I think we need to take a moment to remember that children are children. Children should not be held to the same standards to which we hold adults. A child who does something awful will not necessarily grow up to be an adult who does awful things. A child who does something awful does not necessarily understand what he or she is doing. This is something people usually agree with in American society (though there are always the bloodthirsty when a child does something especially awful): children are not small adults, and they deserve far more grace when they commit acts we view as morally wrong.
There is no one age that marks when somebody is better equipped to make decisions and understand consequences, but I’m not sure I know anybody that thinks that a 9 or 10-year-old’s actions faultlessly dictate what sort of person he will be … which brings me to Brandon Stark.
More than once, Bran skinchanges into Hodor for survival, but Bran also skinchanges into Hodor for his own enjoyment.
I think it’s important to point out that Bran’s intent isn’t relevant when it comes to Hodor’s experience. Hodor is clearly deeply negatively affected by the skinchanging experience.
"Like a dog who has had all the fight whipped out of him, Hodor would curl up and hide whenever Bran reached out to him." ADwD, Bran III
Even when Bran does it seemingly automatically to help fight off the wights outside the cave, Hodor is traumatized.
"Deep inside, he could hear poor Hodor whimpering still…" ADwD, Bran II
It doesn’t matter if Bran does it automatically, for purely good or purely selfish reasons — Hodor does not understand skinchanging, and it scares him every time. Ideally, there would never be a situation in which Hodor would have to deal with skinchanging. In the instances where Hodor’s own life depends on it, I’m more willing to say Bran did what was necessary. The same way the Hound knocked Arya out to get her away from the Twins safely, Bran invades Hodor’s body to save him and the others. It’s an awful thing, but it’s understandable given the circumstances, even as the person being saved bears the scars.
But what about Bran’s willingness to skinchange into Hodor when there isn’t any danger? What does that say about Bran?
It’s probably Bran’s biggest flaw. Bran is a lovable character. He’s the youngest point-of-view character, unable to walk from early on. He has big dreams and misbehaves in what seems like wholly innocent and boyish ways. He even appears to be Catelyn’s favorite child. Bran is a sweet, innocent boy. But he’s more than that. He’s not a stock magical character, a lovable hero whose only problem is that the world is unfairly against him. He’s a complex character, a real character, in the vein of the rest of the series.
Bran has a plethora of issues that surround the loss of his ability to walk. He feels helpless and incapable throughout the entire series. He must rely entirely on other people to get to where he’s being told to go. As a boy in Westeros society, this is especially shameful — he often thinks of himself as “almost a man grown,” yet he must be carried like a baby.
"Of late, Bran wore Summer’s body more often than his own; the wolf felt the bite of the cold, despite the thickness of his fur, but he could se farther and hear better and smell more than the boy in the basket, bundled up like a babe in swaddling clothes.” ADwD, Bran I
His embarrassed thoughts occur throughout the entire series, but even in Bran’s scant A Dance with Dragons chapters, it’s clear how insecure and unhappy he still is as he continues to deal with the fact that he lacks physical ability, one of the things his society tells him is among his most valuable assets.
On the other hand, Hodor is commonly acknowledged as the strongest person in their party, and Bran admires Hodor’s strength.
"No one was as strong as Hodor, no one." ADwD, Bran I
When Bran skinchanges with Hodor, he does so to remember what it felt like to be physically independent, he does so to feel big and strong, something he will never be.
"And suddenly he was not Bran, the broken boy crawling through the snow, suddenly he was Hodor halfway down the hill, with the wight raking at his eyes … Deep inside, he could hear poor Hodor whimpering still, but outside he was seven feet of fury with old iron in his hand." ADwD, Bran II
Bran’s trauma does not give him a right to victimize Hodor, but it does make his act far more understandable. The situation is extremely sad. Bran does not fully understand the implications of what he’s doing, and he’s doing it because he yearns for a body that (to him) works. He laments the loss of his skills, which were a huge part of his identity.
"Bran remembered a time when no one could climb as good as him … Part of him wanted to shout at them for leaving him, and another part wanted to cry." ADwD, Bran III
His frustration with his body is not limited to feats of strength or agility. When Meera is crying, Bran reflects upon what Bran could do with a “working” body compared to his own.
