Re: Debunking theories: is it possible GRRM doesn't always tell the truth when confirming or denying theories? He's always warning us about unreliable narrators, and I doubt he'd give away a twist just because someone asked him at a Comicon or something. I'm thinking specifically of Benjen/Coldhands because, come on, Coldhands is soooo Benjen and maybe confirming that now would spoil some TWOW reveal north of the Wall...
No, when GRRM doesn’t want to give away a twist, he just refuses to answer. (So many wasted questions at con panels where someone asks “so what’s going to happen to [character]?” and he replies that they need to keep reading.) Or he answers obscurely, like in the interview after ADWD came out:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So why did you kill Jon Snow?
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?
EW: Well, I guess. Yes. That’s how I took it. The way it was written, it sounded like he was mortally wounded — and, you know, it’s you!
GRRM: Well. I’m not going to address whether he’s dead or not.
Also, if you can’t trust the word of the author, who can you trust? GRRM doesn’t have a reason to lie, he knows every single word he speaks is recorded and analyzed to high heaven. The only caveat he makes is that sometimes if he’s worldbuilding or infodumping history or doing a reading of unpublished material, it’s not true canon until it appears in an actual published book. For example, revising Bittersteel’s sigil from a dragon head and a horse head with a sword bend sinister between them, to a red stallion with black dragon wings; or the con reading where Jon executed Janos Slynt by having him hanged from the Wall. (Even TWOIAF doesn’t count as much as the novels; he’s said that Bellegere Otherys’s parentage is per Arya’s Mercy chapter, not what Yandel says.)
The situation with Benjen and Coldhands is particularly notable because GRRM wasn’t communicating with a fan – he was writing to his editor. (OK, his editor is a fan, but it’s not the same thing.) Anne Groell got to read ADWD before anyone else, she got the manuscript as it was being written so that she could have it edited and ready to go as soon as possible after it was completed. She knows what’s in all the chapters that were cut from ADWD and put into TWOW, she’s read them already. (Heck, she’s the one who pushed him to cut one sequence.) The bond between an author and editor is one of deep trust and commitment – it’s like a marriage, almost, that produces baby books. ;)
So GRRM has less than zero reason to lie to his editor in any way whatsoever – so when she asked if Benjen is Coldhands and he replied “NO”, there’s not really any other way to take it. OK, so, I briefly hoped that “NO” might mean “no don’t ask me I’m not telling you right now”, but I really don’t think that anymore. There’s too many problems with Benjen being Coldhands, ranging from the CotF saying he died long ago, to his words in a strange language while praying over the body of his elk, to the fact that Bran doesn’t recognize him at all, not in the slightest. Benjen is doing something else. I’ll be damned if I know what exactly, he’s totally Chekhov’s Stark, and heaven knows he might have even met Coldhands… but they’re not the same person.