MAJOR SPOILERS for the season finale of Game of Thrones follow. You have been warned!
Since A Dance With Dragons was published in July 2011, hundreds of thousands of readers have been in suspense about whether Jon Snow was alive, or whether he had been killed.
Now millions of viewers of of Game of Thrones are wondering the same thing.
It sure looks bad for Jon. But readers have had four years to think about this — and most of them think this isn't the last we'll see of him. Read on to find out why.
How the attack on Jon Snow went down in the books
Jon Snow's plot line in A Dance With Dragons is largely free of action until its very last scene. At this point, Jon has successfully brought thousands of wildlings past the Wall, done a great deal to repair the strength of the Night's Watch, and is preparing the realm to face the White Walkers.
Then he gets a letter that changes everything.
The taunting letter, which addresses him simply as "Bastard," has Ramsay Bolton's signature. It claims that the Boltons have fought Stannis Baratheon and killed him. It accuses Jon of plotting to steal Ramsay's bride away from him — which, in the books, he's guilty of, having sent Mance Rayder to try and rescue the girl he thinks is his sister Arya (but is actually just a Northern girl named Jeyne Poole). The letter-writer demands that Jon hand over the escaped bride, and various other hostages, to him. "Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard's heart and eat it," it concludes.
Rather than comply, Jon comes up with a new plan. He announces he will send the Night's Watch to Hardhome to rescue another group of wildling hostages there — while he himself rides south, to attack Ramsay Bolton at Winterfell. The wildlings at the Wall roar in approval, and rally to his side. As Jon makes his final preparations, he thinks about whether he is breaking his oaths.
That's when he's ambushed and repeatedly stabbed by a group of his own Night's Watch brothers — who say they’re acting "for the Watch." Jon's taken completely off guard, and doesn't manage to fight back. He says the word "Ghost," and he thinks of Arya. His final A Dance With Dragons chapter concludes: "He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold…"
Why very few readers of the books believed Jon is permanently dead
Jon's murder seemed, at first, to be the next shocking killing of an apparent protagonist from the author famous for Ned Stark's execution and the Red Wedding. And Kit Harington, the actor who plays Jon, is insisting in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that things are just as they seem: "I've been told I'm dead. I'm dead. I'm not coming back next season. So that's all I can tell you, really." But this wouldn't be the first time an actor had misled the press to keep a future plot twist mysterious.
Indeed, when A Dance With Dragons came out, readers quickly began to wonder whether this twist was, in one way or another, a fake-out. Just days after the book was published, Martin was asked, "Why did you kill Jon Snow?" He responded, "Oh, you think he's dead, do you?" He then added, "I’m not going to address whether he’s dead or not." So he certainly intended to make things ambiguous. When asked again more recently, he said, "If there's one thing we know in A Song of Ice and Fire is that death is not necessarily permanent."
Then there's the question of Jon's importance to the overall story. The mystery of who Jon's mother is has long been teased, and most fans think they've figured it out, and that his parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Martin has promised the answer will be revealed eventually. What would the answer matter if Jon was already dead?
Also, the books have extensively set up a prophecy believed by followers of the Lord of Light — that a promised hero, Azor Ahai, would return and save the world from darkness. Melisandre thinks that hero is Stannis — but in one chapter she searches for him while staring into her magical flames, and says, "All I see is Snow" — with a capital S. If Jon's father is in fact Rhaegar Targaryen, that would mean he's the blood of the dragon, as well as a Stark — a fitting lineage for a mystical hero in a series called A Song of Ice and Fire.
How readers think Jon Snow could come back
The easiest way Jon could be alive, of course, is that he could simply survive his wounds. It wouldn't be the first time Martin faked the death of a point-of-view character, only to later reveal that he or she was perfectly fine. His version of the Red Wedding ended with Arya getting hit in the head with an axe. Only later did Martin reveal it was the wooden part of the axe that hit her.
However, in the "Inside the Episode" segment this week, showrunner David Benioff refers to "the death of Jon Snow." So rule that one out.
Most fans had long ago concluded that Jon had probably died, though. So speculation soon focused on the possibility that he was dead ... but that he'd come back.
The book series established two magical ways someone could survive an apparent death. The first, set up in A Storm of Swords, was that the Red Priest Thoros of Myr had the power to resurrect someone from the dead. So, though it hadn't been shown in the books, many readers suspected that Melisandre could have similar powers. And Melisandre was conveniently at the Wall when Jon was stabbed — as she was in the show.
The second way that someone's mind — but not someone's body — could escape death was through warging. The prologue of A Dance With Dragons told the story of a wildling, Varamyr Sixskins, who could enter the minds of animals. When his human body was killed, his consciousness simply went into his wolf. Many believe Martin focused on this character in the prologue to establish what happens to a warg when he dies. (The show depicted this, too, when the eagle-controlling wildling Orell was killed by Jon back in season three — his eyes turned white, and the eagle suddenly began attacking Jon.)
And in the books, Jon has been having dreams where his mind entered his direwolf Ghost's body — just like his brother Bran. He never chooses to use or really grapple with this power, but it becomes clear to the reader that he does indeed have warg powers. And, conveniently, when Jon is killed, Ghost is nowhere nearby — Jon had left him in his room for some contrived reason.
So the most common theory for how Jon would survive the stabbing was that warging would save his mind, while Melisandre would resurrect his body. (An obstacle for this theory is that Jon's warging powers have not been set up in the show — and that his eyes didn't white over at the end of this episode.)
The other way a character could conceivably escape death is through the White Walkers. We've only seen them reanimate seemingly mindless zombie corpses, but when Jon encountered a wight back in A Game of Thrones, he observed that it seemed to know it was on a mission. Jon met the king of the White Walkers this year — maybe he'll meet him again.