"He wanted to put his arms around her, hold her tight the way his mother used to hold him back at Winterfell when he’d hurt himself. She was right there, only a few feet from him, but so far out of reach it might have been a hundred leagues … I could put on Hodor’s skin, he thought. Hodor could hold her and pat her on the back." ADwD, Bran III
This moment explains what goes through Bran’s mind when he skinchanges into Hodor for non-survival purposes. He recalls a moment with his mother, and he wants badly to give that to somebody else. He wants to be the strong one, the supportive one, someone able to care for herself and others, like Catelyn was. But just as he’s unable to walk, he’s unable to comfort Meera. The hurt that Bran still feels permeates the last chapter of his, and I understand, in that moment, why he does something so invasive. He’s a frightened little boy who’s still dealing with hugely traumatic events while learning how to manage confusing and unique powers.
Bran is also completely lacking information that the reader has by the time we’re reading his chapters in A Dance with Dragons. While the reader understands from the prologue that skinchanging into another human is viewed as deplorable, Bran cannot know this; however, he does clearly understand that there’s something wrong with it. Not only does he keep the secret from everyone around him, but he can sense Hodor’s response. He knows that it frightens Hodor; this cannot be debated.
"The big stableboy never understood what was happening, and Bran could taste the fear at the back of his throat." ADwD, Bran I
Again, there is no question that regardless of Bran’s side, Hodor is suffering. It is clear that this is no blameless act and that Bran is doing something selfish here, something that hurts Hodor just so he can have some time in a body that is strong, that can walk, the body of a man that Bran will never be. But Bran does not do this carelessly. He tries to tell himself that Hodor is getting less frightened, and he tries to soothe him.
"He knows it’s me, the boy liked to tell himself. He’s used to me by now." ADwD, Bran I
Bran is clearly a deeply empathetic child. When he skinchanges into Hodor, he is taking liberties with somebody else’s body, liberties he doesn’t fully understand, because he’s so sick of hating his own. It’s wrong, but not detestable. Traumatizing to Hodor, but not intended to be by Bran. He makes a mistake.
There’s a passage in Bran’s second chapter that stuck out to me as relevant to this conversation, regarding Bran’s reaction to the slaughter of Coldhands’ elk:
"Bran wept like a little girl when the bright blood came rushing out. He had never felt more like a cripple than he did then, watching helplessly as Meera Reed and Coldhands butchered the brave beast who had carried them so far. He told himself he would not eat, that it was better to go hungry than the feast upon a friend, but in the end, he’d eaten twice…" ADwD, Bran II
Throughout Bran’s story, there are many indications that other people’s sacrifice is necessary for him to continue. There’s the vague suggestions that the group may have eaten human meat (even if it didn’t actually happen) and Jojen and Meera’s misery, which they are undergoing strictly for him. If the morbid “Jojen paste” turns out to be true, this message is even more strongly sent.
When Bran sees the demise of the elk, he weeps “like a little girl,” feeling that familiar helplessness because of all the elk has done for them. His feelings toward the elk are strong, and he promises not to eat the elk. But then he does, because he needs to eat. He’s not strong enough to continue to survive on acorn paste, and he succumbs to the temptation of succulent meat, even as it makes it him uncomfortable.
Bran clearly struggles between doing what will make him feel good and doing what he feels is right. This is not a struggle that only a few people ever deal with: it is deeply human, and I’m skeptical that there’s a human alive who has never accepted the first by giving up the latter.
Bran slips into Hodor to aovid feeling helpless. As a result, he makes Hodor helpless. The exchange is not fair or equal, and I would hope that had Bran been informed how other skinchangers feel or were Bran older — even a little older — he wouldn’t do it. He would be able to be comforted in other ways, he would better understand how invasive the practice was. But Bran is a child. To make lifelong judgments based on what he does here is unfair. Bran is a child who yearns to feel physically whole, and the heartbreaking way he goes about satisfying that urge does not signal some irrevocably selfish person; it merely signals the uncomfortable things a sweet and kind child will do in the face of intense sadness and strange powers.