Midway through A Storm of Swords, Sam and Gilly are saved by a strange wandering man with black, cold hands and a mysterious power over birds. Later in the book, Bran and company go underneath the Wall to join up with this enigmatic figure. Sam and Gilly nickname him “Coldhands.”
But who is Coldhands, really? Could he possibly be a character we have met before? Or is he someone else entirely?
First, let’s look at what description we have of him. From page 536:
“Brother!” The shout cut through the night, though the shrieks of a thousand ravens. Beneath the trees, a man muggled head to heels in mottled blacks and grays sat astride an elk. “Here,” the rider called. A hood shadowed his face.
...The rider wore no glove. His hand was black and cold, with fingers as hard as stone.
The fact that Coldhands refers to Sam as ‘brother’ and wears black seems to suggest that he is a member of Night’s Watch. Beyond that, we can infer nothing mroe from this chapter besides the fact that Coldhand rides an elk and has some control over ravens.
From page 635, we learn a little more. Coldhands says that he was sent to find someone, who turns out to be Bran. He also knows about the existence of the Black Gate underneath the Nightfort. A quote:
“He wore blacks, like a brother of the Watch, but he was pale as a wight, with hands so cold that at first I was afraid. The wights have blue eyes, though, and they don’t have tongues, or they’ve forgetten how to use them.”
...”Why didn’t you bring him through this Black Gate too?”
“The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, he said. There are spells woven into it...old ones, and strong. He cannot pass beyond the Wall.”
Here, Sam implies that Coldhands does not have blue eyes. Therefore, we can pretty much rule out the possibility of him being a run-of-the-mill wight. Also, even though he dresses in black and calls Sam ‘brother,’ he cannot pass beneath the Wall. Why? Let’s review the candidates that have been put forth as possibilities for Coldhands.
1) Benjen Stark
The most obvious possibility, and probably the one that immediately leapt to every reader’s head. Benjen has been missing for three books, but no body has been found. For all we know, Ben is still out there with his four surviving rangers. And someone buried the cache of dragonglass that Ghost found on the Fist of First Men. Sam would not recognize Benjen; Ben had gone missing before Sam arrived at Castle Black. Finally, this may be the reason why the chapter is cut off before Bran meets Coldhands; Bran would recognize Benjen and thus spoil the mystery.
However, Benjen has ‘blue-gray eyes’ (GoT, pg. 53), which may or may not be what Sam meant when he said Coldhands did not have blue eyes.
It seems likely that Benjen is going to make a reappearance sometime in the series, or, at the very least, we will discover what happened to him. He has been referred to too many times for this not to happen.
The question is, of course, how Benjen developed his seemingly-magical control over animals, and why he cannot go underneath the Wall. There are hundreds of possibilities concerning this, but none have any evidence to back them up. So, while Benjen is a likley candidate based on the circumstances, there is still some confusion regarding him.
A grizzled ranger from Shadow Tower who accompanies Jon and Qhorin to scout the Skirling Pass, Stonesnake disappeared near the end of A Clash of Kings when Qhorin sent up over a high mountain pass on foot as a last ditch effort to reach the Fist and warn Mormont of what was happening with the wildings. He has not been seen or heard from since, though he is listed as still being alive in the appendix to A Storm of Swords. And in all likelihood, Sam would probably not recognize Stonesnake; they were only on the Fist together for a short time.
Beyond that, Stonesnake has the exact same advantages and drawbacks going for him as Benjen does. He has a reason to wear black and call Sam ‘brother.’ But it is still a mystery how he coudl control the animals and not go under the Wall. So, if Coldhands is one of these two candidates, is is most likely Benjen, simply because Benjen’s character is still being referred to and in the reader’s mind, while Stonesnake is pretty much forgotten.
3) Craster's Son
For a long time, Craster has been leaving his sons out as a sacrifice to the Others. But what if one happened to escape? There is no age given to Coldhands, but if he is in his twenties to thirties, it is not that much of a stretch for him to be one of Craster’s sons from long ago.
However, Craster’s daughters Gilly and Nella both seem to speak of the sons as if they have witnessed their fate firsthand. (SoS, pg. 380). Nella, in particular, calls wights ‘Craster’s sons.’ Could one small boy really have escaped this sacrificial ritual? It seems unlikely, and he would have no reason to call Sam ‘brother.’ So one of Craster’s sons seems an unlikely candidate, albeit it still could be possible.
4) Ser Waymar Royce
It has been suggested that Coldhands might really be Waymar, the young ranger who was killed in the prologue by Others, only to come back as a wight to strangle Will. However, this is not even a remote possibility. There is no conceivable reason why Waymar would kill his comrade Will, and then later be helping Sam and Gilly. Also, Waymar’s eyes were blue after he was resurrected. (GoT, pg. 11). Unless his experienced both a change in temperment and eye color, Waymar is not Coldhands.
Another slim possibility for Coldhands is Will, the young poacher-turned-ranger who watches as the Others slaughter Waymar, only to be strangled by Waymar’s wight. When we last left him in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, Waymar’s cold hands were clutching his neck.
But this is quite a strectch to assume that Will somehow survived this encounter to become Coldhands, and quite contradictory to GRRM’s style to bring back a character so clearly and obviously dead. If Coldhands is a black brother that we have met, Benjen and Stonesnake are both much more likely possibilities.
6. A 'Good' WightIt has been suggested that Coldhands is really a dead corpse running around not unlike the undead wights that the Others seem to be controlling. However, as Coldhands is helping out Bran and Sam, it seems as if this is a wight on the good guys' side, or perhaps even one controlled by the Children of the Forest.
Like the other candidates, there is not much direct evidence to back this up, yet the idea is certainly appealing. As one Doremus Mallister has pointed out, the Night's Watch vows (GoT, pg. 522) include the line, "Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death." If Coldhands is a former Night's Watch ranger who is dead, than this explains why he is dressed in black and calling Sam 'brother,' even though he cannot pass beneath the Wall. Certainly this is the only explanation we have for this apparent contradiction.
In conclusion, every possible candidate for Coldhands put forth has some sort of contradiction that defies explanation. Considering all the characters we know, Benjen seems the most likely candidate as of present, there are still several things that have to be resolved before this makes sense. The reason for this, and the flaws in Stonesnake’s story, is because of an apparanent contradiction that Coldhands is a brother of Night’s Watch but cannot go underneath the Wall. (This could, of course, possibly be because Coldhands is dead--see point 6.)
From the information we know, it seems more likely, as of present, that Coldhands is a newly introduced character that we never met before his appearance in Storm of Swords. Truly, this is a much more likely possibility then sitting around trying to come up with implausible stories as to how Benjen could possibly be Coldhands.