two in the wake of Robert's Rebellion, with his eldest brother Brandon having been murdered by the Mad King, and elder sister Lyanna having died during childbirth. Before that, though, as we saw in flashback form during season six, Benjen was very much the baby of the family - the Rickon, if you will (only with better zig-zagging ability).
He was also, though, according to the novels, something of the Sansa (in her original, snarky teenage incarnation), too. At the famous tourney at Harrenhal (during which Rhaegar Targaryen essentially set alight the embers of Robert's Rebellion by honoring Lyanna Stark as the most beautiful woman in the land, as opposed to his wife, Elia Martell) Benjen was in fine foolish form, getting wine dumped on his head for teasing his sister about her attraction to Rhaegar - as well as first taking notice of the Night's Watch.
Soon, though, events would overtake Benjen's impetuous youth. Specifically:
During Robert's Rebellion, Benjen Was Forced To Stay Behind In Winterfell
As the youngest Stark, and with his eldest brother and father having been killed by the Mad King, Benjen was required to remain behind as 'the Stark in Winterfell' while Ned rode south to fight his rebellion - something unlikely to have sat well with the young Stark. Little is known about his time holding down the fort, but it seems likely that the news of his sister's death will, more than anything else, have consolidated a feeling of powerlessness.
Upon Ned's return, then - with both actual and potential heirs in tow, in the form of the newborn Robb Stark and Jon Snow - Benjen, it seemed, saw his use as a spare Stark to have come to an end... and swiftly joined the Night's Watch.
Which, however, raises the big Benjen-related question:
Just Why Did Benjen Join The Night's Watch?
Was it, as seems entirely possible, a combination of frustration with his inactive role in the Rebellion, a desire to serve his kingdom, and an urge to strike off on his own - or something more? Y'see, as George. R.R. Martin himself once revealed during a convention appearance, Benjen ultimately left for the wall within a few months of Ned's return from the war. What Martin wouldn't reveal, however, is just why he opted to do so - with the implication then surely being that his thinking had something to do with Ned's newly arrived bastard... whose secret Benjen seems to have been told.
Is it possible, then, that Benjen didn't simply leave because of his desire to find his own path - but also due to an unwillingness to keep Ned's secret? After all, while Ned and Robert Baratheon were close, having been raised alongside one another, there would have been little reason for Benjen to feel the same way. Could mixed feelings about Robert's new kingship - or perhaps simply anger with his brother for having left him behind, and then allowing their sister to die - have paved the way for Benjen to leave behind his family, and take the black?
And, if so...
What Does That Decision Mean For The Show?
After all, we may have just seen Benjen help Bran and Meera reach The Wall, but - if certain theories are to be believed - that may not actually be as helpful as it seems. Y'see, some have speculated that Bran's contact with the Night's King may do more than allow the White Walkers to pursue him across the far north. In addition, so the theory goes, Bran going south of The Wall - a barrier the White Walkers seem unable to cross as of yet - could allow the Night's King to do the same... and perhaps even cause The Wall to come crashing down.
In other words? Benjen helping Bran and Meera to get to The Wall may actually be part of an elaborate double bluff - one that would suggest that Benjen has, in fact, become one of the White Walkers after all, or is perhaps an agent of the (still vengeful) Children of the Forest, instructed to bring down the wall he once protected.
Or, y'know, he's just a nice guy, trying to do right by his nephew - and perhaps make up for an old argument with a brother now lost. We'll hopefully find out which in next year's Game of Thrones season seven... when it finally arrives.